The butt-end of November, and Leon shivers through another Thanksgiving. Not that there's a fucking thing to be thankful for that he can see, as he sits smoking on the steps of the centre, watching the bums come shuffling up for their place in the kitchen line, the next tatty paper plate from the stack bending under the weight of mashed potato; scabs of cranberry sauce congealing. Unless perhaps it's that he isn't one of them.
The first really cold day of the year, the kind of cold that fingers its way under clothes and through flesh and into bone, and no matter how many layers, the cold still gets in. Truly cold, and the thin paper of his hand-rolled cigarette sticks to his lip, tearing as he pulls it away - or is it his skin? - too cold to tell until he feels the tang of his own warm blood running into his mouth. Leon spits scarlet into the street.
Behind him at the top of the steps a scuffle breaks out in the line. One guy with a face like Medusa aware of her own impending fate…
"He's coming for you," Euryale whispers.
"He wants your head," Stheno laughs.
"Fair-cheeked Medusa thinks he'll love her," Euryale says, toying with a lock of her sister's hair, stilling the angry hissing with her fingers.
"Poor little Medusa." Stheno hangs her head. "Always had to be the pretty one."
"The mortal one."
"The dead one."
– patchy clumps of beard not disguising the sebum rash that blooms across his cheeks - is swinging the three-quarters-empty bottle of Thunderbird up above his head, mouthing inarticulate noise at the older man who has his hand buried in hair matted into snakes by years of neglect; pulling his head back like Perseus reaching for the bottle.
Leon is about to go and break them up when he sees her. Just for a moment, as he turns his head towards the couple fighting on the steps; just a shadow in the winter darkness crouching among the boxes piled in the alley's mouth across the street. Only a movement, and perhaps it's just a flap of sacking nailed across a broken window or a dog rooting through the trash. Anyone else would just shrug and pass it off, but Leon knows better. She's been there for a couple of days now, sometimes hidden in the gloom of the alley, sometimes just a lump under a colourless blanket in the doorway of the Brake and Body down the street, and once he had caught sight of her disappearing over the edge of the drugstore roof. Always not quite there, just out of sight, vanishing around corners.
Behind him, the homeless guys are still brawling, the fight spreading through the line which is collapsing into a milling knot of open mouths and shouting. Leon pushes through them into the kitchen, a word growled as he passes, and they quieten. Everyone who has been to the centre twice knows Leon; everyone who comes for the first time finds out soon enough that it is better to be his friend than his enemy. Too many withered husks of men have blown into the centre with nothing but their tough-guy act to protect them, and too many of them have suffered too much under the cruel heel of fate to have anything to offer each other but violence. The one's who listen to Leon's quiet words are the one who come back.
Grabbing a styrofoam cup of the scalding black stuff that passes for coffee from the counter, he turns back and walks out into the street, heading for the alley. He wants to ask her if she's okay, if she doesn't want someone to take her over to the women's shelter on Franklin, to get out of the morning's chill, into the warm.
But by the time he reaches the mouth of the alley all that is there to meet him is the wind in the litter and the sound of her footsteps fading. Like always. Gone before he can talk to her.
Leon doesn't know why she sticks in his mind, this girl who he has barely seen, most of her lost in shadow, her face barely visible between the wing of dark hair and the serpent coils of scarf around her throat.
Tifa doesn't know where he is. She'd lost him somewhere outside Arviat and has been tracking him for months, following the rumour of him as he moved along a great southward arc - Manitoba, Ontario, Michigan, Indiana. Always too late; wherever she was he'd been and gone; the trail almost cold. She thought she had him in Elkhart, but the wino in Edge Water Park only wanted to keep her around long enough to knock her over the back of the head while her guard was down, drag her into the trees, do whatever it was he was still capable of doing to her. Idiot. As if she ever let her guard down. But by the time she was done convincing the drunk of his error he was gone, if he'd ever been there at all. Downriver. South Bend. I-90 and out, anywhere from here to Seattle.
But a stroke of luck in Gary, of all the godforsaken places, because some kids had seen him out by Marquette Park; had come across him sleeping behind the Aquatorium, half dead from the cold and the steady diet of nothing he'd been living on. They'd hung out with him for while, they said, shared Red Bull and Casper Disasters, Nollie Impossibles, before he'd just sort of slunk away towards the Calumet River, the Buchanan Street railyards. Heading for the city, they said.
"Why's everyone looking for him, anyways?" one of them called after her as she headed towards the highway and she looked back, Lot's wife, frozen.
"What?" Running, kid lifted by the lapels, pinned to the wall of the pavilion, heels kicking against the fake stone.
"Fuck! Fucking psycho! Ah, bitch!" as she tightened her grip.
"Who? Who was looking?"
"Jesus, I don't know!" Gasping, the other kids in a knot, big-eyed and frightened. Egging each other on; holding each other back. "Some other guys. A girl. Some guys. I dunno."
Tifa drops the boy, runs, their shouts and taunts just noise. They're ahead of you. They're going to find him first. Stupid. Stupid of her not to have realised that she wouldn't be the only one trying to find him. How could she have been so stupid? Calm, calm, she tells herself, heart pounding blood loud in her ears. They're only a day ahead of you. No way they can track him down in a day, not in a city that size. Not even them.
But still she is afraid. Afraid of what might happen if they find him. Of what they might do to him. What they might make him do. What they might make him do to her.
Three days before Thanksgiving and Leon rides the L home, hating the crowds, hating the noise, the dirt, the battering rattle of the train. He's walked the length of the cars like he always does, looking for the one with the fewest people, the least need to be pushed around by strange flesh, freest from unwanted accidental intimacies of hips and elbows and knees and other people's breath.
He's been seated for a couple of minutes, a miraculous few feet of empty space around him, when the door at the end of the car bangs open and a kid shuffles in. He's bundled up in himself like he doesn't want anyone to see him, head down, hood up, right arm wrapped around his ribs like they hurt him, fist knotted up in front of his other arm, filthy. Leon sees the fist first, dark and dirty and for a moment he thinks it's a glove, until he sees the bright blood welling from the mashed knuckles.
The kid is coming closer, moving along the car, his other hand held out, a stick of wrist pale and grey under the sleeve of the grimy hoodie, palm-up and mumbling "spare a dollar? Hey, spare a dollar?" No-one so much as glances up from their phone; the pretend-sleepers still sleeping; something in StreetWise too absorbing to stop reading for this filthy kid shuffling along the car. "Hey. Spare a dollar?"
He's almost to Leon now, and Leon can smell him. He remembers the street stink only too well, because once upon a time it had wrapped itself around him, a second skin, knowing every nook and crevice of him, rapacious. Thick and dank and cloying, a mixture of grime and unwashed flesh and resignation and the residue of every kick and curse, and only the really hopeless - the ones too badly damaged to ever go back into one piece - ever carry that smell this thickly. "Hey, spare a dollar?"
The outstretched hand is in front of him, and for a moment Leon stares at it. The flesh is almost yellow beneath the dirt, ridged and calloused, the creases on the inside of the knuckles black. The palm is wrapped in a tatty bandage, no cleaner than the hand, and Leon winces at the angry inch of red skin that shows under its edge; shudders to think of what wound it's hiding, at the filth within it; glances up just to not be looking at the bandaged hand.
Even though he's been thinking of him as a kid, he's surprised at just how young the boy looks. The time he's spent at the shelter has taught him to take a good few years off his estimates of anyone's age, but even under the dirty street pallor, the exhaustion and abuse and bad nutrition, this kid only looks about sixteen at the outside. Narrow shoulders pushed up, head sunk in a frozen shrug. Under his hood, his face is half in shadow, but even so Leon can see the bones protruding over the sunken cheeks; eyes too big and too blue, and one of them is gummed half shut. Lank hair cut ragged, every-which-way stiff with dirt, the colour of old piss. Breath a wheezing rattle.
"Spare a dollar?"
Leon looks at him, sees a mirror held up to his past.
"What's your name, kid?" Before he can stop himself, fumbling through his pockets for change.
The kid is silent for a moment, one hand still out, the other knotted up under his armpit, except for the rough rasp of his breath. "My name?" as though no-one has asked him for so long that he has to think about it.
"Yeah, your name." There's about four dollars in quarters and dimes, and Leon dumps most of it in the kid's bandaged hand.
"Thanks." The kid turns away, knobs of spine visible through the fabric of his jacket; shuffles away down the car, invisible to everyone but Leon.
Under the bed it is dark, and she wants light more than she has ever wanted anything. In the quiet all she can hear is the panicked tumble of her heart, the blood rasping in her ears, the breath hot and shallow in her throat. So loud that she is certain he must hear, and she stuffs the back of her hand back between her teeth, biting down on the meat behind her thumb.
In the next room she hears the muffled scrape of a chair leg pushed back over the linoleum, hears him say "so… where were we?" and then someone starts screaming. She thinks it might be Belle, but she can't be sure. No-one else is making a sound and maybe some of them are hiding but probably they are all already dead. She knows that Jasmine and Alice are, because she had listened as their curses and threats had turned to terror; to noises she had never imagined a person could make, and then to silence. She has hidden in the dark for she doesn't know how many hours, listening to him take her friends out of the room one by one, listening to him kill them.
He had seemed so nice when Shiki had first brought him home, smartly dressed in an expensive-looking suit and with his shoes polished. Not the greatest conversationalist, but Shiki didn't seem to care, and who could blame her, really? He had fairly quickly become a favourite of all of them, and Shiki didn't seem to mind that, either. Vincent, his name was. Vincent Valentine, and Rhyme had rolled her eyes skyward.
He and Shiki had been to the Shipyard Inn after her shift in the Emergency Room had ended, and she had brought him back to the townhouse on East 100th Street around eleven. They were already both half drunk, Shiki hanging off his arm and laughing at his increasingly improbable stories.
Shiki had been laughing since he had first come in to the Emergency Room, a week ago, looking for his brother. There wasn't anyone that fit his description, she knew that straight off, but Shiki had kept him talking while she pretended to check through the admissions records because he looked so nice and had the loveliest eyes and his smile was so charming.
"Wait!" she had called out, regretting every step he took away from the triage desk. With no idea of what she was going to say next.
He had turned in the exit, stepping back as a burly man shouldered through the swinging doors. "If he comes in…" she had stammered.
His smile had broadened. "I'll come back," he said.
And he had come back, every day, and his brother had never been admitted. She had asked him if he had checked the other hospitals, and of course he had, and the idea of him waiting in other ER's, flicking his fringe out of his eyes as he chatted with other nurses, didn't trouble her one bit. Not at all. Because she hadn't dared ask him about himself, she had asked him about his brother.
"He ran away," he had said, and the expression on his face had been like none she had ever seen. "He's not… uh, well, he's not…" he paused. "Let's just say he couldn't pour water out of a boot with the instructions on the heel."
"Is he dangerous?" she had asked, not quite sure what he meant, and he had shaken his head.
"Only to himself. It's happened before. He wanders off, gets himself into some scrape, winds up in a hospital or jail. I just want to find him before something really bad happens."
But he hadn't found him, at least as far as Aqua knew, and something really bad was happening. She closes her eyes in the darkness under the bed, in case it means she won't have to hear what he's doing to Belle.