It had taken three weeks to track down William Speight's mutilated and defiled body in Greg Watersís apartment. Forensic analysis dated the scarring tissue to be as old as two weeks in some cases; his legs had been the first things the eleven-year-old boy had lost to the psychopath. Even if Rabbit had managed to find him sooner, he would never have been a happy, carefree child with a normal life ahead of him. Heíd lost that within hours of his abduction--the first time Greg touched him and he realized that there was no escape. William had lived a lifetimeís worth of horrors in just three weeks.
The case involving Julian Vaughn was well into week two. Optimism was hard to hold on to.
Rabbit exhaled a thin trail of smoke, eyes on the walkway in front of him: the one Julian never came out of. Standing there didn't help him think, but it made him feel more productive than sitting and thinking at home did. He'd been at this point before, with no evidence, no suspect, no motive and no clues, and in the end all he could do was grant the victim a swift death. It was infuriating. He was better at his job than this, had found plenty of stolen items and missing persons. He wasn't the best, but he was better than many, and if his resources within the underground weren't enough to close the case, then he was at a loss for what could. He didn't need another failure like William Speight and he certainly didn't need it to be someone he knew.
He took another long drag on his cigarette as other thoughts began to circulate again, things he liked to ignore until his job was done. Caine had said that Rabbit was supposed to be dead; Alan said it didn't have to be Rabbit, that any Shardís death was the same as another's in the greater scheme of things. Rabbit was beginning to wonder if Alan wasn't as full of shit as he sometimes seemed to be. He chose to ignore it all the same. Guilt at letting a friend down was enough to bear; guilt at being somehow responsible was something he would not even allow himself to think about. He hadn't chosen to be brought back from the dead and he hadn't chosen Julian to take his place.
He hadn't let him down, though. Not yet. Letting him down was to stop looking and write him off as dead. As long as there wasn't solid proof he'd been murdered, there was still hope of finding him alive.
Even as he thought about it, though, the hope was running dry. He'd searched all the usual and unusual places, gone undercover in the flesh markets, hoping to either find him up for sale or on the record as having been sold. Julian struck him as the kind of person who could survive a few weeks of sexual servitude and come out of it without permanent damage. It was the alternative that scared him. After two weeks, if the abduction was violent in nature, what was left to hope for?
Rabbit snuffed his cigarette out against the wall before tossing it in a receptacle as he abandoned the walkway. It couldnít tell him anything, if there was anything to tell; he still had research to do for the university and at least with that he could accomplish something. He zipped his jacket up as he crossed onto the sidewalk then paused, hands immediately falling into fists at his sides.
Some asshole was leaning on his bike. Not just leaning, but actually resting his ass against his seat. Rabbit took long steps towards his beloved motorcycle, the leather of his gloves creaking in a very satisfying way as he set them into a comfortable grip that would do pleasant enough damage to the prickís face. The baseball-cap-wearing son of a bitch was going to learn a thing or two about getting too comfortable around other people's things. He raised his fist, grabbed the man's shoulder to face him, and then nearly tripped on the step that would have been his follow through had his fist moved to strike.
Julian smiled at him, tipping the top of his cap up to uncover his eyes. "I knew you'd come if I waited long enough."
Rabbit had the urge to punch him anyway. Weeks of worry and hours of work put in to find him and he just reappeared on his own. He was pissed off, relieved and worried and it was almost overwhelming to feel all that at the same time. He put his fist down, worry eventually overriding the rest.
"You look like shit."
"Yeah, I feel like it. I was in the area, though, and thought I'd stop by and get a look at where it happened."
Julian didn't seem at all insulted by the candid remark that had been the first thing to come to Rabbit's mind. Even that was worrying, coming from someone as notoriously vain as Julian. The longer Rabbit looked at him, the more things he saw that just looked wrong. The dark circles and pallid complexion had been the first thing, but there were wrinkles along his eyes as well and a thinness that reminded him of the Surge. There was no bruising and no visible cuts, though; no visual clues as to what had transpired.
Julian smiled at him, as though used to the critical assessment Rabbit was giving him. "Not here," he said, still smiling though the expression seemed weary. "Sasha tells me you were working on my case. I was hoping I could take a look at the evidence."
"I'm heading back home right now. I'll give you a lift." Rabbit waited for Julian to move so he could get on first, then sat and waited as Julian slid on behind him. He wrapped only one arm around him and Rabbit turned his head to look at him, frowning slightly.
"You strong enough to stay on like that?"
"I'm going to have to be."
Rabbit grimaced, not liking the sound of that. He gunned the engine and headed home. Alan would have been proud. His speed was almost below the limit and his turns were wide and slow. It was the safest he had driven since he was given the bike and, though it felt like an eternity before he reached his apartment complex, he was glad to have made it without having to go back and pick his passenger up off the pavement.
In his apartment, Julian sank into the couch while Rabbit pulled off his leather jacket and got drinks for them both. These he set down on the coffee table as took a seat on the other end of the couch. The lighting in his apartment made Julian appear healthier somehow, adding a little more color in his cheeks, more sparkle in his eyes. Rabbit couldn't imagine how, considering that he'd let a few of the bulbs burn out without bothering to replace them or the overall unreliability of the wiring in his apartment, but Julian did look better and that made it easier to look at him. Whatever had happened hadn't left permanent damage, as far as Rabbit could see. But his right arm, somehow sunken in under the material of Julian's sweatshirt, gave him further pause. It didn't seem to bother Julian, though, and Rabbit understood that as a signal that he didnít need to worry about it either.
"So," he leaned forward, resting one arm against his bent knee, "Pretend I just asked you every sensible question given the circumstances. I've had pretty much nothing to go by, so I'm rather interested to know what I failed to pick up on."
Julian nodded, taking a moment to pull his hat off. Somehow, Rabbit hadnít expected the short dusting of dark brown hair that was revealed, even though he was certain that it would have been physically impossible for all the hair he was used to seeing to have fit under the cap.
Julian ran his hand through it, smiling sheepishly. "They cut it. It was all uneven--I mean, they weren't really thinking about what I looked like. I just got it evened out. They had to make it shorter, but at least I don't look like I did it myself in the dark anymore."
"Looks nice," Rabbit admitted. It had been a shock, but the result looked fine. Julian lit up at the compliment, petting his hair again in slight embarrassment. "I take it they did more than just cut your hair, though. Who's they?"
"The Metraiel Research Corporation, headed by Dr. Kouhei Tokoyo. He knew I was the Healer and he wanted my ability for himself, so he chopped me into little pieces and watched me put myself back together over and over again to see if he could crack it." Julian spoke with a flippant air that belied the serious nature of the situation, catching Rabbit off guard. "That's both a simplification and a bit of an exaggeration but you get the picture. I was tortured in the name of science and he had every intention of continuing until I died or he figured it all out."
Rabbit felt a little better knowing that he wouldn't have guessed that in a million years, and he dared anyone else to have done so with the little he had had to go on. It raised both more questions and bile, though, as his mind looked for connections. "And did he crack it?"
Julian shook his head. "No. I was rescued. I was pretty much comatose by that time, though, so I only have the description my father gave me of the man who saved me. I've been living with Maxwell for the past couple days, but I came home yesterday. So that should cover how are you, what happened, and when did you get back."
"I don't think you really answered that first one." Rabbit leaned over and felt at Julian's right arm, pleased to note that it hadn't in fact been amputated and was apparently not broken by the lack of a cast.
Julian obliged him by unzipping his sweatshirt and pulling it off using only his left hand. Rabbitís eyes widened, then narrowed in disgust. Julianís right arm, from his shoulder to his fingers, was like something found on a week-old cadaver: the skin was wrinkled and sagged around his bones. The arm was so skeletal and withered that it looked like it had no right being alive at all. He imagined that what he felt now, looking at that arm, was something like what Julian had felt when he'd touched him and discovered that his body was dead. It was wrong. Very wrong. He looked away.
Words he hadn't expected filled the awkward silence. "I did it to myself."
Rabbit's eyes flew back to Julian's, questioning the sad gaze. "Why the hell would you do that to yourself for? And how?"
"I actually got the idea from the doctors who worked on me. Shards don't have limitless power and once I ran out of energy, my body was so set on keeping itself alive that it started to metabolize my muscles to keep going. So while I was at my dad's, I was bedridden, couldn't walk or anything. I wanted to leave, but I couldn't in that state, so I told my body to use my right arm as fuel and heal my legs." Julian pulled his sleeve back up to cover the skeletal mess. "There's enough tissue left to keep it attached and, actually, it's looking a lot better than it was yesterday. As soon as I start building up energy again, I'll be able to fix it completely."
Rabbit shook his head, not sure whether to call Julian crazy or ingenious. He settled on crazy and gave the man another scowl. "Every one of you Maxwells belongs in a home. Has anyone ever told you that you overreact to things? You do. You all do."
"This is about the gun thing again, isn't it?"
"This is about you walking around with a dead arm because you wanted to get away from your dad." Rabbit grabbed his drink and took a swallow, still shaking his head in dismay. "If you were in such bad shape, I doubt he was forcing you to do anything you hated. And yeah, it's probably about the gun thing, too. Because you're both insane."
Julian smiled at him, apparently immune to criticism. "You were worried about me."
"Yeah, well, you're not doing much to make me feel like I shouldn't still be worried." Rabbit leaned back and let his mind wander over what he knew, somehow grateful for Alan's council as the same thought kept cycling through his mind. "What does Metraiel Research Corporation look into? Is it government run? If the government knows about the Shards and is willing to go to these lengths to find out about them, you and the others may all be in serious trouble."
"It sounded to me like he wanted to duplicate my ability for personal reasons. After I attacked him, his body sort of...started melting." Julian shuddered, eyes looking into the distance as though he could still see it. "He felt like you when he touched me. Silent. It was different, though, like there was an echo of life still there, but very faint. I think he thought he could cure that if he were like me."
Julian shrugged. "I don't know why I'm like this. If there's a physical cause, it could probably be replicated. And if I can rebuild something as far gone as my arm, it's possible he could use the ability to fix whatever in him is causing him to decay. It would primarily be a matter of further testing."
"Which means cutting you into little pieces and watching you put yourself back together. I get it." Rabbit stood, too antsy to stay seated. There was still a chance Julian was a target and he had little doubt that if they got him again, it would be fatal. It was time to either start an offensive counter or improve their defenses. Rabbit was curious as to what Julian had decided to do. He motioned to the door that led to his office. "What evidence I have is in there. Surge got me the surveillance feeds from the area you were abducted from. I hate to admit it, but they really know how to orchestrate a kidnapping."
They walked into the dimly lit room and Rabbit took the seat at his terminal, pulling up the videos on a split screen to demonstrate the effectiveness of the blind spot to Julian. The other man was silent as he watched, eyes fixed on the monitor. When it was over, Rabbit waited for him to point something out and make him feel completely ineffectual but Julian remained silent, gnawing on his thumbnail as he looked at a still shot of himself, the last glimpse of him before he disappeared. Rabbit finally turned in his seat to prompt him.
"Well I'm fucked if they try that again," Julian admitted, taking his thumb out of his mouth. "I'm impressed. Itís absolutely flawless. I'd be interested to know how he knew I'd be there at that time and place, though. It wasn't something Iíd planned--I just woke up that day and decided to go." He pointed to the side of the screen where the alley would have been if the camera angle had reached that far. "I tripped just past here. That's the last thing I remember before waking up on the table."
"Let me guess: someone reached out to help steady you."
"Yep." Julian leaned forward, hand on the back of Rabbit's chair. "I can see why you weren't having any luck. The only thing this crap tells us is that they they're well organized and almost fanatical about covering their tracks. Try looking up Kouhei Tokoyo in the SPD civilian database. We'll have to work backwards from the culprit to the crime."
"To what end? Going to turn him in to the police?" Rabbit asked as he typed his request into the terminal.
"Nope. Going to kill him."
Rabbit nodded. "Can't blame you for wanting to get him before he gets you, but fifty creds says you're going to be an idiot about it and get yourself killed in the process."
"Fifty, hm? What are the odds?"
"You're impulsive and scared shitless. They're not in your favor."
Rabbit was pleased when Julian didn't question his assessment. He'd seen Julian mad and he was not the kind of man who hid his fury under a calm exterior. He wasn't pissed off or indignant about what had happened. Not primarily, anyway. He was terrified of it happening again, but he was trying, and mostly succeeding to keep it together and not let it show.
Rabbit shook his head, hiding the search results from view. "I'm sure as hell not going to help you get yourself killed. You want my help, we work together. You go off and do something stupid without me, you had better hope he kills you because if he doesn't, I will. We clear on that?"
Julian nodded, smiling just slightly. The darkness under his eyes had faded, the creases at the corners now only a memory. "Yeah, we're clear."
Rabbit took that as an earnest reply and pulled up Tokoyo Kouhei's personal record. In the top left corner was a picture of a man in his early thirties, stern faced, with glasses pushed up high on his nose. The purple hair was odd, but somehow just made him seem more intimidating. It made him look unpredictable. He didnít have a kind face.
Rabbit skipped the technical information beside the picture to read the short bio aloud. "Tokoyo Kouhei. Doctor of several scientific fields including medicine and biotechnology. Founded the Metraiel Research Corporation upon immigrating to Solace. MRC is renowned for the marriage of different scientific principles in engineering and robotics as well as for developing new scientific studies as a result. Tokoyo Kouhei is the eldest of three brothers; Hiroki Genwaku and Yokoshima Arashi."
Rabbit paused and read the last sentence to himself again.
"What is it?" Julian asked, sensing the surprise those words caused him.
Rabbit read them one more time to be absolutely sure, then sat back in his chair. "I know those guys," he said, gesturing to the screen. "Hiroki works at the library at the university. And unless I'm mistaken..." Rabbit brought up the SPD file on Yokoshima Arashi. The picture of a short, dark-haired man appeared in the corner. "Nope. This is Yoko. He comes by and sells souls to Alan. I know both of these guys. I even mentioned your case to Hiroki."
Julian's hand reached out towards the monitor, his fingers petting the face captured there. Rabbit looked back at him over his shoulder, confused by the unreadable expression on his friend's face.
"That's him." His face broke out into a small smile. "That's the man who rescued me."
The world could not possibly be that small. Rabbit turned to the monitor again. "Yoko rescued you? You're sure? He's that asshole's brother."
"Dad said he looked almost exactly like Ashe, but really short, and it says this guy is four-six. How many people in Solace do you think there are who fit that description? And being his brother would explain how he knew I was there in the first place." Julian's face lit up. He grabbed Rabbit's shoulders and leaned over him. "Can you please transfer this to my datapad? I'd really like to thank him for saving my life."
"This is the SPD civilian database, not a dating agency." Rabbit grudgingly held his hand out for the datapad anyway. "Besides, won't your boyfriend get jealous?"
"Surge or Sasha?"
Rabbit raised an eyebrow at him. "You're dating both of them?"
"I'm not dating either of them, but trying telling them that." Julian dug the pad out from his pocket and handed it over. "If you ask me, they're both behaving like ill-mannered toddlers."
Rabbit took the datapad from him, rolling his eyes. "Well, aren't you the popular one."
"Hardly. They sling the word boyfriend around like it's an insult."
"Not that it's any of my business, but aren't you fucking Sasha?"
Julian gave a slight pout. "I have a physical relationship with him, yes. Beyond that it's complicated."
"Then I suppose it's a good thing you only want Yoko's address and phone number so you can thank him." Rabbit made sure to put as much sarcasm in his words as he could fit along with the warning tone as he wiggled the updated datapad at him. "Wouldn't want things to get out of hand."
Julian kissed his cheek as he stole his datapad back. "Thanks, Rabbit. You're wonderful."
Rabbit couldn't recall the last thing that had made him blush, but immediately recognized the warmth in his face. He pulled away, putting some distance between Julian and himself, and cast him a disapproving scowl. "I can tell you're feeling better if you've got the balls to coquet with me."
"Simple show of gratitude, Rabbit. I thought we had an understanding." Julian slipped his datapad back into his pocket. If it werenít for the hair, Rabbit would have sworn this was the same man now as in the past. He blinked in surprise, then grabbed Julian's sweatshirt.
"Julian, your arm."
"What about it?" Julian looked down at his hands. They looked just fine, nothing wrong with them at all. Either of them. He let his jaw hang loose for a moment as he flexed his right hand. He pulled off his sweatshirt to reveal two-toned arms with corded muscles underneath smooth skin. Julian looked back at Rabbit, the mild look of shock growing.
"Holy shit, Rabbit, your tattoos."
Rabbit couldn't see the ones on his neck or face. He glances at his hands and saw for himself a feint white-blue light coming off the naturally occurring marks on his fingers. He wasn't startled by it--at least, not as much as he probably should have been. It explained a lot.
Still, he looked up at Julian with curiosity. "How long has it been doing that?"
"I don't know, your shirt covers most of them." Julian stepped closer. "You fixed my arm, didn't you? Are you somehow able to heal too?"
Rabbit shook his head. The light was fading. "There's only one Healer, Julian, and you're him."
"But you did fix me."
"Not exactly." A small, proud smirk came to his face. He'd used his power. He couldn't recall how or even if he'd consciously done it at all, but he had. Julian was proof. His smile widened a little more. He wasn't so useless a Shard after all.
Julian knelt down beside his chair, one hand resting on Rabbit's knee. "Rabbit, what's going on?"
"Pretty much exactly what you think. I'm a Shard." He smiled again, this time more reassuringly in the face of Julian's apprehension. "I'm the Metamorph. I don't do anything, I just store energy. Boring stuff compared to the rest of you. You needed more energy to heal yourself, though, and apparently something in me knew that too. I didn't heal you, I just gave you the energy you needed to do it yourself."
"How long have you known?"
"That I'm a shard? Months. Not that I could prove it, though. And I'm not all that keen on making this known to anyone else, either." He cast Julian a warning glance. "My source knows more about what's going on than any of us. I'll let the Protectors of Antiquity and the other Shards know who I am when he does."
"Your source? He's a shard? Which one?" Julian's eyes were like two blazing fires.
Rabbit wished he'd chosen his words more carefully to begin with. "I'm not telling you."
"Because you've got a big mouth."
Julian smirked. "All the better to--"
"Get off your knees and don't finish that sentence." Rabbit kicked at him, shaking his hand off his knee with more urgency than he felt.
He didn't mind the flirting. Julian knew his body was more closely related to a water balloon than a human's and had seen, whether he admitted to it or not, scenes from Rabbit's childhood with his adoptive father that were both pitiful and detestable. He was a golem who'd been an almost willing participant in his molestation as a child and Julian still threw lines out to him as though he might honestly enjoy the catch. He didn't need to feel desirable, but it was nice to know he wasn't undesirable. And besides, if Julian got to flirt with him, it was only fair that Rabbit got to turn him down just as obviously. It was familiar when dealing with him, in the same way that Alan not teasing him about being good for nothing would give him the feeling something was wrong or Caine not looking sleepy might cause some degree of alarm.
Julian was on his feet again, pouting just slightly. He moved his hand to brush his hair over his shoulder, encountering nothing. Some things were still unfamiliar; variables always changing. The world could use a few more constants.
"Well, thanks for helping me out with this," Julian said, "And, you know...for looking for me."
Rabbit nodded, rising. "Just don't make a habit out of it. Remember, you act alone, I get to kick you ass."
"You can try."
"I don't have to try. I'm that good." Rabbit walked him back out to his front room, more than certain by his tone that Julian needed to leave. "I take it you've got a lot of stuff to catch up on after being gone so long."
"Best thing about being my own boss is I don't have to make us excuses for myself. But, yeah, some stuff has come up. Sasha stuff. Family stuff. I feel good enough now that I think I can maybe stop putting it off."
"Glad I could help."
Julian smiled at him, once again leaning in and kissing his cheek.
"You really need to stop that." Rabbit pulled away, making a conscious effort not to rub the kiss away like an embarrassed child.
Julian's continued to smile, no more put off by his words than by his expression. "Yeah, I will. I'm the kind of guy, though, that believes actions speak louder than words and no words can ever express the full extent of my gratitude."
"Yeah, well..." Rabbit opened the front door. "How about every time you don't kiss me, I promise to take it as a sign of gratitude?"
Julian laughed. "I suppose I can accept that. So long as we have an understanding."
"We do. Trust me, we do."