Also, 'Salt' is finally, FINALLY, done. I need a beta. Can I get any
"That was mine!" Ginji's plaintive cry would have been a lot more convincing if he weren't struggling not to laugh at the same time. He waved his hands in the air, making desperate grabs at the cinnamon roll Ban was currently holding just out of reach. On the back of the booth Tienmu flapped her wings, balancing against midair.
Kazuki stared at them, torn between amusement and astonishment. It was good to see Ginji so happy, of course, but there was something more than a little strange. Ban's daemon, a glittering green snake, rose hissing from around his neck, and then to Kazuki's astonishment lunged out like a rattlesnake. Ginji deftly avoided the lunge and grabbed the snake around its neck. Kazuki had to blink a few times to be sure he wasn't seeing it wrong, but no, Ginji really had just grabbed Ban's daemon, and now was holding it in midair, waving it around. "Hah! Now give me the - "
"Gerroff! Give him back -" But Ban didn't seem genuinely angry, even as he shoved the cinnamon roll into Ginji's free hand and took a sideways swipe at Tienmu for good measure.
Kazuki went pale. Ginji dropped the snake, and it - he - slithered back up Ban's arm with an aggrived hiss. Ginji leaned back in his chair and began to devour the cinnamon roll, with every evidence of great concentration and no sign of regret about breaking the fundamental taboo in public.
"Are they always like this?" Kazuki's daemon muttered, scandalized. Kazuki stroked her head reassuringly and looked over at Paul.
He half-shrugged. "Most of the time, yeah. Ginji touches him all the time. Ban doesn't seem to care. Tienmu sits on his shoulder sometimes, too."
"Not normal." With a mighty flap of her wings Kazuki's daemon launched herself onto the counter. Paul didn't seem perturbed; he was presumably used to large birds. Kazuki sipped his tea and let her continue on his behalf: "Tienmu has always been a little odd, I'll grant, especially for an eagle. But she never let anyone get close, to her or him."
"People change," Paul declared resolutely. In the booth in back the snake had wound himself around Ban's neck again, and the GetBackers were apparently having a duel with their table-knives. A smear of frosting was spread across Ginji's face, looking like an old scar. Tienmu was perched on the booth, idly fluffing her wings from time to time and looking around with complete unconcern.
It had been a long time since Ginji and Kazuki had fought on opposite sides, but he rememberd the experience very well. Eagles and swans were evenly matched, or at least Kazuki had thought so until he realized Tienmu shared Raitei's powers; there had been nothing for it then but to call his daemon bcak (she hated it, but she obeyed) and face them both down with his strings.
He had lost, of course, but the defeat had not stung, even as the burnmarks did.
Ginji came out of the cafe with a grocery bag a while later, and Kazuki emerged from the shadows and fell in step beside him. Ginji blinked a few times, then grinned. "I'm just getting some milk," he said. "Natsumi's all out." Their daemons flew in circles around them as they walked.
"She's a nice girl, isn't she."
"Yeah! Ban-chan thinks so too," Ginji whispered, as if it were a great secret. "She feeds us." He giggled, covering his mouth with his hand. "Her daemon's a wren, you know - it's funny. Out here Tienmu's really strange. Most people have dogs, or mice, or little birds."
"Well, you're special." Kazuki smiled, and Ginji smiled back, although he didn't look as if he understood.
Kazuki thought he was dreaming at first when he awoke to the sound of hissing, and something tapping at his window. He opened his eyes anyway; it was just dawn, hours before he usually arose. He looked at the window. There was the head of a small green snake poking over the sill.
His daemon hissed, and the snake hissed back. "Be still," Kazuki told her. "He can't hurt me." He padded over and opened the window a crack, and the snake slithered inside, stretching along the windowsill. Kazuki stood up and crossed his arms. "Alright. Where's Midou?"
"He's back at the Honky Tonk," the snake told him. "I wanted a word with you."
It has been startling enough when Ban had called the daemon 'him', and Kazuki had not been sure he heard right. But stranger things had happened. "I don't suppose you're going to explain how you came this far alone? Or made it up to my window?"
"Witches can do that, and drainpipes." The snake curled back until his head darted in midair, not level with Kazuki's but closer. "You don't know these things? They say you know a lot of things, but you don't know about witches, you don't know about the other world, you don't know that Ginji is ours - "
Kazuki's daemon lunged forward and caught the snake in her beak. He struggled, curling and recurving in midair. Kazuki blinked. "I know about witches and their daemons," he said. "But I didn't think you'd care to explain, if I didn't. And Ginji-san isn't yours. He doesn't serve anyone."
With a final squirm the snake broke free, dropping onto the windowsill with an angry hiss. "Look. I know how you feel about him. He's not your Raitei anymore, though. You should know that. There are a lot of things about him you don't know."
"And you do?" Kazuki discreetly rubbed at his eyes; he was too much the warrior, now and ever, to stay half-asleep in a dangerous situation, but he had been thrown off by the early hour. "Look - do you have a name?"
"Aesclepius, he's not your Raitei either. Never was. Now if you're done being territorial, I expect there are a few things we have in common to discuss."
When the snake had left it was too late for Kazuki in good conscience to go back to bed. He went anyway, and his daemon came close and let him pet her downy feathers until he had gathered his thoughts.
Kazuki's daemon slept beside his bed, curled on his spare pillow. When he had lived in Mugenjou she and Juubei's grey goose had shared a basket, just as Kazuki and Juubei had shared a bed. They had settled together; it had seemed natural that they take similar forms.
His paranoid streak had flared up at having someone inside the apartment, even someone he'd let in. Kazuki checked the windows twice and set traps on them for a few days, but there was no more sign of Aesclepius; the next time he saw the snake, it was at the Honky Tonk, curled around Ban's neck as usual. He had heard that witches and their daemons could travel apart, but until that morning he had not believed it. The idea made him shudder. Keeping his daemon close was second nature to him. As much as leaving Juubei had hurt, he could only imagine the pain of her leaving would be a thousand times worse.
They returned from their next job bruised and bloody, and Ginji held his arm against his chest, wincing when it moved. Tienmu was perched serenely on Ban's shoulder as if she belonged there. Kazuki looked at them as they came in, over his teacup, and narrowed his eyes. His daemon flapped over to get a closer view. "What happened to you?" she demanded. "Ginji-san, you're hurt!"
"It's nothing!" He flashed a thumbs-up with his other hand. "Did you know you can make a drawbridge open if you knock the counterweight off its track? 'Cause I didn't. Hey, Ban-chan, can we get pizza?"
Kazuk looked again. There was no blood on Ginji's shoulder. "Did something happen to Tienmu?"
"Eh, well, she sort of got bitten. Nothing dangerous."
"I keep telling him," Ban declared as he pulled out his pack of cigarettes. "Using your daemon in battle just means twice as much chance to get hurt. Why am I surrounded by birdbrains?"
"Big talk coming from a man who's afraid to let his daemon take anyone else's on," Kazuki murmured into his cup.
The reaction was exactly as he had hoped for - Ban exploded. "WHAT? Just because I'm not STUPID enough to take that kind of RISK - So I'm a better fighter than Aesclepius, so what? we can't all be big drooly puppydogs like monkey-boy, you know! We work TOGETHER, dammit! You and your overgrown DUCKLING, maybe you like getting split up and splatted TWICE, but SOME of us - " He had to pause for air. His cheeks were pink with the sudden exertion and the unlit cigarette still dangled from his fingers. "Some of us," he declared, "have more sense."
Kazuki raised an eyebrow and fingered his bells. "Overgrown duckling, you say?"
From behind his newspaper Paul cleared his throat prominently. They shot identical glares at him. "No fighting in the Honky Tonk," he declared, the words falling like cannonballs into the sudden silence.
Ginji took advantage of the distraction to help himself to a cookie from the rack next to the register. Tienmu spread her wings and hopped down from Ban's shoulder, claws clicking. Kazuki shrugged and smiled.
He dreamed that night of Mugenjou as it had been, overseen by the god in human form with the eagle on his shoulder crackling with lightning, streets shadowed and dirty and twisting in more ways than streets should. The fourth king, perched on the roof and staring benevolently down. Makubex, his daemon still unsettled and resting on his shoulder as a moth, then a mouse, then a lizard, as he stared at the glowing screen of his computer. Someone laughing. It might have been Ginji, but it couldn't be; Raitei had never laughed.
In his dream Makubex looked up sharply, and then gasped. "No," he said. "You're not going anywhere." He didn't smile. Kazuki wanted to hold out a hand and reassure him, but the boy was bristing, hands clenched into fists. "You're not." There was a noise he could not identify, and then a bright light, and Kazuki opened his eyes to the fading rumble of someone running down the stairs and the morning light shining into his eyes. Probably the middle-schooler who lived upstairs, who was always running late.
Makubex would be almost that age now. Kazuki had heard rumours.
He ran into Shido a few days later, the kind of accident that wasn't really accidental at all. They walked a long way together, through a small park and down streets dotted with bushes and shaded by telephone poles, before either of them spoke.
"Are you happy?"
Shido looked surprised at the question, but he didn't take long to answer. "Now? Very much. What's the matter, Kazuki?"
"Aaah, you know me to well. It's about Ginji."
"And the bastard with the snake?"
Kazuki didn't feel the brush on his own arm, but his daemon's wing. He looked down; ahead of them Shido's wolf was nuzzling at his daemon's shoulder as they walkied, looking for all the world like a dog trying to introduce itself. He smiled despite himself. "It's not right. Ginji-san shouldn't act like that. He shouldn't - fawn over anyone like that. And Tienmu was always so picky about the taboo. Even your daemon used to touch people sometimes." Kazuki smiled fondly. "I never knew wolves had cold noses ..."
Shido shrugged, ignoring the remark. Even if Mata-noski did touch people, from time to time, when she thought it appropriate, Shido would never admit it, and taking offense would be akin to an admission. The afternoon was wearing down by now, and there were long shadows thrown across the street.
"I think," he said finally, "he's changed. He's finally let someone in."
"I suppose you'd know all about it, hmm?"
"Maybe." Kazuki looked over; it was hard to tell in twilight but Shido might have been blushing, just a little. "Does it matter? He's happy. Somehow."
There was no such thing as full darkness in Tokyo. By the time they came close to Madoka's house, though, it was dark enough that the sky was a dirty grey overhead and the streetlights glowed yellow. There were no streetlights in Mugenjou; that alone would have told him, if he had not known, how much things had changed. They stopped where a tree overhung the sidewalk, and then Kazuki, acting on sudden impulse, leaned in and kissed Shido on both cheeks. His cheeks felt of stubble and he smelled of sweat.
"I know." Kazuki touched his cheek anyway. "You go back in now. Maybe you do know more than me."
The warm glow of the windows looked a very long way away. Kazuki turned away and walked, not looking back. After a little while he hit a downhill stretch of street and broke into a run, and his daemon took to wing, spreading huge and white against the sky.
Tienmu was back on Ginji's shoulder. She was a little big for it, really, but she managed; sometimes she would spread her wings for balance. Ginji ducked his head a little to let her, without quite noticing. He was balancing his bag of groceries in the other hand; it swung back and forth and banged his knees as they walked. Kazuki had to smile. "Ginji-san," he said as they neared the Honky Tonk's door. "Are you happy?"
"Huh? Of course I'm happy." Ginji honestly seemed surprised. "We've got enough to eat, and we're doing good things, and Ban-chan looks after me." He chuckled a little, looking aside. "Ban-chan's really nice when you get to know him, and so's Aesclepius, you know. He doensn't fight but Ban-chan always says ... he says it's a witch thing, and Aesclepius helps him anyway. Do you know anything about witches?"
"Not as much as you do, I expect," Kazuki murmured. It was a lie. He knew all about witches. But he didn't care to let Ginji's partner know that much.
He herded Ginji inside with the grocieries, but despite the protests Kazuki didn't go back inside. Instead he walked slowly down the street, watching the sky. It was bright blue, dotted with little downy white clouds. To the south he saw a flock of geese, barely distinguishable at the distance, soaring in formation like little splotches of ink. They were flying east, away from the city.
Kazuki stood on the corner, his hands tucked in his pockets, and followed them with his eyes until they were well out of sight.