"S"

**************************

Occasionally, Ban absolutely regretted getting into the repossessing business. While there was very little he *wouldn't* do for two and a half million yen, dealing with fanatic protectors, HEVN's outrageous middleman fees, and a bizarrely moody Ginji was almost not worth the effort.

Almost, of course, being the key word.

"Thanks for your business~!" Ban carefully did not snatch the envelope from their client's hand, and it was hard not to grin like a maniac at the prospect of payment. After the disappointment of the IL retrieval, even a little fifty-thousand yen job helped. At least they hadn't needed to stoop to trolling Natsumi's school for prospective customers. In further deference, he did not cackle until they were outside of the building, on their way back to the car.

"We're not rich," he said to Ginji, "but at least we're not poor any more!" He tucked their payment into his shirt pocket and started to launch into another self-congratulating spiel, when he paused and looked at Ginji's downturned face. "Oi, Ginji. What's wrong with you, anyway?"

"Eh? Me?" Ginji's head snapped up, and he gave an embarrassed laugh that didn't fool Ban at all. "Nothing's wrong, I'm fine! I mean, we got paid, Ban-chan, isn't that great?"

Ban came to a stop and caught Ginji's shoulder as he passed. "It certainly is," he said, "but you've been moping all day, and even now. I want to know what's wrong."

Ginji hunched his shoulders a bit and lowered his head again as he shuffled one heel against the asphalt. He looked like a schoolboy caught in the middle of a prank, never farther from the distant cold visage of the Raitei. "Well, that is ... you see, Ban-chan, I was thinking, and, um ..."

"Yes?" Ban prompted. He crossed his arms over his chest and tapped one foot. "We're not going anywhere until you tell me, Ginji. We're professionals in a dangerous business, so we have to trust each other above anything else. Unless you don't--?"

It was a dirty trick, and not one Ban ever believed. However, occasionally Ginji would retreat into himself like this, and it took something extreme to pull him back out--whether it was Ban letting himself take the blow from Jackal's sword, or a low blow like this. Those spells had come frequently in Ginji's first year outside of the Mugenjou, but they'd faded over time, and Ban had hoped they were gone for good.

And as he expected, Ginji's head snapped up again, brown eyes wide and shocked. "Ban-chan!" he gasped, sounding horrified. "It's not that, no--I'd never--!"

"Idiot." Ban drew out the word, shaking a finger at Ginji. "Whatever it is, it can't be that bad."

Ginji didn't say anything; he appeared to be psyching himself up for something. Ban continued to tap one foot slowly, waiting.

Finally, Ginji moved, reaching into his vest and pulling out a small, flat object. "Here!" he said, a bit sharply, and shoved it at Ban before he turned sharply, his cheeks puffed out into a pout. To Ban's surprise, the package was neatly wrapped in pale blue paper, and without an excess of tape to hold the edges together.

"Hoh," he said as he took it, "Ginji, you did this yourself?"

"Un!" Ginji beamed, his nervousness temporarily forgotten. "Well, I had a little help from Natsumi-chan, because I've never wrapped a present before, but this is all me, Ban-chan!" Some of his exuberance softened when he smiled at Ban again. "Happy birthday."

"It's May," Ban pointed out. "My birthday's not the one that just passed."

Ginji shrugged. "Not *your* birthday," he said, then looked a bit embarrassed. "I'll get you something better for that." He rubbed the back of his head, looking at the sky, at his feet, and everywhere except Ban's face. "I thought, well, you know ... it's kind of weird to call it an 'anniversary,' but ... because you know, there's only one GetBackers, so it has to have a birthday too, and ..." He paused, then shrugged a little. "Um, I thought it'd be a good idea?"

Ban opened his mouth to say something, then cut himself off with a shake of his head. He almost smiled, then twisted it into an amused smirk instead. "You got me," he said. "I didn't even think about it. Sorry."

"That's okay, Ban-chan!" Now past the obstacle of his anxiety, Ginji recovered fast, regaining his usual cheerful mood even as Ban watched. He beamed, with all the barely-leashed exuberance of a puppy. "You can get me something next year! Maybe we could alternate, just in case we're having money problems again ..." He paused, counted something up on his fingers, then shrugged with an ear-to-ear grin. "It all works out. C'mon, Ban-chan, hurry and unwrap it!"

Ginji hopped from one foot to the next in his excitement, eyes shining as though Ban had given a present to him. And because Ban's perverse sense of humor thought it was hilarious (and a little cute, though that was beside the point) how Ginji reacted to things, so the more excited he became, the slower Ban moved.

"Ban-chan!" Ginji whined. In another minute, he would turn huge shimmering eyes at Ban and paw at his arm. "Come on, hurry up, hurry up!"

"Shaddup." Ban shook his hand off. "I want to take my time and enjoy this."

"Eh? Ban-chan, that's no way to have fun with presents! You gotta rip the paper off and make a mess! I'll show you!"

"Oh, no." Ban took a step back, holding the half-unwrapped box out of Ginji's reach. "This is my present, right? Then I'll unwrap it the way I want to."

Ginji pouted. Ban ignored him, carefully smoothing away the last scrap of paper, taking care to get up, walk over to the trash can, throw everything away, and then walk back to where Ginji waited--all without ever looking at the unwrapped present he held. Ginji had flopped on the ground, staring at Ban mournfully.

"Ban-chan, you're mean," he said.

"I'm looking now, aren't I?" Ban raised an eyebrow at him. "Why are you complaining?" He held it up. "A picture frame? What am I gonna do with one of these?"

"That's not it!" Ginji popped up to his feet, his good mood restored. "It's the picture, Ban-chan, look!"

He did. On a piece of heavy white paper, clumsily cut to fit the small frame, someone had used a calligraphy brush to draw the English "S" character. Two small, vaguely humanoid shapes decorated diagonal corners, one of whom Ban assumed to be himself, mainly because of the small round glasses perched on its nose. Probably, then, the other one was Ginji--certainly it looked like him, when he was in one of those moods that left him flopped and droopy and clingy.

"'S'?"

Ginji grinned from ear to ear, like the little child who'd accomplished something truly grand. His happiness felt almost contagious. "It's the 'S' from GetBackers," he said. "Remember? We're never alone as long as we have that."

Ban said nothing, still staring. Some of Ginji's blinding smile faded.

"I thought and thought and thought," he said, glancing down at his feet. "Because I wanted to get something really great for our birthday. And I thought you were angry with me, because you've been so weird lately."

"Weird, huh?" Ban sounded more like he was talking to himself. Ginji winced a little.

"And I thought--what if you thought that I--Ban-chan, I'm not going back!"

That got Ban's attention. He looked up from the picture, blinking at Ginji. "Eh?"

"Well ..." Ginji looked down again. "We had two years where it was really just the two of us, you and me, and whatever jobs we needed to do. We never had to work with anyone else, but we're still the invincible GetBackers, right? But suddenly, Shido's a repossessor too, and Kazu-chan comes to visit, and MakubeX has recreated the VOLTS ..." He took a deep breath and looked straight up, into Ban's eyes.

"They were all my precious friends," he said. "They still are. But we're the GetBackers, Ban-chan, and I'm happier here than anywhere else. If I had the choice, I'd always come back here, because no matter what, that 'S' means we're not alone, and--"

Slowly, Ban reached out. Ginji stiffened his back and didn't flinch.

A heavy hand descended on his head, then ruffled his hair. Ginji cracked one eye halfway open--he hadn't been aware he'd closed them at the last minute and looked up slowly.

"Idiot," Ban said. He smiled. "You worry about this sort of thing too much."

"Ban-chan?" A faint crease appeared in Ginji's forehead. He looked poised between nerves and hope.

"You're stuck with me, got that?" Ban turned away suddenly, shifting his present to the cradle of one arm so he could pull out a cigarette and light it. He took a long drag, exhaled the thin plume of smoke, then glanced back over his shoulder at Ginji. A faint smirk twisted his mouth, and over his glasses, his gaze was knowing. "Those idiots are persistent, but they've got nothing on Midou Ban-sama."

This time, Ginji's smile came slowly, like the sun coming up. And though Ban only saw it for a moment before he turned back towards the car, his eyes felt as dazzled as though he'd looked at the real thing.

He kept the picture in his lap the entire drive back to the Honky Tonk.