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pulling pedals off my bike

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Mail doesn't come by often. Only people who know when to aim for could manage it. Time vortices aren't friendly to the average deliverer.  The inexperienced traveler could end up pint-size embryo on concrete if not careful.  Messes like that weren't one of Kanzaki's favorites to have to clean up.  But at least that was typical.

She's still staring at the note when Imaizumi comes through the front. His hair is longer. Height didn't help much, running round hour to day. He fumbles through a drawer without speaking to her to pull out a pair of scissors. More than just hair falls to the ground. Debris is shrunken cloth - it is the unwoven strands, brought back to zero, spiraling into a neat pile on the ground. Routine is the fact that he won't bother to pick it up. Flickers of the past will swallow up what goes unchecked, and Kanzaki will order another set of jackets. She already has, at some point, according to yesterday's listed transactions.

That is normal.

Delivery is not.

Before he can leave, she says, "How did your date go?"

Scarlet blossoms along the edges of his ears. Gold makes its way through the half-open door in sparkling flickers, warping the carpet young till he remembers to close it. He doesn't meet her gaze. "It was not a date. I've told you that enough, Kanzaki."

She laughs. "Really?"

"Really," he answers, withering repetition.

"That's good!" Kanzaki slaps the paper on her desk - the smiling rabbit, the short message - and he turns around. She carelessly spins her gun on top, watching his eyes lose track. "I was worried I'd be killing your boyfriend, or something."

 

 

---

 

 

When it all came down to it, Kanzaki considered herself a rather patient person. She ran the Chiba branch without much complaint. She handled the fact that Imaizumi could not complete particular missions. Timelines were tracked and kept away from wrapping in around themselves. The bank accounts were well watched among she and herself. She never let people know how much or little she knows. And she normally managed to keep competitors' noses out of their business. By any right, she deserved a bit of a personal break from time to time. She had enough of it on her hands.

Tachibana wasn't a break. She wasn't a weekend vacation, she couldn't stand in for a thirty, the lady was tough enough to stand as needing a dozen fives to lose an inch of tension. But she wasn't gang material either. No matter how tough she may have been in the face of blood and bullet. That was something. Kanzaki liked that. Imaizumi wasn't either, and he stuck around, for lack of any place more welcoming. But he didn't make his own world - Tachibana did.

Sitting around wasn't up Kanzaki's alley in the first place.

So she would jump across rivers and splash into another world, breathing different air, acting the part of space alien in the dangerously exciting territory of a distant young woman's tiny rented kitchen. Tachibana would cook extra food, even when complaining about another mouth to feed. She would try Kanzaki's macarons, even when complaining about how overrated and over-priced they were. And better yet - she didn't ask questions.

Sometimes Kanzaki could read them on her face. Where the burns had come from. If she remembered their last date, if they'd even had a previous date, or final date, at that point in time. The terrible dye job Naruko had pushed the three into. Whether it was blood or bike oil staining her skin. Why she buried her face against her sometimes without a word. Inexplicable glances at her hands that left her wondering if anything would happen there, either. But she didn't like hints, and wouldn't let Tachibana throw any around.

They had a contract.

"And it's sealed with a kiss!" Kanzaki had lied, through piles of paperwork and signatures built up over a dozen meetings.

"Haven't I given you enough already," Tachibana had grumbled.

She hadn't. A rule was already broken, but Kanzaki let it slip. Just once. Grinning over what was to come, she had only said, "Sorry Aya, the interest is where it really catches you."

Tachibana was all teeth and hair and awkwardness that never got much better. In a kiss, she could never tell when the two of them were. How many times she'd sat in that kitchen. When the scorch marks had made their way onto the ceiling. The flickering paint and smells, in and out of familiar time, stretching its way against the window to drag against her skin.

When or where. The best Kanzaki could tell - palms cut against Tachibana's jawline, fingertips settling in hair and sweat. Her hands wrapped tight around her wrists, real, and present - it was -

Together.

Kanzaki liked that.

 

 

---

 

 

"What did he do this time," Imaizumi says.

"You know," Kanzaki drawls. "He broke the rules!"

Deadpan shifting into nervous energy, he repeats the question.

She smiles. "Imaizumi. You're smart, aren't you? Haven't we known each other long enough?"

Fingers splay out along the desk, twitching at her gun - not too close, for how she stares. He knows what she's capable of doing. A baker's dozen of messes made her good at cleaning up anyone's mess.  Teeth grit in his mouth, almost as loud as his labored breathing.

"It's a joke," he says.

She hums. "It's not a very funny one then, is it?"

"He just. He always!" Imaizumi throws himself back, hand shoved over his mouth. Dozens of clocks run over themselves in his silence, multiplying by the moment.  It was already decided. "Fine. It's none of my business." He talks as though he could have ever changed her mind. "Do what you want."

"Mhm!"

 

 

---

 

 

There were rules to this business.

Other organizations do their best to match it. Undue conflict never helped anyone. The time streams were difficult enough to catalog as it stood.

Don't interact too much with yourself.

Don't spread around information.

Let things fall where they will.

But really, all that Kanzaki had to worry about was -

Don't get outsiders involved.

The worst part was that it wasn't Shinkai's fault. The worst part was that she never could have stopped this. The worst part was that it was her crime, from the start.

 

 

---

 

 

"Kanzaki," he says. "Pleasure to see you."

Shinkai is all red and blue, heat and chill, sweat and ease. It isn't a wonder that he can handle Imaizumi. It isn't a wonder, either, that he manages to get along with Tachibana. She was too trusting, despite a harsh mouth. Most people had learned not to approach her. Only people more dangerous would know what a facade it was.

"Of course," she says. "It's been a while. I got your note!"

He doesn't stop smiling. Neither does she.

"Good," he says.

Hakone has a snazzy waiting room. Deep blue carpeting, soft enough to sink into. Lively red curtains, wall dressing for the lack of windows. There aren't many doors. In fact, Kanzaki notes - there's only one. Shinkai sits in front of it with all the lazy ease of a summer fountain.

"Where is she? I hope you haven't been boring her. Aya's never satisfied with sitting around with paperwork, you know?"

"You got here at just the right time." Of course she had. She wasn't one to waste it. Eyes on his hands, holster, shoulder, it was coming. "Sorry to call you out like this. It isn't often that I get the chance to see Souhoku's backbone."

Kanzaki's smile thins. A backbone with such a weakness as this.

"You know how it is. If I wasn't always on watch, Imaizumi wouldn't have a clue what to do with himself!"

He chuckles, sweeping the chair away to stand up. Hold out a hand. "I'm glad he has you."

Imaizumi never let much out of his mouth. But it all showed in his nervous gait. Coming in late, or too early, frowning far more than usual. The days he'd come in wearing t-shirts instead of easily crumpled dress shirts. And every moment he was a little better than the day before - when it wasn't about revenge, but quiet irritation and fondness, making him go outside.

"Yes," she said. "Both of us."

She doesn't give it much pause. His eyes waver down from her face, in spite of all that calm, tiredly staring at the gun in her hand. Experience cannot stop his hands from snapping over in the long instant following the shot.

"Couldn't pull it over," he says. "Just like I'd have thought."

She figures Imaizumi could get another boyfriend.

"Sorry!"

Kanzaki daintily steps past him, as he stumbles back into the chair. Winding the heavy steel door open takes time. There is no light down the stairs. All that guides her is the long stretch of fake candles hanging from all too real chandeliers, struggling to follow her down. The lack of dust surprises her. No torture instruments. No weapons. No artifacts. Just boxes and boxes of poorly stored data. As it turns out, Tachibana is fine. Clicking through her phone. Fussing around the floor for a signal. As it turns out, Tachibana isn't there.

As it would turn out. Tachibana is at home, burning noodles despite perfectly seared vegetables.

Standing in darkness, Kanzaki thinks about the fact that she didn't make sure he was dead.

By the time she gets back outside, he's gone.

 

 

---

 

 

People tried to teach lessons sometimes. In a business like this, it was more fool-hardy than not. In a business like this, it meant someone dying.  Usually.

The next time she sees Shinkai, she gives a thin smile, and a warning shot. He's polite, as ever, and gets out of the way.

Imaizumi doesn't ask questions. The best she sees out of him is a scoff over his phone, and an uncontrollable curve to his lips. And Kanzaki wonders how much he knows, when anything is happening. Sometimes she underestimates him, a little. But she likes that too. No matter how troublesome a partner he ran into.

For the moment, it's worth the annoyance.

For respective weakness, she'd trade the difference and let Shinkai live.