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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“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.


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.


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.

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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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