PATH

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1. Red Ball

Toys are rare in the Mugenjou.

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

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

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

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

2. Sleeping

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

And when he sleeps, he never remembers his dreams.

3. Friends

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

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

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

4. Food

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

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

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

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

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

5. Friends II

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

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

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

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

"Am I your friend?" he asks.

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

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

6. Beltline

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

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

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

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

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

7. Friends III

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

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

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

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

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

She hides her face in her crossed arms. "But ..."

"It's okay!" he says. "I'll protect you."

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

8. Within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dokun. Dokun.

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

9. Sleeping II

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

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

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

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

He does not sleep at all that night.

10. Children

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

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

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

11. Junk Kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. Thunderstorm

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

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

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

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

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

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

13. Touch

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

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

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

14. Volts

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

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

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

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

15. Junk Kids II

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

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

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

Ginji no longer sleeps through the night.

16. Shido

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17. Growing

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

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

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

And all the while, the VOLTS continue to grow.

18. Kazuki

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

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

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

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

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

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

19. Children II

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

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

Whenever they see him, the children smile and call to him. Unlike their parents, they see him as someone kind--a savior in this horrible place.

Every time, it gets harder to smile back.

20. MAKUBEX

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Really?" Shock rounds the boy's mouth into a little "o."

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

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

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

Nonplussed, Ginji draws back. "Why?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hey, wait a minute--"

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

21. A Kind Of Happiness

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

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

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

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

22. Volts II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23. A Kind Of Sorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24. Dissonance

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

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

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

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

Something is coming, whispers his instincts. Something big.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He meets bright blue eyes and does not look away.

25. Unnatural

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

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

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

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

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

"However," he says again, "the Mugenjou is too cold for snakes. He won't be coming back."

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

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

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

26. Gateway

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

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

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

"Then just leave," he says. "If it's so painful, get the hell out."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27. Labyrinth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The coffee smells good.

"Drink," the man tells him. "It'll warm you up."

He frowns. "I'm not cold," he says.

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

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

"Thanks," he says quietly, and drinks.

28. Decision

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

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

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

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

"I am dissolving the VOLTS," he says.

"I'm leaving the Mugenjou," he says.

And that is that.

29. The Passing of an Era

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

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

Ginji finds himself wanting to smile. "I'm sure," he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Teshimine?" His former guardian's odd familiarity sets Ginji off-balance. The other man simply shrugs.

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

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

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

"Come on," he says, and goes.

30. Just One Minute

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

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

He holds out a hand.

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

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

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