Mari awoke in a bed that wasn't hers.
For a second the cold grip of fear grasped at her skin, and she felt her body go rigid where she lay. The bedding next to her moved slightly, and a familiar head of bright green hair and the curve of a back covered in tattoos brought back the memories of the previous night. Damn, she'd been drunk last night. She pulled the covers off of her slightly, the warm morning air feeling good on her skin.
There was a buzz from the floor and the rest of Mari's responsibilities come flooding back to her.
Mari sat up, pushing off the covers as quietly as she could, and felt around on the floor for her pants, pulling her phone out of the back pocket. It was already noon, so she had some time before she had to get to Westside. Mari unlocked her phone to find seven texts and three missed calls from Joven. Mari swore quietly, and began pulling on her clothes, barely buttoning her pants, and her shirt barely on her body before slipping out through the door.
She scrawled a lazy note on a scrap piece of paper, making sure the fives in her number looked likes sixes, and the ones looked like sevens, and one of the nines looked like a five, until her whole number was impossible to get right. It was her trick. She didn't want to give him her number, but she did want to be the strange encounter he'd talk about one day. One of the ones that got away.
Even if he did happen to get her number correct, she wasn't going to answer, and if she did, she'd probably be half-past drunk at two am, and up for anything.
Mari stepped out of the man's apartment and into an empty hallway, dialing Joven's number and pressing the call button. He picked up on the second ring, just as she started down the stairs at the end of the hall.
"Hey, where the hell are you?"
"Some guy's apartment."
"You fucked that gangster wannabe?"
"Yeah," Mari grumbled as she descended the stairs. "The sex was ass at first, but I topped and then it was great." She laughed loudly as Joven grumbled 'gross' under his breath. "Sorry for ditching you and Western yesterday, I thought you two might want some privacy to chat."
"Bullshit." She could hear him grinning on the other line. "You were horny so you left."
"You're not wrong!" Mari cackled. She pushed the door open in front of her and stepped out into the cold morning air. Mari held her phone loosely to her ear, taking a second to figure out where she was. She squinted at the nearest street sign, and grinned, realizing that she was on the right side of town. "So were you just calling me a buncha times 'cause you were worried about me, or did that Matt Raub guy get back to you?"
"I was a little worried, but I knew you'd be up by noon, so I didn't worry that much."
"Aww, Jovie." Mari walked down the street a while until she came upon a line of restaurants open for late brunch. "You really do have heart."
Joven cleared his throat, and moved on. "The Bratstvo Medvedya got back to us. They're sending someone over at three. Can you get home by then?"
"Yeah sure." Mari grinned to herself as she pushed open the door to a tiny diner she recognized. "I think me and the twenty-one-pilots reject are gonna go for another round, so don't expect me back too soon, okay?"
"Once again, gross, but alright."
Mari pushed the phone into as she grabbed a seat at the front counter. A middle-aged waitress in the stereotypical blue and white striped outfit took her order: a black coffee, bacon, eggs, and hashbrowns. Mari looked around for something to do in her spare time. The box television hanging from the ceiling on the edge of the wall caught her attention. It was turned on to Channel 5 News, where a story was being investigated, the kind of one that was normally overly dramatic and scripted to put the viewer on edge. Mari hated those kinds of pieces, but she watched anyway. The audio was fuzzy, but it was just loud enough for her to hear.
"Though the story is still developing, authorities have brought forth new evidence that supports the claims." The news anchor, a women who might've once been beautiful, but now looked fake, with caked on makeup and hair with enough product in it to kill a small animal, read from the teleprompter. "Joseph Loisoz-" the name sent a spiraling chill down Mari's spine- "renowned for being Los Santos's most prolific gang leader-" Joven would've hated that- "has been confirmed dead as of this morning."
Mari's body went cold. She couldn't move, her hand poised over her phone as she continued watching.
"Authorities searched an abandoned building off of an anonymous tip, and found evidence that Loisoz died inside the house. They have yet to recover a body, or find any evidence towards who the killer might be, but the local police and state troopers have been called in to work the case."
"Order up." Mari reached towards her belt, grasping for a gun that wasn't there. She turned towards the waitress, who looked back at her bored and confused. "Somethin' wrong hon?"
"No...No." She gave the waitress her best fake smile. "Just a little tired."
"Long night?" The waitress gave her a toothy grin.
"The longest," Mari sighed.
Mari looked down at her food, not quite sure that she could eat with her stomach churning. An anonymous tip. She felt the hairs on her arm stand on end. Somebody sent an anonymous tip about where I'd been squatting. Somebody knows what I did. Joven was the only one who knew...except for-
Joven had said that he called in backup to help clean up the scene. Mari would figure that out later. For now, she was safe. The police were stupid enough, she had at least three weeks before they got anywhere in the case. By then she could have her identity wiped from the world if she wanted. Being a ghost might be fun. She'd been a mercenary once, why not try it again?
She looked back up to the tv, but saw that they had moved on to chronicalling Loisoz's life, and she knew most of that stuff already. Hang around Boze enough and you learn a thing or two about the truth of the crime world. Mari missed that about Boze.
Mari tried to eat her breakfast, but it didn't taste as good with the new worries in the back of her mind.
She set down fifteen bucks on the counter and headed out the door, walking towards the Westside Bridge, which was about a four or five blocks from where she was. Mari checked the time, she had about a half hour before she had to be there, so she took her time walking, savoring the morning air. You got used to the smell of piss and pigeon shit after a while, and Mari wondered if she could ever live life without it.
She'd grown up on these streets, they'd been some of the only comfort she'd known for several years of her life.
Mari wished that she'd brought a coat with as she rubbed the back of her arms. Los Santos managed to get somewhat cold during the winter, of course, not as cold as some other places, but it still managed to let her breath hang in the air and the sky grow dark with clouds, threatening to rain, but never making good on the promise.
It was easy to forget that she'd grown up on the Westside. She'd lived all over the city, but her first few years were spent in a little apartment crowded with at least ten people at all times. She'd loved the atmosphere it had, all of the people moving and shifting, laughing and crying, living life through the most explosive of emotions. As she got older, she started to resent all of the noise and people in her life. She craved that little whisper of silence that never seemed to be able to survive, trampled under the feet of all of those who ran through that apartment.
Mari had often wondered what he life would've been like if she hadn't run away that day. If she had reconciled with her step-brother and step-mom, instead of packing all of her things into a bag and heading for the streets. If she had taken a left instead of a right, how would her life have changed? Maybe she would've been a dancer, moved to New York, or maybe she'd have gone back to Japan to visit her grandparents, if they were still alive, and studied to become a translator or something.
Now she was going to meet a drug dealer underneath a bridge so that she could make small talk with a mafia boss without collapsing.
She could smell the smoke before she saw him. He was always smoking. Mari crossed the road to meet him under the bridge, where he was leaned up against the cement foot, hidden away in the crevice that was shielded from cameras or anyone that happened to be passing by.
"You look like shit," he grinned, pulling the cigarette away from his mouth. "You must'a had fun night last night."
"Fuck off Sohinki." Mari smiled as she leaned on the wall across from him. "You don't look too great yourself." In reality, he looked exactly the same as the last time she'd seen him. The same hollow eyes that were too big for his face, the scraggly beard that was cut close to his chin, and the familiar three hundred layers of clothing covered by the coat that was three sizes too big on him. He held the cigarette between his fingers, the skin that wasn't covered up by his green-grey fingerless gloves was a pink-grey from the ash.
"Swore you were dead Takahashi," Sohinki accented his words with a jab of the cigarette. "Legs said you were dead."
"Legs is an idiot and a pothead, why the hell do you believe anything he says?"
"He's a good kisser."
"So was I." Mari raised an eyebrow, giving Sohinki a smirk. "And I'm not a very truthful person, am I?"
"Nope." Sohinki put the cigarette in his mouth and dug through his pockets, looking for her order. He grinned up at her, his teeth a worrying shade of yellow. "So, where've you been since you went all crazy? I heard that you sliced up one of your friends like a side of beef and then ran off."
"I didn't-" Mari's voice went cold. "She's fine."
Sohinki put his hands up. "Aye, I ain't tryin' to start a fight here." His cigarette hung loose from his lips, smoke wafting out the corners of his mouth. "I'm just tryin'a get the facts straight." He tried a different pocket, digging around for the bottle. "Where did ya go that whole time?"
"I hid out on a old friend's houseboat for a while, but I ran out of the H pretty quick, so I moved to a den for a while after that."
"And I'm guessin' all of this had nothing to do with those four shitheads that just got out of prison?" He tried another coat pocket. "And the fact that they've all gone missin', and no one can find their bodies?"
"I'm here for product Sohinki, not conversation."
"A-ight, I get it, no talkin' about ya personal life." He scratched the back of his head. "Or multiple possible homicides."
"What about you?" Mari cut him with her eyes. "You had someone else deliver my stuff for a little while, why was that?"
"So you can ask me questions, but I can't ask you shit?" He took a drag on his cigarette. "Unfair Takahashi, un-fair."
"Shut it Sohin, you love talking about yourself."
"And ya lucky I do," he grinned, pulling a small bottle out of the last possible pocket. "Cause then our conversations are never borin'."
"It's a steal Takahashi, plus a friend discount, don't make me make you pay 150."
"It used to be 75."
"That's when we were fuckin'. And we're clearly not-" he gave her a smirk- "unless."
"No." Mari ran a hand through her hair. "Not making that mistake again."
"Fine. Here’s the 125." She slapped a thick wad of cash into his open palm, taking the bottle from the other. Mari bit her lip slightly as she pocketed the bottle. "Thanks."
"No prob." Sohinki cocked his head, pulling the cigarette out from between his lips. "Ya sure that you can do this?"
"Do what?" Mari looked back at him.
"You're tryin'a get clean, right?" He rolled his eyes when she gave him a blank expression. "I know ya Takahashi. You do this every time, ya say you're gettin' clean, and then you come back for more the next month."
"It's gonna stick this time."
"I have something to fight for this time."
"And you didn't before?"
"It's different this time." A breeze from a truck whipping by the underpass sent goosebumps over Mari's skin. "I have an idea of the future. My past isn't going to hold me back anymore. There's nothing holding me down anymore that I can't break." She turned back to him, nodding firmly. "I can do this."
"Well good luck Takahashi." He took one final drag on the cigarette before throwing it onto the ground and stamping it out. Sohinki exhaled a lungful of smoke, letting it hang around his face. "See ya around Mari."
Sohinki turned away, and Mari stood where she was as the smoke dissipated. She felt for the bottle in her pocket, running her finger over the top, the familiar cold of the metal made the inside of her elbow ache. Mari looked up at the underside of the bridge, listening to the hum of cars as they rumbled across. She couldn't help but feel so small in that moment, like a drop within an ocean of people. A pinprick of blood that had fallen between the cracks of the sidewalk after a fight, and been left to dry, crackling and black.
In that moment, something inside of her shifted. There was so much fear locked away in the pit of her stomach. So much hurt that made her want to cry, and cry, and cry, and never stop. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, as she tried to get her heart beat under control.
She had work to do. There wasn't room for doubt in this sort of project. She closed her eyes, and let her mind go blank. She let all of her anger and fear and worry root itself into the ground. Mari pushed out everything, letting it tumble to the ground. She pushed out the noise, and the light, and the smells of the street, and the cold of the breeze on her skin until all she could feel was the darkness that slept in the corners of her mind.
She didn't know how long she had stood there, but it was long enough.
Mari turned towards home, trying to pretend that she was okay.