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.
“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.”
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 café 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.
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.
“I’ve had better days.”
“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.