Title: Behind The Wheel

Author: Amethyst Hunter

Fandom/pairing: Get Backers, Akabane/anyone (in this case, Gouzou "No-Brakes" Maguruma and some implied Akabane/Ban)

Word count: 7353

Rating: PG (implied m/m, suggestive kink)

Warnings/Spoilers: See above.

Notes: Based on a prompt from the springkink LJ community. Prompt: "Bloodplay - 'I can taste it just for a second.'

Disclaimer: GB isn't mine.

Summary: Gouzou Maguruma gets a little bit of insight into what makes one of his cohorts tick when Akabane plays counselor.

--

The footsteps hardly echoed, even on the cement flooring. The man was as stealthy as a cat and if I hadn't been so used to his ways it would have scared the daylights out of me. As it was, I was gritting my teeth for the umpteenth time in anticipation of the established pattern for the day. If this kept up, I was seriously considering tying him to the nearest post of my garage and gagging him just to have some peace. I'd have to figure out a way to keep him from using his hands, though.

Black boots stopped off to the side, and I braced myself for the inevitable.

"Gouzou," that soft voice whined from above. "I'm bored."

I didn't bother to roll out from underneath Betty to answer him. "Go watch television."

"I don't like television."

"Find a book, then."

"I've read your entire encyclopedic collection of the history of the automobile. There's only so many times I can stand to see the phrase 'dual-brake suspension' in print before I have the urge to scale walls with my fingernails."

"Practice your juggling skills. God knows you've got plenty of toys for that."

A tiny growl rose from a pale throat. "You're not taking me seriously."

"Nope," I agreed.

"I bet you would if I put a big J in your upholstery."

"I bet you value all those skewers staying inside your body instead of being emptied out in one burst," I replied. "I have the phone number for that electro-kid's retrieval service. One call from me, and – "

"Ha! Ginji-kun would never agree to such a thing, and do you know why?"

"I suppose you're going to enlighten me."

"It's because Ginji-kun is loyal to Midou-kun, and Midou-kun is still very displeased with you for having removed his rear bumper last month."

"He shouldn't have cut in front of me like that," I said. "A 900-pound shoebox versus a twelve-ton rig? C'mon. I can't help it if the laws of physics work in my favor."

"Besides, I'm carrying ceramic today, so it wouldn't work anyway."

I stifled a grunt of annoyance. A petulant Akabane was sometimes more of a handful than my six-year-old. Rolling out from beneath Betty, I leveled him with a look. "You could help, and this would go a lot faster."

He gave a semi-pouting shrug. "Mechanics don't interest me."

"I rest my case. Don't bitch about the driver taking care of his routine maintenance if you're not going to make yourself useful." I would have picked up where I left off, but Akabane wasn't done bemoaning his fate yet.

"Well, I don't drive. My specialty lies elsewhere. And unless you know of any vehicle dealers that moonlight as fighters, I don't see what good that will do you." He gave a dark little chuckle.

"You don't have to be a repair expert to be useful," I told him as I wiped my hands on a cloth and picked up a wrench. "You can pass me tools, or help me move things when I tell you to." After determining that the wrench was the appropriate size, I scooted the dolly back to my original spot. "And you never know about driving. You might get a job where you're the one who'll have to get behind the wheel."

"I doubt that. I have no patience for traffic jams." Another little chuckle. "Why do you think I enjoy pairing with you all the time? My tastes are simple. I like the best."

I finished adjusting the part I'd been working on and slid out into the open again. "Traffic jams are only a problem if you get stuck in them. Learn the right routes to take and there's nothing to it."

Akabane smiled. "I rest my case." He turned and sidled towards the workbench where I kept some of my more commonly-used tools. "My. This looks interesting." He held up a large, pronged instrument. "What is it?"

"That is a hydraulic cutter. Don't touch it, or you'll slice your fingers off," I said as I replaced the wrench in its box and sifted through the loose debris in the top drawer compartments.

"Of course. After all, it's not as if I've ever had experience in handling sharp objects," Akabane sniffed. But he did as I said and set the tool back on the bench. "How are things with Suzume-san?"

I managed to catch the bolt fumbling through my fingers in time. He could be a tricky bastard like that, shifting from one subject to another as swiftly as he produced his knives. I was just glad I wasn't running diagnostics when he opened his mouth. Intricate operations didn't go so well with shaky hands.

I raised a brow at him. "Is this a polite inquiry or are you just being nosy?"

Akabane tilted his head in a way he probably thought made him look innocent. He could be almost endearing that way, in a childlike manner. His smile ruined it though. It was just too sharp. "That bad, hmm?"

I grunted.

The smile evaporated. "I'm sorry."

The weird thing was, Akabane actually meant it – whatever else he was, he was a gentleman to a fault. I'd seen him run through people with his scalpels using no more effort than one might take to swat flies, and without fail, he'd thank them during their dying gasps for being such good opposition and ask as to whether or not their final positions were comfortable enough – if a guy had fallen the wrong way on his leg, or was choking facedown on his own blood, Jackal would carefully rearrange their bodies into what he felt was a more dignified settlement. Never mind, of course, that watching one's innards spill out onto the pavement in the shape of a J was about as undignified as it got.

I shrugged. "It'll be all right. Suzume's mad now, but she'll get over it soon enough. She knows where I'm coming from and we'll make up like we always do."

Akabane frowned and out of habit lifted a hand to adjust his hat – before realizing that he wasn't wearing it. The day was warm enough that we'd foregone our usual outerwear in favor of a t-shirt and plain dress shirt, respectively. "She won't forget it, though. Women view resentment in different terms than men do. You'd be better off lancing this wound while it's fresh and you have the opportunity, if I may say so."

"It's not that easy." I sighed and got up, dusting off my jeans as I pushed the dolly out of the way. "It's personal things between the two of us."

Akabane tapped a gloved finger to his lips as he perched on a stool. "I imagine that everything about marriage is personal. Why should this be any different?"

"Because it's private personal things," I answered, getting a clean cloth from the hamper and a stepstool from the corner.

"Mmm. Private as in not public knowledge, or private as in you intend to be a stubborn bear and bottle it all up inside?"

"Take your pick."

Akabane's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "You know, Gouzou, I can't help but think that being married is a lot like maintaining one of your vehicles. If you don't give your marriage regular check-ups and proper fueling, sooner or later it stalls out on you when you need it the most."

"That's a surprisingly accurate and completely useless description of my situation," I said while I adjusted the controls on the floor jacks. There was a rush of air as the hydraulics slowly lowered Betty to the ground, followed by the clanking of the lift's supports as they finished settling. "What's it supposed to mean?"

The spine of an elegant eyebrow arched like a cat's back. "When was the last time you had sex?"

I nearly dropped the footstool I was setting up and scowled at him. "That's none of your business."

"That long? Oh my." Akabane looked rather surprised. "No wonder you're so upset."

"I'm not upset."

"Then why are you about to polish the hood of your truck with windshield washing fluid?"

I looked at the open bottle that I was about to pour onto the cloth. "I'm going to wipe down the windshield first, that's why," I grumbled after a minute.

Akabane chuffled with amusement. "It's nothing to be ashamed of. Sex is a very important part of a committed relationship." He coughed delicately over the quiet humming I'd started to drown him out. "I realize you're not the only man I know who's named his truck, but you surely must be the only one I know that introduces it to his associates as 'the baby of the family.'"

"Well, she is," I said, patting my sweetheart. "Betty's a good girl. She's earned the right to a little pampering for all she's done for me."

Akabane smiled wryly. "Maguruma, if I were a practicing psychologist, I would strongly suggest that you seek professional help."

"This coming from someone who thinks fine art consists of a giant letter carved into dead bodies."

"That's different." He sighed. "It's not the outcome that pleases me. It's the process."

"What process? You meet someone, whip out the scalpel, and it's done."

"Not always. Sometimes I'm lucky enough to meet someone good enough to give me a real fight. That's what I want, you know. There's nothing quite like an invigorating hunt." Akabane uncrossed his legs and gave me a pointed stare. "What did Suzume-san ask for that has you out of sorts?"

"I told you, Jackal," I said, injecting a warning tone into my words. "It's personal. We'll work it out on our own terms, in our own good time."

Typical Akabane, he got a kick out of living dangerously. He got up from his seat and strolled closer. "Gouzou, I'm a doctor. I assure you, there isn't anything I haven't heard in the realm of human experiences that I would find embarrassing or uncomfortable."

"Maybe not, but I would be embarrassed," I said.

"I could call Himiko-san and ask her for her advice on recommended aphrodisiacs," he pressed. "I'm sure she has something in her repertoire that would be helpful. Midou-kun and I were quite delighted by the Love Nest perfume she let us try out."

"That reminds me. If I ever catch you and your retriever boyfriend making out in my truck again, you're walking every job we work for a year," I growled, jabbing a finger in his direction.

Akabane's slyness remained firm. "I'm afraid I haven't the foggiest notion of what you're talking about."

I gave him a look and went over to the workbench, picking up a pair of purple-tinted glasses. "These look familiar to you? I found 'em while I was cleaning out the back of the cab."

"So that's where they went."

He took the glasses from me and I shot him another scowl. "Why would you care so much about my dilemma? I thought you were easily bored."

A beatific smile this time. "You have my interest now."

I threw the cloth that I was still holding at him. Naturally, he caught it. "Ah, go find some protectors to whack instead."

"Magu-ru-maaa," Akabane called. "I have a vested interest in your well-being, don't you understand."

"How so?"

"A happy transporter is an effective transporter. If you aren't happy, then my chances of finding worthwhile entertainment on the job are decreased. Then I won't be happy. And, Gouzou," Akabane murmured with a raised fist that now resembled a cactus's angry needles, "you know what happens when I'm not happy…"

"Weirdo."

He laughed quietly and put his blades away. "You'll have to do better than that if you want to throw names at me." Akabane grinned. "Take Midou-kun, now. Most would argue that he's quite the vulgarian, but he has an enviable ability to invent the most creative insults."

"Which I'm sure he's had ample opportunity to try out on you."

"But of course," Akabane purred. "What are friends for, after all?"

I finished cleaning the windshield and went to fetch another clean rag. I should have known better – you never ever turned your back on Akabane when he was in an inquisitive mood. Barely had I pulled out the fresh cloth I wanted and turned around than a pair of mischievous purple eyes was nearly nose-to-nose with me. I slammed the brakes on a dual urge; jumping would have given him more satisfaction than I was prepared to concede, and throttling him would deprive me of a decent transport partner.

"I thought I told you not to do that," I growled.

Akabane smiled sweetly. "You tell me lots of things, Gouzou. That doesn't mean I'll always listen." He leaned closer. "Now kiss me."

I thought I hadn't heard right. "What?"

"Kiss me. Right here. Right now." Akabane looked up at me expectantly, hands folded behind his back. I'd have suspected an ambush by scalpels if it wasn't for the devious twinkle in his eye.

I started to step around him, but he kept pace with me, blocking my way. I frowned at him. "Are you so desperate for entertainment that you'd try picking a fight with me?"

"Oh no, no, not at all," Akabane said reassuringly. "Just an experiment. You'd be helping yourself out more than me by playing along. So won't you be a good sport?"

I rolled my eyes. "You know I'm never a good sport when it comes to stupid games. Why do you think I went into the courier business strictly as a driver? Driving is straightforward, simple. No politics or runaround. I don't have the patience for that crap."

"Neither do I," Akabane replied. "It's one of the reasons we get along so well."

I considered this. Akabane never did anything without a reason behind it, even something as off the wall as what he was proposing. He knew full well that I didn't swing that way, and though I hated to admit it, I was just curious enough to wonder what he had in mind.

"One kiss," I said, holding up a finger. "Lips only, and closed. And no longer than necessary."

"You are a good sport, Maguruma," Akabane said, smiling as he rose on his toes and laid a gloved palm against my shoulder for support. "Just pretend I'm Suzume-san."

That was easier said than done, considering that my wife wasn't prone to carrying around an entire arsenal inside her body. Still, there was no help for it now but to plow over this pothole. I shut my eyes and bent my head. It wasn't so bad, and Akabane kept his word, pressing his mouth to mine firmly without attempting further trickery. It was almost like granting my mother-in-law the obligatory cheek-kiss greeting, I decided, and relaxed – or I was, until –

"OW!" I yanked my head back and rubbed my sore lower lip. "What the hell was that for?!"

The tip of Akabane's tongue daintily flicked away the red spot on his own lips from where he'd just bitten me. "You should take a multivitamin, Gouzou. You could do with just a bit more iron in your blood."

He'd immediately darted backwards after the bite, having anticipated a much-deserved pummeling. I advanced on him anyway, twisting the cleaning rag in my hands like a whip. "Very funny, smartass. Why'd you bite me?"

"How do you feel?"

"Like I'm about to score some Jackal roadkill."

Akabane gave me a look. "I'm serious."

"So am I."

The smile was long gone, replaced by deadly focus. Akabane locked gazes with me and unfolded his arms from across his chest. A raised fist, and two scalpels popped up in warning.

Sometimes you were the bird, and sometimes you were the windshield.

"Well up until you bit me, it was fine," I grumbled, still rubbing the sore spot. I tasted copper; it was still bleeding in spite of the rag that I'd pressed to it. "I swear, if you weren't such a human porcupine, I'd put you over my knee and paddle you good for some of your crazy antics!"

His smile returned, sly as ever. "What makes you think I wouldn't enjoy that? Honestly, Gouzou, if you weren't married, and I wasn't seeing Midou-kun…" He winked. "I like a strong partner who knows what to do with his hands."

I glared at him, trying to gauge whether he was serious or not. Akabane loved to throw things out for shock value to entertain himself. Knowing him, he probably was being honest – Himiko had told me she'd caught him and that Midou punk doing worse before – but I was no longer in the mood for Jackal's cat-and-mouse brand of teasing. "Is there a point to this or are you just amusing yourself at my expense?"

Akabane sighed. "Biting aside, did you like it?"

"It was okay," I said. "I'm not into playing both sides of the median like you, remember?"

"But it was pleasurable enough, yes?"

"Yeah."

"And when I did bite you, anger notwithstanding, what did you feel then? An adrenaline rush, perhaps?"

I stalked past him, over to the workbench, and dragged out the chair to sit on. "I guess so."

"It excited you," Akabane said. "Not in the sense that it pleased you, but it stimulated your senses into a higher level of awareness. Fear can be its own aphrodisiac, you know."

"If that's the case then it's a wonder your opponents aren't positively orgasmic," I snorted.

He did laugh at that. "Please. Most of them don't have the good sense to appreciate the skilled art of a truly passionate battle. A fierce struggle between two powerful and cunning entities, the thrill of seeking that domination…" Akabane smiled wistfully. "Midou-kun is the only one I've ever met who understands that desire. Unless you count Raitei. But Ginji-kun never lets him out to play, so I haven't been able to find out," he added sadly.

"Kid's got some sense, then," I said. "He might not have two axles to grease together in his head otherwise, but I'd say he has you pegged if he won't take the bait."

"Hmph." Akabane smiled tolerantly at me. "This isn't about me, Gouzou. In that split-second of fear that you felt when I bit you, my random action had you captive in uncertainty. You had no idea what I might do after that and your senses went on alert, making you feel the tension of the moment. It makes for quite a memorable experience, doesn't it?"

"Not one I'd care to repeat," I told him shortly.

"Under controlled conditions, you might," Akabane said. "That's what Suzume-san wants, isn't it?"

I made the mistake of looking him in the eye. Damn him, he had a knack for cutting to the heart of a matter. Irritated with the way he'd finally pried the news out of me, I broke the stare and checked the rag. My lip was still bleeding. "Happy now? You've gotten your blood quota for the day." In more ways than one, I thought.

"Let me see it." Akabane came over and examined the wound. "Oh, it's not that bad. Goodness, I've had paper cuts worse than this."

"I'll gladly give you one to match, and then you can tell me it isn't that bad." I grimaced as the wound stretched from the movements of my mouth. "Hurts, too. Did you have to bite down so hard?"

"I'm sorry. I wasn't intending to, I assure you." Akabane slipped a hand into a trouser pocket and withdrew a small cylinder. "Get an ice cube and hold it against the spot. That will keep down the swelling too." He uncapped the cylinder and lifted it to my lip.

"What's that?"

"Styptic pencil. Stops the bleeding."

He swiped the remedy over the injury and we waited. A cursory check of the rag showed me that it was working. "Thanks," I muttered.

Akabane recapped his pencil and put it back in his pocket. "You're welcome. So. What will you do about Suzume-san?"

I got up and slung the soiled rag into the dirty bin. "I told you. I'll deal with it."

"It frightens you, doesn't it? It's easy to tolerate a stranger's idiosyncrasies when you don't have to deal with them, but when those of your closest confidante are called into question, it's threatening. There's no need to worry, Maguruma. I hardly think that Suzume-san is the type to decorate with head-to-toe leather and piercings. All she wants is a bit of excitement, nothing more."

I got another rag from the hamper and checked to be sure that what I was putting on it was proper vehicle polish. "I thought she was happy," I said, more to myself than to him. "I do my best. I try, anyway. I want her to be happy. I'm a good father, a loyal husband."

"Of course you are," Akabane said soothingly, coming around by my side to rest his arms on Betty's grill. "I'm sure it's not your fault, Gouzou. These things happen. Even the best relationships need a bit of spice from time to time. What harm could it do to indulge her curiosity, just once? The worst that could happen is that you don't get any pleasure from it."

I rubbed the streaks of polish a little harder into the black finish. "It just seems like I failed her somehow. It's silly, I know, but it's all that's been going through my mind since she told me what she wanted to try."

Akabane shook his head. "It's not silly. Hardly unique, but far from silly." He turned and leaned on his side, one hand resting casually in his pocket, smiling at me. "Come now, Maguruma. Who told you where to find the best pediatrician in Shinjuku when your daughter had a persistent case of strep throat this past winter? And who saved your life in Okinawa last week when we were ambushed by those guards? Who brought you to your senses when Midou-kun stunned you with a Jagan and you were about to drive us all off the road into the lake?"

I paused in my motions, my reflection a resigned shade of grey in the unclouded dark shine of Betty's paint. I looked at Akabane.

His smile was gentle. "Don't you think you should trust me after all this time that we've worked together? I know what I'm talking about."

I shrugged. "You ever been married, Akabane?"

His smile receded some and his eyes lowered, but he didn't turn away from me. He met my gaze again, suddenly, unfathomable mystery. "I never kiss and tell."

My mouth thinned, but I didn't say anything else. I picked up polishing where I'd left off.

Akabane resumed his infernal prodding. "Do you know what Midou-kun and I do in bed?"

"I thought you just said you weren't into sharing."

"I'm not. I'm making an exception for you because I like you, so you ought to pay attention."

I dabbed more polish onto the cloth. "I'm honored. Do I really want to hear this?"

Akabane twirled a strand of his dark hair around a white fingertip. "Probably not, but I'm going to tell you anyway. We play at blood-sport when we make love. It's our way of bonding in the thrill of the experience with each other. That's all sex is, Gouzou. It's communication with your partner on an intimate level that only the two of you share." He smiled. "I don't see any problem in experimenting with new avenues of interest. If you really want to make Suzume-san happy, you'll respect her invitation. Think of it as a brave new highway you're navigating, and don't forget to actually apply the brakes once in a while to enjoy the trip. You might be surprised."

I was unwilling to admit that he had sound advice, but a part of me wasn't so ready to dismiss it either, annoyed as I was with him for his politely-couched meddling. "Easy for you to say. You thrive on the unexpected. I'm not used to that."

"You deal with it all the time as a transporter. Why should your marriage be any different?"

"Marriage doesn't usually entail high-speed chases."

"In the beginning, it does," Akabane insisted. "Courtship is all about the chase. Romance is about the excitement. To keep that spark alive and keep the both of you interested in each other, you have to infuse new blood into it every now and then." He had me there, and we both knew it.

I frowned and fiddled with the cap on the bottle of polish. "So you're saying we should chase each other the way we used to when we were dating."

"Exactly. And there's no better time to start than now." Akabane reached into his pocket again and withdrew his phone, which he handed to me. "Call the Get Backers and ask Ginji-kun to watch over your children. I'll take Midou-kun and book us into a hotel room for the night. Then you and Suzume-san will have time all to yourselves."

I flicked open the case, but didn't dial any numbers. "They're retrievers, not babysitters. I don't want my kids playing with electrical sockets, much less a live human current. And his partner's a greedy snake."

Akabane's laughter was low and bubbly. "He's also broke this week and banned from Wan-san's coffee shop until he pays off his tab. He won't turn you down as long as you pay him in cash up front." He patted my shoulder and took the cleaning rag from my other hand, tossing it away. "Ginji-kun will take very good care of your children, I promise." Purple eyes narrowed with wicked glee. "I'll stress to him what will happen if he doesn't."

I looked at the open phone in my hand, and then at Akabane. Well…my mother always said I was one for a good road trip, even if I wasn't the one behind the wheel. "What about the job scheduled for tonight?"

Akabane smiled and we heard the dull thud of a puncture, followed by a loud pop and the hiss of escaping air. I looked down and saw Betty's front left tire sagging into a puddle of slashed rubber.

Akabane slid his scalpel back in between his fingers. "It can wait. Didn't the client say we had until the end of this week to make the drop-off?"

"You sneaky little son of a – "

Merry laughter trickled from Akabane's throat as he calmly slunk away. "Flattery will get you nowhere, Gouzou."

--

"I'm sorry, honey," I said two mornings later, stroking that confident profile that I'd grown to cherish. "I will have a talk with him about meddling in other people's affairs. He needs to stick with what he's good at: teaching corpses the alphabet, and aggravating Lady Poison."

"Oh dear," sighed that voice behind me. "You're talking to it now?"

"Unlike some people I know, Betty doesn't talk back." I patted her flank and rolled the new tire over to her hobbled side. "Your bill's on the bench there, by the way."

"Ah, yes. How much do I owe you?"

I named a figure for his benefit. "The additional expense is for the extra tire, since I buy them in sets. Never hurts to have a spare around in case of emergency."

"Absolutely," Akabane agreed as he took out his phone and began tabbing numbers with his thumb. "Shall I wire the funds directly to your account, or would you prefer something more tangible for easier record-keeping?"

"Wire is fine," I said, removing the hubcap and starting in on the nuts with my cross wrench. "Don't suppose you'd mind helping me with this tire, would you?"

"One moment." Akabane pressed some more buttons on his phone. "There. I've set up instructions for your deposit, so it ought to list in your account by this afternoon." He raised a slender brow as he studied my movements. "Explain to me, please, this business of vehicular maintenance that you wish me to assist you with."

"Coat and hat need to go," I said, getting up to activate the lift mechanism. "You're likely to get them caught in something. And you might want to roll up your sleeves too."

"Very well." While I adjusted the controls to raise Betty to the appropriate height, Akabane set his hat on top of a clean spot on the bench and draped his coat over the back of the seat. From somewhere he produced a rubber band, and tied his hair back with it after unbuttoning and pushing his sleeves higher on his forearms. "Well?"

"Well what?"

"Aren't you going to tell me?"

Oho – his real reason for dropping by. Holding back a snort of laughter, I kept my voice in neutral as I answered. Needling Akabane without the threat of retaliation was a rare delight to be savored. "Tell you what?"

His eyes flashed impatiently as he approached the job at hand. "You know perfectly well what, you beast. You're just stringing me along because you know how much I hate it."

"Serves you right. Hold these, please," I said as I picked up the wrench again and started working on prying loose the rest of the lug nuts in counterclockwise turns. Once those were off, I gave them to Akabane, and I began taking the ruined tire off the wheel. "And yes, I'm enjoying this."

"At least someone's having fun around here," Akabane sulked. I caught the whine in his tone and decided to have some pity on him. I owed him, after all.

"My four-year-old pouts better than you do," I said. "For your information, Suzume and I…let's just say that our union is purring along like a brand-new engine on cruise control." I couldn't stop the silly grin that overtook my face as I said it.

Akabane smiled – a real one, not his habitual courtesy. "Really?"

"Yeah." I hesitated, then added, "I kinda liked those silk strap-things she made me wear…" The memory of it brought a rush of heat to my face – and other places I'd just as soon as not think about right at this moment – so I coughed and quickly changed the subject. "I don't think I'll let electro-kid be in charge of my offspring again, though. He's a bad influence. My daughter's now saying she wants to be a 'lightning queen,' whatever that means."

"Hmm. I wouldn't have guessed that of Ginji-kun. Normally he's quite good with children."

"And I caught the boy-child with the base of a light bulb in his mouth this morning."

"What's wrong with that?"

"He was standing in the filled bathtub about to plug in my wife's hair-dryer."

"Oh my."

One end of the tire was stuck and refused to budge. "Give me a hand here." Akabane obligingly knelt beside me and we worked at the stubborn part until it finally released.

"Do you do this often?"

"Depends on how often I get flats," I said. "And whether or not I have to rotate any of the good tires."

Akabane's brows knit in a little frown. "Why would you have to rotate them?"

"Rotating the tires gives them equal wearing on all sides of the tread," I explained. "They'll last longer and not need replacing as much."

"How do you know when to replace them?"

"You mean if I haven't blown one out? Look here," I told him, running my finger over the top part of the tread on the flat. "See how well-defined all the grooves are? Natural wear will sand them down eventually. Any time you can see tiny threads from the underlying belts peeking through the rubber, it means your tire's getting ready to blow. The more balding you have on a tire the less reliable it is."

"So it's dangerous then," Akabane mused.

"It's not something you want to find out the hard way in the middle of a busy road, that's for sure," I said. "Especially if the weather's bad. You have no traction with wet conditions."

"Odd. You certainly seem to have no trouble with that," Akabane said approvingly.

"That's because I don't drive stupid like some of these other fools on the road," I said smugly. "It's a myth that four-wheel drive automatically makes you invincible."

He smiled. "Hmm. I guess that's why they call you 'Mr. Unstoppable.'"

"Damn right."

We rolled the new tire over and eased it onto the wheel. "Watch the rim. You want it aligned with the bolts," I said. "How'd things go with your night?"

Akabane didn't pause in his motions. "Not as pleasant as yours, I'm afraid. We had a minor disagreement."

"Tore each other up good, eh?"

Akabane shrugged. "He's gotten better at scalpel-dodging."

"In his line of work, he'd have to." I picked up the grease jar and checked the nuts. They still had plenty of lubrication so I put the lid back on the jar without taking any goop out. "He didn't want a fight and you did, is that it?"

Akabane began to pass me the lug nuts, one by one, so I could start them off using my fingers. "He wanted me to admit to something I'm not prepared to confess."

"Mandatory body count?"

"Noooo," Akabane groaned. "It's personal."

I kept tightening the nuts in a cross pattern around the tire, not completely twisting them to the ends but driving each of them in with one full turn, until tension mandated the use of the wrench. "Personal as in not common knowledge, or personal as in you're going to sit there and sulk about it until I drag it out of you?"

"Touché, Mr. No-Brakes," Akabane muttered softly as his own words landed squarely in his lap.

I got up again and lowered the lift not quite completely to the ground. "Bet this makes you feel like you're in med school again, huh?" I grinned at him when he raised his brow at me. "I'm the doctor and you're my assistant. Our operation is delicate, but with teamwork, the surgery will be successful."

"Ha, ha," Akabane responded with a slightly sour tone. "If you're going to make medical jokes, Gouzou, you could at least be original about it."

"Now who's not being a good sport?" I held out my hand. "Wrench. Thanks." I finished tightening all the nuts. "You gave me good advice. Now let me give you some of mine. Partners worth being with don't come along every day. I was lucky to have Suzume take a chance on me. It's your turn to take the risk. You said fear's a turn-on for you."

"I was referring to a specific situation."

"Same difference. Everything's a battle for you, Akabane. With some fights, the only way you can really win is if you win together, not pitted opposite each other."

He frowned. "That doesn't make sense."

"It does once you make the effort." I gave the last nut one more turn. "Go push down on that green lever there."

Akabane got up and flicked the lever to its bottom position. The lift settled, leaving Betty on the garage floor once more. I took the wrench and gave each nut one more rotation to be sure they were on there properly. "Hubcap," I said, laying aside the wrench.

Akabane passed it over. "You know I'm only interested in certain aspects."

"Then you're missing out on a whole new level of pleasure. Oh well, it's your loss." The hubcap was easily restored to its rightful place, and I leaned back and stretched. "Congratulations, Doctor Jackal. Now you know how to change a tire."

Akabane rose and peeled off his dirtied gloves. "A monumental occasion, I'm sure."

"Look at it this way," I suggested. "Next time your boyfriend's rust bucket breaks down, you can give him a hand. Take those knives of yours, swipe a fresh wheel and throw the tire on. I bet he wouldn't say no to a freebie."

In spite of Jackal's pensiveness we both chuckled at that. In our circles it was widely known that the Midou guy had a cheapskate streak a mile wide.

Akabane undid the band around his hair and finger-combed it out. As he was balling up his dirty gloves and putting on new ones, his coat emitted a bubbly warble. We glanced at it, but he made no move to answer his cell phone.

"Tell him," I said after the fourth ring. "If you feel what I think you feel for this guy, you need to learn to trust that he's not going to crush your heart in his fist-bite."

Akabane sent me an almost defiant look. "What makes you think I have a heart to begin with?"

"If you didn't, you wouldn't have helped me out," I said while I started packing up my tool kit. "Even taking idle amusement and basic manners into account, there was no practical reason for you to have bothered advising me on marital strife. You knew it would have worked itself out eventually one way or the other."

He stood still, glowering at the gloves in his hand. The emptiness in his eyes lent him a lost appearance, and I felt sorry for him in a way. Maybe that was what he wanted, to feel the pain, but I wasn't so sure, and I didn't think Akabane himself really knew either. Even lonely jackals needed a comforting hearth to return to where they could lick their wounds in safety.

The phone continued its complaints. "Answer that, will you? It's giving me a headache." There were only so many times I could stand to hear 'Que Sera, Sera' repeatedly embedded in my brain.

Akabane sighed. He went to his coat and stuffed the soiled gloves into one pocket, then withdrew the phone. He stared at it through several more rings, and at last slowly opened the case.

I pulled up a seat next to him once the tools were put away and the conversation concluded. "He's coming here? What for?" I demanded, wiping my hands on a clean rag.

"He says his oil's low."

"And he thinks he's going to change it in my garage?" Barely had I uttered the words than a jaunty horn sounded in the drive. Evidently that was exactly what Midou thought.

"Yo, No-Brakes! Spare a quart or two?" Akabane's boyfriend stuck his spiky head out the window and held up a bottle.

"In the cabinet," I answered, pointing in its direction. "But you're paying for whatever you use. Eight hundred a bottle."

"What?! That's highway robbery! I can get it for half that down at Paul's!"

"No you can't. You're banned, as I understand it," I replied while he got out of his car. "What'd you do with the money I gave you from the other night?"

Midou patted his stomach and gestured to the huddled form in the passenger seat, who was regarding a now-smiling Akabane with large watery eyes. "Any more questions?"

"Whatever, pal," I answered. "You still pay to play in my sandbox. Otherwise it's your tow if the engine seizes."

"Bastard." But he dug out his wallet anyway. "I'm gonna hose your ass with my nitrous the next time we get a job against you transporters."

"Sure, sure," I said with a knowing grin as I accepted the payment he counted out. "How's that new bumper working out?"

Midou's lip twitched, but before he could spit out more obscenities Akabane appeared and gently drew him away. "Be nice, Midou-kun. Maguruma's had a busy week."

"How come Ban-chan has to have oil anyway?" a blond head piped up from the nearby window. "Will it make our car go faster?"

"No, dork," Midou told him as he liberated a new bottle from my stores. "Oil doesn't lubricate the engine, it cools it so it doesn't overheat and blow up while I'm ditching price-gouging transporters in the dust."

"Or while I'm bulldozing over smart-aleck retrievers too arrogant to figure out what right-of-way means," I put in as we exchanged baleful looks.

While they messed with the oil and Akabane tormented the bug-zapper kid by standing too close to him I excused myself to go answer the phone that I heard ringing from inside the house. Suzume was on break. We spent a good fifteen minutes chatting, and her sultry question about made my toes curl when she brought up the subject of her – now our – newest infatuation. I sputtered out agreement, to which she giggled her approval, and we said our endearments and goodbyes after promising to set a date for the erotic exploration.

I returned to the garage to find miserly Midou lounging on the workbench chair puffing away. "No smoking in my garage," I snapped.

"How come?" was the insolent query.

"It stinks up my vehicles. Nobody wants to ride in a taxi that gasses its passengers with smoke fumes, least of all me."

Midou snorted. "Sucks to be you."

I was about to let him have it for sassing me when I realized his other half – the romantic one – was nowhere to be seen. I looked at his buddy the live wire. "Where's Akabane?"

He gave me a somewhat sheepish smile and pointed apologetically at Betty. I stalked over to the back of the cab and was about to yank on the handle when the door opened itself. Akabane calmly stepped down, his contented expression attesting to the fact that he and his lover had satisfactorily resolved their earlier argument.

I was not pleased. Glaring at the jackal and his serpent, I jerked a thumb at Betty. "What do you think you're doing in my truck?"

Midou answered first. "Nothing," he said coolly, his body language betraying no sign of unease in the face of my irritation. Ice-blue eyes dared me to comment further. He was a smooth operator, that one. Interrogating him was useless, and I wasn't about to get zapped with another psychotic hallucination. I fixed my sights on Akabane, who was slipping on his coat and hat. He looked up and smiled.

"What's going on?"

"Nothing."

I wasn't fooled. His face had a touch more color than it usually did and there was a fine sheen of perspiration dotting the skin on his neck. "You forget I have kids. I know darn well the difference between 'nothing' nothing and 'nothing' that screams guilt."

Purple eyes widened a fraction, but Akabane kept his poker façade. "We didn't do anything inappropriate to your truck, Gouzou, I assure you." He turned and bestowed a kindly smile on electro-boy. "Did we, Ginji-kun?"

He looked petrified at having been addressed directly, but he stammered out a reply. "N-N-No, Akabane-san!"

"You heard the man," Midou drawled. "We're as innocent as lambs." He grinned.

My brow threatened to do a jackknife. "Then why is your hood wide open?"

Midou's cigarette, which he'd been rolling from one side of his mouth to the other, hovered in frozen stillness a second before collapsing in extinguished indignity onto the floor. His gaze slowly traveled south to the gaping breach where the zipper of his pants should have been lined up. Out of the corner of my sight, I saw Akabane giving him an evil eye of his own.

That'd teach them to use my baby as their honeymoon suite. I went over to Jackal and squeezed his shoulder. "Hope you like squeezing into a sardine can for the next twelve months."

"What? Hey, wait a minute! He can't ride with us if we get a job against you guys!" Midou stated flatly.

"Yeah, wouldn't that be a conflict of interest?" his friend squeaked as he shriveled into a ball.

"Not my problem. I'm not the one playing hitch-the-trailer with him. Akabane can find his own alternatives to a free ride," I said with an unsympathetic smirk at the black sheep in question.

"Because it's always good to have a reliable backup around for emergencies," Akabane grumbled, pulling the brim of his hat down in defeat. "I'll call Himiko-san."

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