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Smoke Screen

Shinjuku is full of lights in the evening. Headlights and taillights crawl along the city streets like ants in a line, purposefully inching forward a little at a time. Neon signs blink out their midnight advertisements – good deals and great service, clean rooms, and a hundred thousand other lies. In the skyscrapers, little squares of light shine from lit windows, and because of them and the signs and the headlights, you can't see the stars above you. Even the moon is mostly drowned out by the giant glaring nightlight that is the big city.

But this night, Amano Ginji wasn't looking at Shinjuku's lights. He was preoccupied with the glowing ember that trembled at the end of his partner's nub of a cigarette, the red ash that threatened to slough off onto the cold black asphalt on the bridge. When Ban finally flicked the butt onto the ground, it joined half a dozen others at his feet. With the stiff, unthinking jerk of an automaton, he reached for yet another.

He didn't smoke like this, usually. He swore the smoke helped him think, helped him relax, but tonight there was a hunch in his shoulders, a bracing against something Ginji couldn't identify, something Ban wasn't willing to name. On nights like these, Ginji was only too aware of Ban's addiction, too certain of his own inability to help.

It wasn't the nicotine Ban couldn't do without. But the cigarettes were an integral part of the image he projected, the image he wanted, needed to project, no different from his careless slouch, his sea urchin head, or his purple sunglasses. Tonight he felt that image was in danger of imploding on itself, and so he raised cigarette after cigarette to his lips, the smoke a screen against those who might see past the aloof indifference, the careful casualness.

Tearing his eyes away from Ban's makeshift shield, Ginji backed away and seated himself on the lowest metal rung of the bridge's guard. If he'd sat up straight, his blond spikes would have smacked painfully into the handrail above him, so he rested his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands and locked his eyes on Ban's still, rigid form.

The truly sad thing was that they had done everything absolutely right. The retrieval couldn't have gone more smoothly. The mother they had been sent to fetch from Tokyo came quickly, willingly, without a moment's hesitation. They brought the woman to her daughter several minutes before the little girl died. Her father, their client, had commended them quietly, gratefully, as his ex-wife stumbled into the hospital room where her six year old lay dying, broken, scarcely conscious, the bloody consequence of a drunk driver's carelessness.

They had been well paid for their troubles.

But the little girl was still dead, and the two Get Backers had watched regretfully, impotently from the sidelines as her parents, after years of estrangement, struggled to cope, to help each other, to reach out and touch the grief of someone they had despised.

"It's kind of sick how death brings people together," Ban had noted, with hard, unforgiving eyes, before turning his back on the mourning parents and striding away. But he hadn't said anything else as Ginji followed him through the streets to the bridge that faced Moujenjou, just tapped a Marlboro out of its package and lit up. And when he'd finished that cigarette, he smoked another. And another.

And here they were, several hours later. The smoke hung heavily over the bridge, stinging Ginji's eyes as a cool eastern breeze hurried the spiraling plumes toward him. He hadn't pressured Ban to talk; he knew the other man well enough to recognize the walls Ban was so meticulously erecting. And though a part of him resented it, that Ban should still feel the need to maintain such a distance, he understood why Ban wanted the ashy haze between them. To his own mind, he was protecting Ginji with his shield of gritty black smoke, a barrier between his regret and Ginji's, so that Ginji wouldn't inadvertently have to bear Ban's sorrow as well as his own.

Ban bore a great deal of responsibility, and while some of it had been dealt him by fate, most of it he shouldered willingly. He lent out his strength with surprising generosity, but trusted neither himself nor anyone else enough to accept another's power. Ban knew the limits of his own strength. He accepted the yoke of others' troubles easily, confident in his ability to hold up under the strain. He could not, would not burden another with the weight of his regrets.

Especially not his partner.

Another white cigarette slid from the carton, with the barest rustle of paper, and flared briefly as Yamato's old lighter singed it. Ban took a long drag, blew it out in a slow, affectedly careless breath. Watching Ban wrestle with his grief, struggling to keep it locked deep within, Ginji came to a decision.

He rose from his makeshift chair on the guard rung and crossed the asphalt to stand beside Ban. His partner's arms lay draped elegantly on the rail; the latest cigarette dangled loosely from the right hand.

Ginji reached for it, ignoring the guarded eyes that watched the firm movement of his hands. His fingers closed around the thin tube of paper and tobacco, and he pulled it from Ban's grasp. It joined the others on the ground at Ban's feet, where Ginji ground out the embers under his sneaker.

Ban's eyes shifted to the lights around him, so as not to catch Ginji's gaze. Without the smoky mask of indifference that his cigarettes provided, there was no guarantee that his pain that burned in his soul wouldn't spill out, overflow his carefully laid fortifications and scald his partner.

They stood in silence for all of three minutes before Ban reached for another cigarette. Ginji had been waiting; he caught his hand in his own, and didn't release it.

"That's enough, Ban."

Ban's shoulders straightened a bit at the odd address. "Idiot," he said after a moment, "I've tried and tried to get you to stop calling me Ban-chan, and you pick tonight of all nights to grow up?" He snorted, but the disdain concealed a deep hurt, one anyone but Ginji would have missed.

"I've been a grown-up all along, Ban-chan." Ginji looked at the hand still resting in his own, Ban having made no attempts to remove it. "I let you be the adult because I was tired of being a leader; I was tired of making life-and-death decisions for people I barely knew. So I was happy to let you be in charge." He set Ban's hand by its mate on the rail and sighed, his sadness palpable in the bright night.

"But I was wrong to let you carry so much responsibility on your own. So I'm sorry, Ban-chan."

Ban shook his head, though his brilliant blue eyes remained focused on the lights in the distance. "Stupid. Don't talk about such things."

"I am sorry. I somehow made you think I wasn't strong enough to help you, to be a real partner. And I let you continue to believe it. I'm sorry."

"Quit apologizing." Ban's voice was rough; he was embarrassed, and angry for being embarrassed. "That isn't it."

"You can look out for me, but not the other way around?" Ginji spread his hands wide. "That's silly, Ban-chan."

"That's not it," Ban repeated. He reached for his cigarettes, but Ginji wrapped his big hands around Ban's smaller ones and held them firm.

"Didn't I say you'd have enough?"

Ban jerked his hands away and crossed his arms, finally meeting Ginji's eyes. "I don't need a mother, Ginji," he warned.

"No. You need a partner."

"I have a partner. He's usually a pretty damn good one, too. Until he starts thinking too much."

Now it was Ginji who broke eye-contact, dropping his gaze to Ban's long, tapered fingers. "I don't want to be dead weight for you."

Ban's hands curled around the railing. "You're not."

"I am." Ginji exhaled heavily. "You won't let me be anything else. Because I let you think I wasn't capable of being anything else."

"It isn't like that," Ban said once more, in tones firm and final. "You don't get it. Just leave it alone, Ginji. It's fine the way it is."

"I'm not fine with it the way it is." Ginji sank to the ground, weary, and drew his knees up to his chin. The asphalt was cool beneath him, littered with Ban's shriveled cigarette butts. "I'm not fine with seeing you like this."

Ban snorted derisively. "Like what?"

Ginji thought about that for a moment. "Hurt," he said finally. "I don't like seeing you hurt."

Ban looked down at his seated partner, a curious expression on his face. "You shouldn't worry about things like that. If you want to talk about what happened tonight…"

"That's just it, Ban-chan! You don't mind sharing my…" he groped for a word, "problems… but you won't share yours." He pulled his shoulders back and sat up straight, tilting his head back until he could see Shinjuku's lights glittering in Ban's eyes.

"Never needed to, Ginji," Ban said quietly after a moment.

"Sorrow shared is sorrow halved," Ginji quoted. Perhaps it was a bit trite, but the old truism was one Ban had taught him early in their friendship, and he took a little guilty satisfaction in being able to force those words back down his partner's throat.

"Ginji." There was a funny kind of note in his voice, exasperated and somehow oddly pleased as well. "You can't remember whether even numbered streets run north and south or east and west, but you remember that?" He chuckled softly, and the sound carried over the bridge like a dark, warm wind.

"Ban-chan. Please."

Ban shook his head, and his dark spikes trembled in the evening breeze. His laughter died away. "You're funny, Ginji, worrying over such stupid things. Probably why everyone who meets you thinks you're some kind of saint."

"I want to help." Ginji balled up his fists and rested them on his knees, looking through the slats in the guardrail opposite him into the brilliant night beyond.

"Do you know what I'm feeling?"

Ginji looked up, and the mirth had faded completely from Ban's face.

"I… yeah."

"Do you give a fuck?"

"Of course I do!" His retort was instant and sharp; the question stung.

"If I wanted to discuss it, would you listen?"

Ginji bolted to his feet, hurt and surprised that Ban should even have to ask such things. Then he realized Ban knew the answers already.

"It helps." There it was, Ban's trademark Cheshire cat smile, full of humor and secrets, the grin that touched his mysterious eyes and briefly, briefly opened the windows into his soul. "You're not dead weight, Ginji. Don't think that. You're the first person in a long time to give a damn."

And then he saw what Ban was trying, in his roundabout way, to tell him.

Ban's leadership had released Ginji from the Thunder Emperor's heavy burdens. And in return for that relief, he had taken the knowledge that someone genuinely cared about him, worried over him, loved him, a thing he had never before been certain of. Each offered the other something irreplaceable, if not exactly comparable, and Ban considered it a fair trade.

Shinjuku's lights glittered around them as Ban tapped the last Marlboro out of its carton, lit up, and drew a deep breath of toxic smoke into his lungs. Ginji sat quietly beside him on the rail, listening to the soft whirr and whoosh of cars passing below them, dazzled by the city's radiance, and breathing in the swirling vapors of Ban's expelled worries. When Ban flicked the remnants of his defenses on the ground, they walked side-by-side into the darkness, neither leading nor following, one drawing comfort from the other's strength, the other from his partner's boundless compassion.