The window didn't make much sound beyond a patter when I drummed on it, like unsteady rain. My gloves, besides being a showy part of the uniform, were good at dampening those sounds. It still would have annoyed anyone around -- if I wasn't the only one in that lonely sweatbox of a patrol station. As it was, I was free to drum away, ready to slide the window open if somebody did show up. If only I'd brought a book.
My ears drooped as I gave a sigh. Half a bloody week since I received orders to report to my new outpost. Nevermind that I lived in a settlement on one of the furthest (and cheapest) peaks. No, Koyomi, you're needed for the "good of Tengu Society". That's why I joined up with the guard officially out of academy, of course. My definition of doing good for society, however, must have been different from theirs.
You see, while this merry band of castoffs that I belonged to was officially called the Mountain Outpost Peacekeepers, meant as a way for the higher-ups to maintain a certain presence in what would otherwise be the outlands, we were functionally little more than a tourist information booth. Not a decade ago, this whole area was an unfarmable mess. Now it was a gathering spot for humans and youkai alike. We barely had any jurisdiction over the place, considering it was between us, the kappa, and the humans in terms of territory, and that was probably what made it popular. Any political fallout from our actions, and we'd be without recourse; angry humans and kappa breaking down our doors wasn't something we really wanted to deal with. That's why our everyday role was a safe one: finding and returning lost property, giving directions, promoting businesses by distributing fliers and vouchers, picking up trash...
I wasn't fond of it, but I could do it. The part that chafed me most was the short notice, which left me without much time to find a place to sleep or store my belongings, which were still in a shed back on the furthest peak.
One thing to know about this outpost is that few people lived here. From the constant stream of faces that you could see every night, it may have not seem that way, but this was essentially an entertainment quarter. Merchants, restauranteurs, craftspeople, thieves, ladies of the night, and those that they catered to -- all of them came in during the night time and left by daybreak. It was a relatively new development besides.
So there I sat, not even a fan to cool myself with, staring out the window that no one was appearing at. To add to the misery of the heat, my stomach complained at me. Boredom made me hungry. I eyed the culinary guide sitting on the counter. In lieu of better reading material, I'd brought it to leaf through to give me an idea of the sorts of hidden gems this outpost might hide. It'd only make me hungrier, but maybe I could at least get an idea of what to get after my shift.
Just as I reached for the dog-eared magazine, there was a tapping on glass. My ears stood on end. It wasn't the sound of gloved fingers. Peeking through the closed window, I saw a blur of pink and a raised hand still touching the glass.
I jumped to my feet and slid the window open with a hasty salute. "Y-Yes? How can I help you?"
I opened my eyes to see that I was talking to the outstretched hand. Poking my head out the window, I could actually see its owner. A pink-haired girl with a Noh mask on her head was staring up at me with very bored eyes, her face almost a mask itself.
"I lost one," the girl said. Even seeing me there, she poked me on the nose with her hand. I grabbed it and put her arm down.
"Er, one what, exactly?"
A pair of masks materialised behind her, a kitsune and a monkey, wreathed in a ghostly glow. Even in my short time at the outpost, I'd seen some strange things. I was almost foolish enough to think I'd seen most of what there was to see. This was a new one, though. I wondered for a moment if this wasn't part of some new urban legend that just spread around. My coworkers loved them, awful gossips that they were.
The girl pointed to the masks. "I counted them, so I know one's missing. You can help me find it, right?"
"One moment, please."
I shut the window and strolled over to the cabinet that served as our lost-and-found. Nothing but a couple of unclaimed wallets and stacks upon stacks of fliers that we had yet to distribute. That explained why Sumida's shifts were so short. I slammed it shut and went back to the girl.
"I'm very sorry, but we don't have anything like that in our lost-and-found, so..."
Her eyes narrowed at me. "That's not what I asked. For a wolf tengu, your ears don't work very well. Are they broken?"
I had to force my ears not to flatten out, putting on the best smile I could. "I assure you, miss, they work fine."
"Oh, so you're just dense. Okay." The corner of her mouth bent up in a weird imitation of a smirk. "Let me say it again: You--" She pointed at me. "--can help me--" She pointed to herself. "--find my missing mask, right?"
My left ear twitched. No, Koyomi, don't throw your career away this early!
I stepped back from the window, massaging my temples and taking deep breaths. This was the last thing I needed. The heat and my empty stomach were already getting to me. Any more and I might have burst through the roof flying back home, duties be damned. I shook my head.
Getting flighty wasn't going to do me any good, nor was it going to make me any less hungry. Much the opposite, the sooner I helped this girl, the sooner I'd be rid of her. I nodded to myself. Yes, I needed to take a more proactive approach. Get this day over with as soon as possible.
I poked my head back out the window. "Alright. I can't be gone long, but I guess I can at least help look. No promises on finding it, though."
The girl clucked her tongue, making a displeased face.
I rifled through the drawers to find the "Please come back later" sign, hung it on the door, and stepped outside into the searing brightness of day. This wasn't going to be pleasant at all, but I was going to make it short. Then I could... do whatever. After getting something to eat.
"So," I said, turning to the mask girl, "when did you last see this mask?"
"Last night. I was putting on a play over there." She pointed to the empty square in front of the station.
For once, maybe the day shift had its benefits. "And what did you do after that?"
"I don't remember. That's why I need help looking."
I groaned. "Great."
So she was leaving me to shoulder the entire search. No leads and probably no real assistance. I needed to think quick. What would be the most likely place for missing items to end up? Given our current situation, I was limited to the area of the outpost. I muttered a silent prayer to Tenma that this wouldn't drag on into the night.
[ ] Put on your patient face and ask the night shift. Surely, they might remember the play. [ ] Check the restaurants and inns around the 'theatre' -- and maybe grab a snack while you're at it. [ ] Just wander around and hope this weird woman gets bored and gives up.
[x] Put on your patient face and ask the night shift. Surely, they might remember the play.
Sweat beaded on my brow. I was wracking my brain for any way to handle this case that had just been dropped in my lap. What little training I'd received never talked about this. Especially not the part about inconsiderate, dead-eyed mask creatures. I mean, one thought had occurred to me, but I was desperate to not even entertain it. It was just hard to come up with any other options with those dead eyes boring into me, unblinking.
"Well?" the mask girl prodded.
I held down another groan. Keeping up a customer service smile was getting harder and harder. "I just need a moment to think, ma'am."
"My name's Kokoro." Her face remained as blank as my head.
"Give me a minute, then, Kokoro."
She shut up and stepped back a pace or two. I scanned the square. With it being this early, even the stools and tables were missing, to say nothing of the tents. A few people slinked around in the distance, probably making their way home after a night of Tenma-only-knows-what, though I could never be sure.
While I said that the outpost was nocturnal, that wasn't strictly true. There were businesses operating during the day. I hadn't yet acquainted myself with all of them, but I knew at least a few restaurants served stragglers from the nightly revelry and others who I guessed had legitimate business. Since I was in the process of moving, I hoped there would be more.
My stomach jumped in to remind me that I was on its clock. Kokoro's gaze flattened. "You're just thinking about what's for lunch, aren't you?"
"Maybe you'd like to look for your mask yourself."
"I'm being serious," she said, her cheek puffing out. It might have been funny if I were in a better state of mind. She honestly looked like a pouting child. She was even about the right height.
I adjusted my glasses. As much as I hated to admit it, she was right. Half of my bad mood was me being hungry. Looking at it that way, I felt a bit ashamed of myself for losing my calm over that. I had a long way to go as--
"Wait a minute!" I said, a thought coming to me all of a sudden, and looked over my shoulder at Kokoro.
She raised an eyebrow. "I'm already waiting."
"No, no, I mean... urgh." I waved towards one of the nearby alleyways. "Come with me. I just had an idea."
I started walking down the alley, stopping to look back. Kokoro hesitated.
"Your idea isn't knocking me unconscious and leaving me in the alley, is it?" she asked.
"It's not. Now, come on." I normally would've laughed at the thought, but it was tempting.
She stood in place for a second like she didn't believe me, but then quickly got to walking. With her in tow, I made my way to the east, through the narrow strip of buildings that stretched on for several blocks. I was pretty sure this was the way my coworkers had led me the other night.
Sure enough, the alleyway dumped us off into a main street that I recognised as being close to the main red-light district. Thankfully, nothing was open this early, though the signage made it obvious what was on offer when it was. I could see Kokoro giving me a sideways glance. I ignored it and kept on down the block. Unknown except to those who wandered this area, a restaurant with only four tables operated out of the back of a building on a side street here. I only knew because this was where I'd celebrated my entry into the patrol.
It wasn't a showy place, for sure. The only sign that it was open was a propped open door -- and the smell of kimchi wafting out. I'll admit I was sceptical the first I saw and smelled the place. The pungence of cabbage pickling isn't for everyone. That said, in the half-week since I started, I've been back twice already.
Needless to say, I was thrilled to see the door open when I poked my head into the side street and rushed over to greet the owner. The balding human got up from his seat and waved.
"Officer Koyomi. How strange to see you alone!" he called, shuffling over to clear off a table.
"Er, well, I'm actually not." I peeked back to see Kokoro not behind me. "One second," I said to the owner.
Kokoro was still standing outside, at the edge of the alley, holding her nose. I waved for her to come inside, but she didn't move.
"First your ears don't work, and now your nose is broken? What kind of failed excuse for a tengu are you?"
"For your information, my ears and nose work perfectly fine," I huffed. "Now, if you want your mask to be found, I suggest you get in here."
Her face scrunched up in displeasure, but she knew I was serious. She plodded her way inside and took a seat without a word to me or the owner. With any luck, she'd keep that quiet for a while longer.
I pulled out a seat and sat down, careful to put my tail to the side. "Just a normal order for me. I don't think she's going to want anything."
Kokoro shot me a look, her mouth half-open. The owner laughed.
"I'll double your order of mandu free of charge. How about that?"
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"Yes, he's sure," Kokoro snarked.
The owner laughed again. "Ah, you got a good friend there, officer. That's two orders of mandu and a large kimchi stew, then."
With that, he disappeared into the billowing steam in the back, hollering to someone. Kokoro shot me another look as soon as he was out of sight. I got up to fill a glass of water for both of us, which she took in spite of her sour face.
"I know it doesn't smell great. You eat it for the taste. Though I guess it kind of depends on whether or not you like strong tastes."
She sipped her water in silence.
"I thought I didn't care for spicy stuff until Hinawa -- oh, she's my coworker, by the way -- introduced me."
"You never told me your name," Kokoro cut in.
I pulled my gloves off, fetching a spoon and a pair of chopsticks off of the nearby counter. "Koyomi. Iwabori Koyomi."
"Well, Koyomi," she said, clawing at some chopsticks for herself, "I appreciate being treated to lunch, but I can't help but notice we're not looking for my mask anymore."
I waved a hand in the air. "And you say I'm not listening. I told you my coworker showed me this place, right?"
"And that same coworker is on the night shift. I'm the only one on the day shift right now, so they're more likely to know something."
Her eyes narrowed. "Still not following."
I sighed, scratching my head. This was why it was a bad idea to talk to anybody while I was hungry. "Look, I'm a new officer here. I don't even know where the night shift guys are during the day. I do know that some of them know this place. That means at least one or two might come here from time to time."
"Oh. I think I get it now."
"Well, good." I stared off at the back, wondering when the old man would be back. The smell of frying mandu was starting to drift over. I could practically taste them already.
"So what you're saying is that you're totally unreliable as an officer."
My ears flattened. I opened my mouth to say something back when the owner came strolling out of the kitchen, two plates of mandu in hand. Anything I might have wanted to say to Kokoro disappeared from my mind as soon as he got close enough to set them down.
"And the stew's coming up soon," he said, bending down to light the burner on the table.
My chopsticks were half-poised to grab a mandu when I remembered what I'd come here for. "By the way, you haven't happened to see any of the other officers around today, have you?"
The old man thought for a second, rolling a burnt-out match in his fingers. "Come to think of it, Officer Sumida stopped by for a minute. Said he was going somewhere, though I can't rightly say where. Sounded like he might've been talking about that kappa bazaar. It's going on today, you know."
"I... I see." Hearing Sumida's name, I couldn't help feeling disappointed. I'd really hoped Hinawa or anyone else might have been through. If I had to rely on him, things might get even more annoying.
The owner nodded and excused himself again. Kokoro cocked her head. "Problem?" she asked.
I smoothed my ears back. "You could say that. I... don't really like dealing with Sumida."
"Did he grab your tail or something?" She leaned in.
"No, he's jus--"
"HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!" came a screech from somewhere nearby.
I jumped out of my seat on instinct, peering out of the doorway to see if I could spot the source. As soon as I did, someone came hauling tail into the alley. Judging from the height and lack of wings or tail, he had to be a human. I couldn't see his face for what looked like a faerie gripping onto his head. Not too far behind him was a kappa wielding some kind of toy.
There was a gust of air next to me, and then I saw Kokoro taking off after the fleeing human as well. Of course she would throw herself into a troublesome situation.
[ ] Time to dash. An officer's duty is to keep the peace, and this isn't shaping up to be peaceful. [ ] Help without moving. A well-aimed bullet might stop the runner in his tracks. Assuming that's who you want to stop. [ ] Forget it. Your mandu are already getting cold, and you'll be damned if you're missing out on kimchi stew.
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[x] Time to dash. An officer's duty is to keep the peace, and this isn't shaping up to be peaceful.
I glanced back at the table in apology to my lunch, grabbing a (still quite warm) mandu and holstering it in my mouth before taking off out the door. The human and faerie pair were already half-way down the alley, and Kokoro was nipping at their heels. Their kappa pursuer lay bowled-over not too far from the door. I vaulted over her as I sprang out at my top speed.
One thing to note here is that I didn't make it out of academy through my athletic prowess. Compared to my fellow guards, I was (mostly) trim but wanting for musculature. This naturally put me at the bottom of my class when it came to physical exams. It suffices to say that I was far from fit to chase anyone.
That said, my kimchi stew was coming, and I was not going to miss it for the world. That sole thought propelled me forward down the alley. I was still trailing, but I could make out the human's strained breathing now. His endurance had to be approaching its edge. One second longer, and I'd overtake him.
The faerie attached to him poked her head up and saw me getting closer. She slapped her mount frantically on the shoulder. "Shit! Hurry, Iwao!"
"What now?" snapped a muffled voice from under her.
"Doggie guard at back o' clock!"
The human gave a panicked wheeze and poured even more strength into his legs. I pushed myself even harder, too caught up in the chase to even be offended by the faerie's remark, but I still couldn't make up the distance. A wave of panic ran through me when I saw the end of the alley up ahead.
Then my second athletic failure overtook me: my lack of balance. The other thing that kept me locked in an endless cycle of drills in academy was the fact that my feet liked to entangle themselves at the worst moments. Somehow or another, I forgot to pick up one foot, subsequently tripping myself. However it happened, I toppled over, just barely managing to pull myself into a roll as I hit the ground, and skidded to a stop. I sat up in time to snatch my mandu out of air with my teeth.
The faerie cackled. "Good girl! Now, roll over!" She punctuated her insult with barking noises, throwing her head back and crowing with laughter.
I bared my fangs in the faerie's direction, grinding my teeth in frustration. One simple job and you screw it up, Koyomi.
Just then, I realised that I'd lost sight of Kokoro. There weren't any side paths to duck into, so it wasn't like she was circling them. That's when I heard a yell and looked up. A streak of pink-and-blue came crashing down from the rooftops, right on top of the human, knocking him and his faerie rider to the ground.
I got to my feet and limped my way over to where Kokoro was now standing triumphantly over the human, holding the strawberry blonde faerie up by the scruff of her neck. The faerie's wings buzzed as she flailed in Kokoro's grip. "What in the hell is your problem, lady! You could have killed Iwao! You know how hard it is to find a human this gull--"
Kokoro shook the faerie. "Shut up."
The faerie glared at Kokoro, crossing her arms. "Hmph."
Before I could say anything, the kappa from before came scrambling to a halt, out of breath and dirty-faced. She wobbled like she might fall over again, so I offered a hand to keep her stable.
"I'm fine," she snarled between breaths. "Just hurry up and arrest those two."
Kokoro frowned. "I have business with this faerie, so you're going to have to wait."
"Yeah, she--" The faerie shot Kokoro another dirty look. "Wait a minute, I don't even know you, lady!"
The kappa adjusted her slicked-back hair, which had a sheen like was some kind of costume piece. "I really don't care." She turned to me, pointing to the human, who was still writhing in pain on the ground. "That faerie has sticky fingers, and the human is probably her mule. I told them repeatedly to stop handling the merchandise, and you know what she did? She chucked a toy gun at me! You think I'm going to stand for that?"
"What! You're the one who threw it at me, you dumb... turtle thing! You with your big, dumb bald spot!" shouted the faerie.
The kappa made like she was going to throttle the faerie, but Kokoro put her arm out. "Hold on just one minute. I haven't even got my revenge yet," Kokoro said.
"Who cares? You're not the one who has to worry about a bottom line."
"Worry more about your ugly turtle face!"
Just like that, things broke down into indiscernible squabbling between the three of them. I rubbed my temples, feeling that headache coming back. Conflict resolution was never my specialty. Sure, I was the top of my class in it, but that was purely academics. Now that I had a real live situation in front of me, all I could tell was that it was a mess.
I thought back to what I'd learned. If I wanted to get anywhere, I was going to have to sort through it piece-by-piece.
[ ] Start with Kokoro. She's the most pressing matter at hand, considering she's the one who dragged you out of the station. What's the deal with her and that faerie? [ ] Start with the faerie. You can't spell trouble without faeries, and they cause plenty of it around here. She could use some straightening out. [ ] Start with the kappa. Kappa merchants are never fun to deal with, but they're an inseparable part of the outpost. Tenma only knows what a hacked-off kappa is capable of where money's involved. [ ] That human looks awfully injured. A youkai injuring a human is never a good thing to deal with politically. Doubly so if he happens to be an outsider. Try making sure he's okay.
Actually, he's a friend who asked if he could use the characters. Rest assured that the Yasumi almanac will continue to the end. I'm plotting out updates in advance so that once I get the next update out, it won't have to be months and months before the one after it.
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[x] Start with Kokoro. She's the most pressing matter at hand, considering she's the one who dragged you out of the station. What's the deal with her and that faerie?
I looked over at the kappa and the human, Iwao, according to the faerie. The former had taken a seat on the ground to have a smoke and scowl. My nose didn't appreciate the odour, but I could bear with it for now. Likewise, the latter was finally sitting up, clutching his side and complaining. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief that Kokoro hadn't mortally wounded him. As it was, I could have a look at him back at the station if need be.
However, my biggest concern at the moment had little to do with them. Kokoro and the faerie she'd apparently recognised were seated facing away from each other, hands kept in the air like I'd told them. That didn't stop the two from taking occasional peeks back at each other. As soon as Kokoro looked back, the faerie held her middle fingers up.
I rapped the faerie on the head. "Any more of that and I'll drag you to the station to fill out paperwork by yourself. How about that?"
The faerie gave me a look that was half afraid and half disgusted. I crossed my arms, my gaze unwavering, my ears low to show I was serious. She tsked and stopped making rude gestures. "Fiiiiine," she whined.
If there was anything that crossed the species line, it was the fear of the bureaucracy which extended its roots to the deepest reaches of tengu society and into the very soul of the mountain. Even the most defiant of creatures quaked in fear of its labyrinthine presence. It'd been an effective method of straightening out troublemakers since its installation. I had to admit deep down being thankful for being insulated from most of it since I kept my head down and my nose clean.
The last distraction taken care of, I turned my attention solely to Kokoro. She was the prime reason I was even standing in this alley, and I'd barely found anything out about that situation either. No, I couldn't leave it alone any longer. I was going to hit as many birds with one stone as I could.
"Kokoro," I said.
"Koyomi," she said back.
"And I'm Fuku!" piped the faerie. I shot her a stern look and cleared my throat.
"Now that you two are behaving in some sense, why don't you start by telling me why you thought it was a good idea to interfere in this situation? Especially considering you injured someone in the process."
"Actually, about that," the human chimed in, "I kind of got hit in the back, which is--" He gave a long, wheezing grunt of pain. "Did I mention it really, really hurts? Because it does."
I held up a hand. "Sir, I'm sorry about your injuries, but I have to ask that you not interrupt my questioning."
"Oh, okay. That's fine. Ignore the squishy human. I'll just keep hurting and wishing I was kind of dead over here." He slumped against the closest wall, curling up on his side to punctuate his complaint. It was obviously an act despite the injury. I adjusted my glasses and made a mental note to walk him to the clinic at the first opportunity anyway.
Kokoro looked up as if asking if she could go on. I nodded.
"In my defence, you weren't doing a great job of catching them," she said.
"Leaving that aside, if you'd please."
She flipped her hair back and crossed her arms. "Like I said, I wanted my revenge. That faerie over there has no appreciation for a real performance."
"Performance? You call a boring fan dance while making warbly noises a performance?" Fuku interrupted. "I could make music with my butt and draw a bigger crowd than with that."
"Listen to that. That's the sound of somebody with no culture."
Fuku pulled her mouth completely straight, rocking side-to-side in place. "Wooooo! I'm the freaky mask woman. I'm boring and suck at acting, so I make stupid noises and dance like an idiot. People only pay attention to me because I'm not wearing any--"
A fan materialised into Kokoro's hands, and she promptly knocked the faerie on top of the head. Fuku shielded herself by hunkering down and curling into a ball. I grabbed Kokoro's wrist and tugged her up to her feet.
"Focus. What did she do back then?"
Kokoro's face soured. "Tell me, have you ever had somebody so devoted to heckling you that they spent an hour and half spitting cherry pits at you? That's what she did. Not only that, but she made noises over my chanting and tried to trip me more than once. My performance isn't a comedy routine. It's a serious drama, and that faerie made a mockery of it the whole way."
"So you gave that human a flying kick and..." I glanced back to the sullen kappa, who had a few noticeable bruises now. "You also knocked over that merchant in your mad scramble to get to that faerie, I'm guessing. And that was all over her being a heckler. You really thought that was a reasonable thing to do?"
The kappa stubbed out her cigarette and pulled out another. "Damn right, she knocked me over. Walked on my back, she did. You can bet I'll be lodging a complaint to the association about this."
Kokoro snatched her wrist from my grip, glowering at me and rubbing her arm. "Did I say that's all she did? I didn't even get to the worst part."
I waved for her to continue.
"I'll admit, my performances draw a lot of people who aren't all that interested in the arts. There's always the ones that come up to chat afterwards. They seem to think I'm desperate for money." Her lips drew up in a poisonous smile. "Anyway, I had plenty of them after last night's show. Well, as you know, I'd dealt with her for most of it and fended her off as best I could. Giving me a hard time wasn't enough for her, though. She had the nerve to try and make off with one of my masks while I wasn't looking. Trying to take a mask from a menreiki. Such an idiot."
I bent down to coax Fuku out of her defensive position. "Is that true?"
"N-No! What would I want with a dumb mask?" she growled.
Iwao half sat up. "Fuku, don't lie. You were bragging about it."
"Shut uuuuup, Iwao," she replied through gritted teeth.
"A kappa, a human, a faerie, and..." came a voice from behind.
My ears stood up only to droop all the way back down after realising who it was coming from. I turned around to find the first and last person I'd wanted to talk to today calmly walking his way over. Reluctantly, I threw a salute his way. It was Sumida. I'd have recognised the pencil moustache anywhere.
"Looks like quite a little mess you've got here, Koyomi. Not bad for your first week on the job," he called.
I cleared my throat. "I was just in the middle of questioning everybody."
"Which was interrupting your lunch, right?" He motioned back towards the restaurant. "I don't know about you, but I'd hate to leave a good kimchi stew unattended too long."
I stared Sumida down. He flashed a vacant smile. This was how he opened every conversation. It never meant anything good. A knot of dread was forming in my stomach, just big enough to make me forget my hunger for the moment.
Sorry, guys, no choices this time around. I had to hurry this one out on even shorter notice than usual, hence the very late post. More questions will be answered next time with any luck.
Hey, guys, I'm really sorry to do this, but managing daily updates is just not possible with my work schedule the way it is. I work long hours and get home late at night with scarcely enough time to eke out some words before I have to fall in bed. As you can imagine, this makes things a little hectic. I'm not quitting as much as giving up my claim to the crown, though, and that's fine. I never wanted that as much as I just wanted to write and have a good time.
With that said, the update schedule is shifting from daily to every other day. I've already got the makings of another update going, but I'd rather it be finished, so it won't be up until late tomorrow. Please wait warmly.
>>29458 Well, I'm not planning on making any updates longer than they need to be. I just need breathing room to figure out what I'm trying to do. I kind of ran into this with a vague concept and some borrowed characters (Koyomi is technically a character in The Kinu Yasumi Almanac for Outsiders), and nothing feels cohesive still, even four updates in. Thinking on my feet is not my greatest skill, so I need every bit of space I can get.
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With the six of us seated in the restaurant, it felt much more cramped than I ever remembered. Sumida insisted that we talk there. I knew there weren't any good intentions behind it, but I couldn't exactly go against my superior, even if he was off-duty. The way he sat beaming at me from the other table, his tail waving behind him, said that much. According to Hinawa, it was a hobby of his to bully newcomers. I found out as much when I ended up sitting in the station at night dealing with the fallout of a brawl at a nearby bar my second day. He showed up at dawn with nothing but a glib apology to see me off.
I'd heard he held a fairly high rank at one point on the mountain but had fallen out of favour. It wasn't hard to see why with his propensity to shove work onto others. If there was anything I couldn't stomach, it was flippancy with duty, and his neverending well of cheerfulness along with it just added a layer of irritation.
Needless to say, I didn't return his smile as I sat across from him, still waiting on my kimchi stew. Even enjoying my mandu was hard with him around. Kokoro, on the other hand, didn't share this difficulty. "I've never liked meat, but these are good," she said, gnawing away at her share of the pile.
"Aren't they?" Sumida chimed. "Why, I was the first of us to find this place. That handsome young fellow is kind of an old friend, you know. We met a while ago before this place was even thought of. That was back when all those territorial disputes were still breaking out with the kappa."
He glanced between me and the kappa merchant, who looked up from shovelling down every side dish on their table to frown at him. "I imagine it was a little before your times," he said, grinning.
The kappa snorted and went back to chasing the side dishes with rice. I set down my chopsticks with a sigh.
"This is probably the furthest from professional I've ever seen you," I said.
Sumida pursed his lips, pinching his pencil moustache between his fingers and twisting away at it, ears half-cocked. "What a cold thing to say, Officer Koyomi! And a hypocritical one, if you don't mind me being a bit critical. Going off to have lunch with a friend while on-duty like that."
"Ah, she's not my friend," Kokoro said before I could open my mouth. "I couldn't be friends with somebody that bad at doing her job."
Fuku and the kappa both laughed at that. Iwao seemed less amused, thumping the faerie on the head with his spoon. Sumida sucked his teeth, shaking his head at Kokoro's appraisal.
I cleared my throat. "I'll admit that I might have got sidetracked, but I can't say you have admirable hobbies commandeering an investigation in progress." I jabbed a finger at Kokoro. "The entire reason that I'm here is because of her. She only happens to have involved herself in this other little debacle because she recognised that faerie."
"It's rude to point," Kokoro deadpanned.
"Oh, yes, you did say that," Sumida said, perking up in his seat. His chair made an ear-stabbing screech scraping across the floor towards me. "I have to say, I'm a tad curious as to what sort of case would take a new girl out of the station."
"To put it in short, we came searching for someone from the night shift. Kokoro over there has some missing property. A mask. She was putting on an outdoor play near the station last night, and that's the last she's seen of it. Nothing of the sort turned up in the lost-and-found." My ears flattened remembering what I found earlier. "Speaking of which, I notice last night's fliers were sitting in neat little stacks in there."
He laughed. "Oh my. I guess a certain Nankotsu is going to get written up."
"And you want to question my professionalism!" I adjusted my glasses, narrowing my eyes at him. His smile faltered ever so slightly. "You shamelessly pawn your work off on others."
Sumida held his hands up in surrender. "Now, now, now. I have my reasons. Though I do tend to pass up the boring jobs," he said with another shameless laugh.
I crossed my arms, letting my disdain seep into the atmosphere. Noting this, Kokoro gave a snicker. Sumida leaned back in his chair after a moment and started picking at his nails.
"This all seems like a bit of an annoyance getting in the way of your search, then."
I kept my guard up. "Yes?"
"So!" He sat back up. "Tell you what I'll do. You'd like this little mess--" he waved to the trio at the other table, "--to go away, right?"
"And you need the night shift to help with your investigation."
I waved him on. "Get to the point."
He lost his smile, scratching the back of his ear. Score one point for Koyomi. "Fine. I'll take the three over here down to the station and get some paperwork ironed out. In return, you get to take my shift." His eyes flicked up to me, his smile creeping back up. It was less good-humoured than before. "Again."
I bolted up from my seat, ready to protest. However, I couldn't get in a word before the old man finally materialised from the back with my kimchi stew. Sumida smirked as if he'd timed it everything for this very moment.
"Don't forget, officer. You did technically slouch off on some of your duties. That's something that the command might like to hear about, don't you think?" He shrugged his shoulders.
"Ooh, this guy's good!" said Fuku, nudging a bemused-looking Iwao.
I said nothing and sat back down, deflated. The old man set my kimchi stew on the burner, quickly retreating back to the kitchen. He could tell I wanted to throw the bubbling red broth on Sumida. Not that I was about to do that, of course, but the thought was there.
I settled for sighing again. "I'll do it. Just... get out of here."
"Say no more. I won't trouble you any further. Enjoy your lunch," he said, patting me on the shoulder as he rose.
Sumida gathered up the others except for Kokoro, filing them out the door. He stopped in the doorway on his way out and turned back. "And, please, don't hate me for this. I know it seems I'm just fobbing off work, but I do have my reasons. I've heard chatter from the mountain about something going on. Something possibly big."
"What sort of big thing?" Kokoro asked, half-way poised to take a bite of stew.
"Can't say for sure." He flashed a full-on grin. "But, you know, they say it could involve the Hakurei Shrine. The Hakurei Shrine! Isn't that just interesting?"
Kokoro froze mid-bite. She seemed like she wanted to say something but chose not to. Instead, she just nodded. Sumida stroked his moustache, his tail perking up behind him.
"Anyway, I'll see myself along now. Take care!"
With that, he was finally gone. I half-way slumped back in my chair. Such was the joy of dealing with Sumida. If I was lucky, I might end up slipping back to my room for some sleep by the time I was done working. And all for the good of tengu society, Koyomi.
At least it was out of the way and I could get back to lunch. Even with Sumida's appearance, I managed to keep an appetite, if not get even hungrier than I already was out of sheer annoyance. I didn't bother to spoon out the stew into a separate bowl as I dove in. The slight sourness of the kimchi and the spiciness of the chili in the broth reawakened my tastebuds right away. If there was anything more comforting, I had yet to taste it.
"I'm not sure I like that guy," Kokoro spoke up.
I paused for a drink of water. "Tell me about it. Be thankful he's not your senior."
Kokoro stared down at the table. It was a bit strange seeing her being so quiet. I'd have expected her to be kicking me while I was down.
Whoops, meant to close votes a couple of hours ago. It's pretty clear what the winner is anyway.
By the by, I can't help noticing that votes have sort of dried up. This worries me a little. As such, while we're between updates, I'd like to take this opportunity to hear your opinions on everything thus far. I can't promise any major changes, but if there's anything that's driving people off, I'd like to know.
I just started reading today based on a recommendation from an IRCer, and he may not be reading right now because of midterms and all that noise. I figure that may be the same for some of your other readers, so I wouldn't sweat it.
If it's any help I don't see anything wrong with the story so far, and I'm really enjoying it. Even if I was your only voter I'd really want you to keep at it, if for no other reason than my own selfish desires.
>>29467 Worry not. I fully intend to continue. That said, I'm glad there are people that like this story, especially when I've personally felt like my writing style is hit-or-miss. Your enjoyment warms me like kimchi stew in my gullet.
Then again, I wouldn't expect anyone to be in a talking mood after that. Even the owner was back in his chair, sitting with his arms folded, not nearly as jolly-looking as before. If I were a much pettier person, I'd almost be glad I wasn't the only one who felt the atmosphere being drained by Sumida's presence.
My stomach helpfully pulled me back into focus by gurgling. No time to ruminate, it said, for it is time to consume. The pangs of being separated from lunch so long were too strong to ignore anymore. Listening to my stomach, I dipped my spoon back into the stew, taking another spicy mouthful. The warmth spread through me, making me feel as if I could melt in bliss.
Revelling in the feeling, I took one bite after another, only pausing every once in a while for another bite of rice. It took the sound of my spoon scraping the bottom of the hotpot to notice that it was all gone.
Kokoro was looking right at me open-mouthed as I set my spoon down. Her rice bowl had barely been touched. "She really did it," she muttered.
It was only then that I understood just how quickly I'd finished. I had gone at it with such gusto that the stew had disappeared in minutes. I groped for my napkin, my cheeks flushing in self-consciousness as I wiped my mouth. Maybe it was a bit silly on my part, but I disliked the idea of being seen eating in a way that resembled some kind of wild animal. The way I inhaled the kimchi stew was no doubt that unsightly.
To make matters worse, I still felt like I could go for more. Not to mention Kokoro barely got in a bite for herself before I snatched the rest away.
"Sorry." I pushed the half-empty plate of mandu over towards her. My apology barely seemed to register.
Just then, I turned to see the owner at the tableside. He collected the empty pot with a good-natured laugh. Before he could scoot back to the kitchen with it, I waved him down. As much as pride would normally restrain me, hunger always won out in the end. "Erm, could I... get another?" I asked.
The old man's expression perked up. "Liked it, did you? Must've if you put it all away like that. Sure, we can do that. No problem."
He made his way towards the back yet again. I took a long drink of water, slouching back in my seat and feeling even more ashamed of my appetite getting the best of me. Kokoro finally noticed the mandu in front of her and took one.
"That's pretty amazing, though," she said through a mouthful of dumpling. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone put away a hotpot full of that much food in one sitting. And I've seen a starving person at a banquet."
She stood up, jabbing her chopsticks at me. "Seriously! I wouldn't have guessed it from how bony you look, but you can really pack it away."
I fiddled with my tail, unable to say anything back.
"I mean, don't get me wrong. I'm no slouch myself. That whole stew in that amount of time, though? I'd burst. What sort of training does it even take to get a stomach like yours?"
I sat up, waving my hand. "It's nothing like that, really. I just... got hungry enough, that's all."
Kokoro blinked. Then her face fell. "So, you're saying it's a natural talent, then."
"What? I-I don't even know," I sputtered. "Why does it even matter?"
"I thought it was cool."
I stared at her. Of all things, my ability to pack food into my stomach was the last I expected to get complimented on. I adjusted my glasses, fumbling for some kind of response. My face felt hotter than after a bite of stew.
"I don't know if it's all that relevant, but I used to do something similar at the academy," I said after a while. "Sometimes people wouldn't finish their lunches, and I would still be hungry. All those drills and such are pretty tiresome, you know? I asked other cadets for their leftovers once and got a mountain of food for my trouble. Well, I didn't want to waste something that others worked to prepare."
Kokoro cocked her head. "So you ate it all."
"Exactly. It was hard, and my jaw cramped badly by the time I was done. I managed to make it in time for the end of lunch." I scratched my cheek. "Somebody was watching me the whole time and told me how amazing it was. I ended up getting leftovers from everybody no matter what meal it was from then on."
From there, Kokoro peppered me with questions about my days as the academy's number one leftover dispoal. It was a bit awkward to dig up old memories like that with somebody I barely knew, but it was a nice change of pace from worries about work. It'd been a while since I'd sat and reminisced like this. None of my fellow cadets worked with me on the far peak, nor were any of them assigned to the outpost, so it wasn't like I got any chances.
Somewhere in the middle of talking about my sixth year, the owner came back with the second kimchi stew. The pot barely had any time to sit on the burner when Kokoro scooped up a spoonful and popped it in her mouth.
She immediately started coughing and scrambling for a drink of water. "Too hot," she said, panting.
"Is it too much to handle?" I asked.
"No, no! I need to pace myself, that's all!" She ladled out a heaping portion into another bowl, letting it sit for a minute before even attempting to taste it again. This time, she managed to not cough, though her nose was running and her eyes were watering. "I can handle this easy. I bet I could go spicier if I wanted to."
I got up and refilled her water for her. "Don't push yourself too hard. Enjoy it."
She levelled a flat gaze at me over her water glass. "Says you, Koyomi the Glutton."
"H-How did you know my nickname from...?"
Kokoro gave a crooked smile. There was the Kokoro that I'd been talking to not an hour or so ago. Although her sass definitely rubbed me the wrong way, I couldn't help feeling better seeing her back to what counted for normal with her.
The rest of lunch passed by with a lot of amicable chit-chat. It felt good to share a meal and stories about my time on the mountain. For her part, Kokoro didn't say much about herself, but she listened intently to my own anecdotes. The few times I did ask about her, she insisted on hearing about me instead, so I let the subject drop altogether. The rest of our stew disappeared soon after.
As I got up to pay, Kokoro stopped me. "I've got this."
"Oh, no, I couldn't. Especially not since I haven't--"
She fished out a brand-new, very large bill from inside her shirt, more than enough to cover our relatively cheap lunch, and slid it across the counter into the old man's eager hands. Seeing my shock, she shot me an amused look. "What, you thought I was a struggling performer or something?"
"You might not be struggling, but this is the wrong town to be carrying large amount of cash around like that," I said.
"I'm worried less about money and more about masks if you don't remember, officer," she replied, stuffing a fistful of change back into her shirt.
A glance up at the clock on the wall told me that daylight was dangerously close to giving way to evening. I slapped my forehead. I'd got so caught up in food and conversation that the chase for Kokoro's missing mask had slipped my mind entirely.
We stepped out into the dusty street, which was a lot more alive than when we first came down it. Various neon signs were already lit up, and people were streaming into patronise the numerous salacious businesses lining the strip. Touts were busy jostling passersby in their attempts at pulling them into said businesses. Here and there, people were setting out tables and chairs, converting stretches of the path into streetside bars, not entirely legal but tolerated for now. In short, it was looking much more like a typical outpost scene now. Unfortunately, that meant my unofficial night shift was starting soon.
Kokoro looked up at me and shrugged. "Well, I can't say you were much help, but at least it was sort of fun. I guess I'll go keep looking for it myself. Thanks, though, Koyomi."
"Hey, um," I said, catching her as she turned to leave, "I'm sorry that I couldn't do much. Please, if you haven't found it by tomorrow, come back to the station and find me, okay?"
It didn't take long for her to vanish into the mass of bodies crowding the street, leaving me by myself again. Reluctantly, I made my way back to the station, cutting through as many alleyways as I could to avoid the rabble. I was soon back towards the front gate, near the formerly empty square, which was now similarly crowded with vendors and unlicensed bars. A few of my fellow patrolmen had taken their posts. I threw a wave as I approached the station.
The lights were on inside and could be seen from the windows, and I could hear some chatter. I braced myself and slid the door open. A handful of ears perked up as I walked in. I bowed sheepishly to the officers sitting around the low table, one of which happened to be Hinawa.
"Evening, Koyomi. You're here awful late," she jibed, her tail swishing left and right.
[ ] Open up the floodgates and complain about Sumida. [ ] Change the subject and gush about lunch.
After all that, it's understandable that Koyomi might not want to let loose. That's why she's going to...
[x] Change the subject and gush about lunch.
Thank you for your comments, by the way. I really get a kick out of people telling me they like it. If there's anything specifically that you really enjoy, feel free. Other than that, please wait warmly.
The temptation was there to let loose about the injustices of being forced to cover others' shifts, and I was sure all others present would agree. Looking at the mostly convivial atmosphere around the table, however, my more reserved side took over.
"Standing in for someone else," I said guardedly as I set down a cushion and took a seat next to Hinawa.
Looks were exchanged, followed by bitter laughter. One of the officers poured me a cup of tea and slid it over, ears lowered in a pitying look. It was obvious in present company who was being talked about, of course. I accepted the tea with an obliging nod. "Ah," I jumped to add before anyone else could speak, "but it's no worry. Nothing that can be done for it."
"It's still awful. That man..."
"He certainly misuses his time and energy."
Hinawa patted me on the shoulder. "Nevermind him. I guess your first week's been treating you alright regardless, right?"
"Mm-hm," I replied through a sip of tea. I nudged Hinawa. "No thanks in small part to my knowledgable and attentive seniors showing me right from wrong."
She laughed, scratching at her neck. "Hey, it's not our fault you picked the deadest hours to work."
"Well, if it's any consolation, you've at least managed to show me a great lunch spot. I went back for the third time since my welcome party. I've yet to be let down. Thank you sincerely."
"I'll take it as a complement." Hinawa grinned. "It's hard not to put away a potload of the old man's kimchi stew, am I right?"
There was a collective laugh. My cheeks reddened. I should have expected such a jab from Hinawa. She'd been the first amongst my colleagues to be amazed by how much I could eat in one sitting, and she took great pleasure in pointing it out to others. Not that she meant anything by it. Her demeanour was just more sanguine than mine could ever hope to be.
The moment gone by, things went silent while cups were passed around and refilled. Soon enough, the others kicked up their own bit of conversation, leaving me and Hinawa to talk.
I adjusted my glasses before resuming speaking to Hinawa. "It's not hard when I'm hungry enough. But, yes, I enjoyed some kimchi stew and mandu for lunch. I was even lucky enough to have some conversation to go with it."
"Really?" Hinawa asked, her ears propping up partway. She leaned over, lowering her voice somewhat. "Sumida didn't... invite you out, did he?"
"No! Oh, Tenma, no. I'd never accept an invitation like that. No threat would be harsh enough." Both of us peeked over at the other conversation going on. Thankfully, they were too busy laughing away to notice us.
Her expression turned stern, her grey eyes looking me over. "Just so you know, if anything like that does happen..."
"I'll let you know!" I said, waving my hand.
Satisfied with that, Hinawa brightened back up, her tail resuming its happy swishing. "So, you found yourself a new friend?"
"Er, no, not exactly." I hesitated for a moment. For some reason, Hinawa seemed to deflate. "I'm being serious here," I huffed. "It's related to something I needed to ask you about. In fact, that was the whole reason I was even there in the first place."
She cocked her head. "What do you mean?"
"To put it short, someone lost something -- a mask, specifically -- last night. Said someone is a self-described street performer of some sort who was putting on a play last night in front of the station. I was hoping those of you on the night shift might know something about it."
Hinawa straightened up, batting at the loose ponytail she kept her hair in as she thought back. Her lips fell into a frown after a moment. "Wish I knew what to tell you there. That was a real slow night. No missing property, no reports filed, no arrests or anything. And you know I'd have known otherwise since I spent all that time sitting on my butt in here."
"Did you at least see the play going on?"
"Nope. Can't see a thing when a crowd gathers over there."
I heaved a sigh. Hinawa being as trustworthy as she was, I could believe that I'd hit a dead-end. That made a whole day spent chasing a lead I never had. "Well, if you say so," I concluded.
I drained the rest of my tea and got back to my feet. It was about time I started on the less-than-enviable task of distributing fliers. If I started this soon, I could probably still catch most of the initial influx of visitors. Hinawa followed me to the lost-and-found cabinet where the fliers were still waiting for me.
"Hey, don't look so down," she said with a squeeze on my shoulder. "It's good that you're dedicated to this. If it helps at all, I'll ask around about it, alright?"
I managed a smile. "Thanks."
Leaving the matter at that, I threw on my overcoat, slipping my 'Mountain Outpost Patrol' armband over it, and gathered up my fliers. Outside the station, lanterns were already aglow in the settling dusk. The front gates were already inundated with an inflow of visitors come to seek their nightly amusements. Steeling my nerves, I went to take my place at the head of it all in the square.
Handing out fliers was a task that few enjoyed, if only because it ran contrary to our nature as wolf tengu. Though we were a social race, we tended to maintain a polite distance and not trouble others. This job, on the other hand, was a matter of violating that distance and intruding into someone's space for the sole purpose of troubling them. If I stood by idly with a flier held out, no one would once think to take it. Hence, distributing these troublesome sheets of paper involved catching passing visitors' attention by any means necessary and all but forcing it into their hand before they could refuse.
I set about it with as much enthusiasm as I could manage, which was not much. More often than not, I would end up jostled and shouldered aside when I tried to stop someone. It didn't help that my height put me at a disadvantage for being noticed in a crowd. Still, persistance was the key. Abandoning my duty would be more shameful than anything I could hope to accomplish in carrying it out.
Pausing to catch my breath from the shouting I had to do, I happened to notice a black-haired kappa standing a ways away looking squarely in my direction. She looked away nervously as soon as she saw me looking, but I could tell her gaze was flicking back to me from time to time. As I carried on with the fliers, I saw her creeping closer out of the corner of my eye. Even being noticed, it seemed she was intent on getting near me.
The next time I spotted her, I turned and called out to her. "Can I help you, miss?"
The kappa's eyes went wide, her face turning bright red, and she fled back into the crowd, her cap pulled low. I sighed and shook my head, going back to my work. Moments later, I saw the kappa's black hair in the edge of my vision again.
[ ] Be direct and confront her. [ ] Maybe there's some sort of bait that will lure her in. [ ] Wait her out and try to grab her when she gets close enough.
[x] Maybe there's some sort of bait that will lure her in.
I had little reason to try capturing her. It likely wouldn't have ended well anyway. Even assuming I didn't end up letting her slip at an inopportune time, I could only imagine the reaction from the other kappa. There were a few unfortunate cases already where patrolmen were accused of treating kappa rudely. As a result, our already questionable level of trust sunk that much lower with them.
The kappa as a whole were an impenetrable network of rumours, disinformation, and secrets. They wanted to be left to their business, and they didn't appreciate others bothering them about any of it. More than that, they stuck up for their own, even if a wrong was actually committed. If we tried confronting one with an accusation, within minutes we would be inundated with all manner of hostility from a whole crowd. This, along with their continually questionable status amongst the mountain administration, made things that much more complicated when it came to dealing with them in the capacity of a guard or a patrolman. Even so, I couldn't help feeling that I needed to talk to the black-haired kappa stalking me.
If I couldn't go to her, then all I was left with was making her come to me. I scanned the crowds for some possible option. The old stereotype was that kappa were fond of cucumber. I'd never confirmed such a thing myself, but occasional anecdotes from others suggested it was more-or-less true. Unfortunately, I saw nothing even related to cucumbers within reach.
I gritted my teeth. As if the stress of distributing fliers wasn't already enough...
The scent of sweet red beans stuck out to me all of a sudden. Looking around, I spotted a vendor at his makeshift stand selling manjuu not too far into the rabble. I threw a look over my shoulder at the kappa, who had only moved a couple of paces closer again. It was a long shot, but sweets did sound like a tempting bait for anyone -- kappa, tengu, human, or otherwise. A snack this long after my lunch sounded agreeable to my stomach anyway.
That in mind, I found an empty bench closer to the stand to park my stack of fliers and casually made my way over. The faintest trace of a lump of black moved through the crowd as soon as I took a step away. Confident she was still following, I approached the stand with a wave to the older crow manning it. He ensured me with a kindly smile that they were fresh and very generous with the bean paste as I dug a few coins out. I nodded and walked back to the bench with four manjuu in hand.
I plopped down on the bench, giving some sorely-needed relief for my feet, and had a bite of a manjuu. Like the vendor said, it had the warmth and softness that only a freshly-made manjuu could have. The bean paste wasn't sugared to excess, the natural sweetness of the beans being allowed to come through on its own. There was enough of it between the two pancake-like layers that I had to lick some off of my face after a single bite. I wouldn't have put them on the level of something I'd tasted on the mountain, but they were certainly serviceable for the price. In spite of myself, I let my tail wag freely as I took another bite.
I almost didn't notice when the sound hesitant footsteps drew close. Unwrapping the second manjuu, I placed the other two where they would prominently show on top of the stack of fliers, careful to not look in the direction of my shadow.
Before I had time to get more than a nibble in, the kappa was closer than she'd dared to get before. Slowly and casually, I turned to look at her. She stood still within arm's reach, her dark eyes glistening at the sight of the manjuu that tantalised her. A second passed before she realised she was being watched, but she didn't retreat. Her eyes flicked between me and the manjuu, and she tilted her head quizzically.
I gestured to the empty spot next to the fliers. "You want one? Have a seat."
She froze in place. The same look of panic flashed across her face, but the need for one of those manjuu kept her rooted in place. I gestured to the bench again.
Unable to hold out anymore, she tip-toed her way up to the bench and set herself down on the edge. Her hand was at the ready to take a manjuu. She gave me a pleading look. I nodded.
Like a squirrel being offered a treat, she snatched one of them up and tore open the wrapping in one jerky, nervous motion, halfway stuffing it in her mouth like it might vanish. I let her take a few more nibbles at it before saying anything else.
"So, er..." I cleared my throat. "I can't help noticing you looked like you had something on your mind back there."
The kappa paused mid-bite to stare at me, face smeared with bean paste.
"Was there something you wanted to talk to me about, maybe?"
Her eyes flicked away, and her mouth opened like she was about to say something. However, she only nodded.
"I'm listening." I pointed to my ears, which were up at attention. That got a half-smile out of her. Then her face went serious again, and she shook her head. "No?" I asked. "Didn't you have something to say, though?"
She nodded more definitely.
"So, go ahead."
I held back a groan. "Well, why not?"
She bit into the manjuu again, wolfing it down with a certain urgency. Then, she pointed to herself and made an X with her hands over her mouth. Her eyes were cast down in embarrassment.
When it finally hit me what she was getting at, I jumped to apologise, but she held her hand up, reaching into a satchel that she'd been carrying with her. The majority of it was taken up by a sketchbook, which she pulled out along with a pen. She flipped it open to the first page and held it up for me. A mess of words were scribbled on it, small and messy enough that I had to adjust my glasses and lean in. She pointed to a line with the pen.
'Hello. My name is Kuriko.'
She pointed to herself and nodded. Her pen moved over a notch. 'It's a little inconvenient, but I cannot speak. This book is my only means of communication.'
She flipped a few pages over, finding a certain line and pointing it out. 'Writing out a full conversation is awkward, so I may have to resort to pictures to explain. Please forgive me if it's hard to understand. I'm limited by space and ability.'
"Ah, no, that's fine. Please, tell me any way you know how."
Hearing that, she smiled a little and made her way towards the back of the sketchbook to what looked like a blank page. Her face sobered again, and she wrote out the word 'discretion' and put a finger to her lips. She tapped the nib of the pen on the word and circled it.
I scratched my ear and looked around before nodding to her. "If it's a secret, you can count on me. I won't breathe a word to anyone."
Forgive the cliffhanger tonight. Work's gearing up to be a bitch-and-a-half tomorrow, so I frankly couldn't make it through the whole thing in time. I'll make every attempt to get it in order tomorrow. Heck, if it's ready by then, I might even post it. Anyway, please wait warmly.
In a shocking display of the regularity of my irregularity, I'm not going to be able to get the rest of the update out tonight. I'll spare you my whinging, but work has been an even bigger mega-bitch than anticipated and I'm honestly feeling like I've been kneed in the nuts repeatedly at this point. To make up for it, I will push out two updates over my weekend. Please wait warmly.
Kuriko looked me over for a minute. I wondered if my answer had been too emphatic and made me look suspicious. Or maybe she could perceive my relative inexperience as a patrolwoman and was having second thoughts about my trustworthiness. I flinched under her gaze. I'd have done okay in the questioning room back at the station. That was familiar territory with little chance of screwing up. Sitting on a bench outside, however, was not a scenario covered in training.
She eventually nodded, more to herself than me, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Her pen got to work right away, scratching out long, flowing lines on the paper. Lines turned to shapes. Shapes formed features. She apparently wasn't kidding about resorting to pictures. It was obvious she had more than a little practise at it from how deftly she worked. Only a couple of minutes had passed when her pen scraped to a stop and she whipped the sketchbook around to show me a finished drawing.
I nearly dropped my manjuu once it was clear what I was looking at: A sketch of me, reclining on the bench, half-way into a bite of manjuu. She'd even gone to the trouble of including the small -- but visible -- scar on my left ear that I did my best to draw attention away from.
"Me?" I asked, pointing to myself. She held up her hand and started on a second drawing.
This one came a lot slower than the last. Kuriko paused for a moment mid-way, her face scrunching up as she thought about something, tapping her pen on the page. Coming to some conclusion, she raced through the rest of the drawing and showed it to me.
It was a much rougher picture next to mine, and only from the waist up, probably because she didn't have a model handy. Even though the shapes clearly formed a face and other features, they didn't look entirely accurate compared to something you'd see in a photograph. The clothes didn't have any real detail to them either. It was more a vague representation of a person than anything. I tilted my head in an attempt to make out who it was supposed to be.
Suddenly, a jolt of recognition hit me when I looked between the circle drawn in the long hair and the flat lines with half-circles that stood for the eyes, and I jerked upright. "The street performer?"
Kuriko nodded and circled the mask on Kokoro's head, drawing an arrow from it and a note reading 'Dropped, picked up'. She patted herself on the chest for emphasis.
"Wait, wait, you're telling me, you hav--"
The kappa's face reverted back to that same look of panic from before, and her finger jerked up to her lips sharply. Her head jerked around this way and that, looking to see if anyone had heard anything before wiping her forehead and breathing out sharply. "You could have just brought it by the station and saved a lot of trouble," I said, leaning in and keeping my voice as low as possible.
She frowned and shook her head.
"Why not?" I prodded.
Her eyes flicked down to the sketchbook, her pen hovering over it. After thinking for a moment, she wrote, 'Kappa-tengu relations' followed by 'accusations of theft' and 'don't want to be arrested'. She pointed to herself and shook her head again.
I smoothed out my ears. "Well, I can't exactly blame you on the first point, but it's not like there's any reason to arrest you or even think you stole it."
'Friend wanted to sell it,' she scribbled. 'She tried to and we had an argument. I ran off with it.'
I wondered what an argument with her must look like. She looked back up at me. Her deep blue-green eyes were dewey.
"Oh. That's..." I couldn't think of anything to follow up with. There probably wasn't anything I could say if she'd had issues with her friend over it. Our own links ran deep as wolf tengu, but I imagined something like that would hurt a kappa even more. I leaned down and wrapped an arm around Kuriko. She seized up but otherwise didn't move. "It's okay. Nobody's going to hurt you, and you're not going to get in trouble," I said quietly. Words copied almost straight from our training manuals, but they felt right for the situation.
When I pulled back, her face was bright red, though she looked a little less like she wanted to burst into tears. She mouthed the words 'Thank you'.
"So, does that mean you're going to give it to me?" I asked after a pause.
Kuriko looked over her shoulder. 'That depends. Promise two things,' she scrawled. She held up a finger and tapped her pen on the paper. 'No report.' She held up two fingers. 'Give it straight to her.'
I felt my ears drooping. "That's shirking my duties as an officer."
She shook her head. 'Officers help.' She underlined the word 'help'. 'Please,' she mouthed.
I sunk back on the bench, clutching my head. She had a point. She had more than a point. It was just that point conflicted with a lot of things I stood for in my service as a patrolwoman. Even if it was never what I wanted to be in the first place. There were reponsibilities and obligations I had to abide by. Not doing so was failing myself and the people I served.
And yet, looking down at the dark-haired kappa, who was risking friendships to do what she thought was right, I couldn't help feeling like I was in the wrong. If my duty stood in her way, how could I say I wasn't just failing in another way? More than that, there was also Kokoro. I thought about her wandering these streets looking for her lost mask.
I sat back up, cleared my throat, and took a deep breath before I spoke. Kuriko was watching me intently. "Alright," I said, "I swear that it'll go straight back to its owner and that no report will be filed."
Kuriko smiled and held up her hand, little finger extended.
She jabbed her pinky at me insistently. With a groan, I mirrored her, and we locked fingers. The deal was sealed.
Assured that I'd keep my promise, she flipped open a compartment hidden inside her satchel next to where the sketchbook had sat. Inside was something that distinctly did not look like a noh mask. For starters, it was made of plastic. As she handed it to me, I turned it over to check the design on the front. Whoever had designed it decided that an intensely bright shade of yellow was appropriate. Two dots and a curved line served as a representation of a smiling face, the only other decoration it had. It radiated a certain quaint cheeriness, though it managed to be more obnoxious than anything.
"Are... Are you sure this belongs to her?" I asked.
Kuriko puffed her cheek out indignantly and nodded.
"Well, if you say so." I sighed and stowed the mask inside my jacket, careful not to bend it too much. Getting it back to Kokoro would be the next big problem, but at least I'd got ahold of it. "Thanks for returning it, at any rate. That's very thoughtful of you."
I half stood up, ready to get back to my post, when I thought of something. "By the way, how exactly did you know to find me?"
She held up her sketchbook and circled the two pictures she'd drawn. 'Friend of a friend of a friend saw earlier. She complained about dealing with patrol.' Another win for the kappa information network -- and it'd worked in our favour for once.
With a yawn and a stretch, I got back to my feet and thanked Kuriko. She gave a quick bow before scampering away, looking back for a second to flash me her pinky finger again. I returned the gesture and waved goodbye. Before long, she'd vanished back into the mass of bodies, no doubt heading back to the valley.
Stuffing the rest of my last manjuu in my mouth, I dusted off the crumbs and picked my stack of fliers back up. The moon had barely peeked above the horizon, and the stack still felt heavy in my hands.
The night shift dragged on until the crowds were out in full force. In that time, I had managed to push only a fraction of the papers into somebody's hand. I should have been in bed at the time. The fatigue was wearing on me, making it hard for me to get in front of anyone without being immediately shoved aside. I was rocking on my feet when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
"Good work," came Sumida's voice from behind.
I whipped around. "Oh. I didn't expect I'd see you back."
Sumida didn't look much better off than me, his eyes bloodshot and his tail dragging along behind him. Even though he had on a smile, it was far from a happy one or even a glib one. If anything, he was only hiding how tired he was. "Yeah," he said, sounding agitated for some reason, "I didn't either, but here I am. And now you can go home."
I blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"You heard me. Your shift's over." His ears were lying back half-way.
"What about the rest, though?"
He took the stack from me, his smile faltering. "Don't worry about it. I'll figure something out. Just go home and get some sleep. You look like you need it."
"Alright, well, thank you," I said with a weak salute. With the weariness catching up to me, I could barely question such a windfall.
Before I could walk away Sumida caught me on the shoulder again. "Some people are useless, Koyomi, absolutely useless. Untrustworthy, too. Remember that. Don't become one of them, you hear?"
"I, uh... I guess?" I made a half-hearted attempt at a smile. "What exactly is that all about?"
He laughed bitterly. "Oh, nothing. Just a lot of empty talk running up and down the mountain these days. Don't worry about it."
"Alright, um, well, good night."
"Good night, Officer Koyomi."
I hurried away, a bit bothered by Sumida's manner. As soon as I was back in the station, Hinawa leapt up from her seat to fuss over me, offering me her scarf and a cup of tea, both of which I declined. I assured her I was fine and that I would be going straight home to get some rest. Despite my protests, I still left the station with Hinawa's scarf wound around my neck -- it did keep me warm during my walk home.
The accumulation of stress seemed to wash all thought from my mind as I shambled my way to the western quarter of the outpost. In spite of what I might have said earlier, there were, in fact, people living here. That said, it was not quite the typical sort of lodging. As you can imagine by now, the oupost was where people in Gensokyo came for various indiscretions. Some enterprising kappa seized on the opportunities such a market presented and started propping up various buildings with rooms for rent. These rooms were mostly the sort that visitors would rarely return to, but there had been a growing market as of late for those who stayed around at least part of the time. My room was one of those.
On the second level of the drab building, about the middle of the run of doors, I was renting a plain six-mat room, as-of-yet undecorated and unfurnished. At the nearest opportunity, I'd need to run back to the far peak to retrieve all of my belongings. Such a chance probably would not be this week. In the meantime, I made due with my futon, my low table, and my small chest of drawers. It wasn't particularly like I needed anything else anyway.
The futon had been left out when I got up that morning, luckily enough. I stripped off my work clothes, hung them up, and promptly slid into the futon without even bothering to change into sleeping clothes. A bath would have been nice, but it could wait until tomorrow. My eyelids slammed shut like windows left open in the rain.
I sunk into peaceful sleep, hoping the craziness of the day was done. Unfortunately, I couldn't have been any more wrong.
One thing I could pride myself on from my academy years was my highly regulated internal clock. No matter what condition I was in, once the sun reached a particular position in the sky, I would stir right away from my sleep. It was hard to say why exactly. Part of it was most likely an inherent sensitivity to the time of day. The other component, in my mind, was my own will to be up and doing what I was supposed to, something many of my fellows lacked. In any case, I'd had no need to struggle with an alarm like others. To someone like myself, it was a blessing in many ways.
Or so I'd have normally thought. When my eyes opened themselves with the sunrise, the sluggishness that hit me in the aftermath of my extra shift made me curse everything. I turned over in my futon, trying to force my eyelids back shut to no avail. Finally, I gave in to my body's insistence and sat up, rubbing my eyes and yawning.
The sound of someone stirring beside me made me snap awake completely. I sprang to my feet, almost kicking over the low table in the process. A pair of limbs flailed from underneath the covers I'd just thrown over the intruder.
"Hey, woah! Easy there, Koyomi!" said a voice from under the sheets. It was familiar-sounding, but the post-waking haze in my brain kept me from placing it right away.
"You've got some nerve coming into my apartment, whoever you are."
The ball of sheets untangled itself, and a blur of pink emerged from under it. I took the opportunity to grab my glasses off of the table. The blur focused into a face recognised much quicker. "Kokoro," I corrected myself.
"You sure are chipper in the morning," she griped, straightening out her hair.
"Forgive me if I'm not thrilled about someone coming in uninvited and sleeping next to me."
She rolled her eyes and pointed to the window. The few bright streaks of the early morning sun shone in from the wide open window. "Serves you right for leaving it unlocked," she harrumphed.
I groaned. Of course it'd be the one way no sane person would try.
"Alright, well, now that you're here, what do you want?" I asked.
"You've got my mask, don't you? I want it back, for starters." She looked around the room.
I found my jacket, digging the mask out of it. Kokoro's roving eyes immediately snapped to me when I held it up, and she scrambled over for it. I pulled the mask up out of her reach as she made a grab for it.
She jumped up and down in a feeble attempt to snatch her mask back. "C'mon, give it!"
"First, explain how in the bloody hell you found me," I said, pushing her back. "Two, you're going out as soon as I give it back, got it?"
Kokoro's cheeks puffed out. "Is that any way for an officer to help someone out?"
"You're lucky I haven't dragged you to the station," I shot back. The word 'help' made me recall the conversation with the kappa last night. The slightest tinge of guilt hit me. I took my hand off of Kokoro and lowered the mask where she could reach it. "Okay, maybe it's just because I didn't sleep well. Anyway, go on."
"Thank you," she said, grabbing her mask. It took on a blue-ish glow in her hands, floating into the air and winking out of sight. She flashed a smile. "As to how I found you, well..."
She pointed to my ears. I instinctively covered them. Too many curious humans and others had tugged on them for me to trust anyone.
She snickered. "Your ears really must be broken. You walked by me last night, and I called and called, but you never looked back.
"I was tired after working part of a night shift, thank you very much." I crossed my arms.
"Well, whatever the case, I followed you back and came in the window when I couldn't find a spare key."
I levelled a hard look at Kokoro. She averted her gaze as if she was casually looking across the room. "I take it you make a habit out of breaking and entering," I said.
She stood there looking around for a moment before clearing her throat. "Maybe I was in the wrong there. Still, I, er..." Her face straightened up. I drummed my fingers on my arms impatiently. "I maybe wanted to ask for you help. Again," she said quietly.
I scratched my head. It didn't look like she was lying to save face or anything. Still, with it being this early, and the fact that she came into my room without permission, I was hardly in a mood to hear her out. I ran my fingers along my arm. There was a layer of grime and sweat that I desperately needed to get rid of first. About that time, my stomach also decided to remind me that it was now awake too.
"Alright, look," I said, holding up a hand, "how about this? Save it for after I've had a bath and breakfast. After that, you can ask me all you want."
Kokoro pursed her lips. "Fine. But you'd better help me."
I glanced over at the clock on the wall. It was still decently early, though it was honestly later than I'd prefer to be getting started. Usually, I'd be dressed and out the door by now, but unexpected visitors tended to get in the way of that.
[ ] Getting a quick scrub-down is top priority. Then a nice, big breakfast for keeping my gut quiet for a while. [ ] Grab something fast and easy for food. I need a leisurely soak to start off the day.
Alright, calling it here. Koyomi's not quite ready to tackle the day ahead of her, so...
[X] Grab something fast and easy for food. I need a leisurely soak to start off the day.
Sorry about all the delays and voteless updates recently. It's been one of those months. I'm gearing up to work a lot of overtime around the Thanksgiving holiday, so they're likely to continue for a bit. Please bear with me and continue to wait warmly.
Alright, guys, I'm not going to keep jerking you guys around, so I've decided to just make this an official thing. Instead of following an 'every other day' schedule, I'm going to relax it to one update during my regular work week (Wednesday to Saturday) and two updates during my weekend (Sunday to Tuesday). I love working on this story, but I stress myself the fuck out trying to drop out updates after I get home and barely have four hours to myself before I have to go to sleep. To tell the truth, I was planning on moving over to a weekly schedule after the Carnival was over anyway, but I'm going to try this out for now. If I can, I might sneak in an extra update or two where possible. Just bear with me.
>>29501 Whatever, dude. It's not a problem. If you have a system for maintaining regular updates at a sustainable and can reliably keep up with it, do it. You can only apologize, apologize for apologizing, and talk about how you'll skip apologizing so many times.
I've been there and done that. If you got a thing, do the thing. We'll be here and waiting.
Also your story is good and I like it, especially for imagining other towns and settlements beyond the uncreatively named Human Village.
[x] Grab something fast and easy for food. I need a leisurely soak to start off the day.
I looked over at Kokoro, who was bouncing on her heels. Whatever she had to say, it was probably only going to lead to more trouble at some point. Just thinking about it made my shoulders feel like they were made of lead. I wasn't ready to take on this day just yet. And my skin felt gross all over from a late night with no bath.
Set on getting clean as my next objective, I dug out a small tub and put together all of my bath necessities. Kokoro craned her neck to peep into my bath kit.
"Bath, then?" she asked.
"That's the plan. Now, if you'll excuse me..." I draped a clean, folded-up uniform over the bucket and made for the door, waving for Kokoro to follow me out. She glanced at my bath kit and back into my apartment before finally stepping outside so I could shut the door.
We made our way downstairs, out to the street, when Kokoro spoke up. "Where's mine?"
"Your what?" I snapped.
She frowned, holding her arms out. "I don't have any bath stuff, so..."
I paused mid-step, and Kokoro ran right into my back. When I whipped around to face her, she was holding her nose, frowning even harder. "You're misunderstanding something here. I'm going for a bath and breakfast. Whatever you do is up to you, but your business can wait until I'm at the station, got it?"
Kokoro stopped rubbing her nose to stare at me open-mouthed. She started to say something several times but gave up halfway through, ultimately deciding on silently glaring at me.
Satisfied that she'd given up on any foolishness, I turned around and started off down the street. Her gaze seemed to prod at me as I walked along. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw her standing a few paces back, her face stuck in that sour look.
"Following me isn't going to change my mind," I said.
"I'm not following you. We're walking in the same direction," she harrumphed.
I walked a little faster. "I don't see any difference."
"Maybe I wanted a bath too! You ever think of that?" She picked up the pace, though she faltered behind a bit, getting hung behind others walking the streets.
"The same exact bath?"
I stopped again. Kokoro managed to not run into me this time, though she stopped more than a few paces shy. She didn't move from her spot, carefully watching me for any reaction, until another pedestrian jostled her, followed by several more. I heaved an annoyed sigh and yanked her by the shoulder.
"Alright," I huffed, "if that's what you want, feel free. Don't think this is going to do you any favours, though, because it won't. Also, you pay your own way for everything."
She folded her arms. "What do you take me for, some kind of broke tengu guard?"
There was a split second where I considered shoving Kokoro backwards into the mass of pedestrians and walking off. Sadly, my conscience decided to shout above my stomach and self-respect, and I took my hand off of her. I continued on without another word. Kokoro followed alongside me, flashing a victorious smile -- it looked ridiculous with her flat, unexpressive eyes.
In silence, I walked with Kokoro in tow the rest of the way down the street and around the corner. The public bath I used wasn't too far up the next street, a squat building between a bar that was known for padding bills and a restaurant that was a gambling front. This morning, like most, there were a few patrons of both stumbling their way out of the bath, having slept off their wild nights there. Timing was everything when visiting the bath because of them. The very first time I went, I was horrified when I got an eyeful of many things I only wished I could remove from my memory. A couple of them waved at Kokoro as we made our way in.
"Do I even want to know?" I asked.
"Just repeat watchers." Seeing a sceptical look forming on my face already, she waggled her finger at me. "Anyone can be a patron of the arts. Even fat, hairy, booze-swilling gutter crawlers like them!"
One of the men filing out gave a hearty laugh and slapped her on the shoulder, almost knocking her off-balance. "Thank you, ma'am!"
I shook my head and opted to drop the subject altogether. Whatever company she kept, it obviously was not the sort I'd ever willingly associate myself with.
When we got to the attendant to pay, I reached into my pocket only to grasp lint. I froze and rifled through my other pocket. Still nothing. My ears stood up as I realised that, to my horror, I'd completely forgotten my wallet. Somewhere between Kokoro's intrusion and my hurry to get clean and fed, that one vital step in my morning routine slipped from my mind.
Kokoro looked down at the floor and back up to me. "Step on a thorn?"
"I..." My face felt hot. Kokoro raised an eyebrow. "I... may have left my wallet," I said hesitantly.
She snorted loudly. "Great work, officer."
"I-I was working late, okay!"
"Alright, alright. I'll let you owe me this once. That's what friends are for," she said with that irritating smirk from before.
Before I could say anything, her hand crawled underneath her shirt and pulled out a few bills, which she passed along to the attendant. The attendant boredly looked us over and passed two tickets along to Kokoro without saying anything. Kokoro held out my ticket.
I stared at it. Even though reason and dignity dictated that I should have refused, punctuality shoved them aside, reminding me how little precious time there was for me to unwind before work. Mortified as I was, I took the ticket from Kokoro. Maybe I could clean it from my memory.
We walked through the curtained entrance and to the dressing area. Thankfully, with the morning migration of the drunks, there were very few people left inside. I shook out of my clothes, set my glasses with them, and covered up with my towel, plopping myself on a stool at the faucets. There was the clacking of a stool setting down next to me as I got to scrubbing.
"Shove over a little, would you?"
It was Kokoro, standing stark naked right behind me. I quickly turned back to the half-fogged mirror in front of me, scooting my stool over a bit.
"There are plenty open," I said.
She sat down on her stool. "Is that any way to treat a friend?"
"Who said you were a friend?"
Cold water splashed me. I shook it off, making my hair stand up, and glared at Kokoro, who was giving me a testy look of her own.
"I did," she grumbled. "Besides, don't forget who paid your way in."
Not wanting to take the discussion any further, I turned my attention back to getting clean. I made quick work of it and rinsed off. The water only ever came out cold, which was a bit of an annoyance, but that was what the bath was for. I got up and strolled over to the steaming waters, dipping half a leg in to adjust before sliding all the way in. Kokoro followed behind soon after.
"Okay, thanks. Is that what you wanted to hear?" I asked as she repeatedly dipped her foot in and yanked it back out. "By the way, the trick is to just put your leg in and get used to it."
Kokoro puffed her cheek out at me. "I was just testing it out."
Slowly, she submerged her leg under the water, grimacing the whole way. After a minute, she slipped in over the edge and sat down. It took her a bit of fidgeting and griping about how hot it was to finally get used to it.
"And, yes, that's what I wanted to hear," she groused as soon as she was comfortable.
"Great. Now can I enjoy my soak for a bit?"
"Sure." She hugged her knees, watching me over them.
I tuned her out, leaning back against the edge. This was one of the few pleasures of life after moving to the outpost. The water was a perfect temperature for relaxing. The only thing that might have made it better would have been some anpan. Or maybe some senbei. Either one sounded good about now.
[ ] Make small talk about your mornings. [ ] Prod Kokoro a bit about what she does. [ ] Prod Kokoro a bit about who she is. [ ] Splash Kokoro.
Even as nice as all this was, even leaning back with my eyes closed didn't feel fully relaxing. Normally, I walked in with nothing on my mind but gearing up for the day ahead. Additional worries had decided to tag along this time. Besides having to hear her out on more problems, on top of owing her for paying entry to the bath, Kokoro herself was a walking headache. I had told her so much about my time at academy, but I knew almost nothing about her.
More than that, the thought of those men -- a shudder ran through me remembering them specifically -- being at least somewhat familiar with Kokoro wouldn't leave me. How on earth would a girl like her know people like that? Something about it just felt... off.
I opened my eyes and sat up. Kokoro had given up on staring me down and instead was making mini-jets of water with her hands.
"So, er..." I started to say. Now that the words had almost left my mouth, I realised I had no idea how to approach this conversation. "Say, Kokoro, I forget if you've told me this before, but, erm, what exactly is it that you do again?"
"I'm talking to you right now, I guess," Kokoro said, leaning her head onto her knees.
"I mean, what do you normally do when you're not talking to me?"
She sat up, shaking her head as her hair fell across her face. For keeping her hair so long, she didn't seem to know how to deal with it.
"Hold on a second. Come here," I said and pulled Kokoro over by the shoulder. I bunched up her hair and began working out the tangles. "You ought to take better care if you're going to leave it this long."
She grumbled. "I don't want a short fluff head like y-- ow! Watch it."
"Hold still," I said, trying to get a particularly bad snag. The knot came undone with a little nail-work, making Kokoro flinch and whine. Despite her grouching, I went on. "Anyway, go on. What brings you to a place like this?"
Kokoro went still. It took a closer look to convince me that she hadn't stopped breathing. "Uhhh... well..." She tried to run her fingers through her hair, her hand jerking back as soon as she remembered I was holding onto it. "I like putting on noh performances. It's kinda, well, part of me."
"That doesn't tell me much about why you're here, though." With the kinks worked out, I started on gathering her hair into a loose ponytail. My hand slipped and part of her hair fanned back out.
"There's lots of people here. And they all like fun things. What's more fun than singing and dancing?" A note of agitation was creeping into her voice.
"Those men who were waving are fun-seekers of a sort, I'm sure."
Once again, she fell silent. I took the opportunity to try my hand at making a ponytail again. "They're not bad people," she muttered after some thought, not sounding utterly convinced herself but not wanting to admit anything either.
"Sorry," I said with a little laugh, "maybe I just worry about silly things. You just... well, seem like trouble won't leave you alone. Especially when you have to come asking me for help. Can't help wondering."
Kokoro grumbled but nodded. Both of us stayed quiet for a bit while I kept working on her hair. It had been so long since I'd had so much hair to play with like this. Mine had only touched my shoulders at its longest, so it wasn't like I could ever do much with it, and I tended to keep it short nowadays. My little sister's, on the other hand, had grown almost to the middle of her back last I'd seen. During those brief visits while I was still at academy, I would brush and braid her hair while we talked. It was my way of doting on her even when we never got to see each other much.
I let out a small sigh through my nose. Thinking on it, the last time I'd even seen my sister was just before my induction. Her school years were wrapping up at the time, so she stayed busy. Then I moved to the far peak, and didn't get so much as a visit from my parents. Just before I got called to the outpost, I received a letter from them. It was still sitting somewhere in my kitchen back on the mountain, unopened. I could only guess they said something about my sister entering the academy too.
Kokoro was looking up at me, a hint of concern on her face. My ears were flopped over all the way like they'd given up on standing.
I waved a hand. "Ah! It's nothing. Just... thinking about... some things."
I hurriedly finished rolling Kokoro's hair into a makeshift bun. If anything, it was at least more manageable in the bath. Even she seemed happier without all that hair in the way.
"By the way, don't mind all the things I said," I added, going back to leaning over the edge. "I don't mind helping however I can." I smiled. "Especially if you treat me to lunch."
"Which reminds me!" Kokoro stood up in the water, almost pressing her chest in my face. There was a weird glimmer in her eye. "So I'm working on this entirely new play myself, right? In between performances, I write down stuff I thought of. It's been a work in progress for a while, you know."
I scooted away. "Um, okay?"
"Anyway, I've got ths idea in my head," she continued, seemingly not hearing me at all. "It's a tale of a young man defendng his village from a hideous beast, an incarnation of pure greed and desire!"
"And what does that--"
Kokoro held up her hand. "I'm getting to it!" She cleared her throat and went on. "Okay, so, the beast not only smashes things and kidnaps people, but also eats up everything it sees. This gives the hero an idea. When it comes to the final act, where he rescues everybody from the beast's lair, he uses its own greed against it by baiting it with a giant stewpot..."
Seeing where she was going with this already, I stood up and started to get out of the bath. "Nope!"
"What do you mean 'Nope!'" she shouted, tugging on my towel.
"This is all about the kimchi stew, isn't it? Well, I'm sorry to disappoint, but I'm neither an actress nor a food disposal for hire."
I climbed out and made my way back to the dressing area. My skin was starting to feel wrinkly anyway. Kokoro came hustling in behind me just as I was towelling off. "What if I told you you'd get a ten-gal-- wah!" She slid on the wet stone floor, tumbling into the dressing area and only just avoiding landing spread-eagle.
"Don't run," I said.
As we got dressed, Kokoro continued to pester me with her unfinished play idea. The gist was that watching the 'ravenous beast' devour loads of food right there would be the draw for the crowd. A massive pot of kimchi stew would be prepared for the beast to inhale. The role of this horrible creature was, of course, inspired by and meant to be played by me. It was almost insulting enough to make me take back what I said about helping her.
"And that's what you needed my help with?" I asked as soon as she was through. We were walking back down the street by then, headed off toward the main gates. I was sorely tempted to try losing her in one of the alleyways nearby.
Kokoro puffed out her cheek. "No."
"Well, good, because I'm not helping you with that."
"Fugh!" she groaned, throwing her hands in the air.
Continuing on, a number of smells floated through the street that woke my stomach from its bath-induced slumber. The biggest perk to living in the western quarter of this outpost was that I was a lot closer to breakfast heading to work. Out a little ways from the main gates, in the outline of a large building that had yet to see any construction going on three years, a number of food stalls had set up shop. They had originally been located further out, but the mass of construction workers camped around drew them in. The building itself never got built, but increasing numbers of people lingering around the west end kept the area alive. Or so Hinawa had told me.
All I knew was that these stands and their contribution to the street food culture of the outpost were a boon to me in the mornings. When I was in a hurry, there was one particular stand that I tended to look for. Its proprietor was an older kappa gentleman, a strange rarity around here. He kept to himself, like most kappa, which made him hard to find at times. Some mornings, he might simply have not shown up. It was always a disappointment if he did.
Luckily, his stand was parked right up front when we approached the open square. Spotting it lightened my spirits to the point that I forgot about Kokoro's nonsense immediately.
"You've got to try this," I told Kokoro, who was lagging a step or two behind.
Noting the tall racks of steamers and signs declaring that the stand sold steamed buns, Kokoro threw me a puzzled look. "For breakfast?"
"You'll see. Now, come on."
"Good morning!" I called over the noise. The proprietor croaked out a greeting without looking up from chopping a cabbage. The mingling smells of meat, red bean paste, and other things stoked my hunger. I licked my lips at all of the steamers on display. However, there was one in particular that I had my eye on.
I pointed to a single steamer set towards the front. "I'll take the whole thing, please."
The grizzled old kappa set his cleaver down and yanked the steamer off, tossed it up where I could reach, and whipped out an abacus, tallying up the cost and standing it up next to the steamer with his hand out. I was about to reach for the food when I remembered my missing wallet and nudged Kokoro.
"You still haven't told me what I'm buying," she groused.
"It doesn't smell like kimchi, does it? Just trust me. I'll listen to whatever else you have to say after we eat."
Still looking unconvinced, Kokoro drew out enough to cover the buns from her shirt. The kappa nodded after receiving his payment and waved us away. I grabbed the steamer, pulling Kokoro over to one of the nearby makeshift tables. She watched closely as I pulled the lid off, fanning off the plume of steam that rose up.
I handed one of the piping-hot parcels to her. She squinted at it, turning it over in her hand. "They just look like regular steamed buns to me."
Kokoro dug her finger into the bun like she was about to tear it open. "Wait, wait, wait! Not like that," I warned. "The filling will spill out everywhere."
She huffed at me like a child being told not to touch a paper door. Blowing on the bun, she took a delicate bite out of the side. At first, she didn't seem to get what she was supposed to be tasting. However, after a bit of chewing, her eyes opened in surprise. "Miso soup?"
"I know, right!"
"How? I mean... in a bun?" Kokoro stared at the bun in her hand incredulously.
"I don't know exactly how he does it, but that old guy is the only one I know of. He doesn't make many in a day, but I always--"
There was a jarring crash followed by several indistinct screams and shouts. Some of the vendors were getting up from their stands to rush over to the source of the commotion. Just as quickly, though, a couple ran back under a hail of something being thrown at them. One of the unidentified missiles strayed wildly, flying close to me and Kokoro, thudding against a sign for one of the stands. I got up to inspect it. Splattered over the announcements was a wad of mochi.
[ ] Rush in and try to apprehend whoever's causing trouble. A bit of damage is easy to shrug off when more damage can be averted. [ ] Approach calmly and be ready to take on the instigator. Things might get uglier, but it's better to avoid busting up anybody's stand if I can help it.
File 144893813158.jpg - (326.05KB, 600x861, this guys ghost is not as soft unfortunately.jpg)
[x] Approach calmly and be ready to take on the instigator. Things might get uglier, but it's better to avoid busting up anybody's stand if I can help it.
Years of training at academy had taught me better than to charge anything head-on. Even with my beloved street food potentially facing danger, that lesson hit me like an instructor's slap, jolting me out of assuming a full running position. A deep breath brought me back to myself. I turned to Kokoro, who was staring off at the chaos with a bun in her hand.
"You wait here," I commanded.
She finally remembered to take a bite and shrugged. "Call me if you need backup."
"And save me at least a couple."
"You got it."
With that, I strode over to the pair of vendors hiding off to one side of the square. They peeked around the side of their cover, ducking back behind as another volley of mochi flew close.
"Did you see who it was?" I asked the calmer of the two.
"Looked like a human. Right, Ichi?" He turned to his friend, who was trembling enough that I couldn't tell he had nodded at first. "Though he was mighty strong. Started tearing that damn stand apart with his hands!"
I nudged them aside and leaned over to survey the havoc. Off a few stands over, a loose circle of people was gathered around the torn-up stand in question. There was a guttural roar, followed by another round of mochi streaking out.
"Ｙａｊｉｒｏｏｏｏｏｏｏｏｏｏｏｏ! Ｙｏｕ ｄｏｇ!"
The circle broke, people either diving out of the way or bowled over by the projectiles. That was when I caught first sight of the perpetrator.
Dark-headed, average height, gaunt but slightly muscled build -- he fit the profile of a typical human construction worker. Judging from the headband tied on his head and the crest on his sleeveless jacket, carpentry was his trade. His face was pale, cold sweat beaded on his brow, and his eyes were unfocused. A number of recent wounds dotted his chest, arms, and face like he'd already been fighting before this. Most disturbingly, he was now hoisting a full-sized mortar above his head like an empty barrel.
The onlookers backed away as soon as he lifted it. He snarled at them, turning in a circle to glare at all of them. Someone amongst the crowd was being held back, seemingly ready to rush the human as his back was turned. Likely the one who had sunk his money into the mortar that was about to be smashed.
My target well defined for me, I moved out from under my cover, still partly crouched. Swift and low-profile was the goal. I gently elbowed people in the diffused crowd and made my way through them. Many offered me concerned looks as I passed by. Others muttered their hopes of me knocking the instigator's teeth out.
The moment I closed in, the human whipped around like there had been a string tied to his shoulder. One eye rolled in place, fixed squarely on my approach. "Ｉｔ’ｓ ｙｏｕｒ ｆａｕｌｔ! Ｙｏｕ ｌｅｔ ｔｈｉｓ ｈａｐｐｅｎ!" he bellowed.
"I don't know what you're talking about, sir," I said calmly, standing up.
"Ｏｏｏｏｏｏｕｇｈ! Ｍｕｒｄｅｒ. Ｄｅａｄ." His head flew back and jerked around randomly. The mortar dropped from his hands, landing with a hollow thud on the ground. "Ｍｕｒｄｅｒ ｍｕｒｄｅｒ ｍｕｒｄｅｒ. Ｇｒａｒｇｈ!"
"Please calm down, sir. I'm trying to underst--"
I didn't have time to say another word before he was charging me with the long-handled pestle in hand, wielding it like a makeshift spear. Seeing an opportunity, the onlookers took off running too.
I took a deep breath as I watched the human running towards me. His speed was nothing spectacular, even for a human, but the force of his movements promised something more than human in the strength of the oncoming blow. My muscles tensed. I took a step on my right foot.
My shoulder collided with the ground first, and I went into a roll, too panicked to notice the pain. Right as I came to a stop, something hit me in the side and toppled over. There was a thud and a pained growl. I scrambled to my feet.
Lying splayed out on the ground, spasming like an eel on a cutting board, was the human. The pestle lay underneath him, broken.
Coming to my senses all at once, I threw my arms around his neck, pushing my knee into his back as hard as I dared. His eyes were rolled into the back of his head, and he was gibbering unintelligibly. What felt like several minutes passed before he stopped shaking. With a wheezing groan, the blood returned to his face and his eyes came back into focus.
"Augh. Watch the back," he whined.
I let up just a tad. "Mind explaining why you destroyed a food stand and terrorised everyone here?"
"W-What?" he sputtered. He stared at me agape before something clicked into place. His face went pale again. "Oh no. Not this again."
"Again? Don't tell me you've done this before."
The human shut his eyes and shook his head as much as he could in my hold. "It's hard to expl--" His eyes snapped back open. "Ｙｏｕ ｄｅｓｅｒｖｅ ｔｏ ｊｏｉｎ ｍｅ, Ｙａｊｉｒｏ! Ｄｏ ｙｏｕ ｈｅａｒ ｍｅ? Ｙｏｕ ｄｅｓｅｒｖｅ ｔｏ--" He shook his head violently, nearly headbutting me, then went still again.
"He's possessed," came Kokoro's voice.
I looked up. Kokoro was standing over me and the human, looking down boredly and munching away on another bun. "These are pretty good, by the way."
"I told you to wait there," I said.
"You were taking too long. Any real officer would have this guy down in a second." Kokoro shoved the rest of the bun in her mouth.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence." I took my knee off of the human and slowly pulled him up to his feet. "There's a pair of handcuffs in my pocket."
Kokoro stared at me, still chewing.
"So please get them for me," I added with an irritated sigh.
"Okay, okay. Hold your horses." She fished her hand into my hakama pocket, pulling out the pair of cuffs I kept on me. Her mouth quirked into a half-smile at the jingling of the chain. Saying nothing further, I took them and cuffed the human with minimal trouble.
The next hour after depositing the captive human at a nearby table -- with Kokoro ready to give him a flying kick if necessary -- was a tedious but necessary string of statements taken from all who had remained present. The general picture was that the human was indeed a carpenter employed on a local building project who had stopped in for breakfast. At some point, he got up and walked over to the now-destroyed stand where the two proprietors were preparing mochi. He then proceeded to scream all manner of profanities and threats at them while dismantling their stand. Several others tried to get him down as soon as he started rampaging, but he showed 'no response to force or pain', according to those witnesses, who were subsequently thrown to the ground.
After repeatedly assuring the livid proprietors of the mochi stand that command would see to some sort of compensation, I plodded back to the table where the suspect waited. Kokoro was drumming her fingers on the table. There were no buns left in the steamer. I shot her a glare that she answered with a snort.
"Has he said anything else?" I asked.
"'I'll kill you,' 'Yajiro, you scum,' and such," she said with a shrug. "He sure loves going on and on about that Yajiro guy. Or, well, his ghost does."
The human sat still in his seat, avoiding look at me or Kokoro. I adjusted my glasses. "He's not talking now," I said.
"Maybe he's tired out. I dunno. Ghosts are weird."
"Um..." the human spoke up suddenly. He was looking up at us now. "I'm really sorry about all of this. I just... I can't control him."
Looking at him closer, I noticed a ring of food residue around his mouth and a few new bruises on his arms. I looked at Kokoro. She shrugged again.
"Okay, maybe I had to wrestle him to the ground and force-feed him a bun. Or two. Or three."
I pinched the bridge of my nose. The day had already started poorly, and now I was feeling a headache start to creep in. It didn't help that my breakfast had been crammed down this human's gullet. My stomach joined in to protest.
It was obvious this day was going to be another long one.
[ ] I'm no expert, but I need to find my own footing here as an officer, dammit! [ ] Time to rely on my trusty senior once more and cling to Hinawa as my rock. [ ] I could go to command with this -- though that runs the risk of Sumida poking his nose into it. [ ] Maybe there's someone else amongst my seniors who can help?
So, it's the end of the Carnival, for better or worse. As such, I decided I'd just go ahead and unmask myself.
I didn't even think I was going to participate at first. I mean, I've got Fame and Misfortune to work on -- which is still coming, so please don't worry. That said, it's been a lot of fun. I'm glad a friend nudged me into doing it.
The story will continue after this, of course. So please keep waiting warmly, okay?
[x] Time to rely on my trusty senior once more and cling to Hinawa as my rock.
"Right, so," I said, rubbing my temples, "the first order of business is processing our perpetrator here."
The human's shoulders sunk. Now that he wasn't in a blind rage, his emaciated shape managed to make him pitiable looking. "There goes another job."
"Then we get to my problem, right?" Kokoro asked, a note of hope in her voice.
"That would be nice. As would another order of miso soup buns." I narrowed my eyes at her. She grumbled, fiddling with her hair bun. "But, no, that's not the end of it. The thing is... I don't know. I've never made an arrest before," I said.
Kokoro's face went completely blank. "You're kidding."
"It's my first real week on the job!" I snapped.
"So more time wasted looking for your friends?"
I opened my mouth to reprimand Kokoro, but seeing the human lowering his eyes stopped me. My ears were lying flat, and my fangs were probably showing. I was getting more annoyed by all of this than I had any right to. More than that, as much as I didn't want to admit it, Kokoro was right. This was already out of my league.
Pinching the bridge of my nose again, I let out a long sigh. "Yes. I don't like it any more than you do. That's just how it is being the rookie on the day shift."
Kokoro threw her hands up and stood up from the table. Figuring it better not to engage her any further, I got the human up to his feet and started down the street with him in tow. His steps fell lightly on the ground, and his head hung low. Though I doubted he could hear them like I could, the whispers of people as we walked by no doubt stung.
"I'm so sorry," he whimpered.
A number of rather harsh words came to mind that I had to push down. If anyone was to blame, it was myself for thinking this day would go any better. I settled for simply saying, "Don't be."
The rest of the way to the station was mercifully short: down the street and a jog to the left. I'd found my key when I noticed the door was already unlocked. Clicking my tongue, I made a mental note to give the night shift a piece of my mind.
Until I saw a tail sticking out from under a blanket and a familiar flower hairpin. I kicked off my shoes and walked over to the low table, lightly nudging the sleeping figure. The tail stood up immediately. I tugged the blanket off to find a half-awake Hinawa looking up at me. Seeing that it was me, her ears righted themselves lazily.
"Morning, Koyomi," she said with a yawn.
I crossed my arms. "I'd have sworn the night shift are gone by daybreak."
Hinawa stretched, her shoulders popping as she rolled them. Sleeping at the low table had to be uncomfortable. Nonetheless, she smiled. "Yes, I would be home by now. I wouldn't be able to check up on you as easily, though."
"W-What gave you the idea I needed checking up on?"
"Hmmm, well," she said, tilting her head, "nothing in particular. It just felt like you were having a rough first week. That's all." She shrugged.
I sat down on the floor, slumping over the table. "You have no idea."
"Don't forget you've got a possessed guy out here who wrecked a mochi stand bare-handed," monotoned Kokoro from the doorway. She leaned in, looking at Hinawa and then at me. "This one of your guard buds?"
Spotting Kokoro, Hinawa's ears perked up all the way. Her smile grew so sunny that I almost squinted on reflex. "And here I was worried about Koyomi not making any friends!" she chirped.
Kokoro covered her mouth, letting out a snort. I threw her a hard look and stood back up. She turned to give Hinawa a low bow.
"I had no idea you worked with your mom," Kokoro said, still having a hard time keeping her snickering in check.
Hinawa joined her in laughing. "Oh, no, no! Though I don't blame you for thinking that. Koyomi's my precious trainee, no matter how long she works with me." I frowned at her, but she waved it off. "It's only true!"
"I'm not her friend," I muttered and slipped back out to walk the human inside.
Hinawa looked like about to launch into more ribbing when she saw the captive human and reverted to a more sober expression. His eyes flicked up at Hinawa and back down to the floor.
She eyed him carefully, her tail flipping from side-to-side. "He certainly doesn't look that dangerous to me," she joked.
"He is, and that's why I need your help."
"First arrests, huh? That takes me back," she remarked with an almost wistful sigh. She stood up, strolling over to look at the human closer. He flinched under Hinawa's gaze. "I can't say I know much about ghosts and possessions, but I'll help out however I can."
Hinawa opened the door to the room we used for questioning. The lack of windows made the closet-sized room that much more uncomfortable. Even when Hinawa flicked the lamp on overhead, I couldn't help feeling that it was a bit eerie. The human gave a shudder, looking at me apprehensively.
"Questioning--" I turned to Hinawa, "--right?"
"Correct. All official business for the paperwork. And speaking of which..." She darted over to the filing cabinets. Thinking for a second, she pulled open one fully-stuffed drawer and started digging. "You can go on ahead. I'll just be a minute," she called without looking up.
I nodded to the human, who obediently stepped into the questioning room and sat down at the table. Kokoro came walking up like she was about to step inside with him, but I held her back. "Involved parties only," I said.
"When was I not involved?" she huffed.
"When you showed up after everything was over and done with. Now, wait here." She said nothing as I steered her toward the low table. There was a sharp yank on my sleeve as I walked back.
Kokoro's eyes were drawn into a flat stare, the sort that said she was long past the point of impatience. I wrenched my sleeve from her pincer grip. "We'll talk after this," I said coolly.
I closed the door to the questioning room, taking my seat across from the human. He sat with his hands crossed in front of him, the pitiful look of a scolded child still on his face this whole time. As much as I wanted to say something reassuring, he was a suspect in a crime. I had to conduct myself as professionally as possible, even when I didn't know what that entailed. That's why I opted to stay silent.
Several tense moments later, the door opened again, and Hinawa came in with a stack of papers under one arm. "Sorry!" she sang, strolling into the room. "It's been a little while since I've had to dig some of this stuff out."
The paperwork made a hard thud hitting the table. The human stared at it blankly, the colour slowly draining from his face. He looked up between us. Hinawa flashed a smile. He stared back at Hinawa for a moment, then his eyes unfocused and he slumped forward.
"We understand that this is an unusual situation, so--"
Hinawa was interrupted as the human gripped the table and flipped it. The papers scattered inside the small room, and Hinawa and I reeled back in unison.
"Ｙａｊｉｒｏ! Ｉ’ｌｌ ｈａｖｅ ｙｏｕｒ ｈｅａｄ ｆｏｒ ｔｈｉｓ!"
Hinawa's hand went to her handcuffs on reflex, but the human didn't make another move. He stood still, panting loudly, eyes darting back and forth even though there wasn't much to see.
"I'm afraid Yajiro isn't here, but if you cooperate with us for a few minutes, we can help you."
"Ｈｅ’ｌｌ ｐａｙ ｆｏｒ ｔｈｉｓ! Ｉ'ｌｌ ｓｔｏｍｐ ｈｉｓ ｈｅａｄ ｆｌａｔ!"
He ranted and raved for a minute, gnashing his teeth and pounding his fists on the floor. But even a posessing ghost could recognize when he couldn't do anything. After his venting, he sat back down, swollen hands bleeding into his lap.
He twitched, his head hanging sideways. "Ｈｅｌｐ ｍｅ ｍａｋｅ Ｙａｊｉｒｏ ｒｅｇｒｅｔ ｔｈａｔ ｈｅ ｗａｓ ｅｖｅｒ ｂｏｒｎ."
Not the best opening for questioning, but it was a start.
[ ] Who are you? [ ] Why should we help you? [ ] What does Yajiro have to do with this?
The past week's gone by without an update, and that was mostly on purpose. I wanted to take some time to get story things in order before proceeding.
That said, my employers are working me like a dog straight through the holidays and past New Year's, so energy and time are going to be pretty big issues. That's why I'm just going to bite the bullet and call it a break here. Don't count on updates until after the new year. Thank you for your continued patience with me.
Good(-ish) news: I'm working on the new update, and I'm doing it publicly this time. For those who don't check /blue/, we've got a new collective writing space based on Titanpad. You can check it out at the link below if you want.
There was no doubt from the moment I picked up the human, now sitting on the floor, that something about him, about this whole situation, was off. Seeing the mess he'd made of the questioning room, the very idea of questioning him was starting to slip away. Even Hinawa, who seemed to know everything there was to procedure, looked like she couldn't get a grasp of things. Tenma only knows, dealing with possessed humans was probably the last thing on Command's mind when it came to situations officers might have to deal with.
Still, there was no changing that we had a captive to deal with. Even if we didn't know what to do exactly, doing nothing at this point would be like abandoning our posts. Somebody was going to have to start asking questions.
I cleared my throat. "Erm, yes, well, Mister..."
The human's head rolled from one shoulder to the other, a slight groan coming from him in lieu of a real answer. His bloodied knuckles rapped against the floor. No sign of him listening. I reached out to tap him on the shoulder when his face slammed into the floor. He raised up like he was about to do it again, but I lunged forward to keep him upright.
He twisted and turned to look back. Blood ran down his face from his mouth and nose, splinters stuck in his lips. An old wound around his eye had been ripped back open. To top it all off, he was completely walleyed, his cloudy, bloodshot eyes pointed in opposite directions. With a guttural cry, he pulled out of my hold, falling sideways onto the floor before flipping his whole body around, poised on his hands and knees like he was ready to pounce.
"Watch out!" Hinawa yelped and backed towards a corner.
I immediately scrambled away, an overturned chair taking my legs out from under me, and I rolled backwards onto the floor. Another fearful yell came from Hinawa. My heart now racing, I jumped back up. My fists were balled and ready to strike out if he was coming.
However, the human wasn't coming. Unable to hold his charging stance, he had shrunk back down with his legs crossed and his head sunk low, arms slack. He rolled his head onto one shoulder again.
My heart still continued beating hard, every breath a ragged one. Seconds passed before I stood up all the way. I started to regain my bearings, working my way back through what had just happened, why I was in a panic. My eyes fixed on the human's face. He looked more like some kind of ghoul than a human now. That didn't change the fact that he was just a human, though. It was pitiful of me as an officer to let him shake me like that.
I adjusted my glasses with trembling fingers and took a measured step forward, still keeping my distance. His unfocused eyes instantly pointed my way. Keeping my ears from jumping straight back was a struggle, but I reminded myself why I was here: questioning. I took a deep breath.
"Okay, whatever your deal is, I've got questions for you. Do you understand me?"
"Ｕｎｄｅｒ... ｓｔａｎｄ..." he growled, slowly twisting his head in the opposite direction. One eye slid back into focus, staring directly at me.
At that moment, I could hear my pulse in my ears. Like his cold focus on me, my vision dimmed at the edges, all else but the human fading out from my sight. Calm. I had to be the professional here.
I put my words in order, trying to be as direct and deliberate as possible. "You caused a lot of damage back there. Why?"
The human's eye twitched, another low growl emitting from him. His head jerked upright for a second before falling backward. His expression contorted with the same roiling hatred that made him smash the stand and terrorise all those people. "Ｙａｊｉｒｏ," he said finally, "ｉｓ ａ ｐｉｇ-ｄｏｇ. Ｈｅ ｓｈｏｕｌｄ ｊｏｉｎ ｍｅ. Ｊｏｉｎ. Ｇｒａｖｅ."
Something about the flat, grumbling tone of his voice made it clear he was serious. If this Yajiro fellow was in the questioning room, there was no doubt this human -- or, well, the ghost possessing him -- would find some way to make sure two ghosts left. I felt a shiver run down my spine that I tried to suppress. Seeing the blood caked on his knuckles standing out under the dim lamplight felt eerier. I crossed my arms defensively.
"You're not being clear. I want to know why. What was it about that stand that set you off?" I managed to ask.
"Ｉ ｗａｎｔ ｔｏ ｂｒｅａｋ. Ｂｒｅａｋ ｈｉｍ. Ｂｒｅａｋ Ｙａｊｉｒｏ. Ｓｍａｓｈ ｈｉｓ ｓｋｕｌｌ ａｎｄ ｓｔａｍｐ ｏｎ ｈｉｓ ｂｒａｉｎｓ ｆｏｒ ｗｈａｔ ｈｅ ｄｉｄ." He clawed at his hair, rocking from side-to-side unsteadily until he fell back onto the floor. Sweat was beading on his skin, and he was panting, sounding close to hyperventilation. Both of his legs jerked out ramrod straight.
Still fighting to not flinch, I walked even closer. "Who is Yaj--"
Before the word 'Yajiro' could leave my mouth, the human twisted around prone on the floor, scrambling across with just his gristly arms propelling him. I backed away with my foot primed to kick. A human body might have been fragile, but I wasn't about to let him get close.
"Ｔｈｉｅｆ. Ｃｕｒｓｅｄ ｔｈｉｅｆ. Ｈｅ ｓｔｏｌｅ. Ｙｅｓ, ｈｅ ｓｔｏｌｅ ｉｔ ａｌｌ. Ｙａｊｉｒｏ ｋｉｌｌｅｄ. Ｋｉｌｌｅｄ! Ｍｕｒｄｅｒ! Ｍｕｒｄｅｒｅｒ!" Every muscle in his face writhed as he spoke, each word growing in volume until he was almost shrieking. Seeing him about to start thrashing again, I jumped to grab him by the wrists.
"F-Focus," I stammered, shaking him, "otherwise we're not going to be able to help you."
Leaning over far enough to reach his arm, his teeth sank right into the skin. Blood seeped out of the wound, and he pulled back, howling in pain.
His whole body shook, and he threw his head back and forth like he was being whipped around. Flecks of blood hit me in the face. Horrible noises gurgled up from the back of his throat as his eyes rolled back. Too afraid to let go, I kept a firm enough hold of him to keep him from flopping around too much. This fit played out until the last of his strength left him.
Finally, his twitching slowed. His face went slack, and he slumped down, doubling over with his head touching his knees. With one final groan, he went still. Still breathing, thankfully.
I let go of him and felt my already jittery legs losing their remaining strength. Hands caught me by the underarms before I could fall. I looked back to see Hinawa sighing with relief, her hands gripping my shoulders to steady me. The warmth of her palms quickly brought me back to reality, the wreckage of the questioning room.
"You're okay?" she asked.
I blinked hard. Now that I wasn't hyper-focused, the rush of everything that'd just happened seemed to be hitting me all at once. "I'm... I'm fine, yeah. I'd be more worried about that human."
There was a weary groan. Both of us turned to look at the human at once. Colour had returned to his face, and he sat up to look around at the mess. The taste of blood in his mouth made him grimace. He looked down at his bloodied arm and hands.
"This has to be the worst one yet," he muttered.
Hinawa and I shared a look. I gently pushed Hinawa's hands off to stand up on my own. Slowly walking over to the human, I pulled my handkerchief out of my pocket and knelt down to press it to the bite on his arm. He gave a start at first but stayed still enough to let me tie the kerchief on. Satisfied with that, I walked back to Hinawa.
"Well, now that that's over with, any ideas on what to do next?" I asked.
Hinawa smiled gently. "About that. I was hoping maybe we could talk outside for a minute."
"Right now?" I adjusted my glasses and glanced back to the human again. "What are we going to do about him?"
"I don't think he'll be going anywhere."
Watching him closely, she was probably right. The human, despite being conscious again, didn't look all that present. His fingers traced over other old wounds on his arms like he was counting them. Whether or not we were in the room didn't matter to him at the moment.
"Alright," I said, nodding slowly, "let's talk, then."
Quietly, Hinawa led me out of the questioning room, leaving the human to work through his daze alone. Perched right outside the door was Kokoro, whose face was now covered by a hannya mask. I flashed her an uneasy smile, but she said nothing and made no sign of moving.
"Everything's fine," Hinawa spoke up, sounding unconvinced herself in spite of her tail flicking behind her. "More importantly, Koyomi and I need to talk for a moment, so..."
Instead of moving, Kokoro jumped up on the inside counter and stuffed her fingers in her ears, turning her head away. Hinawa's smile tightened. I shook my head at her, taking a seat at the low table. Letting Kokoro disrupt me any further would just further throw this day out of whack.
Hinawa took a seat a second later, still watching Kokoro. "Is there something going on with you and her?"
"Where to start," I groaned. I shook the teapot sitting on the table. Empty. Just when I could use it, too. "Anyway, you had something to say?"
Hinawa fidgeted, her fingers drumming on the tabletop. For a second, she stared at the teapot like she was thinking about putting on some tea but slowly looked up at me. Her left ear curled down like a blade of grass in the sun. "Er, yes, well," she said, taking a deep breath, "tell me something, Koyomi: What are your thoughts on this case thus far?"
"Frankly? I don't know what I've got myself into. I thought this was about property damage." My stomach needled me. Yes, and breakfasts ruined.
I shrugged my shoulders. "It's not? I mean, I'm not sure what you're getting at."
"Of course," Hinawa said with a slight sigh and drummed her fingers on the table even faster. She opened her mouth to add something but decided against it just as quickly. Her tail flicked about in slow, pondering waves.
"You can say whatever you want. I'm your precious trainee who has to listen, remember?"
I was hoping to get her to crack a smile at her own words, but the hesitant look on her face didn't fade. At last, she cleared her throat. "If I can be blunt, I think this case is dangerous. Too dangerous. You're out of your league. We're out of our league."
My ears fell immediately. I wasn't ready for that.
"What!" I snapped. "Hinawa, we're--"
She raised her hand. "--officers of the patrol. And that's exactly why."
"Exactly why what? You're saying we just shouldn't do anything?" I felt the hairs on my tail starting to stand up.
"Murder." The word came with a shiver. Any retort from me froze in the air. Hinawa seemed ready to shrink in on herself, clutching her arm so tight that it left marks. It was the first time I could recall ever seeing her frightened. "That's what we're dealing with. Somebody has been murdered here," she said.
"Have you ever heard of that happening in the outpost? I haven't, Koyomi. And that's why..." She looked straight at me, reaching out and grabbing my hand suddenly, squeezing it. "I want you to let it go, Koyomi. Just let it go. I don't want you putting yourself in danger. There's just no knowing."
I shot a glance over at Kokoro, who was still sitting with her head turned the other way. Of all the things, I'd rather she not catch me in the middle of, this had to be one of the most awkward.
"I appreciate the thought," I said softly. Hinawa's ears raised up hearing that, and her smile thawed, her grip on my hand loosening with it. Returning her smile, I stood up.
Even as my hand slipped from hers, the realisation didn't seem to reach Hinawa. The loose, free swishing of her tail continued. A minute or two passed while she drummed on the table. Then, her tail came to a stop. Her face clouded over.
Her voice sank almost into a whisper. "Why?"
"I already told you. I'm an officer, and officers do their duty." I could still see the face of that kappa from last night. Help. That was the word she used. "Don't you think keeping the outpost safe is our duty?"
Hinawa blew a long sigh out of her nose. "Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. That doesn't change that you're barely out of training. What is it that you think you can do? There's too much you don't know."
"This coming from the one who told me being proactive was the best policy."
"That..." Her brow furrowed, the edge to her voice fading out. Slowly, she rose up from her seat, words slipping away from her tongue as quickly as they formed.
[ ] "You also said you'd always help your precious trainee. Well, here I am. I need your help." [ ] "Think about that human. Something's not right with that ghost of his, and we owe it to him to figure out what." [ ] "Besides that, I've got Kokoro to deal with too."
Good old Koyomi. She never wavers in her sense of duty -- even when it might be her undoing. As such, the winner of this vote is...
[X] "Think about that human. Something's not right with that ghost of his, and we owe it to him to figure out what."
Thank you all for being patient with me. I'm not going to promise a return to weekly updates, but I'm working to be as productive as possible; as you can see in >>/blue/22437 , I've got a pipeline set up that allows me to more effectively work across all my various projects with just a bit of steady daily writing. Please look forward to the next update!
[x] "Think about that human. Something's not right with that ghost of his, and we owe it to him to figure out what."
I looked up to Hinawa as a mentor and a fellow officer. She'd been a boon to me from the first time she grabbed me from training to get lunch at that hole-in-the-wall place. Every extra shift would be followed by her fussing over me. Any time I had to deal with difficult people like Sumida, she was on-hand with advice. She was doing her best to take me under her wing and bring me into the ranks. I still couldn't agree with her trying to shelter me. She'd never be my mother, as much as she tried, because we were officers with duties to fulfill.
Mentioning said duties only made her insist on HQ handling our case. Protocol dictated taking serious matters up the line, but I doubted they knew any better than us how to deal with a possessed, property damaging human. All outpost authorities would be beyond wary of any vengeful spiritual presence to begin with. Supposing there were any reported cases, they had to have been so uncommon that this case bordered on a precedent anyway. We could have launched our own enquiry given the right authority. Granted, as officers of the Patrol, we never received training for anything of that scope. The higher-ups had no vision of us doing anything more involved than helping tourists. Still, nobody stood closer to the source of the incident than us, and I wanted us to capitalise on that.
Keeping my eyes trained on Hinawa, I pulled my glasses off to clean them. My reminder of her words had proven to be a gap in her armour. Groping for a comeback had failed her, and now she sat in silence, eyes fixed to the floor. Her tail waved behind her, fidgeting in her stead. For being my superior, I'd pushed her into a pitiable state. My fangs were perched at her neck, and I had to bite down. The stakes meant I had no choice if I wanted to make headway -- even if it made me into a betrayer.
"Excuse me for a second," I said, breaking away from the table. Hinawa made a noise of acknowledgement but showed no sign of paying me any further attention.
I stepped back into the questioning room, where the human was still sitting on the floor. He was back to full consciousness judging from the way he winced and glanced my way as I walked in. Blooms of red showed on the handkerchief tied on his arm. I approached him slowly with my ears as relaxed as possible, trying not to startle him with any sign of aggression. I reached down to touch his unwounded shoulder. His head turned away from me, and he gave a wheeze of pain.
He broke the silence before me. "I'm so sorry."
"Easy," I said, pulling him up, "nobody's blaming you for anything." Field manual, section five, paragraph three. Funny how those lines came out easier than real words. "Just come with me for a second."
He said nothing else and shuffled on without any complaints or struggling. I brought him out to the low table, right where Hinawa would be able to see him. She didn't seem to notice at first, but her ears jolted to their full height the instant she looked up. Her hands crept down to her pockets, stopping as soon as she saw me watching. My ears being lowered made her take a second look at the human.
Seeing that he wasn't possessed, Hinawa lifted her hands up from under the table with a stiff smile. Her guard was just open enough to start a conversation. I sat down, tail and ears erect, and took a deep breath.
"Koyo-- Officer Iwabori."
"I want you to look at this man. Look closely. Tell me what you see."
Hinawa's eyes wandered back to the human, up to his face at first, and then darted to the handkerchief. Her lips twisted in a less than subtle grimace at the sight of blood, ears drooping low. The Hinawa I knew wasn't one to flinch based on the stories she told. Years of dealing with the outpost had turned things like street brawls into commonplace happenings, and she'd seen her share. At same time, I couldn't blame her for being squeamish.
No amount of light made looking at the human any easier. His flesh had been turned into a patchwork of red streaks and yellowed bruises. Deep rents ran all down his arms, under his vest, and even up to his neck. Some patches looked like they'd been ripped back open from that episode in the questioning room, especially on his face. Dried blood was caked on his fingernails. I looked up and saw him looking back at me. He fidgeted, conscious of having eyes on him.
I nudged him, indicating his arms. He winced and held them out for Hinawa to see better. One gash on his left forearm in particular drew my eye. Something had peeled the skin open to leave a meaty red showing. It had to have been fresh, maybe as recent as yesterday. I heard a muted 'Oh my' from Hinawa.
Tearing her eyes from his limbs, she scanned his jacket. The thick workman's fabric had fared better than his hide. "You're a carpenter, Mister...?"
"U-Utsuwa, ma'am. Work's whatever I can find."
"Do you know how you got those?" She glanced down for a split second to point out the one hideous wound. Her fangs were just hidden under her lip as she tried not to cringe at the sight.
"I wish I knew. That ghost, well, he just does things. Probably dangerous things. I think some of these are saw cuts." He traced a finger around a few jagged cuts that hadn't healed all the way, looking like he couldn't believe they were there in the first place. "Yep, definitely a couple made with tools. Can't guess which."
"And he's cost you a couple of jobs, hasn't he?" I asked him, watching Hinawa's concerned expression.
"Not just this ghost, ma'am. I've had others. Always the same. They make me tell foremen to pound sand or play drums with my tools. Though this is the first one that's been bad enough to... do whatever he did."
Hinawa gaped at him. "You're say that like it happens all the time."
"Grandma always said I had an empty head." Utsuwa reached up to tap his forehead but stopped, letting out a soft groan and clutching his shoulder. Despite the obvious pain, he forced a smile.
We all fell silent. Hinawa was looking at Utsuwa like she wanted to nurse his wounds, put him in bed, and hear the rest of his story after he was healed. The fact of the matter was that he was in a state I wouldn't have wish on anybody. We should have been hauling him to the nearest doctor. However, there wasn't any time to wait around on a mending human, cold-blooded as it was to consider.
I cleared my throat, prepared to move the conversation to a close. "You see--"
"Pretty nonchalant for someone letting ghosts use his body. Not that it'll be of much use once those big, strong arms get a nasty infection," came Kokoro's voice talking over me, muffled under the hannya mask.
Parked on the other end of the table, despite no one inviting her, was Kokoro. Utsuwa eyed her, trying to scoot away from the table. I glowered at Kokoro. Of all the times she could elbow into a conversation, she picked now, when the shock of seeing Utsuwa's injuries was still fresh. A puff of air blew from under the mask. She was snickering at me.
"What happened to staying out of the discussion?" I demanded.
"What discussion?" Kokoro jabbed a finger in Utsuwa's direction. "Staring at a human cutlery exhibit? Real informative."
"Well, it's an important conversation. The quicker we get through it, the sooner this case gets resolved. So I'd appreciate you staying out of the way."
"Too bad. Until something happens, I'm staying right here." She crossed her arms. I stood up from my seat, leaning over the table to reach for her.
"Koyomi," Hinawa said, "sit down. Being short with your friend won't help."
"We're not 'friends' and she's not even involved with this!"
Kokoro sighed and shrugged her shoulders. "Helping arrest him when you couldn't even reach your pockets? Babysitting him while you asked people questions? Nope, no involvement here."
My protests froze in place. Loathe as I was to admit it, Kokoro did get herself involved, though in a trivial sense. That didn't change the fact that she was acting like a rowdy child, desperate for attention. The look in her eyes before I got into the questioning room said it all. She was dedicated to causing me problems to get her way. Until I heard out whatever her new issues were, that wasn't likely to change either.
I cursed my luck under my breath. "Alright, you're involved. I'll admit that." I held up a hand to pre-empt any gloating from Kokoro. "But let me set one thing straight here: You're a witness, not an officer. That means you stay back and let me lead. Am I clear?"
"I wonder what your senior has to say about that," Kokoro said, shrugging again.
I looked to Hinawa. She sat with her ears at attention, ready to say speak her part given the opportunity. Other than the focused look in her eyes, not a trace of agitation showed in her face. A pang of embarrassment shot through me for allowing Kokoro's childishness to ruffle me.
I sunk into my seat and nodded. "Sorry, go ahead."
With a quick, measured breath, she obliged. "I may have been hasty. We're not the only ones at risk here. You've helped me see that." She gestured to Utsuwa, who looked like he'd rather have remained unacknowledged in this conversation. "And I'd hate to leave this man in such a predicament."
My heart fluttered a little. If the conversation wasn't running towards a turnaround, I'd be blown out. I leaned into the table. "Which is why we should handle this case, right?" My tail wanted to wave on its own, but I held it still.
"I would say yes," she said, feeling out the words, "except that wouldn't be entirely true. No, Koyomi, I can't. I can't say that."
All of that excitement fizzled out in a small pop. My ears fell over, and I jumped right back out of my seat. "What!"
"Now, hold on. Just hear what I have to say," she said with a wave of her hands. Her smile had slipped away, and her attention drifted towards Utsuwa. "I wanted to leave this in HQ's hands, because these kind of things aren't our jurisdiction. And then seeing Utsuwa made me think. Maybe we could continue to monitor this case -- with HQ's supervision."
I opened my mouth to argue back, but I shut it just as fast. Yet again, I'd been run over by an argument I couldn't counter. Frustrating as it was to tell myself, this was about as far as things would go getting Hinawa to help. It'd taken this much back-and-forth to get half an okay. I hadn't ever seen the limits of her patience, nor did I want to.
I raised my hands. "Alright, we'll do it your way."
There was a relieved sigh from Hinawa, the surest sign I'd made a right call. "Please don't be too disappointed. I'd be apt to agree with you, but I can't risk it. Not for you, Koyomi. Not for either of us."
Utsuwa's watery eyes flitted between us. His face carried an expression like a cornered mouse, vulnerable and unsure what was about to happen. Seeing his nervousness, Hinawa tried smiling, though she still looked tense.
"Don't think this is your fault. If anything, it's ours for not being big enough to deal with things like this." She kept her voice low and level as she patted him on the shoulder, doing her best to avoid his worst cuts and bruises. If there was one thing I could say about Hinawa, it was that she was the sort of woman who could deal with children. Granted, Utsuwa was no child, but he did look like he needed reassurance. Tenma only knows, I couldn't give it to him.
"Erm, thank you." There was a slight quirk in his mouth noting Hinawa's hand on his shoulder. Brushing her off, he bowed to me and Hinawa, lower than necessary. In spite of myself, I returned the bow, raising back up to a standing Kokoro.
I nodded to Hinawa. "HQ's our next stop?"
Hinawa's smile untensed, and her tail flicked around. No full victories claimed here, but we'd made progress. "I'm glad we agree."
We both stood up and started for the door. I hadn't taken a step when I remembered Utsuwa's current state. "You won't have any problems walking, right?" I asked him.
He looked down at his legs, twisting them around and grunting. There were bruised patches of skin on his calves, though nothing serious looking. When he took a few experimental steps, he limped on his left leg, his steps swaying just a little.
"Alright, how about this?" I put my arm across his shoulders to keep him steady. Not the most comfortable position for me, considering he smelled like sweat and blood, but I could bear with it until we reached HQ. Hinawa giggled into her hand at the sight. "Not a word," I grumbled.
"Sorry," Utsuwa muttered.
"Don't worry about it. Let's just get moving."
In short order, we made our way out, Hinawa in the lead. I was about to turn back and call for Kokoro when I noticed she was waiting outside. "Took you long enough," she groused as we crossed the doorway.
Only on two occasions did HQ come up in training, as I recalled. Neither time were we told where to find it or what to do if we went there. They probably thought Patrol officers wouldn't need to; we were an afterthought as far as the Guard was concerned. Not that I was bitter about being an overblown flier distributor or anything. That was just hunger talking. Eyeing -- and smelling -- the food carts lining the way through the outpost's central arteries did that to me. Not that the smells weren't a welcome departure from unwashed human.
I tried pointing the carts out to Utsuwa, but he wouldn't look up from his feet. Prying my attention from the food, I noticed the eyes stuck to us. Patrol or no, wolf tengu leading a bloodied human down the street drew attention, I guessed. Although, Kokoro created enough of a spectacle by herself. Especially with that mask, which I wished she'd take off already.
That said, the masses were as eager to avoid us as they were to stare. We elbowed past the main commercial district in no time, slipping into the eastward streets, where foot traffic thinned enough to avoid slow going.
Midway down the street that marked the start of the northeast quarter, a massive shadow stretched to cover that end of the street. Utsuwa gaped up at what was casting the shadow: a building that stretched further up into the sky than any of the ones on this street. Others like it lined the outskirts of the quarter. In a way, it looked like the start of a whole other outpost within an outpost.
"Sweet Kanako," Utsuwa mumbled.
While humans and kappa aren't strangers to it, building upward is a tengu signature, and all buildings on the mountain trace long vertical lines. You could call tall buildings one of the sole hallmarks of tengu engineering in Gensokyo -- built on kappa labour. That's why the northwest wing of the outpost reminded me more and more of the mountain the closer we got. Even the number of non-tengu showed a sharp decline the closer we got to the district gate.
"'Cooperation backed by the strength and stature of the mountain'?" Kokoro read from the gate's inscription. "All I see is a bunch of birds. Guess their idea of cooperation is staying the hell away from everyone else."
"The mountain's not too far off from here," I explained. Not that I'd have disagreed with her conclusion.
"Sure is gaudy."
"You're one to talk." I nudged Kokoro. She looked over her shoulder to huff at me before hurrying up the street after Hinawa.
In spite of its familiarity, there was a tension in the air walking into the mountain district, which made my ears stand on end. Any number of eyes were trained on us from the instant we crossed the gate, the majority of them crow tengu. All of the atmosphere of the southern quarters vanished, too. The food stalls and makeshift businesses had disappeared alleys ago. No strong smells floated out from storefronts, and little chatter stood out amongst the noises. What little conversation going on was in whispers shared between onlookers. Hinawa had to have noticed as well, judging by her curt greetings to certain non-wolf passersby. The age-worn faces and formal attire marked them as higher ranked bureaucrats. Even without knowing which office they headed, I swallowed a lump in my throat at the thought of crossing anyone like that.
Winding through an alleyway off the main street, we emerged at the side of a building that, though in the shadow of others around it, was intimidating in its size. A solitary ray of light, bright enough to leave me squinting, shone on one side of its glassy exterior. One look wouldn't give that impression, but this was the true symbol of the mountain's power over the outpost. The only clue to its purpose was the plate hung at front door: Great Youkai Mountain Guardian Authority Amaden Territory Headquarters.
Utsuwa stared at the placard, furrowing his brow. "Territory?"
"What the hell is an Amaden?" Kokoro asked.
Ignoring the more contentious question of outpost politics, I answered Kokoro's question by pointing at the ground. "We're standing in it."
Kokoro looked up, dumbfounded. "Huh."
"Now, quit blocking the door," I said, pulling her aside to let Hinawa through the revolving door. Hinawa laughed and swatted me on the shoulder.
"Thank you, but be nice to your friend," she chided.
"We're not friends," Kokoro and I said over each other.
Hinawa disappeared past the darkened glass with another soft laugh. I grumbled to myself, adjusting my glasses. The last thing I needed was Hinawa making it any more difficult to deal with Kokoro.
Putting that out of my mind, I let Utsuwa walk ahead of me and followed closely behind into the building. The first thing that hit me as I walked into the lobby was how stagnant the air felt. Any and all humidity from outside concentrated itself inside. Not even the cooling units chugging away at the far ends of the room helped matters. Somewhere deep down, I felt thankful for having an openable window in our little shack.
"So, now that we're here, what do we need to do?" I asked Hinawa.
"If I remember correctly, we need to meet with the special liaison. That's who all Patrol business goes through."
"And getting ahold of them is simple, right?"
Hinawa's only answer was a smile and a flip of her tail. Looking over at the reception counter, there were only two crow receptionists on duty. One, sweat beading all over her face, was busy chatting away with an officer, of the Guard proper, while fanning herself. On the far end, the latter receptionist was sweating too, but probably more because of the human woman on the other side of the counter.
I was no judge of looks, but I would have called her pretty in a plain way, with her black hair up in a kerchief, probably long enough to roll past her shoulders when let down, and her thin but defined features. The brown kimono with the tied-up sleeves pegged her as someone working in a restaurant. There was a smell permeating the air around her that made me crave a bowl of soba. Her face and hands were even smudged with what looked like flour -- maybe buckwheat flour.
For her small, doll-like figure, the woman's voice came out loud and coarse. She was leaning into the counter, her face lit-up in anger. I peeked over at Kokoro's mask for a comparison. The resemblance was enough to make me back away a half-step.
"--filed the reports. I made the statements. And yet you still won't let me sit down and talk to anyone!"
"Ma'am, please, I understand what you're going through."
"Understand?" the human woman scoffed. "You don't understand shit! I try and try and try to do the right thing, and what do you people do? Just treat me like another job to be done! You'd rather let a known thief run free than do your goddamned jobs, wouldn't you?"
"That's not the case at all, ma'am. I've sent your last three reports to Detective Tsunoda, and he's assured me that--"
The human's fists slammed the countertop, sending the receptionist racing backwards in a storm of feathers. "Then why in hell have I not seen a case file!"
This back and forth went on, with the receptionist apologising and the human woman ripping into her for her apologies. In the meantime, Hinawa had caught the chattier receptionist's attention.
Still fanning herself, the receptionist looked us over. "Patrol business?"
"Yes, we need to speak with the liaison. It's a bit of urgent business," Hinawa said a bit louder than necessary. The racket four counters down had forced her ears askew to tune it out.
The receptionist's wings wiggled and she blinked. "Urgent business," she repeated back.
"The details are a bit... complicated. It'd be best if we could catch the liaison in person to explain." Hinawa threw a look over her shoulder at Utsuwa. Before she could say anything else, that human's shrieking grew louder, making Hinawa grimace and shield her ears.
The receptionist and the guard swivelled their heads in unison towards the argument. Judging by how they laughed it off, neither the sight nor the sounds were new to them. The receptionist shrugged her shoulders and looked over the spread of notes on her workspace. "Urgent or not, you'll have to wait. The liason is tied-up. No clue when he'll be free, either."
"I see. Thank you." Hinawa gave a quick bow.
"And don't mind that little tiff over there," she called as Hinawa walked away.
Kokoro waited by the front windows, leering from behind a potted plant, having sneaked off at some point. Inches away, Hinawa was seated and waiting for the rest of us. I pointed out our rally point to Kokoro, but she shook her head. No surprise there. At least the lack of traffic meant she wouldn't draw a lot of negative attention to us. Then again, she might have passed for normal, based on the reactions to a furious human.
Turning to Utsuwa, I clamped a hand over his shoulder. His attention hadn't moved from the human woman and the second receptionist. "Hey, let's have a seat. It's going to be some wait, unfortunately."
A noise came from Utsuwa like a knife scraped against a rock. I shook his shoulder. He swayed from side-to-side but didn't turn around. Holding him still, his shoulder twitched. In fact, every part of him looked to be tensed to the point of trembling.
"What's wrong?" A note of panic creeped into my voice.
I swallowed. Bracing myself, I stepped around in front of Utsuwa. The colour had fled from his face. A layer of sweat glistened on his brow, the skin turned clammy and pale. I forced myself to look at his eyes.
Just as I feared, only the whites showed. That ghost had decided to drop in while our attention was off Utsuwa. My stomach, already insulted by my paltry breakfast, felt like it was in free-fall. I threw a frantic wave to Hinawa.
Hinawa got right out of her seat to make her way over. The problem dawned on Hinawa as soon as she saw Utsuwa's face. She glanced around the room, turning back to me with a worried look. I nodded in confirmation.
"When did this happen?" Hinawa whispered.
"I didn't see it." I shook my head. So much for responsibility, Koyomi.
Hinawa's mouth twisted. "Probably not long after we got in, then."
"Probably. What do you think we should do?"
With another peek back, she leaned her head towards the seats. "Let's start by moving him. I'd hate for him to fall and get hurt."
Not about to argue, I grabbed Utsuwa's shoulder while Hinawa steadied him by the other. He was stiff enough to slide inch by inch across the polished floor tiles. Minutes later, we were in safe territory by the seats. Utsuwa collapsed into the chair with a whimper as soon as we let go. He had been lighter than he looked, so moving him was no big issue, but I felt ready to fall over as well.
I had no chance to rest before Kokoro materialised next to me. The hannya's eyes bored into me. "Finally noticed?"
I fixed my glasses, not responding to Kokoro's needling. She looked over at Utsuwa. Hinawa took a seat next to him, holding him upright by his shoulders, massaging them like she was drumming her fingers. He let out a soft groan. His face was still pale, and he was now trembling.
"Did you see it happen?" Hinawa asked Kokoro.
"I saw what he was looking at. So did Officer Koyomi."
They both looked at me. I shot Kokoro a glare and sighed from my nose. The last thing I needed right now was her to be playing games.
Before I could answer for Kokoro, one of my ears propped up partway. Something had shifted in the air. The conversation at the counter was a lot quieter. In fact, I saw that the receptionist talking to the guard had stopped talking. They looked like they were trying not to look off to their right. The sound of someone pounding on the counter punctured the silence, followed by a wail that grew louder.
The human woman was slumped over the counter, almost on her knees. "My father was a decent man. Worked so hard. Loved his work so much. Never got a damn bit of respect for it."
"Do you k-know what the last thing he said to me was?" She raised her head. Tears streaked through the floury dust on her cheeks. "'Make sure the shop's open in the morning, Karen.' I walked in the next m-morning and he was... gone. That bastard killed him! It was all his fault!"
Karen broke into coughing, choked up in her fit of sorrow. The receptionist took a cautious step back to the counter. In spite of the abuse hurled her way, she was willing to give Karen the courtesy of saying nothing while waiting for her to regain her composure.
"Daddy," Karen blubbered, "I want my daddy back. H-He took him from me."
"I'll put in a note with the archives department, okay, ma'am?" The receptionist reached over and patted Karen's hand. Any sympathy she might have had faded out of her eyes, turning into exhaustion as her pen raced. Tenma only knows, I could understand that look at a glance.
A tug on my sleeve from Kokoro nudged me back towards my own troubles. Two pink dots gleamed through the Hannya mask's eyeholes.
"I can get that note."
"And why would you?" I asked.
Kokoro shrugged her shoulders. "Beats me. You're the one with the heaping plate of problems to solve. Some of which are mine, by the way."
"What, you're sayi-- Oh no. Not doing this. Not right now." I brushed past Kokoro, planting myself on the other side of Utsuwa. He twitched when I grasped his shoulder. "This is my problem for now."
Hinawa leaned around Utsuwa, ears at attention. "Isn't that horrible, though? Losing her father like that."
"A murder case is horrible, which is why we're waiting here." I crossed my legs, sitting back in the chair, blanching at the musty smell trapped in the cushioning. Someone had been smoking around there. Hinawa and Kokoro were still looking at me.
"It sure sounded like foul play to me," Hinawa muttered.
"She was upset about her father dying and mad about something getting stolen. That doesn't mean it was a killing. We don't know enough to start jumping to conclusions."
"I was just thinking. What if it was the same person?" She nodded toward Utsuwa. "His ghost had a similar problem."
Kokoro bent down, casting a shadow over me while she stared me down. Either this was some new angle for her to work, or she was throwing herself into her role as a hindrance; the difference didn't strike me in any obvious way. Her dedication to needling me showed through in any case. If she could drag Hinawa into the mix, all the worse for me.
She snickered through the mask. "Detective Koyomi."
"Watch it. And take off that mask already." I lowered my ears. She had no idea how lucky she was I owed her -- debts I had every intention to repay, if only to have her out of my hair.
[ ] Put your foot down, officer. One case at a time and that's final. [ ] Maybe it's worth chasing a vague lead. Besides that, checking the archives might help anyway.
I'm finally back! Even when it takes a few months, getting all the editing done and posting it up feels so damn good.
Now, I probably ought to address what kept me, so I'll just say this: I've been working on trying to get my rhythm back, and it's taken a while. It sucks when I have to keep you guys in suspense for so long, but all that matters is that I'm back now. My work is getting steadier, so it shouldn't take me half a year between updates. You'll see what I mean with my other story soon enough -- not that I promise to take the same approach here.
[x] Maybe it's worth chasing a vague lead. Besides that, checking the archives might help anyway.
"I'll go along with it." I held out my hand to head off any gloating from Kokoro. "Only because there's a chance of it helping this case. For lack of any better information." I nodded to Hinawa. Her ears drooped in confusion, but she smiled.
"He'll be in safe hands," she chirped.
Kokoro gave a sarcastic hum of surprise, looking off toward the counter where that human woman Karen was still making the receptionist uncomfortable. "Alright, Detective."
"None of that sass," I snapped.
"It's almost like you don't appreciate me. But, okay, I'll be a good little Kokoro just for you." She shrugged her shoulders and hopped up with a twirl. Just having me agree seemed to make her that much more agreeable. I couldn't help feeling irritated by it.
She tilted her head. "So?"
My ears flattened. "So, what? You're the one leading here. Lead on."
"Don't sound so eager to wear the leash. You're gonna have to figure out where to go."
I groaned. "Please tell me you were going somewhere with this." Pressure was starting to build in my temples already. Sitting back down was sounding good.
"The archives department," she answered. "Knowing where it is is your job, though. Getting that note is mine."
"You know I've never been here before, right?"
"That's why you ask."
She started ambling towards the reception desk when she paused, turning on her heel. "Oh, and before I forget, two things. One, I have a plan. It involves you not being here. And, two..."
She plucked the mask off, giving way to her usual blank expression. Though I'd have normally found it disquieting, her flat stare was a welcome sight compared to the fanged scowl of the Hannya.
"Something on my face?" Kokoro asked, quirking her eyebrow.
I cleared my throat. Right, I had been staring. "Took you long enough to take it off. I thought it'd fused with your face."
Her eyes narrowed and she gave a sarcastic laugh. "Hold this."
"I don't want it."
"Doesn't matter. Just do it."
Unceremoniously shoving the mask into my hands, she made an about-face, her oversized hair bun wobbling as she strode over to Karen and the troubled receptionist. I was left standing there, trying to piece together what Kokoro was try to do -- and drawing a complete blank because my stomach was empty.
I turned to Hinawa in hopes of making my annoyance understood, but she waved me on with a smile. Muttering a plea to Tenma for patience, I nodded and strode towards the other occupied counter. The receptionist and the guard were still chattering away in a half-whisper, buzzing about Tenma-only-knows-what. Neither paid me any mind as I walked close.
I paused at the counter to order my thoughts as best I could. A simple answer to a simple question was all I needed. Remembering the mask in my hands, I stowed it in the fold of my hakama behind me. Who knew what I'd say if they asked me about it.
"Excuse me," I called to the chattering pair, "sorry to bother you."
The receptionist turned around in her chair. "Not at all, ma'am. What can I help you with?"
"I need to find the..." The words hung there in my mouth for a second. "Er, the archives department. That's what it was."
She blinked, looking at my hat, then my armband, and back to me. Her guard friend even looked my way for a split second. I felt a jolt of worry. Did I say something weird? Or maybe my way of asking alerted them. I fiddled with my gloves, scratching for some excuse in the back of my brain.
"Let me check here." The receptionist shuffled through the mess of notes on her desk looking for something. "Not too many people ask, so I'm not too sure myself," she added with a laugh.
"I... see," I said, letting go of my glove.
"They need to make a real map of the place," the guardman jibed.
The receptionist shook her head as she pulled a sheet of paper from a wobbly stack. "Or even just an up-to-date directory. Upstairs and their secrecy." She turned back to me with a half-smile. "It looks like it's on the fifteenth floor. You haven't been here before, right?"
"Er, no." My ears twitched.
"The stairwells are weird here. Some only go to certain floors. It's a pain if you don't know which goes where."
"No elevators?" I asked.
"How we all wish." She shrugged and laughed. "They probably wouldn't tell us about them if they did exist."
I bit back an annoyed groan. Fifteen flights of pointless walking, just like academy training. "So, where do I go from here?"
The receptionist walked around the counter to point past the lobby to a narrow hallway on the other end. If it hadn't been pointed out to me, I would have thought the doors were all to offices.
"You'll want the second door on the left there."
"Great, thanks." I gave a quick bow and rushed off for the stairs.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Kokoro's bun bouncing up and down and stopped to see what she was up to. Her wad of hair made for a poor view, but I could see her swapping between masks, juggling them and a pair of fans. Her voice raised and lowered like she was reciting dialogue. The receptionist was totally captive, fixed on Kokoro's show, while Karen watched without any visible reaction. Kokoro must have been plotting to use sleight of hand to get that note.
I slinked past the one-woman show with a quick glance over my shoulder. To think, I'd gone from manning the station window to a murder case, and I was about to be accomplice to petty theft -- from a Guard employee no less. I didn't want to think about it. Under the circumstances, it wasn't like I could think about it. It was either this or wait around for other vague information to fall in our laps. At this point, waiting was the last thing I wanted to do.
Once I made it to the side hall, I stopped short of the doors. My tail and ears were standing up, tensed like I was in danger. I took a few deep breaths, stuffing down the urge to chide myself for getting worked up. As soon as this was done, I was going out and getting some noodles or whatever else would fill my belly. I just needed to grit my teeth and see it through. Just ahead, a sign hung in plain sight designating the expected door on the left as a stairwell.
I threw open the door and started up the stairs at a brisk pace. While the first five were fine, I could feel my legs complaining after the sixth flight of stairs and had to slow down. Training had been so long ago that I was probably losing my shape. Granted, I was never the fittest of my year. Whenever the results were posted on our conditioning tests and other physical trials, my name tended to fall towards the bottom of the list. My lack of improvement almost sent me limping out of the academy and off to standard training -- though my marks in policy more than compensated.
At fifteen floors up, I was short on breath and ready to stop climbing. Oddly enough, this floor was the very end of the stairway. This must have been what the receptionist was talking about. In any case, whatever the stairs did, I needed another breather.
The landing only offered two ways to go: An unmarked door with a big lock on it and a door with a handwritten sign reading "Archives" slapped over a small window. At the very least, there wasn't any chance of getting lost. The only thing lacking was any place for waiting. I parked by the door, hoping no one else came through before Kokoro got there with the note.
A few minutes passed before I abandoned my decorum and slumped against the wall. Without anything else to occupy my mind, my thoughts were stuck to two things: the groaning of my stomach and how slapdash Kokoro's plan was. Important details like how she was supposed to find me never occurred to me. Of course, she was the one who ran off without much explanation. I remembered the mask I nearly sat on, pulling it out to glare at it. Its own glare was enough to creep me out.
Without any warning, the Hannya started glowing blue. I lobbed it towards the stairwell -- where it stopped mid-air, tilting to stare down at the steps. I'd almost forgotten that Kokoro had some sort of power over the masks.
The sudden sound of footsteps coming from stairs made my ears perk up, and I scrambled to get to my feet and hide the mask. It didn't take to me grabbing it well, wiggling out of my hands and floating down the stairs. I couldn't tell how far away the footsteps were, but I knew they couldn't be far away. I followed the Hannya in hopes of catching it before whoever it was got close enough to see. Seeing what I was doing, it sidestepped me when I grabbed at it, and it rose up towards the ceiling, making me jump to reach it. I was poised to leap for it when I noticed that the footsteps had stopped. Standing a few steps below was Kokoro.
"Really," she monotoned.
I straightened up, dusting off my uniform and recentering my hat. "How would I have explained that--" I pointed at the mask, "--if somebody else showed up?"
"You say that like it's my problem. Anyway, move your tail-end so I can get by."
She elbowed past me, making her way to the landing. The Hannya mask zipped down from the ceiling to follow right behind her, though not before waggling in the air in front of me like it was taunting me. I huffed and climbed back up.
"I guess asking is just for Koyomi," I said loud enough to draw her attention.
Kokoro grabbed the mask, which turned a pale blue before vanishing into mist. The corner of her mouth quirked. "I told you I had a plan. Don't tell me you have that little faith in me."
I frowned at her. The smugness dropped from her face, and she clucked her tongue.
"Alright, whatever. What's important is that I've got the note."
"Great, then let's get in the archives before I get any hungrier." I pulled the door open before Kokoro could reach for it, nudging her inside before stepping in.
Walking in the front office of the archives, there was the stinging smell of paint in the air. The walls looked like they had been hastily plastered over with a coating of beige not too long ago. Going by the whirr of fans in the back, some of it wasn't done yet either. Maybe that had something to do why the receptionist wasn't sure how to find it. I walked up to the desk in the middle of the room, where a smartly dressed wolf tengu sat, half-hidden behind stacks of boxes.
Perhaps it was a combination of the fans and the boxes, but it seemed like she had yet to notice us walking in. Her attention was focused on filing her nails. I cleared my throat in hopes that she might hear. No reaction.
Kokoro brushed past and knocked loudly on the desk. The inattentive tengu's ears stood up, and she swiveled around in her chair right away, throwing her nail file out of sight. Looking down and finding something missing, she reached behind one of the boxes to pull out a wooden nameplate. We were apparently talking to Kashizaki Nao, junior archivist.
"Don't mind us," Kokoro said.
"Kokoro." I scooted her aside to be the one standing in front. Trying to display my armband as prominently as possible, I stood up straight. "I... we're here on some business with the Patrol, you see. We'd like to check on some files."
The junior archivist flashed a vacant smile. "Files? We've got loads of those. More info than you could ever stand. I bet some of it's pretty juicy, too. You might be able to blackmail a guy or two with it. Not that that's legal, I think."
"Erm, pardon?" I leaned back, already unsure if I wanted to continue this conversation.
Kokoro snorted. "I like her style."
"Just a department in-joke. I'd have to turn you in if you took me serious." Nao cleared her throat, her rather squeaky voice kicking down into a more sober tone. Reaching into a box on the floor, she pulled out a small notebook to consult. "Now, I'm not completely up-to-speed on the rules since I'm the new hire. It does look like you're clear to do your Patrol business here. Although..."
Nao looked up from the notebook at Kokoro. Kokoro stared back at her, hardly blinking. "I've got business here too."
The vacant smile on Nao's face looked less vacant and more awkward now. "I can only imagine. The problem is that I can tell you're not a patrolman. Patrolwoman. You're not with the Patrol, which makes you an outsider."
She whipped the notebook around, tracing a long, well-kept nail across a line reading: "Individuals not connected to the Guard, its auxiliary organs, or any authorised investigative body are not to be granted direct access to files."
I adjusted my glasses. Somehow I knew Kokoro would end up hitting a snag. The only good fortune was that I got some kind of access. Without knowing ahead of time, I was lucky that I could get in the door, much less get to look at files.
"Well, in that case, I'd at least like to--" I started to say.
"Hold on just a second. You don't even know that. I could be with them," Kokoro said, shoving in front of me. In the span of a few seconds, she'd gone from laughing to sounding incensed.
Nao had pulled her nail file out and continued working on her pinkie. "They don't hire many non-tengu, ma'am."
"Kokoro," I said. The last thing I wanted was for her to get hauled off. Even if it'd make things quieter for me.
"That's stupid and doesn't even matter. I'm just as connected to this business as Miss Bushy-Tail over here!" she shouted with a wave in my direction. I had to lean back to avoid getting hit in the face.
"Well, ma'am," Nao responded, looking up from her nails with increasingly less humour in her eyes, "I don't make the rules here. They say you can't go in, so I'm not going to let you."
Kokoro let out an angry sputtering sound, looking ready to jump over the desk. I pushed myself in between them, turning around to glare at Kokoro. She tried to poke her head around me, but I jostled her and sent her sprawling out on the floor.
I looked over my shoulder at Nao. "Pardon us for a moment."
I tugged Kokoro out into the landing by her collar, ignoring her attempts at resisting, and dropped her on the floor once we were at a safe distance. She scowled at me as she sat up.
I grabbed Kokoro's shoulder. "Look, I'm already running on empty. I don't need to deal with you jumping the counter. Rules are rules, Kokoro. Either deal with it or go back downstairs."
"What? So, that's it. You're just gonna leave me out here," she growled.
"There's not much else I can do. Just wait here and don't make things any harder on me." The words felt ridiculous coming out of my mouth. Kokoro's face said it all: she'd do it no matter what I said.
Her eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms. "Good luck without the note."
There it was. There was the Kokoro's little slip of leverage to make things that much more painful. Money or a memo, she'd find a way to dangle a piece of paper over my head. I sighed.
"And who pushed me into this?" I asked, adjusting my glasses. "I didn't even want to come up here."
"You know it's not that easy. We've got this case to handle, and there aren't many leads. Even if it's a pain, we should seize every little scrap we can find."
"That's not my problem, now, is it?" She looked directly at me, fixing me with a gaze that was as challenging as it was derisive. I felt my face getting hot. My arms started feeling wobbly.
"You already made it your bloody problem!" My growing frustration burst out before I could hold it down, louder than necessary in a quiet office.
I glanced at the archives door. No one came bursting out demanding to know what the trouble was, thank Tenma. Lowering my voice, I grabbed Kokoro's shoulder. "You were the one insisting that you're involved."
Kokoro looked away, avoiding eye contact. I tried turning her, but a mask materialised to block her face. She was back to the Hannya. I sighed, pining for a bowl of soup and a lie down. Officer Iwabori was no negotiator when she was running on empty.
"Tell me what I've got to do for that note," I said, barely able to muster the energy to sound frustrated.
Standing up, she stared me straight in the face through the mask. Blue flames sprung up all along its surface, and it fizzled away. "I shouldn't have to remind you that you're not the only one with problems here."
She scrounged around in her pocket, pulling out a folded scrap of paper. A smell clung to it like stale air. Just under that was the faintest scent of buckwheat. There was no doubt where it had come from.
"Alright, well, I'll keep that in--" I reached for the note only for Kokoro to yank it away.
"I don't care what the pencil-pusher says. Get me in there. Shove her, threaten her, hit her. Whatever you have to do. Just get me in there," she said, stuffing the note back in her pocket.
I groaned. "I guess it's too late to say that's crossing the line?"
"It was too late as soon as you forgot your wallet."
My ears lowered. Of all the things to hit me with. "Alright, fine. I'll... think of something."
"So glad you understand, officer," she deadpanned. Grabbing the door, she held it open, waving me inside.
I walked back into the office, wanting this whole day to be over with already. Nao's attention had gone back to her nails, so she paid us no mind as we approached. I cleared my throat softly. She looked up right away, looking at Kokoro first and then me. Slowly, she put away her file and sat up in her chair.
I drummed my fingers on the desk. Even though I'd just claimed I'd think of something, all that was coming to mind was how nice some kimchi would taste right now. My stomach growled. From the look on Nao's face, she might have even heard it.
"Can I help you?" Nao asked, putting on an awkward customer service smile.
Remembering I had to say something, I straightened my glasses and flattened out my ears. Before worrying about what to say, I had to get words out of my mouth. That's what my Public Interactions lecturer told me, anyway.
"Erm, yes. Listen, I know you've explained the rules..."
[ ] Sell Kokoro as an external investigator. It's not entirely a lie. Just mostly. [ ] That note's connected to a Detective Tsunoda. Maybe his (or her) name means something. Bringing it up is just a lie by omission. [ ] Grab Kokoro's hand and promise not to let her out of sight. At this point, humiliation is the last thing we have to worry about. [ ] Remember Public Interactions, Koyomi. Get the words out. You'll hit on something eventually. Hopefully.
X-Mas Greetings from Amaden!!anAL.XVMTc2016/12/25 (Sun) 22:33No. 29859▼
I didn't mean for this to take over a month, but issues with my other story have a way of bleeding over. Also, I initially intended for this update to be about... let's say a third of the length. If I'd gone with my initial draft, though, the whole thing would have been rather anemic, so it's probably a better deal overall. I just need to work on doing the same amount in less time.
Speaking of time and the passing thereof, I know that the long space between updates sometimes makes things hard to follow. While it'd be easy to brush that fact off with "re-read the past updates", that'd be ignoring other possible things I've overlooked or just didn't explain well. That's why I'm going to open things up for Q&A between here and the next update. I'll gladly answer any questions and clarify things as much as I can. Opinions are also welcome.
Please look forward to the next update. Happy end-of-year festivities and may a joyful new year dawn for you all!
I really like "Kokoro the asshole." It was surprising to me at first, but it makes a lot of sense.
You ever hear that saying "90% of communication is nonverbal"? Now imagine a person who can't communicate nonverbally. No inflection, minimum facial expressions. Even if that person tried to be really kind, they'd still seem like a total jerk. Imagine telling someone that you just got fired or your grandma died and they go "oh, that sucks" with a deadpan voice and no expression.
You could go way deeper with it too. Social interaction is just wearing a bunch of different masks, isn't it? You have your face for being a son or daughter, your face for being a student, an employee, a brother, a customer, a stranger. Without those masks, what's left? Just you and your selfish desires.
Also, for the Q&A: when will we get more shenanigans with Hinawa doting on Kokoro and thinking she's just the cutest while she makes Koyomi want to jump off a bridge?
Aren't you taking this a little too personally? I mean, I think we all have people in our lives unto whom we can liken Kokoro's character. Internalizing a story character's actions to the point where you SWJ trigger yourself seems kinda unhealthy in my opinion. I think Kokoro is doing a fantastic job of serving as a foil to the stories plot progression. Characterizing her in such a dominant and powerful way is a welcome break from the status quo.
[X] Handcuff Kokoro to yourself, satisfying all three requirements of being connected to the guard, it's auxiliary organs, and an authorized investigative body.
Alright, that'll do it. Despite Koyomi's misgivings, she's going to be stuck to Kokoro a little bit longer, and it's going to be interesting because the route she's taking is...
[x] Handcuff yourself to Kokoro. She needs to be connected to an investigative body? She's connected to this body now!
Thank you so, so much for your votes.
>>29864 I'm not so sure Hinawa's going to do much doting on Kokoro... while she's sober. Not that that's going to change Koyomi wanting to jump off a bridge. Thanks for the question, though. Keep 'em coming!
A female coworker and good friend of the MC. She has somewhat of a childish personality, leading us to believe she is going warm up to Kokoro quickly. Also, this story hasn't been updated in 5 months, so it probably would have been better to sage your post.
>>30053 >>30054 basically got it, though I'd like to add that Hinawa tries a little too hard to be Koyomi's mom, which is why she comes off a little clingy. Why does she do that? Think of it like somebody who takes in loads of stray animals. There's probably something missing in their lives, and they fill that gap by heaping pity on things that are more-or-less dependent on them. Hinawa similarly tends to jump on new recruits in the Patrol and smother them with attention. Incidentally, she also keeps stray cats.
[x] Grab Kokoro's hand and promise not to let her out of sight. At this point, humiliation is the last thing we have to worry about.
It would have been so easy to just lie. With my gut telling me to hurry up and get something in it, I was at the point where principles were were too flimsy to keep hold of.
Except that was a stupid thought on my part. I knew I couldn't lie. Seriously, I was terrible at it. The few times I'd tried, Dearest Mum had laughed and told me exactly how bad a liar I was. You can only imagine I didn't try it too many times afterwards. No, the truth was the only thing that was going to save me here -- and that was what made me the most nervous.
The truth of the matter was that I was desperate: without Kokoro's cooperation, I was stuck at a dead-end. There was no sign of the liaison helping us in any way, which left no choice but to chase any possible leads. Everything hinged on a note in Kokoro's pocket.
"I did explain them, yes?" Nao prompted. It wasn't a question as much as her telling me her patience was fraying at the edges.
I took a deep breath but it didn't calm me at all. "Yes, erm... you did. And I understand the position you're in. They're rules, after all. It's just--"
Nao's eyes flicked to her nail file. There was only a matter of seconds for me to make my case or get out. My head was pounding. I looked to Kokoro, who stared back. All this because she couldn't just tell me what was going on with her. Some part of me hoped what I was about to do made her feel as awkward as me.
I snatched Kokoro's wrist and held her arm up. She made a whine of protest, but I wasn't about to stop now. Nao looked at us curiously.
"Look, I'm desperate here. I can't do anything on this case without Kokoro here. I'm not happy to admit it, either, but here we are." Kokoro shot me her best flat glare at that. "That's not what matters, though," I went on. "What matters is that I'm willing to keep a close watch on her to make sure she stays out of trouble. All I need is for you to let her come in with me."
Nao's ears made a dip and pitched over to one side, her face remaining neutral. She grabbed her file and held it contemplatively. She was still staring at the both of us. Something was rolling around in her head, just out of reach.
I needed to say something else before she flat-out said no. The only problem was that my mind was pretty well blank now. If leading around Kokoro by the hand wasn't going to do it, my only backup strategy was calling back to my lectures in diplomacy at academy. I just had to say anything that came to mind and hope it pushed the conversation along. Keeping the communication channel open was the important part.
Right when I opened my mouth to make some comment about the weather, I felt something cold on my wrist. There was a loud click and then another. My own handcuffs were latched to me and Kokoro. The key clinked as it fell on Nao's desk, lobbed by Kokoro while I wasn't looking.
A bunch of half-syllables leapt out of my mouth. Between being pickpocketed and suddenly being latched to Kokoro, I didn't know how to react. "Why?" I finally blurted out.
"Why not? No other investigative bodies around to attach to," Kokoro answered matter-of-factly.
As much as she tried to hide it, there was that dull sheen of defiance in her eyes, like the glow of a fire that heated up every time she wanted to spite me. I had no answer to it. All I could do was sigh in aggravation.
"You could have given me the key, at least."
"I'd have asked for it anyway," Nao spoke up. Both of us were looking at her now. She shrugged her shoulders, filing away at her nails.
Kokoro and I shared a look. Neither of us could believe that had even worked, it seemed.
"You'll let us in?" I ventured.
She set her file down again and held up a finger. "Just one condition: Not a word to anybody about anything."
"And here I thought she'd want a bribe," Kokoro snarked, having recovered in the span of a few seconds.
The idea drew a chortle from Nao, and she turned to me. "Your sidekick's too much." She grinned at Kokoro. "I've got a whole archive to myself most times. That's good enough reason to want to keep my job, I'd say."
"Hold on," I interposed, "why would you let us slide that easily, then? If you value your job that much..."
"I'm not gonna argue with two people cuffing themselves together." She raised her hands in a carefree shrug. Her tail made a wide sweep. "Must be a good reason for that, right?"
Something about her willingness to set aside regulations on a whim didn't sit well with me deep down, but I was the one in trouble here. And Kokoro, I guess, though I still wasn't sure what her deal was. What really mattered was that we were finally getting somewhere -- and I was edging closer to lunch. I massaged my complaining gut discreetly.
"Right. Not a word to anyone." Without thinking, I adjusted my glasses with my cuffed hand, jerking Kokoro around. She scowled as much as she could with her lifeless eyes. "Sorry," I muttered.
"Good going," she monotoned and turned to Nao. "I don't care about wolf secrets at all, so that keeps me mum by default."
Nao's laughter cut into my annoyance with Kokoro before I could admonish her in any way. She stood up from her seat, sauntering to the back door to enter a code on a keypad. The lock gave a loud click and the door drifted open on its hinges.
She pulled the door wide open, waving towards the dim interior. "After you."
Kokoro looked up at me with her mouth half-quirked. It was probably supposed to be a gloating smile, but her eyes were a problem as usual. "About damn time."
Not waiting for either of us, Kokoro shuffled forward, nearly tugging me over. I shot her a dirty glare as I picked myself up. Somehow I wanted to be surprised at her petty sense of revenge, but I couldn't be at this point. A stifled giggle from Nao just added more sting. Trying to be the better person, I fell in line behind Kokoro, who was tapping her foot impatiently. Nao followed right behind and pulled the door to with another loud click.
Lights flicked on. The walls looked to have a new layer of beige, a heavy odour of paint hanging over the place, much like the reception room, the drone of fans not . In order to avoid messing up the new paint job, the rows of shelves were pulled forward, which boxed everything in a bit further and added to the sense of claustrophobia, the myriad stacks of boxes yet to be sorted set underfoot. Framed by all this was a row of filing cabinets lined up back to back and stretching until they bent in an 'L' at the other end. Overall, the space was deceptively large despite feeling cramped.
"Do watch your step," Nao jibed, noting our gawking.
Kokoro seemed to be more fixed on the shelves than anything. Waving her arm and yanking mine along with it, she glanced in Nao's direction. "After you."
"We don't exactly know what we're looking for, you know," I reminded her.
"Right. I guess you held up your end." She reached for her pocket with her cuffed hand but stopped. Realising how awkward the setup was with both of us, she looked up at me. "Little help?"
Suppressing a sigh, I turned to get to her pocket with my free hand. The angle wasn't the most convenient, but I was able to reach in. The note came out slightly crumpled and covered in all manner of filth. I shook the lint and Tenma knows what else off before unfolding it.
Human woman Karen reporting. Belligerent and demanding action. Repeat claim of theft. File HZ-STT-HKS-08414.
The receptionist had indeed been writing directly to Detective Tsunoda. Some part of me felt like I dodged a bullet not claiming to be connected -- or, worse, impersonating the detective.
I cleared my throat and refolded the note, holding it out to Nao. The archivist stared at the piece of paper for a moment before finally taking it by the corner. Remembering the detritus all over the paper, I patted off my gloves, grimacing.
"What in Gensokyo have you been keeping in there?" I muttered to Kokoro.
She rolled her eyes. "Like you don't stuff snacks in those hakama."
I paused. That would have been a good idea in some odd way. My stomach gurgled in agreement. "If only."
Having looked it over, Nao passed the note back my way. It only took an instant for her eyes to lock onto the shelves, going over them like everything in the boxes was already unpacked and sorted.
"Bit of an old one," Nao mused, clicking her tongue and making popping noises with her lips as she looked around. She glanced back for a split second. "Follow me."
Kokoro leapt up immediately and almost tugged me down once more. I grumbled but fell in line behind her and Nao, edging between haphazardly placed columns of boxes. Seemingly absorbed in her role, Nao's eyes were flitting from one label to another, on the boxes, on the shelves, and anywhere else there might be a sign. She muttered to herself as she ran her fingers along certain ones.
"It's amazing you find anything in here," Kokoro said.
Nao's ear pricked up and she stopped to meet Kokoro with a self-satisfied grin that would give her a run for her money. "Do you know why they hired me a month ago?"
"To keep your nails looking glam while you chat people up?"
"Glad you noticed the nails, but no." She underlined one of the signs with her hand. "See these signs here? This is my own organisational system. I came up with it in my spare time."
Kokoro's eyes narrowed. "I'm guessing you don't have many friends."
"Kokoro," I warned.
"Please, I hear worse from my boss," Nao said, brushing me off. "And as to what makes it great, well, keep following."
With that, Nao picked up the pace, strutting off with a purpose. I shot Kokoro a look to let her know how annoyed I was at her picking at others. She paid me no mind and dragged me along with her.
Rounding the corner, the space widened improbably to fit even more shelves, Nao standing at the head of one of the far ones. She waved us over.
"Welcome, wolves and whatevers, to the criminal end of the archives," she proudly announced.
"Everything starting with HZ. And that's not all!" She zipped to the other side of the row. "These boxes marked BTRK are all about fines. Subsections FTSN for noncompliant merchants, FKS for disorderly visitors, and so on. Everything's got its own code."
Kokoro huffed. "So?"
"So," Nao retorted, "that's just one piece. We're in the sub-sub-section dedicated to sentencing for miscellaneous small offences. Everything's broken up by crime and then divided into different bits depending on whether you want case files, confiscation records, rap sheets, or whatever. It's right where you'd expect to find it -- provided you understand the pattern."
Kokoro looked like she was about to say something smart but stopped. "Huh. Well, then."
"I know, I'm great." Nao made a mocking stage bow.
I cleared my throat. If I didn't step in, they'd probably be back and forth at this all day. "Erm, yes, that's certainly impressive. Now, where are the files we want?"
"Way to give a girl her moment," Nao harrumphed before bending down to inspect the nearest shelves.
Down the row she went. Honestly, even though she said it was split by crime, I couldn't make out anything from the labels. They were just long strings of letters followed by numbers, none of which meant anything to me. Regardless, she knew enough to rocket from shelf to shelf without much of a glance.
Finally, she stopped at a pile of still-packed boxes, humming to herself. "Should be about here."
The contents of the boxes shifted around loudly as she shifted them around, turning the pile into more of several long mini-rows of boxes. In the middle, there was one that caught her attention, and she stopped to give me and Kokoro a look of triumph. Practically jumping up and down, she pointed to the label.
"See? Told you I was great!"
I squinted to make out the tiny print on it. Just more letters and numbers to Koyomi. "So, these are the ones we need, right?"
"Go ahead," Nao said, gesturing at the box.
My turn to stare. Nao's tail flicked behind her, the archivist herself waiting for something. If she was waiting for me to complement her memory or her ability to organise, she'd be waiting for a while. I looked down at the box and back to her.
"I was kind of assuming..."
"Hey, who's doing who a favour here?" she chided.
"Right." I adjusted my glasses and got down, jostling Kokoro in the process. As soon as I stood up with the box, she elbowed me to voice her displeasure.
"Greatness. Now, follow me," Nao buzzed before shooting off down the aisles again.
Hefting our find along, Kokoro and I made our way back out of what Nao called the criminal subsection and back towards the narrower parts. It turned out that there was a desk, clean and empty of clutter, sitting in amongst the boxes right as we walked in. Before I could even think about sitting down, Kokoro had already plopped into the chair sideways.
I sucked my teeth. "Of course."
I set the box on the desk. Evidently taking pity on me in my shackled state, Nao stepped in to flick through the tape on the sides with a well-kept nail. A smell like a dusty old closet drifted out as she opened the flaps.
Nao dug a mass of clipped and bound files out, sweeping a finger over their labels at a speed that matched her earlier perusal on the shelves. It didn't take long for her to stop on a particular file and swipe it from the stack, not unlike some outsider magic trick.
"Thanks for waiting. One file for browsing."
"Right, thanks," I said quietly.
Nao gently slid the file across the desk. "Happy reading."
I wasted no time unclipping the file. Like their smell suggested, some or most of them didn't even look to have been touched in a while. I licked my lips and steeled myself for what I might find. This was what we came for, and it would hopefully be of some use to our case.
Tenma on high, did I dread the case that it wasn't.
The top page was a cover listing a catalogue number and the names of people involved in the filing. From the date listed, the case itself was opened over a year ago, and it had no end date indicated. A fresh case, in other words. I was getting a good feeling. Taking a deep breath, I turned the page.
Fourteenth day, fourth month, eighth year from Amaden's founding,
What follows is a statement of facts of this case. The information presented in no way constitutes a conclusive basis for any action to be taken on behalf of the Guard or its auxiliary bodies. All criminal parties named are guilty only by presumption and remain innocent in fact until proven otherwise. The standards and norms applied to any judgment shall conform to those of the mountain and tengu law.
The claimant is a human woman named only as Karen, reporting on behalf of the victim, her father. The accused party is a human man given the name Shinbei. As per the claims received, the accused party allegedly stole property from the victim and caused his death through direct harm. The property in question is a set of writings of unknown value. Currently, the claimant has yet to detail the nature of the accused party's harm of the victim.
Due to the nature of the claims, an investigation was conducted into the claimant's background. Consulting residential files turns up a person with the surname Tomari in D8. She appears to live in a restaurant where she also works. Records of residency in Amaden start only a few months ago as of this time, indicating recent migration from the Human Village. Anything further back remains the subject of speculation for now. Should further action be warranted in the future, requests will be made to the Village.
Reports start from as far back as a week after she moved. A report form (file A attached) was obtained from D8 authority, submitted, and subsequently forwarded for processing by the Guard. The only claim made at the time is that the accused party stole something from the claimant's father. Jurisdictional limitations prevented D8 authority involvement since the party named was said to be resident in D11. Further details about the circumstances prove scarce due to lack of cooperation with D8. Memos from the time (memos A through F attached) indicate initial files created for both parties (files B & C attached) for lack of existing records. D11 authorities indicated no known case files for the accused party and would not disclose any records. Further action was not pursued for lack of compelling evidence.
This pattern of forwarded reports continues for the next month and a half. The first recorded in-person report comes at the end of the claimant's second month of residency. The report (file D attached) indicates that the claimant was hysterical and belligerent at the time. Despite assurances that previous reports were received, the claimant demanded to make a full report. Details differ little from other reports, but this particular report marks the first time that the claimant has stated an accusation of direct personal harm by the accused party to her father.
And on it went like that for another page. What I could tell was that Karen was telling them the same thing every time and getting angrier each time, as shown in the transcripts. It seemed like Eleventh District authorities were the main problem in doing anything in most cases. Somehow, I wasn't surprised that humans with any shred of power, no matter how petty, wouldn't cooperate with youkai.
However, a hasty note, scribbled in the margin, about a partial record of 'Shinbei' turned over by another unnamed district caught my eye. I flipped through to the attachments for it.
The first thing to strike me about it was how much was redacted, brushed over in black ink, leaving even his full name unreadable. Of the details not censored, it was obvious that 'Shinbei' had found himself in an altercation with a shopkeeper in the district and was apprehended. Details of his questioning were included but detailed nothing of real interest to our case. I sighed and wrote that one off, returning to the reports in hopes of unearthing anything else.
Unfortunately, all I found was more and more pages of the same claims answered with the same excuses, any follow-up caught up in the same roadblocks. What was most telling was how the furthest pages weren't even reports at all. Most were left as notes from reception about Karen's visits, much like the one we'd just obtained; they were largely unflattering descriptions of her mental state. If there was any willingness to actually do anything about her case, it wasn't evident here.
I shook my head. It wasn't really my place to care either. Nothing in the scarce info on 'Shinbei' pointed to a suggestion of murder. All I could tell was that Karen had some sort of grudge against him. If anything it made the accusations rather suspect, especially considering the grief she was carrying over her father's death. My ears drooped over as I skimmed over the last few pages. I could only come to one conclusion: this had nothing to do with Utsuwa's case at all.
Having considered these facts numerous times, I cannot, as an officer of the Guard, recommend any further action to take on these claims. The victim died in the jurisdiction of the Human Village, and there is nothing to indicate a protracted criminal history of the accused. Additionally, further investigation of the accused has been fraught with stonewalling from district officials and has turned up nothing of value. Without additional facts of merit, there is no action to be taken at this time or in the near future.
Statement with full sincerity and no facts withheld by: Tsunoda Shinichi, Detective of the Amaden Guard
Adding insult to injury, the closing statement was dated over six months ago. Karen's anger was about the only part of this case still warm.
Defeated, I gathered all of the papers back together into a pile and set them on the desk for Nao to collect. She stood there for a moment, unsure of whether or not to take them. I merely shook my head to convey my disappointment.
"Wait, that's it?" Kokoro deadpanned.
If I could have found the words to react to anything, I'd have said the same. The most I could do at the moment was dumbly offer the papers to Nao. My head was starting to succumb to numbness again; being long past ready for lunch was taking a heavier toll the longer we stayed around here.
"I guess that's that," Nao said as she took the wad of papers. With the same dexterity, she packed everything back in the file and slipped it in its place in the stack. She was about to close up the box when Kokoro nudged me.
"I could've sworn you said something about not giving up on the case. This sure looks like giving up to me."
My ears lost any will to stand up. "And when did you start caring?" I grumbled back.
"When we had to jump through a bunch of hoops to get in here," Kokoro said a little louder. She made a point of looking in Nao's direction while saying that. Nao stood there with the box in her hands, her tail making low, contemplative sweeps. It was hard to say if she'd heard or not.
Nao tapped the sides of the box with her nails for a moment before she turned around. "Considering I'm in for a pound at this point, there's no reason I can't pull other files. If only to help an officer in need."
Kokoro's mouth bent into a half-grin. "See? She gets it."
My ears perked up. It was certainly a generous offer. Not that it gave me any more clue as to what to do, but it was nice. Maybe I could find something that would turn this case around. I couldn't just give up. Not after all that grandstanding I did back at the station.
More than that, I had to help Utsuwa. My own conscience as an officer -- even if I was just a patrolwoman -- wouldn't let me back down at this point.
[ ] Come to think of it, I don't know anything about Utsuwa. Does he have a past that could shed some light on something? [ ] Vengeful spirits would be a huge problem, so there has to be some sort of record of them, right? [ ] Human deaths are practically unheard of in Amaden. I wonder if there's any useful files that might tell us about our ghost friend.
>>30057 Every time you ask, I delay the update another month. How's that for Valve Time?
Joking aside, hello, everybody. I did not in any way intend for this update to take six months. Long story short, I went off to Japan, stayed longer than I intended (or needed) to, and had a real bad time of it. Life stuff got a bit rocky afterwards, et cetera, et cetera. Life's crazy as always is what I'm saying.
I don't want to jinx myself, so I'm going to stay mum about what I'm doing with update cycles now. The important thing to know is that you miiiiight not see as much polish on these next few. My apologies if that was important to you.
Anyway, it's good to be back (again) in some fashion. Please continue enjoying the story!
[X]You know, I have a bunch of inefficiently organised files back at my place. Maybe you could help me out later? [X]Vengeful spirits would be a huge problem, so there has to be some sort of record of them, right?
I totally forgot what happened before this update, but I'll go with this since it sounds good. All I remember is that whatever came before this was awesome. Also, this chick needs to get laid, like...holy shit.
[X] Come to think of it, I don't know anything about Utsuwa. Does he have a past that could shed some light on something?
Hmm... so we've got a human named Utsuwa, possessed by a vengeful spirit convinced that 'Yajiro' killed him. All of the options are long shots, but they all have some promise too.
Investigating human deaths is tempting, but there's no guarantee that Utsuwa's invader died in Amaden, or that he's even telling the truth. Seems like if Utsuwa's spirit was connected to a human death then someone Amaden would already be on the case.
Investigating vengeful spirits seems like the longest shot of the three, feels like that would be someone else's job (do shrines even keep exorcism records?)
Utsuwa mentioned this isn't the first time he's had some bad juju cause trouble for him. In that case, checking his record seems like the safest option. At the very least we'd hopefully find out where he's been and what he's been doing.
The possessions are the underlining commonality between these previously unrelated happenings. We should study up on those first or we're just going to miss the tell-tale signs present in the case files like all the other detectives did.
Alright, guys, I'm gonna cut it off here. I know it's a bit quick considering how long it took to post the update, but I need the votes closed tout de suite. For reasons.
That out of the way, it looks like Koyomi is about to turn her attention to the man she's trying to help, considering the winner is...
[x] Come to think of it, I don't know anything about Utsuwa. Does he have a past that could shed some light on something?
Thank you so much for reading and voting. As an attempt to clear up things for those who may be lost, I've taken the liberty of writing up a quick 'n' dirty synopsis of everything up to this point. Expect character descriptions to materialise sometime soon.
The Story Thus Far:
The social Darwinian madness of the academy almost consuming her, Koyomi finished her decade of mandatory training in the academy. By some stroke of luck, she landed a posting in the Guard right out of academy — on a depopulating peak on the far end of the mountain. She did her duty, despite her many complaints, and was one day rewarded with word from command that she was changing posts. Without even confirming the details, she hurriedly packed up the bare essentials she needed and took off for the office to accept the post.
Her fortunes would prove to be as abysmal as ever as she discovered that the new post was in Amaden, the outpost that currently wasn’t under any one law. To make matters worse, she was serving in an offshoot of the Guard in Amaden, the Mountain Outpost Peacekeepers, or the Patrol, dedicated to the most mundane jobs in the pursuit of keeping public order. Unfortunately, it was too late to protest, and Koyomi began her life anew in Amaden as a patrolwoman.
Training and orientation proved simplistic and unfulfilling, but she made fast friends with her senior, Hinawa. Hinawa’s support proved invaluable as she learned just how lacking in integrity their immediate superior, Sumida, was. Koyomi found herself forced into picking up others’ slack and hating life for it. At the end of training, she requested to be put on the day shift, when Amaden is less active overall, making herself the only officer in the District Three station present during the daylight hours. Thus began her relatively uneventful days of acting as a tourist information agent, lost-and-found keeper, and leaflet distributor.
The relative calm of her routine wouldn’t prove long-lasting when the summer began. A tap at her window turned into a meeting with a mysterious, nigh-expressionless girl named Kokoro, a self-styled street performer and playwright armed with ghostly Noh masks. This new caller came with a claim of a lost mask, leading to Koyomi being forced into helping seek it out. Not knowing where else to turn for advice, Koyomi took Kokoro along in search of her off-duty fellow officers. Lunch and an incident with an enraged kappa peddler sidetracked them until Sumida made an appearance. In return for not penalising her for deserting her post, he pushed Koyomi into after-hours flier handout duty and took over dealing with the kappa and others. By the time they’d finished their meal in relative peace, it was already time for the shift changeover, and Kokoro and Koyomi were left to split up.
Handing out advertisements to the masses seemed to be more of the same tired routine until Koyomi noticed a black-haired kappa following her around. After overcoming the kappa’s shyness by baiting her in with food, she tried to question her shadow, only to find out that the girl, Kuriko, was mute. They managed to sort out their initial communication difficulties, and Koyomi quickly discovered that Kuriko had the mask Kokoro was looking for. The main condition for getting it back was letting the incident with the mask go unreported, something Koyomi disagreed with as an officer of the Patrol. However, convinced by Kuriko’s emotional appeal to duty, she promised to not report anything and got Kokoro’s mask back. Koyomi ended her night by ambling home and falling face-first into bed.
The next morning came with an unexpected wake-up call when Koyomi found Kokoro in her apartment, apparently having followed her home. After making her displeasure known, she gave Kokoro her mask back and started off to the bathhouse for a morning soak to relieve the stress from the previous night. It became clear that Kokoro was after help with some new problem as she followed Koyomi to the bathhouse, inadvertently saving her the hassle of a forgotten wallet. While at the bath, Koyomi took the opportunity to question Kokoro about her life in Amaden, though she gleaned few answers. Kokoro changed the subject as they exited to an idea for a new play involving Koyomi cast as a beast with a ravenous appetite, evidently impressed by Koyomi’s seemingly bottomless stomach. Uninterested, Koyomi declined to have anything to do with the idea and continued on to breakfast.
With Kokoro still demanding her attention, Koyomi dragged her along to one of her favourite breakfast spots to try a morning curiosity: miso soup buns. Breakfast was cut short, however, as an eruption of mochi and incoherent screaming marked a new headache to address. Koyomi sprang into action and apprehended the perpetrator, a human who, according to Kokoro, was possessed by a vengeful spirit. Having little experience with arrests as a patrolwoman, Koyomi decided to return to the station to figure out what to do. In a stroke of happy coincidence, Hinawa was there waiting for Koyomi.
Hinawa tried to guide Koyomi through the formalities of detainment, but the human started going out of control again. The spirit inside the human made a mess of the room in anger, cursing a man named Yajiro and laying accusations of murder at his hands. Unnerved by what they’ve just witness, Hinawa dragged Koyomi outside to talk things over, trying to convince her to not pursue the case any further. However, Koyomi’s sense of duty was too strong to agree. She dragged the human, Utsuwa, a carpenter by his own account, out to show Hinawa his wounds sustained as a result of his possession. This appeal was enough to convince Hinawa not to back out entirely, but she remained adamant that they ought to work with the Guard on the case.
In light of the new info and Hinawa’s insistence, the four of them headed to the Guard headquarters to seek the counsel of the Guard’s liaison with the Patrol. When they got there, it turned out that the liaison was unavailable and would be for some time. At the same time, a human woman, Karen, caused a scene in the lobby by devolving into hysterics at a receptionist. Sobbing, she begged for action to be taken on a case involving property stolen from her late father; his death, she claimed, was the fault of the person who stole from him. For reasons unclear to Koyomi, Kokoro nudged Koyomi into going to search the archives, using the vague similarities of Karen’s case with their own as a pretext. Conflicted about what Kokoro was proposing, Koyomi made her way to the archives while Kokoro used a diversion to snatch a note written by the receptionist about the case file
The two met up at the doors of the archives and quickly found trouble in the archivist on duty, Nao. Due to rules on who has access to file, Nao insisted that Kokoro would not be allowed inside. After wrangling Kokoro in, they had a quick chat outside where Kokoro dug her heels in, saying that she wouldn’t allow Koyomi to have the note unless she could guarantee some way into the archives. Out of aggravation and a desire to see their investigation through, Koyomi agreed. Koyomi made a desperate appeal to Nao that she would keep watch on Kokoro, only to have Kokoro handcuff herself to Koyomi. The display was enough to convince Nao to let them in on condition of secrecy.
Guided by Nao, they made their way into the archives to find the case file for Karen’s stolen property claim. The relevant file emerged from the chaos, thanks to Nao’s organisational strategies, and Koyomi was finally able to get some details. Unfortunately, none of the info in the files seemed to tie into their case, disappointing Koyomi greatly. On the verge of giving up, Koyomi handed the files back, but Kokoro jumped in to insist that Koyomi try looking through other files. Nao agreed to help by retrieving any other materials that they might want to see.
[x] Come to think of it, I don't know anything about Utsuwa. Does he have a past that could shed some light on something?
Now that I thought about it, I wasn't sure what it meant to help Utsuwa. None of us really knew what was wrong beyond two core facts: He was possessed by a violent spirit, and that spirit insisted he was murdered by a man who we only knew as 'Yajiro'. In a sense, we knew more about that spirit than we knew about Utsuwa himself.
Considering he was at the core of the case itself, not knowing as much as we could was strange. Of course, we didn't get much chance to question him at the station. Still, the fact that he said he'd been possessed before made me wonder. Maybe something in this sea of papers would help me in helping him.
"Since you're offering, it'd help to find a record for a person. A human, in particular," I said.
Nao hummed. "Well, it depends. It's not like we keep tabs on everybody." She stopped for a moment, looking a bit doubtful of her own words. "As far as I know. They'd have to have a record or show up in a case file somewhere. Doesn't mean I can't take a look, of course."
"If you would."
"Do you know what he looks like?"
I blinked. "I... I do, but what exactly--"
Nao reached into her skirt pocket and pulled out a phone. Seeing it made me uncomfortable. The lack of phones in hands was one of the (few) upsides to my last posting. Back in more urbane mountain territory, they'd exploded into fashion in my late academy days. Sure, they made communication faster, but was that really a good thing? Phones themselves ended up being used more like toys than tools in the hands of most tengu. There weren't many people I needed to talk to that badly anyway, so I didn't take to them at all.
She seemed to notice me staring. She pointed at the phone and held it up proudly. "It's a new one. Pretty neat, huh? It's got a touchable screen and everything."
"How's that going to help with finding files?" I wanted to change the subject as quickly as possible.
"Divination, duh. These new models are super great at it."
If there was anything that proved ghosts could be harnessed to do something useful -- by somebody's standards -- it was the kappa-developed phones. I recalled some late academy lecturers discussing how ghosts could form signal chains. Something about their 'bodies' and their tendency to gather in dense swarms made targeting signals incredibly efficient. A lot of the details escaped me, but I guessed it was possible a phone using those principles could make for some sort of functional divination tool.
Nao tapped the screen several times, changing it to a brightly-coloured mess of squares, and then tapped one of those squares. The middle part of the screen turned into fuzzy white noise. She held out the phone toward me. I stopped myself from jerking back.
"Go ahead and hold onto my hands."
"Are you sure this is going to help us find any files?" I stared at the wildly shifting screen.
Nao snickered. "No need to be shy, officer."
Kokoro snickered too. I grumbled. I just thought it was kind of awkward, but I guessed I had to do it. I reached out and grabbed Nao's hands. They were bigger than mine.
As soon as I grabbed her hands, the middle of the phone's screen shifted to an even noisier grey that wobbled like waves in a storm. A bunch of different shapes showed up in the fog if I squinted hard enough.
"Alright, so, I need you to focus on that person. Think of them as hard as you can. The clearer an image you have, the better," Nao directed.
That seemed simple enough. I tried thinking of Utsuwa. The only problem was that I kept going back to those wounds he had. I couldn't so much recall the shape of his arms as much as the lines of the gashes. The meaty red of the split in the skin was more vivid in my memory than the skin itself. Kokoro had called them 'big, strong arms', but I didn't have any real recollection of whether that was true or not.
Even thinking of his face was a struggle. He'd been hanging his head most of the time I'd been around him. I'd only caught brief glimpses of his face, really. At most, I recalled his eyes and how watery and bloodshot they were as he stood scared in the station, watching me and Hinawa discuss him.
There it was. There was his worried face, his eyes downcast, his lips locked into a deep frown, an expression begging forgiveness. That was the face I could remember the clearest. It wasn't pleasant to remember at all. It was all I had, and that was troubling.
"There we go," echoed Nao's voice from the edge of my awareness. "Stay just like that. Keep that thought right in the center of your skull."
We moved like we were locked in some kind of dance while I thought about it, and then we ended up somewhere in the middle of a row of files. Nao opened a file cabinet and looked inside.
She dragged out a thin folder. The jumble of noise on the screen 'jumped' when she pulled it close. "Found just one thing. This should be it." She nudged me. "And you can let go now," she added with a laugh.
I let go and stepped back. I heard a muted snicker from Kokoro.
Opening the folder, Nao scanned the first few pages before handing it over, pointing to a specific page. "That's the start of all the stuff about who was involved in what. If you're going to find anything on your guy, it'll probably be there. Interesting case, by the way."
Looking at the general context of the report, it looked like it was about complaints from several months ago regarding an organisation called Numata Construction Group in the Seventh District. Numerous local businesses and residents claimed that they were being strong-armed into ceding property rights to them. Since there had been a construction boom there in the past three years or so, hearing about disputes over land and property wasn't a big surprise. It sounded like something that would stay locked in the Seventh District authority's files. Except the part where a fight had broken out while some Numata men were at lunch in the neighbourhood.
Some previous targets of their intimidation campaigns had tracked them to the food stall they were eating at and began haranguing them. Things quickly got tense, and then things got worse when one of the construction crewmen got belligerent all of a sudden. I felt a chill when I saw the name I was looking for right in that section.
--believe that it was a junior crewman, a carpenter named as Yonezawa Utsuwa, who instigated the first blows. According to the foreman: "It was so weird. The kid just jumped up and started screaming at them. His eyes looked wrong. There was something bad wrong."
Everything went downhill from there. The neighbourhood men advanced on Utsuwa, and his coworkers jumped in to save him. It looked like he hadn't escaped without taking a few blows, based on statements about the aftermath. Authorities were called afterwards, with everybody being taken down to the district hall to explain the situation.
More interesting was the rundown of all the parties involved. All in all, nearly eighteen people were caught up in the brawl. Most of them weren't named or detailed, but all of the men connected to Numata were, including Utsuwa.
As a recent transplant, Yonezawa has no extensive history in Amaden. D7 officials state that what little information is filed with them places him as living in Numata's dorms. He started living there less than three months ago, just after beginning employment. When asked about incidents involving Yonezawa, the foreman said that he had heard from others about cases of outbursts but nothing on the magnitude of what provoked the fight. Yonezawa himself reportedly could not recall the details of the incident or any similar event.
Speaking on the supposed incidents himself, Yonezawa states: "I can't work in the village anymore. There's been too much trouble with me and everybody else there. It's because of the ghosts. They get right in my head and do things. It's been a problem for me for a while. I try not to let on about it with these guys, though. I really need this job."
At the time of this report there had been no verified claims of out-of-the-ordinary spirits in D7. Statements from local residents turned up a couple of isolated anecdotes, but no specifics. As such, there appears to be no particular reason to investigate the area. Additional investigations may be undertaken in other districts where Numata is known to operate later.
Coming to the end of the section, all I could really glean was that Utsuwa had been working with this construction company since before the start of the year. Nothing was explicitly reported about the outbursts from him, so there wasn't anything that might be helpful to know about the spirit's rantings about 'Yajiro'. He had got caught in a crossfire, and that was about all there was to say.
Numata Construction Group has been the center of complaints on the district's edge due to cross-district activity that authorities in D7. Since the lifting of the building moratorium, activity has increased to the point that the various construction groups are competing fiercely over approved land, leading to many arguments over what exactly that constitutes. Numata in particular seems to be most active in antagonising others operating in their territory and in neighbouring districts. Questions posed to D7 officials about ________________________________________________________ As such, investigations of _______________________ should not be pursued by unrelated units as of this time.
The redactions at the end of the report drew my eye immediately. If the readable parts were to be believed, there had to be an ongoing investigation into them, and it wasn't open to anybody on the outside yet. That was a bit of a disappointment, considering who knew what sort of valuable info something like that might provide.
Then again, I did have a full name and an employer to go by now. Numata Construction Group themselves sounded like a bad element, so I'd probably have to do some careful poking around about them at some point.
I closed the file and handed it back to Nao. "Thank you."
"No problem. Find anything good this time?" she asked with a softer smile than before.
"I can't say it's a big break, but I did at least find something."
"Greatness." Nao stuffed the file back in the cabinet. "Anything else I can help you with?"
I thought about it for a moment. Not much had been said in the report with Utsuwa about vengeful spirits. I wondered how often that even popped up in these reports. There had to at least be one or two cases somewhere.
Thinking about vengeful spirits, my mind drifted in a different direction. If there were vengeful spirits around Amaden, then that would mean humans could possibly have died here. Any death records might point to clues about that. The only problem was that I didn't know when Utsuwa had been possessed. I needed to ask him as soon as I could.
In the middle of all these considerations, I felt a strong jab in my gut. The hunger that I'd been ignoring was coming back to accost me. Rather than standing around looking at files, I wanted to be making up for my missing breakfast.
"Actually, just out of curiosity, there should be records about human deaths in here, right?" I finally asked.
Nao's ears cocked. "Bit of a dark subject, isn't it?"
I scratched my neck. "Trust me, it's not a subject I want to know about for fun. But it's important, nonetheless."
Nao hummed and tapped her phone a few times, holding it in both hands like the last time. The middle of the screen wiggled and shifted in every which direction.
"Erm, do you need me again?" I asked with some hesitation.
"Oh, nah, you're good. Since this is a vaguer one, I can do it with just me."
All three of us walked, guided by Nao's divination. We wound back the way we came and a few shelves back before coming to a stop at a different set of filing cabinets. Nao gave the cabinet a curious look, flicking between it and her phone.
"You don't look real sure of yourself," Kokoro said.
"I'm always sure of myself," Nao replied, "but what I'm not sure of is how the divination put me here of all places. It's not showing anything else."
She opened the cabinet and started digging through the folders inside. Her divination tool started going wild as soon as she got close to a small collection of files. Flipping between them, she found one that seemed to get the noisiest response. She held it up. It was a really thick folder. From the lack of dust on it, it hadn't been opened all that long ago.
"Of all things, this is the file for the periodic audits."
"Didn't you single-handedly organise this stuff?" Kokoro snarked.
Nao didn't look up as she flipped open the folder. "I didn't look through every single file, you know. That would have taken way too-- Hello."
A quick flip had turned up something that made Nao's phone jump in recognition. The biggest response was coming from a single note attached to a larger report. She stuffed her phone in her pocket and unclipped the note quickly. Reading over it, her brow scrunched.
"Blah blah 'invalid section not allowed by our current regulations'? What! That's... I mean, sure, it's 'politically sensitive' and all..." She let out a long groan.
"Some kind of problem?" I asked.
Nao pointed accusingly at the note like it had insulted her lineage. "Okay, whoever did this audit was either crazy or drunk. Or maybe both. They're saying human death records don't exist and any classification for them is against regulations. Which makes no freaking sense, am I right?"
It did sound strange, though I couldn't be sure. Given how much the Guard stressed human safety in Amaden, the idea that no humans had been allowed to die here didn't seem all that far-fetched. Otherwise, the trade association would no doubt be calling for us to be ousted. That was the picture of the political situation I'd got based on what Hinawa and others said, anyway.
"Well, maybe it's possible they just don't keep any," I suggested.
"Even then, why go out of their way to give it the 'x'? Something stinks way too hard. Hang on." She dug her phone back out. "Just you watch. I'm gonna give my supervisor hell about this."
Maybe it was just the stale air getting to me or the creeping headache that comes with an empty belly, but I got a bad feeling from Nao's little announcement. I didn't want any of this being a big deal that dragged her superiors in. If anything, drawing that sort of attention was as bad for her as it was for me.
"It's alright. I was just curious," I said, wanting to just slowly walk away now.
"Alright? No, it's not alright!" Nao tapped away at her phone, raising it up to her ear. "It's too suspicious to let it-- Hello? Boss! Nao reporting!"
Off Nao went, scrambling to a different corner of the archives where she couldn't be overheard. It would have made for a convenient exit, but there was no telling how long she'd be talking. Even with this being a chance to find out as much as possible, I couldn't help feeling my patience thinning with every passing minute.
While I was trying to distract myself from from feeling annoyed and restless, I felt a tug on the cuffs. Kokoro stood at the edge of the aisle.
"C'mon, help me look for something," she said, waving me over.
I didn't move. "Can it wait? She's probably going to come back soon. I think."
Kokoro grumbled. "Hey, you promised to help with my problems too. This is how you help."
I looked her over. She was making a face that told me she probably wasn't going to back down on this. If I said no, my wait for Nao would probably be much more irritating. It was a question of whether or not I had the will to withstand that. With lunch as far away as it felt, I was bound to not like the outcome either way.
[ ] You more or less agreed to scratch each other's backs. Scratch away. [ ] She can wait just like you're waiting. Do not pass Go.
Expect another four days of votes on this. Character profiles kind of fell by the wayside thanks to my rather sluggish work pace; they will be done before the votes are up. I swear I'm learning, guys!
[x] She can wait just like you're waiting. Do not pass Go.
At this rate, if Koyomi doesn't stop Kokoro from doing whatever she wants they'll probably wind up burying dead bodies soon. Besides, Kokoro is tiny and skinny. I'd like to see her try and drag you away. No really, I would like to see that, it sounds adorable.
Kokoro's been a roll when it comes to pushing Koyomi around. That streak is going to meet an interruption, because the winner is...
[x] She can wait just like you're waiting. Do not pass Go.
As promised, I'm providing some rough character profiles to go with the plot synopsis. Thanks as always for reading and voting!
Iwabori Koyomi While she talks little about herself, she’s let on that her clan lineage, something that still plays into wolf tengu social relations, puts her as of relatively high birth. Her parents are currently mid-ranking bureaucrats on the mountain, an occupation Koyomi herself doesn’t think very highly of. Due to her family’s status, she was able to gain automatic acceptance into the academy to undergo the ten years of training all wolf tengu must endure, sheltered from the harsh conditions that those of lesser bloodlines have to live in for the duration. It’s during this time that she gained a reputation for gluttony, something that earned her minor fame among her cohort. Other than anecdotes about those times and the fact that her highest marks were in diplomacy, she prefers to remain tight-lipped about her time at academy. Considering her bad vision and lack of coordination, it can be inferred that her standing may have been less than stellar.
Presently, Koyomi is wrestling with life in Amaden as a patrolwoman. The job itself is far from her ideal of being a full-fledged guard, and she feels that her sudden reassignment is some kind of arbitrary punishment. That said, compared to her original posting, Amaden offers the opportunity of unexplored culinary delights, so it isn’t without its upsides. In addition, she has a friend and confidant in Hinawa -- as well as a growing (yet still tenuous) acquaintance with Kokoro. For all the relative merits of being in the Patrol, though, her ultimate goal is still to rejoin the ranks of the Guard and be a beacon of law and order; she’s not entirely certain how to accomplish that, of course. In the meantime, she tries to better Amaden according to her own standards, tackling problems that others would be eager to ignore. Whether or not her sense of justice will be a boon or a bane to herself and others remains to be seen.
Harano Kokoro Koyomi is apt to think of Kokoro as an enigma wrapped in a riddle. Despite describing herself as a street performer, she carries around sums of cash that far outstrip what she could make on the street. She simply explains this away as having ‘adoring fans’ without elaborating. Among the supposed adoring fans are numerous lowlifes who practically live in Amaden’s gambling dens and other seedy establishments. She claims that they’re ‘good people when you get to know them’.
No amount of cajoling can make her talk about herself. As far as Koyomi knows, she drifted in from around the human village some time ago and quickly re-rooted herself in Amaden. Her place of residence changes regularly, making it hard to track her to one district or neighbourhood in particular. It’s also possible that she keeps several places at once.
What she does when she’s not bothering Koyomi has yet to be seen. She claims to be writing a new play, though how serious she is about such claims is questionable. One thing that’s clear about her character is that she enjoys rubbing people the wrong way, namely Koyomi. She’ll be as persistent as she has to be to get what she wants. Judging from her fascination with Koyomi’s eating talents, she also seems to have a competitive streak.
Aiba Hinawa Of the few people Koyomi would call friends, Hinawa has to be the closest. It’s exceedingly rare to not find the two together in their off time. In a sense, Hinawa has appointed herself Koyomi’s guardian, though Koyomi herself might contest that. Whenever Koyomi has a lunch for work or dinner at home, it’s because Hinawa’s made it for her. It’s not uncommon for Hinawa to be at Koyomi’s apartment to wake her and walk her to work.
To the outside observer, it seems like her life revolves around Koyomi. The truth of the matter is that Hinawa is absorbed into her role as a senior to all of the low-level patrolmen and patrolwomen. She enjoys playing the mentor to newcomers to the Patrol’s ranks and doesn’t hesitate to take them under her wing; her dream job used to be a schoolteacher, but she gave up pursuing that path for reasons unknown. The welcome parties whenever someone joins the Patrol are usually her doing.
Before her time as a patrolwoman, she was a full-fledged member of the Guard. Led by her ambitions of being a mentor to others, she traded a solid posting on the mountain frontier for Amaden. She was initially offered the position as a captain, but she refused, preferring to remain at a low rank in order to be close to the rank-and-file that she wanted to teach. Following her ‘demotion’, she gladly picked up the role of trainer and inducted many of the incoming former guards joining with the Patrol. From time to time, she’s even acted as a recruiter, returning to the mountain in order to search out volunteers to fill the ranks.
Yonezawa Utsuwa Also known as Koyomi’s latest headache, Utsuwa is an unfortunate human who seems to have a propensity for being possessed by spirits. His most recent hanger-on is particularly violent, exploding into death threats directed at a man named Yajiro and frequently causing his host to harm himself. It seems Utsuwa is working in order to afford his next exorcism.
His sturdy constitution has always placed him in labour jobs, and he currently works as a carpenter for a construction group with a questionable reputation. How long he’ll keep his job is unknown; Utsuwa admits that his frequent possessions lose him jobs more often than not. Of course, his inability to keep a single job was what brought him from the village in the first place. Most of his days are spent desperately hanging on to what may be his last chance at employment.
When not struggling to get by, he enjoys detective stories and recounting the origin of his name. It seems his grandmother named him based on an ill omen she had, calling him an ‘empty vessel’. He’s the only one thus far to find this story entertaining.
Kashizaki Nao Nao was the first major obstacle standing between Koyomi and the archives. While technically only a newly-minted junior archivist, she currently stands as the archivist-on-duty, with no coworkers to get in her way and an oft-absent supervisor. This suits her just fine, as it lets her organise and re-organise the archives to her heart’s content, only having to deal with the odd investigative request. She’s most notable within the records department for reinventing the archives’ filing system over a single weekend.
She’s easily impressed by gadgetry. Taking a page from the kappa, she does a lot of her own tweaking of existing devices. This places her as an active figure in Amaden’s kappa circles, seeking advice on new modifications and materials for them. She often spends her salary at kappa swap-meets. Her proudest acquisition is a model of phone that doesn’t exist on the mountain because it’s made of parts cannibalised from other phones.
Despite coming off as somebody who wouldn’t socialise much, she actually has a number of friends back on the mountain. Most of her free time is spent chattering away on her phone with these friends. Also, she’s arguably one of the few tengu who has made any close acquaintances with the valley kappa of Amaden, who often limit their interaction with the tengu and seldom share technology with non-kappa.
Only a couple of years out of training now, she was drawn to Amaden out of a sense of curiosity and a feeling that it would be an opportunity to involve herself in new things. Her time in training taught her a great deal about improvisation, and she was well-known in her unit for quick fixes to a number of common problems. This resourcefulness earned her a certain amount of respect and an invitation into the ranks of the academy. However, she turned it down to stay with her friends in the end.
Tomari Karen Going by first impressions, Karen comes off as having a temper to the point of being histrionic, which is a fair assessment. Koyomi’s first (indirect) encounter saw Karen tearfully recounting the death of her father, a pivotal event in her life.
Her current mission in life seems to be avenging her father, whose death she claims is the fault of man named Shinbei. It seems that there had been some friction between them, leading to Shinbei to steal some writings from Karen’s father. The exact details of how her father and this man knew each other or why they had a conflict are unknown as of this time. There’s probably a deeper story that Karen has yet to let on about.
In pursuit of justice, she migrated to Amaden, taking up a job at a soba shop in the Eighth District, where she currently also lives. Koyomi has yet to visit the shop, but it’s always possible that she’ll end up there, if only for an order of noodles.
Sumida Yuuichi Few figures draw as much casual scorn among the ranks of the Patrol as Sumida. A popular topic of breaktime chatter is who’s the latest to pick up the slack after he’s taken off without a word. Despite his relative low rank of supervisor, he regularly picks and chooses his own work, offloading the ‘troublesome’ tasks onto his inferiors. How he manages to keep his position is a mystery, but no amount of complaints has succeeded in unseating him.
Like many who were around for the Patrol’s beginnings, he started his career serving in the Guard, presumably a comfortable position high up the ladder of command. However, if the rumours are to be believed, some scandal led to his ouster and placement in the Patrol as punishment. Sumida himself refuses to acknowledge the story, but many within the Patrol treat it as if it were fact.
In addition to his tendency to push underlings into shouldering his burdens, he’s been sighted hanging around known gambling dens. His exact involvement in them is unknown, but it’s assumed that he has some friendliness with Amaden’s underground. Also, several people have attested that he returns to the mountain regularly on some sort of business that he won’t talk about.
[x] She can wait just like you're waiting. Do not pass Go.
I shook my head at Kokoro. After being pressured and pushed, it was about time I stood my ground. Maybe she'd push back, but I was prepared for that.
"Whatever business you have is going to wait," I stated, laying it down as a simple fact.
Kokoro's response was a flash of teeth, punctuated by the sharp snap of her tongue clicking. "What part of 'you promised' do you not get?"
"Whether I understand or not isn't the issue," I fired back. Seeing Kokoro starting to seethe in frustration, I went on. "That girl's looked the other way for us, and I'm not giving any more reason to distrust us. You'll wait with me."
Her foot came down on the carpet with enough force to make a muffled bump, shifting the contents of a nearby box slightly. While it startled me, I wasn't about to let her know I was to be moved, and I reached up to lean against the shelf. There was the jangle of the chain as Kokoro took a step back. Then, with all her strength, she started tugging and yanking, digging her feet into the carpet as she pulled.
The initial tug was enough to nudge me forward an inch or two. However, I knew it was coming and propped myself up securely. Kokoro's skinny arms, though packing youkai strength, weren't enough to take down even a stick like myself. If it wasn't kind of sad, I would have laughed. I kept my laughter inside instead as she wore herself down trying to topple me.
Moments later, I could see a sheen of sweat on her face. The second she started to falter, I spoke up. "All finished?" I asked.
She regarded me with a blank look that somehow managed to convey her contempt. Fueled by one last shameless burst of spite, she wrenched at the cuffs again, barely stressing the chain with her effort. Then, her arm fell limp and she leaned against the opposite shelf.
"Done," she whimpered.
I moved next to her and sat down on the floor, leaning against the shelf. "Then take a load off. Who knows how long the wait is," I said, gesturing for her to join me.
There wasn't a moment of hesitation from Kokoro before she flopped down next to me. Not allowing me any satisfaction, she sat herself so she wasn't looking at me, her arm bent back to allow enough slack in the chain. All things considered, it was almost adorable.
Nothing else left to do, we sat there waiting in silence, the drone of the fans washing over us. I felt my pocket in vague hopes that I'd remembered to bring my Amaden culinary guide. I hadn't; in fact, I'd never even made it home with the damned thing, now that I recalled. A small sigh blew from my nose, and I rested my head on the shelf behind me. It was cold.
I sat like that for a while, staring at the underside of the shelf above, noting the screws and dust. The novelty wore off quick. After losing count of the screws for the second time, the notion that time might have paused began to sound less and less ridiculous. It seemed like so long already.
Left with nothing else to consider, my bored, malnourished brain quickly pushed my thoughts back toward lunch. This being the height of summer, a bowl of chilled somen noodles sounded just right. I could probably eat my weight in it with the right dipping sauce. The lingering memory of buckwheat suddenly reminded me of soba. It could be enjoyed chilled too, pushing it to the top of the heap to wrestle with somen for my consideration.
I sat up. Thinking of soba had brought me back to the human woman, Karen, and in turn had catapulted me back to foodless reality. I looked around in want of a clock to know how much time had passed. None to be found on the freshly-painted archive walls, of course.
A frustrated grunt drew my attention to Kokoro. She was twisting and bending to get at the bun I'd given her earlier, not finding much success with the stubby twigs she called her arms. Seeing me looking her way, she stopped.
"A little help?" she muttered after a pause. There was a faint colour in her puffed cheeks.
"If you so insist."
Barely a tug on the bundle freed the hair. It spilled over Kokoro's shoulders, flowing all the way past her hips in a splash of pink. With a shake of her head, her mess of hair whipped and fanned out. Clumps of it still looked wet from the bath while other parts stuck out in unruly cowlicks. I wished I had a brush on me.
"That was really starting to bother me," Kokoro murmured, trying to tame some of the kinks with her fingers.
Unable to help myself, I reached out to grab a handful of the pink locks. Kokoro winced but otherwise didn't move away. I picked at the messy bits as best I could with only one free hand.
She winced again when I hit a knot. "Ow. Careful. I'd like some of it to stay in my head."
"I know how to deal with these things, thank you," I said with a gentler tug on the twisted hairs. A little bit of work got them unstuck with little incident. "You really should invest in a brush. A comb, at least. You don't do much maintenance at all, do you?"
She glanced back, mouth quirked. "You sound like a hairdresser. Maybe you'd be better at it than your current job."
I rolled my eyes. Nothing I hadn't thought myself before. "I'm just saying. I couldn't have long hair for a lot of reasons, but..."
My ears pricked up. A pair of footsteps was coming this way at full speed. Not wanting to be caught playing with Kokoro's hair, I rushed to disengage myself, drawing a loud 'Ow!' from Kokoro, and put myself an arm's length away. Nao rounded the corner barely seconds later.
Despite a momentary double-take at the two of us sitting on the floor, the archivist wore a look of triumph, her tail waving carelessly and her face beaming with accomplishment. Whatever it was she'd accomplished, she made no secret of how proud she was for it. She cleared her throat and put her hands on her hips in a stance that radiated gloating. I adjusted my glasses.
"Somebody here is pure greatness, and you'll never guess who it is!" Nao proclaimed.
Kokoro raised her hand. "The person who fixes the A/C in the lobby, right?"
Nao's tail sprang upright, stopping its wagging. The faint twitching of her ears aside, she looked like she had frozen in place for a moment. Of course, it was a quick thought to consider for her before she was back to the same gloating Nao from a second earlier.
"I'll admit that person may be awesome too, but I'm even greater! You know why? Because I just got things done. Like, done-done."
"Does that mean someone's looking in that little discrepancy?" I asked with a note of hope.
"Nope!" Nao replied, dashing my hopes of actual progress. Her tail resumed its celebratory swishing. "The boss agreed to bug the auditing department with an enquiry. If they get to it quick enough, we should get the form to set up a meeting. That means we can discuss having an audit of the audit!"
I adjusted my glasses again, unable to find the words at all. In a grimly funny way, I was reminded of the times Sumida bragged about his hand in 'reforms' on the mountain; if he had any influence on their success, it was indirect at best, and in spite of his best efforts at worst. Kokoro gave a quiet snicker at Nao's self-satisfied posing and leaned up to pat her shoulder.
"Great job," she droned.
I grimaced. A dull ache was creeping back into my head. "Yes, erm, good job."
"Nothing to it!" Nao chirped with a laugh that erased any sense of humility she wanted to project. I wouldn't have been surprised if her nose grew to three times its length. Then again, her obliviousness to sarcasm made it hard to want to play the cynic.
I settled on changing the topic. "Yes, well, since that's been accomplished, I believe we were in the middle of perusing records."
"Oh, yes! How silly of me," Nao said, snapping out of her gloating. "Was there anything else that--"
In a flash, Kokoro leapt to her feet. "Confiscation records. We need a look, and right now."
Nao blinked. Though probably imperceptible to Kokoro, the slight dip her tail made told me she had the same prickle of doubt stinging her. Nevertheless, a second later, she'd reverted to normal, gesturing down the aisle.
"That'd be this way. Follow me," she said.
Kokoro wasted no time following Nao, only stopping to grouse at me for not already being on my feet when she decided to take off. Waving her off, I fell in line, and we went on walking down the rows of shelves. I really wanted to ask her what on earth she was doing, but she was sticking too close to Nao. Considering the shaky ground we were already walking on, I didn't want to start rocking the boat any further. I thought better of it and kept quiet as I walked a step behind.
Not far from the door leading into the archives, we turned into a row, where Nao stopped at a set of boxes. She leaned in to inspect the labels on them, except Kokoro had already beat her to the punch. Nao and I shared a look of mutual surprise as she dove for a particular box.
"Found it." She slapped the top of it. "Open this one," she said to Nao.
Too surprised to even question it, Nao swiped a nail through the tape, barely moving out of the way in time for Kokoro to tear the flaps open, digging through several sets of thick folders. It only took seconds for her to find something in the middle of the stack. She flipped it open so fast that I didn't get to see the label on it. Thanks to the cuffs, I wasn't able to get a good angle to see what she was leafing through either. All I could do was wait until she finished perusing.
Oddly, it wasn't long before she slapped the folder shut, shoving it and its siblings back into the box. "Kay, I'm done. Thanks."
Nao's ears perked up. "That's... that's it?"
"That's it," Kokoro deadpanned back.
"So we're done here, right?" I asked. As much as I wanted to find something more relevant to our case, the thought of soba -- or was it somen? I hadn't decided -- was drawing me out of investigating. More than that, we'd probably used up all the goodwill we were going to get from Nao.
Kokoro shrugged, tossing her hair over her shoulder. "That's on you. I got what I came for."
"We're done here," I told Nao. I gave a slight bow. "Thank you so much for your help. We wouldn't have been able to do it without you."
"Oh, greatness. Then I can lock up," Nao said with a wag of her tail.
In short order, we filed out of the archives while Nao did a last-second sweep, leaving Kokoro and I to finally unlatch ourselves. Thankfully, the key hadn't moved from its landing spot on the desk. My wrist ached after an hour or so of being dug into by cold metal. I twisted and massaged it, savouring the newfound freedom.
Nao emerged minutes later to re-engage the lock on the archives door. "And that's that!" she announced, beaming.
"Thanks so much again," I said with a quick wave. Kokoro was already half-poised to spring out the door, and I wasn't far behind her. My mind was already wandering back to my inner debate of wheat versus buckwheat.
However, I hadn't taken a single step before I felt a tap on my shoulder. Nao was standing there with her phone out. I felt an instinctive cringe.
"Before you go, I'd like to keep in touch. If an investigation happens, and it turns up anything, you'll be the first to know, I swear."
My ears leaned over to one side. I'd hoped I wouldn't have to make this awkward admission to anybody again for a while, but I guessed that was too much to hope for. "About that, I don't keep a phone."
The thought didn't seem to register to Nao for a split second -- that was the normal reaction. I could see some kind of doubt flicker in her face, her ears crinkling and bending over, tainting her smile. Every time I told someone, their first thought was doubtlessly that I was just avoiding them. A tengu who didn't keep constant contact with everyone in this 'modern age' just seemed factually wrong. Apparently giving up on figuring it out, she scratched her head and shrugged her shoulders with a chuckle.
"That's fine. As long as there's some way to talk to you. Is there some place convenient to find you? Maybe the station you're posted at?" she asked.
"The Patrol station in District Fifteen, right near the front gate. I'm there most times." Remembering the little info cards, complete with maps, that they gave us to pass out, I patted my pockets in hopes I had one. The telltale crinkle of paper told me I'd at least been smart enough to remember that. "Here, if you need to find your way," I said, holding out a slightly bent-up card.
Nao accepted the card, running a neatly-filed nail over it, engrossed in it like some curio, her tail waving with quiet enthusiasm. Remembering herself, she gave a bow and grinned. I returned the bow without a word and headed out to the landing. Kokoro had taken off ahead, so she was no doubt half-way to the lobby without me.
"Good luck with your case!" floated Nao's voice after me.
I turned to see her head poking out from the doorway. "Thank you," I said giving a parting wave, and made haste to start down the stairwell before she decided to hold me up any longer.
My steps descending felt more sluggish than climbing. The time spent in the archives had been too busy to notice, but a fog had settled over my head. I felt like I was stepping back outside after being in the dark for a long time. More than that, the phantom taste of buckwheat was lingering on my tongue, teasing me with its promises. My stomach couldn't help answering to its taunts. I picked up my pace, everything but making it back to the lobby pushed out of my thoughts for the moment.
The rest of the way down went easy enough. Before long, I could see a spot of pink from a few flights up. I reached the bottom to find Kokoro waiting by the door. The moment she spotted me, she frowned and tapped her foot.
"Miss me that much?" I joked.
She groaned. "I was hoping you'd hurry it up. Did you stop for a tea break or something?"
"Look, if you want me at my peak, buy me lunch."
I reached for the door, but Kokoro grabbed the handle and wrenched it open, stepping out in front of me with a loud harrumph. Sighing quietly to myself, I exited the stairwell. My eagerness to get out of the building was stopping me from thinking too hard on why Kokoro was being huffy all of a sudden.
Across the lobby, I spotted Hinawa still sitting where I'd left her. One look was enough to tell that something had really knocked her sideways off the trail. For starters, she was missing her trademark smile. To make things even clearer, her ears were slumped over, resting on her forehead as she worked on twisting her braid in a loose coil. Her face was that of someone who'd done an all-nighter and just wanted to go collapse in bed.
When she spotted me coming, there was a bit of hesitation before she willed her face into a half-smile. The result was anything but joyful.
"Your friend walked right by." She pointed towards the revolving door. Sure enough, Kokoro was lingering around there, staring in our general direction.
"That's Kokoro for you," I lamented.
Hinawa's smile looked a bit more genuine. "Oh, her name's Kokoro. That's cute."
I glanced back over at the dead-eyed mask creature who was probably willing me to explode with her mind, wondering just how Hinawa figured 'cute' was the right adjective to apply. The thought didn't go very far before I strayed back over onto the taste of soba. The addition of wasabi and spring onions was pushing it forward in the race for my lunch decision. I shook my head.
"Anyway," I said, swallowing the spittle that had pooled in my mouth, "you weren't looking too pleased. Did they say we can't investigate?"
"Worse in some ways. The liaison wasn't available. Meetings all day, they said." The paper-thin smile on Hinawa's face was showing signs of tearing. "Sometimes this organisation really..."
"Well, then, let's just keep going and dump what we find in their laps. If we have a stronger case, they can't say no, right?"
Hinawa looked straight up at me, her gaze like a javelin. I winced. "Koyomi, do you really know what you're proposing? Doing this by the book isn't just a matter of me being a stickler. I don't think I need to remind you that we're not Guards." Her shoulders lost some of their tension. The smile was gone. "Overstepping our bounds can have all kinds of repercussions, and I don't want you facing them."
I fell quiet. Maybe I was being a bit headstrong, but I was having a hard time accepting that we were at a standstill. We could still help if we wanted to. Somehow.
Breaking from the icy greyness of Hinawa's eyes, my attention wandered to the person we were trying to help. He had been sitting there all this time, his attention fixed more on the conversation still going at the reception than us.
"How's he doing?" I asked, nodding to Utsuwa.
Hinawa's ears raised and her smile came back, to my relief. "Oh! He's doing much better now. Isn't that right, dear?" she remarked to him.
"I-I'm good, thanks," Utsuwa said, his cheeks flushing at being acknowledged. He barely nudged his head in our direction.
"The poor dear. He's so skittish." Hinawa giggled, her tail swishing. "While he was out of it, I let him rest his head in my lap. You should have seen his face when he came to!"
I groaned. "Hinawa..."
The sound of someone loudly clearing their throat from across the lobby kept me from lingering on Hinawa's lack of social distance. Every pair of eyes in the building turned to focus on the front doors, where Kokoro was still standing, her arms crossed. Despite its usual deadness, her face was good enough at conveying her impatience with us. I nodded to Hinawa, and she nodded back in silent agreement.
I started to work Utsuwa back onto my shoulder, but Hinawa stopped me. "You helped him last time. I'll steady him this time, if you don't mind," she insisted.
Utsuwa looked visibly uncomfortable being slung around Hinawa's shoulder, but there was nothing I could do at that point. There was probably no convincing Hinawa otherwise. He'd just have to deal with being the target of her (mostly) good-natured teasing for a bit.
With our human in tow, we headed for the front. Kokoro greeted us with a hard glare and a tap of her foot, which Hinawa deflected with a smile as she slid past with Utsuwa. I started to walk ahead when I felt something collide with me. In spite of her puny-ness, Kokoro could knock me off balance with a well-timed body slam.
"Hello to you too," I grumbled, smoothing out my uniform.
Kokoro practically shoved me through the revolving door, sticking right to me as we exited into the afternoon sun. "Remember my problems? You're not showing any signs of getting to those. Even after I did my part."
"If you haven't noticed, I have a pretty big problem to handle myself."
"Well, I had problems before he did!" she hissed.
"Bigger than being possessed by a vengeful spirit?"
"What does it matter? It sounds like you're just finding excuses to not deal with me." Her cheeks puffed out in a ridiculously childish show of her displeasure.
Here came the dull ache of irritation and hunger settling back into my skull. I rubbed my temples, praying to Tenma for strength. "You've told me a grand sum of nothing about these so-called problems, for beginners. I don't know what you even expect me to do. Knowing you, I wouldn't be surprised if it was something ill--"
"Hey!" screeched a voice from nearby, making both of us jump.
I whipped around and spotted a human face bearing down on us. The human woman from before, Karen, had shown up from nowhere, her face scrunched up in a mess of emotions I couldn't begin to identify. There was just enough time to sidestep her as she closed in to get right in Kokoro's face.
"That was some act back there. Do you pull those kind of stunts working the streets? People like you make me sick. Thieving like that," she snarled.
I looked at Kokoro. Her expression hadn't shifted an inch, but I could see sweat beading on her face worse than when we were in the archives. It was the face of somebody who'd been caught outright.
"You're kidding me," I muttered.
"I didn't think she was paying attention!"
Karen promptly switched targets to me, jabbing a finger at me. "And who the hell are you? You working with this thief? I thought Guards were supposed to be on the up-and-up." Her eyes fell to my armband and pin. For a brief second, her indignation turned into confusion. "Hold on, that's no Guard uniform."
"Sorry to disappoint, ma'am, but we're -- er, I am, anyway -- from the Patrol. And we're in the middle of some business at the moment," I said in hopes of keeping her off-guard. I gestured off in Hinawa and Utsuwa's direction.
Karen didn't bother looking away, staying locked on me and Kokoro. I nudged Kokoro to say something but only got a nervous shake of the head in return.
"What were you doing with that note?" Karen asked, a bit calmer than before though still drawn taut.
I scratched my neck. "If I can be frank, we only did it because we thought there might be some connection with our case. Some of the details sound similar, but... well, they didn't pan out. There wasn't terribly much for us to learn, I'm afraid."
"She couldn't get in the archives without some kind of reason," Kokoro chimed in, edging her way backwards.
Karen was silent as she digested our explanation. Something was clicking together in her head, and I wasn't sure if it was a good thing or not. Frankly, I probably should have been imitating Kokoro and trying escape as quickly as possible. I glanced back to see Hinawa well within earshot.
A sudden chill hit me. Hinawa knew about the note, but she had no idea what we'd done to get it. If she knew about our little caper, there was no telling how she'd take it. She was enough of an upstanding officer that it wouldn't be a good reaction, I was sure.
"I wanna hear what you know," Karen concluded. "Every little bit. Doesn't matter if it's relevant or not."
"Erm, ma'am, we have another case to--"
That was the exact wrong answer going by the flash of anger in her eyes. "Oh, I'm sorry," she bellowed, "I forgot that I was getting in the way of something! Stupid me, thinking that maybe somebody who wasn't a stupid Guard might actually want to help!"
"No, it's not that at all! It's just that there's been a lot of complications with things and..." I was rapidly degenerating into frenzied babbling, torn between my need to escape, to eat, and to keep Hinawa from learning too much. "Believe me, I want to help you! Believe me!"
"Koyomi!" came a shout from Hinawa.
My pulse raced as she came shuffling over with Utsuwa bouncing on her shoulder, limp as a rag doll. I was trying to find some excuse to blurt out. Blaming Kokoro sounded okay. Except I knew what she was doing and went along with it anyway. My brain wasn't firing right. My stomach was more in control of me than I was.
Before I could launch into whatever gibberish came to mind, I saw why Hinawa was coming over in such a hurry: his eyes were rolled in the back of his head again. The low scraping noise of his guttural wailing rose in volume the closer she came, Utsuwa himself trembling all over. Of course, his ghost friend would choose right now to take over.
"What's going on with that?" Karen asked, pointing to Utsuwa.
I felt like tearing my hair out. "That's our current case. And that's why it's really important that we not get held up any longer."
Hinawa came skidding to a halt. "Koyomi! Utsuwa's ghost seems to have possessed him again. He hasn't done much but start shaking and moaning, but--" She looked over the three of us, looking more concerned than before. "What's going on here?"
"I'm trying to get her to tell me about my dad's death. She knows something, but she's not telling me. Just like all those Guards," Karen griped before I could find the words.
Hinawa looked at me. I sputtered incoherently.
"I mean," Karen added, "I know you officers are busy, so I'd be willing to discuss it over lunch--"
Through the panic-and-hunger-driven fog that kept me from thinking clearly, the mention of lunch shot through like a beam of magic, granting me clarity, if only for the briefest of seconds. I was staring right at the doorway out and just had to turn the knob.
"Yes! Lunch!" I shouted. Hinawa, Karen, and Kokoro all looked at me. There went moment of courageous clarity. "Let's... let's do that. Get lunch. Talk over lunch."
[ ] We're all in this one together, I guess. [ ] Kokoro can go take care of her own business right now. [ ] Hinawa needs to take Utsuwa back to the station. [ ] This one's between me and her.
Note to self: Don't forget the trip.
Pardon my slowness, as usual. Plans are only good until they prove unmanageable.
Funny. I could have sworn we weren't actually in the middle of an investigation, but it looks like Koyomi's going to stick to the tried-and-true rule of never going in alone, because...
[X] We're all in this one together, I guess.
Thank you so much as always for reading and voting. It makes me happy knowing that there's at least a few people out there paying attention. Keeping pace should be less of an issue this time around. Please look forward to the next update!
I couldn’t help chastising myself for letting things come to this point. What was meant to be the start of an investigation had turned into two patrolwomen — and whatever Kokoro was — held prisoner by a human. The woman, Karen, strolled shoulder-to-shoulder with Hinawa, heedless to the need to breathe as she insisted the entire Patrol ought to hear about what her employer served. At the moment, we were being dragged southwest, bound for the Eighth District. No matter how much I tried to assure Karen that we could find our way to the soba shop on our own, she wouldn’t listen. She would personally escort us and that was that.
Her offer of lunch had come right when I was deep in a panic. Had she not interrupted when she did, Hinawa might have pried incriminating details out of me on how we knew about Karen’s case. I’d been so eager for some route of escape that I accepted without a question. Naturally, I came to regret the decision right away.
The switch in Karen’s demeanour was instantaneous. Gone was the scowl, replaced by a sunny smile that all those wanting to sell you something adopt. All of a sudden, despite her human strength, she was able to pull a fleeing Kokoro back and push us down the street. Kokoro protested, saying she had business to take care of. Hinawa also voiced some concerns, namely about Utsuwa, who was still slung over her shoulder, unconscious by possession. Karen’s response was to beam so hard I almost had to shield my eyes.
In minutes, we were out of the district gates, all eyes on our odd party, mostly drawn from Karen’s enthusiastic chatter. I didn’t walk so much as plod along with our human guide glued to my side. Try as I might to escape, I’d always find myself between her and Hinawa; I was being used a shield from the blinding radiance that was Karen. Our mutual reaction could be best summed up by the pained moans coming from Utsuwa as he bounced on Hinawa’s shoulder, something Karen gleefully ignored this entire time.
I looked up ahead. Even though Karen was liable to pull her back as soon as she got too far, Kokoro was in the most enviable position. She'd stood closest to Karen when we set out but quickly crept around and forward, until she was finally walking in front of us, untargeted by sales talk. Glancing back at my predicament, all she offered was her equivalent of a smirk. I’d been outplayed and she wanted me to be aware of it. When I offered her no satisfaction in the form of a reaction, she turned her back, harrumphing loud enough to reach my ears. Score one point for Koyomi.
No other option left, I focused my attention on the street, trying my best to tune Karen out. Though lunch was at the forefront of my mind, there was also the matter of my job. I hadn’t paid it much mind while we were at HQ, but I was technically still on duty and the station was left unmanned. In the rare event that someone had business there, any complaints about difficulty getting assistance would be my fault. The thought that someone from the main office could be poking around right now filled me with dread. Even worse was the very idea of Sumida standing in the station, tutting to himself and plotting to offload more of his work onto me as punishment for ‘abandoning my duties’.
My ears wilted at the thought and I felt myself cringing. About that time, I noticed that Karen had turned most of her attention to Hinawa. I tore away from the tight cluster she’d drawn us into and moved closer to Kokoro. Her stubby legs carried her deceptively fast, forcing me into a jog to catch up.
She talked over her shoulder as soon as I was a step behind. “Nice of you to follow. Now, how about telling me when you’ll get to my—”
“When I get to it,” I said, hardly interested in being pressed on her problems at the moment, “which might be never if you keep this up.”
Giving a huff, Kokoro continued walking while conspicuously ignoring me, grumbling under her breath. I wasn’t sure if she knew I could hear everything but figured it best to leave it without further comment.
We soon made a jaunt westward, falling out onto a populated main road. I checked to be sure we weren’t losing Hinawa and Karen. Signs on the surrounding buildings said we were in the Twentieth District anyway, the Eighth District still quite a ways off, though an easy walk straight from there — assuming Karen made no weird jogs. For the moment, they were still following, too deep in a one-sided conversation to bother with me, so I tried taking in the atmosphere of the street to pass the time. The intermingling smells of salty ramen broth, broiling meat, frying tofu, frying rice, the steam from dumplings, and the fragrance of red beans all smashed me upside my my nose at once.
Retreating from the angry demands of my stomach for immediate feeding, I narrowed my focus to Kokoro for lack of any safer options. It wasn’t long before she slowed to match my pace. She regarded me with a look of suspicion.
“I know you have a thing about long hair, but could you not be so creepy about it?”
“Sorry,” I muttered and adjusted my glasses. Seeing a chance at distracting myself, I decided to fall back to our earlier exchange. “By the way, I wouldn’t be that petty. Dropping your business because I’m annoyed, I mean.”
“That’s good, because you still owe me,” she said, holding up three fingers, “three times now.”
I tried recalling what she might be talking about. Covering my cash shortage was obvious enough, but I couldn’t guess what the other two debts were. “This morning, right. What else?”
“Getting the note? Saving your ass with the handcuffs? I’d say those count plenty.”
I grumbled but couldn’t come up with any retort. Much as it pained me to admit, Kokoro was right on both counts. Had she not been keeping score, I might have forgotten through my hunger-addled fumbling. I guessed it wasn’t a coincidence that she hung around gamblers.
Kokoro slowing to a halt brought me out of my thoughts. Her eyes were held wide open as she stood there, glaring across the street. I noticed her fists balling in displeasure.
What had apparently provoked her was a pair of humans perched at the mouth of an alley, one leaned up against the wall while the other squatted. The squatting one had a bandanna over his mouth, hiding the rest of his face as he stared at Kokoro. Despite a few missing teeth, the standing one, a younger man with short cropped hair, saw fit to break into a broad grin. Kokoro returned no such cheer. One look was enough to paint them as some variety of hooligan.
A twitch in my ear alerted me to something past those two. Though only faintly, I could hear carrying on just down the alley. At least three or four more humans hung around where the casual observer wouldn’t see. If I hadn’t been straining my eyes specifically to see them, I wouldn’t have ever noticed. It didn’t require too much insight to know what they were doing. I’d even been briefed about these sorts of gatherings in early training.
Their setup was simple but sadly effective: a couple of lookouts at the head to find and provoke targets, and a whole group to beat the daylights out of the unfortunate marks. Wherever drunks gathered, this brand of bottom-feeder was there to bait them into a one-sided fight. They were the sort of menace that we were meant to combat — but couldn’t with any efficacy for so many reasons.
The grinning fool of a human took quick notice of me and put his hands around his mouth like he was about to yell out. “Awooooooooooo!” he bellowed.
The hairs on the back of my ears and on my tail bristled. Seeing that he was getting some kind of reaction, he picked up the intensity, breaking into a frenzy of barking and howling, coming off as an utter lunatic. His low-effort bait was enough to make me feel that clocking him would be a public service. In my current hungry state, I was easily aggravated, which made sticking around longer than necessary a terrible idea.
“Let’s get out of here,” I muttered to Kokoro, noting Karen and Hinawa catching up to us. I nudged her but got no response. “Kokoro?”
Snapping out of whatever trance she was in, she threw the pair of humans a scowl before acknowledging me. “Sorry.”
Standing up, the bandanna-wearing human, evidently tired of the ruckus, knocked his howling friend in the back of the head. While he rubbed where he’d been punched, the maniac broke into giggling.
“You got a minute, there, Pink Head?” called the human with the bandanna.
“We just wanna talk for a second!” hollered the manic one before receiving another blow to the head from his friend.
Remembering herself, Kokoro turned on her heel, whipping her hair around in a display of not caring, knocking right into me as she brushed past. I gave the humans one last look as I took off after her, not catching whatever further cries for attention they may have lobbed our way. More determined than before, Kokoro’s power-walking was closer to a brisk jog, hard enough to keep up with at a full run. This little chase continued for a ways until she looked back. Satisfied that she’d put some distance between herself and those humans, she slowed down enough for me to get close.
“What was that about?” I asked, slightly winded from running.
Kokoro didn’t look at me, her voice jittering as she spoke. “I made a mistake. I don’t know those people.”
“They sure seemed to know you.”
“I don’t know those people,” she repeated and started walking faster again.
I was so taken aback by her reply that I didn’t bother trying to keep pace with her this time. If she was going to be that defensive, she could walk alone and cool her head. Meanwhile, I let myself crawl along at a low enough speed that Hinawa and Karen could catch up.
“Did your friend say something to those guys back there?” Karen asked. “They looked real wound up about something. Well, one of them did.”
“If she did, I didn’t catch it,” I said, falling in step between her and Hinawa.
Karen scratched her buckwheat-flecked cheek, giving some thought to something before waving it off, smiling at Hinawa and me. “I guess it’d be a might weird for her to know them. They reminded me of some of the boys in our neighbourhood. We get all sorts from those gangs at the shop.”
“That must be a lot of trouble for you guys.”
She laughed. “Not really. They pay for their food like everybody else. Real polite most of the time, too. Last time we had trouble, the local boss dragged the kid in and they both apologised. And the construction workers can’t hardly manage a hello!”
I looked at Karen aghast, my ears neither able to raise nor lower. We were talking about the sort of people whose existence stood in defiance of our duties, and here she was acting like they were just more customers, even praising them. Karen tilted her head in apparent confusion at my reaction. I didn’t even know where to begin.
“You do realise these are people who make their money doing illegal things, right?”
“Well, they seem like good folk to me. And they care a lot about their neighbourhood.” Karen frowned. “The association sure doesn’t care. Our district councillors don’t even care. They’d rather let all our businesses sink.”
Before I could argue any further about why supporting gang members was supporting the collapse of order, Hinawa gently grasped my shoulder. I threw her a dissenting frown, but she shook her head, keeping her mild smile.
“I think what Karen is trying to say is that they look out for human interests. They are mostly human themselves, after all. It’s fairly natural for people to want to look after their own, no?” Hinawa said in an appeasing tone.
Karen leaned in, pointing at Hinawa. “Exactly! Hinawa gets it.” She paused, looking a bit sheepish, and smiled. “I can call you Hinawa, right?”
Hinawa squeezed my shoulder. “I know what you want to say, but think about it. If they’re not doing anything wrong in her shop, should she go reporting them? Or even just not let them in? That’s not good business. Besides, everybody’s got to eat, Koyomi. I think you could agree with that, at least.”
I grumbled to myself as Hinawa and Karen shared a laugh, unable to believe they could be so cavalier. These were gangs we were talking about, people who had ties to organised crime rings, profiting from manipulation and exploitation of legitimate businesses outside of regulations. No matter how much of their money went into human businesses, it was made by lying to and hurting people, in all likelihood. Even if it wasn’t directly their fault, unfortunate people like Utsuwa were just as likely to be hurt from the fallout of their actions. Anybody that could give or take money from them was just as bad in my eyes.
The worst part about it was that Hinawa had a point: everybody looked out for their own. No matter if the Guard was there to enforce human laws on humans and tengu alike, it felt like the basic law of Amaden. However, thinking about it that way was like saying all of the organised crime groups were like the Guard for humans. I shuddered at the idea. We stood for a stable society while they stood for unchecked greed and separatism. There was no comparing except as opposing forces, and I would be damned if I’d start believing otherwise.
“Speaking of which, do you know where those groups all came from?” Hinawa asked Karen.
Karen grinned but shook her head. Thinking for a moment, she held up two fingers. “I’ve been here a little short of two years. Only talk I’ve caught’s been about the association falling down on the job, as usual.”
“That does seem to be a common refrain, doesn’t it?” Hinawa smiled back, though her ears fell. She cleared her throat, catching herself before she said anything regrettable. “But, yes, the syndicates and families weren’t always big organisations. Most of them were born as sort of militias. This being the early days of Amaden, they considered themselves ‘defence forces’ for humans. Those were pretty chaotic days.”
“Ooh, so you’re an Amaden vet, huh?”
Hinawa’s tailed waved happily as she beamed at Karen. “Well, I don’t mean to brag!”
They quickly broke into the same sort of empty chatter as before, Karen pressing Hinawa about her service in the bad old days of a whole decade ago. I’d heard her stories before, most of them when we drinking, and didn’t care to hear them again, so I tuned them out. We weren’t far from the Eighth District by now, anyway, going by the signs. Soba was my main concern.
About that time, I failed to spot Kokoro acting as our vanguard. I looked around, wondering if she’d taken off, but soon found her again, trailing behind us by a few stretches. Somehow, none of us had noticed her slipping to the rear. She gave no acknowledgement when we made eye contact. I guessed she must have cooled off enough to remember that she didn’t know where we were going.
Minutes passed before we passed through the Eighth District’s main gate. From there, Karen took the head, guiding us through a criss-crossing set of alleys and small side streets. There weren’t that many faces off the main roads, but it was easy to tell from the ones we saw that this was a much more human district. Eyes that found us from the shops and businesses lining the streets and from passers-by felt remarkably cool. Understandable, considering we were a band of youkai ‘invading’ their territory; I couldn’t imagine the unconscious human on Hinawa’s shoulder did anything to ease concerns. Still, I couldn’t deny feeling a sense of unease being there, much like the crow-dominated northeast quarter.
Our little parade found its way down the streets and through the quarter without incident, coming at last to a squat, two-story building on a three-way corner. The first notable thing about it was the string of signs along its windows spelling out ‘SUPPORT AMADEN TEA’. Numerous banners with similar admonitions hung all around the sides. The sole reminder that this was supposed to be a soba shop was a lantern simply reading ‘soba’ left above the front door, also declaring that they were open for business. Its master hadn’t seen it fit to christen their shop with any name, it seemed.
My questions about the facade aside, seeing the shop was like letting go of a long-held breath, and I was eager to see myself inside, my stomach agreeing with the sentiment. The jingle of a bell tickled my ear as Karen slid the door open and poked her head in the door.
“Customers!” she sang at a volume that would have been irritating had I not been feeling so relieved.
She pulled Hinawa into the shop with a new sense of vigour, and I was about to follow them in when I remembered Kokoro again. Looking back, I didn’t see her in the immediate vicinity. She had been presumably following us, so it wasn’t like she could be too far off. Then again, if she wasn’t careful, she’d probably pass the shop right by for its lack of clear signs. I decided to hang around the front to watch out for her.
It wasn’t long before I caught sight of a blob of pink hair ambling my way. I waved to Kokoro but got no response for my troubles. Figured as much.
“There won’t be any soba left at this rate,” I called out.
Kokoro waited until she was almost caught up to answer. “You were the one in a hurry to eat. What are you doing out here?” she droned.
“Some thanks for making sure you made it.” I grabbed the door, sliding it open for Kokoro. She waited before realising that I wasn’t going to slip in first and moved for the door. I was about to follow when I heard a collision.
Kokoro came wheeling backwards with a faint cry. I righted her before she could fall. She batted at my hands.
By the time she found her feet, her fans had materialised in her hands with their otherworldly glow. Standing just out of the doorway was a wolf tengu, clad in a uniform that I would have taken for Guard-issued if it weren’t for the black stripe on the collar. While I wouldn’t have called him giant, the way he stood over Kokoro, unmoving and unmoved, lent him an air of massiveness. His attention seemed more fixed past Kokoro than on her.
“Why don’t you watch your step next time, asshole?” Kokoro snapped, voice rising dangerously towards shouting.
The wolf’s ears quirked, shifting to where I could see where great notches had been taken out of them — my hand instinctively jumped to my left ear. A low, rumbling hum sounded from him like he was questioning whether or not anyone was even standing in front of him. Without any warning, his eyes flicked to me, a shade of red so sickeningly blood-like that I wondered if it wouldn’t spill out.
A prickling feeling was running down my spine, something instinctive, lingering after his attention had moved to Kokoro. She ran her fans across her face in a sweeping gesture. Her stony expression was quickly exchanged for her familiar Hannya mask, glaring and wishing all manner of evil on the offender. Slowly, his lips cracked, pulling up to unveil a gleaming set of fangs that were prominent in his smile. He gave a gravelly chuckle. It was the face of somebody who couldn’t be bothered in the least by veiled threats.
Offering no response, he stepped around Kokoro, ambling through the two of us and on down the street without a second look. For a few seconds, I stood there staring after him in wonder, trying to place what exactly the feeling was I’d got from that exchange.
My stomach was quick to remind me that business here was unfinished, and I turned to Kokoro, who had already lost her mask and fans. She sat fuming in the wake of being brushed off so skillfully. I gave her a nudge toward the open door, a statement rather than a question. She took the hint and emitted one final huff before stepping into the shop. I stepped in after her, pulling the door to.
Continuing the outside’s motif, the inside of the shop was covered in signs and banners exhorting customers to support Amaden’s tea trade. They were all hung and placed with so little care and in such a concentration that the menu placards on the wall looked to be obscured from any particular angle. Their placement also had a secondary effect of blocking the lights in part, lending a dinginess to the atmosphere. I squinted and found Karen across from the counter, talking away with Hinawa, who was busying steadying a slumped-over Utsuwa against the wall. It seemed like we were the only customers.
“Have a seat,” complained a voice from across the counter. A face poked up: a tired, sickly cadaver of a human, no trace of patience or friendliness in his sunken eyes.
Instantaneously, Karen appeared next to the man, nearly prompting him to wield the knife he was using to chop green onions with at her. She met him with a stern look of disapproval. “I keep telling you, my dear senior. You need to greet customers normally.”
The man, her co-worker, grunted ineffectually, choosing to go back to his work instead, Karen’s frown following his every movement. However, the switch flipped and her smile came on to blind me and Kokoro when she aimed it at us.
“Welcome, welcome! Have a seat,” she called. Before I could take a step, she was on this side of the counter, leading me by the arm to one of the counter seats opposite Hinawa. Kokoro followed along and sat down facing Hinawa.
Hinawa was in the middle of pouring herself something from a flask. She raised her glass and took a sip. “Good of you to make it,” she said to me. Noting Kokoro’s perturbed face, her ear’s lowered. “What’s the matter, dear?”
“Guy coming out ran into me and didn’t apologise. Didn’t say a word, even when I warned him,” Kokoro growled.
“Oh, my, my.” Hinawa shook her head and called toward the kitchen. “Karen, another shochu for me and Kokoro here. Hot water like before.”
“Sure thing!” Karen chimed back.
I groaned, fixing Hinawa with my own look. “A bit early for that, much less a second one, don’t you think?”
Hinawa pouted and waved her hand. “Oh, don’t be a stick in the mud. I’ll—” she paused to drain her glass, “--regulate myself. Besides, I’m not on duty today, so it’s okay.”
I sighed and muttered a silent prayer to Tenma that she was telling the truth. Drinking with Hinawa was a struggle to make one drink not turn into ten. Adding Kokoro into that mix was a dangerous unknown, and the way her eyes twinkled when Karen showed up with the next round did little to comfort me. Deciding it was Hinawa’s problem now, I swivelled the stool to ignore them, drumming my fingers on the countertop.
A steaming cup of tea clicked down on the counter, and Karen was there beaming at me. “I went ahead and convinced my dear senior to make one of our specialities just for you. I hope that’s alright.”
I glanced around at the signs littering the shop. Some part of me could already guess, but I felt like asking anyway. I took a quick sip of my tea, grimacing at how hot it was.
“Cha-soba?” I guessed.
“You’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you?” Karen grinned mischievously as she retreated back across the counter as if she’d teleported. No matter how many times she did it, I couldn’t get used to her disappearing and reappearing like that.
Blowing on my tea, I took another sip, appreciating its soft, refreshing taste on my parched tongue. It was probably the same Amaden tea leaves being promoted by the shop, now that I thought of it. I stole another look across the counter at Karen and her co-worker discussing something. The part of me that guessed what the special was told me that I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Youkai often failed to appreciate the human settlements that were around before Amaden was around in its proper form. The hills surrounding us were full of tea bushes, tended to by the residents of those little hamlets. If there was one thing that could be characterised as a product of Amaden, it was the the tea that they brought in to be processed and sold. However, the tea didn’t just represent a local product. For humans, the bundles of green being carted in everyday were a symbol of their legitimate claims to Amaden’s territory.
It made sense that the tea itself became synonymous with human solidarity within the outpost. Such a proud local product could be enjoyed everyday as a reminder of what they stood to lose to us — or so I guessed the thought was. I couldn’t help finding humans petty in that way, though we tengu weren’t much better in many regards. In any case, I supposed it was nothing extraordinary to find a shop in a human district, employing and serving mostly humans, promoting a human agenda through its offerings. Not that it was going to stop me from eating now.
Setting thoughts of separatism aside, I watched the dance unfolding in the kitchen between Karen and her coworker. They weren’t acknowledging each other, but both had a sense of each other’s place as they dug around beneath the counters and shifted things around in preparation to make soba. With everything in place, Karen broke off with a massive bowl and measures of buckwheat and wheat flour, along with a canister of what my nose detected as matcha. The pale spectre of a man was already at work in another bowl, so that meant Karen was preparing my order personally.
Much of how she measured the water and the ratios of buckwheat to wheat were beyond me, but there was a casual artistry to how she handled the ingredients, sprinkling them with careful dashes of water before moving them around with a flick of the wrist. Soon, the loose bundle of flour became dough, and Karen began massaging it. Her tiny hands looked comfortable pulling and stretching the greenish mass, smashing it again and again until it was time to roll it out. Through some fifteen or twenty minutes of careful work, what had started as dust was now flat sheets, folded and floured, ready to be sliced into ribbons.
By the time Karen was done, her coworker was already stationed at a large pot, throwing two wads of plain buckwheat noodles into the mesh basket. He turned around to continue some prep work on the dipping sauce, the savoury smell of soy and mushroom broth floating over. I was leaning into the counter in spite of myself, ready for mine to be done right that moment.
The wait was already becoming agonising when the first two orders were plated and the green soba was ready to boil. However, they didn’t heed my longing looks, going about the cooking, chopping, and garnishing with a calm restraint. My eyes were stuck to Karen’s hands as she dug the thin basket meant for serving my order out, practically panting as she laid out the requisite garnishes. My meal was coming. I could feel it.
I was just at the limit of my patience when Karen’s glistering smile greeted me, the tray bearing the freshly strained soba in all its green splendour in her hands. She left me with some parting words about enjoying my food, but they hardly registered to my ears.
The next few moments were a blur as the chopsticks leapt into my hand and the noodles ran into my mouth in a continuous string. Were I in a different state of mind, I’d have stopped to appreciate the subtle sweetness of the dipping sauce complimenting the extra flavour of the green noodles. I was far more concerned with pure consumption at the moment. Every second was another moment to maximise the amount of noodles filling my mouth and my stomach.
My chopsticks hit the tray with a clatter. All the strength left in me escaped in one exhaled breath, and I slumped against the stool’s back. The act of eating that I’d looked forward to had left me spent but satisfied, though I wasn’t close to full. I sat basking in the glorious warm feeling of food in my belly. When the rush had gone, I slowly sat back up, feeling a twinge of embarrassment as I remembered my decorum. I took a sip of my tea, wincing as I discovered it was still hot enough to sting my lips.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Karen peeking at me by leaning over the counter. Her expression was a clear mix of shock and disbelief. My cheeks coloured, realising she must have been watching me for some time.
She slid down the counter a minute later, confirming that my order of soba had completely vanished. “That was… fast.”
“They were good,” I said sheepishly. Whether or not it was meant as a compliment or a half-hearted explanation, even I didn’t know.
Karen evidently took it as a comment, perking up right away and leaning across the counter. She was wearing the same prideful look as when she talked about the shop. “Weren’t they? The master here’s real particular about tea. He knows all who’s-who in matcha round here, so none of us are allowed to do the acquiring.”
“I did notice the decor.” I pointed at one of the banners. “The master must have quite a bit of local pride.”
“Ah, yeah, now that mention it. I guess he’d have to, being from the valley,” Karen said with a slight chuckle.
The thought passed over me like insect flying past my face. It wasn’t until I zeroed-in on the words ‘the valley’ that I began to second-guess what I’d heard. That would have a whole different set of implications, Amaden or otherwise.
My ears stood up. “The master here is a valley kappa?”
“That’s not too big a surprise, is it?”
“No, I guess not. It just seems… out of step with my impressions.” I scratched my neck, looking over Karen and her co-worker, who was busying himself over more green onions. “Maybe I’m just too used to tengu businesses.”
“That’s why you should come here more!” A glint shone in Karen’s eye. She leaned over the counter to look me in the eyes. The overbearingness of it was unnerving, and that was probably what made her a successful saleswoman in place of genuine persuasion.
“Erm, perhaps. For the moment, though,” I said, scooting the stool back as covertly as possible on the shop’s rough wooden floors, “I believe we had some business to discuss. Namely that of facts.”
Quick note: Considering the first draft exceeded ten-thousand words total, I wouldn't have been able to finish the second draft in any reasonable amount of time. That's why you're just looking at part one of two right now. Part two will, with any luck, be done in a week.
Just in case anyone was wondering where the rest is.
>>30094 Think of the votes like coming to a fork in the road. One path sends you down a straight road that eventually winds around. The other sends you on a twisting and careening journey with some amazing views, and eventually winds around as well. From the fork in the road, you might worry that taking either route might diverge greatly from the other, possibly taking you away from where you want to be, and that could be the case in many instances. However, in this case, though they may look like they diverge, the roads will eventually meet back up somewhere.
In much the same way, the idea here is that Koyomi is the one solving the mystery. Our (that is, your) choices control how she chooses to do that -- and the resulting shenanigans. Otherwise, the mystery will be solved in some fashion. If it seems like I'm overloading you with information, it's only because I'm trying to point you at a particular vista, as it were.
>>30096 Oh, shit, nice. The funny thing is that I was considering trying to produce some character art myself, but, uh... well, I can't draw at all, so that wasn't happening. Seriously, that's better than what I could produce. Good on you.
I didn't want to do this, but I figured I might as well give a head's-up. Last minute family plans are dragging me out of town by my ear, so part two of the update is going to be delayed a bit more. Best effort estimation for a finished update is late this weekend.
This was the part I had been dreading most since before I took a single step away from HQ. Every attractive bargain came with some drawback. For instance, my apartment was ‘free’, but I was one of the few permanent inhabitants, crammed into a room by bureaucratic decree. Though the manager-cum-owner was civil, I was more of nuisance than anything, taking up space that would be better used lent to short-term visitors. My reward for this dubious achievement was having to hear all sorts of unmentionable sounds coming from all corners of the block. I felt much the same being there in the soba shop.
Karen had been nothing short of accommodating, but I could tell it was to one end: prying privileged information out of me. Every morsel of soba was kneaded and massaged with her hands for that purpose alone, and her every expectation was that I would oblige her in return. Of course, this thought had been furthest from my mind as I ate. Now that I was at least fed, and not beholden to my belly’s demands for the moment, the reality of it all had slowly seeped in.
I sat ramrod straight in my seat, eyes trained on Karen as she hook a leg over the counter. My ears stood erect, my tail laid down in back. I had adopted the classic formal seated pose of the academy, in short. That was the only way I knew to steel myself for what I had to do. Even so, I had to swallow my tension as Karen finally sat on the neighbouring stool, facing me eye-to-eye, my wolf sensibilities telling me it was aggression even when I knew it was attentiveness.
A moment passed in silence with Karen’s attention remaining unwavering. When it became obvious that I wasn’t going to speak first, she smiled nervously. “So, uh, I think you said something about facts?”
“Yes,” I said, my ear twitching, “I did, didn’t it? Pardon.”
Digging in my pocket, I found the notebook I’d got at the start of training, partially filled with notes I’d yet to consult, along with a pen. Karen seemed to be fidgeting in her seat as I flipped through the notebook and found a blank page. I set it and the pen down on the counter and jumped from my seat to give a steady, professional bow, holding my hat abreast.
“While it’s a bit late, I ought to formally introduce myself. My name is Iwabori Koyomi, Officer of the Amaden Mountain Outpost Peacekeepers, Junior Patrolwoman, Fifteenth District. As a servant of the public, I vow to help how I can.” I squared my hat as I sat back down.
Karen broke into giggles at my introduction, only catching herself when she noticed I didn’t share her amusement, at which point she bowed from her seat. As an afterthought, she reached up to undo her kerchief. Her earthen hair spilled free with a gentle shake of her head, falling down around her shoulders. With the way it framed her face, the freckles on her cheek, like flecks of buckwheat, stood out a little more. More than that, there was a greater sense of youth in her face; thoughts of my sister bit at the back of my mind.
“Beg your pardon,” she said, flashing a smile while smoothing her hair out. The stool creaked a little as she sat up to give me her full attention. “You already know this, but I’m Karen. Tomari Karen, if you need my whole name. Pleased to meet you. Again.”
My ears twitched again. Reminiscing would have to wait until later. “Likewise. Now, let’s start from the beginning. Would you mind talking about your reports? I’d like to hear about the circumstances around them.”
Karen leaned forward. “I’m sorry?”
“In other words, the story of this crime. What exactly happened, Miss Tomari? That’s what I’m asking.”
“The file should have everything, shouldn’t it?”
“The most general facts, yes.” Somewhere deep in my gut, a knot was forming under growing tension. I tried to keep any trace of impatience out of my voice. Pushing things along was a matter of picking my words carefully. “For instance, you testified that something was stolen from your father. That much I’m clear on. But a second-hand statement only goes so far. Especially when there are still some points left unclear.”
For a moment, I almost thought that Karen had stopped responding altogether. Her eyes were still trained on me, but she had gone still, no sign that my words had reached her. It was only when her eyebrows made the slightest movement, sliding closer together, that I knew she was still with me.
“I’m not sure I get what you’re implying,” she said, her voice shifting up a fraction, a subtle notion of disbelief coating her words. It was far from an explosive reaction, but the same danger lurked underneath.
“What I’ve seen suggests you’ve reported your father dead by foul play. If you could explain that a bit furth—”
The tension in the air was cut apart by a horrendous noise, like soup slurped from an empty bowl. Its source was obvious enough but I turned to look anyway.
Not a foot away, Kokoro and Hinawa were hunkered down over the table, their faces practically buried in their baskets of noodles. Their chopsticks raced up and down, carrying unbroken chains of soba straight into their mouths, their mouths too busy to allow more than a quick gasp for air every few seconds. The air around them was a storm of heavy nose-breathing. Kokoro’s eyes shimmered, the normal dull pink brightened by some spark. It was the look of competition in her eyes.
Hinawa looked to be less involved in their little race. Despite putting up the appearance of keeping pace with Kokoro, the lack of green onions and seaweed dotting her face, not to mention the fact that she was chewing her food, made it clear she was purposefully lagging. I even noticed the slightest trace of smile aimed my way. My ears were less inclined to stay standing. This was exactly why Hinawa and alcohol were never a good mix.
The last strand of soba vanished. Chopsticks clattered, dropped on the table. The race was won. Unchewed bits of noodle littered the table like debris in the wake of a storm.
Kokoro jumped up, fist held in the air, her face as placid as ever. Flecks of seaweed fell off of her cheek. “Told you I’d win!”
Seconds late, Hinawa finished her share, beaming in spite of her loss. She didn’t even wait to confirm anything before reaching over for the flask of shochu. Her right ear sagged in a lopsided gesture of cheer. “Oh, dear, dear. You’re just too strong for me. I guess I ought to hold up my end of the bet, then!”
I felt like heaving a heavy sigh as Hinawa quaffed straight from the flask, emptying it almost immediately. Her face a bit rosier, she looked to Karen, raising the empty flask.
“Karen, dear? Another, if you would,” she cooed.
Compared to her rather severe look from moments ago, Karen shared Hinawa’s loopy grin. She laughed, clapping her hands at the spectacle before leaping from her stool, collecting the flask from Hinawa, and zipping back into the kitchen. I took the opportunity to shoot Hinawa a look of disapproval. Naturally, she waved it off.
Though it had erased some of the tension, the sting of embarrassment at my senior’s antics made me all the more eager to get back to talking. My tail twitched as I saw patiently, wondering when Karen would reappear from the kitchen. I wanted one of us to keep our dignity, so I kept my pose and didn’t let my tail move an inch, which only made it want to move more. By the time Karen’s smiling face poked over the counter again, my backside felt like it was on the receiving end of a thousand pinpricks.
“Shochu, hot water!” she sang, bestowing an eager Hinawa and Kokoro with a new flask. I silently hoped it might occupy them enough to not bother me, but I knew that it wouldn’t last.
With a glance my way, Karen found her seat, saying nothing right away but taking her time to find her discarded kerchief and fold it into a square. A quiet hum resounded from her like she was mulling something over. All the while, I kept my decorum and tried not to let my discomfort show.
“Right, well,” Karen said after some time, “I can’t say I really get it, but it sounds like you’ve got doubts. That right?”
I nearly burst into a defensive bluster, but I took a sharp breath instead, letting it seep out through my teeth. “Not doubts as such. It would just be… well, helpful to know more. In order to pursue an investigation.”
She twisted the corners her newly-folded kerchief in her lap. Though she was wearing her customer service smile, it seemed a lot more hollow. “All I have to do is tell you my story, then?”
“If you would,” I replied with a measured nod.
“That so? In that case…” She leaned back in her seat, letting her short legs stick straight out, leaning her head to one side. Then, she leaned her head the other way. It was hard to not watch the way her hair waved. “Lemme start by asking: The name Meguro Kashou mean anything to you?”
I shook my head. I’d never heard the name before. A quick look at Hinawa, who had one ear perked up, seemed to say she had.
“There’s some nostalgia. Been years ago now, back before Amaden was even a thing!” Hinawa butted in. The drink was already working well enough that she didn’t even care to keep the veneer of politeness to her speech or actions. “I was working the frontier, you know. Loads of humans running around even in those days. Mostly humans, in fact.”
I tried to seize the reins of the conversation before Hinawa derailed things any further. “Meguro Kashou, yes. I take it that’s supposed to be a noteworthy name with humans. Is that someone famous in the Human Village?”
“Ah, I wouldn’t call him famous so much,” Karen said, laughing. “And he’s been dead for some years.”
“Eighteen years, in fact,” Hinawa chirped.
Karen giggled, about to respond when I stopped her. I shot Hinawa another disapproving look. “Hinawa.”
“Let me handle this, please. You can talk to Kokoro if you’re that desperate for a conversation.” I pointed at Kokoro, who was poking at the incapacitated Utsuwa’s face, seemingly oblivious to his groaning.
She gave a pouty look far from appropriate for her age but complied anyway, joining Kokoro in the Utsuwa poking. I really needed to hurry this conversation up so I could get him into safer hands, even if the only ones around were mine.
Turning my ears to ignore Hinawa starting up her own conversation, I cleared my throat. “Alright, so who is this Meguro Kashou, and what does he have to do with you?”
“I’m getting there, don’t worry,” Karen said with a carefree wave of her hand. “Meguro was a… can’t say he was ‘big-name’ so much as just well-liked. Had a bunch of fans. His little old soba shop did pretty okay business, and he was happy with that. And he had some students, too. Three of them.”
“So it was soba,” I muttered. Remembering my notepad, I took the opportunity to scratch out a note about Meguro Kashou, drawing arrows leading to the words ‘soba’, ‘Human Village’, and ‘three students?’ I circled the last word. “Having students makes it sound more like a dojo than a shop.”
“I guess it is a little weird, isn’t it? Still, Meguro didn’t have any family. Never married at all, either. I think that’s why he took on students. The soba was supposed to be his legacy.”
“You make it sound like you’re awfully familiar,” I remarked, drawing an arrow between Meguro and Karen.
Karen chuckled, fiddling with her apron in back. “Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’ve never met him myself. This all just came from my daddy.” She looked at me head-on. Her eyes glowed with a note of pride. “Daddy was one of those students. In fact, he was the one who got everything.
My pen stopped mid-stroke. I hastily struck out the original lines I put down and interposed Karen’s father between her and Meguro. A student with an inheritance. New facts were scuttling out from the cracks for once.
I adjusted my glasses while I thought of how to push on. “Alright, that establishes your father. What about the other party? The man named Shinbei.”
The mention of Shinbei’s name sapped most of the cheer from Karen’s expression. Her brows knitted together in a look that tried to show contempt but fell short thanks to her half-smile. Regardless, the name was no doubt a negative in her mind.
“He was another one of the students. A worse one,” Karen said, playing with her hair. “He was stupid jealous of Daddy because he was younger and more successful.”
“Is that based on what your father said or…”
The facade of strained cheer finally broke, turning Karen’s face into a full-on scowl. “If only. I got to see it first-hand. I got to hear him say horrible things to Daddy. Stuff like ‘I wish I’d stuck your coward head in the pot and boiled you to death when I had the chance.’ Absolute son-of-a-bitch.”
I caught a sigh trying to sneak its way out my nose, turning it into a quiet huff. It was obvious that I needed to tread carefully or risk setting Karen off. With what I’d seen of her temper, dealing with the fallout had the potential to outdo the trouble of dealing with Utsuwa, though there were deeper and much worse problems there. In that sense, it made me wonder why I was still here and not trying to work things out on that front instead. Public safety trumped personal drama any day.
Shaking my head quietly, I noted the conflict between Shinbei and Karen’s father. What I needed to establish quickly was an intent to harm and a credible motive, assuming an assumption of murder held up. “Now, Karen, I can tell this is a hard subject,” I said, pulling from the field manual’s phrasing, “but I’d like to press you a bit further on that. Please tell me about what happened between your father and Shinbei.”
Karen’s head sank. My ears pricked up. The only sound in the shop was Karen’s co-worker chopping away. I looked to the side. Hinawa and Kokoro were watching us. I already didn’t like the pressure being put on me.
Karen reached up to run her fingers through her hair, propping herself up on the counter, her eyes on the floor. “It was already bad, but it got worse when Meguro died. He named Daddy as the successor on his deathbed. Then, that man—” Her eyes narrowed. She clearly meant Shinbei, though she was avoiding his name. “That man started trying to claim everything was his because he was the oldest student. The fussing got bad enough for the local council to step in. Even then, they couldn’t get him to shut up, so they called in the Hakurei maiden instead.”
As if the atmosphere wasn’t heavy enough, the shop went dead silent. Even the sound of chopping ceased for the moment. A low groan emitted from Utsuwa broke the painful silence, Hinawa setting her glass down to stroke his arm. Kokoro stared at the table in front of her, not unlike what she’d done yesterday. I took the liberty of noting the shrine maiden in my notepad. It probably had nothing to do with Karen, but it was something I wanted to remember later.
“What then?” I asked, tearing my eyes from Kokoro.
“To her, the problem was about the shop, so she got rid of it. They had to watch while she tore it up.” Her scowl softened into a deep frown. “After that, each student got a share of the profit left over, minus her cut. Plus, Daddy got the other piece of his inheritance. Meguro wrote himself a little journal. Daddy said it had all the secrets of his soba in it.”
“The stolen writings.”
Karen’s eyes shut. She breathed in deep, letting out a loud sigh, preparing for the most painful parts ahead of her. “Mm-hmm. That man wanted them bad enough that he… Oh, that sack of filth. I could just wring his wicked neck right now.”
“Something else happened between them,” I prompted.
“A lot of things.” She took in another deep breath, shuddering this time. “That goddamned slug haunted my Daddy to the end. Daddy was such a gentle man that he never fought back. Not a single time. Not even when he got hit.”
Suddenly, I noticed that Karen had gone from leaning on the counter to burying her face in her hand. Even as unreliable as they were, had I not had a wolf’s ears, I wouldn’t have heard the sniffle she was trying to hide. She was just holding back a torrent that would inevitably break out. I sat frozen, terrified of the idea of what that might look like here and now. Through the slit of her fingers, a trace of bloody red gleamed.
Another sniffle came. Her whole body jerked once in a poorly-restrained shudder. A tear rolled down, falling off of her chin and staining her kerchief. Many more came after it.
“Daddy. Oh, Daddy,” Karen croaked. Her hand fell aside, showing a face twisted in grief. A shrieking sob ripped from her throat. “Daddy was so bloody. That bastard. That bastard walked out. With the journal. I ran in. He was on the floor. I-In a pi—”
“Oh, dear, dear,” came Hinawa’s voice.
Hinawa slid out from under the low table and shuffled over, completely ignoring her discarded shoes. I barely registered what was going on as Karen was wrapped in Hinawa’s arms, her sobs quickly muffled in Hinawa’s collar as they grew even louder. It was so far and away from what good decorum would demand, yet I couldn’t raise any objection. I could only watch while the unease of watching someone wail in front of a virtual stranger with no inhibition gnawed at me. Even averting my eyes felt like a breach of etiquette — for as much as etiquette applied here.
The moment stretched on as I sat locked on Karen and Hinawa. By the time I even noticed time had passed, I caught Hinawa looking at me over Karen’s shoulder. I stopped restraining my ears and let them fall flat as they wanted to. Silently, I pleased to Hinawa for some swift resolution. Her answer was a shake of the head while she patted Karen’s back.
“It’s okay, dear. You’re doing good,” she whispered
The cries trailed off into sniffling. Karen’s face gradually emerged from Hinawa’s embrace, peering up at Hinawa like a child might look at its mother. She sniffled again, rubbing her reddened, puffy eyes. “Really?”
“Mm-hmm. It’s all okay.” She gently stroked Karen’s hair. “You’re safe here.”
Karen nodded in acknowledgement and wiped her eyes again, sitting up, still leaning against Hinawa. “S-Sorry. I think I’d like to finish what I-I was saying,” she said through a fit of sniffles.
Hinawa’s eyes flicked to me. I nodded.
“Whenever you’re ready,” I muttered.
“Um, so, I guess,” Karen began, stopping to dig a handkerchief out of her pocket, “I never really explained this because… I was a little afraid. Maybe you guys wouldn’t call it a crime. Even if it was.”
Reassuring her, Hinawa stroked her hair again, giving her shoulders a squeeze. Karen’s cheeks reddened a little, but she looked determined to press on. I readied my pen.
“My dad died because he caught sick. It was right after that man beat the daylights out of him and stole the journal. Me and Mama kept watch on him while he healed up. Except he never did.” Her face fell and she gave another loud sniffle. “It was like he gave up. Then he was gone, just like that. It’s been a couple of years now, but that was like yesterday for me.”
I stared at my notes. There was the admission I had been waiting for the entire time. I’d had my doubts from the beginning, and the files had done nothing to change that. This entire time, we were looking at what amounted to a years old case of theft. Any deaths occurred were incidental.
My eyes drifted over to Utsuwa. He was the only real case worth pursuing here, and this was the confirmation. With his vengeful spirit possession, we were talking a potential public safety risk. We didn’t need to be wasting time and resources on anything else. It was just unfortunate that we couldn’t do anything without approval from above. A sigh crept through my lips as I shut my notes.
“And that’s it?” I asked, adjusting my glasses.
“More or less. Thanks for listening to the end.” She nodded, an expectant look in her eye. It was a tacit signal that she hadn’t forgot the terms of my free lunch. My turn to talk had arrived.
I cleared my throat. “Right. Well, if you’re ready to hear it, then I suppose I should speak my part.”
“Please,” Karen said.
Doing my best to be quick about it, I recounted what I’d read from the case file, omitting a few details such as the various notes; I didn’t want to worsen the already bad impression that the Guard had made. Considering much of it was merely about Karen’s various reports, she didn’t seem particularly impressed. The most marked reaction from her was a bitter smile when I brought up the lack of cooperation from the districts.
As soon as I’d come to the end, Karen jumped up from her seat and stormed past, up a flight of stairs, her footfalls heavy on the steps. I glanced at Hinawa, who shrugged her shoulders in response. Above us, loud rustling sounds came through the ceiling. Karen was digging around frantically from something. I could faintly hear her muttering and cursing to herself.
“Pardon me,” said a voice next to me.
I whipped around to see Karen’s co-worker standing behind the counter, a tray with a wad of coins in his hand. He slid the tray over, picking up my dirty dishes. I flicked between him and the coins with a questioning look.
“Ah, your friend just left a moment ago. She said she was paying for all three of you, but she didn’t take her change, so…”
I looked over where Kokoro had been seated. Sure enough, she was gone.
“Incidentally,” the bony man added, “I know it might be troublesome, but if you could handle Karen’s troubles, we would all be grateful. The girl tries her best to be cheerful, but she carries a real burden.” He bowed solemnly. “Please consider helping her.”
Having spoken his piece, he retreated back into the kitchen with the dishes, leaving me with Kokoro’s change. Soon after, the sounds of footsteps ringing off the ceiling turned into footsteps on the stairs, and Karen came rushing back down, a folded piece of paper in hand. Compared with minutes earlier, some of her old cheer had come back.
“Sorry about that. I had to find this,” she explained, holding the paper out to me. It looked like some kind of letter. The faint smell of buckwheat and some other unidentifiable scent came off of it.
I flipped it open without much enthusiasm. The hand was uneven. Whoever had written this letter had awful handwriting, and that was saying something considering my hands were far from dextrous. I couldn’t help wondering if whoever wrote it hadn’t been caught in an earthquake. Then again, there hadn’t been many quakes in Gensokyo in quite some time, so that couldn’t have been the case.
Taketo, my dear friend,
I know it’s been ages. Just so you know, I’m alive. I went to Amaden after Master died. Shinbei might have told you. He says you’re in a rough spot.
Let me know if you need help. I’m pretty hot on the dice these days. I’m thinking about taking my earnings and opening my own shop now.
I’ll help you out like you helped me, so don’t hesitate to rely on your old pal.
Instead of a signature, there was a crude picture of a dog drawn in. Apparently, this author fancied themselves above a simple stamp.
I started to hand the letter back to Karen, but she pushed it back into my hand. “What exactly is this about? I see the mention of Shinbei, but that’s about it.”
“It’s a letter from my uncle to my dad. Or, well, that’s what Daddy called him. He also seems to have been Meguro’s third student, going by this,” Karen explained.
“I’m not sure I get where you’re going with this.”
Karen grumbled. “I’m not sure either myself. What I know is that Daddy told me that my uncle knew that rat better than he did. I only met him once when I was a little girl, and they weren’t both there, so I don’t really know. Anyway, I’m sure if anyone knew how to find that bastard, it’d be him.”
I blinked at Karen. It was clearer now what she was pushing towards, but I decided to try and confirm it anyway. “So, you’re saying you want us to help you find Shinbei. And this uncle of yours is a possible lead.”
“Exactly! You can do that, right? I know it sounds like small potatoes, and the everybody’s brushed me off about it, but it’s real important to me. I need to give that man a piece of my mind. You’re the only one that cared enough about that file. That’s why you can help!”
“I’m still not sure—”
Karen grabbed the letter from me, opened it, and pointed to the picture of a dog. “Just look for a dog-faced man. I mean, a guy with a really sharp face like a dog. Got that?”
The same familiar twinge stabbed me in the skull. If all she had to offer was some vague information about a long-lost uncle in Amaden, I was pretty sure this was a waste of our time. We were only Patrol, not a couple of detectives.
Still, there was a hopeful look in Karen’s eyes. Some part of me knew that if I extinguished that hope, I would feel guilty about it later. Even if the guilt didn’t come from me, Hinawa would be happy to provide it. A lose-lose situation, in other words.
“Got it, a dog-faced man,” I conceded. My eyes fell to the change left by Karen’s co-worker. “If that’s it, then we have to go catch Kokoro.” I nodded to Hinawa. “Right?”
Hinawa flashed a doubtful smile. “Yes, I guess she probably won’t be waiting around forever.”
I got up and made my way to the door. Karen’s co-worker gave me a nod as I passed by, which I returned. I had little intention of abiding by that requestion, but I wasn’t about to start any more drama over it. The best thing I could do at this point was get back to helping Utsuwa.
“Take care!” Karen called from the back.
“You too, dear. Chin up. We’ll get this all figured out,” Hinawa chimed back, coming along with Utsuwa slung over her shoulder. I was surprised she wasn’t waving his arm at Karen.
I all but yanked Hinawa out the front door before she could promise any more. Kokoro was standing outside, her arms folded. She was wearing her classic scowl of impatience. I ignored it and shoved the change into her hand.
“You left something.”
“You really didn’t have to,” Hinawa chided.
Kokoro grunted ineffectually, dumping the change in her pocket. She mumbled something about us being slow.
Ignoring her complaints, I turned to Hinawa. “What now? I guess we can’t do much about him,” I said, pointing at Utsuwa, “until we see the liaison.”
“You’re still on duty, remember?” she said.
“Ugh, I really hope Sumida hasn’t shown up. It’d be just my luck.” My ears sunk just thinking about it.
With our next destination pretty much decided by default, we headed out from the soba shop. The way back to the Fifteenth District was straightforward from here. We just needed to get back out to a main road. Figuring it was easy enough to follow the alleyway through, we took the straight way past the three-way corner.
The stretch that we walked into was a lot less populated than back the way we came. It was almost desolate, in fact. It felt a bit creepy. Kokoro didn’t pay it any mind, walking ahead of us. I stuck close to Hinawa. My ears were up in hopes of catching anything suspicious.
I nearly jumped when I heard what had to be a rubbish bin tipping over. Then, there were footsteps.
A pair of figures came busting out of the side alley, almost shoulder-checking Kokoro but not really. It was more like they walked her over to the wall and boxed her in. It was those two humans from before.
“Hey, pinky,” said the manic one with the buzz cut.
Kokoro glared at him. She looked like she wanted to be anywhere else but here.
The bandanna man looked back at me and Hinawa. He tapped his friend on the shoulder and jabbed his thumb at us.
“Be quick about it. Even if they can’t touch us, they’ll probably get the district guys out.”
“Aw, that means we can’t play. Well, right now, anyway,” buzz man said to Kokoro before bursting out laughing.
Kokoro growled, looking like she was about to knee him in the groin. “You heard your handler.”
“Alright, alright. You’re no fun.” Buzz man cleared his throat. “Boss’ boss says come to the place tomorrow night. There’s something to talk about. And somebody.”
A look of horror flashed across Kokoro’s face. The fight was gone from her, replaced with numbness. It was the first time I think I’d seen anyone able to leave her dumbfounded like that. I didn’t like it for some reason.
I started to step forward to confront them, but I heard a click and saw a flash. The two looked our way, and there was another click-flash. The bandanna man knocked his partner in the head and made him hide his face. They took off back down the side alley.
Hinawa was standing there with her phone out. She must have taken pictures of them. I knew that phones could do that.
“Aren’t we going to go after them?” I asked.
“What could we do? You know tengu against humans isn’t going to look good. Besides,” she showed the screen, blurry pictures of the two humans, “we’ve got a good idea of what they look like. We can get help from other Patrol stations to find them. Also, how’s Kokoro?”
I looked at Kokoro. She hadn’t moved from the wall. In fact, she was sort of slumped against it.
“What on earth was that about?” I asked her.
She looked up at me. I felt a bit of a chill. Her eyes were full of malice and anger and bad stuff. She shoved me back because I was standing too close.
“If it wasn’t your problem then, it’s not your problem now!” she hissed.
Before I could say anything, Kokoro took off in the opposite direction. I was too shocked to even yell after her. I looked at Hinawa.
She had apparently caught the whole thing. “Let her have her space.”
I recovered quickly. Frankly, I wasn’t that concerned about her, especially after she reacted like that. She could go run off wherever for all I cared. I mean, I was a little bit worried. She was somehow connected to those guys and obviously messing with some kind of organised crime. But I wasn’t going to go chase her down.
I scratched my head and grumbled. It was one of those situations where I didn’t like it but there wasn’t anything I could do, and that was a little frustrating, even if I didn’t really care.
“So what do we do now?” I asked Hinawa.
She looked up from her phone. Her ears were cocked. “We go our separate ways here. I’m going to track down the local Patrol office. You should get back to the station. Here, take Utsuwa with you.”
She pulled Utsuwa off of her shoulder. He gave a weak groan but still flopped around limply. I grabbed his arm to hoist him onto my back. It’d been a while, but I’d remembered how to give a piggyback ride. Not that I particularly felt all that happy about it.
“I really don’t like this, you know. We’re getting no answers to anything and making no progress.”
“That’s how it is sometimes, Koyomi. Don’t worry about it for now. You’re still on duty, so don’t slouch. Don’t forget, you’re still new here.”
I sighed. “Right. Anything else?”
Hinawa hummed, her ears twiddling in thought. Something dawned on her. “Oh, yes, actually. Get the poor dear to the clinic.” She pointed at Utsuwa’s gouged arm. The sight of it was still cringeworthy. “It’s really not right of us to be pulling him around in that state.”
“Agreed,” I said quietly.
“So be quick. Meanwhile, I’m off. Give me a—” She paused, her tail falling. She gave me an annoyed look. Oh boy, here it comes. “That’s right, you still need a phone, Koyomi. Especially in times like these.”
“Later,” I said, avoiding eye contact.
“Let’s make ‘later’ this weekend, alright?” she grumped. Not even waiting for an answer from me, she scampered off.
I really hoped Hinawa got wrapped up in work and forgot all about this weekend. Maybe I could avoid the subject by inviting her out drinking; it worked every other time.
At any rate, I didn’t really know what else to do, but it felt like Hinawa probably had the situation handled better than me. Even if I had to cart around an unwashed human, who smelled a lot like blood still, I couldn’t complain a whole lot. There was nobody to complain to, anyway. I was left all by my lonesome.
So I pulled Utsuwa along with me all the way back to the Fifteenth District and away from the station, down an alley, and to the small clinic. It was a dinky, run-down place that had apparently been around since before Amaden was a thing. Kind of a dingy little station where some human frontiersmen had camped out. The doctor said he was the only one left from the original camp; he never said what happened to the others, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. He was a bit of a crank and more than a little creepy, but he worked with us for practically free and that was the important thing. Most of us never needed to be patched up aside from a couple of really nasty injuries, but it was important that we got humans who ended up with us cared for in some way. I remember reading a book on human bodies out of curiosity and found that I couldn’t understand most of it. What I got was that humans are wimpy. Also, I hoped the doctor never asked to dissect me to know how youkai work. He’d asked a few people.
Inside the clinic, I had to tell the person at the desk that Utsuwa was unconscious and that I’d have to speak for him. It didn’t faze them at all, and they called the doctor out. He took a quick look at Utsuwa before pulling us into the office in back. Because the doctor didn’t have any nurses to help out, I had to help with the cleaning and bandaging. Part-way through, Utsuwa woke up. He was disoriented at first but seemed to recognise what was happening quickly. The doctor was glad we didn’t have to restrain him.
When that was done, the doc asked Utsuwa a lot of general questions about his injuries but didn’t press real hard. Utsuwa didn’t look real eager to start talking about it anyway. We got out of there in a couple of minutes, and he asked me to take him to the station. I did without saying much of anything. Everything was still locked up. Thank Tenma.
There wasn’t much of anywhere that I could sit him, so I got him back in the questioning room, which was still kind of torn up. He helped clean up and took a seat. He asked me to cuff him, and I decided it was probably better to, so I did. I didn’t know what else to do about him, so I went out and tried to figure out what needed to be done. I remembered the incident paperwork that we hadn’t filled out and found it. Maybe it wasn’t the right form, but I guessed I needed to fill out something. It was tedious work but not too big a deal.
After that, I didn’t have anything left to do. I sat around at the window, twiddling my thumbs. I eyed my culinary guide to Amaden that I’d left sitting on the window sill. Nobody had touched it, strangely. I didn’t really feel like reading it right now, though. I was bored.
I thought of Utsuwa sitting in the questioning room like in a holding cell. He must have been absolutely bored out of his mind. Not to mention it couldn't have been comfortable in there. It didn’t sit right with me to leave him in there. I went in and convinced him to come out to the front for the time being. He was reluctant but did it anyway.
We both sat there at the low table without saying anything. I made some tea but remembered that his hands were tied, so I was the only one who could really drink. I helped him drink. It was a little awkward, but I wasn’t going to let him dehydrate on my watch. Humans were a bit of a pain in the butt.
No matter how much time passed, it didn’t look like the minute hand was going any faster. I thought about trying to read my culinary guide again. No, I really had to do something about Utsuwa.
“So, are you feeling okay? Nothing weird going on?”
“It’d be hard for me to know if… that’s happening again,” he said with a sad smile.
I scratched my neck. “Well, those cuffs might help anyway,” I said, laughing but not feeling any sense of joy.
He bowed his head. “Thank you.”
“Ah, no, no. It’s-- I mean, I was just doing what I thought was a good thing!”
And just like that the conversation died. Boy, I sure sucked at that when there wasn’t some kind of business. I drummed my fingers on the table. Seemed like I was doing that a lot these days.
“Hey, so…” Utsuwa spoke up after a lot of fumbling.
[ ] He asked about what happened. [ ] He talked about his job. [ ] He asked about me. [ ] He was curious about Hinawa.
Sorry about the roughness this time. I've run up against my absolute deadline, and I'm not of a mind to start breaking promises again.
Right, I probably should have mentioned this before:
Votes will be open for six days, starting now. I wouldn't call this a particularly difficult choice, nor is it all that necessary to follow what's going on, but giving everyone time to read is the nice thing to do, especially when it took this long to deliver.
Looking at Utsuwa, his eyes locked straight onto me, I could tell there was something he wanted to ask. Every part of him was tense as he tried to find the words. His hesitation lent a weight of its own to whatever he was about to say, which only worsened the tension I was trying to hide. My fingers stopped their slow patter on the table surface.
I nodded despite my misgivings. The sooner he spoke up, the sooner the suspense would end, and the better I would feel.
Growing tired of his own spluttering, he took a deep breath, preparing to let loose with something. His face was red all of a sudden. “I’m sorry,” he blurted out, his voice rising to the breaking point, trailing off into a squeak, “I don’t remember your name.”
“Koyomi. Just Koyomi is fine,” I responded after a pause. Of course there would be gaps from a possession.
Muttering my name to himself, he stared into the sheen on the table’s varnished surface. His face was like someone trying to smile to hide their reaction after swallowing something bitter. I’d made that face more times than I could count — creeping thoughts of the academy lurked nearby. While I was tired of playing support for the day, seeing Utsuwa make that face brushed against a nerve.
“We weren’t properly introduced,” I said plainly.
Utsuwa’s eyes followed the lines in the wood grain like he was tracing them with his fingers. “N-No, we weren’t, were we?”
“There wasn’t much time. Not your fault at all.” I was pulling out the kid gloves for him, speaking as calmly and reassuringly as my work-frayed nerves allowed. “So, was that all you wanted to ask?”
His head pivoted up. “I was just curious. I mean, I don’t want to be too much trouble, but… would you mind telling me—” Suddenly, he shook his head. “No, wait, never mind. It’s a dumb question. I don’t want to bother you.”
My ears fell lopsided. “It’s no bother. Ask me whatever you want,” I said, putting on what felt like a smile.
Judging from his grimace, it didn’t quite pass muster. His eyes drifted up to my ears and back down to my face. A panicked voice in the back of my head said he could read my expression. Then again, the notion of a human reading a wolf’s true expression was ridiculous. He was probably just trying to find somewhere to look.
“A-Are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” I answered, “ask away.”
He gave his own awkward smile. “Can you stop showing your fangs like that? It’s a little s-scary.”
It was a deflating remark, but I gladly relaxed my expression. Some of those muscles hadn’t been exercised in ages. While I massaged my aching face with one hand, I gestured for him to go on with the other.
“Oh, uh, so how did you start doing what you do?”
My limp ear perked up. “Pardon?”
"I was just hoping to hear how you got your job. I was, erm, curious. About your job, I mean.”
Utsuwa turned his head like he’d be scratching his neck if his hands were free, trying to find anywhere to look except at me. He seemed to be expecting me to snap at him. Meanwhile, I pondered his question, turning my teacup around in my fingers. Maybe a simple answer would suffice. There was at least one fall-back that I could cull from my early policy lectures.
“Guard positions are reserved for wolf tengu by right of heritage,” I recited. I wasn’t certain that meant ‘no humans ever’, but I could have sworn it was the case. Any human in a tengu institution would have been notable enough to cause a stir in the ranks if it ever happened.
Judging from Utsuwa’s blank look, that was the wrong answer. I sighed.
“You’re absolutely sure you want my story?”
He nodded without any hint of hesitation.
I was afraid of that. Relaxing my ears, I tapped my nail on the table, leaning back while I tried to figure out where to begin. The ‘beginning’ was the exact last place I wanted to go. The safest start I could think of was still the academy. This was going to be a little bit of trouble to explain.
“I’m going to guess,” I began, “that humans go to school like us; I remember hearing something about a teacher in the village. Well, wolves go to school twice. Sort of. We have to train to be guards before even joining the Guard. I guess it’s kind of weird hearing it out-loud, but that’s how it is.”
“It’s only once for us,” he said.
“And I imagine it’s like the school we go through for a few years. The big difference is that we have to go through ten years of training afterwards.”
Utsuwa gaped. “Ten years?”
“There’s a saying about a human’s decade being a tengu’s minute. That’s what it’s referring to. They love trotting it out in training.” I propped myself up on my elbow. The memories of my instructors were already starting to flood back. “The important thing is that I spent my ten years in the academy. I don’t want to get into it too much, but just know that it’s not the regular training. Most guards aren’t trained there. At least, not if they’re in the rank-and-file.”
“Where would you have been if not the Guard?” he asked. The look on his face said that he found it hard to imagine a wolf tengu who wasn’t a guard.
There was just a hint of aggravation clawing at me from that question. He didn’t know any better, so I knew to cut him slack, but it still dug in. I bit my lip. “That doesn’t matter much, does it? I made my choice a long time ago, which was to join the Guard.”
Deterred from digging further, Utsuwa stared down at the table again. I gave a quiet sigh to myself. Losing my patience would do nothing to help me and everything to hurt me. I took a slow sip of tea to relax.
“Anyway, I managed to finish at academy, but placements were… hard to come by for me,” I said, going back to drumming on the table.
“Just so you know, the Guard is a job path we can choose now. It was different in the past. We all used to be in it. However, these days, we enlist directly in places where there are openings. The better the placement, the more the competition.”
“Sounds tough,” Utsuwa said, starting to match my lack of vigour.
“Academy graduates get some guarantee of a placement, but…” I fiddled with my glasses. My next few words would make me sound terrible if poorly picked; who could trust anyone who admitted to barely graduating? “There was a placement picked for me, and I wasn’t too fond of it. Let’s just say that. The reward wasn’t matched to the work.”
Even as I said that, lingering memories of leftovers gathered on rounds surfaced in my mouth. Considering how far removed the settlement was, every vegetable and herb was gathered right on the peak, which made for hearty, rustic meals. Plus, I never had to worry about figuring out what to eat. That didn’t make up for the thorny bushes everywhere and the fact that my closest neighbours lay a good half-hour hike away. Besides that, all my neighbours near and far were old crows who saw me as a helper they paid with food.
Utsuwa’s head drooped in a nod, more a signal that he’d heard than of comprehension. “I’ve had a lot of jobs like that.”
“Jobs, plural?” I asked in an off-hand way.
Whether out of shame in admitting to a number of positions lost or because he believed I was digging into him, Utsuwa’s cheeks reddened. He shook his head. I probably wouldn’t hear any more than that.
I shrugged. “It took a couple of months, but I convinced the local command to look into getting me moved out. The weird thing is that I got a response just a few days later. There was this letter saying to come to Amaden.”
“That fast?” Utsuwa recovered the courage to look me in the face.
“It’s a little stranger than that. I’m probably making it sound like they’d found me a post, but it was actually more of a draft notice. I was being pulled out to serve in the Patrol. No choice on my part.”
I sighed. “Yeah, so that’s how I got here.”
My eyes drifted to the culinary guide that sat abandoned at the window counter. That had been the final push to get me going, though I wasn’t going to admit it out loud.
Nothing left to say on the subject, I was more inclined to get back to the paperwork in front of me than draw the conversation out any longer. However, it looked like Utsuwa had something to add; going by the expectant look on his face, he was just waiting for me to ask. I set down my pen, trying not to show any more impatience with him.
“Er, so, if I may ask, what’s your interest? We’re not worth a thought to humans. Most of the time, anyway.”
Utsuwa sat up, frowning at me. I suspected he would probably have had his arms crossed if they were free. “How can you say that? I admire what you do. You help people like me who are in trouble. There’s no reason people shouldn’t look up to you, human or youkai.”
My tail fell over limply as I stared at him blankly.
“This may sound really dumb,” he went on, “but I really like detective novels. They’ve gotten real popular in the village, and I like reading them. Lots of people like stories like Agatha Chris Q where it’s always a youkai’s fault, but not me.” His fists were balled behind his back. “My favourites are stories where people like you guys make a difference. People who stick up for the little guy. We don’t have anyone like that in the village. Yeah, we’ve got guards, but they don’t stop bad guys. They haven’t even stopped a youkai in a century.”
“I… I see,” I said, not sure what to say in response and not particularly wanting to argue the point.
Realising that he’d become a bit heated, his face sunk like he was trying to hide behind the table. To be honest, I felt like hiding as well.
“Um, I’m sorry,” Utsuwa muttered.
“It’s okay. I get what you’re saying.” There wasn’t much enthusiasm in my words, but I felt like he deserved some form of positive response. Even if it was lifted from the field manual.
His hopeful look hit me like a slap. “Really? Well, um, that’s good. I wasn’t sure. I tend to go on and on sometimes. My grandma always said I have a full mouth to match my empty head. Though I guess that’s not what she meant. She said a lot stuff I didn’t— Um, wait, I did it again.”
I couldn’t hold back a snicker at his awkward, fumbling anecdote. He flinched but laughed at himself as well. It was a small relief that we could both recognise how futile talking was for either of us. The fact that we’d managed to have something resembling a conversation was probably a small miracle.
Our laughter faded quickly, leaving us in a comfortable silence. We both knew there wasn’t much else to say.
I picked my pen back up, getting back into my paperwork. The claims forms for settling the damages to that stand were lengthy, on the order of thirteen pages for the incident account alone, not to mention everything was going to at least three different departments that I could distinguish. Instead of talking, I needed to pour my efforts into making sure every box was marked and every line filled correctly. Whether I was a real guard or not, this was the reality of working in this field.
As I kept on whittling away at the stacks, my thoughts swung back to the question that had got so deep under my skin. What would I have been indeed if not in the Guard? It was hard to deny that somebody had to be doing my current job, but I couldn’t help wondering why it had to be me.
All I’d ever known was that guards were the top of the top no matter what their rank. They upheld the peace of society, helped others in need, and were dependable. Ever since I was a pup, after a brush with danger, I knew that I had to join the Guard so I could be like them. To not be allowed in the ranks was like saying I wasn’t able to live up to the standard, which meant my entire time at academy had been for nothing.
Even setting that aside, I’d never made any enquiries about the Patrol before that letter came — I didn’t even know they existed. As far as I knew, I’d never made anyone important angry in my brief time with the Guard either. Being pushed out like that felt so unfair. Out of all people, it just had to be the academy graduate who didn’t aim for the indolent paper-pushing life. Maybe it was another example of how old prejudices died hard, and how envy pushed wolves of lower bloodlines to spitefulness when given power, raged some inner voice of mine.
Or perhaps, countered a calmer voice, this was all just chance. Somehow, I still didn’t want to believe it, but maybe this was all beyond anybody’s control.
I shook my head and picked up the pace on filling in the lines. If I thought that way, getting out of here would be impossible. If no one could control where I ended up, then there was no out. However, that was just an insidious whisper in my ear trying to dissuade me with sweet nothings of comfort and stagnation. I wasn’t going to listen to them. I was going to be a real guard again.
Sometime later, I stamped my signature onto the last form. Standing up, I stretched and yawned, letting my tail swing free to shake out the pins and needles. I was about to ask Utsuwa if he wanted another cup of tea when I noticed that he was fast asleep, leaning on the table. No wonder everything was calm for so long. For some reason, I couldn’t stop myself from smiling seeing him slumped over, sleeping half-upright. I went off to the back to dig up a blanket.
A door slid open right as I stepped into the back. I looked over my shoulder to see one of the night shift officers at the shoe rack.
“Good evening,” she called, saluting briskly.
I stared for a moment before remembering I was in the middle of something. My return salute was quick and lacking in coordination. “Good… evening?”
My fellow officer’s ears drooped a little, an unspoken question on her face. Wordlessly, she drew a phone from her pocket, pressing a button to display the time to me, undoubtedly into the evening hours.
“Ah,” I said dumbly and walked back over to the low table.
I flew into a scramble right away to get all of my paperwork tidy and ready to hand over. As I shuffled around, fixing every out-of-place thing I could see and chasing fallen papers, I noticed for the first time just how much the light through the frosted windows had dimmed. Time had slipped through my fingers as easily as money on a payday restaurant crawl. Here I was caught with a mess left in the front and a detainee napping at the table. I may as well have slept in for work.
Remembering that I had to clock out, I ran to retrieve my logbook from the back. The moment I re-emerged from the back, I came just short of running face-first into Sumida. Although, what stopped me was his hands clapping down on my shoulders.
“Careful there, officer,” Sumida said, flashing his typical grin, which left me feeling like I’d been coated in slime. “Good work last night, by the way.”
Peeling his hands off me, I saluted Sumida. “Sir, I’ve got several reports to file.” I glanced toward Utsuwa. “As well as a detainee to inform you of. Forgive me for putting him in the front.”
Sumida glanced at Utsuwa for a moment, shrugging his shoulders and giving a cavalier flip of his tail. I tried to keep my ears upright with all my might. He was, for better or worse, my immediate superior. More than that, I wanted to be out of here before he could shove some other work onto me.
“Officer Aiba’s come through on the matter already.”
My tail stood up. Hinawa must have reported to command. Maybe it was to speed things along, considering it would take forever for Sumida to take notice if I reported it. For being different ranks, she and Sumida were more like equals, which was strange, considering there seemed to be no love lost between the two.
“Surprisingly well-connected and efficient, that girl. Not that it’ll do much good,” Sumida added. His ears relaxed. “Command’s still not got confirmation from HQ, nor have they secured permission to investigate. Bad luck, officer.”
“What does that mean for the human, then?” I asked, ignoring the growing urge to box his ears.
He shrugged again. “Command will figure it out, I’m sure. My only orders were to oversee his transfer.”
“D14’s station.” He grinned again, even wider, showing the edges of his fangs. “Unless perhaps you’d like to stay and watch him? It’d be just as easy to send the word now.”
I turned my glare at the floor, growling under my breath. If I didn’t leave soon, there was no telling how I’d respond. There would probably be a few things broken for sure. “As you say, sir.”
Sumida laughed, a loud, resounding belly laugh, slapping my shoulder. “Now, now, that’s just official talk. I don’t know what all the implications are here, but good job pulling in such an interesting case. Not too many newbies are as lucky as you!” His face had a curious sparkle around it. He looked like he was savouring his arch-nemesis getting dumped by the love of their life. “Why, it’s been ages since I’ve seen any of the lieutenants get so worked-up. Much less all of them!”
He stopped to hassle one of the other officers coming in the door, sending them right back outside. Probably to buy him a coffee or some other menial errand, knowing the typical Sumida work ethic. Wiping his eye and giving a contented sigh, he turned back to me.
“Anyway,” he sang, “if that’s all, head on home. Your paperwork and your human are in good hands. And who knows? Maybe I’ll be calling you Detective Koyomi soon!”
“Thank you very much, sir,” I said through gritted teeth.
Pushing past Sumida, I retreated to the front to fill in my logbook. In Utsuwa’s place at the table was the first officer from earlier, who had wrapped herself in the blanket I’d got out for Utsuwa. I poked my head out of the counter window and saw that two officers were already leading Utsuwa out the door. Looking my way for a brief second, he gave a meek smile. I waved before shrinking back inside.
On one hand, I couldn’t help feeling a little worried for him. I was one of a couple of people who really knew what his deal was. If something went wrong, it was anybody’s guess how the Fourteenth District station’s officers would respond. He was totally out of my hands now.
Then a wave of exhaustion washed over me, reminding me of just how busy the entire day had been. Much as I wanted to be Utsuwa’s lifeline, there were limits.
I hurried to fill in my logbook entry and get it re-filed. After that was done, I remembered to grab my culinary guide before leaving. Bowing to the early officer and the few who’d come in after her, I saw myself out of the station. I could have stayed and chatted, but I didn’t know anyone particularly well. Without Hinawa there, I was just ‘the girl from the day shift’ anyway. Besides, I needed a warm bed more than a chat right now.
My stomach, having been quiet this whole time, decided to speak up as soon as I stepped out into the warm evening air. Enough time had passed that it was yearning for at least a late snack.
Since the sky was still in that hazy purple stage, just before it started turning officially evening, staining it orange, the usual fun seekers had yet to come rushing in, leaving the streets feeling sparse. It was the perfect time to stroll leisurely down the road and watch the laborious work of making Amaden come alive. As a pedestrian, I barely existed to the number of tradespeople who concerned themselves only with getting their stands and shops set up. Employees swept and threw water on the ground. Carters yelled and barrelled their way around, too worried about making their deliveries in time to care about safety. Signs and banners were being hung up, lit up, and propped up everywhere I looked. The uncountable number of restaurants and bars lining the street, not even counting the mobile, unlicensed versions of the latter, were in their awkward in-between period, too.
Passing them all by knowing that I’d be asleep before they opened was a touch frustrating; I envied people with the free time and money to enjoy them. Still, at the very least, whether it was morning or evening, I’d be able to catch one of the stands in the building site. That in mind, I hurried along in fear of my stomach’s chastising voice. Finer dining would come another day.
Nearing the camping spot for my usual morning haunts, I was struck by how quiet the surrounding atmosphere had become. Not that it was ever roaring except in peak times, but it wasn’t uncommon to overhear night-shift workers catching up with their fellows before work. Patrolmen were no exception, and I half-expected to run into more than a few, some having taken the liberty of dosing themselves with a pre-shift drink. However, that sort of scene was curiously absent tonight. In fact, I saw no one at all.
A sign was parked at the head of the building site: Due to recent events, all stand activity will be suspended for the duration. We apologise to our loyal customers for the inconvenience. Please consider visiting us at the following shops…
Tugging at my hair, I groaned seeing the sign. Apparently, all it took was a single morning visit with Kokoro to become a jinx for my favourite eateries.
A gentle nudge to my side broke me from despairing for too long. I looked down to find the older kappa gentleman from the steamed buns stand regarding me with a look of both curiosity and impatience. Saying nothing, he raised a piece of paper and nodded toward the sign. I stepped out of his way to give him room, and he fixed the leaflet to the sign, just under the list of restaurant locations. He stepped back to survey the placement before giving a satisfied huff.
Turning to me, the look in his beady eyes softened a note. “It’s disappointing, I know. These are the circumstance we must deal with,” he said, his voice like well-worn leather dragged across my ears. He bowed. “You’d be most welcome if you paid a visit, young miss.”
Having said all he intended to, the kappa gentleman ambled off out of sight. It was only after he’d gone that my ears sprang up in realisation: I’d never once heard the old man speak before.
I looked over the posted announcement, curious to know what restaurant he was attached to. No name was provided anywhere. The only thing besides a drawn map was a notice that the steamed bun operation was on hiatus. Curiously, the location indicated was in the Eighth District, where I’d been earlier. Something about that fact nicked at the back of my mind, but I cast it aside as a thought for later. Figuring out what to do about sundown eats was more pressing.
Another sudden intruding thought was that I ought to check on Hinawa. She’d run off so suddenly to chase Kokoro or whatever it was she’d decided to do — and on her day off, no less. Chances were good she’d be worn down afterwards, so a social call was probably necessary to cheer her up. Moreover, there was a convenient stop for food on the way over.
Remembering that morning’s events at the bathhouse, I hurried off back to my apartment in search of my wallet. A split-second look around the room later, it turned up on the floor next to the table, probably knocked off when I got my startling wake-up call. I gave a bitter laugh. Kokoro was causing trouble for me even when she wasn’t around. I checked to be sure she wasn’t hiding somewhere in the room, but that was just idle worrying on my part.
Even so, I made sure to lock my window this time along with my door. If she wanted to break in this time, she’d have to slip under the door or find some other improbable entryway.
The next thing for me to do was to head for the Twelfth District. Criss-crossing my way through the alleys, I dodged the main thoroughfares up until I was just outside the district. Emerging right across from the garish Chinese zodiac themed district gateway, I made a sharp turn left and went down to the corner. Despite the dark theming in their logo and colour scheme, Yodooshi Market was always a brightly lit place and very hard to miss. I had no idea how many existed in Amaden, but this one was mine. Whether it was visiting Hinawa or just stocking up on snacks in general, there was no alternative for me; my working hours didn’t help matters either.
Parked outside was a group of crows. Well, it would have been more accurate to say they were loitering. They carried loudly without any regard for anyone coming or going, adding drink cans to a growing stack next to them, conspicuously not in the bin nearby. I glowered at them to no effect as I shoved my way through their gathering.
A burst of cheery music hit me from above as the automatic door opened. I could only imagine how sick of it the employees must get after the hundredth time hearing it. With a silent apology to them, I stepped inside.
“Welcome!” came the cheery call of the employee manning the counter, a human to my surprise. She looked to be a new face, and uncomfortable in the company uniform, but wore the obligatory plastered-on smile well enough.
Nodding, I picked up a basket and made a straight course for the snack foods. It looked like I’d just come in after the shelves restocked, so I had a full selection to pick from. Scanning the various bags and boxes, I mulled over what sounded best. Most of the candy was right out. Something with a bit more bite was in order. I almost wandered past the crisps, but I saw a bag boasting about a new ‘Face-Numbingly Spicy Habanero!’ flavour. Intrigued, I grabbed a bag, along with a couple of bags of the more pedestrian aonori flavour. Thinking that Hinawa would probably also want something sweet, I turned around and found a bar of decent looking chocolate to add to the cart. That’d do for light snacks.
Turning my attention to drinks, I made for the back. There wasn’t any hesitation in my choice: a bottle of lemon tea. The light citrus taste with the caffeine perk made it my go-to pick for a drink after a long day. My first thought for Hinawa’s share was something from the canned cocktails, but then I considered that she probably had more than a fair stock of the stuff. Besides, she’d drank plenty today, and I didn’t need to enable her further. The safer choice was obviously something on the sweet and slightly heavy end. I settled on grabbing a carton of coffee milk.
Something a bit heavier was in order next. However, before I could wind towards the boxed lunches and breads, somebody with a magazine in their hand caught my eye. I wasn’t particularly rushed for time, so I could afford a stop off at the rack.
Alongside the two or three major newspapers that dominated Amaden’s readership, numerous Amaden- and mountain-focused publications lined the shelves. Curious as I was about events on the mountain, the word ‘scandal’ showing in most of the headlines made me tense up. I’d seen that once too many times to feel safe flipping through without running into a certain someone in the news again. Doing my best to ignore them, I found some more local affairs sorts of magazines.
TA Deliberates on Guard Resolution! TM’s Eyes and Hands in AD or Our Shield?
Judging from how text almost spilled out of the front page, the journal bearing that headline, Weekly Heaven, was undoubtedly a tabloid. Of course, it was still intriguing, reputable or not. Various whisperings and rumblings had been running around about one of the top human representatives of the Trade Association losing his temper with a Guard official at a recent meeting. He’d even claimed that the Guard was ‘Tenma’s barking lapdogs in Amaden’, if any of it was to be believed. Even so, I never imagined such an outburst might turn into a resolution.
I almost flipped the tabloid open right there but thought better of it. There was plastic wrap around it to prevent casual browsing anyway. If I was so curious, I’d just have to buy it. I had just set the issue in my basket when another headline caught my eye.
Amaden Land Policy Straining at the Edges: Developers Pushed to New Lows
Land policy. I’d read something like that somewhere recently. In fact, it was reading over one of those files. I picked the tabloid up from the basket and compared it with the other magazine.
The AmaBiz Focus, as this magazine was known, looked more sober and legitimate next to the Weekly Heaven. It wasn’t my usual sort of subject matter, but things like land development were key issues to Amaden’s politics. There was no doubt it played into things that the Guard would have to investigate. If nothing else, it’d be a good sleeping pill.
They were both the same price. Funny how the publishing industry worked.
Gossip wasn’t my style, so the tabloid was out. Back that one went while the business magazine flopped into the basket. Who knew if either were that entertaining, but I needed some reading material for waiting on Hinawa. In any case, the most important business at hand was dinner. My basket was loaded with snacks, drinks, and a magazine, which left the stuff of real substance as my last grab for the night.
My next stop was the aisle with the boxed lunches and breads, where I didn’t even stop to look before grabbing three sausage rolls, reserving one for Hinawa. I threw a chocolate cornet in as well, just in case she’d rather have something sweet. Worst case scenario, I’d have a third sausage roll.
Perusing the boxed lunches was just as easy: if there was katsudon, I bought it. This time, an employee was just finishing up stocking the case. My darling pork-and-egg bowl, freshly placed, was waiting for me towards the register-bound end of the aisle. Two of them went into the basket. Having beaten out the masses before everything was picked over, I hurried through the checkout and out the door, tail waving, exhilarated enough by my purchase to run a victory lap.
The night air warmed me up a little as I stepped out, a nice break from the frigid air inside. What wasn’t as nice was the rabble that hadn’t moved from out front. I took a deep breath, preparing to elbow my way past the gathering of young crows without any apology. The way opened when several of them went scrambling around to get a better look at something. Stepping through, thankful that I didn’t have to waste energy ramming into them, I stopped to see what was drawing a commotion.
Up ahead, a young crow woman made for the Yodooshi Mart to catcalls and cries for attention. I almost dismissed their fawning over her as the antics of overgrown schoolboys until I took a second look. There was something a bit different about this woman, whether it was her effortless, gliding walk or the fact that she had a naturally bright complexion in spite of not wearing any make-up that I could notice. Something about the style of her clothes was eye-catching as well, a casual skirt and blouse that had just enough flash to dazzle any onlookers.
While none of the boys managed to grab her attention, she was quick to look my way. I stared back in awed confusion, only snapping back to my senses when she smiled and waved, convincing me to throw a limp wave back as she disappeared into the mini-mart.
“You know her?” asked one of the crows.
I shook my head, adjusting my glasses. “Can’t say I do, no.”
There was a collective groan of disappointment from them. Not particularly sympathetic to their hopes and dreams, I only offered a shrug as I took off. My katsudon was getting colder every second I lingered.
Past the gaudy main gate, I glanced around the street as I reached one of the main stretches of the Twelfth District. The whole area retained an old red light district feel even after being repurposed as a residential area, from the walls around the district bounds to the side entrances on the houses. Since it was early, there was a calm over the street, like the cries of the cicadas had made everyone around drift off to sleep. Within minutes of sundown, though, these narrow streets would fill with women heading out to work and the vitality that they brought. I’d been here enough times to have witnessed the scene — the calmest work rush imaginable.
Somewhere down the main drag, a thought occurred to me about what had happened at the mini-mart: That girl had to be one of the hostesses from the district, out doing her shopping before work. Given Hinawa’s gift for making friends with her neighbours, she was probably among my local friends-of-friends. I just didn’t recognise her because she wasn’t completely made-up for work.
In light of that, I supposed it was a shame that I’d likely miss seeing the district’s residents in their full splendour as they hurried to their respective bars, filling the air with their musical chatter. However, it wasn’t like I couldn’t appreciate the peaceful atmosphere of the early evening. The lack of people gave me more time to stroll along the street, taking in the cheaply built houses with their patched-up paper doors and their oddly slanting roofs. Of course, the street itself being as short as it was, I came to my next turn within moments.
This was the alleyway where Hinawa’s apartment building sat. As part of the haphazard construction of the area, it had been thrown in behind a number of old houses — whoever was building had decided to start straying away from the traditional style before exiting the market entirely, or so Hinawa told me. The building’s presence was one of the few stains on the district’s face, with its concrete boxiness and air of ‘modernity’.
I strolled to the side and went up the stairs until I hit the third floor. Much like me, Hinawa lived on the end of the row, furthest from the stairs, her door impossible to miss with the colourful flower-shaped sign hanging from the postbox. This month’s design was a sunflower. The idea that she changed them so often baffled me, not to mention where she got them was a total mystery. Then again, I supposed I had no place to talk either when I spent most of my earnings on eating out. At least my habit made for a full belly most of the time.
Whatever my thoughts on her decorations, the place was certainly Hinawa’s. My ears perked up in relief at seeing a friendly sight as I reached out to knock.
A faint, scratchy mew from nearby startled me enough to send me stumbling over my own feet, a lucky catch saving my bags from a spill. Standing underfoot at Hinawa’s door was a pure white cat: one of Hinawa’s strays. I heaved a sigh and squared my glasses.
“Don’t scare me like that, Yuki,” I groused. The sound of something clambering off the railing made my ear perk up, and I caught sight of another cat, this one also white but with a brown ‘island’ on her back. “See? Your sister knows how to act. Right, Shima?”
Shima, Yuki’s litter mate according to Hinawa, greeted me with a drowsy mew and a yawn, stretching before taking her place at Hinawa’s door, watching me expectantly. I laughed to myself. Demanding as ever, I noted as I knocked on the door.
Despite waiting a minute or two, there was no answer from inside. I tried the door only to find that it was locked. My ears drooped. Hinawa bothering to lock up was rare enough that it annoyed me a little when it did happen.
“Come now,” I grumbled, setting down my bags to open up the post box. Just through the slot, there was a spare key taped to the top of the inside. Thank Tenma she’d told me about it.
The key had a bit of trouble fitting into the lock, much to my further annoyance, requiring a bit of forcing before it finally clicked in place. Meanwhile, the cats gathered underfoot to hurry me by scratching at the door. I undid the lock and opened the door, letting them slip in ahead of me. It wasn’t too long afterwards that I heard them mewling.
Once in the entryway, I let go of a breath I didn’t know I was holding. Even if it was a little dingy — Hinawa said the building was at least five years old — seeing the room put me at ease. Compared to the cramped, nigh claustrophobic shed that was my apartment, this was a space for relaxing.
Another much louder mew from the kitchen drew my attention. “Yes, yes, coming,” I called as I slipped into the house slippers. “Pardon the intrusion.”
Shuffling to the fridge, I was greeted again by Yuki and Shima pacing circles, now too impatient to calmly wait for their meal. On the top shelf of the fridge sat a packet of dried fish, which I quickly retrieved along with a couple of small plates. I took great care not to set them too close together. Shima was more akin to a pig than a cat, and she would gladly attack her brother for his share. While she went to work on her fish, Yuki nudged his and looked at me, wondering why his food wasn’t broken into pieces as per usual. I grumbled before obliging his pickiness.
“You really ought to learn from your sister,” I opined.
Not that I didn’t respect his healthy sense of distance and relative quietness, but sometimes I felt like I had more in common with his litter mate, though that was restricted largely to her appetite. Looking at how round she was, it was hard to believe that she’d been emaciated when Hinawa took her in. I recalled Hinawa declaring her mission in life to be fattening the poor stray up. Knowing that made me wonder if she didn’t have similar intentions for me. With my metabolism and protruding ribs, there wasn’t much hope that she’d meet with success on that front.
Either way, Yuki and Shima had eaten their fill and were preoccupied with finding a place to perch and be quiet. I noticed that Hinawa had left her futon laid out, tutting to myself. She had to know that was the first place they’d settle. For the sake of my tired feet, I pulled my bags over to the unstowed kotatsu and drifted underneath it. Things may have been a touch warm, but it was still the most comfortable option. Now all that was left was to wait for Hinawa.
I reached into the bag to pull out my lemon tea and a sausage roll. It was only a couple of bites in that I remembered the magazine I’d bought and picked it up out of the other bag. Normally, I’d never even look at a business magazine, but something about the tagline on the front caught my attention. I almost felt like I might learn something useful from it. Or, at the very least, I wouldn’t be too bored waiting for Hinawa.
I licked the last crumbs of sausage roll from my fingers, took a sip of lemon tea, and opened the magazine to the table of contents. It looked like the bit about land policy was an editorial, dropped before one of the main articles. Opposite the article was a full-page picture of an unfamiliar building in some corner of Amaden that I’d never visited. If the caption was to be believed, it was an unfinished project in the Twenty-third District.
The Problem of Policy and Building in Amaden
Amaden, this contested little outpost, is well known for being robust in the face of conflict. Anyone who isn’t a recent transplant can remember what it was like at the start: the near-constant skirmishes, the arson, the factions that shifted by the day, and countless other examples. Once we’d got our craw full, those of us in business came together with the intention of protecting our interests by protecting each other. That was the beginning of the Trade Association and of the first semblances of law and policy in this outpost.
With stories like this, all the average reader ever hears about is our collective triumph over adversity, and yet nobody talks about the source of the conflicts. Has it all largely been about the mountain and the spectre of Tenma? Many would say yes, and we have no authority to deny them that. That said, we also believe that the cause went beyond the classical struggles between youkai and human. After all, there was a great deal of fighting amongst tengu in all the trouble. The more one looks into the situation, one finds that one of the root causes is at once simpler and more complicated.
The Amaden of today is headed back towards being the Amaden of yesterday because the land development situation is abysmal. Back then, the question was of being able to obtain land, and that issue has assumed a different form but has remained virulent as ever. This time, however, it’s the very Trade Association we placed our trust in that is to blame. While we risk our reputation as a business publication in Amaden, we must speak up against the building freezes enforced by the Association and the harm they bring to business.
A great illustration of the toll of these now meaningless policies is the Eleventh District. Just recently, the tenants of an entire street found themselves ejected from their spaces and their businesses condemned. Everywhere on the now barren street, notices are posted on every door, proclaiming the authority of a certain local land developer. The district council says the rights to develop were obtained legally and voluntarily by the developer from the residents. The former residents tell a different story.
“There were probably four or five of them. All hired muscle. It was obvious,” says the man who ran a cafe on the street. He claims that a representative of the developer paid him a visit one evening with an ultimatum: leave immediately or face their wraith. Handed a pithy wad of cash, the owner says he pulled his family out of the back and fled. “Those guys were deadly serious. They’d probably have killed us.”
“You wouldn’t believe some of the things they pull. Everything from hiring vagrants to yell, scream, and piss everywhere to just pulling up and beating the hell out of everybody,” reports another ousted business owner, an elderly man who ran a tobacco shop.
In the middle of the street, a soba shop called Yattsuyo-an stands, gutted and covered in tarps. No one claims it at first, almost too afraid to talk about it. Then, a sharp-eyed man mutters that he’s the one who used to run the shop; he refuses to identify himself, saying to “stare at the sign” for his name. “It’s about how much vacant land’s left here. There ain’t much from what I hear. Maybe a couple of tsubo left empty in all. Makes it real attractive to grab land by other methods,” he volunteers, though he stops short of saying the same thing happened to him.
Those are just a sampling of the casualties of shady tactics being pulled by land developers in the district. In addition to business owners, even other development companies are finding themselves drawn into struggles. Some months ago, an incident occurred just a block away from the shuttered street. The same developer behind the evictions nearby were reported to be eating a street stall when people on the payroll of another company provoked a fight. Witnesses to the scuffle say that everybody was led away but were seen walking the streets within hours. The district council declined to comment on the matter.
What does the Trade Association have to say on this, then? Not much, as it turns out. We reached out various councilmen and heads of committees and received no answer. The single answer we did receive was from a source who commented on condition of anonymity.
“Of course, we understand the fears people have. We’re business owners, too. However, I think that’s precisely why many are reluctant to make a move on this question of land policy. There’s a real fear that if the development freezes are rescinded all at once, we’ll end up right back in the land war days. That’s why we’re largely pursuing a policy of granting permission to build district by district. It’s unfortunate what happens in some of these districts who haven’t got the go-ahead yet, but we have to maintain a certain pace in the name of stability.”
The rest of the article was a call to pressure Trade Association representatives to talk about the idea of undoing the building freeze. I’d never even heard of such a thing in the first place, which showed how little I knew about Amaden as a whole.
Setting the magazine down, I opened my second sausage roll. Mid-bite, my eyes fell back around the quotation from the nameless man with the soba shop. I’d just had soba and yet another few platters sounded good about now. Along with the taste of buckwheat, I remembered Karen all of a sudden.
Our little meeting had left me without much to go on regarding her problem. Just like the man in the article, Karen’s ‘uncle’ was a nameless mystery. The only clues I had were a letter and a vague description; I wasn’t even sure what a ‘dog face’ would look like at this point. It was enough to make me laugh at myself, jokingly wishing that it turned out the uncle and the mystery man with the soba shop were the same person. With a sigh, I concluded that I was still stuck in work mode.
The rest of my sausage roll disappeared in a single mouthful, and I decided it was time to break open the katsudon. Right as I started digging in the bag for it, the door came flying open, hitting the wall hard enough to startle the cats and send them careening outside.
I struggled to wrench myself out of the kotatsu. By the time I got to my feet, I could see that whoever had opened the door was already standing in the entryway. Thankfully, it wasn’t an intruder.
Wheezing and panting in the entryway, covered in sweat, was Hinawa. It looked liked she had run from one end of Amaden to another. Even the hair on her ears looked dishevelled. Catching her breath, she threw me a look that was equal parts stern and afraid. A nervous buzz ran through my tail and up my spine.
“W-What’s going on?” I asked.
Hinawa’s ears pointed straight forward. “We need to go. Utsuwa needs help. Now.”
You have no idea how much I shaved off of this update.
>>30343 >not calling him MIA just yet Hey, I'm pretty much always around, updating or not. I'm not always the most communicative about what's going on, of course, but you can rest assured I'm here somewhere.
>This story updates once per month While a factual statement, I would object... except I got a job and am only just fumbling my way back into the back-and-forth of work and home life, so that is going to be a fact of life for the next little bit. As we speak, my shift has beat the life from me and I'm losing consciousness rapidly. The best news I can deliver in terms of updates is that I've got a rough-rough draft for this story done. How long it'll take me to turn it into something less rough? Don't count on it being within the next couple of weeks.
And I've still gotta update my Nemuno story. Shit.
The twilight behind Hinawa cast a shadow over her face. No glimmer in her eyes came through the darkness to soften the crazed look showing in them. A bizarre feeling washed over me, blurring the edges of my consciousness. This couldn’t be real. I was looking at a waking nightmare.
No matter how much I blinked, the nightmarish shape didn’t vanish from the doorway. Try as I might to tear my eyes away, I was locked in my own body, unable to make even the slightest movement. Hinawa said something that didn’t register to my ears.
“Wha…” I said dumbly. The sounds from my mouth felt alien, like they were coming from somewhere far away.
Noises like shouting roared from Hinawa. She came stomping at me, and I lurched forward, pulled by an arm that didn’t feel like my own. It was only when I hit the floor that I felt the moment rushing back to me. All at once, the air felt heavier than before. My lungs strained to keep hold of anything in them. The lingering buzzing just after the sting of impact rippled through my cheek.
“—ld be happening to him, so get up!” Words finally came through to me, the noises arranged to where I could understand. Hinawa’s voice was a ragged parody of its usual self.
Even though I was ‘back to reality’, there were still gaps, for lack of a better word, in what I could perceive. Entire moments vanished. Time became discrete flashes: I picked myself up off the floor. I ran out the door. I called to Hinawa. I took to the sky. Streaks of neon light flew by.
Conscious thought came back to me with the feeling of being jostled. Someone’s shoulder collided with mine. A crow tengu scowled at me, shouting curses that faded into the noise of hundreds of others talking. I wasn’t even walking on my own. A hand tugged on mine.
Clearing the crowd — when did we get there? — I could see that it was Hinawa leading. Her face was stony and unyielding to anything. In that moment, if I’d have asked her anything, I felt like her ears would have rejected it.
I looked around me as we kept walking, surveying the area in an attempt to figure out where I was. All I knew was that the buildings were clearly tengu-built and tall. This had to be the eastern end of Amaden. Not a precise location, but it was a small comfort to my dazed mind. The haze lifted gradually while Hinawa pulled me from street to street. For the sake of ease, I let her keep leading me by the hand.
In the middle of an alley, we came to a building that was shorter than the others and made of some dark, imposing material, as if it was made to hide itself by absorbing all surrounding light. No sign or placard named the building itself, leaving it as just an anonymous piece of architecture, uninteresting to anyone who didn’t know its purpose. Hinawa’s focused glare at the facade said all that needed to be said. With a moment’s hesitation, I pulled the darkened glass door open and walked in first.
What greeted me was a room with cold grey walls, absent anything but a few chairs, a reception window, and a heavy door in back. No one manned the window, but a guard greeted us from a chair perched by the door. Her ears fell flat in a confused look at the two of us.
“I’m sorry, but visiting hours are—”
“Business,” Hinawa interrupted. The pin on her gleamed in the light as she held it out in a very deliberate show of telling the guard we were patrolwomen.
The guard visibly scoffed but kept her a rigid expression, a slight downward twist of her lips being the only change. “That tells me nothing. Patrol doesn’t normally come around here.”
“And the Guard doesn’t normally step on the Patrol’s toes, but some of yours sure did now.” Hinawa stabbed the air with an accusatory finger at the heavy door. “Right now, our suspect in our investigation is lying around in there. I shouldn’t have to say any more.”
A stifling silence hung in the air around the two of them, making it harder to get a word in to soften Hinawa’s rough approach. The guard looked me and Hinawa over with a look that clearly questioned our integrity. I lowered my ears in a quiet show of deference.
With a screech of shoes on polished floor, the guard made a crisp turn on her heel and disengaged the heavy door. It closed with an echoing slam behind her. With her gone, I allowed myself to breathe again. Hinawa stood there glaring at the door, as if following her through the walls.
“Did you have to be like that?” I forced out, finally having just enough leeway to talk.
One of Hinawa’s ears made a wiggle of acknowledgement, but she didn’t bother looking at me. “Now’s not the time. We need Utsuwa back ASAP.”
I grasped for anything to say back, but I couldn’t argue. No matter how I felt about decorum or civility, that didn’t change the fact that Utsuwa was out of our hands, which was a scary place to be.
“I just don’t like it,” I muttered.
Hinawa took a sharp breath, tensing up like she was about to tear into me. I took an instinctive step back. However, she didn’t say a word, only balling her fist. Noting her tail hanging low, I felt myself tensing up a little too. She was as nervous as I was, if not moreso.
These moments were rare for me. The Hinawa I was used to seeing was a lot more in control and certainly less inclined to start shouting — at least, when she didn’t have too many drinks in her. Of course, I’d only known her for a few weeks at best.
The soft rustle of plastic made me notice — only now — that I was carrying my stuff from the mini-mart. Somewhere in the rush to get out, I must have grabbed it. I didn’t know whether to laugh at myself or just feel stupid.
Remembering Hinawa’s coffee milk, I fumbled around for the carton and held it out for her. Some naive thought in the back of my mind told me it would make the situation better. “Here, something sweet.”
Hinawa’s ears fell back, but her tail also curled up slightly. She threw a look at me over her shoulder before jerking around to face me. Her face was stony, impossible to read, but something was alive in her eyes. With a muttered thank-you, she took the carton, looking at it without opening it, turning it over in her hands. They trembled a little.
“I didn’t know what’d be good.”
“Thank you,” Hinawa repeated.
“You’re welcome,” I replied dumbly.
At that moment, the heavy door came careening open again. A heavyset wolf, greyed around every possible edge, leaned out without actually stepping through. He stood watching me and Hinawa, and a rumbling hum came from him, the sort of sound someone made when they doubted something was worth their time.
“You guys wanted to talk? Break room’s this way,” said the grizzled wolf, his voice uncharacteristically clear for a battle-torn face like his.
Neither I nor Hinawa responded. The greyed wolf scratched at the messy remainder of hair between his ears, looking like he’d rather be many other places than here.
“No? Your loss. I was thinking about heading home.”
“You’re the one in charge of this mess?” Hinawa asked at last.
He made a noise from the back of his throat that could have just as easily been a cough as a laugh. “You could say that. As much as they let me be in charge of anything. Honestly, it’s like they want to drive out their old-timers. Nothing like the mountain administration. Makes a guy wonder why he ever transferred.” Catching himself, he cleared his throat, gesturing at the door. “But I think we’d be better off talking in the break room. These chairs out here hurt my ass.”
Hinawa gave a weary sigh, twisting her braid in her fingers. I sympathised. Still, we had no other choice, and so we followed the heavy door, down a sterile-coloured hall, filing into a pristine break room. He swaggered in ahead of us, snatching one of the padded chairs and flopping down in it with his arms crossed.
“Now that’s more like it. Been on my feet all day, you know? These damn leather pieces they make us wear…” He tapped his shoes on the glossy tiled floor.
“You still haven’t introduced yourself,” Hinawa said with a unmissable note of irritation as she took a seat.
Ignoring Hinawa, the grey wolf grunted and pulled himself up from his chair, sauntering over to the coffee-maker on the nearby counter and filling three paper cups. Two of them went on the table while the last one was handed to me. I didn’t quite know what to say in response, so I settled for nodding. The coffee was too hot for me to drink, but it felt nice to have something warm in my hands.
Back in his seat, he leaned back and took a long, loud sip of coffee. His frayed tail flipped happily as he enjoyed his hot drink. Likewise, Hinawa drank from her cup, though with much less humour. She set down her cup first, clicking her claws on the tabletop.
“Sir?” I asked hesitantly.
“Hmm?” One of his ears cocked as he looked up from his coffee. “Oh, right, names. Ishigamori. I’m a detective. Or that’s my title, anyway. These days I’m more of a bench-warmer. Nice to meet you all the same.”
Detective Ishigamori turned to Hinawa with an expectant look. She sat up straight, giving a reluctant bow from her seat.
“Aiba Hinawa. Patrolwoman, Fifteenth District.” The last part was spoken with a distinctive clip at the end. She wanted to be clear that she wasn’t about to add a ‘Pleased to meet you.’ If Ishigamori noticed, it didn’t show in his loose smile.
Feeling the detective’s eyes on me next, I fumbled to find the right words. I shuffled into a chair, throwing my shopping bag on the table to hide behind. “I-I’m Iwabori Koyomi, sir. Same as Hinawa.”
“Iwabori and Aiba, huh? Interesting combination of names there,” he mused with a scratch of his stubbly chin. “Real interesting. Especially you. I’d figure an Iwabori would be— Ah, wait, I got it. Don’t tell me. You’re one of the branches, right? The ones without the fortune?”
I winced. Any number of stock responses rushed to my mouth all at once, getting into a collision mid-way and spilling out in fragments. Of all my hated subjects, that had to be the worst to be ambushed with.
“My co-worker’s ancestry doesn’t matter. We’re here to talk about a case,” Hinawa interjected, to my relief.
“And you,” Ishigamori went on, pointing to Hinawa, “are a legend in the ranks. Or an urban legend. I forget which. Depends on how far down the ladder you fall, I reckon. Anyhow, I’m impressed to be sitting across from you. Damn shame you left us with your record.”
I looked at Hinawa aghast. Never once had she said a word about being in the Guard. Not even a hint. The way Hinawa’s ears flattened at the mention of such a past told me that was on purpose. She bared her fangs at Ishigamori.
“Forget about me,” Hinawa growled.
I grabbed Hinawa’s shoulder. That feeling of unreality was starting to hit me again. “Hinawa, what’s—”
“Later!” She slapped my hand away with a force that looked to surprise even her. Still, all of her attention stayed aimed at Ishigamori.
There was a twinge of something in the detective’s eye. His lip curled, uncovering a long but broken fang. He tutted at Hinawa in disapproval.
“Really, Miss Aiba? You say she’s just your co-worker, but I see a friend. You really shouldn’t treat a friend like that. Like… an underling, wouldn’t you say?”
The words hit Hinawa like a slap across the face, but she didn’t retaliate, looking a bit deflated. She looked at me, ears low, and muttered something. Maybe it was an apology. I was having a hard time comprehending words again. More automatically than anything, I nodded and muttered back.
Ishigamori looked my way too, smiling with the nonchalance of an irresponsible father. His voice came out soft and placative. “This girl here. So nervous. I bet nobody’d envy her right now.”
“I-I’m fine,” I sputtered.
I fiddled with the bag before remembering what else I’d brought. The pair of katsudon and a chocolate cornet were all that was left. Looking up, I noticed Ishigamori’s ears perking up at the sound of rustling plastic and sheepishly showed off my dinner.
“Katsudon.” The whole situation had me in such a state that I could barely manage a single word.
Ishigamori licked his lips. “Looks good. You know, I’ve been working all day, so I haven’t even had a chance to get lunch…”
I covered Hinawa’s katsudon protectively. Hinawa eyed it herself and reached over, but her hand grazed past in favour of the chocolate cornet. Her eyes flicked to the detective and back to me. The slightest lean of her ears substituted for a nod. I stared at her for a moment, as if to ask if that’s what she really wanted, and received no other answer. She nibbled at her cornet without any further comment.
Turning attention back to Ishigamori, I pushed the other katsudon forward along with a pair of disposable chopsticks. He accepted it gladly, his ragged tail flapping as he popped the plastic lid off.
“Look at that. Guess there are some swell kids in the Patrol. Hell, we could use a few of you in the office.” He looked up from breaking his chopsticks apart. “You probably wanted to be in the Guard, right? There’s something in your face. Something a lot like her. Kids like you that got some spunk. I like that.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. My eyes fell to the table, and I broke apart my chopsticks, picking at my katsudon. The detective laughed and took a bite of pork cutlet before going on.
“Yup, you look like Guard material. A little rough, but you gotta be, coming in. Otherwise you’ll never find your footing. Of course, that Patrol business’ll file off your rough edges. Shame, too. I bet someone like you’d be a great fit for a case like this. But I can’t share anything real deep. Too bad.”
“You… You make it sound like something big is going on,” I commented while trying to get my hand to cooperate with the chopsticks.
Ishigamori tutted, wagging his finger at me. “Rascal, trying to be all precocious and interrogate a detective like that. But I can’t say I hate that.” He leaned back, continuing to shovel food into his mouth. Swallowing, he wiped his mouth and shoved the half-empty bowl aside. “Alright, how about a little guessing game? Your friend’s in a detention centre. They’ve called in a detective to deal with him. Tell me what you think’s going on. No hints, now.”
“Are you seriously going to start playing games?” spat Hinawa, crumbling up her cornet wrapper.
“Give me one reason to be serious, Miss Aiba. Otherwise, let your friend answer the question.”
I looked to Hinawa. Her mouth opened like she was about to counter Ishigamori, but her voice faltered before anything came out. Annoyed, she clicked her tongue and quietly nodded to me again. There wasn’t much choice but for me to keep playing along.
Thinking on his words, something hit me. “Detention centre?”
Scanning the cold walls of the break room, the fact that I didn’t even know where I was standing only just seeped in. I’d never seen the inside of a detention centre, so I could only trust that he was telling the truth. From Hinawa’s lack of a reaction, it had to be true. I gasped softly. I’d failed to notice something so simple.
“You— The Guard is holding Utsuwa. He’s here in this building.”
“I’d say it’s obvious enough,” said Ishigamori with an unimpressed hum.
“And you’re here to talk with him.”
I squinted, pushing my panicked brain as hard as I could to come up with something to finish that sentence. All that was coming to me was that morning.
My ears sprang up with another sudden realisation. “Wait a minute! You’re not saying—”
“Took you a second. But it’s exactly what you think. Paperwork’s been filed, signed, and sealed for hours.” The detective gave a weary sigh like he knew first-hand about the paperwork.
Hinawa looked like she’d come to the same conclusion, if slightly faster than I had. A flush of anger had coated her face, and she sat gritting her teeth, eyes cast down at the floor. Her fangs gleamed in the cold light of the room.
“What for? We were in the middle of an investigation. I was going to… I was going to help him. We were going to help him.” I wanted to share in Hinawa’s outrage, but I felt myself faltering. My words were losing strength as I spoke them.
A bit of a smirk lifted the worn-in grooves of Ishigamori’s face. “Oh? If you’ve already made up your mind about him like that, maybe it’s for the best. Biases and all.”
I fell quiet. The will to argue had already left me.
“Any rate, you should know Guard trumps Patrol any day. That’s Amaden’s rock-paper-scissors. Except there’s no paper to the Association’s rock. Or whatever. Bad metaphor.” Ishigamori picked up his coffee and took a drink, swishing it around in the paper cup. “I can’t say much about charges. All you need to know is that it’s part of a price-fixing investigation. And it’s a doozy. We’re talking deep in the shadows of Amaden.”
Hinawa’s chair screeched on the floor as she stood up. “They fingered him as part of that investigation. He’s supposedly involved, and that’s why he’s been arrested.”
“In so many words,” the detective concurred. “Though I can’t help noticing you sound surprised too, Miss Aiba. Surely, someone like you would’ve noticed something.”
“I… didn’t think things would get this far,” Hinawa growled. Her fists were clenched. Though it was subtle, I could see them trembling.
[ ] The Utsuwa I know can’t be a criminal! [ ] All things considered, maybe…
Think about the choice a little bit, but don't think too deeply.
Also, hello, it is your boy. This update should have conceivably been done weeks ago, but alas and alack. The upside is that I'm back in the game and trying to be more 'in' than the previous year. That's why you should yell at me if more than a couple of weeks passes without an update. Let's make 2018 the awoo-est year yet!
I really want to give a good reason, but I can't remember what happened before this update, or why the stuff in this update matters. I do remember Kokoro was somewhere in this story, and her scenes were great.
I probably ought to just nip this in the bud before my story points get any more muddled.
Taking a look backwards, I realise that I've tread on my own toes. That's why I'm gonna go ahead and call a retcon on the use of the word 'arrest' before the most recent update. Now, it sounds like a trivial thing, but it's an important one for the setting. Originally, I gave the impression that the Patrol has the ability to make arrests. That has since changed. Only the Guard can make formal arrests in the setting, leaving the Patrol limited to short-term detainment; imagine the Patrol as like the Tourist Police of Bangkok. If you happen to go back to refresh your memory of what happened, please mentally replace the word 'arrest' with 'detain' or 'detainment'.
Hopefully, the fact that this retcon was even necessary doesn't alarm anyone too much. Amaden as a setting wasn't something I gave a whole lot of thought to when I started out, so it's inevitable that there might be a few inconsistencies. Please understand.
Also, I may as well just go ahead and officially state that I'm returning to my Best Effort Policy™ of two weeks per update; I was unofficially following it for a bit before falling off the wagon. Like I said before, if more than a couple of weeks passes without an update, consider prodding me.
P.S. Kokoro will be returning. Just hold onto your dongers.
Alright, just gonna call it here since there's a simple majority and time is short if I'm going to stick to my schedule.
In spite of all the trouble he's caused, Koyomi has found herself attached to Utsuwa somehow. It flies in the face of being a patrolwoman to insist on this, but she's convinced that...
[x] The Utsuwa I know can’t be a criminal!
Don't call it a...!anAL.XVMTc2018/02/08 (Thu) 20:21No. 30355▼
I almost forgot how quickly two or three weeks can disappear when you're working. Really drives home how you're trading your life for a bit of coin. Of course, that's neither here nor there.
You'll notice that there's not a shiny new update sitting in the thread after that oh-so-impressive two weeks I promised. Or maybe you haven't noticed. Maybe I'm just a hack rambling to himself in a void. I really don't know anymore. Which brings me to the heart of the matter.
The future of Don't Call Me a Glutton is in jeopardy. Now, I don't mean that I'm pondering pulling a repeat of Fame and Misfortune; outright cancellation isn't in the cards. However, what I can say for sure is that my confidence in the story itself is deeply shaken. Where the story's going and even where it is have stopped feeling like solid concepts. I don't feel I'm exaggerating when I say I'm in a bit of a bad way creatively. Let me break down how we got here.
Don't Call Me a Glutton -- the title itself was a total last-minute decision -- began its life as an entry in the Carnival of Updates in late 2015, very different days from now. I was working full-time, living in an entirely different city, and having an awful time of it back then. As you might know, FaM was still alive at this point, but I was already struggling with it pretty deeply, much worse than anyone knew since I wasn't talking about it. Wanting to push me through my slump, Sage-King, of Kinu Yasumi's Almanac fame, nudged me into entering the Carnival. It was a move mean to energise me, much like the event itself was supposed to energise the site.
Given the "free from constraints" theme of the Carnival, you can imagine that I approached my new story with little planning. My only outline going into the first update was a couple of comments about the characters and a sentence about what I wanted to happen to them. In truth, I wanted to be finished with the story within a month. However, a number of plans shifted and changed, and I eventually tossed it all aside in favour of rounding out the "story arc" of the moment. The fact that I'd left off on such an open-ended note should have alarmed me at the time.
It followed that I needed to start a new story arc after the end of the first. Luckily, I'd come up with a vague concept already, so I leapt right into it. Just the idea carried me a few updates in, up to the questioning room sequence at the station. About that point, I had a bit of a panic and realised that I needed an actual plot. I'll spare a lot of the details, but the point is that I came to regret starting this most current plot arc. Nonetheless, after gritting my teeth and lashing together a large-scale outline of the story, I decided I was going to make the best of a bad situation and push myself to continue.
That doesn't mean that I haven't put quite a lot of myself into writing. In fact, I've probably put more into some recent updates than ever before. On the flipside of that, though, the rather tepid response is made all the more disheartening by that effort. It's obvious to me that overall investment in the story has dwindled, which only underscores the regret I feel about everything.
What does that mean going forward? I don't have an easy answer to that. Some perverse part of me says pulling the plug would make for the most satisfying rebuttal, but I can't let myself destroy every creative outlet I have left. After tamping down that impulse and doing some thinking, about the only course of action I could come up with was taking time to re-think this story. It's hard to say what that'll entail or how long it'll take, but what else can I do? If I don't work something out, this story will inevitably succumb to inertia anyway. I don't want that to happen. If there's anyone left who shares that sentiment, then I suppose there may be some hope. As always, please understand and please wait warmly.
Meanwhile, I'm going to go help a familiar friend get one of his wayward crafts back in the water. Don't be a stranger, THP.
TL;DR: I've written myself into a corner and need space.
FWIW I think you've been doing a great job. It's a lot of work to write something like this, and I respect you immensely for even attempting it.
It's just not my speed. I grew up on a diet of B-grade police procedurals and it kind of spoiled the genre for me. I got distracted, fell behind on my reading, and here we are.
That's all on me though. I'm trying to catch up and get voting again. The fact that it's taking me so long just shows how much effort you've put into this thing.
> written myself into a corner
As a fellow (former) Mask, I know exactly how you feel. Flying by the seat of my pants for four weeks worked wonders for my writing ability, but left the plot in so many pieces I cringe just thinking about it. Take all the time you need. If it really isn't your thing, and you can't duct tape it back together again, it may be better to just pull the plug and start over with something you're more comfortable with.
But I will say this: toughing it out and beating your word-demons into the ground feels damn satisfying.
Hello. All of the following would have been embedded into a giant rant, but I've opted instead to limit myself to this:
The update is something like two-thirds through a second draft. ETA is 'when it's done'. Also, after Tenma knows how much struggle and drama, there's an actual plot with concrete plans rather than the wobbly, bare-bones scaffolding that originally held everything up.
Thousands of apologies for long silences. Please continue to understand and wait warmly.
>>30540 I love when I open my big, fat mouth and shove my own foot right in. All I'm going to say this time is that the update is coming. Just know that all the restarts are because I care about the end result. And don't ask me for a TBA.
Inspired by my friend Mask of gold, I feel like I ought to at least show that I'm alive and that something is happening, even if it's not necessarily happening quickly. And I should really bring some kind of positive news in general, instead of bitching and blogging every time I have something to say. Why Wednesday? Because I do most of my work in bursts over the weekdays, and then I tend to devote the weekend to a bit more serious work if I can; most of the true progress happens during the week, though.
So, with that said, for my first mid-week report, I'd like to give an idea of where I'm at with the coming update. However, to talk about that, I first have to kind of explain my general process for approaching updates:
The very first thing I do is set down what the goals are for the update. If I know nothing else, I at least know what the ending of the update is supposed to be. Working back from that, I then try to suss out some "objectives", events or conditions that lead to that ending state, if you'd like. From there, the next step might sound a bit silly to some, but what I do is write what happens in the update in a very on-the-nose style, essentially creating an outline narrated by Koyomi. The result is often rather lacking good taste, but it serves its purpose.
Once I've got the general who-what-wherefore established, I move on to the hardest part of the process, i.e., the rough draft. This is the part that often takes me a while to get done, if only because it's a bit tedious. After knowing what happen, now I have to set it all out in some semblance of prose. It doesn't have to be good prose at this point. It hardly even has to be coherent as long as I know what I meant to do. Still, this is the hard labour part that requires "just doing it". Because of that, I try to work in quick bursts. How much happens in any given session is kind of down to how much patience I have after work. Which brings me to the current phase of things. This is where I have a full rough draft from start to finish, complete with choices, and now I have to start appraising it and figuring out what needs fixing. At this stage, I'm making plot-level fixes, trying to make sure things work out sensible, and so forth. If there's anything that I or my editor feel is missing, this is when it gets added, ideally. The idea is that, once everything looks square in terms of happenings, the sentences and their intended meaning are more or less "frozen", and I can move onto just making them sound prettier.
I'll talk more about what follows in coming reports, but that stage is where I'm at now. The draft's just been recently finished, so I had to get a read-over from my editor. We had a reasonably quick discussion, with a couple of sticking points brought up. The next thing to do is for me to give it another comb-over of my own and make any sort of broad-stroke decisions that might need making. As of today, I'm about a quarter of the way through re-treading the update and making my notes. I think I should be finished or close by the time of the next report.
Anyway, I hope showing little peeks behind the curtain at least show that I'm not doing nothing. Let me know how you feel. Until next Wednesday, my dudes.
I don't recall (on here, at least) mentioning retcons specifically, but I suppose you could say that's in the cards. Given the time I've taken to go back and actually craft a plot for the entire story, I'll bluntly say that in essence it'll probably work out more like the latter than the former.
However, I can say, without spoiling much of anything, that the events starting from the beginning of this thread all the way to Koyomi getting the mask from the black-haired kappa will still have happened. That's what I term the "first arc". Everything afterwards, well... we'll have to see, now, won't we?
Oh, and regardless of what happens after that, I will say that all of the stuff with Utsuwa will very likely still happen. It just might not be right now, and it might not happen in the way it happened over the past however long.
I'm not sure what I else I can say without spilling everything, so I hope that answers your question in some way. And thank you for asking!
Okay, I should probably say that, any time I say "I might be done with x by y", just mentally append a note that that is an optimistic projection, unless explicitly noted otherwise.
That disclaimer out of the way, I'll come right out and say that the projection of second-drafting work being done today was manic period optimism. I won't get into all of the circumstances with work and identity fraud that are part of life's campaign to keep shitting on me. Rather, I'll focus on the fact that I was not counting on having to rewrite things. That sounds scary, but it's not uncommon in the early-to-middle process of writing an update. Of course, it can also happen late into the process if you're sloppy about it -- something that used to happen to me all the time.
The fact of the matter is that I had some further discussion with my editor after last Wednesday's report. We came to an understanding that the early parts of the draft were okay but kind of flimsy. As such, it became necessary to take stock, make plans, and start to redo those bits. That is, of course, pretty normal. This step of the process is one of continual "fixing". If there's something that just isn't up to snuff in some way, then it has to be redone, and that'll keep happening until there's nothing left to have qualms with. The bad part of this is that this redoing work amounts to the first one-third of the update.
The good news is that I'm very, very close to the halfway point on getting that done. The even better news is that very little beyond that has shown a need for extensive work. With diligent work, I can likely move on to the spit-shining phase of things. Not to understate that work, but if I've done everything right here, then there won't be any reason to do anything more involved than changing words here and there.
Sometimes I'm a bit confused if I'm making progress myself. That said, I think things are proceeding at a reasonable clip, all things considered. It's my biggest hope that you'll all be staring at a shiny new update soon. Just... don't ask for an exact date or anything. The answer is going to be more optimistic than I can bear to recall later.
Despite increasingly shitty encounters with identity theft, I've just pulled through the rewrites-and-additions phase and moved into touching up the prose. In other words, we're getting a whole lot closer to a finished update.
As I've only just gotten into it, I don't want to be too optimistic and say I'll be done before next Wednesday. I'd like to think that all of the previous rigmarole basically front-loaded a lot of the work for me, but there's always those bits where it's hard to find the get the right feeling across. Plus, there's always bits where the prose is left first-draft-tier skeletal for reasons of pragmatism, leaving the work of adding meat for this present moment. That said, I feel like this is the part where I feel most comfortable working. Something about having the clay already shaped into something resembling the final piece makes it easier to let one's thoughts run free.
So, not much else to say, unfortunately. I've just got to play with words until they resemble an update. With any luck, that won't be much longer. Until next Wednesday, my dudes.
Mixed news this week. The downside is that I need to extensively rewrite a whole section of the update -- again -- to make it work. The upside is that, aside from that bit, most of the tweaking and improving is simple.
I don't want to get too into it, but I might as well say that, despite all good intentions, sometimes things don't follow a methodical procession of steps. In this case, I thought that the second draft had made for a working scene, and yet here we are. The true fact of the matter is that I tried to force it to work. Look you well and learn by my example why that creates pains.
Still, as I say, the rest of the work looks to be fairly simple. I've run up and down the draft de-clunk-ing things here and there, and have covered a good three-quarters of the update just pecking at it at random. Most of it comes down to word choice. Occasionally, a sentence or two needs moving and maybe a little extra spice added to it. The big thing for me is deciding how to break up paragraphs; it's surprisingly important for flow. Thankfully, nothing of that sort's presented much trouble.
If I can get my closest partner in crime working with me on the difficult bits this weekend, I'd be optimistic about a finish next week. That said, it's still done when it's done.
Until next Wednesday, my dudes.
P.S. Tenma help you if you're getting your news from me, but if you somehow haven't read it yet, go support my main man Mask of gold and his NaNoWriMo entry, Rural Concord in Small Scale. It's good.
Remember when I said that things don't necessarily go smoothly despite all good intentions? That applies to this week.
The long and short of it is that the particular scene that needed help worked alright for what it was, but it really needed something more. As it was, it didn't feel like Dacmag, and getting that feeling across is important to me, considering this is supposed to be busting a hiatus. If I can't give the readers a good sense of the story now, well, that's just robbery.
As such, in consulting with my editor, it quickly became obvious that I couldn't just fix up some words here and there and call it done. This called for a complete redo. That meant creating an outline of the scene, treating almost like its own update, and poking out a skeleton draft for it. Thankfully, that part of the work didn't take too long.
Where we stand right now, I've been working on fleshing out the draft of the scene, trying to work in a slightly abbreviated fashion while maintaining the integrity of everything. How long will it take to finish? It's honestly hard to say. At the rate I'm going right now, it could take what remains of this week, possibly running into the weekend.
What does that mean for the rest of the update? Hell if I know! All I can say for sure is that, once this scene is tricked-out, what remains is still a good chunk of an update to fit around it. I feel good about the overall integrity of the rest, but I'm not going to get complacent.
In short, no optimistic projections here at the moment. You still get it when it's done.
Spoilers: This is another short one because it's late. Also, no ETA still.
Work was still slow because of the same scene. I managed to get some triage discussion in with my editor despite NaNoWriMo. IRL issues briefly forced me out of my house. Building or maintaining any kind of momentum was difficult until just now.
I'm getting back into it, but there's no talking around the fact that I've lost time. All I can say is that I'll try my best not to lose any more. As with everything else, no promises.
In a positive turn, I broke through a fairly difficult portion of the scene, greatly improving it and generally making it more sensible than it has ever been. That does still leave the remainder, but it's a short remainder. I'm almost certain I can clean it up in the next day or two.
As to the rest of the draft, we'll see how that proceeds. I feel pretty good after clearing up this particular stretch of prose, so maybe I can harness that feeling and turn it into momentum.
By the way, if there's any particular point you'd like me to clear up about any of this, feel free to ask. Otherwise, I'll probably just keep it short and sweet. Or as sweet as the moment warrants, anyway.