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Pancakes, and the Art of Baddassery

Pancakes, and the Art of Badassery Sept. 3rd, 11:59PM – “You call this a safe house?” Niko Borozov somehow managed to look down his nose at the dingy apartment from his 5’ 3” of height. Said apartment was dark, and grey, but most of all small, with a tiny kitchen in the back corner and one, singular window opposite it. “Get a look at this, Lila.” His body guard appeared behind his shoulder, standing a full four inches taller than him. “Beggars can’t be choosers, young master,” she intoned as she walked over to the window and pulled the shade down. At first glance Lila Finn didn’t appear entirely intimidating, her adolescent figure and wild, orange hair making her seem more like an Irish barmaid than bodyguard to the heir of the affluent Borozov family. But anyone who knew Lila knew that she would sooner cut you down with the katana she kept in the case on her back than say hello. Of the two men that followed them inside, each built like a wall of bricks, Vincent was not familiar with her, while Ivan was. You could tell by the way he maintained a good few feet between them at all times. “Yeah, keep the guilt train coming.” Niko rolled his eyes, but smiled all the same. “Really though, is this the best the ‘mighty Borozov family’ can do? I mean, come on, the TV’s a box for god’s sake.” “I’m sorry, sir.” Ivan apologized through his thick Russian accent. “But it was best we could do given circumstances.” “Ugh, don’t call me sir,” Niko pleaded, looking horrified. “That’s my father.” Vincent chimed in, taking a step into the apartment. “And until he can make some kind of deal with the Mirellis, we have to keep you out of the city. They want your head.” “Haven’t they always? I’m the family heir of their biggest rival.” Niko let out a puff of air as he plopped down on the faded couch. Its springs creaked even under his slight weight. He ran a hand through his spiky, blond hair and rubbed absently along the pattern shaved out of one side of his head. Lila approached from behind. “But now they have a reason to take it. You enjoy making my job difficult, don’t you?” She placed her hands on the couch cushions, squeezing hard. Most people wouldn’t have noticed a little thing like that, but Niko had known her for a long time. Something was on her mind. “You’ve got to report to my father, right?” Niko asked Ivan and Vincent pointedly. “Yes, of course.” Ivan nodded, and he and Vincent made their way to the door. But Ivan turned back towards the two kids. “You know rules, da? No opening shades, no going outside.” Niko raised a hand to wave him out. “You act like this is my first rodeo. I got it.” Still Ivan paused, a worried expression painted on his face. But then he shook his head and closed the door behind him. Neither Lila nor Niko moved for a minute as they listened to the men’s footsteps fading down the hallway. Then Niko placed his hand on top of Lila’s. “And you’re mad at me, aren’t you?” “Yes.” She pulled away, moving back towards the window. “You could have gotten yourself killed.” Peeking through the shade, she blinked from the light of the neon sign below. From her angle above she couldn’t quite make out the exact words on the sign, but from the image of the goat holding a cold pint she assumed it must have been pointing out a drinking establishment of some sort. “That’s what I have you for.” Niko grinned. “To make sure the heir of the Borozov family keeps breathing.” His tone was light, but she could hear the biting undertone all too well. She sighed. “But what if I wasn’t there? I’m not the... immortal warrior you seem to think I am.” “What are you talking about? Of course you are,” Niko laughed. “My father would never have trusted you with my sorry ass otherwise.” “It’s that attitude that’s going to get you in trouble.” Lila shook her head as she stood over him. Niko glanced up at her, his golden eyes meeting her green ones. “Maybe that’s what I’m looking for.” Sept. 4th, 4:00AM – The couch was hard, and Lila was not asleep. Niko was in the singular bedroom just through the small door beside the refrigerator, and Lila watched it intently. That was her job, after all, to protect her young master at all times. But it was also her job to be able when it counted, and it wouldn’t do if she was running on no sleep. She turned away from the door. Worrying wasn’t going to do her any good. And yet, she did worry. Niko was headstrong, and reckless. It was like he didn’t care if he lived or died. He’d always been a little like that, but the trait had become especially pronounced now that they were no longer children. He’d have to grow up sooner or later, because Lila wouldn’t always be around to protect him. She was under no false pretenses; she knew that Niko would outlive her. In her line of work, it was a rare soul who lived to see retirement. But she worried about what he would do when she was gone. It seemed like such a long time ago when Niko’s father had called her into his office and told her to protect his son at all costs. “With your life, if need be.” He’d said. “Can you do that? That boy is future of Borozov line.” He intoned. Nodding instantly, Lila didn’t even have to consider the question. She didn’t care about ‘preserving the Borozov line,’ or anything like that, though they were her adoptive family. But she would do anything for Niko. He had saved her life, after all. This was the least she could do to repay him. The floor creaked suddenly, a few feet from her, and in a split second Lila had snatched her sword from its case and pushed it against the intruder’s throat. She had expected the Mirellis to find them, of course, but not this soon. “You gonna kill me, Lila?” the intruder asked, and Lila immediately lowered the sword as she saw that it was only Niko, empty glass in hand. “Young master, my apologies.” She bowed slightly, lowering her head. He smiled blearily, heading over to the sink. “You watch too many samurai movies, you know that?” After filling his glass with water, Niko sat at the small, round table. “Can’t sleep?” Lila asked, sitting opposite him. “Nah,” he rubbed his eyes. “You?” She shook her head. They sat for a long minute, each finally able to process the events of the previous day. Lila blinked, trying not to think about how close they’d been to not sitting here right now. Apparently, Niko was thinking along the same lines, for he sighed and shook his head. “We are way too young for this PTSD crap.” “You’re probably right,” Lila replied. “I hadn’t really noticed.” “Look at it this way,” Niko leaned his elbows on the slightly greasy table. “We’re both only seventeen and between the two of us are more hang-ups than the US government.” Lila snorted. “Well?” He chuckled too. “I mean, most kids our age are worried about college or what Michelle said about Becci, and we almost died yesterday.” “I suppose that’s true.” Lila shrugged. “Have you ever wondered what it’d be like to be normal? You know, play video games, walk home with friends and not have to worry about hit-squads intercepting you on the way?” “Occasionally,” she admitted thoughtfully. “But never for long. I’d get bored, being normal.” Niko laughed out loud, a great sound that almost shook the room. “That is one good thing, I guess. There is never dull moment in Russian Mafiya!” He dropped into an accent and raised his glass like they’d seen his father and uncles do so many times. In that moment—increasingly so over the last few years, for that matter—Lila was struck by how much Niko resembled his father. It only happened occasionally, when he was stressed or not paying attention, and when he wasn’t actively obscuring it behind a wall of self-deprecation and apathy, but Niko had a darkness about him that scared people, just the same as the senior Borozov. But Lila would never tell him that. Sept. 4th, 9:00AM – In one hand, Niko held a toothpick, which he idly clenched between his teeth as he flipped pancakes with the other. It made Lila chuckle, though she didn’t quite know why. Perhaps it was his rumpled dress shirt, suspenders hanging from his pants, and intense concentration juxtaposed with the sweet smell drifting over to the table. Pancakes were just about the only thing Niko knew how to make, but that was one more than Lila, so who was she to say anything? “Dick biscuits.” He swore as he flipped one of the fluffy cakes over, only to discover that he’d burned it black. “Got the stove too hot. Stupid, cheap electric...” “Dick biscuits? That’s a new one,” Lila said, smiling a little. This was a somewhat rare occurrence for her, and Niko almost looked surprised as he turned towards her. “Well yeah,” the corner of his mouth twitched upwards. “When one has mastered the art of foul language, one needs to get creative, lest the act of profanity become stale.” “Excuse me, Mr. Master of Swearing,” Lila replied, “your pancakes are still burning.” He swore again, and they ended up eating burnt pancakes. Lila didn’t mind, she had learned never to take a meal for granted. Niko, on the other hand, was currently attempting to drown out the burnt flavor with Aunt Marma’s Totally Genuine Maple Syrup™. Lila chuckled, under her breath, and Niko glanced up. “What’s so funny?” He asked. “Nothing,” Lila shook her head. “I was just thinking about the first time we had pancakes.” Leaning back in his chair, Niko looked up at the ceiling, nodding. “Yeah. That was right after we took you in.” He broke into a grin. “The cook brought them out and you just started bawling.” “I’d been living on the streets for years. I hadn’t seen anything so beautiful since my mother died.” Lila scratched her cheek, embarrassed. “And I thought that you hated pancakes. But as soon as you pulled yourself together you just started chowing down.” “The cook even forgot to add sugar, not that it really mattered at that point.” Lila shook her head. “Do you miss her?” Niko asked suddenly. “Your mother, I mean.” Lila stared at him for a second. “Do you miss yours?” “Well yeah.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Sometimes. But I hardly knew her, you know? I can’t really mourn for someone I didn’t know.” “So, there’s your answer.” He shook his head. “And somehow you’ve brought it back to me again.” “That’s my job,” she shrugged. “To be a shadow, not a person. I am merely an extension of you, a reflection.” “Oh, is that why I like you so much?” He smirked. Covering up his feelings again. Best for Lila to change the subject. “Shut up and eat your pancakes. They’re getting cold." Sept. 6th, 3:00PM – “But there’s more!” The overenthusiastic spokesman shouted through the tiny box in the corner. “Buy the Super Hydro Pumper™ now and we’ll throw in a toaster for free. Yes, that’s right. Absolutely free!” “I know!” Niko shouted at the screen. “I heard you the first five times.” He flopped back listlessly on the couch. “I’m pretty sure I know your shtick better than you do at this point!” Lila, who was only half-pretending to be half-asleep in the little corner of the couch that she had been gradually shoved into, nodded. They had been camping out in this small, dull room for three days now, and the boredom was beginning to wear on them both. Worst of all, there had been no contact from Ivan in that time. But there was really nothing they could do about it now. So they waited. Meanwhile, the infomercial had continued onto its next segment. “Oh, go on!” Niko raised his arms in the air. “What else could the Super Hydro Pumper™ possibly be able to do? Cure cancer maybe? Solve world hunger? Tell me now, oh gods of consumerism!” “This whole thing is rather trite,” Lila admitted. “It’s hard to believe that anyone really buys into this thing.” “And yet they do!” Niko said, exasperated. “Forget the guns and drugs, we need to get into cheap, plastic crap instead!” “It is utterly fascinating just how much this commercial makes me not care.” “What is it that you really care about, Lila?” Niko asked, sitting up and turning to her. “I can never tell.” Lila raised an eyebrow. “What is it that you care about?” “Oh no,” he shook a finger at her, “we are not doing this again. Answer the question.” Shrugging, Lila stared straight at him. “You. I thought that was obvious.” “Well, this is certainly an unexpected time to confess your undying love to me,” Niko grinned. Cheeky bastard. “You know what I mean.” “I don’t think I do,” he shook his head, mock surprised. “You’d better kiss me now before you break my heart.” He leaned forward, making a stupid face. “Kiss me, kiss me!” “Oh my god stop.” She pushed him backwards, chuckling. “I’ve answered your question,” she held him back easily with one hand. “So what is it that you care about? I’m genuinely curious.” The smile fell off his face, and Niko sat back, thinking. “I don’t really know,” he admitted. “I don’t really care about my family, or what we do. I just kind of do it because that’s what’s expected of me.” “I understand that feeling, young master.” “And there you go with the samurai movies again.” Niko broke out into a smile once more. “I like samurai movies,” she said. “I relate to them a lot more than most people. It makes me... happy, I suppose, to imagine myself as a warrior honorably protecting my master.” “You know you could just leave if you wanted to, right?” Niko asked. “You’re not a Borozov. You could just walk away.” Lila shook her head. “I wouldn’t even consider it. Your ‘sorry ass’ would get killed if I wasn’t around.” “So you do really care about me.” Niko wiggled his eyebrows. Lila smiled. “I never said I didn’t.” Sept. 7th, 1:00AM – There was a knock at the door. Lila listened, and heard the specific combination that meant it was safe to open it. “Niko,” she hissed, nudging him. He’d fallen asleep on the couch an hour earlier, and Lila had decided not to wake him. “Niko!” Now she lightly punched him on the arm. “Wha...?” He mumbled. “The door.” Immediately, he was awake. The two of them stood and slunk closer, listening. The knock came again, in the same, agreed pattern. Niko glanced at Lila, who nodded, and he opened the door. A large man stumbled in, looking harried. At first, Lila thought that it must be Ivan, but as she looked again, it couldn’t be. Ivan was large, but most of that was due to his broad, muscular shoulders. This man was large in an entirely different way. “Vincent?” Niko asked. “What are you doing here?” “I’ve come to move you to a new safe house,” he said, his tone urgent. “This one’s been compromised. It’s the Mirellis. They know you’re here.” “Shit,” Niko swore. “Alright then, let’s—” Lila’s eyes narrowed. “Wait.” She held an arm in front of him. “Where is Ivan? He was supposed to be our contact.” “He got caught up with the Mirellis so he sent me instead,” Vincent replied calmly, but his eyes darted back and forth between the two nervously. “What’s the holdup? Let’s go.” “No, she’s right.” Niko shook his head. “That doesn’t sound like Ivan at all. He’s always been a sucker for doing things properly. He’d never send someone else to do his job.” Vincent seemed to deflate a little as he sighed. “I was hopin’ you two would make this nice and easy, but I guess we have to do it the hard way, huh?” He whipped out a gun with one hand and grappled Niko into a headlock with the other. “I’ve got orders to take you to Don Mirelli, and you’d better come too.” He waved the gun briefly in Lila’s direction before placing it against Niko’s head. “So you were a Mirelli this whole time?” Niko asked, his lip curling upwards in disgust. “Born and raised.” “I should’ve known. You always smelled too much like a filthy mutt to be one of us.” “Say that again, runt bastard.” Vincent renewed his grip on the gun. Heart pounding, Lila almost couldn’t look away from the cold metal pressed against her master’s head. No, she had to focus. Where was her sword? In reach, lying on its open case behind the couch. But if she moved, Niko would die. So she waited. “Both of you come nice and slow now. There’s a car waiting downstairs, and we’re all gonna take a little ride”, Vincent’s voice wavered. “Young master?” Lila asked, awaiting the order to act. Niko’s lips tightened as he closed his eyes. “Kill him.” As Lila nodded, Vincent’s hand began to shake. “Don’t move, or I’ll blow your boyfriend’s brains out.” But Lila didn’t have to. She grabbed the knife strapped to her thigh and threw it across the room. It cut a deep gash into Vincent’s hand, causing him to drop the gun as he cursed, while Niko, a mere two inches away, didn’t even flinch. In one swift movement, Lila had swiped her katana from its case and pinned the man to the door that was just behind him. Through his chest. After a minute, Lila withdrew her sword, and the body fell to the ground with a sickening thump as blood smeared down the white door. There was a moment of silence. Niko and Lila stared down at the mess. She nudged the body, just to make sure he was really dead. A small stream of blood trickled from the man’s lips. No coughing or gagging. Undeniably passed. But just as Lila opened her mouth to confer with Niko, she heard a noise. A car horn. Lila froze. That’s right. He had a car outside, with backup no doubt. “The car,” she whispered. Niko nodded, and held up a finger. He reached down for Vincent’s gun, then moved over to the couch as Lila slid on her boots, reaching between the couch cushions to grab a second pistol, which he stuck in his coat. “I’ll back you up. Let’s go.” Stepping over the body, Lila and Niko crept through the white door, now thoroughly stained with a long red streak down the middle. The hallway seemed clear. Lila held her katana at the ready, its light blade catching the glow of the neon sign through the window ahead of them. Niko motioned the all-clear, and they both tip-toed quietly towards the stairs, Lila cringing as Niko stepped on a creaky spot. Lila reached the small, grimy window, and glanced down to the street below, past the smiling goat constructed with glowing lines. One story below was a black sedan with tinted windows, though by the light of the sign through the sun roof Lila could see one person sitting in the driver’s seat. A Mirelli clearly; she could tell by the greased-back hair and the cologne so strong that she could smell it all the way up here. She opened the window, and kicked in the bug screen. Niko shook his head, knowing exactly what she was about to do. “You’re crazy.” “Maybe,” she shrugged. “But it’s our best chance to take him by surprise.” “I’ll meet you down there.” “You’ve got thirty seconds.” Lila began to count under her breath as Niko ran. Ten, she heard Niko reach the bottom of the stairs and get into position. Twenty, Lila planned her trajectory accordingly to the height of the car and the position of the man in it. Twenty-five, the man the man shuffled in the driver’s seat awkwardly, trying to get a glimpse over his shoulder. Twenty-eight, he turned on the radio, twenty-nine, he pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Thirty. Lila braced herself against the window, and jumped. She stuck her feet out straight below like she was leaping into water, and a second later, crashed directly into the sunroof. It shattered into tiny pieces, most too small to actually hurt her as she fell. She muttered thanks for safety features under her breath as she wrapped her legs around the driver to catch her fall. “What the—” was all the driver could get out before she held her katana against his throat. From the left, there came a tapping on the car window. The driver turned. Niko was just outside, smiling as he pointed the gun at his head. The driver rolled down the window. “Hi,” was all Niko said before he placed the gun against his head and fired. The silencer caught most of the sound, but Lila still winced anyway. “Damn.” Niko muttered, looking at the remains of the man’s brains splattered all over the passenger’s window. “I was hoping that would go better.” Lila climbed back through the sunroof. “Start walking. Quickly.” They did, down the road and didn’t look back. Lila jumped at a dog barking in the distance. She was sure someone must have heard that. But as they waited, the night remained quiet. They didn’t talk for several minutes, not until they were well out of the way. “What do you think really happened to Ivan?” Lila broke the silence finally. “Best guess?” Niko looked away. “He’s probably dead.” Lila glanced down at the pavement, a silent prayer for him, wherever he was. “So what do we do now? No doubt Vincent told the Mirellis our location.” “Well, we could go back to the city,” Niko suggested, pausing under a street lamp. “Try to get back to my father before they kill us, or...” “Or what?” Lila raised an eyebrow. Shrugging, Niko glanced up at her. “Or we could just disappear for a while. What suburb is this?” “Ede Valley, I think.” “That’s as good a place as any.” Niko smiled, though his eyes remained dull. “Sounds like fun, right? You and me, fugitives on the run?” She nodded. “Oddly enough, yes.” “Better not get too used to it. When all’s said and done, we might not want to go back.” “Perhaps not, young master,” Lila chuckled. They were silent again for a moment, the weight of the night slowly landing on their shoulders as they thought of what transpired. But they couldn’t just stand there forever, could they. And so they started walking. Just where, they didn’t really know, and Lila really didn’t care. Right now, all she wanted was to just disappear into the cold, quiet night.

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