When Dire had been killed, Straizo had wondered if it were possible to die of grief.
No one mourned him.
Certainly, the last of the hamon users did; what meager few of them that remained attended his funeral to speak their pieces. But the rest of the world moved on unknowing, not an inkling in its collective mind that it owed its existence in part to this man who had defended it with every breath and helped pass on these precious arts. That was what drove Straizo to grief. Not that Dire had passed - all men do, all things do, and that was the way of the world; he had lived if not a full life then at least a largely happy one - but that all that remained of him now was a handful of stories in a handful of minds.
Straizo had savoured Dire’s comfortable silences when he had been alive, his economy of speech. But now he realized how little he knew of the man he had spent so many years with; where he came from, his family, his reasons for studying hamon, so many things great and small that were now a mystery that no one could ever again unlock. The world should know him, but if they were not careful, he would be completely forgotten within a generation. Stories untold, name lost.
Would this be Straizo’s end, as well? Dead by a filthy vampire’s hand, or his body weakening even under the support of hamon, his hamon itself fading as he aged and the process tumbling out of control until one day he was nothing more than stories on a bare few lips, soon to be unspoken?
He had never craved fame. But to leave no mark, to be forgotten, was an idea that left him pacing and uneasy.
Where others led a monastic life of training, hiding themselves away to perfect their focus, Straizo grasped for every opportunity to go out into the world. To breathe the life of it, to be seen, to have some effect that may blossom into a story to be told - that was what he searched for as he turned his hamon inward to stave off the inevitable aging of his body. He just needed time, time to leave an indelible mark, and then he could leave the world in peace.
When Robert told him Jonathan had been murdered, Straizo didn’t hesitate. He bowed in Erina’s doorway and took the offered babe from her arms. The glow of hamon was within that tiny little girl, and as Elizabeth grew she drank in the stories he told her of Tonpetty, of Dire, of William and of Jonathan. She had no natural talent for hamon, but she bent herself to its study, always joyous and laughing and bright as the sun itself.
It nearly rent him in two when she told him she would return to England to be closer to George and Erina.
“Coil your grief inside yourself,” Tonpetty told him, when he found Straizo curled at the foot of Dire’s grave. “Let it make you stronger, like steel hardened by the trials of fire and water, and it will not break you.”
Straizo remembered those words when he stood next to Tonpetty’s funeral pyre so few years later, Red Stone of Aja around his own neck. But instead of grief all he felt was a burning cold ache like a fever he couldn’t sweat out. It did coil in his chest, but like a burrowing snake, creeping up his throat to the bottom of his brain and behind his eyes until he found himself wandering, unable to sleep, unable to sit still. One more hamon user dead. One more story soon to be forgotten. The stone carried the responsibility of caution, of stillness, of a small, unremarkable life that would disappear into the noise of the world and stay hidden, and the very thought of it ate at the edges of him until he felt himself fraying into unrecognizability.
He draped the stone over Elizabeth’s neck on her wedding day, and hoped against all hope that she would have exactly the quiet life she wanted.
When he was called back to her again years later, she was still gloved in ash and blood. There was a haunted, vicious, hungry look on her empty face as the Speedwagon workers tended to her, and he clasped her hands and kissed her bloody fingers and swore he would get revenge.
“They need to be destroyed,” she said quietly to him once the doctors had left, once they had told her she would have to disappear if she wanted to protect what was left of the family she’d built around herself. “Pursued and torn out by the roots and wiped from the face of the earth.”
Within the crucible of loss, her breath blossomed into the most powerful hamon he had ever seen.
The vampires crept in the corners of the world like a sneaking plague, tendriled fingers searching for a grip, and the two of them burned their way across the continents to leave the ashes of thousands in their wake. But for every one they turned to dust in the wind, rumors of another hundred whispered in their ears. There were no stories of the warriors of the sun, the defenders, the protectors - but there were thousands about the creatures that went bump in the night. It made Straizo sick to his stomach, knowing that the only family he had ever known was disappearing from memory in favour of them.
A thug of a boy found them in Venice, burning with untapped hamon and the need for vengeance and recognition. Straizo understood the look in Elizabeth’s eyes - of course he understood, the boy was a replacement for the family she had been forced to leave behind, and needed desperately to be trained before his grieving anger consumed him. But understanding the fire in Caesar and the loss in Elizabeth didn’t make it feel any less like Straizo’s heart was being torn from his chest when she left him for a second time. Elizabeth couldn’t go, and the restless need in Straizo to be seen wouldn’t let him stay.
He closed off his heart and drove himself after the vampires alone, following every story and rumor - seeds, garlic, crosses, stakes - to learn the ones that held a grain of truth. He gleaned the secrets of the vampires’ creation, not only that of the lesser thralls, but the blood and stone that brought the greater monsters out of the flesh of men. He followed every rumor, every whisper, buried his every waking moment in lore until he could sense a vampire from miles away and burn it to ash before it ever knew he existed. He tore their flesh from their bones to learn the limits of their regeneration, and perfected the minimum amount of hamon he could expend to destroy them while leaving as much as he could to prop up his own failing body.
He had been a young man when he had met Jonathan. Fifty years later and his bones ached with the wear of hard travel and hard training. Hamon kept his face young and his body strong, but his muscles complained at repeated days of discomfort and his joints protested when the weather changed. His very breath, source of every gift Tonpetty had encouraged within him, was shallower in his chest. The end was not near, not for many years yet, but it was ever creeping closer. And he was still unseen, unknown, the prequel to forgotten.
It felt like eternity slowly closing it's fist on him, to leave him suffocating alone in the dark.
The rumors were fewer and farther between, barely enough to follow. They led him from one end of the earth to the other, easier now than ever with the prevalence of steam-powered ships and gasoline coaches and wild, impossible machines that could carry you through the very air like a bird. He sang at the triumph of mankind, the triumph of his own golden breath that was bringing the world closer and closer to one cured of its millenia-long disease.
He very carefully did not think of what purpose he would have in such a world.
When Robert’s call came again, raving of temples and statues and stone masks, Straizo rushed to follow him, to grab hold of this last thin red thread, to get just one drop more of ink for the story he was desperately writing for himself before he disappeared between the forgotten pages of history.
The temple held so much more than rumors.
This. This was the only way to have enough time.
“Do you ever envy them?” Straizo asked Dire early in their training. He was delirious with pain and quiet terror as Dire stitched him up, both of them covered in blood both their own and the cold poison that had pumped through the vampires’ veins. “The people won’t ever forget them. Humanity owes us their lives, and yet we're merely a footnote, if even that.” He drew a sharp breath through his teeth at the sick sting of the needle pulling his belly back together. “If belief fuels reality, it's no wonder there are ten thousand vampires and we fade a little more every day.”
Dire was kind enough to pretend he didn't see the way Straizo shook and wept, his own hands steady and calm. “They’re just afraid,” he finally said. “I suppose I can understand that.”