“And then… nothing. I left. I went home. She didn’t try to follow me or anything. I’ve still got—I’ve just got her business card, now. That’s all. That’s what happened…”
Some part of Ritsu desperately hoped for a laugh and a hand-wave from Teru, some confident, condescending dismissal of Ritsu’s fears, some self-assured declaration that nothing was different. It would ordinarily turn Ritsu’s blood to steam to hear that cocky condescension aimed at him once more, but he needed it now. As much as he hated Teru’s confidence, he still trusted it better than his own. And Ritsu was desperate now more than ever for assurance from somewhere he could trust.
But when Ritsu fell silent, the echo of his words became its own condemnation.
Instead it was only Teru’s silence that answered him, and it spoke volumes. Ritsu dared to look up to gauge Teru’s reaction. Teru had swung sideways in his seat, elbow leaning on the plastic tabletop. He held a disposable soda cup, gripped from the bottom, which he swirled as if it were a glass of malt whiskey. He still did not speak, nor did he look at Ritsu, opting instead to let the silence ruminate between them. It confirmed exactly what Ritsu most feared: He’s fucked up, majorly.
“…So?” Ritsu hunched in a fraction, hands pooled in his laps. His fingers fidgeted. “What do I do?”
“This is going to have serious consequences, you know that, right?” Teru responded now, curt, sharp eyes flickering to Ritsu and pinning him like needles through a butterfly wing. He did not speak louder than Ritsu, yet his voice stole absolute control. “This is bad. It’s not some little bump in the road you—meaning I—can smooth over. She knows you’re psychic?”
Ritsu bowed his head, teeth gritted. Shame burned hot on his cheeks. “…Yes, she knows. And I know it’s bad! I know that. So what do I do?”
Teru seemed lost in contemplation, brow furrowed, piercing eyes leaving Ritsu and focusing on some spot in the distance as if playing out scenarios in his mind. With his other hand he absently pressed down the plastic bevels that marked the soda type in the lid.
Ritsu straightened, spurred to speak by his own unbearable discomfort. “I can still fix it, maybe, if I just—"
Teru put a hand out, silencing Ritsu in his tracks. “No, I don’t trust whatever idea you have, frankly.” He let out a sigh and pressed the soda straw to his mouth. “I’ll be the one to figure this out, and that means you need to tell me all the details. Answer all of my questions, and do not hide anything from me. Got it?”
“I’ll start with the most important question I have for you.” Teru took a long, stuttering pull from his soda. “…DID you try the chocolate croissant?”
Ritsu felt some static buzzing snap in his mind, a spark of confusion erupting to anger. His head shot up, body flushing white hot at the sight of the curled coy smile on Teru’s lip.
“Oh that is not the point and you know it!” Ritsu slammed his hand on the table and leaned across it, as if he might reach for Teru before thinking better of it. “Just--! Be serious for once – just once – and help me figure out what to do! This absolutely is bad! You said so! I said so! Help me!”
“Hey hey, volume. No need to snap at me over drinks in a public place. Save that for your police interrogations.”
“She knows I’m psychic!” Ritsu reiterated, quietly now, hissing his words. “The policewoman! And Gimcrack couldn’t possess her for some reason or something so I have NO control over what she does with this information or who she tells or what trouble I’m in if she—if she—just. Agh! Shut up about the croissant and help.”
“Question.” Teru dropped his soda onto the table from an inch up, letting the rim hit the table with a thock. “You really think this is your best strategy? Leaning on the undead to take possession of everyone around you who might get you into trouble? Because it’s not a good look. It’s in fact an incredibly ugly look.”
“Don’t act like you’re above it,” Ritsu seethed back. “You’ve had your horde longer than me. You do it too.”
Teru took a long sip from his near-empty soda. Ritsu stared on in silence.
“By the way, their croissants are excellent,” Teru concluded.
“I don’t c—It—Whatever, okay? Just—! If Gimcrack can’t possess her then how do I make her stop knowing I’m psyc--” Ritsu paused, feeling…something, feeling eyes on him. He braced both his elbows on the table, a cheap fixture mounted to the floor of the mall theater food court, and he turned.
His gaze shifted left and right over his shoulder. The rest of the mall sprawled far away from them, Ritsu’s back intentionally to them. He and Teru had tucked themselves away into the sheltered, isolated nook of the food court tied to the cinema, seated at one of three neglected tables that saw little use for concessions meant to be brought into the theaters. The bustling crowds existed in the distance, an eclectic mix of shoppers all smaller than ants beyond the carpeted threshold to the theater section. They milled about from store to store beneath the colossally high all-glass ceiling which doused them in sunlight and made the white marble floor shimmer. No one from that far away could be listening.
Ritsu shifted his attention closer, investigating the cinema food court itself. Ritsu and Teru were alone save for three other people. The teenager behind the concession stand shuffled popcorn into a bucket, eyes hidden beneath too-long bangs, exchanging money with the woman in heels and a tawny overcoat whose son pressed his fingers against the candy glass, pointing with fervor. Everyone else filtered directly to the ticket dispensers near the entrance, or to the two other, larger, velvet-roped concession stands closer to the theaters themselves. The other two food court tables fanning Ritsu and Teru were empty, yet the sensation of being watched still crawled down Ritsu’s spine.
Ritsu turned back to Teru, who was observing him with an amicable quirk of his eyebrow, as if eagerly wondering whether Ritsu’s sudden uneasiness was another thing to mock.
Ritsu decided not to give him the satisfaction. He leaned forward, and he lowered his voice. “Just—you can make fun of me later, or whatever, okay? I know you will anyway—whatever croissant jokes you have, I don’t care. But for now I need you to help me figure out what to do about the policewoman. Because if she gets me in trouble, that won’t just affect me, that’ll affect you too.”
Teru’s smug expression did not falter. He let out a curt, amused breath of air. “Meaning you did rat me out to the policewoman, as promised?”
Ritsu leaned back. “…No. Actually. I didn’t.”
Teru took pause at this. His sly smile dropped, face resetting, though Ritsu couldn’t quite read it. He readjusted himself in his seat, sitting properly now. “You’re being paranoid for no reason. Just meet with her again by the end of the week like she asked. Buff up your sob story a bit in the meantime, work on your crocodile tears.” Teru lifted his hand in front of his face. When he dropped it, his brow was creased upward, eyes wide and just a bit wet, desperately imploring. “You never found my poor, poor Niisan… I’m so sad every single day because of how you failed me, Ms. Policewoman.”
Ritsu’s fist curled, and he opted to snatch away Teru’s soda rather than punch him in the face. “I’m not doing that.”
“Right. You don’t have to fake it. You’re kind of just like that anyway.” Teru pointed to his soda in Ritsu’s grip. “Toss that out for me, would you? It’s empty.”
Ritsu crushed the soda cup in his grip.
“Ah,” Teru responded. “Welp, it sounds like you already have this woman in your pocket. You blamed her for abandoning you as a kid, and you blamed her for never finding your brother. That’s hilarious. You probably made her feel like a monster for giving you any trouble at all. So just let her keep pitying you, and she won’t be a problem.”
The answer should have relieved Ritsu – it was what he wanted to hear: a cocky dismissal, phrased to insult him – yet somehow Teru’s words only left him feeling sick, tightening some knot in his chest he could not breathe comfortably through.
“That’s not what I want.”
“I don’t want people constantly pitying me. I told her that. I told you that just now.”
“Oh come on, it’s a talent! I wish I was more pitiable. I could get away with so much more!” Teru spread his arms wide. “Unfortunately, I have my life together.”
Then Teru’s eyes flickered past Ritsu. His face lit up with a smile. “Ah, perfect timing!” He waved heartily. Ritsu spun in his seat, following Teru’s line of sight.
A girl was waving back. The name escaped him, but Ritsu’s spine flushed cold at the sight of her: shimmery auburn hair, glossy lips, and that terrible, terrible Black Vinegar Mid girls uniform.
Ritsu twisted back to Teru, hunched, speaking along a whisper forceful enough to come out as a hiss. “Why did you invite your girlfriend?”
“What? You expect me to see a movie alone?”
“We’re here for a spirit! Gimcrack found—”
“You’re here for a spirit. I’m here for a date.”
“A date. A movie date. In about 15 minutes. Worked out excellently that you asked to meet me here, and with perfect timing really.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Oh I’m never serious.” Teru responded. “But I’m not lying. I’m seeing a movie with Mei. Oh, and Mei’s friend. The friend wants to meet you. Join us!”
Ritsu’s attention shot behind him again, this time seeing beyond the wretched Black Vinegar Mid girl. He felt that prickle along his neck surge like a branding prod pressed to his skin. He found the source of the eyes – there was a girl standing beside Teru’s girlfriend, her curious dark eyes immediately locking with his. She waved at Ritsu. Ritsu did not wave back.
Teru stood, and crossed by Ritsu, dropping a hand to Ritsu’s shoulder and speaking with a whisper only loud enough for Ritsu to hear. “I canceled this movie date the other night so I could accompany you on your rat parade. You owe me. Stick around and have a chat, won’t you?”
“I will no--”
Teru threw his arms wide. “Mei! Honey, I’ve missed you!”
Mei let out a small squeak of joy and hopped forward, heeled shoes clacking mutedly in the carpet as she threw herself into Teru’s chest. He caught her and spun halfway around with her giggling in his grasp.
“Teru, Boo, I missed you too!”
Ritsu bounced from his seat. He mentally calculated how quickly he would have to shuffle away to escape unnoticed before Teru and Mei were finished with…. whatever this was. Ritsu discovered too quickly that the answer was well beyond feasible, as with the first step he took backwards, Teru shot an arm out and grabbed Ritsu by the wrist.
“How rude of me!” Teru announced loudly, loosening Mei from his arms as he dragged Ritsu back into the group. “This is my buddy you wanted me to bring along. Say hi, Kageyama.”
Mei perked up, as if remembering as well. She unfurled herself from Teru and turned to her friend still flanking her side. “Right! Ichi, this is the guy. The Kageyama guy.”
Ritsu felt a weight settle in his stomach as the new girl looked him up and down. She had bowl-cropped ash-brown hair, bangs resting just above her wide investigative eyes still boring holes into him. A colder realization hit Ritsu as he noticed she was dressed differently from Mei, in the simple white and blue of the Salt Mid girls uniform. Draped across her shoulders, she wore the strap of digital camera, bulky and expensive looking, which knocked against her collar bone as she stepped forward.
She stuck a hand out toward Ritsu.
“I’m Ichi Mezato. I’m friends with Mei.”
“We grew up in the same neighborhood!” Mei chimed in.
“Yeah, but then I moved. I actually go to your school, Kageyama. I know who you are. But I’m a second year, so you might not recognize me.”
“Oh yeah, don’t get freaked out or anything. Ichi is just scary-good with faces. She knows like, everyone. She’s in the journalism club. Oh!” Mei clapped her hands together. “Oh also I’m so sorry I was so super rude to you when we met before! You just looked like a creepy delinquent. But since I knew you were from Salt Mid and had your name I thought maybe Ichi would know you and I asked Ichi and she said you’re like, a super-genius or something--”
“—and you don’t really have any friends, or don’t seem like you do, and you’re not in any clubs, but you’re not like creepy or anything. Why aren’t you in clubs? Ichi said you had a brother in her grade but he like, got kidnapped or something. That’s so sad. I have a little sister and she’s like, so so so important to me. If something happened to her I’d die. I hope your brother’s okay.”
Ichi put a hand up. “Mei, I think you’re scaring him.”
Mei clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh, oops! Sorry, I just didn’t want you to think Ichi was weird or anything.”
“Noted,” Ritsu responded, feeling oddly beside his own body. “I have to get go—”
“Can you join us for the movie?” Ichi asked. “I’d really like—”
“I don’t have a ticket.”
Ichi flipped her hand out of her pocket, two tickets pinched between her index and middle finger. “My friend canceled on me. I have an extra.”
“Sorry, but I have something I need to do.”
“That can wait, Kageyama,” Teru said this time. “When was the last time you went to see a movie with friends?”
“It really can’t wait, Hanazawa. You know this.”
“It can totally wait.”
“Sorry, I’m on a tight schedule.” Ritsu turned on his heel, headstrong in his exit. He braced, expecting Teru’s hand to lock back around his arm. No such pressure seized his hand. Ritsu picked up the pace, eyes intently scanning for any hallway he could slip into to leave their line of sight.
“Ugh. Sorry about him. He’s… difficult. Fun guy once you get to know him though!”
“Ichi I’m so sorry, I tried! Maybe I weirded him out by talking too much…”
“Don’t feel bad, Mei. This was kind of rude of me to ask him out of the blue. I’ll see him at school.”
Ritsu ignored the trailing voices behind him, speckled red rug disappearing from beneath his feet as he left the theater area, replaced by shimmering white tile. He blinked in the sudden harshness of light, washed in the sun bleeding down from the high glass ceiling. It cast everything into an eerie glow as bright streaks of light obscured the panes of glass lining the store fronts, each aligned down the stretch of mall like soldiers rank and file. Ritsu’s attention shot to the right, to the small alcove hosting a water fountain and two splitting hallways marked with bathroom signs. He wrapped around the bending halls, out of the light, stopping just short of the men’s room door.
“Gimcrack,” Ritsu muttered, back to the wall and watching with hair-trigger apprehension for any approaching shadows.
“Sup?” There came a pop next to him. Ritsu glanced to his right, met with a shimmering swath of deep-night fabric, pulsing violet, with three red eyes peering out.
“Hanazawa is out for this one.”
“I know! I heard. Lucky us, right?”
“Where’s the aura coming from?”
“Theater 2. I did a once-around of the movie theaters, and that one’s definitely cooking. Did you know they're showing Wizard of Oz here? What a throw back. I was still alive when that first came out. I remember it. Well kinda. As well as I can ‘remember’ anything from before I died. Most of it is all hazy nonsense. Still I—Hey where are you going?”
“Go possess the ticket checker and let me through.”
“You don’t wanna wait maybe, I dunno, 15 or 20 minutes? It’s gonna be a little awkward when you walk right past Hanazawa and his friends.”
“What makes you think I care what they think?”
“Yikes. I’m starting to see why you’re so popular. Anyway, how’s about instead I phase you through the back way? I scoped that out for you too, you’re welcome.” Gimcrack positioned himself directly beside Ritsu, pointing a hazy, spiderweb finger toward the bustling center of the mall. “If you head down this hall, take the next two lefts down that way, go halfway down that last hall and into the shoe store on the left, then the storage room in back has a wall that connects right back into the movie bathrooms – full circle. I can phase you through there, and then you slip into the theater. Easy, right?” Gimcrack crossed his arms and nodded, proud of himself.
“Or you can just buy a ticket, like a normal person?”
Ritsu jumped clean out of his skin, spinning on spot to see Teru leaning against the wall to his right, arms folded.
“What are—what are you doing here?! You said you were out!”
“Seriously. They’re like 1,300 yen.”
“Are you joining the raid or not?!”
“Nope. But that doesn’t mean I have to condone theft.”
“Then go away! And why would I pay when Gimcrack can just phase me in?”
“Spoken like a true delinquent. I think Mei panned you correctly the first time.” Teru unfolded one of his arms, presenting the ticket clamped between his fingers. “Or, you could take Mezato’s extra ticket. She wanted me to come give this to you, in case you changed your mind.”
“Why does she want me to join the movie so bad, huh?” Ritsu swept an arm out. “Don’t you think that’s suspicious?”
“She’s interested in you, moron.” Teru reached out and jammed the ticket into Ritsu’s breast pocket. “Join us. We’re in Theater 5.”
“You got something better to do?”
“Y-wh-yes, yes. Yes I do! There’s a spirit here.”
“Not your brother?”
“I don’t know that.”
“You do know. It’s not your brother. Unless you think he’s hiding in the popcorn machine. So what’s the point of eliminating this spirit? I forget.”
“The spirit might have information. And even if it doesn’t, I’m narrowing possible leads. I—do I really need to justify getting rid of a ghost?! It’s haunting this place! I’m helping, right? Isn’t that a good thing? To get rid of ghosts??”
“Too philosophical for me – why don’t you ask the pet on your shoulder?”
“Hey,” Gimcrack rebutted.
Teru ignored him. “So fine then, you’re exorcising this ghost for the greater good, because you’re such a selfless guy and all. What makes this so urgent right now? Why do you have to do it right now? Join us for the movie instead. Deal with the ghost later. I’ll even help then.”
“I said no. How many times do I need to say no?” Ritsu asserted. “Why are you being difficult about this?”
“I’m not being difficult. I’m being nice.”
“If you want to be ‘nice’ to me, then ditch the movie and take down the spirit with me right now.”
“Oh not a chance.” Teru pushed himself off the wall. He stretched, fingers intertwined and arms thrust high. He stepped forward and swung his arms down in front of him, cracking the interlaced fingers. “But you can give me a call if you’re about to die, or something.”
Teru rounded the corner, back still to Ritsu, and he raised one arm as a wave goodbye. Ritsu watched him leave.
Gimcrack hovered at ear height, his aura shining brighter as Teru’s back slowly vanished. “So, uh… what’s the plan, Chief?”
Ritsu pulled the ticket out of his pocket and dropped it on the ground. He stepped on it as he set himself on the path before him. “Shoe store.”
When Ritsu phased through the wall into the theater bathroom, he felt a precarious weight balanced on his head. Ritsu swatted at it, and a shoebox sporting a set of velvety-red diamond-studded high heels tumbled to the ground. Its mouth exploded outward, shoes skidding across the tiled floor and sliding to a halt beneath the hair dryer. They picked up the shimmering reflection of the lights anchored above the mirror. Ritsu flattened down his own mussed hair, and turned his accusing eyes to the wall where Gimcrack’s face oozed forth. Their eyes met, and Gimcrack glanced quickly between Ritsu and the shoes on the floor.
“Whoops, sorry about that,” Gimcrack said, motioning with his head to the space beneath the hair dryer. The rest of his body oozed from the wall, revealing his two spindly arms which were shoved deep into an identical pair of high heels. Gimcrack clapped them together. “It’s an imperfect art.”
In the wall-length mirror crowning the sinks, Ritsu’s own dark bothered eyes found his reflection, staring back, lights harsh on his pale skin. Beside him, a pair of upside-down high heel shoes floated.
“Drop those, before people see you.”
“Roger,” Gimcrack answered, and the shoes clattered to the floor.
Ritsu spun to the door, then stopped cold in his tracks a moment. A wash of icy light-headedness trickled down his spine, painting blackness into his vision. He stuck a hand out to the wall and sucked in a deep breath, willing his senses to return. The effect was delayed this time, but just as intense as the first time Gimcrack has phased him through a wall at the meat warehouse.
“You good there, Champ?”
Ritsu ignored it. He snapped his eyes open, and pressed forward again, tunneled vision keenly focused on the door. He swept a hand out, emboldened enough to use a wick of purple energy to catch the door and shove it open. He worked a steady flow of energy to his palm, maintaining it as a simmer just shy of boiling, ready with a hair-trigger activation. The iciness in his veins, the quickening of his heart, all brought back the familiar rush of adrenaline. Ritsu promised to be prepared this time.
Around him, people mingled in steady trickles. They were locked into small cliques, keenly set toward one of the eight theaters that peppered the red-carpeted hallway, bright streaks of neon paneling adorning the walls in strips, dipping in and out of theater entrances. The chatter swirled into a miasma, an unintelligible constant buzzing which set Ritsu’s nerves alight, but no one paid him any mind. He glanced once-over through the small tricking crowd in search of Teru. He did not find him.
But Theater 2 advertised itself right before him, so directly head-on that Ritsu faced its neon display board from the rim, seeing only black plastic casing. Ritsu did not need to see it; the theater entrance sat firmly nestled between Theater 1 to the left, and Theater 3 to the right. So Ritsu pressed forward, and shoved the entryway door open with his shoulder. When the door swung shut, long shadows met him, puppeteered by the statically displayed welcome message on the screen, advertising ticket discounts for premium members.
“What part is he hiding in?” Ritsu asked, curt. He stepped forward, emerging from the entrance and glancing over his shoulder to the ascending climb of seats stretching far back and up. He saw nothing out of the ordinary. “And what kind of spirit is it?”
“Answering your questions in order: ‘Don’t know’ and ‘No clue’.”
“You said you canvassed this theater.”
“I canvassed which theater the spirit is in. I wasn’t going in any of these alone. It might eat me!”
“Load of help you are,” Ritsu muttered, ignoring the group of three girls who brushed shoulders past him, pausing their conversation to throw a wary glance his way.
“You might wanna at least lift your phone to your face when you’re chatting with me. Normal people can’t see me, and I don’t think you want any of ‘em knowing how un-normal you are.”
Ritsu didn’t acknowledge Gimcrack this time. He pressed forward.
“At least stay outta the lights, maybe? You don’t even have Hanazawa this time to take out the security cameras.”
Steady washes of cool air skimmed Ritsu’s face as he moved deeper into the theater. There was an air-conditioning unit somewhere above. He looked up, finding the mottle of shadows too deep to parse the bevels and contours of the ceiling – but the high arcing space, the shadowy promise of hulking, breathing pieces of mechanical equipment strapped to the ceiling, all filled Ritsu with unease. Ghosts had the undeniable advantage in the air. He shuddered to think what the spirit could rain down from above.
Another glance to the seating confirmed something worse for Ritsu – the theater was nearly packed. The contours of bodies filled the seats, faces awash in the light of phone screens, phantoms in their own right jostling buckets of popcorn and shimmying past and through each other to their seats in a way that reminded Ritsu too closely of the rat monster he fought. This was not a crowd he could fire through at will – not a colony of rats or a warehouse of pig carcasses – and for the first time in a while, Ritsu found himself questioning his control, rather than his power.
Ritsu backed up, until he made contact with the wall behind him. With a trickle of sweat rolling down his neck, Ritsu reminded himself once more that Teru was not here to be that control.
“Where’s the spirit now, Gimcrack?”
“Oh, uh, right. Gimme a sec.”
“We don’t have ‘a sec’. If it attacks me and I don’t see it, I’m screwed.”
“Ha, true. Y’know, now’s not a bad time to work on your own spirit-sniffing abilities. Hanazawa’s pretty good at it. I mean, neither of you can do it as well as me – you’re a human nose competing with a bloodhound – but you’d give yourself a real leg up if you could see the attacks coming first.”
“Just, tune in. Ah. Hmm. How do I explain it? Like… feel the air but, not with your hands or face or anything. It’s kind of a – what’s the human feeling – a pressure. Like a pressure. You feel it at your core. Like, knocking around by your ribs. A little something resonating in your bones.”
Ritsu said nothing. He remained backed up against the wall, palms now pressed to the gritty plushness of the wall. He shut his eyes and breathed, looking inward, trying not to startle at the wash of light when the door swung open, as the rush of air when new patrons walked past him.
He focused, and found there was a resonant ache around his sternum that tremored with each heartbeat, but Ritsu held little confidence that it was the feeling Gimcrack wanted him to feel. Ritsu could map the ache to the precise location Teru had slammed him beneath the ribcage to send him careening onto the soccer field. Just another remnant bruise that heightened Ritsu’s blood pressure when he thought too hard about it.
“Anything?” Gimcrack asked.
“Not even me?”
“I said no.”
“Alright alright. Worth a shot. Lemme do the heavy-lifting then.” Gimcrack swooped forward. There was a haziness to his form that ebbed and flowed, like a tide, like the rise and fall of breath, until it suddenly bristled. “Survey says that-a-way.” Gimcrack pointed. “By the screen. Past it maybe.”
“Past it?” Ritsu stepped forward. “The spirit might be behind the wall?”
“Nah I don’t think so. Feels like there’s a space behind the screen, some small little section just big enough to walk through – the screen ain’t flush with the wall.”
Ritsu moved forward. He kept his right side aligned to the wall, avoiding the lights, shoes lit only by the diodes strung across the perimeter of the floor like a necklace. He closed in on the screen, understanding for the first time just how colossally high it stretched. Six times his height, easily, cascaded from ceiling to floor, and Ritsu felt its enormity investigating the waterfall of heavy inky-black curtains that swept up to the ceiling on either side of the screen.
“Security might give you grief for this. Is this really your smartest option—” Gimcrack stopped short as Ritsu slid his hand between the curtain and wall and slipped behind it, buffeted by the folds of curtain that wrapped him. “Never mind.”
The crawl space behind the curtain was bracingly cold, one side composed of pure cinderblock, the other tarped by the screen. The screen was hung taut, made of thick canvas, held in place with cables threaded like massive needlework through the corners, like a sail threaded to its mast. It draped across a scaffolding frame –a thing composed of ratcheted metal beams with plywood boards fixed across the facade. Ritsu set another foot forward, freeing himself of the folds of curtains, so that he existed freely in the pocket of space behind. His breath curled in front of him. He felt the tightness of the few feet of space separating cinderblock wall and scaffolding, and the sensory deprivation of the wash of inky black nothing he blinked through. The only light came from the meagerest projection filtering through the screen, throwing the same distorted advertisement for premium membership across the beveled back cinderblock wall.
Overhead, speakers sat fastened to the back wall, held in place by heavy metal brackets and supported atop wooden eyebeams. They were bodily larger than Ritsu, capable of crushing him if knocked from their pedestal. He moved further forward, Ritsu ducking beneath the beams and pressed deeper into the space behind the screen.
“Pretty ah—pretty cramped in here,” Gimcrack quipped, though a gritty edge of unease had entered his voice. “Not that I care. Ghosts don’t really get claustrophobic. But you’re gonna be tight on options if security finds you. Or, you know, the spirit.”
“Do you really think I’m scared of movie theater security?”
“Well you seemed pretty spooked by that police lady.”
“If someone catches me, possess them. That’s what you’re here for.”
“Again with the possession! Listen I’m as happy as the next guy to spite Hanazawa but maybe—"
Gimcrack went silent. His hazy matrix bristled with static, and he skirted back, plummeting behind Ritsu. He wrapped his spindly claws around Ritsu’s left side to peek out. His aura and appearance vanished, concealed, leaving just the pinprick lights of three red eyes. Ritsu understood well enough. His heart rate picked up, and he tuned his ears to the blackness beyond them. Nothing except the chatter of the theater washed over him, muffled beyond the screen.
Ritsu felt it then. Like the tremor of a bass speaker resonating from several floors away, the faintest buzz stuttered beneath his ribcage.
He breathed deep, and summoned a lick of flame onto his palm, and he saw it.
Caught in the haze of purple, a head swung toward him from the darkness. Its eyes were deeply sunken, deeply tired, like smothered lights tucked into sockets. Ritsu cranked the flame higher, and the whole wraith came into view – deep etched bruises beneath its eyes, jaw coated in stubble, greasy black hair adorned messily over his eyes. He wore an ice-blue hoodie, hands jammed into the front pockets. The rest of his body flickered, absent beneath the waist.
“Hey, yo. You checking out the back of the screen too? I always wanted to know what they looked like back here. Wanted to know ever since I was a little kid,” the spirit spoke, its voice shrouded in static, as if relayed through a scratched and damage record player. “It’s kinda spooky, heh…. Kinda cold too. But maybe that’s me. Maybe I’m causing that.”
Ritsu swallowed. He took another step forward, his every nerve alight. He curled the flame in his palm into a concentrated spark, which crackled and shrieked with the crank of energy he funneled into it.
The spirit’s dark sunken eyes grew wide. Flickers of blue flame danced within them, granting a neon blue luminance to his sclera. The lights grew brighter as his eyes flickered up and down, taking in Ritsu’s whole form. “Oh… dude…. Lil bro, you’re alive? You’re alive, aren’t you? I thought you were—Nah you’re totally alive. Are you—can you see me? Like can you hear me?”
Ritsu gave no response. He braced another foot forward, his muted step echoing up and down, breath quickening to keep pace with the excitement of his heart. He could feel sweat trickle down his hair line, vanishing into the folds of his uniform. There came a different sensation tugging deep inside him, a different kind of drive to act which he could not explain to himself in the moment. But it grew hungrier with the cranking up of energy he poured into his palm.
The ghost pedaled back.
“Oh, little man can definitely see me. Wh—what’s up? I know I’m the ghost here but you’re kinda freaking me out a little. What’s up with your hand, lil bro? I’m not gonna hurt you or nothing, you know? Man I probably look kinda scary, but I’m not. It’s funny you know I uh—now that I’m dead I figured—I’m kinda lonely like this so I’d come see a movie for free, you know? I missed movies. I’m just, like, just a dude, seeing a movie? Nothing to—okay so I’m just, I’m just gonna keep backing away if you keep that up. I don’t like you getting so close little buddy—y-your parents around here?”
Ritsu advanced again. He felt the negative space of Teru’s absence, and mentally cursed himself out for how much more wary he felt doing this alone. It meant no mistakes from him this time. It meant definitive action from him this time. It meant no leaving himself open to failure this time.
Ritsu had no one here to trust but himself.
Another bead of sweat rolled down his cheek. Something else felt off about this moment, another absence that prickled at his spine and set this encounter apart from the office raid, and the warehouse, and the yarn shop, and the call center. The answer struck Ritsu with a single pang to his chest.
This ghost was not attacking first.
The seconds unfolded in silence around them. Slowly, with hesitant decrements, the spirit lowered his raised hands. He shoved them back into his pockets, and his eyes flickered once-over across Ritsu’s body.
“Alrighty. If that’s the case, I’m maybe just… gonna just um… maybe catch the 7pm showing instead, and just go, maybe float by the pond outside for a bit?” The ghost’s voice trailed off, curtailed by a rasp, like a howl of wind, that clung to the back of his breath. It was terribly, shiveringly inhuman, and jolted something deep in Ritsu’s core, and stirred his heart to a frenzy. “The lights change color, you know. The pond lights. They’re pretty.” The spirit raised a hand to point, back toward the screen, at nothing in particular other than to indicate the direction of the pond lights.
And Ritsu struck.
An arcing slice of energy, like a spiraling disk erupted from Ritsu’s hand, spurred by the momentum of its spin. It carried wind in its wake, supernaturally bristling with static, and the disk sliced clean past the spirit’s face. It flicked the spirit’s greasy bangs, and its wind rippled his sweatshirt, and forced him to shut his eyes.
The spirit opened his eyes again. And they fell in stuttering tremors down, to his sleeve, to his hand, pointing toward the pond lights.
True to target, Ritsu’s attack had sliced clean through the spirit’s wrist. Icy blue ectoplasm dripped from the stub, falling in viscous plicks to the floor.
“…Oh man… Oh god… Little dude…” the spirit muttered, raising his shaking arm to eye level. The wound wept blue, like a melting popsicle, running down to his cuffs and staining his sweatshirt. He turned to face Ritsu, a new mania, confused and crackling, pulling at the sallow skin of his face. Tears pricked the corners of his eyes, and his head tilted. “…Why’d you do that?”
“Yeah uh, why did you do that?” Gimcrack offered, unhelpfully, from the side.
“Shut up,” Ritsu hissed back to Gimcrack. And in the moment Ritsu spared to let his scathing eyes flicker to Gimcrack, a new frozen chill brushed his face. He felt it before he saw it – that hardly-awoken thrum of deep disturbance at the core of his chest.
He felt it right behind him.
Claws raked up his back – into his back – so indescribably invasive. Ritsu felt them slice clean through flesh and organ and heart and lung. He opened his mouth to scream, and no voice met him. Instead a keening forced inhale passed his lips, spurred by the sensation of his entire core – his entire body – flooding with ice-water. He spun on legs doused completely numb, stumbled backwards to shield his back against the wall and throw out another sporadic slice of energy.
Ritsu’s back never collided with the wall. He stumbled back, and backwards further, and further until his entire vision snapped to black. Falling, down deep in the dark icy depths lapping at his chest and face and—
Ritsu slammed into a concrete floor, first back, then head cracking down. His eyes shot wide, and he could see again, dimly, vaguely, floor-level flickers of light supplying little puddles of detail against the stretching black shadows. Ritsu stared upward at a speckled-plaster ceiling with pipes crossing in snaking arcs. In front of him was the same cinderblock wall that had been behind him in the theater.
Ritsu righted himself. His body shivered violently. Terror doused his mind as he raised a shaking arm to his back, fingers tracing along the sensation of three vertical wounds. He expected to pull his fingers away drenched with blood. He expected to lose consciousness the moment reality caught up to his mind, and he processed that his insides had been shredded into ribbons.
His numb fingers traced. Ritsu panted in the darkness. Despite the fiery throb of the claw streaks he felt with every heartbeat, no blood came away on his fingers. Not so much as a single thread out of place on his uniform met his touch.
Heartbeat. With each heartbeat. His heart was there still. It hadn’t been shredded. He hadn’t been killed.
Ritsu looked around himself once more, more properly this time, now that the fear of his own death had washed out to an overstimulating adrenaline buzz. He swallowed, and he understood where he was. Ritsu wrapped his right hand around his left wrist, testing the pressure, the resistance, ensuring he was tangible again.
“Took a bit of a tumble there, huh?”
Ritsu’s eyes snapped up, and he eased at the sight of Gimcrack’s three fanned eyes peering at him in the darkness.
“How’d he force me intangible?” Ritsu asked. He stood now, vision tunneling black, throwing his arm against the wall for support. He was unable to quell the violent shiver still racking his body. “You needed my permission to turn me intangible. How did he do that?”
Gimcrack let out a non-committal noise. “Eh, I mean, I technically coulda forced the point with you if I needed. I could zap ya through a wall in a pinch. It’s just that it’s way more likely for something to go messy when you force intangibility on a living thing. It’s much harder to fine tune. You wanna guess what happens if a human phases tangible again while halfway between a wall?”
Ritsu suppressed a shudder. He had enough feeling back in his limbs to experiment with backing away, establishing more distance between himself and the cinder block wall that the ghost had phased him through. Ritsu gave a quick shift of his head to take in his surroundings.
He was in a maintenance hall of sorts, tucked back behind the theaters. The periodic bolted doors suggested entry into the individual theaters. Disposed carboard boxes littered the hall, along with coiled velvet rope, the remnants of torn-out theater seats with the fabric shredded, all thoroughly coated in dust. Ritsu’s whole body too, from colliding with the floor, bore a blanket of white powder. He brushed at it with sweaty hands, and found himself wondering when the last time any employee had been back here, wondering – were he to die in here – just how long it would take anyone to find him.
Overstimulated with information, Ritsu found himself focusing on the most useless piece that skittered through his mind.
“Wait, if you CAN force your powers on people, then why didn’t you possess the copy lady?” Ritsu spat.
Gimcrack barked a laugh. “That’s possession. WHOLE other ballgame. There’s no forcing possession on humans who’ve got a protective mental barrier. Same goes for you and Hanazawa, by default, and any other psychic. So you can rest easy at night knowing none of us can take you for a joyride without asking.”
Ritsu took another step backwards. He keyed his attention into that thrum in his ribs, now swamped beneath the pounding of his heart, in desperate search for that resonance he felt to signal the spirit’s presence. He felt none. Or – no – he felt something, but it was different. Not a keyed-in thrumming, but a wetness, a leaking coldness, that pooled and dripped where the feeling had once lived. Ritsu swallowed.
“So why did he send me back here?”
“Oh I’m sure that part wasn’t intentional,” Gimcrack remarked. “You were the one who threw yourself back through the wall.”
“Then what was that? What did he do?”
Gimcrack quirked an eyebrow. “He was aiming for your core, ‘course.”
Ritsu blinked. His spine tingled, phantomly crawling with the impression of claw marks. “…Core?”
“Oh buddy…” Gimcrack shook his head, pity leaking into his voice. “Your core, ya know? The thing generating your psychic energy.” Gimcrack tapped his own chest. “Little south of your heart, more center. If you take a firm upper-cut beneath your sternum, you’d nail it. It’s the easiest thing for a spirit to see, and to target. To me you look like kinda a – kinda a rough and hazy ‘round the edges body with a bright violet core thrumming at your center. Count yourself lucky, cuz if a spirit were to pop that, you’d be pretty firmly dead.” Gimcrack sniffed the air, the hint of saliva pooling at the edges of his ephemeral mouth. “And he definitely raked it. You’re bleeding pretty heavy.”
“Ah, don’t worry. Doesn’t feel like it’d be enough to kill ya.” Gimcrack’s three eyes fixed firmly back to Ritsu, focused on his chest, seeing deeper into Ritsu that Ritsu himself could see. “But at the rate you’re bleeding, you might wanna consider a few days of bedrest. You’re gonna burn through all your psychic energy pretty quickly if ya don’t.”
Ritsu cranked the light in his palm higher, and he noticed with a knot in his stomach that the purple tinge to the air was not solely the effect of his colored light source. Near the floor, lit by the pale hallway lights, the air bore a tinge of hazy violet. He felt it too, understood it now, the sticky sense of wetness where the claws raked him, the hollow twisting wrongness of a wound not there.
Gimcrack breathed in deep with a smile. “So glad we’re partners. Imagine how lost you’d be without me?”
Ritsu let out a lash of energy in Gimcrack’s direction. Gimcrack ducked, narrowly dodging the attack that rattled a deluge of dust from the ceiling.
“Is that the only reason you haven’t run away yet? You’re just feeding off me right now??”
“Oh you act so offended! I’m not the one who sliced up your backside. Would you rather just walk around bleeding this energy for no one? That’s what attracts lesser spirits! I’m practically a janitor right now. You’re welcome!”
Ritsu fixed Gimcrack with a scathing glare. “Don’t you dare run, okay? Stay with me and help me find this spirit, or I won’t be considering us partners for much longer.”
Gimcrack’s three red eyes went wide. “Oh… Oh you’re still trying to fight this spirit.”
“This wasn’t maybe a… sign to call this one off? Ya know, cut our losses?”
“Without Hanazawa, you’re—”
“Which way did the spirit go?”
“And I mean it about your core, and leaking energy! Think it’s smarter if you—”
“Let’s go grab Hanazawa.”
“Tell me which way the spirit went, Gimcrack.”
“Alright! Alright, yeesh... But here’s my half of the deal – if you start going light-headed, call this off. I’ll be pretty ticked off if you die and send me right back to the wolves.”
Gimcrack gave one more moment of hesitation, and conceded with a subtle rolling of his eyes. He shifted, tilting his body toward the cinderblock wall, and he sniffed the air. “Alright… Still in the theater area of the mall, by the feel of it, but probably not in Theater 2 anymore. Feels like he’s near the entrance, probably, back near the bathroom we used to phase in here.”
“…So back the direction we came from.”
Ritsu stepped forward, pressing fingers to the muted coldness of the cinderblock wall. It was an unfeeling cold, an uncaring cold, unlike ice or metal that would bite and claw with its chill. This was a chill made to silence, and it crept steadily into Ritsu’s bones. He lit the flame along his fingers brighter, bright enough to make out the stone contours. When he glanced to the left, he was met with the sight of a steel door affixed into the wall. He tested his hand against the knob. Locked.
Wordlessly, Ritsu raised a hand to Gimcrack. A small, smug smile tugged across Gimcrack’s face. “Need a lift back through the wall? I really should charge on a per-phase basis.”
“Not a chance. And I can replace you with Slipshod any day.”
“That oaf?” Gimcrack laughed, and he grabbed Ritsu’s outstretched wrist. That familiar swamping of ice shivered down Ritsu’s spine. “But eh, never mind. You’re already paying me overtime today.”
Ritsu stepped forward again, and the door did not bother to stop him. Blackness stole his vision for the moment he passed between spaces, a thickness like liquid filling his lungs. He appeared on the other side, and pulled away from Gimcrack, and sucked in a steady breath through his teeth so that the dancing stars in his eyes would not drag him to the floor.
A harsh, flickering flash of light assaulted his eyes, bright enough that Ritsu shielded his eyes and stumbled to the left. He squinted, looking above his arm. The previews had started, swamping the screen in a violent blanket of light. He felt the flicker of eyes from the front row find him, and he didn’t bother caring. He simply moved up the aisle, willing his star-spattered vision to return as he blinked away the afterimage. He could see well enough to identify the trickle of light from the doors exit doors, and Ritsu advanced on them. His heart rate built up uncomfortably in his chest.
He pulled the doors wide, blinded anew in the bright wash of fluorescent lights dousing the lobby, throwing the spiraled red pattern of the carpet up to his eyes. He blinked harder, eyes flickering left and right for any sign of the ghost, for any sign of anything amiss. Instead, the lobby met him, mostly deserted, save for the few stragglers returning from the bathroom or concession stand.
And then something caught his eye.
A swell of purple glimmering fog wafted into his field of view, and it spurred and ebbed like ash and embers adrift in the wind. It startled him, its closeness, its suddenness, drifting near enough that he could breathe it in. Ritsu pedaled back. He found that the fog formed a shimmering trail through the air, meandering like a river and anchoring itself to the center of his chest. Ritsu dropped his chin, looked down, and pressed a hand to his chest from which the glimmering fog pooled. The haze passed clean through his palm.
Gimcrack was right. He was bleeding.
Ritsu glanced to his reflection in the glass movie poster case to his left. The case was temporarily vacant, between posters, holding nothing but the matte black velvet backdrop. The blackness reflected his appearance almost as cleanly as a mirror. No Gimcrack appeared. No purple fog manifested.
Gimcrack pointed forward, a touch to the right. “Oi, you might wanna focus, don’t you think?”
Ritsu breathed deep, willing his head to clear. Right. Focus. Focus focus. He followed the invisible line extending from Gimcrack’s finger, pinning it to the cherry-red claw machine set between Theaters 4 and 5.
“The claw game?” Ritsu asked.
“Yeah, see it?” Gimcrack asked.
Ritsu didn’t. So he focused harder, screwing his eyes until a headache built in pulses behind his brow. A whisp of blue light coalesced. Finding form, finding focus, until the rest of reality faded out to a blur around Ritsu.
Same hoodie, same licking tail, same ghost. Missing one hand, he used his other hand – fingers now elongated into claws – to fish around in the plushie prizes filling the machine. The ghost snagged a chestnut furred bear, a heart emblazoned on its right arm, and he pulled it from the machine. The ghost pressed the plush against his face, as if trying to feel its fur. The hoodie slipped back, revealing eye sockets picked clean of flesh, oozing fluid, jaw and cheeks left rent of any skin, actively rotting with the waggle of maggots.
Ritsu froze. He felt his heart skip a beat, and it took an extra long pull of breath to fix the cadence of it thrumming in his chest.
“He looks different,” Ritsu muttered. It was an intentionally vague statement, because to admit that the change in appearance scared him felt like an admittance of weakness.
“Yeah, poor dude, haha. But I’m not surprised. Human forms aren’t stable for very long.” Gimcrack bonked a fist atop his own head. “Most of us end up rotting away into little blobs like this. And I’m pretty sure you fast-tracked him to decay with your hand-slicing trick – he’s bleeding nearly as bad as you. Just, ghosts don’t get to regenerate any of that energy. You psychics don’t know how good you got it.”
Ritsu did not step forward yet. He watched the little bear phase clean through the ghost’s face, untouchable, unreachable, as the ghost tried harder to nuzzle it against his rotting skin. A small whine, almost inaudible, passed from the spirit’s decaying lips. His brow creased over absent eyes.
Gimcrack’s eyes shifted to Ritsu. “So… what’s the plan, Chief?”
Ritsu swallowed. He felt a tug from his center, from just behind his sternum, more urgent than before. It wasn’t the sort of thing he could put into words, but it licked and lashed into a sensation nigh-intoxicating as he set his sights on the ghost hunkered by the claw machine.
Ritsu lit his palms ablaze, and he coiled his body, and with a single explosive motion forward, he struck. The disks of violet energy spun with an electric shriek, Ritsu nearly keeping pace as he sprinted after them. The first collided with the wall just left of the claw machine. The spirit stiffened, and the second disk struck the machine dead-center – bifurcating it at an angle – and slicing the ghost clean across the neck.
Gimcrack let out a low whistle. “Ooh, nice hit.”
The shriek that followed from the ghost was inhuman. He dropped the bear and slapped his remaining hand over the gash on his neck. It crescendoed to a howl, growing stronger, resonating harder, until it was a siren of monstrous agony. The claws along his hand grew longer, bonier, skin sluicing off as if doused in acid. Accusing empty eyes spun on Ritsu as the last traces of human composition melted away with the maggots from his face.
The spirit shifted out of existence. And a static explosion rippled along Ritsu’s neck, inches from him, like breath on his skin. He erected his barrier just in time to feel the rake of claws screech against his barrier as if scraping down a chalkboard. A chill of utter revulsion trickled down Ritsu’s spine, and he let out another lash of energy.
This one collided with the far wall now. Suddenly, keenly aware of how vulnerable he was with his back exposed. Ritsu stretched and rounded his barrier, so that it enveloped him, and washed his world into a haze of purple. It trapped his own leaking fog in against his chest.
Ritsu set his sights for the nearest wall, something to use as cover to shield his back. His head spun left and right as he ran, grateful in the moment for the lack of audience in the lobby, still he reached the wall and slammed his back against it. He gave himself a full view of the lobby, intent to make use of it. His vision was his best bet for pinning the spirit now that he could no longer sense it past the bleeding of his core. And the spirit was fast, faster than Teru, which put Ritsu at a heavy disadvantage.
An icy trickle raked down Ritsu’s spine – eyes on him, eyes on him again, boring into him from the left. He spun, and instantly found himself in the wake of a looming shadow.
Ritsu yelled, and pedaled back, and struck outward, and the shadow vanished in an explosion of smoke. When the haze cleared, Ritsu was met with the sad flop of cardboard hitting the carpet. Ritsu blinked, and looked more closely, and found himself staring at the knocked-over charred and slashed remnants of a life-size movie cut out – some smoldering heartthrob actor of pale skin and curled chestnut hair now missing two-thirds of his face.
“Oh, dude, you killed him,” Gimcrack remarked.
Ritsu didn’t engage. His eyes shot upward as a disturbance rippled through the wall above him. He craned his neck up, blinking at the spot in the wallpaper where the shimmer vanished.
“He went up,” Ritsu remarked, shakily.
Gimcrack followed his gaze, drifting upward, squinting at the spot. “Man, like up-up. That sucks for you. You don’t float, do ya?”
“It’s right above a Theater. The projector has to be up there. There has to be a room up there. I can get up there. Help me find a door. Something has to lead up there.”
Gimcrack let out a wry laugh. “Oh look at that. Theater 5. We’re breaking into Theater 5 after all. Hanazawa always gets his way in the end, doesn’t he?”
Ritsu backed up, broadening his view and surveying the walls, the theater. His whole body shivered. He dismissed the barrier to let the violet fog dissipate from around him and clear his sight.
“I’ve got a better idea,” Gimcrack offered. He dove forward into the wall. For a few silent seconds, Ritsu watched the wall.
The sudden absence sent a thrill of terror down Ritsu’s spine, suddenly alone, suddenly vulnerable. “Hey Gimc--!”
His ears became keenly aware of the sound of the bathroom door opening behind him, and footsteps padding out onto the carpet. Ritsu steeled himself, ignoring it. He was not used to having eyes on him during a raid. It unsettled him, made him too uncomfortably aware of how he looked to outsiders. The man passed him, back into the theater, and Ritsu fought the urge to follow him with pinned eyes.
There came a tinny roar from the theater as the man shoved the door open, an artificial thing. Ritsu jolted, heart knocking against his ribs, before he processed that he was listening to the movie playing in the theater. Sweat trickled down his neck.
Ritsu’s spun to the right. 40 feet down the hall, Gimcrack waved a hand phased through the wall. “Hallway’s over here. Flight of stairs that’ll get you up.”
Ritsu nodded, and covered the distance that separated him. His skin prickled, and he became anxiously aware of the creeping wooziness swirling around in his mind. Ritsu stuck a hand out, and Gimcrack grabbed his wrist. Ritsu washed him to pure ice for the third time, and stepped clean through the wall.
“He should be—” Gimcrack trailed off, stealing a glance to Ritsu who had slumped against the wall, breathing heavily, willing the stars to leave his vision. “Are you…?”
“It’s the phasing,” Ritsu panted. He straightened, eyes shifting left and right. He’d appeared in another maintenance hall, cut with perpendicular intersections that suggested a labyrinth snaking through and around each theater. “Where is he?”
“Up there.” Gimcrack motioned to the set of metal stairs, each step a simple suspended steel plank with regular holes drilled out of the bottom, grated in a way that suggested aided traction. Ritsu took to the steps, his foot connecting with a hollow, echoing clack. He mounted, climbing higher, turning 180 degrees halfway up the stair well to see the room above the stairs gave way to. Ritsu didn’t immediately climb the last few steps. He waited, observing.
A boxed-in shell of a room sat at the precipice, twice the size of a janitor closet. Fluorescent lights poured from the ceiling, and the air stirred with the unnatural fuzzy heat of a humming electrical monstrosity. Across from Ritsu, positioned against the single paned window in the room, was the projector. It was a hulking, breathing metal beast of polished plating – a head fixed upon a base fastened to the floor – taller than Ritsu and twice as wide. Within its base, lights flickered and blinked behind grating, huffing out breaths of heady warm air. Heavy, thick, snaking cables jutted from beneath it and threaded into grounded sockets. The unit on top sported a litany of dials and knobs decorating its back plate, a bright red WARNING sticker cautioning against approaching the lens, which poked forward and doused the window in light. A silver-banded exhaustion tube funneled up through the ceiling.
Ritsu looked past the hulking thing, attention settling with a flutter to his heart on the same dripping entity he’d chased this far, its non-face pressed to the window glass, as if watching the movie being projected clean through its head.
Ritsu readied the throb of power in his palm. It crackled like electricity, and with a sudden jolt, Ritsu felt his own balance careen. The very manifestation of energy stole his breath, knocked an agonizing ache against his rib cage. He bowed a fraction forward, sputtering.
“Bye,” Ritsu muttered to the spirit, and he breathed through the ache in his core as he pressed his hand out like a cannon ready to fire.
The blast built, and released with an eruption of violet light, and it connected cleanly, his aim true, shaking the booth and rattling the projector. When the purple smoke cleared, Ritsu looked forward again, coughing, and froze at the sight of nothing against the window.
“Did I get him?!” Ritsu asked, clipped, breath frantic. He coughed again, and coughed harder, his vision shifting in and out of focus. His eyes dropped down a fraction. A puddle of viscous blue liquid pooled beneath the glass pane, like viscera, dripping down, spattering and painting an image of something wounded crawling away from the impact site.
“Eh, depends on your definition of ‘got him’,” Gimcrack responded. His matrix bristled. “I still feel him. But he’s more goop than ghost right now.”
Ritsu felt a spike in energy from his left. He dragged his barrier back into existence with ample time to spare as a single, fizzling blue attack sputtered against his shield. It crawled across his barrier like tendrils of lightning. Ineffective, diffused, dying. Ritsu dropped the barrier, wondering if the manifestation of the shield took more out of him than the blast would have.
Ritsu rounded the projector, feet padding mutedly against the floor, bringing the other side into view. There, cowering in a puddle against the projector sat the ghost. Its head was little more than an after-image, more like the flame along the wick of a candle than anything corporeal. The hoodie fizzled like static, one single arm pooled in its would-be lap. Two flickers of red watched from the location of eye sockets, peering at Ritsu without a single read of emotion.
Ritsu stared, and he felt a new pang in his chest completely opposite the tugging sensation that had been driving him. Different even from the hazy bleeding weakness pooling there. This new feeling was something more… grounded. More connected. Driven by an awareness that was returning to his senses. It was the awareness of staring down at something utterly disarmed. Ritsu drew back, just a fraction, and his head swam a bit with the motion.
He didn’t so much as blink as he held the sight of the two little red pinpricks of light.
“What… am I doing?” Ritsu asked aloud, hardly more than a whisper. He coughed again, and Gimcrack quirked an eyebrow at him.
“You’re asking that now?” Gimcrack asked.
Ritsu focused. He concentrated, as best he could, searching for an answer to that question he hadn’t bothered asking earlier. Nothing came to mind. Without that drive tugging in his chest, he wasn’t sure why he was standing here, staring down at the remnants of a ghost hunted to execution.
By just a fraction, Ritsu lowered him. He crouched down to unsteady knees, and he reached a single hand out to the matrix of blue fizzling in front of him. “Hey…” he said.
And the cowering thing snapped.
With one swift motion, it sliced the base clean out from beneath the projector. Then it rolled backwards, phasing through the projector, and from the other side it unleashed a single blast into the unanchored projector. The hulking metal beast let out a terrible, rumbling groan. Ritsu tilted his chin up, processing the chain of events just in time to watch the thing swallow the light. His eyes shot wide. He threw himself backwards.
The projector claimed his feet first, pinching his sneakers against the tiled floor and bending each foot in opposite directions. Ritsu yelped as it took his knees, grinding down onto his twisted right hip. It crushed his chest into the ground. All breath left his body in a violent wheeze, his left palm pinned to the ground by the weight sealing his arm down up to the elbow. His right arm was pinned entirely, palm pressed flush up against the projector, soaking in the heat. His twisting of his body, his last attempt to launch himself away, had worked terribly against him. Knees up, chest down, the torque around his torso stole any chance of breath from him, and denied him any hope of crawling out under his own power. The reality exploded against him all at once with the heat searing iron-hot into his back.
Ritsu pulled, and pulled harder, a choking gasp, a violent wheeze, a straining of his neck hard enough to pull a muscle. He remained pinned, crushed with several times his own bodyweight. The world blacked out slowly around him.
“Gimcrack,” Ritsu wheezed. He sucked in a single fraction of a breath, wet and violent. “Phase me out.”
Gimcrack sputtered, agitated, swopping through the air around Ritsu. “Are you kidding? If I do that you’re going RIGHT through this floor! The pressure of that thing’s gonna win out – it’ll slam you through the floor like a fly swatter.”
“Then SEND me through the floor.” Ritsu bit back with another rattling wheeze, feeling as though his ribs may crack.
“From up here?! No way. It’s like a 50 foot drop into the theater down there. You’d die. Humans become pancakes if they drop from that kinda height.”
A fresh panic lit in Ritsu’s chest as the whisp of sputtering blue whisked past his nose. Ritsu remembered chill of claws coring out his center. He felt his vulnerability all anew. If the projector didn’t kill him, then the spirit would.
“Then do SOMETHING.” Ritsu rasped, tears staining his strained words. “Help! Don’t screw me around this time, Gimcrack, not this time!”
“Hey! Hey hey hey hey I AM trying! Why wouldn’t I be trying??? You think I want you to die? How would I get paid??” Gimcrack’s tail flickered. “I’m gonna go grab Hanazawa.”
Ritsu let his head drop, forehead colliding with the floor. “Fine, be fas—"
“Unless…” Gimcrack continued, drawing out the word around a lick of breath.
Gimcrack swooped closer, more agitated than before, but radiating with a kind of excitement that manifested in sparks of deep violet. “Gimme permission to possess you.”
“Possession. I PROMISE I’m not gonna be doing anything sneaky. I CAN save you if you let me do this.”
“Because I KNOW what I’m doing with psychic energy. I’m a hundred times more experienced than you at fine-tuning psychic control. It’s just that my shitty little ghost body is operating on one one-thousandth of the juice you have. If YOU let ME in, I can blast that thing off no problem.”
Ritsu gritted his teeth. Only the tiniest prick of his vision remained, swimming with Gimcrack’s bleeding violent energy. He let out a strangled note of frustration, wheezing harder. “I WILL exorcise you if you put ONE TOE out of line, got it?!? Or Hanazawa will! He won’t give two fucks if he destroys me in the process. You are NOT—”
“I’m NOT! I’ve got nothing to gain by screwing you over. I TOLD you! I have no reason to want you DEAD. So LET ME IN before you black out, oi!??”
“How?” Ritsu breathed.
“It’s like when you let me phase ya through the wall, yeah? But like, lean more into that. Lower the whole firewall for me.” Gimcrack reached a hand out, which was tainted with a deep violet glow, almost black. “Breathe deep, and let GO of control. Feel my aura and let it in.”
Ritsu raised a trembling hand up, and grasped Gimcrack’s palm, and with the most shuddering breath he could manage, he let that aura signature swarm him, and he let himself drop below the surface.
He fell. Slowly. With the sensation of floor and body and reality dropping out from beneath him. It wasn’t like the prickling shiveringly cold sensation of phasing intangible. This was coddled, and it was warm. His mind went under. It went somewhere without responsibility, without priority. Wrapped in cotton. His every thought slowed, until any one notion seemed to slip away from him before he could process it. He was safe beneath a layer of unreal, intangible fuzzy empty nothingness that sedated his mind and left only a pleasant white-noise hum in its wake.
The suffocation vanished. The throbbing of claws in his back snuffed away. The twisting of his ankle, the biting cold of the floor, the burning heat of the crushing projector – gone. All gone. Beautifully gone. Wonderfully gone. Soothingly gone. Gone. Gone. Gone.
Ritsu was a child again, late at night on a long road trip home, watching neon lights flicker past the car window. The car heat cranked high, warm and heady, humming gently and washing over his body, while his parents chatted quietly up front, and his brother slept soundly in the seat beside him. It was a drifting off to sleep he’d long since forgotten, without the pressing, ever-present stress wringing his heart and creasing his brow. This was just softness, and just warmth, and just contentment.
For the first time in a long time, Ritsu fell asleep peacefully.
Gimcrack snapped his eyes open, and his grin twisted wide on a face that did not belong to him. The spreading smile unveiled teeth much too sharp for the mouth it belonged to, and his much-too-red eyes flickered up with a spark of unhinged delight.
“Oh it has been a hot minute since I felt things like this. Wowza!” He tensed Ritsu’s right palm, and a concentrated explosion of purple energy buckled through the metal plating, flipping the projector over and launching it, careening with enough force to spin violently side-over-side, gouging the floor with its unchecked momentum, halted only when it crashed again the far wall and carved out a hole through the plaster.
Gimcrack stood, and he did it with the fluid, lumbering self-assurance of a lion, his borrowed shoulders rolling, his back cracking. He craned Ritsu’s neck to the ceiling, threading Ritsu’s arms high above his head and interlacing the fingers. He stretched, and a crackle of unbidden psychic energy rippled outward like lightning. “God it’s great to feel like this again. Haha. Hahahahahahha!” He slapped a palm over his face, staring through the fingers, chest tremoring with the laughs still raking his body. “Oh Ritsu, you’re the best. You’re the best! I’m SO glad we’re partners! If this is what you’re like half-dead and bleeding out, I can’t imagine how this would feel at full power, ahah, ahahaha! Oh I’d give anything to know!!”
The bristle of unchecked violent energy swelled into a maelstrom around him, whipping Ritsu’s hair with the force. His brow furrowed, his predatory smile crawled inhumanly wide over teeth sharp enough to gouge. “Oh I’ll make good on my promise to ya, Rits. You’ll get this back in just the shape you left it. No funny business from me!”
His red eyes flickered to the corner of the room, to the whisp of a blue spirit cowering beneath the control panel. Gimcrack advanced on the spirit with a swagger to his hips. “Hanazawa would never let me do anything like this, not in a million million years.” Gimcrack threw both hands wide, palms erupting into flame powerful enough to blow out the glass window. “You’re free of the projector, Ritsu! I did it! I saved ya! But with all the trouble this spirit’s been giving ya, I’m sure you wouldn’t mind if I handled it myself? Consider it a favor, from me to you! I won’t even take a cut of this guy! It’s all yours! He’s all yours, Rits!!”
In the cowering wick of red, all that remained of the spirit’s eyes, a reflection danced. A countenance of too many teeth, unfurled too wide on a human face, basking beneath the glow of eyes far too luminescent to be called anything other than monstrous.
The little wicks of red dancing eyes watched. Only watched. As the form of Ritsu Kageyama advanced on it, overflowing with the gleeful intent for bloodshed, which leaked like a drug, like a poison, like a curse from the thing inside Ritsu Kageyama’s body.