A Handful of Dust

Part 5: Line of Fire

“After the agony in stony places  
The shouting and the crying
Prison and place and reverberation  
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains  
He who was living is now dead  
We who were living are now dying.”

-         T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

            “You're here.”

            Stillness hung over the restaurant, the echo of Yurika's words lingered in the air. No one dared to move. Robin's eyes were wide and unsure; Amon's head was tilted so that his hair hid his face, masking his expression. Everyone else followed Robin's gaze towards the standing girl. The quiet seemed to shatter when the girl broke into a wide grin, dashing from where she had been sitting to embrace her former comrade warmly.

            Robin blinked in shock, looking over Yurika's shoulder to see Miho smile gently, nodding once. Sakaki threw his hands into the air and rolled his eyes, but his lips quirked upward too. Once the pale girl realized what had happened, she hid a smile of gratitude and hugged her friend back, the one who could always be counted on to be unpredictable.

            “Say it, Doujima.” Michael had appeared from the hall, a teasing look on his face. Robin blinked, baffled, as she watched Yurika turn and glare at the hacker.

            “Say it!” If anything, his grin widened, and Yurika stuck her tongue out at him before giving in.

            “Fine, fine! I was wrong! But… it's good I was wrong, ne?”

            “Don't try and save face.”

            Miho started chuckling quietly. She had risen to her feet during the exchange, and moved towards the two other women, offering Robin a much gentler hug than Yurika's. “Ignore them. We really are glad to see you safe.”

            The emerald-eyed girl returned her smile, whispering soft thanks. “I'm glad to see you all got out safe…”

            Miho nodded, and turned to Amon. “Hello, Amon. Good to see you alive.”

            His eyes lifted, and he spoke for the first time since entering the restaurant. “Hello, Karasuma.” Her smile was knowing, and she seemed to approve of the changes she observed in his demeanor.

            “I think we should just assume you never die when we think you do.” Yurika broke in, grinning broadly. If Amon had been a normal person, the look on his face would have been one of complete exasperation. But, as he was Amon, his only reaction was to stare at her levelly, which, of course, didn't faze her in the least.

            “I'd like it if I could be able to stop getting into such situations.” He commented. He hadn't looked at Robin, but she turned her head anyway, lips pressed tightly together.

            Haruto still hadn't moved from his spot, and he raised a hand to them, motioning for them all to return to the table. “Where have you guys been, though? If you've been alive all this time, why did you never tell us?”

            Robin took her customary place at the bar, Miho and Amon sat beside her. She didn't look at Haruto as she responded. “I'm sorry, but we couldn't.” We had just needed… to get away. As far away as we could. But still… it pulled us back.

Miho hushed the hunter with a look. “You don't need to tell us everything.”

            Robin shook her head, honey strands swishing in the air. “I need to tell you why I am here. Why… we are here.”

            “Michael told us that.”

            She was beginning to wonder how many times she could be shocked in one day. You'd think I'd have gotten used to it. They had all known , and yet they were still treating her so warmly? She looked into each of the faces surrounding her, trying to understand.

            Miho… the responsible one, the one who tried to take care of everything, even when it was impossible. Her hair was slightly longer and less strict, so a few strands fell into her eyes, which seemed to smile more than they had before. Yurika had told Robin that when Amon had disappeared, Miho had tried her best to replace him, running herself ragged trying to match his skills. She and the older woman had argued before, but never seriously, always working together when it mattered. Robin had come to understand some of Miho's underlying bitterness, because of her fading power. Miho's power… she wondered if it still existed at all. She looked slightly better, but still world-weary… all of them had the look of people who had seen far too much. She seemed more accepting, perhaps her power really was gone, and she had learned to fight without it. Robin wanted to know… but couldn't ask her in front of the others, for it could still be a sensitive subject with the older woman.

            Yurika had changed the most, in her outward demeanor. Even through her banter with Michael, it was obvious now to the others the serious light in her eyes, which was no longer disguised. They had always thought she had cared for nothing except herself… until they learned of the secrets she carried. Now that she wasn't using a façade, this composure was clear, although Robin was glad to see that she hadn't lost her fiery personality. It had always made life a little easier, having Yurika there to break the ice. The others now treated her with more respect than she used to receive, even with Michael's teasing.

            Haruto looked the same, in outward appearance, but his attitude was different. He was more confident, calmer, his actions more collected and not as impulsive. From the mature look in his eyes, Robin knew he must have come into his own as a hunter, no longer the fumbling rookie that they looked out for. He had used to be slightly envious of her, because of her ability, but as he looked at her, it was with the same fondness that the others carried in their eyes.

I wonder…do they see me as a changed person, or as a walking memory… an image of long-gone times that can no longer affect the future?

She took a deep breath, gathering herself to speak, and in that moment she looked across the bar at Master. He was working, as he always seemed to be doing, even when there were no customers to serve. He did not seem to have changed, but Robin doubted she would even realize it if he had. The cup of espresso slid gently in front of her, and she smiled at him, glad that his returning smile had not changed like the others'. She took a small sip and faced her friends – were they friends? She had told Amon so –, unsure how to begin.

            Amon, on her other side, moved to face the bar, resting his elbows on the smooth counter and pressing one arm softly against her back. Strength seemed to flow into her, and she settled herself and began to speak.

            “I know you have questions, and you deserve answers.”

            Miho opened her mouth to protest, but Robin silenced her with a slight shake of her head. “First off -” she nodded at Haruto, “Where have we been? Well… everywhere, I suppose. In Japan. After… that , we just started going and didn't stop.”

            “What did you do?” Yurika asked, all traces of gaiety gone from her voice.

            Robin blinked, as if the other woman's voice had startled her back into the present. “Worked, when we needed to. We hid.”

            Micheal crossed his arms in front of him. “They looked for you. Didn't know if you died. They asked us where you where -”

            “SOLOMON did?” Robin cut him off.

            “ – Yeah. But we didn't know. I don't think they believed us when we told them that.”

            “Well, why should they?” Haruto leaned back in his seat, a pensive look on his face. “We had just destroyed our own boos. Not like we seemed the most trustworthy.”

            Yurika frowned. “And it was they, too, who wanted to get rid of him.”

            Amon's deep voice broke into the conversation. “Aa, but it was their decision, so they would feel safe in that. The fact that this was the decision of employees makes them nervous.”        

            Miho spoke softly. “Because the same thing could happen to them.”

            Amon didn't turn from the bar. “And is.”

            Everyone fell silent.

            “Is it?” Miho asked quietly.

            Robin's voice was barely over a whisper. “That… depends on you.”

            Miho turned her eyes away, as if avoiding the comment, and placed a hand on Robin's arm. “You're too thin, Robin. Are you sure you are okay?”

            Yurika snorted, cerulean eyes skeptical. “Can't be easy, hiding all the time.”

            “But she did a damn good job of it.”

            Everyone jumped slightly, and whirled to see Kosaka standing in the doorway, an indecipherable expression on his face. Haruto jumped to his feet, ready to defend their reasons, when his boss shot him a withering look. “Sit down, Sakaki-kun. I'm not angry with her.”

            Robin cast her eyes downward, seeming to withdraw into herself, as though expecting an attack. Amon straightened, the warmth of his side reassuring against her back, jaw set as he looked at the new head of the STNJ. Kosaka returned their looks passively, before settling his gaze on the silent young woman. “Robin-chan.”

            She raised her eyes slowly, and a corner of his mouth quirked into a slight smile. “Can I speak with you?”

            “Hai, of course.”

            Amon looked as if he was going to protest, but she quieted him with a soft touch on his arm.

            Kosaka nodded once. “Michael!”

            “Hai?” The hacker came to attention.

            “Go back to Raven's Flat. Check for signs of SOLOMON's activity. All of you in one place outside of work could have attracted notice. I'm disappointed in all of you for not realizing that. You know the rules.”

            Robin flinched, and Michael left the restaurant quickly, shooting her an apologetic look. Miho looked upset, and Yurika exasperated. Amon stood. “I'll go with him.”

            Kosaka regarded him coolly. “I have no power over you anymore, Amon-san. Do as you like.”

            “I will.” With that last comment, he strode out after Michael.

            Robin keenly felt the loss of his support, but she understood that he finally felt he could do something that was, in his mind, productive – searching out danger. She followed Kosaka into the hallway.

            “Were you…” she began.

            “Listening? Yes. I knew they were up to something, and when that happens, they usually end up here.” He did not sound angry. Perhaps the past events had served to mellow him.

            “And… you're not angry with them.” Her voice was questioning.

            “Oh, I'm angry, right enough. But I've had to get used to it. Not to mention you're here – which was a surprise.” He faced her, eyes measuring.

            She met his gaze evenly. “I'm not used to you being so calm.”

            “I've changed. And you? You must have, to be doing what you are now.”

            Robin shifted back, uncertain. “You know..?”

            “I was listening, remember?” He sighed, rubbed his head with one hand, and looked at her. “I'm not going to lie to you. I am not going to pretend I support you in this. This is my job. This is all I have. You cannot bring down the STN.”

            Something in Robin's eyes hardened. “How do you know that? Will you attack me?”

            “No.” His voice was gruff, and he shook his head once. “I could not order an attack on you. But the other branches will, including SOLOMON. I'd be surprised if they haven't started already.”

            She protested slightly. “We've been careful…”

            “It doesn't matter. If SOLOMON wants to find someone, they will.”

            She let out a breath, moving to look to the side. “So, you're going to try and stop us.”

            “Robin, you cannot bring it down. But..” He left off, face tight.

            Her gaze returned to him, curious. “But?”

            “Maybe… you can change it.” Kosaka saw the surprise on her face and explained. “I don't like what was discovered more than anyone else. I don't really know what to think. But I can't hunt you, so I can't stop you. Even if I did tell them to… they wouldn't.”

            She shook her head. “How can I change it without destroying it? I don't think that's possible.”

            “It's going to have to be.”

            Her head snapped up, eyes narrowing, but before she could speak, the phone rang. Kosaka flipped it open and spoke. “What is it?”

            Amon's voice resonated from the other end. “They're here. SOLOMON has deployed several hunters in the city. Michael picked up the info –     it had been leaked.”

            Robin went rigid, cold fear trickling down her spine. Kosaka's brows furrowed, and Michael broke in. “They're all high end hunters. We're in trouble, or rather, Robin is.”

            Kosaka nodded once. “Return here as quickly as possible. We'll figure something out.”

            “Yes, boss.” The line cut off.

            Robin regarded him coolly. “You're helping me?”

            He began to walk back into the room. “I cannot condone the hunt of someone who has done nothing. We have to tell the others.”

            She did not move from where she stood, and he looked at her quizzically. Her eyes were dark in the dim light. “I'll be there. I…. need to think.”

            Kosaka nodded and entered the restaurant. When Robin heard them start to talk, she slipped down the hall and outside.

            She stopped to get her bearings, and then turned towards the center of the city. Ducking her head, she hurried along, searching out the hunters.

            This is my duty. My destiny. I cannot risk them because of it. I can only risk myself. That is all I have.