"Missing"

Disclaimer : Not mine.


II.

Natsumi met Ginji at the landing as he climbed the steps. "Hi, Gin-chan! What's up?" The girl shivered slightly – and not exactly from the chill either.

"Hey. I… I… saw you step out and thought I'd bring your coat over. You must be cold," Ginji stammered, cowering in front of Natsumi as the snow flitted gently about them.

Not as cold as the look of disappointment in her eyes, though. Natsumi's lucent smile, while still holding, faltered a millimeter or two. "Oh. Thanks. How very kind of you."

His thoughts muddled, Ginji neglected to give the waitress her coat, and for a brief uncomfortable moment the couple suffered the silence and awkwardly square-danced around each other in attempts to make some kind of move. Ginji considered taking Natsumi by the shoulders and draping the coat over her, while Natsumi wondered if she should turn her back on him and hope he'd get the hint. But neither of them counted on the vicissitudes of their courage.

"Could you hold this for me, please?" She handed the champagne glass to him with one hand while she took her coat with the other.

The confused young man stared into the pale liquid while Natsumi put on the jacket. He cursed to himself. This was definitely not going as he had planned. It was supposed to be coat, farewell, and then 'thank you'. Or was it farewell, coat…?

Damn it! Not sure what he was doing, Ginji almost crushed the glass in his hand.

"Thank you," Natsumi said as she wrested the flute out of his grip and adjusted her hair over the scruff of her coat.

Ginji began to trace his steps back. "Um, I didn't get a chance back at the café and I just wanted to say goodbye before you…"

She wrinkled her forehead and frowned. "Wait. Don't go yet. You don't have to rush. Can't… can't you keep me company for just a little while longer? Please?" Grabbing lightly at Ginji's wrist, Natsumi's voice cracked, her dark irises imploring. "Not unless you have to be somewhere else."

He gasped at how insensitive he just sounded. "No. I didn't mean… I mean… Yes." He breathed in deeply. "Yes, of course. I'll stay as long as you like."

Natsumi merely nodded her gratitude and let go of his hand. For a second, he swam in her reflective gaze. He didn't know if it was just the gaudy flashing lights glittering like a spectrum in her eyes, but Ginji could swear they were glassed-over.

"Natsumi-chan, why are you out here in the snow anyway?"

"Ah, I just wanted to get some air, that's all." She surveyed the cloud-shrouded moon peering over the shadow of Mugenjou. " --And trying to memorize Shinjuku's sky."

The former Thunder Emperor cocked his head to the side. "But isn't the sky the same wherever you go?"

"True." Natsumi smiled. "But Shinjuku's is different."

"You mean Mugenjou?"

"Mm."

"But why would you want to remember such a hellish, lawless place like that?"

She held out an arm to delineate the structure's stark outline in the horizon with her fingers. "Without it, I never would have met all of you," Natsumi explained solemnly. "It might seem strange, but for those of us on the outside, it means a lot."

Ginji shrugged. Although he would never view Mugenjou as abstractly as Natsumi did, for it was literally a part of him and him of it; he understood her point completely.

"Besides, it was your home, wasn't it?" she added. "I'd always look out the Honky Tonk window and worry every time lightning struck the tower, wondering if something awful had happened to –" Her words faded as she bit her tongue.

"Yeah, it was. But my home now is right here with…" Ginji cut himself off as well. He wasn't quite sure where—what—that was exactly, didn't know if it was a physical reality or a state of heart and mind; if it was a matter of having a roof over his head or being with someone he… cared about.

He changed the subject. "So, when are you leaving for Kyoto?"

Natsumi bowed her head. "Day after tomorrow."

"So soon?" His brows shot up.

"I have to settle into my cousin's apartment before I enroll for classes and buy books and stuff," she answered flatly.

"I see." Ginji shoved both hands into his pockets and huddled next to her against the barrier of the walkway as sparse traffic coasted below. "Say, what's Kyoto like? It seems so far away."

Natsumi was floored. "You haven't been there? Seriously?"

He shook his head. "Only once, for a job. At night. Ban-chan and I were in-and-out by dawn. He said we could visit some other time, but we never got around to it."

"Oh, that's too bad," she sympathized. "Kyoto's very pretty and quiet, with lots of shrines, parks, and ancient heritage sites. It was my mother's hometown. If you want, I can show you around…" For a second, her expression brightened, and then hastily dimmed. "Sometime, maybe… someday."

"Maybe," Ginji repeated softly, suddenly developing a fascination with his shoes.

With effort, Natsumi impelled her tone into perking up. "Kyoto's not that far if you take the Shinkansen. The express train from Tokyo is about a three-hour ride. It's a bit expensive, though. A one-way ticket costs about 12,500 yen."

"Twelve…? So a return trip is… Twelve plus twelve…" The blond paused and counted off the fingers of both hands. "… twenty-four plus five hundred plus…"

"Twenty-five thousand yen," she summed up for him, giving a tiny, endeared smile. Inwardly, Natsumi realized she would miss Ginji's blundering adventures in calculating.

He whistled. "That's a lot of money for a short trip, isn't it? As expensive as a deluxe sushi tray." If Ginji knew one commodity more than anything else, it was food – another one of his quirks she would no longer be privy to.

"That's why I won't be able to go home as often as I'd like." Natsumi glumly hunched her shoulders and idly swirled the champagne in her glass. For some reason, she found it necessary to mention, "However, there's a nine-hour overnight train that goes to-and-from Kyoto for only 3,500 yen each way. It's slow and bumpy, but it'll get there."

The girl scolded herself. Why was she babbling all this nonsense? It wasn't as if she was expecting anyone to go out of their way to visit her there anyway. After all, it was she who had chosen to leave her familiar world behind, to leave Tokyo, to leave… him.

Natsumi felt her heart sink further into the pit of her stomach.

"So, have you decided what you're going to major in, Natsumi-chan?" Ginji asked as he propped his elbows on the steel rail.

"I was thinking Biochemistry," she wistfully replied. "And then maybe med school afterwards. But most probably I'd want to get into forensics."

"Er… huh? What's that?"

"It's when you use science to solve crimes, usually together with the police department."

The blond retriever arched his brow high. "Oh, so you want to be a police officer? Like that cute traffic cop who keeps towing our car away?"

Natsumi glanced up at those wide, innocent eyes and searched for signs of jest, only to see the dark depths of his sincerity. She giggled and laid a comforting hand on his arm. "Not exactly. More like a lab technician. You know, the ones who wear white coats and are always behind a microscope?"

"I get it. You want to be a detective scientist," Ginji gushed, grateful to have finally heard his friend sound a tad happier. The melody of her laugh was always music to his ears. Soft, breathy, seductive, and carefree; Natsumi laughed as though she was being tickled gently in secret, sensitive places only she knew – yet daring those who heard it to find out where they were. He wondered if others could hear the same music in her laugh and miss it like he would.

"Something like that." She smiled.

He smiled back. "Why do you want to be in 'porn sick'?"

"Not 'porn sick', Gin-chan. Fo-ren-sics." Natsumi's giggle floated up again, but then choked it down when she began to feel it slowly deteriorating into a sob. Why? Why did he persist in putting her under his charmed spell; this kind, beautiful man-child, demon-angel who was making her fall so hard just as she was about to spread her wings and fly? Now it didn't seem all that implausible for her to simply forget Kyoto, forget school, abandon the virtually guaranteed future she deservedly earned if only to be enveloped in his warmth; to have her head on his steady shoulder and be mesmerized by the lights forever.

But how could the dream last when real life was strong enough an antidote to this drug that fed her hallucination? Natsumi's smile went frail. "I guess it's all your fault—you and Ban-san."

"Us? How so?"

"Master once told me that whenever something is taken away, be sure to get it back. But there's so much evil about that most people are helpless to even begin looking for what was lost, much less take it back. That's why you and Ban-san are such god-sends. I've seen and experienced first-hand the immense joy you bring to people who thought they forever lost what was precious to them. And to see them get back their happiness must be the most wonderful feeling ever, right?"

Ginji nodded wholeheartedly.

But Natsumi exhaled a plaintive sigh. "However, in the real world, few will be as fortunate as I to encounter retrieval agents such as yourself; and most people who have lost their lives, loved ones, or memories will never get them back." She gazed up at him with a steely, obstinate line between her eyes.

"I might not have any of your strength, skill, or courage; but I hope one day, with the little knowledge I've learned, I can help those who've already lost by at least giving them back truth, justice, and maybe some closure."

The former Honky Tonk waitress turned askance and cast her eyes down sheepishly. "I know it's foolish of me to think I can become even a fraction of what the GetBackers are, but it's what I want to try to do, no matter how small the returns are."

Natsumi humbly bowed her head low so that half her delicate features were buried under the wool of her muffler. She then felt a sinewy arm fold across her shoulders and a sturdy hand cover her own.

"That's such an unselfish, noble aspiration,' Ginji cooed softly. "I really hope you become the best for…" He enunciated the word carefully, wanted to get it right. "…for-en-sics specialist in the whole world."

The girl shuddered in his near-embrace. A piece of her mind was petulantly screaming at Ginji's audacity, 'stop holding me when you've already let me go!'. Yet, the rest of her was silent; and in that moment, Natsumi knew all would be forgiven as she imagined--almost heard him—grazing his lips down the strands of her locks and stealing a kiss from her quivering, receptive mouth. How she waited, with body and soul throbbing, for the world to stop and make way for the miracle to come.

But Natsumi flickered her lids open and saw that the lights were still blinding, the city around her still loud and meddlesome, and Ginji was still holding onto her without the warm pressure of possession. No whisper that begged her…

Stay.

And even then, she still found it in her heart to forgive him, forgive him for doing nothing wrong.

The blaring of a car horn broke the balmy quiet and jolted the pair out of their private reveries. Simultaneously, they turned to each other.

"Do you remember when…?" Ginji and Natsumi dueted. She paused with a squeaky embarrassed giggle while he abruptly released his easy cling on her.

"You first," the blond spurred gently.

Natsumi leaned back into the guardrail and stubbed the tip of her sneaker on the concrete floor. "Didn't we—you, Ban-san, HEVN-san, Master, and I—used to have fast food picnics on this very spot?" She cracked a small, fanciful smile. "Why did we ever stop doing that?"

"No more lunch money, I guess," Ginji said with a lax shrug. He tossed a curious view at his castle and became thoughtful. "And maybe because the VOLTS had started coming back into my life and made things a bit more – busy."

"Well, it couldn't have been busier than that time you guys destroyed the Honky Tonk and almost got your organs harvested," Natsumi joked.

"You forget that bastard doctor had a knife to your throat, that's why," he reminded.

"Oh, but only because you busted the ceramic cat and threw out the floppy that was inside."

Ginji shifted his stare towards her with a naughty twinkle in his velvet eyes. "That beckoning cat we fixed?"

"Yeah. The one that resembled Doraemon." Her eyes guiltily rolled upwards. "Looking back, we did an awful job of it, didn't we?"

"You did an awful job. I just assisted."

Natsumi crossed her arms peevishly.

"It … it was a piece of work to say the least," Ginji snorted, trying to control his peals of laughter. "HEVN-san almost dropped her panties when she saw it."

"You're so mean. It wasn't that bad," she dissented timidly, smiling despite herself. "Did Ban-san ever find out that we stuck the Ladybug's spare tire to the cat's leg?"

"No," the spiky-haired man's best friend whispered underhandedly between more snickers.

They laughed and reveled in their shared secret for a few moments. Ginji then concluded, "That was fun what we did, huh? Even though we got hacked pretty badly by Hishiki afterwards." He innocently took the waitress's slim, dexterous hand in his again, fingers diligently studying each of her digits, memorizing their strength and kindness.

"You know, every time we're beaten or bruised during a mission and then get treated at a hospital, when the nurses do it, it usually hurts. I mean, they're cute and all, but it still hurts. With you, though, when you patch us up, for some reason it doesn't hurt as much. You've got good, caring—healing—hands, Natsumi-chan. I'm—me and Ban-chan, I mean—are gonna miss that about you."

Ginji removed his hand as casually as he had placed it there. Meanwhile, Natsumi's sights were locked on the indelible, electric trail he left on her fingers, almost feeling shame at the touch of his fine, marble-smooth skin on her slightly calloused table tennis-playing dishwasher's hands. How could Ginji honestly believe she could bestow such gifts on him when it was he who was regenerative, almost immortal – near perfect? Surely, Ginji was mistaken. However she'd eased his pain must've merely been a cheerful diversion.

A cheerful diversion. Could that be all she was to him? Instantly, Natsumi was overcome with disgrace at her foible of wanting—needing—more from him at such an inopportune, inescapable time. She felt a heavy fluttering in her chest like that of captive birds eager to flee from their cages; but she also perceived a twinge of animosity spill over her, an intensifying resentment that stemmed from the irony that this boy who would willingly let her go had such a hold over her. It was as though Ginji's presence alone was enough to keep Natsumi from flight.

She couldn't help but feel a slight annoyance. It seemed inconceivable, but to her horror, it was there. No, I can't let him see me like this, she resolved.

Natsumi's lips tightened under a rapid frown as she drew away and started to slink off to the opposite end of the walkway. She dared not look back lest Ginji get burned by the frigid fire in her misery-filled eyes and see not a friend but a loathing enemy.

Nevertheless, Ginji tagged after the forlorn girl, reluctant to let her burst out of their fragile bubble. For reasons unbeknownst to him, the retriever began to ramble, inundate Natsumi with a torrent of words and remembrances he hoped would somehow anchor her to that spot.

"You know what else I'm going to miss? Your coffee," he mused, trudging in cadence to her feeble steps. "Did you know the Honky Tonk brew comes from a recipe that originally belonged to Ban-chan's grandmother?"

The waitress wavered but kept walking. "Really? I wasn't aware of that."

Ginji noted with peculiar interest how Natsumi's hand kept fussing inside her coat pocket. "Paul-san says it's because the recipe is formulated by a witch, the coffee must actually be some kind of magic potion and that everyone who makes it puts his or her own little 'spell' into the brew." He touched a finger to his lips pensively. "Paul-san's coffee is strong and a tad too bitter for me, but it has a peaceful, calming effect. Like it can make you forget."

"But somehow, yours is different. It's sweeter and… cheerful, as if its spell was to make anyone who drank it smile." Ginji then confessed in a tender, hushed tone. "Don't tell Master, but I think I like your coffee more than his."

Natsumi stopped in her tracks, the grim line of her mouth curving up gently. She wanted to laugh. Would she dare tell him her infusion carried no magical charm other than that of a pinch of cocoa which she snuck into his cup to give it a sugary kick? That, and a sprinkling of her – warmhearted affection?

Natsumi, wondered, however, if there wasn't indeed a grain of truth to Paul's lore since she had suddenly taken a fancy to her employer's brew when she'd always been more of a tea drinker. Maybe she, as well, needed to placate the stirrings of her heart, trying to forget something… someone.

When Natsumi hesitated, so, too, did Ginji; his own pulse skipping a beat at her reticence. But he knew she had heard every ingenuous word, for it was she, of all people, who he could count on to listen to his drivel. And now, more than ever, did Ginji need her to listen, to hear out his goodbyes of which he so unequivocally wanted to stall the end.

And so he talked, talked to the cute curl on the tip of Natsumi's ponytail that dangled in the snow-flecked wind. He rummaged and scavenged his mind for every memory he had of her – treasures which Ginji surprisingly found shallow to unearth. For there was no reminiscence of her that wasn't happy, clear and full of colour. Memories like a field of flowers above a graveyard of blanched skeletons. He was stunned at how everything about this girl was so easy to remember when he himself was so prone to forget.

"… and we're also going to miss your sandwiches and cakes and how you always add extra slices of pepperoni to our pizza when Master isn't looking…" Ginji went breathless in his enumeration lest he omit crucial details, his litany as rhythmic as the bounce of Natsumi's hair against her back.

"… plus, we'll miss your cheers of good luck before every mission and how you still believe our success rate is at one-hundred percent when it hasn't been since, well, the beginning. Ban-chan loves that about you..."

Natsumi began swiveling her head passively to the side. A small part of her continued to stubbornly justify the cold shoulder she squared at him, but she felt the threads of her will unraveling in the subliminal spaces between Ginji's words.

Look at me, they said.

And still, he persisted. Her sparkly red hair scrunchie… sharing her manga collection with him… how she always bit the heads off animal cookies first… her singing love songs in the back room when she thought no one was listening… or the way she would peel him off the Honky Tonk wall and giggle sympathetically after one of Ban's monstrous tantrums. Natsumi could fathom neither rhyme nor reason in Ginji's celebration of her sheer ordinariness, of how in awe he could be of such trifling things that hardly distinguished her from other girls. Girls like her who were a dime-a-dozen and would someday pass Ginji's way – one of them who would probably stay…

Not like her.

And maybe that was why he could so easily say goodbye.

The college-bound young woman felt her knees turn to jelly as she shut her eyes tight to the implication. "Ginji-san." Opening her eyes, Natsumi murmured haltingly and tried to avert her attention by letting the strobe of neon lights lull her into a trance, only to have his broad frame screen her as he wedged himself to her side.

She concealed the hurt under a wounded smile. "It's all right. A simple farewell will do."

Ginji interrupted himself and leaned back into the banister, creating a gap between them in respect for her space. Tilting his head, he answered faintly. "A simple farewell. I… I thought that's what I came here for, but -" He took a deep, labored breath and looked at her guardedly from beneath a creased brow. " – it's been nearly four years since we first met and in that time between then and tonight it's as if all we ever did was say 'hello'. But now that it's time to say 'goodbye' I realize that I… I don't know how."

Natsumi tipped her head up in amazement as Ginji stumbled over his careful words. A queasy, frustrated scowl crumpled into his boyish features, unsure whether he was making any sense at all.

"You see, I've never really had the chance to say farewell to anyone before. It's either I just upped and left, or people would just… leave me."

He swallowed hard. "But you leaving without us exchanging words or waving goodbye or whatever – I can't allow that. Not anymore." Flashbacks began rolling in Ginji's mind of friends who left too soon and never heard his final words; how he cried out their names pleading for them to stay alive; how they never saw the storm of tears he shed; never felt how he desperately held on to their ruined bodies as their sad souls slipped away…

Never knew that his every unspoken goodbye slowly broke the chains that restrained the demon within him.

Fate never allowed Amano Ginji the benefit of a proper farewell. And now, those friends were ghosts, all of them; phantoms that haunted his memory. Kanako, who only wanted a puppy; Chien, who was only trying to run from Belt Line monsters; Shuu, who just wanted the VOLTS to come back… Soon, Natsumi, too, would join them. Only, her ghost would be alive and happy, fulfilling dreams the dead could not.

But a ghost nonetheless.

Ginji picked up on Natsumi's confused reaction and quickly tried to rebound. "But don't worry." He waved off with both hands. "This isn't a sad goodbye, this is a good goodbye. In fact, I'm very happy for you, Natsumi-chan. Because unlike my friends in Mugenjou, you're gonna make all your dreams come true and no one will stop you."

The retriever made a move to reach out, but flinched when a lone, harried pedestrian walked past. Instead, Ginji offered Natsumi a formal bow of traditional reverence. "You are a far better, more fortunate person than all of us." He practically confessed to the pavement. "And you're going to have a far better life in Kyoto without all of this – away from danger, away from the craziness, away from the GetBackers– "

A sudden, strangling clench wrapped around Ginji's heart. It felt as if his sense of joy and sorrow had collided and his heart had cushioned the crash. His life knew of immense misery and of great happiness, but never both at the same time. Not like this. It was a peculiar, alien feeling he had no name for and he wondered why Natsumi's departure could arouse such a response.

With the passerby gone and his emotional curiosity piqued, Ginji straightened up and perused Natsumi's silver-gray irises for a glimmer of truth. For he always thought them as living mirrors reflecting back everything that was pure, beautiful, and right with the world. Hers were also the most mirthful eyes he'd ever seen. And yet, as their gazes locked, Ginji could only see gloom like twilight overcast with nimbus clouds of ash-blue.

Now, his farewell had nowhere else to go but to wind down, leaving him just moments to persuade Natsumi into granting him a souvenir of the thing he would miss the most – her vivacious smile.

He waited, and waited. However, he knew it had already been missing for most of the past year, and Ginji was beginning to doubt he would ever catch a glimpse of it again. Everybody had noticed the waitress's radiant smile had gone, ostensibly attributing the loss to the stress of her exams. But the tests came and went, and Natsumi neither attempted—nor did the GetBackers offer—to get it back.

Maybe her happiness was something only she could retrieve, he thought sadly. Ginji hoped she would eventually find it in Kyoto or wherever else she'd go.

The night breeze picked up and frantically whisked errant strands of Natsumi's hair across her troubled face, painting her like a tragic figure out of a gothic romance novel. Not taking the sight of her like that any longer, Ginji closed in and swept the locks away with a purposeful hand. As he tucked them behind her ear, he accidentally grazed her cheek, and instantly, his perpetual warmth was beckoned by its chill.

"Before you go, Natsumi-chan, I think there's one thing we all want to know." Unconsciously, Ginji brushed an imaginary snowflake from her cheek with his forefinger, using the gesture as a veiled excuse to touch her one last time. He pleasantly discovered how physically soft she felt to his touch to match the tenderness he already knew of her heart.

"Even though you got into the school you wanted and have a bright future ahead, why do you continue to be so… sad?" He caressed Natsumi's flawlessness in upward strokes as if to draw the corner of her frown into the smile he so desperately needed to see.

"Is there any way I can bring back the old, cheerful you? Even for just a little while?"

Natsumi blinked rapidly, taking a ragged breath as Ginji's request blindsided her. Trembling, her head bobbled indecisively in a half-nod, half-shake, finally taming it by leaning her cheek into his gentle hand and letting the tears break.

"Oh no! Don't cry, Natsumi-chan. Why -?" Ginji exclaimed as he felt a steady stream seep between his fingers. He tried to recede, only to have Natsumi cover his hand with hers and lightly keep it in place.

Severely chastened, Natsumi looked into the champagne glass, her flowing tears spoiling the expensive beverage inside. How could I have thought so wrongly of him? How foolishly mistaken she was thinking Ginji didn't care when it was he who cared the most, wanting only what he thought she wanted; painstakingly gathering abandoned hopes and dreams of friends he left behind in the past and bestowing them on her - a friend who had a future.

She, who he trusted would make each and every one of those hopes and dreams come true.

"Bright future?" Natsumi woefully wondered out loud. "How bright can it be without any of you in it? How can I spend four years worrying if Master is managing okay, or if the tabletops are clean enough? Who's going to make sure you and Ban-san are fed before a big job? Who - ?" Evading what she really wanted to say only mounted the waitress's frustration further. Natsumi glanced up, blinked out more tears and clamped her lips tight.

She said, finally, " - who's going to take care of the GetBackers when I'm gone? Who's going to wait for… you?"

Appalled that he possibly made her feel worse, Ginji inched nearer and smothered his crying friend with the most assured gaze he could muster. "Ban-chan and I will be fine, don't worry. We'll eat – somehow. I mean there's Paul-san and …" He pondered very hard.

"Uh, Rena-chan?"

Natsumi's tense pout softened into a surprised 'o' as she choked back a heave that was partly a sob, partly a laugh. Her heart skipped and beat a startling truth.

She had never adored Ginji as much as she did at that moment.

"Gin-chan, you think I'm this wretched mess all because of… of… food?" the young woman bitterly chortled, the jitters in her chest intensifying into a wanton pound. She then gently pried his fingers off her face with one hand and dealt with the pesky champagne glass with the other by bringing it to her lips, tossing her head back, and drinking the contents straight up.

"H-huh?" Ginji withdrew a step, suddenly baffled at her odd behaviour.

Natsumi dropped her hand and let the flute fall to the pavement with a tinny crash. Her dark eyes targeted his with a never-before-seen ravenous fire that even tears couldn't quench. "Ban-san is right," she declared while jumping on pointe and throwing arms about Ginji's neck, her weight pinning him against the rail.

"You are so dumb sometimes."

And then she kissed him.

●●●

A crowd had gathered near the Honky Tonk entrance, quiet and anxiously anticipating the next report from the long-haired play-by-play announcer seated on the corner barstool.

"Gin-chan! You moron!" HEVN shrieked after hearing Natsumi had started to cry. She took out her indignation on poor Emishi whose throat was quickly being put through the ringer; but because his assailant's giant headlights were now playing bumper cars with his back, he didn't mind too much.

Kazuki furrowed his brow in concentration as he adjusted the string attached to his hair bell. The annaiya was virtually cordoned off by a gaggle of Natsumi's high school pals who were swooning over the strange, androgynously handsome young man who was eavesdropping on their friend with a length of thread. Together with Madoka and Rena, they all clasped hands in breathless suspense.

The men, on the other hand, tried to keep an aloof indifference about the whole unfolding drama, but proved no better than the girls as their ears instantly perked when Kazuki eventually spoke.

"Shhhh… I hear glass breaking," he relayed. Puzzled murmurs. "'Ban-san is right', she's saying…"

Pause. Kazuki cupped a hand over the gold bell. "'You are so dumb sometimes'," he continued. Another pause – longer.

"And?" HEVN demanded, leaning over a battered but happily content Emishi.

Madoka laid a hand on her chest. "What are they doing now?"

Silence.

Finally, Rena impatiently blurted out the question everyone else was too shy—or too dense—to ask. "So, are they kissing or what?"

Kazuki removed his hand off the bell and looked up at the curious crew. Sighing deeply, a smile slowly curled up his face.

The girls erupted into a concert of delighted squeals.

●●●

Over at the far side of the bar, two seemingly oblivious men didn't need to hear anything to know exactly what was going on.

"Wonderful. Just wonderful," Paul deadpanned with an exasperated snort. "Natsumi's resignation has been effective for what, just an hour, and already you guys have her running up a tab as well." He poured himself a shot of vodka. "I hate you."

"You know the drill, old coot," Ban smirked as he reached down and tapped a dog-eared notebook filled near to capacity. The spiky-haired dakkanya sat Indian-style on the counter as if he owned the place. "And it's not like you're the only victim here. Can you believe that girl owes me a spare tire?"

Paul nudged the vodka bottle over to the younger man. "And my coffee's too bitter, eh? Hmph! Well, tell your partner the next time he gets a free cup of my brew, by then he'd have forgotten what bitter tastes like."

"Oooh… Jealous much, are you Paul? Afraid the doofus will steal away your widdle girl?"

"Shut up," he snarled.

Ban raised the bottle. "Hey. It's not like the twerp will need your coffee much longer anyway."

"Mm. I suppose so," the long-suffering barkeep concurred. His eyes softened behind the black lenses, their stigmata fading with the glory of a buried past. "And you?"

"Heh," came the usual vague response. "You overestimate that damn potion's power. It's only coffee, man. Just coffee."

Paul simply smiled and shook his curly head. A clink of glass; followed by a long drink to the end of lost days – and to the start of new ones. Ban winced briefly at the burning sting shooting down his throat as the two generations of GetBackers simultaneously slammed their toasts on the bar. The mentor wordlessly looked at his protégé for a final sign that everything was going to be all right. To which he answered by dragging on his cigarette and gesturing a confident nod; for Ban trusted his best friend to act on behalf of the GetBackers and show the waitress 'proper' appreciation for her kindness and devotion that was way overdue.

Amano Ginji, who himself was all the thanks Natsumi deserved.

The brunette chuckled. After all, Ban concluded, Ginji—and he—didn't think they could last too long without the girl's great cooking.

●●●

Ginji gave out a shocked, yet half-hearted whimper of protest as Natsumi continued to hang on to him while precariously perched on tiptoe, her lips pressed delicately against his. He wasn't sure who he was trying to steady—Natsumi or himself—by bracing one hand around the guardrail while the other rested flirtatiously on the full curve of her hip.

Natsumi concentrated on keeping her balance, as still as a novice on a tightrope, not wanting to move lest she inadvertently lose that volatile contact - the one she had silently wished for all those years. She hoped, no, willed the kiss to last as long as it could, no matter if it meant forgetting to breathe. Excruciatingly, the seconds crawled to a minute. Alas, real life had a wicked knack for shattering even the most stubborn of whimsies and she finally broke free.

The young woman pulled away far enough only to take a quick, shallow breath and to venture a look directly into Ginji's eyes. She feared so much what they would tell—anger, pity, or worse, revulsion—that Natsumi wondered if she should just run off. But when his wide brown eyes merely blinked with placid bewilderment, she decided her farewell still wasn't enough. She leaned in.

"Natsu-mmmmpph..." Her name struggled to pass from Ginji's lips to hers, only to be hushed once more by the supple pillowing of her touch. Natsumi's kiss was insistent now, searching; as if to coax words she wanted to hear right out of his mouth. This time, though, the boy offered no sign of resistance as he began to melt into her desire.

So, this is goodbye, Ginji thought as he closed his eyes and surrendered. It astonished him that they could spend half-an-hour making small talk, stalling the inevitable when a kiss made everything so simple. On the other hand, his emotions had never been this confused, for he couldn't comprehend how it was possible that his heart felt so pained, yet at the same time, he could physically experience such… pleasure.

Tentatively, Ginji removed his hand from the rail and clumsily groped for somewhere on Natsumi to place it, sliding it from arm to shoulder, and then settling it behind her head with curious fingers stroking glossy raven hair. As he intoxicated himself on the pleasant mix of tartly sweet champagne and salty tears that lingered on her lips, Ginji finally realized that it wasn't that he didn't know how to say goodbye, but that maybe he didn't want to.

Because he was tired of having friends leave to become ghosts. Wasn't that why he escaped from Mugenjou in the first place? Yet, here he was on the outside, the same thing happening all over again – but with a beautiful girl who was so alive.

Ginji possessively wrapped his other arm around Natsumi's waist. No more. This was one ghost he wanted to chase and bring back from the haunted castle of his memory.

They surfaced for air, their breaths temporarily frozen and hanging in the night like a veil between them. When the cloud dispersed, Ginji had random spikes of mild current crackling about his body while he and Natsumi stared at each other as though shy strangers. She glided her arms from his neck and cradled his handsome, boyish face in her palms, plucking strands of her hair that had stuck to his hot, vividly blushing cheeks wet from the mingle of her tears and melted snow. It felt as if she was holding a dew-sprinkled newly-bloomed rosebud shined on by the rays of a morning sun.

"You see, I really don't want to go. I don't want to leave all of this—all of you—behind," Natsumi said. "I spent so many months trying very hard to imagine the notion of not seeing you and… and… I just couldn't. I… can't."

The cold breeze nipped at Ginji's lips and he restlessly craved her passionate warmth on them again, but his need for an explanation far outweighed his need for her touch. "So that's what's been bothering you these past couple of months? Then why… Why Kyoto? What… how is leaving…?" he stammered, not certain if he was posing the right questions. Of course, Ginji knew Natsumi had to go to Kyoto to study, but he sensed there was something more profound to her decision.

The former Honky Tonk waitress resignedly nestled her forehead against the retriever's chest where she caught a whiff of his distinct scent of baby soap with a trace of ozone from underneath his wool shirt.

"It's because I can't postpone my future waiting for you to decide your own --" Natsumi then added feebly, almost as though whispering to Ginji's heart, " – and if somehow, I had a… part in it."

But before Ginji could reply, she jerked her head away and shook it vehemently, wiping the tear streaks off her face with the back of her hand. "What am I saying?" Natsumi sheepishly groaned. "I don't even know why saying goodbye should hurt more now when I've already been missing you for four years, missed you in the time I wasted beyond the hour or two we spent at the Honky Tonk; always with a counter, a table, a barrier—something—between us. And it… it…"

"It just got wider," Ginji finished hoarsely. Natsumi gave a weak nod. "Natsumi-chan, I'm so sorry. It never occurred to me you felt this way. It's all my fault, I should've known."

She shook her head. "You've done nothing wrong. How could you have known when I kept my feelings to myself? You and Ban-san had so many things to deal with; you didn't need to be bothered by the ridiculous crush of a silly school girl."

"But you're not a school girl anymore, and I'm not the same person you thought you knew either," Ginji said. "I know one thing for sure, though, and it's that you'll always have a part in my future. I don't know what or how exactly, but you will."

The pair silently gazed out into opposite distances, Natsumi towards the neon lights and Ginji at the narrow darkness. "You're just saying that to make me feel better, aren't you?" she miserably muttered.

"I'm not, honestly. Why? Do you feel any better?"

"No." Natsumi answered unequivocally. She sniffled loudly, her weeping resumed.

"Aw, geez. You're crying again." Ginji hugged her to him and patted her head. "Don't do this to me. Please?"

Natsumi wriggled in the blond's embrace and craned her neck up to him. "Do this to you? What about you doing all this to me?" she retorted defiantly. "These past few days you avoided me, hardly spoke a single word. And all this time, I thought you didn't care I was leaving."

"I do care! A lot! But I was stupid. I didn't know what to say or do, so I kept quiet, I guess," Ginji piped up in his own defense. His voice rang adamant and clear in a tone rarely used in Natsumi's presence.

"Do you honestly think I wanted you to go away when all those things that are making me miss you are the very things that are making me –"

Ginji stopped.

And then a strange, indefinable sensation hit him. He and Natsumi traded wondrous wide-eyed blinks before Ginji noticed he was staring intently into the girl's face with her red nose; puffy, tired eyes; and loose tresses tangled around her cheeks like unruly vines. It was so unusual for him to find Natsumi looking so ruffled, vulnerable, and unpoised…

And yet, never had he seen anything so pretty.

Slowly, a low chuckle rumbled in Ginji's throat, which eventually burst out in a full-blown laugh.

Natsumi squinted and glared at him as though he were a madman. "What? What's so funny?" She lightly thumped Ginji's chest with her tiny fists in retaliation. Then, she blushed hotly and snatched her head to the side in embarrassment. "Oh dear. It's me. I look an awful mess, don't I?"

"No. Not at all." Impulsively, he picked the waitress up and happily whirled her around in a playful waltz.

"Gin-chan! Put me down! What do you think you're doing?"

He set Natsumi down on her feet and flashed her a coy smile. "Something I should've done a long time ago." Ginji bent over, and after a few false starts, managed to find a good angle for his first initiated kiss.

Caught by surprise, Natsumi nonetheless guided his awkward efforts by parting her lips willingly and letting him take her breath away, sighing involuntarily as the retriever's wandering caresses diffused waves of excitable electricity that literally sent tingles down her spine. At the same time, Natsumi noticed their bodies had been bound by what felt like thread. Without breaking contact, her inquisitive hands searched teasingly at Ginji's sides and back to find the source surreptitiously attached to his vest. She twirled the end around her finger, pulled the string, and let it float lazily to the ground.

To her bemused horror, Natsumi realized that not only had she and Ginji been kissing in public, but that the Honky Tonk gang had listened in as well. No matter, she thought giddily as she allowed Ginji to lavish a few more seconds of attention on her. If this was the only farewell they were afforded, she didn't care who knew.

At last, the young woman reluctantly separated herself from him. She cleared her throat. "Um, maybe we… someone might… you know…"

"Oh. Right." Ginji loosened his hold, but kept Natsumi within arm's reach.

"But that – was so nice," she purred, feeling a heat spread up her cheeks in shame for wanting more.

"Mm. But don't think I did it just to see you smile."

Natsumi suppressed the urge to do exactly that by coquettishly biting it back. "Well, do you see me smiling?"

"Nope. But one more try should do the trick." Ginji swept down, gently lifted the girl's chin, and planted a swift, chaste peck on her lips. The bashful corners of her mouth turned irresistibly.

"There. I knew I'd get back your smile sooner or later." He childishly pumped his arm in triumph.

"Gin-chan!" Natsumi pouted. "That's all I've been? A challenge?"

"You've always been a challenge. You think I like always having to lose to you?" Ginji smirked. "I'm just glad this is one challenge I did win."

He playfully flicked the tip of her button nose with his finger. Lowering his voice in all seriousness, Ginji said, "I have no excuse for making you wait four years on me. But, if you'll let me, I'm… I'm willing to wait four more on you."

Natsumi gasped. Ginji gazed at her sincerely and whispered into her ear, "You will come back, won't you?"

"Oh, yes. Yes. I never said I wouldn't." She nodded enthusiastically. Lovingly brushing the boy's hair out of his eyes, she asked meekly, "Does that mean you'll miss me then? Not just my coffee, or my cooking, or my red scrunchie, but me?"

Ginji contemplated long and hard on the question, sending Natsumi into a mild fit of panic before staunchly answering,

"No."

"Huh? What do you mean - " She took a stunned step in reverse.

He laughed mischievously at her alarmed response. "I mean, what's to miss when there's so much of you to look forward to?"

Ginji winked with a proud sparkle in his eyes that made him seem like the most brilliant genius on earth having suddenly come up with a most clever plan.

"So… Where do I get on that slow train to Kyoto?"

Breathing a sigh of relief, Natsumi squealed, punched Ginji on the shoulder, and kissed him again – in that order. He smiled, she smiled; the twin beams so bright it rivaled the light of the jealous moon.

For on the night they said goodbye, Ginji and Natsumi found what they were missing after all.

---

end

---


A/N: For "P", who's now taking her own college entrance exams. Whew. I finally finished this. Hope you liked. Good luck and all my prayers for your success! As for the rest of you, thanks for reading. Cheers!