Violent footfalls rumble like thunder as they rushed across the timber bridge as though death was gnashing its teeth at their heels. Thinking quick, Yashiki had tossed the charm wrapped in a flounced, fuchsia coloured cloth with golden trimmings into the bushes! Given a fraction of an opening with the distraction, he descended the mountain with a hammering heart lurched in his gullet, hastening down the stone steps and along the gravelled path with his partner in tow.
Before he’d been approached, rumours had circled that the location was a popular spot for romantic couples to confess their feelings, given the area's natural beauty. Tragically the tale was, within the span of a week, the couple would mysteriously commit suicide. Further confirmed was a total of twelve victims seen entering the castle ruins, all varying times of day and based on psychical descriptions, differed in size, age and genders. There was no discernible link between the victims so a pact seemed much less likely. What gripped his attention was that a single survivor of attempted suicide had been hospitalised. A teenage boy. Nausea flurried in the pit of his stomach at the lie he fed to the frail soul laid upon crisp, bleached sheets. They'd inquired after their partner and something inside him just.. hesitated. It was naive.
There had been a lot of fissures to his story, other than the mumbled incoherencies. However, what had been burned into his mind in crimson lettering was two repeated words.
Not fair.. Not fair..
The encounter gave false hope that victims of the grudge could escape their fate, but the adolescent boy had passed away only hours later.
As the two men returned to the paths, they peered diffidently back at the ruins. The sinister aura held no secrets as to what lurked in waiting. Yashiki directed the flashlight and prayed, illuminating exuberant foliage and searching for a sign of having been followed, disquieted at the appearance of a silhouette in the dark void. But there was nothing. Not even a faint breeze. Silence reigned the air around them as a chill travelled down his spine like a spider scuttling beneath the skin.
“Ngh! Dammit.” Mashita growled between laboured breaths. “I’m getting tired of this.”
Confirming his suspicions of a spiritual barrier located on their side of the bridge, the middle-aged man doubled over, adjusting his glasses and struggling to form an appropriate response while panting heavily.
“I hope you realise one day my death will come by your hands, Yashiki.” He relayed through gritted teeth.
Elected to ignore his bite, he contemplated the private eye carefully. “If that’s the case… Why don’t you stop? I mean, why not resolve to normal cases?”
There was a pause. “You know why.”
Yashiki straightened, suddenly struck with the thought of his former mentor. More importantly, a good friend that fell victim to a disturbingly dysfunctional family. Mashita clearly carried it with him. Perhaps the same way Yashiki carried his own guilts and cursed memories in ruminative laments that continued to manifest when isolated inside the walls of the mansion… but it was enough to keep the man’s feet rooted in the world of spirits. The innocent people, bystanders, that could be saved. The dead can’t coexist with the living. Whether he admitted it or not, Mashita gravitated towards it all much like the others had. No surprise the spiritual anomalies they all experienced had shaped and shifted some perspectives. It was prevalent, unpredictable and stirred the waves of their past lives.
“I see. But you know there’s always an out, right? You don’t have to keep doing this.” Unlike himself.
Mashita scoffed and furrowed his brow. “And let you handle this alone? Look at you. Only an idiot would allow that.”
But he wasn’t alone. Not exactly. Something he learned much too late. The previous mark bearers lended their aid where they could and few even paid the occasional visit, often caught him entombed in scattered papers. Still. The implications behind Mashita’s words eased tension in his body and triggered a distant memory. A conjured image of the man before he left Kujou Mansion following Shimi-O's put to rest. Familiar words rolled off his tongue. He refused to risk his life more than he had to and his assistance had reached its limit now that his second Mark had cleared. Despite how unfamiliar they were, the nagging truth that Mashita was a complete stranger, he couldn’t deny that the moment had painted him grim. Even after everything they’d endured together, he felt out of sorts for feeling that way. And yet, here he was. As though he never left. His own spiritual faculties aside, he was grateful for his continued help.
As their breathing regulated, the silence between the two men was palpable now as Mashita retrieved a packet within his trench coat. Worn and half empty of cylindrical bodies. A cigarette? Now? Yashiki wondered how the man had any breath to spare. A quick flick of the lighter, gentle hot ribbons glowed from its end and accentuated his striking features as he inhaled deeply. Without thought, he outstretched his arm holding the pack in offering. Yashiki was confused for a moment and stumbled for words while Mashita peered over, left hovering.
“Ah, that’s right.” He prised it away before his fingers even grazed it.
Perhaps he’d lost himself to routine from a time before in his gossamer of memories. It was often hard to tell what he was thinking as he wasn’t the most expressive person he’d met.
“Wait!” No idea what overcame him or what he intended to say, Yashiki meekly gestured to the cigarette pack. Thankfully, Mashita caught on.
“Oh? Are you sure you want to do that?”
“What? Offer not on the table anymore?”
Mashita studied him dubiously but he noticed something soften behind the misty pane of his leaden eyes as he plucked out a second cigarette and tossed the lighter towards him. The solid black sheen barely visible in the dark.
Giving a once over, Yashiki flicked the lighter but there was no response. Huh? He tried again. And again. Again? Why wasn’t it working? It had worked earlier. Only it wouldn’t even give a spark. What the hell? What made matters worse was the amused sneer beside him.
“Well. With luck like that, I think this investigation should reach a close for tonight.”
Luck, huh. Perhaps there was some truth to how much he’d been running on luck since the Mark.
“No. I can keep going.”
Yashiki winced. His own voice didn’t convince him and seemed to coincide with Mashita’s thoughts.
“How precarious.” He snorted. “I’d have to disagree. If I'm being honest, you look like you could use some rest. You look dragged through hell.”
Barely containing a dry chuckle, he’d long since adapted to Mashita’s concerns blemished with snide remarks. Nevertheless exhaustion slowly ate away at him, differently to when he’d possessed the Mark and death shadowed every passing hour.
“...You’re probably right.”
Any amusement shrank as Mashita lingered on Yashiki’s hand. On the outside, the older man appeared sturdy as steel with the usual level-headedness he’d come to expect. Only he noticed the way his hand trembled. The way his fingers gripped until the tips were like waxen.
Mashita grimaced. Watching his persistent attempts, irritation finally puffed from his lungs. “Oh, for crying out loud.”
That low, unimpressed edge would’ve made any other person's skin crawl, only Yashiki froze with eyes bulged as his partner leaned in boldly to join the burning end of his cigarette against his own. In an instant a masculine musk that was all Mashita assailed his senses, though he couldn’t place what it was exactly that mingled with the stench of tobacco. Studying him as though another case to unravel, the darkened sacks under his heavy-lidded eyes grew more prominent each day, short inky locks of hair that barely kissed his forehead to the pronounced lines that framed his young face. He was a mystery of his own. Enough to leave him lightheaded, an abrupt sensation surged through his tall frame. Curling his fingers to anchor himself, he realised his palms had become uncomfortably clammy.
Like time had reset, Mashita pulled away casually to leave Yashiki flustered with a newly lit cigarette clamped between his lips. Specks of ashen dust drifted like snowflakes to the ground before Mashita let out a strangled noise. With a flash of recognition for what had just happened, he scowled at the dumbfounded expression directed his way.
“Quit making that face. You look like an idiot.”
“Huh?” He blinked, cursing the deepening flush spread to his cheeks.
“O-Oh. Well, I didn’t ask you to do that.”
“I did you a favour. We would’ve been here all night.” The sardonic drone was replaced by something more shrewd. “As much as it’s amusing to watch you stumble in the dark a little.”
Ignoring how that sent another pulse down him, Yashiki took a steady drag to fulfill his curiosity. For a moment he feared his insides would escape his windpipe as moisture welled in his eyes, the assault of his chest nearly doubling him over again. Naturally, he avoided Mashita’s withering look, sure to be the laughing stock for the rest of the night. Great.
“Hey. Don’t hurt yourself.”
“I’m fine…” He fought off another coughing fit, still distracted by the blazing heat lingering under his collar. When all fell silent from the wheezing and hacking, a thin stream of smoke floated skywards and melded with Mashita’s in a billowing dance, until gradually fading from existence. “Thank you.. I .. That worked. I feel a little better now.”
“Just don’t make it a habit. At your age.”
“My age?” Yashiki quirked a brow suspiciously. He wasn’t that old... Besides, he was the one that smoked like a chimney.
Some monotone sound came in answer. Which of course wasn’t an answer at all.
Brushing it aside, he knew past Mashita’s contemptuous nature towards the human race, he’d more than proved to be a reliable asset, partner and dare he say... loyal. Letting his thoughts roam, Yashiki suddenly tinged with an unexpected fondness.
Shifting awkwardly on the spot, a suppressed smile turned the corners of his lips. “I wonder if you’re trying to protect me from too much.”
Quip hanging on the tip of his tongue, Mashita slanted his fatigued frosted eyes in his direction. However he was caught off guard by the gentle sincerity radiating from the other man as they locked gazes. It was anything but unsightly, that he suddenly felt his throat tighten. Lids slamming shut, he turned away glowering. “Tch. You’re the worst.”
Yashiki’s smile only grew broader. The suffocating atmosphere of death had alleviated and relieved the pressure in his head. A familiar feeling to when Mashita had saved him from plummeting to the asphalt. Mashita... He turned towards the detective, only to meet a sharp, acrid smell and a stinging sensation in his eyes.
Through the dispersing wisps of smoke blown in his face, he caught the distinct shape of a smirk.