The trunk proved to be more difficult to open than expected. Ban's earlier bumper-car routine with it had done some minor damage to the lock, which had to be jimmied apart in order to pop loose its handle. While Himiko and Maguruma rounded up the other two Party Crashers, Ban made Ginji zap some current into the latch to loosen it, and when they lifted the lid they discovered the real reason for its initial refusal to open: to prevent them from taking back the transport item, their prey was squeezed into the impossibly tiny space, clutching onto the box and the lock's hasp for dear life.
Ban didn't mince words. He jerked a thumb backwards and snarled at the man. "Out!"
Never one to dance around the point himself, Varlou responded with his usual aplomb. "Bite me, you spawn of a witch!"
Ban's eyes narrowed dangerously, but before he could speak Akabane stepped in. "Perhaps he just needs a bit of encouragement to cooperate."
A black glove disappeared. Four metallic clicks, matched by four cherry-red blades sliding into view, suddenly filled the rival man's senses. Varlou's face turned ashen.
"Nice and easy, Doko-dipshit," Ban told him as he slowly clambered out of the trunk. "Wouldn't want any...accidents. Ginji - "
"Right, Ban-chan." His partner reached over and after a momentary lukewarm struggle, grabbed the box, which Varlou only relinquished after another glance at Akabane, who slid a measured knife across his jugular in no uncertain warning.
Ban immediately took over once Ginji and the box were clear and swatted Varlou against the back of the car, sending the man's anti-Jagan glasses flying into the dirt. He pulled back and hoisted the concealed grenade that Varlou had been about to pitch.
"Think you're funny, don't you? I hate wiseguys." He looked at Ginji. "They all want to be a comedy star just like that braying clown pal of yours!"
Ginji made a face. "Emishi's not that bad, Ban-chan - "
"Don't bother. As far as I'm concerned clowns are tangible proof of the existence of evil in this world," Ban said flatly.
"Says the one whose veins are full of tainted witch blood," the vanquished Varlou sneered. "I know all about your cuckoo family, your doddering grandma - "
Ban pointed a finger at him. "Plug it! Before I make what's left of your miserable life even worse." Varlou's eyes bulged when he pushed the grenade he was holding under the other's chin, making sure that the transporter could see that Ban's thumb was hooked around the still-intact pin. "You creeps lost. Deal with it!"
Maguruma stepped over the cowering Itoh after ungently nudging him aside with a booted toe, and nodded at Varlou. "Better search him, make sure he doesn't have any more nasty party favors." He rubbed at his eyes, which were still slightly watering from the irritation he'd sustained during the flash pellet attack.
No one moved right away, none of them wanting to find out the hard way what else might blow up in their faces. When several tense seconds passed without action, Ban reluctantly decided he'd have to be the (un)fortunate guinea pig. "Don't everybody rush in at once for that happy fun time," he grumbled, tossing the grenade to Ginji, who managed to catch it with a squeak while hanging on to the box he'd confiscated.
Ban wasn't in the least bit shocked to find a nice fat cache of miniature explosives secreted in various places within Varlou's clothing. Several were actually rigged to blow if unduly disturbed by curious fingers; they wouldn't have much harmed Varlou himself if they'd gone off, their force having been constructed to be outward-directed at the point of detonation, but Ban took no chances. Under his direction, Akabane disabled these with a nimble knife and plenty of surgical finesse.
"You shouldn't have fussed with us," Jackal told Varlou as he nicked off an offending trigger wire on one of the grenades, rendering it impotent for Ban to remove it and fling it off to one side along with the rest of them. "Now you're going to learn a lesson in proper respect. We aren't called the Dream Team for nothing, you know."
"Damn right," Ban agreed. "Get Backers plus transporters equals unstoppable awesomeness!"
Akabane rose from disarming the last device and eyed him with a raised brow. "I was referring to us transporters," he corrected, gently but firmly.
Ban frowned. "Wait. You three – " he glanced at Himiko and No-Brakes - "call yourselves the Dream Team?"
Ginji chimed in, single-handedly juggling the grenade Ban had given him. "Because you're everybody's worst nightmare, huh, Akabane-san? Uh, no offense," he quickly added.
Akabane smiled tolerantly. "No. It's because we're every client's perfect fantasy." Calm purple steel twinkled at his cohorts. "We're practical - "
"Efficient," Himiko said, brandishing a fresh bottle of a disturbingly orange substance at Shah-tzi, who was looking like she was rethinking a planned counterattack.
"And we stop at nothing to get our job done," Maguruma finished, stepping on Itoh Oil-Slick's back and pushing him to the ground again when he would have tried to scramble for freedom.
Akabane preened for the benefit of his allies. "You see? We work so well together – just like a dream."
"When it absolutely, positively has to be killed overnight, huh?" Ban said, doing his best to hold back a rude snicker as he studied the transporters with a newfound wary amusement.
"Why should work be just another four-letter obscenity? We make it interesting and fun, as it ought to be." Akabane smirked, and then a calculating light snuck into his eyes. "Speaking of which...if you'll kindly excuse me for a moment."
"Unfinished business," Ban explained to Ginji at the latter's puzzled nudge. "Quit playing with that thing and put it down before you do something stupid," he muttered, not liking the way that Ginji kept dangling the grenade off the ends of his fingers.
Akabane stepped closer to Varlou, enjoying the flinch that his presence garnered. The rival transporter had no compunction about taunting Jackal when he was assured of his security. Deposed and defenseless now, the other man was discovering much to his dismay what it felt like to stare down the lord of carrion and understand what it meant to confront death.
"You have something of mine. I'd like it back. Now," Akabane hissed quietly.
"Finders, keepers, my pet," Varlou replied, his voice only a trifle hesitant as his inherent pride insisted on making a last stand. "Why should I make it so easy for you when you continually spurn my offers? Don't you know, mon cher, that I do what I do for you? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all."
He slowly, carefully, held out a hand palm-up toward Akabane. "Join me," Varlou dared. "We don't need any of these dead weights. I certainly can do without a pair of albatrosses." Angry and surprised grunts came from his two conspirators, but he continued. "You and I could do so much damage together. Your scalpels...my sais. We'd paint this town such a lovely shade of red, hmm?"
Ban spoke as he lit a fresh cigarette. "Boy, you really are a moron, aren't you, Mervin?"
Varlou glared at him, but Akabane spoke first. "Midou-kun, he is talking to me. Please don't interfere with our discussion."
Taking this as a sign of encouragement, the Party Crasher increased his seductive spiel. "Yes. Business between two professionals is of utmost importance." Hazel eyes gleamed with malevolence as Varlou stretched his hand closer to Akabane. "I know what you want most in this world, mon cher. I know what you crave. The ecstasy of the kill, the lure of fresh blood...I can give that to you. All that, and more. Why concern yourself with the rabble that only slow you down? You deserve the best of life. How about it, dear Kuroudo? Shall we abandon ourselves to our mutual pleasures?"
A heartbeat of silence gripped the two men and their witnesses. Akabane leaned towards Varlou, studying him with narrowed eyes. Finally he said, "You offer all this...to me."
Varlou smiled venomously. "But of course. With you under my wing, the world will be awash in the most beautiful bloodshed it has ever seen, while those who defy us fall by our blades."
"I the steel, and you the magnet," Akabane mused. "Why? Why should I be so special to your designs? There are plenty of other transporters who may withstand the mayhem of murder."
"But none as devastating as you," Varlou replied, grinning like a hyena.
Still, Akabane debated. "Oh, I don't know about that. There is Lady Poison. She is second only to me in the hakobiya world."
The other transporter sniffed. "Please. I can do better than big brother's little runt - " He broke off and backed up a bit when Akabane spun and flattened him with a blazing glare.
"Do not mock the mistress of the seven poison perfumes! It is she who spares your wretched hide, not I." Akabane radiated menace as he advanced on the startled Varlou. "You dare to insult me, first by stealing what is rightfully mine, then by assuming I would stoop so low as to align myself with the likes of you!"
"And you know what they say about people who assume things!" Ginji said suddenly. He paused, his face screwed up in confusion. "What do they say about people who assume things?"
Luckily for him, Akabane was in an expository mood. He answered Ginji, though he looked directly at Varlou. "People who take certain outcomes for granted when they have no business doing so deserve whatever they get when fate plays her cards."
Ban bumped Ginji on the back of his head. "Assuming makes an ass out of you and me. And I said to put that damn thing down!"
Ginji digested this as he slowed in his bouncing of the grenade, then said, "But Akabane-san's not an – an ass..."
Akabane favored him with a benevolent smile. "Thank you, Ginji-kun." He turned back to Varlou, whose face was becoming a mottled red, and his smile evaporated like smoke in wind. "No. I'm certainly not so stupid to accept such a worthless contract, especially from one so dishonorable."
Varlou protested, holding up both hands. "But, Kuroudo, mon cher, my pet Jackal - "
Akabane scowled downright thunder. "My friend Semimaru Kanade called me Kuroudo. Agdistis calls me mon cher. And Midou-kun calls me his Jackal." He looked down his nose at Varlou as though the other man were a lump of rotten fruit. "You are none of them. And what is the one thing I have always said that matters most to me when I take on an assignment? What is the thing above all else that I judge a job according to?"
Again Ginji provided the bingo. "Entertainment!"
Akabane's smile could have brightened the entire galaxy.
Varlou laughed, but there was a tinge now of unease. "My dear doctor, if it's amusement you're after, I have no problem providing this, as much carnage as your dark little heart desires. Isn't that what you're looking for?"
Akabane shook his head as if expressing his disappointment with a small child's unsophisticated behavior. "Again, you insult me. That I should be so crude and base. And you wonder why I prefer him - " he flicked a momentarily affectionate glance at Ban - "to you. He understands. You do not." Akabane's face turned icy again. "Were I to yoke my will to yours, how long would it be, Varlou, before you invoked one of your runes to take full command of my powers like you've always wished?"
Varlou turned beet red and choked.
Akabane went on, the storm gathering with deadly precision in his eyes, his fanged smile. The softer his voice got, the greater everyone's discomfort spiked. Jackal was at his bloodiest when moving in for the kill – 'speak softly and carry a big sword,' as Ban might have put it. "You cannot possess what was never yours, when it was never given freely. Taking things that don't belong to you is what got you into this trouble in the first place. Don't you know? Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's property. Greed is a most grievous sin, you see, one of the deadliest."
"But I - "
"You couldn't be satisfied with just one scalpel, could you? No. That's not like you. That wouldn't be enough to assuage your sad inferiority complex when confronted with a far superior professional. You thought you'd try for the entire one hundred and eight, didn't you?"
"One hundred and ten now. Don't forget the bonuses," Ban said, and blanched when a knife whistled beneath his left earlobe, so close that he could actually feel the cold whisper of its flat side as it lightly kissed the flesh in its passing - "Okay, shutting up."
"Akabane-san sure doesn't like interruptions," Ginji murmured to Himiko, who rolled her eyes but nodded.
Akabane continued to lance the verbal wounds he was inflicting. "Manners, Varlou, never go out of fashion. That's the difference between you and Midou-kun. Oh, he is quite brusque, I agree, and he has terrible habits, and he expounds on a most vulgar vocabulary and indulges in the sin of gluttony far more often than is appropriate - "
This time Ban and Ginji just looked at each other. So much for unconditional love, read the sardonic gleam in Ban's blues.
" - and he hasn't the faintest inkling when it comes to social graces," Akabane was saying. He was silent, and then he slid home the dagger. "But he shares the spirit of a kindred. He knows the true implications of the hunt."
"I know about hunting!" Varlou growled, and then yelped when a scalpel split a cross-section open on his bottom lip. Beads of red swelled and dripped.
"Don't interrupt," Akabane said mildly. "Midou-kun understands the invitation you fail to grasp. He is far too smart ever to consider looking into your depths." Pause. "He could have compelled me to his will. His power is an equal match for mine. Yet despite knowing this, he chose another approach."
A second lethal breath, and then: "He asked me."
A long, slow smile spread across Ban's mouth. Then again, his Jackal could give as good as he got.
Varlou's eyes were wide and darting. He was fast sinking, and he knew it. "But – but Jackal, aren't I asking you now? Inviting you to join forces with me? Surely you don't believe that I would seek to dominate you - "
"Two dominant powers cannot share the same space within a covenant. Either one will consume the other, or they will both destroy one another," Akabane replied coldly. "You are tempting me, not asking me." He withdrew a knife again and stroked the flat edge of it along Varlou's cheek, making the other man grimace. "Now, then. Shall we get down to real business?"
"Wait a second, Akabane-san! You're not going to – " Ginji gulped.
Akabane silenced him with a raised brow. "Dear boy. I never said I wouldn't kill him, now did I?"
"But – "
Akabane held up a hand. "However. I also didn't say that I would cause him to perish either." He tapped a thoughtful knife against his lips. "I believe we can find a healthy balance here. I think this case calls for special treatment, don't you, Midou-kun?"
"Here we go," Ban said to Ginji with a knowing snort.
Akabane looked at Varlou. "Have you ever had a diverting colostomy? Ah, but of course you haven't, else you would not be as cavalier with your personal safety." Akabane nodded towards the pile of disarmed explosives he and Ban had taken off the rival transporter. "That would put quite a crimp in your physical activity, I daresay."
"Do we have to hear this medical lesson?" Maguruma half-groaned. "I'd like to have some appetite left after this job..."
"Patience, Gouzou," Akabane counseled him. He smiled at Varlou. There was no friendliness in it. "The intestines lie coiled in the belly like so much rope, or serpents." He cast a fond look at Ban. "It is through these lengthy lines that humans experience the full wonder of their digestive system, as the intestines pass on nutrients to the rest of the body once the stomach has broken down food and processed it, and the waste products move to the lower colon area, also known as the rectum, to await disposal via the anus."
"Get to the good part," Ban cracked. He'd heard this story before.
Akabane chuckled, his good humor restored now that he had a captive audience for his brand of medical wizardry. "I once helped perform such a transection on a patient who'd been struck by a mortar. Poor fellow had taken the hit right here," he explained, tracing a point on the left upper quadrant of his abdomen. "Among other things, his spleen was all but shattered and we had to remove its fragments as best we could to prevent further infection. Peritonitis and sepsis were constant threats. But he was remarkably gracious about it. He would always go to great lengths to put everyone at ease whenever it came time to attend to his bodily functions."
He cleared his throat pointedly. "You may ask, what happens to a person who loses this critical portion of intestinal anatomy? The biological wastes have nowhere else to go, is that correct?"
"Just one place." Ban aimed a devil grin at the paling Varlou. "It's shit-in-a-bag for you, buster. Unless you do as he says."
Varlou sent a panicky look at Akabane. The latter's smile would have put razors to shame.
"You will return my scalpel to me this instant, if you wish to continue enjoying the benefits of a fully functional gastrointestinal tract. Otherwise I shall carve you into so much mincemeat that not even all the Lightning Emperor's horses and all the Lightning Emperor's men will have the proverbial snowball's hope of patching you back together, you odious scatological dumpling!"
Awed silence greeted Akabane's proclamation for several minutes before a muted noise filled the air. Hands met hands as one by one, transporter and retriever alike from both Get Backers and Dreamers rewarded a cursing well done with increasingly enthusiastic applause.
Ban was laughing the loudest. "Way to go Jackal!"
Akabane smiled and affected a modest bow.
"Next step, actual swearing. We gotta get you started on the creative use of f-bombs," Ban said.
"Midou-kuuuun," Akabane sighed.
"C'mon, Kuroudo. Your voice gets me hard as hell when you drop one of those. You know I'm right."
Akabane pursed his lips in disapproval. "There's a world of difference between harmless pillow talk in the boudoir and inconsiderate public coarseness." He snapped his ungloved fingers at Varlou and splayed them outward to claim his belonging.
Grudgingly, the beaten man unhooked the shining knife from around his neck. With a twisted pucker of lip he thrust it at Akabane, his eyes pinched to slits of fury. "You'll regret this, Jackal. You'll wish you'd taken up my offer."
"Taken it and shoveled it where the good Shinjuku sun doesn't shine on your person, no doubt," Akabane shot back seamlessly, much to Himiko's and Ban's amusement. "The spell. Remove it." He turned the knife around so that its handle was extended toward Varlou.
"No can do, sweetheart," the Crasher spat. "Magic's funny like that sometimes, you know."
Akabane didn't blink. "You got that magic from Agdistis. You forget that I trained as an agent underneath him. I know how he operates. He would never give out such sensitive information without also providing the method with which to deactivate it." He paused and then added for his cohorts' benefit, "Granted, he likes to make you work for it...but I suppose that's part of what makes it so interesting." Akabane's lips curved into a small pout. "Even if it is on the aggravating side."
He poked the scalpel butt-end roughly into Varlou's forehead. "Scratch out the annulment or I'll scratch you out."
Varlou flushed pinker. "You just said you wouldn't kill me!"
"But can you trust me, the infamous Doctor Jackal? I'm known as a Judas, after all," Akabane said, turning and winking at Ban just then. "Once the job is complete, I shall do as I please. Isn't that so, Himiko-san? Mr. No-Brakes?"
"Always has been, always will be," Himiko nodded.
"True blue, that," Maguruma agreed.
The other two Party Crashers, who until now had judged it wiser to keep quiet until an opportunity presented itself for retaliation, joined the verdict. "Christ, Varlou, don't you know when to quit while you still have a head? Give him back the damn knife already!" Shah-tzi snapped.
"Yeah, you said this was gonna be easy, like all the others!" Itoh Oil-Slick complained. "Then you crap out on us too? Screw you, Mervin Stuyvessant! I'm never working with your lying cheating ass again!"
"Wise choice," Gouzou told him, letting up just a little on his pressure against Itoh's body.
Varlou snarled wordless disgust at them and whipped out a sai blade. Under Ban's watchful eye, he scribbled the mark that would forever relinquish his hold on Akabane's scalpel. The blade flashed silver, glittered for a few seconds, then returned to its normal blue-white glow. Akabane clutched it like a child with a beloved toy.
"Welcome back, my darling. How I've missed you so!"
"Be nice if I got the same greeting when I come back from a tough mission," Ban said with not-so-subtle emphasis while Akabane danced around lavishing attention on his long-lost knife. He shook his head and blew a gust of amused exasperation. "Guess there's only one thing left to do..."
Ban strolled over to Varlou, enjoying the way the Crasher automatically leaned away from him. "After-sale service," he said, the snakelike grin back with fresh triumph. "Say hello to your worst nightmare, courtesy of the double Dream Team!"
He looked right into Varlou's eyes and pulled down his own glasses, freeing his power to spiral into being. Right as the Jagan unfolded his victim's eyes flew wide, then Varlou's face crinkled into malicious glee as hazel suddenly gave way to a startling green. Ban felt the red-hot scrape of cold metal and hissed incredulous rage as the sai blade struck again at his midsection.
"Anti-Jagan eye contacts, sucker!" Varlou laughed, and raised the dagger a third time…