"Carefully," Matsukawa says, so soft that only Yahaba can hear him. It seems like he's saying it more for his own benefit, though Yahaba doesn't know why. Matsukawa had been in the business for years now, almost as long as Oikawa and Iwaizumi have, and he's not quite as clumsy and dumb as he lets people believe. He does tend to hum or mumble to himself every now and then, though, so maybe this is just one of those odd times.
"Target locked," Hanamaki's voice crackles over his earpiece. "Ready whenever you are."
Matsukawa hums his acknowledgement again, his own spirit seal projector trained on the ghost in the room. It takes the shape of a young woman, dressed in an old-fashioned yukata, and floats about five feet off the ground. Yahaba’s got the spirit box today, a large, shoebox-sized bin with the seals he and Matsukawa wrote out before taped tightly along the seams and sides. It sits open, invitingly so, and they’re here to collect.
“Fire on three,” Matsukawa says. “One, two, th—”
Something clatters in the distance, making them all jump, and the ghost swivels her head, a horror-movie worthy 180 degrees, and locks her bleeding jet-black eyes on where Matsukawa and Yahaba are crouched behind the pillar.
"Oh shit ," Matsukawa says, and the ghost screeches as it dives at them. Yahaba yells and leaps out of the way, barely avoiding the clawed hand that comes at him. Matsukawa tumbles into a planter, smashing it by accident with a groan. He sees Hanamaki leap from his hidden position and advance with a shout.
Matsukawa grunts from the floor where he's lying flat on his back, an impressive lump already forming on his forehead. He raises his spirit projector the same time Hanamaki does, and they blast the ghost together.
Ribbons of sealing energy erupts from their gadgets, catching the ghost in its crossfire, but they're out of position, and the seal doesn't close completely around her. She shrieks, tearing at the restraints, and Yahaba can see the magic start to shred.
"Quick!" He yells, dashing forward with the box. "Get her in before she can—"
The ghost whirls on him, screaming, and Yahaba almost kneels over from the force of dark energy that expels from her. Holy crap, this one is nasty.
"Yahaba!" Matsukawa barks, and Yahaba sees the clawed hand reaching for him a second too late. God damn it, he thinks, but he stands his ground, braces himself, and waits for the pain to come.
But it doesn't, because Kyoutani chooses that exact moment to come tearing into the room, launch himself at the ghost, and sucker punch her right in the face.
There's a flash as he collides with the seals, a shriek that sounds like fingernails raking down a chalkboard, and a thunderous boom as the spirit explodes and drenches them all in hot, filthy, ghost goo.
"So that was a big ol' bust," Hanamaki comments airily, much too casual for someone covered head to toe in stinking dark green muck. Something squelches in Yahaba's shoe as he walks, making him shudder with every step he takes.
The second they'd gotten back to Headquarters, spirit box empty, seals in pieces, and sticky in places Yahaba doesn't even want to acknowledge, all four of them had been sent up to Chief Irihata's office, where he chewed them out for an honest-to-god hour . Yahaba doesn't fully blame the Chief—they'd cocked this one up real bad, he admits—but they hadn't been allowed to go clean up beforehand, and had thus stood in Chief's office dripping wet ghost goo and smelling like rotten garbage whilst getting yelled at the entire time.
The only upside to this whole fiasco was that Kyoutani had gotten held back for another round of verbal berate, and it kind of serves him right, because it really was his fault they all ended up like this. They can still hear the Chief yelling even as they rounded the corner to head to the change rooms downstairs.
"Ugh, this is definitely not coming out," Matsukawa groans, inspecting the large stain on the front of his shirt. "Really wished Irihata would've let us wash before going up, damn it."
"The man loves to make us suffer," Hanamaki says sagely, peeling a nasty blob off his shoulder. He flicks it into the garbage bin, where it makes a disgusting plat as it slides out of sight. "I can't wait to go home and stand under the shower for the next five years."
"And take up all the hot water again? I don't think so," Matsukawa snorts. "I'm getting in with you."
"You are not , you gangly freak, you take up all the damn space in there—"
"Yeah, well, I'm not sitting in this shit for another hour waiting for the hot water to come back on so you're gonna have to deal—"
"Must I remind you we're two grown ass men both over six feet tall, and the shower is hardly bigger than our broom closet? Besides, I already called dibs."
"It's only dibs if you say dibs, you dickhead."
Yahaba sighs and lets Matsukawa and Hanamaki's stupidly domestic bickering fade into background noise as they clamber into the change rooms. It's blessedly empty at this hour, and he sheds his ruined jacket, shirt, and pants without much care. The cleaners will probably hate him for the amount of goo he's dripping everywhere, but it is two in the goddamn morning and Yahaba is fairly certain his nose hairs have singed off by now. He shucks the shirt and pants into the garbage because it's really not worth salvaging at this point, and changes into his street clothes.
"See you guys," he yawns, giving his two seniors a wave.
"Later," Hanamaki says. "When are you in next?"
"The day after tomorrow? Or, tomorrow, since it's Thursday already," Yahaba sighs. "Or Friday. I dunno. Whenever."
Matsukawa laughs, which is unfair because he's a natural night owl and knows Yahaba gets cranky as hell without enough sleep. "See ya," he says, and Yahaba grunts his goodbyes before shuffling out into the hallway, intent on calling an Uber because the trains have all stopped by now and he's not walking twenty minutes in the dark to get home.
But what he does instead is run nearly headlong into Kyoutani, who's evidently been released from Chief's lecture and had come stomping down the hallway towards the change rooms. And oh, he stinks .
"Ugh," Yahaba gags before he can stop himself. He slaps a hand over his nose and mouth, trying not to retch at the stench that comes off Kyoutani. Kyoutani scowls at him.
"You smell terrible," Yahaba grumbles. It made sense that Kyoutani did, though, since he was an idiot who decided to not only engage in an actual fistfight with an actual ghost, but also attempt some kind of full-body tackle while he was at it, and landed himself right in the splash zone when the ghost exploded.
"No shit," Kyoutani says. "You don't exactly smell like fuckin' flowers yourself."
" I wasn't the one who decided to sucker punch a ghost," Yahaba sniffs. "This is entirely your fault."
Kyoutani snorts. "What, for finishing her off before she could finish us? You're welcome, by the way."
"In case you forgot, we lose the commission from the Board if we don't bring the ghost in, you moron," Yahaba retorts. "So, in actuality, we don't get paid tonight."
Kyoutani, the jackass, doesn't even look sorry. "My bad. Next time, I'll just let the ghost get you."
Yahaba bristles. "I can handle myself," he huffs, and takes a deliberate step past Kyoutani. He hears Kyoutani grumble, but when he looks back Kyoutani is already walking into the change rooms, smearing the door handle with green as he goes.
When he gets in on Friday, the first person he runs into when he wanders into the lounge is Oikawa. Oikawa, who is for some reason standing in a power stance with his arms crossed over his chest, face red and exhaling through his nose like a bull when Yahaba walks in. He freezes by the door, uncertain.
"... what?" Yahaba asks, staring at his Division Leader. Oikawa isn't usually the type to get particularly riled up—that's what he does to other people—but every once in a while he can get pissed off at something they've done, like the time Kindaichi forgot a bunch of their seals and left them stranded with half a ghost writhing in the spirit box in the middle of a subway platform.
"You. Guys. Got. GOOED." Oikawa seethes, taking extra care to punctuate each period.
"Uh," Yahaba says, but before he could say anything else Oikawa dashes over to the whiteboard hanging on the wall. Scrawled amidst the random notes and doodles at the top are the words 0 Days Since Our Last Goo Incident . He doesn't remember how many days their record was at before, but someone had erased the number and brought it back to zero.
Oikawa smashes his palm flat against the board, next to a list of all the active Divisions at Headquarters, and screeches, "You guys got gooed! And look! Castle Division is now in last place !" He jabs his index at their team, which is now tucked under Crow Division.
"Oh my god," Yahaba groans. This again. He chucks his bag onto one of the sofas. Across from him, Iwaizumi is sitting and reading, though he snorts at Oikawa's theatrics. "It wasn't on purpose, Oikawa."
"We had a streak going, Yahaba!" Oikawa wails. "Ninety-eight days! We were untouched by ghost filth for over three months! We were about to overtake Ushiwaka's record! And now we're in last place!"
"Don't front, we weren't anywhere near Ushijima's record," Iwaizumi says, turning a page. "We had another two months to go at least."
"That's besides the point, Iwa-chan!" Oikawa cries. "Not only that, we're now beneath the Crows! Tobio-chan is beating me . I'm going to have to buy him drinks if we're still in last place by the end of the month! That's less than a week away!"
Yahaba rolls his eyes. If there's two surefire things that'll set Oikawa off, it's usually either Ushijima Wakatoshi, the Leader of the Special Retrieval Division (better known as the Eagles), or Kageyama Tobio, a direct-energy manipulator from the Crow Division that Oikawa has some kind of petty dislike for. And of course it's his luck that the events of Wednesday night's mission treads over both minefield-ridden topics.
"Whatever, you know it'll be another two days and Kageyama and Hinata will get dunked on again," Iwaizumi says. Oikawa sniffs delicately, but that seems to placate him.
Yahaba sighs, flopping onto the sofa. Sometimes, it's hard to see Oikawa as the legendary ghost hunter people usually whisper about. Once upon a time, Yahaba had also been curious and intimidated by the rumors and track record Oikawa had set for himself—over two hundred ghost containments in his first year as a ghost hunter, a handful of high-profile exorcisms, and his unparalleled skill as a direct-energy manipulator. Not many people can control spirit energy without the aid of seals or runes, but Oikawa was one of the few hunters that could.
But then he'd met Oikawa in person, worked with him and hunted with him, and Yahaba had quickly realized that, nah, Oikawa's probably the most picked-upon hunter by the seniors in the Castle Division because he’s a brat and isn’t afraid to flaunt it.
"By the way, Yahaba, you're gonna be with me, Oikawa, and Watari for the next couple of missions," Iwaizumi says, jolting Yahaba from his thoughts.
"Eh? Why?" Yahaba asks, surprised. He hasn't been partnered with them for a while now, since Oikawa and Iwaizumi have enough seniority and experience to handle missions as a duo. Watari is a surprise too, since his friend had been accepted into the spirit rehabilitation group a few months ago and had been spending most of his time training instead of going out on missions.
Oikawa kisses his teeth and flops onto the cushions next to Iwaizumi. "Our beloved Mad Dog is on leave," he informs Yahaba. "After that disaster of a mission, Chief wasn't pleased, but I plead his case and got him a suspension rather than a demotion. He's also on medical leave too, because the moron's hand is in pieces after his little fistfight without any proper protection, so he's out until his hand heals. I also got you guys pay, by the way," Oikawa adds, smirking at Yahaba. "Not all of it, since the ghost did blow up, but I convinced Chief that it's good practice to cover basic labour costs since you guys did carry out the mission. You're welcome."
"Thanks," Yahaba grits out, feeling himself rankling at Oikawa's obvious smugness. Fortunately, that feeling vanishes when Iwaizumi reaches over and flicks Oikawa hard in the ear without looking up.
"Ow! Iwa-chan! That hurt!"
"Your goodwill is rendered meaningless if you're going to brag about it," Iwaizumi says, deaf to Oikawa's splutters. "Anyway, we're on standby until midnight," he says to Yahaba. "And since you're with us, we'll take you on any assignments that come our way for the next three days. Afterwards, we'll see what Watari's schedule is like with his training, and arrange as we see fit."
"Sounds good," Yahaba nods. "Thank god you're the competent one, Iwaizumi."
Iwaizumi barks out a laugh, and Yahaba snickers as he wanders out of the lounge in search of the vending machine, leaving Oikawa's whining behind.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for his thoughts about Kyoutani.
Yahaba frowns to himself as he surveys the options in the vending machine before him. He isn't surprised by the suspension, and if his hunch is correct their resident wild card probably would've been demoted pretty badly if Oikawa hadn't stepped in. And Oikawa had stepped in, which makes it all the more interesting. Iwaizumi may be the only one Kyoutani shows a shred of respect for (mostly because Iwaizumi had thoroughly trounced him in everything Kyoutani had challenged Iwaizumi at, ranging from arm-wrestling to keg stands to Go Fish), but it's a generally known-fact that it's Oikawa who's going to be calling the shots; the one who's going to reign the Mad Dog in when he goes feral.
And speaking of feral, the idiot had broken his goddamn hand punching a ghost. But if Oikawa wants to keep him, everyone is wise enough to know not to challenge it.
Yahaba huffs and fishes for loose change in his pocket. There's a weird knot in the pit of his stomach, and if he didn't know better, he'd say he was actually worried for Kyoutani.
...Nah. No way.
Three days later, Bokuto Koutarou and Akaashi Keiji from the Owl Division get massively gooed when their target reacts badly to their seals and blows up in their face, just as they're boxing it in for the ride home. That resets the team records, and Owl Division is moved under Castle Division to claim the bottom for the first time in months, something that everyone unanimously agrees is a dramatic but overall hilarious upset to the status quo.
On the upside, now that it's September 30 and thus the last day of the month and they're no longer in last place, Oikawa narrowly avoids having to shell out for team drinks. And so, Yahaba, along with the rest of Castle Division, is spared from a month's worth of whining and petulant glares from their Leader.
There's an underground bar called Spikers' a few blocks away from Headquarters that they frequent. It's damp and dingy and smells perpetually of cheap vodka, and is not someplace Yahaba would voluntarily go to if he had a choice. But the drinks are cheap and the food is deliciously greasy, so their monthly team night out is usually pretty fun.
The owners know them all by now, and probably consider them some kind of ragtag gang that only serves to chalk up noise complaints, but they give them their biggest party room each time and everyone jams themselves in for chow time.
"To Bokuto!" Kuroo, Leader of the Cat Division, starts their toast with the biggest shit-eating grin on his face. "Drinks are on him tonight, folks, so don't hold back!"
"Arrrgh," Bokuto groans, plonking his head down onto the table as everyone raised their glasses with cheers. "This. Sucks. Ass."
"You are not allowed to complain," Sawamura warns, after taking a hefty gulp of beer. "I've been paying for the last four months, suck it up, Bokuto."
Yahaba watches as the guys from Owl, Crow, and Cat Division immediately whirl around to place their orders with the waiter, and privately agrees. Division Leaders don't make nearly that much dough.
Oikawa doubles over, chortling. "Holy crap, is that how long it's been? I feel bad for you, Sawamura-chan."
Sawamura grumbles and spears a takoyaki with his chopsticks. "Kageyama and Hinata are expensive."
"But it's not fair," Bokuto whines. "Shrimpy and Grumpy are rookies, they're bound to mess up! But Akaashi and I have been doing this for years!"
"There's a reason why you're only one of the top five best hunters in the region," Kuroo cackles. "I bet you got too excited and tried to jam the ghost into the spirit box again!"
"I did not!" Bokuto hollers. "It—it—something happened! We didn't mess up!"
"Bokuto is right," Akaashi says, so quietly that Yahaba almost misses it, "Something did go wrong with the retrieval."
That catches Yahaba's attention. The Leaders and their second-in-commands usually sit at a table by themselves, but they're close enough for Yahaba to eavesdrop. He gives a quick glance to the other hunters he's sitting with; Kindaichi is in the middle of a heated debate with Kunimi about some comic, and Watari is listening to them with amusement, so he allows himself to sip his devilishly fruity cocktail and sneakily tune in to the other table.
"Our seals were complete and we had the target in the box," Akaashi was saying. "They were standard ensnarement and containment seals, and our mission debrief said the target was a non-violent spirit, purely haunting the place because he hadn't passed on. But when we tried to enclose him in the box, he suddenly started screaming as though he was in pain, and his energy turned malicious."
" Malicious ?" Sawamura repeats incredulously, and Yahaba feels his blood chill. "That's not possible."
"No, it's not," Akaashi agrees. "At least not when the spirit is already contained. And it takes a lot for spirits to sink into maliciousness. The target we had was the furthest thing away from changing."
"So what happened after that?" Kuroo asks, frowning. "Did you try a cleanse?"
"We didn't get the chance," Akaashi responds. "The ghost exploded before we even had the chance."
Silence falls over the Leaders, and Yahaba lowers his glass. The sounds of the party are suddenly very far away, and he thinks back to his mission.
"Does your Chief know about this?" He hears Iwaizumi ask.
"We explained it all, but we don't think he completely believes us," Akaashi hums. "At least, the Board definitely doesn't. Our Chief is a bit skeptical too."
"And the Director had the gall to insult Akaashi, saying he wasn't experienced, and that his seals were shitty!" Bokuto shouts, heated, and slams his fist down on the table. "I almost gave him a piece of my mind!"
"I made sure he didn't," Akaashi interjects, looking slightly exasperated, and Yahaba almost laughs because he's definitely seen that same expression on Iwaizumi's face when it comes to Oikawa. He distracts himself by finishing his drink and calls for another, slightly stronger one. It arrives quickly, a deep amber colour in a heavy glass, and Yahaba takes a long sip.
"Well, one thing's for sure," he hears Sugawara, the second-in-command for the Crows, say. "Neither of you are inexperienced hunters, and what happened was very odd indeed."
"I'd advise all of you to stay vigilant," Akaashi says. "I'm hoping this was a one-off, and I did somehow make a mistake with the seals, but just in case…"
"Nonsense!" Bokuto bellows. "You're perfect, Akaashi!"
"Calm down, Bokuto-san," Akaashi says, and the conversation derails when Kuroo starts poking fun at Bokuto for being a sap, and Bokuto's volume gets louder and louder with each beer he gets.
Yahaba lets the festivities of the night wash over him and turns back to his tablemates, pushing the overheard conversation to the back of his mind, and is in the middle of advising (read: bossing) Kindaichi on his seal writing technique when the door to the party room bangs open.
Yahaba jumps and turns to look—and jumps again when he sees Kyoutani standing in the doorway, a heavy scowl on his face and a metaphorical storm cloud brewing over his head. The conversations in the room lulls for a second as everyone stares; Kyoutani's suspension and injury did not go unnoticed, even if nobody was particularly surprised.
"Ken-chan!" Oikawa cheers, breaking through the slightly awkward silence. "You made it, I'm so pleased!"
Kyoutani glares. Oikawa sips his margarita and wiggles his fingers at him.
There's a long-suffering huff and Iwaizumi leans over, clapping Kyoutani on the back.
"Go, sit," he says, pushing Kyoutani over to—oh no, their table, Yahaba realizes. Their table is the only one with an open seat, and since they're all part of Castle Division, it made sense for Kyoutani to sit with them. Besides, he barely got along with members of his own team, nevermind the other hunters.
Kyoutani drops heavily into the open seat next to Kindaichi, who flinches slightly. Yahaba has a feeling Kindaichi never quite got over the time Kyoutani literally bowled him over to grab a spirit out of thin air, and he doesn't really blame the poor guy.
But the attention on them disperses when it's apparent Kyoutani isn't about to start shit, and the noise volume in the room resets itself back to its usual obnoxious loud.
A waiter comes by, holding out a menu, but Kyoutani just glares and grunts out the brand of beer wants. Yahaba takes another long gulp of his drink and takes Kyoutani in—he looks like he usually does, scowling and pissed off. The leather jacket is new, though, or at least Yahaba has never seen him wear it before. Kyoutani's beer arrives, and as he reaches out to take a drink, Yahaba's gaze falls on Kyoutani's bandaged right hand.
"Does it hurt?" He asks, before he could stop himself.
Kyoutani looks at him, dark eyes scanning Yahaba's face, and then he shrugs.
"Nothin' I haven't dealt with before."
Yahaba scoffs. "What, you go around punching ghosts often? Somehow, I don't think Oikawa or Iwaizumi are gonna be happy about that."
Kyoutani rolls his eyes. "Don't be thick," he says, though he doesn't sound that angry. "I don't have time to fuck around with seals and runes like you do. I see it, I grab it, and call it a day."
"Just because you can grab it doesn't mean you should," Yahaba says, exasperated. Where Kyoutani lacks in the ability to draw any coherent symbols or runes for seals (he was even worse than Kindaichi, in Yahaba's opinion), he makes up for with his rare gift of being able to physically touch the spirits. Yahaba doesn't actually know how that's possible—according to Oikawa it had something to do with the individual's spiritual energy balance, or some shit. The only other hunter he knows that can do that is Ushijima, but Ushijima is already perfect at every goddamn thing he does, so it's not like that ability is a particular standout for him.
But Kyoutani is brash, bold, and just a little crazy, so of course his method of ghost hunting is to beat the crap out of whatever he comes across, to varying levels of injuries and success.
Kyoutani stretches his fingers out and turns his hand over, testing the movement against the white bandages. "I heal fast," he says simply, like that would counter all of Yahaba's points. God, he is surrounded by simple-minded simpletons .
"Hey," Kindaichi says, looking a bit miffed.
"Whoops, did I say that out loud?" Yahaba asks, unapologetic, and chugs the rest of his drink. It goes down easily, warming his throat and his stomach, and he signals the waiter for a third.
When he turns back, Kyoutani is looking at him with what might possibly be amusement.
"I'm not simple-minded."
"Coulda fooled me," Yahaba shoots back.
Kyoutani shrugs. "Got a method to my madness."
"Well, you're not the only one out there," Yahaba says, jabbing his finger at him. "There's four of us out in the field, unless you've got seniority, and you ain't got none of that, so you're—" he hiccups, and hears Watari stifle a laugh beside him. "—stuck with the rest of us. And you ain't slick, Kyoutani. Buck up, and if you can cooperate for a damn second, I'll believe you."
Kyoutani raises an eyebrow. "Is that a challenge?" He asks.
Yahaba crosses his arms, and leans back so he can stare down his nose at the other man. "It's an order ."
Kyoutani goes still for a second, fingers tracing the neck of his beer bottle. Yahaba is suddenly aware that he's holding his breath, and that everyone at their table is staring at them.
Kyoutani's eyes are so dark, he realizes. And he has perpetual eye bags, though that's not surprising; most of them don't get too much sleep. He sits with a slouch, but also somehow manages to look big and intimidating in his seat, a bold presence in the dingy bar. His shoulders are so, so broad. Yahaba wonders what it's like to place his palms on them, to pull Kyoutani down towards him, and let their lips—
A knock to the top of his head makes him leap upright in his seat, and Yahaba whirls around to glare at Watari, the offender. "Hey!"
"You have no business ordering Kyoutani around," Watari says matter-of-factly. "You're the same rank as he is."
"Yeah, but I'm smarter," Yahaba retorts, making Kunimi snort into his fries, and Yahaba rounds on him.
"I heard that!"
That distracts him then, because Kunimi is a sneaky bastard when he wants to be, and Yahaba is drunk enough to argue with him. But when he glances over at Kyoutani, the hunter is finishing off his beer, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallows, and Yahaba's mind blanks just a little bit.
Kyoutani is watching him in an almost considering way, and Yahaba feels a little bit like he's caught.
By what, though, he's not sure.