If the world is crumbling down,
I don't wanna be alone, no,
locked up in this place.
I heard the world up, late night.
Holding my breath tight,
Trying to keep my head on right.
There's a chill in the air,
nobody could care,
how you're caught up,
in the fight of your life.

- "Heard the World" O.a.R.


There was something wrong with the world when the first thing one had to do in the morning was blink the frost from their lashes, and then take stock to make sure they still had all their fingers and toes.

The nights were brutal, and Kazuki's health paid the price for free bedding in the park. His throat was cracked and raw from coughing, his lungs made odd wheezing sounds when he inhaled. His eyes were watery almost constantly and he could scarcely breathe.

Those symptoms alone might have been tolerable, save that he had a fever to top it all off. Said fever left his head swimming, blurry, and he walked the streets of Shinjuku in a zombified state with no real direction or clue as to what he should be doing.

Depression wasn't helping him fight off the starvation and illness. For as many times as he'd been sick in his life, he couldn't recall it ever lasting more than a few days thanks to Juubei's treatments. But now he was going on two weeks, and he'd eaten nothing in days because he couldn't be bothered to dig through icy trashcans behind stores and restaurants anymore and had only a couple coins in his pocket that equaled not even enough to purchase a can of juice. Laying there on the park bench, curled in on himself as tightly as possible and wheezing quietly, seemed like a much better option than looking for food right then, anyway. Scavenging meant moving, and he wasn't quite up for that.

He must have stayed there in that exact spot for nearly twenty-four hours before someone took notice of him. By then, however, Kazuki's skin was scalding to the touch and he would have welcomed some mugger to come along and slit his throat and take his (pathetically empty) wallet and put him out of his misery. For as long as he'd been lying there, he'd never really been able to get to sleep, and oh, God, he was so tired.

A voice called to him. A woman's voice, if he could tell correctly. When his lashes lifted he tried to take stock of the figure crouched in front of his bench and peering at him in concern. Vision being as blurry as it was, there was little he could make out beyond the green eyes. Irritated that his 'rest' had been interrupted, Kazuki's eyes drifted shut again, and he didn't so much as budge. Within a few minutes, he was unconscious.


He woke up in a hospital. That alone was terrifying in its own right, as he'd only ever seen them on television.

Disoriented, he looked around with wide, frantic eyes and took note of the IV into his arm and the TV above his bed with the volume nearly muted. He sucked in a breath. The next thing he noticed was that he could breathe, mostly. His stomach didn't hurt quite so bad, and his head felt clearer than it had in weeks.

"Ah, you're awake."

His gaze shifted, flicking to the semi-familiar figure seated beside his bed.

She was young, perhaps his age or a few years older. Her silvery, wavy hair looked so impossibly soft to the touch, and she wore a man's suit tailored for her slim body and had her legs neatly crossed. Perhaps she'd been the one watching the television. Kazuki swallowed hard. "Where am I...?" His throat felt dry, but not as sore as he remembered it being.

"The hospital." The woman gestured about the room as she rose from her chair.

"You brought me here?" The thread-user swallowed again to better wet his throat, and his voice came out closer to normal. "Why?"

"You didn't look like the type that belonged on a park bench in Shinjuku." She had a lovely smile, very befitting of her gentle face. Kazuki found his manners and tried to offer a smile in return.

"Thank you, Miss...?"

"Clayman," she told him. "Just call me Clayman."

"Clayman-san, is it."

"Mmhm. Do you have a name, or should I refer to you as 'the stray' like all the nurses have been doing?"

Kazuki started to chuckle, but thought better of it given that his chest still felt constricted. "Kazuki. Fuuchouin Kazuki. Thank you, Clayman-san."

"That won't be your name here, just so you know," Clayman told him. "I had to give them a fake name and address so that they would see you. And please, there is no need to thank me." She sank down onto the edge of his bed, and Kazuki slowly made a move to push himself up into a sitting position. He startled briefly when Clayman reached down and pressed a button along the side panel of the bed, and it moved in order to aid his sitting-up process. "I don't suppose you had a reason for being half-starved and running a coma-inducing fever in the middle of a park, hm?"

"I..." Kazuki thought of excuses, and came up with none. "I left my home," he admitted in embarrassment. "I wasn't very sure where to go."

Clayman tilted her head. "Where are you from?"

"Mugenjou," he replied without thinking, and grimaced to himself.

"Mugenjou? Really?" She blinked her large green eyes at him. "Ah, no offense, I assure you, but you just didn't strike me as the type to live in such a place."

"Perhaps that's why I left." He looked down, studying the IV leading into his arm with quiet curiosity. Ah, so that was how they worked... "Things weren't... working out so well there."

"And what were you planning on doing out here?"

Another pause before the thread-user lifted his head to look at her, and his smile reminded Clayman of a lost puppy. "...I don't know, to be honest."

Clayman cocked her head. "It must have been bad in Mugenjou, for you to leave in the dead of winter with no money or place to stay, and no job lined up."

"I'm certain I'll find something," Kazuki said quietly. "I'm just gathering my bearings and... trying to figure out just where to start." His tone of voice sounded tired, and Clayman politely dropped the subject as Kazuki seemed quite done with talking about it. She watched him, and the way he slumped down a little as though he wanted to curl in on himself and go back to sleep for another few days.

She suddenly found the term 'stray' sadly fitting.


She was his only visitor. She came once a day, and stayed as long as she could - usually through dinner. She informed him that he'd been unconscious for a good three days while they tried to get his fever under control.

But it figured that the one day she didn't show up was the day the hospital discharged him.

At least he was able to get a short shower before hand, better than washing up in public restrooms by at least a little. The hot water didn't work, so the shower was a cold one, and then to step back outside into the biting air made him want to crawl right back into the hospital for warmth.

The nurse that escorted him out gave him a polite bow. Kazuki turned to her, smiling. "I don't suppose you have the number of the young lady that brought me here?"

"Ah?" She looked up at him, perplexed. "I'm afraid we don't, sir. She never left us any contact information."

Kazuki frowned, perplexed. "I see... Thank you."

And he left the safety and warmth of the hospital to wander the streets again, and went back to being unsure what to do with himself.

He'd been so determined to somehow repay Clayman for her kindness, but if he couldn't even find her...

Around noon, he seated himself outside of a cafe on a bus stop bench and removed a small can of juice that he'd taken from the hospital, cracking it open and taking a slow drink. The name Clayman had given the nurses for him.. It was a familiar name, one that lingered in the back of his brain. A celebrity, perhaps? No, too easily recognizable. A musician? Writer? His eyes fell half-shut in thought for a few long minutes, and then snapped wide again in realization. 'Ah, a painter...'

On the off chance that the name might have been some sort of clue, he rose from his bench and, by the end of the afternoon, had found himself at the library, getting use of the computers there as he looked up the name. It took him the rest of the evening to figure things out, and even then, for all he knew the name Clayman had 'given' him was quite possibly something she'd pulled out of thin air and he was following invisible leads to nowhere.

Except that he found her apartment after those hours of searching, under a name that certainly wasn't 'Clayman', but he wasn't investigating to find out about her personal life. An address worked just fine, and a few days later he found himself on her porch step. He looked a bit bedraggled, certainly, and apologized sincerely for intruding. Clayman merely smiled at him and invited him in. Despite his slightly wounded pride, he accepted the offer for a meal, some hot tea and a shower, but insisted that, no, he didn't need a place to stay.

Not that it mattered. Despite his protests, they stayed up late into the night talking about everything under the sun, and before he realized it, he was waking up the next morning on her couch with blankets covering him. He was warm, comfortable and in silence for the first time in several weeks. The hospital had always been noisy, rarely comfortable, and warm could be debatable given that the blankets were thin, he'd been wearing little, and the room was cold.

Given their conversation the previous night, Kazuki figured he would be busy the next few days. Clayman had been impressed with his investigation skills, and told him that there just might be a way he could repay her, since he kept insisting he had to somehow.

Later, she would tell him the details of the little 'job' she had for him, which involved stolen paintings that were possibly forgeries, and finding out just who had taken them.

It certainly wasn't leading a gang, but Kazuki figured it was a good start to a new life.


The term 'annaiya' was thrown around with the work Kazuki took to doing. It suited him just fine, as he was good with information and, well, eavesdropping had always been a specialty of his. Clients paid him (and paid him well) to find documents, hack computers, find out things regarding rival businesses and yakuza members... Police paid him for info on everything under the sun, from gangs to drug and weapon deals to crooked cops within the force. He was good at his job, and the payments came in and soon he wasn't sleeping on the streets.

A cheap motel offered relative warmth, a shower (even if not always hot), and even sometimes company. Kazuki was no social butterfly, but given his calm nature, he found it easy to strike up conversations with some of the most interesting people. Everything from the manager of the motel he stayed at - who eventually gave him the number to an apartment landlord that gave him a good deal on a place of his own - to a foreigner that became his contact for fake identification and computer hacking, to a blonde, busty Mediator named Hevn that sent jobs his way now and then.

His new apartment remained pitifully empty for a long while, until he broke down and spent some saved money on a few furniture necessities such as a bed and table and, eventually, a laptop. The later burned a hole in his pocket for a long while, but it did indeed help with business and he was able to reach a point of financial stability that he'd never really known since leaving his home years prior. There was no reason to go hungry anymore, nor be cold when sleeping at night.

The first night that he realized Juubei and Sakura were still likely struggling for food and cringing beneath icy showers was the night Kazuki first hated himself for leaving without them.


He found Ginji mostly by chance; Hevn-san had mentioned a set of Retrieval Specialists that often worked for her called the GetBackers, and Kazuki sipped his tea and listened to her prattle on until Ginji's name was mentioned. He inhaled sharply, choking on his drink, and Hevn had to stand and abruptly smack him on the back a few times while he coughed and tried to find his words.

He went to the Honky Tonk without ever going in. Instead, he stayed across the street and watched with wide eyes, ignoring the cell phone vibrating in his pocket with the promise of more jobs.

Hevn had been right; The GetBackers frequented the Honky Tonk nearly every day, so Kazuki needn't wait long before the small Subaru 360 rattled up and parked - illegally, Kazuki noted - in front of the cafe. It was the first look he got at Midou Ban; spiky hair, purple glasses, squared shoulders and thin and carrying all the confidence of the world on him. Kazuki took one look at him and thought, 'Good lord, he's a walking ego.'

Ginji slid out of the Ladybug, all broad shoulders and, surprisingly enough, smiles. Kazuki sucked in a breath and fought back the heartbeat threatening to jump out of his chest. Ginji's hair was still messy, hanging down in his face now, and the cold weather didn't seem to be bothering him much despite that he was wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

Say what one would about Raitei - Ginji - but the boy was more observant than people gave him credit for. He paused at the door of the cafe and lifted his head, turning to cast a glance around. With a faint jingle of bells, Kazuki ducked behind the corner of the building he'd been leaning against, and held his breath until he was sure it was safe to come out.

"Oi, Ginji! What're you doing?"

"Uh-? Nothing. Sorry, Ban-chan, I'm coming!"

His heart twisted behind his ribs. 'Ban-chan?' The door swung slowly shut, and Kazuki forced himself to turn and walk away.

The next few times he returned to stand and watch, keeping carefully out of sight, he idly wondered what he could or should say if he actually gathered up the nerve to go talk to Ginji as opposed to being quite so... stalkerish.

But Ginji came to him, instead. He stood 'round the corner of the building as per usual, and when he straightened and went to step back out into the light, he came face to face with the blonde and stood there gaping at him with wide eyes, debating whether or not he should run. Why running was an option that popped into his head, he wasn't even sure.

"Ginji-san." The name came from his mouth like a bad memory he'd not dared to speak of in months. It occurred to him that he really hadn't spoken to anyone regarding anything but work since leaving Mugenjou. Juubei's name, Sakura's name, Ginji's and Toshiki's... all held under his tongue like dark secrets fit to destroy him. His chest tightened.

"Kazu-chan." There was a time that Kazuki would have killed for that smile - but he'd seen it so often the last several weeks, watching Ginji with his new partner, and it wasn't quite a special thing anymore. It wasn't something Ginji reserved only for those most special to him. Ginji-san had smiles for everyone anymore.

"You... Ah, fancy seeing you here." To insinuate he had no idea Ginji would be there was a lie and he inwardly cringed.

"Fancy seeing me for the sixth time in as many weeks?" Ginji watched him, that same little smile on his face. Kazuki wanted to reach up and push the hair from his face, to make it look the way it used to. Things couldn't change - he didn't want them to change. Not anymore than they had, at least. Ginji's words warranted another internal wince. "You've been watching me, right?" Ginji continued lightly. "At first I thought I was just going crazy, and then I heard them."


The blonde's smile widened into a grin, and he reached out to lightly tap one of the gold bells in the thread-user's hair. It chimed in response, a pleasantly familiar sound to Ginji's ears. "I heard them," he repeated. "Just barely. Then I saw you. Ahh, it's so good to see you, Kazu-chan!"

The million and one questions Kazuki had saved up in the back of his brain to ask if he ever saw Raitei again didn't budge. He could think of nothing to say as the hurt and hopefulness faded to black and anger replaced it. "No, you're not. If you were, you never would have left in the first place."

He turned to walk away. Ginji didn't try to stop him.


They were unfair words and Kazuki knew it; they rattled about in his head all the way home, where he cursed himself under his breath. He'd had a chance - a chance to see and talk and touch Ginji again, and he threw it away for a few spiteful words that had probably only hurt the former Volts leader. It wasn't what Kazuki had intended to do.

Which was why he went back the following week, and contemplated actually entering the Honky Tonk when he saw the Ladybug outside. He stood just outside of the cafe doors, staring at them with his heart in his throat. The minutes rolled by, and he didn't budge until a voice startled him into doing so.

"Excuse me...? Is everything okay, sir?"

Kazuki turned sharply, sucking in a breath and taking in the young girl standing there in a waitress' apron with a grocery bag in her arms, with a familiar blonde at her side, equally loaded down with food.

"Ah, Kazu-chan!"

He tried to smile, failed, and flicked his gaze to the girl with a polite nod of his head in acknowledgment. The girl - Natsumi-chan, Ginji later told him - seemed sweet enough, and she understood that the situation was not one for her to be involved in. As such, she moved past the brunette and into the cafe, leaving Kazuki and Ginji standing there before its doors.

"Um..." Ginji's gaze went from the door to his friend to the Ladybug and back again. "I gotta take these groceries in; do you feel like... I mean, wanna go for a walk or something? We could talk."

His mouth opened, closed, opened again, and he managed a brilliant reply of, "I'd like that."

After the blonde ducked into the Honky Tonk to hand over the bags, he emerged again, halted by the thread-user's side and grinned. "C'mon! The park's this way."

"Ah, Ginji-san-?"


"The park is this way, I believe..."

"Oh." Pause. "Yeah, s'what I meant."

They had fun. Ginji prattled on about things Ban-chan had shown him Outside, the jobs they'd been doing as the GetBackers, among other various random topics. Kazuki listened to it all just as silently as Sakura used to listen to him, and he treated Ginji and himself to hot dogs in the park and hot chocolate before heading back to the Honky Tonk. Kazuki was fairly certain he'd never heard Ginji talk so much in a single day as he did in that one afternoon, and sitting there on a park bench with his fingers curled about one of the warm cups and watching Ginji as the blonde tried to feed leftover remains of his hot dog bun to the pigeons brought back a slew of memories of Raitei playing kick-ball with the Lower Town children. It brought back memories of cold nights made warm by Ginji's hands and breath and arms all around him.

He took Ginji back to the Honky Tonk without incident, bid him quietly goodbye, and retreated without so much as leaving his phone number. Ginji didn't think to ask for it, still unused to the novelty of a telephone.

When Kazuki arrived back at his apartment, the door swung shut noiselessly behind him. He locked it, took off his jacket, and stared out over the living room in all its silence.

"I'm home..."

Words echoed off the walls and resonated in his ears, in his head. It felt like a lie every time he came into the miserable little place and said those words, and tonight, it felt even more so than usual. He made his way slowly into the bedroom, readied himself for bed and lay down.

For the first time since leaving Mugenjou, he cried.


The better he got at his job, the easier it became to do. For that reason, Shido wasn't quite as difficult to track down as Kazuki thought he'd be. It just took some patience and time, and soon he was creeping around the perimeter of Akutsu's mansion, peering over one of the tall stone walls to get a glimpse of the Beastmaster beyond it.

Shido, unlike everything else seemed to have, hadn't changed at all. He still wore the same earthy-colored clothes, that bandanna... still sat hunched back with his shoulders rolled slightly forward and his eyes alert and flicking around. As alert as he was, however, he didn't spot Kazuki. The thread-user managed his way up and over the wall, dropped soundlessly to the grass below and snuck his way up behind the tree Shido was leaning against.

No matter how silent he was, Shido was still impossible to sneak up on. Whatever he couldn't see or hear, chances were he could smell it. As Kazuki craned around the tree and leaned down, a large hand shot up and snagged hold of one of the long, tied strands of his hair and yanked. With a yelp, Kazuki toppled forward and landed right beside him on the grass. Shido looked down at him, and after a silent moment, he laughed.

"You should see your face. You look like such a cat with a 'meant to do that' expression."

"Shut up." Kazuki tried to pry Shido's fingers open. "How did you hear me?"

"I didn't," Shido admitted. "I smelled you. You still smell like a girl." The thread-user swatted at his shoulder and got up as Shido released his hair. "What are you doing here?"

"Looking for you, of course. I haven't seen you since you left Mugenjou."

"Nnh." The Beastmaster's eyes trailed elsewhere. "Maybe because I didn't want to be found."

"That's too bad. You didn't specify that before leaving."

"Don't use that tone; I already know that you left, too. Where's Juubei and Sakura?" When Kazuki said nothing, Shido's head whipped around to look at him incredulously. "You left them...?"

"It was for their own good," Kazuki insisted stubbornly. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Tch'. Suit yourself."

Kazuki straightened and settled beside the larger man, fingers playing through the grass idly. After a moment of silence, he piped back up with, "I found Ginji-san."

"So did I." Shido's voice was a little tense.

It was Kazuki's turn to look at him, eyes wide. "You did? What did he say to you?" Maybe Shido had thought to ask him all the questions Kazuki had failed to bring up.

"Nothing. I haven't talked to him, I just said I found him." He gave a flippant wave of his hand. "I'll be seeing him, soon enough. The stupid guy he's with, too."

"Midou Ban..." he breathed out the name, quietly thoughtful as it played across his tongue. Interesting name, though nothing he'd attempted to look up on it came out. Either it wasn't his legitimate name, or the Midou family was rather private in their affairs.

"Yeah. Midou." The way it was growled out through Shido's teeth was significantly different than how it sounded coming from Kazuki. "Akutsu - the guy I'm working for - is planning something pretty big. If I know Ginji like I think I do, I'll get to see him soon enough." He left it at that, and Kazuki didn't press farther.

Somehow, though, he wasn't sure he would like this little plan.


Ban's wrist was still a little tender from the thread that had been wrapped around it a few nights prior. That, or perhaps he was simply irritated that Kazuki had caught him in the first place. He rubbed at it absently, giving it a bit of a scowl, but stopped immediately the split-second he noticed Kazuki entering the Honky Tonk.

Given the last few times Kazuki had seen the man, this was the first time he'd gotten a good look at Midou Ban. He'd been certain it was only the light that had made Ban's eyes look so unnaturally bright beneath the moon atop Akutsu's mansion only a few days prior. They looked even brighter now.

It was only natural to smile at the man, bells tinkling quietly from their resting place as he eased onto the seat beside Ban at the bar. "Good afternoon, Midou-kun."

Ban's only reply was a grunt, as he lifted his coffee cup containing the words 'Property of the Invincible Midou Ban-sama' and downing its remaining contents. "Natsumi, refill please."

Kazuki watched him carefully, not bothering to ask where Ginji had disappeared to. He would be back soon enough, Kazuki figured. "I suppose you and I got off on the wrong foot," he attempted lightly. "Perhaps we should start over. I'm Fuuchouin Kazuki, it's nice to meet you."

The other brunette glanced over at him slowly, raising a brow. "Already knew your name, Threadspool." He took up the refilled cup of coffee, looking away again and seemingly disinterested in the way Kazuki twitched and frowned at him. To his credit, however, Kazuki didn't try to correct him. If Ban were so inclined to call him by his name, he would have done so the first time. "Ginji's out, if you're lookin' for him."

"I was, yes." He regarded Ban through half-lidded eyes. "But if you don't mind, I'll just wait here for him with you."

"Look, if you're here to attempt being all buddy-buddy with me, Threadspool, don't waste your time. I was just leaving." Ban took another drink of coffee, pushed the stool back and stood. Kazuki's eyes followed him.

"I just thought..." he began slowly, "I mean, Ginji-san is a very dear friend of mine, and I thought it might be a good idea to get to know the man he seems to look up to so much. You must be very special to him indeed, Midou Ban-kun, for him to leave Mugenjou to be with you." To Kazuki's credit, he managed to keep the venom out of his voice.

Ban nudged up the dark shades on his nose, peering over the tops of them at Kazuki. "He left Mugenjou because he had to."

Blink. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"If you don't know, then maybe you should stop bein' such a whipped dog and ask him yourself."

He left the Honky Tonk, then, with a chime of bells on the front door and leaving Kazuki sitting there, scowling after him.


The air of spring was cool and fresh to Kazuki's senses. The snow had long since melted and with it, some of Kazuki's depression faded along with it and apathy settled in instead. There were good things in his life - he had Ginji-san and Shido around again for occasional company and that in of itself lifted his spirits.

The first time Ginji came to his apartment, it was in the dead of winter and Ban said he had something to go do that night. He apparently didn't elaborate and Ginji was never inclined to push his partner when he didn't want to talk about something. Ban had been quiet all morning, withdrawn the last few days, Ginji said, and so if Ban-chan wanted some alone time then Ginji was more than happy to give it to him.

As such, Kazuki quickly offered his apartment for Ginji to stay at overnight, just in case Midou-kun hadn't returned by then. Ginji protested at first, insisting he didn't want to be in the way, and only after a bit of convincing did he reluctantly agree.

It occurred to Kazuki that it would be the first time in years he had Ginji-san completely and utterly to himself. Hell, even in the days of the Volts, there'd always been the risk that someone would interrupt them without bothering to knock.

Now, he had the blonde all alone, watching as Ginji meandered around the small apartment and looked as though it was the nicest home he'd ever seen. "It's a great place, Kazu-chan."

Kazuki shrugged out of his jacket and hung it over the back of a dining room chair, managing a small smile. "It suits my needs for the time being. Make yourself at home."

And later that night, when Kazuki was undressing to slip into his night-clothes, Ginji sat on the edge of his bed with his hands resting on his knees and watching him. "Don't you get lonely," he asked matter-of-factly, "living here all by yourself?"

The brunette stopped, turned slightly and looked over one slim shoulder at him. Before replying, he looked straight ahead again and pulled the large t-shirt over his head, smoothing a hand down the wrinkled front. "It's fine. I have work to keep me occupied."

"That's not what I asked..." he trailed off, long lashes lowering over his amber eyes. "I mean, Shido's got Madoka-chan but you're here by yourself. I just worry about you, Kazu-chan, that's all."

Kazuki bit back the initial comment that came to mind, and turned around fully to look at him with a small smile. "Please, don't worry about me so much. I can take care of myself."

Ginji lowered his head, but his eyes rolled back to peer up at his friend in a way that suggested he didn't quite believe him. "Yeah. I know, but still... It's not too late, you know, you could always go back to Mugenjou and get Juubei, I'm sure he'd-"

"No." His tone was sharp, and the anger behind it silenced the former Volts leader. "With all due respect, Ginji-san, please..." his voice began to falter, quickly losing the steam it contained only a moment prior, "please, leave me to my own affairs. I'm fine; I don't need your concern or your pity."

"I don't pity you," Ginji spoke, perfectly calm. "It was your decision to leave Mugenjou by yourself, so if you're lonely 'cause of that, then I can't very well feel sorry for you." 'Because you did it to yourself' were the words left unspoken in the air.

"I'm not lonely," Kazuki snapped at him, but his voice cracked somewhere amongst the words, and he stood there with his legs bare and feeling notably exposed and vulnerable there in the middle of the room with Ginji studying him like some psychological nut-case. "I did what I had to do. I left them behind because they needed to live a life that didn't involve me! I'm not lonely.

"I like being alone. I like it. Is that so hard for you to just take and swallow because it would mean your psychological analysis of me is wrong? You don't..." he hiccupped back a sob, bells in his hair tinkling in tune with the way his body was trembling in anger, "you don't... know me at all. I've changed since you left. You leaving changed me."

Through it all, Ginji listened, doing nothing more save for rising to his feet and daring to take a step closer. Kazuki shoved his hand away when he reached for the thread-user's face, and he lowered his lashes slowly.

"I'm sorry," he murmured after a moment filled with nothing more than the sound of Kazuki's heavy breathing and attempt at fighting back tears. "I'm sorry that my leaving hurt you, Kazu-chan... But I had to. It was for everyone's own good."

"Then why did you have to go alone? I would have gone with you." It was hard to tell whether Kazuki's voice lowering back to its usual soft, quiet pitch was good or bad. Ginji couldn't help but think that a little occasional outburst from the calm man would be beneficial to him once in awhile. Kazuki's open hand hit his chest, though gently, as though he couldn't muster the energy to really haul out and hit him. The brunette's head bowed, touched to Ginji's chest, and his shoulders shuddered as he hit his palm against the blonde again, equally light. "I would have gone with you anywhere..."

"I know, I know you would have." This time, Kazuki didn't object to Ginji touching him, and the blonde did. He reached his large, warm hands up, cupping the slighter man's head gently and bowing his own to kiss the top of Kazuki's hair. "But I couldn't let you do that, you know? I'm sorry, Kazu-chan. I didn't leave because of something you did."

When Kazuki leaned up to kiss him, there was a lack of response - a lack of fire that Raitei used to have, and Kazuki drew away with his lips still parted and looking both frustrated and crestfallen. There was warmth there, surely, but it was different and he didn't know how to explain it beyond that.

Or perhaps, it was simpler than he was making it out to be. The Ginji from Mugenjou, leader of the Volts, no longer existed. In his place was a boy that smiled at everyone and had no want to lead anyone. He wanted to follow. He wanted to follow Midou Ban, and that thought made Kazuki sick to his stomach. Raitei - Ginji-san - should never follow anyone.

You are my leader. You. No one else. Kazuki of the Strings should bow to no one.'

Toshiki's words rang in his head and it was like a swift punch to the gut. Everything Ginji had done wrong in Kazuki's eyes was, truly, no different than what he himself had done to his own followers - his own friends. His chest tightened.

Ginji's voice didn't snap him out of the pain, merely reached him as though through a fog. "Kazu-chan... Can I ask you something?"

His vocal cords strained with the effort to reply steadily. "Of course."

The blonde touched him again; his face, his shoulders, his arms, trying to steady the way he was trembling. "Why didn't you ever tell me that you loved me?"

Kazuki's eyes lifted slowly, focusing on him blearily through his tears and not daring to blink. 'Why indeed...' "Would you have wanted to hear it?"

"It was all I ever wanted to hear back then," said Ginji levelly, and Kazuki felt his heart breaking the last few bits. "For awhile... I thought that maybe you were just doing it 'cause you thought it was what I wanted - and, I mean, it was, but I never would have wanted you to go along with it because of that... But you never said anything, never told me how you felt, so I thought that it-... I'm sorry, Kazu-chan." He pushed a hand back through his own hair, guilty, and Kazuki hated himself just a little more with each word. If he'd only spoken up, perhaps things would have been different. Perhaps, maybe, but, and, what if... He squeezed his eyes shut tightly.

All the years spent, thinking that he'd viewed Raitei differently than all the others. They'd been lovers, friends, and in the end Kazuki still held him above such emotions as love and in need of companionship. He was no different than anyone else, and Kazuki had failed the test of proving he thought as much.

Even at that moment, he could think of nothing to say except a quiet, helpless apology, and Ginji merely shook his head and smiled that beautiful smile and told him not to worry about it. They had good memories together, didn't they? And they were friends again - perhaps better than before.

'Says you,' Kazuki thought bitterly.

He stayed the night, and Kazuki slept fitfully beside him, resisting the urge to reach out and touch him in the early hours of dawn. He almost did a few times; hand extending out towards the sleeping face beside him... and every time, he drew back sharply at the last moment, mentally scolding himself.

When he finally slept, it was only for a few hours at best.

He woke to find Ginji's hand resting over his own, their fingers laced together.


It was painfully obvious something had definitely changed between the GetBackers.

Painfully obvious to Kazuki, at least, who noticed the subtle differences in the glances the two exchanged, or the way Ginji sat just a bit closer to Midou and maybe, just maybe, vice-versa. It took him a few days to place it, and when he finally did the answer he came to was a painful one.

It made sense, really. It was only a matter of time before Ginji found someone else to share his nights with, but it hurt no less regardless. Kazuki still didn't trust that man - Midou Ban - nor was he convinced the Jagan user was safe or good for Ginji. It was only out of respect that Kazuki kept his mouth shut; Ginji-san was a big boy. If he was capable of leading the Volts, he was capable of choosing his own friends and lovers.

Shido noticed, and Kazuki patiently tolerated the way the Beastmaster bitched and snarled about it when no one else was around. It shouldn't have bothered him so much, really, given that he'd never harbored feelings for Ginji the way Kazuki had... but yet, he was the one that complained, and Kazuki sat silently and listened. Kazuki was certain that were Ginji involved with anyone that Was-Not-Midou-Ban, Shido would have nothing to say about it. He was only mildly inclined to agree.

Midou Ban was indeed an interesting person, Kazuki had to admit. He was smarter than he let on. Much, much smarter. And there were things Kazuki began to pick up and learn about him that Ban would have obviously rather he not know. In a fit of anger one day, Himiko let it slip about Ban being her brother's murderer, but she refused to go into detail (Kazuki couldn't help but get the feeling that she didn't have any details) and he wasn't one to pry. Eavesdrop, yes, but never pry.

Ban was obviously well-versed in a few different languages; English, German, even a bit of French and Spanish in there somewhere. He also seemed to know a good deal about artwork and music, and also played the violin quite beautifully. Kazuki overheard him playing only once, when Madoka and Shido came into the Honky Tonk and Madoka and Ginji managed to coerce Ban into playing her violin.

The tune was lovely and haunting, and the sound of the strings made Kazuki's fingers ache for the feel of a koto beneath them. They sounded entirely different, but they were strings all the same and with the notes came nostalgia.

Intriguing man that Midou Ban was, he and Kazuki got along best when neither of them said a word. An invitation from Clayman brought them both to an art museum downtown, where they found themselves side by side and admiring a painting both had seen photos of but never laid eyes on in person. Ban glanced askance at Kazuki, who did the same, and they both quirked small, knowing smiles before looking straight ahead again.

At the end of the day, Ban gave him a ride home to spare him a walk in the cold, though there was no real offer about it. He simply glanced over, cocked his head and shoved a cigarette into his mouth as he said, "Well, you comin' or not?"

Kazuki looked at him, zipping up the front of his jacket, and followed after without a word. Ban drove him to the front of his apartment building, said nothing as the thread-user slid out. He merely waved his hand absently when Kazuki thanked him, and drove off in the direction of the Honky Tonk while the older man watched him go.

It was a simple gesture, one most people wouldn't have thought twice about. But this was Midou Ban and he simply didn't do nice things for people when there was nothing in it for him. At least, that was the impression Kazuki had of him.

He quirked a small smile as he turned to head inside out of the cold. Perhaps his first impression had been wrong.

Or perhaps Ginji-san was starting to rub off on him.


"Pride won't fill an empty stomach."

"I'm hungry, Ban-chan..."

"Shut up already!"

Ban's stomach growled, and Kazuki quirked a small smile. Natsumi chirped at Paul, requesting that she be able to treat the GetBackers to some form of lunch. 'Sweet girl, that one. Not like they'd ever be able to afford to pay her back.'

Paul protested as he ran a hand back through his hair, and paid them no mind as the GetBackers proceeded to place an order that would never be filled. Kazuki eyed the blonde sitting there with such wide, hopeful eyes, sighed quietly and stood up from his seat. Watching the two of them resulted in him losing his appetite anyway, and so he circled around to where the younger men were sitting and placed the plate down in front of his ex-leader.

"Take these if you'd like."

Ginji's head turned quickly, staring at the sandwiches. "Can I...?" His face lit up, and he snagged one of the sandwiches from the porcelain before waiting for an answer. "Thank you, Kazu-chan!"

Ban, meanwhile, cast the thread-user a reproachful glare, though Kazuki never took his eyes off of Ginji. "What're you doin' here, anyway?"

"Someone called me here," Kazuki replied lightly, smiling.


The front door of the Honky Tonk chimed in announcement of a customer, and all three specialists turned their heads to look.


"It was me. Ne, Kazuki of the Strings?" She winked at him, tossing her head to get the hair from her face and, sequentially, away from her shoulders and barely-concealed chest.

Ban pushed his seat back and stood abruptly with a snarl. "If Hevn's here... what, does that mean you're gonna be a retrieval specialist like monkey tamer?!"

Ginji stood as well, his eyes wide. "Ahh?! Even Kazu-chan wants to interfere with our work..."

"No, no, I -"

"You've both got it wrong," Hevn snorted, amused. "It's not like Kazuki-kun was the only one I called."

After much bitching and griping - mostly from Ban's corner - Hevn managed to get their job explained.

'Mugenjou...' Kazuki mused quietly, after they'd made the trip to meet their client (if it could be called a meeting) and he had returned to the Honky Tonk with the GetBackers. He stole a moment to slip outside, leaning against the Subaru parked and gazing off at the fortress in the distance. Ginji joined him, the tiny car creaking beneath both their weight.

"Mugenjou, huh..."

"Is it okay, Ginji-san...? If you return to Mugenjou..."

Ginji's brows drew together. "Ne, Kazu-chan... I think this incident is related to those two people."

"If not both, then probably one of them," the slighter man agreed. "If not, then I doubt they'd have gathered you, Shido and me."

"That's true." Ginji's expression looked a bit anxious. "So... maybe I can see them again."

Kazuki turned his head, regarding his companion, and smiled faintly. "Yes, that's right." And after a moment, "There's someone I want to see in Mugenjou, too."

When Ginji turned to look at him, he looked suddenly relieved and gave a knowing grin. "Ah, that guy, huh?" There was no need to point out that, yes, he'd been right about Kazuki being lonely, and had known all along the man had missed his best friend.

"Of course, he's probably angry with me for leaving, too." His eyes flicked forward again, squinting towards the dark outline of Mugenjou. Ginji said nothing to that, because they both knew they had a lot of explaining to do in the days to come. The former leader exhaled, gave his friend's arm a reassuring squeeze, and disappeared back inside after Ban poked his head out the door and announced that Paul was feeding them and Ginji had better hurry if he wanted any of it.

Kazuki listened rather than watched him go, and his eyes slid half-shut. He would be seeing Juubei soon, after all those years. He would be angry, yes. Sakura as well. In a way, Kazuki looked forward to it. He couldn't torment himself enough over his mistakes, and at least if the Kakei siblings would be angry with him, if they, too, would blame him for something for the first time in their lives, then perhaps his leaving would have had some sort of meaning.

But more than anything, he would get to see them, see Juubei, and suddenly the world didn't seem so lonely anymore with the promise tomorrow brought.

He went home by himself in the dark to his empty apartment, and lay down in bed.

Tomorrow was a new day.

He couldn't wait for it to begin.