Title: Blood Oaths (ch. 7)

Author: Amethyst Hunter

Rating: R (violence, language, blood, all the happy fun things)

Warnings/Spoilers: See above. Also minor bits for the Venus de Milo arc.

Notes: "Kodomo-gunjin" means "little soldier."

Disclaimer: I don't own GB or any of its glorious characters. Much like Akabane, I fic solely for my own enjoyment. Except I don't kill anybody. Well, only in print, that is. ;)

Summary: When Akabane loses his primary weapon, Himiko tries to protect him from all the glory-seekers wanting their whack at a declawed Jackal. In his weakest hour, will Akabane learn to trust in a power greater than his own?

"This is as far as you go," Akabane told Himiko when they'd come to the dock warehouse where the supposed contact was to have met up. Despite the obstacle posed by their stalkers, they were right on time for the meeting. "I would like for you to wait outside while I conduct my business."

Himiko tugged on her backpack, making sure it was secure, and started to accompany him inside the building anyway. "You said I could come with you."

He held up a gloved hand. "I told you, I don't need supervision." At the fierce glower that was sparking in her eyes, Akabane said, "You've done your job. Now let me do mine. If you come in there with me, the contact is going to be upset because he was under the assumption that I'd be arriving alone. If he leaves, I won't get what I came here for and that won't make me very happy. And when I don't get what I want..." He purposely trailed off before speaking again. "Well, you won't like that, now, will you?"

Himiko's glare subsided some. Slowly she shook her head, reminded of his pursuits.

"Then leave me, please," he said, not unkindly.

She stepped aside from the door, allowing him to pass.

"Thank you. I'll come back for you once I've finished."

Akabane went to enter the building. As he put a hand on the door's lever Himiko suddenly prompted him. "Jackal..."

He looked up at her.

"Remember the signal," Himiko said, her voice quiet but firm. She, too, would not be denied.

Akabane studied her. Times like these, he was never entirely sure whether to be reassured or annoyed by her stubborn insistence, her strength of will. The transporters had developed a code to use with one another in the event more thorough communications weren't possible, to avoid tipping off an enemy, or notify partners of impending action. Their planning had saved each others' necks on more than several occasions, which was just one of many reasons why they – No-Brakes, Jackal and Lady Poison – were considered the best couriers in the business.

The signals Akabane and Himiko had worked out weren't difficult: she used her potions and he relied on his scalpels. As he was presently beyond the use for this alarm system – again, Akabane silently consigned Kagami to the lowest depths of hell for this dratted inconvenience – his intention had been simple strategy, counting on his familiar black shrouds of hat and coat to help bluff his way through any possible outbreaks. Himiko might have suspected this, but she had no way of knowing for sure, and Akabane wasn't about to tell her the truth.

It was this very dilemma that was the real reason he didn't want her coming with him into the warehouse, why he'd balked when she'd first demanded that he cancel this meeting. Akabane hadn't, as he'd just said, told the contact that he would be coming alone. But in this world, a fable of Doctor Jackal's stature showing up to a meet with an attendant in tow, regardless of how powerful that person was in his – or her – own right, might suggest that his own power was actually lacking, that he could be easier prey for the taking.

Akabane wasn't ready to provoke any fights until he had that table tilted back solidly in his favor. To do so, he must get back that which he'd lost. To do that, he must play a role to its hilt – the reaper reborn. Such a specter would never have relied upon anything or anyone else for support.

He turned the lever and entered the warehouse. The door squeaked on its hinges, reminding him of a similar entrance on a past mission. Stepping into the underbelly of Mugenjou hadn't been half as important to him as this undertaking. Although it had had its moments...

He drew his mind back to the center of focus, willing himself to fall into the habitual actions that were his hallmark. Tips of the hat, eyes ever-watchful, senses sharply attuned to each flutter of air, every wisp of dust or sunlight, marking the places hidden in shadow, areas where enemies could hide. Here, then, was comfort in familiarity, the routine of old coming to him as naturally as a mortal drew breath.

He met the first watchman halfway through the building. With his bright green Mohawked hair and patchwork of tattoos, the guy looked more like a street punk than an informant, but appearances were often deceiving. Akabane didn't miss the way the man's fingers slid over the baton in his belt in a sinuous offhanded caress. The weapon wasn't just for show – here was a seasoned fighter, and were he in his usual form Akabane wouldn't have minded testing the other's ability.

"You lose your way, friend?" The watchman grinned, exposing a pair of gold-capped incisors.

Akabane stayed put, offering nothing more than a cold glare. "I'm here to see Uta-san."

"Don't know who that is." The watchman's grin flickered out, and he advanced slowly on Akabane. "Wires ain't allowed back here."

He meant that undercover officers attempting to sting his boss with a hidden police micro-recorder would be dealt with on the spot, most likely by being dumped into the bay. Any underworlders with business to conduct would have to submit to examination in order to obtain the face to face meeting they desired. Akabane certainly wasn't outfitted with such a device, but he had no intention of permitting unwelcome contact. Having anticipated this snag, he'd concocted a backup. He stepped forward and let the kitchen knife's tip peek just enough through his fingers so that the watchman could see it.

"Doctor Jackal needs no wires." He made his voice as cold and haughty as he could, which wasn't too difficult. "Uta-san is expecting me. I suggest that we not keep him waiting."

The threat worked. The watchman, no stranger to infamous reputations, had backed a healthy distance away from Akabane as soon as the blade flashed into view. "Follow me."

Akabane was glad for the cover of shadows that dappled their path through the warehouse. He could feel beads of sweat dotting the back of his neck and top of his forehead, but he refused to swipe at them. Already the pain of excess movement was gnawing at his body. He surreptitiously felt in his coat pocket for the vial Himiko had given him and thumbed off the cork. Pretending a yawn of indifference, he palmed the vial up to his face and let cool relief fill his sinuses. The pain withdrew into a tolerable ache and he slipped the bottle back into his pocket, recapping it.

They went through a series of short corridors and then came to a tall staircase. Above was an enclosed room with two-way windows. Akabane cursed inwardly when he saw the stairs. He was thankful, again, that he'd accepted the antidote perfume from his erstwhile partner.

Green Mohawk stopped ahead of him and made a motion with his leather cuff-studded arm. "Meeting's in there."

"Very good." Akabane forced a calm smile. "Shall we, then?"

A shiny grin reappeared, less friendly than before. "After you."

He'd have preferred not to climb the stairs with this degenerate at his back, but refusing outright might have triggered suspicion. Instead, he shrugged as if to say it was fine, then as he was about to pass by he locked eyes with the watchman and smiled ice. "You needn't worry about a little backstabbing on my part. I like to see my opponents' faces when I kill them."

Stung by the insinuation that he was afraid, the other man's face turned ruddy. He spat a foul curse and shoved past Akabane, stomping up the stairs without a single backwards glance to see where the other was in proximity to his own heels.

Somewhat amused by this display of temper, Akabane took his time, doing his best to make it appear as though he had all the time in the world and that they were lucky he chose to grace his hosts with his presence. In reality each step sent a jab of discomfort along his legs and up his back. He dared not rely on the guardrail for support, much though it would have helped.

He met the sulking watchman at the top, by the office door that was marked PRIVATE – STAFF ONLY. "In there," the other man growled with a jerk of his thumb, and rapped on the door.

A serpentine voice answered. "Come in."

The watchman opened the door. "Uta-san. Your appointment." He paused deliberately, then added, "Doctor Jackal." He shot Akabane a wary glare, then retreated to what he felt was a safer corner of the office. Evidently he ranked high enough to be allowed to stay.

The boss himself was in conference with another rough-looking enforcer, but when he heard who had come to call on him he sat up straighter in his chair. Akabane didn't miss the way the two men exchanged glances, but he said nothing, letting his eyes trail the second henchman as he left the office without saying anything – though he did give Akabane as wide a berth as possible.

Uta-san – the only name by which Akabane knew him, and the only one he would ever give to those he did business with – looked more like a banker than an underworld figure. At least, he would have, if his hair hadn't been slicked back with a gallon of gel. He had narrow, mean eyes and a nervous tic that made his lips twitch in a parody of a smile. He got up and gestured to a chair on the other side of his desk. "Ah. Welcome. Can I get you any refreshments?"

His voice was calm and quiet, but he was being neither friendly nor polite. Uta-san wasn't known for his kindly demeanor. He was, however, a valuable source of information, and custom dictated that he observe niceties only enough to avoid kindling bad blood between himself and his guest. Akabane wasn't in the mood to quibble over manners, however much the lack thereof offended him.

"I'm fine, thank you." Not true – he would have liked to have taken another whiff of the antidote perfume after those stairs, but here, under closer observation, he couldn't afford to do so. Akabane ignored the chair being offered and did his best to lean nonchalantly against the wall. "I believe you have something for me."

"Only if you have something for me." Uta-san grinned then, an unsettling expression when paired with the ruthless black gleam of his eyes.

Akabane met his gaze, unsmiling. "Payment will be tendered upon inspection of the pending information. If I am satisfied," he stressed.

Uta-san's eyes narrowed. But he knew better than to press the issue, with this agent. He eased back into his leather chair, picking up a pen to chew idly on. "Moriko is fetching the dossiers you requested now. I think you will find the material to your liking well enough."

Akabane didn't reply. He made to adjust his hat, another thing he was thankful for. The wide brim shadowed most of his face from immediate view and let him covertly size up the scenario. The pie-shaped slit in it was something he'd never thought he'd be thankful for, having sustained that damage in a past fight with Kagami, but word on the street had it that people found him twice as intimidating with it. With this singular view he could observe without granting a clue as to his own thoughts.

The office was small but not discomfiting. Next to Uta-san was a half-opened window. The view from the dusty panes suggested little else besides another warehouse nearby. On the other side of the desk was a short cabinet, upon which was a coffeemaker that burped once in a while. Neither Uta-san nor his underling seemed inclined to partake of the contents, which resembled stale automotive oil rather than an actual consumable beverage. Even if he had wanted something to drink, Akabane wouldn't have touched the sludge.

No one spoke for several minutes. Then the door to the office opened, and the second man, Moriko, reappeared holding a briefcase. He flicked an uneasy look at Akabane before scooting over to his boss and plopping the case onto his desk. Moriko stepped around and stood on the other side of his boss, along with Green Mohawk, the two of them obedient guard dogs ready for further command.

With practiced hands Uta-san pulled the case closer and slowly unlatched it. He turned it around so that Akabane could see inside. "As you requested, Doctor. The latest City news, hot off the presses." He chuckled softly, a curdling sound that was shared in muffled increments by his two pets.

Akabane tilted his head, peering at the prize within. He approached the desk, noting how the henchmen shied away and keeping them in the corner of his gaze. There were two folders in the case, both slender and plain but for the malevolent symbol embossed in black on their covers: a pyramid with an eye in its center, above the curving bowl of a crescent moon. This was an official emblem of Brain Trust, which meant that however the information had been gotten, it hadn't come painlessly. Akabane picked up the top folder and opened it, giving the documents a cursory check. What he wanted was patchy and would need to be pieced together carefully, but there was no question it was legitimate material. He recognized several signatures from Trust members he'd dealt with or heard of.

The second thug spoke up. "Kanno says he heard rats on the roof again, boss. Damned things keep tripping off the alarms."

Indeed, even now they could all hear the slight scratching of movement outside, near the window. Odd, that, Akabane thought, for the scraping sounded a little too heavy to be made by vermin. Then again, he'd been to places where the rodents were large enough to give bulldogs an inferiority complex.

Uta-san tossed his half-chewed pen into a cupholder on the desk with an irritable sigh. "Do I look like an exterminator? Put out more traps if you have to." He looked at Akabane. "Well, Doctor? I trust everything is satisfactory?"

Akabane replaced the folder in the case and latched it shut. "It will do."

He started to pick up the case when Uta-san rose and placed his hand on it. "It's not yours yet. If it meets with your approval, perhaps you'd consider a generous donation to my organization."

Akabane looked at him. "How charitable?"

Uta-san didn't blink. "You tell me, Doctor. It cost me three of my best men to obtain that documentation." A slow wiggle of a tic-induced smile. "You don't have very many friends out there, do you?"

Akabane razored him with a look of his own. "None may call death a friend, but that is not your concern. State your price."

Uta-san's smile slipped into thinned displeasure. He named a figure that, while steep, wasn't wholly unexpected, as befitting the expense he'd been put to as a result of its gathering. When Akabane agreed, he snapped his fingers at Moriko. "Get me the ledger for accounts payable."

The pockmarked henchman moved around him to the bookcase at the front of the room. While he was thumbing through binders, Uta-san flipped open his laptop and began typing a series of instructions one-handed. "The double-sided sword of the electronic age, hmm, Doctor? Computers are supposed to eliminate excess paperwork, yet I find that they create twice as much of it."

Akabane had little sympathy for the man's woes. He focused on the screen. Displayed was a transfer link for depositing secured funds.

Moriko came to the desk holding a fat blue binder. Something about the way he clutched it in his pudgy fingers, or perhaps it was the way he kept shifting his glance to his boss, instantly set Akabane's nerves on edge. He checked the first watchman in his peripheral vision; that man was standing over by the coffeemaker, one hand looped partially in his pocket, the other at his side. The affected pose did nothing to appease his concern.

Eager to conclude his business and get out of here Akabane nodded at Uta-san. "If you are ready to conduct the transfer..."

A flicker of something – perhaps it was only the light - reflected in a mirror hanging opposite the window made him pause. He was sure he hadn't seen what – or who - it might have appeared to be. Akabane was careful to keep his focus on Uta-san, even as he surreptitiously double-checked the green-haired enforcer. That one was still there, not making any motion. Still, his unease deepened. The man could be simply resting against the cabinet, awaiting his next assignment...

Uta-san cleared his throat. "Yes? The source number?"

Akabane gave him the code for the account he used when withdrawing money specifically for transports. On occasion a mission required that he incur some expenditures, so he kept only what he needed in this fund.

Uta-san began typing in the information. As he started to input his own account's reception his face suddenly twisted up in revulsion. "Of all the – damn it, Moriko, didn't I tell you to quit burning those blasted sandwiches in my microwave? Amida, but they stink!"

Moriko's expression was slightly less sour than his master's. "I didn't heat nothing in here, boss. Smells like something from outside."

The burn of strong fumes hit everyone's nose and quickly saturated the room. Akabane felt a spike of alarm at recognizing the terribly familiar scent. No, it couldn't be -

He turned to the window at about the same time Moriko was, and they both caught a glimpse of something far too large to be a rat darting out of view, and then Akabane heard the unmistakable whisper of movement where none should be -

Instinct propelled him to action; he flicked out his adopted knife into his hand even as he summoned all his reserves of energy and lunged to the other side of the room to avoid the coming attack. Shock at seeing Himiko defy his order to stay put slowed his movement and the blast from the first henchman's shotgun clipped his side above the right hip, sending him sprawling into the corner. Akabane had no chance to process the pain because the world around him was erupting into a hurricane of fire from gun and flame alike.

He was able to avoid the shot that Moriko aimed at him, since the second man had pulled his pistol from within the binder and fired it a second after his comrade scored his. The bullet plowed into a space a few feet from Akabane's head, but by that point he was bulldozing into the first man, concentrating on bringing him down instead of worrying about the lack of a weapon – or the tongues of fire licking at his own heels. The henchman already had his weapon cocked by the time Akabane got to him, but as the two men struggled the gun discharged just as Akabane managed to shove its end away from his chest. The spray missed Moriko, who dove for safety before he could take sight at Akabane's back. He held his fire, trying to peer through the smoke that had begun billowing from where the poison perfume had ignited something in the room.

Uta-san had no such hesitance. He drew a weapon of his own and shot into the fray. More fire blossomed from out of thin air, splaying its deadly fingers upwards and into the ceiling. With vision fast fading in the wake of this spreading demon, neither side could gain the upper hand, even as Akabane struck at the man trying to pummel him with the butt of the empty gun. At his boss's urging, Moriko trained his gun on the struggling figures he could make out through the maelstrom and pulled his trigger in rapid succession, and the room exploded into a fireball.

Something had gone horribly wrong with the flame perfume. Both Akabane and the first man were thrown backwards from the force of heat surging into the room as flames burst into mushrooming pillars. The shotgun-wielder was dead, hit in the face by a stray bullet, while Akabane was pitched into the bookcase, knocking it onto himself as he collapsed on impact. A good thing, too, for the cover it provided spared him from the worst, as the next thunderous blast came when Moriko spotted movement through the blaze and opened fire.

Akabane heard screaming; he couldn't tell whether it was the henchman or Uta-san. One of them got to him and started dragging the ruined bookcase off of his shoulders. Pain was momentarily erased by the rush of anger at having been double-crossed by Uta-san, and he had enough breath to crawl out from beneath the weight of the bookcase as soon as it lifted, before the air was sucked out of him by the all-consuming fire gobbling up everything it could touch in the room. He had just enough presence of mind to feel for the kitchen knife, still attached to his wrist by the string he'd tied it with, grasped it and reached out with his other bloodied hand to claw a handful of shirt and haul the thug in for a sound filleting. If he had to go down, by God he'd take at least one of the bastards with him.

Hands, not rough or large, slapped over the bottom half of his face, and suddenly he could breathe air, if only briefly, and the realization that he was being helped, not harmed, made him stop short of jamming the blade into the person's neck. When he looked up he saw indigo eyes, one of which bore a star beneath it, meeting his.

He held onto Himiko's arm as he kicked loose from the last of the wreckage and grabbed for his hat, and then she was helping him up, guiding him through the storm. How she was able to bear the tempest was no mystery. She had trained for years in the art of making and using poisons. She knew how best to avoid their damages – and how to administer them to their most potent effect. They were to the door of the office now, and though the additional oxygen sent the fires spiraling into greedy paroxysms he tore it open so they could escape the perfume's final immolation.

Akabane felt Himiko stiffen beside him and immediately sensed wrongness. He seized her and spun to one side as the crack of a pistol's slug split a hole in the side of the trim around the opened door. Through an orange-red haze he could see Uta-san, his face blackened by soot and made darker still by his thwarted fury, poking his arm out from under his desk where he'd taken cover. He had the muzzle fixed squarely on them, and there was nowhere left to run.

Akabane turned and angled his body so that he, and not Himiko, would take the bullet, but she suddenly slipped down away from him and pushed him backwards so hard he lost his balance. He stumbled into the guardrail behind and the wood snapped apart. He caught himself from toppling over and scrambled to get to Himiko before Uta-san could. He reached her right about the time she flung a bottle that she'd yanked from her harness at their would-be executioner, and in the same second she was bolting back toward him, wrapping her arms around him and screaming for him to jump.

In that instant he knew how the enforcers had inadvertently created this catastrophe. The flame perfume wasn't to blame. She'd used its infinitely deadlier cousin, an explosive poison so unstable only her brother had ever been able to master its powers, and the slightest chemical reaction or trigger – including the discharge of a firearm – could propel the hellfire beyond all control.

All this and more flashed through his mind but Akabane paid these thoughts no attention. Ignoring the rage of protest from his battered body he held onto Himiko and the two of them leaped from the broken stair railing.

He could feel the streams of something cool swirl over them even as a huge plume of intense heat roared above their descent. Akabane had no idea what perfume Himiko had deployed this time but it seemed to offer some protection from the blaze tearing away at their clothes and searing their skin. He folded her under his arms and twisted as they dropped, managing to land without crushing her or unduly injuring himself, though they tumbled across the floor.

More explosions rocked the area and he tried to get up, hurry them both out of this place before it burnt to a crisp and buried them in its ashes, but Himiko pulled him back against the cement, holding tight to him while tucking her head against his chest as she thrust another bottle overhead. Perfume flared from this and enveloped them in a whoosh of current, effectively blocking the sea of fire that swarmed them like a horde of enraged bees.

Terrible ribbons of bright orange streaked by alongside the boiling black smoke they generated in their rampage. The wide brim of his hat shielded their faces, but the coolant perfume could only last so long before it gave out, and when it did they were cooked. Akabane was racking his mind for a plan when he felt Himiko's arm slacken around him, and he rolled and pinned her, thinking that she meant to try and brave the inferno on her own.

"I can get us out of this!"

He realized that she was taking out yet another perfume with her free hand. He let up and she shoved the other bottle at him to hold while she brought the new potion up to her lips and took a gulp of its scent. Suddenly Akabane found himself jerked to his feet and hauled at an impossible clip through the burning warehouse.

"Are you mad!?"

She squeezed his wrist viciously as if to confirm that, but Akabane wasn't about to argue further. If the acceleration perfume boosted strength as well as speed, it was a godsend for them, even if it was all he could do to keep up with her while they raced to freedom. The pain was coming in deep waves now, not just from the wound he'd sustained from the henchman's shotgun but also from having spent too much physical effort during the fight. His feet barely touched the ground most of the time, and he had to lean on her as she half-dragged, half-carried him out of there.

The coolant perfume sputtered out before they'd found an exit, but they had escaped the fire's core and the risk of being singed was now much less than the risk of suffocating from smoke inhalation. Himiko had already taken two hits of perfume and a third would tax her body beyond its limits. Despite the threat, she raised the bottle one more time, prepared to take that chance.

Akabane wasn't. He ripped the bottle out of her hand and pointed her toward a set of double doors he'd seen. "There!"

She huffed wordlessly but took off in that direction, aided somewhat by him when he dug for energy he hadn't thought possible and found enough for a solid sprint. Together they kicked apart the doors and scrambled into a clean, bright light of deliverance from fire's wrath.

"How bad is it?" Himiko reached for him as he bent over, grasping his injured side.

Akabane shook his head and pushed her away, losing his tenuous grip on his hat, which fluttered to the ground like an oversized moth swatted down in mid-flight. When she tried again to help him, he gave her a harder shove, and that sparked her anger.

"Jackal, let me see it!"

"It's fine," he snapped at her through clenched teeth, trying not to breathe too heavily from the strain of using up his energy. He could feel blood sticking on his lip, and streaming down his side from the shotgun wound, but without looking at it he couldn't be sure about the extent of the damage, and he was loath to risk appearing needy in front of Himiko. He studiously ignored the not-so-subtle taunt at the back of his mind that he'd already blown any credible invincibility when he'd ended up in her care in the first place.

"Blast...winged me. I can patch it...easily enough," he muttered, hoping that was the truth. Sewing up one's own scrapes was one thing; performing more in-depth surgery was another, even considering his prodigious skill.

Himiko looked like she doubted him but she held her tongue for the moment. Her expression, however, said everything that needed to be said, although Akabane ignored it.

What they could see of the ongoing action they watched from a somewhat distant alleyway that they'd stumbled into for shelter, while fire trucks continued to battle the wildfire engulfing what was left of Uta-san's warehouse. Both transporters were soot-stained and tattered, their clothes left in considerable ruin, and they reeked of smoke, but at least they remained decently covered, and thanks to the coolant perfume neither of them had suffered any burns worse than what might be gained from touching a hot stove burner.

It was to these minor injuries that Himiko next turned her attention. She went to the smoking overnight bag she'd torn off and flung aside moments ago and gingerly examined it. It too had seen its share of damage, but was still mostly intact. More importantly, while its contents were uncomfortably hot to the touch, they were relatively spared any destruction. Himiko quickly pulled on the steaming zipper to open the pack, grimacing and flicking her fingers as she let go of the burnt tab. She pulled out a bottle whose cork was shriveled and blackened, and began dabbing drops of an opaque liquid onto the red welts striping her arms and legs, reserving most of it for her right arm, which bore the worst of the burns.

Akabane paid little notice to her, leaning his head against the brick wall behind him and closing his eyes while he tried to stay on his wobbly feet. The pain in his body was singing sirens almost as loud as those from the firefighters' engines, and he struggled to blot out the accursed sensations while he tried to sort through what had just happened. Setup. He'd been conned, set up by Uta-san, but who could know that he was vulnerable; no one besides the young woman next to him knew of his predicament, and even she didn't have the full story -

Cool moisture dribbling onto the back of his wrist interrupted his thoughts. Akabane opened his eyes to see Himiko smearing a liberal amount of potion onto a splotch of red, and he realized most of the glove on that hand had been burned off.

He peeled away the remainder, noting both the pink-shaded skin and the amount of blood coating the ragged remains of his other glove, where he'd been holding it against his gunshot wound. The hand was singed uncomfortably, but no real damage was done. He flexed his fingers. A little stiff, but otherwise fine. The blood on his other hand was bright red, not dark, and when he gave the wound above his hip a brief glance he saw that it was trickling, not gushing. Also a good sign – nothing vital had been hit.

Akabane felt around in his pocket for the vial of antidote perfume but came up empty when he realized the fire had burnt holes in his coat, including the pockets. Most likely the little bottle had been lost in their escape. "You don't happen to have any more of that antidote handy, do you?" he coughed, wanting to rid his mouth of the acrid taste of smoke.

He hadn't expected a spare, but to his surprise and relief Himiko reached into the pack again and brought out a fresh bottle. She handed it to him without a word and went back to putting the other potion on their burns. It smelled like a mixture of aloe and mint, and was likewise as cooling. Akabane uncapped the antidote bottle and all but buried his nose in it, sighing deeply when he felt the pain take the sharpest of its teeth out of his hide.

"Do you think anyone survived?"

The question seemed so ridiculous to him that at first he thought he didn't hear it. When he caught Himiko looking at him, he stopped inhaling the antidote and stared at her.

"We did."

Akabane would have taken another whiff of the healing scent, but she spoke again. Her voice was quiet, devoid of emotion.

"You didn't use our signal."

Akabane glanced at her again. He thought he had a suitable reply to that, started to say it, and then remembered what hadn't survived the disaster. Damn it! He hissed wordless fury instead and jerked a fist back against the wall, wincing and growling louder when the movement caused a flare-up of pain along his arm and side. He ignored Himiko's targeting stare and ripped off his charred tie, wrapping and tying it around his waist to try and keep his bleeding wound from leaking any more. Not the best bandage, but it would have to do.

"Jackal." Frustration wasn't long in entering her voice. "Jackal, that Uta guy's - "

"Most likely the right size for a memorial urn by now, and good riddance to him, the treacherous bleeder!" Anger at his own carelessness over not having thought to save the briefcase and its precious contents gave Akabane focus, helped him keep from toppling over in exhaustion when that was exactly what he most wanted to do at this point. "All that trouble and for nothing but another hole in my hide, the last wretched thing I need, and you have the cheek to tell me I ought to have worried about a signal - " He broke off and turned the full force of his glare on her. "I told you to stay and wait for me!"

Eyes like ocean's tempest regarded him with grit from within a grubby-dusted face, one that normally would have been quite pretty to look at under more hospitable circumstances. "Lucky for you I didn't, or they'd be sweeping up what's left of you along with those enforcers!" Himiko shot back, stuffing her burn salve back into the bag.

"If you hadn't interfered I would have had things under control - "

"Oh, I'd say you did a great job, if you're missing only one chunk of flesh instead of your whole head - "

"No thanks to you! What were you thinking, using that explosive perfume when you know how dangerous it is - "

"It was less dangerous than what would've happened if they'd found out you don't have scalpels anymore!"

They stopped yelling at each other as soon as Himiko's words hit like a blast of ice water. Akabane felt the bottom of his stomach drop. His throat worked noiselessly for a few seconds as he searched for words, and he couldn't finish them before she cut him off. "You dare think that I - "

"When I found you at Mugenjou," she blurted, her eyes narrowing as equal parts dread and fascination suffused her tone. "I've known it since then, I think. All that blood loss, and I remember seeing you try to make a knife and it came out as a puddle of goo instead - "

A long silence stretched between them like a thread pulled taut. "One scalpel," Akabane snarled at last, holding up a finger. "Of course it was malformed, given the attack I'd just taken! I still have - "

"Why didn't you use the rest?"

Prudence warred with temper as he fought back the rising boil of wrath in his chest. She stood before him, her fists curled and chin jutting forward in the usual confrontational stance he'd seen her assume whenever she was sufficiently infuriated to challenge someone's dismissal. He'd never imagined that she'd be foolish enough to try it with him. "I told you, I wanted to handle this my way. It wouldn't have served any purpose if I'd charged in there and mowed everyone down before accomplishing my goal. Thanks to your meddling I lost the damned information!"

"Thanks to me your life was saved! Again!" Himiko fairly bristled with righteous upset. "Pros always back each other up, no matter the circumstances - " she held up a hand to stop him from interrupting - "and when I was tracking you, I overheard Uta's thugs talking to each other about how their boss was going to double-cross you when you were distracted!"

She stepped closer and grabbed his hand, the one still holding the antidote scent. "Take a breath before you fall over."

"I'm fine," Akabane growled, twisting his arm away from her. But he lifted the bottle to his face anyway to banish the spell of dizziness threatening to undermine him.

"Not when you can't use your normal weapons," Himiko said tartly. "And whatever you got from Uta, it's not lost."

Startled, Akabane looked at her. "But the case was - "

She shook her head. "Slipped in and hosed it with corrosive right after you went down." She withdrew a handful of crumpled, slightly singed papers from inside what was left of her blouse, waving them in front of him. There was no mistaking the Babylonian seal on the topmost one.

A jumble of conflicting thoughts spun inside him that he wasn't sure he wanted to examine. Akabane resisted the urge to grab at the documents. He made his voice as cold as possible, dispensing with all semblance of politeness. "Give them to me."

Himiko didn't move. "First I want my due."

He could have throttled her. He took a step towards her. She took a step back. But she didn't waver or flinch. She kept their gazes locked. Hers, rebellious; his, seething.

"Your due," Akabane said slowly, each syllable frozen in ice, "is that I don't rend you limb from limb for your insolence. Give me those papers. Now."

Himiko held on to her prize and pressed the case. "Admit the truth. You can't use your scalpels because you bled them all out in my bathtub. That's what you've said before, right?" She was breathing almost as strong as he was, and it wasn't necessarily from her use of acceleration scent. "'Unexpectedly difficult fights cost precious blood.' Blood's where the scalpels come from. That's why you dropped out the night we first met Ban and Ginji." She paused, the air of finality hanging heavily between them. "I knew it. You couldn't signal me if you needed backup. So I followed you."

Thereby sparing him death's embrace for the second time, bless – or curse – her stubborn spirit. Akabane bit back an angry retort and begrudgingly capitulated to the latter half of her demand. "I suppose...an appreciative acknowledgment of your...assistance...could be in order..." He moved closer and held out his hand. "Now. If you don't mind."

Still, she withheld them from his reach. "And the scalpels?"

"Lady Poison," Akabane growled, his voice roughened from smoke inhalation and ambition denied. Another step...if only he could just summon the strength, and he'd be able to seize what he wanted, and maybe even have a bit of momentum left to yank this incorrigible female over his bent knee and teach her a lesson she'd not soon forget -

"Come and get them." She squashed the papers in her fist and took a few more steps backwards, the defiance in her face gleaming like a beacon as she held them up. "If you're so sure of your power whip a blade on me and take what you came for!"

If she were operating as his cohort and he held no particular fond regard for her, he almost certainly would have killed her for this challenge. If she were a man and also not his partner, he definitely would have killed her. As it was Akabane felt himself teetering dangerously close to the edge of that last part, with red haze, not all of it blood, clouding his vision. You'll never know how fortunate you are, dear clever girl, he thought as a part of him, in spite of himself, was perversely grateful that she'd roused his rage. It helped drive back the pain further still.

He drew on the last remains of strained patience now to quell himself from lashing out. There was no help for it. He would have to make the best of a cover blown. He needed that paperwork too badly, if he had any snowball's hope in the proverbial depths of regaining his power.

"How did you know?" he finally asked her.

Himiko watched him like a rabbit gauging its chances of dashing to safety. "Your fingers twitch a certain way. Right before your knives come out," she said at length. "I've noticed. From watching you on missions. I saw you pull a knife to defend against that creep with the gun...but it wasn't a scalpel." She paused again. "I wondered where my paring knife went. I didn't think I'd misplaced it..."

And observant to a fault, naturally, as befitting a sorceress of her pedigree, Akabane thought irritably. He lifted his hand and wasn't surprised to see that the kitchen knife he'd pilfered from her drawer was absent, either torn off during the fight or burnt away in the fire. Even the string that had tethered it to his wrist was gone.

He was surprised, however, when Himiko suddenly came up to him and handed over the papers. Not expecting an instant surrender, he stared at them for a second, tentatively reaching out his hand only when she shook them at him.


He snatched the Babylon files and gave them a quick look to see how much information had survived. Everything still looked in order, so he crammed them into the one front pocket of his coat that hadn't been eaten by flames. "Well what?"

She zipped up her backpack and slipped it on. "What are we going to do now?"

Akabane glanced back at the emergency crews, still dousing resistant flames with belching hose after hose of water. It would take them a while yet before they could enter the ground zero proper to sift through the smoldering wreckage, and by the time any lurking Babylon sentinels had a chance to pick over the warehouse's carcass themselves, it would be close to darkfall. It ought to give him enough of a lead in the meantime.

He palmed the antidote bottle to his face again, breathing in as much scent as he could stand, then recapped it and slipped it into the same pocket with the papers.


Akabane said nothing as he carefully stooped to pick up his hat, clenching his teeth against his wounded body's protests. He settled it onto his head and, elbow tightly against his side where Uta's man had nailed him with the shotgun spray, began limping away into the alley.

"Jackal! Hey! Where are you going?"

He tried to make himself walk faster but only succeeded in tripping on some loose stone. Cursing under his breath, he managed to stop himself from plowing into the ground, half-bouncing off a wall before he was able to right himself once more. He ignored the hands reaching out to stabilize him, but when they darted near his bleeding wound to inspect it he slapped them away.

Himiko's cry contained as much fury as it did frustration. "Akabane!"

"Stop following me!"

She latched onto his arm like a sharp burr. "You're not leaving me behind!"

He shook off her hold and let her have it. "This is my official warning to you, Himiko-san! Don't interfere from now on! You've done enough; I don't need you getting in my way! Do yourself a favor and go home where you belong!"

There was a brief, suspicious flash of something like what might be called hurt in her eyes, and Akabane had a split-second stab of inexplicable regret for putting it there, before it was swallowed up by the bright glint of her temper. She grabbed the lapels of his coat and slammed him into the wall as she spilled a verbal torrent upon his head.

"Don't you dare treat me like I'm a helpless child! We would've gotten fried back there if it wasn't for me, and this is how you repay me for getting back whatever was in those papers? You ungrateful jackass! What are you going to do when Brain Trust is breathing down your neck and you've got nothing to fight back with? You don't even have a friend in the world who'd stand by you, and the one person who is offering to help, you won't say a single word to because you're so wrapped up in your bloody fantasies that you'd rather risk turning yourself into zwieback out of some boneheaded notion of pride, instead of actually trusting and working with that person like partners are supposed to!"

Akabane was too stunned by the force of her vitriol to take much note of the insult she'd hurled at him. He frowned at her. "Zwieback?"

Himiko scowled harder and let go of his coat. "Toast done twice," she said curtly.

Somehow the macabre joke served to defuse the argument between them. They stared at each other for a few minutes without speaking, and then Akabane sagged against the wall. Evaporating adrenaline from the narrow escape, coupled with blood loss and the strain of verbal battle with his annoyingly persistent partner had left him drained.

To Himiko's credit she didn't rush forward to try and help him this time. Perhaps as thanks for that, he deigned to speak to her at last when he saw the concern darkening her expression.

"I'm not trying to treat you like a child," he sighed. "I'm trying to protect you."

She made a scoffing noise in the back of her throat as she rolled her eyes.

"Himiko-san. You don't understand - "

"I would if you'd tell me what's going on," she snapped, crossing her arms over her chest.

"I will, if you'll let me explain," Akabane said, sharper than he'd intended, before she could interrupt again. "You don't want to get involved in a fight that has nothing to do with you. You have no idea how dangerous the Babylonian factions can be when provoked."

She gave a most unladylike snort of laughter. "Excuse me? I was one of the keys they wanted to use to force open the sealed passage, and I don't know how dangerous those bastards are? You've got to do better than that if you want to frighten me, Jackal."

"This is serious!" She was taken aback when he nearly shouted at her, but he didn't relent. "You don't know these people like I do. They don't play games. They don't joust in good sport. They just kill. Anyone who gets in the way of their machinations tends to disappear, and rather messily at that. Aside from the Get Backers there's no one alive to speak of having crossed them. And those two remain marked men after the debacles they were responsible for. Even Makubex-kun continues to spend his days in hiding, despite being technically freed from Archive control. Forgiveness isn't in Brain Trust's vocabulary. Does the name Lukifer Pierre de Medici sound familiar? It ought to. The Specialist handed down to me orders to remove the problem he presented, and I wasn't the first to suggest that removal be permanent."

He paused, noting with relief that some of the starch had left her posture. She was listening now, her eyes pinched but riveted on him. Akabane went on. "Whatever they're up to, it's their chessboard and it's for me to match their plans. Do you remember what I told you, when we were in the shadow realms of Sodomunado? After we'd fought the false Queen's minions?"

Himiko frowned as she searched her memory. "You told me blood red wasn't my color."

"Precisely. The City likes interference even less than I do. And I'd hate to see a perfectly good agent end up as just another one of their stains."

She stepped forward, holding out her hand. "Then let me come with you. If the Trust is putting its full weight behind Kagami's attack you can't handle all of them at once. What if they stage another setup like the one with Uta? How can you fight them without your scalpels?"

"There exist other weapons at my disposal," Akabane said. "In the past, I might have relied too heavily on one defense alone. But it's a mistake for anyone - " he slanted a wary glance at her - "to assume that I have no recourse left to me. I possess resources they do not. I hold strategies they remain ignorant of." He stopped for breath, taking another dose of antidote perfume. "If you truly wish to aid me, Himiko-san...let me fight my own battles."

He let her digest that for a while as they stood, Himiko weighing her choices, Akabane recouping enough strength to move. Finally she spoke.

"At least come back to my place and rest before you have to leave."

Akabane looked up at her, saying nothing. He took one more breath of antidote and closed the bottle, putting it in his pocket.

Sudden tiredness made Himiko seem older than her tender years. Her shoulders drooped. "Jackal...Akabane...please...?"

He glanced back at the scene of their crime. The firefighters had gained a small measure of order over the blaze. Flames scored the nearby buildings but weren't leaping as high as they had several minutes ago. Akabane looked back to Himiko.

"All right."

A peculiar sadness crept into Himiko's eyes, but she gave him a small smile. He permitted her one of his own, and held still while she moved in and put her arms around him to help him hobble along.

The moment she was unguarded he acted. He snaked one hand down to the harness she wore around her hips, flicking his fingers over the bottles still in place, till he found the one he was sure would work. With the other hand he grabbed Himiko at the same time and pulled her close. Her open-mouthed gasp was all the opportunity Akabane needed to spill the sleep potion, which he'd uncapped, into her face. The fumes poured out in a greenish cloudburst and he pressed the bottle hard against her lower lip, forcing her to inhale a large amount that knocked her out before she even had time to realize what he was doing.

Akabane quickly stoppered the bottle with his thumb before any of the scent could waft over to him. The poisons were prepared with a special trigger that helped propel their spells outward, away from the user, but he turned his head and waved his arm to banish as much of the stuff as he could. When he was certain it was safe to do so he looked back at the bottle and the young woman slumped in his arm, her head lolling against his chest.

"Bloody hell," he muttered softly.

He gritted his teeth against the inevitable strain, stooped, and carefully lifted Himiko over his shoulder. It was harder walking, but he made do, bracing himself against the walls of buildings as he kept to the shadows wherever possible. Fate was kind there, shielding them from the view of any stray passerby, and Akabane kept going until he judged it reasonable enough to stop at the dead end of one street.

The vial of antidote perfume was nearly gone at this point. Akabane took a quick breath of it and pushed the capped bottle back into his pocket before attacking the thick plastic barring entry to the doorway before him. He managed to rip away part of it and carried Himiko inside a small building in the midst of extensive renovation.

There was a cluster of large metal trashcans in one corner. Akabane brought her to this spot and slowly let her slide down, off his shoulder. He took off his coat and removed what was left in its surviving pockets, including the bottles of perfume as well as the Babylon files, placing these items aside, and laid the coat over Himiko. Without pausing to rest – he knew if he did, he'd not have the strength to move again – he shuffled the bins around until they were arranged around her, hiding her from immediate view should any street ruffians wander close to this corridor and peep through the plastic-covered windows. Then he rummaged through one bin until he found a crinkled wad of paint-stained newspapers, which he spread over her body.

She stirred for a second, making Akabane freeze. He thought he'd dosed her with plenty of scent. But evidently it was just the normal embers of sleep, for she moaned quietly and then settled into silence.

"It's for your own good, my kodomo-gunjin," he told her as he laid out a section of paper over her head. He tore out another sheet and added it to the pile, ensuring her total concealment.

That done he pulled himself upright, thinking. He was breathing harder now, and pain was scraping its bite through his body worse than before. He dared not resort to any more antidote unless absolutely necessary. He still had more ground to cover, and though he could move faster now that he wasn't carrying extra baggage, he was feeling every bit of that strain from having done so.

Akabane looked around the room they were in. He spotted a painter's set of coveralls tossed aside by a pair of ladders near some scaffolding. It took some doing but he was able to struggle into them, covering up his ruined clothes and injuries the best he could – the outfit was tight in the shoulders and too short at the ankles. There wasn't anything he could do about his hat, but he wasn't about to leave it behind. Then he had an idea.

He found some cleaning rags and used these to pack against the shotgun wound, wrapping them in place with some of the painter's tape he found from a bucket of supplies at the scaffolding's base. Further searching of the bucket revealed some trash bags and a dingy white cap that looked as though it had come out the loser in a paintball war. He put his hat into one of the bags and tied it closed, then tried on the cap. Better.

In one of the coveralls' pockets, he was glad to discover a pair of gloves. He did a quick check of his improvised disguise. Overall he figured he shouldn't draw too much attention, as long as he didn't linger.

After putting on the gloves he picked up his bagged hat and the belongings that he'd taken from the coat; the latter were placed inside his pockets. Then, sparing a brief glance where Himiko slumbered, hidden amongst ordinary debris, he set out for his next destination.

Thoughts of the City forced him to move on when he would have hesitated, worn down by fatigue and wounds. Akabane stumbled through streets, clenching his teeth and holding his side in as much of a normal pose as he could, thankful that there weren't many people he encountered on his route. The few he saw seemed more engrossed in their own tasks to take much notice of a bedraggled painter with a bag of trash limping past. He continued down a side street until he came to a nondescript bar where local businessmen came to pass time after work.

At this hour the bar was virtually empty save for the employees and a couple of longtime bums with unofficial squatting rights. A few of them looked his way, but finding nothing of any real interest, they turned their attention back to whatever they had been doing before, drinking or cleaning tables. Akabane took off his cap and went to the front counter, waiting until he'd caught the eye of the bartender, a surly-looking man of average height with a small tattoo of an insect on the inside of his exposed forearm.

The bartender's eyes widened ever so slightly. But he said nothing until he came over, throwing a towel over his shoulder. "Help you, sir?" His voice, couched in a deferential tone, was at odds with his brusque expression.

"What's your stiffest rum?"

The bartender half-turned and looked at the array of beverages stocked on the wall behind him. On closer look the tattoo on his arm was that of a cicada in flight. The vivid green colors seemed to shimmer in the muted light, lending a lifelike aspect to the bug's form. "That would be the Portuguese Runner, sir. Not as strong as our usual lot, but the new stock's not arrived yet this week."

Akabane nodded as he eased onto a stool, hunching over the counter. "Bottle. One glass, rocks. Please."

The bartender nodded and went to fetch the order. He returned less than a minute later, bearing the bottle of rum, a glass with ice, and a cellphone tucked between a set of napkins. "Compliments of the house, sir."

"Thank you." Akabane waited until the man moved off to complete other chores, and then he uncorked the bottle of rum. He filled the glass nearly to the top and took a swift gulp of the dark amber fluid, wincing a little as the alcohol stung his cut lip. The rum was better than he'd hoped for. He downed another long swallow of the liquid gold, savoring its spiciness as distraction from the sting of burning needles in his side.

Still wearing the set of painter's gloves he set the glass down and nudged the bottle aside, reaching for the phone next. Akabane turned it over to its keypad and hit one number, then the send button. He lifted it to his ear and waited for the programmed sequence to finish dialing.

The tones sounded three times before someone picked up the line. There was no voice, but Akabane knew whoever had answered was listening. In a low voice he spoke two words into the receiver. "Parachute. Shark."

The silence lasted another moment. Then, a subtle click as the connection was severed. Akabane put the phone back down under the napkins and rummaged through his pocket for the antidote vial. He tried to draw out the last hints of the perfume to its limits, experiencing only minor relief as the scent began to fade. That, and the rum, provided welcome succor, and he leaned over the counter to rest, closing his eyes.

His wait wasn't long. The bartender came and neatly scooped up the phone in a pass he made with his towel over the bar counter. About ten minutes after that he returned again, sliding a slip of paper beneath Akabane's outstretched fingers. "Your tab's been settled, sir," he said as he turned to the refreshments on the wall and plucked out a few bottles.

Akabane forced his eyelids open; it felt like trying to move wet sand. He slowly sat up, holding in a hiss of pain when the movement aggravated his wound. Grasping the piece of paper, he turned it over in his palm.

Pickup in behind for delivery.

He crunched the paper in his hand and slipped it into a pocket. Taking a few slow, deep breaths to steady himself, he finished off the last of the rum in his glass and put on his cap. Then he slid off the bar stool and carefully made his way toward the back of the room, where the storeroom and lavatories were. He checked that no one was watching and bypassed the entrances to the lavatories, heading into the storeroom and all the way to the exit.

He opened the door and stepped into the alleyway. A gleaming black Mercedes was parked there, the engine idling with a barely audible purr. Akabane staggered to the car, opened the rear door and did his best not to flop over the seats as he half-crawled, half-sank inside. He yanked the door shut and immediately the car pulled forward.

The driver didn't so much as glance in the rearview mirror when he spoke. "My lord is on-line, should you wish to speak with him."

He didn't really – there would be time enough later for talk, but Akabane knew better than to put off propriety in this case. He leaned over to one side as he reached for the cellphone sitting in the console between the front seats.

Himiko had been incorrect in her estimation that no other ally existed. There was one person who still called him a friend, one whose steadfast dedication arose from poignant, tragic bonds between them, though Akabane would have dismissed such reasoning as pointless sentimentality. He did not want to dredge up the past by disturbing its ghosts. Their history was complicated to say the least. As they said, however, necessity was the mother of invention...and innovation. He would need a professional for the mission he intended to undertake.

The screensaver morphed from a nightshade of twinkling fireflies into active light when he touched it. Akabane held it to one ear while he rolled over in the seat, trying to get comfortable. A deep voice, oiled by age and authority, captured his attention.

"So. The firebird has had its wings clipped at long last, and now seeks roost within my walls. Tell me, Kuroudo. What has finally possessed you to bow to the trappings of mortality and call for aid?"

Akabane shut his eyes briefly and sighed. "You will hear of it soon enough. I had no choice, else I would not have bothered your man at his business."

"Nonsense. Mako understands his duty to me, as I shall fulfill mine unto you. Our honor demands no less, my old friend."

Akabane grumbled quietly. "You may yet rue past associations when I tell you of the shrikes I must combat, Semimaru."

Mako was the bartender he'd spoken with. He was from the old guard, one of the cicada clan's members who'd served in Semimaru Kanade's regiment when both the elder and Akabane had been younger. All of the men the legendary sergeant had commanded remained loyal to him well past the rigors of war, and many of them still served in alternative capacities. Semimaru had placed longstanding instructions with a particular few of them, Mako being one such, that Akabane was currently taking full advantage of.

A calm hum of acknowledgment filled his ear. "I see. So the sky weeps red as the devils emerge from their den once more."

Like Akabane, Semimaru knew well of Babylon City and Brain Trust. His soldiers had reported on a certain diamond-dusting spy's actions, which ultimately led to the dissolution of a plot to resurrect an ancient war lord Semimaru had been bound to by generations of a karmic curse. Though the elder had cared little about the actual deed, he had been promised something of far greater value to him for participating in the plan, and when the resurrection failed, so too did Semimaru's dream. Thus he had never forgiven the lord of the looking glass for his handlers' interference. The shrike was a desert bird that, also like Akabane, was well-known for its bloody behavior. Its vernacular name was butcher-bird, since that's exactly what it did to its prey: the mauled carcasses of its victims were flung over the sides of its nest as a grotesque banner to its stronghold.

The elder hummed again, sounding slightly amused. "Well. We shall discuss our plans once you have settled in. I daresay they will find us welcoming soon enough." He chuckled then, a ripple of sinister delight that his protege' understood only too well. In his time Semimaru was famous as the Genocide Sergeant – none but a fool would underestimate his battle prowess.

Akabane let another, longer sigh escape his throat as he gazed out the window of the car and watched the world blow by. "Reconnaissance first. That, and recovery. They've already launched a preemptive strike."

There was a brief pause. "I see." Semimaru's voice was no longer lighthearted. "In that case you shall go to ground. Be at peace until soon we meet, Kuroudo. The road to an old friend's house is never long, and the directions are simple. Even a Jackal must have a safe haven."

Akabane ended the call without replying. He let the phone slip from his fingers onto the floor as he slumped over in the seat, closing his eyes and letting exhaustion take him into its dream-shroud, to a place where neither pain nor worry could touch him.

But as he drifted off one thought did nick him unexpectedly: surely Himiko was safe enough where he'd left her...?