Some dialogue courtesy of the Saikou fansubs.

Not how it did happen, but perhaps how it might have.


The first time they fought, it was by chance. He'd heard the stories, but didn't realize where he was.

Water couldn't wash it away, nor alcohol, nor any drug. Not even a willing woman under him, or a man. He lost nights to all of that, to no consequence. Forgetting couldn't change what he was. Every morning he awoke to the stench of that blood on his hands.

But he couldn't see those older stains when there was fresh blood flowing, and if his anger were hot enough it might burn away the last residue of his past. It didn't take much to fight. Goading drunken men in bars and hot-headed punks on the streets, he had raised it to an artform, the fewest words to elicit the fastest reaction. He didn't even need to take the first swing. So what happened after that was their own fault.

One on one, two at a time, four, six, eight. Didn't matter, not with his strength, his fighting genius. He didn't have to think, just respond. Block a punch, throw a kick, slam one into the pavement with his elbow and punch the next into a wall while ducking the others' ineffective sallies. And that blow could kill. And that, and that. Except they never did, no matter how high his rage. Even when he tried. Blood on his hands, but not more lives. A pathetic murderer, he was, who could only slay a friend.

He didn't realize he had walked so deep into Shinjuku that night, until the men around him suddenly pulled back, their fierce knot dissolving into scattered boys, staring at their fallen comrades, then down the street. Light flashed in the darkness, a strobe pulse illuminating the rain-wet faces of the gang, reflecting sudden hope, sudden terror. Thunder boomed.

He looked, and saw the man within the lightning, who was barely a man at all, no older than him, hardly taller, hardly broader in the shoulders. He might have laughed, that this was the fearsome king of Mugenjou, that this yellow-haired brat was the emperor some called demon and some called god. He might have, but he could feel his hair standing on end in the raw power around him, and the boy's voice was slow and certain, commanding. "This is Volts territory. You should leave quickly if you don't want to die."

"Try it," he said, and that was all it took. The gang fled like scared rats, dragging their wounded with them, and in their wake their emperor came, lit in unnatural fire, his fists with the power of a thunderstorm behind them. Impossible to block, he dodged instead, lashed out with his own strength, but the emperor was feline-agile, and he had been fighting for an hour already. Adrenaline washed away the aches and beginnings of fatigue, however, and he became faster as their battle did.

Every punch that he got through burned on impact, current shocking him, but it was a different sort of pain than the bruises of fists and cuts of knives. The trembling of his muscles could be forgotten in the vicious thrill of seeing that emperor stumble, the smooth flow of his attacks faltering under his own injuries. There was surprise in those narrowed eyes--a dictator, after all, not used to being defied. And yet he didn't fight the harder for it. Surprise, but the anger was cold, not uncontrolled, not the desperation he was used to seeing.

He pounded his fist forward, caught the emperor across the jaw and threw him flying back. The crumbling cement wall behind them cracked as his body hit, and he stood over the shining figure, flexing his hand, feeling the hiss of the snake coiled within. "Why don't you fight me for real?" he demanded, panting, the air too light to fill his lungs. "Where's your power?" He could taste it, the very atmosphere humming with that energy, but as yet untapped, the emperor's true sword still sheathed.

Those colorless eyes fixed on him, mouth also open as he gasped for his own breath. He thought he would be answered, and his fist was ready to reply.

Instead there was a voice behind him, a panicked shout, high enough to be a woman, or a young boy. "Ra--Raitei!"

He believed everyone had fled from here, but when he turned he saw a child, grubby balled fists pressed to her open mouth, fearful tears shimmering in her eyes.

Suddenly unsure, he took a step toward the girl, raised his hand, intending to scare.

"No!" and it was a tiger's growl. Too late he felt the energy around him concentrate, and then the electricity rippled through him.

If he had been braced for it he might have overcome it, but that surge was too immediate to resist. He fell, muscles seizing in the current. Darkness pressed around him, but he forced open his eyes, to see the emperor, that tyrant of this demon land, take the child's hand and smile down at her.

The emperor looked back once, to say, "Don't come here again," and then they walked away.

When he regained consciousness he was on the far curb of one of the streets bordering Mugenjou. His wallet was still in his pocket, with all the money from his last job. There were two tramps watching from the shadow of a dumpster, but when he looked to them they ducked their heads and turned away, furtive and nervous.

It took two days to heal enough to walk. That night he limped to the Infinite Castle.

* * *

The second time they fought was his choice.

They were right to call Raitei a god, after all. Because when the emperor came he looked just as he had before, no sign of the injuries he had taken. As if they might not have fought at all, were it not for the bruises that still colored his own body, the sharp twinge shooting up his leg with every step he took and the ache of his chest with every breath he drew. But Raitei was whole, pacing with that smooth warrior's stride, graceful, though his footsteps fell with the weight of mountains.

"I told you not to return," he said without preamble. "Leave now."

He looked at his hand. No rain tonight to rinse away the blood. The man at his feet was screaming; he kicked his ribs to silence him. Some traitorous part of himself wanted to apologize. Sorry. It's not you I wanted to fight.

He raised his eyes to the one he did want. "What are you going to do about it?"

Raitei moved, faster even than lightning, fast as thought, before the eye could blink standing before him, grabbing his bloody hand and wrenching it back. The remote eyes studied him, head inclined in brief appraisal when he winced. "You're still injured. Just get out of here."

That dismissal enraged as nothing else could have. "Don't look down on me," he hissed. "Don't underestimate Midou Ban-sama, lightning kid!" And he struck, driving his fist into his chest to slam Raitei back. "Fight me--your stungun trick won't work again. I'm ready for it, now that I know you're coward enough to hit from behind--fight me!"

And he did, surging up, lashing out, and then he had no chance to speak, no breath left to prod him to greater anger under that onslaught.

But his opponent's face was set, a grim determination more resolved than furious, and his attacks were as calculated as a machine, electric robot. He realized fast enough that Raitei was leading him, drawing him away from those men lying unconscious on the ground, with no fellows to move them. He didn't care. If the sovereign would fight more earnestly when his subjects were not threatened, it was what he wanted.

They met, engaged, separated, dancing over broken glass and cracked cement. Smog scattered the city lights around them into a gray haze, night turned not into day but formless limbo. His limbs felt heavy, weighted like stones as he blocked and threw his own blows, flesh thudding against flesh and bone grinding bone. And still, that energy tingled around them, unresolved, unused. A ripple of electricity with his punch, a blinding fall of sparks as he threw off his hold, but those were only glancing feints, not the thunderstrike of a god. Even now, when they fought in an empty battlefield and there was no one to suffer by it but his enemy.

"Coward," he gasped, too drained to yell it, the pain in his leg and ribs throbbing in time to the pulsing red haze over his vision. "Fight me!"


It was only a whisper, so he might not have heard it at all. "Fight like you mean it, you bastard!" But he staggered when he tried to charge him. And then Raitei stood over him.

"Not everyone can leave Mugenjou, but you have that choice." His eyes were strange, dark in that murky dimness. "Leave here now, Midou Ban," he said, but it was no imperial command. "Please."

He coughed, deep red spattering the ground at his feet. "Make me."

"Do I have to?"

"Fight me!"

Raitei only slipped out from his shaky strike, with no countering attack. "Why?" he asked again. "Why do you want to die?"

"Kill me, then, if you're so damn sure you can!" But his body betrayed him before the emperor. Dark spots swarmed his vision, and he stumbled, fell into the phantom pit of his own weakness.

When the blackness cleared, the emperor was gone, and it was hours before dawn. It took until sunrise for him to reach the borders of Mugenjou, and there were many awaiting him when he did, grinning. "Where are you going, snake bastard? We let you out once. You're ours now."

He grinned back, lips tight over his teeth, and took them on. An hour past dawn, he walked out of the Infinite Castle, still limping. The sweat and blood on his face felt like tears. He didn't wipe them away.

He waited a month while his cracked ribs mended and his bruises faded. He took two jobs as a snatcher and one as a protector. His clients paid him well, and praised his work, and wouldn't meet his eyes. At night he dreamed of thunder and lightning and gods ruling cement kingdoms, when he didn't dream of Yamato. Some nights he sat and smoked and watched the sky, rather than dream at all.

No matter what hostel he found, the room he got always had a window facing Mugenjou. He became used to pulling the shade down whenever he entered.

After a month, he took the bus as far as its route went into Shinjuku, and with the sun shining down from its highest point in the blue sky, he walked into the Infinite Castle.

* * *

The third time they fought was the worst.

In daylight it was harder than he had thought it would be, the people in Mugenjou's warrens carrying on something closer to true life than mere survival. Children playing, men and women walking with places to go, even though the kids stuck a little too close together, and the adults' strides were a bit too hurried. The looks cast his way were wary, guarded, but not threatening. They all gave him a wide berth.

He was at a loss, briefly, as if expecting a boxing ring he had stumbled into a classroom instead. This was not the Mugenjou he had seen at night, not the Infinite Castle everyone outside its walls spoke of, lawless and violent. There was safety here, order, limited, but real.

But he recognized the men when they came for him, smiled a serpent's smile. Only three. He thought he would have taught them that lesson better. The street he walked was suddenly empty, all the ordinary people trickling away like water, so it was just him and them. They weren't grinning now.

The first had a knife. He brought his hand down hard enough to fracture his wrist, and the blade went skittering along the rough sidewalk as the man cried out. The second had a baseball bat, easily ducked, and the man himself dropped with a sharp chop to the back of his neck.

The third wore a jeans jacket, across the back of which someone had carefully stitched 'VOLTS' in Western letters. He had no visible weapon, but when attacked he raised his hand, spread his fingers, and a choking cloud of dust whirled out.

He coughed, squinted his tearing eyes against the grit, and heard the pounding footsteps as the man came for him, expecting to take him by surprise when he was blinded. Moron. He waited until the last instant, then stepped aside, twisting around. Then he had his hand to the man's neck, the inhuman strength of his fingers poised to snap his spine.

With his other hand he rubbed clear his eyes, raised his head. "Come here, lightning kid. Come now or I'll kill him. He's yours, isn't he? One of your 'Bo-rutsu'," he read off the jacket, mockingly.

Silence answered him. "Come here," he demanded again. The man gave a strangled mouse's squeak as his fingers tightened, pressure on his spine paralyzing. Just one wrench and the bone would crack, and how far would the sound carry in this stillness...

Calm before the storm. He recognized the furry prickling of static over his skin before Raitei spoke. "Midou Ban, I gave you two chances. This is the last. Leave here now."

He didn't turn his head. "I'm giving you three chances yourself, electric bastard. Three of your men. Fight me or I'll kill them while you watch."

"Why did you come back, Midou Ban?"

He hated how the emperor spoke his name. Better ridicule or bitterness than that precise enunciation, as if it were an effort to say at all. "Why won't you really fight? You don't think I'm worth a real battle? I'll show you how dangerous I can be."

One wrench was all it would take, to prove himself serious.

"Is that all you come here for? To fight me?"

"Why else?" Under his fingers he could feel the man's pulse, hammering in his throat. "To join your pathetic army, all these cowards kissing your feet? How many of them have died, since you became their sovereign? How many of them have killed each other? Have you saved anyone? Hell, you can't even save one man. I'll snap his neck, and then what's his worship worth?"

"Let him go." It was bleak, but still anger.

His own ran so high and hot it blinded him, stung worse than the man's dust. "I'm no damn stupid sycophant, to fall for your bullshit. You promise them protection, don't you? When you know nothing can really protect them. Not even a god. It'll be kindness to this poor bastard--better death than faith betrayed, right, your fucking majesty? And you'd rather have him dead. You'll let me kill them, won't you, so no one knows how weak you really--"

"Stop this. Now."

He looked back. Raitei stood on the rubble of a half-made building, head angled down toward him. It was difficult to see his face, he shone so brightly, dimming even the sun above. "Let him go, Midou Ban. You'll have your fight."

He threw the man aside, a sniveling mess, caught by his maimed companions, who bore him away as if fleeing a fire or a hurricane. Natural disaster, an act of god, supreme and unstoppable. Raitei raised his arms, and the light which shone around him was nova-bright.

His smile was the rictus grin of a corpse, his fingers hooked, curving into fangs. Then Raitei came, his scream drowned in thunder, and he brought his own strength to bear against that awesome power.

This was what he wanted; this was what he had sought. There was nothing on this battleground but their fight, no chance for feeling, no time for thought. Everything was reflex; to consciously realize an opening would be to let it go, but fighting came naturally to him, always had, and he answered every opportunity with his own attack, just as every one of his strikes was answered.

He had his hands around the other's throat, then tore them free as he felt the boiling in his veins. Radiance burst against him, his heart stuttering under the assault, and then he had forced past it to slam the other back, and concrete shattered like ceramic under him.

The ground under his feet, the brilliance of the sun, the coppery tang of blood in his mouth ceased to matter, and then did not exist at all. He moved through a void where there was only him and the other, only pain and light, only now and annihilation.

He was losing.

It was impossible. But Raitei was too strong, and becoming stronger, too fast and becoming faster. He struck, and blocked; and struck, and blocked, and blocked; and struck, and blocked, and blocked and blocked and then lunged aside, but Raitei was already there. No longer a human face, mouth gaping in an endless scream, no eyes, just brilliance.

He had fought the powerful before, met the strongest in the world, and some stronger than him. But in sixteen years of life, he had never really known fear, until the moment he saw that god's face. It was a child's terror, without reason, beyond sense, and for an instant it froze him, ice extinguishing his strength.

Why do you want to die?

There was a way yet, because his own true force still lay dormant within him. He drew a breath to summon--

Raitei was there. Lightning hurled him aside like a giant's slap, and he didn't catch himself in time, crushed his arm against a hunk of concrete and steel and felt the bone snap under him. It didn't matter. He ignored the pain, focused himself.

But when he opened his mouth, the words would not come, though they were so deeply set in memory that he could recite them sleeping. Only agony in his arm, no strength, and there was an emptiness, a void where power should be.

Call upon the power of the stars, Ban--but the sky was blank and blue, and the only star was the sun, blinding, burning light above him. He had never seen anything so terrifying or so beautiful as that pure power. There was nothing to hold onto, nothing precious to fight for, nothing he wanted but this clarity, the cleansing of apocalypse to wash away the curse of his existence.

Why do you want to die?

His strength was gone, the spirit of his birthright had abandoned him, but he had one trump left. He lifted his head, stared into the heart of that tremendous energy. And opened the jagan.

Raitei's hand plunged through his chest, a clean and certain kill, white heat searing the flesh before any blood flowed. The broken mannequin of his corpse crumpled to the pavement.

And Raitei fell as well, the lightning around him flickering and dying as he dropped to his knees, body braced on trembling arms as he shuddered.

He knew he should run, had prepared to as soon as the evil eye took hold. Instead he stayed, watched, clutching his arm to his side, every pant jarring the broken bone.

When Raitei's head raised, his eyes were brown. Strange how important that was, to see their true color, when not overwhelmed by a god's might.

"I'm sorry, Midou Ban," he said. He stood, slowly, walked with care, one foot dragging. His clothes were torn and scorched, blood and dirt streaking his face, his body. Without that sparking shimmer, his face looked young, even younger than his years, round and large-eyed as a child's.

And yet there was no mistaking the bearing of an emperor, even as he knelt in the dust, put his hand to where he saw the body of his enemy. "I'm sorry," he said again.

He had intended a nightmare, had thought to make his corpse flare into a murderous pyre, so the shock would give him the time to escape. Instead he did nothing, just let the vision fade away as the single minute ended. Those brown eyes blinked, staring down at the barren pavement where his victory had seemed to lay.

"Were you dreaming?" he asked, flatly, too exhausted for the irony he usually offered.

Raitei's head jerked up, met his eyes, and something flashed across his face, too quick to identify, even before the surprise. "Midou Ban..."

He didn't bother to explain. The emperor's minions could fill him in later, if stories of the evil eye had not reached his ears already. "I don't want to," he said instead. "I want to win against you. You won't defeat me, lightning kid."

And wasn't that his greatest sin, that for all he had done and all he was, he did not; that even now, living for nothing, he yet wanted to live.

But the emperor's face changed, subtle in twilight of the setting sun, but for a moment he thought he saw a light in those eyes which was nothing like that devastating power. And when Raitei said, commanding for all its quiet calm, "Come," he followed, both of them hobbling on unsteady legs, their shadows behind them stretching into one long figure.

The woman in the shelter to which he was lead said nothing, only took his arm, tugged him to a pallet and gestured for him to lay down. He did, let her wrap his arm and clean his injuries, ate the stew she offered and slept when full night fell. He learned the next day that her silence was not simply mood, enforced by the severed stump of tongue in her mouth. But the quiet suited him.

When the man came later in the week to have her examine his bandaged wrist, he shied back like a frightened horse upon seeing her guest, but said nothing to her, so her kindness to him did not change. Gratitude was a peculiar feeling, unsettling in the pit of his belly. He left her refuge among the skyscraper's rubble the next morning.

But he stopped walking before he crossed Mugenjou's borders.

* * *

The fourth time they fought it was together, back to back, and unexpected.

For three days he paced the outer limits of the Infinite Castle, a panther caged by bars he couldn't even recognize. No one challenged him, and there was satisfaction in how the so-tough punks shrank back from his glares, but frustration, too.

It was that frustration which prodded him to action, the evening he heard those desperate cries for help. If it had been a typical street fight he would have expected the gangs to congregate, but there was no one. He followed the cries to five men built like bulldozers, about to plow over a trio of crying kids, too trembling and scared to be called teens.

He had been too long without a fight, and the arrogant stance of the bullies as they turned to him made his pulse pound in his ears, so loud he couldn't really hear the kids, shrieking, "No, you can't--they're from the Beltline!" Whatever the hell that meant.

Then he charged, and the kids took their chance and bolted, and he realized these were no ordinary bastards. With such massive builds they should have been dinosaurs, but they moved like dancers, the choreographed synchrony of their attack like they could read each others' minds. Against two or three he would have taken them with a handicap, but four was enough to break a sweat, and five was--

Too damn dangerous, as five massive fists came crashing down like a row of pistons, and he swore, ducked and rolled. The jagan, if he had to, but he should take at least one down for pride's sake, swung his fist with that intent. The son of a bitch caught it, however, was driven back half a meter but he stopped it, and then his buddy slammed a hobnailed boot into his chest.

He stumbled, coughed and choked on coppery bile, and dragged up his head in time to see a burly elbow whistling toward his face.

Only to stop with a sharp crackle and a blinding flash. The man groaned and dropped, his bulk falling to reveal the smaller figure behind him, lit in a vivid corona which dispelled the dusk. The emperor said nothing, just stared them down with lip-curling disdain.

"Raitei," one of the bastards growled, beating him to it, and the four left charged him, ignoring their former prey.

Which was damn stupid as well as impossibly insulting. With a snarl he lashed out at them, caught one by the leather collar and heaved him into two of his associates. The meaty thuds of their bodies against the cement satisfied the hunger of the snake within him, and he slammed down his hand to keep them there.

He finished to find Raitei had taken out the final one, and was watching him with his head cocked in an oddly innocent manner. His eyes were brown again, dark in the shadows. "You do like fighting," he said, and the softness of his tone might have been amazement.

"I'm good at it." He spat a little blood, wiped his mouth. "I'll take you next, lightning kid."

"I don't want to fight you, Midou Ban."

He narrowed his eyes. "Tomorrow, then."

Raitei shook his head. "Not just now. I don't want to fight you again." He took a step toward him, too sure and casual to be a threat. "Why should we fight?"

"Afraid you'll lose?"

"Why would I be afraid of that?" Those were not an emperor's words. "I thought at first--when you first came, what I believed you were, I thought I had to fight you. But now I know that I don't." He looked down at the five spread on the ground. "I thought you were like them. But you're not a monster."

Unintended, yet it hit with the power of his lightning bolts, jarred him to his core. He could hardly speak, as if all air had been smashed from his lungs. "You--you don't know me at all."

"I don't know what you are," Raitei agreed, fearless, merciless. "But I know what you're not."

"I know what you are," he heard himself say in return. His memory of that shining god blinded his mind's eye. "You're the monster."

The emperor bowed his head. "Maybe," he said. "But I still don't want to fight you."

"You damn coward." Raitei was walking away, not even watching his back. He was losing again, could taste it, bitter as poison. "I'll beat you yet, lightning kid."

Raitei stopped. Turned back to him, a slender, spike-topped silhouette against Mugenjou's lights. "If you have to," he said quietly. "But there must be something better you can do with that strength."

"Like become an emperor?"

But Raitei didn't answer.

Nor in the days that followed, though he saw him again. Even spoke with him. Insulted him, though the emperor wouldn't respond, wouldn't raise a hand to defend himself.

He punched him once, to show he meant it, and the emperor only sprawled at his feet, his eyes calm. And maybe he didn't mean it after all, because he extended his hand, and Raitei took it, let himself be helped up and demanded no apology.

But when the emperor asked him, as unexpected as thunder booming in a cloudless sky, if he had ever been outside of Shinjuku, outside of Japan, he glanced at that red and swollen cheek, and answered honestly. And found himself talking about Paris's museums, to a boy who had never seen an actual painted canvas.

When the thundershower poured down on him that night, he found himself wondering where Raitei slept, whether he took shelter from the rain, whether he cared at all, when he was brother to the storm.

He heard children laughing the next afternoon, brighter and louder than was usually allowed, and heard a different laughter with them. Following that sound he found the emperor of the Infinite Castle, wrestling kids in a mud puddle, splashing and getting splashed, an overgrown tiger cub among puppies.

Hard to say what was more surprising, how he smiled at the absurdity of that sight, not a serpent's smirk at all; or the way something in his chest clenched, seeing the emperor's own smile.

How fast that smile vanished, when the guy came running--he had seem him once before, a graceful figure, femininely delicate, but powerful enough to command nearly the respect granted Raitei. One of the four kings under him, too close and loyal to deride his sovereign's spattered clothes. "More from the Beltline, like they threatened," he told Raitei, panting. "They're already in Lower Town, they've almost breached the third wall."

Even so far away he could see the emperor's expression shift, the children around him suddenly silent. "Go hide," he told them, and as one they nodded, staring at him, wide-eyed, riveted. Then Raitei and his king were sprinting away.

He followed them.

* * *

The fifth time they fought, he finally realized what he was facing.

He didn't think it was in him to be shocked, not anymore. And yet something inside him twisted, when he rounded the corner and saw the god in a boy's shirt and jeans, the glowing hammer of his fist raised to pass final judgment on the beaten man slumped at his feet.

None of the emperor's minions were in sight, neither a king nor a kid in a Volts jackets. All hiding; any sane creature would have fled. But sanity had never been more than an intellectual concept to him. And cowardice was the one transgression he yet refused, even with fear gnawing at his gut like a monstrous parasite. "What's this? You've been holding out on me, lightning kid. I thought you didn't like to fight."

The hammer did not fall, the emperor struck motionless, his blinding eyes still fixed on his victim. "Midou Ban. Get out of here."

"And miss this chance?"

"Go away now!" Thunder boomed in emphasis, luminescent tendrils cracking like whips around him.

A rational man would have flown. Instead he attacked, sallying forth against the emperor, who met him, full-force and enraged. If he didn't entirely understand the anger, it didn't matter; that he faced that fury was enough. For days he had been denied this. Now he swept aside those Raitei might have killed, to face the emperor's supreme might.

He had never fought anyone so many times, and their exchange now was familiar, a rhythm to their battle which made it almost an exercise, like students performing an arranged drill. His partner knew the steps as intimately as he, and even the deviations might have been conducted, the gradual acceleration of their ferocity an expected part of the piece.

This dance was exhausting, enervating, and to counter that drain he let his own anger build, but while it kept his blood pounding hot in his temples, it didn't fulfill. He was furious, squinting into that radiant energy where once he had met brown eyes, but it wasn't the rage of defeat. Something else angered him, incomprehensible as that driving Raitei.

He couldn't put a name to it, but when he felt the energy building with Raitei's scream, the dust floating around them charged to scintillating points of light, he waited until the last possible instant, then agilely sprang away as the god called down his lightning.

The bolt cleaved through the edifice they had fought upon to shatter the earth, rocking the solid ground and sifting down dust from the shells of building around them. Deafened by the thunder, he couldn't tell if the silence which fell afterwards was true. Gradually he could hear again, but the panicked shouts were distant. His were the only footsteps that sounded on the cracked pavement, as he made his way forward to the chasm suddenly gouged in the street.

In the center of that seared crater, Raitei stood, dwarfed by the destruction he had wreaked, weirdly fragile without the visible mantle of his power surrounding him. There had been no one within that annihilating circle, but that one building was flattened without a trace, and those surrounding were scorched and damaged, no longer fitting refuges. Atypical for the emperor to so disregard his subjects, only in the name of a worthless fight.

"What are you doing, lightning kid? Asking for more?" He groped in his pockets, found his cigarettes, the lighter not even dented. Drew one out and lit it with a sharp motion that was becoming practiced, and the smoke soothed when he drew it into his lungs, when before it had burned. "You've done a fascinating job. Isn't this your home? Show a little restraint."

"I can't." It was torn from him, ringing in the disastrous quiet. "When I become Raitei, my mind goes blank. I only realize what I've done after it's all over." The emperor hardly seemed to be speaking to him at all, addressing instead the ruins around him, mourning, apologetically. "As long as I stay inside Mugenjou I never run out of energy, and I gradually go on becoming someone else. And someday a time will come when I turn into Raitei completely." Standing there, his strength hidden within, he was no more than a yellow-haired punk. But he didn't laugh, could not find within himself any condescension for this godling brat, this boy tyrant.

"I'm the Volts' Emperor of Lightning. I have an a obligation to protect everyone. I want to protect them. But..." There was nothing regal in that desperation, and that nobility was in spite of all his power.

He sighed. "If you're so uncertain, why don't you get out?" It was such a simple thing to say. Such a simple thing to do. "Get out of this place." No more difficult than that.

And he had known it all along, but hadn't appreciated its truth until the moment he spoke it. The emperor's head turned, stared up at him, and the distance could not obscure the look in his eyes, twin to his own realization.

Strange, when he walked away, that he almost expected to be followed.

Strange, too, that when he tried to recall the emperor's might, all he could see was the bleakness in those brown eyes, for a instant overwhelmed by that vivid flash of hope.

Perhaps not a victory, but not a loss, either. He didn't know what had changed, could not remember waking up and finding himself born again. But what had seemed meaningless before now was enough.

That evening he left Mugenjou.

* * *

The sixth time they fought, there were no blows.

He was setting his foot on the street which divided the Infinite Castle from Shinjuku when he felt the subtle fuzz of static raising his hairs. He turned.

The emperor was close, just far enough away not to intimidate. "You're leaving," he said.

"Yeah. You don't have to tell me anymore."

"You haven't beaten me, Midou Ban."

Belligerence didn't suit that voice, droll when it should have stung. Or maybe he had just heard too much for it to matter anymore. He shrugged. "It seems like there's better things I could do with my strength then pound on you, lightning kid."

"Please don't call me that."

"What should you be called, Raitei?"

"That's not my name either."

"Then what is your name?"

The dignity in his eyes was not an emperor's, not a god's, just a man's. "Ginji. Amano Ginji."

"Amano Ginji, huh." He had heard it before, though it sounded different when the man spoke it himself. Names were too costly things to use with abandon, but their battle should have earned him that much respect, at least. "I'll remember it."

"Will you use it?"

"When would I? I'm leaving."

"Running away."

It was a challenge, and automatically he bristled, before he looked into the emperor's face, and saw those dark eyes watching him, focus of a fighter who didn't like to fight, and must. Look hard enough into those eyes and he would see his own reflection in the black, tiny and distorted.

For once the man with the evil eye was the one who looked away, wrenched aside his blue stare. "If you want a fight, just take a swing. I'll always be ready."

There was a moment that he braced himself, as he saw the emperor's gloved hands curl into fists, and electricity shivered in the air. But for now the man was stronger than the god. His long exhalation released more than breath, so when he spoke there was nothing at all in his voice but the words. "Where are you going?"

He shrugged again. "Out of here. Maybe out of the country."

"Are you looking for something?"

"No..." He paused before he found himself mistakenly lying. "Maybe. I don't know. But if I am, it's not here. Whatever it is."

The emperor was looking away from him, out at the city. "Whatever it is," he said quietly, "I hope you can get it back, Midou Ban."

Even now, there was a heaviness to how he spoke those syllables, and his shoulders stiffened under their burden. "Don't call me that."

The emperor's expression was only confused. "Then what should I call you?"

Rightfully confused. It was the only name he'd ever had. And this man wouldn't be using it again anyway. "Never mind."

"Some of those better things," the emperor said, softer still, "you could do them here. Strength is needed here."

"Maybe I'm not strong enough."

"You are." One does not deny an emperor. "You're the strongest man I know."

"I couldn't defeat you."

"No one can defeat Raitei." And he grieved over that triumph. "Not here."

"And there you have it." He grinned, hard enough that it hurt. "I'm the kind of son of a bitch to win how I can. If I can't do it here, then I won't stay here."

"All right, then."

He looked over at him sharply. The emperor's profile was defined against the charcoal of the street behind him, a pale, vivid outline, gilt in the streetlights' ambience. "All right?"

"If you're leaving to win. It's all right then."

"You'd just let me win, that easily? What kind of idiot are you?"

The emperor's only answer was a smile. And somehow that was the only one he had expected. Having no reply, he shook his head, stepped into the street and forged across. When he reached the other side he looked back, knowing the emperor would still be there.

"Hey," he called over the asphalt river. "Amano Ginji."

He meant to say goodbye, but he had never said it before, so when he spoke, it came out wrong. "There's a little cafe a few blocks from here. The Honky Tonk, third right down that street," and he pointed. "I'll be eating dinner there. For a couple more days at least, before I go."

It had gotten too dark for him to see if the emperor were still smiling, but he remained standing there, watching from Mugenjou's edge. He raised his hand, waved as he turned and strode away, letting himself be swallowed by the city's night.

* * *

The seventh time they are to fight has not yet come to pass.

It will, Ban knows. It must, the inevitability of destiny, mystical ordinance. He doesn't believe in fate-prediction or numerology, but some things are as fixed as the stars. The seventh will be the final, the end. Perhaps the most terrible. Or maybe the easiest of all.

He realized it that first night--or else the last. When he walked into the Honky Tonk, the third night out of Mugenjou, to say his farewells to Paul. He stopped in the doorway when he saw the single customer seated at the counter. And crumpled the plane ticket in his pocket to wastepaper between his fingers.

He knew then, as he still knows, that he must fight Raitei once more. He doesn't know what will spark it, or where the battleground will be, but it won't be much longer now. He can taste the stormfront in the air. It's a heady thrill, a terrifying one. But he's strong enough. He has to be.

This time it won't be for him. Midou Ban doesn't need that victory anymore.

But the GetBackers do. Amano Ginji does.

So this time, this last time, he will win.