Mazu was an outline against the stars and moon, a cutout against a night sky so bright that the grit on the surface of the rooftop glinted all the way to the edge of my vision. It was quiet up here; the sounds of a New Washington Christmas were too far below to reach the skyline where we now stood. The wind was bitter knives against my face, forming an odd duet of sensation to the familiar humming tingle of my Bulletshield. Mazu still stood impassively. I knew it was Mazu because I could make out the outline of his Gauntlets against the sky, a pair of massive hunks of finely machined Plasteel that have dealt more death in the past year than I have in my entire career.

The shadow's legs moved together, merging into a single connection to the ground as the figure's weight shifted. Mazu was moving toward me. I changed my stance, planting my right boot at an angle in front of me and leaning back slightly. My hand drifted to the hilt of my katana and stayed there, not tensed but ready to draw at a moment's notice. The silhouette grew as it approached me, and when it was just beyond the reach of my blade I tensed and gripped my katana's hilt.

Mazu stopped moving. I could see his face now, his dark eyes staring out at me from a face framed in shoulder-length hair that he was cocky enough never to tie back. Mazu had always been stylish that way; I figured he would end up a Shadowflame one day. I had hoped that it would happen before we ended up on opposite sides of a contract. Ah well.

It seemed like a full minute before either of us moved or spoke. There was a change in Mazu's face; I could tell he was smiling a bit. "So it is you. Too bad," he said in a quiet but rough tone.

"Too bad?" I responded.

"Not looking forward to killing you," Mazu said. Sounded a bit like he actually meant it.

"Why not?"

"You're cute," he said, only partially joking.

I gritted my teeth. "I don't date your gender, Mazu."

"Ah," Mazu said regretfully. "Guess I don't feel so bad then." One gauntleted arm snapped up, pointed at me. I heard the heavy slam of machinery and barely had time to duck.

I jerked away, but not in time. A searing pain burst from my cheek as one of Mazu's Tears tore through it, blazing by too slow to be stopped by my Bulletshield but too fast for me to bring up my sword to block it.

My sword was out of its scabbard at once, tracing a deadly silver arc through the air toward Mazu. He moved deftly and simply and caught it on the back of his gauntlet; the noise of their collision split the air. I did not cease my attack, but stepped backward as I brought the sword about and brought it toward Mazu. He expressionlessly caught the blade on the side of his gauntlet and shoved, pushing me backward and nearly causing me to lose my balance. I took a harried step to the side just in time to avoid four of Mazu's Tears as they fired in a fan-shaped pattern from his gauntlet, embedding themselves in the rooftop where I had just stood.

I skipped to the side to regain my balance and focus, trying to ignore the burning sensation of the cold wind against the cut on my cheek, which was bleeding more than I expected it to. The blood against my face turned cold very fast.

Mazu wheeled toward me and fired a pair of Tears, one after the other. I was ready this time and met each one with my blade, knocking them from the air with a pair of clashes that rang through the air as I stepped forward. Mazu was not ready for my strike; he staggered backward to avoid my sword as it cleft the space he had just inhabited. The next swipe, delivered overhand, he barely deflected with a gauntlet. I saw an opening in his deteriorating defense and moved in, but I was too hasty; Mazu brought his free hand up and struck the katana, knocking it away. He lunged forward with his last bit of balance and hit me hard in the shoulder with his free gauntlet. The Tears mounted on the gauntlet cut heavily into my jacket with the blow, but I pulled away with only a scratch.

I could see that Mazu had not expected me to recover as quickly as I had from his attacks; I could not give him time to adapt to my reflexes. My sword came down in a powerful but telegraphed blow, which Mazu was easily ready for. He lifted both gauntlets, hands open, and literally caught the blade. I could see a small smile on his face, knowing that I would not be able to free the weapon from his better strength.

I released the sword and reached behind me, drawing a pair of Dai-Sho Tanto .38 mini-pistols. Mazu, whose face registered shock upon seeing the well-concealed guns he had not thought were there, barely had time to drop the sword before I began firing. He stopped a few bullets with his gauntlets and shielded his face, but at least six bullets landed solidly against his armor before he was able to find cover behind an exposed heating duct.

He would be winded; now was my chance. I holstered one gun and grabbed my katana with the now-freed hand. I ran toward the duct just in time to see Mazu make a flying leap over to the next building. I cursed. I couldn't let him get away now; his next attack would be better prepared and I would not be able to leave. Nevertheless, following him would mean...

I had to risk it.

I broke into a strong run toward the edge of the building just as Mazu turned around. I knew what would come next, but could do little to stop it as I began my own leap, the cold wind biting into my cheek's wound and the jarred bones of my hands.

Mazu raised his hands; then began the rain of Tears.

Both of my hands whirled into action, batting away Tears with both the gun and sword as best as I could manage, but I could do only so much under the full focus of Mazu's attack. I felt a sharp spike in my side as a Tear cut it, then my arm. My head was then shocked by a jarring blow as a Tear struck it straight on, ripping a wide gash in my forehead and summoning a starry landscape to my vision that had nothing to do with the night. I flailed helplessly, trying to stop Mazu's Tears from continuing to damage me, but I could not see anymore to anticipate them. I felt more and more blows against my body as I was struck by Tear after Tear. There was a sudden blow against my entire body as I hit the roof, unready to break my own fall. Everything went black.

When I woke up, snow was falling from the starry sky. My body hurt all over, but I could feel that there was a bandage on my forehead. I slowly tried to sit up and was eventually successful, though my body was wracked with pain. A piece of paper fluttered from my chest to the ground. I picked it up. It read:

"Better luck on your next contract.

Merry Christmas. Mazu."

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This vignette by Dog.