He wasn't sure what he had been expecting in the apartment Claudia and Michael shared, but it hadn't been that it would be so... normal. Well, there were random weapons scattered about, like his gun and the crossbow on a table near the door and a set of antique Japanese swords hanging on the wall, but otherwise it was just so... normal. As the door shut behind the four of them, Claudia being careful to not to turn her back on him as she apparently did not trust him, she gave Michael a soft pat on the rear. "Go change into the clothes I bought you, bishounen. You look like a little bitch-boy doll dressed like that."
"Okay." Michael disappeared into a door on the far side of the room, shutting it only after another prompt from his partner.
"So why am I a target?" he asked once the door was shut behind the boy.
She shrugged a shoulder, the same arm that she'd held the crossbow in and that she had extended to him, he noted. Based on the tightening around Maki's dark eyes, he was willing to guess that little fact had not gone unnoticed on that side of the room either. "You know about us," she answered, a thick brogue slipping into her voice suddenly. "You know about vampires, the Network, Michael, Maki, me. They're going to make you disappear. So, as I see it, you have two choices: join us and live at least a little while or try to go back to your old life and wait for them to erase you."
"And you have one choice," Maki cut in. "You're going to sit down in that chair and let me take a look at that shoulder. You're acting like you've reopened the wound."
Without arguement she limped over to the faded blue recliner in the middle of the living room, collapsed in it, her legs dangling over one side, and pulled off her shirt, revealing a plain black bra and pale scarred sking beneath it. He could feel heat begin to touch his face and so instead focussed his attention on what Maki was doing. Slender hands almost as pale as the flesh they were touching peeled the bandages off her shoulder to reveal what looked like claw marks that had torn through the skin and almost to the bone. Some of the horror he was experiencing must have shown on his face because she sent him a pained grin and stated, "It's not as bad as it looks. It's a lot better than it was two nights ago."
"This girl just has no sense of self-preservation," Maki stated all too calmly.
She winced as the tape holding the new bandages in place was pulled tightly. "Doesn't mean it doesn't hurt like all the hells when you do that!"
"If you'd take better care of yourself, I wouldn't have to do this."
The door on the other side of the apartment opened, and Michael all but bounced out, this time dressed in a tight tee-shirt and a pair of shorts that the weather did not allow for. He stopped short when he saw the scene before him. "You two aren't fighting again, are you, Claudia, Maki?" he asked, cornflower blue eyes trembling.
"Just a minor difference of opinion," Claudia answered.
"Did I do that when I hugged you?" was his next question.
She pulled her dark shirt back on, shakily stood, and hugged him very lightly and very briefly, apparently to his disbelief, based on his wide-eyed expression as she touched him. "No, you didn't, Michael."
"The video tapes and the computer program you were waiting on came in, Michael," Maki continued. It definitely sounded like a dismissal.
"I'll check them out later," he answered, sliding over close to him and pulling him down so that they sat side-by-side on the couch. Claudia glared at Ken like something she'd rather kick back in the gutter, but she didn't say a word. "Besides," Michael continued, "I want to stay in here and hear what you have to say to Ken. After all, it's my fault he got mixed up in all this."
Claudia nodded slightly and sat back down in her chair, turning a sour look up as Maki sat on the armrest behind her, forcing her to lean against the Oriental's body or sit up straight. Relunctantly, it seemed, she opted for leaning. "I've told you your two options, Ken. What do you think?"
"Is this how you joined?"
The glare Maki shot him could have killed him if such things were possible. Beside him, Michael looked intruiged, like this was a story he had not yet heard. And Claudia... Claudia looked him like he'd just asked her to kill her own puppy. When she spoke, that strange Irish brogue in her voice was so thick it was difficult to understand her, but French pronouciations of words slipped in every so often also.
"The only way to join up is to find out about the vampires and the hunters. It's not as easy as it sounds. You're how old? Thirty?"
"Close enough. You're twenty-nine, and you're just now finding out. Most people live their entire lives without ever knowing about either. But once you find out, nothing is ever the same again. If someone finds out just out of the blue by some quirk, like you did, usually they try to go back to normal life and die or they join the corporate office of the Network. You only get sent into the field if you have survived an attack and if you're Talented enough to survive another one. So all hunters have gone through the trauma of an attack and can survive most anything else."
Michael bobbed his head. "You saw my bite scars." He winked slightly at Claudia. "They'd be a lot worse if she hadn't kept saving me. That's why I had to be on her team; she saved me the first time."
She nodded. "Michel here grew up on the streets with his sister. They tricked for food, shelter, whatever they needed. Then one day, a revenant vampire turned his sister, and she turned on him, attacked him."
"I'd be deader than dirt - or a vampire - if Claudia hadn't shown up and saved me, even if I did end up getting recruited," the youth commented.
She smirked slight at him. "He proved more than adequate on physical tests, and he blew the mental tests away, and he was amazingly clean for someone who lived on the streets as long as he had, so the Network took him in and trained him. And he ended up on my team somehow..." The look in her nearly black eyes informed him that she knew exactly how Michael had ended up on her team. "And that's that. Now, Maki-"
"Let's leave me out of this."
She looked up into dark eyes. "You sure?" A nod. "Okay. Then that just leaves me." Michael leaned forward. "I come from... an abusive home," she snorted lightly, "but I'm sure not like you're thinking." Her eyes grew even darker as she seemed to let herself drift off into the past. "When I was little, papa was never around. Okaa always tried to cover by saying he was a police officer, off saving people all the time and doing all sorts of wonderful things. It never explained what he did do when he came home."
"What did he do?" He made sure his voice was soft.
She shrugged with her good shoulder. "When you're that young, the mind is still really good at blocking bad things out. I still have scars from that time, though. I had an aniki and an aneki - an older brother and an older sister, Austin and Alora - and they protected me from papa as much as they could. Aniki was eleven years older than me, and aneki was eight years older than me; I was the baby.
"When I was five, papa came home and turned okaa into a vampire. Aniki killed him for it. Aneki told okaa never to come back, or she'd be next, so okaa left, and aniki and aneki raised me for the next four years." She broke off a moment to sigh. "Then okaa came back. I don't know how she did it, but she killed aniki and aneki; I think she drugged their food or something. But she made a game of killing us: whoever hides the best and lives the longest gets to be a vampire. Aniki had hidden me before he went to try to kill her too, but she found me.
"I remember her sitting me down at the kitchen table, aniki and aneki's body sitting at the other two chairs and saying I was going to be a vampire. I was going to be her little girl for forever. Aniki told me to never let them turn me, so I started looking for a way to kill myself. Imagine that, a nine-year-old trying to commit suicide. Then I remember that one of the table legs had always been loose, so when okaa tried to bite me, I pulled it off and put it in her heart, just like I saw aniki do to papa.
"I went to live with my best friend Chance for the next month or so. Then one day, while Chance and I were at school... Gods, I remember that day so well... It was so overcast that vamps were walking around, the Master vamps at least. That's how papa's maker, who was a Master, got to Chance's house and murdered his entire family: his mama, his papa, his two-month-old baby sister. When we got home, the place was a bloodbath. I remember Chance screaming beside me and trying to hit the Master before she just backhanded him into a wall. I don't remember what happened next, but I remember coming to holding a stake into that bitch's heart and staring into a strange face. That's when I found out about the hunters." She looked over at them. "Do you wanted to hear the rest?"
Ken shakily nodded, not trusting his voice. Michael was the one who spoke. "Please finish."
"Chance and I were recruited. He didn't have what it took to make it on the teams, so he was sent to work in the corporate office of the Network, and I was sent to a monastery in Ireland to train as an operative. That's where this accent comes from. Anyway, I was in Ireland training then - after I turned eleven - hunting till I was fifteen, when Brother Thomas, the monk in charge of the hunters who picked me up, decided to let me try Newark; he thought I was good enough. Irish vampires are generally a good lot; they keep their numbers low and their brains about them. Hells, some of them helped me train and set up freelance connections. But Newark vampires might as well have been a different breed.
"I'd been there a year before I pretty much died on a mission. The Network found me and.... rehabilitated me and retrained me and stuck me on a team with some of their more experienced operatives. We clashed for a while, then they finally declared me ready for a team of my own, so Miguel, Scott, and Jacqueline were sent to me. Miguel had been a cop before he was recruited; he and his partner were lead into an ambush by a vamp. His partner died, and Miguel barely lived, but he swore revenge. Scott's wife and baby were killed by a pack of revanent vampires, and they nearly killed him too if my old team hadn't shown up at that time. Jacqueline was an ex-vampire freak. She loved the feel of a vampire bite, and she needed it like a junkie needs cocaine. One day her Master turned her over to a lower Master who had done something good for him, and the younger Master almost killed her. The Network collected her and cleaned her up and stuck her in the field.
"Michael joined the team two and a half years ago. He'd been with the Network three years then. My new team had found him on one of our first missions together. He was just a wee thing back then, barely enough skin on him to cover his bones, but he'd killed the vamp who turned his sister and her."
"Not exactly my most proud moment, Claudia," the young man in question muttered.
"Anyway, Michel joined our team, and we were a full team till I gave Scott the promotion I was supposed to be receiving, and he was transfered to the corporate office a year ago. Then two months ago, Jacqueline and Miguel were killed on an undercover mission, and Michael and I went rogue. I still had my contacts outside the Network, like Maki here," she waved her hand at the person in question, "so we just went to freelancing. And now it looks like the Network is out to eliminate us. And that's the entire story, Ken. Any questions?"
"Just one. How old are you?"
"Me? I'm twenty-four years young, one of the longest lived hunters on the planet." She and Maki exchanged a knowing smirk. "But I cheat a bit here and there." She turned her attention back to him. "Now, Ken, when it gets dark enough, I'll help you break into your apartment-"
"Whatever, and get back whatever personal items you want to keep. We'll have to do it tonight, though, because everything will be gone by morning." She shrugged once more. "You know, after all."
2 November 2001
Yay!!!! *does dance of joy* Another chapter done! Everyone see why Claudia is one of my favourite characters? I put her through so much trauma. All right; next I'm going to try to switch back over to Butterfly Wings or Gods and Other Creatures for a little bit.
Next chapter should be available sometime next week.