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Swimming with Old Timey Spiritualists

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Mikumo rolled his eyes as they passed the various booths set out for the college’s clubs, wondering why they didn’t bother elevating themselves beyond high school level. Maybe there were a few more religious and politically themed ones, but otherwise… sports, sports, “culture”, sports, art, sports.

Kasane had more of an amicable approach and walked on the inside so he could see all the clubs closely. He even stopped to take fliers from someone who was carrying a sign written half in Chinese, and returned with his usual stupid smile.

“I don’t think they’re from the school,” Mikumo pointed out.

“Oh~? I thought they were interesting,” Kasane laughed, putting the fliers into his bag, “Apparently they’re not allowed to practice—”

“Whatever. Why’d we come here, anyway?” The campus was tiny and the generic, quiet student population didn’t seem like they could convince anyone to come to this college. “Only because they’re having their club drive and we happened to be staying nearby, that’s why.” He jammed his hands into his uniform’s pockets. “Just ‘cause we’re from a third-rate town doesn’t mean we have to go to a third rate school,” he paused to yawn, “This place makes me thankful we have a family business.”

“Ahaha, you should continue your education,” Kasane advised, with a sly smile, “I think you may…” He drifted off, eyes drawn to the booth they were nearly at.

Mikumo looked too, and immediately raised an eyebrow. Kurosagi Entrepreneurial Club: ¥¥¥!!!

How… informative.

The two guys sitting there didn’t seem too much like the rest of the students, looking as though they would be happier with no one ever signing up. One of them would’ve better suited the Buddhism Club group he’d seen (seemed redundant at this school), and the other… probably didn’t belong in college at all. There was a paper folded into a long triangle sitting on the table, with “Do you have special abilities?? Then we want you!” scrawled on it like an afterthought.

The most interesting thing, though, was sort of hovering around the monkish guy.

Even though Mikumo had never seen one before (actually, here in the city, he’d been almost forgotten he could even see anything weird, as they hadn’t been hounded by a single one), he would say it was a ghost. It was mostly human, and seemed to disappear into the background like a bad old film trick.

The ghost seemed to take notice of him too, and Mikumo felt a chill through this spine as it caught his eyes, then became more transparent, only leaving a slightly odd smudge in the air. Weird…

He rubbed his arms self-consciously. The spirit hadn’t made him afraid, but it definitely made him… wary. Mikumo looked over to his classmate, to discuss this important find. “Kasane—”

“Hey, you wanna join the club?” the guy with longer hair asked, or, just, hair, “Did you read the sign?” He tapped the triangular one with his finger, the rings he wore glinting.

“Of course,” Kasane said, with that same creepy smile he always had when he was too interested in something, “Both of us can—”

Mikumo was about to grab him back and tell him to shut it, but the bald guy looked up, raising an eyebrow. “Are you guys in high school?”

Mikumo nodded. “We’re visiting during our school trip.”

“Sorry,” he said, picking at his ear disinterestedly, “No underage kids allowed. Students only? However you’d say it.”

Like they’d want to join such a stupid sounding club anyway. Kasane was only interested because he was a weirdo who could detect his fellow freaks, and Mikumo frowned. “We’re not trying to join. We’re supposed to talk to one of the clubs here to get what college is like. What’s the deal with ‘special abilities’? What’s that got to do with being an entrepreneur?”

The goatee one crossed his arms, leaning back in his chair. “Everything,” he claimed, “You gotta think outside the box.”

“So, what’s your special ability?” Kasane chimed in, “I think you’ve got to be…” He tapped his chin with a finger, thoughtfully. “A dowser.”

Mikumo snorted. “Bullshit.”

The sunglasses guy’s jaw dropped. “Are you a psychic!?”

Kasane laughed to himself. “Just a good guess.”

“Hey, let’s let them hang out, maybe they can be future members. Well, that one anyway,” the guy said to his friend, gesturing to Kasane, “You guys are from the sticks, right? Come to the big city! Earn some money!”

The other guy turned his head. “Wouldn’t we just have to split up what we earn more if we had more members?”

“Oh, right.”

Another person approached, carrying a bag from a convenience store, and handed drinks to the two guys. “Sorry, they didn’t have the one you wanted, Numata.” He looked at the two high schoolers, then back at his club-mates. “New members?” For some reason he was wearing some kind of stuffed animal on his arm… or a puppet. Creepy.

“Here, write down your names,” said sunglasses, with a leer, “They won’t check.” He pushed forward a clipboard, and then flipped the triangular thing onto another side, where “Emergency Club Meeting” was written, along with a room number, apparently in case anyone wanted to come investigate. Under that was an arrow pointing down with “please sign up!” in someone else’s writing, along with a doodle of a winking skull with eyelashes.

Mikumo was feeling even more wary now.

He didn’t mind getting out of pretending to be interested in other clubs, so after writing his name (feeling a little precautionary, he used whatever incorrect kanji he could think of), he followed sunglasses and quiet guy along with Kasane through the halls. Baldy strayed back, slumping as he walked and not saying much.

“I’m Numata, this is Yata,” sunglasses introduced, indicating creepy puppeteer, then gesturing loosely to baldy, “and that’s Karatsu.”

Kasane laughed to himself. “Karatsu? En-ya, en-ya!” he chanted.

Karatsu squinted at him. “What?”

“From the Karatsu Kunchi,” Mikumo supplied, to a round of blank stares. “It’s a festival.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right up there with Shichi-Go-San,” Numata said, with extreme sarcasm.

“It’s in Karatsu? It’s a city we live near.” Stupid sunglasses wearing jerk.

“Hey, Karatsu, maybe you own some land there. What prefecture?” Numata asked.

“Saga.”

“Damn, that’s far. Guess there’s a shinkansen down there now. You should go.”

“I’m not going to go somewhere just because we have the same name. You know I’m from the northeast.”

Glancing back at Karatsu, Mikumo only caught sight of that spirit again, and just like the first time, its eyes met him, and he immediately looked away, shoving his hands into his pockets and willing his goosebumps away.

“Karatsu’s not usually like this, he recently found out something… bad?” Numata, half-grinned, too, so either he was an asshole, or this problem wasn’t too horrible.

“Shut up,” Karatsu sighed, “I’m trying to get it out of my head.”

“KARATSU AND SASAKI, SITTING IN A TREE, I-N-C-E-S—” the normally quiet guy sang, before grappling with his puppet arm, waiting a second, and muttering, “Sorry, sorry…!”

“If you thought Numata could’ve broken your arm before, just wait,” Karatsu threatened, jabbing his finger in the air.

“So, are you really a psychic?” Numata asked, sounding excited, “Mind-reading? Stuff… moving?”

“Telekinetic,” Yata suggested.

“No. I can see… things,” Kasane said, with a mysterious tone, tilting his head up, “And I’m head of our Supernatural Club at school.”

Mikumo coughed. “We’re the only members.”

Yata smiled now. “Really? What’re you interested in? UMAs, UFOs, folklore—?”

“Don’t get a hard-on, he’s in high school,” Numata advised, which Yata scowled at, “Hey, glasses, it’s like you have a resume to join. How about you? Though, as long as you can help carry, um, heavy stuff,” how vague, “you’re welcome.”

Mikumo frowned. He didn’t really want to say, and he could practically feel the ghost’s eyes boring holes into the back of his skull. Usually the youkai he saw wouldn’t leave him alone, but this one was so attached to Karatsu it wasn’t about to jump ship, and it didn’t seem to like being spotted.

“He’s an onmyoji,” Kasane said.

Mikumo shot him a glare. Numata laughed. “Shit, between an onmyoji and an itako, we’re just swimming with old timey spiritualists.”

Yata looked back at Mikumo. “Are you really?”

He just shrugged lamely in response. He didn’t want to explain himself, and it wasn’t like he was joining their club. Why did they care about this, anyway? Why have an itako in an entrepreneurial group? He pictured a blind woman in traditional clothes fanning herself with yen in a room full of pinwheels. Were they some kind of dial-a-psychic?

Stupid mental images aside, he was pretty skeptical of their club. It didn’t sound normal.

Numata opened the door to their room when they finally arrived. Kasane walked in first, and sighed in disappointment. It was probably too plain for him, Mikumo thought, considering how their own club was furnished like an occultist’s overflow room. This place had a juvenile air to it, with the posters on the walls, some little figurines sitting around, and…

He stopped looking around so much when he noticed the two women in there. Well, one woman, which he assumed was the itako, except she had glasses (maybe you only had to have bad eyesight to be one nowadays), as the other was more of a girl, and a very attractive one at that. She looked just like a perfect city girl should, with bleached hair, contacts, painfully fashionable, even the way she talked was just…

Oh, she was talking to him. What’d she say? “Um, hi,” he blurted, “Hello.”

She looked at him oddly, then to Numata. “You’re good at finding all the weirdos, huh?”

“They’re not weird, they’re in high school,” he scoffed, “They wanted to see what it’s like to be an adult and earn money.”

“Is that what you told them?” the woman asked, languidly standing, revealing that her outfit was rather… revealing, “Remember last time?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Numata sighed, and he turned on Mikumo and Kasane. “Neither of you is ghosts, right? If you are, you have to tell us if we ask directly.”

“I think that’s police, in American movies,” Yata said, “IF YOU FIND OUT THEY’RE GHOSTS, SHIT-FOR-BRAINS, INVITE THEM TO LIVE IN YOUR ATTIC.”

“Shut up!” Numata growled, grabbing Yata’s wrist, making the other guy squirm and grimace, “Don’t bring that up, asshole!”

“S-sorry!”

Karatsu stepped up. “This is Makino,” aka the adorable, perfect one, “and this is… Sasaki.” He didn’t look at her.

Mikumo and Makino. Their names went together perfectly. What was her first name, he wondered? It was probably really cute. He wanted to call her by it, with the –chan suffix. Maybe he could get to know her and they could exchange cell phone numbers.

“I’m guessing no one explained what we really do?” Sasaki asked, also not looking at Karatsu when introduced, “I want to be transparent this time around, especially because you’re only in high school. We mostly deal with corpses, and you probably don’t want to poke around here too much. But you’re welcome to stay if you just want to waste some time.” She moved to the couch, sitting and pulling over a laptop and beginning to work on it.

Mikumo finally pulled his mind off of Makino, and took note of the table in the middle of the room. It was a… long table. With a lumpy… something under a simple sheet. Also, there was an astringent smell in the room. He realized he wasn’t too observant when there was a gorgeous girl around. Did that lady say something about corpses?

“So, there’s a… body under there?” Kasane asked, eyebrows raised. He seemed a little shaken. For all his weirdness, maybe he wasn’t ready for a regular old dead person.

“Yeahhh,” Numata admitted, “She made it sound creepy, usually we just return them to their family and get a little cash, but something crazy usually happens before we exactly earn anything.”

“So you’re just some kind of delivery company? What do you need special abilities for, aside from having a driver’s license?” Mikumo asked. Presumably some kind of medical certification thing, too.

“I’m a dowser,” Numata said proudly, “So I usually find the bodies—”

“Aren’t dowsers supposed to find water or minerals?” Kasane inquired.

“Well, y-yeah…” Numata frowned.

“I’m an embalmer,” Makino chimed in, “it’s like, not really a super special ability, but try finding many more of us in Japan. I usually preserve them, y’know, or it’d get unbearable in here.” She turned, looking back at their other female member. “Sasaki’s a computer expert. We end up needing that a lot more than you’d think.”

Mikumo really wasn’t sure how much he thought they’d need a computer expert. How did these people meet, anyway? “Um, I’m a channeler,” Yata volunteered, “This is Kereellis.” He held up his arm with the puppet on it.

He hadn’t noticed before, but there was some kind of… of… Like the thing that hovered over Karatsu, it was present, but vaguely defined, even more so in this case. Mikumo had never thought he could see ghosts (particularly because their very old town should have probably been highly populated), but maybe these two were particularly strong. There was something else too, a thread of ectoplasm stretching upward, fading quickly.  It kind of creeped him out, but he couldn’t explain why, exactly. Something about seeing something you shouldn’t be seeing (as a person who always saw what he shouldn’t see, it was a disconcerting concept).

“WHAT’RE YOU STARING AT? NEVER SEEN SUCH A HANDSOME ALIEN BEFORE? USUALLY YOU HICKS LEAP ALL OVER US, ASK FOR A PROBING.” The… puppet… it wasn’t actually the puppet talking, despite its animated way of moving, but now he realized it wasn’t Yata either, not really.

“We’re not hicks,” he protested.

“Sure you are,” Numata smirked, “You both have accents, you know. And this guy,” he grabbed Karatsu’s shoulder, “he’s our itako.”

Kasane tilted his head, bemused. “A male itako? And not blind, either? How interesting…”

“Yeah, what can I say, I forgot to gouge them out,” Karatsu said, rolling his eyes.

“Jeez, man, you were friendlier to the ghost girl,” Numata sighed, “It’s not so bad…”

Karatsu looked away, scratching his temple awkwardly. Mikumo noticed Sasaki had stopped typing, then restarted, tipping her head to hide her expression.

“So… you guys wanna see it?” Numata asked.

“See what? The body?” Mikumo wasn’t… yeah, no, he wasn’t too excited to see it. It wasn’t the kind of thing that struck him as cool or interesting, he’d been properly raised on cremation being the only way. “Not really.”

“Aww. I promise I did a great job. You totally can’t tell how she died!” Makino assured.

“Maybe just a peek,” Mikumo said, without enough time to think about how she wouldn’t be impressed when he went pale and asked to be excused.

“You’ll have something to tell everyone back home,” she gushed, going over to the body and pulling the sheet down, “Ta-daa!”

He and Kasane edged closer. Mikumo felt cold as he looked at the woman’s face, and then down to her breasts and pubic hair, which alternately made him feel embarrassed and voyeuristic, and he swallowed hard. However, the most unusual thing was the cat curled on her stomach.

Well, on first glimpse it looked like a cat, but of course, why would they allow it there? And why did it have an inner glow, and appear to be made out of dandelion fluff instead of fur? Focusing on it, the creature didn’t really have definition, just a cat attitude, even as it just lay on its unusual bed.

“Umm,” he murmured, letting the sound die out in his throat because the thing turned to look at him. In the next instant it was on his shoulders, curling a split tail against his nose, and prowling down his arm in an unnatural stretch, considering it didn’t involve digging claws into his flesh, but it didn’t quiet have limbs either.

Human, it said to him, the way youkai usually did, with a vaguely threatening tone (or maybe a mocking one, it was always hard to tell) and an unfamiliar accent, this one is mine.

Kasane saw it too, eyes wide behind his glasses, but he said nothing yet. Mikumo was tense, but what could he do? He couldn’t respond, he had no bow to even attempt his version of exorcism, and he had no idea what this was about. Even if these people seemed weird… they could be lying and not have any of the supposed powers they claimed. He couldn’t trust them with the truth. This would… solve itself.

So he just tried to nod imperceptibly, and think affirmative thoughts. The cat thing reappeared on the woman, perching itself over the corpse’s sternum.

“I didn’t think it was that shocking,” Makino frowned, disappointed, “I thought I did a pretty good job. Like, you wouldn’t believe what was missing—”

“N-no, I’m sorry, I was just surprised. I’ve never seen one before,” he blathered, feeling stupid.

“What, a naked lady?” Numata smirked.

“LIKE YOU’VE EVER SEEN A LIVE ONE EITHER, MORON!”

“It’s weirder to think a dead person is normal.” Mikumo grumbled, hoping his face wouldn’t go too red. It didn’t seem to matter; Numata was wrestling for Yata’s arm again. He glanced at Kasane, who looked back at him, and clearly very much appeared to want to say something. Mikumo tried to psychically inform him to keep quiet, because it seemed to have worked for the cat.

“There’s a youkai,” Kasane said, apparently not picking up the signal. Mikumo whacked him on the back of the head, shooting the tersest look he could.

There was a moment of silence, before everyone laughed, except Yata.

“I think we’ve seen enough weird things that it could be true…” Yata input.

Makino crossed her arms. “Umm, I guess…”

“It’s a nekomata,” Kasane continued.

Sasaki sat back, finally away from her laptop. Mikumo felt strongly that she had just rolled her eyes. “I guess we can’t judge, because we’ve experienced some unusual things, but usually nothing so…” she thought for a moment, “traditional.”

“It’s not really a stretch, nekomata were…? Um, are known for haunting the corpses of those who were cruel to anything smaller than them, especially cats,” Yata said, “but it’s been a while since I read up on anything like that.”

“I’m shocked you sound like you don’t really believe in them,” Numata said, eyebrows raised high.

“They can possess corpses, too,” Kasane pointed out, “And shapeshift, dance, eat humans…”

“You said you were an onmyoji?” Yata asked Mikumo, who was watching the nekomata, trying to decide if it could understand or if it were annoyed that it had been revealed, but as a feline creature it was impossible to know what it was thinking, “Can you exorcise it?”

“He’s the one who said I was,” he blamed Kasane, pointing, “I can’t, I don’t have my… um, equipment with me.”

Karatsu frowned. “Do we still have that onmyoji outfit you used that once, Numata?”

“No way, we rented it. It was only a costume anyway, no magic powers included.”

“I need my own things, probably…” Mikumo wondered why the nekomata was allowing this without trying to give him some kind of orders or threats, why it wasn’t doing its alleged shapeshifting and eating them all. Maybe, like usual, the legends were partially true and partially made up to scare people.

“Well, we should think about this situation like this,” Sasaki said, snapping her laptop closed and joining them at the table, “This is a clue to her identity, so if it exists, getting rid of it wouldn’t be useful anyway. She had nothing on her, and Karatsu couldn’t get her to give us any ideas. What was it she’d said again?”

“I think it was…” Karatsu closed one eye thoughtfully. “I’m sorry, just put me somewhere out of the way, I don’t have family, that kind of thing. But her spirit’s still there, so it’s not like she’s actually at peace.”

 “Maybe ask her if she knows anything about nekomata… or just cats. It’s really all we have to go on.”

 Karatsu nodded, and moved up to where the woman’s head was. Mikumo’s eyes switched between him and the nekomata, which was watching Karatsu’s hand like a mouse it was tempted to strike at.

When he put his hand down, the ghost behind him flared strongly into clarity, and rather than look at it, Mikumo glanced to Kasane, who appeared to have seen it this time, judging by his face. “Did you—” he started. Mikumo just nodded. It seemed Kasane had only seen it for that instant.

Why are you back?” came a voice, startled, “I told you to leave me alone!”

“We just wanted to ask if you know anything about ca—” Karatsu barely got out. Just before his last word, the nekomata leapt from its place on the woman’s chest, over the woman’s head and Karatsu himself, and the corpse jerked upward.

“Sometimes that happens from, like, rigor mortis, but, um…” Makino started.

Everyone took a stunned step back as the body thrust itself off the table and ran out the door. “…You didn’t even shut the door all the way…” Sasaki murmured venomously, in a threatening enough way that Numata, Karatsu, and Yata sprang into action, chasing after it.

“What the HELL Karatsu!”

“I didn’t do anything! She didn’t seem like she was going anywhere!” Their bickering echoed down the hall.

“Oh noooo! Like, that much trauma could rip the stitches out! All my work!” Makino slumped onto the couch. Could he comfort her?

“W-we’ll get it back!” Mikumo declared, once again before thinking how he was going to run faster than three guys who all knew the campus, “Without anything, um, ripping.”

She looked up at him, skepticism still somehow cute in her doe eyes. “Um, okay…?”

He dashed out, grabbing Kasane’s wrist as he went. He followed the sounds of footsteps down the hallway, and then a yelp and a loud thud, spotting Yata turning out a doorway, Numata getting himself off the floor where he’d apparently attempted a tackle. Kasane was already huffing hard at this point, and Mikumo let him go once they were out the doorway. He could see Karatsu ahead, doing his best to follow the body, Yata behind, clutching his stomach, and the corpse making its way through the crowds at the club table, a lot of people struggling to pull out their phones quickly enough (to call the police or take photos, he wasn’t sure).

“Shit shit shit,” Numata gasped as he pushed past the two of them.

“Hey, what do you know about these things? What the hell’s going on?” Mikumo grabbed Kasane’s arms. “Can’t we stop it?”

“Ohhh? Now you need my help? Before you didn’t even want me to tell them about the nekomata, and I said they could possess corpses.”

Mikumo stared for a second. So… he had heard his psychic message? It was creepy now. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry, but now we should fix this because…” Because he wanted to impress a girl. He looked over. The corpse was turning a corner, to go around the school, “I don’t think they’ll be able to. Do you know what to do?”

Kasane tipped his head up, managing to get the light to reflect menacingly off his glasses. “I can help, but there’ll be a price…” Mikumo shuddered.

“Where are they?” Sasaki asked, walking up behind them, a cell phone pressed against her ear, “I want to hurt them.”

“Um, I think we really can help,” Mikumo said, earning a stiff look.

“That would be good.” She went silent for a second. “Where are you heading?” she asked into the phone, with a frown, then tipped it away from her mouth, “They’re just going straight down the street right now. If you go through that door, you can get out the back way and you’ll be closer. Your high school kids are coming to help,” she said to the person on the other end, “take out your phone and pretend you’re filming or something. And don’t have a heart attack, we can’t afford it.”

Mikumo said a quick thanks before he was running off again, going through the push door, with Kasane close behind. “What’re you going to do?” he asked between puffs of breath.

“You’ll see,” Kasane said, with a mysterious smile, “Just hope I can find some.”

Whatever that meant. It would be way easier if he had his bow, he could’ve shot it from clear down the hall. Er, well, it might’ve been a little harder with a moving target and so many people around.

They got out the school’s back gate, sprinting across the crosswalk just as the signal was ending. He could see the people ahead of them still standing spread apart on the sidewalk where they’d been run through, and followed the line, finally catching the sight of Yata struggling to keep up, his phone out as he sometimes called “filming, a, movie!” at people.

The corpse cut across traffic. It seemed to have an advantage over Numata and Karatsu, who were keeping up but starting to look a little ragged as they dodged cars. Numata leapt pretty impressively over a bike rack, and Mikumo caught sight of the cat sitting on the body’s shoulders like a very pleased scarf as they disappeared into an alley.

“Damn, it’s fast!” he huffed to Kasane, but when he glanced back, his friend was behind again. Maybe if he wasn’t inside with books all the time…

He cleared the bike rack as well, almost crashing into Yata, who was gasping something about the movie to a few people who were watching. It wasn’t surprising, since the corpse had thrown itself into a pile of burnable trash, ripping through it as Numata and Karatsu watched from a short distance, both breathing hard.

Look, look, look!” the corpse yowled as it pulled something out of the trash, “What we’ve been doing!” It had a pained look on its face, even for a dead person, as it tipped out the contents of a bag out onto the slightly damp ground.

Mikumo came closer, standing between Karatsu and Numata, both with disgust curling their lips by what they saw. He didn’t blame them and clapped a hand over his mouth, as heads and feet of animals—dogs, cats, birds, a rabbit—tumbled out. Seeing a completed dead body was different from one chopped up, even if they were animals.

It grabbed another bag and ripped it open too, with similar results. “What the hell is going on?” Numata gasped, like he was really, really trying not to breathe in through his nose, “What is this?”

Yata caught up, peering at the growing pile of animal parts. “Um, I…” He held out his phone again, once again feigning filming, as they really weren’t too far from the entrance to the alley. “This isn’t going to be like that urban legend about places serving cats and dogs, r-right?” Despite his pleading, he was going pale.

“Why would you say that?” Karatsu asked, sounding like he already knew the answer and just didn’t want to hear it.

“Because… um, that’s a restaurant,” Yata answered, pointing to the back door just beside them, “And that’s a lot of… meat…”

“YOU HUMANS MAKE ME SICK, YOU HAVE NO PROBLEM EATING LIVESTOCK BUT ONCE SOMETHING’S A PET, YOU WON’T PUT IT IN YOUR MOUTH? YOU’RE SO WASTEFUL, NO WONDER YOUR PLANET’S PRACTICALLY SELF-DESTRUCTING!”

“T-that’s sick,” Numata grimaced, then his eyebrows raised and he grinned, “Hey, this is that kind of expensive place, right? I’ve never eaten here.”

“Oh, yeah, neither have I,” Karatsu said, in relief.

Yata nodded. “I’m pretty sure Kei-chan said she didn’t like the atmosphere, so she never went, and Sasaki doesn’t eat out much. I guess we’re all fine.”

“You guys are crazy,” Mikumo finally said, and the other men all started, like they’d forgotten he existed, “Other people have eaten there! And like… look at all these!” Kei-chan, was it? That had to be her name. Wait, why was wimpy guy on first name basis with her? No, focus, focus. “This is really messed up.”

Even here in human cities, which they call civilization, the youkai purred into his head, making him wince, they cannot help themselves. I will make these ones pay for looking down on our kind.

The corpse stood, like a marionette being pulled up on its strings suddenly. It made a step toward their group, foot squelching on the stripped pelt of a dog.

Before it could get anywhere, the door next to them flew open and Kasane emerged, holding a small bowl in one hand, a chair in the other. The nekomata’s head raised, and the corpse stilled, knees buckling halfway, then straightening again. The cat seemed anxious or confused, tail tips whipping.

“What the hell is he holding?” Numata scoffed, looking down at Mikumo, “You call us crazy?”

“I don’t know what he’s doing either,” Mikumo confessed, glaring at his friend, trying to tell him he was a moron and ask him what he was up to at the same time.

Kasane ignored them, just walking behind the body, and putting the chair down a few feet away from it. He put the bowl on top of the seat, and went back to the door, shutting it. Mikumo realized a man was standing in the doorway, the light just illuminating his nervous, sweaty face before the door closed.

“Okay, let’s all turn around,” Kasane smiled when he joined them.

“What?” Karatsu’s eyes narrowed.

“I think I get it… do you really think that it’ll work?” Yata asked, apparently recognizing the plan.

“Why wouldn’t it?” Kasane asked, back already to the corpse.

“…Okay. I guess we can try.” Yata turned around as well. Numata and Karatsu shot each other looks before following suit. Mikumo glared at the nekomata, which was looking back at them. It made him nervous, whatever this plan was. If it didn’t work… it didn’t seem like a happy youkai, and there was nothing he could do about it. Without his bow, he was just an average, powerless person. He really didn’t want to turn his back on it. He knew what it was like for those things to take advantage of your existence.

“Come on, trust me,” Kasane said, with a hint of resignation in his voice, “It’s only interested in certain corpses.”

“Maybe it’ll make us corpses, you ever think about that?” Mikumo grumbled, finally turning around. He wanted to watch, and he suspected Kasane somehow had the perfect angle where he could see what was happening reflected in his glasses. It was quiet behind them… in front was kind of worse, though, as a group of girls walking by stared at them. City girls, too, who giggled and commented on these alley-guarding gangsters, and wore really, really small shorts. He felt himself flush.

“The plan is this: you three will grab the corpse when I say, after Mikumo does his work.” Of course he had to make it sound like this was somehow something Mikumo understood. “Mikumo, close your eyes.”

“What?” He shot Kasane a glare, then shut them, because his expression was serious. “Okay, why?”

“Focus on the nekomata—it’ll be by the chair—and pretend you’re drawing an arrow. When you’re ready, turn around and shoot it, like you would normally.”

Mikumo opened one eye, to look out of the corner of it. “Um, what are you talking about? I don’t have a bow.”

“Use your imagination. If you believe in it, it’ll work.”

Mikumo rolled his eyes before shutting them again. “This isn’t an anime,” he grumbled to himself, “believe in it, bull,” only able to picture all the people walking by them, politely ignoring but inwardly judging. He tried to ignore the ambient sounds of the world, furrowing his brow and focusing. Feeling out the land… mentally… he really didn’t know what he was doing, but he did his best to force that nervousness away, like when he had to compete in archery.

He breathed in, and out slowly, searching in the darkness behind him. He could picture it… where the nekomata was. It was further away from them than it had been moments ago, and it was… stooped over, on two legs. It was bigger now. He imagined the grip of the bow in his hand, and nearly could feel it. He turned around, eyes still closed, and stretched out his left arm, drawing his right up tight near his chin, muscles tingling as if he were really fighting the taut string. He could see the striped feathers on the arrow, the pointed tip, aimed right at the nekomata’s head. He had a perfect shot.

He took in one last breath, and let go. His eyes opened in time to see the nekomata—just as large as in his imagination, its fur now slick, as if the fluff it had been made of had been stretched out over its grown body, limbs definite and long, split tail squirming in pleasure as it drank deeply from the bowl—hit squarely in the side of the head as if by a gun. It left just as sizeable a hole, and it yowled as it began to implode, the bowl clattering to the ground and a thick yellow substance splattering out.

Kasane said something, and the members of Kurosagi followed his directions, Numata reaching the corpse in a moment and pulling it from where it lay on top of the animal parts, Karatsu taking the other arm to help. Yata looked at the chair, eyebrows drawing together, and quickly snapped a photo with the phone he’d kept in his hand before helping the other two by nudging away a stray cat head with his foot.

“Nice shot!” Kasane said, curiously enough, in English, “Don’t worry about the body, the nekomata’s gone.”

Karatsu and Numata both looked over at the bowl and chair setup. Karatsu asked first. “What the hell just happened?”

“Nekomata are supposed to really love oil,” Yata shrugged, “It’s meant to be lantern oil, though. Apparently cats would stand on their hind legs to drink the oil and the lantern would cast their shadow larger onto the wall, and people thought they were nekomata. Right?”

Kasane nodded. “It’s good to know that cooking oil works just as well.” He pulled a baby notebook from his pocket, flipping through the pages before scribbling something down.

“Actually, I did get a picture…” Yata brought it up on his phone, and held it out for them to see. It was from a little far away, and the lighting wasn’t great, plus it looked like a photo of nothing, but on the ground, and a tiny bit on the wall, there was an odd shadow that seemed to be missing its head, and possibly had two tails and legs, but it was very interpretive. “Maybe I can post this online.”

Numata looked closely at it, lifting up his sunglasses halfway to squint at the screen. “It’s as good as any Abominable Snowman photo.”

Karatsu frowned. “Guess we’ll just have to go with it. Not like here’s a better explanation.”

Mikumo noticed the creepy hovering spirit was looking at him again. It didn’t seem as hostile any more.. Did Karatsu know about it? “Um, hey, Kara—”

“There you are,” said a voice behind them, a cute, adorable one, which quickly stole his attention, “Hey, Sasaki, they’re over here!” Makino hurried through them to the corpse, looking over it quickly. “Wow, you did stop it before anything happened. My hero!” she smiled at him teasingly, but Mikumo’s face turned red, and he looked away.

“N-no problem,” he mumbled, even though she had already moved on.

“Ew, seriously, like, what the hell is all this,” Makino said, wrinkling her nose at the animal parts, “Don’t tell me it was laying on these. I’ll have to wash it off again…”

Sasaki rounded the corner, holding the long white corpse covering sheet in her hands. “Thankfully you didn’t get too far.” She handed the sheet to Karatsu, who started to move the corpse along with Numata, and they proceeded to wrap it up like a morbid burrito. “What happened here?”

“Umm… I dunno, some monster thing according to the high school kids,” Numata unhelpfully supplied.

“Yeah, it started pulling out all these animal parts, said some stuff and then he,” Karatsu added, tipping his head to Mikumo, “exorcised it? I guess.”

Sasaki sighed and shook her head. “Just another job we won’t get paid for. It’s not like we’ll be able to find out who murdered her in the first place.”

“Actually,” Kasane brought up, “I’m pretty sure it was the man who owns this restaurant. There was a poster for his missing wife by the counter in there, and it was her.” He pointed to the corpse.

“That doesn’t really prove anything,” Sasaki sighed.

“He started crying when I asked him if he knew anything about cats.”

“Oh. I guess it’s a matter for the police, then.”

“Mannn, we did a pretty good job,” Numata groaned, starting to unwrap the corpse again, “Guess we’ll just leave it with its dead friends.” They lay it on top of the animal bits, practically painting a sign that said “important evidence here!” “Oh well, probably one of our smallest losses yet, huh?”

“Won’t the cops be kind of suspicious that it’s been all…” Mikumo forgot exactly what Makino specialized in, “fixed up?”

“Don’t worry about it. We have a friend on the force,” Sasaki said, with a hint of a smile.

“‘Friend’ is a pretty loose way of putting it,” Numata grumbled. “Maybe we can exhort a meal out of the restaurant guy to get paid.”

Karatsu lifted an eyebrow. “They were serving dogs.”

“So ask for their vegetarian menu!”

Makino stretched. “Let’s just like, get out of here. It’s nasty. There’s going to be flies and roaches all over this in a minute.”

Sasaki stiffened and went a little pale. “You’re right, let’s call him from the room.”

 

“Well, thanks for helping, both of you,” Sasaki said, once they were back in their club room and after she’d made a quiet telephone call, the table in the middle looking too big now that it was empty, “Um…”

“Inoue Kasane,” Kasane said, apparently thinking she was looking for their names, “Kandori Mikumo.”

“Nice to meet you both.” She actually was? Kasane was totally psychic, he was sure. “Sorry we can’t give you any kind of reward.”

“Um, maybe if you let us stay a little longer?” Mikumo looked at the time on his phone. “We still have another hour to kill. Why’d they give us so much time…?”

“Sure, do whatever you want. I have a class, so I’ll be leaving, but everyone else will be here.” She moved to pick up her laptop and purse. “If either of you ever move up here, I guess you’re welcome to join, since it seems we’ll never graduate and move on.” This comment seemed to be directed at someone, but Mikumo wasn’t sure in the slightest. “Can you give me a call later, Makino?”

“Yep.”

“Alright, goodbye,” she said with a smile, leaving the room to a chorus of farewells.

It only took a moment for the awkwardness to set in. Yata decided to be the brave one, and brought up some kind of weird topic Mikumo didn’t understand, but Kasane was more than happy to jump into the discussion, something about coelacanths and too many words that had to be expressed in English. It seemed like Numata and Karatsu were more his type, as they started chatting distantly about baseball, like people who had heard about it on the radio because of some series but otherwise didn’t care.

“Sure you wanna stay?” Makino asked, and he realized she was behind him, putting some frightening tools into a plastic holster, “It doesn’t get much more interesting around here.”

Yes. She was talking. To him. One on one. Time to display his… charm… he mentally blamed his father for his lack of looks and charm, which were surely far below what she was used to. “Y-yeah, it’s better than being out there, y’know.” He briefly tried to think of ways to understate whatever accent he apparently had, but couldn’t think of any that wouldn’t be obvious. “Besides, someone might remember what we looked like, and the body running around and everything. Shit, I hope no one from our school saw that.” He could imagine their teacher stalking the hallways looking for the two of them to scream about what kind of trouble they’d gotten into in Tokyo.

Makino laughed quietly. “I don’t think anyone ever notices anything we do, or we’d be in jail already. Are you, like, thinking of coming to school up here?”

“Me? Nah, my grades aren’t that good. We have a family business back home.”

“What do you sell?”

“Archery equipment.” He never realized just how country that sounded until it came out of his mouth this instant.

Makino’s eyebrows lifted. She looked like she was trying not to smirk. “Well, if you want to keep going to school, you should. If those morons,” referring to the rest of the room, “can get in somewhere, so can you. Except, this school’s not that great, we met a girl who killed herself rather than coming here…” She frowned. Mikumo actually didn’t want to hear this story. “But if not, that’s fine too, you have family to like, fall back on? I went to America to learn embalming, but like, I can hardly use it here, so maybe you have it better, and you won’t be out the money?” She shook her head. “You don’t want life advice. I don’t even know what I’m talking about.”

“No, it’s really nice of you to say that. I guess this is what we were supposed do while here, anyway, with the clubs and all…” He was actually doing the assignment and talking to an amazing girl at the same time. Maybe he was charming.

“Aww! I feel like one of those mentor people!” Makino cooed, suddenly cheerful, “We should exchange cell phone numbers so if you need to like, talk sometime, we can. Or if you need any funerary services.”

“Er, yeah, that’d be great,” Mikumo said, with a genuine smile, his heart beating harder in his chest. She actually liked him? He was in love. Could he get a picture of her? Just to look at. Sometimes. Not creepily.

They handed each other their phones, Mikumo fumbling and almost dropping his. She held hers up to snap a photo before he was ready, resulting in a sort of awkward, surprised look that she deemed “cute” so he wasn’t going to argue, and she shot the peace sign with an adorable smile for his.

“Heh, your photo looks just like Kasane’s,” he pointed out, with some amusement, scrolling to his friend’s number to show off the look that was incredibly dorky when a dude did it, but perfect with a girl.

“Aww, we match.” She went silent, then smiled slyly. “You might want to change that if you’re going to show this to any more girls, though…” She tapped on the area that displayed the kind of contact this person was.

Mikumo turned the phone to look at it. “Boyfriend” it said.

“I—he—he changed that,” Mikumo sputtered, clicking at the screen until the area blanked out, aware his face had turned very, very red, “I hate him. We’re not even friends. He’s a leech.”

“I was kidding,” she said, raising her hands in defeat, but her expression revealed just how amused she was.

Mikumo stalked over to where Kasane was seated on the couch, talking with Yata. “Don’t touch my phone, or I’ll strangle you with your stupid scarf,” he warned, voice squeaking a little, “I mean it!”

Kasane just tipped his head up, grinning. “Nya-ha-ha,” he laughed, earning a slap in the head, as far as Mikumo was concerned.