Between One and the Other

There are things he was made for, but this was not one of them; even if he were not a priest, even if he were nothing but himself, he was not be made for this. Ririn looks up at his pale face afterwards, where his expression has gone impassive but his eyes are burning like he could skin her alive with his gaze alone. She wants to apologize but knows he wouldn’t accept it no matter how delicately-phrased, so she doesn’t bother.

It’s a pity — she genuinely likes him, he’s funny — but her mother’s guards are sniffing through every corner of the palace and she doesn’t know where his friends or hers have hidden themselves; it’s just them in this dark narrow place with his knees in her hips her elbows in his sides and they’re practically tangled together, at this point. And he was the one who tried to move, trying to shift away from touching her when there was nowhere else for him to go. He kept swearing at her, banging all his long limbs against the rocky walls and cursing at that and someone was bound to notice very soon–

So she’d wrapped herself around him — sort of forcibly, arms and legs both because any longer and he might have started backing her out of their hiding place — and she’d grabbed his skinny face in both her hands and bitten his mouth before he could cry out. She’d even tasted blood, more sour than she expected, tasting like dull metal and salt and old alcohol. The scent of cigarette smoke clung to him like a mist, sharp in her nose and trying to tempt her to sneeze.

Under and against her he’d gone stiff and abruptly silent, but she didn’t let go for long moments after, listening as the guards drew closer, then moved away, shouting to each other, their voices echoing in the hallways. And Ririn had let go slowly, sliding down to stand on her own two feet again. At least he was no longer trying to fight his way out, holding ramrod still, which was both relief and troublesome both.

She doesn’t entirely regret it, though. Though she has bruises on both her elbows now, and he’d probably shoot her as soon as he had the room (even Sanzou is not quite so trigger-happy that he’d shoot in a narrow place where bullets could ricochet), she doesn’t regret.

If she’s honest, she doesn’t think she ever will.

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S

Occasionally, Ban absolutely regretted getting into the repossessing business. While there was very little he wouldn’t do for two and a half million yen, dealing with fanatic protectors, HEVN’s outrageous middleman fees, and a bizarrely moody Ginji was almost not worth the effort.

Almost, of course, being the key word.

“Thanks for your business~!” Ban carefully did not snatch the envelope from their client’s hand, and it was hard not to grin like a maniac at the prospect of payment. After the disappointment of the IL retrieval, even a little fifty-thousand yen job helped. At least they hadn’t needed to stoop to trolling Natsumi’s school for prospective customers. In further deference, he did not cackle until they were outside of the building, on their way back to the car.

“We’re not rich,” he said to Ginji, “but at least we’re not poor any more!” He tucked their payment into his shirt pocket and started to launch into another self-congratulating spiel, when he paused and looked at Ginji’s downturned face. “Oi, Ginji. What’s wrong with you, anyway?”

“Eh? Me?” Ginji’s head snapped up, and he gave an embarrassed laugh that didn’t fool Ban at all. “Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine! I mean, we got paid, Ban-chan, isn’t that great?”

Ban came to a stop and caught Ginji’s shoulder as he passed. “It certainly is,” he said, “but you’ve been moping all day, and even now. I want to know what’s wrong.”

Ginji hunched his shoulders a bit and lowered his head again as he shuffled one heel against the asphalt. He looked like a schoolboy caught in the middle of a prank, never farther from the distant cold visage of the Raitei. “Well, that is … you see, Ban-chan, I was thinking, and, um …”

“Yes?” Ban prompted. He crossed his arms over his chest and tapped one foot. “We’re not going anywhere until you tell me, Ginji. We’re professionals in a dangerous business, so we have to trust each other above anything else. Unless you don’t–?”

It was a dirty trick, and not one Ban ever believed. However, occasionally Ginji would retreat into himself like this, and it took something extreme to pull him back out–whether it was Ban letting himself take the blow from Jackal’s sword, or a low blow like this. Those spells had come frequently in Ginji’s first year outside of the Mugenjou, but they’d faded over time, and Ban had hoped they were gone for good.

And as he expected, Ginji’s head snapped up again, brown eyes wide and shocked. “Ban-chan!” he gasped, sounding horrified. “It’s not that, no–I’d never–!”

“Idiot.” Ban drew out the word, shaking a finger at Ginji. “Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad.”

Ginji didn’t say anything; he appeared to be psyching himself up for something. Ban continued to tap one foot slowly, waiting.

Finally, Ginji moved, reaching into his vest and pulling out a small, flat object. “Here!” he said, a bit sharply, and shoved it at Ban before he turned sharply, his cheeks puffed out into a pout. To Ban’s surprise, the package was neatly wrapped in pale blue paper, and without an excess of tape to hold the edges together.

“Hoh,” he said as he took it, “Ginji, you did this yourself?”

“Un!” Ginji beamed, his nervousness temporarily forgotten. “Well, I had a little help from Natsumi-chan, because I’ve never wrapped a present before, but this is all me, Ban-chan!” Some of his exuberance softened when he smiled at Ban again. “Happy birthday.”

“It’s May,” Ban pointed out. “My birthday’s not the one that just passed.”

Ginji shrugged. “Not your birthday,” he said, then looked a bit embarrassed. “I’ll get you something better for that.” He rubbed the back of his head, looking at the sky, at his feet, and everywhere except Ban’s face. “I thought, well, you know … it’s kind of weird to call it an ‘anniversary,’ but … because you know, there’s only one GetBackers, so it has to have a birthday too, and …” He paused, then shrugged a little. “Um, I thought it’d be a good idea?”

Ban opened his mouth to say something, then cut himself off with a shake of his head. He almost smiled, then twisted it into an amused smirk instead. “You got me,” he said. “I didn’t even think about it. Sorry.”

“That’s okay, Ban-chan!” Now past the obstacle of his anxiety, Ginji recovered fast, regaining his usual cheerful mood even as Ban watched. He beamed, with all the barely-leashed exuberance of a puppy. “You can get me something next year! Maybe we could alternate, just in case we’re having money problems again …” He paused, counted something up on his fingers, then shrugged with an ear-to-ear grin. “It all works out. C’mon, Ban-chan, hurry and unwrap it!”

Ginji hopped from one foot to the next in his excitement, eyes shining as though Ban had given a present to him. And because Ban’s perverse sense of humor thought it was hilarious (and a little cute, though that was beside the point) how Ginji reacted to things, so the more excited he became, the slower Ban moved.

“Ban-chan!” Ginji whined. In another minute, he would turn huge shimmering eyes at Ban and paw at his arm. “Come on, hurry up, hurry up!”

“Shaddup.” Ban shook his hand off. “I want to take my time and enjoy this.”

“Eh? Ban-chan, that’s no way to have fun with presents! You gotta rip the paper off and make a mess! I’ll show you!”

“Oh, no.” Ban took a step back, holding the half-unwrapped box out of Ginji’s reach. “This is my present, right? Then I’ll unwrap it the way I want to.”

Ginji pouted. Ban ignored him, carefully smoothing away the last scrap of paper, taking care to get up, walk over to the trash can, throw everything away, and then walk back to where Ginji waited–all without ever looking at the unwrapped present he held. Ginji had flopped on the ground, staring at Ban mournfully.

“Ban-chan, you’re mean,” he said.

“I’m looking now, aren’t I?” Ban raised an eyebrow at him. “Why are you complaining?” He held it up. “A picture frame? What am I gonna do with one of these?”

“That’s not it!” Ginji popped up to his feet, his good mood restored. “It’s the picture, Ban-chan, look!”

He did. On a piece of heavy white paper, clumsily cut to fit the small frame, someone had used a calligraphy brush to draw the English “S” character. Two small, vaguely humanoid shapes decorated diagonal corners, one of whom Ban assumed to be himself, mainly because of the small round glasses perched on its nose. Probably, then, the other one was Ginji–certainly it looked like him, when he was in one of those moods that left him flopped and droopy and clingy.

“‘S’?”

Ginji grinned from ear to ear, like the little child who’d accomplished something truly grand. His happiness felt almost contagious. “It’s the ‘S’ from GetBackers,” he said. “Remember? We’re never alone as long as we have that.”

Ban said nothing, still staring. Some of Ginji’s blinding smile faded.

“I thought and thought and thought,” he said, glancing down at his feet. “Because I wanted to get something really great for our birthday. And I thought you were angry with me, because you’ve been so weird lately.”

“Weird, huh?” Ban sounded more like he was talking to himself. Ginji winced a little.

“And I thought–what if you thought that I–Ban-chan, I’m not going back!”

That got Ban’s attention. He looked up from the picture, blinking at Ginji. “Eh?”

“Well …” Ginji looked down again. “We had two years where it was really just the two of us, you and me, and whatever jobs we needed to do. We never had to work with anyone else, but we’re still the invincible GetBackers, right? But suddenly, Shido’s a repossessor too, and Kazu-chan comes to visit, and MakubeX has recreated the VOLTS …” He took a deep breath and looked straight up, into Ban’s eyes.

“They were all my precious friends,” he said. “They still are. But we’re the GetBackers, Ban-chan, and I’m happier here than anywhere else. If I had the choice, I’d always come back here, because no matter what, that ‘S’ means we’re not alone, and–”

Slowly, Ban reached out. Ginji stiffened his back and didn’t flinch.

A heavy hand descended on his head, then ruffled his hair. Ginji cracked one eye halfway open–he hadn’t been aware he’d closed them at the last minute and looked up slowly.

“Idiot,” Ban said. He smiled. “You worry about this sort of thing too much.”

“Ban-chan?” A faint crease appeared in Ginji’s forehead. He looked poised between nerves and hope.

“You’re stuck with me, got that?” Ban turned away suddenly, shifting his present to the cradle of one arm so he could pull out a cigarette and light it. He took a long drag, exhaled the thin plume of smoke, then glanced back over his shoulder at Ginji. A faint smirk twisted his mouth, and over his glasses, his gaze was knowing. “Those idiots are persistent, but they’ve got nothing on Midou Ban-sama.”

This time, Ginji’s smile came slowly, like the sun coming up. And though Ban only saw it for a moment before he turned back towards the car, his eyes felt as dazzled as though he’d looked at the real thing.

He kept the picture in his lap the entire drive back to the Honky Tonk.

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Running Out

cowritten with Harukami

Youko hung up the last bit of laundry and watched thoughtfully as Kantarou slowly entered the house again, giving her an absent-minded smile and wave as he went in. His knees were creaking audibly enough that she could hear it, and the wistful expression was almost permanently stuck on his face by now.

Honestly, she thought, something had to be done. Leave those two alone, and nothing ever changed, not for the worse and not for the better. She picked the laundry basket up and shaded her eyes, peering thoughtfully towards the roof. Haruka was a small dark speck there, stretched out and ostensibly sunning himself. He’d been up there nearly all day, after the (small! she was sure it was small!) fight he and Kantarou had had that morning, before Kantarou had headed off to deliver his manuscript.

Youko sighed and shook her head, hitching the basket up onto her hip. There was a constant low-grade tension in the house these days, and it was enough to leave her edgy, even when she wasn’t directly involved. If it continued for much longer, she was fairly sure she’d snap before either of them.

“Men,” she muttered to herself, as she stalked into the house.

“Did you say something, Youko-chan?”

She squeaked, jumping, and nearly dropped her basket. “Kan-chan! I thought you’d, ah, gone inside!”

He blinked at her. “…we are inside, Youko-chan.”

“Never mind, never mind,” she sighed, breezing past. She heard him groan a moment later as he settled onto a cushion and she frowned. “Kan-chan?”

“Mmmm?”

She put the basket down and came around, peering at him. “…How old are you?”

“Eh?” He blinked at her, nonplussed by the question. He still looked young, at least; other than a few new lines around his eyes and mouth, he still looked like the teenager that had first named her. “Youko-chan, that’s kind of rude to ask –”

“No, really, Kan-chan.” She leaned closer in; at this angle, she could see fine wrinkles branching out of the more prominent ones. “How old are you now?”

“I …” He glanced one way and the other, as though trying to figure out an escape route, then shrugged. “… thirty-six?”

“Thirty-six!” She was shocked. “Kan-chan!”

“What?” He sounded defensive now. “It’s not that old! I can still keep up in the business just as well as anyone! I’ve got Haruka, so it’s okay –”

“When did you turn thirty-six, anyway?!” She squeaked, hands waving in the air. “Last I remember, you were in your twenties–”

He sniffed. “Don’t you think I’m still young and handsome, Youko-chan?”

“Naturally, naturally,” she said, suddenly uncomfortably aware of how she hadn’t changed, could still wear the bright colors of a young girl. “But, but — Oh my goodness!”

“It’s not that big a deal,” he said brightly. “I’m still a young man at heart, right?”

“Y– yes, of course!” She laughed a bit nervously, taking a half-step back. “It’s just. Thirty-six! Wow.”

He pouted at her, and the clash was jarring, the young boy he still looked like, and the older man she was beginning to see. Because he was still young now, but in a few years, he’d be old, and … and …

“Youko-chan?” Kantarou blinked at her. “Is something wrong?”

“No! No!” She waved her hands again. “I, ah — I think I forgot something outside with the laundry, and I’ve still got to do shopping for today’s dinner, so I’ll go ahead and do that, and, ah, Kan-chan –”

“Yes?” His tone had taken on an edge of long-suffering patience, and that was strange, too. Just the other day, she thought, he would’ve whined back and protested that she was hiding something, threatening to use her name to get the secret out of her. Just the other day, he wasn’t thirty-six with new wrinkles appearing on his face.

“Work hard, okay?” She smiled. “We still need the money, you know!”

Kantarou groaned, flopping a bit to the side in his seat. “Youko-chan…”

“If we don’t have the money, we don’t eat!”

“Yes, yes…”

She picked up the basket in a hurry and scurried outside, not relaxing until she was out again under the fresh air, where she didn’t have to look at his young face with the wrinkles she could see forming. She drew a deep breath, steeling herself, and peered up again at the roof, then went to fetch a ladder.

Haruka was lying on his back with his arms crossed under his head, staring at the sky. He glanced up briefly when Youko climbed to the top of the ladder, then settled down again. “Oh. It’s you.”

“Haruka-chan,” Youko said grimly. “We have to talk.”

He didn’t say anything, but it was a very eloquent silence which told her, in no uncertain terms, that he wasn’t terribly interested. Youko gritted her teeth and scrambled fully onto the roof, crawling to sit beside him.

“Haruka-chan,” she said, “do you know how old Kan-chan is?”

Haruka shrugged. “He’s an adult,” he said. “So?”

“He’s thirty-six,” she said, grim.

Haruka shrugged again and watched the clouds pass by.

“Come on, listen!” she insisted. “Listen. That’s, you know, about halfway through a human’s life.”

“Mm.”

Somehow, she suspected hysterical declarations that he would die soon would be brushed off. Clearly, she needed to find another angle. Her eyes narrowed. “…do you really want to never say anything about it to him?”

Haruka went very still for a moment, then visibly forced himself to relax and shrug again. “No need to rush things,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of time.”

She growled and smacked his shoulder. “That’s the thing!” she said. “You don’t have a lot of time! Or you do, but –”

“Then what’s the problem?” Haruka rolled over to face away from her. Youko made faces at the back of his head. “Kantarou obviously isn’t ready for it yet. He’s too scared of the idea.”

She dragged her hands through her hair. “That’s why you have to do something!” she insisted. “Haruka-chan! You’re running out of time here! Do you know how long it’s been since you agreed to come back to him?”

Haruka said nothing.

“It’s been over a decade, Haruka-chan! What is wrong with the two of you?!”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Haruka said, flatly. “If he’s ready, he’s ready. It’s troublesome to push the point.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose and drew a slow breath in. A slow idea formed in her mind; Tengu were like crows or magpies, after all — they tended to hoard.

“Oh,” she said. She kept her voice low, as though confiding a secret. “I only hope he doesn’t go through the same thing many men in the middle of their life go through…”

“Mm.”

“It would be awful,” she continued, staring hard at the back of Haruka’s head, “if he ran off with a younger youkai!”

There was a long pause. “… if he what?”

You know,” Youko stressed, still glaring. “He’s getting older, and beginning to feel that age, and he wants someone around that’s a bit younger, a bit more lively — a bit, you know, more receptive to him …”

Haruka began to push himself up into a seated position.

“And just think,” she plowed on, relentless, “what if one day Kan-chan got tired of always waiting around for you to make up your mind and found a younger pretty youkai to run off with?”

“He wouldn’t do that,” Haruka said, his eyes gone startlingly pale. “After all, he was waiting for me his entire life.”

“Oh, yes,” Youko agreed, both smug and a bit worried by seeing a hint of fang at the corners of Haruka’s lips. “But, well, he’s had you for a while now and you’ve hardly shown any signs of wanting to be there, beyond the name bond–”

“I agreed to come back, as you pointed out.”

“Over a decade ago! For a human, that’s a really long time!” Youko crossed her arms. “I bet he’s just about given up by now! And after a fight, like earlier, maybe he’s thinking that he should go off…”

“It wasn’t that bad a fight,” Haruka protested stiffly. “He was being stupid –”

“Haruka-chan, listen to you!” She shook a finger at him, though she still scooted back to keep some distance between them. “You keep saying things like that, and sooner or later even Kan-chan is going to say, ‘enough is enough, and I’ve had it.'”

Haruka was sitting up now, crouched in a tense hunch. “That’s –”

“I mean, today he was just going off to deliver papers, but what if he was going off to an exorcism by himself? What if he met some pretty youkai on the way that decided to take him home just because you wouldn’t?”

“He wouldn’t go off to an exorcism by himself,” Haruka snapped. “He whines all the time and says that his joints hurt too much to–”

Youko waited a few moments as Haruka cut himself off, seeming to war internally. “Exactly,” she said, finally.

Haruka’s wings snapped into being, and he was gliding down. He landed and shoved the screen door open at nearly the same time.

“Good luck, Haruka-chan!” Youko called down. “Don’t hurt him too much!”

And then she leaned back against the roof with a groan. “…I’m getting too old for this,” she muttered with a certain degree of wry humor.

***

Kantarou was at his desk when Haruka banged in. Startled, he dropped the pen he’d been fiddling with, and composed his face into a quick smile. “Haruka,” he said. “What wrong?”

Haruka stared at him for a long time without saying anything. After a moment, Kantarou’s smile faded a little, and his brow furrowed in confusion. “… Haruka?” he repeated, more tentatively this time. “Is there something wrong?”

“… No,” Haruka said flatly, and continued to stare.

“Is there something on my face?” Kantarou blinked at him. “I didn’t get ink on it, did I? That’d be awful, I’m supposed to meet a client tomorrow and this doesn’t wash off that easily –”

A finger, with the nail slightly long and sharpened, jabbed out to touch Kantarou’s cheek, beside the lips. “That,” Haruka said, still flat. “What’s that?”

“Er?” Kantarou made a strange face, trying to see down himself. “Um. Did I get ink on my face?”

“… a wrinkle,” Haruka muttered.

“What?! No! Honestly, what’s with you two today?” Kantarou snapped, then put a quick smile on his face, as if trying to make up for it. “Sorry, I’m a little on edge lately! Anyway, if this is about earlier, I’m sorry, I guess I got a bit carried away–”

“A wrinkle,” Haruka repeated again, his tone flat. “Kantarou –”

“It’s natural, come on!” Kantarou crossed his arms against his chest and leaned back against his desk, eyeing him. “I’m still me, aren’t I? A few wrinkles won’t change that — not that I’m getting any, but –”

“Kantarou,” Haruka said again, cutting off the growing tirade. “When did this happen?”

“When did — how should I know? Honestly!” Kantarou’s cheeks puffed out in a pout, and he looked reassuringly young. “They just sort of appeared. I didn’t do anything to get them.”

Haruka frowned, leaning close, turning Kantarou’s face this way and that. “… Can you make them go away?”

Kantarou blinked with some alarm, holding his hands up as if he wanted to hold Haruka back, but not actually reaching out to push him away. “What? Look, even if I knew how, no. Humans get them, Haruka, eventually. And then they get lots. At least my hair won’t turn white, hmm?”

Haruka scowled fiercely at that. “…Kantarou.”

“W–what?” Kantarou made a face. “You’re crowding me, Haruka–!”

“…stop getting old.”

A strange look crossed over Kantarou’s face, and then he shrugged. “Sorry,” he said. “No matter how much I study youkai, or how many friends I make among them, I’m still human. When I’m old, I think I’ll sit on the porch and yell at the neighborhood children, don’t you think?”

Haruka’s hand tightened. “That’s a bad idea,” he said.

Kantarou winced. “Haruka, you’re hurting me –”

“It’s pointless, getting old,” he said tersely. “You’ve got no business doing that.”

“I don’t exactly have a choice, Haruka,” Kantarou said, and he’d made his voice gentle somewhat, the sound he often got when he was trying to talk ghosts into stopping their hauntings or youkai into avoiding misbehaviors. “All humans get old and die.”

“Don’t have to,” Haruka said.

Kantarou gave him a bright, if strangely sad, smile. “I don’t quite think I’m arrogant enough to become Tengu, Haruka. Though I sometimes come close, maybe.”

“I’m telling you not to get old anyway,” Haruka said flatly. “I never ask you for anything, so you owe me this.”

“Haruka.” Kantarou reached up and carefully pulled Haruka’s hand from his face. It took a bit of effort, but he finally managed to pry Haruka’s fingers off. “It’s not that bad. At least my life isn’t empty — that’s good, right?”

Haruka blinked at him, narrow-eyed. “Empty?”

“I have a steady job, even if it’s not the best-paying,”Kantarou said. “And Youko-chan is here to take care of us. And I got to meet you, Haruka, so really, I’ll have no regrets when my time comes –”

“You’re not listening,” Haruka snapped. “You –”

You’re not listening,” Kantarou told him. “It takes a different sort of man to defy nature like that.”

“But what about–” Haruka cut himself off and scowled at Kantarou, as if any indignity in the sound of his voice could be blamed entirely on him.

Kantarou blinked. “What about what? Haruka?”

Haruka gritted his teeth. “I’m going out,” he announced. “For a walk.”

“Wait,” Kantarou said. “Wait — Finish the sentence, Haruka!”

“Me,” Haruka said, his tone almost petulant, and spread his wings.

“You? What about you?” Kantarou sounded more confused than before. “Naturally when I die I’ll do my best to cancel the name-contract before, but –”

“That’s not what I meant,” Haruka growled, and took off. Kantarou scrambled to his feet and hurried to the door, peering out. Youko was coming down the hallway towards him, looking hopeful.

“Kan-chan!” she said. “Did you talk to Haruka-chan? Where is he now?”

“How should I know?” Kantarou sighed loudly and tucked his hands into his sleeves. “He comes in and starts talking about all sorts of strange things, and then he gets mad at me. I don’t know what I did, Youko-chan, unless he’s still upset about this morning, somehow …”

Youko groaned. “You’re both idiots, you know,” she told Kantarou.

Kantarou’s eyes widened. “Youko-chan?! What did I do to YOU now?”

“Both of you! Men,” she muttered. “It doesn’t matter what species you are, men are just… so…”

“Excuse me for being a man, then!” Kantarou scowled. “Look, did you put Haruka up to something, Youko-chan? Because, really…”

“I just wanted him to talk to you!” she flared at him, setting her hands on her hips. “Do you know how tiresome it is, living with the two of you day in and day out, and you two never saying anything?!”

“Eh? Youko-chan, we talk all the time –”

“That’s not what I meant!” She loomed over him. “I meant that you and Haruka-chan are taking way too much time before you talk about important things, and you’re going to get old and die before anything happens!”

Kantarou held up both hands to ward her off, wide-eyed still. “Y– Youko-chan –”

“You’re both so stupid!” she ranted, still looming. “How on earth do you two survive at all? Kan-chan!”

“Youko-chan! Hang on, please!” He took a step backwards, slipped, and landed on his rear, wincing. “Youko-chan!”

You’re too afraid to say anything before he says anything, and he’s too afraid to say anything before you say anything and neither of you do anything and at this rate you’re probably going to say something stupid on your deathbed like ‘I’m happy I got to meet you’ and he’ll say something stupid back like ‘Yeah’ and neither of you will ever confess anything even then!” Youko ranted.

Kantarou looked utterly overwhelmed. “I, er, don’t think those are stupid things, Youko-chan…”

“What about telling him the truth? It’s not that difficult! All you have to do is look at him with those big eyes of yours and just tell him, ‘Haruka, I love –‘”

Youko-chan!” Kantarou’s voice cracked a little. “I can’t –”

Oh yes you can!” She glared down at him, and he could see black waves of sheer intent pouring off of her. “Kan-chan, what’s the point of having your most precious person living in your house with you, and never telling him that?”

“I did tell him,” Kantarou protested weakly. “I told him –”

“And did you say anything to follow up on that? No! Instead, you guys keep getting into fights over stupid things like dirty rice bowls and semantics of orders and then the important things aren’t said!”She threw her hands up in the air and whirled on her heel. “I shouldn’t have to do everything!”

“Look, Youko-chan, it’s just–” Kantarou made vague placating gestures in the air after her. “Haruka isn’t the type of person to be interested in that sort of thing.”

Youko snorted. “Oh, yes he is!”

Kantarou shifted uneasily. “Er, I’m not entirely sure that he is, Youko-chan–”

“You are both driving me insane,” she informed him. “I don’t know how you expect me to be able to work in these conditions! Just tell him, see how he answers, and don’t… don’t be stupid as well as old!” She stomped off.

Kantarou stared after her. “… I’m not old!”

She didn’t answer; a moment later, he heard the front door slam. With a sigh, he relaxed a bit, rubbing the back of his neck. “And I really don’t think Haruka goes for that sort of thing,” he muttered again, for good measure, then heaved himself back to his feet. It was a little more difficult than it had been just a year ago, his lower back protesting the fall — but it didn’t mean he was getting old. It didn’t.

Still, Kantarou sat down carefully at his desk, and stared at the half-filled sheet of paper. Reiko, with big hopeful eyes, had suggested he try writing fiction for once, but the problem with that was, sometimes, he thought he could pass off his autobiography as such. It meant inspiration was scant, because everything mystical was real, as long as one had the ability to see.

Pensive, he opened the window and sat with his chin in his hands, watching the clouds move past.

***

“Well,” Sugino said with smug self-righteousness in his voice, “of course he’s getting old.”

Though Haruka did nothing but frown at him, he wasn’t discouraged. “It’s what humans do,” Sugino went on. “They live frantic desperate lives without ever touching on any greater meaning and die soon after.”

“…Mm.”

“It’s just as well,” Sugino said, and poured tea. “You’ll be released then, and able to live as you want, not under some human’s orders.”

Haruka eyed him, then just shrugged, leaning forward. “You were human once,” he said. “You changed. You –”

“You honestly think that guy could become a Tengu?” Sugino snorted. “He’s an arrogant bastard, Kantarou is, but he’s not the right kind of arrogant. It’s not going to happen. Think of it as a positive thing, oni-eater! You get another two or three decades, and then you’ll be able to be free –”

“Wait,” Haruka interrupted. “Two or three decades? Only?”

Sugino blinked. “The life expectancy is better than a few hundred years ago,” he said finally. “Back then, you might’ve had one decade. It’s a bit inconvenient, the longer wait, but –”

Haruka frowned. “Youko had said that he was about halfway through life,” he said. “Which would give him another forty years.”

“She’s awfully attached to him,” Sugino said dismissively. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s overestimating the length of time. Modern medicine isn’t that good. Men die.”

Moo-chan, who had been standing on the table and gaping up at them, chose that moment to speak up. “Moomoo,” she said.

“Going out?” Sugino scowled. “But, Moo-chan! I! Well… if you don’t go far…”

“Mooo moomoo,” she said, and hopped off the table, waddling out. Sugino watched her with a faint scowl.

“She’s probably going to Kantarou’s place,” he muttered. “I don’t know what it is, why she’d be so fascinated with a human who’s going to be gone in a short time anyway … Oni-eater?”

Haruka had stood, spreading his wings again. “Sugino,” he said. “Thanks for the advice.”

“Eh? Ah! Oni-eater, you’re going back?” Sugino scrambled to his feet. “I’m coming too, that’s where Moo-chan’s going, I know it –”

Haruka didn’t wait to see if Sugino would make good on his word and follow. He just took off, flying straight back.

Sure enough, Sugino caught up to him a few moments later, wings working hard before settling into a glide. “I don’t know what it is with people, always rushing out all at once,” Sugino said sulkily. “I’d just poured tea, too.”

Haruka didn’t bother answering.

***

By the time they arrived, Moo-chan was already there, cuddled in Kantarou’s arms and looking distinctly pleased with the world. Kantarou looked more pensive, and Haruka caught the tail end of him saying something like, “– and I don’t know what to do, and it’s driving me crazy –” before he looked up and saw them. “Haruka! Sugino-sama!”

“Kantarouuuuu,” Sugino growled. “What are you doing, being so familiar with my Moo-chan again? I thought I’d warned you –”

“Ah.” Kantarou blinked. “I didn’t do anything, I swear, she just came and latched on –”

“Stop trying to put the blame on her! Moo-chan, come here, come on, I’m here, you don’t need to be attached to that guy any more –”

“Moo,” Moo-chan said, and wrapped two thin arms around Kantarou’s arm, pudgy hands clinging tight.

Sugino looked utterly horrified. “What?! Moo-chan! You can’t mean that! I’m your husband, aren’t I? Fidelity is the most important thing! Now come here, before you catch his old age.”

Kantarou scowled. “Sugino-sama! I’m not–”

“He’s not old,” Haruka said flatly.

Kantarou blinked at him. “Haruka?”

“Moo-chan, you have to be more careful!” Sugino wrang his hands, looking like some kind of kicked puppy. “After all, you shouldn’t get so attached, he’ll be gone in a few years anyway –”

“Hey!” Kantarou protested. “What is wrong with everyone today? I’m not old, I’m just not young any more –”

“Moo-chan, come on,” Sugino wheedled. “It’s dangerous for youkai and human to get involved together, anyway, and I’ll always be here even when he’s not …”

“Moomoo,” said Moo-chan, and didn’t let go of Kantarou.

Sugino’s eyes went wide with shock. “You can’t mean that — you can’t… Moo-chan, you idiot!” he wailed, and flung himself out the doors, taking off.

Kantarou winced. “Moo-chan, I’m sorry,” he told her. “Look, I’ll have Youko-chan make some tea, and we can sit and wait for him to calm down a little, how’s that?”

“Moo…”

“No,” Haruka said.

Kantarou blinked in surprise, looking up at Haruka. In his arms, Moo-chan also blinked, tipping her head. “Haruka?”

Haruka bent down to look at Moo-chan eye to eye. “Go after him,” he said firmly. “This one isn’t yours, anyway.”

“… Mo?” Moo-chan tipped her head to one side. “Moo?”

Haruka pointed to the door, not breaking eye-contact with her. “Go on,” he said.

Moo-chan heaved a gigantic sigh, almost too large for her body, and let go of Kantarou with obvious reluctance, before she waddled to the door and outside. Kantarou blinked after her, and looked up at Haruka.

“Um,” he said, at a loss for words. “You never minded before.”

“I didn’t say anything before,” Haruka said blandly.

Kantarou blinked at him again; Haruka hadn’t added anything else and didn’t seem inclined to, so finally, he took a step back. “Well, then, um… fun as this has been, if I don’t get back to work I think Youko-chan might have me killed–”

“Kantarou,” Haruka said.

Kantarou tilted his head. “Er. Yes?”

“… You aren’t going to go off with any younger youkai.” It wasn’t a question.

“Um. No?” Kantarou blinked, brow furrowing. “I don’t know why you’re worried, though; you don’t look any older at all from when I first met you –”

“But you’re not going to.” It sounded almost like a command, and Haruka crossed his arms over his chest, looking straight at him.

“I wasn’t planning on it,” Kantarou said carefully. “I mean, I’m happy with you and Youko-chan, I don’t really need to run off with younger youkai. I wouldn’t mind making friends with some, but –”

Haruka continued to stare at him without saying a word. Kantarou could feel himself beginning to sweat. “Haruka, you’re kind of worrying me. What’s wrong, anyway?”

“Kantarou. How long do humans live?”

Kantarou blinked. “Er. That really depends, Haruka,” he said. “On… a number of things. Where they are in the world, the sort of living conditions they’re under, what’s available to them, how they eat… even if they’re male or female. Women live longer than men, generally. But…”

Haruka scowled at Kantarou.

“…er, in this place and age, probably into their eighties?”Kantarou shifted uncomfortably. “Not counting disease or disaster or, of course, the very healthy people who live longer, but…”

“Their eighties.” Haruka looked thoughtful. “So four decades. Maybe five.”

Kantarou sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “This is a really depressing topic of conversation,” he muttered. “Haruka, my family’s always been healthy enough, and I’m not terribly worried. I take care of myself when and where I can, and I think that’s about the only thing that can be asked, right?”

Haruka eyed him. It was too easy to see the lines that were gathered at the corners of his face. “You’ll live that long, right?”

“Well, I’ll do my best, certainly.” Kantarou’s voice took on a certain dry edge. “Is that all you wanted to know? Haruka, you could’ve asked without the big melodramatic display.”

Haruka frowned at him thoughtfully. “Not all,” he said. “How long have you been looking for me?”

“Well, I haven’t been looking for you since I found you–”

“Kantarou.”

Kantarou sighed, shifting a little. “Haruka, really, you know this already. Since I was a child. Before I was ten. I’m not entirely sure how long, now.”

Haruka’s expression had gone a little annoyed. “In other words, about twenty-five, thirty years of your life so far?”

Kantarou made a face at him. “When you put it like that, it sounds really bad,” he complained. “No, it was only about fifteen, sixteen years. We met quite a while ago, Haruka.”

Haruka continued to stare at him. “But …”

“Well, it was a long time for me,” Kantarou said, then shrugged. “It’s fine, though. You’ve been here all this time, so that helps make that long search worth it.”

“All this time,” Haruka repeated, thoughtfully, though there was a frown on his face. “But if you’d found me earlier…”

Kantarou groaned, moving over to a cushion and taking a seat. “Haaaaruka,” he sighed. “I didn’t find you earlier. I looked for you and when I found you, I found you.”

“But you could have had that much more time with me,” Haruka pointed out, flatly.

“What’s with you today?” Kantarou rubbed at his forehead with the heel of his hand. “I’ll have much more time with you. I’m just glad I found you at all.”

“And if you hadn’t?”

“If I hadn’t — I would’ve kept looking, of course.” Kantarou tipped his head, looking quizzically up at him. “What else should I have done? I wanted to meet you, more than anything else, so of course I would have kept looking until I found you.”

“Even if it took you thirty years? Forty?” Haruka’s expression had turned inward, as though considering something.

“We’re beginning to repeat ourselves again,” Kantarou complained. “Yes, Haruka. It’s what I did for years. It wasn’t a bad life, either. And you still haven’t told me what’s wrong yet.”

“Hm,” Haruka said, and began to turn.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Kantarou said, reaching out and catching hold of Haruka’s sleeve, fast. “Haruka, tell me what’s bothering you.”

The look that crossed Haruka’s face was both irritated and alarmed. “Kantarou–”

“Ha-ru-ka,” Kantarou repeated, flatly. “You and Youko have been going and coming and acting utterly bizarre today. I want to know why.”

Haruka stared at him for a long moment. He seemed to be weighing his options — Kantarou could see a host of excuses and explanations flicker through his eyes and get discarded, because Haruka was really not as deadpan as he initially seemed — and finally ended up frowning a bit at him. “You,” he said.

Kantarou waited patiently, but when Haruka said nothing else, Kantarou shook him as best he could. “I apologized for this morning, you know,” he said, testy. “Okay, so next time I won’t try to throw your rice bowl out the window! But that doesn’t explain why Youko-chan is upset with me, too!”

“It’s not about the fight,” Haruka said. “It’s about you.”

“But that goes back to the fight, doesn’t it?” Kantarou scowled. “You’ve got a problem with me, so–”

“No.” Haruka scowled down at him. “Not that.”

Kantarou threw his hands in the air. “Then what? It’s driving me insane, the way you two are acting!”

“…You’re human,” Haruka said, finally. “We’re not.”

Kantarou looked surprised at that for a moment, almost taken aback. “Well, yes,” he said. “That’s been pretty obvious from the start, hasn’t it? You knew I was human from the first moment we met.”

Haruka blinked, his expression opaque. “So, obviously, that’s the problem.” He reached out and touched the wrinkle at the corner of Kantarou’s mouth. “You’re still getting older, while we’re not.”

For a moment, Kantarou continued to gape at him. Then he took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as though trying to summon patience. It was strange for him, that he would stop and apparently think about what he was going to say. “I know I’m getting older,” he said, his voice carefully even. “I didn’t know that would be a problem for you, certainly not when you’re the legendary Oni-Eating Tengu whom everyone knows and fears and respects –”

Haruka stared at him. “I’ve gotten used to you,” he said finally. “It’d be a hassle if something happened.”

Kantarou made a face again, slowly letting his breath sigh out. “…Haruka…”

“Besides,” Haruka added, voice still flat. “Yes. I am the legendary Oni-Eating Tengu. But I’m also Haruka.”

Kantarou buried his face in his hand. “That aside, Haruka–”

“Kantarou.” Haruka was staring at him as if willing him to understand and not make Haruka go through the bother of saying it. “I don’t like this.”

Kantarou glanced up at him through his fingers, his expression a tired attempt at good humor. “I’m not looking forward to it terribly much myself,” he said. “But if there’s nothing to be done, then there’s nothing to be done.”

“You could try,” Haruka said. “If you could find me and break the seal, then you should be able to –”

“Didn’t we just have this conversation?” Kantarou shook his head. “I don’t want to become a ghost and carry my regrets around in this world, Haruka. So I’m trying to not let it bother me, all right?”

“It bothers me,” said Haruka. “Are you running away again?”

Kantarou stared at him for a long, long moment. “No, Haruka,” he said, finally. “Actually, I think I’m facing up to the ultimate fate of all humanity fairly well.”

Haruka grabbed hold of the collar of Kantarou’s gi with one hand, his knuckles lightly brushing Kantarou’s neck. “Well, stop it,” he said.

Kantarou leaned back a little, but Haruka’s grip was firm. “Haruka, I didn’t think you’d take it this badly; you knew all along I was human. Besides, I have plenty of years left–”

“For you, maybe,” Haruka said. “Not for me.”

Kantarou blinked, and tried a smile. “Well, I’m touched,” he said. “Haruka, all this time I thought you were annoyed and looking forward to being free –”

“Don’t even joke about that.” Haruka’s eyes narrowed. “Are you really this stupid, Kantarou?”

“That’s rude, calling me stupid when you’re the one who doesn’t even listen –”

Haruka glared at him. “You know what I’m talking about,” he said. “Stop pretending you don’t.”

Slowly, Kantarou sighed. “Haruka, I thought– well, it doesn’t matter.”

Deeply offended, Haruka leaned back. “Doesn’t matter?”

“Er, that’s to say, I imagine it does matter,” Kantarou corrected himself quickly. “Just, well, we’ve done this well this long, haven’t we? So–”

“Have we?”

Kantarou’s brow furrowed. “I … thought we were,” he offered hesitantly. “I mean, you never seemed particularly unhappy, staying with me all this time –” When Haruka continued to stare, he made a vague waving gesture with one hand. “Were you? I didn’t notice, I’m sorry, I –”

“Kantarou.” Haruka scowled at him.

“… Haruka?”

“Shut up.”

Haruka’s hand on his collar switched to his face, holding tight enough that Kantarou couldn’t turn his head or even jerk back when Haruka leaned in close, scowling at him fiercely. “Ha–”

The lips that pressed to his were cool and somewhat dry and tightly shut. Haruka’s hand hadn’t moved at all and Kantarou mmphed into the kiss, his own hands rising and hesitating in the air between them, as if he couldn’t decide whether to try to shove Haruka off — and risk losing some of his skin in the process — or to just grab on.

After a few moments, Haruka leaned back again and scowled at him.

Kantarou exhaled shakily. “Haruka…”

“I don’t want you to die,” Haruka said, still flat as before. “After all this time, I’m not letting you run away again.”

“It’s not really running away, though,” he said weakly, and swallowed when Haruka’s frown deepened. “It’s … just going to happen, someday. And I mean, I’m here now, aren’t I? That’s something, right?”

Haruka stared at him for a moment, still holding on tightly to his face. “Forty years is nothing,” he said flatly. “It –”

“Hey,” Kantarou said, mildly as he could, “that’s my entire life to date. I wouldn’t say it’s ‘nothing’.”

“Do you know how long I was sealed?” Haruka asked, voice level.

Kantarou knew, of course; he’d done all the research he could on the Oni-Eating Tengu, and that included how he was sealed and when. “Yes,” Kantarou said, finally.

“Forty years is nothing,” Haruka repeated again.

“It matters to me, at least,” Kantarou said. He pushed back a little, but couldn’t free himself from Haruka’s grip. “Haruka…”

“It’s nothing,” Haruka repeated again. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

Something akin to annoyance flashed over Kantarou’s face. “Considering how angry you got the last time I really tried to force something onto you,” he said, a bit snappish, “I thought it was probably better to wait it out and see if you wanted it.”

“I did,” Haruka said. “I –”

You could have said something, too.” Kantarou made a face at him, and tried to pull free again. “Honestly, Haruka, the one time I try to give you a little freedom, and you’re making it sound like it’s all my fault –”

Haruka’s nostrils flared in what looked like cold rage. He leaned forward, and the strength of his grip combined with his weight was all it took to throw Kantarou onto his back, Haruka landing on top of him, scowling.

For a moment, Kantarou could only gape blankly. “Haruka,” he wheezed, and then winced as his mind caught up with his body. “Ow ow ow ow ow, my back–”

“Kantarou–”

“It hurts–”

“Shut up,” Haruka told him again.

“Honestly,” Kantarou whined, squirming. “You could try being a little more gentle, you know; even when I was younger I didn’t really like getting tossed around –”

Haruka kissed him again, harder this time, biting at his mouth until Kantarou’s lips parted in a surprised sound. Kantarou stared at him the entire time, eyes wide, and after a moment, his hands settled on Haruka’s shoulders and pushed back.

“Um,” he said weakly. “Um. Haruka. That’s –”

“I waited for you,” Haruka snapped. “Now what are you complaining about?”

“You don’t, ah,” Kantarou said, and felt a little stupid as he said it, “you don’t have to feel obliged to do this for me, you know. Just because I’m human, and because I’ll die, and because you know I want you, I — you don’t have to do this.” His lips itched.

Haruka stared at him. “You think I feel obligated,” he repeated.

“Well, ah, you do have to stick with me until I release you, and, uh –”

“Were you always this stupid?”

Kantarou blinked at him. “I thought it was a legitimate question,” he mumbled. “You were never that enthusiastic about hanging out here anyway, so …” He licked his lips, but the tingle didn’t go away. “I mean. You never know. You could.”

“I’m obligated to no one,” Haruka said. “Not even you.”

“That was an option, too,” Kantarou admitted, glancing away. “But. You know. I was completely fine with things they way they were, so I don’t want you to feel like you have to do this, just because I’m your master and –”

“Kantarou,” Haruka said, with exaggerated patience. “I’m the one sitting on you.”

“Er.” Kantarou cleared his throat, shifting under Haruka slightly uneasily. “Yes, ah, you do raise a valid point, but–”

“I came back to you,” Haruka pointed out, leaning down and biting lightly at Kantarou’s jaw. “I wasn’t obligated to do that either.”

Kantarou’s breath caught in his throat. “No, but — that was a long time ago, and I thought–”

“It wasn’t that long for me.”

Kantarou swallowed, shivering when Haruka’s teeth scraped past his pulse. “Well, it was a long time for me,” he muttered. “I thought I was being good, not pushing you into anything, and –”

“Kantarou,” Haruka muttered, “you’re allowed to, once in a while.”

“I know that,” Kantarou said, almost snide, then yelped when Haruka bit him. “But something like this is really important and even if I make you do everything else I didn’t want to push this and — Youko-chan!”

Surprised, Haruka lifted his head and blinked at Youko, who stood in the doorway with wide eyes and a tea tray in her hands. And since she and Kantarou were both apparently too shocked to say anything, he said, very blandly, “Sugino left. Moo-chan, as well.”

“Oh…” Youko-chan’s eyes flickered left, then right. “Did, er, did you want your tea?”

“I don’t,” Haruka said.

Kantarou squirmed slightly, but Haruka hadn’t let up, was still holding him down quite firmly. “Er, Youko-chan, this isn’t, that is–”

Youko cleared her throat. “I, ah, had been planning to clean this room soon? So, um, if it isn’t a bother…”

“We can go,” Haruka said and sat up, pulling Kantarou with him. “Excuse us.”

“Youko-chan,” Kantarou tried again. His face was in the process of doing a slow burn, blushing so hard it looked painful. “We’re sorry about that, the argument sort of got out of hand –”

“Argument.” Youko blinked at him. She coughed a bit, then, and didn’t turn away fast enough to hide her grin. “Right. Um. I’ll call you two for dinner?”

“You do that,” Haruka told her, and dragged Kantarou for the stairs.

Kantarou half-stumbled, trying to keep up; Haruka had a grip on his arm and wasn’t letting go. “Haruka–!”

Behind him, he heard an amused mutter of, “…and they thought that was appropriate to do here. Those boys–”

“Haruka, come on–”

“Mm.” Haruka didn’t respond, but Kantarou thought he saw a faint smirk on Haruka’s face. He took the stairs two at a time, not so much hurrying as simply striding. Kantarou half-skidded, managing to catch himself before he slipped on them.

“Haruka!” he half-whined. “If you go that fast, I’m going to die much younger!”

“You’ll be fine,” Haruka told him, and tugged at his wrist again. “You promised at least forty years, and you’d better keep that.”

“I didn’t promise anything,” Kantarou yelped, flailing and slamming his palm against the wall. “I just said maybe –”

“Good enough.” Haruka pulled him the rest of the way up the stairs, and then pushed his bedroom door open. “Kantarou.”

“Haruka?” Kantarou blinked at him, a little out of breath, still blushing.

“Now is the best time to say no.”

Kantarou pressed his free hand to his chest as if it would help free up more air for him. “…You don’t need to be in this much of a hurry, Haruka–”

“I do,” Haruka said, and began to hustle Kantarou through the door. “We’re running out of time.”

“Haruka, we’re not–”

“Besides,” Haruka said, and shut the door, “if I don’t rush you, you’ll do something stupid to delay us again.”

I‘ll do something stupid?” Kantarou sounded a bit insulted. “Haruka, I wasn’t the one who spent all this time sidestepping the matter –”

“You were too,” Haruka told him blandly. “You’re the one who didn’t say anything, when you really should have.”

“Harukaaaa, that’s –”

Haruka kissed him in lieu of telling him to shut up yet again. After a few more attempts to grumble at him, Kantarou sighed and gave up, throwing his arms around Haruka’s neck and hanging on. Haruka seemed to relax at that, strangely, the tension in his body abating a little, though not leaving entirely. “Better,” he muttered at Kantarou, one hand pressing to the center of Kantarou’s back and stroking in a vague pattern.

“Mph?” Kantarou twined his fingers into the bottom part of Haruka’s hair. “Mm..”

Haruka leaned back a little and looked down at him. Kantarou tried to catch his breath, feeling the heat in his cheeks and the tightness in his chest.

“You sound good like that,” Haruka said.

Kantarou blinked at him, then made a face, as though to hide the fact he was blushing again. “Who would’ve thought you were such a pervert?” he joked weakly. “Really, Haruka, it’s not a race against time –”

“It is too,” Haruka said, leaning back to study his face for a moment. “Or close enough.”

“Funny.” Kantarou’s expression turned whimsical. “I never knew you were one for impossible goals, Haruka.”

“Your fault,” Haruka said. “If you’d just do as I say and stop getting older, it’d be fine.”

“Impossible goals,” Kantarou repeated, then just sighed and wrapped his arms around Haruka again when Haruka leaned in.

He let Haruka push the gi from his shoulders and explore the flesh there with his mouth, the sharp prick of almost-fangs sending goosebumps along his skin. “Haruka, that tickles,” he complained.

“Bear with it.”

“Um.” Kantarou fiddled with the lacing of Haruka’s necktie as best he could, shivering when Haruka’s hands went to the knot of his hakama, pulling the bow loose. “Now’s a bad time to admit I have no real idea what I’m doing, right?”

“That’s fine,” Haruka said, lips against Kantarou’s pulse. “I figured as much anyway.”

“Hey –”

“So be quiet and pay attention, so you’ll know what to do next time. You’re the one who’s always researching, right?”

“Well,” Kantarou began, then let out a faint hiss when Haruka’s hand dipped inside his loosened hakama. “If I’m here as, er, a researcher, does, ah, does that mean you’ll call me ‘sensei’?”

The look of affront Haruka gave him was absolutely priceless. “…No.”

It was a relief, though, and Kantarou found himself laughing as Haruka stroked him, stripped him, laughed hard enough that his fingers fumbled with the buttons on Haruka’s own outfit.

“Useless,” Haruka sighed at him, and undressed himself.

Kantarou pouted at him through his grin, relaxed when Haruka settled beside him again. “You don’t have to say it like that,” he said. “I mean, that’s awfully mean, calling the man you dragged from his living room for sex ‘useless’ –”

“Didn’t I say to be quiet?” Haruka asked, with the same deadpan expression he used for discussing household chores. “If you really don’t know what you’re doing, be quiet and listen — I said that, right?”

“So maybe I should call you ‘sensei,'” Kantarou teased, then bit his lip when Haruka’s hand ghosted down again, curling around his erection loosely. “Ah, Haruka –”

“You’ve given me enough names already,” Haruka said shortly. “Don’t call me sensei. ‘Haruka”s fine.”

Kantarou’s lips turned upward into a shaky smile. “All right, then, Haruka–”

“Good,” Haruka said, and moved over him, one hand firm, the other one tracing out scars and lines, as if he were putting Kantarou into physical memory.

“Haruka, I–”

“But you don’t have to always say it,” Haruka added and leaned forward to press a kiss to the wrinkle he’d pointed out, beside Kantarou’s lips.

Kantarou whimpered, his breath starting to shorten into rough, harsh gasps. “I like saying Haruka’s name,” he muttered, reaching up to grab for Haruka’s shoulder, his palm sliding against the smooth skin there. “I had it picked out from the beginning, you know, from the first time I heard of you –”

Haruka just snorted and sped his hand up, so that the rest of the sentence trailed off in a surprised gasp, and Kantarou curled closer to him, threading shaky fingers into his hair. When Kantarou came, it was with a surprised sound, as if the whole thing were entirely unexpected. He went limp in Haruka’s arms, still moaning low with every breath he took.

“There,” said Haruka, careful not to sound too smug. “It’s better when you shut up, isn’t it?”

Kantarou drew a slow breath, as if he were trying to speak, and just whimpered it out. He wet his lips a moment later and stretched, tracing his hands down Haruka’s back. “Um?”

Haruka may not have sounded smug, but he certainly was looking it. “As I thought.”

Kantarou managed to speak this time. “Harukaaaaaa,” he groaned. “You, um, good.”

“I know,” Haruka said.

“But…” Kantarou’s hand slid down, slowly, stalling at Haruka’s hip. “You…?”

“Are you sure you’re up to it?” Haruka eyed him. “You look exhausted.”

Kantarou pouted at him, too languid to summon any true irritation. “Haruka,” he whined. “Stop making fun of my age.”

“Your fault –”

“Is not.” Kantarou took a deep breath and reached for Haruka, his expression set into one of determination. “Just needed a moment to recover, s’all. Let’s see if I learned anything –”

“It’s all right if you can’t do anything,” Haruka said with smug tolerance. “I’ve come to expect that of you.”

“Oh, now you’re in for it, Haruka–!”

Kantarou wasn’t quite strong enough to bowl Haruka over, but he did manage to shift them onto their sides, hand sliding down Haruka’s belly to take his erection in a firm grip.

“I’m in for it, am I?” Haruka asked through gritted teeth.

Kantarou nodded, nibbling on his lower lip as he concentrated, setting up a quick, unpracticed rhythm, bracing himself on one hand as he leaned against Haruka. “You’re in for it,” he repeated, though he shivered when Haruka turned and nuzzled into the crook of his neck. “I’ll show you –”

“If you say so,” Haruka muttered into his skin, then licked sweat from the hollow of his throat. “I think it might be too much for you.”

Kantarou tugged a bit at his hair, not quite hard enough to pull him away. “Then I’ll just have to show you,” he said. “Stop trying to distract me.”

Haruka snorted. “You’re doing that well enough on your own,” he said. “Kantarou –”

“No, you’re obviously plotting against me,” Kantarou declared, squeezing once, quickly but carefully; Haruka made a choking noise in his throat. “So stop it.”

“Mm.” Haruka considered, then bit at his neck, fangs denting the skin. “…no,” he added, muffled.

“Ah, you’re mean,” Kantarou murmured, twisting to try to get away and to get a better angle, both at once. “So mean, Haruka…”

Haruka took hold of Kantarou and rolled them, so Kantarou was straddling his hips, on top of him. “Mm,” he agreed.

Kantarou blinked at him, flushed a bit surprised at the sudden shift in position. “Haruka –?”

“Keep doing what you were,” Haruka said blandly, staring back up at him. “You had the right idea, at least.”

Kantarou licked his lips, and let his hand move faster, so intent on what he was doing that when Haruka jerked and growled incoherently at him his head jerked up again, surprised. “Haruka –”

Haruka’s teeth were bared, his face screwed up, fingers buried deep into the bedclothes beneath them. He didn’t say a word, just growled again in apparent impatience.

Cheeks flushed, Kantarou nodded. “Right. I understand, Haruka. I–”

Another growl.

Kantarou bent his head and focussed on what he was doing, hand moving fast, wrist twisting, and when Haruka actually cried out, low and harsh like a crow calling, Kantarou gasped at the sticky heat pressing through his fingers.

When it was over, Kantarou sat back on Haruka’s hips, blinking at his damp fingers, and at the sated, distant expression on Haruka’s face. He swallowed hard and leaned down, curling against his side. “Haruka,” he said, softly. “Haruka …”

After a moment, Haruka groaned, and a hand came down hard atop Kantarou’s head. “Kantarou,” Haruka rasped, “what did I say about shutting up?”

Relieved by that, Kantarou let himself smile, drying his sticky hand on a corner of the blankets that had been tossed aside. He scooted a hairsbreadth closer. “See,” he muttered into Haruka’s shoulder. “I showed you.”

Haruka sighed, though it sounded more amused, more relaxed than normal. “You never listen, do you,” he muttered. “Do you ever stop talking?”

“I stop talking sometimes,” Kantarou said, smiling down at him sweetly. “When I’m sleeping.”

“No,” Haruka said, and pushed Kantarou’s head down to pillow it on his shoulder. “…you talk in your sleep.”

“I do n– Haruka, you’ve listened to me sleep?”

Haruka shrugged. “Sometimes I look in on you, maybe,” he said. “To make sure you’re not out doing something stupid.”

“Really?” Kantarou sounded inordinately pleased by that. “Haruka …”

“Of course,” Haruka went on, “just because we’re like this now doesn’t mean you have license to run off and do crazy things. If we only have so much time left, you’re not to go around and tempt fate.”

“Aw, Haruka, are you worried about me? That’s so cute, you being shy like this –”

“Shut up,” Haruka said, with rough good humor. “I still intend to win this race.”

“Awww, Haruka,” Kantarou said, grinning. “I’m just human, so I don’t think I’ll lose, but…”

“But?” Haruka quirked an eyebrow, then fished around for the blankets.

“…but you’re welcome to try,” Kantarou said, and nuzzled into Haruka’s shoulder. “If anyone could win, it’d be you.”

“Glad you know it,” Haruka said, and dropped the blankets over them. “Now shut up and go to sleep.”

“Youko-chan will be annoyed if we miss dinner,” Kantarou pointed out, though he snuggled shamelessly, and Haruka could feel his smile, a little smug and a little shy, against his skin. “It’s not that late, after all.”

“But I’m tired,” Haruka said patiently. “And you are too. If Youko’s annoyed, she’ll have to deal.”

Kantarou laughed, low and pleased. “I’ll let you deal with her, then,” he said.

“Deal with your own problems yourself,” Haruka said, and closed his eyes.

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Rooftop Sweet

“Ha-ru-ka.”

Haruka leaned over and glanced down. Kantarou was holding something in his hands and smiling up at him. He’d learned to not really trust that smile, especially not when coupled with that tone of voice and projecting absolute innocence. “What?”

“Youko-chan’s made mochi,” Kantarou told him. “Don’t you want some?”

“I don’t like sweets,” Haruka said, and lay back again. After a moment, he heard Kantarou go back into the house and closed his eyes. The sun was pleasantly warm, and it made him drowsy, even if he couldn’t stretch his wings fully out here in plain sight.

Then the ladder to the roof clattered, and Haruka opened one eye to watch Kantarou climb up. “What do you want?”

“Ah, Haruka’s mean,” Kantarou sighed, leaning his elbows on the roof. When he sighed, it puffed bangs from his eyes, only to have them settle again. “Even when I bring mochi for him, he’s annoyed.”

“I told you,” Haruka grumbled. “I don’t like sweets.”

“Not even when they’re homemade?” Kantarou braced his weight with one hand, and lifted a cloth-wrapped bundle with the other. “Youko-chan made them especially for the house. You should appreciate her hard work, Haruka.”

Haruka eyed him, then shrugged. “You should be more careful,” he said, closing his eye again. “You could fall.”

“Then you’d be free, and Youko-chan too,” Kantarou said, with disturbing cheer. “Or maybe I’d have a grudge because you didn’t save me, and I’d haunt you.” He climbed up the rest of the way onto the roof, and crawled his way over to sit beside Haruka. “Then you’d never be rid of me.”

“Don’t even joke about that.” Haruka’s lips pressed to a thin line. “I think I’d go crazy, having you around forever.”

Kantarou just laughed. There was a soft rustling sound — cloth being unwrapped. Haruka could smell the sweet bean paste. “They look good,” Kantarou noted. “Are you sure you don’t want one?”

“I’m sure.” Haruka shrugged as best he could, lying down. “I’ll apologize later.”

“Suit yourself.” He heard Kantarou take a large bite, and then his contented sigh. “It’s a nice day, isn’t it? We’ve been having really nice weather for a while, now.”

Haruka shrugged again. “It’s been good,” he agreed shortly. Even Kantarou’s nattering wasn’t enough to dispel the comfort of the sun on his face. He stretched his legs a little further, and allowed himself one deep sigh.

Kantarou chuckled but thankfully said nothing. He continued to eat the mochi, and after a moment, he began to edge just a little closer. Haruka’s peripheral awareness of his master’s presence stirred briefly at this, then subsided again; as long as Kantarou was up here eating, he couldn’t be out making trouble.

Wet sounds punctuated the end of the mochi, and Haruka glanced over to see Kantarou licking his fingers. His tongue was small and pink and fast, and his expression was content. When he finished, he glanced over and smiled at Haruka.

“It was good,” he said. “There’s more in the kitchen, if you change your mind later.”

“I don’t like sweet things,” Haruka said again. It was tiresome to keep repeating himself, but he’d learned that sometimes, it was the only way to get through to Kantarou.

“Well,” said Kantarou. “That must mean you like me a lot. I’m not sweet at all.” He was grinning as he said that; Haruka could hear it, even if he didn’t open his eyes to see it. “You don’t have to be so roundabout, Haruka, it won’t embarrass me if you just say it.”

“Don’t be stupid.” Haruka resisted the urge to yawn, and twitched a little when Kantarou shifted closer, brushing his arm with one leg. “You assume far too much.”

“Awww.” Kantarou shifted, so that he was half-reclining on the roof next to Haruka. “You’re cruel, Haruka.”

“You’ll live.” Haruka cracked one eye open to glance at him. “I’m going to take a nap. Don’t fall.”

“Right, right.” Kantarou bundled the cloth between his hands and smiled at him. “I think I’d rather be human than a ghost, if I were staying with you.” He didn’t reach out to touch, though Haruka could feel he wanted to, a warm shift beside him. “It’d be no fun, to have a grudge against you.”

Haruka said nothing. Comfortable in the sunshine, with Kantarou by his side, he let himself drift to sleep, and dreamt of flying, with the smell of sweet bean paste on the wind.

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Perchance to Dream

In the Mugenjou, there was no such thing as a full night’s sleep. Even with the protection of your group, letting yourself fall too deeply and long into sleep was close to suicide. After two years, Ginji still usually just catnaps off and on and spends the rest of the time resting without sleep. He likes this, though, because here is only the soft quiet of waiting for morning. When he breathes, there’s only the smell of cigarettes and leather and Ban-chan, and none of the fear, pain, or unhappiness of that other place.

“Ban-chan?” Ginji whispers into the darkness. He receives no answer except the soft sound of Ban-chan’s breathing.

Sometimes Ban is partially awake, and he always sounds grumpy when he tells Ginji to go back to sleep. Other times, he’s all awake and touches Ginji’s head with a featherlight hand. “Go to sleep and let me think,” he says, during those times.

“What do you think about?” Ginji asked once.

“Lots of things,” Ban-chan had said. His silhouette leaned back and crossed its arms behind its head. “You should try it sometimes, too.” A shift of movement, and then a bright flash of blue–because if there’s even just a little light, Ginji can see the bright color of Ban-chan’s eyes exactly–and a sound halfway between a snort and a chuckle. “You’re not stupid, Ginji, but you never think.”

Ginji doesn’t think he’s stupid either, but he thinks Ban-chan is a lot smarter. That’s part of what makes the GetBackers so great–whatever he can’t do, Ban-chan makes up for. He knows, intimately as blood and breath, that even if he somehow falls short, he never needs to worry, because Ban-chan is there.

Sometimes, Ginji stops long enough to think about how peculiar their situation is. Repossessors rarely–if ever–work together in units; stealing and delivering and repossessing are all solitary, self-centered businesses. An ally for one job easily becomes an opponent when enough money is involved. Certainly sometimes Ban-chan acts very mercenary, but Ginji knows him too well to believe that’s all the truth.

Ban-chan doesn’t talk about himself much, though he lets more slip than he thinks, especially late at night, when they’re both half-asleep and the dusk makes his face hard to see. Ginji has pieced together enough to know that Ban-chan has only had two other real friends before him, and he lost both painfully. Even after making up with Himiko-chan, he still doesn’t quite trust her like he used to. But he doesn’t let it drag him down, though it pains him occasionally, like old scars in the rain. Whatever happens to Ban-chan in life, he picks himself up, dusts himself off, and goes forward with confidence.

That alone, Ginji thinks, whenever he wakes up at night and sees Ban-chan’s dozing face in the other car seat, could keep him by this person’s side.

He only remembers bits and pieces, really, of the first time he and Ban-chan met–the angry crowd, the cold-eyed stranger, the epiphany, and the first person who’d said his name with gentleness in years. Like the carrot, it beckoned him out of the darkness of the Mugenjou and into the blinding glow of the real world.

After a year, he realized not everyone understood Ban-chan’s kindness. What comes so instinctively to him passes others by, as though it doesn’t exist–they’re too busy being annoyed or afraid.

One or two have questioned Ginji, because they can’t add one and one to make two. Ginji says it’s because they both understand what the true treasure is, and have different ways of appreciating it. While Ginji’s style is to share it, and have his happiness reflected back in every smiling face, Ban-chan prefers to horde it, and only dole it out to people he deems worthy. Three people in this life have earned it, and only Ginji really knows what it looks like.

Usually, he’s not selfish. But there are always times where he’s secretly a little glad that not even Himiko-chan has ever seen this Ban-chan.

He looks over. Ban-chan has sunk low in his seat, and his head slumps forward. It gives him awful neck cramps, but it’s also the least vulnerable position. Ban-chan doesn’t like showing his throat to anyone, but the fact that he willingly sleeps with Ginji less than an arm’s length away says everything he needs to know.

“Ban-chan,” he whispers again into the darkness, “good night.”

Ginji traces an “S” into the shoulder of the car seat and closes his eyes.

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PATH

1. Red Ball

Toys are rare in the Mugenjou.

You salvage what you can from the junk heaps that have accumulated over the years. That’s just fine when you’re young, and imagination can turn trash to diamonds.

Amano Ginji’s prize possession is a red ball that Teshimine-san found for him, shortly after they started living together. It’s small and doesn’t bounce that well, but it’s an actual toy, which puts it many levels above anything he could play with.

Even early on, Ginji knows the value of the little things. He takes the ball everywhere with him, along with the old blanket he had when Teshimine-san found him.

Whenever Teshimine-san has to leave him for a while, Ginji sits and bounces the ball, up and down, up and down, and pretends that he’s got someone else to throw it back to him.

2. Sleeping

Teshimine-san is always awake. He says it’s an adult thing. Ginji wants to grow up fast, so he can go explore farther on his own, and so that he doesn’t have to be left behind. He has tried lots of times to stay up all night, but always between one blink and the next, he falls asleep. But he’s determined that one day, he’ll be able to wait and see how the world changes from night to day.

And when he sleeps, he never remembers his dreams.

3. Friends

Somewhere, out of nowhere, they appeared. It’s like he went to sleep one night, and the next morning–there they were.

At first they come in pairs, always when Teshimine-san is away. Then, gradually, more and more approach him, and one day Ginji stops to realize that he now has friends. He no longer waits until Teshimine-san leaves; if he sees these people, he goes running to them. Teshimine-san says things like “don’t go too far” and “be careful,” but he always smiles when he does. It has become more difficult to remember a time when they were not there.

Now, when Ginji throws his red ball, there really is someone there to catch it.

4. Food

He has learned to hoard when he must. It feels selfish.

Food is not as difficult to find in the Mugenjou as one might think. Enough people are originally from the outside world, and so have no problems in leaving to search for something to eat. But for Ginji, who cannot remember that other place–if, indeed, he has ever been out there–the numerous thresholds that lead outside frighten him. So, he relies upon his limited resources and saves what he can.

Teshimine-san usually brings back food, whenever he leaves. Ginji’s large overalls are a good place to store extra snacks, which he does out of habit now. At eight, he has grown so accustomed to hunger that a full stomach seems like an alien thing.

Today, one of his friends, a girl named Lon-Fa, came to him, sick and pale. Her brother hasn’t had any luck in finding food for days, she tells him. So instead of playing, she just wants to lie down and rest. Ginji looks at her bowed head and thinks.

He takes out a handful of crackers and nibbles briefly at one before he gives the rest away.

5. Friends II

Teshimine-san never seems to get tired of hearing about Ginji’s friends. At night, they sit together in some little nook or corner, and Ginji talks about what he’s done, the people he sees, and the places he’s explored. He says that an adult in the Mugenjou has no time to ever relax and play, so he likes hearing about what Ginji does. He says it helps him remember being a kid and playing as well. So Ginji tries extra hard to make his stories interesting.

“You’re really happy now,” Teshimine-san says one night. “I’m glad that you have friends.”

Ginji, already heavy-eyed and nodding, manages a brilliant grin. “Friends are nice.”

“They are,” says Teshimine-san. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. Friends are the only thing that make life anywhere worthwhile.” He reaches out to ruffle Ginji’s dark hair. Ginji laughs and tries to pat his hands away.

“Am I your friend?” he asks.

He sees surprise at his question, but then Teshimine-san smiles. “Of course you are, Ginji,” he says. “One of my best.”

That makes him smile wider, and he snuggles against Teshimine-san’s side. Today, he thinks, he’d rather be a kid who can run around and play, than an adult who doesn’t need to sleep. “Good,” he says, and yawns. “You’re my best friend, too.”

6. Beltline

The stairs that lead the way into the Beltline are a place of whispered rumors and dark shadows. Adults keep their faces turn away, never quite running–but the alley that leads there is always abandoned. Older kids often dare each other to go up that twisting path to the higher levels. Younger ones cry and run away.

Ginji is frightened of that place, too. The only time he has ever gone there, he made it up three steps before freezing. At first, he thinks it’s a monster looking–but it’s just his own distorted reflection, in the broken pieces of mirrored glass that line the walls. Over the sound of his heartbeat, he hears laughter, shrill and echoing.

A few days later, he’s playing kickball with some friends when a gun goes off and someone screams. They look up and see two huge men advancing toward them with ugly smiles. Everyone scatters, but one by one, Ginji sees the others get picked off.

Suddenly the trash-smell is tainted. He is no stranger to blood, but it seems odd and alien now, flowing bright red from the stilling bodies of his friends.

And then, all of the men turn their hungry eyes towards him. Ginji runs, and prays that these monsters are just reflections, too.

7. Friends III

Lon-Fa huddles in on herself, a small tucked knot of flesh against the wall. Ginji almost misses seeing her, but once he does, he immediately goes back. She does not stir when he calls her name.

“Lon-Fa, what are you doing?” he snaps, from the mouth of the alley. “If we stay here, we’ll be killed!”

She just shakes her head and lowers her head further. In her eyes, all of their dead friends are reflected. Ginji’s heart beats sharp and fast in his chest; he can hear the Beltline people approaching. Instinct screams to run away, but he will not–cannot–leave her behind.

“Wherever we go, those people from above will kills us,” she says. The hopelessness in her voice pains him, and he wishes he could fix that as easily as he did her hunger, years before.

He takes a step towards her and thrusts out his hand. “It’s okay!” he snaps, and tries to project as much urgency into his voice as possible. “Teshimine and the others are fighting, we can’t get in the way!”

She hides her face in her crossed arms. “But …”

“It’s okay!” he says. “I’ll protect you.”

Lon-Fa’s head lifts slowly from the cradle of her arms. There’s a silent moment as she just blinks at him, but then she smiles and reaches out. Her hand feels small and very warm in his own.

8. Within

Lon-Fa smiles at him. Her face is wet, but she can’t be crying–she always laughs at Ginji and calls him a crybaby. She can’t be crying, not even here and now.

“If everyone were like you, Ginji-kun,” she says, with red glistening on her mouth, “no one else would ever be hurt.”

It’s the last thing she says. He stares at her slack face and whispers her name.

Dokun, dokun, goes his heartbeat in his ears. He knows the Beltline people are laughing, but somehow, he can’t hear them.

Something is building up up inside of him, gathering in his throat like the taste of rot.

Teshimine-san got angry sometimes–but this rage felt like it could burn the world to ashes.

Lon-Fa is too light in his arms. It’s like she weighs nothing.

Dokun. Dokun.

The last thing Ginji hears before the world whites out is Teshimine screaming his name.

9. Sleeping II

Closing his eyes does no good. Every time he’s on the verge of sleep, he remembers the sudden weight of Lon-Fa’s body against his, and how suddenly light she became in death. When he closes his hands, she’s there again.

“I wanted to protect her,” he tells Teshimine, as he lies with his back turned towards the world. In the darkness, he can barely see the wall. “I wanted to protect her, and she believed in that … but in the end, she still died for me.”

Teshimine is silent. Then, he says, “It’s because she believed in you that she died for you. Maybe you couldn’t protect her, but now you can live on to help others.”

For the first time in his memory, Teshimine’s words do not offer Ginji any measure of comfort.

He does not sleep at all that night.

10. Children

He never realized how young everyone is. All the friends that seemed so wise From Before he can only see as mortal children. They’re so fragile, he knows, and this frightens him.

He does not tell Teshimine about what he feels. Because Ginji knows he’s a child too–he’s too young to have realizations like this.

So he tries to continue as always, already grown too old for his years.

11. Junk Kids

When they first approached him, he didn’t understand.

These are the people that Teshimine goes with, the adults and those almost close enough to count. Ginji listens to them talk, and at first he doesn’t realize they are trying to recruit him.

It’s only later, when he mentions this to Teshimine, that he finds this out. Teshimine looks troubled by the news, and stares at his half-stale bread without even pretending to eat it.

“It’s because of what happened,” he says. “You’ve caught the attention of the junk kid gangs of Lower Town. Be careful, Ginji.”

Ginji gnaws on his own bread and stares at the small fire they have built. He does not want to join a junk kid gang; he does not like how they treat anyone outside of their close-knit circles. The idea of leaving to join one, and thus abandoning his friends, troubles him.

The next time they come to him, he just turns away.

12. Thunderstorm

Ever since Lon-Fa’s death, electricity seems to follow him everywhere. Static shocks no longer surprise him, because he senses their buildup long before they actually snap. Instead of stinging, it feels almost good, as though that little release of energy is flowing directly into him.

When Teshimine is not there, he practices. He can create a decent-sized charge now–he’s not sure how powerful it is, though it’s strong enough to make his hair stand on end if he holds it for too long.

One morning, he wakes up with the feeling of anticipation crawling in his skin. Teshimine is standing and looking at the overcast sky.

“We’ll have a storm today,” he said. “Ginji, don’t play too much in the puddles, okay?” He smiles, but it looks strained. Ginji has not jumped in puddles since the day Lon-Fa died.

It rained that day, too, Ginji thinks as he gets up. Thunder booms ominously in the distance. Teshimine says something about getting breakfast, and that is soon followed by the sound of his fading footsteps.

Ginji closes his eyes and waits for the rain to come wash him clean.

13. Touch

No one touches him any more. Teshimine no longer ruffles his hair affectionately, and none of his friends ever take his hand or hug him.

Ginji is a tactile person. But he worries that, with the electricity within him, that he may hurt someone. So he withdraws as well.

It’s become normal to be untouched now. Most of the time, Ginji himself forgets to miss it.

14. Volts

Ginji wakes up one morning, and Teshimine gives him a bundle. It feels too stiff and rough to be anything salvaged from a scrap heap. When Ginji unwraps it, he finds it is a jacket with the word “VOLTS” printed across the back, in big red English letters.

Ginji can read Japanese, because Teshimine insisted on teaching him. But he does not know this word until Teshimine pronounces it for him.

“Why?” he asks. A part of him is afraid to put it on. Another purrs in strange satisfaction, enjoying the sound of the word.

“Because they will never leave you alone,” Teshimine says. “So you might as well make the best of it you can.”

15. Junk Kids II

Now they do not come to recruit him, but to join him. It feels like they simply appeared out of the dark alleys, creeping towards his side. Ginji is constantly aware of them, and the sudden enormous responsibility they bring.

They have left behind their pretenses and false bravado, and now he sees them for the lonely people they are. His chest aches to see their hunger and their fear; now that he has somehow become their master, he is more determined than ever to protect them.

“I want to protect you,” he says to them at night, staring up at the sky. You can barely see it from the Lower Town, because all the tall buildings get in the way.

Ginji no longer sleeps through the night.

16. Shido

People in the Mugenjou can be no different from its animals.

Ginji first heard the rumors of a master of beasts from the youngest children. Jaded as most of them are, there is still a kind of wonder in their eyes as they speak, talking about dogs and cats and even a lion. Ginji smiles at them, and wonders about this man.

One day, they meet. Ginji watches the strange man feed the crows and says nothing. Their silence feels somehow comfortable.

“You’re the Raitei, aren’t you?” the man says. The sound of Ginji’s newly-acquired nickname is still peculiar to Ginji’s ears.

“I am,” he says. “Amano Ginji, leader of the VOLTS.”

“I see,” says the man. Then, he glances over just a little. His eyes are narrow and sharp, like an animal’s. “Fuyuki Shido.”

Ginji nods, respectful. Giving your name in the Mugenjou is a gamble for respect. He is relieved that Shido has offered it so easily.

“The crows sing your praises,” Shido says. “That’s rare. They don’t like any competition for food.” And he smiles a little. Ginji smiles back, because part of him realizes how rare it is for this man to offer that much to anyone.

“I’m glad,” he says. And he is, because now he knows that Shido has just promised to never fight him. Ginji is very tired of people looking for a challenge.

“The dogs say you’re kind,” Shido says. As though on cue, one of the mutts lying at his feet raises its head and looks at Ginji, scruffy ears cocked. “The rats say you respect even them.”

And for this Ginji just smiles, because even now, he is glad to make a new friend.

17. Growing

Teshimine’s eyes are always regretful, these days. He looks at Ginji and something lonely and sad lingers in his eyes.

Ginji understands why he is hurt, but there is nothing he can do. Neither of them can abandon the VOLTS, this new growing thing they have created. Too many rely upon them both.

At night, unable to sleep, Ginji stares at his hands and feels very, very old.

And all the while, the VOLTS continue to grow.

18. Kazuki

Beauty of a sort exists in the Mugenjou, but it is a dark, unpleasant sort–the beauty of fighting, dying, and the tremulous tenacity of life.

Elegance is an unobtainable idea. For a while, it existed within the Mugenjou–but then that, too, dissolved in the path of the VOLTS.

But Kazuki just smiles, when Ginji offers his regrets. He shakes his head, and the soft chime of his bells seems to hang in the air like whispering ghosts. In the half-light, he looks entirely too fragile and beautiful to be in such a place.

“I have made the choice to follow you, Ginji-san,” Kazuki says. He looks over to where Juubei is, and his smile is secret and maybe a little sad. The red thread between them is another beautiful thing that should not have to exist here–but still it persists, forever steadfast.

“And as long as I live,” Kazuki adds, looking back at Ginji, “the elegance of the Fuuchoin style will live on. Please don’t worry about it.”

Ginji wants to believe him. But he looks at Kazuki’s delicate grace and continues to mourn that something like this is trapped within the Mugenjou’s dark walls.

19. Children II

Ginji watches the children and wishes he still knew how to play.

He remembers what Teshimine told him once: that an adult has no time to play and have fun. Not here, living within the Mugenjou’s eternal shadow.

Whenever they see him, the children smile and call to him. Unlike their parents, they see him as someone kind–a savior in this horrible place.
Every time, it gets harder to smile back.

20. MAKUBEX

Ginji has always known this boy, in a distant sort of way. Both of them abandoned orphans of the eternal palace, they have a strange kinship. The boy with no name is surprisingly fond of Ginji, and often follows him with eager shining eyes.

“Look at this, Ginji-san!” he says, bubbly innocent excitement in his face. Ginji looks at him curiously, and is amazed when the boy’s fingers fly over the keyboard. It appears to come to the boy as easily as breathing, and within seconds, windows open across the computer screen

An entire map of the Mugenjou’s Lower Town spreads itself before his eyes, in surprisingly clean detail.

Ginji kneels beside the boy and can only stare. The boy beams at him, childishly proud. “Isn’t it wonderful?” he asks. “This way, we can keep better track of the hiding places in the Mugenjou, and if people from the Beltline ever come back, we could figure out places for everyone to hide, while you and the others fight!”

He looks so young, Ginji realizes, looking at that round face. Would he grow up into something cold and twisted by the life of the Mugenjou?

“It’s amazing,” he says, rather than voicing his doubts. He begins to reach out, but stops when electricity snaps a warning in his fingertips. “I’ve never used a computer before,” he admits.

“Really?” Shock rounds the boy’s mouth into a little “o.”

“Mm.” Ginji cocks his head. “Never really had the chance. And besides, I’m not used to them.” He flexes his fingers a bit, feeling the brief sting of nearby electricity. “I’d need to learn their exact electric signal to use one without shorting it out.”

The boy turns to face him completely, nervous anticipation in his expression.

“Ginji-san,” he says, “let me join the VOLTS.”

Nonplussed, Ginji draws back. “Why?”

“Because,” the boy says earnestly, “I can use computers–Gen-jii taught me everything. I could help you, Ginji-san! Between the two of us, and Shido-san, and Kazuki-san, we could protect everyone!”

He believes what he is saying, Ginji can tell. Faith and hope and determination shine like beacons in his eyes, and Ginji is ashamed to discover he’s nearly blinded.

He rocks back on his heels a bit, giving the boy a critical look. “How old are you?”

Embarrassment draws a red line across the boy’s cheeks. “Eleven,” he mumbles, then looks up, his expression fierce. “But I know what I’m doing! I’m better than even Granpa–there’s nowhere I can’t hack into! Ginji-san, please!”

No, he wants to say. Eleven is far too young–I was thirteen when Lon-Fa died, and that was still too young. No.

“I’ll think about it,” he says, instead. “You should be more careful, though. Talk to your grandfather first. Being a member of the VOLTS isn’t as safe as you might think, or as noble. It’s not like deciding to wear a different shirt or anything–this is true commitment.”

“Un!” The boy nods, so hard that the scarf he wears wrapped around his head begins to slip. He adjusts it quickly, closes his laptop, and stands. Before Ginji can move as well, he bows, so low that he is almost bent in half. “Thank you, Ginji-san! I promise you, you won’t regret this!”

“Hey, wait a minute–”

But the boy is already running off. Ginji leans back on his elbows and despite himself, smiles.

21. A Kind Of Happiness

Families in the Mugenjou are made through spilled blood and won battles. These people are far different from the friends of his childhood, when he was too weak to do anything but flee from battle.

Ginji loves them, in his way–they are as necessary to his existence as breath. He thinks that, if not for them, he might disappear forever.

So now, they are his precious family, the small core of people that makes up the true entirety of his world.

Happiness, like beauty, like elegance, cannot truly exist within the Mugenjou. But sometimes, Ginji thinks, he’s come close enough.

22. Volts II

Now they call him the Master of the Lower Town, the final barrier of protection against raids from the Beltline.

His true name is mostly forgotten in favor of his title, which is echoed in respectful whispers throughout the entire Mugenjou. Lightning falling is his rage, and few are bold enough to challenge his authority.

The VOLTS are now the biggest of the junk kid gangs within the Mugenjou; Ginji has heard that even people from the outside world know of them. He cannot quite understand this; sometimes, in spite of the stories he hears from Shido and Kazuki, he thinks that it’s nothing more than an elaborate myth.

Perhaps the outside world is a dream, he sometimes thinks, looking down at it. A wonderful, beautiful, unobtainable dream that must be the eternal goal.

MAKUBEX wants to see that outside world, more than anything else. He goes online and finds pictures and shows them to everyone else, smiling from ear-to-ear.

“Someday, let’s go together, Ginji-san!” he says. “Let’s go see that outside world with our own eyes!”

Ginji just smiles, but in the back of his mind, he does not think that will ever happen. Even they, the feared leaders of the VOLTS, are slaves to its power. And as it grows, they will have no choice but to stay and tend to its restless, voracious appetite.

As long as the VOLTS exist, the Raitei and his Four Kings must stay to protect it.

Still, he thinks, it’s a nice dream. He can hold it close and warm himself with it, on the coldest nights.

23. A Kind Of Sorrow

Once, Ginji accidentally stumbles upon Kazuki and Juubei in a private moment.

It is only because he knows Kazuki so well that he realizes the sanctity of what is going on, and shrinks back to the shadows. But he cannot look away.

Kazuki’s long, rich hair is unbound, and it flows down his slim back like a waterfall. He brushes it in slow, steady strokes, moving gently down the length of his hair. It takes Ginji a minute to realize he is humming, soft and gentle, under his breath.

Juubei sits at his feet, carving something out of a misshapen chunk of wood. Ginji does not think it is really meant to be anything–it is just there to keep his hands busy. Occasionally, his head inclines to the side, where it lightly touches Kazuki’s knee.

Whenever that happens, Kazuki always pauses briefly, and his smile hits Ginji like a punch to the gut.

No matter how much he puts his Kings first, he realizes, they will always have someone closer to them first. Kazuki and Juubei have their bond, which survived the transition from the outside world to the Mugenjou.

Shido has Emishi, who follows him as eagerly as one of his animals. Shido always says that Emishi’s jokes are bad, but many times, when Emishi can’t see, Shido smiles.

And Juubei’s own sister, Sakura, has created a strange sort of bond with MAKUBEX, the boy-king. Though she never says much, she is always there, within an arm’s reach of the boy, and the few times his cheerful armor cracks, he reaches for Sakura first.

As for the last one … Ginji rarely sees him, these days. He has no illusions there.

The realization sits in his stomach like a ball of cold lead. It does not quite taste of jealousy–but rather wistfulness, the longing to become first in someone’s eyes.

At night, he sometimes thinks he can hear a voice calling his name–but he knows better than to think it anything more than his imagination.

24. Dissonance

It tingles in sharply in his skin like the anticipation of a fight.

“The crows say it’ll rain today,” says Shido. “Emishi and I are going to make sure the kids have a dry place to stay.”

“We’ll go with you,” says Kazuki. Juubei is already on his feet. “Ginji-san, MAKUBEX-kun, take care.”

Ginji nods to them, from his place by the window. He is alternatingly lacing together and pulling apart his fingers, oddly fascinated by the small bursts of static electricity that move between them.

Something is coming, whispers his instincts. Something big.

Something that could change the Mugenjou, and everything Ginji knows about it.

He tries very hard not to squirm like an eager child. It will do him no good to lose his patience this early.

But he can feel it coming, drawing nearer with every heartbeat, every indrawn breath.

When MAKUBEX looks up and says, “Ginji-san,” in that odd tone halfway between grim and cold, Ginji is already moving. The doors swing open before he can touch them, and he walks outside into the cold rain.

Overhead, lightning snaps across the sky in a fierce tongue.

He sees the crowd before he sees the man himself. People look up at Ginji’s approach and melt away, and whispers of his name and title begin to rise, hissing in the air like the fall of rain. His pathway now stands clear.

In his way, there is a man. A single man, a little shorter than Ginji himself, who only turns his head slowly at Ginji’s approach. There is no fear in him when he sees the Raitei; if anything, disdain pours off him in waves.

The electricity gathering within the storm sparks in Ginji’s fingertips, in all his skin: this stranger’s mere presence means challenge.

He meets bright blue eyes and does not look away.

25. Unnatural

Shido says the Mugenjou is too cold for snakes. Ginji believes this is true.

Kazuki fusses over Ginji’s wounds, and because of his concern, Juubei takes over the bandaging and treatment. Most of the time, Ginji forgets that Juubei was training to become Kazuki’s doctor, in the outside world.

He’s usually very impressed by the fact; now, he’s just tired and grateful.

No one know the stranger’s name, not even MAKUBEX, who spends his free time searching. The computers that eagerly roll belly-up for him yield nothing.

Shido thinks the man is a snake. And unlike the usual kindness Shido treats animals with, his eyes are cold and harsh when he says this.

“However,” he says again, “the Mugenjou is too cold for snakes. He won’t be coming back.”

When everyone is with him, talking at once, Ginji cannot hear himself think.

But at night, when even the Mugenjou falls partially silent, he thinks he can hear the slow, insidious drip of a snakebite’s poison creeping towards his heart.

Better to be a snake and be free, it whispers, than to be an emperor trapped under the weight of his infinite palace.

26. Gateway

It comes in a moment of weakness, a time he believes he has snatched for himself.

“I hate it here.” He says it aloud, to test the words to himself. They burn, but they are catharsis: at least they have been finally said.

Ginji stands in a crater of his own making and listens to the approaching footsteps. Somehow, he is not surprised when the unknown man, the snake, appears.

“Then just leave,” he says. “If it’s so painful, get the hell out.”

He says it like it’s so, so simple. Ginji wants to believe–for a moment, he lets himself.

Then practicality takes over again, and he looks away. “You should be the one to go,” he says. “Shido will kill you if he finds you here.”

The other man snorts. “I’m not afraid of that asshole.” A cigarette lighter clinks softly. “If it bothers you so much,” he says again, “leave. You could come with me. I’m thinking of starting a repossessor business, and I could use a decent partner.”

Ginji looks up to see the man reach into his white shirt. He tenses automatically, but all that gets pulled out is a small slip of white paper. “Here. Let me know if you’re interested, lightning-brat.”

He tosses it to Ginji, then walks away. Smoke follows him in a long, wisping trail. When he is gone, Ginji looks at the card.

“Midou Ban” is all it says, and under that, “HONKY TONK.”

He closes his fist tightly around the paper. Freedom is a pipe dream; somehow, it has never seemed so distant, even with the means of it right in his hands.

But though he drops the paper and kicks dirt over it, though he tries to clear it from his mind, the last thing he thinks before finally falling asleep are Midou Ban’s words.

If it’s so painful, then get the hell out.

27. Labyrinth

Ginji picks a direction and begins walking, and soon he finds himself lost.

Around him, the buildings begin to thin out. There is a certain point where his legs simply freeze, and he realizes he has never been here before.

The vast sudden emptiness weighs on him, leaving him feeling small and too exposed.

Overhead, a bird lets out a gravelly croak. Ginji relaxes. Wherever he goes, Shido’s eyes and ears will follow him; he cannot stay lost forever.

He does not know how he ends up here, staring at the innocuous sign. He wonders if it’s only his imagination, if perhaps he’s still sleeping.

HONKY TONK. That is what the sign says, in big English letters.

Part of him did not believe this place existed until this moment. And he realizes that he must suddenly be outside, he has somehow crossed the unseen borderline between the Mugenjou and the real world–he has walked into freedom and did not even notice.

Disappointment wells inside him. He believes freedom is precious, and the fact that it did not set off some kind of explosion or spark inside him is like the death of a dream.

Ginji opens the door, flinches a little at the clink of a bell, and walks inside.

A man is polishing cups behind a counter. Ginji has never seen a place look so neat and well-kept. It almost frightens him, to see this much quiet evidence of money in one place.

Where before, his legs refused to move, they now cannot seem to stop; they carry him over to the counter, where he sits slowly and looks at his reflection in the countertop.

Porcelain clinks and he looks up. The man behind the counter slides a cup and saucer towards Ginji. He is smiling, and it strikes Ginji as strange. In the Mugenjou, you never smile at a stranger without the intent to kill.

The coffee smells good.

“Drink,” the man tells him. “It’ll warm you up.”

He frowns. “I’m not cold,” he says.

“Oh?” The man does not lean on the counter, or try any overly friendly pretenses; he just goes and puts more water into the coffeemaker. Ginji only recognizes it because he has seen a few boxes floating around in the Mugenjou’s dumps. “That might be so. But your eyes look like you’ve just been caught in a cold, hard rain.”

The words give Ginji pause. He looks at the coffee, at the man standing at the coffeemaker, and picks the cup up slowly. Its heat moves slowly through him, and he is surprised. It tingles, much more gently than his electricity.

“Thanks,” he says quietly, and drinks.

28. Decision

Kazuki will say nothing, but he knows the others will argue to the bitter end.

Ginji is prepared–or, rather, he is as much as he can ever be. This choice can’t be unmade.

MAKUBEX sits with a laptop open, but he does not even seem to notice the flickering blue screen. Shido and Kazuki stand in the doorway, and in the shadows, Ginji sees the last of their little group finally arrive.

The atmosphere feels heavy, as though he is swimming through a thick soup just to move. Ginji takes a deep breath, and the air seems to scorch his lungs.

“I am dissolving the VOLTS,” he says.

“I’m leaving the Mugenjou,” he says.

And that is that.

29. The Passing of an Era

Midou Ban is waiting outside. Ginji does not question how the man knew to be there; he simply accepts it as fact.

“You’re sure about this?” he asks around a cigarette. “They probably won’t let you back, if you decide later you’re not happy.”

Ginji finds himself wanting to smile. “I’m sure,” he says.

“Repossessing is a thankless job,” says Ban. He looks at the street, directly through the present and into memory. “If you’re not one-hundred percent sure, you’re probably better off saying no.”

He frowns slightly, feeling annoyed at the other man’s sudden attitude change. “I’ve decided,” he says. “And I always keep my word.”

Footsteps approach, slow and even and familiar. Ginji looks up, and sees Teshimine standing there.

His expression is completely unreadable. For the first time in years, Ginji remembers being the tiny boy who clung to Teshimine’s hand at every step, and cried for emotions too great for his tiny body.

“Ginji,” he says. “Your choices are your own, but they’re better made when you know everything.” Teshimine’s eyes, hard unforgiving gold, skip past Ginji to glare at Midou Ban, who simply exhales cigarette smoke.

Then Teshimine sighs, and it’s like all the fight drains out of him in that moment. “You’ve been looking for an answer, ever since you were a brat,” he says to Ginji. “Now, I think you’ve outgrown anything you can find here.”

“Teshimine?” His former guardian’s odd familiarity sets Ginji off-balance. The other man simply shrugs.

“Being a repossessor is like a jigsaw puzzle,” Teshimine says. “You need all the pieces in order to create a clear picture; only when you have the final piece will you get your answer. So finish any job you accept, and search for those pieces.” He bows his head a little, and continues walking past. “Good luck.”

It is the closest to a blessing Ginji knows he will ever receive. His smile feels like it’s pulling something in his chest tight.

Midou Ban tosses his cigarette to the dirty street and stands. He is, Ginji realizes, a little bit shorter than Ginji himself.

“Come on,” he says, and goes.

30. Just One Minute

Ginji stops at the threshold to the outside world, and shields his eyes with one arm. Suddenly, at this very last step, he feels very small and utterly terrified.

“What are you doing?” Ban looks back over his shoulder. He lights a fresh cigarette and smirks around it. “Come on.”

He holds out a hand.

Ginji stares at it. He has to step over the threshold to take it–so he does. Ban’s hand feels more warm and solid and real than anything has in his entire life, except maybe the second Teshimine first touched his head, years and years ago.

Maybe he’s dreaming–maybe he’s still caught in the one-minute dream of Ban’s evil eye.

But it feels as though he’s finally woken up.

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Bargaining

“Oh,” said Haruhi.

Tamaki, for his part, looked utterly stricken; his face was pale except for the hard high flush on his cheeks, and he was staring at her with something akin to horror. “H-Haruhi,” he stammered, trying to extract himself from Kyouya’s arms without much success, “I swear, I can explain, I –”

“Oh,” said Haruhi again.

“– I would never hurt you, it’s just, Daddy has needs too, and it’s –”

“That’s where the smell was coming from,” she said. “I thought it was the twins. Kyouya-senpai, I’m surprised.”

Kyouya sat up and adjusted his glasses, unruffled. “I hardly meant to,” he said. “However, Tamaki is a force to be reckoned with, when he puts his mind to it.”

“KYOUYA,” Tamaki squawked, then groped around, grabbing Kyouya’s shirt and flinging it at him; it ended up just sort of fluttering over his head. “Get dressed! Haruhi’s staring! What will she think, seeing Mommy in such a state?!”

Haruhi grimaced. “Senpai, that joke really is in bad taste.”

Kyouya just pulled the shirt from his head, calmly slipping into it and buttoning up. “You as well,” he said. “Won’t she be just as traumatized by her ‘father’ that way?”

“Kyouya-senpai too?” Haruhi sighed. “I can leave. I was just coming back to study–”

“Studying!” Tamaki lit up and vaulted — still shirtless — over the head of the couch. “Good, good! You must keep your studies up, Haruhi, that is Daddy’s greatest wish!” He struck a pose, one arm flung out and his other hand pressed over his heart. “Ah, the academic world! It sparkles like a fair jewel, and already my cute daughter is facing it bravely–”

“Who’s whose cute daughter?” she muttered.

“You’re free to use this room,” Kyouya said, adjusting his glasses. “I was careless this once, letting Tamaki get carried away. My apologies, Haruhi.”

Her eyes slowly slid off to the side — the light had pinged off his lenses just so, hiding his eyes, which she’d learned was rarely a good sign. “No,” she said. “I can always check the libraries again …”

“Haruhi!” Tamaki whirled on her, his best hurt-puppy face in effect. “Don’t you want to study with your father’s knowing guidance?”

“Not particularly.” Haruhi began to back up slowly, out the door. “If you two will excuse me –”

“Ahh, just a moment, Haruhi,” said Kyouya. He pushed his glasses up his nose again, and he’d managed to produce his ubiquitous notebook from somewhere. “You won’t tell anyone about what you saw here, right?”

“I’d rather just forget,” she said honestly. “It’s kind of pointless, isn’t it? We’re only in high school. There’s a lot of time for that later, if you’re that interested.”

Kyouya chuckled. “Indeed,” he said, ignoring Tamaki’s protesting wail of, This is the time of our youth! We must treasure it and this fleeting beauty as well as possible! and opening his notebook. “Because it would be terribly inconvenient if news of this got out.”

“I’m not sure why,” said Haruhi. “You’d probably get even more fans that way.”

“Well,” Kyouya said, “while some boy’s love is proven to be popular amongst our clients, there is a small but strong portion of our audience who are interested more in a man’s interest in a woman, rather than another man. We have to keep all avenues open.”

Haruhi glanced aside again. Though she was half-in the doorway already, escape had never seemed so far away. “Ahaaa …”

“And so.” Kyouya made a note of something. “We could slash your debt by thirty-three percent.”

“Done,” Haruhi said instantly. “Can I go now?”

“Go? Go?” Tamaki latched onto her, weeping. “Ahhh, what have I done! I’ve traumatized her so much she can’t bear the sight of us! Mother, what will we do?!”

“No, it’s not that,” Haruhi said, her voice muffled. “I have a test tomorrow and I need — Senpai, you’re strangling me –”

Kyouya sighed once, then strode forward, snagging Tamaki by the scruff of his neck and lifting him up off Haruhi. She gave a small gasp for breath, then quickly stepped out of range. “We’re in agreement, then?”

“I’m not interested in giving away secrets,” said Haruhi. “If no one asks me, there’s no reason to say.”

She thought perhaps Kyouya blinked — it was hard to tell, with his glasses doing that reflective-lens trick again. She could tell, though, from his expression, that he was certainly bemused. “Ah,” he said. “I suppose that’s the best I can hope for.”

“Haruhiiiiiiii,” Tamaki moaned. “Don’t go, I’ll help you studyyyyyyyy–”

“No thank you.” Haruhi backed up, out of reach of his grabbing arms. “I’m very sorry for intruding. I’ll be going now.”

“Haruhi,” said Kyouya. “One more thing.” He tucked the notebook away again, somewhere out of sight, and took her chin between thumb and forefinger.

“Eh?” She blinked up at him. “Kyouya-sen–”

He had very dry lips, actually — a little chapped, oddly enough for a rich man — and very warm. Haruhi made a vaguely stunned noise, and Tamaki for once was dead-silent. She remembered the beach house and wondered, belatedly, if she actually should have been worried. Kyouya, despite being methodical, was apparently harder to predict than she’d originally believed.

Her arms loosened and her books clattered from them, onto their feet, and even then Kyouya just leaned back calmly, as though he’d planned that, too.

“… Um,” said Haruhi, in the silence that followed. “K-Kyouya-senpai, that was …”

“An invitation, I suppose,” said Kyouya, and pushed his glasses up; just like that, his eyes were suddenly visible again. To her surprise, they were surprisingly warm — more accessible, really, than she’d ever seen. “Even though we’re only in high school.”

“Hahhh.” She blinked. “Kyouya-senpai …”

“K-k-k-KYOUYA!” Tamaki wailed. “HOW COULD YOU!”

Kyouya just shrugged, still looking at Haruhi. “How could I what?”

“HOW COULD YOU STEAL MY CUTE DAUGHTER’S LIPS LIKE THAT?! FATHER CAN’T FORGIVE THIS–!”

“She’s already had her first kiss,” Kyouya said, unfazed by Tamaki looming in his face, expression nearly demonic. “If she wants to say no, she’s welcome to.”

For a moment Tamaki seemed to breathe fire, glaring fiercely. Behind him, lightning split the air. “YOU–”

“Haruhi,” Kyouya said to her, “would you say there’s more merit in doing things this way?”

“Ah.” She blinked. “Kyouya-senpai, you’re not …”

“Nn?” He turned back to her again, carefully pushing Tamaki back as he continued to wail and gnash his teeth. “What’s that, Haruhi?”

“You’re not trying to … blackmail me, are you?” she asked carefully. “Because, Senpai, I’m not terribly interested in being forced that way.”

“Blackmail?” Kyouya blinked. “Is that what you’re worried about?”

“Hahhh …” Haruhi glanced aside. Really, it was the fact that he didn’t seem terribly offended by the suggestion that worried her. “It’s, well–”

“There isn’t any point in blackmailing a partner,” said Kyouya. “Or in alienating an ally.”

“Ally?” She blinked.

“Of course,” he said. Light pinged off the frames of his glasses, but she could still see them clearly, and he seemed … amused, somehow, by her reaction. “Our King isn’t exactly the most reasonable of people, you might have noticed.”

“It’s sort of hard not too.” Haruhi turned her head again as Tamaki turned huge shaking eyes at her — Haruhi, how could you say such cold things? When I work so hard to make this club a good place! — then slowly looked back at Kyouya. “Kyouya-senpai, you’re not actually saying that …”

“Well,” said Kyouya. “I wonder if I am.”

“Are you sure this is so wise?” Belatedly she went down onto one knee, gathering up her books. “Hiding this sort of thing with one person is probably difficult enough, when the entire school is watching you. With three, it’s even more troublesome, isn’t it?”

“Kyouya,” Tamaki whined. “Haruhi! What are you talking about? What’s troublesome about people watching us? That’s what we’re here for! We–”

“I trust you to be discreet,” Kyouya said. “You’ve done remarkably well thus far.”

Haruhi stood, holding her books to her chest. “It seems very roundabout,” she said. “If you two are together like that, shouldn’t you be able to handle each other without an ally?”

“Ah,” said Kyouya. “You misunderstand me.”

“–Eh?”

“By now, you should realize I don’t do things unless I want to.” He looked at her over his notebook, and his eyes were hidden again. “And Tamaki is remarkably simple-minded about the things that make him happy. Are you saying you’re not interested?”

“I’m saying I don’t get it,” Haruhi said. “Why is this so important to get settled now? I’m not getting away from you for a long time. I still have a debt to pay.”

Kyouya paused. Tamaki had dropped back to sulk in the corner over being ignored, and so the silence that suddenly followed was encompassing. Haruhi blinked back at him, unruffled. At this late point, she thought, she would just have to go back home to study.

Then Kyouya began to laugh — a low chuckle that was almost alien in his voice; it took her a moment to identify it as simple, genuine affection. In his corner, Tamaki had lifted his head, looking curiously over.

“So, ‘wait and see,’ is what you’re saying,” he said, and pushed his glasses up his nose. “Wait until high school is over.”

“At least,” said Haruhi. “Senpai, I don’t have time for things like that right now.”

“And later?”

“Later is later,” she said. “What I’m saying is not ‘I’m not interested,’ but ‘I need to focus on other things right now.'”

“Ah,” said Kyouya. “… Good.”

Like so many other things, it sort of worried her how he said that. Haruhi tilted her head. “Senpai?”

“Then we’ll discuss this again,” said Kyouya. “When you graduate.”

“Three years is a long time to have your mind made up about something,” she said. “Are you sure?”

Kyouya glanced at Tamaki, who was trying — without much success — to sidle over without being noticed. When he saw Kyouya looking, he froze, as though the daruma had actually fallen.

And Kyouya smiled, which Haruhi thought (though it was more of a passing impression than a conscious decision) was the sort of thing that his fan club would’ve given their considerable fortunes to see, the cool glasses-wearing Ootori Kyouya with such an honest expression on his face.

But when he said nothing, Haruhi glanced at Tamaki, then back at him, and said, “Then, Tamaki-senpai, Kyouya-senpai, I’ll be leaving now.”

“Ehhhh?” Tamaki straightened abruptly, pouting. “So soon? Haruhi, we never get to see youuuuuu–!”

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” she said. “Senpai, you know that.”

“Haruhiiiiii–”

“Tamaki,” said Kyouya, and put a hand on his shoulder. “Let her be. You wouldn’t want her to fail her test, would you?”

“Never!” Tamaki reeled back in horror, throwing his hands up as though he could ward off the bad luck. “Kyouya! You shouldn’t say such things! Ahh, Haruhi, just ignore him, he’s saying crazy things –”

“Then let her go study.” Kyouya smiled at her again, and this one she recognized — pleasant with an edge he was too savvy to unleash except when provoked. “Work hard, Haruhi. You want to graduate properly, don’t you?”

“Ah — yes,” she said hesitantly. She had the uneasy feeling she’d bargained for something over her head, though it had all seemed fairly straightforward to her at the time. “I’ll see you both tomorrow.”

As she headed from the room, closing the door behind her, she heard Tamaki say, “What was all that about? Kyouya, your king wants answers!”

And she heard Kyouya laugh: “I’ll tell you later,” he said. “Maybe when you’re older.”

She left to the sound of Tamaki’s whined protest, and before they could hear her brief giggle as well.

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Ordinary Business

The man across from him was large, built tall and heavy in a fashion mostly alien to Japan. He crammed himself into the corner of their wall booth to fit, with his knees rucked up and one foot brushing Akabane’s. He had a foreign name as well, something German in flavor, and he smelled overwhelmingly of old cigarette smoke.

The remains of their meal lay on pushed-aside plates, forgotten by his host and apparently by the sullen waitress who’d served them. His companion was now nursing his sixth beer, tottering on the edge of being a loud drunk. Akabane, who refrained from both alcohol and tobacco, did not comment.

“It’s an easy job,” the man said, and slammed one heavy fist against the tabletop for emphasis. Their plates jumped a little, and some water sloshed out of Akabane’s glass. His companion did not notice, too infatuated with his sales pitch to recognize the courier’s subtle distaste. “All you have to do is deliver the books to my cousin and then get paid. If you work for me, I’ll take care of you.” He waggled his eyebrows and grinned, already shaking hands in his mind’s eye.

Akabane picked up his glass and sipped delicately. The smoky ambiance of this little bar made his throat sting a little. He did not like to be around people who smoked as a general rule, and forgave the act in only a small handful of people. He decided he much preferred the little coffee shop where the GetBackers conducted business, even if he found the location unpleasant. Both Midou-kun and the master smoked in the café, but two men, even regulars, could not completely fill the place, and at least it had proper lighting.

He personally liked clean bright lights, the sort that exorcised all shadows — like the ones used in hospitals. It made his reading much easier.

“I am a very expensive person to hire,” he said, and tilted his cup a little, so that the ice clinked to emphasize his point. The water tasted of metal and minerals, straight from the tap, but it made a decent prop. “If this is such an easy job, you’d be better off hiring a … smaller name in the business.”

The comment earned him a self-righteous sputter. He did not bother to hide his smile, because the expression was no different from his regular “pleasant business face.”

It took a moment for his potential client to calm down, to fortify his irritation with another deep gulp of beer. “Look,” he said, his broad face now stained red, “I only hire the best, no matter what. Even if the job’s easy, these books are important — ”

“Of course they are,” Akabane interrupted smoothly. His smile never faltered. “I simply wanted to suggest that for such a simple operation, it might be better to save your funds. I meant no insult, truly.”

Narrow, bloodshot blue eyes darted from one corner to the other. The other man hunkered over, as though trying to make himself appear smaller. Hiding in plain sight took a talent he did not possess — but he tried, and received points for that. “Look,” he said, in a voice that was meant to be low and secretive, “all you gotta do is take these books to my cousin, all right? No harm in that. Naota Hiroshi. He’ll be waiting for you.”

Akabane looked at the man, with his white-blond hair and pale blue eyes. “You have a very diverse family. Truly, you do,” he said mildly.

The other man smiled uneasily, as though waiting for the catch. When Akabane said nothing else, he reached down and pulled up three books, which he put down and pushed across the table. Their covers were blank and solid blue, devoid of any title or decoration.

Akabane picked up the top one, about the size of a writing journal, and turned it over carefully. He did not miss the way his companion tensed up, large heavy hands curling into unsubtle fists on the tabletop. He let the book balance between careful fingertips for a moment longer, then set it down. “Perhaps a delivery such as this is left to more universal governmental services,” he said. “Truly, mailing this would cost a great deal less, and it would arrive just as — ”

“NO!” The word burst out of the other man as a pained help, which he immediately tried to cover by straightening and coughing into one thick fist. “I mean — that’s not plausible, Akabane-san. I don’t — um — the truth is, I don’t trust the postal service, because of bad experiences in the past.” He smiled, but it looked sickly, and Akabane could see the sweat beading his forehead and upper lip. The smell of his fear crowded out the stink of old cigarettes.

“Is that so?” Akabane asked smoothly. “Well, the truth is, I’m not terribly fond of it myself. I simply wanted to give you a cheaper option … truly.” He did not tap his fingers or even change his expression, but each long passing second wore on his potential client’s nerves like steel wool.

After the interval of delicately spaced waiting, Akabane said, “Perhaps if you could explain the significance of why these books are so important — ”

“It’s vital these get to Naota on time, all right?” He spoke brusquely, as though trying to override Akabane’s soft voice. Given the otherwise low buzz of noise from the bar around them, he did not have to strain much. “They’re, um. They’re family items, from my father, who just passed away, and — ”

He said nothing, just waited. After a moment, the man’s face twisted and he tried again. “My sister-in-law, see, she gave these to me the last time I saw her, and I know that Nao — er, Hiroshi — is always looking for new journals and — ”

Akabane sipped his water again, then put the glass down. The clink it made against the table shot through his companion like an electric current: he stiffened, then slowly unwound in a moment of wide-eyed desperation. “Akabane-san, please! I told you the job will be easy, and it will pay well! What more do you need?” He reached out and snatched one of Akabane’s slim hands between both his own, pressing it with ordinary brute strength. Compared to the inhuman force of Midou-kun’s Snakebite, Akabane was unimpressed.

He raised an eyebrow, never breaking eye contact. It took him a moment to realize the problem, and once he did, he dropped Akabane’s hand as though it were red-hot. “Oh, no, I’m — I’m so sorry, Akabane-san, I didn’t mean — ”

“While it is customary to shake hands when sealing a business deal, I have not agreed yet.” Akabane did not rub at his freed hand to return feeling to the long fingers, nor did he yank it protectively to his own breast. He simply set it back onto the table, palm down, and changed his expression by raising an eyebrow. “Please, don’t insult us by assuming my acceptance that quickly.”

“No, no, of course not!” It was distantly amusing, how quickly the man tripped over his own tongue to apologize. His big hands roamed, too heavy to flutter, trying to find a safe place to rest. “I’m sorry, Akabane-san; I didn’t mean to — ”

The apologies came fast and blurred, and Akabane finally put his cup down and got to his feet. He picked up his hat and smoothed the wide brim, then held it to his chest. His potential client’s words trailed off to an uneasy silence. Around them, the noises of the little bar seemed to pick up, crowding into the gap between them.

“Akabane-san?”

He pressed the hat to his chest, like a man ready to bow, and smiled politely. “I regret to say that I must refuse this offer,” he said calmly. “I do not appreciate my clients withholding important information from me, and this job does not seem as though it would be very interesting.”

A flurry of emotions chased their way across the large man’s red face: embarrassment, disbelief, and finally a settled, burning anger. He shoved up from his seat, and ended up banging his knees where there wasn’t enough room for his bulk. The small stinging pain only added to his anger; his fear fell drowned victim to his rage. Akabane let it strike him and part around him, like river water around a rock.

“You — you can’t just — ”

“I fail to see any interesting challenge to this particular job,” he said, and knew the man heard the implied insult. “I take jobs for what challenge they may present me, and so I must regretfully decline your offer.”

He watched in mild fascination as the man’s red color only deepened, livid against the paleness of his hair. The wide mouth worked soundlessly, trying to articulate the range of his anger. Akabane continued to smile pleasantly, and nodded once as he left.

Outside, the air nipped sharp and cool, smelling of rain. The moon lay half-hidden behind a veil of clouds, and Akabane, feeling whimsically, tipped his hat to it.

Footsteps started after his before he’d even crossed the street. Akabane let the shadows hide his smile. Perhaps he’d underestimated the entertainment this rejected client could provide; as a large man, and visually obvious in his strength, he might even prove something of a challenge.

Then again … Akabane rubbed his fingers together, and remembered the feeling of metal ripping out of his own flesh. Amano Ginji looked like a healthy young man, but with no particular outward indication of his abilities.

It was slightly distressing, that so many things bored him now, after the opportunities to fight both Raitei and an enraged Midou-kun had been snatched from his fingers. That pique was, perhaps, the reason why he would encourage such an otherwise boring man; it had been weeks since his last truly engrossing job, and he was running out of ways to entertain himself.

You have ruined me, Ginji-kun, Midou-kun, he thought whimsically, as he deliberately turned and walked into the first alley he crossed. Conveniently, he recognized it as a shortcut to his own modest apartment. Therefore, he would not have far to go after disposing of his desperate follower. I’ve become so bored when you’re not around. Truthfully.

The alley amplified all the small sounds of the night — including those of a big man trying to sneak. Akabane’s own boots made no noise against the pavement.

He’d almost made it to the end of the alley when the man made his move. The footsteps behind him sped up, and Akabane allowed the man to drop a heavy hand on his shoulder, then to pull him to a stop. Smiling, he looked up into pale, bloodshot eyes.

“Akabane-san,” the man rasped. “Please, I’m begging you — you have to reconsider — ”

“Please let go of me,” Akabane interrupted, still smiling. “I believe I have terminated our association, sir. Perhaps, if you prefer, I could offer you the recommended names of some of my colleagues — ?”

“You don’t understand,” the man said, his hold on Akabane’s shoulder tightening. “It has to be you, or else — ”

“Unfortunately for you, I have already refused.” Akabane brushed at the hand gripping him, and was not surprised that the careless movement didn’t loosen his companion’s hold. “It’s most unprofessional of you to keep insisting like this.”

In the darkness, he saw the way the man’s eyes rolled — not out of sarcasm, but rather ordinary animal fear. The stink of it seemed to fill the entire alley, stronger than the scattered trash. Akabane waited.

“It’s your fault,” the man blurted. “I need — I need — don’t you understand? It has to be you, I’ve already told my cousin that you’d come; he won’t accept anyone else — ”

“I believe you’re quite trying my patience,” Akabane murmured. “Please let go of me.”

His request earned him a single hard shake. “You don’t understand,” the man groaned. His breath smelled like alcohol and tobacco, and Akabane resisted the urge to wrinkle his nose. Endearing as it looked on Ginji-kun, he did not quite have the face for it.

“So you’ve said,” he said demurely. “However, I — ”

The man released him in a sudden, hard shove; Akabane took a simple step back, rather than stumbling. As he adjusted his hat, he saw the man pat himself down, searching for something, without ever taking his eyes from Akabane’s face. The smell of his fear-sweat mixed with the lingering traces of his indulgences — quite stomach-turning, really.

A rustle, a hoarse cough, and Akabane found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. He raised an eyebrow.

“Is this a hint?” he asked smoothly. “Then I’ll give you one, too. I am not interested in doing business with you. I would rather we parted on amicable terms. Life is much easier that way.”

And I am not currently working, right now, he added to himself. Disposal may be a problem.

“Akabane-san, please,” the man pleaded, looking straight through him. “Hiroshi will kill me if you don’t go to him; he wants to see you — he’s heard all about you, and I — you’ve got to help me, I can’t — ”

“What you can or cannot do is none of my concern,” Akabane said, almost gently. “Good-night, sir.” He turned and began to walk away, one hand braced against his hat for the coming shot. Though the slit in the brim was an agreeable addition, he did not want to deal with any gaping holes to join it.

“Akabane-san — !”

He turned the moment the gun went off, ducking smoothly under its trajectory. He did not so much leap forward as flow, years of liquid practice honed on his muscle and bone. Without pausing, the scalpels pulled out of his flesh, and after that — it was no difficult thing, to sign his work on the dead man’s body.

Behind him, the bullet pinged loudly off a brick wall. He rather hoped none of his neighbors heard.

A huge, heavy hand grabbed the hem of his jacket, tugging it rudely askew. Akabane looked down into the dead man’s eyes. They stared back up at him, begging.

“A — Akaba — Akabane-san — ” he gurgled; blood frothed pink at his lips. Akabane frowned. This was a sloppiness he was unaccustomed to — really, seeing that mess made him ashamed of his signature on this piece. Very calmly, he stepped out of the man’s reach. His mouth moved silently, trying to force a voice for desperate last words — and then failing.

His head and hand thumped heavily to the pavement. The clean metallic scent of blood cut through the lingering stench of fear and cleared his head.

Akabane dusted himself off, tucked the scalpel neatly back under his skin. It burned going in, white-hot and clean. When it was safely back in place, he tugged at his gloves to straighten them, and turned. However irritating, it seemed he would need to pull some strings and call in a few favors; he did not, as a rule, enjoy any interaction with disposal agents. They were crude in their efficiency, with no sense of elegance in their souls.

Still, leaving a body this close to his own apartment was not a viable option. He, at least, had a sense of courteous obligation to his neighbors, and in his own experience, unexpected bodies being discovered nearby tended to make people nervous.

Truthfully, that was so.

” — I’m telling you, I heard it!”

“What’re you talking about? Who’s gonna have a gun out here, of all places?”

“Ban-chan, I know what I heard, and it came from this way … c’mon, we should at least look — ”

Akabane glanced up in time to see the two figures appear at the mouth of the alleyway. Enough clouds had moved away from the moon to provide a clear band of light across their faces, and he saw each minute detail as Amano Ginji’s face went from determined to surprised to fearful within seconds.

“A — Akabane-san?!”

He smiled pleasantly. The evening no longer seemed like such a loss. “Ginji-kun.” He looked past the blonde, and saw another face scowling back at him, blue eyes flinty behind violet sunglasses. “Midou-kun, as well. It’s a pleasant evening, isn’t it? Truly, worthy of a nice long walk.” He took a step towards them, and was amused when Ginji-kun automatically stepped back. The movement carried him into Midou-kun, who stood ramrod straight and did not budge.

“What the hell d’you want, you damn zombie?” Midou-kun spat the words out, like an attack. He did everything on the offensive, even when he spoke to Ginji-kun — though the difference between the two was like a hunting cat baring its teeth at danger, and in play.

Akabane did not slow or stop; he continued walking towards them. Ginji-kun now stood partially behind Midou-kun, and though barely taller, he hid surprisingly well.

“I?” he murmured. “Midou-kun, you and Ginji-kun were the ones who came bursting in on the scene. It seems impolite to make such demands.”

Midou-kun’s blue eyes narrowed. He always heard a challenge in even the most innocent of phrases, and it was amusing to see how easily he could be provoked.

“But if you must know,” he continued, smoothly, “I had dinner with a potential client, and that did not turn out well. And then the night was so pleasant that I decided to take a walk. He followed me.” Akabane chuckled suddenly, the sound whisper-soft. “Perhaps he was worried for my safety. However,” and here he turned his head just a little, studying Ginji from the slit in his hat-brim, “he had no need of that. I am, after all, a professional. Truly.”

Ginji-kun swallowed hard, but did not back down. “And where is the client right now?” he asked, in a voice that — almost — did not shake.

“Not a client, Ginji-kun,” Akabane corrected gently. “I refused his business.”

Midou-kun’s eyes darted to the side, to the stretch of dark alley visible behind Akabane’s slim form. His lips compressed sharply, the ice in his gaze sharpening when he met Akabane’s eyes. The transporting agent continued to smile gently at them both — but especially Ginji-kun, who looked more in need of a kind face than his partner.

“I was not hurt, if you were worrying, Ginji-kun,” he said.

Ginji-kun winced, jumping like a startled puppy. He stared at Akabane, white-faced, and said nothing.

“And then, if that is all … ?” Akabane began moving forward before he finished the question, with Midou-kun surreptitiously pulling his silent partner out of the way. Their instinctive, bristling mistrust amused him; it was like dealing with a pair of untrained, unreserved puppies destined to be guard dogs.

Still, and he knew this well, there were truly sharp teeth hidden in those young faces. The anticipation of future battles stirred his blood — and this was far more stimulating than the quiet, uneventful death of his unfortunate would-be client. If he strayed too close to the two of them, standing so close their auras blurred, it was like some sort of potent alcohol. The night was young, and every breath left the tang of blood and electricity in the back of his throat.

And yet … it was bad manners, not to mention poor professionalism, to pick a fight with people he could be easily working with, when the next assignment rolled around. From the looks of them, however, they were certainly expecting some kind of attack. It was unfortunate, how easily their young emotions could tip so precariously one way or the other, depending on the breath of the wind.

Yet tonight, he’d leave them disappointed. He’d had his fun, and it seemed rude, really, to ruin their evening by pushing it.

Akabane smiled, then tipped his hat to the GetBackers both.

“Until the next time, Ginji-kun, Midou-kun. I will be looking forward to it. Truly.”

Then, without a backwards glance, he strolled back out into the cool, damp-scented night.

***

A different place, a different potential client.

The outside café was much more to his tastes, even in the unpleasant air of Tokyo. They met in broad daylight, when salarymen and office ladies and other members of the working class appeared for a brief, frenzied rush for food, then disappeared again. Natural light made his eyes hurt in a way artificial did not, and he was glad for his hat.

She’d already been drinking coffee, something with a richly potent smell, when he arrived. He’d ordered black tea without looking at the menu.

The intermediary agent’s hair glowed pale in the late afternoon sunlight, combed out shining and loose around her shoulders. Today she dressed with surprising modesty, with a high-necked cream-colored sweater and a long, dark brown skirt. She looked at him over her cup, resting her upper lip on its edge, her eyes shrewd as she met his gaze.

When they’d first met, Akabane had wondered, just briefly about that long fall of gold, as well as at the strange color of her eyes. Coupled with a flawless Japanese accent, it was a vaguely intriguing puzzle — and one that he dismissed immediately after considering. They were not professional. It did not matter where she’d come from, only the jobs she found him.

He put down his tea cup gently. “It sounds interesting,” he said at last. Even watching under the brim of his hat, he didn’t miss the way she flinched at his choice of words. Akabane smiled a little. He rather liked this one: she found his work distasteful, but could not fault him for being one of the best, and so treated him with respect. So many of her fellows did not understand enough to do the same. “You’ve always done good business with me, chuukaiya-san.”

She smiled thinly at him. Even without the fighting ability to back up her threat, it had the same feel as Midou-kun’s more bloodthirsty smirks. “I’m doing my job, Doctor Jackal,” she said. “I’m nothing less than a professional.”

“Of course,” he said. “I’m sorry, I did not mean to offend.”

The intermediary agent leaned back in her chair and set down her own cup. She laced her fingers together, resting them lightly on her stomach as she looked him over. “Fine. The delivery is scheduled to begin in two days, at six in the evening; I’ve taken the liberty of contacting Mister No-Break as a partner for this job. Lady Poison was contacted as well, but declined for another job. I’ll call you later with locations.” She pursed her lips, tapped long fingers against the side of her coffee cup. “Hiruta-san will be counting on you to deliver her safely.”

Your boredom must not touch her. That was what the intermediary did not say, but he heard it clearly. Akabane touched his hat, tipping it a little.

“I will perform to the greatest of my ability,” he said. “Truly, I shall.” He did not say trust me, did not push her tolerance with that. However, like himself, she was very good at hearing implications. She relaxed a little, enough to offer him a faint smile.

“Very well, then.” She got to her feet, put some money on the table. “If you’ll excuse me, Doctor Jackal. I have a meeting in half an hour.”

“Do take care,” he said politely. “Chuukaiya-san.”

She nodded, and turned to walk away in a flare of gold. Heads turned to follow her departure, and he drank tea to hide his smile. The intermediary agent was admittedly a very beautiful young woman, even if she had none of the grace or poise of a “true” fighter. He would be surprised if she did not use her body as a weapon in its own right, especially in a business overrun with would-be GetBackers, young men lured by the supposed glamour and independence. Truly so.

Akabane put his share of the money down and stood as well. The ripple of his long black coat drew the eyes that had followed the intermediary’s hair; he could sense the awe of the crowd all around him as he walked — fascination tinged with (to their own minds) unreasonable fear. It amused him. These were people safe in their cotton-wrapped worlds, sometimes dreaming of excitement without ever finding the bravery to simply reach and take it.

The world was full of people who were not useless, as many cynics were inclined to believe, but merely boring. People who sleepwalked through their lives, occasionally glimpsing something fascinating before it slipped through their fingers.

Perhaps, he mused, that was why the scenarios Midou-kun created with his Jagan were so violent, often ending in a flare of dramatic deaths. In a society of repressed sensibilities, the protective veils could wear thin so easily — so it was not a “dream” the Jagan shared, but “reality” torn into free and bleeding life.

… or, perhaps that was not the case. He’d only been subjected to the Jagan once, and that was not enough to fully comprehend a weapon of that magnitude and complexity.

He smiled to himself — and this was different than the normal upturn of his mouth. He could feel the ripples in the crowd, a confused jumble of emotions that heaved in an ocean’s wave. Like one of his scalpels, he sliced through it and passed into cleaner air.

Which, given how bad the overall atmosphere in Tokyo was, was not really saying much.

***

Maguruma was a solid man, and a good one — as much as any man could be “good.” He was dependable, surprisingly well-read despite his day job as a taxi driver, and understood the value of silence. They were friendly as they could be — Akabane knew Maguruma had family somewhere overseas, and Maguruma knew that Akabane had three separate apartments throughout Japan.

Casual small things, offered as tokens of free will and then set aside, because they were things that lay outside of a business context — and the two of them never interacted on a personal level. He was one of very few in all the branches of their underworld businesses who had no fear of Akabane.

For that, though Maguruma eschewed all actual combat, Akabane respected him. They greeted each other with pleasant nods when they met, at some obscure little garage that the intermediary agent had found near the outskirts of the city. Dusk was already beginning to darken the sky, the brilliance of sunset gentling out.

They did not speak as they waited for the intermediary agent, though the silence between them sat comfortably.

She appeared at six o’clock sharp, dressed in low-cut, high-riding black leather, long golden hair twisted up into an elaborate swirl. Behind her came the “goods” they were to deliver, such as she was — Hiruta Kaede, a young, fragile-looking woman with huge dark eyes too much makeup. Pretty, in a glass flower sort of way, and dressed in an ornamental kimono that seemed almost too heavy for her.

“Good, you’re both here,” the intermediary said crisply. As always, she appeared oblivious to her own near-nudity, despite the growing chill. “This is your client and what you’ll be delivering, Hiruta Kaede. I’ve mentioned her name before.” She looked at them both evenly, waiting until they both nodded before she continued. “There will be someone waiting for you at Hotel Fujita in Nara when you arrive. Hiruta-san will direct you accordingly.”

“And how do we know we won’t be handing you off to the wrong person?” Maguruma said directly to Hiruta herself, who blinked those huge eyes and shrank back a little, behind the intermediary.

“I think this would be a case of simply trusting her to make the right call, Mister No-Break,” the intermediary said. “You will receive your payment directly from him once Hiruta-san has been safely delivered.” Her mouth twisted into a wry grimace. “As per part of the arrangement, however, I won’t be paid until you are. Don’t cheat me out, either of you.”

Maguruma chuckled faintly. Akabane tipped his hat to her. “We wouldn’t dream of it, chuukaiya-san,” he said. “As I’ve said before, you are always fair.”

She smiled, then stepped aside. Hiruta looked at her with something akin to betrayal as she was pushed forward.

Maguruma opened the door to his truck, and held out his hand to her. “There’s a sleeping area in the back,” he said. He studied her pale face for a moment, then said, more kindly than before, “Akabane and I are professionals. You’ll be fine.”

Her chin lifted, then tilted imperiously. “If I am — violated, in any way,” she said, in a shaking voice, “Naota-san will see to it that you both pay dearly.”

Akabane moved his hat just so, and let go of the brim. “We are professionals in a modern world, Hiruta-san,” he said smoothly, and felt more than saw the way she jumped and whirled. “I hope you will not continue to find such an old-fashioned attitude necessary. It is a long drive to Nara.”

He could feel the intermediary agent’s radiating disapproval, but he felt it important to establish the fact early on. Despite the girl’s beauty, she struck him as painfully boring, and she was young enough to be one of Maguruma’s granddaughters. A temper like Hiruta’s could be amusing, but that was entertainment that wore out quickly and soon grew irritating. He could feel the girl’s offended stare burning into him, and was glad the angle of his hat’s brim hid his smile.

Finally, Maguruma cleared his throat. “Miss, if you’ll please,” he said. Akabane watched those delicate little feet, half-hidden beneath the folds of her kimono, whirled sharply and she stalked towards the truck. Only then did he straighten, smiling at the intermediary agent’s frown as he swept past.

Maguruma raised an eyebrow at him as he climbed into the truck. He didn’t smile, but something in the slant of his mouth implied silent amusement. They understood each other, Mister No-Break and Doctor Jackal, even if they didn’t really know each other. Akabane tipped his hat, then leaned back so that Maguruma could close the door.

Hiruta had settled into the front passenger seat, her chin defiantly lifted. Her back was ramrod straight, and her small hands were folded tightly in her lap. She looked at Akabane, saw his smile, and glared. It reminded him of Lady Poison’s self-righteous anger, the first time she’d seen him kill a man. Truly, very similar.

Maguruma’s truck started without a cough or sputter; it was far from new, but lovingly kept, even in the long months when it was not in use. He had understandable pride in the vehicle that helped build his reputation. If Hiruta only saw its plain, undecorated interior and deemed it beneath her, then her high-class, overacted pride would be far more trying than amusing — Akabane only hoped that she would drop the façade before they made it very far.

Her act was good, enough to fool the intermediary agent — and almost Maguruma himself. Akabane saw the quirk in the man’s heavy eyebrows when he looked back, and answered it with a slightly different smile. She tried a little too hard, exerted herself a little too much, and now the proverbial chessboard lay open to his next move.

Akabane did not doubt that there would be complications on this job. In fact, he’d been relying on that when he accepted the intermediary agent’s offer. Originally, though, he’d expected the trouble to come from the tricky nature of transporting people. Humanity’s self-love declared they only suffered such objectification when their survival instincts ran truest.

Recently, business had been so slow. He was looking forward to this kickstarting it again.

***

After about an hour of driving, Hiruta said, “Stop the car.”

She did not look at either of the transporters when she gave the command, apparently fascinated by the way her hands looked against the pattern of her kimono. Maguruma met Akabane’s eyes in the rearview mirror. Akabane leaned forward, and though he did not touch Hiruta, his gloved fingertips just barely missed brushing her shoulder. He tipped his hat so she could see both his eyes clearly.

“We’ve barely started,” he said. “If it’s not an emergency, we can’t just stop. You’ll insult Mister No-Break’s reputation this way.”

Her head snapped up. Furious spots of color burned in her cheeks, but she continued to look only straight ahead. “I am the client, am I not?” she asked, voice sharp. “I am the one paying you. Stop the truck right now.”

Akabane sank back a little and chuckled. “Oya oya,” he said, “you sound a bit rattled, Hiruta-san. We cannot be expected to deliver you in a timely fashion if you continue arguing like this.”

Her hands clenched.

Maguruma-san has a bed set up in the back, and we have plenty of supplies for this drive,” Akabane went on. “Should you wish to eat or retire, there are the proper facilities in the back.”

Hiruta glanced at him for just a moment, then snapped her head back forward. The heated anger in her eyes might have scorched a lesser man to charred bones. Akabane just held onto his hat and continued to smile at her.

“If it’s so important, then,” he said, “surely you can explain the gravity of the situation. We are not unreasonable men, Hiruta-san.”

She flinched as though struck. Maguruma, who’d been ignoring their conversation for the most part, looked at Akabane again. He gave the tiniest of shrugs.

“As transporter agents, we have promised to take you anywhere, and with the guarantee that you will reach that destination safely, and within a reasonable time frame. Why did you hire us, if you did not wish to make it to Nara as quickly as possible?”

Hiruta scowled fiercely, the expression contorting her pretty face, and said nothing.

“Keep driving, Maguruma-san,” said Akabane, and sat back again.

Maguruma grunted agreement. Hiruta seethed visibly, but remained deliberately quiet, staring straight ahead.

After another hour and sixteen minutes, her hands suddenly clenched. “Stop the truck,” she said again. Her face turned, but her eyes continued to slide away from either transporter’s face. “Please, it’s important — ”

“We are delivering you from Tokyo to Nara,” said Akabane, without moving. “Not somewhere in-between. That is what you have paid us for.”

Hiruta bit her lip, held it sharply between her teeth. Blood drained from her narrow face, so that her skin looked nearly translucent under the layer of her makeup. Under the heavy kimono, her narrow shoulders hunched and her eyes continued to wander restlessly everywhere but on human faces. She began to wring her hands slowly, so that the skin stretched taut and relaxed into red streaks.

After a moment, Maguruma glanced at her sideways, one heavy brow cocked. “You’ll hurt your hands like that,” he said gently.

She stiffened, and quickly moved her hands to rest stiffly against the seat by her hips, continuing to stare blankly ahead. Maguruma looked at her thoughtfully for a moment longer, then returned his attention back to the road. In the back, Akabane continued to sit utterly motionless, though he kept one eye on Hiruta’s stiff back under the wide brim of his hat.

The third time, she waited almost two full hours before she turned again. Before she could open her mouth to speak, Akabane said, “Hiruta-san, we have not reached Nara yet.”

She shot him a withering glance. He merely tipped his hat to her, untroubled by the fierce stab of her anger. Then she turned her attention back to Maguruma, reaching out to tug on his sleeve with one tiny hand. “Maguruma-san, please, I’m begging you — I know how important reputation is in your line of work, but — ”

Akabane lifted his hat a little, brow furrowing just a bit. Then he smiled a little. “Maguruma-san,” he said, cutting through Hiruta’s words, “I believe the ride is just about to get interesting.”

Maguruma grunted. When he looked in the mirror, his expression was wry. “The problem with your idea of ‘interesting,” he said, “is that you’re rarely wrong.” Then he spun the wheel abruptly to the right, with enough speed that the enormous truck lifted its left wheels, briefly, off the road.

Hiruta shrieked as she was tossed to the side, and groped at the door for purchase. Her hand found the handle and squeezed it open; Akabane put a hand to the top of his head to keep his hat from blowing away. One gray eye slitted open, and he caught sight of Hiruta’s pale face, glaring defiantly back at him.

She let go, then, and was gone. Maguruma muttered a curse and hit the breaks; the giant truck’s wheels protested loudly as they ground against the street, and the whole thing tilted dangerously, as though ready to simply fall over. Akabane held on to his hat and waited for the world to come to a stop.

When the truck had finally stopped moving, Maguruma sat back heavily in his chair and sighed. “Maybe I should stop taking jobs with you,” he said. “You’re bad for my no-break reputation.”

Akabane stood smoothly, and offered him a polite smile. “That would be very unfortunate, if you did,” he said. “I assure you, I truly enjoy your company on the road.”

Maguruma waved a broad hand. “Go get her,” he said, his voice wry. “Any cuts the delay takes will come from your half of the payment.”

“Of course,” Akabane said, and slipped out the open door, and down onto the asphalt.

He walked very slowly: there was no need to hurry. They were far from the nearest city, and the evening was turning the wind cold. Carefully he followed the tracks of burned rubber, his footsteps to the exact edge of the lines.

Maguruma’s truck was almost out of sight when he stopped and looked up. Wind rippled the edges of his coat out into a wide flare, and he flicked the brim of his hat, so that he could glance up through its narrow slit.

“I was wondering when you’d actually give it up,” Akabane said pleasantly. “Aoyama Eriko-san, the Puppet-queen.”

She unfolded up out of the shadows. Her ink-dark hair had been loosened from its traditional bun, so that it could flow loosely down her back, and she’d discarded the outer jacket of the kimono, bundled in a compact knot by her feet. Around her finger were wide loops of silver-shining wire.

When he named her, Eriko snorted disdainfully. “Should I be impressed?” she asked. “I don’t think so. A professional like yourself should be smart enough to figure these things out, Doctor Jackal.”

Akabane tipped his hat. “Nice to meet you, at last,” he said. “As a woman who uses herself as a lure in the most special of delivery cases, you don’t work often. How much did Naota Hiroshi offer to pay?” He began to walk slowly towards her. The movement caused his coat to billow widely open. “Three million yen? Four? Perhaps five? Greed is a dangerous beast, Eriko-san; she will devour you before you can satisfy her.”

She just smiled thinly. “A job is a job, Doctor Jackal,” she said. “You know this.”

“I do,” he said. “But I also know when to pull out — if money is all you work for, your life must be quite dull, indeed.”

“Not just money,” Eriko said, sidestepping his approach. “Naota-san offered me a few other things to sweeten the deal. And besides — ” here she tossed her head, arrogant in the way of the very young, “I had this chance to meet you.”

He tipped his hat. “I’m very flattered by your interest,” he said. “But I’m not that interesting. I’m simply a working man, like any other.”

“Fhn!” Eriko tossed her head. “Not to hear Naota talk. To him, you’re the most fascinating creature that’s ever existed — the retriever whose reputation has spread so far and fast that not a single person in the business hasn’t heard of him. They say you’re so dangerous that no one’s fought you and lived.”

He flexed his fingers. “On the contrary,” he said, “I’ve already had the pleasure of fighting my equal already. It was a very interesting battle, Eriko-san, one of my best. It’s too bad you never got to see that.”

“Why should I care?” Eriko shot back. They were circling each other now, and she was bristling, like a threatened cat. “I’m not interested in fighting you, Jackal.”

“Unfortunately, Eriko-san — ” He shifted his weight, moved until he was standing before her, smiling down, “my own pride as a professional would not allow for that. Truly.” He flexed his wrist, then splayed out the three scalpels he’d produced between his fingers. They were bright enough to glow, and he saw the points of their light reflected in Eriko’s eyes.

To her credit, she rallied bravely. “Just be good,” she said, “and — ”

“Eriko-san,” Akabane said sternly, “you should remember to do your homework before taking on any job.” He stepped back and pressed the scalpels back into his flesh, both eyes open on her pale face. “If there’s anything I hate, it’s being bored.”

Her mouth dropped open, then trembled, as though trying to work for sound. One of her hands reached up to press at her chest, her fingers dragging at the material of her shirt. She toppled forward, and Akabane politely stepped aside, in order to not ruin her dramatic fall.

He bent, felt at her throat and wrists, then hoisted her up onto one shoulder, carrying her back to the van. Maguruma had politely left the door open, and only glanced up briefly when Akabane deposited Eriko into the seat.

“This time,” he said, “please make sure she buckles her seatbelt, Maguruma-san. All sorts of unfortunate accidents may happen, otherwise.”

Maguruma sighed and put his magazine down. Broad square fingers grasped Eriko’s chin, lifting it to the light. There were black smudges in her makeup, and the beginnings of a bruise on her forehead. A “J” had been cut into her shirt, but not the skin itself.

“Neat work,” he said.

Akabane tipped his hat. “Our job was to deliver her alive,” he said. “Besides, Eriko-san is not a fighter. There would be no challenge.” His free hand flexed gently, as though practicing the familiar motions. “I do believe in professional courtesy.”

Maguruma pulled the last buckle tight. Aoyama Eriko’s arms were crossed in an X over her chest, the rest of her body secured in place by five evenly-spaced belts. The look he gave Akabane, as he straightened and turned back to the front of the truck, was wry. “Go ahead and get in,” he said. And then, almost under his breath, “You have strange hobbies.”

“People live a very long time, if they’re careful, Maguruma-san,” Akabane said. “All of us need to find something that can break up the monotony.”

“I think I could live with monotony,” Maguruma said, “but like Eriko-san, I’m not a fighter either.” He turned the key in the ignition and started the truck again.

***

“We’re here,” Maguruma said, and pulled the truck to a stop. He looked at Eriko, who had not said a word since she’d woken up. “Do you think we need to bring her inside?”

“I suppose we must,” Akabane said. He looked at the stiff-lipped young woman as well, and sighed, and adjusted his hat. “Eriko-san, do you think you could cooperate with us?”

She snarled something very rude at him. It was a pity, truly, when Japanese was such a noble language, and she lacked the finesse to even pull off rudeness properly. Midou-kun had a much more elegant style than she did. With a sigh, Akabane leaned forward and touched the edge of one scalpel to her long pretty neck. Eriko froze, a small high sound escaping her.

“If I move this, I will touch the external jugular vein,” he told her. “Please don’t give us any trouble.” Keeping one the scalpel steady, he reached over with his other hand and undid the first set of buckles that held her in place. Her nostrils flared and her lips tightened, but she didn’t try to move.

Maguruma looked at the two of them, then sighed and undid his own safety belt, leaning back in his seat. “I’ve done my part,” he said. “Will you need a ride back to Shinjuku?”

“I would like one, yes,” Akabane said, freeing Eriko’s legs, now. In her lap, the young woman’s hands shook fiercely. “If you don’t mind, Maguruma-san.”

Maguruma reached over and picked up a newspaper — yesterday’s, Akabane saw. “Do as you like,” he said. “I would like to leave before it’s too late.”

“Oh, certainly,” said Akabane, and opened the front door of the truck, then considered the logistics of the situation. “Actually, Maguruma-san, if you could help Eriko-san down from the truck, I would appreciate your cooperation.”

“Beast,” Eriko snarled. Both men ignored her. Maguruma put his paper down and opened the door on his side; he said nothing, but there was a faint sigh in his breath. Akabane was sorry, of course; Maguruma’s joints were usually unhappy after a long truck ride, and the enforced stop had probably done little to please him. But he was professional as always, and a moment later he appeared on the other side of the truck, holding up his arms.

Eriko started to shrink into her seat, and froze when Akabane shifted the scalpel minutely. In a single smooth motion, he pulled it away and pushed her hard, toppling her out of the truck and into Maguruma’s rock-strong hold. She shrieked and flailed, but he simply wrapped one broad arm around her waist and put the other hand over her mouth.

Lithe as a cat, Akabane leapt down and smoothed the edges of his coat. Truly, he thought, this job was far more trouble than it was worth. He only hoped the man who’d gone through so much trouble to arrange two meetings would be even just a little more entertaining.

“Now, Eriko-san,” Akabane said cheerfully, “let’s deliver you to the person who hired us.” He flexed his hand, and produced two more scalpels to accompany the one he’d had before; they seemed to have their own light, and he saw that both Eriko and Maguruma looked at them immediately, as though hypnotized. He nodded to Maguruma, who let her go, and stepped back.

At least she was smart enough to not try running. He was grateful for that, truly so. Akabane gestured towards the lights of the hotel, sketching a proper Western-style bow as he did. “Shall we?”

She lifted her chin, haughty as any queen, and stalked before him. It was, perhaps, foolish to let her go first, but he would cheerfully admit that he hoped she would try something. Other than the brief diversion, he’d found this entire job remarkably boring; the next time he spoke to the intermediary, he would have to request she find him something more interesting, the next time there was a job.

Together, they walked into the hotel lobby. There was no one at the receptionist’s desk, but there was a skinny, small man walking towards them, wearing a long gray coat that ballooned out behind him as he walked. Undisguised anticipation gleamed in his moon-shaped pale face, and Akabane thought that, truly, this young man did not understand what he was wishing for. He completely ignored Eriko, reaching past her as though to touch Akabane’s face, before letting it fall at the last moment.

“Ah,” he said. “You, you must be Akabane Kuroudo. It’s an honor to meet you, finally.”

Akabane said nothing, but gave Eriko a gentle push, so that she stumbled into the man. For a moment, the stranger looked genuinely surprised, fumbling the young lady before setting her back on her feet and nudging her aside. He smiled at Akabane, eyes shining, and reached down as though to clasp Akabane’s hand in his own.

“I’ve delivered Hiruta Kaede, as you hired me for,” he said formally, looking at a point on the man’s forehead, rather than square in his eyes. He saw Eriko look at him with open hate before she drew back slowly, and then slunk away out of the hotel lobby and back into the night. “I apologize for the delay, as we ran into a few complications –”

“But you dealt with them, yes? Yes?” The man juggled his weight nervously from one foot to the other, still looking at Akabane with something dangerously akin to worship. “Whatever troubles get in your way, they never stop you, and you’ve only failed at a job when you found it boring and walked away …”

Akabane tipped his hat, more to the now-absent Eriko than to his employer. “If you will excuse me now,” he said, “I mustn’t keep my ride waiting.”

“No, wait,” the young man said, and this time he did manage to catch hold of Akabane’s sleeve, plucking at it with fingers that resembled stick branches. They looked like any applied pressure could snap them easily in two, but held on with surprising strength. “Wait, I wanted to be able and talk to you –”

“Naota-san,” Akabane said calmly, “I really must be going.

Naota’s eyes lit up. They were veiny and red, as though he had not slept for days, perhaps imagining this moment. “You knew my name,” he said, excitement bright in his voice. “Oh, you knew who I was, even though I said nothing — Akabane-san, you really are such a professional!”

“Indeed,” said Akabane, “I am. You may pay the intermediary, and she will see to it that the money gets to me.” He pulled gently on his hand, and Naota grabbed for his wrist. Those pale thin fingers were cooler than Akabane’s own skin, and soft as though the man had never done a day’s work in all his life. A gleam lingered in his eyes, along with a basely-crude hunger.

“Please,” he said, rubbing the pad of his thumb along the line of Akabane’s pulse, ignoring the way Akabane’s gray eyes narrowed at him, “please, listen to me. You and I, we share something special, don’t you see? As one artist to the other, you must understand the things — the things we must endure, for the sake of our art.” Naota breathed in short, harsh bursts, and his breath smelled cold and sour, as though he had not eaten anything for hours.

Akabane looked at the shaking hand on his arm. “Naota-san,” he said, “I think you might be mistaken.”

“I’m not,” Naota insisted, taking a step closer; for a Japanese man, he seemed to have no concept of personal space. Akabane’s upper lip curled fractionally upwards in disgust. “You have to understand. I’ve seen your work. It’s beautiful.”

“I am simply a delivery agent,” Akabane said calmly. “I make sure items will get there on time. Unfortunately, it seems as though the lady you requested I safely escort has escaped you.”

“Forget her.” Naota flapped his other hand dismissively. “I wanted to talk to you. Akabane-san, I have a proposition –”

“You conduct business very poorly, Naota-san,” Akabane said. “If you wished to make an arrangement with me, there are better ways than this charade of delivering someone to you. The intermediary has my contact information, if you wanted to get directly in touch.”

“That’s not the point,” Naota breathed. In the fluorescent lighting, his eyes gleamed. “I want to — to work with you. To create with you, to make more beauty out of what you already have wrought –”

“I beg your pardon?”

Naota smiled, and something twitched in the corner of one eye — a nervous tic, and Akabane focused on that, rather than directly on Naota’s face. “You create such beauty in what should be such a painful thing,” he murmured, fingers tightening on Akabane’s wrist. “I … have my own small practice, you understand, and I feel that together, we — we could — we could make something wonderful. Truly.”

His lips were shaking. Under his fingernails were dark brown crescent moons, though the rest of his fingers were clean. There was a strange, shaking light in his eyes, which make Akabane think of the Mugenjou, and the strange shadowy things that had peered out at him from the shadows, the first time he walked through. He resisted the urge to curl his lip, and thought himself disappointed anew by this job.

“Naota-san,” Akabane said firmly, “I am a retriever. What you’re suggesting would take up far too much of my time.”

“No, see, see,” Naota said, leaning in close. His cold breath touched Akabane’s cheek as he did, and a strange sort of lust gleamed in his pale eyes. Akabane found it distasteful “You — could bring them to me, yes.” The brush of fingers against his wrist bordered on reverent. “You could bring them to me, and I — I could make them beautiful.”

He looked hungry, Akabane thought. He looked like a man starving for something, and lacking the strength to seek it out for himself.

Akabane look at him for a long moment, at his hard-blinking eyes and wincing smile. He was glad he was wearing gloves when he reached up and gently pried those fingers off of his arm. “I’m sorry,” he said, though in truth, he was not. “The truth is, I have no interest in an arrangement like this.”

“But!” Naoto looked horrified like this, and tried to reach for Akabane again; before he could, Akabane took a smooth step backwards. “But, Akabane-san, it would be beautiful, it would be wonderful — you’re an artist, you must understand –” He caught the edge of Akabane’s long coat, whimpering.

“I’m not an artist,” Akabane said. “I am a retriever.” He reached down and pulled Naota’s clinging fingers from his coat, then tipped his hat politely. “However, I wish you luck in the future. Truly, art is so under appreciated these days.”

“Akaba –”

“My ride is waiting,” Akabane said. “Good night, Naota-san.”

He did not look back when Naota wailed his name, walking at an easy pace through the parking lot. The door on his side swung open as he approached, and he saw Maguruma lean back, and put his newspaper down.

“I regret to say,” Akabane told him, climbing into the truck, “that I don’t believe the client will be paying us.” He closed the door, then did his seat belt. “There was a catch that the client failed to mention before time, and I chose to decline.”

Maguruma’s eyes flickered, but if he was annoyed, it didn’t show in his face. “Perhaps you’ve been working with those GetBackers young men too often,” he said, as he started the truck. “It seems their luck is rubbing off on you.”

Akabane chuckled, flipping the brim of his hat down, over his eyes. “Perhaps,” he said.

They were silent for the rest of the ride back.

***

“I suppose it can’t be helped,” the intermediary said, her voice tinny through the phone line. “I should have been more careful in asking him questions.”

Akabane sipped his tea. “It was unfortunate. Truly so.”

“I hope this won’t be a trend,” she fretted, and he could imagine her pacing, free arm crossed beneath her breasts for extra support. “I have enough problems trying to deal with Ban-kun and Gin-chan –”

“I’m sure you have no need for worry,” Akabane said, soothing. “Setbacks are all just part of ordinary business.”

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And On This Night

Fullmetal moves the same way asleep as he does awake: sharp, quick motions that are interspersed with stretches of near-deathly stillness, which are the closest he comes to pliable. When he has a nightmare, one of the truly bad ones, not even Alphonse can get close enough to wake him without risking a clip from the automail arm. Roy is used to that, and does not push his luck; even if they are an open secret, a bruised jaw would be more than he cares to explain.

It is the moments right after waking that things are strange, when Fullmetal’s yellow eyes open dark and misty. For a brief space, he’s only Edward, because Fullmetal is never so soft, and if Roy touches his shoulder, he will lean quietly back and relax. Roy has it timed down to the second. Sometimes he pulls away first, content to let the mood linger–other times he’ll remain, and let the argument that follows wake him up.

If he let himself question it, he might admit that it confuses him, in some obscure way, to see Edward completely soft-eyed and quiet. A man like Edward Elric, wounded so early and constantly in life, should always have an edge to him–the fact that it vanishes, even for a heartbeat, is strange to Roy. He prefers Fullmetal, awake and aware and sharp-tongued, over Edward, who moves slowly and never says anything. The Fullmetal Alchemist is not a separate entity from Edward Elric, like concealing gloves that may be put on and taken off at will–but Fullmetal is Edward completely in a way that is not true in reverse.

Tonight, there is a strange sort of stillness in the bedroom, which is still more Roy’s than anything shared. He walks from the bathroom on light feet, but is considerate enough to rest his weight against a squeaky spot on the floor. Fullmetal is seated on the edge of the bed, leaning back and resting his weight on his automail arm. His suit lies discarded in a messy heap on the ground, and his long hair is haphazardly combed free of its dress ponytail.

“It’s a father’s place to get maudlin on a night like this, Fullmetal,” Roy says, as he lays his towel across the head of a chair. “You should be happy tonight.”

The blond head tilts back, and for a moment, Roy feels as though he’s talking to Edward, not Fullmetal. For a moment, the distinction gives him pause–but no, there’s a glint in those yellow eyes and the younger man shrugs and straightens again. “What’re you talking about, Colonel? Of course I’m happy. Al’s finally gotten everything he deserves.”

A smile is in his voice, but it’s tinged with a strange melancholia that’s out of character for Fullmetal, even at the lowest point through the years. Roy frowns as he sits down on the opposite side of the bed. “Fullmetal?”

“I’m thinking, that’s all.” Fullmetal turns away slightly, and the line of his back is neither inviting nor repelling. On the sheets, his automail hand opens and closes, flexing like slow thought. “You know, when we were kids, Mom always thought I’d be the one who’d marry Winry. She used to tease me about it–but I always knew that Al would get there first.”

“Even that long ago?” Roy slides closer, and to his surprise, Fullmetal actually sways back a fraction, the line of his bare back warming the distance to Roy’s arm. “That’s early to be so certain of something.”

Fullmetal shrugs. “I know Al,” he says. “Even in that suit of armor, he never lost sight of other things. That’s how he’s always been, and Winry was never stupid enough to forget that.” He shifts his weight and leans forward, holding out both hands, turning them to face palms-up, then closes his fingers slowly. “Some things can’t be understood by thinking them out, so I lost my chances as they came.”

“All of them?” Roy asks quietly. The whole conversation feels awkward and strange to him, a dream that’s too solid to not be real. He’s halfway tempted to check the time, and see if perhaps it’s actually early morning, with the smell of Edward’s hair letting him imagine fanciful things. On a whim, he reaches out to warm flesh, and there’s the shock of it against his fingers, the smooth curve of Fullmetal’s left shoulder. “Are you so sure of that, Fullmetal?”

“Careful, Colonel.” He sees Fullmetal’s mouth twitch, and there’s that elusive smile, the one that even his brother’s new bride rarely sees. Fullmetal does not lean back, but a subtle tension leaves his shoulder; he no longer looks ready to spring off and disappear down the hall and out of the house. “I might start thinking you mean something.”

Roy himself smiles, a quick motion. “I always mean something, Fullmetal,” he says. “My meaning, however, may not always be what you think.”

Fullmetal snorts, but there’s less challenge than a certain dry amusement. The way he smiles is still oddly reminiscent of Edward alone, as though too wrapped in sleep to recognize the rest of the world. For a moment, Roy wants to say something more, to put his heel on this off-balance moment and end it there; instead, he remains perfectly still and waits.

At last Fullmetal reaches up, pulls Roy’s hand from his shoulder, and in the process their fingers tangle. Despite the differences in their heights, Fullmetal’s hands are broad and strong, almost the same size as Roy’s own. They do not clutch nor cling, and a single halfhearted tug could easily free Roy from their net.

Perhaps, he thinks, that’s why he remains.

“Besides,” Fullmetal says abruptly, and now his eyes are flashing awake and aware, “I was never interested in marrying a girl who knows how my arm and leg work better than I do. Do you know what she’d do to me, if we ever had a fight?” He effects a mock shudder, exaggerated in a sleepy sort of way. “Al can handle her; he’s better at dealing with girls.”

It earns him a chuckle from Roy, who rotates their linked hands idly from side to side. “Your fanclub will be crushed.”

“They’ll live,” Fullmetal says, with derisive finality. Like an afterthought, he tugs at Roy’s hand, pulling the other man forward, even as he leans back. “I’ll let you handle the more persistent ones.”

He leans his chin into soft gold hair; even clean and still slightly damp, it carries the smell of old blood and steel. “They don’t stand a chance,” he says, without any real heat or implication, but Fullmetal turns his head and raises an eyebrow regardless.

“It’s you saying things like that which worries me,” he says, and then drops gracelessly back, so that he settles against Roy’s chest, then closes his eyes. “Good night,” he adds, without moving, and goes still. Roy waits and counts the seconds until Fullmetal’s breathing smoothes out into the easy beats of sleep. Fullmetal’s head is heavy against his shoulder, and in his relaxed face is the shadowy precursor that will be Edward, in the morning.

Roy smiles, and shifts their weight.

“Good night,” he says.

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onsen fic

“Owowowowow …” Ginji winced as the last Band-Aid was applied, over the bridge of his nose. Who knew monkeys had such sharp claws?

It had taken the better part of three hours, and a bit of reflexive panic on Ginji’s part, to fight their way free of the pile of animals. Unlike human opponents, slower and heavier and more easily tired, those stupid monkeys had kept coming until Ginji plunged both hands into the heated pool and released a single, sharp burst of static electricity.

So, even though they’d managed to retrieve all the stolen jewelry, the smell of charred fur followed Ginji whenever he turned his head, and he’d been left with a rather bad-tempered Ban, whose dark hair had been poofed out into a fritzy mess, rather than its customary mussed spikes. Upon their return to the bathhouse, Ban disappeared to the onsen to sulk with Paul, refusing Kazuki’s offer of first aid.

Kazuki sprayed the last scrape across the back of Ginji’s wrist, and he flinched a little from that. “Ow!”

“I’m sorry, Ginji-san.” Kazuki actually looked more amused than apologetic, but at least he put the antiseptic aside. “I did try to warn you, though.”

“Eheh.” With an embarrassed shrug, Ginji prodded at the Band-Aid on his cheek. “Yeah, you did, Kazu-chan. Next time, though, try and warn us faster? Ban-chan will be mad at me for weeks now.” He flashed wide, shimmery brown eyes at Kazuki, who laughed and turned his head.

“Even now, Ginji-san,” he said, “there isn’t a lot any VOLTS member, past or present, wouldn’t do for you.”

When he looked back, a very small, round Ginji sat on the futon and poked despondently at the bedcovers. “Um … Ginji-san?”

Tears shimmered in Ginji’s huge eyes when he looked up. “Ban-chan is very mad at me,” he announced, with all the grave solemnity of an execution sentence. “So, I’m going to stay in Kazu-chan’s room until he feels better.” Abruptly, he popped back to normal and frowned. “Unless you and Juubei … ?”

For a moment, Kazuki paused in putting away the first aid kit. His smile, though, was more knowing than wistful. “If it’s him, he’ll be fine.” Kazuki sat on the floor beside Ginji and undid his high ponytail, rewrapping it in its traditional long tail. “He needs some time to work through things by himself, and then he’ll come back. Don’t worry about him, Ginji-san.”

Ginji’s mouth pursed into a half-pout. “But what about you, Kazu-chan?”

Kazuki blinked. “What about me?”

“Is this really okay? I mean, you wanted to see him so much, and now he’s gone again …” Ginji looked down at the blanket, tracing patterns in the stiff material with one finger. “It just seems really unfair for you, Kazu-chan.”

“Unfair?”

“You haven’t seen Juubei since you left the Mugenjou, right?” Ginji shifted a little in place, looking distinctly uncomfortable with the conversation. “Before we went back, you said you left without warning, so he’d be mad at you. That was at least a year, wasn’t it?”

“Actually, I hadn’t seen him since you left, Ginji-san.” Kazuki began to refasten the bells into his hair. “He disappeared into the Mugenjou the same day you left–he said it was for ‘training,’ but he never came back.” His hands paused again, and the sudden pause of movement made the small gold bells chime briefly. “You left, and Shido followed soon after. When Juubei never reappeared … that’s when I decided to leave, too.”

Juubei isn’t the only one who has things he has to discover for himself. I thought he’d understand.

“That long?” Shock shaded Ginji’s voice into a squeak. “Kazu-chan!”

“I was twelve when I met Juubei for the first time,” Kazuki said, over his indignation. “And until we came to the Mugenjou, we’d sometimes go months without seeing each other. I’m happier with him here, but if he’s gone–then that’s all right, too.” He closed his eyes, and thought about an early-morning sunrise from years before, when Juubei (and how young he looked, through the lens of hindsight) first made the promise that even physical separation couldn’t divide their connection.

“Even if I’m not there, Kazuki,” he’d said, and his hands had been hot and maybe a little damp to the touch, “I’m always with you. Understand?”

The memory made Kazuki smile, and he looked down at his spread hands. “Juubei’s very fond of dramatic speeches,” he said. “But that’s all right, that’s a part of who he is. That’s why I’m fine even when I miss him–” He looked over at Ginji, then stopped, concerned. Ginji’s blonde head was bowed low, and one of his hands closed tightly over the coverlet, shaking a little with the force of his grip.

“Ginji-san?” Kazuki began to reach out, then let his hand drop just shy of Ginji’s fist. “Is something wrong?”

For a long time, Ginji said nothing. Then he shook his head slowly. “I’m trying to imagine it,” he said. “I can’t.”

“Ginji-san?”

“When I think of not being with Ban-chan,” Ginji said, staring at the blanket, “for months and months at a time, it hurts, right here.” He put a hand over his heart. “Like a piece of me would go away with him.”

Kazuki looked at Ginji’s bowed head thoughtfully, then smiled. “In your own way, you’re as straightforward as Juubei,” he said. “It suits you, Ginji-san.” He took a deep breath and tilted his head slightly up towards the ceiling. “It’s not that I enjoy being apart from him,” he said finally, “it’s that I know him well enough that when he says, ‘my heart will be with you,’ I know it’s the truth.” He laughed suddenly, covering his mouth partially with one hand. “He’s so old-fashioned, sometimes.”

His eyes misted over briefly, and Ginji, well-accustomed to personal flashbacks, said nothing. A tightness still lingered in his chest at the thought of being separated from Ban for that long. Though Ban never promised anything in explicit terms, prickly as his spiked hair might suggest, he remained forever constant.

All Ginji had to do was reach out, and Ban was there. But Kazuki didn’t have that kind of promise. Certainly, thinking back to his time in the VOLTS, Ginji couldn’t remember a time when Juubei wasn’t by Kazuki’s side, but …

He looked up. “Kazu-chan, I–”

This time, Kazuki’s hand did close over his, a cool touch over the underlying warmth of blood and muscle. Only the tips of Kazuki’s fingertips had any traces of callus, so different from Ginji’s own, or Ban’s–and most likely Juubei’s. Ginji looked up into Kazuki’s gently smiling face.

“Relationships are as different as the people who have them,” he said. “Ginji-san, it works for us, but it doesn’t seem like it would for you and Midou-kun.” He chuckled suddenly. “You’re too impatient, the both of you.”

“Kazu-chan?” One could almost see the question marks floating over Ginji’s head.

Kazuki looked up, head cocked as though listening to something. Then he got to his feet, carefully adjusting the edges of his yukata as he did. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

“Eh?” Ginji blinked. “But, Kazu-chan, isn’t this your–”

The sliding door banged open. Ban stood in the doorway, now dressed in the plain gray yukata provided by the bath house, with his hair slicked completely down, though here and there, a few spritzed strands of hair defied Ban’s best efforts. A few bandages had been peppered across his face and arms–probably Natsumi’s doing, because it was difficult to tell such a happy girl “no.”

“Erk,” said Ginji.

“Please excuse me,” Kazuki said, and slipped past Ban into the hallway. Ginji reached after him, deflating.

“Kazu-chan, wait! I–er–” He took a deep breath, then plastered a big smile across his face when he looked up again. “Um–hi, Ban-chan–”

Ban raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Hurry up and get changed.”

“Giku.” Ginji blinked.

“Come on, let’s go!” Ban tossed his towel at Ginji. It smacked him in the face. “We’re having a rematch against Natsumi.”

“Ban-chan?” Ginji scrambled up to his knees, looking at his friend anxiously. Ban blinked back at him and pushed up his glasses.

“You heard me,” he said. “Come on, Ginji–our honor is on the line here! Do you really want to have to buy cakes every day for the next month?” Ban raised a fist, a determined scowl on his face. “This time, we’ll definitely teach her not to mess with the invincible GetBackers!”

Wide-eyed, Ginji blinked. Then he grinned.

“Okay! Coming, Ban-chan!”

***

Outside, in the cool evening, Kazuki cupped the flower Juubei had left behind on one hand. He smiled.

Inside, something large and heavy slammed into the wall. Kazuki could hear Ginji fussing, and the scraping sounds as Ban dragged himself back to his feet and challenged Natsumi again. The girl’s laughter reminded him of Sakura’s, back before the disaster had rendered her so thoughtfully silent most of the time.

He opened his hand and let gravity and evening breezes carry the flower from his palm.

(“Even if I’m not there, Kazuki, I’m always with you. Understand?”)

“I understand,” he said. “So train hard, and come back soon. I can be a little impatient too, sometimes.”

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An Office Relationship

The trouble with having one’s relationship as an open secret was that no one looked the other way.

As long as it wasn’t official, even if everyone knew what was going on, people would stop to gawk, or stare, or even try to catch them in the halls — though certainly they were professional as they could be in the office, and their general idea of a “date” was for Ed to bring his research books over to Roy’s house and fall asleep on his couch. He couldn’t even greet Ed now, without someone in the background laughing, or coughing, or both.

This, however, was the final straw.

“Lieutenant,” he said, his eyebrow twitching, “what is this?”

Black Hayate yipped obligingly and wagged his tail. He was stationed right inside of Roy’s door, his ears perked up and forward, looking on the alert. Hawkeye looked at him serenely, the day’s paperwork held in her arms. “Insurance, sir,” she said. “To make sure you actually get your work done, and don’t sneak off to see Edward in the meantime.”

“Sneak off,” he said. “I wouldn’t do anything like that, Lieutenant.”

She held out the paperwork, her expression unchanging. “Then, it’s to make sure you don’t smuggle him into your office,” she said. “These need to be finished today, sir. Please don’t slack off.”

Roy sighed and took the files from her; the stack felt depressingly heavy. “Do I even get a lunch break?” he asked.

If she noticed the whine in his voice, she didn’t say. “Half an hour, sir. Any longer than that, and you start slacking off again.”

He opened his mouth to protest, and she left him at that, closing the door firmly behind her. Roy set his chin on hand and studied the dog. The dog blinked back.

“I could always go through the window,” he said. “It’s a long drop, but I can always transmute an escape route first.”

Black Hayate’s ears went back, and he growled. It was the first time Roy had ever heard him make such a sound. Surprised, he stared, and Hayate growled again, deeper and more meaningful.

“… Right, right,” Roy sighed, and set to work.

Ed appeared nearly an hour later, opening the door and almost tripping over the dog. “Hey,” he said. “What the fuck?”

Roy glanced up at him and smiled, wryly. “We’re being chaperoned,” he said.

“By the dog.” Ed’s look was disbelieving. “You’re fucking kidding me.”

“I have learned, Fullmetal,” Roy told him, “that when Lieutenant Hawkeye tells you something, it’s much safer to believe her than otherwise.” He glanced at the dog, then put his pen down. “But I don’t think she’d begrudge us a greeting.”

Ed looked suspicious. Black Hayate rose to his feet and wagged his tail.

“You’re so fucking weird,” Ed sighed, though he closed the door behind him and crossed over to Roy’s desk. “They know anyway, so why –”

“Because,” Roy said, leaning forward in his chair, smiling as Ed hitched up one hip on the edge of the desk, “it’s always good to keep your options open.”

Ed scowled at him blackly. “You’re an asshole,” he said. “I’m not doing this for your ego, you know.”

“I know.” Roy reached out and caught Ed’s chin, pulling him down for a brief kiss. It tasted like coffee, unsweetened, and Roy made a pleased sound, letting his hand slide up to Ed’s nape, cradling there. Ed grumbled at him through the kiss, but didn’t fight it, and even shifted closer.

And then he yelped, breaking the kiss and sliding off the desk. “Ow! Hey, what –”

Black Hayate shook his head, with part of one of Ed’s pant legs in his mouth. He growled.

“You really weren’t kidding about the chaperone thing,” Ed said, sounding bemused. “Ow, leggo, dog.” He shook his foot until Hayate let go and sat down, wagging his tail.

“I told you,” Roy said, with a shrug. “Lieutenant Hawkeye has trained him well.”

“Yeah.” Ed blinked, leaning back against the desk. “I can’t make out while a dog’s watching.”

“You were doing fine before, Fullmetal.”

“I forgot the dog was there.” Ed made a face. “I dunno, it’d be like … like some kid was watching. Ugh.” He shuddered, then shook his head. “You got your damn greeting. I’m going to be in the library till you get off work. If I’m not there, send a search party.” He stood and stretched, cracking his neck; for such a young man, his joints popped enough that Roy’s own ached in sympathy.

“Is that all?” Roy raised an eyebrow. “One kiss and an IOU? Fullmetal –”

“I’m a lousy date,” Ed said with a shrug, “but hell, I’m a good lay.” He rolled his eyes. “Plus, I don’t wanna be on the business end of Lieutenant Hawkeye’s gun. Get some work done, piece of shit Colonel. I’ll see you later.” He tossed a wave over his shoulder and was gone, leaving Roy with the dog and a half-finished stack of paperwork. Roy blinked after him, then looked down at the dog.

“Damn,” he said.

Black Hayate barked and wagged his tail.

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The Jewels of Pandora

In the course of a year Watanuki has learned to never question where or how Yuuko’s customers find the shop — only that they do, inevitably and invariably. “Someone told me about it,” they say, and don’t quite look at anything as they do.

Maybe that’s how they justify it to themselves, that random twist of fate that brings them to the shop’s doorstep. He could be honest himself and say that some strange irresistible force dragged him in, but who’d believe something like that? Unless it actually happened to you.

There are guests and there are guests; some probably came while he was at school, but in the end they were all looking for the same thing: a wish come true.

-i. for i have touched the sky-

“I’m looking for the sky,” said the stranger who was already seated in Yuuko’s sitting room by the time Watanuki arrived. He’s dressed all in black, with his hood up so that his face is completely hidden in the shadows. Even seated and hunched over, there is a sort of coiled and restless danger to him. Watanuki steps as lightly as he can.

Yuuko exhales a plume of smoke, which coils around her like a lover’s arms. There is a solemness to her that goes beyond the gravity she normally has for customers. “You’re asking for something very great indeed,” she said. “Are you willing to pay the price of it?”

The man in black hesitates. “They said you could do anything,” he said. “Don’t you understand, if I don’t find that heart–”

“You might be the one who doesn’t understand, honored guest,” Yuuko says. “Finding any one heart of a thousand isn’t a small task — and for this heart of hearts, an equal price must be paid.”

The guest’s hands clench into shaking fists.

“What price is it worth,” she says, her eyes hooded through her veil of smoke, “to have the heart of the sky?”

He makes a pained noise in the back of his throat; Watanuki feels almost sorry for him. Yuuko’s customers are rarely so torn by the decision she offers them.

“… What sort of price,” the man says finally. The words sound like they’ve been dragged through his teeth. “My own is–”

“You don’t value your own heart enough,” Yuuko says, almost gentle. “It has its own worth, but it can only pay as much as you’re willing to allow it.”

The man remains silent.

“The heart of the horizon, perhaps–”

“NO!” It was a sudden sharp outburst, and seemed to surprise the customer as much as it did Watanuki. He slumps in his chair and covers his hidden face with one hand. “Not that. Not that.”

“I’m sorry,” Yuuko says. She places the pipe’s stem against her lips, exhales a ring that drifts to cloud around the guest. “If you cannot pay the exact price, I cannot grant your wish.”

He says nothing, getting sharply to his feet and striding out of the room; his shoulder bumps Watanuki’s chest for a moment, and Watanuki sees — not the sky, but a boy with tousled hair and blue eyes —

And the guest is gone. No door slams to punctuate his departure, but Watanuki is suddenly very sure he’s no longer in the shop.

“Watanuki,” says Yuuko.

“Yuuko-san?”

“Here is something that you might not know, if you’re not in business.” She tips her head back, and the long pale line of her throat is elegant and clean. “We can always refuse service if we deem it necessary.”

“… Hahhh?” Watanuki blinks.

“That boy’s heart would have been enough for what he wanted,” she says. “And he’s not so ruthless that he’d sacrifice someone else for what he wants. Do you know what happens, Watanuki, when someone loses their heart?”

“… you die?” he offers.

Yuuko leans forward and smirks; the clusters of tiny bells at her ears and throat chime with the movement.

“Worse than that,” she says. Perhaps it’s just a trick of the light that makes her sudden smile that much more sinister. “Much worse. Be sure to guard yours well, Wa-ta-nu-ki.”

For a moment he stares at her, mouth hanging open. And then from over her shoulder Mokona takes a flying leap and hits his face, clinging (“alien! alien!” Maru and Moro cheer) demanding tea, which Yuuko then amends to ask for brandy and Mokona says but we even have scotch, don’t we? and Watanuki is sent off to fetch it with the twins cavorting behind him, singing.

For a moment the storeroom is so cold it makes his bones ache, and he can swear he sees beady little yellow eyes peeking back at him …

The bottle of scotch falls into his hands, and he flees before he can see if that shadow can grow any larger.

-ii. alive, o alive-

There is a woman feeding ducks at the park.

In the spring, where tender buds are unfurling and all the world seems carpeted in soft green, she wears dark colors — navy and crimson and black — with a jeweled comb in her long hair. She carries a parasol, resting against her shoulder, and it casts her pale oval face into gentle shadow.

Most of the well-bred ladies and gentlemen strolling through the park give her a wide berth; she’s foreign, she’s from the Orient, with her milky skin and straight dark hair; her presence enough was strange without inviting more. A few stop to whisper behind their gloved slim hands, watching her as she tosses small pieces of bread into the pond, as the ducks fight each other for her crumbs.

And then:

“Oh!” says a young girl, golden-haired and bright-eyed. “How wonderful! Could I try?”

The woman turns her head. Her eyes are hidden, but her smile is painted red, and it purses into an attractive bow.

“If you’d like,” she says, in perfectly unaccented English. She hands her bread to the little girl — coarse dry stuff, which flakes a little on the girl’s fine gloves. The little girl hardly takes heed, dashing to the edge of the pond and throwing pieces ripped from the whole; she laughs freely and unfettered, no matter the disapproving stares around her. The ducks do not particularly care what hand feeds them, as long as the meal continues.

But when the bread is gone, the girl looks at the woman, who is still standing there, her face half-hidden. Belatedly, she drops into a stiffly-practiced curtsy. “I apologize for my rudeness earlier,” she says. “Oh, you won’t tell my brother, will you? He’s still trying very hard to raise me as a lady.”

The woman chuckles. The sound is rich and low. “It’s better for children to be children,” she says, still without hint of an accent. “Your secret is safe with me, young Miss Hargreaves.”

“Oh,” the girl says, then pauses. There is a sudden uneasy wariness to her; she backs up till she’s backed right up to the duck pond, her small body tensed for flight. “… how did you know my name? It’s not fair, if you call me such, and I don’t know who you are.”

“Please don’t worry,” the woman says. She tilts her head back, but her eyes are still hidden. “I’m merely a witch. You should know about that sort of thing, Fortune-telling Merryweather.”

Merryweather covers her mouth. “How did you–”

“I am a witch, after all.” The woman’s smile widens. “Shall I prove it further?”

“Prove it,” Merryweather echoes, still tense. The park is reasonably full with strolling couples; a few have stopped to watch their exchange, though none are yet close enough to properly eavesdrop. “How would you do that?”

“I shall grant you a wish,” the witch says. “But only if you can match the price I ask.”

“Ah! Are you trying to trick me, then?” Merryweather pouts, and winds her small fingers into her skirts. She relaxes a little, less concerned and more indignant now. “You are simply trying to get me to give you money!”

“Oh no,” says the witch. She laughs, and the wind picks up, so that her long dark hair floats around her, and the heavy sleeves of her kimono flutter just a little. “Not money, little fortune-teller. A price. Something that is exactly the worth of the wish. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Merryweather stamps one little foot. “Well, that’s easy!” she says. “I wish for Father and the rest of his organization to leave my brother and I alone! That is what I wish!”

The witch tilts her head a little. “That is a very expensive wish, little Merryweather,” she says. “Are you willing to pay its full price?”

She wrinkles her nose. “Of course! Whatever the price is, I–”

“Even,” says the witch, and her smile is gone now; her mouth is suddenly hard and flat, like a bloody slash in her white face, and the very air around her seems to grow cold, the sun darkening, as though she is sucking all light and heat into herself, “if it comes at the cost of your beloved brother?”

Merryweather recoils. “What! That can’t be fair, Brother Cain shouldn’t have to die just so–”

“Nothing in this world happens without a reason,” says the witch. “To change the inevitable means you must take the burden of that onto your own shoulders.” The wind picks up, harder and stronger, but now nothing of the witch moves at all, as though she has become a stone fixture, caught in place. “Are you willing to pay with a life without your brother by your side, so that he may have his freedom?”

Struck mute, the girl only stares. She trembles a little, though whether in fear or cold it is difficult to gage, and her little fingers are white-knuckled on her skirts. The witch’s parasol tips just so, and her eyes are dark and something in them is almost like regret. Merryweather’s lips part without breath.

“Merry!” a man’s voice calls. Merryweather starts, her eyes blinking suddenly clear.

“That would be your honored brother,” says the witch, as the man cries again, Merryweather, where are you! not quite worried yet. “You should go to meet him.”

Merryweather starts to shift her weight, ready to run, then looks up at the witch, her small lips trembling.

“Would my brother be happy,” she says, “if we were parted? If we could never see each other again?”

“That,” the witch says, “you already know.”

“Merry!” The man’s voice is closer now, and then there is another, a deeper voice that says “Miss Merryweather!” and from over the witch’s shoulder, there are two men walking towards them, one slim and dark-haired and the other taller, broad-shouldered, his hair gleaming almost white in the sun.

“Will you make your wish, then?” The witch’s eyes are suddenly hidden again, and the pressure around her abruptly fades, her mouth tilted into an impish little smile. “The wish for your brother to be free?”

Merryweather closes her eyes. “I want my brother to be happy,” she says. “If he’s happy, that’s all I want.”

Then she flees, around the witch and towards the men approaching; she throws herself into the dark-haired man’s arms, too far away to be overheard. The witch does not turn, but she pulls another heel of bread from her long sleeve and begins to feed the ducks again. Around her, the wind almost sighs, lifting her dark hair as it brushes past.

Behind her, a man says: “That’s not like you, dearest.”

The witch snorts and tosses her head. “And what is ‘like me,’ then?” she asks. Her language is suddenly much more relaxed, and there may even be a trace of an accent in her irritation. “I met with the client, I made the offer — it’s a business transaction, that’s all! Business! What else do I do?”

“Meeting someone out in the open, rather than in your own shop,” the man counters and walks to stand beside her. He pushes his glasses up his nose. “Not taking her for her word when she said she’d pay anything — warning her about the price, and for what? That boy will still–”

“Oh, be quiet,” the witch says irritably. “What do you know of business, anyway?”

“I’m not that naive, dearest,” the man protests. He puts a hand over his heart, as though wounded. “Really, can’t you give me more credit than that?”

“I will when you deserve it!” The witch huffs. “There’s only so much I can do, within my limitations. What they make of the inevitable after this is their own choice.” She takes the arm he offers to her, tips her face up to look at him. “Buy me an expensive dinner, for dragging me all the way here in the first place.”

“When my lady asks,” he says, jovial, “how can I refuse?”

As they leave, they pass a young gentleman in a suit, trying to comfort his upset little sister. As they walk by, the manservant beside them straightens and watches them go, his brow furrowed. The witch looks at him from under her parasol, offering him a fleeting ghost of a smile, and then she and her companion are gone.

-iii. for want of a horseshoe nail-

The Muthruu Bazaar is always changing, even from one hour to the next; except for the very oldest stands and stalls, where merchants have staked out their own territories and guard them fiercely as any wild beast, everything shifts and changes — someone who was on the east end one day might set up by the entrance the next; wherever the people gather one day, the Bazaar’s merchants follow.

On his way back from the Clan’s provider, Vaan notices a new stall, one he’s never seen before. The woman who sits on the other side is swathed in dark red silks, with a veil over her mouth. No one else seems to notice her, but she watches everyone with a smile, as though the entire world is some passing enormous joke. Vaan stops and then suddenly she looks straight at him, meeting his eyes and crooking a finger, come.

Not sure why, Vaan does.

“Young man,” the woman says. Her voice is low and smoky. “Do you have a wish?”

“Huh? Well …” He stops, rubbing the back of his neck. “Doesn’t everyone?”

“Ah,” the woman says, “but you have a special wish. You can see me after all, can’t you?”

He blinks. “Sure. You’re right there. Why wouldn’t anyone–”

“My wares are rather … specialized,” the woman says, and gestures. “Why don’t you have a seat?”

Vaan jumps a little; he could have sworn there was no chair beside him before, but there it is, and there’s even a tasseled cushion on it, like something made for a noble’s ass instead. And around them, even though the Bazaar is densely crowded as always, people flow around them, like they’re not even there.

He looks at the woman. She smiles and points.

He sits.

“So,” the woman says, and leans forward, onto her elbows. “You have a wish.”

Vaan squirms a little. “Nah,” he says uneasily. “It’s not that important. There are other things, look, I really should be going–”

“My prices are very fair,” the woman says. She lays a finger to her lips, still smiling just faintly. “You get exactly what you pay for.” She reaches out then, putting her fingers to his chin; despite the heat of her day, her skin is icy. “You didn’t find me by coincidence. Tell me: what do you wish?”

Nothing, he wants to say, but what comes out instead is, “How much?”

“That depends.” The woman tips his face up, leaning over him; her dark hair falls forward, over her shoulders and around Vaan’s face. “On what you ask for.”

And for a moment his mind reels with possibilities: Dalmasca restored, Ashe on her throne as the rightful Queen; a peace that stretches across all Ivalice and shadows are banished forever; Penelo’s parents to be alive and well, like it could erase the memory of her crying face; his own brother–

Vaan opens his eyes. He’s not sure when he closed them, but he looks up into the woman’s face and though she is smiling at him, so close that her breath is cool on his cheek, her eyes are — flat. They reflect nothing but his own face, hard glass pieces in a smooth white face.

“… I’d like it if we could find the Ring Wyrm,” he says. “I don’t suppose you could set up a sandstorm or something? You know, so we don’t have to camp around forever waiting for it.”

The woman blinks. For a moment her eyes are completely normal: they don’t look like glass chips, or jewels, or anything but normal human eyes, and Vaan’s not ashamed to admit he’s a little relieved at that. The past few months have taught him quite a bit more healthy respect for magic and its ilk. Of course, there’s the chance he’s just pissed off a djinn or something (because who else randomly offers wishes like this?), and he won’t be going back at all, but …

And then she laughs.

She laughs and laughs and it’s maybe even a little insulting, but she wipes her eyes and smiles at him, and he gets the feeling that she might still be laughing.

“Very well,” she says. “A sandstorm for you, for the next time you set foot in the Wyrm’s lair.” Then she holds out her hand. “In return, give me the stone you carry.”

Vaan blinks, and puts a hand to his pocket. He fumbles for a bit, then pulls out a large chunk of wind magicite. “This?”

“That’ll do,” she says, still holding out her hand. “Something like that will fetch a nicely-sized windstorm indeed.”

He hefts the weight of the magicite for a moment, then shrugs and hands it over. “I was going to sell it anyway,” he says. “This’ll work, right?”

She tucks it away, and waves. “I promise,” she says. “When you go, it’ll be waiting.”

Vaan nods, and gets up. As he threads his way back into the crowd, a chill runs down his back, feeling line fingernails tracing his spine, and his arms break into sudden goosebumps. He turns slowly, glancing over his shoulder.

The woman and her stall are gone.

-iv. and immortality-

“You’ll owe me for this,” she says, the moment he enters.

For once he doesn’t try to joke with her. She hears him walk — with deliberate weight, since he’s got catfeet normally, the bastard — to her side. He does not touch her. It makes him less real already.

“I know,” he says. He is apologetic, but not regretful; he’s not the sort of man who takes back his decisions.

“I don’t want to do this,” she says. “I never liked bearing your weight.”

“You won’t, completely.” His hand curves above her shoulder, not touching. “I can take some responsibility for myself.”

“I should sell all of it,” she says. “Everything to the most greedy and pigfaced people I can find. All your fancy art — I could sell it to a village for kindling.”

He winces. “That’s just uncalled for.”

She drains the rest of her glass in a swallow, then slams it down. “I should.”

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

She glowers at him. “You’re in no position to talk.”

“My dear–”

She spins to face him, rising to her feet in the same smooth motion. “You are always so irritating,” she growled. “Why am I doing this for you again?”

He smiles at her, wry, affectionate, sad. “I’m glad you are,” he says. “Thank you.”

She stares for a full minute, not speaking, then turns again. Her shoulders are set very stiffly; she’s angrier than she can ever begin to express. Because he knows what he’s asking from her — more than anyone else in this whole world, he knows — but he won’t back down from it either, because he’s a stupid thickheaded magician who never stopped smiling

“Darling,” he says, “–Yuuko–” and his hands touch her arms gently, light as a ghost’s passing, and she closes her eyes.

“Let’s do this already,” she says.

+++

There is no grave for Clow Reed; too many people know about him, and would come sniffing around for anything he left behind. Only Yuuko knows exactly where he went and what he didn’t take with him, and this is something she will never tell.

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mirror pieces

Fullmetal smells like blood and steel, even freshly-showered and laundered towel wrapped around his shoulders. The bruises on his cheek are very dark against his pale skin. One long jagged slash runs from the edge of a prominent collarbone and disappears somewhere under his thin black shirt.

Roy holds out the steaming cup of coffee to him, and is rewarded by a brief glance from darkened yellow eyes. It takes a moment for Fullmetal to let go of the towel and reach for the cup. Even then he does not drink, but bends his face over it, breathing in the steam.

Outside, the rain is falling.

“I’ve sent someone to fetch your brother,” Roy says. His voice sounds strange to his own ears, oddly rough. It takes effort to find his normal smoothness. “He should be here soon.”

Fullmetal’s blond head does not lift or turn. Against the edges of the cup, his fingers knead gently.

“You could not have done anything else.” The words come before Roy can stop them, and then he decides that this, perhaps, is the wiser choice. Fullmetal argues with his choices more often than not, but he still listens, and that is something. “As you are so fond of pointing out, we are neither gods nor devils, none of us. You did what you could.”

His words feel as though they fall flat. One of Fullmetal’s thin shoulders rises and dips briefly, in a half-shrug. Irritation flares through Roy, a stray spark that touches tinder to flame.

“Aren’t you the one who always insists that the only way to do things is to face forward and keep walking? Where’s that pride of yours, Fullmetal? I’m disappointed in you.”

Pale lips thin into a slash; Fullmetal huddles in on himself like an abandoned cat in the rain. The jab registers only as a brief flash, which just as soon fades.

“… I–”

Before he can break off his words and retreat back into himself, Roy drops smoothly to one knee, grasping the boy’s face. Those flat eyes do not meet his for long; within a heartbeat they look through him, straight into something years distant. He waits.

“I’ve killed animals before,” Fullmetal says at last, his voice very thin. “Did I ever tell you? The first month of training Al and I went on … our teacher took us to an island and left us there to learn survival. ‘To train the spirit, first train the body.’ That’s what she always believed.” His breath hiccups for a moment, then smoothes out. When he closes his eyes and opens them again, they are amber, and too calm.

“I used to apologize for catching fish. Now, it’s like it doesn’t matter.”

“It matters,” Roy snaps, instinct overriding caution for a bare moment. He thinks, and remembers: a desert city, a frightened boy (two of them, oh, two of them) with a gun, and the smell of blood and liquor heavy on the chilly night air. “A human life or an animal life, they both have meaning to them.”

“And all it takes is one knife, and that’s all,” Fullmetal says, still looking straight at Roy with those hollow cold eyes. The fingers of his automail arm tremble, as though feeling still lingers in those metal joints.

“… do you know, I swear I can still feel it all over me, but when I look, it’s not there.”

“Blood is like that,” Roy says quietly, and lets go of Fullmetal’s face. The boy’s head drops forward and hangs there, like a doll whose strings have been cut.

Someone knocks at the door, and he pivots sharply on his heel and it’s three strides to the door, which he yanks open. Havoc is there, and Alphonse hovering behind him. It should be a strange that a suit of armor can have such an expressive face, but because it is Alphonse, Roy does not question.

Perhaps, in his mad gamble to keep his little brother close, Fullmetal gave that suit of armor more life than he originally thought.

Roy steps aside, and the moment Alphonse sees Fullmetal on the couch, he shoves past, with an absently-murmured excuse me. He crosses the room in two steps and is down on his knees beside Fullmetal before he stops moving. The boy responds to Al’s presence by turning, slowly, until his forehead is pressed against the outward jut of the armor’s chest.

“Brother,” Roy hears Alphonse breathe. “Oh, no, it’s all right, don’t–”

It’s the first time he’s ever heard Alphonse use such language; that it’s for Fullmetal makes it even stranger.

The dynamics of the moment feel skewed to Roy: it takes him a moment to realize that it’s because the control has somehow slipped from him. When he had planned for this eventual scenario, he had not expected things to spiral out of hand so rapidly–had, perhaps, relied too much on Fullmetal’s natural resiliency to pull him quickly out of the shock and faster into ordinary grief.

In retrospect, he concedes that it was a foolish thing to leave to chance, and wonders at how old guilt can flare up again, so new. Conflict follows the Elric brothers like an obedient dog, and Fullmetal never does anything by halves, and Roy only thinks thank god it didn’t happen in the field.

“Think the Boss’ll be okay?” Havoc asks, around his ever-present cigarette. He peers around Roy, looking at the brothers. Alphonse how has one broad hand against the back of Fullmetal’s skull, and the tinny echo of his voice has died to a low murmur. Roy sighs.

“He will be, eventually,” he says. “Fullmetal never fails to pick himself up in the end.”

“Maybe,” Havoc says, then takes his cigarette in hand so he can exhale a burst of sharp hot smoke. The eyebrow he raises at Roy is not quite sardonic, but there’s a knowing weight to its slant. “I’ll come back and pick ’em up tomorrow?”

Roy does not sigh or make any sign of relief, but he does incline his head, faintly. “Thank you, Lieutenant.” He waits until Havoc has sauntered down the stairs and gotten back into the car before he closes the door. For a moment he continues to stand, facing away, and then turns to look.

Alphonse is looking back at him, and there is nothing to be read in the blank set features of the armor–but something about his posture speaks of gratitude. Fullmetal himself now has a cheek pressed to the cool breastplate, heavy-lidded eyes downcast. He huddles, not like a little boy, but a very old man, as though the weight on his shoulders keeps his entire body pressed down.

“I’m afraid my guest room has only one bed, and it isn’t quite large enough to accommodate you, Alphonse,” Roy says. The armor-boy’s head lifts, and tilts just so; it’s amazing, the amount of human body language that metal body retains. “However, there are spare blankets, should you want them.”

It gets him a quick nod–Alphonse’s substitute for a worried, fleeing smile. “Thank you, Colonel,” he says, then gives a nudge with the hand braced against Fullmetal’s back. “Brother, come on. You’ll feel better if you rest.”

Fullmetal lifts his head slowly, and it’s a moment longer before his eyes meet Roy’s own. Just for a moment, the boy rallies, as though trying to reach for a scrap of normalcy, then lets it go with a faint sigh. “We’re imposing,” he notes, in a voice that carries only a faint dull edge to it. “Sorry.”

Roy doesn’t even pause as he turns and walks towards the stairs, trusting that Alphonse will guide Fullmetal after him. “What are you talking about?” he says, as he ascends. “It’s not imposing if I’ve ordered it.”

Normally, the implication would garner him some snarled response, all of Fullmetal’s prickly, aggressive personality shaped to stab back. This time, however, he hears the boy snort derisively, without any follow-up. Both of the Elric brothers remain otherwise silent as Roy leads them down a dark hallway, and opens a door for them. “I’ll bring your blankets,” he says.

Alphonse nods again, polite to the last. “Thank you,” he says again. “Colonel Mustang, it’s very kind of you to put up with us like this.”

He waves his hands dismissively. “I’m not completely heartless, Alphonse, no matter what you’ve heard,” he says, with his eyes on Fullmetal the whole time. The boy doesn’t respond, but at least he’s let go of his brother now, and stands apart, solid on his own two feet. After a moment, as though sensing Roy’s gaze, he turns and musters up a faint smirk.

“Nice place, Colonel,” he says. Some of the mocking is back in his voice, which comforts Roy more than any mumbled assurance. “Is this how much they pay you for sitting pretty and getting us to do your dirty work?”

Though there’s no extra edge to Fullmetal’s words, Roy is careful in how he responds. “Nothing is free, nor is it cheap, Fullmetal,” he says. “Just because you’re always haring off on your own adventures and never see me at work doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”

“According to Lt. Hawkeye, that’s not the case,” Fullmetal says, but he’s already stepped into the guestroom, and the drawstring pajama pants Roy scrounged up from somewhere to go with the towel hang low on his skinny hips. “She says that if she’s not there to keep an eye on you, you’ll just slack off.”

“Lt. Hawkeye has her own duties to attend to, separate from mine,” Roy says, over his shoulder, as he heads down the hallway to the linen closet. “She’s not with me all the time, and the work still gets done.” He pulls the top two blankets down and walks back to the brothers, handing his burden to Alphonse. “Neither is she my keeper. You’ll do well to remember that.”

Fullmetal makes a face at Roy, under his brother’s arm. His face is still too pale and drawn, with shadows cut deeply into his eyes, but he no longer looks so close to breaking. “Everyone knows who’s the real one in charge between the two of you,” he said blandly, “especially Lt. Hawkeye.”

“Brother!” Alphonse hisses. It’s hard to imagine that a voice echoing in that large metal body could whisper, but Alphonse pulls it off well. Roy figures he’s had more practice than he’s really wanted. Fullmetal simply shrugs and stares levelly back, and through the solid wall of shadow in his eyes, there’s a spark of challenge.

This once, Roy lets it burn out unanswered. “You should get some sleep,” he says. “Goodnight, Edward, Alphonse.”

Perhaps it’s the sound of his real name in Roy’s voice, or just at all–but he sees Fullmetal’s golden eyes go saucer-wide and his still-rounded face slackens in surprise. Alphonse mutters some sort of answer, then carefully herds his brother into the room, closing the door gently behind them. Fullmetal watches him narrowly the entire time.

“The Colonel … he’s being awfully nice, isn’t he?” he hears Alphonse say through the closed door. Roy tells himself he will not eavesdrop, and remains exactly where he is. It’s important for Fullmetal to understand this night–that, occasionally, even a superior may step off his pedestal and act as a … friend.

All his promises, all his offers, will mean nothing if he’s not met halfway.

Fullmetal sighs, and the sound is slow and heavy with thought. “He is,” the boy says, grudgingly. “Probably was afraid I’d do something stupid if he sent us back to the dorms.” The sound of pacing, then, like the prowling of some restless creature. “Ah, the lucky bastard, getting a place like this, while we’re stuck with those stupid cots.” There’s a loud thud, the sound of a body hitting the bed.

Alphonse chuckles, and there’s relief in the sound. “Brother, try to be more gentle with someone else’s belongings.”

“He gets paid more than we do, he can afford a little wear and tear on his stuff.” Another long pause, and then, “Al–today, I–”

“Whenever you’re ready to talk, Brother, I’m here.” Alphonse’s tone books no nonsense, and. There’s a creak of armored joints, echoed by the faint groan of bedsprings pressing down. “Until then, try to sleep, all right?”

Behind the door, Fullmetal makes a small sound of assent. Cloth rustles, like blankets being unfolded. Roy smiles, to himself and the dark house, then heads down the hallway to his own room.

***

Someone is screaming. For a moment, he thinks he’s dreaming of the war, striding untouched through the battlefield as bodies writhe to crisped ashes in his wake.

Then the coherent part of his brain kicks in, and he recognizes the voice: Fullmetal. Down at the end of the hallway, the boy is shrieking in the mindless rhythm of unconscious fear. Beneath that is Alphonse’s voice, worried and growing louder with each repetition of Fullmetal’s name.

Roy swings his legs over the edge of his bed, then hesitates for a moment. Fullmetal’s screaming has tapered a bit, loosing some of its volume, and for a moment he believes that Alphonse has everything in hand–

–there’s a loud, echoing thud, like furniture being slammed against the wall. In an instant Roy is on his feet, snagging his robe as he goes and shrugging into it as he strides down the hallway. Alphonse is still trying to soothe his brother–Brother, Brother, calm down, it’s me–while Fullmetal’s screaming dies down to animal moans, and the scrape of movement against the wall.

When he opens the door to his guest bedroom, he finds Fullmetal tucked in a ball of limbs both fragile and steel, his face pressed sharply into the far corner. There’s a set of fresh gouges in the white plaster, but Fullmetal’s automail hand is tucked in his armpit, out of sight. Alphonse kneels a short distance away, one hand outstretched; he turns to look at Roy when the door opens. “Colonel!” he half-rises, then glances back at his brother. “I’m sorry, we’re–”

Roy drops to a crouch beside him, watching as Fullmetal shivers and twitches, burrowing against the wall as though it would eventually open up and swallow him. Alphonse can’t seem to decide whether to watch him or Fullmetal, but finally settles his strange eyes on Roy, and the hand that braces his armored weight tightens.

“The last time he did this,” Alphonse says, in a breath Roy almost misses, “was the night after … after that.”

He doesn’t elaborate. He doesn’t need to. Roy thinks about a pale still child swathed in stained bandages, barely breathing under thin sheets.

A low sharp sound tumbles from Fullmetal’s throat, and his head drags against the wall, as though seeking something. Despite himself Alphonse surges forward again, his hand stopping a few bare centimeters from Fullmetal’s shoulder. “Oh, Brother–”

Roy rocks back onto his heels, then up onto his feet, crossing his arms over his chest. Even though Alphonse’s armored bulk brings his shoulder almost up to Roy’s waist, he somehow wears his age like a heart on the sleeve. He’s pleading with his brother now, in a low voice, though he still does not make contact.

It’s not working at all. Kindness is a prickly and strange thing, and it comes in more forms than people tend to consider. Alphonse is too gentle to consider any way but his own, and thus Roy takes the initiative himself.

“Fullmetal!” he snaps. In his voice are years of command, honed to a single stabbing point.

The sound of his voice has the effect of a whip crack; Fullmetal’s entire thin body jerks, and he peels away from the wall like a shot. Almost immediately, he crashes into his brother’s bulk, and though Alphonse rocks, he does not fall; instead, he catches his brother and holds on. Golden eyes flash up to Roy’s face, and to his relief, he sees Fullmetal there, awake and aware and snapping.

“What?!” he snaps, already scrabbling up and out of Alphonse’s arms. “You stupid colonel, can’t you leave me in peace for one night?!”

Roy raises an eyebrow at him, and decides not to tap his foot to make the point. “Fullmetal,” he says, “you are in my house as a guest. I don’t think it’s possible for me to leave you alone entirely.”

Embarrassment flickers across Fullmetal’s pale face. He stands on his own two feet, but there is a slight sway to his balance, as though he is favoring the metal leg. The expression on his face is both ridiculously young and too old, and more familiar than Roy cares to admit.

Another memory: blood on Fullmetal’s face, and the high sharp heaves of his breathing as he scrambled out from under deadweight and caught himself against a wall to keep from falling. Layered on that is the sound of metal fingers clawing desperately at that wall, leaving long shallow gouges.

Beyond that, as well, linger the ghosts from his own dreams. And Roy knows, with old knowledge burned deep, that nothing he says will make it “better” for Fullmetal. In the end, the boy only finds a duty to himself and his brother; to tell him “you were only acting under orders” will cheapen it.

When the Elric brothers remain silent, though, he feels compelled to say, “No one will censure you for what you’ve done.”

Fullmetal’s arms rise up and curl around himself; it’s an oddly childish gesture, and his expression becomes pained. The initial burst of awareness seems to have faded from his eyes, turned inwards; he holds himself like a man barely able to stand. In the dim lighting, his bruises and the half-visible slash down his chest are luridly exaggerated, parodies of injury.

“Fullmetal?”

“Brother?”

They speak simultaneously, and fall silent together. Fullmetal’s eyes close for a moment, and he draws in a shuddering breath, the fingers of his automail hand flexing around the ball of his shoulder. After a moment, Alphonse stirs and rises up, still on his knees, and it’s strange, seeing this tall, bulky suit of armor move so diffidently, like he’s afraid his brother will somehow shatter. Roy bites back a snort at the thought: the Fullmetal Alchemist is many things, but breakable is not one of them, even now.

It takes a moment, but then Fullmetal rallies himself and looks up again. This time, he meets Roy’s eyes without flinching, dark and cold, but not entirely unquenched. One more memory, on this night of recollection–this time of the boy-child who’d glared at him across his desk, newly-named and raw in countless places.

At the very beginning, Roy had wondered if someone so small and impulsive could ever make it far. Now, meeting Fullmetal’s gaze, he thinks that, perhaps, the boy’s gone farther than even he imagined, and all when he was looking elsewhere.

“I will not say it gets easier. Every single time, it’s a human life you’re taking into your hands, and it’s important not to lose sight of that.” For a moment, he hesitates, and then makes the choice to reach out, and put his hand on Fullmetal’s thin, bony shoulder. He feels the instinctive flinch and chooses to ignore it. Suddenly, he is very aware of Alphonse’s strange eyes resting heavily on him, and he thinks, Handle with care.

He can and has, many times before, handled a Fullmetal bubbling with protective anger. In this moment, he realizes he is not certain he can handle Alphonse Elric half as well.

There’s a moment’s pause, and then he hears the creak of artificial joints; Fullmetal’s metal arm uncoils slowly and lifts, the fingers opening and closing slowly. The boy stares at those fingers of his like they belong to a stranger, like something peculiar and rare. Roy wonders, fleetingly, if this was how he looked, after these limbs were installed.

“I–” Fullmetal says, before his voice grows thick. He has not yet grown into eloquence, but he is better than a year before. “I–ki–I just–”

“You killed a man,” Roy says, simply. Both Fullmetal and Alphonse flinch at this, but Fullmetal takes a deep breath and squeezes his hand into a tight fist, his jaw set in a scowl. “You didn’t mean to, but it still happened.”

“It was so stupid!” Fullmetal explodes, and rips away with sudden, flash fire force; he yanks away from Roy’s hand on his shoulder, from Alphonse’s instinctive start forward, and drags the real hand through his hair, leaving it in clumped disarray. He pauses, like a philosopher on the edge of new human discovery, then slumps. “It was so stupid. It didn’t even have to happen, and–”

Nervous energy vibrates in him like a plucked string. Then, slowly, Fullmetal raises his head and looks Roy directly in the face, and says, “Colonel. You said I wouldn’t be in trouble about this.”

Roy weighs his answer carefully. “I said that no one would censure you. There is a difference.”

Fullmetal does not back down, though unease flickers in his eyes. Alphonse rises, though, a looming presence over his brother’s shoulder. Like large men, he has always been very aware of his size, and Roy does not doubt that he is using that to his advantage. “Colonel,” he says, in his quiet voice, “what do you mean?”

The moment hangs with awkward suspension, and Roy forces himself not to break eye contact with Fullmetal when he answers. “You’re a famous figure in the military, Fullmetal. You’ve traveled enough to realize that you will be recognized by those you would otherwise have nothing to do with.” He braces one hand against the ground and rises to his own feet, keeping his hands loose by his hands. “I have people looking into the man’s background. I don’t believe you’ll have any trouble with the repercussions.”

Another sharp flash goes through Fullmetal’s eyes, and he sees the sudden new tension that runs through him and his brother, as though the two are grounded by the same live wire. Roy waits.

“So, you’re saying,” Fullmetal grinds out slowly, “that because I’m a dog of the military, because I’m some kind of goddamned celebrity, it’s okay? That I can kill a man without having to worry about the consequences–”

“I didn’t say you won’t have to worry, Fullmetal,” Roy says. “There will be a formal investigation, and you will be called in for questioning. However, I doubt you have much to worry about from the military.” Absently, his naked fingers rub together. “It’s more your own thoughts that you’ll have to guard yourself from.”

“What do you mean?” Fullmetal tenses, eyes narrowing to slits. “You’re awfully confidant about that, Colonel.”

Roy shrugs–barely more than a tensing and relaxing of his shoulders; even out of uniform and in old worn clothes, he carries his dignity well. “There have been rumors,” he said. “The Fullmetal Alchemist is well-known for being a friend to the people, despite being a dog of the military.

“You’re right, in that you’re a celebrity, in your own way. There are people who will do anything to be a part of someone else’s brilliance, no matter what it takes.”

It takes a moment for the weight behind his words to register, and Roy knows the moment they do; Fullmetal’s expression goes ice-cold, and he hears Alphonse make a sound of surprise–though how that works, when the armor cannot breath, Roy isn’t sure. Fullmetal’s automail fist curls and begins to shake a little. It takes a moment for the boy to calm himself, and he breathes very slowly in, then out, before he speaks.

“That’s an awfully convenient excuse, isn’t it? Colonel?” Fullmetal’s voice is dull and heavy, like unpolished steel. It does not match the razor-edge of his gaze, stabbing through until it comes dangerously close to breaking open that final, old secret. “To say that some crazy stalker chased me down, until I was forced to fight him off in self-defense. Who’s going to buy a piece of shit story like that?”

“Believe it or don’t, Fullmetal. It’s your choice.” Roy does not break eye contact, not at this most important moment. Part of him thinks he can’t look away, not now; Fullmetal’s gaze holds a power of its own, one that could be refined and enhanced with time, like so many of the boy’s other strengths. “However, the more widespread your fame becomes, the higher that possibility.”

Then he pauses, and studies the tenseness of Fullmetal’s posture, glances up to Alphonse’s impassive face. More gently, he adds, “You have over a dozen eye-witnesses who saw the fight, Fullmetal. Not a single one of them would say it was unprovoked.”

Seconds tick by. Roy counts them, and knows it’s not enough to say that; it was not enough for him, either. You were only following orders. It wasn’t your fault, not really.

Fullmetal’s hands tighten to fists. “He was still a person,” he says, staring flatly at Roy. “Whatever he was trying to do, he was a living person. Until–”

His eyes close for a moment. Roy looks at his pinched face, and wonders if he himself looked the same way, long ago–and then knows he did.

“That’s why I said you’ll have to guard yourself from your own thoughts,” he said quietly. He takes his chance and looks away from Fullmetal’s face while those eyes are hidden, and turns to the door. The desire to look over his shoulder drags his feet, to see if the mirror of himself is still there, drawn across Fullmetal’s–Edward’s–face. On his pale skin, the bruises stand out sharply, as though separate from the rest of him.

In the end, Roy does not look. He wants to say it’s respect for Fullmetal’s privacy, but the heavy drag of his feet hold the memory of watching another man walk away, and his own wavering hesitation, years ago.

Alphonse’s voice stops him, this time: “Colonel.”

He puts his hand on the doorknob first before he answers. “Alphonse.”

“I believe you,” Alphonse tells him. There are times where Roy suspects that Alphonse has them all deceived with the layers he can infuse within a single statement; this is one of them. “Good night.”

Fullmetal is silent. Roy turns the doorknob and opens the door.

“Good night,” he says.

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Memento

He saw it in a marketplace of some city or other–one of a dozen, a hundred cities and villages they passed through in the course of a year. While his brother haggled with an old man for a set of yellowing manuscripts, he went on his own and bought it.

The doll fit easily into the palm of one hand, with large blue button eyes and a hand stitched smile. Its long hair had been tied back into a ponytail with a scrap of white ribbon. A young lady wrapped it in plain brown paper for him, and though she spoke politely, she never quite looked in his eyes, and kept as much distance between the two of them as possible.

He kept that doll tucked safely away, in the hollow of his left arm. They keep only one suitcase between them, and he’s not quite sure he wants his brother to know, just yet. When they returned to Central, he kept it in the small space between his pillow and the wall, still out of sight. At nights, when he knew his brother finally slept, he tried to write the letter that would accompany the doll to Rizenbul.

Once, he caught himself trying to write poetry–something about the warmth of summer and her smile as one. Embarrassed, he ripped the thing to shreds and crumbled it. When the noise woke his brother, he made up some halfhearted excuse about research and a dropped book.

Finally, one rainy afternoon, when his brother was holed up in the library, he got out paper and pen again, staring hard at the blank white expanse. The doll sat propped by a stack of books, and smiled blandly at him.

It reminded me of you, he thought, to star the letter. Or, Isn’t it cute, I thought you might like it.

Neither of those made it out of his pen. He looked at the doll, and then at the window, where the rain lashed in fierce patterns against the glass. Briefly, he hoped his brother had the sense to remain in the library, rather than try to wade his way back.

And there, in the misted folds of his memory, a single clear moment tumbled out: the three of them, he, she, and his brother, wrapped together in a single large blanket, in a fort of pillows. The weight of her head on his shoulder had been comfortable, in the warm familiar dark.

With purpose, he set pen to paper and began to write.

***

Three weeks later, Winry Rockbell set the doll on her shelf, next to the old one, from so many years ago. She stood back, hands on her hips, and considered its posture. After a moment of consideration, she tucked Al’s note into its lap, gently arranging its soft arms to hold the paper close.

“You can keep that, until he comes home,” she said. “If he’s going to tell me things like that, he can damn well do it in person.”

I wanted to say a lot of things.
But the most important thing is this:
I still remember you.

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In the Moment: Today

“Just one minute.” Ban punctuates the statement by snapping his cigarette lighter closed. Over the years, he’s perfected his timing to an art. “Did you see your dreams?”

The target looks dismayed; the gun drops from suddenly nerveless fingers as he stares at the two of them. He makes a choking noise that might be “Jagan” or simple denial, but he never gets to finish it. Ban delivers a quick chop to the man’s neck and lays him out cold, then taps ash from his cigarette onto the body as an afterthought.

“Ban-chan.” Ginji’s voice is scolding. He’s got the client’s requested vase in his arms, and it’s almost too big for him to hold; he has to constantly shift and juggle its weight to keep from dropping it.

Ban rolls his eyes. “Hey, hey.” He turns away from the client and starts walking. “Let’s go, Ginji. Our client’s waiting.” It’s a small job, but it still means payment, so he and Ginji won’t go hungry tonight. Ginji follows him a step and a half behind, already chattering happily about their success.

When they first started the GetBackers, Ban used his Jagan sparingly and weighed every option with a perfectionist’s fussiness. Then people started anticipating it, daring him to use it–and Ban has never been one to let a challenge slip past. These days, it’s just that he sometimes doesn’t want to put in the effort to avoid a confrontation where it’s necessary. Maybe it’s just sloppiness, but Ban trusts his instincts to know when to throw a fight with the Jagan, and when to follow it through. Ginji’s a good sport about it, even when the dreams involve one or both of them getting killed.

Then again, Ginji lives his life in absolutes, surprisingly naive for someone who grew up in the bowels of the Mugenjou. Those he loves are forgiven every sin, and though Ginji never truly hates, he does not easily forgive those who cross his moral boundaries. Good is good, bad is bad, and the gray area between them is comfortably narrow.

Ban, on the other hand, can’t see the ends of the spectrum for what seperates them. No one is to be trusted completely, because someone who shows you his throat may just be waiting to catch you with your guard down. Sometimes he’s annoyed by Ginji’s straightfoward way of seeing things–but other times, he understands to appreciate it for its rarity.

You don’t need friends to survive, or even be happy. It’s just that they make both easier.

Ginji is not exactly his friend–he is Ban’s partner, and that makes him much more important than that. More than Ginji’s clear-cut view of the world and his steadfast belief, finding someone who adapts this seamlessly to the way you work is a precious and rare thing. Ginji is necessary, and Ban will give up everything to keep him.

Himiko, because of what she is, has the promise of his protection and, if necessary, his life. She has his devotion because of his promise to her dying brother, and for the young girl he still sometimes finds reflected in her eyes. He thinks he would not mind staying by her side, if he didn’t feel certain they would kill each other before long.

But Ginji has somehow managed to earn a place in his thoughts, with nothing more than his own puppyish devotion and the cold rain that used to fall in his eyes. Sometimes Ban tries to puzzle through that, and figure out how it happened exactly.

He hasn’t been successful yet.

“Ban-chan!” Ginji says, and somehow he’s gotten ahead, already waiting by the car. In the dying sunlight his smile is illumination enough. “Come on, hurry up! I’m hungry!”

Ban snorts, but he doesn’t put any force behind his projected irritation. “Ch’, you’re always hungry. Patience is a virtue, you know.” Despite that, he picks up the pace and unlocks the doors so Ginji can put their retrieval target into the car and crawl in himself, balancing the vase on his lap.

“I want ramen tonight, Ban-chan!” Ginji to him as he starts the car. “Let’s have ramen, okay?”

Ban snorts again. “You’ve got such juvenile appetites,” he says, but does not disagree. And Ginji, who knows how to understand him, cheers. Ban sighs to disguise his smile. Really, the distance between them seems unfathomably deep, and he’s not quite sure exactly how he and Ginji manage to bridge that gap over and over.

Ban, who grew up amidst wealth and art and the strange shadows of his grandmother’s world, always considers the value of material things–that’s why he handles the finances, because he knows that money is what’s truly necessary in this world. Ginji, on the other hand, gives back whatever he receives, because he’s never been taught the actual value of things. If the price is high, he’s impressed–but that’s forgotten as quickly as last week’s breakfast.

Then it is fitting, Ban thinks, that their first kiss was stolen.

It happened during their first job together as retrievers–the newly-named GetBackers setting out against the world, before they had the car or an intermediary or a reputation to stake things on. The pursuit after they retrieved the stolen heirloom cat statue ended up dumping them into a river, carried away from their swearing victims by the current as they laughed.

When the hired bodyguards disappeared from sight, Ban had caught Ginji’s arm and steered them towards shore. Once they hit the bank, he’d hauled them both out, and Ginji had looked up at him with the cat hugged to his chest and just laughed.

“You’re all messed up, Ban-chan!” he’d said, between giggles, never mind that he was equally soaked and dirty, with his blonde hair dripping into his eyes and smears of mud drying on his cheeks and arms. And then he’d just smiled at Ban with exuberance born out of adrenaline–we did it, we actually did it!–and though his cigarettes were all soaked and ruined, Ban couldn’t help but smile back. And when Ginji bounced to his feet and shifted the vase so he could hook an arm around Ban’s neck to draw him in for a hug, he had turned his head just a little, so that his lips brushed and then pressed against Ginji’s damp temple.

He had frozen, exuberance and adrenaline drained from him in a single heartbeat. Ginji’s hair, caught between his lips, tasted like river water and static electricity. And then Ginji pulled away, with guileless eyes, and asked what was wrong. Ban fumbled, and came up with some glib excuse, and Ginji has never questioned the moment after that, too gleeful over their success to care.

He doesn’t know if it counts. He likes to think it does.

“Ban-chan, there, there!” Ginji points excitedly, jostling his arm. “I want to eat there!”

Ban looks; it’s a ramen stand that advertises All You Can Eat For Cheap. Obviously, they don’t know Ginji’s appetite. He resists the urge to smirk.

“Ginji, we haven’t even been paid yet. We don’t have the money right now.”

Ginji presses his face and hands to the window, and watches the place go past with a moue of disappointment. “It looked really good, too.”

Ban says nothing else as they drive to the meeting spot. The client meets them there, and after a bit of last-minute haggling, hands over their payment. Ban takes it casually like always–“thanks for your business!”–but Ginji’s practically shaking, hoping from one foot to the other. He almost doesn’t remember to thank the customer, only tossing it out after Ban elbows him in the side.

It has been a while, Ban thinks, and lets that go with a shrug and a wry grin. They’ve gotten through the past few weeks because of Natsumi’s kindness and an unexpected favor from the thread spool. The prospect of buying their own food like respectable people makes him feel indulgent.

“Now let’s go to that place, Ban-chan,” Ginji says, when they’re back in the car again. “I’ve heard it’s good.”

He shakes his head. “What makes you think I want ramen?”

Ginji pouts at him until he recognizes that they’re headed back to the stand–then his expression does a complete one-eighty, and he beams more brightly than any man-made light. He even bounces a little in his seat, leaning forward in an attempt to see better into the thickening night. “Ramen, ramen, ra~me~n~” he sings, drumming his fingers on the door, the dash, his knees–they move in a restless pattern, never lingering for very long. At the next stop, Ban raises an eyebrow at him, and he subsides. But he continues to smile, straining against the seatbelt as the little stand comes into view.

It really is nothing more than a shoddily-crafted wood stall with a few creaky seats, and the curtains are a bit stained and tattered; one hangs more than halfway off. A good windstorm could easily collapse it into rubble. One of its lights has gone out, and another is flickering badly enough to give anyone a headache. But Ginji bounds up to it and plunks himself on one of the uncomfortable stools with all the anticipation of a man about to eat a five-star high-class restaurant. Ban follows more sedately, and eyes the place with obvious doubt before he sits down.

The owner is an old man whose face disappears into a mass of wrinkles when he smiles. He wears clothes that are only marginally cleaner than his curtains, and moves with deliberate, awkward slowness. His happiness to see customers is about as obvious as Ginji’s happiness to be eating there. Ban bites the inside of his cheek to keep from saying anything too scathing, because he knows the insult would go over both their heads.

Ban is still working on his second bowl when Ginji orders his fourth. And even if the old man is slow, he’s steady, and he speaks in a high, whistling voice, telling some story that Ginji listens attentively to, even if Ban has tuned him out.

They manage twenty bowls between the two of them. Ginji gives the man too much money and refuses to take the extra back; he drags Ban off before he can protest.

“The food was good, Ban-chan,” he says earnestly, like a puppy who has believed he’s done the right thing. “He deserved the money.”

Ban punches him anyway. “Dumbass,” he says, though without that much anger. “Don’t whine at me when we run out and can’t buy more food.”

Ginji rubs his cheek and pouts, but then he grins, and the moment’s forgotten. Money is something they only agree on half the time–usually when Ginji’s hungry. With a full belly, he’s much more easygoing about funds. As Ban drives to their usual parking spot for the night, Ginji settles back in his seat with his hands folded over his stomach, already drowsy-eyed. By the time they pull up and Ban puts the car in park, he’s already asleep.

Ban rolls down a window and leans back in his own seat to light a cigarette. He blows the smoke outside. Ginji admitted once that he used to smoke, but gave the habit up soon after Raitei exploded to life within him. The subtle high of nicotine was nothing compared to the sort of power that the Lightning Emperor commanded. These days, he doesn’t like the smell of the smoke, and if it gets into the car, he needles Ban about it until it fades.

Honestly, it doesn’t bother him as much as he likes to complain. It’s one of the many ways Ginji shows his affection, the nagging along with the constant hugs and steadfast faith.

One always knows where one stands, with Ginji. Ban finds the honesty refreshing, even when it irritates the hell out of him.

He draws the smoke deep into his lungs, then lets it out slowly. It’s pale against the night before it dissipates. Ginji mutters something in his sleep about ramen before he subsides. Ban smiles a little at that, and part of the beauty of being in a dark car at night is that no one can see you if you slip.

After he’s done, he drops the butt out the window and rolls it back up. Ban’s eyes have long since adjusted to the dark, so it takes no fumbling to take his glasses off and hook them into the open collar of his shirt. He folds his arms behind his head and leans back, staring into the dark. Beside him, Ginji snuffles and wakes slowly.

“Ban-chan?” he mumbles. “Why’re you still awake?”

He shrugs, though it goes unseen. Ginji never sleeps fully throughout the night–it’s a leftover from his time in the Mugenjou. Seventeen years of catnaps has trained him to sleep deeply when he does, whenever he can. The longest Ban has ever seen Ginji sleep is four hours through.

“Ban-chan?” Ginji sounds more awake now; he sits up a bit, and ruffles a hand through his hair, leaving it standing on hand more than usual. He muffles a yawn with one hand, and blinks sleepily at Ban.

“Wasn’t tired.” Ban shrugs. “What’s your excuse?”

Ginji chuckles. The sound is rusty. He shifts onto his side, facing Ban, still mostly drowsy. His hands lie slack against his chest, and his tired smile is almost contagious.

“I was sleepy,” he said. “I’m not anymore.” Then he yawns widely, behind one hand, and blinks his eyes wide open. “No, really, I’m not,” he says, when Ban smirks at him.

“We’re not in the Mugenjou,” Ban says, rather than argue. “You don’t need to keep waking up.”

Ginji shrugs awkwardly, then pushes himself up to a straighter seated position. “I know,” he says. “It just feels weird to keep sleeping, that’s all.”

“You’ve got weird habits,” Ban says, without heat. “Sleep is good for you.”

“I do sleep, whenever I’m tired,” Ginji says. “But I’m not right now, so why should I?”

They sit together in companionable silence for a while; Ban can feel the quiet seeping into him slowly, and it makes his eyelids and body heavy with the approach of sleep. He curls his lips in a halfhearted attempt to stifle the yawn, but it escapes anyway. Ginji laughs softly, more amused than mocking.

“Take your own advice, Ban-chan,” he says. “Go to sleep.” Then he stretches a little, fingers lacing together as he reaches above his head; there’s a series of soft, subtle pops, and he makes a content noise in the back of his throat before subsiding.

Ban snorts. A moment later, he yawns again.

“Ban-chan, really–I’m okay, but I know you like your sleep–” He stops when Ban holds up a hand for silence, pouting just a little. Ban sits up and makes to push up his glasses, before remembering they’re already off and hooked on his shirt. They look at each other thoughtfully, in the same untroubled silence as before.

He does it on a whim. As Ginji looks at him, head cocked to one side and still a little confused by sleep, Ban leans forward and presses his lips to the side of Ginji’s mouth. It’s not quite a kiss, but he waits there for a second and leans back.

He doesn’t need light to see how red Ginji’s face is. “Ba–Ban-chan … ?”

“You’re noisy,” Ban says, by way of explanation. “Try silence once in a while.”

Ginji lets his fingertips ghost where Ban touched him, drops his eyes for a moment, and takes a deep breath. When he looks up again, he’s smiling. The hand he puts over Ban’s is dry and warm.

“Say so earlier, Ban-chan,” he says, and then mirrors Ban’s earlier movements. His mouth is surprisingly soft on Ban’s cheek, and somehow warmer than he suspected. There’s a bit of a spark when they touch; neither of them flinch. Ban has long since become accustomed to the random static electricity Ginji generates by simply breathing.

Ban hooks an arm around Ginji’s neck to hold him in place. Under the buzz of static, the smell and taste of clean ozone, Ginji tastes oddly sweet, as though all the extra sugar he puts in his coffee has taken permanent residence in his skin. When they part, Ban licks his lips and grins when Ginji’s blush deepens.

“Not bad,” he says. “Could be better, but that comes with practice.”

“Practice?” Ginji’s voice comes out as a squeak, and he clears his throat before trying again. “Wha–what do you mean, practice?”

“You’re not that dumb, Ginji.” Ban settles back again, folding his hands over his stomach. He closes his eyes to create the illusion of complete casual disdain. “Figure it out yourself.”

The silence wears on his nerves more than he wants to admit, but Ban does not even peek at Ginji. However, when the seat beside his squeaks a little from movement, he opens his eyes in time to receive the kiss to his cheek. Ginji meets his gaze evenly, and there is no trace of nerves in those wide brown eyes.

“You’re forgetting, I need someone to practice with.”

Ban grins at that, and relief unfurls a warm glow in his chest. Once again on impulse, he reaches up and pats Ginji’s cheek, and it takes a surprising amount of effort to keep his expression a smirk and not a smile.

“I’ll be glad to do that,” he says, and then when Ginji perks up, he adds, “in the morning.”

Ginji’s jaw drops; he looks like someone from a tsukomi-boke routine, with the rug yanked out from under him. “Ba–Ban-chan!”

“What?” And this time Ban plays up the yawn, letting his eyes slide half-shut. “I’m tired, and you were the one telling me I should sleep.” And then he closes his eyes fully to cut out the image of Ginji pouting. “Good night, Ginji.”

Silence, and then a sigh. “Good night, Ban-chan.” Ginji sounds more amused than annoyed now, and the car shifts and creaks as he moves back into his usual position again; in his mind’s eye, Ban can easily see Ginji leaning against the door, forehead against the window, expression quietly content as he looks out into the featureless night.

The image feels like home, in a way.

Ban relaxes and lets it carry him to sleep.

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