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Court of Misfits

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Out of all the things Lupin could be tasting in the morning, anything would be more pleasant than the flavor of vegetable cellulose capsules lingering in his throat and on the back of his tongue. He’d wound up swallowing a handful of his usual supplements dry to punctuate a sentence and was now forced to commit to his hubris and maintain a straight face and a grin to keep up the cool image. In reality? His mouth tastes like he’d just licked a few antique kids meal toys for kicks. Just as soon as Jigen looks away, Lupin chugs coffee directly from the french press with a certain brand of desperation reserved solely for swiftly repairing bad choices and saving face.

Fatefully, Jigen glances over and grins like a wolf before popping the backside of the pitcher with his palm, splashing the lukewarm brew all over Lupin’s face. He relishes in the gurgling cry of dismay he causes before sitting down beside the choking thief.

“Maybe you should slow down and stop puffing up about these guys. I know I had to tell myself that,” Jigen drawls, eyes wandering as his partner hastily cleans up their mess.

“Nah, not my style. These super-spies aren’t about to slow down either right, so why should we?” Lupin flashes his signature sly grin while wiping coffee from his lips. “But if they think I’m going to directly take their bait--” He holds up the copied contract, giving it a thump for emphasis. “--then they’ve got another thing coming.”

“So you think what they did was bait? Those documents there?”

“More or less. It’s too perfect otherwise! And I hate to say it, but we’re gonna need more info.”

“Not chargin’ in, eh?”

“No, not this time. You’re my right hand man and you are still recovering,” Lupin says with a shrug, scooting on his butt across the lumpy, poorly-tiled floor toward their ugly little excuse for a coffee table. “Time to call in Ms. Wikipedia herself,” he says, snatching his phone up with a flourish and sending out a text. “I’m gonna see if Ami can get us anything else on these guys. In the meantime, we can focus on what really matters!”

He pulls a box out from under the couch, full of all kinds of clippings and research papers, most of them clearly printed out at a library--all folklore, sightings, and conspiracy rumors about the legend of the Flying Dutchman. The gunman raises his eyebrows right up into his bangs and smiles.

“I was worried we were gonna have to cancel all your weird, beautiful plans on that one. Still think that thing is real?”

“Of course I do. Now that you’ve seen Bylon and how it moves you should believe a little more in it too.” He jabs at his partner with the corner of a book, which prompts Jigen to dodge with a deft jump up to the back of the couch--

--Only to slip right off of it.

“Jigennnn, you okay, man?”

“Yeah. Can’t be any worse off.” Jigen’s hand pokes around the couch, sporting a thumbs up before he sullenly drags himself over to Lupin’s spot on the floor like a cat embarrassed that it had been witnessed running into something. Lupin hands him a poorly-stapled stack of printed off geocities-era bullshit with a cheeky little smile and they both get right to work poring over arcane texts and tabloid-worthy shrines alike. At some point drinking coffee gives way to the two of them drinking beer, beer giving way to comfortably haziness to arms around shoulders; there’s a warm closeness and familiar rhythm as they pick apart the stories. Which ones were true? Which were probably a crock of shit? Most importantly, they sought out which pieces were lines on the roadmap that would lead them to what they wanted.

Chasing details to chase away the gloom of chasing the past was a method the two of them had used often, compartmentalizing what haunted each other, what fucked with their heads. It almost works this time but the past is determined to chase Jigen down first, in the maze-running cracks through the towering Bylon slums.

While mirror-like knife blades give you the power to peek around corners, the bending of gun-barrels cannot guarantee the same effect; one of ‘em will show whole pictures and the other nothing more than a stretched-out mess of color and movement. Makeshift periscopes can only do so much in this high-stakes game of hide and seek, and when you and your opponent are both notoriously light on your feet, a mere two-dimensional safety check falls woefully short of the necessary precautions. It’s a dangerous game that should end in minimal harm; just like how jaguars and lions play predator and prey to learn how to hunt, so too must the children of the world of assassins.

A presence drops in behind Jigen and he puts his hands up. It's not like the unseen enemy’s knife at the nape of his neck has broken skin yet, but the mere start of this dance shoots the gunman full of adrenaline like an epipen anyway, springing away only to be pinned to a wall by his suit with more knives. Somehow, he's excited more than pissed off or terrified.

Jigen smiles with recognition and speaks a foggy name unburdened of the bitterness of betrayal from a throat not yet torn by smoke and scotch. The knife returns to his neck briefly as an impish threat, only to be replaced by hands on his back that push him into the wall he's pinned to playfully. He breathes in and catches the smells of this long past world: sour alleyway garbage, sweet clove cigarettes, the cologne he hasn’t worn for years now, someone else's cologne he hasn't caught scent of for years either...

It’s some time before Jigen Daisuke wakes up from the (not entirely) unwelcome dream to find Lupin sleeping leaned completely against his back like a limpet--again, not entirely unwelcome… but most certainly odd in the wake of a dream with that particular theming. Half a journal freshly filled with some choice stick figures in addition to actual notes alongside a slew of bottles and mugs and blueprints and schematics carpet the flooring around them, evidence of last night’s personal casing work. Jigen cracks his back with an affected grunt and stands straight up, letting Lupin fall over and hit the floor with a dull thud. He takes his rightful place on the couch, ignoring the resulting confused, sleepy whining from his partner. The two of them could keep planning tomorrow.

---

There are very few loose ends to tie up before Ami announces her trip to Bylon to Dolma; a few things to automate, completing the routine checks for the month, leaving instructions for tech support on how to run some of her more personal software and setting up a portable window in on the cybersecurity of Padar on her tablet were mundane, usual chores for Ami and didn’t take more than three days to accomplish. Even then that amount of time was only because of compiling times and the actual chore of talking to people. Having a team under her was an insurmountable obstacle cramping her style and though she had learned to be more social and has enjoyed company more and more ever since her series of disasters with Lupin and his gang in France, working with everyday people was another matter entirely, let alone being in charge of those people.

The upside was she didn’t have to sweat small details all on her own anymore. The downside? Just about everything else, if she was being honest.

Between these small jobs she found herself scouring more and more deep places for information on Keima, turning up next to nothing except a report on how digitized archives had found at least a few dozen missing research files on a project by the same name had disappeared almost as soon as they were scanned in from the physical records. Within thirty minutes to half an hour those reports were gone, and the edits were visible but even on a wayback machine proxy the actual files were nowhere to be seen. It didn’t take long to realize she needed to dig into her own past with "Uncle Kuma" first.

She pulled the original files for the schematics she’d drawn up on her implants out of storage, taking a moment to feel nostalgic about the blueprints, both carefully and crudely rendered in ascii characters and thrown into flash to demonstrate interactivity and coding she planned for. The full picture was only truly viewable when zoomed out as far as she could go, and she has to laugh at how backwards and clunky her earlier coding was. Her eyes flicker over the black and white shading, searching her memories and the thousands of dots and slashes for some kind of clue.

“Did you make that?”

The heart attack Ami nearly has makes her break out in a cold, gross sweat, which is about half as embarrassing as the hiccup she makes trying to shut her screen off. “Dolma! You’re so quiet without your jewelry on.”

“I don’t hunt birds by making a ruckus.” the young leader tilts her head at the blackened screen. “I know you did and do lots of secret things, but would you trust me to look? I want to know more about you. Things about me are always in the open to see for almost everyone. It would be nice to share more personal things, more of our secrets, if you are alright with it.”

Dolma’s French was always so formal but she conveys her sentiment well enough and that sentiment does something to Ami. A smile spreads itself across Ami’s face, small and warm and a little bit goofy which was no real surprise when you knew who she learned to smile from. “Yes, I am. I’m alright I mean... It’s something I coded when i was a… when I was little. Dolma… this file is a secret because it’s the original plans for the machines that let me do what only I can do, and what I do for Padar now. I think you should take a look. As the princess.”

“As your friend. As a partner.”

“As… Yes as my friend.” She puts the tablet squarely in Dolma’s hands and takes care that the whole screen blocks eye contact so she doesn’t have to deal with how red her face is getting, and so she doesn’t have to deal with thinking about how it sounded to her like a princess(a friend! A friend! Stop bringing political class into this, she screams at herself) had just essentially asked her out. She was probably reading too much into it, she tells herself, even as she boots up the file with a few voice commands and her cold little nerd hands over Dolma’s warm, rough ones; the file name she reads off is nondescript lists of numbers, long but perfectly memorized despite her voice shaking a little. “It was done in flash, so I’m running it on compatibility it’s so… old and embarrassing. The hardware has also been upgraded since, but this is the origin of Underworld.”

“I couldn’t have done this five years ago, or even two. I’m impressed even if you see the flaws in it.” Ami lets Dolma navigate through the interactive panels that describe the mechanisms of her unique cybernetics.

“What’s this?”

“What’s what?”

“The cute little bear that appears when you click the corner.”

“I don’t remember that, let me see.”

Even though she speaks evenly, Ami feels the same kind of freeze she felt when the voice spoke to her through the hacked security microphone. Dolma had found exactly what Ami had been hoping to find. With shaking hands she takes the tablet.

The coding is simple, the bear (an ugly little scribble, definitely 2000s era paint program clip-art that required no effort on Keima’s part) appears with a mouse-over in the far corner. Clicking on it pops up a dialogue box that only allows the option to press “Yes” or “Later”:

[Looking for me again Ami-chan?]

She taps yes… and much to her chagrin the screen fills with seemingly random letters… but she knows exactly what it is and groans.

“My Uncle hid a puzzle in this.” she copies the code and sets it aside in its own file. “He’s lucky I don’t take it to a puzzle subforum and let someone else solve it for me.”

“Uncle? You mean Lupin?”

“I wish it were Lupin. No, someone from before, someone I left behind because I thought I was going to get used. Like you were used against your own country.” The other woman puts an arm around Ami’s shoulder and looks some strange mixture of determined and sympathetic all at once.

“Is this something to do with your trip to Bylon? Honestly that was why I came here tonight. To ask about your trip.” She’s got something else to add, Ami knows, but the pause leaves room for Dolma to listen. She’s always been an ambassador, even when they were younger (maybe even before that, Ami’s sure of it) and that in itself has given Ami room to grow into herself outside of code and commands. The bit of insight Dolma has and the expression of interest in her feelings and how she’s been holding up is… nice. Ami always thought that would feel invasive, since her last experience with it was Fujiko being more perceptive than she had liked, but coming from Dolma it was an open door, something warm and homey in the desert night.

She takes a deep breath. “I’ve known Lupin was in Bylon for some time, and his partner Jigen was injured badly in a conflict with a dangerous group. It has to be bad because Lupin’s calling me for help again.”

“He trusts you very much.” Dolma nods, and allows Ami to continue.

“The way things are going, the way all of this is timed I just...” She gestures to the bear in the corner of her blueprints. “Associates of the man who put this here contacted me, telling me what a good job I’ve done and they even invited me to join them again. I already have so much pulling me in every direction Dolma but what really gets me is before any of this, before I hid in the towers, Uncle Kuma and his group were almost my family. They tried to be.” She takes a deep breath, putting everything together for the first time. “But… I have reason to believe they are the ones attacking Lupin.”

Dolma’s eyes search her face for a moment, probably looking for finality or maybe even exhaustion. Then she takes a deep breath, and turns on her Queen voice.

“Amlita Enan. I’ve decided that Bylon, being a nation of similar technological advancement to Padar and clearly being a nation in the shadows… You will accompany me there. I can’t ignore my country was saved by Underworld… and its namesake. So I will seek diplomacy with the shadows in broad daylight unlike others who attempt to hide it.”

She goes from serious to a sunny smile, her voice returning to a more friendly tone. “Now that I’ve ordered it, you have an official excuse to do whatever you need, to see Lupin and your friends, and I can do business. We will work together this time. I owe you and your real ‘family’ a debt of gratitude.”

In that moment, Ami wants to kiss Dolma she’s so grateful...not so much for the help as for her company.

---

Arrival and regrouping is short work, casual work; a couple of them were already on the island. One would pose as a pilot, two as passengers (plus one from outside their group as an alibi) and they’d all meet Kaku and Tokin at their new safehouse HQ. The plan rolls past her in waves, just like the clouds she descends through as she goes through the motions of landing procedures for the small, semi-private jet she was currently in charge of.

As far as jobs go, getting all of them together was easy, but as far as Kyoko thought what was supposed to be a swift execution of three to four thieves--even elite thieves--shouldn’t be such a production that they needed to break out some of their top tricks to get the group close. Still, she’d seen firsthand what just two of Lupin’s gang could do, and Kaku had the nerve to laugh at her when she asked him what the fuck had happened to the plane.

Since then? She’d done her homework. Kyoko had honestly thought that the reports of Goemon’s sword were an urban legend at the very most… But, she says that while working among four other urban legends and quickly realizes the irony. Adjusting to the reality and lifestyle of one of the “nobility” of the world of espionage sure was something else. A lot less James Bond than she would have liked and a lot more Twilight Zone than she ever could have imagined.

The landing--despite being on a floating city, different from landing on anything else, even an aircraft carrier-- was as smooth as it could be; weather was good, allowing the passengers to disembark didn’t take long, everything absolutely as perfect as practice. There’s not really anything of note at all until one of the attendants squeals and shoves past Kyoko and through the cramped walkway to… Ah, shit.

Hisha’s current alibi girlfriend, by the looks of things, is someone famous. Again. Sometimes the lowest profile was high profile, but that didn’t mean she had to like dealing with the collateral. Hisha himself, wearing his usual terrible-looking blue shirt with his blazer draped over one arm and smoothing back his chair-screwed red hair with the free hand, gets up past the excited attendant and makes his way down the lane.

“Great flight as always--” his eyes flick down to her name tag, and he winks. “--Captain!” She remains polite but she’s got something chilly in her eyes that makes the damn goofball back up. He acts like he balks at her but she knows exactly what variety of death he’s capable of and is very glad that he’s both on her side and likes her enough to let her boss him around from time to time.

“I’m a top pilot and no sea winds will bother my passengers, sir. When was your performance again? The modern ballet?”

Hisha pats around in his jacket. “Right, right give me a sec. Here.” He produces three tickets and a fourth paper Kyoko only barely catches is folded between the other two. “It’s in two days, you can pick which showing you want with those tickets. Invite some friends if you have time miss, alright?”

At this point, Hisha’s date bounces up the lane, extremely excited about something. Kyoko takes a good look at her, though she doesn’t think a woman with a trendy ombre blue dye job would be any obstacle to memorize, let alone one who constantly appears on television. “Takeshi, Takeshi! I just remembered some friends are in town I need to go invite them to our ballet, too!” She takes him by the arm and squeezes him, almost throwing him into the tiny plane bathroom out of enthusiasm.

“Whoa, whoa, Rebecca, I wanna stretch my legs too but slow down!” He manages to pick her up and a few of the other passengers getting up let out a small shower of applause.

“Oh that’s great! I didn’t know we had a celebrity couple on-board. Rebecca Rossallini, right?”

“Sure am!” She chirps, deliberately re-messing up Hisha’s---no,Takeshi’s, remember, remember that--hair all over again and mashing her cheek against his face. He looks thrilled…while Kyoko tries not to look disgusted. She’d hoped she would have adjusted to this sort of thing by now...but really “Takeshi’s” playboy mastery was of such epic proportions that Kyoko was hard pressed not to eyeroll at at least a solid half of it.

At the very least, with the unwitting help of Rossallini, phase one of their plan was coming to a neat little close. Takeshi and Rebecca’s pas de deux was bound to be one hell of a show.