Chapter 1: Chapter One | Curtain Rise
A girl who has drifted through life with few dreams but a lot of curiosity meets a man who is almost nothing but rage and purpose.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The man with the red eyes wasn’t here today either.
The grain of the wooden countertop is rough beneath her fingers and she picks at a splinter still half-stuck to the surface. Humming something tuneless, she squints at the shaft of sunlight coming through the window.
The man with the red eyes wasn’t here today.
She hears the door go as the bell above it jingles, and she looks over to it - perhaps a little faster than she normally would - to see an elderly man stepping briskly down the creaky stairs into the shop. She smiles pleasantly at him and tries not to feel disappointed.
The man with the red eyes-
Colombina doesn’t know why she cares.
She only knows that she does.
The first thing she'd noticed about the man was that he wasn’t local. It’s possibly the only reason she noticed him at all, given that she had been running on two hours of sleep two days ago at the time.
It wasn’t how he looked, or even how he dressed (which was weird but not the strangest she’d seen), it was just there. A fact. And one that he wasn’t trying to hide.
(She had the oddest feeling that he could have hidden it, had he wished to.)
The second was that he was muttering over the bread.
Muttering very rude words over the bread.
She wondered if he’d had a bad day. Probably.
Colombina smiled at him from her place behind the counter, though he wasn’t paying her any attention, and listened carefully. You could never know what might come in useful, after all.
The man kept muttering until eventually Colombina got up and wandered over to him.
“Do you need any help?”
The man stopped his muttering and turned to look at her. His gaze was heavy. And red. Colombina hadn’t known it was possible for eyes to be that colour.
(It was roughly four years later, at eleven, that she realised she had a lot to learn about such things.)
She knew he’d heard her.
“Do you need any help?”
The man snorted. “What makes you think I do, brat?”
And Colombina didn’t care if she was blunt when he was so rude, so she said “You were muttering rude things over the bread. I feel that may be indicative of needing help.”
She eyed him and waited for him to respond. He looked at her, and it was a real Look, but she stood her ground and-
-he laughed. A deep belly-laugh. He seemed almost surprised by it.
“Sure, kid. I could use a hand. What do you recommend?”
So she talked about the different ‘key items’ in the shop and extolled their virtues with a fixed little service-smile, pointing out the different goods she was supposed to suggest. Then, once she was done, she took a breath and continued straight into “Or at least that’s what I’m supposed to say, but between you and me basically everything in that half of the store is mediocre at best, and the white loaves over there weren’t exactly our best batch. I’d like to say that the seeded rolls are pretty good, but I don’t think that’s what you’re looking for and, besides, I haven’t had much practice at those.”
She remembers vividly how he had looked at her with something almost like surprise but mostly like amusement. Normally she would have been perhaps a little offended, yet she wasn’t, because he seemed to be laughing not quite with her, but certainly not at her, so she just offered him as close to a genuine smile as she got and turned back to look around the shop.
“What do you think I’m looking for, then?”
She eyed him up and down and peered at the shape of his shopping bag. There were bottles in it, lots of bottles, and-
“Something that you don’t have to anything else with but might go well with meat,” she said and watched his eyes very carefully not widen.
(Bullshit, she thought. Not entirely sure why she thought it until she figured it was like what she’d thought when he came in. Not local but could disguise it. Not not-surprised but could disguise it. Could disguise it and if he did I wouldn’t have had a chance at realising it.)
She considered the shop shelves for a while as he stood silent beside her, then regarded him from the corner of her eye.
“Do you like tomatoes?” she’d questioned.
He’d tilted his head, studied her with a gaze that half-pinned her in place. It wasn’t quite scary, but only because he wasn’t trying to scare her. There was a heavy intensity behind it.
(It wasn’t about that question specifically, she knew instinctively. There was something else there. Some evaluation. She wondered what she was being evaluated for.)
And then it’s gone and he’s smiling. It’s scarier than the look, actually.
“Yeah, sure,” he grinned. Colombina breathed carefully.
“What about olives?”
He nodded along with her, eyes still focused on her even as he quarter-turned away to skim over the stock again.
“Cured meat with it, right? Antipasto style? But not necessarily an antipasto?”
He did that not-not-surprise thing again, so she nodded thoughtfully.
“Snack bread, filling and with taste, but not really to go with a meal. How about the tomato and olive bread? I made some the other day. It’s nice, and olives and tomatoes are always nice.”
She recalls she’d pointed at the correct shelf and he’d scrutinised both her and the loaves, then appeared to come to a decision as he’d nodded and bagged one.
The red eyed man walked to the counter, which Colombina shuffled behind, and presented the paper bag. She peered inside the bag for habit’s sake, racked up the purchase on the till, and reeled off the price. He pulled out a wallet and forked over the correct amount without a word, then she stashed it in the till and neatly folded over the top of the bag after shuffling it so the bread was in a better position inside.
“Thanks, kid,” he’d said. She’d smiled her little service-smile and he’d snorted.
“Goodbye, have a nice day,” she’d nodded to him. Then, reluctantly: "Thank you for shopping here."
The door swung closed.
She taps her finger against the countertop in thought, silent in deference to the fact that the customer might not want to hear her humming.
She watches him out of the corner of her eye. He wears a long coat and a hat and walks with a limp in his step. Nothing about him should make her think of the man with the red eyes. Yet, she’s still on edge. He shuffles towards her as he picked out a range of baked goods. She holds her breath.
He turns around.
His eyes are brown.
She tries not to look like she’s sighing in relief and rings up his purchase, then sorts the proffered money into the till. She gives him his change and he leaves with a quiet ‘thank you’.
Really nothing like the man with the red eyes.
The door swings closed.
She lets out a breath.
“Hey, kid,” he’d asked the twelfth time he’d come, “what’s your name?”
“What’s yours?” she replied.
“I asked first, brat.” Which was a nickname that had become common after the first three times or so, and less scathing with it. She felt he’d have used it since the start (as an insult, of course, since he seemed incapable of not being rude) if he hadn’t been trying not to make too much of a scene. A lost cause, she felt, he was a scene.
“Colombina,” she told him. He’d laughed.
“Like the stock character?”
“Yes,” she’d answered, because it was the truth, “You?”
“Rosso,” had said the man with red eyes, but-
“You’re lying,” she had told him. He wasn’t even trying to hide it.
Then he’d cut her a smirk and asked: “Did you think I wouldn’t?”
She tilted her head to the side. “No, not really.”
“Do you care?”
It hadn’t taken much consideration before she had her answer.
“No, not really,” she repeated.
The man with the red eyes had smiled.
For a moment, she was warm.
She knows he doesn’t miss the fact that she never uses that name.
The day passes by idly. Gramps calls her into the backroom kitchen once because he was trying to follow one of her recipes and fucked up, there are six more customers during the day, then they decide to stay open till late evening again and get a rush of workers returning home and a group of kids in scuffed clothing who came for the end of day not-quite-stale goods that go for cheap. The last person in had been a harried looking woman with wispy red-blonde hair falling out of a neat bun and shaky hands who had at first underpaid, then overpaid, then let Colombina handle it.
Colombina had given her a reassuring smile; she didn’t much care, honestly, but customer service was customer service, and it had calmed the woman down while she counted out her change.
At the end of the day, she goes to bed. As she does every day. Like any other nine to five (or, indeed, six to eight) worker in the city.
The ceiling of her room is off-white and flecked with brown. She shifts and her bed creaks. So does the floor.
She tries to fall asleep.
She doesn’t expect it to work.
The next morning she wakes up irritable, though ‘wakes’ may not be the correct verb. She watches light pour in through the ratty curtains and curses the man with red eyes under her morning breath. Some of them she even picked up from him. Irony at its finest.
But she cannot stay angry for long. So she rubs her eyes and stretches then rolls tiredly out of bed. It takes her exactly five minutes to get up and dressed and into the bathroom and a further two to wash her face and brush her teeth. It takes her two seconds to get down the stairs. She’s efficient like that.
Colombina goes through the cupboards first - she needs to do another shop - and finds a whole store of out of date gravy granules in the back of one that she’d somehow missed last time. Distraction, maybe. She clears them out.
Then, she sets to baking. She doesn’t make much, seeing as they still have some fairly fresh loaves left over from yesterday, but some things go stale faster than others and she has to replace the baguettes at least. It calms her, mixing and kneading the dough, watching it bake. It doesn’t do much for her this morning though; pushing her knuckles into the mixture only builds tension rather than relieving it and taking it out on the dough isn't a good idea. Over-kneading never makes for a good product.
A couple hours in, flour up to her elbows and fingers stuck in yet another batch, she hears a clatter upstairs and knows Gramps is attempting to wake. She finishes shaping them, a series of rolls this time rather than any loaf, pulls the previous batch out of the oven barehanded - heat callouses protecting her hands - loads the new one in and sets to making a cup of strong coffee.
It’s done by the time he stumbles downstairs and she passes it to him as he collapses in their single squeaky chair.
“What… fuckin’- what time did you get up, kid?”
“Around four thirty, I believe,” she tells him, because it’s true.
“Too fuckin’ early,” he mumbles. She returns to her work and begins to clear up the mess around the final tray of unbaked rolls while Gramps sips at his coffee and winces.
Once the final batches have been baked and the surface cleared, she pours herself a glass of water and hops up on the counter to drink it, staring off into space. Gramps is hunched, grumbling, over himself with his head just shy of resting in his hands and his coffee cup practically covering his face. Colombina finishes her drink, sets the cup down and walks over to the curtains, knowing he doesn't register her doing so. She whisks them open and ignores Gramps’ hiss of “Ruthless bitch,” as she gathers up the baskets of fresh bread to restock the front.
She places the stalest loaves in the window, since they’re more useful there, and stocks up the shelves.
Then, as always, it is time to mind the counter.
The first time he’d come in with an injury was four months after their first acquaintance. He walked with a subtle limp and she noticed almost immediately.
He also, it seemed, was loathe to take his arm away from pressing firmly against his left side beneath his long coat. There was a stain on the coat. More than one, actually, she wasn’t sure all the blood was his.
(She'd suspected before now. He just seemed like though sort of person - one who injured or maimed or even killed - though curiously he did not seem to be a bad person. In the end, she couldn't find it in herself to be surprised. Or wary.)
He’d glanced at her, stepping down into the shop, and she’d nodded slightly in return, barely a jerk of the head. Then, she’d headed off into the back to grab their perfunctory first aid kit. She’d passed it to him wordlessly while he chose something to buy and he’d quirked an eyebrow at her. Colombina had shrugged.
“There’s barely anything in it,” she said. They needed a new one anyhow. He’d nodded, slowly, stowed it away in his coat, and paid for the plain loaf he’d picked up, as well as half a dozen of her - rather good, she thought - tomato and basil swirls.
They hadn’t spoken past that, that time, and he’d left silently. Truly silently, which Colombina found herself admiring.
Though his next visit was somewhat delayed, she had found a first aid kit perched innocuously on the counter two days after that encounter. It was brand new, well stocked and, if she was any judge, likely expensive.
She didn’t say anything though. That was what they did.
Colombina turned the sign with a quiet sense of disappointment.
The man with the red eyes wasn’t here today either.
I'm still working out how posting works on AO3 works, don't mind me.
She sleeps restlessly for the next week and rest becomes something between fitful and entirely non-existent.
Colombina can't quite shake the feeling that something is off. Deeply and intrinsically wrong on a visceral level.
The man with the red eyes has, somehow, become the only thing on her mind.
She wants to say she hadn’t expected it. (She’d be lying.)
He always catches up to her, it seems. And in the gaps between days, as she is falling asleep, she returns to him and finds herself counting the days by his absence and still-
The man with the red eyes wasn’t here today.
The man with the red eyes wasn’t here today either.
The man with the red eyes wasn’t here today either.
The man with the red eyes-
And then, for a moment, she thinks he is.
She’s face down on the counter when the door goes, running on barely 8 hours of sleep over the past week and suffering under the heat. She almost doesn’t hear it, but Colombina has always had sharp ears and the loud footsteps are hard to miss. She thinks, without bothering to glance up, that whoever it is appears to be in a foul mood. The boots they’re wearing - because they are boots, she can tell that much - aren’t nearly heavy enough to make that kind of noise on their own.
She muffles a snort into her arms and tries to hide herself further away from the noon heat.
They aren’t technically open - it’s around one in the afternoon and pretty much everyone around here takes siesta very seriously - but they aren’t really closed, either. She couldn’t be bothered to get up and close the sign and, given the time and the heat, it was unlikely anyone would come in anyway.
The man - she’s fairly sure, given the gait - doesn’t seem to care for that, however.
She turns her head to face the other way and, for lack of anything better to do, wonders what kind of person her customer is.
And that’s when she half falls out of her seat.
A grumpy man in light boots who doesn’t care what other people think and it’s then that she realises he’s standing right by her and he even smells familiar and she looks up and there’s a black coat and it’s shorter that she remembered it but still there and that familiar, strange insignia and-
-a waterfall of silver-white hair.
She almost chokes on her breath and tries not to gape.
It isn’t him.
She’d been so sure -
“Are you going to sell me my goddamn bread or do I have to go looking for somewhere else that’s open right now?” asks the stranger.
Colombina battles back the urge to open her mouth until she’s sure she has something to say, another of the man with the red eyes’ many lessons, and finally comes out with: “No. I… ‘ll get that right now.”
She stands and awkwardly takes the paper bag from his hands - hand. One hand. The other sleeve ends in nothingness and she tries not to stare. She checks the contents - three plain white loaves - and rings up the purchase. She looks around him, not at him.
“Eight ninety-seven,” she tells him. He passes her a handful of euros and she counts them into the till. Colombina chances a quick glance. He’s still standing there, giving her an odd expression. It’s slightly sour, like he can’t quite work something out.
She nods jerkily and sits down again. He leaves with a quiet huff.
Colombina lets out a slow breath but her heartbeat is still going a mile a minute half an hour afterwards.
She drifts through the rest of the day.
Colombina finally sleeps that night. She tumbles into bed without eating at five in the afternoon and doesn’t wake till sometime in the early hours of the morning. When she does, she rolls onto her back and spends a few minutes getting her breathing back under control while staring up at her ceiling, surrounded by darkness.
It takes Colombina longer than she’d like to admit to sit up and swing her legs over the side of her bed, so she doesn’t think about it and elects to just sit there. She shakes her head and feels sweat trickle down her face and slip down her neck. She realises then that she’s sweat through her top and pulls it away from her chest. It falls back to her skin, still damp and warmer than she’d like, so she peels it off, uses the driest part to dab herself down, and fetches another similarly overlarge t-shirt from her box. She tosses the discarded shirt on top of the plastic box after closing it to deal with later.
The kitchen is always cool at this time of night despite the warmth of the week. Colombina relaxes. She stretches. She glances around the room.
And catches sight of something red in the blurry reflection coming off the stove hood. She freezes.
Slowly, Colombina turns around.
There’s a bowl of apples sitting on the counter.
Slowly, her limbs go loose and then, all at once, she drops to the floor. It’s cold. She thinks she bruises her elbows and knees on the way down.
And Colombina can’t breathe.
She sits there for too long; time passes oddly, in that in-between space she’s been falling into more and more recently. Often, she can pull herself out of it fairly quickly, a few minutes having passed when it feels like hours.
This is not one of those times.
It passes by like as many seconds, moments, but when she comes back to herself she can practically feel the oncoming dawn, though the sun is yet to even peek over the horizon. Clambering to her feet, she stretches stiff legs and limps towards the sink. There’s a cup in her hand, then a rush of water from the tap. The cup is full.
It’s down in barely two gulps. She pours another and drinks it thirstily. Maybe she can drown it out.
The kitchen counter creaks slightly as she leans against it, more when she shifts. Colombina closes her eyes and tries not to think.
It doesn’t work. She opens them.
The offending bowl of apples sits innocently on the opposite counter. Her breath catches. She pushes up and grabs the thing, glazed blue ceramic almost sliding out of her fingers. She staggers over to the door and rests the bowl on her knee as she fumbles with the key, then bursts outside with a gasp.
The faint sounds of coming morning wash over her and she freezes in place for a second, joints locked by the faraway murmur of early risers and late sleepers. Somewhere, a bird trills.
Everything is still.
Then, she bursts into motion and apples are rolling across the ground, thrown bodily from the bowl clutched desperately between her hands. They bounce, red and incriminatory, across the dusty road.
Colombina falls to the ground.
She leans back against the wall, bowl held loosely in her lap.
And for the first time since he left, Colombina cries.
(And, faintly, Colombina realises that she has made a decision.)
He comes back.
The man with the silver hair who reminds her far too much of the man with the red eyes comes back.
She recognises, somewhere along the way, that she’s beginning to build up a small collection of men with distinctive features whose names she doesn’t know. Ones that make her sad. She ignores this in favour of watching the man out of the corner of her eyes.
Now that she isn’t quite as blindsided by how familiar he is, she can see that he carries himself in a similar way. Especially now he doesn’t seem quite so angry. Which seems ironic, given that the man with the red eyes is (was) always angry.
Colombina refuses to believe that they aren’t somehow connected.
That symbol on his coat. It’s familiar. Too familiar.
The badge shines slightly in the light and she blinks.
Meanwhile, the man with the silver hair grumbles and grouches at the array of baked goods, half turned away from her and the midday sunlight distorting his features. It’s reminiscent of another first meeting (though this is actually a second meeting for her and the silver-haired man, admittedly) but that only makes it more painful, so she ignores it.
She stands. Her footsteps are light as she crosses the store, practice helping her navigate between the creakiest parts of the floor, and then she is beside him.
“Can I help you?”
The man doesn’t hurry to turn and when he does it is with a very deliberate expression. Despite the fact that he’s now looking straight at her, she gets the distinct feeling that he’s side-eying her. Now that’s a special ability.
He raises an eyebrow. “Sure, kid.” And for a second Colombina struggles to breathe. Because it may be ‘kid’ but the way it’s said makes it sound an awful lot like ‘brat’. It feels like someone has punched her in the lungs and left her to gasp. She hides it behind a smile and tries not to look like she’s choking on nothing. Choking on everything.
“What are you looking for?” She asks instead.
He rolls his eyes and grouses, “Something ‘interesting’.” The tone of voice makes it clear he’s quoting someone and the idea that this man has people like that, who he’s fond of - she thinks, she’s seen that kind of exasperation before - and who can tell him to go to the shops to get ‘something interesting’... it grounds her. Her shoes scrape the floor as she turns around to survey the store.
"Interesting, alright.” She presses her lips together and juts out her chin in thought, lower teeth resting against her top lip. “Sweet or savoury?” The man with the silver hair only snorts.
“Hell if I know.”
O… k. That’s really helpful.
The man relents with a quiet sigh and Colombina thanks everything that is useful in the world. “I think Luss wanted something small and sweet,” he tells her. Luss . A friend of his, the person who told him to go to the shop.
Hang on, she tells herself, no matter the mannerisms, they aren’t the same. The man with the red eyes didn’t have a ‘Luss’.
She tilts her head. “Biscuits?” He makes a face and shakes his head.
“Very specifically not biscuits, actually.” A small laugh escapes her and she’s almost surprised by it.
“Fussy eater?” And then the man is laughing too. A bark of a laugh, short and just as taken aback by it as she is. She catches a glimpse of his face and then looks away, feeling like she’s intruded on something private and biting down on the inside of her cheek because it’s the same expression . That surprise.
His grin is small but undeniably shark-like. “Bel? Very.” And Bel must be who they’re actually for. Maybe a kid?
“What about cake?” Another shake of the head.
“Too unhealthy to give him a cake every time he wants them,” he grimaces, “They’re bribes.” - definitely a kid - “Besides, he never finishes them.”
And she knows people like that very well. Despite their chronic scrimping and saving ways and subsequent refusal to allow food to go to waste, Gramps plain out refused to finish the rest of any plain cake.
“Icing eater, then,” The man looks to the ceiling.
“What about muffin tops?” she asks. He quirks an eyebrow.
“Muffins but only the top part. Usually about this big,” she motions with her fingers, “Like a biscuit but made of cake.”
The man nods, slightly bemused, then looks around. Colombina shakes her head.
“We don’t have any in stock right now, they aren’t really something you sell. I can make some though.”
“How long would that take?” His voice is flat. Not unfriendly, just… businesslike, she supposes.
“Half an hour or so, but I can cut it down to just over twenty minutes if I push it,” Colombina replies, “Depends on batch size though.” He nods again, decisive.
“Cost?” She shrugs at him.
“How many do you want?”
The man tilts his head to the side and snorts. “Enough.”
… Right . “Let’s say two dozen, then? Unless you plan to come back within the week.”
So Colombina sets to baking and tries her best to ignore the man hanging around in the shop behind her.
She turns to him at one point, just after she’s started, says, “You can always go do something else and come back later, if you’d like.” He shakes his head.
“I don’t really have anything else to do,” he admits, though it sounds more like he’s just sticking around for the hell of it.
Once the muffin tops are in the oven, she stretches, brushes flour off her shirt, and returns to the counter.
“15 minutes till they’re done,” she tells him, then settles down leaning over the counter to wait. The counter chair has mysteriously disappeared at some point overnight. Or maybe over the past two nights, she hasn’t exactly been paying much attention.
“You’re going to break something doing that one day.”
“What, lecturing me on posture now? Should I start calling you old man?"
“Shut up, brat. It’s bad for your back. You’ll never get anywhere with a permanent hunch."
She straightens up and turns around so that the edge of the counter rests against her hip instead. The man with the silver hair glances at her. He has that odd expression again. She eyes his badge. Neither of them say anything.
Something buzzes. The man takes out what looks like a phone. It also looks like it’s everything short of nuclear blast-proof. Looking at it, she wouldn’t be surprised if she could grab it out of his hand right now and throw it through their front window into the wall across the street and have it be perfectly fine.
...If she could grab it out of his hand in the first place, which she doubts.
He answers it without looking at her but she thinks that may just be because he’s more subtle than he pretends to be.
“Yes?” There’s a faint mumbling for the other side and the man promptly reaches his fingers up to rub at the bridge of his nose in irritation.
“Voi,” he begins, tone forceful, “If you trash think you can just-” It is at this point that Colombina zones out.
Trash, he’d said.
“ Oi, brat-trash,” he greets.
And another time.
“-the trash at my work-”
“-trash thinks he can just-”
“Trash!” He’d yelled, fist waving in the air. The man he was threatening took a step back, eyes wide, and bolted. The man with the red eyes just shook his head and snorted quietly. Like a bull. “Honestly, if trash like that think they-”
Trash, he’d called her, and his colleagues, and his friends, and his enemies. It had always been a word scattered throughout his speech. And it’s something she’s only heard him use so often.
Who are you, she thinks, staring at the man with the silver hair, and do you know him.
Do you know where he is?
He puts down the phone and Colombina bites her tongue so she doesn’t say something stupid.
She still says something stupid.
“Trash.” He looks over to her and she only just manages not to stumble over her words. “That’s an interesting way to refer to… coworkers?”
“And listening in on phone calls is an interesting hobby,” he replies. But he doesn’t look angry, so she just shrugs and focuses on breathing properly.
“Sometimes you learn something,” she says, then holds awkward eye contact until she realises fifteen minutes have almost passed by now. She glances behind her and edges backwards.
Strategic retreat, she thinks, I’m not running away.
It’s a lie, but it makes her feel better.
Everything else goes silently but for Colombina’s stilted ‘thank you for your purchase’ and once he leaves she collapses behind the counter, head in hands.
She doesn’t know why she misses him. Why she sees him everywhere. She’d even looked it up once, but all she’d got was stuff telling her how to deal with a breakup. And she knows she’s never been in love with him, never mind that the idea is gross in the first place. She’s twelve, he’s at least twenty. Ew.
(It had shocked her, the first time she’d realised he was still fairly young. That he’d probably still been a teenager the first time they’d met.)
But… but she does miss him. That’s true enough. And the man with the silver hair… he’s a lead. Too similar. Far too similar.
And if he’s a lead… then she’s going to follow him.