I live! Fear not, I haven't forgotten about this or my other fics. :) MANY many thanks to all of you who've read and/or commented – I might not always be able to reply to comments, but please rest assured that I enjoy and treasure them all.

Wishing all of you a happy, healthy and safe 2010 with much goodness! :)

Title: The Keeper's Watch (ch. 10)

Author: Amethyst Hunter

Rating: R (violence, adult content)

Warnings/Spoilers: See above.

Notes: I'm not quite sure where this one came from, but I like the idea so I'm going with it.

According to Wikipedia, per the language of roses, a purple rose is said to mean protection.

Also, the name Mathilda (sometimes spelled Matilda) is of Teutonic derivation, from words meaning "might, strength" and "battle" (alternatively, "strength in battle") – and as we all know, our darling Kuroudo has a fondness for such attributes..!

Disclaimer: GB and its loverly transporters sadly aren't mine.

Summary: Akabane has his hands full chasing after a battle prospect, and when a mysterious visitor appears on his doorstep, he's left to play sitter while trying to stay one step ahead of a deadly adversary.

--

Intent as he was on keeping his mind away from sensitive subjects, and fixed upon his plans to obtain a showdown with the infamous Middleman, Akabane didn't notice right away that Mathilda wasn't eating her food. It was only when he had polished off a third of his meal that he realized the little girl sitting opposite him wasn't doing anything besides staring blankly at the plate resting in front of her.

"Mathilda-chan? Best eat before it gets cold, little one."

No response.

Akabane frowned slightly. Surely she had to be hungry. "Mathilda-chan. Please start eating your breakfast. We have a busy day today. I need to buy us some groceries for tonight."

Still, nothing. Mathilda did not move, did not acknowledge his words with so much as an eye-blink.

Akabane's frown deepened. Was she sick? He put his utensils down and reached out a hand to touch her forehead, sweeping aside the bangs of her hair. A little warm, perhaps, but nothing unusual for a child's temperature, and wasn't the inside of this place a tad on the heated side anyway? "Mathilda-chan, do you feel unwell? Does your stomach hurt?"

He got neither confirmation nor denial to his questions. No news might be good news in its own way, but Akabane was not content to accept the lack of a definitive report. He picked up the girl's fork and slid a small blob of scrambled egg onto the tines, holding this up in front of her lips. "It's very good, I assure you. Please, eat."

Mathilda's mouth remained shut; she wasn't even seeing him or the offered food, but was ensconced firmly in her otherworld. Akabane withheld a sigh and lowered the fork. Something wasn't right here, but he didn't know what.

If she was sick he couldn't very well drag her out and about, or leave her in someone else's care. Yet she was showing no questionable symptoms of illness. What was he supposed to do? Relax, he told himself, one missed meal wasn't the end of the world. Children were fickle in their dietary habits. There was nothing wrong with Mathilda not wanting to eat breakfast.

But some illnesses, he knew from experience, could strike a patient without warning and do devastating damage. Also, it made no sense that a seemingly healthy child would just suddenly refuse food when there was clearly no reason to. The thought of Mathilda suddenly taking sick with something acute sent Akabane's mind into turmoil. He was startled to discover that the mere idea of losing her gave him a kind of panic he wasn't accustomed to experiencing. What he couldn't comprehend, he couldn't fight back against, and what he couldn't fight could well drive him to desperation.

I just don't want to fail this job, that's all. Neglectfulness is as dangerous as conscious abuse.

You're not neglecting her; you've done far more for her than anyone would have had a right to expect from you. Calm down.

I am calm. I just don't like the thought of her going hungry.

She won't starve from skipping breakfast.

But it's not good for her.

Why should you care as long as she stays alive?

Because I don't want her to suffer discomfort.

Why not? A little discomfort never killed anyone. This isn't torture, it's just one missed meal. It's not as if you're refusing her nourishment; she's the one who's chosen not to eat.

But...it's not proper.

Why are you so worried over what's proper?

Because -

You don't care, do you?

But I -

DO YOU?

Akabane felt a damp chillness waft across his skin and realized he had broken out into a slight nervous sweat. He snatched up his napkin and dabbed at his forehead, trying to still the maelstrom inside with several deep, slow breaths. This was nonsense. It could not be allowed to progress any further; the rules he chose to abide by in his life had been set with very good reason. Now he was reaping the penalty for having broken them.

The cafe was modestly busy, with a few regulars and some new customers conducting morning conversation as usual. Outside, the steady noises of the streets purred along, the volume increasing only for moments as patrons came and went through the opening doors. All this sound registered as barely whispers for Akabane in his concentration.

"Mathilda-chan." Again, he picked up the fork with its speared egg and gently nudged it against the child's closed lips. "If you don't eat something, you'll be hungry all morning."

His advice went unheeded. Mathilda's mouth continued to stay steadfastly closed against two more light taps of the fork. She didn't even seem to notice its presence, or that of anything or anyone else, preferring her solitary inner confinement to outside stimulation.

Akabane withheld a breath of frustration. Well, there was no help for it – if the girl didn't want to eat, nothing on earth could make her and it was pointless to press the issue. He stuffed the insistent little crow of worry as far down as it would go in his mind, quietly telling himself that such emotion served no useful purpose and he was better off ignoring it. Mathilda would come around by lunchtime.

And if she doesn't?

He worked on the rest of his own food, but it now tasted like dust in his mouth. He made himself eat it all anyway, firmly keeping his eyes on the plate and resisting the urge to glance up at his charge. This was not fear, no; it was simply focus. She didn't seem to be aware of anything, after all, so he needn't bother with the idea that she could be watching him all the while.

The waitress came and cleared their dishes. He requested a small container to take Mathilda's portion home in, and it was given to him along with the bill. He packed up the uneaten breakfast, thinking that it could be reheated later. Once Mathilda was bundled into her winter gear he took her and the takeout container with him to pay for their meal.

They stopped back at the apartment to drop off the leftovers in the refrigerator. From there they walked to a bus stop and waited for the next ride, Akabane mentally listing what stocks he would need for their city visit. He would have to make extra allowances for Ban, being that the retriever's stomach was an infamous bottomless pit. By the time their bus arrived and they'd boarded, he had already plotted which purchases to make, and for whom.

The grocery store was about as crowded as anyplace else this time of year – shoppers looking for ingredients for their big holiday dinners, or bargain-hunters routing out the best deals. Mathilda paid them no heed as her caretaker seated her in a cart and began methodically mining the aisles for items, anxious to complete his task and move on to the next order of business.

Akabane briefly considered offering her choice in the matter as he tried to pick things he felt would make good meals for her. But she showed no interest in him or in the supplies, and he was on a schedule. Midway through the store Himiko phoned again to let him know when she and Maguruma could be expected. Akabane quickly finished his trip and headed to the front to pay.

The bus was late in returning to its pickup point, having been delayed by maintenance issues. It could have been blamed on the weather – the skies were once again threatening gloom, and the salt used by road workers to protect against slippery conditions was known for its corrosive effects on vehicles. Whatever the cause, Akabane was relieved when at last the bus pulled up curbside so they could get back home. He still needed to get the groceries put away and Mathilda safely packed off to the daycare center before his comrades showed up.

Fate cooperated with him on that count and they made it back to the apartment right around the start of the lunch hour. Akabane lost no time in putting away only the perishables and reheating the leftovers of Mathilda's breakfast. But once again, when he placed the dish of pleasantly steaming food in front of her, she made no move to touch it.

"Mathilda-chan. You must be hungry by now. We need to go somewhere shortly, so I'd appreciate it if you'd at least have a few bites."

With her flat expression and unseeing gaze, Mathilda's quiet posture seemed to say she had no concern for his itinerary.

Akabane resisted a sigh of impatience. He scooped up a bit of egg on the fork and tried offering it to her, gently brushing it against her closed mouth, but met with no more success than he'd had this morning in coaxing her to eat anything.

"Mathilda-chan, if you don't eat there won't be anything until suppertime, and I don't know if the sitter service I have to take you to will have any snacks. You'd best eat now," he added, a shade warningly, annoyed with both her refusal and himself, for letting this silent opposition get under his skin. It wasn't as if it really mattered in the grand scheme of things whether she ate correctly or not.

The girl's immobility might have agreed with such philosophy, for she still made no effort to take Akabane up on his advice. He finally let the sigh budding inside his throat escape in a wordless hiss and took the untouched plate away, setting it beside the sink. He could deal with it later.

He checked his pocketwatch; Himiko and Maguruma could show up at any time. Akabane dressed Mathilda in her coat and hat and made a beeline for the daycare down the street. He fixed a polite smile firmly in place and suffered through the director's cheery explanation of how the center worked and what options they offered to parents on a busy timeline. After filling out the necessary paperwork and setting up the hours of Mathilda's stay, he was ready to leave her in the cloying but capable hands of Mrs. Yoshida.

Mathilda promptly latched onto Akabane's trouser leg with a mute vengeance and wouldn't let go, no matter how many times he or the director nicely pleaded with her. Akabane forced another smile and offered an explanation while he attempted to undo the girl's fingers around her fistful of material. "She's just very shy. She's really a very well-behaved child. Only she doesn't speak much."

"I'm sure everything will be fine once she settles in," the director assured him. "We have quite a lot of first-timer anxiety, but they calm down as soon as they've had a chance to adjust." She smiled at the little girl. "Mathilda-chan? It's okay, sweetie. There's nothing to be afraid of."

Akabane refrained from pointing out that it wasn't fear motivating Mathilda's unhappy stance. Indeed, he was finding it increasingly difficult to believe that this little creature, stubborn as she was, could be afraid of anything. He finally managed to get his trouser leg unstuck – the child had a grip that would have done Ban Midou's Snakebite proud - and quickly grasped Mathilda's wrists in his hands to keep her from taking another grab at him.

He looked her in the eye, willing her to see him and accept the situation for what it was. "Mathilda-chan, I have to go. I have some things that I need to do and I can't take you with me. Now, I promised that I would look after you. Do you really think that I would leave you with people who wouldn't be good to you? I want you to be a good girl for me and behave for this nice lady. As soon as I'm finished with my business I'll come back and take you home, and then we can have some dinner. Do you understand?"

He didn't wait to see whether his command would garner any response; he wasn't expecting any. To Mrs. Yoshida, he said, "She hasn't eaten any breakfast or lunch so I'm suspecting that she might be feeling a bit under the weather. But I don't think she has anything contagious. Most likely it's just nerves."

"Not to worry," the director said. "Many new children don't eat well if they know they're going to be separated from their parents for a while. We've found that once they get involved in activities and have had some time to relax that their appetites come back shortly. We do have juice and crackers served throughout the afternoon, and there are also hot lunches my assistant makes for the day-goers."

Assured that Mathilda wouldn't go hungry in his absence, Akabane passed her over to the elderly woman. She took the child's hand in hers and led her towards a group of other children about the same age who were playing with some building blocks. Akabane hadn't intended to watch them depart, but as he was ready to walk out the door he happened to raise his head just as the little girl was looking over her shoulder, and he caught Mathilda's stare drilling a sharp hole through him.

Liar, her sullen gaze seemed to say. You abandoned me too.

Something in him surged at that moment and it was all Akabane could do not to call out, to reclaim Mathilda and go back to the apartment, schedule be damned. He felt stunningly helpless, run through not by any enemy's weapon but by the spike of a child's simple distress. Woodenly he forced one foot in front of the other, made himself turn his back to the scene and leave without a sound.

It wasn't true. He wasn't like Mathilda's real guardians, hadn't ditched her in the middle of nowhere to fend for herself. He'd given her shelter, food, amenities all at his expense, had demanded nothing more than basic manners by way of payment.

And he'd betrayed her trust in him by dismissing her one obvious wish: to spend this time only with him.

Akabane picked up his pace on the way back to his apartment, growling wordless frustration beneath his breath. Damn these wretched feelings swamping him in their midst! He had done nothing wrong! So why was he feeling this confused, this rattled? Why couldn't he seem to get control of his own emotions no matter how hard he struggled to contain them?

Weak, taunted that inner voice again. Pathetic. Useless. Mortal.

I left her. I'm no better than her family, whoever they are.

Stop your sniveling, you fool. She's not scared, you said so yourself.

But she's alone in an unfamiliar environment. Nobody else understands her like I do.

As if you're the only person in the world who knows how to care for an orphaned child. You used to care about more important things, remember? Maybe that's why the Get Backers seem to best you so easily. Maybe that's why you can't get close to this Middleman. You're too soft. You waste time and energy on matters out of your league when those resources could be put to better use. What a sorry wretch you are. Hardly worthy of the fearsome reputation you've worked so hard to create. Whipped jackal is more like it...

Somehow he managed to harden his heart to a cold, crisp stone by the time he got back to the building and spotted Maguruma and Himiko waiting in the lobby. Akabane withdrew into his usual composure, not bothering to offer even a passing platitude to explain his tardiness, knowing that his cohorts were used to his unpredictable habits.

Maguruma got right to the point. He slapped Akabane on the shoulder as they took the elevator up to his place. "I told you to call me this morning. How's that rip in your side?"

"It's fine, Maguruma," Akabane sighed. "You know I've suffered worse before."

"More like the opposition gets the worst of it in that case," Himiko snorted. "I had the TV on this morning. Rough night, I take it?" she asked unsympathetically. The fighting was one thing, but they all knew how much she hated the fact that Akabane killed when it wasn't necessary to do so, not that he cared either way about her opinion of his pursuits.

"They started it," Akabane told her just as mercilessly. "I merely ended it. Isn't that so, Gouzou?"

The big man shrugged, giving Himiko a wry glance. "It's true," he admitted. "We sat in that airport terminal for over an hour waiting to nab our pickup for the client, and then the goon squad came looking for us dressed to kill. And I mean that literally."

Himiko just shook her head without making a sound, knowing that nothing she could say would make any difference in how Akabane treated his opponents.

Inside the apartment he offered them refreshments, which were declined, and he briefly excused himself to shed his coat and hat, and fetch the printout of the map he'd had Makubex make for him. They all gathered at the kitchen table while Akabane opened up the map and explained the situation.

"You can see that the kills to date are circling a particular patch of real estate. Yes, Mugenjou," he added, catching the raised brow Himiko sent him.

"I hate that damn place," she muttered. "Trouble's always brewing there."

"It's the nature of the beast," Akabane said, shrugging. "But if my estimation is correct, it works to my advantage. Abilities are heightened in there, and unless the Middleman enjoys some favor that I'm as yet unaware of, the superiority will be mine. I know the turf, I know the workings, and I can corner him undisturbed. If I have to, I can even request that Makubex corral us into a VR to guarantee privacy."

"Sounds risky," Maguruma said. "Don't those VRs fluctuate because of the energy shifts?"

Akabane smiled, his first genuine one since awakening to Ban's surprise visit. See how much better it is by focusing on truly important business. "Everything good in life is always risky, Gouzou. As a general rule the VRs do change, but not if Makubex exerts a conscious control over them. He can manipulate any environment he chooses, so it ought to be an easy matter for him to ensure that the Middleman finds his way straight into my trap." Already he could feel his earlier churlish mood evaporating like mist on the water, his tension ebbing into a pleasant anticipation. This was something worth getting excited over.

"But why Mugenjou? If he wants to make a splash there's plenty of targets in downtown Shinjuku alone that would get enough attention," Himiko said.

"But none as notorious as we are," Akabane said. "And no one besides us really understands the significance of that place. Everyone else goes out of their way to avoid it; they barely even make spoken mention of it if they can help themselves. That's probably why the police haven't bothered to publicize the case beyond what's already common street knowledge."

"Nobody wants to acknowledge a place that officially doesn't exist," Maguruma nodded his agreement.

"Or one that they'd prefer wasn't there, at any rate," Akabane added.

"I don't know. You know what they say about a thing that seems too good to be true," Himiko cautioned. She frowned, started to bite her lip, then transformed it into a thin grimace that could have been either a half-smile or a scowl. "But it's as good a plan as any, I guess." She looked up from the map to Akabane, her eyes clear with all traces of hesitation erased – when she made up her mind to commit to a battle, she did so full steam ahead. "Who's the would-be corpse before the Middleman gets to us?" She tapped the seventh dot marked as a live target on the map.

"Spydra Kintaro. We align ourselves with him temporarily until he gets a call, then we put the word out that the dropoff point is Mugenjou. Except that the Middleman won't be intercepting him when it comes time to ambush the delivery. I'll be waiting for him." Akabane's mouth curled into a subtle, feral delight.

"Might not be so easy convincing him to share runs, even with the threat of the Middleman," Maguruma said. "I know for a fact that he never turns down a trip for the Washu Inn Group, and they hire him like clockwork every holiday. He won't be happy about us crashing his favorite party."

"He also won't be happy about the likelihood of winding up dead," Himiko pointed out. "As long as we make it clear we're there for protection and not out to poach his claim, he shouldn't give us much resistance. Akabane's the one with the real interest vested here anyway – would you say no to Doctor Jackal if he wanted to take out the enemy stalking you?"

They shared a quiet chuckle over that. "I'm prepared to meet with Kintaro-san this afternoon to discuss the proposal. How does your schedule look?" Akabane asked Himiko.

"I'm free for the day. Maguruma?"

"Soon as I clock out at five I can grab the truck and meet you. Spydra knows we're coming?"

"He will," Akabane said, pulling out his cell phone.

He started to punch in the number to access the other transporter's answering service and Himiko said, "Since when do you eat anything with a clown's face printed on it, Jackal?"

He fumbled in his entering of numbers and had to close his phone to stop the wrong call from going through. Akabane looked up to see Himiko holding a can of children's ravioli, part of the groceries for Mathilda that he'd not yet stored in the pantry. "The smaller portions are more convenient to pack for lunches on trips," he said after a moment's thought.

Maguruma caught his eye and raised a brow. Akabane narrowed his eyes in warning. Himiko saw their exchange and leveled them both with a glare. "What's going on here?"

"It's going to come to light sooner or later," Gouzou told Akabane. "Might as well get it over with."

"Get what over with?" Himiko's fierce glower was now fully trained on Akabane.

Maguruma gestured encouragingly at him, but Akabane wasn't about to relent. "What Maguruma is trying to say, and doing a very poor job of it," he said, freezing his tone momentarily to make a point, "is that Midou-kun is far easier to entice if his partner Ginji-kun is likewise as pacified when it comes to empty stomachs."

Himiko looked from the can of ravioli to him, then back again, then set the can on the counter with a wary look at Akabane. She might not have accepted that excuse, but she knew when to let what was clearly a sensitive subject fall by the wayside. "Sure you bought enough? Those two would eat your whole place down if they could."

"I've planned ahead. It won't be a problem," Akabane said, relieved that Gouzou hadn't seen fit to blow his secret concerning Mathilda just now. "Well. Shall I set up our meeting with Spydra?"

"Go ahead. I've got to get back to the dispatch headquarters. Himiko, can I drop you somewhere?" Maguruma offered.

"You can just leave me downtown. I've got some errands to run anyway. I'll stay in the area until it's time to go to Spydra's," she said. Getting up, she pointed at Akabane. "Don't be too rough on Ban tonight. I might need him for a job later this week."

This time Akabane managed to get the number he wanted dialed correctly. Holding the phone to his ear as he listened to the ringing tones on the other end, he said, "I will see to it that Midou-kun has decent functional use of all his limbs."

"Decent by whose definitions," he heard her mumble, but he paid his departing comrades little heed as his attention was distracted by the answering of the other line. While Akabane dealt with Spydra's answering service, Maguruma passed by the other side of the table. He leaned down and mouthed in front of Akabane, "Coward."

A good-natured jibe every now and then was par for the course with them, but this was not a time when such jousting was welcome. Akabane freed a scalpel and pointed it at Maguruma. Gouzou huffed quietly and waved a hand at him, but the message had been understood. He would get peppered by Himiko's questions in Jackal's absence, but he would respect Akabane's desire for privacy and reveal nothing of the truth.

As the driver left to follow Himiko, Akabane concentrated on relaying his business to the answering service. By tonight, plans would have been put into motion heralding the Middleman's downfall, and he, the Jackal, would celebrate with a lover who could appreciate the value of a choice battle.

He spared no further thought for the little girl whose fate also rested in his hands. She meant nothing to him. Nothing at all.

He was the only person she trusted most in this world, and he'd betrayed her.

--

TBC