setting the stage

Ed noticed the sound of footsteps echoing his own about halfway between the library and the dorms. He neither sped up nor slowed down, and kept his hands in his pockets.

When he found a series of lit streetlamps, he stopped in the halo of the first one. The person behind him stopped as well.

Irritated–who’s so small and puny that he looks like an easy target?!–he turned.

Roy Mustang raised an eyebrow at him, in a relaxed posture that mirrored Ed’s. “Fullmetal,” he said, “you’re out late.”

Ed relaxed fractionally and rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah, it’s just you.”

“‘Just’ me, Fullmetal?” Mustang strolled forward, something dark and intent in his gaze. “That’s cold.”

Ed set his feet more firmly and resisted the sudden urge to back up. “What do you want, Colonel?” Unease made his fingers curl, but he still kept his hands in his pockets.

Mustang continued his steady advance until they were less than a handspan apart. The sense of another body too close to his own made Ed twitch, but he refused to budge, especially away from Mustang’s smirk.

“What do you want?” he asked again.

Mustang did not answer verbally, but he raised a gloved hand and cupped Ed’s cheek. In spite of himself, Ed flinched from that direct contact–even long ago, when it didn’t matter so much, he’d preferred his personal space. The roughness of Mustang’s glove was shockingly real, one and the same with the warmth of his hand.

“I worry about you, Edward,” Mustang said, eyes narrowed and sleepy. “Is it such a crime, to be concerned for your well-being?” He began to lean forward and down, and the hand on Ed’s face slid around to tease at his hair.

The puff of warm air on his mouth, a split second before contact, galvanized Ed into action. He jerked back with a startled noise and swung with his automail fist. It missed Mustang’s cheek by a hair, and immediately Ed spun himself around into a high kick. The dodge carried Mustang right out of the glow of the streetlight, and there he stopped.

“What the fuck was that?!” Ed stabbed an accusatory finger at the man. His hand shook slightly, but he ignored it. “You asshole, what–”

“Aw, Ed,” said Winry, lifting her head. “That’s so mean, and we haven’t seen each other in so long…”

Ed’s throat closed. When Winry stepped back into the light, he stepped back. The automail leg held firm, but his other knee trembled, and threatened to buckle. Winry continued to smile at him, but the expression he remembered from childhood was perverted, changed into something wrong.

Winry should not look at him with those eyes, part of his mind gibbered. The knotted dark strip of cloth that bound her breasts should not hang so low, and it was too cold to be showing so much skin–

He brought his hands together, the sound of his clap ringing in the stillness. When the transmutation finished, he aimed the knife-point at the stranger, scowling. “Who the fuck are you, and what do you want?”

“It’s me, Ed,” Winry said, and placed a finger against her lips, pouting at him. “Just because I’ve grown up a little…” She shifted forward another step, and tilted her head to one side. One hand settled over her heart, toying with the edges of the tie. “Haven’t you missed me?”

He resisted the urge to gag. “Don’t fuck with me,” he snarled. “Especially not with that face–!” He launched himself forward, bladed arm drawn back. Winry recoiled slightly, her face surprised for a moment as lines shifted, blurred, and then–

–“Brother,” Al said. But it wasn’t Al as he remembered him, but Al as he imagined him, lean and strong and taller than him, damnit–

Ed stumbled, lost his footing, and stumbled directly into the imposter’s arms. He hung there for a moment, dazed, and then immediately tried to backpedal. Al’s arms closed tightly around him, though, one hand firm against the small of his back, and the other curving around the base of his skull.

“Oh, Brother, don’t be like that,” Al murmured into his hair. “Isn’t this what you wanted? To be able to touch me like this again?”

Ed shoved at the narrow chest against his own with his left hand. “Fuck you,” he wheezed. “Let me go–”

Al released his head only to catch his chin, jerking his face upwards. The eyes that looked down at him were glittering and cold, nothing like Al’s at all. Fingers splayed open wide against his back, pressing them tightly together.

“Hello, Brother,” Al said, and kissed him.

Ed went stiff for a moment, frozen to complete and utter rigidity, his automail arm dropping uselessly to his side. He stared, wide-eyed, and Al looked right back, tawny eyes daring as a tongue swept across his lips and a leg slid between his own to shift against him, knowing–

(Mustang’s hand on his face)

(Winry’s knowing smile)

(Al–Alphonse, right there–)

With a tremendous heave, Ed tore himself away, lashing out with the bladed arm as he did. For a moment, the edge connected and caught on something solid, and he thought he heard a gurgling cry of surprise. He jerked his arm back, and felt something warm and sticky splatter his face, the air suddenly filled with the smell of blood.

Al clutched at his side, eyes wide with shock and betrayal. A thin, dark line trickled from one corner of his mouth. “Brother,” he sighed.

Ed shook his head, backing up. He was almost to the far end of the light, and he thought he could feel the darkness all around him, ready to close in with hungry smiles.

“Brother,” Al said again, and this time there was a very distinct, liquid gurgle in his voice. He reached out, and even in the yellow sheen of the light, it was easy to see the color of the dark stains on his palm were red, not black.

“Fuck you,” Ed whispered, in a shaking voice. “Fuck you, fuck you, just–fuck you.” He pointed the automail at the stranger again, flinching when Al lurched a step forward. “If you ever–try that face on me again, I’ll–”

“Brother,” Al said, and then his face contorted. “Brother, it hurts.” He looked down at himself, at the blood staining his pale blue shirt, and then up again. Tears stood in his eyes, which was ridiculous because Al had stopped crying a year after their mother died–

“Brother, it hurts.”

Ed choked. One foot slid back, and then the other, carrying him out of the spotlight. Al reached for him again, only it wasn’t just Al, but every face he’d known in his life, people from Rizenbul and Central and East City, all bleeding and dying and begging him, it hurts, Edward Elric, it hurts

He bolted, almost stumbling in his haste; only sheer coincidence kept him on his feet.

In the morning, Al found him in the lobby of the dorms, curled up on a ratty old couch and looking as though he had not slept the entire night.

“Brother, what’s wrong?” he asked.

Ed looked up at him, and the sick relief that spread in his eyes pained Al, in the place where his heart should have been.

“It’s nothing,” Ed said, and when Al was about to protest, he held up a hand. “At least, it is now.”

And though Al asked for a full month afterwards, even as they began packing for the mission to Liore, his brother never explained.

***

“Enjoyed yourself?” Lust asked dryly, when he slunk in.

Envy twitched, then straightened, rubbing the back of his neck. “Heh. Got caught.”

Lust came away from the wall, and before Envy had time to blink, he found himself pinned to the far wall by the long, sharp spikes of her fingernails.

“That boy is vital to our goals,” she said, twisting her hand a little, so that one sharp edge pressed against his neck. “Neither Father nor myself want to see him broken, do you understand?”

Envy swallowed hard and nodded.

“Good.” Lust retracted her nails and stepped back. He sank to the ground with a feeble cough, rubbing his throat. “See that you remember that, Envy.” Without checking to see his response, she turned and sauntered off, her form quickly swallowed by the shadows.

Envy rubbed the side of his throat and scowled. “‘Remember that,'” he mimicked, a sneer twisting his lips. “Sure, you old bitch, I’ll remember that.”

He picked himself up and dusted himself off. Briefly, he thumbed his mouth, and then allowed himself a single, toothy smile.

“You remember me, too, you Fullmetal brat,” he said to the rising sun. “Sooner or later, you’re not going to be able to run away.”

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miles to babylon

There were no set time for Beltline raids. Its people struck as need or whim dictated, and those were both fickle masters. Ginji needed both hands and feet to count the number of times he’d been jostled awake by Teshimine-san’s rough hands in the dead of night, and ordered to hide while still slow and confused from sleep. Still other times, they came during the day, bursting out of the meager shadows like starving animals.

Ginji huddled in a pile of sodden cardboard boxes, trying to find shelter from the Beltline people and the rain both. He was still too young to even properly keep up with the older kids, and so had been shooed off to a pretense of safety. He had his hands pressed hard over his ears, in an attempt to keep the sound of screaming down. Some of those voices he recognized, and tasted helplessness as a bitter pill.

Thunder growled, and he heard one rough exclamation in a voice he didn’t know–and then, very abruptly, complete silence. Even the rain seemed hushed for that brief moment.

Ginji cracked one eye open and lowered his hands fractionally. In the wake of that vacuum of silence is a nearly-deafening rush of quiet things: the rush of blood in his ears, the rasp of his breathing, the drum roll of rain, and–

Footsteps.

They had a slow, deliberate rhythm to them, heavy over the sound of everything else. And though it was hard to judge, it seemed to be coming closer to him. Ginji sucked in a sharp breath and held it, sharp and stabbing in his chest. Though the day was heavy with summer warmth, his hands felt shaking and cold.

The box over his head lifted up suddenly. Ginji flinched back with a squeak, squeezing his eyes shut. Instinctively, he covered his head with his skinny arms.

“Aha, Ginji-kun. There you are.”

He looked up at the sound of his name in spite of himself, and found himself squinting through a blinding flash of lightning. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, as though he’d touched live wire. “Wh–who are you?”

“I’m a friend of Teshimine Takeru,” the man said. Ginji blinked light-ghosts from his eyes and frowned. He did not recognize this man, dressed in shining, spotless white in the middle of Lower Town’s dreariness and filth, but even so, this stranger knew Teshimine-san’s name–

“The fighting’s over now, Ginji-kun,” the man said, and held out a hand. And indeed, his voice was the only one now, trailed off into expectant silence. “Takeru is looking for you.”

Ginji stared at that hand. It was slender and pale and neat, smoothed of all calluses. Even Lon-Fa had rougher hands than that. Warning still tingled in his fingertips, and he did not trust that friendly half-smile. He shook his head.

“Oh, come now. There’s no need to be scared.”

Ginji shook his head again, mute. The man’s smile never so much as flickered, nor did his hand waver. “Now, Ginji-kun–”

“Ginji!”

Relief blossomed in his belly. He snapped his head up at the sound of that second, familiar voice, just in time to catch an irritated spark cross the stranger’s face. And then there was Teshimine-san, bruised and muddy, with rain dripping from his shaggy hair. He stopped short at the sight of the other man, golden eyes narrowing.

The stranger straightened and put his hands in his pockets. “Yaa, Takeru.”

“What are you doing here?” Teshimine-san demanded. Part of Ginji flinched back at the unexpected, raw anger in his voice. “You–”

“It’s many miles to Babylon, Takeru,” the man said. He turned, and walked away from Ginji, towards Teshimine-san, who tensed as though preparing for another battle. “But my steps are nimble and light.”

“It loses something in translation,” Teshimine-san said, following the man with his eyes as he passed. “Don’t ever come back again.”

“I’m not the one who makes that decision,” the man said. Over his head, lightning split the sky, silhouetting his entire slender form in a wash of blinding white. “But maybe we’ll wait for your boy to come to us.”

With that, he began to walk faster, until his shining form was swallowed up in the gray of rain and evening. Teshimine-san watched him go, tense long after the last speck of white vanished. Ginji scrambled out from under the cardboard boxes and crept hesitantly over to his side.

“Teshimine-san?”

Teshimine-san took a deep breath and turned, his face unbearably serious. “Ginji,” he said, “you–”

Thunder belched suddenly, drowning out his words. Ginji was too afraid of his expression to ask him to repeat them.

“–not ever. Do you understand?”

Ginji swallowed hard and nodded. Teshimine-san’s face finally softened.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go find dinner.”

A small static shock charged their fingers when Ginji took his hand. It was barely more than a spark and brief pressure, and then gone. They looked at each other, and Ginji grinned, feeling the weight of that peculiar situation slough away, like dirt under water.

The rain was coming to a slow end.

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dogtags

Alicia Hughes had two things she never took off: an friendship bracelet that one of her friends had made for her for her tenth birthday, and a set of dog tags that she kept out of sight, under her shirts and close to her heart.

“They belonged to your father,” Uncle Roy had told her, when he’d given them to her. “I don’t know if he would’ve wanted you to have them, but they are for you, regardless.”

In truth, she hardly remembered the man who’d been her father. Photographs of him still remained in the house, including a large family portrait over the fireplace. In every one, he looked kind, smiling like the happiest man in the world.

“If Papa loved us so much, why did he leave?” she asked her mother once, as they made dinner. She had been very young, she remembered, with the dog tags burning against her skin in a newly-made secret. “Why didn’t he stay?”

Her mother, beautiful and lonely and sad, had stopped and smiled with the echoes of heartbreak. “Because, sometimes, our choices are made for us, and no matter how much we argue, it changes nothing. Your father would have given the world to stay with us, never doubt that.”

Sometimes, when nervous or upset, her mother would twist her ring when she spoke. It was her wedding ring, and like Alicia’s dog tags, it was something she never took off. When she asked her questions, her mother twisted the ring so hard, it turned the skin around it pale, then red. Alicia watched her, and decided to never ask again.

On the anniversary of that day, they went down to the graveyard together, each with an armful of flowers–roses from her mother, lilies for her. Alicia always walked a few paces behind her mother, looking around at the neatly-ordered rows with solemn eyes.

There were so many of them, she thought, every year, and each one had originally been a person, with a face and a name and maybe even a family, too. It made her happy to put the flowers down on the grave and to leave that uncomfortably quiet place. Surely, her father had found a nicer, more cheerful place to stay.

She hoped so. She didn’t want to think about him being lonely, wherever he was.

Another person might have hidden the dog tags away, locked in the same hidden drawer she kept her diary. Alicia found she liked the weight of them, somehow comforting around her neck. On long rainy nights, she pulled them out of her nightshirt and weighed them in her hand, and let the clink of them lull her to sleep.

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Knowledge

Weekly dinner at the Hughes household always consisted of three things, without fail: an hour or two of playtime with Alicia, who never failed to be a captive audience whenever he snapped his fingers; the meal itself, usually prepared by Gracia, who was the epitome of the virtue in her name, and then–

“The problem with you is,” Hughes said, “is that you’re easy to love, but hard to know.”

–some kind of pithy conversation with Maes Hughes himself.

In recent months, due to certain other developments, he’d stopped obliquely hinting that married life was more than worth its occasional bumps and headaches, and started probing for other things. With Alicia fast growing up, it seemed to have suddenly become his business to play Concerned Father to anyone who lingered long enough to be caught by him.

Hence sitting here now, with half-finished drinks and an earnest Hughes, waiting for his response. In the kitchen, Alicia was chattering happily at her mother over the run of water and the clink of dishes. Roy just raised an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”

“Just what I said.” Hughes raised an eyebrow right back. “You’re a charming bastard, and the women eat it up. The fact you’ve dated enough women to use their names as part of your alchemical code says a lot, don’t you think?”

“They don’t necessarily love me,” Roy murmured.

“Oh, please.” Hughes rolled his eyes. “It’s disgusting, the way they’ll follow you like homeless puppies. Do you know how tiring it is to listen to someone talk nonstop about how wonderful and special and all-round perfect someone is?”

“… I’m going to assume that’s a rhetorical question.”

“Smug bastard.” Hughes bunched up his napkin and threw it lazily at Roy, who merely leaned to the side to dodge it. “At least I know my ladies love me back.”

Roy snorted. “Just because they’re attracted to me doesn’t mean they love me, Hughes,” he said, a touch more irritably than normal.

“They think they do, however. And sometimes, that’s enough.” Hughes leaned forward, and his eyes were narrowed and piercing, with no trace of the stupid father or the love-struck husband in them. It was not unlike when he’d been a young boy, scrutinized by his own father, weighed and judged by eyes that promised no easy escape.

So, instead, he looked into his drink, giving the glass an absent-minded shake. Ice clinked, and the sound was very loud, during the brief lull of silence from Alicia’s voice. “I’ve done my best not to encourage false hopes,” he said, utterly bland.

Hughes let out an explosive breath. “See, that’s what I mean,” he said, and though his expression was disgusted, there was also a hint of fondness in his relaxing eyes. “You say things in a way that someone who wanted to can hear anything they want with a little bit of skewing.” He leaned back in his chair, and drew a few circles in the air with a finger. “It’s the mystery. I have it on the greatest authority that women like that sort of thing.” He waggled his eyebrows.

Roy snorted. “What you and your wife do in private is not any business of mine,” he said blandly.

“This is not about me, here.” Hughes gave a dismissive wave. “It’s the fact that we’ve got this new wave of girls working in the offices, only they’re not working, because they’re too busy comparing notes about how you looked at them or smiled or something.” He dropped his head back for a moment, then lifted it again, drumming his fingers against his knee.

Shrugging, Roy said, “Young people are always prone to being flighty when it comes to these things.”

Hughes gave him a sour look. “You’re not that old, Roy. And this has been something I’ve noticed has been going on since, oh, I don’t know. Forever?”

“Forever, huh?”

“You’re a paranoid bastard, you know that?” Hughes sighed, with an extra edge of melodrama to it. “All you let people see are the shallow waves, and when they try to get more, you shut them out.”

“Is that so.”

“You’re never going to be without enemies, Roy,” Hughes said, reflectively. Roy said nothing, waiting out the seeming non-sequitor. “Too many people resent too many things about you to let you live your life in peace.”

Roy’s smile had teeth in it. “I never expected otherwise.”

“Still.” Hughes traced circles in the air with one finger. “A man like you needs all the allies he can get, and friends are better than allies, but by definition, you can’t keep people in the dark and expect them to–” The sound of small running footsteps cut him off.

“Daddy~!” A small flurry, dressed in white and pink, appeared in the doorway, a split second before it launched itself at Hughes. He fielded the impact well, tilting the chair back with controlled precision, as though the weight of a single small girl could truly rock the heavy furniture.

“Alicia,” he crooned, “you done helping Mommy with the dishes?”

Alicia settled herself on her father’s lap and grinned with a proudly gap-toothed smile. “I did,” she said, “and I even helped put some of them away!”

“That’s my girl!” Hughes jogged one knee, earning a delighted squeal as the little girl bounced. “Did you make sure to finish everything else?”

“Mommy let me feed Baker tonight,” she announced gleefully. “He eats like a piggy.”

Hughes laughed. Gracia trailed in, at a distinctly more sedate pace than her daughter’s madcap dash. At her heels trailed the new family dog, purchased for Alicia’s fifth birthday. Still more a puppy than anything else despite his size, he wobbled on long awkward legs, squirming until he made it around Gracia, then bounded towards father and daughter on the chair.

Alicia twisted until she could hold out one tiny hand, and squealed when Baker rose up onto his haunches, forepaws braced on the seat cushion, and licked her palm enthusiastically. Hughes ruffled the dog’s ears, then nudged him back to the ground.

“Alicia, honey, bedtime,” Gracia said. “Say goodnight to Daddy and Uncle Roy, okay?”

“Yes, Mommy,” Alicia intoned obediently, then turned and gave her father a sloppy kiss on the cheek. “Good night, Daddy,” she said, then shrieked again when he rubbed their cheeks together. Then she slid from his lap and crossed over to Roy, beaming as she held out her small arms. There was no hesitation or shyness in her bright green eyes, and even so tiny, she stood braced with obvious determination.

“Up!” she said. “Hug!”

“Say please, Alicia,” Gracia chided, hiding a smile.

“Pleeeeeease?” She batted her lashes at Roy.

Roy chuckled and leaned forward, hooking his hands under her arms and swinging her up with a heave. She giggled, beaming down at him, and when he set her down in his lap, she wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed. “Good night, Uncle Roy,” she said into his neck.

For a moment, he hesitated, then cupped his hand across her back. “Good night.” It was strange–he remembered holding her like this when she was a baby, the few times Gracia had bullied him into trying. She had been such an alien, fragile thing back then, a completely different creature from the squirming bundle he held now.

She put her lips to his cheek and buzzed, loudly. He started, and she just flashed him that same ear-to-ear smile, then slid back to the floor and ran to her mother, giggling all the while. Gracia swept her up, and Alicia draped herself over her shoulder, waving enthusiastically at them as she was carried up the stairs.

When Roy looked back at Hughes, the man was staring at him again, with that same calculating expression. He just raised an eyebrow.

“Is it really that difficult?” Hughes asked, quietly. “Alicia’s a little girl who thinks you’re the most wonderful man in the world–after her daddy, of course.” A faint smile chased its way across his face, then faded. “Kids like that don’t care what secrets you have, or what you’ve done in your past. You’re here now, and she loves you.”

“Didn’t you just say that all your new secretaries are in love with me, too?” he asked. “You’re tossing that word around quite cheaply, Hughes.”

“Like I said, easy to love, and hard to know,” Hughes said patiently. “They know you as the dashing Major General, war hero and Flame Alchemist. You’ve got a handsome face and good manners, so they’re charmed. Alicia loves you as Uncle Roy, who spoils her outrageously–” here he raised an eyebrow at Roy–“and comes for dinner every other Saturday. And she knows about how Ed–”

Roy got to his feet, expression still bland. “It’s getting late,” he said. “I have a ways to walk.”

Hughes leaned back in his seat and just smirked. If a bit of worry still lingered in his eyes, he let the matter drop.

Alicia’s bedroom door opened, and Gracia reappeared on the stairs. She paused halfway down, looking between the two of them with mild surprise. “You’re leaving?”

Roy shrugged into his coat, and managed to dredge up a smile for her. “You’ve been utterly charming, but–”

“But my husband’s said some things you’d rather not think about, so you’re going off to brood by yourself,” she said crisply. When he slanted a look at her, she smiled. “Give our best to Edward, all right? And tell him he’s expected next time, or else.”

His hands paused for a full second on his coat. She continued to smile back at him, unconcerned by his darkly probing look. After a moment, he gave her a wry smile and saluted smartly as he would to any general on the parade field.

“She’s a keeper, Hughes,” he said. It was the same thing he’d said years ago, after he’d first met the young woman who’d accepted his best friend’s name and ring.

Still lounging in his chair, Hughes snorted, though there was a deep note of affection in that sound. “Damn straight–and she’s mine, so hands off.”

Gracia laughed and descended the rest of the way down the stairs, skirting around Roy to her husband’s side. He heard the rustle of movement, and guessed that Hughes had hooked an arm around her waist; Hughes was physical in his affections, and more with his wife and daughter than anyone else. “Good night, Roy.”

He nodded without turning. “Good night,” he said, and headed for the door. He heard Hughes mutter something at his wife, who only laughed.

Outside, the night was cold and clear. He closed the door quietly behind him and stared upwards, through the mist of his breath. Even in East City, you could see more stars than in Central. When he’d first left, he had not believed he would miss that place, but–there were certain things left behind there, irretrievable.

A thousand young faces, shining with belief and hope, all abandoned and buried, in Ishbar’s sands and East City’s ghettos. His own people had suffered losses, as well. Losing lives aged a man faster than years alone.

Roy fished a pair of gloves from his coat pocket–ordinary gloves, fur-lined and black leather–and slid them on. Then he tucked his hands back into his pockets and began the slow walk back to his house.

The lights were on and the door was not locked when he arrived; he looked at the pair of black boots left carelessly discarded off to the side, and smiled faintly. Noises emerged from the kitchen, along with the smell of coffee.

“I’m back,” he called, as he pulled off his coat. The house still carried a distinct chill, despite the lit fire he could see in the living room, and so for now, he kept the gloves on. If he had to guess, he would hazard Edward had simply forgotten to even start the fire until distracted from his studies by the fact that it was too dark to see.

“I heard,” Edward called from the kitchen. “I’m back, too.”

“I could tell.” Roy bent and unlaced his own boots, and these he left neatly standing beside Edward’s in silent statement. He made a detour to the library, plucking one book at random from the shelves, and then made a beeline for the fire. There was a haphazardly stacked pile of papers at one end of the couch; this Roy moved aside and settled himself into the corner crook formed by the back and arm. It still retained a bit of body warmth, and this he leaned comfortably back into.

“That was my spot, bastard,” Edward said, in the doorway. He was still dressed for the road, though his feet were bare, and carried two gently-steaming cups. “Not that you care, huh?”

“One of those had better be for me,” Roy replied.

“No, I’m gonna drink ’em both. Sheesh, would a little politeness kill you?” Edward slunk across the floor towards him. There was the faintest curl of a grin on his face, edged and bright. For someone who’d ostensibly spent at least the first half of the day on the road, there was still a distinct spring in his step.

“If you were a guest, perhaps,” Roy said. “As you’re merely freeloading, I see no need–”

“Don’t be such an ass.” Edward stopped in front of him, his expression halfway a challenge. “I pay my part of the rent, and you know it. Why I do, I’m not sure, because when you’re home you spend all your time bitching and making demands–”

“That’s why you love me,” Roy said, and held out one hand.

Edward snorted, rudely. “You wish, bastard,” he said. “Move over, unless you want coffee in your lap.” He lifted up one of the cups, tilting it so that a dark bead appeared on the lip, held just barely in place by surface tension.

Roy moved, and Edward plunked himself down on the couch with careless ease, and managed not to spill any coffee, though it sloshed dangerously close. One cup he handed to Roy; the other he slid his automail fingers around. A bit of squirming and rearranging ended with Edward partly reclined, using Roy’s side as a pillow, with his human arm flung out wide, so that naked fingers tapped thoughtfully against Roy’s ankle.

They sat in silence for long moments. Once situated, Edward went back to his notes, and Roy sat with his book open to a random page, staring at the pattern and sway of flames. The snapping, quiet voice of the fire was almost hypnotic, motor memory tingling in his fingertips.

“Gracia says you’re to come, next time,” Roy said at last, his voice quiet.

“If I’m not working,” Edward replied absently. “Some of us still go out and do things for a living, Major General.” He made a face. “Have I mentioned how annoying your title’s become after you got promoted?”

“Constantly,” Roy said dryly.

“It’s a pain. Any chance of going back to being a Colonel?”

“A snowball’s chance in hell, Fullmetal.”

Edward slanted him a look under the veil of his lashes. “Was worth a shot.” Then he reached up to put his cup aside, and squirmed so that he was now on his belly, propped with his bony elbow braced on Roy’s thigh. “If you’re not going to do anything, give me my spot back. It’s a hassle trying to take notes this way.”

“I stole it fairly,” Roy said. “Don’t underestimate the triumph of age and sneakiness over youth and energy, Fullmetal.”

Both of Edward’s brows drew up, then together. He hoisted himself up to his knees, expression turned sardonic. “Never pegged you to be someone who’d get maudlin over your age, Major General.”

“You’re a smart boy, Fullmetal,” Roy said. “But you should leave the psychology to your brother.”

The disgust in Edward’s eyeroll almost had audible sound to it. He crossed his arms over his chest, mouth pursed. Roy turned back to his book, and, despite himself, barely managed to hide a smirk when Edward sighed, loudly and pointedly.

“I’m young, not stupid,” Edward said, reaching out and untangling one of Roy’s hands from his book. “That whole ‘pity me for my age’ won’t work–I know you.”

“Do you, now,” Roy murmured. He snapped his book shut with his free hand, then lifted his gaze to meet Edward’s speculatively.

“Mmhmm,” Edward said. He hefted the weight of Roy’s relaxed hand in his both his own, like something strange out of a foreign market. “You’re a grouchy bastard who likes things to go his own way and has no morals about doing whatever you need to get it.”

“And here I’ve always been told I was charming,” Roy said.

“What delusional woman told you that?” Edward shifted his legs, so that he now sat cross-legged on the couch, facing Roy. He was still examining Roy’s hand, adjusting and bending the fingers, as though to test it was properly working.

Roy cocked an eyebrow at him. “Tell me, Edward,” he said, voice dropping to a murmur, “why should I put up with your attitude when I have been informed, just this evening, that there is a whole host of lovely and charming young ladies who would gladly give up an evening of their time for my company?” He gave his hand an experimental tug, and Edward’s fingers tightened fractionally.

“Because,” Edward said, as his real thumb dragged along the cuff of the glove, “you’d be bored without me.” He glanced up briefly, that same smirk lighting his gaze.

Roy slouched further back into the crook of the couch, and affected the most bored expression in his repertoire. “You’re not being especially entertaining now,” he pointed out, and let his gaze wander to a point over Edward’s head.

It earned him another rude snort, and a short mutter under Edward’s breath–something that sounded suspiciously like smug bastard–before he raised Roy’s relaxed hand to his face.

“Don’t get too excited,” he said, when Roy looked at him with amused quizzicality. “I’m the one doing you a favor, here.”

Delicately, his teeth closed over the tip of Roy’s index finger. Encased within the glove, it felt only like a slight pressure. Roy slanted an eyebrow at him. “These are new gloves,” he said mildly. “Leather doesn’t take well to teeth marks.”

The pressure increased briefly–a warning nip. Edward’s eyes were unashamed, the edges of his mouth spreading into a feline smirk. Despite himself, Roy quirked a half smile in return and reached out with his other hand, to cup Edward’s face–and found his wrist caught firmly between automail fingers. Roy asked the question by wriggling his own fingers, and was answered by the press of cool metal to his wrist.

“Enjoying yourself?” he muttered. Edward only twisted his head gently from side to side, working the glove slowly loose. The fingers of his human hand crept up under the edge of Roy’s glove, dots of smoother warmth against the fur lining. Edward’s eyes were closed and his expression intent, mouth working as he occasionally shifted the grip of his teeth. On Roy’s other hand, the automail thumb began tracing absent circles, like a new alchemy student practicing the perfect round shape required for an array. Edward was still on his knees, but leaning forward now, the line of his body growing relaxed and heavy.

When Roy shifted his position to accommodate the drape of another body across his legs, his elbow jostled his book and sent it tumbling to the floor. For a moment, Edward’s eyes flickered open to check–but it had landed safely on its back, rather than on its spine, and so his eyes closed again. The glove was now halfway off, and the sliver of exposed flesh on Roy’s palm felt cold and oddly exposed, though the room was warming nicely from fire.

He leaned forward, so that his nose brushed Edward’s temple. “The last time we did this here, you called me a pervert.” The whisper left strands of hair clinging to his lips, which smelled of books and metal and the faintest traces of soap.

Edward snorted, but did not let go. In the wake of the glove, his fingers moved in, cupping the back of Roy’s hand into a gentle curve. The other, he kept pinned down to the seat cushion.

Roy’s thumb slipped free, and then the rest was easy; Edward leaned back, and the glove slid off smoothly. With a disdainful feline expression, he turned his head and spat it out over the edge of the couch, where it flopped, the fingertips just brushing the fallen book. He turned back to Roy’s exposed hand now, turning it slowly, as though considering. Roy kept the fingers relaxed, watching Edward’s intent expression.

A moment later, a rough pink tongue flickered out, rasping against the webbing between index finger and thumb. Roy sucked in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and saw the way it made Edward smile, though that golden gaze never lifted back to his.

Carefully, as though he actually cared for ceremony, Edward drew his tongue down the length of Roy’s index finger, from the tip to the base, where it circled, as though probing for some hidden secret. The rush of his breath was steady and hot against the damp trails it left behind, and it was only a faint moment of surprise when it was completely engulfed in wet heat. On the couch, Roy’s other hand twitched, and as if in compensation, Edward twined their fingers together. The metal palm was still cool in the warm room.

Roy shivered. Edward was now draped fully against him, purring deep in his chest as he pulled back, lips tight around the pointing finger. When it was fully free, he gave it one more tiny lick at the pad itself, where the whorls of the fingerprint were made, then slid his tongue down the folds of Roy’s cupped palm. The rest of his body moved in a slow, subtle rhythm–not even full rocking, but still a careful, continuous motion. Briefly, his lips fastened to the point of Roy’s pulse and sucked hard, and through the round shape of Edward’s mouth, his tongue slashed quick, meaningless patterns, before they trailed, smoothly, to the bend of Roy’s elbow.

“Edward,” he said, quietly. His hand now rested over Edward’s real shoulder, and he moved those fingers at last, curling them into a weak fist. Edward’s eyes flickered open and up to his face, considering, and then he leaned up, his mouth almost soft against Roy’s own. He caught Edward’s lower lip between his teeth for a moment, worrying at it, then licked both. Edward’s breath gusted out in a faint, throaty laugh, and then he leaned back again, this time drawing Roy’s thumb into his mouth, tongue swirling gently before nipping sharply at its tip.

Absently, he shifted his other hand again; the automail fingers only dug into the back of his hand, clinging. They were finally beginning to warm, absorbing Roy’s body heat to return it. He gave a short, experimental thrust of his hips, feeling the pressure drag along Edward’s stomach. Sharp teeth nipped at him again, but the younger man was grinning when he let Roy’s thumb pull out of his mouth, golden eyes darkly lit and challenging.

“I’m busy,” he said. “Stop trying to distract me.”

He leaned forward now and pressed his open mouth to Roy’s chest, hot and sharply present even through the thin material of his shirt. His tongue slid across a nipple, searching, a moment before his mouth closed fully pressing the careful edges of his teeth to that small rise of flesh. Roy’s head dropped back, and he moved his hips again, a bit more urgently than before. Not for the first time, he was glad for the width of his couch.

Edward laughed again, the sound muffled by Roy’s shirt and skin. After a moment, he moved away, leaving a wet circle to cool in the fire-warmed air. With a bit of deft maneuvering, Roy managed to tug the tie loose from Edward’s hair and buried the fingers of his free hand into its weight, combing gently through. For a moment, Edward paused to shake the hair from his eyes, nipped playfully at Roy’s hand, and continued his work. His flesh hand trailed ahead of his mouth, working open every other button of Roy’s shirt, leaving gaps of skin for more thorough study.

When it reached his pants, it skipped over the fastenings entirely and simply cupped, holding there. Roy’s hips twitched; a small, sharp noise escaped him. Edward’s mouth was now at his belly, an inquisitive, sharpened tongue probing the definition of muscle there. Every now and then, he breathed out in a long, slow, heated wave, there against the damp trails left by his mouth.

Finally, distantly, he felt the pressure of Edward’s hand lessen, and a moment later, his pants were being undone and spread open. Automail fingers squeezed his own briefly, as though in encouragement, before Edward’s other hand pressed him flat to his belly, leaving no room for movement or friction. A closed mouth trailed in the space between navel and groin, the heat of Edward’s entire body seemingly concentrated between Roy’s legs. He’d been opened in a rather undignified sprawl, his fingers buried deep in the heavy weight of long golden hair.

Edward leaned up slightly, to the last undone button, and in that gap placed a brief, almost chaste kiss. From there he trailed down, opening his mouth a little more each time, until he was nosing against his own hand, suckling at the skin until it blushed red. Roy’s breath hissed out in a long, slow rush, and he glanced down to see Edward crouched, waiting, eyes glittering back up at him.

“Are you watching, Roy?” he husked, and then leaned forward and swallowed him down, the same way he’d taken Roy’s fingers earlier. His free hand pinned Roy’s hip sharply, which was perhaps for the best, given the way his body immediately jerked into action. A sharp litany of fierce curses spilled from his lips, mindless and automatic, and he could feel the smug satisfaction emanating from Edward in waves.

It didn’t take very long at all. Edward, always a quick study in whatever he applied himself to, applied himself with utmost thoroughness, teeth and lips and tongue and fingers. After a moment, he pulled off, and brushed soft closed lips over the head in a gentle sweeping motion, then lightly ran his teeth down the length, barely hard enough to even be felt. The entire time, his hand remained firmly pressed at Roy’s hip, using the weight of his automail arm to keep the other side equally pinned.

When he swallowed again, slow and hard, Roy gave a hoarse shout and jerked, seeing bright spots against his already blurry vision as he toppled over the edge.

He closed his eyes, breathing deep and hard and slow through his nose. After a moment, he felt Edward shift against him, the automail fingers releasing his own, felt hands carefully arranging his legs back together a moment before solid weight settled atop them. He cracked one eye open to find his lover’s face hovering bare inches above his own.

“Well?” Edward asked, his grin cheeky. His tongue flickered out to lap at the corner of his own mouth, carrying away a smear of white. “Told you you’d be bored without me.”

Roy took a deep breath, and pounced before he smiled back. Edward squirmed, but only halfheartedly, and still ended up flat on his back across the couch, pinned by Roy’s greater body weight. His grin never wavered, fierce and sharp, another weapon in a vast arsenal. Roy trapped that face between both hands, staring fiercely.

“You,” he said, “are the most irritating, arrogant, and cocksure idiot I have ever had the misfortune to sleep with.”

Ed stretched his head back, exposing his throat, still grinning. “Flattery’ll get you anything you want, Major General.”

“And you always get so grouchy when I pull rank on you,” Roy murmured, then bent his head and sank his teeth into Edward’s neck, at the juncture where it flowed into shoulder.

Under him, the slender body jerked with a hoarse exclamation. He did not relent, running the sharp edges of them down along the corded tendons that sprang up as his hand slid down and worked Edward’s pants open, and then slid home.

It earned him another wordless cry, this one sounding almost shocked before it dissolved into something distinctly more pleased. Edward squirmed enthusiastically, combing his fingers through Roy’s hair until he lifted his head for a kiss that was as much teeth as tongue, sharp-edged and demanding. Narrow hips, pinned under his own, thrust into the touch of his hand with as much force as possible. Over the rush of his own heartbeat, the sound of Edward’s voice had drowned out the crackle of the fire.

One sharp pump of his hand, two, three–and Edward’s entire body tensed sharply against his own, biting at his lips. Warmth pulsed over Roy’s fingers, and he continued to stroke until Edward shifted under him, making a sound that was closer to pain than enjoyment. He rolled then, shifting so that he could rest one elbow on the couch’s back–still mostly holding Edward down, but not as heavily as before. Dazed golden eyes slid open in time to watch Roy lick his own fingers, and a crooked, tired smile crossed that bruised mouth.

“You’re such a pervert, Roy,” he murmured, and closed his eyes again.

Roy paused, then bent down and kissed him soundly, ignoring the grumpy sound and halfhearted swat he got in retaliation. “I suppose you just bring out the worst in me,” he said, and continued cleaning his hand.

When he was finished, a heavy automail arm hooked behind his neck, dragging him down. He went willingly enough, turning his head so that his cheek, rather than his chin, was pillowed at Ed’s shoulder.

“Feeling better?” Edward asked, his voice very quiet. That was all–no petting fingers, no extra words, just the fire-broken silence and a long moment of waiting.

Roy closed his eyes. Easy to love, but difficult to know. That’s what Hughes had said, and he thought that, perhaps, that he was happier with the knowing over the loving; this person’s understanding was more important than any number of vows, whatever their state of dress–or lack thereof.

“I’m fine,” he said. “But I don’t feel like getting up.”

“Good,” Edward snorted, and the fingers of his automail hand spread, so that they curved gently against the bend of Roy’s neck in natural rest. “Because you’re not getting me anywhere unless you drag me–or carry me, and I’ll kick your ass before you do either.”

He chuckled, and opened his eyes halfway. The fire was dying down to coals, and the room would chill soon enough–but here and now, Edward’s body was solid and warm under his own, narrow chest rising and falling in slow, steady rhythm. Atop him, the automail arm kept him decidedly in place, though it was ordinary deadweight, and could be shrugged off with a single turn. This was the moment of breathing, not delicate or sustained or romantic–but theirs alone, kept in a guarded open secret.

It was, Roy decided, entirely enough.

He closed his eyes.

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And So Remains

She watched his back as he walked away, and thought, He will not return.

There were still dishes from their shared lunch stacked on the counter, and the smell of his pipesmoke still hung heavily in the air. One pair of his shoes remained by the doorway, flanked on either side by Edward and Alphonse’s sandals.

His departure had not been any different than the others he’d taken, from time to time–he had still kissed her cheek and ruffled Edward’s hair, and then had paused to peek at the napping Alphonse. There had been a solemn line to his mouth and a distant reluctance to his movements, as though he did not want to leave, even as he stood in the doorway and said Good-bye. But she saw the door close behind him, then turned to the window to watch him leave, and she knew–He will not return.

She did not know how long she would have stood there, staring at his disappearing form, if not for the insistent tug on her skirt, and the wide golden eyes peering up from the level of her knees. Instantly she pulled away from the window and knelt down, smiling quickly. “Edward, what’s wrong?”

Her oldest son poked a finger in his mouth and regarded her uncertainly. Once, Pinako Rockbell had commented that the boy occasionally seemed too old for his age, already with the threads of adult confidence and anger in his moods.

Right now, though, he was entirely three years old, confused by the feeling of change in his small world. “Mama, why are you sad?” Then he looked to the window, though he was too small to watch his father leave. “Where is Papa going?”

For a moment, she found herself caught, then gathered herself and told him the truth: “Papa is going on another one of his trips, Edward. I’m sad because I don’t like to see him go–do you?”

Edward shook his head, his finger still stuck in his mouth. When he said nothing, she reached out and impulsively swept him into her arms, tucking his small golden head under her chin. He tolerated this for a moment: sometimes she felt the maturity Pinako saw in him stemmed from his independence more than his intelligence. Usually, she would squeeze him extra-hard, kiss his cheek, then release him as his little face scrunched up in disgust.

This time, though, she did not let go when he started to squirm. And then, a moment later, he stopped and threw his small arms around her neck, clinging with desperate strength.

“Mama,” he said, his voice muffled, “you won’t go away too, right?” There was a distinct waver in his voice, and once again he was nothing more than her child, afraid of something he didn’t yet understand.

She stroked his hair, clean for the moment, and thought of the ache in her bones, and the tightness in her chest whenever she pushed herself too long.

“Of course I won’t,” she said.

***

She took the doll from Pinako’s hand and turned it over slowly, half-afraid to breathe. The doll was cute and smiling, entirely appropriate for a little girl–Al’s doing, her mind suggested in a daze, because he was the one who always brought her flowers, when Ed dragged home whatever wildlife he could find. For a moment, its weight burned in her hands, and she wanted to fling it away and cry with the same terror that blotched young Winry’s face.

Pinako’s son said something to her, an invitation to tea, which she turned down without really being aware of what she did. For just a split second, his broad-shouldered frame against the window made her think of another man, years gone. She excused herself fully, and as she walked out, she saw her two sons huddled against the side of the house, bent together and tense as anxious puppies.

On the stairs, she stopped and looked at them. Ed was drawing small circles in the dirt, and she could see enough of his face to see the fierce, disappointed slash of his mouth; briefly he dashed the back of his hand across his eyes, then stabbed his stick hard into the grass. Al pressed his clasped fists down atop his head, shivering a little in the warm summer day. Neither of them had noticed her yet, and she had to breathe deeply before she could descend the stairs and walk to them.

Sooner or later, they will come after you, she thought, and bit the inside of her cheek. Would I ever be allowed to follow?

***

The pain came and went in red spurts, and there were moments where she thought she could get up and cook something. Al caught her at today, and it was, perhaps, the first time she’d seen her gentle younger son angry. He’d bullied her back to bed with a finesse that had Ed’s particular sharp style to it, capping with a threat to tell his brother when Ed returned from market.

She went meekly, and covered her mouth with one hand to hide her smile. Al sat in the chair by her bed, a book of fairytales in hand–the same one she remembered reading to him (and to Ed, who listened though he’d previous declared himself too old for fairytales). The cover was battered and the spine worn; when he opened it on his lap, she saw scrawling little doodles in the margins. Ed’s work, she thought; he loved books as well as his brother and father, but had a tendency towards a wandering pen.

“I’ll read to you until Brother comes back,” he said. “Which one would you like?”

She leaned back and folded her hands over her stomach. To her relief, the pain remained at bay, and she was able to speak in a perfectly normal voice. “Read me your favorite, Al,” she said. “The one you both always liked, about the princess who wore the cloak of a thousand furs.”

Al pursed his lips and frowned at her. Occasionally, there was a quiet stillness to him that reminded her of his father with acute strength–and it was never stronger than when he was trying to make a point. “But, Mom, that’s our favorite. What about yours?”

“It’s my favorite, too,” she said. When he continued to frown at her, she smiled at him, without the breath to laugh. “It always made you happy that the king found the princess in the end, and your brother, well–”

“Brother just likes it because the princess’ father was a bad man, who lost her,” Al said, with a dryness that did not quite match his age. After a moment, he paused, then flipped to the correct place in the book. “He said he’d go to the post office again,” he said quietly. “To see if–maybe–”

She closed her eyes. Her sickbed felt impossibly wide beneath her, as though countless miles separated her from the uncertain sound of her son’s voice. There were still times she awoke and stretched her arm out, just to feel the empty cool places where no one else slept.

“Read for me, Al,” she said. “Until your brother comes home–and then you can read to us both.”

He paused, and then pages rustle again. “‘Once upon a time there was a king who had a wife, and she was so beautiful …'”

Even when the pain started to rise again, she said nothing. Al’s voice, hesitating every now and then over longer sentences, soothed better than the physician’s prescribed medicines.

***

Her chest hurt so very badly. Every breath felt rough and sharp in her chest, and it had taken monumental just to form the words properly. She thought of that day years ago, when she stood at the window and knew her husband would never return. For a moment, she looked at Ed, and thought about the heavy question of a three-year-old, so long ago. Now, she thought, seeing the way his eyes darkened, he understood too well what had frightened him, that sunny day. She also remembered his anger, and the way he screamed on the other side of the house, where neither he nor Al thought she could hear.

“Why doesn’t he come?! Mom’s sick–she’s DYING, and we haven’t heard a thing!”

“Brother, stop it, you’ll wake her up–”

“Isn’t his own wife important to him?! Where IS he?!”

“Brother, stop it–Brother!”

“Ah, Ed,” she croaked, and both he and Al immediately leaned forward, crowding each other to hear her words. “Would you make a corsage for me?”

Ed blinked. “Eh?”

She smiled, watching the room darken as she sucked in the breath for the end of her request. I do not regret, however much I’ve missed him. Your father loved us all, once.

“That person … always made them for me …”

The smell of flowers rushed past her and soothed the tightness in her chest. She felt a brief flare of surprise, because neither of the boys were that fast with their alchemy, but–

In the distance, she heard Edward and Alphonse calling to her, but she could not understand them: their voices faded, dropping away until they were less than whispers, and then gone.

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Kanaete

The years pass on, like they always do. Sakura petals give away to insects in the summer, and during the autumn and winter there are falling leaves and snowflakes. Like the gears in clockwork, they grind on tirelessly, always the same at their core. Variations come and go, but in the end, it’s the same spring and summer and autumn that it’s always been. This year, there was more rain than usual, and people are worrying about things like flooded homes and ruined crops. People are always worrying about those, when there is too much rain.

I’ve never worried about those things. I don’t need to. What does a doll need of food and drink? Shelter is important, especially for such a handsomely-made child-doll like myself, but the other two … those are human concerns, so I don’t think about them much. I never have, really.

Come to think of it, most of my handlers were never too concerned with such a thing. I’m well-crafted, and my “mother” was and still is famous, though it’s been many years since I’ve seen her face, and will be many more until I see it again. Dolls have vastly different lifespans than humans, and if properly cared for, we can seem to be eternal … but you know, everything has an end. No matter how charmed or wonderful, it always ends. Like the seasons, which always plod so comfortably along. Even if they come back someday, they still come to their curtain close.

The rich and the privileged highborn are no exceptions to that rule. Eventually, Death comes for everyone and every thing – and dolls have no special place in Her heart. Someday, She’ll come for me, too, and then … then, wherever it is a puppet goes when he or she dies, that’s where I’ll be. And maybe I’ll see all of them again – the people who have manipulated me over the years. It sounds bad, maybe, but that’s only if you’re human; for a doll, the handler is everything. Every one of them has left a mark on the original personality my “mother” crafted for me, and over the years I’ve become something completely different from what I used to be. It’s silly to be resentful of someone who has given so much to you, especially if you were crafted for that sole purpose.

I would like to see them again, the people who filled the starring roles of all those vanished lives. Because I remember all of them, while I sit here and wait for the next one to come; I remember their voices and their names and their particular styles of puppetry. Like the seasons, they are all similar in their hearts, but they carry a thousand different little details and quirks that make them different to me. And all of them are carried here with me, in the “soul” of a wooden doll.

Some people might be disturbed by that idea. I think it’s kind of poetic, like the stories I usually perform with my handler. This way, even when Death comes, there’s a piece that She can’t take away with Her when She leaves. That piece is mine, the heart of understanding that it takes to become a true master at anything, and in that small piece, every single handler I’ve ever known lives on.

Including … including …

The first time we met, I wasn’t too crazy about you. I mean, I’m a very precious child-doll built in the second year of the Meiji era; my handlers have to be graceful and sure of themselves. But you were just a little brat, barely beginning to learn the subtle art of puppetry, and at the age where you’re horribly awkward with just yourself, let alone a doll you have to manipulate. There was a lot of potential in you, I’ll grant that much, stemming both from your bloodlines and an innate ability sparked deep inside of you. And you looked like a doll yourself, wide-eyed and white-faced as your grandfather took me off a shelf and gave me to you. When I first opened my eyes at the touch of your fingers, you looked straight at me, and …

You knew. Somehow, through some trick of nature or fate, you knew. And you smiled.

Our years together were really the best, weren’t they? I’ve never been a detective before. It was a lot of fun, even when it got dangerous or scary. Because we were an unbeatable team, with your observation skills and me bridging the gap between you and your fellow humans. For someone with such a rich personality in your heart, you were very shy with others. That was fine, though, because I was there, and I could be your voice whenever yours seized up. There were times when it seemed we couldn’t get involved with anyone without some kind of murder happening, but … I wouldn’t give up any of it. No matter how clichĂ© that sounds, I’ll never give those memories up.

Like a glass lily in my heart, I’ll keep it preserved until I see you again …

I wish you married and had children, like your mother wanted. I wish you hadn’t simply decided to adopt some orphan to give your name and legacy. Because I regret knowing your line died out with you, when your family has been my handler for so long … and because of that, there’s no hope that someday I’ll look up, and see a child with your face and eyes and smile looking back at me. That kind of loss is something even a doll can regret, you know. All that potential I had seen in you, in that first moment, came to the sort of fruition that made me unspeakably proud of you. If I could have cried, I would have.

Years come and go as they always have, and there’s always a new handler waiting to meet me before. I’ve cared about them all, and I’ll care about all the ones I’ll know in the future, but you’re the one I miss the most. Not just because of the way our names dovetailed – though that was, I have to admit, an interesting stroke of fate – but because we fit together, better than any other handler I’ve ever known. To you, I wasn’t just a precious performance doll, to be handled with extreme care and fussed over if a single knot was kinked into my hair. I was your confidant, your contact with the rest of the world, your support … your friend.

Your friend. That’s something precious which anything and anyone could understand. Like the seasons, like people, it’s untouchable in its sacred unchanging way. A hundred thousand poems have been composed because of this feeling, and its deeper cousin, love, and there’s no way those hundred thousands of poets could ever hope to capture even a quarter of that feeling onto paper, even if they were to write all their lives on the subject.

I was your friend … and you were mine. And even though I hate playing favorites, and having the choice of “which is better: this? or this?” placed in front of me … I still miss you the most. This wooden doll’s soul was always inspired by you, you know, and whenever you were there, I tried so hard to move on my own, to be the independently living creature you always saw me as. No matter how old you got, your eyes stayed the same, always fixed on me with shining belief. You knew that I had a soul, somewhere in my crafted heart, and even when your family and everyone else scoffed at that, you continued to believe.

And your last thought … your last thought was of me. I remember being on my stand, and I watched you even with my physical eyes closed. A strange cold had seeped into your bones with the passing winter, and left you bedridden, fading and tired, alone except for me. Your heir went on to become famous in his own right, you know, but I can’t forgive the bastard for never coming back to you. He simply took the precious things you offered and never looked back. Not even when you were alone and dying and slowly losing your fear, or when you were washed and dressed that last time for your funeral, or when your body was burned and the ashes of your mortal form allowed to drift away into the ocean … not once did he ever show up.

But that didn’t bother you, did it? I was there. That was what really mattered to you.

You smiled at me, and your eye were the same as the little boy’s I had seen so long ago. You reached a hand to me, and even though you fell short of touching my body, I reached out my hand and let my fingers touch yours. It made your smile widen.

“I will see you again, someday,” you promised me. And then you were gone, a candleflame snuffed out in the passage of winter winds, which carry the crystal snowflakes past my window today. The lawyers came soon afterward, and none of them recognized my value (the stupid greedy bastards, I’m glad they didn’t realize how much money I could have brought them), and now … now I’m here. I’m sitting with other abandoned child’s toys – I wonder if these are the same ones you used to play with? – and I’m waiting for my next handler to find me.

There’s a window, and I’m glad. It lets me see the seasons change, and know that time is passing. Sakura petals giving away to insects, and then to falling leaves and snowflakes. I’ll wait here forever if I have to, and maybe someday my body will simply go to pieces, left too long without proper maintenance, without my ever finding another handler. The thought doesn’t bother me like it once used to … I’m getting old, you know. And I miss you very much.

It was a blue morning when you died. I had a dream once, repeating endlessly in my mind, where you were standing as you were in the prime of your life, young and strong, crafted as exquisitely as any other doll I’ve ever known in my lifetime. Behind you, to the faraway east, the sun was rising again, and before you stood a gurgling fountain, European style, a stream of water pouring from a marble woman’s tipped jar. The sunlight caught in the falling water, creating a hundred fractured rainbows, and the world was beautiful, but your eyes were closed and you saw nothing. But I watched it all, the blue morning and the red sun and the rainbows in the fountain by your feet.

Will we meet again on a morning like that? On some unknown day, while the wind blows past my window, bearing the markers of the season, will my body finally turn to dust as the sun rises into a blue sky? I used to think I’d like to keep on going, until I wore out; I used to say to you, remember, that I wanted to keep on going, and see the futures that my handlers never would. Because then, when I finally died, and I saw everyone again, I could tell them of the wonderful things that had happened in their absence.

But now … my feelings changed at some point. I can no longer remember when it happened, but one day, I felt the sunlight on my face and realized what my life had become, and how differently I felt about how I would end. It would almost be a relief to wait for the end quietly like this, and know that on the other side of the blue morning where the new sun is rising, where the sky is silent and I can sink into the final end … that finale that had bothered me so long before I met you …

It appeals to me now … because I know you’ll be waiting for me on the other side. Without fail.

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Morning

“Sanzou? Sanzou? Sanzouuuuu~!”

Sanzou slept, unresponsive to the pleading whine. If the damn monkey didn’t leave him alone, he’d have no one to blame but himself for the bullet in his brain, because he knew Sanzou didn’t like having his sleep disturbed.

“Sanzouuuuuuu!”

Small hands pawed restlessly at his blanket, and then weight settled on his legs. Sanzou kept his eyes shut, even when the pressure crawled slowly up the length of him, and settled heavily on his stomach. “Sanzou, I’m hungry. I want breakfast.”

Then go get it yourself, stupid monkey, he wanted to say. But that would mean opening his eyes and admitted he was awake–which he was not. Genjou Sanzou was very much asleep.

“You’re not really asleep, are you, Sanzou?” The annoying brat wriggled up higher, so that his knees now bracketed Sanzou’s ribs. It took all his training, every ounce of dignity, not to curl his lip and snarl when little fingers patted his face cautiously.

“You are, aren’t you!” The not-question sounded betrayed. “But, Sanzou, I’m hungry!”

Sanzou didn’t budge. The stupid monkey had proven, more than once, that he was entirely capable of taking matters into his own hands when he wanted food. On his chest, the pressure wriggled consideringly, and then the idiot sighed deeply, as though he were the one being inconvenienced.

“I want persimmons,” he said, sulky. “Hakkai would feed me, but all you do is sleep, Sanzou, you jerk!” Abruptly, he began to pound his small fists against Sanzou’s chest–not hard enough to bruise, or even hurt, despite his true strength. Irritated, Sanzou finally gave up–there was no way he’d be able to continue sleeping like this.

He caught both of the monkey’s thin wrists and held them firmly. They twisted slightly, but did not break free. When he finally opened his eyes and looked up, a hopeful little face peered right back.

“Gokuu,” he said, eminently reasonable, “get the fuck off of me.”

It earned him a pout. “But, Sanzou, I’m hungry.”

“You’re hungry.” Sanzou looked at him flatly, then twitched like he was going to get up. Eagerly, the monkey slid off and stood by his pallet, bouncing eagerly on his heels. Sanzou sat up, stared blearily at the weak patch of sunlight that escaped his tightly-drawn shades, and stood. Bones popped and joints cracked–he hated waking up, because it made him feel old.

The damn monkey, however, made him feel ancient.

The monkey opened his mouth to speak. Before he could, Sanzou snatched him up by the collar of his too-large shirt and hauled him over to the door. When the monkey looked up at him with surprised golden eyes, he deposited the idiot firmly over the threshold and closed the door firmly in place.

“Eh? Huh? HEY! Sanzou, wait a minute!” The exclamation was punctuated by several sharp knocks.

Click went the lock. “If you’re so hungry, have breakfast with the rest of the idiots,” Sanzou said flatly. “I’m taking today off.” He headed back to his bed, dropping the key under his pillow, right next to his gun.

“Sanzouuuuuu!” The dumb monkey knocked on the door a little longer, kicked it a few times, before there was a heavy thump and slide. “Stupid jerk.” The sulkiness of his tone spoke volumes.

Pleased, Sanzou rolled over and went back to sleep.

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Just Another Day

He should’ve taken his awakening as a sign of things to come.

It started with Ginji having a dream that involved more thrashing around than the Subaru’s tiny interior could handle. Ban woke after one of Ginji’s arms flung out and clocked him upside the head–and then it took a bit of monkeying around to wake the idiot himself up before he resorted to using electricity.

“You idiot!” he snapped. “What was all that for?”

Ginji gave him a piteous look, rubbing his head where Ban had hit back. “I was looking for food,” he said, and sniffed. “And there were these nice big chickens, only they were like the ones in that tower, and they came to life and tried to bite back, and then they started chasing me–”

Around that point, Ban just tuned him out. Sometimes, Ginji had truly serious nightmares, bloody and pained and filled with cold rain–but those caused him to curl in on himself and whimper awake, before leaving the car as quietly as he could for a few stolen moments of solitude.

Other times, though, he had kiddy nightmares that usually came whenever they had enough money to catch a late-night movie–because if allowed to pick, Ginji always went for horror movies.

“They’re not that scary, Ban-chan,” he’d say earnestly. “We’ve seen worse in real life.” And then he’d use his true ultimate secret weapon–not channeled lightning, or shaped plasma–but those big shining brown puppy eyes. Then, despite his better judgement, Ban would agree, and they’d go watch the movie of Ginji’s choice.

But then, by the time the movie ended, he’d be curled in his chair with eyes wide and staring, jumping at the smallest sounds. Ban had learned early on that touching Ginji when he was like that was a Very Bad Idea. And then, whenever they went back to the car to sleep, Ginji would spend the entire night rocking the car because he was still twitchy-nervous at little noises. If he did sleep, it would be puncuated by nightmares of something or other. Those nights, Ban woke up whenever Ginji did, though never by his own choice.

The only problem was that they hadn’t had enough money to see a movie in a while. He decided it was a hunger-induced nightmare, then booted Ginji out of the car with orders to buy coffee or cigarettes, whichever he found first. And Ginji, contrite for waking him, actually went without arguing.

So Ban leaned back in the driver’s seat and kicked his feet up on the dashboard. It had taken lots of practice to find the best way to achieve this in such a cramped space–but he’d managed to perfect it over the past two years, and now he could look cool and bored even in his tiny car. After a while, he began to nod off again, when–

Someone tapped politely at the window. Ban almost didn’t hear it, but he turned his head, pushing his glasses as he did.

A woman in a police uniform smiled at him. She looked all too familiar. Ban resisted the urge to groan as he rolled down the window.

“I’m sorry,” she chirped, and handed him a slip of paper. He didn’t look at it; he knew all too well what it was already. “You’re illegally parked. Please come pay your ticket as soon as possible.”

And she walked off, humming to herself. Ban resisted the urge to rip the ticket into confettii. He was halfway convinced that woman stalked them–that she got a peverse glee out of making sure all their money went to keeping their car legally.

Then, when Ginji came back, he had neither cigarettes nor coffee. The store was out of Ban’s brand, he said apologetically–and when it came to smokes, it was His Brand Or Else. Plus, the master had simply given Ginji a Look when he asked for coffee.

“I think it’s almost time for taxes, or something,” Ginji says reflectively. “He started dropping big hints about the tab again.” He stretched his arms behind his head and sighed. “I wonder if Hevn-san will come by with a job today~ I want to actually have dinner tonight.”

On cue, his stomach rumbled. Ginji sighed again and sank lower in his seat. “Ahhh, I’m so hungry …”

Ban slanted him an irritated look. “Ginji,” he began, “sometimes, we just have to make sacrifices in the name of–”

This time, Ban’s stomach made the obscene noise. A long silence followed.

“Ban-chan, can we get breakfast?”

Ban looked at the crumbled ticket in his hand, then sighed and dropped his head. “Yeah. Let’s get breakfast.”

***

The Honky Tonk, amazingly enough, was crowded. Natsumi sped back and forth, laden with trays, pausing only long enough to toss a “welcome!” over her shoulder. Ban and Ginji stood in the doorway and blinked at the spectacle.

“If you’re not going to sit down and order something, and pay like normal people,” Paul said calmly, “get out. We don’t have space or time for freeloaders.”

“Freeloaders?!” Ban squawked. “Who?!”

“You two, Ban, you two,” Paul said. “You gonna order anything?”

Ban thought he could hear his money flying away on papery moth wings. A few mental calculations landed them square back under poverty’s red line–but, at least the car had not actually been towed. He sighed. “Yeah. C’mon, Ginji.” And they made their way to their traditional spots at the counter. Natsumi breezed by, snatching up the order Paul laid ready for her, and chirped another greeting as she went past.

“I’ll take your orders in a minute,” she said. “Be right back~!”

Five minutes passed. Ten. A half-hour. Ginji watched the food going back and forth with mournful eyes, both his hands pressed over his stomach. Ban had gone through two of his remaining cigarettes and was lighting a third by the time Natsumi finally came back to them. She put her palms together and bobbed her head apologetically.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but do you guys have the money to pay ahead of time?”

Ash fell in a heavy clump from the end of Ban’s cigarette. “Eh?”

“Well, you see,” Natsumi said, “Master says that we’re not accepting tabs from today on. I’m not supposed to take it easy on you guys, either.” She smiled at them brightly. “So, you two do have money, right?”

The cigarette drooped low on Ban’s lip, dangerously close to just falling into his lap. He looked past the girl to Paul, at the coffemaker. The smile he got back could do a demon proud. Briefly cowed, he fell back, then dug into his pocket for his wallet, grumbling the whole time under his breath.

When he opened it and turned it over, a single ten-yen coin bounced out. The three of them clustered their heads around it, staring.

“Ban-chan …”

“I could give you a couple of napkins for that …”

Were they really that low on money? All Ban could do was stare. Hysterical laughter bubbled up in the back of his throat, escaping one by one in weak little chuckles. One eyebrow twitched feebly.

Ginji took one look at him and leaned back. “Um, Ban-chan …” He waved a hand in front of Ban’s glazed eyes. “Hello? Ban-chan? Is anyone in there?”

“Give it up, Ginji,” Paul said, behind his newspaper. “There’s no talking to him while he’s like that.”

“But, Master–”

The door opened. “Ah, Ginji-san. Good morning.”

Ginji turned his head and blinked. “Eh? Ah! Kazu-chan!” He sprang from the seat, fans snapped out. “Long time no see!” The casual observer could almost see the heartmark that followed his greeting. “What are you doing out here?”

Kazuki smiled. “To tell the truth, I was just in the area,” he said. “So I thought I’d stop by.” He leaned to the side, looking past Ginji at Ban, who wasn’t moving beyond his twitching. “Is Midou-kun all right?”

“Eh?” Ginji turned, and his fans drooped. “Well, he woke up badly this morning and now I don’t know …” He sighed. “We don’t have any money and Ban-chan doesn’t like facing the real world without his coffee, so–”

The door opened again. “Ho? Has that snake-bastard finally shut up?”

“As long as he doesn’t start flipping out again, that’s fine with me–”

Ginji looked up and blinked. “Shido! And Emishi, too? Ahh, what’s going on? Why is everyone showing up here?”

“Yah, Ginji-han!” Emishi held up a hand and grinned. “It’s been a while.”

Shido nodded his greeting, then glanced at Ban. “He’s much easier to deal with when he shuts up,” he said blandly, to no one in particular, though Emishi hid a quick snicker behind one hand. “I still don’t see why you like hanging out with that snake bastard so much, Ginji. Even when he does have a job, he gets nothing done.”

“Ahhh, Shido, now’s not the time to be saying that sort of thing–” Ginji held up both hands, giving Ban an uneasy backwards glance. “Ban-chan’s not having a good morning, so really, it’s not a good idea to get into a fight right now–”

Ban’s head lifted and turned slowly, a mechanical degree at a time, until he could look fully at both Shido and Emishi.

Emishi sighed loudly. “It’s too late, Ginji-han,” he stage-whispered. “The most we can hope for now is that they don’t cause too much property damage.

Ginji whimpered. “We really can’t afford something like this right now–”

Like a light switch flipping on, anger suddenly blazed to life in Ban’s eyes. He surged to his feet, stabbing a finger at them both. “You’re one to talk, honing in on our territory, stealing our jobs! What have you been doing recently, ahn?”

“A bird built a nest in Madoka’s chimney,” Shido said. “We had to find a safe place to relocate it. On top of that, the last storm tore off some of the older shingles on her roof. I’ve been fixing those.”

“Heeeeeh, is that so?” Ban sniffed. “It must be nice, huh, being able to run back to Madoka if business gets slow!”

“At least I’m still working,” Shido said. “It’s not the steadiest income in the world, but it’s something.” He gave Ban a sideways glance and a bare-edged smirk. “It’s more than what you’re doing right now.”

“It’s just not your day, Gin-chan,” Natsumi said sympathetically. She put down a small plastic cup of water before him. “Ban-san doesn’t look ready to back down.”

“Neither does Shido-kun,” said Emishi. He popped to his feet. “I’ll tell a joke to lighten the mood–”

“Ah, no, no, that’s okay!” Ginji waved his hands. “Let’s not jump to solutions, here–”

Kazuki caught Emishi’s arm and pulled him back down. “They’re both adults–usually,” he added the last with a semi-doubtful look at Ban’s back. “If it looks like they might actually start hitting each other, then we can step in. Otherwise, they’ll just get mad at us.”

“We’ve got our professional pride, here!” Ban snapped, unaware of the conversation behind his back. “We can’t just take any little job that comes floating our way–we’ll take the jobs that are worth of the name of the GetBackers, and we’ll be fine without having to crawl back to a girlfriend to cover us! That’s independence!”

“We don’t even have girlfriends,” Ginji mumbled behind him. Kazuki made appropriately soothing noises.

“At least I’m not freeloading,” Shido said blandly. “I do work around the house. I make sure I pay my debts, snake-bastard.”

“What was that?” Ban loomed over Shido, bristling like an angry cat. “You wanna say that again to my face? Huh?!”

“Truth is truth, snake bastard. If you can’t handle it, that’s not my fault.” Shido seemed utterly unconcerned by the holes Ban tried to glare into his skull, and raised a finger. “Master, two coffees.”

“Don’t mess with me, monkey-boy.” Ban clenched his right fist, and the muscles rippled down the length of his arm, like the movements of a snake. “I’ve beaten you once, I can do it again–”

His phone rang, cutting the threat off. Ban snatched it up and flipped it open with more force than truly necessary. “WHAT?” he snarled. “Whatever the hell it is, I’m not fucking interested! We’re busy men, goddamnit, and I–”

A moment of silence. Then, abruptly, Ban’s expression changed to one of slow-dawning horror. “What? No, wait, Hevn! Don’t hang up, I–”

Ginji hadn’t known it was possible to slam a cell phone, but he heard the sharp click of disconnection clearly from where he sat. He winced. Ban dropped heavily back into his seat and ran a hand through his hair. “Damn it, what’s her problem?” he muttered, staring at the phone in his hand as though it might grow fangs and bite him. “Doesn’t she understand people have their bad days? How was I supposed to know it was here? She’s not the only one with access to our number!”

He subsided, irritation with Shido forgotten in favor of a new target. He dropped back into the seat beside Ginji, muttering all sorts of unpleasant things about Hevn, from the way she dressed to the way she treated her innocent contacts; Ginji sipped at his water and made appropriately sympathetic noises at the right intervals.

The door opened, and Hevn breezed in. “Hi~i, everyone,” she caroled. She gave the cafĂ© a cursory glance, then beamed, looking quite pleased with herself. “Ah, Shido-kun! And Emishi-kun, too! Lucky me, you’re both here!”

“Hevn, you bitch!” Ban leapt to his feet and jabbed a finger at her. “What’s the idea of getting so angry at an honest mistake?! I–”

She breezed right past him with a disdainful sniff. “I didn’t bring a job for you,” she said icily, before her voice and attitude did a complete roundabout and she bounced forward, hands clasped to her breast like a schoolgirl’s. “Nee, Shido-kun, Emishi-kun, could you do a biiiig favor for me? See, I’ve found a client who’s willing to pay any expense to get his job done~ could I interest you in it?”

Shido just shrugged. “A job’s a job,” he said. “What do you have for me?”

“Oi, Hevn, listen to me when I’m–” Ban’s voice cut off into a most undignified squeak.

A moment of awed silence reigned in the Honky Tonk as Hevn calmly removed her knee from between his legs. She shoved his fallen body aside with one pointed heel and spun to face Shido and Emishi both, taking each of them by the arm to shepherd them into a corner booth. “It’s quite an important job,” she sing-songed. “I received it from a client who only wanted the very best~”

As her voice trailed into a low whisper, Ginji sighed and slumped against the counter. On the floor, a puddle of tears was growing around Ban’s lowered head.

“Ahhh, so much for that,” Ginji said, listless. “Ban-chan’s made Hevn-san so mad at us we’ll never get a job again.”

Ban made a noise that was probably along the lines of don’t say stupid things like that, but it was too muffled to be truly coherent. Natsumi set two gently-steaming teacups on the counter.

“On the house,” she said gently. “It looks like you might need them.”

Ginji sighed and wrapped his fingers around it, rather than pick it up. “Thanks, Natsumi-chan,” he mumbled. “Ahh, but that won’t do us any good when the house’s generosity runs out, and we’re left to starve.” He lipped the edge of the cup morosely. “I’m so hungry …”

“I’ll buy, Ginji-san,” Kazuki said. “For Midou-kun, too, whenever he gets his appetite back.”

“Really?” Ginji sparkled at him, dewy-eyed with sheer joy. “Thank you, Kazu-chan, you’re the best!” He turned and leaned down. “Nee, nee, Ban-chan, did you hear that? We’ll get to eat today after all! Isn’t that great? Nee!”

Ban pulled himself slowly up from the ground, crawling back to his stool and using it as leverage to climb back up. “Leave me alone,” he muttered.

Ginji blinked and cocked his head. “Ban-chan?”

“I said leave me alone.” Ban gave him a narrow look. “I don’t need that thread spool’s charity, either.”

Ginji tugged at his arm. “C’mon, Ban-chan, be nice,” he said. “Kazu-chan’s offered to buy us lunch, so we shouldn’t complain so much. You were hungry too.”

“Lost my appetite,” Ban said, too quickly. He kept glowering at the corner where Hevn spoke with Shido and Emishi. Ginji deflated, as though physically hit. Kazuki sighed and put his cup down.

“You know, Midou-kun,” he began, casual as a man discussing the weather, “you could try being a little nicer, just once in a while. After all, Ginji-san is–”

“Shut up, thread spool.”

Kazuki raised an eyebrow. “As I was saying, Ginji-san is your partner, and perhaps deserves more respect than–”

“Didn’t I say to be quiet?” Ban waved a dismissive hand, not looking at either of them. “I’m busy right now. Go bug your servant, I’m sure he’s more interested in what you have to say.”

Worried by the vein that began to tick gently on Kazuki’s temple, Ginji waved his hands, smiling with forced cheer. “Ahh, Kazu-chan, it’s okay–don’t worry about it! It’s fine, see–um, I’d like a sandwich–Natsumi-chan, my order–”

“Hmph.” Kazuki tossed his head to the delicate chime of bells. Ginji peered nervously at Ban, but when no stitches or cuts appeared on him, he relaxed slightly.

“Ah, Ban-chan, you’re cutting it awfully close,” he mumbled.

About fifteen minutes later, Ban glanced back and goggled. “Ginji!” he said. “Where the hell did you get the money for food? Have you been holding out on me?!” He lunged forward and caught Ginji in a headlock, sending the sandwich slice he’d been about to eat flying through the air.

“Waaaah! Ban-chan, the food, the food!”

“I thought we were going to starve together, the both of us!” Ban squeezed. “You traitor, getting food without me!”

“But–Ban-chan–Kazu-chan offered to you, too, and you didn’t–awk! Give! Give!”

Ban dropped him and zoomed to Kazuki, one finger pointed in accusation. “How come he got food and I didn’t?” he whined. “It’s not nice to tease a starving man like that!”

Kazuki put his cup down, unfazed. “Like Ginji-san said, I did offer,” he said calmly. “You were too busy trying to spy on Shido and Emishi.”

“No way!” Ban wailed. “So, Ginji gets to eat, and I’ll go hungry?”

“Common courtesy once in a while won’t kill you, Midou-kun,” Kazuki said. “It’s a good thing to practice, at least sometimes.”

Ban sniffled. Ginji gave Kazuki a sideways look, then offered Ban half his sandwich, with what he probably thought was a great deal of stealth. Ban took it and stuffed it in his mouth, then sniffed again.

The door opened.

“Himiko-chan!” Ginji whipped out his fans and waved them at her. “Long time no see–huh?”

Something rushed past him in a blur of white and black and brown. The girl blinked and threw her arms over her face in instinctive self-defense, then found herself yanked almost off her feet as Ban grabbed her wrist and dragged her along with him. “Himikooooo~!” he warbled, voice cracking on the last syllable of her name.

“Huh? What? Wait a minute, Ban! I–”

“Himikooooo, you love me, don’t you?” Ban turned huge shining eyes at her. He clasped one of her hands between both of his own, sparkling with patent sincerity.

Silence. Ginji’s fans drooped a bit, Tare eyes gone round and huge with shock. Kazuki caught the teacup that slipped from his fingers, and even Shido had turned to look. Natsumi raised the plate she was drying to her mouth. She leaned over to Ginji, not taking her eyes from the two of them. “Nee, was that–a love confession?”

“No way!” Ginji glanced briefly at her, then back at Ban and Himiko, then covered his eyes. “Ban-chan, you’re doing it all wrong! Himiko-chan won’t be impressed by something like that!”

There was a long pause. Eventually, Ginji peeked between his fingers.

“You–” Himiko said, in a strangled voice. Every passing second deepened the widespread blush across her face. “You–”

The gathered crowd inched forward, still staring.

“YOU–” A vein began to pop on her forehead. Everyone watching leaned back, recognizing the danger signs. Ban didn’t notice, too busy trying to make puppy eyes to actually see her as Himiko reached back.

“Ahhh, Himiko-chan!” Ginji flailed his arms. “Not in here, not in here!”

Either she didn’t hear, or didn’t care. Himiko lifted the small bottle of bright orange perfume to her lips and sipped gently. An evil gleam had sprung up in her eyes.

Fwoosh.

The following silence was enough to hear a charred body drop. Natsumi prodded one of the seats that had gotten in the way, and winced when the leather cracked sharply. Paul looked up from his newspaper and gave it a decisive shake. “That’s going to cost you,” he said.

Himiko returned the remainder of the perfume to her belt and shrugged, dusting off her hands. “I have money, unlike some people,” she said, and nudged Ban away with one foot. “Just send me the bill.”

The door closed decisively behind her to a collective sigh.

“Really,” Kazuki said calmly, and sipped at his tea, “Midou-kun is usually more smooth than that.” When he put the cup back down, Natsumi poured him more.

Shido made a derrisive noise. “That snake bastard doesn’t know how to treat a girl, period,” he said sourly. “He got what he deserved.”

“No manners whatsoever,” Hevn sniffed. “I’m so glad I’m leaving this job up to you, Shido-kun.”

Ginji got to his feet and crossed the cafe, crouching down beside his charred-black partner. “Ban-chan?”

A gurgle answered him.

Ginji sighed. “At least we’re not the ones who have to pay,” he said, as consolingly as possible. “Himiko-chan said she’d take care of it.”

Ban made a vague sound of assent. The ash was beginning to flake off, and when he propped himself up on his elbows, it left black streaks across the floor.

A shadow fell over them. Ginji and Ban looked up slowly at the looming Paul. A bucket and two mops dangled from his hands.

“Bums who can’t even pay their own damages,” he said, in a voice to inspire nightmares, “should at least be able to clean up their own messes.”

One of the mops clocked Ban square between the eyes; the bucket landed upside-down on Ginji’s head.

“Master, shouldn’t I–”

“No, Natsumi-chan.” Paul dusted off his hands and walked back to the counter. “You’ll spoil them if you’re always helping them out. They’re old enough to do their own work.”

***

At least the car was still there. After his day, Ban wasn’t about to take little miracles for granted. He unlocked the doors for Ginji, but paused to light his last cigarette. Normally, he would’ve hoarded this most precious thing, but his head pounded with the lingering smell of lemon cleaner and from Natsumi’s too-loud cheerful music, and he needed some sort of antidote.

“Ban-chan?” Ginji sounded hesitant, and maybe a bit ashamed.

Ban twitched a little, the only indication he’d heard. Ginji shuffled closer. “Ban-chan?”

This time, his question was rewarded by a grunt. Ginji smiled and scooted forward, until they were seated side-by-side. He tilted his head up a bit; in the heart of the city, the stars remained obscured–but one could see the tall, dark shape of the Mugenjou, and the small lights that dotted its length created a reasonably close illusion. After a moment, he leaned and nudged Ban with his shoulder.

Ban’s shaggy head turned slightly, allowing for the barest sliver of bright blue to be visible over his crossed arm. Ginji smiled brightly at him, then turned back to the sky.

After a moment, Ban sighed and relaxed, leaning back on his hands and looking up as well.

“We’ve had better days,” he said.

“Un.”

“I’ve had better days.”

“Un.”

“Next time I see that monkey boy, I’m gonna kick his ass.”

Ginji chuckled. “It’d be better if you two got along,” he said. “He’s actually nice, Ban-chan, if you gave him a chance.”

Ban snorted. “Like I would. And what was up with Hevn today? Fawning over him and his Kansai trained monkey like that …”

His rant was cut off by another nudge from Ginji, who just smiled at his irritated look. “We’ll get the job next time, Ban-chan,” he said. “And then we’ll be rich for sure.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to argue this, to continue his rant, but Ginji kept smiling calmly, radiating ordinary good cheer, and he finally gave up and dug in his shirt pocket for cigarettes. It took a bit of looking to find one, but when he had it lit and settled in his mouth, the first breath of smoke tasted better than anything he’d had all day.

“Well,” he said, after the first heavy exhale and fixing Ginji with a wry glance, “we’ve had worse days, too.”

Ginji grinned and nodded. “Un,” he said. It only took a little shift of his weight to bring their arms together, a comfortable bump and brush that said all kinds of things in the silence.

They watched the night sky together.

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Valentine

Ginji was staring.

That in itself wasn’t unusual. Ginji liked to watch people–a remnant of Raitei, when his observance could make the difference between life and death.

Right now, however, it was a matter of who got custody of the pocky box.

For Valentine’s Day, Natsumi had presented both GetBackers a box of Men’s Pocky each with a shamefaced smile, then admitted most of her money had gone to buying something nice for a particular classmate of hers. Ban accepted it with good grace and wished her luck, which earned him a sunny smile and a quick peck to the cheek.

He liked Natsumi. She was a good kid, and unlike some people, didn’t try to use her cuteness against him.

“You had your own box, Ginji,” he said, and deliberately took his time nibbling the stick dangling from his mouth. “Not my fault if you’ve already finished yours.”

Ginji pouted and hunkered lower against the tabletop, and continued to look at Ban. Over the years, he’d perfected this to an art–wide-eyed, soulful, with a touch of puppyish hopefulness. It drove girls crazy, and even hardasses like the monkey-trainer and the master of the Honky Tonk melted under it.

Not Ban, though. He was strong, and well-used to this look. The pocky was his.

He fished out another stick, and Ginji sidled closer, half-perking up with veiled hope. Ban smirked at him and ate that one slowly too, and told himself he didn’t feel guilty when Ginji deflated.

Any second now–three, two, one–

“Ban-chan, can I have just one?” Ginji blinked those huge brown eyes at him. “Half of one? Please?”

“No.” Ban pulled out his third stick. He didn’t even care for chocolate, but watching Ginji squirm was too fun to admit a little detail like that. Ginji watched it disappear with covetous petulance and drummed his fingers on the table. Ban watched him from the corner of one eye as he fished out another stick.

Inspiration struck in a sudden bolt of devilish glee, and Ban resisted the urge to smirk. At best, it would let him finish the rest of the box in peace, and at even-better-than-best–

“All right,” he said, then held up a finger when Ginji perked up. “You can have one, and only if–” he set the stick between his teeth and held it gently, so that the cracker part wouldn’t snap off–“you’re willing to take it from here.”

Ginji’s eyes went wide. They were the only two in the Honky Tonk at the moment–Paul was in the back, and Natsumi still at school. However, they sat in a streetside booth, which meant anyone coming their way could easily see them through the windows. He swallowed hard and glanced at the table, a blush dashed hard and high across his cheeks.

For someone who hugged people with thoughtless abandon, the concept of kissing always left him shy and red-faced. Ban nibbled thoughtfully on his end, still grinning around the stick. Victory was his–

And then Ginji straightened and leaned across the table, and bit the opposite end of Ban’s pocky stick, then glanced around and inched a few bare centimeters closer. His breath gusted against Ban’s cheek in soft, quick bursts.

He glared at Ban’s poleaxed expression with one of sulky defiance, as though daring him to comment. After a moment to recover from his shock, however, Ban just grinned, and used his tongue to make the stick bob obscenely.

“You’ve been griping for hours,” he said kindly, balancing the snack with skills honed from years of talking around cigarettes. “Is that really all you’re gonna take?” He waggled his eyebrows.

Ginji’s sour expression melted into a shy half-smile. “Well…” he began, and leaned forward suggestively. Ban smirked, pleased with himself.

“…it’s much easier if I just do this.” And then Ginji’s hand snapped out, fast as Ban’s Snakebite, and grabbed the box from Ban’s hands.

He grinned at Ban’s shocked look, and fished out two sticks at once, which he bit into with cheerful enthusiasm. When surprise melted into a scowl, Ginji continued smiling sweetly.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Ban-chan,” he said sweetly, then bolted with a hoot when Ban snarled and lunged for him.

The box dropped to the floor with a bounce, and there lay forgotten.

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