With Blood on Our Knees
.1. No Bridge to Burn
Daken scanned the newspaper headlines and took a dainty sip of his affogato.
“Anything else? At all?” asked the waitress, who was perhaps a tad too enamoured of him (she’d been scuttling back to him after every other table, and was starting to get quite annoying).
“Some time alone with my newspaper, I think,” he said pointedly, but with a charming grin.
“Oh!” she flustered, waving her hands. “Yes, of course!”
When she’d moved on, he rolled his eyes. Honestly, Italian girls these days were getting as clinging and solicitous as Japanese girls.
It spoke very highly of Lester’s skills that Daken didn’t notice the other assassin’s presence until a chair scraped away from the table.
“Lookin’ good for a guy Romulus said was dead,” Lester snorted.
Daken raised his eyebrows, but didn’t look away from his paper. “He, of all people, should know how hard it is to kill our kind. What kept you, darling?”
“Told you, I thought you were dead. What was I s’posed to think, when you fuckin’ vanished into the mists after Osborn got knocked off his pedestal? Last anybody’d heard, you and your freak father went to settle a score with Romulus, you changed sides a few times, died a few times, and vanished again. Now, Wolverine doesn’t much like me on the best of days, so I didn’t ask him, but Romulus has some respect for my professional reputation—he said you were dead, and when the Caveman King of Ninja-Assassins pronounces somebody dead, people tend to take his word for it.”
Idly, Daken smirked and turned a page. “And whyever should you want to know where I’d gone, precious?”
He heard the stutter of hesitant breath, words half-formed and discarded. “Yeah, well…I go black market, so I can’t always score all my meds at once, and you said you could. I think your exact words were, ‘I can get you anything you want.’ Anyway, we haven’t killed Osborn yet.”
Finally, Daken folded his newspaper, set it aside, and looked at Lester.
He didn’t look much the worse for wear, considering that he’d probably been between employers since Osborn’s fall nearly a year previous (he never seemed to spend any of his pay, so he probably had a tidy emergency fund). His taste in clothes still ran toward bland and careworn. His scarred, nimble fingers were as beautiful as ever (instruments of death, of which Daken considered himself a connoisseur).
And he’d sought Daken of his own volition.
Daken smiled. “So we haven’t,” he agreed.
There, the patter of speeding heartbeat. There, the uneven draw of breath. There, the scent of relief and simple happiness, like a dog being praised.
Yes, Lester was coming along nicely, and Daken hadn’t needed to do so much as lift a finger for more than a year.
They do say that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Lester concealed his levity with a bored sneer and leaned his chair back on two legs.
“Are you hungry, sweetness?” Daken asked, casually leaning forward and drawing invisible designs over Lester’s knuckles with his fingertips. “They do an excellent lobster penne here. Or there’s the strawberry gelato, if you’re in the mood for something light.”
Lester’s chair clanked solidly back onto all four legs. “That’s it?” he demanded, wary and perhaps a bit offended. “That’s all you have to fuckin’ say for yourself? Just ‘oh, you’ve found me, no, we haven’t killed Osborn, hey, you wanna grab some lunch?’”
And now, a turning point in the game…Daken staked everything on the hope that his pet project was as far along as he thought it was. He simply raised his brows again. “Were you worried I really was dead?”
“Who the fuck would worry about a bitchy little fag with a daddy-complex the size of Switzerland?” Lester snapped, but didn’t move his hand from under Daken’s fingers.
“Who indeed,” Daken retorted with a frown, and withdrew his touch.
Lester flinched, hand twitching forward a millimeter. He smelled of disappointment and shame.
“Well, I mean…” Lester floundered.
“I suppose you would have preferred to find out Romulus was right,” Daken pressed, frown still in place. “Then you could kill Norman yourself and spend the rest of your days drifting, all alone without a care in the world.”
“W-well, no, I mean…”
“Or perhaps you would have liked to find out I’d gone off on some foolish crusade to kill Norman without you, and he and his mountains of technology had finally done what you couldn’t, and then you could go off to find the next man on your list to wipe off the face of the planet.”
“No!” Lester just sat there and glowered with hunched shoulders and wide eyes, oozing hurt and anger out of every pore.
Internally, Daken was roaring with triumphant laughter. Externally, he dropped his frown for a neutral expression. “No? And why is that, I wonder?”
“Because you said—” Lester began, but broke off in sudden confusion.
Daken waited patiently.
Slowly, Lester smoothed a hand over his face and began to laugh.
“Is something funny, my dear?”
Lester gestured inarticulately to Daken until he managed to get his mirth under control. “You win. Congratu-fucking-lations, you magical fairy princess bitch. For some stupid reason, fucking Stockholm syndrome or whatever, I can’t stand the thought of you running off and getting your spoiled ass killed. All because, in one of your weird mindfuck moods, you said that I belong to you.”
Daken allowed the edge of his smile to show.
“God, how fucking pathetic is that?” snickered Lester. “Oh, I hate you so goddamn much. One of these days…I swear to Christ, I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you until you stay dead one of these days. Order me something to eat. And go back to doing that hand thing. I liked that.”
Of course you did. That’s why I did it.
So, firm in his victory, Daken went back to tracing patterns in the scars on Lester’s knuckles. “Is that the only thing I do to you that you like?”
“I know you,” grunted Lester. “If I mention something else, you’ll take it as permission to make out in public.”
“No one will mind.”
“Most people don’t mind a lot o’ the weird shit you do, thanks to your pixie dust or whatever the fuck. I’m not the right kind of exhibitionist to want your tongue down my throat while the whole street stares.”
Daken fluttered his eyelashes. “So if I climbed over this table right now, you wouldn’t let me kiss you?”
“Hell, no!” Lester squawked, cheeks going the tiniest bit red.
It was tempting to keep teasing, but the vulture-like waitress had noticed fresh meat and circled back.
“Hello again, sir,” she said, still as sickeningly ingratiating as ever. “Would your guest like anything? A coffee, perhaps? Another affogato?”
“Two orders of the lobster penne, and a lemonade. And you should probably stop making those silly faces at me before you annoy my boyfriend.”
Needless to say, she scampered off.
“We got a plan for Osborn?” Lester asked, watching her go.
“I have a plan for everything, my dear.”
And that was how Daken got a collar on his mad dog.
.2. On a Silver Platter
The key to trapping Norman Osborn (or any true paranoid narcissist) was to let him come to the trap instead of trying to bring the trap to him. Between them, Daken and Lester had connections in most of the underworld, so shadowing Osborn was simply a matter of paying different people so that Osborn didn’t start to see familiar faces (except in his strange delusions). Fortunately, the man’s obsessive tendencies and enormous ego made patterns show up in his (ludicrously) extensive efforts to throw off pursuit.
After all the suffering, annoyance, and indignity of serving on Osborn’s Avengers roster, Daken was distinctly unsatisfied with how quickly they went from square one to springing the trap.
Thirty-six days after Lester found him in Rome, they were waiting in darkness thousands of miles away, one at the mouth of an alley and the other high above. Daken had long ago mastered the art of disappearing, of becoming a shadow among shadows, silent and scentless and still as the wall against which he leaned.
He smiled when he heard the telltale sound of furtive footsteps on asphalt. A person’s stride was as individual as his fingerprints, after all, and Daken had a long and unforgiving memory for the identifying characteristics of people he loathed.
A moment later, the footsteps were curtailed by a hiss of flying steel, the wet thud of impact, and a strangled cry of indignation.
“Oh, look at that!” Lester cackled from the rooftops. “We got a bleeder, baby!”
The footsteps sped, so Daken took his cue to step out and block the alley.
“Hello, Norman,” he called jovially, using his claws to clip the tendons in Osborn’s elbows (just in case).
There was a choked cry, and Osborn stumbled back a step.
It was a little disappointing that Lester had picked paralyzing targets on each shoulder; Daken would have preferred the ability to inflict more pain. Still, the last thing they wanted was for Osborn to get away again.
“Y-you! You traitorous, ungrateful—”
Lester interrupted him by leaping from the roof and landing on him, bearing him to the ground with ease. “What? What was that? Gotta speak up, Osborn. I’m only a second-rate merc, after all. Y’know, the only thing that would make this sweeter would be if we had Wilson around so he could annoy you to death.”
“You were nothing!” spat Osborn, kicking and trying in vain to move his arms. “No one would hire you—you were damaged goods! I plucked you out of the gutter!”
But Lester just danced away from Osborn’s flailing feet, snatched two more throwing knives from the holster on his waist, bounced them off a wall and into Osborn’s spine with elegant precision. “I was fixed up good as new,” Lester retorted. “Sorta. Good enough, anyhow. Kingpin woulda hired me.”
“A shame we can’t do something fun like cut off his fingers,” sighed Daken.
“We can,” Lester argued. “He just won’t feel it. Which would be boring.”
“The opposite of fun,” Daken said flatly.
Lester ignored him. “I got enough knives left to point out some of the more painful organs for him. If I thought he gave two shits about anyone but himself, this is the point where I’d let him know I planned to hunt ‘em down. Them and their housekeepers and their mailmen and their fuckin’ dogs.”
“You can’t do this to me!” Osborn shrieked.
The sadistic smile on Lester’s face was a truly beautiful thing, and Daken found himself simply standing back to watch as the marksman dropped onto Osborn blade-first (and their former employer let out a blood-curdling scream).
“That’s your stomach,” Lester purred. “Now you’re leaking acid onto the rest of your internal organs.”
Osborn only gurgled. His eyes were rolling with pain and fear. He looked like a wounded animal being toyed with by a predator. It gave Daken warm and fuzzy feelings.
“What d’you think, babe?” Lester asked, drawing another knife. “Sigmoid colon next? Or appendix?”
“Does he have an appendix?”
“Let’s find out…” A stab, a frown. “…damn, looks like he doesn’t. Colon it is, then.”
Shock was setting in. Wild, glassy eyes. Blood that looked black in the dim night. Cries of terror muffled by more blood. In the moment of his death, the great Norman Osborn was a pathetic sight—just another lame beast being put down.
“Ah, he’s going already,” tsked Lester. “I still got one more knife, too. Well, waste not…” And he shoved the last knife down that mouth that had spewed such unending nonsense and deprecation.
Over all too quickly, as Daken had known it would be. He flexed his hands, let his claws slide back into his knuckles.
Lester stood and dusted off his palms. “That was fun while it lasted.”
“It was,” Daken conceded.
Their eyes met—Lester looked a little surprised. “We’re free. I mean, seriously. I dunno about you, but he was the last guy who really had any dirt on me.”
Daken shrugged. “Romulus thinks I’m dead. Even if he learns otherwise, he prefers me alive and killing.”
“Wow,” mumbled Lester. “We really are. Free.”
“Let’s keep it that way, shall we?” suggested Daken. He took Lester’s hand. “Let’s make a promise to never rely on anyone but each other from now on.”
Lester didn’t even hesitate; he just nodded. “Yeah. Promise.”
That’s right—anything I say. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Another smile twisted Daken’s lips.
After several seconds of silence, Lester looked around the alley. “So…what d’ya wanna do now?”
A good question.
Daken regarded the clouded sky. “Hm. Tropical cruise?”
“I’m down for that. Maui’s nice this time of year. And then maybe we can work on that list of ‘people I wanna wipe off the face of the planet.’ I think Murdock just graduated to the top.”
After all, every time I help you kill one of them, you’ll be that much more willing to help me get what I want. Whatever I want.
And that was how Daken started making plans to rule the world.