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The Wax Faced Boy

Chapter Text

"There's no doubt about it now, it's definitely winter."
Sighing to himself Kazuo Yashiki looked out the window at the dark clouds that completely smothered the sky above the bare trees. It would be no surprise if by nightfall their branches were coated with snow. It's not that he disliked the cold but in this large mansion it felt like a haunting chill permeated every room and seeped into his bones no matter where he went. In order to stop goosebumps erupting over his body Yashiki was layered up with a long sleeved shirt, a wool blend jumper and a thick grey knitted cardigan on top yet he still found his hands shaking so today's research was put on hold.
"It still feels like I'm getting nowhere with it, though."  He sighed to himself while pouring another cup of coffee - by now he had lost count of how many he cups he had drunk in this day alone - and flopped down into a chair. Researching spirits, curses and the like seemed to be all he did these days. Aside from the weekly shopping trips for supplies he hardly went outside or interacted with anyone; that wasn't to say he was ungrateful for the fact his life had basically returned to normal but it currently felt like he was wasting his days away pouring over all these books yet learning nothing about how to permanently seal the cursed doll Mary and prevent the Mark from hurting anyone else.
"But what else can I do...? It's not like I have any other useful talents..."

Yashiki was so caught up in his thoughts that he didn't notice the loud pounding coming from the entryway. Was someone at the front door? Mug in hand he walked out into the large atrium where he could now hear squabbling voices behind the pounding although it was hard to make out what they were saying.
Pulling the heavy door open ushered in a icy gust of air that was juxtaposed with the bright, cheery voice that accompanied it.
"Ohh! Mister! You are here! Thank God, I thought I was gonna freeze to death!"
"Moe?" Yashiki watched as the schoolgirl scurried past him to escape the cold.
"Yup! Moe Watanabe, checking in!" She grinned with her usual energy. She wore a thick navy coat over her school uniform and a scarf wrapped around her neck and the bottom of her face, leaving her rosy cheeks and bright eyes visible.
"What brings you all the way here? Another interview?"
Moe was about to speak when a different voice cut in, this one deep yet clear.
"Hey, don't shut the door, let me in."
Yashiki turned to be greeted by another familiar face.
"Mashita? You're here, too?"
"Is that a problem?"
The detective raised an eyebrow along with his trademark smirk. He too was geared up for the cold with much warmer (and cleaner) looking coat and a scarf. He eyed Yashiki up and down.
"Cute cardigan."
Unsure if he was being sincere or more likely sarcastic Yashiki decided not to reply, shutting the door to keep out the cold.
"Can you believe this guy!?" Moe exclaimed, gesturing to Mashita. "He was about to just walk in here without knocking!
"What?" Mashita shrugged. "This place is massive so there was a good chance he wouldn't hear us - plus the door is never locked." He turned his hard stare on Yashiki. "You really, really need to break out of that habit.'
Yashiki scratched the back of his head and frowned. While the detective wasn't wrong he never felt a need to lock the mansion's front door, it was well out the way of the city, there wasn't really anything of value to steal and he hardly ever had visitors so security wasn't much of an issue - but he knew if he brought this up Mashita would either go off on chiding him or give him such a look it would be physically painful.
"I'm surprised to see you two together. Thinking about joining the private eye business, Moe?" Yashiki decided to change the flow of conversation.
"Oh, no no no! I bumped into Mr Mashita just outside actually! I stopped him from breaking and entering!" She winked, drawing an amused smile from Yashiki. "I actually came here to ask you a favour!"
"For the last time, I don't know how to contact spirits and I really do advise against it."
"Ohh, come on! I'm sure- wait, no! It's not that!" She shook her head and fixed her big eyes on Yashiki intensely. "You see, I need you to accompany me somewhere."
Yashiki tilted his head slightly, showing he was listening and let her continue.
"One of my co-workers at OOParts Monthly overheard a rumour concerning a small ramen shop in K city. The rumour of... The Waxed Faced Boy."

--
"Hey, have you heard the rumour about that little ramen shop down the street there?"
"Hm? No, I didn't even know there was a ramen shop down there."
"It's closed down now, after what happened!"
"Ohhh, tell me! Tell me!"
"Well, it turns out that it was being run by a Yakuza group, so it was just a front for their sketchy activities. Of course to normal people it was a place to grab some cheap ramen, so to keep up the facade they ended hiring a run-of-the-mill couple as chefs. They had a young son and were just lovely, ordinary people."
"Wait, so they had no idea they were technically working for the Yakuza!?"
"Nope! But apparently one night they stumbled across something that they shouldn't have! So of course their employers had to 'take care' of them and write off the shop. Now, if you enter the shop after 9pm you'll hear a voice call out to you and ask for your order. If you order a normal dish nothing happens but if you order the Manager's Special then..."
"...Then...?"
"Well, no one's lived to tell the tale!"
"Man, that's weak as hell! If you're gonna tell me a scary story at least make it good!"
"Hahaha!"
--

After recounting the rumour Moe continued to stare at Yashiki expectantly.
"Oh. Well, that's-
"Pretty pathetic."
The pair snapped their heads around to look at Mashita, who had sat himself down on one of the sofas at the edge of the entryway. Moe looked like she was about to protest but Mashita continued in his usual dry tone.
"There's hardly any substance to that story and the fact that there isn't a confirmed conclusion to this so-called 'rumour' just shows that it's just a ghost story blown out of proportion. Sounds more like a test of courage only high school students would buy into."
Finishing his analysis Mashita leaned back into the sofa casually and folded his arms. Yashiki glanced down at Moe. He had expected her to protest or at least try and argue that the tale was real but instead she appeared to be hesitant, biting her lip. It was strange to see her so reserved.
"Hey, Moe? What made you want to look into this rumour?" Yashiki asked her gently. If she had gone through the effort to bring this to his attention then clearly there was more to this than just general curiousity.
"Well... I..." Moe took a deep breath. "When I heard the rumour I was curious, of course, but the main thing that stuck with me was... the fact that the couple had a young son."
Moe clenched her fists.
"When I heard that I... I couldn't help but think of him - of... Hanahiko..."
Yashiki felt a chill travel down his spine and from the soft sound of indrawn breath it appeared Mashita hadn't been expecting this parallel.
Hearing that name brought back a flood of nostalgia for the group.
Hanahiko.
The very first spirit they had faced when dealing with the Mark. It had been the spirit of a mere child subjected to horrendous abuse that had eventually taken his young life. It was through that spirit they - along with Tsukasa - had met. The starting point of the battle against the mark.
"My editor looked deeper into this rumour and from what he could gather their son went missing around the same time as them!"
Moe's voice was cracking as if she could burst into tears at any moment. "Hanahiko was an innocent child who suffered at the hands of adults! And... And...!"
Automatically Yashiki reached out and softly petted Moe's head. He knew what line of thought she was following.
While they hadn't been able to do anything for Hanahiko during his life, they were able to help him find peace after death and now there was another child spirit they could potentially help.
He wasn't sure how much stock he put into this rumour but if he could help Moe expel any worries she had he was willing to at least try.
"Give me the address and we'll go check it out tomorrow night, okay?" He smiled at her comfortingly, not aware of the look Mashita was giving him.
"Yeah?!" Moe practically jumped at his response. She quickly jotted down the address of the Ramen shop and her phone number. "Text me when you're ready to head out, okay?!"
"I promise." Yashiki nodded.
Moe gave him a grateful smile before heading towards the door, glancing back at him. "Thank you, mister..." And then she was gone.

"... don't you know when to stop?" Mashita sighed loudly, rolling his eyes.
"Well, what was I supposed to do?"
"Tell her it's a load of bull."
"We don't know that, it might have some credibility."
Shaking his head Mashita stood up and walked towards the door.
"You're leaving already?" Yashiki asked him, feeling confused and a little disappointed. Actually, why had Mashita come here in the first place?
"What? You want me to stay?" The detective turned to look at him with his usual smirk yet his eyes were unreadable.
"... I mean, you can if you want..." Yashiki mumbled, glancing downwards.
Mashita seemed to hesitate. He looked like he was about to say something but then he shook his head.
"Sadly, unlike someone I've actually got work to do."
"Well, if you're so busy then why did you waste time coming here?"
Yashiki blinked. He was surprised by the edge and tone of his voice.
Mashita stopped in his tracks, hand clutching the door handle. He remained silent for an awfully long time.
"... I just felt like I should check up on you. Your lifestyle isn't exactly the healthiest."
Yashiki was a little taken aback. Mashita had came all this way just to see how he was coping? He didn't know how to reply so just remained silent.
"... Well, you're still alive so that's good." Mashita said, pulling the large oak door open to expose the encroaching night. Before he stepped outside he paused for a moment, but then turned to look at Yashiki.
"Listen, I know what you're like, but don't go to that shop. It's just a stupid ghost story, turn her down or something."
Then just like that he was gone.
Yashiki let out a sigh he didn't even know he was holding back. Well, that had been unexpected. He scratched his head. Honestly, he could understand where Mashita was coming from - with his cool and rational approach it was obvious he would regard this rumour as a basic ghost story - yet Yashiki himself couldn't shake the strange feeling that there was more to this rumour. Perhaps it was just the expression Moe had been wearing but he felt the need to investigate this further.
"... Well, it wouldn't hurt to take a look, plus it's not like Mashita would know."
Yashiki decided that he would go with Moe to the specified location, if only to comfort her fears. Again he glanced out the window that faced out to the now bare forest that surrounded the Kujou mansion.
"Well, it looks like I'll have something interesting to do tomorrow night.

Chapter Text

Keys? Check.any
Flashlight? Check.
Suitable clothing to explore a potentially haunted location on a cold winter's night? Check.
Yashiki's disturbed sleep schedule had ensured that he slept most of the day away and woke up in time to see the sun dipping beyond the horizon. As expected the heavy clouds had split open some time during the night and dumped a thick layer of power white snow onto the city like a dusting of sugar to conceal any blemishes. There was still a few hours until he had to head out so he had taken a long hot shower, had a proper meal (complete with coffee, of course) and thought more on Moe's story. Going over it in his head there was something about it that was bothering him but he wouldn't get any answers sitting around the mansion. Making sure the front door was actually locked this time Yashiki clambered into his car, the engine obediently purring to life with a twist of the key. The idea of traversing the dark icy roads wasn't appealing but it sure beat walking in the snow; plus there was the possibility Moe would need a ride home. Speaking of which he was supposed to let her know when he was leaving, wasn't he?
Pulling out his phone he sent her a quick text.

-- Moe, it's Yashiki. That's me leaving the mansion now. --

Only a few seconds later he felt his phone vibrate, letting him know she had replied already.

-- okaaay! (^_^) I'm heading out too! It's really seriously freezing (><) please don't take too long!! --

Even her texts were energetic. With a quiet chuckle Yashiki put the car in gear and headed out into cold dark night.

It had taken longer than expected to get to the address scribbled on the scrap of notebook paper resting on the dashboard because of the state of the roads; at every turn it felt like an unseen force was attempting to pull him off into the foliage but with enough panicked flailing at the wheel Yashiki had arrived. However it appeared he had managed to get there before Moe, so he had some time to kill. While he wanted to wait in the car where it was nice and warm this wouldn't be much of an investigation if he didn't get the groundwork started and besides, this area was unfamiliar to him so it would also be wise to get a grasp of his surroundings.
Reluctantly stomping through the snow Yashiki headed down the alleyway which housed the little ramen shop, glancing around at the tall buildings that loomed over him and cast dark shadows across the pale snow. What looked to be mostly vacant tower blocks with dirty windows and scabby brickwork boxed him in, at a few of their bases there were sparsely stocked shop fronts which painted a more lively community than it probably was; if this truly was gang territory then these 'businesses' weren't set up for the convince of the residents. Given the atmosphere of this place it wasn't surprising that the people who passed through spun creepy tales.
"Ah, this must be the place."
Yashiki came to a halt outside the husk of a quaint rundown shop. Above the stained sliding doors was a wooden sign with something written on it. It was probably the name of the shop but there seemed to be something smeared over it, rendering the words unreadable in the weak streetlight that peeked down the alley. He remembered the flashlight he had packed and began rummaging through his bag but abruptly stopped.
He looked up, and then side to side.
There was no mistaking this feeling. He had experienced it plenty times before.
It felt like... he was being watched.
Suddenly he clocked a presence nearby.
There, at the other end of alleyway in the murky darkness, he was sure he saw the figure of a person partly hidden by a wall. Watching him.
He swallowed.
"Who's th-"
"MISTEEEER!"
A loud voice rebounded down the tight space. Yashiki turned to see Moe awkwardly running towards him then quickly looked back at the mysterious figure but now there was no one there.
Perhaps it had just been his imagination?
"This snow is no joke!" Moe sighed when she reached him, sagging her shoulders slightly. "Sorry I'm late! Did you wait long? Huh, is something wrong?"
Yashiki quickly shook his head. "No, it's nothing. I'm glad you got here safely, considering the weather."
"Heheh! Never underestimate me!" Moe grinned. She turned her gaze to the building before them and for a second her brow furrowed before resetting to her usual expression. "Hey, thanks again for coming here with me, mister. I really mean it."
"Well, just don't let Mashita know we were here - we'd never hear the end of it. He actually told me not to come here tonight."
"Ahh, yeah, that's true! Let's keep it secret! He wouldn't forgive me if he knew I put you in danger."
Yashiki looked at her quizzically. "What? Shouldn't that be the other way around?"
"Pfft, no! He's waaaay more concerned about your safety than mine! I mean, that's why he was visiting you yesterday! He even told me so!"
Moe straightened up, narrowed her eyes and set her mouth into a smirk in an attempt to impersonate Mashita.
"Tch, if I don't check on him then he'll probably just waste away as a hermit or get done in by some spirit. Honestly, what a pain. Doesn't he realise how much trouble he's causing me?"
She finished with a little giggle.

Mashita really said that? The words themselves didn't exactly sound kind or caring but knowing the type of guy Mashita was there was definitely a deeper meaning to them. Yashiki scratched the back of his head, a strange feeling pricking at his chest. He had been reluctant to tell him the reason for his sudden visit but was okay telling Moe?

"Brrr! Come on, let's head in. It feels like something's watching us!" Moe said, hurrying forward and placing her hand in the groove of the sliding door. With some effort they forced it open and quickly entered the shop before they attracted any unwanted attention.
Immediately it was obvious this place had been abandoned for a long while. Mold and damp crept across the peeling walls like sickly veins. Thick particles of dust meandered through the heavy air that was so laden with filth that the minute you inhaled it stuck to your throat and lungs like mucus.
Peering through the gloom one could make out what appeared to be a normal ramen shop you would find on any street: there was large wooden counter that was half connected to a back room which was most likely the kitchen with a heavy looking curtain which served as a partition between them, several high stools were lined up along the counter and at the edges of the room were a few cozy sized booths. Certainly it was no Mary Celeste yet at the same time there was a hidden layer in the atmosphere that hinted to those who could sense it that this establishment wasn't just shut down over normal circumstances.
"I wish I had brought a mask." Yashiki mumbled from under the hand he had pressed to his mouth to try and avoid breathing in the stale air. He glanced down at Moe who was now oddly silent and staring ahead at seemingly nothing. He figured now was a good time as any to address the issue of Moe's ghost story.
"Hey, Moe?" He noticed her jump a little at his voice. "You said that this rumor was known as 'The Wax Faced Boy' right? Yet, in the version you told me... There was no mention of a boy."
"..."
Moe bit her lip, avoiding his eyes.
"O-oh, I must have... forgot about that part."
"I find that very unlikely for you."
Moe's grip tightened on her school bag. She didn't have to say anything, it was obvious.
"You've been here before, haven't you? And I'm guessing you saw something and needed someone else to help you confirm if it was real or not, so you made up a basic ghost story to make it sound more authentic and then came to me... am I right?"
Yashiki made sure to keep his voice soft and level. While Moe wasn't a child she was still young and he didn't want to appear as if he was accusing her of anything. There must have been a good reason behind her actions.
After a drawn out moment of silence Moe let out a small sigh.
"Man, Mr Mashita's detective skills must really be rubbing off on you... I guess I won't be winning any prizes for my story."
She looked up at him with a guilty expression, a hint of shame mixed in. Yashiki remained silent, letting Moe process her thoughts. Honestly he had doubts about this expedition before he had left the mansion but his hypothesis had been a shot in the dark, however it seems it had struck its target.
"... Yeah, there was never actually any ghost story or rumor about this place. I stumbled across it while chasing another lead for OOParts Monthly and... well... "

"H ell O?"

A voice that didn't belong to either of the living beings present rang out into the musty atmosphere. It wasn't clear but it sounded like it came from the kitchen.
"There it is again." Moe whispered, her eyes wide. "Mister, that voice - I heard it last time I was here!"
Yashiki quickly looked down at Moe then back at the partition blocking their view of whatever had called out to them. The voice had been soft yet at a high pitch but with an somewhat inhuman undertone. It almost sounded like...
"It's sounds like a child!" Moe voiced their thoughts out loud.

"Um hel lo?"

Again the voice called out. Yashiki clenched his fists. A part of him already knew what they were dealing with - this oppressive air, this blood chilling cold, this sense of danger - they were all too familiar to him by now; the telltale signs that just out of sight, lurking in the dark, was a spirit.
And they were not prepared to face it.

"Moe, we should get out of here for now." Yashiki looked down at her. "Moe? Are you listening?"
Still gripping her bag like her life depended on it and with her jaw clenched Moe's eyes were fixed ahead. Suddenly she took off, rushing to the back of the shop.
"Hey! Wait!" Yashiki tried to grab her arm but missed so followed after her, bumping his hips off one of the booths. When he got a few steps away from the kitchen his ears were suddenly assaulted with a barrage of sounds; a mixture of chattering voices, clanking cookware and the clink of stacked bowls. The busy sound reel in contrast to the empty shop put him on edge and caused goosebumps to cover his arms even under all his layers but this was no time to hesitate. Thrusting his hand out he threw open the kitchen door and headed in. As soon as he crossed the threshold all noise vanished as quickly as it appeared, returning a shroud of silence to the vicinity. Squinting his eyes Yashiki could make out Moe's shape further in the deceptively spacious room, standing stock still a little distance away from what looked like a massive cooking pot sitting on a stove.
"Moe?"
No response.
Taking a few steps towards the girl Yashiki could feel chills spiking all over his body. His gut feeling told him he needed to grab Moe and get the hell out of here.
"Hey, Moe, we should leave-"
With warning a sharp pain shot through Yashiki's head, stunning him and temporary blurring his vision. Had he been struck on the back of the head? No, that wasn't it. Trying to focus his vision he saw that Moe must have been experiencing the same pain as she clutched her head and whimpered.
"Ngh! Ahhh...! I-I'm sorry...! Please! Stop!"
Who was she talking to?
"Hnng! What? I-If I...? Ahhh... Okay. I understand... Yes..."
Whoever or whatever was communicating with Moe must have been satisfied with her answer and released them from its paralyzing grip. Squeezing his eyes shut for a second helped quell the white spots that speckled his vision but a new sound made Yashiki snap them open.
Soft bubbling.
Like boiling water.
It couldn't be.
His brain was miles ahead, somehow realizing what was about to happen. Moe walked with an unsteady gait as if someone else was controlling her body, heading straight towards the steel cooking pot which was now filled to the brim with scalding water - or was it oil? - and was only getting hotter. Her limp arms stretched out and held the pot handles. Then, against all reason, began to slowly lower her face towards the hostile substance.
Oh God. No!
"MOE! STOP!"
With gritted teeth Yashiki forced himself to stumble forward, summoning all his strength to move his numb legs.
Just a little... bit... further...!
"Arggh!" He let out a pained cry. From nowhere a unbearable searing pain cut into his stomach. It felt akin to someone pressing red hot tongs against his skin and increasing the pressure. Somehow through this pain that scrambled his thoughts Yashiki sensed a presence behind him - and it wasn't friendly.
He shouldn't look.
He should not look.
Common sense told him to ignore this entity and focus on saving Moe but when dealing with the supernatural common sense rarely held any merit. His body refused to move yet his head wanted to cooperate; pivoting his view Yashiki could now witness the malicious being that clung to him, its little arms wrapped around his midriff with crushing strength. The horrendous stench of burnt flesh decorated the air and clogged his throat, muting his gasp of horror. A dull jade green eye peered up at him innocently while the melted remains of its partner stuck to the charred lumpy mass of skin and dried bubbled fat had once been the face of a child.

That shocking sight was the last thing Yashiki saw before his body succumbed to the pain and his vision cut out.
Somewhere far away he was sure he heard a voice yelling his name repeatedly and the scuffling of shoes on the tiled floor, but the abyss was calling and he was powerless to escape it embrace.

Chapter Text

" - and with the cold front being ushered in we will be seeing more snowfall over the next few days." the weather man's voice crackled from the car radio.
With a sharp exhale Mashita slumped back in his seat. So this damn snow was going to stick around for a least a week? Great.
Well, it was hardly surprising since it was winter but that didn't make it any less irritating. Shaking the polystyrene coffee cup informed him that he had just finished his fifth drink and was now woefully stuck without. It had been quite some time since he did a stakeout so he had forgotten the right amount of coffee one needed to last. Honestly he should be at home right now going over his cases or something and not freezing his ass off out here watching some alleyway.
"Damn you, Yashiki." Mashita huffed, chucking the empty cup into his passenger seat and gazing absent-mindedly out the windshield. He could have staked out the Kujou mansion but by the time he had wrapped up his work for the day it was already late and he was closer to rumoured ramen shop so it made sense to set up here instead of the mansion. Besides, he didn't need to confirm that Yashiki may have left his house, he knew that he would; call it instinct, but he was absolutely positive Yashiki would be coming here tonight.

"Even though I warned him... why can't he just listen for once?"
Mashita folded his arms, shaking his head. It was just like back Masquerade during the Little Red Riding Hood investigation, the fool ignored his orders and went off on his own and came so close to dying as a splattered mess on the wet asphalt.
If Mashita hadn't found him in time...
The alternative didn't warrant thinking about - he saved him, they closed the case and everything was fine, that was that. Or at least it should have been, but here he was, lurking out of sight of the main street but still with a view of the aforementioned alley and waiting for the two wannabe ghost busters.
"... My legs are getting stiff, couldn't hurt to stretch them."
Despite how busy he had been during the day Mashita found himself unusually restless. Stepping out onto the fresh snow he let out a sigh that manifested for a brief second before vanishing. Above him the velvet night sky glistened with soft starlight which made the bright snow visually striking; had he been somewhere more scenic than a sketchy backstreet and perhaps in a certain someone's company he might not have minded being stuck outside. The snow crunched beneath his feet as he wandered towards the mouth of the alley. Hopefully Yashiki and Moe would enter from the other end, otherwise his cover would be blown and he'd have to explain why he was here.
Although it should be obvious.
It wasn't like he had been cryptic with his feelings about this place but clearly Yashiki hadn't picked up on them or possibly chose to ignore them all together; he probably didn't realize that Mashita was more concerned about his safety and well-being than some boring supposed haunting - which he deduced as being fabricated by Moe the moment she had finished telling it.
"He probably thinks I'm just butting in for the sake of my own curiosity or something." Mashita rubbed his neck, unconsciously grimacing and leaned against a wall. He could feel the chill of the brickwork seeping through the back of his coat. He cast his tired eyes upwards to appreciate the stars and attempted to allow his mind a moment of respite yet his thoughts continued to tick away; he had confidently stated how he didn't believe the ghost story but it would be stupid to write it off completely. Moe could be overly eager when it came to matters of the paranormal but even he couldn't deny she had a good nose for it, which meant there was the possibility that something could actually be here and if it was indeed a spirit Yashiki wouldn't stop until he had helped this seemingly lost soul find peace.
But as evidenced by their previous adventure that was a dangerous path to take, and this time Mashita might not get there fast enough.
"Haaaah, when was the last time I felt panic like this?" He rubbed his temple and snorted, bemused by his own fear.
Feeling the cold air starting to bite into him Mashita decided to head back to his car to warm up but after only taking a few steps he heard a strange sound. Straining his ears he picked out footfalls a little ways off - was someone in the alleyway?
Taking care not to make too much noise he pressed up against the wall and peered around the corner.
Yeah, he could make out the shape of a person standing about midway through the alley staring at something. It was hard to make out any details with the poor lighting and the fact it was night time but in his gut Mashita was at least 90% certain he knew who would be dumb enough to come here.
The figure started rummaging around in what was probably a bag then they suddenly looked up and right at him.
Shit, had they somehow seen him?
Ducking back behind the wall Mashita held his breath, wondering if the person would make their way over when he heard another new sound.
"MISTEEEER!"
This time it was the shrill yell of a high school girl who was far too peppy for this time of night.
That yell confirmed his suspicions - they were here.
Right, time to lay low and observe.

Subtly watching the pair he was able to pick up on snippets of their conversation.
"... Just don't tell Mashita we were here, we'd never hear the end of it..."
Oh, damn right Yashiki wouldn't be getting off lightly after tonight.
"Pfft! No! He's waaaay more concerned about your safety than mine!... He told me so!"
...did she have to say that? He shouldn't have let that slip, of course Moe would blab.
But this might be advantageous, maybe after hearing that Yashiki would change his mind and not put himself in harm's way. But of course not, nothing was ever that simple. After their exchange the duo headed into the shop, closing the rickety door behind them. It was going to be a lot harder to keep an eye on them now that they were actually inside the building but what other choice did he have? Moving down the alley Mashita came to a halt outside the decrepit ramen shop, glancing up at the smeared sign before gently pressing his ear to the warped sliding door; despite how thin it looked and how quiet it was around him it was almost impossible to hear anything from inside. He couldn't enter yet in case he walked right into the back of Yashiki and Moe, he'd have to bide his time for now.
Only a few minutes had passed yet it felt far longer. To any passerby Mashita would look like a very shady character, standing outside a shut down shop with his ear pressed to the door. By now he was getting an uneasy feeling, he couldn't put his finger on it but something just wasn't right.
"Hey! Wait!"
As if right on cue to confirm his suspicions came a muffled shout. No time for patience.
Grabbing the sliding door Mashita went to yank it open but to no avail - the door refused to move. Was the frame warped? Or was it just stuck?
Now with both hands jammed in the groove Mashita pulled harder, clenching his teeth but the door still wouldn't budge.

"MOE! WAIT!"

It was quiet and sounded faraway but that panicked cry reached him.
"I'm not gonna be stopped by some door!"
With a grunt Mashita pulled back and drove his shoulder into the edge of the door repeatedly with growing urgency. If he couldn't get it open, he would just have to break it in.
After a few strong hits the door began to whine and creek under the pressure before giving way entirely, bits of brittle wood skittering across the floor. Clambering over the mess he made Mashita rushed into the shop, looking all around for any sign of Yashiki or Moe. The putrid gloom obscured his vision but his ears were still on high alert and from deep in the dark they picked up a cry of pain.
"Yashiki? Yashiki! Yashiki, where are you!"
Adrenaline pushed him on towards the location of the voice and he was greeted with an alarming sight: Yashiki collapsed on the floor curled up in the fetal position and Moe preparing to lower her head into a large vat of... something.

Recognizing who was in the most danger despite what he had heard Mashita reached Moe, unceremoniously slapping his hand over her whole face and started to push her head back yet at the same time it felt like another unseen person was fighting back, forcing Moe's face back down.
"Tch, fuck!" He hissed. The spitting liquid stabbed at the skin on the back of his hand. Luckily, continuing to persevere yeilded results as he was able to push Moe's head back from the pot, using his other hand to starting prying hers from the handles - the last thing they needed was her spooking and potentially knocking it down, spilling its contents everywhere. He had to get Moe to come to her senses but striking her could just cause more damage. Hopefully his voice would suffice.
"Oi! Snap out of it, kid!"
His sharp bark rang through the air and seemed to awaken Moe from whatever trance she was under. Her large eyes stared vacantly at him for a moment, blinking slowly.
"Mr... Mashita...?"
Nodding, Mashita grabbed her arm and hurried over to the unconscious man on the floor.
"Hey, Yashiki! Can you hear me?" Mashita propped him up gently in his arms, looking for any sign of external damage. He didn't appear to be physically wounded. Leaning down Mashita let out a soft sigh of relief - a gentle breath brushed against his cheek letting him know that Yashiki was still alive.
"Are you okay to walk? Even just a short distance?"
Moe bobbed her head groggily at the question.
"Good, let's get the hell out of here."
He could feel it. There was something here, watching them. Waiting. But for how long?
Not wanting to chance it Mashita carefully loaded Yashiki into his back, noting an unusual heat radiating from his stomach, then marched all of them out into the freezing night.

----

"..."
"..."
Tick. Tick. Tick.
"..."
"..."
Tick. Tick. Tick.
"... So, what excuse do you have for me this time?"
Mashita folded his arms and stared down at the exhausted man laid out on one of the entryway sofas. Yashiki adverted his eyes guiltily.
They were back at the Kujou mansion, alive and safe. After evacuating the ramen shop Moe seemed to gain back full clarity when the cold air hit her, immediately getting worked up about the confusing situation. Figuring it was imperative they got as far away from the building as possible Mashita had bundled the still unconscious Yashiki and Moe into his car.
"I got Moe to give me a rundown on what she could remember before I took her home - don't worry, she didn't suffer any injuries and is of sound mind - so now it's your turn."
Shaking his head Yashiki forced his sluggish body up into a sitting position and filled Mashita in on what happened: the chilling voice they had heard, Moe's sudden mad dash, the pain they had both experienced and... the appearance of a horrifying child.
"...Moe said the last thing she remembers clearly was hearing that voice calling out to you both." Mashita said. "She remembers nothing after that until I got there."
"I see...speaking of which..." Yashiki tilted his head slightly "why were you there?"
This idiot.
"Shut up, be grateful I was, otherwise you'd probably..." With a sigh Mashita trailed off. "Nevermind. I hope you've both had your fill of adventure because I can't, in good faith, let you go back there. Now budge up."
He sat himself down beside Yashiki.
"Lift up your shirt."
"E-excuse me?"
"You said it felt like your stomach got burnt, we need to check it out to see if it's serious or not."
"Oh, right. Of course." Yashiki nodded and began fumbling with the upper buttons of his shirt.
"Tch- just from the bottom, dumbass!" Mashita reached out and started skillfully popping the buttons at the base until half of Yashiki's torso was exposed.
Immediately something stood out - scorched into the pale skin were the dark marks of what appeared to be a pair of small arms.
Looking up they locked eyes. It was obvious what they were both thinking.
"... It's probably nothing like the Mark." Mashita flicked his eyes back down, trying to reassure himself as much as Yashiki. "Looking at the edges I can see signs that resemble burn wounds - contrary to situation you received them from these seem to be completely normal."
"That's good to hear, I guess." Yashiki forced a half smile, his panic visually dissolving. "It's strange that my shirt wasn't burnt, too. Uh, Mashita? What's wrong? You're staring."
"Mh? Ah, I was just thinking we should see if they hurt when touched - a good indication of how serious they are."
He tacked that last part on as a bluff. It was embarrassing to be caught staring but part of him couldn't pass up the chance to touch that smooth skin.
Swallowing hard Mashita did his best to keep his expression neutral as he ran the tips of his fingers along the burns, occasionally trailing into the unmarked skin. It was very soft, pale like porcelain and pleasing to touch; preventing his hand from traveling either higher or lower took effort. A delicate inhale caught his attention.
"Ticklish?" He smirked.
"Only a little." Yashiki mumbled. "Are you okay? The tips of your ears are red."
Mashita's heart skipped when he felt Yashiki gently stroke his ear, cupping it in his hand.
Betrayed by his own body heat, unreal.
The expression on Yashiki's face was hard to read but it certainly wasn't a negative one. His cheeks were flushed and those inviting lips were slightly parted, dark eyes holding Mashita's gaze.
"... Is there anywhere else you need me to check?" His voice was low but held uncharacteristic warmth. Laying his hand flat on Yashiki's stomach he leaned in closer.
"... My... hip..." Yashiki bit his lip.
"Ah, I see..." Mashita murmured, his hand slowly snaking down to the waistband of Yashiki's trousers. He could feel Yashiki quiver from his touch but he didn't pull back or tell him to stop, instead the hand that had been at Mashita's ear drifted down to hold the back of the detective's head with trembling fingers.
Their faces were drawing closer, bit by bit, both hesitant but unable to resist.
Just a bit closer.
"Mashita..." Yashiki whispered, his eyes starting to flutter shut. "Mashi- Urk! Guuuh!"
Mashita found himself being pushed back, the sudden movement leaving him disoriented for a second. From the floor in front of him came a painful hacking cough. Yashiki was on his knees, hands clamped over his mouth as a string of loud, dry coughs burst out followed by the sickly sound of him violently retching.
"Yashiki?" Mashita reached out but his hand froze, a chilling dread washing over him.
Yashiki turned to him with unfocused, damp eyes. In the hands that had just been caressing him was a splattering of bubbling, inky black liquid, a thin string of it connecting to his mouth.
"Is that..."
It should be impossible.
In any other normal situation it would have definitely been impossible - but their lives were far from normal.
When he spoke Yashiki's voice was rough and strained.
"I guess... I have no choice but to go back..."
The air in the mansion grew heavy, an uneasy silence shivering between the two men.
In his shaking, cupped hands the oil continued to bubble.

Chapter Text

Cracking this case would prove to be difficult since they only had a single lead and right now she was apologizing profusely over the phone.
"Moe, I told you, it's okay." Yashiki reassured her. "Honestly I'm just glad you got out of that unscathed."
"But you didn't! And I'm the one who took you there!"
"I made the choice to go there of my own accord, you're not to blame. But now we need to gather information on that place, so can you tell me what you know? Or at least what happened when you first went to the shop?"
After the incident last night Yashiki and Mashita had came to the conclusion that the deformed apparition Yashiki had came into contact with had cursed him - so far it didn't seem as dire as the Mark that had plagued them - but nevertheless coughing up burning hot oil would probably have fatal repercussions if it continued, plus it felt horribly unpleasant. Right now Mashita was out seeing if he could use any old work connections to get some information that wouldn't have been made public, although he had warned that if that alleyway really was gang territory then there was a high chance any sensitive information had been destroyed long ago, if had even been recorded in the first place.
Still, doing nothing wasn't an option.
"Right, let's see..." Moe's voice hummed on the call. Yashiki could practically picture her tilting her head in thought. "Well, like I said I was following up on a different lead that happened to be in the same area as that shop, and as I was passing it I felt a strange... sensation? It was like something was pulling me in. So, I entered and that's when I heard... that voice."
The chilling call that had almost sealed their doom in the kitchen.
"I didn't go all weird like last time, though! I just heard this little voice calling out to me and then that's when I saw him - ugh, it gives me chills just thinking about it again."
Moe explained how she had only caught a glimpse of the boy peeking out from the kitchen doorway and at first she thought it was an ordinary child who had somehow wandered into the shop and got lost in the darkness. He called out to her again as she approached him however it quickly became apparent this wasn't a lost child - well, not a living one, anyway. The true visage of the boy was now visible in its grisly glory. Yashiki didn't need to be reminded, he could still picture that melted face staring up at him. His stomach churned.
"I'm sorry! That's all I've got for you right now- but I promise to see if I can squeeze anything out of my editor!" Moe exclaimed.
"Well, I can't stop you, but can you promise me something? Don't go near that shop, okay? If something happened to you..."
"Okay, I promise, mister. But! In exchange you have to promise... that you'll be okay. Please?"
"... I promise."
Somehow it felt like he was lying.
"Well, good luck! I'll call you the minute I get any info! Oh, also, I meant to tell you - I don't know if it's important or not, but when the ghost called out to me again he didn't say 'hello' like before, he said something that sounded like 'where am I?' "

Hanging up the call from Moe Yashiki looked down at the notebook perched on his knee. Disjointed scribbled sentences filled the pages, stringing together a slew of words. It seemed appropriate to jot down any thoughts or information he had since this situation had become an actual investigation and they would need everything at their disposal to crack it. To an outsider it would appear that there was no hope but Yashiki had made do with far less plenty of times before. Now he wrote down his exchange with Moe, circling her final statement a few times.
'Where am I?' - was the ghost asking that as a way to play with Moe? Like hide and seek? Or was there another meaning to it? Whatever it meant he could feel those words were important.
"Mm... I need some water."
Still with his notebook in hand Yashiki made his way to the kitchen and got himself a cold glass of water; coffee would have been more welcome but he figured it would be safer to avoid ingesting anything that could upset his stomach. As if it could sense his thoughts his stomach rumbled loudly.
"I guess I should try and eat some kind of meal, I'll be needing the energy, but I should probably stick to rice and vegetables." He placed a hand on his stomach and looked around the kitchen to see if there were any ingredients he could use. "Oh, I wonder if Mashita has eaten yet? Maybe I should make something for him, too... I'll message him first."
Suddenly thinking about that grumpy, sarcastic detective made his face flare up, memories of the other night drifting to the surface; he could still feel the traces of Mashita's fingers dancing across his skin as those unreadable steel eyes bore right into him, his hand accepting his invitation to travel lower down his body- no! Enough! He wasn't going to think about it anymore. There were far more urgent matters to attend to and here he was acting like some giddy teenager.
Shaking these thoughts out of his head Yashiki went to go and retrieve his phone when he felt his stomach rumbling again, but this time it also gurgled and churned, a dull penetrating ache that was growing in intensity accompanying the sounds.
This wasn't just hunger.
The now blinding pain short-circuited his brain, his knees gave out and he crumpled to the floor, the glass smashing and the shattered pieces skittering across the floor. It was happening again. The painful coughing. The feeling of scorching bile rising. His guts burned, as did his throat. From the pit of his stomach a flaming hot substance expelled itself from his mouth and all over his hands.
It felt horrible. So horrible.
The pain must have been too much for his body. Again Yashiki felt himself slipping away.

----

"H...p"
What? Who said that?
"He... ...ind me."
In the void a quiet voice rang out.
"Ple...se, find... ... I'm sca..."
There was a choking, cloying stench. Like something was burning.
"It's dark... .... lly scar... ...se, dadd...!"
Hush, don't cry. It'll be okay.
"wh... am I? It... so ...rk..."
I will. I promise I'll-

"HEY!"
Yashiki eyes snapped open, then squinted shut from the flood of bright light. Where was he? What was happening? As his eyes adjusted to the light he could make out the blurred shape of a person leaning over him. The presence felt... comforting, and warm. Subconsciously he reached out to touch it and felt a strong hand grab his wrist.
"Hey! Yashiki, speak to me!"
The grip on his wrist jolted him out of his daze. Blinking furiously a few times focused his sight and he was greeted by Mashita's face only a few inches from his own, staring down at him with his brow furrowed in concern.
"M-Mashita?"
The detective let out an exasperated sigh, his rigid frame relaxing.
"I'm starting to think you actually enjoy causing me stress." He huffed. "This is the second time I've had to pick you up off the floor."
Yashiki offered him an apologetic look, glancing around. He was still in his kitchen where he had collapsed but instead of being sprawled on the floor he was propped up against Mashita's leg, his arm wrapped around his shoulder to support him.
"Nhh, how long was I out?"
"I dunno, I just got here. What happened this..."
Yashiki looked back at Mashita and saw that he was staring at the black stained hand he had grabbed.
"... again, huh?"
Yashiki nodded. "Yeah, it was even more unpleasant than the first time. Although, I think I had some kind of dream about... uhh..."
He clutched his head and ruffled his hair as if he was trying to shake the memory out.
"Nevermind about some dream - can you stand?"
With Mashita's help Yashiki got back on his feet. The tip of his shoe kicked one of the glass shards.
"Ah, thanks. We should probably clean up this mess."
Despite saying that the pair didn't move, continuing to just stand there. He couldn't speak for Mashita but Yashiki felt like he couldn't move because his hand was still being firmly held by the other man beside him, it's warmth soothing and calming. He honestly didn't want to let go, those strong fingers made him feel safer and from his grip it felt like Mashita didn't want to either.
Gurrrggghle gurrrggle.
Again a deep rumble erupted from Yashiki. Panicking he tore his hand from Mashita's and gripped his stomach, bracing to throw up another bout of oil. But nothing came up. His stomach just loudly exclaimed how empty it was again.
"What are you doing?" Mashita asked him with a perplexed look.
Working away picking up the glass from the floor Yashiki explained the earlier events: his phone conversation with Moe, his plans to make food and then the reason why he had fainted.
"I see. From the sound of it this 'affliction' of yours is only going to get worse over time." Mashita scowled. "Hopefully I'm wrong, but well - as you know - I'm never wrong."
"Thanks, that's reassuring- oh."
A little red slit appeared on the tip of Yashiki's finger with a bead of blood popping out. Seeing as it was minor cut he absent-mindedly placed the finger into his mouth and sucked it gently.
"Do you have to do that in front of me?"
"Mm?" Yashiki looked over at Mashita, who had adverted his eyes. A delicate blush was colouring the tips of his ears.
"Come on, I've got something to share with you."

Seating themselves at the oak table Mashita produced a worn-out and tightly bound notebook from his coat. Its yellowing pages were crumpled at the edges from constant thumbing and creased slightly under the weight of the detail-heavy ink on them. This notebook was probably his longest partner throughout his career, storing all kinds of data, from on-the-fly unstructured thoughts to in-depth research; it was probably time for him to get a new one.
"Oi, you okay?" Mashita glanced up at him, looking slightly concerned.
"Oh! Y-yeah! I'm listening."
His expression said he was doubtful, but Mashita pressed on.
Turns out he was able to get a hold of a retired officer he had worked with for a while and he wasn't afraid to spill some 'classified' information.
"The Force has gone to hell." The grizzled ex-detective had spat dismissively. Through throwing back scotch he had told Mashita what he knew about that little ramen shop. It had indeed been owned by a minor Yakuza clan but they were good at covering up the more illegal activities so the police force had decided to leave them be - a "damn stupid idea but you can bet there was money involved" according to the detective - but there were a few officers on the force who hadn't been so open to the idea of letting these gangsters go unchallenged.
"Some cocky upstarts decided to try and shake out some confessions from the chefs there, a pair of civilians - tch! What would they know! Apparently they fucked up, had to cover some nasty incident up - got no clue what it was, though. Officials kept it under wraps."

"Well, it's not much, but at least we know something definitely happened in that in shop." Mashita nodded, clamping his notebook shut. "Something that involved a pair of innocent civilians."

A pair of civilians... and their child.

Yashiki clenched his fists. He couldn't help but remember his dream - the terrified voice of a child calling out to him. He hadn't been able to clearly understand the voice but somewhere deep inside himself he knew it was important. In his mind he was already drawing up possible theories of what had occurred at that ramen shop, and what he had to do.
"... Let me guess - you're planning to go back to that place tonight."
It didn't come as a surprise that Mashita was able to predict his actions, given the logical path their previous endeavors had taken them down.
"Yeah, I am. I mean, the idea of coughing up piping hot oil for the foreseeable future isn't very appealing."
Yashiki tried to play off the situation but both men knew how serious this was.
"I'm not surprised, no matter what I say you never listen to me anyway." Mashita folded his arms and shook his head. " But I'm not letting you go there alone."
Yashiki knew he would feel safer if Mashita was there with him but the thought of what nearly happened to Moe last time gave him cause to protest. He could never forgive himself if he put Mashita in danger.
"You don't need to force yourself to come along, I'll manage by myself." He tried to keep his voice level as to not give away his line of thought.
"Oh? So you're going to walk there tonight, are you?" Mashita raised an eyebrow.
"What?" Yashiki tilted his head slightly. What did he mean? Of course he wouldn't walk, he would just take his car-
Oh.
Ohhh.
His realization must have been written on his face as an amused smirk appeared on Mashita's face.
"Yeah, looks like I'll be your chauffeur again tonight. I'll be expecting adequate payment for my services, so let's finish this tonight."

Chapter Text

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?"
"What?"
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.
"Haa? Why?"
"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.
"What's up?"
"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?"

----

"Fwoooo."
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!"
"R-right!"
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?"
Nothing.
"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.
"Urk! Hurkkk!"
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.
"Yashiki!"
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.
"...Hiro?"
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.
"Huh?"
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...?"