“Senpai,” Rena says. “Are those two really friends?”
Natsumi looks up from the dishes; Rena is watching the GetBackers, on the other side of the cafe. They’re squabbling over the last pieces of sushi from their last order, with Ginji clinging steadfastly to Ban’s arm and ignoring the threats of leggo you damn eel before I skin you and they’ve been at that stalemate for nearly half an hour. No one else is in the cafe except for Paul in the back.
“Of course they’re friends,” Natsumi says. “Why wouldn’t they be?”
For a moment Rena’s knuckles go white on her dishcloth. “It just seems that they’re very … close?”
“Boys are like that,” Natsumi says wisely, with knowledge gleaned from two years of high school. “Well, boys like those two, anyway!” She looks at Rena’s pale face and adds, more gently now, “If it really bothers you, we can ask them to leave.”
Rena ducks her head a little. “Umm,” she says. “I’m all right. I was just curious. If they were really friends or not.”
“They’re the best of friends!” Natsumi says, glowing with the force of her smile. On the other side of the Honky Tonk, Ginji is in the process of electrocuting Ban with one hand, holding the nearly-empty platter of sushi over his head with the other, and Ban is threatening all sorts of horrible things and trying to get his sunglasses off, spitting mad.
“… Friends,” Rena says doubtfully. “Right.”
Next she asks the master. It’s not really in her nature to trust men she only scarcely knows — but Wan Paul reminds her more of her father than any other man, and whenever they are alone together, he makes sure to keep at least a good two feet between them at all times. Rena is grateful for this, and she uses her gratitude for the past six months to cobble up the courage to ask: “Are the GetBackers really friends?”
Paul’s eyebrows go up, but his glasses don’t slip any. “Well,” he says. “That’s a strange question.”
She flushes and drops her eyes, knotting her fingers in her apron. “It’s just strange,” she mumbles. “They always argue, or Midou-san is hitting Amano-san, or Amano-san is yelling at Midou-san …”
Paul slides a cup of coffee at her. She starts and looks back up at him.
“About those two,” he says. “Maybe it’s not friendship that goes smoothly, but it’s friendship that says you’re never alone.”
Rena picks up her cup, but doesn’t drink. “Never alone?”
“The ‘S’ in GetBackers means you’re never alone,” Paul says, and something in his voice gives her pause. Remiel was an angel of silences, and she’d taught Rena to listen well.
“Master,” she says, “did you also–”
He smiles cryptically. “It’ll take more than an argument to break those two up,” he says. “I wouldn’t worry too much.”
The next time Kadsuki comes in (and Rena likes him, with his long hair and pretty face, and the smell of night-jasmine that is all around him), she almost asks. Natsumi has told her, and Remiel has whispered to her, and she knows Kadsuki and Ginji are friends. She’s pretty sure he could explain.
But her nerve fails her and she just mumbles the route greeting and thanks when he pays her and leaves.
Then one night, as she’s getting ready for bed: she hears loud heavy pounding at the locked doors of the Honky Tonk; a moment later, Ginji is yelling for the master. Rena creeps along the stairs enough to peek and watches as Paul flies past her, unlocking the door so both of the GetBackers tumble inside. She hears the master whistle: “Ah, you two get into all sorts of trouble, don’t you?”
“It could have been worse,” Ginji says; now that he’s inside, he sounds less panicked. “I mean, Ban-chan could have taken them on his own! But he was already sort of drunk, so I guess he didn’t see the guy coming up from behind — that’s cheating, you know, sneaking up on a drunk man!” Then he considers. “Ahh, Ban-chan lost, I can’t believe it!”
He sounds indignant; Rena leans further to try and peek at his face. Paul notices her then, and beckons. She freezes, then forces herself to move down the stairs, clinging to the banister the whole way. For a moment she continues to hesitate, though Ginji’s smile is very kind when he sees her.
“Sorry, Rena-chan,” he says. “Did we wake you?”
She swallows and shakes her head. “No …”
He smiles then, quick and friendly, then readjusts Ban’s weight: he’s pulled one of his partner’s arms across his own shoulders, and Ban’s head hangs forward. He looks almost helpless now, dark hair limp. Rena leans forward. She only saw part of his fight against Sariel, but she remembers well the weight and terrifying presence when he fights seriously, and the creeping reptilian cold of Aesculapius’ presence close by.
“He’ll be all right,” Ginji tells her, misinterpreting her curious look. “Ban-chan’s taken bigger hits than this. … even if he did lose.”
“–‘re you callin’ a loser, y’goddamn eel!” Ban jerks up and then sways wildly, and Rena shies back automatically. Ban’s free arm pinwheels for a moment, but he can’t seem to break away from Ginji enough to punch him, and so settles for peering at him instead.
“Wossit,” he says. “Where?”
“We’re at the Honky Tonk, Ban-chan,” Ginji keeps his voice gentle. “We were at the bar, remember? We came here after.”
“Oh.” Ban squints. “Whossa?”
“Rena-chan, Ban-chan. You remember Rena-chan, right? She works here now.”
Ban grunts, then shakes his head. “Y’dun need t’patronize me, y’damn eel …”
Rena isn’t sure where Ban is misinterpreting kindness as patronizing, but Ginji at least seems unconcerned by the insult. If anything, he looks a little relieved by it.
“Of course not, Ban-chan.”
“Well,” Paul says, and he has a blanket draped over his arm, which startles Rena — it means he left her alone with the GetBackers at one point, and she didn’t even notice — “now that we’ve got location settled, how about getting Ban to bed? It’s the back for you two, the guest room is Rena-chan’s room now.”
“Hey,” Ban slurs. “Fuck you, old man, you don’t treat me like that either …”
“Ginji, you can take care of this joker, right?” Paul hands him the blankets, and Rena takes the opportunity to duck out of the way.
Ginji smiles. “I always do,” he says, with simple straightforward honesty. It takes him a bit of juggling with Ban in one arm and the blankets in the other, but then he says, cheerful, “Let’s go, Ban-chan,” and they stagger towards the Honky Tonk’s small back room. They’re not entirely successful in coordinating their movements, and a few times Rena thinks they’re just going to fall, but somehow they make it, and Ginji gives a brief wave good-night before closing the door.
“They’ll be fine,” Paul tells her. “As long as they clean up after themselves.”
Rena hesitates. “Master …”
“Hmm? Something up, Rena-chan?”
She looks down at her feet. She takes a deep breath. “Those two,” she says. “The GetBackers. What you said before … they’re not friends, are they.”
“Well.” Paul’s eyebrows lift. “I suppose that depends on what you mean when you say they aren’t friends.”
“They fight so much,” she whispers. “They fight more than I did with the other angels, and they were just my allies, not my friends. They fight and they only seem to get along when the money is good — but Senpai was saying how they’re good friends, they’re the best of friends, and–”
“Rena-chan,” Paul says, his voice patient, “you see things differently than Natsumi-chan does. So when you look at them, what do you see?”
She bit her lip and dug at the floor with the toe of one slipper. “… I don’t know,” she mumbles. “It’s not. It isn’t really friendship, though.”
“No,” the master agrees. “They’re not quite.” He pushes his sunglasses up — why he’s wearing them so late at night, Rena suddenly wants to ask as well, though she manages to refrain. “It’s a sort of bond that doesn’t have to make sense, as long as it exists.” He glances at the back door. “You’re a smart girl, I’m sure you understand.”
“Then …” Rena thinks for a moment before, blushingly, she lifts her pinky. “Like — this?”
Paul’s eyebrows shoot higher. “I don’t want to know where a girl like you learned sign language like that,” he says. “But pretty much. It’s a little different — don’t do that.” He reaches out, slowly, and Rena watches with narrowed eyes as he covers her hand with his, folding her pinky back down. “When you were Remiel, you had comrades you fought with, right?”
Rena nods, looking at their hands. “People you fight with,” she whispered. “People you die with.”
There’s a silence; when she looks up, she’s surprised to see Paul smiling at her.
“Closer,” he says. “But rather than someone you die with, it’s more someone you die for.”
The next morning, early, Rena creeps downstairs. Outside the first blush of dawn has faded into the steely gray of an overcast day. She walks on the balls of her feet, mouse-quiet, as Remiel taught her to do, and she opens the door to the back room, also quiet.
To her surprise, Ginji is awake; he looks up and blinks at her. Then he smiles, sudden and spontaneous, and she sees that Ban is lying with his head in Ginji’s lap.
“Shh,” he says. “Ban-chan’s still asleep, Rena-chan, but we’ll be out before the Honky Tonk opens, okay?”
Mutely she looks at him. He has one hand tangled in Ban’s hair — not petting, but woven in, his palm flat to the vulnerable curve of skull. Ban’s glasses have been taken off and set aside, and Rena would have expected a fighter like him to start awake at the slightest noise — but he’s still fast asleep. He may (and this could just be a trick of the light) be smiling a little.
“Rena-chan?” Ginji’s voice is still soft. “Is there something wrong?”
She looks at him again, and for the first time she doesn’t see any trace of his card still lingering in his face.
“No,” she says softly. Then, shyly, almost as an afterthought, she adds, “Sleep well. It will be a few hours before we open.”
He smiles at her; his fingers curl and relax in Ban’s heavy hair. “Yeah,” he says. “Thank you, Rena-chan.”