Red and Black 1-24rtf - Noir Start.rtf

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					Red And Black - By Kirika

Chapter 1 - Shattered Peace


Le noir.
~Noir.~
Ce mot désigne depuis une époque lointaine le nom du destin.
~This word designates since a distant epoch the name of destiny.~
Les deux vierges regnent sur la mort.
~The two virgins reign over death.~
Les mains noires protégent la paix des nouveaux-nes.
~The black hands protect the peace of the newly-born.~

-- Extract from Langonel's Manuscript

******

Mireille Bouquet, with a glass of water in one hand and still dressed in her nightshirt, quietly walked over
to where the new pot plant resided on a small, Walnut-coloured, square wooden end table beside one
window of her apartment. The blonde, statuesque woman bent down and carefully poured the liquid from
the glass around the plant's stalk, giving it its morning watering as either she or her partner did every day.
The plant was an orchid, like its predecessor that had once sat on the table before it, but so far no flowers
had bloomed... also like its predecessor. However, Mireille was not disheartened. Under her and her
colleague's constant nurturing over the past few weeks, several buds had formed that could be found
nestled in between the plant's broad green leaves--a sign of things to come. Mireille hoped that this time
the orchid would flower brilliantly.

Mireille put the now empty glass on the table by the potted orchid, and then stood up straight with a sigh,
placing her hands on her hips and admiring the plant. After returning to her home in Paris, France, she
had felt a compulsion to replace the orchid that had been destroyed in a shootout within her apartment. If
she were honest with herself, she knew where the desire had stemmed from. Tending to the plant had
been a small but precious diversion she and her partner had shared in the past, and, she rather
grudgingly supposed, she had wanted to recapture the pleasant and comfortable air of that joint activity
again.

Mireille turned around to face the rest of the apartment and all of the other items that had been replaced
following its redecoration courtesy of countless bullets fired by a score of white-masked Soldats hitmen.
The repairs had taken just under a couple of weeks, and now it was as if the intense gunfight that had
ravaged the place months earlier had never occurred at all. Smashed windows had been restored with
new glass panes, and not a single blemish could be made out on any of the painstakingly patched and
freshly painted walls. All of the bullet hole ridden furniture and appliances had been removed and
replaced also, including Mireille's computer, and, oddly enough, the billiard table she used as a desk. The
woman wasn't sure why exactly she hadn't simply bought a real desk instead; it wasn't as if anyone used
the table to actually play pool.

Mireille looked around the living room, surveying the apartment's new and improved décor with
satisfaction. The specialists she had hired to restore her home had done a good job--as they should have
considering the amount of money the Corsican had paid for their services--and had also been very
discreet. Mireille's landlord hadn't asked any questions about why her apartment needed a near total
renovation either. Money could buy most people's silence… among other things. But it had helped that
her landlord knew that Ms. Bouquet was not a woman one crossed lightly… or even willingly.

Mireille's blue gaze came to rest on the black wall that separated the living room from the bedroom,
behind which the other permanent resident of her home currently was. Her partner, Kirika Yuumura, was
evidently still fast asleep in the bedroom.
A ghost of a smile crept upon Mireille's features as she conjured up the endearing image of the
darkhaired girl snoozing peacefully in their bed. Normally as soon as Mireille woke up Kirika awakened
with her, or had already been wide-awake beforehand. Even when it appeared that she was in a deep
slumber, looking as vulnerable and as frail as ever, Kirika remained alert--at least on a subconscious
level. It was a throwback to her extensive training as an assassin, Mireille imagined.

However, Kirika had yet to fully recover from the gunshot wound to her side she had sustained at the
Manor--a result of throwing herself in front of a bullet meant for Mireille--and so slept in late most
mornings. Mireille's own injuries had merely consisted of scrapes and shallow knife puncture wounds, all
of which had healed relatively quickly without scarring, but Kirika's singular wound had been much more
serious than all of hers combined. The quiet girl was still not at a hundred percent and needed her rest,
thus Mireille had silently slipped out of the bed they shared this morning, more than happy to let her
sleep. And provide the semblance of a normal atmosphere--a normal way of life--for Kirika's sake.

Mireille's faint smile strengthened and became bemused as she thought about how much things had
changed in her relationship with Kirika… and consequently in her own life, as well. In the past Mireille
wouldn't have had much concern about Kirika's wellbeing whatsoever as long as the girl survived long
enough to lead her to her abhorred quarry, Soldats, and aid her in finding the answers behind why her
family had been murdered. But now ensuring that her partner had a calm and relaxed environment to
recuperate to full health in was one of Mireille's highest priorities. She had to admit Kirika had become the
most important thing in her life… and for someone as fiercely independent as Mireille; that was saying a
great deal.

Mireille wasn't exactly sure how or even when Kirika had snuck her way into her cold heart, but as time
went by, slowly yet surely the blonde's uncaring attitude towards the introverted girl had changed. The ice
encasing the Corsican assassin's hard heart had melted gradually living and working with Kirika, so much
so that when she had at last learned the awful truth behind her family's death and the time had come to
make good on her promise to execute her 'temporary' associate, she had faltered outright in doing so.
Despite her pledge to kill Kirika when she was no longer useful, and even with the added incentive of the
young assassin being the slayer of her parents and brother, Mireille hadn't been able to pull the trigger of
her gun. At the very idea of ending Kirika's life Mireille's body had rebelled, and no matter what her mind
had said she *should* be obligated to do, the stronger force of her warmed, thawed heart had stayed her
hand.

Mireille had tried her utmost to resist warming up to Kirika any further when she had first realised her
heart was softening to the quiet girl, but her efforts had been feeble and ultimately futile. Moreover, a part
of Mireille--a part she hadn't liked to acknowledge at the time--hadn't really wanted to stop the growing
changes between herself and Kirika. Mireille had never truly been close to anybody before after her hasty
nocturnal leave-taking of Corsica--unless she counted her Uncle Claude when she was a child--and had
been alone for many years following the end of her training in the ways of a contract killer. She had
depended on no one but herself, *trusted* no one but herself. But being with Kirika had given her a taste
of what it meant to share one's troubles and joys with another person… and Mireille had found it to her
liking.

Nevertheless, Mireille had still went into a state of denial in regards to how she felt about Kirika, to such a
degree that when her partner had left her side--or rather, had been abandoned by Mireille--the woman
had resumed--or at least had attempted to resume--her prior lifestyle, and had tried to recapture her
former independence. But it hadn't been that easy anymore. The absence of Kirika had left a hole in
Mireille's life, and, if she were so inclined to admit, a hole in her heart as well. However, even with such a
vast and bleak void inside of her, she had still tried to maintain her usual routine and forget about the
Japanese girl she had once known and become so emotionally attached to…. But, thankfully, it wasn't
meant to be.

Fearing what might happen in the future and knowing that a grim darkness lurked inside of her, Kirika had
left behind a parting letter to Mireille, under the ruins of the orchid that had been so significant to both of
them during the time they had spent together… although neither of them had ever stated the fact out
loud. In that letter the withdrawn Kirika had confessed all of her feelings towards her blonde counterpart,
plainly for the woman to see on paper. And when Mireille had read that letter, it had been enough to jolt
her out of the delusion that she could simply forget about Kirika and return to her previous way of life. But
even so, she had still used her right to fulfil her destiny and become Noir as an excuse to track down the
missing girl; in spite of everything the--albeit weakening--denial of how she felt had still held fairly strong
within her.

It hadn't been until the very end, until Kirika's life had been hanging by a thread, when Mireille had at last
confronted the feelings that dwelled secretly within her heart. At that point, Kirika, thinking all her ties to
the world gone, had been all but ready to die. It was then that Mireille had realised with crystal clear
clarity that the girl's fate rested wholly in her hands. And so, the stubborn woman had finally let her mask
of aloofness fall and had subsequently lowered herself to begging her partner to stay with her. Thankfully,
it had been enough. Mireille had almost been too late, but with that tearful supplication Kirika had clung to
her and in turn clung to life. At that moment Mireille had felt an overwhelming sense of relief in her heart
and soul, of an intensity of such she had never experienced before. It was then she truly knew that Kirika
meant everything to her; that she indeed was in love with the girl.

Once the two assassins had received professional--and surreptitious--medical treatment for their injuries
in a town neighbouring the Manor and Kirika had recovered enough to travel, she and Mireille had
returned home to Paris. But in spite of Mireille accepting the fact that she shared Kirika's feelings--or at
the very least felt something romantically for her--not much was different in their relationship. Mireille was
certainly enormously more affectionate towards Kirika now, but her fond gestures were limited to mere
kind words and chaste touches. No affirmations of their feelings for one another had been exchanged
either, and on Mireille's part, none ever had been uttered in the first place.

Mireille wasn't exactly sure why her relationship with Kirika had not progressed any further, but she had a
feeling it was attributed to herself. Certainly, Mireille had made no effort to advance the relationship to an
openly romantic level, and knowing Kirika, the introverted girl would follow her example and let her be in
control, as usual. Was that it? Was Mireille simply waiting for Kirika to 'make a move', so to speak? It was
a possibility, but the Corsican doubted it. She knew Kirika well, well enough to know that she would do
nothing to forward their relationship until Mireille herself showed that she wished to. But if that were the
case, then just what was holding Mireille back? Was she afraid of the commitment? No, ridiculous,
considering she had been committed exclusively to Kirika for a considerable amount of time now.
Perhaps it was because her partner was in actual fact responsible for the death of her family. Was Mireille
troubled that her parents and brother were turning in their graves every time she let Kirika cuddle up close
to her in bed at night? Did she believe that her heart was betraying their memory?

No. That was definitely not it. As soon as Mireille had learned that Kirika had been the one who had
snuffed out her parents' and brother's lives, the woman, in spite of herself, had instantly forgiven her,
even if she hadn't been consciously aware of it at the time. Mireille's heart had already been a captive of
Kirika's back then. Furthermore, she didn't even view Kirika as the killer of her family. That 'honour' had
been Altena's alone, who had wielded the girl when she was only a young child as a living, breathing
instrument of murder--Kirika was a victim just as much as Mireille's family had been. Kirika had simply
been a tool used by Altena… and the wicked Soldats follower had already paid for her crimes.

Whatever the reason for Mireille's seeming reluctance, she was comfortable with the way things were at
the moment and she believed Kirika was too. She liked her current daily life. Her days were filled with
peaceful times spent with Kirika, and she felt contentment with her existence that was completely new to
her. Perhaps that was it; Mireille feared change, even if it were potentially for the better. She feared losing
what she had already gained. Having a permanent partner, someone who even shared her living space,
was quite a big step for the normally private woman. Mireille had never relied on or been emotionally
close to anyone for a long, long while. Maybe all she needed was a little more time to grow used to the
idea of having a genuine, stable, romantic relationship; more time to grow used to having a real… lover.

Mireille heaved a sigh and with a last glance in the direction of the bedroom, dismissed her reflections
and walked over to the billiard table masquerading as a computer desk. She sat down in front of her PC
and switched on the machine, hoping that the drone of it starting up would not disturb Kirika's sleep in the
adjacent room. As soon as the computer's operating system had booted, Mireille logged onto the Internet
and checked her secure email account. In her hazardous and illegal line of work, security and anonymity
was imperative for continual business success. Mireille Bouquet was not only a beautiful woman living a
life of privilege in Paris, but also one of the most reliable professional assassins in the criminal world. Of
course, 'Mireille Bouquet' had apparently dropped out of the business in recent months. She now used a
new name… and had a partner.

As Mireille had suspected, several assignment propositions for her and Kirika--or more accurately,
Noir--were waiting for her in her email inbox. She pursed her lips thoughtfully as her eyes scanned the
subject headers of the emails, but then promptly frowned in irritation as she realised what she was doing.
As she was about to delete all of the emails before she could do something she would definitely regret,
she noticed that yet another message from the clandestine society, Soldats, was present. Mireille's
irritation suddenly increased twofold. She didn't need to read the contents of the email to know what it
contained; it wasn't the first time she had received it. Nor, did she imagine, would it be the last. Soldats, or
more accurately, one high-ranking member of the organisation, Remy Breffort, sought a meeting with her.
But for exactly what reason, Mireille didn't know. Or care, for that matter. She was done with Soldats, and
she didn't want herself or Kirika to have any more involvement with them ever again.

Mireille deleted all of the emails along with Breffort's message, as was quickly becoming her morning
ritual. Noir was no longer a part of Soldats; the sooner the man recognised that fact the better.

Mireille logged off of the Internet and leaned back in her chair, exhaling heavily, and stared up at the
ceiling. She ignored the prospective jobs solely for the sake of Kirika. She hadn't even told her about the
emails requesting their services she was regularly receiving, preferring to hide the knowledge from the
still recuperating girl. Mireille and Kirika's lives were peaceful--for the moment, at any rate--and the
Corsican didn't want that other, darker life they had in common interfering with it. And she was positive
Kirika didn't, either.

However, Mireille was also sure that she was only delaying the inevitable. She had willingly chosen to
walk a black path in life, a black path filled with death--murder. Her life was that of an assassin, and
nothing would change that; it was part of who she was. In truth, Mireille even missed the work. She had
never had a problem with killing. Well, unless she considered the time in the graveyard with Kirika….
which she didn't.

But while Mireille had accepted that she would travel down a soiled, sinful path until the day she died, she
felt differently in respect to Kirika. The diminutive girl was still young and yet she had probably seen more
violence and murder than Mireille herself had. What Altena had exposed Kirika too, a mere child at the
time…. Mireille ground her teeth and suppressed her rising anger. The fanatical Soldats member had
damaged Kirika's mind with her immoral treatment. Another personality prowled inside of Mireille's
normally rather shy counterpart, one that was as heartless as a pure cold-blooded killer. Mireille still
remembered that persona… her eyes… her eyes had been devoid of feeling, of mercy… of life.

Yes, Mireille still remembered… and was still haunted by the memory of that other Kirika she had faced
off with in the colosseum by the Manor. It was one of the primary reasons why she did her best to
preserve a relaxed and normal atmosphere for herself and her partner to live in and enjoy. Kirika's short
life had been full of bloodshed, so much so that the darkhaired girl had developed a defence mechanism
in the form of another persona to cope with the horrors she had no doubt witnessed… and carried out
herself. And Mireille was almost certain that the sinister personality still remained with Kirika. Thus, the
blonde woman wanted to keep that other side of her partner repressed, and she hoped that an ordinary
lifestyle would help to do that.

Moreover, Mireille believed that it was working. Kirika, while still relatively taciturn, appeared to be happy.
At least she smiled a little more often now, as if she were a normal girl with no skills whatsoever in the art
of murder. Sometimes, however, her unmatched combat abilities manifested themselves unconsciously.
The manner in which she handled knives while doing everyday chores such as cooking came to mind, as
well as the way she had of seeming to be as withdrawn as always when outside of the apartment, but at
the same time constantly vigilant of any possible threats; a sort of relaxed readiness.

Mireille smiled wryly up at the ceiling, shaking her head slightly. She had never in a million years believed
that she would end up living with a Japanese schoolgirl, who was also a fellow assassin with expertise
even surpassing her own, and if that wasn't enough, fall in love with her too of all things. But now here
she was, doing her utmost to protect the same girl and keep her happy. Love certainly made you do
strange things.

"Morning," a soft voice spoke in Japanese from a few feet in front of Mireille, bringing her out of her
contemplations.

Mireille straightened in her chair to look at Kirika who was standing at the bottom of the steps that led to
the bedroom. The two normally conversed in Japanese when they were alone together, which was
practically all of the time. And living in Paris, where the majority of the population predominantly spoke in
French, the voluntary language barrier gave Mireille and Kirika a sense of privacy even when in a crowd
of people; their own little world where only the two of them existed. In actuality, they had always
communicated in Japanese since they first met, only switching to French or another language when it
was called for, customary for the sake of others. Perhaps it was because they had encountered each
other in Japan in the beginning, and the practice of speaking in the country's native tongue had simply
stuck. Mireille didn't know for sure, but whatever the habit's origin, her Japanese had certainly improved a
great deal since meeting Kirika.

"Ah, so you're finally awake, sleepy head," Mireille teased at the sight of Kirika, the girl looking quite
dishevelled from sleeping, with her dark locks tousled wildly and her vest and shorts that made up her
nightwear creased and twisted. It painted a positively adorable picture in Mireille's eyes, one she hadn't
been able to resist commenting on. But then she did often nowadays take pleasure in poking light-hearted
fun at poor Kirika. "Are you sure you don't want to go back to bed? It *is* still early…" Mireille went on, but
only half-joking this time, aware that the recuperating girl required her rest.

Kirika lowered her head and looked at Mireille though her bangs, a small, rueful smile forming on her
features in response to the woman's ribbing. She then shook her head, the action accompanied by a cute
sound in the negative; one of many idiosyncrasies that Mireille found endearing.

"Alright," Mireille said, pushing her chair back from the billiard table on its wheels. "How are you feeling
today? Come here so I can check how you're progressing."

Kirika dutifully walked over to the blonde and stood in front of her chair. "I feel better," she quietly
informed Mireille as the woman lifted the bottom of her vest to inspect the injury beneath, "but I'm still
tired."

Mireille nodded absently at Kirika's report while she studied the gunshot wound in her partner's side. It
appeared to have finally healed up completely, leaving behind only the faintest of scars. Mireille reached
up and gingerly traced the mark with one fingertip, her touch feather-light on the darkhaired girl's
silky-smooth skin. Every time she saw the wound it brought back the unpleasant memory of Kirika
intercepting Altena's bullet with her own body in an act of selflessness. But at the same time, it was a
reminder of the extent of Kirika's feelings for Mireille--a testament of her love. It always filled Mireille with
a sense of… wonder, that someone cared that much about her to make such a self-sacrificing gesture.

Mireille blinked as it dawned on her that she had ceased circling the scar and was now using her whole
hand to rub--or rather, caress--Kirika's taut stomach with gentle strokes. Acutely aware that Kirika had
stopped breathing, she abruptly halted the motions of her wayward hand and looked up at the girl, only to
meet rapt reddish-brown eyes with her own apprehensive blue ones. Somewhat guiltily, Mireille drew
back her hand and let Kirika's vest fall back into place before dropping her gaze and forcing a cough,
seeking a means to dispel the awkward moment, although she wasn't sure why she felt it was one.
"You… you seem to be recovering fine," Mireille said, her voice a little hoarse. "After a few more days of
rest you should be perfectly fit."

Kirika said nothing and merely nodded, her countenance now one of her usual subdued expressions.

"But in the meantime, I want to go shopping," Mireille continued, her tone becoming more blithe as she
snatched onto something lighter to talk about. "*Clothes* shopping…" she then elaborated, her
expression turning considerably sly as she ran her eyes over Kirika's lithe figure, pretending to size her
up.

Kirika blinked a couple of times and then swallowed a bit uneasily--Mireille knew that she understood
what going clothes shopping meant. Mireille loved pampering Kirika, especially with material things. Her
favourite form of indulgence was buying new clothes for her reticent partner. She simply adored using the
slip of a girl as a model for her to play dress-up with. Fortunately, Kirika stoically consented to Mireille's
little pleasure… although with a mildly noticeable lack of enthusiasm… that the blonde summarily ignored,
needless to say.

"Mireille…" Kirika said, almost whining out the woman's name, and with a tiny hint of longsuffering in her
soft voice.

Mireille merely smiled, implicitly knowing that Kirika would concede to her wishes, and also relishing the
way the Japanese girl said her name. Mireille wasn't sure if it was because of her accent or just another
one of her quirks, but Kirika had a unique and exquisite way of pronouncing her name. It was like her
sweet tongue caressed each and every syllable of the Corsican's name in a special and intimate fashion
as it left her lips, and it always served to send a trill of delight through Mireille. She doubted she would
ever grow weary of hearing the enchanting sound.

Mireille took the hem of one leg of Kirika's shorts between a finger and a thumb and rubbed it thoughtfully.
"Hmm…" she murmured with false deliberation, "I think you could use more shorts. And perhaps some
new pyjamas as well." Mireille did her best to restrain the smile that threatened to spoil her mock serious
examination of her partner's clothing. She had a feeling that today was going to be an entertaining one…
for her, at least.

"Pyjamas?" Kirika parroted somewhat uncertainly, as she blinked again and looked down at her clothes.

******

Mireille took a sip of her frothy cappuccino and then settled back in her plush seat with a content sigh,
savouring the flavour of her beverage. She and her virtually inseparable companion, Kirika, who was
seated across from her, were in a private booth located in one of the many cafés scattered along the
streets of Paris, the pair taking a short respite from their enjoyable--yet quite exhausting--shopping
expedition for lunch. A dozen glossy bags overflowing with designer clothes ranging from skirts to socks
purchased from a variety of exclusive boutiques were crammed next to Kirika at her side of the booth, all
of which the slender girl had carried herself. Mireille did feel a tiny bit guilty about her own... well, laziness
to put it bluntly. More often than not she allowed Kirika to do just about all of the menial tasks that filled
their normal daily lives, such as hauling grocery bags and luggage around, as well as setting and washing
tableware. In the past, the woman had eventually wound up viewing her partner as sort of a little 'servant';
or in other words, someone to do all the jobs she herself didn't like doing… and old habits apparently died
hard. Mireille frequently slipped into her domineering role even though the nature of her relationship with
Kirika was now… at least somewhat different, permitting the compliant girl to do most of the chores inside
and outside their apartment. And it didn't help that Kirika never ever protested the treatment and even
seemed glad to be devotedly lending a hand, regardless of how hard she toiled as a result. However, she
did assist the girl when they cooked at home, Mireille thought defensively, squirming a little in her seat.
That was *something*, wasn't it?
Nearly every garment contained within each of the shopping bags alongside Kirika had been
graciously--yet also slightly reluctantly--modelled by the pretty darkhaired girl for her older partner's own
personal gratification. The corners of Mireille's full lips twitched and then curled upwards into a small
smile as she recalled the memory of Kirika wearing one of her new sets of silk pyjamas. They were a little
baggy on her, almost swallowing her diminutive frame completely in their folds, but that had only added to
the whole cute and lovable vision. Mireille had prudently stayed away from choosing any new
undergarments for her, however. Strangely, for some reason the idea of making Kirika pose in her
underwear made Mireille a tad uncomfortable.

Mireille brought her coffee cup to her lips and watched Kirika over its rim as the girl, dressed in one of her
newly acquired outfits she had changed into earlier under her partner's 'suggestion', idly picked at the
remains of her ham and cheese croissant, pushing the remnants around on her plate. She looked distant,
as if something were on her mind, perhaps even troubling her.

Mireille's face fell a little and she took another drink of her cappuccino to hide the expression. Kirika often
retreated into her own private world; she had even done so in the past, when she and the Corsican had
first met--Mireille remembered when the quiet girl would stare out of one of the apartment's windows at
seemingly nothing for hours at a time.

Mireille frequently wondered what Kirika ruminated on during those withdrawn periods of hers, appearing
totally detached from her surroundings. She sometimes considered simply asking her, but she doubted
even she would get a straight answer from the reticent girl, or at least one that would satisfy her. Looking
at Kirika now while she gazed vacantly out the large front window of the café their booth was adjacent to,
the leftovers of her lunch forgotten, Mireille thought she looked rather sad as well as distant. Of course
that wasn't saying too much considering that her normal everyday expression was usually melancholic.
But after having lived with Kirika for the better part of a year now, Mireille could generally tell how her
brooding partner was feeling on the inside. She had learnt that using Kirika's lovely brown eyes to
determine her emotional state was the easiest and most accurate method. Her eyes were so expressive,
soulful, and they seemed to speak volumes--poignant words poured straight from her heart… well,
poured straight to Mireille at any rate. And right at this very moment, Kirika's brown orbs said clearly to
the blonde that something was definitely bothering her. Mireille sighed softly. She wished Kirika were able
to share her problems with her.

But instead of confronting Kirika on her evident preoccupation, Mireille plucked a random topic of
conversation out of the air, feeling that she had to say something, even if its subject matter was in
essence basically small talk.

After taking one last sip of her coffee, Mireille put her cup down with an exaggerated breath, smacking
her lips. "After lunch why don't we go shopping for more clothes?" she piped up, placing her elbows on
the table and propping her head in her hands as she looked at Kirika.

Kirika turned away from the view of bustling people and heavy traffic outside the café's window at the
sound of Mireille's cheerful voice, roused from her private thoughts. She favoured Mireille with a glance
before flicking her eyes to the mound of boutique bags beside her for a second, and then directed a
questioning look at the keen blonde.

"Oh no, not for you. I believe you have more than enough outfits," Mireille clarified, but not before furtively
adding, "…for the time being." Somehow she managed to contain the large grin that wanted to burst out
on her face at the sight of a fairly nervous-looking Kirika.

"No, you've had all the fun thus far and now it's my turn," Mireille quickly continued, before leaning
forward conspiringly towards her partner, a faint smile on her features. "And this time, *I'll* be *your*
model," she whispered with a playful wink as her smile turned more than a little seductive.

Kirika simply stared at Mireille for a moment, her steady gaze only broken by several languid blinks, but
she then nodded eagerly while making her patented peep of approval. She smiled shyly at Mireille and
then started to open her mouth to say something, but stopped suddenly as her eyes shifted to the right of
the blonde woman, her countenance returning to its fundamentally emotionless mask.

Mireille blinked and then followed Kirika's gaze to her left, meeting a waiter's apologetic eyes. The
assassin frowned in irritation at having her banter with her colleague rudely interrupted and then sat back
properly in her seat, glaring coldly at the now even more remorseful waiter.

"Well?" Mireille snapped in French as she folded her arms, quite annoyed… and inwardly a little
embarrassed at having been caught stretched over halfway across the table to Kirika. She was suddenly
very glad she spoke in Japanese to her.

The waiter, obviously flustered by the imposing woman's ire, stumbled over his words for a few seconds,
his eyes occasionally darting to an apathetic Kirika as if she could somehow help him out of his
predicament, before finally informing Mireille that he had been asked to deliver a note to her and her
friend's table. He brandished the crisp white envelope in his hand for further emphasis whilst smiling
sheepishly.

Mireille deftly snatched the envelope from the waiter's grasp before he could even react in the slightest,
and then examined it carefully. One could never be too cautious in her line of work. While Mireille may not
have been actively accepting contracts for a couple of months now, it didn't mean she had become stupid
or sloppy. Indeed, her handbag next to her contained a fully loaded Walther P99, her firearm of choice.
The idea of not taking her weapon when she left the safe haven of her apartment was simply foreign to
Mireille. It was better to be safe than sorry; who knew when an old memory with a score to settle would
somehow track her down? Besides, between her and Kirika only she carried a firearm now--the girl hadn't
replaced her last gun after it had burnt up with Altena in the volcanic cavern below the Manor. And for the
moment, Mireille intended to keep it that way. If Kirika carried a gun it would only serve to dispel the
happy and peaceful atmosphere she currently lived in--the heavy burden of a lethal weapon almost
constantly by her side put a damper on even Mireille's spirits nowadays; she didn't want to think what it
would do to her poor brooding partner's. But by all means Kirika wasn't defenceless without a firearm;
even unarmed she was a devastating opponent. Her combat skills were beyond the scope of most
people's even much older than she, including those who had dedicated their whole lives to warfare. Kirika
was a living weapon.

"Who asked you to deliver this?" Mireille queried the waiter as she continued with her inspection of the
letter.

"Er, I don't know. The manager just told me to take it to you," the waiter replied, shrugging.

On the front face of the envelope in Mireille's hands was simply her full name, written in long, flowing
script. The envelope itself was thin, and Mireille doubted that any sort of explosive could have been
hidden inside. That didn't rule out the presence of a biological agent, though. The Corsican assassin
gingerly brought the envelope up to her nose and surreptitiously sniffed it, trying to detect any telltale
odours of a chemical weapon or poison soaked into the paper within... and without exposing herself to it.
Needless to say, if the envelope itself were contaminated, it would be far too late. But since the waiter
hadn't keeled over just yet, Mireille had assumed the note was safe to touch.

"You're still here…?" Mireille said pointedly to the lingering waiter as she finished her investigation. She
maintained her attention on the mysterious envelope however, under the alert gaze of Kirika, and the
baffled gaze of the now startled waiter. "Find out who is responsible for this letter," the assassin ordered
the man, opting to give him more than a hint to what action he should be taking.

"Uhh, of course, I was just… umm," the waiter spluttered, searching for an excuse for his loitering.
However, after seeing that Mireille had already dismissed him from her mind, he gave up and walked
away, all the while muttering something under his breath about prissy women and their uptight attitudes.
Mireille, although catching his parting remarks, paid them no heed--she was more concerned about the
envelope. Besides, to her knowledge there was no contract out on the discourteous waiter. It would have
been a waste of bullets and money to teach him some respect--if she shot every person impolite to her or
simply incompetent, she would have went out of business long ago.

"It seems clean," Mireille said to Kirika in Japanese once the waiter was out of earshot--just to be
safe--and looked up from the note.

"Mm," Kirika mumbled in the affirmative. She looked down at the envelope in her colleague's hand and
then raised her head to look the woman in the eye, silently asking the question that was dancing on
Mireille's own tongue.

Deciding to alleviate her and her partner's curiosity, Mireille carefully opened the letter, and after nothing
untoward happened, she delicately pulled out its contents between her thumb and forefinger. The
envelope had contained a single sheet of folded paper, which Mireille now warily opened. Her brow
creased in irritation and all worry left her as she scanned the familiar text that was written on the paper,
which she had read numerous times in the form of emails received on her computer, before her
expression turned into an all out scowl when she came to the signature at the end of the message.
Breffort. Naturally. Did he really think that signing his own name rather than the group he belonged to
made his message more appealing to her?

Mireille's eyes narrowed to dangerous slits as she crushed the note in her hand, conscious of the
concerned look she was getting from her oblivious partner. And how dare Breffort disturb her and Kirika's
peace. Messages in her private email account were one thing, but a letter delivered out in the open, and
in front of Kirika no less…. Soldats. How Mireille hated those who supposedly 'held the world'.

"Mireille…?" Kirika questioned uncertainly as Mireille sharply half-rose from her seat, the woman's eyes
darting around the café, searching for any suspicious character that stood out and could have been
responsible for relaying the note.

Mireille's questing eyes caught the waiter's who had presented the letter. The uniformed man started at
her piercing blue glare, almost dropping the tray laden with full drinking glasses he was carrying, but then
recovered with only a splash of soda on his white shirt. With one minutely shaking hand he pointed to his
right, giving a wan smile to Mireille as he did so.

The assassin snapped her head in the direction of the waiter's finger, and saw that he was indicating an
immaculately garbed man in a black suit and tie who was striding calmly yet swiftly across the floor of the
café, heading for the front door--doubtless he was the individual who had asked the manager of the
establishment to deliver Breffort's message to Mireille and Kirika's table. Judging by his shifty apparel,
reminiscent of many a Soldats minion the blonde and her companion had slain, as well as his
unmistakable enthusiasm to vacate the premises, Mireille was absolutely positive that he worked for the
secret society.

Mireille mentally bit off a curse, grabbed her handbag, and then hurried after the Soldats courier as he
reached the entrance of the café and opened the glass door, leaving the building. The Corsican, a
moment behind him, threw open the café door and stepped out onto the footpath outside, just in time to
see the darkly dressed man quickly open the rear passenger door of an equally darkly painted sedan
parked across from her in the street. He obviously knew she was on to him.

Mireille dashed forwards, hoping to intercept the Soldats agent before he climbed into the safety of the
black vehicle, but was rudely halted in her tracks as she bumped into a passer by. Mireille turned angrily
to give a brief grimace of annoyance to the bad-mannered man she had knocked into--he hadn't even
given a semblance of an apology!--but only caught a glimpse of shoulder length stark white hair and the
back of a long jet black coat before he blended into the swarms of people travelling along the footpath.

Hearing a car door slam shut jerked Mireille's attention back to the ebony sedan, and to the woman's
disgust she saw that her momentary distraction had been enough to allow the Soldats messenger to
escape. She scrunched the letter still held in her left hand into a tighter ball. She was sure there would be
other Soldats couriers in the future to relay her own message; one way or another Breffort would learn of
her displeasure at being hounded.

All of a sudden Mireille was hurled backwards through the air by a tremendous explosion, originating from
the sedan that had erupted into a huge ball of flame, fiery tendrils reaching out to consume the footpath
and most of the street as well. Mireille felt the intense heat of the blast along with its force on her body as
she smashed through the glass pane of the café's entrance at the same time the entire front window of
the restaurant was blown inwards, showering patrons inside with a deluge of sharp shards.

Mireille lay on her back, staring up at the café's partially blackened ceiling, its cream coloured paint now
streaked with scorch marks. Her body felt numb and she could hear a faint ringing in her ears… but that
was all. Kirika's anxious face suddenly appeared above Mireille, the girl's lips moving rapidly, but all the
blonde could do was blink stupidly up at her in response, hearing nothing. However, as she continued to
simply stare at Kirika, the ringing in her ears gradually became more perceptible, the ringing turning into a
piercing shriek, almost as if she was being exposed to a steadily mounting high frequency soundwave,
until--

"--reille?! Mireille?!" Kirika's fretful voice cut into Mireille's hearing without warning, the buzzing in her ears
fading until it disappeared beyond audible range. Mireille was glad the explosion had not damaged her
eardrums. Unfortunately, sensation had also returned to her body. She had forgotten how much it hurt to
be flung through solid glass.

"I'm… alright," Mireille assured her concerned partner in a croaky voice as she struggled to sit up, mindful
of the doubtless myriad of jagged glass flakes she was lying on. Her back ached something fierce, and
she was sure she had sustained numerous cuts and bruises, but she didn't think she had broken
anything.

Kirika helped Mireille sit up with tentatively placed hands, her support careful yet helpful. The blonde
flashed her considerate colleague a grateful smile, and then reached her right hand up to touch her head,
only to realise that somehow she had managed to keep a hold of her handbag despite being violently
propelled like a rag doll into the café through its front door. Mireille was pleased. Even when rocked by an
explosion, being forcibly parted from one's weapon was unacceptable for a professional assassin. The
danger to one's person didn't necessarily stop when the explosions did.

With Kirika's assistance, Mireille clambered unsteadily to her feet, accompanied by a tinkle of shattered
glass that had stuck to her back falling like glittering dewdrops to the floor. The woman took her time to
assess the destruction… and piece together what could have happened. Wisps of flame billowed through
the destroyed front window of the café, with the remaining ragged glass attached along the edges of the
frame giving the impression of a huge gaping maw breathing fire. Turning her gaze outside, Mireille saw
the blazing skeleton of the Soldats car, the vehicle utterly gutted to a charred wreck. The still raging fires
hid most of the chassis' interior, but she was sure she could make out two well-cooked bodies inside. It
appeared that Breffort's messenger and his associate had not escaped after all.

But the two Soldats agents weren't the only casualties by far. Littering the street were several corpses--or
soon to be corpses--simply people in the wrong place at the wrong time who had caught the brunt of the
blast. There were even more than a few victims inside the café, some of them horribly wounded and
unmoving unfortunates sprawled on the floor, having been thrown through the front window from the
footpath outside, while others who had been sitting next to the window had been badly cut by flying glass
as well as scorched by searing flames. All in all the fatalities of the car bomb, if indeed that was what it
had been, were extensive. Mireille had been extremely lucky to avoid serious injury.

On seeing the booth where she and Kirika had only had lunch minutes before now a melted mess,
Mireille turned worriedly to the girl.

"Are you alright?" she asked, consciously keeping all but a little concern out of her voice.
"Mm," Kirika nodded, her eyes flicking to their demolished table and then back to Mireille, understanding.
"I followed behind you."

"Good," Mireille said, quite calmly, but with relief welling up inside of her. If Kirika had remained in her
seat, she didn't want to imagine what could have happened.

Mireille noticed that all of the new clothes she had bought for Kirika had also been ruined beyond all
recognition. And while the sight rankled Mireille's nerves--some of those outfits she had really wanted to
see Kirika in again! Well, they could always go on more clothes shopping trips--right now that was the
least of their problems. Someone had taken out two Soldats agents--Breffort's agents. Why? Infighting in
the organisation perhaps? A little internal strife? It was feasible, but without further information all Mireille
had was speculation.

"Mireille," Kirika said, her soft voice interrupting the woman's musings.

Mireille looked at Kirika, and saw her partner lower her brown eyes pointedly to her left hand. The
Corsican followed her gaze, suddenly aware of the crumpled paper she still held. Evidently she had
managed to retain her grasp on that too. Mireille lifted her left hand and frowned at the letter in it. Had the
Soldats courier and his driver died because of this note? But it was only a simple message, one merely
requesting that Mireille contact and meet with Breffort as soon as possible, just like all the emails before
it. Was that worth killing two people and who knew how many innocent bystanders in the process? It
didn't add up.

Police and ambulance sirens could be heard wailing in the distance; they would soon be here. It was long
past time to be gone. Mireille certainly didn't want to be caught up in answering questions asked by the
authorities, especially with a gun in her handbag. Besides, something had happened here today that
didn't sit well with her, which may even involve her and Kirika. And she intended to find out what.

******

It was dusk by the time Mireille arrived back at the apartment building. For the remainder of the day, after
a short visit back home following the car bombing, she had been out on the streets--the backstreets
mostly--of Paris, seeing what she could learn from her usual rumourmongers who normally kept their ear
to the ground regarding events in the underworld and the circumstances behind them, no matter how
significant or trivial. She had been to see many people, some less scrupulous than others, and after
loosening tongues with cash incentives and filtering out the illogical hearsay and fervent personal beliefs,
the solid facts she had gathered all said more or less the same thing. An unexpected and disquieting
thing.

Mireille trudged up the apartment building's flight of stairs to the first floor, lugging her yellow scooter with
some difficultly beside her. Normally Kirika would do such labour for her, but on the Corsican's insistence,
the obliging girl had remained behind at home. Mireille had cited it would be faster for her to zip around
town collecting information by herself using her scooter. However, there had also been another reason
why the assassin had wanted Kirika to stay in the apartment, one she hadn't told her. While it was
obviously safer to wait in the security of their home, the main reason was that Mireille hadn't wanted
Kirika's quiet and peaceful atmosphere to be harmed anymore than it had already been with the carnage
at the café. The majority of the individuals the blonde had consulted were not the most… honest of
people, to put it lightly. In truth, a good number were hardened criminals. Even in broad daylight, a
woman and a girl alone in a seedy part of the city made tempting targets, especially with the well-to-do
manner Mireille carried herself with. Of course, anybody who tried anything would have regretted it for the
rest of his or her suddenly drastically shortened life, but the violence that would inevitably break out would
undoubtedly extinguish whatever shred of tranquillity and believability Kirika's happy and normal living
environment still had. Mireille would maintain the façade of an ordinary and serene way of life for as long
as she could for Kirika's sake. Not until the bullets were flying in their direction would she finally concede
that their black pasts had finally caught up with them, staining the light they lived in with darkness.
Mireille grunted in quite an unladylike fashion as she at last struggled up to the top of the staircase
hauling her heavy load. It had been a long time since Mireille had last utilised her scooter before today. It
was designed for only one person to ride, and now that she was no longer living alone indefinitely, she
hadn't had much use for it. It was very rare when Mireille left the apartment without Kirika by her side,
today notwithstanding, and the pair usually either walked to their destination or took a taxicab. They
sometimes took advantage of the Metro, the subway system that ran beneath Paris like a subterranean
spider's web, but only if pressed. Mireille preferred the privacy of a cab and was more than willing to pay
for it.

But perhaps it was time for her to trade in her faithful yellow scooter for something that allowed more
passengers. A car maybe, or even an actual motorbike. Mireille smiled at the thought of cruising around
the streets of Paris on a juiced up motorbike with Kirika riding behind her; the girl's arms wrapped tightly
around her waist while she snuggled into her back, naturally. Mireille wasn't really a big fan of motorbikes,
but it certainly would be a lot of fun, and not to mention a great deal better than walking.

Mireille reached the apartment she shared with Kirika at the end of the hall and unlocked the door and
entered, wheeling her scooter inside. As she walked into the living room, she saw Kirika sitting at the
computer on the billiard table, watching TV on its monitor. A report on the car bombing outside the café
was showing on the PC's screen, the channel set to a local news station that the darkhaired girl was
regarding intently. However, she turned her attention to Mireille as the woman trundled her scooter past
her to park it in its usual spot by the window, but not before then, somehow implicitly distinguishing that
her partner had returned to the apartment and not an intruder instead without so much as looking in her
direction. Mireille wondered how Kirika did it.

"What are they saying?" Mireille inquired as she walked over to the billiard table and casually tossed her
handbag with her Walther P99 inside on it.

"It's being said that it was a car bomb and that there have been a total of seven deaths so far. There have
been over a dozen injuries, too. Some are critical. The two men that were inside the car haven't been
identified yet," Kirika said, knowing that Mireille was referring to the news stations she had occupied
herself with viewing while left alone. "No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the reporters
are saying that it could be gang related."

Mireille nodded. It was merely the bare essentials, the most basic of facts. The assassin had anticipated
as much. It was natural for the media. It was uncommon when they actually got it right when it involved
the underworld, and this time with Soldats involvement, it was doubly unlikely the news stations would.

There was silence between Mireille and Kirika for a few moments, and the blonde woman was acutely
aware of the expectant look she was receiving from her partner. But Mireille wasn't very eager to disclose
what she had discovered to Kirika. Her eyes went to Breffort's creased note that was lying flattened out
on the green surface of the billiard table, next to the computer. Kirika hadn't asked whether or not it was
the first message Mireille had gotten from the high-ranking Soldats member, and the Corsican hadn't told
her either. It was better to keep that fact secret Mireille had decided; she wasn't sure how the generally
stoic girl would take her duplicity. But in Mireille's eyes, it wasn't really duplicity. More like withholding the
whole truth. It had been for Kirika's sake anyway; that made it justified, didn't it?

Mireille exhaled heavily. Kirika still hadn't said anything, but the silence between them was deafening.
She could practically feel the girl's brown gaze on her, waiting patiently for her report. There was no
prompting on Kirika's part, just quiet tolerance, noiselessly waiting for her to say something. Somehow
that mute patience seemed to demand that Mireille speak more than encouraging words would have.

"I've found out something," Mireille finally admitted with some reluctance, "not much, but something." She
looked up from the crumpled letter to meet Kirika's expressive eyes. "The word going around is that…"
She paused for a second, knowing the impact this would have on their quiet existence. Perhaps she just
wanted to soak up the remaining peacefulness for one single moment longer.
Mireille swallowed and then sighed, before continuing. "The word is that the car bombing was… was
Noir's doing." She stopped for an instant to let it sink into the girl, and also for her to gauge Kirika's
reaction. But Mireille's taciturn colleague simply blinked, nothing more. Sighing once again, Mireille went
on with her report. "Supposedly Noir has returned to Europe after a few months hiatus. Either that, or they
are back in business."

It wasn't the first time someone else other than Mireille and Kirika had claimed to be Noir. Indeed, the duo
had met Chloe, the self-proclaimed 'True Noir', that way. Many contract killers in the underworld had
taken on the title before Mireille and Kirika, and with the pair apparently vanished from the scene, some
ambitious individual or individuals who believed they had the expertise to back up the name had taken
advantage of their absence. Or at any rate, that appeared to be the case.

"Noir…" Kirika suddenly whispered, as if the word held special significance…. which in truth it did. She
stared off into space as she spoke the feared title of the greatest assassin, or rather, pair of assassins in
the business, seeming lost in thought. She then abruptly blinked, snapping out of her reverie, and her
eyes moved to the letter resting atop the billiard table at the same time Mireille's did.

Mireille had no doubt what was running through her own mind was running through Kirika's as well. With
the grapevine proclaiming that Noir had detonated the car bomb outside the café, it was likely that Breffort
would believe that Mireille and Kirika were responsible for the deaths of his agents, and had performed an
act of hostility against Soldats, effectively declaring war. While Mireille had no love for the group, she
didn't want to go head to head against their entire force, or even solely against Breffort's own. Who knew
how many belonged to the cloak-and-dagger society? It would be like fighting against the whole
world--not a fight Mireille was raring to rush into, or to have Kirika engaged in either. Between the two of
them they had killed an incalculable number of Soldats agents, but unbeknownst to them at the time, it
had been during controlled conditions. The skirmishes had been tests, mere trials to see if they were
worthy of becoming Noir. Going against a completely unleashed Soldats would be a very different
experience.

So there was no choice. Even if just to assure Breffort that she and Kirika weren't to blame for the attack
on Soldats, Mireille would have to meet with the man. It seemed he would finally get his much sought
after meeting in spite of everything. But whatever he had to say, Mireille didn't care. She would go only to
pledge her and Kirika's innocence, nothing more. She flat out refused to become embroiled in some
Soldats plot, dragging along her partner for the ride too. Kirika was still recovering from her injuries
sustained at the Manor; she didn't need anything more to worry about.

Mireille's shoulders sagged as she closed her eyes, shutting out the sight of Breffort's note. Regardless of
her intentions, there was a good chance that simply conceding to Breffort's wishes spelt the end of her
and Kirika's peaceful lifestyle. Or perhaps, the woman thought sadly, it was already at its end.



Chapter 2 - An Unwelcome Briefing


Mireille watched the floor indicator lights illuminate gradually upwards as she waited for the elevator to
arrive at level seventeen. The level where Breffort's office was located. It wasn't the first time Mireille had
been in this elevator, riding up to Breffort's office... although her intent back then had been somewhat
different than it was now. In actual fact, she had tracked down the distinguished Soldats member to this
very building after…. Well, that was all in the past now.

Mireille had replied to the most recent of Breffort's harrying emails and arranged a meeting time for today
in the afternoon--one day after the car bomb incident outside of the Aux Villes Du Nord café. She had
been a little surprised when the man had emailed her back requesting that they convene at the same
building she had once 'visited' him at before. But, in retrospect, she shouldn't have been. Those of the
society of Soldats could be expected to be awfully arrogant, especially those who ranked on upper most
rungs of the organisation's hierarchal ladder--they considered themselves as the puppeteers who held
and hence controlled the world on strings, strings that no one even realised were there. Despite Mireille
knowing where he worked as an alleged legitimate and ordinary entrepreneur, Breffort hadn't moved from
the commonplace office building the assassin had first tracked him down to. Although, it wasn't as if
Mireille were type to blow the whistle on his other, more atypical activities… not unless she wanted her
own secret life exposed in retaliation.

Oddly, in his email reply, Breffort had given no allusion of hostility in his words nor had he even
mentioned the car bombing yesterday; not so much as the smallest hint of ominous subtext was
contained in his message. It had been totally businesslike; straight and to the point. Mireille wasn't sure
what to make of that. He had to have known the story going around the streets was that Noir was
responsible for the bombing. She would have been amazed if he didn't; Soldats seemed to know all and
see all… most of the time, anyway. Still, it wasn't like Breffort was the most animated person alive;
regardless of the professional air of his message it was yet likely that he was plotting Mireille and Kirika's
deaths at this very minute. She and Kirika had better keep their guard up.

Mireille smiled grimly and gripped the handles of her handbag a little tighter in her grasp. As if their guard
had been down to begin with. The weight of her gun hidden in the handbag carried by her side was a
reassuring one. If a squad of armed Soldats underlings were lying in wait for her and Kirika to emerge
from the elevator with lethal intentions in mind, then they would soon learn with horrendous clarity why
the pair had once been rightfully known as Noir. But Mireille doubted Breffort would be foolish or
desperate enough to attack them directly outside his own office. It simply wasn't his style. It wasn't
Soldats' style.

Mireille turned her attention away from the elevator's level indicator and surreptitiously shifted her eyes to
Kirika, who was standing quietly next to her, seemingly wholly engrossed with staring at the floor. The
diminutive girl was dressed in one of her favourite outfits consisting of a turquoise coloured top supported
by two spaghetti straps, a short dark blue skirt, and finally a white parka. Kirika had lost most of the
garments on her gruelling trek by foot to where France bordered Spain--the site of the Manor--but after
her return to Paris with Mireille, the doting blonde had replaced the missing clothes on one of her first of
countless shopping splurges for her partner. Kirika even had her adorable little pink shoes back…
although Mireille had purchased a sturdy pair of black boots for the girl to wear sometimes, too--a
professional assassin needed tough protective footwear when undertaking a contract. Nevertheless,
Mireille liked how the pink slip-on shoes looked on Kirika's dainty feet. It would be all right to give her cute
partner a bit of leeway in her choice of footwear now and then, especially since they weren't actively in
'the business' anymore.

Originally, Mireille had wanted to meet with Breffort by herself. However, as she should have expected,
Kirika would have none of it. Mireille had strengthened her resolve to leave Kirika behind in the security of
their home before telling her of her wishes, but under the taciturn girl's quiet--yet persistent--insistence the
blonde had caved. Mireille didn't know whether it was intentional or not, but after informing her that she
would be going by herself, Kirika had given her a hurt puppy dog expression of the likes the woman's
resolve had been utterly defenceless against. And coupled with the girl speaking the blonde's name and
nothing else in that special way of hers, Mireille's resolve had crumbled to nothing--the joint offensive had
simply been too much to endure. Besides, even if Mireille had remained steadfast and forbade Kirika to
come with her, the exasperatingly loyal girl would have in all probability tailed her anyway--blatantly mind
you, until Mireille surrendered to letting her walk beside her. Kirika would have followed no matter what
her older partner said.

So, Mireille reasoned, it was perhaps even better that she had 'allowed' Kirika to come with her. It was
saving them both a lot of trouble. Yes, it was the truth.

Mireille's eyes became half-lidded as she directed an unnoticed dry look at Kirika, the girl standing with
her hands in her parka's pockets, appearing as demure and innocent as ever. The Corsican let out a
small sigh, her steely blue eyes losing their sardonic quality, turning a gentler shade. She was becoming
a real softy… at least when it came to Kirika. She prayed that she hadn't made a dreadful mistake in
letting her partner tag along with her, though. The threat of violence was always there when they left the
safety of their apartment, but now, inside a building that belonged to Soldats, the threat had doubled--no,
tripled. Mireille would make sure the meeting with Breffort finished quickly. The faster things were
straightened out with him, the faster she and Kirika could return to their peaceful life… if it was still waiting
for them. Mireille wouldn't give Breffort a chance to coerce them into a Soldats' machination or worse, into
the powerful group's fold. Breffort had offered her an influential place in the society once before; there
was no reason why he or the other high ranking officials of Soldats might not still harbour the desire to
recruit her.

The noise of the elevator doors sliding open brought Mireille out of her thoughts, and with Kirika in
tandem, she stepped out of the elevator and into the adjoining hallway, before proceeding in the direction
of Breffort's office.

As Mireille and Kirika walked into the foyer of Breffort's office, two men dressed in grey suits relaxing on
one of three black leather couches positioned around a coffee table inside perked up and turned their
heads towards them. Mireille tensed slightly as they regarded her but closed the double doors she and
Kirika had entered through behind her without hesitation before continuing to walk further into the room,
outwardly appearing calm and cool, but inwardly a coiled spring ready to strike at a moment's notice. She
had shot and killed the last two guards that had been stationed here during her first visit to the foyer; she
wondered if their replacements knew that. But considering the mistrustful and cagey way the duo eyed
her and Kirika, Mireille wouldn't be startled if they did. She wondered if the sentries also knew that she
and her colleague were futhermore the Noir of ancient legend, or had been for a time at any rate.
Perhaps that was the cause of their obvious apprehension… but it was doubtful. Mireille really didn't
believe that the higher-ups of Soldats would reveal the genuine Noir's true identity to their lowly
subordinates. They simply didn't need to know. And knowledge was power, with those top officials not apt
to share either.

"He's expecting you," one of the men said, gesturing with a tilt of his head to a set of double doors over
his shoulder, while not taking his eyes off Mireille or Kirika. In the meantime his companion sat stock still
beside him, staring at the young women with a steady gaze that roamed periodically between the pair.

Mireille smiled thinly in response. The guards hadn't even so much as stirred from their seats to check
them for weapons. Maybe her and Kirika's reputation as Noir had preceded them after all. Or it could be
that the guards were just always edgy with everyone who crossed their paths; that attitude did make for a
longer life in their line of work. Maybe they were in actual fact under direct orders from Breffort not to frisk
Mireille and Kirika for arms. In any case Mireille was glad; she had never liked being felt up by strange
men with wandering hands under the pretext of searching for concealed weapons. Although it rarely
occurred--as a professional assassin Mireille typically avoided situations where suspicion could be laid on
her, and that included walking into places where a physical pat down of her person was required.

Strolling unhurriedly past the chary-eyed sentries--whose gazes stuck to them like glue as they
moved--Mireille and Kirika approached Breffort's doors, and, after a short forewarning knock courtesy of
the Corsican, walked into the Soldats member's office.

Breffort looked up from where he was seated at his desk as Mireille and Kirika came into the room,
putting down the fountain pen he had previously been writing with. Remy Breffort was a somewhat aged
man, perhaps in his late fifties, with slicked back grey hair and attired in an expensive-looking charcoal
grey suit of fine material and cut, painting an overall dapper exterior. Mireille hypothesised that he was a
prominent individual in Soldats' echelons, perhaps even sitting on the chief council itself, if one existed.
All the more reason to stay sharp and leave quickly. While the blonde had had dealings with Breffort in
the past, it didn't mean she trusted him more than any other Soldats follower.

"Mireille Bouquet," Breffort greeted flatly in his rather gruff voice, speaking French. He cast his eyes to
Kirika trailing at the rear of Mireille for a second, but then they returned to the woman. "I am pleased you
have answered my summons. Come in. Sit down."
Mireille advanced into the richly decorated room with long, purposeful strides, before halting abruptly in
front of two plush sofas facing a polished cherry wood coffee table. "That won't be necessary," she
declared tersely as Kirika softly clicked shut the office's double doors, then positioned herself a couple of
steps behind her partner. "The only reason I-- *we*--" Mireille quickly corrected, "--are here is to assure
you--and Soldats--that we were not responsible for killing your people." Mireille narrowed her eyes,
clutching her handbag in front of her tightly with both hands. "Although I'll admit your constant messages
did try my patience…." she added hotly under her breath. "While the word may be that Noir is taking the
blame for the car bombing outside the Aux Villes Du Nord café, it was not we." The woman then smirked
faintly, but the smile held more ice than warmth. "We prefer more… shall we say, elegant methods of
disposing of people." Mireille glanced over her shoulder at Kirika, her smile now turning fond, just for the
cute girl. "Well, one of us does," she amended rather teasingly, recalling her stoic partner's brutal yet
effective techniques at ending lives.

Kirika, exhibiting her aforementioned stoicism, didn't react to the jibe bar an infinitesimal movement of her
lips.

Breffort simply looked at Mireille levelly for several moments. Then, after heaving a weary sigh, he stood
up from his chair and hobbled out from behind his desk, leaning the majority of his weight on his peculiar
cane topped with what loosely resembled a golden hawk's head. "Noir…" he mumbled to himself, looking
away from Mireille and Kirika. "I had hoped it was merely a rumour, but now…." Breffort sighed once
again and shook his head slightly, before returning his attention to Mireille. "The situation has become
even worse than I had first believed. It would be wise if you and your partner listen to what I have to say,"
he recommended with some resignation.

"I don't think so," Mireille said coldly and with barely veiled enmity beneath her words, no smiles of any
sort now. "We don't want to know what the 'situation' is." There was no way she was going to let Breffort
get them involved in whatever was going on. Mireille had already informed the man that neither she nor
Kirika were accountable for the deaths of the two Soldats agents--their business with him was finished.
Mireille and Kirika could go back to their quiet life oblivious to whatever Breffort's and Soldats' problems
were, and be happier for it. "We're done here," the Corsican assassin stated firmly, turning to go.

"If the title of Noir is truly being used then this concerns you too," Breffort said to Mireille's retreating back.
"You *and* your partner," he continued in a softer tone, someway knowing how the inclusion of Kirika
would affect the woman's mindset. "It is the reason why I've been trying to contact you of late."

Mireille stopped dead in her tracks when her partner was mentioned. Curse Breffort! She wondered
irritably if he had agents spying on how she and Kirika interacted with each other now. Although, Breffort
had been present when Mireille and Kirika had walked out of the Manor together, the sole survivors of a
battle against Altena and her enclave. Perhaps the woman's decision to follow after and in turn save
Kirika then had been enough for him to go on.

Mireille turned back and looked at Kirika, who hadn't moved. The girl met her gaze wordlessly and then,
to the blonde's dismay, she walked slowly over to one of the sofas. "Kirika…" Mireille whispered in
consternation and surprise.

With Kirika's choice made, there was little Mireille could do but staunchly stand by her, regardless of how
much she wished the withdrawn girl had followed her lead like she normally did. As Kirika took a seat on
the sofa, Mireille reluctantly did likewise, sitting primly next to her colleague and laying her handbag on
her lap. She did her best not to slouch despondently. Her and Kirika's peaceful way of life was giving its
final death rattle.

Breffort took a brief moment to fetch a manila folder out from one of his desk drawers, and then limped
over to the other, vacant, sofa across from Mireille and Kirika before seating himself in it, releasing a tired
breath of air. He propped his cane against one of the sofa's arms and then opened the dossier in his
hands.
"We believe," Breffort began, and Mireille had no doubt in her mind who exactly 'we' was referring to, "that
this man, Ryosuke Ishinomori, is one of those responsible for the act of aggression against us yesterday."
Breffort laid out a number of photographs he had retrieved from the folder on the table in front of Mireille
and Kirika, placing them down one after the other, side by side in a neat row.

Mireille leaned forwards on the sofa, peering at the mix of colour and black and white photos of assorted
sizes, before picking one up and examining it, her interest piqued despite herself. Clearly surveillance
specialists--who were highly likely to also be members of Soldats--had taken them. The colour picture in
Mireille's hands was of an Asian man who looked to be in his mid twenties, standing a couple of feet from
a black limousine and seemingly occupied with someone or something outside of the snapshot, and
consequently was apparently oblivious to being spied upon and photographed. Ryosuke Ishinomori was a
tall individual, at least six foot if the limousine in the background was any measure, and possessed a slim
build. Then again, Mireille couldn't be certain of that since he wore a long coat of the darkest black. It was
buckled from his neck to his waist with gunmetal grey clasps and fell in two tails to the tops of his ankles,
and as a result, hid most of his similarly gloomily attired body from view. The coat had a faint sheen to it
that was visible even in the photo, like it was made of some sort of glossy substance, perhaps leather. Its
collar was cut straight and stood up stiffly to Ishinomori's mouth, partially obscuring his features. But
Mireille could make out enough. Ishinomori would have been rather handsome if his face hadn't been
gaunt and his expression stony. Dark circles ringed his lifeless violet, almost purple, eyes, made doubly
more noticeable by his deathly pale complexion. Stark white hair hung to his shoulders, but fanned out in
a series of spikes away from his head just before actually touching them.

All in all the general air of Ryosuke Ishinomori, even from a mere photograph alone, touted that he was a
very dangerous and cold individual… but not of the type that Mireille hadn't dealt with before. There were
many people who held themselves in such repute in the criminal world--and those in the average world
too, for that matter--arrogant men and women who felt themselves superior to others and acted
accordingly. Fools who thought of themselves above their customarily meagre castes. Mireille had
encountered their like many, many times. They were often the ones who begged for their lives before she
ended them. She would have to encounter Ishinomori in person before she could determine if he shared
those other wannabes' characteristics, or if he actually had the ability to back up his aplomb.

As Mireille was studying the picture, a flash of memory manifested in her mind's eye, a memory from the
day before. She inhaled sharply and frowned hard at the man in the photo. Shoulder length stark white
hair and a long jet-black coat…. It was the man she had bumped into on the street outside the café
yesterday, right before the Soldats sedan was turned into a hunk of flaming scrap metal. Mireille should
have recognised him sooner. He must have been there to trigger the car bomb remotely himself. How
very brazen, she thought disdainfully.

Mireille spared a glance at Kirika to her left, and saw the girl impassively scrutinising another photograph
of Ishinomori, this particular one of him sitting at a bar in a restaurant, dressed much like he had been in
the picture she had been looking at and with the same emotionless countenance. The shop signs caught
in the foreground of the black and white photo were written in what looked like Japanese characters--it
must have been shot in Japan. Well, Ryosuke Ishinomori did appear to hail from the country.

Kirika's eyes turned to meet Mireille's for a moment at the woman's look, but then Breffort started talking
again, demanding both her and her partner's full attention.

"Ishinomori was spotted recently in Paris accompanied by his usual associate, one Wen-Sung Hsu; a
man also known as Vincent Hsu," Breffort revealed, placing another set of snapshots on the coffee table,
under the first collection.

Mireille and Kirika moved at the same time, each reaching for a surveillance photograph of the second
bombing suspect. At first glance Mireille thought that Breffort had been mistaken about Hsu's gender, but
after closer inspection she realised he was simply a remarkably beautiful man. Truly Vincent Hsu could
have been mistaken for a woman. If Mireille were so inclined that way she might have even been
attracted to him. But as it was, she preferred the authentic thing. She could accept no substitutes,
regardless of how feminine a man appeared.

With a medium-to-small build and long lustrous black hair, Hsu was the exact opposite of his
older-looking partner Ishinomori, even more so with the broad smile plastered on his almost flawless face;
the solitary blemish a mole by the right side of his mouth. The picture Mireille had chosen was in full
colour displaying Hsu carousing in what looked to be a seedy nightclub somewhere, with his arms around
two pretty yet whorishly dressed women who the Corsican could practically visualise simpering. The
enchanting man who had won their affections--and seemed to certainly be enjoying them--was clad in a
black suit and tie along with a correspondingly coloured shirt, matching his Japanese associate's fashion
sense. However, Hsu wore his clothing well, holding himself in a suave but laid-back manner that shone
through even the static photo in Mireille's hand. His eyes were pools of enrapturing liquid amber,
captivating in their soft exquisiteness, while his ebony locks were tied loosely in a ponytail at the nape of
his neck and hung over one shoulder, reaching his waist. A series of short strips made of a black
velvet-like material were wrapped around Hsu's ponytail, keeping the long tresses neatly together, and a
few centimetres from the tail's bottom a dark cord was tied, producing a tuft of hair at the ponytail's end. It
was hard to imagine a person with such a jovial and captivating look was paired with the likes of the dour
Ryosuke Ishinomori. But then appearances could all too easily be deceiving. Mireille doubted the casual
observer would think Kirika was anything more than an average girl by merely looking at her.

"Both men have become significantly prominent players in the Asia-Pacific region, rising from relative
obscurity from small gang-related syndicates," Breffort went on while Mireille and her darkhaired
companion studied the snapshots. "Perhaps you have heard of them…?" he posed to the well-known and
respected Corsican assassin.

"I don't visit that area of the world often," Mireille replied in an absent mumble, her interest focused
primarily on the picture of Hsu. "Europe is my traditional playground."

"Of course," Breffort said somewhat contritely, before clearing his throat and resuming his report. "Alone,
Ryosuke Ishinomori and Vincent Hsu make equally formidable foes," he said, impassively watching
Mireille and Kirika continue to look over the photos of the duo. "But together…." The grey-haired man
directed an unwavering gaze at Mireille, the woman having looked up at his noticeable pause. "Together,
they are arguably worthy of Noir's heritage."

Mireille answered Breffort's gaze with a dispassionate and level look, clearly unimpressed and unafraid.

She then exhaled with exaggerated heaviness, and belligerently tossed the photograph she had been
examining back onto the coffee table's shiny surface, her patience at its end. "This is all *very*
interesting," she said sarcastically, "but will there be a point to any of this soon? All you've shown us is
two *supposedly* dangerous men who killed two of your Soldats lapdogs. I don't see what they have to do
with myself or Kirika beyond their use of the name, Noir."

Breffort was silent for a moment, during which Mireille was tempted to take Kirika and leave already, but
then the Soldats official spoke once again.

"When I learned Ishinomori and Hsu had appeared in Paris, I immediately assigned two agents to keep
watch over their activities, the same men who I used as convenient one-time couriers to deliver my
message to you."

Mireille raised a single elegant blonde eyebrow at this.

Seeing the woman's questioning expression, Breffort explained. "It is a rarity when they leave the Eastern
hemisphere. Especially with… circumstances as they are over there at present." Noticing Mireille's now
even greater quizzical look, Breffort held up at hand, forestalling any inquiries. "I'll explain in due time. It
was pure coincidence that my message was delivered to you at the precise time Ishinomori and Hsu
decided to take the opportunity to dispose of my men." His eyes moved to Kirika for a fraction of a
second, who was still absorbed with looking at photos, and then went back to Mireille. "I hope neither of
you were injured in the ensuing blast."

"No," Mireille said dryly, recalling her painful flight through the café's glass door. "Although your concern
is touching," she couldn't help adding condescendingly.

Undeterred by the blonde's tone, Breffort continued, albeit with a slight, almost inaudible sigh beforehand.
"I don't know how they discovered they were being observed by Soldats--my agents must have become
careless--but it's moot now. Ryosuke Ishinomori and Vincent Hsu are only the hands of a larger menace.
The real threat is this woman--" Breffort laid a newspaper clipping on top of the several pictures on the
table. "--Kaede Ishinomori, Ryosuke's younger sister. He and Hsu are merely her operatives. *She* is the
true danger."

Mireille sighed in annoyance and picked up the newspaper clipping. Written in Japanese, the article was
obviously taken from a Japanese publication. The accompanying colour picture for the report was
focused on a young woman dressed in a sensible yet stylish black pantsuit, shirt, and tie combination,
outside of what resembled a courthouse. She was surrounded by a flood of people, most of them
journalist types. An escort consisting of five women and two men stood out in the crowd, however,
appearing to be with the young woman--who was evidently Kaede Ishinomori--most likely her bodyguards
and lawyers. Mireille wasn't sure what the report was about--she could speak Japanese well, but reading
it was a different matter entirely--but it was clear even to her that Kaede Ishinomori was in some trouble
with the law; trouble big enough to warrant media coverage.

Kaede shared some resemblance to her brother, beyond their affinity for the colour black. While definitely
not as tall as him, she did have the same coloured hair and complexion and slender frame. Her snow
white hair was cut quite short and tapered to the nape of her neck, and a multitude of bangs hung over
her eyes, utterly concealing them from view. Mireille wondered how the woman walked around without
knocking into things. While her hair obscured a good deal of her features, what the assassin could see
showed her that Kaede was an attractive woman. A ghost of a smile was affixed to Kaede's face; a smug
and rather alluring smile, like she knew something very special and important that everyone else did not.
Mireille had a feeling that smile could turn into a cold and sinister rictus in a heartbeat.

"She's being accused of drug trafficking and possession with intent to sell," Kirika said softly to Mireille in
Japanese, having scooted close to her partner to read the news article also. "It says that the key witness
is still missing after his disappearance from protective custody shortly after her arraignment."

Mireille nodded and made a sound of understanding, peering at the newspaper clipping even more
closely, as if by now knowing what it said made the Japanese characters become suddenly decipherable
to her.

"That is correct," Breffort said, overhearing and understanding Kirika's helpful translation, even though it
wasn't spoken in French. Mireille found herself disliking him just a little bit more. "Kaede Ishinomori is the
CEO and majority shareholder of Ishinomori Pharmaceuticals, a drug research, development, and
manufacturing company based predominantly in Asia, but with many other subsidiaries throughout the
world. In the past it was a legitimate business, but now it is essentially a front for the production and
shipment of illegal substances--including narcotics and the rare chemical weapon. She inherited it--and
many other assets--from her mother after she passed away during an altercation with some unforgiving
and impetuous 'business rivals'." Breffort paused for a second, causing Mireille and Kirika to look up from
the news article. "Hikaru Ishinomori was Soldats, and a sympathiser with Altena's beliefs; she held a
prominent place in Altena's splinter group. She was killed before Le Grand Retour was brought to fruition,
however."

"Soldats. Why am I not surprised," Mireille sneered, dropping the newspaper clipping on the coffee table
in front of her. "That would make Kaede Ishinomori and all of her associates Soldats members too,
correct?"

"Indeed," Breffort confirmed, before noticeably hesitating. "But…" he went on, a little reluctantly, "Kaede
Ishinomori is not like her mother. Hikaru Ishinomori may have shared Altena's views, but she was Soldats
through and through. But her daughter… her daughter thinks differently. She is too ambitious; she does
not follow the dictates of Soldats. She expands the Ishinomori Empire too recklessly and impudently uses
her ties to the society, cowing criminal and lawful organisations alike with our age-old name. She
threatens to expose us with her carelessness. This is… unacceptable."

Mireille smirked. So that was the reason Breffort had had agents on Ryosuke Ishinomori and Vincent
Hsu. Now they were finally getting somewhere. It seemed that a loose cannon as it were, one with sizable
strength and, if that wasn't enough, links to Altena, had emerged in Soldats; which was making the
high-ranking old men of the clandestine group nervous. And perhaps rightfully so. Soldats did their work
from the shadows; they always had. To be revealed from those shadows, bare to the world….

Mireille's smirk grew. It must be a very daunting notion to Breffort and his little friends. She was suddenly
rather pleased she had stayed to hear what he'd had to say.

"Go on…" Mireille prompted a little smugly, although she did try to keep her voice even. She rested back
in the sofa and crossed her legs, feeling a great deal more relaxed now.

Breffort merely stared at the composed blonde woman for a moment, but under her unrelenting conceited
smile and level gaze, sighed softly and then quickly yielded, telling all.

"I have been charged by the High Council of Soldats with the task of handling this… problem. Discreetly,
however. To openly oppose any major force belonging to Soldats is just not done; it would lead to
disastrous results. It is the same reason why we did not simply quash Altena's faction with our own forces
at the very beginning she made her intentions of initiating Le Grand Retour clear. There would have been
open war in the streets; men and women of Soldats with their own cells and unique, often conflicting
beliefs are spread everywhere, all over the globe. Exposure would have been all but unavoidable."

Breffort sighed once more and shook his head a fraction, looking away from Mireille. "But so far my efforts
have all been for naught--I am simply sending Soldats men to their deaths. Ryosuke Ishinomori… Vincent
Hsu… they are Kaede Ishinomori's 'Black Hands'; they are truly impressive combatants. Indeed, if the two
are really using the name of Noir…." Breffort turned his head back to Mireille, the depths of his eyes
looking somewhat strained. "I believe Kaede knows that the majority of Soldats is in opposition to her, but
she also knows Soldats won't make a direct move against her either. And so we do a dance. I attack
covertly with small surgical strikes, and she retaliates with--while not quite equal--judiciousness. And thus,
it goes on until one of us missteps." Breffort reached up and smoothed back his grey hair with one hand.
"It is a tiring ballet," he admitted wearily.

"Why not just wait for her trial?" Mireille asked a bit absently, gesturing with a crook of her finger towards
the newspaper clipping on the coffee table. "She may be convicted; it would solve everything quite nicely.
Cut off a snake's head, and normally the remaining body dies in time."

"Do you not think Kaede has not already assured that she will be acquitted on all charges?" Breffort said,
a hint of an edge in his voice. "She has already utilised her two Hands to make the only damning witness
against her disappear from the public eye. He was one of her own circle, I believe. He will not pass from
this life easy… or slowly."

"Well then, it looks like you're in a bit of a quandary," Mireille said, paying no heed to the Soldats man's
slightly hard tone. "However, the way I see it, Kaede and her 'Hands' are your problem. Not ours."

"Hmph. Do you really believe that?" Breffort said in his usual monotone. "When I learned that Ryosuke
Ishinomori and Vincent Hsu were possibly aspiring to become Noir, I thought it shrewd to contact you. To
me, it is clear that Kaede has learned of Soldats legendary Black Hands and has modelled her two top
killers in Noir's image--or at least, is attempting too. How long do you think it will take her to discover that
the true Noir is living here in Paris, alive and well? What do you think she--"
Breffort's words were cut off as Mireille abruptly stood up, her face twisted into an expression of loathing.
Kirika looked up at her from where she still sat, her countenance unreadable.

"We are *not* Noir," Mireille declared angrily, all her prior mild amusement now vanished from her voice
and features. "Perhaps we were once, but no longer. We are not part of Soldats--we never will be. We are
outsiders in your little… power struggle. The unruly child in your organisation is your own to curb. *Alone*"
The assassin turned sharply to Kirika, motioning for her to rise with a flick of her hand. "Come on, Kirika,"
she snapped, "we're leaving."

Breffort was trying to suck them into a Soldats plot as Mireille had previously suspected, although his
attempt had been carried out in a subtle way; not until the end had he revealed the true purpose of this
meeting. But it was crystal clear now what the real reasons behind it and his messages were. Breffort
wanted to recruit Mireille and Kirika to help him deal with a rogue Soldats member who had delusions of
grandeur. He wanted to recruit them into Soldats employ. Never. Mireille would never let that happen.

Mireille took two steps towards the doors of the office, but when she didn't hear her partner's footsteps
following her, she turned irritably back to find the girl still on the sofa. "Kirika!" she chastised strictly,
causing her introverted colleague to instantly leap up from her seat and trot over to her.

As Mireille, with Kirika now a step behind her, proceeded towards the doors once again, Breffort
unwelcomely strived a final time to compel the woman to rally to his cause. "You can't remain passive in
this," he said to Mireille's back, making the blonde slow her pace in spite of herself. "Ryosuke Ishinomori
and Vincent Hsu are here, in Paris, when by all rights they should be near Kaede, especially with her trial
date coming up in less than two weeks. It is strange she has sent them here…."

"What are you saying?" Mireille said bitingly without turning, her hand on one of office's door handles, on
the verge of leaving. Of escaping.

"There can be only one true Noir," Breffort said from the sofa, the words freezing the Corsican's heart.
"You know this. While the motives for Ishinomori and Hsu's appearance in Paris are unknown to me,
there is considerable likelihood it is to locate you… and your partner…." He paused for effect, but Mireille
remained silent. "You claim that you and your partner are not Noir, but that won't matter to her. Or to
them. Kaede Ishinomori seems to want her own version of Noir, which means her sights are set on you.
You and your partner will be hunted, if you both aren't being already. You can either wait until Ishinomori
and Hsu find you in another café, or you can find them first. In the end, it is still your own choice to make."

Mireille lowered her head, the weight of Breffort's words resting heavily on her slim shoulders. Could she
go back to her quiet life with Kirika, now knowing that it could be destroyed at any moment? But that had
always been a peril Mireille was aware of. Except now it would be like sticking her head in the sand,
waiting for a nightmare to raze their dream of a peaceful existence. A nightmare she knew would sooner
or later rear its head. The question was, did she wait for the nightmare to come to her and Kirika? Or did
she charge ahead, down the black path, and confront it directly? Either way, her and her partner's quiet
life would come to an end.

Mireille looked at Kirika. She looked back at her, her face typically impassive. The blonde wondered what
she wanted to do. Kirika had to have known that this day would come eventually. Mireille's shoulders
slumped and her expression fell. She had accepted that she would inevitably travel the black path once
again, but Kirika….

"Alright," Mireille conceded, her voice containing a measure of hoarseness. "You've convinced me." She
turned back around to Breffort. As she had anticipated, his face held no trace of triumph at his victory. He
wasn't the type to gloat. "I expect you'll be providing us with Soldats aid?" At least she and Kirika wouldn't
have to handle Ryosuke and Vincent alone. Two people who would knowingly attack Soldats agents in
spite of the repercussions it would entail, and do it by themselves with no backup, were two people who
were definitely exceedingly formidable. Or exceedingly daring. Regardless, any help Breffort could give
would be most welcome in Mireille's opinion. Of course, Ryosuke and Vincent weren't the only two people
in the world who had willingly attacked and killed Soldats agents….

"Unfortunately, my assistance will be limited," Breffort said, eliciting a scowl from Mireille. She should
have predicted as much. "You said it yourself; you and your partner are not part of Soldats. There are
many High Council members who see you as an enemy of Soldats, albeit a sleeping one. If they even
found out about this meeting the ramifications for myself would be fatal. No, I'm afraid you will be largely
on your own."

"Then what 'limited assistance' can you provide?" Mireille said contemptuously.

Breffort held up the manila folder in his hand. Terrific.

"Information mainly," he clarified. "But perhaps more than that in the future. Although I will have to be
careful."

Mireille sighed deeply. So this was it. The black path was calling her name… and Kirika's as well. She
couldn't help but feel it would be even more difficult to veer away from it this time around. Darkness had
caught them once again in its grasp, and it was a force that wasn't apt to let anybody go when they
wanted to. *If* they wanted to.

With the weight inside her handbag more noticeable than ever, Mireille walked slowly back to Breffort and
reached out to take the folder from his grasp. She had made her choice. The quicker they disposed of
Ryosuke and Vincent, the better chance she and Kirika had of freeing themselves from the course of the
black path of murder... a course that always ended in death for its travellers. With Kaede's 'Noir' dead,
Mireille and Kirika would be released from her and Breffort's intrigues… presumably. At any rate, it was
the wisest approach for the moment.

As Mireille took a hold of the folder, she met Breffort's greyish eyes with her own blue ones. She knew not
to entirely trust the man. He was Soldats. Even if their objectives were the same, as they had been during
their previous dealings concerning Altena, it wasn't like they were friends. They were more like business
partners, if anything. Mireille reminded herself once again to stay on guard… particularly against Breffort.

"And so the sleeping lions awaken…." Breffort whispered softly as he let go of the folder.

******

Kirika Yuumura followed Mireille into their apartment and quietly shut the door behind them, before
securely locking its deadbolt. The trip back home had been made in silence, not a single word exchanged
between either of them. While once, in the past, that in itself would not have been out of the ordinary,
these days Mireille was considerably more talkative, frequently chatting to Kirika about a wide variety of
topics that happened to take her fancy at the time. For the most part Kirika merely listened to the woman,
only providing her own input when required--she was not much for talking. But she enjoyed simply
listening to Mireille's opinions on things, and also the sound of her pleasant, articulate voice. It was
comforting to Kirika. When Mireille spoke often and contentedly, it made Kirika feel that everything was
okay in the world, and that her partner was at ease. It put her at ease too.

But now it was like it had all reverted back to several months earlier, when silence was Kirika and
Mireille's constant companion. Kirika's silence was of course nothing new, but when Mireille was quiet it
characteristically meant she was thinking hard about something… or was worried about something. More
likely worried in this case. But not nervous, no, Mireille never became nervous no matter what peril or trial
she was up against... with a few exceptions. She did get nervous around Kirika herself on occasion. The
darkhaired girl seemed to easily fluster Mireille for some reason.

Kirika rested back against a wall in the living room and gazed up at the ceiling as Mireille walked over to
the billiard table, depositing on it the manila dossier containing the information on their new enemies,
along with her handbag, which landed with a dull clunk. Kirika knew what Mireille was worried about. She
knew what the latest developments meant.

Kirika's eyelids drooped a little, her reddish-brown eyes becoming sad. Their peaceful time together
seemed so short, now. Kirika had become accustomed to simply living each day of her life as it came with
Mireille. It had been like she was a normal girl and that her previous life as an assassin had happened to
someone else--just a bad, distant memory; a dream. Or rather a nightmare. Truly, she had almost
forgotten. Almost.

But soon Kirika and Mireille would be fighting once again. Soon their lives would be filled with violence,
with bloodshed, with murder… with sins. They would be filled with danger too, and their very lives would
be put at risk, but Kirika had never feared for her own personal safety. She rarely felt the emotion, fear.
Except when it concerned her older partner. Mireille's personal safety was a whole other story. Kirika
always worried about the woman's wellbeing; she had done so nearly ever since they first met. Mireille
was a very capable assassin, but that didn't make her invulnerable. And now that they were heading back
into a life of killing, and would be pitched against two purportedly skilled rivals, Kirika's fear for Mireille had
increased tenfold. If the unimaginable were to occur, if Mireille were to somehow leave her… Kirika didn't
think she would survive for long afterwards.

Mireille was literally everything to Kirika--she was utterly vital to the girl's continued existence and
happiness. The woman was the only person she really knew, her only friend, her only family. Kirika felt
something for Mireille she had experienced with no other person before. She felt love; it was the only
word she knew that could possibly describe the feeling. Kirika loved Mireille deeply, with absolutely
everything she was. She had for a long time. And Mireille felt the same way; the girl knew it to be true.
Mireille may not be very forthcoming about her feelings, but Kirika was certain she did. Kirika could clearly
see the changes in her partner's behaviour towards her. She only wished Mireille would be more open
about her love. Kirika didn't really know much about how people who loved each other acted, but she
knew enough to realise Mireille held herself back somewhat. She wasn't sure why the blonde did. But for
the moment, it didn't really matter that much to Kirika. Just being with Mireille virtually every hour of every
day was more than enough for her to be content.

At the bottom of her field of vision Kirika could make out Mireille looking at her rather absorbedly while
leaning against the side of the billiard table with one hand. Kirika could tell she was internally debating
with herself about something. She knew Mireille thought she wouldn't notice her pensive expression, what
with the girl's attention seemingly riveted to the ceiling. But Kirika noticed almost everything when it
concerned Mireille, even if her partner tried to hide things from her. She never brought it up of course, not
unless it was really important. Mireille would probably deny it anyway, and then she would become
uncomfortable around Kirika… more so. For example, the perceptive girl knew they were still getting
contract offers from across most of Europe, sent via email, for weeks now. Mireille quickly closed the
email program whenever she made her presence known, and then afterwards behaved a little guiltily. But
Kirika wasn't stupid or blind. However, she didn't resent her partner for keeping things from her, either.
Mireille was just doing what she thought was best. It made Kirika happy in a way, happy that Mireille felt
the need to do such things for her.

Apparently coming to a decision, Mireille put on a rather weak smile and straightened her posture, before
opening her mouth to speak. "Kirika," she said, and the girl in question lowered her gaze from the ceiling
and looked into the blonde's blue eyes. For some reason this made Mireille squirm, although nearly
imperceptibly--Kirika doubted anybody but her would have noticed the action. "I have something for you,"
the woman continued quietly, looking away from Kirika to the billiard table's green felt surface. "I acquired
a new one about a week after we arrived home," she explained as she crouched down beside the table
and began running one hand underneath it, searching for something. "It was just a precautionary
measure," Mireille said, turning her head back to a mute and motionless Kirika. "Ah, there."

Mireille stood up, and held in her hand was something that made Kirika's heart clench. A gun. A Beretta
M1934 Commercial, to be exact. A firearm that Kirika had wielded with deadly proficiency for most of her
young life… and had taken countless lives with. The mere sight of the weapon caused a swarm of
repressed memories to resurface, all of them unwanted… and awful.
And there was a fear welling up too, the other fear alongside Mireille's safety, the second exception. A
seed of darkness had awakened inside Kirika during her journey to the Manor, a seed of darkness that
had bloomed into a black, bloated flower, putrid with poison and disease. And it still resided inside of her.
Her other self. The one who had no name. The one who had attacked Mireille, the woman she loved, with
genuine intent to kill her without mercy or hesitation--Kirika's darkness. Kirika's fear was that with giving in
to violence her darkness would resurface again; she would lose herself again. Returning to her normal
self that time at the ancient colosseum by the Manor had taken a supreme effort. Without Mireille
provoking her old memories to re-emerge, Kirika believed she would have stayed lost, locked away in a
part of her mind with the darkness as the warden. And even then if Mireille's mother, Odette Bouquet,
hadn't planted a ray of light to fight that darkness inside of her before Kirika had claimed her life… in all
probability Mireille would be dead and Kirika and Chloe would be Noir, under Altena's control.

"It's clean, naturally," Mireille assured Kirika softly, oblivious to the taciturn girl's internal discord.
"Untraceable." She pulled the grey duct tape that had held the gun in its hiding spot under the billiard
table off of the weapon, and after balling it up, idly tossed it beside the manila folder and her handbag
where her own gun resided.

Gripping the Beretta by its barrel, Mireille held out the lethal firearm towards Kirika, albeit with a shade of
reluctance. The woman's face was stony, but she quickly forced a reassuring though wan smile. It did
little to comfort Kirika, and she believed Mireille knew that too, but had made the effort anyway. It was so
unlike those early days. Kirika wondered if things like that would stay the same, despite the changes that
indisputably would now occur in their lives.

With one steady but clammy hand, Kirika reached out to take the proffered gun. However, before she
could, a sudden bolt in her mind conjured up the image of Altena when she was a young woman, with
herself but a child, extending the same make and kind of weapon to her in an identical fashion. The first
time Kirika had held a gun. The image was followed in a flash by a second, this one so like the first, but
years later, with both participants older. But much the same.

Kirika's hand froze in mid motion, and it began to tremble--only minutely, hardly visible, but it did. She
stared at the gun held out by her partner with wide, vacant eyes. The hand clenching her heart squeezed
tighter.

"Kirika?" Mireille inquired, the concern plain in her voice.

The sound of Mireille's voice brought Kirika back to the present, freeing her from the bitter, still disjointed
memories of the past. She simply blinked and mentally shook off the feeling she was experiencing.
Mireille was not Altena. It was different. It was.

Gingerly, as if with reverence but in reality with apprehension, Kirika took the Beretta from Mireille's
grasp. It was heavier than she remembered. The weight told her it was fully loaded, however the
darkhaired girl didn't think that was responsible for the sense of extra burden. The metal was cold in her
grip and it chilled her skin, freezing her hand before the cool sensation crept gradually up her arm. Kirika
felt something stir inside of herself. The darkness. It knew. It knew that Kirika Yuumura held her forced
choice of weapon once again, her tool of murder and sin. It knew she would wield the gun and kill again.
It was inevitable.

The hand Kirika held the weapon in suddenly looked as black as night in her eyes. Black with sin. Yes…
she would inexorably be committing more sins too. Kirika had had a small hope that some of the sins that
soiled her hands and blackened her soul had been burnt away to nothing along with her Beretta when it
had been destroyed in the lava pool below the Manor. But of course it was a fantasy. Those sins were
Kirika's alone, not the gun's. Not a simple tool's. She would always carry them with her. As she should.

"There's more clips and bullets on the top shelf of the wardrobe," Mireille informed Kirika, watching her
stare at the gun in her small hands, the girl apparently wholly enthralled. "The leftovers from days gone
by." The woman fidgeted uneasily for several moments, and then hugged herself, looking away from
Kirika and down at the wooden floorboards of the room. "It's getting late," she whispered. "I think I'll take a
shower. I feel… dirty." Mireille lingered for a few more seconds, but then turned away from the sight of
Kirika and her new gun, proceeding at a brisk gait for the bedroom.

Kirika slipped the small Beretta into the right pocket of her parka, leaving it there. Instantly the warmth
flooded back into her hand, like the pricking of many needles in her skin. The darkness inside her
retreated back to the bleak caverns of her mind, back to where it slept. No… it slept no longer. It lurked
now, waiting. It had retreated, but not completely. The cold touch of a gun--its gun--had emboldened it.
But for now, it was kept at bay. Kirika wondered though. She wondered how long it would be. She and
Mireille would be fighting once again. And Kirika doubted the two men they would be hunting would give
them any quarter. It was only a matter of time until the darkness gained strength and tried to take control
over her once more. When that moment came, Kirika was unsure if she would have the willpower to stop
it.



Chapter 3 - The Calm Before A Storm


Mireille released a tired sigh and leaned back in her chair, rubbing her eyes. She was seated at the
billiard table that doubled as a desk in her apartment, going over all the data Breffort's folder had
contained on their new enemies, and in turn doing some research of her own via the Internet, gathering
what accessible information on the three individuals she could… which, incidentally, hadn't been very
much at all, especially on the topics of Ryosuke and Vincent. She had been staring at her PC's glowing
monitor and reading a host of documents and newspaper clippings until late last night before she had
resumed again early this morning. The time now was edging towards afternoon. Mireille felt worn-out.
She had become too out of practice at inspecting assignment details and then verifying their credibility, as
well as doing her own limited investigation of the targets. But the chores were necessary pains--it wasn't
just because her and Kirika's 'employer' was Soldats; a professional assassin who trusted their employer
implicitly should not claim to be a professional at all.

The contents of Breffort's dossier were spread out all over the billiard table's green felt surface, lying in
amongst numbered pool balls painted in a variety of colours related to the game. Mireille sometimes
brought the balls out to idly amuse herself with while she performed the preliminary tasks required before
an assignment could be undertaken. Already most of the corner pockets of the table were filled to
capacity with the polished spheres; the blonde woman had been working for some time, after all.

Newspaper articles both photocopied and original, and all printed in Japanese, littered the table, along
with innumerable pages of typed documents which gave detailed background assessments on Kaede and
her two cohorts, Ryosuke and Vincent, and additionally recounted the history of their activities in the
world, ranging from early in their lives when they were but children, until the present date. Mireille hadn't
been able to read the newspaper clippings and facsimiles, but she could usually get the gist of most of
the articles by looking at their accompanying pictures, if the story in question had one. Nearly all were on
Kaede Ishinomori or her departed mother, Hikaru Ishinomori, and either about their family business,
Ishinomori Pharmaceuticals; the murder of Hikaru; or dated more recently, Kaede's upcoming court case.
Of course Mireille couldn't understand a word of any news report, which was mildly frustrating to say the
least, even with pictures to look at. She would have to get Kirika to help her in that respect later.

Mireille placed her arms on the armrests of her chair and skimmed her eyes over the dozens of papers
arranged haphazardly before her on the billiard table. Her gaze eventually fell on one of the photos of
Ryosuke Ishinomori--the man, like in all of his pictures, decked out in a long black overcoat. The enclosed
report on Ryosuke--thankfully penned in French--stated that he was twenty-six years old, and was born in
Yokohama, Japan, to the prosperous Ishinomori family--a family that held strong ties to the covert group,
Soldats, and had done so over a decade. But despite being the first born of a rich lineage, it was written
that shortly after his father's--Shinichi Ishinomori's--demise under suspicious circumstances, a teenage
Ryosuke cut all connections to his family--with the sole exception of his sister--abandoning private
schools and sizable wealth alike for unknown reasons. He then disappeared totally from the Soldats radar
for several months--a feat that was notable in itself--before popping up again in the ranks of the
Kanagawa Kotetsu yakuza, a moderately sized organised crime group based in his home city of
Yokohama. It was within that criminal syndicate he remained for a number of years, gradually rising
higher in the clan's hierarchy, gaining respect and power, until his sister, Kaede, recalled him to the
Ishinomori family's embrace after their mother's passing and Kaede's subsequent inheritance of the
empire. Strangely, Ryosuke did so immediately, deserting his yakuza brothers without looking back. And
stranger still, the Kanagawa Koutetsu let him without any reprisals whatsoever. The report went on to say
Ryosuke was still looked upon in a favourable light by the yakuza clan, and as a result it was suspected
the group had been swallowed into Kaede's pseudo Soldats fold. Indeed, it was recently rumoured that
the Kanagawa Koutetsu had been disbanded.

Mireille ran the fingers of one hand through her blonde locks and then transferred her eyes to a
photograph of Ryosuke's partner. The document on Vincent Hsu, or rather, Wen-Sung Hsu, reported that
he was twenty-four years of age, and born in Hong Kong. Raised in obscurity in a Catholic boarding
school as an orphan and given a Christian name, Vincent purportedly fell into the Luen Kung Lok triad at
a young age, engaging in disreputable but petty misdeeds on the streets spanning from assault and
battery to extortion and burglary, a few of which he spent some time in jail for during his youth. However,
in spite of his early setbacks, he soon achieved the rank of 'Straw Sandal' in the triad, becoming the
liaison between the Luen Kung Lok and more than a few yakuza clans overseas in Japan. Soldats
presumed that was how Vincent and Ryosuke had met; during one of the meetings between members of
the Luen Kung Lok triad and the Kanagawa Koutetsu yakuza, arranged and mediated by the fine-looking
man. After several such meetings, Vincent eventually stayed in Japan with Ryosuke and the Kanagawa
Koutetsu, posing as the resident contact between the yakuza clan and the triad he belonged to. When
Kaede summoned her older brother to her side, Vincent was said to have joined him with almost the
same fervour.

The final thorough report included in Breffort's folder was on twenty-five year old Yokohama-born Kaede
Ishinomori herself, which Mireille had studied very carefully like the other two before it. Following her
brother's vanishing act after their father's death, Kaede remained with her mother for a time, but soon left
her side to unite with Ryosuke as a member of the Kanagawa Koutetsu yakuza clan, serving with them as
a truly brutal enforcer. It wasn't until Hikaru Ishinomori's murder that Kaede left the clan to take the reins
of her family's empire, bringing her brother and his partner with her shortly afterwards. Before long she
started aggressively expanding her newly reaped domain and consequently aggravating Soldats with her
brazen conquests.

Oddly, Hikaru Ishinomori left the entire family's fortune to her daughter in her Will rather than to her son,
the oldest and presumed rightful heir. Mireille wasn't quite sure what to make of it. But, considering that
Hikaru Ishinomori had been a follower of Altena's, perhaps a matriarchal mentality had been adopted in
the family.

Mireille bent forwards in her chair and picked up a slightly crinkled photo of Hikaru Ishinomori taken a few
months before her death, the only one of the woman that had been contained in the intelligence folder.
Dressed in an elegant dark blue business suit and with long flowing white hair that reached well past her
shoulders, it was plain where Kaede and Ryosuke had gotten their looks. There was a newspaper
clipping attached to the photo, and even with her nonexistent abilities in reading Japanese script, Mireille
could tell it was about Hikaru Ishinomori's assassination. If the bullet hole ridden car in the black and
white picture with the article was any indication, Kaede and Ryosuke's late mother had had a fatal
encounter with a hail of lead. The Corsican wondered just how 'legitimate' Ishinomori Pharmaceuticals
had been in the past if its majority owner and CEO back then had been shot to death by alleged 'business
rivals'.

Mireille tossed the photo back with the others on the billiard table and turned her attention to her
humming computer monitor. She had been having little luck discovering any further information on her
and Kirika's new adversaries. Bar the online reports of Kaede's looming trial and Ishinomori
Pharmaceuticals stock price trends or its research breakthroughs, there was absolutely nothing on the
woman or her pair of 'Black Hands'. For the most part it seemed they were good at staying out of the
limelight. But it wasn't surprising; generally people who lived in the darkness of the world were fairly adept
at avoiding unwanted publicity. Usually such attention only came about when one was caught by the
authorities, as in Kaede's case. Normally that would spell the end of one's career in the underworld even
if they escaped prison or execution, although it was relative to their profession. For example, a contract
killer would never be able to function efficiently again if her or his true identity, along with what they were
accused of, was exposed to the entire globe, but a small time crook could suffer the same hardships yet
continue to operate without too much difficultly.

Mireille closed her Web browser and relaxed back in her chair, her head inclined directly towards the
ceiling, leaving her blonde tresses draped down the back of her chair. She shook out her mane of hair,
before combing her fingers through the silky locks several times to make sure there were no tangles, and
then placed her hands behind her head. She figured she had studied the contents of Breffort's intelligence
dossier meticulously enough now. While virtually all of the newspaper articles remained unread because
of the Japanese language barrier, Mireille felt she was familiar with the lion's share of the material that
had been presented to her; she doubted the clippings would reveal any more insight into her and Kirika's
enemies. It was time to start tracking down Ryosuke Ishinomori and Vincent Hsu.

Breffort's folder had included the whereabouts of Ryosuke and Vincent's last known accommodations in
Paris, as well as the aliases they were using while within France's borders. However, after a quick
inquiring phone call to the provided location, Mireille had learned that the two men were long gone from
the luxury hotel they had previously been staying at… as she had suspected. Mireille hadn't believed
Ryosuke and Vincent would have not relocated elsewhere after finding out a two man team of Soldats
agents had been watching them… and after sending them to their graves, too.

While this would make hunting down the would-be Noir trickier, all was not lost. Ryosuke and Vincent's
aliases would be the same--they would have to be to coincide with their forged passports… unless they
were both equipped with more than one, but Mireille didn't what to think about that possibility. With their
aliases more or less static, it would be a… relatively… simple matter of checking through every hotel and
motel's guest database; as a rule the more lavish lodgings in the city had them, and the blonde believed
her and Kirika's quarry would not lower their standards when moving accommodations--the hotel they had
been staying at beforehand had certainly been upscale.

While Mireille's computer skills were adequate for the casual investigation of targets, sometimes one
needed someone with a little more… flair, as in this particular circumstance. The Corsican assassin
doubted she could break into and search through an untold number of hotel intranets without being
caught or even successful for that matter, but luckily she knew someone just for this specific sort of task.
And *only* for that reason.

Mireille was acquainted with a so-called hacker who lived and worked out of a basement below an old
computer store in a somewhat rundown part of Paris. Lamentably, the hacker was amateurish in his
business practices, and instead of accepting payment for his assistance electronically like Mireille would
have preferred--thus permitting her to escape all contact with the hormonal teenage boy--he always
desired cash upfront in a face-to-face exchange. But his services were cheap and reliable, and she
occasionally took advantage of his abilities when it was required… that is, when she could tolerate the
pimply-faced adolescent's crude come-ons and nauseating leers.

Mireille sighed up at the white painted ceiling above her. She and Kirika would have to visit Simon at
some point today. There was no avoiding it. They needed to know where to find Ryosuke and Vincent as
soon as possible. The earlier the two men were dead the earlier Mireille and Kirika could forget about this
whole deviation from their happy lives and return to how it had been before.

As her thoughts turned to her introverted colleague Mireille's eyes softened, and her expression became
rather sad. She hadn't heard so much as a peep from Kirika this morning after getting up early to continue
her study of Breffort's material. The darkhaired girl had made only the briefest of appearances to water
their pot plant by the window, though it hadn't even been her turn. That part of Mireille's usual morning
ritual had slipped her mind. With the upheaval that had suddenly ripped its way into their lives all that had
dominated the Corsican's thoughts of late was dealing with the threat to their peace.

Mireille turned her head lethargically towards the bedroom, gazing intently at the black adjoining wall as if
her sight could somehow burrow its way through it to see the girl lying on the bed beyond. Mireille worried
about Kirika. She wondered if she had made the right decision in rearming her with a gun. But it had been
a necessary and ultimately inevitable evil. At least, it was what Mireille tried to believe. With her and Kirika
travelling down the black path of murder once again, the girl would need a weapon to defend herself with.
It was as simple as that. Neither Mireille nor Kirika had to like the fact; it was just the way it had to be.
Nevertheless, that conviction didn't make Mireille feel any less disgusted with herself. She had willingly
placed a gun in Kirika's hands, a tool which sole purpose was to kill, and as a result had banished any
pretence that her partner was or could ever be an average girl who led a normal life, one free from
violence and death.

Why did it have to be this way? Mireille was someone Kirika trusted, the *only* person Kirika trusted; the
Corsican felt like she had betrayed that trust. She wondered if Kirika saw her in a different light now.
Mireille wasn't sure if she could cope if the girl's feelings for her changed. She knew Kirika looked up to
her to a degree, and had done so even before the events at the Manor. The sense of responsibility in
maintaining that respected image of herself for Kirika's benefit was uncomfortable. In the past Mireille
wouldn't have cared less about what her partner thought of her, but of course it was an entirely different
story nowadays. The woman feared that one day she would inadvertently say or do something that would
cause Kirika's impression of her to be shattered beyond repair.

Mireille hugged herself tightly, averting her eyes from the bedroom wall. But perhaps that day had already
occurred when she had given Kirika a firearm, with all intention that the quiet girl used it. Mireille prayed
that wasn't the case. She never wanted to let Kirika down. While she was the only person who mattered
in Kirika's life, conversely the girl was the only person who mattered in her life also. If there came a time
when Kirika no longer needed her, or worse, no longer felt the same way about her… Mireille didn't even
want to contemplate what she would do. She had become dependent on Kirika for her happiness and
more, no matter what she said or thought; a reality that scared her, if truth were told. But she supposed
that was what it was to be in love. Still, it was quite a disconcerting feeling.

Mireille sat up straight and then pushed her chair away from the billiard table on its wheels, deciding to
look in on the object of her affection, regardless of how unsettled that affection made her feel. She stood
up from her chair and walked as quietly as she could towards the bedroom's stepped black wall, each
footfall of her high heeled boots a soft, muted click on the hardwood floor. Mireille peeked over the top of
the lowest section of the ebony partition and was rewarded with the sight of her partner lying flat on top of
the covers of their bed, spreadeagled. Kirika gazed listlessly up at the ceiling, her mind seemingly far, far
away from their apartment in Paris.

Instead of disturbing the taciturn girl's quiet introspection and revealing her presence, Mireille simply
looked upon Kirika's frail form. Clad in khaki shorts and in the t-shirt emblazoned with France's national
flag that Mireille had bought for her when the girl had first came to the country, Kirika looked positively
adorable sprawled on the bed. But then, in Mireille's eyes, she practically always looked adorable. Truly,
the woman was becoming a full-blown softy.

Mireille wondered what Kirika was reflecting on this time. Yesterday's undesirable events at Breffort's
office and then the significant one that had subsequently occurred at home, no doubt. Suddenly Mireille's
marginally lightening mood took a swan dive. She ruminated whether Kirika agreed with her decision to
take Breffort's folder and consequently accept a dangerous assignment from Soldats, a group who were
once their bitter foes... and really still were. In consenting to carry out the mission to deal with Kaede
Ishinomori's Black Hands that were roaming about the city of Paris, Mireille had instantly doomed her and
Kirika's peaceful lifestyle. She wondered if Kirika resented her for that, and not to mention handing her a
gun as well.
No. Kirika would never feel that way towards Mireille despite any decision the blonde made, regardless of
how bad or misguided it had been. It just wasn't in the girl's nature. At least, Mireille believed so. But then
she could also hardly believe the naïve slip of a girl on the bed before her harboured a vicious and
cold-blooded killer inside of her, the embodiment of an unforgiving and unfeeling murderer.

Yet Kirika had insisted they remain to listen to what Breffort had to say to begin with when Mireille herself
was ready to leave the Soldats official's office. Maybe she was somewhat amiable to the idea of following
a black path once again.

Mireille smiled derisively at the notion. Somehow she doubted that Kirika would jump at the chance to
reside with violence and dice with death again.

Suddenly, Kirika's head shifted backwards on the pillow, and brown eyes encountered blue. Mireille put
on a fond smile now that the girl was aware of her scrutiny, and then walked from behind the black
bedroom wall, up the stairs, and then into the room itself. She approached the bed and stood by it as
Kirika's immersed gaze travelled with her, the reticent girl impassively yet attentively watching her every
move.

"We have to take a trip and visit someone today," Mireille informed Kirika in a mildly cheerful tone, as if
they were going to see a favourite relative rather than an immature teenage computer enthusiast. "But
before that I thought we should get in a little…." The blonde assassin turned her head pointedly in the
direction of Kirika's parka, where the garment lay draped over the blue couch close by with its deadly
contents hidden in one of its pockets. "…Practice…" she finished as the flicked her eyes back to the girl
on the bed to determine if she understood or not.

Kirika looked to where Mireille had motioned with her head and upon seeing her parka, returned her eyes
to the woman. She nodded from where she lay, giving a small sound of acceptance.

Mireille's smile grew a little, becoming a touch warmer at the positive response. Perhaps there wouldn't
be any problems related to Kirika and the prospect of a fresh new wave of violence in her life.
Nonetheless, Mireille wouldn't have minded knowing exactly what thoughts were running through her
partner's pretty little head… and how they would affect the future.

******

Kirika traipsed a pace behind Mireille as she followed the woman deeper into the dim sewer tunnels that
ran below the streets of Paris. In secret, crumbling places the sewer system joined with the old latticework
of catacombs that were developed to house the dead during Roman times--or so Mireille had told
her--and you could become easily lost in the murk, stumbling around aimlessly with the bones of the
ancient departed. However, the path Kirika and Mireille currently walked was a familiar and well-worn
one, and even though the darkhaired girl herself had not traversed it in quite some time, she still knew the
way. And evidently so did her partner leading her.

The tunnels were almost completely silent, with the hustle and bustle of the city above barely audible; a
low buzz on the edge of Kirika's hearing. An occasional drip of water plopping into the sewer canal
punctured the otherwise noiseless environment, along with the rhythmic click of Mireille's high heels that
echoed off the curved tunnel's dark grey walls. The only source of illumination was from the fiery red
sconces mounted periodically on each side of the sewer passage, the feeble but many lights beating back
the darkness to a mere gloom instead, allowing the two travellers footing to be sure and their course
ahead relatively clear to their eyes.

Kirika's head was lowered, her soft reddish-brown eyes fastened to the stone paving in front of her. The
backs of Mireille's black boots broke into the top of her vision, giving her a guide to follow while she
wallowed in the thoughts swimming around in her mind… and on the deaden weight pulling down heavily
on her parka from inside one of its pockets.
The sewer system a short distance away from their apartment--accessed by means of a manhole located
in an isolated alleyway--was Kirika and Mireille's 'practice' spot. It was more like a place to refresh their
shooting expertise in seclusion and security before an assignment was to be carried out. Since Mireille
was taking Kirika to the site of their makeshift shooting range, it meant that the prospect of the slight girl
having to wield her gun with deadly intent crept ever closer. It meant soon she would have to kill again.

Mireille's stride quickened somewhat as she and Kirika rounded a corner, their chalk drawn circular target
now just visible off in the distance about twenty metres or so away. As Kirika and her partner came closer,
the girl saw that the target had seen a little more use than she previously remembered. The large white
circle with a smaller one scrawled within looked much the same as several months earlier, but with the
exception of a noticeable increase in the depth of the divot inside the centre ring. Countless bullets had
burrowed their way into the concrete segment of wall surrounded by the chalk loop during Kirika and
Mireille's time as Noir, each of their fired slugs chipping off a fragment of stone until a deep gouge had
been left behind. However, Kirika could see Mireille must have spent additional time down in their dank,
private shooting range during her… absence from her blonde partner's side. She wondered why. Maybe it
had been in preparation for the woman's advent to the Manor to save Kirika from herself. Although she
doubted a single clip's worth of 9mm Parabellum rounds could have created such a marked growth in the
scribbled target's aperture.

"Hmm, this has seen a lot of use," Mireille commented, also taking note of the large crater in the sewer
wall. She walked over to the flashlight lying on the ground nearby--left from their previous visits--and
switched it on, illuminating the wall ahead in a halo of white light and in turn making it clearer to see.
"Perhaps we should find ourselves a new spot?" she proposed, looking back over her shoulder to Kirika
who was standing demurely to her rear.

Kirika shook her head at the suggestion, uttering a diminutive mumble in the negative. While the
rudimentary shooting range was in bad repair; it was *their* shooting range, their special little spot. It
didn't matter the purpose of the chalk drawn target was for exercising her and Mireille's accuracy with
their respective firearms, an exercise that would sooner or later be put into practice against real, flesh and
blood targets. It was a spot that Kirika and Mireille came to alone to perform a joint activity undisturbed; a
private, exclusive spot just for the two of them. Even if the nature of that activity possessed foreboding
undertones, it didn't alter the fact that it and the place they had adopted to carry it out solely belonged to
Kirika and Mireille. *Anything* that Kirika shared with her partner was something she treasured deeply.

Mireille smiled at Kirika warmly. "I don't think so either," she said softly, agreeing with the girl. But as she
spoke the like-minded words Mireille's smile faltered a bit and her eyes shifted over and past her short
partner's shoulders, back to the where they had just treaded only several moments earlier. She looked at
the point where the sewer tunnel's path rounded the corner to the right with a rather wary gaze, as if
half-expecting someone to appear from behind it. Kirika didn't believe anyone would, though. She was
certain she would have detected the reverberations of an interloper's footsteps bouncing off the tunnel's
walls long before they ever came within view; the faintest of noises were amplified tenfold in the old
sewers. They could be utilised as effective early warning signals, which Kirika frequently made use of.

Tearing her eyes away from the corner, Mireille turned around fully to face Kirika, her smile returning to its
former radiance. "I'll go first, okay?" she said, reaching casually into the handbag she had brought with
her and pulling out her loaded Walther P99.

Kirika nodded in acquiesce and obediently took the white and pink striped handbag offered to her by
Mireille to hold while the woman herself brushed up on her shooting skills. The docile girl retreated a
couple of steps to give her partner some space to move, and then simply stood, mutely observing the
blonde.

Mireille spread her legs a fraction and raised her gun in her right hand towards the chalk target on the
sewer wall a dozen or so metres opposite. Bringing up her left hand underneath her right to steady her
aim, she exhaled slowly and then squeezed the trigger of her firearm, sending a round at the small circle
scrawled inside the larger on the wall.
A puff of grey dust near the centre of the target accompanied by the crack of a bullet ricocheting off stone
proved that Mireille's commencing shot was on track, and it was swiftly followed by another puff and
crack, and then another and another; sixteen in total, and all originating from within the middle chalk
circle's boundary. It was evident to Kirika that her partner's accuracy with a gun had not diminished very
much, if it had at all.

Having emptied her Walther's magazine completely into the tunnel wall, Mireille gave a pleased smile at
her flawless performance and nodded to herself in satisfaction. "Your turn," she then said to Kirika as she
turned to the girl, ejecting the expended clip from her gun as she did so.

Kirika returned Mireille's handbag to the woman and then wordlessly swapped places with her, being
careful not to slip on any of the spent casings that littered the ground. However, as she stared at the two
chalk circles ahead of her, Kirika hesitated. She would have to fire her gun--her instrument of murder. It
may have been against an insignificant target drawn on a lifeless wall, but she feared that her simple
willingness to pull the trigger of her weapon at anything--inanimate or otherwise--would be enough to
entice the darkness inside of herself to rise further, and thus weaken her struggle against it. Purely taking
the Beretta from Mireille had been the first step in her journey towards darkness; firing it here and now
would be the second. A second step closer to her other self.

But it was unavoidable, wasn't it? Kirika had to use her gun--if not now, then most definitely later. It would
be better in fact if she tempered the effect of firing it on an inert target rather than a live one. Maybe it
would make it easier to use in the future like before, when she had first met Mireille… but that was exactly
what she was afraid of. The easier it became to wield a weapon, the less her resistance to the darkness
would consequently be.

With a virtually imperceptible sigh, Kirika reached inside her parka's right pocket and retrieved her
Beretta. Already it felt lighter in her grasp than the last time she had held it. Warmer, too--it no longer
numbed the flesh and chilled the bones of her hand.

Kirika was acutely aware of Mireille watching her; her partner's face expressionless, almost cold even. It
conjured up the memories of the first few weeks she had spent with the blonde, when Mireille was
considerably less than affectionate towards her. Kirika didn't like it when Mireille looked at her in that
fashion, especially these days.

Knowing what Mireille was waiting for--what she wanted from her--Kirika slowly levelled her Beretta at the
chalk target on the stone tunnel wall. But then she hesitated once more, her finger resting on the trigger
of the firearm. Under the impassive gaze of Mireille, Kirika summoned her courage and squashed the icy
tendrils of dread that were nesting in the depths of both her stomach and heart into a tiny ball, burying
them away deep inside of herself. Then she flicked off the safety on her gun… and fired.

The first bullet struck dead centre inside the white circle, a perfect hit--a kill shot. Mireille inclined her head
slightly, perhaps approving of Kirika's decision to shoot or her precision with her weapon. Most likely the
former, if not both. Kirika's aptitude in the killing stemmed from her extensive training by Soldats best
under Altena's supervision, which had created a fearsome assassin, one born and bred for murder. Even
if Kirika managed to abstain from utilising her combat abilities for the rest of her life, they would never
dull, not totally. They were a part of who she was, engrained in her every thought and every action.

Before Kirika knew it, the slide of her Beretta had clicked backwards, signifying that her gun was out of
ammunition. A single wisp of smoke rose from the end of the barrel.

"As good as always," Mireille remarked, smiling faintly as she looked at the chalk target, her arms folded.
She appeared pleased. "I suppose I should have expected you wouldn't have any need of practice," she
added a little teasingly, turning her head back to Kirika.

Mireille's comment did not do much to alleviate the sense of defeat in Kirika's heart. Her partner's
accolades concerning Kirika's aptitude as an assassin never invoked much pride in her to begin with.

Kirika popped the depleted clip from her Beretta and slipped it into the left rear pocket of her shorts,
before fishing a fresh one from the right pocket. She reloaded her weapon, snapping the slide of the gun
back into place with a flick of her wrist, chambering a round. The taciturn girl then exchanged hands with
her Beretta M1934, now wielding it in her left. Kirika once again raised the gun and aimed it at the target
drawn on the wall, ignoring the minor twinge of pain that suddenly wracked her left side from her
movement. Her old bullet wound she had sustained below the Manor still gave her some trouble now and
then. But Mireille had assured her it would be completely healed soon.

A single, slightly bemused blonde eyebrow climbed on Mireille's forehead at Kirika's actions, but she
remained silent. It wasn't the first time the woman had seen her do such a thing. After Kirika had
essentially lost the use of her right hand during the incident with Intoccabile, she had sworn to herself to
never be dependant on one hand alone again. As a result, she had practiced shooting with her left hand
at length, until she had become as adept and accurate with it as her right. Being able to wield a gun in
either of her hands had already paid off in the past--once Kirika had simultaneously handled two firearms
against a powerful Taiwanese triad, the added firepower of an extra weapon having been very beneficial
in allowing Mireille to flee from the group's grasp. Although, she'd had some help from Chloe too.

Kirika paused for a moment, and then fired her Beretta at the wall, a second separating each pull of the
trigger. She had decided that she may as well practice with her left hand while she was here at the
shooting range--she had doubted refraining from doing so would have made much difference regarding
her fight against the darkness inside of herself at this point. What were seven more bullets fired, after all?
Besides, if Kirika were to be thrown into a life of sin again, it would be better to be totally prepared. Her
own wouldn't be the only life being put on the line.

After emptying the magazine of her Beretta as perfectly as before when it was held in her opposite hand,
Kirika lowered her weapon to her side. She took a breath, and then released it slowly. It was all right. The
darkness hadn't overwhelmed her like she feared it could have--she hadn't even been aware of it at all, let
alone of it stirring. And she didn't feel very different, either. Kirika was relieved. She was in control. She
would remain as herself, as the girl who loved and cared for Mireille, and not change into the one who
was apathetic to all life, including the woman she was supposed to cherish dearly.

"Are you ready?" Mireille asked, bringing Kirika out of her reverie. "We have somewhere else to be." She
took a step forward and started kicking the expended bullet casings into the sewer water bordering the
path, hiding some of the evidence of their unlawful activity in preparation for their departure.

Kirika nodded, putting her gun back into her parka's right pocket, before joining Mireille in her prudent
task. All would be well.

******

Mireille looked up distastefully at the grimy sign posted above the equally dirty but unmarked door
situated a short distance from the entrance of the deserted alleyway. The plaque was so caked with filth
that only a very small handful of partially smudged letters could be made out, leaving the actual name of
the business a mystery. Not that it mattered. The people who found themselves here already knew what
goods and services the place offered; the storefront was just a cover, after all. But if by chance they
didn't, then they would either move on none the wiser, or satisfy their curiosity by venturing inside. Of
course, all that would greet those particular inquisitive few would be a normal--albeit rundown--shop. It
was *below* the store where the real business was conducted.

With its entrance located within a narrow, seldom traversed cobblestone alley in a rather disreputable part
of Paris, the setting of Simon 'Phayzed' Pierpont's base of operations catered agreeably to its normally
secretive clientele, most of whom preferring to be discreet in their dealings. But Mireille seriously doubted
if any of Simon's other customers were as high profile as herself and Kirika. She suspected most people
who crossed the self-proclaimed hacking guru's threshold were unimportant nobodies simply searching
for illegal digital products and/or computer hardware. Or, if seeking Simon's services, then for frivolous
reasons, such as altering a college exam mark or defaming a website. Simon Pierpont was merely a
minor criminal--a sociopathic delinquent more like--in relation to the big fish who operated in the
underworld, but that was one of the primary reasons Mireille availed herself of his skills, rather than
employing a more notable computer expert with relaxed morals. With Simon's name and vocation having
little repute among those who led shady lives, it meant that Mireille by the same token was granted
obscurity in her transactions with the boy. And a professional assassin could never have too much
obscurity.

Mireille looked away from the sign to Kirika next to her. The girl hadn't spoken so much as a whisper after
leaving the sewer tunnels, but for some reason the blonde felt that her partner's mood had improved
some. While Kirika's disposition was normally quite melancholy, Mireille had detected a slight increase in
the depressive air surrounding her of late. The Corsican had hoped it hadn't been her doing. But after
Kirika's more than adequate performance in their shooting practice session, Mireille wasn't so concerned
about how she was handling their slowly changing lifestyle as much anymore. The stoic girl seemed to be
dealing suitably with it by herself. The fact made Mireille's heart rest easier in her chest. Kirika was a
strong young woman--she had to have been to survive all she had been through with her sanity
reasonably intact. Mireille was sure she would be fine.

Kirika wordlessly met the Corsican's blue eyes, silently signalling her readiness with her own brown orbs.
Mireille pushed the grubby door to Simon's abode open, and then entered, Kirika close on her heels.

The interior of Simon's computer store façade was dreary and musty, the only source of illumination from
several shafts of sunlight that streaked though the thin, grimy windows positioned up near to the ceiling
on the russet walls, and dust motes could be made out swirling in the beams. Rickety shelves lined the
peeling plaster walls and tables with rust clinging to their metal legs like mould were congregated in the
centre of the shop. Most of the shelves and tables were bare, but a few carried items presumably for sale.
Old, outdated computer parts that looked to be from the dawn of the technological era sat decaying on
the furnishings, covered by a thick layer of dust. In the very slim likelihood that they were purchased and
used, Mireille doubted they would even function.

At the far end of the shop was a desk with an old-fashioned register sitting on top, and behind it was
apparently the cashier; a young man in his late teens with long, shoulder length oily black hair and
slovenly clothed who was busy reading a comic book, paying absolutely no notice to his two potential
customers.

All things considered it wasn't the most compelling of computer shops.

Mireille approached the counter while Kirika wandered aimlessly around the store, the girl peering closely
at the filth encrusted motherboards and tiny monitors curiously, a cute expression of interest painted on
her face. Rather than watch her partner's endearing antics, as she would have liked to do, Mireille instead
tried to get the greasy cashier's attention.

"Excuse me," she ventured, "I--"

"All prices are labelled on the merchandise," the youth intoned apathetically in a drawn out sigh, not
moving his eyes so much as even a fraction away from the pages of his comic.

"We are not here for your merchandise," Mireille replied, giving the uninterested cashier a flat stare.
"Rather, we are here for your services. Particular services Simon offers."

The unkempt teen looked up over the edge of his comic at the assassin's words, and then his eyes
widened slightly through his bangs at the sight of the sophisticated and attractive woman standing in front
of his desk, clearly surprised that such a classy person had entered the store.

"Ah, uh…" he stammered dumbly, fumbling with his comic book for a moment and nearly dropping it,
before deciding to wring it in his hands, "j-just go through the door behind me." He motioned weakly with
his head to his rear, while keeping his gaze firmly glued to Mireille, unblinking. The boy acted like he had
never seen a woman before.

"Thank you," Mireille said, and then looked over her shoulder to where Kirika was enthralled with
tentatively prodding a stack of five and a half inch floppy disks. "Kirika," she beckoned, summoning the
girl devotedly to her side.

Mireille opened the door the cashier had indicated, and then preceded down the flight of ratty wooden
steps that descended ahead of her with Kirika in tow, heading into the building's basement where she
knew Simon reclusively dwelled.

Once Mireille reached the bottom of the stairs along with Kirika, the sight that greeted her and her
colleague was wholly different from the one that had on the floor above. It was as if she and Kirika had
been propelled forward in time, technologically speaking. At least a dozen monitors of various sizes were
arranged on a huge, black L-shaped desk fitted with two rows of shelves in the sizable square basement,
along with a myriad of PC towers in a range of shades; some with psychedelic lighting fixtures decorating
the outside of their casings that stood out brightly in the dimness of the room, while others had completely
see-through panes like glass, allowing one to view the computer's inner workings. Countless cables ran
from the desk like dangling spaghetti, before joining one another in a tangled mess carpeting the floor,
almost hiding the grey concrete surface from sight. A number of the cables exited the mass of wiring and
extended to one of many power point adapters connected to several surge-protected wall sockets on
Mireille's left. It was quite the fire hazard in the woman's estimation, electrical surge protectors or no.

Sitting in front of the desk in a heavily cushioned black leather computer chair, typing furiously away on
one of the half-dozen or so keyboards laid out before him, was the boy Mireille had come to meet. Simon
Pierpont, better known by the inane alias 'Phayzed', was a skinny seventeen year old high school dropout
with acne-ravaged features and a shock of faded dyed green hair mixed with his gnarled natural light
brown locks. While the young man was not much to look at--certainly, Mireille did not find his shabby,
frayed clothes and less-than-appealing looks easy on her eyes--he did possess an almost frightening
level of knowledge and expertise regarding all things computer orientated, specifically networks… and
their security. Unfortunately, Simon was still much the immature adolescent male, which made him…
irksome to deal with.

"Software's on the left, music CDs on the right," Simon recited mechanically while he stared intensely at
one of the monitor's screens, referring to the two tables a few feet behind him where rows and rows of
pirate CDs were arranged in trays. "Ten Euros a pop. If some app' takes more than one CD, too bad--it's
ten per CD, not per program, got it? Pay Ezza upstairs. And *no* swiping--" he absently tapped a finger
on a monochrome screened monitor on his desk's highest shelf to his left which displayed the room's
interior--there must have been a security camera positioned somewhere in the upper right hand corner of
the basement, "--I can see all." Mireille questioned his declaration's validity; he hadn't even turned around
to regard his two new arrivals yet, let alone shift his gaze away from the monitor he was seemingly
enraptured with.

"While purchasing a copy of 'Strip Poker V: Bunny Girls Edition' does have its charms," Mireille said dryly,
selecting the title of the first CD that came to her eye from the scores available on the pair of tables,
"we're here on other matters."

"Dude, you have the worst tas--" Simon began, but then abruptly cut off and instead swivelled rapidly
around in his chair to face Mireille and Kirika, clumsily knocking over a stack of CDs piled on his desk in
the process. "Waa!" he wailed, making a feeble attempt to catch the flying discs while his green eyes
remained affixed to his two visitors.

Mireille sighed. Simon hadn't changed much at all. She hoped that he had at least grown a little more
mature… but that may be asking for a miracle.
"M-Mireille!" Simon exclaimed nervously, giving up on salvaging his strewn CDs. "It's been ages! Where
have you been for so long?!"

"I've… been busy," Mireille explained enigmatically, sparing a glance at Kirika for a split second. Simon
didn't know of her profession. In fact, he didn't know much about her at all, beyond the fact that she was a
wealthy and good-looking woman. But in Simon's opinion, that was probably all he really needed to know.
All the better, however; the less he knew about Mireille, the safer the assassin would be. And Simon too
by association.

"Yeah, I bet," Simon remarked suggestively, a leer coming to his pimply features as his eyes raked over
the Corsican's gorgeous figure. "Busy doing *what* exactly…?" He had certainly gotten over his
nervousness fast. A pity. Rather than becoming intimidated by Mireille's elegant presence, it normally
seemed to goad him into becoming a childish lecher, at least after the first few seconds of their initial
meeting.

Pointedly ignoring the insinuation that her secret vocation was that of a high-class prostitute--all but for a
slight twitch of one eyebrow--Mireille decided to get down to business as quickly as possible and with any
luck forgo further distasteful comments on the teen's part. "Nothing that concerns you. We're here for--"

"Hey, who's your little friend?" Simon asked, interrupting Mireille, whose temper took a sharp rise in a
dangerous direction as a result. "She a tourist you're showing around or something?" The boy gestured to
Kirika's t-shirt with the French flag imprinted on it.

Mireille made an irritated 'tsk' sound with her tongue. "No, she's--"

"Oh, then is she your cousin or something? A relative? Your sister?" Simon relentlessly inquired, talking
over the blonde.

Mireille looked at Kirika the same time the quiet girl did likewise at her. Sister indeed! Staring at computer
screens all day and all night must have damaged Simon's eyesight, or frazzled his brains… if he'd had
any to begin with.

"Hey, I'm just curious," Simon said defensively while he made a placating motion with his hands, finally
picking up on Mireille's cold and annoyed disposition. "Every time you've ever came down here you've
been alone. But this time you actually brought someone with you. It's just a little weird, you know?" The
self-proclaimed expert hacker turned his head to look at Kirika, sizing her petite form up. "I guess she
must be pretty important then, right?"

Mireille didn't react in the slightest to the remark, schooling her face to an aloof countenance. She was
certain if she revealed just how important Kirika was to her and consequently exactly how unattainable
she herself was to Simon, it would not decrease his obnoxious comments and crude innuendoes but
rather increase them.

Simon frowned a bit, but not because of the blonde's lack of response. "Doesn't talk much though, does
she?" he said, still gawking at a mute Kirika, who stoically endured his scrutiny. "That's okay; I've never
liked talkative girls that much anyway. They should be doing something more fun with their mouths
instead of yapping." He leaned forward in his seat towards Kirika a little, grinning broadly. The pervert.
Thank goodness the naïve girl was oblivious about such things… or so Mireille fervently hoped.

"Enough of this," Mireille snapped impatiently, and quite angrily. She fought back the urge to take a step
closer to Kirika and drape a possessive arm around the girl's shoulders. "We have come to this decrepit
hole for a specific purpose--which is not to waste time on meaningless chit-chat!" She should have left
Kirika back at the apartment.

"Aw, come on," Simon whined, returning his attention to an irate Mireille. "I don't even know her name
yet!"
"Let's keep it that way," Mireille said sharply, aware of the puzzled looks she was getting from a confused
Kirika.

"What, you're not jealous, are you?" Simon unwisely kept up, a smirk coming to his face that made the
assassin feel nauseous. "You know you're the only woman for me!" Perhaps Mireille should be flattered;
for all his talk she sincerely doubted the lanky teen had ever been with a woman yet. No, on second
thought not flattered--just revolted.

Kirika shifted her feet beside Mireille, eliciting a glance from the blonde woman. But upon looking, the girl
appeared as sedate as ever to her gaze.

"Look!" Mireille said with cold fury as she returned her attention to Simon, her voice full of ice. "We have
business to conduct. *Now*." She reached into her handbag and pulled out a folded piece of paper,
holding it across the two CD display tables to Simon.

The teenager sighed in resignation. "Fine, fine," he relented, snatching the piece of paper out of Mireille's
hand. "What sort of oh-so-boring-yet-incredibly-simple-for-my-mad-skills job do you want me to do?"

Mireille's temper cooled somewhat at Simon's compliance. At last they were making some progress.
"We're searching for two men," she said, before quickly continuing as she noticed the perverted look that
suddenly gleamed in the juvenile's eyes, "two men who arrived in Paris in the last week or so. We need
you to find out the location of their accommodations as soon as possible--the building's address, their
room number--everything. All the details you will need are on that note. There is a high likelihood that
they will be staying at one of the more comfortable hotels in the city--you might want to start searching
through the five-star ones first."

Simon unfolded the piece of paper and studied it with a contemplative expression. "Hmm… that's good.
Not all hotels and motels and stuff have their intranets connected to the Internet; some don't even have
their own network. But the classy ones usually do. It won't be easy though; their firewalls are normally
total fortresses--bitches to bypass." He looked up at Mireille, his countenance becoming quite sly. "It's
gonna cost extra…."

Mireille was prepared for this little eventuality. There was only one thing that interested Simon more than
women and bragging, and that was money. "I'm willing to offer you a bonus of two hundred Euros on top
of your standard one hundred Euro fee," the Corsican said. "For each day that passes, fifty will be
subtracted from it. The faster you get us the information, the more money you will receive."

Simon bobbed his head repeatedly in acceptance as Mireille spoke, but then smiled in such a way that
the blonde knew did not bode well for her mood.

"That's all good, but the 'extra' cost I was thinking of was more along the lines of a date. With you," Simon
said, his grin turning downright cheeky. "You can bring your pal there too, if you want," he added
impudently.

"I think not," Mireille scowled. Perhaps it would be to her benefit if the uncouth boy knew that she was a
contract killer. Maybe then he wouldn't be so quick to rankle her nerves.

"Ah, it was worth a shot," Simon grinned unrepentantly. "'Kay, I'll get on this ASAP." He held out one
hand, the palm facing upwards. "Payment upfront; you know the drill," the youth demanded.

Mireille took out a pair of fifty Euro notes from an ornate silver money clip she had retrieved from her
handbag and placed them in Simon's eager little grasp. In a flash the computer buff shoved the cash into
his jeans' right pocket, moving swiftly enough to rival many a martial artist. Greedy little boy.

"Mireille, you babe, a pleasure as always," Simon said in a sickeningly sweet voice.
Mireille simply turned around and started to walk up the basement's stairs, motioning with a quick and
discreet hand gesture for Kirika to follow. "Email me when you have the information," she said in parting.

"Yep…." Simon replied in an absentminded manner that told the assassin he was more occupied with
ogling her departing rear end. Yes, Mireille would definitely inform him of her occupation the next time
they met. Or at the very least brandish her gun.

******

Mireille took a deep breath of fresh air as she and Kirika left the computer store, glad to have escaped its
stifling confines and Simon's undressing eyes. If she never had to go down to the teen's basement again
it would still be too soon.

"I don't like him."

Mireille turned to look at Kirika as the girl spoke for the first time since leaving the sewers. And then
blinked at what she had actually said.

Kirika raised her head from the cobblestone street she seemed to be glowering--glowering!--at to look at
the blonde woman beside her. "I don't like him," she repeated in the same soft tone.

Mireille simply stared at Kirika for a moment with a surprised and bemused expression wracking her
features, before she smiled indulgently at the normally reticent girl. Was Kirika actually *jealous* at the
attention Simon had unwelcomely bestowed upon Mireille? No, she couldn't be. It was ludicrous. But, she
had to admit, it was very, very sweet.

Before she had even realised that her arm was moving, Mireille had placed a gentle hand on one of
Kirika's slim shoulders. She shook her head slightly, dismissing her partner's rather startling statement
and whatever motive was behind it, the gesture also, however, serving as a temporary distraction to that
well-known uneasy sensation that was creeping into her offending limb. But despite it, Mireille still gave
the darkhaired girl's shoulder a fond if restrained squeeze, her smile turning tender, although all the while
the Corsican secretly discomforted by the familiarity with Kirika she was demonstrating.

"It's almost lunch time; why don't we go to that quaint bistro in St. Germain you like so much?" Mireille
proposed warmly. "Afterwards, we can have ice-cream at that Italian place, hmm?"

Kirika's face lit up at the suggestion and she beamed a bright--yet small--smile at Mireille, before nodding
eagerly and emitting her customary chirp of agreement.

Mireille's smile widened at the cute reaction. "Okay then," she said quietly.

Today might be the last day Mireille and Kirika could spend a genuinely peaceful afternoon together, and
the blonde was determined to take advantage of the dwindling time to its fullest for her partner's sake.
Once Simon tracked down Ryosuke and Vincent, 'Noir' would be instantly thrust down the black path
whether they were ready or not. Or whether they liked it or not. Pleasant, enjoyable times such as having
a quiet lunch together would become a thing of the past. Mireille had truly wanted these times to last, but
it was not meant to be. So now all she could do was cling on to their lingering remnants, squeeze them
for all they were worth, and then savour them, for they would be but memories when her and her partner's
hands were stained with blood once again.



Chapter 4 - First Contact
Mireille picked up her strawberry flavoured club soda and took a long draft from it through the black
plastic straw resting against the glass's rim, next to where the slices of lemon and lime were wedged
solely for aesthetic reasons rather than for enhancing the taste of the drink. She was sitting at the bar in a
small ritzy cocktail lounge found in Le Grand Hotel Inter-Continental in Paris' 9th district, simply nursing
her drink, as she had been doing for the last two hours. The greying bartender didn't seem to mind,
though, appearing to be wholly occupied with polishing glasses and generally looking bored. That was,
when he wasn't ogling Mireille appreciatively out of the corner of his eye or fixing her a fresh drink. He
had attempted to engage her in conversation a couple of times, but Mireille was not one for idle small talk
with strangers, even if the stranger happened to be a bartender with a sympathetic ear. Moreover, Mireille
was playing the waiting game, an inevitable part of being a professional assassin, and it required all of
her attention. Sometimes the woman found such a task wearying on her mind… but patience brought
safety and efficiency.

It was late morning, and the lounge was understandably nearly empty of patrons, save for a trio of men in
business suits sipping mineral waters while they chatted quietly amongst themselves, apparently going
over the several documents that were spread out on the dark, buffed wooden surface of the circular table
they were seated around. But that was one of the main reasons why Mireille had chosen this place to
wait, or rather, spy from. That, and because the cocktail lounge opened out into the busy lobby of Le
Grand Hotel Inter-Continental, acting as a tranquil cove in a roiling sea of bustling people, and
consequently providing a relatively clear view of the comings and goings of all the hotel's visitors; guests
and otherwise. However, the blonde was only interested in two particular guests… two very dangerous
guests.

Simon had emailed Mireille earlier in the morning with the information on Ryosuke Ishinomori and Vincent
Hsu she had requested of him, one full day after she and Kirika had visited the uncouth hacker to make
use of his talents. Mireille dreaded having to go back to the hormonal teen's basement hideaway to pay
him the rest of his due fee, but for the moment that was the last thing on her mind. Through his
meticulous--and illegal--scouring of every five star lodging's guest list across the city of Paris, Simon had
discovered that Ryosuke and Vincent were staying at this very place, Le Grand Hotel Inter-Continental, a
quite lavish hotel that catered to prestigious clientele ranging from foreign diplomats to wealthy and
distinguished overseas visitors; the majority of which having ties to prominent corporations. Kaede
Ishinomori clearly preferred her older brother and his companion to reside in the lap of luxury whilst away
from Japan.

Mireille had phoned the hotel from her apartment to check if Ryosuke and Vincent were within their suite
before coming to the building with Kirika, but the member of staff she had spoken to informed her that the
pair were not answering their telephone--they were seemingly out for the morning and he didn't know
when they would return. That had been fine with Mireille, however. It gave her and Kirika the chance to
visually confirm that the two men were in fact the ones they were looking for before committing
themselves to some sort of decisive action, for instance laying in wait in their quarry's alleged room to
ambush them, as the Corsican assassin had been tempted to do. Thus, here Mireille was, seated on a
bar stool and sampling her fourth club soda of the morning, while patiently staking out the hotel's lobby.

Mireille replaced her half-finished drink on the bar beside her handbag, where it rested with its deadly
payload contained inside, and looked up into the wide mirror mounted on the dusky wood wall panels on
the other side of the bar, behind a series of shelves lined with bottles of expensive liquor and other potent
yet pricey alcoholic beverages. The angle of the mirror bestowed the woman with a more or less
unrestricted line of sight through the milling guests in the foyer--some of whom accompanied by bellhops
wheeling brass luggage carts back and forth--to the hotel's front entrance, allowing her to monitor the
throngs of people who entered the building, and to verify if Ryosuke and Vincent were among them. The
position of the bar also meant that Mireille's back was facing the main entrance, offering her some
welcome concealment from Ryosuke and Vincent's eyes when they happened by while still letting her
perform her surveillance. The blonde wasn't sure whether or not the duo was aware of her and Kirika's
true identity as once being the genuine Noir, or what they looked like even if the men were aware, but she
wasn't taking any chances.
Mireille shifted her wary blue gaze to the reflection in the mirror of the small group of men dressed in
bland suits of three different shades of grey respectively sitting at the table a few feet to her rear. They
looked like typical corporate slaves, their lacklustre ties hanging like nooses around their necks.
Nevertheless, the assassin tired to look beyond the men's mediocre exteriors, noting their mannerisms
and exactly how attentive they really were to the papers laid out before them on their table. While Mireille
didn't truly expect any Soldats minions to be involved with watching Ryosuke and Vincent anymore after
she and Kirika had agreed to assist Breffort--if the man's words could be trusted by even the slightest
degree--it would simply be foolish to ignore her surroundings just because she was looking out solely for
two specific individuals. Still, despite Breffort's assurances that there would be no support from him to aid
Mireille and Kirika in their mission to deal with Kaede's false Noir beyond intelligence, it did not rule out
the possibility that agents loyal to the high-ranking Soldats member could be observing the Corsican and
her Japanese counterpart without their knowledge. Certainly, Mireille wouldn't put it past Breffort to keep
an eye on his little 'investment'. The prospect made her somewhat edgy. It would be best not to think
about it--it might facilitate to relax her already stressed nerves--but unfortunately that wasn't an option for
Mireille. She had to stay sharp; her and Kirika's confidential benefactor could be just as dangerous as
Kaede's Black Hands…if not more so.

Mireille's eyes unconsciously drifted away from the cluster of men and up to the image of her diminutive
partner near the top of mirror, as if they were inescapably attracted to it like a moth to flame. Kirika was
sitting alone in a corner booth at the back of the cocktail lounge with a glass of barely touched orange
juice on the table in front of her. Mireille had instructed the darkhaired girl to situate herself there, as it
would permit her to survey the rest of the hotel's lobby that was out of the Corsican's field of vision; the
section stretching from the middle of foyer all the way to the front desk and the concierge's desk a few
feet to the left of it. Between the two of them they had maximum coverage of Le Grand Hotel
Inter-Continental's lobby, and in turn virtually all of the ground-level entryways into the hotel. They would
not let Ryosuke and Vincent slip by them.

But Mireille had not separated from Kirika purely for that reason. It was also another defence against the
likelihood that Ryosuke and Vincent knew of their identity. If they did, then they would no doubt be on
guard for two young women travelling together--not alone. It was a trifling precaution in retrospect, but
every little bit that would mask Mireille and Kirika's presence from their targets' view helped to bolster the
pair's sense of security… well, in the Corsican's case at any rate.

Mireille released a soft breath as she saw Kirika's eyes once again negligently turn astray from the hotel
lobby and focus on her instead. That had to be the twentieth time now, the blonde thought with some
exasperation. The quiet girl had been alternating between scrutinising the lobby--like she was *supposed*
to be doing--and staring at Mireille's back for most of the time they had been here. Her wavering focus
was starting to chafe the woman's nerves, more so than they already were. Kirika was always meant to
watch her back--it went without saying--but not literally… at least not in this instance, anyway.

Kirika hadn't been very amiable to the idea of splitting up when Mireille had introduced it to her. While the
introverted girl had outwardly appeared her customary reserved self, inwardly Mireille had been able to
tell that she was not content with the situation. But it had mattered not. It was unavoidable; safety came
first. In actual fact Mireille wouldn't have minded Kirika to be sitting on a barstool by her side at this very
moment. But that was a self-centred desire, one that stemmed from her heart, and it had no room in the
mindset of an assassin.

Mireille crossed her legs and retrieved her half-full club soda from the bar in one hand, at the same
moment she dropped her gaze from the reflection of her partner in the mirror, now only able to make out
the petite form on the very edge of her vision. In truth, Mireille herself shouldn't be affording Kirika so
much of her own attention either. But for some reason she couldn't seem to help it. She knew why, of
course. She wasn't that self-deluding. But she favoured not to address the reasons why, not directly in
any event. It was best not to. Not now, not when she was on an exceedingly important and indisputably
soon to be perilous assignment with her counterpart. Mireille couldn't let those kinds of thoughts cloud her
mind. She needed to concentrate on the mission.
Nevertheless, Mireille's thoughts quickly strayed to Kirika despite her--admittedly rather
half-hearted--efforts to the contrary. Or more accurately, strayed to the memories of her and Kirika's final
peaceful time together spent the day before yesterday, a last farewell to living in the light of the world
before returning to the dark. The pair had had lunch together in Kirika's favourite café as promised after
their meeting with Simon in his basement abode, and later during the evening they'd had a quiet candlelit
dinner in a low lighted restaurant situated in the vicinity of the Seine River. Mireille had enjoyed both
meals immensely, but there had been an unspoken subdued air cloistering the pleasurable atmosphere
that would have otherwise enveloped them comfortingly in its pleasant embrace, allowing them to forget
what path lay ahead for a time and instead simply relish the here and now.

But there could be no forgetting. Indeed, the precise knowledge of exactly what dark path lay ahead of
them had caused Mireille and Kirika's last peaceful outing to be hampered by bleak thoughts and little
conversation, especially on the lithe girl's part. It was as if growth in Mireille and Kirika's relationship was
proceeding in reverse now, slowly but surely shrivelling, the expansive wall of silence intermingled with
detachment that had existed once before between the two rebuilding itself gradually brick by brick. Kirika
was starting to clam up again, hardly even voicing so much as a hint of what was on her mind
anymore--whatever progress Mireille had made with drawing the girl out of her shell was deteriorating bit
by bit in concord with the reconstructing wall. The woman had tried to rekindle the usual ambiance
between herself and her partner, but all her labours had fallen flat, met with only an absent nod or
restrained mumble. It was frustrating and at the same time disheartening. Mireille wasn't sure what to
do… except carry out Breffort's assignment. She hoped that after Kaede's false Noir had departed from
this world--their passage hastened by her and Kirika's hands--that everything would return to the way it
had been before. Mireille didn't want to think what she would do if she and her diffident counterpart failed
to fully recapture their slightly more than friendly appreciation of one another.

Mireille took a deep swig of her soda--not even bothering to use the straw--tilting her head back and
swallowing a series of mouthfuls of the sweet beverage in quick succession, polishing off her drink. She
put down her now empty glass on the bar with a disenchanted sigh, the pillar of ice cubes remaining
inside emitting a faint clinking noise. She wished she had been quaffing something with more kick, no
matter the time of day--a vodka and lemonade for instance, or at the very least a white wine. Basically
anything that would help to loosen the tension in her muscles and alleviate the strain on her mind.

Mireille sighed once more. She didn't need the mirror to know that Kirika was still looking in her direction;
she could practically feel the darkhaired girl's eyes roving her back. Mireille was starting to think that
Kirika had become too adjusted to the quiet life, in spite of her prior performance in their sewer tunnel
shooting range the day before last. Neither of them could afford to get sloppy, especially now. Kirika's
discontent on the state of affairs would just have to be ignored for the time being. Still, a part of Mireille
wondered if becoming accustomed to a lifestyle free of violence and death was such a bad thing.

******

Kirika was seated sedately on the curved, lush couch of a snug booth in the corner of Le Grand Hotel
Inter-Continental's cosy lobby cocktail lounge, her waiflike frame dwarfed by the large compartment
enclosing her, further emphasised by they way she sank into its puffy burgundy-coloured cushions. A tall,
slender glass of freshly squeezed orange juice sat in front of her on a small round table. It tasted good
and was refreshing, but Kirika had hardly taken more than a few sips. She didn't have much of a thirst this
morning. But she supposed that wasn't very surprising, all things considered. This was it. The hunt--it had
begun. And soon after, so would the violence. And the killing.

While a part of Kirika was dreading her and Mireille's impending showdown with Ryosuke and Vincent,
another part of her was eager to get it over with as quickly as possible, almost fervently so. She wanted
her and her partner's return to a life of murder to be but the briefest of tastes, a mere brush of bloodshed.
Truly, it should be a simple brush. Two bullets fired for two lives taken. Just two. It would not only be
efficient, but it would be exceptionally swift. What was one or two shots fired from her gun, after all? What
was the blood of one or two more people on her hands? One or two more sins added to the long list
already scrawled in black under her name? What difference would those minor misdeeds compared to
the weight of her countless other crimes make in her struggle for her very being against the dark,
heartless presence that skulked inside of herself? In all honesty, did any of it really matter in the slightest
after all the atrocities she had done during her years of life?

Kirika eyelids suddenly grew heavy, her gentle brown eyes turning even more sombre than normal. Yes,
it did. It mattered to *her*. And for that precise reason it mattered to the darkness also. Kirika had read
once that violence begets violence, and her darkness thrived on it in a similar fashion. Any form or degree
of violent behaviour on Kirika's part would foster its emergence on the surface of her heart and mind,
enticing it ever more to engulf the girl and take her body as its own vessel of destruction. It was
something Kirika must prevent from happening at all costs. If her will was overpowered, all of her qualms
about killing would vanish like snuffed candlelight, and the slayings that would be committed with her as a
powerless puppet would most likely be considerable and horrific. And Mireille would be placed in danger
too. No, Kirika *must* remain steadfast; her determination to stay in control must never falter. And
certainly not now, not when she would once again be entering a life where ending them was a common
occurrence.

Kirika's solemn but alert gaze wandered away from the far end of the hotel's lobby that she was meant to
be watching for any signs of the false Noir, and focused on Mireille's back instead, only the slim woman's
rear visible to her from where the blonde was seated at the bar. Kirika knew she should be assiduous to
her assigned duty--she and Mireille were hunting formidable foes, after all--but her eyes just weren't able
to stay fixed on one spot for more than a handful of minutes without returning to the sight of her older
partner, hunched slightly over her drink with her striking but dour blue gaze lowered to the bar's surface.

Kirika watched Mireille impassively as the woman lifted her drink to her mouth and tilted back her head,
draining what remained of the beverage in a small number of abrupt mouthfuls, before she resumed her
former despondent posture on her barstool. Mireille didn't look to be in very good spirits. Her slouched
bearing gave off a nearly visible aura of gloom to Kirika, and what the girl could make out of her
expression in the mirror on the other side of the bar was positively grim. And cold.

Kirika's own shoulders slumped dejectedly, as if a sudden weight had been draped around them,
matching her partner's own. She wondered how Mireille felt about the change in their lives, or more
accurately the imminent change. Would she miss the peace that had existed in their daily lives? Would
she miss living each day as an average person would, void of atrocious violence and vicious murder?
Initially Kirika had believed so, but now she wasn't so sure. She had thought Mireille had liked living a
simple life with her, a normal lifestyle, but in hindsight she had just been hoping as much. Certainly
Mireille appeared to enjoy the peace, but Kirika had seen her when she checked her email for new
contracts on her computer. The woman's visage had always looked… patient, and yet somewhat forlorn,
too. Mireille didn't possess the same misgivings about being an assassin--a killer--as Kirika did. The
blonde had just abstained from performing such nefarious deeds for her sake, while she recovered from
her injuries received at the Manor and, unknowingly to Mireille, from the psychological trauma of losing
herself to the darkness. The first weeks back in Paris had been difficult for Kirika, but knowing that Mireille
felt the same way about her as she did for the woman had aided in lessening the impact of having
regressed to the sinister persona that had ruled her for most of her young life.

But now that recuperation period was over--Kirika's mind and body had mended all but fully. Kirika no
longer needed to be coddled. And with the emergence of another potential enemy--originating once again
from Soldats no less--it was a harsh prompt to return to their previous way of life; the life of murderers.
Already Mireille seemed to be lapsing back into her old manner.

Yesterday and for half the day before Kirika had spent all of her time with Mireille, doing activities they
had normally indulged in after returning home to Paris; ones that ordinary people do and take for granted.
But while they had all been pleasant and enjoyable--all time spent with Mireille was--Kirika had sensed
that the woman was a little distracted, distant even, her customary mask of aloofness slipping over her
features slightly and furthermore affecting her behaviour. Her partner's detached mood had impinged on
Kirika's own, smothering it until the quiet girl could scarcely raise her head or utter more than two words.
As a result, a damper had been put on the general atmosphere between her and Mireille; one Kirika had
been acutely aware of and still was.

Kirika's saddened brown eyes fell away from Mireille to the tabletop where her orange juice sat, observing
the trickles of condensation roll down the outside of the clear glass to pool around its base. She
wondered if Mireille actually liked the life of a professional killer… and if the woman liked it more than a
peaceful life with her.

Suddenly Kirika felt very lonely sitting in the corner booth all by herself. It no longer seemed cosy, but
rather stifling. Picking up her still near full glass of juice, Kirika guzzled down the cool liquid in rapid gulps,
consuming the drink completely… and giving her an excuse to leave her post to seek another from the
bar, where a certain blonde woman was currently seated.

Kirika scooted out from the booth and, with her empty glass in hand, approached the cocktail lounge's
bar. Mireille's head moved a margin at Kirika's movement, and her shoulders tensed a little, but otherwise
the blonde did not react, not even to the girl's proximity when she stood adjacent to her, closer than a
mere stranger would, as they were expected to be.

Kirika placed her glass on the bar and motioned to the lethargic bartender to get his attention, her bare
arm almost brushing Mireille's equally uncovered one with the action, the minute, imperceptible hairs on
their skin catching each other's and causing an electric sensation.

Mireille shifted her weight on her stool and edged a fraction away from Kirika before resettling herself, still
not looking in the darkhaired girl's direction.

Kirika ordered another fruit juice; a pineapple one this time. As the bartender shuffled behind the bar,
busying himself with fetching her drink--and in obviously no hurry--Kirika turned to Mireille, actually glad
that the man's laziness would give her a chance to perhaps speak to her partner for a moment or two.

"Mirei--" she started, but to her surprise, was immediately cut off by the blonde assassin.

"You're rusty," Mireille said in a low murmur--her lips barely moving--while she used her straw grasped
delicately in between her thumb and forefinger to idly swirl around the remains of the melting ice cubes in
her glass in front of her. But Kirika heard the words perfectly--loud as if the woman were shouting them
and clear as if she had articulated every syllable. And they cut like a knife.

Kirika closed her mouth and her head sank, suddenly having trouble keeping her chin up. She was
thankful when her pineapple juice was ready in the subsequent minute; it meant she could go back to her
seat and escape the upsetting situation she had naively walked into. After paying for the beverage with
some of the money Mireille had given her for that specific purpose, Kirika returned with it and crestfallen
steps to the sanctuary of the booth.

Maybe it was in Mireille's very nature to be an assassin, a part of who she was. Maybe it was in Kirika's
too. But the girl certainly didn't feel that it was, despite the lethal skills she possessed. Perhaps the notion
of a quiet, peaceful life for the rest of her and her partner's days had been but a fantasy. Nevertheless,
whatever Mireille's outlook of the future, Kirika would respect it and the blonde assassin's wishes and
stick by her no matter what. Mireille was the woman she loved; she could *not* and would *not* be parted
from her, not again, even if it meant living a life bloated and corrupt with sin.

Still.... Kirika hoped that Ryosuke and Vincent would show up soon.

******

Mireille stared hard into her glass as she stirred the now deformed ice cubes inside with her straw, the
blocks slowly liquefying in the temperature of the lounge. She looked at the thawing remnants of the ice
cubes and the shallow pool of water they dwelled in as if the sight held the answers to all of the mysteries
of the universe. Or at the very least, the knowledge of how to properly handle Kirika.
Mireille scowled in irritation, her annoyance directed squarely at herself. She shouldn't have been so
abrasive to Kirika, even if the girl did seem to be somewhat out of form. But in this unforgiving business, it
was better if one put their personal feelings aside until an assignment was finished. A soft heart had no
place on the black path. But even so, Mireille could have at least paid for Kirika's drink--just a small
gesture to appease the girl and silently indicate that she was aware of and sympathised with her
apprehension regarding their transition from the light to the dark.

Just as Mireille was debating whether or not she should throw caution into the wind and take a breather
from surveying the front part of the hotel's lobby to join Kirika, even if for but a moment--she was looking
quite downcast sitting all alone in the corner of the lounge, more so than normal--in the reflection of the
wall mirror the woman spotted their targets finally returning to Le Grand Hotel Inter-Continental.

While looking much like they had in their photos included in Breffort's intelligence report, Ryosuke
Ishinomori and Vincent Hsu both entered the hotel's foyer in entirely dissimilar manners. Ryosuke strode
into the building with long, sure strides as was befitting a man of his tall physique, dressed almost exactly
how he had appeared in each and every surveillance snapshot Mireille had studied diligently the day
before last. Oddly, in spite of his brisk movement, the broad twin tails of the man's jet-black coat did not
flutter or even so much as quiver in the slightest. Instead the entire glossy garment hung rigidly on his
slender frame, all but totally immobile. It made for a peculiar spectacle.

Conversely, Vincent practically waltzed into Le Grand Hotel Inter-Continental with a swaggering gait and
his hands stuffed in his pants' pockets, smiling brightly, and shamelessly turning his head to follow the
path of every pretty woman who walked by, his smile widening and becoming all the more dazzling in
relation to the passer-by's level of beauty. Whereas his companion nearly resembled all of his
photographs down to a tee, Vincent did apparently have a fashion sense beyond the lone colour black.
Garbed in a dark purple suit, a lavender satin shirt, and a pale yellow tie decorated with a black, spiralling
pattern, Vincent's flashy exterior and flamboyant demeanour certainly drew one's eye, be it appreciative
or appalled. The majority of the admiring gazes originated from the female onlookers, and Mireille had no
doubt that the fair skinned man's gorgeous looks had more than a little something to do with that.

The flocks of people rushing around the foyer parted before Ryosuke and Vincent, either intimidated by
the statuesque white-haired and black-clad hitman, or in an effort to shun his garishly clothed and showy
partner. Or perhaps a combination of the two. However, Mireille was another case completely. She and
her own partner had a job to do and an urgent objective to accomplish, the result of the latter shaping
how their lives would be lived for the foreseeable future. Mireille earnestly prayed that everything would
go smoothly… for Kirika's sake.

Mireille grabbed her handbag from the bar and then slid off her stool to the floor, before casually yet
smartly making her way out of the cocktail lounge, her high-heeled boots clicking sharply with her hurried
pace. Her blue gaze snapped to her right to ensure that Kirika was moving too--the girl had to have
noticed Ryosuke and his comrade's arrival, even if she was somewhat distracted--and after confirming
that fact to be true, she began to tail the false Noir, making sure that she kept a prudent distance between
herself and her prey, along with a screen of flowing people for additional protection. Kirika would be
traversing her own route after the two men separate from Mireille--the blonde had thought it wise to
maintain the charade of being strangers to one another until the hostilities started; at that point there
would be no question that they were affiliated.

Mireille lost Kirika in the crowd while she kept her attention on their targets, but she was not worried. They
had a plan, after all. The Corsican paused nonchalantly by a vacant payphone at the same time Ryosuke
and Vincent stopped at the hotel's front desk. The Chinese man chatted sociably to the female
receptionist there for a couple of minutes--saying something that made her noticeably blush and smile
prettily--before the pair set off once again, this time heading for the row of silver elevators inlaid in a
brass-coloured solid marble wall festooned with chaotic whorls of white, black and grey engrained within
the stone.
Mireille resumed shadowing Kaede's Black Hands at the same instant the men themselves started
moving again, weaving gracefully amid lavishly dressed guests and crisply uniformed staff alike, carefully
making certain to have significant cover in the form of people in the event Ryosuke or Vincent happened
to look over their shoulders. She saw the duo step into one empty elevator, closing the shiny doors
quickly to block out any others from riding it. They must like their privacy.

Mireille took a second to look up at the elevator's floor indicator mounted above its shut doors as the
golden and ornate arrow ticked upwards. She couldn't be absolutely certain her targets were returning
directly to their suite--she would just have to take a gamble. If she waited to see what level the pair's
elevator actually stopped on they would end up leaving her behind and subsequently elude her, and
Kirika to boot.

Mireille hurriedly entered a different elevator that's doors were just slipping closed, and pressed the
button for the floor Ryosuke and Vincent's room was on. After waiting for what felt like hours but in reality
was less than a minute, the elevator arrived at level five and the blonde disembarked swiftly, her eyes
discreetly but feverishly darting this way and that to sight her prey once again. She caught a brief flicker
of a black ponytail bobbing around a corner of an adjoining hallway to her left, and then quickly chased
after it, trotting the few metres to the intersection to narrow the escalating gap between herself and the
men.

Mireille trailed behind Ryosuke and Vincent as all three travelled down a red-carpeted corridor devoid of
other people, dark and varnished wooden doors that led to guestrooms arranged periodically on either
side. She recognised the course they were taking. It appeared that the false Noir were returning to their
shared suite as predicted. Perfect. It was all going according to plan.

Mireille and Kirika had taken the opportunity to learn the basic layout of the fifth floor of Le Grand Hotel
Inter-Continental while they were waiting for Ryosuke and Vincent to arrive. Knowing the environment
where the inevitable hit was to take place in advance was a judicious practice for a professional assassin,
and one that Mireille adhered to when the chance or resources were available. It allowed for more
detailed preparation, and hence a more neat operation, which the Corsican preferred--equally so for this
assignment also.

Ryosuke and Vincent rounded another corner that led to the hallway where their room was to be found,
leaving Mireille's line of sight. The woman tried not to increase her step to catch up. The moment was
looming; she could not jeopardise the plan's success now.

Mireille followed after the two men, and saw that they had arrived at the white double doors to their
expensive suite; still evidently oblivious to the threat she posed. The moment had come, or at least was
about to. Kirika should be hiding at the other end of the hall, out of sight for now, but would soon be
approaching the enemy as Mireille was continuing to do unabated. The plan was to sandwich Ryosuke
and Vincent from opposite sides, and, at the precise second when the pair crossed the threshold to their
hotel room, Mireille would execute the man closest to her at the same instant Kirika would do likewise,
before dumping the bodies in the privacy of the suite and leaving them to be discovered by
housekeeping. And of course by then, the culprits for the mysterious murders would have been long
gone. Clean and efficient, just how Mireille liked it.

Suddenly, to Mireille's alarm, Ryosuke and Vincent paused in opening the doors to their room and
appeared to discuss something, before proceeding to look back the way they had come… right in her
direction.

Mireille, an experienced and highly skilled assassin, did not react in the least to their scrutiny, easily
curbing the urge to freeze like a deer caught in headlights. Instead, she kept on walking at a steady pace
as to not arouse their suspicion, even when Ryosuke and Vincent started retracing their steps, coming
ever closer towards her. It looked like they did not recognise her, however, or without a doubt they would
have been drawing weapons at that very moment… unless they wanted her to believe that and lure her in
into an ambush. A trickle of perspiration ran down the middle of the woman's back at the dire concept.
As Mireille passed by the duo on Vincent's left, she couldn't prevent her eyes from shifting circumspectly
to look at the attractive man; out of caution or trepidation, she wasn't certain which. To her surprise and
disquiet, she was met with the twin amber halos of Vincent's soft yet stunning eyes accompanied by a
small, enticing smile on his features; one he most likely used to charm many a woman while his gentle
gaze put his 'victim' at ease. The combination held little sway over Mireille, though, no matter how
especially gorgeous it made the man appear. She was more worried about the actual motivation behind
the expression. Did Vincent--and therefore his partner, too--know her? Did he know the identities of the
ones who rightfully held the title of Noir? Was it a smug smile that spelled impending doom for her? Or
was it honestly just a pleasant one made to a beautiful woman who was walking by?

The muscles in Mireille's shoulders knotted anxiously. If she acted now, then she would definitely incur
Vincent and Ryosuke's aggression, regardless of whether they really knew her or not. But if she didn't and
the men did truly recognise her, then her hesitation would grant them an opening to strike first… a strike
that Mireille doubted she would survive through.

After what felt like an eternity to Mireille, she at last progressed past Vincent and Ryosuke and then
continued walking down the corridor, this time away from the men, but now with her vulnerable back to
them…. A tempting target if they did know her face. But Kirika was still concealed around the corner
ahead of her, a comforting--if unseen--presence. The blonde's dependable partner had evidently astutely
decided to remain behind cover in the safety of the bordering hallway when she had seen the false Noir
begin backtracking.

Mireille felt the tightness diminish in her shoulders. Good girl. Kirika would guard her back. And it also
meant that they could salvage their plan with a few alterations, even if it would now be a little slapdash.
Traces of blood would be left on the hallway's carpet after the modified plan was implemented, and the
resulting pair of corpses would have to be dragged hastily into hiding before any witnesses happened by.
Mireille disliked hauling dead bodies around, but there would be no other choice--she and Kirika would
need time to make their escape without an alarm being sounded before they'd had a chance to evacuate
the building.

As Mireille crossed into the adjoining corridor, she turned her head a fraction to the left and made eye
contact with Kirika who was positioned with her back against the wall just by the T-junction, her silenced
Beretta held in both her hands, its extended barrel directed up to the ceiling. There were no other people
in sight, but the blonde had expected as much as soon as she had seen her partner armed--the girl would
not have revealed her weapon otherwise.

Mireille met Kirika's gaze for but a split second, yet it was enough time to convene her intentions with a
mixture of a hard look and slight swing of her head back down the hallway she had just navigated. The
woman knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that her counterpart would understand totally. Mireille and
Kirika could tell what the other was thinking--within reasonable limits--mostly through each other's eyes. It
was something that the two had been able to do from quite early in their association, and it had been a
useful ability on several occasions, especially when on assignment, allowing them to predict each other's
moves and subsequently work in harmony. Mireille had never given it much consideration; it had always
transpired intuitively between her and Kirika, without so much as a hint of conscious effort. As if it were…
natural for them.

Suddenly, with her long blonde locks fanning out widely behind her, Mireille broke the look with Kirika and
spun around back the way she had come, pulling out her fully loaded Walther P99 from her handbag in
one hand in the same fluid motion; a silencer attached to the gun. In perfect sync with the blonde
assassin, Kirika made her move also, darting out from behind the wall with her Beretta M1934 raised in
her hands, and placing herself in a ready stance beside her equally primed partner.

However, much to Mireille's horror, what greeted her and Kirika were not the defenceless backs of their
oblivious targets, but rather a happily smiling Vincent brandishing dual Beretta Elites, one wielded in each
hand, and both pointing straight at them. Ryosuke stood stationary a step behind his comrade, his back
still to Mireille and Kirika, but now looking slightly over his left shoulder at the duo, a single violet eye able
to be made out through his dangling white bangs a head above Vincent, watching the unfolding scene
with languid interest.

Mireille registered this information in a tenth of a second before instinctively throwing herself behind the
cover of the wall to her left, Kirika doing likewise opposite to her, just as Vincent began unloading
steaming lead her and her partner's way with no regard to the glaring and undesirable attention the loud
gunfire would attract.

Bullets pounded into the wall at the end of the corridor near to Mireille, tearing shards of wood and plaster
free to rain down to the floor, before Vincent shifted his aim, directing fire at the woman's position. The
Corsican assassin could hear the rounds hammering close to the edge of the wall she was hiding behind
and could also detect a hint of the acrid smoke produced by their prior discharge from the firing chamber
of one of the two Elites. The barrage effectively pinned her in place, unable to return fire without putting
herself in Vincent's sure sights.

While the onslaught continued relentlessly, Mireille took the opportunity to spare a glance to her partner
where the girl was taking cover on the other side of the T-junction across from her. Kirika was leaning with
her back up against the wall and with her eyes tightly shut, while the top of her gun touched
perpendicularly against her forehead, the darkhaired girl looking as if she were in deep meditation.
Indeed, she appeared wholly undisturbed by the hail of bullets riddling the wall just around the corner
from her, a multitude of holes now defacing its surface. It was as if Kirika was in another place entirely,
but where, Mireille could not say.

Abruptly, Mireille heard the shooting gradually ease, and she transferred her focus from her partner's
peculiar quirks to the peril at hand. Knowing that this was the moment she had been waiting for, she
dropped to one knee into a crouch, letting go of her handbag in the same motion, then leaned out from
around the bullet-ravaged corner, holding her Walther in a secure grip with two hands.

As the blonde did so, she saw that the cause of the ebbing gunfire was that Vincent had emptied one of
his Elites, and was now dividing his remaining shots between Mireille and Kirika's locations, seeking to
still keep them at bay albeit with his halved firepower. The gaudily dressed man steadily retreated all the
while he maintained his vigilant, if somewhat manic, gaze on his would-be killers' positions, his smile no
longer happy but seeming forced, now a rather nasty rictus marring his once attractive features. Ryosuke
on the other hand walked down the hallway with apparent calm, not so much as even looking in his
assailants' directions. He was either extremely brave or extremely arrogant. Perhaps both.

Mireille squeezed the trigger of her weapon in rapid succession, firing a trio of muted rounds at the pair of
withdrawing men, hoping to put down at least one of them before they made it to the shelter of the
intersection at the end of the hall… and before anybody came to investigate the racket of the gunfight.

But, to her dismay, her shots hit nothing but wood and plaster. Vincent had stooped low as soon as
Mireille appeared from cover, and then scurried with alacrity behind Ryosuke, as if wishing to use the tall
man as an impromptu shield. His fast and quite unexpected manoeuvre had been enough to throw off the
Corsican's concentration and hence her aim, however, sparing him from kissing lead, much to the
blonde's displeasure.

Desperately questing to remedy that fact at least in the case of one of the false Black Hands, Mireille
shifted her attention to Ryosuke, just as he was about to disappear behind the protection of the far
neighbouring corridor; his partner already having taken advantage of his screening body to do as much.
She fired a short series of rounds at the white-haired man as he began rounding the corner after a
scampering Vincent, all but one connecting with their target's exposed back. Mireille felt grim satisfaction
start to rise up inside her at her success but it was rudely dashed aside as she saw, to her shock,
Ryosuke react as if nothing had struck him at all, the man continuing to walk along placidly until he
vanished down the other hallway. She had been certain she'd hit him, willing to swear on it even, but
evidently she had been mistaken or Ryosuke would be lying in a growing pool of his own blood and not
escaping instead. Mireille must really be getting careless to miss such a clear shot.

Mireille shook her head in frustration and lowered her gun a fraction, inwardly cursing at how things had
played out. While she was debating on whether or not to pursue Ryosuke and Vincent, she looked over to
where Kirika was. The girl had slid down the wall and was now sitting with her knees drawn up to her
chest, her eyes remaining shut and her firearm still resting against her forehead. She appeared more like
a frail young girl than ever, albeit one armed with a gun. Mireille couldn't remember hearing the sound of
a Beretta M1934 joining her Walther P99 and Vincent's two M92F Elites during the firefight--Kirika hadn't
fired a single round.

Mireille stared at Kirika expressionlessly for a few moments, and then suddenly grabbed her discarded
handbag and angrily shoved her Walther back into its confines. The woman knew their opportunity was
lost. Someone would have heard all of the fierce gunfire. People were probably rushing to this very spot
right this second, security personnel--or worse, the police--with them. Mireille could already hear faint
shouts echoing down the hallways. She and Kirika had better simply run. They had failed.

******

Kirika watched emotionlessly as Mireille stormed into the living room of their apartment and hurled her
handbag on the billiard table, sending several pool balls careering away atop Breffort's documents to
ricochet wildly off the rubber sides. The blonde started to pace heatedly back and forth beside the green
table, her heels beating a tattoo on the floor and her countenance one of acute distaste, while Kirika
settled herself back against a wall and continued to stoically observe her partner's tirade.

"We've blown our best chance to end this," Mireille spat furiously, glaring hard at the wooden floorboards.
"If they didn't know what we looked like before, they certainly do now!" She halted her agitated march, still
frowning at the floor. "They still might not be aware that we were once the true Noir, however," the woman
went on in a quieter tone, more to herself than to Kirika. "Small comfort, but it's something."

Mireille resumed her pacing, muttering to herself in a low voice below Kirika's threshold of hearing, before
stopping at the end of the billiard table, leaning on it with her hands gripping either side tightly, her
knuckles white. Mireille stared down at its felt surface with unseeing blue eyes, as if looking through the
documents and pool balls scattered haphazardly on it. She then paused in her private rant and turned her
head to Kirika, her expression seeming lost somewhere between anxiousness and sadness. But the look
lasted only a brief instant before it vanished as she turned back to the billiard table to scowl at Breffort's
papers, fuming silently.

With Mireille's outburst apparently out of steam for the time being, Kirika pushed off the wall, deciding to
leave the blonde alone for a bit and brew some tea to help soothe her temper. "I'll make some tea," she
declared softly, before walking past Mireille, heading for the kitchen.

Mireille merely nodded absently and mumbled an acknowledgement, not moving from her position.

As Kirika went about filling the kettle with water in the kitchen, she thought back to today's earlier events.
She couldn't help but be relieved at what had happened. She was glad Mireille had not been harmed, but
she was also glad she hadn't needed to fire her gun at someone. Kirika had hesitated when the shooting
started, loath to touch the darkness inside of herself. But in truth, she had touched it when she had burst
out of cover with Mireille to confront Ryosuke and Vincent… but only fleetingly. She had recoiled after that
first contact, her will to fight abandoning her outright as a result. Kirika didn't know whether Mireille had
noticed her reluctance, but she hoped the blonde had not--she didn't want her partner to think she had let
her down by not supporting her. She never wanted to disappoint Mireille.

Nevertheless, Kirika was conscious that this was only a temporary reprieve. She would have to fight
eventually; sooner now, with Ryosuke and Vincent aware of her and Mireille. Dealing with the two men
would be even more difficult and in turn more dangerous in the future. Ultimately, Kirika's resistance
would not be able to last forever… it would be kill or be killed.
Chapter 5 - Dissolving Lives


Ryosuke Ishinomori was seated on a cream, elaborately embroidered loveseat, stoically watching his
partner with dead violet eyes struggle back and forth from the bedroom to the sitting room, hauling their
luggage as he went, in preparation for their hasty departure from Le Grand Hotel Inter-Continental. It had
been less than an hour since two more Soldats operatives had attempted to assassinate him and Vin, but
Ryosuke would have preferred it if they had already departed the hotel. Their location had been clearly
compromised by the foul society, and due to his overeager companion's typical zeal, a huge ruckus had
erupted in the building. A mass exodus of panicked guests was underway as this very moment, one that
Ryosuke and Vin were readily taking advantage of to check out of their accommodations themselves
without seeming overly suspicious. The Parisian Metropolitan Police force had not yet arrived to cordon
off the crime scene immediately outside their doors, which was definitely in Ryosuke and Vin's favour
also--the local authorities would surely wish to question them because of their room's close proximity to
the area where the prior shootout took place. The two assassins already had Soldats on their backs; they
didn't need the Police clambering atop them too.

Ryosuke bent forwards in his seat and rested his forearms on his knees. He was still garbed in his
customary black coat, as he normally was most of the time, especially when away from the relative
security of his quarters at home. The tails of the ebony garment folded strangely around him on the sofa,
rigidly, while the remainder hung heavily about his shoulders. But it was a reassuring weight to the
hardened hitman; indeed, it was a protective one.

Ryosuke rolled his left shoulder, where he knew a cluster of putrid purple, almost black bruises had
erupted and already fully ripened in the short period since they had been sustained, attempting to relieve
some of the stiffness in the joint. The bruises ached in a constant hum, but not uncomfortably so--his
resilient body, with its cordlike muscles honed to the consistency of steel, was used to such torture. He
had suffered these particular agonies countless times over the years--all they served to do now was
further strengthen his unbreakable body.

Vin let out an exaggerated worn-out sigh as he dropped the final packed bag by the guestroom's double
doors with the other two, before straightening and knuckling his back, as if the task of moving their
belongings had been the most gruelling labour he had ever had the misfortune to perform. He shouldn't
complain though; he had wanted to bring all of those extravagant clothes with him on their trip to Paris,
each one a total eyesore to Ryosuke. It hurt to look at his partner sometimes--the colourful fabrics Vin
chose to frequently cloth himself in tended to cause an acute burning sensation behind the white-haired
man's eyes. Even now, Ryosuke could feel a headache starting to seize him, a dull throbbing drumming a
rhythm inside his skull. No, in truth it was another chronic migraine, the type that made sleep impossible
and threatened to shatter his brain, disrupting his every waking thought until all he could focus on was the
pain.

Ryosuke reached inside his right coat pocket and fished out an orange plastic bottle of pills. Popping
open the container, the man tapped out three of the chalky white tablets into one palm and then tossed
him into his mouth. He crunched on his medication in slow, steady chews, not bothered by the stark taste
of the powder now blending with his saliva. The drugs did little to help the constant pounding in his mind,
but at least it was something to possibly alleviate the pressure a minuscule amount, even if they were
relatively useless.

"I can't believe we have to leave here already. We only stayed for two nights!" Vin lamented in perfect
Japanese, turning around to whine to Ryosuke as the white-haired man replaced his pills in his glossy
coat's pocket. "I didn't even get to sample room service--I heard this place has great masseuses! Not as
good as the ones back home in Hong Kong's… err… looser parts, obviously, but still good."
"No choice," Ryosuke said in his lifeless voice, its pitch eerily unvarying, while his violet eyes stared at
nothing. "Soldats… they have found us once again."

Vin smirked that mischievous half-smile of his, the one that graced the garishly dressed man's features
every time his mind was on the finer specimens of the opposite sex. "I don't know," he intoned dreamily,
gazing vacantly up at the ceiling. He pulled his long black ponytail over his right shoulder and began
fiddling with the bushy tuft at the end, flicking it absently with a finger--another pining gesture Ryosuke
was familiar with. "If Soldats insists on sending beautiful agents like that woman after us from now on, I
won't mind that much at all. It sure beats those fashionably challenged men-in-black that are always trying
to kill us." Vin sighed blissfully, his smile now becoming a full one, one that had caused countless women
to swoon in delight in the past. "I can smell Soldats lackeys a mile away, but with her it's different….
Ahh… I can still smell her perfume…." he whispered softly to himself, inhaling deeply, as if the scent
really lingered for him to take a whiff.

"That's your own," Ryosuke deadpanned, although it was a more automatic response to his companion's
usual antics than a genuine rib.

His partner's mocking remark snapping him out of his daydream, Vin ceased toying with his ponytail and
turned his head to regard the black-clad man in exasperation. "That's not funny," he grumbled, a sulky
expression forming on his face.

Ryosuke raised a hand to his head and pinched the bridge of his nose as his migraine took a sharp rise in
the level of torment it was inflicting, now a sledgehammer smashing apart his thoughts. He shut his eyes,
hoping to shut out the thumping with it. A pathetic and foolish notion, things desperate people engaged in.
Ryosuke lowered his head and grimaced faintly, Vin's chattering voice harping on about the classy
women's affections he would be abandoning by deserting the hotel and the hurried sounds of fleeing
guests outside their room's closed doors all being reduced to a muffled drone.

"Hey, are you alright?" Vin's concerned voice broke into Ryosuke's mind, seeming to come from far away.
The white-haired man felt a gentle touch on his shoulder.

Ryosuke roughly shrugged off his partner's hand and nodded brusquely, but kept his own hand in place
obscuring the discomfort wracking his features. He heard Vin heave a sigh on the extreme edge of his
hearing.

"Migraines again…" the shorter man said quietly, a statement rather than an inquiry. He was aware of his
comrade's malady… and knew better than to comment too much on it.

The pain in Ryosuke's head eventually receded a tad after a few minutes, permitting more sounds to filter
into his mind. He heard Vin walk a few steps away from him, and then stop. Ryosuke cracked open his
dark-ringed eyes, risking the chance that the light could pierce through them and into his brain,
heightening the severity of his migraine. Mercifully, it turned out that his eyes hadn't reached the point
where they had become sensitive to bright light, and instead all that greeted him when he opened them
was the sight of Vin's purple clothed back.

"We should have been back in Yokohama by now," Vin remarked wearily, shaking his head slightly. "I'm
beginning to think we were sent on a wild goose chase. We must have checked a dozen private
collections so far." He turned around to face Ryosuke, bewilderment warring with frustration on his
countenance. "Hell, we even checked out a couple of museums and obscure stores. Does this thing even
exist?" The triad member snorted, and then shook his head once more. "All this trouble for something that
was probably thrown in the trash or burnt to a crisp. Or maybe even crumbled apart by its own accord by
now. And it doesn't help that D'Aubigne's details were so damn vague we hardly know where or even
what precisely we're looking for. We'll probably have to scour the whole freakin' city of Paris before we
see the end of this!" Vin made a despondent moan and ran the fingers of one hand through his loosely
tied back hair.
Ryosuke merely grunted in response. He wouldn't have been surprised if Dominique *had* dispatched
them on an unfeasible task. It would be just like that conniving succubus. Perhaps she had wanted him
out of Japan and his mistrustful presence away from his dear sister's side for a while. Ryosuke was
certain the order to go to Paris in search of the artefact from Kaede had stemmed solely from
Dominique's persuasion. That bitch seemed to be sinking her fangs into everything in the Ishinomori
Empire these days… his younger sister especially. Just like mother before. Ryosuke's absence would
surely allow Dominique to further corrupt Kaede and expand her authority even more among his family's
followers. He had to return to Yokohama as soon as possible; already he had been away far too long for
his liking. But not empty handed if he could help it; it would be just the excuse Dominique would need to
compel Kaede to reprimand him--and Vin as well, for that matter--for his failure. Ryosuke couldn't let his
waning influence with his sister ebb anymore than it had thus far; he was the only genuine voice of
reason who still had the woman's ear--he could not afford to lose it or Dominique would most definitely
hold complete sway over Kaede's will.

"Soldats dogging us at virtually every turn isn't improving circumstances, either," Vin went on, recapturing
Ryosuke's attention. That impish smile then made a comeback on the flashy man's visage, his
aggravation fading. "Although I don't suppose I would object to being stalked by that lovely blonde we
encountered today," he amended furtively. "I wonder what her name is…. It's too bad we'll in all
probability have to kill her. Maybe I could get the opportunity to have some fun with her before that,
however. Hmm…." Vin held his chin between his thumb and forefinger, evidently deliberating the
likelihood. One day his keen appreciation for the opposite sex would be the death of him.

Ryosuke ignored the bulk of Vin's comments, but he agreed with his partner when it came to the part of
Soldats persistently hounding them. He thought he and Vin had been circumspect when entering the
country, but apparently they had not been circumspect enough. Soldats. Their eyes were everywhere,
relentlessly watching, like some monstrous beast from an ancient myth. Ryosuke and Vin had only
disposed of the last two Soldats spies a few days ago, and already a pair of replacements was on their
tails. If things were to continue in this way, it would grow tiresome very swiftly. And not to mention
troublesome. They needed the Soldats division based in France--or more specifically, the two newly
assigned Soldats agents--off their backs for a time so they could carry out their mission--regardless of
how vain it was emerging to be--more effectively, and hence give them a better chance of actually
achieving success. But Ryosuke and Vin were only two men; they could not split up so one could draw
Soldats' attention while the other hunted for the item they were seeking. It would lower their searching
efficiency considerably with the added detriment of increasing the length they would be forced to remain
in Paris for… and also the period of time for which Ryosuke would be separated from Kaede. They
needed outside assistance… but where could they find it?

******

Mireille's blue eyes inched opened slowly as she gradually swam up from the depths of unconsciousness
and into full wakefulness. She was lying on her back in bed, with a warm, familiar presence pressed
closely against her left side. The heat from the firm yet pliant mass engulfed the woman in its comfortable
embrace, threatening to ease her back into Morpheus' arms. She was tempted to submit, indeed her
eyelids began to feel as if heavy weights were dragging them down, but there was no rest for the wicked.
Well, not much rest at any rate. Mireille could remain in bed just a little bit longer--in truth there was no
real rush to get up, in spite of all the important errands she had to perform today. Yes… they could wait.

Mireille felt a soft pressure across her bare stomach, where her oversized shirt had ridden up, rising and
falling gently with her every breath. Its texture was that of the smoothest silk, and rubbed delightfully on
her exposed midriff in concert with her breathing, sending trills of pleasure through her body. Another
weight rested on her equally uncovered left thigh, just as sleek and almost as slender as the first. While
she relished the one only a short distance below her breasts, this specific weight had always been her
favourite. Mireille internally fought with herself for a couple of seconds, knowing it was a losing battle and
merely a token gesture at best, and then shifted her leg a little, causing the object atop it to slide
deliciously down her inner thigh and nestle only a fraction of an inch away from the intimate juncture
between her slightly parted legs.
Mireille let out a quiet sigh of satisfaction, hardly audible to prevent the person next to her from being
disturbed… and possibly ruining her guilty pleasure. Once again without fail, Mireille had awoken to have
Kirika's dainty form wrapped around her maturer own. Even in the event they fell asleep spaced apart
from one another the end result was always the same.

The woman smiled faintly up at the ceiling. Some things never changed, at least. Not that she was
complaining, far from it. The morning when Mireille didn't wake up with Kirika squeezed up snugly beside
her was the morning when their relationship had definitely taken a sour turn. But, evidently for the present
anyhow, their relationship had not yet decayed to that distressing stage, despite the grim events that had
occurred in the past few days, seemingly shoving a vicious wedge between the Corsican and her
Japanese counterpart. Nevertheless, that wedge would undoubtedly push Mireille and Kirika apart further
with every passing day they lived in darkness… perhaps the morning would soon come when the blonde
would wake up alone.

But not this morning, to Mireille's great collective joy and relief. From nearly the first week she had agreed
to work with Kirika, the girl had always preferred to sleep in the same bed as her--the necessity of doing
so due to only having one bed in the apartment notwithstanding--to such a point that Mireille had on more
than one occasion been obliged while on assignment away from Paris to grudgingly push the single beds
in their hotel rooms together, just so that her partner could nap contentedly. And also so that Mireille
would not have to suffer even more depressed looks than was common from the brooding girl.

Initially Kirika had kept her distance from the woman in bed, but little by little she had slinked closer to the
blonde's side, until Mireille stirred every single morning with her partner more or less clinging to her
tightly… and thinking almost nothing of it, so accustomed to it had she become. It had grown to become
an enjoyment for Mireille, one she would be hard pressed to give up… although she would never truly
admit it. Mireille did have to confess however that simply sleeping beside somebody else helped to
provide her with a more peaceful slumber, doubly so if that somebody was her cute counterpart. It had
been a slow, gradual progression for the normally independent woman naturally, but over time, and
especially now, the Corsican roused herself each morning feeling very refreshed and well rested.

Mireille lay there in bed for several minutes, staring listlessly up at the ceiling, unmoving, simply revelling
in the divine feeling of having Kirika cuddled close to her. She was acutely conscious of where her
partner's left arm and leg were positioned, and, as she frequently had to do each morning, was forced to
quash the illicit urge to slip lower in the bed and cause the lithe limbs to press against two places on her
body they really shouldn't, no matter how exquisite the sensations of the forbidden contacts would have
been. As if somehow reading her partner's mind even while she was sleeping, Kirika fidgeted beside
Mireille, sliding her left leg along the woman's bare thigh until her knee was nearly pushing against the
centre of the Corsican's crotch, while at the same time her arm wandered slightly higher on the blonde's
stomach. For a brief moment of jumbled panic and hopefulness, Mireille thought that the darkhaired girl
was actually going to inadvertently brush her breasts, unconsciously cup one of the mounds even, but to
her relief--or was that disappointment?--Kirika stopped a few centimetres short on her torso, her hand
now resting under her shirt. She then became still once again, her rhythmic, whisper-quiet breathing
resuming its former pace.

Mireille released the breath she had been holding as Kirika settled down. She swallowed hard. Perhaps it
would be better if she got up after all. She really did have quite a considerable amount of tasks to do
today. Getting an early start would be the smart thing to do.

After a number of minutes in which she did not move a single muscle to leave the bed or Kirika's
embrace, Mireille sighed and accepted the fact that she wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. She should
have acknowledged that fact to begin with; not until she had indulged in her habitual--moderately
chaste--whims would she be able to muster the willpower to escape her delectable counterpart's hold.

Mireille turned her head to her left on her pillow to gaze upon her quietly slumbering companion's pretty
visage, breathing in the darkhaired girl's delicate, adorable features. Kirika's expression appeared so
relaxed in her sleep. At peace. It was a beautiful sight to Mireille's eyes--it always was. The woman loved
to take rare moments such as this to just look upon Kirika. In her sleep Mireille's formidable partner was
no longer an astounding assassin gifted with unmatched abilities, but rather simply an ordinary girl,
resting placidly. It was this facet of Kirika that attracted Mireille to her the most, this… open vulnerability.
She wasn't certain why exactly. She had speculated before that it was perhaps because Kirika's
capabilities in the art of murder were a whole level above her own, and at times like these it was as if the
introverted girl required Mireille's protection despite that, making the woman feel a sense of worth, like
she was needed. It was a good feeling, and caused a peculiar stirring in her heart… an agreeable one.

Mireille, knowing from many previous mornings that resistance was hopeless and it was better to simply
surrender to her weakness, extended her left arm across the pillow above her snoozing partner's head,
and, with a very gentle touch, began to play with Kirika's dark locks, tenderly curling the short tresses
around her slender fingers, luxuriating in their satiny feel. She just couldn't help herself, be it toying with
the girl's hair or caressing her soft cheeks and lips, marvelling in her delicate beauty. With Kirika sleeping
soundly, effectively dead to the world owing to her small body recuperating from its serious gunshot
wound, it permitted Mireille to safely treat herself to her secret desires… something that she had been
doing nearly ever since it had dawned on her that her partner now slumbered deeply, and therefore would
be ignorant to any intimate attentions. Mireille always felt exceedingly guilty and shamed at her behaviour
and lack of self-control afterwards; it was as if she had somehow taken advantage of poor, oblivious
Kirika. The woman would then vow that she would have more strength of will next time, but inevitably
when dawn broke the following day her prior silent, ardent oath was forgotten, and she was once again
furtively petting a snoozing Kirika… and adoring every second of it.

Mireille's wayward hand dropped away from Kirika's head--the stoic girl's mop of hair now quite
dishevelled--and back onto the pillow, accompanied by a jaded sigh. But for some reason this morning,
the blonde couldn't seem to marshal the normally sizeable enthusiasm for her delightful vice she usually
had. All she could think about while caressing Kirika's dark locks was what the reticent girl would be
forced to face in the future--the black path; a dire course in life that Mireille had started to lead her down
once more.

Guilt began to sweep up inside the Corsican, a different kind of guilt to the one related to her surreptitious
touches of Kirika, but she crushed it ruthlessly in an iron fist. It was pointless to dwell on something that
could not be changed or taken back. There could be no going back for Mireille and Kirika, not until their
enemies were dead. They must go forward until the end--it was the simple truth. The guilt could come
later, when it was all over, and then Mireille would have all the time in the world to criticise her earlier
decisions and blame herself for what she had put Kirika through.

Mireille continued to gaze at Kirika, this time with sad eyes rather than enraptured ones. She wondered
how long this innocent vision of her partner would last. The further they travelled down the black path's
dark cobblestones, stained with the blood of all those who had lost their lives on the harsh, unforgiving
journey, the further Kirika would be corrupted… maybe. Kirika had lasted this long without losing her
childlike purity. Of course, there was another Kirika buried inside of the one Mireille cared for, one who
was did not possess a shred of morality whatsoever. It was that Kirika who had been fed all of the
maliciousness the girl had been exposed to her entire live. Perhaps it would be that cold-hearted Kirika
who would ultimately replace Mireille's as they traversed the black path. The woman prayed that would
not be the case. But she couldn't ignore the possibility either. All she could do however was watch for any
signs, and hope to somehow prevent that dreaded transition before it was too late if it did threaten to
come to pass.

Her mood now spoilt, Mireille decided she might as well get up. Carefully, as not to awaken Kirika, she
slipped nimbly from the darkhaired girl's hug, her partner's left arm and leg sliding over her body before
gently slumping to the surface of the bed. Mireille sat up on the edge of the bed and rolled her head
around on her shoulders, stretching the muscles in her neck to loosen the kinks, and then ran her hands
through her long blonde mane of hair several times, attempting to rid it of tangles. As she stood up, she
heard an alteration in Kirika's rate of breathing, a hitch sullying its rhythm, indicating to the woman that
her colleague had roused in spite of her labours to the contrary.
Mireille quickly pulled down her still ruffled shirt over her hips and smoothed it out a little anxiously, hiding
her completely naked posterior from Kirika's view… although she was almost certain the girl had gotten
an eyeful. She tried to distance her mind from the… awkward… prospect, while suppressing the impulse
to look over her shoulder and check if her partner really had caught a glimpse of her exposed rump.
Whatever had possessed Mireille to forgo donning underwear after choosing to wear a solitary--and
rather short--oversized shirt to sleep in she didn't quite know, but for some reason she couldn't--or
perhaps more accurately didn't want to--identify, she was nearly positive she still wouldn't be slipping on
any panties the next time she doffed the simple garment, regardless of the risk that Kirika might see the
cheeks of her uncovered rear end… again, or maybe even get a peek between her legs at her….

"I'm going to take a shower," Mireille informed Kirika with her back still to the girl, consciously keeping her
voice level--and pleased that she had succeeded in doing so. Her throat had become rather parched all of
a sudden.

After being answered by a mumble of acknowledgement, Mireille, resisting the compulsion to flatten out
her shirt again, proceeded for the bathroom, doing her utmost to keep her pace brisk but not overly so,
not wishing to give the impression she was fleeing the room--not that she was, of course. She tried not to
think about whether Kirika's eyes were still on her back … or on any other parts of her body.
Nevertheless, she was relieved when she reached the privacy of the bathroom.

******

Kirika was brought back into the waking world as something undulated beneath her left arm and leg,
before becoming still once again. Her breathing remained slow and even, a technique she had learned
and mastered during her time training under Altena and her Soldats enclave's strict hands. She did not
even require conscious thought to regulate it, so engrained was the ability. Feigning sleep could be a
useful talent for an assassin… although Kirika had found another use for it, one she found vastly more
appealing.

Kirika loved the feel of Mireille squeezed so close against her body, so warm and so supple and smooth.
With her eyes firmly shut, the girl's other senses--particularly touch and hearing--were heightened to a
degree, permitting her to truly bask in Mireille's presence. With every breath she took, Kirika inhaled the
tantalising, natural scent of the woman--a spicy and yet fresh and sweet aroma that flooded her sense of
smell wonderfully, engulfing her in the very essence of her partner. Meanwhile, her left arm, draped
across Mireille's taut stomach, rose and fell softly in time with the blonde's breathing, accentuating the
somewhat ticklish but more than pleasant sensation of their skin touching one another's. The bare flesh of
Mireille's abdomen felt… nice… under Kirika's own of her arm, and she had to refrain from giving in to the
yearning to rub her hand all over her partner's tummy and trace the contours of the fine muscles
beneath… although she couldn't resist fidgeting just a tiny bit.

Kirika's heart swelled in her chest. It was all simply heavenly. She adored waking up snuggled against
Mireille; there was nothing better to greet another day with than tightly hugging the woman she loved. She
would have liked it if that hug was returned however, but Kirika was happy with any affection she received
from her partner, no matter how small. Mireille just wasn't a really affectionate woman, that was all. Or at
least rarely openly. There was something else that Mireille had yet to do this morning, if indeed the mood
would strike her to do so. Kirika did her best to contain the mounting level of anticipation welling up inside
her, lest she ruin her outwardly peaceful façade and consequently destroy any chances that her partner
would show her--albeit surreptitious--fondness for her.

Sometimes, when Mireille thought that Kirika was fast asleep, the woman would… touch her, or perhaps
more precisely, *caress* her. She would normally begin tentatively, mainly focusing on gently running her
fingers through Kirika's hair for a number of minutes. However, Mireille would apparently soon tire of that
particular activity and move on to others to amuse herself with. While Kirika liked the feeling of her partner
playing with her short hair, it was her subsequent ministrations that the girl enjoyed the most. Mireille
would every so often actually bring a hand up to her face and trail her fingertips over her cheeks, stroking
them tenderly. And, if Kirika was really lucky, the blonde would even outline her slightly parted lips,
sometimes daringly dipping shallowly in between them, as if seeking access inside the warm, wet cavity
they guarded. Yes, she especially liked it when Mireille caressed her lips. The woman's touch was so soft,
feather-light, but Kirika found it tantalising beyond compare. It was all she could do not to shiver in delight
or even emit a blissful sound of approval. But she knew that any such outbursts would scare Mireille's
delicate fingertips away.

Kirika wasn't exactly sure why Mireille's touch elicited such… excitement within her. All she knew was that
she loved it to such an extent that she very much looked forward to waking up in the morning. However,
she wished that Mireille felt comfortable enough to show her such physical affection candidly whenever
the impulse took her no matter what time of day or night, rather than covertly while the woman believed
her to be snoozing soundly. But perhaps that was too much to hope for from Kirika's aloof partner.
Indeed, lately even Mireille's regular morning indulgences were lessening in duration and lacking the
intimacy of prior 'sessions'. It had started following their meeting with Breffort--with Soldats. With the
advent of their return to a life of killing.

Sure enough, after only a few minutes of half-heartedly fondling Kirika's short locks, the girl heard Mireille
exhale heavily and the blonde's touch disappear from her head. Kirika tried not to let the disappointment
and desolation overwhelm her. She really missed those past mornings now. She missed the old times. It
seemed like Mireille truly was starting to pull away from her, and on more than a mere physical level. The
morning would come when the woman probably wouldn't even stay in bed with her for a single minute in
excess after waking up. The prospect saddened Kirika, further lowering her already waning spirits, but
she supposed she shouldn't be too surprised. Assassins were expected to be cold, unfeeling individuals.
It was no wonder Mireille was becoming like her old self again. Maybe that was actually her real self.

Still, even if Mireille did revert to her former standoffish and frosty nature, Kirika's feelings for her would
not change in the slightest. She would still be utterly besotted with the woman with all that she was, heart
and soul. After all, Mireille had not always been cordial to Kirika… but that had not stopped the girl from
falling completely and hopelessly in love with her.

Kirika ceased her veneer of oblivious slumber when she felt and heard Mireille free herself from her
embrace and climb out of the bed. Her breathing paused for a moment as she swallowed the build up of
moisture in her mouth, before it resumed at a different pace, and then flicked open her brown eyes… and
was greeted by the unexpected but oddly sublime sight of the twin porcelain globes of Mireille's perfect
bottom, unabashedly on display for her suddenly very keen gaze. To Kirika's disappointment, the
spectacle only lasted the briefest of instances before Mireille readjusted the large shirt she was wearing,
but it was enough to permanently burn the privileged image in the girl's mind.

Kirika blinked several times and swallowed once again, this time a tad harder than before; almost a gulp.
She wasn't certain why she had found the sight of Mireille's naked rear end so… fascinating? Was that
the word? Or perhaps mesmerising was a better term? In all honestly, Kirika couldn't quite ascertain what
the feeling she had experienced was either. Something between captivation and… exhilaration, was it?
Whatever it was, she still wondered why her partner's unclothed posterior was so interesting to her in the
first place. It was just another part of Mireille's body, after all; it simply served a function, in this case, to
help in the woman's mobility. It was nothing special. So then why did that area continue to attract Kirika's
attention unbidden even now that it was concealed behind a layer of cloth? Was it because of the very
fact that normally it *was* hidden, out of general propriety? But Mireille's bottom wasn't the only place the
blonde kept covered, and so far Kirika hadn't reacted in the same way to those other particular private
spots… or was that because she had never observed them unfettered by clothing?

Kirika sighed quietly. For the moment, it was all simply beyond her understanding. Perhaps she should
pay more attention to her feelings when looking upon Mireille's body in the future, undressed or not. She
was vaguely aware that her partner was pretty--no, beautiful. Certainly, she had witnessed an abundant
amount of people turn their heads to catch an additional glimpse of the ravishing blonde when they were
outside of the apartment, with something akin to appreciation shining in their eyes. Kirika found it pleasant
to gaze upon Mireille too, although the woman's physical splendour was not what captivated her so.
Mireille was just Mireille to Kirika--her partner and the person who she loved dearly. The only person who
mattered in the world. That Mireille was also an exceptional example of beauty didn't dawn on Kirika very
often, not until outsiders reacted in such a way to make that truth obvious. Like that boy, Simon Pierpont.
The darkhaired girl didn't like how he talked and looked at Mireille. He didn't look upon her in innocent
appreciation, but rather Kirika believed his leers--and remarks too--were demeaning in nature. It didn't sit
well with Kirika. It made her feel… cross.

Mireille announced that she was going to take a shower, ending Kirika's analytical musings. The girl
watched Mireille emotionlessly as the blonde walked smartly to the bathroom and entered, closing the
door behind her. Kirika's brown eyes remained riveted to the woman's swaying backside for the entire
time.

Kirika flopped over onto her back in the bed when she heard the toilet flush from the bathroom, shortly
followed by the sound of running tap water. Mireille would take a while in there--she always did. However,
she didn't usually have a shower so early after just awakening. At least, she hadn't before that day of the
car bomb incident. Ordinarily, Mireille would stay in her pyjamas for hours, sometimes lingering in bed
with Kirika for a stretch after rousing, simply chatting lazily about nothing in particular, and then later
perhaps partaking in a long, relaxed, cooked breakfast with the soft-spoken girl. While Kirika had
sometimes slept late into the morning due to her recovering bullet wound, causing those occasions to be
sporadic at best, it had only made her cherish them all the more. Twice as much, now. Mireille had been
getting up earlier and earlier these past few days--it didn't seem she had time to spare for pleasant
luxuries with Kirika anymore. But it was understandable. Really, it was.

Kirika was glad that Mireille at least still retired to bed at the same time she did--the night when the
woman had remained awake to examine Soldats' intelligence reports aside. Kirika needed her partner in
bed next to her. Sleep would no longer claim her unless Mireille was in the same bed with her, the
blonde's comforting presence seeming to act as a soothing influence on the girl, lulling her easily into a
deep, peaceful slumber. Yes, Kirika should be thankful for what she still had, regardless of the things she
was evidently losing… or had already lost.

Kirika heard the shower starting in the bathroom, signalling to her that Mireille had finished thoroughly
washing her face and neck with the strange concoctions that were essential for pure and healthy skin--or
so the woman had once sworn to her. Kirika should get up and begin preparing breakfast. Mireille would
like that, to be greeted with a readymade repast when she completed her morning ablutions.

The taciturn girl turned her head slowly to the right and placed a hand where her partner had lain several
minutes before. The impression in the mattress of Mireille's slender form was still present, although the
warmth of her body had long since left the bed. Abandoned it. The imprint, half ringed by rumpled
bedcovers, was only a mere afterimage of Mireille, a shadow that would in time no longer even exist.

Kirika's eyelids drooped somewhat, her mood sinking just a little more. She ought to start breakfast.

******

Mireille carefully stepped into the bathtub--her clothes having been all shed as soon as she had begun
her meticulous skincare and hygiene routine earlier--mindful of any residual water there that could cause
her to lose her footing, and then closed the pearl-coloured shower curtain behind her. She picked up the
handheld showerhead from its cradle by the bath's singular faucet, and after turning it on and adjusting
the water temperature to her liking--in the meantime keeping the spray directed prudently away from
her--she then attached it to a clip bolted roughly two-thirds of the way up on the wall bordering one side of
the tub, effectively simulating a standard shower.

Mireille closed her eyes and faced the showerhead, simply letting the comfortably warm cascade of water
drench her all over, slicking her long blonde hair back and clapping it to her scalp, and at the same time
liberally soaking her body. The heat of the water was soothing to the Corsican, lulling her senses
somewhat, and as a result, her mind started to wander. Inexorably, her thoughts soon turned to what had
happened yesterday… or rather, what *hadn't* happened. Mireille and Kirika's unsuccessful attempt to
quickly and quietly kill Ryosuke Ishinomori and Vincent Hsu would have scores of consequences, most, if
not every one, grave. It would have been so much simpler if the two men had just rolled over and died
without any trouble instead of putting up a fight. Now the blonde and her partner could look forward to a
long, drawn out duel with the false Noir, one that would be undeniably several times more perilous than a
mere assassination job against a pair of unsuspecting foes… if Vincent and Ryosuke really had been
unsuspecting. Mireille supposed it didn't matter anymore; Kaede's Black Hands knew of her and Kirika
now, perhaps not their identity as the one-time true Noir, but at the very least that they shared the same
vocation.

Mireille sighed, the sound of her soft breath barely perceptible above the drone of water beating a dull
tune against the shower curtain behind her. It was all going to be so much harder now. At first she had
been angry at her failure, knowing implicitly what it meant for her and Kirika--especially Kirika--but after a
good night's sleep, she had become sorrowfully resigned. There was nothing she could do but continue
down the black path she had chosen to follow… and see it through to its conclusion. Hopefully, the
conclusion would be Ryosuke and Vincent in the ground with her and Kirika left unscathed… on a
physical level at any rate. Mireille was practically certain their foray back into the lives of professional
killers would have a lasting impact on them both, in particular on Kirika's rather fragile psyche.

Kirika. Mireille didn't know what she was going to do about the girl. She was aware that her partner was
unhappy, but she didn't know how to approach her about it. But while Mireille dithered, plagued by the
uncertainty of what exactly to do or say to her Japanese counterpart to make things better, Kirika seemed
to be gradually sinking further and further into depression. It… hurt Mireille to see the quiet girl like that
while she herself was unable to figure out how to aid in allaying her sadness. The woman felt so helpless.
And that bleak, frustrating sentiment made her irritated as well, which she feared would wrongly manifest
itself as bitterness towards Kirika, the source of all the feelings. Already Mireille was becoming short with
the darkhaired girl, the incident at Le Grand Hotel Inter-Continental coming to mind. She recognised it
would probably only get worse.

Mireille shook her head angrily at it all, and, opening her eyes, reached for the shampoo, squirting a
dollop in the palm of one hand before rubbing the mixture all over the tresses plastered to her head and
back, made a dark blonde shade by the water saturating them. It wasn't fair. She and Kirika should be
living a peaceful existence again, not preparing to clash with two other assassins. Mireille placed the
blame squarely on her own shoulders. She should have tried harder yesterday, she should have
anticipated Vincent's manoeuvre, she should have--!

Mireille ground her teeth, massaging the shampoo into her scalp a little more vigorously than necessary.
She should have *succeeded!* If she had done so, Kirika would not be brooding at present and she
herself would not be despairing over her inability to help the poor girl!

Mireille rinsed the froth of shampoo out of her hair and picked up a bottle of conditioner, applying the
viscous liquid inside to her locks with both hands. She began driving her fingers deeply into her wet mass
of hair, slowly and methodically coating the blonde mane with the slippery solution. The woman simply
wasn't good with relationships, not that she'd had any notable ones to speak of before. She just wasn't
familiar with them. Regarding Kirika, she was basically--and rather blindly--feeling her way as she went.
And now, she had reached an apparently impassable wall. The only thing she could think of to do was
eliminate the cause of all of her and her partner's turmoil: the false Noir. But to accomplish that now, they
were going to require more help.

Mireille retrieved a sponge and a bar of soap from the dish affixed to the wall at the front end of the bath,
and commenced lathering her body with a copious amount of foamy suds. Today she planned to visit
Simon, for one to deliver his outstanding fee, and another to enlist his services once again. She would
need him constantly probing for the emergence of Ryosuke and his companion's aliases in any hotel
guest lists excluding Le Grand Hotel Inter-Continental. It would doubtless cost her a fortune--the little
pervert would make her pay through the nose for such a request, along with additional payments in the
form of undressing leers and boorish suggestive comments--but it was unavoidable.
Mireille would not rely solely on the hacker however, she also had supplementary resources in the form of
street-level informants; small time snitches who noted the traffic in Paris' underworld. The Corsican didn't
have much faith that the lowlifes whose palms she intended to grease would sight Ryosuke and Vincent,
even if the duo did stand out a little--a little too much for smart professional assassins in Mireille's
opinion--unless the false Noir actually mingled with the criminal circuit in the city, but they might get lucky.
Every little bit helped, after all. And price was no object to Mireille if it speeded her and Kirika's escape
from the black path.

There was a soft knock on the bathroom door, causing Mireille to reflexively look over her shoulder even
though the shower curtain, made hazy by wisps of rising steam, blocked her view.

"Breakfast is almost ready," came Kirika's rather hesitant voice from the other side of the door, scarcely
audible.

"Okay," Mireille called back, detaching the showerhead and using it to quickly and efficiently wash the
build-up of soap and conditioner from her body and hair respectively, cutting her ordinarily long shower
short. She couldn't help but smile faintly, although it was a touch melancholic. Despite the desolate
transformation in their lives, and her obvious aversion to it, Kirika was still as obliging as ever. Mireille
wished she could return her partner's kind consideration properly… if only she knew how.



Chapter 6 - Allies and Adversaries


Mireille stepped up to the cashier's counter inside Simon Pierpont's decrepit back alley computer store
façade, her and Kirika's first stop on a long list for today, and crooked a single blonde eyebrow at the
jittery and scruffy boy behind it; 'Ezza' his name was, if she remembered correctly from her last visit. Why
was it hackers, whether they were merely feeble aspiring ones or genuinely accomplished masters, had
to have such bizarre--and more often than not, inane--aliases? If it even *was* an alias--Mireille wasn't
sure which possibility she found more pathetic. It must have been an image thing. Certainly, assassins
were known to engage in similar habits also, donning titles carefully chosen to instil both fear and awe in
all those who heard it. It was good for business, in mutual respects to garnering clients and intimidating
targets. Who didn't quake in terror if they discovered that Noir was seeking their heads, after all? Mireille
herself was not much for titles; she preferred to have people's faith put in her skills rather than how
imaginative her adopted pseudonym was, but she had to admit utilising one that carried great prestige did
tend to come in handy sometimes. Of course conversely, it was apt to also attract unwarranted trouble
that could have otherwise been avoided… as in the case of Ryosuke and Vincent, if the men were indeed
aware of the Corsican and her Japanese counterpart's old identity.

Ezza, to his credit, did not waste any time on idle chatter, apparently understanding by the blonde's terse
gesture that she and Kirika were here in the dusty shop to see his friend, Simon--or 'Phayzed', as was his
asinine alias--and nothing more. Instead he smiled tremulously at Mireille and then with an abrupt turn
scrambled to open the door behind him that led to the building's basement, fumbling for several moments
with the rusty brass knob. Mireille was glad Ezza had not tried to spark up a conversation with her. This
morning she was definitely not in the mood for civilities… although in truth she hadn't really been for the
last couple of days.

Mireille was a little surprised when Ezza opted to escort her and Kirika down the rickety steps into
Simon's computer den, leading the gloomy way ahead of the pair while occasionally sparing the blonde a
nervous glance over his shoulder, but the woman didn't dwell on it. She was aware that she sometimes
had that affect on people. It could be somewhat irritating--Simon's obnoxious behaviour came to
mind--but being endowed with pleasant looks did have its uses from time to time. Guards--most notably
male guards--typically were susceptible to feminine charms, and doubly so if they belonged to a pretty
face, a weakness that Mireille had taken advantage of all too often. Her attractive exterior had loosened
tight lips and dulled sharp senses many times before in the past, allowing her to perform hits with added
ease. Mireille considered her beauty simply another tool of her trade, a valuable and effective one.
Although, the Corsican had to confess, she did take a smidgen of pride in her appearance. A woman did
have to look her best.

When the trio arrived at the bottom of the stairs, they were greeted by the predictable sight of Simon
sitting in front of his multitude of computer monitors, gazing avidly at the screens at the same time he
typed madly away at one of his myriad of keyboards. Mireille wondered if the boy ever managed to tear
himself away from his computers and venture out from his basement hideaway into the light of day.
Probably not very often, if the grimy mattresses and blankets stacked in one corner of the dim-lighted
room, along with a less-than-pristine looking refrigerator positioned in another, were any indications. And
Simon did have a rather pasty complexion, if one looked past the red pimples dotted liberally on his face.
By all accounts, it seemed as if the boy lived here in the damp and dark basement below the computer
store. On more than one occasion during her visits Mireille had mused on where his parents were and
how he had come to occupy and possibly even own a building, even if it was more or less part of a
slum… and the poorer part at that. Perhaps he was merely squatting. In reality it didn't really matter to the
woman, however. Her deliberations were simply casual ones--she didn't possess much care or interest
for the hacker and his life beyond that one generally held for a useful business associate. Simon was a
resource that Mireille every so often tapped, and that was all. He was not her friend.

Mireille saw through the murk of the room that Simon wore a silver set of headphones over his ears--their
speakers no doubt pumping some sort of dance beat at a deafening volume against his eardrums--and,
as per usual, was dressed untidily in a shabby pair of blue jeans and faded t-shirt, the logo printed on the
back of the latter garment having deteriorated to such a degree that only a washed-out and warped red
rectangle was recognisable. As a result of the distracting mixture of listening to music via headphones
and seemingly being entirely spellbound by the numerous glowing screens before him, the teen did not
turn around at her, Kirika and their guide's appearance. That boy really should be more attentive to his
surroundings. If Mireille and Kirika had been here to execute Simon rather than talk to him instead, he
wouldn't have stood a chance… not that he would have even if he had been alerted, naturally.

Ezza quickly scurried over to his oblivious friend and prodded him in the back with a finger, causing
Simon to emit a startled yelp and jerk upright in his seat. The self-proclaimed expert hacker pulled off his
headphones and let them dangle around his neck as he swivelled around in his seat, the tinny, distant
rhythm of manic music able to be heard spilling out from the two uncovered speakers. Simon's expression
was that of surprise and some embarrassment, but when he realised just who was standing in the
basement with him it quickly transformed into one of anxiety, and then a fraction of a second later--to
Mireille's vexation--to a countenance that contained more than little a glimmer of lewd intent. Mireille
could already tell that this meeting was going to be a tedious lesson in patience and self-control. But the
Corsican was confident she was up to the challenge. She had to be if she wanted Simon's much needed
assistance.

"Mireille! You're back!" Simon exclaimed in jubilation, grinning merrily… if a bit lecherously. "And you've
brought your cute pal along again too!" he added as his eyes settled on Kirika, also favouring the girl with
his broad smile. He then returned his unwelcome attention to Mireille, flicking his eyebrows at her in a
suggestive fashion. "Can't get enough of me, huh?"

Mireille ignored Simon's greeting and grating remark and instead reached into her handbag and retrieved
a rolled up bundle of Euros from its depths, before unceremoniously tossing the cash in the boy's
direction. "Your payment for last time," she said simply as the collection of bills bounced off Simon's
chest, causing the boy to hurriedly struggle to catch them, juggling the roll in his hands for a number of
seconds until he succeeded in maintaining a firm grip on them.

"Mmm, Mireille bearing money; is there any better combo in the world?" Simon commented as he flipped
through the bundle of notes, counting them carefully. Abruptly, he stopped and looked up from the cash to
Ezza, who seemed to be trying to blend into the darkness of the basement and stay unnoticed--and not
doing a very good job of it, either. "What the hell are you still doing down here?" the hacker demanded
callously, frowning at his 'friend'. "Get your ass back upstairs and watch the store! There might be shit-all
up there, but damn it, what *is* up there is *my* shit! I don't want anybody swiping it!" Simon commanded
in a harsh tone, thrusting a pointed finger at the flight of stairs leading to the ground floor. Mireille
surmised that he didn't like anybody other than himself gawking at her. How petty.

Ezza hesitated for a moment, appearing caught somewhere between being crestfallen and humiliated,
but eventually succumbed to the inevitable and after a parting disappointed look at Mireille, headed for
the stairs and plodded back up them with slumped shoulders and a lowered gaze.

"It's so hard to find good help, you know?" Simon sighed as he watched a dejected Ezza leave. "Ever
since Francois left to go to college about a month ago I've been stuck with that loser. All he does all day is
read comics! And lately he's been bugging the hell outta me about *you*, Mireille! He's always wanting to
know who that 'hot debutante type' was who came by the other day. Damn idiot usually kept his mouth
shut and his nose in a comic most of the time, but now--! To think I wished that he would talk more often,
geez!" He sighed again and then returned his gaze to Mireille and Kirika, most particularly to the latter.
"Say, where would I find someone like her to help me out?" he asked, motioning with a tilt of his head to
Kirika. "I think I'd like staring at a pretty face all day instead of Ezza's ugly mug if I had the choice" He
gave Kirika an expectant half-smile and leaned forward slightly in his seat, doubtless waiting for a
response, but the darkhaired girl merely looked at the lecher's mottled face blankly. "But I guess she
doesn't talk much either," Simon said dryly, flopping back into his chair again. "Does she even speak
French?!"

"I have another task for you," Mireille said grimly, not wanting to become bogged down in another one of
Simon's childish little banter sessions teeming with uncouth innuendos. And with the mood she was in
right now, it would most likely be hazardous to his health. "The two men I had you search for before; I
need to find them again."

"What?" Simon whined, his curiosity in Kirika vanishing. "Why? Didn't I do a kickass job?"

"The 'why' is not your concern. Just do the deed I have asked of you," Mireille stated coldly.

"Okay, if that's what you want," Simon said evenly, abandoning his perverted inclinations in the face of
the assassin's frosty temper… or at least frostier than usual temper. "But it ain't gonna be free, you
know…."

"I didn't expect it to be. You'll find an additional one hundred Euros in the payment I've just imparted to
you… and which you incidentally failed to mention," Mireille said, a slight edge manifesting in her voice
with her last words. Simon merely smiled sheepishly and scratched the back of his head, just below
where his hair was dyed a discoloured green. "And the same bonus as before applies." Mireille paused
for a second, delivering a level glare at Simon, who squirmed in his seat and sensibly didn't protest about
the payment's sum… although the assassin wouldn't be shocked if he did at a later date. "I need to find
these people *immediately*," the blonde woman continued sternly. "Moreover, there is considerable
likelihood that the men will be trying to keep a low profile. You may find it difficult to track them down a
second time."

Simon smirked confidently, relaxing back in his padded leather chair and placing his hands behind his
head. "I wouldn't worry about that," he said self-assuredly. "Computer networks aren't the only form of
network I can easily get access to…."

Mireille arched a questioning eyebrow, prompting the hacker to elaborate. She was positive that he
would--she knew he would not pass up the opportunity to tout his own capabilities.

"I know a bunch of dudes who, shall we say, stumble upon useful stuff now and then," Simon explained
proudly. "I use 'em sometimes when networking methods fail--although that doesn't happen a lot, what
with *my* brilliant skills. But it's a precaution; I don't want to let down my customers and lose the hard
earned rep I've gained, you know? It took bloody ages to get to the position I'm in today."
"By whatever means; utilise your informants if you deem them necessary. Contact me in the standard
manner if you find the people I'm looking for," Mireille ordered, before turning around swiftly to depart,
with Kirika obediently following suit.

"'If' I find them?" Simon parroted to Mireille's retreating back. "Oh, have a little faith! I'll find your two
playboys in a flash, I bet! Once, twice, three times--it doesn't matter! I can find anybody in this city,
*anybody!* No one can hide from my--"

Mireille tuned out the rest of Simon's egotistical self-accolades as she climbed the basement stairs back
to street level. The gangly perverted sociopath wasn't the only person she and Kirika had to rely on to find
Ryosuke and Vincent… mercifully. The Corsican had many, many founts of information scattered all
across Paris, some more reliable than others, but all were competent snitches and rumourmongers. They
had proven worthwhile in the past, like when Mireille had sought answers to the car bombing earlier in the
week, to name one example. Perhaps they would again… or so she hoped. The false Noir would have
already fled Le Grand Hotel Inter-Continental by now--the blonde didn't think they would be *that*
arrogant not to do so. Locating them again would be… trying, to say the least.

Of course, there was also the possibility that Mireille and Kirika weren't the only ones doing the hunting.
Ryosuke and Vincent could be hunting *them* at this very same instant. Even the Corsican and her
partner's apartment may no longer be the safe haven it currently was in the near future. Soldats--until the
final trials at any rate--had permitted them the luxury of a sanctuary in the form of the apartment, but
these new foes would not have such qualms. There would be no sure refuge from the conflicts ahead.

That is, if Ryosuke and Vincent truly were after Noir. It would help if Mireille knew the rationale behind the
pair's coming to Paris; right now she was completely in the dark. Breffort supposedly knew nothing also,
or if he did, he was not sharing. But Mireille was not foolish enough to depend solely on Soldats support,
obviously. Maybe her sources would learn of Ryosuke and Vincent's motives for entering her and her
counterpart's stomping grounds too. It was a very slim prospect, however.

Nevertheless, Mireille had to find out, even if she had to deduce the reasons herself. It would give her and
Kirika an advantage, gifting them with insight on their adversaries' potential movements. Besides… she
couldn't quell the disquieting feeling that Ryosuke and Vincent's mystery motivations would have a further
impact on their already damaged lives, beyond forcing them back onto the black path… an even more
harmful one.

But as Mireille looked discreetly over her shoulder at Kirika's downcast face, she wondered if that were
truly possible.

******

The dying rays of daylight could be seen through the unshuttered windows of the apartment as Kirika
walked into the living room a step behind Mireille, the lingering sunbeams outlining the tops of the
buildings on the horizon in a soft amber glow. Kirika had been roaming around the city for the better part
of the day with her partner, convening with all kinds of people the blonde seemingly was familiar
with--some of which who had made the girl somewhat edgy. They had spent a considerable amount of
the daylight hours in the shadier areas of Paris; the rundown parts where Kirika knew she had to be
continually on her guard--or at least more so in respects to the other parts of the capitol--lest she and
Mireille find themselves in a bad situation. The majority of Mireille's contacts had turned out to be not the
most upstanding of citizens. Kirika sometimes wondered how somebody like her sophisticated partner
had become acquainted with such corrupt characters.

Despite their resolute efforts to ascertain their adversaries' new place of residence, Kirika and Mireille had
discovered nothing bar unsubstantiated hearsay, none of which that was worth investigating. However,
the day's labours had not been a total waste; at the very least they had planted seeds in Mireille's
associates, seeds that could grow into orchards bearing valuable fruits of information in the future. The
woman's contacts were now aware that she and Kirika were looking for two Asian hitmen who had
recently come to Paris, and henceforth would be on the lookout for individuals matching the descriptions
they had been provided with. Kirika was confident that she and Mireille would find Ryosuke and Vincent
within the week… although she wasn't entirely sure how she felt about that.

Mireille strode purposefully towards the computer sitting on the billiard table immediately after she
entered room, as though she had blinders on. The enthusiastic sight froze Kirika in her tracks, the drowsy
girl having been making her way for the bedroom. However, she really shouldn't have expected anything
different--Mireille appeared to be throwing herself whole-heartedly into their new crisis, after all. She
probably wanted to check her email for any updates on the search for their enemies--she was very
committed to her profession. Yes, Kirika should not have been surprised… but it didn't make her partner's
action any less dispiriting. They hadn't even eaten dinner yet, not that the introverted girl felt she could
stomach any meal. Her appetite seemed to have forsaken her lately.

Kirika eyelids sank a little, but it had nothing to do with her fatigue. She exhaled softly, and then resumed
her walk to the bedroom, before climbing up the short series of steps into the room. She quickly shed her
parka, laying it out gingerly on the sofa nearby the bed, glad to be rid of it… along with its hidden and
deadly cargo. Another day had passed without Kirika having to fire her gun at a living being, for which she
was exceedingly thankful. For at least this night, barring unforseen incidents, she could maintain her
pacifism… and maintain her dominance over the darkness.

Kirika released another slow and quiet breath, this one of obvious relief, as if a great weight had been
lifted from her slim shoulders. Although, if truth be told, one had been.

Kirika walked back to the bedroom's steps, parking herself tiredly on the centre one with her back to the
wall. "Yoisho," she intoned reflexively as she sat, a habit of hers.

Her eyes unconsciously moved to include Mireille in her vision seated in front of the computer, the blonde
navigating its mouse in her right hand on the green felt surface of the billiard table and occasionally
clicking it, the noise breaking the otherwise silent atmosphere of the apartment. Mireille was evidently
undisturbed by Kirika's earlier soft emittance, staring at her computer's monitor intently, a slight frown
creasing her brow, while her mouth was drawn into a thin line. It was an expression Kirika had observed
countless times--one of a dedicated contract killer digesting new intelligence on a target. Mireille must be
in her element. Kirika should feel happy for her.

Kirika dropped her gaze to the floor and drew her knees to her chest, enfolding her arms around them,
hugging herself into a ball. The gap was widening between herself and Mireille; it was clear as glass to
the darkhaired girl. And the worst thing was, Kirika didn't know what to do to stop it.

She had thought that after the events at the Manor things would be different between her and Mireille,
and certainly, they had been… at least for a time. But now it seemed as if those welcome, pleasant
changes that had occurred were in reality only temporary ones. The upheaval regarding Ryosuke and
Vincent was only the first obstacle their new relationship had encountered, but already the pleasing
changes were decaying away because of it, regressing everything back to the stage they had been in
beforehand. Back to a less favourable stage, one of apathy and detachment. Kirika had believed her
relationship with Mireille was stronger than that. Maybe she had been mistaken. Maybe she had been
mistaken about a lot of things. Maybe….

Or it could be that this was what a romantic relationship was like. But while Kirika had no experience in
love, she was reasonably certain it wasn't supposed to be this way. She had seen other couples interact
with each other when she had ventured out of the apartment with Mireille; they smiled and laughed
together, and touched one other, embraced one other. They *talked* to one another. Kirika didn't do any
of those things with Mireille, and even in the past, she hadn't really done so either, not to the extent other
people did at any rate. Was her relationship with her partner somehow different than other people's? It
was a possibility; one the girl had deliberated on before.
Almost ever since her love for her partner had been revealed, Kirika had tried to educate herself a little on
affairs of the heart by studying some of the magazines that appeared to deal with the subject Mireille
frequently read during her spare time, but none of them had provided the help the quiet girl sought. For
some reason the publications only wrote on relationships between women and men, and Kirika hadn't
been sure whether or not what was penned applied to her apparently diverse situation. She had also
wondered why she couldn't find anything on partnerships involving two females. It had been frustrating
and confusing. It still was. She really should have addressed her questions to Mireille; the worldly woman
would know of such matters. Perhaps things wouldn't have degenerated between Kirika and her partner if
the girl had been wiser to how love worked.

Or maybe… or maybe it was *her*. Maybe there was something wrong with Kirika herself. Could it be that
Mireille was progressively falling out of love with her? It was a horrible, gut-wrenching notion, but one
Kirika couldn't ignore, no matter how much she wanted to. After all, their relationship was relapsing to its
former state. Maybe Kirika's lack of knowledge on the topic of love was the cause. She could be doing
something incorrectly--or not doing something she was meant to be doing--that was making Mireille pull
away from her. Or, in the absolute worst case, the woman simply might not feel the same way about
Kirika anymore. If that were correct, then there was nothing the introverted girl could do to repair the
damage in their relationship--there would be no point; no point to even go on, really. It was awful to even
contemplate. Truly, it was Kirika's most dreaded nightmare.

Kirika swallowed hard and looked up from the floor, returning her sad brown eyes to Mireille. There was a
sudden strange ache in her chest as she gazed upon her partner's beautiful but cold features. She didn't
know what it was, or even its origin, but it… it hurt. It was a pain more intense than all of the physical
agonies she had suffered during her years of life combined. Kirika had to resist the compulsion to clutch
at her chest, the instinctive action the result of a fervent need to somehow assuage the unseen but open
wound. She wondered if she had been injured at some point earlier in the day without her realising it, as
impossible as it sounded. Whatever the mysterious ache in her chest was, Kirika hoped it would pass
soon. With two enemy assassins to contend with, she had to stay in peak condition. And also the pain… it
was verging on unbearable. She didn't think she could endure it for an extended length of time. It was as
if her insides were being consumed.

The distance between Kirika and Mireille, from the bedroom steps to the billiard table, was only a matter
of metres, but to the former girl it was the equivalent of a vast, gaping chasm, forcibly separating her from
her love. She and Mireille were supposed to be partners, they were supposed to be in love, but Kirika…
Kirika felt… lonely. Maybe that was the cause of the ache in her chest. Loneliness. Mireille had always
been a reasonably aloof person, but Kirika had witnessed the warm heart beneath the blonde's cool
exterior--she knew one existed. Now, however, it was as though the woman's icy barriers were up once
more, putting distance between her heart and Kirika's, and in turn isolating herself. And isolating the
younger girl as well.

Kirika was aware she shouldn't feel lonely; she had her partner, Mireille, by her side--it was all she could
have asked for, and in the past, all she had required to live. But no… Mireille may be by her side in a
physical sense, but not in the sense Kirika wished her to be. Noir… it was a name for two, a fact the girl
had taken joy in before. While she no longer considered herself or Mireille as Noir, that principle--and the
happiness that came with it--still held true. Kirika and Mireille remained in a partnership of a sort… but it
was starting to lose the distinctive something that had made it special--unique. And with that mounting
loss, the feeling of loneliness increased.

Behind and just to the left of Mireille, Kirika caught sight of the potted orchid residing on its spot on the
small square table by a window. The outer edges of several of the large green leaves were a rotten,
decomposing brown; the result of neglect largely on Mireille's part, but Kirika was also guilty of forgetting
to water the plant some mornings. The advent of a fake Noir had evidently distracted both of them to
varying degrees. Oddly, the sight of the mistreated pot plant amplified the pain in Kirika's chest even
more.

The sad girl averted her gaze from Mireille and the orchid, returning it to the floorboards. She hugged
herself a little tighter. Noir…. Even if Kirika didn't think of herself and Mireille as the legendary pair of
assassins any more, some traits of the ancient and feared title still lingered with them--Noir was a name
synonymous with strife and anguish.

******

"Noir," Vin uttered with veneration to the apathetic bartender. He leaned forwards towards the grubby
man, resting one forearm on the bar, and wagged his eyebrows meaningfully--and also expectantly.
However, to his obvious disappointment, the bartender simply looked at him with a bored gaze.

"Look, do you want a drink or not?" the unshaven man said impatiently. "I *do* have other customers."

Vin sighed wearily and straightened, running a hand through his black hair. "Come, don't give brush! Noir,
*Noir!* Doesn't mean anything you? I *know* that…."

Ryosuke turned away from the irritating spectacle of his partner attempting to persuade the bartender of
Slick Chicks, with his limited grasp of the French language, into letting them see the manager of the
establishment, and pulled out a pack of cigarettes from inside his coat, capturing one between his lips.
Fetching his silver lighter from his left pocket, the white-haired man lit up the cigarette and took a long
drag, flipping the lighter shut with a metallic click as he did so. One would think that a poseur like Vin
would have made it a point to master the 'language of love'.

Ryosuke breathed out a stream of smoke from his nose, the resulting plumb joining countless others on
their ascents towards the ceiling of the club. Slick Chicks' interior resembled that of any 'gentleman's'
nightspot regardless of the city it called home. Men of various social standings--ranging from the lower
class to the common salary sort--were everywhere, hooting and whistling appreciatively while blatantly
leering at the scanty clad women who paraded around the room shamelessly, willingly degrading
themselves for measly change. The whores either danced wantonly as they shed their tawdry--and
sparse--attire on stage under the lustful grins and delighted calls of numerous onlookers; served drinks to
gropers who took pleasure in availing themselves of a waitress's close proximity; or treated some of the
more wealthy customers to select delicacies in the form of lap dances, before leading them through a
red-curtained doorway at the back of the main room for no doubt further… services.
Had these women no self-respect? Being around such degenerates made Ryosuke's skin crawl. He felt
filthy just being in the same room with them. Soiled. They were different from Fumiko, and to a lesser
degree, Claire, back in Yokohama.

Ryosuke put his cigarettes and lighter back in their respective pockets in his ebony coat, and pointedly
averted his eyes as one waitress dressed in red fishnet stockings and a matching bustier--a combination
that revealed a considerable amount of skin to the casual observer--smiled seductively and tried to meet
his gaze while she cleared a table. Disgusting. Ordinarily he would not even entertain the notion of setting
foot in a place like this, but Vin had eagerly assured him that Slick Chicks was the headquarters of a
syndicate that controlled most of Paris' red light district's, Pigalle's, seedy parts and through it the lion's
share of the city's illegal drug distribution network. Such influential people were the kind that could
possibly provide the support Ryosuke and Vin required to hinder the two new Soldats agents stalking
them, and consequently permit them to continue their search for Dominique's 'crucial' artefact. Kaede's
trial date was looming too, and Ryosuke wanted to have at least returned to Yokohama by then.

The black-garbed hitmen took another draw on his cigarette and puffed out a cloud of bluish-grey smoke
from the corner of his mouth. He only hoped that Vin wasn't using their need for outside help as an
excuse to troll Paris' local strip clubs and brothels. Although the flamboyant man's ability to ferret out
information was noteworthy and usually produced reliable facts, he had been complaining recently about
having visited almost all of the city's old museums and dusty rare antique stores, while not being allowed
the opportunity to even so much as catch a glimpse of Paris' famed Can-Can girls of the Moulin Rouge…
among numerous other establishments. Moreover, this was the fourth club that Vin had shepherded
Ryosuke into tonight. And the three before the triad member had also claimed were the headquarters of
some powerful criminal organisation that would be sure to lend them a hand… after he softened them up
first, of course. All in all, it did not build much confidence in Ryosuke that he and his partner would not be
fruitlessly drifting from one sordid club to another for the remainder of the night.

"Alright!" Vin suddenly exclaimed in Japanese, recalling Ryosuke's attention. The stoic white-haired man
turned back to his overly emotional companion, meeting his triumphantly smiling expression with his own
dour one. "He's going to get someone to take us to the person in charge," Vin informed Ryosuke,
gesturing with his thumb behind the bar in the direction of where the now absent bartender would have
been standing. "A 'Mr. Millet', if I'm not mistaken. I've heard that he's a big player around these parts--he
should be what we're looking for." He prodded the taller man in the chest a couple of times. "You see? I
told you this was the place!"

Ryosuke merely grunted and blew smoke over Vin's head. So they would be permitted to see the king of
the degenerates, the one who had gathered all the other scum under his rule. Somehow Ryosuke
managed to contain his elation. But sometimes one had to side with demons in order to bring down the
devil.

"Ryochan," Vin crooned in a nauseatingly cute voice Ryosuke hated with a passion, looking up at his
taller comrade, "I've told you before you shouldn't smoke. It's bad for the skin--" He made a sickly
expression as a fog of cigarette smoke was exhaled into his face, causing him to cough and gasp for air.
"--And the breath."

"And I've ignored you before," Ryosuke remarked lifelessly. "Take the hint."

Vin pouted but didn't say any more on the subject. Good. Ryosuke felt a migraine coming on. While the
low, base lighting of Slick Chicks was comfortable on his eyes, the constant drone of the insipid music the
strippers on stage undulated to was starting to create a faint throbbing sensation in the back of his mind.
He didn't need his partner nagging him about pointless matters on top of that.

"Hey, baby…" a slurring voice said from the right, causing both Ryosuke and Vin to turn their heads
towards the source of the sound. A man in a business suit--who was obviously quite intoxicated--was
grinning rakishly at the triad member, his watery eyes smouldering with desire… much to Vin's distaste.
"You are one fine looking woman, ya know… what do you say we go into the back, and…?"

"Take a hike, bozo!" Vin yelled scathingly, having no difficulties with his French now. "Go on, get!" he
added, making ardent shooing motions with his hands.

"Awww…" the drunkard moaned, but luckily for his sake, staggered away from the area to probably hit on
more willing subjects.

"Geez," Vin exhaled heavily, rubbing a temple, "it's moments like these I think I should cut my hair." But
he then smirked, before sighing exaggeratedly, his previously annoyed demeanour altering drastically.
"Being cursed with such… such… *resplendent* beauty can be so very trying at times…." he declared, as
though he were a true hero for even showing his face in public.

Ryosuke ignored him.

Soon after, another man, this one considerably more sober and dressed more stylishly than the last,
approached the black clad hitman and his posing partner, instructing them to follow him into the back of
the club. Ryosuke and Vin complied, and were led through a door behind the bar and down a long
corridor. Cracked grey concrete walls enclosed the two assassins and their escort on either side,
illuminated by several weak light bulbs dangling from above, the occasional one flickering on and off. The
hard floor was clean however--it had evidently seen a lot of traffic.

Ryosuke and Vin's guide rounded a corner at the end of the hall and opened a brown painted door
labelled simply with 'Manager' in blue script a short ways down the right hand wall of the following
passage. He ushered them through the doorway, before stepping into the room also, shutting the door
behind him. He then positioned himself against the closed door, effectively blocking it and impeding any
means of escape if things should turn… unpleasant. Fine. Ryosuke wasn't concerned in the slightest.

Seated at a desk surrounded by about a half-dozen standing goons was 'Mr. Millet', Ryosuke presumed.
He was a greying man who looked to be in his late thirties to early forties, with deep wrinkles ravaging his
leathery face. The crevices made his features appear hard, but Ryosuke believed even free of them Millet
would still have had a harsh countenance. Conversely, his trappings were that of an ordinary
businessman; a white shirt, black braces and dark red tie. Ryosuke assumed that whatever clothing the
mahogany desk the man was sitting behind was hiding was of a similar style as well.

"So, you two are Noir," Millet intoned with clear skepticism, looking at Ryosuke and Vin as if they were a
couple of fools.

That name, Noir. It was one of Dominique's stipulations for the assignment--Ryosuke and his partner
were to use the codename, Noir, while in France. At the time, back in Yokohama, it hadn't seemed like a
major concern to the white-haired man, but he soon learnt once entering Paris that Noir was a renowned
title in Europe, dating back more than a thousand years. It was the name of the greatest assassin ever
known. A notorious alias brought unwanted attention, but Vin frequently used it openly, appearing
unaware of the danger he could attract. Like now, for instance. Ryosuke felt like a naïve child for agreeing
to follow Dominique's order without protest. It was liable to get him and his companion killed. Maybe.

"I wasn't expecting two people, nor two Asians at that," Millet went on, one corner of his lips curving
upwards slightly into a condescending lopsided smile. "Noir, indeed…." He bent forward in his plush
leather chair, resting his elbows on the desk in front of him. "You may address me as Mr. Millet. Do you
have names?"

"You know it," Ryosuke said coldly in French before Vin could react, earning an exasperated look from
the shorter man. While Vin was a proficient negotiator, his broken French was not likely to impress people
like Millet and his men. Women in this city apparently found it rather endearing, for who knew what
reason, but it would be an entirely different story here and now. Millet would likely laugh at Vin, before
having him--and Ryosuke--thrown out onto the street. Ryosuke and Vin needed to be taken seriously.
Fortunately, Ryosuke spoke fluent French, a talent he had been taught along with his sister under
Dominique's tutelage when they were children. It had been at the request of their mother. Back then,
years ago when he was merely a gullible child, Ryosuke had thought nothing of it bar the prospect of
more homework. But now he was considerably wiser.

Ryosuke marched forwards and sat himself in one of the chairs arranged in front of Millet's desk
uninvited, Vin doing likewise in a second seat a moment after him, knowing when to defer to his lead.
"There are two young women," Ryosuke began levelly, plucking his cigarette from his lips and flicking
some ash onto the rich carpeted floor of the office uncaringly, "who must die."

Millet leaned back in his chair, his expression one of bemusement, but the Japanese hitman could detect
unmistakable anger beneath the façade at his 'guest's' disrespectful behaviour. Too bad. Ryosuke didn't
have time to dally with words. He wanted Dominique's mission over with so he could return home to
Kaede's side. Who knew what lies and corruption that despicable gaijin was feeding to his dear sister
without his watchful presence to deter her? Ryosuke wondered if he would still even have a home to
return to by the time this insufferable assignment ended.

"Straight and to the point; I like that," Millet said, but Ryosuke could see past his words to the thinly
viewed resentment buried underneath. "Let me guess, these two broads are your wives you want offed
for the insurance, or to placate your girlfriends or mistresses, am I right? Or perhaps all those reasons are
true?"

Vin snorted, and Ryosuke knew he was about to make a clever comment. Quickly, so to forestall his
partner from creating a potential threat to the supremacy he had over the conversation, the white-haired
assassin continued, disregarding Millet's patronising inquiries as well.
"Two women. We have no pictures. We have no names. But--"

"Then how the hell do you expect us to find them?!" one gangster scoffed incredulously off to the right.
"Christ, do you think we're--"

"The first's approximately five foot six," Ryosuke went on unabated, his voice raising just a little to counter
the hoodlum's interruption. "Caucasian in her early twenties. Blonde hair past shoulder length. Blue eyes.
Slim build. Attractive."

"*Very* attractive," Vin amended impishly.

Still Ryosuke kept up his description. "The second is a young girl; a teenager. But still merely a child," the
hitman reported. "Asian. Height of five foot or below. Black/brown hair. Brown eyes. Very lean build."

Millet smiled thinly. "Your descriptions are all very well and good," he said conceitedly, "but what makes
you even think we're nothing more than business men? That we're the kind of people who can be hired
to--"

"Both will be armed," Ryosuke stated firmly, staring into Millet's eyes unwaveringly, talking him down.
"They travel together, or near enough together. It can be presumed they live here in Paris." The assassin
found no reason to warn Millet or his men that the two young women would probably be quite formidable.
Let them discover that fact for themselves.

"Listen!" Millet spat, rising angrily from his seat, his patience obviously at its end. "I don't know who you
think you are, but if you think you can come into *my* office in *my* club and *demand* me too--"

Ryosuke reached into his coat, causing a multitude of hands to hastily reach into their own jackets or
behind their waists undoubtedly for concealed weapons, but instead of pulling out a firearm as they all
most likely had anticipated, the hitman took out a thick wad of bills, tossing it nonchalantly onto Millet's
desk. The pile lay there, drawing all eyes--now clearly wide--to it, their weapons forgotten. The amount of
Euros in the stack was more than enough for a contract killing of two Soldats flunkies, and a sum
Ryosuke was positive would make waves. The first love of all degenerates was money.

"I don't care how you do it," Ryosuke declared in his lifeless voice, "or how you find them, or even how
long it takes. Just kill them." He bent forwards, stubbing out his cigarette on Millet's desk. The 'big player'
didn't even notice, too busy sinking slowly back into his leather seat, simply staring, his indignation
stymied by the spectacle of the considerable pile of Euros just sitting there on the desk before him, ripe
for the taking. "You're supposedly the big boys around here," Ryosuke added as he resettled himself in
his chair, laying it on thick. "Prove it."

Millet smiled widely and tore his eyes away from the money on his desk, his lackeys' own remaining
riveted by the sight. Ryosuke wondered if they had ever in all their worthless lives seen such an amount
in cash before.

"I think we can come to an arrangement, my friends," Millet said sweetly in a stomach-turning tone, all
smiles now. "But why not kill these women yourselves?" he inquired curiously. "You claim to be the most
fearsome assassin--or *assassins*, rather--in this continent's history. Couldn't you just--"

"Do you want the job or not?" Ryosuke said.

"Yes! Yes!" Millet quickly assured him, grabbing the wad of Euros in his greedy hands before his new
patron could snatch back the payment.

"Good. You'll get the same sum once the deed is done," Ryosuke informed Millet. "I trust this is to your
liking?"
"Indeed it is!" Millet exclaimed enthusiastically, flipping through the stack of money with a thumb before
looking up at his men. "Right, lads?"

A resounding series of befuddled but pleased chuckles filled the room, none of the thugs likely believing
their luck. Ryosuke took it all in emotionlessly, scanning his violet eyes over the sleazy faces of Millet's
goons. His wary gaze abruptly paused on one individual; a man dressed much like his fellows in
fashionable attire, for all intents and purposes appearing as a member of Millet's syndicate. Except for
one minor detail--he wasn't sharing in their laugh.

Ryosuke's dark-rimmed eyes narrowed slightly, before they resumed their meander. It seemed as if he
and Vin had gained new allies this night--a welcome turn of events, in Ryosuke's opinion. But he knew not
to relax. No, he could never relax. Allies had the tendency to turn into adversaries in a blink of an eye…
and oft times that eye didn't even notice.



Chapter 7 - Sinners, Act I


Kaede Ishinomori examined her series of finely honed instruments through her snow-white bangs with an
appraising eye, where they were laid out in a silver tray on a square table before her. Their smooth
metallic surfaces glinted vibrantly, reflecting the flames flickering in the fireplace inset on one wall of the
lavishly decorated but Spartanly furnished room. During the last session their rigorous use and seen them
become quite soiled, requiring them to be thoroughly cleansed and polished until they shone radiantly,
almost bathed in a holy aura. Kaede's craft was an art form that called extensively upon her utensils, both
exotic and ordinary alike. Even the most everyday of items could be used to beguile a subject closer to
enlightenment.

The brick fireplace was the sole source of light in the otherwise gloomy, spacious room, generating an
overall sinister atmosphere, the air thick with dark foreboding. Two cast iron pokers rested in the crackling
flames of the fireplace, their ends glowing a hot orange, having been in their for a significant amount of
time. They would be needed later to prevent the subject's premature departure before they--or he, in this
case--had reached the exalted plateau of celestial favour. The human shell was so fragile. But it did serve
to restrict blessed illumination to only those whose bodies could endure the hallowed ordeal Kaede so
fastidiously administered with her skilled hands. If not, then any unworthy heathen could achieve
transcendence.

A willowy, pale hand hovered lazily over the tray of instruments as Kaede mulled her choices, pausing for
fleeting moments on each one, although it was an act to heighten the subject's state of anticipation more
than anything else. Or rather, his state of *fear*. Fear caused the body to produce adrenaline, resulting in
a subject being able to undergo more trials than she or he normally would, and hence, bring them nearer
to enlightenment at a faster pace. Nevertheless, Kaede wondered why this subject was still so frightened.
He should feel privileged; it wasn't as though she treated all the people under her to this honour.
Although, Matsumoto *had* strayed from her fold, betraying her to outsiders and their foul, warped word
of law; for whatever reason be it money or a misguided conscience. Naturally, that was one of the primary
motivations behind Kaede choosing to bestow the gift of sacred revelation upon him… through *pain*.
She would compel the wayward Matsumoto to repent his sins, and in turn, hasten his inevitable journey
towards the Heavens, with his soul clean and ready to be judged by the Gods.

Not that Matsumoto could verbally repent. A muffled and pathetic mewling came from the man on
Kaede's left as her hand lingered over an electric prod, her slender fingers crooking downwards to caress
the device lovingly. Kaede had quickly tired of Matsumoto's pleading once she had begun her purification
ritual--the symphony of screams a woman produced when in a state of torment were far more pleasing to
the ear--consequently inciting her to cut out the offending jabbering muscle to cease the infernal prattle.
However, after sealing the ensuing wound with the sanitising heat of searing hot iron, the inconsiderate
man had then taken to whining and snivelling like a little boy, further bothering Kaede. So, she decided to
close the vexing orifice permanently. A sharp needle and strong fishing line had a million uses.

Kaede's hands resumed their meander above the tray, leaving the prod and moving on to other
implements of torture. Electricity was an efficient means to inflict varying degrees of pain upon a subject
without dealing permanent damage to her or his body. Yet the white-haired woman had learnt through
great practice that males had a superior natural resistance to the agony of an electrical charge ravaging
their muscles than females did, so nowadays she tended to reserve that particular form of anguish for
those of the feminine allegiance. Most women could be cowed into doing almost anything to avoid
electricity's sharp sting… much to Kaede's delight.

Kaede's eyes drifted away from her beloved instruments to take in her errant 'bodyguard'; her trademark
perpetual, faint, and distant smile glued to her features. Matsumoto hung naked from the ceiling by two
lengths of chain; his wrists in manacles and his arms stretched painfully taut into the air, the weak
muscles of the limbs visibly straining pitifully against their treatment. Equally restrained were the man's
legs, held fast by cuffed ankles affixed to a third and fourth set of chains bolted firmly to rings embedded
in the grey slate tiled floor. The subject's bonds were pulled so tightly that he could barely squirm a
centimetre. As they should be. Kaede couldn't have Matsumoto fidgeting while she was trying to save his
soul, after all. It would be irritating to say the least.

The trim young woman, dressed plainly in a grey tank top and shorts--her nightwear--turned fully to face
Matsumoto and placed her hands on her hips, striking a thoughtful pose. She looked over the subject's
body with an evaluating gaze, gauging how much more his shell could withstand. The man's hands were
simply twin balls of meat, the digits that had once adorned them having been severed by one manner or
another, leaving behind in their place a mess of cauterised flesh where Kaede had touched them with a
glowing poker retrieved from the fireplace. Lower, old dried scabs and freshly torn tissue revealing raw
red beneath, where the rough edges of his metal shackles had harshly cut into his skin, ringed
Matsumoto's wrists. The man had struggled mightily in his restraints in the beginning, depleting much of
his strength and with only severely chafed wrists--and ankles also--to show for his ultimately wasted
labours. No longer did he fight, however. Matsumoto's shell had now dedicated its faculties totally towards
merely sustaining its bare minimum of functions that were vital for survival.

Kaede's veiled eyes descended to the subject's neck, where yet more blood encrusted bands disfigured
his flesh, along with a spattering of dark purple bruises. At several points in previous sessions, the
woman had throttled Matsumoto with an assortment of objects--rope, wire, cloth; and several times with
her bare hands. But under stringent circumstances, of course. Controlled asphyxiation could cause a
substantial amount of burning woe to the sufferer's lungs, and in turn their whole body in general, but it
had to be strictly regulated. Too much invariably resulted in premature death--one had to monitor the
subject most carefully to prolong the torturous yet liberating experience. Why, once Kaede had kept one
subject with a tight noose around her neck alive for more than an hour and a half by lowering her back to
her tiptoes for twenty minutes or so whenever it seemed that she was drawing close to the point of no
return. When the blessed woman had finally expired, she had dangled in the air by her neck for at least a
full hour all together. Kaede was sure that particular subject had reached glorious enlightenment at the
end.

Kaede's thoughts returned from the past to her latest subject, her gaze roaming over his ripped and
bludgeoned form. Matsumoto's left leg was bent at an odd angle, the knee joint having been crushed to a
pulp when she'd had the sudden impulse to deliver a blow with a small mallet to it. The man had howled
terribly at that, the scream made all the more grotesque since he had lacked a tongue at the time. It was
one of the things that had provoked Kaede into stitching up his lips a short period later. Really, a feminine
shriek was infinitely more beautiful than a masculine one.

Kaede's smile widened just a tad once her eyes found their way to Matsumoto's bloody crotch. She
wouldn't be surprised if he could hit the high notes now, however, despite being a man. A male's spirit
was prone to shatter quicker when ruthlessly robbed of his manhood, a supposition that Kaede more
often than not proved to ring true with all of her male subjects. The poor fools were reduced to
whimpering, compliant children after such a… demoralising… dismemberment.

"What to do, what to do," Kaede remarked in a singsong voice, tapping a whimsical finger on her chin.
Her gaze went to Matsumoto's more or less unharmed face; the only really noticeable damage his
somewhat swollen mouth. "Ah, yes, I remember," the lissom woman said, as if it had suddenly dawned on
her. In truth, she'd had a motive for abstaining from inflicting harm to Matsumoto's visage, a motive she
intended to come to fruition. Right now.

Kaede turned back to her tray, plucking a pile of about a dozen, ten centimetre long, flexible needles from
the selection of apparatus available. Her all but unwavering smile still on her face, she returned her
attention to Matsumoto, who quivered as best he could in his chains at the sight of the needles in her
hand. There were benefits to letting a subject keep their eyes, the woman reflected.

Kaede took a single step forwards to the subject, her heart rate quickening as the sweet and exciting
sense of anticipation enveloped her. Taking short, rapid breaths, she pulled one needle out of the bundle,
flourishing it before Matsumoto's terror-stricken eyes. The man thrashed against his bonds with renewed
vigour, although amid the combination of his ailing strength and virtually unyielding restraints, it didn't
make much more than the most marginal of differences.

"Now, now; none of that," Kaede chided as she replaced the heap of needles back on the tray before
grasping a clump of Matsumoto's short brown hair in her now free hand, holding his head in place as he
moaned weakly. "Be good and stay still…" she cooed soothingly while she brought the sharp thin needle
in her other hand up to the subject's eyes, "that's it…."

Apparently comprehending what she intended to do, Matsumoto squeezed his eyes shut tightly in a
meagre attempt to thwart the inescapable--his shell still had a little kick left in it after all. But Kaede would
have none of it. Shifting the hand behind Matsumoto's head a fraction, she forcibly pried open his right
eyelid with her thumb, exposing the frantic orb underneath. The man's eye darted wildly around the room
for a few seconds, but then focused unswervingly on the shiny silver needle brandished in Kaede's right
hand as it grew larger and larger in his vision, its dreaded course glaringly clear.

"There are numerous pain receptors behind the eyes," Kaede explained absently as pulled Matsumoto's
eyelid back further. "Unfortunately, these can only be reached by inserting a fine needle under the top
eyelid." She paused in both speech and motion, and one corner of her lips twitched slightly as her smile
took on an almost impish quality. "But luckily for you, I happen to have a few of said needles."

Without any more delay, Kaede inserted the flexible needle in the exact spot she had just mentioned,
lodging it deeply into Matsumoto's eye socket, nestling it just above his optic nerve. She then quickly let it
go, the springy metal bouncing back and forth.

Matsumoto's stifled, yet still piercing scream echoed around the room as he jerked spasmodically, the
pain consuming him… and hence, curing his soul of more of its taint. Simply magnificent.

The grand double door entrance to the room to Kaede's rear creaked open, accompanied by the click of
high heels on slate. The clicks stopped shortly afterwards, and a longsuffering sigh followed while a
second creak signalled the doors were being shut.

"I see I'll most likely have to get someone in to clean this floor again," a woman's smoky voice
commented resignedly.

Kaede spared a glance over her shoulder from her work at the newcomer, although she already knew
who was standing there behind her. Garbed in a crisp black dress suit and a cream coloured silk shirt,
Dominique D'Aubigne painted a very cultured picture. But even if clad in rags the woman would still make
for a fine depiction of sophistication. Standing a dash below six foot and with long, straight, glossy black
locks that fell to the peak of her thighs, Dominique was an imposing person to say the least. Her distinctly
feminine figure was trim but full in all the right places, as befitting to most westerners, and her features
were delicate yet defined with high cheekbones and a slender nose, where on the latter a pair of stylish
oval glasses was perched, emerald green eyes shining behind them. She was, to put it simply, quite
stunning. Dominique was approaching middle age, creeping into her forties at the very least, but barely a
wrinkle could be seen tarnishing her milky white skin. There was, however, a streak of silvery grey in her
dark tresses hanging next to the left side of her face. But rather than detract from her beauty, it instead
enhanced it.

Dominique had been in the Ishinomori family's employ for as long as Kaede could remember, ever since
she was a young child. She had acted as Kaede's mother's personal assistant, and had also been the
late woman's close confidant for many years. These days, with her mother's passing, Dominique had
adopted her former role with Kaede, becoming her assistant and advisor. But, in some ways, she was
more than that. The French woman had always been there for Kaede--she was like her guardian. Her
friend. In short, Dominique D'Aubigne was one of the few people Kaede genuinely trusted. And
considering that the sensuous lady was born and bred Soldats stock, that was certainly saying
something.

"It's getting on in hours, my Lady Kaede," Dominique crooned, pointedly paying no attention to the
high-pitched screeches emanating from Matsumoto as Kaede had the first needle's companions join it in
protruding from his eye socket, methodically spacing the instruments of torture along its upper half. "I'm
sure your… 'toys'… are keeping your bed warm for you… perhaps you should grace them with your
presence."

"Any news from Big Brother?" Kaede asked as she slid another needle above the subject's eyeball,
ignoring her advisor's subtle suggestion.

There was a slight silence from Dominique, so brief that it was hardly apparent, before she answered.
"None, my Lady," the woman said, "but rest assured I will inform you right away as soon as I hear word
from him."

Kaede nodded and shifted her ministrations to Matsumoto's other eye, leaving behind a semi-circle of
spines jutting out of the man's right eye socket. He didn't howl any longer and barely convulsed as his
white-haired redeemer wedged a needle over the top his left, unseeing eye; its depths void of awareness.
The subject was close.

"And what of local developments?" Kaede inquired.

"Much the same, my dear," Dominique reported in a somewhat wearisome tone. "The Sumiyoshi-kai
remain in disarray, with no subsidiary group having successfully claimed leadership of the clan just
yet--and no clear likelihood that one ever will in the foreseeable future. I doubt they will offer much
resistance--they are too busy fighting amongst themselves--although with the threat of our organisation, it
may serve to unite them. But there is nothing we can do about that. Regardless, I foresee an easy victory
over them." Dominique took a moment to clear her throat, and then resumed. "Talks continue with the
proxy leaders of the Yamaguchi-gumi, with little progress. They believe us to be merely another
organised crime syndicate, and as such are treating us as one attempting to ally with them. It may cause
problems when they learn the truth. But for now, we are on good terms. The Kansai region is becoming
unprofitable for them; a new collaborator would inject much-needed funds and life into the ailing yakuza
clan. I hear they have been trying to expand into the Kanto region in search of new business, which will
sooner or later instigate a war with the Sumiyoshi-kai, united or divided. I recommend having some of our
eyes-and-ears keep a watch on their progress throughout the territory. This situation can perhaps be
exploited to our advantage."

"Mmm," Kaede mumbled idly in agreement, more interested in saving Matsumoto's soul than the cold war
with the country's underworld at present.

"The other yakuza clans that haven't already been devoured will be consumed once all of the gangs
under the Sumiyoshi-kai and the Yamaguchi-gumi are inducted into our ranks or dissolved; it's only a
matter of time," Dominique went on, before hesitating, as if something offensive had caught in her throat.
"As for… *them*, their loathsome presence has been all but purged from the major cities in the Kanagawa
prefecture save for their persisting entrenchments in Kawasaki. However, their agents still somehow find
the means to strike against us on our own grounds, even here in Yokohama. Loses have been…
tolerable, but the disturbances discredit us with our 'partners', both current and… impending."

"Soldats…" Kaede whispered softly, and then abruptly jammed another needle rather violently into
Matsumoto's left eye socket. Her aim was slightly off however, and the sharp point pierced the white of
the man's eye, passing straight through the glutenous inside of the orb before bursting into the skull's
cavity. Matsumoto didn't so much as flinch.

"Child, I believe that man's senses have become numb," Dominique interjected into Kaede's session.
"You *have* been 'attending' to him for in excess of a week now."

Kaede ceased planting needles in Matsumoto's eye sockets and looked at him closely. He sagged heavily
in his chains and his breathing was hoarse and shallow. "Yes…" the white-haired young woman hissed in
approval, her tone taking on an impassioned timbre, "he has grown beyond this plane of reality, beyond
this stunted level of thought to another place, far removed from all mundane things. He has fully accepted
the pain into his shell, into his mind and his very spirit, and thus it has bestowed upon him divine
understanding of his true existence." Kaede sighed in joyous wonder. "He has been favoured with
enlightenment!"

"…Of course, my lady," Dominique said quietly.

Quickly, Kaede unlocked Matsumoto's--or more accurately, the trappings that contained the man's
soon-to-be ascending soul--shackles and carefully lowered him to the floor, where a black body bag
awaited. Arranging the subject in its snug confines, she then zipped up the bag to about three-quarters of
the way, insuring that the fading shell could still feed on its last vestiges of needed oxygen.

"Why don't you put him out of his misery?" Dominique queried as she stood beside Kaede's kneeling
form, folding her arms and looking distastefully down at Matsumoto's shell. "Traitorous male," she
sneered, her words laced with heavy scorn.

"It can't die yet," Kaede informed her aide, stroking the rubbery material of the body bag with one hand,
drawing circular patterns as she watched the shell's face, the tops of his eyes still riddled with a curved
line of needles. Removing them might drag Matsumoto back from the brink--it was a chance Kaede was
not willing to take. "This state must be prolonged. I am not so cruel as to deny Matsumoto's soul the scant
handful of moments to bathe in its newfound understanding before it rises to the Heavens. He was a
betrayer, but he has been redeemed; the defilement in him has been banished. I am confident he has
repented for his sins."

"They are *all* full of defilement, Lady Kaede," Dominique remarked disdainfully, her beautiful features
twisting as she continued to look down upon Matsumoto's shell. "And there is no redeeming them. The
sooner you learn that, the better."

Kaede looked up at Dominique, tilting her head slightly to one side. "'All'?" she parroted, before shaking
her head, her lower lip pouting out a little, making her seem like a argumentative child. She still smiled
however, causing the expression to appear rather odd as well. "No, no; Big Brother is not tainted."

Dominique let out a low, throaty chuckle, smiling tolerantly down at Kaede. She reached down and
indulgently brushed the young woman's pale cheek with the fingertips of one hand. "Poor, naïve darling,"
she whispered sympathetically, before straightening. "Come along now," she then said in a louder and
sterner voice, "I will have someone fetch Matsumoto's 'shell' later. You really must retire to bed."

Kaede nodded obediently, and then rose to her feet, joining her advisor as the statuesque woman led the
way out of the room. Big Brother. She prayed he was all right. He had been gone for so long. But his
assignment was necessary, or so Dominique said. It was a mission that would ultimately help them in
combating Soldats. And when it came to Soldats, Kaede would do everything in her power to bring the
corrupt society down. There was no repentance for them.

******

"Cold night," Mireille remarked offhandedly, glad that she had worn her coat for their latest outing into the
city's underbelly… as pointless as it had been. Her breath fogged the air ahead of her as she walked
down the shadowy and empty Paris streets together with Kirika, a testament that winter was just around
the corner. Soon Mireille wouldn't be able to wear miniskirts any more, unless she was willing to brave the
coming chill.

Mireille's eyes turned to look upon Kirika, but the girl merely mumbled a vague agreement and inclined
her head a fraction, her eyes remaining fastened to the footpath she was travelling along.

Mireille sighed, a plumb of mist blooming in front of her face; a larger one this time. It had been days
since they had put the word out that they were searching for Ryosuke Ishinomori and Vincent Hsu--or to
be more precise, 'Noir'--but so far not a single snitch nor information dealer had unearthed anything
noteworthy. Not even Simon, with his supposed network of spies, had been able to learn of anything. The
boy had apologised profusely to Mireille for his failure to date, but his worthless regrets did nothing to
bring her and Kirika any closer to their enemies. This drought of data concerning the false Noir did
nothing to quell the unpleasant distance between Mireille and her partner. Wherever Ryosuke and
Vincent were hiding, they were adept at concealing themselves.

It was very late into the evening, Mireille and Kirika having been out and about in the city since early
morning, paying each of the blonde's sources a visit to obtain an update on their progress. Needless to
say, the pair's efforts had been for naught. Each day that passed was marked with a gradually
heightening sense of frustration to Mireille--that, and a sense of desolation, hopelessness. The passing
days not only signified the skill Ryosuke and Vincent possessed at laying low--and the apparent lack of
skill Mireille's informants had at sniffing them out--but also the increasing breakdown in the blonde
woman's relationship with her diminutive counterpart. Whenever the sun rose on the horizon for a new
day, Kirika's spirits seemed to conversely diminish just a little bit more. It had come to a point that the
darkhaired girl's mood had degenerated to such a degree that it appeared she had closed herself off
completely from Mireille and the outside world alike. She was scarcely responsive to verbal inquiries and
seemed to look right through her surroundings most of the time, immersed in her private brooding. She
didn't eat much anymore, either, making mealtimes a considerably short and cheerless affair, but coupled
with the oppressive silence now commonplace between the two assassins, they were still uncomfortable
and depressing despite their length. The apartment Mireille and Kirika were returning to at this very
moment; their sanctuary, their *home*; no longer contained the pleasant and content atmosphere it once
had. Rather, it was a cold and unfeeling place filled with old memories of a better life the two had formerly
shared; a life that Mireille felt she had lived a long, long time ago. She wondered if that life had ever been
real to begin with.

It couldn't go on like this. But Mireille could do nothing save for hunting down the false Noir, doing
Breffort's bidding for both their sakes, and hope that everything would turn out all right in the end. What
else was there? It was the only thing she was sure of, the only thing that could improve matters between
her and Kirika. She just wished developments would proceed faster. For some reason time had become
Mireille's third bitter foe. No, that was a lie. She knew the reason behind the sentiment. Mireille felt like as
time went by another piece of Kirika's heart slipped away from her. When that feeling had hit the woman,
it had… it had simply frightened her. And shocked her that she was so frightened. She knew she was
attached to her partner… loved her… but still, a part of her had never truly believed, or perhaps accepted,
that Kirika meant *that* much to her. Kirika. That girl. She always served to get under Mireille's skin
somehow. Even so, the Corsican would rather have a moody partner she didn't quite comprehend her
feelings for than none at all. She couldn't go back to always being alone.

A Metro subway entrance drew nearer on Mireille and Kirika's left as they walked, bright light still shining
from its depths even at this hour. There were only a few more blocks to trek before the apartment would
be in sight. With this chilly night air, Mireille was beginning to rethink her decision to walk the distance
rather than take a taxicab, or even the Metro. She angled her gaze slightly to Kirika, speculating whether
or not the girl felt the cold. Mireille smiled faintly without humour. The cold probably didn't even touch
Kirika. A lack of awareness tended to allow one to distance themselves from petty annoyances,
environmental and otherwise.

All of a sudden, Kirika stopped walking and looked over her shoulder, prompting Mireille to do likewise. A
brown Citroen was cruising quietly up the street behind them. While that was nothing unusually in itself,
one thing did cause the Corsican pause--its headlights were switched off.

Doubtless having realised he had been spotted, the driver of the car suddenly accelerated, speeding
along the remaining length of road towards the stationary Mireille and Kirika, closing the distance
separating them at an alarming rate.

"Kirika!" Mireille exclaimed, looking her counterpart in the eyes briefly before snapping her gaze to the
Metro entrance, and then back again to the girl.

Understanding her partner's intentions, Kirika took off for the subway, pulling out her handgun at the
same time. Mireille risked a fleeting look at the rapidly gaining car, and then bolted after Kirika, hot on the
girl's heels. She heard the Citroen squeak to an abrupt halt next to the curb and its four doors open a
second later, followed by men's vehement curses. Reaching inside her coat, Mireille drew her Walther
P99 from its holster strapped around her torso and angled her upper body back around to the car as she
continued to run. She sighted five men in total clambering out of the Citroen, all bearing arms. With her
gun held in her right hand, Mireille unleashed a volley of bullets in the mob's general direction, hoping to
delay their imminent pursuit for a few seconds as they scrambled for cover and give her and Kirika more
time to find a defensive position. Fighting out in the open when her opponents had their vehicle to hide
behind was not the Corsican assassin's style.

A couple of bullets smashed through the car's front windshield, forming a spider's web of cracks spiralling
out from the puncture holes, and consequently caused the driver to duck and throw himself out of the
vehicle to prevent being hit. Several more rounds perforated the hood of the Citroen, and more its open
doors which the majority of the men used to protect themselves from Mireille's inhibiting barrage. Another
slug shattered the front passenger side window to pieces, and a second luckier shot struck a man trying
to exit the car there in the right upper arm, the force of the gunshot knocking him back into his seat.

"Go! Go!" the injured man shouted through clenched teeth, urging his companions on with emphatic
motions with his head while he clutched at his bleeding arm. "Take the shotgun!"

Mireille didn't stick around for the rest of the conversation, sprinting down the subway's flight of stairs two
steps at a time as the men returned fire, bullets ricocheting off the walls she had only instants before run
past. She saw Kirika disappear behind the corner at the end of the staircase and quickly dashed after her,
leaping the remaining half a dozen steps to the landing, the sound of her boots hitting the hard cement
floor echoing off the narrow subway entryway's walls.

Mireille darted around the corner just as a hail of gunfire rung out, a myriad of bullets riddling a payphone
mounted on the wall across from the street entrance to the Metro system. The unfortunate payphone
spewed out coins all over the landing from its ruptured insides, as though a gushing, metallic wound.
Better it than her, however, Mireille thought grimly.

Mireille glanced at Kirika beside her as Euro coins bounced past their feet and down the second staircase
into the Metro station. She looked rather anxious as she met the Corsican's eyes, one of the first true
displays of emotion the blonde had seen for quite a while. Not surprising though, considering that they
had just been attacked out of the blue. Who were these men? Or more importantly, how on earth had
they found them? Mireille Bouquet and Kirika Yuumura were not easy people to track down--Kirika didn't
even exist in many public and private records.
Mireille pressed her back against the cracked, graffiti stained cement wall and carefully peeked around
the corner. Whoever these would-be assassins were, she was sure they weren't Soldats minions. For one
thing, they had a substantially different dress sense than the soldiers of the clandestine group. These
men had the trappings of showy gangsters, not the black suits and ties that were customary among
Soldats operatives. Were they with Ryosuke and Vincent? It was unlikely, taking into account that the two
Asian men were reportedly strangers to this country; Mireille didn't think they would have any notable
contacts in Paris. It didn't rule out the possibility that they could have recruited some flunkies, however.
Had one of Mireille's informants sold her out to the false Noir? Maybe… but the blonde had always been
careful not to reveal too much about herself to her sources, business associates or not. It was a good way
to wind up dead before you even knew what--and who--hit you.

A few rounds impacted into the wall close to Mireille's peeping face, causing her to reflexively jerk back
into cover. In any case, her questions would have to wait until another, more appropriate time to be
answered. But heads would roll as soon as she found out who had betrayed her.

Mireille strafed out a pace from behind the corner in a flash of movement, just as three of the men were
advancing down the stairs, pistols in hand. Her expression cold, she rapidly squeezed off a trio of shots at
the nearest gangster, all three of them surprised by her deft manoeuvre. Two of the Parabellum rounds
made devastating contact with the targeted man's right thigh, buckling the whole leg underneath him and
sending him sprawling face first on the steps, his gun escaping his grasp with the jolt of the fall. He cried
out in pain and raised his head from the stairs, only to get another slug in the forehead, the bullet tearing
clean through his skull and out the opposite side, an explosion of blood and brain matter punctuating its
violent exit. The gangster's head slumped forwards against the steps once again, except this time
lifelessly and encircled by dripping red cascading languidly down the stairs.

"Shit! What in the hell?! You bitch!" screamed one goon furiously before he started blazing away wildly at
Mireille with his gun, obviously taken aback by his nearby companion's abrupt death. But all he hit was
cement, the assassin already having retreated into the safety of the corner once more.

Mireille listened patiently for the telltale click of an emptied handgun, waiting for the gangster to foolishly
waste all of his ammunition in his rage. No, these men were definitely not Soldats. Soldats people would
have had more discipline. Or at the very least, more common sense.

Mireille heard the slide of the infuriated gangster's pistol snap back, and instantly she flitted out from
shelter, brandishing her Walther in both hands. Her blue eyes suddenly widened as she was greeted by
the alarming sight of the single barrel of a pump action shotgun aimed directly at her chest from behind
the angry goon and his more composed friend, wielded by a third man who had arrived on the scene.

Mireille didn't even have the opportunity to curse before a peppering of pellets were fired her way, forcing
her to desperately dive for cover, narrowly evading the lethal buckshot. Without her finely honed reflexes
she would have taken the contents of the shotgun shell full in the chest, unquestionably spelling death.
And Mireille would be damned if some low-level hoods claimed her life.

Another shotgun blast pounded into the wall Mireille and Kirika were just around the corner from; bits of
cement raining down to the floor while puffs of dust were launched into the air. Perhaps it was time to find
a better position.

Mireille signalled sharply to Kirika to run deeper into the Metro station with a terse flick of her head, her
blonde locks waving. The girl immediately obeyed and the pair hurried down the second flight of stairs
into the Metro, the steps of their chasing adversaries reverberating in the L-shaped entryway to their rear.

However, as soon as Mireille and Kirika entered the subway station proper, the blonde realised her
mistake. A huge, thick iron barred gate was situated in front of the turnstiles to the station platform, flush
with the walls, floor and ceiling of the entry area, effectively blocking any potential escape route. Stupid.
Mireille should have remembered that the Metro was out of service for the night.
A loud pinging resounded in the station and a flare of sparks manifested on one bar of the gate just to the
side of Mireille's head as a wayward bullet from the tailing gangsters missed its blonde target, spurring
the woman to roll behind a nearby column support. Mireille flicked her head to the left, catching sight of
Kirika swooping into the shelter of a pillar also, the structure thankfully just wide enough to shield a lean
person. Terrific. Now the only means for Mireille and Kirika to shake these people off was to make sure
that they would never bother anybody else ever again.

The blonde assassin sighed as yet another torrent of bullets were sent her and her partner's way,
glancing off the upright iron bars of the gate and hammering into the reverse face of the pillar. She so
disliked leaving bodies haphazardly around the place, especially in her own neighbourhood. It could be a
messy business. One corpse was bad enough as it was. And the worst of it was Mireille and Kirika
weren't even being paid to put them in their graves! Although, it could be said that the reward for
executing these men was that she and Kirika continued breathing. And really, what better payment--or
incentive for success--was that? Combating Soldats had taught Mireille that particular truth.

Mireille fired the little rounds remaining in her pistol over her shoulder at the goons, the shots mainly to
force them onto the defensive and take the pressure off her and Kirika for a few seconds, rather than to
actually kill any of them. The echo of gunfire faded from the station as the men fell back into cover, likely
positioning themselves in the same manner Mireille and her partner did behind the station's support
columns. They were on even terms now… aside from one detail--none of the gangsters had been the
original Noir, the Eternal Darkness. They were but lambs in the company of lions.

Mireille ejected her depleted clip and retrieved a fresh one from the leather pouches inside her
brownish-grey coat, reloading her Walther P99 and chambering the first bullet. Bringing up her gun with
both hands, she took a deep breath, and then released it slowly. Her eyes moved to Kirika--the brooding
girl was in much the same stance as her. Kirika's eyes were closed however, reminiscent of the time
when they had faced Ryosuke and Vincent in Le Grand Hotel Inter-Continental. This was no occasion to
be spent gazing at Kirika while trying to decipher what was going through her mind, however, despite
whether Mireille wished to or not.

Bounding out from the pillar, Mireille quickly noted the new locations of the enemy in a blink of an eye,
and glimpsed a limb sticking out from behind one of the columns to the far left. Seeing an opportunity, she
fired a slug at exposed the arm, and was rewarded with an agonised howl. The gangster she had struck
stumbled out from the protection of the pillar, tripping over his own feet and landing on his backside.
However, before Mireille could finish him off, a bullet slammed into the concrete surface of the support
adjacent to her, shot by a goon from another support to the right. To her dislike, she was forced to return
to the security of her cover and consequently abandon the chance to kill a second member of the
gangsters' group.

Mireille looked to Kirika, and was pleased to see the girl move to take advantage of her 'offering'. The
introverted girl stepped calmly out from her own pillar she was using as shelter with her Beretta M1934
held steadily in her two dainty hands, the firearm pointing at the vulnerable man still sitting on the floor out
in the open, his mind in a miasma of pain from his wound.

But she didn't fire. An icy claw suddenly gripped Mireille's heart, its talons biting harshly into it. Kirika
simply stood there, frozen, her gun raised and aimed at the injured gangster, but her features slack and
her eyes staring vacantly into space. The girl's frail body was completely exposed, and apparently she
was oblivious to that fact too. What was wrong with her?! Why didn't she shoot?!

Mireille took an unconscious concerned step forward towards her stock-still partner, her free hand lifting
to reach out to her. "Kiri--ah!" the beginnings of the woman's frantic call was viciously cut off as a shotgun
shell smacked into the solid side of the column beside her and bounced off at an angle, several of the
pellets grazing her face.

Mireille staggered backwards into cover again, clasping a hand over the stinging abrasions scoring her
left cheek. But the minor flesh wounds that could have easily been a ruined mess of half-flayed features
were the farthest things from her mind. Her gaze automatically went back to Kirika, her breathing and
heart rate quickening substantially more than it had done so all throughout the gunfight. Kirika's
hands--no, her entire arms--were shaking. Trembling uncontrollably. The Beretta in her grasp shuddered,
and Mireille thought she could hear the full magazine it contained rattling.

"Kirika!" Mireille desperately cried, praying her voice would snap her partner out of whatever state of
petrification she was in. Her eyes moved to fleetingly survey the gangsters, and to her horror, she saw
that the man on the floor had recovered his senses and was bringing his pistol to bear at Kirika with his
good arm, a mildly startled but relieved smirk on his face.

The goon armed with the shotgun grinned too a couple of feet from his friend, keeping his weapon on
Mireille's position, ensuring that she wouldn't interfere unless she wanted to eat a lethal meal of buckshot.
At this range coupled with his readiness he wouldn't miss if the Corsican stepped out into the open, and
she was likely to lose a limb to the powerful blast even if he failed to score a hit on her torso. Either way, it
would mean death.

Not that Mireille cared. Her feet rasped on the concrete floor as she prepared to leap out of cover and kill
the pistol-wielding gangster before he shot Kirika, regardless if it would mean she would likely die in the
process. In her frenetic state of mind it didn't even register what she was willing to do for her partner.

"Dumbass kid…" the goon on the floor sneered, cocking the hammer of his revolver as he lined up the
immobile, shivering Kirika in its sights. His finger tensed on the trigger.

"KIRIKA!"



Chapter 8 - Sinners, Act II


Kirika heard a pain-filled yelp a split second after the latest bang of Mireille's gun, and next the telltale
brusque scuff of rubber shoe soles on concrete followed by a low grunt and a dull thud, signalling to the
astute girl that one of the men belonging to the group who had attacked her and her partner had been
shot and subsequently stumbled out into the open. With this advantageous opportunity presenting itself,
Kirika's heightened reflexes that had been rigorously honed to absolute perfection over the years instantly
took effect, causing her body to respond without thought. She bounded nimbly out from behind the
protection of the pillar she was using as cover, bringing her Beretta to bear on the gangster sitting on the
floor a short distance away from her, for all intents and purposes an easy target.

An easy target… no… not to Kirika. A living being had never been an easy target for her, not ever since
she had awakened that fateful day with no recollection of her life before that moment, her memories
totally erased except for one, significant word. And after returning from the Manor, after learning of the
existence of her other self, even less so. Indeed, she had hoped to escape from taking another life ever
again… but it was a naïve hope. There was no escape. Her time was up, now. It was kill or be killed, do
or die; there were no more reprieves, no chance to sidestep what the girl was now beginning to realise
was inevitable. No. She still had her will; she still had a choice. The darkness did not rule her, not yet.

Kirika suddenly froze, her muscles locking, petrifying her in a ready stance with her pistol raised in both
hands, the vulnerable man seated on the floor securely in its sights. The view of the Metro station blurred
and then melted away from the darkhaired girl's vision, and all sounds faded to barely audible muffles, her
mind focusing elsewhere--inwards, where a more important battle than the one against the group of men
was being waged.

It was her choice to make--her *own* choice. If Kirika killed now, there would be no turning back. She
would do it again and again as it became easier and easier, a never-ending spiral into sin. A descent
further and further into darkness, ultimately ending with the darkness itself, in its pure, undiluted form.

But she *could* resist. She didn't have to become a murderer again. She still had her own will. Nothing
and no one controlled her. Kirika was free; her life was her own to live. Soldats, Altena--she was not their
puppet, not any more. She didn't have to take the third--and significant--step towards the darkness, and
towards her other, malevolent self that it harboured in its bleak shadows. Right now, at this very moment,
she could stop the journey. All she had to do was try.

"KIRIKA!"

The desperate shout of a female voice Kirika knew even better than her own wrenched her mind violently
back to reality, easily demolishing the dampening barrier the girl had placed around it and her senses.
Her head snapped to the source of the yell at the same time her brown eyes reregistered her
surroundings in their depths, and was met by the sight of a breathless Mireille's unnerved face, the
blonde's own normally icy blue eyes imploring. Mireille's posture was also taut and she looked primed,
coiled to spring. But her partner's edgy stance was not what drew Kirika's attention. Her face. It was the
woman's face she focused on. Mireille's left cheek had three roughly straight lines scrawled across it.
Three *red* lines.

As Kirika watched, a trickle of blood seeped out of the lower of the scars, the drip sketching a ruby trail
down Mireille's cheek before pausing at the bottom of her chin for an instant. It then dropped slowly
towards the floor, as though the air it fell through was made of gooey syrup. Blood. Mireille was bleeding.
She had been hurt. Kirika's partner had been hurt because Kirika herself had failed to support her. Kirika's
hesitation had resulted in Mireille being hurt. The woman Kirika loved had been hurt because of her!

Something crumbled inside of Kirika, something important, but the awareness that something had was
vague to her, merely a distant rumble in the far reaches of her mind, if it could even be called that. It was
eclipsed by another sensation, a heavy, leaden lurch of something thrusting forwards to fill a sudden gap
inside her with sluggish yet resolute force, like crude oil jetting out of an unobstructed pipe into clear
water. The lunging sensation gripped Kirika's static body, and for an instant the farthest outskirts of her
vision seemed to pulse a soulless black.

The droplet of Mireille's blood hit the floor, its landing punctuated by the crack of a 9mm calibre bullet
discharging from the firing chamber of a Beretta M1934 Commercial echoing around the station. The slug
tore mercilessly into the right eye of the confidently smirking man sitting on the floor, tossing his head
back. The revolver he was pointing at Kirika went off as his body jerked with the impact of the bullet
brutally invading his skull, his finger squeezing the trigger mechanically. But his aim was ruined with the
jolt, and the .38 round whizzed harmlessly by the stationary girl's head, sending several of her dark locks
flapping with its passing before it slammed into the wall behind her. Kirika didn't flinch even a millimetre.

The stricken man toppled sideways, his smug smile frozen permanently on his features and one eye
gone, now just a flood of burgundy fluid remaining that dribbled out of the empty socket and down his
face in a thick rivulet as he collapsed.

The other man armed with a twelve-gauge pump action shotgun swung his weapon in Kirika's direction at
his companion's unexpected demise, but the assassin was already moving, rushing straight at him at a
breakneck velocity, almost already upon him in the heartbeat between her gunshot and his turn.

The gangster's face displayed his panic and his actions manifested it as he fired a shell recklessly at
Kirika, but all the spray of buckshot hit was the section of floor a couple of metres behind where she had
once been, the agile girl having bounded diagonally into the air to her right, where a support column
stood, to evade the blast. Kirika automatically bent her knees as her feet touched the pillar, appearing to
suspend in the air for a fraction of a second, attached to the column, and then propelled herself off it in an
anti-clockwise spin, lashing out with her right leg at her opponent's weapon. Her foot struck the barrel of
the hoodlum's shotgun, knocking it forcefully aside with the power of her short leap behind her kick,
effectively rendering it useless against her and leaving the man exposed for further attack.
Kirika crouched as she hit the floor and went with the momentum of her initial spin, whirling around one
hundred and eighty degrees before rising to her full height at the climax of her twirl, jabbing viciously
upwards with her left elbow into her taller foe's throat, crushing his larynx as if it were a cardboard tube.
The man let out the gurgle of someone slowly beginning to suffocate and then dropped to his knees. His
shotgun fell to the floor with a clatter, forgotten as all his attention was dedicated towards trying to
breathe, his hands clutching futility at his closed-off throat.

Kirika's eyes flicked to the left and her head turned slightly in the same direction as if to look over her
shoulder, where she knew her third adversary dwelled with his back to a pillar a few feet to the left of the
one her first enemy had used as shelter. But at this angle it provided him with no protection. Her acute
hearing picked up the sharp inhalation of someone preparing to shoot a firearm, and she instinctively
rolled behind the choking man kneeling before her just as his comrade started wildly releasing blazing hot
lead her way, appearing devoted to expending all of his valuable ammunition in a solitary assault.

The final two of the twelve undisciplined shots that didn't end up hitting the walls or ceiling drove an equal
number of bullets deep into the torso of the kneeling gangster Kirika was employing as a human shield,
sparing him from a lengthy and agonising end at the hands of asphyxiation. He keeled over face first,
revealing behind him--to the horror of his companion--a stooped Kirika with her pistol wielded steadily in
one hand and its barrel pointing straight at him, her expression detached--emotionless.

A single 9mm round took the shocked hoodlum in the left side of his upper chest, throwing him back
against the column he had once been using as cover. "Holy…" he whispered in a croak before he slid
down the pillar to land in a limp heap on the floor, the light in his eyes vanishing and his grip on his empty
handgun slackening.

The tinkle of an ejected bullet casing dwindled in the background. Kirika blinked, and then suddenly it was
over. It had been only a matter of seconds, but now three people were lying unmoving on the floor. Dead.
Slain by her hands. Three lives snuffed out effortlessly as if they were nothing. And it had come so
naturally to her. Killing always had, however. But it was different this time. Kirika had had no control over
her actions; she had simply… acted. One second she had been looking at Mireille, and the next three
people were dead. Her darkness… Kirika had touched it… she had *seized* it. And she had not recoiled
at the foul contact.

It was quiet in the station, not even a whisper to be heard. The death cries of the condemned had ceased,
the roar of the instrument of their ruin hushed. And their murderer silent--as always--and as she had been
throughout their execution. It was a quiet in stark contrast to the cacophony that had filled the station's
walls only a handful of seconds before. Seconds. Mere seconds and suddenly Kirika's conceptions about
herself and her life had been brushed away as if the daydreams of a child. But they had been childish
conceptions, in retrospect.

Kirika stood up slowly, her gun smoking and her head bowed, making an effort to keep her gaze fixed to
the floor where the evidence of her sins did not pollute her vision… and remind her of her weakness. So
much for free will. So much for choice. Her resistance had lasted barely all of two seconds before folding.
A puppet with its strings cut was evidently still a puppet.

Kirika's eyes moved lethargically to the weapon in her hand. It felt hot from its use, and light, comfortable
to handle. Like it was an extension of herself. Part of her. Maybe it was. Maybe it always had been.
Weapons were the tools of an assassin's trade. And Kirika was an assassin. An efficient killer. It was what
she was trained to do. What she was born to do. No escape. No peace. It was who she was. She was a
sinner.

Kirika felt something that had been progressively withering for a long while inside of her go into its death
throes with the harsh realisation…. Hope. Hope for a normal life, hope for freedom from her past. There
was no hope for people such as her. Her hands were black with sins, corrupted. It was all they knew.
Mireille stepped cautiously out from behind the support column she had been utilising as cover in the
corner of Kirika's eyesight. The woman's mouth hung slightly open as she surveyed the bloodshed her
partner had wrought, her countenance crossed somewhere amid great relief, mild bewilderment and…
pleasant satisfaction. She stopped a couple of metres from Kirika and looked around the area for a few
more seconds, seeming at a loss for what to say.

Finally, Mireille's gaze rested on Kirika, her eyes scanning over the girl's slim body circumspectly but
thoroughly, obviously searching for any injuries. "Are you alright?" she asked with an oddly cheery tone
and a smile, if a minutely shaky one, on her features. "You had me worried for a minute."

Kirika simply nodded and mumbled wordlessly in the affirmative. She knew Mireille was referring to
physical wounds. After all, they were the ones that really mattered. An assassin's body was her most
essential aspect. Nothing else was relevant. Kirika was certain Mireille was genuinely concerned about
her, but she was unsure about the motivation behind her concern. Was it out of affection for the girl she
cared about; the girl she loved? Or was it purely out of 'professional' interest, to her partner in murder,
merely a fellow assassin? At one time, Kirika would have been absolutely positive that it was the former,
but lately… lately….

Kirika's head abruptly turned to Mireille as she suddenly remembered that the woman had been hurt
earlier, the depths of her soft brown gaze anxious as all other thoughts bar her love's condition were
purged from her mind. "Are *you* okay?" she inquired quickly, examining Mireille's left, bloodied, cheek
with a meticulous eye.

Mireille's smile widened a bit and she reached up to touch her scarred cheek gingerly with her fingertips.
"I'm fine," she said gently, dispelling Kirika's unease about her welfare a little, "I know it probably looks
bad, but they're only scratches." The blonde then sighed tiredly, her smile becoming wry. "The smallest
wounds always tend to bleed the most."

Mireille's pretty smile then disappeared completely from her face, her expression turning serious. "There's
still one more," she said gravely. "In the car, upstairs. He could be lying in wait for us; stay alert."

Kirika nodded. Back to business. No peace.

She followed after Mireille as the blonde quietly walked past the three corpses and up the stairs of the
Metro station's entry passageway, her Walther P99 held with its barrel aiming skywards in her hands,
ready to serve its function to kill at a split second's notice. Kirika's own gun remained by her side,
dangling loosely in her right hand while she kept her eyes focused straight ahead until she started
climbing the stairs, not wanting to see her handiwork, the testament of her true existence; her purpose in
this world.

Mireille paused at the bullet hole ridden corner they had taken shelter behind near the start of the
shootout, peeking around it to check for any sign of danger. After a moment, she carried on her advance
up towards street-level, skirting nonchalantly past the body of the man she had vanquished with ease
slumped on the next set of steps, and dodging the wide section of staircase that was tarnished with
puddles and streaks of red. Kirika traced her footsteps exactly.

Mireille swiftly inspected her flanks and rear as the street came into view, prudently ensuring that no one
was waiting in ambush for her and Kirika. Deeming that there was no adversaries set to waylay them
ahead, the blonde proceeded to stealthily traverse the last few steps of the staircase, walking onto the
darkened pavement by the street, Kirika joining her an instant later.

Kirika observed that the fifth and final gangster who had apparently remained behind in the car he and his
friends had shown up in was sitting askew in the front passenger seat, his legs hanging outside of the
vehicle, and was clutching his right upper arm where he appeared to have been shot, if the large scarlet
blot discolouring the sleeve of his jacket was any indication. Mireille must have managed to wound him
during her flight into the underground Metro station.
Upon spotting Kirika and Mireille's emergence from the station's brightly lit street entrance, the man's
eyes widened and, letting go of his injured arm, made to reach across his body for something inside the
car--most likely a weapon.

"Don't!" Mireille called out in a no-nonsense voice, bringing up her gun sharply as she did so for added
incentive while striding forwards, Kirika indolently bringing up the rear.

The goon wisely complied, slowly drawing his hand back and raising it in the air in a gesture of surrender.
Kirika was glad. It meant there was little chance she would be forced to kill him… for the moment, at any
rate. Although, Mireille would probably beat her to it if the situation turned violent. That would be a better
outcome. Murder… the woman didn't seem to have the same problem with it as Kirika did. Certainly, she
seemed at home with it. Kirika wished she could have the same aloofness. In the past, she had felt
nothing when she took a life, and indeed, she still felt virtually nothing. But later she had discovered it was
that very fact that caused her sorrow. And that still hadn't changed, either. Ending a life was wrong. It was
a sin.

A small, marginally muted part of the Kirika wondered then if Mireille's blasé attitude towards murder was
truly a quality to be admired. Nevertheless, she didn't judge her partner as a bad person because it. It
was somehow okay when it came to Mireille. It was a facet that made the woman who she was, after all.
The woman Kirika loved.

Of course, Mireille didn't have another persona lurking inside of her to consider. A personal darkness that
thrived on violence; on slaughter. Kirika wondered how long it would be until the darkness succeeded in
consuming her, now. Clearly her supposed strong, resolute willpower was merely a self-deluding illusion.
If she couldn't even restrain herself from snuffing out three lives, what hope did she have at holding sway
over the darkness? And with her evident willingness to kill, that darkness would now move to infect her
heart and soul with its poison even more aggressively than ever before.

Mireille positioned herself a few steps in front of the yielded hoodlum, aiming her Walther unwaveringly at
his head. Kirika stood behind her and just off to the right, giving herself a good view of the man and his
other arm; the wounded one. It was still resting by his side and even though he had taken a bullet there,
he could yet use it to secretly retrieve a weapon that would consequently be utilised against Mireille. And
Kirika *had* to support Mireille. Her partner had already been injured once tonight because of her
negligence. She wouldn't permit it to happen again. There was a tickling in the far recesses of Kirika's
mind at her stanch promise, a whisper of something… a faint memory perhaps. But the girl ignored it.
Now was not the time for reminiscence. The present was dismal enough as it was.

"Talk," Mireille demanded coldly, her blue eyes narrowing to menacing slits. "Whom do you work for?
How did you find us?"

The gangster looked up defiantly at the blonde, but under her unshakable gaze he then flinched and
bowed his head submissively. Kirika noticed his eyes shift discreetly to the subway entrance, however, as
if seeking help from his absent friends. Little did he know they couldn't even help themselves, now. Nor
would they ever have a chance to again.

"Your associates aren't coming," Mireille said pitilessly, evidently also catching his straying eyes. She
visibly tightened her grip on her pistol. "I won't ask a second time," she then warned.

The gangster raised his head to look at his interrogator again and then swallowed hard, sweat beading on
his brow. For a moment Kirika believed he would not answer her partner's questions despite the woman's
sincere threat, but then after a number of tense seconds, and in a somewhat gruff and resentful voice, he
spoke.

"Millet--I work for Millet," the man at last confessed grudgingly. "He runs out of Pigalle. Owns most of it,
too. Not the classy joints, though; the sleazy ones."
"Go on," Mireille prompted, motioning with her gun a tad.

The wounded goon eyed the Walther P99 warily for a second, followed by the imposing woman who
brandished it, and then after apparently weighing his chances of survival if he opted to be difficult,
sensibly concluded that a lack of compliance would prove fatal. He continued. "Two guys wandered into
the club he uses as his base the other day--Slick Chicks. Nice place, you'd probably get a job there fine,"
he said, his last comment uttered with a degree of contempt as he glowered at Mireille. This seemed to
antagonise Kirika's counterpart for some reason, her trigger finger twitching pointedly. The man
swallowed apprehensively once again and quickly went on. "They were Asian guys, one really up himself,
the bastard." He spat out the final word, the memory of the visitor obviously leaving an objectionable
aftertaste with him--Kirika could relate to that particular feeling. "They wanted two women whacked--" His
eyes darted between Mireille and Kirika meaningfully, "--you two. Paid us a whole bundle as well." The
goon looked back at the Metro entrance where his friends still had not come out, sneering. "Now I know
why."

Kirika frowned a little. That wasn't good news. If Ryosuke and Vincent--the clear clients of Millet and his
gang--were hiring others to try and assassinate her and Mireille, it would mean they would be thrown into
more confrontations. And more lives would be lost in the process.

Mireille's frowned too--albeit much deeper than Kirika--no doubt reading more or less the same
implications behind their captive's words. Although the darkhaired girl didn't think the amount of people
they would be forced to kill as a result of the false Noir's actions even registered in her mind. Or at least,
not in the same way it did in Kirika's.

"And how did you find us?" Mireille further grilled the man.

"We have people who find other people," the hoodlum said simply. But his lips then curled up into a wan
and slightly tremulous smile. "I really thought Rousseau and his pals would fall short on this one, though,"
he revealed. "The details on you two were so scarce a lot of the guys thought it was hopeless.
Strange…." The goon's brow creased in mild perplexity and his eyes took on a somewhat faraway look.
But they soon refocused on his subjugator and the deadly weapon she held in his face, the here and now
apparently more crucial than the past to him. "But I guess I shouldn't be surprised why there was so little
information about you, now." He shook his head in bafflement mixed with some amazement, gaping at the
pistol in Kirika's small hand. "Who *are* you people?"

"That's not important," Mireille said levelly. "Not to you." She took a step back from the wounded man.
"Stand up and walk towards the Metro," she then ordered, gesturing with her Walther for him to rise,
flicking it upwards a couple of times.

The gangster did as he was told, albeit very cautiously and quite bitterly, getting to his feet and then
walking to the Metro station's entryway with a hand pressed once again to his gunshot wound, Mireille
marshalling him onwards with her gun at his back. Kirika chose to remain where she was--she knew why
her partner was taking him there. And she didn't think she could stomach any more death tonight.

The goon looked over his shoulder nervously once he reached the top of the flight of stairs leading down
to the first landing on the passageway, no doubt seeing the gruesome carcass of one of his gunned down
companions, but Mireille motioned for him to keep going, her face as frosty as winter's heart. The blonde
assassin stayed at street-level as he trudged deeper into the station's entrance, and soon he disappeared
from Kirika's sight. The girl looked away, then, focusing her gaze on the pavement in front of her pink
shoe clad feet.

A lone gunshot suddenly rang out in the night, spelling the end for the informative gangster, his body
joining the others of his gang in their subway station tomb. Kirika lifted her head and glimpsed Mireille
holstering her Walther under her coat with a weary sigh. The woman then turned around and strolled
calmly back to Kirika.
"We should go. It's late, but regardless we've lingered too long. Someone's bound to have heard at least
one of the shots," she said sternly. Mireille then smiled quite brightly, as if moments before she hadn't just
coldly executed a man without a second thought. "Besides, I'm probably a mess," she added in a much
more light-hearted tone, touching her injured cheek delicately with one hand. "I want to return home and
wash up."

"Mmm," Kirika responded dourly, her eyes drawn to Mireille's smile. It was resplendent on the blonde's
beautiful visage--her smiles typically were when directed at Kirika--but on this occasion to the girl's eyes
there was something different. If she concentrated and looked lower, beneath its stunning veneer, the
smile appeared to lack warmth. It was instead… beguiling… even a little sinister. And made all the more
by the blood smudged over the left side of Mireille's face. It was a smile that a lion gave to another of its
kind who was affiliated with the same ferocious pride. It was one of camaraderie, one of shared calling,
one offered after successfully devouring prey. To Kirika it contained no fondness save that a lion held for
its hunting partner. It was not a smile that possessed the qualities of love.

The unseen wound in Kirika's chest flared up once again, radiating a deep-seeded pain beyond measure.
She should have seen it sooner. It was okay, though. She was not truly the same as Mireille, after all. She
was by far deeper in sin than the blonde was; Mireille was an angel compared to her, one of the celestial
beings the girl had read existed up above in a place called Heaven. Moreover, if Mireille was an angel,
then Kirika was the opposite--a demon from down below in the dark domain of Hell. And how could an
angel love a demon? It was impossible. No, a sinner of Kirika's like was not deserving of love… not even
from a 'fellow' lion.

******

Mireille leaned forwards and examined the trio of scars marring her cheek in the mirror belonging to the
medicine cabinet affixed above the bathroom sink in the apartment. She turned her head further to the
right, providing a better angle to scrutinise the scratches, and then fingered them tentatively, debating
whether or not it would be worthwhile to dress them to promote quicker healing. Deciding that to apply a
bandaid or three to her face would be blatantly obvious and definitely attract people's unwanted looks, the
blonde emitted a displeased breath of air and picked up a tube of antiseptic cream, settling on simply
treating the cuts and forgoing covering them. She squirted out a dollop of the ointment onto her fingertips
and started rubbing it softly into her lesions, the cool, soothing mixture gently relieving the stinging
sensation emanating from them.

After she had scrubbed away the build-up of dried blood smeared around the wounds and over her
cheek, what remained hadn't looked too bad. The flying pellets that had brushed across Mireille's face
courtesy of a lucky ricochet had scored only shallow grazes, merely minor tissue lacerations that she was
confident would heal fast--the Corsican assassin had enough experience with all sorts of injuries to know.
In the meantime, the cuts were nothing a little well-placed makeup wouldn't conceal. It wasn't the first time
her features had been blemished due to the frequent rigors of her vocation. Indeed, the practice of hiding
cuts and bruises with the aid of carefully selected cosmetics was a talent Mireille could label as having
mastered. Still, she… *disliked* when she suffered an injury on the job, and especially if that injury was
localised to her face. Being hurt was always a risk in Mireille's line of work, along with the possibility of
permanent scarring on her person as a result of those hurts, and both were some things she
endeavoured to avoid. Having to spend time recovering from a serious wound was irritating to say the
least, and even the most trivial of injuries could pose a nuisance to a professional assassin. Visible
scratches and contusions unconsciously drew people's eyes, and attention was something a contract
killer did *not* like when on an assignment. And of course, there was also the pain factor to be
considered. Mireille had unfortunately gotten intimate with lead and many other excruciating things
several times during her life as an assassin, and it was not the most… pleasant… of experiences.

As Mireille massaged the last vestiges of the cream into her scars, deliberately taking longer than
necessary, her eyes slowly drifted away from their reflection in the mirror and to the open bathroom
doorway, where a clear line of sight into the bedroom was offered to her. And also a clear line of sight to
Kirika.

Since returning home to the apartment, Kirika had simply stood there in the bedroom, looking forlorn with
her head lowered while she gazed with distant and downcast eyes at the rug arranged on the floor; eyes
that Mireille was certain did not even register its pattern. She had cast off her parka shortly after entering
the room despite the apartment's radiators not having heated its interior to satisfaction yet on this cold
night, the garment now lying on the couch across from the bed with the diminutive girl's Beretta M1934
resting atop it. Mireille had a good idea of what was bothering Kirika--she didn't have to be her partner to
know that. The blonde wasn't blind; she had witnessed the sensitive girl's 'episode' in the Metro station
during the engagement with Millet's men. And nor was she stupid. The gunfight with the gangsters had
been the first occasion Kirika had shot anybody since she and Mireille had wiped out Altena's enclave at
the Manor. The first occasion she had killed. It was only natural that she was suffering from some after
effects of reacquainting herself with the black path. Kirika was a feeling-hearted girl, after all, unlike
Mireille. It had to be difficult for her to cope with.

However, Kirika would come to terms with it, just like she had prevailed over her initial misgivings earlier
tonight. Nevertheless, her behaviour had concerned Mireille a great deal, enough for the Corsican to
consider some reckless courses of action… some quite uncharacteristic courses of action. But then, for a
moment, the woman had thought…. Well, it was immaterial, now; there was no need to dwell on past
events. Mireille and Kirika's performance tonight had essentially been acceptable, with an equally
acceptable outcome.

Mireille dabbed her still visibly red and sore cuts one last time with her fingertips, and then straightened
with a tired sigh. Hopefully, with the help of her treatment, by next morning they would show some
improvement, even if it were just a hint of some.

After sparing a parting look in the mirror to check her scars once again, Mireille turned away from the sink
and walked to the bathroom doorway. She loitered there a little uncertainly as she looked out into the
bedroom, where Kirika hadn't budged even an inch from her spot on the rug; appearing as miserable as
the previous instance she had observed her. The Corsican sighed a second time at the disheartening
sight, but then assumed a pleasant smile on her face, ignoring the slight twinge from her left cheek.

"You did very well tonight," Mireille remarked in a soft and tender tone, seeking to lift Kirika's low spirits
with some encouraging words. "I was most impressed. You…."

Mireille's voice trailed off to a whisper as a single tear leaked out of Kirika's left eye and rolled down her
face, leaving behind a wet streak that glistened in the bedroom's light.

"Kirika…?" Mireille ventured hesitantly, her smile evaporating as a concerned expression took over her
countenance.

A second teardrop formed in Kirika's other eye and trembled there for a second, before escaping to follow
its predecessor's course, spilling down her cheek and merging with the first hanging below her chin. More
tears joined them a moment later, the reticent girl's eyes brimming constantly with growing moisture,
overflowing, the excess trickling paths to the bottom of her jaw where they collected, before dripping wetly
to the floor. Kirika's cheeks were soon soaked with tears, but she never said a word nor even uttered a
sound; she simply stood there and wept silently, the depths of her soft brown gaze containing a profound
sadness, coupled with a strange manner of detachment that seemed to amplify it.

Mireille watched from the bathroom doorway, taken aback by her partner's sudden breakdown plus not to
mention considerably alarmed… and furthermore unsure what exactly to do. Any kind words she offered
would be hollow; merely sweet nothings, void of any real weight no matter how much the woman meant
them--she had no idea what had caused Kirika to become so distressed, and thus how could she provide
compelling assurances? But if that were the case, what action was she supposed to take to calm her
partner? Thinking back, the only other occasion Mireille had seen Kirika in such a state was at the
colosseum ruins on the Manor's estate after the darkhaired girl had been forced to kill Chloe to protect her
from the knife-throwing assassin's jealous rage… although this particular time the Corsican's counterpart
appeared even more distraught; whatever was upsetting her, it had to be significant. But when Kirika had
wept then, Mireille, motivated by the desire to remind her partner that they had no time for the luxury of
grief, and in turn prompt her to recover herself and rearm so they could take the fight to Altena, had
bestowed her with a semblance of a hug, a rather discomfited one. It had seemed to placate her partner,
however, despite its inelegance; perhaps the blonde should make a similar effort now. Regardless,
Mireille had to do *something*--Kirika was clearly in pain, and yet the woman was just standing there
looking at her as she quietly cried her heart out. Mireille wouldn't be able stomach watching her partner
suffering such anguish for much longer. She *had* to act.

Stepping forwards into the bedroom, Mireille hesitantly approached Kirika, and, following a moment's
indecision, tentatively placed her hands on the girl's bare shoulders. After receiving no negative
response--or a positive one, either--from her partner, the blonde took another nervous step towards her,
and then awkwardly began to gradually snake her arms down Kirika's back, keeping her palms flush with
the exposed skin offered to her by the girl's spaghetti top.

"Mireille!" Kirika sobbed in a heartbreaking voice full of emotion, and without warning flung herself at
Mireille, burrowing her face in the furrow of the woman's neck. She wrapped her thin arms tightly around
the blonde's body, pressing her smaller own closely against her taller partner's.

All of Mireille's muscles stiffened at the unexpected contact, and as well in surprise at Kirika's startling
reaction to her rather meagre gesture. But as she felt the warmth from the close proximity of trim girl's
body permeating her own, she quickly relaxed and resumed her hug, her arms sliding down Kirika's back
almost naturally, enfolding her; holding her comfortably near. The neck of Mireille's red top rapidly
became drenched with her partner's teardrops, the girl's weeping seeming to escalate instead of
lessening with her embrace.

A faint, rueful smile grew on Mireille's face, her blue eyes turning a little misty. She should have hugged
Kirika a long time ago. She could see that the girl had required one badly. Kirika clung to the Corsican,
handfuls of her top clenched in her grasp, by all accounts a drowning girl clutching desperately to her sole
lifeline. And the awful thing was Mireille had been aware that this girl had been drowning. Yet she had
done--no, she had *chosen* to do--absolutely nothing to help her, instead citing weak excuses to avoid
acting. All this time Kirika had been suffering in silence with Mireille callously looking on, not even
*attempting* to console her. At this moment, the woman felt like the lowest form of life in the world. Why
had she done that? Why had she stood idly by, doing *nothing* to comfort Kirika? Fear that she would do
something wrong, perhaps? Or was it just plain stubbornness, the blonde still rigid in her old ways?

No matter what the reason was, it was unacceptable that she had let it drag on for so long. Kirika had
needed her, but Mireille had failed her. They were not Noir, but they were still a partnership, and one *far*
beyond mere 'business'. How could Mireille have forgotten that? They were partners in love--in life. It was
the prime reason Kirika had returned from the Manor with Mireille to Paris; that the blonde had neglected
that fact shamed her terribly. Kirika had *needed* Mireille, and yet the Corsican had wilfully neglected the
girl. She *knew* her partner was fragile; for all her strength in combat her psyche possessed only a brittle
one--Mireille's consideration was crucial for Kirika's continued wellbeing.

No longer could Mireille afford to dither around and ignore Kirika's needs, or for that matter, how the
introverted girl felt about her. She had taken her partner's feelings for granted, simply deriving of them
without conferring anything in return. But theirs was a partnership that was supposed to be of give and
take, where the two members supported each other in every way. It was time Mireille took responsibility
and started properly and seriously performing her vital role in Kirika's life… as her lover, not just as her
colleague.

"We're both so clumsy at this, aren't we?" Mireille whispered softly. It was true. While the blame for this
mess fell squarely on the blonde's shoulders, Kirika was not without her fault. Her very personality was
not very conducive to a communicative relationship. But that was no excuse; it was something Mireille
had been conscious of. *She* had to take the first steps to further their relationship; the onus was on her,
it all rested solely in her hands. If she wanted it to progress, then she had to be the bold one--she had
always held that assertive position over Kirika, after all. Now that dominance had to be used for
something else far more important than their occupation.

Mireille heard Kirika mumble something into her neck and then squeeze her tighter in her arms,
apparently agreeing with the woman's comment. She sighed remorsefully. This would be the last time
Kirika shed tears because of her actions… or lack thereof. Everything would be different now. Mireille
would make sure of it. She would make sure that nothing like this failure would ever happen again. And
besides… her heart would not allow it.

******

Kirika hugged Mireille tightly, cuddling into her--clinging to her--with the desperate need of the damned
seeking salvation. She held onto the woman as if her life depended on it, but maybe, in a way, it did. The
dull pain that had plagued her chest with its unbearable, never-ceasing ache had departed, replaced by a
heady elation that purified the unseen wound and sealed it; healed it. And yet her tears wouldn't stop
flowing from beneath her closed, wet eyelids, staining Mireille's clothes. Perhaps this was the wound's
way of disinfecting itself. But it didn't matter. None of it mattered. Because she had been wrong about
Mireille. So wrong.

Mireille loved her. Kirika felt it in the blonde's embrace, and she felt it in her heart as it beat beside her
own. Mireille still loved her; she had never stopped. Kirika, in her naivety, had just never realised it. She
should not have doubted the woman's love, even if she was not deserving of it. Mireille really was an
angel. Who but an angel could love the person who had murdered their family? Who but an angel could
love the person who had delivered the greatest pain in all their life upon them? But Mireille did. She loved
Kirika in spite of those ghastly truths. So who but an angel could Mireille be?

Kirika was a sinner; she accepted that reality, and had done so ever since the events in the cavern below
the Manor. She was a sinner who would never achieve atonement for any of her crimes. But that was
perfectly fine. She now remembered her purpose in this world, her *true* purpose--one she shouldn't
have forgotten--and the memory of the oath she had silently pledged all those years ago when she only a
child. Kirika *had* made a choice in the Metro station, an unconscious choice, but a choice nonetheless…
just like the two she had made at the Manor--the first at the colosseum, and the second in the cavern
below the estate. A choice to uphold her vow to look after Mireille, to protect her; defend her, to be her
strength when she was weak, to support her when she could not. And it was a vow Kirika promised she
would maintain ever more, regardless of what happened in the future. That she loved the woman she had
sworn to protect was irrelevant, that the woman loved her was irrelevant. It was Kirika's purpose; her
reason for living when by all rights she should have died with Altena and the woman's shattered ambitions
long ago.

Odette Bouquet's last words had instilled a ray of light--of hope--inside Kirika's young heart that tragic day
she carried out her first of many atrocious misdeeds, a ray that had once saved both her and Mireille's
lives. And now, years later, it still shone brightly inside of her, illuminating a new source of light to battle
her darkness with--Mireille, the late woman's daughter. Kirika would fight for her. And she would not falter.
She would hold the darkness at bay for Mireille's sake. The girl's will *was* strong, stronger than anything
when bathed in her love's radiance.

Kirika's eyes opened a crack, a blurred view of her Beretta lying on top of her parka on the couch greeting
them. Her gun was an instrument of murder, but it had not yet been used to commit any sins. She had
killed with it, but Kirika now realised those lives she had taken had been warranted--she had purely
defended the woman she had pledged to look after. Mireille had given her that gun--a new one, a *fresh*
one. Mireille had bestowed upon her a fresh start. Kirika's slate was not washed clean; indeed, it was
marked with the blood of countless, but from here on out, the 'sins' she performed would be as a direct
consequence of honouring her vow. Maybe they would still be sins in the eyes of God, but if that were the
case, then Kirika would welcome them; she would accept them wholeheartedly.
<Embrace it….>

Yes, she would embrace being a sinner if that was the price of upholding her promise to Mireille's mother.
She would soil her soul in the muck of darkness if that were what it took. But she would not succumb to it.
Not with the light of Kirika's redeeming angel favouring the girl with her precious warmth, her potent
illumination. No darkness could stand against its intensity.

Kirika smiled softly, a great burden fading from her shoulders. She was not deserving of Mireille's--of an
angel's--affection… but she now knew that sometimes even a demon could be loved. Or maybe, Kirika
considered, it was only an angel who could ever truly find it in their heart to love a demon.



Chapter 9 - Morning Sunlight


Mireille slowly opened her bleary eyes and yawned quietly, before wincing at the uncomfortable throbbing
ache that suffused the left side of her face with the latter action. But the painful reminder of her scarred
and tender cheek did not ebb her positive mood in the least. It was a new morning of a new day, a day
when everything would be turned around for her and Kirika, her partner… her love. This morning would
not be like the others before it, tarnished by an ever-thickening wall enforcing a remote distance between
their hearts. The sun had risen on a fresh dawn, and with it, the desolate wall had fallen, the mortar
holding its bricks together crumbling, struck a mortal blow by the rejuvenating light shining upon it. It was
a second chance for Mireille, a second chance to do things right. The pristine daylight not only
demolished the deep wedge separating her and Kirika, but also illuminated a new route on the black path
to the blonde, one crafted specifically for two. While the pitiless threats against the duo still existed to
meet them head-on along their dark route, the sure knowledge did not discourage Mireille's spirits. For
neither she nor Kirika were alone to face them--they had each other. They were a partnership, and as
such, would confront the perils lined against them as one. Together. As they should have done from the
very beginning.

Mireille turned her head to where Kirika was slumbering next to her in their bed. The girl was on her side,
clinging to Mireille closely, as per usual. However, her embrace was a little stronger than typical, the
toned muscles of her arm around the blonde's waist distinctly taut. Yet Mireille took no real enjoyment
from her partner's tight hug as she normally would have--it was but another testament of her neglect, her
failure. Kirika's habit of cuddling into Mireille during her sleep was no longer deemed as solely an
endearing quirk by the Corsican, but now additionally as an act of need on the diminutive girl's part, be it
an unconscious one or otherwise. That Kirika was holding her near with increased enthusiasm was
damning proof of Mireille's maltreatment towards her… and how much she required the woman's care.

Kirika's eyes crept open at Mireille's movement, the girl's senses acute as ever, picking up the tiniest
amount of motion from her bedfellow. Her docile reddish-brown eyes met the blonde's own blue ones with
an avid interest. The two young women then simply regarded one another for a few moments, a
comfortable silence arising between them--a far cry from the other silence that had stifled conversation
and temperaments in recent days.

A small, gentle smile broke out on Mireille's features, her icy azure eyes taking on a compassionate
shade; that of clear summer morning's sky. "How are you feeling?" she asked Kirika quietly in a
sympathetic tone.

"I'm okay," Kirika replied just as softly. To Mireille's slight surprise but considerable delight the girl then
smiled. It was faint smile, but a sweet one nonetheless, the gesture doing wonders to make her pretty
face all the more beautiful. It had been a long time since Mireille had seen such a lovely and
heart-warming sight adorn her partner's cute visage, and the blonde felt her own smile unconsciously
grow in tandem.
Kirika's expression then became anxious all of a sudden, her smile gone--and its appearance entirely too
brief in Mireille's opinion--before she scooted even closer to the blonde if that were possible, her lithe
body squeezing snugly up against the woman's side, with her face scant inches from the Corsican's own.
The darkhaired girl's expressive eyes went to Mireille's scratched and partially obscured left cheek resting
on the pillow for a couple of seconds, before returning to her partner's gaze. Her lips parted slightly but
then closed again, as though she wished to say something but couldn't quite find the words.
Nevertheless, Mireille didn't need Kirika's words to know what was dancing earnestly on the tip of her
tongue and laying heavy on her mind.

"I told you before; I'm fine," Mireille patiently placated her visibly concerned partner, placing one
hand--with only an instant's hesitation--reassuringly on Kirika's lean forearm arranged atop her stomach.
"It's nothing."

"Mmm," Kirika mumbled, nodding, but not sounding nor looking very convinced.

Mireille held back a longsuffering sigh. For as long as she could recall Kirika had always been remarkably
protective of her, insistently following her around wherever she went regardless of the time of day or
where precisely she was going like a little lost puppy… or perhaps more accurately, an extremely loyal
guard dog. Once, the girl had practically slain the entire ranks of a Taiwanese criminal syndicate in open
combat simply to liberate Mireille from their clutches sheer minutes after the woman's capture--the level of
her devotion was immense to say the least. The only cases when Mireille had successfully managed to
persuade Kirika to part from her side and remain behind was when she had been able to provide the
faithful girl with a compelling argument that declared it would be in the Corsican's benefit if she complied.
However, if Mireille were proceeding into danger, then any rationale or even outright demand for her
younger partner to stay behind would fall on deaf ears. Mireille's seeming influence over Kirika counted
for naught when her personal security was involved--a truth that had exasperated the blonde assassin on
a number of occasions.

And now with Mireille being injured, despite that injury consisting of merely a few superficial cuts, she
could expect her partner to be even doubly more protective of her. She doubted whether Kirika would so
much as let her leave her sight when outside of the apartment before the wounds healed. The sooner
Mireille masked the lacerations on her cheek with make-up the better; she didn't want the girl constantly
fussing over her--it would get tiresome quickly… and she didn't like it when Kirika worried. Still… it
certainly was nice to have someone fret about her.

"What about you?" Mireille countered, her reflective thoughts reminding her of another, momentous,
instance when Kirika had exhibited her profound loyalty--her profound love--for her. "Your wound…" she
elaborated quietly, in part to take the softhearted girl's mind off of her injury, and in another out of genuine
concern. Mireille hadn't inquired about Kirika's health in quite a long while, her daily physical checks
forgone in the face of the recurrence of Soldats in their lives, presuming that since she wasn't
complaining--as if Kirika would complain! Another fool excuse!--or clearly hurting, that she had recovered
fully from her old gunshot wound. It was yet further mistreatment by Mireille.

"Mmm," Kirika said in the negative, shaking her head where it lay on the pillow next to Mireille's, "it's okay,
now."

"Let me see it anyway," Mireille kindly persisted, smiling encouragingly.

Kirika emitted a second peep, this one of happy obedience, and then pushed down the bedcovers from
her body and raised the hem of her vest, revealing the left side of her skinny abdomen to her older
partner's attentive eyes.

Mireille saw that Kirika's wound appeared roughly the same as she remembered the last time she had
studied it, merely a faded scar less than an inch long, barely noticeable unless the observer knew where
to look. She examined it carefully for several moments--pointedly ignoring the unpleasant clenching
around her heart at the sight of the souvenir Kirika had picked up by skirting so close to death for her
sake--while speculating how to broach another subject she needed to quiz the reticent girl on, one
connected to the permanent scar blemishing her partner's body; a trademark of their profession and the
risks that came with it.

Eventually, following a short period of silence and a subsequent resigned sigh from the woman, Mireille
voiced her unease, but consciously kept any sign of it from her tone. "Are you sure you're up to… this?"
she said softly but seriously, gazing levelly into Kirika's eyes. Mireille still wasn't totally certain what the
stimulus behind Kirika bursting into tears the previous night had been, but like the reasons for her partner
freezing up in the subway station before it, she was fairly confident it was related to killing those men in
the Metro. Looking back, her insensitive remark praising the girl's grisly performance probably hadn't
helped matters either; instead of bolstering Kirika's spirits, it had in all likelihood amplified her sorrow.

As a result of Kirika's disconcerting behaviour last night and of her past misgivings that now plainly could
not be offhandedly dismissed as something she would 'get over' in time as Mireille had foolishly duped
herself into believing, the Corsican assassin had to be absolutely positive her partner was up to handling
the adversities ahead. If Kirika were to crack again at a crucial instant, for example during one similar to
the prior situation in the Metro, then there was a high probability that she would be killed. It had been pure
luck the girl had snapped out of her stupor in time to prevent a tragedy, but the outcome of the next
incident might be utterly--and terribly--different. Mireille would *not* lead Kirika to an early grave; if her
feelings towards murder were unstable, then the woman had to know immediately… even if her concern
was somewhat belated, she regretfully admitted. Mireille was not willing to gamble with Kirika's life; she
would face the false Noir and whatever cronies they enlisted to assist them solo if she had to, her
partner's reservations to her launching herself into danger unaccompanied be damned.

To Mireille's mild surprise, Kirika nodded her head firmly, and for a second the woman thought she had
glimpsed something smoulder deep in the brown depths of her eyes, with a glimmer of something hard in
the core beneath, like cold steel glinting in sunlight. But it was gone before she knew it, Kirika's meek look
restored as if it had never left in the first place. Curiously, for some reason that simple gesture was
enough to convince Mireille of her partner's readiness however, eliciting a smile from the blonde, albeit
one tinged with a hint of sadness at the introverted girl's choice.

"Alright," she acquiesced just as straightforwardly and in the same soft voice she had adopted
beforehand, holding her steady gaze with Kirika for a couple of extra moments.

Mireille then broke the stare and rolled away from Kirika onto her right side, before she sat up and
climbed out of bed, leaving the girl's heartfelt embrace. There were many vital tasks for her--for *them*--to
do today. Mireille and Kirika at long last had a sufficient lead on Ryosuke and Vincent, or at least one
worth investigating. The Corsican was aware of who Millet--Richard Millet--was; it would be rather remiss
of her to not be informed on the generally noteworthy people in the underworld of her own home city. But
Millet was a reasonably small-time gang boss dabbling in prostitution and some paltry drug dealing, not a
big name at all in Paris' criminal circles. Why the fake Noir had procured his and his trivial syndicate's aid
was puzzling. Was it for relative anonymity? Or was it perhaps to obtain fodder to dispatch against a
powerful rival-- 'Noir'--for an unknown purpose? And more importantly, not to mention also a little
disturbingly, how had the group anticipated that Mireille and Kirika would be walking down that specific
street last night out of all the other streets in Paris? To say the odds were slim was an understatement.

Whatever the basis for Ryosuke and Vincent's seemingly ill-advised hiring decision, along with the means
Millet's men had used to track Mireille and Kirika down, the drafted crime boss and his apparent base of
operations, 'Slick Chicks', would have to be looked into. Of course, there was always the prospect that the
gangster Mireille had interrogated had lied through his teeth--the woman had known of some individuals
who could blather elaborate and compelling falsehoods realistically even when staring the Reaper
squarely in the face. But she and Kirika had no choice in how to proceed in spite of this possibility; the
goon's testimony was all they had to go on.

However, finding answers to her questions together with researching the new enemy could wait. Mireille
turned her head to look over her shoulder, back to where Kirika lay on her side, unmoved from her
position in the bed. "You know, I haven't eaten a decent breakfast since the last one you prepared for
me," she said playfully, while favouring the expressionless girl with a wide, impish smile. "What do you
say about having a full course one this morning?" Mireille turned around fully, tilting her head teasingly to
one side. "You can help me, too, if you wish…"she added enticingly, knowing that Kirika wouldn't be
happy otherwise.

For the time being, all tasks associated with Ryosuke and Vincent and their 'friends' didn't matter; Kirika's
needs and desires were paramount. Mireille had neglected her appallingly in the name of the new threat
opposing them, but no longer would the girl play second fiddle to *anything*--nothing was more important
than her, the young woman Mireille loved. Nevertheless, the blonde had a considerable amount of
making up to do, and what better time to start than this perfect, fresh and sunny morning.

******

"Hm. You have your instructions. Keep me informed." Breffort pressed the button to end the secure call
on his mobile phone, and then resumed gazing out his office window overlooking the city. The location of
his Paris-based office provided a panoramic vision of the magnificent capitol of France, which looked
especially magnificent at present, its streets and buildings both antiquated and modern enveloped in the
soft early morning sunlight. But as he had anticipated, this dawn's illumination had revealed much more
than just a historic metropolis.

Breffort replaced his mobile phone in the inside pocket of his charcoal suit jacket, and then allowed
himself a quiet sigh--one of mild, yet sincere, relief. It had been a fortunate occurrence when Ishinomori
and Hsu had walked into the workplace of local felon Richard Millet and appointed his organisation's
services… although if truth were told the Soldats official had no clue why the two consummate assassins
had even bothered to procure outsider assistance from such a small and quite insignificant syndicate. But
the 'why' didn't honestly matter… even if it did cast further intrigue upon the two men's still unexplained
motivation for being here in Paris.

Ishinomori and Hsu's decision to utilise hired guns had imparted a valuable opportunity for Breffort to test
whether Bouquet and her partner were still worthy of being labelled with the title of Noir. To that end, the
Soldats member had gifted one of his operatives--who had wormed his way deep into Millet's midst and
had been remaining undercover there for some time, like countless other such agents who Breffort had
inserted into every even vaguely prominent organised group in the city, both big and small alike--with
choice information, among which included the precise whereabouts of Bouquet and her partner during
their excursion last night. As instructed, Breffort's agent had passed on that knowledge to Millet's
would-be hitmen, but if the five corpses of known mobsters that had cropped up in the light of this
morning's sunrise were any indication, it had done them very little good. Not that Breffort minded--the
slaying of Millet's men symbolised that Noir yet had some talent, which had been the genuine and sole
purpose for the ill-fated group of gangsters, a purpose they had unknowingly sacrificed their lives to fulfil.

However, disposing of five assailants simultaneously was a simple task for an above average assassin,
and more so for a pair of them. Noir's ordeal the previous night had merely been the opening challenge of
their examination, and one that Breffort had been almost totally certain they would survive. No, the real
test would come later. With the deaths of the men, Bouquet and her partner now had the scent of a larger
pack of foes--Millet and his organisation. There was still his entire group left for the duo to contend with…
which they would do so willingly. Breffort knew Mireille Bouquet; she was not the type to simply take
things lying down. She would do her utmost to discover who had been responsible for the attack last
night, and then unleash terrible vengeance upon them. Yes, she could be such a vengeful young
woman… a trait Breffort could and would use to his advantage. Bouquet would definitely take her partner
and retaliate against Millet--it was only a matter of when. Completely destroying a criminal syndicate
single-handedly would be the true test of Noir's skills and whether they had dulled or not. But Breffort was
confident they would pass the trial with flying colours. He did not fear for their safety. Nor would he miss
the activities of a minor resident crime group after it had been wiped out; it was just one of many in a
city--in a world--full of darkness.
While a sizeable conflict would likely be taking place in the city in the next couple of days--a conflict
orchestrated to be sizeable by him--Breffort sincerely doubted that the real battle would be waged here in
Paris. Even if Noir managed to assassinate Ryosuke Ishinomori and Vincent Hsu, the amputation of
Kaede Ishinomori's Black Hands would not put an end to the crisis. In spite of their capabilities, Ryosuke
Ishinomori and Vincent Hsu were still but two individuals, simply a tiny--if resilient--scale on a much larger
serpent… although more or less the same could be said about Noir. In a way, Breffort hoped that
Bouquet and her partner would fall short of killing the pair here in the capitol; it would give him an excuse
to send them overseas to the source of Soldats'… troubles. And there, Noir could be further used to his
liking, invisibly collared with him surreptitiously holding their leash. In the long run, it would be better if
Noir failed. Breffort *needed* them.

Nevertheless, he had to be very careful. Breffort had been keeping Noir under his surveillance long
before he had ever recontacted them, but if Bouquet ever learned of his past or present scrutiny, it could
pose an irritating problem. There would be little she could do if she did learn, however, besides being
angered and killing his compromised watchers. Operatives could be easily replaced, and Breffort was
aware that he was her only major ally outside of her partner, albeit a 'covert' one--she would not cut him
off so rashly. Still, it would be irksome for Bouquet to know for an absolute fact that she and her partner
were being observed; it could undermine his goals… and that had the potential to be catastrophic.

But the risk of Noir becoming wise to Breffort's attentive eyes was slim, and the Soldats member was not
about to cease the activity even in the regrettable event they did find out--he had staked a great deal on
those two young women alone; it would be sheer idiocy not to monitor their actions. Moreover, while
Bouquet was a formidable woman of vast aptitude and intellect, he doubted she would be able to ferret
out all of his spies, even if she did catch one of them. Breffort's agents were everywhere… and closer
than Mireille Bouquet in all likelihood suspected. Even in the most obscure of places did Soldats see….

******

The man currently known as Jacques Rousseau snapped shut his mobile phone and shoved the petite
device back into his dark blue pants pocket, before taking several nervous puffs on the lit cigarette
between his lips. He sighed and looked towards the cloudless morning sky above, peering at the blue
heavens through his black, square sunglasses, as if beseeching them for divine aid. Things were about to
get very interesting… he just hoped he would live though those particular 'things'. If he did--which he
fervently prayed--he could at least look forward to being reassigned elsewhere. While it would be a
welcome change, Jacques was still somewhat sad about that. He had spent more than two years of his
life with Millet and his group; it was only natural to be a little attached to them. Furthermore, working out
of a strip club did have its benefits; benefits he enjoyed on a regular basis. But Jacques also enjoyed
continuing to breathe, and weighed against that, loyalty to a gang he had infiltrated counted for squat.
Besides, his loyalty was already owned by another, superior group.

Suddenly, Jacques heard the rear alleyway entrance of Slick Chicks burst open, followed by a frantic
shout.

"Rousseau!" Molyneaux yelled as he ran past rusty dumpsters and battered trashcans overflowing with
damp, putrid garbage towards Jacques turned back, his rapid footfalls echoing off the alleyway's
graffiti-defaced walls. "Did you hear?! Marceau and the others are dead; I shit you not! They were found a
couple of hours ago in a subway entrance all full of holes! Cops are all over it, but Berlot confirmed it was
them! Man, I can't believe this!"

Jacques plucked his cigarette from his mouth and dropped it to the ground, grinding it out beneath the
sole of his shoe. "I already know…." he whispered under his breath, his hand touching the bulge of his
mobile phone inside his pants' left pocket.

"Hey, are you listening to me?! I said the men you sent are *dead!*" Molyneaux continued to howl, finally
spurring Jacques into action. For the moment at least, the Soldats agent was still a part of Millet's
syndicate. And he had a job to do… but not for Millet.
"What are you doing just whining at me for?!" Jacques yelled as he whirled around to face Molyneaux's
anxious countenance. "Has Mr. Millet been told yet? No? Then go do it, you moron!"

Jacques walked briskly to the back entrance of Slick Chicks barking additional orders at Molyneaux's as
the fool scrambled madly ahead of him, stumbling in his reckless haste a few times and nearly planting
his face into the litter-strewn pavement. Noir… they would be coming soon, possibly even as early as
tonight. He had to prepare for their arrival--for what good it would do!--as per Breffort's orders. Breffort
had warned him to expect them, and when a Soldats official of his ranking warned you, it was best to
stand up and take notice. And with Noir being the anticipated 'guests', too…. Dear god. The legendary
pair of assassins were coming *here*. It hadn't completely sunk in yet; it had been more than a week but
Jacques was still wrapping his mind around the reality that the prestigious Noir was made up of only two
young women, for god's sake! But if even a fraction of the rumours about the Eternal Darkness were true,
then Jacques was beginning to seriously question his chances of surviving their advent, even with a
whole syndicate behind him.

******

Kirika was standing with her back resting against the black wall separating the apartment's living room
from the bedroom, her legs crossed at the ankles, simply gazing at Mireille as the woman studied her
computer screen intently, engaged with investigating the validity of the information Millet's grilled man had
bestowed upon them last night. Her normally subdued brown eyes virtually sparkled as she watched her
partner at work, pushing the PC's mouse around on top of the billiard table with her right hand, while
holding a cup full of tea that the girl had gladly made for her in her left. Soft, golden light from the morning
sun streamed in through the apartment's row of windows, bathing Mireille where she sat in its warm and
pure illumination. The sunlight caused her long flaxen tresses to shine even more radiantly, while the
flawless fair skin exposed by her tight-fitting black crop top and low hip-hugging white pants appeared to
attain further highs of splendour. The raw, angry red cuts had disappeared from her cheek, coated with
cosmetics Kirika knew, but at present, she thought that perhaps the light had cleansed the blonde of all
her ills, leaving behind a perfect being to grace this world.

Mireille crossed her legs and brought the cup in her hand to her lips, taking a brief sip of tea, her eyes
remaining affixed to the computer's monitor. But as if the taste reminded her of who had prepared it, she
then looked away from the screen to where Kirika was standing to her left, the woman's full lips curling
into a fond smile directed squarely at her partner. It was a small and gentle smile, but one of genuine
affection, and to the love-starved girl, it meant a lot--she felt her own lips form a faint smile in answer.
Moreover, it enhanced the wondrous vision before Kirika's eyes tenfold. A gently glowing nimbus of
sunlight outlined Mireille's form at her turn, glimmering predominantly around her blonde locks, while
further light caused her blue eyes to glitter brilliantly. Along with her stunning smile, the picture she
painted was beyond all doubt… beautiful. Never before had Kirika so completely understood the meaning
of beauty. But this was far removed from mere physical beauty; it transcended it onto another plane
entirely. While Mireille was gorgeous in a simple bodily sense, the beauty that shone through to Kirika
was also from her very spirit, her very heart. The woman was beautiful to her core, marvellous on the
inside as well as out. Mireille really was a beautiful person, but one who possessed beauty in its every
shape and form. Maybe Kirika's prior imaginings about a perfect being had a ring of truth to them after all.
Only an angel could ever hope to even match her partner's loveliness. An angel… yes, the divine scene
blessing her eyes reminded the girl of pictures of angels she had seen in books. While Mireille may have
been lacking those other angels' white feathery wings, she was no less akin to their celestial flock. Kirika
felt privileged merely being in her presence, permitted to bask in her heavenly majesty.

Mireille put her cup down on the billiard table and returned her attention to the computer, but her fleeting
look had imparted a lasting impression on her partner. Kirika felt the exhilarating sensation fill her chest
similar to last night; her unseen wound now an odd source of giddy euphoria that she never tired of
experiencing. Gazing upon Mireille seemed to promote that feeling inside of her, although to varying
quantities. It was a welcome change to the agony that had seared inside her ever-tightening chest, until
she thought she would collapse from the pain, for days before. She hadn't felt this… content… this happy,
since returning from the Manor with Mireille to Paris.

Kirika was aware that part of her content was due to her newfound--or rather, newly reintroduced--lone
purpose in life. She would be a steadfast defender to the breathtaking wingless angel she had fallen in
love with. Odette Bouquet was dead by Kirika's hands; there was nothing the girl could do for her or any
of her departed family but to honour her last, dying, wish and dedicate herself for the rest of her days to
the woman's only surviving child. Furthermore, she owed it to Mireille for taking her parents' and brother's
lives and causing her such torment. Perhaps that was why the blonde had lost her wings; her sinful
craving for vengeance as a direct consequence of Kirika's misdeed had consumed them.

Kirika's head lowered to the floor, where the sunbeams spilling through the windows stopped before
reaching her feet, leaving her swallowed in shadow. Her smile receded and the elation in her chest
drained away, until only hollowness remained. Murdering Mireille's family and causing her love such
anguish was the girl's greatest sin, the blackest, the one that stood out amongst all the others on her
lengthy list of crimes. Maybe so devoting herself towards Odette Bouquet's final request was a form of
atonement on Kirika's part, but if that were the case, it was an atonement she knew would never come to
fruition. Nevertheless, it was an atonement she would spend the rest of her life trying to achieve despite
possessing no illusions of having any chance of success. Repentance would always be out of her reach
for all of her sins… as it should be. Kirika was a sinner, and would remain as such until her death and
beyond.

However, in spite of her willingness to fight and kill for Mireille's sake, in spite of her understanding that
she was a sinner unworthy of forgiveness, Kirika still clung to her hope, still clung to her dream not seen
through. She'd had a taste of that dream following her return to Paris before the emergence of the false
Noir, but merely the barest one, just enough to recognise that its soothing flavour was something she
yearned for like nothing else. Kirika aspired to one day have that tranquil life spent with Mireille again, one
where the memories of her crimes could dim somewhat, granting her inner peace. A life where her
worries consisted of what to make Mireille for dinner, and not whether the woman would even survive the
night. Kirika would keep pursing that peaceful tomorrow, that tomorrow just visible and no more on the
horizon of today.

After all, even a sinner could dream.



Chapter 10 - Vendettas


"Our primary objective is learning what Millet knows," Mireille briefed Kirika, who was seated sedately
across from her in their private booth, her eyes lowered to the oily surface of the table in front of them, the
cracks between each of its wooden panels caked with a build up of day's--or perhaps even
month's--worth of grime. The small, gloomy and quite squalid bar Mireille had chosen to pass the daylight
hours in was not the most sanitary or chic of drinking establishments she was accustomed to, but it was
quiet with little to no clientele whatsoever, in spite of its seamy location deep in Paris' red light district. But
it was only the afternoon, and Pigalle's red lights were dimmed or switched off completely, the majority
awaiting the sun to fall and disappear below the horizon before replacing its warm, wholesome glow with
a seedier sort. And the neon shine of those particular lights would attract patrons to the quarter like moths
to flame.

But for this hour of the day, Pigalle held little appeal except to only the most dedicated aficionados of the
erotic arts, or perhaps more correctly, the most sleaziest of perverts. Mireille and Kirika were a good
number of blocks away from the upmarket establishments offering tasteful and elegant exhibitions of bare
flesh, and instead firmly entrenched in the region where the Corsican could have a sordid romp between
the sheets with several one-time lovers all at once for merely a fistful of Euros. However, Millet's
headquarters, a strip club quaintly named Slick Chicks--a fact that Mireille had confirmed from her
sources early this morning--was to be found just a short yet shrewd distance along from the peaceful if
grubby bar the blonde and her diminutive counterpart were in, nominating it as a viable staging point for
their impending operation against the trifling crime boss and his paltry syndicate. Nevertheless, bringing
Kirika into such an unsavoury environment had given Mireille pause--the girl did still retain some of her
innocence that was yet to be corrupted or lost during the tortures of her harsh young life. But there had
been very little choice in the matter; Kirika was Mireille's partner, and where the blonde went, the girl
followed. They were a team.

"Prior to that, however, we must confirm that he is actually in the building before we commit ourselves
wholly." Mireille reached casually under her light lavender coat, readjusting her fully loaded Walther P99
pistol holstered against her left ribs. "But that's nothing one of his minions and a little… encouragement…
can't provide," the woman went on, her hand lingering on her concealed firearm meaningfully for an
instant while her gaze remained stationary on the table, mirroring Kirika's.

Mireille's lips moved indiscernibly and she spoke in a low, soft voice, as not to arouse undesirable
attention even in the virtually deserted bar. One never knew who could be eavesdropping, after all, and
there was no reason why a member of Millet's gang wouldn't frequent the place despite the time of day.
Yet to the idle onlooker, she and Kirika were just two young women having a quiet--and rather
one-sided--chat, the words exchanged between them indistinguishable from formless mumbles. But even
if the onlooker could make out Mireille and Kirika's speech, unless they were familiar with Japanese the
two assassins' topic of discussion would continue to be a mystery.

Of course it may be said that Mireille and Kirika could have avoided such precautions if the Corsican had
opted to inform her partner on the mission's details in the security and privacy of their apartment.
However, the woman had wanted to scout the exterior of Slick Chicks and get a positive visual on
possible entrances into the club first before formulating a plan to disclose to her. The sole information
Mireille had bestowed upon Kirika at their home had been the specifics about their target, Richard Millet,
including a photo of the man so the girl could recognise and not mistakenly kill him before they could
pump him for facts on their chief enemies; Ryosuke Ishinomori and Vincent Hsu.

"We'll stick together, with our method of entry being via the alley to the building's rear," Mireille said,
recalling the long passageway leading behind Slick Chicks from a street to the club's right flank. Entering
by the front entrance would be pure foolishness--Millet was apparently considerably educated on her and
Kirika; the doormen would undoubtedly be on the look out for their faces, especially after they had shot
five of their fellow gangsters to death the previous night.

"The same means will be used for withdrawal as well. That should theoretically keep encounters with
non-combatants at a minimum." That was another--while albeit lessor--reason why Mireille did not want to
take a more direct approach to getting inside Slick Chicks; she didn't want her and Kirika bumping into
patrons or employees of the establishment. The blonde so detested it when bystanders got in the way of
an assignment; it tended to cause things to become… complicated. If the poor unfortunates who
happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time caught a glimpse of her face, then… well, the less
said about that the better. Suffice to say that one major tenet of being a contract killer her Uncle Claude
had taught her was to leave no witnesses to a hit.

"As I told you before Millet is strictly small-time, so expect resistance to be light," Mireille continued,
banishing her foul-tasting memories back to the recesses of her mind. "Still, I'm not certain of the exact
numbers inside, and don't want to rouse an overwhelming force directly against us if we can prevent it, so
I've decided it would be sensible to go in quiet--in and out without so much as a hint of a whisper. I doubt
that they will be expecting a reprisal from us so soon, either, which will work to our advantage." The
woman paused to take a moment to wet her dry throat and refresh her voice with a drink of her mineral
water, before she set the glass down on the booth's table again. "We'll move after sunset," she finished
gravely. "There's a higher likelihood that Millet will be present in the club during its opening times at night
than now during the day--he acts as the manager of the 'gentleman's' establishment. It means an
increased likelihood of stumbling upon civilians, but it can't be helped."

Mireille had considered putting off any retaliatory action against Millet and his men until a later date rather
than tonight, perhaps to delve more meticulously into his background and hence into his resources--for
example the arsenal available to his men--and in turn formulate a more comprehensive strategy to locate
and grill the crime boss. But if the Corsican had selected that path, it would consequently give Millet
further time to prepare for her and her partner's eventual strike, and the opportunity to catch him and his
group unawares would fade as the days ticked by. On weighting the pros and cons between the two
options, Mireille had concluded that surprise compensated for the lack of fine detail.

Mireille at last looked up from the table at Kirika, the girl doing likewise at the blonde's movement.
"Okay?" the woman asked in a louder, clearer voice, her expectant expression openly yet gently
prompting for a response.

"Mmm," Kirika uttered with a nod, her cute and innocent countenance and demeanour causing pangs
along Mireille's normally hardened heartstrings.

The experienced Corsican assassin watched with melancholic eyes as her partner picked up her soda
and sipped the beverage through a straw, the introverted girl's gaze wandering around the dusty bar with
an idle curiosity. Mireille then sighed softly and looked away as she retrieved her own drink from the
table, taking several swallows from it. Such a soft-hearted girl like Kirika wasn't meant for this unforgiving
life. She should have the lifestyle of a normal girl her age; instead of being subjected to cold data for their
latest assignment from Mireille, she should be listening to educational lectures from teachers in high
school. Furthermore her daily concerns should be those of an average girl too, like exams and boys. Well
maybe not boys, Mireille mentally amended with a wry smile. But the fact remained Kirika had been
pushed into the life of an assassin; it had never been her decision to be a killer; a contrast to Mireille. The
blonde wondered how things would have turned out if Altena hadn't aspired to revive Noir. Would she and
Kirika have even met? …Probably not. Mireille and Kirika would most likely be leading exceptionally
mundane lives in separate countries.

Mireille mused whether she would be willing to trade the existence she had now with Kirika for that
alternate one. Her family would be alive, and she would no doubt be still in Corsica whiling away the lazy
days on her parents' estate. Kirika would be with her own family, too, perhaps. And neither would be
assassins; neither would have known the cruel life they had to live now.

Still, Mireille would have never partnered up with Kirika, they would have never known each other… and
they would have never fallen in love. If that alternate existence were to become a reality, it could be said
that it would harbour a tragedy as great as their present existence possessed… maybe even a greater
one. Perhaps Mireille should be thankful to Altena for ruining both her and Kirika's lives at such a young
age.

Mireille put down her water and flicked some of her blonde locks over her right shoulder in mild irritation.
She had never considered herself a romantic, and usually would not waste time on such frivolous
contemplations. But as she was beginning to realise these days, being in love had a way of changing a
person. It could be a little frightening sometimes; certainly, Mireille had been quite shocked at her
behaviour and thoughts on several occasions… that was, when could discern that she *should* be
shocked--oft times her mind viewed her uncharacteristic actions and feelings as completely natural.
However, that fear was starting to grow fainter, to a point where Mireille didn't mind the changes that
much at all anymore. Indeed, after realising her neglect of Kirika, she even welcomed them now--they
made her a better person. And Mireille wanted to become a better person for Kirika; she wanted to live up
to the grand image of herself she saw reflected in the brown depths of the girl's lovely eyes. Mireille
wanted to truly be the woman she knew Kirika looked up to her as… and loved her as.

Suddenly overcome by a rush of affection she desperately needed to convey to Kirika, Mireille focused
her gaze on the petite girl. "Kirika," she spoke tenderly, attracting her partner's roaming eyes to hers.
After seeing that she had gotten her counterpart's attention, Mireille leaned slightly forwards and
tentatively extended a hand across the table, carefully taking Kirika's glass of soda from her grasp and
placing it to one side while the girl watched, bemused. Then, following another moment of mild
uncertainty, Mireille's fingertips brushed delicately against Kirika's right palm, before the woman took hold
of her partner's dainty hand outright in a gentle grip, covering it with her own and eliciting a blink and short
peep of surprise from her fellow assassin. She lowered their clasped hands to the surface of the table,
Kirika's beneath hers as the girl looked on in what appeared to be wonder, and then strengthened her
grasp, giving her partner's hand a warm squeeze.

"Kirika," Mireille repeated fondly with a supportive smile, gazing solemnly into Kirika's exquisite eyes, "you
know you can talk to me about anything, don't you?"

"Mmm," Kirika replied, nodding slightly with a rather puzzled expression on her face, her eyes staring a
little vacantly into the blonde's blue ones.

Mireille sighed and her smile faltered some, unsure whether her partner truly understood what she meant.
She was aware that if Kirika had been more open with her they might have averted both of the girl's
breakdowns last night... that was, if the inconsiderate Corsican had been willing to act on the early
warning, of course. However, a ready exchange of dialogue was regrettably not a feature that their
relationship was high on. Mireille wanted to change this facet of their partnership. While she knew Kirika
better than anyone, she wasn't a mind reader. Kirika was so withdrawn and had a propensity to keep all
her thoughts close to her chest, leaving Mireille to gauge how she was feeling through other means, such
as through the girl's body language and behaviour, which on occasion had turned out to be unreliable.
The blonde knew that her partner would probably always be relatively introverted--it was deep-seated in
her character, her nature--but she at least wanted Kirika to open her heart and mind to *someone*. And
obviously that 'someone' should be Mireille--as if it could be anybody else? Their life as assassins may be
cruel, but Mireille wanted to help Kirika through it any way she could, in one part as her partner in arms
who watched her back, and in another as her closest--or more accurately, sole--confidant who provided
emotional support. However, the latter would be better served if Kirika permitted Mireille to sometimes
glimpse what was behind those docile brown eyes of hers. As a result, the woman sought to coax her out
of her taciturn shell… the sooner the better.

Mireille's smile reinforced itself, and she stroked her thumb softly across the back of Kirika's hand. "I
mean it. You can talk to me about anything at all," she tried again, "your troubles, your thoughts, your
feelings; *anything*, no matter what it is."

Kirika looked down at where her hand was being caressed by Mireille's and then returned her gaze to the
blonde, a small smile brightening her features. It made her appear much like the ordinary girl she
deserved to be, one who had just been delighted by someone she held in high regard. "I know, Mireille,"
she intoned quietly, seeming to draw out her partner's name reverently in the Corsican's ears.

Mireille's smile became especially affectionate, bolstered by the heart-warming vision in front of her eyes.
It had been a simple answer, but coming from Kirika, it was more than enough.

Before she knew what she was doing, the woman gently interlaced the fingers of her left hand with
Kirika's right, locking them smoothly together until their palms touched each other's. Mireille felt Kirika
tighten her grasp at the same instant she did, their fingers linking even more strongly, both young women
still gazing deeply into one another's eyes, as if attempting to delve into the other's very soul. It was the
first time they shared the intimacy of holding hands--truly holding hands--and oddly, despite the relative
simplicity of the act, Mireille's heart swelled blissfully in her chest. Looking into Kirika's captivating brown
eyes now, she felt closer to her than she had in a long while, and she was certain the darkhaired girl felt
the same way too.

Mireille lifted their clasped hands off the booth's table and into the air above it, their elbows propped on its
greasy surface. Looking at their coupled hands, the woman saw the genuine reality behind their
relationship. She and Kirika were joined, tied together. Their lives, their hearts--they were one. If the
alternate reality she had deliberated on earlier were to come about, she was positive that she and Kirika
would meet one day, somehow and someplace, despite the odds against it… and they would eventually
grow to feel the same way they did now. Mireille didn't believe in things like fate and soulmates, but here
and now, she could seriously become a convert. In the past, they had been connected by the ancient and
feared title of Noir, two killers surpassing all others, but Mireille realised what bound them now was
something far greater than a mere legend. It was love. And it was wonderful.

******

"Great. Back to this dump. Ich," Vin complained vehemently as he entered the room he shared with his
partner, Ryosuke, in the small boarding house on the outskirts of Paris. He stopped near the centre of the
cramped two-bedded room, planting his hands on his hips huffily and screwing his mouth up in distaste
while he looked around their meagre lodgings, clearly despising the sights that greeted him. "I don't know
which I hate more; wandering the dirty streets of the city fruitlessly, or returning to this crap hole!"

Ryosuke walked into the room behind Vin, his expression stony, ignoring his fussy companion's
grumbling. He had heard it all before. Nevertheless, Vin's incessant moaning was starting to test even
Ryosuke's stoic patience. The triad member was well aware of the reasons why they had to endure these
premises yet in spite of that he insisted on moaning about the quality of their accommodations, nitpicking
over every little thing again and again, repeating his tired tirade each and every time he came into the
room. He was becoming entirely too used to a pampered existence these days; Vin seemed to be slowly
but surely forgetting his modest roots… and that was something one ought to never forget. One must
always hold family--be it one's blood or adopted kin--with the utmost reverence, close to one's heart
where it could not be befouled by the corruption of the outside world. But of course, any disloyalty
amongst family would shatter those sacred bonds and forfeit that reverence without the slightest
leniency… and kindred who had betrayed their own were to be regarded with the purest abhorrence one
could muster, something Ryosuke was very familiar with.

"God, would you look at this?" Vin whined as he looked down at the television set positioned on the table
a short distance from the end of the two single beds, unwelcomely breaking into Ryosuke's thoughts. The
black-haired man raised his head to share his latest annoyance with his partner, a frown of irritation
plastered on his face. "Look, I just noticed that the TV is bolted to the damn table!" Vin revealed, gesturing
roughly at the offending appliance with his hands. He turned back to the television and then shook his
head in apparent gall, his mouth hanging half open. "What, does that old bat of a landlord think we'd
swipe this piece of shit hunk of junk?! I don't even know what bloody era it was made in, for god's sake!"
Vin spat out another heated curse and banged the side of the TV with his hand, rattling the device--but
not moving it even a millimetre from its location on the table--before thankfully whirling away from the
sight. He threw his head back and covered his eyes with a forearm, gritting his teeth as if he was
experiencing an immense discomfort. "I wanna go home," he sniffled pathetically, "this place smells like
old people, too. I can't stand it!"

Ryosuke, sensing that Vin was done--for now, at any rate--shut the room's door, wondering if the 'old bat'
had heard his partner's rant. The white-haired assassin then eased himself down into the only chair
available; a rickety, unvarnished straight-backed wooden chair by the door that would have burrowed
some severe splinters under his skin if not for the protection of his unique coat. Splinters or bullets, it was
all the same.

Ryosuke turned his head a fraction to the solitary window in the room, noting the dying rays of sunlight
filtering through the dust-lined blinds while Vin flopped onto his back on his bed with a wretched whimper,
his arm remaining over his eyes. Deciding that it was safe, he pulled off his circular blue-tinted
sunglasses, slipping them away inside his coat. It had been an exceptionally vibrant, sunny day today, the
sort that Ryosuke reviled the most. If not for his sunglasses, he doubted whether he would have been
able to go outside at all; his eyes did not take kindly to bright light when his mind was in the throes of its
throbbing torment--it amplified the pain.

Not that his and Vin's most recent expedition out into the archaic parts of Paris had been worth the
bother. Despite the two Soldats operatives' focus now being diverted away from them, allowing them
improved freedom to move around and search, still they had discovered nothing. No item, no leads--no
trace. Hiring that fool's men, laying low in a simple room for rent in an elderly Parisian's dilapidated house
on the fringes of the capitol--it had all been for nothing.
Ryosuke sighed softly. He wanted to go home, too.

"That kid's back again," Vin suddenly said in a quiet voice, one far different from his previous whining
tone, and one that captured Ryosuke's interest.

Ryosuke looked in Vin's direction and observed that he was still lying flat on his back on the bed with his
eyes veiled, and then returned his gaze to the window, catching a shadow of movement partially
obscuring the fading beams of dusk on the other side of the grimy horizontal blinds. With the silence of
the room, the black-clad man could also make out the shuffling of feet just outside the window, proving
beyond doubt that Vin was correct. For all of his juvenile antics, Vin was in fact a highly skilled hitman
with keenly honed senses--he was at Ryosuke's side for a definite reason.

Ryosuke sharply stood up from his rocky chair, his abrupt movement prompting Vin to shift his forearm
higher on his head and peer at his comrade through half-lidded eyes.

"Let's go," Ryosuke said simply, knowing that his intentions would be perfectly clear to Vin. He was weary
of scouring Paris for Dominique's benefit and it was clear his partner had been too for a considerable
length of time; they needed a short, temporary diversion. The young man snooping around outside their
room had been dropping by the boarding house regularly the past couple of days, sometimes even
venturing inside and surreptitiously asking the aged landlord probing questions, but judging by his
ineptitude in spying, was indubitably *not* Soldats property. And if that wasn't enough evidence, Ryosuke
had in addition caught a handful of fleeting looks of his and Vin's amateur stalker… and the accumulation
of glimpses had not left the impression of a knowledgeable shadow. But whoever he was, he appeared to
have an interest in Ryosuke and Vin's activities. And that was more than enough for the black-garbed
assassin to act on. It was probably nothing, however--most likely a nosy teenager prying into their
business out of boredom or to appease a personal fetish, but at the very least it would give Ryosuke and
his partner something to take their frazzled minds off of their insufferable mission for one or two hours.

Vin merely blinked at his reticent brother-in-arms for a second, and then sat up quickly, his surprised
countenance saying it all. He started to open his mouth to say something, but then seemed to think better
of it and instead eagerly hopped off the bed and onto his feet.

"Guess I better wear black…" he said with a lopsided grin, his nimble fingers undoing the knot in his
gaudy orange tie.

******

Mireille ducked deftly and unnoticeably into the murky alley behind Slick Chicks from the brightly lit street
bordering it, Kirika mirroring her quick manoeuvre in a blur of motion. The two assassins then rested just
inside the alleyway, its deep shadows concealing them and hence any of their actions from curious eyes.
The sun had set several hours ago, and Pigalle was now fully open for business, luring all manner of
sleaze out from the stones they dwelled under during the daylight hours… and also drawing Mireille and
Kirika out from their dingy barroom hideaway. Slick Chicks had opened, and it was time for the Corsican
and her partner to make their move.

Mireille pulled out her Walther from its holster under her coat and then retrieved its covert counterpart
from a pouch on the opposite side of her gun harass, affixing the silencer to the weapon's barrel. Kirika
did likewise, attaching a silencer to her own pistol too, before nodding to the blonde, signalling to the
woman that she was all set.

But instead of commencing the next step of the operation, Mireille simply looked at Kirika for a few
moments, gazing into her eyes and wordlessly gauging if she truly was ready--and she wasn't referring to
the girl's hardware. However, Kirika met the blonde's stare unshakably, albeit with a slight tension around
her eyes, making them appear a little harder than usual. Determined. And not all apprehensive. Kirika had
apparently honestly settled whatever issues she'd had with their line of work on her own. Still, Mireille
wished she could have assisted her in finding a resolution to her problems.

Mireille at last inclined her head in answer to Kirika's gesture, and then made her way deeper into the
alley, towards the light at the far end where the rear entrance to Millet's base resided, her gun remaining
drawn. She skulked down the passageway with Kirika at her back, their many footfalls noiseless despite
the pair's hurried pace. The alley was wide, wide enough for three people to traverse abreast in spite of
the dumpsters and trashcans spilling over with rotting rubbish that piled up at the mould-covered bases of
the receptacles, lining the edges of the passage. It provided the assassins with welcome freedom to pick
out and utilise the gloom of the darkest spots in the alleyway, the pair of them weaving from one
pitch-black shadow to another as they moved closer to Slick Chicks' backdoor at the end of the left hand
wall. Being adept at stealthy approaches and other such covert practices was a prime requisite to being a
professional killer, and both young women were exceedingly proficient in all methods of silent death. They
were but the fleeting shadows of ghosts.

Before long Mireille and Kirika were on the fringes of the corona of light that shone feebly from the lone
bulb stuck above the battered metal door to Millet's strip club. The duo halted there, crouched low,
assessing the route ahead… and the obstacles that lurked there. Mireille espied two sentries--both
male--dressed with similar flair to the gangsters that had ambushed her and Kirika in the Metro last night,
one standing on either side of the door. Getting past them quietly wouldn't be very much bother at all, but
unfortunately they had to at least keep one alive to tell them whether or not Millet was in the seamy
establishment tonight. And killing a single guard without his friend alerting the rest inside Slick Chicks with
shouts for help would be… tricky. Mireille and Kirika would need to subdue the surviving sentry a mere
split second after slaying his companion or their current stealth advantage against Millet's syndicate
would be lost.

While Mireille was pondering whether or not to simply shoot both guards and find another to interrogate
inside the building, even if that meant more or less committing her and Kirika to proceeding further in the
operation, the gangster nearest the assassins exchanged brief and muted words too low to hear with his
comrade, and then abandoned his post by the club's backdoor. For a moment alarm gripped the Corsican
and she held her breath anxiously as the guard strolled towards her and her partner's location, but a
couple of metres before he was upon them he instead turned to face a gap between two rusty and
graffiti-vandalised dumpsters. The guard then reached down to his crotch and the sharp sound of a zipper
being undone permeated the alley, before it was traded for the pitter-patter of liquid hitting pavement and
refuse as the man relieved himself.

Mireille looked at Kirika beside her, knowing that precisely the same thought was flowing through the girl's
astute mind as was flowing through her own--this was an chance they were not likely to get again.

Quickly but quietly, the blonde assassin gestured with a hand signal for her partner to move across the
alley to the right, which the dutiful girl readily obeyed. Mireille's blue eyes flicked to Kirika for a second as
she scurried silently and swiftly through the darkness, her purple pleated skirt fluttering about her trim,
lithe legs. She cleverly situated her waif-like body behind the end of a dumpster flush with the
passageway's wall and still outside the pool of light. It placed Kirika in a position of concealment from the
sentries yet allowed her a broad view of area and consequently granted her the comforting capability to
give her partner full defensive coverage when the woman eventually ventured out from the shelter of the
shadows. Mireille was in safe hands.

Mireille returned her attention to the pair of guards, most notably on the sentry behind the one obliviously
whistling a soft tune as he urinated on a now soggy stack of old newspapers. In a lucky break, that
particular gangster seemed to be taking the opportunity to have a cigarette while his friend was absent,
his gaze directed downwards and away from the Corsican's location as he searched his pants' pockets for
something, most probably a light.

Seeing that the coast was as clear as it was ever going to get, Mireille very, very cautiously took a step
out of the murk she was hiding in and into the circle of light cast by the sole bulb over the backdoor, the
hunched blonde's edgy blue eyes shifting warily back and forth between the two distracted guards as she
moved. She chose her footsteps extremely carefully as she silently approached the guard closest to her,
staying out of his peripheral vision and making sure to plant her boot soles on clean asphalt or at least not
on any of the objects littering the ground that would make a sound, such as shards of broken glass.
Meanwhile the experienced assassin kept her breathing relaxed and controlled, lest the whispering
wheeze of air passing in and out of her lungs gave her away. Despite the heavy stress of the situation,
Mireille remained perfectly calm, the palm of the hand firmly holding her gun not even developing the
slightest hint of perspiration. This was what the woman did for a living--and she did it well. Mireille had
numerous years of practice under her belt, years that had contained countless contracts she had fulfilled
with flying colours. This was a walk in the park for her. She was as cool as an artic wind.

Right when Mireille was close enough behind the whistling sentry to reach out and tap him on the
shoulder if she so desired, a man's voice froze her in her tracks, her eyes snapping instantly to the origin
of the ominous sound and her trigger finger twitching.

"Hey, you got a ligh--"

The second guard's voice was rudely cut off as a silenced 9mm bullet struck him in the face just as he
raised his head to look in Mireille and his friend's direction, the brutal shot bowling him over and sending
his unlit cigarette flying from his mouth. Blood splattered against the light bulb over the back entrance to
Slick Chicks, its puddle of illumination filling the end of the alley becoming spotted with dim patches in
places.

The remaining gangster ceased whistling and started to turn his head towards where his now dead
companion once stood, but the sudden threatening pressure of hard metal digging into the back of his
skull halted the movement, the muscles in his entire body becoming taut.

"Don't move," Mireille whispered from behind the guard, pressing the silenced barrel of her Walther P99
harder into his head to underline her command.

"Can I at least zip up…?" the sentry-turned-hostage asked tentatively, his hands still down by his groin.

"No," the Corsican assassin said unemotionally after a short pause, as if she had genuinely been
considering his appeal--which of course she hadn't been. She had the goon at her mercy, but that didn't
mean he still couldn't somehow gain the upper hand. Even the most innocuous-seeming of requests had
the potential to switch the roles of captor and captive in a blink of an eye. Just because Mireille was the
one with the gun didn't mean she was all-powerful… that particular reality had led to the downfall of many
women and men in similar scenarios such as this over the years. No, when one became a prisoner, one
forfeited all of their rights to do *anything*. And besides, his back was to Mireille and Kirika; there was no
chance the blonde's naïve partner would see anything she shouldn't.

The guard sighed, his shoulders relaxing a tad. "Damn, you're better than I'd thought," he commented
ruefully. "I guess Rousseau wasn't talking shit after all."

"We have an appointment with Mr. Millet," Mireille said with a rather menacing timbre in her voice as
Kirika emerged from the shadows behind her, the sharp girl arranging herself at an angle that covered the
captured goon and the backdoor of the club in the problematic case anybody decided to pay a visit to the
alleyway. "Is he in?"

"Yeah…" the gangster admitted in a guarded tone, "yeah he is."

"Thank you," Mireille said rather breezily, and then sent a round from her pistol into the man's brain. The
sentry toppled forwards and landed in the space between the two dumpsters he had been relieving
himself in, his face making a deadened splat as it hit wet garbage.

The mission was a go, much to Mireille's satisfaction. She hadn't told Kirika, but after grilling Millet for all
he was worth she intended to kill him. While she usually followed the tenet that stated to always strictly
view an assignment from a professional slant with religious adherence, if the blonde were honest with
herself she knew she had a personal vendetta she sought to settle with Millet. Mireille was aware she
should distance herself from feelings of revenge, but she was of Corsican blood; the craving for
vengeance flowed in her very veins. And that said blood had been spilt under Millet's orders--the woman's
trio of scars masked under a layer of foundation burned at the bitter memory.

But her negligible injuries made up merely the smallest part of her desire for retribution. Millet's ambush
last night had--although perhaps indirectly--caused Kirika to shed precious tears. Make no mistake;
Mireille was not seeking someone else to pass the blame to for what was exclusively her inexcusable
failure. Millet and his now dead would-be hitmen *had* played a role in upsetting Kirika, even if it was a
minor one. Still, maybe Mireille was simply looking for a way to alleviate her own guilt in regards to
neglecting her partner, and Millet and his syndicate were easy targets. In any case, the Corsican assassin
had to make the crime boss pay for the pain he had caused Kirika… for the pain they had caused them
*both*. Yet this was only the first of Mireille's vendettas to resolve; Ryosuke and Vincent had a great deal
to answer for themselves.

Mireille turned away from the corpse of the gangster she had slain and looked at Kirika, before motioning
with her head towards the rear entrance of Slick Chicks, her eyes glancing over the girl for a second to
make sure no one was coming down the opposite end of the alley as they had done. Kirika nodded, and
then the pair of assassins prowled to the dented metal door, each young woman still picking their
footsteps wisely for maximum stealth.

Kirika positioned herself to the right of the door, favouring the unmoving body of the other guard beside it
with a dispassionate and momentary look as Mireille gripped the handle, preparing to enter the
headquarters of their target. The blonde pushed the door an inch open--mildly surprised to find it
unlocked--and then peeked cautiously inside. On the other side of the door was a corridor with grey
concrete walls in a state of disrepair; cracks, and in some places, whole chunks of stone missing. Closed
doors painted in a sickening dark brown were dotted along the right hand wall, while the left hand wall
was broken in its centre by an adjoining hallway. The corridor was lit weakly by a series of light bulbs
dangling from the ceiling--which was in the same if not worse condition as the walls--but the soft
illumination was enough for Mireille to see that the passage concluded with a dead end. Meanwhile
flickering light came from the intersecting hallway, and an electrical discharge could be heard periodically
crackling in sync with it. The blonde assassin could make out no telltale shadows of people standing
guard in the corridors, however, nor could she hear any suspicious noises bar the electric sparking and
the muffled beat of sordid music, the latter no doubt from the area where the main attractions of the strip
club were currently well underway, to the pleasure of its clientele.

Mireille opened the door fully and then flitted inside Slick Chicks, Kirika tailing and shutting the door
noiselessly behind them without so much as a click. She treaded carefully forwards, her shoulder almost
brushing the left hand wall as she kept her eyes on the hallway junction, sometimes sparing a look at the
doors on the opposite wall as she and her partner passed by.

It was all too easy… worryingly so. Mireille had expected a little more security inside Slick Chicks than
absolute zero. Still, Millet's gang was relatively petty in size and aptitude, and the Corsican and Kirika did
have the element of surprise on their side. Plus it was also a business night; Millet's men were probably
out where the club's strippers were, watching over them… or perhaps instead like most of the punters,
enjoying their company.

Mireille stopped by the intersection and discreetly poked her head around the corner, checking whether
anybody was in the other corridor. Finding no one, she prepared to go on, but caught sight of the label
stuck on the door several metres along from the junction in the first hallway: 'Manager'.

Deeming that Millet's office was the best place to start looking for him, Mireille darted across the hallway
to it with Kirika following her, the darkhaired assassin planting her back against the wall next to the door,
vigilantly keeping an eye out for threats from the neighbouring corridor.
Mireille cracked the office door open the tiniest margin as to reduce the chance of alerting anybody
inside, loose flakes of cracked brown paint fluttering to the floor accompanying the prudent action. She
then peered through the miniscule gap between the doorjamb and the door, sighting no clear presence of
anybody, Millet or otherwise. Taking a risk, she opened the door completely, making sure she did so as
slowly as possible to prevent forewarning creaks, and then entered the office.

Millet's office was like any other, albeit a bit cramped and untidy. The only thing that attracted Mireille and
Kirika's attention was the expensive leather chair behind the large mahogany desk at the end of the room.
The chair was swivelled around so the back was facing them, its occupant apparently oblivious to his
dangerous visitors and the pair of pistols being brandished in his direction. By all accounts it appeared as
though Mireille and Kirika had found their target, the manager of Slick Chicks; Richard Millet.

Mireille took a silent step forwards, reaching out with her free hand to rotate the chair and Millet around to
meet her and Kirika, but then suddenly froze, her instincts screaming. Kirika turned her head slightly to
the left as her eyes did likewise, back to the office's open doorway. She felt it too.

Mireille hurled herself at the desk and shoulder-rolled over it, scattering its contents of papers, pens and
folders everywhere as automatic gunfire ripped into the office from behind her and her partner. A myriad
of bullets traced the woman's path a second after her, pounding holes into the floor and the polished
surface of the desk, wood chips and carpet fibres being flung haphazardly into the air. Mireille hit the floor
in a crouch behind the sturdy desk's set of drawers, and then stuck her Walther above it and over her
head, firing a series of blind shots at her and Kirika's unseen assailant.

The hail of bullets paused for an instant as the shooter took cover, and Mireille quickly took the temporary
reprieve to anxiously check on Kirika's whereabouts and condition. She saw that her partner was taking
shelter behind a silver file cabinet to her right, the petite girl sitting with her back against the piece of
office furniture, looking perfectly composed with her Beretta M1934 at the ready. Kirika's head turned to
Mireille and she met the woman's concerned gaze for a moment, silently relaying with her expressive
brown eyes that she was all right.

A volley of renewed automatic fire showered the front and side of the cabinet and interrupted Mireille and
Kirika's unspoken exchange, bullets sparking off its metal casing and the sounds of incalculable ricochets
flooding the room with their sharp, high-pitched cacophony. But Mireille's heart rested easy in her chest;
Kirika was fine. Now the Corsican had to worry about the next important matter at hand, that and the one
presently saturating her and her partner's position with hot lead.

Several rounds from the gunman struck the leather chair next to Mireille, spinning it around wildly as
stuffing burst from its ruptured hide and revealing what the blonde assassin already knew--it was empty.
Millet had known she and Kirika were coming, in spite of Mireille's decision to attempt a prompt payback.
One of his men had to have been watching them earlier today in the bar, or perhaps even as far back as
when they had entered Pigalle--Millet supposedly owed a sizable lump of it, after all. Or maybe the false
Noir had somehow aided the small-time gang; that seemed to be more realistic considering the
insignificant organisation Mireille and Kirika were dealing with. Ryosuke and Vincent were apparently
well-informed about the 'True Noir'. At least they still didn't appear to know where Mireille and Kirika lived,
since the pair had yet to be attacked in their apartment.

Thank goodness for small favours, thought Mireille sardonically as more bullets riddled the desk she was
hiding behind, their dull and heavy impacts rocking the piece of furniture. A thick wedge of mahogany was
suddenly blown off the bottom of the desk and a spray of wood dust stained the ruined carpet next to the
blonde as she sighed, ejecting the clip in her pistol to inspect its level. It was blatantly clear that stealth
and surprise were out the window and she and Kirika were to face a full on fight.

Mireille smiled grimly. But that was acceptable. The vendetta against Millet could easily be extended to
include his entire syndicate as well.

******
Kirika looked at Mireille as a torrent of bullets tore into a packed bookshelf, raining bits of paper from the
ravaged books down on the woman's blonde head like snowflakes. This was what Kirika had been waiting
for, a chance to exercise her purpose in life. A chance to prove her loyalty and dedication to her partner
and love. A chance to prove that her tainted existence had been bestowed a noble function at last, after
more than a decade of committing grievous wrongs.

<But to protect means to kill….>

Kirika bowed her head. She knew that. But she wouldn't hesitate, not again. Already Mireille was sporting
wounds that could have been avoided if Kirika had simply acted. Never. Never again. Mireille would
escape this den of sinners without receiving so much as a scratch. Kirika would see to it.

Kirika slowly and resolutely cocked back the hammer of her pistol as a barrage of automatic fire
surrounded her, the darkhaired girl holding her weapon securely in both hands. It felt light and warm, as if
it were invigorated by its true and worthy purpose… much like its wielder was. She would defend her love
utterly from all those who opposed the woman, and no sinner in this world would sully her celestial purity
while her guardian lived. After all, who was better suited to protecting an angel of the light than a demon
of the darkness; part of it, a sinner herself who knew that malignant bleakness very intimately.

<Sometimes the most effective weapon against the darkness is the darkness itself….>



Chapter 11 - The Test, Act I


Ryosuke lit the end of the cigarette held between his lips with his silver lighter, the brief spark of flame
dousing the darkly clad hitman's gaunt face in a soft, flickering nimbus of muted orange whilst weakly
illuminating the otherwise pitch-black alley around his imposing figure. The assassin snapped his lighter
shut, banishing the light back to its prison and plunging his features once more into shadow. He took a
long drag on his cigarette, the glowing tip flaring bright in the darkness, a sole pinprick of light in the murk
of the night.

Following numerous detours to a variety of locales, ranging from a low-class eatery to a rowdy pub,
Ryosuke and Vin had eventually tailed their young spy to this address, a secluded alleyway in a
dilapidated part of Paris, the district an obvious hub for gang-related activity. Not that the two 'tourists' had
been even remotely perturbed about venturing into an area of potentially heavy crime; Ryosuke sincerely
doubted whether France's ganglands--or even the deepest tiers of their underworld, for that matter--could
come close to matching the peril of Japan's. The syndicates in this country were weak, petty, too involved
with lining their pockets than anything else. There was no sense of camaraderie linking each member in
bonds stronger than financial gain, stronger than *steel*, there was no sense of brotherhood--no sense of
family. It was a failing that infected many of the West's illegal 'organisations', if they could even be called
that. If there ever came a time when one of Asia's criminal consortiums decided to genuinely expand full
scale into--or perhaps more accurately, invade--Europe's underworld the continent's criminal groups
would quickly learn how a *true* syndicate operates… before they were all slaughtered like the wretched
vermin they are.

Ryosuke blew smoke from his nostrils into the cold night air, his merciless violet hued eyes narrowing. Or
at least all would be destroyed but one, single, and arguably most influential group that had ever been
assembled throughout history. Soldats had been secretly given birth to in Europe, centuries ago back in
the dark ages, and had then spread like a plague across the globe with the passing of the years until
present, growing infuriatingly stronger and stronger the further it expanded. And still to this day the
clandestine society maintained its power and mystique, its followers covertly manipulating people's lives
by whatever whim took them, like mere pieces on a chessboard to be moved and positioned as they
wished... and sacrificed as they wished. Ryosuke knew from bitter experience how Soldats thought
nothing of snuffing out anybody's existence, regardless of who they were or what the motives were to
supposedly warrant execution. It was only fitting that he treated members of the organisation with equal
callous indifference.

But tonight Soldats, Ryosuke's favoured foe, was not the quarry he and his partner were hunting. Not
every antagonist that crossed one's path could be worthy prey.

Ryosuke turned his eyes to Vin, where the shorter man was leaning against the alley's rundown wall
opposite him with his arms folded. The sun had fallen well below the horizon during their circumspect
pursuit of their stalker, and that coupled with the distinct absence of light in the narrow passage made Vin
blend into the deep shadows most effectively; he was barely visible in his black suit, shirt and tie, much
like Ryosuke himself was significantly shrouded in his long ebony coat. But camouflage for after dusk had
not been the reason why the triad member had donned the dark garb before leaving the boarding house.
Vin had an eccentricity of habitually clothing himself in black, the shade of Death, whenever there was a
possibility he would be taking a life. Ryosuke had never bothered to inquire to the why behind his
partner's odd practice, not being especially interested what the black-haired man's motivation was, but he
had made a few idle conjectures on the rare occasions when there had been nothing better to occupy his
thoughts with. He presumed Vin saw himself as some sort of mortician--he had certainly put enough
people in coffins to be qualified as one-- although perhaps not as the kind society looked approvingly on,
or maybe even as Death itself, the Grim Reaper. However, Ryosuke doubted if Vin possessed the level of
arrogance to give credence to the latter. Death's servant, perhaps, but certainly not the figure of Death
itself. No, delusions of grandeur akin to that level were reserved for fools who believed their abilities in
murder were above and beyond all others, fools who viewed themselves as untouchable by the Reaper.
Fools of the like who dubbed themselves Noir, Ryosuke thought with irritation. No matter how skilled one
was, all it took to end it was a single bullet or well-placed blade. And one's title mattered even less,
especially when one was in their grave.

"How long are we just going to wait out here?" Vin complained crabbily, but with the pitch of his voice
prudently kept whisper quiet. He turned his head in the direction of the unmarked door a short ways to his
right, a door where their inept watcher had passed through into places unknown several moments earlier.
There was a sign posted above the weather-beaten door, but it was so soiled with dirt that whatever it
said was incomprehensible. However, with a back alley door as the apparent main entrance, the building
Ryosuke and Vin were loitering outside of was quite likely home to some sort of shady marketplace where
underhanded dealings were conducted for illicit wares. In other words, it was probably a 'business' to
fence goods of dubious origin.

Ryosuke ignored his partner's characteristic grousing, instead taking another puff on his cigarette in
answer and filling his lungs with smoke. He knew that Vin understood why they were choosing to wait a
moment or two instead of simply charging into the building the instant their teenage spy had disappeared
inside--the triad member merely wanted to see some action. But it was best to let one's prey assume that
they were in the clear and consequently permit them to relax themselves in their perceived security
before breaking down the door and proving them disastrously wrong. Catching one's enemy off their
guard was always an advantage one should strive to achieve. It was one of the most rudimentary
principles of following the way of the assassin.

Once the length of his cigarette had shrunk until nearly the filter was the lone part remaining, Ryosuke
plucked it from his lips and let it drop to the ground. Reaching inside his coat, he took out a pair of black
gloves--his own eccentricity before murder--and pulled them on with a little difficulty. But their tough
inflexibility was a tolerable nuisance when weighed against the benefits they conferred to their wearer.

The tall assassin clenched his fists tightly, his knuckles cracking against the virtually unyielding material
enclosing them. Ryosuke and Vin had come this far after their spy; they may as well see it through
properly to its conclusion. Besides, who knew whom the snooping boy was working for… he was a loose
end that should be tied. And if the two hitmen had to leave behind a few bodies at room temperature in
Paris before they returned to Yokohama, so be it.
Ryosuke's gaze flicked meaningfully to Vin, who smirked gleefully, and then with a long stride, he walked
towards the door.

******

"Just thought it best to give you the heads up about what's going on down here," Jean Vasser--or 'Ezza',
as was his idiotic alias for this particular posting--spoke softly into the mouthpiece of his mobile phone
while checking reflexively over his shoulder at the closed door behind him, fearing it would open at any
second. One of Simon's acquaintances--or 'ferrets', as Jean liked to contemptuously dub them--had just
arrived at the computer store a few minutes ago and was now downstairs in the basement with the
moronic hacker, doubtless trying to sell the knowledge he had garnered about Sakamoto and
Zhenmeng… for the second time this week. It was astounding that the ferret had even discovered the
accommodations of the marked men--Simon's 'network' of informants were little more than kids prying
heedlessly into people's affairs--yet Simon, being the cheapskate that he was, instead persisted in
arguing with the snitch over the price of the information. For all of his evident adoration of Bouquet, the
guy's first love was definitely money. Jean prayed that he would just pay whatever fee the ferret hankered
for this time; the faster Simon learned of Sakamoto and Zhenmeng's location, the faster Soldats could
assassinate them… and the faster Jean would be transferred from this god-awful assignment.

Breffort merely grunted his approval on the other end of the line, and then ended the call. Jean exhaled
slowly and lowered his phone, before wiping the sheen of sweat from his brow with a forearm. He still
wasn't used to talking to such a high-ranking Soldats official. Jean had been inducted into the order a
scant year ago, and after a several months of being shuffled from one meaningless assignment to
another, he had eventually been stuck in a field position of relative unimportance along with an idiotic
codename; Ezza, the timid and scruffy assistant to an inconsequential computer 'criminal' known to now
and then affiliate himself with some minor felons in the city. But at least it *was* a field position… although
at the time Jean had felt that that was a small condolence.

A couple of months following his placement in Simon's mouldy computer store, Jean had received a
communiqué from his immediate superiors--who weren't very 'superior' at all in the Soldats hierarchy--to
be on the look out for two young women. Pictures of the sought after duo had accompanied the message,
but no mention behind the reasons why he had to look out for them, or what even their names were had
been included. Despite this, Jean had learned later through the grapevine that numerous Soldats agents
in the field who had infiltrated places where information was traded as a commodity had been relayed the
same instructions and data--clearly the higher-ups had wanted an operative to be situated close to the
women… without said operative knowing who exactly they were watching, as was typical Soldats
methods. But it had been obvious to Jean that the two women had to be of sizeable importance to merit
such treatment.

He hadn't predicted that the wanted pair made use of Simon Pierpont's talents, however, and now
suddenly Jean had been thrust into a position of the utmost value in Soldats' eyes. Most of his days
before this abrupt turnaround had been spent miserably maintaining the façade of a sullen teenager
obsessed with comics and using as little deodorant as possible, so when the hunted duo had wandered
into Simon's shop about a fortnight ago the Soldats underling had almost swallowed his tongue in shock.
The two young women hadn't looked like much and had made an unusual pair at first glance--the blonde
had been cold and imposing, her partner meek and waiflike--but there had been something about them. It
had been subtle, like an intangible aura perhaps, yet it had silently screamed with conviction that they
were two people who were *not* to be messed with. Needless to say, Jean had felt considerably
intimidated while in their presence.

Following his encounter with the two, Jean had pried--quite resentfully--from Simon that the older,
beautiful woman's name was Mireille Bouquet--the 'babe' destined to become the hacker's 'squeeze' any
day now, apparently. He hadn't known her Asian friend's identity, however, and it still remained a mystery
to date. Jean had then quickly contacted his superiors to give them the news along with the limited data
about Bouquet he had wrung from Simon, hoping the additional intel would place him in their good
graces… and hoping that as a result he would be transferred to a field position where he could at least be
allowed to shower once a day without threatening to ruin his cover.

Yet after spilling his guts to his betters, to Jean's great surprise--and likewise trepidation--he had been put
under the direct command of a man called Remy Breffort, someone he knew sat high on the Soldats
council, and further emphasising that Bouquet and her companion were individuals who meant a great
deal to the secret society. Breffort had ordered Jean to report straight to him from then on, desiring to
know all of what Bouquet asked of Simon, as well as any resulting information the computer expert gave
her. It may have not been a transfer, but working directly for a Soldats council member had benefits--and
not to mention prestige… if he was permitted to actually *tell* anybody about his employer--all of its own.
Jean was sure that if he pleased Breffort in his performance on the Bouquet assignment, it would be in
his favour--maybe he would get that field transfer he yearned for. Hell, maybe Breffort would even keep
him under his wing. Permanently being in the service of a Soldats councilman would be a terrific career
move.

Breffort had furthermore enlightened Jean of two other people to look out for whom Soldats were also
hunting in Paris, albeit for seemingly very different reasons; Kei Sakomoto and Desmond Zhenmeng, a
pair of Asian men marked for death who Bouquet and her partner turned out to be seeking as well. Once
again, Jean didn't know why the men had to be killed, but his place was not to question, just to obey.
True, it was all very intriguing, and the Soldats subordinate had his theories of what linked all the players
together in this plot, but he severely doubted whether he would ever get the opportunity to test the validity
of them--he did not possess a station that allowed him privileged information beyond that which he
needed to know to perform his appointed tasks. But it didn't really matter; Jean's only goal for the moment
was to escape this hellish posting and get as far away from Simon as possible--if he had to listen to one
more mindless lecture about the dynamics of main characters in video games his sanity was just going to
snap. Once again he prayed that Simon's ferret would this time divulge the location of Sakamoto and
Zhenmeng to the hacker, then everybody would be happy; Bouquet and her friend for getting the intel
they paid for, Simon for pleasing Bouquet and receiving the payment, Breffort for ultimately learning the
wanted men's place of residence from Jean, and finally Jean himself for moving another step closer to
freedom.

Jean looked nervously over his shoulder at the basement door again as he stuffed his phone into one of
his baggy cargo pants' pockets, before wiping his sweaty palms on the legs. He jerked in surprise and
turned his head sharply in the direction of the computer store's entrance as it suddenly creaked open, an
unexpected event for this time of night. Nearly all of Simon's customers preferred to visit the hacker in the
late afternoon, since it was around then that they managed to drag themselves out of bed. Jean would
have locked the door and shut up shop by now too if Simon's ferret hadn't rolled up grubbing for Euros.

"Whoa, I think we just step in a time warp!"

Jean's thoughts were all brought to an immediate standstill in his mind, like the surface of a lake suddenly
iced over in an instant, flash frozen by the unnatural chill only stark terror could produce. Sakamoto and
Zhenmeng, the men Soldats wanted dead… they were here, in the store, right before Jean's
panic-stricken eyes.

Zhenmeng strolled up to the front counter--to the rear of which Jean stood like statue--the handsome
Asian man's hands in his dark pants' pockets and his gait casual, while his head turned this way and that
around the computer shop's interior, exaggeratedly browsing the pretend wares as if he were simply an
interested customer. His partner, Sakamoto, walked in behind him and was even creepier in person than
in his photocopied picture Bouquet had imparted to Simon, six foot tall and decked out in the blackest
black, with pure white hair framing a thin face of almost equal pallor; the Angel of Death personified.
Zhenmeng was similarly garbed in absolute black, his amber gaze and flawless skin standing out in
contrast with his clothes. Contrary to his outfit, his eyes danced with mischief and he was grinning
playfully, but there was something beneath the look and the smile, a shadow of the expression a young
boy would have as he pulled the wings off a fly for his own morbid entertainment. If Sakamoto was the
Angel of Death, then Zhenmeng was the manic imp perched on his shoulder, cackling wickedly.
Zhenmeng abruptly slapped his hands hard on the counter and left them there, the noise sounding
unnaturally loud in the store empty save for Jean and the two menacing men, and startling the Soldats
follower out of his petrified condition. Zhenmeng then leaned across the counter, supporting himself on
his arms, while his creepy eyes flicked from right to left, feigning another look over the shop's
'merchandise' before they fixed squarely on the suddenly profusely sweating Jean.

"We are looking for shittiest PC Euro can buy," Zhenmeng said in broken French, his grin becoming
lopsided yet still no friendlier than before, "and I guess came to right place, huh?" He looked over his
shoulder, back at the shelves and tables laden with very old computer parts. "I did not believe any this
crap existed anymore!"

He then turned back to Jean, his smile fading until only the corners of his mouth curled upwards slightly in
a mere hint of one, while his eyes narrowed just a small amount, his visage moving closer to being openly
threatening. "But think we going to have to see something in back," Zhenmeng said with barely veiled
demand, his gaze shifting to the basement door meaningfully. "You *can* help us, right…?" he added,
drawling the last word as his eyes returned to Jean, boring into the Soldats underling's own, frightened,
orbs. Zhenmeng reached one hand inside his black suit jacket, partially pulling out a handgun from a
holster resting against his side, revealing enough of the weapon for Jean to understand that his request
was not really a request--it was an order. And unfortunately his poor command of the French language
did little to reduce the fearful effect his insinuation implied; in some ways it made the man sound all the
more malevolent. Meanwhile Sakamoto positioned himself beside his partner, the imposing figure
providing further incentive for Jean to cooperate without the slightest resistance.

Jean swallowed--hard. In the face of such opposition there wasn't much he could do or say. That was,
without being hurt or worse, killed. One thing was sure, however; Simon's ferret wasn't really needed
anymore.

******

Kirika turned her head away from her cocked pistol and to her left, watching through resolute eyes as
Mireille's position behind the desk was pelted with bullets, the already severely damaged piece of
furniture taking even more of a beating. The desk was on its last legs, literally, one side of it having been
smashed to splinters under the assault from the shooter, with its integrity giving way and as a result
causing it to slope downwards towards Kirika, where she sought refuge to the rear of a solid filing cabinet.
Although pinned to a level such that she could hardly return fire without risking lethal perforation, Mireille
was still relatively safe behind the other side of the desk, using the thick and deep set of drawers as
cover. But her shelter was falling apart all around her at this very second and wouldn't survive much more
of a pounding than it already had sustained.

Not that it had to. Kirika had been biding her time for this precise moment, consciously suppressing her
sense of anxiousness at her partner's perilous plight to prevent herself from acting rashly and forfeiting
her advantage… although there was a limit to her 'apathy'--but who could merely sit idly by and watch the
person they love be in immediate jeopardy? But the girl now no longer had to hold herself back and curb
her natural protective urges. The gangster currently spraying Millet's office with automatic fire was
directing his shots solely on Mireille's half of the room, leaving the darkhaired assassin free to retaliate
when her older counterpart could not. And it was Kirika's place to act when her love could not, to be the
woman's strength when she was weak. That oath related to all manner of things in their lives together, be
it in peaceful, everyday affairs or in the heat of combat. It was an oath Kirika had sworn to live by.

Kirika whirled around in her crouch and leaned slightly out from behind the filing cabinet, bringing her
Beretta instantly to bear in her right hand at the point where she estimated the goon's head height to be.
She caught a glimpse of a man holding a quivering Heckler and Koch MP53 submachine gun in his hands
standing in the office doorway, the end of its barrel blazing hotly. A stream of bullet casings flew out
constantly from the loud weapon, its wielder grinning maliciously as he assailed Mireille's location with
round after round of lead. But Kirika's glimpse of the gangster was a short one. She squeezed the trigger
of her silenced gun almost immediately after she had strayed from cover, her shot not even a whisper in
the roar of her target's countless own, yet infinitely more effective. The man's right temple erupted in
scarlet, and he took a tottering step backwards before collapsing into the hallway outside the office, his
MP53--and his heart--stilled.

There was not a second to spare. Unless Kirika and Mireille wanted to be pinned down again, they had to
move *now*.

Kirika bolted for the now vacant doorway, staying low as she flitted across the office's bullet-ravaged
carpet, her Beretta aimed ahead of her. Out of the corner of her eye she sighted Mireille vaulting nimbly
over the remains of the desk with one hand, the woman's coat billowing out behind her as she mimicked
her partner's example and sallied forth. Kirika had known she would. She and the blonde were on the
same wavelength--they were two halves of a whole, complementing one another in thought and action
instinctively as if they had been doing it since birth. It hadn't always been this way, true, and not but a day
ago Kirika had believed their harmony to have been lost in tandem with their shared affection. In the
months after their first meeting, the two young women's reliance on each other--their *trust* in each
other--had built slowly as the love blossomed between them, the two separate yet closely connected
sentiments only truly peaking near the pinnacle of their pilgrimage to the past together. Kirika and
Mireille's unparalleled abilities were owed to their confidence in each other, and in turn that confidence
was owed to their love for each other. It was what made them strong; strong enough to have faced and
conquered Altena's trials as their difficultly forever mounted, strong enough to take on the woman's entire
Soldats enclave and survive, and on Mireille's part, strong enough to forgive what by all rights should be
unforgivable. It was what had made them strong enough to be the rightly named Noir.

And now they were still strong, stronger than ever… because their love was still strong. Kirika and
Mireille's feelings had seemed to waver before, but in reality it had simply been a misunderstanding, a
falsehood that had merely temporarily disrupted their balance; the balance between dark and light, sinner
and saint, demon and angel--the best of both worlds working in perfect unity to form an unstoppable
partnership. In short, Kirika and Mireille were *one*.

A second gangster suddenly appeared in the office's doorway in an effort to maintain the grip on his dead
companion's vital spot, but before he could even get off a shot from his pistol two 9mm bullets struck him
at the exact same time, the pair of red splotches appearing on either side of his chest. He howled in pain
and clutched futilely at his mortal wounds with his free hand, staggering backwards until he met the
corridor's wall. He slid down it slowly, his pain-wracked expression evaporating the further he dropped as
the life left him. By the time the gangster's rear had touched the floor his facial features had relaxed
completely--the shroud of death had enveloped him.

Kirika and Mireille each threw their backs against either side of the doorway, their guns held upright and
at the ready. Tendrils of smoke coiled to the ceiling from the silenced barrels of the two assassins'
respective pistols after their mutual discharge, almost in sync with one another. Kirika looked at her
partner as Mireille did likewise, brown eyes steadfastly meeting blue. She then nodded firmly to the
blonde, letting her know that she was set to proceed. Not a single word was shared between the pair to
voice and confirm their joint offensive strategy, but in their case, none were needed.

The exchange lasted only the briefest of moments, neither assassin wishing to lose the momentum of
their counter strike. Immediately following her nod, Kirika suddenly bolted out into the hallway, stooped
over and with her Beretta directed down the right hand length of the corridor. In flawless coordination with
her partner, Mireille sidestepped halfway out of the office at the precise instance the girl moved, her own
handgun aimed above Kirika's low, scampering form passing in front of her as the blonde set her own
sights down the left span of the corridor.

It was a basic plan of attack for two people facing an unknown number of adversaries in the close
confines of the upper-middle part of the 'T' in a generic T-junction, one established mainly on common
sense than any complex combat tactics--one person took the right hand side of the passage, while the
other took the left, eliminating any hostiles as fast as they could while in turn guarding each others' back.
But for Kirika and Mireille it *wasn't* a plan per se, it was primarily steeped in instinct alone. Neither
thought about what manoeuvres to take or what position to situate themselves in, they simply did it. Kirika
had taken the right and placed herself in the most exposed, dangerous arrangement seemingly
unthinkingly because in her subconscious she was aware that with her smaller frame she would make a
trickier target for the enemy's sights to find, plus she was faster on her feet and more limber than her
partner. The girl's intuitive choice left Mireille with the less vulnerable spot, the blonde's taller body
partially shielded by the office's doorway. Additionally, the woman's height advantage permitted her to
start firing upon their adversaries immediately when Kirika moved, the diminutive girl ducking under the
shots--in this life where death could come all too readily without warning, every second was valuable.
Kirika's mind had unconsciously evaluated each and every factor before the assassin herself had moved,
including considering what Mireille's instinctive impulses would be. And all of her deliberations had
occurred in the period of a heartbeat. Trust and love; they were a powerful combination.

As Kirika's line of sight cleared the office's doorjamb, her eyes registered three men armed with pistols
dwelling in her designated section of hallway, all of who looked taken off guard. Her sharp mind
processed this information in the tiniest fraction of a second, modifying her aim to compensate for it,
before she let loose at the targets accurately and fatally with her gun. The darkhaired girl strafed across
the hallway from the entrance to Millet's office to the wall opposite--agilely skirting the corpse of the H&K
MP53 wielding man she had killed beforehand--her attention wholly devoted to her part of the corridor as
she took down one gangster with two shots to the stomach, followed by a second with a single round to
the chest. When she felt her left shoulder hit the wall she ceased her strafing run and dropped lower into
full crouch, firing twice more from her now stationary position at her third and final foe, catching the man
the same number of times in the head and sending him sprawling backwards to pile on top of his
deceased associates in a muddle of tangled limbs.

As the slide of Kirika's empty Beretta M1934 snapped back, a stray bullet originating from her rear
impacted the region of wall a handful of inches above her head, making a slight graze in the concrete
surface, a white line on a grey plane. A moment later a second wayward slug buried into the dead flesh of
the gangster slumped against the wall just behind Kirika, jerking the body so that it nudged against her. In
spite of these near misses, the girl didn't flinch nor did alarm start to bubble up in her breast--she knew for
absolute certain that Mireille would not allow her to get hit, just as she had not allowed the blonde to be
hit by any of the adversaries she had faced.

During her assault the girl had been aware of Mireille's Walther P99 sounding out repeatedly in a timbre
slightly deeper than her own even when hushed with a silencer, eradicating the other enemies in the left
portion of hallway and joining Kirika's instrument in performing their duet. And it *was* a duet. Kirika and
Mireille were not only assassins skilled in their trade, but proficient artists putting on a play, a fluid--if
macabre--opera, like the ones the blonde had once taken her young partner to see in days gone by to
'culture' her. Yet of course, there was nothing make-believe about this play; there were no actors, and the
there was no singing either, only the agonised cries of genuine pain. Here, this play was one of life and
death, where each time Kirika and Mireille pulled the trigger of their guns and hence sounded a chord of
their instruments, its reverberation potentially spelled doom for somebody's future existence. And when
they danced, they dodged bullets; they dodged Death… or delivered it. The song the pair of assassins
played, the steps they danced; it was a funeral dirge they performed, a requiem. Kirika and Mireille were
a duet of Death, and they executed their drama--or was that tragedy?--with consummate aptitude and
unmatched harmony.

With her immediate foes taken care of Kirika sprung from her crouch to her full height and spun adroitly
around on the balls of her feet to face Mireille's section of hallway, ejecting the spent clip from her Beretta
as she swiftly rose before pulling out a fresh one in her turning motion. As she slammed the new
magazine into her pistol, she glimpsed a gangster crumpling to the floor ahead of her with a weak groan,
his bloodstained white shirt a clear giveaway to the root of his pains. The man's body wasn't the only
carcass littering the concrete corridor in front of Kirika's eyes, but it was the latest, Mireille having just
finished dealing with her own allotment of enemies, a mere moment behind her partner.

Before the goon had even collapsed completely to the floor, Kirika was sprinting directly forwards to the
hallway's intersection, her footfalls zigzagging in between the web of lifeless limbs of the departed spread
across her route. The assassin heard Mireille's footsteps echo after hers a second later, putting about a
metre and a half separating them--seamless precision. With the junction almost upon her, Kirika tugged
back the slide of her Beretta, chambering a round an instant before she launched herself forcefully off her
right foot, diving elegantly across the opening of the intersection; a graceful dancer executing her closing
steps with the utmost finesse. As her body soared by the junction, she fired a trio of bullets at the three
men who were running down the other hallway towards her, no doubt in a vain attempt to aid their
outmatched--and already dead--friends. Kirika saw all the men jerk spasmodically, but if it was due to
being shot or simply in surprise, she couldn't tell.

Kirika flew past the intersection, her left shoulder striking the floor. She tucked in her legs and arms and
bowed her head at the contact, rolling more than one hundred and eighty degrees completely over the
tops of her shoulders and back before her feet touched the floor. The assassin then extended her legs a
little and tightened their muscles, the soles of her shoes scaping across the hard floor a couple of inches
until she came to a full stop, her partially stretched legs acting as counters to her momentum.

Her flight and landing over, Kirika leapt to a standing position and scurried the couple of feet back to the
corner of the T-junction, opposite to the corner where Mireille was leaning out from, firing her Walther
down the neighbouring corridor at anybody whom the petite girl had missed or failed to kill outright--the
reason why the blonde had lingered somewhat behind Kirika. By the time Kirika peered around the
corner, all that greeted her were three dead men. The first steps of her and Mireille's dance, the opening
'act' of their play, had concluded… all in a handful of seconds. And they had performed impeccably. But
for their opponents, there would be no encore.

Suddenly, the door at the far end of the corridor burst open, releasing the previously restrained notes of
odd, capricious music from its confines, as well as a hail of lead that spewed into the area, forcing Kirika
and Mireille to duck back around their respective corners, into cover. Bullets saturated the walls, the
sound of them discharging and bouncing off stone, crumbling it into powder, and the sight of small plumes
of white dust rising into the air filling the corridor ahead.

Kirika looked across the intersection at Mireille as automatic fire blazed past them, the blonde woman
taking advantage of this respite to change clips in her gun. And a respite it was; they were in a stalemate
scenario… or at least what appeared to be one. Neither they nor the gangster in the doorway at the end
of the hall had the upper hand, both parties more or less in the same arrangements, except for the goon
equipped with the superior firepower… and Kirika and Mireille equipped with the superior expertise, which
made all the difference between stalemate and simple obstacle. When weighed against raw skill,
armaments didn't count for very much at all. A firearm was just a tool like any other, after all.

The barrage of suppressing fire ceased, the gangster reloading, and Mireille smiled faintly at Kirika, the
girl giving a small smile of her own in answer. The play must go on; it was time for the second 'act'.

The pair abruptly dashed from shelter and down the corridor, their pistols directed straight ahead of them.
The gangster armed with an Ingram Mac-10 Uzi submachine gun reappeared in the doorway, barring the
course forward, with his ammunition supply apparently restocked. His eyes widened at the sight of Kirika
and Mireille bearing rapidly down on him and he squeezed hard on the trigger of his weapon
spontaneously, in the same instant the two assassins pulled the triggers of their own guns. The man's
body twitched and shuddered as it was riddled with bullets, his aim moving wildly all over the place as he
was shaken like a puppet by its strings. A volley of lead from his Uzi was spread everywhere as he
mechanically kept the trigger of his submachine gun depressed, many of the shots coming dangerously
close to hitting Kirika and Mireille. But Kirika wasn't afraid, and she didn't believe Mireille was either.
Firearms of the gangster's type were notoriously inaccurate even at the best of times, and with his
undisciplined aim and sustained spurt of fire, the chances of actually striking someone or something he
was targeting were very low. Still, Kirika wasn't about to take that chance when Mireille's safety was
involved; the girl shifted the sights of her Beretta a tad to the right, and deftly shot the Mac-10 out of the
goon's grasp, disarming him.

The assassins continued firing upon the gangster as they tore down the corridor, the ill-fated man held
upright on his feet by the torrent of slugs ripping into his ravaged body, his torso now a mass of red. His
face was slack and his mouth hung open, with his eyes rolled back into his head; he was already dead,
simply waiting to be allowed to fall to floor and escape this parody of life. But Kirika and Mireille had a
purpose for him; there was still a use his body yet possessed--they weren't merely wasting ammunition.

Kirika and Mireille breached the doorway a split second later and charged into the erect remains of their
foe, hunching over and barging their shoulders violently into his middle. They hurtled into the room ahead,
propelling the dead goon forwards along with them, and were greeted with an enormous bombardment of
fire; a dense mixture of automatic, semi-automatic and single-shot. The assassins' improvised shield took
the burnt of the assault, the gangster's already battered body being punished further still, reduced to a
bag of flesh stuffed with bullets.

However, both Kirika and Mireille knew that the mutilated corpse wouldn't be able to withstand such
abuse for long, and after a couple of seconds--the young women a scarce metre beyond the threshold of
the doorway--they peeled away from their human shield.

Mireille hurled herself to the right, behind a wide bar fortunately only a few feet from her original location,
escaping the onslaught of fire with relative ease. Conversely, Kirika had less luck. The girl had no
alternative but to go left, tumbling recklessly across the open floor as gunfire chased after her, her
dizzying--though deliberate--momentum addling her senses and causing her surroundings to spin madly.
After what seemed like an eternity, Kirika at last crashed into something solid which--somewhat
painfully--halted her controlled roll, and when the world had stopped whirling long enough for her to
discern her whereabouts, she realised that she had ended up crouched under a round table of dark wood,
its top covered by black vinyl. Two chairs lay dishevelled nearby where she had evidently bowled them
over, and past them by the bar Mireille had jumped behind she spotted the bullet-ridden body of the man
she and the blonde had used as a screen. He lay on his back in a large--and still growing--pool of blood,
barely recognisable as a man anymore but more as a mess of tissue, with his clothes in tatters from the
countless rounds that had been pumped into him, and also soggy from the bodily fluids that had spilled
out from his ruptured skin and muscle to soak them. Kirika took in the spectacle emotionlessly, before
dismissing it outright from her mind. The man was just another dead enemy, albeit one severely
disfigured, but still nothing she hadn't seen before. She was indifferent.

<Merely another dead sinner, yes, what all sinners idyllically should eventually become….>

Kirika shook her head slightly and shooed away the errant thought, wondering if she was still a little
light-headed from her tumble. Now was not the time for such musings; she could not allow herself to
become distracted while in combat, not while fulfilling her cherished vow.

"Hold your fire!" a male authoritarian voice hollered above the din of gunfire that was still liberally digging
pockmarks all over the floor and wall near the doorway to the corridor Kirika and Mireille had just
stampeded through. The shooting ebbed somewhat with the man's command, but didn't cease entirely,
prompting him to shout louder and more forcefully. "I said hold your fire, you useless bastards!" he yelled
furiously. "You're blasting the hell outta my club! And someone shut that crap off too, while you're at it!

After a couple of seconds the gunfire petered out virtually completely, only the stray shot or two from a
pistol enduring, which soon also stopped. The music that had been playing in the big room died away
also, producing a noticeably deep silence to replace it and the gunfire, a silence that seemed somehow
doubly quieter following the clamour seconds before it. But that silence didn't last for long.

"That's better," the man's voice spoke again in a softer tone, his words echoing slightly. He then cleared
his throat. "I hope you enjoyed my little… welcome," he called in a louder voice, and in a pitch that for
some reason sounded mocking to Kirika's ears. "It cost me my damn office, you know!" he added
heatedly, before pausing for a moment. "Ah well," the man then continued in a calmer tone, "I guess I can
always take the cost out of your two *fine* hides, now, can't I? Hmm, now there's a thought. What do you
say? Why don't you both just give up and work for me? I'm sure the Johns would pay whatever I charge to
spend some *quality* time with either of you! One a blonde bombshell, the other still only a girl--mmm,
what a combo!" He chuckled then, a hoarse laughter that reverberated around the room and made Kirika
feel sort of queasy. "Come on, let's stop this unnecessary violence and talk business instead. After all, it's
just business between us. Sure, you killed some of my boys, but being the generous soul that I am I say
let bygones be bygones." He fell quiet then, but after neither Kirika nor Mireille spoke up, he went on,
apparently undeterred. Kirika pondered the possibility that perhaps he liked listening to the sound of his
own voice.

"Okay, have it your way," the man said with seeming great regret, although Kirika didn't really believe him.
"I guess it doesn't matter. You know, I wasn't truly expecting you two to show up so soon, or at all in
fact--I didn't believe you would have the *gall* to challenge *me* in my own territory. But lo, here you both
are, drawn into my brilliant trap like mice to cheese… or perhaps like kittens to cream would be a more
appropriate analogy, hmm? Hah!"

Kirika wasn't in actual fact paying much interest to the man's spiel--a mere fraction of her mind was
allocated to digesting his words and searching through them for anything important--and hadn't been
since his first three sentences. While he had been wasting time talking, the girl had been making
worthwhile use of that time to reload her Beretta and carefully study her surroundings from her vantage
point under the table. She and Mireille were in some sort of low-lighted barroom, except one outfitted with
a peculiar stage of some sort, encircled by chairs and small round tables like the one she was dwelling
under. The stage was semicircular and had a catwalk extending out from its centre, with the entire
structure coloured in red, along with the curtains. A golden railing--which Kirika surmised to be made of
brass--rimmed the entire stage including the catwalk. Poles of about two and a half metres in length of the
same style and substance stood vertically erect intermittently on the stage, and also down the middle of
the catwalk, yet seemingly served no purpose other than for show.

The bar Mireille was hiding behind was to the stage's right and ran straight along the wall. It was
constructed of thick, glossy wood with stools in front of it and stacks of bottles on several shelves behind
it, and was probably the most defensive location in the room--Kirika was grateful that her love had
managed to secure it. From her current spot her angle of the bar didn't provide a view of Mireille, but
simply being aware that the woman was in the safest position made the girl feel better. Still, in the event
the bar were to be somehow overrun then Mireille could be placed in extreme peril; there wasn't an easy
way to retreat from there without leaving one's self wide open to attack. Just because her partner had
good cover didn't mean Kirika could become relaxed in regarding her pledge to protect the woman.

Kirika herself was in a field of tables and chairs down from the stage and bar, with several red leather
booth seats lining the walls. In respect to defensive capabilities the tables offered limited protection; they
could be likely shot to pieces relatively effortlessly. The diminutive assassin would have to remain fast on
her feet while constantly moving to prevent being wounded in the coming conflict.

Peeking out surreptitiously from under the table, Kirika observed that the talkative speaker addressing her
and Mireille was--as she had suspected--none other than her and partner's target, Richard Millet; the girl
recognised him from the photograph she had seen of the man back at the apartment. The leader of the
gangsters was standing on a rickety-looking gantry hanging from the ceiling above the far end of the
stage. It ran from one side of the stage to the other, its ends concealed by deep red curtains. Large
spotlights were affixed to the topmost handrail of the gantry, while wooden panels had been fitted against
the front railings, likely in an endeavour to create a makeshift barricade. Millet was armed with a Herstal
FN P90 submachine gun that he waved around in his right hand as he talked, and accompanying him
were three men, two of which who wielded simple bolt-action rifles, and a third wearing black sunglasses
despite being indoors, who strangely bore no weapon at all. As Kirika watched on, the goon in the
sunglasses whispered something into Millet's right ear while sparing uneasy glances into the expanse of
the barroom below him. After receiving a nod from Millet, the gangster then jogged along the gantry to the
left, the structure wobbling precariously with his every footstep, before he disappeared behind one of the
stage's curtains.

Kirika looked to her left, peering through the mass of table and chair legs to check the locations of her
and Mireille's other adversaries. She could make out at least five pairs of human legs in the midst of the
metal kind not a great distance away from her, their arsenal consisting of small arms such as
semi-automatic pistols and the occasional revolver. Past them, Kirika sighted a second group of
gangsters situated behind the stage's catwalk on its left side, with one of the men brandishing an Avtomat
Kalashnikov SU-74 submachine gun, a weapon that could prove to be troublesome if left to have free
reign--he would have to be put down quickly if possible. Yet another cluster of men were lurking on the
stage amid the curtains, Millet's gantry swaying over their heads. There was very little cover in that
particular locale but for the curtains, however, and despite the fabric's seeming heaviness they would do
little to stop a bullet. Those gangsters would no doubt be among the first to accept the sting of Mireille's
Walther--she was in a prime position to slay them all.

Kirika noticed not a single customer in the room, but with the previous firefight not arousing panicked
screams or a swarm of fleeing people, that much had been anticipated. It was perfectly clear now that the
music playing as normal and the lack of guards in the hallways earlier had all been part of Millet's ploy to
lure her and Mireille inside the building under the impression of facing only light resistance. However, this
resistance was anything but light… in principle. To experienced assassins like Kirika and her partner,
Millet and his men were nothing they hadn't coped with before… and defeated. The duo were
outnumbered, they were outgunned, but they were *not* outclassed. And Kirika was positive none of
Millet's syndicate had love and trust on their side.

"Well, my men grow restless. And if you're not willing to even talk to me…."

Suddenly the spotlights on the gantry switched on and were swivelled around by Millet's escort to focus
on Kirika and Mireille's positions; one beam of bright white light on the small table the girl was under, and
a second on the bar the blonde was behind. It appeared it was time to dance once again. But Kirika was
prepared; she was prepared for absolutely anything. She'd had that feeling ever since she had stepped
into the alleyway outside Millet's headquarters. The sentiment she had was reminiscent of the one that
had instilled her when she had fought Altena's Soldats division at the Manor months ago, determined to
face whatever may come, no matter what. She had believed back then that with Mireille by her side she
could do anything, defeat anyone, regardless of how daunting the feat or formidable the foe. Kirika had
simply felt like she could *fight*. And now, once more, the darkhaired girl had harnessed that resolve.
Perhaps its roots in the past were the same as now--her fervent desire to honour her promise to look after
Mireille. It certainly could be possible. While she was supposed to be her love's strength, Kirika
understood that Mireille had gifted her with a strength, too--the strength to *be* the woman's strength. It
was little strange how that worked… the girl wondered if there was a term for such a circumstance.

"I think we should get this show on the road," Millet said menacingly.

Kirika couldn't agree more. It was time to bring this play--this love story--to its climax… and its inevitable
conclusion.



Chapter 12 - The Test, Act II


"Whoowee," Zhenmeng whistled sardonically, "what cosy little hole in ground you have here!" He trudged
with apparent fearlessness down the stairs leading into the basement with loud, heavy steps; the dull
clomping thuds echoing around the gloomy room to warn its two occupants of his and his companion's
imminent--and portentous--arrival. But of course, there was nothing for him to be apprehensive of; those
two aforementioned occupants were only teenagers--even younger than Jean--and were likely to pose no
more threat than a pair of docile puppies. Still, Zhenmeng didn't know that.

Jean was shepherded ahead of the thug, suffering periodic violent shoves in the centre of his back to
drive him onwards, oft times almost sending him tumbling head over heels down the staircase before he
managed to regain his balance in the nick of time. Normally such mistreatment would cause ire to ignite
and steadily grow inside the Soldats agent, but on this occasion the only feeling that grew was dread.
While his cover as Simon's withdrawn assistant seemingly remained intact, it wasn't much of a comfort;
Jean was in a bad situation, any way he sliced it… and a life threatening one at that. Zhenmeng and
Sakamoto would probably kill him just for the hell of it--he certainly wouldn't put it past them considering
that they were marked for death by Soldats. Furthermore Zhenmeng didn't look like somebody who would
have any misgivings about torturing and subsequently murdering a few people… or, for that matter, did
his scary partner. How Jean was going to get out of this without ending up face down in a pool of his own
blood he had no idea.

Sakamoto followed wordlessly behind Zhenmeng as the three of them descended below the computer
store front, a towering shadow looming over the other two men, an impassable sentinel who helped to
further escalate Jean's fear every time the Soldats follower braved a glance over his shoulder. Zhenmeng
was the obvious one to watch out for between the wanted pair with his brash and obnoxious behaviour,
but Sakamoto held his own different kind of menace with his stoic demeanour, one in some ways more
intimidating than his partner's. Silence could hide all manner of things, things a person's imagination had
the unwelcome habit of making into their worst nightmares.

"What the hell? Ezza, you dumbass!" Simon yelled angrily as he spun his desk chair away from his ferret
and to the basement stairs, glaring at Jean as he emerged--with a harsh push by Zhenmeng--from the
murk into the fluorescent light glowing from his flashy computer box fixtures and monitor screens. "Can't
you see I'm busy with… with…." Simon's reprimand immediately lost steam and choked off to a weak
croak as Jean's captors entered the light and revealed their presence, the hacker's mouth still working
although no words came out. "Oh shit…" he eventually succeeded in forcing out--albeit scarcely
audibly--no doubt recognising Zhenmeng and Sakamoto from Bouquet's photograph.

"Oh no…" the ferret standing next to Simon meanwhile breathed. "I know yo--! It's--!" He practically
squeaked out the halting words, pointing a shaky finger at the black-clad men with wild panic splashed all
over his face. Jean certainly knew that feeling.

Zhenmeng roughly barged past Jean, a roughish lopsided grin pulling up the left side of his mouth as he
placed himself a short distance in front of Simon and the snitch. Jean was knocked aside as if he were
just a scrawny child even though he and Zhenmeng were around the same height and build, and tripped
over a mass of cables flowing along the floor from the many computers on Simon's desk, landing painfully
on his behind.

"I guess you the guy in charge," Zhenmeng directed to Simon, the hacker somehow seeming paler than
usual in spite of his normal pallid skin tone. The longhaired man put his hands on his hips and took a
couple of moments to look around the basement, his eyebrows raised in apparent appreciation. "Wau…"
he then said, while still studying the dimly lit room, "I bet could hold noisy parties and no one hear it…"
The right corner of Zhenmeng's mouth slowly climbed higher on his face to join its mate opposite, the
black suited man's grin becoming an all out sneer of malicious import, his teeth slightly bared. "And I bet
no matter how loud you scream, no one hear it…" he added, his voice, formally conversational, now hard
and nasty… and foreboding.

At that second Simon's ferret, who Jean had observed twitching agitatedly all throughout Zhenmeng's
examination, apparently lost his nerve and suddenly tried to bolt past the sneering man, making a
reckless break for the stairs and escape. But escape would not come that easily.

Before the ferret could move more than a couple of steps Zhenmeng took action, his lightning fast
rejoinder to the teenager's dash for freedom in the form of a solid elbow to the side of the head, the
impact so forceful that Jean could hear bone colliding. The informant's flight was brutally cut short as he
staggered ungainly backwards from the hit, like a punch-drunk boxer on the verge of being knocked out.
He looked up at his assailant, only to get a devastating left hook straight to his face, the blow knocking his
baseball cap clean off his head. The ferret collapsed to the floor next to his dropped cap, his left eye
swelling shut; an angry red disfigurement on his visage. He then rolled slowly over onto his side before
simply laying there sobbing pitifully in pain and terror, drawing his limbs close to his body while it quivered
with his mewling.
Not a shred of sympathy had passed through Jean's heart as Simon's snitch was beaten; in his opinion
the moron deserved every torture coming his way from Zhenmeng and more. There was no question in
Jean's mind that the careless bastard was responsible for the predicament he and Simon were now in;
the ferret's sloppy surveillance methods had to have tipped the vastly more competent Zhenmeng and
Sakamoto onto Simon's curiosity in their activities, and consequently the duo had tailed the stupid kid
right to the computer expert's doorstep.

Jean ground his teeth in combination of anxiety and resentment where he sat on the floor just to the left of
Simon's desk, black cables running under his bent legs to the taxed power points on the wall opposite,
vanishing into the shadows of the room. Damn that fool! In all of Jean's time in the field--short as it may
be--he had never expected his life to be placed in very great and very real danger. And now, because of
someone else's blunder, he may not live to see another day. Fuck!

The Soldats operative watched as Zhenmeng kicked the prone ferret in the stomach, the Asian's intense
eyes hot amber that burned in the light, their prior playful lustre long gone as the mischievous imp
showed his true colours as a vicious devil. It was fitting that the clumsy spy was the first to experience the
repercussions of his own laxity. Jean hoped that he was in immense pain indeed; if Zhenmeng's
ministrations didn't kill him, then the Soldats agent would definitely finish the job.

Zhenmeng planted a foot on the informant's right shoulder and pushed his unresisting body over onto its
back, glaring down at the teenager with a contempt that did not bode well for his personal safety.
Zhenmeng then stomped his foot down on the ferret's sternum, before exerting most of his body weight
on that leg and effectively holding his victim in place. The teenager cried out weakly at the abuse and
writhed beneath the sole of the thug's shoe, his mouth remaining open afterwards in a silent yet earnest
appeal for aid… but it would never come; he was begging to the wrong crowd.

"Brat!" Zhenmeng spat at his subjugated quarry, grinding his heel into the kid's chest with seeming glee at
the torment he was inflicting. "You like to watch, ne? Ne, little spy?" Still grinning from ear to ear, he put a
hand inside his suit jacket and drew out the gun he had shown threateningly to Jean earlier, its brushed
steel reflecting in the light with dark intent.

Simon--who had stayed completely rigid in his chair up until this point, gripping its armrests as if he were
on a roller-coaster ride, his knuckles as white as his face--started at the sight of the bared firearm.
"What…. You can't be serious…!" he gasped, his expression a picture of abject horror. Jean wondered if
the hacker had ever seen a real gun before, one that hadn't been confined to the harmless digital polygon
realm of video games.

"Quiet," Zhenmeng said simply, before offhandedly lashing out with the pistol at Simon without even so
much as glancing in his direction.

The unforgiving metal casing of the weapon struck the unsuspecting hacker in the mouth, slapping him
back into his chair, which in turn propelled it into the desk with a bang, the collision toppling several
stacks of CDs that scattered across the floor. Simon grabbed his mouth as tears collected in his eyes,
and a muffled scream was emitted from behind his covering hands, accompanied by copious dribbles of
blood that oozed from between his fingers--Zhenmeng must have dislodged at least one tooth.

Zhenmeng seized a fistful of the snivelling snitch's t-shirt with his free hand and hauled the teenager's
upper body towards him, his previously restraining foot moving to the floor. He cocked the hammer of his
pistol and bent down until his face was only a few inches from the boy's; his battered mug in stark
contrast with Zhenmeng's handsome features.

"Yes, you like to watch," Zhenmeng hissed into the spy's face while brandishing the handgun where he
could see it. The informant whimpered and tried to turn away from his attractive but merciless attacker,
but the Asian man would have none of it. "Look at me when I talking to you, you shit!" he snarled, shaking
the boy hard in his grasp until he complied. He calmed then, his wide grin returning. "Your eyes are odd,
now," Zhenmeng remarked, scrutinising the ferret's swollen shut left eye. "You want me even eyes up?"
He brought up his pistol to the boy's other, widely dilated eye, and pressed the end of the barrel against it,
forcing it closed. "Well, little spy?"

"Please…" the informant pleaded in a soft, frightened voice, sounding like the kid he merely was. He
trembled before Zhenmeng, and Jean could make out tears leaking from his one good eye. "Please
don't… please… PLEASE!"

The ferret's whispers rose to a final crescendo in Jean's ears, his shriek borne of pure, undiluted terror
filling the basement and snapping the Soldats follower out of his stupor. What the hell was he doing, just
literally sitting here on his ass looking on as events got more and more out of hand? Did he *want* to
die?! Zhenmeng and Sakamoto were clearly hardened criminals; there was no way they were going to let
any of them live! Simon and his informant were just kids at heart; they were both screwed the second
Zhenmeng and Sakamoto came into the basement, but damn it, Jean had ties to Soldats; for god's sake
he should use those ties! He had to inform someone--Breffort, his former superiors; frankly *anyone* with
Soldats!--that the Asian men wanted in Paris by the society were here, underneath Simon's computer
shop front. It was his duty! And if Soldats happened to deploy a hit squad to his location--and to his
rescue--as a result then that would be fine, too. After all, Jean couldn't continue to serve Soldats if he was
dead.

While Zhenmeng further toyed with the snitch, jamming the barrel of his pistol harder into his eye as he
spouted more intimidating suggestions about what to do with it, Jean began edging his right hand--the
one furthest away from the black-clad man and hidden from view by his legs--across the dusty concrete
floor and towards his pants' pocket. Utilising his mobile phone was the only option he could think of
without resorting to suicidal heroics, something he was definitely not suited for. If Jean could get a text
message to Breffort, the council member could have a taskforce dispatched to save his bacon before it
was shot full of holes.

Jean crept his hand closer to his pocket as quickly as he dared, his movements offset by a slowing
wariness--desperation and fear battling each other to a stalemate. Cold sweat trickled lazily down his face
and stung his eyes, while also sticking stray strands of his shoulder length hair to his cheeks. His heart
thumped rapidly in his chest, a manic beat that flooded his eardrums and one he thought loud enough for
everybody in the room to hear. Contrary to his internal tension, outwardly Jean appeared to be sitting
sedately on the floor, albeit somewhat restless but not beyond the level that one would expect somebody
in his situation to be. Or at any rate, he prayed he appeared that way.

Jean's fingertips touched his phone inside his pocket; the feeling of plastic on his skin motivating him to
proceed with a burst of both improved hope and heightened fear. Carefully, and using only his fingertips,
he slid the mobile phone out of his pocket, gently lowering it to the floor to not make a sound. The partial
darkness Jean had been pushed into by Zhenmeng worked to his advantage but also to his
disadvantage; the movements of his fingers on the phone would be greatly concealed, however as soon
as he started pressing buttons the device would light up in an condemning green glow; a beacon plainly
displaying his actions to anybody who cared to look his way. He would have to work fast and simply pray
that his body would shield the bright phone from everybody's gaze.

Keeping his eyes fixed on Zhenmeng and the abused informant while schooling his breathing to stay
relaxed and rhythmic in an endeavour to preserve the innocuous look of a scared young guy, Jean
commenced typing a short and succinct message to Breffort, his fingers dancing over the keypad with a
speed and deftness produced by fear. The seconds past like hours, and as each one ticked by Jean's
heart felt like it was going to leap out from his throat.

But then it was done. Jean hit the button to send the precious message to the Soldats higher-up and then
allowed himself a quiet sigh of relief--there was no doubt in his mind that Breffort would receive and read
it almost instantaneously; in his position the man had to be forever on the ball. Jean just hoped that he
would send help in time.
Jean looked away from Zhenmeng… and unwittingly locked eyes with the steely violet stare of Sakamoto.
He stood motionless directly in front of Jean with his head turned the Soldats operative's way, a black and
white stone statue erected imperiously about a metre from the foot of the basement stairs; a silent sentry
barring the sole route out of this underground torture chamber. Or perhaps a gargoyle in human form.
The glow from the computers illuminated only half of Sakamoto, his features split down the middle in a
mirror of light and dark; one side deathly pale, the other veiled in shadow--a man with one foot in the
grave… or maybe emerging from it.

Jean's throat dried out, what little moisture it had left vaporised by the manifestation of a sudden desert
plain. Sakamoto had been so still, so quiet, that he had forgotten the man was even there. His rowdy
partner's antics had also proved to be a magnet for attention, leaving him free from eyes and minds to
lurk unnoticed and do as he wished, blending into the backdrop until he became indistinguishable from
any other part of it. It was a fact that Jean had learned too late, and now had the potential to be a fatal
mistake. Hysterical panic poised to snatch hold of him, and he swallowed hard in an effort to maintain
control of himself although the action came with difficultly, a parched wasteland shifting. He
unconsciously held his breath as he stared unblinkingly at Sakamoto, somehow unable to break the look
in spite of fervently wanting to. Sweat pasted his clothes to his body and Jean felt chilled, but it wasn't
because of the perspiration. Had Sakamoto seen him use his mobile phone? Shit. He was dead. He was
dead!

A muted buzzing suddenly emanated from inside Sakamoto's overcoat, the noise causing Zhenmeng to
look over his shoulder at his associate, his gun still squashed into the cavity of the ferret's eye. Sakamoto,
however, did not immediately react, instead prolonging the stare with Jean, much to the Soldats agent's
dismay. But, eventually, he reached inside his ebony coat and fished out a phone, opening it up and
bringing it to his ear while his gaze welcomingly wandered away from Jean.

The Soldats follower's muscles relaxed and he resumed breathing again. Saved by the buzz--right now to
him there was no sweeter sound.

After simply holding the phone to his mouth and ear for several moments, Sakamoto grunted into the
receiver and started speaking what Jean believed to be Chinese or Japanese to the person on the other
line, his voice monotonous--unemotional. "Kaede…? …Hmph…. Doko? …Ryoukai."

The conversation was brisk and Jean got the impression it was rather curt as well-- whomever Sakamoto
had been speaking to must not be regarded as a friend by the black-garbed man. His sour expression
that was even bitterer than his regular ill-tempered countenance as he put his phone away helped to also
attest to that likelihood. Whoever the caller had been, he or she should watch their back.

"Dare?" Zhenmeng said, although Jean had no clue as to what that meant.

Sakamoto shook his head slightly at his partner and then turned to Simon, the hacker still clutching his
gushing mouth and crying softly. "You," the white-haired man said grimly as he took a couple of steps
towards the computer expert, speaking French once again. "Find me an address."

Simon looked up at Sakamoto, his eyes wet and his chest heaving as he blubbered, reduced to a bawling
baby by a single smack in the mouth. Jean would have found it funny if he was sure he wouldn't devolve
to such a state himself if--or rather when, he amended with worry--Zhenmeng or his partner transferred
their attention to him.

Without warning a deafening bang exploded inside the basement, followed by a scream of excruciating
agony. Jean and Simon jumped at the ear-splitting blast and looked to its source, while Sakamoto simply
looked, unafraid and unsurprised.

"My finger slipped," Zhenmeng said with a sheepish smile, holding up his smoking pistol for emphasis.
Yeah, right. Jean knew that men like him did not make errors like that.
The informant was the one responsible for the scream. He writhed on the floor holding his left thigh, which
was haemorrhaging like a busted water pipe. Blood pumped from the gunshot's entrance and exit wound
on the front and rear of his leg as he futilely attempted to stem the top stream with his hands, screeching
all the while.

Sakamoto looked at the bloodthirsty Zhenmeng for a few seconds as the shorter man shrugged
nonchalantly, and then returned his attention to a now even more petrified Simon, apparently dismissing
his partner's barbaric act.

"Find me an address," Sakamoto repeated to Simon over the wails of the informant. The hacker didn't
seem to be listening however; his eyes were riveted to his spy howling at full volume on the floor as the
teenager bled his life away. Simon had even ceased weeping, although his damp cheeks and red eyes
remained as evidence to his lapse of nerve.

A series of bright orange flares lit up the centre of the gloomy basement as gunfire once more erupted,
and the snitch's tortured cries were abruptly cut off--permanently. Jean looked on as Zhenmeng fired five
or six rounds into Simon's ferret, ruby rosettes bursting out of his jerking torso like rupturing cists. And
then he was dead. Just like that. Blood seemed to flow from everywhere, running freely on the floor.
There was so much of it. Jean had never seen a dead body before, let alone someone murdered right
before his eyes. It was horrific, but at the same time fascinating. He was surprised at how easy it was for
someone to die.

"Finally!" Zhenmeng exclaimed in relief, shaking his head down at the corpse. "I thought you would never
shut up! Don't you know it is rude to talk while others try to talk? Geez!" He pulled the trigger of his
handgun again and sent another bullet into the carcass of what had previously been a living, breathing
person; the projectile's entry lost in the swamp of red on its chest.

Sakamoto spared another glance at his murdering companion and then looked back to Simon. "Find me
an address," he demanded yet again, this time in absolute quiet. "The name is Albert Laroque. Find him;
find it. Now."

Simon bobbed his head emphatically, his wide eyes staring at the remains of his informant; probably
envisioning his own fate would be the same as his contact's if he failed to cooperate.

Jean blinked, his own, morbid curiosity in the ferret's cadaver disrupted at the mention of a name he
recognised. "Albert Laroque…?" he gasped. Albert Laroque was almost on par with Breffort, a senior
Soldats official just an echelon below the council. How had Sakamoto learnt that name?! Jean himself
had only overheard it once from his superiors. "That's--!" Jean continued to blurt out, before the Soldats
agent shut up abruptly, realising his slip.

But the realisation came belatedly. Looking frantically between Sakamoto and Zhenmeng, he saw them
look back at him, fresh interest on their faces. Jean looked quickly away, his gaze moving to the
unguarded stairs, fear fuelling the adrenaline that started to course through his veins at a frenzied rate.
Escape. He couldn't wait for an armed Soldats unit to come to his rescue now; he was going to end up
like the ferret if he didn't flee at once. He had made a small blunder, but to men whose heads a huge and
influential organisation like Soldats sought, a small blunder may as well be a gigantic, glaring misstep. If
the duo didn't pick up on it, it would be an act of god.

"You know, I have been smelling something in here that I cannot put finger on," Zhenmeng commented,
as if merely talking about the weather. He strolled away from the body of the informant he had created,
meandering casually towards the basement staircase. His pistol was still in his hand, spoiling the image
of a man simply taking a peaceful walk.

Jean's heart raced, and sweat once again beaded on his brow. Fear. Fear gripped him like an entity;
freezing his heart and numbing his limbs, lead weights tied to his arms and legs. The steps looked so far
away and yet so close, tantalising before his eyes, a staircase to Heaven; salvation in wood. He could
make it. All he had to do was move. Zhenmeng had the gun, but he had the Fear. And Fear gave people
wings.

Jean leapt up and sprinted for the staircase. His feet seemed to float over the floor as his legs pumped
furiously, his white-feathered wings propelling him to deliverance; the wings borrowed from the Angel of
Mercy. Hope rose inside his heart--a giddy feeling, light and airy, as if he were soaring high amongst the
clouds.

But then the wings disintegrated, the angel turning from him, and Jean crashed to the ground, to the hard
concrete floor. Hope died as an agony exploded in his left knee, buckling it. His ears rang, the wailing
song of fallen angels--demons, or rather, men and women as demons, the only reality in this world. No
forgiving angels treaded where Jean was, and Heaven was a myth held onto only by the damned. The
sole angels here were those of the ruthless kind--Vengeance and Death. The Angel of Death had cast its
lifeless gaze upon Jean this night, and now its servant, the devil masquerading as an imp, was coming to
carry out the seraphim's bidding.

Zhenmeng grinned at Jean hunched over on the floor, his eyes lingering on his shattered knee, a bullet
having torn it apart. He squatted down to the Soldats operative's level, and prodded the wound with the
barrel of his gun, still hot from its recent use--a burning pitchfork in Hell, a domain that was no myth. Jean
clenched his teeth, grinding them forcefully together to prevent himself from screaming.

"You stink, pal," Zhenmeng was saying, his voice coming from the other end of a long hallway, tinny and
faint. "You stink like Soldats…."

Fear was a double-edged sword, all false hope and misguiding proposals. And as for the Angel of Mercy,
if it did in fact exist… it was just fickle. But hell, Jean hadn't been much of a religious type anyway.

******

Kirika ducked her head back under the protection of the table after Millet's closing words, her last sight of
her and Mireille's target one of him brusquely waving his arm in a signal for his assembled men to
recommence their attack. And then suddenly bullets were falling like raindrops, a deadly downpour that
descended from all angles and were released by a gathering of men, rather than one of clouds. And no
storm that was birthed in the heavens could match the fury or danger of this particular tempest. No, a
storm like this could only be akin to those in that place called Hell, wrought by the same kinds of people:
sinners, for those of pure, peaceful hearts did not create such things. Hell was a sinner's final destination
after Death claimed them, or so it was written. Kirika wasn't sure if it were true or not, but if it was, then
many new faces would be appearing in the depths of its fiery pits tonight, joining the ones she and Mireille
had already condemned to that wicked place.

A deluge of slugs showered the tabletop above Kirika's head, the pitter-patter thuds of lead compacting
against wood loud in her ears. She could make out the crashes and tinkles of breaking glass above the
storm--gunfire heavily saturating Mireille's position behind the bar, bottles and glasses destroyed
uncaringly in its wake, liquor spilling like blood. But Mireille would be okay. Kirika had utter confidence in
her abilities, and in the woman herself--if she didn't, then she could never wholly have faith in her while in
the midst of combat; their duet would lack cohesion, lack trust. Still, the girl was also aware of the limits of
the blonde's abilities, and as a result she would feel more at ease if she could take some of the pressure
off of her partner; Mireille was effectively pinned down where she was with very little opportunity to shoot
back, the dual automatic fire from Millet's FN P90 on the gantry above and his goon's AKSU-74 on the
floor the main culprits. But Kirika's desire to assist her love would have to wait; the darkhaired assassin
had her own troubles to deal with right now.

Kirika saw that the five sets of legs in amongst the tables' and chairs' metal ones were rapidly bearing
down on her, weaving around the furniture or in some cases, throwing them roughly out of their path. The
group was close, almost upon her, a mere handful of metres separating them. She had been sitting here
in shelter for long enough; it was time to venture out into the raging tempest… and deliver calm.
Kirika pinpointed the lead gangster's legs and fired a round from her Beretta into his left shinbone,
producing a scream and causing him to trip forwards and land on all fours, temporarily halting his fellows'
progress behind him and also distracting them… just as the sharp girl had predicted. She rolled
backwards in a tight ball, out from under the table, and then smoothly uncurled onto her feet, standing
upright. The glare from the spotlight mounted on the gantry hit her full in the face as she rose, harsh white
making her squint and painting her as clear target. But there was no time to worry about that, nor could
she let herself be sidetracked by her marred vision. A moment's hesitation would spell a swift end--she
had to keep moving, she had to stay fast on her feet. And she had to have faith.

As if in answer to Kirika's silent conviction, the spotlight suddenly cut out in a burst of glass along with its
neighbour highlighting the ravaged bar, both smashed by a well-aimed 9mm bullet shot by a guardian
angel. Even when under intense suppressing fire Mireille played her role as Kirika's vigilant partner to the
absolute best of her capabilities; one eye on the battle, one eye on the girl, and then acting on her behalf
when necessary. It was much like Kirika herself behaved in regards to her pledge to defend Mireille; the
only difference was, the girl's vow endured beyond the heat of combat. Although if she thought about it
Mireille did look out for her during their everyday lives too, her recent conversation with the woman in the
bar nearby Millet's headquarters earlier tonight coming to mind. But that was due to no childhood
promise--Mireille had not made one like Kirika's at any stage of her life to the girl's knowledge. Instead,
Kirika believed it was a product of love.

Kirika bounded up on the table, the previous incoming gunfire that had battered it only seconds before
ceased with the approaching gangsters' attentions diverted to their lamed comrade. She took two quick
steps across the deeply gouged surface of the table and leapt off it, aiming straight for the goons a short
distance behind it. The men looked up from their still howling friend as Kirika hurled herself at them, their
faces registering their shock at her unexpected manoeuvre and appearance, while the hands wielding
their weapons reacted sluggishly.

Kirika moved her gun to the right and pulled the trigger twice in quick succession as she sailed through
the air, her legs tucked neatly underneath her body, muscles taut and primed. A gangster on her far right
took the two rounds in the forehead, dropping him immediately. He fell backwards onto a table, before he
slid limply off it and to the floor, lying dead amid the surrounding chairs. One down, one crippled, and
three left.

As soon as Kirika was in range, she uncoiled her legs from underneath her and lashed out with both her
feet in a wide midair scissor kick, striking two gangsters standing to her left and right hard in the face,
while leaving a central one unmolested. But the remaining man's reprieve was short-lived; while the two
other gangsters were reeling from the assassin's twin blows, she folded her legs back to her body before
clamping her thighs around his head with crushing force, a choking sound escaping his throat. Kirika
grabbed his right wrist with her free hand and kept it well away from her as he desperately attempted to
shove his pistol into her ribs to free himself from her vice-like grip, his shots discharging harmlessly into
the floor instead. Meanwhile the momentum of her jump toppled the goon, and as they fell together the
girl put the silenced barrel of her Beretta M1934 to his left eye and fired a single, decisive time, putting a
lump of lead into his brain.

The dead gangster's back hit the floor and Kirika released his head from between her thighs before rolling
forwards, agilely ending up back on her feet. By then the pair of still upright enemies--their injured
companion remaining hunched over on the floor, whimpering in pain--had recovered themselves and
were turning around after her, their faces furious and marked with blood; one with a split lip and the other
with a bloodied nose. Their guns were raised and about to voice their anger in a way mere words never
could--sinners often spoke in such a method.

But the gangsters' voices would be ineffective; the darkhaired assassin was already relocating--fast.
Kirika dashed for the nearest table, jumping upon it and then running atop it before hopping randomly to
the next one, preferring to use them to swiftly traverse the sea of round tables and chairs instead of
wading through it. True, she was completely open as she sprung from table to table--a bounding blur--but
in some cases speed and deftness more than made up for cover… like this case.

The sights of the goons' weapons tracked Kirika, the men unleashing their rage in a hail of bullets.
However, they trailed slightly behind the lithesome assassin, the shots chasing her staggered, somewhat
circular path around them with a delay of at least a full second--much too slow. Yet Kirika would not be
able to dodge their gunfire forever, and more importantly Mireille was waiting for her support--one rule of
being an assassin Altena's training had indoctrinated in her was to perform a kill quickly and without
hesitation; if someone was deemed to die then die they should as soon as possible, the means did not
matter as long as it was efficiently done. In the opera of Death to play around invited it. And this dance
had gone on long enough.

The instant Kirika's feet landed on a table again she abruptly stopped in its centre and spun around, her
right leg extending outwards and lodging in between a nearby chair's backrest and seat, bringing the
piece of furniture with her. The chair wasn't too heavy--a steel frame with the rest made up of an
aluminium alloy--nevertheless one would think a girl of Kirika's build would find difficulty in lifting it in such
a manner with only a single leg. However, she did so with minimum effort. The muscles of her outwardly
belying scrawny leg tightened to firm cords, revealing a power beneath the veneer of frailty along with a
fine muscle tone developed over many years of arduous exercise. Kirika's body was a weapon, and to be
an effective weapon it had to possess a degree of strength great enough to brandish hefty firearms with
consummate skill and to be a rival to any foe's in close combat. Breaking bones--for example, necks--did
require some effort, after all.

Kirika flung the chair at the two gangsters trying to shoot her at the apex of her whirl, the flying package of
metal bashing into the men and knocking them off balance, as well disrupting their aim. The assassin
then dived towards them, her Beretta held in both her hands. She fired twice, splotches of crimson
appearing on the goons' chests before they collapsed beside the thrown chair, defeated.

Kirika landed on another round table to the rear of the slain men and skimmed across it on her stomach
before she came to a halt, shifting onto her side. The first gangster she had shot finally clambered to one
knee beside the table, his gun lifting to target her in a quivering grasp. The man's countenance was pale
and drawn with the affliction of fear combined with pain, sweat plainly visible on his brow and coursing
down his face. He looked upon Kirika as if she were not a mere young girl but a monster come to get him,
as if she were a… a demon. But he was right. She was a demon, wasn't she? A demon that wore the
guise of a girl. His was an expression she had seen countless times on just as many different faces. And
she understood it; she understood why they looked at her like that--they had been sinners face to face
with a sinner worse than themselves. A sinner amongst sinners.

<A sinner amongst sinners….>

Kirika casually kicked the goon's pistol out of his weak grip where she lay, and then shot him squarely in
the head, putting him summarily out of his mental and physical misery. Let the sinners fear, let the sinners
think what they like; she didn't care. What did it matter? The only person's feelings Kirika was concerned
about was Mireille's; everybody else's were unimportant. Kirika was a demon--so be it. She was a demon
loved by an angel--she could be the most terrible sinner in the world as long as Mireille looked upon her
with eyes filled with affection, as long as she was bathed in the soothing light of her partner's all
encompassing love.

There was a sharp crack from a short distance away followed by a rapidly nearing piercing whistle,
prompting Kirika to roll quickly off the table and to the floor, a split second before the whistling reached its
climax. A rifle round suddenly took a chunk out of the table where she had lain moments before, the
impact rocking it above her head. One of the snipers on the gantry with Millet had set his sights on her.

Kirika tilted her head to one side as she ejected the depleted clip from her pistol, a single reddish-brown
eye peeking out from under the table to verify her deductions. She saw that Millet was blazing away at
Mireille's position with his submachine gun, barking orders and curses in the same breath. His escort to
the right of him armed with a rifle was in the interim occupied with trying to pick off Mireille every time the
woman stuck her head out of cover to return fire. Thankfully, the gangster had been unsuccessful so far;
his bad aim likely caused by the bloody wound in his upper right arm--Mireille had no doubt categorised
that particular man as a priority threat.

Millet's second accompanying minion also bearing a bolt-action rifle had abandoned Mireille as a target
however and was now focusing on Kirika, the girl's swift despatching of five of his friends a probable
motivation. At this range it would be tricky for her to take him down, not because she wouldn't be able to
hit him, but rather because her Beretta M1934 lacked the stopping power needed to deliver a fatal injury.
Kirika would have to get closer, but that would mean racing into an open space without even tables to
bounce around on, as well as risking being shot by the other gangsters still on their feet.

Kirika pulled back her head just as the sniper fired at her once again, the bullet whizzing by the edge of
the sheltering table and striking the floor next to her leg. The assassin ignored the near miss and
retrieved a fresh magazine from the ammunition holder strapped around her left thigh under her skirt, her
eyes meanwhile gazing ahead of her, assessing the rest of this theatre of conflict. From under the table
she could make out that the cluster of men who had gathered on the peculiar stage beside the curtains
appeared to be all wiped out, their bodies slumped unmoving and chaotically about the vicinity. Kirika had
known they would be among the first to die--Mireille would never let such vulnerable targets go
unchallenged, nor would she allow them to rectify their serious error in judgement.

Kirika slid the new clip into her pistol, her eyes moving to the left hand side of the stage's catwalk. She
observed that the group of enemies assembled there were still more or less intact; only two corpses
sprawled at the feet of their more lively comrades. Unfortunately the gangster armed with the AKSU-74
was not among them, instead joining his friends in spraying the bar Mireille was hiding behind liberally
with steaming lead. Something still had to be done about him; his constant barrage of fire upon the
blonde's location was making it hard for her to counterattack.

"Son of a--!!" Kirika heard Millet roar all of sudden, his tone teeming with agony, while the drone of his
spitting FN P90 was brought to a halt. She chanced another peek out from cover, and saw that the leader
of the syndicate she and Mireille were currently assaulting had taken a bullet in the right shoulder… and
seemed to not like it one bit.

"God damn it!" Millet continued to loudly and most vehemently cuss, gnashing his teeth in pain. He turned
angrily to his left escort, the rifleman intent on sniping at Mireille. "Use 'em, use 'em! I don't give a shit
about the damage; just kill that whore! The place is already so fucked up anyway!"

The gangster nodded and put down his rifle, before bending down to retrieve something hidden behind
the provisional wooden fortification running along the gantry, the numerous pockmarks dotting it no doubt
a result of Mireille's stray shots. When next he stood upright he was holding a glass bottle containing a
dark amber fluid in one hand, a dirty rag stuffed down its neck and dipping into the greasy-looking liquid.
It was a Molotov cocktail--an improvised firebomb, makeshift napalm. Kirika was familiar with them; they
were crude, but effective anti-personnel weapons. Typically the best ones were made of a mixture of
petrol and oil, but any flammable substance worked. Flammable substance… Mireille was sitting behind
the bar, where a myriad of alcoholic beverages had been spilled during the firefight… and all equally as
flammable as the fluid in the Molotov. Even the slightest lick of flame would plunge the area into an
instant scorching inferno, and the woman Kirika loved with it.

The cacophony of fierce shouts and spewing gunfire faded to a distant murmur as Kirika pulled back the
hammer of her Beretta with her thumb, the click as it locked in place sharp in her ears; an underscore to
her steadfast determination. A ghost of the past whispered to her, its feminine voice softly insistent, a
reminder though she needed none. All other threats were suddenly relegated to the lowest precedence as
a higher purpose cried out to the girl. With her pinned behind the bar, there was little Mireille could do to
evade any Molotov cocktails tossed in her direction, nor was there any way she could flee from her
current location without exposing herself to a variety of fire, automatic and otherwise. Mireille--Kirika's
partner--needed her. And Kirika would answer her silent but unmistakable call. It was what she lived for.
It would take speed, dexterity and precision, but the girl knew she would succeed; she would *not* let
Odette Bouquet down… and of course, she would not let Mireille Bouquet down either. A righteous
purpose fuelled her, one rooted in love, not hate. And with that strength, Kirika would be unstoppable.

As the gangster on the gantry lit the cloth emerging from top of the Molotov cocktail he was holding with a
lighter and prepared to launch it, Kirika rolled out from under the table and into an upright stance. Her
manoeuvre placed her in reach of another table, close enough that she followed up her sideways roll with
a second one across the tabletop without pause, fluidly rolling over her shoulder. The assassin moved
swiftly, aware that she still had the attention of the now lone sniper who was tracing her every step with
his rifle.

As Kirika's perspective of the room spun around, the goon on the gantry threw his flaming concoction, the
bottle flying end over end on its destructive course for the highly combustible bar. Knowing that timing
and accuracy were everything, as Kirika righted herself once again--her feet touching the surface of the
table--she propelled herself off it, executing a midair cartwheel without any support whatsoever. Her
vision spun yet again, a topsy-turvy world, but the girl's concentration remained focus. While she was
completely upside down, Kirika targeted the Molotov cocktail and fired once, her solitary shot destroying
the firebomb well short of its goal. Liquid flame mixed with glass shards drizzled down--Hell's rain--with
small puddles of fire speckling the floor and continuing to burn long after the initial shower.

Kirika finished her cartwheel with her feet firmly on yet another round table, her landing perfect. She
immediately leapt back the way she had come however--a simple jump this time--barely avoiding an
incoming rifle round which instead struck the backrest of a chair that had been to her rear, bowling it over.

While the Molotov-chucking goon's first effort had failed, he would not give up that easily. He stubbornly
set fire to another cocktail--evidently having several pre-prepared for Kirika and Mireille's coming--and
then tossed it once again at the bar.

Kirika, seeing another prime danger to her love's safety, dived to her left and fired at the blazing object,
her Beretta held steady in her two hands. A rifle round flew by inches from her face courtesy of the sniper,
but the dedicated girl's aim held straight and true, blowing the Molotov cocktail apart in a fiery explosion
and sending its blistering contents and its broken container down its predecessor's route--harmlessly to
the floor. Her task accomplished, as the darkhaired girl sailed over a table she slammed her free hand on
top of it--a prop. Her momentum continued to carry her through the air, her hand halting her upper body's
motion but allowing her lower half to go on, and as a result, arranging her in a one-handed handstand.
The position was fleeting however, Kirika letting herself continue onwards and out of the vulnerable pose
until the manoeuvre had become another cartwheel, albeit one with a single arm for support. The lithe
assassin finally ended up with her feet on the floor in the dense lake of tables and chairs.

Meanwhile, Millet had not taken kindly to Kirika's interference. "Someone shoot that little brat!" he
shrieked, briefly breaking off his attack on Mireille with his FN P90, which he had been continuing to fire in
spite of its vibrations that had to be aggravating his shoulder wound. His voice was somewhat hoarse and
cracked near the end of his furious order, the consequence of bellowing non-stop at the top of his lungs
throughout the battle.

In response, the gangster sporting the AKSU-74 submachine gun swung his weapon around to face
Kirika, partnering with his rifle-wielding comrade hanging in the air above the stage in trying to kill the
dexterous girl.

Kirika bent low and scurried under a table and didn't stop running as she was abruptly inundated with
gunfire, the high-calibre AKSU-74 shredding apart the flimsy and already substantially pounded wooden
tabletops in its path, their thin black vinyl covering proving to be no obstacle. It was going to be
exceedingly tougher to dodge such heavy fire while defending Mireille from the Molotov cocktails, a fact
that stood out like a bright flashing neon sign in Kirika's mind, much like the ones she had witnessed
outside in the street before entering Millet's headquarters. Nevertheless, she would do it somehow. She
would grow wings if she had to.
But Kirika's need to suddenly sprout wings turned out not to be necessary. As she spared a look over her
shoulder, back at the goon who had been throwing the homemade firebombs, she was treated to the
spectacle of his latest Molotov exploding in his grasp. The man using the AKSU-74 had made an
oversight; he had redirected his formerly suppressing fire from the bar to assail Kirika, inadvertently
freeing Mireille from a large portion of what had been keeping her more or less pinned. Millet's and his
handful of remaining men's combined firepower--while formidable--was not sufficient enough to restrain
an assassin of Mireille's talent indefinitely; in other words, they had uncaged the blonde. And now she
was showing them her displeasure.

The gangster was completely swallowed in flames as soon as Mireille's Walther P99 burst his Molotov
cocktail, the man becoming a human-sized conflagration--a literal screaming inferno. A third of the rickety
gantry was set alight also, its wood walkway and the makeshift barricade succulent morsels for the hot
flames.

Millet reacted quickly to the spontaneous combustion of his companion, kicking him in the chest and
knocking him to the end of the gantry, wisely if heartlessly preventing him from spreading the fire.
However as the melting gangster fell backwards and disappeared behind the stage's curtains, the said
drapes caught on fire, the flickering flames scaling their entire length in a matter of seconds. Very soon
half of the curtains on the right side of the stage were ablaze, and time was the only factor holding the fire
back from consuming them all.

Mireille wasted no time after slaying the Molotov goon in a resourceful way, focusing her sights on the
AKSU-74 man making life gruelling for Kirika now that his attention was diverted elsewhere. She blasted
the oblivious gangster in the side of the head, her 9mm round splattering blood on his nearby friends as it
drilled into his skull. He keeled over limply with his eyes rolled back and his mouth hanging open--as dead
a person as Kirika had ever seen.

Kirika altered her course when she realised her partner and her had traded roles again; Mireille was now
watching her back, permitting the slender girl to perform hazardous feats she wouldn't normally do without
backup… or without a valid reason, when the blonde woman's personal wellbeing was on the line coming
to mind.

Kirika swerved around to the surviving gathering of men bordering the catwalk and charged daringly
towards them, her pistol loosing death without pause. In the meantime, Mireille directed her fire to Millet
and the sniper, forcing them to crouch behind cover and letting the girl proceed without having to worry
about being shot from above. They were a flawlessly coordinated duet preparing for the grand finale.

Kirika gunned down the trio of remaining gangsters in as many heartbeats, the men not knowing what hit
them as she unloaded all of her ammunition into their bodies, ensuring their quick deaths. She was
executing a rush attack, an attack that stressed total commitment--if any of the enemy were left alive to
retaliate it could be fatal… unless of course the rusher engaged them in close combat to tie up their
firearms. But in this particular situation, Kirika couldn't even afford the few seconds for such an
action--Millet and the sniper wouldn't stay in cover for long in spite of Mireille's efforts, and the darkhaired
girl was in a ripe spot to receive a bullet… or several.

Kirika threw herself to the floor as flush to the catwalk as she could, anticipating that she would be under
fire at any second. But instead she heard the rapid muted discharge of Mireille's silenced pistol as she
fired at will, and then all of a sudden there was a loud snap. Kirika poked her head cautiously above the
catwalk and saw that the right foremost rope securing the gantry over the stage had broken, the probable
result of the flames eating away at it and Mireille's further weakening gunshots. The blonde assassin then
quickly shifted her aim to the opposite rope--one of two holding up the other end of the gantry--her blue
eyes narrowing as she pinpointed the very slim target, before she unleashed a volley of rounds at it, her
intentions obvious.

Millet and the sniper stumbled forwards into the barricade as the gantry jerked suddenly, before half the
structure gave way, the support rope Mireille had shot at-- fraying it--tearing in two. The pair of men were
thrown from their perch and deposited unceremoniously onto the stage, momentarily stunned and open to
attack, their weapons having escaped their hands. The end of the play--of the opera--was upon Kirika and
Mireille.

Kirika leapt to her feet, shoving her empty Beretta into the waistband of her purple skirt at the small of her
back. She then sprung onto the stage in one spry jump, Mireille vaulting effortlessly over the bullet hole
ridden and glass-strewn surface of the bar and dashing to assist her as she did so. Millet and the rifleman
began to rouse and clamber to their feet, but it was too late for them, even if they had maintained their
grasps on their respective firearms. Kirika pounced at a nearby brass pole--one of those strange
decorations running across the stage and along the middle of the catwalk--and latched onto it with both
hands, before swinging herself gracefully around it, her feet leading the way.

The sniper looked up and was unexpectedly met by Kirika's feet planting squarely into his chest, violently
smashing him backwards through the air. The back of his head then connected with an audible clang
against the railing of the dangling gantry to his rear, painfully halting his flight and dropping him onto the
stage in a heap. The gangster then struggled onto all fours, only to be lethally shot several times in the
ribs; Mireille finishing off her partner's handiwork.

In the meantime Kirika continued to whirl around the pole with her lingering momentum, using what was
left of it to reach Millet. She twisted her exceptionally flexible body into the required posture and then
locked her legs on either side of his neck, trapping his head between her strong calves. Next, utilising his
own bodyweight in conjunction with her physical strength, she overbalanced him and flung him headlong
off the stage, dumping him hard against its side and in front of Mireille's waiting gun. Kirika then
completed the flowing manoeuvre, twirling around the golden pole gradually lower and lower until her feet
touched the stage, the agile girl coming to an elegant stop. She released the pole and hopped to the floor
to join Mireille and their subdued target. All adversaries had been neutralised and the room was quiet;
still--the opera had concluded.

Kirika pulled out her Beretta from behind the waistband of her skirt and replaced its depleted magazine
with a full one as she walked to Mireille's side--just because the fighting was over didn't mean she could
relax or become careless; there might be some remnants of Millet's syndicate still lurking in the building.
As she approached her partner, she scanned her eyes over the woman's body, checking for injuries. But
Kirika had upheld her earlier promise; there wasn't so much as a scratch to be seen on Mireille. Her light
lilac coat and white pants were soiled with dark patches in several places however, probably the result of
copious amounts of alcoholic drinks spilling down on her from bullet-cracked bottles while she had been
behind the bar.

Millet glowered up at Mireille and Kirika from his spot on the floor, one hand reaching up to apply
pressure to his gunshot wound in his right shoulder. Blood trickled down the side of his head also--no
doubt caused by one of his recent tumbles--and sweat rings stained the underarms of his white shirt, with
dust also tarnishing the garment. All in all, his once immaculate bearing was ruined.

"You think you can do this to me?! And don't care how good you are; I'll see you both dead! DEAD!" Millet
threatened the impassive duo of assassins, spittle flying from his mouth. But he had become a dog
devoid of teeth; all bark and no bite.

"You will tell us everything you know," Mireille said flatly, her Walther levelled at Millet's chest and clearly
unintimidated by the man's vow. "Who hired you, what details regarding us you have learned, how you
knew to expect our arrival here; *everything*." Puddles of flame burned around the blonde assassin's feet
from the destroyed Molotov cocktails, while the raging fires continuing to steadily engulf the stage's
maroon curtains painted dancing orange lights on her cool face--an angel standing tall and proud in Hell
before its cowed populace. Millet would talk.

Kirika's gun abruptly snapped to the curtains adorning the left side of the stage--yet untouched by the
fires devouring its neighbours--as her keen hearing detected footsteps coming from that direction.
Seconds later her suspicions proved correct, and a man emerged from behind the drapes, black square
sunglasses shielding his eyes and reflecting the hot blaze nearby him. Kirika recalled him as the goon
who had been on the gantry talking to Millet minutes before the firefight.

"You're wasting your time," the sunglasses man spoke as he rather nonchalantly traversed the stage
towards Kirika and Mireille and their captive, apparently undaunted by the former young woman's pistol
aimed his way. However, Kirika saw that his forehead was streaked with glistening sweat, but if it was
caused by the heat of the adjacent curtain fire or by trepidation she couldn't be certain. "He doesn't know
anything."

"Jacques! What are you doing?! Shoot them!" Millet wailed as he craned his neck to look over his
shoulder at his apparent associate, although Jacques' loyalty did seem to be questionable.

"Nah, I don't think so," Jacques said as he jumped off the stage, landing a few feet away from Kirika and
Mireille, the darkhaired girl's Beretta M1934 warily following his every move.

"WHAT?!" Millet yelled incredulously, his body tensing as if he were about to leap up in outrage and
prompting Mireille to remind him of the Walther pointing at him with a slight wave of the weapon. "You
traitor! I knew there was something strange about you today! How much did they pay you, you mercenary
bastard?!"

Jacques said nothing and just smirked, albeit a bit uneasily, a nervous tick repeatedly pulling up the
raised corner of his mouth.

Mireille's eyes flicked briefly to Jacques before returning to a seething Millet, wordlessly putting her trust
in Kirika to watch their new guest carefully. "You had better talk fast before we decide to treat you like
another one of his men," the woman then warned in a no-nonsense tone, motioning at Millet with her
Walther P99.

Jacques bobbed his head, his gaze roaming around the room and at the carnage it enclosed. "Heh, yeah,
real impressive that," he commented in a weak chuckle. He then threw his hands up in a gesture of peace
for Kirika's benefit, before slowly moving his hand to his blue suit jacket pocket and retrieving a cigarette.
Squatting down with equal care, Jacques lit the end of it in a small nearby pool of Molotov flame with a
slightly trembling hand, before standing up again.

"He's just a tool, an ignorant pawn, really," he revealed after taking a quick inhalation of his cigarette,
breathing out the smoke in a sigh. He then smirked again, his eyes drifting to Millet who sat incensed on
the floor. "But then what other kind of pawn is there?"

"Bastard…!" Millet snarled, his fury held in check only by Mireille's gun. Kirika was sure that if it weren't for
her partner he would be ripping Jacques to shreds with his bare hands by now. The girl wondered though
how long the threat of eating a bullet would dissuade him however; Millet looked very angry.

"It was his employers who provided the specifics to set this up, along with last night's ambush," Jacques
went on. "Two Asian guys I'm sure you're familiar with…"

"That's a lie and you know it!" Millet shouted heatedly. "It was *you* who set the attacks up!"

"Be quiet," Mireille snapped at Millet in a stern voice. "Why should we trust anything you say?" she then
directed to Jacques in a tone not much less harsh.

The brown haired man smiled and slowly took the cigarette from between his lips. "Let's just say we have
a… mutual friend… whose interests coincide with your own."

"Does this friend have a name?" Mireille asked scornfully, although Kirika suspected the blonde already
knew it, just like she herself did--Soldats.
Jacques simply continued to smile, not saying anything--he didn't have to.

"Still, I say again; why should we trust anything you have say?" Mireille then said, the contempt she
possessed for the organisation Jacques evidently worked for an almost tangible thing.

"Funny," the Soldats operative deadpanned.

"I wasn't joking," Mireille said coldly.

Jacques merely looked at the imposing blonde for a few seconds, an expression of discomfort frozen on
his face, before he took a quick, anxious breath and shook his head slightly. "Look, we're on the same
side here. What's more I'm just a messenger in the right place at the right time," he confessed. "You really
are wasting your time; this trail leads to a dead end--there's someplace else you have to be." He paused
to nervously puff on his cigarette. "Pierpont," he then stated in a plume of smoke. "I was told you would
recognise that name."

"Pierpont?" Mireille parroted, frowning in puzzlement. Kirika was no less perplexed--Pierpont--or rather,
Simon Pierpont--the horrible boy she had visited with her love unfortunately on more than one occasion.
What did he have to do with the false Noir? Had he somehow tracked them down?

"Yeah. Pierpont," Jacques confirmed. "And that's all I was told. So now I guess I should take my leave.
This place is gonna be crawling with cops pretty damn soon anyway… that is--" He grinned at Millet,
provoking a scowl from his 'boss', and then flicked his cigarette at the bar. It sailed over it and vanished
behind the structure, flames suddenly erupting like some sort of incandescent plant life where it had
landed out of sight. The fire spread quickly with all the potent liquor that had been splattered haphazardly
about the bar, and in moments it had become an unbridled bonfire, the peaks of the pyre clawing
upwards to scrape the ceiling charcoal. "--if the Fire Department doesn't get here first."

"You're a walking corpse," Millet swore in a low, dangerous voice, his headquarters literally going up
flames around him. "You'll never be able to walk the streets of this city again without always looking over
your shoulder. I'll see to it."

"Look around; this place is finished," Jacques chuckled, unafraid. "*You're* finished." He then nodded in
parting to Mireille, his eyes passing for an instant over Kirika--who had yet to lower her gun from his chest
despite his claims of being on her and her partner's side; he was still Soldats, after all--before he turned
around and began to walk to the front doors of the building, his prior entrance into the room via the rear of
the curtains now an impassable firestorm.

"Oh, one more thing, Richard," Jacques said, looking back over his shoulder. "Did you know you're in the
company of Noir? I mean the *real* Noir." The Soldats agent grinned smugly. It was the grin of a winner.
"Like I said; you're finished," he concluded, and then resumed casually heading towards the exit, putting
his hands in his pants' pockets. Kirika waited only until he had departed before she at last repositioned
her Beretta, moving it to accompany Mireille's Walther in watching over their prisoner.

"Noir…" Millet whispered, Jacques duplicity forgotten and his ire deserting him in the face of fear. "It can't
be…."

Kirika noted that this time Mireille did not deny the allegation. "You mentioned before that it was just
business between us," the blonde instead reminded him emotionlessly. "You were wrong."

Millet's head snapped back and banged against the edge of the stage as a 9mm Parabellum slug brutally
invaded his cranium at close range and tore out the opposite side. A streak of blood containing very dark
red, almost black, coagulated lumps plastered the floor of stage behind the dead man's head, while more
of the substance dripped like syrup from part of the golden railing lining the semi-circular structure and the
adjoining catwalk.
Kirika let her arms fall to her sides with Millet's demise and looked at Mireille as the woman did the same,
relaxing her posture. She wondered what her love had meant by her final words to Millet. But the petite
girl supposed it didn't really matter; Millet was dead now. And his entire syndicate was dead too, if the
number of bodies littering the vicinity were any indication. There could still be a few lingering survivors,
but for all intents and purposes the small criminal organisation had been wiped out with its leader.

Kirika looked away from Mireille and gazed around the room, surveying the massacre that she'd had a
substantial hand in. She had slain a lot of people tonight, but she had done so with no hesitation, with no
misgivings. She had simply done what she'd had to do to protect Mireille's life; she had done what was
necessary to honour her oath…. And that was to kill. This fight had not been like the previous one where
Kirika had faltered, even if it was only for a moment. This time she'd had no such reluctance and
furthermore she felt no remorse for the fallen sinners. This experience had been a test for her--a test
whether she was truly devoted to Odette Bouquet's last words--and she had passed it. A murderer Kirika
may be, but she was a murderer with virtuous intent.

<And that makes all the difference, doesn't it…?>

Kirika returned her soft brown eyes to Mireille and was a little surprised to see that the woman was
looking at her. Seeing that she had the girl's attention, the blonde then motioned with a gentle tilt of her
head back to the hallway connecting to the room. It was time to go. There was no need for Mireille to
declare where they were going next, either--Simon Pierpont's place of residence. Kirika was not looking
forward to it.

Where Jacques had taken the direct course using the front doors to vacate the burning building, Kirika
and Mireille opted to use the proven route they had navigated to infiltrate it earlier--it was a path they
were familiar with, and hence was the wisest to choose. If the two assassins were to be waylaid by any
leftovers of Millet's syndicate while leaving the group's headquarters it would be to their advantage if they
knew the layout of the combat zone. It was also that possible danger that encouraged Kirika and her
partner to keep their weapons firmly in their hands as they walked.

As Kirika crossed the threshold into the corridor that eventually led out of the building, she peered back
over her shoulder. The fires that had been consuming the stage's crimson curtains and the wrecked bar
had crept away from their birthplaces in search of fresh nourishment, half the room now lost in an intense
inferno. Flames climbed the walls and crawled along the floor, and most of the stage was alight, the
carcasses of several gangsters lying there granted an impromptu cremation in their former headquarters.
Kirika doubted whether the Fire Brigade would be able to save the building from being completely gutted
by the raging conflagration. But maybe that was fitting; it had been a lair of sinners--Hell had come to
claim its own.

And now Kirika and her love were departing that fiery, wicked domain; leaving behind its citizens also. A
demon and an angel, side by side, partners against the darkness… and partners in life. Once they
stepped outside into the cool night air, they would be bestowed a reprieve from their near constant war,
even if it could never be a lasting one. Pseudo peace would be theirs.

And then of course the hope would come, the dream that the peace could endure forever more, that
tomorrow it would all be over, just a nightmare woken up from. Or at least that was how Kirika felt. One
day that dream would be realised. One day. But not today.

Mireille's blue eyes turned surreptitiously to Kirika as they travelled together down the corridor, stepping
over the bodies of the men they had killed beforehand. A small smile formed on her beautiful face, one of
barely controlled mirth if the introverted girl read it accurately.

"You looked… good… swinging on that pole back there," Mireille remarked matter-of-factly, her smile
growing.
"Hm?" Kirika uttered in bewilderment as she looked at her love, her countenance similarly mystified. The
blonde's amusement appeared to have doubled now, although the girl hadn't a clue as to why. Maybe
Mireille was thinking of a funny joke. Not that Kirika ever understood any of them. On the numerous times
her partner had attempted to explain them to her all the woman had done was cause her to feel even
more baffled--she was starting to believe that perhaps Mireille had an odd sense of humour. She did
seem to enjoy dressing Kirika up in a variety of clothes for some reason, after all; why couldn't her sense
of humour be likewise affected?

In any case, it didn't matter what Mireille was thinking--or what she took pleasure in, either, regardless of
how strange it was--as long as she was happy. As long as she enjoyed the fleeting peace as much as
Kirika herself did.



Chapter 13 - Casualties of War


Dominique D'Aubigne reshuffled today's reports into two neat stacks on her polished chrome desk, having
just finished her initial cursory browse through them for anything out of the ordinary. One pile's topics
were of the bland, innocuous, variety--manufacturing schedules and the progress thus far for this month's
batch of medicinal products; the amounts of assorted raw ingredients expended and which ones needed
to be replenished; new wholesalers to be added to the merchandise delivery rosters--the list was almost
endless. However its counterpart's subject matters belonged to a business that was entirely more
illegitimate than Ishinomori Pharmaceuticals' public industry--an ugly twin. That other pile contained illicit
information, including a second manufacturing schedule for the latest batch of 'recreational' drugs the
company produced on the sly, the current prices of the popular narcotics and amphetamines being
circulated around the streets of Yokohama and the rest of the Kanagawa prefecture at the moment, and
which specific 'products' the criminal organisations under Ishinomori control needed restocked so that
they could continue to perform their assigned duty of distribution and sale. And that was just a minute
sample of what the stack contained--the list of reports concerning Ishinomori Pharmaceuticals' illegal
activities was, like its mate, also virtually never-ending.

It was as one might expect from a multinational corporation operating dual enterprises, however. Two
businesses running in parallel did tend to create an abundance of paperwork on a daily basis, and it
wasn't as if either was any less genuine than the other; both required likewise consideration. Just
because one such business was against the law didn't mean it was to be treated any differently than its
partner; it merely had to have some of its own unique trade practices applied to it. Business was
business.

Moreover, it was what Dominique did and had been doing for many, many years. She was accustomed to
sifting through mounds of documents made from enough paper to level a forest, her keen eyes singling
out the relevant details from the pages while her sharp wits processed them, deliberating on what action
was called for in relation to the data, if any. She would even go so far as to say she enjoyed it. It was
stark and logical work, but that was what appealed to Dominique; she liked losing herself in the monotony
of the facts and figures. Her mental faculties became focused exclusively on her task while everything
else just flitted away into the background of her mind, where it was forgotten for a time. During that period
when her thoughts were dedicated to uncluttered down-to-earth analysis, Dominique turned into an
emotionless and empty being, a woman who felt and was absolutely nothing, who possessed no past,
who had no memories--she simply existed. Dominique became a woman at peace, as short as that peace
lasted. But the peace was counterfeit, a product of her dissociation from her mind and its reflections, not
one originating from her heart. Dominique's heart no longer had the capability to ever be at peace.

While Dominique continued to toil and generate sound advice in regards to the management of
Ishinomori Pharmaceuticals, these days it fell on apathetic ears, leaving her predominantly in control of
the conglomerate's operations. Kaede was the CEO and chief owner of the company, but she had little
interest in its functions and affairs as long as it went on earning money to fund the crusade against
Soldats. The child only listened to Dominique's news and counsel on the war and nothing else. Perhaps
that was for the best, though. Kaede's obsession for vengeance against the clandestine organisation
practically consumed her every waking moment; she would have no mentality for the tedium of corporate
matters even if she were willing to take an involved role in the supervision of the firm. And so then it was
left to Dominique to seize hold of the reins to her family's business and steer it along the correct course
on her behalf.

It wasn't as if the advisor turned stand-in company president minded in the least, however. She was
suited to the job. Dominique knew the workings of Ishinomori Pharmaceuticals better than anyone
alive--the rest who had were gone, now--and in addition possessed the drive to keep the company
flourishing for as long as humanly possible. It had been *her* company, *her* legacy; it even had her
name attached to it. If it continued to stay afloat, then a part of her would always remain thriving in this
world--a form of immortality… or so Dominique liked to believe sometimes in her moments of weakness.
In reality a financial empire of lifeless glass and steel proved to be a vastly poor substitute to the vibrant
flesh and blood woman who had once sat at its head, and provided about as much comfort as cold hard
cash did to a lonely heart.

Dominique pushed her glasses up further on the bridge of her nose from where they had slipped down
with a finger, and then straightened her posture in her high-backed black leather chair, her eyes straying
away from the desk and the heaps of paper resting on its metallic surface. Her frosty green gaze
wandered around her office, its modern and austere design of rigid steel panels and shiny silver doors a
predominant theme throughout the interior of Ishinomori plaza. The multistorey building was sleek and
sexy, cold and unfeeling; a forbidding tower that stood erect almost at the centre of the harbour city of
Yokohama, a fortress beyond any other castle that had ever graced this ancient land before it, one that
could dissuade would-be raiders from the sheer thought of invasion with a mere glimpse of its unforgiving
reinforced walls. It fitted its part as the headquarters for the powerful empire that had the strength of will
to oppose another, larger, and tyrannical one. It was the solitary bastion that stood against the corrupt
group that Soldats had become, and was the staging point for the impending revolution that would
cleanse its ranks.

A bittersweet smile gently grew on Dominique's face as her eyes inescapably came to fall upon the bright,
garish paintings that adorned the silver walls of her office, standing out prominently against the
contrastingly lacklustre steel panels. They were abstract pictures, the kind that resembled an untamed
mess of colour as if the artist had made each brushstroke purely on a whim. They were most certainly not
to Dominique's refined and practical predilections… yet she adored them nonetheless. Not for their art,
but because they were wild, undisciplined, passionate--so like *her*. Dominique could still recall vividly
when the enchanting white-haired woman had hung them up, citing that the dull office was horribly dreary
and that her friend would became depressed if she had to stare at plain chrome walls all day long.
Perhaps that was the actual reason Dominique was fond of the paintings; because Hikaru had picked
them out and arranged them around the office with her own two hands. She remembered that she hadn't
really liked them very much at all until after her lover had passed away. Now she couldn't bear the
thought of removing the pictures, despite the pain looking at them everyday brought.

Dominique's eyes drifted to the framed photograph sitting near one corner of her desk, as they often were
inclined to do when her disposition became wistful. It was a picture of her and Hikaru when they were
younger, a snapshot of happier times that could never be recaptured. In it the two women stood sedately
next to each other on a cheerful backdrop of green grass and blue skies, their shoulders touching, and
with mirroring demure smiles curling their lips. But in spite of the two figures' reserved expressions the
depths of their eyes gleamed with joy and contentment, the bliss they had felt at the time shining through
the glass of the picture frame; an echo from the past. Dominique and Hikaru were both garbed in
business suits in the photograph--the latter in white, the former in contrary black. It was an accurate visual
representation of how they had lived. Their personalities had been poles apart, direct opposites of one
another. Hikaru had been the flighty, creative type; her head stuck in the clouds oft times, while
Dominique had been the sensible, logical one with her feet firmly on the ground and who served to
anchor her counterpart when necessary. Dominique and Hikaru had been a match made in
heaven--*true* soulmates--two halves that had made a whole. They had completed one another.
Of course, it hadn't always been that way. When Dominique and Hikaru had first met as commerce
students studying in Paris, the darkhaired woman had regarded her future love as incredibly flaky and
irritating to no end; someone whose chirpy company she had found sickening and hardly tolerable to be
in for any lengthy period of time. They had been so different, so unalike in manner and temperament. But
it was said that opposites attract, and in this case the saying had rang true. In spite of her poor first
impressions of the woman, before Dominique knew it she and Hikaru had become inseparable and the
very best of friends. Not a day had went by when they didn't see each other or spend time together;
sharing classes and cramming for exams, or enjoying the pleasant diversions the capitol city had to offer.
Hikaru inadvertently became the sole light in Dominique's otherwise rather dismal life, her upbeat nature
tearing down the dark webs that had normally ensnared the French woman's hardened heart. Hikaru's
sheer presence had made Dominique feel and become a better person.

After they had graduated, Hikaru had invited her best friend to migrate to Japan with her and help
manage the Ishinomori family corporation that she was taking over chief ownership of from her ailing
mother. It had been a proposal that Dominique had most readily accepted. She'd had no cause to remain
in France; she'd had no family of her own or any other obligations to keep her in the country. Moreover,
the notion of being parted from Hikaru had lain heavy on her heart and mind; regardless of what had been
in France for Dominique she would have still forsaken everything to accompany her friend. By then she
had developed a deep attachment to the Japanese beauty, one she eventually recognised as pure and
unconditional love.

Yet Dominique ignored her feelings for Hikaru and chose instead to bottle them up secretly inside her
heart. She had known that her cherished friend did not possess the same sentiments as she herself did
and furthermore she hadn't wanted to risk jeopardising the close relationship they already had. And so the
years ticked by, Dominique acting as Hikaru's personal assistant and advisor for the workings of
Ishinomori Pharmaceuticals, and also as her devoted best friend and companion… but nothing more. It
had been somewhat saddening for Dominique to hide her love for Hikaru, but simply being near the
woman's radiant spirit had been enough to placate her aching heart. In time Dominique--who had been
born into the covert worldwide society known as Soldats, and desiring to have no secrets between herself
and Hikaru bar the one that dwelled in the left side of her chest--introduced her friend to the organisation
and to Altena, a visionary who the darkhaired woman greatly admired and whose beliefs she fervently
agreed with. To Dominique's delight and relief, Hikaru grew to become a faithful supporter of Altena, and
in turn put the fears she'd had that her love would reject the group and her with it to rest.

But then *he* showed up. Shinichi Sakamoto. A Soldats follower of the current warped order… and the
disgusting man who by some perverted twist of fate stole Hikaru's heart. It had been an utter chance
encounter between the two during a scheduled gathering of all the prominent Soldats members residing
in the Kanto territory, but that was all it took for 'love' to blossom. Despite Dominique's ardent labours to
get her friend to return to her senses, within a year of meeting each other Hikaru and Shinichi wed.
Shinichi, being the weak man that he had been, had taken Hikaru's surname in respect to her more
powerful family, and consequently the union was seen by all as the Sakamoto lineage marrying into the
Ishinomori clan, not the other way around.

Dominique and Hikaru became rather distant after the loathsome wedding, the French woman nursing a
broken heart that bled a furious hatred into her soul for her lost love's husband, a hatred that placed her
at odds with the object of her affection on many instances. More years past, and Hikaru birthed two
children, a daughter and son, while in the meantime Dominique descended further and further into a
bleak depression as hate and despair consumed her. So caught up in her self-pity, she never noticed that
Hikaru was slowly changing, too… and also for the worse. Shinichi had been a pathetic, craven man, who
ultimately developed a fierce resentment for his wife and her superior status as the head of the Ishinomori
family. Although he was Hikaru's husband, she was deemed as the genuine strength behind the clan.
Shinichi was merely a ceremonial figurehead; he had no real authority beyond what his wife elected to
give him, like tossed food scraps from the table. As a result, he had seen himself as not much better than
one of Hikaru's subordinates, which had galled him terribly. Whatever affection he had held for
Hikaru--which couldn't have been anywhere near the degree the divine woman had been worthy of,
considering--was replaced by bitterness that he regularly made apparent to his blameless spouse. Hikaru
had been a delicate flower in full bloom when Dominique had first formed a close-knit friendship with her,
but Shinichi's perceived self-inadequacies effectively trampled her already withering spirit into the ground,
petals crushed callously beneath his heel as they shrivelled up in an effort to protect themselves from the
abuse. The playful and energetic woman Dominique had known and loved deteriorated into a mere shell
of her former self.

However, Hikaru's torment--while it had torn at Dominique's heart and soul when she had finally learned
of it--ended up being a blessing in disguise. Following months of suffering in silence, Hikaru eventually
sought aid for her troubles from her dejected best friend and business advisor... and also sought solace in
old college friend's arms. Dominique wasn't precisely sure how it had happened--one minute they had
been talking, the next Hikaru had been embracing her tightly, gazing imploringly into her eyes before
kissing her softly on the lips--but it hadn't really mattered; the dream she had believed hopeless with her
love's marriage had been at last realised. When Hikaru had revealed her feelings for Dominique that had
evidently surfaced under Shinichi's mistreatment, the misery that had polluted the darkhaired woman had
instantly been lifted. She had eagerly returned her friend's kiss--their first of countless--and confirmed
what her heart had always felt for her fair-haired and pale-skinned angel. It had been like the conclusion
of a fairytale; a happy ending at last after years of pain, long unrequited love made a joyous reality.

But there had been one obstacle to Dominique and Hikaru's newfound romantic relationship--Shinichi.
Hikaru had still had a husband; that she loved someone else and felt nothing for him hadn't changed that
fact. Divorce hadn't been an option; it would have split the Ishinomori Empire in two--while Shinichi hadn't
had any real standing in the family, he'd yet had his legal rights. Hikaru had opted to entice him to
voluntarily leave the clan and annul their marriage vows with a hefty cash settlement, but as Dominique
had predicted the man had been greedy and had wanted at the very least half of his wife's assets.
Shinichi had been of the new age Soldats breed, after all.

No, the only path Dominique had seen for the love she shared with Hikaru to come to complete,
unrestrained fruition was if Shinichi were to die. Hikaru had been against it at first--she had still retained
her compassion in spite of her husband's maltreatment--but Dominique had know that it had to be done. It
had been times like then when she had to step in and do what her kind hearted angel could not. And step
in Dominique had. Disposing of Shinichi had been a relatively simple affair; he was a notable member of
Soldats but not high enough in the hierarchy to have a thorough investigation launched into his death, so
an arranged 'accident' was sufficient. Through Hikaru's underlings Dominique discreetly had Shinichi's car
wind up wrapped around an unyielding lamppost one night with the man inside, and then the issue of her
lover's husband had been quietly resolved, leaving them free to pursue their feelings. Hikaru hadn't shed
so much as a tear for her spouse following his passing, but while she had not mourned the loss of the
man she had mourned his death nonetheless--her face betrayed the grieve she had felt that it had come
to murder to escape him. Dominique had consoled her however, and the Japanese woman swiftly
recovered and equally as quickly forgot about her disastrous marriage.

And then that should have been the end of it. Dominique and Hikaru should have lived on happily ever
after together, as the conclusions of fairytales usually go. And they had, for a while at any rate. Hikaru
gradually reverted back to her cheerful self once again with her best friend Dominique as her lover, and
the French woman herself became considerably more light-hearted thanks to her partner's infectious
disposition. Hikaru even had insisted that Dominique take a more active role in her daughter and son's
lives too, which the darkhaired woman had complied with, although she had been careful to hide the
nature of her relationship with their mother. While their romantic association was common knowledge to
Ishinomori family vassals, they chose to keep it concealed from Kaede and Ryosuke since neither had
been sure how the two--who had been teenagers at the time--would handle the realisation that their
mother, in spite of being a widow, was bedding someone who wasn't their father and another woman at
that. Hikaru had wished to tell them once they were a little older when they could perhaps understand
better, and subsequently truly accept Dominique as a surrogate parent. It had been just one of Dominique
and Hikaru's many plans for the future; a future so bright, so promising… and one that had been tragically
cut short.
The memory of that nightmarish day still burned clearly in Dominique's mind, a permanent tattoo that
marred it like a festering wound that never seemed to heal. It hurt intensely to recollect the events, and
yet she inexorably did so whenever she was left unoccupied with her thoughts for too long, as if she had
a masochistic urge to remind herself of why she was alone here today. It had been just another meeting,
Dominique and Hikaru travelling by car with their regular escorts to a business appointment related to
Ishinomori Pharmaceuticals. A simple thing, really. But then the simplicity of the situation had abruptly
altered as their car had suddenly been overwhelmed with gunfire from all sides. An ambush from nearby
rooftops, Dominique had later learned. The tires had gone first with almost four simultaneous bangs,
sending their vehicle veering wildly off the road and to a violent stop lodged halfway in a bus shelter, the
screech of twisting metal from the impact akin to otherworldly shrieks of pain. Next the driver had been
taken out where he had sat stunned behind the wheel--as extra insurance that the car would be halted,
Dominique's shaken mind had hazily surmised at the time--followed by the bodyguard adjacent to him in
the front passenger seat. Then the gunmen had turned their attention to the two women who had still
been breathing in the backseat. And then Dominique's world had been brought to an end.

Thinking back now, Dominique should have seen it coming. Hikaru had always been the selfless one
between them; where Dominique was rather self-centred when it came to anything but her lover, her
Japanese counterpart more than made up for her deficiency. But on that day, the white-haired woman's
benevolent nature had led to her downfall. Before Dominique had registered what her partner's intentions
had been, Hikaru's body had been thrown over hers, pushing her down flat on the backseat. In that
fraction of a second between the car crash and when the gunfire had been redirected to them by the
assassins, Hikaru had decided to use her own body to shield Dominique from the incoming hail of bullets,
to accept all of the pain and suffer in her lover's place.

The Ishinomori family bodyguards in the other two cars that had made up their small convoy had
ultimately fought off the gunmen, but for Hikaru and Dominique their achievement had arrived too late.
Dominique had held her best friend and the love of her life in her lap that afternoon, watching on with
agonising helplessness as she bled away her last. Hikaru had said nothing as she had lain dying, instead
simply smiling up at the French woman with tearful violet eyes. There had been no final words, no
declarations of everlasting love… but then there hadn't been a need of any. Both women had known how
they had felt about one another, right until the very last moment.

Hikaru had gently slipped away from Dominique shortly afterwards. She had died in her arms, ascending
to Heaven to become the angel she had already been in life. Dominique had felt like she had died, too,
except her spirit had instead descended into her own private Hell. She hadn't been able to comprehend
that the woman she had loved and adored for most of her life was dead. Hikaru had been the sole person
who had ever touched her heart, who had ever stirred her soul… she had been her first and only love. To
lose her was on par with dying herself. They had barely had two years together as lovers; so brief, an
ephemeral moment in time. Dominique had realised then that their fairytale had never actually ended
when they had shared their first kiss; it had just begun. But it had ended there in the wrecked car that day,
when two joint hearts had died as one.

The time that had passed after Hikaru's death had seemed surreal to Dominique, as if she were living in a
dream. But then she had been--and still was--a dead woman living beyond her days. The world became
dull to her, and she listless, the shock that Hikaru was gone still not quite sinking in, even years later.
Dominique had dwelled on suicide several times, but she had yet had ties to life--Hikaru's business, and
her children. As well as the thirst for vengeance.

Through her contacts in Soldats, Dominique had discovered that the attack that had claimed her lover's
life had been a sanctioned hit ordered by the council themselves. Out of fear of Altena's imminent
commencement of Le Grand Retour, the spineless Soldats council had decided to take out any influential
members of the noble woman's enclave they could as a form of pre-emptive strike to delay the ritual; a list
that Hikaru Ishinomori had apparently topped. Once Dominique had learned that the corrupt order of
Soldats had been responsible for the murder of her lover, renewed vigour had surged into her spirit,
fuelled by cold fury. There would be plenty of time to die after Soldats had fallen and been reborn… after
they had paid for their unforgivable sin.
Dominique closed her eyes--the orbs stinging with unshed tears beneath their lids--blocking out the sight
of the photograph. She then swivelled her chair around to face the large set of windows behind her,
opening her eyes again to take in the view of Yokohama in the early morning sunlight, what had been the
preliminary battleground--now conquered--for the war. And it was a war. Dominique was fighting the good
fight, striving to do what Altena could not--initiate Le Grand Retour and see it through to completion. Make
no mistake, however; she wasn't doing it for the deceased visionary. This was for Hikaru; this was
retribution. The new order of Soldats were evidently extremely afraid of returning to the old ways--of being
purified--and Dominique knew that was the key to fulfilling her vengeance.

But she wasn't as reckless as Altena had been to place all her hopes in the Black Hands of Soldats--Noir.
It would take more than a mere two assassins to rid the globe of the present tainted incarnation of
Soldats; it would take a force of immeasurable might. Furthermore the current embodiment of Noir was
too volatile; the duo had after all been the ones who had killed the self-professed 'Kind Mother' and most
of her followers with her, trouncing her ambitions. Noir was purely a symbolic representation of Le Grand
Retour. Yet it was a vital one nevertheless.

The ceremonial significance of the Eternal Darkness was the precise purpose of Ryosuke and his
nauseatingly chauvinistic friend's being in Paris, France, at this very moment. There was an item residing
in the possession of a Soldats member in the city that had been taken as an apparent souvenir from the
Manor following Altena's demise and before Dominique's operatives could spirit it away; an item that was
necessary for any replacement Noir that was named by her in the future to hold water and be regarded as
official. Ryosuke and Vincent had been charged to find and retrieve that precious object. However, the
French woman had always known where it was being kept, but she'd had her reasons for withholding the
knowledge. In fact it wasn't until about an hour ago when she had at last disclosed the item's location to
Ryosuke via telephone.

Ryosuke, while being of Hikaru's blood, regrettably had inherited none of his magnificent mother's
qualities bar some of her fine looks--he essentially took after his wretched father. And, like his father, he
appeared to share in Shinichi's dislike of Dominique and her past close familiarity with Hikaru. When he
had still been alive to plague both Hikaru and Dominique's existences with his vile presence, the spiteful
man had visibly begrudged his wife's then platonic relationship with the French woman on whatever
grounds his feeble brain had conjured up, be it out of typical male possessiveness for his spouse or
simply plain envy at her warm rapport with her friend.

But in Ryosuke's particular case, his loathing of Dominique was based on something greater than the
advisor's prior chaste friendship with his mother. Even though Hikaru and Dominique had strived hard to
maintain the confidentiality of their romantic association subsequent to Shinichi's demise, Ryosuke had
unfortunately stumbled upon the pair whilst they had been locked in a compromising position--their arms
enfolded lovingly around one another's necks while they engaged in a passionate kiss. Naturally, the two
women's attentions had been immersed wholly in their intimate activities, and thus neither had noticed
that they had been caught 'in the act'--in a manner of speaking--until the inferences the teenage Ryosuke
had drawn from his first glimpse had been permanently engraved in his mind, unalterable regardless of
what Hikaru or Dominique had then said to the contrary after the fact.

Ryosuke had not taken his newly discovered insight in a favourable fashion, going so far as to abandon
his mother and her supposed 'replacement' lover in disgust, taking refuge in Yokohama's criminal
underworld. Hikaru had been inconsolable at this betrayal, weeping day and night for her wayward and
impetuous firstborn. This pain had been compounded soon after when Kaede had left to join him, missing
her elder brother although Dominique couldn't imagine why. Later Hikaru had tried to reconcile with
Ryosuke on numerous occasions, but he never paid the woman's pleadings any consideration at all; the
heartless, ungrateful child. Hikaru had gone to her grave thinking that her son had despised her.
Dominique still hadn't forgiven him for that malicious wrongdoing.

The deep-seated animosity between Dominique and Ryosuke persisted to this day. Both continually vied
for Kaede's full trust, the child having inherited virtually total leadership and tenure of the Ishinomori
Empire. Many times Ryosuke had beseeched his more important sister to dismiss the French 'interloper'
from her primary position as advisor and personal assistant to the CEO in the family's company, before
he'd realised that his efforts were being wasted. Hikaru hadn't left Dominique any portion of her
substantial empire in her Will on the basis that her lover wasn't actually a member of her family--although
the darkhaired woman knew for certain that she had considered her as one--but as a alternative she had
made it fundamentally clear that the person who had been her best friend and partner in life was to
remain where she was at Ishinomori Pharmaceuticals indefinitely and without question. With his late
mother's parting wishes essentially safeguarding Dominique's place in the empire, a frustrated Ryosuke
had been rendered powerless--Kaede was not apt to undermine Hikaru's biddings; she regarded her
mother's last words as unbreakable law.

However, the assurance of Dominique continuing to play her role as Kaede's assistant and advisor for the
foreseeable future did not stop the battle of wills she and Ryosuke relentlessly fought in. Deploying the
ex-yakuza clansman and his lout of a companion in Paris with the task of hunting down and retrieving the
item stolen from the Manor that Dominique needed was that latest such clash… and in this specific
conflict the elder competitor had prevailed almost utterly. With Ryosuke out of her hair, the advisor had
been able to further her own plans for the Ishinomori Empire and ensconce herself deeper into Kaede's
good graces without the boy's irksome meddling to hinder her.

Yet this had been a mere secondary goal to Dominique. In addition to charging Ryosuke and his
womanising idiot of a friend to find and bring the sacred artefact to Japan, she had arranged it so that
they had adopted the alias of the famed Noir while abroad, under the pretence that the name would
unlock doors for them in Paris that would normally have to be blown open with blazing guns. It had been
easy to persuade them to follow her request and utilise the age-old title; they had been relatively
sheltered living in the Asia-Pacific region from the tales of Europe's thousand-year-old Eternal Darkness;
indeed, they had never even heard of the legendary assassin duo. Little had Ryosuke and Vincent known
that the genuine purpose for their use of the designation was to attract the attention of French Soldats
operatives, and perhaps even the true Noir who Dominique was aware were lying dormant in Paris. It had
been her hope that the name would ultimately bring more harm than good, and that enemies would harry
Ryosuke and Vincent throughout their search. And if one of them were to die--with preference to
Shinichi's spawn, but either was fine--then that would be perfectly all right as well.

But Dominique knew that that outcome would be a stretch. It wasn't as if Ryosuke and Vincent were mere
two-bit hooligans lacking any talent in the martial variety, no matter what she liked to imagine them as.
Moreover, if both were to somehow be killed, Dominique wouldn't obtain the object that was currently in
Soldats hands she desired. The risk--albeit small, unless the true Noir awakened from their torpor to
defend their rightful pseudonym--that Ryosuke *and* Vincent died during their mission was what had
eventually compelled Dominique to phone Shinichi's son and inform him that the artefact was in the
custody of Albert Laroque, a reasonably prominent Soldats follower of the new order. Laroque was a
well-known aficionado of antiques and rare texts, and his estate in Paris boasted a sizable collection of
such things within its walls--including the relic Dominique wanted. Obviously the security at his dwellings
would be severe indeed, but the woman was quite confident that Ryosuke and Vincent would succeed in
liberating what she sought. After all, due to Dominique's influence Kaede also pined for the artefact, and
what she wanted her older brother got for her. Despite his customary taciturn countenance, it was plain to
see that Ryosuke was completely besotted with his younger sister. It wasn't surprising, however; Kaede
Ishinomori truly was a beautiful, captivating, and lovely child in all respects.

Dominique slowly closed her eyes and allowed her posture to sag, slouching back into her chair. She
smiled faintly as her thoughts turned to Kaede, her exquisite charge, the only aspect of her wretched life
that gave her joy. While Ryosuke was his father's son, Kaede was most definitely her mother's daughter.
She was the near spitting image of Hikaru in her younger years, the lone disparity her shorter hairstyle.
Conversely their personalities were somewhat different. Kaede's mind was a little… unbalanced, which
Dominique deduced was the woeful product that the trauma of losing her wonderful mother at an early
age had brought--the French woman was familiar with the horrific pain the child was experiencing
firsthand. As a result, Kaede--through no fault of her own--possessed a nasty streak that frequently
manifested itself characteristically in displays of ferociously violent behaviour. Yet Dominique had
witnessed the compassion she had too, the compassion that Hikaru's heart had contained while it had still
beat. She knew that deep down inside Kaede was her *real* self, her real persona that only every so
often made its appearance with acts of unexpected kindness. Nevertheless, Dominique adored every
facet of Hikaru's daughter, and that sentiment even incorporated her more… exotic… traits.

And besides, those aggressive attributes of Kaede were a benefit to the campaign against Soldats, their
*mutual* campaign against Soldats. Kaede wholeheartedly concurred with her assistant's hunger to
avenge Hikaru's murder, although her vengeance also encompassed paying back Soldats for her father's
death on top of that--she was under the impression that Shinichi was assassinated by the group as well
as her mother; an erroneous fact that Dominique was responsible for. It wouldn't do to have Kaede know
the truth, after all. In any case, her parents' slayings were what fed her fires of retribution, fires that raged
like an inferno inside her as apposed to Dominique's icy artic blizzard. To Dominique revenge was a dish
best served cold--the colder the better in fact. And at least one of them had to keep a level head in this
war. It was Dominique's duty to provide Kaede with proper objective council, along with cooling her
blazing spirit when it grew too unruly. It was much like the times when she'd had to compose Hikaru's
spirit during the periods it became overly whimsical. Yes, Kaede certainly was her mother's daughter.
They were so alike. So alike….

Dominique's eyes opened and sat up straight--her smile gone--before she rather briskly spun her black
chair around to face her desk, stopping it abruptly in place with her feet. She then simply stared at the
surface of the desk for a few moments, although she saw none of its contents, before shutting her eyes
briefly and exhaling softly. Nothing good came of when she was left alone with just her own mind for
company. Furthermore reflecting on the events of the past was a meaningless endeavour; a misuse of
one's time, time better spent on worthwhile undertakings. Yes. All that thinking about the past led to was
grief and pain, grief and pain that fostered errant thoughts.

Dominique shook her head slightly and sighed again. Grief and pain. A pity she couldn't stop reminiscing
in spite of her awareness of those dual end products. What she needed was something to divert her
mind's attention so that she could return to her calm, poised self; not this miserable woman she was here
and now.

With that in mind, Dominique raised her head a little and reached over to lay her left hand on a yellow
folder on her tidy desk, resting to one side of the two piles of business reports. It was relatively thin, but
held yet more reports. Except that these reports were on the struggle against Soldats, the sort of material
that Kaede was interested in.

Turning her gaze away from the folder, the advisor looked at the double doors off to her right where the
CEO's office was located adjacent to hers. In addition to the reports on the war, Kaede would also want to
hear the so-called good news that her 'Big Brother' was returning to Yokohama momentarily.

Dominique smiled to herself. It was all the more reason to pay the darling girl a visit. Getting up gracefully
from her chair, the French woman--with folder in hand--stepped around from behind the desk and
proceeded towards Kaede Ishinomori's office, with her mood already beginning to improve.

******

Mireille moved like a nimble cat on the prowl as she skulked swiftly down the narrow pitch-black alley
where the entrance to Simon's computer shop was located, her footfalls on the old irregular cobblestones
hushed and generating no telltale echoes an average person's would. But then she wasn't an average
person. She lived her life by the sword--by the gun. For people like Mireille the night was when she
thrived; it was her time, her realm. When darkness descended and shrouded the daylight world in its
cloak of ebony, those of the black path truly awakened. Enveloped in the barren shadows that their lives
were perpetually immersed in regardless of the hour, senses heightened and wits sharpened--nocturnal
perceptions roused from their daytime slumber. After dusk the danger always seemed more real
somehow--more tangible--that an assassin found herself or himself functioning in a state of highly acute
awareness. Mireille wasn't exactly sure why that was, but nevertheless she had conjured up some
theories during her idle moments. For the length of the night an assassin was a little closer to the dark
paved road of murder they treaded upon--the gloom could be seen as a physical manifestation of the
black path, and as such provided an intimacy that the warm sunlight flooded day could not reproduce.
Simply put, a traveller of the path felt nearer to Death once the sun had set.

However, in Mireille's case she knew it was all basically just a frame of mind. She was no closer to the
grave than any other moment in her life, the likely hazardous undertaking she was presently engaged in
notwithstanding. The day was wrought with more or less the same perils as night. Perhaps the actual
cause of her sensitised psychological condition was that the shadows had the potential to harbour any
number and degree of threats--it was the fresh abundance of unknown factors that were responsible for
the increased anxiety. Nevertheless, one did have to be on their utmost alert when general visibility was
reduced; the intensified cautiousness was not misplaced.

Or maybe it was really because Mireille was heading into a situation along with Kirika that she did not find
appealing a single bit. Being coerced into dealing with two of Soldats' enemies by a high ranking official
like Breffort was one thing, but following the proposal of his *apparent* lackey was quite the other. The
Corsican couldn't be sure that the man she and her partner had encountered in Slick Chicks honestly was
part of Breffort's faction in Soldats. While Mireille was almost completely positive that 'Jacques' was a
member of the worldwide society--he knew details about the group as well as certain specifics regarding
her and Kirika's involvement with Breffort not to be, and furthermore possessing the knowledge that the
two young women had been dubbed the true Noir awarded him extra credibility--she could not have the
likewise confidence that he was under Breffort's jurisdiction. If the words of Mireille and Kirika's benefactor
were to be considered sincere, the whole organisation of Soldats bar his division viewed the pair as
unconditional if inactive foes. Consequently, it was entirely possible that Jacques worked for someone in
Soldats other than Breffort; someone who had seen that the assassins were involving themselves in the
clandestine group's affairs or at the very least returning to action, and as a result had made use of the
offered opportunity to try and rub them out once and for all. Mireille didn't know what she and Kirika could
expect to find in Simon's abode; Ryosuke and Vincent at large, a team of heavily armed Soldats agents
lying in wait to ambush them, or simply a pimply-faced Simon and his unkempt associate playing inane
computer games. If it turned out to be the latter, she mused how the hacker and Ezza would react when
she and her fellow assassin burst in with guns drawn and at the ready. Whatever ensued, Simon would
probably be less enthusiastic in his uncouth overtures towards Mireille thereafter.

Yet even if there hadn't been any doubt that Jacques was in the employ of Mireille and her partner's
backer, the woman would still be approaching the situation with an exceedingly wary mind. It wasn't as if
she trusted Breffort and his men much more than the rest of the detested organisation they belonged to.
The only person who had the blonde's total faith was the svelte girl silently flanking her at this precise
second. Any shred of lingering doubt she'd had regarding her colleague's mental state whilst in combat
had utterly vanished with the darkhaired assassin's latest performance against Millet and his now
eradicated syndicate. Kirika had apparently truly returned to her old self again, the self that had fought
spiritedly alongside her in the Manor months ago.

Mireille stopped running and positioned herself with her back against the crumbling wall by the computer
shop's door, Kirika mimicking her manoeuvre on the opposite side. The assassins' pistols were in their
hands and fully loaded--lions with their lips rolled back and their sharp teeth bared. The silencers that had
been affixed to them previously were removed now; beyond their preliminary advance, stealth wasn't
necessary. This wasn't an assignment where Mireille and Kirika had to get in and out of a target's
neighbourhood without a whisper. Besides, once they breached the entryway of Simon's domicile, there
was a reasonably good chance they would be propelled immediately into a firefight. Entering through the
main doorway wasn't exactly subtle.

As Mireille remained stationary leaning against the wall the cool night wind funnelled through the slender
alley in a low whistle, as though howling in warning of what lay ahead. Meanwhile the woman's lavender
coat and long flaxen locks flapped as they rode the chilly currents, being pulled away from the doorway
as if in an attempt to hold her back, the breeze knowing something that the assassin did not. Yet what
really invoked Mireille's discomfort was the tart odour that wafted up from her own body to irritate her
nose courtesy of the draft, the pungent aroma reminding her that she probably gave the impression of a
boozing drunk who had slopped more of her liquor on herself than she had ingested. Her clothing was still
infused with the biting scent of the litres of alcohol that had been spilt on her during her stay behind the
bar in Millet's strip club, the reek an unwelcome and seeming unfading memento of that occasion. Mireille
rather disliked it when her appearance became dishevelled, but it often happened in the course of her
rigorous vocation. While it had no major drawbacks per se, she simply was uncomfortable when garbed in
dirty clothes or smeared with filth--she just didn't feel like herself. She couldn't wait until this night ended
so she could return to the apartment and change out of her soiled garments, before showering thoroughly
and ridding herself of the bitter stench that enveloped her.

Glancing over at Kirika across from her, Mireille briefly wondered if the girl could detect the smell. She
wouldn't have been shocked if her partner could. Her eyesight and hearing were absolutely
exceptional--why not her sense of smell on top of that to round off the extraordinary bundle?

Suddenly feeling a little more self-conscious about the odour clinging to her body than she would have
liked, Mireille quickly decided that it was time to get the show on the road. Dropping her hand down to the
dented metal knob attached to the door next to her, she carefully grasped the battered grey lump and
began to turn it slowly, the mechanism emitting only the faintest of squeaks. She was hardly surprised
when she encountered no resistance. The hour was late and she had thought that Simon would have
closed his bootlegging business by now; that his door was still unlocked imparted credence to the first two
hypothesises she had envisaged earlier. The prospect of a gunfight exploding on the other side of the
door had just taken a step up.

Mireille raised her head from the doorknob and favoured Kirika with a final glance. The slim girl was a
mere vague outline in the jet-black alley, almost insubstantial against the shadows surrounding her. It was
as if the icy gust of wind that had travelled through the passageway moments before could have just
blown her apart like a dust statue until she became impossible to tell apart from the murk, lost in its
depths. The Corsican couldn't even hear the withdrawn girl breathe despite their relatively close proximity.
Oddly, the sight was somewhat unnerving to Mireille and she found her glance unexpectedly transform
into a prolonged stare.

"Mireille?" Kirika whispered, an ephemeral breath of air that gently floated to Mireille's ears.

Mireille instantly snapped out of her trance at the soft, sweet melody of Kirika's voice uttering her name.
Correspondingly, her former thought was swept to the bottom of the swirling ocean that composed her
mind, blending into the other currents of the ever-moving sea as new tides rose, engulfing it and taking its
past place of dominance. By the time her partner had spoken the last syllable of her name she had
already forgotten about the sight of Kirika standing in the dark, and the sentiment it had reared.

Mireille didn't answer Kirika's query, but instead cautiously pushed open the door to the shop with her
hand, her mind now focused once again on what she and the girl had come here for, all other superfluous
thoughts banished. She quickly pulled her arm back behind the cover of the wall as the door swung open
with an audible creak of its hinges, lest the exposed limb receive a bullet from any alerted assailant or
assailants who stood vigilant inside. Light spilled out from the opened doorway and into the darkened
alley, but the assassins kept out of its borders, opting to remain lurking in the shadows while they listened
intently for any hint of movement inside the building.

After it was clear that no barrage of gunfire was forthcoming, Mireille and Kirika both ventured a peek
inside Simon's computer store façade, poking their heads past the doorjamb just enough to get a decent
view of the interior. It took only a fraction of a second to realise that the room was empty, and appearing
much the same as it had during their previous visits. But even so, neither Mireille nor Kirika judged the
area as simply automatically safe to wander into. The images one's eyes afforded to you could be
misleading, and to trust them implicitly was to dice with Death. Not until they had crossed the threshold
and inspected every corner of the room could they deem it as clear and subsequently treat it as such.

Mireille drew back her head and straightened as Kirika did likewise, the young women meeting each
other's gazes. The light escaping from the shop's open doorway touched their faces now, dipping one
side in brightness while shadows streaked across the other, but bestowing enough illumination to lay bare
their divergent features and expressions--fair and dark, stern and solemn. Yet despite their disparities
both assassins possessed eyes that glimmered with the same hard resolve; blue and brown united in a
single purpose.

Mireille lifted her Walther P99 up towards her chest and Kirika raised her Beretta M1934 in a similar
fashion a second later, their weapons glinting dully in their hands. Kirika nodded to the blonde as she
cocked the hammer of her firearm. They were set.

With that, Mireille dashed into the computer store, her head turning sharply to survey the blind spot to the
right her initial glimpse inside had revealed, while her gun covered the region in front of her. Kirika
followed in behind the woman an instant later, checking the left hand side of the room, her pistol
remaining raised but motionless as she let her keen eyes scan over dusty shelves and tables laden with
obsolete technology. It took less than two seconds to verify that the shop façade indeed did not contain a
solitary soul save for the pair who had just rushed inside. That left only one other place to investigate.

Noticing that the basement door at the opposite end of the room was slightly ajar, Mireille wordlessly
signalled to Kirika with a tilt of her head that they were proceeding onwards. The slip of a girl nodded her
understanding, and then they both quietly trotted over to the door, each taking up a position on either side
of it much like the arrangement they had adopted when faced with the alleyway entrance.

Mireille gingerly opened the basement door the rest of the way, and then hazarded a look inside. The
wooden staircase that led down to the underground room where Simon's true enterprise was housed was
as usual drenched in gloom, with the customary electric glow of buzzing computer monitors bathing a
section of concrete floor at the bottom of the steps in a puddle of weak, pale light. From her vantage point
above, the Corsican contract killer couldn't catch sight of any silhouettes in motion breaking what she
could make out of the pool of light, but nor could she hear the chatting voices of immature teenagers or
even the rapid tapping of strokes on a keyboard drifting up the stairs. Dead silence was all that was
presented to her and her partner. It was the worst kind of silence.

After inhaling a deep breath to fortify herself--although she in reality needed no such bolstering--Mireille
slinked through the doorway and started to tentatively descend the shadowy basement staircase, wincing
slightly with every tiny groan the wooden planks made beneath her boots. She released the breath she
held gradually and inaudibly as she treaded softly down the stairs, a calming action to help maintain her
strict concentration so that she didn't inadvertently put too much of her weight on a step and betray her
imminent arrival to any possible armed threats lying in wait below her. She sensed Kirika to her rear, but it
was a purely instinctive awareness; she couldn't pick up the slightest physical sign of movement behind
her. The shorter girl was extremely light on her feet, as if she walked on air itself, and her composure very
seldom waned… excluding during special circumstances not unlike recent lamentable events, naturally.
In spite of her stunted emotional development, Kirika's feelings did seem to govern her general wellbeing
with considerably greater impunity than most people's did. Then again, perhaps her deficiency in that
facet of herself was in fact to blame for the strong link. With such limited psychological maturity coupled
with a subdued personality as a probable product of that, it could be no wonder Kirika sometimes reacted
to certain things with quite different emotional responses than other girls her age did. Whatever the cause
of the relation, all of this was material about her diminutive counterpart that Mireille was already
conscious of, and already attempting to assuage… if that were possible. Altena's abuse had certainly
inflicted considerable mental damage on poor Kirika, damage that may not be repairable. Still, Mireille
would try.

By the time Mireille and Kirika reached the bottom of the steps, their feet hitting concrete, it was readily
apparent that the basement hideaway of Simon was as devoid of life as the room overhead… but in a
more literal sense. Once their roaming eyes had ensured that the dim light and dark crannies of the
vicinity weren't concealing any enemies that had initially eluded their notice, their gazes were immediately
drawn to the three unmoving bodies sprawled in a likewise number of varying positions across the middle
of the basement. Mireille recognised one of them instantly by the tuft of faded green hair sprouting from
the top of his head and by his resting place at his desk--Simon, with the remaining forms residing in the
shadows surrounding him resembling Ezza and one of the two teens' seeming acquaintances. It was
indisputably clear that all of them had met with rather violent, bloody ends.

The blonde woman sighed, relaxing her stance and lowering her gun as it dawned on her that she had
overlooked a fourth scenario; Ryosuke and Vincent long departed but leaving behind Simon and anybody
who had been with him at the time dead in their wake.

"They've gone," Kirika said as she followed Mireille's example and let her pistol drop to her side, easing
the primed hammer of the weapon back to rest with her thumb.

"If they were even here at all," Mireille retorted, although there was little doubt in her mind that the
basement bloodshed was the false Noir's handiwork. No other possibility made much sense. To her
knowledge Simon didn't--or hadn't, as was the case now--mixed with the type of people--barring herself,
of course--who would have had the brazenness to actually kill him and his associates, even if they'd had
what they perceived as just motive to do so. The computer expert's clients had been college students and
petty felons, not hardcore murderers. The Corsican was quite positive Soldats wasn't responsible either,
since she didn't have a clue what the organisation would gain from killing a bunch of insignificant juvenile
delinquents. That only left one other possibility, or more accurately *two*--Ryosuke Ishinomori and
Vincent Hsu.

The real question was *why* they had done it. Moreover, why had they even troubled themselves with
tracking down Simon in the first place? Why had they dragged their sorry carcasses out of whatever hole
they had been hiding in just to find and kill him? Or had they made use of his special talents before
slaying him? And, most importantly, where were Ryosuke and Vincent now?

Mireille bowed her head slightly and shut her eyes for a moment before sighing yet again, this time in
annoyance. "How bothersome," she quietly remarked to herself. "Let's hope that they have left more for
us than just an unsightly mess to sift through," she then said as she raised her head, speaking in a louder
voice. "Their trail is getting colder by the minute; I'd like to prevent it from becoming as dead as the one at
Millet's club apparently was."

Kirika turned her head to look at Mireille, and out of the corner of the blonde's eye she noticed that her
partner's expression was strangely pensive, her mouth opening partly as if she wished to say something.
But then a second later the introverted girl turned her gaze back to the three corpses in front of them and
she nodded in acquiesce, a murmur of acknowledgement accompanying the gesture.

Mireille and Kirika walked deeper into the circle of feeble light emanating from the computer monitors,
their pistols staying securely in their grips for safety's sake. They past by Simon's display tables packed
with pirate CDs that were still neatly arranged in rows, untouched--further evidence that this had not been
a robbery or anything of the like; it had been an execution. The woman with her partner in tow proceeded
to the body that stood out the most, despite only lying partially in the light.

The corpse stretched out flat on its back off to the right of the network of computers was of Simon and
Ezza's unknown acquaintance--a shabbily dressed male in his teenage years--and his cause of death
was clearly identifiable. What remained of the boy was reclining in the vast majority of his body's own spilt
blood, the source of which was the multiple gunshot wounds to his chest and a single one to the thigh.
The body was quite frankly a gory ruin, a portrayal of overkill at its most gruesome. Whoever had carried
out the murder had evidently revelled in the brutality of it. A stone cold killer they were not; this was the
work of enthusiasm, zeal. The traits of an archetypical homicidal maniac.

"9mm casings," Kirika observed from beside Mireille, where the pair were situated a sensible foot away
from the prolific blood splatters staining the floor. She pointed to a cluster of copper coloured hollow
cylinders scattered about in the red pool, bathing in the result of their lethal payloads.

"Evidence of one half of our warped 'reflections' past presence here, perhaps," Mireille noted, recalling
that one of their target's weapons of choice were two Beretta M92F Elites, which took 9mm ammunition.
Yet it wasn't as if it were the sole model of gun that used such a bullet type. The calibre had a widespread
utilisation across numerous makes of firearms all over the world. Nevertheless, when tied together with
Jacques' alleged message from Breffort that had advised Mireille and Kirika to come here, the ejected
casings were in support of the false Noir's involvement in Simon and his associates' deaths. Vincent, the
wielder of the Elites, almost irrefutably held claim to this particular victim. A homicidal maniac indeed.

"The concrete walls must have muffled the shots," Mireille presumed as she looked up from the cadaver
at the black ceiling above. Nonetheless, she didn't believe anyone would have come to the hacker's and
his colleagues' rescue even if they had heard the gunfire. This neighbourhood was known for its
problematic crime rate, and the occasional crack of a gun discharging was like the crowing of birds to the
locals, simply an everyday background noise. "Vincent obviously relished his free reign," the blonde
assassin continued as she returned her gaze to the body of the slain adolescent. "But at least we can
expect that the authorities won't be turning up on the scene any time soon."

"Mm," Kirika concurred, nodding while her eyes remained affixed to the corpse.

Mireille shifted her attention to the dead boy's face, it red and swollen, seemingly having been battered
rather severely before his demise. His identity was foreign to her, not that she really paid much heed to
every one of Simon's childish acquaintances she encountered. The Corsican mused who he had been to
the hacker, however. A late customer? A so-called friend? A contact?

Mireille exhaled slowly, her ice blue eyes narrowing and a frown creasing her brow; her expression
hardening as the sentiments borne from her being a professional killer for years came to fore. Did it really
matter who the victim had been? He was dead and gone, and she didn't have the time to spare for
baseless speculation on his personal history. The longer she and Kirika lingered the further Ryosuke and
Vincent slipped through their fingers. Mireille sought to clench their fist tightly around the men tonight if
she could, and crush them in it. But that would be unlikely to occur without knowing their current
whereabouts. She prayed that the false Noir had left behind some sort of pointer as to where they had
headed next, yet it would be the product of sloppiness on their part if they had. And as could be imagined
the idea of Ryosuke and Vincent--who, from what the Corsican had seen, were very able killers--being
careless was an implausible one. Still, everybody regardless of how skilled they were made a mistake
sooner or later. With any luck, this night had been the instant that Mireille and Kirika's quarry had slipped
up.

Mireille looked over her shoulder at the L-shaped desk and the body slumped upon it to the rear of her
and colleague, her countenance becoming a tad grimmer. She then briskly strode towards Simon without
hesitation, Kirika lagging behind her.

As soon as Mireille had entered the basement and witnessed the carnage, she had known that Simon
was dead. He was hunched forwards in his chair, collapsed over one of his keyboards, the back of his
head coloured with a thick dark red pigment that clashed garishly with the green dye tinting the rest of his
brown hair. More of the crimson colorant oozed down the hacker's cheeks and had collected in the groves
between the keys of the keyboard, while a large amount had been splattered against a smashed
computer monitor's screen, droplets dripping lazily from the jagged glass. Simon had taken a bullet to the
back of the head, a classic execution. The shot must have been fired at close range, too, the round
evidently having passed straight through his skull to shatter the monitor screen in front of him.

"Are you okay?"

Kirika's voice from close beside her startled Mireille a bit, the woman's shoulders jerking slightly as she
was jolted out of a stare she hadn't realised she had been entranced in. She looked away from the corpse
of Simon to her partner's sombre face, a single blonde eyebrow raised in puzzlement on an expression
that had somewhere along the line softened.

"Of course I am," Mireille said as though it were obvious, favouring Kirika with a perplexed look. She then
frowned, looking at the girl askance. "Why wouldn't I be?"

Kirika lowered her head, her eyes shifting to Simon's remains. "I'd only met him a few times, but he was
your friend," she said quietly, before she lifted her head to look up at Mireille woefully. "You knew him…."

Mireille merely blinked at Kirika for a couple of moments as she tried to wrap her mind around what the
feeling-hearted girl was getting at. When she finally succeeded, her frown disappeared as she regarded
her partner with mild bemusement. "I may have known him, but it wasn't as if we were friends," she
explained. She turned her head back to the teenager whose know-how in computer network security she
had sometimes taken advantage of… and never would be able to again. "He was nothing more than a…."
Her visage hardened yet again, the harsh, cold mask her sort often donned fitting once more over her
face. "…Than an acquaintance."

An acquaintance. A contact. A source. Mireille had sadly learnt early in her life as a contract killer that it
was wisest to keep your business associates as strictly that; they were solely individuals you conducted
transactions with, nothing more. The relationship between all parties should idyllically be as dry as
possible… and not only for the obvious security precautions. If one strayed from that paradigm, all that
awaited her or him was unnecessary pain and guilt, anguish that could have been avoided. An assassin
whose heart contained even the slightest speck of compassion couldn't afford to have friends, only
acquaintances. Friends die, but acquaintances merely… drifted apart from you. An assassin's heart had
to be hard, an unfeeling lump of rock supplanting the fragile, easily bruised organ in their chest. There
was no other means to stomach the job.

Yet even the stoniest of hearts had its fissures. No matter how strong the shell one encases their heart in,
certain people have a way of weeding beyond it and into the soft centre it had been trying to protect.
Acquaintances could become friends before one even realised it, and by then it was too late--the heart
does not let go easily. It's good while it lasts--friends help share the burden of one's life, and for an
assassin that life's burdens are weighty indeed. But friends are akin to a ticking time bomb, or perhaps an
addictive drug that eventually runs out. There sooner or later comes a day when your very relationship
with them results in their premature fall into a grave, and then when the grief and guilt arrive afterwards
it's almost overwhelming. It's better to prevent the friendship from the onset, before your heart is
wounded. In Mireille's experience the wounds of the heart tended to cut the deepest. Needless to say, the
woman had very few friends. Most of the ones she'd had were dead now, and she wasn't looking to
replace them.

And besides she had Kirika, quite possibly the greatest example of how someone can surreptitiously
delve into a frozen heart while it remained utterly oblivious to the incursion, and to its subtle defrosting
that ensued. However Kirika was a special circumstance. She was an assassin like Mireille, a partner in
arms who trudged along the black path in unison with the woman. Kirika knew the danger, but unlike
Mireille's now dirt-napping friends, she had *lived* the danger and was still living it to this day. The quiet
girl understood the score like no outsider could, and moreover possessed the expertise in the art of
murder to survive it. The blonde could rest assured that Kirika would never follow in her late friends'
footsteps and succumb to the perils of her--of their--unforgiving existence… or at least not easily, and not
without Mireille having anything to do about it. With that--albeit slightly tentative--assurance, the woman
could permit herself to maintain her present level of closeness to her partner with the prospect of
furthering it, free of the usual apprehension that came with bonding to people who were strangers to the
trade. It could be said that Kirika was Mireille's ideal friend, the only kind of companion truly suited to the
Corsican's hazardous lifestyle. But the girl far outshined any friend she'd ever had. Kirika had become
more significant to the blonde than a thousand friends for she had touched the woman's heart in a way
like no other, exposing her to feelings she'd never experienced before, emotions that were different than
those of friendship, which appeared as mundane alongside them. She had never believed there would be
any place for love in her life apart from the empty physical kind, and yet here it was, standing beside her
at this exact moment in the inconspicuous form of a teenage Japanese girl… who held a gun. Maybe, as
in friendship, only a fellow assassin had the capability to claim Mireille's frequently standoffish heart. Or
perhaps only Kirika herself could, the woman's 'fated' other half. When she thought about it, Mireille
couldn't envision herself feeling the same way for anybody else; Kirika was unique, and her heart could
accept no one else, as though it had been made precisely to match up with the girl's. Quite possibly the
legend of Noir had some truth behind it after all.

Mireille looked back at the departed Simon and at what he had been reduced to--a murder victim in his
own home, simply another fatality in a bad neighbourhood--and found it a struggle to preserve her aloof
stance she laboured to adhere to. Slivers of guilt began to coil around her heart, squeezing it and
endeavouring to rupture its cool armour. An acquaintance the hacker may have been, and a grating one
at that, but even Mireille knew deep down inside that he hadn't deserved an ending like this. Part of
her--the callous part, the part that she had cultivated during her existence as an assassin--said that he
had been aware of the risks, that he had been aware of the shady and potentially dangerous business he
had chosen to involve himself in. She should not feel guilty when he had brought Death upon himself.

However he *hadn't* been aware of the risks, not the ones that had led to him receiving a bullet in the
brain anyway. Mireille had neglected to enlighten the teenager to the threat the men she'd had him search
for posed, opting to keep the degree of information he was privy to on a need to know basis, as was a
normal practice of hers. But if she had relented, maybe Simon would have exercised more caution and
then he and his associates would be alive and well right now instead of lying around slaughtered in a
dismal basement of a ramshackle slum. The only vaguely plausible motive the Corsican had been able to
come up with thus far for Ryosuke and Vincent's visit to and execution of Simon and his cohorts was that
by some miracle one member of the hacker's professed network of informants he was apparently able to
utilise--likely the mystery youth whom had been shot repeatedly in the chest a short distance from the
desk--had stumbled upon the two hitmen's new accommodations. There, the men had noticed him before
he unknowingly led them to the computer store, where in a lethal fashion the pair had proceeded to show
him, his employer, and Ezza their displeasure at being watched. If this depiction of what had taken place
here was accurate, even somewhat, then the blonde's guilt may be justified.

Yet on the other hand even if Mireille had informed Simon of the danger, she suspected it wouldn't have
changed the grisly outcome at all, barring the case where the hacker turned down the assignment out of
fear. His informants' hunting methods were probably as slipshod as the come, and when up against
skilled individuals such as the false Noir, the chances of their scrutiny--even if it only lasted for an
instance--being detected was high indeed. On top of all that, Simon's traditional enthusiasm in pleasing
Mireille probably hadn't helped the situation either. Too much eagerness can foster carelessness, and
when coupled with the hacker's already lax snitches, it made for a surefire treacherous mix.

But then there was Simon and his acquaintances' ages. They were young, Simon not much older than
Kirika, while the presumed informant might even have been of comparable age to her. The fact that they'd
had their lives snuffed out so early on was what mainly provoked the guilt that strived to slither into
Mireille's heart. That, and because they were so close to her partner's age bracket--she didn't enjoy being
reminded of Kirika's mortality, peerless combat prowess or no. Regardless of someone's age--be they a
child, adolescent, adult, or older--none were exempt from possibly becoming a victim, from possibly
becoming prey for the predators that walked this earth. The black path paved its road with countless
victims, and not all were travellers of its dark route.

"Mm," Kirika mumbled uncertainly at Mireille's clarification, still looking up at the woman with doleful eyes.
"But--"

"We shouldn't dawdle," Mireille interrupted rather firmly, marching past Kirika towards Ezza's body as the
lithe girl turned after her, her mouth open but her words prematurely silenced by her partner's frank
brush-off. The blonde knew that she was being abrasive to the one person that should be spared such
treatment, but the atmosphere of the murky basement was beginning to feel oppressive. The stench of
Death hung in the air, a gradually rising, gradually gathering scent that seemed to slowly smother her
from all sides. The odour was normally not something that bothered her, and yet…. The moment when
Mireille left this… this *tomb* and breathed in the fresh night air outside couldn't come soon enough for
her.

Mireille briskly treaded across the room while Kirika trailed after her, putting the computers on the desk
and their lifeless operator to her back. Ezza's corpse was ahead of her, slouched against a wall and
shaded in the darkness, his form indistinct where it sat outside the light, almost swallowed up completely
in the gloom. As the Corsican assassin stepped out of the puddle of monitor glow to join the carcass in
the shadows, she felt something strike the toe of her boot, a rasp coming from the floor. Pausing, she
looked down and noticed what resembled a mobile phone at her feet. It appeared to be a very expensive
model, the kind that could acquire a signal practically anywhere and had peripheral functions galore.
Mireille found it odd that Simon had had the funds to pay for such a pricey device, but then he had been
able purchase and maintain a top of range network of computers; perhaps he had diverted some of his
cash from their upgrades for the phone. However it had got there, it was nothing more than a paperweight
now. The mobile phone was severely mangled; its black plastic casing split and twisted, exposing a
cracked circuit board with crushed microchips inside.

"Maybe they tried to call for help," Kirika suggested as she halted slightly behind Mireille, also looking
upon the smashed communications device that had waylaid the blonde.

"If they had, then whoever killed them didn't take kindly to it," Mireille replied, picturing Ryosuke or
Vincent viciously stomping on the mobile phone and its unfortunate user's hand with it.

Moving onwards, Mireille and Kirika approached Ezza, arranging themselves on either side of his still
body. He sat with his back against the wall, his legs straightened out in front of him… or one of them at
any rate. His left leg was bent at an unnatural angle below the knee, the joint ruined by most likely a
gunshot, or by an extremely brutal blow with a heavy object that had ruptured the flesh and dislocated it.

Sighting no other external wounds below his neck, Mireille shifted her gaze higher, settling it on Ezza's
head. The youth's chin rested on his chest, his lank hair drooping downwards in greasy waves and
obscuring his face from view. Pressing the barrel of her Walther gingerly against his forehead, Mireille
carefully tilted his head back upright, and revealed what she had already guessed was there--the mortal
injury that had resulted in his death. But this injury was no mere bullet to the brow; this was on par with a
concentrated shotgun blast directly to the face. The woman involuntarily found herself grimacing in
revulsion at the hideous mess of dripping blood and shredded flesh Ezza's visage had been turned into. A
single gory yet visible hole tunnelled through the centre of his disfigured countenance; a bullet wound, but
most definitely one created by a powerful pistol. Yet Mireille had never seen an entry wound of this
ferocity caused by anything other than rifles; even handguns of the .357 class fell short of achieving this
effect.

"A high calibre round," Kirika said softly, her opinions on the same vein as her partner's. "At extreme
close range."

Mireille merely muttered her agreement and let Ezza's head drop back to its former position. As she did,
she glimpsed something that had escaped her notice previously--the hair at the back of his head was
matted and appeared wet; the shot to his face had passed entirely through his skull. A hand's breadth
splash of blood soiled the concrete behind Ezza's head where the bullet had delivered the fluid with its
exit; only now that Mireille's eyes had adjusted to the darkness could she discern the telling stain. Her
keener gaze additionally picked up a gouge in the wall nestled in the discharged blood that enclosed
it--the hollow where the fired slug had burrowed deeply into the solid concrete. Truly a powerful pistol.

Mireille's scowl intensified as she turned around to face the centre of the basement. There were no clues
here, no signs to direct her and Kirika to the next segment of Ryosuke and Vincent's trail. No slip-ups, just
bodies, corpses of boys who had died much too young. The false Noir--false as they may be--evidently
possessed enough talent and prudence not to leave any tracks behind that could be traced.

"There's nothing," Mireille said with clear displeasure, voicing her beliefs… and concerns. She feared the
trail had been ice cold before she and Kirika had even shown up.

"Mm…" Kirika murmured unhappily, bowing her head and looking down at the floor. But then a moment
later her head suddenly snapped up and she blinked, before turning to favour Mireille with a somewhat
enlivened expression. "The video camera," she said a little breathlessly.

A still frowning yet curious Mireille turned her head to Kirika, the Corsican assassin wondering what had
gotten the quiet girl worked up. She merely blinked at her partner's hopeful face for a second as Kirika
simply looked back at her, before it finally sunk in. The video camera. Of course! Simon kept his
basement abode under surveillance!

Mireille gasped in realisation, her scowl vanishing, and--with Kirika accompanying her--hurried back to the
desk, searching among the monitors for the unique one that displayed the output of the camera mounted
covertly in one dark corner of the room. "Let's hope that he actually recorded the feed," she said as her
eyes scanned anxiously over the cluster of screens while she wracked her brains, trying to recall its
position. During her hunt she noticed that one of Simon's PC towers had a couple of bullet holes marring
its front, the blemishes just above the floppy disk drive. It was peculiar since she didn't believe that the
false Noir's shots would miss their marks while up against trapped and unarmed teenagers. Maybe it was
for intimidation reasons.

Following a handful of seconds spent looking for it Mireille located the video camera's monitor, its
television-like exterior betraying the different purpose it had to its mates. Like a few other screens it was
switched off, a black square that could easily be overlooked in the dim light as Ryosuke and Vincent had
apparently done together with missing the camera. The blonde assassin didn't know why the monitor
wasn't on, but whatever the grounds it had worked in her and Kirika's favour. That is, if the camera it was
connected to wasn't switched off as well.

Not willing to wait any longer to find out, Mireille switched on the monitor. It flared to life, and presented
the welcome black and white image of her and her partner standing in front of the computer desk, the
basement stairs at the top of the screen behind the figures. Despite the lack of colour the picture was
exceedingly clear; Simon had seemingly opted for a camera and monitor that both operated at a high
resolution, perhaps even forgoing traditional cassette tape for a purely digital recording medium.

There were controls to directly manipulate the picture on the monitor below the screen that supported the
digital theory and which Mireille used to attempt to rewind the recording to the time when Simon and his
cohorts have been paid a deadly visit. To her relief, an animated time selection slider bar appeared on the
screen that through the controls allowed her to replay the recorded events that had taken place in the
basement before she and Kirika had arrived, and in turn shed some light on exactly what had happened.

The position of the camera only captured a small section of the basement, but it was enough to grant
Mireille and Kirika a general idea of how Simon, Ezza, and the other juvenile had been slain. Jacques had
evidently been working for Breffort after all; Ryosuke and Vincent had indeed come to the computer shop
and were responsible for its young occupants' murders. Nearly everyone remained partly or totally off
screen for the most part, with the sole exceptions of Ryosuke and Simon, the former of which mainly
stood like statue a couple of feet from the staircase while the latter sat at the desk. While the hacker's
abuse and subsequent execution by Vincent had been recorded in graphic detail--the only death to
be--their was only two things that interested Mireille; what Ryosuke had said to him shortly before his
demise that'd had him nodding his head in fervent compliance, and who had phoned the hitman to
seemingly prompt him to speak to the youth. Unfortunately, there was no sound mixed in with the pictures
of the recording, leaving the Corsican and her partner pretty much out of luck.

"He… he wants an address," Kirika told Mireille out of the blue in a hesitant voice, her eyes riveted to the
monitor as the woman repeated the part of the recording where Ryosuke spoke to Simon.

Mireille paused the playing images to look at the withdrawn girl in surprise. "How do you know that?" she
asked, her voice and expression both quizzical.

"That is what he said," Kirika expounded, turning her head from the screen to return her partner's thrown
look with her typical sober countenance. "The way his mouth moves."
Mireille blinked languidly at Kirika--her expression rather astonished--and then glanced at the monitor,
before turning her head back to her counterpart once again. "You mean to say you read his lips?" she
eventually said in amazement, staring incredulously at her partner as the unassuming girl simply stared
back at her. "That you can read lips?"

"Mm," Kirika emitted with a nod, as if she were merely confirming that she could skip or do something
equally routine, rather than perform a pretty impressive feat.

Mireille closed her eyes as she shook her head gently in bewilderment, the corners of her mouth twitching
upwards in the beginnings of a pleasantly surprised smile. So Kirika could read lips. The woman
half-jokingly wondered if that applied to every language she spoke… but knowing Kirika, it probably did.
She was an unassuming girl indeed. The Corsican assassin could see the handiness of having such a
gift, as Altena no doubt had too. Being able to know what guards, targets--anybody really--were speaking
of from a distance could privy one to useful intel… much like in this precise situation.

"You certainly are a deceptive package," Mireille declared with as much wryness as she could muster
given their grim surroundings. She opened her eyes and smiled faintly at Kirika, her expression
remarkably tender in relation to its past harsh appearance. "But I suppose I was already cognisant of
that," she then added a little playfully, angling her head to look at the girl sidelong, the smile remaining on
her lips. "Still full of surprises, even now."

Kirika lowered her head slightly at Mireille's words, dropping her gaze from the blonde. Mireille smirked a
little at the reaction--she just might have embarrassed the introverted girl. While she hadn't known her
reserved counterpart to ever openly blush--although the woman did hold onto the hope that one day she
would witness the no doubt *very* cute action--Kirika did have her own endearing ways of displaying her
discomfit that the Corsican had identified and hence could normally spot, as in this case. Yet on this
occasion the girl's face somehow seemed sadder than it had a few moments ago. Mireille chalked it up to
a trick of the meagre light; she was quite sure she hadn't said anything that Kirika could have construed
the wrong way.

Mireille's visage reverted back to its former serious guise--warm to cold--as she refocused her attention
on the video camera's monitor, her and her partner's fleeting interlude of light-heartedness over. After all,
it was difficult to be cheerful when in the presence of corpses who had once been people you knew.

"Can you make out the address he wants?" Mireille posed to Kirika as she restarted the recording. Her
eyes flicked to the two bullet holes in one of the computer towers standing upright on the desk, now
understanding the full story behind the punctures. Although the camera had captured Vincent firing the
rounds just before he and his colleague had departed the basement--dismissing the notion that they had
been stray shots--the blonde hadn't known why he had done so. But with the recent information of
Ryosuke desiring Simon to dig up an address for him, it now all made sense--the shots were to destroy
the evidence resident in the hard disk of the computer used to find the address, and in turn hide any trace
of his and Vincent's visit while also preventing anyone from tailing them. However, they obviously hadn't
counted on the sharp young Japanese girl at Mireille's side.

Kirika looked up and turned to the monitor, studying its high-resolution screen intently for a couple of
minutes as the logged scenes played out. She then shook her head. "He never says it. But he does say
somebody's name," she notified the blonde. Kirika's brow furrowed in concentration as she closely
scrutinised the image of Ryosuke's moving lips as they noiselessly formed words, the girl frequently
requesting Mireille to repeat one portion of the recording which the woman dutifully did.

"Al… Albe… Al… ber… bert. Albert…" Kirika mumbled softly to herself as Mireille watched on in
fascination tempered somewhat by her current dark mood, the woman's fingers moving automatically on
the monitor's controls to replay the segment of footage, her mind all but wholly captivated by her petite
partner. She scarcely drew breath lest she disturb the girl's focus; people's names were apparently trickier
to read from lip movements alone than general words.
"Lar… o… Laro… ka? Laro… Laro… que. Laroque." Kirika turned her head to Mireille, the said blonde
regarding her slightly uncertainly. "Albert Laroque," she then stated simply, her reconstruction of every
silent syllable of the name uttered by Ryosuke complete.

"Albert Laroque?" Mireille echoed, knitting her brow. The name didn't ring any bells, but she trusted
Kirika's conclusions implicitly. The notion that perhaps the darkhaired girl had mispronounced the name
didn't even enter her mind.

Abandoning her efforts to try and remember if she were familiar with 'Albert Laroque', Mireille instead let
her hard mask slip again for a second and cast a small, fond smile Kirika's way in a gesture of approval.
"Well done," she praised quietly, although the girl merely responded with her usual impassive look; her
version of dismissively shrugging one's shoulders, the blonde thought wryly. "What about his phone call?
Can you tell what he says?" she then asked as she rewound the recording to that exact part.

Kirika shook her head as she regretfully murmured in the negative. "He doesn't move his lips enough,"
she said. "But I think he's speaking Japanese," she then helpfully offered instead.

Mireille absently nodded. The phone call wasn't really relevant anymore; she and Kirika had already
found the elusive breadcrumb that revealed the next branch of the false Noir's trail. And it came in the
form of a name--Albert Laroque. Simon's and his colleagues' murders had clearly not been without gain
after all; even in death the hacker had provided valuable information, just like a well-paid contact--a
well-paid acquaintance--should.

"We're finished here," Mireille announced unfeelingly, more to the air than to her partner. She then walked
away from the L-shaped desk in the direction of the basement stairs, Kirika obediently at her heels.

When she reached the bottom of the steps, Mireille abruptly stopped and looked back over her shoulder,
bringing up her pistol in the same motion. Aiming for the video camera's monitor, she squeezed the
trigger of the Walther and destroyed it with a single shot, before unleashing the remainder of the
weapon's magazine into rest of Simon's computer equipment, making certain it was all damaged beyond
repair. Mireille and Kirika would leave here without a trace, unlike their warped other halves. The blonde's
bullet casings were unmarked, and the fingerprints she and her partner had left behind weren't an
issue--to the Corsican's knowledge neither hers nor her Japanese counterpart's existed in any record
anywhere in the world, let alone in Paris' metropolitan Police department's databases. Mireille's history
was as clean as they come which had consequently never warranted her fingerprints to ever be taken,
while Kirika was more or less a ghost existing outside of society's radar. Yet, come to think of it, Kirika
hadn't touched a solitary object in the building so far. Mireille had neglected to notice that until just now, a
credit to the girl's subtlety and skill as an assassin.

Mireille ejected the empty clip from her gun and placed it in one of the ammunition pouches on the
harness strapped under her coat, before reloading. She then resumed her exodus of the basement,
climbing up the creaky wooden stairs and making no attempt to mitigate the noise of her footsteps.
Kirika's own ascension of the staircase was still hushed however, maintaining stealth likely an
unconscious act for the talented girl.

Mireille pulled out her mobile phone from her coat's inside pocket with her free hand, and begun dialling
the number for one of her many sources who could ascertain the address of Albert Laroque; the address
where Ryosuke and Vincent were doubtless at this very minute. Time was still of the essence; the
Corsican didn't want to miss the two men and end up chasing them around fruitlessly until morning, one
step behind. She wanted to end this 'assignment' of Breffort's tonight, end her and her partner's relation
with him and Soldats for good. She wanted her and Kirika to be utterly free of the organisation forever
and simply live their lives in blessed privacy together. It was all within grasp tonight, within Mireille's
tightening fist. She imagined she should be thankful to Simon for his sacrifice; quite possibly his last
service to her was the greatest.

But despite that, as she strode up the stairs to street level she didn't so much as cast a last look back into
the dark basement that had become Simon and his associates' grave. After all, Simon had merely been
an acquaintance of hers… and they had drifted apart.



Chapter 14 - A Remnant of a Pilgrimage


It was the dead of night with the hour well past twelve, it having become deeply immersed in time's
darkest, most sinister stretch during Mireille and Kirika's hunt across the city for the false Noir. A
moonless sky enclosed the assassins in a black dome above, the few visible weakly twinkling stars
hanging overhead ineffectually trying to shine through a thick spattering of murky charcoal cloud cover
that seemingly absorbed their light with ease; the dark scoring dominance over its counterpart, a result so
reminiscent of real life. On the street below the one-sided struggle where Mireille and Kirika stood
unbroken quiet reigned; there were no faint whooshes of the occasional car travelling down a distant
road, no muted calls of late-night revellers leaving dance clubs finally closing their doors, nor was there
even the repeated chirps of nocturnal insects to break the hush. It was just the quiet--the silence--as if
there wasn't another soul alive in the world bar the two young women, the dead of night living up to its
name.

The already low temperature had dropped too as the hour had progressed, the air degenerating from a
mere unpleasant chilly that cooled the skin to a biting icy that threatened to numb it. Frozen hands akin to
those of a corpse stroked swirling patterns across Mireille's bare midriff, teasing goose bumps into
puckering as they passed. The muscles of her stomach stiffened at the touch of the freezing winds turned
caresses, but she didn't let them bother her, not even making the slightest move to close her gently
flapping coat around her body to attain extra warmth. It was cold like the inside of a meat locker, cold like
a morgue… but it was just another distraction to Mireille that she easily ignored, and a minor distraction at
that. In truth she thought the grim atmosphere and the frosty temperature along with it rather appropriate
considering what had taken place thus far this night, and considering what was about to. All that was
missing were the wisps of roiling fog hovering over the road in front of her and Kirika before a classic
gritty backdrop of a film noir would come to life.

Mireille smiled, a smile as cold as her surroundings. A film noir. How appropriate indeed. The black skies,
the quiet, still ambiance, the freezing air--they were the perfect conditions, the perfect setting for one of
those types of movies. And Mireille and Kirika were the perfect if somewhat atypical protagonists, both
poised for what looked to be the climatic scene where they met their nemeses at last for the final, decisive
confrontation that spelled certain doom for one side. They were the lone executioners out for themselves,
symbolising Death itself--Death in two halves--coming, coming to claim their detested adversaries in a hail
of bullets. And now after stalking the gloomy nighttime streets in dogged pursuit of their prey, cardboard
cutout bad guys dead by the dozen behind them, they had arrived at their final destination for the
supposed ultimate showdown. At the end of the trail. At the end of their involvement with Soldats.
Tomorrow this… divergence… from Mireille and Kirika's prior lifestyle would be merely an unpleasant
memory, one to be forgotten, disregarded as if it had never happened. It would be a happy ending for
them, a moderately rare thing in a film noir. Still, those endings did sometimes occur where the antiheros
somehow despite their dark existences found peace and contentment, much like when Mireille and Kirika
had found it following the shootout at the Manor. Those protagonists, however, customarily paid for their
joy in the blood of others, but seldom was that blood innocent, just like in this instance. For freedom from
the machinations of Soldats, for a life of relative solitude with her partner, Kirika, Mireille saw the deaths
of two more murderers on top of countless others already slain by their hands as a cheap price she was
gladly willing to pay. Ryosuke Ishinomori and Vincent Hsu would be dead by dawn; she swore it. The
vendetta she had against them for being partly responsible for dragging her and Kirika back onto the
black path would be satisfied in the only way it could be--with violence and bloodshed resulting in death.
Their deaths.

The deserted street where Mireille and Kirika were situated in was dimly lit by old, black cast-iron
lampposts lining either side of the road, their circles of light spread out a foot or two apart from each other
with shadows filling in the gaps. It was there in those shadows that the pair of assassins lurked,
scrutinising the building on the opposite side of the street with calculating eyes.

The contact Mireille had phoned whilst departing Simon's decrepit abode hadn't appreciated the very
early wake-up call or being dragged out of bed, but nevertheless had dug up the address for 'Albert
Laroque' within twenty minutes… although the time could have been shortened if she'd forgone grumbling
about the hour during the first five minutes of their conversation. From the slums to the suburbs Mireille
and Kirika had then journeyed, the acquired address pointing to a residence in an upper-class and quite
exclusive district of Paris, a welcome change from the capitol's less than savoury locales. Yet while the
potential threat from the common hoodlum was greatly reduced in such an environment, there were other
dangers to watch out for. In Mireille's experience the exceptionally rich regularly saw themselves as a
superior breed than others, haughtily believing that they were above the perceived 'lower caste' of people
and the laws that governed them. Hence, they sometimes liked to make their own rules--if any--with their
hired security guards who safeguarded their assets and persons--who tended to be little more than
semi-straight gangsters with dubious morals oft cases--partial to shooting first and asking questions later,
secure in the knowledge that their wealthy and typically influential employer would deflect the ensuing flak
from the authorities a lead-filled body would bring. Justice blinded for a Euro or two. Mireille wasn't
criticising the last fact, however--far from it. She herself had paid off more than one law enforcement
official to look the other way in her lifetime, and would do it again without a second thought if called for.
Like those affluent members of high society with superiority complexes, she was rather thankful that the
law was only as strong as the people who upheld it. But the difference was Mireille never forgot that she
wasn't above it. Regardless of what one believed of the law, at the end of the day it would still judge your
actions all the same… if you were caught, that is.

However, by the looks of the mansion Mireille and Kirika were currently scoping out there were no
aforementioned sentries to contend with. True, it was one of the largest houses--or rather, estates--in the
district, but not a guard was in sight. The Corsican expected the nightshift to be smaller than the dayshift,
but she at least thought a doorman of sorts would be by the front gate entrance even at this late hour.
She had her suspicions as to why this was of course, ranging from the absent guard simply answering a
call of nature to him or her having been brutally slain--the top choice for the moment, taking into account
that Ryosuke and Vincent apparently had an interest in this particular property--yet none she wished to
accept as concrete without further investigation. For all she knew the guard watched over his post from a
distance, maybe even from an elevated position with a high-powered rifle. *That* would be a nasty
surprise. One could never be too cautious in this business; your life was on the line, after all; your most
precious possession.

Well, in *theory* your most precious possession, Mireille amended with a sardonic smirk as her eyes
darted surreptitiously to her diminutive colleague beside her. The blonde naturally held her own life in
high regard, but if she had to choose between it and Kirika's, the subject became… hazy. Sure, Mireille
wanted to live for as long as possible--who didn't?--but if it came at the cost of her partner's continued
existence….

Mireille closed her eyes for a second, and when she opened them again they had returned to the
mansion. Her growing sentimentality was going to get her killed someday, her brush with death or at least
severe bodily harm at the Metro station a few days ago a forewarning of the potential catastrophe
awaiting her. She was grimly aware that there was barely if any room for it in the life of a killer… not that
she had the slightest inclination to curb it at all in spite of that understanding. Love. Mireille wondered if it
were really a blessing and not a curse instead. But whatever it was, she knew she couldn't be without it,
or specifically not without Kirika's love. The woman's heart had a taste for it now; it was used to its
warmth. For it to be cast back into the cold… Mireille doubted whether it would survive the shock intact.

Mireille marshalled her straying mind's faculties back to her pressing task, focusing her attention on the
place she and her partner would likely be infiltrating in a few minutes. Looking at the building and its
surrounding land, she was sure she and Kirika had the right Albert Laroque. When in doubt, always follow
the money and the bigwig who had it. Usually they had links--be they direct or indirect--to some nefarious
activity or activities. Petty drug infractions, hardcore arms dealing--essentially anything that made them
wealthier or provided illicit pleasure. Or both. In addition Mireille didn't believe individuals like Ryosuke
and Vincent would have business with Albert Laroque the grocer who lived a boring life in a duplex with
his wife and two children. It was common sense. Whatever the false Noir's reasons for visiting Laroque's
estate, it had to be on the shady side, possibly with murderous ambition. The blonde couldn't fathom a
mundane cause for them to do so, especially since they had gone so far as to kill Simon and everyone
who had been with him at the time in his basement, all in an effort to cover their tracks. Ryosuke and
Vincent were foreigners in an unfamiliar country; what other grounds could there be but on a business
affair?

Laroque's estate was quite vast, spanning at least two hundred square metres. A three foot high light grey
brick wall enclosed the compound, with a sturdy fence of jet black iron bars capped with wicked
arrowheads protruding at least seven feet out of its top face, their motif not unlike the nearby lampposts'
in the street. A lawn of well kept, lush, dark green grass covered most of the estate's interior, with a
handful of neatly arranged circular flowerbeds sprinkled here and there in a orderly fashion creating the
illusion that the house it surrounded was a chateau in the countryside rather than a mansion in the city.
Most of the flowering plants inside the beds had ceased to bloom however, the close onset of winter to
blame for their now barren look. Nevertheless, the conifers present still thrived, the small ones on the
edge of the flowerbeds and the tall ones bordering the outside of the estate's unfriendly fence as green as
ever. Yet without the bright colours of flourishing blossoms the interior of the estate with its gardens
appeared dull, dreary, all greys and greens and blacks. Of course it was nighttime, but Mireille suspected
that even in the day light hours it would seem bleak, perhaps even bleaker.

A gravel road of slate-grey stone chips lit by flanking short bollard lamps extended out from the main gate
and merged into a small roundabout in front of the mansion, another flowerbed--although larger--filling its
centre. The two-storey house itself sat approximately in the heart of the grounds, constructed of the same
hefty and aged bricks as the estate's wall. It was difficult for Mireille to make out fine details through the
murk of the night, but she did note that the building was designed in the classic old-fashioned style
reminiscent of many a rural land manor of yesteryear, its sole exceptions its windows which had been
modernised--framed in white they were, and tall and slender, plus arched at their zenith--and the inclusion
of a garage beside the right side of house, likely the abode of numerous luxury cars.

No lights shone from the expansive house; it was drenched utterly in darkness, for all intents and
purposes asleep for the night. It was the ideal time for guests disinclined to announce themselves to visit,
guests like Ryosuke and Vincent… and guests like Mireille and Kirika. The false Noir were probably
flitting through the mansion's gloomy corridors like malevolent spectres at this very moment if the
Corsican and her partner had gotten their facts right, but soon two more spirits would join them in their
haunt, spirits who rattled no chains nor wailed their presence. While houses slumbered, the silent ghosts
reigned supreme.

Plumes of mist fleetingly clouded the air in front of Mireille's face with her every breath--as soft as those
breaths were--and the cold of the dead night was beginning to permeate to her very bones. She clenched
and then unclenched her fists slowly, her ten fingers turned ten icicles aching as fresh hot blood was
pumped into the numbed flesh. She and Kirika had tarried long enough in this winter's chill. Rubbing out
their two distorted mirror images should serve to warm them up nicely.

Mireille turned away from the sight of Laroque's residence to Kirika, for one to inform her that they were to
venture inside the estate's grounds momentarily, and for another because she was curious as to how her
petite and lightly clad partner was coping with the cold so far. Kirika's arms and legs were completely bare
owing to her sleeveless top and short skirt; an average girl of her slight build would be practically
shivering and chattering her teeth by now. Yet, as Mireille had predicted from observing her on numerous
other frosty nights, her diminutive but consummate partner in the business of dealing death didn't appear
to be affected by the wintry weather at all. Kirika stood perfectly at ease on the pavement beside Mireille,
her doe eyes glued to Laroque's estate as she carefully scrutinised the environment, totally unfazed by
her bitter cold surroundings. Even her warm breath was virtually non-existent in the frosty air, hardly a
wisp forming in spite of the considerable difference in temperature between the two.
Mireille wondered if Kirika intentionally suppressed her breathing as an act of stealth, or if it was an
unconscious act that had been drilled into her during her less than cheerful childhood. Probably the latter;
Kirika's entire childhood was sadly a tragic tale of abuse. Mireille's own childhood wasn't exactly a model
for others to admire either, what with losing her parents and brother and having to abandon her home at a
young age, but compared to her partner's it had been pure bliss. At least the blonde had had her uncle to
look after and love her, but Kirika had had no one but Altena and her combat instructors who were
doubtless not disposed to bestowing affection upon their charges.

Perhaps it was of no wonder then that the girl had fallen head over heels in love with Mireille. The woman
was the only real person to ever show her even a shred of warmth, and considering that that warmth
hadn't been that warm at all in the beginning was a testament to the extent of the maltreatment the young
assassin had endured. Kirika herself had told Mireille in her farewell letter that she had been incredibly
lonely until she had met her, that she had been relieved and excited when she had learned that Noir was
a name for a pair of assassins. Indeed, it should be of no surprise that Kirika clung to the Corsican so
fervently, and that she held her in such high esteem--Mireille's love was the first and only love Kirika had
ever known. Such weighty responsibilities the girl put on the blonde's shoulders. Still, Mireille wouldn't
have anyone else bear them. She cherished those responsibilities, and felt proud that she had been
chosen to carry them… if a little nervous as well. Regardless, she would endeavour to be a first love
worthy of Kirika, and one entitled to remain the only. Mireille would do her best to imbue the remainder of
Kirika's life with the love that had been missing from her childhood, and in doing so perhaps make up for
the past years of cruel mistreatment. Heaven knows the girl had earned it.

On a sudden and irresistible whim, either brought on by her prior introspective thoughts, simply to get
Kirika's attention, or a combination of both, Mireille reached out and stroked the back of one finger down
her partner's left upper arm, and learned that while the cold didn't seem to touch her mind, it did clearly
touch her body. Kirika's skin was as chilled as Mireille's was, and a field of tiny goose bumps prickled the
Corsican's finger as it proceeded towards the darkhaired girl's elbow.

Mireille smiled faintly at the ticklish sensation as her eyes followed her finger's gentle course. So Kirika
was human after all. And the poor girl was as cold as she was, even if the stoic assassin didn't
acknowledge it.

Kirika gave a start as soon as the woman made contact with her arm, and immediately turned her head to
favour her with a quizzical look. Mireille merely continued to smile that fond smile however, undeterred by
the expression and more importantly by the realisation of just what she was doing. Only a scant couple of
days earlier she would have been quite uncomfortable touching Kirika in such a manner, no matter how
innocuous a brush on the arm was. But while she still she had to restrain herself from pulling back her
hand as if she was doing something improper, it was a fight easily won. Kirika needed the attention,
needed the affection. She needed the love--Mireille's love. Yet Mireille couldn't help questioning her own
motives. True, she wished to no longer neglect her other half and prove to the girl that she cared for her,
but… but it wasn't only Kirika's desires she was satisfying.

Mireille was… attracted to Kirika. Goodness knows the lithe assassin was vastly skilled in the art of
murder, far surpassing the Corsican's own ability, but she was also… well, put frankly, a very adorable
girl. Mireille had tried not to acknowledge the fact, tried to distance herself from Kirika the person and
simply view her partner as Kirika the assassin, but that was one battle she had slowly lost, and, in
retrospect, had been bound to lose. She loved the girl with all her heart, and with that love came the
longing to express it. Physically… intimately.

If Mireille looked at it rationally she knew it was a natural thing, a natural progression of a blossoming
romantic relationship… but unfortunately when it involved Kirika the rational part of her mind rarely was
given voice. It had taken Mireille a while to realise--or perhaps more correctly, decisively address--the
genuine root of her… hesitation, the woman supposed one could call it, to touch Kirika affectionately, but
it was all too clear to her now. It was funny how after all the arguably appalling things she had done as a
killer for hire, taking the last remaining innocence of a teenage girl would give her pause. However, it
wasn't as if Mireille was without morals or compassion. A killer she may be, but she was still a human
being regardless of what anybody else thought. Kirika had been thrust into a life that few her age had
been--or should be--subjected to, a life where innocence died a swift death. The things she had seen, the
things she had done; all had stripped her of what it meant to be a child, stripped her almost bare of her
innocence. Yet against all odds, a surprising amount of Kirika's naivety had survived the abuse, mostly
attributable to her lack of schooling on everyday subjects and also undoubtedly to her self-preserving
choice to repress the ghastly events of the past though the birthing of a second persona. Included in that
subsisting naivety was her innocence regarding love, or rather the physical aspects of it. At least Kirika
had that much of her innocence left, a fact that Mireille was exceedingly thankful for. In that regard she
was untouched, pure and--the blonde was absolutely certain--virginal.

However, this posed as equal a joy as a predicament for Mireille. Part of the woman wanted to keep
Kirika the way she was now forever--cute and clueless--but another simply *wanted* her. Mireille ached to
touch Kirika, to hug her and kiss her as a lover would; it had been that yearning which had prompted her
to caress the oblivious girl during her sleep, the only time she'd had the courage to do so. Pathetic she
knew, but she just couldn't help feeling that her desire was wrong. In the slightest touch she read a carnal
craving lurking behind it, regardless of her true intent. Kirika was just so… so… so *innocent* in that
respect; it was like she was taking advantage of her youthful partner. Mireille didn't think she even knew
what a lesbian was!

Still, in spite of her reluctance to touch Kirika, Mireille was deeply aware it couldn't be avoided, regardless
of what she wanted to do. Kirika needed her love, and she would have it. All of it. What that entailed
exactly the Corsican didn't quite know yet, but the one thing she did know was not to push their
relationship forwards with a heavy hand. Kirika was emotionally fragile in certain respects including this
one--as most people were Mireille supposed--and she had to be treated like a fine china doll. Moreover,
Mireille herself wasn't exactly keen to rush things either. Truth be told she was still finding her feet in all of
this, the woman nearly as inexperienced as Kirika in the matters of the heart. Nevertheless, they would
find their way. Together.

Mireille casually let her hand drop when her finger reached halfway down Kirika's arm, and then raised
her eyes to make contact with her curious partner's. "It's quiet," she said, casting her gaze back to the
mansion for a moment and electing to not respond to the introverted girl's questioning countenance.

"Mm," Kirika agreed, enticed into looking back at Laroque's house briefly by Mireille's like action and in
turn apparently forgetting about Mireille's stroking finger, just as the crafty blonde had planned.

"Then why don't we get out of this cold, hmm?" Mireille suggested in a light voice, her smile broadening a
little and becoming a shade encouraging.

"Mm," Kirika mumbled again with a nod, although no smile brightened her face. Not that Mireille had
expected one to appear. Killing people was nothing to smile about, not to Kirika at any rate. Maybe
Mireille had overlooked a small piece of another innocence still alive in the girl. Sympathy for her victims
was something that had died long ago inside the Corsican assassin--if it had ever been there at all--yet it
seemed to still endure inside her kind-hearted partner. At one point in time Mireille had looked upon Kirika
as something akin to a monster, but sometimes she wondered whom the real so-called 'monster' was
between them; the born and bred assassin with a warm heart, or the assassin born of circumstance with
a cold one.

Without further ado Mireille and Kirika stepped off the footpath and crossed the brightly lit street, their
heads warily turning both left and right as they checked to make sure it was empty, more to ensure that
no one was around to espy their impending actions rather than to certify that the road was safe to
traverse. They approached the estate's front gate--the sole entrance to the compound--as nonchalantly
as possible, simply two people out for a late night--if freezing--stroll. Mireille felt edgy under the glare of
the streetlights like an insect under a microscope, vulnerable and in the open, at the mercy of those
beyond the lights. The shadows of the world were where she felt most comfortable, where she belonged.

Unluckily the road wasn't the only place that was illuminated; the estate's gate was situated in just the
right spot to be flooded from all sides by the light from the streetlamps, and if that wasn't enough it even
had its own lights shaped like box lanterns mounted on the front face of both pillars where the gate's
hinges were affixed. Mireille so disliked operating out from under the cover of darkness, especially during
nighttime assignments when a figure darting through pools of light in otherwise murk was all the more
noticeable. However, while the abundance of light revealed the woman and her partner's presence to
anybody who cared to look their way, it did also serve to reveal to the pair that something ahead was
amiss.

Mireille and Kirika stopped in unison before the gate, blue and brown eyes drawn to the stone pillar on its
right. Concealed amongst some thick foliage draping over the sides of a plant pot that was sitting atop the
rectangular column was a twisted shaft of metal, the remains of a strut. And on the ground below it was
the device it had been tasked with holding up--a small security camera, one designed for discrete
surveillance. Except that this camera had been crushed into a lump of barely recognisable black plastic
and grey steel, as if--judging by its ruined prop--it had been torn violently from its perch and then
scrunched into a ball like nothing more than a piece of scrap paper, before being unceremoniously
discarded to the ground.

"Mireille," Kirika said softly, attracting the blonde's attention.

Mireille turned to Kirika and saw the girl gesture with a crooked finger at a row of tall conifers lining the
fence on the right hand side of the front gate. At first the Corsican was puzzled at what was so interesting
about a string of bushes, that was until she noticed the slumped figure lying obscured in the shadows
behind their broad branches. She approached the still form, and after gingerly pulling back the springy
plant life hiding it, saw that it was of a man dressed in a dark suit with a noticeable bulge where his full
gun holster rested on his ribs; the uniform of an expensive hired guard. He lay on his side with his back
against the wall enclosing the estate, and was clearly quite dead. With the conifers out of the way the light
from the nearby streetlamps rushed to conquer the newly uncovered terrain, and consequently exposed
the dreadful trauma the man's body had sustained, giving support to the aforementioned belief.

The guard's torso was covered in still wet blood that glistened dully in the light, the result of what Mireille
believed to be numerous stab wounds if the slit-like rips in his shirt and suit jacket were anything to go by.
However, there was also a very thin, dark red line across his throat from ear to ear coupled with some
surrounding bruising, plus his tongue was lolling obscenely out of his mouth, like he had been strangled.
Mireille was familiar with the latter injuries; it was the product of a swift and brutal garrotting with a fine
instrument, probably a razor sharp wire of some sort possessing a high degree of tensile strength. Not the
most pleasant fashion in which to leave this world.

The ultimate cause of the ill-fated sentry's demise was anybody's guess, however, even the murderers'.
The stabs seemed nasty and surely had struck several vital organs--by the looks of it, predominantly the
heart and lungs, the prime targets to instil a definite death by knifing against one's victim--and the blood
loss was tremendous, but the garrotting appeared to have cut deep and perhaps had severed the man's
windpipe on top of strangling him. Death had come for this man along four different routes, but all equally
as deadly; he had never even stood a hair's breadth of a chance. Ryosuke and Vincent certainly were
efficient--if vicious--killers. But then in this business there was little distinction separating the two.

"I guess this means we have the right address," Mireille commented dryly as she allowed the conifers to
snap back into place, before turning back to Kirika. By the damp appearance of the blood the blonde
could tell that the guard's wounds hadn't been dished out too long ago. It confirmed that their targets were
still in the area, or to be more precise, in Laroque's manor. Fortunately Mireille and Kirika had not arrived
here too late.

"Mm…" Kirika murmured, her eyes flicking to the mansion for a moment before returning to the Corsican.

Mireille's gaze found the mangled wreck of the surveillance camera once again, a light frown on her brow.
It was strange that no one had come to investigate the sudden and ferocious destruction of the camera,
nor the disappearance of the estate's forefront guard. There had to be a manned security station
somewhere on the grounds or in the mansion itself if there was a camera; it would be rather pointless if
nobody was watching the monitor it was linked up to otherwise. And as for the guard, while Ryosuke and
Vincent may have dispatched him in a silent manner to not immediately alert his comrades in the vicinity,
one of the other sentries must have eventually noticed that he was missing from his post for a worrying
length of time.

Whatever the reason for the apparent lack of response, it was evident that security for Laroque's estate
was fairly tight--lax response times notwithstanding--but really no greater than one could envisage for
your average affluent and mistrustful family's posh home. A team of armed guards and a network of
cameras were nothing Mireille hadn't encountered before, nor easily overcome without breaking a sweat.
Guards could be avoided, misled with distraction, bribed, sweet-talked, knocked quietly unconscious, or
just killed outright; and as for cameras their fields of view could simply be evaded until the individuals
staffing the contraptions' other ends were taken care of. A security camera without human eyes behind its
electronic one was merely an empty threat, a maimed tool. Nevertheless, that electronic eye did tend to
have an infallible memory as a cohort, but of course that was switched off or forcibly purged if necessary
after the cameras' operators had been similarly contended with, although perhaps in a more permanent
fashion than the machines.

Mireille had seen it all; coded keypads, infrared alarm lasers, retina scans. And regardless of how
complex a security system was there was always a way to bypass, or better yet disarm it, as the blonde
had discovered during the course of her chosen vocation. With the knowledge she had gained she could
make quite the tidy profit as a cat burglar if she were so disposed to a career change. Being a
professional *and* an adept contract killer incorporated most if not all of the skills of a thief and a spy put
together. Breaking and entering, the art of disguise, subterfuge and misdirection--if one wished to be a
truly consummate assassin then these talents and more like them were required to be added to one's
repertoire. After all, assassination targets were prone to surround themselves with a great deal of
protection. Seldom a sniper rifle on a rooftop or at an open window was sufficient; it was the reason why
such a method was labelled as amateurish.

Mireille lifted her head from the smashed camera and walked a few steps to the left side of the gate,
before looking back over her shoulder at Kirika, the soft curve of a small, almost playful smile once more
on her lips. "Let's tread lightly and keep the noise level to a whisper, okay?" she instructed with a
light-hearted lilt. The woman turned around fully, and then drew her loaded Walther P99 from its holster,
her left hand retrieving its companion piece--a silencer--from under her coat a moment later. "People who
have their sleep disturbed do have a propensity to wake up cranky," Mireille went on as she securely
attached the silencer to the end of her pistol. "And noisy late night callers are apt to invite considerably
greater ire from them." She hoisted her gun upright in her hand and arched an expectant eyebrow at her
counterpart.

"Understood," Kirika said, grasping the hint. She abided by her partner's 'suggestion' and pulled out her
Beretta from her skirt's waistband behind her back, a silencer following from under the garment that was
quickly fastened to the weapon.

Mireille nodded in approval, and then turned her head back to the gate. The black iron wrought structure
was blessedly unlocked and even a tad ajar, meaning that she and Kirika didn't have to scale its tall bars
to gain entry. It wouldn't have been especially difficult for the nimble duo, but two young women climbing
over ten foot spiked rails in the middle of the night while haloed by the light of streetlamps wasn't exactly
subtle and was better to be steered clear of. However, Ryosuke and Vincent had obviously already
breached Laroque's security and had had the--albeit unintentional--courtesy to leave their access route
open. It should simply be a matter of tracing the false Noir's footsteps until Mireille and Kirika caught up to
them, the majority of the dangers having been already neutralised by tonight's first intruders into the
estate. Or so the blonde hoped. Judging by the aggressively trounced security measures at the front gate,
Ryosuke and Vincent were not loath to use lethal force against anything that stood in their path. Mireille
trusted that they had continued in the same fierce style throughout their infiltration.

"With any luck those two will have cleared the entire way for us," Mireille remarked, voicing her thoughts
for Kirika's benefit, even though she was certain the darkhaired girl had parallel hopes. But there was no
harm in sharing one's feelings, particularly when on an assignment of sorts… and particularly these days,
when Mireille was championing open and frequent communication between herself and her reticent
partner. True, they had their own unique manner of conversing during 'business hours'; an instinctive one
that was far beyond the level of mundane verbal communication, but when it came to personal feelings
after hours they were both clearly inept at expressing themselves. It was Mireille's aspiration that that
would change soon, but until then in her view every little bit helped.

Kirika merely mumbled her concurrence in her traditional fashion, but then Mireille hadn't expected much
more. Change didn't happen overnight, even during a long night like this one.

Mireille slipped through the open gate and inside the compound--her introverted partner in tow--and
instantly deviated from the illuminated gravel path leading to the mansion and onto the pitch-black section
of lawn on her left instead, glad to be out of the light that laid her bare and back in the safety of the
shadows' shroud. She then paused there in the murk, crouched low in the dewy grass with Kirika next to
her, the pair delaying their approach for a few seconds to give their eyes time to adjust to the darkness.

As Mireille's night vision gradually kicked in, she slowly made out a handful of dark shapes scattered
haphazardly across the grounds, predominantly in the left expanse where she and Kirika presently were.
It didn't take the assassin long to realise that the silhouettes were in fact the bodies of more guards, put to
death as Ryosuke and Vincent had stormed through. There had to be greater than half a dozen dead
men lying about under the cloudy night's sky, their final resting place looking like the spot where they had
originally fallen. No effort at all had seemingly been made on the false Noir's part to drag the carcasses
into a secluded corner of the estate and suitably hide the evidence of their incursion. It was an act of
either sloppiness or arrogance, but Mireille already knew the answer to that one. It would seem that
Ryosuke and Vincent held nothing save contempt for their victims, impending and otherwise. In any case,
the blonde now understood that people *had* been sent to investigate the abandoned front gate, it was
just that none of them had lasted the distance there. Ryosuke and his partner had evidently utilised the
pall of darkness covering the compound to their extreme advantage and systemically slaughtered them all
on a first come, first kill basis. Mireille doubted whether any of the sentries had even seen their end
coming.

The trail of corpses was a beneficial if macabre sight to Mireille, sketching an even clearer path for her
and Kirika to follow. And follow it they did without a sound and at a swift pace, their pistols ready to be
brought to bear against any surviving guard who made an unexpected appearance and threatened to
compromise their stealthy infiltration. Mireille was a bit concerned about the presence of dogs on the
premises as well, but thankfully there appeared to be no troublesome and generally vicious canines
wandering around, or else they were tied up in their kennels somewhere, snoozing away like their owners
in the mansion. Guard dogs were harder to deal with than their human counterparts; they had the habit of
sniffing out a trespasser regardless of where she or he secreted themselves. The animals couldn't be
reasoned with like human beings either; money and sex appeal counted for squat, and they held
unwavering faith in their noses and instincts to not be deterred by misdirection… well, unless that
misdirection involved masking one's scent, which was tricky to do and more bother than it was worth.
Mireille found it much simpler to just shoot any inquisitive dog that detected her scent and wandered too
close, then subsequently their handler a split second later depending on their proximity. A lost mutt was
written off with significantly less concern than an actual person.

The disjointed, gruesome trail of limp-limbed bodies led to the west wing of Laroque's residence, and
vanished around a corner of the building. Mireille and Kirika stuck close to the manor as they traced after
it, the barren flowerbeds bordering its outer walls as much space as they would allow between them. Up
this close the blonde assassin could see that a layer of moss or lichen coated the lower bricks of the
house, while a thick covering of ivy and other viny plant life climbed trellises fastened to the walls, their
tendrils stretching all the way to the second floor windows and if left to grow unchecked could very
possibly reach the gutters if not the roof proper. If Mireille and Kirika had wished to they could probably
use the trellises as a ladder and enter the mansion via an upper floor window. Although they didn't, it was
still worthwhile to make note of--if they required a quick escape route while on the second level they could
always clamber down the side of the house with relative ease and speed.

The two female assassins rounded the corner cautiously, wary of possible threats, before immediately
discovering a set of steps that led to a side entrance to the manor, a couple of trashcans neighbouring it.
As they moved closer they saw that the alternate entrance's door was wide open, but with only more
darkness spilling outside. Ryosuke and Vincent had no doubt entered Laroque's house through there.

Mireille and Kirika placed their backs to the mansion's wall, heedless of the flowerbeds now, before
edging nearer to the side entrance, the Corsican at the point as usual. She poked her blonde head
carefully into the doorway and took quick stock of the interior, her sharp gaze darting this way and that,
covering all angles. The doorway opened into a kitchen as old-fashioned as the exterior of the house, but
it appeared well equipped with the occasional modern appliance discreetly positioned in amongst the
outdated here and there, and was also in immaculate condition--Laroque must have hired hands, Mireille
surmised. There wasn't a single bloodied corpse sullying the floor either, which did work to the spotless
room's advantage. Dead bodies did have a tendency to spoil any décor.

The coast clear, Mireille signalled to Kirika that it was safe to proceed with a brusque wave of her hand,
and then after bounding atop the uppermost step slinked inside the kitchen, her Walther's sight focusing
on an open doorway ahead while she favoured a closed one to her left with a watchful eye. Kirika tagged
along behind the woman, her own gaze momentarily zipping all over the room as she took in her new
surroundings. It then finally settled on the hallway viewable through the open door in front of them, where
Ryosuke and Vincent's unsightly trail resumed with gory grandeur.

If Laroque did have hired hands, then his maids were definitely going to have an unpleasant time cleaning
the halls in the morning. Mireille's blue eyes left the closed door alone and moved back to the open
doorway to join Kirika's, where she had noted during her first perusal of the kitchen that yet more guards
lay massacred in an adjoining short corridor that terminated at a shut door, a corridor which also crossed
perpendicularly with a second. Pale, diffused light produced from an unknown source shone from the
latter hall's left and muted though it was, it was just enough to permit the woman and her colleague to
distinguish the passages' deceased inhabitants in superior detail than they had with the sentries' likewise
departed fellows outside, the corpses' faces being painted an eerie and appropriate deathly white.

Men in suits were sprawled on the floor and slouched against the walls in all manner of arrangements,
and large amounts of their blood soaked the luxuriant carpeting with dark stains and not to mention their
once clean and crisp clothing as well. As Mireille and Kirika crept into the corridor ahead of them and to
the intersection with all due prudence, they saw that the grievous injuries inflicted upon the guards were
the cause of such major haemorrhaging. Their wounds were chiefly localised to the neck and throat
areas, and the Corsican observed that there was evidence of the garrotting she had seen on the guard at
the gate on a few of the luckless men. Others had had their throats slit or stabbed with savage intensity,
their arteries ruptured and the slash or thrust deep, oft cases to the bone. A couple of sentries even had
their heads bent at nauseatingly odd angles, their necks obviously broken, likely with sheer brute force--a
simple but rather inelegant method of killing that was beyond Mireille's own physical capability, not that
she would be one to adopt the crude technique. There was also the sporadic guard who had received
punctures with a blade to their back instead of their throat, with the noticeable intent to pierce a lung
considering where it had been plunged. Not a single gunshot wound was to be seen, although there were
a few handguns strewn about, the dropped firearms of the sentries who had managed to pull their
weapons from their holsters before meeting the Reaper.

All in all, the carnage wrought along each of the two hallways was an impressive feat for what it was--so
many slain without an apparent alarm being raised or even a retaliatory shot fired. Mireille deduced that
by concentrating their attacks to the throat and neck, Ryosuke and Vincent had prevented their quarries
from screaming or from making the slightest sound above a liquid gurgle, and hence thwarted the stricken
guards from warning their comrades. The blows to the lungs had probably created a similar affect; as
soon as air from the outside had invaded the breached organs merely continuing to breath would have
been more than enough challenge for the victim. Still, it must have been very hard for the false Noir to
actually inflict the silencing wounds to each guard before he could cry out, especially if more than one
were alerted to their presence at the time. Ryosuke and Vincent had surely butchered the men with a
speed and efficiency on par with Kirika's. A false Noir they may be, but it would seem that they did have
the skill to merit the title. However, Mireille was not concerned. It wasn't as if she and Kirika were
pushovers. And, after all, they had been the true Noir. A copy could never surpass the original, and an
imitation had even less of a chance.

The hallways themselves where Ryosuke and Vincent's achievements were put on grisly display were in
the same vein as the kitchen and the mansion's exterior; an archaic motif straight out of the eighteenth
and early nineteenth centuries. It was as if Mireille and Kirika had stumbled back in time somehow and
right into a traditional manor house of that antiquated period. Oil paintings of people dressed in the
customary attire of the past hundred to two hundred years hung on the walls together with
correspondingly styled renditions of landscapes of Europe long ago lost to modernisation. Placed
intermittently along the length of the hallway's walls were ornaments consisting of magnificently crafted
vases and statuettes to name a couple, exhibited on small pedestals befitting the era they stemmed from.

Collectively the value of the objects in the corridors alone had to total in the hundred thousands--a grand
fortune indeed. Any art dealer or thief would be downright ecstatic to get their hands on even one of the
masterpieces Mireille saw; she was sure that the splattered blood marking some of the antiques would
not deter them in the least. And it could probably be cleaned off rather easily, and without so much as a
thought to how it got there given by their new owners. Albert Laroque was unmistakably an exceptionally
rich man, with his security precautions clearly warranted. Maybe Ryosuke and Vincent weren't here for an
assassination at all but in fact to pilfer a few choice artefacts. Mireille didn't honestly believe that, however
it was still a possibility, albeit a slim one. She wouldn't know the false Noir's true intentions for definite
until she actually came across them, and even then perhaps not. Ryosuke and Vincent wouldn't be alive
for very long after the meeting, of course. And the Corsican wasn't the type to grant her targets any last
words.

Mireille stopped in the middle of the crossroads dividing the hallways, Kirika mimicking in accordance to
her older partner's action. The blonde assassin cast her eyes down the left span of corridor, where she
had glimpsed an interesting sight in her initial cursory glance of the area that she had performed before
she and Kirika had risked advancing further. At the end of the corridor was the origin of the pallid light that
streaked weakly into the passage. A door stood wide open there, baring a room that's purpose was
immediately obvious. Inside were a pair of guards--quite dead, naturally--one face down on the floor
bleeding from his throat and the other sitting in a computer chair, his chin on his chest with the rest of his
body just as slack. And in front of that man was a desk with a dozen television monitors stacked atop one
another in three rows, no doubt the control centre for the security camera network set up around the
manor. The equipment looked out of place in a house that was a tribute to the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries; a cubbyhole of modern technology in an antiquated world. However, the technology at the
moment was about as effective as it would have been if utilised in that old era. All the monitors' screens
displayed a noiseless snowstorm at night, black and white static in a never-ending tumult. Ryosuke and
Vincent had evidently taken out the surveillance system, and in one fell swoop disabled all the cameras
throughout the estate. It favoured Mireille and Kirika as much as it did their enemies, though; there was
no need to worry about being captured on film whilst tiptoeing around the house.

The trail of bodies the young women had been using to direct them to their prey more or less concluded
at the ghastly scene of mass murder at the corridors' junction, but both assassins espied a faint glow of
light coming from the tiny crack formed between an ajar door and its doorjamb to their right, near the far
end of the longer hallway. Like nighttime insects to a lamppost's light, Mireille and Kirika were attracted to
it, stealing down the passageway towards the door, their pistols suddenly held just a little tighter in their
ready hands.

Ryosuke and Vincent, their distorted reflections--they were near, very near. Mireille could practically feel
it, like some sort of sixth sense; a sensation of inexplicable anticipation, although it was neither exciting
nor uneasy, just… an impression of something up ahead. She was sure Kirika felt the same thing. It was
the innate instincts of an assassin at work, an intuition that similarly forewarned one when an assailant
was just around the corner or an unseen gun sight was being trained on them from afar. Mireille was sure
the foundation of the strange sense was based squarely in logic rather than in some sort of Zen-like
awareness, the feeling doubtless the product of external stimuli ignored by the conscious mind and
instead analysed by the unconscious, such as sights and sounds just on the brink of perception.
Regardless of the feeling's descent, the fact remained that the false Noir was very likely beyond that door;
the Corsican was almost positive that they were. This long night was drawing to its conclusion. The lone
executioners--Death--had arrived; let the final scene of this film noir commence.

Mireille and Kirika halted outside the door, close enough to perceive the intricate wood grain stylised on
its varnished surface. The woman looked at her shorter partner for confirmation that she was prepared,
though it was a superfluous gesture. As soon as her blue eyes locked with Kirika's brown, she knew by
their stanch appearance that the darkhaired girl was ready--she was *always* ready. Though resolute the
young assassin's gaze may be--hard even--it was not cruel or unfeeling in any way. Unwavering
determination is all that existed in the orbs' still depths. Kirika was a girl with a gun and with the full intent
to use it, yet a girl she remained--she had no penchant for murder in spite of the number of lives she had
taken and her aptitude for it. A cold-blooded killer she was not. And never would be, if Mireille had her
way. And never would be… again….

Mireille exhaled calmly and then held her next breath, before she suddenly burst into the room behind the
door, shoving it completely open with her left shoulder as she strafed swiftly inside, bringing up her
Walther in her right hand. Kirika sprung through the doorway a fraction of a second after her, sticking a
metre away from the Corsican's side and brandishing her own firearm. It wasn't a stealthy entrance by
any means, but Mireille had elected to charge in rather than creep inside to maintain the element of
surprise indefinitely. She believed the sneaker approach would have been less effective and potentially
treacherous; Ryosuke and Vincent quite possibly would have heard their entrance--virtually silent as it
would have been--and then Mireille and Kirika's advantage over them would have been forfeit. Perhaps
the woman was overestimating the men's abilities, but to underestimate them would be to invite danger.
Therefore Mireille had decided to simply dash inside the room. It was noisy, but should catch the room's
occupants unawares, regardless of who they were.

Mireille took in the surroundings of the room in a mere instant, but only a small part of her attention was
dedicated to the chore. It was clearly a library or an exceptionally well-resourced study furnished in an
identical theme as the rest of mansion, with ornate shelves packed almost to capacity with countless
books lining the left and right walls from one end nearly completely to the other. A third and fourth set of
shelves equally stocked with texts roosted above their mates on roughly four-foot wide hardwood
balconies, each accessed by a stepladder constructed of the same material. They stood tall enough to
touch the high ceiling of the rectangular library, much like the matching array of shelves below them that
scraped the underside of their perch.

The tomes that made their home in the library were arranged in an orderly fashion on the shelves, not a
speck of dust to be seen coating a single binding, and most if not all were bound in leather covers dyed in
sombre hues; the trappings of classic books or very old ones, likely the second when taking into account
the other rare and priceless items that resided on the premises. Mireille mused whether Laroque had
amassed all these artefacts and ancient texts out of an interest in those fields, and that what she had
been seeing while she and Kirika had traipsed through his house's halls were pieces of his collection. It
would explain the sheer volume of items on display.

A few small round tables with accompanying cosy-looking chairs and a couple of two-seater sofas with
cushions were present in the middle of the room, presumably placed there for readers to avail themselves
of and relax in respectively while pouring over a book penned during a time long ago. There wasn't a
book lying out of place on any of the brilliantly polished and finely crafted tables currently however, the
majority of the tomes nestled away comfortably in their spots on the bookshelves. Yet there were some
glaring gaps in amongst the texts sitting on the many shelves, several of them quite thick suggesting the
removal of a number of books.

The missing tomes were accounted for where the greater bulk of Mireille's attention was focused; past the
room's décor and towards a bulky dark oak desk and red wine coloured leather chair at the far end of the
library, which were situated in front of a huge window made up of a trio of thinner ones with arched white
frames, the central window the tallest of the three. Irregular, jumbled piles of books taken from their
original resting places were assembled on the desk, numerous scattered across it, one or two even
deposited seemingly without a care on the floor. And hunched over the stacks of tomes with their backs to
Mireille and Kirika were two men, both sifting through the literary mess obviously in search of a specific
title. One picked out and examined the contents of individual books with meticulous exactitude, while his
companion rummaged around the heap with contrasting frenetic impetuousness, occasionally tossing
books aside in frustration. The false Noir, Ryosuke Ishinomori and Vincent Hsu, just as Mireille had
predicted.

A lamp on the desk provided illumination for the duo's labours, its light having been what had lured
Mireille and Kirika to their location in the first place. It gently saturated the library in a soft orange glow
akin to the setting sun, the twilight casting elongated shadows on the bookshelves and ceiling, the
silhouettes of Ryosuke and Vincent the tallest of them all. Giant, distorted images of the killers stretched
out from their feet, the limbs spindly and spider-like, warped to otherworldly proportions--more like
monsters than men. Perhaps it was a glimpse into a form of mirror, the dark reflections of corrupt souls.
Mireille wondered what her shadow-self looked like. She didn't check.

At the clamour of Mireille and her partner's dramatic and abrupt entrance, the hitmen immediately ceased
their rummaging, although their subsequent reactions varied in tone rather significantly. Vincent spun
around to face the opposite end of the room and its new occupants a scarce instant after Mireille had
crossed the doorway's threshold, an extended switchblade with an edge of about four inches long gripped
between his bared teeth, and a feral, maniacal grin splitting his features as a result. His amber eyes
matched the ferocity of his grin, burning with a fierce intensity somehow made deeper by the understated
light of the room, reminiscent of how a feline's eyes sparkled in places of low illumination. However, upon
sighting Mireille he blinked, his eyes losing their glint and his grin no longer quite so crazed. Instead
Vincent's expression became nigh on a leer of a lecherous old man… that wasn't that much different from
the previous look, the blonde dryly reconsidered.

Ryosuke on the other hand didn't even bother turning around to greet his foes. He straightened to his full
height and lowered his arms slowly to his sides at Mireille and Kirika's arrival--as if he had all the time in
the world--and settled on merely looking over his right shoulder in the young women's direction, his pale
profile exhibiting an utter calm and composure in spite of being taken by surprise and put at a potentially
deadly disadvantage. There was contempt also; his one visible violet eye smouldering coldly with it
through his white bangs while the thin compaction of his lips wordlessly spoke of distaste at the unwanted
interruption.

Mireille noticed that clasped in Ryosuke's right hand was a length of piano wire, either end fastened to a
black plastic handle. It was the kind of wire used for anything but inside pianos, with it's lightweight and
non-metallic composition making it a handy tool of murder that could pass through metal detectors
uncontested and be carried effortlessly on one's person. If Mireille were ever inclined to take a literal
'hands-on' style to the fundamentals of her job it would most certainly be one of the instruments she
would employ. It appeared that Ryosuke thought on a similar vein to the blonde assassin; it was clear that
he was responsible for the garrotting marks on the throats of the guards seen earlier, and, while on the
subject, that his associate Vincent laid claim to the knife wounds. But as for who snapped the odd sentry's
neck, it could have been either of them. Or even both.

While their responses for the most part differed, one particular thing was mutual amongst both Ryosuke
and Vincent--neither exhibited any trace of fear whatsoever. The fact didn't unnerve Mireille however; it
simply meant that the men were not trifling poseurs like so many other people who inhabited the
underworld. But the woman had known that for quite some time now, ever since she had exchanged fire
with one half of the false Noir in Le Grand Hotel Inter-Continental. Pretenders who merely talked big but
were in reality just small fries would not have been able to accomplish the feats of the kind Ryosuke and
Vincent had. What's more they were supposedly well known in the underbelly of Japan's society and were
allied with Kaede--the sharpest thorn in Soldats' side presently--to boot, with one of the men her brother
no less. With skill came reputation, and Ryosuke and Vincent were not for want in either.
"Caught in the act red-handed," Mireille remarked sardonically in a cool and self-assured voice as she
moved further into the library, repositioning herself to the rear of the mini lounge running down its
centre--a spot better suited to imparting cover in the event of a firefight. Her pistol's sight remained steady
on the immobile Ryosuke's back as she sidestepped carefully away from the room's doorway, Kirika's
Beretta imitating the woman's Walther as she followed the blonde's lead, except that its target was the
man's shorter companion, Vincent, and his chest. "I never knew you two were such avid book lovers that
you would resort to petty burglary."

Mireille had been tempted to simply blaze away with her handgun at Ryosuke and Vincent's defenceless
backs as soon as she had seen them, yet despite that near overpowering compulsion she had somehow
managed to stay her hand… for now. While a scant couple of days earlier this week she would not have
hesitated for even the smallest sliver of a second at blasting several 9mm Parabellum rounds the false
Noir's way, now, after the men's prior behaviour tonight, her curiosity was grudgingly piqued. People had
died, people who had been assets to her trade… as vulgar and trivial as Simon and his associates had
been. Still, Mireille wanted explanations as to why they'd had to give up their lives, and, in relation to that
answer, she was confident she would also learn why the false Noir were more or less ransacking a
well-to-do man's library in suburban Paris. Moreover, she was *not* a mindless tool of Soldats or
Breffort's unquestioningly carrying out their bidding with blinkers on, and nor was Kirika; they both had
their own free will to handle matters as *they* pleased and always would. Desperation to stop the
deterioration of her close relationship with her partner had fuelled the Corsican's passion to slay Ryosuke
and Vincent immediately during their last confrontation, but this time with a more level head on her
shoulders and lighter heart in her chest the woman could regard the situation with a judicious mind. It was
another troubling reminder of why sentimentality had no place amid those who lived by the gun.

Vincent cautiously reached up to his mouth and removed the switchblade from between his teeth, his rich
amber eyes shifting warily from Kirika's raised weapon to Mireille's, knowing that to provoke them with
aggressive movement would cause bullets to fly and people to die--namely him. "If it isn't babe and brat,"
he then drawled with a snide smirk as he lowered his arm with the same earlier degree of prudence, his
broken French dripping with mocking. "Took you long enough. You know your crispy predecessors were
lot better at finding us."

"Perhaps," Mireille replied icily, her expression just as frosty as her tone. But only for an instant. The next
moment her face brightened, easily schooled to cordiality attributable to frequent practice, a faint taunting
smile teasing her lips upwards. "Yet I must say your sloppy handiwork in the shop off Rue de Prony was
most helpful in pointing us in the right direction," she then retorted haughtily to the triad affiliate, although
her eyes stayed firmly on Ryosuke, trusting unconditionally that Kirika had the other man well in hand,
just as the girl likewise trusted that she had the tall hitman restrained.

Out of the corner of her eye Mireille saw an angry sneer flash across Vincent's face before his own
features were disciplined, the demeaning lopsided leer resurfacing. So she had struck a nerve.
Interesting. It appeared that Vincent was indeed a hothead as the Corsican had suspected from his
deeds--or more to the point, from the extent of the butchery inflicted upon his victims--thus far, albeit a
hothead with his temper under tight rein. However, there were always methods to slacken those reins or
even loose them outright, and it appeared that Vincent possibly drew on killing as an outlet for his
rage--the period when he himself let his control wane, voluntarily or not. Small, seemingly inconsequential
details like this on a target had proved useful to Mireille in the past; every facet of a hit's personality
regardless of how minor had the potential to be used against them, be they actual character traits or
behavioural habits. A professional assassin gathered these little gems and utilised them as they could,
turning that late night cigarette break in an alley into a death sentence for their target, one markedly faster
than the sluggish ravages of cancer.

"Soldats…" Ryosuke suddenly uttered in a soft whisper as he tilted his head back towards the ceiling, his
profile taking on a distant look while the lid of his sole visible eye sagged lazily. "Their veins indeed run
deep and long, the very world the body of the beast. Where there is no such thing as coincidence… just
ever watchful eyes." His words, while somewhat cryptic and more than a little poetic were expressed in
perfect, flowing French--a huge improvement over his partner's meagre ability in the language. In addition
they sounded as if they were spoken primarily to himself, the black clad man temporarily oblivious to his
company in the library with him.

Nevertheless, Mireille did not miss Ryosuke's observations on the global, ancient, and secret
organisation. That he--and by association Vincent--had admitted knowing of the existence of Soldats out
loud bestowed extra credibility to the soundness of Breffort's briefing on Kaede and her pseudo Black
Hands that had taken place weeks ago in his office. While it would have been unlikely if Ryosuke and his
counterpart had not been aware of the clandestine group, it was still comforting to know for sure that they
did. One never could tell with Soldats. They weaved deception like a spider weaved a web--intricate and
ensnaring, with escape an extremely difficult if not impossible prospect for the captured fly. But in contrast
to a spider's web, the fly rarely realised when it had been caught in the network of threads. And that was
where the real danger lied, a danger Mireille was all too conscious of.

Vincent favoured Ryosuke with a sidelong look for a fleeting moment before his eyes snapped back to
Mireille and Kirika again, along with the pistols levelled in his and his comrade's direction. "Yeah," he
agreed, although the Corsican assassin didn't believe he truly comprehended the white-haired man's
statements, "and they hire young, too. On top of usual Soldats dogs and now Soldats bitches--as pretty
as they are--" He inclined his head Mireille's way, leering at her wantonly as he licked his upper lip in what
he probably thought to be an enticing manner. However all it enticed was the bitter taste of bile to fill the
back of the blonde's throat. "--We have a cute Soldats puppy!" Vincent snickered and grinned
condescendingly at Kirika, but the stoic--or was that naïve?--girl merely stared back at him blankly,
unaffected by the jibe.

"You'd be surprised at just how young," Mireille said without emotion, her veneer of geniality gone not due
to the barbs--although they didn't best please her, either--but due to the foul memories they invoked. She
knew very well at exactly how young an age Soldats was willing to pluck their recruits from. A childhood
destroyed with the murder of her parents and elder brother, another corrupted by the abhorrent deeds
she was forced to perform--and both children owning their torment and loss of innocence to the twisted
machinations of a heartless woman belonging to the organisation. Oh yes, Mireille was intimately versed
in how low Soldats could sink in the age of choosing their 'followers' and in their morals, if the group even
had any principles of decent merit to start with.

"But despite what you think, we are *not* members of Soldats," Mireille continued with emphatic
insistence, her voice stern and brooking no mistake. She wasn't strictly lying per se; neither she nor Kirika
were part of the society. While it could be said they were working for Breffort, a prominent follower of the
worldwide group, it was by their own decision; Mireille preferred to perceive it as working for themselves,
with their goals happening to coincide with Soldats'. 'Dogs' they were certainly not.

"Oh?" Vincent said with exaggerated curiosity, lifting an inquisitive eyebrow and pulling a face to
complement it. "Then, why you come after us? Besides the obvious…." He winked mischievously at the
beautiful blonde and leered at her yet again, as if some perverted attraction to his ego had brought her
before him and Ryosuke. Sure, Vincent's remarkably good looks could have also been considered as a
lure, but in this case the adage 'beauty is only skin deep' couldn't have been more spot on.

"Why do you think?" Mireille snapped, frowning slightly. A strange sensation of anxiousness started to
creep into the assassin's chest from somewhere deep down below, an unpleasant tingling progressively
flooding the area slowly that seemed to cause it to constrict with increasing tension, as if an invisible hand
were pressing down on her breastbone. "You stole something of ours," she went on undaunted
regardless, ignoring the odd and troubling feeling. "It may not be something we like, or even want, but it's
ours nonetheless." The woman's voice lowered to a grim timbre, a dark cloud passing over her eyes. "It's
a name *earned*, not given, nor taken." Mireille's expression then darkened to mirror her gaze, recalling
her own folly and ignorance in dubbing herself and Kirika as Noir without any genuine knowledge of the
full significance of the name. "And its price…. The Black Hands are called as such for a reason; only
through both parties staining their own black with grievous sins can they be truly worthy of it."
Mireille heard Kirika shift her weight uneasily, a subtle rubbing of a shoe sole on carpet. The girl
understood, perhaps even understanding better than she. A designation earned through violence and
murder, through showing no pity, no remorse. The Eternal Darkness… Mireille mused whether Noir were
christened that because its two halves resided always in shadow, the light having shunned them for their
immoral transgressions. Noir, the Black Hands, the Eternal Darkness… so many names yet all with
identical undertones, identical meanings. It was no wonder Mireille despised the title and its connection to
her and Kirika so much.

Ryosuke and Vincent merely looked at Mireille for a few moments, before the older gangster bowed his
head, his stark white hair hiding his face from view. "I see," he spoke softly and in his native Japanese
tongue, once again his words apparently for his own ears, "so that was her motive. Hmph."

Mireille wasn't sure whether or not Ryosuke was aware she could comprehend every single word he was
murmuring, but she deliberately didn't react to the statement in any way. Feigning ignorance was a typical
and widely used technique of lulling a careless individual into a false sense of security, and consequently
enticing her or him into making a slip-up that could then be employed against them. Furthermore, there
was very little sense in freely giving information to those you didn't trust without receiving anything in
return. 'Take as much as you can and give only what you must'. Wise words to live by… that is, unless
one happened to be involved in a romantic relationship with a cute, but introverted, Japanese girl. But
naturally significant others were exempt from the axiom.

As could be expected, Kirika--Mireille's aforementioned 'significant other'--didn't respond to Ryosuke's
words either, but with her distinctly Japanese features it was a marvel he didn't realise that at least she
understood him. Perhaps the man simply didn't care who heard him, be they friend or foe. It certainly
would fit his profile of being supremely arrogant. At any rate, Mireille wondered whom 'her' was referring
to. Ryosuke's sister, Kaede, perhaps? She was the only female the blonde knew who had links to the
black clad killer.

Ryosuke raised his head, his visible violet eye swinging around to favour Mireille with a piercing Cyclops
glare. "So Noir stands before us," he declared in a louder voice than his previous though without fanfare
of any sort, obviously not very impressed being in the presence of a purported legend. But to Mireille, it
could have been as if he had bellowed the words from a high cliff top. The peculiar anxiousness that had
been steadily building inside her was suddenly recognised as what it really was--dread, and dread well
justified, now. In concert with that insight the tightness in her chest seized her with full force, the unseen
hand on her breastbone a vice-like pressure that she believed was on the verge of crushing her. She felt
queasy, her stomach churning all of a sudden like an ocean assaulted by an unexpected storm, once
calm currents rudely unsettled by its fierce winds.

Ryosuke and Vincent did not know the faces or the real names behind Noir; they never had--until now,
that is. Mireille cursed herself for her foolishness, both past and present. It had been a gamble accepting
Breffort's mission, a gamble whether Ryosuke and Vincent knew her and Kirika, the identities of the
authentic Black Hands. But apparently they had not. It had been a gamble lost, and where the stakes
were high indeed. However, when up against a house of Soldats' like the dice always came up showing
snake eyes--this particular house always won in one form or another. It was a fact Mireille had been
aware of as a result of her prior dealings with the organisation yet had elected to disregard anyway,
letting her fears over her and her partner's quiet life possibly being shattered sometime in the future if
they didn't act to fog her judgement, and in turn allow herself to be manipulated. Sentimentality yet again
to blame, and all evidently unnecessary. Hunting the men who had adopted the ancient title of Noir,
forsaking a life which had up until that point been peaceful ever since the events at the Manor, compelling
a reluctant and emotionally scarred Kirika to take up arms once again--all of this could have been
prevented if the Corsican had simply stuck by her vow to never again be caught up in Soldats affairs,
instead of permitting her heart to overrule her brain. Now that peaceful life was most certainly shattered
by Mireille's own doing, with backing out of Breffort's mission bordering on impossible. She and Kirika
were now forced to see it through to the end, their faces having been revealed and now marked by their
quarry.
Mireille's countenance registered her distress for only a second despite the magnitude of her horrible
realisation, the woman quickly recovering herself although internally she remained perturbed, to put it in
the lightest vein. It was senseless dwelling on something that couldn't be changed… no matter how much
she wished it to. Her and Kirika's assignment was virtually at its conclusion anyway; they had Ryosuke
and Vincent at their mercy. She took solace in that. It would all be over momentarily.

"Noir?" Vincent said in disbelief mixed with derision, looking askance at Mireille and Kirika while he
smirked scornfully. "You mean there is actually a *real* Noir? And *these* two are it? Seriously?" He
talked in rapid-fire but faultless Japanese rather than in the French he frequently mangled, reverting back
to a language he was more accustomed to in his incredulity.

"Of course Noir is real," Ryosuke replied in a bitter cold tone as his dark ringed eye flicked to his partner,
also lapsing back into Japanese. "*She* wouldn't have had us assume the name, otherwise." The tall
hitman's lone visible eye then found Mireille once more, before he at long last turned around to face her
and his other adversary full on, the expression on his gaunt visage grim and his pitiless violet gaze boring
into the blonde's own blue. "Who better to remove us from the picture than Europe's supposed greatest
assassins?" he concluded in French, seemingly for his Corsican enemy's sake.

A short peep of a gasp was suddenly emitted from Kirika, cutting the tension that had been steadily
escalating between Ryosuke and Mireille, and causing their hard shared stare to be disrupted as the
former participant turned his eyes to the source of the interruption. "Langonel's Manuscript…" the lithe girl
whispered in surprise as she angled her head slightly to the side, breaking her absolutely rigid,
motionless stance for the first time since she had entered the library; reminiscent of statue being revived
from its petrification. Her eyes strayed away from Vincent and to Ryosuke instead… or more accurately,
to the book he held in his previously obscured left hand.

"Langonel's…?" Mireille half-repeated in amazement, by some incredible exertion of willpower managing
to keep her gaze from deserting her designated target and instead gawk wide-eyed and open mouthed at
Kirika next to her, wondering how her colleague recognised the text. To the blonde the tome in Ryosuke's
hand looked like any other in the library; bound in brown leather cracked with age, and thick comprising of
hundreds of pages, their edges discoloured to a pale yellow over the many decades. But admittedly she
had never actually seen a copy of the book where Soldats' and Noir's origins were documented despite
her and her partner's fervent search for it in the past--all they had unearthed was that all copies were
allegedly destroyed, which was clearly an erroneous belief now. Yet in truth Mireille had forgotten all
about Langonel's Manuscript ever since she had let Kirika leave her side and return to the Manor and
Altena's 'care'. Her priorities and thoughts had been focused on a different, much more important matter
than a mere book back then.

"Hey, you found it!" Vincent exclaimed in jubilation and still in Japanese. He grinned happily at his
companion, the broad smile causing him to appear more like a beautiful woman than ever. "Does this
mean we can go home now?"

"I'm afraid we can't allow that," Mireille declared sternly in French as she lifted her gun a tad higher for
emphasis, spoiling the triad member's elation. But the blonde was feeling quite a bit better herself, her
earlier restlessness somewhat alleviated. If the purpose of Ryosuke and Vincent's being in Paris was to
retrieve the apparently sole surviving copy of Langonel's Manuscript, then it was safe to assume that the
men indeed did yearn to become Noir. Which meant that they would eventually get it into their heads that
the true Noir would have to be rubbed out before they could be considered as the genuine article.
Perhaps then it wasn't for nothing that Mireille and Kirika had decided to embark down the black path
once again. At least it was a little consolation for the sacrifices they'd had to make. She did still feel guilty
however, but she had done so ever since Breffort's briefing. She doubted that sentiment would dissipate
any time soon, even after Kirika had laid down her gun to rest once again.

Ryosuke and Vincent looked at Mireille in surprise, although the emotion was more noticeable in the latter
man. The Corsican assassin was aware of what she had allowed to let slip--she understood Japanese, or
enough to comprehend its spoken form at any rate. But it was of no consequence, taking into account
that in the following minute the gangsters would have both ceased to breathe.

"You speak Japanese?" Ryosuke said, obviously taken aback by the revelation despite his taciturn
disposition. He glanced at Kirika for a moment, and then returned his gaze to Mireille. "I suppose I can
understand why. Strange to see a Japanese girl of her age paired with a woman like yourself, and going
by the name of Noir. You must have an interesting story to tell."

"Not one you'll ever hear," Mireille said with menace. She still talked in French, preferring to use that
language to communicate with outsiders while here in France. It was the first time she had encountered
anybody who had spoken in Japanese to her since meeting Kirika in Japan, and it did not sit well with her.
Japanese was the tongue she and Kirika used as a private means of conversing with each other and to
segregate strangers from their own little world. But if those strangers knew that language, then it was as if
Mireille and Kirika's world was no longer so private, no longer so sacred; that the world consisted of more
than just the two of them. Yet another reason to kill Ryosuke and Vincent, to kill the interlopers in her and
her partner's private lives.

"Wait a minute, you mean to tell me you speak Japanese?! Both of you?!" Vincent cried, either not
hearing Mireille's threat--no, promise--or simply ignoring it. "I thought the brat was raised here or
something and only knew French! Damn it, I was struggling with that stupid language for nothing!"

"Are you sure you want to do this here?" Ryosuke inquired carefully of the blonde assassin, blocking out
his comrade's whining. "Guards still roam this place."

"Yes," Mireille insisted, aware that he wasn't looking to avoid a fight, only to avoid one happening here.
She and Kirika had tried to slay him and Vincent; it was not something one of Ryosuke's--or his
partner's--character forgave or forgot easily. Just like Mireille did not forgive them. "You interfered in our
lives… and I--we--want that book." Her desires for the tome were somewhat of an afterthought, although
serious nonetheless. She didn't know how she and Kirika had overlooked Laroque's copy of Langonel's
Manuscript residing in their home city of Paris during their hunt for the text--however, the Paris copy was
supposed to have been lost in the fires of World War II--but regardless, she believed it would be best if it
was in their possession. The book was related to the legend of Noir, after all. Maybe it would be even
better if it were destroyed like all of its fellows, so nobody else Soldats follower or Noir aspirant could read
of its words and attempt to establish another pair of Black Hands.

"Then we have a problem," Ryosuke replied, slipping his piano wire into his right coat pocket, though
keeping his hand in plain sight throughout. His body tensed as he prepared himself, his shoulders
straightening, his muscles strengthening.

"Yes. We do," Mireille stated simply. And then she pulled the trigger of her Walther P99. The already set
striker was launched forwards into the gun, generating an explosive discharge that in turn propelled a
9mm Parabellum round out of its casing and down the silencer-extended barrel, straight at Ryosuke's
chest--and all within the blink of an eye.

The bullet slammed into the upper left side of the gangster's torso, where his heart beat beneath the flesh
and bone, and the impact caused him to jerk in the direction of the shot. He retained his footing however,
and in spite of the by all rights mortal blow his face remained remarkably impassive, with scarcely a hint
of a furrow in his brow.

Mireille, undeterred by Ryosuke's stoicism, rapidly followed up her first shot with another, and then
another and another, sending two, three, then four muted slugs into his body. Yet each shot was only met
with another flinch from the white-haired killer and a dull thud against his jet-black overcoat--no howls of
pain, no spurts of blood; just aloof defiance, the man's expression almost mocking contrary to its
detached veneer, as if challenging the blonde assassin while silently laughing at her unproductive efforts.

It took less than a second for Mireille's astute mind to comprehend why her bullets weren't affecting
Ryosuke as they would a normal person, and consequently why the several shots she had fired at the
man when she had initially clashed with him at the hotel hadn't fazed him. His overcoat was bulletproof.
Mireille suspected it must be fashioned with more than just mainstream Kevlar, however. The stiff, nigh on
unyielding manner in which the garment moved suggested that underneath the reinforced mesh of tough
fibres dwelled a layer of interlocking plates, either hard baked ceramic or perhaps even stronger but
heavier iron or steel, although if that was the case the overall weight of the overcoat must inflict a
tremendous burden on the wearer--Ryosuke would have to possess a robust musculature hidden
beneath his clothes to just stand upright. On top of the Kevlar and protective plates the black outer
material of the overcoat had been treated with some sort of protective compound, giving it a glossy sheen
that could easily be mistaken for the lustre of burnished leather to the untrained eye. On the whole,
Ryosuke's overcoat could be equated to a modern day suit of armour--and him a black knight, in more
ways than one--offering true resistance to gunfire unlike standard 'bulletproof' vests. But while it was a
notable illustration of ingenuity, it wasn't anything Mireille hadn't seen before. She recalled an equivalent
tactic having been used by one of Altena's enclave at the Manor, except that particular follower had worn
what had looked like an actual breastplate from medieval times under her robes.

In spite of his protection, Mireille believed that it still must hurt Ryosuke a great deal to be shot. The
armoured exterior and interior of the overcoat would decrease a bullet's velocity considerably, but his
body would still be left to endure the remainder of its kinetic energy, which would certainly be no small
amount. Indeed, there was a good chance his slender and athletic build belayed an immense brawn.

But for all of the defence Ryosuke's overcoat granted him, his head remained uncovered and open to
attack. Obviously sensing Mireille's intentions, Ryosuke swiftly raised his forearm to protect his face--his
movement a blur of black--at the exact moment the woman redirected her aim to that vulnerable spot.
Two rounds pounded into the intercepting limb and a third struck the centre of the gangster's open palm,
the gloved hand closing into a fist after the hit.

Mireille held her fire then, the end of her pistol smoking but with naught to show for it. In answer to the
temporary ceasefire from the blonde, Ryosuke relaxed his taut posture a tad and straightened himself to
a more upright position, standing once again at his full height. As he did so he lowered his arm slowly
from over his face and to his side, his fist opening to drop the squashed remnants of a 9mm Parabellum
slug to the floor.

"Impressive," Mireille remarked dryly as the bullet bounced along the carpet by the snow white-haired
killer's feet, noting that her target's gloves were outfitted with similar elements to that of his overcoat. She
imagined that sustaining a punch from his armour-plated fists would not be advisable. "Now this time
catch one in your teeth."

Ryosuke didn't respond to the sarcastic comment, at least not verbally. Instead he suddenly burst into
motion with a speed that verged on inhuman, comparable with the likes of Kirika and Chloe, his weighty
overcoat plainly no hindrance to him. He reached into his coat with his free hand in one fluid movement
before Mireille even had a clue he *was* moving, and in the next instant a huge gleaming metal object
was drawn from inside the garment's dark depths. Ryosuke angled his body so it was side-on to the
Corsican in a flick of rigid black Kevlar, and levelled the object squarely at her chest with deliberate
slowness in contrast to his prior alacrity. As such, Mireille was provided with a good look at the object--at
the gun.

Ryosuke's firearm was the largest handgun Mireille had ever laid eyes on, its sheer size putting all
Magnum variants to shame. Yet this pistol--hand-cannon more like--was definitely not of the .357 or .44
family, although it did share a vague resemblance to a heavily modified .44 Magnum revolver. Instead it
screamed of a custom model and make which had to be independently commissioned.

The gun was crafted in gleaming silver metal of the purest quality, polished until it was akin to a mirror,
the reflections on the weapon's surface crisp and clear. Its handle on the other hand was black rubber
and contoured for a sure grip. It was a revolver, a six-shooter by the looks of it, but the bevelled cylinder
was drastically longer than a usual firearm of its type. Whatever calibre of ammunition the pistol took was
positively not the standard handgun fare.
In addition to the pistol's elongated cylinder, its the barrel had been lengthened and weighted underneath
with a rectangular block of metal, no doubt to counter the hefty mass of the rest of the gun and sufficiently
balance it for accurate use. On the bottom edges of both sides of the counterweight Japanese characters
had been neatly etched in ebony, however what it said was a mystery to Mireille. She suspected too from
its total size and heavy appearance that the magnitude of the pistol's recoil had to be formidable; it would
need a strong and steady hand to handle effectively, something Ryosuke no doubt boasted especially if
his armoured coat was made up of metal plates.

Mireille kicked the round table in front of her over onto its side and immediately ducked down into a
crouch behind it, its outer edge not even having hit the floor before she was seeking shelter from it. Barely
an eighth of a second later a monumental boom resounded around the library as Ryosuke fired his
unique weapon, and Mireille could have sworn she had felt something scrape over her head and cause
her blonde hair to flap as she had dropped into her defensive position. Moreover, the din of the blast was
so loud she was certain that it'd had the potential to actually rock the study's books in their shelves and
rattle the window. It was now of little surprise why Ryosuke had opted to use piano wire to dispose of his
portion of guards rather than his gun. There was no silencer in the world that could mute his pistol's roar,
not without the device being blown apart after a single use and unleashing the weapon's bellow anyway.

Looking at the deep bullet hole that had been gouged in the wall across from the tall gangster as a result
of his wayward opening shot, Mireille also ascertained that Ryosuke's handgun was responsible for
turning Ezza's face into mincemeat and for the violent evacuation of his head's contents. Normally telling
two bullet holes apart was difficult to say the least, even for someone with a practiced and sharp eye
reminiscent of Mireille's, but with Ryosuke's gun it was a lot less tricky simply due to its handiwork being
distinctly larger than any other pistol's… and twin to a rifle round's. The Corsican wondered if her
black-garbed adversary had tailored his pistol to take rifle ammunition. The evidence thus far did point to
that conclusion.

Mireille gritted her teeth and quickly bowed her head, covering it with her free hand for added protection
as a second boom rung out and a chunk of the table she was using as a shield abruptly flew over her.
The chunk careered off towards the back wall and collided with a vase sitting on a stand against it,
smashing the once fine and valuable ornament to worthless pieces. The table was obviously no match
against the power of Ryosuke's custom pistol; while its base was made of dense wood that helped to
keep it stationary, its actual top was light and flimsy. Hiding behind it was about as effective as using a
sheet of paper for cover. It would be smart for Mireille to relocate before the gangster's next shot took off
her head instead of another bite out of the useless table.

Using her free hand as a prop, Mireille rolled deftly away from the table at the same time a bullet from
Ryosuke's gun tore straight through its surface in an explosion of splinters--right where the woman's lower
back had been an instant before. Relieved to have escaped sure death for now, she completed her roll on
her feet behind the arm of one of the sofas that was near the table, and then fell onto her left side, her
Walther clasped in both hands and her countenance a picture of fierce concentration. Casting her eyes
under the sofa and through its elaborately curled wooden legs, she espied Ryosuke's feet and shins just
visible in between the front opening of his overcoat. She lined up his right foot in her pistol's sights without
hesitation and then fired a handful of shots, hoping that besides his head the other parts of his body
uncovered by his coat and clad in normal clothes were also vulnerable.

To Mireille's displeasure and progressively mounting concern, her bullets ricocheted harmlessly off
Ryosuke's boots in a series of sparks, the sole evidence of her well-placed shots the fresh scuffs and
nicks marking their black leather surface and adding to the myriad of others already present, no doubt
mementos from previous gunfights. Apparently his boots were fortified with armoured plates like his
overcoat was, and unfortunately they climbed high enough to protect his shins. It looked like headshots
were the only plausible means of killing this troublesome foe--no easy task when considering his lightning
fast reflexes and his readiness to draw on them to shield his face when called for.

Mireille inwardly cursed her failure to inflict any harm upon her enemy up to now and wiggled on her
stomach behind the couch before climbing to her feet, her back to it. She kept low, however, rising only to
a crouch as more gunfire--three shots to be exact--from Ryosuke came her way, the high calibre rounds
making short work of the sofa's plush padding. Little bits of fluff were ejected in a spurt as each slug
ripped through the piece of furniture from front to back, the perforating shots narrowing missing the
blonde assassin by pure luck alone.

With Ryosuke's pistol emptied of its small load of ammunition, Mireille decided to take the opportunity to
return fire and perhaps drive a bullet into his skull while doing so. She whirled around to face the man,
peeking cautiously over the back of the sofa with her gun raised ahead of her. She observed the hitman
standing on the other side of the couch shove Langonel's Manuscript inside his overcoat while he flipped
open the cylinder of his weapon and shook out the golden expended casings to the floor, before replacing
them one by one with rounds retrieved from a pocket of his coat with his then free hand. The woman
noticed that the bullets he took out were 7.62mm NATO rounds, normally used in assault and sniper rifles
such as the Heckler & Koch G3 series and the NDM-86 Dragunov. The sight proved her earlier
deductions as correct; Ryosuke indeed was firing rifle ammunition from his custom pistol.

As soon as Mireille popped her head out from behind the couch Ryosuke spun around so that his back
was facing her, and covered his head with his left arm. The blonde fired a burst of 9mm rounds at him,
aiming for his head, but all they struck were his bulletproof arm and high collar of his overcoat. Evidently
not appreciating being interrupted while reloading his weapon, with a flick of his wrist Ryosuke slammed
the partially replenished cylinder back into its home in the pistol and then reached around his body and
stuck his gun past his left ribs, its barrel directed behind him at Mireille. The Corsican assassin whipped
her head back behind cover--as poor as it was--and then dropped flat on the floor on her stomach as a
series of booms resonated off the walls of the library, before more stuffing from the ravaged sofa drifted
softly onto her back.

Mireille ejected the spent clip from her Walther P99 and hastened to replace it with a new one,
envisioning that Ryosuke was doing much the same except a single bullet at a time. Events were not
exactly ensuing like the woman would have preferred. She had expected Ryosuke and Vincent--a
self-proclaimed Noir--to be challenging opponents, but this was tough even for someone as experienced
as her. She could hear the cacophony of a shootout between two different models of Beretta's--one
spitting muffled rounds, the other uninhibited--taking place in the right hand side of the room across from
her, indicating that Kirika was exchanging fire with Vincent but as of yet had failed to kill him. Obviously
Mireille's partner wasn't faring any better than her.

Mireille slid a full magazine into her pistol and pulled back the slide, chambering the first bullet. She then
rose to her knees, preparing to take another stab at striking Ryosuke in the head. Hardly a minute had
passed since the opening shot had been fired, but that had been long enough in her mind. If what
Ryosuke had said was true not all of Laroque's nightshift sentries had been slain. Some of the survivors
had to have heard the firefight currently underway in the mansion's library, and not to mention the
sleeping members of the household too, including Laroque himself; Ryosuke's gun was loud enough to
wake the dead, let alone living people slumbering in the middle of the night. Mireille had to eliminate the
violet-eyed killer post-haste, before the situation deteriorated further with the arrival of the estate's guards.

******

"Catch, kid!" Vincent yelled the instant Mireille had stopped talking, hurling his switchblade in an
underarm throw at Kirika.

Kirika had fired her Beretta M1934 at the precise moment she had heard Mireille's Walther P99 go off, the
brusque sound a cue for the girl to commence her attack against Vincent while the blonde similarly dealt
with his partner. So close were the two shots that they had been virtually indistinguishable from one
another, nearly in sync.

However, in spite of this swiftness Vincent had reacted before Kirika. Not necessary because he had
sharper or faster reflexes than her, but simply because his actions were unrestrained, the man following
no one's lead. The gangster had not even bothered to wait for hostilities to be initiated by Mireille before
he had acted with lethal intent. As soon as her closing words had left the blonde woman's lips, Vincent's
knife had been flying end over end through the air, just a tiny fraction of a second sooner than Kirika's
squeeze of her pistol's trigger. But that infinitesimal discrepancy was enough to alter the outcome of what
should have been a straightforward execution.

In response to the blade sailing unerringly her way Kirika was forced to twist her flexible body aside to
dodge it, the weapon spinning past her neck and lodging itself deeply in the wall behind her with a 'thunk'.
As a result of her instinctive evasion her aim was spoiled, but only by a small margin, no more than a
couple of millimetres. However it was a sufficient amount for Vincent to take advantage of. As his right
arm stretched outwards and tossed the switchblade from his hand, he skewed his body to one side, the
combination of Kirika's delayed shot and slightly disrupted aim causing her 9mm round to skim harmlessly
by his stomach, the bullet instead tearing a hole in his suit jacket, it fluttering open with his movement. In
the same motion Vincent dexterously drew a Beretta M92F Elite from a holster strapped underneath his
jacket with his left hand, and then fired a string of shots at Kirika across his body immediately after the
gun had cleared its resting place.

Kirika dived to her right to avoid the incoming fire that instead dotted the back wall with a constellation of
holes, and answered the rapid barrage with her own deluge of bullets as she soared sidelong through the
air, her Beretta wielded solely in her right hand while the incline of her left limb helped to stabilise the
trajectory of her near horizontal leap. Vincent, not to be outdone, bounded nimbly backwards into a dive
of his own, all the while blazing wildly away with his own model of Beretta in a single hand, his right arm
employed in an alike fashion to his younger assailant's left.

The two combatants had launched themselves in opposite directions and in disparate manners; Kirika
flying a few feet above the floor on her right side, while Vincent travelled parallel to her on his back. 9mm
slugs whizzed a whisker by both parties' limber forms as casings rained down from their respective
Berettas, supple muscles bending with amazing shows of flexibility as both contorted themselves in just
the right way to allow a bullet to slip past them and leave their body unscathed. It was as if Kirika and
Vincent were evenly matched, neither girl nor man successfully attaining an edge above the other. But
then suddenly the deciding factor reared its head in an audible click that could be heard even above the
commotion of the fierce duel.

The slide of Kirika's pistol snapped backwards, signifying that an expended clip now resided within the
weapon, the once effective tool of murder reduced to a worthless lump of metal. Her eyes widened
slightly and her heart skipped beat, but it wasn't out of fear, at least not exactly. It was more out of unease
at the implications of the empty gun. Without the ability to return fire Kirika's life was put in greater
jeopardy, doubly so in this aerial duel with Vincent--to be pressed onto purely the defensive would mean
her opponent's aim was no longer hindered by him having to elude her shots, which consequently meant
that the chances of her failing to dodge the subsequent bullets from him grew significantly. And Kirika
couldn't die yet--not here, not now. To do so would place Mireille in abject danger, outnumbered by two
skilful foes desiring her death--the odds of her partner surviving without her dedicated support were not in
the blonde's favour. Kirika had an oath to uphold and a penance she eternally, vainly, sought to achieve.
She wasn't allowed to die yet, nor did she want to, not while the woman she loved still lived. She *had* to
protect Mireille.

Vincent's Beretta Elite, with its larger magazine capacity than Kirika's pistol, continued to fire at the
suddenly defenceless girl, but as the hail of lead streaked towards her a strange feeling settled over her,
a sort of… resolute calm. It was the best she could describe it--a gritty clarity, a resolve that told her that
she would not falter, would not fall; it soothing her worries. It was like the feeling she had experienced at
the Manor and more recently during the infiltration of the late Millet's headquarters; an unwavering
confidence that she wouldn't let Mireille down--wouldn't let Odette down--and that no one could stand in
the way of her honouring her pledge. However, it was more… refined… somehow--stronger, clearer. Not
by too much, but enough for the change to be readily noticeable.

Kirika's widened eyes narrowed, their brown depths becoming hardened, determined once more. As the
half a dozen bullets neared her at a breakneck velocity, it was as if she could actually pick them out,
actually *see* them fly towards her, and in turn infer their upcoming routes through the air. She twisted
and turned her lithe body this way and that, neatly skirting each one by at least a full inch, a considerably
greater degree than her previous endeavours. Bullets flew under her, bullets flew over her, but not one of
them touched her.

And then the darkhaired girl's flight waned, as did her enemy's, both required to end their strafing dives
with their airborne duel in an apparent tie. As Kirika's right shoulder hit the floor she popped the depleted
clip from her Beretta and pivoted on the joint, manoeuvring her body so that her redirected momentum
threw her into a backwards roll. While she spun head over heels she plucked a new magazine from one
of the two black ammunition pouches strapped to her left thigh and slotted it into her gun. An instant later
Kirika was back on her feet and nestled in the small nook between the left most bookshelf on the right
hand wall and the open door of the library's entrance. She then raised her handgun up to her face and
calmly pulled back its slide with her free hand, setting a bullet into the weapon's chamber and preparing it
for the next duel with Vincent.

In the meantime, Vincent finished his dive in a similar style to Kirika's. When his upper back touched the
floor he tucked in his head and legs to his body and rolled backwards, ending up in a crouch behind an
armchair near the middle of the room. Fortunately, the line of sight offered to him from his position of
cover was not of a sufficient angle to see the diminutive girl, the side face of the bookshelf she was
standing behind bestowing her with adequate--if slender--shelter.

The midair dance of death with Vincent had lasted a scarce handful of seconds, but from Kirika's
perspective it had felt longer, as if time itself had slowed down, as though it had been stretched out for
just those few moments. She wondered if the sensation had something to do with that other feeling she
had felt. But despite the lengthened sense of time during the duel Kirika wasn't sure if she had managed
to hit Vincent. She didn't believe so, however; for his dozen or more shots at her she had only fired six in
retaliation, and she was pretty certain the spry gangster had succeeding in evading them all just like she
had his. Their duel had been a draw.

<Do you see now why one must not hesitate during a mission? Every second is precious, and talk is not
to be wasted on the dead.>

Yes, Kirika saw what her delay in shooting Vincent had cost her. She had lost the advantage she'd had
over him when she and Mireille had burst into the room, and consequently had made it much more
difficult for herself to kill him now that he was on his guard and better armed. Yet the delay had been
unavoidable. Kirika had behaved as guided by Mireille's actions, deferring to the worldlier assassin's lead
and letting her make all of the important decisions, the girl comfortably knowing that her faith in her older
and wiser partner was not misplaced. It was the method in which the pair had always operated on, and
Kirika was not about to alter it now. She felt more at ease with Mireille showing her the way; it felt… right.
Mireille always took the point, Mireille always did the talking, Mireille always made the choices. That was
just the way it was, and Kirika was happy with that. Well, perhaps not so much with her love opting to be
on point all the time--it was a hazardous position, with the woman being the first to experience any
incoming attack--but it was probably for the best anyway since Mireille had to know what was ahead of
them in order to make her smart decisions. The taciturn girl didn't feel left out or under appreciated; she
was simply more suited to the actual combat aspect of their trade and Mireille was aware of that. Kirika
wouldn't know the first thing to say or do if given her partner's role.

The unwarranted thought appropriately dismissed, Kirika refocused her mind on current, genuine troubles
such as the two enemy assassins she and Mireille were trying to slay, or rather one in particular. With her
back pressed up against its side, the lissom girl risked a peek around the corner of the bookshelf… and
almost caught a bullet with her face.

"Come on, brat!" Vincent hollered in what Kirika could tell was a derogatory tone as he fired upon her
location with his pair of Beretta Elites, one held in each hand. The petite assassin quickly pulled back her
head as hot lead hammered into the old texts arranged on the bookshelf behind her, shredding through
leather covers and aged paper both and likely making the tomes unreadable. "Come out and play!" the
darkly dressed hitman yelled, pausing in his attack only to shout the taunt before firing over the back of
the armchair he was using as cover at Kirika's position once again, slugs sporadically striking the
bookshelf and section of wall near the library's doorway every two or three seconds.

Kirika, immune to Vincent's jeers--primarily because she didn't understand why what he was spouting was
deemed as insulting or goading--simply ignored them for what they were to her--meaningless ramblings.
She passed her gun from her right hand to her left, thankful for her ambidextrousness when using
firearms gained from her smart decision to learn the skill after an enlightening but painful experience in
Sicily many months ago. Her spot behind the shelf on the right side of the library made employing her
pistol in her usual right-handed fashion impossible, unless she strayed from shelter which she was most
certainly not about to do without good reason. However, due to her talent of being able to proficiently
utilise her gun in her left hand as though it were sported in her right, Kirika merely had to switch grips
rather than seek out cover more conducive to her dominant hand.

Kirika, having committed Vincent's general position behind the armchair on the other side of the room to
memory from the earlier glances she had stole at him, reached across her slim waist with her left hand
and poked the silenced barrel of her Beretta held in it around the corner edge of the shelf, her quick mind
calculating the elevation in which to tilt the weapon in order to have the highest chance of hitting her
target. Satisfied with her estimation, the girl then fired her pistol three times seemingly blindly at Vincent,
but in her mind's eye she saw the scene behind the bookshelf along with the bullets' predicted paths as if
she were really peering around it.

Kirika's shots, aimed on educated reasoning alone, were rewarded with a surprised yelp from Vincent and
an abrupt cut off to the erratic gunfire from his dual Berettas. The diffident but incredibly skilled assassin
envisioned him ducking behind the armchair to take refuge from her trio of rounds, instead of him actually
being hit by one. It was a possibility of course, but she knew the likelihood was remote.

With an apparent opening to go on the offensive now imparted to her by way of Vincent being forced to
retreat from his former aggressive stance, Kirika whirled around and leaned out from behind the
bookshelf, bringing up her gun and setting the armchair in its sight. She noted that the chair had two
bullet holes defacing its intricately patterned fabric cushion covers near the top of its wooden frame,
indicating that at least a pair of her blind shots had come close to their mark dwelling to the rear of the
piece of furniture.

Kirika's foe had obviously anticipated her push for supremacy in their battle, and countered by sticking
one of his Elites over the back of the armchair and firing madly yet blindly in her direction, an advanced
tactic much like the one the girl had employed against him only seconds before but with a great deal less
discipline. Thus, Kirika was compelled to dart back into cover once again to avoid the onslaught, failing to
get off a shot of her own… not that there was anything to aim at besides Vincent's blazing handgun. It
was a stalemate; both combatants trapped in their respective locales with the lone available option to take
turns pinning the other down until one of them ran out of patience or ammo. Kirika was sure she could
outlast the gangster in both respects if circumstances had been different, however as it was she was
under a strict time frame that was fast worsening as every second passed, and which could end at any
moment. The present environment was simply not favourable to a long drawn out fight.

As if to validate her point, Kirika began to detect frantic shouts echoing through the doorway originating
from down the hallway outside the library, the other guards of the estate having surely heard the violent
disturbance in this part of the house and in their investigation had now stumbled upon their dead
comrades littering the corridor. Time was up. While the darkhaired girl believed she and Mireille could
beat back any armed force that tried to enter the library--especially this mansion's lightly equipped and
seemingly poorly skilled guards--Vincent and Ryosuke were still up on their feet which complicated
things, placing the young women between two hostile fronts, one with power in numbers, and the other
with noteworthy expertise. However, Vincent and Ryosuke were put in much the same problematic
situation as Kirika and Mireille, and they had the additional motivation to escape with Langonel's
Manuscript, stealing the book the apparent reason why they had invaded Albert Laroque's home. Kirika
assumed that her partner would opt for them to chase after the fake Noir if the men attempted to flee as it
was the wisest decision, and she knew her intelligent love was apt to make those.

Kirika, with her back to the bookshelf's side face, bent forwards a bit to check on Mireille on the other half
of the room and also warn her of the approaching threat, while being careful not to lean out too far and
become a clear target for Vincent who continued to send a frequent spattering of lead her way. She had
been hearing thunderous 'boom' sounds throughout her duel with Vincent, and as she cast her eyes to
her partner's location, she discovered their source.

Ryosuke sported a big silver revolver in his right hand--of a type Kirika was not familiar with despite her
extensive schooling on all kinds of firearms--and was currently occupied with blasting at a sofa with it.
The sofa itself had endured thorough abuse, its fluffy innards bulging out through multiple gashes sullying
its surface, akin to viscera threatening to spill from ruptured abdomens. And Mireille was pinned behind
that eviscerated couch which clearly afforded her with limited if any protection from Ryosuke's gunfire, yet
somehow the angelic woman was holding her own anyway. Still, the scene set Kirika's nerves on edge
and caused a tension in her chest, the suddenly anxious girl having to restrain herself from immediately
leaping to the blonde's aid and recklessly into Vincent's line of sight. Not that she wouldn't have despite
the torrent of fire she would have had to dash through, but there was a simpler and less perilous way in
which to relieve the pressure from Mireille.

"Guards are coming!" Kirika cried, aware that Ryosuke and Vincent as well as Mireille would hear her
warning… and act on it.

As she had hoped, Ryosuke ceased shooting at Mireille and lifted his smoking pistol vertically upright,
before his head snapped to the open library doorway, his violet gaze staying unswervingly fixed to it for a
few moments. An alarm suddenly went off then, the appropriately timed piercing wails that reverberated
around the house granting credence to Kirika's words. It was evidently enough for Ryosuke--he turned
sharply to his shorter partner who remained crouched behind the chair, firing merrily away with his
Berettas.

"We are leaving!" he informed Vincent in a harsh voice--almost a snarl--prompting the other man to hold
his fire and look up at the black-garbed hitman.

"Damn!" Vincent vehemently complained. "Just when it was getting interesting!"

Just then the sound of footsteps reached Kirika's ears, pulling her attention back to the outside hallway.
She saw a shadow blow past the crack in between the door and the doorjamb it was hinged to, and
impulsively lashed out with a fierce kick using her right foot, striking the open library door in front of her
and sending it swinging into a guard's face, the unlucky first to arrive on the scene.

The guard screamed as his unexpected assailant--the door--smashed unforgivingly into his face, the
impact strong enough to crush his nose into pulp. Kirika heard him stagger backwards--likely clutching his
ruined nose--and then she kicked the door again as it bounced off his face and back towards her, this
time causing it to shut tight instead of disfiguring someone on the other side.

Kirika turned quickly away from the door and looked around the corner of the bookshelf, just in time to
catch sight of Ryosuke bound off the desk at the end of the room and hurl himself through the huge
window to its rear, the man angling his body so that his shoulder and side took the brunt of the collision.
Glass shards and pieces of white painted frame fell like confetti in his wake with the whole lower half of
the window virtually destroyed, the gaping hole creating a portal into the darkness of the night; a portal
that Ryosuke used to vanish into its murky embrace.

Mireille, who had been firing round after round at Ryosuke from her spot on her knees stooped behind the
battered couch throughout the hitman's race for freedom, fumed at her seemingly ineffective shots and at
his escape, her expression incensed with brow deeply wrinkled and grinding teeth bared.
"Later, brat! It was fun!" Vincent farewelled to Kirika, flashing her a roguish smile over his shoulder before
he followed in Ryosuke's footsteps, hopping atop the desk in a single leap and then diving headfirst
through the gap in the window made by his partner's departure seconds before.

As Vincent jumped on the desk and dived through the air, Kirika emptied the remainder of her clip at him
with controlled, paced pulls of her gun's trigger. She hoped to fatally wound him or at least cripple him
before he disappeared from sight so that her and Mireille's imminent pursuit of him would be easier.
There was a click of a door opening behind her as she fired, the telltale noise notifying her that the guards
were about to try to enter the library again.

Kirika waited for a full second to pass so that the lead sentry had time to cross the threshold of the
library's entrance, and then without looking--without even so much as thinking--her leg struck out behind
her at a flawless horizontal angle--the slender but well-muscled limb perfectly perpendicular to the
floor--and once more kicked the room's door with devastating force into a guard's face, eliciting a
pain-wracked howl from him and delaying his and his comrades' entry yet again. The kick was over in a
flash, her foot returning to the floor so quickly it was as if it had never left to begin with. And all the while
the girl's concentration remained on shooting the fleeing Vincent.

Mireille, seeing that an already busy Kirika was holding Laroque's guards at bay all by herself with only
her leg no less, rushed to assist her partner. The woman threw herself along the length of the couch she
was behind and landed on her side on the floor, the upper half of her body extending past the sofa's end
and thus causing her eyesight and with it her gun sight to be in line with the library's entrance. As the
previously booted door rebounded off the front guard's now bloodied features and revealed both him and
his companions crowding the darkened corridor beyond, Mireille let loose with a series of shots at the
group, her Walther replacing the room's door as a much more deadlier means of preventing the unwanted
company from breaching the entryway.

Kirika could make out the screams of the dying to her rear as Mireille covered her back with ruthless
precision, and the girl allowed herself to dispense with the possibility of threats coming from behind for
the time being, having total faith that her love would keep her safe while her attention was elsewhere.
However, her attention was not diverted for long. As the hollow brass coloured casing of Kirika's fourth
and final bullet intended for Vincent tumbled to the carpet, the man himself disappeared into the darkness
on the other side of the library's broken window, joining Ryosuke in shadow. She wasn't certain if her last
ditch effort to shoot him had been successful--he hadn't exhibited any signs of being struck during his
escape--but in the hazy, chaotic intensity of close quarters combat it was often hard to gauge a hit without
physical indicators such as a cry of shock and pain, or the spreading of blood on clothing, or the most
obvious; a sudden lifeless body collapsing to the floor. For all Kirika knew Vincent might have passed into
the night as a corpse.

Kirika turned her head to Mireille on the floor as she expelled the empty magazine from the bottom of her
Beretta's handle, quickly swapping it with a full one. The blonde looked up at her, after just firing the last
round from her own weapon herself, and their eyes locked. Kirika could tell what her partner's wishes
were before the woman even voiced them.

"After them!" Mireille shouted, sliding her body across the floor and back behind the cover of the sofa.
And not a moment too soon. With now nothing to dissuade their advance or to hold them in check, the
guards gathered outside the doorway returned the bombardment the assassin had used to thin out their
ranks with treble the force, metallic slugs scouring their ragged trails in the slice of carpet where she had
once lain.

Mireille scrambled to her feet and reloaded her pistol whilst on the run, Kirika matching her pace for pace
on the other side of the room, the small lounge dividing them on their dash towards their mutual goal--the
window and the protection of the dark. Meanwhile sentries poured into the room behind them like a raging
flood, the riotous black currents spitting lead froth in their direction. Bullets whistled by Kirika's head and
crisscrossed between her pumping legs, the guards' abysmal aim or perhaps their fast moving target
responsible for the misses, or maybe a blending of the two. Glancing over to Mireille, she saw that the
woman was similarly besieged, and the shorter, slimmer girl worried about her continued wellbeing, that
tight feeling in her chest waxing and waning as each round flew past her love, narrowly missing her slim
but mature frame. Suddenly Kirika was hardly conscious that she was being shot at too.

"Don't hit the books! Mr. Laroque will be furious!" someone cautioned in a yell above the clamour of
innumerable gunshots. Abruptly the thick spray of fire being delivered upon Mireille began to ebb, and
Kirika felt her anxiety recede in tandem; the less beleaguered her love was with incoming bullets, the less
her chest felt constricted.

As Kirika and Mireille neared the window their paths came together--the young women side by side once
more--and each used an armchair at the end of the lounge as a springboard to propel themselves onto
the desk in front of the library's window. They leapt in harmony and landed in harmony, their respective
right feet touching the top of the desk for the mere fleetest of moments before they dived headlong off it,
aiming for the hole in the window. However, during their finishing jump their actions differed,
demonstrating Kirika and Mireille's divergent styles as assassins.

As Mireille passed over the windowsill, she twisted around so that she was gliding through the air on her
back, her pistol held in the vicinity of her crotch. Clutching it in a grip comprising of both right and left
hands, one to hold the weapon and one to steady it, she looked down her body--it near parallel to the
library's floor--and along her gun's sight, targeting their pursuers and teaching them with a string of
lethally accurate shots that it would be intelligent to let her and Kirika go without a fuss.

In the meantime, after ensuring with a quick look that neither Ryosuke nor Vincent were sneakily lying in
wait for her and Mireille on the other side of the window, the more agile Kirika simply let herself tumble
into the beginnings of a somersault, but for the notable disparity of omitting to bend her knees at the
customary moment to complete the manoeuvre. As a result, she sailed through the window upside down
with her back leading her midair trip and her legs stretched out, her supple form in the shape of a
topsy-turvy 'L'. Pinpointing her and her partner's foes effortlessly despite viewing the interior of the library
the wrong way up, Kirika then levelled her Beretta in her hands--the limbs almost in line with her legs--at
the guards and proceeded to mirror Mireille's aggressive act, doing what she had been trained to do for
most of her young life--purge the world of sinners. But that was the very least of her motivations, hardly
even a motivation at all; defending Mireille was what provoked the girl to pull the trigger of her gun. That
sinners died as a consequence of her oath was just a natural happenstance. After all, only those who
dwelled in darkness would ever try to do the woman harm.

When the remains of the window frame and the brickwork of the mansion surrounding it entered Kirika's
field of view, she tucked in her legs and at last followed through with her somersault, allowing her
momentum to push her head up and her heels down. Once her feet hit the ground she automatically
dropped into a crouch to absorb the force of the fall from the first storey window as well as the leftovers of
her leap's energy, her landing a perfect one that would make any gymnast proud.

Mireille's landing outside the library's window was not as graceful as Kirika's, but was still more or less a
smooth one. She flew out the window on her back, continuing to fire at the guards through it until her aim
was obscured by the manor's wall as gravity dragged her down. Her back eventually hit the ground, that
wide area of her body and the soft grass beneath it together helping to reduce the severity of the impact.
She then skidded along it for a second before managing to lift up the lower half of her body and redirect
her momentum to thrust her into a reverse roll, which she then stopped once she was upright by digging
her feet into the hard soil underneath the estate's lawn.

It took only an instant for Kirika and Mireille to realise that they were on the left flank of Laroque's
mansion--the kitchen side entrance about twenty metres away--although it took a little longer to realise
just where Ryosuke and Vincent were. Kirika could only see two fuzzy outlines getting smaller and more
indistinct with every passing moment moving across the pitch-black compound and heading in the
direction of the fence adjacent to the street in front of the estate. The hitmen's dark attire made it hard for
her to follow their movements, the girl repeatedly losing and having to find the silhouettes again as they
persisted in blending into the gloom, and she imagined that Mireille had the same problem. On top of that
the young women had only just came out of a lit room and into total darkness; their eyes hadn't had a
chance to adjust to the abrupt change in illumination yet. As a consequence of these impediments they
had to endure it would make trying to shoot Ryosuke and Vincent most difficult indeed. But before Kirika
and Mireille could even attempt to do so they would first have to lessen the wide gap separating
themselves and their enemies first, as the men were out of range of their pistols' stings.

Wasting no time, Kirika and Mireille bolted after the fleeing shadows, heavy gunfire from the guards
swarming the smashed window nearby seeing them off. Fortunately, as with Ryosuke and Vincent, the
dark worked to their benefit even without wearing black clothing, its shroud camouflaging their
movements and effectively protecting them from the deadly hail.

As the assassins closed in on Ryosuke and Vincent and subsequently on the iron wrought fence the
gangsters were running towards, Kirika heard shouts from the mansion now behind her and her partner,
the animated sounds clear and easily distinguishable above the still ringing alarm that was, incidentally,
detectable even from the outside of the building; the muffled shrieks of a violated and outraged creature.
She spared a look over her shoulder at their source and witnessed more men dressed in black business
suits spilling out of the manor's now brightly lit front entrance and rush into the compound. They carried
flashlights as well as their handguns, the tools' bright round beams dancing in the field of black blanketing
the estate's grounds as their operators moved. Some guards circled around the house while others
spread out across the lawn, obviously searching for the intruders that the alarm still raged about--or in
other words, Kirika, Mireille, and their quarry. Mireille had been right; people who had their sleep
interrupted late in the night did not wake up happy.

Kirika's gaze was pulled back to the sights ahead of her by the sudden subdued noise of Mireille's
Walther P99 discharging in a rapid burst beside her, its muzzle flare as well as its roar contained by the
silencer fitted to its end. Looking once again in the direction of the fence, the girl immediately spotted two
figures scaling the enclosure, their black swathed forms standing out in stark effect against the light from
the streetlamps on its opposite side. Ryosuke and Vincent had reached the fence, but in doing so had
exposed themselves for the world to see… and for bullets to find.

Kirika quickly raised her weapon and joined Mireille in assailing the men with gunfire, squeezing off her
remaining four shots without hesitation, knowing that the silencer attached to her own pistol would
similarly veil its use and hence keep their position a secret from the angry guards' eyes. But the
assassins' concealment would not last for long. Rounds from Kirika and Mireille's guns ricocheted off the
bars of the fence while Ryosuke and Vincent nimbly climbed up them like human spiders, momentary but
bright orange sparks igniting from each missed shot. If the guards hadn't already noticed the men hanging
in the middle of the air under the glaring light of the streetlamps, the shrill noise of lead glancing off iron in
a mini fireworks display was bound to attract their attention.

Both Kirika and Mireille emptied their pistols' already half depleted magazines in a matter of seconds, and
with no real results to show for the expenditure. They hurried to reload, their spent clips landing in the
grass as they were cast aside and then left far behind, the young women continuing to run onwards. But
the break in the attack was all Ryosuke and Vincent needed. The men finished deftly clambering up the
spiked bars of the fence in a matter of moments and then jumped down from their pinnacle to the
pavement on the other side of the barrier, before taking off down the street and disappearing behind a
high hedge wall of a neighbouring estate, neither bothering to look back the way they had come.

It took a further five seconds to arrive at the fence after Ryosuke and Vincent had left Kirika's sight, time
that was the equivalent of as many minutes in a chase. Kirika shoved her Beretta behind the back, held in
the waistband of her skirt, and then leapt upon the railing, grabbing two bars far up their lengths so that
her feet dangled just above the short brick wall below. With her Walther holstered Mireille leapt with her,
although she didn't match the height of her partner's jump, instead clinging to a section of fence that was
lower than the lithe girl's and utilising the top of the wall as a foothold. The duo then scrambled up the
enclosure, the calls of Laroque's men catching sight of them speeding their ascent.

The nimbler Kirika reached the top of the fence first and without waiting for Mireille dropped down to the
footpath, drawing her gun from the small of her back as she fell. She landed lightly on her feet facing in
the direction Ryosuke and Vincent had fled, her fully loaded pistol at the ready. The darkhaired girl was
glad that she was taking the point for once rather than her love. Wading into danger before the woman
was something she ought to be doing, and in this scenario the danger was quite great. A common tactic
for those being pursued was to set an ambush for their pursuers whenever they escaped their line of
sight, and this situation--just like when Ryosuke and Vincent had jumped through the library's
window--was an ideal time to put the strategy into practice. Kirika had to trigger any possible trap before
Mireille joined her; that way she alone would suffer the brunt of it and as a result the blonde would be
alerted to the peril ahead and counter for it as necessary, hence having a good chance of evading injury.
With that goal in mind, Kirika ran down the street instantly after her feet hit the ground, hoping to tempt
Ryosuke and Vincent into springing any surprise attack they might have planned for her and her love.

But there was no attack, for there was no Ryosuke and Vincent. Kirika slowed her run to a jog, then a
walk, and then stopped outright on the footpath, panting softly while her eyes roved about her
surroundings, searching for any sign of her and Mireille's enemies. However, all that the girl saw were
deserted streets and silent buildings, merely the night itself. It was as though Ryosuke and Vincent had
become part of that night, melting into its pall and being spirited away to places unknown. Or perhaps the
night had simply reclaimed them, the darkness enveloping them, welcoming its kind home with an
embrace. But either way, they were gone; the night would not give them up.

Mireille hopped down from the fence a mere couple of seconds after Kirika, choosing to make her drop to
the pavement from considerably closer to it rather than from a ten-foot high plunge as her partner had
done. She then ran over to the girl, her pace gradually decreasing until she came to a gentle halt beside
her partner, her pistol lowering slowly to her side. Mireille was panting too from their recent physical
exertions of sprinting and climbing, although her breaths came a bit heavier than Kirika's, the blonde
clearly the more winded of the two.

Kirika was expecting an admonishment from Mireille for leaving her behind at the fence, but the woman
didn't say a word as she stood beside her. Moments past, and then Kirika heard Mireille panting die down
before she released one long, slow breath; a stream of cloudy air billowing out of her slightly parted lips
past the girl's left cheek and rising towards the black sky before vanishing. She turned her head to look at
Mireille and saw that she was staring at the empty and quiet streets in front of them, her expression
gravely serious with her brow knitted and the muscles around her eyes tight, as though she were in deep
thought. But Kirika knew her love wasn't really seeing the streets; the glaze to her blue eyes and stern set
of her countenance told the girl that she was contemplating where to go from here now that Ryosuke and
Vincent had escaped… with Langonel's Manuscript.

Kirika looked away from Mireille and back to the silent streets, starting to gaze at their tarmac roads
vacantly herself. Langonel's Manuscript--the virtual bible of Soldats where the underlying dark principles
of Noir's being was inscribed. She didn't know how, but she knew that the copy Ryosuke and Vincent had
just succeeded in stealing was the one that she had read from at the Manor. No, she hadn't read for it. It
had been that *other* girl--that *other* girl had flipped through its pages, that *other* girl had recited its
passages. Kirika's *other* self had been the one under Altena's deceptively benevolent eye that night, not
her.

Kirika shivered at the surfacing of memories that weren't hers, suddenly feeling the cold weather for the
first time tonight. But then the chill suffusing her body slowly diminished, the girl feeling steadily warmer
down her back and around her neck and upper chest. She smiled softly and looked at Mireille once more,
suspecting that she was the culprit and was hugging her from behind in an unexpected gesture of
fondness. However, once her gaze fell on her love she realised that Mireille hadn't moved a muscle since
the last instance she had looked the blonde's way. Kirika's smile abruptly evaporated, the gentle curve
supplanted by an impassive flat line while disappoint that her idyllic initial belief was proved false
developed within her. But that sentiment was soon eclipsed as she began to feel a little disconcerted by
the mysterious warmth, its heat almost akin to… to a presence.

But the warmth faded as quickly as it had manifested, and Kirika was left wondering whether it had even
been there at all; if it had just been a figment of her imagination. Yet the cold did not seek to replace it,
and she did not feel the bite of the freezing night air again. But another feeling did arise in the warmth's
wake, a different one from the first, but one that served to rekindle her disconcert nevertheless. It was a
feeling of having been… marked somehow. No… that she always had been marked, and was only now
remembering. A sense of foreboding gripped Kirika, and although she wasn't certain of its precise origin it
sent shudders through her soul, as if that essence knew something the girl it inhabited did not.

The alarm ringing in Laroque's mansion and the shouts of his armed men behind them urged the pair to
make haste and move on, to flee into cover; into safety. Yet Kirika and Mireille did not budge from their
spot on the footpath. They simply stood there, each staring into the night and beyond; past its swirling
frozen winds, past its black streaking shadows, past its quiet empty atmosphere; and at things only they
could see on the very brink of its horizon. At dark things that had come and gone. And at dark things yet
to come.

******

In a flicker of shiny ebony Ryosuke darted into an alleyway swallowed by the darkness of the night a few
blocks from Albert Laroque's residence, Vin tagging along after him with nearly equal alacrity. The two
remained just inside the passageway's entrance, where the prying light from nearby streetlamps did not
touch them yet would brand any outsider who ventured close to their position, their telltale shadows
sketched on the ground before the assassins' feet. Ryosuke didn't believe their pursuers were still
following them however, but one could never be too sure. And those particular young women… they
seemed like the tenacious type.

Vin leaned up against a wall of the alley opposite to where Ryosuke stood, his breathing brisk but not
hard. Ryosuke knew that the triad member was used to running long distances at an all but constant
sprint, with his life potentially depending on his speed--he'd had plenty of practice back in Hong Kong. Vin
had related to his Ryosuke many stories of his younger years spent in his birth city over the duration of
their association, although the times when he did speak of those gruelling days came few and far
between; often only when he was very drowsy or heavily inebriated was his tongue loosened.

Vin, for all his braggart ways was reluctant to reminisce on his life in Hong Kong, but it was to be
expected; his old roots were tough, merciless ones indeed, even more so than usual for someone of his
disreputable way of life. Tales of when mobs of gangsters armed with all manner of hand-to-hand
weapons from crude clubs to wicked machetes and with numbers totalling in the dozens had chased him
and his comrades through packed public streets were the norm, the mass assault the equivalent of an
assassination attempt in his triad circles. Ryosuke was not unfamiliar with such brazen but brutally
effective tactics, but they were less common in the streets of Japan and usually localised to uncivilised
gangs of hoodlums with no affiliation to a prestigious yakuza clan of old. In those treacherous situations
the only recourse was to flee on foot and find faster transport or a good hiding spot as fast as possible, or
else wind up being bludgeoned and stabbed to death in the middle of the road in front of crowds of
bystanders. The bonds of brotherhood normally joining men together with ties as strong as those formed
with blood were regrettably made thin here, too; any companions who fell behind were left for the pack's
bloodlust, lest you be swallowed by the howling horde that swarmed those unfortunates as well. To stay
and fight was certainly to die, and attempted rescue of the fallen was suicidal. Sheer numbers saw to that
regardless of how skilled one was in combat. As a result, prominent up-and-coming criminals learned to
run quick and build up their stamina very early during their careers, with those who didn't more often than
not having their rise in their syndicate's ranks cut violently short.

Ryosuke was aware that his partner had scars from his experience in the triads of Hong Kong, physical
ones--although none that would detract from his 'beauty'--as well as those of the mental kind. But
everybody had scars in one form or another, and they were not an exclusive woe to those individuals who
lived their lives in the underworld. Vin was entitled to no pity, just like nobody else was--they were all
suffering equally. But unlike those others he had the sense not to ask for it, choosing instead to bear his
scars in silence. An admirable trait.
Ryosuke simply stood calmly while Vin quietly huffed and puffed, the ex-yakuza appearing as though he
hadn't dashed more than a hundred metres with at least twenty-five kilograms of steel weighing down his
body just a second ago. Like his companion, Ryosuke was accustomed to running hard for long
distances, but with the exception of being heavily armoured at the time. Not a drop of sweat dampened
his brow nor did his chest rise and fall rapidly--he was perfectly composed, perfectly still, his body
reminiscent of a statue. Reminiscent of steel.

Ryosuke had deliberately conditioned his body to tolerate all sorts of abuse, seeking to hone his weak
flesh to match the strength of the steel that he wrapped it in. For steel was resilient, virtually unbreakable.
But flesh was frail and easily damaged. To be invulnerable to all things he had to *become* like steel, and
then the swords and arrows of the world would be unable to harm him. However, Ryosuke had yet to
achieve his ambition. Tonight he had been shot countless times, and although his coat had protected him,
he still hurt. He did not acknowledge the pain, of course--he had at least ascended well beyond that
pathetic human need--but his body insisted on crying out to him in spite of his disregard nonetheless.
Thus for now the white-haired man was required to don his fortified overcoat--his scales as they had once
been called by others in the past--the black garment a substitute for flesh as steel, if an inferior one. But
one day he would *truly* embody his old name, a name given to him and one another during his yakuza
days--'Kuroi Koutetsu no Ryuu'. Except by then he supposed there would be no need for 'kuroi'.

Ryosuke's forehead creased suddenly as he looked at Vin, his violet eyes that were more in their element
in the shadows picking up a dark splotch--darker than the triad member's black coloured shirt--staining
the shorter man's right side. "You're hit," he stated simply in an emotionless voice.

"Huh?" Vin said, favouring Ryosuke with a startled look, before following his partner's gaze, dropping his
head downwards. "That little brat," he then said as he caught sight of the spreading blood on his shirt,
astonishment reigning in his tone rather than anger. He prodded at the wound gingerly, not to see how
serious it was, but more like to see if it was really there. "I can't believe it; she actually got me. I didn't
even feel it."

Ryosuke made no comment, merely staring at Vin's injury in contemplation. His brow furrowed a little
deeper. Noir. His suspicions about Dominique having had them adopt the alias had been confirmed with
the pair of 'ancient' assassins showing up in Laroque's library, intent on slaying them. The conniving bitch
had planned to use Noir to kill them by provoking the young women's ire with the alleged theft of their
name. Ryosuke wondered if the infernal book he and his associate had at last found and acquired for
Kaede--or more to be more precise, for Dominique--was even worth anything, or if it had simply been an
excuse for them to be sent to Paris, the seeming home city of Noir. But that blonde woman of Noir had
wanted it for some reason. Perhaps it was only valuable to her and her Japanese colleague…?

Ryosuke scowled. It would be just like Dominique to think ahead like that, arranging it so that Noir would
be ever snapping at his and Vin's heels no matter if the primary objective of her plan was accomplished or
not. If Langonel's Manuscript really was important to Europe's greatest contract killers, then they would
likely hound Ryosuke and Vin until they retrieved it. And until they killed the two men for taking it in the
first place. A very clever piece of foresight indeed, if it were true. But unless Noir was willing to pursue
Ryosuke and his partner outside France, then Dominique's possible plan would be for naught; the
ex-yakuza aimed to be out of the country by dawn. His sister's trial was a mere couple of days away now
because of his and Vin's maddening overseas book-hunting errand. Ryosuke *definitely* had to have
Yokohama's soil beneath his boots before then.

Studying Vin's wound as the man continued to spew forth his incredulity at being shot by the 'brat',
Ryosuke debated whether Dominique's plotting was actually going to succeed in bringing about the death
of at least one of them. It would be… troublesome to have to abandon Vin in Paris if he was too severely
injured to travel immediately; finding a new partner with comparative skill to his in Yokohama would be a
tiresome ordeal. The bonds of brotherhood were between men were strong, but the bond between
Ryosuke and his little sister were stronger. Much stronger. Kaede *always* came first.

"It's not so bad," Vin eventually declared as if sensing the concerns cropping up in Ryosuke's mind. He
gave his wound one last experimental poke and raised his head to look at his companion. "I think she just
winged me." He then buttoned his suit jacket, concealing the bloodstain, and stared into Ryosuke's
piercing violet eyes with his own amber orbs, their depths just as intense. "I can make it," he assured the
snow white-haired gangster firmly, knowing that his partner wanted to return to Japan post haste.

Ryosuke simply inclined his head in acceptance. He decided that if Vin's condition worsened before they
reached the airport he would leave him behind. It would be difficult to explain a corpse sitting next to him
on a plane if the man were to die in transit, after all, and there was no escape when one was thousands
of feet in the air. If Vin happened to succumb in the street or even in the airport itself, however, Ryosuke
was confident he could slip away and in turn mask any connection linking him to the dead body.

Vin gave Ryosuke a weak lopsided smile. "Good. Then why don't we go pick up our bags?" he
suggested. The armoured assassin thought he detected a hint of relief in his voice.

As Ryosuke and Vin walked hurriedly down the streets of Paris, the taller man couldn't help thinking about
their recent adversaries. Noir… they certainly were an intriguing pair of individuals. He wondered about
their identities, about their lives here in Paris. He wondered how a Japanese girl had met a seeming
native-born Frenchwoman, and how the girl had become so talented in the craft of the killer. He wondered
how they had 'earned' the designation of Noir, a legendary duo of assassins in this continent. But mainly
he wondered if he had seen the last of them.




Chapter 15 - Homeward Bound


A small furrow surfaced upon Kirika's forehead and her eyebrows drew together, doing their best to unite
at the vertical crease and form a frown. Kirika was asleep beside Mireille, the two nestled snug together in
their bed, the younger girl having unconsciously cuddled closer to her beloved partner at some stage
during the night. Ordinarily the cosy and comforting presence of Mireille pressed against her would keep
Kirika in a deep and peaceful slumber throughout the twilight hours and onwards, right until the morning's
sun had risen well above the horizon. But not this time. This time it was far from peaceful and
unwelcomely deep. This time Kirika was dreaming. And an unsettling dream it was.

Kirika's shuttered eyes shifted uneasily below her knitted brow, the orbs rolling fitfully beneath their closed
lids and visibly disturbing the normally sleep-calmed coverings. Her lips parted and a soft, barely audible
gasp of air escaped from between them; a gasp of quiet shock, one that could be easily mistaken for a
simple exhalation whist sound asleep. Yet for a reticent girl like Kirika, whose introversion extended even
to her unconscious periods, it was the equivalent of a distressed exclamation.

Kirika's eyes suddenly opened unbidden, perhaps the trauma besieging her mind provoking it to at last
flee from the unpleasantness of the dream world into the safety of the waking one. Her mind's likely
hopes were realised as the morning sunshine pervading the apartment from its uncurtained windows
struck the girl's now equally unshuttered reddish-brown eyes, the mellow, soothing rays penetrating their
depths and onwards to chase the images of the dream away and back to whatever dark place they had
emerged from. But all memory of just what those images had contained were banished also, leaving
behind only residual tatters of the dream and a vague impression of the once strong feelings it had
induced. In effect, it was almost as if Kirika had never dreamt at all in her time of slumber. Consequently,
she could not recall what the dream had been about, why it had upset her so, or even how long it had
lasted. All that survived upon her awakening was a hazy recollection of her walking
somewhere--somewhere she had recognised, maybe even had been before--along with the
aforementioned vestiges of the emotions that had accompanied the dream. Vestiges that imbued a sense
of anxiety in Kirika; anxiety… and fear. That the dream had instilled fear--a sentiment seldom experienced
by Kirika except during the worst of circumstances, circumstances typically related to Mireille in some
way--in itself was enough to worry the teenage assassin, her mind being in the waking world no damper
to the full weight and meaning behind that ominous emotion.

But a dream was still a dream. Kirika knew that all too well, her dream of a tomorrow where she and
Mireille lived free from violence and death still as elusive as ever. Dreams were fantasies of her mind's
making. They had no basis in the waking world, no foundation in reality. Kirika's worries were groundless.
Yet she couldn't deny that her feelings were as real as any others she had experienced, and as a result
they were not so easy to simply dismiss.

As Kirika slowly blinked her troubled eyes into complete focus, she was greeted with the glorious sight of
Mireille's breathtaking profile engulfing her vision, rising like some sort of divine mountain from the ruffled
slopes of the pillow, the graceful tapering curve of the woman's nose its crest. Mireille was still fast
asleep, her delicate features relaxed, at peace, and her breathing expressed in a gentle, quiet rhythm. It
was a beautiful scene to Kirika's eyes; a sight to greet the morning with that could not be matched by
anything else in this world. But then of course Mireille was the epitome of beauty; regardless of her
physical state she would still be the most wonderful thing in imagination and beyond to her younger
partner. Waking up to Mireille's lovely face almost made Kirika totally forget about her dream and the fear
it had conveyed, its persisting ghost teetering on joining the rest of its body in the shadows of the girl's
mind. But, alas even that heavenly vision turned out not to be enough to grant oblivion and quell the
unpleasant feeling of dread nesting in Kirika's heart.

While the final memory of wakefulness Kirika could hark back to from last night consisted of her lying flat
on her back at least a hand's breadth away from Mireille, it was not surprising for her to find that her
position in bed had drastically altered for the better. That she was now lying on her side squashed up
against Mireille on the opposite half of the bed; her cheek resting on the slope of the woman's upper
chest, an arm draped across her slender waist and a leg mingling amid her longer ones, the combination
effectively restraining the blonde to the mattress; was about as natural to Kirika as the act of waking up in
the morning itself. It was a customary arrangement for the girl to wake up in; latched on to the person who
meant the most to her in her life. It was as if her unconscious self was somehow drawn to Mireille during
the night, her body automatically seeking the gorgeous woman out, her instinctive urges to be close to the
one she loved bestowed supremacy over everything else that floated in her mind while slumbering.

Mireille never complained about the nocturnal invasion of her personal space… or she didn't anymore at
least. In the early days of her and Kirika's relationship she had conveyed irritation at the quiet girl's
clinginess, but those days were fortunately long gone, replaced by a heightened degree of tolerance on
the blonde's part. Now Mireille had seemingly become accustomed to Kirika's habit to the point that she
graciously indulged it without a hint of displeasure, not so much as even mentioning it regardless of just
how intimately her partner's limbs were arranged around her body. And if her occasional surreptitious
touches in the morning when she thought Kirika asleep were anything to go by, the diffident girl
suspected that Mireille had grown to like their closeness possibly as much as she herself did.

Kirika simply lay where she was, not moving a single muscle, just basking in the joy of tightly embracing
the woman who owned her heart. Her eyes stayed where they were upon the picturesque portrait of
Mireille's serene face, taking in and adoring its fine details; the smooth, baby-soft alabaster skin; the faint
shadows cast by her long eyelashes, helping to define her high cheekbones; the perfect shape of her full,
slightly parted lips; the way her sandy tresses, a colour akin to the shores of an unsullied tropical beach,
fell about her shoulders and spread out on the pillow under her head. They were sights that Kirika could
behold forever and still cherish as if seeing them for the first time. She felt unworthy being in Mireille's
presence, a lesser existence--a speck far beneath her. Once again she marvelled at how such a person
could deem her deserving of affection, and how blessed she was to be the woman's chosen companion.
Kirika again pledged that she would dedicate her life to protecting this wingless angel in her arms. It was
the sole reason she lived, her motivation for each of her breaths. Never before had she possessed such
strong, sure purpose in her life. Her prior calling as Noir was no equal to it.

As Kirika drank in Mireille's enchanting features, she noticed that not every facet of the woman's visage
was as flawless as usual. The scars from the elder assassin's near fatal encounter with the contents of a
shotgun shell had faded some yet were still plain to see marring her left cheek, a trio of parallel lines paler
than her normal complexion. Looking at them made Kirika feel queasy, and she had to resist the impulse
to trace her fingers along the damaged tissue, although why she had such a desire to begin with she
couldn't say.

But those old wounds weren't all that spoiled the otherwise heavenly vision of Mireille's peaceful face.
Kirika could detect the shade of darkened flesh under the woman's closed eyes, and a general puffiness
around the area. They mutually spoke of fatigue, and were a testament to the pair of assassins'
skirmishes across Paris last night that had only ceased a few hours before dawn.

Kirika on the other hand felt quite well rested despite yesterday's lengthy outing, bad dreams
notwithstanding. However, her physical endurance had been groomed to be virtually inexhaustible in
accordance to her creation as the perfect killer, the superior fortitude enabling her to go for days without
sleep yet still function at one hundred percent. Such a level of stamina was ideal for long missions where
even a short respite was not an option, for instance holding a sniper position whilst patiently waiting for an
assassination target to pass before the crosshair of her rock-steady rifle's scope.

But apparently Mireille didn't share her partner's vaulted energy levels. Kirika felt instant sympathy for her,
and was more than happy to let the worn-out blonde sleep. It also gave the girl more time to simply gaze
at the enthralling person she loved in silent appreciation, an opportunity she was not wont to squander,
especially not after being deprived of one for so long. It had once been a scarcity for Kirika to witness
Mireille in this tranquil state, stripped of her masks and reserve until only the benevolent woman herself
beneath those misleading layers was laid bare in all her splendour. The gunshot wound Kirika had
sustained at the Manor had thrown off the darkhaired girl's normal sleeping patterns while her lissom
body struggled to recover from the life threatening trauma, meaning that more often than not she had
woken up to an empty bed, her partner having awakened and started the day a good deal before her. It
was true though that her injury had been virtually healed now for the past week and her derailed sleeping
patterns restored as a consequence as well, but Kirika still relished the privilege of seeing Mireille in this
naked condition regardless of how many times that privilege came about.

However, this particular opportunity turned out to not last as long as Kirika had envisioned, broken
moments later by Mireille's dark-smudged eyelids creeping groggily open to expose a sliver of dazzling
blue irises to the morning light; glittering clear skies peeking out from between black clouds.
Disorientation swam within the blonde's half-lidded and bleary eyes for a second, but then they dropped
lethargically downwards to where Kirika's head rested atop her chest, locking with the girl's own which
stared spellbound up at her.

"Good morning," Mireille said with a warm, gentle smile, although her obvious tiredness laced her
greeting and dulled her melodious voice's usual lustre.

"Morning," Kirika responded softly in her customary subdued pitch, made more so by her disappointment
that the blonde's slumber had concluded so soon. Disappointment not roused because it robbed her of
her continued delight at gazing upon a sleeping Mireille--that was in fact the farthest thing from her
mind--but because it meant her partner had not received all the rest she so clearly yet needed.

Mireille fidgeted for an instant underneath Kirika's willowy body that partially covered her own more
developed one, her muscles briefly tensing to rigid, momentarily hard and unyielding against the girl's
enveloping limbs. She then relaxed, but next made to get up and leave the bed, leave Kirika's embrace,
her body pressing insistently in opposition to her young colleague's imposed binds of flesh and bone. As
was common, Mireille didn't verbally acknowledge Kirika's confining hug or express her want to abandon
it, however her wish to do so was unmistakable. And as was common, Kirika didn't want her to go.

But this time Kirika found her limbs that lay across Mireille suddenly stiffening, securing the woman's
torso and left leg inescapably where they were, her small body becoming taut as densely packed muscles
flexed like coiled steel. Mireille had no choice but to halt her rise from the bed, her eyes opening a little
wider in spite of her weariness at the abrupt and unexpected impediment keeping her a captive beneath
the sheets.
Mireille frowned faintly and searched her partner's gaze probably for some clue towards the girl's action,
but after apparently finding a suitable one, allowed her body to relax once more and settle back upon the
mattress. She smiled, a tolerant smile a considerable margin more affectionate than her previous, the
fond gesture reaching her dark-ringed eyes.

"I suppose I can stay in bed a little longer," the blonde remarked kindly though somewhat wryly as well,
one corner of her mouth curling upwards to turn her tender smile into a tender smirk.

Kirika smiled too, a small smile of gratitude mitigated by the anxiety that still dwelled within her, an
unwanted parting gift from the dream. She let her muscles slacken since it was clear Mireille was not
going to abandon her, not going to leave her by herself, but the knowledge rather surprisingly did little to
alleviate her feelings of apprehension. Furthermore, the fact that it didn't only served to rekindle the
impression of fear inside her heart to its former strength, whatever amount that had been diminished
thanks to her losing herself in the admiration of Mireille's sleeping face wiped clean. If the continued
presence of Mireille in bed with her--while they were both awake *and* cuddled close together, a rare
happenstance--could not pacify her unease, then the fear must stem from something in the dream that
had been terrible indeed.

Mireille held Kirika's gaze for a second more before she sighed exaggeratedly towards the ceiling, her
eyes rolling upwards to the head of the bed. "I guess I'm just your teddy bear, hmm?" she said in a
resigned voice, still smirking, and obviously teasing--Kirika had seen teddy bears and Mireille was nothing
like them.

The woman's eyes returned from their ascent, meeting Kirika's once again. "Or perhaps you see me as
your life-sized doll?" Mireille sighed again, despondently, and an inquisitive blonde eyebrow crawled high
on her forehead. "And here I thought you were *my* doll…."

Kirika wasn't exactly certain whether her partner was still teasing or not; Mireille's skin was similar in hue
and texture to many of the delicate porcelain dolls' that she had examined once during one of their
numerous shopping trips together. Several of the dolls had the same fair hair colour, too. All Mireille
required was her blonde locks to be in ringlets and to be devolved into a miniature toddler for her to mimic
their general appearance. And also maybe a tiny white dress with frills and lace to fit her new stature.

Despite that Mireille had noticeably woken up in a good mood even with her persevering fatigue, Kirika
couldn't manage more than a non-committal mumble at the woman's light-hearted comments, even the
last one; her profound worry blanketing her spirits. Nevertheless, a more resilient part of her did muse if it
was customary for dolls to receive a lot of clothes as presents that they were expected to wear at least
once, recalling Mireille's fancy for buying her scores of garments and compelling her to don most of them
no less than one time--if not more--before they could depart the store they were purchased from. Kirika
empathised with the dolls; they had a difficult and tiring job. Changing repeatedly in and out of clothes
and then contorting yourself in varying stances took its toll on your stamina, even Kirika's having trouble
enduring. The girl wondered if Altena had incorporated a comparable training program to help build her
staying power to what it was today, her patchy memory providing no clear details if the woman had or not.
If Altena had, she was sure that it had not been as enjoyable as participating in the activity under
Mireille's supervision. Her compliance to seemingly act as a doll invoked happiness in Mireille, and if her
partner was happy, then Kirika was, too. No matter how demanding it was to generate that happiness.

Kirika's smile slipped, the introverted assassin's characteristic sombre expression returning to the fore
with its collapse. Her restless eyes fell away from her partner's happy ones made slightly arched by
Mireille's playful yet compassionate smirk, and focused instead on the bow below the collar of the
woman's lilac pyjama top. Kirika's vision blurred, however, not really seeing the tied ribbon except for a
white splodge in a plain of lilac. For some reason thinking about Altena caused the already substantial
fear chilling her heart to turn all the more icy, a fresh shot of frost injected along the frozen network of
tendrils deeply rooted inside it. Kirika shivered as the cold permeated outwards from her chest to the rest
of her body, as if her heart was pumping the chill through her very veins in concert with her blood.
"Are you alright?" Mireille asked, concern now ruling her voice. Kirika's tremble had been practically
indiscernible to the naked eye, the barest ripple passing through her body from her slim shoulders to her
dainty feet, but to Mireille it had apparently been plain to see. And to feel. Kirika was all but lounging on
the woman's chest; she should have realised that it would've been unlikely for her partner not to pick up
on it.

Feeling guilty to have harmed Mireille's fine morning spirits, Kirika contemplated merely murmuring
wordlessly in the affirmative and hopefully avert any further demolishment of them. But as her mouth
opened to utter that insincere sound, she thought of her time spent with Mireille at the bar in that
colourfully lit neighbourhood of Paris yesterday, specifically at what the blonde had spoken to her about.
Kirika had been honest when she had stated that she knew she could talk to Mireille about anything; it
was just that she frequently found it a struggle to put her thoughts and feelings into the proper words, or
words that she was sure her partner would understand, at any rate. Or else, as in this particular case, she
sometimes believed it better not to mention anything at all for the greater good. And then of course there
was the fact that Kirika was on the whole really not the talkative sort, preferring to listen rather than
contribute to a conversation, even if its participants were solely she and Mireille.

Since Mireille had judged it necessary to seek verification that Kirika recognised she was there to talk to,
the stoic assassin wanted to try to be more open with those thoughts that cropped up in her mind and
those emotions that swelled or shrivelled her heart, and thus reassure the woman she loved that she did
indeed know she could come to her for anything. Kirika didn't want Mireille to think she wasn't needed or
that she was unapproachable. Certainly, the blonde could be standoffish on occasion, especially to other
people, but for Kirika that aloofness was always significantly if not wholly toned down… although
admittedly it was to some extent relative to Mireille's state of mind at the time.

Kirika tilted her head upwards a bit on Mireille's chest, her unnerved reddish-brown eyes welcomed back
by her partner's tired ones, their depths more troubled than she last remembered. "I… had a dream," the
girl said with some difficultly, her throat inexplicitly drying out, as if she had been abruptly stricken by a
severe thirst. She swallowed, attempting to dispel the disagreeable sensation.

"A dream?" Mireille repeated, her brow creasing a tad as she considered this. "Was it a good dream?"
Her lips twitched, and Kirika could tell she was trying hard not to smile. "About me, perhaps?"

"Mm," Kirika mumbled, dismissing the blonde's speculation as incorrect. She would have loved for her
dream to be about Mireille instead of… whatever it had really been about. Kirika's dreams about Mireille
ordinarily made her feel nice inside, even if she couldn't remember their details in the morning. The few
that didn't were connected to the past, or involved Mireille leaving her all alone or the woman being hurt in
some horrible manner. The mornings following those particular dreams Kirika tended to cling to her
partner in bed just a little tighter than normal. "I can't remember what it was about," the disturbed girl
revealed quietly, "but I know it was bad."

Mireille stared at Kirika for a moment, as if mulling over something, and then there was a rustle of
bedcovers before the latter young woman felt the blonde's fingers lightly caress the nape of her neck, a
ticklish yet tantalising sensation that sent a shiver of a different kind to her last one through her lithe body.
Mireille smiled, a comforting, reassuring smile that's mere sight calmed Kirika's fretting heart a large
fraction. "Try not to worry about it," Mireille said, her fingers an idle but gentle, massaging pressure on the
back of Kirika's neck. "Dreams are a window into your mind. If you've been thinking a lot about something
before you go to sleep, then chances are you'll dream about it. A favourite activity, the day's events,
worries; whatever was on your mind before you fell asleep."

Mireille exhaled softly and looked up at the ceiling while her fingers travelled higher behind Kirika's neck,
reaching her tousled dark locks. She began to toy with them, entwining tufts around her graceful fingers
over and over again, in a way that was very similar to when she played with the girl's hair while she
believed her to be napping. "After leaving it with my uncle, as a little girl I used to dream a lot about my
home in Corsica," the blonde recounted, her blue eyes taking on the tint of a distant sky. "I used to miss it
a great deal, you see. It was never far from my thoughts." She blinked suddenly, and looked down at
Kirika. "But that's not the case anymore," the blonde quickly clarified with a bright smile, perhaps
recognising that the reason behind her exodus of Corsica might still be a touchy subject for her partner.
She would be right. "I see this place as my home now." Mireille appeared as though she were going to
say more, her mouth remaining open for longer than required, but instead she closed it and then simply
smiled at Kirika once more.

"We've had some substantial worries lately," the woman went on in a more serious tone a few seconds
later as she looked to the ceiling again, although she didn't cease fiddling with Kirika's hair, "so it's little
wonder that you had an unpleasant dream."

"Mm…" Kirika gravely agreed, her gaze dropping to regard the bow on Mireille's pyjamas again. There
was no mention of the most recent source of those worries however, no mention of last night's
proceedings and the implications behind them. But the topic hung heavily in the air between the two
assassins, unacknowledged yet still present, like a bloated black cloud waiting to burst and spread its
wretched rain over an otherwise sunny day. Neither wanted to broach it, knowing that all it would do was
cause the atmosphere to irrevocably turn sour. The rain could fall later, when it had to. Not now, in this
period of fleeting peace.

Mireille became silent, seemingly content to carry on absently stroking her fingers through her younger
partner's mop of hair. Kirika was silent too, digesting the worldly woman's remarks. One thing Mireille had
neglected to point out is that dreams could be a premonition of the future. Kirika had once dreamt that
another her existed inside of herself, a dream which had been in part responsible for prompting her to
write a letter to Mireille in case that dark self ever fully roused and had to be slain. It had been a dream
that had come true. But she hoped that Mireille was right; that her earlier dream was just a manifestation
of some unconscious worry. It could have been that her premonition hadn't been a dream to begin with,
but rather a lost memory resurfaced in the night, after all.

Minutes ticked by in hushed serenity, and Kirika found the strong, even thump of Mireille's heart beneath
her right ear a lulling rhythm in the quiet, its drumbeat serving to scare off the origin of her fear, exiling it.
Meanwhile the reassuring warmth of the beautiful blonde's body radiated into the slender girl's own,
defrosting the lingering traces of cold dread in her veins until they melted away, gone as if they never
were. And finally Mireille's affectionately dancing fingers mended Kirika's frayed nerves, smoothing the
roughness that had formed until none remained; a steadfast will revitalised to its usual staunchness.

A small, lazy smile came to Kirika's face, her eyelids feeling heavy and her breathing rate slowing. She
felt a lot better. She should have known that talking to Mireille would have been more than enough to
alleviate her distress. Just being with the woman she loved would have sufficed. It always did.

"I hope my hair doesn't smell too acrid," Mireille said softly, almost in a whisper. "I'm not sure I got all the
alcohol out."

"Mm…" Kirika mumbled dreamily in the negative, no more than vaguely aware of the bundle of blonde silk
strands lying near to her nose. "It smells nice…."

It eventually dawned on Kirika that her eyelids were shut and had been for several minutes. She was
dozing off, balanced on the boundary of sleep and awake. She wasn't afraid to give in to the desire either;
positive that Mireille's continued presence by her side would chase away any bad dreams that dared
threaten to attack her mind and taint her slumber. It seemed that her extensive training in combating
drowsiness counted for naught when set against the chance to snooze on Mireille's chest. Kirika briefly
pondered why Altena apparently hadn't taught her to resist this type of lure. But perhaps it could not be
resisted--the girl frankly believed it was beyond human effort to even come close.

"I think it would be best for us to get up now, before a certain someone nods off," Mireille's caring yet
amused voice suddenly suggested, lyrical eloquence filtering through the fluff shrouding Kirika's head.
"Honestly; I thought you were no longer a sleepy head!"
Kirika's eyes opened slothfully while she moaned in confusion, blinking with matching sluggishness up at
Mireille's smiling face. The blonde just shook her head wryly at her partner's sleepiness, and then
following a split second's hesitation, she fondly patted the girl twice in succession on her darkhaired head.
"Come on," she lightly urged, "we can't stay in bed all day."

Mireille's gaze was then yet again cast to the white-painted ceiling above, accompanied by an exhausted
sigh emitted from her throat. Kirika noted that the woman's dusky-rimmed eyes were tearing up with fresh
moisture through her own now almost likewise watery orbs. Fresh pity similarly flooded the girl's heart, a
different kind of anxiousness from the one so recently purged from it, nonetheless only marginally more
tolerable. "But the way I'm feeling right now, I certainly wouldn't mind to," the blonde assassin added
wearily, candidly admitting and not to mention exhibiting the strain she was undergoing. It was a seldom
seen thing; Kirika could count the number of related incidents on the fingers of one hand. Mireille tended
to be unforthcoming in relation to what could be perceived as weakness of any sort afflicting her. Kirika
could understand that if in the presence of strangers or enemies, but not so much when it was just the
two of them. She supposed however that her partner merely didn't want her to worry--it was a practice
Mireille often engaged in.

But the thing was, as odd as it sounded, Kirika *wanted* to worry. She--like Mireille in respect to her, the
girl realised in surprise--wanted to know if anything was troubling the woman, upsetting her, or if she was
in pain of some kind. And Kirika wanted to help resolve those troubles, allay those upsets, and ease
those pains. It was as if her obligation, her desire, to protect her partner extended beyond the mere
physical. It dawned on Kirika that she wanted to safeguard *all* of Mireille--physically *and* emotionally.
She wanted to ensure that the blonde was… happy, as well as in good health. Not in particular happy
being with her; simply generally content with life. She wanted Mireille to always be able to smile. *Truly*
smile. A genuinely, happily smiling Mireille made Kirika want to smile in joy, too.

As was typical of her character, Mireille's compulsion to delay getting up was quashed in favour of what
she deemed the more appropriate behaviour of boldly facing the new day. Kirika had known that her
partner's yearning to remain would be brushed aside, yet couldn't prevent feeling disappointed when the
blonde moved to roll out of her embrace and end their peaceful, blissful, time together in bed. Reluctantly
she let Mireille slip out from under her as the woman turned over onto her right side and then sat up on
the edge of the bed, Kirika's limbs--once akin to the potency of iron bands--willed into contrasting
flaccidity with notable effort; toned muscles made limp and the reflex to tighten them, to hold on
desperately to the person she loved, overridden with the dearth of vigour. Kirika considered asking
Mireille not to leave, but she had already requested it once--if not out loud--and the thought of asking
again made her feel uncomfortable, though why she couldn't pinpoint. Besides, she didn't believe that
Mireille would treat her again anyway; it had been a small miracle that the blonde had consented to
staying in bed the first time. Normally once Mireille ascertained that Kirika was awake, she couldn't leave
it fast enough.

Mireille took a moment to put on her slippers where she had left them by the bed last night, and then
stood up, stretching her arms behind her head with a faint groan of discomfort, her muscles no doubt
aching. Her departure of the bed proper pulled the sheets off of Kirika's lean body all the way down to the
girl's waist and bared her to the cold air of the apartment, a product of the winter's weather outdoors. But
rather than the air's cool touch, it was the loss of Mireille's cosy body that produced the shudder which
consequently wracked Kirika's forlorn form. She missed her partner's presence pressed next to her as
soon as it had left, and it was as though that sentiment had manifested itself in a physical reaction. She
felt naked without her, exposed to the elements… and alone to face them. Kirika's craving for Mireille was
akin to her need for breathing--an eternal, crucial factor mandatory for her to live. But she always suffered
the same acute separation anxiety whenever the blonde departed her company, not just when the woman
left the bed in the mornings. Incidentally, the length of that separation had no bearing either; it could be
for a minute or an hour, irrespective the feeling and its intensity were identical.

There was an exception however; the separation anxiety was vastly heightened in these morning cases.
Kirika suspected it could be because of her and Mireille's wonderful close quarters throughout the entire
night beforehand. The captivating bodily contact was a dynamic that made the subsequent absence of
Mireille more… real. The loss of Mireille's touch, her scent, her warmth, was a loss that was tangible and
hence was felt more keenly. Nevertheless, Kirika had survived it before and would recover from it…
eventually.

Mireille, as if sensing Kirika's deep feelings of isolation, turned her head back to the bed following her
stretch, back to the now glum girl she had left behind. Her look started out mildly inquiring, but merely an
instant after her tired eyes fell on Kirika her expression softened considerably, making her appear even
more fatigued yet somehow more resplendent all at once. She smiled tenderly and almost a shade
sympathetically at Kirika, and for a brief, shining second the hopeful girl actually thought Mireille was
reconsidering her choice of getting up, and may well be rejoining her under the sheets momentarily to
once more grant her the luxury of her cherished companionship.

But sadly neither Mireille's look nor her loitering lasted--a moment later she turned her head away from
Kirika and set off with slumped shoulders in a somewhat staggered path towards the bathroom, stifling a
wide but civilised yawn with a hand as she went.

Kirika watched her partner go until the woman reached the bathroom and shut the door, thwarting her
view. The young assassin exhaled softly and then simply lay where she was on her stomach, making no
attempt to readjust the covers over herself and keep the apartment's chill at bay. The bed was cold and
uninviting now without Mireille; it held no appeal at all for Kirika to remain. She could not linger for too
long even if she wished to anyway, unless she wanted to be scolded by Mireille once the blonde came
out of the bathroom. No, like Mireille, Kirika must boldly face the new day. Make no mistake, however, it
wasn't a displeasing prospect by any means. She had breakfast with Mireille to look forward to, and that
was always a pleasant affair. Food seemed to have a richer, fuller taste when it was eaten with the
woman, as if her sheer presence added some sort of mystery spice to every morsel consumed. But
before Kirika could revel in such delicacies, breakfast would have to be prepared first.

Gently shaking the residual lethargy from her head, Kirika sat up and then scooted over to the edge of the
bed, before climbing out of it. She padded bare foot across the rug by the bed and then down the short
flight of steps into the living room. The floorboards were frigid planks beneath the soles of her feet, and
the general cold of the room wafted on her arms and legs, the limbs uncovered by her nightwear
comprising only of a thin vest and petite shorts. None of it bothered Kirika though; the temperature was
not life threatening, just unappealing, but easily within tolerable limits for her. It was below her notice.

However, Kirika was not so indifferent to the iciness of the apartment that she wasn't mindful that her
more sensitive partner probably found it disagreeable. Mireille didn't benefit from the environmental
conditioning she had undertaken whilst in Altena's 'care'. Kirika had been inured to withstand extreme
climates and in turn continue to perform at peak proficiency as an assassin in them; blasted desert plains;
frozen, snow-encrusted tundras; muggy, monsoonal jungles; none of those settings' hardships debilitated
her as they would an average individual. Kirika possessed the ability to simply block them out, to forbid
them from taxing her mind and thus weakening her body. Nevertheless, this didn't make her body
immune to the harm those harsh climates could inflict upon it in the form of dehydration, frostbite,
pneumonia and the like, and consequently measures still had to be taken to protect her health.

Kirika switched on the radiators under the apartment's row of windows, and turned the heat up to a level
she was sure Mireille would feel most comfortable in. The girl hoped that at least the bite would be taken
out of the chill before her partner completed her ablutions in the bathroom. She couldn't imagine that it
was any warmer in there than it was in the rest of the apartment at present, so it would be a nice surprise
for Mireille to step out of the frosty bathroom and into contrasting warmth.

But there was a good chance that the radiators would have barely had an opportunity to do their job
before Mireille returned, so Kirika scurried into the kitchen to assemble an alternative remedy to stave off
the cold and also to make a start on breakfast. Once there, the diligent girl threw herself eagerly into her
chores. Picking up the kettle, she filled it with water and then placed it on the stove, the latter she then
turned on. While she waited for the kettle's contents to be heated, she trotted over to the breadbin and
took out a crusty white loaf with one hand and placed it on the nearby breadboard, while her other deftly
drew a breadknife from the knife block. Kirika twirled the knife unconsciously between her nimble fingers
as she lowered its serrated blade to the loaf--a whirlwind of silver in her hand--and then cleanly sawed off
four slices from one end. She left the knife on the breadboard and then scooped the slices up in her
hands, before moving over to the toaster, plopping them into the appliance. The busy girl next pulled
down the lever on one side of the toaster causing the bread slices to be swallowed into its interior, and
then after sparing a perfunctory glance at the kettle, nodded to herself in satisfaction.

Kirika's preparations thus far were naturally only for the scant beginnings of breakfast. Because of the
winter weather, she had opted to make something more ample than simple cereal and toast, and
moreover something hot cooked to help both her and her partner through the evidently chilly day ahead.
But before that, her alternative heat remedy for Mireille took priority. Kirika could hear running water
coming from the bathroom now, which was her signal that the blonde's reappearance was imminent--she
had to hurry.

Kirika took out a brightly polished, ornate silverware tray from a cupboard and then began setting it with
all the necessary tableware and crockery for tea. By the time she had finished arranging the tray and
supplying the requisite sugar to the sugar bowl and milk to the milk jug, the kettle was whistling its come
to boil. She quickly turned off the stove before hoisting the kettle gingerly from its spot, and then poured
its hot contents into the teapot which was already the home of several teabags, deposited there earlier by
the girl. After replacing the lid on the teapot and putting the kettle back on the stove, Kirika placed the
centrepiece of the tea set on the laden tray, beside the pair of matching cups and saucers that sat in
amongst the other pieces of crockery. For the final touch, she popped an embroidered tea cosy on the
teapot, ensuring it stayed warm on this cold morning.

"Yoisho," Kirika uttered as she lifted the now complete silverware tray from the counter, and then carried it
into the living room. The water in a drinking glass also allotted a spot on the tray by her earlier swished in
its confines as she went, the clear glass looking out of place amid the fine china, although its presence
there was almost as important as the tea set itself.

Kirika carefully set the tray down on the round table by one end of the living room, it visible from the
narrow kitchen. Free of her burden, she looked to her right in time to see Mireille wander down the
bedroom stairs, appearing a little fresher than when she last saw her but nonetheless still exhausted. As
Kirika had anticipated, once the woman traversed the steps she immediately headed for her computer on
top of the billiard table to presumably check her email--it was her typical morning routine, one the
observant girl knew well. Mireille did, however, make a temporary halt to inspect her lavender coat she
had slung over the uneven black partition after coming home last night. The woman raised the bottom
hem of the garment between a finger and thumb while she frowned crossly at the mud-caked grass stains
striping its back brown and green, reminders of her tumble across Laroque's lawn after diving through his
broken library window.

A few seconds later Mireille then sighed and let her coat slip from her grasp, before pursing her lips in
distaste. She ran her fingers through her hair, pushing her short blonde fringe back, and then scratched
her head as she went on glowering at her dirty coat, as if attempting to intimidate it into becoming clean
again. Kirika wouldn't be surprised if her partner really succeeded--her blue gaze could be as piercing as
steel daggers if she wished it… and just as painful for the one under it. Many times Kirika had borne that
look, but it was tranquil blue skies that fell upon her diminutive form nowadays. It was certainly a great
improvement. Being stabbed by Mireille's disapproving eye had been a blow she could never hope to
dodge, and caused a wound that festered for weeks.

Mireille eventually gave up glaring at her coat and dropped her hand back to her side, resuming her
well-worn path to her computer before settling herself in the chair in front of it. Kirika looked away from
her partner and focused on finishing what would probably become her own morning routine if the current
weather persisted. The apartment still felt rather chilly, the radiators, as previously predicted, having done
little to rout the cold assaulting the place. That was the purpose of the tea; to heat Mireille right down to
her bones, and subsequently enable her body to fend off the still present cold until she ate a nice hot
breakfast or the radiators prevailed in their endeavour, whichever came first.

Kirika removed the cosy from the teapot and poured Mireille a cup of tea, adding one teaspoon of sugar
and just a dash of skimmed milk, the resulting concoction appearing as though a white tempest had been
caught in a mocha sea. She then ran the teaspoon through the full cup once and once only before laying
it down on the saucer--just enough for the sugar and milk to blend with the tea and no more. One
teaspoon of sugar, one splash of skimmed milk, and no stirring whatsoever--it was just how Mireille liked
it. When Kirika had first learned how to make tea, memorising the precise servings of milk and sugar that
made up the woman's ideal cup and understanding exactly how to prepare it had been the topmost item
on her agenda. It had taken practice however, through which Mireille had been very patient stomaching
some unappetising if heartfelt attempts whilst providing supportive remarks and useful feedback after
their tasting. Now Kirika had Mireille's blend ingrained in her mind like her techniques on assassination; a
permanent nugget of knowledge among countless that she would never forget.

Kirika popped the cosy back on the teapot--it would not do to have the tea go cold while breakfast was
being cooked--and then picking up Mireille's cup of tea and the half-full glass of water, she walked over to
the billiard table where her partner was sitting.

Mireille didn't look up as Kirika approached, the woman occupied with staring grimly at her computer
screen, her expression far colder than the room's low temperature. Kirika wondered what had educed
such a sour look, but as she rounded the billiard table and neared Mireille, the blonde immediately
swivelled her chair around to face her, all smiles, and her shoulder now subtly obscuring the monitor and
whatever unpleasantness it might have displayed.

"Thank you," Mireille said gratefully as she took the tea Kirika offered to her, before lifting the cup to her
lips and taking an experimental sip. When she lowered the cup from her mouth back to the saucer her
smile had grown fuller, and she favoured the girl responsible with a pleased look, obviously approving of
the flavour.

Kirika smiled demurely back at Mireille, though thrilled to have satisfied her. It was moments like this that
made all the effort she put in worthwhile. It awarded an immense sense of gratification to her, one that
had no rival. Pleasing Mireille with her skills in murder left her feeling hollow, but pleasing the blonde in
any other way left her feeling fulfilled. It made Kirika feel warm inside.

"Are you not cold?" Mireille inquired curiously before taking another, longer, sip of her tea, eyeing her
partner from bare shoulders to bare feet over the cup's rim.

"Mm," Kirika said with an emphatic shake of her head, her small smile still strong on her delicate features.
She then turned around to cater to the orchid resting on the end table a couple of feet behind her, it too
awaiting a beverage from her, albeit a cold and flavourless one, but one just as beneficial all the same.

"Of course…" Kirika heard Mireille say wryly under her breath as she moved.

Kirika could feel Mireille looking at her as she watered their orchid from the glass in her hand, spreading
the life-giving fluid meticulously around its stalk, smiling all the while. The plant hadn't made much
progress towards blooming, but Kirika was dedicated to one day witnessing its flowers; she somehow
believed that they would be breathtaking, and worth the time and hard work she and her partner devoted
to nurturing their advent.

"Do you need any help with breakfast?" Mireille eventually asked following several moments of silently
observing Kirika's back and her gardening labours. The woman's voice was somewhat soft and distracted
as if her query wasn't a serious one, or as if there was something heavier on her mind than mere
breakfast.

Kirika hesitated in answering. If truth were told, Mireille's assistance with breakfast wouldn't go amiss.
While the teenage assassin had committed the recipes for the most popular and straightforward breakfast
dishes to memory, her pains to follow them and duplicate the end product were not perfect and some
endeavours even flopped outright. Mireille had told her that her theory was sound, but her execution was
unfortunately lacking in some areas. Kirika blamed her failures to date on the recipes themselves. They
simply weren't detailed enough and were devoid of contingency directions; for example in the event her
pancake stuck to the frying pan, how was she supposed to free it without it crumbling? If instructions
written in the same style were used for munitions deployment, then the girl was sure severe injuries would
result and possibly even fatalities. Cooking wasn't as easy as killing.

"Okay, I'll help," Mireille said with a slight smile in her tone, no doubt picking up on her partner's
uncertainty.

Kirika was relieved. She still couldn't go without Mireille's assistance whilst trying to cook. Furthermore,
with the more experienced woman's mentoring she was confident she would in due course master the
skill of cooking for all mealtimes, not just breakfast. No matter what Kirika would persevere. Like her
toiling with making tea, she wanted to be able to become thoroughly proficient in preparing meals for the
woman she loved, with the blonde's favourite dishes naturally given special preference. The withdrawn
but soft-hearted girl just wanted to demonstrate to Mireille how much she treasured her, how much she
adored her; how much she loved her. It was but a small demonstration of course, like the tea, merely the
tiniest statement of her feelings for her partner. Yet that didn't make it not worth doing. Every gesture
counted in Kirika's view; every way she could show her enormous affection for Mireille was important. The
size of the gesture didn't matter. The sentiments behind it did.

"We have a meeting with Breffort," Mireille divulged in an abrupt and grave change of subject, her tone all
business to match it. Kirika's smile vanished with equal alacrity.

The bloated black cloud suspended overhead had burst, and bad memories were suddenly cascading
down like acid rain. Everything that had happened last night came surging back to Kirika, stinging blows
on her mind--the cacophony of gunfire, the shed blood on the floor, the bodies of the dead, their quarry's
escape, a dark text's resurrection--everything, along with all the potential ramifications of each that were
no improvement on their forebears' caustic bite. Bad memories to be sure, but in retrospect Kirika realised
that she wouldn't have done anything differently. The people she had killed, the lives that had been
lost--they had all been deserving of death, sinners duly expunged from the face of the world and back to
the wicked place that had birthed them. And as long as Mireille's life was not among those snuffed out,
what did it matter who died? Kirika didn't regret killing those men who had been so intent on doing the
same to her and the woman she loved. She felt they had deserved it. Anybody who raised a hand to
Mireille deserved it.

Yet that premise sat uneasy in Kirika. That, and that she hadn't woken up truly horrified this morning at
the murders she had carried out. A part of her whispered why should she be, why should she have
compassion for those she had killed, for those who had threatened Mireille? She had simply been fulfilling
a promise, a duty; one worth far more than those men's lives. Deserving of death indeed. But who
deemed someone deserving of death; who was she to decide who lived and who died? She was the
executioner, not the judge… or was she too the judge? She had judged those men last night, and those
men before in the Metro. Who or what really determined who was deserving of death? Her, the one who
held the gun that delivered that end, the one who exercised it against another? Or the people who hired
Kirika and Mireille's services perhaps, those clients who paid money or provided another incentive for
someone's untimely demise? Both parties acted as the judge to some degree. Maybe it was those who
held the means to inflict that death who decided who warranted it. Kirika didn't know; she had never really
thought about it before now. She had never thought about how her skills at killing bestowed the
prerogative for her to choose who lived and who died. The girl held the fates of countless sinners in her
hands… hands that could easily extinguish them.

<Certainly a great power indeed. But it is your right to wield it.>

Kirika set the now empty drinking glass on the end table beside the potted orchid, and then straightened.
She turned back to Mireille who regarded her soberly. Her face was expressionless, all business, as if
having already donned the veiling executioner's hood. She reminded herself that all peace was short-lived
for her kind.

Kirika nodded to her fellow assassin in compliance.

******

Mireille looked up through the dark tint of her sunglasses at the massive glass pyramid that jutted out of
the ground before her, bordered by triangular pools of water that boasted a series of high-spurting
fountains at their centre. It was quite an impressive sight, a modern architectural marvel. Or so people
said. Mireille believed the pyramid a bit of an eyesore herself in this setting, clashing with the distinct
amalgamation of sixteenth and eighteenth century French and Italian design that made up the sprawling
Louvre palace that partially enclosed it. Still, both structures were works of art in their own right. Fitting for
the largest museum in France, and one of the largest on Earth.

Situated almost at the heart of Paris along the banks of the Seine, Mireille had seen the vast and regal
structure of the Louvre museum from the outside many times whilst traversing the streets of the capitol
city, but had never had the opportunity nor in fact had ever felt the inclination to venture within the
expanse of its walls before now. However, that didn't mean she wasn't familiar with it. It was after all one
of the most famous and 'must see' attractions in Paris, perhaps even in the world, home to around three
hundred thousand artefacts, sculptures, and paintings--including such distinguished works as the Mona
Lisa and Venus de Milo--spanning a variety of civilisations and cultures, some dating from as far back as
six thousand years before Christ. But despite how impressive it all sounded, Mireille and Kirika were not
here for the fine art. Regrettably.

The assassins were instead reluctantly standing here, with the Richelieu and Denon wings of the Louvre
museum flanking them, at Breffort's request, it having been received via email on Mireille's computer
earlier this morning… although why exactly they were convening at this precise locale was a mystery
understood only by him. The message had been in the standard style of the stern Soldats official, short
and to the point, the time and the place for the meeting stated but nothing else. He'd made no comment
on last night's unproductive carnage, but Mireille knew without a doubt that it would be his topic of
conversation for this little get-together. Believing it coincidence that he had scheduled a meeting so soon
after the false Noir's latest escape of her and her partner's bullets was a fool's conviction. As Ryosuke
had said, there were no coincidences when Soldats was involved.

Mireille certainly didn't think Breffort would be congratulating her and Kirika on a job well done, either. Not
that she particularly cared. She wasn't seeking Breffort's approval in any way, shape or form. While her
and her partner's goals may coincide with the man's, that was where their association ceased--they were
independent parties to him, and independent parties to the despicable organisation he belonged to.
Mireille did not see herself and Kirika as working for him, but rather working *with* him, and extremely
tenuously at that. She had even debated earlier to perhaps dispense with patronising this meeting all
together, just to make a point that she and Kirika were not at his beck and call. But she had obviously
decided against it, on the grounds that Breffort was still an ally of sorts against the Ryosuke and Vincent,
and could have information beneficial to their mutual cause… even if that cause was made mutual by his
scheming.

Maybe Breffort believed different about Mireille and Kirika's relationship with him--Soldats' arrogance
knew no bounds, and he was no exception--but if he did and attempted to manipulate the blonde today as
he had done--with, the Corsican grudgingly confessed, tremendous success--in their previous meeting,
then he would be in for a *very* rude awakening. Never again would she abide outsiders twisting her
feelings for Kirika to their own benefit. Breffort had cunningly used them before to strongarm her into
agreeing to throw away a perfectly tranquil and perfectly enjoyable lifestyle in order to dispose of Ryosuke
and Vincent, two criminals completely unconnected to her and her partner in any way beyond their use of
the young women's old alias, Noir--an awful revelation that had fully hit Mireille far too late, and one that
had demonstrated to her with total, staggering clarity how much of a liability her once staunch heart had
become. It had been the first time that Mireille's love for Kirika had worked against her, but the woman
swore it was also the last. She would *not* allow anyone to ever again sway her good sense by playing
on her fears concerning her relationship with Kirika. Or at any rate, she would try her utmost to uphold
that oath. She knew it would be intensely challenging indeed; her own rejuvenated sentimentality could
be labelled as the most formidable adversary she had ever faced in all her years in the assassination
business. And this hardening of her heart against outsider's taunts was but the first line of defence in
protecting herself from it. *Protecting* herself from it, yes, because she neither had the desire nor the
power to smother it wholly.

Mireille recognised that she'd been getting too sentimental of late and perhaps had been for a long while
now, it starting quite possibly as far back to when she had conceded to work jointly with Kirika on a
'pilgrimage for the past'. Small and trifling it had begun, hardly noticeable if at all and thus permissible,
albeit whether she liked it or not, but these days it had developed to such a scale and strength that the
woman was now so wrapped up in her feelings for her cute partner that she had been unwittingly allowing
them to influence her ordinarily stable and impartial judgement. It was a clear and present vulnerability in
her otherwise professional conduct as a contract killer, one she had flagged as having to be dealt with as
soon as possible if not immediately before it gave rise to her untimely end. She didn't aim to be a stone
cold murderer by any means, but she didn't want to be a soft one either; it would threaten to plant
undesirable seeds of doubt in her heart, doubt that would eventually bloom and cause her to question
every pull of her gun's trigger, to question every life she was hired to take, to question who truly was
deserving of death. It would not be good for business nor for her health, she predicted.

However, separating her business life from her personal life wasn't so simple, since both were intimately
entwined with one another, like two lovers' clasped hands, or their joined lips, or their writhing bodies
locked together in the throes of heated pass--Mireille winced slightly, wondering where those
comparisons had come from, and then ruthlessly reigned in her errant imagination before it came up with
any more romantic--yet highly disturbing--analogies. Heaven help her; she was more far-gone than she'd
thought.

But back on track--Mireille's lone business partner was Kirika, the girl who also encompassed the
Corsican's entire personal life, which made the division of the two aspects of her existence nigh on
impossible. It left the woman with quite a dilemma on her hands. She could always do as she had done
before; close off her heart, embrace formality and act as if she were nothing more than a colleague to
Kirika whilst on assignment. But Kirika was a needy girl emotionally, and such aloof behaviour would--and
had before, Mireille recalled with an unappetising cocktail of sadness and guilt--result in the younger
assassin becoming upset until she too closed off her heart, retreating back into her introverted shell. It
would certainly bring ruin to the relationship they shared and that Mireille held so dear; that much was
evident from the similar distressing happenings that had taken place only a couple of weeks ago.
Furthermore, the blonde wasn't sure that her heart would let her be apathetic to Kirika again even when
they were on the job, not after those aforementioned happenings that had ended with the sensitive girl
crying her eyes out against her chest. Mireille had vowed to never again deny Kirika the love and
attention she so plainly needed, and the woman would *not* break that vow.

But perhaps there was a way for the latter approach to work if Mireille were to somehow rationalise it to
Kirika so she'd understand not to take any of her professional detachment to heart. The girl would have to
be taught to understand as well why there was call to have a clear distinction between their business life
and their personal life. Kirika was as stoic as ever presently, but if Mireille's labours to beget the contrary
in her partner came to fruition then who knew what she'd be like in the future. Regardless of how
indifferent Mireille was, it would not do to have Kirika's own affection completely uninhibited; the woman's
efforts to keep things business-like would be severely undermined. She could just see herself, coldly
pointing her Walther in her right hand at a target, her face grim as Death… while Kirika was snuggled
under her free arm and hugging her enthusiastically around the waist with one of her own, the other
dutifully aiming her pistol at the target. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad… but still, it just wouldn't be proper
comportment at all, and couldn't be good in the long run. In any case, it was a method that had potential.
Mireille would have to give it some more serious consideration however before she could pursue it with
Kirika, and also determine how to best explain it all to her.
There was a lot to be said about the single life, Mireille thought sardonically, her lips twisting in mild
exasperation. She certainly didn't have these concerns before accepting a partner into her business and
life. But nonetheless, she wouldn't have it any other way.

Along with Breffort's message being brief and succinct, one more thing it had been was incredibly prompt,
or it had at least initially given that impression. The timestamp on his email had been scarcely a handful
of hours after the time Mireille and Kirika had returned home last night, which, in view of the barely
pre-dawn period when the assassins' violent jaunt across Paris had come to a standstill, was rather
remarkable indeed. Yet it wasn't as if Mireille and Kirika's activities the previous night had been at all
quiet, despite their efforts for the opposite. They had been forced to storm a strip club belonging to a local
criminal syndicate--a local criminal syndicate that had *somehow* learned they were coming, the precise
explanation for that little phenomenon still a mystery Mireille doubted she would ever solve, now--and
then engage in a frenzied shootout with possibly the entire, suddenly well-armed and well positioned
group, before subsequently killing every member present and then walking out of the premises with it left
ablaze in their wake. Then for the finale following a quick detour to pick up a trail and inadvertently
stumble upon a few fresh corpses that were this time not the product of their hands, the assassins had
infiltrated a wealthy man's manor to trade gunfire with their elusive quarry inside, and then fight their way
out of the building and the estate proper, chasing vainly after them all the while. Very little of it had
emulated the elegant manner in which Mireille preferred to operate in, to put it *very* lightly.

As a result, the majority of Mireille and Kirika's bloody handiwork last night had been splattered all over
this morning's news, the mediums of newspaper, radio *and* television each judging it worthy of the
public eye's glare. Perhaps Mireille should feel honoured for her and her partner's deeds to obtain such
widespread interest, but it wasn't as though the rotting fruits of their vocation hadn't been awarded media
attention before. As a general rule, the higher the profile of the hit, the greater the level of press coverage.
However, a high body count also invoked comparable attention. Mireille could understand the rationale
behind both. It was to be expected that if someone famous--or infamous, as was usually the case in her
and Kirika's line of work--met their downfall, then likewise their death would be renowned as well, maybe
even more so depending on the circumstances and the person concerned. As for a high number of
fatalities attracting similar notice, that was purely based on human beings' fundamentally barbaric
natures. When it came down to it, that was always what inspired the public's fascination--the tragic loss of
life itself. People were on the whole fond of bloodshed, real or make-believe, no matter what they said to
deny it. Why else would they pay to see it in the movies, watch it so avidly on their television sets? It was
a form of entertainment, a macabre one, often glorified by the media and film industry. Not until they had
lived a life on the black path surrounded by slaughter, the blood and death up close and personal, would
they wise up and shake off their ghoulish attachment. As for Mireille herself, she hadn't been to the
cinema in years and didn't even own a television, discounting her computer's ability to mimic one.

The news reports so far had been restricted to the massacre of Millet's pitiful gang in Pigalle, the bonfire
the dead man's headquarters had become surely having acted as a signal flare in the murky sky last night
that the authorities and press had flocked to. After the flames of the impromptu pyre had been put out,
Mireille imagined it had been quite a shock for them to uncover over a dozen broiled carcasses shot full of
holes, carcasses belonging to thugs probably well-known by the police. The newscasters and journalists
were labelling it the fallout of a feud between rival gangs, possibly related to the car bombing
approximately two weeks prior. They were no more than vaguely correct, as usual. Once a thorough
examination had been performed on what remained of the bodies, only then would it be realised that they
all were linked to the same, now defunct, organisation; invalidating the gang war theory. Mireille knew that
neither the authorities nor the media would ever learn the truth behind what really had taken place in Slick
Chicks last night. They rarely did when she had a hand in events.

But even without the news exposure Breffort would have still been privy to the knowledge that Millet was
now amongst the dead and his syndicate was in tatters, if that much had even survived. The Soldats
member had had an agent in the head gangster's midst after all; Jacques, the individual responsible for
couriering his tip-off to Mireille and Kirika… rather inconveniently *after* the young women had slain
everybody else in Slick Chicks. The Corsican was still unsure whether that had been intentional or not.
Jacques had been a jittery fellow, so perhaps he had simply opted to keep his cowardly head down until it
was safe to talk to her and Kirika, for fear that if he happened to be seen doing so beforehand, he would
incur the wrath of his 'peers'. Mireille dryly supposed it could be called cunning as well as cowardly if it
were true. It was a combination of traits all of Soldats' followers seemed to have. But whatever the cause
of Jacques' delay in delivering the message, with him having escaped Millet's headquarters in one piece,
he would have been able to give Breffort a first hand account on the chaos that had taken place there, a
privileged version of events considerably more detailed and accurate than the media's reports.

In addition, Breffort's connection to Soldats would have been the only way he could have heard about the
most significant incidents that had transpired the previous night, the ones revolving around Ryosuke and
Vincent at Laroque's abode. The television and radio news bulletins and even the newspapers with their
broader coverage on the city's and the world's daily happenings had all been bereft of any report
regarding the firefight on the collector's immense property, not so much as even a passing blurb printed.
Although, Mireille hadn't believed for a moment that anything would have been mentioned. Firstly, Albert
Laroque was a very prosperous individual, and had probably easily suppressed the police's involvement
before day had even broken, perhaps feeding money to his pet officers kept neatly in his pocket until their
sated appetites superseded their sense of duty--whatever was left of it. And without the authorities'
backing, the press were unlikely to even be aware of the shooting disturbances at his manor last night.

Secondly, Albert Laroque was of Soldats' crop, which for all intents and purposes precluded his affairs
from being publicised due to the innate characteristics of the enigmatic group he was affiliated with. The
evidence that he was a member wasn't conclusive to be sure, but Mireille's intuition spoke it to be true,
and, after all, she'd had considerable--if unwanted--experience dealing with such nefarious people. The
inclusion of Langonel's Manuscript with the other rare books in the man's extensive library had been the
chief indication, although in retrospect it had also been the solitary one. But Soldats *was* a secret
society, and had guarded that secrecy for over a thousand years; it wasn't as if a member freely
broadcasted her or his affiliation. Regardless, with copies of Langonel's Manuscript all but lost to the
world, and with its great import to the clandestine group of Soldats, Mireille didn't think the global
organisation would ever permit a copy of the tome to languish in the private collection of one who was not
indoctrinated into their order.

Thus, with Laroque likely allied with Soldats, and in light of Breffort's lofty standing within the society,
news of the aggressive break-in of the first man's home and the ensuing robbery of Langonel's
Manuscript from his possession had doubtless reached the second man's ears, especially when an item
of such importance was involved, and had been stolen no less.

Therefore, maybe it wasn't such a grand feat that Breffort's email had been sent to Mireille's computer so
swiftly. Truly, the blonde would have been astounded if it *hadn't*.

Given her prior careful contemplation on the matter, Mireille suspected that Breffort would be thoroughly
conversant with everything that had happened during that long stretch of darkness last night. Still, in
accordance to her credo, she judged it prudent to withhold her own knowledge on events, not revealing
anything she didn't have to unless the Soldats official did first. Breffort had proved himself to be a
conniving scoundrel--something Mireille ought to have expected from a Soldats follower of the upper
echelons--and the Corsican assassin would have to keep her wits about her lest he succeed in
manoeuvring her to his compelling will again. She was not Soldats--and thankful for it--but she could still
be just as cunning. As for Kirika, Mireille wouldn't have to worry about her speaking out of turn. The
introverted girl often retained her own counsel when it was only the two of them--a fact that disheartened
Mireille, and one she strived to change--and would be even less talkative in the company of an outsider,
possibly doubly so when that outsider was of Soldats.

One detail of last night's escapades that Mireille believed Breffort might not be wise to, however, was of
Simon's grisly murder in his shop basement; a murder that had encompassed two of his unlucky
associates in its lethal embrace as well. Or put more bluntly, it was unlikely that Breffort cared of the boy's
or his companions' eventual fates enough to have his operatives bother to check what ultimately fatal
card they had all been dealt. And Mireille knew he'd had operatives in the vicinity--how else would he
have known that Ryosuke and Vincent were at Simon's store? It was even possible that the Soldats
official had still been tracking the false Noir's movements even after 'recruiting' Mireille and Kirika, but had
made sure that his spies stayed well out of sight to both pairs of assassins. It was speculation that the
blonde woman had engaged in before; that Breffort's black-clad spooks were watching her and her
partner constantly, yet on orders not to interfere with their lives.

But the mere revived notion prompted Mireille to feel uneasy, nervous tension creeping into her spine,
tightening the joints until they ached in protest. She disliked being kept under a watchful, secretive eye,
especially if that eye belonged to Soldats. She supposed that the Louvre was swarming with the
organisation's minions right this minute even if her supposition was incorrect; Breffort would not travel
outside of his office building lacking ample defensive assurances. Mireille's shoulders stiffened to match
her spine's tautness at the thought, picturing that unseen gun sights were already trained on her and
Kirika, and had been ever since they had entered courtyard Napoleon.

The newspapers whose pages Mireille had quickly thumbed through at a newsstand before coming here
had been devoid of any article on the gruesome killings in Simon's basement, but unlike the incidents at
Laroque's estate, it was apathy that was responsible for the gulf of information. Like Breffort, the media no
doubt saw the murders of three teenagers in an unsavoury part of town insignificant, a trivial occurrence
that probably happened on a weekly basis there; small news compared to the 'gang war' story of the
same night. News unworthy of public consideration, of documentation. Of remembrance. Maybe their
remains hadn't even been discovered yet. Maybe Simon and the others were still lying where they had
been struck down so young, rotting alone in their dank tomb. Merely more forgotten victims of the black
path, their bodies having been coldly trampled beneath the heels of those who walk it. People like
Ryosuke Ishinomori and Vincent Hsu. And Mireille Bouquet. The woman was aware that she, like
everyone else, would not remember Simon or his companions. They were simply acquaintances she had
lost touch with, after all, and after today she would never again think of them. She knew it was better that
way from losing her family, the only departed people who had been a part of her life she ever dwelled on,
the only people whose memories of she clung to. The only grief she would allow herself. Even her Uncle
Claude wasn't granted that respect, not after….

But Simon, Ezza and their unidentified cohort would be avenged. Acquaintances they may have been,
mere assets to her occupation to be used at her whim, but Mireille felt she owed them that much. It was
something the Corsican assassin always accomplished without fail--vengeance for the people lost to her,
be they acquaintance, friend, relation, or lover. It could be said that her immediate family had been the
only ones deprived of that retribution, but in Mireille's eyes that vendetta had been settled with Altena's
passing. As stated before, Kirika had simply been the instrument of their demise, nothing more. In the
event Mireille had wrongly punished Kirika with a bullet, the lone means to avenge the girl would have
been to raze all of Soldats to the ground… and then turn her gun on herself. She should be thankful that
her heart had had other wishes for her partner.

Mireille weary blue eyes softened behind her sunglasses, her expression that had been severe during her
grim ruminations turning gentle. Indeed, she was hugely thankful. Kirika was alone responsible for
coaxing her long dead heart into beating again.

Reflected light gleamed dazzlingly off the rows of skewed rectangular glass panes that made up the
Louvre's pyramid entrance, its source the bright sun high overhead, ruling the virtually cloudless sky. But
it was a deceptive glow, a vivid but empty shine bereft of warmth. The temperature was still freezing
below the sun, Mireille's hot breath fogging the air like puffs of smoke. She was as glad for her
brownish-grey coat that warded off the cold as she was for her dark pair of sunglasses that diffused the
intense bars of light.

Despite winter's inhospitable presence, a slew of visitors populated the Louvre museum, the courtyard
around the pyramid lightly dotted with roaming people braving the weather. No doubt they had been taken
in by the false hope the bright sun presented, it promising a warm, pleasant day that would never come.
Mireille could relate. A naïve part of her was optimistic that this appointment with Breffort spelled the
finish of her and Kirika's divergence from a peaceful way of life; that perhaps after their recent failure to
kill the dour Ryosuke and his flamboyant comrade, and the blatant commotion they had caused in Pigalle
and in the home of one of the Soldats official's order; he had decided it safer to terminate their association
before his colleagues on the clandestine society's council caught wind of any links between them. But the
larger part of Mireille knew better. Breffort wouldn't give up on them that easily. She and Kirika had once
been Noir, after all, the Eternal Darkness, the supposed Black Hands of Soldats. And with Langonel's
Manuscript's sudden inclusion in the equation, matters had become even more serious. Plus not to
mention that Ryosuke and Vincent were now privy to Mireille and Kirika's faces. The men could not be
tolerated continuing to live with that knowledge.

Mireille looked to Kirika who was standing roughly a foot from her left shoulder, wondering if she held a
similar naïve hope, or a speck of one at any rate. The quiet girl was staring at the glass pyramid in front of
them with a seemingly uninterested countenance, her hands stuffed in her parka's pockets; an unplanned
exhibition of stoicism in the Louvre's Napoleon courtyard. But the otherwise flawless demonstration was
spoiled by her visibly squinting in the strong sunlight, partially blinded by the false hope. Mireille cynically
reminded herself to procure a pair of sunglasses for Kirika as soon as possible.

"Afterward, why don't we have a wander around?" Mireille gaily invited her innocent partner, her features
persuasive in their hastily adopted tenderness. "This is probably the finest museum in the country, and is
famous throughout the world. But I haven't had a chance to see it, myself."

It wasn't as if Mireille was keen to explore the museum, but she believed that any faith Kirika harboured
that their hunt for Ryosuke and Vincent was over with would be cruelly dashed aside once Breffort's
meeting had ended, and as a result the feeling-hearted girl would need cheering up. From what she could
tell through the reserved shell that cloaked Kirika's emotions--the darkhaired girl's expressive eyes being
the only reliable and fixed peepholes inside--spending quality time alone together simply pursuing
everyday pleasures always appeared to make her happy. What's more, the older woman hardly ever
passed up an opportunity to further her partner's rather deficient general education. The exhibits of the
Louvre were plentiful indeed, and although it was doubtful that they would be able to see them all in a
single visit, it would still provide a comprehensive history lesson for Kirika. Mireille decided that she would
focus on French history first, that was, of course, if Kirika agreed to her proposal. But the blonde knew
she would. Kirika never queried any of her suggestions, or at least not any unrelated to their profession.
The girl was always so eager to please.

"Mm," Kirika acceded with a look and a nod, squinting up at Mireille.

Mireille smiled at the girl's predictability. "It's settled then," she said. "I'm sure it will prove to be
fascinating… and quite the learning experience." The last was added somewhat apprehensively, the
woman just realising that her own ability in history--including French history--wasn't precisely stellar. She
really hoped that the pieces on display in the museum were accompanied by plaques or something
narrating their origin. She was confident she could bluff her way through her lectures to Kirika if she had
at least some concrete facts to base each one on.

Kirika nodded once again, this time solemnly, maybe recognising Mireille's teaching ambitions for their
now planned tour of the Louvre. It wouldn't be the first occasion the blonde had tried to school the girl on
more than just how to kill someone efficiently. She had taken Kirika to the opera a few times, in an
endeavour to expose her partner to some culture, as well as to entertain her in the process. Kirika gave
the impression she liked it, although she tended to sidle close to Mireille in her seat, pressing her body
hard against the armrest that separated them. Being a member of a large audience, enclosed on all sides
save one seemed to make her edgy. But when the curtain was raised and the opera itself begun, the
melodic singing that washed over them eventually relaxed her.

Just as Mireille began to wonder where Breffort was, and if she and her partner should forsake their
engagement after all and commence their sightseeing of the museum early, Kirika turned her head back
to the pyramid, the motion educing the blonde to do likewise. With jumbled emotions Mireille caught sight
of the man in question emerging from the glass belly of the pyramid that doubled as an underground
entrance to the Louvre palace, and on this specific occasion that's perimeter acted as their designated
meeting place as well.
Breffort limped slowly towards the two assassins through the people who crisscrossed his path, the cane
by his side crested with the semblance of a golden bird's head compensating for the weakness in his bad
right leg. He was attired in the same trend as normal; in a suit, shirt and tie of drab, muted colours; tones
of blacks and greys that the eye seemed to overlook, the Soldats official blending into the background, a
discounted facet of the sparse crowd. Mireille mused whether he was clad in that style on purpose. It was
an old assassin's trick, to dress down and unconsciously lax the gaze of onlookers, urban camouflage
whilst in plain view. It didn't always work, and a contract killer worth their salt would possess a level of
concentration that effortlessly defeated the technique, but it did usually aid in eluding the less skilled
authorities and in being forgotten by any potential witnesses. Mireille rarely embraced the practice,
favouring a refined fashion sense emphasising a mix of solid colours over flat, lacklustre and dowdy
clothes that provided only a small amount of benefit in return. That wasn't to say she abhorred black and
grey in her wardrobe, but that employment of the shades were tempered by good taste.

Mireille hoped that her modish fashion sense would sooner or later rub off on Kirika… who unfortunately
had none whatsoever. That was why Mireille picked out the girl's clothes for her and drilled what
combinations of them made the best outfits… besides also furtively wanting her partner to model what
she would look the loveliest in, a goal which happily coincided. Kirika didn't seem to know what to choose
and consequently appeared to randomly pluck garments from the hangers, giving no regard to how…
awful… they would look on her. The last item Mireille had let her select herself had been those pink shoes
of hers. True, they were adorable on Kirika's delicate feet--which was why the blonde had purchased a
new pair to replace the one lost during the girl's trip to the Manor--but they didn't really go with anything.
Only their cuteness assuaged the irritation that threatened to arise whenever Mireille laid eyes on them,
her devout sense of style's wails of objection muffled by the feelings of her heart. As such, Mireille
believed it her duty to take Kirika under her experienced wing and guide her clueless 'pupil' in the art of
being well dressed. She suspected she had a tough task on her hands.

Breffort nodded in greeting to Mireille as he joined her and Kirika outside the pyramid, the regular beat of
his cane on the paving halted. His expression was hard, but no more than was common from the
customarily austere man. Still, the Corsican assassin couldn't conceive that he was pleased with the
latest developments on the Ishinomori front.

Mireille's face darkened to mirror Breffort's, her gaze becoming as cool as the air around them and as
pure a blue as the sky above. It wasn't as if she was pleased with developments, either. Or with having to
once again converse with one of Soldats' ilk.

"This makes a nice change from your office," Mireille commented condescendingly by way of welcome,
placing her hands on her hips as she made a show of appraising the scenic palace walls that served as
their backdrop. As her frosty eyes glided over the exquisite architecture, she idly wondered in which
windows Breffort's 'guardian angels' roosted, totting high-powered rifles in their clutches. Of course, if
Mireille was intent on killing him, there was not a hope in the world that the concealed snipers would be
able to stop her. But making it out of the courtyard alive after the deed was done might be a tad tricky.

"It would not be intelligent for us to meet there more than once," Breffort said gruffly, ignoring the
woman's disrespectful tone. He was probably used to it by now. "My colleagues are familiar with my place
of business, and thus it is not guaranteed to be free of prying eyes. If they ever learn of our dealings, it
would put me in a… difficult position."

"We can't have that," Mireille deadpanned, displaying as much concern as she felt.

Breffort stared at the waspish Corsican for a second, before merely grunting in response. It rankled
Mireille that he was so impervious to her finessed barbs. It was like disparaging a rock.

"Come, let's take a walk," Breffort then proposed. He tapped the bottom of his cane against the side of his
right black leather shoe. "This cold doesn't agree with my leg." He angled his body towards the museum
wing to his rear, the section conversely facing the assassins. "I hear the Sully wing has a fine exhibition of
ancient pre-classical Greek works. I trust that era will be to your--" His grey eyes flicked to Kirika for a
second, bestowing her the same bland look he seemed to give everything, "--and your partner's liking."

"I'm sure it will be," Mireille replied evenly as she searched through Breffort's gloomy voice for any buried
hint of sarcasm, weighing whether his last remark had been a subtle yet deliberate dig at her Sapphic
predilection, and at the girl it was currently focused on. One portion of history the blonde *was*
acquainted with was that of around sixth century B.C. regarding an isle in the Mediterranean, and the
gifted poet who had been born there. And what that female poet had written of.

But after fastidiously scanning Breffort's words Mireille found nothing to indicate they held any scorn
whatsoever, and honestly, she hadn't truly expected them to. She didn't think Breffort was the sort to be
so contemptible as to mock her and Kirika's lifestyle choices. He was twin to a rock, after all. The woman
was probably reading too much into it, letting her rancour for Soldats as a whole cause her to tar all of its
members with the same vile brush… when there was in reality many assorted types of vile brushes of
varying scales to tar them with.

Besides, she wasn't sure if Breffort was even aware of the romantic--or increasingly romantic, at any
rate--nature of her relationship with Kirika. Yet, he had been present with the rest of Soldats' high council
when the young women had shuffled awkwardly but victoriously out of the Manor together, their arms
around each other's shoulders steadfastly supporting one another's tired and wounded bodies, the
Corsican proudly publicising her decision to stand by her partner to the bitter end and beyond. Moreover,
Breffort had taken advantage of Mireille's soft spot for Kirika before, so he had to have some grasp on the
depth of her feelings for the petite girl. But past their prospective gainful use in his conflict against Kaede
Ishinomori's wild behaviour, Mireille doubted the Soldats follower cared about her affection for Kirika.
Thank goodness for small mercies, she sardonically supposed.

Breffort led the way around the fountains that surrounded the Louvre's pyramid and across courtyard
Napoleon to the Sully wing, his hobbling pace forcing Mireille and Kirika to slow theirs to compensate, the
necessity frustrating the blonde. She considered whether to spitefully insist that they talk outside in the
courtyard, just to make Breffort uncomfortable. The painful distraction he would suffer as a consequence
*could* give her an edge in the conversation, in the battle of wits, ahead. But Mireille understood that she
was once again allowing her animosity for the man and the group he represented to turn her into a, quite
frankly, nasty bitch. She should take a leaf out of Kirika's book--or maybe even Breffort's--and tackle
annoyances with stoicism fortifying her nerves. Although, the woman normally did face life's challenges
with an aloof front--Soldats merely had a tendency to incite her temper to flare dramatically. She had to
strive to be better than that, to not let the odious international organisation defeat her in any manner at all,
irrespective of how minor.

The somewhat long trek to the Sully wing of the Louvre was made in silence, Breffort shambling ahead of
Mireille and Kirika with the young women flanking each other behind him. The Corsican contract killer
could envision the Soldats official's snipers tracking their progress across the courtyard with their rifles,
invisible bullseyes painted on her and her partner's heads and backs. It was with relief when Mireille and
her unbearably lethargic company finally entered the shelter of the Sully wing, the blonde glad to shake
off their hidden and dangerous watchers. But it was a short-lived reprieve. Breffort had to have more
agents in position about the interior of the palace, or at the very least in this particular wing. He wouldn't
have suggested that they 'take a walk' here unless he had adequate measures in place to protect his
person, just in case Mireille suddenly opted to put a bullet or two in him. And who knows, maybe she
might if what he had to discuss with her and Kirika didn't sit well with her.

Sometimes Mireille wondered why she hadn't pounced upon the chance to slay Breffort and all of Soldats'
chief council with him when she and Kirika had stepped out of the Manor. Life may well have been
considerably easier if she'd had. But then she and Kirika hadn't wanted anything more to do with the
order--and still didn't, despite recent affairs--and murdering their top heads would have likely prohibited
that, rousing the countless remaining followers to seek revenge once they had recovered from the panic
of losing their leaders. And then the young women would probably have never been rid of Soldats, forever
at unrestrained hostilities with the entire group. On second thoughts, life in all likelihood would have been
considerably more difficult indeed if Mireille had chosen that vindictive route. Moreover, there was also
the fact to consider that Mireille and Kirika had honestly been in no condition for more gun battles at the
time. The Corsican had been confident they could have killed the councilmen with relative ease
regardless, but she hadn't wanted to get into another shootout if they could avoid it. Kirika had been in
bad shape in spite of her defiant bearing; her gunshot wound would have been potentially life threatening
if left without treatment for too long. Hence, with her partner's wellbeing at stake--a partner who she had
only just acknowledged her true, loving feelings for--and the undeniable craving to return to their old life
together, Mireille's choice back then had been crystal clear. In hindsight, she didn't really regret her
decision. Nevertheless, it was still nice to dream about all of Soldats' ruling body lying dead at her feet
sometimes.

Mireille left her black, rectangular sunglasses where they were perched high on the bridge of her nose as
she, Kirika, and Breffort walked at the same irritatingly slow gait down the antiquity laden corridors of the
Louvre. The previous night's lengthy activities and therefore significantly shortened hours in bed had
given rise to some acute bags under her additionally puffy, stinging and watery eyes, plus not to mention
sore limbs and a moderately more intolerant disposition than usual. Generous coats of makeup had
concealed the worst of the unwelcome dusky rings, but they were still mostly discernible to Mireille's
chagrin, in conjunction with the tears that constantly brimmed her bloodshot blue eyes and the swollen
capillaries around the orbs that seemed to exasperatingly accentuate the bags. So the solution had been
obvious, and one she had employed before after many a long, late night assignment. Following the
cosmetics care; eye drops to reduce the stinging sensation, the swelling, and the prominent veins in her
gaze, and then a pair of trendy black sunglasses to finish off. Even if it hadn't been a misleadingly sunny
day she would have still donned a pair. The blonde couldn't have ventured out in public with anything
less. She did have standards to maintain.

Mireille was cognisant of the odd, mildly thoughtful look Kirika was casting in her direction as they walked,
as if through staring at her something had just revealed itself to the girl. Whatever it was seemed to
satisfy Kirika, and she turned her head away from Mireille, new understanding appearing to shine in her
doe eyes.

Mireille shook her head a fraction, dismissing her partner's antics. She was quite accustomed to Kirika's
occasionally peculiar behaviour by now, but what she wouldn't give to see inside that pretty little head of
hers at times. From what she had gathered from working and living with her, Kirika could come up with
some rather strange notions.

Magnificent Greek artefacts preserved from days of old passed by Mireille on both sides, but she hardly
saw any of them. Her eyes were too busy darting warily around her, the woman's mind hypothesising
where Breffort's bodyguards where secreting themselves now. There were a few other visitors to the
museum drifting up and down the wide corridor, as well as security guards standing tall at their stations.
Any one of them could be in Soldats employ; hiding in plain view. It was a tactic they favoured.

Finally, Breffort stopped and turned to regard at length the ruined remains of a pillar-like marble statue
that loosely resembled a one-armed headless woman, the Soldats member's left arm arranged behind the
small of his back while his other kept his cane perfectly upright. Mireille and Kirika stopped walking also,
but neither spared so much as a glance at the statue--their eyes were on the man who had summoned
them here in the first place.

"You and your partner were quite active last night," Breffort said at last, though his gaze remained on the
museum piece. His words were addressed as always to Mireille and not to Kirika, as though he wasn't
even conscious of the girl standing next to the blonde, like she was seen as a part of the Corsican. It
didn't actually bother Mireille that her partner was excluded from their conversation, however. The idea of
Breffort talking directly to Kirika was unsettling for some reason, as if by him doing so some unseen
barrier would be violated. "But have naught to show for your efforts beyond the bags under your eyes."

Mireille's lips twitched and one of her eyebrows was stricken by a sudden tic, the woman irritated and
abashed that her pains to disguise the fatigue showing in her eyes had been transparent to Breffort, and
moreover to have her and Kirika's labours the previous night to be denigrated so. She reached up and
readjusted her sunglasses on her nose in an endeavour to mask her discomfiture and give her time to get
a hold of her growing indignation, the blonde clamping down on it before her standoffish veneer
unravelled any further.

"However, your actions did free one of my better operatives from an increasingly insignificant post,"
Breffort went on as he turned away from the statue to face Mireille and Kirika, either ignorant of or
indifferent to the Corsican's internal struggle with her escalating resentment. "I believe I owe you a debt of
gratitude for sparing him where others died."

"'Don't shoot the messenger'," Mireille quipped smoothly, although without emotion. Breffort had to be
referring to Jacques, the man she and Kirika had encountered in Millet's strip club. It was irrefutable who
he worked for, now.

Breffort nodded slightly in thanks. "Judging from what I've heard, you acted on my message," he then
said. He heaved a sigh and looked away briefly, before affixing Mireille with a pitiless grey gaze. "But you
failed," he stated with finality. "Ryosuke Ishinomori and Vincent Hsu are now on a plane halfway back to
Japan and the protection of Kaede Ishinomori's forces. It will no longer be as easy to strike at them."

"They've left France?" Mireille said, taken aback. She frowned hard, glowering at the floor. She guessed
the false Noir had got what they came to Paris for; namely Langonel's Manuscript. This made matters a
great deal more complicated, and they hadn't exactly been straightforward to start with.

"Yes, and with Langonel's Manuscript in their possession. Evidently it was their reason for being here,"
Breffort confirmed, as if he was tracing the blonde's train of thought. "And so…."

The high-ranking Soldats official slid his free hand inside his suit jacket, causing him to obtain dual, firm,
guarded looks from Mireille and Kirika, their eyes simultaneously and abruptly snapping to him in a united
instant. But once his hand reappeared, there wasn't a weapon held in it but a bright red packet, one he
brandished before the assassins.

Mireille's frown deepened and became one of anger rather than worry as she spied the white coloured
logo on a lower corner of the envelope, a logo she recognised as an international airline's. So *that* was
Breffort's game.

"You planned this from the start, didn't you?" Mireille accused the loathsome Soldats member hotly
through gritted teeth belonging to a sickened sneer, her battle to control her ire towards him and his group
all but lost. "For us to go over there and deal with Kaede--with *everything!*--for you! For Soldats!" The
blonde shook her head in disgust, her eyes boring into Breffort through her sunglasses' shade.

"Well, I'll tell you now we'll have none of it!" Mireille continued to hiss, having retained just enough of her
composure to remember to keep her voice lowered. Perhaps this was the incentive Breffort had had for
selecting to convene at a museum; because he knew she would be furious at his scheme. The
repercussions of killing Ryosuke and Vincent in Japan, whilst the men were backed by Kaede's growing
empire, would be considerably thornier than if they had been taken out isolated and alone in Paris. The
pair knew that the 'true Noir' sought their lives, and had probably at least informed Kaede of that fact.
Thus if they were to be murdered suddenly in Japan, Mireille and Kirika would be the first to be
considered as the culprits. Maybe the blame for the eventual assassinations could be pinned on Soldats,
but it was unlikely now with the affirmed death sentence looming over Ryosuke and Vincent's heads.
What's more, Kaede would not let the slaying of her older brother go unpunished, perhaps even forcing
the young women responsible to kill her, too. Which was presumably exactly what Breffort had planned.

"You misunderstand," Breffort said, clearly unfazed in the face of the Corsican's outrage. "This is merely a
natural progression. Ryosuke Ishinomori and Vincent Hsu are still alive, but are now heading home for
Yokohama, Japan. Therefore you must go there as well to finish your task. I have never known you to
desert an assignment you have already agreed to undertake."
Mireille seethed with impotent fury, fantasising herself whipping out her gun from under her coat and
shooting Breffort in the chest, straight through the airline tickets he held aloft, but frustratingly aware that
it would stay a fantasy. The Soldats official was practically untouchable, save if she wanted herself and
Kirika to be on the run for the rest of their lives. And he was correct; she'd never abandoned an
assignment before. But she had agreed to his under fictitious pretences; her dogma of acceptable
conduct didn't apply here.

"And it also doubles as a means of protection," Breffort expounded, wagging the tickets in his hand a tad.
"The property Ishinomori and Hsu raided--and which you pursued them to--was owned by one Albert
Laroque of Soldats. You and your partner killed some of his men, and were sighted at the scene by those
who survived."

"Unavoidable," Mireille spat vehemently yet vainly, already realising where this was going.

"True, but it is perceived that you and your partner have stirred completely from your self-imposed torpor
now, having committed an act of unbridled hostility against Soldats," Breffort clarified. "It is of the council's
opinion that you have declared yourselves a full enemy to them, and so have been marked as such. It is
only a matter of time before they take decisive action against you both."

"And I'm sure you didn't say a thing to dissuade them, to set them straight," Mireille snarled.

"That would risk exposing our alliance," Breffort said. "Testimony came from Laroque himself, a member
of some standing among us. I would have needed proof to discredit his beliefs regarding the extent of
your involvement against him, and I have none bar our forbidden association."

Of course. Breffort wouldn't put his own head on the chopping block when there was already two
there--specifically Mireille's and Kirika's. Cunning and cowardly, cunning and cowardly. The qualities of
Soldats.

"Henceforth, it isn't safe in Paris for either of you anymore," Breffort warned. "Indeed, some on the council
feel you and your partner may even have sided with Ishinomori, which ranks you both as possibly a
greater menace than you were before as purely Noir; unruly blades but solo ones."

"And you want to send us to Japan?" Mireille exclaimed incredulously, her voice somehow still at a
subdued pitch. "To the den of our alleged collaborator?!"

"It is the safest, wisest course of action," Breffort attempted to rationalise. "You must leave the country for
your own safety, and to prove yourselves as solitary parties in this dispute. To finish what you have
begun. Thus--" He gestured with the tickets in his hand again.

"It all sounds so… plausible… so… reasonable," Mireille said, her tone cold, her boiling temper brought
down to a low simmer in the face of the Soldats follower's believable vindications. But real or not, they all
served one common purpose; for Mireille--and by association Kirika--to do what Breffort wanted. How
calculating of him. How *despicable* of him. "But this is a performance that I've been exposed to before,"
she condemned tartly. "The last time we met, you convinced me that Ryosuke and Vincent were poised to
be our rivals, when in reality they were scarcely aware of the existence of Noir at all!"

"As before, I simply present the solid facts and my own verdicts on them," Breffort straightforwardly
avowed. "Nothing more. It has always been your liberty to decide how to act on the information I provide."

Mireille said nothing in reply, merely giving him a sullen scowl. She was agonisingly aware that he was
right. Her choices had always been her own from the start; indeed, the woman had actually taken pride
that Breffort didn't dictate her actions, his manipulation of her through her feelings for Kirika
notwithstanding. But hearing the Soldats official state that fundamentally it was Mireille's own fault for the
mess she had dropped herself and her partner into, even though she had previously accepted that truth,
made her feel terrible all over again, the unremitting guilt that was a lead weight inside her heart
refreshed and compounded to profound potency. It additionally made the assassin feel angry; angry at
Breffort for reminding her of her failure, angry at herself for failing in the first place, and angry at her weak
heart for propagating that failure.

"Besides, with their attainment of Langonel's Manuscript, I assumed Ishinomori and Hsu's ambition to
become the true Noir unmistakable," Breffort went on unhelpfully, Mireille already having taken that into
account. It hadn't reduced her guilt in the slightest.

Breffort cleared his throat, and then fastened a stern stare upon Mireille's now somewhat disconsolate
form, the woman's shoulders slumped and her head dipped, wilted blonde tresses falling past a face
where bleakness and bitterness warred. "The flight to Japan departs tomorrow afternoon, which offers
you some leeway to make your decision," the man announced, once more plying the airline tickets in his
left hand. "But stay or go; the choice is yours, Mireille Bouquet."

Mireille looked up, favouring Breffort with a baleful glare over the top of her sunglasses, her
dark-smudged, swollen and bloodshot eyes giving the look an especially hellish quality. She then raised
her head and pushed her glasses higher on her nose, before stepping decisively forwards, snatching the
tickets belligerently from his grasp. Not this time. The choice would not be Mireille's this time. Her guilt
was enough as it was. No, she planned to lay the whole choice on how to proceed on Kirika's slim,
unsuspecting lap. It was a momentous decision, with who knew how many dire ramifications awaiting
them on either path, and the blonde just couldn't make it herself. Her last major decision had led to such
unmitigated disasters that she and her partner were still suffering from their ill affects, one being having to
decide whether to embark upon a trip to Japan and face Kaede's forces, or to remain in Paris and face
Soldats' forces. No, this time Mireille would make absolutely certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that they
did what Kirika wished to do. Perhaps it was gutless, a cowardly attempt to escape blaming herself again,
and would invoke its own brand of guilt afterwards anyway, but regardless she had to ensure her partner
abided by whatever they did, and actually declared it out loud. She didn't want a choice she made
harming Kirika or their relationship again. However, when Mireille had accepted the tickets, she couldn't
help feeling that they had already settled on one.

"A last word of warning for if you opt to follow Ishinomori and Hsu," Breffort said as Mireille testily stashed
the airline tickets inside her coat. "Laroque was not best pleased by the invasion of his home, and even
less by the theft of one of his most prized articles of literature. To my peers, Langonel's Manuscript is a
relic; unimportant, unused--a mere part of our past long dead. While we do not like that it will be in Kaede
Ishinomori's hands, we can tolerate it. For now. But it is different for Laroque. I hear he intends to send
some of his men to Japan after Ishinomori and Hsu to retrieve it, men who will work in parallel to my own
operatives presently stationed there for the conflict with the Ishinomori empire. You may or may not
encounter them, but if you do take note that they will not view you and your partner as a friendly faction."

"We'll dispense the same treatment to them," Mireille replied coolly.

Breffort just nodded, and then took a deep breath, exhaling it slowly. "Whether you and your partner elect
to go or not, I don't imagine we will meet again for some time," he prophesised.

"Best news I've heard all day," Mireille said venomously, but with not as much malice as she could usually
muster for one of Soldats' caste. Her mind was elsewhere.

Breffort smirked faintly, and regarded the woman silently for a few seconds. "Good luck," he finally said in
what could be dubbed an encouraging tone for him. "Despite what you may think, I wish you no ill will."

Mireille spared him one last, mordant, sidelong glance, and then wordlessly walked past him and down
the corridor with Kirika at her clicking heels, leaving behind Breffort standing where he was, watching
them depart. But if they would depart France… that was a mystery that Mireille intended her partner alone
could shed light on.
******

Kirika stared solemnly at the plane tickets lying in the middle of the table, their garishly coloured
wrappings stark contrast against the paler, more muted surface, to the extent that the young assassin
believed the packet might sear a hole right through it. The cup and saucer in front of her faired no better,
as did the rest of the pastel crockery atop the table; no contest against the bright, ominous shade. The
envelope was a brash interloper in an otherwise calm, subdued environment, its mere presence an
affront. It was painted a vivid red--the colour of warning, the colour of blood, promising the latter ahead if
the former was not heeded. The tickets' destination didn't matter; regardless of where in the world they
led, Kirika and Mireille would ultimately still arrive at the same place; a place of violence and murder, a
place where darkness reigned and peace was foreign.

But there was still a choice, the warning yet blazing, incessantly straining to get its urgent point across, to
convince that to use these tickets was to be burned by them. The future still remained to be seen. A
future Kirika had to decide.

The rays of the setting sun filtered weakly through the apartment's windows, the light dying out to make
way for the imminent advent of night, its strength against the dark waning, failing as it did every day, and
in its demise taking with it the dream that today could have been the one, the day when Kirika's hope of
peace became permanent reality. Truly, Kirika had dared hope that maybe, just maybe, the appointment
with Breffort signified the end of the killing, that she was at long last catching up to the spectacular
horizon where her peaceful dream existed, where all dreams of sinners existed, tantalisingly visible but
far out of reach. She knew she shouldn't have indulged in such wishful thinking, but alas her will had not
been strong enough, her yearning for a peaceful life too overpowering. And now she was suffering from
that familiar brand of disappointment again, afflicted by that empty, desolate feeling that numbed her
heart and stunted her spirits, shrinking what little hope remained inside her until despair took its place.

"We don't have to," Mireille tempted softly, sitting across from Kirika at the other side of the table, her
steaming cup of tea poised near her lips in a hand while the girl's sat untouched. "We can just stay here.
Breffort belongs to Soldats, and you know none who do can be trusted. He was probably spinning
another of his lies." The woman's voice was gentle, benevolent, sweetly whispering the things Kirika
wanted to hear. To believe. Falsehoods, all of them. And they both knew it.

Kirika lifted her head slightly to look at Mireille. She was smiling pleasantly at her, tenderly, contentedly.
But it too was a falsehood, if a benign one. The vanishing sun was at the blonde's back, its wan rays
scattering dusky patches across her face, her smile tinged in dark shadow, the woman's genuine
sentiments hinted at. It was obviously forced, Mireille feeling the burden as much as Kirika was. Soldats
was always a sensitive subject with the blonde, provoking uncharacteristically intense emotions from her.
Kirika remembered how her partner had been like talking to Breffort--angry, frustrated, and dejected. She
didn't enjoy seeing her in any of those conditions, and had felt a longing to reach out to Mireille during the
blonde's various tirades, to calm her, support her, comfort her. It had been a longing she had not acted
on, however. Something had kept her back; kept her arms limply by her sides. Kirika simply didn't feel…
comfortable… touching Mireille without the woman's express consent. Only if Mireille made physical
contact with her did she consider permission had been given for her to do likewise, otherwise she felt she
was disrespectfully invading her partner's personal space and could possibly incur her disapproval or
even her anger as a consequence. In bed was the exception though, with Kirika's instinctive need to wrap
herself around Mireille's body learnt to be put up with by the woman, and now sometimes even returned
in kind, the blonde's sneaky petting and this morning's atypical candid caresses coming to mind.

Kirika's sober gaze was drawn back down to the tickets, as if her eyes could not escape its flame-like
lure. The decision what to do was hers, she knew. Mireille hadn't directly admitted it, but neither had she
spoke plainly of their options one way or another. It was strange; normally she took the initiative in issues
such as these, utilising her superior judgement to make the best decision for the both of them. But this
time Mireille had stayed silent on the matter, wordlessly deferring responsibility to Kirika. The girl
wondered why, but believed it wiser not to ask and ruin her partner's unvoiced renouncement. She
sincerely hoped this wouldn't become the norm, however. Kirika didn't like this position of authority. It
would have been much easier for her if Mireille had decided on what to do, and she had been left to
simply follow her partner's lead as she always did. Now, Mireille was unfortunately not affording her that
luxury.

Kirika took a breath, and then thought about what they should do. She knew what she wanted to do. She
wanted to rip up those offending tickets and for her and the woman she loved to stay are. To remain at
home and face whatever may come. They would live through Soldats' backlash; Kirika would not fail in
her duty to protect Mireille, and she herself would not fall, not while that duty persisted. It was a cycle that
ensured lasting survival… but that was all. No matter how much Kirika wanted to stay here in this Paris
apartment with Mireille, awaiting the realisation of her serene dream, she was aware it would be a life
forever tarnished. Not by the violence or by the darkness in their lives, but because of the other choice
not taken.

Ryosuke and Vincent, the aspirant Noir--they had seen Kirika and Mireille's faces, and were aware that
the young women had once been what they apparently sought to be. And Kirika knew that Mireille would
never let it go. Ryosuke and Vincent were loose ends that the woman must tie; it was the kind of person
she was. She would hunt them to the ends of the Earth if she had to. Nevertheless, Mireille would permit
the men to run free if Kirika gave the word, if she made that decision. But it would result in a taint
contaminating their lives, a taint that wouldn't be washed away until Mireille and seen that the unfinished
business was resolved. Kirika had had a glimpse today of what life would be like if she choose to stay in
Paris. Following the conclusion of their meeting with Breffort, she and Mireille had wandered the halls of
the Louvre palace as promised, but what should have had been a fun event examining ancient artefacts
and artworks had been spoiled by the knowledge of what awaited them when they returned home. Mireille
had put on a compelling front, explaining assorted pieces avidly and with many smiles, yet there had
always been a distance about her, as if only a part of her mind was devoted to her task, the other
venturing on darker things. As a result, Kirika had become noticeably downcast, not so adept at wearing
masks and pretending she was feeling something she wasn't.

Listless wanderings, a masquerade of contentment--that was what lay down one path. A life of
make-believe, of self-delusions. Kirika couldn't live like that, and she was sure Mireille didn't want to. If
she selected that route, her and her partner's relationship would slowly decay as Mireille inexorably
dwelled on those untied loose ends and Kirika became more and more depressed by the woman's
detachment. The darkhaired girl didn't want to think about what would happen next, but couldn't keep
from envisaging upsetting scenarios. Thoughts of an aggravated Mireille secretly blaming her for their
dissatisfaction floated through her mind, thoughts of the woman not loving her anymore, abandoning her,
hating her. Maybe if Kirika travelled along this path she wouldn't survive after all.

So there was only one option. Perhaps there always had only been one. That particular path was
swathed in darkness, guaranteed to be soiled with more spilt blood. But it also contained hope. Hope that
one day it would all be over, that it would lead to greater fulfilment, that one day Kirika would look back
and see this sacrifice, this hardship, as something that had been worth enduring so that her dream of a
peaceful life had a chance to be captured on that blue horizon. That the fresh black stains on her hands
had been worth it, badges of merit almost, the fresh sins not in vain. But rest assured it wasn't a decision
made only for herself; it was a decision she made for Mireille too, maybe even more so, a decision she
suspected the blonde wanted--needed--to hear. Kirika wished for Mireille to be able to look back also, and
with satisfaction in her heart that everything was over with, *totally* over with, not a thing left behind that
could possibly return to fetter their existence with another bout of darkness.

<There is nothing grand that can be achieved without sacrifice. You must strive for it. Earn it through
honest toil. Fight for it. Do no matter what to accomplish it. *That* is what separates the strong from the
weak, the blissful from the merely content.>

Kirika steeled herself, ready for that fight, her eyes sober no more. She wouldn't cower in Paris. She and
Mireille would journey down that other, arguably darker route to its very end, and nothing would deter
them, nothing would slow them. Kirika swore anew that the woman she loved would survive to its last
arduous step and past it onto calmer, easier ones, that those souls who tried to hurt Mireille, rightly
deserving death, would be granted it at her keen reckoning.

Kirika reached across to the centre of the table, and placed her fingertips on the airline tickets. They were
warm beneath her touch, still radiating caution supplied earlier by the heat of the dimming sunlight. She
ignored it. The sun had already lost its battle, dead, its corpse having melted into the horizon. The room
was now steeped in conquering darkness offset by only a meagre glimmer of powerless moonlight.
Kirika's eyes gleamed more ebon in the newborn shadows than brown; rather dull, lacklustre. But
determined all the same.

She looked up at Mireille, her fingers remaining on the tickets as she met her partner's blue gaze that was
trying hard not to be melancholy. The woman's eyes were the same brilliant shade as tomorrow's horizon
where Kirika's dream resided, still stunning in the pallid moonlight. The young assassin could almost
perceive that horizon in their bottomless depths, as if it was actually hidden somewhere in Mireille's lovely
eyes.

"Let's go," Kirika said in a steady voice.

Mireille uttered nothing in answer, instead averting her gaze and taking a drink of her tea, the porcelain
cup disguising her abruptly fallen smile.

******

Later that night, nestled contently against Mireille in bed, Kirika had a dream. She dreamt she was
standing on a dirt road with a huge barren wasteland stretching as far as the eye could see as her
backdrop, craggy mountains scraping the clear blue skies on the horizon ahead. Unbelievably, lush fields
bursting with grapevines were spread out before her on either side of the road. Their greenery was the
only notable presence of plant life greater than the occasional tree and patch of grass in the desolate
environment, somehow flourishing in the inhospitable conditions where other vegetation had no doubt
withered and died. Bunches of plump purple grapes hung heavily from the vines, their succulence ready
to be harvested and pounded into wine.

Kirika blinked, wondering why she was so sure that was the grapes' purpose, then realised that this was a
place she knew, had been to before. Her throat dried suddenly, and apprehension gripped her. She
focused her eyes beyond the vineyard, to the shattered remnants of a chateau at the end of the trail, to
ruins even more ancient strewn around it. To a place forgotten by time.

Unbidden, her legs started to move, taking her closer to that awful place. Kirika panted in rising fear as
she looked anxiously down at the bare limbs that were suddenly not her own, and endeavoured to still
them with her hands. But to her horror her arms had been stricken by the same affliction as her legs,
disobeying her mental commands and not reacting past the barest jerk.

Kirika's head turned frantically this way and that as she looked around with mounting desperation for help,
an escape, *anything* to halt her advance down the dirt trail. But there was no one tending the fields, no
one on the rest of the path behind her, no one else but her anywhere in this wilderness. Except for one
person. One person who waited ahead on the doorstep of the Manor. One person Kirika implicitly knew
would not aid her in her plight.

Kirika breached the grapevines and left them behind as she walked progressively onwards, her
possessed legs stopping only when she was right at the foot of the stairs leading to the entrance of the
Manor. Her head hurt, a deaden stabbing at its core, and her mouth opened noiselessly in pained protest.
But her throbbing head was lifted irrespective of her woe and of her desire to do the opposite, and with
blurry eyes the girl took in the person who rose sedately above her. Patiently waiting.

It was a woman, taller than Kirika, with defined features more handsome than beautiful, but captivating all
the same. Her light brown hair was long and braided in a single thick yet loose plait, and held together by
a dark blue ribbon tied in a neat bow. Her clothes were outdated but elegant, a robe and a cloak, white
and purple tones, and clearly ceremonial, as if she was a priestess of some kind. But it was her eyes that
drew Kirika. Her light lilac eyes that were deceptively kind, tender, teeming with compassion. But Kirika
knew better. For she knew this woman. She had killed her.

Altena, hands enfolded together placidly in front of her, smiled down at the panicked girl in that gentle,
considerate fashion of hers, but it did nothing to quell Kirika's rapidly beating heart. The devout Soldats
follower's lips then parted and formed words, but none came forth from her mouth. Instead they seemed
to emanate from all around Kirika, a soft lilting voice that filled her head, not a crevice untouched. A
whisper in her mind.

<Welcome home.>




Chapter 16 - Looking Beyond The Horizon


Breffort paused just outside the door; a solid hulk of oak with simple yet regal designs hailing from the
old-world carved directly into the mass of wood; and adjusted the broad knot of his slate-grey necktie at
his throat. It was an unnecessary gesture; one that he was reluctantly aware was birthed out of a desire
to linger in the dimly lit antechamber for a few moments longer. And out of an irrational sense that his tie
was coming dangerously close to throttling him.

It was always the same when he stood in front of this door, stood wearing these clothes. The forest green
suit jacket felt outlandish on him, constricting, its straight cut stiff collar prickling his neck. The
accompanying white shirt was no improvement, its collar a tight band around his throat. Perhaps it was
the shirt's collar that was responsible for the sensation of having a restricted windpipe. Indeed, his sedate
necktie was the only part of his dress that reflected who he really was.

The rest were clothes of an antiquated cut, trappings from the past, but the formal and expected attire for
one such as he. Breffort always tried to think of them as the equivalent of ceremonial robes merely
signifying his station, a station that led beyond that door, and nothing more. But the attire also signified
the aspect of that station he despised above all. Despised above all, yet which was obligatory
nonetheless, irrespective of how much and how often he endeavoured to shirk it. His absence had been
too long as it was, until a few months prior at any rate, and besides, he needed to be here in person for
this. There were some things that couldn't be done unless face-to-face with those involved, or rather,
*shouldn't* be done. Things where observing facial expression and body language closely were key
factors vital to base further planning on, which would then lead to eventual success. And continued
survival.

Smothering his discomfort with a force of will keen at the struggle against emotion, Breffort opened the
door he faced without further hesitation and stepped into the room it protected, his expression and
hobbled gait exhibiting all the impassiveness and nonchalance expected--nay, required--of a member of
Soldats' chief ruling council. He entered without knocking, but the four middle-aged men gathered in the
sitting room were not offended nor caught off guard by his appearance, or if they were, they didn't show it
save for a subtle shifting of heads and eyes to regard him. They, like Breffort, were of the same breed.
Furthermore, his arrival had been expected. His tardiness on the other hand, was assumed.

It was here in this room where all the strings of all the puppets eventually ended, the reins of a bridled
world, reins held and steered by the men seated in a semicircle around the blazing fireplace set into the
right-hand wall. The men beyond the looking glass, the puppet-masters behind the curtain. Countless
people's fates had been decided in this room; the destiny of nations; the future of the globe. Breffort
closed the door and moved to take his place among those who controlled the workings of the world from
the shadows.
He was, as usual when he did grace the council with his presence, the last member to arrive. His peers
wordlessly and emotionlessly watched him settle into the only remaining empty armchair by the fire, the
second from the left--his chair. There had been a long stretch when Breffort's chair had been missing
from the arc, his deliberate and lengthy non-attendance of council meetings prompting his fellows to
eventually remove it outright. It wasn't until shortly after the turmoil with Ishinomori arose when he had he
at last returned to take part in the occasional conference… although his loathing of them still endured. His
being here this evening, like on the previous evenings he had elected to join his cohorts, was purely out
of a strategic need to be. If he could have avoided it, he most certainly would have.

Instead of sitting about in a gloomy, secluded room wasting valuable time discussing affairs that did not
need to be discussed in person, or in many cases at all by Soldats' ruling council, he preferred to take a
more active role in the society he secretly influenced; to actually *be* in the thick of those affairs. He
believed his more direct involvement made him a better adjudicator of how those affairs should properly
be handled, leagues better than his fellow councilmen who had distanced themselves too greatly from the
people they clandestinely governed and the world they surreptitiously moulded. For too long had Breffort's
contemporaries isolated themselves by restricting their participation in Soldats concerns to council
assemblies, pulling the marionettes' strings from as far away as they could, relying on the organisation's
network of underlings' reports to give them a semblance of a view of the world outside their cushioned
mansions and estates. Breffort knew none were like him; none ventured from their lofty thrones on the
uppermost echelons of Soldats hierarchy to scrutinise the ever-changing currents of civilisation. A
mistake. As a result of their segregation they all looked to Breffort when the council needed
representation in the world; he was the face of Soldats' nobility, posing as their avatar, relaying their
commands to those arrayed below--it was the reason why they tolerated his frequent absence from
meetings, or at least, did not outwardly call him down on them.

Breffort did not balk at having been saddled with such a role; indeed, in his opinion it was a favourable
position to be in, perhaps even the most ideal. In the eyes of his and the council's subordinates it was
Breffort they considered to be leader of Soldats; the council themselves were but a faceless, mysterious
group to them that some circulating rumours proclaimed did not even really exist. And the belief that
Breffort single-handedly presided over Soldats, while not quite completely erroneous, brought respect and
power--respect and power Breffort gladly accepted as his due right.

The cost of this notoriety and authority wasn't him becoming a lackey to his peers on the council,
however. Far from it. He had a seat and thus was their equal, or so was the general conception. But
whatever the rest of the council thought, Breffort knew he surpassed them. He was the architect of
Soldats plots, the coordinator of the smoke and mirrors. All the intelligence from all of Soldats' sources
eventually found its way to him, flowing between the myriad of nodes placed across the Earth until
reaching his, the pinnacle of the erratic web-like pyramid; intelligence from the organisation's innumerable
agents, and intelligence from the council itself. He was privy to all, ignorant of nothing. His position saw to
that. It was Breffort who *truly* had the power of Soldats at his fingertips, and through it, manipulated the
world at his whim. Let his colleagues think they had him at their beck and call, equals or not. It did not
matter. He knew his place, knew it well, and they could not compete.

Still, it was with awkwardness that Breffort sank into the dark upholstery of the vacant armchair,
awkwardness not triggered by the twinges running up his right leg from his old injury. The chair didn't fit
any better than the clothes he was duty-bound to wear.

Breffort propped his cane against an arm of the chair, and made as if he was relaxing back against its
cushions although the stiffness never left his shoulders, the tension never left his throat. But putting on
airs of indifference was a must in his current company; to do otherwise would cause them to suspect
something was bothering him; that perhaps he had something to hide. Breffort wore stoicism like it was a
steel helm, here. Equals they may deem each other as, but none had earned this standing in Soldats
through an open face and loose tongue.

The fireplace Breffort and the other four men where seated around was huge, eclipsing the rest of the
windowless room's features, and was the sole font of illumination. Bright flames billowed wildly in the
hearth behind a row of cast-iron bars capped with spear-points as if furious at being caged, the fire's rage
a palpable heat against Breffort's face. The flickering flames painted capering shadows on the walls, the
silhouettes of cavorting heathens worshiping some pagan god. The breaks in the dancers' steps revealed
the backdrop they gambolled in front of, shaded in an orange hue; rosewood wall panels adorned with
relics from an age long past, from an age drenched in darkness. A complete suit of full plate armour, its
individual pieces fixed together by near invisible pins, stood erect against one portion of wall, halberd held
upright in one heavy gauntlet. Other leftovers of the medieval era joined it, including a broad assortment
of martial blades mounted on the walls, blades crafted in different regions all over the globe. Claymores,
long swords, scimitars, cutlasses; the list was wide-ranging. They gleamed in the firelight, ancient metal
polished until it was burnished as in days of old, time-blunted edges re-sharpened to a razor's precision.
Coat-of-arms from several forgotten bloodlines sometimes accompanied the blades, kite shields with
faded decorations hinting at twinkling stars and springing lions flanked by slanted rapiers or fastened atop
crossed broadswords.

Trophies of the hunt made their home among the memories of archaic warfare also, the heads of game
animals affixed to wooden plaques--deer, bears, even a moose. But like with the artefacts collected from
the Dark Ages, they were not what drew a discerning eye.

A framed tapestry hung above the fireplace, its once dyed embroidery long since faded to earth tones
with age, but the scene it depicted still persisted, as did the legend it was based on despite the council's
ongoing efforts to quash the decreed 'outdated' concept. Two young women faced each other on bended
knee; the right of long, sinuous tresses like deep silken waves down her back, her partner of short,
capricious locks cut to the nape of her neck. Garlands wreathed the crowns of their heads, white
blossoms in the long hair of one, a circle of green leaves in the short hair of the other. The women were
clad in naught but a flowing robe that bared them to the waist, the loose draping imperilling more skin to
be exposed, yet it was not their unsullied forms that stirred allure. Swords the women clasped in their
hands, twin edges held flawlessly straight and true towards the heavens, the taller woman on the right
with a blade of gold and the shorter on the left with one of silver, the colours still unmistakable in spite of
the fabric's wear. They were the maidens who had reigned over Death more than a thousand years ago,
the first pair of Black Hands--the first Noir.

The pure maidens were the accepted universal symbol of Soldats, even today, although it wasn't until
recently that the notion of Noir had been revived and a new generation of young female assassins had
donned the grim but prestigious mantle. It was of the council's opinion that the idea of two people alone
cleansing the Earth of the taint of darkness was ludicrous in this modern day and age. The blood of
Soldats had spread all but to the most remote places in the world; there was virtually nowhere that
Soldats could now no longer touch and therefore there was no need of the Black Hands. Or so was the
excuse that the council had given for letting dust amass on the tradition. Breffort believed differently, and
on more than one occasion had tactfully attempted to sway the council into accepting at least
Bouquet--half of the current embodiment of Noir--into their fold, however his view matched his colleagues'
regarding the ritual of Le Grand Retour itself. The restoration of Noir did not need to be tied together with
the return to the old ways. A pair of insurmountable assassins *was* useful in this era, and could mesh
agreeably with the present makeup of Soldats. But Breffort knew the rest of the council feared Noir, as
well. They feared the power they would be granted if acknowledged as the Eternal Darkness whilst part of
Soldats. Exiled, Noir remained an inspiration of dread, but at least they enjoyed no dominion over the
organisation's swollen ranks.

Moreover, there was the disquieting issue of the Kind Mother. A third figure was sown into the tapestry, a
noticeably older woman than the two maidens, standing with a veneer of benevolence over the pair.
Clothed in an enveloping brown robe, its degree of modesty highlighting the maidens' partial state of
undress, with a cowl closely framing her benign countenance, there was little doubt that she presided
over the young women kneeling before her. Compassionate she appeared to be, and perhaps the original
Kind Mother, the one whom had purportedly established the first Black Hands, sincerely had been, but
Breffort knew as fact that not all of the women who had served as caretakers for Noir were of humane
heart. Altena had been one such Kind Mother, although officially she had never actually been honoured
with the title. Breffort had known Altena only by reputation and had seen her merely from afar, but even
then he could detect the light of wicked ambition in her eyes beneath her façade of maternal concern. The
council had feared her perhaps even more than the Eternal Darkness itself. After all, it is the Kind Mother
who, as a rule, initially places the harness upon Noir and has the prerogative to direct their blades as she
pleases. After Altena, the council would never permit another Kind Mother to draw breath. But whether or
not their feelings for Noir, namely Bouquet and her young partner, ran the same….

Breffort studied the men assembled around him, dressed similarly to him in fully buttoned, stiff collared,
green suit jackets, though he produced no outward show of doing so. Guarded was his grey gaze;
circumspect was its movements. Some sat slouched in their armchairs, giving all the appearance of a
laid-back disposition, while others sat poised as if in the highest royal court, straight-backed with chin
raised. They came from different backgrounds, had different mannerisms, but all four councilmen had
essentially the same natures. Natures that drove them to reign over others, natures that boasted the right
spark of command and fortitude that enabled them to realise what they sought. Breffort supposed he was
not too unlike them in that respect.

In any other set of circumstances where these individuals encountered one another, a clash of
personalities, of wills, would have inevitably erupted like a sudden artic storm, cold calculated scheming
to topple the man next to them hidden behind every stare. But all gathered here were regarded as having
equal footing in Soldats, irrespective of one's actual current standing. Power waxed and waned among
the council members like in any board of directors, influence always swelling and shrinking reminiscent of
the tides, and for that reason no one ever chanced abusing their periodically improved pre-eminence in
an effort to outstrip their fellow councilmen. The ones who had succumbed to the temptation were already
long departed from the council, and from the living world. 'Those at the top have the longest to fall, and
land the hardest'. Words neither Breffort nor the men around him forgot.

"I am heartened to see that your absence from our company was a short one this time. These are yet
turbulent times, and this committee values your voice amongst us."

Breffort said nothing in response, choosing to simply stare expressionlessly into the crackling fire. In
addition to having a chair on the Soldats council and acting as its representative, he was its primary
advisor. His close personal involvement in the world's affairs apparently qualified him for the task, and
hence his opinion carried great weight within this sitting room, and to the ears of the four men occupying
it. And they believed him their equal. A preposterous notion when given even the slightest intelligent
thought. They were like lambs begging to be shepherded, and they looked to Breffort to be the shepherd.
If Breffort were so inclined he could lead them all to the slaughter, oblivious even as the knife took their
throats. They were fortunate that he was content with the current arrangement; no wise sayings
suggesting caution would have stayed his hand if not.

The man who had spoken sat in the armchair next to Breffort's, at the apex of the arc around the
fireplace, and it could be said his position was an accurate depiction of his present repute. His hair was
blonde, the colour of hay, and cropped short into almost unruly locks, as if he had just climbed out of bed
and neglected brushing them into some semblance of order. A large silver ring circled the third finger of
his left hand, shimmering in the frolicking flames trapped in the fireplace, the light caressing the profiles of
two young women facing away from each other raised in the centre of the ring. All one had to do was
glance at the tapestry above the hearth to identify the renowned pair. Bordering the likenesses of the
original Noir on either side was a coat-of-arms much like the ones on display around the room, imprinted
on a miniature kite shield worked into the metal. Allegedly they were the family crests of the wearer's
mother and father, whose bloodlines--and in turn, the wearer's by association--reached as far back as to
the century when the earliest incarnation of Noir was bestowed the swords they would later rout armies
with from the first Kind Mother. Supposedly the councilman's ancestors had even been in attendance to
witness the deed, but Breffort found that unlikely. He had heard that in Langonel's Manuscript the event
had been documented, and it was apparently written there that no one but the two maidens and the Kind
Mother had been present in the cavern underneath Langonel Monastery--the latter's remains lying on the
same land as the Manor today--at the time of the conferment. Nevertheless, the mere implication had
awarded the council member a great deal of prestige and respect, and the ring was a constant reminder
of his 'notable' heritage… and the esteem it conveyed.
"The offer has been made," Breffort announced to the room before the blonde councilman could speak
again. It was what he and the rest of the council wanted to hear about anyway. Breffort had spared them
the trouble of subtly urging him to speak on the matter, which they would have resorted to eventually.
"Noir will go to Japan."

Silence reigned once Breffort closed his mouth, the other four men quiet as they turned over the
information in their minds again and again, no doubt ruminating on how this development would play out
in the future, and how it would affect other, related, affairs.

A man across from Breffort, glasses on his nose and with his long brown hair tied in a ponytail that hung
over one shoulder, frowned as he stared at Breffort. Several fingers of his steepled hands were
ornamented with plain gold and silver bands that shone dully in the firelight, but as to their purpose or
significance, Breffort couldn't fathom. "They accepted, then?" he inquired, the skepticism clear in his
voice.

"No," Breffort said. "But they will go."

"How can you be so sure?" the man beside Breffort's bespectacled colleague piped up. He wore his black
hair even shorter than the councilman at the head of the semi-circle, and a neatly trimmed beard covered
his chin, as if he had dipped it in soot. "The memory of Noir stepping out of the Manor is still fresh in my
mind. Corsica's Daughter did not come across as the most… amenable woman. She may have bent to
our bidding once, but it was to suit her own purposes, not ours."

"She will bend again. Like before, it is in her best interest to go," Breffort explained, unruffled, "and
therefore, she will comply. Ishinomori is as much her and her partner's enemy now as she is ours.
Corsica's Daughter is not one to sit around and do nothing when threatened, even if that means abiding
Soldats."

The man with greyish-brown hair that fell in slight waves to his neck in the armchair to Breffort's left
snorted softly, and a shade derisively. He swished the snifter of brandy in the glass he held elegantly in
one white-gloved hand, gazing into its swirling burgundy depths before taking a taste. Once the glass left
his lips, he spoke, his words directed at Breffort, but his eyes affixed to his drink. "You still believe she
can be persuaded to join," he said. Breffort could practically hear the rebuke in his somewhat
dumbfounded tone. "She will never join us. Altena saw to that." He shook his head slightly. "She is
dangerous. Noir is dangerous. *Too* dangerous. Better if we'd had them executed after they dealt with
Altena and her rabble."

There were some thoughtful mutters at this, but before they could be turned to mutters of agreement,
Breffort interrupted. "Dangerous they are, but they can still be leashed and used. Used as they were
supposed to be. As the Hands of Soldats."

The bespectacled councilman murmured contemplatively. "During the past several weeks, word has
reached my ears that a great number of foreigners have been seen flocking to Ishinomori
Pharmaceuticals headquarters, many of which are recognised to have been supporters of Altena and her
now defunct ideology." Breffort had received reports detailing the same, as he assumed everybody else in
the room had, too. Despite being in charge of putting down Ishinomori's revolt, he wasn't the only council
member with operatives deep in Japanese society, least of all Yokohama's, in spite of the current
tumultuous state of affairs for agents in that city. The blood of Soldats had stretched all across the globe,
after all.

"Defunct indeed," the bearded individual adjacent to the man with the ponytail interjected. "Yet I have also
heard rumours that they plan to follow in their toppled leader's footsteps and initiate Le Grand Retour
once more. The fools. Do they really believe we fear it? That we tremble before archaic folly? They will be
as successful as Altena had been, maybe even less. I can't even grasp *how* they will go about it."
The bespectacled council member glanced a touch irritably at his colleague and took a moment to adjust
his glasses, appearing somewhat put out at being interrupted. Once he was sure there were no further
outbursts imminent, he continued. "Unknown numbers congregate to be sure, but possibly enough for an
army on top of what our young dissenter has already drafted from Kanagawa's criminal element. This
conflict has been bloody on both sides, and it will only get bloodier if that's the case. Though I fear it will
anyway, regardless. It would be to our advantage if Noir where there to lead our strikes, or at least to
remove a few choice players from the field with surgical precision."

The man sipping brandy grunted disdainfully, but in grudging acceptance, also. He had always been a
stanch advocate against Bouquet's inclusion in Soldats ranks, and in the existence of Noir in general.
"Perhaps." He brightened suddenly, giving his liquor another spin in its glass. "Yes. Let the brazen upstart
and the renegade Hands destroy one another. Even if one survives, we will be rid of at least the other."

"How much control do you really have over Noir, Breffort?" the blonde councilman probed, leaning
forward a fraction in his armchair. "How much do they know?"

"They know enough," Breffort replied cryptically, pointedly ignoring the first query.

"And what, pray tell, is that?"

"They know what I want them to know," Breffort clarified without emotion, unwaveringly meeting his
interrogator's eye. The blonde man relaxed back into his seat, his hands gripping the armrests, his heavy
ring in plain sight. There was silence then, but the unspoken questions could almost be discerned
hovering in the air amidst the council. How tight is the leash around Noir's neck? To what measure have
they been tamed? Breffort was aware his peers were apprehensive regarding his influence over Bouquet
and her partner. Too loose a leash, too little tamed, and Noir may ultimately turn on him and on Soldats,
creating quite a thorny situation indeed. Alone, Soldats would crush them, but in the latter scenario the
Eternal Darkness may perchance side with Ishinomori, and then prove to be a considerable menace.
Having Noir under their banner would vastly improve the traitors' repute, and could possibly sway more
people to rally to their cause. However, it was a very slim likelihood that Bouquet would consent to uniting
with Ishinomori. Breffort had seen to that. But the council did not know what he knew, and therefore
worried.

Yet worse in the council's judgment would be if Breffort's leash was too tight, Noir having been tamed too
much. True, it meant that the young assassins would fight for them, but would Breffort then be tempted to
unleash his pet Black Hands upon the council and seize control of Soldats' head entirely?

Wary, considering eyes watched Breffort, but he remained as unmoved as always. Let them deliberate,
let them agonise. He could alleviate their fear by telling all, but he would not reveal all his cards nor
disclose what he had up his sleeves; not now, not until what needed to be done was done. That fear, that
uncertainty, was guaranteed to keep him alive, leaving him free to conspire as he pleased. As long as the
council believed there was a possibility that he had Noir totally under his thumb, his position was secure.
They would not make a move against him while risking swift and fatal reprisal.

"A dangerous game you play, Breffort," the blonde council member spoke at last. Breffort said nothing in
answer. A dangerous game he played? It was a dangerous life he lived.

******

Kirika gazed sombrely out a window in the apartment she contentedly lived in together with Mireille,
drinking in the Paris skyline for what would probably be the last time in a long while. Her arms were folded
under her on the windowsill, supporting her slender frame while she leaned slightly toward the pale blue
horizon laid out before her, the shade of a frozen lake. The window had been pulled fully open, heedless
of the budding winter's hallmarks, inviting the cool late morning air into the living room. But the quiet girl
was left unscathed by the chilly breezes that brushed her face and wafted through her short hair; her
mind elsewhere, lost in introspective thought. Lost in a pale blue horizon.
Kirika's bag, coloured black and trimmed in yellow, and with yellow shoulder strap connected, was
slumped like a giant lumpy sausage by her feet, its material bulging in some spots and flaccid in others. It
had routinely carried her belongings to whatever part of the planet her and Mireille's assignments hauled
them both off to, and had done so ever since she had agreed to come live with the blonde in Paris, the
latter journey from Japan, though not exactly because of a contract--unless counting the fateful one struck
between Kirika and her partner which would wind up shaping their lives to what they were
today--included. This new assignment from Breffort was no different. Kirika's bag was already packed and
ready to go, crammed to bursting with clothes and 9mm pistol magazines secreted in special
compartments inside the inner lining that would serve to veil them from airport security. However, Kirika
herself had chosen barely a handful of the garments. Earlier, when she had been indiscriminately pulling
out articles of her clothing from the wardrobe with the intention of taking them along with her on the trip,
Mireille had interrupted her and kindly yet compellingly advised her on which to bring and which not to
bring to the point the older woman may as well have packed Kirika's bag herself. Kirika hadn't taken
umbrage, though, and had agreed to all of her partner's recommendations--clothes were just clothes to
her. As long as they could be worn and were reasonably comfortable, she didn't care what colour they
were or what style they were cut in.

Mireille's intervention meant that the woman herself hadn't had the chance to tend to her suitcase, but
was now taking the time to do just that in the bedroom. The last Kirika had seen, the blonde's suitcase
had been flipped open on the bed, still empty, and had been surrounded by layers of clothes covering the
bedspread with their hangers still attached. Mireille had been standing over the whole muddle with her
hands on her hips and a serious expression plastered on her fine features, the wardrobe to her rear with
its double doors flung wide open, virtually devoid of clothes but for a few of Kirika's that were remaining
behind here in Paris. The statuesque woman had appeared to evaluate each item of apparel spread out
in front of her very carefully as if weighing all their merits and shortcomings, sand-coloured eyebrows
sloping and pink lips pursed thoughtfully. It had been as though she was selecting firearms for all the
heavy consideration she devoted. Kirika felt it unnecessary deliberation, but what did she know about
such things. She was sure Mireille had her reasons, although the girl suspected they would undoubtedly
sound peculiar to her.

In spite of how much she seemed to agonise over the affair, Mireille knew how to pack light and minimise
her luggage to a single small suitcase, and was skilled in using baggage space to its maximum efficiency.
Still, it did take her a while. But in the meantime Kirika always found things to occupy herself with. Gazing
inconspicuously at Mireille and admiring the divine woman's presence was one, and gazing at the sky,
musing and reflecting, was another. The second fancy had taken her on this occasion, but given recent
events, it was little surprise.

Spires and skyscrapers, rooftops and treetops, broke the panorama outside the window, yet neither they
nor the view's familiarity to her eyes diminished its allure to Kirika. But there was something about a
horizon that had always drawn her eyes, something about the sight of a sky so blue, so open, limitless in
its vastness. It didn't matter where she was, exactly which horizon she was seeing; they were all the
same to her. The same sky filled with the same infinite possibilities. Often Kirika had looked upon it since
waking up in that bed, in that empty house of falsehood, wondering at what lay beyond the blue.
Wondering what the future held… and earnestly hoping that it contained what was achingly missing in her
life. In the past she had yearned for a cure to the loneliness that had constantly gnawed at her heart and
dogged her existence from the moment she had awoke, namely the partner that the title, Noir, had
promised. She could recall the many times she had stared out her classroom's windows after school was
over back in Japan, wishing, and imagining what their face would look like when they at last met… or if
they would ever meet at all.

But of course now Kirika was gratefully aware that her fears had been unwarranted. She now knew in
vivid detail what her partner's face looked like, and just how breathtaking a face it was, too. She had
committed every aspect of it, every dimple, every contour, to memory, glad to never have to resort to
dreaming up its likeness ever again. And when she looked into Mireille's blue eyes, so similar to the sky
she held in such esteem, she saw without uncertainty that whatever her future entailed, it rested with the
woman. Kirika had a place in the world, and it was beside Mireille. Nothing would ever part them, bar the
cold embrace of the grave. Even if--for some terrible reason Kirika would rather not think about--the
blonde cast her aside one day, she, while being devastatingly stricken, would nonetheless remain hidden
in the background; a demon forever watching over her angel from afar. It would be agonising to have
Mireille hate her, to never be able to walk next to her again, or have a meal together, or share the same
bed, but Kirika would bear the agony of a horrendously fractured heart to ensure that her wordless oath to
Odette Bouquet would be upheld. Kirika would bear *anything* for Mireille… and that had nothing to do
with atonement for past wrongs.

Despite all that had improved in her life, Kirika still gazed at the horizon, still she thought about what lay
beyond it, still she longed for more change. Mireille had eased her lonely heart, but Kirika's soul cried out
for freedom from further defilement. It cried out for a time of peace, a time when she would stain her
hands black with sin no longer.

Nevertheless, as the young assassin stared at the serene Parisian horizon this morning, silently
wondering, her yearning merely occupied a part of her deep meditative thoughts. The bulk of Kirika's
mind was once again dwelling on what the future had in store for her. Specifically what it had in store for
her and for Mireille. In Yokohama.

Kirika had had an opportunity to inspect the airplane tickets Breffort had more or less forced upon Mireille
yesterday, and had noted that her and her partner's flight from Charles de Gaulle International Airport
would land in Narita International Airport, located in the capitol city; Tokyo. But she was certain that their
final destination would be the nearby city of Yokohama. The assassin had, when Mireille hadn't been
busy frowning at them, scanned an attentive eye over the documents from Breffort's dossier that had
once been scattered chaotically across the billiard table in the living room--but were now all tidily slotted
into their folder again, waiting to be packed in Mireille's laptop bag and taken on their trip--memorising
critical data on the enemy, and as a result was conscious of the fact that Ryosuke and Vincent, together
with Kaede Ishinomori and whatever allies she had rounded up in Japan so far, called Yokohama their
home. One way or another, Kirika and Mireille would eventually find themselves in that far eastern city.
And to get there, they would have to pass through Kawasaki.

Kirika wasn't sure how she felt about that. Japan… Kawasaki…. They were places linked to her, linked to
her sinister, anguished past. She understood what she *had* to do in Japan, and was determined to see it
all through in bullets and blood if needed, but other than that, her exact sentiments on returning to her
native land and birthplace for the first time since she had left it were difficult to ascertain.

Kirika recognised that she most likely had been born in Japan and, definitely, to Japanese parents--the
face that stared back at her when she looked in a mirror was enough for her to conclude that--but
precisely *where* in the country was up for debate… and that was only if her belief that she had been
born in the island nation was accurate. However, Kirika considered herself to have been born in the city of
Kawasaki, though not in the regular sense of the word. Her earliest memories were of opening drowsy
eyes to the sight of a bedroom that was hers and yet not hers, in a house belonging to a family that didn't
really exist. Memories of waking to the chime of a solitary name drifting through her head, a name of a
destiny still to be resolved and realised. Memories of waking to a life made of lies and loneliness, danger
and bewilderment. *Her* earliest memories--her own, personal memories that she had recorded herself.
Kirika felt that she had been brought into the world on that day in Kawasaki.

It occurred to Kirika that perhaps there was more meaning behind that conviction than she had wished
for. The assassin knew little of her life before her awakening in Kawasaki, apart from what she had pieced
together using the memory fragments that floated around inside her mind like shards of a shattered
mirror, shaping a jagged, mismatched representation of her past, a distorted reflection of the real picture.
But the thing was that none of those fragments were actually memories that she had made herself. They
didn't belong to the life she had lived, but rather to the body she inhabited. Then what exactly did that
mean? Did that mean that Kirika had truly been born lying on that bed in Kawasaki, her existence as she
knew it now given life when her eyes had crept open? Was the other her, the darkness, in fact the
authentic her, and she herself a usurper of the body she--they--wore? Or was Kirika, as she believed right
now and always had, the genuine owner of her body who had simply forgotten her past, and the darkness
the invader who threatened to steal her identity unless she kept it at bay? Or were they one in the same,
two distinct existences but both part of a whole individual, having been somewhere along line disjointed
into two separate halves? Who could say which premise was the correct one, or if any of them were
correct at all? Certainly not Kirika. Notions like those were on the threshold of her comprehension,
befuddling to her brain, and not to mention unnerving to say the least. They were disturbing to dwell on
for any length of time, quickly bringing down her spirits and forcing her ask questions of herself she would
rather not address. Kirika hastily drove the unsettling musings out of her head, striving for solace in the
calming light blue hues streaked with wisps of white ahead of her.

Never taking her eyes off the uneven horizon, Kirika reached a hand into a pocket of her parka and took
out a small, white, rectangular card; one half covered in black scrawl, the other by a miniature colour
photograph. Her gaze eventually panned downwards to favour it with an absorbed look equal to the one
she had given the sky. It was the student identification card she had carried with her ever since she had
discovered it in her bedroom in Japan. It was a total fabrication of course, with every personal detail listed
from her date of birth to her very name, built on a lie. Only the portrait of the young darkhaired girl on the
card had any validity to it. But forged or not, the ID was a symbol of who she was now. Her name, Kirika
Yuumura, was a fake, but she had adopted and grown into the identity nonetheless. She *was* Kirika
Yuumura now. Kirika Yuumura who had lived alone in what had allegedly been her parents' house while
the figments were off in America; Kirika Yuumura who had attended classes at Tsubaki High School;
Kirika Yuumura who was trained as an assassin and worked as such with a partner, Mireille Bouquet, a
renowned professional killer in the European underworld; Kirika Yuumura who lived in Paris with said
partner, Mireille, the woman who stirred her tender heart and placated her distorted soul.

In addition to being a symbol of who Kirika was now, the Tsubaki High School student card was a symbol
of who she had been before meeting Mireille and learning of her intricate entanglement with Soldats; a
reminder of the reasonably normal life she had once held, a life she aspired to someday capture an air of
again. The girl's time in Kawasaki after her awakening, while fleeting, had had a feel of normalcy to it,
even with the strange and disquieting factors lurking just below the surface of the otherwise ordinary life.
Once she had gotten her bearings and grasped who she was supposedly meant to be from the clues
sprinkled around what had apparently been her house, Kirika had settled into a routine typical of any high
school student. She had went to school in the morning, listened to her teachers in class, prepared her
own bento--after discreetly studying her classmates' labours and making several practice attempts--and
ate it at lunchtime, and had did her homework. It had been a simple and monotonous routine, and one
she had performed automatically, barely bestowing conscious thought to any specific facet of her daily
schedule. A hollow and barren existence bereft of any significant purpose beyond that of getting to school
on time and keeping up with her class's teaching program. The impression that things were… just
*wrong*, that it was not supposed to be this way, had pursued Kirika every time she had donned her
school uniform, every time she had took care of the household chores; it had been an uneasiness that
had never left her for a moment.

It had been little more than a week before the first batch of dark-clad men fixated on murdering her had
ambushed Kirika on the route back to her house one late afternoon after school. She had killed them all
with a deadly grace that had astonished her, handling the Beretta that she had kept in her school case for
safekeeping--a firearm that she had been startled to discover she understood the complete mechanics
of--as though it had been an extension of herself. And then everything had changed; relative normalcy
had been mortally wounded, bleeding out a bit more with each passing day. Kirika had craved the tedium
of her routine, then, and began to savour its ordinary feel while it was not being shattered by sudden
bouts of inexplicable carnage where she had been required to kill in defence of her life without even
knowing why. Desperate to retain a grip on a dying lifestyle she abruptly appreciated a lot more, Kirika
had even went so far as to incorporate the periodic assassination attempts into her normal daily routine, a
wretched and inescapable part of that routine that came without warning, but one she accepted and dealt
with as stoically and mechanically as cooking her dinner.

Her double life as high school student and target of shadowy hitmen persisted for a couple of months
before Kirika finally acknowledged that she had to find answers to fill the gaping holes in her memory, or
else sooner or later succumb to her yet unmasked foe, going to an unmarked grave without learning
anything of who she really was and without coming close to achieving any of her dreams. So she had
contacted Mireille, the pertinent information on the wonderful woman having been gained by scouring the
files on the computer at her house. The blonde's had been the only record available, but Kirika had
implicitly known that she was the right person to speak to about the riddle that had been her life. She had
somehow known that the pocket watch she had found with the Beretta in a drawer of her dresser was the
chain that linked them. The girl hadn't fretted over her decision whether or not to contact Mireille,
someone she had been aware was a killer for hire; partly because of that confidence that they were
somehow connected, and partly because she had came to an impasse where she *had* to take a step
forward, irrespective of the danger, or fester and die.

And once Mireille made her entrance in Kirika's life, everything had changed again. For the better this
time--obviously, with someone as marvellous as Mireille in her life--but Kirika's everyday way of life had
been lost utterly in the process, whatever tatters that had remained, but that the girl had treasured
regardless, blow away like dust in the wind. All that was left of that time--that life--was the card that she
held in her hand. But would she trade what she had now with Mireille for what she had had back then?
Never. She and Mireille could be under constant attack every single day of every single week, but as long
as Kirika was with her love, fighting by her side throughout those days, protecting her angel, it was
sufficient enough joy to nourish her heart.

Kirika resumed her contemplation of the sky above Paris, her cherished student card remaining safely
cupped in the palm of her hand. Despite the extensive history between herself and Kawasaki, between
herself and Japan--her birthplace, where her lost life had been lived, even the place where she had first
met Mireille--one thing she was sure of was that she felt no allegiance or attachment towards either city or
country. When she returned to Kawasaki, however briefly, she would not be returning home. Like Mireille
and her opinion of her native Corsica, Kirika didn't look upon Japan as her home. *Here* was home, this
apartment in Paris. Whatever her exact feelings about her and Mireille going to Japan, to Yokohama,
were, Kirika at least knew where she belonged. Where she and her partner must eventually return. The
future was unclear, but it *would* contain that particular homecoming, at least for the older assassin.
Kirika would make sure of it... and pay for that guarantee in as much sin and slaughter as needed.

A piercing chill suddenly sliced through Kirika, cutting to the bone and turning marrow to ice. She shivered
and hunched her slim shoulders into herself, huddling as if trying to keep warm. However, the abrupt cold
was not due to a biting wind gusting through the open apartment window, and her huddle was not to aid
in retaining body heat, but in fact an instinctive defensive gesture. After last night--after many nights, in
truth, she now shockingly realised--Kirika had to question whether her prior thought had sincerely been
her own. She was set on her path, resolute in her choice to kill as called for in Japan… but she wondered.
Had it truly been her who had reasoned out that conclusion? Had that deduction been of *her* mind's own
making?

Unlike the night before, Kirika could recollect the dream--the nightmare--she'd suffered last night, but not
without being wracked by a severe sense of foreboding laced with trepidation. It was with a lump in a
dried out throat and a clammy claw squeezing her heart that she remembered walking down the familiar
dirt trail that led between the Manor's vineyards, remembered walking closer and closer to a patiently
waiting Altena, kindly and slightly knowing smile on her face, the woman all but spreading her arms wide
in welcome. And Kirika remembered having been powerless to stop herself from drawing nearer. Seeing
a woman in her dreams who had been the closest equivalent to a high priestess of Soldats, a woman
Kirika herself had pushed to a fiery death, a woman who had held sway over her life--dominated her
being--nearly from the cradle, was bad enough, but the memory of the helplessness she had
excruciatingly experienced was what made her tremble the most. That, and what she had heard, confined
in her mind.

The dream had ended with the terrified girl waking up in a jolt, eyelids bursting wide open, and a distinct
voice ringing in her head. The voice, no more than a whisper but seeming booming all the same, had had
the unforgettable deceivingly compassionate tones of Altena's. How? Why? Kirika hadn't known then,
panting softly in bed with cold dampness slicked across her forehead, and still didn't know now. But she
knew where she had heard something of its like before. Several times before, in fact. Mireille had
snoozed on peacefully beside Kirika for the remainder of that night, thankfully oblivious to her partner's
frightful rousing, and hopefully dreaming easier, happier, dreams. But Kirika hadn't been able to let sleep
claim her again until the blessed light of dawn fell upon the bed sheets, her body too tense, and her mind
plagued by insidious insight. And all the while fearing she would hear the gentle, whispering intonations of
a dead woman at any moment.

Kirika recognised now that her thoughts had been… erratic… of late. Notions and concepts that she
would normally never have considered for more than an instant, if even that, had sporadically skittered
across her mind; not so divergent from her own thoughts and feelings, and yet warped to have a harsher
edge, a darker undercurrent. Attitudes and worries perverted to prejudices and suspicions, love and duty
to zeal and fanaticism. The diminutive assassin couldn't quite recall when the distortion had first started,
but she wouldn't be surprised if it was when the darkness had initially restirred within her. What she could
recall, however, was that the twisted thoughts had gradually gained in potency as time had passed, hazy
musings coalescing to explicit ideas, and last night, finally, they had completed the evolution from
shapeless thought to unequivocal voice. Then, and *only* then, had Kirika grasped what was going on.
She had been careless. A dangerous thing to be, when perpetually up against a bitter enemy such as the
one she harboured inside her, an enemy as inescapable as though she and it--she and *her*--were each
a side of the same coin.

Yes, the voice had to be related to the dark seed implanted in Kirika's head, a seed that had already
cracked open, and recently had been ominously blooming in an obscurity imposed by its keeper's refusal
to acknowledge it. A decision the girl hugely regretted now. Those disturbing thoughts, the manipulative
voice that sounded like Altena's; it was some sort of assault on her by the darkness, by her other self. It
had to be. What other explanation was there? It had been pure naïveté for Kirika to have believed that
just because she was determined to prevail over her dark self; just because she had vowed to stand
utterly firm against it; just because she'd had unwavering faith that she would hurl it back into the
shadowed corners of her mind as if it were some mere errant thought; that the darkness would simply
accede to her 'indomitable' spirit, that the black flower that oozed corruption would simply wither in the
searing light of her conviction, the blazing rot spreading to its very roots and along them until the
darkness was sealed into a seed once again, maybe even permanently. Just because the darkness was
ignored, didn't mean it ceased to be. Kirika's overconfidence had left her completely vulnerable to attack,
blind to her other self's machinations. She anxiously speculated on how much harm had been done in her
ignorance, how much of the black flower's foul taint had leaked into her mind's thought patterns and had
bent them to match her eternal foe's. Kirika wondered how much of her mind had been despoiled… and
how much of it was still her own.

Kirika closed her eyes and clutched the student card in her hand tighter, as if holding onto it would in turn
somehow help her maintain a steady grip on herself. She was scared and her self-assurance had been
shaken, but she would persevere nevertheless. The petite girl was still determined to defeat her dark self,
still vowed to confront it with a steadfast will, still had faith she would eventually imprison it in a cage of
her mind's own making again. Kirika knew what to watch out for now, knew Altena's murmuring voice for
what it was. There had been no further whispers in her head as yet, but she would be wary of them if they
arose, and of odd thoughts as well, from here on out. Kirika would just refuse to listen to them, or better
yet, not even acknowledge them; she would continue to resist the lure of the darkness no matter what.
The fight between them was as real as any other the skilled assassin had faced whilst on an assignment,
with the costs the same--it was a fight for her survival. And this target would not be vanquished as
straightforwardly as those before. This target, after all, shared her essence. Shared her soul.

Kirika's eyelids brushed open as she abruptly picked up the rap of boot heels on hardwood resounding
nearer and nearer behind her, the tempo well-known to her ears. Even if Mireille hadn't been the sole
other person in the apartment with her, the young assassin would still have recognised that it was her
partner approaching. Kirika could identify Mireille's step by sound alone if the surface the blonde trod on
was hard enough, the woman's penchant for high-heeled footwear making it all the easier. She knew how
fast her love's long legs could pump when dashing, how far her stride reached while strolling; the marked
rhythms and others memorised, beats hammered into her mind. Kirika would never mistake Mireille for a
skulking backstabber sneaking up behind her in the middle of a gunfight; never accidentally send lead
streaming her partner's way as she flashed by in a sprint… as long as she heard her coming. Mireille
could tread quite lightly sometimes, her stealthy advances on more than one occasion having forced
Kirika to strain her sharp ears to detect her. And even then, sometimes the adept girl still hadn't. Like
now, for instance. However, Kirika felt she knew why that was in this case.

Kirika turned from the window, and was a little startled to discover that Mireille was almost upon her, and
even more taken aback when she cast a look past the woman's shoulder, espying the blonde's small
trolley-like suitcase, obviously packed, propped with its carry handle extended up against the black
partition separating the living room from the bedroom, positioned close to the short hallway that led to the
apartment's front door. Yet doubly shocking was that a grey ceramic pitcher was in Mireille's hand, filled
to the brim with water if Kirika's guess was right. Kirika hadn't heard so much as a grunt when her partner
had hauled her suitcase down the bedroom's steps into the living room, not so much as a click of boot
heels when she had walked all the way to the kitchen, nor a creak of hinges when she had fetched the big
round jug from a cabinet, and neither the squeak of a turning tap nor the rush of flowing water when she
had filled it. None of it had reached her ears. Or rather, none of it had passed any further than that.
Kirika's ears had been open, alert as always, but her mind had been closed. She may as well have been
deaf.

Mireille bent down to the potted orchid sitting on the small