"We got it!"
There were a lot of things about this moment that Midou Ban might prefer were different. Number one would be that it was warmer. True to his snake nature he did not like the cold, and ten degrees below zero was a good thirty degrees below what he considered an acceptable temperature. He could also do without the snow that had gotten under the cuffs of his parka and into his boots, he could wish that Ginji had begged for more than a few onigiri for their lunch, and while he was at it he might ask that the mountainside be a little less...mountainous. The slope had been too steep for the snowmobiles to navigate, and it was a bitch slogging back up it through half a meter of snow.
"We did it, Ban-chan!"
But at this particular moment he couldn't help but think it was all worthwhile. Ginji's smile was at least as brilliant as the sun glittering off the ice, undaunted by the depth of the snow or the wind whipping his cheeks ruddy. He waved the object of their mission triumphantly at the sky. Such a little thing, even wrapped in triple plastic bags to protect it from the snow.
Worth plenty to their client, however. And they'd beaten the monkey trainer to finding it, even with all his beast minions combing the mountains for the downed plane. Ban smirked at that, as he hunched his shoulders against the wind and buried his face deeper into the parka's furry collar. Show him who the real retrievers were. If they hurried they would make it back before dinner—Yokomori was treating them to meals as well, this weekend. "Let's go, Ginji!"
"Yeah!" Ginji stowed their precious objective away under his coat and plowed after Ban. As they labored up the slope he called, "Hey, Ban-chan, do you think this will help? For Yokomori-san to remember, I mean?"
Of course Ginji would be thinking about that, even if his toes had to be as numb as Ban's. He was tempted to say he didn't care, but it wasn't true, even if he was presently more involved in visions of hot cocoa and hotter baths. Still, success was a warming thing, and it wasn't just the money which made the wind seem a little less piercing. "Even if it doesn't, everyone'll still have those songs."
He didn't need to look back to see Ginji's grin; he could feel that beaming behind him as much as hear it in his voice. "Yeah! Maybe he could play them tonight at the lodge? Or some of his other songs? I think Madoka-chan brought her violin."
"Ginji, Yokomori is a rock musician. I don't think—" He paused, stopping in his tracks so suddenly that Ginji bumped into his back.
"Do you hear that?"
Ginji cocked his head, frowned slightly. "You mean that rumbling sound?"
Which was it, exactly, and it seemed to be getting louder, though that could be his imagination.
"Is it getting louder?"
Or not. Shit.
"Uh, Ban-chan? What is that—"
He didn't bother looking above them; no point when he knew what he would see. Instead he whipped around, scanning the slope—the stone outcropping to their left was closer by a few meters. "Ginji, there," and he shoved his partner in its direction, "Run!"
"Ban-chan, the mountain—"
Ginji tripped over a concealed chunk of ice. Ban grabbed his arm and dragged him up, but it was impossible to run in snow this thick and deep, and the solid rock underneath was vibrating like a malfunctioning motor. The roar was deafening.
They had almost made it, he thought they had, and then, two steps away, the avalanche crashed into them, swept them up and tumbled them over. He grabbed for Ginji's hand, got it for an instant, and then he was only clutching snow, submerged in heavy white waves that tossed him like a leaf in a typhoon. He had the presence of mind to decide that this was most definitely not worth it after all, and then the white noise went black and silent, though every bit as cold.
Yokomori Kazuma was one of those people who hadn't really been changed by fame, because he had always lived as if he were famous. The notoriety of his outrageous stunts was second only to the popularity of his music. One could see the flicker of irritation in his eyes when it became obvious Ginji had never heard of him, only somewhat assuaged by Ban smacking his partner. "He's a superstar, idiot. Remember that billboard downtown?"
Ginji peered at him curiously. "Wasn't his hair a different color?"
Ban only clouted him again, before turning back to their potential client. "You know, I thought you were still hospitalized after that accident last week. Plane crash, wasn't it?"
"That's the official story," Yokomori said. "Because..." He trailed off.
Madoka, sitting next to him, said quietly, "It's all right, Kazuma-san. You can trust them." She smiled confidently. Ginji wondered if she would be quite so sure if she could see the glares Ban and Shido were exchanging across the table. When Shido wasn't eying the rock star with something less like admiration and more like the look his lion might give a dog invading its territory.
Yokomori seemed oblivious to it, however. Or else he really did enjoy danger that much. "Thank you, Madoka-chan. Yeah, about the hospital...that's the story my manager's putting out. Until we figure out what to do about this mess. Most of it's the truth—I was flying solo over Hokkaido, the fuel line ripped, plane went down, straight into the mountains," and he illustrated dramatically with his hands. "I managed to jump out—no clue how. A couple rescue guys found me crawling down the mountainside, dragging my 'chute behind me. I'd gotten clonked on the head—passed out, woke up in Tokyo, didn't remember who I was at first. You know, just like the soaps. Except I had nurses telling me my name so I could sign shit for them. Things are coming back to me, but..."
"But?" Ginji asked eagerly, caught up in the story.
The rock star spread his empty hands. "I've lost my songs. A bunch of them, anyway."
"You don't remember how to sing?" Ban's eyebrows went up.
Yokomori shook his brightly-dyed head. "I can do that fine. And I remember most of the songs I've recorded. But not any of the ones I was working on. That's what I need back—I must have left it on the plane."
"I keep a digital recorder with me at all times. Has room for about twenty hours of music, and I'm always playing into it. Whenever inspiration hits, you know? Melody, lyrics, I'll tap out rhythms. I had it in the plane, of course—I vaguely recall being in the middle of something when it went to hell. I must have panicked—like I said, I don't remember any of that. But I left it behind."
He sighed. "It's a stupid thing. But I can't remember one note that I recorded into that thing...and now I can't think of any new notes. I'm too busy trying to recall the ones I lost. Been driving me crazy—haven't been sleeping, haven't been able to work at all. There's other things that are hazy, but hell, gives me a good excuse when I forget birthdays, right? But that music..." He shoved his fingers into his colorful hair, rubbed his temples. When he leaned back into the light the dark patches under his eyes were more obvious.
"It's not stupid," Shido said abruptly.
"No, it isn't," Madoka agreed, nodding at Shido gratefully. "And they can help, Kazuma-san."
He looked at all of them. "Madoka-chan said you're good at what you do. Retrieving things."
"One hundred percent success rate," Ban assured him, then glanced at Shido. "At least for the GetBackers." Before the Beastmaster's growl could cut him off he went on, "So you want this recorder back? Where is it now?"
"As far as I know—in Hokkaido, still in the plane." Yokomori rested his chin on his fist. "They didn't bother sending anyone after the crash—those mountains are dangerous in winter, it wasn't worth it. And the other problem is, it's not clear where exactly the plane went down. There's a pretty wide area it could be. Now, there hasn't been any major storm in the last week, but that luck might not last. If a blizzard or an avalanche buries it, it won't be found until spring, if then—and the batteries might give out before that, which means I'd lose whatever's on it.
"I'd go after it myself, but..." He indicated the cast around his leg. "Not an option. And my manager doesn't want me pushing this too hard—we're trying to keep the whole amnesia thing from the public. But there's nothing suspicious about renting a lodge in the area for a few personal friends to spend a weekend skiing in the mountains...I'll cover the travel expenses, snowmobiles, gear, whatever you need."
"I'll do it," Shido said, and Madoka smiled.
Ban leaned back, the casual way he did when he had yet to find out how much a job was worth. "I don't know. It does sound dangerous, and it's kind of out of our way..."
"I'll pay you each a hundred fifty thousand yen for the search, and another hundred fifty thousand for actually finding it."
"But we are the best retrievers you can find," Ban said, hastily rocking forward. He nudged Ginji, unnecessarily, because he had already spotted the gleam in his partner's eye. Together they chorused, "The GetBackers accept this mission!"
So twenty-four hours later they were maneuvering snowmobiles across mountains which dwarfed Mugenjou's height. Riding the snowmobiles was almost as fun as a rollercoaster—Ginji had shouted aloud the first drift they jumped, and Ban had called him an idiot, but on the next one he heard his partner whoop as well. They had Ban's triangulation from the flight plan, and once they were in the right area Ginji projected an electric current which drew him to the downed plane sure as any magnet comes to metal.
Successful retrieval, and Yokomori would be so happy to have his recorder back, and Ginji was looking forward to hearing the songs on it. As soon as someone picked up the futon laying over his face so he could hear again properly. Everything was muffled this way.
And cold. More like an icepack than futon, really, but he probably needed one, since when he moved he felt like he were bruised from head to toe. Though he couldn't recall who he had been fighting, and that was bad, not remembering. Ban would be angry with him, if somehow he had—
Ginji choked on snow when he opened his mouth, tried to sit up and couldn't, and realized why. His reaction was pure instinct, calling on the power which always buzzed in his core. The electrical burst exploded the snow aside, and he jerked up, stared out over a landscape of choppy white and gray.
It looked like a different mountainside at first, and then he realized the avalanche had brought him further down the slope. The peak high above looked sharper—he could see the gray of stone where there had been snow before. Because that snow was now on top of them—
"Ban-chan?" Ginji clambered to his feet, turned in place. Nothing but white, hard to look at in the sunlight, here and there patchy with rocks and dark earth. No motion caught his eye, no sound caught his ear. He tipped back his head, shouted, "BAN-CHAAAN!!"
But the only answer was his own echo.
For a moment he couldn't think. Couldn't breathe. He could hear the wind blowing over the snow, but couldn't feel it against his face.
Ginji shook his head sharply. Stupid. This was Ban-chan. Midou Ban would not get taken down by something so trivial as a few thousand kilos of snow. He had felt Ban's hand grab his as the avalanche hit them; they couldn't have been thrown that far apart. Ban was just under the snow, as he had been—he couldn't answer with it filling his mouth, like drowning in a semisolid lake. If he hadn't dug free by now it was because he was counting on Ginji to get him out.
Where, though. He turned again, slower now, scanning the clumps of snow, still seeing nothing. But he hadn't needed his eyes to find the plane. That had been Ban's idea—"It's an airplane, a big hunk of metal, in the middle of the mountains. There's no powerlines out there to interfere. All you need to do is put out a little current and feel if anything nearby reacts..."
Ban knew his powers as well as he did himself—better, even. Ban knew more about electricity, magnetism, not just how it actually worked, but why. But some things Ginji knew, not the science or the reasons, but just what was, what he felt.
All animals have a certain field, the sum of the tiny charges that exist inside each cell. It wasn't something he was usually aware of, except on the subliminal level that all things are, that instinctive knowledge of the presence of life. But he was used to the city, used to the constant flow of synthetic energy around him, the pulse of generators powering hundreds of thousands of small and large appliances and tools and toys. Here there was nothing, just snow and stone, and the electricity within him thrummed, tingling faintly against another living circuit—not too distant, and familiar as the power flow between his own cells.
He opened his eyes, forged through the snow—to his left, a little further down the slope, and then he was crouching to dig. The icy clumps fell apart in his hands, easier to just shove them aside, brushing with full sweeps of his arms until he had uncovered a patch of dark violet—Ban's jacket, and Ginji knelt in the drifts, took firm hold of the parka and yanked his partner from the snow.
Ban coughed, pawed feebly at his face. Ginji tore his glove off with his teeth, swiped the caked snow away with his bare hand. "Ban-chan?"
"...shit." Ban coughed again, doubling over as he struggled to sit, and Ginji put an arm around his shoulder to prop him up. Then Ban's hand closed around his wrist. "You okay?" he wheezed.
"I'm fine—are you okay, Ban-chan?"
"Yeah, yeah. Just need...to catch my breath." He shivered once, so violently it was almost a shudder, brushed more snow off his coat in a quick, convulsive motion. "Damn, that...sucked." For a moment he just huddled on the ground, holding his head in his hands, his breath a white fog around his mouth. Then his eyes opened wide and he lurched to his feet, staring up the slope. "Shit—the snowmobiles—"
Ginji, also standing, followed his line of sight to the barren snowscape above them and shook his head. "I think they're gone, Ban-chan."
"Great. Just—" He kicked at a clump of snow, only to stagger, pain flashing quick and clear across his face.
"Ban-chan?" Ginji caught him, and Ban leaned against him for all of half a second before straightening up.
"Shit," he said again through clenched teeth, glaring down at his boot. "I think..."
Ginji helped him to sit in the snow, squatted beside him and touched his leg tentatively. "It's not broken...?"
Ban shook his head. "Doesn't hurt that much. Just twisted it, I guess. It'll be fine." He tilted his head back up at the blue sky, eyes squinting shut, then exhaled hard, took hold of Ginji's shoulder to push himself standing again. "Damn, it's getting late—we better move it, if we're going to make it back before it's too dark."
Ban looked at him sharply. "You still got the thing, right?"
Ginji would have blushed, had the wind not beaten all heat from his cheeks already. "I, uh..." He patted his parka, sighed in relief. "It's still there."
"Great. Then let's get it back." Reaching into his pocket, Ban withdrew the positioning tracker Yokomori had lent them, studied its readout, then gestured upslope. "That way." And he began trudging up the mountainside, Ginji following him.
They walked in silence for a few minutes, while Ginji studied his partner's back. It was slow going over the rough snow, and Ban wasn't obviously limping, but his steps on his injured right foot were just slightly shorter. After a few hundred paces, Ginji circled up the incline to take the lead, taking a little time to stamp down a clearer path in the snow for Ban. His partner glared, but said nothing.
Lifting his head into the wind, Ginji called, "We were lucky, weren't we, Ban-chan?"
For a couple paces there was no answer, and then Ban growled, "How—"
"Because if we'd gotten there any later, that avalanche would've buried the plane, right? So we wouldn't have been able to get it at all, and Yokomori-san would have lost his songs." He looked up at the sky. "Now we'll get to hear them—you think he'll play them for us?"
"Maybe. If you ask."
"And we'll get the bonus, too, right, Ban-chan? Like he promised. We found it before Shido did, even."
At his tone Ginji glanced back in time to see his partner's mouth twist, before he sank his head down into his parka's collar. He grinned. It was one of his favorites of Ban's many expressions, that unsuccessfully hidden smile when you reminded him of something that pleased him. People teased Ginji sometimes that it took so little to make him happy—Ban would roll his eyes at his excitement over an ice cream cone, even as he would try to steal it for himself—but really Ban liked just as many silly things. He just wasn't so loud about them.
He knew that Ban wanted to hear Yokomori's songs as well—when Ginji had asked about his music, Ban had said his talent was undeniable. And he was Madoka's friend, and Madoka had wanted them to get back his songs. Ban liked good music, as he liked good art, not quite the same way Ginji did, but just as much, or more.
He had asked Ban before, to teach him the right way to look and listen, so that he could see and hear what Ban did. And Ban had told him a little bit about painters and composers, composition and form and tradition and interpretation, but when he looked confused Ban had said, intense and quiet, that it didn't matter anyway, how he looked or listened, as long as he did. Ginji still asked about art, though, and Ban answered, and he was learning little by little. Everything he didn't know didn't bother him that much, because Ban always knew it anyway. But it was good to have some of that himself.
He wished he could hear Yokomori's music now, instead of the wind. The snow crunching under their boots sounded like crushing cartons, like crossing a junkyard of styrofoam, only there were no fences, no divisions, just continuous rising and falling white. He hardly noticed when they reached the ridge, except the snow was shallower and not smashed and broken by the avalanche. There were a few stunted trees growing in the meager shelter afforded by the cliff face, and their icy boughs were almost shockingly dark against the white, the whisper of their rustling needles loud as thunder.
Ban didn't say anything, but Ginji heard his footsteps cease, stopped himself and looked back. His partner was leaning against one of the trees, digging the tracker out of his coat. It dropped from his gloved fingers, and Ginji bent, picked it up and gave it back to him.
"Thanks," Ban said, shortly. He was breathing deeply, his head hunched into his collar so the air he took in was warmed by his body heat. Squinting down at the device, he cupped one hand over the little screen to block the glare of the long, slanting rays of the sun.
"How far away are we from the lodge?" Ginji asked. The journey hadn't taken long at all on the snowmobiles, and he hadn't really been watching the scenery. Not that he was especially good at recognizing where he was anyway.
"Only about seven kilometers," Ban said. "Though that's as the crow flies."
"But it's not too far...how far have we come already?"
"About a kilometer, maybe one and a half."
"That didn't take too long. And we were going slow over that broken-up snow," Ginji said. "It's packed down here. Which way?"
Ban pointed as he stowed the tracker away in his jacket. "Over that next ridge. There's a pass, we can climb it when the snowmobiles couldn't—should be faster." He rubbed his gloved hands together, worked them deeper into his sleeves. "Dammit, could be a little warmer."
"It's getting later in the afternoon," Ginji remarked. "If we jog we'll be warmer."
"Yeah." Ban nodded, pushed himself off the tree. "Let's go, Ginji!"
It was difficult to run in the snow, and the boots weighed his feet down, but Ginji felt better for the activity, and the impact jogged a little feeling back into his toes. The snow shone less blindingly now, as a few clouds gathered over the sun, but whenever one muted that light it seemed abruptly chillier.
He stopped when he reached the steeper incline, waited for Ban, lagging behind, to catch up. He was favoring his leg more noticeably now, but when Ginji tried to ask him if it hurt, Ban cut him off with a sharp wave. "Fine," he panted. "It's just twisted. Come on." They climbed up the slope, Ginji falling back to let Ban lead.
The gap between the stone was only wide enough to allow one of them to pass at a time, and Ginji watched Ban clamber through it with half-realized apprehension. The rocky ground was invisible under the snow and slick with ice, and Ban slipped a couple times as he pushed through the passage, clumsy with his injured leg. Even if he denied it bothering him. Ginji, following close behind, tried to take his arm, was shrugged off irritably.
The warmth of the previous exertion wore off as they made their slow way through the cleft, so Ginji found himself shivering slightly, even in the thick parka. But that motion generated its own heat, and he added to it, opening those internal channels a little, to let an energizing current flow through his limbs. He smiled slightly, stretched and enjoyed the pleasant electric tingle, entirely different from the pins and needles when he wiggled his freezing fingers and toes.
The other side of the pass was even steeper, and they fumbled for grips on the rocks under the ice to help them descend. The mountainside blocked the worst of the wind, but the sun as well. Snow crumbled under Ban's boot and he tripped, cursing and windmilling his arms as he lost his balance. Ginji scrambled down to grab his parka's sleeve, pulled him safe against the rock.
"Shit." One glove scrabbling for purchase on the snowy stone, Ban put his other hand to his head, rubbed his temples.
"We're almost to where it levels out again," Ginji assured him. Then watched as Ban pinched the bridge of his nose, his brow drawn in tight tense lines. "Ban-chan, does your head hurt?"
"Too damn cold," Ban muttered.
"But that shouldn't give you a headache..."
"Let's just get off this damn rock, okay?" Grasping the boulder with his hands spread, Ban slid himself down. At the bottom of the incline he stopped, his hand starting to raise to his head, dropping instead to take out the tracker again. He tilted it, frowned, then pushed it toward Ginji.
Ginji took it unwillingly. "Ban-chan, I don't get how it works—"
"Look at the screen, it's not hard."
"It's too dark in the shade and my glasses are back under the snow."
"But you don't need your glasses to read..." Ignoring the device, Ginji scrutinized his partner instead. The furrows in his forehead were sharply etched, his skin pale under the dark hair blowing across his face. "Ban-chan, look at me."
"Just read the damn screen, Ginji."
"You should be wearing your hood. It's warmer." He reached out to tug it up, but Ban batted his hand away. His eyes were narrowed to dark blue slits, and not just against the wind, Ginji didn't think. "Ban-chan, did you hit your head in the avalanche?"
"The damn avalanche hit every part of me." Ban yanked up his hood over his hair, pulled the string to gather it around his head. "The lodge is already plotted. What does the tracker give for distance? First row of numbers."
Ginji studied the screen, all intersecting lines and tiny digits. The string along the top was easiest to make out. "5.6 kilometers? Maybe? It doesn't make sense to me."
Ban straightened up, grinding the heel of his hand against his eye. "The star in the middle's us. Should be right above the big latitude line, and we should be going southeast." He waved back at the low sun. "Which we are." He opened his eyes, began walking again, his gait uneven but determined. "So let's get going."
But by the time they were starting up the next slope, his pace had dropped to a shuffle. Ginji saw his hand go up to hold his head again, and he stumbled, his leg dragging. When Ginji drew even with him, reached to steady him, Ban didn't push him away, instead draped his arm over Ginji's shoulders and let him serve as a makeshift crutch.
As they mounted the next crest, Ginji couldn't help his awed gasp. The setting sun glittering between the mountains spread rose and golden light over the snow, softening the jagged peaks, the valleys cast in deep blue shadows, pure as the sea. The clouds gathered above caught that same light, until mountains and sky seemed all one continuous landscape. "Ban-chan, it's beautiful..."
Ban raised his head with undeniable effort. "Yeah," he said quietly. His teeth were chattering, and he hadn't pulled away, so with Ban leaning against him Ginji could feel his shivering under the parka.
"Maybe tomorrow we can go skiing," Ginji remarked, pitching his voice so the cheerful tone rang against the mountains' stillness, as they started sidling their way down the slope. He picked the way carefully, with an arm around his partner to guide Ban, walking with his head down, nested in his collar for warmth. "You said you'd teach me, right, Ban-chan?"
Ban grunted an unintelligible but probably rude reply, and Ginji smiled. "But it looked fun, the skiers we saw yesterday. And Yokomori-san said there's skis at the lodge. I hope he won't mind too much about the snowmobiles...it wasn't our fault they got buried. But we did get his recorder back, that should make him happy."
He glanced up at the blue-gray sky, the gilt-edged clouds. "It's cloudier than it was before..." There was something in the air, though not the subtle charge that heralded a thunderstorm. The wind picked up again, shrieking over the slopes to stir a sandy spray of ice crystals. He ducked his head against its tearing teeth, looked up again when the worst had passed. With his attention on scanning the sky, he tripped over the irregular snow, almost knocked Ban over. "Sorry, Ban-chan..."
"What're you doing, idiot?" Ban's mutter was more exhausted than annoyed.
"Sorry," Ginji said again. "I just—I saw some crows earlier, but it's getting late for them."
They plodded another few steps before Ban asked, "Crows?" He tugged them to a halt, dragged up his head to glare. "Ginji, that damn monkey trainer..."
On the trip here, Ginji had essayed to ask Shido to work with them, but somehow that request had ended up becoming something of a bet—a wager between retrieval agents over who could find the recorder first. It seemed to Ginji that they all had a better chance of succeeding if they worked together, but after the truck ride to the lodge with only he and Madoka wedged between Ban and Shido on the narrow bench, it was surprising that Shido was still talking to them at all. If by talking one meant glaring in their direction muttering, "Damn snake bastard," at occasional intervals when he thought Madoka couldn't hear. Ginji suspected Madoka's hearing was better than that, especially in light of her blindness, but she didn't comment, though he did notice her smiling a little behind her hand.
He would have felt better if he could see a few black birds overhead now. At least so Shido could tell Madoka not to worry when they were late for dinner. And Ban was swaying where he stood, bowing in the wind, his eyes closed again, and the shadows falling across his face were the same blue as the snow in the twilight. His hood had blown off again, and white flakes matted down his dark spikes.
"Ban-chan?" Ginji took off his gloves, brushed the snow off Ban's hair and pulled his hood close, tied the drawstring so it couldn't slip off again.
Ban's swat at his interference was halfhearted at best. "I'm fine, Ginji. Don't even feel that cold anymore."
Except when Ginji put his hands to his face he didn't feel any different from the snow. "Ban-chan, I really don't think that's a good thing..."
Ban opened his eyes, their blue navy-dark as they met Ginji's. "Maybe not," he allowed. "But we gotta keep moving."
"Yeah." Pulling his gloves on again, Ginji slung his arm around Ban's back while Ban's own arm settled back over his shoulders, and they continued down the slope. With every step the sky was a little darker, and even with the open current flowing inside him, Ginji's fingers and toes were prickling with the chill. His cheeks were numb enough that he could no longer feel the brush of the ice-caked ruff of his hood. Ban leaning against him was an awkward weight, not that heavy, but as his partner's uneven steps fell out of synch with his he stumbled, caught both of them barely in time before they tumbled down the incline.
With the collar over his mouth, talking was difficult, but as it grew duskier he needed to hear something besides their footsteps. The wind was so constant that after a while you stopped noticing it at all. He knew that silence, had once sought that peace in the highest reaches of Mugenjou's skyscrapers. But here it made the cold all the more frigid. It didn't really matter what he was saying, as long as it was more than the hiss of his own breaths. "We're almost down, Ban-chan, and then we'll be climbing again—it doesn't look too steep, though, and sometimes it's easier to go up. At least the snow's not that deep. Didn't you say it's been a mild winter, Ban-chan? Do they get more snow than this, usually? Ban-chan?"
He gave Ban a little shake, hitching him up as they walked, and Ban's head lifted slightly. "Yeah," he said, muffled by his parka. "Usually."
Not really a conversation, but an answer, at least, and it was infinitely better to hear than the wind. So he kept babbling, and Ban responded most of the time, though just the fact that Ban didn't snap at him for asking pointless questions made the icy lump lodged in his belly grow all the colder and heavier. He should be hungry, but even when his stomach growled he didn't think of food, just the warm golden lights of the lodge.
There had been flashlights in the packs on the snowmobiles, he remembered as full night fell. The moon was hidden but its glow was diffused by the clouds, shimmering across the snow, so it wasn't too difficult to see, but he craved something brighter than that pallid luminance. He was tempted to make his own light, but with no power source nearby to draw on he would be wasting his own energy.
He had thought the next slope was gentler, but it seemed more and more sheer the higher they climbed. The last one had definitely not been so difficult to navigate. And Ban was leaning against him heavily enough that Ginji was dragging him, not really supporting him up so much as pushing him along. Strange that it should take so much effort, because even in the thick parka Ban didn't weigh all that much, and Ginji should be able to carry him if necessary. Though Ban would certainly not like that idea.
One step after another, lift his foot and put it a little higher on the mountainside. He missed his sneakers; the boots were too heavy. Though his toes would be even colder without them. He realized he had stopped talking somewhere along the way, and his voice sounded husky to his ears when he started again. "We're almost over this one," which was sort of a lie, when he looked up the slope, but then he wasn't sure how far they had come and it would be too tricky to look back without losing their balance. "So it can't be much farther now, right, Ban-chan?"
He squeezed his partner with his stiff arm. Ban's head had fallen against his shoulder, a light but solid weight. "Ban-chan?" Ginji shrugged to jog him alert, and Ban slumped, his arm slipping off Ginji's shoulders.
Ginji stopped. His ears rang in the abrupt silence of the trampled snow. "Ban-chan?" he repeated, twisting to face his partner, and shook him again, harder now.
"Yeah...I c'n hear you." Slowly Ban's head came up, his face a pale streak in the darkness. "Sorry."
"It's okay." Smiling hurt. It felt as if his cheeks were cracking, like frozen metal fractures under a sharp blow.
"How far're we?" Ban sounded as if his lips and tongue were frozen as well.
Ginji's fingers were clumsy in the gloves; it took him three tries to unzip the jacket pocket and pull out the tracker. The screen's soft glow was chill as the moon's, and he had to blink to make the little numbers come into focus. "Uh. Three point...four kilometers more, I think." It took him a little while to remember what it had said before, and then he smiled again. "We're more than halfway there, Ban-chan."
But Ban was silent, his head down again. Ginji nudged him worriedly, and Ban shook his head, sharply, like he was jerking himself awake. "Yeah," he said. "Okay. New plan, Ginji."
"Too damn slow like this...You go ahead, I'll catch up."
"I...just need a breather, Ginji. Faster on your own...you'll get there in no time. Will just take me...little longer."
"It won't be too long if I stay with you, Ban-chan. We're doing fine."
Ban's hand bore down on his shoulder, heavy enough that Ginji could tell that grip was holding him up as much as his legs were. "You'll be warmer, running."
"It's all right, Ban-chan, I'm not that cold—"
"Idiot...we didn't dress for the night, you're shivering like a damn..." Ban leaned forward, close enough that he blocked the wind. His eyes were glittering dark slits, the moonlight dulling all colors to shades of gray. "Look," he said, quietly over the wind, speaking slowly as if it were an effort to order his words. "We gotta get the recorder back, right? You go ahead. I'll be right behind you. Soon as I've rested. You can come back, get me. Take a snowmobile. Or get the monkey trainer..."
"Ban-chan." He took Ban's arms, closed his grip under his elbows to steady him and leaned forward himself until their hoods were pushed together, their foreheads nearly touching. "I'm not leaving you. We're going to keep walking together, okay?"
If Ban's misting breath had any warmth left he couldn't feel it against his face, but he could hear him breathe, a hoarse rasping that sounded painful. "Shit..." Without warning his partner pushed away, a quick, violent shove that rocked Ginji back on his heels. Ban lurched back, fought for his balance in the snow. "Just get going, will you? No point in us both—think about the retrieval!"
"I'm not worried about the damn retrieval."
"Goddammit, Ginji, stop being stupid—"
"I'll stop if you stop, Ban-chan!" He saw Ban take a step back, lunged for him as his leg folded under him and caught him in a tight embrace, bearing him up. Even with his arms wrapped around him he could feel no warmth, just stiff weight, as if Ban were an ice sculpture under the parka. The sudden bizarre flash of all the various people who had told him how cold-blooded his partner was made him choke on an unlikely giggle. Somehow he doubted Ban would appreciate the joke.
"Ginji." Ban's words were muffled, his face buried against the shoulder of Ginji's coat. "I can't...too damn cold...sorry, but you gotta..."
"Ban-chan, we're going to get going again now, all right?" He slid Ban around to his side, hooked his left arm under his partner's and steadied him with his right. Ban's hooded head sank against his shoulder, dead weight sagging against him. Ginji braced himself under it, gave him a little shake. "You have to walk, okay, Ban-chan? Just a little."
It was hard enough for him to convince his own legs to begin moving again; his knees were locked tight by the cold. He couldn't imagine what it was like for Ban, who had been hurting already and was much colder and probably concussed. But he moved, a little but enough, shuffling blindly.
His head down with the effort, Ginji hardly realized when they finally reached the crest of the slope. After a few meters he noticed walking was easier, thought at first that he had gotten a second wind—fifth? sixth?—and raised his head to see not white mountainside above them but the cloud-strewn sky.
The next step he took, his boot plunged through the crusted snow, and they both tumbled over. He grabbed for Ban, curled around him protectively as they slithered halfway down the slope on their backs, ice crystals tearing at his face and blinding him.
When they stopped, he raised his head, cautiously looked up the mountainside and the long trail they had scraped. Ban coughed and Ginji knelt in the snow, pulled his partner close and bent over him, peering into his face anxiously. "Ban-chan? Are you all right?"
"A shortcut." He did laugh this time, though it hurt his throat. But so did breathing. "We're...getting there."
"Gin...ji." Ban tried to sit up, hunching over his stomach. Ginji could hardly hear his short, shallow panting, his words jagged around it. "I can't...Please. Just..."
"Ban-chan. I'm sorry. I can't." If he were warmer he might have been able to say more, but the words were frozen somewhere in his throat. And Ban knew them anyway. He had been the one to explain what the s meant, after all. Especially here on this mountainside, when there was nothing and no one else—not for three kilometers, and somehow that seemed farther than it ever had before.
But they were still here, the invincible GetBackers, and Ban was right, they had to remember the retrieval. Ban would be angry if they lost their one hundred percent success rate, and Ginji didn't want to, either. But this wasn't like so many of their other jobs; there was no deliberate menace stopping them now. As much as he didn't like to fight, he would prefer an enemy here. Someone he could match himself against, with the power zigzagging through his nerves...
He sat up, suddenly hyper-aware of that ever present current, its tingle warming him a little still. It would be difficult but he had managed it before, knew he had, though his memories were vague, that finesse more an aspect of his other self...but what he had done before he must be able to again. There was a fight here, and one they had to win. "Ban-chan?"
He took his partner's shoulders, shook him until Ban's eyes cracked open and he groaned. "Ban-chan," Ginji said, carefully and deliberately, cupping his cheeks in his gloved hands to make Ban look at him. "I'm going to try something. But I'm not sure about it—so you have to tell me if it hurts, okay? You understand?"
Ban stared at him, and for a moment Ginji thought he didn't, maybe he wasn't hearing him at all, and then his partner nodded, jerkily. Ginji smiled, as well as he could, closed his eyes. And concentrated on that internal current, the waves of energy, discharging it not in a clumsy burst, but a measured trickle.
Warping it, like running clay through his fingers and shaping it as it surged past, directing it as an even, rippling sheet, not visible but tangible all the same. Where a thunderstrike tore from him, this was gently drawn, once initiated continuing, as water pours from a tapped vessel. Not really difficult at all...
Something patted his cheek, the contact a grounding that disrupted the flow of power, cut it short. He snapped open his eyes, to find Ban's fierce blue gaze only a foot from his, staring at him with sharp, fully aware attention. "Ban-chan?"
"What'd you do, you idiot?" Ban sounded out of breath still, but he was sitting up, and the shadows across his face seemed less blue than before.
"You're warmer, right, Ban-chan?" Ginji asked anxiously. "It didn't hurt, did it?"
"Yeah. And not really." Ban folded his arms over his chest, the parka bunching around them. His teeth were chattering at little. "The hell did you..." He stopped, jerked up his head. "You—dammit, Ginji, I'm not instant ramen—you can't microwave people!"
"It wasn't, Ban-chan...it was higher than that. More like info-red..."
"Infrared." Ban shook his head. "You..."
"But it worked, Ban-chan—you're feeling better, right?" Ginji stood, reached down to pull Ban up, only to almost lose his own footing on the snow. He caught himself, braced by Ban, for a moment the two of them leaning together in an unstable arch.
Then Ban draped his arm around Ginji's shoulders, swung his leg forward in their first step. "Let's go, Ginji."
Their pace was initially steady, but by the time they made it over the next rise, Ban's shivering was severe enough that Ginji could feel him shaking even over his own shivers. His teeth were clenched against chattering, or just in pain, to tell from the vertical slashes etched between his brows.
Ginji had to stop them to manage it, but it took less concentration this time to mold the current, and Ban straightened up under it, that visible improvement as warming as the power itself. As they continued down the slope he didn't entirely cut it short, running a little of that flow in a circuit between them, the level too low to hurt, or even be noticed.
The night was very chill, but he wasn't as cold as he had been, and the numbness of his feet was better than the sharp tingling before, even if it made them clumsy. Like walking with wooden blocks instead of boots, and the snow was deeper. But the ground was more level, as they traversed the dip between two mountains, and there were more trees here, blocking the worst of the wind. He thought he recognized that peculiar fir, twisted into a curve...
"Look," Ban said suddenly. His hoarse voice echoed weirdly against the night. "Over there," he said, and extended his arm. "'Least we're going the right way."
"Huh?" Ginji levered up his head, peered at the mountainside and saw long streaks in the snow, ridged shadows in the moonlight. Like a path, but doubled for some reason.
"Our snowmobile tracks," Ban said.
"Oh. That's good." It must be, since Ban was sounding pleased by it, though he really couldn't think of why. The snow was smooth here, placid as a pond on a windless day, and those frozen ripples seemed a defacement, though not as choppy as their prints behind them.
He didn't know what happened, but he couldn't see the snow anymore, smooth or disturbed. The moon seemed to be eclipsed, blotting out all those pallid night grays. Something was patting him, his cheek he thought, but it was hard to tell, like it was happening to someone else entirely, and he was only imagining what it would feel like.
That was more immediate, that note in Ban's voice, which could be anger, except Ban's anger didn't falter like that, catching in his throat as if he were choking.
Ginji opened his eyes, found he was lying on the snow, across Ban's legs—must have knocked them both down, though he didn't remember falling. "What..." he tried to say, but wasn't sure if his mouth moved.
"Dammit—what the hell did you do?" Ban's face was close to his, and Ginji could see the black of his gloves out of the corners of his eyes, curved around his own cheeks, though he could barely feel them. "That heatwave trick—you didn't stop—that was your own energy you were burning, you idiot!" Ban's teeth were chattering again, but he couldn't do anything about it now. When he reached inside himself he felt hollow, the singing energy muted to the merest hiss.
"Ginji—Ginji! Open your eyes!"
He did, not exactly sure when they had slid shut again. But Ban was shaking him, wrestling him up. He tried to help but his body felt as if it were a sack of stones, too awkward and heavy to manage. And yet Ban strangely did not sound angry anymore. "Ginji, listen to me, you have to get up, all right? We're almost there, we have to get moving again. Like you kept saying. It's just a little further. Let's get up. One, two, three—"
Ban pushed off him, and he pushed off Ban, and together they fought their way standing. Black spots crowded close in his vision, negative snowflakes, but Ban's voice was louder than their insistent buzz. "We've got the retrieval to think of, Ginji. Yokomori's songs, you wanted to hear them—I'll make him play you all of them, you just have to walk a little more."
A push guided him and he stumbled forward, almost fell again but was propped up by his partner. Ban's soft curse was pained and he winced. "Sorry..."
"Ginji, shit, don't be sorry, just keep walking. Okay? I can't—you're too damn heavy to carry—you just have to keep moving. Got it? It's not much farther."
"Ban-chan...maybe..." He was out-of-breath, the effort to talk and move at once almost too much, but maybe Ban hadn't thought of it. "You could...go." He wasn't really that cold, after all, just tired, and he had a little power still left. Probably not enough to make light for himself, but he could try. "I'll just...wait..."
He lost track of how long they kept walking after that, long enough that he started to believe he had only thought he had said it aloud, before Ban finally replied, a little anger back in his tone, "You damn idiot, that was my idea. Not yours."
"And it was a stupid one anyway. We're the GetBackers, right?"
"Right," he managed to say, and Ban's arm over his shoulders tightened, pulled them even closer together.
"Not much further," he said, "you're doing fine."
Only he wasn't. He wanted to shake his head, but that was too difficult, harder than speaking, and he couldn't even do that anymore.
He didn't realize he had stopped walking, except Ban was shouting at him, and he would have sounded mad if it weren't for the way his voice was cracking. It must be the cold, fracturing everything, the gray night crumbling into pitch darkness. He tried to apologize, because he somehow couldn't understand what Ban was saying, but those words wouldn't come, either. And then he was buried under an avalanche just as heavy as before, for all this one was only in his own mind.
One step. Two step. Three steps in a meter, and only a thousand meters in a kilometer. Not far at all. "You're doing fine."
Ban wasn't sure if Ginji were listening to that mantra; he wasn't even sure if he were still saying it aloud. The bitter wind had stolen his voice...steps ago. A lot of steps. They were walking—if you could call it that, by this point—in the curving path of the snowmobile's tracks; he was just lucid enough to be able to follow that trail. Eventually it would reach the lodge. They would. Another step. Another.
With the wind dying down again, there was absolutely nothing to hear out here at all. He would have thought they would make more noise, walking through the snow. —Or would be, if they were walking, but somehow he was sitting, cross-legged, couldn't even feel his twisted ankle. Ice was good for pulled muscles, and the snow was as soft as it looked, molded to his bottom like a fine leather couch. Ginji was lying down, legs bent under him and head against Ban's chest.
"Ginji." He wasn't moving, impossible to tell if his chest were still rising and falling under the parka. "Ginji!" Ban could hardly recognize that rasp as his own voice. "Dammit, Ginji, come on, shit, Ginji, please don't do this..."
Ginji groaned, piercing in the stillness, turned his face into Ban's parka, crabby as if he were being woken up too early in the morning. Ban might have laughed. "You gotta get off me, you idiot," he told his partner, "we gotta get up..." It was too damn comfortable just to sit here. With his arms around Ginji he could feel him breathe, the shallowest of rhythms.
His gaze drifted across the landscape, the snowy peaks oddly remote, as if they were in a gallery looking at a painting of a mountainside. Silvery light washed down from the charcoal sky, spattered with dancing specks—it had started snowing, he realized. The first flakes had already collected on them, a dusting over their dark coats. Unaccountably irritated, he brushed that smattering off Ginji.
It would cover the snowmobile's trail, soon enough. Ban traced those faint lines with his eyes, his vision wavering, or else it was the moonlight, scattered by the thick clouds. Winding up the mountainside, to the dark block of the lodge, sharp white light porch light undercut by the golden squares of the windows...
He blinked. Blinked again, but it remained, a solid mirage, nestled in the snowy slope amid the tall shadows of trees. Not even a kilometer away. Maybe not even half that. "Ginji!"
Shaking him got not even a groan this time. When Ban tried to push his partner off his legs, he sank into the snow as if into a featherbed. "Let's go, Ginji..." The snow was falling harder now. Not loud like rain; silent as the grave and as damningly peaceful.
So the rustle was only as loud as the proverbial dropped pin, but just as audible. He twisted around, saw white against white, movement contrary to the snowflakes' flight, and the glitter of round dark eyes. A snow rabbit, peering at them curiously from a safe distance.
A snow rabbit was an animal, he realized, with a burst of insight that didn't feel anywhere near as obvious as he knew it ought to. There were few things he could think of that were more embarrassing than being rescued by the damn monkey trainer. But freezing to death in sight of shelter happened to be one of them. "Get him, dammit!" he railed at the creature, his attempted shout hoarse as a whisper. "Go get him—tell that bastard Beastmaster his emperor's freezing here!"
One of the rabbit's long ears twitched.
Ban groped in the snow, closed his numb fingers around a clump and chucked it in the animal's direction. "Get him now!"
The rabbit hopped back, twitched its other ear. For a moment it only continued to watch him; then, as he fumbled for another snowball, it turned tail and bounded up the slope, leaving them to the silence.
He was fairly certain he made several attempts to stand after that, progressively less successful, and was considering crawling when a loud noise rang out over the slope. Didn't quite recognize it, and yet it sounded oddly familiar. Then something rubbed against his face, ticklish as the ruff of his parka, accompanied by snuffling, and another echoing retort.
This time it was matched by a shout. "Mozart!"
He opened his eyes as the dog barked again, before bounding over him to nuzzle Ginji. Then his line of sight was interrupted by a silhouette, bulky in a thick coat. "Midou?"
Two silhouettes, and he thought he was seeing double again, but one was considerably shorter than the other. "Ban-san?"
"'bout time you got here," he muttered, but he had no heat left even for the usual irritation, and the last of his strength drained away with relief as he watched Shido crouch to pick up Ginji, slinging him over his shoulder like a sack.
"Ban-san," Madoka was saying, distant for all her urgency. "Can you walk? Please, get up..."
She sounded an awful lot like Ginji, that same worry, piercing enough to shatter crystal. He tried to oblige her but his legs disagreed. Then a strong hand closed around his glove and ungently hauled him up, and Madoka slipped under his arm, a crutch of reeds, bending under his weight, but not breaking. On his other side, Shido said, "Hold onto my shoulder, Midou."
"Dammit..." But he did.
"Madoka, you have him?"
"Yes, Shido-san," and then they were hobbling through the snow, rather faster than they had been. He tried to remember to move his legs but it was difficult to keep up with them. He was vaguely impressed by Madoka's speed over snow she couldn't even see, especially since he suspected she was carrying more of his mass than his own legs were. When he looked he could see Mozart pacing close to her other side, ears lowered against the cold, barking occasional encouragement.
The light outside the lodge was blinding, and he lost track of things in the confusion of the light and the noise—someone asking questions—their client, maybe, yeah, we have it, but he couldn't think of how to say that. There seemed to be a lot of questions floating in the air, like the snow, which wasn't falling in here. Seeing as they were inside. Made sense. When he tipped back his head he could see the rough wood rafters shielding them. After the dead gray quiet of the mountainside this was too loud, too bright, the browns and golds and reds and greens blurring into a riotous swirl that made his head pound worse than ever.
Hands tugged at his parka, the zipper whispering as it was yanked down, and he swatted them back, only to have them immediately resume their efforts, with more force, along with a low growl, "Dammit, snake bastard, this isn't a fight." The parka was pulled off, and then a heavy blanket was draped over his shoulders and bundled around him as if he were a fragile vase being wrapped for shipping. Impossible to push it aside; he could barely move his arms at all, enveloped as they were within it.
A figure loomed over him, backlit by dancing orange hellfire and obscure. Ban coiled back, bracing himself to lunge, knock him down and fight his way free, but a hard grip on his shoulder through the blanket pressed him into the cushions of the chair. "Midou, calm down. It's just me."
"M-monkey t-trainer?" His teeth were chattering so hard he could hardly speak, made him sound like a two year old cowering from monsters under the covers.
"Drink this." A cup was brought toward his mouth, faint wisps of steam rising from the golden liquid. He shook his head, twisted back.
"Midou," the Beastmaster sighed, "it's just herbal tea. You're hypothermic, you need heat and you need fluids. It's safe, see?" He took a sip himself.
Ban shook his head again. "W-wha—" He tried to surge up, but Shido's hand on his shoulder prevented him. "G-ginji—where's—" Didn't make sense, that Shido would be helping him, not when Ginji needed it—didn't he know Ginji had been out there, too? "Ginji, he—"
"Madoka and Yokomori are seeing to him—look, see? Right there."
He could see the two of them, only just out of reach, but all there seemed to be of his partner was a shock of yellow hair, the spikes drooping like they were soaked, under a pile of blankets on a cot pulled close to the fireplace. "Ginji?" he called, but there was no response, and he wasn't sure if his shaking voice even carried that far.
"He'll be all right, okay, Midou? Worry about yourself now."
But the monkey trainer didn't sound entirely convinced himself. "Why-why're you—Ginji needs—"
"I trust Madoka's care," Shido said, quiet but certain. Then added, exasperatedly, "And Ginji isn't likely to try to attack the guy trying to help him. Will you drink the damn tea, Midou?"
This time when the cup was put to his lips he opened them, sipped the hot tea, sweet with honey and ginger. His teeth clattered against the ceramic rim, but after swallowing all of it he was able to get the shivers somewhat under control, when he concentrated. His head was still pounding, but some of the haze had cleared, enough that when Shido asked, "What the hell happened to you anyway?" he snapped back an appropriate insult. Then answered more seriously, "Avalanche, right after we—shit!"
He struggled to sit up, the blanket trapping him still. "The damn recorder—it's..." He stopped before he gave it away, eyed his rival retriever.
"Deal with that later," Shido told him. "Your way got blocked? Or you were in this avalanche?"
"Buried." His shudder wasn't entirely from the cold, but hopefully the Beastmaster wouldn't notice. "Lost the snowmobiles, too. I was under it, Ginji got us out. I should be worse off, but he...that idiot, he used his electricity. Instant space heater—drained his batteries dry. So damn stupid—if he'd just gone himself he'd've been back here hours ago. Wasn't even ten kilometers."
"Midou," Shido said, slowly, "if Ginji had left you..."
"I told him to," Ban growled. "Goddamn idiot..." He craned his neck to peer over Shido's shoulder. "Is he—he awake yet?" He still couldn't see anything but the top of Ginji's head, and then Madoka knelt by the cot and cut off his view.
"You still cold?" Shido asked, instead of answering.
Ban huddled a little deeper into the blankets, stilled his clacking jaw. "What do you think, monkey trainer?"
"If you were up for it, walking around would help warm you up, but all things considered you should just rest."
Truth be told that was exactly what his body was telling him, but having the Beastmaster say it made it less appealing. "And let you find the thing, hand it over to Yokomori yourself?"
"Snake bastard, you..." Shido began to snarl, then glanced back at Madoka and just shook his head. "I'll get you more tea, then."
No sooner was Shido gone than Madoka had taken his place by his chair. "You're feeling better, Ban-san?"
He nodded, met her sightless gaze and said aloud, "Yeah," without even stuttering over it. Small miracles. "How's Ginji?"
Madoka inclined her head, smooth brow furrowing slightly. "He...Ginji-san will be okay, Ban-san."
"Of course he will." Ban wasn't sure who he really was answering. "He's—he's strong. Just plug him into this place's generator..."
"Would that really work, Ban-san?"
"Actually it might." Shido was back, another mug in hand. "Here. Can you manage it yourself?"
"Madoka-chan could help me," Ban suggested, essaying a smirk at the Beastmaster.
"I could," Madoka agreed brightly.
"Or I could empty it over your sea urchin head," Shido replied.
"Fine, fine, give it over, monkey trainer." Just holding the mug in his hands was a delicious treat, the warmth leeching through to melt the ice in his marrow of his bones. He quaffed the tea in a couple long swallows, closed his eyes to enjoy the heat sliding down his throat. When he was done he pried up his lids, but the gleam of the lamp over the fireplace hurt his throbbing skull and he shut them again, leaned back in the chair.
Shido and Madoka had rejoined Yokomori by Ginji's cot. Only just out of arms' reach, but their low voices were only an indistinguishable murmur. He tried to listen to what they were saying, but didn't catch more than his partner's name. But Ginji was going to be all right. He would know otherwise.
Ban didn't feel the mug slip from his fingers, drifting as he was in a soft, comfortable place where it was, finally, warm.
"Ban-san?" Madoka asked, at the thump of the cup falling to the rug.
Shido glanced over to where Midou's head was drooping, dark hair hiding his eyes. "He's asleep."
"Good," Madoka said. "He is going to be all right, Shido-san?"
"He should be." It was the first time Madoka had actually asked that, since they had found them out in the snow—over an hour ago, now. When night fell with no sign of the GetBackers it had been clear something was wrong. Shido had asked what animals he could, but the day creatures were already asleep and those nocturnal were mostly hiding from the coming storm. He had been outside, considering taking the last snowmobile and following their tracks, when the startled rabbit had bounded up, made hurried mention of humans further down the mountain and then fled from Mozart's bark.
As it turned out it was fortunate that Madoka, alerted by her dog, had insisted on accompanying him, because it would have been difficult to carry both of the idiots back by himself. He was frankly grateful that she hadn't been able to see them, half-covered in snow and just about as white. Until Midou had moved he hadn't been sure there was anything left to save—humans were too damn fragile in the cold, not made for it at all. But Madoka had expressed no doubt, even when Yokomori had gasped to see them, only calmly asked the man to put on tea. The singer wasn't entirely useless; he had at least had the presence of mind to stoke the fire and spread blankets to warm beside it.
And Midou, snake or not, was recovering—no surprise there; bastard was too damn pigheaded not to. His partner, however..."What about Amano?" Yokomori asked.
Shido knelt by the cot, pressed his hand to Ginji's forehead. He was warming, slowly, but still unconscious, his face ashen, though at least his lips now were more pink than blue. "Shido-san," Madoka said, not more than a whisper, mindful of Midou dozing, "he...hasn't woken at all..."
Mozart whined, sat up on his haunches to push his damp nose against Ginji's cheek. Right smell, but wrong, the guide dog whimpered to Shido, not him, not storm-prickly...
Shido remembered what Midou had mentioned. "He's drained," he said, as quietly. "He used up his electricity keeping them ali—warm, out there. It's taking time to get it back." He hoped, at least. Hard to be sure; in Mugenjou Raitei could never have exhausted his energy. But Ginji was just as strong. He had to be.
"But will he be okay?" Yokomori wiped his brow. It was hot by the fire. "With that snow coming down we might be stuck here for a couple days; if he needs a hospital..."
"We're doing all we can here."
"Damn it!" The rock star punched his fist into his other hand. "And I asked for this damn retrieval."
Shido glanced at him. "They might not have found the recorder, Yokomori; I couldn't tell from what Midou was saying."
"You think I care about that? You realize you could've lost both your friends, just for my stupid songs?"
"That snake bastard is not my friend. And you hired us to take those risks," Shido reminded him.
"But I didn't—look, I like danger, makes you feel alive, living on the edge, but I don't just throw my life on the line because someone pays me!"
"Kazuma-san," Madoka said, "the first time I hired Ban-san and Ginji-san was for a job more dangerous than this. But when they told me they could do it, I believed them."
"And they did it."
"Well..." A faint pink colored Madoka's cheeks and she ducked her head. "I did get my violin back."
"Yeah, she did," Shido said, a little smugly, until he remembered the snake bastard wasn't awake to hear it.
"Kazuma-san, would you mind making me some more tea?" Madoka asked. "I'm a little chilly."
"...Okay. Coming up." Yokomori levered himself to his feet with his crutches and headed for the kitchen, his cast thumping on the wooden floor.
Shido eyed her askance. "How can you be chilly this close to the fire?"
Madoka's head dipped again, golden firelight sheening off the black silken fall of her hair. "It was very cold outside, my fingers are still a little..."
"Eh?" They were cool, when he took her hands. He pressed her slim fingers lightly in his, circled his thumbs against her palms to stimulate the blood flow. "That better?"
"Yes." No louder than the snow rabbit. "Thank you. Shido-san?"
"If you hadn't found them..."
"It would've been all right," Shido told her. "You know those two. Midou was still awake, since Ginji had helped him; he would've made it back eventually."
"But Ginji-san..." Madoka shook her head. "No, Ban-san wouldn't let him, would he?"
Shido sighed. "No, he wouldn't." Unbidden, Midou's insistent growl crossed his mind—I told him to. Really, the man should know his partner better than that. Ginji could no more have left him behind than he could have abandoned one of his own limbs. But then Midou hadn't gone any farther without him, and loathe though Shido might be to admit it, he wouldn't have expected any less of the snake bastard.
Madoka's fingers tightened around his, and he looked up at her face, the beautiful blank dark eyes. "Madoka?"
"I..." It wasn't even a whisper. "I'm glad Shido-san wasn't caught in an avalanche, alone."
"I couldn't have been," he said, surprised. "I was never alone today—I have lots of friends on these mountains."
Madoka smiled. "I know," she said. "But...Shido-san, if you go out tomorrow, I know I couldn't help you much, but could I come with you?"
"If you want. But it'll be cold. And it can be dangerous."
"I wouldn't be afraid." She leaned forward a little, so he could hear her whisper. "Like Ginji-san has Ban-san, and Ban-san has Ginji-san—I'll have Shido-san. And Shido-san is warm, too..." Her chin was almost resting on his shoulder, her breath tickling his cheek, and if he turned his head just a little...
Mozart's quick bright bark overlapped the rustle of blankets. Shido jerked back, looked past Madoka's shoulder to see Midou climb off the chair and shakily draw himself erect, the thick blanket draped over his shoulders. "Midou—"
"That idiot still hasn't woken up?" Midou's stare was fixed on his partner. One hand gripped the back of the chair for support, the other pressed to his temples. Shido frowned, hastily stood as Midou released the chair and took an unsteady step toward Ginji's cot. He crossly shrugged off Shido's offered support, only to sway dizzily, still holding his head.
"Look at me," Shido ordered, still frowning. Midou glared back at him, blue eyes not quite focusing, and Shido shook his head. "Midou, tell me you don't have a concussion."
"I don't have a concussion." He took another step, definitely limping.
This time Shido didn't let him resist, just grabbed his arm and guided him the last couple meters to the cot. "You could've mentioned you actually got hurt in the avalanche, you asshole," he growled as he helped Midou sit in the closest chair, folded the blanket around him again. "Did Ginji?"
Midou shook his head, winced at the motion. "Don't think so." He extended his arm out from the bundle of blankets, passed his hand once over Ginji's drooping blond spikes and then, very lightly, tapped his knuckle against his brow. "Come on, you lazy guy, about time you got up."
Ginji's eyes remained closed, lashes dark against his pallid cheeks. Midou glanced to Shido and Madoka. "Can you get some food for him? Unless we plug him into a socket he'll need to recharge the old-fashioned way."
Madoka stood, started for the kitchen. "Kazuma-san and I will get soup. You must be hungry, too, Ban-san."
"Yeah, sure, thanks. You hear that, Ginji? Wake up or you'll miss dinner." But the reprimand was undermined by his voice's shaky rasp. "Come on, now..."
"Midou," Shido began, hesitantly, "he might not—"
The whisper that came from the blankets was no louder than the hiss of the fire. "Ban...chan?"
Shido crouched to get a better look at Ginji's face as the brown eyes fluttered open, blinked hazily. Midou's grin as he leaned forward cancelled out the pain which had drawn his brow. "Ginji! Took you long enough."
"You're at the lodge," Shido told him. "You and Midou made it far enough that Madoka and I found you."
"Shido?" Ginji blinked again, and the blankets heaved as he struggled to sit up. "Ban-chan—are you—you were—"
Shido gently pushed him back down on the cot, but it was Midou's voice that quieted him. "I'm fine, Ginji. You're the one worrying everybody."
"Sorry..." Ginji twisted onto his side, tilted his head to look at his partner.
Midou waved dismissively. "It's all right. How do you feel?"
"Okay...just a little tired."
"And cold." Midou hadn't missed his shivers under the blankets. "The soup will warm you up. Get your energy back, too." He poked Ginji's forehead with his index finger. "Since you used it all up. You idiot. You have to be more careful."
"I was being careful, Ban-chan. It kept you warm, didn't it?"
"Idiot," Midou said again, softer but no less reproachful. "How does it do the GetBackers any good if you're the frozen one?"
"Ginji-san, you're awake?" Madoka's happy interjection interrupted any reply. Shido jumped up to relieve her of the tray she was carefully balancing, set it down on the end table and then helped Ginji sit up on the cot, propping him up with a pillow and the blankets. Ginji gave him a grateful smile, accepted the bowl of soup with hands that were only trembling a little. Midou leaned forward to claim the other bowl, but waited until he had seen a few sips of the hot broth bring color back to his partner's face before he nodded in satisfaction and started slurping up his own soup.
"Thank goodness," Yokomori said, sincerely, as he watched them finish. "I'm glad you're feeling better, Amano-kun, Midou-kun. I want to tell you, I'm so—"
"Oh! Yokomori-san!" Ginji returned the bowl to the tray, flipped the blankets aside and stood, then swayed woozily.
Shido grabbed his arm before he fell, and Midou surged up to take his other. "Take it easy, idiot!"
"You too," Shido snapped, and pushed Midou, just a little shove, but he collapsed back into the chair, while Shido helped Ginji back onto the cot. "Don't push yourself, Ginji."
"But—we found it, Yokomori-san." Ginji shook his head as if he could shake off his weakness like water. "Where's my parka?"
"It's here, Ginji-san," Madoka said, going to the couch where she had put the coat aside and picking it up, exploring the pockets with her fingers. "Right—oh!" She unzipped the inner lining, withdrew a small package wrapped in plastic. "Is this it?"
Yokomori hobbled over on his crutches, claimed it from her and ripped the bags aside as Ginji bobbed his head. "That's it! Isn't it, Yokomori-san?"
Their client ran his hands over the sleek black casing. "Yes—it looks like it..." He clicked a button on its side and his face brightened. "It's still working! Wait..." Digging into his pocket, he withdrew a set of headphones, plugged them in and put them to his ears. Then the rock star's expressive face went blank, and he slowly turned his head from side to side.
"Yokomori-san?" Ginji asked anxiously. "Is it—" His face lost most of the color it had regained. "Ban-chan, my power, maybe I—"
"You couldn't have messed it up," Midou said. "Those bags were anti-static. Hey," he looked back at their client, "We got you the thing, you can't stiff us even if it's broken."
"Broken?" Yokomori blinked, and then a smile burst across his features like a firework. "No—no! It works! My songs, they're here..." For another moment he stood suspended in the reverie of his recovered music, and then he hit another button, took off the headphones, and bowed to them as well as he was able with the crutches. "I can't thank you enough for this. The bonus is yours, of course, but if there's anything else..."
"There is," Midou said, decisively. "You can play those songs for Ginji here."
Yokomori blinked at the GetBackers. "Of course, if you'd like to hear them."
"Would you?" Ginji asked, all eager anticipation. Except for the heavy blanket wrapped around his shoulders despite the closeness of the fire, he hardly seemed affected anymore. Shido suspected this had as much to do with Ginji refusing to believe hypothermia would bother him as it did with his rapid healing. Midou didn't seem entirely convinced, studying his partner with narrow-eyed intensity—he must be exhausted himself, to let that concern show so clear on his face. But Ginji seemed oblivious to it as he chattered on, "I'm sure Ban-chan wants to hear them, too. I've never heard your music before so I don't know what it's supposed to sound like, but Ban-chan does."
"You've never heard...any of it?" Yokomori blinked, then looked down at the recorder. "Well, there should be a few things on here from my last recording session, they're almost finished songs. I could play you those. Except..." He held up the headphones. "There's no speakers here, so only one person can listen at a time."
Midou gestured at his partner. "Let Ginji."
So Yokomori settled the headphones over Ginji's blond spikes and fooled with his device, and Shido heard the scratches of a tinny beat start playing through the little speakers. Ginji's face lit up, as if the music were every bit as energizing as a generator might have been. "Wow, Yokomori-san!" he cried, a little too loud over the music in his ears. "You can really sing like that?"
Even a superstar wasn't immune to Ginji's enthusiastic approval. Shido recognized Yokomori's gratified grin well. In Mugenjou there had been many willing to kill, willing to die, for that accolade, but somehow it was worth no less outside. Ginji's eyes closed, his head tipped back in blissful appreciation of the music as he tapped his fingers in time to the beat. Shido couldn't help but smile a little himself. It had once been a rare thing for Ginji to be able to give himself over to something he enjoyed; seeing it now was like watching something long caged at last fly free.
When he happened to glance over at Midou, he saw a smile playing on his lips, very unlike the usual serpent smirk, a sleepy contented look that was too warm to be just the satisfaction of getting paid. Ginji was appreciating the music and Midou was appreciating—maybe simply their survival, maybe more. It wasn't an expression Shido could recall seeing on the snake bastard before, and yet it sat right on his sharp features. He had the feeling Ginji would recognize it easily.
Before Midou felt his eyes on him, Shido looked away, went to Madoka. She was sitting in the armchair with Mozart, her hands wound in his thick ruff. The dog thumped his tail in greeting to Shido, looking every bit as content as Ginji under his mistress's ministrations. Shido sat down on the rug beside them, leaned against the chair and idly reached up to scratch the dog's ears.
"So Ginji-san likes Kazuma-san's music," Madoka commented in an undertone too low to disturb anyone else.
"A lot, looks like. Is he really that good?"
"He is." Madoka nodded. "He's a talented singer and a genius composer. I'm so glad he was able to get those songs back. I'd love to hear them myself." Her hand brushed his shoulder, settled on it, a single point of warmth he could feel through his vest. "He can write wonderful music, though it's not the kind for my violin. But when we get home, I can play you one of his CDs, Shido-san. If you want."
"I'd like to hear it." Shido studied the back of Yokomori's azure head, wondering what kind of music it actually produced. For both Ginji and Madoka to love it, it must be worth hearing. Human music was so different than what animals called or birds sang, so much more complicated, hardly spontaneous. But it could be beautiful.
When he got up to add another couple logs to the diminishing fire, he noticed Ginji yawning. Yokomori clicked off the recorder, and Ginji sheepishly drew off the headphones. "Sorry, Yokomori-san," he said. "Your music is great—I'm just really tired."
"Can't imagine why," Yokomori said, wryly.
"I really do like it a lot—do you want to listen to it, Ban-chan? Ban-chan?" But Midou had dozed off again. He didn't look too comfortable, sitting up in the chair with his neck bent at an angle, but moving him would be more trouble than it was worth.
Ginji looked from his partner's nodding head to Shido. "He is going to be okay, Shido? He was hurt..."
"Don't worry about him, Ginji. You know how strong this snake bastard is."
The smile Ginji gave him was reassured and grateful. But Yokomori flinched. "Amano-kun," he said, "I wanted to tell both you and Midou-kun, I'm sorry about this damn mission. It wasn't worth it."
"Eh?" Ginji blinked. "You mean you're not going to pay us—or is it the snowmobiles—"
"What? No, of course I'm paying you, I told you already. And the bonus, obviously. I can't thank you enough for getting this recorder back—but as much as I wanted it, I never should've let this happen."
Ginji only looked confused. "This?"
"You and Midou getting hurt, he means," Shido explained.
"But, Yokomori-san, that avalanche wasn't your fault. And it was our job."
"You see, Kazuma-san?" Madoka said.
"No, I don't!" The rock star looked between Ginji and Shido, shook his head again. "Why are you retrievers, if it's this dangerous?"
Ginji cocked his head, reached over and tapped the recorder. "Yokomori-san, why do you sing?"
Yokomori's eyebrows shot up under his bright blue and purple bangs. "That—because it's what I'm good at. It's what my talent is. And I love being a singer, I couldn't imagine being anything else."
Ginji nodded. "That's how it is. What we are, what we can do, me and Ban-chan and Shido—there aren't many jobs that we could be this good at, and there aren't many people who could be this good at it. And I love being a retriever. Being able to help people like this, doing things like this—even if it's dangerous, it's what we have to do. Ban-chan and I, we're the GetBackers—we couldn't be anything else."
"So what you're saying is, you're crazy." But he was smiling as he said it, and Ginji laughed.
"Just don't let Midou hear that," Shido warned.
Ginji grinned. "Ban-chan wouldn't mind. As long as we don't have to pay for the snowmobiles."
"Don't worry, that's covered." Yokomori stood, yawned as widely as Ginji had before. "Guess it is getting late. If everything's okay now, I'll be getting to bed myself."
"Good night, Yokomori-san."
"Good night, Amano-kun. You coming, Madoka-chan?"
"I'm comfortable here," Madoka said politely from the armchair she was curled up in, Mozart snuggled in beside her. "Good night, Kazuma-san." Yokomori nodded, thumped his way to the bedroom and shut the door behind him.
"Are you warm enough?" Shido asked Ginji.
Ginji looked over the pile of blankets he was buried under, nodded. "I'm fine." But as Shido switched off the lamp and started to turn away, he caught his arm. "Shido?"
"I didn't say yet—thank you." He looked past Shido to Madoka. "Thank you, too, Madoka-chan. You found us, right, brought us back? You should get some of the bonus—you brought the recorder the rest of the way." He shivered, wrapped the blankets tighter around himself. "Just for a little while...out on the mountain, there. I didn't..." He shook his head. "Never mind. Ban-chan would be angry if he heard me."
"Damn straight I would." Midou's eyes were still closed, but his voice was clear. "We didn't need the monkey trainer. We'd have made it eventually. No way the GetBackers lose to some damn mountain."
Ginji's grin had no doubts at all. "Of course not, Ban-chan."
"Hmph. And that rock star's not gonna charge us for the snowmobiles? That's something, at least."
"Midou, don't you ever sleep?"
"And let you draw pictures on me or something?" Midou snorted, repositioned himself on the chair to a slightly less awkward sprawl.
Shido picked up one of the blankets that had slid off and threw it back over him, feeling immaturely vindicated when Midou growled and burrowed out from under it, the static from the flannel whipping his hair into a worse mess than ever. He heard Ginji stifle a chuckle before sleepily saying, "Good night, Shido, Madoka-chan, Ban-chan."
Shido answered in kind, heard Madoka echo it. "G'night, Ginji," Midou put in after a short pause. When Shido looked his blue eyes were open, watching his partner settle under the blankets, a trace of that same smile from before on his lips.
"Midou," Shido said quietly, "if you want the couch—"
Midou shook his head. "I'm good here." The smile shifted into a much more typical smirk as he whispered, "Unless you and Madoka want some privacy—"
Before Shido could do anything with the fist his hand reflexively curled into, Madoka said, cheerfully, "No, it's okay, Ban-san," and it was almost worth it for Midou's expression as he realized he had been overheard.
"Get to sleep, snake bastard," Shido said, figuring he could do no better.
But Midou of course wouldn't let him get away with that. "Monkey trainer," he said, not much more than a hiss.
Midou was not looking at him. "Ginji said it already." He reached out, swiped his hand over his softly snoring partner's yellow spikes in a gesture too gentle to be a cuff. "But...thanks." His gaze shifted up to Shido's. "Even if we didn't need it."
Those blue eyes could hold any nightmare or fantasy imaginable, but in the dim orange of the firelight Shido only saw the usual obnoxious arrogance. And maybe a little of something else, but that didn't need to be mentioned.
"Ginji's my friend," he said. "I'll always help him. Even if he doesn't need it."
Midou nodded, sharply, and Shido understood that look, silent answer to his unspoken reply. Then Midou leaned his head against the chair back, shut his eyes. "'Night, monkey trainer."
"Good night," Shido told the GetBackers, and left them asleep by the fire's warmth.