It is their second day without food. The man's pride on behalf of his master keeps him from standing in bread lines every day, knowing the boy would not like stooping to charity; but with every passing moment his resolve crumbles, having failed in his role as provider by any other means. His charge deserves better than to slowly starve in the ghetto, no matter how the food is obtained. Yet the man is also loath to leave the boy behind.
At last the young man seems asleep, but as his guardian quietly creeps to the door a soft, mumbling voice plaintively calls after him: "You're leaving me?"
"Not for long," he assures the youth, sitting next to him on the dingy mattress and brushing feathery bangs off a forehead damp with hallucinatory fever. "Never for long."
A small smile graces the boy's parched lips; the man must find water soon as well. "I know," the young man replies in a voice barely above a whisper. It is his first sign of cognizance all week. The man grabs him by the shoulders and calls his name, urgently, hoping the spell has at last been broken; but when his charge turns his way again his lavender eyes are glassy and blind to the material world.
Choking, the man turns away and lets the boy sleep. He has promises to keep, even if those to whom he promised cannot hear. It is his duty. It always has been.
Dropping to the ground with floor-rattling vivacity, Giovanni Gallo launched himself into his series of morning push-ups, seventeen-year-old body muscled and sinewy by years of the same routine. Counting aloud until he reached an even hundred, he jumped up and continued to stretch. Mornings had always been the high points of his energy, zeal slowly draining from his system as everyday life took its toll on him, and even after five years away from the slums the same pessimism about what the day might bring remained.
In the mornings, no one dominated his time but him; he did not yet have to worry about anything. Once, he would have hoarded this alone time by remaining safe and snug in his blankets, imagining himself waking in a bright new world; but that scenario had one day come true and he still wasn't sure if it was really all he'd imagined. With his new luxuries came new responsibilities and complications--some welcome, others considerably less so.
The only welcome complication waited for him outside, scratching a messy head of jet-black hair and yawning; his small fist was poised in mid-knock as Giovanni opened the door. Caught off-guard, the older boy stumbled backwards.
"M-Master Clair, you startled me!" It had taken some time for him to accustom himself to speaking respectfully to a child eight years his junior, yet now the honorific came easily to his lips. He had learned to bow and scrape and obey, had done so willingly and with full knowledge of his inferiority to such people as the one standing before him bemusedly in a sloppily-buttoned shirt. "Aw, you're a mess...come here and I'll fix you up."
"I got dressed in a hurry," Clair replied defensively as Giovanni deftly straightened his clothing. "Papa woke me up and said he wanted to see you right away. He said he wanted me to come get /you/."
Normally Giovanni was responsible for rousing the smaller boy; the sudden switch made him frown, especially since Lorenzo Leonelli--chairman of notorious mob conglomerate Company Vita and Clair's father--was well-known as an elitist, no matter how benevolently he treated those below his station in life. To have his son, the heir and hope of the Family, running petty errands struck a chord of resonant wrongness in Giovanni's brain. What the hell? he wondered, but chose not to voice his confusion in such a manner. Using profanity in front of Young Master was severely frowned upon by his Master proper. "Did he explain himself?" he asked, locking his door behind him and checking to make sure his gun--holster slung for safekeeping on the bedpost at night--was securely fastened beneath his shoulder, where he could easily reach it should the need arise. Though he had yet to fire a single shot at a living target, Giovanni was still in charge of protecting Clair and proud of it. Turning back to the small boy, he frowned again. "Hold still and let me do your hair now."
Lightly Clair patted down his mussed jet-black head, feeling the problematic tufts with appraising fingers. "My hair is fine," he decided, and the older boy knew better than to argue. Though Company Vita's future don crumpled like a wet leaf at a mere disapproving glance from the current leader, away from the man's suffocating influence he suffered no fools and made his opinions on all topics quite well-known.
The two boys walked down the long hall in silence, the taller following the shorter a respectful distance back, until finally they reached the door to Lorenzo's favorite sitting room. "He's in there," Clair said softly, stepping aside so Giovanni could get the door for him, and already the older boy could detect a new stiffness in the younger's manner. It angered him. For saving him from the slums, Giovanni owed Lorenzo Leonelli more than he could ever repay, but the debt did not necessarily extend to automatic tolerance. Privately, he couldn't stand the stuffy man.
"You sent for me, sir?" Giovanni called, feeling his own limbs straighten in respect and formality as he opened the door to allow Clair entrance.
"I did," a light yet gravelly voice replied. "Come in, boy."
"Yes, sir." Entering, Giovanni shut the door behind himself and looked around nervously to see where the man wanted him to move next. Lorenzo sat in his usual armchair, Clair standing by his side; Mauro, Clair's tutor and Lorenzo's right-hand man, had taken a seat on the edge of a small sofa. Nowhere in the portrait did there seem to be a Giovanni-shaped hole. Was he just supposed to remain by the door, then?
"My son's hair is not in order this morning," Lorenzo observed; Clair looked down in shame, aware and ashamed he had gotten his companion in trouble.
"I'm sorry, sir," Giovanni replied. "I'll see to it as soon as I can." Mentally he concocted a far less bland retort, one that involved him pointing out in no uncertain terms the key differences between a valet and a bodyguard, but such a response would likely send him back to the dirty streets of Judoh's underbelly. He was prepared to bear any injustice in order to avoid returning there.
"Make certain that you do," Lorenzo told him, and for a panicked moment Giovanni thought the man had read his mind and was referring to his stoic tolerance of injustice, and not the state of Clair's appearance. "But let us put that aside for the time being. You have been in my employ for four years, correct?"
"Five," Giovanni replied, moving his hands behind his back in a position he had once seen a military man assume. "Sir."
Though Clair's eyes flicked from his father to his friend in nervous concern, Lorenzo himself showed no signs of affront at being corrected. "And in that time, you have cared for my son with remarkable sensitivity while keeping up with your own studies in the disciplines I laid out for you. Your performance has been entirely satisfactory, your conduct impeccable, and your companionship a comfort to my son, just as I had predicted." Giovanni felt a blush rising in his already tanned cheeks at the unexpected praise from this unexpected source; was this the sort of feeling for which Clair hungered every day of his life? "Thus I believe you are ready at last for your final test. Should you pass today, you will be initiated into Company Vita itself and your duties in earnest shall begin."
"Really?" Clair burst out, bright-eyed in excitement for the one person in his life close to a friend, but at a glance from Lorenzo he mumbled an apology and retreated back into his shell.
Giovanni dared to shoot the boy a sympathetic, appreciative grin before turning his attention back to his employer. "Very well, sir. I'm ready," he affirmed, though in reality the "what the hell?" that had wandered in earlier was settling down and raising a family of similar phrases in his mind. "What do I have to do?"
"You may continue your studies as per usual this morning, and take lunch in your usual fashion as well. After lunch, Clair and I will take you to the testing area and you will demonstrate how much you have learned to me. Are these arrangements satisfactory?" Lorenzo rose and motioned for Mauro to do the same. The man obeyed instantly.
"Y-yes sir," Giovanni replied, heart already giddy with excitement. He still could hear the old man's praise ringing in his ears, was eager for more, for the next step in his life. On this day, it seemed, nothing could deprive him of his morning burst of energy. He was really moving up, he was really going places! It had certainly taken long enough, but at last he would prove himself worthy and thus repay the debt interred when he first sat in Lorenzo's limousine and watched the dirty tenements of Bug Street fade to memories behind him.
It was decided. He'd never be returning now.
The man returns with water but no food, though not for lack of trying. In his preoccupation with quieting the boy and slipping away unheard, he'd left his gun lying next to the bed, and so when a gang of shifty-eyed giants accosted him on his way back he had no choice but to fight bare-handed. Several had fallen, but numbers finally won over prowess and he barely escaped with even the water bottle. The man is thoroughly ashamed of himself, spirits lower than the mold and the dirt clinging to the soiled floor. Once again, he has failed.
Getting the youth to drink also proves to be a challenge. Only taking a few swallows of the liquid for himself (his pocket money ran out buying a single bottle from the vending machine, and credit cards can be too easily traced), the man tilts the unresponsive young man's head back and tries to make him swallow a trickle of the drink. The boy sputters on the water; it flecks like diamonds on his dry lips, diamonds that cannot be exchanged for more practical currency.
The man swears to himself, holding the boy closer and continuing to try, though most of the precious bottle ends up splattered on the young man's shirt. Soon his charge is shivering, in the throes of some storm only he can see and chilled by the wet fabric sticking to his skin. The man takes off his jacket and pulls it tightly around the boy's shoulders, fighting back chills of his own from other sources.
It wasn't fair, not only to the boy but also to him! He hadn't sacrificed everything only to end up back where he began, dragging the one he'd sworn to protect with him. The man's blind spot regarding the young man keeps him from casting the youth as anything but a victim in a cruel tragedy; if anyone can be blamed for the misfortunes now plaguing them, it is him, for letting his guard down. "Watch your back, especially when things are going well." The traitor had uttered those words mere hours before the disaster began to unwind itself, quoting the first man to ever betray him, and he had ignored the advice. The boy shouldn't have to pay for his own weakness!
Yet he always has. No matter what the circumstance, the boy has always paid. And his protector, helpless when it matters most, can only watch.
Giovanni found it rather odd when Lorenzo declared, in honor of the beautiful day outside, that he, his son, and his son's companion would be walking to the testing area rather than taking the car as was his original plan. Clair, always eager for a chance to get out and see the city, voiced no confusion; Giovanni doubted that the boy would have objected even if a problem had arisen in his mind. Even Mauro, usually so nervous, acquiesced with nary a protest. So Giovanni scolded himself wryly for his paranoia and stepped out into the warm spring sunlight, loyally tagging along behind the Leonellis as was his place.
"Sir, where is this place?" he finally worked up the courage to ask, after what seemed like far too long a walk; Lorenzo ignored him, eyes fixed firmly ahead. Clair glanced around in wide-eyed wonder, seeing some of Judoh's streets for the first time without a glass window separating him from the throng. Despite how eagerly he soaked in his surroundings, however, he did not seem particularly impressed with what he saw.
Lorenzo turned off the main walk and led the way down a narrow alley, and Giovanni's brow creased in discomfort. This was all wrong. A man as cautious as he knew his employer to be would never walk virtually unprotected and unsheltered by a bustling crowd. What was wrong with him?
"Sir," he began again, startled at his own forwardness showing itself suddenly, "I don't think this is such a good--"
A flash of motion in the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he whipped around just in time to see someone jump out of an alcove, handgun at the ready. Grabbing Clair, Giovanni flung both himself and the heir down onto the ground and shielded the young boy as a shot rang out over his head; then, twisting around, he snarled and let off a shot of his own, hand reaching for his gun in a well-rehearsed motion. His shot caught the man in the kneecap, and the assailant crumpled to the ground as Giovanni ran up to him, gun now leveled at the man's head.
Stepping roughly on the man's hand and ignoring the resultant howl of pain, he dragged the attacker's gun away from him and dug the barrel of his own firearm into the man's forehead while still pinning him down with his foot. "What do you think you're /doing/?" he growled, hot blood surging through his system and igniting all the pent-up frustration he had so carefully dampered for five long years. "You shot at the /kid/! What kind of coward sees an enemy and chooses to fire at the poor, helpless..."
"D-don't!" The man was shaking, his pupils pinpricks as his eyes crossed in fright, trying to bring the barrel of Giovanni's gun into focus. "H-he told me to do it, I shot to m-miss, V-vampire promised..."
"Vampire?!" Giovanni twisted his head around to glare at Lorenzo. "You know this man??" he snapped; then, looking at the impassive chairman, a thought dawned. "This is the test," he accused, no longer worried about sounding subservient. "/You set me up/."
"Indeed," Lorenzo concurred smoothly; Clair looked up from nursing a skinned knee in fright. "And you performed excellently, Giovanni. Only one thing remains. Kill him."
The man blubbered in incoherent terror and disbelief; Clair stared; Giovanni turned back to his target and found the hand holding his gun was shaking. Desperate eyes bored into his, and he felt his finger on the trigger weaken. Shoot a man, here? Now? He'd never shot to kill before...never shot a real person, only simulations and wooden targets...never shot a gun in front of Clair...and what did this guy do to deserve death, anyway, if he was just following orders...
...but he'd shot at Clair, and and order was an order...
"Please," the man whimpered, tears running down his face. "It won't pay back my debt to Vita. Don't do it. Please."
"That was an order, Giovanni," Lorenzo reminded the tall boy gently. "Kill him. It should not be difficult, after your training."
"Giovanni..." Clair was shaking and crying too, terrified. Terrified of /him/.
Gritting his teeth, Giovanni released the man's hand from beneath his foot and stepped backwards, hand with the gun falling to his side. "I-I can't," he breathed, the smell of his own gunpowder in his nostrils, nauseating him. Lorenzo had used him, tricked him, endangered his own son...how could he obey a monster like that? "I won't."
Placidly, Lorenzo sighed. "Very well, Giovanni," he said in a mild tone, drawing a gun from his own lapel pocket. Giovanni's own weapon jerked up again, but instead of firing the stately man handed the gun to his son. "Clair," he addressed the boy in the same infuriatingly calm voice. "Giovanni has been kind enough to subdue your enemy for you. Finish the job for him. Kill that man."
Clutching his bloody kneecap, the man writhed and slathered on the concrete as Clair stepped up and leveled the gun at his chest, needing both hands to hold his weapon steady. He bit his lip, obviously also torn.
"My beloved son..." Lorenzo began warningly.
"Clair, don't!" Giovanni screamed in horror. It was the first time he had ever called the boy by name alone.
Clair winced, then he made up his mind and nothing could move him. "Yes, Papa." Forcing a mask of obedience onto his face, the small boy stared blankly into his victim's eyes and tightened his finger on the trigger.
Giovanni screamed; a shot ran out. Clawing at the hole sprouting in his forehead, the man fell over, shuddered, and lay still. Clair dropped his gun and backed away, losing his automaton guise and regressing once more to the nine-year-old boy he in fact was.
"I'm sorry, Giovanni," Lorenzo said, prying the still-hot and smoking gun from the boy's fingers as the bodyguard stared at his first kill in revulsion. "But at last you understand. You are not merely responsible for protecting Clair from outside attack. You must also protect my son from himself, from experiences that would be detrimental to him.
"Had you shot the man automatically, without question, I would have wondered about your character. Now I know you will not fail me in your duty. Clair is more important to you than your own self. I am very, very proud of both of you."
Despite finally garnering praise, Clair looked like he was about to fall apart; Giovanni took him in his arms and held him tight, being careful to block the boy's line of vision so he couldn't see the venomous looks his companion was shooting his father. "So this is what I have to give up for you?" he breathed. "My soul? My conscience?"
Lorenzo laughed shortly. "If I were you, I'd keep my attention more on your charge. He's worth far more in this world than your soul will ever be. What did you think a bodyguard's responsibilities were? How did you think you would be keeping your master safe?" Turning, he picked up the gun Clair had let fall and pocketed it as well. "That is what protecting someone means, sacrificing your own soul so that others might keep theirs. I have given mine up already."
"For your stupid company?" Giovanni challenged, wishing he still had his gun. He had a feeling shooting the man before him now would not be nearly so difficult.
For a moment, Lorenzo appeared surprised by the question; then his face smoothed over. "Partly, I suppose. But I, too, was referring to my son. Come. Mauro has already prepared the ceremony for us back in my office."
"I don't want your blood in mine," Giovanni growled, nestling Clair close and hoping, almost guiltily, that the young boy was still too shaken to listen to the conversation.
"P-papa..." Clair gasped numbly, and Lorenzo's face softened.
"Give him to me." Reluctantly, sulkily, Giovanni picked the boy up and carried him over; already he could feel his resistance breaking. The don had beaten him, trapped him. He, like the man's son, could not disobey again.
For all his apparent age, Lorenzo remained remarkably strong; he took his son in his arms and cuddled him near, smoothing the boy's still-mussed hair. Surprised at the unorthodox show of affection, Clair latched on and closed his eyes, and his father smiled. Giovanni's soul, after all, was not the only one over which he had triumphed.
"Papa?" the youth asks in almost fearful hope; the man takes his hands--so cold, so deathlike; would he freeze before waking?--in his own, feeling the rough bump of the boy's ring against his palm.
"He's not here," he whispers hoarsely, voice breaking. "You're free. You don't have to be scared."
Despite this assurance, the boy shrinks back. "I-I want Papa," he mumbles. "Who are you?"
The man bows his head. "...Nobody," he finally admits. "I haven't got a self. I gave it up a long time ago. Please...please don't fall into that trap, too. Don't lose that. Please...please..." He can hear another frantic voice begging as well, and it pains him to remember. "Please come back."
But the young man's dark, unruly head has fallen again, and he slumps forward onto the man's lap, long eyelashes fluttering shut. His gentle, shallow breathing does nothing to calm his companion.
Gently the man lays the boy back on the bed. "Well, sleep awhile then, " he says, trying to smile. "Things are always better in the morning, right?..." But his voice cracks and he hunches over, burying his head in his hands, still unwilling to show his charge his face while breaking down. "Please don't...Clair..."
The man sits bolt upright, swivels to see what it is his young master wants, but the boy is still dreaming, is speaking to a person in his dream and not the person sitting right next to him. "Giovanni, where are you? I need you."
"I need you too, Clair," the man forces through grief-strained lips. "You're all I've got left."
The man sleeps with his arm around the boy that night, gun as always an easy distance from his hand and his own back to the door to shield the youth should an enemy arrive while they both sleep. But no one comes, and no one will for another week.
In that time they still will only eat twice more. And both times, the boy will receive a larger portion.
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