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A Breach of Trust

Chapter Text

March came in colder than it did most years. The children of Salt Elementary School walked home bundled in thick jackets and knitted mittens. They made games of puffing out frozen breaths and writing their names into the frost of passing windows. Shigeo Kageyama walked behind two of his classmates, though he did not go home.

Instead he toed along the edge of a cobblestone sidewalk, arms out for balance, off in a direction opposite of home. His backpack bulged out like a turtle shell, heavier than usual. It was packed with the flannel pajamas and a tooth brush Mogami had asked him to bring. Mogami had not given a reason why.

Mob didn’t like the extra weight, but it kept him centered on the cobblestone rail.

The two 10-year-old classmates ahead of him took the right street. Mob continued straight, tracing the stone.

“After this, can we go back to the park?” Mob asked. He wobbled, tilting his head over his shoulder to ask Mogami directly.

“We go to the park every day.” Mogami answered. He walked the sidewalk, thin silver hair catching sunlight and twists of icy wind. The hollow pockets beneath his eyes were deep, but not unkind, intently watchful of Mob who dipped and wavered with each balance-beam step.

“Yeah, because I like it.”

“We’re doing something different today, Mob.”

“Where are we going today?”

“To my house, Mob.”

“What’s there, Shishou?”

Mogami did not answer. He stowed his gloveless hands into the pockets of his coat, chin tilted up to the sun. Thins patches of snow blanketed the ground, a rare sight. They made the world bright.

“Why do you want to go back to the park, Mob?”

“I want to play with the fountain water some more.”

“You do that every day.”

“Because I like it.”

The two lapsed back into silence. Mob shot quick, furtive glances over his shoulder. Sometimes to Mogami, sometimes to the opposite direction where the park lay, as if eager to entertain the thought that they would turn back around.

“I want to do the trick you taught me,” Mob elaborated. He balled and unballed his hands, hopeful twitches of his fingers. The snowbank to his right leaked away into the grass.

“Which trick?”

“The trick.”

“I’ve taught you many tricks.”

“Where I make the water into a ball and spin it.”

“That is a good trick.”

“It’s Ritsu’s favorite.”

Mob stopped with the tiniest pinwheel of his arms. Mogami kept forward, a tall, thin, solid figure. He overtook Mob, and the low-setting sun vanished behind him. Mob stood, silent, in Mogami’s shadow.

“…So can we go back to the park?”

“I told you. Today is different.”

A hesitant step. A small stumble. “I don’t want today to be different.”

“Sorry Mob. It is.”

“What’s at your house, Shishou?”

Mogami paused. He wait for Mob to stop too. A sad weight set into his eyes, and he motioned Mob over closer. Hesitant, Mob dismounted from the cobblestone and padded to Mogami’s side. He threaded his fingers along his backpack strap anxiously.

Mogami motioned behind him. “Let’s sit on that bench a minute. We can talk.”

Mob’s fingers curled. “There’s benches at the park.”

“We’re not going to the park, okay Mob? There’s something serious for us to talk about.”

Mogami edged toward the bench, his movements stiff as if his joints ached in the cold. He settled into it, speckled under the shadows of damp budding leaves. He patted the spot beside him. Mob waited, uncertain, until Mogami motioned toward it again. “Sit with me a moment, Mob.”

“Why aren’t you telling me what’s at your house?” Mob asked. He shrugged off his backpack and set it at his feet before climbing onto the bench.

“There’s nothing special there. It’s just the safest place for us to go.”

Mob’s brow scrunched in confusion. He swung his legs. “Why? What’s dangerous?”

Mogami leaned back, face sinking into the shade of the blooming tree. He breathed deep, eyes flickering to Mob in beats. “Would you believe me if I said it was you?”

Mob blinked, then his face split into a grin. He let out a small laugh and rocked forward. “You’re joking with me. Let’s go back to the park.”

Mogami’s face did not change. He stared deeper into Mob’s eyes, until Mob looked away, fidgeting again.  

“Why would I be lying to you?”

Mob shrugged, eyes still averted. “I dunno.”

28%

“It’s not a joke. It’s something very sad, and very unfair, and I’ve kept it hidden from you until now so you would be happy. But I can’t wait forever, because eventually you’ll trigger it. Eventually you’ll get powerful enough to hurt someone without meaning to. I want to protect you from that.”

Mob shook his head. “I’ve used my powers on people and it never hurts them, like when I float Ritsu sometimes.”

“That’s not the dangerous part.”

“Is it the tricks you taught me?”

“No, not that.”

Mob lapsed into silence. Damp wind knitted between them, drawing a chill to the exposed skin of Mob’s neck and face. Mogami had no visible reaction. He only stared as Mob curled into himself on the bench. Mob looked into his own palms, face screwed in concentration. When he looked back up, determination burned behind his eyes.

“What you’re saying doesn’t make sense, Shishou. Your powers are stronger, and you’re not dangerous. So why am I?”

“Who said I wasn’t dangerous, Mob?”

Mob had no immediate answer. He curled away just slightly, wracked with another shiver.

“Mob, have I lied to you ever before about your powers?”

“No, Shishou.”

“Don’t you think then that perhaps I’m telling you this for a very serious reason?”

Mob’s heart quickened in his chest, hands squeezing against the underside of the bench. He hopped off. “Let’s stop talking about this. I’m not dangerous so you don’t have to worry, Shishou.”

“Sit back down, Mob. This is important. I need you to understand.”

“Why?”

“So you don’t hurt the people around you.”

35%

“I don’t hurt people with my powers though.”

“What if someone attacked you?”

“Why would someone attack me?”

“Let’s just say they do.”

Mob chewed his lip, nervous. “I wouldn’t hurt them, Shishou. I don’t like to fight. I’d put up my barrier until they stopped attacking. And that’s all I’d do.”

The chill down Mob’s spine was all he needed to understand he’d given the wrong answer. A darker glint bloomed in Mogami’s eyes, a rigidity, chilling and dense and authoritative in its aura. Mob was not used to feeling his master’s aura; he was not used to seeing it reared to the forefront. It was a black thing, an unspoken threat, but of what Mob could not tell.

“That, Mob—that’s what will do it. You’re just like I was, when it happened to me. Naïve,” Mogami answered. His words were razors. Mob could not understand why, but it drew panicked tears to the corners of his eyes. His master was rarely frightening, and Mob had no way to handle it. “You’ll hurt everyone that way.”

“I wouldn’t hurt anyone! I’d just use my barrier!”

Mogami rose from the bench, tall, resolute like a statue, as if he had not heard Mob speak. The sun crowned his head, a fiery aura brimming around his dark face. Thrown in shadows, stone, instantly cold.

“Have you ever seen my barrier, Mob…? Have I ever shown it to you?”

38%

Mob stood too, backing toward the sidewalk. “You’re not acting like normal today, Shishou.”

“I told you, today is different.”

“I don’t want today to be different.”

Mogami motioned Mob away, encouraging him to build up the gap that had erupted between them. Mob complied, toeing back until his heels knocked against the cobblestone barrier.

“I need to show you what a psychic’s barrier becomes, Mob. It’s important you understand before it happens to you, which will be soon, trust me. Step back and watch.”

Mob took another step back. His feet crossed into the street’s edge.

Mogami breathed in deep, teeth set tight in his jaw, hollow eyes cold and sharp. He raised a hand, pointing to the tree above them. Mob looked up. A gnarled branch twisted up toward the sun. Plump, new, spring-green buds dotted its surface. A few pink blossoms curled outward, browned in the frost and cold. Nestled in a cluster of buds was a single robin, swollen belly twitching with a melody.

Mogami’s hand clenched, and the air snapped, and Mob yelped at the appearance of a churning, gossamer barrier, its presence like acid, its surface a mesh of razors.

A flutter followed, its noise like dead autumn leaves shaking down. Ribbons of young buds and shreds of pink petals rained to the bench, thick and dewy and bleeding. Off to the right of the bench, a harsher crashing down followed. It was a muted thud like a stone dropping, and came with a flurry of thin shredded feathers.

Mob recoiled, his every nerve on fire. “Why’d you do that?!”

“The barrier did it. All I did was give up control for a moment.”

Mob didn’t care about the answer. He scrambled forward, crashing to his knees into the wet grass. His knees came out skinned, pants bearing thin slits. His skin throbbed until it shot numb in the cold.  His hands stopped just shy of touching the fallen bird. Its little chest fluttered rapidly, head twitching to frantic beats and bloodied wings flapping against the dewy grass.

78%

“Shishou you hurt it! You hurt it!”

“I know.”

79%

Mob’s hands hovered over the bloodied underbelly, twitching. In a moment of decision, he lifted it, cradled in his hands. He extended it to his master, like a beggar.

“Fix it! Fix the bird, please Shishou!”

“I can’t.” Mogami’s face became unreadable. “And you should get away from it too.”

“I need to help it.”

“You’re too dangerous, Mob. You can’t help it.”

Dangerous…

80%

Unbidden, a swirling, churning membrane contoured itself to the thin region of air around Mob’s fingers. It came into existence with a snap, its surface an oil stain of oversaturated colors, harsh and dense and sharp. Mob yanked his fingers back, but not before the barrier shot out to its full radius.

Hardly a noise. The grass around him exploded into fibrous ribbons, spraying beads of fluid. Flower stems snapped and bled out glass. Twigs ripped themselves to pieces at fibrous, frayed breaks. And feathers, shredded clean, the damage lost unseen in the maelstrom of tearing grass and leaves and stems. Mob felt no distinction as the razor barrier sunk into ground and grass and flesh. Only the sharp slash of red against the leaking green and melting swaths of white betrayed what he’d done.

That is the barrier I am talking about Mob. It’s triggered by stress, and once it’s here, it does not leave. Nothing is safe from you past this point.”

Mob shot away. He stumbled and collided with the asphalt, splayed shaking and teary-eyed in the road. The oil stain barrier around him made itself seen in thin, shimmering swaths where the light struck. The rest of it left invisible to the naked eye.

It persisted, against his will, against his control.

“It’s supposed to protect you. And it does. It shreds anything living in its path. It does not discriminate. It does not make exceptions.”

Mob stared down his own bubble, paralyzed in horror. The shimmering skin around him was foreign, alien, new, terrifying. Nothing like the soft gossamer webbing that kept impacts blunt and painless. This was alive; this breathed and lashed. This filled him with unbridled horror. He did not feel the tears slip down his cheeks.

“Please fix this, Shishou. I’m scared.”

“I can’t fix it. I can’t fix the bird: Its wings have been shredded. It can’t fly anymore. And I can’t fix you.”

A rush of wind, a car arcing around him to get past. Mob was in the road. His legs wouldn’t obey the twitch of his mind, urging them to move, to get out. He was afraid not for himself, but for the living things in the passing cars, the ones that may slip through the edges of the vicious thing engulfing him. Mob put a hand out to Mogami. “Please…”

“If I took your hand, Mob, my fingers would shred.”

Another rush, another car going past. He shivered, and let out a small sob. The oilslick would not disappear. The prickling sense of knives decorating his boundary would not vanish. He swallowed, focused, willed it.

Nothing.

“Get up, Mob. Get up and follow me. Keep your head low and keep a distance from anyone else. If that barrier touches someone, they’re no better off than that bird.”

“Please help it…”

“I’ll carry your backpack, Mob. Follow a few feet behind me.”

Shaking, Mob got his hands beneath him. He shoved against the asphalt, world spinning, chest fluttering. He felt a twisting brokenness inside him that slashed his thoughts. He saw only his master, wanted only the comfort of his reassurance. He found himself beaten down by a cruelty he’d never witnessed in the man.

“I told Ritsu I’d be home for dinner. I need to be home. He’s waiting for me. He’s gonna worry, Shishou.”

At this, Mogami took pause. The rigidity of his face eased back just a fraction, though he kept himself turned mostly away from Mob. The gap between them stagnated. “It’s better that you don’t. How would you go home now? Just live your life? It would take only the tiniest mishap to drop your family dead, Mob. You can’t do that to them. You can’t put them in that kind of danger.”

The thought fell meaningless to Mob. Too much, too severe to wrap his head around. “I told Ritsu I’d be home…”

“Is that so important that you’d put his life in danger?”

Mob did not answer. He curled his arms into his chest, feeling hollow, a tense pain where his heart should be. “…I can’t go home?”

“No.” Mogami maintained the distance between them, though he crouched to Mob’s height. “But that, Mob, is what my home is for. I can handle you there, and keep everyone you love safe. That’s why we’re going to my house.”

Mob nodded through his tears, silent, and reached a hand out for Mogami to take. It was impulse, seeking the warmth and strength of his master. Mogami stayed far away. He did not reach for the hand.

The barrier swam between them, just out of focus. Mob remembered, and dropped his hand, and felt a coldness in his body he’d never felt before.

He fell in line behind Mogami, center of the sidewalk, and walked the rest of the path in silence. He flinched away from every rustle of grass, every twitch of a branch, seeing animals which were not there. Mob did not harm another living being on the walk. Only the grassblades at the edge of the concrete sliced themselves away.

…..

The sun had dropped well below the skyline. Inky blackness claimed the sky, and 9-year-old Ritsu Kageyama did his homework by lamplight in the corner of his room. He sat tucked against his desk, his colorful spiral-bound notebook open to a pasted-in print out of times tables. Ritsu covered the columns with his left hand and wrote out the equations by memory on the blank page next to it. He stopped after 12x12, smiling to himself. Mob still struggled with these. Ritsu brimmed at the thought of showing Mob, of helping his brother with his own homework.

A clunking of feet sounded against the stairs, a rap of knuckles against his door, which then eased itself open. His mother leaned into the gap. Her hands braced against the door frame. “Ritsu, dinner is in five minutes. Go wash your hands. Shigeo too—tell your brother to wash up.”

Ritsu set his pencil down, head tilted to his mother. His mouth set in confusion. “Niisan’s not home yet.”

Mrs. Kageyama rubbed her hands in the lap of her apron. She glanced around the room, as if Mob might appear by sheer inspection.

“It’s dinner time. Shigeo knows to be home for dinner.”

“He said he’d be home.” Ritsu pushed himself from his chair. A loose few crayons rolled to the floor of his room.

Mrs. Kageyama’s hands had stilled in her apron. “Did he tell you where he was going?”

“No.”

“Do you have any idea where he might be?”

Ritsu glanced out the window. He investigated the blackened streets, swamped under darkness save for the few pools of street lights. Tree branches swayed like slats in front of the yellow pods. Nothing else stirred. Nothing else appeared.

Anxiety set in as a deep, sick feeling in the pit of Ritsu’s stomach. He teased the corner of his notebook, shearing it just slightly where his hard work skimmed along the stop of the page.

“No, I don’t know.”

Arataka Reigen shut down his psychic agency two months ago. He hadn’t bankrupted it, he hadn’t fallen behind on rent, and he hadn’t encountered any legal trouble either, despite the fudged nature of his practicing license. It had been a purely voluntary decision motivated by nothing more complex than his own dying interest.

It had been too many cold, quiet hours staring at white walls. Too many afternoons with nothing more than a swath of smoke for company, burnt from three cigarette packs every day. It had been too many people happily conned out of their money and strung along on an act that made Reigen feel sicker to emulate every day. It made Reigen’s every connection feel plastic. He almost wanted to be called on his fraud, if only so he could act like a real person in front of someone again.

When it finally did happen though, it happened with a knife, with an upturned desk, and with a barely-restrained possessed man immobilized against Reigen’s carpet while a shallow bloody cut leaked along the length of Reigen’s cheek.

Reigen took the Spirits and Such sign down the next day.

He had only one back up plan, and when the meager stash of rainy-day savings ran dry with no new ideas at his disposal, Reigen returned to the office with a new sign.

Arataka Reigen: Private Investigator.

Reigen himself was plenty nosy, skilled enough at talking his way out of conflict, and more than used to spending hours and hours in isolation.  It seemed, if nothing else, an okay fit for him. And he turned out to be decently skilled at it

The cheating spouses were always careless. Most weren’t paranoid enough to believe they were being followed, and Reigen swept up evidence easily on them in the form of photos snapped from his car or receipts dug from the trash. The work sickened something deep within him, but after a month, Reigen appreciated the adultery cases far more than the cases of missing people. Cheating spouses were easy to find; missing people were not.

He’d grown numb to the act of passing along voyeuristic photos of loved ones caught in thralls with friends and coworkers. He felt little of watching their partner gasp and keen and sob into the box of tissues Reigen kept ever-stocked on his desk. That sort of pain was always preferable to the glassy, hollow defeat he’d come to recognize in the eyes of people who’d been told once too many to give up hope of finding someone. The loved ones of missing people. It was something he felt on sight, something that knocked against his ribs and left a lingering ache, something that grew denser and more consuming as Reigen studied the lives of people he knew he’d never find.

He was afraid of becoming jaded, or else becoming swallowed in others’ grief, but he was much too worried about rent, food, and heating to entertain the idea of quitting anymore.

Reigen unlocked the office every morning one hour before his agency doors opened. He needed to turn on the heat by hand, and it always took as long to shake the damp iciness of the night spent unoccupied. He brought his extra-heavy jacket every morning, a pair of threadbare mittens, and warmed himself around a cup of coffee and a bright white monitor while the sun rose and the office breathed to life under the crackling heart of the radiator. He’d gotten an electronic newspaper subscription to pass the time, because reading the news seemed like the sort of thing a PI ought to do every morning.

In early March, Reigen sat at his desk and read the news. Nothing set this day apart from any other: his breath puffed, his office sat bleak against the yet-to-rise sun, his radiator crackled. Reigen flicked on the desk lamp, which bleached his papers and left the rest of the room in dismal blackness. His laptop monitor lit his face, barely awake, with the mug of coffee suspended by his lips. Reigen soaked in an article about a missing 10-year-old boy whom he had never met. The article pegged the boy as “Shigeo Kageyama”, and his family was desperate for information.

Sad… Reigen thought, as he sipped his coffee, and scrolled past the article, and dismissed any lingering thoughts about the boy or his family from the forefront of his mind.

Chapter Text

Ritsu curled his fingers around the stair railing. He crouched, pressed against the slatted bars, and watched the scene below. A police officer leaned against the open front door. Her partner stood eye to eye with Mr. Kageyama, speaking between a walkie-talkie and Ritsu’s dad. The foyer lights were low, the street outside inky and dark. Ritsu’s mother was somewhere in the next room.

A cold wind tore through the door. Ritsu shivered, sockless in his flannel pajamas. His bedtime had passed two hours ago.

The police woman at the door glanced up and caught Ritsu’s eye. Ritsu looked away too late, and she took it as an unspoken invitation to climb the stairs and sit beside him. Her hair had been pulled into a loose ponytail, messy from hours of inattention. Her skin shined in the light, her eyes drawn and tired but still kind. She turned to Ritsu as she sat, smiling.

“Hey kiddo, are there any questions you want to ask me about what’s going on?”

Ritsu crossed his arms, fingers digging into his skin through the pajamas. Another draft from the open door, and Ritsu fought against the ripple of goosebumps along his bare skin. “Why are you here talking and not out there finding my brother?”

She extended a hand, fingers curled in maternal pressure over Ritsu’s shoulder. “Some of my colleagues are out there right now searching. I’m here now keeping base with your parents. If you want to talk to my friends over the walkie-talkie you can—they’re out there looking hard right now.”

Ritsu sneered. He didn’t like the weight on his shoulder; he didn’t like the officer’s tone, gentle and lilted and careful, as if the wrong word might set Ritsu off. He hated the building pressure behind his eyes at the thought. “I don’t want to talk to them.”

“Do you want to talk to me?”

“Yes. Go search around the park for my brother. Niisan goes to the park after school. He’s gotta be there.”

“We’ve searched the park already. And we’ve still got some people out there looking around, but it’s very dark. That park isn’t very big, Ritsu.” She lowered herself by one stair, angled so she could speak to Ritsu face to face. The extra dip put her at his eye-level. “We’re thinking maybe your brother went home with someone he wasn’t supposed to. Do you know anyone?”

“No.” Ritsu tilted away. “No one could ever just take Niisan.” He pushed against the step, wobbling to balance on cold feet. “He’s too strong. He’s so strong he could never get taken away!”

“Ritsu, manners!” His mother appeared at the foyer entrance, just her head first, followed by her whole aproned body. Another officer followed her. “You don’t speak to the police officers that way.”

Ritsu flinched at the tone. He set his hand to the top of the rail, feeling smaller. When he spoke to the policewoman again, he stared only at his feet. “Niisan’s got powers. He’s the last person who could ever get taken…”

She patted her hand against the step, an invitation for Ritsu to sit back down with her. “I didn’t mean to imply your brother isn’t strong. I’m sure he’s strong. I trust you, Ritsu. But some adults are even stronger, and some are very mean.” She set her hands to her thighs. “We just want to get your brother away from anyone out there who should not have him. Do you know anyone he could be with?”

Ritsu shrunk in, fists balled. He fanned the fire brimming in his chest. It was the only thing masking the dense, painful pit of fear weighing deeper inside him. “Mogami-Shishou. That’s my brother’s teacher. He’s the one Niisan goes to the park with. You need to ask him.”

“That’s the name you gave us right at the beginning, right?”

“Yes.”

“Is there any chance this man has another name?”

Ritsu pressed his jaw tight. His fingernails dug into his skin. “No, Niisan wouldn’t lie to me.”

“This man might have lied to your brother though. We’re having trouble finding anyone who lives nearby with that name. Do you know what sort of person this Mogami is?”

“He’s a psychic. He’s Niisan’s master.”

“Have you ever met this man?”

Ritsu fidgeted. “…No.”

“We’re gonna keep looking, okay? Both for this man and your brother. You just have to trust us adults, okay? Go to bed, and we’ll wake you up if anything happens. That’s a promise.”

Ritsu stepped around her. He descended the stairs until his feet hit cold tile. He wove around the edge of the staircase, eyes set to the kitchen whose lights still burned deeper in the house. The dining table came into view where four untouched places were set. A single large pot sat at the center with rice coagulated against its rim. Stir-fried vegetables dried out in the wok, their edges withered and curling and cold. Two full glasses of milk were set at neighboring places, waiting.

Ritsu didn’t so much as look at the table. He threw open the closet instead. He breathed in the musty stench of old blankets, pawing through, digging until he tore away cluttered coats and scarves and linens from his path. He hit the back shelf and ran his hand along each dusty surface until it connected with the metal body of a flashlight.

He snagged one of the coats for good measure. It was his dad’s, and it was much too big.

Ritsu hesitated, eyes scanning the kitchen. He ran his thumb along the flashlight, tested its beam experimentally. His breathing turned shallow. Some adults are even stronger. Niisan was strong, stronger than Ritsu, and the woman thought the man who’d taken him was even stronger.

Ritsu pulled out the counter drawer, the one where his mother kept the knives. He grabbed the nearest one, thin and water-stained, and tucked it into one of the coat’s belt loops. He kept a hand pressed to it as he moved back into the foyer, afraid it might slip.

Not a word was spoken to him, not about his coat, his flashlight, or his weapon until he made it to the wide-open door.

“Ritsu, where are you going?” His mother again. She now stepped fully into the foyer. She stopped with just a few feet of space left open between her and Ritsu. The other officers seemed to line the path, his father among them.

“To find Niisan.” He flickered the light again and thrust it out into the inky bleeding dark. It swallowed up the beam whole. Ritsu pretended not to feel the icy clenching in his heart as he took one step across the threshold.

“You most certainly are not!” Her voice was behind him immediately. She snagged the back of his collar, yanking. Ritsu choked with the force. He dropped the flashlight as his hands shot to his neck. His legs kicked in protest, and the light bounced down the step. “You are staying right here where I know where you are!”

“But Niisan!” Ritsu kicked again, eyes set to the phantom cone of light at the bottom of the steps, threading through the dewy grass. “He needs my help!”

“No, he doesn’t!”

“No one’s finding him! I have to find him!” He twisted and yanked to no avail against his mother’s iron grip. The protests ebbed, losing strength, losing composure. Panic slit open in his chest like the pierced yolk of an egg.

“You are staying here.”

“No!”

“Argue with me again and you’re grounded, Ritsu.”

“Let me go find him!”

“Grounded!”

“Let me go!”

“Two weeks grounding!”

“Mom!”

“Three!”

“Mom…”

“The rest of your life, Ritsu! You’re staying right here for the rest of your life where nothing can ever take you away from me, got it!?”

He heard the crack in his mother’s voice, and it snapped the same thing inside him. Ritsu crumbled. His bravado evaporated like ice in the sun. It left behind something wet and messy and suffocating in his lungs.

“Who took him, Mom…?” Ritsu whispered, and he made no effort to fight this time.

His mother’s grip softened, its vitriol gone. It became something warmer, something safe, and she wrapped her arms around Ritsu from behind. He didn’t fight against the hug. He gave himself to it as his mother dropped to her knees and pulled him in.

“I don’t know, Ritsu…”

“He can’t be gone. He’s too strong. Nothing could ever take him...”

She only clutched him closer, rocking, as he breathed wet and hot into her right shoulder. His father appeared by their side, just the tops of his shoes visible to Ritsu. Ritsu saw his father crouch to his knees, felt the sturdy hands join the hug from behind. It was an extra weight, an extra pressure. Ritsu flinched.

“But you’re still here, Ritsu,” his mother whispered. “Stay here. Stay safe, Ritsu. Please just stay here.”

He had no answer. He only let his mother rock him, let his father’s pressure lean in. Ritsu gritted his teeth. He hid the flush of pain at each movement. The knife in his belt now dug into his back, pressed too close and tip first by his parents’ bodies.

He couldn’t tell them to let go, so he let the knife dig.

Not a single light was on when Mob creaked through the front door. The dark and dusty foyer sat beyond, and Mob’s steps traced through dust. His barrier crackled, sparking with anxious spikes of energy that beat against Mob’s heart at the unfamiliar sight and smell and feel of his master’s home. It collided with nothing it could shred. It simply fizzled in the floorboards.

There was no heating in his master’s house.

A flicker caught behind him—a standing lamp turned on as Mogami followed Mob through the door. It threw shadows like paint splatter against the dark amber walls.

Silence, a beat. Finally, Mogami spoke. “You must be hungry.”

Mob shook his head. “Not really, Shishou,” he muttered. His eyes adjusted to the dismal lighting of the house, and he shuddered once in the cold. It was an empty thing. No flood of light from the living room where his dad sat and did work on his laptop. No heat and hum from the oven in the kitchen, no crackling wok of frying vegetables for his mother to stir. No Ritsu, propped at the dining room table with his homework open.

“You don’t want to endanger your strength, Mob. I’ve got vegetables and rice. You should cook yourself something.”

Mob shook his head. “Mom cooks for me. I don’t know how.”

“It’s not hard. I can teach you.”

Mob stopped, hands worrying over each other. He swallowed down an empty pain in his gut, like the sensation of falling. He could only shake his head again, eyes set to the dark web of rooms beyond the foyer, unseeable from where he stood. The light died in the hollow, dusty hallways leading out.

“I changed my mind, Shishou.” His voice came out small, his words quiet as he curled in. “I wanna go home.”

“That’s not an option Mob.”

“It’s cold in here. It’s scary.” Mob clutched himself tight. Anxiety twisted his voice. “I don’t wanna stay here. I wanna go home. I want my mom.”

“I can get a fire going, Mob. And I can turn the lights on. You’ll feel much better once I do that.”

“I…I want Ritsu.”

“There’s a bed for you in the basement, and plenty of space too. You’ll get used to it.”

“Can’t I at least go home tonight? I told Ritsu—“

“No, Mob.”

“I told him I’d be home!” Mob thrust a hand out. The barrier beveled with it. It keened, crackling, jolting Mob. Cowed, Mob lowered his hand and stared down at his feet. “He needs to know I didn’t lie to him.”

Mogami crouched in front of him, far away enough for the licking edges of the barrier to not touch him. “Listen to me, Mob—that’s selfish. Going home because you don’t like it here is selfish.”

Mob flinched away from the accusation. He stared through the barrier. Its shimmering fabric was harder to see in the dim lighting, a weak stain on the world.

“Why, Shishou…?”

Mogami’s face softened. He leaned back on his haunches. “If you go home, you’re putting your whole family at risk. You are an unfathomably dangerous thing. You are different from everyone else, Mob. And you’re different in a way that will hurt people.” He stood again, drawn to full height. “Don’t think about it as not going home. Think about it as protecting your family, protecting Ritsu. You want that, don’t you? You want to protect your family?”

Silently, Mob nodded.

“Good,” Mogami answered with a gentle smile. “Ritsu would be proud of you if he knew how brave you’re being right now.” Mogami swept down the wall. He flickered the lights as he passed, lighting the walkway for Mob. Mogami made hardly a sound, though the floorboards creaked heavy beneath Mob’s feet.

“Shishou…” Mob paused, chewing on his words. Mogami froze too. “Could you maybe find them, and tell them not to worry about me? I think…I think Ritsu’s going to worry. I don’t want that.”

Mogami shot Mob a gentle smile. He kept moving forward. “You should get your pajamas on and we’ll make dinner. And after, maybe we can watch a movie together. Like this is just a sleepover, right? It can be fun for both of us, Mob. It can even be nice here. I promise.”

“But Shishou—“

“We’ll talk about that kind of stuff later, Mob. It’s all okay for now.”

“Why can’t they know?”

“Because they would put themselves in danger trying to get you back.”

Mob had no answer. He only drew his fingers in close to his chest, attempting to hug himself for comfort.

“Even if your family is sad, Mob, they’re alive and healthy right now. That’s all you can do for them, Mob, is to stay away, stay here, and let them keep living.” He turned to Mob, and the light reflected in odd ways. His face was thin and gaunt and withered under his gentle smile. “Let’s just worry about eating a nice dinner for now.”

Officer Isa Maki stared bleary-eyed at her monitor. She’d remained at the Kageyama’s house until the foot-search for their son had been called off. The exact time had escaped her notice, but it had been well past midnight when it’d happened. When Isa and her partner had left the family, it was on the hollow suggestion the Kageyamas try to get some sleep until things resumed in the morning. She knew it was a pointless request.

It seemed fair then that she hadn’t gone home either. She and Tetsuo Isari had returned to the precinct, which buzzed in a state of permanent semi-awakeness fueled by the handful of officers on duty at any given moment. They had earned a few sympathetic greetings from the night duty. Active cases were made known to everyone, and everyone knew the worst cases always involved children.

The gurgle of the coffee pot sitting behind Isa broke her focus. She entertained the idea of pouring herself another cup, but the pull of sleep was far more alluring. Even a few hours in one of the cots would be enough to make her useful by morning.

Isa did not go to sleep. She remained planted at her monitor, buzzing with a numb artificial alertness as she dug deeper into the archive of police files. Mogami, Keiji, Keiji Mogami, Mogomi, Mogani… Every possible spelling and misspelling of the man’s name she’d typed into the search. Most results were blank. Those that weren’t blank came back painfully irrelevant.

She rubbed her eyes until stars blinked in her vision, breathed deep to try to shake the exhaustion from its grip around her heart, stretched and stared again at the results: nothing.

No one living in the area, no one in the nearby areas either, no one in the cities well beyond her jurisdiction. Each expanded search took longer. Each came back meaningless.

Isa lowered the search tab. She hesitated, feeling foolish, and opened a plain internet window. There, she logged the name into the google search bar in hopes of sparking anything relevant.

Google found the name, but tacked it only to a television character from almost three decades back. Isa skimmed the descriptions, body heavy and mind tired, and thought more about the open cots than she did about the words she was reading. She froze only when a single word caught her attention:

“Psychic”

That…that was the word the little brother had used, both for Mogami and his brother. Isa doubled back to absorb the context of the paragraph. The man had been part of some reality exorcism show, the starring role of it.

Reality television meant that Mogami had been a real person.

She kept reading; the show had ended its run almost a quarter-century back.

Isa tabbed back over to the database with one last idea. She shrunk the search radius back to reasonable size, and instead toggled the search dates. She scrolled until the lower bound included any document from the past thirty years. Isa hit run.

The results flashed. Isa let out a small, displeased groan.

Tetsuo, sitting at his desk a few feet away, angled his head over his shoulder. His typing stopped, and he ran a hand through the messy bangs flopped over his forehead. “That sounded not good.”

“I guess not,” Isa muttered. She opened the file, saved it to the case folder, and sent the document to print. She stood, eyes set to the inching sheet of paper as the printer churned it through.

“What’d you find?”

“Some good news, and some bad news,” Isa answered.

“Okay.” Tetsuo twisted his chair. He propped his elbows on his knees and leaned forward. “Good news…?”

“I found our Mogami.” Isa grabbed the paper, giving it a once over before sidestepping her desk toward Tetsuo’s.

“That is good. …And the bad news?”

Isa dropped the police report onto Tetsuo’s desk, hand splayed heavy across the document. A man with long, messy black hair and sunken eyes stared out, the images that followed far more horrific.

“He killed himself 25 years ago.”

Chapter Text

Tetsuo slid the paper out from beneath Isa’s hand. He frowned at it, deep in concentration. His eyes skimmed the document with increasing agitation. “I know this street,” he muttered. “It’s like two or maybe three blocks down from where Jun and I are looking at a house. …Fuck, and I like that house.”

Isa leaned toward her own desk, snagging the top of her chair and rolling it to Tetsuo’s side. She fell into it and she gave the document a more thorough reading. Or she tried. The words were blurry in her exhaustion. The hanging body’s eyes were distracting, open to the camera. She shuddered.

“He had some tv show where he played a psychic,” she said. Isa rubbed her eyes as she leaned back. “The little brother said Mogami was Shigeo’s psychic master. I think the kids must have watched the show and turned him into an imaginary teacher.”

Tetsuo’s frown deepened. He tapped a hand at a denser bit of writing in the report. “He didn’t play a psychic. He was a psychic.”

“Sure then, and he’s still been dead over 20 years. Shigeo’s 10.”

Tetsuo did not seem to be listening. His brow deep-creased and his face twisted down with a concentrated frown. Then his face erupted, and Tetsuo jumped from his seat.

“Oh shit, I’ve heard of this guy.”

Isa pulled back just a bit. Tetsuo had pulled open a filing drawer, his fingers flipping through old cases.

“From his show?” Isa asked.

“No, I’ve heard of the case.” Tetsuo stopped flipping. Instead his hands wrung with anxious energy, and he sat back down, burying his nose again in the Mogami paper as if to double-check himself. He nodded once to himself, then again. Isa watched him with fading interest, her eyelids feeling thick and heavy.

She shrugged. “It’s a dead end. I’m gonna go crash in one of the cots and then head back to the Kageyama’s in the morning if you wanna do the same.”

“Can’t.” Tetsuo swirled his hand in the air, “Coffee.”

“How many cups have you had?”

“A lot.”

“Are you the one who’s making that pot?”

“This is the one I was thinking of! Listen.” Tetsuo tapped a hand against the bottom paragraph of the report. “He was the real deal. The officers called to remove his body couldn’t even touch it because of how many curses were on it when he died. This—the part here—third line under the—yeah where my finger is.”

Isa leaned in. It took her eyes too long to adjust, so she listened instead to Tetsuo’s caffeinated voice.

 “That part. Supposed to be a normal suicide clean-up but the officer—she probably retired a long time ago otherwise I’d probably know her name—when she got close and tried to cut him down she couldn’t. She got cut instead. Some kinda cursed barrier around his whole body that kept people back, and you couldn’t even see it.”

Tetsuo kicked back from his desk. He rode the wheelie chair until it dragged to a halt. He pushed out of it, grabbed the still-gurgling pot with a swing of his hand and his coffee mug with the other. He poured it completely black.

He continued. “If he wasn’t a real psychic, then the dude definitely pissed off a lot of real psychics.” His lips teased the rim of the mug, too-hot vapor wafting in his face. Tetsuo paused, then lowered the coffee with a grimace. “Jun’s never gonna let me buy the house near there now.”

Isa faked a sympathetic nod. “Do you have anything else from the Kageyama’s to look at?”

“Yeah you know, three blocks is a pretty sizable radius but Jun doesn’t fuck around with the supernatural. I tried to pull out an Ouija board during game night and she told me to burn it. Plastic doesn’t burn well and it smells like shit when it does.”

“Aren’t you 29?”

“Yeah.”

“What 29 year old does board game night?”

“The type whose 26 year old fiancé loves Monopoly.”

“Jun’s not your fiancé yet.”

“Who says I haven’t proposed?”

“Have you?”

“No.”

“Tetsuo.”

Tetsuo downed his entire mug of coffee. He hid the wince and fanned his tongue, then sucked down the last of the dregs. “They never moved the body you know. Couldn’t.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“They called in these psychic experts and the experts were each like ‘Nope, not moving that. Not touching that. Not getting near that.’ And all the equipment and protection they had didn’t do jack so they reached the conclusion to just leave it be and condemn the house and wall it up.”

“No one would leave a hanging body strung from the ceiling like that.”

“No one with options would.” Tetsuo threaded his fingers around the coffee pot handle and refilled his mug. His leg bounced. “But options they had not. So they ticker-taped the door, welded a few things shut and left it. Case closed.” He dipped his chin toward the report. “Go ahead and read it.”

“I’m going to bed,” Isa answered. She pulled out the duffle from beneath her desk where she kept a cotton tshirt and shorts. Her uniform had started to dig dents into her body. “I’m already bummed that Mogami’s a dead end. More bummed that he’s actually dead. Don’t need to add the extra layer of ‘oh and his body has been hanging there alone from the ceiling for 25 years.’”

Tetsuo shrunk in just a bit, smaller as he curled his hands around his mug and shot Isa a sheepish grin. “I was viewing it more as a distraction.”

“Got anything else you’re working on?”

“Mostly writing up the report right now. Got some numbers to call in the morning.”

“See you tomorrow then?”

“It’s 3 am. Today is tomorrow.”

“Tetsuo.”

Tetsuo breathed. His face relaxed. “Yeah yeah, 6 am sharp.”

Ritsu woke at 10:30 am. It was the sunlight that first confused him, a heavy brightness which didn’t shine through his windows until well past the early morning. He glanced to the clock, and flushed with panic at the blinking, green numbers.

School had begun at 8 am

Covers torn off, feet beating against the floor, Ritsu stumbled to his closet and threw the doors open. He hadn’t slept in that late in months, years possibly. He hadn’t missed school this year for any reason. So why today? Why hadn’t his alarm gone off? Why hadn’t someone come to wake him? Why didn’t Mob—

Ritsu’s breath slammed into his chest with an icy shudder. Then gut-twisting anxiety, hot and fetid, rolled around in its place. He blinked, willing the memories to grow hazy, like the nightmare he knew it must be. They went nowhere. Instead he dropped his hands from the door, leaving the closet abandoned, clothes untouched.

The stairs creaked beneath the balls of his feet, and he could hardly hear it through the buzzing in his ears. Gentle murmured chatter drifted from the kitchen, the choking huff of the coffee pot, a smell like food left to sit. Ritsu crossed the threshold to find his parents sitting with the same two officers from the previous night. The man smiled and lifted his cup. The woman officer, like before, looked at him like he was a thing made of glass.

“Hey Ritsu, you got up late today.” His father spoke. Ritsu watched the anxious kneading of his dad’s hands—in and out, threaded around, pawing and petting at his own skin.

“No one came to get me.”

“Ah well, you stayed up way too late last night. We thought it’d be nice to sleep in.”

“I missed school.”

His father waved him off. “Your mother and I called in earlier. They know you’re absent today.”

“Niisan—“

Mr. Kageyama’s anxious smile flickered. “They’ve got even more police officers out searching now than they did last night.”

Ritsu’s heart slammed again. It was real.

“They haven’t found him.”

“We might even get a news segment—be on tv, Ritsu, that’s exciting. And it’ll get a lot more people to know that we need every set of eyes peeled for Shigeo.”

“You said you’d wake me up if anything happened,” he spoke now directed to the woman officer. She stretched her gentle, cautious smile.

“We didn’t have anything to tell you.”

Nothing had happened in the hours he whiled away, asleep. The police, his parents, the search team—they had nothing to tell him. Nothing for him to know. And nothing for him to do.

“…Why didn’t you let me go to school? I could have looked there. I could have--”

“You don’t need to be worrying about school or about searching, Ritsu. It’s okay. That’s not your responsibility. And you’ll go back to school with Shigeo when everything's back to normal. Today’s just…things are a bit different today.” Mrs. Kageyama smiled and set her mug down with a clink.

Ritsu’s hands fidgeted. “You won’t let me go out and search for him.”

 “We need you around with us right now, Ritsu. There’s nothing for you to do. We just need you here and safe while the police find Shigeo, okay?”

Ritsu wasn’t sure why, but he nodded. Nothing was normal. Standing down in the kitchen, pajama-clad at 10:30 in the morning, it reminded him only of school holidays. Rare snow days or scheduled time off, when things were slow and undemanding of him, so he could sit at the table for breakfast and wait on the glass of milk that Mob would—

He glanced to the counter. The food from last night’s dinner still sat in its pots, moved but untouched. He eyed the milk glasses, which had built up a white ring each where the glass had once topped off before evaporating. He wondered if it had spoiled overnight

Ritsu turned his heel and left the kitchen behind. Foot to the bottom step, Ritsu remounted the stairs, and he walked past Mob’s open room to his own. Ritsu hesitated in front of his futon before laying a hand on its cover.

Ritsu did what he never did on late mornings—he got back in bed.

It was a glint of light reflected off the far mirror that woke Mob in the morning. One eye slid open, his head still pressed heavy against the flat pillow Mogami had given him. Sheets and a pillow were what Mogami had stacked in the basement--Mob had needed to assemble the pullout couch itself. The fitted sheet hadn’t quite fit, and the previous night had been too dark to whether the edges of the sheets quite reached the bed’s own corners. He had simply dressed the bed as well as he could.

Between those thin sheets, Mob had slept fitfully, curled up and shuddering against the icy stagnation of the basement air. Mogami had told him his own psychic powers could warm the room if he tried. Mob did not want to try anything with his powers.

Instead he sat up, sheets pulled tight around his shoulders, and found the little clock by his bedside. 10:34 am. He was missing school.

Mob sat on the thought; it hollowed out something numb and horrific in his gut. There was no more school. There would be no more school. There would be no more getting ready in the morning with Ritsu, no more homework, no more tests and talks of prepping for middle school then high school then, maybe, college.

This vague path that had been planned out for his whole life—snipped at the base and burned. He wondered what he’d do now. He wondered what his life was meant to be when every little detail ahead of him had been erased.

Anxiety pulled tight in his stomach. His mind worked in circles, looking for the obvious way out. The little things were stacking up: his family, the bed, the heat, no school, no touching anyone—ever again. Each thing made his chest more brittle, made his breathing come in sharper stutters. He clung to the evaporating hope that there was some clear fix at the end of this—and he believed that simply because of the raw certainty in his mind that things could not be the way they were.

The little slot of pale light from the window said nothing to him. It streamed in through the single, cinderblock-sized window near the basement ceiling. It did not reach far enough to illuminate the far edges of the square basement. Just the window visible, just the slotted patterns across Mob’s bed, just the floating ribbons of dust in the air where the light streamed. He looked into the darker corners, seeing boxes stacked upon boxes, old machinery, old tools. An unplugged lamp stood at the far right corner, and a silent television was propped on a standing table at the far end of the bed.

Mob eyed the television. His mom had not let him and Ritsu watch it at home. It was distracting. It was mind-numbing. Mob interlinked his fingers beneath the thin sheet. All that…all that sounded good, right now.

He climbed out from under his sheets, his body numb, and pressed a finger into the powerbutton. The television didn’t catch, so he tried again, and again. The third time, it came with a shock that made Mob recoil. His heart picked up, slamming, frightened by the unintentional display of his power.

The screen flickered on. A black and white drama rolled across the front, waves of poorly-synced static eating up the picture. Mob did not recognize the show.

He leaned back, found his blankets and rebuilt his cocoon before the shivering set in, and he watched.

The hours took the sun away from him. The only light now came from the rectangular thread around the shut basement door, and from the television in front of him. Mob felt tired, more than if he’d run for PE or stayed up late doing homework. He was exhausted from doing nothing, and too exhausted to question why that might be.

Shuffles and noises came periodically from the other side of the door—distinctly Mogami from the aura. Mob had been told to stay hidden in the basement though, and to wait for Mogami to come fetch him when it would be safe to come upstairs without being seen. The door had remained shut all day.

Mob’s eyes drifted shut. The local weather man gestured and spoke of rainy days coming. It all felt too far away for Mob. He huddled deeper into his wrapping of blankets, pressed himself into the arm of the couch. He wasn’t sure what time it was, but that didn’t matter much anymore. It could be bedtime if he wanted.

…warmer days…so sure?...over to…near the…reporting in…”

Mob’s chest felt heavy, his heartbeats sluggish. He welcomed the soothing new female voice, and the way his mind slipped away into comfortable nothing.

…over a day….lead?...speaking now.”

The sound yanked Mob out of the sweet lull of sleep. It jostled him, unsettled him—the voice was something he knew. He was being called awake in the morning. Overslept for class. His mother at the doorway telling him to wake up.

Mob’s eyes opened, he scrambled until he was sitting upright. He blinked. Still dark, still alone, still—

He looked to the television, and his blood ran cold. His mom stared at him, grainy beneath the static, red-eyed and speaking with the panicked lilt in her voice Mob almost never heard.

She was crying.

Mob twisted out of his covers. He crawled across the bed, stopping on all fours just shy of the screen. His mother was blurrier up close, broken up into red, green, blue pixels. She was saying words Mob was too exhausted to process, though his skin prickled at the gentle way she murmured Shigeo…

The film cut away to his dad, haggard and poorly shaven, still smiling at the camera. Mob felt dizzy looking at him. “staying strong….optimistic….’ll find him”. A clip of the park, prowled by police and flashlights and search dogs. His school, at a distance, some narration over it. And his house, from far back. The camera zoomed. His parents stood at the door, talking to people in uniform.

A single shot of Ritsu, unkempt and harried in his pajamas. He looked to the camera, avoided it, his lip curling into a scowl before he looked back at it. The staring contest ended when Ritsu’s eyes glistened over. They went wide, realizing what had happened, and he hid his face in his sleeve just  before the tears spilled over. Mob watched his little brother’s back jolt just once with a repressed sob.

Mob flew. He shoved against the bed, shoes forgotten, and slammed up the basement steps. He flung open the unlocked door, and it was colder up here. Mob didn’t care—he had his eyes set only for the front door, the darkness outside. Mob stumbled once, fighting dizziness.

“…Mob?”

It was Mogami’s voice behind him, startled, unaccusatory. Mob saw him from the corner of his eye. Mogami stepped a few feet closer as Mob teased the lock on the front door.

“What are you doing, Mob?”

“I gotta go home. Ritsu’s crying.”

“How do you know?”

“The news. He’s crying. I did this to him, Shishou. I gotta go back now. I can’t stay here. I’ve decided. I’ve made up my mind about it. Help me open the door, Shishou.”

Nothing came to his aid. Mogami had not moved from where he stood. He merely watched, silent, contemplative, before a question slipped from his lips.

“…Did you think he wouldn’t cry, Mob?”

Mob’s hand froze on the lock, too dizzy, fingers too cold to get a proper grip on the latch. The floor felt unsteady beneath his feet.

“Please stay a minute, Mob, and think. Talk to me.” Mogami’s voice drew nearer, not daring to breach closer after a certain distance. That safe distance. That radius which dragged the existence of the barrier to the forefront of Mob’s mind. Mob focused, and felt it fizzling against his own fingertips.

Mob shut his eyes and saw only the imprint of Ritsu on the back of his lids. He clenched his jaw and shook his head. “I’m saying no, Shishou.”

“Mob—“

“I can’t—“

“Mob—“

“He needs—“

“I’m sorry, Mob. I’m so so sorry.”

The voice came an inch closer, riskier. Mob felt his pulse quicken at the breath of wind along his neck. He turned to face Mogami, who stood just at the very edge of Mob’s barrier. He was not angry like Mob had expected. That iciness in his eyes had evaporated, leaving behind something wet and understanding. Mob hesitated, shaken.

Mogami dropped to his knees, and buried his head in his hands. “I’m being too harsh on you, Mob. I forgot how awful—it’s been so long. Too long since I’ve been around my own family. It’s got to be awful for you.” His voice was a whisper, a gentle cadence that dragged back old memories of walks in the park of stories of how his Shishou had conquered evil spirits. It was a voice Mob knew. A voice he trusted.

Mob had nothing to say. He only drew his hands close to his chest, rubbing his own wrist for support. “It feels awful, Shishou. Everything feels so bad.”

“You’re tired, and you’re overwhelmed, and you feel guilty. You couldn’t have stopped this though, Mob. It’s not your fault.”

Mob held back the edge of tears in his eyes. Mogami was right—he felt exhausted, and overwhelmed, and guilty, and cold, and alone. Now his master’s voice came with a breath of warmth. Not the cold man who’d appeared in the park yesterday—this was the true Shishou Mob knew. The loneliness ebbed back. Trust in support filling in the gaps. Mob felt he could breathe again. His fear toward Mogami faded into something like a bad dream. Of course it had been stressful, of course Shishou wouldn’t quite act like himself. Now he was understanding. Now Mob could rely on him again.

Mob smiled. He took a step forward, one hesitant arm extended. Just a hug, just a touch, just a grip of hand in his hand was all he needed to feel grounded.

Mogami looked through the gaps in his hands just as Mob broke the last of the distance between him and the semi-visible film of the barrier. Mogami recoiled, but not before eight paper-thin cuts erupted on his knuckles. He hissed, curled, grabbed his wrist, and that single note of pain stopped Mob cold in his tracks.

Panic erupted in his chest, and it rooted him to the spot. He watched Mogami clutch his own hand, where slits of red bled through the gaps in his fingers. And that man he loved and trusted rocked back on his heels. Mogami stabilized himself against the counter, teeth seemingly wired shut as his red hand twitched.

Mob saw his mother in Mogami’s place, someone he loved and trusted, holding a bloody shoulder

His dad, face slit up with razor blades

Ritsu, clutching his hand, just as Mogami did. Breath suppressed, shaking, hurt.

The images quickened Mob’s heart. He swallowed, feeling cold, feeling shaken. He eyed his master as Mogami began to straighten.

“Are you okay, Shishou?” he whispered.

Mogami said nothing at first. He hesitated.

His aura flashed.

Mob raced back down the stairs.

Ritsu pressed his feet against the stone rim of the fountain. He pushed back, balanced on his tailbone, then rocked forward again. His pants were strewn with nettles. His hair was damp with sap and dew. His arms were strewn with thin, long pink scratches where branches had scraped through. The soles of his shoes left muddy marks on the fountain rim.

He hadn’t seen the police in three weeks. His mother never told him exactly when they gave up, but he was sharp enough to feel the shift in energy. His parents’ hugs lingered now. Lights stayed on in the house longer. Ritsu caught pieces of the clipped, fearful discussions through the thing walls at night.

Mob’s door had remained open ever since.

Ritsu picked a splinter out from the nailbed of his left thumb. He hardly felt it after grabbing and twisting and pulling branches all afternoon. He’d gone just a bit deeper into the park forest every day, just a bit farther along paths he’d thought to dense to explore before. Everywhere was accessible if you clawed and dug and climbed far enough. He yanked the whole splinter out and stared at the stagnant fountain water.

The spot next to him on the bench was open. A middle-aged woman carrying groceries sat down beside him and sighed. Ritsu scooted farther away and laid his head on his propped-up knees. He was tired. His body ached. The eating panic in his gut had dug deep in the last month.

He turned to his imagination instead. He cleared his mind and focused only on the world he wanted to pretend he lived in. The heavy, shuffling weight on the bench beside him was his brother. He was sitting at the park after school to watch the new trick Mob had gushed about all day. He was comfortable, excited, entranced by his brother’s spinning finger, and the shimmering, floating mass of water that coagulated in the air. That was where he was right now.

Plip. Ritsu startled at the drop of water against his forehead. He looked up, eyes widened at the sight of pools of water suspended, shimmering, beautiful in the air. Ritsu’s heart jumped into his throat. Relief poured like a drug through his veins, unleashed a well of tears from behind his eyes, an energy loud and violent in its exultance.

NIISAN!”

The woman beside him jolted. Ritsu launched himself off the bench, head spinning, frantically rubbing tears from his eyes so that he might see where Mob had appeared. He had to be close, to manipulate the water. He had to be just here. Just out of sight. Right where Ritsu knew he’d be.

The floating water pockets shifted, drifted closer until they settled on Ritsu’s shoulders.

Niisan?!”

Nothing answered but the hugging water. Anxiety edged back behind his teeth. He spun again, and the water obey his movements, kept carefully tied to his body by someone nearby.

He froze, stomach twisted into a knot, and experimentally lifted his hand. The water swirled up along his forearm, his wrist, his finger tips. He shot the hand out, and the water coalesced into a spear at his palm. He dropped his hands, and the water fell with a limp splash.

Ritsu investigated his own fingers. A gentle, buzzing, thrumming had built up behind them. It was new. It was exciting. The moisture in the air beaded when he clenched his fist. A trick, a wonderful trick to show Mob. Something Niisan would have adored.

He swept out over the water. A dense tidal wave flopped out of the rim of the fountain. He swallowed, and tested it again, just to be sure he hadn’t imagined it. The water crested and fell at his bidding.

A small noise pressed past his lips. Ritsu smiled, then he threw his head back and laughed. It was deep, full body laughter that rocked him where he stood. A moment later and tears followed, staining down the side of his face as his body convulsed in a sob. Another sob hit, then another, until the twisting of his stomach muscles made him nauseous. He curled in the fight the pain as the noises tore from his mouth in broken, keening song.

The lady had jumped. She was asking questions.

Ritsu threaded his hands in frantic, agitated motions through his hair as he buried his face in his arms, sobbing, laughing into the wet fabric of his jacket. He dropped to his knees and curled against the pavement. This thing he felt now was like nothing he’d experienced before. It horrified something deep inside him, buried beneath the manic laughter, the ugly sobbing, the rocking of his body, the feelings he did not know how to unravel.

The woman was shaking his shoulder now, shouting things he could not hear. Ritsu paid her no mind. Mob couldn’t see his powers. He’d finally gotten them, and all it had cost him was Mob.

He was lifted up, dragged to his feet though he stayed broken and buried in his arms. This was having powers. And he was useless, and powerless. This was having powers. Unable to shake the grip of one concerned lady, let alone a kidnapper, let alone a murderer. Mob’s powers hadn’t protected him. Nothing could have.

The lady shrugged off her coat and wrapped it around Ritsu’s shoulders. She set him down on the bench, where his breathing could calm and the maelstrom of feeling in his chest cavity could sooth just a bit. People were staring. Some asking questions. Wanting to know where his parents were. Ritsu didn’t answer. He only hugged himself tighter in the stranger’s coat. He tried to still his breath. The laughter had ebbed out. Only broken sobs remained. Wet toes. Pricked hands. Scraped elbows. An empty park.

Mob was gone.

Chapter Text

At age 10, Mob learned he was dangerous.

At age 10, he developed a phobia of sharp objects. He didn’t like the feel of a knife in his hand, even for cutting vegetables. He did not like the smooth, thick sensation of slicing food, or the steady thock it made against the solid plastic of a cutting board. He didn’t like holding scissors near his eyes, even when it was just to trim with own hair in the mirror. He didn’t like cutting his nails, the break and the snap of each motion. He decided to ignore it when his hair and his nails got too long. He found that easier than confronting the nightmares where he could never put down the knife.

At age 10, Mob lost most of his appetite. The barrier shredded organic matter, and nothing quite retained its normal taste after being dragged through the razors. Rice became a glutinous mash; vegetables became fiber and water; meat… Mob did not like meat anymore. The tiny sound, the soft pressure of resistance, they were enough to sicken Mob against his own food anyway. He asked Mogami to buy just soups, since they suffered the least being minced by the barrier. Mogami kept the house well-stocked with soup after that. On the rare occasion Mob felt like eating, he only ever needed to use the microwave.

At age 10, Mob learned it was possible to sleep 18 hours a day. He’d never slept more than 12 at home, even on weekends and holidays, but 18 was easy here. Better days, he slept 16. Worse days, he slept 20 or more. It meant never having to deal with darkness outside his window or the pure blackness in the basement. It meant needing to find only a few hours of entertainment a day to survive, usually grainy dramas, sports games, old movies, that played on his television. It was fine this way. He was too exhausted for anything else.

At age 10, Mogami told Mob he could move around any room in the house so long as the lights remained off. Almost any room. There was one room upstairs that was off-limits, kept locked, the master bedroom. Mob had no interest in invading his Shishou’s privacy.

At age 11, Mob celebrated his first birthday alone.

At age 11, Mob’s lessons with Mogami to gain control over his barrier dwindled. Mob didn’t mind it. The lessons had left him feeling useless, and only more paranoid than before as Mogami’s every technique to control it failed. Mob preferred days when he was left to himself in the basement, cocooned and watching the television. Those days were less stressful.

At age 11, Mob stopped caring about the sliced up remains of beetles, spiders, and roaches that littered the peripheral ground of his bed. Sometimes they appeared as shorn off legs, like eyelashes, dusted across the floor. Sometimes they were segmented body parts, leaking a fluid that wasn’t quite blood. Sometimes they were wings and shells like scabs. He’d been stressed at first, sad for the insects that met death at the edge of his barrier. But nowhere in the basement was free of them. It was better he slice wandering roaches than any of the warm blooded animals outside, or any of the people out in the world. Mob distanced himself from any sympathy for the bugs until he was finally able to look at them without feeling a thing. One day, Mob found the sliced remains of a mouse tail, and he sobbed until Mogami came to get him.

At age 11, Mob discovered the basement became warm in the summer. He was happier those nights, and he slept longer, deeper, with his sheets balled as a pillow beneath his head. Sometimes he woke up to darkness, but that only happened when he slept for longer than a day.

At age 11, Mob experienced the winter with a vengeance. He still did not use his powers to warm himself in the sub-zero basement. He hadn’t cut his hair in many months because the scissors still frightened him. His hair worked almost as a scarf, so he kept it scrunched by his neck as he sat beneath his bundle of blankets, shivering.

At age 12, Mob did not celebrate his birthday. He did not know it was his birthday.

At age 12, Mob couldn’t quite picture his father’s face. His mother’s was hazy. Ritsu’s was the only one he remembered in detail. Some weeks passed when he did not think of his family at all. He and Mogami spoke of only casual things. Mogami’s aura in the house was one of the few comforting things Mob still had. When Mogami was out of the house, Mob slept, or he lost himself to the television.

At age 13, Mob spent one night awake in the kitchen with Mogami. Mogami told jokes that Mob loved, and Mob had none of his own to tell back so he repeated the ones Mogami had already used. Mogami laughed anyway. Mob fell asleep at the table, still smiling.

At age 13, Mob found a shorn apart rat in the basement. Mogami was not around to help, and Mob knew for his own health that it could not stay there. Mob found gloves, and he shut his eyes and held his breath as he picked it up. He felt the grating of the barrier, and while he was not looking, the thing he held in his hands had adopted the consistency of jello. He did not dare look at what the thing had become when he disposed of it in Mogami’s trash. The blood spatter that came with the clean-up brought enough horrific images to mind.

At age 13, Mob dropped a glass and broke it. Mogami’s flash-ignition of anger took him by complete surprise. Mob curled up in his kitchen seat, unblinking, his barrier protecting him as things flew from the cupboard and shattered against the ground. The next morning things were normal, and there were still splinters of broken glass on the floor.

At age 14, it happened again, but Mob had become used to it.

At age 14, Mob did very little.

At age 14, Mob wasn’t much of anything at all.

Reigen was on the path to victory.

He’d whittled down the minesweeper field to all bombs and a single, blank square. He’d flagged all flaggable spots, and sat hunched forward, jaw tight and tongue between his teeth as he toggled the mouse back and forth between two blank squares.

They were corner spots, and the numbers around them did nothing to tell them apart. One was a bomb. One wasn’t. The order was up to chance alone. Reigen clicked one on gut instinct.

The board exploded.

His domino effect of failure tore through the screen. Reigen groaned, head tossed back and shoulders limp as each flagged spot burst with the same packaged sound effect. The board detonated into a shower of pixels. “YOU LOSE. PLAY AGAIN?” flashed bright in its place.

Reigen rubbed his eyes and closed the tab. It took a moment to shake himself free of the “FBI bombsquad agent trying to save a bank full of hostages” fantasy playing in his brain. All those poor, fake, exploded people. They’d put their faith in Japan’s fake #1 weapons expert only to end up as goo inside a bank vault. A fake bank vault. Fake people. Fake goo.

Reigen drummed his fingers along his desk before slipping a hand into the drawer. He snagged an unopen pack of cigarettes, tore away the red band with his teeth and tapped it against the back of his free hand. The first stick to jolt out Reigen took between his teeth. He had one hand cupped around the tip and the other toying with the flicker ignition when his office door opened.

Reigen looked up. A woman in full business attire stood just inside the threshold, one hand gripped too tight around the door handle. Making eye contact with Reigen was what she used to confirm she’d come to the right place. She shut the door behind her and walked to the open seat opposite Reigen. Reigen stowed the lighter and the cigarette into a pocket, and he adjusted his tie as she sat down.

“I have a 4 oclock appointment,” she said simply. Her hands skimmed along the black pocketbook in her lap. In quick, furtive movements, she looked back to the shut door, as if checking that leaving remained an option.

Reigen knew the body language well. He leaned back to ease the tension in the room, and he offered her his hand to shake. The woman’s case file was already on his desk. “You’re right on time.”

She gave his hand a single, firm shake and returned to fidgeting with her pocketbook.

Reigen passed his first judgements in a split second. He’d studied her case file earlier in the morning, the little bits of detail she’d submitted in her online appointment booking. She had appeared warmer in her facebook profile picture—her and her husband at a bar, his arm slung sloppily and affectionately across the whole span of her shoulders as he leaned into the kiss he planted on her cheek while she smiled at the camera.

In real life, she looked years aged, maturity intertwining with the few creases under her eyes and the stone setting of her brow. Her hair was auburn, shoulder-length, thick and silky in a way that reminded Reigen of shampoo commercials. Her cheeks were round and naturally flushed with a tinge of red. Her large, dark, discerning eyes inspected Reigen in the same manner he inspected her. The blazer, pencil skirt, and black stockings made her better-dressed than Reigen, and the smooth, deliberate, business-like manner with which she carried herself made Reigen self-conscious of his own posture. He straightened to match her.

“What brings you in today?” he asked. His practiced, cordial smile returned to his face. Something warm and something entirely fake to comfort people here on horrible business.

“I have some concerns about my husband.”

Her hands still fidgeted.

That was the only tip off Reigen needed. Her rigidity was hiding nerves, and from the darting of her eyes, shame as well. It was an attitude Reigen had encountered two dozen times before. Hiring a PI made clients feel dirty, admitting to their own suspicions about their spouses to a total stranger made them feel dirtier.

“Ah yes, that was in your case details.” Reigen tapped the folder by his side. “Feel free to start from wherever, and go at whatever pace you’re comfortable. However you best think you can give me the full picture.”

Her sharp eyes found Reigen and looked away a few times, resolutely angry, until the annoyance broke apart into resignation.

“What do you need me to say? You probably have a hundred clients just like me.”

Reigen shook his head. “No client is ‘just like’ another client. Everyone’s situation is unique, and that’s why it’s important for me to listen.” He slid the rubber band from her file and fanned in open on the desk. He didn’t need to study the materials, but Reigen knew how to give his clients an excuse to avoid eye contact. Reigen stared down at the papers instead. “Tell me a bit about him.”

She let out a little laugh and busied herself in plucking a small bit of fur from her blazer. “My husband…” she lingered on the word, her tongue curling with the sound, something selectively distant, as if she might lose all her nerve if she were to call him by his first name. “…is a wonderful man. He and I have been married a year now. He’s never changed in all the time I’ve known him. He’s always smiling. Always loving. He’s the kind of guy who just—from the bottom of his heart he wants to help. It’s just in his nature. To always be compassionate. That’s the T—the man I fell in love with.”

Reigen nodded.

“But now…?”

She chewed her tongue. “…Maybe a month ago it started. I think that’s when I noticed he wasn’t being himself. It was a stressful time at work for him, and I had a couple project deadlines coming up, and my anxiety always rubs off on him. He’s too empathetic like that, and I wasn’t really controlling my stress and figured I was rubbing off on him.” She shrugged, neck muscles taut, and yanked at a thread on her pocketbook. “But when my deadlines passed and I got over my own issues, he just didn’t bounce back. He got worse instead, and hardly talks to me compared to how he used to. He goes to bed early and usually he’s at work when I wake up. And if he’s not in bed early, then he’s coming home late. He works different shifts so some nights I know it’s just work. But there are others—a lot now—when he lies about when he’ll be home. He’ll tell me 8 and then not walk in the door until 10, not answering his phone, not texting. If I ask, he waves me off, or worse he tells me he can’t remember.”

Reigen continues his sympathetic nodding. He nudged the box of tissues over. She was right—he had heard this story before, too many times. He was numb to the emotional devastation in her words, and he felt only a little guilty about that.

“I’ve tried talking to him about it, and he acts like he’s open to talking about it, but then he’ll just lead us in circles until I give up on trying anything more. Like if I ask how he’s feeling, all I get from him is ‘tired’, and if I ask where he’s gone, he’ll stare blankly and then tell me he can’t remember when exactly I’m talking about. I’m running out of ways to get to him.”

“Have you two had other problems leading up to this point? Romantic? Sexual? Anything that maybe could have tipped you off?”

Her eyes hardened. “No, nothing until this began. We argued sometimes but never over real things, like where to get dinner or what movie to watch and it never escalated to anyone actually being angry. I thought things were fine. I thought they were going to go back to fine but for some reason they haven’t and now he barely talks to me. If he really is tired and stressed then I want to get him help--if he’s not though…”

Her sentence hung unfinished. Reigen crossed his fingers in a motion he hoped appeared solemn and professional. “I understand.”

“That’s really all I want from this.” She looked up now, palms in her lap, eyes set to Reigen. “I want you to just figure out what’s going on because I can’t. Just figure out where he’s going or what’s taking away all his energy or, if it’s something at work, or if—just, tell me he’s not cheating so I can put those fears behind me and help him with what’s actually happening.” She pulled back, professional posture lost, and muttered, “or tell me he is cheating, along with the names of a few good divorce lawyers.”

One more nod from Reigen, and he slid the booklet of services and rates across the desk to her. “Of course, that’s exactly the kind of service I provide. Now let’s talk about what I can do for you, and how we can work with the price.” He glanced quickly to her file, skimming the name at top once more. “First though: some of my clients are sensitive about what name I use for them—understandably, since last names can become a painful topic in this type of situation. Do you have a preference…?”

She pulled her eyes away from the price pamphlet, taking a moment to process what Reigen meant. Her expression loosened. “I didn’t introduce myself when I walked in, sorry, I think I was distracted.” Her attention dropped back to the pamphlets. “You can call me Jun or Mrs. Isari or anything you want really; I don’t care about that much right now.”

Reigen nodded and scribbled down a note in the folder. “Noted. And do you prefer what name I use when I’m referring to your husband?”

Jun waved a dismissive hand. “Just call him Tetsuo.”

Parking outside the police station would be dangerous.

Reigen’s stake outs had never involved cops in the past. They made him anxious enough in passing, since any police car could stop and fine him for loitering, or worse, arrest him for stalking. Even the unattended police cars parked parallel in the station lot set Reigen’s nerves ablaze.

Instead Reigen had circled around the old parking lot belonging to the store complex behind the station. He claimed a shady spot opposite a Chinese take-out restaurant and inched in reverse until he’d put himself directly in the line of sight of Tetsuo’s office window. Reigen killed the ignition, cracked the window, and tapped the first cigarette from the pack in his glovebox. There were three more packs in the grocery bag beside him; he expected this shift to be long.

A bird trilled somewhere just outside his window. The air above the pavement had turned hot and moist in one of the last few hot days of September. Plush leaves draped across the windshield of his car, and their dew drops sparkled in the in the hot rising sun. Reigen glanced to the clock: 7:59 am.

He dragged the first puff from his cigarette, held it in his lungs and breathed out steady as the warmth flooded like molasses through his veins. He shut his eyes, closed out all else but the throaty chirp of the robin outside his window. It was a calm that washed over him, a peace with the sleepy, early warmth of the world.

Reigen cracked an eye open. Something moved behind the window to Tetsuo Isari’s office—a tall, broad-shouldered man with his black hair slicked back beneath his cap. He sat down at the desk with his right hand curled around a thermos of coffee.

Reigen sat up. “There you are,” he muttered to no one in particular. The robin paused its song in response.

Reigen tapped a hand to the camera by his thigh. He pulled once more from his cigarette and set his eyes to the back of Tetsuo Isari’s head, and he prepared himself for the ten hour stretch to follow.

The hours went by slow and sticky, like a snail across the pavement. The AC in Reigen’s car hadn’t quite worked since the rattling kicked in, and the rattling itself became more insufferable than the heat, so Reigen killed the AC all together. He had only the electric green plastic fan suction-cupped to his dashboard and the cracked windows to keep him cool.

He siphoned through the cigarettes and stained his suit with sweat as morning shuffled on to noon. Tetsuo spent most of that time planted in his seat. Whenever he stood, it was with his empty thermos, and he always returned within the next few minutes setting it down full. The man spoke a few times to his partner one desk across from him, but the body language set off no warning bells.

That partner, Isa Maki, was Reigen’s best suspect, but nothing about their interaction came off flirtatious. He’d seen every breed and species of coworker flirting in the last four years. Usually they had tells. Gentle hits, repressed smiles behind finger tips, laughter just a bit too loud.

Tetsuo’s body language contained none of that. He remained stiff-shouldered and focused, frowning down at the work on his desk, speaking little, dipping forward every now and then in half-conscious exhaustion. From first impressions alone, Tetsuo was far too tired to be having an affair.

First impressions often meant nothing in long investigations. Reigen smothered his cigarette, opened a new pack, and settled back in.

By 5:52 pm, Reigen was kneading his knuckles through the knots on either side of his spine. He was almost glad, at times like this, for the years he’d wasted on masseuse work at Spirits and Such. He moved on to unsticking his suit from his back, where it had plastered him to the stained and frayed upholstery of his seat. The air inside the car was thick with the lingering residue of 20 cigarettes.

Tetsuo was only scheduled to work until 6. If he went home now, Reigen would be free for the night. If he went somewhere else, well…

Reigen snapped out of his thoughts. As if on cue, Tetsuo stood. He popped his back, drained the last of what was in his coffee mug, and stacked up the papers on his desk. Reigen had long since lost track of how many times Tetsuo had filled that mug, but it at least rivalled the number of cigarettes Reigen had burnt to the dregs today.

Reigen tapped the ignition key, testing that it hadn’t fallen somewhere. His eyes remained set to the office window, where Tetsuo wrapped a rubber band around a manila folder and stowed it in his bag. Tetsuo said something to Isa, who responded with a simple waving off. Tetsuo nodded, then closed the office door behind him. Reigen shifted his attention to the station door nearest Tetsuo’s office. He sunk lower in his seat, breath held and camera ready. He propped the camera on the dashboard, zoomed to the broad side of the building, and turned on burst as soon as Tetsuo emerged outside. Tetsuo carried the jacket of his uniform on his arm, stripped to the white shirt and tie beneath.

Reigen glanced to the camera screen to ensure the photos were taking. They were, clicking through once per second. Each one was saved with a time stamp, something Reigen learned could make or break his investigations.

In the meantime, Tetsuo had crossed the whole station parking lot. In response, Reigen uncrinkled one of the newspapers stashed in his car and pretended to busy himself in it, pretended his best to look like a normal man waiting patiently on Chinese take-out. His eyes remained propped just above the crease in the paper, glued unblinkingly to Tetsuo.

Tetsuo could do one of two things. One, he could cross the Chinese lot, stand at the bus stop in front, and take the bus home like he was meant to. If he did that, Reigen’s night would end here.

Two, he could do something that was…not that.

From the way Tetsuo’s lined and drooping eyes had set their sights on the bus stop across the street, Reigen guessed the first option. That was the better option, certainly. It meant Reigen could get peel off his itchy suit, shower, get some sleep. It would mean he could start fresh another day. For Jun’s sake, it would perhaps mean she had nothing to fear.

Tetsuo passed Reigne’s car, still a good ten feet deeper in the parking lot. Tetsuo did not look Reigen’s way. Tetsuo took no notice of Reigen’s car.

Tetsuo seemed to take no notice of anything, in fact.

He’d frozen, apathetic eyes forward, a rocked just a bit where he stood. Then his back straightened, jaw tightening, brow creasing, and for a split second, consciousness seemed to vanish from behind his vacant eyes.

Reigen watched transfixed, horror like a stone in his gut. And it was not so much the behavior that horrified Reigen—it was the fact that he recognized it.

Then Tetsuo buckled forward. He dropped his face into his hands, frozen for a few, lasting seconds before he slowly straightened. He stood much taller, swept a hand through his hair, and investigated his surroundings with two quick flicks of his head. The exhaustion was gone from his face. Some sharp and purposeful will ignited behind his thin eyes. He slipped his hands into his pockets and twisted on his heel, whistling as he set out in the opposite direction of the bus stop.  

Reigen watched the whole display with a dry mouth. A thousand memories assaulted him at once, tainted with the raw smell of incense, the grittiness of salt between his fingers and under his nails, dimmed lights and candles and incantations and that dread in the air, like pressure, that he felt whenever a Spirits and Such case turned out to be real.

The new thing walking around inside Tetsuo Isari was not Reigen’s responsibility. He’d cut all ties with ghosts the moment he took down the old sign. The scar along his cheek was all the lesson he needed about staying the hell away from that which he could not exorcise.

The thing inside Tetsuo was getting farther away. The thing inside Tetsuo could do whatever it wanted, because the thing inside Tetsuo was not the responsibility of the 21st century’s greatest private investigator, Arataka Reigen.

The thing inside Tetsuo was probably not worth getting killed over.

Reigen slipped the cigarette from his lips and exhaled with a single powerful cough. He shook his head, gave a single, grim, pained laugh, and gripped both hands tight to the steering wheel.

Reigen set his sights to Tetsuo’s receding back. He turned on the ignition with a roar.

The thing inside Tetsuo Isari was maybe about to kill Arataka Reigen.

Reigen sighed and gunned it, all the while muttering only a single sentence.

“Fuck me.”

Chapter Text

Reigen drummed his fingers in nervous rhythm against his steering wheel. His car idled in the parking lot of a small corner shop decorated with grated windows and peeling advertisements for money transfers. He’d cracked the window, but the lot air carried the same stagnant ashy taste as the air inside Reigen’s car. Oil and sodden garbage slicked the asphalt. Chunks were missing where they’d been worn away and never repaved. The whole atmosphere set his nerves ablaze, and Reigen sunk lower into his seat, furtive eyes glancing from the store to the surroundings.

Tetsuo Isari had entered the shop seven minutes ago. The cashier inside, visible from the parking lot, sat at the counter and jammed his thumbs into the keypad of his phone, bored. He yawned once. Reigen took it as a good sign that whatever Tetsuo—or the thing inside Tetsuo—was doing in the store, it wasn’t to the immediate danger of the cashier.

Reigen stiffened. Tetsuo moved into view, setting down a dozen cans of something on the cashier’s counter. The cashier stowed his phone and slid the cans through one at the time. A total rang up. Tetsuo paid, bagged the cans, and turned on his heel. The thing inside Tetsuo neared the door, and in a moment the thing inside Tetsuo would be in the parking lot, standing just in front of Reigen’s beaten up car.

Reigen’s grip on the wheel was deathly tight. For the moment he did not smell the ash in the car, because for the moment he’d stopped breathing. Indecision flooded his mind with a buzz of panic. He debated getting out; he debated confronting the thing while it was here; he debated unlatching the glove compartment and stuffing every packet of salt into his suit pocket.

The bells above the door tinkled. Tetsuo walked out, sagging plastic bag hooked on two fingers. He seemed to be whistling as he checked his watch and moved in slow, easy steps across the lot. Reigen hunched lower while the thing passed, and once again seemed to pay him no mind. It only stopped to loiter by the bus stop opposite the shop opening. Reigen did not know the city bus lines all that well, but he knew from the sign tacked high above the shelter that it was the proper line Tetsuo was meant to take him every day. The thing inside Tetsuo was, if nothing else, headed somewhere in the direction of home.

Reigen twisted his hands against the wheel harder, chest fluttering. He’d soaked the pits of his suit straight through.

“Creepy ghost, waiting for a bus, with soup. Excellent. Great detective work. Glad I could make such an important discovery before this thing…scalds my face off with too-hot corn chowder, or—“

He froze. The bus pulled up at the stop, and Tetsuo vanished into its depths. Reigen could only blink as the doors closed and the bus began to pull away. Then he laughed a single, hollow, panicked laugh.

“—or…asphyxiates me with the grocery bag or slits my neck with the can opener or…yup. Yeah. Whatever.” He hit the gas pedal and swerved out of the lot in close pursuit of the bus. “Can’t wait to find out.”

At each progressive bus stop Reigen became more convinced that Tetsuo was going home—or the thing inside him was.

Tetsuo. The thing inside him. Tetsuo. The thing inside: The distinction was starting to twist Reigen’s brain, and the magnitude set in like a weight knocking against his rib cage. If that thing went “home,” would that put Jun in danger? Had Jun been in danger this whole time? And more importantly, was Tetsuo, the actual meat puppet in all this, in immediate danger himself…?

The thing inside Tetsuo got off the bus two stops too early.

Reigen almost didn’t catch it. His train of thought was cut short, and surprise forced him to cut an illegal u-turn and park along the edge of a neighborhood street. A bit loud, a bit conspicuous, but it was the best he could do to not drive right on past the thing walking around in Tetsuo. Reigen killed the ignition. He inspected the closest houses to check no one was watching him strangely, the he hunched low and let his flitting eyes follow Tetsuo’s movements.

Soup in hand, the man took off into the bush-lined neighborhood on the right. Reigen waited until the thing had established enough of a distance to not know he was being tailed. With about a hundred feet between them, Reigen got out of the car. He’d stuffed the bag of salt from the glove compartment into his jacket pocket, along with a few loose and questionably-effective spirit tags, and a wick of incense. They were the only spirit-warding things he had on hand. He stayed close to the hedges as he walked.

Overgrown browning lawns lined the ground to his right. Gated doors, gated windows, paint chipped soggily from the face of houses. He caught no proper sign of life behind the windows he passed, though Reigen did not look up much. He kept his face low, his movements quiet, his eyes focused on Tetsuo.

His blood ran just a bit cold at the sight of the house coming up on the left. A large, orange, vibrant QUARENTINE sign had been plastered to the front door. Ripped-down yellow tape criss-crossed the banister of the porch. The house itself was a darker, wetter wood than its neighbors, like driftwood left to rot. When the wind picked up, the earthy pungent smell of decay assaulted Reigen’s nose.

Reigen was not surprised when the thing inside Tetsuo stopped at the corner and crossed directly to the husk of a house, but he was very, very unhappy. He let out a single displeased whine as he ran his fingers through his hair.

“Creepy ghost, creepy house, twelve cans of soup. Why not? If I were a ghost I’d want my Campbells fix. Probably…creamy tomato, or…”

A dozen close calls too many flashed behind Reigen’s lids, all ghost related, as he shoved his palms into his eyes. Stars danced; exhaustion beat like glue through his body; an icy prickle of fear raked down his spine. He could leave. Heck, he’d already distanced himself from everything of this sort. Possessions weren’t his problem anymore.

Reigen cracked his eyes open and looked through the openings in his fingers. He froze. The thing was still a hundred feet out, but now it was staring directly into Reigen’s eyes. Reigen let his hands slide steadily down his face, abject terror beating through his veins. The thing in Tetsuo continued to stare. It had seen him. It was not going to look away.

Reigen could turn heel and run.

His legs moved, finally, bounding.

And they took him forward.

He cursed himself while he ran.

Reigen raised a hand above his head and waved it in wild, enthusiastic greeting. He cupped his other hand to his mouth as he beat across the street. “Yooooooooo Tetsuo, buddy! Is that—thought I recognized your sorry face! What’s up? How’s Jun? Why’d you skip poker night?”

No immediate transformation came over Tetsuo’s body. He stood rigid, inspecting Reigen. Reigen fought against every screaming nerve in his body as he approached the possessed man, jovial, loose, friendly smile on his face. He hoped the sweat beading along his brow could be chalked up to the heat.

“I was busy,” Tetsuo—the thing—answered. His thin, sharp eyes seemed to drink in every detail of Reigen. Reigen felt exposed, stripped bare, prey beneath the gaze of this thing.

Reigen laughed and slapped Tetsuo on the shoulder. “Busy busy busy with all your cop work. Or, whatever this is—“ Reigen gestured to the plastic bag of cans. He slipped his hands into his pocket after that, kneading his hands into the salt pouches. “Lazy cooking night?”

“Yes. My wife is not feeling well, and I’m tired.”

“Ah I saw Jun-bug this morning and she seemed fine. Musta hit fast huh?” Reigen twisted and gestured with his head, motioning vaguely down the street. “Hey, why don’t you and Jun come back to my house for dinner tonight instead? I owe you a home-cooked meal after that night back in July. You can thank me later.”

“No, thank you.” The bags jostled. Tetsuo tilted his body toward the condemned house. “I’m very busy.”

“What are you doing out in a place like this anyway?”

“Visiting a colleague on my way home from work.”

“Oh? Is it Isa? She live out here?”

“No, it’s not Isa. Now if you don’t mind.” The thing in Tetsuo gestured again, away. Reigen almost acted on it, almost thankful enough for the simple chance to escape the mess he’d entangled himself it.

Reigen, of course, did not.

He rocked on his toes instead. “You’re acting different today, Tetsuo? You okay?”

“I’m tired,” the thing answered.

“Oh! I’ve got something in my pocket—this eastern medicinal thing a friend recommended to me, perfect for kicking that mid-day grogginess—hang on and don’t move.”

Hands slick with sweat, Reigen pulled one of his two spirit tags from his pocket. In an ideal world, it would banish the thing from Tetsuo’s body. In a perfect world, it would keep that thing permanently gone.

The shoddy excuses for spirit tags that Reigen had tried to craft back in his spirit hunting days and shoved into the depths of his glove compartment were anything but perfect.

Reigen had nothing better, so stupidly, boldly, carelessly, he took his chances, and he slapped the spirit tag on to Tetsuo’s shoulder anyway. He hoped for an explosion—for the violent wrenching of the spirit from Tetsuo’s body and the end of all his troubles.

The thing inside Tetsuo did nothing of the sort. It stared at Reigen for a long, silent moment. Reigen did not remove his hand from the tag. The second he did, the banishing sigil would be visible to the spirit, and he would be—in his own words running through his mind at that very moment—well and truly fucked.

“Take your hand off me,” was all the thing said.

“I will, I will, just as soon as you tell me why you’re acting this way, Tetsuo,” Reigen ground out. His body had started to tremble, mind churning for any possible way out of revealing what he’d just attempted.

“What way?”

“Like you don’t even recognize me!” Reigen continued.

“It’s not you. It’s been a long day. Get your hand off me and go home—I have things to do.”

“I think maybe I know why.”

“Let go.”

“Yeah, I’ve got a pretty good idea.”

Tetsuo jolted his shoulder; Reigen jolted with it, unflinching. He stared the thing down, and Reigen’s bubbliness evaporated, and steel sharpened behind his eyes with stony seriousness, a complete bluff which he hoped the thing would not be able to call for fraud.

“I’ve got a guess, if you wanna hear, why you’re acting this way, Tetsuo. Maybe you’re tired.” Another light tug. Reigen stayed with it. “Maybe you’re busy, or sick, or just a bit grumpier today that usual. But maybe it’s something else.” Tug, resist. “Maybe something a bit more insidious?” Another tug, Reigen kept his hand concealed over the tag. “Maybe instead, my friend…could it be because you’re not Tetsuo?” Reigen dropped his arm. He shoved his hands in his pockets and stood tall. He flashed a grin, lip curling into something confident and vile. The spirit tag flashed on Tetsuo’s shoulder. “You evil spirit?”

The thing inside Tetsuo did not kill Reigen at that instant, which was already a better outcome than Reigen had anticipated. It only straightened, beating down confusion with something calculating and disaffected in its gaze. Then it cracked a smile, a low throaty chuckle, and looked on with new mirth.

“Oh what gave it away?”

Reigen repressed the full-body shiver that racked him to his core. He met the thing’s smile.

“Maybe the part where I’ve never spoken with Tetsuo in my life. If you were him, you’d’ve stopped me at ‘why’d you miss poker night?’” Reigen shot a quick glance to the tag on Tetsuo’s arm. The thing in Tetsuo did the same, inspecting the sigil. “You’re stronger than the normal spirits I deal with.”

Its smile curled. “Is that a compliment?”

“Depends how you want to take it.” Reigen shrugged it away. He felt light-headed from keeping his breathing so under control. He clung to the show of confidence—it may have been the only thing keeping his head attached to his neck. “Not going to mince words here. My job right now is to get Tetsuo Isari his own body back, but that doesn’t mean I have to destroy you if we’re willing to be understanding about this.”

“That’s kind of you.” It tilted its head dismissively. “Or, that kind of offer means you don’t have a way to destroy me.”

“Maybe, but are you willing to stake your afterlife on that, spirit?”

The thing laughed—hearty, full-bodied laughter that both eased and unnerved Reigen. “Call me Mogami.” It gestured to the house, soup cans rattling. “In fact, why not come inside for a bit. We can sit down, make some tea, have a nice little chat like you’re suggesting.”

“Certainly,” Reigen answered, trying his best to look like he wasn’t about to throw up. Parts of his façade cracked with every step forward he took. Accepting a ghost’s invitation into its own lair? Not good. Very not good. The paranoia deep in his gut said that Mogami could sense it, that Mogami was feeding off that fear.

Mildew was the first thing Reigen smelled as the door drew nearer. The ground beneath his feet squished, stagnant and standing. His shoes dragged through the filth, and Reigen drew his sleeve to his nose to lose himself to the overbearing smell of smoke instead.

Mogami clicked the door open, and whatever Reigen had smelled from the outside was nothing compared to the house’s interior. He swallowed down the roll of nausea that turned his stomach—pungent rot, unwashed bodies, the fetid stench of death. Reigen pictured rat corpses in the dark unseen spots down the hallway, his brain’s way of explaining the assault on his senses. He clamped his sleeve as tightly as he could to his nose and breathed only through his mouth. Mogami’s soup cans rattled on ahead.

Small lights caught in the hall. The sop of Reigen’s shoes did not cease once inside. The rug squished with his steps, and when Reigen looked up, he caught the sparkle of moisture leaking in through the cracks in the ceiling. From the rain last night, if he had to guess.

“Have a seat,” Mogami gestured to one of the chairs by the kitchen table, pulled out at an angle. The other four were tucked in flat to the table, undisturbed fields of dust by their legs.

Reigen pulled out one of the dusty chairs, if only to disturb the sickly stagnation of the room. “Lovely house you’ve got here,” he quipped through the fabric of his suit.

Mogami was already at the counter, a single standing lamp ignited in his presence. He unloaded the cans onto the counter. “I find it cozy.” He flashed another smile.

“Ever consider a little renovating? Tetsuo’s poor wife probably doesn’t appreciate that smell on her husband’s clothes every night.”

“Oh, I don’t wear Tetsuo around here much. Just need him for errands here and there.”

Reigen leaned forward, seeing his opportunity. “I’ll bite—what’s a ghost need to run errands for? What’s a ghost need soup cans for? Why this house? Why Tetsuo?”

Mogami pulled a bowl from the next shelf and tapped a button on the microwave. “Oh, it’s nothing complicated. Nothing evil either. I’ve been a spirit for close to three decades. That’s a long time to go without feeling anything, smelling anything, tasting anything.” He grabbed a soup can and slammed it into his open palm. “That shock and pressure—lovely. You wouldn’t understand what it’s like to live for years so cut off from everything, but it’s something we spirits don’t take well to. Can you blame me for wanting to stretch my legs a bit?” He set a finger to the rim of the can, and with a spark of magenta light from his finger tip, he slit open the lid. “Smell the roses outside for a moment? Have a nice warm lunch here and there?”

“Yes, I can blame you. It’s Tetsuo’s body,” Reigen answered simply.

“I never claimed it was mine.”

“You can’t hold people captive like that, is what I mean.”

“I’m feeding him, got this roof above his head. Nothing I’m doing is harmful, you know.”

Reigen glanced to the dripping tiles above his head. He shuddered in the sticky humidity, the moist sharp stench of rot.  He clasped both hands to his mouth and stared forward, nerves alight, brain turning. “You said Mogami… Keiji Mogami?”

Mogami’s lip curled again. “A fan.”

Reigen straightened, a prickle running down his spine. “Damn right I was a fan—that was—I mean my motivation even, the reason I got into the psychic business. Keiji Mogami the psychic. You exorcised evil spirits. You helped people. How the hell did you end up like this?”

“I died.”

Reigen ran a hand through his hair. “I mean—this. Walking around possessing hapless cops so you can…microwave soup? How does that even make sense?!”

Something settled deep within the house—a bump, then a shuffle. Reigen didn’t give it much thought, but Mogami seemed to stiffen at the noise. It happened again. Louder, closer, Mogami grabbed the counter behind him.

“Ghosts still need a source of energy—surely you know that, Mr. Psychic.”

“Soup though??” Reigen stood from the chair. The loose herd of colorful soup cans on the counter, against the mildewed tile wall, dust-streaked counter, the suffocating smell of death—it set off something absolutely incredulous in Reigen. “Your evil spirit motivation can’t be Campbell’s creamy tomato soup. The great exorcist Keiji Mogami doesn’t return as an evil spirit so he can terrorize caffeine-addicted cops and prepare the perfect grilled cheese side dish because I call bullshit honestly—“

Another thunk from the shut basement door. It interrupted Reigen’s train of thought. He glanced over his shoulder to the basement, and Mogami shoved himself away from the counter. The new motion pulled Reigen’s attention back, and he found himself staring into the horrific pits that had become of Tetsuo’s pupils. The mirth was gone from his eyes. The fiery ignition behind them cowed Reigen; he was reminded instantly of what he was up against.

Tetsuo’s strong hands gripped Reigen’s shoulders. Reigen could not look away from the poison in the possessed man’s eyes. All line of thought and will and voice died in Reigen’s throat at that moment.

“I do what I must to survive as a spirit. That’s all. Now, how about we continue this little chit chat some other time, hmm? I remembered I’m terribly busy, and I feel you’ve overstayed your welcome.”

Reigen’s whole body flushed with panic. He wondered for one fleeting moment how, exactly, it would feel to be killed by his childhood idol. He tensed his body and prepared to perhaps find out.

Tetsuo went slack. His hands slipped from Reigen’s shoulders and he dropped entirely to the floor, a ragdoll and nothing more. Reigen sucked in a relieved, shuddering breath—bad idea in the air of the house—and fought down the urge to gag as the crumpled man at his feet groaned. Reigen stared a moment longer until he could be sure the groaning, twitching thing was no longer Keiji Mogami. His shoulders loosened.

“Couldn’t even unpossess you in a chair or anything. Gonna give you a concussion like that. And to think I admired that guy once.” Reigen bent and took Tetsuo beneath an arm. “You’re fine. You’re good. I got you. Come on, let’s get out of here before either of us dies.”

Tetsuo had nothing to say. He only blinked groggy and confused in the darkness. His head dipped forward twice while Reigen tried to lift him, though his did what he could to support some of his own weight. Tetsuo nodded, whispered something that sounded like a question, and moved clumsily with Reigen’s steps toward the front door.

The noises from the basement had ceased, though Reigen did not notice. Those noises had slipped entirely from his mind.

Chapter Text

Mob pressed his hands against the basement door. Tracing the grain under his fingertips--it gave him some grounding in the darkness of the stairwell, which was lit only by the rectangular strips of light leaking from the frame. He sat sideways on the stairs, his bare feet curling against the cold wood of the step below. The door was not locked.

Mob did not open it, of course.

He pressed his ear against the wood instead. The noises fascinated him, something thick and sonorous and muffled through the door. This voice was loud, but it wasn’t angry. Passionate, it lilted up and down, smothered words. Mob tried to picture the sort of person behind it. He had only black-and-white characters in his mind. This man sounded too colorful for that.

Then it stopped.

Mob leaned away from the door. He paused, held his breath, waited in hopes that it might return. When the silence persisted, he swiveled his head in search of where the noise had gone. His ears tensed instead at the sound of the basement door unlatching. Mob reeled back from it. He considered running back down the stairs to his bed, but his feet were cold, legs stiff. He rubbed them where the prickled. It always happened when he went a long time without walking around.

So Mob stayed planted. He watched the rectangle of light crack open. The flood of light forced him to squint. Hand raised to his brow, Mob watched the figure of Mogami step into the wash of brightness. The backlighting reduced him to a simple black, shrouded shape. The light interacted strangely with the outline of his silhouette.

They stared at each other for just a moment. Mob remained crouched on the step, hands drawn in. His curious eyes flickered past Mogami a few times. He was still eager to put a face to that loud-but-not-angry voice. Mogami glanced over his shoulder once to follow Mob’s line of sight.

“Why are you sitting by the door, Mob?” Mogami asked.

“I heard a voice.” Another quick flicker of a glance behind Mogami. Mob dropped his voice to a whisper. “…Is he still here?”

“No, he’s gone home.”

“Oh.” Mob threaded his arm around the banister and hugged it. “Who was he? Was he your friend?”

“He was not my friend, Mob. Luckily he’s gone now, and he’s not going to come back.”

“Why was he here?”

Mogami acted as though he had not heard the question. He tilted his body, until his front half was washed in pale light. His lips were cracked, eyes deep-set, greasy black hair hanging in tendrils over his face. The light was still strange, the way it seemed to bleed right through the fringe of his body.

“Mob, did you come to the stairs because you heard the voice?”

“Yes, Shishou.”

“Why?”

Mob shuffled his feet against the stairs. He coughed once, wet. “I was curious.”

“To hear what he was saying?”

“Yes.”

“You can’t do that, Mob.” Mogami descended one step, face thrown back into shadow. Mob scooted closer to the railing. “Real life isn’t television. You do not get to listen in on people’s conversations because you want to.”

Mob thought about this. He avoided making eye contact with Mogami. “Oh. …I didn’t hear anything he said.”

“You were lucky this time, Mob. Very very lucky.” Mogami moved down another step, just one above Mob now. “You’re lucky he did not walk this way. You were sitting right behind the door. Where do you think that puts your barrier?”

The thought came with a jolt to the chest. Mob backed down another step as if to separate himself from the door out of penance. “I would have heard him coming. Then I would have gone back down.”

“How do you know that? Can you always hear my footsteps on the floor?”

Mob shrunk in. “No.”

“You put that man’s life at risk.” Mogami lowered himself. He sat on the step, almost eye-level with Mob. Mob no longer felt he had permission to look away.

“I didn’t mean to, though.”

“But you did it. You risked more, in fact. If he had discovered you, he could have called the police. All those police officers Mob, would they just let you stay down here?”

“I don’t know…”

“How many would have to get cut before realizing they can’t get close? I can’t protect the police, Mob.”

Mob felt his chest tighten at the thought. It horrified him, something terrible and unfixable and beyond his control once he let it happen. It was a cold terror.

“He…that man didn’t find me, though. He’s okay… H-he’s okay, right?”

Mogami eyed the air around Mob, the spots Mob knew held the fringe of his barrier. It was invisible now, most of the time, its presence only betrayed by the trail of slit insects that Mob left in his wake.

“He’s okay. Do not ever come eavesdrop by the door again, understood Mob?”

Mob wrung his hands together. He nodded, over-eager to demonstrate his compliance. “Yes, Shishou. Never again.”

“Good. There’s soup, Mob. Whenever you want it.”

Mogami stood. The creaky stairs made no noise beneath his feet as he climbed them back to the basement door. He exited without shutting the door behind him.

Mob stared into the wash a light for a few seconds longer. He’d been a little bit excited this morning for food, looking forward to Mogami’s return. Mob no longer felt hungry.

Mob pushed himself standing. He wobbled, stars dancing in his vision, blood pumping sluggishly through his veins. He held the banister until the shakiness cleared, then he toed his way back down the steps. His bed was dark again. The sun must have dipped too low in the sky while Mogami and that man were talking, just below the crest of the window.

Mob crawled back into bed, buried himself in his covers, and fell asleep.

The sun washed Reigen’s vision to a field of overwhelming white. His hands were occupied with the barely-conscious cop slung over his shoulder, so he simply squinted. When that failed, Reigen shut his eyes and focused just on sucking clean air into his lungs. He coughed once, then again, wet. The smell stuck like an itch to the back of his throat.

Tetsuo looked up. He held up just a bit more of his own weight. “Smells a lot better out here.”

“No kidding,” Reigen answered. He kept a steady pace forward, a steady breathing rate. He shivered out the supernatural cold in his bones. With every other step, he looked to Tetsuo. Mogami had left him voluntarily. In Reigen’s book, that meant he could return voluntarily too.

Tetsuo caught one of these glances before looking away with something like shame. He angled his head backwards, coughed, and swallowed once. “Where…were we just now?”

“An excellent question.” Adrenaline jittered Reigen’s whole body. He put his right foot forward. Then his left foot forward. Right foot forward. Left foot. Rot in the back of his throat. Mogami’s hollow, dead eyes boring through his. A screaming projected directly into Reigen’s mind. Right foot forward.

“And who are you?” The grogginess in Tetsuo’s voice steadily washed to concern. He pulled his arms away from Reigen, stumbling just once before he found his own balance.

Reigen straightened his back. He ran his knuckles along his spine, working through the kinks that had built up from the long hours of surveillance. “A uh…concerned neighbor. I live…over there.” Reigen gestured vaguely. “Saw you going into this house. Seemed a little unusual. This house is a bit…” Reigen made sweeping gestures behind him. “…yeah.”

Tetsuo licked his lips, head swiveling. His eyes settled back on the Mogami house, wider. His clammy face turned a shade paler. Whether it was his body trembling or shivering, Reigen could not tell.

“Oh… Oh no…” Tetsuo ran a shaking hand through his hair. It snagged. Tetsuo yanked it through, leaving a sweaty cowlick in his unkempt hair. “I’m… yeah, I’ve been—some things I don’t remember? That I do? Sorry to worry you. I’m just…yeah. Yeah, a little freaked out.” He nodded once, pale lips tight together. “But I’m alright. Don’t worry, I’m good now. Thanks, for that. I live nearby. Don’t worry.”

Reigen watched the cop run his hands down the length of his chest, grasping, clenching, as if checking that he could feel his own body. His shivering picked up, and this did not surprise Reigen. Ghosts were like ice, and they often broke the thermostat of the host body they inhabited.

Reigen looked once over his shoulder, back to the Mogami house. “How often does this happen?”

Tetsuo fidgeted, hands weaving in and out as he followed Reigen’s eyes and shot furtive glances to the Mogami house, “Uh, n-not too often. Not, I don’t think. It’s fine. It’s…” He licked his lips. “probably fine. Don’t worry. Thanks for your help, yeah? Thanks. I just need…maybe to get home. Sleep, I think. I’m…” he let out a small, pained noise and ducked his head. “Sorry, little freaked out. I’ll see a doctor. First thing. Sleep deprivation, probably, ‘bout time that caught up to me.”

Reigen nodded, weighing his options. Really it was just two options at that moment he was considering:

1) Tell Tetsuo he’d been possessed.

2) Don’t.

Reigen remained silent. Tetsuo was not currently possessed. Mogami had left voluntarily. Nothing Reigen had on hand could guarantee Tetsuo’s safety. Reigen was still employed to tail Tetsuo and, therefore, be on hand the moment another possession happened.

Mostly, looking at the man, Reigen just wanted to let him sleep.

He clapped a hand to Tetsuo’s shoulder. “Well, you seem worlds better than when I saw you walk in, so I wouldn’t worry too much, hear me? You got a wife? She’s gotta be worried. Maybe give her a call. Go home.”

Tetsuo braced himself against a fence post at the edge of the yard. “Yeah… Yeah I’ll—she—oh man, what time is it? I was supposed to be home at 6:15.”

“It’s 7.”

“Well shit, I’m…” he took a deep breath. “It’s fine. It’s fine. I’m okay. It’s okay. I’m just gonna get home and it’ll be fine. Call a doctor. Thank you, by the way. Thanks. Very kind of you. Thank you.”

Reigen waved him off. “Don’t mention it. Get home.”

Tetsuo gave another dumb nod, then a quick glance to both sides of the street. He cut across, walking just a bit too fast. He kept forward until, from Reigen’s perspective, he was swallowed up in the glare of the sun, jacketless.

Reigen watched him go, and when he was out of sight, Reigen dropped to the ground. He sat there, knees raised, hands in his hair for a few silent moments. Hollow wind ripped around him. His ears tuned to the chirp of cicadas as the sun dipped lower. Reigen stared long and hard at the ground between his knees. Its dampness soaked into his pants, and he hardly noticed.

Reigen thought instead. He planned. More than once, he considered the sweet relief of dropping the case entirely. Spirits were not his domain. Whatever Mogami wanted with Tetsuo was outside Reigen’s field. He could go back to the office, take down the sign, reopen in a few days as something new, something safe, just like he did before.

Reigen pulled his head out from between his knees. He looked back at the rotting house. His gut feeling said something more horrific lay behind those doors than he had understood. Something worse was happening to Tetsuo than he knew. He believed Mogami’s cryptic words had meant something more awful than he could piece together.

And it scared him senseless.

Reigen did not act follow through on his thoughts to rip down his office sign. It would stay up, because the Tetsuo Isari case was still his.

Reigen stood finally, and he walked away from the house with a plan forming in his mind.

Chapter Text

Ritsu Kageyama was 13 years old now. For the last four of those years, he’s been an only child.

Ritsu walked home immediately after school every day, phone clutched in hand. No one stopped him on the way; no one flagged him down, because Ritsu Kageyama did not make the time for other people. He did not take up invitations; he did not join in activities. Over the years, people had simply stopped asking. They stopped caring very much about being rejected or ignored or shot down with an excuse. They never actively disliked him for it either, because anyone who’d known Ritsu Kageyama over the years knew he had a good enough reason to pull himself away.

Only a few dwindling days of September remained, and Ritsu caught the edges of the sky start to pinken just as he made it to the front door. He unlocked the front door and let himself into the warm foyer of an entirely empty house. With a quick jolt of his wrist, he flipped open his phone and typed out a single text to his parents: “home.” It composed the entirety of their text history. One text, every day for four years, from Ritsu to his parents: “home”.

Ritsu turned on the news for white noise in the background. He unhitched his bag from his shoulders, pulled the zipper open, and spread his books on the coffee table. The assigned homework was only ten problems, sampled randomly from the page. He didn’t bother checking which ten. Instead, Ritsu started with problem 1 and worked through all 40. The sun still skimmed the horizon when he was done, threatening more daylight, more time. It set off something anxious in his mind, so he flipped to a fresh notebook page and started the problems over. When his mom got home at 5, Ritsu moved to his room.

Dinner came an hour later as it always did. His mother did not need to call him. Ritsu simply appeared at the designated time, pulled three plates from the cupboard, and moved from the kitchen to the dining room. The clack and plate-setting almost deafened Ritsu to the sound of the garage door opening. It was the gust of cold wind which his father pulled in that alerted Ritsu. He looked up for a moment, just long enough to watch Mr. Kageyama shrug off and hang his coat, before Ritsu returned to the cutlery.

Mr. Kageyama went to go rustle Ritsu’s hair. Ritsu paused his place setting while his dad approached, and gave only a small bit of resistant to the cold, coarse hands mussing his hair.

“Good day of school?”

Ritsu shrugged. He set down a knife. “Average. We got our math quizzes back. I’ve still got my 100 average.”

His dad smiled. “You freak,” he said affectionately. “You know, this is the age most kids start to really struggle. I don’t think I got a single 100 past age 12.”

“It’s not that hard,” Ritsu added. He moved on to the next place. Silverware clinked against the plate. “I have too much free time anyway.”

“We’ll be sure to throw a party when you’re valedictorian in a few years.”

Ritsu shifted to the other side of the table. His ears filled with the crackle of stir-frying vegetables which poured from the kitchen, hidden just behind the dining room partition. He paused a moment, listening only to the sound. “You know, most of the top students are involved in club activities too.”

His dad fell into his seat, arms stretched high above his head. He blinked, eyes trained again to Ritsu. “…Oh?”

Ritsu gripped the fork in his hand, not daring to set it down at his place yet. “Student Council. I want to join.”

“Oh,” his dad repeated, a bit quieter this time.

Ritsu tightened his grip. “They meet in the mornings, so you don’t have to worry about the sun setting before I get home. There are just a few days during the year when they run afterschool events. That’s it. Rollcall is taken every day, so they’ll always know if I’m there. And it’s small. I can give you a list of everyone involved.”

The crackling from the next room over had stopped. Mrs. Kageyama must have pulled the wok off the heat. A momentary pause filled the air until she appeared at the doorway, smiling. “You don’t need to worry about being in club activities because you’re top of the class. Your grades will get you in wherever you want, Ritsu. Your father and I have spoken with the guidance counselors—“

“I want to join Student Council,” Ritsu answered, sharp. “That’s what I want to do. I’m responsible. I always text you and dad. It’s just in the mornings. No travel. I’ll be at school anyway.” Ritsu ran through the arguments he’d been preparing in his mind all morning. They lost some of their strength to the nervous edge in his voice.

“You’d have to leave for school before the sun rises, wouldn’t you?” his mom continued. “You can’t see who’s around you.”

“I’ll walk with someone,” Ritsu answered without having anyone in mind.

“We’ll think about it, Ritsu.”

“Why can’t I have an answer now?”

“This takes some talking out.”

“What’s there to talk about?”

“Ritsu, it’s complicated.”

“What’s—“ Ritsu swallowed his words. He felt the landmine before he stepped on it. Because “it” was only ever one thing, and he could never breach that topic. Unless he dared to suggest that he and his own problems could possibly outweigh—

Ritsu put down the fork at his place. He pulled the chair back and sat, and stared only at his plate. He did not say anything when his mom stood at his side and filled his plate. He tasted none of his food; mentally, he’d pulled himself far away from the table. It was easier than being frustrated, or angry, and it was much easier than caring. He drowned his thoughts to the sound of his parents’ forks still scraping against their plates.

Ritsu had no gauge of how much time had passed before his plate was clear. He simply picked it up, along with his untouched glass of water, and nodded to his parents. His dad waved him off, saying nothing as his mouth was full of food. Ritsu pushed his chair in with his leg and made his way into the partitioned kitchen.

A thin wall, doors on the right and left, separated the kitchen from his parents sitting at the dining room table. Ritsu set his plate into the sink. Just the water remained in his hand. This he put on the counter, and he set a hand on top of the glass. His fingers contracted, rising, and the water inside congealed into a wobbling sphere. He raised it to his eyes, hands cupped beneath, and stared through it.

It was fine. He didn’t need Student Council. He didn’t need to be part of a club at all. This was fine.

He tensed his fingers, and the ball iced over along its surface, a shimmering Christmas bauble filled with half-frozen slush. His wrist flicked, sending the ball into a stationary spin. It liquefied again, and launched tiny droplets of water outward like a sprinkler.

There was no point being disappointed. Things could be so much worse. He could be—

Ritsu stopped the ball. He stared at it, flattened his right hand, and stuck it forward. His hand slipped right through the iridescent surface of the ball, like dipping his fingers into a swimming pool. This was more charged though, more pulsing and energized, smooth and calming against his fingertips.

It was fine.

The scraping of a chair fell on Ritsu’s tense ears. In a flush of panic, he flicked the ball of water above the sink and relinquished control. It splashed down into the basin, no more momentous than if he’d poured it out of his water glass. Ritsu turned on the tap to rinse his plate just as his father stepped into view.

Ritsu did not look up when his dad set his plate down on the counter beside Ritsu. His dad hovered, watching in silence as Ritsu grabbed a sponge. He squeezed it out under the tap of searing water until suds erupted along the surface.

Mr. Kageyama did not leave as Ritsu began to scrub his own plate.

“…Maybe, in your third year, you could join Student Council, you know Ritsu? Better chance of being president when you’re not a freshman, am I right?” He paused, silent. “Maybe…maybe you can even join second year. But right now, you’re younger than all those other kids, so when those other kids get to do things you can’t…”

Ritsu stacked the plate on the drying rack and moved on to his empty glass.

“This is the first year we’ve have a kid in Salt Mid, you know? It’s new. It’s very new. We’re getting acclimated. A year from now? We’ll be a lot more comfortable.”

“I know, Dad.”

“I know it sucks seeing other kids doing things that you wanna do too, but it’s just…it’s different, in our case.”

“I know. I’m not mad.”

Mr. Kageyama shifted his weight from foot to foot. He nudged his plate closer to the sink. “…You can be.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Oh, okay,” Mr. Kageyama twisted his hands together. “You know, I’m…taking a break from work, after dinner. Your mom and I are going to watch Jeopardy, or maybe a movie. Depends what’s on. Make some tea too. You should join us. Little…family night.”

The sink began to steam. The tap had been cranked to the highest, hottest it would go. Ritsu snagged his father’s plate and held it beneath the stream.

“Sure. Tell Mom I’ll finish cleaning the kitchen.”

A small smile cracked on Mr. Kageyama’s face. He clipped Ritsu’s shoulder with an affectionate bump. “I’ll find us something interesting to watch.”

Mr. Kageyama scooted around the counter, sights set on the open door to the right. Ritsu watched him slip back out into the dining room before pulling his hands away from the sink.

He watched the doors for any sign of his mother or father as he siphoned off another sphere of water from the tap. He shut off the sink, and sunk his hands back into the center of the ball, uncomfortably hot. He breathed in. He breathed out. He appreciated the tingle in his fingers as he made the water crawl back into ice, cold, smooth, numbing his skin.

He braced his elbows against the counter and waited out the silent seconds before letting the ice flash back to water and fall. He pressed his cold hands against his neck, warmth sinking from his neck to his fingers, cold pressing from his fingers to his neck. It was calming. He closed his eyes and thought about nothing else.

Everything was fine.

Reigen’s credit card history was a wonderfully baffling thing.

He’d been the subject of more “suspicious activity” warnings than he could count, all of which occurred back when he ran Spirits and Such. It wasn’t hard to figure out why. A man whose daily spendings were only ever on ramen, beer, and a frightful amount of cigarettes should have no business purchasing ancient cursed babushka dolls from off-grid antique shops, or 14th century talismans off eBay, or enough salt to exterminate Japan’s slug population. Arataka Reigen was, however,  a man who bought these things. Arataka Reigen’s credit card company was likely sick of him.

It was almost nostalgic now, after four years of uninterrupted credit card service, to swipe it and receive a block-lettered “CARD DECLINED” message from the cashier’s reader. This did not surprise Reigen. He was in the middle of preparing, and that preparation included bulk purchases of incense, calligraphy ink, spirit tags, gold leaf, silver, cinnamon, and minerals whose names were beyond Reigen’s ability to pronounce. Reigen simply slipped a second card through the reader and made a mental note to call up the company and clarify that, yes, ramen-and-beer-guy was the one making purchases of recycled smelted-down silver ore and definitely-not-cursed objects.

Well, he would call them after. After he had finished crafting his every best spirit ward, and melting down his candles, and amateur-blessing his salt, and stringing up enough garlic, ginger, and cinnamon necklaces to stock a woman’s jewelry box. It could be quite a while before the credit card company heard from him, considering the bulk of work on his plate. He’d trashed almost everything from his Spirits and Such days, down to the pink tie, and rebuilding took effort.

Still, if he was going to face Mogami again, he was going to do it prepared. No spirit was going to kill the 21st century’s greatest detective and psychic without a good fight.

Luckily, Reigen had all the time he needed to do just that. For ten hours a day, staked out in his car in the Chinese take-out lot behind the police station, Reigen recreated his old hoard of spirit fighting objects. He did so with occasional glances to Tetsuo Isari through the back window, just to ensure the man was still there, still breathing, still himself.

Reigen made good progress. Reigen had complete about 2/3 of his spirit wards on the day that Mogami reclaimed control of Tetsuo Isari’s body.

Reigen set down his half-finished tag, kicked on the engine, and drove. He did not intend to tail Mogami this time. He had a different plan of attack in mind.

Mogami’s front door was not locked.

Reigen was able to slip in with nothing more than a twist of the knob. He held his breath this time, and slipped a handkerchief from his sleeve to press firmly over his nose. It made things just bearable. The smell was still something that seemed to stick to his skin and cling to his throat, a sticky, festering rot like disease. If he breathed slowly enough, with the rag pressed firmly against his face, he could almost pretend not to notice.

The house grew colder the further into its interior he went. Shivers racked his body uncontrollably. Shuffles rose muffled through the floorboards, mice or rats perhaps scurrying unseen beneath his feet. He had no source of light to ground himself, only the sharp dark edges of furniture and doorways, the pale outlines bleeding through from some window, somewhere.

He kept on, eyes set to the kitchen. That was almost visible, lit with the slatted dusty lines of sun leaking in through the gaps in the blinds. The same single chair as before had been pulled away from the table. Closer up, he could see the marks of teething rats tattooed into its legs, and grimy scuffs forming the arcs where it scraped the floor. He breathed methodically through the rag, focused on not thinking as he dropped into the chair. He at least counted himself lucky for not spotting a single cockroach among the filth.

Reigen straightened his back, fought down his shivering, and willed himself to not jump at every creak and scratch of the settling house around him. He tapped a hand to his pockets to ensure his spirit tags were still tucked inside. Everything he’d prepared was on his person. Everything he had to defend himself against Mogami.

So he practiced a smile, something calm and collected and devastatingly self-assured. He tried it again, back straighter, legs crossed, cool, confident, precise, deadly. He was good at it—No, he was great.

Almost enough to trick the voice in his mind screaming at him to run.

….

It took nearly an hour, sitting in the cold blackness, for the front door to creak open. Reigen startled to attention and ignored the flushes of panic through his gut at the sound of clunking footsteps. He held his breath, hyper-focused on the steady thock of shoes getting closer.

Reigen tried not to squint when the light flickered on. He met it only with that practiced cocky smile. He leaned back, and tapped the chair next to him as he stared into the eyes of the thing walking around in Tetsuo Isari. “Have a seat,” Reigen goaded, and he did not dare to blink before Mogami did.

Mogami held a single plastic bag. He placed it on the counter to his left, one bottle of cough syrup clinking and rolling on its side. A few more things jammed shape into the bag. Reigen could not see them, but from the small packaging and sharp corners, he assumed they were medications too. Something uncomfortable jolted through Reigen’s stomach at the thought. He had been tailing Tetsuo endlessly; the man was not sick.

“I’m surprised you came back,” was all Mogami said. He turned his back to Reigen and busied himself with the contents of his bag. “Are you that eager to die?”

Reigen shrugged. “Guess I need a little adventure in my life. Or it might have something to do with you occupying that body again.” He sharpened his eyes, trying for something precise and cold. “I’m giving you one last chance to get out.”

“Tetsuo’s hired a psychic then.” Mogami reached into the bag. He pulled out the bottle of cough syrup and placed it in the molding cupboard. “Didn’t think he’d figured it out yet.”

“Tetsuo didn’t hire me,” Reigen responded. “Just think of me as a ‘good Samaritan psychic.”

“Are you planning to exorcise me?”

“That’s up to you. I’m giving you one last chance to leave voluntarily.”

“I almost feel bad for the psychics who come after me. So under-prepared to deal with a spirit who know everything there is to know about psychic powers. I was one, after all, when I was alive.” Mogami shut the cupboard and turned. The thin lighting made him a thing of shadows, bulky, dense, unpredictable in its movements.

Reigen ran his fingers over his pocket, tracing the outline of the tags inside. He hoped the dark disguised the anxious sweat beading along his brow. “Tough talk—I bet you don’t even know the extent of my powers.”

“I don’t need to.” Mogami did not move, did not take a single step closer, but the pulsing gravity in his hollow eyes seemed to lock Reigen in place. It was a powerful force that threatened to stop the beating of Reigen’s heart. “Your powers don’t matter, because in my presence, psychic powers of every type burn.”

He stepped forward. Reigen would have risen from the seat if he weren’t shakily locked in place. A hot drop of sweat sluiced down his cheek. He could not raise a hand to wipe it away.

“Burn?” was all Reigen managed. His confident smile twitched and fell. He did what he could to keep his face calm and cold; he felt he was failing.

“My aura is a very, very powerful source of psychic heat. Your own aura can’t bear to interact with it. When I take one step closer, they’ll clash, and yours will short circuit, and your powers will burn you from the inside. This is your last chance to run.”

Reigen swallowed. He could not run.

His mind churned for any possible escape. The banter had lasted much shorter than last time. He’d bet on it, planned to ask questions while Mogami still found him amusing. All that fizzled from his mind in the moment of boiling panic.

“Listen,” he tried once, weakly, but it was too late. Reigen screwed his eyes shut as Mogami closed the last gap between them.

He waited.

Silence followed, and a lot of nothing.

Reigen opened his eyes, somewhat surprised to find he’d raised his arms above his head in protection. The binding on his body had loosened, so he took his chance to jump from the chair and stumble back, reestablishing the distance between himself and Mogami.

“Guess my powers are just too strong for your little barbeque trick. Now why don’t we chat a bit before I—“

“You’re not psychic,” Mogami said simply, flatly. It was a statement beyond argument, but Reigen tried anyway.

“I’m quite good at concealing my aura, which is why—“

“No, you are not psychic.” A thin smile stretched across Mogami’s face. Entertainment, which Reigen took as a good sign. It gave him more time. “That…that just now was a fun trick I discovered many many years ago: psychics are impressionable. Psychics will manifest the powers they’re led to believe they have. All I had to do was tell you that your powers would burn you, and if you believed me, you would burn. You believed me just now.”

“I saw through your bluff—“

“You didn’t burn because you’re not even a psychic. A simple man. A simple powerless man, breaking into my home and threatening me. And you want me to be afraid of you?” Mogami’s grin cracked into a full smile. It was a twisted, horrific look on Tetsuo’s gentle face. Reigen fought down a shiver. “It’s adorable.”

“Well, you expected me to be dead by now, and I’m not! I’ve exceeded your expectations! Doesn’t that make me more of a threat?” Reigen asked, arms thrown wide. His pockets jangled.

“If a single cockroach survives an extermination effort, do you consider it a threat?”

“Quite possibly. I hate cockroaches.”

“You’ll find none here. Pesky cockroaches get killed, one way or another.”

Reigen backed up another step. His back hit the wall, releasing a puff of dust and chips of rotted wood. He coughed once, then again, more forcefully until he was almost doubled over at the waist. The smell was making him light-headed. His heart beat in sluggish, panicked rhythm.

“I’ll give you one more chance to explain why you’re using Tetsuo, got it?!” Reigen tried. His choked on his words and coughed again. His hands shook. “And if you can’t be talked out of him, you’ll be exorcised out of him. Capiche?!”

“I’ve explained myself already.”

“That’s still bullshit, the soup thing. That’s not Keiji Mogami.” Reigen rose a little taller. “You spent your whole life exorcising evil spirits and then you kill yourself, and you become one. Something’s missing. Something’s not right here. You’re doing something more. I’ll bet you wanna tell someone, yeah? Dying to share your nefarious…soup plan? Well I’m all ears! Lay it on me!”

Mogami raised both his hands in a show of innocence. He shrugged. “Ghosts are not always that complex. We eat to survive.”

“You eat lesser spirits to survive I’m not…I’m not stupid.”

“I eat whatever is most easily available. Energy is energy, and I take what I get.”

Reigen’s hands crawled, prickling numb and sickeningly sticky. The rot in the air had to be more. The smell and the soup and the using of Tetsuo’s body and the—

“Why did you buy cough syrup today?” Reigen blurted out. “You miss that taste too? Tetsuo doesn’t have a cold. It’s not for him. You got other puppets I don’t know about?!”

Mogami had no immediate answer. His lip curled up, and in a white hot flash of panic, Reigen watched the mirth vanish from the spirit’s eyes. Reigen felt his free window drawing rapidly to a close, and jammed a hand deep into his pocket for the first spirit tag at his disposal.

“You know, fake psychic man, I think I’m willing to work with your conditions.” Mogami stepped forward. His eyes had flashed to ice, his tone a lilting, dangerous, cold curl of sound. Reigen stared on, bug eyed. Mogami stopped just in front of a drawer draped in shadow, and he opened it.

“Okay, good…meaning what?” Reigen prompted. His throat had gone dry. He trusted none of what came from the possessed man’s mouth.

“You’re here to talk me out of using Tetsuo’s body. You want me to give up possessing him, permanently, and we can put this little business behind us.” Mogami’s hand dipped about in the drawer. “I’m tired of this body too. He doesn’t sleep well anymore; he drowns his brain in coffee. It’s not as pleasant in here as it used to be. I’d be happy to let him go.”

Reigen had crouched, one hand extended defensively. The other still clenched around the tags in his pocket. He could hear almost nothing over the pounding in his ears and the adrenaline-spiked dizziness swimming in his mind.

“Okay….that’s good…we’ll start from there…” Reigen muttered.

“Excellent,” Mogami replied, a mirthful smile on his face. He stepped forward, and he dragged from the drawer a butcher knife. Reigen stared wide-eyed as Mogami drew it up happily against Tetsuo’s throat, head tilted back, blade shaped into the skin like Tetsuo’s neck were putty.

“Oh,” Reigen whispered.

“I’ll get rid of this useless thing,” Mogami’s smile flashed with malice, “and I’ll take you instead.”

Chapter Text

Mob had broken his promise.

He was sitting at the stairs again.

Mob sat with his hands wrapped around two spokes of the banister, his weight braced against the edge of a wooden stair. He craned his neck closer to the door. Ten steps still separated him from the thin leaking light at the top. It was enough, he figured, to not endanger the man above. And if no one was in danger of his powers, then there was no reason to stay in his bed.

At least that was what Mob told himself. Mogami had been clear with his rules: do not come near the door when there were voices above.

But then the voice came back, and suddenly that rule was impossible to follow.

Mob sat still, hardly breathing. He loosened and tightened his grip as he listened, tapping along to the natural rhythm in the muffled sound beyond the door. It flooded his mind with wonder. A real person was just beyond the threshold, with a face and a body, a life, a name. It was a person who must see people every day. Someone who walked around in the world outside, someone with a job and clothes—oh clothes—what sorts of clothes did he wear? Different kinds. Not the same every day.

A tiny movement caught Mob’s eye. A small dot, falling in staggered bursts from above. It rode down a single line of silk. Its eight legs were curled in against its pinprick body. Spider. Mob’s elation sunk as his eyes traced its path from above.

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It hit with just the tiniest plick against Mob’s barrier, no noise, no interruption. Its thread hung loose now, like a ghost. Mob fixed his attention back on the door and thought no more of it. The spiders were constant, and not worth dwelling on. Just like the room, like the barrier, like the percentage toward explosion—they had all stagnated into something immutable.

Not the voice though. That was new. That was alive, and it was changing. It sounded like warmth. Mob could be enveloped in it without needing to touch it; that made it safe from him.

A bang shook the floorboards, rattled dust loose from the ceiling. Mob didn’t flinch. He perked up instead, because the voice had gotten louder—much louder. The energy and color packed into it made Mob’s heart quicken. His palms were slick against the banister spokes. Mob scooted one step higher.

To his joy, the voice carried on. A long, endless string of utterances, muffled words on repeat. Its cadence fumbled out of control, and it was unlike anything he’d heard even on television. Television was calm and smooth and practiced. This man was an explosion of sounds that tingled up and down Mob’s body.

It did something else television couldn’t—it took Mob away from himself. The anxious flushes in his mind dampened; the hyperawareness of his body and his barrier fell away to the back of his mind. All Mob’s focus poured into assigning a face to this man, a body, an outfit, a name, a reason, a life. Mob liked this man a whole lot, and he worked hard to craft an image that made the man look kind.

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Short hair or long hair or tall or short or old or young. He could be a in a fancy suit or workout clothes or a tshirt and slacks or a big poofy jacket or maybe it did not matter because he sounded like he was moving around too fast to even really tell. Mob wondered at that energy. He envisioned being able to be so loud and active.

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Mob thought nothing of the spider. He thought nothing of his master. He thought nothing of himself.

And he thought nothing of his barrier.

Just the man above, the banging about and his loud careening voice and who he was in his own life. Someone fascinating. Someone new. Someone else entirely.

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A mouse scurried on soundless feet up the rail of the banister. It lived in a hole beneath the top stair, accessible through a small slit between the floorboards against the door. It paused, off-put by the motionless boy in its path.

It crept closer, bit by bit, and stopped just shy of Mob’s thin hand curled around the wood. One step closer, and it sniffed his finger. Its whiskers tickled skin.

Mob’s hand twitched. The mouse turned on its heel and scampered off to the bottom of the stairs.

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“Oh.”

Reigen’s legs had rooted to the spot, his eyes unblinkingly trained on the silver glint against Tetsuo’s throat. Luckily he had a gift for charm. Arataka Reigen, the 21st Century’s greatest Silver Tongue, was capable of reasoning his way out of anything.

“Oh… oh oh oh oh. No. No no no no no, don’t.”

Usually.

Reigen swallowed compulsively. His mind processed nothing. He put one hand up, the other still rooted in his pocket. “Don’t don’t don’t don’t. Don’t do—why? Why why why why why come on!? Come on! Come on no!”

Mogami shrugged. It heightened the pressure against Tetsuo’s neck. “You’re annoying me. Let’s get on with it.”

Feeling snapped back into Reigen’s legs.

He lunged.

There was no plan to it, he simply threw himself full-body at the possessed man. Mogami pedaled back one step before Reigen’s momentum toppled them both. Mogami’s head collided with the ground first. Reigen winced at the crack until the impact smashed into him too. One elbow slammed to the floor, one knee taking most of the collision while Tetsuo’s body absorbed the rest. Mogami arced at impact, enough to break the locked elbow holding the knife to his throat. The arm bounced back, and Reigen snatched the wrist with all the force he could muster.

“Give me that!” Reigen’s voice cracked, jittering free hand snagging the handle just below the blade. Mogami’s other hand shot up and locked to Reigen’s wrist. They formed a woven chain, Mogami to handle, Reigen to Mogami, Reigen to handle, Mogami to Reigen. Reigen jerked and twisted and kneed Mogami in the face as he fought for control of the weapon. “Let go! Let go let go let go I said let go give it to me holy fuck you’re gonna kill him.”

“That’s the idea. Now get off,” Mogami craned his head to the side, Reigen’s knee jammed into his jaw as, straddling, Reigen yanked the knife up. Mogami pulled it back down.

Sweat slicked both Reigen’s palms. He yanked, and his grip slipped. His eyes widened.

“Losing your grip?” Mogami chided from beneath. His smile was back, and he pulled.

Two of Reigen’s fingers popped off the handle. Three still clung desperately, twisted and white. Reigen strained his wrist to keep the blade directed horizontally, away from either neck.

“No! No! Let go. Give it—holy shit. Give--!!” Reigen choked on the words as one last jerk from Mogami tore the handle from Reigen’s hold. Reigen hissed and drew his battered fingers to his chest for only the split second before he saw the knife drop again toward Tetsuo’s throat.

Reigen’s hand shot out without thinking. “I said don’t--!” and he grabbed the only thing he could.

Mogami stopped shy of dragging the knife across Tetsuo’s windpipe. Reigen’s fingers were wrapped around the blade, shielding the man’s neck. All four digits were ghostly white and slipping with streams of red. Mogami froze to investigate Reigen’s face: just as white, wide-eyed with shock. His jaw had clenched tight. Reigen hardly seemed to breathe. Mogami tugged once on the blade experimentally. Reigen let out a small gasping noise, face draining, though he did not let go.

“I can adjust to a vessel that’s missing a few fingers, you know,” Mogami remarked. He tugged again, for no purpose other than to elicit another reaction. Reigen bit back the noise, though his whole body flushed with the pain. His other hand slipped shakily into his pocket and grabbed the first tag. He slammed it aimlessly againt Mogami’s cheek.

Like a fire cracker, the tag popped.

Mogami howled and released the knife in order to tear the tag off his face. Reigen used the moment to push off of Mogami, knee acting as leverage against Mogami’s face. He took the knife handle in his left hand as he stumbled off. He stopped only once his back collided with the wall.

Mogami pressed the back of his hand to his face, testing the burned imprint of the sigil from Reigen’s tag. His eyes flashed to Reigen, and Mogami stood, just a bit wobbly.

“I’m keeping this!” Reigen announced, displaying the knife. He steeled himself, and with a single snap of his left wrist he dislodged the blade from his right palm. Reigen hid the wince.

“By all means. There are plenty more sharp objects in this house.”

“You’re being unreasonable!” Reigen blurted out. He brandished the knife outward in a poorly thought-out threat. “How about maybe we don’t kill anyone huh!? Why not—why don’t we do that?! You know?! Not kill anyone!” He arced the knife, and his eyes dropped in frantic spurts to his clenched right hand. Its steady throb pulsed through his whole body, made him light-headed and a bit sick. Reigen looked away when blood dripped from his knuckles. “No more knives! No more sharp objects! No more cutting people’s throats or…hands! Let’s just not!!”

Mogami stood. Thin red scratches like claw marks littered his throat, only a few deep enough to draw blood. Relief wracked Reigen’s body to see that Tetsuo hadn’t been killed in the struggle, but the sensation lasted only a moment. His eyes flitted to the still-open knife drawer, the stoves, the oven, the shut cabinets—Reigen had no real measure of how many deadly things resided in this house. The knife in his hand was less than useless.

He set the knife down on the table beside him and sunk his hand into his pocket instead.

“I came prepared you know. Spirit tags--that one I stuck you with?—yeah I’ve got—in my pocket—it’s dozens that I made. And some of them work.”

“Some of them?”

Reigen swallowed. “Most of them, I mean? Look—all I need is one to work, and poof. Vamoose. You’re gone! How’s it…I mean, doesn’t that put you a little on edge?!”

“No,” Mogami answered simply. He rubbed his reddened neck. “You’re not a real psychic.”

“But the tags—“

“--are fake too, or else poorly made.” Mogami tapped two fingers against the light sigil burn on his cheek. “Skilled psychics have trouble making any that work. You’re not skilled, and you’re not a psychic.”

“Oh I’ve got years of skill! Years and years! I’ve been making these longer than you can imagine.”

“Like the one you tried to exorcise me with last time?” Mogami cocked an eyebrow, slimy smile back on his face. Reigen balked.

“That was an old tag, okay!? That was different.”

“Uh-huh.”

Carefully, Reigen unfolded his right hand. It felt cold, clammy, slick, and burned with a concentrated slit of acid across the palm. He didn’t look at the blood. Instead he dug it into his right pocket, fighting the wince. When he pulled both hands from his pocket, they held a dozen crumpled spirit tags each. The ink ran, slicked with sweat and blood.

“Okay, you think these are duds, yeah? Yeah?” Reigen jostled his hands, brandishing the tags in front of his face. “Okay. I mean alright. Sure. Wanna bet? I’ll play bets. Here’s my deal, okay? Ready? Yeah? It’s this—“ Reigen thrust his hands down and out, body displayed unprotected. Sweat slid down his face, soaked through his suit, mixed with the blood in his palm. “Come possess me! Space for rent right here, y-yeah? Yeah! Not gonna resist. Not gonna fight. All I’m gonna do is slam you with these tags if you get too close! They’re duds right?? Right!? So you’re golden. You’re set! I’m all yours!”

Mogami considered the offer for a few silent seconds. Then he cracked a wide smile, head cocked.

“You’d rather I kill Tetsuo with your own hands?”

A ripple of terror rocked down Reigen’s spine. He held his ground. “No, I—Look! I’m putting my faith in these tags! I obviously don’t want you to take over my body you stupid—Just…don’t phrase it like I asked for any of this, okay?! It’s creepy!”

“Possession is significantly creepier, I promise.”

Reigen shuddered. “It—things like that! Knock it off! Are you taking my deal or not?! Come possess me. Just know I’m taking one last swing with these babies!”

Another silent moment, and Mogami nodded. He stepped closer, and the air around Tetsuo adopted a churning, pale green glint. Another step. Tetsuo and the thing inside him split along a fissure, something ghastly and seeping and dark walking just a fraction of an inch behind Tetsuo’s loose puppet body. Another step, and hardly five feet of space separated Reigen from his attacker.

The throbbing in Reigen’s hand became unnoticeable beneath the swamp of adrenaline. His whole body quivered, tags at the ready.

Step.

Feet spread.

Step.

Hands braced.

Step.

Mogami reached a hand out. It brushed against Reigen’s throat.

And Reigen slammed all two-dozen spirit tags against Tetsuo’s body.

The house had fallen silent.

Blackness crept up the stairwell as the sun set, swallowing Mob’s heels first, then his legs, then body. The thin rectangle of light from the door had clicked off. Mob sat, ears straining, searching for any noise or sound or sign beyond the barrier of the door.

He twisted his hands together. The shouting had stopped abruptly. And the smaller noises that followed were too hushed for Mob to make out. He would have gone back down the stairs normally, would have crawled into bed and fallen asleep before the darkness overtook the basement.

This, though, was not normal. Not this time.

Things always got quiet again, but never this gapingly hollow. Never this…absent.

His Shishou’s aura had vanished.

Mob threaded his fingers in and out of each other, rubbing at his palms, kneading into his knuckles as he focused on finding even the tiniest wisp of Mogami’s psychic signature. Nothing. And more nothing. It left an emptiness in Mob’s chest. It felt like he’d been sent into freefall, left alone in a situation he could not handle by himself.

Even when Mogami left the house, his aura only ever grew fainter, steadily diffused as Mogami established distance between himself and the house. It was an easy blip to detect at all times. It was a constant thrumming presence in Mob’s life for the last four years.

And it had vanished in an explosion that left Mob’s psychic core ringing.

“…Shishou?” Mob called through the door. He waited, still fidgeting. Mob pressed his hand to the grain of the door. “Shishou? Are you out there?”

His hand gripped the knob, and he pushed the door open. It swung steadily, creaking, stuttering as it caught on splinters along the floor. Mob stepped over the threshold and blinked. His eyes adjusted to nothing. Pitch blackness beat down from all sides.

Mob pressed on toward the kitchen.

“Shishou?”

He stumbled, foot colliding with the leg of an upturned chair. Mob grabbed it just in time to keep from toppling, and he held himself frozen there as his balance returned. A gust of wind beat in from the foyer. Mob shivered, and he swiveled his head around. His hands dragged away coated in dust. Some coppery tinge in the air tickled his nose. It unnerved him.

Mob turned around and padded out of the kitchen.

The living room was a place he hardly ever visited. Mob stepped into it now, scanning the shadow contoured-corners, the single couch, the untouched bookshelves along the wall. He startled when his toes scrunched into carpet.

“…Are you here, Shishou?”

Mob swallowed, listening to the hollow nothing that answered. The draft swept through the living room too, and Mob wondered with a note of terror if the front door had been left open.

He wouldn’t check. He could not get near the front door.

Mob found the stairs instead. These were carpeted too, just a bit damp beneath his feet from the leaks in the roof. Mob clung to the banister as he climbed. His legs trembled just slightly with the effort, his breathing fast and shallow. His head felt light.

Mob opened the upstairs doors in sequence. All empty. All dark. He didn’t dwell in any of them. Each empty room only heightened his nerves, quickened his heart, brought pressure behind his eyes. He could only search the house. If Shishou wasn’t in any of the rooms, then he, Mob, would have to…

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Mob trailed his fingers along the wall as he encountered the end of the hall. In the darkness, he could make out the outline of only a single remaining door. He swallowed, and backed off a step.

It was the door Shishou had forbidden him from opening.

Shishou had also forbidden him from sitting at the stairs, but he’d broken that rule. Now Shishou was in danger. He’d vanished somewhere, and Mob needed to find him. Help him. Figure out what had taken his aura away.

“Shishou…who was that man?” Mob asked. His words echoed back at him. Nothing.

He shuffled closer. “Are you…Shishou, are you in there? Please, Shishou…”

Mob’s voice cracked. If Shishou wasn’t in the house, then he was outside somewhere, and Mob couldn’t…Mob wouldn’t…

Another cold step closer, and Mob rested a hand against the door. He applied pressure, and it did not yield to him. He tried to knob, and it would not turn. The forbidden room was locked. Mob leaned into it, cheek against the door, palms pressed open to it, seeking comfort.

“Please tell me you’re in there, Shishou…” Mob muttered against the wood. He slid down the wood and sat, immobile, against the gritty door.

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Mob couldn’t go outside. If Shishou were taken out there, Mob would be useless, and alone, and unprotected. Shishou had to be inside. Shishou had to be inside. Shishou had—

Mob stood, and he braced a palm against the brass knob. One spark of power cracked from his hand. The metal brace around the keyhole buckled. Mob gave another pulse of energy. The deadbolt burst. It took only the gentle ease of Mob’s shoulder against the door for it to wheeze open.

“Shishou…?”

Mob took the room in, heart pounding with the terror of shattering a rule he was never meant to break. He just had to check. He just had to see.

Moonlight flooded in through the opposite window, which consumed almost the whole wall, and it was augmented with the yellow gleam of streetlights below. A large bed sat to the left, swathed in pale silver. A dresser, mirror on top, stood beside it. Mob reflected back to himself, a small thing of long tangled hair and loose tattered clothes. A bookshelf wrapped around the corner, then a table with a single chair, then a dresser, and then.

Shishou?!”

Tears erupted in Mob’s eyes. He braced both hands against his open mouth, a keening cry of shock tearing from his throat. He felt immediately sick staring at the limp, slung head of his master, suspended at a break in his neck from the ceiling.

A tiny gust of air entered behind Mob, eliciting with it a creak from the beam supporting Mogami’s hanged body. Mogami’s limp hair fluttered, his clothes catching with the wind—the same clothes Mob had always seen him wear. The broken angle of his neck left Mogami’s half-lidded eyes staring out, crusted, unfocused, unseeing.

And there was something Mob had seen just once around his Shishou—the thing of razors. It fanned out just a few inches from the body, catching glimmers and shimmering with the tousle of the breeze. Its surface was made of sharp, serrated edges, and it forced something horrific to squeeze against Mob’s heart.

Mob put one shaking hand out. Once it was in view, he could not focus on the hand itself. Instead he saw only the eruption of razors from his own swamping barrier. His eyes shot to the mirror, where his small body had cocooned itself with the same razor mesh, the same violent, dangerous thing on his dead—

Mob stumbled back, and his own barrier sliced off a lock of hair that swung into its path.

97%

Reason failed him. Mob had no explanation for why his master had killed himself beside the physical evidence in front of him. And Mob knew in the core of his being that Mogami had succeeded, and absent aura sat against his core like the lack of a heartbeat.

Mob curled his arms in close. He pushed through waves of overwhelming horror, his breath hot and ragged and peppered with noises he did not consciously make. He did the only thing he could—he backed away.

It was too late though. The image had burned into his brain. It overloaded his mind.

He ran.

Mob shot down the hall, took the stairs two at a time with his hand skimming the banister. His mind wasn’t clearing. His thoughts weren’t forming. The reality of what he’d seen beat in heavier against him with each passing second. Mob let out another keening crying, finding no response in the black house.

Another brush of wind, Mob turned toward the foyer. He’d been right—the front door had been left open.

And it smelled…sweet. It smelled clean, and cold, and not at all like the hot suffocation that filled his lungs in the house, where he paced and shook and watched his vision blacken with each passing moment.

And the body. Shishou’s body. Shishou’s body, hanging just above him. Curdled at the skin, fingers curled and sockets hollow and the rope seemingly melded into skin. Dead, dead in the house. Dead above Mob.

There was no plan to it. Mob moved. He raced to the door and the inky world beyond. His feet collided with cold stone. Stone became grass, which sheared away before each footfall, leaving wet pulp and mud beneath his beating steps. The vastness of the open sky and the world stretching off in all directions, even after four years, could not overwhelm him more than the image of his dead Shishou scorched behind his eyelids.

So Mob just ran. He ran aimlessly. He ran through the dark. He ran only on the prayer that no people were outside to cross his path.

It was forbidden to go outside, Mob knew that, but he could not stay in the house any longer.

Chapter Text

Reigen could not hold his coffee mug in his bandaged hand, so he balanced it between his knees. He stared at the couch across from him and came to a very unimportant conclusion: Tetsuo Isari looked young.

In fact, with the knitted blanket draped around his still-shaking shoulders, and his own mug clutched tight against his chest, and his tousled too-long hair flopped on his forehead, and his wide, tired, timid eyes flitting around the room, Tetsuo could easily pass for a scared and confused college student. Reigen could almost say the same for Jun. Wearing pajama bottoms, a camisole, and a winter jacket thrown on top, she sat beside her husband and rubbed his knee. The disarmament on her face made her look almost like a kid.

Reigen glanced sidelong into the mirror lining the opposite wall. He didn’t escape that classification either. His suit crumpled up near his collar bone and made him look small beneath it. His face betrayed the anxiety he’d been trying to quell beneath the surface. His white shirt and blue tie sported droplets of blood, and wet streaks ran haphazardly down the front of his suit—unconscious wipings of his hand, Reigen guessed. He glanced to the wrapping of gauze binding his right fingers together. It was pink and oily, maybe in need of changing but he didn’t have the medical knowledge to know. Looking made it hurt more, so he focused back on his knee-balanced mug instead.

He cleared his throat, and tugged one-handed down on the top of his suit. “I…should I start?” he asked. His eyes bounced between the two sitting across from him.

Jun’s eyes flitted to Tetsuo’s neck for a split second. A dozen marks criss-crossed his skin, slashing at varying depths and angles. The scratches had been shallow enough to clean and leave unbandaged.

“Yes,” Jun answered, tense. “Tell me what happened.”

Using his left hand, Reigen lifted his mug from his knees. He tested it against his lips, still too hot. “So, lucky for you I guess, you hired the only PI in the area who also used to be a spiritual consultant…psychic…well not ‘psychic’ psychic but—I mean I did freelance work with haunted places, or haunted people, or…yeah…That—not important.” Reigen chewed his tongue. He risked a glance to Jun, whose hand had gone tense on Tetsuo’s knee. “This might be a little tough to believe, what I’m going to say. You seem like a very rational person, so please believe me when I say it’s not a joke and not a trick. I just need you to listen long enough for me to fully explain.”

She nodded once, white knuckles gripped tighter to Tetsuo’s leg. Jittery, Tetsuo raised his mug to his lips and drank.

“Tetsuo has been possessed on an off by an evil spirit named Keiji Mogami.”

Reigen hung on those words. He tested the air, investigating Jun’s expression. It hadn’t changed, still taut, still forcibly calm.

“…An evil spirit?” Jun repeated after a moment’s silence. The words drew out on her tongue. Reigen steadied his breath and pulled himself tall.

“Yes,” Reigen reassured her. He ignored the flush of discomfort down his spine. “The blackouts and the unexplained absences—they happened whenever Mogami took control. Tetsuo had no way of knowing what was happening. That’s why—the way he’s been behaving—the loss of energy and the forgetting, it was because of the spirit possessing him.”

Jun’s knuckles were paper white.

“An…evil spirit…you say—an evil spirit has been…possessing Tetsuo? That’s what you’re saying? That’s what you’re telling me…?”

Reigen squirmed under the aggressive edge in her voice. He looked away. “Really, yes. I am being 100% serious. I know you probably weren’t expecting—and you probably haven’t processed—but spirits do exist. And one happened to take control of your husband. I can prove--”

Reigen flinched, cut short at the sound of an open-palmed slap to the back of Tetsuo’s head.

“Ow!”

“Tetsuo Isari what the hell did you piss off?!” Jun gripped his shoulder and pulled it close. Tetsuo just barely kept his coffee cup balanced, head snapping to stare at her, baffled.

“I—me!? Nothing!

Reigen leaned as far back as he could, startled eyes shifting back and forth between the two.

You…you have been making fun of me for five whole years for being terrified of this sort of thing and now you—“

“Jun—“

“—go out and get your dumb ass possessed—“

Jun--”

—by the dead evil spirit of—what was—Mogami?—Keiji Mogami?—The psychic!? Reigen do you mean the psychic Mogami?”

“Yeah,” Reigen answered, chokingly short. He made one twitchy gesture toward the door, eyes wide. “He—his house—that way. Two blocks. Three blocks? Don’t really know the walk was a blur. Wasn’t paying a lot of attention since I was, on the walk over I was carrying…” He ended with another loose gesture toward Tetsuo.

Jun’s eyes followed the line of Reigen’s hand. She stared for a few seconds on the shut front door. Her face paled a fraction. “Keiji Mogami committed suicide in his house 30 years ago. Tetsuo—“ Her husband flinched at the address. “Did we buy a house right next to a man who hanged himself?”

“No, not the one right next to! It’s—he said three blocks! And that—only in horror movies! I mean! That’s only a problem in bad horror movies, you know?? You buy the house. The haunted. It’s. There’s always a real estate agent? It—I’m not putting words together.”

“No you are not!” Jun released him and ran both hands through her hair. “You…stupid…

“Come on, Jun—“

“How many times did you make fun of me?!”

“Jun—“

“Laughing your ass off when you hung that ghost thing in our closet—!“

“Those were jokes, Jun! You know—just—l-like when someone’s afraid of spiders and you gotta buy a fake spider on a string you gotta! It wasn’t mocking—it was—it was all—“

“It was in good spirits?” Reigen offered. He choked on his coffee under Jun’s glare. “Nope, okay, sorry.”

“Well, good job! I’m sure laughing now!” Jun knocked his shoulder again. “How? How!? What were you messing with?”

“I swear it wasn’t me!”

“Tetsuo, tell me!”

“I-I don’t know.”

“You better know because if this…if it happens again…you stupid man.”

“Don’t you think—maybe—you know?—I’ve suffered enough here?? I’m the victim! Don’t yell at me.”

“Too bad because I am yelling at you! You—how long now?? Months, Tetsuo! This way you’ve been acting, it’s been months. And you didn’t—you never said anything. Nothing to me. I had to hire a PI to track you! Possession… Why, Tetsuo…? Why didn’t you say anything…?”

“I didn’t want to worry you,” Tetsuo muttered into his mug.

Jun raised her hand again. Its energy had vanished, and she only smushed it against Tetsuo’s cheek. He leaned under the pressure. “Of course I’ve been worried…you stupid…”

“Well I didn’t want you to be…” His eyes flitted across the room to Reigen, then Tetsuo looked away. “You had enough going on, so when I started to feel…I-I mean I didn’t. I didn’t know until today—in that house—with this man—this--”

“Reigen,” Reigen answered.

“Reigen.” Tetsuo trailed off. He pulled his shaking coffee to his lips and drank. He still shivered beneath his blanket. “I didn’t know anything at all… Until suddenly, it was like I woke up, a-and I woke up suffocating beneath something else that. It was trapping me. I felt like I was buried way far underground, but I could still see, and feel, and hear but couldn’t—nothing I said or tried would--…” He pulled the mug to his lips again but did not drink. It only hovered there, visibly trembling now. “I really tried to stop it. When he pulled out the knife. I tried everything. I tried everything.”

Jun’s lips moved soundlessly. She pulled her hands away from her husband. “…What happened with the knife?”

Tetsuo stared off glassy-eyed as he released one hand from his mug and set his fingers shakily to his throat. They skimmed over the raw red cuts, feather light. Tetsuo swallowed convulsively, and his voice dropped to a whisper. “He was going to kill me, Jun… He was going to slash my throat, Jun. And I felt it. I-I was going to die, holy shit I was going to die Jun…”

Tetsuo curled forward. Jun’s hand moved back on his shoulder. It rose up and down, as if attempting to swat him. Her face twisted, and whatever aggressive intention sat behind the action vanished. Instead she folded herself against Tetsuo, arms wrapping around his broad shoulders. She curled her knees up against him, and he lowered his face into her shoulder.

“Oh my god… Oh my god…” Her hands grabbed and moved and grabbed at him again, as if trying to get every part of him close. She rocked with him. “Why? Why would he kill you? ”

Tetsuo’s face twisted too. Eyes shut, he leaned into her hug, trusting his weight to her as he buried his face in her shoulder. He shook his head and gave a single powerless shrug of his shoulders. “…Don’t know. …Don’t know what I did…”

Reigen had held his mug pressed tight against his lips since he last spoke. Finally, he lowered it. He stared down at the floor. “That—I tried to get an explanation for what Mogami was doing but, I mean I was trying but everything got a lot…stabbier…than I expected so uh… Nothing. I got nothing from him. But the two times I followed you—him—Mogami—both times he used your body to go shopping. He’s a spirit so—you can’t buy things as a spirit and I guess…what he told me was that he missed being able to just eat and walk around but I don’t…I don’t buy it personally.”

Tetsuo looked up. He pulled himself a fraction out of Jun’s grasp, and his bothered eyes settled on Reigen’s wrapped hand. “Stabby…right…sorry about it—your hand. I’m sorry.”

Reigen shrugged. “Not like that was your fault. Sorry about your neck.”

“Not like that was your fault.”

“It a little bit was.”

Jun loosened her hold on Tetsuo. Her attention was back on Reigen. She fought to regain some of the composure on her face as she spoke. “Is it gone? What happened? What do you know?”

Reigen fidgeted. He set his mug down on the coffee table with a thock. “When I was tailing Tetsuo, the very first day I noticed the change when Mogami took over. It’s—I mean it’s something recognizable—that I’m used to seeing. In my old work I knew what it looked like. Tetsuo, you were leaving work when he got you. Then he took you—used you—to buy some cans of soup, brought them back to that house. I confronted him and tried something to exorcise him but it didn’t work. He tried telling me he wasn’t doing any harm and then just—sorta forced me out onto the street. With you. Like he got bored of me, or bothered? Either way...”

“That was you,” Tetsuo muttered. He stared at Reigen in silence, chewing his lip. His eyebrows knitted together. “I remember you now. You said you were a neighbor. Does that mean—did you know? This whole time? You knew about Mogami but you didn’t tell me. Why?!” Tetsuo’s voice cracked, and he sheepishly pulled back in on himself.

“What good was knowing going to do?” Reigen answered, matter of fact. He braced his elbows on his knees and leaned forward. “What could you have done? Hired a psychic? You already did, accidentally. And I was keeping a good eye on you I swear.” Reigen pulled back, a little more reserved in his words. “Knowing would have…That would have been hard to deal with, because you wouldn’t be safer, or less possessable. You would just be…horrified, probably, like you are right now. Or dead maybe. If Mogami was being cautious he might have just decided to kill you and find someone else.” Reigen tapped his own neck and motioned toward Tetsuo. “Which—yeah.”

Tetsuo drummed his fingers along the side of his mug. He nodded once. “Okay…Y-yeah…I get it, I guess.”

“Keep going, please,” Jun added. Her words were a forced calm.

“I kept following you after that. Prepared charms and talismans and–everything, really—anything I could think of to use next time Mogami grabbed you. That ended up being today. Mogami used you to buy cough syrup and…I actually don’t know. Something else—it was in the bag. I confronted him in the house again, tried to ask him what it was but he lost his patience and—“ Reigen looked to Jun. She just held his hand now, her thumb stroking across his knuckles. Reigen motioned cautiously to his own neck. “Mogami—I still don’t know why—decided to kill Tetsuo and take me over instead. He had a knife from the drawer. Butcher knife. I got it away…”

Reigen raised his bandaged hand in presentation, the one Jun had wrapped in ace bandages when he and Tetsuo had first stumbled in the front door. A ripple of self-consciousness rocked his body. He felt like a little kid, displaying some injury to the teacher. The white horror on Jun’s face made it worse. Shamefully, Reigen lowered his hand back to his lap and covered it with his left. His heart rate picked up, and it quickened the throbbing in his hand.

“I came with some antipossession tags and charms to use to exorcise him. They’re tricky to make right, and Mogami assumed they wouldn’t work. I’d tried one already and all it did was singe his cheek a little—your—that, the left side. Sorry about that one too.”

Tetsuo skimmed a finger along the raw red patch, the branding of the sigil. “I hardly feel this one, honestly. Don’t worry…”

“Just wish I’d used the right one first,” Reigen answered dismissively. “Cuz one of these—some of these—“ He glanced to Jun, shook his head. “Story, story right. Where’d I leave off? The tags, right, I—since Mogami didn’t believe they’d work, and he wanted to take me over as vessel, I kinda…I cut him a deal.”

“You told him he could come possess you if you could hit him with the tags. Whoever wins, wins,” Tetsuo answered. He spoke fervently, still shivering beneath his blanket. A steely assurance sat behind his eyes, and he swallowed. “I remember that part. From the knife onward, I remember those things.”

“So you remember the—“ Reigen made sawing motions at his neck.

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry.”

Tetsuo pulled the mug to his lips, but he did not drink. He stared into it, lost in thought. “…I also remember that you got him. I felt that. You slammed me with those tags and tore him out. Gone.” Tetsuo glanced up, voice higher and faster.…He’s gone…right? He’s gone now?”

“I really hope,” Reigen said, and he avoided eyecontact when he spoke. “One of those tags—some of them—all of them? They got him out. They should have exorcised him completely, nothing left. But trutsting a ‘should’ isn’t always safe…”

“How do I know?” Tetsuo asked. His shivering was back at full force, and he’d grown paler since the conversation began.

“Watch yourself. Check for signs. Keep a schedule. Don’t let your guard down.” Reigen shifted his eyes to Jun. “Have someone you trust watching out for you.”

Jun straightened. Her jaw was tight, eyes unblinkingly fixed on Reigen. She intertwined her arm with Tetsuo’s, and she became the bigger thing between them despite Tetsuo’s height. “I can do that. I have vacation days I can use. People to call—do you have the names of psychics you trust you can pass along?”

Reigen let out a small laugh. “Well you still have me hired for the next week. Beauty of upfront payment.” He slumped a bit. “But yeah, active psychics. I’ve got some numbers I can pass along.”

Jun nodded. She gave Tetsuo’s arm one last squeeze and stood. “You’re welcome to the rest of the coffee pot, Mr. Reigen, and anything else from the first aid kit for your hand. The knife that cut you—it was in an old abandoned house for 30 years… Probably why you still have your fingers and Tetsuo still has his neck but, it wasn’t clean was it? Tetanus shots. I know the name of a doctor who’ll answer the phone at this hour. I’ll schedule for you both—appointments. Tonight if you want.”

Reigen waved her off, hit with a sudden overwhelming exhaustion at the thought of driving to the hospital. He glanced at his watch—1:05 am. “Tetanus isn’t going to kill me tonight. I’ll do something about it tomorrow. Sleep first…”

Jun met him with a level stare, then nodded. “I’ll schedule an appointment for you anyway, for tomorrow. We’ll cover it or—just add the cost to your fee since…it’s our fault—“ She swept her fingers through her hair, flannel pajamas skimming the ground as she walked toward the kitchen. “Real estate agent. Her next.”

“Real estate--The house, Jun…?” He twisted to face her. “Come on, I don’t wanna sell the house! I like our house!” Tetsuo’s words dragged out with a whine.

“Yes we’re selling the house! You almost died!” She paused just shy of the kitchen. “Don’t…Don’t think about it. Just rest now. I’ll call work for you too, let them know you need a couple days of sick leave. I’ll do everything, don’t worry. Please, just sleep.” She fidgeted, hand to the kitchen doorframe. She thought better of going in the kitchen, and instead walked back to the couch. She lowered herself in front of Tetsuo and motioned for him to set his coffee mug down. He did, and she pushed into him, arms clasped behind his back. Jittery, Tetsuo gave himself to the hug. His hands rubbed up and down her back, grabbing, finding comfort. He breathed deep and steady into her “I love you. Just be safe.”

“Yeah…yeah, I can do that. Sorry. I’m sorry… Love you too.” he whispered into her hair. When she pulled away, Tetsuo locked eyes with Reigen. Tetsuo appeared suddenly exhausted, but the fear had vanished from his eyes. Tetsuo dropped the eyecontact to watch Jun disappear back into the kitchen. Then he buried his face in his hands.

“…She’s right. I should sleep. Oh god, I should sleep. Feels like it’s been days.”

Reigen’s eyes dropped to the half-filled coffee mug. “Maybe you should be drinking decaf then?”

“Maybe you should mind your own—maybe you--…” Tetsuo let out a long shuddering breath and looked up. “…I don’t like decaf. Sorry, that was snappy. I’m… I’m overwhelmed. A lot—it’s a lot. Thanks for…not minding your own business, actually. Really. I think I still have my neck because of it.”

“No sweat,” Reigen answered. He looked to his own mug with displeasure. He placed it down on the coffee table. “Your wife’s paying me to meddle…may as well make sure you get your money’s worth.”

Tetsuo pressed harder against his eyes. “Jun… Can’t believe I put her through this, God… Really am an idiot. I don’t ask for help when I should. That’s my problem. I knew something was wrong-like wrong-and I didn’t…didn’t go to anyone… don’t want people to worry…” Tetsuo pulled his face out of his hands, eyes to Reigen. “You…you didn’t ever figure it out? What he was doing? Because I don’t—I don’t know. I can’t even imagine. I can’t understand it.”

Reigen shook his head. “I tried, got nowhere with it. He bought soup and he bought cough syrup, and he brought it back to the house both times. He said it was for him. For…you, I guess? That’s horrifying.”

Tetsuo shivered in response. “You know his corpse is still hanging in that house? Cursed. Can’t even be touched. It’s just an old ghost story I know from the precinct. Never crossed my mind. Never even worried about it before. I knew my house was close, but it’d only ever come up once. Some case from years ago that…”

Reigen waited out the silence with patience. He investigated Tetsuo’s face, which had frozen. Tetsuo’s hands had clamped to his knees, and he stared forward, seemingly at nothing.

“…You okay?” Reigen asked.

“The little brother... The little brother said… Oh god. Oh god. He was dead of course he was dead but possessing people--of course he could have taken—a little kid would have been easy. A-a vessel before me? What does he do with his old vessels?”

Reigen blinked. He looked Tetsuo up and down. “…Uh?”

Tetsuo’s eyes flashed, boring deep into Reigen. “You said soup. He was buying soup, and cough syrup, like to keep someone alive, yeah!? Someone alive in—oh god. Oh god. And me—he was using me to do this and I—maybe I was the one who—oh god. Oh god oh god…” Tetsuo bounced from the couch, unbalanced. His violent shiver had returned. Reigen watched him run to the foyer and snatch the jacket of his uniform. White as death, he raced back to the living room and snatched his keys from the table. His slash marks leaked red.

“None of those things were sentences,” Reigen said. He hopped to his feet, instantly on edge. He tapped his pockets. The spirit tags were still packed inside. “What did that mean!? What are you doing? What’s--”

“It’s for work! Don’t—don’t worry. Tell Jun it’s a case. I just—I need—I’ll be back! Later. Sometime. I’m—“ He tore his hands through his hair and breathed in once, deep, barely steady. “I’m good. It’s okay. I need to get to work right now. I figured out—maybe—oh god.”

Reigen stood frozen in place and anxiously confused as Tetsuo moved into the foyer and pulled open the front door. He vanished into the dark, leaving a gust of icy wind sucking through the house. Reigen’s mind had not caught up.

“Oh god…” a voice from behind muttered. Reigen turned, finding Jun standing just at the threshold between kitchen and living room, phone clasped in hand. She investigated the empty spot on the couch, as if her disappointed stare might return her husband to the spot.

Reigen pointed at the front door. “…Was that normal?”

“Unfortunately,” Jun answered. She slumped against the door frame, dropping until she was sitting on the seam between wood and tile. She drew her knees to her chest, contemplative eyes staring at the open black void of the front door. “Why does he have to…be like that? At least I know he’s not possessed… That—that’s 100% Tetsuo.”

“I can tail him?” Reigen offered.

Jun dragged her hands down her face. “No. Go home and sleep. Do something about your hand. I’ll follow him. Please. You’ve done enough—more than enough—thank you…so much. I hired the right investigator, I guess.”

Reigen gave a laugh, a small nod. He glanced again to his watch: 1:15 am. She was right about one thing: he was exhausted. Reigen considered going home and just…curling up into some sort of shape on the couch with the television going and an alcoholic-something in his good hand. He decided that sounded good just about now.

He thought about how the apartment would be empty, and decided he’d turn the television volume up louder than usual.

“Just remember: you’ve got me another week. I’ll be a pair of eyes on Tetsuo. Should…should stop anything bad from happening. I’ll make more talismans, you know? Just in case…” Reigen ended on a yawn. His eyes were heavy. His body was heavy. He looked again to the open door.

“Go. Sleep. We’ll talk about it later.” Jun stood. “I need to go get real pants on and follow him.”

“Best of luck.”

“You too.”

Reigen gave a small smile, and he turned on his heel. He had brought nothing, so he picked nothing up as he set his sights on the inky black door. The lawn vanished in the dark, and only the street remained lit with the periodic dotting of lampposts. Reigen took the front steps with caution and swiveled his head, searching for the direction he’d come from. It was a blur. He just remembered carrying Tetsuo’s violently shivering body as Tetsuo slurred directions to his home. Reigen shivered at the memory—forced depossession was not a safe experience for the vessel.

Or, maybe he was shivering in the wind. It picked up, whipping the fringes of Reigen’s suit. Reigen picked a direction and stuck to it. If he could just find the Mogami house, he could find his car. Then all he needed to just get in, drive, get home. He could get out of his bloody clothes, shower, and fill his body with whatever alcohol he kept in the fridge. And sleep, oh god sleep.

Left felt correct. Reigen took the left road and kept walking. He filtered in and out of light posts, shivering. Wind provided the only real sound. It was a dead neighborhood this late at night.

Exhaustion pulled like deadweight on every muscle in his body, but it provided almost a pleasant numbness. Alcohol, and sleep, and cigarettes, and television. He had all that to look forward to, and it wouldn’t matter that he was going home alone because, near-death aside, it was over now. He didn’t have to think about it.

Reigen’s hand fidgeted. He turned another corner. Maybe he’d call his mother when he got home.

Maybe not—it was late.

Reigen never made up his mind. He was torn from his own thoughts by the crashing sound of something ripping through the bushes. Reigen froze, split between confusion and terror as he glanced left to the hedge of bushes blocking out some house behind them. He focused on at the barreling mass of something flying aimlessly through the other side.

He leaned in, catching just a faint glimmer surrounding the moving thing.

“Huh…?”

Reigen only had time to raise his arms in protection before the thing exploded through the bushes.

The outside world was terrifyingly large. Mob had forgotten.

The ground was cold, painfully rigid as it beat against the underside of his feet. Every slam seemed to shake him to his bones. He ran with the sidewalk, icy wind swirling in his wet lungs as he panted and heaved and coughed, moving, moving, getting far away from the house and what he saw inside. His eyes darted everywhere, searching for the tiniest movement that might betray something living. He was unsafe outside—they were unsafe outside.

Bright flooding light filled his eyes, a car turning down the road. Mob slammed to a stop and pedaled away. His feet slipped off the sidewalk and into the grass. His balance faltered, and he collapsed into the lawn, atop a wet fibrous mesh of shredded grass blades. The sensation pulled a wet gasp from his throat. A gentle cry followed as he processed the blunt ripples of pain in his shoulder where it had slammed into the ground.

He hadn’t felt anything like that in years. The pain horrified him, as did the ache creeping through the entirety of his body. Adrenaline ebbing, he was faced with the stinging of muscles hardly used for years. It robbed him of breath. It rooted him with fear.

Another car—he had to keep running.

Using his shaky arms, Mob got himself standing again. He stood in place attempting to catch his breath before moving his legs again. One step, another, faster until he was racing aimlessly through the dark lawn. Things jabbed his bare feet. He kept going.

Bushes bloomed up ahead, and Mob did not stop. The nearest one let out a single screech as leaves and bark and wood shredded with the first touch of the barrier. He kept running, kept running, kept running, bushes bending and snapping and breaking beneath him.

He broke through the other side, and he looked up.

Horror filled his lungs like water. It ripped a gasp from his throat and sent his heels and toes digging into the concrete on the other side.

A man stood on the sidewalk, leaning in, eyebrow quirked.

Mob curled his hands in, shut his eyes, slammed to the fastest halt he could. It didn’t matter. He felt the crackling tear of energy that came with his barrier slamming through something.

He hit the man.

I’m sorry!” Mob gasped out. He collapsed to the sidewalk, arms folded over his head as he curled forward, sick to the pit of his stomach as he pictured the hapless man, half gored out along his front left side. He hit the man. He hit the man. He killed the man. “I didn’t mean to I didn’t mean to I didn’t want to I’m so sorry!! …”

“Oi, you should be. Watch where you’re going, kid. You coulda killed me.”

Shock flooded like ice through Mob’s stomach. He clenched his fists against the sidewalk and snapped his eyes open. Wind pulled at the edges of shredded paper littering the ground. Mob stared a moment, baffled, at the confetti strips of paper. They were white fibrous things, covered in ripped-apart symbols that meant nothing to Mob.

He raised his head slowly, shimmering eyes set to the tall figure of the man stepping back onto the sidewalk from the street where he’d stumbled. He brushed down on his suit, which was peppered with splatters of something dark. The man looked just vaguely annoyed.

Mob’s heart all but stopped.

“…You didn’t die,” he whispered, awestruck. Shaking, Mob got to his knees. It was the best he could do; he’d lost the energy to properly stand.

“Yeah okay but I could have. There—okay so there are no cars coming right now, which you know, that’s lucky. Streets are busy usually! You can’t go knocking people into the road like that, okay!? Watch where you’re running.” The man’s pockets brimmed with more of the torn strips of paper which had exploded onto the sidewalk. A few seemed to glow with flecks of red. The man patted his left shoulder with a wince. “Youch. You really hit hard, don’t you? How’d you even reach my shoulder?”

Mob stared, unblinking, heartbeat drowning out all else in his mind. He felt sick, and weak, and jittery, and all of that paled beneath the welling sense of wonder in his chest.

It was the voice.

That man, with that colorful voice. He spoke with that same over-energetic lilt, unmuffled, louder even than before. How much more colorful he sounded in person…

Mob’s eyes roved over him. Tall—oh the man was tall. And he had soft hair, and a confused face but not a mean one. He wore a suit and a tie and bandages around his right hand, black shoes, white socks, a white undershirt…

And he was in one single piece. Alive. Okay. The barrier had not hurt him.

“…Uh, kid?”

Mob swallowed. “Are you a psychic?”

“Huh?” The man blinked. “Uh-huh, 21st century’s greatest,” he answered dismissively. The man’s eyes darted around, looking for something behind Mob. Mob turned to look—there was only blackness. “You…do you live around here, kid?”

Mob curled his fingers against his knees, too-long nails digging into the ratty material of his pants. His mind was racing, finding conclusions, amazing things that set his mind alight. 21st century’s greatest… “You’re…the strongest psychic?”

“Yeah something like that.” The man’s eyes flickered again over the darkness again, more agitated, more unsettled. His brow creased. His attention dropped back to Mob. “Do your parents know you’re here?”

“No.”

“…Should they?”

“Did your powers cancel out my barrier?” Mob leaned forward. Overstimulation set his senses on fire, and he did all he could to pour his focus back into this man. This voice. This face. This man. This colorful man who hadn’t died.

“Did—huh? Look, I—“ The man crinkled his nose. He pulled back just a bit, and his disgust morphed into something raw and bothered. He investigated Mob with new eyes, the way Mob had investigated him. Some slow and horrified transformation took over his face. It worried Mob. “H-hey…are you…?”

The man reached his unbandaged hand out. Mob reeled away, as far as he could while still kneeling. The man’s hand contracted with a muttered apology.

“Please tell me,” Mob whispered. He lowered his head, fully bowing now. “How did you do it? Your powers—did they… The barrier. You got hit. You didn’t die.”

“It—what do you mean? What barrier? Look don’t—the kneeling—why are you…? And are your clothes—are those all holes? Why are there so many holes in your clothes? Where are your shoes? Kid, look at me.”

Mob raised his head. The man had gotten close, crouched down, quizzical face only a few feet from Mob. He sat on his haunches with one eyebrow quirked, mouth pressed into a firm bothered line.

“Did your powers get rid of the barrier?” Mob asked, brisk. He felt enveloped again in the man’s voice, protected by it. The nearness didn’t scare him anymore.

“What the heck do you mean barr—eh, yes, yep kid, that I did, uh-huh, no more barrier, okay? Stop talking about the barrier. Now are you gonna answer any of my questions or no?”

Mob curled his hands in. He stared at them, stunned. “Got rid of it…?”

“Yup, vamoose. Now tell me why you’re running around out here at night. Is someone chasing you?”

…No more barrier?

89%

Mob wrapped his arms around his body. He still felt like it was there, itching, unseen, occupying that peripheral space around his whole body. It was late, dark, and he could not tell by sight if it was there or not. He reached an experimental hand out, but it told him nothing. The barrier was not something he could ever reach through.

“Come on, don’t ignore me. Do you need me to take you home? Where do you live?”

But the man had said it was gone. The man, the world’s strongest psychic. The man with the colorful voice.

85%...

He had been hit and yet he hadn’t died. He was crouched, talking, hands twirling, movement and sound and life—so alive, very alive, not shredded, not dead, not dead.

82%...

And close, shielding Mob from the world. Nothing was shredding. Nothing was hurting.

80%...

If he trusted the man, then it meant the man’s psychic powers were suppressing the barrier. And if they were…if that were true…

79%...

79% 79% 79%....

“Hey…”

Something soft, and delicate, and careful brushed Mob’s long hair from his face. Four fingers, all wrapped in bandages, skimmed along his forehead and tucked his matted hair behind one ear. Mob looked up. His eyes were impossibly wide as he watched the man’s hand retract smoothly, leaving behind just the tingling sensation of contact.

The man’s eyes were creased in worry.

“Are you okay…?”

Touch…that had been touch.

Chest twisted in knots, Mob raised his own hand to his forehead. His fingers skimmed where the man had touched. The gentle thing that had run along his skin, traced the contour of his ear and left the curtain of hair tucked away neatly. Had touch always felt like that? Had it always left that warm shiver behind? It had been too long to remember.

Before Mob could understand, it was back, stronger, firmer, a hand gripped to his shoulder. A waterfall of sensation cascaded down Mob’s body.

“You’re starting to scare me. Come on, why are you out here? What are you running from?”

Shakily, Mob raised his own hand. He curled it up to his chest first, anxious, hesitant, before shifting it to his shoulder. He dropped it, feather light, on top of the man’s hand. The man’s skin was warm, just a little rough. His knuckles were bony, and his long fingers curled easily around Mob’s entire shoulder.

The man did not shy away from Mob’s touch, so Mob left his hand there, drinking in the sensation. He squeezed just lightly, and the man squeezed his shoulder in return.

“Hey…”

Tears welled in Mob’s eyes. He raised his other hand to the man’s outstretched arm, wrapped to it, pulled it in. The man allowed it to happen with very little resistance, just a light tugging as Mob’s trembling body folded to it, wet cheek resting against the man’s hand. It was warm. Warm and soft and safe. It was something that filled up a gaping chasm in Mob’s chest he’d long stopped noticing was there. Tears slipped in silence down Mob’s cheeks.

“…Come on, stand up kid. It’s okay, yeah? It’s okay. You can—yeah, you can keep holding my arm just. Here. Look I’m standing—you too. Come on that’s—oh geez, can you stand? What happened to—okay. Okay okay. Just—lean like that and you should be good. See? Standing. It’s good. We’re good, okay?”

Mob stood on shaky legs, most of his weight leaned into the man. Mob looked up, investigating the man’s face more. He looked exhausted, just like Mob felt. But discomfort burned deeper in his eyes, hidden just a bit in shadow beneath the street lamp. The man investigated Mob’s form, seeming to fully understand with glassy horror what he was seeing for the first time.

The man twisted, and he cupped his free hand to his mouth. “Oi! If anyone was chasing this kid you better run now! Or show yourself—I’m a greenbelt!”

Mob shook his head, slow and rhythmic. The man tilted his head down. He attempted to read the intention in Mob’s actions.

“No? No one’s chasing you?”

Mob continued to shake his head.

“Let’s…we’ll try this again, okay? You gotta promise to answer me. What’s your name?”

Mob thought about this. He held the man’s arm tighter, thinking of nothing else beside what this man sounded like, looked like, felt like. The warmth in his arm. “Mob…”

“That’s—okay I guess that’s a name. Where did you come from just now?”

“My Shishou’s house…”

“Uh-huh.” The man pulled back just slightly, just enough for his eyes to rove over Mob one more time. “You…do you live there?”

Mob nodded.

“H-how does your Shishou treat you?”

“…Good. He protects me. And other people…from me.”

“From your—the barrier?”

“Yes.”

“The thing that was supposed to kill me?”

Mob tightened his grip, nails digging into the man’s skin. “Yes.”

“You…Listen to me, Mob. We’re gonna get you far away from this Shishou, okay? Because how you are right now—this—looking at you—this is not right. Okay? Far away.”

“He’s dead now,” Mob whispered. “I-I don’t know what I did.”

The man balked. “O-okay. Okay okay. Okay just—see here—I need my hand back okay? Need to get my phone. I’m—we’re going to call the police, okay? They’re gonna help. They’re--the police will come here and take you somewhere safe and you can tell them about your Shishou and they can help you. Okay? You got that?”

The man’s hand dipped into his pocket. It took Mob a moment to register the silver glint that the man flipped open—trailing a flutter of dozens of shredded paper tags.

NO!” Mob yelled. He swatted for the phone, but the man held it far out of reach. Confusion painted across the man’s shocked features as Mob reached for it.

“Why not?”

“I’m gonna hurt them! I’m gonna hurt them! My barrier is going to shred them and kill them please you can’t call them here!”

“You—there is no barrier, kid! Please, calm down—just—this Shishou of yours? Did he tell you about this barrier?”

“Yes.”

“He was lying to you. This Shishou of yours is a bad person, alright? He’s lying. See? I’m safe. Not dead or shredded. So the police will be too. Just trust me.”

No! No you can’t!” Mob swung more desperately. He lost his balance and wobbled, reaching out and grabbing onto the man to keep from falling. Tears leaked down his face. “The barrier is real! It’s real! You’re psychic and canceling it out you don’t know! It’s gonna hurt them! It’s gonna hurt them! I’m gonna hurt them!”

Exasperated, the man stowed the phone back in his pocket. He took a deep breath, rubbing exhaustion from his eyes, and blinked a few times to clear his vision. He looked down to Mob with practiced, patient eyes. “Okay…what do you want me to do, then? Explain a little to me.”

Mob pulled his hands back to his own chest, releasing contact. He stared down at them as he thought of how to explain to the man. It was important though—he had to figure it out.

“I…I have psychic powers. And one of my powers is a barrier and it shreds up anything alive. It always happens and, Shishou he—“ Mob swallowed. “He was keeping me safe and away from anyone so I couldn’t hurt anyone but. Today. I couldn’t sense him and I went to find him and I did and he… When I found him… When I found him…”

“He was dead?”

“…Y-yeah.”

“You said ‘keeping you away from anyone’…Does that…I mean…how long? How long were you with him?”

Mob pulled his arms tighter against himself. “…I don’t know.”

“How old are you, Mob?”

“…I don’t know.”

“You don’t--?” The man chewed his lip, tired eyes staring deep into Mob’s face. “How do you not know…?” he asked with a whisper.

Mob hunched tighter in on himself. The man bent at the waist, closer.

“And you’re sure…you’re not gonna believe me if I tell you that you’re not gonna harm the police officers? Because you’re not gonna hurt them. And I really think I need to call them.”

Fervently, Mob shook his head. “They’ll get hurt. Please please believe me.”

The man rubbed his eyes, wincing slightly as his bandage twisted. The wince turned into a yawn that lasted well past the point the man tried to stop it. When he opened his eyes again, they were duller.

“Okay. Okay… Do you—just—do you want to come to my house? Just for tonight. It’s…late. Don’t feel like dealing with any more police officers tonight anyway. Maybe we just…go sleep. Get you some clothes or, a shower probably. It’s…I’m tired. You’ve got to be tired too.”

Mob loosened his arms from around his body. He stared up into the man’s tired eyes, searching for any hint of deception. There was none, only an openness that loosened the anxiety in Mob’s chest. He looked down and nodded.

“Yeah,” he whispered. And he put a hand out for the man. Mob was still staring at the ground when he felt fingers wrap around it. “I’m tired too.”

The man started walking. Mob moved in step behind him, stepping over the dusting of unexplained confetti that littered the street.

“Thought so…” The man stifled another yawn. Mob watched his head, swathed with a halo of light from the street lamps above.

“What’s your name?” Mob asked quietly.

“Hmm? Oh, right.” The man turned and offered a small smile, like Shishou never did. “You can call me Reigen.”

Chapter Text

It was quiet when Reigen got home.

The street. The car. His thoughts—mostly. He kept his fingers wrapped around the steering wheel and allowed them to warm in the circulating heat that had just kicked in. His seat was still cold, and the wheel too, sinking numbness into his icy fingers. Reigen leaned forward against the wheel. He killed the engine. The circulating heat vanished, and in its place sat silence.

Reigen’s mind was still quiet.

Then he glanced to his right, to the child dozing against the passenger door, his face lit by the streetlamps. Messy hair fell across his face—tangled certainly, but not matted like Reigen had thought at first glance. His clothes fit poorly, and he came with no jacket despite the dropping temperature. There was a thinness beneath his eyes, and Reigen suspected the boy’s baby cheeks were more from genetics than from nurture. The phrase “poorly cared for” ran through his mind, and it set something heavy in his heart.

“Hey kid…Mob…we’re here,” Reigen muttered, as if not wanting to wake him.

He received no answer. Reigen considered for a half second that he could carry the boy inside, but his bandaged hand twitched at the thought.

Did his parents raise him to be the way he was right now? Probably not—Mob had implied there were no parents in his life, only a “Shishou” who had wound up dead that night. The boy didn’t look capable of killing anyone, though Reigen figured the type of man who’d kidnap a kid probably made plenty of enemies who could.

“Oi, kiddo, we’re here.” Reigen nudged him softly with his bandaged hand. Mob stirred this time, blinking half awake. He stiffened at the sensation of a hand on his shoulder. Reigen retracted, watching as Mob touched the spot on his shoulder in investigation. Mob’s head turned, his eyes now inspecting Reigen with a wideness that reminded Reigen of a wounded animal.

“We’re…here…my apartment. You’d rather sleep in a bed than a car, trust me.” Reigen popped open his door. He hesitated while Mob struggled with his own. Reigen reached across Mob and opened his door for him too. The same stiffening—Mob pulled away from the closeness.

“Oh…thanks,” Mob answered. He waited for Reigen to step out onto the pavement before following suit.

Reigen shut his door, eyes set to Mob as Mob did the same on his side. A quick flick of Reigen’s wrist produced the proper key from his chain, and he pressed it into the manual lock on his door, twisting the bolt. Mob moved to the center of the driveway just a few feet ahead of the car, strategically far away from everything that surrounded them.

“There’s an extra bedroom since the people who lived here before me had a kid, and I never moved the bed out of it. It doesn’t have sheets or anything but—I mean there’s extra in the closet. They aren’t gonna fit right but they’ll cover it.”

Mob didn’t seem to be listening. His eyes flickered over his surroundings, drinking in more anxiety with each moment. That heavy weight in Reigen’s heart came back as he wondered just how long the kid had been locked inside.

“Just…follow me. It’s these stairs here. On the left just—yeah those. Just stay behind me and I’ll get us in.”

Reigen mounted the stairs. He flicked through the keyring by memory until he held the house key between his thumb and forefinger. The porchlight overhead gave him just enough visibility to find the deadbolt.

The echo of a dog howl sounded from somewhere down the street. Reigen felt something grip tight to the back of his suit. He paused, hit with another wave of heaviness in his chest before easing the door open. “Come on kid…Nothing inside here but us.”

It was a breath of cold air that hit him first. Reigen shuddered, flicking on the lights and wishing that, if only for tonight, he could walk into an already-heated house. Reigen stepped inside, and he felt the grip fall away from the back of his suit. “Sorry about the heating… I keep it on low during the day to save money. I’ll crank it up and it’ll be fine in like thirty minutes.”

Reigen looked over his shoulder. Mob shut the door behind them, turning to investigate the apartment with wide captive eyes. “…It’s warm,” he muttered, and stepped in line behind Reigen.

Reigen grimaced. “It’s…not…” He dropped the thought; he didn’t want to think about the implications. “It’ll be warmer soon. And I’ll turn on the rest of the lights so it’s not so dark. And I’ve got sheets for the bed in the extra room. And I don’t have any clothes that’ll fit you but you don’t care about oversized stuff do you? I’ve got pajama bottoms with the tie thing so you can have those just…I dunno don’t trip on the heels or anything.”

Reigen yawned. He pressed his uninjured hand to the bridge of his nose and squeezed, eyes shut tight. He felt the headache setting in behind his eyes.

“…Are you okay?”

Reigen opened his eyes, one eyebrow quirked as he looked down at Mob. Mob took one step back, investigating Reigen’s face.

“Is it your powers?” Mob continued. “Is it too much work holding the barrier off?”

“Huh…?” Reigen responded. What barrier…? What was he—“Oh. Oh uh, no it’s—“

“Shishou could never do it. He said it would take way too much power, and Shishou was strong. Is it…too much power…?”

Reigen twirled his hand through the air. “Kid it’s like lifting a feather. I’m not the strongest psychic in the world for nothing. Which reminds me you never answered any of my questions.”

“…Like lifting a feather,” Mob whispered, awestruck. He pulled his hands close to his chest, looking off into the distance as he considered it. Then his eyes shifted to Reigen in wonder. “It’s that easy?”

Reigen nodded, yawned again, and dragged his left hand down his face. “Just—come on. Linen closet is over here. It’s got—I’ve got towels too. A shower, probably, yeah. And soap and shampoo are in the bathroom already. And toothbrushes? Yeah okay I’ve got a pack of like…I dunno five somewhere. You can have one. Also my razor’s broken but you probably don’t—mean you won’t—whatever never mind I’ll shut up.”

Reigen pulled the closet open. He grabbed a towel he didn’t know he owned and tossed it onto the floor behind him. Sheets too, which definitely were too big to fit the twin sized bed in the extra room, but it wasn’t like he owned sheets for that particular bed anyway. He dug through the bottom and found a box of shirts he’d ordered with the Spirits and Such logo on the front. Reigen paused at them, then he pulled one out with a nostalgic smile. He twisted on his heel, holding it by the shoulders for Mob to see.  “Ah see? Used to run my own psychic agency. I’m a professional.”

Mob stepped forward, drinking in the logo. He took the shirt from Reigen’s hands. “What happened to it?”

Reigen bounced up. He curled one hand behind his back and stuck out the index finger of the other, chin tilted high. “I made too many spiritual enemies. I’d ruined so many of their heinous plans that they put a hit out on my life. I’d made myself a veritable pariah. Of course with my powers they stood no chance of defeating me, but I had to consider the safety of my loved ones.”

Mob hugged the shirt tight to his chest, following in step behind Reigen as they entered Reigen’s room. “That’s incredible…” he answered. Mob looked up as Reigen dug out a pair of pajama bottoms from the dresser drawer. “You’re incredible.”

Reigen stiffened. He tilted his head to Mob, pajamas in hand, face just momentarily slack. “I’m…?”

Mob hunched in. “…You’re incredible.”

Reigen blinked. He shoved the pajamas into Mob’s arms as he shook his head. “Nah, not that much. Just a normal psychic trying to be a good man. That’s all. Don’t read too much into it.” He released the pajamas once Mob got a grip on them. “Now…go shower or something. And sleep. Me too for that matter.” Reigen stood and rubbed his eyes. The headache was definitely worsening. The weight settled in deeper on his chest. It sent a thrumming anxiety through his hands which, he noticed only now, made them shake. He exhaled deeply and blinked away the stars in his vision. “Actually…scratch that…I need a cigarette first. Badly. Then we’re just…going to sleep. And we’re not waking up until we have to.”

Reigen motioned for Mob to follow him out of the room. From the corner of his eye, Reigen noticed the bathroom towel still thrown on the hallway floor. He put a hand out for Mob to wait, retrieved the towel, then pointed to the door immediately next to the master bedroom. “That’s the bathroom right there. Here’s a towel. Everything’s where I said it was, and you can wear those clothes for tonight. And the bed….eh, I’ll put the sheets on the bed. Later. When you’re done. All that sound good?”

Mob stepped forward. He grabbed the towel and nodded, “Yes, Shishou.”

Mob stiffened. Reigen did too. A nervous worry bloomed behind Mob’s eyes, a slight shaking in his frame. Reigen couldn’t quite explain the new pressure in his chest, something almost nice, doused in horror.

“I-I didn’t mean…” Mob glanced away. He hugged the towel close. Reigen straightened, his face set to a solemn mask.

“You said uh…You told me you ‘didn’t know what you did’ for your Shishou to uh… I don’t think—I don’t believe it was anything you did. Just, if you want my opinion. What…what did he…?”

Mob looked up, his eyes drinking Reigen in. Mob unwrapped one hand from the towel and shirt and pajamas and rubbed it against his neck, slowly, purposefully. His fingers tightened just a bit.

“…Hanged himself…?” Reigen asked quietly.

Mob nodded.

Reigen stared back, tense. His bandaged hand twitched, though he decided against reaching out. “That’s not your fault, Mob.”

Mob stared at his bare feet, his face slipping paler than before. “I don’t understand…”

Reigen squeezed his eyes shut and opened them, fighting the pounding headache as he searched for something to say. The exhaustion beat him, his thoughts stringing and falling apart. He shook his head instead.

“Not like I do either but just…there’s nothing more for us to do tonight, okay? Please just…get clean…get to sleep. And I can…help you figure out what happened in the morning. Does that sound good?”

Mob blinked, still staring at the ground. He nodded once, and Reigen opened the bathroom door for him. Reigen didn’t move until the door had shut and he heard the water running.

Reigen moved blindly to the balcony door. He fumbled with the lock before getting the sliding door open, his shaking left hand digging through spirit tags to get to the packet of cigarettes buried deep in his pocket. He patted along his breast pocket for the lighter, and fought the chill in his bones as the cold night air took over.

He shut the door, tapping out a cigarette with his palm and taking it in his teeth. It wasn’t until the third flick of the lighter that the flame caught, that he cupped his hand around his mouth and felt the hot acrid swell of smoke against his windpipe. He breathed in deep, sucking in the smoke until it all but burned his throat and held it deep inside his lungs for 5…6…7…

There were stars in his vision when Reigen finally exhaled. The sensation rushed through his veins like fire and quelled the shaking in his palms. He leaned against the glass door, slid down it, stared into the black starry night while his cigarette smoked gently between his two bandaged fingers that rested on his knee. Another drag, and Reigen held it for half the time of the first one before letting it go.

It was a stinging chemical warmth that rushed through his body, and he clung to it, because it was better than the chemical sting of his sliced hand. He shut his eyes, and finally found the moment of quiet to wonder why he’d reached for the blade…

His mind churned, and he found no answer. Neither did he have an answer for why he’d confronted Mogami in the condemned house to start. Why he’d stayed to fight. Why he’d found a kid running lost through the streets and took him in.

The kid who thought he was incredible…

Reigen ran his free hand through his hair. Anxiety lashed him like a whip as the reality hit him. Abused—the kid was definitely abused. Kidnapped, in all likelihood. Locked away, kept from people, convinced he was dangerous. Mob didn’t seem to be physically hurt, but Reigen’s mind recoiled at the thought of how deep the mental scars might run. What barrier…? What danger…? What exactly had he invited in?

The kid didn’t know how old he was…

Reigen pulled from the cigarette like a man dying of thirst, like he could flood out the anxious chasm in his chest with smoke, suffocate the nerves and the dread down. It worked, if only a bit.

The kid thought Reigen was incredible,

And Reigen hoped to god the kid would be alright.

Mob’s old clothes were crumpled on the floor.

He stared at the shower knob for a few silent seconds. There was one shower knob back in Mogami’s house, in the basement bathroom that Mogami had gotten water running through after the first couple days. That one was simple though, just a handle that tilted to the left and poured out cold water.

This one was different but—there was light here, at least. The ceiling light above Mob’s head had turned on with just a flick of the switch, something only Mogami had gotten to work back at home. Seeing made it different. Seeing made everything just a bit less cold once Mob tilted the knob and doused himself in the icy shower water.

He stood beneath it, wondering how many days it had been since he’d last showered at home, wondering if this new man cared that Mob was so dirty. It made Mob feel just a bit ashamed, because the man had been so clean, and so well-dressed, and so perfect except for the blackish stains near his necktie.

Mob let out a small note of surprise as the water did something it never did at home—it turned warm.

Warm, and then hot. That tingling sensation of contact crawled along Mob’s entire body. He basked in it, forgetting all else except the pressure of hot water loosening the dirt from his skin. He wrapped his arms to his chest and leaned into it.

His eyes flickered to the left. There was a bar of soap resting on a tiny shelf at knee height. It was white and simple, like the ones Mogami brought him at home, but it smelled fresh and potent under the torrent of hot water. He grabbed it, and he scrubbed. It cleaned better under the heat—made Mob feel clean like he never could anymore at home under the cold water in the unlit bathroom.

He whittled away the bar of soap, calming his nerves with the methodical scrubbing. He remembered this, almost. A lit shower, hot water, the heady fresh smell of dissolving soap; it was from his home, his old home. His chest ached at the thought of it, so he shut it down, and lost himself back in the warm deluge of water.

Eventually he cracked his eyes open, set the soap down and settled on the nondescript black bottle in the basin of the shower. Shampoo was written in its title, something Mogami hardly ever bought, something Mob hardly ever bothered with.

He set a self-conscious hand to his hair, feeling knots beneath his fingertips. When his powers spiked, they threaded through his hair and worked out some of the tangles which had built up where he slept, but the power spikes scared him. They would shear his hair against his barrier, keeping it only as long as the radius around him. He’d been okay for long enough that the tangles had built up, until he’d found his Shishou like—

Mob swallowed, and he reached unthinkingly for the shampoo. Uncapped, he poured a handful into his open palm and slowly, carefully pressed it into his scalp. His fingers worked through the roots, getting maybe two inches through before catching on snags. The shampoo loosened his hair some, but not much. So he focused on cleaning what he could on the surface. He knew he’d need more than his fingers to work it all the way through, but he was consumed with the thought of scrubbing out the apathy that had allowed him to get so dirty, so knotted.

He paused, and with a moment of wonder, searched for where that apathy had gone, that constant, pressing state of exhaustion which had fogged everything for so long. His finger tingled, his heart beat faster and his mind fired off clearer than he could ever remember—it was an energy which had been sapped out of him years ago, suddenly, inexplicably back.

Maybe it was the man’s powers. Maybe he was giving back all the energy the barrier had taken away.

The thought made Mob giddy. His mind raced as he considered everything he could do with energy, everything he could really do if the man—Reigen—was keeping the barrier suppressed. He could eat real food, he could walk outside, he could hug Ritsu…

Mob reeled himself back before his mind carried him away, unconscious happy tears pricking his eyes. Reigen was only suppressing the barrier, using massive energy to do it, something only he could do as the world’s strongest psychic. It wasn’t safe, still, for Mob to go home. It wasn’t safe for his family.

Mob doused his hair beneath the water, shampoo running down his shoulders as it rinsed clean from his hair. He shut off the shower.

But Shishou had said he was strong too. Maybe Reigen could teach him… Maybe he could learn…

Mob stepped over the rim of the bath tub. He gathered up the towel and wrapped it around his shoulders, a different sort of warmth than the shower. It was something soft and heavy and constant keeping the heat close to his body, clean and gentle and comforting.

He picked up the shirt from the floor, and inspected once more the Spirits and Such label running down the front.

Maybe, one day, if he learned the technique too, he could go home.

Isa’s face flashed beneath the passing street lights above, hands gripped to the steering wheel, leaning forward as if to urge the police car on though she stayed consciously just a few miles per hour over the speed limit.

Her eyes flickered in beats to the passenger seat where Tetsuo sat, his hands white-knuckled and interwoven. Tetsuo pretended not to notice her probing eyes; he pretended to have no reaction as Isa turned down the next neighborhood street and killed the car engine right in front of the condemned house.

Tetsuo reached for the door handle, though he froze at Isa’s words.

“If you’ve calmed down…is there any chance of me getting a real explanation for why we’re here…?”

Tetsuo kept his eyes trained out the window, settling on the dark shadow of a door flung wide open. He and Reigen hadn’t left it that way…at least, he thought not.

“Are you gonna back out if I don’t give you an explanation?” Tetsuo asked, voice dry and measured. He popped the door open.

“Of course not.” Isa opened the driver’s side, elbowing the door shut behind her. “But an explanation would be nice.”

“It’s not really something I can explain…” Tetsuo took a few steps forward, up onto the wet dewy grass. He moved almost robotically. “I don’t want to explain it. But Shigeo Kageyama is in this house.”

“You’re certain?”

“Just about.”

Footsteps squelched up beside him. The sound of the cop car locking broke the silence hanging thick in the air. Tetsuo walked forward, hand brushing against the gun in his belt. He hardly felt it with the numbness spreading in his fingers.

“Flashlight?” Isa asked. She flicked hers on, and motioned to Tetsuo.

“Oh, yeah, right. No…no electricity in the house.”

He seemed to swallow the words as he spoke them. Tetsuo unhitched the flashlight from his belt and flicked it on, eyes tracing the beam it cast in the half-trampled grass. No electricity in the house that imprisoned Shigeo for four years…

“We can wait, you know. The sun’ll rise in a few hours. That might be smarter than stumbling around a house half-blind.”

Tetsuo shook his head. The doorway grew closer, a single black maw that swallowed up everything inside, indiscernible in the blanketing darkness. “I can’t leave him in there, not even for a few more hours.”

Isa gave no immediate response. “Okay then.” Her beam flickered through the entryway. It caught only a small ring of carpet in the and nothing past that. “And if we find Shigeo in here, what do we say in the report about why we’re snooping around a condemned home at 3 in the morning?”

“I don’t know… I don’t really care, actually. Once he’s safe then I’ll…I’ll think of something.”

“Works for me I guess,” Isa answered. She pulled ahead of Tetsuo, not purposefully. His steps had become smaller as the door approached. Isa craned her neck to look back at Tetsuo. “Can I at least ask about your shaving accident?” Isa motioned to her own neck, eyes set directly to Tetsuo’s.

Tetsuo ran his free hand along the hot skin of his windpipe, the thin cuts still leaking. He opened his mouth as if to respond, then shut it, head shaking.

“…It’s gotta be some story,” Isa said, then spoke no more of it. She’d crossed over the threshold of the door, and set a hand over her nose at the wall of air that met her. “Okay, something’s definitely been living—maybe dying—in here.”

Tetsuo shouldered past her. His mouth had gone too dry to speak properly, so he swung his flashlight around instead.

“It’s…probably mice, rats, in here,” Isa said. She fell in step behind Tetsuo. “The ‘dying’ part I mean. …Didn’t mean to sound concerning.”

“It’s not you,” Tetsuo answered. “I’m just—this place is—when I was—“ Tetsuo shook his head. He breathed in deep, fighting to ignore the smell as he straightened. “Look for a basement or an attic. It’s not the ground level floor…it can’t be.”

Isa stared through his back. “…Got it.”

She veered off to the left, following the opening into a different, dark room. Tetsuo’s eyes flickered to her, and he called out, “It won’t be in there.”

“No?” Isa asked, though she didn’t leave the room, unseen except for the flashlight extended from her arm. She swung the beam around, catching a countertop, a table, upturned chairs, and glint of something silver. “It’s a kitchen in here. Bags on the counter. It—I think that’s a knife.” Footsteps, the beam bounced toward the silver glint. “Looks like dust was swiped off of most of these things. Someone was definitely in here recently.”

“Come on, I said not in there. Attic or basement, Isa.”

He heard the snap of gloves, the creak of the floorboards behind him. Tetsuo turned to face her, and froze in place at the sight of the knife in her grip. Isa’s eyes flickered between the blade and Tetsuo’s throat, blankly serious. “Looks like it matches.”

Tetsuo swallowed down the shiver in his chest and screwed his eyes shut. “Put it down. Put it away. I-I’ll tell you later, okay? Not now. Please just…not now.”

The flashlight beam carved shadows along Isa’s face. Her eyes softened a bit, remorse sinking into them as she lowered the blade. “Okay, got it… I’ll put it back. Basement or attic. We’re looking for a basement or an attic.”

Her steps became a soft, constant presence behind him, creaking where his feet creaked, falling damp where they both touched down on carpet. Tetsuo moved past rooms he hadn’t seen, flashlight beam swinging over dust-coated furniture: couches, coffee tables, drawers. The faint patter of small, unseen feet beat overhead, fleshed out by the small bodies that scampered away from the light.

Tetsuo’s flashlight beam lingered in the corners, scoured across entire rooms, fueled by the prickling anxiety thrumming through his body. His faith in the spirit tag banishment weakened with each step deeper into the house, each new creak and scuttle. He had no visual for the creature that had taken over his body, yet the terror ate him that any swing of his flashlight might reveal it.

“Tetsuo, we can go back,” Isa spoke, and startled Tetsuo out of his mind. He twisted to her.

“Why?”

“You’re shaking.”

“It’s…” Tetsuo glanced to his own hand. Isa was right—he was shaking. “Caffeine, Isa, and no sleep at all. Just that. It’s okay. Finding Shigeo is—that’s what I’m focused on right now. And we turn around after.”

“You handle caffeine better than this.” Her eyes shifted to Tetsuo, then forward again. “And cases too. You don’t ever shake during cases. What’s different, Tetsuo?”

“Basement or attic Isa just—come on. Basement or attic.”

“Or both?”

“Huh?”

Isa arced her light, catching a railing twisting upward, and an open door veering down a set of stairs. Both gleamed where the metal components of the rail caught the light, both sets of stairs buried toward the back of the house.

“I’ll take basement, you take attic, deal?” Isa flashed her radio as she stepped through Tetsuo’s beam of light. “Page me if you find anything.”

“Wait—like splitting up?” Tetsuo asked, an edge to his voice. He flashed his light up the twisting staircase, investigating the dark nothing beyond. His heart beat faster.

“Should we not?” Isa asked. She paused, moving one step closer to Tetsuo. “Is there something dangerous in this house, Tetsuo?”

Tetsuo’s beam swung, painting across the walls and ceiling, searching for any sign of the thing which Reigen had banished. Nothing appeared. “…I don’t know.”

“We can go back, Tetsuo.” Isa chewed her tongue, flashed her beam down the black, engulfing stairwell. “Or you can go back, and I’ll search top and bottom. Serious offer, Tetsuo. Go decompress in the car, and I’ll let you know what I find.”

“No…I’m fine. It’s fine,” Tetsuo answered. He moved forward, set his left foot to the first stair. He found nothing but darkness above.

“I’ll be quick, I promise. And I’ll page you the second anything seems off. You’ll do the same right?”

“…Yeah.”

“Good. We’ll reconvene right here, ten minutes tops.”

Isa’s steps dampened, faded, then vanished down the echoing stairwell. Tetsuo swallowed, focused above. He banished his ever thought to the back of his mind, trying and failing to focus on nothing. It was a talent he was usually proud of, keeping a cold, confident composure in the worst of cases. So why not now? Why not now…?

Tetsuo breathed in deep. He held the air in his lungs and climbed, forcing his mind into something icy and concentrated. “Shigeo!” he called out, ears tuned to the cracked doors he could now see lining the hall above. “Shigeo Kageyama, are you up here!? I’m a police officer. I’m here to help you.”

Tetsuo stiffened, hearing the echo of his voice in his mind. He’d been Mogami’s puppet, given Mogami free reign of his body, his voice. And this voice, and this appearance, were maybe horrifying things to Shigeo Kageyama.

He felt his composure slipping. Tetsuo creaked open the first door, already ajar, and shined the beam inside. A study, lined with books, uninhabited. He found himself hoping it was Isa who would find the boy first.

The second door, an empty bed sat inside, iced over with a white layer of dust. Tetsuo entered this room, swung the beam around. The closet stood cracked, and when Tetsuo elbowed one door open against its rusty hinge, he found only women’s nightgowns inside, their patterns faded beyond all recognition.

Tetsuo shut the door with hardly a noise. A creeping chill sunk down his spine. He turned on his heel and exited the room, stopping, breathing, only once the hallway carpet dampened his feet.

One more door stood at the end of the hall. If Shigeo wasn’t there, then it was Isa who would find him. Because Shigeo had to be here. Shigeo definitely had to be here.

“Shigeo…” Tetsuo tried once more. His ears strained in search of any response. They caught something faint, a gentle creaking from the last room in the hall. Tetsuo’s heartrate picked up. “Shigeo, are you up here? I want to help you. Please, just come out.”

He flashed the light through the open door. It caught a mirror against the far wall, Tetsuo’s own body illuminated in a swollen circle of faint light. Shadows cast around his eyes beneath his police cap, dark and indiscernible. He glanced to the right, finding a window stretching nearly the length of the wall. Moonlight fell through it in slats where the frame obscured its light.

The creaking rung out again. Tetsuo’s pace quickened.

“Shigeo!” He stepped over the threshold, swung the flashlight to the left where only a dusty bed sat. He caught his own pale reflection before swinging the light right. “Shigeo Kageyama! Are you in here?”

Tetsuo was right, someone was there.

His flashlight cracked against the ground, light fizzling in a few trying bursts before cutting out. Tetsuo made no effort to retrieve it. He made no effort to move, as the feeling in his limbs had sapped away, like dead frozen weights attached to his pounding heart. His mouth opened, and his eyes grew wide at the thing before him.

Tetsuo had not had a face to put to the thing inside his body, no image but the grainy photo he’d seen years ago, no identity but the rumors that circulated in his mind.

Now he did.

The skin along Mogami’s face had pruned like leather, sapped of moisture so that his flesh sucked to his bones, his nails curled out, his clothes hung loose. He was slung at a break in his neck, and his face watched Tetsuo from a broken angle, eyes dark and unseeing.

The corpse was smiling.

Tetsuo dropped to his knees. This was the monster inside of him. The face, the body, the being of the thing which had suffocated him inside himself, filled his lungs with water and twisted his hand to his neck with the pressure to kill. Unconscious tears leaked from the corners of his eyes.

Tetsuo’s radio vibrated. He did not reach for it.

“It’s not real… It’s not real…” he muttered to himself, and every repetition sharpened the image. It was an impossible reality, but it was his. It was a creature interwoven into his bones, that had stripped him of consciousness and used him for child abuse and—

Tetsuo had to breathe. He wasn’t breathing. Air stuttered through his wind pipe as he forced it. The blood pounding in his head was pushing the vision from his eyes. The radio crackled, again, Isa’s voice hardly breaking through his thoughts.

He looked up again, locked on the upward curl of Mogami’s lips. A simple, collected smile.

Mogami’s eyes had shifted downward to face Tetsuo on the ground.

Tetsuo sat up on his knees. He hugged his trembling arms against his body, grabbing at his own body so that it might come back under his control. It wasn’t Mogami. It wasn’t Mogami doing this—Mogami was dead and banished—it was just his own panic, something he could get under control, something he could snap out of somehow.

And then something else fell into focus: a gossamer red cloak that bubbled out from the body, floating, shimmering, warbling in an unseen breeze. The body creaked along the boards above, swinging with a slight bevel of the red barrier.

It danced just a few feet ahead of Tetsuo’s nose. He blinked through his tears, stared at it transfixed. He uncurled one trembling hand from his arm and reached out, shakily.

It would snap him out of it. He would wake up. He’d touch nothing, and the nightmare would crumble, and he’d wake up next to Jun and—

His fingertips halted just shy of the red warbling barrier. He raised his other hand to his throat and pressed against the cuts there. They burned, white hot and real.

All of it was real, as real as the preserved corpse, as real as the monster that took Tetsuo hostage

As real as the barrier which shredded anything that touched it.

Tetsuo’s hand recoiled in horror. He sat voiceless over what he’d almost done, and stared up, back at the smile, back at the eyes which had tilted down a fraction more to greet him.

He stumbled away from it, pedaling back as a raw cry tore from his throat. The eyes followed. He watched them follow until the tears in his own eyes blurred out his vision. He hit the back wall, his legs too shaky to run, so he curled in on himself. He curled and sobbed until footsteps raced in behind him.

Isa crouched in front of him, her hands roving over him, taking his shoulders, shaking him for some response he lacked the composure to give. He only grabbed her in return, pulled her close and cried into her collar. She shouted questions he couldn’t hear, until she gave up entirely and worked only on getting him to his feet.

She got Tetsuo’s arm slung around her shoulder and lifted him, turned with him until they both faced the open door. She muttered reassuring words she didn’t fully believe and set her sights on the staircase. It was a left at the bottom of the stairs, one long hall, a right, and then the door. She could get them out.

Isa glanced over her shoulder, sparing one last glance for the corpse.

Nothing remarkable stood out. It merely hung there and stared off, stone-faced, into the distance.

Chapter Text

When Reigen shut the porch door behind him, smelling of ash and smoke, the house was already warmer. He hesitated and wondered if he simply had fooled himself with the contrast, if his skin would adjust and he’d feel that permeating chill seep back into his bones. It didn’t. The warmth persisted. It was one thing, one small thing, but he was grateful. Reigen exhaled deeply, and tasted bitter ash on his breath.

He stepped further inside where the warmth swelled more, away from the icy panes of the sliding glass door. He pressed both cold hands to the sides of his neck to warm the stiffness out of his fingers. There was no sign of the kid yet, probably still in the bathroom judging by the quiet hiss of running water. So Reigen scouted out the living room couch, and he tossed a few pillows aside before he slumped into it. The cushions molded to his back, stole some of the tension from his shoulders, helping just a bit with the dull headache and tight nausea that his exhaustion brought on. Reigen breathed, and eased. Mob’s bed still had to be made, but maybe he could hold off for just a few minutes, rest here and let his eyes slip shut, and drift…just a bit…just for a little bit…

“Um… Mr. Reigen?”

Reigen jolted. He shot up too quickly. The room spun a moment longer after he stood, and he swallowed down the twist in his stomach.

“Oh! I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to—I’ll just…” Mob’s fingers tugged through a lock of damp hair. His eyes darted about in search of something, anything away from the man he’d just startled awake.

“Huh—no, no, hang on.” Reigen rubbed his hands down his face. He blinked until his vision refocused, remembering why he was here, remembering what had happened. “Don’t apologize. You’re right, you’re totally—I’m supposed to make your bed. I said I would. I am. Was just dozing. That’s not even my bed. Right. The sheets, um…” Reigen twirled his hand, eyes shutting as a huge yawn stole his breath. When he opened his eyes, they felt sticky. “The linen closet. In there is where. I’ve got. They’re. Just uh, hang on, and I’ll…”

Reigen stopped. He lost track of his own words as his focus fell entirely on the sight in front of him. The kid was standing halfway between the bathroom and the living room, his hair still a bit wet, and his borrowed clothes soft and loose. He stood a head shorter than Reigen, and his wide eyes stared back, lost, waiting for instruction. Waiting as though he needed permission to even get his sheets and go to bed.

God, it really was just a kid…

Reigen was awake now.

The thought came with a tightening in his still-burning throat. Things clicked into place in his mind, connections running along sluggish, bothered thoughts. It sunk in deeper and harder the longer he looked at the boy’s round cheeks and wide eyes, just a bit hidden behind a curtain of dripping hair. His hands were small, and he wrung them through his hair, waiting to be told what to do. He shuffled his feet, bare against the hardwood, and looked up to Reigen—an adult—like one. Like he was any other kid waiting for instructions from someone he trusted.

The thing that had run into him on the road—it had been more like a scared and lost pet to Reigen, something spooked and just a bit defenseless. Not a kid. Not this little kid in front of him.

He was though—just a kid.

And it hurt.

“Hey, uh, Mob…”

A kid, a person, someone with a last name, and a family and friends, Reigen imagined. Some kid looking to be sent off to bed so he could get up bright and early for school in the morning. What school? What family?

The image of Jun Isari flashed through Reigen’s mind, answering the door with a winter jacket gripped over her pajama top, the budding bruises of sleeplessness beneath her eyes, desperation painting her face defenseless as Reigen had approached through the darkness with Tetsuo’s nearly-limp arm slung around his neck.

Mob had parents like that somewhere, it seemed. Mob had people who waited up sleepless nights for the kid who never came home. How many nights, Reigen didn’t know.

Was it cruel to make them wait one night more?

“Look…uh, listen. Actually, scratch that, about the sheets, and the linen closet. Different idea. I’m thinking uh…before that, before we go to bed I mean, how about, how about instead we--” Reigen’s right hand ran along his neck. He winced when the stinging set in—the cuts, the bandages, right… “how about, we don’t go to sleep just yet? I mean I want to, god I want to—you do too, I bet—and we will—but I don’t…think that’s the right thing, right now. Maybe we should talk. Just a bit. Just maybe, a couple questions, so I know a little more about what’s going on, and then we’ll sleep, okay?”

Mob stiffened. His hands tightened to his hair, and he took one step back. “Are you gonna call the police?”

“No! I mean—it depends? Oh—oh, no then. Look. Look at me kid okay? I’m—no cellphone, yeah? My hands are empty. Pockets too they—oh man wow these tags—when did that even? Never mind. Never mind just—let’s sit in the kitchen. Let’s talk.”

Mob’s grip released from his hair. He dragged his fingers through as they let go, and Reigen noticed them snag. Mob moved toward the nearest kitchen chair, though his eyes stayed glued to Reigen, his expression like a cornered animal again. Reigen swallowed down the guilt and pulled out his own chair from the adjacent side.

Reigen sat, and he twisted his hands together on top of the table, leaning his weight against them. Mob pulled back just a fraction away from him. That stung somehow. To be so fully trusted and then…not. Reigen almost lost his nerve, almost sent the kid to bed with no questions asked.

Almost, but he didn’t.

“Your parents don’t know you’re here. They want to know where you are, don’t they?”

Mob waited, and he nodded.

“Is there some way I can let them know you’re here, Mob?” Reigen continued. He eased back, hoping Mob may come just a bit closer.

Mob considered the question. He pulled his legs up against his chest and hunched into them, his eyes cast aside. “Shishou wouldn’t like that.”

“Yeah well Shishou’s de—Shishou’s…” Reigen breathed deeply, though no matter what he felt as though there wasn’t enough oxygen reaching his bloodstream. “Let’s forget about Shishou, okay? For you, Mob. Can I call them for you?”

Mob’s jaw moved, his wide eyes steeled over, harder now, resolve tight in his face. He looked up to Reigen. “I…wouldn’t like that, Mr. Reigen.”

“And why not?”

“I told you already.”

“The barrier?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s not--…Kid.” Reigen flipped one hand out, searching for words. “Look, don’t you think, maybe it’s a little important to fill me in here? ‘The barrier’ doesn’t explain a whole ton to me, you know. And I’ve got you, here, in my house, and you don’t belong to me—that’s not the word—you’re not my kid. You’re some kid, who’s maybe got parents who’re maybe looking for him, and I’ve got him, so I’m just, don’t you think, maybe, it would be nice of me to give you back? You’re free of this Shishou guy. I know you said you’re dangerous but I got rid of the—that thing—the barrier thing—that, which you still need to explain to me but it’s gone. You said it yourself. So maybe try working with me here, okay?”

Mob gave long, slow shakes of his head. For someone so small and so visibly exhausted, Reigen was surprised with how gravely he spoke. “There’s no getting rid of the barrier like that. Shishou told me. Shishou can suppress his barrier but that’s all. You’re doing that. But I can’t. I’ve tried but I can never ever do it. If you’re gone it’ll be back. Because I can’t do it. I’ll hurt everyone if I go home.” His hands twisted in his lap, eyes dropping to them for a moment before they flickered up with new, burning resolve. “…If you could teach me…”

“Teach you?”

Mob nodded vigorously. “How you’re getting rid of it.”

“How I’m…getting rid of it… Yeah okay this again. I just…” Reigen whipped his left hand through the air. “You know? Psychic’ed it away. It’s a technique of mine. You just—like with your hands—no not with your hands just, just concentrated your psychic—you know your psychic powers—concentrate them on the barrier and it’s gone. If you do it it’ll be forever I promise.”

Mob shrunk in, piercing eyes still to Reigen. “I’ve tried that. I can’t ever make it work… No matter what I do it never ever works. Shishou tried to teach me everything. I’m not strong enough.” His fists curled in his lap, eyes losing their fervor for a moment. “You have to teach me better!”

“It—I don’t—there is no…” Reigen ran a hand down his face, breathing deeply and cutting his thoughts short. He shouldn’t snap at the kid. He shouldn’t be angry. It was just a kid. Just a little kid. God, that still stung… “I…let’s try to start this again. Let’s not talk about the barrier right now. Let’s just--,” Reigen glanced around, and he stood. “It’s not nice of me to interrogate you like this. Let me…get us something warm to drink.”

The scraping of the chair made Mob jolt, but he didn’t move. He only watched as Reigen clipped the corner of the table to get to the cabinets behind it. Reigen popped them open one at a time. “I think I’ve got tea… One of these, at least. Maybe this one. Oh, no not this one. The next—here yeah it’s right—oh the box is empty. Right.”

Reigen flipped an empty container of tea bags upside down. Its top swung on the metal hinge, opening to the ground, opening to nothing. Reigen set it back on the counter. Then he set his elbows down too, firm and solid so that he could dig his hands into his eyes, attempting to push back the headache. He didn’t even flinch when the slits along his right fingers flared.

This was beyond him. This wasn’t something he knew how to handle. He knew nothing about psychological trauma, let alone a delusion of this intensity. This wasn’t him. This wasn’t something he could fix. He should just call the police and be done with it…

Reigen stood tall again, blinking a few times to clear the stars from his vision. He moved to the fridge and popped it open. “I’ve got…just milk. I can put it in a mug and stick it in the microwave. Is warm milk okay?”

No answer met him, so Reigen turned. He froze, and his grip on the refrigerator door loosened as he and Mob locked eyes.

It was wonder, or panic, or both that cut away the steely determination that had burned in the boy’s eyes a moment ago. It was something so intensely defenseless and child-like. Mob straightened, hardly seeming to breathe.

“You have milk?”

“Uh…yeah. Not even expired. I bought it like two days ago.”

“But Shishou said…” Mob swallowed the words. His breathing picked up, eyes flickering across the single carton of milk in Reigen’s fridge. Slowly, his voice almost choked, Mob answered, “Yes, yes please…”

Reigen had nothing to say in response. He only watched Mob, his gut twisting with unsettled anxiety as he pulled the carton from the fridge and took two mugs by their handle from the cabinet. He filled them both 2/3 up, and only after he popped both in the microwave did he remember that he didn’t even like plain milk.

The seconds dragged as the microwave hummed out in monotone. Reigen braced his hands to the counter, and he watched the mugs intently, because it was easier than watching Mob. It was easier than fathoming what the expression on the boy’s face meant.

Then it pinged. Reigen took them both out, their handles just a bit warm, and he rounded the table to retake his seat. He set Mob’s mug down in passing. The other he placed in front of him as he retook his seat.

Mob studied the mug, and Reigen studied Mob. Mob, with his shaking hands reached for it, his right taking the handle and his left wrapping across the warm porcelain face. Mob pulled the brim beneath his chin and studied it, enraptured. Suddenly Reigen felt invisible.

“You…you okay there?” Reigen asked quietly. His hands fidgeted along the face of his own mug.

“Yeah…Yeah I’m…t-thank you, Mr. Reigen.”

Mob pulled the shaking mug to his lips, and Reigen watched with anxiety deep in his gut. He didn’t know how to read the boy’s reaction. He didn’t know what to make of it.

Mob took a sip, and he paused, and he lowered his mug still trembling. A little ring of white painted his upper lip. He swallowed, and stared forward at nothing until the steady shaking of his hands worked through his whole body.

“Is it…too hot? If it is I can—“ Reigen reached for Mob’s mug. He startled when Mob yanked it clear from Reigen’s grasp.

“No! No you don’t—it’s…”

Reigen’s hand retracted, and for a breathless moment he locked eyes with Mob. His stomach dropped.

Tears budded in the corners of Mob’s eyes. Soft pearlescent things, on top of the warm red blush that crawled along Mob’s cheeks—the first bit of color Reigen had seen in his face.

“I just…really like it…Mr. Reigen,” Mob whispered. He hugged the mug closer. “Thank you.”

“It—don’t mention it. It’s milk.” Then his voice dropped to an airy whisper. “It’s…just milk…”

Reigen did not know what expression he wore as he watched Mob raise the cup and drink the rest of it, something slack, something just a bit shocked. Something that maybe fit the ache he felt tightening his throat.

He couldn’t fathom what sort of world the kid had just escaped, but he knew now he didn’t want to. And he didn’t want to make Mob relive it, not if it was something so horrific that a single glass of warm milk could move him to tears.

“Here,” Reigen said, sliding his mug across the oaken table. “Have mine too…”

Sunlight crested just behind the Mogami house, throwing it into a fiery halo whose far-crawling shadows claimed the whole front lawn.

Isa watched the house for any sign of Officer Haruki Ando, her junior and almost-friend, while glancing every few seconds to her own police car. Her expression remained unreadable, almost bored. Only the tight strain of her jaw betrayed anything deeper, but the only other officer who knew to recognize the look was—

Isa’s eyes flitted back to the car, to the man seated sideways in the passenger’s seat, his body crumpled and his feet set to the cobblestone. He cupped a thermos between his hands (thoughtfully snagged by Haruki when Isa called him in) and stared at his own feet. Tetsuo did not drink any of it; he simply held it, as if it were an excuse for his shoulders to be so hunched in, his frame to suddenly cut so small. Isa straightened her shoulders in response, because she didn’t have her partner to be the composed one this time.

“Officer Maki!”

Isa turned, tipping her hand to the young man emerging from the house. Officer Ando snapped off his gloves, cutting a path across the grass to where Isa stood. His attention shifted in uneasy bursts to Tetsuo who hadn’t moved from the passenger’s seat of Isa’s car in all the time that Haruki had been inside the house.

“I think I covered all the rooms, and nothing was really, I mean beside the master bedroom of course which just…” Haruki trailed off, his subtlety lost as he stared on at Tetsuo sitting just out of earshot. “Has he said anything yet?”

“No,” Isa answered simply.

Haruki’s face betrayed everything Isa felt: anxious, sourceless worry and infectious paranoia. He was young, 22, and his face was younger, boyish and easily touched by emotion. “Is he okay at least?”

The question sent a prickling shiver down Isa’s spine. She couldn’t place the feeling exactly. It was almost like noticing a forest fall deathly silent, something instinctually wrong, some pressing sense of danger with no sense of what it might be.

“Physically, he’s fine,” Isa answered.

“But, mentally…is he?”

“I don’t know. He’s been stressed.” Isa looked to Tetsuo as she spoke. Tetsuo’s head drooped a bit more over his thermos. Isa saw his eyes slip shut and snap open. “I’ll grill it out of him when he’s less…like this.”

“It had to be…something…” Haruki whispered, vague, but Isa understood. It had to be something monumental, because anything less wouldn’t make Tetsuo Isari collapse during a case. That was the best it could be called—“something”—because Isa didn’t know what sort of thing could even manage that. She’d never seen it. She’d never seen Tetsuo break before.

A flare of anxiety racked through her veins as the possibilities turned through her mind, and she didn’t dare let it show on her face.

“It’s real,” Haruki filled the silence, discomfort pushing the topic along. He nodded his head toward the house. “The cursed corpse. Thought the stories were—mm—exaggerated? About it not rotting, and that barrier around it. Kinda surprising that the squatters in there never got their hands chopped off by that thing, you know?” Haruki’s expression soured. “Or maybe they have. Yikes.”

“Squatters, right…” Isa fixed her attention back on Haruki. “What’d you find?”

Haruki gave a half-hearted shrug. “Signs of squatters definitely. There’s the pullout bed with sheets on it in the basement that you already saw. Couple shirts and pants on the ground, dirty, definitely small. Toothbrush, toothpaste, soap in the basement bathroom. Some soup and medicine on the counter and in the cupboards. And that knife that—yeah, used—“ Haruki made quick stabbing motions. “Maybe a couple of them had a territory spat.”

“No kid though?”

“Not unless he’s really good at hide-and-seek.” Haruki took his hat off and swept his bangs out of his face. His hat had pressed his chestnut hair flat to the top of his head, and it fanned out near his ears. His uneasy green eyes shifted back to Tetsuo. “There was a kid’s winter hat in the main closet. Only thing in there.”

“Yeah, saw that.”

“…Why does Officer Isari think there’s a kid being held here?”

“Don’t know that either,” Isa answered. “But he was convinced, so I followed.”

“…I trust Officer Isari too…” Haruki added after a moment, his hands twisting together. “But there’s not much we can do now, is there? Without a warrant? This is already…what we’re doing already is pretty…off the books…”

“Right. Yeah it is. Sorry for dragging you in,” Isa said.

“Don’t mention it…” Haruki straightened, shoulders squared back and eyes serious despite his boyish cheeks. “I…Like I said I trust Officer Isari’s judgement. You said it was him, and he wouldn’t drag anyone out here unless he had a good reason. He wouldn’t be like this if it wasn’t…” Haruki trailed off, his line of thought cut short. “I want to help more, but I don’t know what I can… I’ve just never seen--I mean, a year’s not all that long, so maybe I’ve just never been around for, never been on a case when he, never seen…”

Haruki swallowed, thinking carefully about his phrasing before he continued. “First time I saw a dead body on a case, I thought I was handling it okay. Then Officer Isari tapped me on the shoulder and told me to wait outside and keep the area clear. My hands had been shaking. Didn’t even notice until I got outside and realized… And Officer Isari took my place like it was nothing.” His eyes lingered on Tetsuo. Isa followed his line of sight to Tetsuo’s still-trembling hands. “That Officer Isari—Seeing a dead body wouldn’t do that to him…”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Isa said. She was at a loss for what else to say though. She didn’t know what would. “Speaking of dismissals,” Isa clapped her hand to Haruki’s shoulder, “thanks, I couldn’t juggle the house and Tetsuo at the same time, didn’t want to leave him out here alone so thanks, but you should go home now. I’ll take care of him.”

Haruki gave a quick nod. “Yeah, like I said not a problem. Just.” His eyes flickered back to Tetsuo. “I was kind of thinking about that on the way over, the first dead body I mean. If Officer Isari could step in for me—I figured I could, this time, you know…” He glanced back to Isa, eyes bothered and alert. He opened his mouth to say something, then seemed to lose his nerve, veering safe. “Just, keep an eye on him, please?”

“What do you think I’ve been doing the last seven years?” The words sounded hollow in her ears though. She thought she had been, but something had slipped past her notice—enough for the sight of a corpse to drop Tetsuo to the floor, backed against a wall and curled in on himself with broken sobs. The memory put Isa’s stomach in knots. She knew how to handle hysterical people, but not Tetsuo, never Tetsuo…

Isa gave Haruki two quick taps to his shoulder, a dismissal, and she watched just long enough for him to get back to his civilian car before setting her sights to Tetsuo.

“Hey…” She walked forward, her feet crunching through the dead grass. She stepped heavily, so as not to risk startling him. His eyes were still dazed when he looked up, but he clearly saw her. “Ando finished scoping out the house. People have been in there, probably at least one of them was a kid, but there’s no sign of Shigeo.”

Isa waited for a reaction. Tetsuo breathed in deep, his ribcage shuddering. He looked forward again, and spoke with forced monotone. “Shigeo’s not in there?”

“No, he’s not.” Isa stopped just short of the car. She stood with the house to her left and Tetsuo to her right, attention shifting between the two. “And you’ve calmed down enough to talk to me, so explain to me what happened in there.”

Tetsuo looked up, and Isa broke eye contact after a few heavy seconds. She didn’t like the brokenness on his face. She wasn’t used to it.

“I don’t think I can explain it to you.” His grip on the thermos tightened. “I don’t think I want to.”

“Come on, none of that Tetsuo. No bullshit. I hate that.” She didn’t dare to look away this time.

“Please, Isa…”

“What did you see in that room, Tetsuo? Because all I saw was a corpse.” She gave him a once-over. “And you, sobbing on the floor.”

He watched her with the face of something wounded. “What did it look like to you, Isa? What did the the corpse look like?”

“Like a corpse.  Very dead and hanging there.” Isa’s face steeled to hide the twist in her gut at her next thought. “…Meaning you saw something else?”

Tetsuo leaned over, setting the untouched mug on the cobblestone. He gripped his hands to his knees and stared into the grass, at nothing. “I saw him…”

“Who, Tetsuo?”

“Mogami.”

“No duh. It’s his corpse.” Isa watched him flinch, and she ran a hand through her hair, snagging at the ponytail. “Okay, okay… Elaborate. What does that mean? And no more cryptic answers.”

Tetsuo’s eyes flickered to the attic window. He stared into the darkness drenching the room beyond. “Him… His spirit, I-I mean. He was in his own body. Moving the eyes. He’s not gone. He saw me.”

“His eyes weren’t moving, Tetsuo. I was there. I saw. Ando saw too. It’s just a corpse.”

Tetsuo’s head tilted up. He stared at her, his face pale, bags bruising beneath his eyes. The raw red slits on his neck came back into view. “You didn’t see… I’m positive. I saw it, Isa. I’m so so positive.”

Isa’s jaw clenched and unclenched. “How long have you been awake, Tetsuo?”

He looked up, attention to the rising sun behind the Mogami house. “…At least a day.” Then his eyes flashed to her. “You too, though…”

“How did you get those cuts on your neck?”

Tetsuo released his right hand from his knee. It moved up as if to brush the scrapes, then he shuddered and dropped his hand. “A fight…”

“No shit. I told you no more vague answers.”

Tetsuo curled his hands around his knees, fingers digging in. “Please…I don’t want to talk about that anymore.”

“’Anymore’ well that’s news to me because you’ve told me nothing.” Isa stepped closer. “I’m out here, and not in bed, because I trust you’ve got a good reason for it. Now trust me enough to tell me.”

“Please, Isa…”

“What happened.”

Tetsuo stared forward, lost inside his own thoughts. His eyes widened, and his skin seemed to slip paler. He raised his hands, balled into fists, and pressing them hard against his forehead. Their weight forced his head back, until his fists loosened and his fingers slipped through his disheveled hair. He gave one pained laugh, frantic and desperate, while his body crumpled forward. Another broken noise, something between a laugh and a sob, came through muffled.

“Tetsuo no. No no no come on—come on look at me. Tetsuo!” Isa moved in front of him, blocking him from the house, blocking him from the sun. She grabbed his shoulders and shook him. And when he didn’t respond, she took his chin and lifted it up. She froze.

“Tetsuo, are you crying?”

He seemed to startle in response, one shaky hand moving up to rub at the corner of his eye. He stared at his palm, just a bit wet, and curled his fingers in.

“What the…hell happened to you, Tetsuo?” Isa whispered. She eased back just an inch, and she felt the blank apathy on her face crumbling. “You’re scaring me. You’re scaring me now. I’ve never seen you—I don’t know what to do for you. Talk to me.”

Tetsuo reached one quivering arm out, and he grabbed at her left sleeve. He pulled her just a little closer, his other hand locking on too. He locked eyes with her, and the thing she saw was hardly Tetsuo Isari—it was fractured pieces of him.

“What do you need me to do, Tetsuo?”

“Isa, I’m…I’m going to keep searching for Shigeo, however I can. I just need you to watch me, Isa. That’s all I need you to do, okay? Please, please watch me, Isa. Please. I’m not okay. It’s not gone and I’m not okay anymore. If I’m acting strange, Isa, if I’m acting like I’m not myself, don’t let me go anywhere, don’t let me do anything. I’m begging you. Just call Jun. If I ever—If I’m ever—please call Jun.”

Tetsuo’s grip slipped from her arm, and Isa let it fall. She was fighting her own numb chill as the weight of his words sunk in, the implications buried beneath. Watch him… Don’t let him do anything… He’s not okay…

“O-okay,” Isa answered, and it was a gentle voice she hardly ever used, one she usually reserved for young kids whose world was shattering. “I won’t push you anymore. I’m sorry, Tetsuo. I won’t ask if you don’t want to be asked, I promise. I’ll keep an eye on you. That’s what I’ve always done. I’ll do it better now.”

Tetsuo answered with a weak nod of his head, a muttered “thank you”. He looked through the windshield, down the street. “I left Jun at home. Didn’t even grab my phone. She doesn’t know I came back here.”

“She’s at the station right now.” Isa watched the confusion paint across Tetsuo’s face, and continued. “She called me just a bit before Ando got here. Didn’t know what to tell her about…this—you—exactly, so I told her to wait at the station for us. Police order.”

Tetsuo gave a small, thin smile, eyes downcast as he pulled his feet inside the police car and retrieved his thermos from the ground. “She didn’t like that…”

“No, she didn’t.” Isa rounded the car and slid into the driver’s seat. She shut her door and cranked the ignition, seatbelt fastened as an afterthought. “Close your door—and maybe try to sleep for a bit on the ride back…”

Isa’s car idled just outside the Seasoning City police station. She watched from the driver’s seat as Jun Isari hopped down the station steps, pulling Tetsuo into a hug before he’d fully left the passenger’s seat. His arms twisted around Jun’s back, crushingly tight, and they rocked together. Tetsuo buried his face in Jun’s shoulder, and Isa felt it would be prying if she kept watching.

She shut the side door after Tetsuo and eyed the parking lot for open spaces instead. Her gaze slipped back for a moment to the Isaris, wrapped tightly together in the early dawn outside the station, then to her phone propped in the middle cupholder.

She twisted the key and scouted out the nearest parking spot, and she made a mental note to add a suicide hotline as an emergency contact in her phone.

Chapter Text

When Mob woke up, it was to the soft peach color of sunlight filtering through his sheets. It was no different from waking up any other day, which he always timed just so that he’d never have to open his eyes to darkness. He shifted, ran his palm around the sheets to a silkiness that felt entirely out of place. He balled his fists in it, feeling a light shiver at the way it melted to the shape of his palms. Mob wondered why it all felt so soft.

Then Mob opened his eyes.

What he saw was not the faint wash of light through the little storm window, not the thin slit of sun that brushed his sheets at the right hour of day. What he saw was not thin triangles of light, brimmed by shadows.

No, what he saw was bright. What he saw was everywhere at once.

He threw the sheet off his body, eyes wide, drinking in the window near floor-to-ceiling that exposed not a swath of dirt and grass, but the whole world. The world. Large and stretching on forever, bathed in light and color, where the horizon spilled over the edge to a red-set sky.

Mob looked up to the source of the light, something bright and warm against his face and blindingly white. Mob couldn’t look directly at it, but he tried, because it was mesmerizing, because he couldn’t remember the sun ever being so large, so bright, so warm. It had shrunk in his memory to the thin slit through the basement window. This was so much grander, though. And it drenched him in warmth that prickled his skin, like the trailing touch of Reigen’s hand. Mob wrapped his hands to his shoulders, as though he could touch it back.

Then he looked lower, to a fuzzy horizon of tall buildings and roads which caught the light in triangular cuts on their sides. Cars vanished out of sight or appeared through the gaps of buildings, small people moved slower and hugged close to the sidewalk, all filtered through a thin covering of trees that rimmed the small patch of lawn two floors lower. People, dozens of them, moved through the streets. And Mob startled to realize they were actual people—not television characters—people with lives, and names, and jobs, whose clothes made for colorful patches and swinging shapes. Mob thought he had remembered people, but not like this.

He looked at the trees, dew-kissed where they reflected the sunlight and shifted, shimmered, their gnarled textured bark dipping down and spreading roots beneath grass blades. Their leaf edges were dipped in red and orange, curling, less wet but more beautiful. And every shift of shade became brilliantly visible in the pouring down of light, the overwhelming brightness like the kitchen lit with every light on, but more, a hundred times more.

The world was colorful, and it was bright.

Some part of Mob remembered.

He pulled back, and tried to remember how he’d gotten here. He searched through his memories of the night before, when he’d stood near the bedroom door, toes confined in the thin cut of light from the hall, while Reigen pulled and yanked and fumbled with the linens.

Reigen had finished—better yet, he’d given up—with the fitted sheet bunched up and sideways on the bed, strained lengthwise and flopping loose along the bed’s width. The sheets had made a frumpy mold of its shape, and the comforter had been haphazardly tucked, two unmatching pillows propped at the head. “Is this—just—okay for now? Can we—if you—just please? I don’t wanna get blood on—you know it—please?”

And Mob had nodded, and walked forward, and patted his hands down onto the sheets silky to the touch, and he’d crawled into the bed better-made than any he’d seen since Ritsu’s.

That had been last night.

But something had happened before.

Something slow to register in his mind, something quiet beneath the assault of color, and warmth, and green bright trees and soft okay sheets, and the gentle twitter outside of early morning birds,

Birds like robins, outside.

Birds alive and warbling a song in the branches while Mob listened, before they—before they--

Shishou.

Dead and hanging, creaking with the strain of the wooden beam forced to support it. Neck snapped and face desiccated, empty eyes staring at Mob, saying something, accusing, flash-igniting Mob’s anxiety into horror, panic, guilt, fear…

Mob let out a small horrified noise, a deflation of his lungs, and he curled in on himself. He hugged the comforter closer, and he was afraid it would shred as he did so.

The horror eased. His rapid breathing evened out, loosened, dropped off. The grief welled like a soap bubble and popped, gone. Mob pressed a hand to his chest, investigating his own feelings, looking for sorrow or grief for the man who cared for him over the last four years.

He couldn’t reach it.

It was there, buried, but it wasn’t something he could pull to the surface and feel. And it wasn’t love for his Shishou that tightened his chest so much as it was fear of what was yet to come. Mob lowered his hand, and stared instead at the window, and tried not to think much more of it. The thoughts were too muddy, the emotions too raw or else too numbed—they only confused him. He’d gotten too good at locking away his feelings for the family he’d already lost.

Mob shifted, dropped his feet to the carpet below. It was gritty against the soles of his feet, but not like the dirt and grime that roughed the cellar floor at home. It was sturdy, wooly, another sensation that sent warm shivers down his spine. Mob scrunched his toes, and the feeling pulled something almost like a smile to his face.

At the doorway, Mob looked both ways before entering the hall. He’d gotten into the habit of knowing that any misstep could be someone’s death, and it filled him with a strange wonder to think that maybe he no longer needed to. He held his hand in front of his face for good measure, squinting, flipping it palm-up then palm-down. Nothing shimmered in the air around it. None of the prickling electricity nicked his fingers, none of the charge in the air.

The reality hit him like a wall: the barrier was gone.

He raised his hand, shaking now, and rubbed his palm to the corner of his eyes, turned misty. He smiled through it and looked to the kitchen. The kind man still had milk in the fridge, and Mob felt an excited hunger he hadn’t felt in years.

The thought of food thrilled him, but he had no concept of what was in the house beside milk—he would be happy with milk, for now. So he padded down the hall, swept up again in the slanted flood of sunlight, a warm radiation, falling through the sliding glass door in back. Mob passed through the living room and into the kitchen where he pulled a mug from the same cabinet Reigen had last night, and the milk from the fridge, and stuck the half-filled mug in the microwave for 20…15…10…

He grabbed it before it beeped and hugged it close, warm, against his chest. Then he set his sights on the puffy beige couch of the living room. There was no real partition between living room and kitchen, a simple shifting in the floor from tiling to carpet. He rounded the table and climbed up on the couch, nestled into it, soft like his bed at home wasn’t, and he looked at the television.

It was a dark thing, dust covered, with the finger streaks of a few half-hearted wipes across the front. Mob considered putting the milk down for a moment and turning it on, settling in, losing himself like he always did to the mindless chatter of the television characters that were his closest thing to family.

Somehow, the urge didn’t strike. He left the television off, and stared outside instead. He set the mug close to his mouth and drank, all warm shivers, basking in the cut of sunlight that drenched the couch. He listened to the muted twitter of birdsong through the closed glass.

The slamming cacophony of feet down the hallway shattered his quiet ten minutes later.

Mob glanced over his shoulder to see Reigen, shirt half-buttoned and one shoe in hand, explode out of the hall. He froze the instant he saw Mob, suspended shoe raised like some kind of torch.

“Oh thank god kid you’re still here.” He gestured toward the hall, fingers twitching in a manner that suggested broken joints. “Your door was open and you weren’t in there and I couldn’t see you on the couch in here so—thought maybe—is it, you’re just gonna sit on that couch now for a while, right?”

Mob glanced down at the couch, at his milk cup mostly drained. “Yeah. Is that okay?”

“Yeah, perfectly good. No more running around in traffic. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment—had one—I’m late. Very late. Where’s my shoe? Dammit where--” Reigen quieted, eyes flitting to his hand and the torch-like shoe. Silently, he lowered it to his socked foot and slipped it on. He cleared his throat. “Can you just…stay in the house for a little bit? Few hours. Then we’ll figure out—something. Jun Isari already left like four voicemails. Where’s my phone now?”

Reigen’s pocket buzzed.            

“I think it’s in your pocket.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Reigen dropped his hand into his pocket, wincing when his fingers wrapped tight around the body of the phone. He thought better and reached for it instead with his left hand, dragging it out diagonally and flipping it open, clumsy. “Hello? Yes I—I said already—yes I texted! Yes I know. I overslept I-- Two minutes—no 90 seconds—I’ll be out the door then it’s—yeah that address—yeah I know the address—I worked a case for the neighbor I know the clinic. Ten minute drive. Just—relax, a second, okay? I’m your PI not your son, I—“ Reigen startled, then held the phone at a distance to investigate it. “She hung up on me.”

Mob watched Reigen’s empty twitching hand at his side. The bandages were stained and oily, crusty brown. The tips of his fingers were whiter than the rest of his hand, pruned in their appearance. 

Reigen stuffed his phone back into his pocket and muttered, mockingly, "’I hire you to tail my husband and you can’t even tail him to your own doctor's appointment.’ Well gee sorry I wonder whose fault it is I overslept wonder what I was up to last night wonder why I was awake until goddamn 4 in the morning I wonder hmmm."

Mob felt the lash of the from Reigen’s comment. He’d grown used to being an inconvenience to Mogami. It hurt more to be a nuisance to the colorful man.

“…Oh,” Mob whispered. “Sorry, about that. I didn’t mean to…”

Reigen stared back, bleary confusion in his eyes. They opened just a bit wider. “Oh. No I—her husband—I’m a PI—the possession—the knife—the house—that whole, I meant that. You were after. Not…you.”

Mob didn’t know what to make of the comment. He stared back until the eye contact strained him, then he dropped his eyes to the empty mug in his grip. “Sorry,” he muttered again, and the apology was a precaution. The thought scared him—having Reigen angry with him. What would that be like? He had already feared Mogami’s anger. And Reigen was someone even stronger.

And he no longer had the barrier up to protect him.

Mob looked up again, and it wasn’t anger on Reigen’s face. It was the same expression he’d worn after setting his hand to Mob’s shoulder on the sidewalk, and the same expression he’d worn after Mob thanked him for the milk. Mob had very little practice reading other’s faces, but he thought it was something like concern, or sadness, or devastation.

“I think Tetsuo and Jun can…hold my spot…for a few more minutes. They can wait. Find a seat at the table you like. You probably—I shouldn’t run out on you just yet—not before breakfast. I’ll pour us some cereal and…with milk. Do you like cereal with milk?”

Mob dropped his attention back to the mug, thinking. He couldn’t remember what cereal tasted like, but he’d used to like it. “I think so.”

“Good, I’ll pour us both a bowl.”

Ritsu had liked it more.

Reigen grabbed the milk carton from the fridge, half-empty since last night. He pulled a cardboard box from the pantry, two plastic bowls with thin painted flowers along the rim, and he filled each about halfway with cereal flakes that clinked against the bowls like pouring sand. He filled his own bowl with just enough milk to coat the bottom layer of flakes, and he filled Mob’s with more. Mob slid from the couch to the nearest kitchen seat.

“Here,” Reigen slid Mob his bowl, gingerly careful like he’s been with the milk last night, and reached across again with a silver spoon. Mob took it. He at least knew spoons well.

Mob struggled at first. His soup was only ever liquid; the flakes needed to be scooped under and balanced. He took a bite, and startled against the crunch on his teeth. It was another sensation of warm shivers—something he almost remembered. He savored it, drawing it out, chewing so slowly he almost forgot to breathe. The flakes were sweet—something soup never was. He took another bite, and another, eating quickly because the cereal tasted good, and he felt hungry for the first time he could remember.

Reigen hadn’t touched his bowl. He investigated Mob, and the expression on his face was worse.

“Did your Shishou not even have cereal?”

Mob shook his head, and he took another bite. That didn’t matter now, and it wasn’t what he wanted to think about now anyway.

“Is there…maybe more you want to tell me now, about this Shishou? About where he took you? Your parents? Family?”

Mom. Dad. Ritsu. Mob paused mid-chew. Mogami had long since stopped mentioning them. Mob had long since stopped asking about them. It made forgetting easier. It made remembering worse.

Mob swallowed, and the sweetness of the cereal felt suddenly far away. “They’re safe.”

“They need to know where you are.”

“From me. They’re safe…from me.”

“From the barrier?” Reigen almost spat the word, some kind of mockery. A hint of anger poisoned his voice. And it was like flipping a switch.

Mob’s stomach tightened. He shrunk in, spoon dropped in the bowl, cereal forgotten as his shoulders hunched just a fraction to protect the parts of him that the barrier no longer could. Tight, tense, prepared. The hint of anger—that was how Mogami’s rages started.

Nothing immediate followed. No response from Reigen. No flash of his aura.

Just a quiet exhale.

“Sorry.”

Mob’s shoulders loosened. He looked up, finding Reigen slumped just a bit forward, elbows pressed to the table. Reigen continued. “I don’t really know where you’re coming from. I don’t know what any of this is. Don’t exactly know what I’m doing, either, sorry.” He pulled back, straightening, and set his eyes to Mob. “I’m trying to figure out what’s going on, but I can’t. Not when you won’t tell me.

Mob sat through the silence, unsure if he was meant to respond.

“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” Mob muttered.

“I know, kid.”

And silence fell back over them a gentle blanket.

Reigen jumped, and Mob jumped higher when the shrill ring of Reigen’s phone split the air. Reigen yanked it from his pocket, blinking until his expression soured. “Right. Dammit.” He declined the call, stowed it back in his pocket and stood from the table. “You can…have my cereal, I guess. I have to leave.”

Mob watched as Reigen bounced room to room, grabbing his coat, his keys, his wallet. When Reigen set a hand to the front doorknob, Mob shoved his chair back.

“Wait, you’re leaving?”

“Doctor’s appointment, I have to. You—you’re fine here, aren’t you? Just, a few hours.”

“You can’t leave,” Mob whispered, and fear permeated his voice.

That expression was back, the crease above Reigen’s eyes, that lost indecision. “I have nowhere to bring you.”

“The barrier.”

“You’ll—you’ll be okay here, Mob, okay? I promise. Please just—wait for me—a few hours—that’s all. I have to go. I have to.”

“Please don’t…”

Reigen’s hand twitched on the door. Then he opened it, and slipped through, and looked Mob in the eyes as he shut it slowly. “I’m sorry. You’ll be okay. You’ll be fine.”

Mob flinched at the click-shut of the door. He heard the deadbolt lock, and listened to the clunk of footsteps descending the stairs, lower, one by one.

A car started, and its engine revved, and huffing beat of the muffler receded until the world was silent all-together.

The barrier swept back around Mob, like the curtain drawn at the close of a play.

This early October morning, nothing was different in Ritsu Kageyama’s life. He packed and zipped his bag, filled only with a sparse few notebooks and pencils, and buttoned the last few buttons on his shirt one-handed as he left his room. Ritsu shut his door, and he walked past the open room beside him. With a trained eye, he didn’t see it.

The main floor was empty. Both his parents worked early, and both had left half an hour before Ritsu did. Ritsu bothered only with the lights in the front hall, where he slipped his shoes back on and tightened them. The rest of the house sat in a quiet and cold slumber, lit by only a few bleak rays of dawn that seeped through the cloud-cover. The clouds would all clear in an hour or two, like they did every morning, and the blazing sun would light the house on its own. Ritsu would be gone by then.

He passed by the kitchen, which kept its four seats out of habit, with hardly a glance. Ritsu didn’t bother making breakfast, as he didn’t most mornings. He’d fallen out of the habit when it stopped being a family thing. The cereal boxes in the cabinet had gone stale some months ago.

He only went to the front door, and laced his shoes, and grabbed his bag, and stepped out into the wet frosty air alone. He shut the door and locked it behind him, like a last shuddering gasp from the house. Ritsu’s breath condensed, a trail of smoke from his mouth, a calming presence in the bleak predawn. He shivered, and kept forward. He enjoyed the cold.

It was a twelve minute walk to Salt Middle School. Ritsu had memorized the path. He had to; he’d only ever walked it alone.

Some kids walked ahead of him, in groups of two or three usually, chatting so that Ritsu could see their breath curl in front of their faces too. Sometimes they would see him and lag, let him catch up out of friendliness or a transparent desire to check their homework with his. Ritsu never checked homework with them, and he spoke very little when looped in on their conversations. They didn’t interest him. It was better that they didn’t.

Today, the kids walking ahead of him were too far along the path to hear him. That was better; that meant they wouldn’t disturb him. No calls of “Kageyama!” with a sweeping wave of the arm. Just quiet, just time to breathe in the cold.

The minutes passed, until he hit the midway point six minutes in.

He shut his eyes. He kept forward. Six of twelve, only six more before he could no longer be alone. But it was still six more minutes of pure solitude he could bask in, and use to loosen the tension in his chest, and breathe, before

Oi! Esper!”

Ritsu’s eyes snapped open. He stopped walking, eyes set to the gaggle of students ahead of him. None of them were looking back. They had gotten farther away in fact, pin-pricks on the horizon, well out of earshot. Ritsu shivered.

He took another step forward.

Wait! Hang on wait up! Esper kiddo.”

Another step, Ritsu kept walking. His heart beat in his throat. Because he was not “esper kid”, not with how well he hid his powers. No one had ever seen him use them, not since the first day. No one could possibly know. It couldn’t be him—

Hey, am I invisible? Esper kid!”

A blue-green blob shot through his line of sight, and Ritsu jumped. He bit down a yelp building in his throat, arms pinwheeling through a single half-rotation as he stumbled one step back. His heart slammed, and his eyes focused on the thing now dancing in his vision. It remained permanently blurry, existing somewhere that he couldn’t quite see. A strange stain against the bleak gray sky, the muted desaturated foggy backdrop of houses in the passing neighborhoods.

Heh, that was a joke. Because I’m a ghost. Of course I’m invisible.” The little thing winked. “But not to you, Esper Boy.”

Ritsu blinked, forcing his eyes to focus. It built a throbbing headache just behind his eyes, but he did it anyway. The spirit was the size of a baseball, perhaps a bit less, its tail a flickering blue fire. Its eyes were red. It split a grin filled with teeth.

“Nice to meet you,” the spirit said.

Ritsu angled himself slightly to the left. He stepped around the spirit, and kept walking.

“Hey! Hey hey hey c’mon rude. You could at least say hi back.”

Ritsu kept walking. The spirit kept pace, gliding effortlessly through the air.

“Leave before I exorcise you,” Ritsu answered. He’d lost another minute; he’d be at school in less than five. He quickened his step; the spirit kept up.

Snarky. Is that the attitude you espers take to spirits in these parts? You’re all rude, you and what’s-his-name.”

“Leave.”

You haven’t let me say anything yet.”

“Leave now.”

“Look. Look look look just—stop walking.” The spirit swung around, in front of Ritsu again, and put its hands out. Ritsu stopped. The spirit smiled—all teeth and no gums. “Thanks. See? This is easier. I’ll keep it short I promise.” It raised its little shimmering fist to its mouth and cleared its throat, smile back and plastered. “I don’t know if you’ve met many spirits before, maybe I’m the first humble little dude to cross your path. This place was a no-go zone until last night, so it wouldn’t surprise me. Big ol’ head-honcho spirit in charge of this area until someone iced him yesterday—you see, when you’re a spirit, and you’re tiny, and there’s a big powerful spirit nearby, you don’t touch his property. Not unless you wanna be gobbled up. Spirits are dog-eat-dog, literally (another good spirit pun) as in we literally eat each other. And us little guys get eaten fast.”

Ritsu looked over his shoulder. A group of three girls in his class rounded the street. He recognized them by their coats, though he could not remember their names. They would catch up to him in a few minutes. “Get to your point.”

Yikes okay.” The spirit made some motion, something Ritsu could only assume was meant to pass for straightening a tie. “Spirits need energy to survive. That’s why we eat each other—survival. And the rule is big spirits eat little spirits. That presents us with a pretty big problem, you know? What happens when you’re the little spirit? How are you gonna survive?”

Ritsu’s lip twitched. The girls were getting closer, almost within earshot. Ritsu slung his bag over his shoulder and kept walking.

“Okay okay I’ll get to the point. I’m the little spirit. I can’t eat anybody! Everybody wants to eat me! I’m what you kids might call ‘totally fucked’.” It swooped in closer, an inch away from Ritsu’s ear. “But then there’s people like you. Naturally churning out all this energy on your own—loads of it. You could feed a spirit family for years on just the aura you throw away each day. And look, I’m not the kinda guy to ask for handouts willy-nilly. I got pride. But I’m in a pinch. And you’re…you’re not using any of this, are you? None. It’s gotta hurt, I’d think, all bottled up like that? It’s gotta burn.”

Ritsu’s chest tightened. He did not break pace.

“You won’t even feel it. It won’t even hurt. Just—if you’re kind enough—to let me skim a little off the top. Just enough to keep going, just for a little while.”

Ritsu finally stopped. He turned on his heel, eye to eye with the spirit. Silently, unblinking, Ritsu shot his free hand out. He grabbed the spirit by its tail, a vice-grip, and wondered if exorcising a spirit was something he would know how to do innately. He could try, and he could find out.

NO! NO NO NO HANG ON HANG ON KID COME ON I WAS JOKING. I WAS JOKING! LET ME GO HOLY FUCK.” It wriggled free, its aura now a frenzy of electrical arcs. The visual reminded Ritsu of a bristling cat. “Can’t take a joke? No joking here alright good got it WOW you sure go  0-100 fast don’tcha? No hand outs! I can work for it! I’ll work for it I—an honest spirit—work for my reward. All my friends are in the same business.”

Ritsu looked back. The girls were too close—he couldn’t exorcise the spirit now without making a scene. So he returned to his first strategy, and he ignored it.

My friends and I we all just—I mean, a spirit doing your bidding? That’s a sweet deal for a human. Us spirits can do so much you just can’t, and ordering me around? Hell that’s like you’ve got all the powers of a spirit too. I’ll do anything you ask.”

“Anything I ask?”

Anything.”

“I’m asking you to go away.”

Come on, come on kid not like that. I mean real favors. I mean spying on people through shut doors. I mean haunting that dude in class that pisses you off. I mean possessing that one girl you’ve always wanted to go on one little date with.”

“Go. Away.”

 “You’re pissy, just like the other one.” The spirit’s expression soured. It fell back a few paces. “You must be related.”

Ritsu lost his step. He stopped, wide eyes staring forward as his throat tightened. He heard the chatter of the girls creeping up behind him, lost then in a flood of static in his ears. “Wait. What other one?”

“Blondie. That guy. At least he likes asking for favors.”

Blond. So that meant it couldn’t have been…

Ritsu fell back into walking pace. The spirit swooped closer, agitated now, its fiery tail wrapping around the back of Ritsu’s head. “You two know each other? I can get messages to him. Getting messages from esper-to-esper is another specialty of mine, totally secretive mail system! Normal people can’t hear spirits, so any message I deliver is 100% confidential, for other esper ears only. My buddies have been running mail for those—what’s it—those Claw guys for months.”

Ritsu’s dark eyes twitched to the spirit, brow narrowed. “Esper-to-esper? How? How do you find the recipient?”

The spirit shrugged. “I mean, most people got an address. Psychic powers or not most people still gotta live somewhere. Why?” Its tail twitched, interest piqued. “You got a message?”

“And how do you find the esper if there isn’t an address to go by?” Ritsu prompted. He turned entirely to the spirit, stepping off-path to get in its face. The girls behind him could see him. He didn’t care.

The spirit grimaced, then smiled. “Well, that costs extra.”

“How?”

Description of their aura, usually. I’ve got a nose like a bloodhound—not to brag. I sniffed you out didn’t I?”

“What if I…” Ritsu took another step toward the spirit, frosted grass crinkling beneath his feet. His palms were sweaty, slipping around the leather of his bag. “What if I don’t know his aura?”

Ooooh, that’ll cost triple.”

“So you can do it?”

The spirit jumped again, frightened by the intensity. It cleared its throat. “Well I mean, if you can guess at what the aura feels like. Give me a good description of the dude. Worst case, I sweep through everyone in a some-mile radius area, and check every esper I find. Just, like I said, be prepared to pay.”

“How?”

How what?”

“Do I pay?” Ritsu dropped his bag. He undid the cuffs at his wrist, folding the fabric down. The girls passed on the sidewalk behind him, offering a few sideways glances to Ritsu and no more as he stood in the grass, right near the cobblestone edge of the road. When they had passed entirely, Ritsu flash-ignited a violet crystal of energy in his palm. “Is this what you want?”

The spirit’s eyes widened, balking for a second. It composed itself almost instantly and flashed a smile. “Yyyyeaahh, that’s roughly my rate. I could always charge you more but, I’m an honest guy.”

The spirit whipped its tail out, and its body gleamed a harsh violet as the crystal energy vanished from Ritsu’s palm. An extra wisp of purple yanked from his wrist along with it, something just a bit extra torn away, and it bled out a small trail of smoke in its wake. Like breath frozen in the air.

The sensation hit Ritsu instantly. A hollow jolt in the space between Ritsu’s ribs, like his heart stuttering through a beat, like the air being knocked from his lung for a split moment. It caught him off guard, but it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t bad at all.

“Your friends too,” Ritsu prompted.

Hmm?”

“Your messenger friends. I want them here too. I want everyone you know searching. I have plenty of energy. I have plenty to give away. I don’t care about it.

The spirit looked on with something like suspicion, then a mirthful smile cracked its lips. “You’re not joking, are you kiddo?”

“Not at all,” Ritsu answered, and there was a fire in his gut where the energy had been carved out. An excitement, an adrenaline rush of possibility. It was a heat he could enjoy, the first kind in four years. Espers were rare. Espers were the needle in the haystack. And if Mob was somewhere, anywhere, he could take just a metal detector to find. Something that could scan thousands and find the single esper among them.

It was a sensation Ritsu hadn’t felt in a long time: it was purpose.

Oh I’ve got a lot of starving friends who’d love to meet you.” The spirit summoned the wispy replica of a notepad from the energy of its tail, a fake pen it clicked in its hand. The spirit was twice as big now, a pulsing brightness, dyed purple, and its slimy cracked grin returned. “So tell me a bit about this guy we’re looking for, his aura. Whatever you can guess.”

“His name is Shigeo Kageyama.” Ritsu breathed in deep, shut his eyes, shivering at the name that had not left his lips in years. When he opened them again, their black depths were blazing. “And his aura would be powerful. Incredibly powerful. The strongest of any esper you’ve ever met.”

Chapter Text

When Reigen finally threw open the doctor office’s door, frantic and frazzled and 42 minutes late, he was certain he’d walked into the wrong room.

Colorful was the first thing to come to mind, between the wallpaper and the rug and the toys scattered across it. Blocky cartoon animals rung the wall, each a solid unnatural unapologetic color: pink tiger followed by orange monkey followed by green giraffe. The rug matched in vibrancy, stark geometric patterns stained across it like paint spatter. Camouflaged among the pinks and blues and greens were the toys: one abacus-like contraption of twirling wires and movable pieces, two simplistic puzzles where single pieces belonged distinctly to each of the six gouges in their surfaces, a single plastic truck gunked at the wheels with paint chipped along all sides from years of use.

Reigen looked up, and registered the three distinct sets of moms and children spread around the waiting room, each parent varying degrees of visibly exhausted. The left-most mom sat rocking a snotty and red-cheeked baby on her knee. The right-most spoke quietly and tersely on the phone while her son probed her iPad. The brother-sister pair in the center eyed the abacus toy on the rug with furtive, eager glances to their mom and back.

Reigen would have eased the door shut with a quiet, embarrassed apology for his mistake. He didn’t, once he noticed the married couple tucked away in the wooden chairs in the corner. Recognition registered like surprise in Reigen’s mind—he hardly recognized them—and it was Jun who caught his eye. She flagged him over.

He stepped carefully across the colored rug, lest he step on some well-disguised toy strewn somewhere. He kept his steps high, and relaxed only once he’d made it to the open seat beside Tetsuo. He took it, attention divided between Tetsuo and the kids, who filled him with sort of a confused wonder--the brother-sister pair had now scrambled to the abacus toy, eyes alight, and were spinning its plastic pieces.

“Dr. Wong is a pediatrician,” Jun said, following Reigen’s eyes and guessing at his silent confusion.

“Ah,” Reigen answered. The brother discovered he could spin the pieces, all at once, by slamming his palm down the abacus rack. The sister followed suit. The pieces clacked as they spun, almost musically. “…Why?” Reigen followed up.

“Why—a pediatrician?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s what most appealed to her, career-wise.”

“No, I—I don’t mean why is she a pediatrician I mean why are we seeing her? A pediatrician?”

“She’s a long-time friend. I met her back in college. I trust her with Tetsuo’s health. I trust her to be discreet.” Jun shot a quick glance to Reigen, something sharp and meaningful. Up close Reigen could see the bruising that set in beneath her eyes, just as Tetsuo’s, those hers had been skillfully concealed beneath a layer of makeup, muted against the sharp black lines of her eyeliner. They would have been invisible if Reigen were not looking for them. “Something like this could happen again, or keep happening for all I know. I need Tetsuo’s doctor to be someone I trust entirely, with all of this.”

Reigen nodded. Tetsuo was hunched over in his seat, attention entirely set to the DS in his hands. Reigen heard the faint trickle of tinny music from its speakers. Tetsuo’s head twitched up at the mention of his name

He blinked, staring at Reigen for a moment as though he couldn’t see him. His eyes were cloudy almost, unfocused with obvious exhaustion. He nodded after a moment as his mind caught up. “Yeah, Dr. Wong is an old friend of Jun’s.”

“By the way, speaking of recurring events…” Reigen dug a hand into his coat pocket, which was bloated with some unseen thing stuffed inside. He yanked out a disheveled stack of roughly 100 spirit tags and pressed them into Tetsuo’s chest. “Here. All of mine got shredded last night. But clearly one or some of them worked so… I remade them all.”

Tetsuo accepted them with a clumsy press of his hand to the stack. He glanced down at them, wincing gently as his chin folded over the cuts on his neck. “All last night?”

Reigen waved him off. “I had all the designs already, and the blank tags already since I’d bought extra, so it was more like—more like a few hours of arts and crafts, really. Nothing major.”

“Did you even sleep?”

“Some. Did you?” Reigen asked.

“It’s…not really the sort of thing I could sleep after, I guess. I’ll rest today. Thank you. For… Did I ever thank you, last night, properly? I don’t—if I didn’t…” Reigen’s eyes lingered on the darkening bruises beneath Tetsuo’s eyes, his almost drunk lack of focus. It set Reigen’s teeth on edge.

“It’s fine, it’s fine, don’t mention it.” Reigen broke eye contact with Tetsuo when it became clear Tetsuo could hardly focus on him. Reigen’s eyes trailed to Jun, who seemed stiffer and more stand-offish than she had last night. She met him with only a curt glance, something not quite cold and yet artificially composed. Something that seemed to say “not here, not in public.”

So Reigen leaned back in his own chair, and stared across the room at nothing, and wondered about the case that Tetsuo had run off to attend to. He wondered whether Tetsuo had found anything, whether it was just exhaustion or if, worse than that, it was defeat that weighed down on Tetsuo and slumped his shoulders forward. It was somehow strange to remember, seeing him disheveled and dressed nondescript in common clothes, that the man was a police officer.

A police officer, which was someone Mob’s barrier would supposedly shred.

“Hey, Tetsuo…” Reigen swallowed, and balled his hands a little on top of his knee caps. “Do you handle any missing kid cases?”

Reigen understood instantly that he misspoke.

Tetsuo’s expression was first something that flinched and tore, like a raw wound reopening. His head whipped to Reigen, a mask of defenseless anguish that seemed to say “Who told you about that?!” when Reigen himself knew nothing.

Then Jun’s hand came down firm on Tetsuo’s shoulder, a rock-like grip as if to anchor him down. Reigen witnessed what he could only describe as a shutting down of Tetsuo’s face. Tension vanished into distance; the panic left his eyes. Jun’s grip tightened.

“Last night’s case involved a kid, if that’s what you’re talking about. Some things happened that… I’ll maybe tell you later, if it’s relevant to you.”

“No, I—it was—a bad conversation topic, I guess, sorry.” Reigen didn’t want to process the look on Tetsuo’s face any longer, so he looked away. “Not… not trying to…”

Motion caught his eye. The boy with the iPad had set it down and wriggled loose from his mother’s lap, teetering on uncertain feet to the brother and sister pair by the abacus toy. He grabbed an unclaimed track of the toy and, imitating the siblings, he swept his hand down so the pieces spun and clacked and rattled. The sister laughed. The boy laughed in return. The brother all but dove for the truck on the carpet and offered it to the new boy, Reigen could only assume because the sister refused to play trucks with him. The younger boy accepted it, and the red-cheeked baby still on their mother’s lap watched the whole exchange with rapt attention.

But Reigen noticed more. He noticed the new boy’s clothes: a clean white shirt, unwrinkled and untainted except for a damp mark of spit just below the collar. His dark gray pants fit him, free of holes. The brother wore something similar, but with a black shirt; the sister wore a floral patterned dress, whose hem she liked to spin with her hands balled up in the fabric. Her stockings beneath were silver.

None had particularly long hair—the girl’s only dropped to her shoulders—so no tangles, no knots, all clean and kempt and cared-for. Their skin was flush with color and their smiles were genuine and none of them flinched from touch like some kind of electric shock. None of them had troubled eyes, nothing deep and ever-alert, no underlying fear stitched into their expression. None of them cried at the simple kindness of being offered a toy.

None of them were Mob. And it cut something deep in his stomach to understand what that meant.

Then the boy, who traded the truck back to the brother for a turn, looked toward Reigen. His eyes were large, a warm chocolatey brown. Reigen was jealous of their normalcy, their calm. He remembered almost absurdly that today was just a normal day for near everyone else in the world.

Then the boy’s eyes trailed to Tetsuo’s DS, and they lit up. He clambered over, fascinated, truck and abacus forgotten. He stopped just short of Tetsuo’s knees.

“What game is in there?” he asked. “Is that a 3DS? It looks small. I’m getting a 3DS for my birthday.” The boy locked eyes with Tetsuo, and Reigen saw that same fracture threaten to break through to Tetsuo’s face. Tetsuo’s jaw stiffened, his eyebrows curled up in concern, and he seemed to hardly breathe. “…Can I play it?” the boy asked.

The boy looked about ten years old.

“Not this time, Kiddo.” Jun spoke. Her hand gripped tighter to Tetsuo’s shoulder. “He’s sick, so you don’t want to be touching him and getting sick too.”

“You’re touching him.”

“I’m his wife. I’m immune.”

“Oh. Really?” the boy asked, equal parts fascinated and skeptical.

Hachiro.”

All three adults looked to the boy’s mother, who now cupped the mouth piece of her phone and looked to her son with something like disdain. Her eyes tightened. “Don’t bother the man. Come back over here.”

Hachiro’s face fell. He eyed the DS for an extra second, filled with longing, before turning on his heel and returning to his mother. She returned to her phone conversation. He climbed up on to his seat and sat there, legs swinging, hands folded in his lap, bored.

“At least he still has his family,” Tetsuo whispered.

“Don’t do this to yourself, Tetsuo,” Jun muttered back. Her hand slid down from his shoulder. She wrapped it in his hand and intertwined their fingers.

Reigen said nothing. He found himself just repeating Tetsuo’s words in his head, and thinking of Mob, and hating the horror that became denser and more real inside him now.

They stayed like that, silent, for the next three minutes until the nurse called them all in.

Reigen, Tetsuo, and Jun were escorted down the hall, all under the name “Isari”, to the last room in back. Reigen could see the teddy bear wallpaper bordering the ceiling, the basket of colorful books opposite the half-cracked door.

The nurse pushed the door the rest of the way, ushered them inside, and muttered “Dr. Wong will be with you soon.”

Reigen, at the front of the line, entered first. One examination bed lined the left wall, covered with a thin sheet of paper for sanitary reasons. A single wooden chair sat opposite it, for a parent. The doctor’s stool sat tucked beneath the desk, lined on either side by drawers. Above was a sink, a clipboard, a waste-beaker of used medical tips, and a single raggedy teddy bear.

Neither Reigen nor Tetsuo took the examination bed. They stood, equally lost in their own heads. Jun sat in the wooden chair and rubbed her ankles, propped up on high heels. Her skin was red where she rubbed it.

“Thought I’d try to break these shoes in some before I have to wear them at work. I’ll be lucky to still have any foot left by the end of the day,” Jun said with a light smile as she crossed her other leg and took to rubbing the redness along that heel.

Reigen tried to mirror her light smile, but Jun was not looking at him. She was watching only Tetsuo, who seemed to not have heard. The smile vanished from her face. She stared at her feet a moment more, thinking, before standing up. She moved to Tetsuo’s side and took his hand again in hers. He startled a little, before returning his grip even tighter. She leaned her head on his shoulder until her hair draped over her face. Tetsuo tilted his chin and kissed the top of her head, gently.

Reigen looked at his own hand instead, investigating the oily stains on his bandage, wondering with a knot in his stomach what exactly he had intruded on.

The door creaked open at that moment, and Dr. Wong entered, and she looked nothing like Reigen expected.

She was 70, easily, and the lines around her eyes reminded Reigen somehow of a hawk. Maybe it was the eyes themselves, sharp and discerning behind thin-framed glasses. Her hair was white and boyishly short, parted on the left and swept toward the right. Her earrings were cartoon tigers, somehow still endearing on her sharp and aged face.

“Hi Lan.” Jun acknowledged her first. She lifted her head just enough for her hair to fall away from her face. She did not step away from Tetsuo.

“Jun.” Dr. Wong nodded curtly. She stepped around them and grabbed the chart from the desk. She gave it a once over. “In trouble again.”

“Of course,” Jun answered. “Why else am I dragging grown men to your door?”

“The last grown man you dragged to my door was an unresponsively drunk 20 year old who’d slipped off a balcony and slashed his scalp open. I’m thrilled these two are conscious.”

Jun nodded, and suppressed a nostalgic smile. “That was Joji. And the balcony was icy. He got through it.”

“Because of the twenty stitches I sewed into his head.”

“And because you didn’t tell his parents, who would have murdered him themselves if they’d known.”

“Shame they didn’t. I might have had some peace and quiet.” Wong walked back to the center of the room, where she had a better view of the three of them. “I did, for some time, after you graduated. Now you’ve tracked me down again.” She gave the board another glance, her eyes flickering to Tetsuo and back. “But it’s not you. And this one doesn’t look like some drunk boyfriend. So he’s—“

“Tetsuo, my husband. Also him, Reigen.”

“You got married,” Wong said with a hint of surprise.

“I calmed down a lot after college.”

“Not enough to leave me alone it seems.” Wong stepped forward. She set her gloved hand to Tetsuo’s chin. He stiffened, but did not resist as she tilted it up and investigated the cuts along his neck. “I work pediatrics, you know. Did this one fall off a balcony too?”

“That would be nice. No…” Jun leaned in, interjecting herself somewhat between Tetsuo and the woman examining him. “How familiar are you with evil spirits…?”

“I know stories.”

“Do you believe them?”

“Certainly not all of them.”

“Well I’m going to ask you to believe this one.” Jun’s eyes flickered to Reigen for a split second. “A spirit took possession of Tetsuo. It tried to kill him. Reigen stopped it, but they both got cut up with a rusty butcher knife in the process… For now, they just need tetanus shots. You have those.”

“I do,” Wong answered. “So do normal ERs. But you’re bothering me, a pediatrician, so I’m guessing you need this kept secret.”

“Yeah. Guess I’m not all that different from how I was in college, huh Lan?” Jun’s quirked smile disappeared quickly. Her face hardened. “But…not quite the same as college. This isn’t like Joji, when it was just a bunch of us, stupid and too drunk. I’m asking for more this time, Lan.” Jun swallowed. Her thumb ran circles along the back of Tetsuo’s hand, still intertwined. “We’re afraid the spirit maybe isn’t gone, that we might run into other injuries that can’t be explained to a normal ER.”

“ERs don’t ask a lot of questions, Jun. You might be better off relying on a hospital for emergency care.”

Jun leaned in, quieter now, so that Reigen could scarcely hear her. “The spirit has done—what the spirit’s done, they’re the sort of things to get people locked away for their whole lives. That’s just the things we know about, and what we don’t know about…” Jun cut herself off. Her eyes shot to Tetsuo for just a moment. “There might…there might be blood on Tetsuo’s hands… Of course he didn’t do it—didn’t do anything—but who’s going to believe…? Who’s gonna trust him, if he’s caught-- if he’s hurt while—We can’t…take him to the ER if the blood isn’t his, Lan…”

Tetsuo’s hand slipped from Jun’s. He took a step back and lowered himself shakily into the empty wooden chair. He leaned forward just a bit, one quivering hand half-covering his face, slick with sweat. “Sorry,” he whispered, and he buried his face entirely in his hands “Just need a second…”

“You are asking a lot, Jun.” Wong answered, her eyes lingering on Tetsuo for only a moment. “That ‘lifetime sentence’ might extend to me too if I’m complacent in this.”

“We can say you were threatened.”

“Don’t be so drastic.”

“Please…” Jun’s eyes dropped to Tetsuo. His face remained buried, hunched forward into his own hands, his breathing a forced steady. “We may never even come back. It might be gone forever.”

“Alternatively, you may show up at my door with a bloody knife, that’s what you’re saying.” Dr. Wong moved toward the desk. She opened the fifth drawer down, pulling out two sterile syringes wrapped in plastic sheathing. “I could be arrested. I could even be a victim, if this spirit decides I’m in its way.”

“You don’t…have to, of course,” Jun answered, meeker now, an unspoken “but please” seeming to linger on her lips.

She watched, silently, as Dr. Wong stepped out of the room. 30 seconds of silence passed in her absence, Jun worrying the strap of the purse around her shoulder. Her eyes shot in sporadic bursts to Tetsuo, still motionless, then to Reigen. She seemed to be asking for help that Reigen did not know how to give.

Wong returned with two tightly-packaged vials. She grabbed a cotton swab from the drawer and dabbed it on top of the alcohol bottle with the push-down silver top. It jangled lightly as the swab soaked up alcohol. She returned, vial and swab and syringe, to Tetsuo’s side and crouched.

“Jun, do you know why I’m a pediatrician?”

Jun shrugged, meek. “Working with kids appealed to you?”

“No. Because I’m a bleeding heart, and I wanted to make a career of helping people. Children usually, but sometimes drunk college kids.” Wong pulled Tetsuo’s left arm loose. He startled, face lifting as she rolled his sleeve up, and swabbed his upper arm with the alcohol. She unpackaged the vial, and tore the syringe from its plastic sheath, and pierced the top of the vial with the needle so that it could suck up the liquid inside. Wong flicked the syringe twice to displace the air to the top, then squeezed gently to dispel it. “Relax your arm, Tetsuo.”

She didn’t give Tetsuo time to respond before jabbing the needle into the muscle. He flinched, and she squeezed the plunger.

“Children, drunk college kids, and sometimes grown men who can’t stand up under their own power anymore. That’s not something I can say no to.”

Jun nodded, swallowing, and whispered. “Thank you…”

“I’ve never had the power to say no to Jun Yuhara anyway.”

Wong discarded the vial, syringe, and swab in the biohazard bin on her desk. She grabbed a fresh swab and dabbed it in the alcohol pump, sharp eyes moving to Reigen. Reigen understood immediately, and rolled up his sleeve with frantic motions.

Jun dropped to Tetsuo’s side. She sat in the little section of chair still available and wrapped her arm around his shoulder, pulling him in to her. He offered no resistance. “It’s Isari now. Jun Isari.”

“Hmm. I’m going to have to get used to that.”

Reigen hardly paid any attention to Wong as she uncapped the vial for him. He heard her say something about his bandages—filthy, in need of changing next—and he only half heard her. He startled when the needle sunk into his arm, but not much more than that. He still watched Jun and Tetsuo, haunted to silence by how many times he’d seen them locked in that same desperate embrace.

Jun and Tetsuo stayed late to talk with Wong. Reigen attempted to listen, but exhaustion crept in, stole his ability to focus his eyes, until they began to slip shut of their own accord. The headache behind his eyes returned, harsher than before, and his thoughts drifted almost obsessively to the cigarette pack in his glove box. He hadn’t had one since 6 or 7 am, and it was well past 11 now. Reigen leaned against the back wall and simply focused on remaining upright.

Jun tapped his shoulder, and Reigen could not tell if seconds had passed or hours since his eyes slipped shut.

“Go home and sleep. I’ll handle the rest of this.”

Reigen nodded. He took deep breaths, flexing his newly-bandaged hand so that the spikes and throbs of pain might wake him up just a little. He only needed to make it home. Then he could rest. He could finally sleep, just a bit, just a little.

He found the parking lot, and found the car, and fished his keys from his pocket. He pulled his lighter out too, flickered it beneath the first cigarette he knocked from his glovebox packet and set to his lips. He pulled breath through it, indulging in the fire in his throat, hoping it might just wake him up. 10 more minutes. That’s all it would take to get home.

Reigen made the drive in 8, riding the gas pedal along the quieter roads and crawling through stop signs rather than stopping entirely. He pulled into the driveway, and killed the engine, and locked the door after he got out. His headache had lessened with the nicotine in his system, but it still throbbed dully, still made him squint through the light. The exhaustion made him breathe through heavy lungs. He remembered he hadn’t eaten since midday yesterday, yet the thought of food didn’t appeal to him. He only wanted to sleep—he didn’t even need to go to his bed. He could pass out on the couch, even more easily.

Reigen climbed the stairs to his front door and jostled the keys in the lock. They twisted on the third or fourth try of his shaky hands, and he pushed the door open.

Light flooded the living room and kitchen from the bay windows opposite the front door, and Reigen looked past them in search of the couch. He need only take his shoes off and collapse there, still dressed, so that his eyes could finally shut.

Reigen froze, sobriety rushing like ice through his veins at the sight of Mob still seated at the table, legs folded just so, just as they were when Reigen left. His cereal sat untouched. A perfect cast of the scene he’d left behind, with the sun just shifted a few hours along the midday sky.

Mob’s head whipped to the side. “Reigen!”

Reigen stared, blinking, slowly processing the scene. He was right—it exactly mirrored the sight that he’d left. “Did you…not move…?” Reigen asked, quietly, baffled. “Did you really not even move from that seat? When I said ‘don’t go anywhere’ I didn’t mean—“

“I couldn’t,” Mob answered, panicked, curt. He unfurled his stiff legs, trembling just slightly. The eyes set to Reigen were just a bit glossy with tears. “The barrier was back. I don’t know where people are. I heard people downstairs. If I got down my barrier would go through the floor and I didn’t know where they were.”

Reigen glanced to the clock on the microwave. “It’s been two hours. You didn’t…move?”

Mob shook his head.

“You really…believe this barrier can hurt people.”

Mob nodded fervently. “The rats, at Shishou’s house, I’ve seen them get shredded. All red and wet, on the inside. I…I had to touch one, once. Nothing can survive, only you. Just you.”

Reigen blinked, his mind poisoned by the visual of this boy lifting a dead rat, something pulped beyond recognition, for some reason he couldn’t even fathom. This kid, with the scared and dull eyes, and the clothes that did not fit, and the unkempt hair. Not like the boy at the doctor’s office, not like the one still with his family.

And Reigen’s exhaustion was swamped out by a dread heavy as lead in his gut.

Ritsu was 20 minutes through his third period class when the spirit phased into his classroom, through the chalk board in front, entirely invisible to everyone else in the room.

The spirit had come into sharp focus from the moment it tore Ritsu’s energy from his wrist. It was the size of a basketball, roughly, amorphous except for the thin claw-like hands that extended from its side. It was purple now, verging on black, red in the eyes—three of them—two normally positioned and a third slit vertically between them. Its wide, sharp-toothed smile dominated its face, hardly any gum.

It swooped to Ritsu’s side, its gaseous tail licking along Ritsu’s shoulders. “I’ve gathered up all the friends I could find. You’re lucky, you know that, running into a popular guy like me. Most other spirits wouldn’t have these kind of connections—of course we can discuss payment once we’re outside.”

Ritsu stood, grabbing the test paper from his desk, and marched up the aisle to the teacher. He felt eyes lingering on him as he walked past row and row of students. Pencil scratching fell quiet around the students whose eyes drifted upward to linger on Ritsu.

Ritsu pressed the test paper down on his teacher’s desk. “I’m not feeling well. Can I have a pass to the nurse?”

The teacher looked up, pulled from the immersion of his gradebook. He was a plump man who wore thin spectacles, his high hairline combed over to one side. He looked anxiously at Ritsu, then the rest of the class.

“I can’t excuse anyone during testing.”

Ritsu tapped his paper and slid it forward. “I’m done.”

Mr. Yahiro glanced once through the paper. Every answer was filled—and filled correctly, by Ritsu’s calculations. The anxiety dipped to something like defeat on Mr. Yahiro’s face, and he pushed his chair back, yanking a drawer open and pulling a slip of paper from inside.

“Take your things,” Mr. Yahiro said.

Ritsu complied in silence. He dropped his pencil and calculator into his bag, zipped it shut, and slung it over one shoulder. He vanished, silently, into the hall.

The spirit waited until they were out of earshot of the room, so that Ritsu could respond. The hallway was empty, silent except for the tapping of Ritsu’s feet along the floor, the muffled echo of his footsteps absorbed in the lockers.

“I didn’t sense you using your powers any. You know you can use them to cheat on tests, right? Like that other guy.”

“I don’t use my powers for stupid reasons.”

“Right, you hardly use them at all.” The thing grinned. “It’s tantalizing.”

Ritsu said nothing. Classroom after classroom passed on either side, muffled noises of lectures, class discussions, call-and-response English recitations. Ritsu existed separate from them, outside of them, in a world that sent thrills of possibility through his veins.

The thing stuck its claw-like hand out. Its grin spread wide, so that his eyes nearly squinted shut. “I’m Gimcrack, by the way, just call me Gimp.”

“Doesn’t sound like much of a name.”

“I had a name when I was alive. I’ve forgotten it.” Gimp shot Ritsu a sidelong glance. “You forget certain things about yourself when you’re whittled down to nothing. Most of us don’t have much of an identity anymore, just who we are now, we’ll respond to whatever others call us. And others call me Gimp.”

Ritsu gave no response. He turned down the next hall, eyes set to the metal door leading outside. It opened to the back of the school, a place walled in on 3 sides—the brick building on one, then a high dead-end wall that jutted out from the left and swept around. The soccer field was above it, a good ten feet higher and much farther back. The ten foot high concrete wall gave to another ten feet of wire fencing. The alley existed as a sort of design flaw, a segment of land unused by the building and by the field, a limbo where water pooled during rain storms, where trash thrown from the spectators in the stands tended to gather. It built a strong water-logged musk over the years, and most students learned to avoid it. All but the delinquents, who used it as a hangout.

“Right out here,” Gimp said. It folded a claw-like hand and pointed out the door. “A whole slew of new friends waiting to meet you.”

Again, Ritsu didn’t respond. He only shoved the door open, chilled suddenly not by the air that met him, but by the wall of aura that assaulted his senses. It was something denser and more powerful than he’d ever felt before, than he’d known to expect, a living throbbing mass that threatened to buffet him like sand kicked up in a storm. He held his breath, held his ground, stepped forward powered by the anxious terror that clawed through his stomach. He indulged in the feeling, as it was more than he’d felt in what seemed like years. He stepped out, and he smelled the musk of standing water.

Ritsu squinted in the sun. His eyes adjusted, and he was met with the blurry sight of color, thrashing and wriggling in the air above the pavement. They towered high, well above Ritsu’s head, nearly to the top of the concrete wall. Those tucked deep against the wall were shrouded in shadow. The bolder ones further out were cut by rays of sunlight like dust suspended in the air.

They built a semi-circle around the door, awaiting Ritsu’s appearance. The buzz of their aura spiked higher as they noticed him.

Ritsu attempted to focus on them. The same headache returned like a knife through his skull, so he shut his eyes instead.

“This is the kid. Can’t you smell it? Wasn’t exaggerating when I said he was practically spilling over with the stuff. Go on, open your mouths all of you, you can taste it in the air. He’s still bleeding a little—right arm—focus on that.” Gimp grabbed Ritsu’s arm, yanked it forward to Ritsu’s surprise. Ritsu startled as he noticed the foggy trail of magenta still leaking from his wrist. His gut twisted.

“You seem nervous,” Gimp remarked. He dropped Ritsu’s arm and twirled in front, the only sharp-focused thing in the massive pool of hazy spirits. “My friends are all honest like me. We’re ready to work for our food. Go ahead and explain the job details to everyone, then we’ll get payment sorted out.”

Ritsu swallowed dryly. He decided not to linger on Gimp’s final words. Instead he stared at the cloud of color, writhing and twisting and slipping between shadow and sunlight. He clenched his sweaty fists, breathing deep to find his composure again, his excitement, his power.

That’s right, he was far more powerful than any of these spirits.

“I need you all to find someone, another esper. I need you to track his aura down.” Ritsu spread his feet, until he felt rooted to the spot. He stood tall and threw his shoulders back. Energy crackled through his palms, both an enticement and a threat. “His name is Shigeo Kageyama. He’s my older brother, and he was kidnapped three and a half years ago because of his powers. We haven’t found him yet. Someone capable enough to kidnap an esper of his ability is capable of avoiding a few stupid cops—and that’s all they ever sent after him. Nothing more. They gave up.”

Ritsu swallowed again. A lash of anger tore through his stomach. He clung to it—more powerful than fear. “They gave up on him. I didn’t. I haven’t—won’t—not until I’ve found him. That’s why I called you here—things that understand espers took him. Find him by his aura, then report back to me with where he is, so I can go and murder the person who took him myself, and bring him home.”

Gimp let out a whistle. The rest of the spirits echoed with excited muttering.

Ritsu breathed deep, and he unbuttoned his cuff as he did before, rolling back his sleeve, brandishing his still-bleeding wrist to the hazy mass of spirits. “I’ll make it worth your time. I have power I’m not using—power you cannot fathom—I think Gimp already told you.” Ritsu focused on welling his power near his palm. He tensed his fingers, wringing it from under his skin so that it materialized, and froze instantly into another crystal bigger than before.

He felt it, the ripple of excitement from the mass of auras in front of him. He’d impressed them, just as he’d thought. A shiver racked his spine, one not so unpleasant.

What does his aura feel like?” one spirit asked, indiscernible among the horde, its voice a breathy echo.

“It’s strong. Stronger than any you’ve ever felt.”

“We’ll need a bit more than that,” Gimp answered. His gaseous tail flicked, middle eye blinking. “What texture? Color? Consistency? Those things.”

Ritsu faltered. “I don’t know. He was kidnapped before I awakened.”

“Then how do you know he’s strong?” Gimp cocked its head. “Can’t be all that strong if he was just up and taken so easy.”

Ritsu tensed. He made the conscious decision to not act on the anger that spiked through his chest. He steadied his breathing, and banished the crystal of power in his palm. He took a step toward Gimp, until hardly two inches of space separated them.

“I know what I remember.”

“Four years back though? You must have been like eight—you’re twelve now, aren’t you?”

“I’m thirteen,” Ritsu answered.

“So you were nine.” Gimp rolled its eyes, vertical slit included. “A nine year old who looked up to his older brother, I’m guessing here. He must have seemed powerful to his little kid brother.”

Ritsu’s jaw tightened. “I’m not a kid.”

Gimp quirked his brow, though he lacked any semblance of eyebrows. “If you’re paying, I won’t argue. I’m just trying to make this easier on you.”

Ritsu stared at Gimp a few moments more before stepping aside, his attention back on the crowd. He felt some of his sure and steady nerve slip away.

“It’ll be like mine,” Ritsu said, finally. He steadied his breath, watching the flicker and lash of the shapes in the crowd. They felt suddenly closer, probing him, tasting his aura. The sensation chilled him, violated him, and Ritsu ignored it. “Our powers are genetic. His aura must be like mine, but even stronger. I can bring things he used to own, things he used to use his powers on. His aura may still be on them.”

“Now those are leads.” Gimp nodded, a slimy grin spreading over his face. His three eyes flickered to the horde. “That’s plenty to find him with, it may just take some time with searching. Thorough searching takes time—you’re lucky I gathered such a big bunch to help. One spirit searching on its own? Could take centuries. All of us though, far less time.”

Ritsu’s eyes shifted to Gimp, sharp, accusatory. He hid the thrill of fear in his gut. “You told me before you’d be able to find him. All these spirits should guarantee it.”

Gimp put his hands out. “Hey hey, I never said how long it would take me on my own. But like I said you’ve got nothing to worry about with everyone here. You’re boiling over with energy anyway, so it’s not like it’s any extra skin off your back. Just sit back and be patient.”

Ritsu looked away from Gimp. He tried once more to focus on the mass of spirits, and his effort failed just as quickly with the searing ache behind his eyes. So instead he looked only at the shapes, the hazy colorful swelling distortions. He was right—they’d closed in. He looked left, and found the mass rung entirely around to the wall behind him. He looked right, and found the same sight. He tried to breathe deep, and choked on the musty stagnant air.

Ritsu backed up one step.

Gimp snapped his fingers. “Now, before we all get started, we’re gonna need a little juice to work with.” Gimp read the momentary flicker on Ritsu’s face, the slight ashiness that had set in since they’d met in the classroom.  “Hey hey I know what you’re thinking—you’re a lil anxious about paying us ahead, right? I promise it’s only because it’s necessary. Where are we gonna get the energy to search in the first place? We’re all bottom of the food chain, down on our luck, sticking our head out searching is the same as sticking our neck out. Any other spirit would gobble us up if we’re not a bit reinforced.” Gimp spread its arms wide, a purple deep like the night sky and pulsing. “Like me now.”

Ritsu felt the jolt of excitement that shot through the crowd. His head jerked to the side, Gimp all but forgotten as he felt the dense pulse of aura direct itself toward him. It was a sensation like watching animals salivate, creeping in, tense and expectant. The horde moved, the colors edging closer, buzzing. Ritsu backed up against the wall, and he found the semi-circle of spirits had flooded past the door; they blocked all escape.

Ritsu held his arm out again. He had a better sense for it now—the well of power beneath his palm, the wringing of his wrist that would bleed the power out into the open. He did just that, a crystal like the last one congealing into perfect geometry above Ritsu’s palm.

He offered it up, and pretended his hand wasn’t shaking.

It was a flash, all at once, a mottled spot of filthy gray and brown pounced forward. He felt it snag on his wrist, then tear like something white hot through his skin. Ritsu bit down the hiss, he swallowed the momentary horror at being so suddenly carved out. He hadn’t seen it coming. He held his breath through the hiccup in his heart beat.

His palm was sweating now. He glanced to the left, eyes set on the filthy gray form coming into focus. It was a bulbous thing of twitching eyes, tendrils like limbs curling and sweeping from its form. A beak of a mouth crunched the crystal of energy, and shattered it, and swallowed the remnants in a desperate frenzy. Ritsu looked away, too conscious of his swelling heartrate. The thing squawked, delighted.

He drew the energy beneath his palm again, tensed it, wrung it, so it manifested above in another crystal. He steeled himself now, more prepared when the next shape whipped out and ripped it from his wrist. Another white hot streak, another stutter of his heart. Ritsu breathed through it, and shut his eyes until the little pricks of tears vanished from their corners.

He opened them, finding the little trail of magenta from his wrist bleeding more freely now. He tried to will it back, but he held no control over it.

The crystals didn’t open that wound along his wrist, Ritsu knew. Whatever the creatures were doing, that gutting, tearing thing, is what slashed his wrist and stole more.

Ritsu produced another crystal. He held it higher above his palm. Another shape tore through, and it stung less, but Ritsu still watched the stream of magenta flow faster.

He glanced around—four spirits now, Gimp included, had come into focus. They were larger now, all dyed purple to varying degrees. Only Gimp had adopted the violet deep enough to be mistaken for black.

“Not sure how many you can see kid, but that’s 38 of my friends still waiting. Sooner you pay out the sooner we start looking for your brother you know.”

Ritsu nodded, and he noticed too late that the fear had bled through to his face. He swallowed, and steeled himself, and stood taller. He squashed down the feeling in his chest, no matter how rapidly his heart chose to beat. His aura still felt normal. All the pain trickled away within a few seconds of each swipe. He breathed deep. And breathed deep again. It was fine. He was fine, and more than powerful enough to handle it. He need only get used to it.

His hand no longer shook as he summoned crystal after crystal, and he was almost good at hiding the flinch of being struck time after time. Five, then ten, then fifteen spirits cycled through. He’d hoped the crowd would thin as it went on, but they only lingered closer, more eager, more hungry and expectant, having watched their friends feast ahead of them. The visible ones lingered in the background, and it took Ritsu a long time to understand that they stuck in a group for protection.

Protection from him, probably. Gimp must have told them he was quick to exorcise. They must all know he was to be feared.

That was good, that put him in power.

So he summoned another crystal, back pressed entirely to the wall, rung on all sides by the hazy shape of spirits, grotesque and hungry and squirming, whose aura leaked around him like the drool of predators closing in, tense and eager.

The stagnant smell of water all but overwhelmed him. He was flattened to the wall, hardly breathing through the swampy air, like hot wet breath, on his face. He tilted his head away and summoned another crystal.

Ritsu held it up, felt the jolt of excitement that rushed simultaneously through the waiting spirits, and the hot wetness along his face was stronger now.

Ritsu only prayed that two would not jump at once.

Chapter Text

Ritsu woke to the alarm he had set half an hour early. It set out a steady, blipping whine, which jarred him awake to a room scarcely lit. He shut off the alarm and lied still a moment, noiseless except for his breath. He stared at the ceiling, shrouded in the same dark gray as the clouds outside, which were cast with only the faint predawn light. The world buzzed with the faint hum of street lights. A few cars passed through the road, their beams cutting swaths through the low-hanging fog. Isolated, in quick trills, bird song carried through the air.

Ritsu got out of bed, got dressed, and grabbed his bag. He did this more from memory than sight, as the world was still bleak outside, and his room was even darker. He rounded the stairs, bag slung at his shoulder. Carpet passed to tile beneath his feet, and he bypassed the foyer in favor of the kitchen, where he found both his parents sitting at the table. They did not notice him, not at first. A wordless silence hovered, punctuated by the faint scrape of fork against plate, the clack of glass to table, the gurgle of the coffee maker filling. Mr. Kageyama cleared his throat once. Ritsu did not notice he held his breath.

Mrs. Kageyama finally looked up.

“Ritsu, you’re awake early,” she remarked. Her face was bathed only in the light of the lamp hanging above the kitchen table, a warm, soft light that gave the illusion of erasing the lines which had etched themselves permanently beneath her eyes. She offered a small smile in greeting that did not touch her eyes. “You don’t leave for school for another half hour.”

Ritsu’s right hand tightened on the bag strap. The bleeding stream of magenta from his wrist had ebbed to nothing overnight. It felt healed now, in the dim predawn. He doubted his parents would be able to see it anyway, even if it were still flowing freely.

“I’m joining student council,” Ritsu said, and he said it simply, although his heart pounded in his throat.

He watched his mother’s face stiffen, watched as her lips curled in discomfort, whiter and thinner now on her milky face. His father’s chewing had stopped.

“Maybe next year, Ritsu. Now’s not a good time,” she said, cautiously flat, each syllable well-enunciated. “We talked about this. You don’t want to take on too much now.”

“I’m willing to take on plenty,” Ritsu answered. His words felt like broken glass in his mouth, taboo almost. And not because they would anger his mother—they wouldn’t—but because he was disagreeing. And disagreeing meant he was inviting in that specific topic of conversation—the trump card he could never win against, his brother. “I haven’t been allowed to do enough. It’s not fair.”

“Isn’t the council already chosen, Ritsu?” his dad asked, and Ritsu heard the same careful lilt in his father’s tone, distinctly uncomfortable.

“No one ran for treasurer. It’s open. Kamuro asked me himself if I’d take it.” Ritsu’s eyes shifted between his parents, then they settled on his mom. “President Kamuro. You know his mother.”

“I do…” Mrs. Kageyama said. “I know from her that student council meetings are held at strange hours—“

“One hour in the morning before school, one hour after school. Sometimes longer near school events.”

“There wouldn’t be anyone supervising you, would there?” Mrs. Kageyama asked.

“No.”

“It would be dark in the morning when you leave for school,” Mr. Kageyama added. The gurgling of the coffee pot had stopped. Its light flickered on, a tiny speck of red against the dim kitchen, and the windows nearly black. “It might even be dark when you come home, once it’s winter.”

Silence set in around them like an oppressive cloud, thick and filling Ritsu’s lungs. He stood off to the side, more in shadow, less touched by the hanging kitchen lamp. His parents, blanched under the soft light, stared back at him. They didn’t touch their plates, and Ritsu did not let go of the strap on his bag.

“Sorry, Ritsu, but it’s a no,” his mother answered.

He had expected it, but it still stung. It always stung. And his first instinct was to numb himself to it, concede, forget, move on…

“Why not?” he asked, his teeth scarcely parted.

“We told you,” his father answered.

“Because there won’t be any supervision at council meetings? Because I’ll be walking home in the dark?”

“Yes.”

“Well Niisan wasn’t kidnapped in the dark.”

His words were broken glass, and they cut something in his parents, and they cut something in him too that, once pierced, spilled out of him: “He was taken in the middle of the day, somewhere in this town, and no one saw, and no one saved him. He was taken and not a single person noticed. Not us. Not anyone. It was sunny that day, and no one...saw.”

Ritsu steadied his breath. His parents sat as silent captives. “The middle of the afternoon on a sunny day—if that isn’t safe, then nowhere is, nothing ever is. That’s not right. That can’t be right.” It was a betrayal, Ritsu knew, to say it out loud. Of course it was dangerous—his brother could never have been taken in a world any less dangerous than that. But he had to. His eyes flickered once more between both parents, afraid how he might hurt them, but too resolute to stop.

“Ritsu…”

“I can’t keep being the version of Niisan that you remembered to protect in time.” He looked to his parents, and then he looked away, before he lost his nerve. “I’m not him.”

He took a step back. He tensed his hand on his bag and turned toward the door, where his shoes sat, where the outside lay.

“I’m joining student council,” he said, and he pretended it was an easy thing to say, a simple statement on a steady breath of air. Resolute and certain and unquestionable. He breathed through the guilt and pretended he hadn’t caught the look on his mother’s face—that thing raw and torn open. Or his dad, closed off and weak like he dad almost never looked.

Ritsu was good at pretending. He pretended to think of nothing as he laced his shoes, as he unlocked the front door, as he eased it open and set one foot outside, consumed in the silence that permeated off his parents like a poison.

“Please be safe,” his mother whispered from behind.

Ritsu hesitated, washed with the words. And he pretended he would obey them. “…I will,” he said, and stepped outside, and shut the door behind him, suddenly a world away from his parents in the dismal predawn air.

Wind cut across his face, cold now and brisk. It swept dried leaves across the street, which skittered unseen in the dark, save for the pools of light cast by the streetlamps. Ritsu shivered through it, willing to embrace it, feeling it almost deserved for what he’d inflicted on his parents.

“Wow, cold,” Gimp commended from the right, as if reading Ritsu’s thoughts. He bloomed into sight beneath the next approaching streetlamp. “Guilt-tripping your parents into going along with your lie. That’s got to cause all kinds of trust issues.”

“It’s better they think I’m at student council than with you and the other spirits,” Ritsu answered simply. “They don’t even know about my powers. This would horrify them. I’m protecting them.”

“I’m scary then?” Gimp asked with a smug smile. He dipped out of the light, just glimmering teeth, red eyes. “Or the others? Or just the idea of their son turning into a proper businessman?”

Ritsu said nothing. He tuned out Gimp’s words until he heard nothing more than static in his ears. He’d become too focused, too intent on his plans so that all thought and worry and feeling fell to the wayside, to be dealt with later. He watched buildings approach on the blooming horizon, and planned.

Ritsu would not show up at the student council classroom—not today, and not ever. He had in his mind only the image of the walled-in concrete alley in the back of the school, no doubt mustier, damper, darker this early in the morning. He had plans to show up there every early morning to gather intel from his spirits and pay them, and again in the afternoon, and he could do it now without missing class. The excuse would come to easily now, the lie—he only needed to claim he’d been at student council.

“You name-dropped some guy named Kamuro. You might wanna rope him in to your operations—or at least pay him off—if your parents ever come snooping for confirmation.”

Ritsu nodded, his only form of acknowledgement of Gimp. It would be smart to cover his tracks.

Especially since he and President Kamuro had never even spoken. 

 …

Bird song is what woke Reigen, and he opened his eyes staring into the dark, pitchy blackness outside the living room window. Not his bedroom, not morning, and all his memories crashed down with alarming disorientation. He jolted up, yelping in surprise, as possessed eyes and butcher knives and raggedy children flashed through his mind—a confused jumble, all at once, here, there, where…was he?

Reigen rubbed his cheek. The arm of the couch had left a shallow red criss-cross pattern on it and, for the tenth or hundredth time, he winced when he realized he was using his bad hand.

Bad hand. Dark outside. Asleep on the couch. Birds? Reigen blinked until his swimming thoughts returned, and the bleak ashy sky registered, and he swiveled his head to take in the rest of his apartment lit by a scattered few hanging lights left on.

His right arm ached near the shoulder, as did his hand, as did his head, but not as bad as before. His mouth was chalky-dry and—why had he been asleep on the couch? …A nap. He’d decided to take a nap after he got back from the doctor. He was going to close his eyes for ten minutes and hope the headache could ease off enough for him to…think. To figure out what to do with--.

“Mob!” he said, jolting stiffer, and he coughed.

“Yes?”

Reigen twisted to face the other end of the couch. The boy was sitting there, curled up, almost lost beneath blankets. The scratchy blue one that lived on the couch was draped around his shoulders, and it seemed he’d dragged the comforter from his room. He’d bundled himself beneath it, and watched Reigen with a bit of muted worry in his eye.

“Is something wrong?” Mob asked. He shuffled beneath his blankets, looking himself over as if he could find the source of the issue within himself.

Reigen slumped, and he rubbed his eyes. “How long have I been asleep?”

“How long…?”

“How long. Hours? Days? What year is it?” Reigen glanced to Mob. Whatever little jab of humor he’d tried had fallen flat. Mob only looked concerned. Reigen realized with a pang in his gut that Mob probably didn’t know what year it was.

So he looked away, looked at the microwave instead. Some of the green diodes had broken, so the time displayed incompletely. He had to stare longer, leaning in, puzzling it out.

“Oh my god it’s 6 am.”

Reigen didn’t do much of anything immediately following his realization. He sat there, twisted around with his good hand braced against the couch. He stared at the clock, counting the hours in his head. It had been noon, just about, when he got back from Dr. Wong’s.

“…Have I been asleep for 18 hours?” Reigen asked, almost breathless. He did the math again. “18 hours?

“I guess so,” Mob answered, uncertain agreement. He didn’t seem very concerned with double-checking the math.

Reigen untwisted his back. He set his hands to his knees, fingers digging into the creases and folds accidentally pressed into the fabric by sleeping on it for so long. 18 hours asleep. 18 hours without food. 18 hours of stain remover soaking into the blood stains on his suit from the other day. Then he glanced to Mob, his expression almost apologetic.

“…You let me sleep for 18 hours?”

“You seemed tired,” Mob answered. His words were still nervous, spoken as though trying to gauge if he was in trouble. His wide eyes met Reigen, almost unblinkingly, from behind a curtain of hair.

Seemed tired…

Reigen slumped forward, overcome with some feeling he couldn’t quite discern. He dropped his head into his hands and thought about the words. They were strange, somehow. When was the last time anyone had been concerned that he seemed tired…?

“…Are you okay?” Mob asked, still tentative, as though stepping around broken glass.

Reigen pulled his head out of his hands. He tilted toward Mob and offered a small smile. It was just a bit forced, artificially calm. “Yeah I’m—thanks. I’m fine. Yeah, I was tired. Feeling a lot better now… I just uh—should’ve woken up sooner—left you all alone for—18 hours? Gosh… Wow. Wow…”

Reigen pushed himself standing. His joints popped, all stiff and contorted to the shape of the couch. He explored the ache in his neck, just behind the ear, where he’d been lying against the edge of the couch arm. His left leg prickled as feeling returned. He’d fallen asleep with it folded beneath his body.

And he shivered.

“Right,” Reigen muttered. He moved toward the thermostat on the wall, twiddling with the buttons and overriding the automatic settings, which shut off all heat overnight to save money. He looked to Mob, and felt a spurt of guilt seeing the kid so buried beneath blankets. “I let the heat die on you. Sorry.”

Mob shook his head, and Reigen wasn’t sure how to interpret it. Reigen stared harder, suddenly possessed by the need to process what sat in front of him, the whole uncanny scene: some lost kid, huddled up beneath musty blankets in a cold and dark apartment, pressed into the ratty edges of an old couch Reigen had salvaged from a yard sale for just under 8000 yen. The tv was on, playing quietly through some local newscast.

Reigen cringed a bit as he looked about, taking in, remembering the mess decorating the living room. The ashtray on the table overflowed with cigarette butts, staining the wood around it with sooty acrid residue. Three empty plates were pushed to the table’s edge, scraped of food and left to stagnate for…how many days, Reigen wasn’t sure. Empty beer cans gathered in a herd near them, a few on the floor, leaving sticky coagulated rings around their rim and smelling of staleness, of stagnant fermentation. Newspapers were strewn about randomly, gathered into haphazard piles, and more cigarette butts littered most surfaces. The television was coated in dust, its mess of wires unsalvageably tangled behind it. In the kitchen, when Reigen glanced behind him, dishes and bowls were stacked in the sink, or left to crust over on the far countertops. Two lone clean bowls and three mugs sat in the drying rack, and Reigen had no recollection of putting them there. Reigen sniffed, and caught the faint permeating smell of spoiled food from the fridge.

Finally, his focus fell back on Mob. And he knew this wasn’t the sort of environment to bring a kid back to, to leave him alone in.

“…Sorry,” Reigen started slowly, because he was surprised himself. His normal looked suddenly so different, and it unnerved him. “I’ll clean this up, you know. Sorry…about it…that it’s a mess. I don’t always…normally…live like—I’ll clean it up, don’t worry.”

Mob’s apprehension eased off. The look was replaced entirely with something like confusion. He pulled out of his blanket cocoon, let his eyes rove over the apartment in full inspection. The confusion never left his face.

“It’s so much cleaner than Shishou’s house.”

Instantly, Reigen was forced to picture the closest thing he had in mind—struck by the memory of the putrid rotting smell of the Mogami house, decaying small bodies of rat corpses between the floorboards and the wet stench of mold, dark, damp, humid, fetid, the ceiling dripping into spots and standing water and—

Reigen shut his eyes. He forced the memory out.

“Christ…” he muttered, and tried to think no more on it. The Mogami house was behind him. Instead he focused on Mob—Mob and wherever exactly Mob had come from. Not as bad as the Mogami house, he hoped to god. Reigen took a deep breath to banish the other thoughts still haunting him. “You…18 hours. You’ve gotta be starving. Sorry. I’ll make something. 18 hours. Sorry…”

“Oh,” Mob answered quickly, a bit startled. He stood from the couch and let the blankets drop. “Oh, I ate.”

“You ate?”

“Cereal. I washed the dishes.” Mob pointed, and Reigen followed the line from his finger to the drying rack—bowls neatly stacked alongside mugs. Reigen stepped around the couch and moved toward the sink. He stopped, picked up a bowl and inspected it. It smelled faintly citrusy, like dish soap, and was dry save for a small bead of water that had collected on the part of the rim facing down. His cereal bowl had been washed too, the one he hadn’t had time to eat before rushing out the door. The bowls and mugs alone were washed, partitioned separately from the dishes and bowls piled in the sink that Reigen himself had never washed.

Reigen realized with another pang to his stomach that in all likelihood this Shishou, whoever he was, had forced Mob to become self-sufficient to survive. Getting himself up, getting his own food, washing his own dishes, pulling together enough to survive in whatever conditions he’d been placed in.

“You did a good job,” Reigen remarked through the discomfort in his stomach. He glanced to Mob, and found the boy’s eyebrows had arced a little. Mob seemed to lean forward, contemplating the words.

“…Really?”

It was something almost close to happiness on Mob’s face. The kid with the flighty, hunted eyes. The kid who’d braved years of isolation. The kid who’d been snatched from his family and trained to believe his existence was an unfathomably dangerous thing. The kid who believed it so strongly that he’d sat, unmoving, for two hours purely out of fear of hurting another living person. The kid who’d only just escaped his prison, and yet was fine sitting in lonely silence for 18 hours with only the television for company because Reigen…seemed tired.

The kid who thought Reigen was incredible.

Reigen felt a surge, something close to desperation, to pull that happiness through.

“Heck yeah you did. I left a big mess lying around, and you scrubbed this stuff clean.” He twirled his hands, his voice a candy-coated salesman’s pitch. “You’ve got a talent for this. I’m glad I brought you back here, you know?”

Mob leaned forward more, seemingly on his tiptoes, though he stayed behind the couch. He remained tense, but something hopeful, eager almost, seemed to edge into his eyes. “…You’re glad I’m here?”

“Here and away from your Shishou, yeah I’m very glad.”

“And I’m not a bother…?”

Reigen hesitated for just a moment, only because the sincerity of the question took him off guard. He firmed his footing, and nodded, and looked to the cabinet where he grabbed the last two clean plates stacked inside. “Not in the slightest. You’re absolutely welcome here.”

“Oh.” Mob stepped around the couch. He shuffled closer, small beneath his oversized clothes and long hair. “I’m glad… I thought you were…maybe you were mad.”

“Why would I--?” Reigen stopped. He stared at Mob in silence. Birdsong twittered, muted, between them. It pushed through the closed window. A pinkish wash of sunrise just barely lit the horizon. Reigen lowered the plates to the counter. “…Because Shishou got mad sometimes, didn’t he?”

Slowly, silently, Mob nodded. He kept his eyes averted.

Reigen held his breath. He nodded back, then moved to close the gap between them. He stopped about a foot in front of Mob and knelt down. Tentatively, he hovered his unbandaged hand above Mob’s shoulder. He waited before slowly lowering it and wrapping his fingers around Mob’s shoulder. Mob still flinched, as if receiving a static shock.

“I’m…not Shishou. I wouldn’t do what he does, okay? I wouldn’t be mad at you. And you don’t…need to be afraid of me. I’m not scary. Please just…believe me when I say that. I’m not scary.”

“You’re stronger,” Mob whispered.

“I am, but I use my powers for good.”

“Then…” Mob started. He looked to the floor, then the walls, breathing deep as if mustering the courage. He leaned further into Reigen’s grip, and met his eyes. “Can you help me then, please? Would you be okay teaching me how to suppress the barrier like you do? Please? Please… It would be for good.”

Reigen studied Mob’s eyes, surprised almost to find them so suddenly lively, so bravely passionate. They drilled into him, anxiously waiting for a response. Reigen fumbled to put one together.

“You’re…really set on this, huh?”

Mob gave a few steady nods of his head. Desperation began to wash over his face. “It’s why I can’t go home. It’s why I can’t go anywhere. It’s why I had to live in Shishou’s basement, because I’m too dangerous." He wrung his hands, eyes flitting about. “Please… Please… I miss my little brother. I want to see him. I miss him more than anything. I want to go home.”

Reigen swallowed. He tightened his grip on Mob’s shoulder. “You…are already not dangerous, Mob. Believe me. Please just, tell me your real name so I can take you home.”

Mob pulled away, stiff suddenly, dead to reason. The desperation in his eyes flashed to panic, at some imagined outcome. “I’m not dangerous just to you. Only to you. They’re not like you. I’m dangerous to them.”

Reigen opened his mouth, and he almost tried to argue. In an instant, all drive left him—he’d been through this argument too many times. He knew it would only run in circles, that anything he could argue right now would not be stronger than the years of conditioning Mob had gone through.

The desire struck again to simply stand up, and walk to the phone, and call the police. He imagined putting Mob through that panic, and that it would be worth it—a few minutes maybe of absolute terror before a police officer got close enough to prove to Mob the barrier was a lie. And then Mob would be home, safe, forever, with his family…

Then doubt, cold and hollow, wormed its way into Reigen’s mind. What would he do if a surviving police officer wasn’t enough to convince Mob…? What if Mob were dragged home still believing in his own dangerousness? What if he lived every day in abject terror, convinced, conditioned that the barrier would spring back any moment?

What if he ran off again, back to his dead Shishou’s basement…?

Reigen shuddered at the thought. Instead he gritted his teeth, and he stood, and he kept his hand on Mob’s shoulder as he glanced to the fridge instead.

“…I’ll teach you, okay Mob? I’ll teach you how to get rid of the barrier. Fully. Until it’s gone forever. So it can never ever hurt anyone, anything, ever again.”

Mob swallowed. He stared back, anxious, as if Reigen might revoke the offer. “…Really?”

“Yes. But first…” Reigen let go of Mob’s shoulder. He turned to the pantry, popped it open and pushed around past ramen packets and snacks until he found a loaf of bread in back. He grabbed it, undid the twist-tie, and grimaced at the little white blotches on mold on the end piece. Reigen grabbed a stack 5-pieces thick and dropped them all into the garbage can, until what was left was just the middle pieces, hopefully mold free. He pulled two slices out and handed them to Mob. “First…we’re going to slow down, just a little. I’m tired, remember? So my psychic powers aren’t at their peak. And I’m hungry too. So we’re going to…you’re going to help me make breakfast, first, before any of this training happens, alright? Please.”

Mob studied the slices of bread in wonder. His stare became distant, as though deeply considering Reigen’s words. He nodded then, and Reigen noticed the glossy pricking of tears in the corner of Mob’s eyes. Mob nodded again, more vigorously.

“Can I have some of the bread too…?”

“Toast, Mob, it’s going to be toast. And eggs. And yes. This is breakfast for both of us, and you’re going to help.” Reigen looked the boy over, and the feeling in his chest was almost manic. He was looking at something maybe he could fix.

“We can make eggs?”

Something maybe, for once, he could save.

“They’re easy. I’ll show you how. I’ve got some in the fridge. And afterward I’ll do a grocery run, okay? Restock the food around the house. I’ll buy some clothes too, bathroom supplies. We can cut your hair afterward too—it’s still messy. I don’t think you want it in your face.”

The boy was different. It wasn’t like gathering dirt on a cheating spouse, delivering the news that shattered marriages, fractured lives. It wasn’t chasing missing persons whose trail was long cold, down dead ends, finding nothing. Mob was here, warm, alive, someone Reigen could save if only he could find a way to breach this barrier.

“…Cut?” Mob had fallen behind. He held the two pieces of bread in his left hand, and his right pulled anxiously at a lock of hair. Reigen watched the transformation unfold, trepidation pushing toward fear. Reigen paused. Cutting, shearing, shredding… Those were the words Mob used, weren’t they?

“Or not. Not if you don’t want to.” Reigen kept moving, tentatively, toward the fridge. He popped it open and removed the egg carton from the door, and milk carton as well—now more than half empty. He swallowed, and breathed deep. “Sorry. We’ll find something to keep your hair neat, okay? If you’re going to be my pupil, we’re going to have to get you cleaned up. Control of your psychic powers works best when you’re cared-for, okay? That’s step number one already. It’ll give you better control right off the bat.”

Mob nodded, uncertain at first, and then he nodded more vigorously. He moved to Reigen’s side, bread slices in hand. Reigen stacked up the plates on the counter and put them in the sink. He removed the toaster from the cabinet beneath, chalky and littered with dark crumbs. He grabbed a stove pan next, whichever one bore the least water stains, and he set it on one of the burners.

He took one of the bowls from the drying rack—spotlessly clean, and cleaner probably than any of the kitchenware stacked in Reigen’s cabinets. He turned it upright, and pulled the egg carton closer. He ignored the mess around him and pretended, for a moment, that the environment was right for a kid.

Mob leaned in, curious, observant. Reigen pulled a fork from the drawer.

“We have to whisk the eggs first. Watch closely, Mob. I’ll show you how to make them nice and fluffy.”

For the last three years, most of Ritsu’s days passed quickly. He usually spent them half-focused, bored by the pace of the lessons and uninterested in the things around him, in the people, in the effort that would go into interacting with his classmates or teachers. For three years, Ritsu had grown accustomed to his days passing in a practiced haze.

This day was different. This day Ritsu watched the clock. He sat tense at his desk, his heart squeezing with anxiety over the possibilities of what the spirits had uncovered while he was trapped in school. Every flutter of paper caught his attention, because it could be a spirit whisking up the row with news. Every clack of a pencil, every shuffle of feet, because it could be any of them surging forward, churning papers or pencils or clothing in their ghastly wake. Ritsu ticked and twitched at each disturbance. He flushed every time with a second of panic that would ebb away, and leave only a shuddering, prickling shiver running down his spine.

The anxiety, or excitement, or whatever it was put his stomach in knots, so he skipped lunch that day. He waited instead outside in the musky alleyway, ignoring glares from the delinquent gang crouched in the corner whispering among themselves, biting into messy sandwiches and raising their voices only to curse or yell or toss punches. Ritsu tuned them out, he only watched the horizon for any spirit that had maybe come back to report early. He’d told them 3pm when they’d met up that morning, but the anticipation ate him up too much to wait.

No spirit showed up over lunch. So Ritsu went back to class, still silent, still reacting to every whisk and whisper. He paid no attention to the lectures of the day. He only drowned himself in the fantasies of what he could do—what he possibly would do—if Gimp phased back in with news of where his brother was.

3 pm struck, finally, marked by the shrill ring of the bell. Ritsu grabbed his bag, thankful to be released from the unbearable tension in his joints, but his heart only slammed harder at the thought of what awaited him in the alley. All 42 of them together, those writhing predatory things waiting in the alley, waiting for him with news. He might know today. He might know, minutes from then, where Mob has been for three and a half years. In part, Ritsu hated himself for never discovering this option until now. In part, he hated the anxiety it brought suddenly raking through his life.

In any case, the creatures would be looking for payment—and Ritsu convinced himself he would grow out of the lingering terror that struck every time he remembered.

But no, it was worth it. It was vital that he do this. Because if it brought him home… if it brought him home…

“Hey, Kageyama. Can I speak with you a moment?”

Ritsu looked up, startled out of his thoughts by the voice of Mr. Yahiro. His teacher had moved soundlessly away from his desk, and stood now at the front of Ritsu’s row. His thin eyes seemed to investigate Ritsu, his mouth a firm line of indecision, or worry perhaps. Ritsu averted his eyes, because he knew the look—that expression like he was made of fragile glass, set to shatter.

Ritsu yanked the zipper on his bag. He hoisted it over his shoulder, palms slick and stomach clenched. He tried to move past Mr. Yahiro without looking the man in the eyes.

“Sorry, I have to be home soon. My parents are strict about that.”

“A few minutes…Ritsu,” Mr. Yahiro amended. He was too large; his body took up too much space for Ritsu to bypass. Ritsu glanced around, and found a few wandering sets of eyes from his classmates—two girls and one boy, none of whom he knew by name—eavesdropping noticeably. The attention burned Ritsu’s cheeks.

“…What?” he asked, teeth gritted. He glanced to the clock. 3:02. The spirits were waiting.

“Are you feeling better today?” Mr. Yahiro asked. His eyes were doing it again—roving, probing, investigating. Like all the adults determined to find something fragile in Ritsu. Like all the spirits sizing him up as something to consume. “You weren’t well yesterday. You’re pale today, too. You look like you’re…” Mr. Yahiro stopped, and he chewed on his lip a moment. “I uh—yesterday—I didn’t mean to imply you can’t take sick days, if you need them. I wouldn’t want to push you. Should I maybe call your parents and have them pick you up?”

“I’m fine,” Ritsu answered, hand tightening. A crisp wind struck him then, trailing through the door the other students had left open, from outside where others were already headed… 3:03. “I need to go.”

“Are you…certain? I know you’re a hard-worker. If you need some time off, then I—I’m sure you can catch up.” Another once-over with his eyes. It sent a chill down Ritsu’s spine. “You, especially, if you need time off…”

Ritsu’s lip curled. He stood tall, looking past Mr. Yahiro, ready to push past in silence. He stopped when he noticed the dark stain of purple hovering just behind. Three red eyes pressed down to slits, toothy smile gone. Gimp hovered, tense, dour-looking, until it caught Ritsu’s eye and nodded. Gimp dove forward, vanishing into Mr. Yahiro who stiffened for just a second, then loosened.

Silence, a moment, until--

“Never mind…Ritsu. Please, go ahead…”

Mr. Yahiro stepped aside, his eyes a pale milky film, and he—or rather Gimp inside of him—motioned toward the door. Ritsu said nothing as he moved on past. He thought nothing of it until he was in the hall, buried inside his own thoughts in the crowd of bustling people. Chatter assaulted him from all sides—discussion of afternoon and weekend plans that never concerned him. Red leaves swept across the tiled floor, dragged or blown inside.

Ritsu shoved past those kids blocking the hall. He pretended not to notice when Gimp appeared to his left, hovering to keep pace.

“Thought your teacher was never gonna shut up,” Gimp said. Ritsu could hear him perfectly over the bustle of noise, as though Gimp were speaking to a different sense. Gimp remained silent a moment, a twisted tension working through his face. “I needed to get you out of there.”

Ritsu swallowed. The beating of his heart became something erratic, painful in his chest. “What did you find?”

“It’s…important.”

“Did you find him?!” Ritsu ground out. He paid no mind to whether or not anyone heard him, seemingly talking to himself alone, in the hall, which he shoved through at his unbroken pace.

“No… it’s something else. Just—pick up the pace.”

“Why?”

Gimp said nothing. Ritsu let out an aggravated growl, something born more of the unbearable tension twisting inside him than from actual anger. He tried to steady his breathing. Mob hadn’t been found… He needed to breathe, and focus. They’d need another payment today. He swallowed his disappointment and tried his hardest to ease the pounding in his chest. His undershirt was soaked through with sweat.

The door came into view, cracked half-open with a thin trail of reddish leaves pushing inside. Ritsu took only a moment to glance around before he pushed through it, hoping no one had any intention of following, and hoping moreso that the delinquents had no plans to meet out here this afternoon. He scanned the edge of the building where the gang usually gathered, and found it empty. It sent a different thrum of panic through him, somehow, understanding once more he was alone.

Stagnant, moist air assaulted his lungs, stirred up by an exhaust vent that bled into the alleyway from the school cafeteria. The mustiness was almost sickening, something that clung to exposed skin and invaded Ritsu’s throat. He breathed through it. He told himself he would get used to it.

He looked up, so that he could the space where the mass of hungry spirits had met him the day before, and had met him this morning with even higher expectations. He expected the same mass to be lingering. He readied the pooling energy beneath his palm so that he could extract it, feed it, keep the payment going.

He stopped, jarred, to see that no such horde met him. What he was only the concrete outlines of a dozen spirits hovering close together and confined in a single small space above the alleyway. They writhed in agitated bursts, yanking and twisting and exuding an energy Ritsu immediately recognized as distress. Yet with all their yanking and pulling, they seemed to go nowhere, like flies trapped in a spider web, twisting themselves tighter the more they struggled.

Ritsu tried to still his own heart as he watched them, and he failed. The energy was something all-consuming, a feeling he could drown in. It was infectious, this panic that bled off the few spirits gathered in the alley. It turned the sun above to a haze, washed the fringes of grass from the soccer field high above into a blurry, slashing mess of color. The feeling was potent enough to pull Ritsu away from his physical senses.

The writhing mass became clearer, their faces twisted in abject horror. They struggled and pulled and somehow remained exactly in place.

“What’s happened to them…? Where are the others?” Ritsu asked, and his throat had turned to ash in the meantime. He swallowed, wide accusatory eyes to Gimp. “Why are there only twelve here? Where are the others? I told them to meet me here!”

Gimp put its hands up. Its usual slimy smile didn’t touch its face. “Five of them are gone. Gone-gone. You know.” Gimp sliced a thin, clawed hand across where his throat would lie. “Exorcised.”

How?”

“About five minutes ago. Then 25 ran off—made it out while they could. And these 12 got trapped. Can’t you see? Try using your eyes.”

Ritsu looked between Gimp and the writhing spirits. He focused harder, the ache building behind his eyes again, and made out the wispy tendrils like chains that rooted the spirits to the concrete below. The throbbing in his head worsened. Apprehension twisted his stomach, forced sweat through his palms. His hands clenched and unclenched.

“What’s happening…?” Ritsu whispered. His eyes darted about. He felt too infected by the leaking, panicked aura to do much else to prepare. He twisted then to Gimp. “What’s happening, Gimp?”

It wasn’t Gimp who answered.

Ah, just a bit of disciplinary action.”

It was a new voice that spoke, one that startled Ritsu. It didn’t have the airy, cold echo of a spirit voice. It was grounded. It was real. It came from behind Ritsu, and he spun.

“There’s no need to panic. If you understood spirits which—ah, clearly you don’t—you would know this is the only way to keep them in line. If they don’t fear you, then you have no power over them.”

Ritsu said nothing at first—he couldn’t think of much to say through the fluttering apprehension inside him. He calmed, just a little bit, when his eyes swung around and locked on the outline of a person—not a spirit, not a monster, just a person. Someone half-cast in shadow, standing with one hand against his hip, cocked to the side. It was someone roughly Ritsu’s age, at a glance, meddling.

“What do you mean?” Ritsu asked, his voice a forced calm. He made his breath steady, even though the effort pushed black spots into his vision. He’d come in too tense. He needed to deal with this calmly, send the boy off, piece his horde back together however he could. That was most important. Far more important than the stranger standing across from him in the shadows, even a stranger that somehow could see the spirits too.

“I mean that you have no power over them,” and the boy said it with something of a smile. He took a step forward, and another, seeming to delight in the thrums of terror that leapt off the chained spirits. Ritsu attempted to ignore it. “These spirits. They’ve been mocking you behind your back. I don’t blame them. I’d mock you too.”

Ritsu looked behind him, pretending for a moment to stare past the chained remnants of his horde. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I came out here to smoke in private. I don’t know what you mean by spirits.”

“I heard you talking with Gimcrack.” The boy pointed a finger at Gimp, who froze instantly under the vice, some wire-thin psychic tendril that wrapped around Gimp’s body and threatened to cut him through. “Oh, and I certainly heard it spill its guts about you. I was almost worried, isn’t that funny? You’d undercut my prices so much I feared you might be stronger. Luckily, you’re just an idiot.”

“For the last time, I don’t—“

“Play dumb with me again and I’ll exorcise your entire horde.” The boy tightened his hold on Gimp, who whimpered in response. “I’m being wonderfully civil with you right now, and you’re disrespecting me. I don’t like it.”

Ritsu breathed, and he weighed his options. “…What do you want?”

“My spirits back. An apology. And for you to never encroach on my territory again.” The boy closed the gap between them, face coming out of shadow.  He wore an outfit Ritsu only vaguely recognized as belonging to one of the rival schools—a purple blazer, green striped tie, and gray patterned pants. His hair was artificially blond, intentionally unkempt, lengthy enough to fall just past his jaw. Bangs covered his forehead, just above confident and self-assured eyes, piercing blue. His smile was that of someone who’d already won, bright in the sun that washed over his body.

He thrust a hand out, palm open to Ritsu. “My name is Teruki Hanazawa. I’m the esper who’s better than you.”

Ritsu stared at the offered hand. He fought the instinct to step back. “The spirits didn’t say anyone owned them.” He paused, and weighed his options. “And who says you’re stronger than I am?”

Teruki laughed, heartily, so that he buckled at the waist and dropped his offered hand. Both hands ended up on his knees as his whole body rocked with the laughter. Ritsu’s face burned, and Teruki stood back up.

“You can’t even conceal your aura. You’re not more powerful than me.”

Ritsu breathed in deep again, so that the hot swampy air filled his lungs. The sun beat down harsh against his back, though he knew elsewhere it was cold. Ritsu forced himself to ignore the writhing chained spirits. “You said I’m under-cutting your prices. It’s because I have more energy built up than you. Back off, before I use it on you.”

Ritsu earned only the same reaction—a laugh, a single snort, that pushed a smirk to Teruki’s face. “Ah, don’t try to win me over with humor. It won’t work. It’ll only shorten your lifespan.” His hand lashed out, and snagged Ritsu’s wrist. Ritsu attempted to jerk it away, but Teruki’s grasp was iron-tight. “And speaking of shortened lifespans—“ He twisted Ritsu’s wrist, until it was palm up. The torque strained his skin, and the tension bled out small wisps of magenta aura. Ritsu winced, feeling a tear not at all unlike a wound reopening. “You do not have more energy than me. You’ve just been a careless idiot with the amount you give away. To think you and I are the same breed when you’re so,” Teruki’s eyes inspected Ritsu, probing, judging, again, “…beneath me.”

“Back off!” Ritsu snarled, and he yanked his arm away. He squared his feet, arms tensed, regarding Teruki with open hostility. “I’m not—don’t look at me like that. I’m not weak. I’m fine giving off this much energy—I have plenty!”

“You have a week, at best, at this rate.” Teruki stepped around Ritsu. He moved to the spirits and circled them. They pulled and yanked, attempting desperately to stay out of Teruki’s reach. He lunged for one—a bluff—and it yowled.

“Crass, crude, malicious, despicable things…” Teruki said. He clicked his tongue. “You should thank me—they would have gladly left you for dead. Now I will take these back with me. And you will go home. And if I ever catch you stealing from me again—“ he turned to Ritsu, and flashed a smile, “—I’ll annihilate you.”

Ritsu shook his head—slow, methodical. “You can’t take them,” he ground out.

“I can’t?” Teruki mocked.

“I need them,” Ritsu answered, and he hated how pathetic his words sounded.

“You don’t.”

“I do!”

“Why? Are you that eager to die?” Teruki asked.

“I need them to find my brother.”

Silence fell between them, one punctuated only with the occasional rasp or howl of the chained spirits. Gimp floated cautiously behind them all, staring on as if judging which side to join. Teruki quirked an eyebrow.

“Oh, is this the ‘strongest esper alive’ Gimcrack mentioned?”

Ritsu’s face burned. He felt lashed by the mockery.

“He is…strong,” Ritsu answered, teeth clenched. He reeled his anger in. “It’s not a joke. He’s an esper stronger than you. He was kidnapped, three and a half years ago, and I’m using the spirits to get him back.”

“These pathetic things?” Teruki asked, motioning to the chained amalgam behind him. Teruki reached out, snagged a chain. The caught spirit howled and yelped and thrashed as Teruki dragged it closer. Then Teruki grabbed it then by the tail, and he clawed his fingers through its body in a single vicious swipe. The spirit let out one last keening yowl before tearing into streaks of smoke. “Ha! They haven’t been searching for your brother. You’ve given them no incentive to follow your orders.” Teruki took the next chain. The yellow revenant attached shrieked louder, having just witnessed its companion die. Teruki yanked it to eye-level and stroked it beneath the chin. It whimpered in response. “You’ve given them no reason to fear you.”

“…They’ve been searching,” Ritsu answered, pitifully.

“They’ve done no such thing. They’ve taken advantage of you.” Teruki released the whimpering spirit, and he turned to face Ritsu, hip cocked again. “And like an idiot, you let them. I don’t waste my time on idiots.”

Ritsu stood, immobile, watching with paranoia as all his efforts broke down before his eyes. He couldn’t let this stranger destroy everything. He couldn’t let the intimidation drown him. He was stronger… He had to be.

Yet his legs still trembled. And fear still twisted his stomach. And he still cowered at the idea of getting hurt.

He’d never been in a fight.

“Then don’t waste your time here,” Ritsu answered.

Teruki stared back, saying nothing at first.

“Excuse me?”

Ritsu swallowed once, until he found his voice.

“You said I’m an idiot, and you don’t waste your time on idiots—fine—so leave. You can’t take these spirits back. They chose to follow me, and I need them. I’m not scared of you because you can act tough.”

Teruki turned, a snapping motion, to face Ritsu, and he delighted in the flinch he earned from Ritsu. He stepped forward, closing the gap until mere inches separated their faces, so that Ritsu could smell his breath—hot and predatory—on his face. Ritsu resisted the urge to lean away.

“No, you’re scared of me because I am tough. These spirits are mine. I’m taking them, or I’m breaking you. That’s it.”

Ritsu’s heart pounded in his ears. It sent a throbbing line of pain through his head, but he did not dare let it show.

“Then break me.”

Teruki stared back, expression unchanged. Ritsu swallowed.

“Repeat that.”

“I said ‘Then break me.’” Ritsu took one step back, and he summoned a glowing mass of magenta energy in his palm. It curled around his skin in tendrils, cold and dense and powerful. He felt powerful. He was powerful. Teruki had proven nothing beside the fact that he could exorcise a few spirits, and that was something Ritsu could do. “But you won’t. I’ll destroy you first. You haven’t convinced me that you’re more powerful. You don’t feel powerful at all. I’m the only one with any detectable aura. I’m calling your bluff.”

“…My aura?” Teruki asked, one eyebrow quirked. He swung a hand out, grabbed Ritsu’s outstretched palm as though it were an offered handshake. “This aura?”

Then his hand tensed.

A shock like lighting exploded through Ritsu’s hand. Fire flooded him instantly, filled his lungs and smothered his heart and tore through his head like razor teeth through flesh. Ritsu let out one single unhindered scream before Teruki released him, and Ritsu dropped to his knees.

“You have five seconds to back down,” Teruki said. He set his hands to his hips, his face a stony mask of absolute severity. “Five seconds.”

Ritsu breathed in gasps. His whole body trembled, torn up by the shock of Teruki’s aura which had sliced him so entirely through. His stomach twisted. The spasms broke up his breathing, and Ritsu was lucky he’d skipped lunch for the day.

He understood from every throbbing ache in his body that he needed to surrender. He knew it without a shadow of a doubt.

But he knew it wasn’t his body that mattered—not his health or his well-being—he’d decided already that those came second to the chance at finding his brother. Whatever aches and pains came to his body he could endure, if it meant finally escaping, finally going back, finally having him back, back to normal, back to everything that was.

Surrender meant giving up his only chance at fixing everything.

Ritsu braced his palms against the sticky wet asphalt. He pushed until he got one quivering foot beneath him, then the other, and forced himself upright though the world spun around him. The shock wore off slowly—his breathing returned, his balance, the trembling ebbed slowly out of his limbs.

Ritsu met Teruki’s eyes, and he twisted up his gravel-stained hands.

“No… I won’t.” Ritsu summoned a flash of violet aura into each palm, larger, brighter, more aggressive than before. And they whipped about violently enough to conceal the tremble in his knees. “So then let’s do this.”

Chapter Text

 Jun lingered in the hallway, arms crossed and ears tuned to the sound of virtual gunfire and muffled radio transmissions coming from the next room. 3pm had come and passed; she had only just gotten back from the workplace visits she’d hoped would only take the morning hours. Jun breathed in deep, stashed her keys in her purse, and stepped into the living room. She announced her presence by knocking lightly on the wall beside her.

“Jun?” Tetsuo asked.

“Yeah, I’m back.” She stepped closer, careful to not seem too intent as she scanned the room. Tetsuo sat on the couch, elbows leaning on his knees and an X-box controller clutched in his hands. He wore a headset with the microphone tilted away from his mouth. A plate with only crumbs sat on the coffee table, coupled with a half-drained mug of coffee. Jun heard another pot gurgling from the kitchen.

Jun took the space on the couch beside Tetsuo, and she watched the melee of gunfire. Men in desaturated camo colors ran in and out of sight through a virtual neighborhood, seemingly abandoned save for the mannequins stationed beside cars, on streets, in houses, as though part of a movie set. Human voices, tinny and distant, came in bursts through the speakers.

“I talked with Fujimori. We got my assignments shuffled so that everything I’ve got to do in the next week I can do on my computer from home. There are two video conference calls I have to join on Friday and Monday but those never take more than an hour.” She glanced sideways to Tetsuo. “And I stopped by the station too. Chief Ishida is okay with you using up your sick days for now, and it can stretch into your vacation days too. Longer than that, you might need to talk to him yourself, but I think Isa already got to him first. He seemed like he already knew you haven’t just been sick the last two days.”

Tetsuo kept his focus on the television. “Oh. Okay. Sorry—I can’t pause it. Team-play. Everything’s real-time so I can’t—“ A bullet took out Tetsuo’s character. The screen saturated red, and then the view shifted to kill-cam, playing back the death from the perspective of a sniper perched behind a second-story window. Tetsuo lowered his controller while his character slowly respawned. “…Did you talk with Isa?”

“A bit. She told me to give you flack for leaving her partnerless, but she said it in—that way—monotone and serious. But it was that voice she uses when she’s joking.”

“Yeah…yeah. I know what you mean. That voice she uses. She jokes like she’s serious. She was joking it’s okay.”

Tetsuo’s character respawned. He leaned forward again, hands braced to the controller.

Jun faced the gameplay too. She registered none of it. “…When did you come to bed last night?” she asked.

“Um…”

“You said you’d come to bed by midnight, but I never heard you. Did you come to bed?”

Tetsuo offered a sheepish grin, only a half-second in length before he focused back on his match. “I’ve never made it that far in campaign mode before. Had to keep playing. I lost track of time.”

“…No you didn’t, Tetsuo.” She eyed the coffee mug again. It left such a potent smell on his breath, like he hadn’t had anything else in days. Jun glanced to Tetsuo again, his body seemingly spring-coiled, jittery and tense and strung-up too high. It made her tense to watch him.

“…Hmm?” Tetsuo asked. He gave her only side-long glances, but now the lack of eye-contact felt intentional.

“You didn’t lose track of time. It’s been two nights now. You haven’t slept. The coffee pot’s been on every time I’ve checked.” Jun surveyed his face. The stubble building along his chin, the bruises beneath his eyes all brought a grayness to his face that Jun was not used to seeing. “Are you afraid of falling asleep?”

Tetsuo’s hands slowed on the controller. The red-tinted screen returned, his character dropping dead. The kill-cam played through the eyes of an enemy sprinting for Tetsuo, stopping short, and driving a knife through Tetsuo’s chest. A countdown for his respawn appeared, but Tetsuo put the controller down.

“…Am I being that obvious?”

“It’s easy enough to figure out.”

Tetsuo pressed his hands together. He let his head hang, tilted just slightly to face Jun. “It’s uh…it was a lot like falling asleep, when he took control. I’d be drowsy, then just feel this blankness for hours, scattered thoughts and nothing else. Until I woke up again. Thought maybe I was…dissociating, or something. I’d googled—“ Tetsuo quieted, then shook his head. “Falling asleep feels exactly the same as losing control. I can’t do that…”

“You can’t stay awake either.”

“I can.” Tetsuo picked up the coffee mug from the table, and he brandished it almost proudly. “Coffee.”

“Tetsuo put that down before I take it from you and smack you on the head with it.” Jun took it from him, but only placed it down on the coffee table and slid it away. “I’m…sorry, by the way, Tetsuo.”

Tetsuo looked between her and the coffee mug, confused. Worry surfaced in his expression. “…About?”

“Going to Reigen, behind your back. …Sorry.”

“You’re sorry?”

“I am.”

“He saved my life, Jun. That’s a good thing.”

“That’s not my point. Saving your life wasn’t his job. He was supposed to just investigate you.” Jun twisted her fingers together. “He’s a PI hired to investigate you. And I hired him. Just that, every time I tried to confront you about it, it—I learned nothing. I got nowhere with you. In the end I decided to not trust you. Sorry.”

Tetsuo sat stiff, hands placed now to his knees. He stared forward, but not at the television. His character stood, idle, easy prey to the opposing team, but Tetsuo did not seem to be watching it. He seemed almost to stare at nothing. “…S’okay. I never told you much. It’s uh…you were right, in the end, you know. About trusting me. I don’t trust me anymore…”

“Tetsuo…”

“I’ve been trying to sort it out, in my head. What things were me, what things were him… And when, and how often, and if anyone ever…?” Tetsuo inhaled deeply, his whole body seeming to shudder. “Who else noticed…?”

“Doesn’t matter now, Tetsuo. Doesn’t matter… Reigen exorcised him.”

“Reigen isn’t sure what he did.”

“No…he isn’t.” Jun moved her hand on top of Tetsuo’s, squeezing it. “But we’ve got the spirit tags, and you’ve got me watching you. And it’s been two days without anything happening. And Shigeo wasn’t in that basement.”

Tetsuo’s eyes widened. His head turned toward Jun, somehow more open, more defenseless.

Jun nodded. “…Isa told me, about the Shigeo thing, that you thought—“ Her sentence trailed off. “I’m keeping an eye on you now, Tetsuo. And you need to sleep sometime. So give me the benefit I was too stupid to give you—please just trust me. Trust me, Tetsuo, and sleep. I’ll be right here.”

Tetsuo stared straight again. The game had fizzled out without fanfare. A new screen declared his team the losers, and then a menu of options—continue or quit—appeared superimposed on it. Tetsuo reached forward, pressed his thumb into the power button on the controller. The game flickered off.

“…’Course I trust you,” he muttered. “I don’t trust me.”

“Falling asleep isn’t the same as Mogami taking control. And you’re going to have to sleep eventually. Trust me to watch you, Tetsuo.”

“What if he does take control though?”

“Being awake or asleep won’t change that. And he’s gone, Tetsuo.” Jun slid her purse forward, supported by the strap on her shoulder. She tapped the bag. “And I’ve got half Reigen’s spirit tags in here. If I’ve got my doubts about you I’ll just huck this at your head.”

A flicker of a smile crossed Tetsuo’s lips. He nodded. “I uh, I might have nodded off once or twice already. The caffeine doesn’t really wake me up anymore. Makes me feel—more like I’m on strings. Got strings holding me up.” Tetsuo put his arms out, like a mockery of Frankenstein. “Like a puppet—luckily the better kind of puppet. The not-possessed kind.”

Jun cracked a smile in return, and she pushed him over so that he lay down on the couch, his feet practically against her. She took the pillow from beside her and tossed it toward his head. “Yeah, now go to sleep. I’ll be here.”

Tetsuo caught the pillow. He shifted, finding a position comfortable, so that his arms wrapped around the pillow and his face rested against it. He prodded Jun once with a socked toe. “Did I keep you up last night, playing Call of Duty all night?”

“All night—I was about to file a noise complaint with the police.”

“I’m the police.”

Jun shoved his foot away. “Yeah whatever shut up. Go to sleep.”

Tetsuo offered a single triumphant laugh, and he pulled his foot away, and he let his eyes slip shut. Jun eased back into the couch, letting out a tense breath.

Then she startled, her phone vibrating silently in her pocket. She dug it out and inspected the screen: incoming call, from Dr. Wong. Jun looked to Tetsuo, and he had cracked one eye open to watch her.

“Just a second. It’s Lan.” Jun stood. She set her sights on the hall, the bedroom door at the far end. She put off answering until she was through it, door shut behind her. Alone, with just the carpet beneath her feet, Jun slid her index finger across the screen. “…Lan?”

Jun? Oh good, I caught you. Is this a bad time?”

“Not much better or worse than any other. Why? Did something happen?”

No, just had a free moment, thought I’d check in. Though I have to remove a Lego piece from a five-year-old’s ear in fifteen minutes.”

Jun let out a held breath. “Sounds like rewarding work.”

“It really is. Children appreciate not having foreign objects trapped in their ear canal. The parents perhaps moreso.”

Despite herself, Jun laughed. She leaned against the wall. She stared at the window, covered by the drawn blinds that let only thin ribbons of light in through the slats. It made the room dim, tinted warm. “Still, not the line of work I’d go into. But…Tetsuo’s okay, I guess. We’re both hanging in. Just…hoping it’s something that’s behind us. It’s possible the thing’s gone for good.”

“Good then. And how’s your PI? Reigen, I think was his name?”

“Um…last we spoke he seemed okay,” Jun answered. “It’s been a day though. I should call him.”

“You never quite explained that part to me, by the way. How did you end up with a PI?”

“Oh… he um… I hired him,” Jun whispered.

To investigate Tetsuo?”

“The symptoms of being possessed are a lot like the symptoms of sneaking around with another woman, Lan. I’d know. I’ve lived through both.” Jun chewed her lip. “Not with Tetsuo, the second one. Previous boyfriends.”

“And did you hire private investigators to trail those other boyfriends?”

“No, this was different.” Jun trusted most of her weight against the wall. Her free hand fidgeted in her hair, her eyes shooting sidelong to the shut bedroom door. “I didn’t just…hire a PI out of the blue. I’d handle it myself, normally. But Tetsuo was getting unresponsive, and something came up, and I needed to know.”

“’Something came up.’ …Are you going to tell me, or am I meant to be satisfied with that cryptic of an explanation?”

“I’m late, Lan, very late. The home test said negative but false-negatives happen. And if Tetsuo was cheating on me, I needed to know before anything… I needed to know.”

“…Pregnant?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Jun whispered. The word sounded mangled in her ears, as if through water, as if from a nightmare she’d lived before. “…Maybe.”

Oh honey…”

“I’m not going to think about it right now. It’s not what’s important right now. But yeah…I hired a PI because, it’s possible…” Jun breathed deep.

“Have you told him?”

“Tetsuo?”

“Yeah.”

“Of course not. On top of everything else he already… It’s just a fear, Lan. I’m paranoid about these things. He doesn’t need to worry more.” Jun pulled the phone closer. “Can I come in later this week? Get tested so I can be sure?”

I’m free Saturday at 2.”

“That works for me.”

“And Jun?”

Yeah?”

Are you okay?”

Jun paused. “Yeah, I’m fine. You know this isn’t my first scare.”

“Yes. Because like you said, you are paranoid.”

“That I am. And…thanks, for everything, again. We appreciate it a lot.”

“Of course.”

“Now get to your Lego-digging.”

Jun heard something like a laugh from the other end. “Take care of yourself, Jun. Bye.”

“Same to you Lan. Bye.”

Jun pulled the phone away from her ear. She ended the call, and stared at it for a few moments longer. Her body shook, small quiet noises slipping from her mouth. She blinked, and found tears dropped onto the screen of her now-blank phone.

Jun slid down the wall, and sat with her knees drawn to her chest, her face buried in them while she unraveled. It lasted only a few minutes, until she pulled her head up, breathed deep, pushed herself standing. Jun rubbed her face dry, and brought a thin, firm smile back to her lips. She stowed the phone in her pocket and opened the bedroom door, eyes set on the living room.

Tetsuo was still lying on the couch as before, his head tilted to face her. “You’ve come crawling back,” he said.

“Couldn’t stay away.”

“What did Dr. Wong say?”

“Nothing much.” Jun detoured to the desk at the far end of the room. She picked her laptop up from it, charger and all, and relocated to the spot on the couch beside Tetsuo and reclaimed it, booting her laptop up. “She was just checking in.”

“Oh, that’s nice of her.”

“It is.” Jun patted Tetsuo’s foot. “Now go the hell to sleep.”

“You have five seconds to back down.”

“No… I won’t.” Ritsu summoned a flash of violet aura into each palm, larger, brighter, more aggressive than before. And they whipped about violently enough to conceal the tremble in his knees. “So then let’s do this.”

A crack followed Ritsu’s words, and the noise came from the sky rather than his hands. Storm clouds, bloated and dark, had rolled in overhead, like spilling ink, blotching the sun, rumbling with the threat of slitting open. Sweat tricked down the back of Ritsu’s neck, between his shoulder blades where it sopped sticky and humid into his undershirt. The air had become stifling, uncomfortably hot for early October.

Teruki appraised Ritsu’s outstretched hands, gauging the purple fire licking and twisting through his fingers. Then he looked around, taking in the sticky, musty alley. He glanced to the high cinder wall leading to the soccer field in back, to the even taller fence that crowned the wall.

The sky erupted once, a burst of distant light followed by the bloated rumble of thunder soon after.

“I don’t care for this place. I have no room to stretch my legs.” Teruki flashed a grin. “Besides, it’s too cliché for my tastes to leave you bleeding to death in an alley.”

“Too bad,” Ritsu muttered. His head began to spin just vaguely from maintaining the burst of power in his palms. Or maybe he’d simply forgotten to breathe. “Fight me here.”

“Let’s relocate.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Oh, it will only take a second,” Teruki answered, singsong. He rolled his shoulders and loosened the buttons on the front of his shirt. He rolled his cuffs.

“If you’re too scared to fight me just say—“

Ritsu’s chest exploded in pain. A firm arm slammed deep beneath his sternum, smashing the wind from his lungs as he was hooked, torn from the pavement and sent careening head-over-heels. He spun through the air for seconds that stretched like an eternity, direction and position scrambled as he forced his eyes shut.

His right shoulder collided with the grass first. He rolled, tumbling, cold prickling grass ripping across his face until he stopped, splayed on his back, heart all but slamming through his bludgeoned and bruised ribcage as he tried to suck in air to his spasming lungs. His vision spun. He stared, eyes wide and unblinking, into the sky above with the dark, dirty streaks of thunderclouds blotched through it like paint.

Ritsu braced an arm around his ribcage, shifting as little as he could while he rolled onto his side and curled. His every breath came shallow and spasmodic, slicing hot at each shift in his ribs. They’d cracked, or they felt like they had.

A shadow stepped over him. Fear pierced hot and wet through his heart as the thing engulfed the remaining sunlight. Ritsu twisted and shot a directionless burst of purple energy from his palm. Teruki side-stepped it effortlessly, not even looking at Ritsu as he cast his eyes to the distant ends of the field.

 “Ah, see, we’re on the soccer field. That took no time at all. Are you ready to start this fight then?”

The purple blast collided with a tree a hundred feet behind Teruki, leaving just the faintest visible scorch mark.

“How did you…?”

Ritsu managed to set a foot to the ground, but his knee throbbed as he tried to lean any weight against it. It had collided with the ground too, bludgeoned hard enough to bruise instantly. His knee was partially exposed through the tears in his pants, framed by fringes of fabric wet and stained by grass and mud. His wide eyes watched Teruki like a small animal hunted.

“What, get here so fast?” Teruki flashed a grin. “Easily. Can’t you do it too?”

Ritsu lunged again, a yell tearing from his throat as he summoned a lick of energy to his palm. He threw it forward, and Teruki caught his fist. The fire dispelled. Teruki’s fist clamped down. Ritsu could not yank it away.

“Let me go,” Ritsu whispered. His eyes were locked on Teruki’s hand, gauging, trying to understand how it had moved so fast, how it had hooked him under the ribs so forcefully, how it had intercepted his attack so effortlessly.

“The fight hasn’t started yet,” Teruki chided. His grin split wider, every bit the predator the spirits had been, and more.

Thunder crackled behind him. Ritsu heard the hiss like rolling television static that suggested the downpour had already started nearby. He tore his hand back and stood, breathing heavy, letting the seconds draw out between them. He re-summoned the glowing purple aura to his hands.

“So are you going to fight?” Teruki asked.

Streaks of cold dirt smeared Ritsu’s right cheek, stinging. He’d slammed through the grass with enough force for the thin, firm edges of dried-up grass blades to cut him.

“Why haven’t you attacked with your powers yet?”

“It’s much more fun to watch you try,” Teruki answered.

Ritsu tensed his hand, magenta flame building to a pyre, and he threw himself at Teruki again. The boy stepped to the right, caught Ritsu from behind, spun him and slammed him into the ground. Ritsu saw none of the movement. He understood nothing but the dirt his face slammed into, the impact that smashed his nose and drew blood from it. Teruki pulled his head up by the hair.

“Care to try again?”

Ritsu said nothing. He only held eye-contact with Teruki, livid fire that he knew must look pathetic on his dirt-smeared face.

“What happened to all that ‘Break me’ bravado you had a few moments ago?” Teruki asked.

“Let me up,” Ritsu answered. He breathed, and his bruised ribs felt like knives slicing.

Teruki quirked an eyebrow. From Ritsu’s vantage point, Teruki was framed by the nearby goal posts, the entirety of the school to his back behind the chain-linked fence. The storm clouds rolled overhead, and he mingled with their shadows. “You’re surrendering already?”

 “Let me up.”

“I haven’t even had the chance to attack yet. Are you not even going to let me have fun?”

Ritsu glanced behind Teruki, catching just the slightest light from the chained parts of his horde still in the alleyway, yanking, struggling.

“Yes,” Ritsu answered. “I surrender.”

“I don’t accept your surrender.”

“You have to!”

“Why should I have to?” Teruki asked. He dropped Ritsu’s hair and straightened, stepping forward, turning to face Ritsu on the ground. Teruki’s arm twitched, and a sharp blade of yellow energy wrapped around his right hand. “I have the upper hand. You’re at my mercy.”

“…What do I have to do?” Ritsu asked. He pushed himself off the ground, stepped back. His shoe sank into mud. “What can I do to make you accept?”

“Well let’s see.” Teruki tapped his blade against his open palm. “You’ve done quite a lot wrong. You’ve interfered with my careful spirit hierarchy. Enough to force me to come all the way out here, despite my busy schedule, so that I could set you straight. Which I did courteously. I talked you through the situation, civilly, and gave you the chance to back down. Did you take that chance?”

Teruki paused. After a moment of silence he repeated, harsher now, “Did you?!”

“I didn’t!”

“That’s right, you didn’t. You insulted me instead.” Teruki closed the gap between them more and more with each rhythmic step. Ritsu could understand he was not meant to back away any further. “You refused to apologize. You disparaged my powers. Then you challenged me to fight, and now—now—you want to back down before I’ve had my fun?”

“Yes,” Ritsu answered. Sweat dripped down his neck, to his collar. “Please… What can I do?”

Teruki closed the space between them. He stood now, eye-to-eye with Ritsu.

“You can grovel.”

“…Grovel?”

“You can get on your knees, here, in front of me, and grovel.” Teruki pointed to the earth below, wet and filthy. Ritsu could not tell if it was intentional where exactly they stood—a section of field where students’ cleats had churned up the grass and left behind a thick, muddy soup. “If you flatter me enough, I may consider not snapping your spine.”

Ritsu’s stomach tightened. He nodded. He set his eyes down to Teruki’s shoes.

Then he summoned a flash of energy into his fist and drove it through Teruki Hanazawa’s skull.

…Or he tried to.

A honeycomb force-field stopped it in its tracks. Something shimmering, dazzling, and mercilessly solid which Ritsu’s fist slammed into. The impact split Ritsu’s knuckles. A scream tore from his mouth, and the gathered magenta energy cut against the barrier without making a single scratch.

Ritsu only had enough time to pull his split and bleeding hand to his chest before Teruki responded.

“Ah, so the game’s back on.”

Then the world slammed sideways, and Ritsu’s right side cracked, and instantly he was tumbling through the grass once more, across the entire length of the soccer field, until he collided violently with the far goal post, his spine slamming against it in a sudden halt. White hot fire burst in his lungs. He was gasping again, heaving, coughing, suffocating as the world spun in violent arcs through Ritsu’s vision and he curled his knees against his body. The grass and dirt were cool against his face but the spinning world would not slow, the ringing in his ears would not lessen, the hot spasming of his stomach roiled inside him until the vertigo overwhelmed him. His stomach clenched. Ritsu tilted his head as far as he could and vomited into the grass.

“That’s a shame. I usually score with those shots.”

Ritsu panted. He was desperate for the small bits of air that would enter his lungs. He cracked an eye open, pulled his face from the grass and looked at Teruki. The boy stood over him. Not a single hair was out of place.

“Get up,” Teruki said.

Ritsu shook his head. He didn’t have enough breath to speak.

“Get up.”

Ritsu pressed one hand into the dirt. He pushed, if only to get his shoulder off the ground, and its every movement was like a knife jammed beneath his shoulder blade. Trembling, he fell back down. The attack had reduced his body to something he could hardly control.

“No…” he wheezed, then coughed. His mouth tasted vile. “I surrender.”

“Oh? Like last time?”

Ritsu shook his head. “Please, I mean it. Please no more.”

His confidence evaporated in pieces, dissolving more and more with each throbbing ache through his body. His thoughts were too scrambled to remember why he’d chosen to fight. His body too bruised to think; he wanted to curl up, and protect himself from pain.

“Get up.”

“Please…”

“Get up, or I will just kill you right here.”

Ritsu could not see, but he thought he heard a smile in the voice. It terrified him. He pushed himself up and leaned his weight against the goal post. Teruki swam in and out of focus. Thunder boomed nearby.

“That’s not ‘up’.”

“Please…”

Rough hands grabbed him by the collar, hoisted him up. His collar cinched the back of his neck as Teruki lifted him.

“Really? Two hits? I thought I wouldn’t have to hold back on you, as an esper, but I suppose I was wrong. That’s pathetic.” Teruki curled his free hand back into a fist. It erupted in yellow flame. “Prove you’re not pathetic. Block this.”

“Please.”

Teruki swung. His fist collided with Ritsu’s jaw. Ritsu’s neck snapped to the side.

“What’s wrong with you?” Teruki asked. He pressed Ritsu against the goal post, switched hands, and swung with his opposite fist. It collided too. “Block me!”

Ritsu raised his arms just in time to intercept the third punch. The psychic energy left scorch marks along his uniform. Teruki’s grip loosened, and he let Ritsu fall enough to stand under his own power.

“No…using you barrier you moron.”

Ritsu cracked his eyes open.

“…What?”

Teruki released him entirely. “What do you mean what? Your barrier! Summon your barrier and block me.

“I don’t know what barrier!”

“Your psychic barrier!”

“What is that?!”

Teruki curled his fist back, preparing another strike. He didn’t release it. He let his fist drop instead, then he locked his hand on Ritsu’s bruised shoulder.

Teruki forced eye-contact between them. “You don’t know?”

“I don’t,” Ritsu maintained.

“What—did your psychic older brother teach you nothing?”

“How could he…? I awakened after they took him,” he rasped out.

“Who’s taught you then?”

“Just me. Only me.”

Teruki’s eyes scanned him up and down, and Ritsu felt he’d become something pathetic and sad. Teruki grimaced.

“No wonder you’re so stupid.”

Teruki released him. Ritsu remained standing, leaning his weight against the goal post behind him. He shut his eyes, just for a moment.

“…Well this is lesson one: block me.”

Ritsu’s eyes snapped open, just in time to see another full attack launched toward his ribcage. Teruki wasn’t using his lightning speed this time. It was a punch Ritsu could see coming. Ritsu raised his arms. He imagined the shimmering honeycomb shield, and willed something like that forward, like a bubble of water but energy, solid energy, a curtain a sheet a shield around him—

Teruki’s fist connected, and Ritsu was thrown clear across the field once more. But the punch did not rip the air from his lungs. It did not rattle his brain or snap his ribs or bruise his chest. It was absorbed, deflected. He crashed through the metal water fountain stationed near the stands with an impact that didn’t destroy him.

He opened his eyes, found himself lying on his back in the grass, water gurgling up from the fractured fountain and sopping into the dirt by his head, into his hair. He sat up, stared at the world around him, and it was all tinted magenta by the swirling, incandescent membrane that swam like water around his body. He reached out to touch it, and it was solid.

“Good.” The voice was behind Ritsu. He startled, spun around. Teruki stood a few feet away from him, knees bent in, hand brimming with yellow fire. “Now lesson 2: fight me.”

Teruki vanished, a schism in the air left behind him. Instantly Ritsu’s barrier exploded with the impact of something forceful and sharp. Ritsu yanked his head to the side just in time. The energy blade engulfing Teruki’s hand cut through the air that Ritsu’s head occupied moments before.

Ritsu scrambled back, eyes wide with the understanding that this attack could have taken his eye, his neck even. He shoved his hand into the dirt and bounced upward, stumbling backwards until he could get his feet beneath him. He summoned another lashing of violet energy to his palm and sliced the air. It spun out like blades, whizzing and shrieking like fireworks bursting out before explosion. Teruki flickered, gone from their path. Ritsu watched the blades cut the soccer goal in two as a shock of yellow energy struck him from behind.

Ritsu’s whole body convulsed. White hot pain formed a wrenching scream in his throat, and he dropped to his knees. One violent jerk of his hand brought the barrier up around his body.

Ritsu stared through his barrier, and he did not trust it. Teruki had fractured the first one; he could fracture it again. He searched frantically for any sign of Teruki.

He saw nothing. He only heard the shatter of his barrier, like a water glass dropped on tile and exploding outward. Loud, violent, horrifically close.

“I said fight me. You can’t win against me if you just stand there with your guard up.”

I can’t win, period. Ritsu thought. But he did not say it—even admitting it as a thought scared him.

Ritsu could only re-summon his barrier. His plan did not go beyond that. He did not know how to attack like Teruki did, or move like Teruki did. He’d not landed a single hit. And Teruki had turned him into something hardly upright. If he had even stood a chance at the beginning of the fight, that chance was rapidly disappearing with each new bludgeoning his body took.

“You can’t attack with your barrier up. Put it down and attack.”

Ritsu shook his head. “No…”

Teruki flashed. Ritsu tensed. The blade of energy smashed through the barrier once again, and the collision gave Ritsu just enough warning to dodge to the left. He stumbled. The blur that was Teruki plowed through the space Ritsu had just stood.

Heart slamming again, unleashed a burst of energy more frantic, more directionless than before. It bloomed out and scorched the grass beneath his feet, leaving decimation in its path like a wave ripping across the beach. Teruki was no longer in its path. His voice came from behind.

“I’ll keep shattering them.”

Ritsu summoned up another barrier regardless.

It did nothing against Teruki’s next attack, the serrated yellow blade in his hand grazed Ritsu’s cheek, and the cut tore through so fast and smooth that the white hot pain hit two seconds later, only once the blood welled to his skin and spilled down.

Ritsu didn’t dare attend to his cheek. He only summoned the next barrier. His confidence was shot. He had nothing. And he would rather have the barrier shatter than himself.

He wondered if, for once, everyone had been right about him. Maybe he was something fragile, on the brink of shattering. Would Teruki shatter him now, just like his barriers? Slit him at his most tense and watch him scatter like so many bits of broken glass?

Another flash. Another impact. The barrier couldn’t take the whole brunt, and Teruki’s explosive collision slammed through Ritsu’s ribcage. Ritsu gasped, pedaled back, dropped his hands to his knees and gulped in breaths. He couldn’t lose his ability to breathe—not again—not now.

The water from the broken fountain sank into his shoes, made them damp and icy.

“Attack me, or I end it now,” Teruki barked.

Ritsu flinched, and he swept a hand toward the ground. The pooling water coalesced, rose like a whip which he struck out.

Teruki had no barrier up now. The water slammed into his chest directly, wrapped with force around his midsection and tightened as Ritsu clenched his fist. Teruki wheezed, something like surprised painting his face.

Ritsu’s heart jumped. He pulled, his command of the water infallible. Teruki stumbled.

Then Ritsu witnessed the water rope shred as though made of cotton. Yellow energy sliced it like so many knives, and droplets sprayed to the ground. Teruki rolled his shoulders.

“Clever. But you’ll need something sturdier hold on me.”

Ritsu slammed the heel of his palm out, a tidal wave of water from the bleeding fountain rolled forward. His control was immaculate, tuned to every rise and ebb of the congealed mass, but it did not strike Teruki.

Teruki was simply faster.

A collision struck Ritsu full-force. His left shoulder took the whole blunt impact of Teruki’s attack, and he spun, twisting his ankle, wheezing out the breath Teruki tore from him. The water splashed to the ground. Adrenaline dampened the pain as Ritsu swept a hand up to grab back the water.

Teruki, no more than a blur, struck past again. This one sliced Ritsu’s left arm, the one reaching for the water. Ritsu bit down the scream in his throat, threw his right hand over the wound, already wet and coppery. When he opened his eyes, he was staring through tears.

He went for less. Ritsu tore up a single band of water before the next lightning-fast strike. The impact bludgeoned his back, drove Ritsu face-first into the mud below. He coughed, sputtered as his nose and mouth were driven deep into the soupy muck. The suction held him a moment, long enough to panic that the filth might suffocate him until he tore his face free. He rolled onto his side. He grabbed one last time for the water, but it scarcely moved. Using his powers built a throbbing headache behind his eyes.

Ritsu closed and opened his eyes. The panicked tears wouldn’t quite clear. His focus was shot.

The next impact came as just a single yellow haze in his vision. It launched him back, and his spine collided with the torn up trunk of the water fountain. It pinched a nerve, and Ritsu screamed.

He tried, and tried again, but neither barrier nor water would rise to his call. Trying only worsened the pain behind his eyes. He was open—raw and soft and defenseless.

He’d lost.

He was at Teruki Hanazawa’s mercy.

Teruki Hanazawa could kill him.

Ritsu understood this with raw, suffocating certainty. He felt like a child again. He felt like he was 9, sitting on the stairs and watching the world around him crumble. Weak, powerless. He wanted to cry for his mom, or his dad, he wanted to be saved. He wanted his brother back.

He didn’t want to die.

Teruki hadn’t attacked yet. Ritsu could just see the yellow smear through his own tears, through the shakiness in his vision caused by his hitching breath. Dashing in and out of his field of vision, finding the right angle to deliver the last blow, evaluating the best way to kill Ritsu.

A sob broke from Ritsu’s throat. He didn’t want to die.

Ritsu struck a hand out, not for the water and not for his barrier. Instead he telekinetically grabbed at the space he saw Teruki fly through. He grabbed nothing.

Another flash went by, Ritsu flinched, but Teruki did not strike. Ritsu tried again. It was childish, and desperate, and in vain, trying something so basic as telekinetically grabbing his opponent. But it was maybe the only way Ritsu had to make Teruki stop.

The blur zipped closer, honing in.

Ritsu, muddy, bloodied, panting and half-blinded by his own tears, tried one last time to grab Teruki.

When he tightened his fist, it caught. His arm was torn violently to the side, enough to nearly wrench it from his socket. Ritsu yelped,

But the noise Teruki made was worse.

It was something wet, rasping, forced from his lungs. The blur solidified. Teruki stood, his knees just a bit bent, his hands raised and digging at his neck, forcing their way beneath the tie cinched tight at his throat.

Ritsu’s eyes flicked just a bit to the right, to where the rest of Teruki’s striped tie had been wrenched and now was strung horizontal with the ground. It was taut, the pressure clear. It vibrated under its own strain. The triangular bottom of the tie was crumpled, as if someone invisible held it clamped in their fist.

Ritsu jerked his outstretched fist to the right. The tie followed, and Teruki, with his hands clamped to the noose around his neck, stumbled with it.

Ritsu locked eyes with Teruki. Ritsu’s desperate grabbing had snagged Teruki’s tie. And Ritsu’s hold now strangled him with it.  

Teruki could not breathe.

Ritsu watched it unfold. Teruki’s chest spasmed first, a few sharp motions as he tried to suck in air that could not pass the knot around his neck. His mouth opened wide, like a fish dragged to land. He angled his head back, while his hands tore and yanked and clawed at the neck tie in vain. Teruki’s legs trembled, and then his knees gave out, and he slumped forward so that the tie held him up like a hangman’s rope.

Ritsu ducked his hand lower, just enough so that Teruki could fall to his knees. But he did not dare loosen the tie. Not even when Teruki’s face reddened with the blood rush, or when his eyes turned to Ritsu, scared and pleading.

Because Ritsu saw more beneath Teruki’s eyes. Because there was a rage frothing in Teruki’s gaze which paralyzed Ritsu with fear.

If he let Teruki go, the boy would kill him. Ritsu knew this.

So he just watched. He only watched. He watched the strength and life ebb out of Teruki’s face, blistered red, mouth gulping silently. Ritsu’s own panicked tears budded in his eyes, and he tightened his grip on the tie. He would let it happen. If it meant saving himself, then he would let it happen.

He felt 9 again, scared, weak, unsafe, and he cried quietly while he watched the consciousness leave Teruki’s body.

Limp and loose, Teruki’s hands dropped from the tie around his neck.

Chapter Text

At 3:30, Reigen was standing tenth in line to check out at the grocery store nearest his apartment. He stared forward, glaze-eyed, through the ceiling-high windows decorating the front of the store. Rain clouds had gathered as a thick and dreary coat. The parking lot adopted their gray tint, and the air had turned dense with the spiking humidity, the crackling electricity. A storm was rolling through.

Not inside though. Inside the store was temperate, dry, perhaps just a bit too cold. Inside was bathed in the whiteness of fluorescent lights, and smothered in a silence broken only by the steady blip of a scanner running across grocery items. It lulled Reigen into a daze. Or maybe it just made him aware of it. If he were being honest with himself, the dazed feeling had been eating his brain for a good number of hours. That was easier than fully understanding the responsibility he had taken on. But it also made his memories of the day feel more like dreams, or plans, or thoughts. What had he done since the morning?

The line moved forward. Reigen shuffled with them.

Blip.

The morning. …The morning had been quiet. The kind of dense and safe quiet that came with waking before the sun was even up. The kind that came with knowing he was likely the only soul awake in the apartment complex, soft socked feet scuffling across the floor above the heads of the sleeping.

Well one of the only souls, plural. That included Mob.

Mob, who’d followed him around the kitchen with rapt attention, Mob who’d nodded every time Reigen snagged a new ingredient from the cupboard or fridge, pretending the eclectic mess of unspoiled food around his kitchen combined into some kind of gourmet dish. Reigen had skirted between pan and oven and fridge spouting a nonsense stream of words he’d mostly appropriated from competitive cooking shows. Gotta grease the pan to the right consistency. Gotta swirl the eggs to seal in the moisture. Gotta just…put extra butter on the toast, I guess, so you don’t taste the black part cuz that’s probably bitter, so you—never mind I’ll make different toast that isn’t burned, gimme your plate.

The eggs had come out just a bit too brown on the edges, and the toast had toasted just a bit too long. The egg pan had been too hot, or maybe not hot enough, Reigen didn’t know. The toast had been because he forgot. Then the toaster oven had started smoking gently, and triggered the smoke detector which Reigen had to fervently fan with a newspaper in order to get it to shut up.

Blip. The grocery store line inched forward once more. Reigen followed, lost in his own head.

When the food was done—just some eggs, just some toast, just a glass of milk for Mob—Reigen had divided it onto mismatched plates, one yellow and one white. The white one bore a rim of decorated paint-dot flowers. The yellow one bore a thin hairline fracture. Reigen had picked them up from thrift shops, the last plates of different sets which were missing the rest of their pieces, all lost or fractured.

He and Mob had exchanged very few words, and Reigen had hardly tasted his food as he ate it, even the burnt toast. He’d been too focused on Mob, too enraptured by the strange, concerning way the boy ate. Like every bite was something new and experimental. Like forks and knives were alien instruments. Like he was afraid of putting too much pressure on his teeth, only biting slowly, shallowly, like a kid biting into a popsicle.

Mob hadn’t dared to touch the salt and pepper until Reigen did.

Blip. Another inching of the line. Reigen’s arm ached distantly from supporting his grocery basket. He temporarily forgot what he was even buying.

What had happened next? After breakfast? A lot of…nothing, Reigen supposed, was the answer. They’d cleaned the plates and the pans, something which Mob had taken charge of. The boy had cleaned silently, speaking only once to voice how much easier cleaning was with dish soap. Reigen had stood, staring, gawking, until he realized he was making Mob uncomfortable, and instead busied himself with putting away the remaining half-loaf of bread, the eggs, the milk…

It wasn’t enough food to last. Not for two people, not even counting dinner. Reigen had stared into his cupboard, filled with random half-empty sauces crusted at the top, a bag of rice grain, and ten instant ramen packets, trying to remember what he even ate for dinner on a daily basis.

Regular meals were…not really something he did anymore, he supposed. He just ate small things periodically, whatever was convenient, whatever was easiest, whatever he could stuff in the glovebox of his car during stakeouts…

“Reigen?”

The voice had startled Reigen—Mob standing in the center of a clean kitchen, hands twisting together, expectant eyes awaiting instruction. Reigen had exhaled deeply, and shut the cupboard doors.

“Mob, I gotta run to the grocery store for a bit.”

That…had been a mistake to suggest, given how instantly Mob’s joints had locked up, how his eyes had widened and his breathing had picked up. A sudden and intense fear response, as though he were afraid—

“…The barrier, right…” Reigen had muttered. And everything had felt suddenly so much more surreal, so much more absurd.

(Blip. Another customer leaving the line. Another step forward.)

Reigen had had no immediate solution, so he’d caved instead. He’d grabbed his laptop, and tossed the blankets to the side of the couch, and collapsed onto it, inviting Mob to join him with a single tilt of his head.

Then he’d googled. He’d googled everything he could think of—the behavior of run-away abused kids, how to handle delusions in people who could not be talked out of them, the laws surrounding the harboring of run-away children, easy dinner recipes…

Mob had turned on the television in the meantime, and he’d seemed content to just sit on the other side of the couch and watch it. More than content—calm, at ease. He’d shoot glances to Reigen occasionally, as if checking to see that Reigen hadn’t vanished in the meantime. Reigen had found himself inspecting Mob too. He’d formed a mental list, growing, of the things the kid would need for himself: shirts, pants, shoes, socks, food, his own toothbrush…

Reigen had gotten up only four times in those next several hours. Three times to smoke, once in order to shower and change out of the clothes he’d fallen asleep in. He’d shaved off the stubble that had accumulated over the last few days, and had wasted five minutes mushing his face and pulling down on his cheeks to see if anything he did could disguise the presence of the ugly dark bruises beneath his eyes. The answer had been no.

He’d waited then in the hall, rolling back the cuffs on his clean new shirt and hesitating. Mob had fallen asleep on the couch. He could have just snuck out, but that would be cruel if Mob woke up while he was out.  

Reigen had gone to the couch instead, and shaken Mob awake.

“Hey, Mob, listen to me. This is part of your training, listen to me.” Reigen had waited for Mob’s eyes to flutter open, to focus on him with some amount of awareness. “Mob, I’m training you to control your barrier, right? Well one of those exercises is me stepping out for a while, and you gotta focus on trying to get it under control, okay?”

Focus had flashed to worry in Mob’s eyes. “…You’re leaving.”

“Few hours, tops. It’s important. It’s more important that you take this training serious, okay? If I’m always around suppressing the barrier then you can’t practice it on your own, right? You gotta practice or you’re never gonna get a handle on it, that make sense?”

Slowly, timidly, Mob had nodded.

“Good. Grand. Excellent. You’re off to a great start. Three hours tops, is how long I’ll be gone. You have a phone--? No probably not. Well the home-phone is over—oh wait no I stopped paying the landline like four months ago. Um, I’ll have my cellphone. Not that you can call it. But if you had a phone, maybe a neighbor’s phone, oh no—no no, don’t go to the neighbors. Shoot. Okay. Never mind. Just, hang tight?”

And Mob had nodded again, but with more composure, more determination in his eyes. His fists had been balled in his lap like anchors.

“Good, good, I’ll be back…”

Reigen had grabbed his keys, his wallet, his coat, and this time he’d turned back around to face the inside of his apartment as he shut the door. He’d closed it slowly, waving, watching the area around Mob as if half-expecting this fictional barrier to fill the air around him.

He’d seen no such thing, and he’d locked the door.

Blip.

The grocery line moved forward, and this time Reigen forced himself to blink until he felt back to his senses. He curled and uncurled his hand, breathed in deep. A chill ran through his body.

Lights, cold, a smell just a bit like antiseptic, the floor cleaner the store used, Reigen assumed. He rooted himself in the aisle, and he looked at the grocery basket he held loosely in his bad hand. It held peppers, onions, carrots—all vegetables that rookie cooking websites promised would be easy to stir-fry. A bag of rice, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, a cut of raw chicken breast. More eggs, more bread, two cartons of milk.

His hand throbbed a little bit, and he switched the basket to his left side.

Blip. The line moved once more, and this time something new caught Reigen’s eye. A shimmer of smooth, long, dark hair right ahead of him, which now caught the waning light coming through the storefront window. It was a young girl standing ahead of him in line, her black hair just the same length as Mob’s, but perfectly brushed, perfectly cared-for.

The girl stood beside her mother. Reigen second guessed himself for only a moment, and then he reached forward, and he tapped the mother on the shoulder. She turned, and inspected him with eyes lighter than he anticipated.

“Uh, sorry to bother you Ma’am, but I’m uh, I’m looking after my nephew, and he’s—the kid, he’s—his hair, I mean, he’s got it like—“ Reigen raised his bandaged right hand and held it flat “—about, bit lower than shoulder height, and he’s looking for some way to take care of it better. It gets all knotted. And your daughter—very pretty hair—I was wondering if it was a shampoo, or a conditioner?”

The woman looked Reigen up and down, the daughter too now. The mother’s eyes seemed to linger on his hand. “What type of shampoo does he normally use?”

“None, I guess?”

The woman’s eyebrows arced up in surprise. Reigen backpedaled.

“That uh--! I um, I’m not going into this knowing a whole ton of detail but my uh… brother… isn’t the sort of guy who should have had kids. Like, ever. I just know it was a bad home situation so I uh… took my nephew in.” Reigen raised his grocery basket. “I’m uh, trying to get my act together for him.”

The woman’s expression softened. She reached into her own basket and pulled out a purple-tinted bottle, curved at the center. She placed it into Reigen’s extended basket.

“We were just buying more of her conditioner today. Lather with shampoo first and rinse. Then work the conditioner into the hair, leave it for a bit, and rinse. The conditioner does wonders for knots.”

The woman handed her basket to her daughter and stepped out of line. “I’ll grab another bottle quickly. Tsubomi, save our spot in line.”

The daughter, Tsubomi, nodded and squared her feet just a bit to fill the small space her mother had left behind. Tsubomi stared, mildly bored, at the rack of magazines lining the check-out aisle. Now that he could see her face, Reigen could only guess she was about Mob’s age.

Reigen looked once more at the purple conditioner bottle now in his basket. He read the small-print instructions along the back of his label, and it took him a moment to process what the weird tightness was pressing against his chest. …Gratitude, he supposed, and another emptier feeling as he attempted to remember the last time someone had so readily helped him like that.

Blip.

He decided not to think about it, and just took another step forward.

The skies opened, icy, cold, and all at once. It was heavy enough to soak through Ritsu’s hair, violent enough to churn with the mud puddles beneath him. It washed the mud and blood from his cheeks, mingling now with the tears slipping from his eyes, and dripped as murky streams from his chin. Ritsu blinked through the water streaking down his eyelashes, but he did not move, he did not stop, he almost did not breathe, suffocating under the torrential, icy, panicked horror of death unfolding before his eyes.

And each second of it became so horrifically consuming that Ritsu wondered if the water were somehow filling his lungs anyway, if he’d somehow strangled himself along with Teruki.

Teruki did not react to the rainfall. His body hung just as limp as before, hoisted by the tie, water streaming down his bangs into the dirt below.

Ritsu wanted to let go. He wanted to let go.

But he had to be certain.

So Ritsu held, and held, and held. He held as the pouring rain made his fingers numb and icy. He held as his own legs shook. He held as his vision creeped to black.

He held until something unseen tore his right arm clean out of its socket.

Ritsu screamed. The tearing of his arm wrenched his whole body to the right. He stumbled, and he dropped to his knees. His right arm hung loose to his side, so Ritsu hugged it close with his left hand. Teeth gritted, he whimpered through the wrongness of feeling his shoulder pulled separate from its socket.

Then his eyes snapped open, because the crude violent lash of energy had come from somewhere directly across from him, and it meant--

Teruki had dropped, curled to the ground, tie lying limp in the mud beside him. His weak shaking hands yanked the noose loose from his neck. Air rasped into his lungs with a vacuum of force, a single sustained pained gasp wet and violent in its sound. He coughed then, with enough force to curl forward. The next rasp sounded like it scratched through Teruki’s very lungs.

Ritsu needed to get out. He shoved himself off the muddy ground with his left hand, dislocated right arm left to swing limp and loose by his side. He twisted and ran. He just ran. Each step sent needles through his knee, but he ignored it. Face bloody and wet, dislocated arm clamped to his side, body wobbling with each unbalanced step, he ran. Toward the parking lot. Toward anywhere there would be people, anyone he could scream for, anyone who could save him before Teruki--

“No you don’t.”

Teruki’s voice was a rasp, instantly swallowed in wheezing coughs. But he did not need to speak to telekinetically grab Ritsu by the ankles. Ritsu fell forward. He got his left hand out in front, scratched and gravel-ridden palm taking the brunt of the impact. The fall still hurt, knocked the air from his lungs, like all of it had.

Ritsu twisted. He had enough of his focus back to drag a barrier around his prone body. He had enough sense to know it would do nothing against Teruki.

The barrier only kept the rain out. Ritsu pretended for his own sake it could do much more.

Teruki moved forward slowly, each step shaky and weak, but he didn’t need speed now, not with Ritsu as his captive. Ritsu tugged and yanked at his ankle, but to no avail. Teruki’s grip on him was ironclad. Ritsu turned, the alley just visible way beyond him, back across the whole length of the soccer field. The spirits chained there were like hazy, strange blemishes through the torrential sheets of rain. They no longer pulled with the same frantic strain as before. They had tired, or lost hope, and only tugged weakly at the chains binding them in place. A few of the weaker ones seemed to have stopped struggling entirely.

Ritsu gave one more fruitless pull of his ankle. He was haunted by image of Teruki dragging the one spirit down by its chain and exorcising it on spot. And he understood.

He was chained.

And he was next.

Ritsu watched the spirits for as long as he could bear to not turn, to not face Teruki, to pretend the boy was not targeting him. It lasted until the footsteps came close enough to hear, each distinct, each powerful, each sloshing in the muck churning through the field now with the deluge of rain.

Ritsu did nothing but lay there, chest fluttering with panicked sobs. Ritsu flinched when Teruki’s shoe stepped into his field of vision, spattered with muck. Ritsu twisted, and he looked up at the boy who loomed overtop him.

Last time, Teruki had been immaculate, not a hair out of place. That had changed. Teruki stood above Ritsu now, his uniform wet and stained with mud, his hair soaked and streaming, his eyes blood-shot, his face blotched, his neck welted and red and glistening. The rage in his eyes was masked by some composure just barely holding Teruki together.

Teruki summoned a quick flash of energy to his palm, and he sliced it through Ritsu’s barrier. The barrier exploded into a thousand glass shards. The rain fell wet and heavy again on Ritsu’s face.

Teruki did nothing more than that. He stood, and he stared down at Ritsu.

 “Was that intentional?” Teruki asked.

The sky flashed. A fork of lightning arced behind Teruki, and it threw his face in shadow. The low rumble of thunder followed, receding, back to just the white noise of the pelting rain.

“…What do you mean?” Ritsu asked.

“Did you strangle me intentionally?” Teruki’s voice was little more than an airy gasp. He raised a foot and set it down on Ritsu’s ankle, right where Teruki’s psychic grip restrained him. “Did you mean to kill me?”

“What are you--?”

Teruki ground his foot into Ritsu’s ankle. Ritsu flinched. “Did you do it intentionally?

Ritsu’s eyes fixed on the strangulation bruises blooming around Teruki’s neck. Every fold of the satin tie was tattooed deep into the skin, twisting along red welts, peppered with the angry crimson pinpricks of burst capillaries. Fingernail marks clawed above and below the imprint of the tie, some dragged deep enough to bleed. A glistening wetness had been rubbed raw into the skin.

It was the only attack of Ritsu’s that had landed, but it had worked. It had worked more devastatingly than any of Teruki’s attacks against him.

Ritsu had almost won.

He had not meant to. He had not wanted to. But Ritsu had almost won.

And somehow, that had scared Teruki into hesitating now. Ritsu watched the boiling energy in Teruki’s fist, but Teruki did not use it. Did not yet dare to use it. Something now restrained him. Something made him hold back. Something made him fear Ritsu now.

And if Teruki viewed him as a real threat…

“…Yes,” Ritsu answered. “…And it’s not all I can do. I can do worse. Easily. I was toying with you. I was holding back.

Thunder crashed. Ritsu spoke through mud and blood and rain water in his mouth. He hoped his eyes would not betray his bluff. He had this one single shot to get Teruki to back down—if Teruki would just believe Ritsu was too dangerous to engage.

Teruki breathed in deep. He raised his right hand, which grasped the tie by the noose, and he shot his energy through the fabric. It glimmered, shot out taut and thin and sharp. It solidified like molten metal dunked in water, rigid, into a glowing blade.

“It was a dirty trick.” Teruki spun the blade, and it split individual rain drops as they fell from the sky. “Then there’s no reason for me to hold back.”

The blade moved faster than Ritsu could see. He only heard it slit the air beside him, and felt the nick of skin separate from his ear. Ritsu didn’t scream this time; the fear would not let him. He only shoved himself standing, dislocated arm clamped to his side, and pedaled backwards until the psychic restraint on his ankle snagged him in place. The chain gave him five feet of clearance from Teruki, no more. Ritsu gave three more desperate pulls of his leg before giving up, changing tactics. He shot his left arm out to halt the rain plummeting from the sky.

The rain stopped. It suspended like curtains of beads around them, and Ritsu felt light-headed for the amount of energy it took. He did not dare waver. He only clenched his fist, spun the halted water into a single mass and pummeled Teruki with it. The impact was enough to shake Teruki’s hold on Ritsu’s ankle, enough to free him. Ritsu did not dare to watch the aftermath; he took off running.

A dense pulse rushed through the air beside him, and Ritsu had just enough warning time to resummon his barrier before Teruki’s sword sliced through him. The barrier exploded once more, but it dispersed the impact of the sword with it. It bludgeoned rather than sliced, more a baseball bat than a sword, and the impact sent Ritsu tumbling through the muddy grass once more. The metal leg of the bleachers struck his back this time, and Ritsu collapsed into the puddle at its base. He sat up instantly, pain ignored, and swept the puddle into the air.

He watched Teruki approach. Ritsu eyed the blade, and he clenched his left fist. The warbling streams of suspended water froze, then he sliced his palm out so that each icicle tapered to a sharp end. Fifteen makeshift blades of ice surrounded Ritsu. He launched five without warning.

Teruki intercepted the first three with his own blade. The clashing erupted like thunder, the icicle blades bursting upon impact. Fourth. Fifth. Teruki blocked each of them.

So Ritsu launched the remaining ten. Teruki held his sword steady, eyes trained on the approaching icicles with the intent to smash them just the same.

Ritsu reached his left hand out, and telekinetically snagged Teruki’s ankles.

Icicles oncoming, Teruki stumbled.

And then the icicles sliced past. Most of them missed, flung too wide and desperately. Nine of them whizzed by and struck trees, goal posts, or were simply lost in the icy deluge of rain. The last one of the ten, by luck, aimed dead-center for Teruki’s head. Teruki did not have his balance back; he watched, wide-eyed, as the blade approached.

He threw himself forward instead, palms crashing into the mud. The blade trimmed a few wisps of hair off the top of Teruki’s head, but Ritsu could tell by the shock in his eyes that Teruki had anticipated far worse. Teruki turned, staring behind him at the ice blade that smashed on impact with the far goal post. Then he locked eyes with Ritsu.

Ritsu swallowed. He scooted back, so that the bleachers held him upright. He did not dare speak as his mind raced for anything else, any other possibility--

Teruki shook his head. He bent down slowly and reclaimed his blade that he’d dropped in the attack. “No… No, we’re done. You really are trying to kill me. We’re done.”

Teruki became nothing but a blur. The metal bleachers shook with impact. Teruki slammed into it with his open palm, braced against it, looming over Ritsu as he held his blade against Ritsu’s throat. Ritsu could only gasp, but he did not dare budge with how close the blade skimmed his throat.

“I wasn’t—“

“We’re done,” Teruki repeated.

Teruki raised the blade back, and somehow, Ritsu just could not speak. He could not move. He could not process much of anything.

He needed to fight. He needed to defend. He needed to run.

Ritsu knew this. Any of the three, anything he could muster, anything he could do…

He just couldn’t.

His powers were spent. The water trick had taken too much energy, left behind just a throbbing headache behind his eyes. Not even enough energy to summon a single barrier more. He didn’t want to move anymore. He didn’t want to force his legs to support him anymore. He didn’t want the pain anymore.

The adrenaline rush had ebbed to exhaustion. The ache in his body, his bones, his joints, flooded his senses. He couldn’t feel much of anything as the blade rose. Just the dampened, muted sense that he’d lost. The sense that he’d failed. The sense that he would die before—

“…Please…Just let them search,Ritsu said. The thought brought a fresh onslaught of tears, ones that twisted his face and blurred his vision, falling unimpeded down his cheeks with the rain water. “If you kill me, please just let them search.”

“The spirits?”

“Yes.”

“For this powerful brother of yours?”

Yes.”

“He’d be ashamed of you, wouldn’t he?” Teruki pushed the blade forward, set it beneath Ritsu’s chin and used its gentle pressure to tilt Ritsu’s head up. “I expected more from the little brother of the world’s strongest esper… He might have actually given me a show.”

“No,” Ritsu answered. “No, he wouldn’t have. Because he’d never fight you like this. He wouldn’t be here where I am. He wouldn’t try to hurt anyone…not even you.”

“…Are you saying he’s too good to fight me?” Teruki asked.

Ritsu swallowed Teruki had not moved the blade.

“I’m saying he’s too kind…asshole.”

Teruki dipped the blade lower. “Kindness doesn’t get you anywhere in this world. Strength and power do. You must think you’re doing something kind for him. That’s why it’s killing you.”

You’re killing me.”

“Why wouldn’t your brother fight me?” Teruki asked. “Would he be afraid of hurting me? Ha! Unlikely.” Teruki bent forward. “Because I’m a kid? I’ve taken down opponents twice my size, twice my age.” He leaned in, so that he spoke directly into Ritsu’s cut ear. “I hope your brother is found only so that I can fight him, and prove that your idea of ‘strongest’ is terribly skewed.”

“He wouldn’t fight you!” Ritsu answered back. He pulled away from Teruki. “Not because you’re a kid either, dumbass. How old are you?”

Teruki pulled away too. He fixed his eyes on Ritsu. “Fourteen.”

Ritsu let out a held breath. “He’s the same age.”

Teruki said nothing at first. He only held eye contact. Some battle waged behind his eyes, some uncertainty that made him pull back. “That’s wrong.”

“He turned fourteen in May.”

Teruki shook his head. “Fourteen? Then how is he the strongest? How would you even know?” Teruki lunged forward, then stopped. He let the blade fall to his side as he grabbed Ritsu by the chin. “Stop messing with me.”

“I’m not!” Ritsu swatted Teruki’s hand away. He pulled himself as tall as he could against the bleachers. “He’s just stronger than you.”

“You really are stupid then. Or delusional. The strongest espers in this world are adults.”

“You don’t know my brother.”

Teruki did not say anything. He acted as though he had not heard. The rain soaked his bangs against his forehead, and something like fear sparked in his eyes as he refocused on Ritsu. “…How old was your brother when he was kidnapped?”

“Ten…” Ritsu kept his breathing calm. He tightened his fists at his side. “Three and a half years ago, March 6th, he was ten years old when they took him. That’s what I need the spirits for. To find him.”

“Who took him?”

“I don’t know! If I did know I’d have gone after them already!”

“Well don’t.” Teruki’s eyes roved over him, again like he was something sad, something pitiable. “There are cruel adults in this world. And I promise every esper among them is stronger than you. You’d never stand a chance.”

Ritsu’s blood boiled. He eyed the tie blade warily. “And what do you know?”

“No, what do you know?!” Teruki swung the blade out, horizontal, both arms flung wide. “You…are some stupid, inexperienced little child. You don’t know how to use your powers. You’ve never met a real adult esper. You don’t know what they’re like, you don’t know what you’re up against. Don’t pretend like you do.”

Ritsu swallowed. He watched the blade still, rain pelting his face still. Teruki’s grip had loosened. “…Then how do I learn?” Ritsu asked.

Teruki’s expression became something unfathomable. Disgust, confusion, pity, something deeper. “You don’t. You die here by my hand, and you thank me for it because it’ll be a death ten times less horrific than what an adult esper would put you through.”

Ritsu shook his head, slowly and scarcely, because it hurt to move it even that much. “…Let me go then, if I’m going to die anyway. I’m going to keep looking for him. I’m going to save him. And if I die I don’t care, because I can’t take doing nothing as an answer.”

Teruki shook his head in response. “Some poor hapless little psychic kid gets kidnapped four years ago. Some kid you only remember from, what? When you were eight? Nine? Some kid you know is way stronger than you. You’re not gonna save him. You’re gonna walk happily into your own death for him. Let him go.”

Another strike of lightning, and Teruki’s face lit up. Gone was the malice, gone was the murderous intent burning in his eyes. In its place was something cold, and deathly serious.

Ritsu held his gaze. “…I don’t care. I won’t let him suffer alone.”

A silence stretched between them, a few seconds that amounted to an eternity in the flood around them.

Teruki took his hand off the bleachers. He leaned back, smaller suddenly, and he dropped his blade to the ground. Teruki pulled his now-empty hand up, and he extended it to Ritsu. “Get up.”

Ritsu’s eyes flickered to the dropped blade. His heart pounded in his chest. “…You’re not…?”

Teruki grabbed Ritsu’s right hand, wrapped his fingers around Ritsu’s bloody knuckles. There was no field of psychic energy this time, no tension, no aggression. Just a firm grip, offering to pull him up.

“Just get up…”

Chapter Text

The end of the battle had left an emptiness, a silence beating down on Ritsu that seemed to fill his mouth and lungs with a white-noise nothing. The bleachers pressed cold, firm indents into his back. Mud lapped against his heels. Heavy raindrops spattered his face, rhythmic and dense. And Teruki’s hand gripped firmly around his own.

Ritsu did not return the pressure. His dislocated shoulder would not allow it.

Instead he sunk his left hand into the icy puddle by his side and leaned his weight against it. Shakily, he stood. He braced his back against the bleachers so that they might support him. He did not trust his own shaking, numb legs to support him, the water sloshing at his ankles, flooding his socks, sending shivers down his spine.

Gently, Ritsu tugged his limp hand free from Teruki’s grip, with only as much force as the pain would allow.

Teruki stared at his own extended hand, empty now, palm out and dripping from the rain water still pouring.

“You didn’t shake my hand,” Teruki said.

Ritsu gripped his right arm to his side. The sleeve of his uniform had shredded. He shot it a quick glance, just a bit woozy at the sight of the swollen protrusion at his shoulder, skin stretched tight and tense over dislocated bone. Teruki followed his eyes.

The boy moved lightning-fast. One hand pressed to the back of Ritsu’s shoulder, the other grabbed his upper arm, and slammed. Ritsu’s shoulder popped.

“God! …Hell,” Ritsu hissed. He gripped the smarting shoulder, his face twisted up in sharp pain that eased steadily with the passing seconds. His face loosened, and Ritsu opened his eyes, brimming with a fresh onslaught of tears.

Teruki had returned precisely to where he had stood before. His hand was extended again. “Shake my hand.”

“You did that just so I’d shake your hand?!”

“It’s the peace agreement. There’s no truce if you don’t accept my handshake.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“You want me to restart the fight?”

Ritsu let out a held breath. Arm still throbbing, he raised his right hand and gripped Teruki’s. Teruki shook once, firmly.

It meant nothing to Ritsu.

He took his hand back, thankful for once for the pouring rain hiding the unsteady tremble in his body. In the wake of sheer terror, fury now sat. Disgust, rage, frustration—at himself or Teruki, he wasn’t even sure. It took a fierce effort to screw his jaw shut, to not whimper at the mangled torn up throbbing ache of his body. Mostly, he wanted to curl into a ball and sob through it, but spite kept him standing. He would turn, and walk away, and not dare let Teruki see him break any further.

You’re not gonna save him… Let him go.

Ritsu turned, careful and slow, gauging each motion for fear that one wrong movement would send pain cascading down his body. He set his left hand against the bleachers to steady himself, and took one step.

“Where are you going…?”

Ritsu winced, and then hated himself for reacting to the voice like that. “Home.”

“Looking like that?” Teruki asked. Ritsu could imagine how Teruki gestured to him.

Ritsu swiveled back on his heel. “Yeah, I am. Whose fault do you think that is?” Ritsu blinked. He heard the small crack in his own voice and looked away. “I don’t have a choice. My parents expect me home.”

“You’re not going to make it home like that without some nosy old lady calling CPS from her window.” Teruki overtook Ritsu, and gestured with his shoulder for Ritsu to follow. “The Salt Mid boys’ locker room is in the basement of the school, right? Show me.”

“Why would I?”

“Because we’re not done talking yet.”

Ritsu shivered, and he felt something sharp and uncomfortable twitch through his core: fear. He was still afraid, as desperately as he didn’t want to admit it. The thought of defying Teruki, of annoying him back into aggression, made his insides squirm. So he relented, as coldly as he could manage, and motioned for Teruki to follow.

The grass squished cold and icy beneath his feet, puddles soaking into his socks. Ritsu was still shivering, and the water that dripped past his lips tasted faintly of blood. He trudged across the whole field, pretending not to notice the steady slosh of Teruki’s feet behind him, nor his own aching injuries. His brain was filling with a new, raw panic over how bad he might actually look. He raised an experimental hand to his cheek, feeling it hot and swollen beneath his palm. When he drew his hand back, oily blood stained his fingertips. His knuckles were split. His ear had been cut. His knees. His face. What would his parents…?

Ritsu snapped back to attention as the ground sloped down. The grass eased into a steady descent, a hill of about 10 feet that led down into pavement. The fence stretched to the right, preventing people and soccer balls from plummeting the raw 10 feet down into the alley below. The alley that currently imprisoned Ritsu’s spirits.

Ritsu blinked. Teruki had gotten ahead of him, already in the alley, picking up a school bag he’d left beside the twisting, writhing spirits. Ritsu descended the rest of the hill, shoes slipping once or twice on the slick muddy slope, his knee protesting at the sharp tense movements needed to save his balance. Ritsu cut right into the sheltered alley. He held back just a bit as Teruki snatched the glowing yellow chains. The spirits let out a collective, cacophonous cry of terror. Teruki clenched his fist, and the chains vanished.

“Get out of here. Before I change my mind and exorcise every one of you.”

A yowl followed, and Ritsu watched in wonder as the spirits split. One dove into the ground, another into the school, a third shooting around the corner. Teruki hoisted his bag over his shoulder, and nothing remained around him. No chains, no spirits—just a sopping wet alley, stinking of stagnant musty rot, and Teruki in the middle of it. The soaking rain plastered his hair down against his neck, hiding any evidence of strangulation.

Then he turned, and the welts were bright and ugly beneath his chin.

“The locker room,” Teruki repeated.

Ritsu pretended like he hadn’t heard.

He moved to the back door, luckily on the same side of the school as the locker room. A single lengthy hall would bring them to the indoor gym where the rained-out sports teams were practicing. Around the other side of the indoor gym were the steps leading to the locker room below.

Ritsu curled his fingers around the outside door handle, and he pulled.

He couldn’t get the door open. His shoulder refused to bear anymore strain, sharp and aching, as though it might tear back out of its socket from the pressure of opening a simple door. Ritsu let his cold, wet fingers slip from the handle. Acting as if nothing had happened, he tried again with his left hand. It opened this time.

Somehow, it was colder inside. The air was crisp, the lights above a heavy fluorescent. Ritsu became aware of how much water poured off his body, the puddle eking out around his shoes, rolling and slithering like something alive. It was tainted rusty and brown. Ritsu pushed his wet bangs out of his eyes and kept walking.

He kept his eyes peeled for any sign of teachers or students wander the hall. He had no clear image of himself, but he felt more exposed beneath the harsh indoor lighting.

If someone saw...

If he was disciplined for fighting…

If his parents found out…

They passed the indoor gym. The door was cracked just a fraction. Ritsu heard the scuffle of shoes inside, squeaking and pattering against the hardwood. A whistle. A roar of voices that made him flinch. He picked up the pace, for fear of any nosy onlooker peeking through the crack.

He turned, and turned again, the sound of wet heavy footsteps keeping pace behind his own. The doors around him were shut and locked, the classrooms inside dark, stripped of even sunlight. The scuffle of basketball shoes followed him on his left as he rounded the back of the indoor gym. Then he reached a set of stairs that led down to a metal door. Ritsu hesitated at the top of the steps. Teruki stopped beside him.

“What?” Teruki asked, impatient.

“Nothing,” Ritsu answered, and he put every bit of remaining energy into hiding the flinch as he lowered his foot to the first stair. His knee bent with the sensation of nails driving through it. And then he did it again, step after step, swallowing the pain until he and Teruki stood in front of the boys’ locker room door.

Teruki was the one to push it open. Ritsu followed.

The locker room was cinderblock on every side, far colder than the rest of the school, sunk deep below ground level. Sparse lighting hung above rows and rows of lockers, sports bags thrown about haphazardly on wooden benches. It stunk of grime and sweat, years of mildew plastered in the grit of the floor and walls and ceiling. Ritsu welcomed it over the earthy musk of mud and blood that had been filling his lungs.

Teruki walked past the rows of lockers. Further back were bathroom stalls. Three sinks lined up beneath a wall-length mirror. This area existed as its own pocket, seemingly separate from the rest of the lockers, and the light only scarcely touched it. The shadows grew heavy along a gradient, the farthest sink half shrouded in darkness. Even farther back, crowned by a single burnt-out hanging light, was a row of four showerheads, no curtains separating one from the next.

The icy ache in Ritsu’s joints was overwhelming. The sting of muddy water dripping into his cut skin, the damp musky coppery smell that assaulted his nose with every breath, the bone-deep chill that sent uncontrollable shivers down his spine.

Ritsu walked toward the showers. He turned the left-most showerhead on, allowing it a few seconds of courtesy to grow hot—not just hot, scalding. Fully clothed, Ritsu stepped beneath it. He let it drench his head, run past his ears and erase the bloody mess entangled in his hair. Raw cuts throbbed at the heat, but it was better than the suffocatingly unclean feeling of mud caking deep into the open flesh.

Ritsu stood like that for seconds on end. Eyes shut, willing the clawing panic in his chest to melt away bit by bit, willing to let himself believe that hot, clean water might cure the physical injuries that racked his body. He let the discomfort of the scalding water overpower the shaky rattle of his ribcage at each breath, the pulsing ache in his knees. Ritsu rubbed his face, and he imagined the cuts melting off his cheeks, dissolving away with the blood.

It wasn’t enough.

Eventually, he shut off the water.

Ritsu stood, motionless, silent, until he raised his left hand, concentrated his aura in his palm, and swept it down his body. The water drew off, splattering against the drain embedded in the floor. He remained just a bit damp, as though wearing clothes from a half-finished dryer cycle. Ritsu couldn’t be bothered to dry himself off again, not with how much energy each manipulation of the water now took.

He moved on shaky legs toward the wall, opposite the sinks and the mirror. He leaned against it, lowered himself slowly, until his legs were out in front of him and he trusted all his weight against the cinderblock wall. He shut his eyes, just for a moment, struggling to hold on to his composure.

When he opened his eyes, Teruki was staring at him.

Teruki leaned against one of the sinks, tall in his posture, seeming to enjoy the chance to watch Ritsu sink to the ground. Teruki was still dripping wet, caked in mud, but Ritsu understood the message. Teruki was comfortable like this. He could stand on his own two feet and smile, smug, drinking in the way Ritsu rattled apart.

This was victory for Teruki.  

Only then, only once he was acknowledged, did Teruki push himself off the sink. He twisted the tap on the faucet and drew a stream of water from the spout, a near-flawless imitation of Ritsu. He ran his fingers through his hair, water following, drawing out and cleaning up the muddy spatter that had stained his dyed blond hair. Teruki tossed the water toward the shower drains, and then he swept his hand back across his body to draw out the water soaked into his clothes. The mud followed with it, something Ritsu doubted he could do.

Ritsu stared at the only remaining thing out of place about the boy: the shiny red welting along his neck.

Teruki offered him a smile. “You look better with the blood washed off your face, but how do you intend to pass off all the bruising? Ah, the cuts too. And your eye’s swelling up a good amount, nasty yellow.” Teruki cocked his head. “Go ahead, give yourself a look in the mirror.”

A new wave of icy fear worked its way into Ritsu’s gut.

He pushed himself to his feet. His left knee cracked upon straightening. Unsteady, Ritsu walked toward the mirror. The horror in his gut grew heavier and denser with each step. Both sides of his face were bludgeoned dark, noticeably swollen, with rows of razor-thin cuts criss-crossing his cheeks. His left eye was puffy, already saturating to a jaundiced yellow. His body—that he would be able to conceal beneath clothes. But his face…?

“It could get infected too,” Teruki added.

Ritsu raised his left hand to his cheek, and set it there. Panic lit like a fire in his chest. His mom would notice. His dad too. Would he even be allowed out of the house…? Would he be forced to explain…?

He couldn’t go home like this.

He had no other plan in mind.

Ritsu heard of the click of something plastic opening beside his ear. He flinched, turned, and found Teruki holding up a small circular black container against Ritsu’s cheek. Ritsu stared at it for a few silent, confused seconds before Teruki re-capped the thing and stowed it back in his bag. Teruki grabbed another black plastic circle, flicked it open with his thumb, and held it up to Ritsu’s cheek just the same.

“Not a medium-bronze or a bold peach, hmm? You may just be fair.”

Ritsu blinked. He watched Teruki drop the container back into his bag, same as the first, and rummage for a third.

The next one Teruki clicked open and held up against Ritsu’s cheek. Teruki flashed a smile and nodded. “Oh yeah, you’re definitely a fair.”

Ritsu took a step back, confused and wary. His eyes bounced between the offending black circle and Teruki. “What…the hell are you…?”

“What am I?” Teruki asked. He grabbed Ritsu’s right arm, pulled it out and twisted it palm-up to drop the black container in. He closed Ritsu’s fingers around it before reaching back into the bag and yanking out another identical bit of black plastic. Teruki uncapped it, and held it against his own cheek. The black thing held a chalky, powdery substance that shifted just slightly as it was brandished. “I’m a sunkissed beige, of course.”

Ritsu stared. And stared some more. The gears in his head turned. He looked down at the little uncapped thing in his palm.

“…Is that make up!?”

“Foundation.” Teruki dug a small, palm-sized brush from the bag. He shoved it into Ritsu’s hand as well before turning and rounding the corner. Ritsu heard the forced opening of a door—the small office for the gym teacher, probably—and the sound of careless rummaging. Teruki returned 30 seconds later with a large first aid kit, pilfered from the office. He set it against the left-most sink, unclasped the plastic locks, and opened it. Inside were a variety of small, sectioned-off compartments, some with their own clasps, others just partitioning bandages from antiseptic wipes from medical tape. Teruki grabbed the wipes and tore open the packaging. He grabbed the first from the pouch and started cleaning the raw skin around his neck with careful circular motions.

Teruki gestured to the packaging. “Antiseptic, then concealer, then foundation. Come on. You’ve got a lot more ground to cover than I do.”

Ritsu didn’t react right away. He stood in front of the middle sink and carefully set his foundation and brush down on its rim. There was something just a bit too surreal in what he was trying to process.

Teruki had lowered his wipe, stained a sickly yellow from the oily liquid that had been skinned from his neck. Teruki tested two fingers against his neck, checking to see that the welting was dry now, before retrieving a smaller, brush with firmer bristles, and an oblong black container differently-shaped from the foundations.

“Concealer,” Teruki said, holding up the oblong little plastic shell. He dabbed the brush against its surface, something a bit cakey and beige, and brushed it against his neck, chin tilted up, eyes consumed with the mirror.

Ritsu had seen this before, in movies, usually from America, when the catty girls gathered in the bathroom of a club and touched up their makeup. There was something vain, narcissistic, boastful in the tilt of Teruki’s chin, the indulgent glint of his eyes. Like the smoky-eyed rival girl, the cheerleading captain, out to steal the protagonist’s all-American football star boyfriend.

“Foundation goes on top. You can keep that brush, and the foundation. I’m only that shade when I’m at my palest—not a good look. I’d recommend getting more sun.”

Except this kid was brushing up against strangulation wounds. Near fatal. And Ritsu was expected to do the same with his scratched up and swelling cheeks, his bruised eye, his bludgeoned jaw. With stolen antiseptic wipes, and concealer, and fair foundation. Because he wasn’t pretty enough for sunkissed beige.

“And by the way, don’t take those spirits lightly. I know you’re an idiot, and inexperienced, and weak, but I’m not wasting my foundation on you to have you turn up dead a week later because you’ve had your whole psychic core purged out of your wrists.”

Then the boy took out a different brush, fluffier, and swirled it into the powder of his sunkissed beige foundation. He brushed it delicately to the skin along his neck, and it really was a flawless match for his skin color. Ritsu watched, mystified, as the angry red burst capillaries were glossed over, and the bruising vanished, and the distinct imprint of a necktie melted into a swath of blemish-free skin. His one attack, his one successful attack. Erased under sunkissed beige.

Ritsu blinked. Nothing felt real.

The boy was still talking, but the absurdity of it all had swamped Ritsu full-force. What…had happened.

What the hell had happened.

Gimp. And the spirits. And his energy sucked through his wrist. And this kid, showing up out of nowhere, challenging him, beating him within an inch of his life. Ritsu had almost died. He’d almost died. And this kid too—strangled. Ritsu had caught of glimpse of death, both himself and this boy, rain flooding his mouth and choking his throat while the sword pressed against his neck and—

Sunkissed Beige. Sunkissed Beige. When… had this turned into a lesson on makeup? Catty high school girls. In the locker room, cold and moldy and battered, dusting on makeup and gossiping about…spirits? Powers? The danger of—

--oh, oh he was still talking. Something about the spirits. Ritsu heard Gimcrack’s name, but it was too late to follow along. Ritsu’s eyes were drawn to the foundation brush still swirling around the boy’s neck. The moment was getting less and less real to Ritsu. The things being told to him were probably important. He needed to listen to… To listen to…

Oh…Ritsu had forgotten the kid’s name.

The Black Vinegar kid had introduced himself at the beginning of the fight, and then not again. It felt like an eternity ago. What had his name been? Something with a T…or an R…Or…

Sunkissed Beige kid was looking at him now, an eyebrow quirked, waiting on a response. Sunkissed Beige had stopped talking, and Ritsu hadn’t noticed.

“You understand that?” Sunkissed Beige asked, and Ritsu balked.

“Yes,” Ritsu muttered.

“Any questions?”

“Yes,” Ritsu said. He looked at the wipes, then the foundation on the sink, then the boy. His thoughts felt muddier than before, dizzier than before. Nothing was real. “…What was your name again?”

Sunkissed Beige stared at him, blankly, with an expression that seemed to suggest a much louder internal response behind his wide eyes. After a few seconds, Sunkissed Beige cleared his throat, and offered his hand.

“It’s… Teruki. Hanazawa. Just…Teru Hanazawa. That… Is my name.”

Ritsu took Teru’s hand, Teru’s fingers were scary-tense.

“And what is your name?” Teru asked.

“Ritsu Kageyama.”

Teru. Ritsu. Shigeo. Right. Right right right. This was happening. This was real. And Teru was still dangerous. Shock still clawed up Ritsu’s throat, threatened to swamp his brain and send him into a pain-stricken daze, but he couldn’t afford that yet. Teru was dangerous. Teru was dangerous. And Ritsu’s ability to keep searching hinged on whatever words passed between them now.

Ritsu took a deep, shuddering breath, one that rattled his aching ribs. He held it for a few seconds, then exhaled, letting his mind clear, forcing himself to focus once more.

“Don’t mumble,” Teru said. “What’s your name?”

“Ritsu Kageyama,” Ritsu answered more clearly, his enunciation careful.

“I don’t know the name,” Teru said, pointedly, as if trying to prove something. “Did you just awaken?”

“No.”

“When, then?”

“Three and a half years ago.”

Teru said nothing. He pushed the package of antiseptic wipes to Ritsu. “Why have I never heard of you?”

Ritsu drew a wipe from the package. “Because I don’t use my powers for stupid reasons.”

“Or ever. Just judging by ability.”

Ritsu shot a glare to Teru, one he hoped would mask his own discomfort. They both understood how wide the power gap was between them.

Ritsu wiped down his cheeks. The cloth burned like acid, raw flesh smarting under the sting of the alcohol-laden wipe. Ritsu took a small amount of pride in keeping the reaction off his face.

Kageyama doesn’t sound familiar at all, in fact. Who was your psychic older brother?”

The voice was suddenly a few inches closer. Ritsu glanced to the left, and found Teru one arm’s length away, offering the concealer and brush he’d used. Ritsu set the wipe down on the sink, just a bit oily and pink, and took the concealer.

“His name is Shigeo Kageyama.”

“I don’t know that name either.” Teru watched Ritsu struggle to uncap the concealer, something judgmental in his silence. “The good news: that means Claw doesn’t have him. Unless he’s going by a different name now.”

“Claw?”

Teru paused, then let out a noise, something condescending, like a laugh truncated halfway. It made Ritsu’s cheeks burn with emotion, their new redness hidden beneath the scratching and swelling. It was a game, Ritsu figured, to make him feel like he knew nothing.

“You’re looking for a kidnapped child esper and you haven’t bothered to investigate Claw?” Teru’s eyes drank him in. Teru stood tall, proud, chin tilted up; the welting of his neck was barely even visible. “You’re adorable.”

Who’s Claw?”

“An organization of espers who’re in the business of kidnapping other espers. They prefer to coerce rather than convince—new members are assimilated by force.” Teru investigated his nails. “But they don’t concern you. There’s no Shigeo Kageyama in their ranks.” He glanced up, a thin smile on his face. “Guess some predator in a van got your brother first. Or maybe he just fell into a river and never washed up. Always possible.”

Ritsu let out a single strangled noise. He shot a hand out, grabbing Teru by one side of his unbuttoned collar, as there was no tie to grab. Ritsu’s fingers brushed his neck.

“And how do you know these guys? How do you know who they’ve kidnapped? Are you with them? Are you out there kidnapping kids too?”

A single, firm motion of Teru’s arm shoved Ritsu off. Teru grabbed him roughly by the chin, and Ritsu couldn’t suppress the small pained grunt as Teru’s fingers dug into his bruised skin. Teru pulled him close, forcing eye-contact.

“I think this is the thing I hate most about you right now, Kageyama. You keep acting like you know things. You know nothing.”

Ritsu attempted to pull himself free. Teru’s grip only tightened, and pained tears threatened to well up in Ritsu’s eyes again as Teru’s fingers pinched his black and blue jaw.

“Then tell me. I need information. The spirits were my only source and you exorcised half of them!”

Teru made the same noise as before, the same barking taunt. It made Ritsu’s cheeks burn anew with shame. The concealer was taken from his palm, brush as well. Teru unclasped it one-handed, then released Ritsu just long enough to dab the brush into the cakey makeup. Teru took Ritsu’s chin back, now with the opposite hand still holding the concealer, and began to brush over the darkest areas of Ritsu’s bruising.

“You really were a dead man, huh? Maybe I should have killed you anyway. At least then I’d have the satisfaction of knowing your death contributed nothing to those filthy parasites.”

“You use them too,” Ritsu countered weakly. The sensation made him shiver in discomfort, forced so close to Teru, his face roughly painted in all the spots that stung the most.

“Yes, but not stupidly.” Teru would not return Ritsu’s eye-contact. His attention remained fixed on the parts of Ritsu’s skin he attended to.

“What do you use them for then?”

Teru offered no reply. He capped the concealer and set it on his sink. He took the foundation from Ritsu’s sink, the fluffier brush as well, and worked to overlay the concealer. This brush was softer, more feather-like, the foundation a light powder rather than something damp and cakey.

“Because as far as I can tell, Hanazawa, you’re just using them to be an asshole.” Ritsu tilted his chin down, trying to force eye-contact once more, but to no avail. Teru’s expression was unreadable, bored even, consumed in his task. The look made Ritsu uncomfortable—he felt exposed, every discerning flash of Teru’s eyes investigating and attending to another spot of blemished skin. And yet, he felt as though he scarcely existed at all in Teru’s world.

Ritsu swallowed, and he tried again. “So are you going to stop me?”

“Hmm?”

“I’m still going to use my spirit horde to find him.”

“You mean what’s left of them.”

“I’ll get more.”

“That’s dangerous. Weren’t you listening to me before?”

Silence set between them. Teru swirled the brush in the foundation shell. He reached toward Ritsu’s cheek again, but Ritsu grabbed his wrist, firm. “I don’t get this.”

Teru tugged lightly. “What?”

“This.” Ritsu tensed his hand on Teru’s wrist, his eyes shooting to the makeup brush. “Why are you covering up my wounds?”

“Your parents are the controlling type, aren’t they? Gimcrack seemed to think so.”

“That’s not what I mean.” Ritsu pushed Teru off. He twisted to face the mirror above the sink, drinking in his muted, desaturated reflection in the dim lighting. Half his face was still blackened and yellowed beneath a layer of chalky, cakey makeup. The other half was almost flush with his skin tone. Still swollen, still unnatural, like clay almost, but…passable. At a glance, would he guess the mottled hideous mess beneath…?

Ritsu fixed his eyes back on Teru. “I mean, you beat me. I was your opponent. Why do you care how I look? So what if I had gone home to my parents like I was…?” He glanced to the brush, still clasped between Teru’s thumb and middle finger. Then he locked eyes again with Teru. “What do you want to talk about? What do you want with me?”

Teru said nothing at first. His eyes darted back and forth between Ritsu’s, unblinking. Then he shrugged. “You’re the only other esper in Seasoning City, as far as I know. I’ve been bored.” He looked Ritsu over again, grimaced, and closed the gap between them. He set the brush back to Ritsu’s temple. “Well, you’re still boring. You hardly qualify as an esper.”

Ritsu gritted his teeth. He resisted the urge to say anything.

Teru continued. “Your brother though. How did he disappear?”

Ritsu swallowed; he forced down the uncomfortable leap of his stomach. “He had a psychic mentor. He went to the park with him after school one day and never came home.”

“Mentor?”

“He called him Mogami.”

“I don’t know any psychics by that name.”

Ritsu nodded, slowly. He hadn’t expected much else. He knew by now it was a false name. “Gimp didn’t know it either.”

“Don’t trust Gimp—Gimcrack—on names. Spirits don’t have the same concept of names as we do. Among themselves, they identify each other by aura. If you want to stand any chance of possessing authority over them, I suggest you learn to do the same.” Teru eased back with the brush. He investigated Ritsu’s face and capped the foundation. “In fact, don’t trust Gimcrack at all. Or any of the spirits. They’ll betray you. Fear is your best weapon over them.”

“…So I can continue?” Ritsu asked, tense. He glanced to the mirror again. Now both sides of his face sported the same ghostly, artificial recreation of his skin tone. “The search? The spirits…?”

“You really think you’ll get anywhere with them?”

“I’ll get further than I would without them,” Ritsu answered, tense, deathly serious.

Teru stared, silent, then pushed the foundation into Ritsu’s hand. “Keep this, really. And learn how to apply it. Your wrists are going to start bruising.”

“So that’s a yes?”

“If you want to rush headfirst into death, then who am I to stop you? Go find Gimcrack. He’s outside, waiting to see which one of us won.” Teru hoisted his bag onto his shoulder, his appraising eyes more bothered than before. “And I recommend stealing another uniform from one of these lockers. You’re not going to fool anyone wearing tattered clothes like that.”

“I have gym clothes in this locker room,” Ritsu answered, almost without thinking.

Teru shrugged, and he twisted on his heel toward the door. “All the same.”

“Wait.” Ritsu thrust a hand out, and Teru paused.

Ritsu hesitated. He studied Teru’s back, considered every ounce of hatred he possessed for the kid and swallowed it down. He closed his fist around the foundation shell in his hand and pushed away from the sink, his reflection no longer visible. “’I’m not wasting my foundation on you to have you turn up dead a week later.’ That’s…You just said that. And this fight ended because for whatever reason you don’t actually want me dead. You don’t want me dead and you don’t want my parents stopping me either, so doesn’t that mean you want me to keep looking for him?” Ritsu took a step forward. “You stopped when I mentioned Niisan. For whatever reason you’re interested in meeting him, aren’t you?”

Teru didn’t turn. “That didn’t stop me. I already knew about your brother. Gimcrack told me.”

“…You stopped when I mentioned he was your age.” Ritsu hesitated. He raised his fingers to his cheek, rubbing gently against the cakey unnatural surface, hot and stinging beneath. “Psychics getting kidnapped. Kid psychics, specifically, being taken. And something about Claw. It means something to you, doesn’t it? You know something else and you haven’t told me.”

Teru tilted his head, glancing at Ritsu just over his shoulder. “I know nothing about your psychic brother or where he might be.”

Ritsu breathed in deep. His ribs ached, shifting like pockets of fire had burst between them. Standing this long had made him light-headed, and every shift of his arms and legs still sent electric jolts of pain through his spine. Even just staying composed was draining more energy than he had to offer.

And it was Teru’s fault. Every last ounce of it. Ritsu would be glad to see him leave and never return. To curse his name at every horrible pang through his battered body. To hope he would live a horrible, miserable, boring existence for the rest of his horrible miserable life.

But Teru was strong. And Teru was experienced. And Teru possessed information Ritsu would likely never come across again.

“I…don’t know where he is either,” Ritsu answered, cold, measured. “You’re right. I don’t know what I’m doing on my own. I don’t know how to use my powers. I don’t know what the spirits are doing to me. I don’t know anything except that I have to do something.” Ritsu moved forward, unwavering despite the cascade of pain that shot out every time his knee straightened. Teru turned fully to face him now. “So if you’re…bored. If you have any interest in meeting my brother. Then why not help me?”

With effort, Ritsu raised his right hand. He held it, palm out, to Teru.

Teru was right; his wrists were bruising.

“Help me find him.”

Chapter Text

Mob had failed from the moment Reigen shut the door.

Willpower wasn’t enough to keep the barrier away. Like a curtain of mottled blues and pinks, it swept back around him, conforming to an invisible spherical mold. Mob startled, then concentrated, then concentrated harder. He balled his fists and shut his eyes and envisioned it disappearing from around him.

When he opened his eyes, he was still staring through gossamer threads of blue and pink.

He inhaled deep, and then pressed a hand out. He couldn’t reach the barrier; a few inches separated his fingertips from its surface, but he concentrated his psychic energy to his palm. He willed more power to the skin than he had since Shishou had first tried to train him to suppress the barrier. Mob snapped the energy out.

It struck the barrier, and crawled along its surface, and fizzled out.

Mob tried to bend the barrier then with his own mind. Spoons bent like supple twigs under his powers, but not this, not the barrier. It only swirled, like a soap bubble suspended, and it dyed everything in his field of vision. Mob concentrated. He pictured it gone. He willed it gone. He wanted it gone.

The barrier remained.

A light breeze swept through the living room, crisp and wet, and brushed like a living thing against Mob’s outstretched palm. Reigen had left the window open.

Mob breathed in, and he focused on that feeling—something skimming his fingers, like Reigen’s icy hand brushing across his cheek that night. Both cold things that sent warm shivers through his body. Things that came from the outside and reached him. If he tried hard enough, maybe he could do that too. Maybe he could be the one to reach out for something that needed him.

He snapped out another burst of energy. It collided with the barrier, crawled, and fizzled out…

Minutes passed, documented only by the time display of the microwave in Reigen’s kitchen. Its green diodes had been damaged, some ticks never lighting, leaving only approximate displays of time in their wake. Time rolled across it, broken and distorted, minutes ticking away through an hour, and then past it.

And Mob tried. He twisted and bent and wrung his powers in every way that might crack the barrier. He believed and hoped and held his breath, focusing until his vision crawled with black and his fingers tingled numb. Then he stopped, and he breathed deeply, and he fought the sinking feeling in his gut that he’d felt every time Shishou had tried to coach him to control it.

Mob leaned back in the couch. He didn’t let the sinking feeling go any further than his stomach. He held on instead to the spark of hope thudding in his chest, the tingle of churning air on his skin, wilder and more alive and wet as the thunder storm rolled through the skies. That feeling of hope was easier to cling to here, with the outside world so alive around him, where he could breathe in deep and smell fresh wet humid air.

Mob glanced to the sliding glass door, a barrier of its own. Huge and heavy raindrops spattered against it, each its own loud and staccato plick. Wind rattled the door and bellowed against it, whooping and howling and sashaying as it threw its water about. The glass door kept it out, but the glass door was movable.

Mob unfolded his legs from the couch. He hopped down, bare feet to the wood floor, and he sidestepped the coffee table separating him from the door. He dug his fingers into the indented handle and yanked.

The glass yielded to his touch and slid back, its rolling bottom humming a note along with the thrashing gale outside. Rain drops slashed through the opening instantly. They spattered Mob’s face and left heavy dense water stains on his borrowed shirt, sending shivers through his body. Mob slid through the opening, and he shut the glass behind him, and he stood on the balcony overlooking the too tall grass below and the whipping trees and, off in the hazy gray distance, the backs of buildings, the blurry outlines of cars.

The rain drenched him. Through the blues and pinks, water could pass. Water wasn’t living, so it wasn’t stopped, it wasn’t shredded. But it felt alive enough to Mob. It felt like something that wanted to reach him, and could.

Mob shut his eyes and smiled. Even if he couldn’t suppress the barrier now, that wasn’t reason enough to give up, not this time around. This time was different. Reigen wasn’t Shishou. Reigen was stronger than Shishou, and Reigen wanted him here.

He just had to believe in Reigen.

Mob hadn’t lingered outside for too long. He’d come back in and dried himself off and settled back on the couch with the television streaming a color show he’d never seen before. The rain had passed as suddenly as it had arrived, leaving in its wake hot evaporating puddles and the smell of grass. Birds sang, sunlight streamed distorted and damp through the glass window, and Mob waited for Reigen.

It was some hours later when Mob heard the turning of a key in the front door’s lock. He snapped his head to watch, hopeful, and saw the door crack open with a sliver of Reigen’s body visible behind it.

The barrier vanished, like a bubble popped.

It took a second more of fumbling before Reigen wedged the door open. He supported five or six plastic bags on one arm. His other hand pulled a set of housekeys from the door and shoved them back into his pocket. Reigen looked up, locking eyes with Mob, and a hint of relief crawled across his face.

“Ah good, you didn’t run off.”

Reigen hobbled inside, off balance with the weight of the bags hanging from the crook of his left arm. His shoulders looked somewhat darker, slightly dampened, as though he’d been caught in the downpour at least once during his shopping trip. His suit crumpled and bunched up in strange ill-fitting places of his body, and he’d swapped out the blue tie he’d been wearing for a white one. Reigen had mentioned something that morning about trying to clean the stains out of the blue one.

Mob stood from the couch as Reigen set the bags down on the kitchen table with a thud and a huff. Reigen straightened his back, left hand angled back and pressing into his spine until it issued a sharp pop. Reigen made a noise and slouched forward.

“Mob I’ve decided something—I’m too old for fights to the death. That asshoooo— I mean jerk did something to my back when he, like he threw it out or something when I was wrestling the knife away. I’d sue him for medical bills if he weren’t dead.”

Reigen glanced over at Mob, his face suddenly pensive.

“Um, that’s a joke. You see the night I found you I also got into a knife fight.”

“Reigen,” Mob started slowly. He looked to the bags on the table. “I uh, I failed the training today.”

“Huh?”

“The training. I couldn’t make the barrier go away on my own, but I want to learn! It’s… I think I just need to practice more, with your help, if you…”

Reigen stared at him, blinking through the silence. “Well you’re talkative today. Ah—that’s a good thing don’t worry. Don’t make that face at me okay?” Reigen rubbed his neck with his right hand and immediately winced. “Ow. Also what trainin—oh, oh oh right. Yes well, you see, the thing with being psychic. When you have a barrier like that. It’s practice. You following me kid? Don’t wanna make this overly technical since you’re a beginner and I’m an expert. You gotta…um…” Reigen’s eyes shifted around the room, settling on the television, then the wet patches on the floor near the glass door, then Mob. “…Um, give me time to think up an explanation, okay?”

“Um, okay.”

“I got conditioner!” Reigen added, immediately changing the topic as he rifled through one of the plastic bags. “This nice lady and her nice kid got it for me. Also food. It’s—what—4 oclock now? Yeah we’ll make dinner soon. Stirfry okay? I googled a recipe online it seemed easy enough. Oh and clothes! I had to return some pants anyway so—“ Reigen set the purple bottle down on the table and reached into a different bag, black and sturdy. He pulled three shirts from its depths and stacked them on the table, along with a pair of sweatpants and a pair of jeans. “I guessed the size but. If they don’t fit I can return—I just figured you’d need some real clothes and not mine that are too big you know?”

Mob stepped forward, thoughts of training and his barrier buried beneath some strange, knotted feeling in his chest. Hesitantly, he picked up the top-most shirt. It was red, soft to the touch, decorated on the front with a logo that meant nothing to Mob. Mob pulled it to his face and smelled it: clean.

“…shoes and socks! And toothbrushes—I gave you one of my extra toothbrushes yesterday but that’s the same blue kind of toothbrush as mine and that’d get confusing which is yours and which is mine so I got you these green ones.  Um… Mob?”

Mob had accidentally tuned out Reigen’s voice. He touched each of the shirts, pressed his thumb and forefinger into the jeans and felt them. He looked to the socks and shoes and realized that his bare feet were cold.

“Oi, Mob?”

“This is weird,” Mob said along a breath. He picked up the sweatpants, a dark navy, and rubbed the soft cotton. It grew warm beneath his touch.

“Oh, it is?” Reigen asked.

“This is why you went out..?” Mob pulled the pants close. It had been a rare luxury with Shishou: clothes that smelled new and clean.

“Well, um… do you wanna just keep wearing my old clothes…? That’s…okay too.”

“No, no I mean…” Mob surveyed the pile, the purple conditioner, the packet of green toothbrushes, and he searched for the words to explain the tightness in his chest. “I didn’t even ask… That, back home, Shishou bought me clothes but, only when I needed new ones… Only when I asked him.”

“Oh,” Reigen answered, and his voice was small and tight. “Oh…”

Mob startled when a hand, firm and heavy, came down on his shoulder. He looked up, staring into Reigen’s face just a bit more tight and cautious than before.

“Look, Mob, I’m gonna lay this out for you right now, alright? That’s not normal. That’s a lot of kinds of messed up, actually. The more I hear about this Shishou the less I like the guy. Don’t feel guilty or…weird about the fact that I got you some discount slacks. Okay? They’re a gift, and it’s fine.”

Reigen’s hand retreated. His expression was softer, but still carrying a concern Mob couldn’t quite fathom. Reigen picked up the red tshirt, and the toothbrush packet, and the purple bottle. He shifted them awkwardly into his left arm and held them out to Mob.

“The nice mom said to use this conditioner on your hair. It’s…um, like shampoo I think. Hang on.” Reigen twisted the bottle and squinted at the writing on it. “Yeah, work it into your hair, and then let it sit a bit, and then use your fingers to work out the knots. Um, well to ‘eliminate’ the knots, is what it says. That’s weirdly aggressive.”

Reigen pressed these things into Mob’s arms, which Mob accepted in silence.

“Since you don’t want to cut your hair I figure, this’ll maybe work? You can at least like, tie up your hair easily, or tuck it behind your ears?” Reigen stood tall and pressed his finger to his chin. “I had my hair kinda long when I was 15 but I think I only did that to annoy my mom, so I never kept it neat. So I don’t really know. But you should go shower anyway and see what you can do about your hair, okay? And I’ll start on dinner.”

Mob nodded once, still too uncertain to respond properly, but he’d already failed one mission from Reigen today. He could at least follow through on this one…

Barefooted, clothes still just a bit damp from the rain, Mob wrapped his arms around the pants and shirt and bottle and toothbrushes, his eyes peeking high enough to navigate. He gave Reigen a single nod, and twisted on the spot, his feet tapping out a quiet noise with each step on the kitchen floor. The rug then muffled their noise, and it started up again on the bathroom tile. Mob shut the door behind him once inside. The mirror sat to his right, and with a glance Mob evaluated his appearance, something he hadn’t cared about properly in years. Reigen seemed concerned now, and Mob found himself caring a lot what Reigen thought.

The clothes he wore were clean but large and loose, his hair washed but wavy and messy where the knots tangled.

If he focused hard, he could almost remember his reflection from before. He’d been much shorter, hair cropped into a bowl cut, wearing an elementary school uniform that had long since tattered, stashed away forgotten and filthy in some closet in Shishou’s house.

Mob set down the conditioner, the toothbrush, the clothes. He turned the water on, and wondered how close he could get to recreating the reflection in his memories with just these things.

Once the bathroom door closed behind Mob, Reigen collapsed into the nearest kitchen table chair. He put his face in his hands, elbows pressed to the table, and sat like that in silence for a few uninterrupted seconds. Cool air, just a bit damp, blew through the open window. It only made him shiver.

He sat until the knot in his stomach loosened, until he could lift his head and drag his hands down his tired face. What he felt now was a different feeling from the abject shock and horror of the first night he’d encountered Mob, all tattered clothes and incoherent fears. Somehow, it became more gruesome to imagine a face, a person to this “Shishou”, the more time he spent with Mob.

His first impression had been of some kind of devil, some kind of supervillain, cartoonishly fictional and unreal due to the sheer capacity of the horror he must have wrought. Just as the scared kid that first night had been almost too unreal to fully believe. But no, Mob was…someone now, someone real. A boy with a little brother he loved, and a fondness for milk, and enough compassion to care that Reigen had seemed tired.

Sometime along the way, “Shishou” had become real too. A man who’d tricked a little kid into staying locked up, a man who’d fed and clothed Mob just enough to keep him alive and perhaps no more, a man who’d somehow manipulated Mob into believing it was fine, and deserved.

It filled Reigen with a dread, an anger, a feeling of uselessness. It made him wonder who Mob might have been, had he never been taken.

It made Reigen angry, almost, that “Shishou” was dead, that there was no living soul left to punish for this.

So instead Reigen stood, and he gathered up the bag of vegetables, the bag with the cutlets of raw chicken. He hesitated, then loosened his grip on the bags as he investigated the counter tops and the stove area. Amorphous stains decorated the counter top. Spilled broth that had dried, drips of egg yolk from the times he’d felt adventurous enough to crack in an egg with the instant ramen. Grit and dust covered surfaces, visible only with the slanted light of the setting sun. Some spots were clean, the ones that he and Mob had wiped away that morning unaware.

Reigen scoured through three cabinets before finding his packet of kitchen sponges. He didn’t fully trust the one in the sink right now. The new one he wetted, and doused with dish soap, and took it to the countertops. Reigen flipped it over to its coarse side and scoured the stovetops, threading it between the metal grating overtop each burner. He dug in deep, leaning so that his face was only inches from the metal grates that he grinded the sponge against, the frustration in him funneling itself into the power and vigor and tension he used to scrub. Old grease quickly dyed the sponge black, so Reigen wrung it out in the sink and continued. He did so three or four times before he was done.

He could have done a better job, in all likelihood, but he already heard the shower water running, and he wanted to get as much prep done as he could in the meantime. That was where his mind fueled his manic, bothered energy—he couldn’t do anything about Shishou, or about the life Mob had come from, but he could put together a meal for the kid. Better than the eggs and toast this morning. This was something real, something with a recipe.

For a moment, Reigen tried to remember the last time he’d made something like this for himself. He must have at some point, given the charred residue on the burners, but he couldn’t remember anything recent. His job made life too inconsistent, made it too easy to just stock up on convenience store food for a stakeout, or to come home and crack a few beers, drinking them on the couch and burning through cigarettes until he wasn’t hungry anymore.

Reigen shook his head. He picked up the bag of fresh vegetables with resolution and upturned it onto the counter beside the stove. A bit of rifling through the cupboards produced a wooden cutting board, which Reigen ran beneath the faucet to clear of dust before lining it up with the vegetables. His butcher knives were old and dull and unsightly to him given the events of the last couple days. This made Reigen yank them from the rack with more fervor, spite fueling him. Mogami had ruined his hand already; Reigen wasn’t going to let him ruin knives as well.

He rinsed the peppers, peeled the onions, skinned the carrots, all with a strange and bothered static filling his mind. Reigen hardly noticed the ache of using his right hand, or maybe it just felt natural, as his thoughts hovered around the fight against Mogami. He’d called Jun while driving back from the stores, and she’d said Tetsuo was fine and resting. That perhaps meant Mogami was gone for good. Or it maybe meant that Mogami was just laying low.

Or maybe it meant Mogami was after Reigen now.

Reigen stared hard at the torn open package of chicken breast, the hunk of flesh he’d pinned against the cutting board with a knife suspended above it. He was supposed to dice the chicken into bitesize pieces. Instead Reigen held the position, frozen, knife set just above the cut of flesh. He felt the blade slit through the first half-inch of chicken, and with a twisting in his stomach he remembered the sensation on the receiving end, of being the flesh that the knife slit into.

Reigen lowered the knife with a shiver.

He looked about, his jaw working anxious patterns as he ground his teeth. Reigen pushed off from the counter and headed to the sink.

He washed his hands instead, then he dug through three cabinets in search of a pot with a matching lid. He filled it with water, and set it on the burner to boil. He dug through the back of the cupboard for his bag of rice.

The sauce too, that needed to be done. Reigen pulled his phone from his pocket and skimmed through the recipe again. It was mostly soy sauce and some brown sugar, some corn starch. There’d been a bag of brown sugar in one of the higher cupboards for years. Soy sauce he kept around. Corn starch he’d bought.

His drawer contained a variety of plastic measuring spoons with cracked off handles. He’d bought them second-hand, with hairline fractures already in the plastic. Reigen wasn’t sure when exactly all of them had snapped—it’d been too many years since he’d used them properly. The broken-off handles remained in the drawer, as the handles contained the measurements beveled into their surface. Reigen matched each broken spoon head to its handle by the fracture pattern, differentiating tablespoon from half-tablespoon from teaspoon. His two dry measuring cups were intact, though mismatched.

Reigen gathered up all he needed, and he measured out the soy sauce and the cornstarch. The brown sugar he had to guess by eye; it had clumped together into a hard honey-sweet block inside the bag, and it took chiseling with a knife to get the right sized chunk to break off. Reigen combined the ingredients into a ramen bowl, and attempted to whisk them together with a fork. The brown sugar refused to dissolve. Reigen stared at it.

He then looked up, and realized the rice pot had started boiling. And that the shower water had stopped. And that he was being watched.

“Oh, Mob.”

“Um, Reigen?” Mob stood at the threshold to the kitchen, damp hair tucked neatly behind his ears, wearing a red shirt and navy pants that fit him. He held up the pajama pants Reigen had lent him. “Would you like these back?”

“Oh… Oh yeah. Put them, um, put them on the couch. I’ll get them later.” Reigen picked up the bag of rice and poured a measureless amount in to the boiling pot. He lowered the heat and dropped the lid on the pot before tilting his head over his shoulder to Mob again. “And the shirt?”

Mob didn’t answer immediately. He shuffled to the couch and laid the pants across the nearest arm. “Um, can I keep that shirt? I like it.”

“The Spirits and Such shirt?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh.” Reigen picked up his fork again and poked the clump of brown sugar. He wondered if it would dissolve over heat once added to the stir fry. He wondered if Mob liking the shirt had anything to do with him being incredible. “Cool. Yeah. You can keep that. I got a lot in the closet. You can have two.”

“Oh, thank you.” Mob glanced once to the pants on the couch before shuffling into the kitchen. His eyes wandered about, settling on the open cabinets and the gurgling rice pot and the ramen bowl of undissolved sauce ingredients. He stopped about five feet shy of Reigen, and seemed to center his focus on the empty air between them, anxiously investigating it.

“Mob?”

“Yes?”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m making sure the barrier isn’t there,” Mob answered, eyes darting away from Reigen. “Maybe I’ll stay over here in case.”

Reigen stuck an arm out and swatted at the air. Mob flinched. “Nah, nothing here. I got it under control.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yup.”

Mob stepped closer. Relief crossed his face, though it didn’t completely erase the unease in his eyes. Reigen followed Mob’s line of sight to the red pepper with beads of water along its skin, the peeled onion, the skinned carrot, haphazardly decorating the surface of the counter beside the cutting board.

“Oi, how about you help me, yeah?” Reigen set the fork down and picked the butcher knife back up, offering it to Mob with a cautious smile. “You can do the fun chopping stuff. Wash your hands and you can cut up the chicken.”

Mob’s face paled. He shrunk back, regressing so suddenly into the child who’d collided with Reigen on the sidewalk those few nights ago.

“That’s okay,” Mob whispered hurriedly. “I’m not hungry.”

“Oh,” Reigen answered. He felt his stomach drop, and he lowered the knife, his eyes flickering between Mob’s. “Guess…we’ve got a problem with knives, huh? You and me both.”

Mob watched him, studying, gears turning in his mind that Reigen couldn’t quite understand. “…Is it because of your barrier too?” Mob asked.

Too… The word rung in Reigen’s head. He picked the butcher knife back up and investigated it, still attempting to catch up, still attempting to fathom what barriers had to do with blades.

“Yeah,” Reigen answered, because he knew the conversation would only run itself in circles if he actually pursued his confusion. Asking about the bladed barrier never answered much for Reigen, only that this Shishou man had so thoroughly convinced Mob of its existence, and that simple persuasion wouldn’t be enough to undo it.

Reigen picked up the red bell pepper. He set it to the cutting board and slit it down the center with the knife. A clean thock bounced off the board as the knife sliced the pepper in two. Holding the knife still made Reigen’s insides squirm uncomfortably, stinging in his fingers and flashes of Tetsuo’s exposed neck lingering in the back of his mind. But he’d said he wouldn’t let Mogami ruin this for him--

“Watch this, Mob.”

--So maybe he wouldn’t let Shishou ruin it for Mob either.

Reigen grabbed one of the pepper halves and held it over the garbage, using the blade to scrape away the seeds inside. He dug around near its stem to remove the white fleshy bits, until only the hollow half pepper remained. Reigen laid it flat on the board and, with clumsy right-handed cuts, he sliced it down to half-circle ribbons. He repeated the cleaning of the second half, but he did not slice it yet. He turned to Mob instead, knife and red pepper in hand.

“The knife scares you because it’s sharp, right? You’re afraid it might cut something it shouldn’t?”

After a second of silence, Mob nodded.

“Well that doesn’t happen if you use it right. You can control knives and,” Reigen hesitated, “you can control psychic powers too…um, if you train yourself to. This is the explanation I was coming up with. Of how to control your barrier.” He set the pepper down and sliced off the first half-ring. “It’s about control. Sure this knife is dangerous and it cuts things, but I’m using it responsibly, I’m not hurting anyone. It’s only helping me. I keep it pointed away from myself, and away from you, and everyone stays safe like that. Knives and uh…psychic barriers can’t hurt people if you have control of them. And I’ve got control of both.”

Reigen raised the knife to present it, though brandishing it weakened his point just a bit. He lowered it just a fraction when he saw Mob take a step away. Reigen beckoned Mob closer with his shoulder. “Look, let me show you.”

Mob moved forward, uncertain. He didn’t pull back when Reigen took his arm. Frozen and stiff, he let Reigen ease the knife handle into his palm. Mob’s fingers closed around it.

“Hold the pepper steady with your left hand. Then you just gotta do the same chopping motions I did with your right hand. Here.” Reigen set Mob’s hands into position, left atop the bulk of the pepper, right poised to slice off the next thin section. “Now cut it.”

Mob blinked, then he shook his head. “I can’t… I’ll hurt—“

“You won’t. You’re in control, Mob. You’re being responsible. That’s the key. Just cut it, and you’ll be fine.”

Beside them, the rice pot boiled over, glutinous water dripping down the black pot’s side and charring against the newly cleaned grating. The sauce bowl sat stagnant and undissolved, a colloid of new and stale ingredients perhaps unsalvageable for the recipe. Broken spoons, filthy sponges, open containers of starch and sugar and soy sauce littered the counter tops, the smell of something burning lingering overtop.

And at the center of the mess, Mob sliced the knife clean through the red bell pepper.

For the first time that day, Ritsu was alone.

He’d left the house that morning with his parents’ hurt eyes on his back, and a promise to his mother to be safe. He’d endured Gimcrack’s company on the 12 minute walk to school, and he’d endured the company of 40 more spirits during the alleyway meetup before classes began. He’d sat in the classroom of students, his hands folded in his lap for fear the wispy purple bleeding of his wrists was actually visible to regular humans. And he’d just scarcely survived his fight against Teruki Hanazawa, who’d accompanied him down to the depths of the Salt Mid boys’ locker room and who had only just left.

He watched the locker room door trail shut behind Teru. Ritsu was alone now, with just his thoughts and the pressure left behind from Teru’s handshake.

Alone, for the first time since the sun rose.

Ritsu breathed out, and he let his shoulders sag. Experimentally he flexed his fingers, trying to make sense of what had made the hot, feverish grasp of Teru’s hand feel so wrong. Teru accepting his handshake meant Ritsu now had an ally on his side to find Mob. It was good luck. It was positive. It shouldn’t have felt wrong to have Teru’s hand grasped around his.

It may have just been due to the splits in his knuckles from his failed attempt to punch Teru during their fight.

Ritsu refused to let himself think about it.

He looked around the locker room. He needed to plan.

Ritsu stood and approached the closest locker. Hand set to the combination dial, he let loose a small spurt of energy that crumpled the metal under his finger. The locker swung open easily, its mechanism mangled. Inside were only shoes and a plastic water bottle.

The third locker that Ritsu muscled open contained a Salt Mid uniform in his size. Ritsu stole it, and he left his own damp tattered uniform in the deep waste barrel by the sinks. He took his time getting the new uniform on, careful to not aggravate any of the blooming bruises along his body. Once buttoned, Ritsu scanned his own reflection in the mirror. He stared into his own eyes until they became bored, unreadable.

He left the locker room, and made eye contact with no one, and headed toward the back alley door in order to retrieve his soaking wet bag from the concrete. When he pushed the door open, damp air swelled past him. Dense heavy sunshine beat down. The clouds had moved on, fast and spontaneous, and left behind a pure blue sky, choked with evaporated water. Ritsu touched his face, chalky and clammy as sweat and humidity mingled with the makeup on his skin.

A brief shadow passed by him, dyed like stained glass. It was Gimp, hovering, pressing for details. Ritsu told him nothing had changed. Ritsu told him the deal was still on. Ritsu offered up his arm in payment, or apology, or whatever it was that Gimp expected of him. Thinking too hard about it curdled Ritsu’s stomach.

And then Gimp was gone, before Ritsu fully understood. His wrist burned. His wet backpack soaked into his uniform, a cold and dead iciness. He thought for a moment about how each book inside was maybe destroyed by the rain. Thinking about fixing them overwhelmed him. The sky was bright, too bright after so long spent in the dark and damp basement of the building. Outside was different, filled with white slanted light that seemed to wash everything out rather than illuminate it.

Ritsu did the only thing that made sense. He set a foot forward, and he walked, despite the sensation of nails driving through his leg with each step. He only adjusted to a hobble, and went forward, home, a 12 minute walk, like any other day, like the world wasn’t spinning around him.

12 minutes through familiar streets, 12 minutes of silence, 12 minutes of wetness soaking into his back from the backpack he couldn’t adjust without pain tearing through his shoulder, 12 minutes of shallow breathing because any breath too deep seared his ribs, 12 minutes of damp humidity caking his makeup and stinging the cuts along his cheek, 12 minutes of slow and mindless unraveling as he walked home, the world washed out and tilted.

He was standing then in front of his door, locked, house empty inside. Ritsu opened the small side pocket of his backpack, and pulled from it a keyring artificially cold in its dampness. He twisted it in the lock, and used his left hand to open the doorknob because he was afraid of his right failing again. The air inside the house was not humid—it was crisp and empty, and doused Ritsu instantly cold the moment he stepped inside. He shut the door behind him, and toed off his shoes, and dropped his bag at the entryway.

He stood there a few moments, silent. The grandfather clock ticked on, a healthy plick at every passing second, unseen in the other room. He counted its seconds; he counted his breaths. He leaned his back against the shut front door.

Then he slid down it, until he was sitting with one knee hugged to his chest, and stared into the house. A shuddering exhale breathed past his lips, and another. He curled in on his body and reduced himself to a thing of silent shudders, in a house empty and dark, unlived in, not there for him.

He wondered what this feeling was, plaguing him. A horrible thought crossed his mind then, unforgivable even: It was the feeling of wanting out.

And that…that made no sense. He’d won in the end, hadn’t he? He would keep his spirits, and he had Teru on his side to search for his brother. He’d twisted every outcome in his favor. In the end, Ritsu had won.

Yet the throbbing pain of his body didn’t seem to fit. He didn’t want to feel that burning of his wrist anymore where the spirits stole from him. He didn’t want to be torn from the ground and thrown about, useless weak breakable thing he was. He didn’t want to fight whatever had taken Mob from him, because the man who’d taken Mob must be a thing far more horrifying than Teru, and Ritsu was already scared of Teru.

Slowly, with forced composure, Ritsu stood. He wiped his palm against the tears escaping down his cheeks, unaware he’d been crying.

He beat the feelings down until they were just a tight knot in his chest, and then no more.

The haze around him had shaken off. A cold house stood in front of him, sharp and in focus, with thin light from the windows arcing the shadow of the banister against the back wall. The kitchen sat deeper inside, darker and more reaching with its shadows, the thin outline of a table and chairs dusted by the light from the small storm window above the sink. Ritsu picked up his soaked bag with his left hand, and he climbed the stairs carefully, one at a time, knee bending as little as possible.

He stopped at the top of the stairs. A small plan formed in his mind, a mutiny against the urge to give up now. Ritsu dropped his bag, and he turned right, toward his room. He did not get that far; instead he paused in front of the room left forever open, and he stared into it. Ritsu stepped toward it, until he raised his hand and skimmed his fingers down the grainy open edge of Mob’s door. He braced that hand against the edge of the open door; the other he braced against the doorframe. Beneath that hand were height measurements, etched into the doorframe with marker. Names, ages. Shigeo 9, Ritsu 8 with Ritsu’s marker an inch below Mob’s, drawn in dense forest green. Shigeo 10, Ritsu 9 were marked above, Ritsu’s line nearly overlapping Mob’s.

The height measurements had stopped after that. The etchings only rose to about a foot below where Ritsu’s hand clutched to the frame. When Ritsu was 10, he’d outgrown Mob’s 10 year old marker, and no one dared to suggest etching it into the wood alone.

Ritsu was a foot taller now than Mob’s last marker. He skimmed his hand down the wood grain and rubbed his thumb along the score. It twisted something deep in his core; Mob had been taller than him in all his memories. Was he still taller now? Ritsu could only picture him as the 10 year old he’d known, older and yet somehow…not. Who had he become in the meantime? Who would he be when they found him?

Ritsu stepped inside. It was like a room asleep. Only lit by the thin slats of light that filtered, dust ridden, through the blinds. A feather-light mottling of dust coated the sill as well, where the light shone brightest. Ritsu knew it covered much more, covered everything; it was just too dim to see it all.

Another step forward. To the left was a futon, lovingly made by their mother two mornings after Mob’s disappearance. When Ritsu thought back, he had vague memories of her from those first few days: still hopeful, still smiling. Or maybe she’d acted hopeful for Ritsu’s sake, making Mob’s bed as Ritsu stood at the doorframe. He just scarcely remembered the look on her face, a tight and gentle smile as she tucked in the futon’s corners and walked over to Ritsu, crouched, planted a kiss on his forehead. She’d told him that Niisan was still coming home. She’d never been quite that affectionate before, or since.

And the bed stayed like this. Picturesque. Mob had never left it so neat. It was messy when it was lived in.

Ritsu did not go to the bed. He went to the closet, and he pried the sliding doors open. They clacked a familiar tune, one that sent a cascade of shivers down Ritsu’s wet spine. He remembered the noise, ingrained in his head, of Mob opening it each morning. This wall was the only thing separating their rooms, so the trill of the opening closet doors was just as much a sound of Ritsu’s room as it had been of Mob’s.

The neatness of Mob’s room was a trick, and that was revealed once the closet opened. Clothes spilled out of drawers and hung half-way off racks. A pair of slippers sat one on top of the other at the bottom, fuzzy soft and blue, with pills pulled loose in places. Ritsu had owned a matching pair in green, long outgrown.

On top of the drawer of clothes was a neat and folded uniform. Ritsu picked it up, let the shirt unfold in his hands. It was a uniform for Salt Elementary students. Only one. All students owned two uniforms. The other one had vanished with Mob.

Ritsu stared at the shirt, faded white, its dust more discreetly hidden in the knitted fabric. He wondered, for just a moment, if anything would have been different if Mob had worn this uniform on the day he disappeared and not the other one. Why had this one stayed safe? Why had the other one been taken?

Maybe there were other factors at play. Maybe Mob had loved the other one more, and had worn it more, and had worn it for a specific reason the day he never came home.

Or maybe they’d both been the same. One stayed. One didn’t. That simple.

He put it back down, and closed it up in the closet where it was safe, left in darkness behind the slatted face of the closet doors that contained it.

Ritsu moved slowly, each step deliberate so as to put the least pressure on his knee. He set a hand down on Mob’s desk, identical to his own, and stared into the mirror set above it. He was too tall for it, the top of his face cut off. Only his chin showed, caked and just a bit blackened even in the dimness of the room. The uniform looked alien and ill-fitting on his body.

The surface of the desk had been cleaned too, but Ritsu knew nothing would have been moved far. He opened the top drawer and found markers and crayons rolling loose in its bottom, the more used and loved crayons filed down to nubs, their paper torn off. Ritsu glanced back up and noticed crayon drawings decorated the wall above the mirror, dull and unnoticeable beside his reflection. They were poor sketches, a child’s art class creations, and Ritsu tried not to let his eyes linger too long on the wobbly stick figure portrait of two boys watching scrawled blobs of water float through the air.

The next drawer contained sheets of paper, pencils and erasers and a few loose thumbtacks that belonged with a corkboard that Mob had owned before passing it on to Ritsu a few months before Mob disappeared. The board lived in Ritsu’s room now, perhaps the only thing from this timecapsule room still in use.

Ritsu opened the next drawer, which held two notebooks, one blue and one red. Shigeo Kageyama was written on the front of each. Ritsu recognized them both. They’d sat untouched on Mob’s desk for those first few weeks, before their mother had stowed them in the drawer, sweeping the room to give it the illusion of order, to make it look less like a bedroom abandoned.

They were the notebooks Mob hadn’t taken to school that day. Ritsu did not know why these two had remained home. No one knew. Possibly, no one ever would.

Ritsu grabbed the red one. He leafed through it. Simple math notes covered every page, written in an uneven scrawl that suggested Mob used to hold his pencil too tightly. They grew incoherent across most of the pages. Eraser marks scratched up entire sections. They were notes on adding and subtracting money, a lesson in decimal points, a unit on fractions.

Ritsu flipped. He flipped until, about a third of the way through the book, the notes ended, incomplete, unfinished. He turned back to the final half-filled page. Fraction equations. They were copied in from a textbook, ten multiplication problems in total on the page, and five division problems. Five were solved sloppily, only two of them right. The rest were blank.

Ritsu read through them, one to the next. He solved each one in his head. They were easy. They had been easy back when Ritsu learned this unit at age 10, and now…they were child’s play now. He could help Mob, could pull up the extra chair and talk him through the cross-reduction and the flipping of division problems that made it all so simple in the end.

The page trembled slightly, obscured, until Ritsu could not see it anymore.

Tears had taken his sight, a silent screen he could not blink away. No matter what he did the tears only filled back in. The blurred page shook, trembled with his own hands that could no longer hold the notebook stable.

Right…that used to be what he’d been good for. He’d been helpful once. Ritsu had been able to help his older brother, ages back. Before he’d become useless. Before he’d given up.

And it meant nothing now. Absolutely nothing. Fractions wouldn’t save his brother. Not good grades, not good behavior, not staying safe for their parents. Three and a half years had passed, and Ritsu hadn’t done anything but accept it.

This pain was something he’d let happen.

Ritsu curled his fingers around the front of his own shirt, grasping at the hollow consuming ache inside his ribcage, the one that had nothing to do with the physical bruising of his skin. This was an ache that drowned him, stole his breath and washed through his every cell and threatened to pull him under somewhere dark and panicked.

The pain of his brother never being found. Dead somewhere. Tortured somewhere. Crying for him, and Ritsu hadn’t, Ritsu couldn’t, Ritsu never—

This was the pain he was trying to force himself to feel right now.

This pain was so much worse than anything Teru could inflict, any ache that Gimp could pull from him.

Ritsu braced his hands against the desk, and stayed silent as the tears leaked from his eyes. It made his path clear. It meant something undeniable. He would deal with the spirits. He would deal with Teru. He would lie and get hurt and accept the consequences that came with it. If it meant more beatings, if it meant blindly trusting creatures that saw him only as food, he would do it.

Because all of that was better than doing nothing.

Ritsu stood tall again, and he placed the notebook back into its drawer, closing it with a gentle thud. He wiped at his eyes with his sleeves until the tears dried up and his breathing came back under control. It left him feeling hollow, empty, numb. He watched his own reflection, until it was the mask of someone looking only bored.

Ritsu left the room, and his hand lingered on the open edge of the door. He pushed it, until it hit the wall and displayed Mob’s dark and empty room to the world. So that it would not be shut away, so that it would not fade from sight like a shut door might. Ritsu let it live and breathe with the rest of the house, even if it was him alone who had to pass it each day.

He moved then into his own room, shutting the door behind him, and stripped off his stolen uniform. He pulled pajamas from the drawer, and he slipped them on gently. A thin light streamed through his window too. Ritsu hadn’t turned on the lightswitch.

He crawled into his own bed then, pulling the sheets and coiling them tight around his body. He lay like that, cocooned, his breathing turned to shuddering. Ritsu did not cry though, he did not let himself feel the ache in his body. Instead he forced his mind away from it. He thought about Teru and the spirits and what sort of things he’d use them to do next. He shut his eyes, and steeled his breathing, and fantasized about a day when he’d hear Mob’s closet doors sliding open again through the wall they shared.

Chapter Text

“Teruki…how are you so incredible…?”

The voice was something soft. It was a sound Teruki loved, singsong and warm against his ear. He leaned back, snuggled closer on the lap of the one whose hand stroked gently through his hair.

“Because my mommy is so incredible, and she made me,” Teruki answered.

“Oh, oh dear, ha! You give your poor old mommy too much credit.” The arm moved from his hair, wrapped around him shoulder to shoulder. A hug close and warm enough to feel her heartbeat. “Your mommy is incredible because she has you, and she’s so excited to wake up to you every single day, Teruki, my special little man…”

“…Am I in trouble?”

“No. Oh dear, no. Of course not.” She crouched to his level, hands on his shoulders, a wide smile and sad eyes. “If the other kids don’t like you, it’s because they don’t understand you. Your mommy’s got your back.”

“Even the teacher doesn’t like me. She’s just jealous, isn’t she?”

Her arms moved as she chuckled.  Then she stroked her palm against Teruki’s cheek. “She’s probably jealous of me, Teruki, for having you.” Her hands rose to his head and ruffled through his hair. “My special little man.”

“…Hey…hey, you know what I heard? You know what my mom said?”

“What?”

“What’d she say?”

“She said that Teruki Hanazawa’s mommy doesn’t love him anymore.”

“No way.”

“What’d he do?”

“Who knows? Hey, hey he’s over there. Teruki! Hey Teruki!”

Teruki dipped his head. He stayed seated at his desk, arms wrapped around the backpack with no lunch in it. He pretended not to hear.

“Hey Teruki, is it true? Does your mommy not love you anymore?”

“Shut up,” Teruki whispered.

“That’s not nice. It was just a question. Did you do something to make her hate you?”

“Shut UP!” Teruki whipped his hand out, and a bundle of psychic snares wrapped around the boy, locking his arms against his body, his legs together. The boy fell to the floor.

The teacher snapped up from her desk. “Teruki!”

Teru jolted forward, covers thrown from his body as the cold, sweet night air doused him. His heart pounded, and his breath stuttered, as darkness settled into his vision. An empty apartment bedroom lay before him, desk clear, closet shut, window cracked to let the air flow in. Teru loosened the tension in his shoulders, and sat with his legs pulled against his chest while the wind blew icy against his sweat-soaked face.

Teru swallowed, and it still hurt. He raised a hand to skim around the strangulation wounds wrapped around his windpipe. They were invisible in the dark.

He rose from his futon. He loosened the top button on his banana patterned pajamas, so that nothing would be quite so close to touching his throat. The wooden floor beat cold against his sockless feet, and he navigated his way by touch through the darkness to the kitchen.

Teru pulled a single glass from the first cabinet. He set it beneath the tap until it was 2/3 filled. Teru drank it slowly, water still running. He hoped for the steady hiss of it to drown out his thoughts. He hoped the cold shock of water and wind to his body might settle the shakiness beneath, or at least ease the rawness that pained his throat.

Teru put the cup down on the counter, and he squeezed it. He wanted to push the tension out of his body that way. He wanted to grip it until he regained his calm, and the world made sense again, and he could return to sleep.

My special little man…

The glass cracked under Teru’s grip. The tiniest shard sliced his right thumb, and he pulled it against his chest, hissing.

Teru focused on an empty spot in the night air. He sent out a pulse, a single psychic signal, a call in the language of spirits. Seconds later, three spirits oozed in through the backwall, multi-eyed and multi-limbed, their bodies all warping and congealing masses no larger than a basketball.

“Got a job?” the one on the left asked.

“Yeah.” Teru moved his hand away from his chest, and he grabbed the hem of the sleeve. He yanked it back. “Go stake out Claw’s base again. I want to know if anything’s changed. Anything at all. Members. Missions. Plans. People they’re after. If someone’s lunch plan is different, I want to know about it.”

“Normal fee?” asked the one most on the right.

“Normal fee, and a 10% tip. Take it as a show of good will. Take any more and I will exorcise you on the spot.”

“Roger that, Boss.” The one in the middle spoke now, and it shifted forward. Its maw opened, revealing lines of needle-thin and needle-sharp teeth. Its jaw stretched until his whole body became little more than a serrated hunting trap.

Teru flicked his wrist. A yellow crystal of energy solidified above his palm. He didn’t flinch at all as the three spirits dove.

Ritsu had left his bag in the hallway.

He hadn’t been thinking about the phone when he’d gotten into the house. He hadn’t remembered to send the “I’m home” text that had become so expected of him. He’d just fallen asleep, curled up in his bed and dead to the world as his mother called him, over and over, over and over.

Ritsu never heard it.

The first thing he heard came hours later, harsh and jarring and uttered much too close to his ear.

Ritsu!”

And then a hand grabbed him by the right shoulder and shook him, sharp from the recent dislocation.

Ritsu woke with a shout, covers tangled up around his sweat-soaked body as he snapped up, wild frantic eyes settling on the shape of his mother leaning over him, hand to his shoulder, worry twisted across her face.

In that moment, Ritsu couldn’t remember where he was or how he’d gotten there. He was hit only with the overwhelmingly certain dread that it was bad for his mother to see him like this. He pulled away, curled in on himself, reexamining the aches of his body and remembering, piece by piece, how they’d gotten there. The spirits, the student council, Teruki Hanazawa…

“Where have you been? What have you been doing? Where’s your phone?” his mother asked.

The sun had set most of the way outside, and Ritsu’s blinds were drawn shut anyway. The room was lit only by the hallway light, and Ritsu was fleetingly thankful for it. She wouldn’t be able to see the mottled bruises on his chin and cheek, the swelling around his eye, the chalkiness of the makeup which could not conceal nearly as well as Teru’s. Ritsu set a hand to his swollen cheek, burning hot where the skin was split and caked in makeup.

Ritsu looked at his mother, and she was only shadows. A pale yellow outline from the hallway light wrapped her, and shades of black contoured her face. Just barely, he could make out her eyes, her forehead, creased in worry.

Ritsu swallowed. “I got sick…”

“Why didn’t you text? Why didn’t you answer your phone?”

His mother’s hand press against his forehead, and Ritsu flinched. He could feel the sweat trickling from his hairline, and he knew his skin was inflamed wherever he’d taken blows from Teru. Ritsu only hoped it would help sell his story.

“I don’t remember where I put my phone. I wasn’t thinking straight.” Ritsu pushed her hand off. “Feverish…”

“You’re burning up.”

“I know.”

“When did this happen?”

“Right after school… Didn’t even go to student council. I came straight home. I guess I fell asleep.”

“You didn’t text.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Ritsu…”

“I’m sorry, Mom. Didn’t mean for you to worry.”

“You need to text. You should have texted that you weren’t feeling well.”

“I didn’t realize it was happening.”

“I left work early to come home.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t know where you were. Council or school or—“

“I’m sorry.”

“Maybe student council is too much for right now.”

“Mom!”

“I waited an extra hour for your text. If you were seriously sick and no one knew—“

“It’s not related to that!”

“I was afraid something happened to you there, Ritsu.”

Ritsu straightened, most of his weight supported by the headboard behind him. He tried to focus on his mother, but she remained only hazy, dreamlike. His head throbbed.

“I’ll wash the dishes every day for a month. I’ll clean the whole house. I’ll cook dinner. I’ll do anything, just let me stay in student council.”

“I never gave you permission to join student council in the first place, Ritsu. You just defied us.”

“Mom—“

“And now look at you.”

“It’s not related.”

“I’m sorry, Ritsu.”

Niisan wasn’t—“

“Shigeo wasn’t…?” his mom prompted, and Ritsu couldn’t find the words to continue.

Ritsu stared down into his sweat-soaked covered, heart racing, thoughts coming up empty. It was as though his head had filled with cotton. Thoughts wouldn’t stick. The room still spun. Trying too hard to focus only sharpened the pain behind his eyes.

He needed to think, though. He needed to talk his way out of this.

“It’s for the best, Ritsu. Maybe next year… Just, get some rest.”

Ritsu’s eyes shot up as he felt his mother’s weight lean off the bed. She was leaving. He had lost. Before he’d even had time to catch up to what had happened. Too fast, too sudden, he couldn’t follow.

Then his eyes flickered to the corner of his room, where a blob of energy had congealed. Ritsu forced himself to focus on it, and this time he succeeded. Gimcrack’s body split into existence, like a 3D projection on a movie screen. Gimcrack floated behind Ritsu’s mother. Once he caught Ritsu’s attention, he nodded to Mrs. Kageyama.

And he dove.

Ritsu’s mother tensed, then straightened. She eased off of Ritsu’s bed entirely, movements stiff and jerking, as though she were a thing controlled by strings. She stared down at him, and even with the shadows concealing her eyes, Ritsu could understand he was staring into something entirely else.

“…Never mind, Ritsu. There shouldn’t be any punishment for getting sick. You can stay in council. Go back to sleep. I’ll be downstairs.”

Then she exhaled sharply. Gimcrack’s amorphous body slipped out her back, hovering, appraising. Ritsu’s mother shuddered once, hand braced to Ritsu’s bed, and blinked until her bearings returned.

She caught Ritsu’s wide, anxious eyes and offered a small smile. “Headrush. I stood up too quickly. Please get some sleep, Dear… I’ll be downstairs.”

Ritsu watched her back as she moved to the door. She offered him one last smile before she closed it, leaving Ritsu in the dark.

Somehow, even without a single source of light in the room, Ritsu could still see Gimcrack floating in the dark air.

Ritsu slept through dinner, and then through most of Thursday. He cracked his eyes open around 2 pm, at first shocked to have slept so late on a school day, and then too exhausted to properly care. He pushed himself out of bed, and moved on sore legs to the bathroom where he could investigate his reflection in the mirror. Teru’s makeup had smudged, almost comically. It made the purple bruises and the yellowing of his eye look painted on as well. He washed his face, skin still hot to the touch, and went downstairs to get food from the kitchen.

It remained dark downstairs. His parents had left for work hours ago, and hadn’t bothered to wake him. Whether it was Gimcrack’s doing, or if his parents were just unsure how to handle him when sick, Ritsu didn’t know. He’d almost never gotten sick. Mob was the one prone to childhood colds.

Ritsu slept through Thursday evening too, and Friday passed in almost the same manner, though he was surer on his legs now, and his dark bruises were yellowing at the edges. Ritsu assumed that meant they were healing. His shoulder didn’t ache as much, and the dizzy spells hit with far less frequency.

He managed to wake himself up Saturday morning, and the swelling of his face had all but vanished. Ritsu fetched the brush and foundation that Teru had gifted to him, and toiled for twenty minutes in the bathroom to smooth over the worst of the discoloration. The thin slits to his cheek from tearing through the grass had scabbed over almost instantly and healed, leaving rows of rawly pink-colored skin that were disguised easily beneath makeup. The cover wasn’t perfect, but Ritsu told himself that the remaining discoloration wasn’t out of the ordinary for someone coming off of two and a half days of bedridden sickness.

He went down to greet his parents, and the tension between them was visceral. Ritsu pulled a box of cereal from the cabinet and poured a bowl for himself. He got a spoon from the drawer, eased himself onto a stool, and kept his head down as he ate. He didn’t want to give his parents the chance to really examine his face.

They talked lightly about how Ritsu was feeling. His responses were shallow and polite, because he didn’t want to risk giving any information—true or not—that could work against him later. He kept up the conversation mostly to prove he was bouncing back from whatever cold he’d been fighting. His mom offered to buy orange juice, and Ritsu thanked her.

Throughout the conversation, he smoothed his hair over his ear self-consciously, the ear that had been gouged by Teru’s attack. He had no way to disguise that one. He could only conceal it.

By Sunday, Ritsu could look and act almost normal. He made a show of calling his classmates—kids whose names he had to look up in the class registry—to learn what homework he missed. He showered, got dressed, and did his work at the kitchen table rather than his room as if to prove his presence of mind to his parents. He hadn’t heard any more discussion of his punishment since Gimcrack overshadowed his mom, but he wasn’t sure what that meant. Did Gimcrack’s will overwrite his mother’s? Had she brought it up with his dad? Had he mentioned anything?

The rest of Sunday passed with virtually no interaction among the three of them. His mother asked him once or twice how he was feeling, and his father remarked that he looked worlds better and asked if Ritsu had caught up on everything he missed. These conversations were repeated at dinner. Ritsu cleared and washed the plates afterward. He didn’t mess with the water.

Monday morning, when Ritsu left the house an hour early for “student council”, neither of his parents stopped him. They wished him a good day at school, and told him to come home if he still wasn’t feeling well.

Ritsu wasn’t feeling well, but he was feeling well enough. He figured he had at least enough drive in him to feed the spirits in the morning. Gimcrack had been acting as liaison between Ritsu and the spirits--what remained of them after Teru’s attack--for the last several days. According to Gimcrack, the spirits had paused their search while Ritsu was not paying them. They’d be ready to pick it back up once Ritsu summoned them…

And so Ritsu did summon them. Out in the alleyway dark and stagnant before the sun properly rose. Dark splotches littered the pavement, all probably shadowy illusions or tar stains that had built up over the years. The beginning bleeding pink of the sun stained the sky above the soccer field, simmering behind the outline of a half-destroyed goal. Ritsu had seen whispers of it online—investigations into an unknown group of delinquents that had vandalized the Salt Mid soccer field.

Ritsu felt a slow rumble, something that seemed to knock against his bones like the bass of a song cranked too loud. The rumble evolved into clicks, growls, guttural hums. The air temperature dropped, and Ritsu felt himself being closed in on before the outline of two dozen spirits swam into view.

“It’s a good turn out, I’d say, considering what that blond asshole did,” Gimcrack remarked, the most solid and visceral of the two dozen spirits. His aura was calm, fed by Ritsu over the last couple of days as payment for relaying messages.

The same could not be said of the others. There was a pressure to their aura that Ritsu could only describe as “hungrier”. He swallowed at the sensation of hot breath trickling down his neck, a licking, probing sensation around his wrists which he drew protectively to his chest. He felt suddenly weaker than he had leaving the house, legs shakier, stomach anxious and queasy.

Ritsu breathed deeply. Then he extended his wrists. He flashed a crystal to life above each palm, violet so dark it was nearly black, and held both hands extended.

“One at a time…tell me what you’ve learned since Teru attacked. Then you get your payment.”

On Monday morning, Mob woke before Reigen.

He tiptoed through the kitchen, his feet kept warm against the tile by a pair of socks Mob still was not used to wearing. He made as little noise as he could gathering his breakfast, and that was easy enough to do in a kitchen with light. Mob grabbed milk, cereal, and an apple, which was one of a hoard of fruit that Reigen had bought yesterday on impulse. He’d dumped it all out on the counter yesterday, complaining that fruit was heavy. The apples, bananas, and oranges now lived in a glass bowl that Reigen had fished out from deep in a cabinet.

Mob settled into the kitchen table and watched the sway of the trees outside, the busy passing of people on the distant street. He got up and cracked the sliding back door open just a fraction, so that air cool and clean to could slip in and douse his face. Mob wasn’t used to that yet—the feeling of air clean and cool against his skin, which was clean to match it. Nor was he used to the feeling of clothes airy enough to let him feel the breeze, clothes that didn’t stick to his body and crust. He wasn’t quite used to crunching on solid foods, or feeling hungry enough to even want to.

He wasn’t used to any of it, but he liked it. He liked it a lot.

And he liked seeing the world without the lens of the barrier obscuring it. That was one he felt almost used to. The world wasn’t meant to be refracted and warped, tinted almost candy-colored by the barrier. Instead the world was bright and clear, and so long as Mob kept finding new things to watch, he could almost forget the sight he’d seen of Shishou—

Mob breathed deeply. He tuned his ears to the stuttering, guttural snores from the next room over. Reigen slept loudly. The loudest of any person Mob had known. It didn’t surprise Mob, considering Reigen was even louder awake.

Mob liked it. It assured him Reigen was still in the house, still alive and present. Like how it’d felt to sense Shishou’s aura but…different, better, warmer. Mob figured it was fine to let Reigen sleep. He knew Reigen had been awake late into the night, whispering into the phone so as not to wake Mob, but whispering loudly by default.

It was that same Jun person Reigen had been talking to every night. Mob could never make out enough of the words through the muffling wall to know what exactly they discussed after Mob went to bed, but he could always hear the tension and strain in Reigen’s voice. Mob had started to recognize words that cropped up frequently in these conversations. “Tetsuo” was repeated often. “Spirit” “possession” “work” were top contenders, though Mob figured that made sense, given someone of Reigen’s expertise, the world’s Greatest Psychic…

“Mogami”, though, was the word Mob heard the most. Mob’s insides squirmed at every mention as he’d listened in, head against the wall that his and Reigen’s bedrooms shared. It didn’t surprise Mob. Mob had heard Reigen for the first time in Shishou’s house, after all. Back when he was just “the colorful man” and no more. “Reigen” was someone even warmer, more alive and more kind and important than “the colorful man” had been. It made Mob worry, because the colorful man must have been friends with Shishou. And Reigen knew now that Shishou had killed himself.

Mob did not dare bring this up around Reigen. The fear that Reigen might hold him responsible was too great.

Mob paused. The snoring in the other room had stopped. Instead he heard shuffling, the scuttling of blinds being drawn and the thock of a closet being opened and one distinct “ow” for reasons unknown.

Reigen’s door eased open seconds later. His head peered down the hall to the kitchen, face relaxing when he spotted Mob. Reigen stepped out of his room, hair messy, suppressing a yawn. His pajamas were bland save for a single poorly-designed bear on the front of his shirt.

Reigen was still yawning as he walked, hand to his mouth, which he only lowered once he approached Mob. His eyes looked dull, maybe a little crusty, and he blinked.

“Sleeping til noon on a Monday. It’s like college all over again when I skipped all my morning classes. The real shining years of my life, those days.” Reigen gave Mob a once-over, studying the bowl of half-eaten cereal. “You’re up early though. You’re making me look bad.”

Mob didn’t say anything at first. He was steadily coming to understand Reigen’s strange humor. This wasn’t an accusation. It was a joke.

“I haven’t been awake for long,” Mob said, because he still wasn’t sure how to respond to jokes.

“Hmmmm,” Reigen answered, and it really didn’t communicate much. He moved into the kitchen, slamming and banging cabinets, lacking all Mob’s tact and subtly. He collapsed into the seat next to Mob with an empty ramen bowl and a spoon in hand. He slid the cereal box over to himself, poured the little wheat squares clinking into his bowl, and gouged into them with his spoon.

Reigen’s free hand rose to his shirt, then the sides of his pants, patting himself down. Mob recognized this. Reigen did it whenever he was trying to remember where he’d stashed his cigarettes.

“You’re wearing pajamas. I don’t think you have any cigarettes in them.”

Reigen stopped patting himself down. He only stared out the window, eyes still dull and crusty. “I…am not awake yet. Stop sassing me.”

Another joke. Mob needn’t apologize. He tried to smile instead, and he was rewarded by a flicker of a smile on Reigen’s face when he noticed.

“Mob, I’ve got some errands to run today.”

“Okay then,” Mob answered. He raised another spoonful of cereal to his mouth.

“And you’re coming with me.”

Mob sputtered, accidentally biting the spoon and breaking into a coughing fit. He wiped his mouth, wide frantic eyes to Reigen who looked equally startled.

“I can’t!”

Reigen blinked, and relaxed. “Yeah you can. You haven’t left this apartment since you got here.” Reigen picked up his spoon again, pulling it out of the dry cereal and pointing it toward the sliding glass door. “And you’re always staring out there. I know you want to go outside.”

“Yeah but I can’t. I can’t because the b—“

“The barrier blah blah blah.” Reigen dropped the spoon back into his cereal, and he jabbed his thumb into his chest. “Do you really think I, the 21st century’s Great Psychic, Arataka Reigen, would let something as silly as a barrier harm anyone?”

“Um.”

“The answer is no.” Reigen deflated a bit, his eyes more piercing and serious. “This is going to be a training exercise, Mob. You gotta adjust to being outside again. And so long as you’ve got me around then nothing’s gonna go bad, okay?”

“What if…what if…” Mob’s words died out. He couldn’t put the bubbling worry in his chest into words.

If it comes back, I’ll intervene, Mob. I’ll wipe it out so fast it won’t know what hit it. That was my specialty back in the day, did you know? Lightning fast exorcisms! Didn’t matter how powerful the spirit was. They couldn’t stop an attack they never saw coming. Rumor has it I exorcised spirits so quickly that the very act of blinking made people unable to witness it!”

“…Really?” Mob asked

“Really.”

Reigen raised his bowl to his mouth and tilted it back. He crunched on dry cereal for a few seconds then coughed when it got stuck in his throat. He coughed a few more times before pushing his chair back and declaring. “I’m going to shower first, before you can change your mind. Also because I’d like a little hot water left for myself at least once.”

Mob thought about this. It was another joke. Not an accusation.

So Mob smiled, despite the anxious squirming in his chest. He didn’t have another chance to protest Reigen’s proposal before he heard the shower water turn on.

The drive in Reigen’s car kept Mob’s anxiety low, just at a simmer. He could watch people safely through the windows, as they wouldn’t dare approach a moving car on their own for any reason. Mob felt for a moment like the car was his barrier, but a safer one, because people knew to stay away.

People…people though. It filled Mob with a strange eager twisting feeling to see so many people up close. His memories from before his barrier were hazy. Remembering how he used to walk to and from school felt more like examining pictures—unreal, two dimensional, other. These people were different. They moved and spoke and laughed. Different hair, different clothes, heights, ages, faces…

Mob was jarred from his mind when the car stopped, and Reigen shifted gears, and killed the ignition. Reigen popped his right side door open and stepped out. He shut it, then spun to grab the handle of Mob’s door.

Mob flinched when Reigen opened it.

“You’re doing fine Mob. Look.” Reigen waved his arms around. “No barrier. You’re golden.”

Mob nodded. His throat was too dry to even swallow, let alone speak, so he got out of the car in silence.

And it was strange, having everything so open, so vast and endless on all sides. No walls, no ceiling, just a bright and clear sky, nearly too bright to look at. Reigen had parked in a lot nearly empty, tucked around the side of some gray cinderblock building. Tufts of grass budded up through the pavement, breaking through cracks that spread along the asphalt like spider webs. Reigen motioned for Mob as he turned his back on the gray building and headed for the sidewalk stretching tangent to the parking lot. Reigen stepped over the spurting grass as he moved, and Mob hurried to his side, that same crisp wind catching his hair and brushing it out of his face.

A hand dropped onto Mob’s shoulder. He recognized the weight as Reigen’s, and it worked to loosen some of the twisting nerves in his chest.

“Come on. We’re just going to walk up this sidewalk for a couple minutes, then it’s one of the stores on the left.”

Mob nodded. He focused all his attention on the hand pressed to his shoulder. He used it as a tether, proof that the barrier wasn’t up. Reigen’s right hand was firm, solid, healthy save for the four bandaids wrapped around his fingers where the knife fight had hurt him. That hand wasn’t shredded. So Mob didn’t need to fall apart.

Storefronts and buildings lined the left side of the sidewalk, the street lined the right. A blue sky started on the horizon and stretched up, above, fanning in all directions above Mob’s head no matter where he looked. A few sparse clouds drifted through the vast endless blue, but they were nothing against the sky so overwhelmingly clear and bright. The sun hovered directly above, leaving the world all but shadowless. It was an intensity of space Mob could not remember ever witnessing, and he pressed himself closer to Reigen.

They passed an outdoor café set up, small wire chairs at small wire tables with standing red umbrellas decorating the centers. Mob heard the clatter of dishes coming from inside that store, and he turned to look. It was dim inside, so Mob couldn’t see much. The attempt distracted him enough to not notice the two girls approaching them oppositely.

One of those girls clipped Mob’s free shoulder in passing, and Mob stumbled back, shocked like he’d been doused in ice-water. His breath hitched, his stomach tightened, he hardly breathed as a thousand awful explanations poured down his spine like a waterfall—

“Mob!”

The hand, firmer in its grip, shook him. And it was Reigen. His right hand. Not shredded.

Mob breathed again. He couldn’t calm the slamming in his chest so easily, but he felt the tension loosen. He turned on spot, eyes catching the eyes of the girl who’d clipped him. She surveyed him curiously, and then turned away, forgetting him.

Mob looked forward again. And he breathed.

He was careful now to notice when people passed. He investigated them, studied them, remembering what diversity existed among real, living people. A woman in a floral pink dress and sunglasses, twists of loose dark hair fluttering in her face. A man stooped over and shuffling in his motions, dressed entirely in green. Two boys racing each other down the sidewalk. Most of them stared at him too, and it set his anxiety on edge. Mob tried to endure it, at least until Reigen stopped walking, and the hand on Mob’s shoulder halted him too.

“Hang on…” Reigen muttered. He dipped his free hand into his pants pocket and dug around. He moved it to the other pocket, across his body, and rummaged. His face lit up. His hand reemerged clutching a single rubber band. “Mob, stand in front of me for just a second. Hold still while—yeah—right there—careful if anyone’s trying to get by us okay don’t stand in their way.”

Mob waited, tense, as Reigen’s hand released his shoulder. For a second Mob was weightless, untethered, until both Reigen’s hands swept Mob’s hair back out of his face from behind.

Mob felt the light pull and tug of his long hair as Reigen spoke from directly behind him. “I keep forgetting your hair’s still kind of all…not normal, like this. You look like The Grudge. At least your hair’s not knotted anymore so I can do this.”

The gentle pull and combing of Mob’s hair continued. He stayed standing, silent, trying to decide if he liked having his hair out of his face or not. It made the world brighter and wider, but it almost made him less capable of shrinking in on himself and hiding.

“Aaaaand there…. Um, sort of. It’ll do?”

Mob blinked. He set his right hand to the top of his head, and then traced it down the length of his hair. It was woven, starting at about the nape of his neck and spiraling downward, ending on a triple-looped rubber band that Reigen had stuck into the bottom.

“It’s messy and probably isn’t supposed to go all to the side like that but, like I said I haven’t messed with long hair since I was fifteen and I only ever braided it to annoy my mom.” Reigen stepped around Mob, sidling up to his left again and setting his hand back to Mob’s shoulder. “If you’re ever wondering about my own tragic backstory that’s pretty much it—I was a shitty kid and I gave my mom a lot of grief.”

Reigen titled his head to Mob, his face painted with anticipation. Mob was beginning to recognize this too—Reigen’s jokes weren’t always obvious, but he made that face when he wanted a response to one.

Mob didn’t have a response. His nerves were eating into him too much.

“Reigen… I think I should go back.”

“What? Nonsense. You’re doing fine.”

“I shouldn’t be this far out in public.”

“And why’s that?”

“Shishou said—“

“Nuts to what Shishou said,” Reigen answered, and there was a more sinister bite to his tone. He paused, then continued sternly. “I really promise you’re doing alright. If you really think you wanna stop, then fine I’ll bring you back. But I think you’ve got this.”

Mob set a hand to his hair again, to the strand that had dipped out of the braid and now hung in front of his face. He twirled it around his finger, fighting to retain the image of the barrier gone. He indulged, just briefly, in the fantasy that motivated him every day now—the one where he came home to Ritsu.

“Okay, Shishou.”

Reigen’s hand tensed on Mob’s shoulder. Mob did not catch what he said this time around.

The air inside the deli was unnaturally cold.

But it wasn’t the temperature Mob noticed so much as the contents of the store.

He felt a dip in his chest from the moment he walked in, a raw panic deep to his core at the sight of rows upon rows of red hacked flesh. Some cuts were drained of color, nearly white and fibrous looking, fins and heads of fish still distinct among the meat. Other cuts were starkly red and oozing, as if bleeding yesterday. Mob stopped right at the door and did not go any further, flashes of shorn-up rats cascading through his mind.

“You okay, Mob?”

Mob was still breathing. He blinked, and he could remember that the meat behind the counter was not rat meat at all. The abundance of fish-like features should have made that obvious from the start. And he remembered that the thing that had done the slicing had not been his barrier either. The hand was still there, Reigen’s hand. He was not a danger right now.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Mob answered. He took the first step into the store, and Reigen followed.

Mob took his focus off of the selection of meat behind the counter. He focused on the layout of the store, and a handful of the people inside.

To the left, the store fell away into a handful of vertical aisles that stretched perhaps 30 or 40 feet back until hitting a back wall. To the right was the main counter, scale and cashier and butcher standing behind it among a few shelves a meat. A waiting area took of the space in front of it, filled with maybe a dozen people waiting silently for their orders. Mob watched some of them. A woman with a baby in a stroller. A single man in sweatpants shuffling the pages of a newspaper. An old man with three kids milling around him—one was a boy investigating the open aisles to the left, another boy stood on tiptoe to see the lowest row of flesh carvings behind the main counter, the third child, a young girl, clung to the old man’s leg. The butcher was a man in white sanitary garb, just behind the counter. He was in the process of operating a large slicer of sorts to skin off cuts of meat.

Reigen stepped closer to the counter. Mob stepped with him, though he felt his heartrate rise at the steady shing, shing, shing of the slicer shearing off cuts of meat. Distantly, Mob heard Reigen placing his order. The ripping of paper. The muffled tune of a deeper voice.

A tap on Mob’s shoulder. Reigen had let go.

“Hold on to this slip of paper, Mob. It’s got the number for our order. I gave the man my name, and he’ll just call it when the order’s ready, okay?”

Mob blinked. He nodded, though he hadn’t heard everything Reigen said. His heart was beating too loudly in his ears, his mind cranking hold on to the shing noise of the machine, and compare it to the exact buzzing, shearing noise his barrier made when it—

“I’m going to grab just a handful of things from those aisles, okay? Not going far. I just want you to stay here, with the paper, and pick up our order when it’s ready. Okay? It’s another exercise. I’m still here. I’m still suppressing the barrier. I just think you’re strong enough to stand here for a moment by yourself. Can you do that?”

--carved things up, sliced them, killed them…

Mob’s mind filled with static.

He nodded. It was the only thing he could think to do.

Reigen smiled, and stood up from his crouched position. He turned on his heel, toward the left side of the store. He rounded the edge of the counter, and suddenly he was gone.

Mob looked down at his hand. A slip of paper was pressed between his thumb and index finger. He hardly felt it. He hardly understood what it was, only that Reigen had made it feel important. Reigen who was gone now. Reigen who’d left him suddenly, surrounded by the walls of cut up flesh.

Mob curled his hands in. He couldn’t hide behind his curtain of hair. He backed up. And kept backing up.

77%

He wasn’t sure when he’d lost his focus. He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t been able to explain it to Reigen just now, why he’d just nodded, why he hadn’t

78%

Mob was losing sight of the things around him. He didn’t have that hand firm on his shoulder anymore. He had no proof the barrier would be held back, and he didn’t have Reigen around anymore to save him.

79%

He wouldn’t be able to stop it if—

Mob jolted, backing directly into the old man behind him. Mob’s arms pinwheeled to keep balance, and in the process the thin shred of papers fluttered away from his grip.

He’d lost it.

He’d failed.

He’d—

“Here you are, young man.”

A hand, a new one, pressed on his shoulder. Mob turned slowly, wide and frazzled eyes settling on the small hunched figure of the old man behind him. The man had one hand to Mob. In the other, he clutched the piece of paper Mob had dropped, retrieved from the ground.

“You dropped this.”

Gently, the old man eased the paper back into Mob’s hands. Mob’s fingers closed around it, firm, secure once again. He holds on tightly to the feeling of the pressure back on his shoulder. Mob can breathe again, and he began to remember where he was. In a simple deli, running errands with Reigen, Reigen who said he’d be right back…

“Thank you,” Mob managed to mutter. He looked at the face of the old man, studying the dark violet rivulets of varicose veins branching away from the man’s eyes, eyes which were sunk deep into shadowy sockets, but not unkind. They were gentle, and concerned.

“Are you alright?” the man asked.

“Yeah…yeah just, worried for a moment,” Mob answered. He clutched the paper tighter. “I don’t usually…”

Mob glanced down, making eye contact with the little girl wrapped around the old man’s legs. Her expression was different from those he’d crossed in the street—not offput, not concerned—hers was a face filled with wonder.

“Your hair’s so long and pretty,” she whispered, awestruck. The little girl unlatched from the man’s legs, here short dark hair bobbing as she moved, and she stared up at the man. “Grandpa, I’m gonna grow my hair super long too.”

“You’ll have to ask your mother.”

“Did you have to ask your mother?” the girl asked, nose pointed to Mob.

“I uh…”

Mob only half heard the question. He was too immersed in the sensation of speaking. Not just speaking, but holding a conversation, a conversation with two strangers. Strangers who could touch him and not be harmed. A child, who couldn’t be any older than Ritsu when he—

“Are you really okay, son?” the old man asked again. His eyes were creased with that same worry that Reigen often wore. Reigen who was still around, and still suppressing the barrier, just from the other side of the store.

“I…really am, yes. Thank you,” Mob answered. He held the ticket close to his chest. It wasn’t a lie.

“Well, then I’m just glad you didn’t lose that ticket,” the old man finished, and he followed it with a kind smile. His body jostled just a little as the girl grabbed his pantleg and shook it, pointing with her free arm to the deli counter.

“Grandpa, it’s your order.”

Number 35, Ito,” the man in the white garb called.

The old man perked up. “Oh, you’re right Ai.” Ito offered one last smile to Mob, and shuffled toward the counter. Ai followed on his heels, and the two boys exploring the store were summoned to their grandfather’s side. “I hope you have a nice day, young man.”

Mob watched him go. From behind, Reigen’s hand dropped back onto Mob’s shoulder.

“Who was that, Mob? Did you make a new friend?” Reigen asked, squinting at the man. Reigen supported three tubs of something unidentifiable in his free hand.

Mob couldn’t answer. Somehow, it was too absurd a question for him to understand.

Number 36, Reigen.”

Chapter Text

Ritsu’s brow gleamed with the slightest coating of sweat by the time Black Vinegar Mid came into view. At 7:50 am, the sun had risen just a bit hotter, the humidity had settled just a bit denser, and though it made Ritsu angry to admit it, walking the mile distance between Salt Mid and Black Vinegar Mid took more energy than he’d managed to recover since his fight with Teru.

It left his body feeling flushed and shaky, his forehead slick and body sticky in his stolen uniform, but Ritsu decided not to dwell on it. Dwelling meant remembering, and remembering made Ritsu’s seething hatred for Teruki Hanazawa flare like fireworks in his chest. He needed to stifle that hatred if he had any hope of finding Teru now and not punching him in the face.

He fell into stream with the pockets of kids headed toward school, boys in the same lilac uniform that Teru had been wearing the other day, girls in something more periwinkle with bows instead of ties. The ties caught Ritsu’s attention first, bright and stark and green around every boy’s neck, and the sight of each of them filled him with an icy thrill down his spine, quickened his heartrate, made him sweat more. So Ritsu ignored the ties, especially once he noticed his staring prompted the boys to stare back. He wiped his brow. His sleeve came away smeared with wet chalky foundation. The cuffs, too long on this stolen uniform, concealed his split knuckles and bruised hands.

Ritsu stared over the heads of students instead, hoping that dyed blond would be easy to spot in a sea of blacks and browns. He scanned them one group at a time—most students walked in huddles; three excited girls hunched in and whispering, giggling; four boys in a line staring forward, or at the sky, or the ground as they walked; single students walking with earbuds in, hands in their pockets. Ritsu kept pace, and then sped up so he could search the front of the crowd. Nothing. Sweat trickled down his neck. He was skipping his own first period to be here, and Teru was nowhere in sight.

Ritsu felt it like an assault—the probing spear of eyes boring into his back, neck hair raised and heartbeat quickened. He snapped his head, twisting at the hips to make eye contact with a Black Vinegar girl walking behind him. She stood center in a group of three girls. Her chestnut hair was shoulder-length, glossy and artificially wavy. There was a certain judgmental hostility in her bright eyes, which lightened only slightly when Ritsu made eye-contact in return.

“Do you know where Teruki Hanazawa is?” Ritsu asked on impulse. He didn’t like the look in the girl’s eyes, and he didn’t want to look away without getting a word in.

A hint of surprise crossed her face. “…Why?”

“We’re working on something together. I need to know where he is.”

The girl stopped, because Ritsu blocked her path. The other two girls paused, eyeing Ritsu with a similar distrust before the first girl shooed them on with a wave of her hand.

“I’ll catch up once I know what he wants,” the girl said, blunt, and her two friends carried on in silence. Other students too filtered around Ritsu and the girl, glancing side-long with mild curiosity at the two of them. The bell behind Ritsu rung out, harsh and shrill. 7:55, a warning bell for the start of the day. The girl ignored it, scanning Ritsu’s face instead, eyes lingering on the spots where the bruising hadn’t quite faded.

“What’s wrong with your face?” the girl asked. She pursed her lips, glossy and bright. “And what do you want with my Teru?”

Ritsu’s brow twitched. “Just tell him Ritsu Kageyama is looking for him. He’ll know what it means.”

“I don’t know that name.”

Ritsu paused a moment. “He’ll want to know I’m here.”

The expression on the girl’s face was something just a bit condescending, just a bit disbelieving. She pulled her flip phone out of her pocket anyway, glanced at it quickly while shooting off a text, and held it shoulder height in front of her. She smelled like flowers, Ritsu noticed, though he wasn’t sure if it was perfume or her lip gloss.

The phone buzzed. The girl glanced at it, flipping it open and appearing to read the text twice. Her brow furrowed. “I told him some beaten-up looking kid in a Salt Mid uniform is looking for him. He says he knows you. Teru will be here in a minute.”

“…Thank you,” Ritsu said, flat, positive that he hated this girl as well.

She twirled a finger through her hair. The flood of students around them had thinned. “Don’t thank me. I’m waiting for him to walk me to my classroom anyway.”

The next seconds passed in silence. Ritsu felt another bead of sweat trickle down from his hairline, though he did not dare wipe it away. He stood a little taller, tried to hide the annoyance on his face. This girl meant nothing to him, so he shouldn’t care how she looked at him, or what she thought of him.

Then her eyes shifted to the left, and they brightened, as a new shadow stole away the low sunlight. The coldness vanished from her face at the same time Ritsu felt his stomach drop—the cadence of approaching footsteps was familiar.

Teru,” she chimed, skipping forward, meeting him halfway. She reached a hand out and intertwined her fingers with his, spinning around so as to wrap herself beneath Teru’s left arm, which now draped around her shoulder. She leaned into him, free hand braced to his side, and rested her cheek against his shirt. “I missed you so much this weekend. Camping was the worst.”

Teru leaned in and planted a light kiss on the top of her head. The girl giggled. Teru made eye contact with Ritsu, appraising him, gauging to see if he was jealous. Ritsu already found himself fighting down the urge to punch Teru in the face.

“I missed you too, Mei Darling. How about we go out for lunch today, hmm? Anywhere you like. My treat.”

Teru Sweetie, you spoil me.”

Ritsu watched, silently, distinctly aware that he hated being alive at this moment.

His eyes trailed to Teru’s tie. It hung just a bit loose, cinched with a tiny bit of slack so that nothing touched Teru’s throat.

Teru caught Ritsu’s gaze. He unfurled his arms from Mei, set both hands to his tie and tightened it purposefully, aggression in his eyes as they burned back against Ritsu’s. Ritsu hated the involuntary thrill of fear it sent down his spine.

“Well, guess it’s time to deal with today’s garbage. Get to class Mei, Love, I’ll catch up with you later.”

Mei’s face soured again, remembering Ritsu. “Who is this kid? Some thug you were hired to beat up?”

“I’m not—”

“Something like that, Snookum.”

“You should stop doing favors for those delinquents.” Mei leaned in, trailed a finger in circles against Teru’s sleeve. “…It takes away from us-time.”

“This won’t take too long, I promise. Remember, lunch today. Now run along. I wouldn’t want you being tardy today, Love.”

“You’re not going to walk me to my classroom…?”

Teru pulled her close and planted another kiss on her forehead, then pulled back. “Tomorrow, Sweet-Pea.”

Mei shot one last withering look to Ritsu, then conceded. “Fine…” And she hoisted her bag higher on her shoulder, and stepped toward the Black Vinegar entrance.

Teru shot a side-glance to Ritsu, smile curling triumphantly. “Yes, that is Mei Hamadate, I’m sure you probably figured that out already. And yes, she’s dating me.”

Ritsu blinked, processing with a note of relief that he was done dealing with the girl. “…Who?”

“…Mei Hamadate” Teru answered, more tensely.

“I don’t know who that is.”

“You must not know many people,” Teru bit back. His face darkened, a scowl blooming in place of his flirtatious smile. He swept a long lock of yellow bangs away from his eyes, icy blue and fiercely sharp, kicking up Ritsu’s guard which had loosened in the last couple minutes. “But more on topic—why the hell are you here exactly?”

The change in atmosphere rocked him. Ritsu solidified his stance, and he glanced side to side discreetly. No more students funneled past them, and the lack of eye-witnessed set Ritsu on edge. The 8am bell rung from the front of the school—late.

“What—why is this surprising? You agreed to help me. That’s what I’m here about, obviously. What else would I—”

“I mean here-here. In person. At my school. Talking with my girlfriend? Did you want to announce to the whole world that we’re conspiring, or is the entirety of Black Vinegar Mid enough for you?”

“What are—how else was I supposed to find you, huh?” Ritsu challenged, defensive. “You didn’t give me your phone number when you left the locker room.”

“Find me on Facebook, you stupid child,” Teru ground out. “Or Instagram. Twitter. Snapchat me, if you care about being discreet. This isn’t rocket science.”

Ritsu’s eyes flitted between Teru’s—left, right, left again. “I don’t have a Facebook. I don’t use it.”

Teru’s eyebrow quirked, and his chin rose, and the light teasing smile returned to his face. “Oh?”

“I don’t. That’s why I’m here in person. Let me just…give you my number now so we—”

“No no, explain this to me. Why no Facebook? Are you too cool for it, Kageyama? Is it a hipster thing?”

“It’s not a ‘thing.’ I just never made one. Where’s your phone?”

“My phone?”

“Your phone. I need your number.”

“What if I made you a Facebook, Kageyama?”

“I don’t need one. What’s your number?”

“No wonder you haven’t found your brother, huh? I’ve got 3,000 friends and you couldn’t even find me.”

Ritsu met Teru’s eyes, and it was with open hostility. Teru’s smile widened.

“Give me your phone, Hanazawa…”

Teru pulled his phone from his pocket. He flicked it forward, corner pointed toward Ritsu. Ritsu reached for it, until Teru snapped it back to his own chest.

“Say, Kageyama, why don’t I check if your brother has a Facebook account?” Teru flicked his wrist twice more, phone flaunted, its five rhinestone charms dangling, swaying. They were hearts and opalescent stars, glittery in the low morning light. Teru’s voice dipped sing-song. “Not like you’ve checked. He could’ve been on Facebook this whole time and you just wouldn’t know, that’s hilarious. I wonder how many friends he has.”

“Don’t—”

’Shigeo Kageyama’ yeah? What should I do if I find him, hmm?” The screen brightened. Teru flipped carelessly to his Facebook app. “Friend him on your behalf? Like his status? Oh why don’t I just poke him to break the ice?”

Ritsu grabbed Teru’s wrist, firm, tight, his nails digging just a bit into Teru’s flesh. He pulled down until Teru was forced to lower his phone, charms clinking.

“Stop it. Stop that. Don’t you dare make light of this. Don’t you dare make fun of him. Or me. I won’t let you.”

Teru glanced to his wrist and back. His playful smile did not falter. “Little stressed there, aren’t you?” He yanked, once, and Ritsu lost his grip entirely. “No need to be so uptight, Kageyama. We’re having fun.”

“This is not fun.”

“Well I’m having fun.”

Ritsu’s lip twitched. Stress shivered through his body in waves, curling in flashes of anger, frustration, heating his face. A sense of powerlessness threatened to pull him under, so he breathed deep, and forced himself to move on. “We’re breaking into a building today.”

Teru brightened. “Oh?”

“An office building. I spoke with the spirits this morning. Gimcrack says they’ve found a building, it’s nearby, that’s got some sort of aura pulsing from it. One of the top floors, in back, something with a psychic aura is there.”

“Your brother?”

“They don’t know.”

“Let me ask him on Facebook.”

“Stop.”

“It’s hilarious.”

“It’s not.” Ritsu waited, tense. Teru only watched him expectantly. “The spirits don’t know if it’s him because they haven’t gotten close. Gimcrack says there’s a large risk of getting eaten if he gets too close and it turns out to be a powerful spirit. So they won’t. We have to.”

“You trust Gimcrack?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Ritsu answered. Wind swept up his bangs, still slick. “It’s better like this, because if it is—when it is my brother, I want to be the one to go in, and kill his Shishou myself. I don’t want Gimcrack or anyone else doing it. It’ll be me.”

“That’s perhaps the only smart thing you’ve said so far. Handling that part by yourself. I wouldn’t trust the spirits with much of anything, unlike you.”

“You have your own horde.”

“Different purposes.”

Ritsu gritted his teeth. He ran his fingers through his hair and straightened. “It’s some old office building near the Salt Mid edge of town. I’m going after school with Gimcrack and two of the other spirits. You’re coming too.”

“I am?”

“You are.”

“Ooh sounds fun. Hope I’m not imposing on your date with Gimcrack.”

“You’re not funny, when you do this, you know. I know you’re doing it intentionally. Annoying me. Trying to get a reaction out of me. It’s sad. Cut it out.”

“It’s not nearly as sad as you bleeding yourself dry for some slimy parasitic roaches, but to each his own I suppose.”

Ritsu’s fingers clenched and unclenched. He shot a hand out and grabbed Teru’s phone, prying it from Teru’s grip until he held it in his own hands. Teru didn’t fight for it back, so Ritsu opened the messenger, and started a new conversation with himself, and sent himself a simple “hello”.

“You know you say a lot of god-awful things about Gimcrack, but he’s much easier to work with than you are.”

“I don’t steal your life energy.”

“You beat me bloody five days ago, in case you forgot.”

“And you strangled me with my own tie.” Teru stepped forward, snatched his phone from Ritsu’s grasp with his left hand, and mussed up Ritsu’s hair with his right. Ritsu pedaled away, flattening his hair back down frantically, indignantly. Teru smiled. “I’m glad we’re pals.”

Ritsu took another four steps back. Energy churned just beneath his palms, fueled by the anger coursing through his veins, ears bludgeoned with the sound of blood pumping past them. He bit down hard enough that, were his lip between his teeth, he’d have easily drawn blood.

Then Ritsu eased. “After school. Meet me at Salt Mid. We’re going.”

He spun around, and walked away from Black Vinegar Mid, hot sun assaulting his face. He felt the phone in his hand buzz, and it startled him. Ritsu tilted his hand, flipped the phone open and found a new text from an unidentified number.

 “hello”
“shall we meet in our usual place?”

The text was decorated in heart and star emoticons, a single kissy-face used to punctuate the end of the text.

“The alley is fine.”

“i like the soccer field more ;)”

Ritsu didn’t answer. He snapped the phone shut and stowed it in his pocket, stress seeming to leak through his pores along with the sweat. He ran his fingers through his hair, and fantasized about beating Teruki Hanazawa bloody.

“Don’t let him get to you kid. He’s an asshole.” The voice came from three inches to Ritsu’s right. Ritsu jumped, nearly yelped, and spun to see Gimcrack floating alongside him. The spirit, with its three red eyes, and body black as night, split a razor-sharp grin. “And hey thanks, I like being partners with you too.”

Ritsu walked faster. He ignored Gimcrack. Power still itched beneath his palms.

He remembered the kissy face emojis in Teru’s text, and he let loose an aimless blast of purple energy into the ground, leaving a circle of brittle yellowing grass charred wholly black.

The balcony door rattled shut behind Reigen, and he shivered, the tips of his hair dripping wet, suit stained damp, exposed skin slicked with flecks of rain. He smothered his cigarette butt in the ashtray near the door.

“Just a rainy fall this is going to be, I guess. I don’t remember it ever raining so much before. Well, maybe it has, I dunno.”

Reigen sauntered in, snagged one of the blankets off the couch and ran it through his dripping hair. He coughed once, ashy, into the fleece before lowering from his face and making eye contact with Mob, who sat in his normal spot on the couch and watched the television.

“Oh, I don’t know either,” Mob answered. His eyes flickered between Reigen and the television. Speckles of rain pelted the glass door from the outside. “Do you always smoke outside in the rain?”

“Yes,” Reigen lied, and he collapsed next to Mob on the couch. He normally smoked inside, wherever he settled in for the day, which seemed apparent enough by the half-dozen scattered ashtrays throughout Reigen’s apartment. He smoked outside now, out of consideration for the air Mob breathed. He figured it was best to not let Mob know. “Kind of a shame, with the rain I mean. I thought we’d maybe go somewhere today.”

“Again?” Mob asked, a hint of anxiety in his voice. He turned fully to Reigen, ignoring the television, dark eyes wide. He wore sweatpants and a red t-shirt, and his braid had unraveled just a bit in his sleep, only enough for a few loose strands to frame his face and a few others to fall between his eyes.

“You don’t only go outside once, Mob.”

A laugh track echoed over them, tinny and distant from the television speakers. A soft cascade of rain still tapped the windows. Reigen glanced to Mob, and found Mob had looked away, staring at the floor now. He followed Mob’s eyes to a dark amorphous stain ground into the carpet fibers. Reigen investigated it with surprise. He hadn’t ever noticed that stain, though now when he surveyed the whole expanse of carpet, he found other spots of discoloration—ashy residue or spilled foods, drinks.

“What um…What was your Shishou’s house like, Mob?” Reigen asked. He threaded his arms over the back of the couch, kicked his feet up onto the coffee table where they skimmed the edge of an ashtray.

“It was okay,” Mob answered, and Reigen’s chest tightened some. It was a guarded answer. “It was darker than here. And it was usually cold. And a lot dirtier. Especially when it rained like this. The ceilings dripped when it rained. I like it here a lot more, where it’s clean.”

Reigen coughed once, throat still itching from the cigarettes he burned through. He scanned the length of the apartment, and it set his teeth on edge. He knew it wasn’t just his throat, or his clothes—the whole apartment smelled overwhelmingly of smoke—acrid, sharp, and nostril-curling. He knew it mingled with some kind of smell more pungent, one that he’d long since turned nose-blind to—the subtle rot of broth and egg left to dry at the bottom of ramen bowls, the stale yeasty smell of open beer cans, the fridge whose interior had turned sour with food left forgotten in its back, the pungency of upholstery and rugs never washed.

Reigen had made an effort the first few nights to clear away the bowls and cans and wrappers left about, but he’d done nothing about the things which had dug their roots into the structure of the space. Reigen stood now, eyes scouting out the things in piles, which had grown slowly through the years, unattended, like stalagmites. He eyed the bags of empty cans and tins, the stains along the coffee table and the magazines, ashtrays, random remotes which had become like a mold on its surface, sprouting there naturally, spurred by apathy. He noted the stains and cigarette burns in the carpet, the gray taint to its fibers, the fingerprints in the glass windows and the oily stains of the walls that Reigen grabbed unthinkingly in the mornings for balance when putting on his shoes.

Reigen stood, and he did so with a rigid sort of intensity that immediately caught Mob’s eye. “Well…I agree with you there, on that one. I like things a lot more too when they’re clean. So why don’t I ever do that?”

Reigen moved into the kitchen and rifled through the cabinets, finding a box of 50 garbage bags which he pulled out in whole. He dug deeper through the cabinet beneath the sink, pushing past cleaning bottles whose spigots had crusted after years—or perhaps close to a decade—of disuse. He snagged a few at random, and from the very back found a plastic-wrap package of eight sponges which he retrieved as well.

Reigen glanced up. Mob stood beside him, bare-footed, staring somewhat quizzically at the parade of dusty cleaning equipment that Reigen pulled from beneath the sink.

“It’s a good rainy day activity, yeah?” Reigen asked. He pulled a single black garbage bag from the roll, tore it at its perforation, wind-socked it open, and handed it to Mob. “Wanna help?”

“What are we doing?”

“We’re cleaning.”

“Oh,” Mob answered. “What do I do with the bag?”

“Throw stuff away in it. Trash. Whatever’s messy and should be tossed.”

“Oh it’s a garbage bag,” Mob said. “I don’t usually see it outside of the garbage bin like this.”

“How’d you get rid of trash?”

“Shishou did that.”

“Yeah well I’m sick of Shishou. Today I’m doing that. When that thing gets full bring it to me and I’ll tie it up and bring it out to the dumpster. In the pouring rain. Because I’m great.”

“You don’t have to.”

“No no no. I was the one complaining about not getting to do fun outdoor activities today. It’s up to me to eat the bitter irony of my words. No go ahead and get cleaning.”

Mob nodded. Reigen crouched to tear loose his own bag. He set his eyes first to the trash bin one cabinet over. He jammed it into the black bag, then rose to peruse the upper-level cabinets stocked with cooking staples scarcely-touched. Reigen tossed crusted-over sauce bottles, uncapped honey, dressings which had expired five or seven years back. He shuffled to the pantry. Moldy bread was trashed, stale cookies turned mushy after years of summer humidity, a few rotten onions in a basket and the single gooey corpse of an apple in the way back. Approximately seven more condiment bottles followed.

Reigen hauled the trash bag to the fridge, whose door he threw open like a melee challenger throwing open the arena door—with purpose, and confidence. He pulled bottles and containers and bags out by the armful, depositing them behind him until they populated the counter and kitchen table in random wayward herds: the huddle of open butter containers, the gathering of juice-like cartons, the once-again overwhelming populace of condiments and sauces.

Reigen targeted the vegetable drawer next, which he almost never opened these days. He’d avoided it ever since he noticed the fetid standing liquid that had coagulated along the bottom. In the back of his mind he’d always planned to clean it, assuming that one day, at one particular moment, he’d become possessed with the drive to do so. It was momentous, almost, to realize that day had come now.

Reigen hauled the drawer off of its track, yanking and jostling until it unhitched and separated from the body of the fridge. Reigen teetered backwards, grabbing the trash bag and molding its open lip to the edge of the vegetable crisper. Once secure, Reigen upturned the drawer, breath held, hearing the thunk of produce bags of long-forgotten vegetables hit the bottom of the trashy pit.

He flipped the drawer right-side up, and found a few sticky blackened produce bags still molded to the bottom, rotted seamlessly into the sludge beneath. Reigen’s brow furrowed. He shut the fridge door, drawer left on the tiling, and rose to grab the roll of paper towels from beside the sink.

Reigen paused on the way, doubled back, grabbed his phone from the kitchen table, and opened his music app. He owned only 15 songs, all illegally downloaded, and scarcely listened to. He set the app to shuffle, and hit play.

A cheesy boppy 80s tune pulsed through the grainy speakers. It was some song Reigen had heard over the speakers in a department store, and he’d spent weeks attempting to remember enough of the lyrics to google it. It had come on once, by chance, through his car radio one day, and Reigen had nearly swerved into a tree.

Reigen caught Mob’s curious eye from across the space. Mob had busied himself culling the trash from the living room. His eyes shifted between Reigen and the phone, unsure. Reigen started bouncing his head along to the music, a light smile on his lips. Mob did not nod along, but his shoulders eased, and he hoisted his trash bag over his shoulder as he moved to the tv. Mob set it down and crouched to investigate the mess of random piled items near the tv.

“There’s a lot of magazines here. Are they garbage?” Mob asked over the music.

Reigen was hunched over the vegetable drawer, investigating. “Sounds like garbage to me.”

“Do you want to check?”

“Considering I don’t even know what magazines are IN that pile, they’ve probably gotta be garbage.” Reigen raised his head, thinking. “Wait, those should probably be recycled. Um, just stick to garbage-garbage for now Mob.”

“Okay…” Mob answered, tone uncertain, and he fell silent again beneath the music.

Reigen ripped a paper towel off the roll and readied himself for the vegetable drawer.

It took half the roll and three more songs before Reigen accepted that he needed something stronger if he was actually going to turn this drawer back to functional. The paper towels ripped first when Reigen tried to scrub the grime to its root. He got up and rummaged through three more cabinets before finding a dish towel to sacrifice, which he wet, and wrung, and doused with dish soap, and set to work cutting through the standing liquid entirely. The soiled paper towels filled up his bag, stained somewhat orange with citrus blast. By the end, once the drawer was clean, Reigen decided to trash the dish towel too.

Reigen rose, pleased with himself. Something about the clear plastic visible at the bottom of the drawer filled him with a sense of pride. He stretched, back cracking, and washed his hands in the sink, all the while keeping his eyes trained on the fridge, envisioning what next to tackle. He grabbed a sponge, and a bottle of Windex, before stopping and second-guessing if Windex was safe for fridge shelves that held food. To be safe, Reigen picked the dish soap back up, and wet the sponge, and went back to scrub the fridge shelves.

His fingertips chilled once he got to work, lit by a light just as citrusy-orange as his dish soap. The motor in the back of the fridge hummed in short tinny bursts, pleading against the fridge door which Reigen kept open, and Reigen considered for a moment unplugging the whole fridge so as not to burn the motor out. He didn’t know where the plug was, so he resolved to scrub quickly. He only smashed his head once while leaning deep into the recesses of the fridge, precariously off-balance with spotty vision as he kept his breath held. The smash dislodged a shelf, and Reigen released his held breath to hiss out a curse. He pulled his head out, shut the fridge door, and re-evaluated the situation.

Maybe he should just unplug it.

A small clack and huff sounded from the living room, followed by a fit of loud, wet, violent coughing. Reigen’s head snapped to the side. Mob was by the couch, surrounded by 5 herded ashtrays, bent at the waist and coughing as a cloud of ash settled around him.

“Mob?” Reigen asked. He forgot the fridge, muscled his way around the kicked-out kitchen chair and pulled himself over the couch to reach Mob. He took the boy by the shoulders and steadied him. “Mob are you okay?”

Mob continued to cough, head bobbing up and down as he nodded. He held his hands to his mouth, tinted with ash, and when he finally opened his eyes they were red. Mob held his breath, suppressing another cough, and nodded once more.

Reigen glanced to the ashtrays Mob had gathered. Three were still filled with cigarette butts and soot. Two were clear. A ring of ash had settled around the table, along Mob’s shirt, and around the rim of Mob’s trash bag.

“Jesus uh… I’m sorry kid. Look go sit down for a bit. I’ll do the cleaning okay?” Reigen remembered just then that, wherever Mob had come from, it was somewhere far worse than this, and that the air Mob breathed there, the things he’d inhaled, may have already harmed his lungs. He didn’t need to be handling Reigen’s own filthy ashtrays.

Mob squinted, and then shut his eyes again. He shook his head.

“Mob, it’s not your mess anyway and you probably shouldn’t be handling dirty moldy ashy stuff anyway so um, just sit okay? I’ve got this.”

Mob shook his head harder. He coughed just once more and pushed Reigen’s hand off. “I’m okay. I dumped the ash in wrong. I messed up but I’ll do it right next time.”

Reigen’s eyes trailed over Mob now, fully taking in the boy’s condition. His thoughts weren’t helpful, but he said them anyway.

“You look like you got attacked by a Dust Buster.”

Mob blinked, his eyelashes dusted in ash, face tinted a chalky gray. He didn’t seem to follow. Reigen had to suppress a small chuckle in his throat.

“It’s not that bad, Reigen. I’m used to the smell, actually, I remember now. I kind of like it. It smells like home.”

The humor left Reigen’s face. He glanced behind him, eyes to the couch, and shuffled over to lower himself onto it. He placed his hands on his knees.

“Which…home?”

“Home-home. …Not Shishou’s house. I remember um…my dad smoked. Your house smells like his office used to smell… Me and Ri--…my little brother weren’t allowed in there, but I could always smell it.”

Reigen’s fingers tensed along his knee. In the background, the music had stopped, its playlist exhausted. “…And what was that home like?”

“…Nice.”

Reigen scooted to the side. He patted the spot he left open, where Mob usually sat, and Mob took it. Reigen leaned over and brushed some of the soot from the front of Mob’s shirt.

“I’ll do laundry later. Remind me to ask you to give me that shirt when I do…” Reigen glanced to the television, some old grainy sitcom that was half-way over. He reached for the remote and shut it off. Rain still pelted the windows, a steady beating metronome that filled the silence.

“My dad used to say that people who never smoked were missing out. I never understood it. Why do you smoke?”

“Same reason as just about everything else I do—I was a shitty kid and it annoyed my mom. I think I uh…hmmm the memories are a little vague but I think I picked it up start of high school? End of middle school? Must’ve been 13 or 14. Some older kids smoked and I liked hanging out with them and then they bought some packs for me and…I thought I was cool, I guess? It’s not cool. It’s garbage Mob don’t ever start.”

“Oh, that’s a relief,” Mob answered. He straightened a little. “Before I left home, I thought maybe I’d have to learn to like smoking. My dad…I don’t remember exactly…but he made it sound like I’d have to start.”

Reigen leaned forward. He slid his hands off his knees, forward until his elbows rested on his knees instead, and he interlocked his fingers, head bowed just slightly.

“How old were you when you left home, Mob?”

“Ten.”

“How old was your brother?”

“Nine.”

“And you don’t know how many years you were with your Shishou?”

“I don’t…” Mob straightened a bit, jaw set. “I wonder how old he is now… My little brother, he’s still nine when I think about him. I’m not ten though… There were a couple winters, at least, at Shishou’s house, so maybe, a couple years... That’s when it would get cold so I remember them. A couple years… …How old is my little brother?”

Reigen stood. He rounded the couch, retrieved the phone from the table, an outlier among the hoards of bottles and containers, sauces, eggs, milk… Reigen dismissed the dead music app, and flipped to the calendar one instead. He locked eyes with Mob, who appeared as only a small dark shadow on the couch, framed by the pale dilute light of the glass door behind him, sloshing wet with rain. Reigen rounded the couch, and sat back down beside Mob. The cushion indented beneath him. He handed the phone to Mob.

“Here, this is today’s date.”

Mob stared, and he stared longer, brow furrowing in concentration. His eyes flickered over the screen, the whites of his eyes lit a pale blue by the phone light. Reigen watched Mob raise his fingers slowly, one at a time, mouthing numbers. Thunder rolled and crackled outside, like a dense and muted noise along with the whisper of rain that wrapped them, held them suspended in a world where only the two of them seemed to exist.

Mob’s eyebrows arched, and his eyes widened, until they glistened, rimmed with tears.

“Mob…?”

“He’s 13, Reigen. He’s 13 now…”

It was something Reigen almost couldn’t process—the existence of Mob’s family, the existence of something outside that room, and outside of Mob.

“…Four years then…?” Reigen asked. “Four years you were with this Shishou?”

“You said you started smoking when you were 13. What if R—What if he….?” Mob handed the phone back, and he wiped at his eyes with the rim of an ashy sleeve. “What if he started smoking and I don’t know? I can’t ever know. I can’t ever know if he’s okay. Not while I’m like this.”

Reigen stared at the rug, at the dark ashy stain still ground into the fibers. Still filthy, untouched, unattended to. It had been too optimistic to think about cleaning everything today. It would take longer than that, longer to scrub clean what had been tainted filthy by years of inattention.

“Are you 14 now, Mob?”

“Yes…” Mob paused, then shook his head. “It doesn’t feel right. I can’t be 14. …He can’t be 13. …That’s too old. He’s still nine in my head, why…? I don’t know what’s happened to him in four years… I don’t know if he’s okay. I don’t… I don’t even know if he’s okay…”

Reigen coughed, cleared his throat. He pulled himself higher, so that his hands rested in his lap. He watched Mob from the corner of his eye, and wondered if it was right to reach out to comfort him.

“He’s okay, Mob, I think. I think your little brother is okay, personally, that’s my opinion…” Reigen shuffled his feet, pulling them closer to the couch. “I kinda remember being 13… I liked angry music, and I thought shaving half my head would be a cool idea even though I never did it, and I wanted a piercing in my nose to go with it. And I thought school was dumb and my mom was lame but…I think that was normal 13 year old stuff. I was pretty normal. I bet R--… your brother, if you won’t tell me his name—I’ll bet your brother is growing up normal too.”

“…You think he’d shave half his head?”

Reigen suppressed a snort. He looked around, eyes falling aimlessly throughout the apartment. “I dunno. Do you think he’s the sort of person who’d shave his head?”

“…I don’t think so. Um, I hope not. I hope he doesn’t smoke, either…” Mob trailed off. He set his right hand against the couch arm and dug his fingers into the upholstery. “I hope he hasn’t gotten his powers. I hope he doesn’t have a barrier like this… Shishou said it wouldn’t happen to him but, I’m worried. I’m worried if he smokes. I’m worried if he has powers and doesn’t know this will happen. I’m worried if he’s okay… I wish I could tell him. I wish I could tell him to be safe.”

Reigen shifted, positioning himself half off the couch to face Mob. He set a hand on Mob’s shoulder and tilted Mob just slightly.

“Mob, if you tell me who your family is, I can go and check. I can find out if your brother is okay.”

Mob’s jaw set. The offer seemed to pain him, and he pulled back just enough for Reigen’s hand to slip off his shoulder. “No, not until my barrier is gone… I can’t hurt them, Reigen.”

“…I think you’re hurting them like this, Mob. Keeping yourself away from them, that’s gotta hurt them.”

Mob stared on at Reigen, eyes wide and jaw slack as though he’d been struck. Tears beaded in his eyes, and he shook his head, and leaned away. “…You still don’t understand. I can’t. I can’t. I didn’t want to ever hurt them but it needs to be like this Shishou told me! I’ve seen the barrier kill things I can’t hurt them Reigen I can’t hurt them. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…”

Reigen moved closer, heart in his stomach, arm hovering around Mob aimlessly. Slowly, he settled it around Mob’s shoulder, and pulled Mob closer, so they sat side-by-side, Mob’s form small and bent and huddled under Reigen’s outstretched arm.

The rain poured. Reigen traced its streaks along the window.

“Sorry, Mob. I misspoke. I definitely misspoke. You’re hurting worse than they are, I forgot about that for a moment. You’re hurting the worst, but you’re fine right now, so I’m sure they’re fine by just…by logic. And also I’m sure your brother is fine too, just living life normally, like all his friends I bet. And then one day you’re going to conquer your barrier, right Mob?” Reigen shifted his eyes to Mob, and jostled Mob’s shoulder. “Right?”

“…Yeah,” Mob conceded. His hands curled into fists in his lap. “Yeah… Yes.”

“That’s right. And what I’m getting at is your family will be right there waiting for you the day that happens, okay? They’ll be smiling too, I bet, once you come home. They’re just waiting for you now, and they can wait a little while longer to smile, yeah? They’ve got plenty going on with their lives right now I bet. 13 year olds get a lot of homework. I bet your brother is busy. There’s no rush, Mob. There’s no pressure. I’ll teach you a way that gets rid of that barrier for real, and when that happens you’ll go home, and then you can stop worrying all together.”

Mob remained small beside Reigen, ashy-smelling, braid swept to the side. He glanced up once at Reigen. The tears were gone. His eyes were brighter.

“You think so?”

“Yeah, I do. I know so.”

Reigen watched another lightning strike arc across the sky. For the moment, he was left with the curious thought of wondering what he’d do on that day that Mob left this place forever.

Chapter Text

Reigen was soaked to the bone.

He squinted through the rain and spit water from his mouth as he hauled bag after bag of trash to the dumpster around the side of the apartment. He’d had a flimsy red umbrella for the first garbage run. On autopilot, Reigen had accidentally thrown it out along with the garbage bag. Reigen had told Mob the wind carried it off.

When Reigen returned from the final dumpster trip, he shed his shoes and his socks and his suit jacket, which he hung wet and dripping on a coat rack nail by the door. Reigen collapsed into a kitchen chair he pulled out, huffing out a laugh and running his fingers through his soaking wet hair. Water ran down his face and dripped into the corners of his mouth, salty.

“Are you okay, Reigen?” Mob asked.

Reigen looked up. Mob sat on the other side of the table, fingers gripped visibly tight to the wood. Ash still stained his shirt, and his eyes were visibly shaken. Reigen knew it was due to the “barrier”—whatever that meant in Mob’s mind—reappearing in the stretches of time it took Reigen to toss the garbage bags. Reigen told himself, and Mob, that this counted toward Mob’s training.

“I’m fine, Mob.” Reigen grabbed his right pantleg and wrung it, twisting it tight at his ankle. Streams of water ran down his foot to the tile below. “This is a lot like swimming actually, except fully clothed and it’s terrible.”

Mob met his eyes, concentration furrowing his brow. “You’re being funny, right Reigen?”

“I’m funny all the time.”

“Oh… Yeah, I agree.” After a moment of thought, Mob settled on a small smile. Reigen smiled back on impulse.

“You know what would probably be smart right about now? Laundry. Both our clothes are kind of a mess.”

Mob’s eyes seemed to brighten a bit in recollection. “Oh, I remember laundry.”

“Mob how much do you mind loud noises?”

Mob blinked. “I don’t mind loud noises.”

“Good, because my washing machine is kind of broken and the basket inside—the barrel inside—the thing that spins, it’s unbalanced or something and like, it spins fast, so the whole thing vibrates and hops around kinda….loud.”

“…Sounds like it’s haunted.”

“Yeah! I got it for super cheap from a client who thought his angry dead grandma’s spirit was inside.”

“Did you exorcise the spirit, Reigen?”

“……Yes,” Reigen answered. He stood, and shook his hands through his hair once more to shake loose the last of the water dripping into his eyes and down his neck. “Go ahead and get changed Mob. I’ll get the laundry basket from my room and then I’ll come by to get whatever clothes you need washed.”

“You’re going to wash mine too?”

“Yep. I’m going to go out on a limb and say you don’t know how to use a washing machine?”

Mob shook his head.

“Then this is part of your training too, Mob.”

Reigen moved to his own room, stripping off his wet clothes in favor of a pajama shirt and sweatpants. He tossed the white undershirt into the laundry basket he kept in his closet. His suit pants he kept separate, since those required dry cleaning. Reigen scoured the floor, grabbing the random crumpled clothes he’d tossed about, most of them thoroughly sweat-soaked, and added them to the basket.

He went to Mob’s room next, and knocked.

“Come in.”

Mob sat on his bed, wearing a clean shirt and new sweats as well. His ashy clothes were hung across an outstretched dresser drawer. A handful of his other shirts and pants were folded poorly on the floor.

Reigen’s eyes trailed past them, settling on the three enormous cardboard boxes pressed against the back wall, taking up a sizable amount of floor space.

“Oh, Mob, did I never move these?”

Mob glanced too. “No.”

“Well of course not. They’re there.” Reigen set the basket down, and he dropped to his knees in front of the boxes. He tugged on one experimentally to see if it would budge with ease. It stayed put. “I forgot I was using this room as storage.”

“What’s in the boxes?”

Reigen startled at the noise so close. He glanced over his shoulder, finding Mob standing beside him, hands to his knees, leaning forward. Mob’s braid dangled over his shoulder.

“Um good question,” Reigen answered. He set his thumbnail against the corner of the clear cellophane tape holding down the top flaps, and he peeled it up. “Let’s see.”

The flaps parted easily once the tape was torn away. It released a smell old and musty, but not unpleasant. It was sharp and dense with incense, spices, aroma candles… That smell hit Reigen like a wave, and his body flushed with a nostalgic shiver.

“It’s my old stuff from when I ran Spirits and Such. Like, my office stuff,” Reigen answered, somewhat wistful. Mob leaned in further.

Reigen pulled the artifacts out one at a time. A grim smiling statue, carved of jade, which Reigen treated as a medium during séances. A bottle of shredded tea leaves, whose label was toxically yellow, whose instructions were hand-written and smudged beyond legibility. Candles of every size, width, color—some half-burned—filled with aromatic oils, which Reigen used during his “exorcisms”. A set of newton balls with no special significance, but Reigen used to clack them together when he got bored.

The thing he pulled out next was a framed poster of his own face, stern, with a speech bubble advertising his agency, and Reigen almost burst out laughing.

Mob picked up the jade statue. He ran his hands along its smooth and cold face, seemingly fascinated. “Did you use this for your exorcism work?”

Reigen sat up a little taller. “Yep. For séances. That statue there has a very powerful energy for channeling spirits.”

Mob nodded. “A very powerful energy, it’s really dark and unsettling. It’s a curse probably.” He put it back down, and his eyes rose to Reigen with fascination. “But you’re powerful enough to use it without getting cursed. That’s amazing, Reigen.”

Reigen coughed. He pushed the jade statue a little further away with his foot. “Yes.”

“Did you use these to exorcise the spirit out of that washing machine?”

“You got it.” Reigen gestured to the haphazardly grouped candles. “In fact, I invented my own class of exorcism. If you burn the right soothingly-scented candles, and hit all the correct pressure points on the human body, you can exorcise any spirit. I exorcised hundreds—no thousands, yes thousands, of evil spirits back in my heyday, using this method alone.”

Reigen struck a corny smile. It was utter bullshit. He’d learned massage therapy in his free time. Most of his success stories were just simple-minded clients who thought the crick in their neck was an evil spirit’s doing.

Mob grabbed a few of the candles, turning them over in his hands. He sniffed them. “I don’t feel any aura on them.”

“Of course. My power—which is incredibly powerful—is what I’d infuse into the candles. The spirits never stood a chance.”

Mob clutched the candles close to his chest. “…Incredible.” He hunched in a little. “And you…you could do all this and keep your barrier under control…?”

“Mob, I could perform exorcisms, control my barrier, and juggle three of these candles without breaking a sweat. Once you learn how, it’s that easy.”

“Do you think I can learn how?”

“With me teaching you, I bet you could do all that and juggle four candles. I tried learning four before I shut down Spirits and Such but I never really got it.”

“Can I ask…”

“Wanna see me do the three candle juggling thing?”

“…why did you shut down Spirits and Such…?”

“It’s been a long time but I once went 35 minutes before I dropped them—oh, um.”

“I know you said it’s because you made bad spirit enemies, and they wanted to hurt your friends, but…how, exactly?

Reigen went a bit tense. His jaw tightened, and he slumped just a little, remembering that was the lie he’d peddled to Mob the very first night. Some big grandiose thing…some big hero who’d sacrificed his life’s work for the safety of his loved ones…as if he even had any.

“That…wasn’t the whole truth Mob, actually.” Reigen rubbed his shoulders a bit, still achy from hauling out the garbage. “I told you I was super powerful and I quit because the spirits targeted my family but uh… Well the spirits didn’t target anyone. Just me.” Reigen tilted his chin, brandishing his right cheek to Mob. He pointed to the lengthy scar across his cheek bone. “I met a spirit who was a little too powerful, and it was a close call. So I shut down the agency to do something safer.”

“…What are you now?”

“A private investigator.”

“Do you like it?”

“…No.”

Reigen ran his thumb along the candle nearest him. Rain still pelted outside, a shivering chorus, as a last bit of water dripped from his hairline and curved along his scarred cheek. He lifted the candle and sniffed it, and the smell dragged him to a time when he’d been just a bit happier than he was now.

“I uh…I definitely liked being an exorcist more, ya know? More rewarding to um…free people of their spiritual burdens, than to like, catch their husband cheating in the back of some minivan with the PTA president.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“Never mind. I mean um…” Reigen set the candle down, pushing them into a neat circle, a garden of varying shapes and colors and smells. “My last case actually involved some evil spirit, did you know? The knife fight thing. I was maybe…a little out of shape for it but…in some ways it was better than the others. I forgot what it was like to actually help people.”

Reigen glanced to Mob, who was cleaner, calmer, healthier than the thing which had collided with him on the street not even a week ago. He’d forgotten.

“Say, Mob, you’re psychic. You know, um…” Reigen formed an L-shape with his right hand and positioned the crook of it beneath his chin, framing his face, “the world’s best psychic could use the world’s best side-kick. I mean you’re already my student, apprentice, um charge? I don’t know what you are exactly but it’s one of those. …If I ever did go back, maybe you could work alongside me?”

Reigen looked up. Mob’s face was paler.

“My psychic powers are dangerous, Reigen. I can’t use them to help you.”

Reigen held his breath a moment, and then let it out. He gathered up his candles in his arms and stood. He could scatter them in the living room and kitchen, keep them lit, overcome the smell of ash and rot with that of flowers and spices.

“They won’t be dangerous forever, Mob. One day you’ll know this for a fact. And I mean um…when you’re back home with your family, safe and sound, you could come work for me, right? If you want.”

Reigen’s voice died out just a bit. Something unsettling sat in his chest at the offer, and he was reminded of the main reason he’d grown so despondent in his old job. He’d founded it all on a lie. And if nothing else, Reigen was good at lying.

“I could help people with my powers…?”

“Yes.”

But he’d based all of who he was on that lie. Every interaction felt plastic. Every conversation a sham. And it made his chest tighten just a bit to realize he’d done the same to Mob. Arataka Reigen hadn’t taken Mob in. The “21st Century’s Greatest Psychic” had.

“I uh…I’d like that,” Mob answered.

Reigen set the candles down on the table. He turned and smiled. For now, the lie was all he could offer. So he pushed the feeling down, way far down until he was almost standing on it. The lie was important for now. That lie was all that was helping Mob right now.

Mob paused at the door of his room. “You left the laundry basket in here.”

“Right. Right right right right, laundry first.”

Right.

Laundry first.

These streets were still part of Ritsu’s home town, and yet they felt alien. They sat away from home, in the wrong direction, and so Ritsu never crossed through them. As he walked, the wet grass grew thinner, replaced with concrete curbs along tall, blunt office buildings. Shadows fell across in diagonal slants, cut sharp along the edges of buildings structured like blocks, arranged rank and file into pristine rows, columns. Ritsu kept forward, consumed in and out of alleyways that sat like canyons between the monoliths. These alleys held water. Rain poured down from the sky. Stagnant, humid air swelled, kicked up by the churning water. Dumpsters stewed and dripped.

Ritsu’s barrier churned along with the air. Swirls of fluid violet rippled outward with each raindrop plick, like the surface of a lake, viewed from beneath. It was an umbrella that stained the whole world purple, and the taint made Ritsu feel almost as though he weren’t truly a part of it all, as if he’d become just an observer.

“Quick question—do you actually know where you’re going Kageyama, or are we just hitting up every dumpster in the financial district until you find one where you belong?”

Ritsu stopped mid step. Anger flashed hot through his ribcage, so he resisted answering immediately. He took a deep breath, and forced his face to be something almost pleasant as he turned around. Teru stood behind him, his own swirling shimmering yellow barrier enveloping him. The color was murky, mudlike, through Ritsu’s own violet filter. Teru had been the one to drag up his own barrier first to keep out the rain, and Ritsu, partially damp already, had followed suit.

Teru had been quietly following Ritsu’s lead the whole way, perhaps subjected to the same eerie feeling of separate-ness that Ritsu felt with his own barrier. Ritsu was impressed, almost, that Teru had waited this long to say something snide.

“I’m following Gimcrack’s lead, Hanazawa. He’s the one who found the place. Ask him.” Ritsu motioned over his shoulder, and he watched Teru’s eyes settling ahead of him. Ritsu turned as well. Gimcrack floated just ahead of them, three red eyes blinking, black tail flickering in agitation around his amorphous body. The rain drops passed cleanly through him.

“We’re five minutes away, which I know, because I know where I’m leading us. What reason would I have to give you two the run-around?” Gimcrack’s three eyes thinned, his aura beating down with just a bit more severity.

“In case I’ve been too subtle about this, I don’t trust you,” Teru answered. His demeanor had changed entirely from this morning. It had become something stern, authoritative, dour… The mess of blond hair framing his face cast it in shadows, his half-shaded icy eyes piercing. Teru crossed his arms, and the striped green tie crinkled against his chest.

“We’d’ve all been there a lot faster if we weren’t held up by your stumpy little human legs you know, you brat. Us spirits can zip around wherever, and through walls to boot so, you two are the reason we gotta thread through these dumpy alleys. And hey I don’t like your attitude either kid.”

Teru’s icy eyes shot left, then right, staring directly through Ritsu. “Speaking of garbage, what are these two doing following us?”

Teru had motioned to the two smaller, wispier spirits flanking Gimcrack on either side.

“I brought them, Hanazawa,” Ritsu answered. “They’re back up, Gimcrack too.”

“I don’t like this kid calling us garbage,” Gimcrack rebutted.

“You don’t bring mercenaries to your own fight, Kageyama. They’ll leave you for dead if it means saving their own hides.”

“I’m paying them extra,” Ritsu said.

“I’m paying them extra,” Teru mocked.

“Stop.” Ritsu sent Teru a look that he hoped was withering, and then he turned to Gimcrack and the two other spirits. “I mean I’m paying them extra. They’re part of my horde. I’ll use them how I like.”

Gimcrack gave an enthusiastic nod. His slit red eyes grew wide and friendly once more. “See this is why I like you Kageyama! Not a constant stick-in-the-mud like that good ol’ asshole pal of yours over there.” Gimcrack spread his arms wide, as if to motion around him. “Besides these two spirits are good friends of mine—best friends, absolute best friends I daresay—the best and most trustworthy of the bunch. We go way back I’d trust ‘em with my life, Slipshod and Muckruck.”

“Makeshift,” said the one on the left.

“Yeah that’s what I said,” Gimcrack answered.

The one on the right, Slipshod, drifted forward. Its body was a sickly orange, its eyes flattened and wide with thin cat-like pupils. Its aura was something dense, citrusy, overwhelming, like fruit left to rot under the sun.

Teru held his hand up before the spirit could speak. “No, don’t bother, I already know you Slipshod. You were part of my horde before you ran off to take advantage of Kageyama’s idiocy. You’re a thick-skulled simpleton and not worth scraping off the bottom of my shoe. I don’t care what you’re doing here.” Teru motioned sharply to Makeshift. “I want an explanation out of this one.”

“Explanation?” Makeshift asked, monotone and drab. This one was dull in color, desaturated navy, and textured in wrinkles that obscured its old eyes.

“Slipshod’s a moronic bruiser. Gimcrack’s a slimy opportunist. You, I don’t know. What’s your deal? Why did you offer to come?”

Makeshift floated. It raised one arm slowly, shakily, and it reminded Ritsu overwhelmingly of an old man too frail and brittle to move. Makeshift waved off Teru’s concern.

“I want payment,” Makeshift answered.

Teru held eye contact with it for several seconds, silence beating down on them. Teru broke it off with a tch noise through his teeth. He stalked forward, passing Ritsu and the three spirits.

“Whatever. Kageyama, you and I are the only reliable things going into this fight. These three are baggage.”

“Yeah? Wanna say that to my face, kiddo?” Slipshod snarled back.

“Slipshod, speak to me again and I will exorcise you so hard that your corpse will crumble into ash in whatever shallow sewage-filled ditch they buried you in.”

A beat followed. Slipshod stared back, and its eyes narrowed, and it pouted.

“…Yeah um well, fuck you too.”

The next few minutes passed in silence, though Ritsu’s heart rate didn’t settle. He despised Teru’s flippant smug attitude with every fiber of his being, but this was different all together. He was left unnerved witnessing Teru’s severity directed elsewhere, past him, as though Ritsu didn’t exist. It made him appraise his own spirits with an extra jolt and anxiety, uncertain and fearful of what made Teru so despise them.

“Okay, stop. Stop stop we’re here. This, here, this one right here. This building. Yeah, blue sign in front.”

Ritsu stopped short, losing his balance for a moment as he was pulled from his thoughts. A tall tapering building stood before them, wider at the base then thinning and beveling in blockish cuts as it rose, so that the area of each floor varied. The design was modern, appealing, definitely expensive. Ritsu shivered.

“There’s something with a psychic aura stewing in back of the twelfth floor,” Gimcrack said. “Could be some spirit camping out, …could be your brother. And man I tell ya, I’m praying for you that it is your brother. Breaks my heart knowing you’ve been without him so long. And I’m doing my best to help you out. We’re pals after all.” Gimcrack paused. “But, of course there’s still a fee for this. Can’t be going hungry over here now can we?”

Ritsu wasn’t listening. His heart was in his throat. The world remained hazy and distant through the lens of his barrier, and so his thoughts went elsewhere. They focused on what thing might be awaiting them in the office building. He knew it could just be a spirit, but it could also be Mob, there, just a few hundred feet away. Just a few miles away all this time. …And Shishou with him. Ritsu stepped forward, toward the building, and—

Hey,”

A shattering noise assaulted his left ear. Something powerful gripped Ritsu’s arm and yanked him back. Ritsu startled. Rain hit his face. He stumbled, drawn back into reality.

Idiot.”

A car whizzed past, horn blaring, wind gushing past Ritsu’s face.

Ritsu turned, dumbly staring at his gripped arm on instinct. His barrier had been forcefully shattered. Ritsu looked up. Teru had dropped his own barrier as well, rain slipping down his face in rivulets, blond hair growing slick.

Teru released him, and drew his barrier back up. Ritsu’s arm stung.

“You can’t walk into traffic, okay? God. Really? Are you this—is this just how you function, Kageyama? I’m going to be carrying this whole mission huh. Wonderful. Incredible. A real power duo we’ll be, you fucking up and me fixing it.”

“Sorry,” Ritsu muttered… He breathed deep. A trickle of fear ran down his spine. He needed to stay aware. It scared him how quickly his guard dropped.

Teru pointed to the crosswalk twenty feet to their left. “Come on.”

They crossed, and it was Teru who made it to the front door first, testing the handle which opened effortlessly under his grasp. He dropped his barrier. Ritsu didn’t bother—he’d never resummoned his. He simply followed Teru inside, feet padding along slick marble tile, which was royal blue and speckled with white. Tall glossy walls rose on either side of them. A lobby of elevators sat deep in the building, ahead of them, a security desk blocking the way.

Sweat trickled down Ritsu’s neck along with the rain water. He glanced behind him to the three spirits, and had to remind himself that they remained invisible to everyone except him and Teru.

“There’s a security desk,” Ritsu said.

“Yes, there is,” Teru answered.

Ritsu watched a little longer. A man in a deep gray business suit shouldered past them, shaking out an umbrella as he closed it, offering a gruff apology. He carried a briefcase in the other hand, and lanyard coiled around the wrist. A badge of sorts dangled off the end of it. He paused by the security desk, scanned his badge, and after a nod from the guard he carried through.

“We don’t have a badge like that,” Ritsu said. He turned to Teru. “How do we get through?”

Teru glanced at him side-long, and flashed an enthusiastic smile that turned Ritsu’s blood to ice.

“Oh, I’ve got an idea.” He motioned quickly to Ritsu. “Is this the shoulder I dislocated last time?”

“Yes,” Ritsu answered, immediately on edge.

“Well, hold yourself together a little better this time.”

“What are—“

Ritsu’s question was cut off in a gasping exhale. His whole body was torn forward by the arm, wind knocked thoroughly out of his lungs, balance and direction scrambled as he was overwhelmed by the sensation of force like an iron fist ripping through his body.

And then he slammed to a halt.

He braced his hands against his knees and wheezed. The world spun aggressively around him, nauseatingly, and Ritsu forced his eyes to focus on the elevator in front of him to regain his sense of orientation.

Elevator?

Ritsu glanced over his shoulder. The security desk now sat, inexplicably, 30 feet behind them.

“You still haven’t figured out super-speed, Kageyama?”

Ritsu stood straighter, legs still quivering. He set a hand to his hair in investigation, blown back and frazzled. He stared daggers at Teru.

Teru had zipped him straight through.

“Don’t….do that!!”

“Oh? Why, would you rather we chatted up security?”

I could have made Gimcrack possess the guard.” Ritsu gestured loosely and aggressively to the desk behind them. “If you’d given me two more seconds I would have thought of that.”

“That definitely wouldn’t have been as fun.”

Ritsu opened his mouth and then thought better of it. He braced his hand against the wall, huffing still, staring Teru down and drawing out the seconds until the room stopped spinning.

“I’d beat the hell out of you right now if you weren’t helping me find my brother, you know.”

Teru flicked Ritsu’s nose and pressed the elevator button. “Like you even could.”

Ritsu didn’t respond. He waited for the elevator to ping, and its doors to open, before stiffly getting in it. He pressed the 12 button before Teru had the chance.

The inside of the elevator was marble as well, its tiles streaked with glossy veins of blue and black. The doors were reflective, metallic. A neon red counter near the top right ticked up as the floors rose. The elevator ceiling was a polished mirror. Ritsu could see the budding of dark roots at the very top of Teru’s head in the reflection. Gimcrack, Slipshod, and Makeshift were not reflected.

The elevator pinged again. The doors opened. Teru stepped out.

“Wait!” Ritsu watched Teru advance with a flash of anxiety. Ritsu looked around and stepped out of the elevator too before the doors shut on him. “Wait, we don’t have a strategy yet.”

Teru shrugged his shoulders, a light smile back on his face. “I prefer doing things free-form. More room for creativity.” He motioned for Ritsu to follow. Ritsu’s heart rate quickened.

The elevator lobby led to a short hallway, and the hallway led to a wide open office space filled with cubicles. They were arranged in rows, and separate offices for more important people beaded along the walls, each separated with transparent glass. The spot that Ritsu and Teru stood was visible to near-everyone. A few sets of eyes looked up, men and women well-dressed in fitted suits, who locked eyes with Ritsu.

Ritsu backed up one step.

“They know we don’t belong here,” Ritsu said.

Teru cuffed him on the shoulder. “Come on. So long as we act like we belong here, no one will confront us. And by ‘we’ I mean ‘you’ because I, personally, am already doing a flawless job of that.” Teru kept moving, so Ritsu jogged after him. “They’ll just think we’re someone’s kids. Breathe, Kageyama.”

Ritsu breathed. Gimcrack floated ahead of them, and he motioned to the far right corner of the room. Ritsu understood it silently. He and Teru threaded through the rows, and Ritsu kept his eyes trained on the back-right. He felt eyes following him with every step, workers watching him pass silently. His hand trembled just slightly without his notice.

Teru made it to the back corner first. He looked around, and glanced over his shoulder to Gimcrack. Gimcrack shrugged. “It’s back here somewhere.”

“I could’ve told you that, numbskull,” Teru answered. Ritsu shushed him on impulse. The man in the closest desk turned in his chair, pudgy cheeks half-obscuring his watery eyes, which settled on Teru in confusion.

Teru flashed a smile to Ritsu. “What? Did you think this whole thing was going to be carried out in secret? What’s that saying about omelets and cracking eggs?”

Teru sauntered forward, bright eyes set to the man who’d noticed his presence. His smile curled mischievously. “Hey, Mister,” Teru raised his leg, the sole of his foot slamming against the back of the man’s chair, right next to the man’s left shoulder. The man let out a startled noise. Teru leaned in. “Do you know anything about an evil spirit that might be living in your office? Or perhaps, a kidnapped little esper boy stashed beneath your desk?”

“Uh…I um, uh, what? Kid you, um, your foot, please uh--?” The man’s head twisted left and right. He reeled back in his chair. Heads had turned. Coworkers were watching. “W-who are you? What spirits? Please, your foot—“

Teru nodded. He pulled his foot back, and kept it hovering in the air. The man eased a bit, and exhaled.

“Let’s try it this way,” Teru said, and he shoved his foot full-force into the man’s chest. The man wheezed. Teru pressed his hand against the man’s forehead, and it gleamed suddenly with a yellow light.

“Stop!” Ritsu yelled, a shaking hand reaching out uselessly. Teru turned, and Ritsu’s eyes shot back and forth between Teru’s pupils.

“What, Kageyama? This man could very well be ‘Shishou’, and failing that, he might be possessed. We know there’s something here, and it’s something that could probably kill us if it feels like it. So we’re making our move first.”

Teru applied more pressure to his foot. The man wheezed, and the gleam around his head brightened. Then it died off all together.

“Not possessed,” Teru concluded.

Ritsu backed up fully into the corner. His heart pounded, his stomach flipped. Four—no five of the workers had gotten up from their chairs. They were approaching him, saying things, faces twisted in anger or confusion. Ritsu couldn’t hear their words—his heart beat too loudly in his ears.

Teru surveyed the group with seeming disinterest. He turned then to Ritsu, dull eyes going bright, “Oh, speak of the devil. Kageyama, duck.”

Ritsu jolted. Then he ducked. And he heard a noise like a guillotine slicing through the air above him. Ritsu stumbled forward and spun, gasping, wide panicked eyes set to the form of a ghost only a fraction of an inch above where Ritsu had been standing. It was scarcely human. Its eyes were reduced to cold dark slits, its gaping maw enormous, filled with jagged teeth. Its white hair had grown out ragged, framing its marred face. Its body was dressed in wispy tatters.

Ritsu couldn’t breathe. He threw his eyes back to the adults, still closing in, still looking at him. Why weren’t they reacting to the ghost? Could they not see it?

“Oh this is fun!” Teru announced with a hoot. He summoned pools of yellow energy to his palms, his fingers flexed and tensed. His hair rose around him as his aura bloomed, hot and violent, like smoke filling the air.

Teru fired off a slice of energy. The spirit crouched, letting off a shriek inhumanly loud as it dove forward. Ritsu curled and covered his head. When he opened his eyes, looking through the slats in his fingers, the spirit had settled atop a cubicle partition halfway across the room.

“Kageyama, watch my back a moment will you? I’m gonna obliterate that thing.”

Teru crouched, then sprung. He landed on top of the pudgy man’s desk, who let out a startled shout as Teru then hurdled over the cubicle partition, onto a coworker’s desk, and leapt off of that. Ritsu scrambled to his feet. Three adults blocked his path now. Two had stopped to comfort the startled man.

“Kid you can’t be here. If you don’t leave we’re gonna have to call security on you.”

Ritsu blinked. His eyes settled on Teru in the distance, firing off a lasso to catch the spirit.

“Akagi, I already called security.”

“Oh.”

Ritsu bolted. He shoved past the adults in his path and wove around the desks. Ritsu grabbed Teru by the shoulder, now in the center of the office with dozens more workers watching them. Teru lost his focus on the spirit and glanced to Ritsu, agitated.

“Hanazawa we have to leave. It is just a spirit it’s not my brother! They called security! We have to leave we have to leave!”

“And not clean up these poor hard-working people’s little spirit problem? That’s pretty selfish.”

“You just wanna play target practice.”

“Yeah that’s true. I’ve been dreadfully bored.”

“We’re going.

A pressure settled on Ritsu’s shoulder. He twisted, eyes wild and frazzled, and found himself face-to-face with a woman in her twenties, hair pulled back in a braid, dressed in a sleek dull suit. She pulled back just a bit at the look on Ritsu’s face, but her eyes and expression remained gentle.

“What are you boys doing here?” she asked, and it wasn’t an accusation. “You seem scared. Can I help you?”

Ritsu glanced to the side. Her other arm rested on Teru’s shoulder. Teru wasn’t paying attention. His eyes trailed along the ceiling, where the spirit swooped, gnashing its teeth, taking bites at the other workers’ heads and just barely missing each time.

Teru’s eyes, still tracking the spirit, came back down, until—almost politely—he was looking at the woman.

“I don’t think you can help us, but,” Teru’s eyes ticked up. “Watch out.”

The spirit dove now, like a missile, and passed through the woman as though she were water. Her grip on Ritsu’s shoulder tightened, suddenly sharp and inescapable. She buckled forward, and her eyes squeezed shut. When she opened them again, they’d swamped to black.

Ritsu’s mouth had gone dry. Teru let out a disappointed sound. “Hmm, it’s not really target practice once it takes over a body. Now it’s just…easy.” Teru slipped out of the monster’s grip, brushing his shoulder. “You know, Kageyama, this is probably good practice for you. And I don’t feel like wasting my energy on an exorcism that presents no challenge.” He motioned over his shoulder. “Security’s gonna be here soon, so I’ve heard. I’ll guard the door. You exorcise the spirit.”

Hanazawa,” Ritsu shouted, but Teru acted as though he hadn’t heard. Teru stepped a bit closer to the door, angling his body sideways so that he could watch the entrance or Ritsu depending on which direction he looked. He turned to Ritsu, offered a wide smile, and gave Ritsu a thumbs up.

Ritsu didn’t linger on Teru. His head snapped around, and he found the woman’s black eyes less than an inch from his.

She breathed out, swamping his face with an odor foul, like something dead.

Ritsu jerked back. He pulled and twisted, desperate and violent, until he got his shoulder free. Something acid-like had burned through his uniform, down to the skin, nail marks dragged through broken flesh.

He stumbled a few feet back, breath heaving through his lungs. The other workers had formed a circle, but they kept their distance, sensing something was truly amiss now. The possessed woman tilted her head, a full 90 degrees cocked, black eyes forcing a contact that Ritsu was unable to break, and she reached forward.

“No!” Ritsu shouted. He could feel the aura leaking off the spirit, tainted in bloodlust. He could feel its intention of tearing into him, harvesting him like the food he was.

“Any day now, Kageyama,” Teru chided.

“Help me!”

“With what? Just exorcise it.”

Help me!”

“Listen, this is above my pay grade.”

Hel—fuck, fuck fuck fuck fuck,” Ritsu peddled back once more. The hand of the woman swatted out, bony, claw-like. Ritsu breathed. He swallowed. His eyes were still trapped in the black pits that swamped her own eyes, but Ritsu collected a ball of energy—hot and violent—in his palms.

It swirled harder, faster, glowing brighter as Ritsu poured his energy into it like a flood. He raised his shaking arm, braced his left hand against his right elbow, and aimed the mass of energy at the puppet-strung woman approaching.

His whole body trembled. His thoughts had drowned under panic. He pumped an extra dose of energy into the swirling mass of his palm, white hot, powerful enough to almost burn him. And he prepared to unleash it.

No!”

Ritsu released his attack, but not before he was slammed from behind. Something grabbed him by the waist and smashed him into the floor, where his head collided and stars exploded in his vision and the wind knocked clean out of Ritsu’s lungs. His attack fired through the window, a melodious explosion of glass shivering through the air. Ritsu gasped, eyes flying open wide, staring up into the ceiling.

The ceiling light was obscured, blocked by the looming shadow-drenched face of Teruki Hanazawa, twisted into a livid, violent snarl. Teru straddled Ritsu, holding Ritsu down by the wrists with a force tight enough to strangle the circulation from his hands.

Ritsu’s eyes trembled. His whole body suffocated under an all-consuming terror.

Teru’s tie dangled forward, and trailed along Ritsu’s face.

“Idiot! Idiot! Fucking idiot! You’d kill her! You’d kill her! You’d kill her you idiot, fucking idiot! You’d fucking kill her!” Teru spat, and it was with a rage Ritsu hadn’t experienced before.

Ritsu’s body trembled beyond his control. Tears welled in the corner of his eyes. His mouth twisted weakly to form the words I'm sorry

Teru’s head snapped to the side, and in that instant he yanked up his gossamer yellow barrier around them. Some force, violent and dense, smashed through it. The woman pushed forward, arms hanging loose and shoulders wobbling as she ran.

Teru rolled off Ritsu and fired off a quick, weak shot that the woman ducked effortlessly.

“Shit. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck,” Teru muttered. He sprung to his feet and launched forward, grabbing the woman by the wrists and shoving back against her. Her teeth snapped at his throat, grazing it enough to draw forth beads of blood. Teru flinched back and sent out a psychic pulse that knocked her back. “Fuck, fuck fuck fuck. Gimcrack! Slipshod! Makeshift!” he shouted.

The spirit surfaced from the woman’s mouth, and burst forward. Teru shot at it, but it dodged above him, spinning as it went over Teru’s head. It used its nails to slice Teru’s back. Ritsu saw a tear open up along the back of Teru’s uniform, quickly shining red.

Teru spun and fired off another shot. He missed.

“God dammit. God dammit. This is why you don’t trust spirits, Kageyama! Leave you for dead!

The coworkers streamed now for the door, kicked into action by the brawl happening dead center. Shrieks and cries broke through Ritsu’s terror, and he glanced sidelong to the door, where the twenty-something people flooded against it.

The spirit quirked its head to them, interest shifting, and dove headlong for them.

Teru shot one arm forward, left eye shutting as he aimed, mess of disheveled hair half obscuring his face as he swallowed, and fired.

A spear of yellow energy, like an arrow, whizzed through the air. It struck the spirit in the chest, who howled, then writhed, then bubbled.

Its skin burst, boils rupturing a spiritual goo that disintegrated on contact with the air. The writhing dragged to a halt as the spirit’s body broke down, dissolving, falling like ash, its keening shriek dying to nothing as its pieces vanished before they even reached the floor.

Ritsu remained on the ground, helpless, useless. He turned to Teru, who rubbed away the blood along his neck and stepped to the unpossessed woman’s side. She was slumped, and shivering.

Teru took her by the shoulders and lifted her just slightly. He eased her until her back leaned against the back of the divider of the nearest cubicle.

“…Can you stand?” he asked.

The woman answered with something Ritsu could not hear. Ritsu watched, and Teru turned to face him. Ritsu braced himself. He expected a snide comment, something condescending and infantilizing, something cruel.

Teru said nothing. He only stared on with an intensity in his eyes that Ritsu could not understand. And then he turned away.

Chapter Text

Stress tensed every muscle in Ritsu’s body.

He leaned forward, left hand braced against the side of his desk. His right hand worried the pencil in its grip, flipping between eraser and tip as his notes became agitated scrawls. He erased, again and again, until shavings littered his desk, and lead ground into his paper, and he fell behind.

The teacher stood at the board. Fraction problems appeared. The answers rolled out next to them.

They did not match Ritsu’s answers.

Ritsu looked at his own paper, not one single problem correct. He reworked them until he could no longer read them. The meaning of numbers and symbols escaped him. And then the teacher moved on, unaware, assuming the class had understood what Ritsu could not grasp. Maybe they had. A small and stifled panic bloomed in Ritsu’s chest, so Ritsu flipped the page and braced his pencil to the blank lines and tried again this time to follow.

He never struggled in class. Why now? Why this topic specifically…?

“Ritsu…? I don’t get it. Can you help me?”

Ritsu didn’t turn, at first. He didn’t look. He’d gotten into the habit of wearing his hair messy, bangs over his eyes, because it had helped obscure the discoloration of his bruised face and the nick of cartilage from his ear. He wore his hair like that now so that he didn’t have to look.

“Ritsu…? Please can you help me?”

He fought. Ritsu fought. He couldn’t turn and face the voice.

“Please…don’t ignore me Ritsu. I need your help.”

A small hand wrapped to Ritsu’s shoulder, and he flinched, and he turned. He made eye contact with Mob, ten years old, seated beside him, leaning toward him, wearing the uniform that had vanished with him that day.

“I’m trying, Niisan,” Ritsu answered. He wrote, but nothing appeared on his page. He couldn’t understand it, couldn’t explain it. He was useless, helpless, worthless.

Mob’s hand left Ritsu’s shoulder.

“You’re not trying very hard…”

“I don’t know why I can’t solve these problems. I’m trying. I’ll help you soon,” Ritsu promised. He spoke in a hush, guilt quieting his words, but when he glanced around every pair of eyes had settled on him. They watched him, curious, enraptured by the strange sight of Ritsu Kageyama failing.

Mob’s chair screeched, and no one reacted—not the teacher, not the students. Their eyes stayed on Ritsu.

Mob approached Ritsu, his eyes wide and scared, and he reached for Ritsu’s pencil. His small fingers wrapped around its hilt, stilling Ritsu’s fervent writing. Ritsu could only stare at his notes, or his brother’s scared face. It was no longer a choice. Ritsu’s eyes were forced to Mob’s.

“No, Ritsu, not the math problems. I don’t need help with those. It’s too late for that. That was years ago, and it’s too late for that. You’re too late.” Mob’s small hand skimmed down the pencil, settling on Ritsu’s hand. Mob loosed Ritsu’s grip, prying finger by finger. The pencil dropped without a sound. “Why aren’t you helping me now?”

Then the pencil rolled off the desk. Lost.

“I’m trying, Niisan.” Ritsu watched his hand, now entangled with Mob’s. Mob’s fingers curled around Ritsu’s thumb—and they were small enough to wrap around it. “Hanazawa, and the spirits. I’m lying to Mom and Dad. I’m doing everything.”

Mob lifted Ritsu’s hand. He pressed Ritsu’s palm to his chest. The uniform felt cold. Ritsu felt no heartbeat.

“Don’t you miss me?” Mob asked.

Ritsu said nothing. Eyes from every side burned in him. Classmates leaned closer. The teacher had stopped to listen, to watch. They could see it, couldn’t they…? The violet smoke bleeding from Ritsu’s wrist? The one Mob had pressed to his chest.

“More than anything,” Ritsu answered. “That’s why I’m trying to get you back. I’m trying everything.”

“Why aren’t you trying harder…?” Mob stepped back, so that Ritsu’s palm separated from his chest. Mob now held Ritsu’s hand by two of Ritsu’s fingers—thumb and ring. Mob’s hand skimmed to Ritsu’s wrist and cupped it, stifling the smoky flow, absorbing it. “You’ve got so much more energy you can give. Why are you holding back…? You’ve got all this energy you can use to find me.”

“I…can’t,” Ritsu answered, and he swallowed. That was a lie. He could give more. But he was scared of it already, scared of the way the spirits fed off of him. The way their jaws clamped and tore, stripping energy like flesh from a carcass. Ritsu could feel it every time, the part of him torn out and consumed, its roots ripped from places inside himself that felt wrong to touch.

Mob tugged harder on Ritsu’s arm. “Please, I don’t have a lot of time left. Shishou won’t keep me alive much longer.”

Ritsu’s heart skipped, and his brow creased, and he looked to Mob. “…What?”

“I’m running out of time. I’m so tired, Ritsu. It hurts so much…” Mob stepped closer. He released Ritsu’s hand, and then held his own arms out. Mob wrapped them around Ritsu’s waist, holding him close, pressing his cheek to the soft fabric of Ritsu’s uniform. “Then I’ll never be found. I don’t want to be lost forever. Please, Ritsu, you have to feed them more.”

Ritsu shut his eyes and reeled back. He couldn’t explain it, but something about Mob’s contact felt corrupt. It felt invasive, probing. All the hollow parts inside him that ached with the spirit feedings flared up.

When Ritsu opened his eyes again, Mob had changed. The 10 year old was replaced with someone taller, his eyes and face more like Ritsu’s now. But his cheeks were hollow, skin pale, eyes faintly red. The bowl cut remained, above an older face, sick and tormented.

“How long do you expect me to wait…? How long do you think I can survive in this condition? Will it be another four years, Ritsu…?” Mob, 14 now, asked. “Why are you choosing now to be selfish?”

“What can I do…? What can I do…?”

“Search harder, Ritsu. The spirits can still find me. You have to give them more. You have to.”

Ritsu’s eyes shot between Mob’s pupils. He did not answer.

“You’re scared, Ritsu, aren’t you…?” Mob’s pale face grew darker, stern and serious once more. “You’re scared that feeding the spirits more will hurt you. It won’t. Don’t listen to Hanazawa. He’s telling you lies. He’s afraid of losing his spirits, so he tells you not to use yours. It’s a trick to take your spirits back from you, Ritsu. He wants you to starve them out so they go back to him. He doesn’t care about having them find me.”

“I…But I…”

“Would you trust Hanazawa over me…?”

“No, Niisan—No, I—“

“Don’t you want me back…?”

“Yes…” Ritsu swallowed. The classroom had vanished. The two of them stood, surrounded by nothing, purple smoke filling the empty air as it flowed denser, harsher, from Ritsu’s wrists. “God, more than anything…”

“I’ve been locked in a basement, did you know that…? A moldy one, with rats, and roaches, and spiders. I can hardly breathe down there. You were right to not trust my Shishou. He’s powerful. More powerful than you can imagine. I won’t be easy to find. He won’t be easy to defeat. You have to try harder.”

Ritsu nodded. He shut his eyes and nodded harder, agreeing with all his being, driven by the consuming hollow aching fear of finding his brother just days, minutes, seconds too late.

Mob pulled him into a hug.

Ritsu hugged him back. He ignored the flaring wrong twisting ache inside him this time. It was worth it to hold his brother, just here, just once.

The dream did not end quite yet.

Ritsu remained asleep, curled in his sheets, eyes shut tight, forehead glistening and heart pounding.

He was curled except for his right arm, which hung outside the covers, flopped over the edge of the bed. His hand bent down, palm up, fingers curled, wrist exposed. It leaked a violet aura that cast his room in a soft glow, like a nightlight,

And then the soft aura vanished, swept up, eaten by the air.

This was another sensation Mob had nearly forgotten—the brush of warm sun on his skin.

It was gentle, like the touch of clean clothes, or Reigen’s hand on his shoulder, but it was not as solid as those two. The brush of sun was sensation without contact. Warmth without risk. He posed no threat to the sun, nor to the wind that swelled cool and dense around his exposed skin. Even the humidity in the air—sappy and stifling and coaxing beads of sweat along the nape of his neck—was not wholly unpleasant. All of it was a sort of touch that was safe. As Mob walked forward, he was almost at peace with the idea of never being able to touch anyone else at all.

Reigen’s hand dropped to Mob’s shoulder. “Hold up, Mob.”

And that. The sun, and wind, and humidity, and Reigen.

Mob stopped where he stood on the sidewalk, turning, squinting to see Reigen in front of the bright sun crowning them. Reigen held his phone close to his face, squinting too, though in concentration. He lowered it and stowed it in his pocket.

“Yeah it’s this way. It’s been a while since I walked this way. I think that tree is new.”

Reigen didn’t point to anything. Mob swiveled his head around, taking in ten or fifteen trees in sight.

“How do you usually get to the grocery store?”

“I drive. I mean, I’ve got a car now, got it when I shut down Spirits and Such. Mostly it’s for stake-outs but I use it for other stuff, like groceries and stuff. Beats walking. Especially when it’s hot, which is always.”

Mob surveyed Reigen, who now caught up to walk beside him. Sweat ran in slick tracks down Reigen’s face, dripping from his hairline, curving around his chin. The pits of his suit were stained darker, and his neckline had dampened considerably. Even the knot of his new white tie was wet.

“Aren’t you hot now?” Mob asked.

Reigen wiped his brow with his sleeve, and then his whole face. “Yeah, because it’s hot.”

“Oh, then why are we walking?”

Reigen stared forward, so Mob followed his line of sight. A winding cobblestone path lay ahead of them, fringed by grassy stretches of trees, bushes, benches. Silhouettes of leaves speckled them with shade, swayed by the cool breaths of wind. Unseen, a bird trilled in song.

“Just…switching things up for today,” Reigen answered. “My lungs are terrible and I don’t exercise so it’s a um, it’s like a health thing. I could afford to get out more.” His eyes flickered then to Mob. “…You doing okay with this, kiddo?”

A young couple passed them in the opposite direction, holding hands, whispering into each others’ ears. When they passed, the girl’s free hand brushed against Mob’s. Mob’s fingers twitched, but he did not recoil. He did not panic. The barrier was down. Sun, wind, humidity, Reigen, and the girl’s hand. Things he could touch.

“Yeah, this is nice.”

Reigen nodded, and wiped aggressively at his face again, which gleamed with just as much sweat as before.

Reigen stopped suddenly. Mob did too, startled by the abruptness and the wide-eyed look on Reigen’s face. Mob traced his line of sight again. Approaching them on the path was a woman, dark hair up in a bun, long white skirt curling near her ankles. Her shoes were bright red, heeled, and with each clack of her feet came a few staccato trots from her right. Close to the pavement, rising hardly to the woman’s knee was a dog. Its fur was divided into patches of butterscotch and white, its ears pointed and rimmed with fur, its tail bushy and curled, its eyes black and squinted, tongue lolling. A red leash to match the woman’s shoes connected the dog’s collar to the woman’s hand.

“Wow he’s fluffy,” Reigen remarked, and he smiled as he said it. His eyes shot sidelong to Mob, trying to gauge Mob’s reaction.

Mob hung back, trepidation swamping his thoughts. He curled his hands a bit closer to his chest and held his breath, heartrate suddenly quickening. Beady eyes and furry body were—this thing was…it wasn’t a rat. Too large for a rat. And yet it. Four legs. Tail and pointed ears. Beady eyes. Mob hunched a bit further. He heard in his head the echoing squeak that rats made. He remembered, with a twitch of his hands, the cruel sensation of one being shorn in the barrier.

“It’s okay Mob,” Reigen whispered, crouching down a bit. “You can’t hurt it, it can’t hurt you. He’s just a friendly dog. Watch.” Reigen stayed low, and raised his voice. “What a cute dog, ma’am. Can I pet him?”

“Her,” the owner answered. “Her name’s Poppy.”

The owner stopped, and Poppy did too, and Reigen—still crouched—held a hand out for Poppy to sniff. Poppy craned her neck, and sniffed, and then licked Reigen’s palm. She continued to lick until Reigen raised his hand and scratched her behind her ear. Poppy squinted and leaned into it.

“Yeah I know, tastes salty right? What a good dog.” Poppy came closer, and Reigen cupped both his hands behind her ears, scratching. “You are so fluffy.”

Reigen tilted his head over his shoulder, gentle eyes to Mob. “See? It’s alright. We’re all good here.”

The owner crouched down too, large sunhat shading her eyes. She scratched Poppy’s butt, and then she spoke to Reigen. “Is he nervous around dogs?” she asked, tipping her head to Mob.

“Oh, a little. He um…was bit, when he was younger. But he’s been doing a good job working past that, right Mob…?” Reigen got down on his knees and angled himself, Poppy on his left, Mob on his right, the path between them open. Reigen gestured his head to the dog. “How about you come touch her back? She’s fluffy.”

Fluffy…

That was…a sensation Mob had forgotten in whole… The blankets in Shishou’s basement had been old, crusty, threadbare. Even the soft things around Reigen’s apartment—the clothes and the sheets and the blankets—they were only that: soft. Fluffy was…that had been something softer, right?

And rats. Rats were not fluffy.

Rats shredded, but…

Mob looked to Reigen, reading his face. It was inviting, and certain, and…maybe even excited. It didn’t reflect any of the anxiety brewing in Mob’s chest.

…but Poppy would not shred.

Mob took a step closer. And another, hands worrying together, held against his chest. He crouched in imitation of Reigen, and he held a clammy hand out to Poppy.

Poppy sniffed it, her snout wet and cold, a sensation that sent chills down Mob’s spine with its newness. Then she licked his palm, her tongue’s texture like nothing Mob could place. Rougher and wetter than skin, but warm, purposeful, alive. Mob lifted his hand, and he set it to Poppy’s head.

And she was fluffy.

Like a cross between the softness of blankets and the airy breath of wind. Warm under the sun, gentle, a touch that molded under his palm and cushioned it. It raised goosebumps along his skin, chills down his spine, and Mob remembered in that moment that sometimes, touch was incredible.

He leaned in closer, raised his other hand around the side of Poppy’s head and ran it in smooth strokes down her fur, sweeping across her back and trailing off until only his fingertips brushed her fur. He leaned, just a bit closer, and angled his head so that Poppy’s fur tickled his cheek. He stroked her back, and buried his cheek in the fluff, and felt the warm wet panting of breath against his neck.

Voices spoke. Reigen’s and the woman’s. Mob had stopped listening—in fact he all but couldn’t hear them. He was entranced in a small world, one of just soft fur and sunlight, and the sensation of fingers trailing through fluff, the pressure of being leaned back against by this thing—warm and fluffy and alive. Alive and not dead. Alive and not shredded. Alive and capable of leaning against him, looking for pets, looking for attention, twisting to lick at his face and nudge him when the pace of petting slowed.

“Mob, you about ready to go?”

Mob blinked, pulled back to reality. He looked up, just a fraction, to Reigen still crouched, one of his hands toying with Poppy’s ear. Slowly, Mob leaned away from Poppy, and let his arms separate from her, the ghost of contact still tingling along his skin.

“Yeah, I’m ready.”

A few more words passed between Reigen and the lady, but Mob didn’t bother catching these either. He only stood, and watched over his shoulder as Poppy trotted on, owner beside her. It was a silence that lasted until the woman was out of earshot.

“That’s a definite perk of having you with me, Mob. It’s usually hit or miss asking someone if I can pet their dog… think I’ve finally entered the stage of ‘creepy single guy alone’ that makes people not want to let me pet their dogs. I think she thought you were like, my uh, my um…”

“She was…really fluffy,” Mob remarked, hands still curling, still feeling, still tingling. There was a pressure behind his eyes, like tears, but it wasn’t sadness or fear that spurred it. It was a dense emotional swelling in his chest. A hope too large to contain completely inside him. To hug. To hold. Alive and not shredded. To hug his parents again, it felt possible. To hug Ritsu again, that was possible too, that was what he wanted, more than anything…

Reigen nodded, then nodded a little harder, then shoved his hand into his pocket, digging. “Yeah that’s what I was saying. Real fluffy. Come on, Mob.” Reigen spun on his heel, and kept along the path. Mob turned and jogged to catch up. Right. Reigen, the grocery store, the dog.

“Do you want a dog, Reigen?”

“Fluffy little thing like that? I’d love to have one.”

“…Why don’t you?”

“Who’d take care of it? The mold in the vegetable crisper?”

Mob didn’t answer at first. He glanced between Reigen and the road ahead, processing.

“I don’t get it, Reigen.”

“Never mind. I mean that like, I’m not home enough to take care of a dog. I’m usually gone most of the day, and I’m also usually gone most of the night depending on the case and that’s usually for a couple nights in a row at least, and that means there’s no one around at home who could take care of a dog.” Reigen glanced sideways to Mob, and some expression, almost pained, crossed his face. “…Usually.”

Reigen’s hand finally emerged from digging through his pocket, trailing a paper list. It appeared to be broken up into boxes, each displaying an item and a price, or sometimes an offer. Reigen held the list in both hands, top and bottom, and squinted at it.

“I might need glasses.”

“What are you looking at?”

“It’s coupons, for shopping. Like um, sometimes you can buy things for cheaper with them.” Reigen paused, and held a portion of the list right near his eye. “The date on these are real tiny. When do they expire. Is that—“ Reigen swung his arm around, brandishing the list in front of Mob who startled. “What do the numbers in the top right say? Just the first part.”

“Um… 10-slash-10.”

“Okay so they don’t expire until October 10th. That’s…hmm. That’s tomorrow. …Oh. Oh wait tomorrow’s the 10th?”

“Um, …yes?”

“Hmmm…” Reigen hummed the noise out, seemingly bothered, and then he glanced down the list, and said no more on the topic. His expression had hardened a bit, and with less energy, he stowed the list back in his pocket.

Silence filled the space between them once more as they walked, an air noticeably more bothered. Mob shot glances to Reigen, but he couldn’t read the expression on Reigen’s face. Something closed off, something lost in thought.

So Mob focused again on the things around them. The sidewalk cut to the right, then meandered, following deeper into patches of trees whose greens dipped to reds, oranges, yellows—like watercolors. A sparse few leaves, crisp and auburn, had fallen along the path. Some of them looked new, others ground up beneath shoes that had come before. Mob avoided them at first, then let his feet come down on just a few. He worked up the courage to step on them purposefully, a small pluck of joy at the sensation of each crunch beneath his feet.

The wind picked up, dampening the heat, carrying on it smells denser and sappier than before, mulchy and rich with plant decay. There was a sweetness to the wind, and cleanness, and in a moment that set a vice around Mob’s heart, he remembered the smell of walking to school early on fall mornings. Mulchy rich and wet, sweet and clean. Walking to school. Walking home. He’d liked to balance on the sidewalk’s edge.

The sidewalk. Mob traced its path ahead of them. It stretched toward a road, and then curved and ran alongside that road in parallel. Mob and Reigen followed its slope, until the trees and grass stretched only to their left. On their right, the road sat, empty of cars at the moment.

Mob paused, and his eyes settled on something that hitched his breath in his throat.

“…Mob?” Reigen stopped too, a few steps ahead of Mob, head tilted quizzically backward. “…You doing okay?”

“We… we shouldn’t go this way,” Mob answered, mouth dry. His eyes flitted ahead, 20 feet, shooting between bench and tree and road. And the grass—the spot beneath the particular branch, of this particular tree, its canopy draped above this particular bench. That branch was no longer there. It had been shorn off, pulped along with its dewy buds and newly sprouted leaves into a fibrous slick sap that had rained down. Back when there was still a trace of snow on the ground, a whiteness that had dyed spring green with the blended pulp of new buds and leaves, tainted with the watery browns of shredded tree bark, and red. Red. Red from the soft underbelly of a robin shorn—

“Mob!”

Reigen had doubled back, hands firm on Mob’s shoulders again. An anchor.

“Reigen…”

“Mob, what’s wrong? What’s going on?”

“Why did we come this way…?”

Reigen glanced over his shoulder, and then looked back to Mob, confusion painting his face. “The grocery store is that way.”

“Why are we walking this way…?”

“I…” Reigen’s brow furrowed in confusion. His eyes shot between Mob’s pupils. “As in, instead of driving…? It just… just because it’s nice weather for once. Just…to make today a little different, Mob.”

“…Today’s different,” Mob repeated, more breath than voice. He eased Reigen’s shoulders off, understanding with a cold flush down his spine. Today was different… And Mob knew what those words meant—they meant Mob had no say in the path taken. He could not double-back—not to the park, not to Reigen’s apartment, not to home… Today was different. Mob knew to brace himself this time.

Mob swallowed, and moved slowly ahead of Reigen, toward the bench. Toward the tree. Toward the grass. “Okay, Shishou…”

“….Mob? What’s wrong…?” The sound of a crunching leaf hit Mob’s ear, a tentative step forward from Reigen. “This is weird. You’re acting weird. I missed something just now. Clue me in. What’s wrong? I’m not--”

Mob stopped, in front of the tree, in front of the bench. He craned his neck up, eyes wide and glassy and pained, and traced the limbs of the tree. They grew outward, like roads on a map, giving rise to twigs like veins with leaves, healthy living green, tinged with oranges and yellows along their rim. They swayed and whispered with the breeze, nearly obscuring the empty pocket in the tree’s canopy. Mob found it though. Mob knew exactly where to look.

A single branch was snapped halfway along its length, the path ahead of it barren, criss-crossed only with the occasional leaf or twig dipping down from a neighboring branch. It created a dead space in the air where leaves ought to sway, where birds ought to land, where insects ought to crawl. Barren, instead. It was a tree damaged, mutilated in a spot hard to find. Allowed to live on without its missing arm, but it had stayed mangled, scarred, home no more to a robin that had once—

Reigen’s hand came down on Mob’s shoulder, by now a familiar weight. It startled Mob back, grounded him just long enough to breathe.

“What’s in the tree, Mob…?”

Mob blinked, but he did not avert his eyes, did not dare to look away.

“Nothing, anymore.”

Mob lifted his right arm, and he laid his hand on top of Reigen’s, on top of his shoulder. Some part of him felt selfish to be craving the reassurance of touch in this moment.

“Reigen, just don’t look down beneath it. …I don’t want you to see it…”

“See what…?”

Mob shook his head slowly. Shame closed his throat, tears building pressure behind his eyes. “I don’t want to tell you.”

“Mob…where are we…? What’s this tree…? You’re scaring me.”

“We’re… It’s somewhere between school and Shishou’s house…”

“Which way’s school school?”

Mob pointed to the right.

 “…Which way is Shishou’s house?”

Mob pointed to the left.

“…How do you know this place…?”

“We…” Mob kept his eyes fixed on the tree, the branch, the hollow scar carved into the tree’s canopy by its absence. “Shishou and I… we came through here. Shishou picked me up after school. He usually picked me up when we were going to the park, so I thought that was why. Instead we came through here. Shishou told me about my barrier, and it, and I—he--… We went to his house… And then I never left.”

“…Christ,” Reigen muttered, and it seemed to be a knee jerk reaction. He glanced again to Mob, eyes wide and bothered. “Did anyone know that Shishou took you this way?”

Mob shook his head. “No one. I thought we were going to the park. I told R-… I told my little brother I’d be home for dinner.” Mob curled his fingers together. “Then I never came home…” Mob stared longer at the tree, entranced by it, shamed into utter captivation. “This tree was the last thing I saw outside without my barrier.”

“…What’s beneath the tree, Mob? You said barrier. Did you hurt something…?”

Mob hunched his shoulders. “I don’t want to tell you.”

“Mob… I’m going to look under the tree.”

“Please don’t.”

“I’m doing it so you don’t have to, okay? It’ll be okay.”

Mob shut his eyes. He released his hand from the top of Reigen’s and pulled his arms in, palms wrapping to both his elbows, as though to hug himself. As though he were the only person he could hug once more.

“…Mob, there’s nothing beneath the tree.”

“…What?”

“Nothing. Just these.” Reigen’s hand left Mob’s shoulder. Reigen stepped forward, and Mob opened his eyes. Reigen stood just beneath the missing branch, calm and purposeful. Then he crouched, and skimmed his hands through the blades of grass that were bloodstained in Mob’s mind. “Look. Just these. Just flowers, Mob.”

Mob dared to look. He expected to see the bird, its belly the subject of razors, twitching red.

…Nothing of the sort met his eye. He saw green, from the thin dewy blades of grass. Brown, from the mulch bed beneath. Pink, from the curled circular petals of a flower, stretched and open to the sun. The flower was bathed in sunlight that fell in larger pools through the tree, in this spot particular, because the empty space above it allowed the sunlight to leak through. The flower near Reigen’s hand was tall, its petals tattooed with veins of purple, its stem firm and bristly. It was healthy, growing, reaching, living.

“It’s pretty,” Reigen said, and he cupped his hand beneath its collar of petals.

Mob breathed a little easier. “…It is.”

Reigen’s fingers moved to the flower’s base. He dug through the dirt a bit, loosening the roots, and then he plucked the flower from the ground.

Mob jolted forward, eyes wide, brow creased, aghast. “Why’d you do that?!”

Reigen looked up, eyebrows quirked in confusion. “I was thinking we could bring it home.”

“It’ll die now!”

“It was gonna die out here, Mob. It’s autumn. It’s getting cold at night.” Reigen stood, his knees wet and mud-stained, and he approached Mob with the flower’s stem in one hand, its roots carefully cradled in the other. “Wild flowers aren’t gonna last much longer out here. This thing’s just resiliently hanging on. And, I’ve got a vase at home, or something like a vase. Let it live inside where it’s warm, yeah? It’ll last longer, and it’ll be happier. And yeah it’ll wilt in there pretty soon but, we saved it from dying in the cold.”

Mob’s breathing calmed slowly. He blinked the tears out of his eyes and nodded, and then nodded harder, trying to shake the visual of birds and blood from his mind.

This was different. This wasn’t cutting down a bird, healthy in the heart of spring. This wasn’t leaving something for dead. This was saving. This was an act of care. This was plucking something destined to freeze, and keeping it warm and safe inside for as long as it could last.

This was kind, like Reigen always was.

“Here, Mob. Take it.”

Mob stepped forward. He reached a hand out, and cupped it beneath the flower’s roots as Reigen passed it along. Mob held it by the stem too, in the other hand, in imitation of the careful way Reigen had been cradling it. He understood that the flower was still alive in his hands, its roots cool with dirt caked around their spindly fibers, its stem just a bit fuzzy, and brilliant green. It stared up, willingly embracing the sun, a ring of pink around its neck.

And it was something, at least for a little bit, that Mob could save.

 

Chapter Text

When Tetsuo slipped back into the office on the morning of October 10th, everything sat exactly as he’d had left it, as though nothing had changed. The papers on his desk had been left untouched. They were printed copies of casefiles Tetsuo had been picking through before he left work on the evening he encountered Reigen, the evening he’d entered the Mogami house, the evening he’d learned the truth of what had been happening to his hazy memory, of what had been inside him.

Tetsuo skimmed a hand over the papers, as though to check that they were even real. They didn’t seem real, nor did they look it. They felt like they belonged in a photograph, filed away in some strictly “before” time of his life, when now he was so terrifyingly mired in “after”. The two weren’t compatible. Nothing could possibly exist from the time when he felt safe.

“Hey stranger. First day on the job?”

Except for Isa.

Tetsuo glanced up from his papers. Isa stood at the edge of his desk, weight leaning slightly into the hip she used to support the stack of papers held between her body and right arm. The stack was easily two inches thick, and Isa did not use her right hand to support it. Both hands were occupied with near identical Styrofoam white cups. Tetsuo craned his neck to see into them. The contents of one were a swirly, milky beige. The other was black.

“Sorry lady. I may be new, but I’m happily married,” Tetsuo answered, catching up with her teasing.

“Haha,” Isa responded, her voice flat. “You’re not my type anyway, beardy.”

Tetsuo raised his hand to his chin, skimming. Stubble grated against his fingers like tiny Velcro hooks. “Jun says I scratch her face up.”

“Then shave it.”

“Maybe I like it.”

“Here,” Isa extended her left hand, offering the cup of black coffee. “A peace offering.”

“Station coffee, really Isa?”

“The one and only.”

Tetsuo took the cup, feigning offense, before letting his shoulders slump down in resignation. He took a sip from the cup. “It’s nothing like what I can grind for myself at home. I already regret being back.”

Isa readjusted. She swapped her cup of coffee to her free hand and hoisted the papers higher against her hip.  She set her own cup to her lips, the lethally sugary one, and drank half of it in one go.

“Tastes fine to me.”

“You poison yours with sugar. You’re masking the fact that it’s bad.”

“My new partner isn’t this hard to please.”

“Yeah, how’s it been working with Ando?” Tetsuo asked.

“Hmm?”

“Haruki Ando. The younger man you left me for.”

“Oh is that what happened.”

“I get it. I’m not as young and spry as I once was. 32 is ancient. You need some excitement in your police career.” Tetsuo drew his words out, mockingly singsong. “Just toss me into the old folks home where I can waste away playing bingo and envisioning what sort of happiness Ando brings you.”

“Haruki Ando is like my baby brother. Every day I fight the urge to send him to bed with a cup of warm milk.”

“Oh? Then who am I like to you?”

“Also my baby brother. I’m older than you. Also Mr. Dead-at-32, what exactly are you implying about someone who’s 34?” Isa raised her cup to her lips again, a light smile betraying her jest. She drained her cup and dropped the Styrofoam into Tetsuo’s trash bin. “Working with Ando has been fine. He’s at least got energy, but I can’t ever take it easy. Like I’m serious about the little brother thing. He’s pretty much a kid. I have to take charge all the time. It’s exhausting.”

“Didn’t you raise like five younger siblings?”

“Four. And yes. And it sucked. That’s why I’m your partner, so I can mooch off your take-the-reigns attitude. I miss sleeping in the passenger’s seat.”

“You’re gonna have to bear it a bit longer. I’m just back on desk duty.” Tetsuo spread his arms, motioning to his desk in full. “Sitting my ass in this chair and not moving all day, that’s my job prospects for the future. I’m still on physical recovery or something, no field work. You’re stuck with Ando for now.”

“I didn’t say it was bad working with him.”

“Admit it, you miss me.”

He misses you more. He asks about you incessantly.”

“Oh?”

“Officer Isari this, Officer Isari that. When we run out of small talk he just asks random crap about you. He wanted to know if you wrestled a bear once.”

“Didn’t I?”

“No, you didn’t. You fired a blank to scare it off.”

“Right. Shoot. I’ve been embellishing that story.”

“He believed it. Ando admires the hell out of you. He styles his hair to be like yours.”

“Really?”

“You never noticed?”

“No!”

“Well go find him. The hair gel’s not a coincidence.”

“I like Ando’s hair. I should ask him what gel he uses.”

“He’d be over the moon to tell you. And then he’d ask you a hundred follow up questions. I’m hoping he starts pestering you now instead of me.”

“Good! I need to get my bear cred back.”

Isa snorted, and her shoulders relaxed a bit. She shifted her papers from one hip to the other, her smile easier now.

“It was nice having the coffee pot actually full while you were gone Tetsuo, but I think I prefer having you back. I won’t keep staring into empty space every time I look up at your desk.”

With a small resigned smile, Tetsuo set his own cup to his lips and drank. He scarcely tasted it. He felt too disconnected from it all. The unfaltering hum of fluorescent lights. The muffled rumble of voices from behind closed doors. The officers of the Seasoning City Precinct were assigned to desks in a shared office space, broken up into islands of two or three a piece. Isa’s desk stood perpendicular to Tetsuo’s, part of the same island, and the desk directly across from his belonged to an officer who’d been on maternity leave for some months.

Isa felt real enough—she’d been part of it all, or at least she’d been present, even if she didn’t know exactly what had happened in the Mogami house. She knew that Tetsuo’s sick leave had been a lie. But beyond their island of three desks—his, Isa’s, and the absent woman’s—reality dropped off. The tall gray filing cabinets that stretched to the ceiling felt distant. The fast staccato clanking noise, as cabinets were pulled out along their tracks, seemed unreachable. The printer, stiff and white bodied, churning out hot papers for those who milled around it. That wasn’t quite real. The coffee pot set up on the counter behind them, where the scuffed tile flooring had tainted darker with years of clumsy spills. Idle chatter. Phone ringing. Buzzing. Unrendered. Temporary. Static.

Purgatory.

Waiting in fear of the moment Mogami finally--

“Tetsuo.”

“Huh?” Tetsuo snapped back to attention.

He blinked, and found his eyes unadjusted.  Everything looked bleached and blurry in the few moments that he lost focus. He set his eyes to Isa instead, and took her in as real. Loose ponytail holding her dark hair back behind her neck, with a few stray strands framing her expressionless face. Dark eyes, piercing but not unkind, beneath a brow that scrunched slightly upward in concern. Isa placed her coffee cup down on Tetsuo’s desk and leaned her hand into the wood grain.

“I zoned out a moment.” Tetsuo gestured weakly to the coffee in his hand. “I was thinking about my dark roast at home.”

Isa nodded, and the silence fell back over them.

“Are you okay, Tetsuo?”

“Yeah. Just adjusting again.”

“Because if you’re not—“

“—A slow start—“

“—I need to know. I’m your—“

“—My partner, I know—“

“—partner, yeah. Okay. So you’ll tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“If something’s wrong.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah I’ll tell you.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

“Okay so I’ll ask again—“

“—Isa—“

“Are you alright, Tetsuo?”

“Come on, Isa. 7 am? You can’t make me—can’t pressure a guy to just—bear his soul before 7 am.” Tetsuo raised his coffee cup. “Before I’ve even finished my coffee.”

“That’s at least your third cup.”

“Fourth.”

“Tetsuo.” Isa stepped forward and she set a hand to Tetsuo’s shoulder, forcing eye contact. “What happened to you? What’s wrong?”

“It’s…difficult.”

“I’m good at difficult. So are you.”

“Not this kind of difficult.”

“What kind of difficult?”

“The kind that makes it hard to talk about.”

“I won’t judge you. I know about your fantasy elf seductor roleplay group, I can’t possibly judge you for anything after that.”

“That’s a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.”

“That’s not my point.”

“And it’s a lot cooler than it used to—“

“Tetsuo.” Isa’s grip tightened, and Tetsuo looked her in the eyes. They were clear, calm, imploring. “Please…?”

And most importantly, her eyes were stable. Stable still after seeing Mogami’s corpse, the thing that had broken Tetsuo into pieces. Stable after seeing his own breakdown. Suddenly the anchor that Tetsuo had prided himself on being for so long.

Tetsuo wondered how many times Isa had looked toward his desk in the last few months, and how many times it had been Mogami staring back.

Tetsuo breathed in deep, and he felt the exhaustion rattle through his ribcage, the roll of dread that washed him head to toe after forcing it down for so long. There was a pit in his stomach that he lived with permanently now, and hot flashes of panic that burst down his spine at each remembrance of Mogami’s eyes, his sallow skin, the red barrier, and the feel of cold steel against his throat.

“Um…So…” Tetsuo muttered, slowly, quietly. “I’m trying to think where to start…”

“Take your time.”

“You know how I’ve been complaining about feeling spacey for a while…?”

“Officer Isari!”

Both Isa and Tetsuo jolted. Isa stepped aside, angling her body to follow the voice. As she moved aside, Tetsuo’s eyes connected with Officer Haruki Ando. He was a good head shorter than both Isa and Tetsuo, his chestnut hair fluffed out, held with a bit of visible gel. His green eyes radiated with an energy that seemed practically fake. Tetsuo had seen nothing but somber faces. It was hard to process a show of genuine happiness.

“You’re back! You… you look much better than the last time I saw you. That’s a relief. Are you… back for good?”

“Ah, I think so,” Tetsuo answered, rubbing at the back of his neck. He avoided looking at Isa, his attention fully fixed on Haruki’s green eyes. “I just um…hell of a fever. Doctor never saw that sort of thing set in so fast. I’m fine though. Not contagious. Just ah…taking it easy.”

Haruki nodded, and Tetsuo watched that flicker of concern cross his face. “So um…the Kageyama case?”

“That…fever dream. Fever nightmare? Really um, I’d appreciate if you didn’t dwell on it. Or mention it.”

“Oh, oh oh of course not no!” Haruki answered. He shook his head and crossed his arms in an X over his chest. “Not a soul of course. Officer Maki said over the telephone—I mean I wouldn’t talk about this anyway. So just. Um. There’s no lead on the Kageyama case…?”

Tetsuo shook his head. He offered up a sad smile. “None…”

“Okay,” Haruki answered, a bit deflated. “Well it was um, it was a pleasure being Officer Maki’s partner.” Haruki shifted his attention to Isa, and bowed shallowly. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“No ‘ma’am’ I’m only like 30.”

“Sorry. Thank you Officer Maki!”

“I’m still your partner Ando.”

“It was a pleasure to—huh?”

“Yeah. Tetsuo’s doing desk work. You’re still stuck with me.”

“I wouldn’t call it being stuck.”

“See I can’t deal with this kind of optimism.” Isa pointed to Haruki, chin tilted toward Tetsuo before she fixed her eyes back on Haruki. “How do you do it Ando?”

Haruki threaded his fingers together, eyes shifting between Tetsuo and Isa. “I’m just…happy to be working with experienced people I respect.”

Isa let out a sigh. “I can’t even tease him.”

“Well, you guys should go work on your teamwork. I’ve got desk duty, with like a million things I’m supposed to sort and email and file. I think I’m on phone duty later.” Tetsuo made a face. “I’ll need more coffee.”

Tetsuo stood, and he side-stepped Haruki and Isa on his way to the filing cabinet.

“Oh, um…” Isa trailed off. “I worked nightshift, so I get off at noon, but do you want to grab lunch when I get off?”

“Sure, um, if I’m not swamped with work.” Tetsuo answered, guarded. “I’m probably going to be slow these first couple days getting used to new filing duties.”

“Officer Maki I’ll get lunch with you…”

Tetsuo stopped listening. He headed across the room to the filing cabinet set against the far wall. Tetsuo leafed through the cabinet, filled only with single cards identifying case files and numbers. The buzz of the lights filled his ears again, the distant roll of a phone, mumbling chatter that didn’t concern him. He ran the file until he found a specific card, with a specific file, and pulled it from the drawer.

He took the long way to the back room, hugging the walls away from his desk. His key unlocked the back door, which gave way to a room dark and chilled and just a bit damp. Filing cabinets lined every wall, floor to ceiling, identified by number. It was the back room where cold cases went to die.

Tetsuo retrieved the ladder, and set it down on the dust-strewn ground. He climbed it three shelves up, to a section of files relatively recent compared to the archives that went back decades and decades (Mogami’s case was in those decades-back files, somewhere.)

He stopped at the drawer whose label matched his card. He pulled it out fully, and leafed through it until his clammy hands settled on Kageyama, Shigeo.

Tetsuo pulled the file out. He dusted it off and weighed it in his hands.

He dismounted the ladder, and unlatched the tab holding the file together. Sterile report after sterile report filled the file, printed, dated—statements from the parents, from the teachers, neighbors, the little brother. Tetsuo’s eyes skimmed over the singular mention of “Mogami” from Ritsu Kageyama, and he shuddered.

Tetsuo lifted the step ladder and dragged it to the back of the room, where the concrete walls and floor sapped the heat, and the singular hanging light above swayed with the air currents. He drew out a filing cabinet whose edges had rusted with decades of wet summers, and pulled out the file whose corners had soured yellow with time.

Tetsuo’s finger tips, cold, seemed to spark electric at the touch.

Mogami, Keiji.

Mob had fallen asleep on the couch again, a tv movie-turned-infomercial playing as a hum to the background. The sales pitch was smooth, and quiet, and created a sort of calm to the small apartment that Reigen couldn’t quite describe. Lights low, Mob snoring quietly beneath the two couch blankets, a near-silent sales pitch for jewelry filling the empty air as Reigen sat at the table, laptop open, researching restaurants.

It was an atmosphere that Reigen could sink into, so starkly different from the evenings he’s grown used to—lights off, cold brightness of the television flickering through late-night programs surreal and jarring, falling asleep in a haze, blurry and drunk on the couch, so that when he woke the next morning contorted on the couch, he could not even properly remember falling asleep.

Reigen stood from the table.

At 6:00 pm, with a bit of excitement, and a bit of trepidation, Reigen nudged Mob awake.

Usually he let Mob keep his strange hours of wakefulness and rest, since Reigen himself had little set schedule, and a rather weak appetite, and found it easier most of the time to just adjust to Mob’s whims. Today though, he woke Mob, who looked up for a few seconds of blurry confusion before fully lifting his head and yawning.

“Reigen?”

“Come on Mob, wake up. We’re going out.”

Mob glanced to the window. His brow creased.

“It’s dark out already.”

“Yeah, but it’s not that late. It’s only 6.”

“Where are we going?”

“Out to eat. To a restaurant. It’s this ramen place that’s walking distance from my office. I used to go there a lot years ago, but it got kinda outside my budget. Eating out in general. Food kinda got outside my budget, actually. But I mean, today’s special, Mob.”

“Special?”

“I was looking up other restaurants, but a lot of them are pricey. Not great yelp reviews either. Not that I take those at face value really since I figure most people only log on to yelp if they want to complain, right? I mean that’s what I’d do. I think. If I ever went out to eat. Anyway though this ramen place is great. It’s kind of a bar really, with a drape over the front. Hole-in-the-wall kind of place. But hey, cool crisp fall air like this? It’ll be nice. Cool breeze and hot ramen. I wonder if the bar tender still remembers me.”

Reigen moved toward the front door, where he lifted his light coat from the rack and pulled it on, one arm at a time. He bent down to get his shoes, and found Mob had caught up behind him, grabbing the small pair of white sneakers set beside Reigen’s loafers near the door. Reigen slipped his shoes on, and in the time it took for Mob to tie his own laces, Reigen grabbed the colorfully-wrapped parcel from beside the coat rack and slipped it under his coat.

On the drive over, Reigen kept the windows cracked. Cool dry night air swirled through the car, the glimmer of streetlights, shop signs, and taillights speckling them through the windows. Reigen threw sidelong glances to Mob, who had nearly pressed himself against the passenger’s side window, watching the flurry of night life lights go by. It was the first glimpse Mob had gotten of the night since he and Reigen first met, and given the state Mob had been in, Reigen figured it was probably the first chance Mob had gotten to appreciate any of it.

Reigen pulled down a side street, and parked the car in an empty spot along the side of the road, and decided to ignore the parking meter on the gamble that no one was checking them.

“Come on Mob, this way.”

Reigen motioned with his shoulder to the other side of the street. The back of apartment buildings rose like monoliths—cold solid brick exteriors with fire escapes climbing like segmented iron snakes. Smoke furled out dense and heavy from the roofs, and over top them was the gentle glow of the cityscape beyond. Reigen pointed to the bottom, dead center, to the patterned red and orange drapes that fell to about shoulder height, hiding behind them a warmly-lit interior that smelled rich and dense with broth. As they crossed the street, laughter boomed from inside.

Reigen brushed the drape away first, and Mob came in under his shoulder, glimmering eyes set to the hanging paper lanterns, the handful of people seated along the length of the bar, some huddled near a glowing red heater, others slurping ramen up between chop stick guides, two older men with scraggly white beards clanging shots glasses together and singing off key until they lost their breath to laughter. Reigen followed his line of sight to the woks on the stoves in back, pork and egg roasting, crackling, simmering beside the vats of noodles dipped in broth brought near to boiling. Two men dressed in white attended to the stove, yelling heartily to each other over the buzz of the patrons.

Reigen stooped slightly, so that he stood close to Mob’s ear. “This okay?”

Mob hesitated, his wide eyes shooting about, possibly overwhelmed. Slowly, he nodded. “It smells incredible.”

Reigen brightened. He took the nearest stool, and angled himself away from the drunk singing men. He nodded to the one open beside it, which Mob climbed into. A gust of air whipped through the curtain, and Mob shivered, though he hardly seemed to notice. His eyes drank in everything around him.

“Two ramen please, with all the toppings you usually put on them, plus extra pork. Today we’re celebrating.” Reigen spoke to one of the white-clad men, who answered with a nod. Reigen turned to Mob. “Do you know why we’re celebrating?”

Mob focused back on Reigen, who leaned in, intent, eager. Mob blinked, and then shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“It’s October 10th. It’s my birthday. I turned 28 today. I didn’t even realize my birthday was this close until yesterday, which I think says a lot about the kind of life I lead but besides the point.”

“Oh,” Mob answered, and then he straightened. “Oh happy birthday. I didn’t get you a gift.”

“Of course you didn’t. How could you get me a gift you didn’t know it was my birthday. I hardly knew it was my birthday. Besides the point. Besides, you know, this already is the gift.”

Mob didn’t answer. He stared back, confused, face lit with warm orange tones from the paper lanterns above.

“If this had been a normal birthday I’d probably be spending it at a very different kind of bar hanging out with people who probably wouldn’t remember my birthday anyhow. This is um…different from that.”

“Is this better?”

“Infinitely,” Reigen answered along a breath. He breathed in deep, and then exhaled, and then continued, more sober. “And, you know, I mean I almost missed my birthday. But you uh….you missed the last four. Of yours. I can’t imagine. If Shishou ever. I mean. You didn’t know how old you were, so…” Reigen reached across the counter and grabbed the set of chopsticks laid out for him. He took one in his hand, pencil like, and pointed it to Mob. “It may be my birthday, but it’s also four of yours. We’ve got ground to make up.”

“Oh,” Mob answered, thinking the words over. He straightened a little, almost shocked, and looked at Reigen. “Does this really count?”

“Only if you want it to. Does this seem like a good four birthdays together?”

One of the chefs turned and pushed two bowls across the counter. Reigen pulled his closer, and Mob followed suit. Reigen breathed in, the smell almost intoxicatingly rich—a dark broth, thin noodles acting as a bed for slices of hard boiled egg, their yolks dense and crumbly yet runny at the center, six slices of pork heartily brazened on the outside, left delicately pink in center, deep green leeks slice diagonally, scallions scattered, crinkled mushrooms holding broth in their folds, fishcakes that spiraled pink at the center, bamboo shoots overlapping like the threads of a wicker basket.

“Yeah, this seems good,” Mob answered.

Reigen breathed in deep again, and he grabbed his chop sticks, and set to the bowl. But not before he checked that Mob had done the same.

They took their first bite at the same time.

Reigen swallowed, and cleared his throat, and gestured to Mob. “How is it…?”

Mob stared into the bowl for a moment longer, then looked up to Reigen. His cheeks had flushed pinker, his eyes more watery than before.

“It’s delicious.”

“Yeah,” Reigen agreed, as he raised the bowl to his lips. “It is.”

Reigen let the engine stall for a moment, hands on the wheel in indecision, as he idled outside a building cast in shadow, dark to the world save for the few bright spots of street lamps against its brick façade. He glanced to Mob in the passenger’s seat, dozing again, and Reigen considered backing out.

“Hey, Mob. You gotta wake up again. Just one more thing, yeah?”

Mob blinked awake again, head swiveling left and right to take in his surroundings. He’d left a spot of condensation on the window with his breath. Mob used his sleeve to wipe it off and stare outside, into inky blackness.

“What’s here?”

“I’ll show you.”

Reigen stepped out, and waited for Mob to follow before he locked the car door. The front door of the building had a wire grate over its window, and a directory of names written on the side panel. Some were actually business plates, others—new or temporary—were written on masking tape.

Reigen flipped through his keyring and unlocked this door.

“Second floor, third door on the right, just follow me.”

Reigen flipped on light switches as he went, illuminating cold dark white walls with a glow that buzzed for the first several seconds after being flipped on. Reigen shivered, and entered the stairwell, and climbed the metal-grated set of stairs to the second floor. Mob lagged, a bit winded by the climb, so Reigen slowed his pace.

“You okay?”

“I’m okay,” Mob answered, though his eyes betrayed uncertainty, fear perhaps. “Where are we?”

“Hang on, it’s right over here.” Reigen traced down the hall, not bothering with this set of lights, instead allowing the glow of the stairwell to trickle down the hall and light the contours of the door knob he targeted. Reigen flipped to a different key, and set it to the door, and it clicked.

Reigen opened it. Cold air drenched him from within. Reigen hit the lights, and turned the radiator on, and watched his breath crystalize in front of his nose as the office came back awake until its harsh white lighting.

Mob entered behind him, curious, arms hugged against his body for warmth.

“This is my office,” Reigen said. He set his hands to his hips and swiveled in place. “It’s…where I used to run Spirits and Such. And it’s still where I work now, doing the private investigator stuff, but it…used to be Spirits and Such.”

Mob spun in place too, taking in the lone desk and desk lamp, the filing cabinet against the wall, the single window in back.

“Are you cold, Mob?” Reigen asked.

“A little.”

“Well here.” Reigen pulled the wrapped parcel out from his coat and tossed it to Mob. “For you. Happy birthday.”

It took Mob a moment to respond. He eyed Reigen, as if asking permission, and Reigen nodded him on. Mob tore back the wrapping—pink with white polka dots—and unfurled from the parcel something thick, and warm, and red. Mob held it up fully, paper dropped to the ground, revealing a red hoodie.

“I wanted to get something with the Spirits and Such logo but I…only started planning any of this yesterday. I’ll get it emblazoned later. Like um, one of those iron-on things, or maybe embroidered. I googled and there’s places that do that. So it’s kind of a stand in right now, but um, picture it as having the Spirits and Such logo okay?”

“Okay,” Mob answered.

“I lied a little bit, earlier, by the way, about there not being a present for me. I’m actually giving myself a present,” Reigen continued, hands spinning together a bit. “I’m reopening Spirits and Such. No more of this…None of this PI stuff, anymore. I had one last hurrah with that and I am done.” Reigen’s eyes shifted to Mob, and he chewed his tongue, breath puffing with ice as Mob pulled the hoodie over his head. “So um, that brings me to part two of this. Which is…up to you, Mob. But um. When I reopen, do you, would you um—what I offered earlier—do you want to work for me? As my psychic sidekick? My psy-kick?”

“Your psy-kick?”

“It’s a pun. Listen we can workshop it. I just mean.” Reigen spun his hand through the air, settling in a fist with his thumb pointed at himself. “I’m psychic. You’re psychic. We may as well put our powers to good use, yeah? Get the ball rolling on this again. I remember where most of those boxed-up things go. Plus um, it’ll be different this time. If any evil spirit tries to jump me, I’ve got you now to save me.”

“Save you?”

“Save me.”

“Reigen my powers aren’t as strong as yours. I don’t think I can save you.”

“Trust me kid, you don’t even know.” Reigen moved behind his desk, large exaggerated steps as he spread his arms wide to frame the back wall. “Big banner, right here! Get something professionally done with the logo. Or hmm, maybe banner goes outside. Want the inside to seem a bit more professional. But not too professional, yeah? You want your psychic exorcist to be a bit eccentric. I should put that poster back up, the one with my face, that sort of thing screams ‘wacky eccentric’.”

“The candles and the jade doll too?”

“Not the jade doll Mob. The jade doll is going away forever. But yes to the candles. And the juggling balls. I can’t believe I ever gave up that hobby.”

“And you want…me?”

“Absolutely! You know, you know you know,” Reigen took to pacing, hands churning through the air and fingers furling, unfurling, until he stopped and pointed purposefully at Mob. “That’s how a real psychic learns! In the field! Struggling against spirits and bartering with them for knowledge! You learn the most important things you’ll ever hear from them. In fact, I had no one to train me in my powers. I had to negotiate with spirits—evil ones sometimes—to learn. It was a curse laid upon my grandmother that first gave me my powers, but I learned to reign them in, under my control, with the wise knowledge of spirits with thousands of years’ experience. THAT’S the sort of thing that would teach you to control your barrier. That’s where the real secret lies.”

Reigen dropped his hand, and he stared at Mob, who seemed smaller beneath the folds of his hoodie. His breath still puffed icy in front of his face, cheeks and eyes sunken in the harsh overhead lighting, but there was interest, intrigue, excitement.

“…So long as I don’t hurt anyone.”

“Not a soul. Not on my watch.”

Mob looked to his feet, then the floor, then he scanned the length of the office, until his eyes settled on Reigen.

“Then yes. Yes I do want to work with you here.”

“Awesome.” Reigen moved behind his desk. He pulled out the top drawer, where a pack of cigarettes slid to the front. Reigen grabbed the whole pack, unopened, and dropped it into the trash can beside his desk. “And you know, after you go home…? Even once you’re home, and this is all behind us, you could still um…come back here, and work with me, yeah…? Plenty of kids have part-time jobs. Think of it as um…work experience.”

“Yeah,” Mob answered simply, seemingly unaware of the enormous weight his easy agreement lifted from Reigen’s chest. The radiator heat trickled through the air, wafts of warmth in the room abysmally bright, abysmally empty, against the backdrop of night sky through the window, flecked with stars, streets below speckled with moving lights. It was a different kind of world they occupied then, a different sort of separated from everything else. Something colder, crisper, but more invigorating. A cold bright empty white-walled room with just the two of them, planning their future, as their breath curled around their necks. “I’d like that.”

The front door to Reigen’s apartment clicked, unlocked, and it was already warm when Reigen set foot inside. He shrugged off his jacket, and stepped out of his shoes, and shut the door to the brisk October night air. The lights had remained on. The infomercial reel still ran. Soft lighting, and gentle noise, and a warmth Reigen was not used to feeling inside his own apartment.

Reigen glanced to the clock. 10:07 pm.

“You know, Mob, I picked up one last thing.”

Mob stared on, unspeaking, as Reigen moved to the cleaned-out fridge. He opened the freezer side, and pulled from it a small bakery box. He set it on the counter, lifting the flap to reveal a small white-frosted cake inside. Reigen reached into the upper cabinet and pulled out two plates, both clean, and from the nearest drawer he fetched two forks and a hefty knife, washed as well. It was strange, almost, not to pull something used from the sink, and wet it clean. This time nothing remained in the sink. Nothing remained unclean. It was a house put together, cared for, lived in, comfortable to come home to.

“Do you like cake?” Reigen asked.

Mob stepped closer. “You bought a cake?”

“A small one. Yesterday. It was on sale with the coupons.”

“Oh.”

“It’s got ice cream in it, and this um…It’s chocolate by the look of it. Like chocolate crumble inside. Vanilla ice cream, and chocolate crumble, and regular cake part.

Reigen held the knife to the cake. He leaned down on it, putting most of his weight into the cutting of the frozen ice cream layer until it finally relented, hitting with a thock against the cardboard bottom of the box. Reigen repeated this twice more, cutting two roughly even size pieces, which he plated, and set to the counter.

“Can I get milk too?” Mob asked.

“Yeah of course.” Reigen reached for the drink cabinet, but Mob had beaten him to it, hand rising and snagging a glass from the bottom-most shelf. Mob moved to the fridge to retrieve the milk, and Reigen scooted past behind him to put the rest of the cake back in the freezer.

“You got that?” Reigen asked as Mob pulled the jug of milk from the fridge.

“Yeah.”

Alright. Reigen shut the freezer. He moved back to the counter, grabbing his plate and fork, and setting down at the table. He watched the infomercial a moment, trying to make sense of what was being advertised. It looked like a ladder of some sort. Reigen wondered if he even owned a ladder.

The sound of pouring milk drowned out the advertisement. Reigen shrugged, and dug his fork into the cake, and took the first bite. It was good—it was great, in fact. The ice cream melted against his tongue, smooth and creamy, the chocolate crumble gave it a heartiness and richness, the cake part fluffy and soft. Or maybe it was a terrible cake—and Reigen just never got cake enough to know the difference.

The scrape of a plate leaving the counter, the clink of a glass being lifted. Reigen scooted a bit to the side subconsciously, so that Mob would have more room to take the seat beside him. Reigen stared at the television again, because now one of the advertisers was climbing the ladder.

Something smashed behind him.

Reigen jumped, head whipping to the side in panic as he took in the scene. Mob stood, plate in one hand, glass shattered against the ground, milk soaking into his socks as a shimmering minefield of glass rung him, like islands in the white sea.

“Oh, well shoot. I don’t have a lot of those glasses—“

“I’M SORRY!”

Mob dropped down into a crouch, arms thrown violently over his head which trembled alongside his whole body. Breath gasped in and out of his throat, a heaving wheezing noise of panic as Mob curled further in on himself and cried out, muffled into his clothing, “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to drop it!”

“Hey, hey hey hey!” Reigen jumped from his seat, cake forgotten, and stepped through the puddle of milk and glass, only half-aware of the sharp shards that might shred his feet. He reached a hand out, but Mob recoiled violently, until he stumbled back and braced his back against the wall.

I didn’t mean it Shishou it was an accident it was an accident I didn’t mean it I didn’t—“

“Mob!”

I didn’t mean it I didn’t mean it I swear I didn’t mean it—“

Mob!”

“Shishou please Shishou please Shishou please—“

“Mob I’m not Shishou!” Reigen shoved forward, feet wet, and took Mob by the shoulders. Mob looked up, eyes wet, startled and frozen. “Mob… Mob, I’m not angry. I’m not angry and it’s okay. It’s okay. It’s just a glass. It’s only a glass, Mob. And I’m not angry. It was an old dirty glass anyway, Mob. An old dirty glass I don’t care about and I won’t miss and it’s 100% okay it’s okay, I promise.”

Mob’s hitching breath evened just a fraction, his hunched shoulders unfurling as his eyes surveyed Reigen for any evidence of a trick, or deception, or deceit. He looked down at his own shaking hands, and the air around him, as if only just processing what he saw.

“I didn’t mean to…”

“I know you didn’t. That’s why I’m not mad. Dropping something by accident is okay.” Reigen tightened his hand on Mob’s shoulder, and he looked back and forth between Mob’s eyes. It filled him with a twisting sort of helplessness, seeing what lay behind Mob’s eyes. Seeing the kid that ‘Shishou’ had so thoroughly broken. That all Mob’s pain, and all Mob’s horror, and all Mob’s suffering traced back to this one single Shishou, and that this man had brought about an evil that Reigen himself perhaps didn’t have the power to heal. It threatened that precarious future Reigen had just claimed, the one where he got to stay with Mob, healed and safe.

“Mob…please. Your Shishou is dead. He is dead, Mob. Your Shishou is dead, and he can’t hurt you anymore.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s okay. It’s okay Mob.”

“No, I’m…” Mob paused. He hiccupped, voice still hitching, body still trembling. “I’m sorry Shishou is dead. I did something to make him kill himself. I know it.”

“Good, Mob. Good…”

Mob stared up, jaw slack, baffled. “No… No, no, you’re angry about it… Shishou was your friend, and I got him killed. I’m sorry.”

Reigen pulled back, doubt squirming in his chest, black with revulsion. “What? No. No no, I never knew your Shishou. I wasn’t friends with him, Mob. I would never be friends with that man.”

“I heard you! No, no I heard you.” Mob leaned forward, his hands locking onto Reigen’s arm. “Through the basement door I could hear you talking with Shishou. You visited twice to talk with Shishou. You were friends!”

Reigen leaned back. Floor wet, mind buzzing, staring forward, mouth dry. Suddenly the taste of cake and ramen were a thousand miles away, from a different lifetime, from a “before”, when Reigen had just been thrown so terribly into “after”.

“Wait…wait a moment… Wait a moment… Basement door?”

Mob nodded. “I… I lived there in Shishou’s house.”

“And Shishou… bought supplies for you, Mob…?”

“Yes…”

“What… what did you eat Mob?”

“My barrier shreds all real food, so it was just soup. I…I got tired of it.”

The buzzing in Reigen’s ears grew louder. His hand slipped off Mob’s shoulder. A hollow pit of dread opened up in his stomach, revulsion, horror, guilt. Glimpses of the Mogami house, fetid and rotting, too vile to stay in for even a single night. The cans of soup, left on the counter by a dead man who did not need to eat. And Reigen, asking for more, wanting the pieces to fit, seeing what couldn’t click and now, suddenly…

“Reigen…?”

“Mob… What was your Shishou’s name?”

“Why are you asking…?”

“Mob please, just tell me this.”

“You seem different. Are you mad?”

“I’m not. Mob, please tell me, what was your Shishou’s name…?”

Mob hesitated. He pulled his hands away from Reigen, and answered with only a whisper.

“…Mogami. He was Mogami-Shishou.”

The name twisted tight like a fist in Reigen’s chest. It flooded his veins with an icy horror, a nauseous understanding, a horrific feeling that threatened to hollow him out from the inside.

The hum of the television. The buzz of the lights.

“…Reigen?”

The rushing of blood in his ears. The tingling numbness in his fingers.

“…Reigen…?”

He’d been there. Right there, on the floorboards above. Mob had not made a peep. Not a sound. Not a single indication. Reigen had left that house assuming it was empty. He’d left Mob to rot.

Reigen, please…?”

It was cold now, in this house.

Chapter Text

When Ritsu bore his wrist, he swore he’d grown used to it.

When the first spirit lunged, Ritsu was proven wrong.

The tearing out of power was still something alien, like gauze yanked from a stuffed wound. It was something unphysical scraping against tissue and muscle and bone, and it came with a pang, a shock of light-headedness. Ritsu showed none of it on his face, because he swore he’d be used to it.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Teru. Teru stood bored, scrutinizing, leaning against the brick wall of the alley. His expression suggested thinning patience, and Ritsu couldn’t pin point why. Maybe it was the amount of time Ritsu took with the feeding. Maybe it was the clumsy way he handled it. Maybe it was anger left over from the last mission, when Ritsu had panicked and nearly fired the shot at the office worker who’d—

Ritsu’s breath stuttered. A harsh pull and snap from the feeding spirit seemed to rock Ritsu’s whole body. His balance faltered, legs squaring, breath deepening as he fought the sudden pricks of starlight in his vision.

A quick stumble. That was it. Sweat trickled down Ritsu’s neck but, he was handling it. The sun rimmed high over the soccer field above, casting the spirits into pale amalgams of dust, writhing between beams. They seemed less real like this in the warm light. So Ritsu could stand his ground against each prick and pull and shock of unreal teeth against his skin. Normal. Routine. He wouldn’t falter in front of Teru.

When the last spirit pulled away, Ritsu’s heart rate had quickened. A quiet ringing had entered his ears, and a shivering numbness pulsed through his body. But he remained aware, and upright, and alert. He was getting better at this.

Ritsu grabbed his bag from the concrete, and stepped with forced steadiness to Teru’s side. Ritsu holstered the bag over his shoulder, willing the numbness to fade.

“Ready?” Ritsu asked, offering a scowl a bit too performative.

Teru grimaced. He raised his index finger beneath his nose and mimed a wiping gesture.

Ritsu stared, perplexed. There was nothing on Teru’s face. After a moment, an icy thought hit him. Ritsu opened his mouth and touched his tongue to his upper lip. Coppery wetness spread through his mouth. Ritsu moved a hand to his nose and rubbed. Something wet trailed from the left nostril, and he pulled his hand away to examine the crimson stain webbing along the creases of his palm.

Behind Ritsu’s outstretched hand, Teru’s wrist flicked. Ritsu blinked back to attention and found Teru holding a pack of travel tissues, one tissue snagged between two fingers and extended. Ritsu took it silently.

“Don’t get any on me,” Teru said, turning on his heel, moving ahead of Ritsu to the front of the school.

Ritsu wiped the blood from his nose, and tested with a tap of his finger to see if he was still bleeding. Nothing. He stashed the tissue into his pocket, and spun to catch up with Teru.

It was a dry day. Ritsu refused to consider anything past that.

Gimcrack acted as guide, unnoticed and unseen as he led Ritsu and Teru far from the Salt Mid alleyway.  They wound down residential streets, buildings and concrete thinning as trees appeared in greater number. The streets were peppered with small wooden shops nearly mistakable for townhouses and small abodes with lawns larger than Ritsu was used to seeing. They cut through yards where Gimcrack seemed inclined to phase through buildings, crunching leaves beneath their heels and vaulting a fence to a house old and decrepit and dark. They kept walking, leaving behind the heart of Seasoning City and settling on a small street of shops lined wall to wall. Gimcrack halted in front of a thin and tall building, paneled with wood, warmly lit from the inside.

“Is this it?” Teru tilted his head up to Gimcrack, who floated intentionally too high, outside grabbing range. Teru had become openly hostile with Gimcrack since his abandonment of them in the office building, and he made the tension know. The hair on Ritsu’s neck bristled.

“Yup.” Gimcrack gestured to the storefront. “Energy’s spilling outta this place. Give it a feel.”

Teru placed a palm against the entrance. “Why don’t you scope it out first, Gimcrack?”

“Nuh-uh.” Gimcrack crossed his bony arms over his body in an X shape. “I don’t want to get eaten up by whatever’s in there.”

“Would you rather I exorcise you?”

“Hey, Kageyama!” Gimcrack swooped down to Ritsu’s level, tugging loosely on his collar and hiding a fraction behind Ritsu’s frame. “Think you can control your friend a little? You’re the one leading this mission, aint ya?”

Teru let out a bark of a laugh. Ritsu shoved the door in without comment.

Chimes clanked above them. Warm light washed over Ritsu’s face, the dense smell of cinnamon and cloves. Ritsu blinked. Color in the form of tightly wound bundles tucked into endless bins assaulted him.

Teru shoved ahead of Ritsu, beaming.

“Oh it’s a yarn shop!” Teru dropped his bag at the entrance and sauntered in, stooping at each display to feel out the texture of the different wools. He picked up something gaudy, fluffy, and pink and held it to the light. “I’ve been meaning to make another sweater.”

Ritsu held the side display, lips pursed in irritation. His eyes scanned the store. Wooden paneling dominated the walls and floor, almost cabin-like in its beveling. Dozens of wooden bins lined the walls, organized by thickness and texture, colors splashed in almost haphazardly. A grouped display of 6 bins sat at the center of the room, thick bundles of saturated blues, oranges, pinks, and yellows. Construction paper signs lined the display, advertising discounts.

Teru practically floated between displays, amassing a bundle in his arms of yarn offensively bright and frilly.

Reluctantly, Ritsu’s eyes trailed to Teru, taking note of the bins that Teru dug through and the bundles he grabbed. The first was a yarn deeply orange and scratchy-looking to the touch, the color of an old and bitter cat. From the neighboring bin, Teru snagged a bundle thin and turquoise, yarn winding in defined streaks along the surface. The next was a bin of pinks with feather nubs along the length of string. Then another ball, red velvety and thick.

Ritsu’s attention shifted to the rack of guide books, the starter kits, the sewing needles tucked to the side with spindles of thread stacked up in plastic displays like candy. Grated shelves lined the top of each wall, bearing specialty bundles of yarn, metallic needles arranged by ascending size, as well as an odd display of small hooked needles.

Soft light trickled through the ceiling window, floating dust catching in the shine, baking the interior with a noxious cocktail of Christmas spices. Ritsu was uncomfortably warm.

“My last sweater was pink, like this kind here.” Teru lifted the pink yarn, unreasonably fluffy, like a small Pomeranian. “One of my favorites. But I’ve been dying for something turquoise. That’ll bring out the color of my eyes hmm? Or do you think something a bit dimmer, more of an aqua? I’ve heard lavender suits me wonderfully.”

Ritsu’s eyes flickered to Teru’s uniform. Then away. Thinking about it was bad for his blood pressure.

“Focus,” Ritsu muttered. He glanced over his shoulder. Sure enough, Gimcrack hadn’t followed them inside. So Ritsu gave the display area another glance. Nothing stood out. He looked deeper; the store stretched further back, a single doorway propped open in the back-right corner. Stairs led up to the left. Ritsu chewed his tongue, and then set his sights on the stairs.

“I’m going to check upstairs. You get the back,” Ritsu said.

“Good plan. I don’t want you down here destroying any yarn.”

Ritsu considered replying and thought better of it. He set one experimental foot to the first step.

“Can I help you boys?”

Ritsu froze. He dropped his hand from the railing and glanced sideways. A woman with graying hair and spectacles stood at the threshold between the front of the store and the backroom. She watched him with a smile as warm as the store, eyes small, cheeks plump. Her cardigan bore the design of deer and trees, clearly hand-knit.

She stepped closer, navigating around yarn bins and tilting her head around to better see Ritsu.

“Oh, Dearie no, the door up there is locked. There’s nothing for sale up there. Are you looking for something a little extra?”

Slowly, Ritsu removed his foot from the stair. “Um…”

Ah!” Teru answered, and even Ritsu startled a bit at the grandiose in his voice. Teru shoved his gathered-up yarn into the crook of his right arm. He moved with wide, swaying steps to the woman, smile open and friendly, and took her by the shoulder with his free hand. “My dear my dear I am having the hardest time my dear.” Teru spun her around, guiding her back where she came. “See my sister just adores my handknit crafts, and her 16th birthday is coming up soon. I have this new ribbed pattern I want to try out—a simple knit-3 purl-3, ribbing about yay-big—and I am just beside myself finding a color and texture to my liking—“

Ritsu watched with an expression of contempt for every word he couldn’t understand.

“—I was thinking something cocoa colored. She has these gorgeous chocolate brown eyes—oh, quite like yours—that I think would sparkle marvelously with—oh now don’t be bashful! Your eyes are glimmering love. Anyway, a chalky cocoa, but not too dense hmm? I want the rib pattern to show through, and if the yarn is too frilly it hides the pattern. And I considered larger needle size but who needs a loosely-knit sweater my dear am I right?”

Ritsu filtered out Teru’s rambling. His leg bounced, jaw biting down tight to keep him from snapping at Teru. It wouldn’t be worth drawing suspicion. He could only wait, seething quietly at Teru’s utter lack of concern.

For a split second, Ritsu and Teru locked eyes. A quick twitch of Teru’s head, a split second of piercing eye-contact, explosive in its silence. Teru’s eyes jerked to the stairway leading up, and Ritsu understood with a rush of shame what was happening.

Ritsu mounted the stairs again, moving slowly and deliberately so as not to creak the wood beneath his feet while Teru kept the shop owner distracted. Teru’s rambling continued unimpeded, words like “gauge” and “crochet” and “casting” assaulting Ritsu’s ears, along with overly saccharine compliments to the shopkeeper who only giggled in response. She responded, voice drawing away into the backroom with her and Teru’s footsteps. Ritsu kept climbing.

The air grew mustier and warmer as he ascended, the staircase leading up to an attic tucked into the wooden paneling. At the top was a single door, its white-painted face chipped, top corner shaven and jammed in the doorframe. Ritsu tested the knob, and it held firm under his grip.

He tightened his hand, a small shock of purple energy mangling the metal with a pop. When he twisted again, the lock gave, loose metal pieces tinkering down as he eased the door open. It swung in, giving way to a small bedroom tucked into the attic, triangular in shape. The bed took up most space, covered with a quilt sewn of patches long-faded. A wooden night stand sat beside it, red-blinking clock and a lamp adorning its top. Natural light flooded in from the panel of windows across from the bed, paling the carpeting. A small dusty tv sat perched in front of it, its front consumed in shadow. Sweat trickled down Ritsu’s neck, and the warm and dense smell of lavender flowed over him.

Ritsu noticed the laundry basket to his left, and for a moment was swamped with guilt for wearing his shoes in this woman’s house.

The thought vanished instantly, consumed by a new twanging of his heart as he gave a second look to the laundry basket. The air above it shifted, schismed, as though above a hot tar road in summer. Ritsu approached it steadily, palm buzzing with a hint of energy. He screwed his eyes to focus, a small headache building behind his skull.

He saw it. Small and curled and wispy green, a cat dozed on the folded linen sheets. It let out a small fluttering purr, and the tension left Ritsu’s body. He backed away from it, chewing his tongue, letting his shoulders sag. It wasn’t anything. Not his brother. Not a dangerous spirit. Just a ghost cat, asleep on some laundry.

He wiped his sleeve along his brow and stood still, heart rate calming. He watched the cat for longer, the muffled sing-song sound of Teru’s conversation bubbling through the carpeting. It was curled in the sun, its body scarcely visible in the beam that floated dust through the room. Ritsu’s hand twitched. He considered his options, but he only came up empty. There was no use in doing anything to the cat. No use in him and Teru being here.

Nothing that would lead him any closer to Mob.

“Sorry, cat,” Ritsu offered quietly. He turned on his heel.

And he screamed when something ghastly stared back.

Ritsu stumbled back, just as the creature shoved a bony arm out and jammed something sharp into the socket of Ritsu’s left shoulder. Ritsu let out a muffled cry and clamped his arm to his shoulder. He forced his eyes to focus. A man of sorts, dressed in a faded apron, his eyes pits of black that seemed to have melted. The holes where his eyes should have been had wept down his face dripping over hollow cheek bones. His skin was waxy, greasy, peeled and glistening as thought severely burned, right to the stub of ashen hair left at the top of his head.

Ritsu’s eyes shot to the spirit’s hand, bearing the wispy, immaterial form of a knife. He unclamped his hand from his shoulder, seeing the faintest trickle of blood ooze from the wound.

“You can see Mitzy…” the spirit rasped. It inched closer. “Are you a ghost? Are you a ghost too? Here to steal her from me?”

Ritsu stumbled back, hands up. “No! No I don’t want your stupid cat!”

Not the cat… My food. Her…”

Confusion twisted Ritsu’s face. His breathing hitched in his throat.

“…That lady downstairs!?”

She’s mine…”

The spirit lunged again, and Ritsu dodged, knocking into the nightstand. He fell, back slamming against the drawer. The lamp wobbled and crashed beside him. Ritsu startled, and then shoved himself to his feet and scrambled before another lunge of the knife could slice him.

He backed away from the spirit, trying to keep the distance between them, though he only managed to back himself into a corner. Ritsu glanced behind him, bug-eyed, finger tips feeling out the corner of the paneled walling. The spirit closed the gap in slow hobbling steps. Energy coiled around the knife, and Ritsu squeezed his eyes shut, breath shaking.

Not again. Not this again.

He needed to do better. He needed to be better if he ever wanted to measure up to Teru. If he ever wanted to take down the thing that took his brother.

He needed to stop shaking. He needed to stop panicking. He needed to stop shutting down every time the danger inched too close.

He needed to be steady. Deliberate. Focused.

He needed to be like Teru.

His eyes snapped open as the spirit lunged, and Ritsu released a tendril of energy from his palm. It wrapped around the offending ghost, snagging tight at his midsection and pinning his arms to his side. The spirit came crashing forward, smashing to the floor and oozing against the rope that grated him. It screeched, teeth gnashing, and all the while its restrained arm swung the knife in arcs wherever he could slash it.

Mitzy woke up, blinked, let out a displeased yowl and hopped off the laundry pile. Her tail flicked as she sauntered out the open attic door.

Ritsu didn’t pay the ghost cat any mind. He only tested his grip on the rope. He had meant for chains, something like Teru had used to restrain the spirits of his horde. What Ritsu managed to create was formless, but still strong enough to hold the writhing spirit.

He took a step closer, breath steadying, momentarily eyeing the smashed lamp and the open door. Nothing appeared there, no sound except for the muffled conversation that carried on below, and the noises of the spirit at his mercy. Ritsu refocused, attentive to the spirit that snapped its teeth at him and hissed. Its wilting weepy eyes melted further down its face as it howled, seeming to lose vigor the more its greasy burnt body decayed. Ritsu extended his hand once more, letting off a twist of glowing purple energy to wrapped around the spirits mouth, muzzling it.

Ritsu closed the gap between them, and the expression on the spirit’s face shifted. Lashing anger melted to something meeker, something more sober, its wide dripping eyes seeming to come to an understanding. Ritsu’s hand paused. He didn’t exorcise the spirit just yet. Something about the expression halted him. Something familiar in it.

Ritsu, bearing down on the spirit, recognized the fear of something hunted. Trapped and cornered and at the mercy of something more powerful. He recognized it as the mangled, twisted emotion in his own chest at every feeding of the spirit.

He stretched his hand out and set it against the spirit’s throat. The spirit whimpered through its gag, and Ritsu gave an experimental tug. It wasn’t a physical motion. It was something in his core, like inhaling, like swallowing, but something purely routed through the channels where his psychic power flowed.

Ritsu watched the energy leech out of the spirit’s face, and soak into his own hand.

If the spirits could feed off of him, that meant he could feed off of them…

Ritsu strained his hand harder. The muffled cries of the spirit lessened as it withered, curdling inward, losing shape and form as its ether drained away. Ritsu looked away, just a bit unsettled by the destruction unfolding before his eyes.

The throbbing behind his eyes lessened. The ache in his chest eased. The scattered numbness vanished from his limbs almost instantly, as though he’d never even fed the spirits that afternoon. When Ritsu finally looked, nothing of the spirit remained, and the lack of pain coursing through his body was almost euphoric.

Slowly, Ritsu set his left thumb to his wrist. He rubbed, searching for the aching torn wound the spirits fed themselves from. Nothing of the sort appeared. The wound had healed, stained only with a shimmering bit of purple residue.

A shivering brushed through his leg, and Ritsu startled. He stepped back, eyes swinging down. Mitzy trailed between his feet, nudging her head against Ritsu’s pant leg. Ritsu eased. He crouched down, and put out a hand for Mitzy to investigate. She sniffed it, then rubbed her hand against it, then stretched further to examine Ritsu’s wrist. Ritsu let this happen. He held his wrist exposed. Mitzy licked at the violet residue smeared along his healed skin, and licked until not a single stain remained.

Her tongue tickled, cold.

Iciness clung to the interior of the bus, soaking through the windows with a chill almost wet to the touch. Ritsu leaned against the black glass, jostling slightly, arms folded in, coat unbuttoned. He watched passing streetlights, blips of light along a stretch of road massive and vacant and dark. The scenery had thinned to almost nothing, buildings and trees growing sparse until the outskirts of the city loomed, liminal and far-removed. The bus’s light washed fluorescent and sterile against the glass, so that Ritsu’s own stiff expression stared back at him. He felt far away from it all, Seasoning City drawing away behind him, consumed into dark nothing.

Teru sat beside Ritsu, immersed in his phone, fingers twitching and silent except for the occasional jangle of phone charms. He hunched forward, uninterested in the thinning scenery outside. Ritsu caught the flipped image of hearts and kissy emojis in the window’s reflection. Everything reflected at a slant, brighter and clearer than the sparse and empty inky blackness beyond. Ritsu exhaled, and his breath fogged the window.

Empty seats surrounded them, the last two people on the bus.

“It’s this next one,” Ritsu said. He tapped the button to signal the driver.

Teru only nodded, and chuckled secretively at his phone before slipping it back in his pocket. He hopped from his seat into the walkway and moved toward the front of the bus before it even began to slow. Ritsu followed in silence.

The huff of brakes, swing of doors, clawing cold of air curling into the bus. Teru whipped out a bus pass to wave in front of the sensor, and he gave the driver a cordial smile before descending the steps to the concrete below. Ritsu dug around in his coat pockets for the change he’d scrounged from his room, and dropped the coins into the till with fingers a bit numb from the cold. He didn’t acknowledge the driver as he descended the steps to the pale concrete below. He wanted no one seeing his face.

The bus door shivered shut, and its engine kicked back in with a heavy sigh. It left behind the faint acid smell of gasoline as it tugged along, consumed in the street that carried on straight and narrow and nondescript. Then it vanished entirely, leaving Ritsu in the pallid lighting of the lone glass bus stop. Wind tore between Ritsu’s ankles. He shivered, hunched into the jacket, and shoved his hands deep into the pockets.

Ritsu stared at the bus stop. Teru had seated himself on the provided bench, legs crossed, fingers flying over the screen of his phone. The blue light lit his smirk, warm feathery jacket hunched up by his shoulders. Moonlight struck the left side of him, silvery and ghostly. Ritsu assumed he must have looked the same. He didn’t check, merely staring until Teru looked up and they locked eyes.

“Which way?” Ritsu asked.

Teru shrugged, and he pocketed his phone again. “How should I know? Aren’t you the mission leader?”

“The address. Your phone has a GPS. I sent you the address.”

“My hands’ll get cold. Use Gimcrack.”

“He’s meeting us there. Ghosts can’t ride the bus.”

“Oh. Hmm. Yeah. Of course.” Teru stood and stretched, his breath puffing silver beneath the moon. “I trust him. He’s a trustworthy guy.”

“Just use your phone!”

“I’m conserving the battery.”

“Hanazawa!” Ritsu barked. His breath curled crisp. A lone car streaked past, passing and leaving them in ringing silence. Ritsu let his shoulders relax, tension bleeding out of him. He was tired. “Please? We’re just wasting time. This bus only runs once an hour, and the route shuts down at midnight.” Ritsu snagged his flip phone from his pocket and opened it. “And it’s 9:15 now.”

Teru shrugged. “Well.” He pulled out his own smart phone, flicking through apps and settling on the map icon. He gave it a moment to adjust, then motioned his head down the far sloping end of the road. He spun on his heels and walked forward. “Then let’s not dawdle. It’s ten minutes this way.”

Ritsu followed in silence, hunched in against the wind that whipped his ears.

Only two turns lay on their route. Ritsu made sure to memorize each of them as they passed in case Teru’s phone died during the raid. He struggled each time for a landmark. Every turn looked the same, sparse of trees and houses, only deep-stretching roads linking one town to the next. After ten minutes, the trees grew denser, taller and more woods-like. The road became gravel, and the GPS brought them down a beaten-in dirt road, burrowing down and away and leading to a warehouse massive and metal. An equally impressive parking lot sat beside it, lined with trucks resting beneath flood-lights. Trees rung the lot, tall and mangled in the moonlight. Ritsu followed down the road. Gravel crunching beneath his feet. He felt around inside the coat pocket, hand settling on the flashlight tucked inside.

“Gimcrack!”

Ritsu called to the blob of dark violet energy he spotted hovering pallid beneath one of the lights stretching over the warehouse roof. Gimcrack waved in response, and Ritsu picked up his pace.

“Is anyone around?” Ritsu asked, eyes shooting periodically to the monolith trucks, skeleton like, beneath the lights. Gimcrack shook his head.

“Nah.” Gimcrack’s attention shifted behind Ritsu, and Ritsu heard Teru’s steps approaching slow and even. Gimcrack hovered a few inches further away. “Last guy left about an hour ago.”

Ritsu turned, investigating the warehouse. Massive steel garage doors lined one side, a loading dock. Beside them, a short set of concrete stairs led to a door. Ritsu stepped to them, climbing. He wrapped his hand around the handle, long thin and metallic, cold to the touch. He tested it. It didn’t budge. He twisted harder. Locked.

Ritsu let go and turned to Gimcrack. “How do we get in?”

“I get you in,” Gimcrack answered. He drifted closer, gauging Ritsu’s reaction. “You gotta let me help though.”

Ritsu felt a hand, clammy and spider-like, settle on his shoulder. He jerked, but Gimcrack’s grip remained firm.

“What—“

“Just relax a second okay? Drop your guard.”

Ritsu only stared. His eyes shifted to Teru, who made no attempt to hide the suspicion on his face.

“What are you doing?” Ritsu asked, tense.

“If you relax for just like, two seconds here kid, I can show you. Unscrew your face would you?”

Reluctantly, Ritsu eased his shoulders. He breathed deep, and he felt Gimcrack’s hand phase deeper. An iciness washed through his whole core, a sensation like being dunked in ice water.

“Touch the door again,” Gimcrack said.

Ritsu did, tentatively. His eyes widened as his hand slipped right through the metal.

“I get you in, I get you out, maybe with an extra brother huh?”

Ritsu retracted his hand from the door. “Is this safe?”

“Is any of this safe?” Gimcrack asked.

“Yeah, no,” Teru answered, cold and firm. He stepped up beside Ritsu, eyes sharp and aura leaking with aggression. Gimcrack hopped away from the two of them. “We’ll just blast a door in. You can leave.”

“And trigger all their alarms? You sure you want that kiddo?” Gimcrack asked. He paused, reading Teru’s icy expression, and a smile crawled over his lips. “I’m just offering a generous service here.”

“It’s fine, probably,” Ritsu answered. He eyed his hand, flexing the numb joints. Feeling had begun to trickle back into his tingling fingers. His heart thrummed. “Do it again, Gimcrack.”  

“Atta boy.”

Gimcrack wrapped his fingers around Ritsu’s shoulder once more, washing Ritsu with a chill so thorough that feeling vanished from his body. Ritsu gasped, unbalanced and unfeeling.

“Go on. Walk kid.”

Ritsu held his breath, trying to orient himself, or at the very least stay upright. Vertigo washed cold through his stomach, but he forced his feet forward. The wall passed through him as though it weren’t there. Or, Ritsu supposed, as though he weren’t there.

On the other side, Ritsu dropped to his knees for a moment to catch his breath. Tingling feeling returned in waves, but it was as though his core had been wrapped in ice. His body shivered, mind recovering.

Silently, a second figure walked in beside him. Teru remained standing, squaring his hips, feet pointed decidedly forward. “Hmmm. Maybe I should have brought a thicker coat.”

Ritsu stared down at his hands, pressed to the ground. Sensation seeped back into his body, but his palms and fingers had grown colder, pressed to a floor colder than ice. The shivering wasn’t just from Gimcrack’s powers, it was from the room itself. His wits returned to him, and slowly, Ritsu remembered where they were.

He looked up. Blackness met his vision, massive and endless. He pushed himself from the floor, fished a hand around in his coat pocket, and grabbed the flashlight from within. He shot it out, and ran his thumb along the surface until the switch beveled under his touch. Ritsu flicked the beam on.

The light sliced through a cone of black, throwing clawing, climbing, stark shadows and empty hollows along every surface. Ritsu took in the scene around him.

Row upon row of carved pig carcasses hung from the ceiling, slit at the stomach and strung from hooks digging through their back hooves. They were sliced in half and gutted, ridges of milky white rib cages reflecting the light and beveling the flesh that clung to them. The chains hung in tight rows, bodies slung from the ceiling like coats at the dry cleaner. All heads had been removed.

Ritsu swung the beam. By the walls, palettes were stacked high with unprocessed carcasses. They were tied down, stiff limbs jutting out, faces wrapped in cellophane. Ritsu blinked, eyes adjusting to the dark, so that his peripheral vision filled with the hung and tethered form of pig corpses.

A second beam of light joined him from Teru’s phone, swinging around the display with flippancy. Teru walked forward in investigation, speaking casually, his words lost on Ritsu. Ritsu stayed rooted. The wind howled loud and percussive against the warehouse, warbling the walls, clanking the ceiling chains. Ritsu swallowed and exhaled, his breath frozen in front of him. His stomach squirmed.

“He’s not here, Hanazawa,” Ritsu said.

Teru stopped and turned, his light momentarily blinding Ritsu. “Hmm?”

“My brother’s not here. He can’t be. It’s a freezer. He’s not.”

Teru spun again, lighting up another ghastly display of pigs whose hollowed-out innards drank up the shadows. “He could be.”

“He’s not,” Ritsu insisted. “It’s freezing.”

“Well that’s not a problem. Any psychic worth his salt can regulate his own temperature.” Teru paused, eyes drilling into Ritsu, mouth quirked into a smile. Teru seemed perfectly comfortable. Ritsu’s body wouldn’t stop shivering.

Ritsu glowered. He turned and banged on the wall behind him. “Gimcrack! My brother’s not in here. Get us out.”

Silence met him,

“Gimcrack!”

“You know, Kageyama, I remember an old horror story I’ve heard about a place like this.”

“Hey.” Ritsu banged his palm against the icy wall once more. The sound reverberated. “Gimcrack.”

“A meat-packer had spent 30 years of his life working in a warehouse like this one. Carving up carcasses all day. Miserable work for miserable pay. And finally one day, he had enough. He pushed a few of those palettes together, and climbed to the tallest meat hook, and hung himself from it.”

Teru’s phone flashlight meandered behind Ritsu, throwing gruesome shadows against the wall Ritsu faced, the forms of bodies hung, stretched and beveled, taut on chains. Ritsu shut his eyes, bowed his head, and banged on the wall. “Gimcrack! Get us out!”

“He cursed the warehouse when he died so that no one could ever get his corpse down. It stayed there, hanging, never rotting in the cold, watching the workers until they were driven insane.”

“I’m not listening.” Ritsu opened his eyes to darkness, stars dancing in his vision. His breath fogged, though sweat dripped from his hairline. “Help me call Gimcrack.”

“His skin became desiccated. His clothes tattered. His eyes froze over, so that the liquid inside formed crystals and tore through his corneas, making them a bright, blind, milky blue. Some workers claimed he moved in the night. Others said he watched you. When he was in the very best of moods, the corpse smiled.”

“Dammit. God dammit Gimcrack. I won’t pay you! Hanazawa, help.”

“And then the warehouse closed down, and he was left there in the darkness and emptiness, finally allowed to rot. But he was lonely. So he was happy, very happy, one day when a group of curious kids broke into the warehouse and visited him. They couldn’t see him in the dark, so he had to wait for their flashlights. He prepared his best grin, his flesh all rotted. And finally, they—“

“Hanazawa.”

“—swung their light just a bit higher—“

Ritsu turned, eyes to Teru. “Shut up okay? I’m trying t—“

“Until they could… greet… his… happy… face…”

Teru snapped his phone to the top corner of the warehouse, light yanked with it, and Ritsu’s eyes followed too.

Someone stared down from the ceiling.

Piercing eyes, a wide grin stretching desiccated skin, cheeks carved out in deep shadows, body slung beneath it. The body jerked. Its head snapped to Ritsu. Its grin widened.

Ritsu gave a hollow gasp. He stumbled back, stomach bottoming out, back slamming into the wall which he crumpled down. His eyes locked to the grin that—

Teru was laughing.

Teru was howling, in fact.

Ritsu shined his own flashlight to the corner, illuminating a pig body coated in yellow aura. The aura vanished, and the pig flopped down, falling back with a sickening smack against the other pigs stacked high. Teru’s laughter echoed, mirthful to tears, from the far walls.

“Seriously?!” Ritsu swung his light to Teru.

“You should see your face,” Teru said, doubled over and wheezing with his hands to his knees. His phone light jittered with his wheezing chuckles, eating at the shadows on the floor. “Hang on hang on hang on.” He rose tall, held the phone up, grin wide and sickeningly satisfied. The light flashed. “Okay okay I took a picture. Hang on I’m sending it to you it’s great!”

“Hanazawa!”

“I got you. You shoulda seen—you—Aah!—and then back—smashed right into the wall! Oh I should have been recording!”

Ritsu’s anger iced over. His eyes shot behind Teru.

“Hanazawa.”

“I thought you—oh this picture! Oh I love this picture! Wallpaper, definitely. You just—Ahh!! Your face is like—“

“Idiot, duck!”

“—Oh, spooky! You--! Huh?”

Duck,” Ritsu shouted.

A moment of pained confusion passed, until a low grumble shook Ritsu’s bones. Understanding snapped, and Teru threw himself to the floor, just before a creature, squealing and massive and bulbously tumored raked through the air Teru’s head had occupied. It careened forward, a globby filthy dripping monster five times as massive as the carcasses in the warehouse, and yet distinctly swine-like in its form. It dove next for Ritsu, who jumped from its path with far more grace.

“You idiot!” Ritsu shouted, head snapping to Teru, finger pointing to the rampaging beast. “You pissed it off!”

Teru watched from the floor, stunned. He patted at the ground, then his pocket, then the ground again. “Where’d my phone go?”

“I don’t know!” Ritsu yelled. He flattened himself against the wall as the swine dove again, and then Ritsu chased after it, feet pumping, flashlight bouncing out the path ahead of him. He leapt onto a palette, hurdling corpses as he raced to catch up with the creature.

Ritsu readied a lash of energy in his free hand and shot it out. It arced like a sickle, violet and razor sharp. It nicked the monster’s hind leg and then kept spinning, slashing through hung carcasses, slicing flesh and bone that rained to the ground.

Ritsu did not let up. He unleashed another shot, and another, near deaf to the squelch of flesh shredded and shorn. Only about a third of his shots hit the massive bulbous oozing green monster, the rest flung wild into chains and wall, palettes and flesh. It was enough to earn the pig’s ire. It reared back. Its eyes were replaced by tumorous growths, but its massive snout twitched, gnashing molars bared, and it shot dead center for Ritsu.

Ritsu steadied his ground. Heart pounding, he readied a burst of energy in his palm, dense and spring-coiled tight. He waited out the seconds, heart-pounding, until the creature lunged. And Ritsu released the shot from his palm.

The recoil knocked Ritsu off balance, snapping awake the old injury of his dislocated shoulder. He hissed, but kept his eyes focused, trained to the shot that exploded, and connected, and carved out a hole through the center of the beast. It let out a ghastly squeal, loud enough to shake the walls, rattle the chains into a symphony of disquiet as it crashed into the ground. Ritsu readied a coil of rope, eyes alight. His body moved naturally. The energy soaking through him was like nothing he knew before.

He knelt over the creature, which writhed and snapped but did not get up, and Ritsu coiled the rope around its snout, rendering it defenseless. He set his palm to the thing’s throat, and he felt it again, that sickly honey-sweet fear that pulsed off the creature as a form of energy. It was dense as it filled Ritsu, cold as the locker. He breathed in deeper as the thing beneath his palm withered dry. Its tumorous skin pruned like leather, until its form decayed down to bones, and then nothing but wispy tendrils that passed through Ritsu’s fingers. Ritsu exhaled, mind clearer, body thrumming with absorbed energy. He relaxed, and stood, and swung his light to Teru.

Teru stood a few feet back, watching with sharp eyes. When the beam struck his face, he gave a quick expression of disgust, tongue out and lip curled.

“You’re welcome,” Ritsu said as he walked past. He set his eyes again to the wall.

“Hey, this is your freak show. I’m here for the entertainment.” Teru came up beside Ritsu, leaning casually against the wall Ritsu banged against. “And apparently you’re here for the snacks.”

“Gimcrack! It was a spirit. We killed it.” Ritsu banged again, listening for a response. “Should I just blast us out of here?”

“I’ve never been a huge fan of pork. How’d it taste? Chewy?”

“Do you ever absorb the spirits?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Does a healthy person need blood transfusions?” Teru ran a hand through his hair, snagging on a few iced-over locks.

“…It’s a good source of energy. Try it.”

“Uh-huh, yeah, sure. And Gimcrack’s a good ally.”

Ritsu slammed his fist once more and then lowered his hand. “Where’d he go…?”

“We could always call up your mommy and daddy to come pick us up.”

“You’re hilarious,” Ritsu answered. He stepped away from the wall and swung his flashlight in search of another exit. “And of course we can’t, because they don’t know I’m gone, because that’s the point.”

“Great parents.”

“What about yours huh? They just—what—let you get away with all this shit? Or do they just so sincerely not give a shit about you that there’s no point in you hiding anything?”

“Ha.” Teru crossed his arms and leaned his back entirely against the freezer wall. “I don’t live with them, so I’m in no rush to get out of here. You seem stressed though.”

“Where do they live?”

“Around.”

Ritsu moved to the adjacent wall, side-stepping palettes to run his beam along the metal in search of a different door. “Why don’t you live with them? Did they get sick of you?”

“How long do you think you have until your parents notice you missing, Kageyama? Hopefully they’d be a bit quicker to the draw than they were with your brother.”

“No.” Ritsu made it to the far wall. His skimmed his fingers along the surface. “They’d never notice, in fact. I didn’t want to risk them realizing I snuck out, so I left Makeshift and Slipshod behind with orders to possess them if they came to check on me.”

“…You what?”

“Gimcrack did it once before, possessing my mom. It works.”

The wall in front of Ritsu beveled, shifting to an ashy violet. Gimcrack’s face oozed out of it. “Did I hear my name?”

“God fuck—there you are!” Ritsu threw his arms out, flashlight arcing wide across the ceiling.

“Ooh, spooky place.”

“I’ve been calling you!”

“Hey hey hey chill huh? I’m here. Just wanted to make sure you dealt with that porker beast before I showed my face, you dig?” Gimcrack gestured to himself. “Can’t risk hurting the merchandise.”

Ritsu fumbled in his pocket for his phone. He flicked it open, time glowing bright along its blue screen. The next bus was in 15 minutes. “Just get us out of here.”

“Roger,” Gimcrack replied, grabbing Ritsu’s shoulder and drenching him with that same icy nothing. Ritsu felt as though the floor had dropped from under him, but he steeled himself, breath held, and moved forward. He stepped through the wall, appearing on the other side of the warehouse which was hidden deeper in shadow than the parking lot side.

Hey, Hanazawa, you coming?” Gimcrack’s voice came muffled through the wall. Ritsu coughed out a breath, and once again dropped to his knees, too numb to stand. His fingers curled in the dewy grass, and he willed sensation to return.  “Heyo, you, Blondie. What? Giving me the cold shoulder now? That’s my job, heh. Get it?”

Ritsu got one foot beneath him. He tested his weight against it. His knee shook, but he was able to rise slowly, shivering the sting of ice out of his body. He hobbled forward a step, then another into the grass, ankles brushing cold through the dew.

“Hanazawa!” Ritsu called over his shoulder, eyes set to the warehouse. His fingers trailed over the phone in his pocket, feeling the seconds tick away, the bus coming nearer. “Come on. What are you doing?”

Well then ease up your shoulders or something then, okay? I can’t phase you if you don’t let me. Just relax your face. Come on, give me a smile.”

The wall blew.

An explosion of light and power clapped against Ritsu’s ears. He let out a yell, stumbling back, hands over his ears as he squinted, staring at the fading rush of yellow aura that had blasted through the metal siding. Alarms shrieked overhead, and Teru appeared like a ghost, pale once more under the moonlight as he stepped through the settling rubble. Ritsu stared, dumbfounded, at the hole. Gimcrack floated out, visibly shaken.

Teru walked past Ritsu, brushing himself off. He pulled his phone from his pocket and tapped it on before burying his face in the blue light.

“What the hell was that?” Ritsu asked, stumbling slightly to catch up.

“We’re finished here. The alarms don’t matter anymore. I could have blasted us out at any time.” Teru refused to face Ritsu. He quickened his pace, and Ritsu fell into quiet step behind him. Ritsu looked behind him, watching the warehouse fade away, the sirens drop off, until only a ringing in his ear remained. He stared at his hands, flexing his fingers, feeling the buzz of newly collected energy beneath them.

“Piece of work, that kid…” Gimcrack muttered from Ritsu’s side. His eyes shifted to Ritsu, and he nudged his shoulder. “Anyway, payment for tonight.”

Ritsu conjured a crystal above his palm, now tainted green, murky in the darkness. He flicked it unceremoniously in Gimcrack’s direction, and then quickened his pace to keep up with Teru.

Five minutes of their walk passed in silence. Only then, when Ritsu looked around and saw himself, Teru, and no one else—only then did it occur to Ritsu that this mission had been a failure.

Mob woke up alone.

And it was an absence he could feel trickling to his core. He lay in bed, eyes open, suffocating in the nothingness around him, deafened in its silence. He stared blind at the ceiling. His body was tucked beneath the covers of his bed. A small hint of moonlight filtered in. He waited frozen, afraid to leave the bed, because he was afraid of being alone.

Slowly, with dread weighing heavy on his chest, Mob sat up. The covers pooled in his lap, and he buried his hands in the warmth. He listened, a quiet ringing nothingness settling on his ears. No snoring from the next room, no hushed babbling on the phone, no tinny television noise filtering through the door. It was an empty house. A dead house.

“Reigen…?”

Mob rose, shuffling out of the blankets. He set a ginger toe to the floor, soft carpeting molding beneath his feet. He worried the end of his braid, finger twisting through the lock of hair bound together at the end with Reigen’s rubber band. He waited. He breathed. Nothing answered.

He walked to the bedroom door. It creaked open under his touch, giving out to a hallway just as dim as his room. He waited. He listened.

“Reigen…?”

Nothing. Mob tugged harder on his braid, heartrate quickening. He’d known something had been wrong the moment he said Shishou’s name. No worse, he’d already known Reigen would be angry, and he said it anyway. He admitted to killing Shishou, and now Reigen was gone. Reigen had claimed nothing was wrong. He’d collected himself, and patted Mob’s head, and told Mob it had been a long day. Go get washed up for bed. Go sleep. He’d handle the mess in the kitchen.

Mob walked toward the kitchen. He tugged harder on his hair, feet tripping over the hem of the sweatpants Reigen had bought for him. He paused and flicked on the light. Brightness flooded down, too bright, that Mob had to squint and shield his eyes. When he looked through his fingers, he found the floor clean. The milk and cake put away. The dishes washed and drying.

“Reigen?”

Alone.

Mob turned and walked toward the couch. He eyed the television, and then the large bay window behind it. The light from the kitchen reflected loud and fuzzy against it, casting Mob’s dark silhouette against it. He looked, seeking out what he didn’t want to see. Mob put a hand out, stretching far, skimming through the air.

He couldn’t touch it. He never could. It always spread away, far from the tips of his fingers, so that he could never feel its cut. But it was there, dim and buzzing and swirling blue. He saw it in front of him. He saw it in the reflection, a gossamer bubble ringing his body.

Mob whimpered slightly. He pulled his hands in and hugged his arm. Reigen was gone. The barrier was back.

He didn’t want to check Reigen’s bedroom.

His feet moved anyway, even when Mob knew he didn’t want to see what lay beyond. Shishou’s withered face flashed through his mind, hanging body, hollow black eyes. Mob had done something to make Shishou hang himself, and now he. Again. Waking to the quiet. Feeling nothing. No presence. Alone. Alone again. Again he—

Mob turned the knob to Reigen’s room. Tears budded behind his eyes, his breathing harsh and fast. He opened the door. He didn’t want to see.

Mob looked anyway.

Nothing.

A rush of breath escaped from his lips, a relief so immediate his legs nearly buckled. Mob took a moment to collect himself. He dropped down onto the carpet and sat there, staring forward, looking above the bed. There was no hanging body. Just an empty room. Reigen had not killed himself.

Mob dug his fingers into the carpet, letting a few relieved breaths slip from his mouth. He collected himself, and pushed himself standing, and held on to the frame of the doorway. Mob turned where he stood, eyes set to the front door. He moved from carpet to tile, bare feet beating cold against the linoleum.

He grabbed the front door, and after a moment of hesitation he opened it. Cold air rushed over his face, the sound of passing cars in the distance, the buzz of the streetlamps surrounding the complex. Mob took a tentative step out onto the wooden stairway.

“Reigen? Please? Are you out here?”

Mob glanced down. Reigen’s car was gone. He worried his fingers together.

Still, Mob descended the steps. Still, he had to try. He made every motion conscious of his barrier. Averse to the touch of anything, paranoid eyes peeled for the slightest movement. He was dangerous again. He was deadly again. But he had to do something to help. This was his fault.

He moved down the driveway, gravel sticking between his toes, and the world felt open and hostile again. His nerve edged away quickly. The world was so huge—he’d forgotten. It wasn’t just Shishou’s house anymore. It was the whole of everything. Reigen could have gone anywhere. Mob’s paces slowed to a trickle. There was maybe nothing he could do.

He waited. He hesitated.

And something burst from the bushes.

It flashed into Mob’s field of vision, a blur of color fast and smooth. His eyes shot wide. Mob stumbled back. Couldn’t hurt—Couldn’t touch—He let out a strangled cry and folded in. He pulled, pulled away. Couldn’t touch. Couldn’t hurt. Couldn’t kill. Not anymore. Not again. No more.

Reigen had trained him.

He could at least.

The sound of shearing fur raked against his ears. Mob’s eyes shot wider, glassy, stomach dropping at the familiar noise of destruction. He dropped low onto his haunches and buried his face in his hands, too terrified for words, or even sounds. Small breathless gasps slipped through his fingers.

And with the gasps, Mob felt the texture of fur slip through his fingers as well.

He raised his head, and stared at his palms through tear-swimming eyes. He saw no blood, no mangled body, only the feathery form of hair strands streaked through his fingers. Mob moved his hands out of the way, and found snippets of hair littered across the ground, blowing in the wind.

He looked higher, and a single white cat stood across from him, tail flicking, paw swiping at its ear. It considered Mob for a moment before rising up and sauntering off down the road.

He hadn’t hit it. For the second time, he hadn’t hit something.

In wonder, Mob focused on the barrier. It was denser, swirled faster and harsher, an angry red, and it hovered only an inch or so from his nose. He’d pulled it in. Concentrated, angry and aggressive, he’d at least managed to pull it in.

Mob eased a fraction, and the barrier spread back out. But it listened. For the first time since it appeared, it listened.

His right hand rose, seeking to grab the end of the braid and finding nothing. The absence startled him, and so Mob searched further, feeling out his hair. Some locks still hung to his shoulder, others had shorn short. Uneven, scraggly, his bangs had been taken at an angle.

Mob retreated, beating back up the steps and shutting the door behind him. He moved as though possessed, feet taking him to the bathroom where he flicked the light on. Brightness caught, and Mob stared at the boy in the mirror.

Messy, mangled, awkwardly cut and uneven. His hair must have whipped around when he heard the cat, spinning wide when he yanked the barrier in. The rubber band had been taken. The braid had unraveled, leaving a shorter mess of poorly chopped hair.

He grabbed the edge of the sink and breathed. His mind hadn’t caught up yet. Too much had happened. Too close of a call. And Reigen was gone. And Shishou was dead. And his barrier was back and—

Mob looked up again at the mirror, and he was haunted there by the look of a boy he almost remembered. He reached out and touched his fingertips to the mirror. The cheeks were shallower, the eyes more hollow, but it was a face he almost remembered. He remembered this face. This one. As though he were still the same person underneath it all. And maybe he could be. Maybe he was.

Mob tightened his grip on the sink. His breathing calmed. He watched his eyes, and willed them to belong to the boy who never knew about barriers or basements or cockroaches skittering in the night.

He couldn’t do that. Those things were a part of him. But he realized, staring into his own eyes, they were becoming less a part of him…. He wasn’t there anymore. Not in the basement. Not with Shishou. Not with rats and not with soup and not with the barrier cutting every chance of touch. He was at Reigen’s house, and Reigen was different, and Reigen was making him different.

Mob’s shoulders slumped, and he eased down onto the plush shower mat beneath his feet. He held his legs in and watched the barrier dance through the air. He pulled once, experimentally, and it yielded to his touch, beveling closer.

Mob released it, and eased, and breathed. There was nothing he could do now except hope that Reigen was different. Hope that Reigen wasn’t like Shishou.

Hope that Reigen was coming back.

Chapter Text

(chapter content warning: rats, roaches, descriptions of unsanitary conditions)

“So if I’m following the logic here – and I'm truly grasping at straws when it comes to finding any actual logic here – our current theory is that your brother has been kidnapped and recruited into telemarketing?”

Teru leaned across the desk divider of a long sturdy table split into work stations, waggling a pad of legal paper in his hands. He’d picked it up from the nearest work set-up - one of a few-dozen work stations squished along the same industrially long table, each one separated by zigzagging lime-green blinders along the table’s surface to create the illusion of privacy from one nook to another, honeycombed together as if housing worker bees in a hive. The legal pad contained nothing more interesting than a few names scribbled in smudged blue-black ink, accompanied by phone numbers, addresses, and a few short-hand comments gauging interest in a new home security system.

Ritsu ignored the paper. He didn’t respond, or even make eye contact. He busied himself in rifling through an unlocked filing cabinet of the opposite station. He operated only by the emergency lighting which was docked flush along the seam where wall met floor throughout the building.

That lighting, conspicuous in its positioning, seemed to be a constant for the building even when locked up and powered down for the night. The haze they cast was bright enough for Teru and Ritsu to stow their flashlights away, though the low height of the lighting hit the two of them at uncanny angles, throwing dilated shadows up and across the walls, beveling at the sparse few windows with every movement. It etched Ritsu’s face with geometric hollows above his cheeks and nose. He looked like a camper with a flashlight beneath his chin. Gimcrack popped into existence to his right, adding a purple wick of flame to the skeletal lighting.

“Anything I can help with, Boss?” Gimcrack asked.

Ritsu rolled the drawer shut. It clattered along its tracks and shut with a metallic click. He moved on to the next one. “Just keep guard.”

“What about me, Boss?” The noise came from behind Teru. He didn’t bother turning to investigate: the wash of orange light and Slipshod’s doughy, bumbling voice were clear enough tells.

“Just keep guard, too. If I have something for you to do I’ll tell you.”

“So are these stooges just going to be constants on these missions? Even after Gimcrack left you for dead, Kageyama?”

“It was a misunderstanding,” Gimcrack responded. Ritsu didn’t.

This bored Teru, who dropped the legal pad back on the desk where he’d found it and took to appraising the ungodly assortment of sticky notes plastered about. They covered the desk, the monitor, growing like mold up the height of the divider in a motley variety of rainbow colors. They had no clear color-coding schema, all just bearing more names, more callback numbers, more sales estimates. All except for the pink ones, at least, where a pattern blossomed: the pink sticky notes were littered with small hearts penned along the edges, and their dates were off work hours, their addresses seemingly restaurants in the area. Teru was struck with the image of a real person, a distinct soul, occupying this seat in the flurry of endless phone ringing, and endless sales pitching, etching hearts along these sticky notes with the promise of a night away with someone.

Teru stewed in the disdain he felt for a moment. This really was just a regular, terrible, pointless office space.

So Teru wandered away from the desk, clasping his hands and raising his arms high above his head. He yawned, and settled by the nearest window, and watched his reflection. His eyes were hollow too from the floor-level lighting. Gimcrack did not appear in the window reflection. Nor did Slipshod, who’d taken to oozing in and out of the storage closets. Nor Makeshift, who simply hovered a few feet above the floor, making rhythmic, wheezing rasps while his eyes flickered left and right. Beyond the window, pin pricks of streetlights twinkled. He shot one disinterested glanced to the security camera in the corner of the room, which he’d zapped dead upon entry.

Teru breathed deep and shut his eyes, tuning in. It was like dipping his finger into a flowing stream to feel which way the currents curled. The three spirits became plumes of aura. They were visible in ways that did not involve sight. And Ritsu appeared in his mind’s eye like a candle in a gale, aura flickering and lashing, tendrils spinning outward. Gimcrack hovered beside him, drifting not-so-subtly downwind, relishing in the fizzle he skimmed from Ritsu’s maelstrom. The entropy of it all would have worried Teru, if he cared.

Instead, Teru searched past the spirit plumes and the lashing aura, tuning into the whisps of aura cloaked beneath them. He did detect the faintest hint of something else, but it was nothing that excited him. Nothing he would have gone out of his way for in his own daily life.

“Gimcrack, remind me again what kind of aura you traced to this place?” Teru pressed.

Gimcrack shrugged. He schmoozed closer to Ritsu. “Beats me. But it’s a pretty big aura source. Kinda wiggly.”

“Great lead. Kageyama, was your brother wiggly?”

No response. Not so much as a shudder in Rtisu’s maelstromming aura. This game wasn’t very fun tonight.

“Welp, with that,” Teru stretched again, for effect this time, “I think it’s time we get going. Great work team. Excellent job.”

Ritsu slammed the next filing cabinet drawer shut. And he rolled out the one beneath it, methodical in his sequence, crouching now as he leafed through. Teru mentally calculated how many filing cabinets occupied the office, and his estimate sat comfortably in the hundreds.

“Well, I’m leaving,” Teru continued.

“Okay, bye,” Ritsu replied.

Teru took pause. He lingered and then sauntered across the room to Ritsu. He leaned against the wall beside Ritsu’s filing cabinet, arms crossed in appraisal.

“I know your brother was young when he was taken but I don’t think he’d be fitting in a filing cabinet at 14. What are you hoping to find in there?”

Ritsu gave away nothing from his expression. His focus remained glued to the cabinet. “Anything, really.”

“You know he’s not here. You and I both know that. So let’s go home.”

“I already said you can go home.”

“And so what about you? If you thought you stood any chance of finding him here, you wouldn’t be dismissing me. So just admit that and leave with me.”

“What do you care?” Ritsu slammed this cabinet shut prematurely.Why does everything have to be a power play with you? Just go home.” Ritsu turned now, glare seething into Teru. His eyes were tired. “I’m just going to exorcise whatever Gimcrack’s sensed here and… or maybe that spirit will know something, I don’t know. It’s a lead. And if I get rid of it that’s one less false positive. So go home, it’s not like you’ve been any help at all on these missions.”

Teru scoffed. He unfolded his arms and pulled away from the wall. “Oh? I did stop you from killing that office lady, remember that? I consider that a little helpful.”

No response again. Teru let out an audible sigh.

“You want an answer? It’s because I don’t trust you to be here by yourself. Because without me you’ll kill something, or destroy something, or maybe even rat me out to the police when you get caught.”

’Maybe’?”

“Oh cute. Fine you will rat me out. Which is why--”

“What was that?”

“You will rat me out.”

“Shh. No. The noise. Dumbass.”

Ritsu backed away from the filing cabinet, finger pressed to his lips, eyes skittering left and right. Teru knew at a glance that Ritsu had no ability to sense auras. Otherwise he would be tuned into the new fizzle in the air, a ripple in the stream, which Teru admittedly hadn’t bothered to notice until now. Instead Ritsu twisted his head left and right, scouting, listening, human senses on edge, blind for an esper.

Something squeaked.

A glob of blue energy no larger than a fist skittered across Ritsu’s feet. Ritsu had no time to react before it had bounded beyond him and shot for the shelter of the telemarketer desk. There the glob settled, shadowed beneath desk, looking back in Teru and Ritsu’s direction with beady red eyes blinking. A small snout twitched, tasting the air, buck teeth exposed, tiny hands scuffling at its tabbed ears. It leaned on its haunches, and its worm-like tail twitched.

“Oh, haha, I see. I get it. It’s a rat. The ghost is a rat. Everything’s a punchline,” Teru remarked. In that moment, Gimcrack pounced on the rat. He grabbed it in his fists, his pulsating smoggy body waggling like a cat’s. The rat ghost shrieked. “And he’s a mouser. We’ve defeated this evil with an unholy bastardization of the common house cat. With that, I am going home.”

“Now don’t be such a sourpuss,” Slipshod remarked. He circled Gimcrack, eyes full of expectation. Gimcrack pulled away from him and stuffed the rat into his mouth, delighting in Slipshod’s disappointment before swallowing it whole.

“Yeah kid, don’t you have any Teru-rier instincts?” Gimcrack asked.

“Oh that’s a Teru-ble pun,” Slipshod chortled back.

A single, hyper-articulated clap split the air. The pocket of space previously housing Slipshod exploded. Orange, ectoplasmic splatter with two blinking eyes slapped against the back wall 30 feet away. Gimcrack hadn’t moved, but a third of his face was missing.

With yellow energy sparking along his raised fist, Teru flashed the spirits an affable smile. “Neither of you have permission to use my first name.”

Gimcrack ducked and shot behind Ritsu, resting his hands on Ritsu’s shoulder as he peered out at Teru. “Oi, Ritsy, back us up a little would ya? Your friend can’t take a joke.”

Ritsu had paid no mind to the conversation. He was staring downward, fully engrossed in the squirming spirit which he had trapped by the tail beneath his shoe. This rat was identical to the first, eerily blue and no larger than a pear, trying and failing to yank its tail free from the weight of Ritsu’s foot.

“There’s more of them,” Ritsu remarked. He leaned more of his weight against the rat tail. “It wasn’t just that one.”

“Still not our problem. Still not fun. Leave your house cats here to take care of it, Kageyama, and go home.”

Slipshod peeled off the back wall, hitting the floor with a viscous splat. He oozed across the ground, eyes intent on the rodent pinned beneath Ritsu’s shoe. The ghost rat sensed this, keen to its doom in the air, shrieking louder as the mush-ball approached. Slipshod opened his gaping maw and happily scooped the creature into his mouth.

Ritsu released his foot. “They’re not intelligent, right? They’re like that slaughterhouse pig? I can’t get information out of them?”

Slipshod rolled his food around in his mouth while he chewed, eyes focused up and to the left in thought. “I’unno, doenm’t tasmte imtelligmt.”

“Don’t speak with your mouth full,” Makeshift said. His words came out wispy and frail, though he could not hide the spark of interest in his eyes as he surveyed the floor too.

A skittering set of legs dashed across Teru’s shoulder. He stiffened and immediately slapped it off. A third identical rat, which Gimcrack and Slipshod pounced for in unison. They collided against each other, scuffling and muttering curses to each other while Makeshift floated over and snatched the rat for himself.

“Let’s go, Kageyama.”

“Hang on hang on hold up, what’s the rush, hmm?” Gimcrack spun on Teru, arms out, imploring. “We haven't even figured out if squirt’s older brother is here or not.”

“We have. He’s not. And if you spirits want us to stay, then I have even less reason to stick around.”

Three more rats scurried by, streaming in and out of each other in a way only their ghostly intangibility allowed, and Teru kicked them with full prejudice. They collided with the opposite wall, same as Slipshod, twitching.

“Kageyama, we’re going--!” Teru froze in his address, taken aback as he glanced to Ritsu. A horde of six rats had shot out and fastened themselves to Ritsu’s pantleg, their tails dancing and braiding, sliding in and out of each other in a way that reminded Teru hauntingly of a spider’s web weaving. Ritsu was white in the face, and he bore his palm straight down, crackling purple energy sputtering against the climbing rodents.

Teru yanked his tie off and drew it into a sword, razor-sharp. He hacked it outward, a single cut bisecting three of the rats clinging to Ritsu, expertly angled to avoid so much as skimming Ritsu’s pantleg. They curled with morbid stiffness, peeling off Ritsu with a weight that dragged the three living rats down from the scaled tower. Ritsu hopped out of the circle, eyes lit with fear, and let loose an overcharged blast of purple energy on the ring of rats. Charred corpses remained.

“What do we do?” Ritsu asked, and it was with a breathy horror that almost made Teru feel bad for him.

“Leave five minutes ago.”

“What do we do now?!”

They climbed now from the thinnest gaps and cracks in the wall, skittering under locked doors and oozing from vents, a swelling chorus of chirps and squeaks as the lighting along the floor adopted their glow, until the room was bathed in radioactive green.

A trickle became a stream. A few dozen rats skittered past Teru’s legs, though they did not climb. They paid him no attention, their hivemind intent focused unbreakably on the three spirits and Ritsu. Gimcrack yelped and shook two from his spindly left arm. Slipshod, slower to the draw, found himself dragged down and swamped in a wave of skittering rats, which streamed over and through each other, their tails entangling until Slipshod was pinned prisoner beneath the net.

The spirits were afterthoughts though, comparatively, to the way the rats set their collective ruby red eyes on Ritsu, saliva dripping in viscous streams from their buck teeth. Another wave of ten rats climbed him from behind, and when Ritsu spun in horror to look at them, fifteen more scrambled up from the ground.

Teru snapped his wrist a few more times, each rake of his tie halving and sheering another half dozen rats as they crawled Ritsu. But for each rat slain, two more grasped on. Their tiny claws pierced through fabric, needle points, rat scrambling over rat in a rolling, shimmying, patterned dance that braided tail into tail. The amalgams climbing Ritsu jerked and shrieked, pulling in opposite directions such that the knots of their tails tightened beyond detanglement.

Ritsu’s breathing had been reduced to rapid, panicked sputters, and he wheezed out a painful desperate breath as the rats encircled his ribcage and pulled tight. He stumbled backwards, tripping over the rats swarming his heels, and he collided with the floor, horrified eyes locked to his torso as he watched the rats claim higher and higher perch in his uniform.

One tangle of rats had climbed the highest, tails irreparably knotted, and Ritsu found the red-eyed face of the rat nearest him staring him down. It pulsed with the hyperventilation bouncing Ritsu’s chest. And after a moment of silent eye contact, it opened its maw to bear needle teeth. Ritsu braced, and then watched helpless, as the rat sunk its teeth into the body of the rat to its right.

The mauled rat let out a shriek, and then clamped its own teeth into its attacker. The little incisors ripped clean through rat flesh, and oozing ectoplasm flowed freely from the wound, flooding the rat’s mouth. Each rat in the bundle did the same in turn, a chain reaction exploding violently through the horde, until all were bleeding out ectoplasm, and all were suffocating in it. Each individual rat form lost cohesion, slowly. They melted away under the assault of teeth and the choking of ectoplasm. Ritsu let out a single agonized scream, and the building energy in his body unleashed outward in a single, panicked explosion.

The cocoon of rats spattered off him, and a flurry of office papers took to the arm in the wake of his explosion. Ritsu gasped deep and slammed against the floor with the force of impact. He scurried backwards in a crab walk, eyes plastered unshakably to the mound of rats. They oozed and steamed in the wake of his attack, yet still mauled faces and sunk teeth into neighboring bodies, cannibalizing further.

From the ooze, new features took form. New rat faces five times as large, with malformed eyes and bodies with half-spawned limbs grew from the ether. The pile took the form of chimeras made in a hurry. And for each new rat face spawned, its teeth sunk back into flesh, cannibalizing and deconstructing and starting the process over, until larger and larger features coalesced from the body.

Ritsu let out a blast of purple energy with a single, strangled yell. It collided with the rat pool, and left not so much as a visible scratch.

The glob itself now twitched as a whole. And from its matrix a single head took form, with a single set of hellish eyes, and teeth the size of dinner plates, honed to an edge and sleek enough to throw Ritsu’s horrified reflection back at himself. A body surged forth, two front legs pulling out like boots from the mud. Back legs emerged, and the last of the ooze spiraled out into an enormous, wormy tale.

A hulking beast, larger than a bear, loomed over Ritsu. A bloodlust burned in its horrible eyes. Ritsu braced himself, consumed in the moment, unable to so much as find his voice in the wake of the whole-body shuddering horror that had plagued him at his near-cocooning.

He stood no chance of fighting. He stood no chance of standing. He could only shut his eyes and steel himself for--

Teru swiped a hand through the air.

It connected with the rat king.

The rat king popped.

Ectoplasm exploded outward and rained across the entire breadth of the office space, spattering walls, weighing down chairs, stripping sticky notes from the dividers.

“Ew,” Teru commented.

He watched Ritsu from behind a half-conjured barrier, angled and positioned precisely to protect Teru from the rainstorm of ghost rat matter. Ritsu lay on the floor, chest heaving, coated in sweat and now positively soaking in rat goop.

Ritsu breathed. Shock soaked his system. His voice hadn’t returned. His emotions muddied together, unintelligable. His brain refused to catch up. He flopped back on the floor instead.

“You’re welcome.” Teru flicked away his barrier, spattering the ground with another coating of goop. “Now can we leave?”

Ritsu gave no acknowledgement he had even heard. The spirits stirred though. They showed their faces, testing the waters. Slipshod mooshed himself to the floor, shoveling goop into his mouth and looking all the more like a rotted orange with each passing moment. Gimcrack, with a touch more civility, floated to the nearest desk arrangement and wiped the divider clean of ectoplasm, collecting it in the nook of his spindly limbs and throwing globs of it into his mouth like popcorn. Makeshift had shakily lowered himself to the floor, settled into a pile of mush, glowing slightly.

Teru’s shoulders dropped, and he sighed. He shot one last hateful glance to the spirits on the ground, and stepped across the muck to Ritsu. He offered a single hand, which Ritsu took, and pulled Ritsu back onto his unsteady feet.

“Kageyama, I have a serious question for you, and I want you to think critically about this. Do you really believe Gimcrack sensed a colony of cannibalistic rats and thought, in earnest, that your brother might be here? Or do you think it’s more likely he knew there was an easy feast in this place and that he’d need trick an esper into serving up it for him?"

Gimcrack blinked, mouth full. He held up his empty hand in a show of defense. “I swear, I had no idea there was any kind of, rat king thing in here. Wouldn’t be smart of me to stake it out ahead of time. I could get eaten that way. I just sensed some aura, and I came to grab you, that’s our deal.”

“Yeah. I’ve got no reason to trust you. And that’s a shitty deal. Kageyama, answer me.”

Ritsu was slow to answer. His heart rate had only just begun to slow. “I’m not going to turn down any possible leads.”

“So you’ll happily be made an idiot? Happily have this happen again and again until something kills you? I don’t like coming to your rescue.”

“I’m not an idiot.”

“It’s hard to take you seriously when you’re covered in rat goop.”

Ritsu held his arms out, surveying the sleek coat of ectoplasmic residue that clung to his clothes, viscous and shimmering with just a bit of radioactive light. He tensed his arms, and breathed deep, and the glow blossomed. Like rain water evaporating, the goop coalesced and vanished into Ritsu’s skin.

“That’s worse. This is worse now. Now you ARE rat goop.” Teru pinched the bridge of his nose, and then gestured outward. “Is this a success, to you? Is this a mission complete? Is this what you want? Are you okay with this?”

Ritsu paused to let the question sink in. Energy thrummed just under his skin, and it alleviated the ache behind his eyes that had plagued him all night. As the adrenaline ebbed, relief pulsed through his veins. He felt alive, in a way he hadn’t been for years. “Honestly--”

In the curling rise of a few long seconds, the night blackness lit up into flashing lights, and the silence erupted into keening sirens, swelling louder until deafening. Ritsu straightened in a panic, fear spiking anew. Teru let out a quiet swear as the sound of approaching vehicles screeched from the parking lot. Tires halted out front, doors opening and slamming shut. The front door creaked open.

“Police!” a voice called from the entrance. Ritsu’s heart had leapt into his throat. His legs had not caught up yet. Shaky, jelly-like, they refused to move under his direction.

“Well, that’s my cue to skedaddle,” Teru said.

“Wait!”

Ritsu reached an arm out, but as quickly as he’d spoken, Teru had vanished, leaving Ritsu swamped into the sensory assault of the keening sirens and the flashing lights and the sound of footsteps coming closer.

“Fuck,” Ritsu whispered. He willed himself to find his composure, willed himself to think, fists banging against the side of his head. “Gimcrack, go possess them,” he hissed, feeling his heart slam into his ribcage as a flashlight swung through the open expanse of the office space.

Nothing answered him.

Ritsu swiveled his head, eyes locked to the desk where Gimcrack had been feasting moments before. Empty. Gone. “Slipshod! Makeshift!”

Nothing. He was alone. Him and the rat goop.

“Fuck. Fuck fuck.” Ritsu willed his legs to move. BEGGED them to move. And he took off, hoping to find the super speed that Teru possessed. It didn’t come to him. He only moved with the blind panic of someone short on options, desperate to not be caught. Ritsu set his sights on the stairwell across the room, and he broke into a sprint.

He didn’t make it to the point of actually climbing the stairs. He reached the first step right as a shadow, human shaped, covered the entrance to the office room.

“Anyone in here? Come out with your hands up.”

So Ritsu leapt past the stairwell, into the recess hidden behind the stairs. It was a small nook with just a counter and a coffeepot and a crawlspace beneath the stairs. Ritsu crouched, like a scared child, in the space beneath the stairs.

Rhythmic footsteps thudded into the room, bouncing with the echo of the walls. The flashlight swung left and right, and Ritsu watched its beam hit the opposite walls in sweeping arcs.

He readied a curl of purple fire in his palms, swallowed hard, and he prayed.

Haruki pulled up to the front of an unassuming office building, a few stories high and sparsely littered with windows. A clear moon shined overhead which bathed them all in an eerie paleness, bright enough to forego the need of the streetlights. Isa stepped out of the passenger's seat before Haruki had even killed the engine.

“Wait out here,” she instructed him. Isa fingered the radio on her belt, ensuring the buttons clicked and crackled under her press.

“Oh, in the car?”

“Yeah.”

“What do you think is going on in there?”

“Silent alarm tripped. Could be nothing. Could be someone stealing electronics. The security camera is not working apparently.”

“Like someone cut it?”

“Maybe. It’s a call center, and there’s a lot of hardware worth stealing. Just hang tight here and listen if I call for backup. I’ll page you.”

“O-okay, Roger!” Haruki nodded, and he toyed with the scanner radio built into the dash of the car, tuning it forward and back. “Can do. You sure I shouldn’t just com--”

Isa shut the car door.

She set her eyes to the low glow of the emergency lighting ahead. Through it, she could just barely make out the outline of a reception desk just inside the foyer. She approached, on edge, and punched in the security key she’d been given over the phone. The front door shuddered with a pneumatic clack, and she pulled the door open.

Police!” she announced, once inside.

The lobby bore no signs of forced entry. Isa rounded the reception desk and found nothing had been visibly upset. The computer sat undisturbed, the tower blipping with gentle lights.

She moved on to the left hall, which bore just bleached white walls and piping snaking across the ceiling, all painted with the same shade of eggshell white. Small lights along the floor lit her path, a walkway of ghost lights, which her flashlight bleached out on each swing. Nothing moved.

She hit the end of the hall, and found it opened into a massive office space, a veritable warehouse, scattered with hundreds of workstations crunched together along tables that stretched the whole width of the room. Dividers spread across the desk in a honeycomb pattern. Her flashlight threw their shadows high and arcing against the back wall, carrying with it the beveled shadow of a staircase leading up to the second floor.

“Anyone in here? Come out with your hands up,” Isa called, but nothing responded. She eased her shoulders down a little. No sign of entry, no sign of robbery, no sign that anyone existed in the building beside herself at this moment.

She glanced up the security camera in the corner of the ceiling, and she froze.

The camera was visibly scorched.

Electrical... maybe... Isa thought to herself, but still something gripped tight around her heart. An unease of staring up at dead objects hanging from the ceiling. Images of Tetsuo, and the hanging corpse, flashed through her mind. She shook them off, ignoring them.

She walked through the row of desks, each decorated with different personal affects, in varying states of messiness, blooming and crawling only with the shadows she wrought against them from her beam. Dust danced before her eyes. A few papers were scattered on the ground, as if blown from the desks. When she swung the light farther, she found the volume of disturbed papers swelled massively, until the floor at the end of the aisle was spattered with a nearly flawless snow-white covering of displaced office sheets.  She paused to consider them, and glanced up just long enough to--

--Something moved.

Something near the stairwell.

Isa swung the light back up, laser focused now, a bit ashamed of having let her guard drop. Tetsuo. Mogami. Papers? Focus.

“Come out!” she called. “Hands where I can see them.”

Slowly, methodically, Isa rounded toward the stairwell. The whole opposite side was obscured from view, and she wouldn’t be able to see what lay beyond without exposing herself first.

Breath held, Isa moved.

And whoever was hiding behind the stairwell moved in turn.

Isa froze him in her flashlight beam, heart momentarily leaping into her throat as she saw a split-second of movement, and instantly found herself blinded by a beam of concentrated light – a flashlight shined back into her eyes – but one tainted purple. It washed out her vision with a pressure almost physical. Isa yelped, careening back, horrified and cursing herself out for the moments of vulnerability that stretched in front of her.

Her radio. Haruki. She needed to--

The violet light vanished. She opened her eyes, her vision stained with mottled patches of stars and painfully unadjusted to the dark. The rest of the office vanished in a blanket of pure black. The only things visible to her were the things that lay prisoner under the direct beam of her flashlight.

And it was a boy, caught in her cross beam.

No older than 12 or 13, he stared up at her from beneath the staircase, messy black hair sweeping outward, partially plastered slick to his face with sweat. He had one hand braced against the ground, one knee and one foot pressed to the floor as though ready to leap. His free hand he held up and out, tense, in a manner that would have been threatening had it contained a weapon. It was empty. Not so much as a flashlight clasped in his palm.

But it was his face that captivated Isa. Rage, malice, twisted up with such ferocity. His dark eyes, catching the light, lighted a hatred so intense that it felt palpable, physically piercing. It was a look that washed her soul with a shiver of ice water. His lips were curled, exposing clenched teeth, brow furled taut-to-snapping over those viscerally calamitous eyes. And it was an animosity unlike anything Isa had witnessed.

His clenched teeth parted. And breath escaped with a click along those teeth, hissing out just a single word.

You.”

Isa no longer stood in the office building.

She was sitting on a staircase instead, anchored beside the huddled little boy clinging to the banister, who shot her glowering looks of disdain which served only half-convincingly to hide the terror under his mask. A little boy in footie pajamas, who let hatred into his eyes as a defense measure.

“No one could ever just take Niisan. He’s too strong. He’s so strong he could never get taken away!”

The boy under the stairs now wore a face so much more twisted, so much more learned in its hatred, unbridled and aggressive in a way that the nine-year-old on the stairs could not manage. His cheeks had hollowed out, and exhaustion had bruised in under his eyes, and the torture belayed there left Isa wondering, for a single moment suspended in time, what horrors the boy had lived through since they parted ways on the stairs.

The boy opened his mouth once more, and he spoke with a gravity that weighed down Isa’s heart.

“Do you remember me?!”

Isa lowered her flashlight just a fraction. A name danced along her lips.

“I do. I remember you, Kageyama...”

The younger one.

The one not taken.

Reigen killed the engine, and he leaned forward, until his forehead was resting on the steering wheel. He piled his arms in front of him, crossed in front of the wheel, almost as though he were intending to rest his head in his arms if not for the wheel in his way.

Only the cold wheel touched his head. Without the clammer of the engine, cicada song bled through the car door. The sounds cocooned him in, trapped him in the world made only of himself, and the interior of his car, and nothing else. He sunk into that miasma, adrift in the haze of thoughtless nothing.

It didn’t last.

Reigen lifted his head, and he unbuckled his seat belt, and he popped the car door open, met with the inky blackness that draped like a veil around the condemned house. He shivered, not from the temperature, but from the full body shudder the looming sight sent through his veins. The thing that haunted him in his nightmares, where he did not wrestle the knife away in time, where he found himself tied up and helpless.

The house was a pillar of torment far worse now. Representative not just of a few, horrific late-night encounters with the traipse of spirits along its breath. It was now a monument to his failure, an obelisk to his weakness as a single, stupid, powerless human.

Reigen shut the car door. And he moved forward. Wayward crusting leaves crunched underfoot. Stubs of unkempt grass spurted from between walkway stones and formed softs mounds beneath Reigen’s shoes. The wind blew crisp in one direction, and putrid in the other. The closer he got, the more the foulness lingered in the air.

The thought of approaching the door wrapped his heart in a vice. The thought of entering, and not emerging, for four whole years nearly crushed him to consider. It clawed up his throat and nearly turned him on heel.

Reigen kept forward.

The front door creaked under his press, inviting, or at least unopinionated about his entrance. It was the front entrance that bristled at his approach. A smell, unwashed and rotten, stirred from the floorboards, kicked up with dust and mold. They moaned at the pressure Reigen placed down with his heel, as though threatening to sink down, to let him collapse through into the basement like the unsteady ice of a just-frozen lake. Willing to consume him. Willing to drag him down with a weight around his ankle and hold him, for four years, because what more did he deserve?

Reigen pressed forward, numb, and yet suffocating in the horror of his heart.

This time, Reigen ignored the kitchen.

This time, Reigen burrowed deeper into the maws of the house.

This time, he saw the basement door.

Flung open, chasming into a blackness too dark to parse with raw sight alone. Reigen toyed with the flashlight in his hands, and flicked it on, and swung the beam wide. It caught the mouth of the basement door, and it brought into stark relief the decay chipping away at the frame, the mold spreading like mottled colonies of moss along the floor, and wherever frame connected with drywall. The entrance to the basement still swallowed his light, unyielding, too deep and massive in its dark expanse to offer him any sight into what lay beneath.

So he approached. And he lit the stairs, one at a time, and descended. He let his free hand wander out to the handrail, though he only hovered his fingers above it. He could not bring himself to taint his hands with touch.

Each step protested beneath him, sharp in its creak, betraying the rot that had sunk into the skeleton of the house. Dead things blossomed here. Mold and fungus ate into the decay. It was a house that ate. That consumed. Reigen felt it gnawing into his mind. He couldn’t imagine what it would do to his soul, his body, given time.

The darkness swelled up around him, like murky water, with each step lower. A willing casting of himself to the bottom of the lake. His whole body protested, but he needed to see. Each step sapped the heat from the air around him. Chilled air currents curled about his neck and his face like snakes, choking with the stench of rot that made each inhale an effort.

It’s warm.”

Reigen pulled the neck of his shirt up around his nose, and he carried on.

He reached the bottom, foot connecting with unfinished concrete. He lowered the beam of light and quickly regretted it. Rat droppings, and scattered wings and shells of beetles littered the ground. They soaked an uncleanness into the soles of Reigen’s feet.

He swept the flashlight wide.

A mattress, flush against the ground, sat beneath the single floodlight of the basement. It was stripped bare and naked, a single threadbare bundle of sheets rolled up in a ball on the far side of the mattress. A pitiful nest, not enough to support even the meagerest flicker of life.

Reigen moved close to the bed, and the darkness curled in around him. Claustrophobia set into his heart. And he backed away, swinging the flashlight beam to catch the swaths of scattered metal cans sprawled wayward across the floor. Their edges were crusted, and a crashing and clang followed the swing of his light. A rat tail darted out of sight while a can clattered to the ground, rolling in circles before halting.

It took a moment for Reigen’s heart to settle, for the shaking to leave his limbs. It wasn’t just the shock of the rat, so much as the shock back to himself that left him shaky and weak. He didn’t want to process what he saw. He didn’t want to think as himself.

Another swing of the light, and the beam was consumed in the maw of the unfinished bathroom adjoined to the basement. Reigen crept closer, crossing the threshold and setting foot down on the cracked porcelain tile beneath.

The sink was stained in deep, yellow rings, all but colorless beneath Reigen’s single flashlight. Residue coated the drain. Experimentally, Reigen balled his fist in his sleeve and turned the knob. A trickle of water bled from the spout, weak. He shut off the water again. He experimented the same with the shower, finding a puttering stream of water eking from the limestone-choked nozzle. Cold. And the water stayed cold. Reigen shut it off the same.

He left the bathroom. He made to close the door and found nothing anchored to the hinges where a door ought to be. With a new hollow feeling in his chest, Reigen turned away from it.

He gave one more sweep of the basement with his flashlight beam, and one last curiosity stood out. Something formed a pile, adjacent to the mattress, mottled colors of rags beneath the washed-out beam Reigen flashed. He moved closer, finding the heady foul odor of the basement climbing with each step closer. He crouched over the pile, investigating.

The faded-out print of a cartoon character stared back at him, a mouse or a bear of sorts, its smile long faded and bleached, crumbled away from years of wear. Reigen touched it, bare handed. It was stiff and scratchy, threadbare like the sheets. He lifted it. A shirt.

He placed it down, out of the way. Ratty sweatpants sat beneath it. He shifted through the pile, and it was not that deep. Each article had been worn through to exhaustion, those deeper in the pile sporting holes worn by teeth, and each disturbance Reigen wrought on the pile came with the skitter of cockroach legs vanishing from view. Lighter fabrics were stained a deep yellow, wrapping in rings and puddles, indicative of water damage. For each shirt he found, they all bore the same cut and make, same for the pants. These articles were the first things picked from the clearance rack at a local department store. The image of Tetsuo, unsettlingly cool, purchasing soup from the corner store flashed through his mind.

Reigen got to the bottom of the pile. And he paused. And he stared. He spent a moment frozen in time, before he lowered the flashlight. He set it on the ground, angled up just a bit to illuminate the final thing in the pile, catching dust in its beam.

With both hands free, Reigen grasped onto the shoulders of the final article of clothing, and he lifted it, and he stared.

An elementary school uniform -- the shirt, specifically, tattered almost beyond recognition. The lapel had been well-eaten by rats, stains mottled across the whole crusted surface, so stiff that Reigen feared the fabric may crack if he tried to smooth it. He clenched it in both hands, and let the filth of it sink into his palms.

The other shirts in this pile were faceless, wanton clearance purchases that did not offer any insight, any identity beneath them. The school uniform was different. A school child, with parents to purchase the clothes, with a mother to dress him in the morning and send him off. A school uniform was something bought with intent, cleaned with care, given to a child who deserved to trust that the world around him would protect him.

He pictured the Spirits and Such shirt, the one he’d given so unthinkingly to Mob. How malleable and soft it had been beneath his palms.

Reigen blinked, and startled at the wetness curling down his chin. He blinked again, and found the stream refused to ebb. His eyes clouded over and cleared out with each blink, and something shifted deep in Reigen’s chest.

He let a single strangled noise escape his lips, and the tears flowed freely.

He lowered the uniform, and curled in on himself, and dropped his face into his arms, hands braced over his head. And for the first time since entering the house, Reigen allowed his emotions to wash over him.

He felt so small, and so useless, and so monumentally incapable of fixing the horrors in front of him. He’d failed already. Twice. When he entered the Mogami house and left empty handed, left Mob to rot. Left selfishly. Left unknowingly. Left stupidly.

And lashing anger bloomed in his chest, heckling him, berating himself for the pity he wrought against himself. It wasn’t him who deserved comfort, and it wasn’t him to deserved anything – not comfort, not pity, not Mob.

And a curling smile flashed in his mind, twisted onto Tetsuo’s face with a knife tucked tight beneath his chin. That monster. That creature. That unspeakable cruelty. Reigen clasped onto this emotion. He grabbed the writhing anger and clutched it close to his heart, because it was easier to feel than the slicing knife of guilt. He stood, unsteady, and reclaimed the light from the ground. He left the clothes. He left the uniform. He left everything in the basement just as he’d left Mob.

Reigen mounted the stairs. His anger lashed higher at each creak and moan beneath his feet. The distress of the house meant nothing to him. It deserved to toil beneath him, for what it did, for what it was complacent in, (for what he’d been complacent in).

He reached the first floor and carried on, eyes set to the next set of stairs curled around to the right, sights to the attic, because there was a new sight he had a burning desire to see, something which the fire in his chest would not compromise on confirming with his own eyes.

Reigen blew past the first several rooms, his feet kicking up dust which assaulted his throat. He coughed, wetly, hard enough to pull tears to his eyes. He did not dare break stride not until he reached the final room in the hall, whose door was already creaked open.

Reigen entered, and he swung his flashlight upward, intentional, tracing the ceiling for the sight he craved to see.

With the slight gust of shifting air pressure Reigen unleashed into the room, the corpse shifted. It creaked on the brittle hinge of the rope, which had become stiff in its own years of decay. The light carved shadows across Mogami’s desiccated face, hollow eyes unseeing in their eternity. Moisture had sapped from his skin, furling lips away from teeth into a sneer, hay-thin hair brittle and stiff in its draping across Mogami’s face. His whole head sat at an angle, fulcrumed by the break in his neck, leading down into stark collar bones, and defined rib ridges, and the tattered remnants of the clothes he’d died in.

Reigen took a step closer. And he spat at the corpse.

“Dead. Dead yeah?! Why didn’t you stay dead?! Why didn’t you stay like this you miserable—you disgusting—you monster. MONSTER! FREAK! What kind of—What sort of—How dar—How could—How COULD you? Fucker!” Reigen lunged out, and then he took pause. The shift in his flashlight beam had caused a shift in what it reflected. A glimmer danced around Mogami’s corpse, reacting to the shift in light, a gossamer bloody red that repulsed Reigen at its sight.

A netting, or a matrix of bristling red nettles, a cocoon around the corpse which forced the word barrier to the forefront of his mind.

Reigen came back to himself. Grounded by the single word. A word that was not his. A word that belonged to Mob

Please don’t leave.”

Whatever falsehood Mogami had convinced Mob of, this shimmering web was likely the catalyst. And it forced Reigen to come back down. To wash awake at the shock of remembering what mattered outside the scope of this ungodly house.

Mob would be waiting for him. Mob, who was alive. Mob, who had a future the way Mogami didn’t. Mob who had a “tomorrow” that stood the chance of no longer being defined by this house “yesterday”.

And Reigen came down. His shoulders eased, and the anger ebbed, and he backed away from the corpse.

Mogami didn’t deserve anything from him – not his time, not his rage, not his breath.

He offered only a single, scathing glance at it over his shoulder, and thought the words that Mogami didn’t deserve to hear with his own ears.

You don’t get him back. He’s saved now. He’s healing. He’s with me now. And you can rot here. You can spend the next eternity in this hell. Because Mob is getting out.”

Reigen let his light guide him down the steps, down the hall and back out the front door, where the sappy sweetness of the October night air drenched him, a welcome relief to the sweat which had drenched his face.

Before reaching the car, he turned back to the house. He delighted in the momentary fantasy of torching it to the ground, and burying its memories into its ashes.

He didn’t. He buckled himself in, and fastened his seatbelt, and kicked the engine to life.

….

The adrenaline had flowed out of his veins by the time he reached the front door, and with it the strength had sapped from his limbs. His heart beat sluggishly, exhaustion pulling at his eyes. He dreamed of a shower to strip his skin of the taint it bore, and the cool sheets of his bed to crawl into.

When he cracked the door, he found all the lights on.

And his gaze wandered to the couch, to the bundle of blankets there, to Mob huddled among them, eyes stained with lingering red, and his hair shorn short.

Mob looked up, and he looked close to tears all anew.

“You came back.”

Reigen paused. He dropped his keys into the bowl by the door, and he didn’t bother to shut the door behind him as his feet carried him forward. He moved with cautious steps first, and then moved faster, possessed with intent, until he was almost running.

He felt only a little bad for the force with which he ran into Mob, wrapping his arms in an all-encompassing hug.

“...Reigen?”

Reigen breathed deep. He adjusted his arms, feeling warmth and life beneath his hands. Something left to protect. Something still to heal.

“I’m sorry, Mob. I frightened you tonight, didn’t I?” he breathed.

With hesitation, Mob returned the hug.

“I thought you’d... maybe left.”

“Yeah. Just for a moment though. Just for an errand. Just had to sort some stuff out that’s been all nice and sorted now.”

“You uh... you smell like...” Mob pulled back a fraction, and Reigen released him from the hug. They looked eye to eye now. “Were you-- ...Did you see it...? Shishou’s body?”

“...Yeah. I saw it. And I figured something else out, Mob. He didn’t kill himself because of you. He’s not dead because of you.”

Mob met him with rocky uncertainty, brow furling, catching up. “He didn’t...? Then why--”

“Me.”

“Huh?”

“He’s dead because of me, Mob. Those times you heard me, in the house. I caused this. This is my doing. Not yours. Never yours.”

“But why--”

“Maybe another time, is when I’ll explain it to you, maybe, Mob, another time. It’s not worth explaining now. But what does matter, what is important, is that you’re in this position because of me, okay? My fault. And I cost you a Shishou. So I swear it, Mob, that I’m not gonna half ass this. I’ll train you, okay? I’ll save you from this. I swear it. I’m Shishou now, so don’t worry about slipping up and saying that, because Mogami doesn’t deserve that title. It’s you, and it’s me now, I swear it. And it’s Spirits and Such. And it’s no one else.”

Mob tried and failed to read the suppressed ferocity in Reigen’s eyes. The intensity made him hesitate.

“...And, eventually, my brother right? Once I’ve got control. And my family.”

Reigen took pause, less at the question, but more at the realization that Mob’s family had not crossed his mind.

"Of course."

Reigen leaned back, and wondered how his plans had not been formed around that as the kernel of their creation, and why it brought such an unexpected unease to his chest.

“Without a doubt, Mob. Without a doubt.”

Chapter Text

Reigen expected the flinch when he reappeared with the kitchen scissors in hand. He tried for a smile to lighten the tension on Mob’s face, and he jostled the mixing bowl in his other hand in hopes of drawing attention away from the scissors.

“Can’t say I know much about stylish haircuts, Mob. But I sure have a bowl big enough to fit on your head.”

Mob nodded. He sat stiff on one of the dining table chairs, pulled away and marooned between table and pantry. His hands were balled tightly in his lap, lost in the folds of flannel pajama bottoms. He did not shy away though.

After all, the haircut was his idea.

Reigen lowered both the bowl and the scissors. He found himself stalling, reconsidering, just a bit too tired to hide the trepidation from his own face. Sitting for haircuts made him itchy, and Reigen had exceptionally little issue with being overtly, audaciously, irritatingly in people’s personal space. Mob flinched just having anyone in his proximity, and that wasn’t even touching on his terror around sharp objects. To not just tolerate the idea, but to ask for it, made Reigen feel he had missed something. And it made him uneasy.

“Hold up a second, Mob, gotta grab some other things,” Reigen stalled. He shuffled over to the table and set the scissors down – loud and ugly orange at the hilt, visibly spotted with rust along the nicked and time-worn blade. They were practically children’s toys. The mixing bowl, plastic and purple, matched them like a Halloween decoration. It bore thin scratches from the haphazard use of metal utensils. Water stains rimmed the bottom, probably from the bowl being left to dry face up the last time it was washed.

The aroma of coffee beans stole Reigen’s attention, kicked up from the gurgle of the coffee pot he had started once he realized neither he nor Mob were going back to sleep tonight. He leaned into the smell, mentally, letting his eyes close a moment and focusing on the heady warmth. Bitter clean and soft, a thousand miles away from the Mogami house which lingered like spider legs along his skin. He tried to remember that world-away that he and Mob had occupied alone just earlier that night, at the ramen shop and at the Spirits and Such office and here, hours ago, with a cake split between them. He wanted—

“Uh, Reigen?”

“Yes, right away,” Reigen responded. He opened his eyes again, and tried to remember what thing he was going to grab.

Maybe a towel.

He spun in place and rounded the corner, into the hall, stopping at the first door on the left. The bathroom shared a wall with the kitchen, which was a detail Reigen would have minded more if he ever imagined he’d be sharing this apartment with another soul. He flicked the lights on, which stuttered and caught, their clicking and flickering like the timbre of moths against a lamppost. His reflection appeared to his right, trapped in a mirror spattered with toothpaste and water stains and a thin coating of dust except for the place, about chest-level with Reigen, where a handprint had been pressed to the glass.

He stalled there too, lingering on his reflection. He stared back against eyes that were too dull, and a brow that was too tense, and a mouth line too taut to be any good at putting Mob’s nerves at ease. There was a muted sedation weighing like a blanket on his whole body. It had been lingering there ever since he came down from the adrenaline surging his veins at the Mogami house. This was visible too in his reflection, in eyes staring just a bit elsewhere, betraying thoughts too scattered to hold to a task for long.

Reigen dropped his gaze to the sink below. A few loose, shorn bits of hair littered the sink. Mob had said the barrier did it. That he yanked it inward to avoid hitting a cat, and shredded his hair instead.

Mob had thanked him for the fact that the barrier training was working.

Reigen had no idea how to parse this information. It hadn’t made sense when he first came home, finding Mob waiting for him with his hair shorn at a harsh angle, shoulder length, half-obscuring his eyes, and it didn’t make any more sense now that he’d had a bit of time to process it.

The corpse. The rats. The basement the cans the uniform. His mind was too full of sights to make room for much else.

Mob’s explanation for his hair did not make sense if the barrier wasn’t real. But the barrier being real made significantly less sense, because this was a barrier that eviscerated any and all living things that did not so happen to be immensely powerful psychics. And it so happened that Reigen was the farthest thing imaginable from an immensely powerful psychic. The biggest hole in Mob’s story was Reigen himself, who was significantly and audaciously much too alive and breathing to fit the narrative.

Reigen’s thoughts lingered on the Mogami corpse. That barrier was real. The red aggressive gossamer mesh around him. Figuring out what this meant built up a headache behind Reigen’s eyes.

Mogami was a liar. That was true. That was factual. That was something Reigen could hold on to with utter certainty. He’d lied about Tetsuo, and lied about the soup cans, and lied about Mob, and lied to Mob.  He lied to wreak a path of hurt and death in his wake. And Reigen would be damned if he gave a single ounce of weight to a word from that dead man’s mouth.

What was important right now? Right at this exact moment? What was tangibly real and within his reach?

Hair. Towel. Mob.

“…Reigen?”

“Yup! On it! Just in here-- looking for-- grabbing the-- yeah.”

Reigen yanked the towel off the rack. He spun halfway in place before noticing the towel was damp. He dropped it and picked up the other towel. He’d deal with the first towel later. He stepped over it gingerly, then lingered by the mirror, eyes back against himself. He breathed deep, and willed his expression to pull back up that thin smile it needed, buff the dullness from his eyes, ease the tension in his brow.

In a moment he would be exactly who Mob needed right now.

He stepped back out into view, brandishing the towel with far more flourish than necessary.

“Good news, Mob. I remembered an old tidbit from my psychic training. It was from uh— from years and years back when I spent 3 months meditating in the Himalayas. I met an old guru up there who told me—who informed me how that, your psychic humors, like you powers, to get them in balance, you gotta balance your body first. Your body’s a reflection of your powers, so a nice even clean cut, that’ll balance you right up.”

“You trained in the Himalayas?”

“Yup.”

“What was it like there?”

“Cold. Anyway!” Reigen flapped the towel a few times. Liar. And he was a liar too. “Shall we start?”

Mob nodded.

Reigen rounded the table to Mob, draping the towel over Mob’s shoulders. Mob’s hands clasped on to the edges of the towel, grasping on like an anchor. Reigen nabbed another chair from the table, the one he’d sat in earlier with cake in front of him, a whole world away. He spun it around, and sat in it backwards, in front of Mob, and then immediately stood back up realizing he held neither scissors nor bowl in his hands. Bowl. Scissors. Seated. Mob. Reigen flipped the bowl over and dropped it onto Mob’s head. It fit surprisingly well, like a helmet, beneath which two dark eyes watched him, blinking against the itchy prickle of chopped hair.

“That okay?” Reigen asked.

Mob nodded.

“Alright then.” He tested the scissors in his hands, throwing a few quick snips into the air as though willing a match to catch. Reigen winced. His fingers threaded through the hilt still smarted, still bandaged to hide the deep knife cuts beneath. He ignored it. Reigen hardly trusted himself to cut Mob’s hair- he absolutely did not trust himself to do it with his non-dominant hand. “I’ll be quick about this. Don’t you fret. Just a once around snip.”

Nearly imperceptible, Mob nodded again.

Reigen started with the bangs. He laced the jagged ends of Mob’s shorn hair into the maw of the scissors, pressing them up against the bowl.

And he snipped.

A flurry of hair drifted down over Mob’s face, and in its wake Mob’s eyes sparked with horror. His hand, anchored so tightly to the towel, shot up. He grabbed Reigen’s arm, and through frozen breath he let out a whispered word.

Stop.”

Reigen didn’t have anything witty or comforting to say. He only complied, and lowered the scissors. Mob reached his hands up, lifting the bowl from his head and flipping it upright, lowering it into his lap.

“Sorry, Mr. Reigen. That’s just… kind of too much now.”

“I kinda guessed…”

Reigen lowered the scissors into his lap in mirror. He unthreaded his fingers from them.

Mob glanced up now to meet Reigen’s eyes, and his expression wasn’t full of terror as Reigen had feared. He was white in the face, but determination still burned in his eyes. He was anchored, and solid, and so much more sturdy than Reigen had seen him in all the time he’d been around. Sturdier than Reigen felt inside.

“Maybe… if you could just cut a little less, Reigen.”

“You want me to keep going?”

“Yes.”

Reigen surveyed the cut. Bangs clear from his face, Mob’s eyes were now unhidden. The rest of his hair was still cropped unevenly, jagged and haphazardly shorn to shoulder height.

“A bob, maybe,” Reigen said. “You kinda… already have one. With the home-job you had going on just now. I cleaned up the bangs already, and they’re…. miraculously, kinda even. Mostly. I think. I mean I guess you can thank the bowl for that but. Anyway. Right. The rest of it—I think—if I just—just some off around—just a clean up, I mean. Like just even it out a little? About to your shoulder.” Reigen leaned forward, scissors forgotten on his lap. The back of the chair pressed into his chest, and he leaned a bit further. “A little higher, actually, since this part here in back is above—I mean—just to like here?” Reigen set his hand parallel with the ground, about half an inch above Mob’s shoulder. “Like this?”

Mob nodded. “I think that’s fine. Do it.”

Reigen didn’t.

 “…You uh… you sure you’re fine, Mob? You seem a little uh. I dunno. Different.”

“Great. Fine. I’m fine. I just…” Mob placed the bowl back on the table, and he wove his hands back into the towel. The slight tremor to his body did not escape Reigen’s notice.

“Why uh, why do you want your hair cut, anyhow? Can’t imagine the scissors are any fun to have all up near your face and all. The hair in your face that annoying? Cuz I’ve got like, pins and stuff.”

Mob stared down into his hands, and he unclasped them from the towel over his shoulders. He raised his right hand to his hair, to the diagonal shear where it abruptly ended.

“…Tonight was the first time I was able to control the barrier at all. In four years. I pulled it in. It was hard but I did it. You—uh—having you here to help me—it means a lot. But this was the first time I did something. The first time I couldn’t do nothing. So now it’s that—I want to do more.” He dropped his hand from his cropped hair. “You’re right. I don’t like this. But if I can do this even when it’s hard, then maybe I can do so many other things. It’s not like before when I felt like I couldn’t… couldn’t do anything. I won’t go back to that.”

Mob blinked, as if soaking in his own words. A prick of tears welled at the edge of his eyes. “I really think, if I keep trying now, I’ll go home to my family. It didn’t seem real before. I forgot what it was like to really believe that. That I can make that happen, if I try.”

Reigen nodded. His bravado dropped. Exhaustion settled heavy into his heart.

A small click broke from the kitchen, a punctuation that signaled the end of the gurgling waterfall of noise from the coffee machine. Reigen glanced over, and he found the tiny red light above the coffee pot had flickered on.

Reigen stood up. He loosened the knots that had tightened along his spine from the hunched way he sat. He rounded the table with his eyes set to the cupboard, which he pulled open and snatched the first coffee mug from the front. Small and white with a rim of gray and the tiniest nick missing from the handle. Coffee curled from the spout when Reigen lifted and tilted the pot, warm against his face, dark and rich pooling in the mug. His eyes flickered to the green diodes on the microwave above. 3:05 am. His birthday had ended.

Reigen stopped by the freezer, and he pulled it open, nabbing the plate of half-eaten cake he’d abandoned there earlier in the evening. His fork still sat on the plate, icy to the touch. Maybe it wasn’t his birthday anymore, but that was no reason to give up on good things.

With wafting and dense coffee, and plate of chocolate ice cream cake, Reigen retook his seat across from Mob.

“I’ll grab you another slice if you like, when we’re done, Mob. You didn’t really get to try any.” Reigen set the mug to his lips, and took a sip of too-hot coffee. A warm shiver spread through his body.

Mob said nothing. His eyes had reaffixed to the scissors that Reigen scrounged up from the seat of his chair, just barely not-sat-on. Reigen set the mug down on the table, and leaned in, and aligned the scissors cautiously against the fringe of Mob’s hair just above his left shoulder.

“…Would uh… would it help you if I kept you talking while I trim your hair? That helps me—sometimes—keeping talking—I mean for, not for hair cuts but for other things. Just talking helps. Think that’s how I survived that knife fight, I think. I just didn’t shut up.”

Mob considered this. “I don’t know what to talk about.”

“…Your family, maybe? Can you tell me about them?” Reigen pressed. The question unsettled something deep in the pit of his stomach, but he felt he had a duty to ask. He leaned mentally into the smell of coffee, the promise of cake, and carried on. “I uh, I don’t know anything about them.”

Mob said nothing.

“I mean, you didn’t really wanna tell me about them before because you were afraid of me sending you home with uh… with your barrier and all, yeah? Well, I’m not doing that now, clearly—I think we’ve established that—yeah. I’ve still gotta train you, as your new Shishou. Not sending you home. Just asking. So I know like, who they are, and like… you mentioned your little brother. You seem to really like him. What’s he like?”

Mob remained silent a moment longer.

“He’s the most important person to me.”

“Is he?”

“Yes.”

“Mmm.” Reigen moved closer again, angling the scissors with care now that he no longer had the bowl to guide him. He started at the right shoulder, cautious in his threading of blade to hair. “His name starts with an R, right? You wanna tell me his name?”

“He’s—” Reigen snipped the scissors. Mob suppressed the tiniest wince. “…It’s Ritsu. His name is Ritsu.”

“Ritsu, huh?” Delicately, Reigen shifted the scissors over and gave another snip. “And what’s he like?”

Mob didn’t flinch this time. He stared forward, looking at nothing, consumed in thought. “He’s smart. Really really smart. Way smarter than me. And selfless too. He helped me with my homework every night. Sometimes he’d do my chores for me when I forgot to do them so Mom wouldn’t yell at me.”

“That’s nice of him.” Reigen stood, and nudged his own chair over about a foot, so that when he retook his seat he could better align the next snip. “He sounds like a great kid.”

Mob nodded, and then stopped once he realized any movement of his head interfered with Reigen’s work. “He was always like that. Even when our parents praised him so much, he wasn’t ever selfish or mean.”

“You must be proud of him.”

“Yeah.”

Reigen took the next cut. A gentle flutter of hair trailed from the scissor blades. He shifted over once more. “Is he like you? Like, personality-wise?”

“Not really. No. He’s a lot more outgoing. And really mature. His teachers always love him. He was always really good at school, and sports. And I always thought he was really cool. I wanted to be cool like him. All of that was way cooler to me than having psychic powers. I wouldn’t have cared much about practicing with my powers, except Ritsu really liked when I showed him new tricks. That’s what I liked – making Ritsu happy.”

The next cut came silently. Reigen was more than halfway done, a bit back and behind the left shoulder. He surveyed his work and found nothing too noticeably uneven.

“Does uh… does Ritsu have powers?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so. At least, I hope not. I don’t want him to end up with a barrier like mine.”

“Well, I’ve been a PI for a good number of years now, little more than four at this point. And I’ve never seen any police reports about uh, about a psychic kid hurting anyone with his barrier, so uh—so I think you’re good on that front. Think you can relax there.”

Snip.

“It’s good that I was the one with psychic powers and not Ritsu, I think. It would have been much worse if he had powers instead.”

With the next cut, Mob gave no indication he even felt it.

“Why do you say that?”

“It was better for me to have to disappear.”

Reigen halted, scissors half pressed together.

“Why?”

“Ritsu had a really bright future. He had so many things he was good at that could make him happy. I don’t think I would have been anything special. It’s important to me that Ritsu gets to have that future. I just… hope I didn’t hurt him too bad. I hope he’s okay. I have to believe he’s okay. He’s smart enough to be okay without me.”

“I don’t think you should say that, Mob. About it being good that Mogami took you and not him. It’s not good that Mogami took anyone.”

“…Shishou didn’t take me, though. He was just protecting me.”

“No, he took you. He—” Reigen felt the anger welling up inside him again. He paused, and breathed, and let the clawing feeling loosen. “We… forgetting about him—just—what I mean is that, you’re not less compared to your brother.”

“…I’m still glad it wasn’t him who had to disappear.”

Reigen re-angled the blades, and he took out the next swath of hair. “I bet it would mean a lot to Ritsu, if he could hear that.  I bet uh, I mean you say all these great things about him, but I bet he’d say some similar stuff about you, it sounds like. I bet he admired you too.”

Reigen delivered the last snip of the scissors, feathery wisps of hair falling away from Mob’s left shoulder.

“…He did, actually, you’re right. I never knew why. But it meant a lot to me. Maybe… I’ll ask him, when I see him again. I’ll ask him.”

Reigen unwrapped the towel from Mob’s shoulders. He set it down on the floor for now, caring little for how the shorn bits of hair pooled on the hardwood. He intended to sweep it all up later. For now, Reigen grabbed the hand mirror from the table, and he offered it to Mob.

Mob took it, and he stared at himself. He blinked a few times, as if checking that the bangs above his eyes stayed put, and didn’t drop into his vision. The cropped hair curled in just a fraction near his neck, bringing back a roundness to his face that had been lost with the long braid.

He brushed a lock of hair behind his ear. And in that moment, Reigen was able to see a normal boy, with light in his eyes, and he could almost believe the horrors that had clouded Mob’s eyes when they first met had vanished all together.

“Do uh… do you like it? Should I change anything?” Reigen asked.

Mob shook his head. And he seemed to pause, to linger on the sensation of his hair swishing back and forth. He breathed, and let a small smile come over his face.

“Yeah.” He handed the mirror back to Reigen. “I like it.”

A single bell chime split the air.

It was the announcement of another patron opening the café door. The newcomer and the owner exchanged a few muted words, light and pleasant, specifics lost under the gentle orchestral music playing overhead. He let the door ease shut behind him, and with it the air stirred cold and wet.

The air conditioning in the cafe still cranked even as October had comfortably settled in. Cold collected the moisture from the air and pinned it as condensation along the windows, dripping slowly, artful in the streaks it wrought. There remained enough vapor in the air to cling to necks and clammy hands. Isa was thankful for the heavier jacket she’d grabbed this morning, as well as her long sleeved civilian clothes. Her hands curled around the coffee sleeve, indulging in its radiator warmth, still too hot to drink.

She couldn’t say the same for the boy seated across from her. He looked cold to the bone.

He had no jacket beyond the button-up school uniform. His face was pale, half-obscured beneath messy black hair. His dark eyes were downcast, and his hands wrapped almost aggressively around his hot chocolate – lacking a sleeve to mitigate the heat. It left the insides of his palms a flushed red. His skin was slick, whether from the humidity or his own nerves, Isa could not tell.

Isa considered suggesting they find some seating outside where it would be just a bit warmer at least. Then her ears tuned to the muted plick of water, like rapping fingertips, against the glass. The condensation inside had disguised it, but the skies had opened once more, streaking the outside chairs and metal tables with rain.

At least the weather had thinned the crowds. This shop was generally more popular. The rain must have dissuaded people from leaving their houses, curled and cozier elsewhere, maybe with home-brewed coffee like the sort Tetsuo insisted on. Isa hadn’t been to his house in a while. She wondered how it’d changed. She wondered if it still carried that warm and safe aroma he used to wear.

The boy shifted. His eyes met hers, and Isa was snapped back into reality by the loathing in his gaze. Plicking rain. Kageyama. Ritsu Kageyama.

“How’s your hot chocolate?” Isa asked.

Ritsu didn’t answer immediately. He looked away, and then looked back, his hatred unmistakable.

“Don’t know.”

“I’m a fan of the hot chocolate at this place,” Isa added simply, stirring her coffee in circles. She’d drenched it nearly white with cream and sugar. “They serve it pretty hot though. Let it cool down, or at least blow on it before you try.”

Ritsu said nothing. His knuckles tightened, whiter, around his drink.

“Here.” Isa nudged her plate over. An untouched chocolate croissant rested on top. “Their chocolate croissants are the best.”

“Stop it,” Ritsu Kageyama finally answered, and his voice was hardly above a whisper. “Stop talking about the chocolate. What do you want…? Just tell me what you want with me, okay?”

“What I want is to talk about why you were in that office building last night. And I’m getting there. Starting off with chocolate talk seemed more generous.”

Ritsu said nothing. Isa let out a small sigh.

“So why were you in that office building?”

“…It was a bet. That’s all.” Ritsu’s eyes stayed low, anchoring himself by his curled grip on his cup, hunched in on himself.

Hands curled around the stair railing. Eyes averted. Powerless, hostile, watching the adults talk while he lingered. Subject to the cold through the open door. How old must he have been then?

“What kind of bet?”

Ritsu shrugged. “Dunno. I got dared to go in, and I did, that’s all.”

“Pretty elaborate dare, considering you knew to cut the power to the security system, and that you managed to scorch the security camera mounted to the ceiling.” Isa took a sip of her coffee. “Which, by the way, that alerts us too. The power-cutting. When the security system goes down, it sends out an automatic alert. This isn’t like in the movies where you can just cut a few cables and invite yourself in.”

“Noted.”

“Why that office building?”

“Dunno. It wasn’t my idea.”

“Whose was it?”

Silence. Isa was used to the ugly teeth-pulling back-and-forth of interrogation. It was a rhythm she fell into almost too easily. Trespassings, car jackings, street robberies, there was always a guilty wound that Isa could find and pick at. Apply pressure, find inconsistencies, threaten consequences.

She looked again at Ritsu: small, and cold, and scared. Fingers wrapped around the banister. Asking if his brother was coming back.

Isa took another sip from her coffee.

“You don’t want to tell me?”

“No.”

“Huh.”

Isa let the silence sit. She was comfortable with it, and she could practically see the way Ritsu’s skin crawled in the quiet that stretched between them.

“Why didn’t you arrest me?” he asked.

“Oh? Are you asking the questions now?”

“Why didn’t you?” Ritsu pressed again.

“Would you prefer I’d arrested you?”

“No. No, I wouldn’t.” Ritsu stared back, more hunted animal than threat. He was testing the waters. “But why didn’t you? I need you to tell me.”

Isa shrugged. “I don’t think I had one single reason. Maybe I didn’t feel right arresting a little kid.”

A pop buckled from Ritsu’s paper mug. He accidentally crushed it with the tightening of his hand. The lid popped, and hot chocolate spilled across his tensed fingers. He let out a hiss and yanked his fingers away, burying his hand in the napkin that came with his hot chocolate. Steam welled up from the cup.

“Are your fingers—”

“They’re fine.” His cheeks were flushed red with embarrassment, and he stowed his hands under the table. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you pity me. Stop it.”

“Can’t help it. I do pity you.”

Her words set off something in Ritsu. Distress flickered through his eyes, and Isa knew what she’d said something he couldn’t bear to hear. He pushed his seat back. “…I’m leaving now. I’m going home now.”

“No you’re not.” Isa kept her expression blank. “Who dared you to break into that building?”

“Why can’t I leave?”

“Because I said so.”

“Why—”

“Because that’s our deal. I let you go home last night on the condition that you talk with me here today.” Isa picked up the croissant and tore it down the middle. Liquid chocolate oozed from the center, and she placed half of it on the plate holding Ritsu’s drink. “If you don’t like that arrangement, you can come to the station with me right now. Or you can sit down and try this croissant.”

It agonized the boy, but Ritsu sat back down.

Isa took a bite from her half of the croissant. “Now I’ll ask again: Who dared you?”

“It was some kid from another school.”

“What’s his name?”

“Dunno. I was never good with names.”

“You know his name. You’re just lying to me.”

“I’m not.”

“Forget the name, actually, you weren’t even dared to go in.”

“I was.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not lying!”

“Again, wanna take this to the station?”

Ritsu opened his mouth, but no words followed. The fire in his eyes snuffed a fraction, replaced with fear.

“…Why do you think I’m lying?”

“Because I’m really good at figuring out liars. I do this professionally, and I raised four bratty little siblings on my own. Lies don’t get past me. You’re just testing my patience. So tell me the real reason you were in that building, or we’re done here.”

His dark eyes held hers, steadfast, and there was an obvious challenge to his glare. As if he hoped, with enough disdain in his face, Isa may come to revile him too and cast him back out on the street. He had no chance of success there. He was allowed to hate her right now, Isa decided. It was probably good for him. She probably deserved it.

“I was looking for my brother there,” he answered finally. “I was doing your job.”

Isa inspected him over this answer. If it was a lie, it was smart. It played up the guilt in Ritsu’s favor. But Isa really was proud of her ability to suss out liars, and no tell of insincerity showed on Ritsu’s face.

“Why would your brother be there?”

“He’s psychic. You know this. I told you four years ago. And psychics have aura. And there was some aura coming from the building. So I went in.”

“And?”

“And it was just some ghost. It wasn’t him. I was just leaving when you showed up.”

“What kind of ghost?”

Ritsu paused. His glare was probing. “So does this-- Do you believe me this time around then? About psychics and auras and ghosts? Do you believe me now? You didn’t, last time. Not about the park and not about his Shishou. You didn’t listen.”

The image of Mogami’s desiccated corpse flashed through Isa’s mind, unrotted, presumably so ensnarled with curses that it refused to decay, though she hadn’t seen anything of the sort. And her mind lingered longer on the memory of Tetsuo, backed against the wall and prone, eyes locked to the corpse, looking more broken apart than she’d seen him in her entire life.

“You didn’t see… I’m positive. I saw it, Isa. I’m so so positive.”

Ritsu did not know he was the second person in Isa’s recent experiences to break into a building in search of Shigeo Kageyama. Nor did he know the burning hope Isa fostered that Ritsu might know something, anything to clue her in to what happened to Tetsuo that night.

Mogami as a lead started and ended with Ritsu. Ritsu was the one who told them to investigate the dead man in connection to Shigeo’s disappearance four years back. Whatever it was that had happened to Tetsuo, this boy had kicked off the chain.

Isa had no plans to tell Ritsu any of this, lest he realize he held any cards against her.

“Well? Do you believe me?” Ritsu prompted again.

“Let’s say I do. What changes?”

“What changes is you go back to the station and reopen Niisan’s case file with this information I’m telling you. You start looking for a psychic and not just some little kid, like you should have been doing all along, And you find his Shishou.”

“Mogami.”

“Yes.”

“The psychic Keiji Mogami killed himself decades ago.”

“…I already know that. I know that now – that the real Keiji Mogami was some famous psychic who died a long time ago. I’ve read the articles. So Niisan’s shishou was using a fake name when he kidnapped him, I know that. You were the one who told me it was a fake name, remember that? You told me. What does that matter? Find the man who was using that name. That should be obvious. Find that ‘Mogami.’ Find the psychic man who took him.”

Isa did remember telling him. She remembered asking the little boy on the stairs if his brother’s Shishou may have lied about his name. She remembered dismissing the matter of Keiji Mogami all together when Tetsuo came forth with the station legend about the corpse and the barrier and the condemned house at Mogami’s unlisted address, kept out of the public knowledge and boarded up.

That years-old dismissal felt out of place now, having seen the condemned house with her own eyes. There had been no boy there, and no visible barrier to her eyes, but the corpse had been real. And Tetsuo’s reaction had been real…

But maybe Isa was placing too much trust in the man, her steadfast and reliable partner, who’d slipped into unwellness when she wasn’t paying attention.

So Isa said nothing.

And the silence stretched between them, enough to torment Ritsu into speaking again.

“Why…did you give up on him?” he asked, and it wasn’t with the same malice as before. The hatred had drained from his voice, replaced with something that cut Isa far more sharply than blind anger. This was softer, and smaller, and raw with the ache of four years spent without closure. “I’ve wondered all this time. What was the moment when you stopped looking? Mom and Dad never told me. You just stopped. Why?”

Isa tried to remember the moment, and she failed to recall it exactly. The image of the case file was clear enough in her memory. Shigeo’s school picture pinned to the top left of the folder, printed sheets’ worth of information, and personal recounts from his parents and teachers, and thorough reports from those who’d scoured the park. When was the very last time she’d pulled it out onto her desk? When had the well of information completely run dry? What day was that file shut, never to be opened again?

“Answer me,” Ritsu pressed.

“We stopped because there were no more leads.”

“So why didn’t you find more?” He looked up. “Why am I the only one still looking? It’s supposed to be your job. And now I’m getting in trouble for it, by you. It’s your job.”

“You have a right to be angry about your brother. You don’t have a free pass to break into buildings, Kageyama. There’s a difference.”

“Was it that-- Did you—was there something better to do with your time? You just had better cases to look into? You couldn’t be bothered, because at the end of the day you had a family to get home to?” His hand tightened against the edge of the table, and he leaned forward, bridging some of the distance between them. “Was that it? Cuz not me—I don’t—not me. What do I have to go home to in that house?”

“We tried our best on your brother’s case. But we’re not magic. We can’t find what isn’t there.”

“So you’re holding me here, because I AM still here? He’s gone, but I’m still here, so you’d rather spend your time interrogating me instead of finding him? You’re not helping me! You’re not helping anyone! No worse, worse than that. If you make me stop, you’re just making sure there’s no one left looking for him! You’re helping his kidnapper!”

Isa felt the urge to tell the boy – maybe for Tetsuo’s sake more than her own – and let him know they were still trying. But it would be cruel to promise empty things. And if she so much as hinted at knowing the address of the Mogami house, and that it may be a lead, Isa knew well enough that this to the boy would be the next person to break in.

So once again, Isa said nothing.

“How dare you? Just—hold me here and act like YOU’RE in the right? YOU gave up on him.” Ritsu pushed back against the table, chair legs screeching, scalded fingers forgotten. “And you gave up on me. You, personally. You left me there.”

Isa opened her mouth, ready to tell him to sit down, to lower his voice, to calm himself or else face consequences.

She couldn’t do it this time.

Something he’d said burrowed deeper than she realized, something that lashed and lingered. This wasn’t her first dead end case. She could usually see them coming and quietly prepare. She could establish the emotional distance she needed to go home with a clear mind at the end of the day. She could find comfort in the belief that these were always circumstances outside her control, and not failures in her or in the system, which left a family without answers. She could pack the victims and the loved ones away, and cast them off, and trust they would find a way to piece back together the tattered parts of their lives on their own.

You left me there.

She’d done her job. She’d followed protocol to a T. She’d gone above and investigated the Mogami house with Tetsuo. She slept at night comfortable that she had done what was expected of her – more even than that.

But what did protocol mean to that little boy on the stairs?

In a moment of freefall, the image in Isa’s mind dropped out from under her. She no longer felt like someone lenient and kind, working to do good, showing mercy to a boy who deserved a much harsher punishment. Why had she felt so comfortable in the notion that Ritsu Kageyama deserved a punishment for how she’d found him? That it was by her own grace and mercy that she didn’t bring the hammer down harder on the boy she’d abandoned all those years ago? What had made her so unaware, until this moment, of the slick feeling of blood on her complicit hands?

Isa had never bothered to ask herself what made her remember the boy on the stairs so clearly, all these years later.

“…I’m sorry,” she finally said.

Confusion crossed Ritsu’s face a moment, and it passed, replaced with a glower. He sat down, at least, but the fire in his eyes did not waver.

“’I’m sorry.’ Do you think—do you think you’re the first adult to tell me that? Every adult tells me that! Every single damn one. And I see it every time they look at me. They look at me and they think oh that poor little kid, oh that poor fragile boy and it’s on ME to make them feel better. Every time. I have to be the one to say It’s okay and It’s alright. Because no one wants— no one wants to feel guilty for making some poor little brother-less kid sad, huh? But they don’t do anything to fix it! No one takes responsibility!  No one wants to do anything, or find him, or save him! They just want to stare at me with that awful look until I can make them feel better. Giving me an extra day for my homework, having ‘family nights’ with board games, whatever trite, disgusting display of pity they can muster up until I tell them they did well, until I tell them they can stop feeling guilty, that they did it, they met the bare minimum to stop feeling any kind of responsibility, they have permission to stop feeling bad, hoorah! ‘I’m not sad.’ ‘I’m not upset.’ ‘It’s okay.’ Every time. That’s ALWAYS on me. And now you too. You too. I’m sorry’. Did I—do you finally feel a little bit responsible for this?! Finally?! And now you’re like all the other ones, huh? Wanting me to fix it. What do you want me to say? ‘It’s alright.’ ‘I forgive you.’ Well I don’t. I don’t forgive anyone. And I especially don’t forgive you. You said no lies, yeah? So no. No. I don’t forgive you. If you’re actually sorry, then let me leave, and either find my brother, or stay away from me for good.”

An uncomfortable stretch of nothing built up between them. Words lingered behind Isa’s tongue, rejected one after the other for being nothing more than hollow platitudes, the same empty sentiments that Ritsu had found himself buried beneath for years. She couldn’t say them, not with how selfish it would be for her to add to the pile.

“…That’s fine, actually. You’re right. You don’t have to forgive me. I won’t ask for forgiveness. But I… am being sincere. I’m sorry, I promise.”

Ritsu scoffed. “So can I go then? Because frankly I don’t care what else you have to say if it’s not about you actually finding him.”

“You know I can’t promise you that we’ll find him. But I can tell you, point blank, that none of this is your fault, and none of this is your responsibility.”

Another laugh from Ritsu. “Oh good. Oh thank god. Oh that’s such a relief to hear, I’m sure my brother would be thrilled to know that. He’s been locked up for four years against his will, out there wondering why no one has bothered to save him, but I’m sure he’d be so happy to know that’s because it’s not my responsibility to save him.”

“That’s not what I mean. What I mean is that you don’t have to capitulate to what adults around you are telling you to feel. That’s not your responsibility. You’re allowed to be selfish.”

At this, Ritsu barked. A mania entered his face, tugging his expression into a smile that teetered almost on joyful. Instead it was terribly wrong, coldly unsettling, fierce and vile with the spark of incredulousness that lit in his eyes like a match.

Selfish! I can be selfish!” He slammed his hands down onto the table, hot chocolate and plate and croissant clattering with the force. “You say that like I’m not—like I’m not already— I AM. I am already BEING selfish! I’m being more selfish right now than I’ve ever been in my entire life. Haha! I’m lying to my parents. I’m sneaking out. I’m skipping school. I’m breaking laws. I’m breaking into buildings, don’t you know?” The boy ran his fingers through his hair and held them there, sweeping the mop of black hair from half his face, exposing his pale and clammy skin to the overhanging café lights. “I’m getting into FIGHTS. That’s not what a good little boy does. That’s not what ‘It’s okay, I’m alright, I’m not upset’ Ritsu Kageyama does! That’s not what a SELFLESS PERSON does!”

Isa looked closely, and she saw it now. There was a cakiness to Ritsu’s skin, clotted and thick under the shimmer of sweat. Foundation. And beneath it was the distinct mottled impression of bruises – one thick beneath his jaw, a yellowness under one eye, burst capillaries beneath his nose, one ear distinctly nicked with something sharp. His fingers lingered in his swept-back hair, leaving his face intentionally on display for Isa to scrutinize. The light threw a jaundiced pallor across his skin, making his wide eye, his uncomfortable grin, all the worse.

“And I’m…. making deals with spirits. To use their powers to find my brother. I don’t trust any of them. I shouldn’t. They’re liars and scum and I know that, they’d eat me alive, and I’m letting them because for the first time ever in my life I’M doing what I want. I’m being SELFISH. I’m hurting my parents, and I don’t care. I’m hurting myself and I don’t care. Because I’m all done being selfless. I’m done. I’m DONE.” Ritsu dropped his hands, and he stared down at them. They were shaking. His terrible smile wavered. “I’d so much rather die doing this than go back.”

Isa considered herself a person of few words, but it was unusual for her to find herself with none, helpless in the void of pointless answers spinning up in her mind. So the nothing settled between them again, and Ritsu’s staggered breathing came as the only audible thing between them. As the seconds passed, his vigor drained, and the excitement left his face, and something pale and pensive took its place. He sunk down into his seat, suddenly smaller. He was shaking, or perhaps shivering.

He lowered his head into his hands.

“…Fuck…” he muttered.

The way he sunk smaller, lower, gave Isa the impression of a body slipping below the surface of the water – the end result of one last explosive struggle before succumbing to the pull of the currents beneath.

“Who else knows you’re doing this?”

“No one. …One person.”

“A friend?”

Ritsu grimaced. “No. Not a friend.”

“Why did you tell me?”

“Because you made me angry. And I shouldn’t have. It was stupid. Don’t…. do not tell my parents. If you’re serious about that ‘I’m sorry’ then you can’t tell them.”

Isa held his eye contact. Ritsu’s expression softened with a spark of anxiety.

“…Please,” he added. “If they knew, they… I’d never leave the house again. They—ha—we’d probably move. I bet Mom would quit her job to stay home with me. I’d never leave the house again. Haha. They’d never trust me again…”

What Ritsu was asking of her clashed with Isa’s every gut instinct. His parents ought to be the first to know, to help, to save Ritsu in the way that she couldn’t. They’d want to pull him back above the surface of the water. They were his parents, after all.

“You’ve given them a pretty good reason to not trust you, I think.”

“It’s not like they gave me a choice.”

Isa grabbed for her coffee. She pulled it to her lips. A new thought came to her, a bothersome one, as she tried to summon up the image in her head of Mrs. Kageyama. That memory was fuzzy, much less clear than Ritsu in her head. The same went for Mr. Kageyama. They swam hazily in the melting pot of all old and forgotten cases in Isa’s mind. What had they looked like? What had they acted like? How had they behaved toward their son who was still home, still safe, still with them?

The rest of your life, Ritsu! You’re staying right here for the rest of your life where nothing can ever take you away from me, got it!?

“Ritsu, I have a question…” Isa separated the coffee cup from her lips, just by a fraction. “Maybe it’s more of a hunch than a question. You don’t actually have to answer this one if you don’t want to. But am I right in thinking maybe… when your brother went missing, he wasn’t the only one taken against his will?”

“What does that mean?”

“You said earlier you had nothing to come home to in that house. And you said you’re now lying and sneaking out. Were you ever allowed to go anywhere else before this? After school clubs? Friends’ houses? Cafes?”

“…No,” Ritsu answered simply. “No.”

“Did you just go straight home after school every day?”

“Yes.”

“What did you do on the weekends?”

“Nothing.”

“Before school?”

“Nothing.”

“After school?”

“Homework.”

“What did you enjoy doing?”

Ritsu said nothing. And it was not that he was avoiding the question or coming up with a lie. Isa could read it on his face. It was that nothing came to mind for him. She took another sip of coffee, ruminating on its warmth. She let the steam wafting out spread over her face. The heat was comforting, and felt undeserved against the coldness of the words on her lips.

“…So for the first time since he went missing, you’re sneaking out, you’re lying to your parents, you’re doing things you’re not allowed to. You and your brother both lost your freedom that day, huh?”

Ritsu let out a sad, piteous laugh, and he looked up at her with nothing in his eyes. “No, you’ve got it wrong. Compared to Niisan, what I have is perfect. My parents aren’t kidnappers. Don’t act like they are. They’re hurt. That’s all. Who gives a fuck if I don’t get to play soccer, or join student counsel? Compared to Niisan that’s—”

“Stop saying ‘compared to’. Stop.”

“It’s true.”

“No, that’s fucked up. Is that all you see yourself as? ‘Compared to’ your brother? You—you’re telling me that all this terrible stuff you’re doing now, it’s not even for your own sake. You’re not even sneaking out to drink or party, you’re just hurting yourself to save your brother? Do you even have a concept of yourself outside him?”

“Of course I do, it’s just that compared to Niisan—”

“No ‘compared to.’” He was slipping lower. The light was gone from his eyes. An anchor weight in the form of his brother was tied to his ankle, dragging him down. Isa felt overcome with the desperate need to jump in and cut the rope from him, to save him, before it pulled him to the dark and cold abyss at the bottom. “Forget about your brother, Ritsu. Leave him behind. Let him go. You’ve got your own life that’s worth living. What do you want?”

The snap to Ritsu’s posture, the way his eyes shot wide, came as though Isa had slapped him. It was worse than that, more violent even than if she’d laid a hand on him.

Isa choked on the sip of coffee on her lips, not in reaction to Ritsu’s full-body flinch, but in response to the coffee that had curdled ice cold in her mouth on the next sip. She sputtered, hastily dropping the cup and released her fingers going coldly numb clasped around it. The cup teetered, coffee sluicing from the opening in the lid. But miraculously it settled upright, unspilled. It sat inanimate and radiated its consumptive chill.

Isa stared past it, still coughing. Her eyes settled on the hot chocolate resting on Ritsu’s plate, with the lid popped off and forgotten on the table. She stared at the drink that had scalded Ritsu’s fingers minutes ago, the drink that had been gently wafting with the heady sweet scent of chocolate for their whole conversation like the wick of a lit candle.

It sat now, frozen solid.

He saw it too. His eyes followed hers, and Isa witnessed the calamity set into them. She thought she’d seen the boy pushed past his breaking point already, and knew only now that she’d been wrong about that. The scathing eyes she’d previously seen, the ferocity in his glower, even when he spoke more than he’d meant, it had been with control, and with anger, and with the targeted intention to hurt her.

What she saw now was utter devastation, and a loss of all control, and an agony and surprise that spun the focus out of his eyes, and left his teeth gritted in horror. No calculated anger, no power-play cranking in his mind, just the white fear of hearing something he couldn’t bear to hear – and revealing something he couldn’t bear to reveal.

Isa couldn’t parse it. The bitingly cold cup sitting in front of her. The slick ice, dense to the bottom, which Isa could see peering through the seam in Ritsu’s paper cup – a slit which the expansion of ice had torn straight through.

Ghosts. And cursed corpses. And a missing child, presumably psychic. And a brother left behind.

Ritsu’s right arm shifted sharply, some motion hidden beneath the table, those devastated eyes pinned imploringly on the cup by Isa’s hand. She felt it physically, with a warm spike in the air of a few degrees. Steam drifted back up from the cup again, indistinguishable from how it had looked moments ago before she’d spoken.

Isa caught the same twitch to his arm, and the drink set before Ritsu unfroze itself. Isa understood what would happen the moment before it did, as the top-to-bottom slit in the paper seam was visible only on her side. The hot chocolate spilled loose, funneled as if through a crack in a damn, and a gluttonous puddle of spider rivulets slogged across the table, riding the scars in the wood furnishing. Isa jumped as it spread, hand thrown out for the napkin, just as Ritsu jumped too. A begging “no” escaped his lips as he shot his hand outward.

Isa threw her napkin onto the puddle of chocolate. Its progress halted, and bled up the white linen instead.

For a moment frozen in time, Isa and Ritsu locked eyes. Ritsu’s arm remained outstretched, tense with intent. Isa could almost have mistaken it for the instinctual gesture of someone reacting to the sudden tipping of a glass, were it not for the picture-perfect mirror of the gesture he’d performed when she’d first found him hiding beneath the office stairs. Hand out and brandished, curled as if grasping a weapon, elbow locked.

And she watched the surprise in his face morph into fear as the seconds passed. Isa realized too late how transparent her own expression was, how locked in shock she’d left it for the impossible things she’d witnessed.

“You can’t tell them,” Ritsu said, and it was the most breathlessly disarmed Isa had heard Ritsu all conversation. He dropped his arm, and he backed up, as if terrified of the small distance between them. “I’m begging you. I didn’t mean to. You can’t tell them.”

Isa found herself lost for words once again, so unsettling unused to the feeling of raw indecision, and she settled on the ones that clashed so violently with the view of the world she thought she knew before today.

“You’re psychic,” she said.

And Ritsu didn’t bother trying to lie to her this time.

“Please. Please you can’t tell them.”

“…Your parents… You’re—you’re psychic. How is that… even possible?”

Ritsu’s breathing had picked up to a slow flutter. Isa could feel his dread even trying to answer the question. “I don’t know. I really don’t know. Niisan was. And I am too. I don’t know why. I wish we weren’t. I want him back. It’s why he was taken. I know it. I could be taken to. My parents would never—they can’t know about this—they’d never be able to handle it. They can’t know about any of this but this part, my powers, more than anything— they can’t know that more than anything—because I could be taken too and they. They’d never—I wouldn’t—. You said you wouldn’t tell them, yeah? You promised you wouldn’t. You promised you’re sorry. You can’t tell them. You can’t. You promised you’re sorry. You have to mean that. You can’t. You can’t.”

“I don’t think I ever promised that—”

“—Please—”

“—but I won’t,” Isa whispered, as the only thing she felt she could do. “…Because telling your parents won’t stop you, will it?”

“No.”

“And it won’t help you, will it?”

“No.”

“Because they… I think I get it. You’ve already been betrayed by all the adults who were supposed to be looking out for you? Your parents, and me, and my partner.” Isa searched desperately for the right words to say, for the sentences that would save Ritsu from the path she’d let him set out on. But it was a task too huge for what she knew. She had no sense, and no certainty, and no true idea what Ritsu had done – what he was doing – and she was too much of a stranger to save him in this moment.

“…Yes,” Ritsu replied, uneasy.

So Isa let go, in the moment. She couldn’t pull him back up, she couldn’t save him from the abyss, not yet at least, not right now. She eased down, and let go, and stared at the boy drifting further from her. She swore she’d be back to save him when she could.

“I won’t tell your parents, Ritsu, about what you’re doing, or the breaking and entering, or that you’re psychic. I won’t tell them so long as you can agree to one condition I have.”

Isa could feel the way Ritsu bristled. “…What?”

Isa dropped a hand into her clutch purse, and pulled a single business card from it – white at the center with navy trim, bearing her name, her cell, her email, her work phone, and her home phone in tight cursive ink. She held it between two fingers, and offered it extended across the table to Ritsu.

“Meet with me again. Any time in the next week. Just let me try to help, again. That’s my only condition. Give me one more chance to figure out how to help you. If I hear from you in the next week, then I promise I won’t contact your parents.”

Hesitantly, as though it might sting him, Ritsu took her card. The scowl on his face could not quite hide the relief or the untensing of his brow that had been screwed so tight with worry. His shoulders eased down, then eased lower, near sagging with the immediate onset of exhaustion in the wake of his extreme adrenaline high. It left his eyes dull and his body just a bit unsteady.

Silently, he stowed the card in his pocket. He cast his eyes down to his slightly trembling arm, the one that had been thrown out with such urgency, and he clasped it tight with his left hand to still it.

“Can I… please… leave now? Can I go now?”

“Yes,” Isa answered. She busied herself with mopping the napkin along the table, erasing the evidence of what had transpired between them. “Take the other half of the croissant.”

Gimcrack spun into existence with a sudden swirl of ballooning purple, keeping pace by Ritsu’s left shoulder as Ritsu moved himself one step at a time away from the café vanishing on the horizon behind him. The impending sunset bled with deep pinks and oranges behind the crest of the café, throwing Ritsu’s shadow out in a long swath ahead of him.

“Wow! What a conversation,” Gimcrack chimed. “I just regret not having a tub of popcorn on hand for that.”

Ritsu shot his hand out, explosively violent, just barely skimming Gimcrack who dodged to the right.

“Hey!” Gimcrack shouted.

“WHY didn’t you possess her like I told you to?!” Ritsu yelled back. He flung both shaking hands out, eyes alight with an uncontrolled flame. “I TOLD you to possess her!”

“Hey, hey hey hey hey settle down! Ease on down, champ, it’s not like I didn’t try! I just couldn’t, is all.”

“Couldn’t?!”

“Couldn’t!” Gimcrack spread both spidery arms wide, imploring. “Some people just have a bit more protection around their noggins. That goes without saying for a psychic, but some regular humans have got it too.”

“What does that mean?

“It means I can’t possess her without her permission! Same for you and your best buddy Blondie. It’s just some rotten luck, but you handled it … well not ‘well’, but hey your parents still don’t know! That’s a win!”

Ritsu paused, letting the information sink in. The exhaustion bleeding through his veins swamped out the anger. He just wanted to get home. He just wanted to sleep.

“That lady WAS asking some interesting questions though, don’t you think? You never did answer her.”

Ritsu ignored Gimcrack. He trudged along, one foot in front of the other, feeling exhausted and sick and foolish, counting down the minutes until he’d be home.

“I’ll jog your memory, cuz I’ll be honest I’m itchy for the answer too. Forgetting about your brother, what do you want?”

The question pried at Ritsu’s mind, oozed through all the mental barriers he’d erected and invaded, tainting, stinging. Forgetting about his brother. Forgetting about Mob. Casting his brother off, down, to sink and drown in the dark depths below.

It was an impossible thing to consider. It was too violent and horrendous a concept to wonder what he’d be if he was living his own life for himself, if he gave up on Mob, if he swam upward to see what the shimmering lights through the surface of the water looked like.

Not just horrendous. Terrifying. The depths of this prison, its pressure, held him together and gave him form. It gave him structure and purpose and a path forward. What terrible mess of nothing would he be if he tried to ascend beyond these depths?

So Ritsu shut the thought down. He denied it. He snuffed it out before it could pry him open any further. That woman was wrong. He didn’t need saving. He didn’t need anyone.

“I want my brother found,” Ritsu answered with finality. He took another step forward, and waded willingly deeper into the path ahead of him. “And I want his shishou dead.”

Isa shut her front door behind her. She didn’t both with the lights. She simply kicked her shoes off, and dropped her clutch and keys on the entryway table, and shrugged off her coat, and waited for the weight to leave her chest.

She counted out the seconds. The weight didn’t leave.

Isa moved forward, socked feet moving silently from entryway, past the kitchen, and straight to the bedroom in back, where she eased the door closed, and methodically, numbly rolled the blinds shut over each of the two windows. The amber sunset vanished behind them, leaving her room in a warm wash of slatted light, growing dimmer.

Phone in hand, she lowered herself onto her futon. The screen lit her face, reflected in her eyes as she tapped through her contacts, and let her finger hover above Tetsuo’s name.

She didn’t press it. Instead she scrolled upward and stopped on Haruki’s name. She tapped the little phone icon beside his contact info, and adjusted her eyes to the new darkness of the screen – all black, save for the little image of Haruki at the center, and the hang-up icon beneath it. The grainy ringing stole her focus. She watched the seconds ticking upward on screen beneath Haruki’s still contact photo.

A click.

H-hello? Officer Maki?”

“Hi Ando. I’ll be taking a sick day tomorrow. Just thought I’d give you a heads up.”

You, wh— Wait you’ve never—I don’t think—you’ve never even taken a sick day, have you? What happened? Are you dying?”

“No.”

Did you catch whatever Officer Isari had?”

Isa paused. She lingered on that look of Tetsuo’s, burned into her memory. That utter defeat, that mask of helplessness, the complete devastation that stole through his eyes at the notion that he’d failed to save Shigeo Kageyama from whatever fate had claimed him.

It was like she remembered it differently, now. She felt it so much more clearly in her mind’s eye, that feeling she hadn’t understood until now, of personal responsibility for the destruction of a Kageyama brother’s life.

“Yeah, I think so,” Isa answered. “Take care.”

Isa tapped the End Call button, hearing only the faintest note of protest from Haruki on the other end of the line. Silence washed over her again, and she placed her phone down on the floor. It would die in the night if she didn’t plug it in now.

Isa rolled over, phone forgotten. The light filtering through her blinds had turned crimson now, staining the wall. She stared at it, unmoving, unthinking, unwilling to sink into the thoughts that consumed her. She fought to just focus on the light, and the red, and the blank nothing that spanned the whole wall.

It didn’t work.

So Isa rolled over again, and shut her eyes, and let her thoughts consume her.

Chapter Text

“And then?”

“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?”

“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.”

“I don’t.”

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.”

“Hmm?”

“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.”

“What?”

“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!”

What?”

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--”

Teru snorted.

“—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?”

“Theater 2.”

“Eager.”

“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.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

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.”

“No.”

“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.”

“Okay, how?

“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.

“No.”

“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?”

“Hmm?”

“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.”

“What?”

“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.

“Hey!”

“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.”

“Of course.”

“This wasn’t maybe a… sign to call this one off? Ya know, cut our losses?”

“No.”

“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—”

“Which way?!

“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.”

Ritsu nodded.

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.”

Gimcrack nodded.

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.

“Oi!”

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.

“Rits?”

“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.

Unless??”

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.”

What?

“Possession. I PROMISE I’m not gonna be doing anything sneaky. I CAN save you if you let me do this.”

How?!”

“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.