Get Backers belongs to someone else, much as it pains me to admit it. But I had a lot of fun with this long, long, long oneshot, and I hope you like it.
"Ban-chan? You cold?"
It was comfortable outside, a beautiful evening lit and warmed by the gentle spring sun, one of those perfect nights that are neither too muggy nor too cool. A gentle breeze swept in from the south, bringing with it all the warm promises of summer. Yet Ginji was certain his partner had shivered several times now. Ban waved off his concern.
"Nah, I'm fine." He shrugged, arms crossed and resting on the cool iron railing. He'd been quiet tonight, but then, he generally was when they found themselves here.
They were standing on a bridge facing Infinite Castle, a place Ginji often retreated to when his memories threatened to overwhelm him. His partner knew all his hiding places, though, and usually only gave him an hour or two to himself before tracking him down. Ban understood his need to reflect on those past experiences, but there was a difference between 'reflecting on' and 'dwelling on,' and Ban definitely did not approve of living in the past. So he'd come to bring Ginji back to his not-quite-perfect-but-definitely-better present. For fifteen minutes he had waited silently in the twilight for his partner to fold and put away the fabric of his old life.
Ban shivered again, and Ginji, now alert, was watching closely this time.
"If you're not cold," he asked, "why are you shivering?" He was answered by a muffled, suspicious sound that could have been a snort or a cough or a clearing of the throat. Acting on a hunch, because Ban wouldn't tell him the truth even if it was staring him in the face, Ginji thrust a hand behind Ban's neck and clamped down hard.
Ban writhed away, and Ginji stared at his partner his disbelief.
"Ban-chan, you have a fever, bro."
"No I don't, idiot." Ban flashed him a brilliant, toothy grin. "The invincible Midou Ban-sama never gets sick." A slight tremor traveled down his back, leaving his skin like gooseflesh.
"Dammit," he added conversationally.
"You're getting sick, Ban-chan!" Ban glared at him.
"No, I'm not."
"Are n…" He grimaced. "I am not…. Dammit, Ginji, just don't worry about it. Probably a cold. It'll take care of itself if you'll leave it alone."
"I know you, Ban-chan. It has to be more than just a cold for you even to admit to it," Ginji insisted.
"It'll take care of itself," Ban repeated. And promptly began to tremble again. "That is going to get annoying," he predicted gloomily.
They had a case the next day, and for once carried it off without a hitch. No surprises, no unexpected complications, though it didn't pay especially well. Still, they had cash leftover from their last job and, as an extra stroke of luck, Natsumi told them that someone had come round the Honky Tonk looking for them while they were away and had promised to return the next day. For once, things were looking up for the GetBackers.
They were swilling coffee at the Honky Tonk when the next client arrived. She was old and foreign and obviously wealthy, with crumply, wrinkled-paper skin and sickly yellow-gray hair that lay plastered with hairspray to the side of her pale face. The woman spoke Japanese only haltingly, with a harsh, guttural accent, so following her story proved difficult for Ginji. Ban explained to him later that her most prized possessions, a collection of drawings by Kathe Kollwitz, had been stolen. She'd brought them with her on a trip to China in order to organize an exhibit showcasing the Kollwitz drawings with works by Chinese propagandistic artists who had used her style to convey their message. Some of the lady's friends happened to be in Japan, so after showing her collection in the art history circles of China, she'd flown over the sea to meet them. After going out to dinner with those friends, the woman returned to find the hotel safe and the drawings within missing from her room, amateurishly pried from the wall.
Ginji hadn't understood everything the woman had said, so Ban took him to the library to show him the similarities between the works of the German expressionist and those of the Chinese communist art community.
"I can't help but feel sorry for those people. But they're proud, too, and that makes me proud for them." They were looking at a print of three farmers straining against a plow like work animals, struggling against a barren, rocky earth. Strong diagonals and the stark blacks and whites of the print made the work especially stirring. Ginji rested his chin in his hands, staring pensively at the print in the library book. After hours of examining pictures by the German artist, pictures with names such as Death and the Mother, or Woman in the Lap of Death, the words and the images pressed uncomfortably on the happy-go-lucky Get Backer, and he had little enthusiasm for the communist pamphlet pictures and posters.
"That was kind of the point, Ginji." Ban's voice had worsened throughout the day, and now he could barely speak above a gravelly croak. Ginji wondered if all the cigarettes Ban wasted their money on would eventually leave his voice permanently ruined like this, but he kept that thought to himself.
"It's supposed to make you feel like they deserve more than they've got. You can't have a proletariat revolution without public outrage. This kind of art was designed to stimulate indignation." He coughed.
Ginji's eyes slid sideways toward his partner, worry etching little lines at their outer corners. It was getting on in the evening, and Ban's cheeks were still flushed with fever. He'd also begun coughing not long after the meeting with the client, and when he thought Ginji wasn't looking, he rubbed at his throat and ears like a little kid, frustrated with the soreness there.
Besides all that, he looked absolutely exhausted.
"Let's go talk to Clayman," Ban decided, stretching wearily. Long, lean muscles rippled beneath the thin white cotton of his shirt, but halfway through the stretch, a wet, deep cough pulled all the muscle inward, and he crossed his arms over his chest, brows twitching with aggravation.
"She would know if the Kollwitz drawings had been put on the black market. It's a place to start." Ban rose to his feet, pushing himself off the library table, splaying long fingers on the dark brown wood. He swayed unsteadily, gripping the edge of the table, and cursed under his breath.
Enough. Ban-chan could yell at him later. When his voice came back.
"That's enough, Ban-chan," Ginji said firmly. "We'll have to talk to Clayman later."
"Those drawings could be on their way out of the country right now, Ginji. We're going. Now." It probably would have been more effective if his voice hadn't come out a tired, raspy hiss.
"You can't even stand up straight."
"Ginji – "
"I'll call her. You're going to bed."
His partner scowled dangerously. "Since when do you get to tell me what to do?"
"Since you got to be too damn stupid to do what needs to be done without being told to do it."
It wasn't like him to get on Ban's case like this; usually Ban was on his. Ban opened his mouth, presumably to protest, but his legs were figuratively and literally cut out from under him when his knees buckled. The table's slick surface proved insufficient support, and he would have fallen had Ginji been a split-second slower. His mouth snapped shut, and he settled for an evil glare. Which definitely would have been more effective if his eyes hadn't been red and leaky.
Ginji forced himself not to reach out and steady his partner on the walk back to the Ladybug, which, for once, didn't have a parking ticket collecting dew under the wipers. He snagged the keys; it was a testament to how bad Ban felt that he didn't try to get them back. He didn't let Ginji drive the Ladybug often, even though, because he paid more attention to the road and followed all the rules, the blonde was actually the better driver. Maybe he couldn't slide between tractor-trailers or round corners at ninety miles an hour like Ban could, but on the short drive to the motel, none of Ban's fancy wheel-work proved necessary.
Ban staggered to their room at the cheap, clean motel they frequented whenever they had the cash. He could barely hold himself upright, but he wouldn't let Ginji help him up the stairs. Almost tripping over the top landing, he glowered darkly at his partner when Ginji caught him.
Still, he didn't argue when Ginji took the cell from him and started hunting through their contacts for Clayman. He just kicked his shoes off, positioned himself against the rather shabby headboard of one of the beds, and listened quietly when Ginji put the phone on speaker and called their old client. It rang three times, and though it sounded as if someone had picked up, no one answered.
"Clayman-san?" Ginji asked uncertainly.
"Ginji-kun? Is that you?" came the immediate response.
"Yeah. Listen, we – "
"I'm sure I already know what you're looking for, Ginji-kun. And I would be happy to help you. It would be a terrible shame for something as beautiful as the Kollwitz drawings to disappear. She mostly worked in prints, so her drawings are less well known. But they're equally special."
"Do you know anything about what happened to them?"
"I know that they're up for sale, but I don't know who took them or where they are right now."
Ban cursed softly.
"Is there anything else you can think of that might help us, Clayman-san?"
"Perhaps. Do you know anything about Georg Sondheim?"
Ginji shot a glance at Ban, who nodded grimly, eyes closed. "Ban-chan does."
"He's the German ambassador to Japan, Ginji-kun. He's a famous art collector, but there has been a lot of suspicion about his collections. He's been known to strong arm dealers and sellers into meeting his prices, and there are rumors that he isn't particularly opposed to purchasing stolen works. I know he has a soft spot for Kollwitz, but that's not proof of a crime. It is something to be aware of, though. I'm positive he'd be in the market for those drawings, assuming he didn't steal them himself."
"Thank you, Clayman-san. That helps a lot."
"I hope so. Good luck, Ginji-kun, Ban-san." The phone clicked.
"Looks like we're paying the German embassy a visit tomorrow, Ginji," Ban mused, his voice soft and hoarse. His eyes were still closed.
"Maybe. Just go to sleep, Ban-chan." Ginji sat on the end of the bed. "Did you want anything? Something to drink?"
"Just sleep, so shut up." He coughed as he threw back the comforter and slid between the sheets, fully clothed. Rising again with a frown and a curse, he stripped off his shirt and tank and dragged the bedclothes up around his shoulders.
" Kay. 'Night, Ban-chan." Ginji opened the door, letting in the evening breeze.
"Where you goin?" Ban mumbled sleepily.
"Just getting some ice from the dispenser downstairs," Ginji assured him, and shut the door quietly as he left. Once out on the landing, he flipped the cell open again.
"Kazu-chan? Hi, it's Ginji – I need your help."
Kazuki arrived twenty minutes later with a couple of packages of flu medication.
"Thanks, Kazu-chan. I didn't want him to wake up and not find me here."
"Everyone gets sick, Ginji-san. Juubei said these were the best, but that they can make you drowsy." His finely shaped brows furrowed with concern. "Are you going to be able to do this retrieval by yourself?"
"I will if I have to. But it probably won't come to that. I'd have to chain him to the bed to keep him in it. Ban-chan can be stubborn like that." He smiled, remembered the handful of times Ban had been unwell. He was a poor patient at best, a nightmare at worst, but he seldom asked for anything more than peace and quiet.
"Ah." Kazuki started to leave, but changed his mind and turned questioning eyes to Ginji.
"He'd do the same thing for you, wouldn't he, Ginji-san?"
Ginji moved to the rail and rested his arms on it, smiling vaguely at the cars below. "Well, he'd gripe about my being dumb enough to get sick in the first place, and he'd never call anyone else for help. He'd have left me here with a note telling me he'd be back by midnight and not to dare go looking for him because he'd only have to come find me, and then he'd be even more pissed at me for being stupid and not doing like I was told." He grinned sheepishly. "But he'd also do the assignment alone and kick my ass if I tried to go with him. And still split the fee fifty-fifty.
Kazuki smiled gently. "Thank you, Ginji-san. That's what I wanted to know. Take care that you don't get sick also."
Ginji thanked the string user once more, and watched him disappear from the ring of light surrounding the motel. Pocketing the medication, he hopped over the stairs to get ice, not wanting to alert Ban to his real motivations for having left in the first place.
He came back with a bucketful of ice and several plastic cups, and quietly opened their door. Careful not to rattle the ice, although he was pretty sure Ban was still awake, he set it on the nightstand beside Ban and filled the provided acrylic pitcher with water. He'd been sick a time or two, and Ban always tried to pour water and juice down his throat, insisting that it was important to stay hydrated.
"It takes half an hour to get ice?" Vivid slits of blue watched irritably as Ginji set the pitcher beside the bucket of ice and the cups.
"I figured I'd pick up some medicine while I was at it," Ginji half-lied, shifting uncomfortably. He wanted to add something about how there was a service station close by, or about why the walk had taken so long, but stopped himself at the last second. Ban-chan always told him he was a bad liar because he embellished his stories. Keep it simple, he always said.
Ban raised an eyebrow, but didn't object. Ginji fished the packages out of his pocket and ripped a pod open. Ban was too impatient to deal with them; he usually ended up smashing the pills inside and making a mess. He handed the pair of red gel tabs to Ban and watched with a shudder as Ban downed them dry.
"You should drink something, Ban-chan."
Ban waved him off and hunkered down under the covers. Ginji frowned and filled one of the cups with ice water.
"The directions say to take it with a full glass of water." He held the cup out.
"Quit mothering me, Ginji," Ban growled from the pillow. "I'm fine."
"Ban-chan." He shook the cup.
"It's not worth fighting over. Just drink it and I'll let you go to sleep."
"You're right. It's not worth fighting over, so let it go." He pulled the pillow over his spiky head and pointedly ignored Ginji.
"It's going in you or on you, Ban-chan." Ginji tore the sheets down and tipped the cup precariously over Ban's bare stomach. Ban lifted the pillow enough to see the icy water threatening to spill over onto his unprotected abdomen, and in a flash had snatched the water from his partner, downed it, and flung the empty cup across the room.
"There, happy? Now leave me alone," he demanded hoarsely.
"Thank you, Ban-chan." Ginji smiled, although Ban's eyes were already closed.
Ban grumbled noncommittally and turned away. Shivering, he pulled the comforter around his shoulders. Ginji opted for a shower before bed, and enjoyed almost an hour of steamy water before reluctantly deciding that he should probably get some sleep. He toweled off roughly and pulled on his pants before quietly returning to the main room.
Ban's breathing was labored and raspy, but deep and even, and Ginji figured he was finally asleep. Even with the comforter pulled up to his ears, Ban shivered in his sleep, so Ginji turned the heater on and stripped the comforter from the other bed.
Moving slowly, he carefully settled the second bedspread over his partner and tiptoed across the room back to his own bed and climbed in.
Along about dawn, Ginji woke to the anxious rustling of linen. He exhaled slowly, trying to reorient himself, shaking off sleep.
A few feet away, Ban stirred fretfully, winding the bedclothes into a messy tangle around his arms. His eyes were slightly open, but entirely unfocused.
"Ban-chan." Ginji pitched his voice in a low, soothing murmur, but the sound of his name only served to further agitate Ban, who twisted more frantically in the knotted sheets. Ginji climbed out of his bed. Kneeling beside Ban's, he reached out a hand to gently shake his partner.
"Ban-chan, you're dreaming, bro. It's alright." Ban's eyes closed tightly, and his head tossed violently over the pillow. The spikes in his hair had long since fallen, damped with sweat.
A small sound that could have been a whimper escaped Ban's throat. Ginji shook him more roughly.
"Ban-chan, wake up."
Ban's eyes opened, and he peered blearily upward. "Ginji?" he slurred.
"I'm here. You were dreaming."
"Damn straight," Ban replied confusedly. He swallowed, and a queer mixture of pain and distaste caused him to clench his eyes shut and wrinkle his nose at the same time. If Ban hadn't been so miserable, Ginji would have found the expression amusing.
"I feel like shit," he confessed, mumbling in his weariness. He squinted up at Ginji again. "Clayman?" he asked, the eyes still foggy with sleep.
"We called her last night," Ginji reminded him.
"That's right… Sondheim." Ban's voice trailed off. Then, under his breath, petulantly, "I think I preferred being unconscious."
Ginji shook his head. "Don't say that."
Ban smiled faintly, but the trace of cocksure composure that tugged at his mouth sent waves of relief through Ginji's troubled mind. "You worry too much," Ban noted critically, relaxing into the bed, closing his eyes. His voice remained a hoarse whisper.
Ginji shrugged. "You're easy to worry about, Ban-chan. You get so damn cocky. The 'invincible Midou Ban-sama' and all that."
Ban glowered at him. Generally, Ban's stare was a thing to be reckoned with. But like the night before, his eyes were red and watery, set above bright red cheeks that provided the only color in his otherwise pale face. Ginji tried not to laugh at the failed glare, but couldn't help grinning.
"Here." He popped open another pod of pills for Ban, who didn't bother arguing about water this time. His spikes fell about his face limply as he gulped down three cups of the water that remained in the pitcher.
Ban pushed the covers back and sat up. Ginji noticed worriedly that his arms shook weakly as he raised himself to lean against the headboard. "German embassy. We'll need surveillance equipment, first off. Figure out whether he's got protectors there or not, what kind of security he's got in place. And maybe blueprints, if we can get our hands on them. There's only a few places Sondheim would stash original Kollwitz drawings; it would help a lot to know where they are." He scowled, probably because the long speech had scratched painfully at his sore throat, and dropped his head back against the headboard, eyes closed.
"Ban-chan, I can do those things. I'll get Hevn to go equipment shopping with me, since she always knows where the deals are, and who'll try to cheat me. And Paul probably knows somebody who could tell us about the inside of the embassy. It'll take most of the morning, so you should get some more rest while you can." He didn't really expect Ban to agree, but the other Get Backer must have felt as bad as he looked. He wouldn't open his eyes, and although his scowl deepened, he didn't argue.
Which made Ginji immensely nervous. Ban was the plan-maker, the information-gather. Most of the time, Ginji felt like he was just there for back-up. Which was fine – he'd had his share of responsibility in Moujenjou. But for Ban to willingly relinquish the authority he'd assumed in their partnership, whether it was driving the car or purchasing the necessary equipment – that was a bad sign.
"There's a machine downstairs – want some Cinnabuns?"
Ban shook his head wordlessly, and got to his feet. He hadn't made it more than half-way to the bathroom before collapsing to the floor, and Ginji was too far away to catch him this time. Cursing vilely, Ban struggled to his knees while Ginji hovered anxiously beside him. Catching Ban by an arm, Ginji yelped and stared at the other man in shock.
"Ban-chan, you're burning up!"
"I'm freezing," Ban corrected grouchily, throwing a few foul words in for good measure. "Quit worrying about it. Just go get that damn equipment. And don't let Hevn talk you into getting crap we don't need."
"Get out of here!" With one big lunge, he made it to his feet and staggered into the bathroom, locking the door behind him with unnecessary force. The shower began to run, and Ginji looked into the mirror above the sink outside the bathroom helplessly. He frowned at his reflection, troubled.
Flipping open his cell phone, he headed toward the window and opened the blinds, noting that they faced west. Maybe Ban wouldn't close them if the sun wasn't pouring in. He called Shido, reluctant to ask Kazuki for another favor so soon. He walked to the snack machine for breakfast, arguing with his old friend.
"No way. Not for that guy."
"Not for him, for me." Ginji made his tone as conciliatory as he could. "Come on, you don't even have to meet him. Just peek in the blinds and make sure he's not passed out on the floor or anything. Shido-kun, please?"
It was easier in person, when he could employ the adorable teddy-bear technique. But even over the phone, he wasn't entirely without resources.
"I'm worried about him, Shido-kun," he admitted quietly, seriously, without a trace of his usual animation. It didn't usually work with Ban, who associated a subdued Ginji with Raitei, but the former gods were easy pickings. Whether or not they liked Ban-chan, none of them could deny that Ginji was happier as Ban's partner than he ever had been as their leader. A glimpse of the old, empty Ginji, the Thunder Emperor, almost always sufficed to bring them round. Shido especially, who cared a lot more than he liked to admit.
"Damn you, Ginji."
His next call was to Hevn, and by the time she picked up, he'd already dropped three Cinnabuns off in their room for the still-showering Ban – just in case he got hungry – and was already unlocking Ladybug's doors. He'd obviously wakened her, but she was surprisingly pleasant for six in the morning. Which was to say, she only cursed at him for two or three minutes before agreeing to meet him at the Honky Tonk in an hour.
So Ginji had plenty of time to get to the Honky Tonk and ask Paul about blueprints before she got there.
"The German embassy? That's heavy stuff, Ginji," Paul said warningly. "Embassy security forces always pack serious firepower, up to and including surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles."
"That's why we want the blueprints, so we don't have to spend so much time in there," Ginji explained.
Paul frowned. "Call me if someone comes in." He headed up the stairs. A couple of people did walk in, but since all they wanted was coffee and a couple of bagels, Ginji took the liberty of providing them with their breakfast. He wasn't sure how to work the cash register, but the customers were patient with him, and dug through their pockets for correct change so he wouldn't have to try and figure it out. He left their money by the register, poured himself a cup of coffee, and waited.
Hevn arrived before Paul came back down. She plunked down exact change for her coffee, and joined Ginji at the bar.
"What exactly did you need?"
"I've got a pretty good idea, but I'm not usually the one who does this kind of thing, Hevn-san." He grinned sheepishly.
"Ban didn't tell you what he thought he'd need?"
"He's not feeling very good." His smile faded. "He was really, really hot when this morning, and he couldn't even walk by himself without falling down." Good humor now gone entirely, he lowered his chin onto his arms, which were crossed on the bar.
Hevn tapped a long red fingernail against her cheek thoughtfully. "So he's got a fever, maybe dizzy, weak. What else?"
"Um… he wasn't hungry, and he's always hungry in the morning. And he's coughing really bad, really wet, deep coughs. I think his ears and throat hurt too."
"Sounds like he's got the flu, Gin-chan."
"That's what Juubei thought when I called Kazuki. They sent me some medicine for him – which he took. That surprised me, too. He usually won't even take an aspirin for a headache."
"He should be okay, Gin-chan, just keep an eye on his temperature. If it gets over a hundred and four or so, take him to a hospital, because he'll need more than acetaminophen to bring that down." She frowned. "You could try a lukewarm bath, but he'd probably snake-bite your ass before he'd agree to it.
"Probably," Paul agreed, coming down the stairs. "It would be like him to be angry that someone gave a damn." Ginji smiled weakly, but didn't contest the point.
"Here, Ginji. You're lucky I've got friends in Germany."
"You've got friends everywhere, Paul." Hevn laughed as Paul handed Ginji an unmarked manila folder.
"Let's go, Gin-chan." Hevn daintily finished off her coffee, and winked at Paul. "I've been meaning to tell you this, but Natsumi-chan's always around lately. Do you know what I would do for this recipe?"
"I've got a pretty good idea, Hevn. And for the record, it wouldn't be the first time someone's offered me that kind of deal," Paul countered, deadpan. Hevn laughed again in her light, airy way, and linked an arm through Ginji's.
They spent a good deal of time on the outskirts of Moujenjou, where the best dealers plied their wares. Ginji had done enough surveillance to have a rough idea of what they needed, but Hevn proved invaluable in negotiating prices. He winced at parting with as much cash as he did; however, it would have been a lot worse if the blonde coordinator hadn't agreed to come along. Shido called him while they were examining cameras; Ban was snoozing peacefully in bed.
"Well, I'll see you later," she said, when they'd finished, and scooted out of Ginji's customary seat on the passenger side of the Ladybug. Before he could drive away, however, she rushed around to his window.
"I almost forgot." Delving into the big leather bag she'd carried with her, she fished out a white plastic sack. "I got these while you were looking at binoculars."
Inside were a digital thermometer and some cough drops. "I wouldn't want to have to be the one to force those into Midou Ban's mouth, but I wish you luck with it, Gin-chan."
"Thanks, Hevn-san. For everything. You're the best."
Hevn laughed. "You're such a sweetheart, Gin-chan. It'd be nice if some of that sweetness would rub off on your partner."
"Not a chance." Ginji grinned. "Speaking of the devil, I'm gonna go check on him. See you later, Hevn-san."
Hevn waved after him as he guided the 360 back to the motel. After one nasty, quarter-hour out-of-the-way mistake on his way to the Honky Tonk that morning, he'd demanded specific directions from Hevn before they'd parted ways.
He peeked in the blinds before going inside and left all the equipment in the car for fear of waking his sleeping partner. The Cinnabuns sat untouched where he'd left them, but the water from last night was gone. Ginji checked his watch. Almost noon.
He refilled the pitcher, got more ice, and ordered pizza without Ban ever stirring. After that, he dug out the blueprints Paul had given him, making sure to mark every switchbox and circuit breaker, the vault, the ambassador's room, the service elevators and stairs, and any circulation ducts large enough to crawl through. Ban would probably have rather done it himself, but he rarely slept so soundly, and Ginji didn't want to wake him if he didn't have to.
He waited outside for the pizza guy, so he wouldn't knock on the door and wake Ban up. When the pizza arrived, he paid the deliveryman and took the cheese pizza inside. Ban hadn't eaten since about five o'clock the day before, so Ginji set the pizza on the floor and shook his partner's much-too-warm bare shoulder.
Ban's head rolled limply on the pillow.
"Ban-chan?" Ginji shook harder, but there was no response. "Ban-chan!"
"Ginji?" Finally, Ban's eyelids fluttered open. "Gin –" A sudden coughing attack doubled him over in the bed, and Ginji was afraid he wasn't going to be able to stop and catch his breath.
He sat on the bed next to his heaving partner and, setting the palm of his hand against Ban's hot back, he began to knead the flesh behind his lungs firmly, hoping to loosen some of what was choking Ban. Every cough reverberated painfully through Ginji's hand, every rasping breath sent shivers through his fingertips.
When he could speak, Ban let loose with a string of whispered curses that turned Ginji's ears red.
"You can't go anywhere, Ban-chan," Ginji said softly, when Ban began to struggle with the comforters.
"The client," he croaked, swatting Ginji's hands away feebly.
"We'll get the drawings back. I'll do it."
Ban cursed again, and tried to rise. "It's the German embassy, idiot. I won't let you go alone."
"I won't let you come with me. Besides, we don't even know that the drawings are there." Ginji pinned Ban's arms to his sides. Ban thrashed against the restraining hands, but was too weak to free himself.
"Listen, Ban-chan, would you? We should get someone to hack his computer systems before we do anything more than basic surveillance. Someone's probably contacted him about the drawings, right? There might be more information on where the targets actually are, or whether he already has them or not. So there's probably not much else we can do today, anyway. I'll go check out the perimeter and ask Makubex to look into the ambassador's files. Okay?"
Ban stilled, breathing heavily. Finally, he nodded, refusing to meet Ginji's eyes.
"Tomorrow, then." Ginji released him.
"Tomorrow," Ginji agreed. "Are you hungry, Ban-chan? I got pizza."
"No." He coughed a few times and rolled over, away from Ginji.
"Try to eat something?"
"I said I wasn't hungry, Ginji." His anger had passed; now he sounded terribly weary.
"You don't make it easy for people to help you, you know, Ban-chan," Ginji complained ruefully. Ban didn't answer.
"Just one piece?" Ginji pleaded.
Ban fought to sit upright, and Ginji forced himself not to help. Being invalided didn't sit well with his partner, and he was already pushing his luck with Ban's temper.
"Will it shut you up?"
Ginji promised it would and handed Ban the biggest slice of pizza in the box. Ban's mouth twisted with irritation, but he took the pizza and ate it.
Ginji ate several pieces of it himself, and then put the rest in the mini-fridge along with the uneaten Cinnabuns.
He texted Makubex his request after he managed to make Ban to take more of the flu medicine. The coughing subsided somewhat, but the flush on Ban's cheeks was brighter than ever, so when Ginji was certain he'd fallen asleep again, he pulled out the white bag Hevn had given him.
The box with the thermometer said that for children who wouldn't take the thermometer orally, it could be held under their arm for several minutes. Ginji figured it would be easier to get his temperature that way and not risk waking him by sticking something in his mouth. He slid the metal tip of the plastic-coated thermometer under Ban's arm, wincing when it beeped loudly to let him know it had a result.
103.4. Ginji bit his lip. Hevn had said a hundred and four, but Ban would pitch a fit if he woke up in a hospital. They were okay for the moment, but a day or two of hospital fees would put them right back to sleeping in the Ladybug and digging through trash.
Unless Ginji got the payment for the Kollwitz assignment. The reward was substantial; if he could get it soon, even hospital fees would be manageable. Feeling bad for lying, Ginji scribbled some nonsense about message from Paul and left it beside Ban's bed.
After digging out some old tourist disguises from the trunk, Ginji headed out to the embassy. Ban frowned on daylight surveillance, but Ginji didn't think he had a lot of time to wait for Makubex. He snapped pictures, he paid the ten yen to look through the telescopes, and if he seemed unusually attracted to the German embassy, his blonde hair served as reason enough for his interest.
Along the perimeter, spaced maybe fifteen yards apart, a line of men stood guard, armed with semi-automatic rifles and handguns that Ginji couldn't see well enough to identify. If he wanted in, he'd have to slip in between two of the guards and take them both out simultaneously. If he were to zero in on one alone, the two guards in the line nearest him would be close enough to see what had happened and alert everyone else to Ginji's presence. He filed that away for later use, and searched the building for the mounted cameras from the blueprints. Upon finding them, the idea occurred to him that he could probably short out most of the embassy's electronic security at that very moment – and leave. When nothing further happened, it would be dismissed as a freak accident, and security probably wouldn't be tightened much, if at all. If the damage were bad enough, it would take them at least a few days to fully repair the security systems, which would be a definite advantage for Ginji.
He didn't mean to take the whole block offline. But it was just as well. They couldn't really blame anybody for the fluke that destroyed the power over a square quarter mile of Shinjuku, so there was no cause for suspicion. The guards might be a little more alert than usual that night, but that wouldn't change his tactics any. He would still need to take out at least two adjacent guards together.
After he knocked out the electricity and finished his preliminary survey, Ginji climbed a tree in the nearby park to examine his blueprints some more, not wanting to be caught looking at secret documents. A flat piece of paper wasn't the same as being inside, and he sucked at reading maps anyway, so he wanted to be certain he knew where everything was. He'd damn near memorized the thing by three o'clock, which was when Makubex called him back.
"Ginji-san, I got into the files you wanted."
"Did you find anything?
"Of course, Ginji-san." He sounded almost a little hurt.
"Of course. Sorry I doubted you," Ginji placated him.
"Sondheim wasn't behind the theft of the drawings, but he has purchased them. They're being shipped to the embassy tonight."
"It would be better if I could get them before they get inside." Ginji bit a finger, thinking. "Do you know where they're being transported from?"
"They're being received at the south gate, but that's all I know. However, Akabane Kurodou has been hired to transport them, so that's something to keep in mind. Once they arrive, Sondheim has also hired protector for them – nothing in the files gave their names, though. I'm sorry."
"Don't be, Makubex. You've been a big help." Another thought occurred to him. "Tell Juubei-kun to give me a call after awhile, okay? I want to ask him about something. And tell Sakura hi for me. I haven't seen her in a long time."
Akabane alone, or an unknown protector with thirty armed guards and the possibility of a partially repaired security system. Nice choice. Akabane probably already knew that they'd been hired to retrieve the drawings – a nice little bonus to his assignment, he'd think of it. Then again, if Sondheim was willing to employ the foul, sneaky, scary Dr. Jackal – who was nonetheless the best at what he did – there was no reason to believe he wouldn't stoop equally low in his choice of protector. Probably some Hishiki-style badass. Along with a much higher potential for other people to get involved, innocent and otherwise.
Yuck. He'd feel a lot better about taking on Akabane if he knew Ban were there to back him up. Even better if Ban were taking on Akabane, and Ginji were backing him up, because Ban could do anything.
But Ban-chan was sick. Like he'd told Kazuki the night before, on those few occasions when Ginji had been ill, Ban had completed the missions alone until he was better. Insisted on doing them alone, actually, whining that a sick electric eel would just be in his way. And though he complained about it, like he did about everything, Ginji knew for a fact that he carefully avoided mentioning any injuries he received during those solo missions. And he never, ever thought of keeping more than his usual half of the payment.
The da-da-da-darum of the cell interrupted his thoughts. Evidently Shido had told Kazuki about Ginji's odd request to peek through the blinds at his friend, because Kazuki had done the same. Now he was calling to let Ginji know that he'd found Ban asleep, but coughing terribly. Worried, he'd pried the lock open and gone inside, along with Juubei.
He didn't bother to explain how Juubei had ended up with him. Ginji didn't get the chance to ask, either, because Juubei took the phone at that point and told Ginji pointedly that Ban needed to be in a hospital, which eliminated the question Ginji had been going to ask.
"His fever is worsening, Ginji-san. I doubt he's even sleeping anymore; he's probably unconscious."
"I'll be there in five minutes, Juubei-kun." True to his word, Ginji broke no fewer than six traffic laws – a typical five minute drive for Ban, perhaps, but it was six more traffic laws than Ginji'd ever broken – on his way back to the motel. When he got there, Juubei had already hoisted the half-dressed Ban over his shoulder and was making his way toward the Ladybug, guided by Kazuki's voice.
"Ban-chan!" Ginji skidded into a parking space.
"We'll go with you, Ginji-san," Kazuki said reassuringly, pushing the passenger side chair forward so that Juubei could settle Ban into the back. Ban's head lolled lifelessly against the patterned headrest. "Do you want me to drive?"
Ginji flung the keys at Kazuki, who plucked them delicately out of the air with long, supple fingers. Juubei climbed into Ginji's usual seat, and Ginji jumped into the back with Ban.
He pulled the unconscious man into his arms. Ban's bared flesh burned under Ginji's worried hands, but Ginji felt cold. Surely the flu couldn't get this bad?
Ban's body thrashed as a series of hacking coughs assaulted him. Tiny droplets of blood splattered his lips, frightening his partner terribly.
"It's probably just a raw throat and lungs, Ginji-san," Juubei answered, without waiting for the question. "If it starts to be thick or heavy, then it's something to worry about. The fever is more dangerous."
Kazuki's eyes met his in the rear-view mirror. "I'm sure he'll be alright, Ginji-san."
He should have realized earlier that Ban was so unwell. A bad flu was one thing, but the uncontrollable coughing, the spiking temperature, this was something else, and he should have seen it. Ban had never, never before allowed even the little care Ginji'd given him. No, he would have insisted on talking to Clayman, to shopping for equipment, to examining blueprints, to talking to contacts himself, and he hadn't even put up a decent fight over most of it. That he'd permitted Ginji to do so much was a clear sign that he'd known how ill he was, or was likely to become.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
The coughing fit finally released Ban, who immediately began to shiver.
"Should I cover him up, Juubei-san? He's cold."
Ginji looked down at his limp, trembling partner helplessly. "I'm sorry, Ban-chan."
"This isn't your fault, Ginji-san," Kazuki said quietly.
"Ginji-san, did anything unusual happen on your last retrieval?" Juubei's tone was grave.
"No… no, it went really well."
"There was a healing cut on his back. Like a scratch, but cleaner, like a blade."
"That was the mission before. Someone pulled a gun on me, and he turned his back on the guy he'd been fighting with to knock it away. The guy behind him took a swipe at him with a knife. It wasn't very deep though, just a graze. He laughed at me when I bandaged it."
"It's possible there was something on the blade. Himiko-chan told us that there are several poisons which can imitate a common cold or flu, until a final spike in temperature or serious respiratory distress finishes the victim off. I don't think a common illness would affect Midou Ban so severely."
Kazuki caught Ginji's eyes in the mirror again. "We ran into Himiko-chan on our way to the motel," he said belatedly. "Juubei thought to ask her about poison."
A half-gasp of a laugh, half-sigh forced its way out of Ginji's nose and mouth. "He'd be happier to think he'd been poisoned. At least he'd have an excuse for being so sick."
Kazuki smiled gently. "I'm sure he'll be alright, Ginji-san," he repeated.
Like Shido-kun, Kazu-chan and Juubei-san were doing this for Ginji, not for Ban. At first, he'd been certain that once they got to know him, they'd appreciate Ban just like he did, and that Ban would like them too, but lately he'd begun to wonder if they would ever warm up to one another. Still, even if it was for his sake and not for Ban's, he was grateful for the help.
He pulled the other Get Backer more tightly into his arms, and Ban's shivering lightened just a bit. He slumped limply against Ginji, his breath a ragged gasp. Poison or illness, Ban-chan was in bad shape.
"We're here." Kazuki rushed on ahead to register Ban, and left Juubei and Ginji to wrestle his limp body out of the back of the 360. Juubei offered to carry him; Ginji thanked him politely, but refused. He picked him up gently himself and followed Kazuki's steps into the emergency room, trailed closely by Juubei.
"I'm a physician, but I've always hated hospitals." Juubei's voice was quiet as they entered the waiting room. "People give up in a cold place like this." Suddenly he realized what he'd said, and added quickly: "Not Midou, I'm sure. I don't think he understands the concept of giving up."
"No. He doesn't."
Ginji sat on the floor and carefully maneuvered Ban so that he was cradling Ban's head and shoulders in his arms. Ban began to cough again.
"Turn him on his side," Juubei instructed. "On his back, he could choke himself." Ginji did as he was told, seething with his own uselessness. Juubei and Ban didn't even like each other, but Kazuki's protector was proving more helpful than Ginji had been all day.
"They said it would be almost forty-five minutes before anyone could see him," Kazuki said when he returned, spreading his hands helplessly. Juubei scowled, and Ginji dropped his head back wearily against the bland, peeling wallpaper that covered the waiting room's walls.
"I figured you could probably use this." Paul materialized from out of nowhere, set a chair in front of Ginji and held out a thermos. Himiko also appeared, dropped to her knees beside Ban, and slid slim fingers along the side of his neck, searching.
Kazuki glanced at Ginji. "I thought she would be able to tell if it were poison or not."
"I can," she said shortly. "And it is." Her thin small, thin fingers lingering near the visibly throbbing vein in Ban's throat. "But without knowing exactly what went into it, I can't develope an antidote for it. Right now, all anyone can do is treat the symptoms."
"How do you know?" Ginji demanded.
She glared at him. "I'm a professional, Ginji. Trust me."
"Fatal?" Juubei asked grimly.
"If he doesn't get an antidote soon."
A bleak hush descended, and everyone but Paul cast nervous glances in Ginji's direction.
"How soon, Himiko-chan?"
Blue eyes flashed angrily, impotently, but her voice was steady. "I don't know, Ginji. It could be as little as a few hours, or as much as a few days. I just don't know." She got to her feet. "Who were you playing with when Ban was attacked?"
"A gang of street toughs on the east side. They called themselves the Bloody Dragons." He grimaced at the over-the-top name.
"I'll get their recipe." Himiko smiled faintly at him. "Just street punks, right?"
Ginji looked hesitantly at the shivering form in his arms. "That's a job for a retriever, Himiko-chan. I should go with you."
"I'm a professional, Ginji," she repeated. "I'll be fine."
Ginji would have pressed his case, but before he could open his mouth, someone else had stepped into the conversation.
"He's right. It is a retrieval, after all. So a retriever should go with her."
"Shido-kun!" The tall Beast Master quickly crossed the room to stand with Juubei and Kazuki. There was a trace of red in his cheeks.
"Himiko called Madoka." He shrugged. "And she asked me to check in on you guys."
"And you couldn't refuse." Kazuki smiled at the blushing Shido.
"Never mind," Shido said hastily. "Let's go, Lady Poison."
Himiko nodded her agreement and pulled her hands away from Ban's throat. Shido reached down a hand to help her up; she ignored it. They started for the door, but paused when they heard Ginji's uncharacteristically quiet voice behind them.
"You guys… thank you."
Himiko smiled a little; Shido flashed a grin at him. "I want to kill the snake bastard myself, Ginji. Like half of Shinjuku, probably. Poison's not playing fair."
"Excuse me?" Himiko asked coldly, tapping the much taller retriever on the shoulder. Then she stalked off, leaving a chagrined Shido behind to stumble after her.
"Ginji." Paul's arms were crossed over the back of the chair, and he was looking down at the Get Backers. His voice was serious. "Ginji, don't you have your own mission to attend to?"
"I can't leave Ban-chan," Ginji protested.
"You can't do anything for him here."
"I can't leave him alone," Ginji repeated stubbornly.
"He won't be alone. I'm not leaving, and Natsumi-chan's on her way." A half-smile erased the frown lines on the left side of Paul's face. "He'd be angry with you for failing to complete the assignment."
That was true. Ginji studied Ban's face for a moment, imagined what he would say if he found out Ginji had given up their assignment. Something along the lines of: I don't need a babysitter, you idiot! How did you think we were going to pay all these hospital expenses without the Kollwitz reward money? Don't you ever use your brain, Ginji? Gah, you can't do anything right, you know that? But that last would be accompanied by a ruffle of his hair and a sigh, and then a smile. And then he would be noogied unmercifully.
Wincing at the thought, Ginji reluctantly conceded. "You're right. I should complete the assignment."
"I'll go with you," Kazuki volunteered quickly. Juubei nodded, willing to go wherever Kazuki went.
Paul quirked an eyebrow at Ginji, waiting for his response. Ginji met his own eyes in the reflection of Paul's glasses
"No… no, I want to go by myself. The Get Backers were hired to retrieve the drawings, and that's who's going to do it." A smirk of satisfaction tugged at Paul's mouth as Ginji carefully settled his partner on the floor.
"Please take care of him, Paul-san," Ginji said formally, dipping into a slight bow. Behind him, an affectionate smile played on Kazuki's lips.
The formal moment ended; Ginji forced a grin to his mouth. "I have some drawings to get back," he announced, and sped out of the waiting room, trusting his friends to care for Ban.
He wasn't entirely sure how to get to the embassy from where he was, but he called Hevn – who was on her way to the hospital, because Natsumi had called to tell her Ban had been hospitalized – and she managed to get him northbound on the road that led to the south entrance. He parked in a service station – legally – and walked the rest of the way to the embassy gates, mentally reviewing the layout of the foreign facility, all the while hoping he wouldn't have to field test his memory. Heavy clouds appeared overhead to accompany him; he wished fervently that if a storm were to break, it would wait for Akabane. Unlike Ban's, his trump card was always such a random thing…
For five hours he hid in the alleyways and bushes nearest the embassy, waiting for the chill in his spine that would announce Akabane Kuroudo's presence. He wasn't worried about finding the transporter – no matter what vehicle he was in, no matter who he was working with, no matter the reward at stake, Dr. Jackal would be sure to stop for the timeless diversion of making Ginji bleed.
Every hour he nestled down into a secluded clearing beneath the neatly manicured bushes outside the embassy, ignoring the pointed evergreen leaves that scratched relentlessly at his skin, and called Paul to check on Ban. He'd been placed in a cool bath, he'd been given several drugs to still the coughing and lower his fever, but so far they'd only managed to reduce the speed at which Ban's fever rose. Juubei had been right; he wasn't sleeping at all, he was unconscious, and he'd begun to slip into delirium.
No one could wake him. He occasionally muttered incoherently in his confused sleep, and jerked violently away from the intravenous tubes and needles that fed fever-reducers and tranquilizers into his blood. He'd reflexively, unconsciously knocked a nurse halfway across the room when she'd tried to draw blood and several ribs of her ribs were broken; to their credit, the doctors and most of the nurses assigned to Ban continued to brave the danger zone. But his fever continued to rise, despite everyone's best efforts.
So for five hours Ginji worried, worried and wished he were hunting poison with Himiko, rather than waiting to fight with a man he reviled, a man he feared, whose careless handling of life and death grated on his soul and troubled his dreams. Of everyone he knew, only Ban wasn't afraid of Akabane, didn't fear the taint of sadism that wafted about the cruel, thin man. Though he'd never spoken of it, Ginji knew intuitively that Ban had once tasted the bloody thrill Akabane craved, that he'd spat it back out and that he would never seek it again. It was one of the reasons Ban was so special, that he could have been a Hishiki or an Akabane or a Fudou – or even an Emperor, concerned for nothing but his own wellbeing – and that he wasn't anything like them.
An icy hand clenched around Ginji's chest in the darkness, and needles of cold fear stabbed at his veins. Ban was special, and something unique and precious would be lost if Himiko and Shido failed. He shouldn't be here, no matter what Paul said. He should be out there, trying to save Ban. As he sat and debated, the dark clouds that had obscured the evening sky began to sprinkle a cool rain over the ground, as if the universe itself were weeping.
The ominous rain had nearly convinced Ginji to abandon the Kollwitz drawings, regardless of the Get Backers' name and reputation, when the shiver of fear that was Akabane struck his spine, and the option of leaving no longer remained to him.
"Ginji-kun. I rather expected to find you here. You've never disappointed me before, after all." A pair of pointed black shoes, the tails of a too-long coat appeared beside the bushes, and Ginji rose, steeling himself against the dread that threatened to freeze him in place.
Smiling with faint amusement, the terrible man continued. "Although I must admit, I had hoped to see Ban-kun here as well."
"Ban-chan isn't feeling well today," Ginji returned coldly. "You'll have to amuse yourself with just me."
"That's alright, Ginji-kun." Akabane's smile broadened, and its false, warped mirth twisted Ginji's soul. "I'm sure we can have fun with just the two of us."
"Where are the Kollwitz drawings, Dr. Jackal?" Ginji stepped slowly out from the bushes, giving Akabane as wide a berth as possible.
"On their way into the embassy, I'm afraid, Ginji-kun. I left them with the protector who accompanied me when I sensed your delightful presence." Ginji's heart sank; he hadn't counted on that.
"Now, Ginji-kun, shall we get started?" Four glowing scalpels appeared between the white-gloved knuckles. Ginji braced himself, ready to run.
Akabane released his weapons; Ginji felt for magnetic field about them, found nothing. Ceramic, dammit. And Akabane was almost certainly protecting himself within some kind of rubber casing.
Even without the help of a navigable magnetic field, however, Ginji was a professional, and he dodged the scalpels easily enough.
"Nicely done, Ginji-kun," Akabane congratulated him, gliding smoothly several feet away to avoid the lightning Ginji hurled at him. "But as you can see, I can dodge as well. I'm afraid you're going to have to do much better than that if you want to survive this night." He flung a few more scalpels in Ginji's direction, carelessly, thoughtlessly, and Ginji sidestepped them with little trouble.
"I'm getting bored with this child's play." Akabane was suddenly immediately before him, fist raised, four shining scalpels between his knuckles. He brought them down in a glowing arc, and as he drew first blood, the skies began to pour out their burden of rain.
Thunder sounded in the distance, and as Ginji rolled away from the thin man, four neat little incisions across his left breast, now covered in dirt and mud, he prayed fervently that lightning was not far behind.
Only Akabane's face was uncovered, only there was he vulnerable to Ginji's electricity. But as the monster had noted, he could dodge as well or better than Ginji could, and the strings of electricity Ginji cast at him sizzled harmlessly a foot to his right.
"Boring." Akabane raised his right arm, to Ginji's dismay. "Bloody sword," the transporter said quietly, and the hated red weapon appeared in his hands.
Ginji spat out a foul word, a foreign word Ban had taught him early in their friendship. But it was harsh and bitter and ugly sounding, and the occasion merited more than an everyday curse. The sword Akabane held had pierced Ban once, by Ban's own choice, and Ginji hated the reminder of what Ban had been forced to do for him, what Ban had been perfectly willing to do for him, regardless of his own safety.
The memory and the anger and guilt that accompanied it fed Ginji's drive to succeed. He was fully aware that fueling his resolve was probably Akabane's intention in calling upon the sword, but he didn't care. He owed the bastard for every cut, every injury, every death he'd been unable to prevent, and it didn't matter how he managed it, as long as the son of a bitch paid, and the sword reminded him of that.
Akabane thrust; Ginji evaded the red sword's path by ducking low, and furiously rushed the other man, firing multiple bolts as the sword completed its futile arc. He was quick to recover, but Ginji was quick too, and the beginnings of a plan had begun to take root in his brain.
Rain poured thick and fast over the battle as the two exchanged mostly ineffectual blows. Ginji so far failed land a vital blow on Akabane's one vulnerable area, but the coat was full of holes, and one bolt had gotten near enough to Akabane's still-smiling face that an ugly red burn mark bubbled and boiled across his left cheek.
Akabane had been more successful, landing a number of minor cuts that, together, wound up drawing a good deal of blood. Wherever Ginji stepped, a pool of red water filled the footprint left behind.
"This is fun, Ginji-kun. Amuse me some more." Akabane retreated several paces. Ginji was breathing heavily. He flung his vest away, feeling its wet heaviness dragging him down, and after a moment's thought, cast away his shirt as well. The rain was cold, colder than it should have been this late in the spring, and it stung where it landed on his lacerated flesh.
The red sword disappeared as a wide, half-mad smile curled about Akabane's mouth. Voice thick with scarcely suppressed excitement, he commanded another weapon to him. "Bloody hurricane."
Ginji cursed; he wasn't ready for this, not yet, not with the lightning still too far away to be useful. Another contingency lay open to him, but he risked losing the advantage he needed to bring him down if he pulled it out this early. As long as he could stay alive long enough, with the weather on his side, he believed he had a good chance of knocking his old enemy out of the fight. Even so, if Akabane was telling the truth, and the drawings were inside the embassy, he also had to consider that there would be more battles to come tonight, and that he had to be in good enough shape to face them as well.
He suddenly laughed at himself, and something that was not amusement and or pleasure or perverse anticipation crossed the fearsome Dr. Jackal's face. What did he care about injuries? There would be plenty of power in the coming storm to heal anything Dr. Jackal could dish out. Mother Nature herself had decided to come to his rescue tonight – if he could stay alive long enough for her to arrive.
Akabane frowned, sensing the abrupt change in Ginji's mindset, and let loose a hail of vicious blades. Ginji raced away, knowing there was no way to escape, but hoping to minimize the damage as much as possible. Thunder boomed nearby, and the sky flashed with lightning in the distance. So close, so close, so close… the words became Ginji's mantra as the thousand knives rained down around him, indistinguishable from the silver rain.
Fourteen miles away, an entire hospital wing shuddered as a blood-curdling scream echoed through its sterile halls. The patient's delirium had become uncontrollable; he'd already injured four orderlies and three nurses, and he'd been removed from the intensive care unit and into a private room in a futile attempt to prevent further injuries. Only those few who had accompanied him in had any success in restraining him, only one had any luck in calming him, and that one had abandoned him to watch the storm that was rolling in, much to the disgust and alarm of the hospital staff.
Now he stood wild-eyed but visionless, trying to walk and failing miserably. Every machine around him shrilled madly; every needle had been jerked out, every monitor disconnected. Blood appeared where the needles had been, swelled and dribbled down in thin, dreadful rivulets. He slammed into the floor, unable to stand any longer; a slim, long-fingered hand managed to slide itself behind his head, still wet from the ineffectual bath, before it struck the metal frame of the hospital bed.
"Ginji!" the half-conscious man howled again, striving painfully against the slender man who had protected his head and the much larger one who pinned him to the floor.
The slender man shot a glance at the other, dark eyes full of worry. "I hope Ginji-san's okay," he said fretfully, as the madman on the floor struggled to free himself.
"He's the Thunder Emperor," the other returned simply, calmly. The words seemed to soothe his friend, but the patient refused to be comforted. His hand snaked out to strike, but the man restraining him easily avoided the ill-aimed attack.
"It seems like Snake Bastard really does give a damn, though, doesn't it?" The dark-headed man, briefly seen in the reception area, had returned in time to witness the chilling, delirium induced hallucination. He stood in the doorway of the patient's room as a small woman with short, spiky hair pressed past him, striding purposefully to the struggling, fallen man.
"If you couldn't see that before, Fuyuki-san," the petite woman said, drawing a small vial from her belt, "you're blinder than your girlfriend."
"Is that the antidote?" the slender man asked, trying to hold the violently thrashing man in his arms.
"This is sleep poison," she answered, "unless you guys want to be stuck holding Ban's head down all night. In which case I wish you luck, but I gotta tell you, he doesn't really swing that way."
He frowned at her. The bigger man looked at him in confusion, and the man at the door snickered. The girl smiled wickedly and pulled another vial from her belt. "This is the antidote." Holding both vials deftly between the index and middle fingers of her right hand, she swirled them slowly before the patient.
"You're sure this is going to work?" asked the man at the door skeptically.
"How many times do I have to say it? I," she answered coolly, "am a professional. Unlike certain other retrievers I could name."
"You were going to be attacked from behind!" His tones were indignant.
"I'd already dosed that guy with puppet perfume! He was trying to attack one of the guys in front of me, so I could deal with the other one! And it would have been fine if you hadn't gotten involved!"
"So excuse me for trying to help you, little girl!"
"Stop it, both of you. We should go help Ginji; Midou has been frantic for the last fifteen minutes. I think something's wrong." The slender man's voice was troubled.
The patient had stopped fighting the men restraining him, though his delirium continued. "Ginji… Ginji… Ginji…" he repeated, over and over, breathing heavily, wetly. "Ginji…" The chant only ended when a series of hacking coughs cut it off.
"That won't be necessary." The older man had returned. He walked by the man at the door and knelt beside the two men who had been holding the frenetic patient to the floor. Sliding an arm behind the unconscious man's convulsing shoulders, mindful of the dangling needles and sharp corners of the surrounding furniture, he lifted him easily into the bed.
The others waited silently for an explanation.
"The winds have turned," he said cryptically. A faint smile quirked at the redhead's mouth.
The coughing fit ceased, the patient relaxed into his bed, and he spoke only once more. And this time, his voice lacked the urgency that had so marked his former hallucination. "Ginji…"
God, he hurt, everywhere. Stinging, burning, hot blood mingled over his skin with the cold rain, a sick mixture that pooled around his fallen body. Bloody hurricane was too terrible, too wild, even for him, and he hadn't escaped its fury at all. Overhead, thunder cracked mightily, and he managed to open his eyes. Off to his left stood the terrible figure of Dr. Jackal, hands raised to finish what he'd begun. A bolt of lightning raced along the horizon behind him, and Ginji smiled.
For some reason, he'd thought the storm was further away than that.
He forced himself to his knees, rose on shaking legs to face Akabane. Just a little bit more, he promised himself, just a little more and he could call Himiko and find out how he could help her save Ban, just a little more and Akabane would be out of his hair, at least until the next time. He just had to avoid getting killed until another good bolt hit the sky.
Dr. Jackal had called his sword back, bloody hurricane having accomplished what it was designed to do. Now he moved with the oiled grace of a dancer toward Ginji, sword raised. He thrust; Ginji mostly managed to avoid it, though he ended up falling to his knees with the effort. Akabane approached again, and Ginji rolled away. Just a little more.
There. He could feel it building in the heavens, feel the sizzling energy that signified the clash of opposing forces. Throwing a hand toward the power lines he'd had his eyes on all evening, he called the energy he'd felt rushing through it ever since the power had come back on at about seven o'clock. He fired off a thick string of electricity toward the cables; the electricity within the cables heard him and answered.
It didn't take much heat to burn through the outer layers, and then he was home free. The wires came loose, twisting and writhing uselessly for a moment as Ginji felt for them. The power in the sky was near the breaking point, he didn't have much time.
By this time Akabane had realized that something was going on. He rushed Ginji, who called one of the loose cables to himself, shielding himself from Akabane's attack. Not to be denied, Akabane hurled himself into the air to get behind Ginji – which was exactly, exactly what Ginji'd thought he would do.
Ginji called the electricity spewing from other cable, stretching out his hand to direct its path toward him. Akabane leapt as the fundamental forces in the sky collided, and a massive bolt of lightning streamed across the dark heavens as Ginji guided the energy in the second cable around Akabane, pinning his arms to his sides with the thick cables. Dr. Jackal's hat fell off as his eyes scanned the heavens for the inevitable, and Ginji called down lightning directly into his pale, unprotected face.
Akabane hit the ground, and was still. Ginji didn't look to see the damage he'd done.
Instead, using what little energy remained to him, he called one of the cables toward him. It was probably because he'd lost so much blood, because he was so drained, but the cable came to him like a shy animal, slowly, cautiously, hopefully. He reached for it, loosing the pain and the worry and the fear in its power, recharging his own batteries and healing his injuries.
After taking what he needed, he held on to the cable by the charred remains of its rubber casing, ready to use more if he needed too.
There was no point in secrecy any more; half the embassy's security detail had rushed to see the lightning show at the south gate, and Ginji didn't feel like messing with a plan anyway. He wanted to call Himiko – but the lightning had fried the cell phone. Ban was going to kill him.
Assuming he survived.
There wasn't any choice anymore. The guards were going to attack whether he went on in to retrieve the drawings or if he turned and ran. So he hopped inside, over the electric bars of the gate, amidst a spray of bullets, amplifying the electromagnetic field around his body just enough to deflect them. Coaxing the energy from the writhing cable in his hand, he bent it just slightly into an arc around himself, and then cast it outward into the surrounding guards. Twenty or more of the thirty men posted were out, and Ginji smiled faintly.
If he'd taken something precious, something he'd always wanted, he would keep it close, wouldn't want it out of his sight. So he headed immediately for the ambassador's private room.
The embassy grounds were empty, now that guards were gone. He reluctantly released his friend, which swiveled away wildly, and broke a window on the bottom floor to get inside. Expecting sirens, he was pleasantly surprised when none sounded, then he remembered he'd just destroyed the power cables that provided the embassy's electricity. The lights he saw must be powered by the emergency generator in the basement.
For once, Ginji knew exactly where he was going. Second floor, east wing. There were two main hallways; the ambassador's chambers would be at the end of one of them. He didn't remember which. But he found the stairs with no trouble, and was immensely thankful for Paul's extensive contacts and their resources.
He was also thankful that the last time he'd screwed up with a map, Ban had been able to figure out what he'd done wrong, and had berated him so thoroughly about it that he hadn't forgotten this time. He knew he'd memorized the blueprints with the embassy's north face before him – that meant everything was going to be reversed, since he was at the southern entrance. Ban would be proud of him, for finding his way through the big building by himself, notorious as he was for his poor directional sense.
The embassy was lavishly, expensively decorated, and Ginji had to tear his eyes away from the many art works that decorated the halls. He got the feeling he got whenever he looked at one of Clayman's mother's works, that sense of true artistry, an ability to communicate with nothing more than shapes and pictures.
But he did look away, and he ran swiftly through the corridors of the embassy's main building, dodging security when he could, electrocuting them when he could not, leaving his muddy footprints behind wherever he went. And when he unerringly arrived at the ambassador's private chambers, he walked in unopposed to meet the middle-aged German.
Ambassador Georg Sondheim was a large man, much taller than Ginji, and heavy-set, with bushy mustaches and a balding pate. Not at all threatening.
Of course, next to the middle-aged German, who looked half-angry and half-terrified, there stood the protector nicknamed the Undead. But the way Ginji's day had been going, he'd more or less expected that.
"Hello, ambassador, sir," Ginji said, in his usual, frank way. "You have something that belongs to a client of mine, and I'm here to get it back."
The ambassador, in an astounding lack of diplomatic courtesy, didn't even wait for Ginji to finish before screaming, "Kill him!"
Hishiki promptly moved to obey the command, but Ginji wasn't remotely frightened. He'd taken a big risk using the electric cables to restrain Akabane – it wasn't something he'd ever done before, and he hadn't been entirely certain it would work – but he had fought Hishiki in a lightning storm before, and he knew exactly what kind of power it would take to bring him down.
Hishiki remembered too, it seemed, and carefully avoided the windows as he advanced on Ginji, who smiled faintly. The big idiot thought he needed to be outside to call down lightning.
Hishiki was slower than Akabane, so Ginji took his time, waiting for the proper moment.
"Ambassador-san," he said quietly, backing away from Hishiki, "I really do have to return those drawings. They're the prize possessions of the lady they were stolen from, and they belong with her. She wants to show them in an exhibit alongside propaganda art that Kollwitz's prints inspired, so that everyone can experience the work of a great artist. I can't let you hide those drawings that everyone deserves a chance to see."
He didn't say that his best friend was ill, or that he couldn't live with himself if he disappointed Ban-chan, or that the Get Backers and their amazing reputation were among the only truly good, worthwhile things in his life. But he thought it. He'd faltered briefly, just before Akabane showed up, but he knew now that he'd done the right thing. He may not have been helping Ban, per se, but he was helping the Get Backers in completing this retrieval, and Ban would be pleased about that.
"They're my prize possessions, now, boy," the ambassador replied hatefully, his harsh accents butchering the language, tearing Ginji away from his private thoughts.
"I'm sorry, then, ambassador." There it was, sizzling miles overhead. Hishiki swooped down on him. He allowed himself to be scooped up by the throat, and smiled a little at the humorless giant and the fat German before the lightning came crashing through the roof.
The room was in a shambles, and a small fire burned in the ceiling where the lightning had ignited the old wood, but the private safe set into the side wall was thankfully undamaged. Hishiki was out cold, and the ambassador had a small cut across his cheek where some flying debris had struck him. Ginji asked for the combination to get into the safe; the frightened old German gave it to him, and Ginji fished out the contents.
He put back the jewels. Then he put back the cash. Then a file of documents that Sondheim seemed very nervous about joined the valuables in the safe. A set of keys. And finally, all that remained was slender steel case. Ginji opened it, saw the same kind of sad, black-and-white pictures he'd seen at the museum, closed it, and tucked it under his arm.
Once it became obvious that Ginji had no intention of harming him, Sondheim remembered his statesman's craft, and vile obscenities chased Ginji out the window.
"Do you think you're going to get away with this?" the ambassador screamed, a thin trickle of blood painting his cheek. "I'll have every cop in the city on your sorry ass before you get a hundred yards away, do you hear me? Bastard! Do you hear me?"
East wing, east wing. Did he need to go left or right to get back to the 360?
"You electric freak! Answer me! Do you know who I am?"
No good; he couldn't concentrate with the loudmouth on the second floor hollering at him.
"What are you going to tell them, ambassador-san?" Ginji called back. "How your stolen artworks were returned to their rightful owner? And who are you going to tell them attacked you? Thor? Susanowo? Zeus? Good luck getting them to believe you." The jibe worked; Sondheim fell silent.
Left or right, left or right.
Ginji etched a little compass on the ground. East was right of north, so if he was facing east…
He grinned, pleased with his reasoning. He turned to his left and bolted.
Just outside the embassy, Akabane had disappeared. Ginji didn't care, so long as he didn't show up again for awhile. He picked up his wet, bloody shirt and vest, and ran along the road in the rain, back toward the service station and the Ladybug.
The glow of the service station light was welcome, although the stares his half-naked form attracted were not. Clutching the little steel case, the high of his victory fled as he fished for change to call Himiko from the pay phone.
"Pick up, pick up, pick up," he muttered to himself, clenching the phone tightly.
"Ginji! You should answer your damn cell phone, you know that?"
Not worried, Himiko wasn't worried. Did that mean Ban-chan was going to be okay?
"Ban-chan?" he demanded.
"That idiot's going to be fine." Ginji's knees almost buckled with relief, and he sank against the wall beside the phone, the cold concrete scratching along his bare back. Himiko went on. "Shido and I didn't have any real trouble finding the bastards who poisoned them, or getting their formula. Putting an antidote together was a little trickier; asp venom is hard to come by in Japan." Ginji didn't ask. He figured he probably didn't want to know.
"So he's okay?"
"He's pretty weak. The doctors here ran some tests, and found out he had the flu to begin with. Probably one reason he didn't connect the Bloody Dragons to being ill – he knew he was getting sick anyway.
"He made a mess of things here, you know," she continued with disgust. "He was delirious – he thought you were in trouble and kept trying to leave to find you. Scared the other patients half to death screaming your name." She paused, and when she spoke again, all traces of sarcasm were gone.
"It got really bad about an hour or so ago, just before Shido and I got here. You are okay, aren't you, Ginji?"
Ginji laughed weakly. "I…" He stopped. "Yeah, I'm fine. Poor Ban-chan."
"Poor everybody else, you mean." Her habitual callousness returned. "One 'poor' nurse has broken ribs, another has a black eye, and just about everyone who had anything to do with him has an assortment of bumps and bruises."
"I'll be there really soon," Ginji promised. Himiko had said 'here' twice; evidently she was still at the hospital, even though she'd already given Ban the antidote.
Ginji smiled, and wondered who else had stayed at the other Get Backer's side.
He arrived at the hospital ten minutes later, fished a clean shirt out of the trunk, and went up to the room number Himiko had given him.
It was just after ten o'clock when he entered the room, and the only person who looked noted his arrival was Paul, who stood near the window.
Not to say Paul was the only person there. But Juubei sat on the floor with his head back against the wall, crosslegged, snoring softly, and Kazuki sat beside him, leaning on his shoulder, eyes closed. Both were soundly asleep.
Hevn sat with Natsumi in the recliner, one arm wrapped protectively about the younger girl's shoulders. Natsumi had been covered with a blanket at some point, but both were sleeping quietly.
Shido had stretched out on the floor alongside the wall, hands crossed beneath his head.
Ginji laughed quietly to himself and looked at Paul.
"So everybody stayed."
"Everybody was worried, Ginji." He took in the blood-spattered shorts and bloody socks. "Did we have reason to be?"
"Maybe right at first," Ginji admitted. "But it went okay. I'm just glad Himiko-chan and Shiko-kun found the Bloody Dragons."
"They're professionals," Paul agreed.
Ginji nodded. "So are you, even if you don't like to admit it anymore."
"That was a long time ago, Ginji."
"An hour ago?" Ginji smiled as Paul straightened uncomfortably.
"Professional courtesy," the café owner answered shortly. "Like not telling anyone that I helped you out tonight would be a professional courtesy."
Ginji smiled wider. "Not even Ban-chan?"
"You couldn't keep a secret from him if your life depended on it." Paul frowned sourly.
"I'll try to keep this one," Ginji promised. "If you won't tell him how badly I got messed up tonight."
Paul's trademark quirk of a smile brushed a corner of his mouth. "I won't tell. But he'll probably know anyway. His father would have." Ginji thought there was something a little wistful in his voice, but it passed too quickly for him to be sure. Paul turned away.
"I'd change clothes and shower before he wakes up." The advice was sound, so Ginji asked him to watch over Ban-chan just a little longer while he got a change of clothes from the Ladybug. When he returned to the room, Paul had wakened everyone and sent them home before Ginji got a chance to thank any of them for their help. He waited while Ginji showered in the small bathroom attached to the room, and then he left, closing the door softly behind him.
Ban's breath still rasped unpleasantly in his throat, but the flush on his cheeks had faded significantly, and he lay quietly in the stark white sheets of the hospital bed. Ginji took the recliner Hevn and Natsumi-chan had vacated, sinking into the old, but comfortable brown leather. Ginji opened the steel case once again to look at what he'd risked his life for this time.
The picture that lay on top so completely engrossed him that he didn't even get to view the others. It was a charcoal drawing of two men, perhaps wearing uniforms, but only one face could be seen. That man's features were so regular, so vague, that it might have been anyone, and he lay cradled in the arms of the other man. His eyes were closed, and Ginji rather suspected he was dead or dying, for the man who held him, whose face was turned down to him, seemed to be in dreadful pain. Every muscle, conveyed in those few stark lines, bulged and bunched as if he were in the middle of a terrible sob of grief, and Ginji didn't need to see his face to know that it was streaked with tears.
Ginji was suddenly glad, because he knew exactly what that man was feeling, had felt it himself not too long ago. It was art, it was something irreplaceable and precious because it spoke to everyone, because everyone knew what that kind of grief was like. And because it spoke to everyone, it connected everyone, and he'd done the right thing to get it back from the ambassador. Thinking about jigsaws and lives that seemed perfectly knit together, Ginji closed the box over the picture of the two men.
"Ginji?" A wavering, raspy shadow of Ban's voice broke into his thoughts, and across the room, Ban tried to push himself up, using the shining metal sides of the bed as supports, but gave up with a sigh. He settled for jerking a finger imperiously and turning on his head toward his partner.
Ginji climbed out of the recliner without bothering to lower the footrest. He crossed the room to sit beside his partner.
"Ban-chan. Feeling better?" It felt good to hear Ban's voice, croaky and hoarse though it was.
"I feel like shit," Ban retorted hoarsely, and coughed a little. "Why the hell am I in a hospital anyway?"
With a start, Ginji realized that Ban still thought he'd just been sick. Talking swiftly, and glossing over Shido's involvement as much as possible, he told Ban about the poison.
"Those punk-ass kids!" he rasped angrily, when Ginji had finished.
Ginji nodded. "Lucky that Himiko knows so much about poison, huh, Ban-chan?"
He grunted. "I can't believe I've been in here all day. Those drawings probably aren't even in the country anymore.
"They're right here, Ban-chan." Ginji grinned.
"They're what?" Ginji handed Ban the case.
"I got them back; I told you I would."
"You didn't lose any of the drawings, did you?" Ban asked suspiciously, glaring at Ginji from the pillow.
Ban frowned. "What about property damage?"
Ginji smiled sheepishly. "The German embassy's going to need a new roof, and there was a big power outage that's going to have to be fixed. But that happens sometimes in lightning storms, you know."
His frown deepened. "Parking ticket?" He sounded almost hopeful.
Ban looked up at the ceiling. "Well, what the hell d'ya need me for then?"
Ginji blinked. When Ban was peevish, a glare always, always accompanied his complaints. But Ban's eyes were resolutely focused on the thousand little shadows of the spackled ceiling."You do assignments alone when I'm sick, Ban-chan."
"Yeah, because I…" he stopped. "Never mind." He didn't sound irritable anymore. Just tired.
"I had help, if that makes you feel any better," Ginji told him, a little worried over the sudden strangeness.
Ban groaned, although it came out more of a croak, and as blue eyes turned toward Ginji's, the odd moment passed. "Tell me it wasn't Fuyuki."
"Well, no, Himiko-chan and Shido-kun had to go find the Bloody Dragons." A muscle jumped in Ban's jaw, and at his side, his right fist quivered.
"Fuyuki helped Himiko?" he asked, voice trembling with rage.
"Himiko-chan did say he was more in the way than anything." Ginji waved his hands frantically in front of him, trying to calm his partner. That part was true, at any rate.
Ban relaxed, a little bit. "Then who helped you? The threadspool?"
"Paul hurried a thunderstorm my way. It was a good thing he did, too, because…" Ginji managed to still his tongue before his encounter with Akabane came rushing out. "It came in handy," he finished lamely.
"Well, Hevn helped me get the surveillance equipment, and Makubex hacked into the ambassador's personal files for me." He wisely chose to leave out Kazuki and Juubei's help getting Ban to the hospital.
"But that's all?" There was an odd, almost plaintive note in his voice, and his gaze returned to the spackled ceiling.
"What do you mean, that's all?" Ginji asked, confused.
Ban fell silent, his breathing became even more labored.
"Nice to know you could do this job all by yourself, that's all." Ban said then, and his teeth came together with a snap, as though he'd tried to bite the words back.
"But you could have done it alone," Ginji answered, bewildered. "I thought you'd be happy that I finished the assignment!"
"I…" Ban drew a deep, husky breath. "I am," he said. "You did a good job, Ginji."
"You don't sound happy," Ginji retorted, hurt. "You sound like you're sad, Ban-chan."
"I'm not. Forget it." Ginji stared at his partner.
After a minute of silence, "You know I'm not going to 'forget it,' Ban-chan."
"I know, dammit." But Ban didn't sound angry. His voice was too quiet.
"So you should just tell me."
"It's not…" Ban stopped, frowned. "I don't… I can do it alone. Because I…" He stopped again, grinding his teeth with frustration.
"Because you…" Ginji prompted, watching Ban closely.
"Because I can take care of myself," Ban grated, turning to glare at Ginji before settling back down into pillow.
"And I can't because I need you to take care of me?" Ginji snapped back.
"No. Yes. I don't know." Ban sighed and rolled his head to face away from Ginji altogether, abandoning the pretense of examining the boring white tiles above him.
"I need to take care of you," he said quietly, roughly. "I can take care of myself. And I need to take care of you, too."
The two men were silent for a minute. Then Ginji climbed onto the hospital bed beside his partner. Drawing his knees up to his chest, he rested his chin on them pensively. "It's a lot easier for you to care about people than it is for you to let other people care about you, isn't it, Ban-chan."
Ban didn't answer, but something along his neck and jawline tightened.
"I think I've known that for a long time." Pity softened Ginji's usual exuberent tones. After a moment's hesitation, he reached down to touch Ban's sweat-damp locks, pulling them away from his partner's averted face. They tangled around his hands; Ginji shifted to work out the knots with his fingers, and wound up sitting crosslegged on the bed. "You don't really care if someone lets you down, because you're strong enough to deal with it. But the thought of letting someone else down scares the hell out of you, doesn't it."
Ban stiffened under the gentle touch. "What happened to you tonight, Ginji?" He laid still, black hair shiny and dark against the white pillowcase. "You were in trouble. And I couldn't get to you."
"It worked out alright." He kept his voice low, soothing. "I'm not exactly helpless, Ban-chan."
"Ginji." Finally Ban looked at him again. There was no arguing with that tone, or the inexorable expression, inexplicably pleading and commanding at the same time, so Ginji sighed and told him the truth.
"Akabane was transporting the drawings," he confessed. "He gave me some grief, but once the thunderstorm hit, I was okay."
A pause. "You're pale."
"I left some blood outside the embassy."
The troubled blue eyes became thoughtful, even amused. "But you took him out?" Even though his tone was gruff, a faint smile touched his mouth. Ginji relaxed, the awkward moment was over.
"I think I'm sorry I missed that," Ban mused, mouth twisting wryly.
"Missed what, Ban-kun?"
The words, so slippery-smooth, caused Ginji to yelp with fright and Ban to bolt upright in his bed, despite his weakness.
In the doorway stood a thin, black figure, smiling just a little, holding a big white teddy bear in a long black coat, with a wide-brimmed black hat thrust neatly over its fluffy ears.