The Hero's Shadow
Before going to the hotel where the Profaci family was waiting for Roisin, they first went back to her own hotel to make the necessary arrangements to have her luggage, including the many things she’d bought the previous day, taken to the station. As they were leaving again, they were surprised to meet Roland on the street jogging from the direction of Central Park.
“What are you doing here, shouldn’t you be enjoying a feast with your idol or something?” Manfred asked.
Roland maintained a solemn look as he replied, “I promised to protect miss O’Donnell during her stay and I do not intend to shirk that duty for any celebration.”
“Well I certainly feel safe under your guard. That was quite an impressive display, mister Ward,” Roisin said with a laugh. He withered shyly from her praise.
The group piled into a taxi and headed downtown. Rather than one of the new and opulent hotels, their destination was oddly quaint, even a bit rundown. Manfred imagined that if they were here harboring a sickened elder, the mafiosos were probably trying to go unnoticed lest some rival faction take the opportunity to launch an attack.
In fact, it was a testament to just how stable the underworld gangs had become since the end of their recent war and the establishment of the Commission that the Profaci had turned to outsiders for help. He had never asked Roisin for such in depth knowledge of the criminal world, but she had often spoken of such things in the past. The gangsters were hard for him to truly despise, though he found them distasteful. They were like wolves, merely natural predators in a cruel world.
Inside the lobby, the four were met by a pair of rough looking characters. Burly thugs who exuded rude auras of virya as they brandished unnatural looking weapons, Manfred was unsure if the two were knights or not. They were obviously there to evaluate anyone who entered the hotel and turn away those whose presence the Profaci family had not approved.
“What do we have here, a school field trip? I think you kids must be lost. Beat it.”
“Did the boss not tell you to expect Roisin O’Donnell? Some welcome this is,” she snarled back at the goon who had spoken up.
He stuttered while saying, “My apologies, miss. We have been expecting you.”
There was an awkward halting from the two before the other gangster asked, “Could we get you to confirm your identity? We’re under orders to check everyone coming in.”
“Confirm my…is this good enough for you?” she shot back angrily while summoning and brandishing her thorned whip. Nervous, but satisfied with that evidence, the lackeys indicated the elevator and began to lead the way. However, when all four of their group started to follow, they abruptly stopped and resumed aggressive posturing.
“We’re expecting the little miss here and that’s it. I don’t know what you kids are hanging around for, but you sure as Sol aren’t coming up.”
“These are my bodyguards, they will be accompanying me.”
“No way, O’Donnell, we’re taking you to the bosses alone. Nobody said nothing about bodyguards.”
The apparent leader of the pair took a step toward Roisin and in response, both Roland and Volta stepped forward to place themselves between her and the thugs. Manfred let out an annoyed groan.
“Taking me? How about I walk out of here right now and you tell your bosses that you drove off the guest they invited to fix up the old man?” Although she shouted about leaving, she seemed more eager to pile in with her other protectors and pound the men into dust.
The sentries were shaken by her words, but this only caused them to double down on their aggression in an attempt to cow the students before them into submission. They leaned in, tempers and virya flaring. Manfred had to commend them on being so courageous as to stand in opposition to Roland whose radiating presence dwarfed their own.
Or perhaps they were simply so incompetent as to be unable to tell that they were outgunned. Either way, a brawl seemed inevitable. Roland was not one to back down once provoked by someone whose character he did not respect and even the normally stoic Volta appeared to have been infected with Roisin’s outrage. She laid her hand on the hilt of Lux de Fatales.
“I hear something loud down there that sounds a whole lot like idiocy. Antonio, Vito!?”
A stern voice sounded out from the staircase, heralding the arrival of a well dressed gentleman. From the authority in his voice and the assured manner with which he descended the stairs, it was immediately apparent that this was a made man. Manfred thanked whatever lucky star had brought someone to intervene before he was forced to do so himself.
“Firenze, that lady we’re waiting for showed up but she’s trying to take a whole entourage up to the room.”
The senior gangster appraised the four of them with sharp eyes, then said in an amiable tone, “I am sorry about this whole mess. Please forgive the boys for being a bit on edge; it’s a tense time for us. Unfortunately I can’t allow all of you to go in, we’ve already got a bit of crowd in there and not much extra space. Do you think it’d be fine if just one of your friends comes along?”
His willingness to make a compromise so easily spoke volumes to the importance being placed on Roisin’s intervention. After thinking over his proposal, she turned to Manfred and smiled. She called out pleasantly, all traces of her previous agitation gone, “Yes, that will do.” Roisin wound her whip into a tight loop around her hand, unharmed by its thorns.
Together, they followed Firenze to the elevator and he politely pulled the metal gate open for them. The two goons and two black clad students remaining in the lobby maintained a pugilistic tension with each other.
Before the elevator car rose away from the scene, Roisin called out in a cheery voice, “If those two give you any trouble, feel free to raze this place to the ground.” Manfred cursed the woman’s capricious encouragement, but he noted that the older man cracked a smile.
They traveled up to the third floor, then walked down the hall passing a dozen identical rooms. He was surprised that the family had not placed their elder in a luxury suite or some other such special room, but here he would certainly be hard to find. At room 326, Firenze stopped and rapped on the door with a distinctive pattern of knocks.
The door swung open, the two youths entered as their guide bade them before he stepped in behind them and quietly closed the door. He hadn’t been lying about a crowd; the room was almost jammed with senior gangsters and other associates. It took some time for the men to shuffle around enough to open a path by which they could approach the bed at the center of attention.
The only person in the room who was seated was a doctor at the bedside who busied himself checking on the patient propped up on a rampart of pillows. Manfred did not wish to inquire, of Roisin or anyone else, who it was exactly that they had come to see, but he assumed that it must be a retired family head. Now, the man in the bed looked like any ordinary old prune struggling at death’s door.
He cast his gaze about noting the tense looks of the assembled observers. Were it not for their hope in the form of Roisin, they would surely be part of a final vigil at this point. Suddenly, he was struck with a worry of his own. He thought that maybe, just maybe, they had lied to the O’Donnells about what sort of illness was troubling the old man.
Suppose she took on some horrendous disease and was immediately laid low, unable to strike some other target with her ergaleion. He searched the faces of the others in the room more frantically, looking for the smallest clue of treachery. A reassuring hand came to rest on his shoulder; Firenze spoke softly.
“I’d like to introduce Roisin O’Donnell, not that she needs an introduction here.” A wave of murmurs rolled through the room, greetings and thanks offered to the young lady. Firenze continued, directing his words to her now, “Well we don’t intend to keep you here any longer than you have to be. You can start whenever you’re ready. Once you’ve transferred the flu to yourself, I’d be happy to take it from you.”
“No thanks, I have something else in mind,” she remarked with just a touch of strain in her voice. Roisin turned toward Manfred with a sheepish grin while holding up her coiled whip. “What would you say to bringing out yours and taking care of this for me?”
Having thought she might go down this route or one similar to it, he had already resigned himself to being the likely recipient of the flu. He tersely said, “If you order me to do so…”
She sighed and stepped forward, muttering to him, “And what if I only asked?”
The watchers held their breath as she prepared to work her magic. It was a rather anti-climatic event: Roisin simply tapped the old man’s arm with her ergaleion. The very next moment, his breathing changed for the better. Gone was the sickly rattle, replaced by a deep, untroubled exhale.
Seeing the elder cured, the rest of the men in the room exhaled freely as well. A few quiet cheers broke out. Within seconds, some of the color was returning to the patient’s face. Manfred turned his attention to Roisin. She still seemed fine.
“You have my utmost gratitude,” one of the men standing nearby said with heartfelt appreciation. “The Profaci family will remember what you’ve done for us today. Would you like to sit down and rest now?”
“No thank you, I do have a train to catch.” Her voice had become just a bit hoarse.
“Very well. Firenze, please escort miss O’Donnell to the lobby and have one of the boys bring a car around.”
As they followed their guide from the room, the old man slipped into a peaceful sleep. In the hallway, Roisin wrapped her arms around one of Manfred’s and supported herself on his shoulder. He could feel the heat of a fever in her touch.
“I’ll split half of that illness with you, if you want,” he whispered as they got in the elevator.
She shook her head, a muted gesture lacking her usual energy. “Then I wouldn’t have an excuse to annoy you like this.”
Luckily, the lobby had not become a battlefield. Roland and Volta dropped their mutual antagonism of Antonio and Vito to crowd around Roisin with concern. Firenze excused himself to prepare a car for them.
“Are you okay?” Roland asked.
She chuckled and replied, “I’m not some old geezer. A few nights of rest and I’ll be right as rain.”
“Do you wish to stay here longer? I’m sure Camilla would be happy to accommodate you at the Verona estate.”
Roisin shook her head again, more strongly this time. “No, I really do need to return soon. There’s something I must attend to back home.”
They were left with nothing else but to accept her determination. The four piled into the car brought for them by Firenze, who personally drove them uptown to Grand Central Station. Roisin remained silent the entire way there, resting on Manfred’s shoulder with her eyes closed. When they arrived, the mafioso thanked her again and left them there amid the busy crowds.
“Mister Ward, why don’t you head back to the park and go enjoy whatever festivities remain to be enjoyed, okay? I’m sure the others can see me to the train from here without issue.”
He looked at her while seriously mulling over her words. After a little while, he ruffled his hair bashfully and said, “If you say so.” The two exchanged farewells and Roland charged off toward the academy.
“You really do need to teach that boy how to suppress his virya,” Roisin complained to Manfred. “Having him nearby when I already have a headache is just miserable.” Turning to Volta, she asked, “Say, could you run to that store counter and buy me some aspirin?”
Volta nodded resolutely and set off to fight her way through the masses. Roisin and Manfred watched her go, silent for a few moments.
Roisin finally spoke, her voice full of wonder. “I never would have imagined this would be the crowd you ended up hanging around.”
“Yeah, well, all sorts of convenient things have fallen into my lap. I’m just coasting along taking advantage of the fortune that comes my way.”
“Well, if she ends up rejecting you, I’ll be waiting back home for you.”
“What are you saying!?” he exclaimed, embarrassed.
The flame-haired woman laughed in a care-free way which made it sound as though she had already recovered from her inherited flu. They both brooded as another silence fell between them. Manfred could not find the words to convey how he felt, nor how he didn’t feel. She spoke first again.
“You’ve lost your edge.”
Unsure of what qualities she was even measuring in him, he asked, “What do you mean by that?”
“Do you know why I accepted your original invitation for a date? You’re the only person who didn’t look at me with a sycophant’s eyes or the leering and envious stare of a common beast. You looked at me the same way you looked at everyone else, as if you were hiding a dagger behind your back and expected the same from whoever you might meet. You’ve lost your edge; these friends have softened you.”
Were they friends? Had he thought of them as such even once yet? He did not say it, but he wasn’t sure that he even knew how to define the term.
“I won’t lose sight of what I already know. The only reason it seems that I’m not hiding a dagger behind my back now is that I’m holding it out in front for the world to see. I don’t intend to be taken in by anyone’s game. Not theirs, not anybody’s.”
Roisin looked off into the distance beyond the walls of the station, toward the park wherein twin academies stood. With an air of uncertainty she said, “Those two, they’re gathering momentum. Someday, they’re going to the top, or perhaps the bottom. Do you think you have what it takes to swim against that current?”
He bore his determination for her to see. It was enough, or at least enough to make her smile.
“I guess there’s just one last thing. Hold out your hand.”
A tendril of energy flowed from her arm, materializing as a vine-like whip wrapped around her hand. Gently, but with the force of purpose, she knocked her shrouded hand against his outstretched hand. Manfred braced himself, expecting to be assaulted by disease. But it seemed as though nothing had happened, so he looked at her in confusion.
Her smile widened into a savage grin. “Did you think I was going to pass this flu on to you? No way, I’m taking it straight back to my father. Why do you think I’m rushing home?” They both laughed together.
The time had come for them to part ways. At last he could say what he had been trying to find a way to express. “You know, I really am…” he began, but realized that there was no need for him to finish. “Have a safe journey back. Goodbye, Roisin.”
“Take care of yourself, Manfred.”
What she had taken from him and what she transferred to him in its place, he understood then. There was no longer a weight on his shoulders when he stood in front of her and met her gaze. However, deep in his chest he felt something like an ephemeral pin prick, a wound which was so close to being healed that all that was left was the raw, pink skin exposed by the scab peeling away.
Volta returned in time to give Roisin her aspirin and say her own good bye. The two women exchanged mailing addresses, conspiring to begin their own exchange of letters as friends and supporters of Camilla. The blonde girl was clearly excited to have met a new ally.
The two black-clad students watched Roisin board her train, their mission successful. As she disappeared from sight, waving to them over her shoulder, the pin prick in his chest throbbed once and then was gone forevermore.
Manfred turned to Volta and asked, “So, should we head back to the academy or would you rather avoid whatever troublesome party awaits us there?”
She ran her fingers through her blonde hair, her face drawing taut into a grimace as she imagined the mayhem that usually accompanied the exhibition matches amplified by the confluence of the two duelists who happened to be so popular with their peers.
After releasing her tensions with a sigh, Volta turned to him with an awkward smile. "Have you ever been to the natural history museum over on Central Park West?"
He shook his head, prompting her to suggest that they shelter themselves from the storm there for a few hours. Museums weren't really an interest of his, but he did wish to avoid returning and he did not mind Volta's company.
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