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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to the sound of clapping hands

The thing is that she doesn’t see the world the same way everyone else does; where someone else will look at another person and say ah, he’s on his way to school, what she sees is

a shortcut that takes him right to the girl he will love all his life
(though there’s nothing to say she will love him; after all, perhaps she’ll turn her head at the last moment and see her own fate walk past)

inattention at a traffic light that will lead to an accident
(possibly fatal, in fact, if the doctor on attending decides to become distracted by another patient’s readings; or will possibly come through just fine)

walking through a lost ghost that will occur a vicious grudge
(the lost don’t always understand that they no longer belong here and sometimes even those who do will not willingly go)

and so on
and so forth.

All of them are inevitable fates and all of them are unchangeable choices. As one version of events plays in such a way, another will pull into a different path, until it all spiderwebs out to infinity. This is what she sees, and she is very good at figuring out exactly which thread she will witness directly — once you’ve had some practice, it’s practically second nature: his footsteps hesitate a moment, his head turns away briefly, the sight of the graveyard does not make him falter.

Conversely, though, her path has always been clear. Once one becomes aware of the inevitable, nothing comes as a surprise. If people could only learn that, there would be very little need for her shop indeed!

She puts her hand into Watanuki’s hair as he sleeps, and her hand is milk-white as the moon in contrast; she looks at him and she can see the broken strings and broken edges sweeping away, reknitting themselves in some places and withering to nothing in others. His own road shall never be as straightforward as hers, but that is how it should be: only Watanuki can be exactly like Watanuki, and there is no other of her, so only she can be herself.

And she can watch as he triggers inevitability after inevitability, which will take him to where he absolutely must go, and she can perhaps nudge him here and there in return for the little extra favors he does for her, but she will do no more than that. Certain rules even she cannot break, though she sees the twists in the road ahead and the places where he will falter and he will fall.

Things are more fun that way, though, she thinks, and wasn’t that what you thought as well, Clow Reed?

The wind moves through her hair and gives her no other answer.

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Thirteen Drabbles (What Do You Wish For?)

#1 – Butterflies

The little girl who finds her way to Yuuko’s shop cannot be more than eight, with grass stains on her skirt and knees. Though Watanuki is (slowly) learning not to question, he still hesitates before he ushers her into the shop. Yuuko immediately sends him for tea.

When he returns, the girl is gone. Yuuko herself lies sprawled back, a plastic hairclip in her fingers.

“The thing is, Watanuki,” she says, as he puts the teatray down, “even the young have wishes that must be granted.”

She blows on the clip, and it flutters its wings once before flying away.

#2 – Groceries

Watanuki remembers:

His father’s voice, telling him how to tell when a melon is truly ripe and when it just looks pretty, his mother’s hand in his as they walk the aisles, the ghosts that flitted up to his parents and wandered off when they were greeted in turn, the weight of the basket when he insisted on helping, and his mother’s fond laughter.

When he returns from shopping, Yuuko greets him with a mysterious smile, and for a rare once she doesn’t make immediate demands for alcohol.

“However mundane somewhere seems,” she says, “memories of love never just fade.”

#3 – Waves

Doumeki eats and lets the force of Watanuki’s rant roll over him. It’s harmless — the longer Watanuki works for Yuuko, the more careful he becomes with his words. (Not that he’d admit this, and might deliberately do the opposite just for spite if he knew. Then there’d be Consequences and Watanuki would feel horribly guilty, so Doumeki stays silent.)

Kunogi claps her hands and laughs, her elbow brushing Watanuki’s sleeve, and he feels something dark flitter into existence and vanish as soon as it breaks against his presence; and Watanuki spins and carols for her, carried by his own tide.

#4 – Mystery

Sometimes new doors appear and old ones vanish within the shop. The paths to the kitchen, to the sitting room where Yuuko recieves customers, and the storeroom never change, so they’re easy enough to ignore.

Once he hears screaming and comes pelting back in time to see a strange woman — a customer, he guesses — being dragged into a new room, clawing the floor; her eyes meet his, mad with terror, and then she’s gone.

And so is the door.

Watanuki doesn’t ask — he can see cryptic answers in Yuuko’s eyes and her smile, and knows he won’t learn a thing.

#5 – Board Games

Himawari’s father teaches her to play chess when she is twelve. She sits quietly across from him and listens attentively. Care has worn him older than his years, and her mother too, and she regrets the burden she represents — not so much for herself, but how hard her misfortune weighs upon her parents. It’s very rare when they have the time or energy to spend on her like this, when they’re always so busy working just in case her influence will someday affect them.

She listens to his explanations and they play; and when she checkmates him, he just smiles.

#6 – Winter

She kneels, in seiza, on the porch, watching the first snowfall of the year. The landscape around her has never stopped changing, even from one day to the next, but the snow itself always remains familiar. A breeze slides icy fingers against her bare nape. *Ah, dearest,* it doesn’t say, *there you are.*

The corner of her mouth goes up, though not into a smile. “You make a worse ghost than you did man,” she says.

Around her the wind laughs and fades. Her loosened hair slides down one shoulder, onto her knees. “And you made such an irritating man.”

#7 – Sensitive

The scent of regret is bitter and almost milky; the sound of her voice grinds like metal on metal. Watanuki staggers and covers his nose and mouth with a hand, but it does little to help.

“It’s here, then?” Doumeki asks, looking around, and *damn* him for being immune. “The ghost?”

Watanuki tries not to gag, breathing slowly as he can. “In the corner,” he whispers. “She keeps — she’s there, she–”

Unerringly — perhaps guided by their shared eye, perhaps not — Doumeki turns to her. He draws back an arrow, aimed at her nonexistant heart.

“Got her,” he says, and fires.

#8 – Darkness

“Stay tonight,” Yuuko says, as Watanuki reaches for his shoes.

“Eh?” He glances back at her. “Why, all of a sudden? You want breakfast again?”

His tone is light, but Yuuko doesn’t play along; she’s staring at something out in the fading night, and her eyes are hard and almost black. After a moment he looks as well, but sees nothing.

“Yuuko-san–?”

She glances down at him finally and still doesn’t smile. “It’s very dark tonight,” she says.

He stays; the next morning, the school buzzes with stories of an escaped criminal, caught only a few hours after midnight.

#9 – Quiet Time

As soon as the door closes behind Watanuki, the shop sighs, collapsing and expanding again. Yuuko puts her hand to a wall and looks up to the dark rafters, smiling.

“You’re fond of him too,” she says, and strokes her hand down. “I’m glad.”

“Watanuki is clever,” says Maru.

“Watanuki is kind,” says Moro.

“Watanuki will work hard,” they say as one.

“He’ll have to,” Yuuko agrees, with something that’s not regret. On the other side of the thin wall, light flickers and shadows move, then all fades. “He has no other choice but the inevitable.”

“Ah,” the twins say.

#10 – Kittens

A little-known fact is that pipe foxes will purr when happy.

This suprises Watanuki the first time. Mugetsu lies coiled around his throat, dozing, and he absently rubs the top of its head, right between its tiny ears. Like a cat, it arches into that and makes tiny grinding noises that surprise him at first. He stops, and so does the noise; it starts when he pets it again.

“Are you happy?” he ventures, scritching its ears.

Mugetsu squeaks and headbutts gently into his finger before it nuzzles his cheek.

Pleased, Watanuki flushes. “Good,” he says. “Good, I’m glad.”

#11 – Trains

She takes the train, her hands folded in her lap, with a hat and a veil. Though the other cars are very crowded, no one else tries to enter her cabin. She faces the window, watching the landscape streak past in a blur of green and brown under a smeared blue sky. Despite the rumbling underneath her, it feels like the rest of the world is moving as she remains still, unable to see anything in detail.

At six precisely she steps off the train, opens a parasol over her head, and goes to meet her client without looking back.

#12 – Road trip

“Do you even know how to drive?” Watanuki asks.

Yuuko spins the keys on a finger, her Chesire grin toothy. It makes Watanuki immediately suspicious. “Of course I do,” she says. “Aren’t you getting in?”

He keeps a safe distance back. “How come you never mentioned before?” he asks. “Like when we visited that woman with the computer addiciton–”

“Details,” Yuuko says, waving a hand. “I didn’t feel like it. Today, I do. Come along, Watanuki.” She dangles the keys at him. “It’ll be fun.”

Watanuki sincerely doubts this, but follows with a prayer O Gods, Don’t Let Us Die.

# 13 – Gravestone

“Hello, Mother, Father,” says Watanuki. He kneels and lights the incense Yuuko provided him. “I hope you two have been doing all right, wherever you are.”

The day is bright and clear, and he’s glad for it. “There’s a lot that’s happened with me,” he says. “Ah, I’m sure you know already, but … it’s been a very strange year!

“I’m doing all right, though,” he adds quickly. He watches the incense smoke trail upwards. “I’m … I’m happy. So you two don’t need to worry about me.”

There isn’t an answer, but the cleaned gravestones look almost cheerful in the sun.

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HaruKan 20 :: 13. onsen [hot springs]

One hundred years later, he returns to the village. The hot spring is still there: almost everything is the same as he remembers. Haruka pays for a night and goes outside. He leans back against the stones and is careful to keep his wrist out of the water. The bells ring once, and are silent. He wants to say something, but the spot beside him is empty. It has been for fifty years. Everything is the same, but different because of that, and he finds himself oddly disappointed. When Haruka leaves the village the next morning, he doesn’t look back.

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HaruKan 20 :: 12. issho [together]

“I want to stay with you,” Kantarou says. The aftermath of sex has left him flushed, looking absurdly young. Under Haruka’s palm, his heartbeat is finally beginning to slow. “Is that all right?”

Haruka shrugs as best he can, propped on one elbow. He feels lazy and a bit indulgent: he’s proud of the red marks he’s left on Kantarou’s throat. “Fine,” he says. “I can’t stop you.”

“You could,” Kantarou says. “But I’m glad. I like being with you, Haruka.” His smile is one that Haruka has never seen before, warm and dangerous.

“Ah,” says Haruka. “Go to sleep.”

+++

“I don’t want to go,” Kantarou whispers. “I’m afraid.”

Youko presses his hand between both of hers and weeps; Haruka only stares, his mind a roaring blank. The room is suffocating, but he’s afraid to leave.

It’ll only be a little longer.

“I release both of you from your names,” Kantarou adds. “Thank you for staying with me all these years.” He tries to smile. It fails. “Remember me?”

Haruka takes his thin wrist and pulls the bracelet from it, sliding it into his own. As the bells shiver, he says, “Fine.”

Kantarou smiles and closes his eyes. “Thank you.”

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HaruKan 20 :: 10. ramune

Haruka doesn’t like the taste of ramune that much: it’s too fizzy, too sweet, and feels strange on his tongue. Kantarou seems to think, though, if he just has enough, he’ll change his mind.

“You should be open to new experiences,” he says, and buys Haruka another bottle.

The first time Haruka kisses him, Kantarou has just finished drinking, and the empty bottle dangles from his fingers. The taste is less cloying when mixed with salt.

“Haruka?” Kantarou asks, eyes wide and cheeks flushed. He’s almost shocked speechless. “What –”

“I’m trying new experiences,” Haruka tells him, and kisses him again.

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HaruKan 20 :: 08. shikkoku no hane [black wings]

The fireworks were already starting, though the sun was still low in the sky. Haruka watched them from his rooftop perch, rising and exploding in tiny colorful pinpricks of light. When the ladder clacked against the edge of the roof, he didn’t bother to raise his head.

“Ah, this really is the best spot,” Kantarou said. “Look, you can see them even from this far away! Haruka, move over a little, we need room.”

“There’s plenty of room,” Haruka said, but inched to the side as Kantarou carefully crawled his way to sit beside him. Youko followed a moment later, in a new summer yukata — pale blue, with a red morning glory print, bought as an impromptu present. In one hand, she held a bundle of what smelled like snacks, and though Kantarou held out a hand for her, she picked her way over with delicate grace.

“It really is a nice place,” she said, as she sat down. “Haruka-chan, you’ve got good taste.”

Haruka shrugged. “I don’t come up here for that,” he said. He lifted his head to look over at her as she fussed with the knot of her bundle, slapping away Kantarou’s hands when he tried to help. “But it isn’t that bad.”

“Tonight looks like it’ll be clear,” Youko said later, after she’d worked the knot open and passed out crackers and rice cakes both. “Orihime and Hikoboshi will be able to meet tonight.”

Kantarou lit his pipe, and leaned his head back to exhale smoke into the air above them. The sharp smell of it stung Haruka’s nose. “Looks like it,” he agreed. “We’ll hang up the wishes later tonight, how does that sound?”

“That’ll be good,” Youko said. “Haruka-chan, you’re going to write some too, aren’t you?”

“Hmm?” Haruka raised an eyebrow at her. “Why should I?”

“Come on, it’ll be fun.” She leaned over and poked his shoulder. “It won’t hurt you to just be a little more friendly, you know. One wish, okay?”

Haruka looked at her for a long moment, then shrugged. “…Fine,” he said. “One wish.”

Youko beamed at him. “Good,” she said, and leaned back. Kantarou looked back and forth between the two of them, and shook his head.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” he said. “Why do you always listen to Youko-chan, and not me?”

“Because Youko doesn’t make stupid requests.” Haruka closed his eyes. Anything Kantarou would’ve said in response was drowned out by a distant whistle from the fireworks, and Youko’s excited clapping. He cracked one eye open just enough to see Kantarou’s outline against the sky, faintly wreathed from pipesmoke.

Some time later, a hand touched his shoulder, and Haruka opened his eyes to see that the sun had set and the sky had gone dark. Kantarou leaned over him, smiling, hovering closer than necessary.

“Haruka,” he said. “Come inside. We’ve got the papers and everything set up.”

Haruka blinked at him and sat up and stretched. The night was cool for a night in summer, and the air tasted of ozone and smoke, and in the distance, fireworks were still going up in a steady stream. “What time is it?”

“Almost seven.” Kantarou shifted his weight in careful degrees, until he was facing outwards, towards the city. “We thought we’d let you sleep until everything was ready.” He crouched down, and slid carefully towards the ladder, using his hands to brace his weight. “Come on, you promised Youko-chan one wish.”

Below them, the screen door opened. “Kan-chan, Haruka-chan,” Youko called. “It’s ready, come on!”

“Don’t keep us waiting,” Kantarou added, and disappeared down the ladder. Haruka waited until he heard them both retreat from the porch, then spread his wings and made the glide down to ground level.

Inside, Kantarou was drinking tea and twirling a pen between his fingers, three finished strips by his elbow. The sight was familiar enough that it gave Haruka pause for a moment — but Youko was sitting across from Kantarou, nibbling on the end of her pen with a look of intense concentration. A place had been set for him, complete with a cup of tea.

For a moment, he hesitated, then sat down and picked up a pen. The single strip of paper seemed to loom before him, almost like it was taunting him. He pressed the tip down.

“Ehhhh?” Kantarou leaned over his shoulder. “Haruka, what are you going to write?”

Haruka gave him a narrow look. “Mind your own business,” he said. “I can’t think when you’re hovering like that.”

Kantarou pouted. “I want to see what Haruka’s writing, though,” he said. “Come on, let me.”

“No.”

“Harukaaaaaa …”

“No.”

“But I want to see! Come on, Haruka!”

“Kan-chan, shhhh.” Youko put a finger to her lips, frowning. “Focus on your wishes, and let Haruka-chan write his own.”

Kantarou pouted but sat back. For a moment he just looked at the two of them, an undefinable little smile on his lips, then bent over the paper before him, scribbling something in quick, decisive strokes. When he was done he folded the strip in half and tied a strip of ribbon through it.

“Now can I see your wish?” he asked Haruka, wide-eyed.

“No.” Haruka turned the strip of paper away, hunching so that his shoulder was between it and Kantarou’s line of sight. After a moment he set the paper aside and folded it as well. Kantarou tried to sneak a hand over to snatch it and got his knuckles rapped for the trouble.

“All right,” Youko said, when she’d finished her own wish with a flourish. “It’s going to be a very bare bamboo branch, but it’ll be better than nothing.” She gathered up the handful from Kantarou and the one from Haruka and swished past, humming to herself as she went. Kantarou put his elbows on the table and his chin on his hands, watching Haruka.

“…What?” he asked finally, turning to meet Kantarou’s gaze again. Kantarou just shrugged.

“I’m wondering what you wished about,” he said. “Sure you won’t tell me?”

Haruka shrugged. “It’s not your business, what I wish,” he said flatly. “You might find out if it comes true.”

Kantarou pouted at him a moment longer and stood, heading out after Youko. Haruka trailed behind, watching as the two of them hefted the bamboo branch up, with the wish-bearing strips of paper tied amongst its leaves. Kantarou had his pipe again, though it was unlit, and his expression was thoughtful, his skin bleached by the moonlight.

“Look at that,” Youko said happily, spreading her arms as she turned a slow circle, looking up. “You can see the stars so clearly. You think the magpies will make their bridge, Kan-chan?”

Kantarou looked thoughtful. “I think so,” he said. “After everyone goes to bed tonight, they’ll gather and make a bridge of their backs, and even Orihime’s weight will be too much. Tomorrow, if we find black feathers everywhere, it won’t be Haruka’s fault for once.”

Youko giggled. Haruka crossed his arms and looked annoyed. “I don’t shed that much,” he said.

“You shed all the time,” Kantarou said, smirking a bit. “We just don’t point it out because it’s rude.”

As Haruka bristled, Youko spun around again, humming to herself. Kantarou met his gaze evenly, pressing the stem of his unlit pipe against his lips without taking a draw.

“So what did you wish, then?” Haruka asked finally, when it seemed that Kantarou would just stare at him without a word for the rest of the night. “You had a lot. Feeling greedy, huh?”

“Maybe, a little.” Kantarou shrugged. “I wished for a lot of things, really. ‘I want to meet more new and interesting youkai.’ ‘I want to earn enough money so I don’t lose my house.'” He sighed thoughtfully, then dropped his gaze. “‘I want to become worthy of Haruka.'”

Haruka blinked at him. “You –”

Kantarou only shrugged and said nothing, tapping the stem of his pipe against his lips again. His gaze was pensive and distant, watching the fireworks. Haruka wanted to say something, especially in the hole left by silence, and found nothing would come to mind. Promises and half-lies had carried them only so far, and what Kantarou was obliquely offering wasn’t entirely something Haruka was certain he wanted.

“…Or something like that,” Kantarou said suddenly, shrugging. He was grinning again, and other than a faint flatness to his mouth, the strange moment might have passed unnoticed. “Ah, what else — I asked for a rich wife so that we wouldn’t have to worry about money any longer, and for a longer deadline for the next novel, and –”

“Kantarou.”

“Haruka.” An oddly hopeful little smile touched his lips. “I wished for a lot of things.”

Haruka nodded, not breaking eye-contact. “You did,” he said. “Do you think they’ll come true, now that you’ve said them aloud?”

“I can hope, can’t I?” Kantarou tipped his head to one side. In the sky behind him, red and white light exploded in flower patterns. The glare and reflection made it hard to read the extra question in his eyes, but Haruka thought he could guess easily enough.

“You can,” he said at last. Relief went through Kantarou in a visible movement: his shoulders slumped just a little, and the tension at the corners of his mouth relaxed.

Youko did another spin on her heel, then began to head for the house. “I want some more tea,” she said, and Haruka didn’t miss the smirk she wasn’t even bothering to hide. “Kan-chan, Haruka-chan, play nice.”

And then she was gone into the house, and Haruka frowned. “You always insist on being friends,” he said. “I don’t understand. We –”

“Haruka,” Kantarou said softly, “if we’re not over this by now, we’ll never be. And that’s not what I want.”

“Kantarou …”

“I told you what I wished for,” Kantarou said with a small shrug. “What about you, Haruka?”

Haruka said nothing, taking first one step, and then another, towards Kantarou. “Quiet,” he said.

Kantarou pouted, though his heart didn’t seem quite into it. “Haruka –”

“No,” Haruka said. He touched Kantarou’s chin with one finger, tipping it up. “I meant that I wished for quiet. Because I never get any otherwise.”

“Haruka –”

“And I don’t shed,” he added. “At all.”

Kantarou blinked, then smiled faintly. “No,” he said. “Of course you don’t, Haruka.” When Haruka took his pipe away, he didn’t protest, his smile growing wider. “Not that it’s a problem. I like your wings. They’re very pretty. They suit you.” He reached out daringly and put a hand on Haruka’s shoulder, squeezing as though he could feel the extra bone structure there. His hand was surprisingly warm.

Haruka caught his wrist and pulled it away. “You’re talking too much again,” he said. “Let’s go inside.”

Unsurprised, Kantarou smiled. “Sounds good,” he said. “Youko-chan has probably gone to bed then, hasn’t she.”

“It doesn’t matter if she has.” Haruka tugged a little at his arm. “Let’s go in.”

Kantarou’s wrist turned in his hold, until Kantarou’s fingers closed around his own, his smile quiet and even a little shy. He wasn’t afraid, though, and that surprised Haruka more than anything else. Youko was nowhere to be seen, though she’d left the lights on for them, like some kind of demented bread crumb trail.

“You can tell me no,” Haruka said, outside of Kantarou’s room. “This isn’t –”

“I know,” Kantarou agreed. He sounded more cheerful than anything else, his hands already up and fussing with Haruka’s necktie. “It’s all right, Haruka. I’m not going to run away crying from this.” For a moment his smile turned wry, almost self-deprecating. “It’s fine.”

Haruka looked at him and opened the screen door, pushing Kantarou inside.

After that, everything was easy: Kantarou stretched up onto his toes to kiss Haruka once before drawing him towards the futon. The kiss was unpracticed, but not inexperienced, and Haruka filed the thought away for later as he let himself be pulled down.

In spite of his chattering during the day, Kantarou was surprisingly quiet during sex; most of his vocalizations were whispers, low and somehow private, even when Haruka opened his gi and spread fingers down his chest and stomach. Kantarou was lean, but not well-muscled — his belly was soft to the touch, and his fingers had few calluses. When Haruka untied Kantarou’s hakama and slid a hand inside, he was rewarded with the loudest sound: a faint moan in his ear.

Kantarou also seemed preoccupied with Haruka’s back and shoulders, skittering light fingers over where the wings would sprout, as though testing to see if he could find any difference in the texture of the skin. After a moment, Haruka caught both his slim wrists and pulled them away.

“Leave those alone,” he said softly.

Kantarou only blinked back. “I like your wings, though,” he said. “Will you let me see them later?”

“You’ve seen them before,” Haruka told him, and kissed him again. Kantarou ended up yoking his arms around Haruka’s neck, rasping in his ear as they moved together, gaining speed and losing rhythm.

It was easier than Haruka expected to lose himself, counting the heartbeats until Kantarou jerked in his arms and whimpered, biting his shoulder with surprising strength. Haruka closed his eyes and kept moving and moving until light sparked behind his closed eyes and he collapsed atop Kantarou, his body feeling heavier than stone.

“Haruka,” Kantarou whispered into his hair, in the tone of a man sharing a secret. “Haruka …”

Haruka groaned and pressed his face into the crook of Kantarou’s neck and shoulder, and found he couldn’t make himself loosen his arms, not yet. “Shut up,” he said, without heat. “I thought I told you I wished for quiet.”

“I just like saying your name,” Kantarou said. “Let me see your wings?”

“There’s not enough room here,” Haruka mumbled. “Don’t ask for such stupid things.”

“It’s not stupid,” Kantarou protested, a pout in his voice. “Harukaaaaaa …”

“I’m tired,” Haruka said, and bit him with just enough fang that Kantarou yelped in surprise. “Tomorrow. Maybe.”

Kantarou sighed in his ear, and though it was resigned, it was more amused than defeated. “Haruka’s being mean,” he sighed, and then, just like that, he was asleep. Haruka kept his face pressed against Kantarou’s neck for long moments, listening to the sound of him breathing.

“Idiot,” he added, for good measure. It sounded like a lie to his own ears; the next time Kantarou asked, he thought he might actually agree. “Selfish bastard.”

And then he slept.

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HaruKan 20 :: 07. baito [part-time job]

Youko brings Kantarou tea whenever he stays up late at night, and if she finds him asleep, she puts a blanket over his shoulders and douses his lamp. As long as she’s known him, he’s been obsessed with finding the oni-eating tengu, and sometimes she worries how this is effecting his health.

“A tengu can look as monstrous as he wishes,” she tells him once. “He may not be what you expect.”

Kantarou just smiles and shrugs. “I know,” he says. “I don’t care.”

Searching for the oni-eating tengu is his life’s work, and possibly all he will leave behind. Everything else — the things he does to earn the money for them to survive, that’s all just side jobs to pay the bills.

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