By the time Yashiki and Mashita left the Kujou mansion the winter sun had set hours ago and even though all natural light was now gone the relentless snow still shone unnaturally bright along the ground and from its perch upon the bare tree branches. Delicate flakes drifted down at a fast pace to create a flurry of obscuring white.
"So, do you have a plan?"
Coming out of his daze Yashiki looked over at Mashita, who kept his eyes on the perilous road and his hands firmly on the steering wheel of his car. Yashiki scratched his cheek, unsure how to answer.
"Well, I still need some time to sort a plan out."
Mashita just snorted in reply - Yashiki could practically hear the implied 'seriously?'.
In his defense there wasn't much to base a plan of attack on, he needed to check out the interior of the shop to see if there was anything that could help shine a light on the tragedy that had occurred there. He went back to staring at the bleak darkness out of the passenger side window, his thoughts taking him far away from his current location; luckily Mashita wasn't one for small talk so it didn't feel awkward for the pair to remain silent for the journey back to the alleyway. This gave Yashiki time to think over what he had heard from both Moe and Mashita. While the sources of information had been very different they were quite similar in detail, or at least they confirmed that a gang was involved and so too were a pair of civilians. But he knew it wasn't just two of them - why was the child never mentioned?
"We should probably go over the information we have, see what conclusions we can come to."
"Hm, not a bad idea - you sure you don't want to go into the detective business?"
"Yeah, trust me, I'm sure." Yashiki reinstated, then started trying to piece together the information they had. From firsthand experience they knew the little ramen shop was currently the haunting ground of a malevolent child spirit, and that the shop had been a front for a minor Yakuza clan where a civilian couple were hired as chefs to give the place an air of normality. The couple apparently had a young son - according to Moe - and at some point a few jilted officers tried to press the couple for any incriminating evidence of gang activity but something went horribly wrong and the shop was left to become the abandoned husk it was now. It all seemed to fit together, yet there was one glaring point that Yashiki couldn't ignore.
"Hey Mashita, did that detective you spoke to mention anything about a child at the shop?"
"Huh, I was surprised you didn't ask that earlier." Mashita smirked. "No, he didn't. I made sure to inquire about any relatives the victims may have had in the city but there were none on file, apparently. So that leaves us with two possibilities - the couple were childless and that spirit is completely unrelated, or that covered up 'incident' involves a dead or missing child."
Yashiki looked at him with wide eyes before shaking his head. He still couldn't adjust to just how blunt and tactless Mashita could be. They were just words but the implications they carried was what affected him more.
"Damn, Mashita, you could at least try to show some respect..." He unintentionally mumbled out loud.
"Well, we are dealing with a... deceased child - again - it wouldn't hurt to act a bit more, I don't know, sympathetic?"
"And what would my sympathy gain for us, hm? Would a vengeful spirit would hold off on killing you because you felt sorry for it?" Mashita's voice held his familiar sarcastic tone but there was a hidden, biting layer to it. "Or would you rather I kept dead spiders so lonely ghosts could attach themselves to me? I wonder what dangerous souvenir you'll take home this time?"
"Are you still hung up on that? I... I told you my reasons..."
"Yeah - and they're stupid, not to mention dangerous."
Yashiki bit his lip, looking downwards. Mashita wasn't exactly wrong but what did it matter to him what Yashiki did? He knew the other man wouldn't understand how he felt when doing these investigations - Mashita was a professional, he had no doubt seen more than his fair share of horrible accidents and tragic circumstances but because he had a connection to the spiritual world they took on a more psychological burden for Yashiki. He hadn't seen as much death as Mashita, no, but he had seen what was left behind. All the pain, the anguish, the regret - to him it was all so tangible. He clenched the hand that had earlier held Mashita's into a fist. Why was he feeling so confrontational all of sudden? This wasn't like him. The blame could most likely be placed on his body's current strange condition, it was putting him on edge. Arguing wouldn't help so Yashiki bit his tongue and the car fell into an awkward charged silence, aside from the occasional squeak of the windshield wipers and the low grumble that his stomach emitted. Placing a hand over his stomach as if to try and stifle the sound Yashiki's breath hitched in his throat. From the area below his rib cage he could feel an intense abnormal heat; not like a person's usual body heat but more like a pile of smoldering coal was nestled in his gut. Yanking his hand away he fully turned the upper half of his body towards the car window, hoping to hide his fright. Thankfully Mashita didn't utter a word so either he didn't notice Yashiki's discomfort or he did notice but figured asking a question he knew the answer to was pointless. But now he felt even more paranoid. If they couldn't help this spirit move on and lift this curse then what would become of him? Would his body combust into raging flames, the flesh shrinking and melting from his blackening bones, coiling up into crisp shells as it hit the ground while the rest of him was reduced to nothing but ashes - or would he just be forced to vomit piping hot oil until his body couldn't take it anymore? Or would the slumbering heat in his gut just reach a temperature where he would melt from the inside out?
No, he had to focus. Thinking about the worst case scenario wouldn't do them any good.
"We're here." Mashita announced, bringing his car to halt outside the notorious alleyway. Nearby Yashiki could pick out the shape of his own car, sitting forgotten just off the public road. The mouth of the alley looked more foreboding than it did last night; the street light closest to it flickered weakly a few times before it died completely, the encompassing shadows now growing longer in length as they reached out across the ground.
"...so, how's that plan coming along?" Mashita's tone was casual but his eyes didn't match it.
"It's -It's coming along fine." Yashiki lied, moving to exit the car. He wasn't ready at all but sitting around wouldn't get him the answers he needed.
Mashita followed him without a word through the snow towards the shop until they stopped outside it, where he uttered a surprised "huh?" while staring at the building.
"That door - I broke it down last night."
Yashiki looked at where Mashita was pointing. There stood the perfectly intact sliding door, just like it had been when he had entered with Moe.
"That's strange... I also can't believe you damaged public property."
Mashita shrugged. "It was an emergency, plus it seems we won't have to worry about property damage if this place can repair itself."
Honestly he was kind of disappointed that the door wasn't busted down as having some air circulating inside the shop may have helped lessen that heavy, oppressive atmosphere - sure, he was planning to leave the door open this time as a safety measure but an open door can easily be slammed shut by malevolent spirits. Taking a deep breath he turned towards Mashita.
"You should wait out here, I'll go in alone."
"Seriously? You think that's a good idea, after what happened last time?" Mashita stared at him like he had just suggested the Earth was flat.
Yeah, that was the response he was expecting.
"It's the safest option. If we both go in then it's highly likely we'll both be affected by the ghost so I need to you to act as my back-up - I might need to be scooped off the floor again."
The forced joke did nothing to ease the tension between them.
Mashita fixed Yashiki with a glare so intense he had to shift his own gaze away. Why was he acting so angry all of a sudden? He had been fine back at the mansion but ever since the car journey he had been more irritable than usual.
"He's probably just mad that I got him caught up in more supernatural nonsense" Yashiki thought to himself. Well, the only way to resolve that was to deal with the source of their problems - the child.
Stepping into the shop Yashiki felt a strong grip on his shoulder. Mashita's hand clamped his shoulder almost as hard as he was clenching his teeth.
"I know it will be hard for you, but don't do anything stupid or reckless." He said sternly.
"... Yeah, I won't. I promise." Yashiki smiled softly to placate him, lightly placing a hand on top of Mashita's. He must have been so cold as his fingers were trembling.
Mashita paused for a second, eyes flicking to Yashiki's hand then away to the side, narrowing as he spoke. "Promises from you mean nothing."
Reluctantly his hand slid off Yashiki's shoulder and back to his side, where he crossed them across his chest and turned away. Yashiki didn't know how to respond to that hurtful statement without further antagonizing the situation or the other man, so silently he turned and stepped once again across the threshold. The interior of the shop hadn't changed at all in appearance but the air felt completely different - it felt warm and sticky, with subsequently more weight to it than before. It clung to Yashiki's throat like a broth containing too much starch, causing him to cough. Covering his mouth he walked forward, taking care not to bump into anything. Scanning his eyes over the booths, the bar area, the floor and even the ceiling Yashiki searched anything of interest. Yet there wasn't anything - literally. It was like everything in the shop had been cleared out, there were no garnish cradles on the tables, no napkins or spare cutlery at the bar and even the walls were bare. Any sign of personality or welcoming charm had been stripped from the establishment, possibly from when those officers shut it down after their own 'investigation'.
Wait, if the police had swept the place and gutted it then would there actually be anything for him to find? Yashiki let slip a frustrated sigh. Hotel Masquerade had also been gang territory yet it had relatively been left alone so piecing together the events leading up to its downfall hadn't been too hard but if all the evidence had been taken away then what was he to do?
"C'mon, you can't let it end here." Yashiki encouraged himself. There was still one place he needed to search. Each step he took seemed to echo as he approached the back room, the atmosphere chilling over at random spots. Suddenly the cacophony of chatter assaulted his ears again, this time so loud and disorientating it felt like his eardrums were about to burst; he had to slam his hands over them to keep sane. Doing everything in his power to ignore the noise he pressed onward towards that ominous kitchen until something caught his attention.
"******re you doing here**** daddy's busy****"
Among the loud ghostly customer chatter a gentle female voice stood out.
"Ok, well***** sweetie, just******in***the kitchen, okay? Good bo*****"
Yashiki strained to pick out her words - his gut told him that this one voice was significant. She had mentioned the kitchen, so he must be on the right track! Grabbing the cold door handle with reborn determination Yashiki took a deep breath and steeled himself. Once he entered here he knew there was no going back. He flung the door open. Bright light greeted him.
"Hey! What are you doing in here?"
The wisp of Mashita's breath swirled in front of him before disappearing. Slumping back against the wall he scowled, furrowing his brow tightly. The interaction from earlier ran through his mind, as did the sad expression Yashiki had made when Mashita had bluntly disregarded his promise.
Well, what he had said was true - Yashiki could make all the promises he wanted but the fool acted on instinct, he would break them all in a heartbeat. That's why he couldn't trust him to deal with this issue alone, he was emotional, sympathetic and irrational at times which could lead to him making snap judgments which sometimes got him into even more trouble; yet Mashita also admired those traits, they made Yashiki who he was.
Mashita let his head fall backwards, closing his eyes. It had been about ten minutes since Yashiki had went into the ramen shop so Mashita was planning to follow him soon even though he had been told to stay outside. Of course he wasn't going to wait out here! If he left the other man to wander about as he pleased there was no doubt he would stumble into even more trouble.
"Tch, why doesn't he realize that I'm just... worried about him?" Mashita asked out loud, cursing Yashiki's obliviousness. "He should have noticed by now."
Yeah, perhaps he had spoken a bit too harshly earlier, but Yashiki's total disregard for his feelings made him speak and act in ways he normally wouldn't.
"Then why don't you just tell him? Geez!"
"Fuc- wait, Moe?"
The sudden peppy voice caught him off guard. Opening his eyes he was greeted by a pair of big bright eyes and a cheerful smile aimed up at him.
"Hehehe, sorry Mr Mashita! Did I scare ya?" Moe giggled.
"What the hell are you doing here here? This is no place for kids." Mashita shook his head, ignoring her question.
She pouted at the remark but then began glancing around. "I actually came to see Mr Yashiki! Is he here yet?"
"He's in there." Mashita chucked a thumb over his shoulder towards the shop.
"Whaaaat! You let him go in there alone?! What were you thinking, Mr Mashita!? That's downright dangerous!"
"It wasn't exactly my idea, y'know." He grumbled. "Anyways, if you were here to check on him then I can confirm that he's still alive, so you can go home now."
"Yeah, he's still alive - for now!" Moe placed her hands on her hips, then bobbed her head as she remembered something. "Oh yeah! There was also something I wanted to tell him!"
Scolding forgotten she dived into her school bag and pulled out a small pink notepad decorated with cutesy ghost stickers and began thumbing through the pages until she found whatever it was she was looking for.
"I was grilling my editor for some more info on this joint and he delivered! ... Well, not really, but I did get something! So - as you and Mr Yashiki know, the chef couple here had no idea that they were working for the Yakuza, BUT! one day a bunch of police officers raided the place and interrogated the couple-"
Well, they did already know that but Mashita decided to keep quiet and let her continue.
"- but of course they had no information to give! Now, it was common for their young son to come around to the shop after school so in order to keep him out of the customer's way they would let him hang around in the kitchen! That's where the couple would have been interrogated, so their son was probably there when it happened and..."
Moe trailed off, her excitement visually fading as she fully grasped the conclusion she was reaching.
"... Yeah, I get where you're going with this." Mashita quickly followed up so she wouldn't have to put it into words. "Now what I'm curious about is how your editor knows all of this. Can we actually trust this information?"
"Huh? Oh, well of course!" Moe snapped back to reality. "I mean, he was friends with the couple!"
Mashita blinked in disbelief. Was she being serious right now?
"And you didn't think to tell us beforehand?"
"O-oh! Well, I was gonna! When I was here with Mr Yashiki before but then that weird stuff happened so I didn't get the chance! And then when I was on the phone to him I was too worried about his condition and it sorta... slipped my mind?
All he could do was pinch the bridge of his nose between his finger and thumb. There was no use getting irritated about it now. Moe's information did at least confirm that the child spirit's presence was tied to the shop and wasn't some random coincidence.
"And I'm assuming your editor can confirm that the couple are deceased?"
"Um, well they were reported missing but nothing came of it. The police didn't seem to care about them at all."
Well, it wasn't much but this felt like important enough information to pass onto Yashiki.
"I should probably try and do it in a more 'sympathetic' way." Mashita mumbled to himself, remembering Yashiki's earlier critique of him.
"Um, I've been meaning to ask, but why did you shut the shop door? And how did you get the lights working?'
What? What was she talking about?
For the first time since Moe had arrived Mashita looked at the shop; sure enough, the sliding door that Yashiki had left open was now firmly shut, and even more unbelievably the visible windows were illuminated by a soft warm glow. Even more bizarrely they could just faintly make out silhouettes of patrons dining and chatting away.
"W-what the heck...?!" Moe stuttered, taking a step back in shock. "What's g-going on here?!"
Mashita had no answer to give her, he was just as perplexed as she was. Body moving on autopilot he ran to the door and dug his fingers in, pulling with all his might but it refused to budge even a little bit, it was like the door wasn't real, like it was just a decorative fixture.
"Give me a hand here, dammit!"
Despite their combined efforts the door would not yield. It remained stubbornly in place.
"Mr Mashita! Nothings happening!" Moe cried out.
Mashita clicked his tongue in frustration. He had a hunch what was going on - that damn ghost brat was trying to keep him out again, huh?
"Didn't work last time kid, and it definitely won't work this time. You're not keeping him from me."
That light was so bright. Yashiki instinctively lifted his arm to cover his eyes but the arm that came into his vision didn't look right. It was much smaller and so frail looking. The arm lingered in front of his face before slowly retracting back to his side, which revealed something surprising. The kitchen had grown in size, all the counters were double their height from last time he was here - or had he shrunk?
"Hey buddy! What are you doing here?"
His head involuntary turned towards the voice. It belonged to a kind looking man who was crouching down and smiling warmly at him.
Who was this man?
As if he were possessed by another soul Yashiki's arms reached out towards the stranger happily, hands opening and closing playfully.
No, these weren't his arms, this wasn't his body! The man reached out and scooped him up into his arms, letting Yashiki get a better view of where he was. The room was bathed in bright light now but there was no mistake - this was definitely the kitchen in the ramen shop. He could even see the large cooking pot brimming with oil that Moe had nearly dunked her head into sitting on the stove top.
"Oh! I'm sorry, darling!" A gentle looking woman walked into the kitchen. "But little Hiro here just really wanted to see his daddy! So I told him he could hang around in the kitchen!"
"I don't mind, Yumi! Having my two favorite people here gives me the motivation to work harder!"
A comforting warmth flooded through Yashiki, the love shared between these three people was so palpable he could feel it radiating throughout the room. It threatened to engulf his very being but a shred of self awareness kept him grounded. He was aware of what this was - while it may sound totally bizarre to anyone else - he had experienced such strange events already that he was quick to catch into what was occurring.
He wasn't here.
Or at least, not physically.
He was viewing this time frame through the child's eyes - Hiro, was that his name?
"Well, we'll be closing soon so can you be a good boy and wait for mama and papa to tidy up?" The man smiled at him and gently tapped his nose.
Yashiki's vision shook as the child bobbed their head up and down eagerly before being placed back on the ground. A sudden slip of darkness coated his eyes and unfamiliar harsh voices cut into his ears. Harsh, angry voices of men.
Where were they now?
The creaking of a cupboard door, the terrified breathing of a child.
Slowly the scene came into view as the child peeked out of the low cupboard he was hiding in. The gentle parents were now tied to chairs, their kind faces twisted into expressions of pain and fear. Dark bruises bloomed across their skin, pearls of tears glistening on the woman's face, the father's form half obscured by her body. A large man in a dark coat stood in front of her with his arms crossed in an intimidating pose while a more slender man was skulking around near the back wall. Their attire was subtle and while there no sign of a badge on either man it was clear they were the officers that Mashita's senior had mentioned.
"Come on! Spill what you know!"
"It's not like we enjoy this, but it's for the sake of justice - y'know?"
"I'm telling you we have no clue what you're talking about!"
"Tch, seems like they'll protect the gang until the bitter end."
"Shame - if you'd just tell us what we want to know we'd cut you a pretty good deal."
"W-we don't know w-what you're talking a-about!"
A loud smack resounded throughout the room followed by soft sobbing. The little hands gripping the door were shaking so much, no child should have to see this.
"Hey, who's that?"
A large hand suddenly reached out and grabbed him, pulling him out into kitchen. The child cried out, attempting to yank his thin arm out of the large man's painful grip. Yashiki could feel the ache of every finger crushing the soft skin, it was incredibly painful.
"A child, sir. Probably the couple's."
"Hiro! Let him go!"
"Let go of my baby, please!"
At the sight of their son in the man's grip the couple began writhing in their restraints in an attempt to break free. The slender officer stroked his chin in thought before walking towards the child and sneering down at him.
"Well, this will help." He muttered before turning back to the flailing couple. "It pains me to have to do this but if you don't want anything... tragic to befall this sweet little boy then you should offer up any information you have."
"This is insane! We keep telling you - we have no clue what you're talking about! We just work here! Please, don't hurt my son, he's just a child!" Hiro's father begged desperately.
Sighing dramatically the slender officer nodded at the large man, who nodded back and hoisted Hiro up into the air with no effort. Yashiki could no longer tell if it was his own heart that was pounding or if was Hiro's. He had to get away - get Hiro away - from these psychos! The child began kicking his legs wildly in protest and screaming, accompanied by the despairing screams of his mother. His foot connected somewhere on the large man, somewhere vulnerable as he cursed loudly and released Hiro.
He was free. But now he was falling. And panicking. He had to grab onto something, anything. His little hands scrambled to find something and they did. It was so hot, painfully so. The tips of his fingers were dipped into a boiling liquid. It hurt so much but his hand was seized up, he couldn't let go and brought the heavy object down on top of him. A cascade of oil rained down. It burned. It was so painful the screams stuck to Yashiki's throat - or perhaps his windpipe had already melted shut. A chaotic chorus of raw, horrified screams and cries sounded like it was so far away. The skin was now peeling from his face, he could feel it! He had to stop it! Any attempt would be futile but Yashiki still slapped his hands to his face to catch the lumps of stretching flesh - but what greeted his clammy hands was the smooth surface of his own fully intact face. He was still in one piece.
Cautiously Yashiki lifted his head and surveyed his surroundings. Somehow he had ended up kneeling in the middle of the shop's kitchen floor. An eerie silent stillness shivered around him, all the noise and light from before now gone.
"Hwoooo... Calm down. Calm down..."
Muttering quietly Yashiki tried to collect himself. His entire body was trembling violently and his throat stung like he had been hysterically screaming for his life although it wasn't like that was too far from the truth. What he had just seen (and in way, experienced) shook him to the core, the moment the scalding oil connected with his face replayed through his mind.
Hiro. He had a name now.
With a stuttering inhale Yashiki called out hesitantly to the cold darkness.
"... Hiro? That's your name, isn't it?"
"Hiro, it was you who showed me... that, right? You wanted me to know what happened to you, right? What those officers did to you and your parents!"
A blurry shape shimmered somewhere in the gloom.
"Daddy? Mama? Where am I?"
That was him! That was Hiro's voice! And this time Yashiki could hear it clear as day! The way he spoke, it wasn't like a child trying to invite him to a game of hide and seek, it was like a child who was lost.
"Hiro! Talk to me! I'll find you, I prom-" Yashiki cut himself off before he could say that word. Making and breaking promises to the living was one thing but to the dead it was ultimately different, they had already suffered enough so to be promised something and then let down could lead to so much more anguish and resentment. Saying something like that it sounded like he valued the feelings of spirits more than his own friends - but that wasn't true at all!
"Please, I'm scared... it's so dark..."
Quiet sobs with interludes of hiccups followed up another plea to found. Yashiki refocused himself. He had to find Hiro. He couldn't use his voice to pinpoint the child's location but since his spirit remained in the kitchen and that had been the site of his untimely passing it made sense to search this area. Yashiki had a hunch of what he was looking for - and it wouldn't be pleasant. Rising slowly to his unsteady feet Yashiki stumbled forward a few steps. Lights danced before his eyes and a faraway ringing bounced around his skull. His whole body felt like lead and his was still weighted with that growing heat; it reminded him of when he was first here but this time there was no force holding him back, meaning Hiro must have been okay with him moving about the kitchen. It was so dark that he could barely see his own feet but using the memory he had bore witness to in order to navigate the kitchen Yashiki pushed on to where the 'interrogation' took place. The closer he got the worse the ringing in his ears got - he was getting warmer, he knew it.
No, not now!
It was coming again. The heat, the pain, the dread. Yashiki clamped both hands over his mouth, willing the bubbling oil to return back down his throat.
That voice! In another repeat of last night Mashita burst into the kitchen breathing heavily, his face changing from determined to concerned when he set his eyes on Yashiki.
"Damnit, don't move! I'm coming."
No, he shouldn't come over here! Some instinct told him that would be too dangerous!
"Wait! Stay back!"
His warning came too late. As soon as Mashita started charging forward a loud piercing scream erupted from nowhere. It turned his blood to ice. Mashita hunched over, covering his ears and clenching his teeth. He looked in so much pain.
Yashiki wanted to run to him but as if to deny him the nearby stove suddenly burst into flames without warning, a rush of hot air washing over them.
"Y-Ya...shiki... We have to... go!" Mashita forced the breathless words out.
Looking from the doubled-over detective to the chaotic flames now growing in size then back to the detective Yashiki was unexpectedly filled with renewed drive.
"Mashita! Get out now! I'll take care of this! Please, please get yourself to safety!"
This was it. This was the moment of truth. Ignoring the blistering pain inside his body Yashiki rushed as fast as he could manage through the aggressive flames and thick black smoke to a set of low cupboards. Reaching out and grabbing the metal handles he hissed. They were unbearably hot with the metal searing into his skin yet he did not let go, instead tightening his hold. The fire from the stove had now circled behind him, licking at his back; he was trapped now yet strangely enough this didn't scare him. Was he ready to die? Of course not. But the only thoughts that occupied his mind were not those of saving himself or of his own demise, but of finding Hiro and protecting Mashita. Pulling open the cupboard doors revealed a large pile of hard, stained off-white fragments marinating in pools of rancid, mushy meat, the dark visceral liquid glistening in the light of the blaze behind him. The horrid smell of decay would have made his stomach churn if he hadn't been so resolved to end this nightmare.
"Hiro! I found you! I found you all! It's okay! Everything's okay now!"
It was hard for him to notice over the roar of the fire but the high pitch scream came to an abrupt end.
"Hiro... You don't have to be scared anymore. Your mother and father were always with you, so move on and be at peace." He said softly to the bone pile. A flash of light blinded him for a moment. Standing in front of him was a young boy.
Instead of bearing his previous wax-like visage the boy's face was perfectly normal. He gazed up at Yashiki with a big happy grin before spinning on his heels and running off. As the light faded and his vision returned to normal Yashiki felt a weight evaporate off him like he was being cleansed, the tensed up pain seeping from him as a sense of peace washed over him despite his life-threatening situation; by now either the smoke or the fire would claim him. There was no hope of escape, his legs felt far too weak to carry him out of here. He just hoped Mashita was safe. That's all he wanted. If Mashita made it out alive then he could accept dying here alone. Closing his eyes Yashiki tried to remember his comforting touch. Wait, he wasn't imagining this, a pair of strong, rough hands were really grabbing him! They wrapped around his torso and with a great deal of effort hoisted him up into his feet.
"This isn't the fucking time to be sitting around staring at bones, you idiot!" Mashita wheezed furiously, keeping his hands on the dazed Yashiki and dragging him through a weaker section of the fire and out into the shockingly cold night once again.
"Oh my god! Mr Yashiki! Mr Mashita! Are you guys okay?! I-I called the fire service and-"
"Good, come on. We got to get away from here before they arrive!"
"Whoa, they sure work quickly, huh?" Moe marveled at the response team from behind a building.
"It's a condensed area, so they'd have to in order to prevent the fire from spreading." Mashita shrugged.
The fire brigade had shown up only a minute or so after they had escaped the burning shop and found a spot to rest out of sight. From what the group could overhear the damage was immense, nothing inside the building was salvageable.
"That probably means... their remains won't be found now." Yashiki murmured while finishing the water he had got from a nearby vending machine. Once they were safe and had caught their breath Yashiki had filled the other two in on what had happened inside the kitchen: he told them about the vision he had seen, about the family's remains he had found in the cupboards and then about the final time he saw Hiro.
"So, they've finally moved on..." Moe smiled, her eyes looking a bit misty. "Ah, but there's still some things I don't get! Like, why did little Hiro react so strongly to Mr Mashita? And how the heck could the remains of three people go unnoticed?"
Understandable questions. Yashiki did his best to explain what he had deducted.
"Well, I think somehow Hiro knew that Mashita was connected to the police force - most likely when you mentioned him being a detective on our first visit - and given the fact that it was two police officers that had caused all this he was probably terrified of him, seeing him as dangerous."
"True, Mr Mashita can be preeetty scary sometimes!"
Mashita shot her a scowl.
"As for the remains being undiscovered, I guess that was the officers influence as well. They probably removed everything of interest and value so looters and curious folk would see no appeal in searching the place."
Mashita nodded his head, seeming to agree what Yashiki had said.
"Heh, not bad deducting for an amateur. Hey kid, go grab me a can of black coffee from that vending machine."
"Why? Can't you get it yourself?"
"Just do it, alright? It's your punishment for coming back here in the first place."
"Fine, fine! I'll go get it."
With a huff Moe trotted off to the vending machine. The second she was out of earshot Mashita set a steely glare on Yashiki.
"Stand up." He ordered.
Not bothering to repeat himself Mashita pulled Yashiki up off the step he had been resting on then proceeded to open his coat and yanked up the bottom of his shirt.
"H-hey, what are doing!"
Mashita didn't answer him, instead continuing to inspect his midriff.
"Yeah, looks like they're starting to fade. Take a look."
Peeking down at where the other man's hands were Yashiki saw what he was referring to. The burn marks that had been ominously seared into his stomach by Hiro were now almost transparent.
"I'm guessing he really did move on."
"Yeah, he was only stuck here because he didn't know where his body was or where his parents had gone. He was so scared but now they're together again." Yashiki couldn't help but smile from the mixture of relief and happiness.
Mashita eyed him silently for a second, pulled his shirt back down and then began frisking him, patting down his pockets.
"Mashita! What are-"
"Making sure you didn't actually bring any souvenirs out with you."
His hands eventually ended up around Yashiki's back, locking him in an awkward hug. In an uncharacteristic moment of weakness Mashita rested his forehead on Yashiki shoulder.
"... I swear, you take years off my life with your antics. You want me to die that quickly?" His voice was barely a murmur but Yashiki heard every word. He could feel Mashita's hands trembling again - was it from the cold, or something else?
"... At the end there, when I was certain that I was going to die in that fire, the only thing I could think about was your safety. I thought that as long as you made it out alive, that was enough." Yashiki admitted, lifting one of his hands to clutch Mashita's shoulder while the other rested gently on his head.
"... tch, you really are an idiot.'
"Haha, I suppose so."
The pair remained in that position for a long moment, appreciating the fact that the other was alive and with them; they quickly separated when they heard Moe returning.
"Here you go!" She proudly handed a can to Mashita. "Although I don't know how you can drink cold coffee in this weather."
The end of her sentence was drowned out by a loud grumble. They snapped their heads to stare at Yashiki with panic visible in their eyes. Yet nothing happened - no coughing, no doubling over, no oil.
"Ah, don't worry! This time I think... I'm actually just hungry." Yashiki said sheepishly.
Moe let out a loud sigh of relief whereas Mashita just groaned and pressed the cold can to his eyes.
"Well, you did promise to treat me to dinner, remember? You can make good on that now, plus we should get out of here before we get picked up for looking suspicious." Mashita reminded him. That's right, they had made plans like that.
"Wait wait!" Moe butted in. "This was all my fault, so I should treat you, Mister!"
She pulled her purse out of her school bag and began going through it, pulling a few faces as she did so.
"Aha! Here we go! I knew I had one somewhere!" She exclaimed and proudly produced what looked to be a coupon. "It's for a little eatery near here! You buy one meal and get another free!"
"Haa? Only two? Aren't you forgetting someone?"
"W-well, you didn't have to get involved at all, Mr Mashita! That was your own fault so I don't owe you anything! ... Plus I can't afford to pay for you, too."
"You hijack our dinner plans and I'm not even included? Seriously?"
"I'm just a student! I'm not rolling in cash, you know!"
Yashiki laughed softly at the friendly argument.
"So, Moe, what kind of restaurant is this?" He asked.
"It's not really a restaurant, it's a cute little cart near the station! And they serve the best ramen!"
Oh dear. Yashiki wasn't sure if it was possible for Mashita's face to twist in disbelief anymore than it currently was.
"You want us to eat outside in the freezing cold?"
It wasn't that he minded the cold, but...
"Does it have to be ramen...?"