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Diablo Under the Mask

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"Imagine meeting 'diablo' here underneath a mask," Hawthorne remarked in a polite tone to the slender man who'd just coughed into his handkerchief.

The answering scowl was visible below the mask, and Hawthorne almost took enough pity on him to explain that he would know that sound anywhere. Instead, he acknowledged the point of this particular masqued ball and treated the man with the demon coat like a potential new member of the Guild.

"I suppose you've taken an interest in the benefits of our organization?" Hawthorne would have been quite surprised if that had been the case. The primary benefit Hawthorne saw in the Guild was not the protection and nurturing of abilities or the gathering of power, wealth, and influence, but merely a vehicle by which to reach others and use his ability as surely God had intended. This man may have called himself Diablo with the vicious smile of a worthy opponent, but his fervency mirrored Hawthorne's own. "Perhaps you wonder if we would truly be so generous as to welcome a former enemy into our ranks?"

The young man looked at him, mouth flat and grim. "Would you?" he asked blandly, as if he was supposed to ask but had no interest in the answer.

As Hawthorne had suspected, sent by the Port Mafia to which he answered. "I myself am a former enemy of the Guild." And would be one now if they had not taken proper care of Margaret in the aftermath of the battle with this man here. "It is trying in polite company to have nothing to call you." He let the silence hang.

It hung, quite a while, long enough for Hawthorne to snag an appetizer from a passing plate and offer it to his companion.

"I am the dog of the Port Mafia," he wanted to answer, simply, directly, but he couldn't, having been admonished against it by Nakahara Chuuya. For all the executive seemed disinclined to shoot Akutagawa when he was disobedient, neither did the man suffer a fool lightly.

Akutagawa's cover was already broken. Reserving his identity would gain nothing. Still. Dazai-san's former partner was hardly less than formidable when he was angry. Finally, Akutagawa grudgingly muttered, "Akutagawa." It did not identify him with the Port Mafia, and the Guild hardly had the names of all their operatives.

He utterly ignored the offered pate.

"I see." The warm voice remained remarkably amiable. "I am Nathaniel Hawthorne." He ate the appetizer himself.

Akutagawa logged it away with every other idiotically annoying detail he'd be expected to gain from this party and wondered anew how he had disappointed his superiors so, enough to be thrust into an affair like this one, expected to harm no one and learn whatever he could. Very little of true value could be learned without battle or violence and stripping away all the pretty facades men wore to be polite. It seemed only more so at a masqued ball.

"Would you care to dance?" Hawthorne asked, as Akutagawa had already turned down food, champagne, and was no conversationalist.

"I would not," he answered directly. Why did the man linger?

"He's trying to gather intel on you," Gin's voice burst softly into his earpiece with sudden heat. She rarely threw her disapproval into words, and when she did, it was enough to make Akutagawa pay somewhat more mind.

Akutagawa was a horrible choice to gather intelligence, but it occurred to him that the other members of the Port Mafia had yet to have been engaged in the manner he had been. Higuchi was smiling and laughing brilliantly with some of the women, her body language still feminine without the tension that would indicate trouble. Tachihara was dancing very stiffly in his formal clothes and blushing under a tall, buxom woman's attentions. Other familiar silhouettes and shapes showed comfortably inserted subordinates, coworkers, and even superiors.

He supposed he must be the sore thumb that let the Guild know the Mafia was there and let them think whatever the Mafia learned had been learned through him.

"Tell me, irmão, what I would gain from joining your ranks?" The ball was to recruit. Let him try to recruit then, Akutagawa decided.

Hawthorne was surprised at the change, the spark of interest in eyes well hidden within the mask, the determined set of Akutagawa's mouth. There was something worthy of interest in that look. Perhaps he would be a worthy opponent on this field as well.

Hawthorned smiled. "Perhaps a dance?"

It did not strike pleasure into Akutagawa's expression. "You require a dance?"

"It is a ball," Hawthorne pointed out. "I must wonder if you dance as well as you fight."

Akutagawa stiffened, suddenly tense, and rose to the challenge. It was a pity Hawthorne didn't think his recruitment speech would be as successful, but he coolly answered Akutagawa's own challenge with reasons to consider the Guild.

Cool words, the warmth of motion, whoever had taught Akutagawa to dance had done a decent job but no better. It was wrong in all the usual ways and a few more besides only fighters were prone to. Finding openings instead of covering them, working in tandem against one's partner instead of with. This was no time and place for a proper battle but even this made Hawthorne wish to try himself against Akutagawa's strength again, win this time, wrap his blood around Akutagawa's limbs and…

He pulled away before he allowed himself to intimate a fantasy. "I wish you a fine evening," he said and left Akutagawa with a puzzled frown on his face.