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Out of Body

Chapter Text

“Hey, asshole. We’ve got a problem,” said Serizawa.

This language might have been a hint that Serizawa was not himself today, if the bright red circles on his cheeks weren’t already a dead giveaway.

Reigen looked up blandly from his desk, folding his newspaper. “Are you in there with permission, or is it finally time to exorcise you?”

“You might say it was an emergency,” said Dimple. It was particularly weird watching Serizawa’s face move with Dimple's words. Dimple’s mannerisms even down to mouth movements were so much more emphatic than Serizawa’s. Serizawa usually seemed like he was trying to take up as little space as possible, whereas the subtle changes of a Dimple possession made his height so much more noticeable. Did Serizawa not stand up straight usually? This was kinda creepy.

“Is Serizawa ok?” Reigen asked, pushing the newspaper aside.

Dimple made Serizawa’s face go carefully blank.

“Dimple,” Reigen said sternly.

“I’m not sure yet,” the evil spirit admitted. “His body is fine, he’s not dead. But I just found it lying around empty. He’s not in here with me.”

“... Well that’s not normal.”

“Right? That’s why I said we’ve got a problem.”

This was actually really worrying. “If he’s not in his body…” Reigen's hand rolled on his wrist in a beseeching motion as he tried to find the right words. “Give me the specs here, Dimple. If he’s not in his body, how are his chances? How long can his soul be like that before…?”

Before what exactly? Reigen didn’t even know. All he had for reference was Mob’s exorcism of Asagiri-chan, and that had been more or less traumatizing to watch.

“Beats me,” said Dimple. “It would depend on how good he is at it.”

“You’re no help.”

“And you’re no psychic.” Dimple’s tone was utterly casual, the comeback more a reflex than anything.

Reigen sighed and stood. “Either way, we’ll need a spirit detector of the highest caliber.”

In one fluid motion, he plucked his cellphone out of his pocket and flipped it open, thumbing the most well-worn speed dial. It rang four times, and for a moment Reigen thought it might ring its way straight to voicemail (again...), but then at the last possible second he got an answer.

“Hey, Mob,” he said. He turned his back to Dimple to peer through the window, finger hooking up under the blinds. “Yeah, sorry. It’s a real emergency though. No, I mean a real emergency. It’s Serizawa.”

He gave the details, and by the time he turned back to Dimple, their plan was rolling slowly into action. Looking at him again, Serizawa’s body was wearing his new suit, a deep almost-black blue with proper tailoring and everything. He’d finally been able to get rid of his shabby rental. He was doing good in school too. But on closer examination, he’d also let some scruff appear on his chin again, just visible under Dimple’s, well, dimples. Serizawa was getting better, much better, but he still slipped in the smallest of ways when he was juggling too many things at once.

Should Reigen have been paying more attention?

Dimple sneered. “Since when do you apologize to Shigeo for calling him over?”

“Oi. Watch it,” Reigen muttered.

 

~

 

Serizawa, Reigen realized, was actually quite popular. Mob came to search of course, but so did Tome on her day off, and also Ritsu and Hanazawa and even a smattering of ex Claw members, as if news of the situation had traveled via a sort of middle school psychics osmosis. Some of them admitted they didn’t even need to know the details, just that Serizawa was in trouble and that’s all it took for them to want to help.

Well, Serizawa had earned that, really.

They split up and began scouring all over town for signs of Serizawa’s soul wandering around, starting near his school campus, where Dimple had found his body. As appreciated as everyone’s good wishes were, Reigen suspected Mob would be the one to actually find him, so as always that’s who Reigen stuck by.

Dimple seemed to have the same assessment, because he followed behind the two of them in Serizawa’s body, picking Serizawa’s nose with gusto.

“Do you feel anything?” Reigen asked, as Mob led them down a backstreet behind the school’s gymnasium.

“I feel something…" said Mob. "I’m not sure what it is yet, but it’s what I’m noticing most.”

Mob wasn’t wearing his uniform, and his hair was even a little ruffled and getting longer. Was he trying a new style? Or was it more on accident? Either way it wasn’t half bad.

“... So,” said Reigen.

“So?” asked Mob.

There was a long silence as they turned into an alley with grass sprouting up through cracks in the concrete.

“... How’s school?” Reigen asked.

Dimple made a face that Serizawa definitely would never make.

“How’s school?” Mob repeated quizzically, turning his head to frown at him in a confused sort of way. Reigen immediately backpedaled.

“Nevermind, nevermind. Now’s not the time for catching up, Mob, pay attention.”

“Alright, shishou,” said Mob.

The alley ended in a dead end, surrounding them in faded brick walls that eventually blocked the lowering sun once they got in far enough. A dumpster was flush with the wall in the shade, and Mob stopped in front of it.

“Dead end, huh?” Reigen asked.

“No,” said Mob, pointing to the dumpster. “It’s in there.”

It was just an ordinary dumpster, the lid closed, a squiggle of orange graffiti looping across it. This was a decent enough part of town, so odds were the particular graffiti hooligans responsible for this still did pretty good in their studies, or were just practicing and chickened out before they could actually draw anything cool.

Still, what kind of master would Reigen be if he let his rapidly-advancing disciple dumpster dive for him?

“I’ll take it from here,” he said, clapping Mob’s shoulder and stepping forward. He pushed up the dumpster lid with one hand.

Immediately, a bright blue-white light erupted from the opening and flooded the alley, making its shadows disappear. Reigen was left blinking back sudden black spots in his vision. He caught a mumbled “shit” from Dimple behind him.

When he could see worth a damn again, he finally squinted into the dumpster, into the source of that shining beacon.

“... Actually, Mob, can you give us a second alone?”

Mob just watched him for a moment, as if assessing potential dangers, but eventually agreed. He silently turned and walked back out of the alley.

“Uh… Shigeo…” Dimple said, at a loss.

“You too, Dimple,” said Reigen.

“What the fu--?”

Reigen shot him a Look over his shoulder, and held up the five fingers of his free hand. “Just give me five minutes.”

“Fine, fine.”

It said a lot about Dimple that his expression was actually a little worried before he turned and followed Mob away. Perhaps sometimes he cared about Reigen’s safety after all.

With the newly acquired privacy, Reigen looked back into the dumpster, his eyes finally adjusting now to the light.

It was Serizawa, he was sure of it. Much like Mob, Serizawa’s out of body soul looked more like an animal than a human. It was a small brilliantly white lump sitting at the bottom of the dumpster amidst some twisted up soda cans. Hints of blue pulsated along its back and in its big, empty eyes. If Mob’s soul had been reminiscent of an axolotl, Serizawa’s was perhaps like… a tadpole. Or maybe more like the halfway point between a tadpole and a frog. It had four legs like a frog, but its limbs were stubby and almost useless and it still had a long tail that flopped vaguely back and forth, trailing smears of blue aura behind it. It was round and fat and looked about as anxious as an incorporeal almost-frog can look.

Reigen couldn’t explain how he knew so instantly this was Serizawa. It was a logical conclusion to reach, sure, but more than that it was just a gut instinct. This thing just seemed to him to be perfectly Serizawa-like.

The reason he’d asked Mob to leave was that Reigen knew Serizawa well, and the moment he saw him in this state he realized Serizawa would be terribly embarrassed if any of the kids saw him like this. More than anything, Serizawa never wanted to burden people, particularly the kids.

Dimple’s exile, meanwhile, was more because he was just kind of an asshole in these situations.

With the lid propped up on the wall behind it, Reigen crossed his arms over the lip of the dumpster and peered down at the little froggy soul as if this was the most normal thing in the world.

“What’s the matter, Serizawa? You look terrible.”

The soul hovered over the dumpster floor, tail dangling, and circled around its confines with a speedy, nervous energy.

It kind of made sense that Serizawa’s instinct in a pinch would be to sit in a dumpster. For some reason, enclosed spaces calmed him down.

Serizawa’s generalized anxiety had been getting much better lately, the more he interacted with society again, but Reigen would never forget his last public panic attack. It had come out of seemingly nowhere at work. Reigen was typing away, swearing at an annoying line of glitchy code on the Spirits and Such homepage, when all the sudden things all over the office started to levitate. Pens, papers, books, potted plants, the trashcan, Reigen’s computer… As they all lifted into the air, Serizawa simultaneously fell to his knees in the middle of the room, covering his face with his hands and saying “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry” like a mantra.

“What do you need?” Reigen had asked. “What will help?”

“I don’t know… Can I… sit under your desk?”

“Under it?”

But Reigen hadn’t protested. The desk was one of the few things still on the floor, and Reigen moved to let Serizawa crawl under it, this tall, broad man curling up with his chin on his knees, as if willing himself to disappear into the safety of Under.

The floating objects fell, making quite the mess across the floor, but Reigen did the work of picking them up, letting Serizawa stay there under his desk for a good thirty minutes. There was even a point where Reigen calmly returned to working on the homepage, sitting in his desk chair but rolled a few meters away to give Serizawa space, his laptop perched on his knee.

Afterwards Serizawa tried to apologize but Reigen wouldn’t let him, and that seemed to be a big relief.

Was he just hiding again now? Was this some sort of episode he was trying to calm down from?

Reigen’s brain churned through possible approaches to this problem, each more fraudulent than the last, but finally he settled on just extending a hand into the dumpster. Slowly. Ready to pull back if it wasn’t wanted. He reached for the increasingly vibrating soul, its bright light pulsating in bluish bursts.

“Hey, hey, it’s ok. You’re among friends, right?”

Reigen had never really referred to Serizawa as his friend out loud before, but it was true. One of the few in his collection.

As was his skill, Reigen kept talking. “Normally I’d leave you alone and let you handle it, but if you’re out of your body for too long something bad will happen, right? We don’t want anything like that. Right, Serizawa?”

The soul’s nervous circling started to dwindle, its vacant eyes trained on Reigen’s approaching fingers. Could a normal guy even touch a soul? Would that mess things up? Reigen was on the brink of finally hesitating, when all at once Serizawa’s soul floated easily into his palm, like a glowing baseball. It didn’t quite touch Reigen’s skin, but it radiated a pleasant warmth.

It just sat there for a moment, Reigen frozen partly in wonder and partly in uncharacteristic apprehension, and then it slowly flew up his arm to his chest.

Reigen’s arms instinctively rose to frame around the little tadpole, and then he was just standing there holding a soul to his chest, like some sort of strange cat. The light engulfed him. He could barely see the shadows of his own lapels, looking down. Serizawa didn’t meet his gaze, as if burying his frog-ish face in Reigen’s chest. The warmth was overwhelming, not the heat of it but… the intimacy. It was like someone was touching Reigen very softly, and honestly nobody had touched him like that in a very long time.

Reigen was no psychic, but he thought he could feel Serizawa’s relief. It was immense.

 

~

 

Reigen called in Dimple again and the swap of letting Serizawa back into his body was easy and painless, despite Dimple’s characteristically overwrought laments that he had lost another opportunity for a vessel. In Dimple language that was basically just satisfaction that Serizawa was safe.

They all then exited the alley together, where they found Mob waiting for them around the corner. The sun was getting low, giving the sky a deep reddish warmth.

“Are you alright, Serizawa-san?” Mob asked.

Serizawa was back to normal, slouching and chagrined and with dark circles under his eyes now that Reigen was looking for it, but otherwise unharmed. He smiled. It wasn’t even a nervous smile like his old ones used to be, it was one of his quite genuinely affectionate smiles, which he was getting better at giving. They were very charming. When you really got to see the sort of person Serizawa was behind his issues, it was so easy for people to fall in love with him.

“I’m fine. Thanks, Shigeo-kun.” He adjusted his tie, which Dimple had left loosened and askew, probably just to be mean. “I… I was on my way to work, I promise,” he said, as if that was at all important here. He looked tired and like he didn’t want to explain it. “I’m sorry for the trouble. I just got really anxious and suddenly… without meaning to, I’d left my body.”

“That’s definitely super weird,” said Dimple. As previously established, he was kind of an asshole in these situations.

“What happened?” Reigen asked.

Serizawa took a moment to gather his thoughts, and Reigen didn’t miss the way his eyes darted to Mob briefly before returning to the adults. Or at least the adult and the floating green blob.

“It wasn’t anything bad,” he said finally. “It was actually… My remedial math class. We got our tests back today. I got the highest score in the class.”

Silence.

“Huh?” said Dimple. “Why would you leave your body over a good thing?”

Serizawa was getting more nervous, his smile turning back into the familiar jittery one. “I… don’t know. I can’t explain it. I guess it was just… a lot?”

Pressure. The question of whether something is deserved, or whether something can truly be carried out.

It made perfect sense to Reigen.

“Well, you’re in one piece now, so I guess we’ll have to tell those other guys to stop searching,” Reigen said, with an air of finality.

“Other guys?” asked Serizawa.

“The whole town’s looking for you,” said Reigen, which was an exaggeration but not really if you were just counting the important people in town.

“We were worried about you,” Mob added gently. He’d matured a lot, hadn’t he? Reading the situation like that.

“Thank you,” said Serizawa, his face a little pinched and hard to decipher.

Reigen sent Dimple out to let the others know everything was ok. Of course it was easiest for an airborne spirit to be the messenger, and for all his whining he always made a good errand boy. Mob, seeing that disaster was averted, asked if he could go home.

He didn’t usually ask these days. He just went home, if he even visited the office at all. It was clear he wanted to make sure everyone really was alright before leaving, and so had left the judgment again in his master’s hands.

A part of Reigen wanted to take advantage of it. To ask Mob to stay longer, not for Serizawa, but because Reigen wanted him to. Because Reigen missed him.

But hey. What kind of master would he be if he pulled stunts like that?

“Yeah, get lost,” he said with a grin. “It’s good to see you, Mob.”

“It’s good to see you too,” Mob said, with his usual lack of inflection. Then with a slight bow to Serizawa he started home.

Reigen ignored the way his chest ached.

The most professional cons can even con themselves out of their own feelings. A useful trick.

He elbowed Serizawa’s side, breaking his coworker away from thoughtfully watching the sunset.

“You don’t want to talk about it do you?”

“I don’t,” Serizawa confirmed.

“Then let me treat you to dinner,” Reigen said. “You need to replenish your nutrients after an event like that.”

“I don’t need to replenish any--” Serizawa started, but then stopped as if all at once realizing what the offer was actually for.

“... I think I’d like that,” he amended, his shoulders easing, like the whole world had finally rolled off of them.

Chapter Text

The first thing Serizawa ever bought with his own money was a gachapon capsule at thirty years old.

He’d only really survived so long thanks to the help of others. He’d relied on his mother so heavily that he feared their relationship was beyond mending now, but she never did let him go destitute on the streets. All those years she was the one feeding him and keeping a roof over his head. Even the money he received from President Suzuki was always more like an allowance than a paycheck.

The first 1,000 yen he ever actually earned was from Reigen. From working at Spirits and Such.

Back then, it felt like he should mark the occasion somehow, which was why he bought the gachapon. He thought it would be a private joke with himself. He could look back someday and laugh about how such a monumental moment in his recovery ended in a tiny plastic toy. A little mech to be precise, from some Gundam knock-off anime he’d never heard of.

Except he wound up crying over it instead, because he was just so happy. On the train ride home he kept looking down at the robot in his hand and awkwardly wiping his tears and snot away on the sleeve of his rented suit.

What would the protagonist of this mech anime say? Probably something like “Go for it!”

Shounen anime protags were all about facing the world with bravery, right?

Ever since, Serizawa had been collecting more toys and figures because, well, he was kind of a nerd. You don’t spend 15 years in one room without becoming invested in movies and video games and, eventually, the internet. There were a couple months in his early twenties when he was actually quite popular online, but that was mostly the result of lying about himself.

Reigen Arataka had more in common with Serizawa Katsuya than he probably realized.

Now, after his strange out of body experience and an admittedly equally strange soba outing with Reigen, Serizawa took the train home to his one-room apartment, where his motley collection stood on a shelf above his bed.

He decided not to worry about the whole out of body thing. It was just a blip. Instead he shouldered out of his suit jacket, hanging it on his desk chair, and took his daily pill with some soda. He always forgot it at bedtime, so he made it part of his coming home routine instead. He was getting good at finding loopholes like that to get things done.

His textbooks were stacked on the floor, and he pulled out the ones he’d need for tonight’s homework, setting them in the middle of his desk. He readjusted a photo he had on display of a few of his friends from school. The routine was that he gave himself forty minutes break when he got home and then he did his work, which was always listed painstakingly in a planner.

At this rate he would graduate soon.

“You’ve been doing pretty good!” Reigen had said before they parted ways tonight. His tone was almost sly, like he was revealing top secret information. A transparent wet spot of broth was still on his dress shirt, and he smacked Serizawa on the back encouragingly.

Serizawa knew Reigen was telling the truth there. The thing about Reigen was, he wasn’t a nice person. Nice and good were two different things. He never said nice stuff just to be nice, and he certainly had no interest in pity. He just said what was on his mind, and above all, he had the remarkable ability to accept people as they were, like nothing was a big deal.

For Serizawa, it was a relief to be around somebody who was neither impressed nor intimidated by his suffering. In Reigen’s book, Serizawa was just a normal guy.

Maybe someday Serizawa could believe that too, if he just held the idea in his head for long enough. Maybe he’d even tell his school friends he used to be a shut-in without feeling ashamed about it.

Someday.

He was feeling tentatively proud of himself, and out of habit, he looked at that shelf above his bed and all his collected figures. Collected memories, from living an actual life.

There was a whole chorus line of gachapon toys, always bought on walks home from work, and some models he'd put together behind them. There was a frog ashtray he'd bought just because he liked it, not because he smoked. He'd named it Clyde because it just looked like a Clyde. Then in the very back, behind the models’ empty boxes, was a top secret ero figure. She was a buxom girl with a removable kimono and hyper detailed, uh, details. He'd had no idea the clothes came off like that. He just thought her design was cute. Now he felt like he couldn't meet her eyes, but keeping her in her box would be a waste.

He liked them all, but now he also noticed something else.

They’d gathered a lot of dust.

How had he not seen it before? There was definitely a layer of dust and fuzz and even a dead beetle on its back in the shadows. When had he let that shelf get so gross?

It was like his eyes fully opened, and now he also noticed the dirty shirts and underwear piled on the floor, and the overfilled waste basket, and three different bowls just hanging out on available surfaces. Could he actually smell the leftover food bits in those bowls, or was that just his nose playing tricks on him? Did it smell bad in here?

He couldn’t help but think of his old room at his mom’s house. It had smelled terrible, but he was so used to it then he hadn't even known…

Had he been slipping this much? How much further until this room wound up like the old one?

He swallowed the lump in his throat, concentrating on calming the psychic energy buzzing at the edges of his aura.

On second thought, he didn’t need a break. He’d better get to work right now.

 

~

 

“You’ve seriously never heard about the chick who got a probe up her nose?”

Conversations like this were normal when Tome was working. While Serizawa was going over their account books at the tiny reception desk, Tome had perched herself on the edge of Reigen’s desk for an impassioned rant. Like Reigen himself, Tome seemed to need at least an hour of goofing off before a productive shift could begin.

The timing was perfect because she always arrived around the time of Reigen’s afternoon goofing off period.

“You sure she wasn’t just trying to get medical compensation?” Reigen asked. “Sounds like a great way to convince your insurance to cover a nose job. What business have aliens got up a nose anyway?”

“They really found a device!” Tome was in a thrall.

“What kind of device?”

“A probing device!”

“You keep saying probe, but what even is that!”

“I don’t know!”

Why were they getting louder? Best not to question these things.

Serizawa found himself watching them fondly, until his vision was suddenly overshadowed by bright, roiling green.

“Dimple-san!” It startled him.

Dimple met his eyes expressionlessly, hovering right in front of his face as Tome and Reigen continued their weird argument. He made a considering hum of a noise, bobbing a bit to the side to examine Serizawa in profile. It was kind of intimidating because Serizawa was never quite sure how to react to Dimple’s… Dimpleness.

“Feeling better? Soul strapped in?” the spirit asked finally.

“Ah, yeah. Yeah, I’m good.”

“That’s a pretty dangerous habit, you know. If you do it often enough, your soul will start to break down. It’ll be harder and harder to get back.”

Serizawa hadn’t known that.

Reading him like a book, Dimple sneered. “When you’re a full-time spirit, you know a lot about this kinda stuff.”

“Thank you, Dimple-san.”

“If your soul ever leaves permanently, let me have your body.”

Serizawa gave a nervous laugh. Was Dimple being serious?

“I’m dead serious,” said Dimple.

Oh no! Could he read minds or was Serizawa just completely predictable? Which option was worse?

“It’s not like I’d be able to tap into your latent powers without you in there, but sometimes a guy misses just walking around and being handsome, you know?” Dimple clearly delighted in making Serizawa squirm and was going to milk it for all it was worth. Serizawa was, after all, the easiest target in the office. “Plus you’re tall and I do love being a head above the rest.”

“STONEHENGE!” Tome yelled, banging her fist on Reigen’s desk. She knocked over Reigen’s pencil cup and he berated her with equal energy.

The distraction was enough for Dimple to relent, meandering up over Serizawa’s head to phase through the ceiling. Serizawa tried not to look relieved.

But Dimple did drop one last piece of wisdom on his way out.

“You forgot to shave again,” he said. It was a comment that would have been perfect for continued teasing, but actually his tone was surprisingly gentle.

Serizawa raised a hand to his jaw and yep, it was prickly.

“Oh…” It had completely escaped him this morning.

“Hey, Serizawa,” said Reigen. “Are you doing anything next Saturday?”

Serizawa looked over again to where Reigen and Tome were both collecting paper clips from his knocked-over cup.

“No, I’m free.”

“Perfect. We’ve got a job up in the mountains.”

“Really, a trip?” Tome asked.

“Not you,” said Reigen.

They got back to arguing. Dimple had vanished for the time being.

 

~

 

Their weekend job in the mountains was at a hotel, which made the trip look suspiciously like an excuse Reigen had cooked up to get a free night's stay somewhere nice. Right from the get-go, it felt more like they were going on vacation than actually working.

Reigen drove them out of town in a borrowed (or coerced?) car, winding up higher and higher into the hills. Soon they were on a gorgeous road between deep green forest and scenic drop-offs. He rolled the windows down, perching his arm on the windowsill with the elbow half hanging out. He wore his usual suit but had foregone the jacket and tie and left a few buttons undone on his dress shirt, exposing long throat and sharp clavicle.

Serizawa felt overdressed in his full two-piece. Reigen was even wearing sunglasses. Kind of obnoxious ones.

“The weather's great this time of year, isn't it?” Reigen crowed as they turned a little too fast around a corner, the wind through the windows whipping his bleached hair around his forehead.

“It is,” Serizawa said, with a bit of wonder.

“You sound pensive.”

“Well, it’s just sometimes it takes my breath away a little. Nature, being outside. I missed out on it so long, sometimes it surprises me all over again how beautiful it is.”

Serizawa hadn’t thought through sharing that, and after the words had left his mouth he felt a rising embarrassment. Another reminder that he’d been useless for so long...

But Reigen wasn’t even fazed.

“Hey, that’s pretty wise,” he said. “A blue sky must look amazing through your eyes, huh?”

Serizawa smiled, calmed. “Yeah, amazing.”

“I like it too.”

Reigen made things so easy somehow.

When they arrived, Serizawa was in for another surprise. He hadn’t realized the hotel they were exorcizing was a traditional ryokan, complete with its own hot springs kept private by tall wooden walls. Serizawa could see steam rising above them.

What was Reigen up to?

The whole area was surrounded by dark forest and the bright, crisp air of higher altitudes. The wilderness had opened onto a quiet little onsen town.

“Are you eating it up, Serizawa?” Reigen asked, unloading their bags. Honestly, Serizawa should have been more suspicious when Reigen told him to pack an overnight bag.

“Is this really ok?”

“What are you talking about? We’re here on business.” Reigen’s enormous, sharp grin kind of undermined that statement.

They entered through a sliding door, exchanging their shoes for provided slippers, and were met by the manager, a portly older woman wearing a gray and blue kimono with golden angular designs.

She bowed deeply, leveling them with a small, polite smile. Something about her round face and crow’s feet reminded Serizawa of his mother.

“You must be the psychics,” she said. “You look pretty dependable. Forgive me, but we’ve been scammed before.”

“You have nothing at all to worry about,” Reigen said, still wearing his sunglasses which honestly made him look exactly like a scammer. “We aren’t your run of the mill psychics. You’ve hired Reigen Arataka, the greatest supernatural star of the 21st century. This is my associate, Serizawa-kun.”

Serizawa bobbed his head meekly.

“It's a pleasure to meet you in person,” said the okami. “As I described on the phone, we have a small ghost problem. It only shows up at night, so you’re welcome to rest around the hotel until sundown, and of course to stay the night afterwards.”

Bingo.

“So generous!” Reigen beamed, his face and voice in customer service bullshit overdrive. “Your payment of course will come after the exorcism, but in the meantime we’re honored to experience your prize-winning amenities. How late is the onsen open tonight? Would it be better to go before or after the exorcism?”

Reigen was taking full advantage of this little old lady, huh? Serizawa should really put a stop to this…

But the okami only continued to smile. “Oh, we’ve had a misunderstanding,” she said brightly. “Of course it is only hospitable to provide you with a room and dinner for your troubles coming all this way, but our onsen is for paying guests only.”

“Uh, but--”

Her smile hitched higher. “And of course you won’t be getting the full course meal, but our chef is happy to make you the same dinner as the staff.”

Reigen looked like a withered husk of his former self.

This little out lady had managed to ruthlessly derail his attempts at leeching off her business, all while smiling in a manner so impenetrably polite that it couldn’t possibly be criticized.

Serizawa’s respect for the okami was at 100%.

 

~

 

Their complimentary room was nicely sized, with the usual tatami floors and shoji screen walls. A small table sat in the center, already with a kettle of tea prepared on a hotplate, and there were extra nooks for sitting and for their bags. A maid provided them with yukata to wear. They had to try a couple times to find one in Serizawa’s larger size. The maid, who was new, even brought him back to the okami for help, and her polite smile seemed a little teasing to Serizawa as she got him settled.

“I’m sorry for the trouble,” he stammered.

“It’s quite alright,” said the okami. She looked him up and down. “You’re different than that other guy, aren’t you? I’m glad you’re here.”

Serizawa felt compelled to defend Reigen’s character--if not necessarily his practices--but found himself just awkwardly nodding and returning to their room.

The only yukata they had that fit him right was an ordinary dark blue color, but Reigen’s was a little flashier. It was white with swirling gray lines reminiscent of the ocean and a gray belt. It hung on his slim frame nicely.

Once they were both dressed down for the evening, Reigen slid open their window, revealing a wonderful view of the surrounding trees. So much green in one place…

“You like it?” Reigen asked mischievously, as they both sat down at the table for the tea.

“It feels a little awkward,” Serizawa admitted. “Am I really going to perform an exorcism in a yukata? Isn’t that weird?”

“Isn’t performing an exorcism in a suit weird?” Reigen countered. “Or in a t-shirt? It’s always going to be weird. This is a weird profession.”

Serizawa couldn’t argue with that.

Reigen poured their tea and added, “That’s not what I asked you, either. I asked whether you like it.”

Serizawa turned to the window again, its dappled light and the whispering of the cool, fresh air it brought in. “Maybe that’s the weirdest part. This is actually really nice.”

Reigen looked extremely pleased with himself. “Good to get away sometimes, right?”

“Yeah. I’ve never really done this, not since I was a kid.”

“I suspected so.”

Something about Reigen’s grin gave Serizawa pause, before it disappeared behind his cup for a sip.

… Was this trip actually a misguided scheme of Reigen’s to treat Serizawa and help him relax?

The thought appeared in his head but was quickly discarded. No, that would be ridiculous. Even for Reigen.

They sat and drank in one of their companionable silences.

During their time working together, Reigen had become something so absolutely normal about Serizawa’s life that it was kind of hard to imagine that he hadn’t always been there, just in the background of everything. It was a nice feeling, when Serizawa actually stopped to notice it.

Reigen’s sleeves hung lazily by his elbows as he drank, his forearms surprisingly strong but bony. His fingers were knobby. Serizawa tended to stop and notice these kinds of things whenever he stopped and noticed Reigen.

He couldn’t deny that Reigen was an attractive man. Or maybe it was more that he was a perfectly average looking man but the confidence with which he carried himself made him kind of hot.

He didn’t know why he was thinking like that now. Maybe he was just comfortable. Warm and unguarded.

“Tell me about those trips when you were a kid,” Reigen said.

So Serizawa did.

 

~

 

The staff dinner they were provided in their room was actually the best food Serizawa had had in weeks. Afterwards, they walked around the grounds waiting for the sun to go down. It felt like the mountain air stuck to Serizawa's skin, breathing in through the loose cotton and reminding him again that he was alive. Sometimes the reminder is needed. Reigen’s ongoing rambling at his side made for good background music, spieling off facts and stories and familiar noise.

As night fell, however, they did have a job to do.

The okami led them to a room in a wing of the hotel that had been out of service for a long time.

The sliding door was completely plastered with paper talismans against evil. This room meant business. In fact, when the okami pulled the door open a bunch of the talismans got ripped or snagged and it was hard to even get inside.

Despite that, the aura in the room seemed… normal. It was identical to the one Reigen and Serizawa were staying in, but emptied out, and wallpapered in with even more talismans. The only object in the room was a painting laid out on the floor. It was a hanging scroll, actually quite small in the big empty space.

Reigen walked right up to it in his slippered feet and stared down his nose at it.

“Ah yes, I feel a big energy in this one,” he lied, while simultaneously throwing Serizawa a This is it? look.

Serizawa came to stand beside him. He didn’t know much about paintings, but it seemed nice enough. It was a muted landscape of a mountain, with big thick brush strokes making up the jagged peaks. A little path wound down the mountainside, reminiscent of the roads they’d driven earlier that day.

“It’s a cursed painting,” the okami explained. “A spirit lives inside of it. It used to hang in the lobby, but the spirit would come out and go walking every night. Needless to say, that’s a discomfort for our guests.”

“Your hospitality is inspiring,” Reigen said, with exaggerated cheer to drive home his bitterness at not receiving it.

“Thank you,” said the okami, her smile unwavering.

Reigen and Serizawa wound up spending the night babysitting this cursed painting.

For hours they sat on the floor on either side of it with the lights off and a pair of flashlights pointed at it, waiting for it to do something. Anything.

“So you can’t just exorcise it?” Reigen asked eventually. Again.

“I still don’t feel any particular energy from it,” Serizawa said. It was getting late, and honestly the relaxation of the day was making his eyelids heavy. The world beyond the shoji screens was already pitch dark. “I guess we just have to wait until the ghost shows up.”

“We should have brought cards…” said Reigen. “Or at least our phones.”

Reigen wasn’t above playing phone games during tense supernatural moments. But he’d left his cell phone with his clothes. Downside to yukata.

Serizawa closed his eyes for a moment, feeling warm and muggy, and then Reigen said “Oi. What’s that?”

Serizawa snapped to attention to find Reigen pointing at something on the painting.

A black smudge had appeared that surely hadn’t been there before. It was on the mountain path, as if a shadowy humanoid figure had started walking down it.

“Creepy,” Reigen said, angling his flashlight. With zero qualms, he actually ran his finger over the smudge but it didn’t budge.

“Don’t touch the hauntings, please,” said Serizawa.

“Is that sass?”

“It will be if you get possessed.”

But strangely, Serizawa still couldn’t feel any supernatural auras at all.

They watched in awe as the black figure moved down the path, so slowly that they couldn’t even tell it was moving except by noticing that its position was gradually changing. It walked farther down the mountain, and simultaneously closer to the bottom of the painting. It grew larger as it came closer, like it was approaching them too.

“Hey, I hate this,” said Reigen. “Exorcise it, already.”

“I can’t. It’s still not quite in our world, I think.”

Their vaguely impressed interest became increasingly nervous as the figure reached the bottom of the scroll and then just stood there, growing progressively taller and wider. The perspective became wonky and headache inducing to look at. The smeared black head and shoulders of the figure soon eclipsed the mountain itself, until the whole painting was more like a portrait of an incomprehensible face and elongated dark streaks for eyes and a mouth.

“Any day now, Serizawa,” said Reigen.

Serizawa opened his mouth to respond with sass if Reigen was going to ask for it that badly, but before he could get a word out--

Good evening.

A chill ran up Serizawa’s spine and the back of his neck. “Did you hear that?” he asked, his voice suddenly a whisper.

“Hear what?” said Reigen.

So you’re the psychic one. Interesting.

The inky smudging on the painting shifted and swirled, and then somehow it wasn’t ink at all but long black human hair looping and splaying across the scroll. It rose. The head was rising from the floor.

“Serizawa!” Reigen squawked, as a pale blue face appeared and bottomless eyes and an ugly grin.

You’re a strange psychic. Someone like you can’t defeat something like me.

The voice spoke clearly in Serizawa’s mind, like someone had their lips to his ear. The head rose out of the painting and so did a neck, but the neck didn’t stop when you’d think it would. It just kept going and going, stretching impossibly long, looping like a snake and hovering above the floor as the head twisted its way to the ceiling, dark hair obscuring its features.

Serizawa raised both hands forward, gathering energy to dispel the spirit, but the voice in his mind was unperturbed.

Oh no, my friend. I won’t be defeated by a man who hates himself.

All at once, Serizawa’s power halted in his fingertips, his whole body going cold. What?

Will you deny it? the spirit demanded. You hate yourself. You’re weakened by it.

Serizawa could feel his own powers prickling in his palms, like tiny needles. It was hurting him… Why was it hurting him rather than the spirit? Didn’t he have better control of his powers now? His heart was fluttering. He was…

… he was getting really anxious all the sudden…

You’ve done so much, but has it really made any difference?

“Stop,” Serizawa said, surprised by how quiet his voice came out.

“What’s happening?” Reigen demanded, sprawled on his back gaping up at the spirit, its neck slowly filling the room. But his voice sounded like it was too far away somehow even though he was right there beside him…

No matter what you do, you will always be yourself.

The spirit’s voice was louder than Reigen’s.

Did you foolishly think that any amount of change in your life could change that? That you would ever get to stop living with the self you hate? It doesn’t matter what your job is, who your friends are. You will always be that hateful you.

Serizawa’s aura wobbled, his energy shaking erratically with the pounding of his pulse in his throat. He couldn’t breathe.

If you can’t change that, what have you even accomplished?

The power traveled away from Serizawa’s fingertips but not in the direction he wanted it to. It traveled inward, back down his wrists and his arms, into his trembling core.

If you can’t change that, why do you even bother?

“Serizawa!” But now he couldn’t identify the person calling his name so desperately. They were too far away…

You’re terrible.

The room filled with white light, and with an awful ripping sensation Serizawa fled from himself. His soul went careening out of his body and away

away

away.

Chapter Text

When Serizawa face-planted into the floor, for a split second Reigen thought he’d just up and died, but then his glowing tadpole soul bounced out of his back and made a beeline for the ceiling. The room filled with light. The painting ghost looked even worse when fully illuminated.

“Don’t you dare!” Reigen shrieked, in an admittedly very uncool fashion. “This timing is terrible, Katsuya!”

He even lurched forward trying to grab at the soul’s amphibious tail but it easily squirmed out of his reach. The evil spirit’s head followed it, neck unspooling, teeth gnashing, as if trying to eat Serizawa, but his soul disappeared safely through the ceiling and all went dark again. The monster’s lips and teeth simply crunched against the wooden roof beams overhead.

Which left Reigen alone. Reigen and Serizawa’s body that is.

Needless to say, it was time to get the fuck out of here.

The evil spirit turned its face slowly toward Reigen again, its head hanging from its neck, so that it was almost upside down and grinning horribly at him through matted hair.

Reigen threw his flashlight at it as hard as he could with a primal scream.

There’s no way that would do much, but he wasn’t going to hang around to see exactly how ineffective it truly was. He took whatever tiny morsel of time he’d bought himself and scrambled for Serizawa’s body.

Serizawa was breathing deeply, almost snoring even, but without his soul he was a sitting duck. Reigen couldn’t just leave him.

So in the most fumbling and awkward of fashions, skinny Reigen Arataka managed to wiggle his way under Serizawa’s body and heft his much larger coworker onto his back and run for dear life.

“Fuck you’re heavy!” Reigen yelled. Yelling helped somehow. “Fuck! I can’t even breathe fuck damn it!”

His already burning legs carried them scuttling across the room for the door. There was no time even to stop and slide it open. Well, shoji screens were just paper at the end of the day... A part of Reigen had always wanted to do this, so it was now or never.

Using the full weight of him and Serizawa both, he tackled straight into the shoji screen wall and half tore through the paper, wrenching the sliding door off its hinges and falling on top of it. For a horrible panting moment he struggled to get his legs back under himself and his arms looped under Serizawa again, and in the same moment the spirit’s head lashed out of the room after them like a striking cobra.

Still yelling, Reigen got up and kept running down the hall.

The spirit was free from its room now. This exorcism was going very pear-shaped indeed.

Serizawa was very heavy.

“You’re fired!” Reigen wheezed. “I’m docking your pay! You’re in debt to me, you’ll be paying me for the rest of your life!”

He meant none of this, it just helped with his yelling and somehow spurred him onward. Adrenaline and all that. In reality, he just really didn’t want Serizawa to die right now.

Reigen would prefer to also not die right now, if any gods or dead ancestors were keeping tabs.

“I told you I liked that tie of yours but it was hideous!” Reigen gasped, and practically collapsed into another empty room. That fiendish okami had been wise to keep guests out of this part of the hotel, but at this rate it still wouldn’t protect them unless Reigen could do something.

He had to find Serizawa’s soul.

This was a pretty small ryokan, only one level, so if Serizawa’s soul had gone through the ceiling, it had gone outside.

Reigen squared up with the far wall of the room, calculating in his head where they were in relation to the hotel’s layout.

Fuck it! He threw open the window and clambered out of it, dragging Serizawa after him.

It was a nice spring night, all things considered. Cool, with breezes rasping through the trees and pale moonlight. Reigen just stood there in the wet grass for a moment, his heart thudding and his head reeling. He was in the courtyard that the ryokan circled in a sort of U shape. In the distance, he could see yellow wall lights and wooden walkways leading under an awning.

The onsen. Well, if Reigen were a disembodied soul, he knew where he’d go for comfort.

CRASH.

A section of the ryokan’s wall crumbled and out stepped a dark, bare-footed figure. It looked so perfectly human, in its own yukata even, except its neck kept going and going up into the air, its head rolling around up there like a grotesque balloon…

Nopenopenopenope not today, goodbye.

Reigen kept as low as possible with Serizawa in tow, and hustled for the baths.

His slippers were long gone in all the commotion, so his bare feet slapped against the wooden walkways. He was getting slower and slower, lumbering under Serizawa’s weight. Luckily none of the guests were out this late. It must be well past midnight.

“Serizawa!” he hissed, half wanting to call for the renegade soul but also half wanting to avoid detection from the monster in pursuit. “Where are you? You’re killin’ me here.”

He passed a few smaller barrel baths and then turned a corner onto the main attraction. It was a good-sized oblong bath dug into the ground, surrounded by artfully stacked boulders, and fed by square fountainheads. What was really breathtaking even in the dark was the view of the dark trees all around, and the rushing sound of a nearby natural waterfall.

And there, right smack dab in the middle of the milky mineral-infused water, sat Serizawa’s soul. It was a lump of glowing blue-white light at the bottom of the pool, looking about as content as you’d expect an actual frog to be.

“Bastard,” Reigen said, but he said it with such fond relief that the insult was hardly convincing.

Without hesitation, he waddled over and started easing himself into the water fully clothed. Hot! It was a good temperature for anything other than soul-catching, but that’s life.

It was definitely a weird sight, two grown men hunkering down into the bath with their yukata billowing, one dragging the other like a sandbag, but that’s also life sometimes, or at least it’s Reigen’s life.

“Hey there, buddy, I’ve got your body here,” Reigen said, gingerly approaching the ball of light shimmering in the water. “How about you hop back in and we get this show on the road, huh?”

The tadpole didn’t approach at all. In fact, it kind of wiggled away from him.

“What, you’re not scared are you? That’s not like you, you never get--”

From around the corner, the painting ghost’s head came swinging out of nowhere, long neck like a whip. It crashed into one of the bath’s decorative boulders and demolished it easily, throwing rock shards and dust into the water. Reigen shrieked.

“SERIZAWA GET UP RIGHT NOW!” Reigen heaved his friend’s body in the general direction of his soul, splashing desperately. The tadpole swam away. “GET BACK HERE, WHAT THE HELL!”

The evil spirit’s head rolled back up its neck like some sick idea of a yo-yo, piling onto its shoulders in a fleshy heap. The yukata-clad body calmly stepped into view, a hand tracing the wall holding up the awning overhead. So casual. Dark hair spilled over rolling eyes.

Reigen’s head was spinning in the heat and the steam, and he stumbled trying to get Serizawa into his arms again. It was no use trying to carry him now. Serizawa just kept slipping. Reigen was getting too weak, too exhausted.

The tadpole’s light was swimming farther away…

Their attacker’s neck coiled, head buoying in the center, ready to strike again.

At this rate, Reigen wouldn’t even be able to protect Serizawa’s body. Serizawa… This wasn’t worth dying over.

“Wake up,” he wheezed, using every last screaming centimeter of strength left in him to throw them both toward the soul again. “Katsuya, I need you!!

The monster flung its head at them, wild hair flying.

And light exploded from the surface of the bath.

It left Reigen squeezing his eyes shut against the brightness. Was this it? Was this the weird and stupid way that he died?

Seconds passed and he continued to breathe. The burning light faded beyond his eyelids, and his eyes fluttered open just in time to catch Serizawa lurching to his feet.

Serizawa… he was back! And more importantly, he raised both hands with a shout, raging purple energy erupting from them, hitting the monster square-on. Its long neck twisted and tied itself in knots like a cherry stem, and then with a loud CRACK it disappeared. All of it. The head, the neck, the body, even the ghostly yukata, all gone. The last pieces to leave this plane of existence were a few final wisps of black hair sinking down through the air. They too disintegrated, before even touching the bath water.

In the aftermath, everything was silent, all except for Serizawa’s haggard breathing. He whirled around and stared at Reigen with wide, frantic eyes.

But he was ok. He was back.

Reigen gave him a grin and a thumbs up, and Serizawa’s panic visibly eased a notch, his shoulders lowering shakily.

But here’s the thing. A lot of physical exertion and excitement combined with steaming hot water is ill-advised.

It was now Reigen’s turn to face-plant. This time into water, with a distantly satisfying splash.

 

~

 

It was dark. Reigen gradually became aware that his eyes were closed. At the same time, he became aware that careful fingers were picking his wet hair off his forehead and then gently patting his cheek. The patting became more insistent, until finally he opened his eyes in annoyance.

Woah. The world decided to spin at that. But once it was upright again, he was staring up through the thatched onsen awning onto a nice white moon. Serizawa was bent over him, eyebrows knit together.

“Are you alright?” Serizawa asked.

“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” Reigen chided.

Serizawa’s lips thinned.

He was soaking wet and still wearing that blue yukata, the thin fabric clinging to him in awkward bunches. He seemed… fine. Subdued, but fine. Physically in one piece. It was really good just to see him sitting there like normal.

Meanwhile, Reigen was flat on his back on the wooden walkway, and he was not wearing a yukata.

He was stripped down to his underwear, a pair of black trunks. His hairy legs were splayed out, his scrawny chest wet and getting progressively colder in the night air.

Well.

“Why am I naked?” he deadpanned.

“I panicked a little,” Serizawa said, but the way his mouth twitched into almost a smile meant he wasn’t particularly sorry. “You were overheated, so I was trying to cool you down faster.”

“That’s fair,” said Reigen. “Makes me look pretty lame, though.”

“Sorry about that.”

He sat up, crossing his legs, and gave Serizawa a long once over.

“Talk to me,” he said. “What happened back there?”

Serizawa’s gaze fell to his lap, where he twiddled his thumbs. It took him so long to answer that for awhile Reigen thought he wasn’t going to. That would be fine. If what Serizawa needed was silence, they could do silence.

But instead he said: “I might be developing a problem.”

Reigen just waited, listening. Confessions were kind of like letting somebody throw up in your toilet. There wasn’t much to do for them until they were done, right? You could only just be there.

“I don’t remember much from when I was outside my body,” Serizawa continued. “It’s all just kind of a blur. But... I got the feeling I was a little too comfortable with it. It was harder to come back this time. I guess… I guess maybe I liked just not being me for awhile. I liked it too much.”

A deep pain pulled across his face before smoothing out again.

Reigen kept watching him, Serizawa's features familiar even when dulled by the dark. His hunched shoulders, his square jaw. Part of why this whole episode was genuinely surprising was that Serizawa was not a weak person at all. Reigen knew that better than most, working with him all the time. If anything, Serizawa had come to represent stability at the Spirits and Such office. Loyalty. A simple steadfastness.

It hurt to see him like this.

“If you need help, ask for it,” Reigen said softly.

Serizawa met his gaze, taking in a deep breath and letting it out again just barely audibly. His eyes were dark and so… worried. Worried about things Reigen didn’t understand, things he couldn’t even see.

“I think I do need help,” Serizawa said finally, almost mumbling. “But I’m not sure yet what to ask for. What kind of help I need.” He smiled tightly all the sudden, in a way that looked like he was tugging himself back together, but with genuine affection in it as well. “When I do know what to ask for, you’re someone I know I can talk to, Reigen.”

The honor of that trust put a lump in Reigen’s throat. Maybe the lump was his heart, knocking against his adam’s apple, squeezing tightly.

“... I’m sorry for what I said about your tie,” he muttered.

“Huh?” said Serizawa.

“Nevermind.”

Serizawa huffed a bemused laugh.

Reigen didn’t deserve any of this intimacy, but he would give his best for Serizawa. Everything he had.

 

~

 

They honestly weren’t sure of the etiquette about reporting the exorcism’s success to their client this late at night. Not only that, but they were both exhausted. It didn’t take long for them to just head back to their room and save the rest for the morning, including the damage reports.

It would be rude to the staff to drip their way down the halls in soaked yukata, so they wound up hanging them outside and stealing some towels. They tiptoed very quickly through the hotel mostly naked, making quavering embarrassed sounds any time they knocked into something. It was not Spirit and Such’s most elegant moment.

In other words, it looked like Reigen’s plan to help Serizawa relax with a weekend getaway was a resounding failure.

(Ok, so maybe half that plan had been for Reigen to reap the spoils too. Maybe this was just his karma.)

They got back to their room, but the relief was short-lived. Per tradition, the maids had cleared out the table while they were gone and replaced it with a futon for overnight.

One futon. Singular. A small, one-person futon.

“... That okami did this on purpose,” Reigen said, a fist clenched in the towel at his waist.

“She really has it in for you, huh,” said Serizawa, sounding nervously impressed. He was slouching more than usual, as if willing himself to be less tall and less wide while his chest was bare. “I can uh. Sleep on the floor.”

“Don’t be stupid. We’ll just make it work.”

Somehow. That was the “and Such” part of Spirits and Such. Making shit work.

They danced around each other for awhile in the most agonizingly awkward way, relinquishing the towels for just their wet underwear and taking altogether too long to brush their teeth apiece. It was like they both thought they should be doing things to get ready for bed, but neither of them actually had much to do on that front. It was just a lot of faffing around prolonging the inevitable getting-into-bed part.

Reigen fiddled with the pockets of his suit pants in the closet, trying to look like he was doing something other than just shivering his ass off. Goosebumps and clamminess were overtaking the earlier warmth from the bath. His wet hair was plastered to his head, making his ears cold.

He glanced sneakily over his shoulder to where Serizawa was knelt down rooting through his overnight bag.

Serizawa’s underwear was a pair of gray briefs, which was weird to notice but you couldn’t not notice, right? Since they were wet they were oddly lumpy and frankly unattractive, but Serizawa’s broad back made up for it.

Wait, what? Well… Yeah, ok, maybe there was a reason Reigen kept sneaking peeks, beyond just nerves. Terrible.

Serizawa wasn’t entirely fit, but neither was Reigen. Where Reigen rocked the skinny drowned cat look, Serizawa had a charmingly soft waist. Reigen liked it, and also liked the dark hair peppering his legs and forearms.

At the end of the day, it was just Serizawa. Kind of like the shape of his soul. It was just how you’d expect Serizawa to be, and there was something comfortable in that.

Time to take the plunge. Reigen grabbed his cellphone and, with exaggerated casualness, went to curl up on one side of the futon, his legs and arms hanging off the end. He tugged the blanket over himself (blessed warmth!) and then got to playing one of his puzzle games, staring resolutely at his phone screen, his back to Serizawa’s side.

Serizawa followed almost immediately, turning the light off on his way. Had he been waiting for Reigen to go first? God, they were like high school kids.

The other side of the futon dipped with his weight and he snuck under the blankets too. It was too small for them not to touch each other. Their goosebumpy backs wound up pressed together, and the warmth from that was surprisingly nice too. Nice and also mortifying, but whatever.

Reigen fixated on his game rather than saying goodnight, his phone providing a bluish glow.

Serizawa gave a long sigh, and his shoulders relaxed against Reigen’s back. It was maybe somewhat melancholy.

The room went quiet, except for the rustling of the wind in the trees outside and the rhythmic tapping of Reigen’s thumbs.

His mind wandered. There’s only so many puzzle blocks you can line up before you’re basically daydreaming, in that foggy in-between space before sleep. It lasted ages though. He wasn’t sleeping any time soon, huh?

He was partly resting and partly making himself all the more anxious with matters more serious than just sharing a bed.

Was Serizawa really ok?

Reigen liked to be in control of things, but unfortunately his influence over the happiness of the people in his life was fairly minimal. Hell, he hadn’t even had people in his life until recently. Should he have been paying more attention? Should he have noticed more that Serizawa was struggling so much before it got to this point?

Then again, maybe if he had known he still wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it.

There was a familiarity to this problem that snagged at the back of Reigen’s head and made his teeth clench as he played his game.

Was he gearing up to fail someone important again? The way he had failed Mob when he was suffering?

The way he’d held Mob back?

A thought occurred to him, not for the first time: now that Serizawa was doing so much better, was Spirits and Such really the best place for him?

Was Reigen just the sort of person others needed to outgrow to find their real happiness?

Reigen had cleared ten levels already, gone in an instant. It was around then he realized Serizawa wasn’t falling asleep either.

“I can hear you overthinking,” Reigen said, finally closing his phone and tucking it on the floor beside the futon. His voice came out hushed, like anybody’s does when the lights are out, just on instinct. He re-settled himself, tucking his arms up against his chest under the blankets, wiggling a bit against Serizawa by circumstance.

Serizawa didn’t answer at first, and if he pretended to be asleep Reigen would let him. But again he chose to talk.

“I’m trying to figure it out,” he said. Reigen could feel his voice rumble in his back against his.

“Which part?” Reigen asked.

“I’m trying to remember what brought me back this time. Or think of what will prevent this from happening again. I just keep running in circles…” Serizawa sighed through his nose, frustrated. “Maybe I’m just stuck. In life. I’m stuck on how to keep going forward.”

It was clear he felt like a loser. Reigen had felt that himself too often not to be able to smell it right away.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m really worth the trouble,” Serizawa added, and Reigen could picture him smiling ruefully at the wall. Chagrined by his own pain.

Maybe society thought somebody staying a shut-in for half his life did make him a loser, but Reigen didn’t see it that way. Just look at Reigen himself. He’d been “employed” ever since finishing school, but for what? He was still a pretty bad person.

He suspected Serizawa had been kinder than him even back when he was frozen in place at his mother’s house. Even when he was part of an organization trying to take over the world.

That was the thing about people like Serizawa. And like Mob. There was just something special about them, something soft and indomitable, that had nothing to do with psychic powers.

They taught Reigen much more than he ever taught them.

But it would be weird to say that out loud, wouldn’t it?

“People care about you,” Reigen said instead. It was a little cowardly to include everybody rather than just admit that he himself cared, but it was also true. A lot of people cared about Serizawa. “Those times when it’s hard to keep staying in the game for the sake of yourself… Maybe try doing it for the sake of the people rooting for you.”

Serizawa was silent, a kind of wobbly silence that meant he was listening very closely but was too overwhelmed to contribute.

“Hey,” Reigen said. He paused, trying to decide how to follow up that Hey, and then abruptly got up on his elbow and turned himself around, flopping and squirming and definitely banging Serizawa with a bony knee. But the end result was as planned. He was now staring down Serizawa’s shoulders and the back of his neck. He rapped his knuckles on Serizawa’s back annoyingly. “Hey.”

Serizawa reluctantly turned to face him too. It was very awkward. They were way too close, their heads on the same pillow, noses practically in danger of poking each other’s eyes out.

“Yeah?” Serizawa whispered.

Reigen met his gaze unwaveringly. “Do you trust my judgment or not?”

“O-of course I do!”

“You’re a good person,” Reigen said. It was very easy to say that part. “If you trust my judgment and I say you’re a good person, then what’s that mean?”

Serizawa just watched him for a long time, the whites of his eyes wide in the dark. Then Reigen thought he saw him smile, lopsided and almost disbelieving.

“Ah, you caught me, didn’t you?” Serizawa said, laughing weakly into the space between them.

“Argumentation is my skill.”

Chapter Text

Serizawa woke up tired. His head hurt, as if he’d spent awhile crying but he hadn’t shed a tear. Maybe he should have.

Nevertheless, he knew by now that a morning after a bad night still meant you had to get out of bed and continue with life.

Reigen was flopped with half his torso hanging off the futon, face mashed into the floor and ass impressively sideways. He was somehow dead asleep but Serizawa winced in sympathy for the back ache he would no doubt wake up to. He sidled out of bed without disturbing him.

He took his time dressing in his suit, leaving his dress shirt unbuttoned for a bit and peeking out of their window through the curtains. The world around the hotel was already crisp and green and beautiful, as if nothing had happened.

Serizawa found himself wondering if anything even did happen. Anything of importance. Did he feel changed, or was he just right back where he started?

Surely that evil spirit had just been taking advantage of some of the fears it could taste at the edges of his aura. It wasn't speaking the truth, he knew that. Or at least he'd been able to convince himself of that after laying awake with his thoughts half the night.

And yet…

Did he really still hate himself?

He found he couldn't answer that question. Maybe that was telling enough.

Maybe he didn't hate the man he was now as much as he hated the man he was before. But when it came down to it…

It was still awfully hard, just living with himself. There were times he wanted to be anywhere else than with himself. Even desperately so.

Things still weren't easy.

Maybe they never would be.

He was no longer panicking about it, but now it just made him feel very tired. Wasn't there an ancient Greek character like this? A guy who kept rolling a giant rock up a hill only for it to fall down again, over and over? So much work all the time just to wind up the same. Sisyphus, that was his name. It must be so much easier for the people who could just waltz wherever they wanted in life without the responsibility of a big old rock. But envying hypothetical Greeks probably wasn't that productive.

Reigen’s phone alarm went off, and he gave a groan from the futon and started to gradually come to life, rising from a puddle of his own drool as if from the primordial ooze. Serizawa watched him over his shoulder.

That was another question. Had anything changed between them?

You’re a good person. It was hard to tell whether Reigen had said that from the heart or whether he’d said it because he knew it was exactly what Serizawa needed to hear. Serizawa was no fool, and he knew Reigen’s more questionable habits well. But he also knew Reigen always cared, in his own strange way.

As if to prove that point, Reigen got to his feet sleepily and made straight for Serizawa. He was still just in his underwear. He had the faint line of what looked like an appendectomy scar on his belly. He yawned and perched an elbow on Serizawa’s shoulder as if it belonged there.

“You gonna shave?” he asked, sorta batting at Serizawa’s jaw with his knuckles, brushing the stubble that had grown in overnight.

“Everybody’s been awfully interested in my shaving habits lately,” Serizawa murmured. “Do you really think I’d look so bad with a beard?”

Reigen squinted at him, then tapped up under Serizawa’s chin with his fist and smiled crookedly. “Sass,” he said.

“Yes. Sass.”

Everybody was just looking out for him.

It was nice. If they all believed in him, he really had no choice but to keep rolling that rock, right?

He did shave, while Reigen got dressed in his own suit.

They didn’t expect the okami to come to their room, especially so early. She announced her presence before sliding open the door and giving a deep bow. Today her kimono was a muted coral color.

“I see you gentleman had an exciting night,” she said.

Serizawa finished buttoning up his shirt as Reigen got right to gesticulating for damage control.

“Ah, good morning!” Reigen enthused. “I think you’ll find that your ghost issue has been resolved. It was no problem at all for psychics of our skill level. Now about those damages. Your contract--”

The okami smiled serenely through his rambling. Reigen was at his smarmiest, poised to defend against any attack to their payment she might cleverly introduce, but then she slowly raised a thumb to her eye and wiped it. Wiped the other. Reigen’s rambling petered out.

She was crying.

“That monster cursed us for so long,” she said into the two men’s silence. Somehow she kept smiling even through her tears. “We couldn’t destroy the painting. We couldn’t even remove it from the hotel without terrible things happening. My staff have been so frightened… My husband died before he could see it gone. I thought I would too. I’d die knowing I’d left that horror to my children.”

Reigen was watching her now with utter seriousness. Serizawa glanced at him only briefly before giving his full attention to this confession as well. Her face really did remind him of his mother’s.

“We’d had so many would-be psychics come through just to take advantage of our problem,” she continued. “I’d grown bitter. I didn’t think anyone would ever actually help us. As a result, I think I judged you unfairly. I’m very thankful to have hired you.”

“The exorcism caused property damage,” Serizawa said quickly, before Reigen could intervene. Reigen was surprisingly good at words of consolation, but he didn’t always get to the real point. There were times Serizawa usurped him like this, and it was simply how things were supposed to go. “As we discuss your payment, please allow us to refund you some money for the repairs.”

The okami chuckled. “I’m not paying you that much. Please, take the money. It’s an old woman’s happiness.”

Serizawa was left humbled and speechless.

With a bold sniff, the okami opened her drawstring purse and pulled out, of all things, a business card. To Serizawa’s surprise, she handed it to him.

“Young man, I think there’s something special about you. I think I owe you very much for last night,” she said.

Reigen didn’t refute her. He was now watching this exchange very closely indeed.

“Ah, thank you,” said Serizawa, blinking down at the little slip of contact numbers and names.

“This is my information and the information of my brothers in law,” the okami explained. “We run a series of businesses. I know the spiritual industry can be transient and unforgiving. If you ever find yourself in need of a job sometime in the future, regardless of how long it is from now, please know you have a connection here.”

It felt like a balloon was swelling inside his chest, impossibly fast. This was… networking. He was being offered a job. Nobody had ever offered him a job in such a normal circumstance.

“Thank you very much!” he repeated, bowing. She simply smiled, in her way. She turned to Reigen, whose expression had gone oddly uncomfortable.

“I don’t hate you. I’m sorry for the impression,” she told him.

Reigen gave a fake smile, his eyes flitting between her and Serizawa nervously a few times before he seemingly fell into a sort of resignation and the smile warmed.

“Yeah,” he said. “I have to admit, I’ve come to respect you too.”

They went over the payment details like two old wolves of equal standing.

As Reigen and Serizawa left the ryokan, they saw the exorcised painting hanging in the lobby. It seemed more colorful now, as if it had gained some pale grays and blues overnight. It really brought the place together, Serizawa thought.

 

~

 

The drive back down the mountain was companionable and quiet, until Reigen asked, “What about it, Serizawa?”

“What do you mean?” Serizawa asked back, turning to him. Reigen was watching the road, his face hard to read under his obnoxious sunglasses again. The windows were rolled down and they had to speak louder to be heard over the rush of air around them.

“You got offered a job today,” Reigen said. “What do you think?”

“Yeah, I was surprised… But I still don’t know what you mean entirely.”

There was a long pause, Reigen’s thumbs tapping on the steering wheel.

“Well. You don’t want to work here your whole life, do you?” he said finally.

Oh.

It would be a lie to say Serizawa had never thought about that. About what opportunities he might be able to dig out for himself out of nothing. The okami’s kind offer was indeed a milestone in that. It was evidence that Serizawa’s prospects were expanding.

He was never supposed to work at Spirits and Such for this long. So Reigen had noticed it too, then.

“I don’t expect anything in particular from you,” Reigen clarified. “What I mean is… If you ever want to go, then go. There’s nothing stopping you. It’s your life. You don’t uh.” He took a hand off the steering wheel to wave it around, reeling in the rest of the words. “You don’t owe me anything. That’s not how this works.”

Serizawa nodded, watching him closely, but Reigen’s poker face was formidable at times like this. His voice had maybe wavered, but the casual set of his mouth now made Serizawa wonder if he’d imagined it.

Reigen meant what he said, but he was also strategically oversimplifying things. Serizawa knew Reigen was no psychic. With Serizawa and Shigeo both gone, the work would quickly become too dangerous for Reigen alone to keep up with, especially if Tome was still involved. He could only keep the act up so far, as his previous experiences with the media proved. And besides, it wasn't a very sustainable career to begin with. Reigen did this work because a part of him loved it, and that love would dwindle rapidly without a purpose.

In short, if Serizawa left, that would probably mean the end of Spirits and Such. They both knew that.

Serizawa didn't want to just leave Reigen adrift after all he'd done for him. They were, after all, friends at this point. It was not gratitude toward an employer that kept Serizawa around, but rather affection and concern for a friend's well-being.

But then again.

Reigen would find somewhere else to make money, simple as that. Life would go on.

And Serizawa… What would he do?

The sky outside the windshield was cloudless and blue. The sun reflected off the black dashboard in slices of white glare. Reigen was silent and sturdy beside him.

It occurred to Serizawa suddenly that he could do anything he wanted.

The world was very open to a man who actually functioned. It could very well be that some of the reason he felt so stuck in his progress right now was that he had arbitrarily limited himself.

Was he still at Spirits and Such just because he was afraid of success?

He remembered that silly math test, and the horror it had ignited in him to do so well on it. That glimpse of a normal life, of possibilities, of happiness… He still had no idea how to take on such a thing.

Maybe Spirits and Such was just safe. Maybe he was using it to hide from the responsibility of his new life.

“I don’t know,” he said, looking forward, outside that window at the winding road. “I’d have to think about it more. But I guess maybe there’s a time for everything.”

“Maybe,” Reigen agreed distantly.

Reigen was uncharacteristically quiet for the rest of the drive, but it wasn’t an awkward quiet. It was just truth, a truth they’d always known, sitting heavily between them.

Spirits and Such was never supposed to last.

 

~

 

Normalcy returned to the office, despite everything. It had a knack for doing that.

Monday through Wednesday were particularly busy. Even Tome put in some sweat, filing paperwork at the speed of light in the afternoons. She wanted to know all about their vacation (which she did not hesitate to call a vacation), and got the story in bits and pieces during their rare down time. Some details were left out in the name of propriety.

“You're really amazing, Serizawa-san,” she said Wednesday evening, right before closing. “I can't believe you just melted something as freaky as that no problem.”

She was looking at him with the small smile that seemed to be reserved for him. When she was impressed with Reigen, her face was more apalled than fond, and yet she was quick to defend him to her friends. Two different types of affection, equally strong in opposite directions.

Serizawa liked this smile just for him. He considered it something special. Tome had grown on him quite a lot.

“Well, it was a team effort,” Serizawa said. Tome snorted and he said, “No really, this time it was.”

She glanced over her shoulder to where Reigen was standing at his desk, ready to goad him, but he was busy frowning down at his phone. He'd been trying to make a call, but seemed to have gone to voicemail.

That usually meant he was trying to call Shigeo. Shigeo was very busy these days.

It was unusual for Reigen to try calling so late in the work day, when no help was actually needed, and he looked oddly glum about it.

Even Tome noticed, her unsaid teasing dying in her mouth. For a split second there might have been a flash of alarm in her eyes, the look of a kid glimpsing that ominous unknown realm of adult acquaintances’ feelings.

“...Anyway, it sounds like you guys got lots of money,” she said, loudly, to get Reigen's attention.

He finally looked over with a scowl. She knew him well.

“I would've asked for a higher price if I'd have known we'd risk our lives,” he said darkly.

Tome seemed quietly satisfied that she'd revived him.

On her way home, she flipped their door sign to Closed for them and left with the same supernova of energy that she arrived with. When she was gone, the after-hours office seemed so much quieter in her absence. There was something peaceful about it, the lowering sun slipping in through the blinds, painting orange stripes across Reigen’s desk and the floor.

The two men finished the nightly cleaning, silently moving around each other for their specific tasks like a well-oiled machine. Then as they got their things together to leave, Reigen spoke up.

“No class tonight, right?” he asked, one hand in his pants pocket and the office keys swinging on their keyring around his finger. “Want to get some drinks?” He was somehow completely casual and very cagey at the same time, his gaze weirdly avoiding Serizawa. He glanced at each of their houseplants in turn, as if suddenly very interested in cataloguing them.

Serizawa’s reflex was to say something like That’s ok! I don’t like alcohol that much.

But then he got the strangest feeling that if he said no, Reigen would be drinking by himself tonight. Some sort of hunch. Maybe you develop a different kind of psychic insight when you just know someone very well.

Reigen was watching the ficus utterly coolly, but Serizawa could see the barest hint of tension at the corners of his mouth. Bracing for impact.

“Sure,” Serizawa said instead. “Let me get my umbrella.”

Reigen’s smile was too big, as if a smaller smile would have said too much.

 

~

 

The regulars at the bar they went to seemed to know Reigen and not in a good way. They kept shooting stinky looks at his back out of the corner of their eyes. Reigen was either used to that at this establishment or too drunk to care.

He’d only had one drink and was already about ready to lay his head on the bar.

Serizawa was perched on the stool next to him, his umbrella propped up under the bar at his knees, dappled by raindrops. Imagine that. Using an umbrella just for rain. Serizawa had made the bold decision to join Reigen in drunkenness. It had taken about two more drinks to get there, but his neck was nicely warm and he found he was having a lot of fun. Just sitting and talking to Reigen for hours was fun. Especially when drunkenness was involved.

He had a feeling about 80% of the fun was his drinks actually. It had taken him twenty minutes to eat an edamame pod because he kept dropping it in their shared bowl then picking it up again and forgetting about it.

Reigen was revealing himself to be kind of a closet nerd, boisterously debating Serizawa’s niche television preferences.

“The red one is always the best! Always the red one!” he declared, slapping Serizawa’s knee.

What were they even talking about anymore? Serizawa wasn’t sure. He was more just watching Reigen than anything at this point.

Reigen had the sort of opinions that only people who hadn’t fully delved into fandom yet thought were ground-breaking, but his energy was kind of cute.

“Hey.” Reigen leaned his weight onto that hand on Serizawa’s knee, wobbling dangerously, and dipped closer to Serizawa conspiratorially. “Hey, Katsuya, I need to know. How’s school?”

Abrupt topic change, ok. Sober Serizawa would have said something like It’s going great, Reigen, thanks for asking.

Drunk Serizawa said, “I want to be there right now.”

“Huh?” Reigen’s face twisted up in hilarious offense.

Wait, that came out wrong. “I mean I want to keep working hard! I want to keep doing well. It feels really good to do well finally. I want to just go there and work hard and do well, that’s all I want all the time.”

He was repeating himself, but Reigen nodded along eagerly.

“You’re really making the world your own,” Reigen said, with way more solemnity than a phrase that cheesy deserved. Maybe Reigen had a soft spot for shounen anime because he was basically a shounen anime protagonist in his own right.

This would make a fantastic joke but it got turned around in Serizawa’s head somewhere before he could deliver it well. In the end he just kind of smiled at it privately, very fond of this man in front of him.

Serizawa had friends now, and he had fun with them too, but there always seemed to be a limit to his social expenditure before he got bored or tired. Not with Reigen. He could spend all day with Reigen. Maybe that was because he did, most days. He was simply used to him in a way he wasn’t used to just about anybody.

Reigen’s tie was loosened, the top buttons of his shirt undone, and his face was flushed in a splotchy, uncute sort of way. He returned to trying to pinch the melting ice at the bottom of his empty glass between his fingers, presumably trying to get it into his mouth for no particular reason.

Serizawa was warm and comfortable and just incredibly thankful for him. He was so fond of him that he all at once wanted to kiss him. Right on his dumb face. Just to vent some of this fondness.

He was drunk, but not drunk enough to believe that this impulse wasn’t just the drinks talking. He plucked up another edamame pod and smilingly turned it around in his fingers, happy to just soak in the moment.

Belonging. This was one of his favorite feelings, he decided.

“Reigen-kun.” An older gentleman leaned against the bar on Reigen’s other side. He seemed way more sober than them, which probably made him less fun. He was also one of the people who had been shooting Reigen not-so-subtle glares all evening.

“Ah, evening, long time no see,” said Reigen, with the same sort of fake cheer as his customer service voice. He was the only man Serizawa knew who could use the customer service voice as an insult.

“I thought you wouldn’t show your face around here again,” the older man said with a look of such unbridled condescension, as if Reigen were the lowest form of creature on earth. “People here don’t take kindly to scumbags. I certainly don’t. I’m not one to start a fight, but don’t come back here after tonight. You put a sour taste in my drinks.”

Serizawa decided he didn’t like this man much.

Reigen didn’t respond, only continuing to smile fakely. The man ordered a drink, staying intimidatingly close to Reigen’s side the whole time, and then stormed off. Serizawa leaned in towards Reigen now.

“Who was that?” he asked, putting in no effort to hide his displeasure.

Reigen looked at him with raised eyebrows, as if surprised that Serizawa would even comment. Then he grinned. “Come on, Katsuya. Don’t you know? I have way more enemies than friends.”

He laughed and Serizawa disliked that laugh even more. There was a hollowness to it.

The bartender glanced between them and asked if they were ready to pay, in a way that suggested perhaps Reigen was a frequently too-drunk customer. The timing was right, though. They fished out their wallets in unison and got to heartbrokenly pinching out their hard-earned bills.

When they left later, the light drizzle of the evening had turned into a downright rainy night. Serizawa opened his umbrella on the threshold and held it over them both as they started walking toward the train station.

Or… weaving, in a roundabout way, toward the train station.

They were awfully more drunk than they’d intended.

“Katsuyaaaa, why’d it get so cooold,” Reigen whined, as if Serizawa somehow had control over this.

Serizawa dutifully tried to keep the umbrella mostly over Reigen, which was difficult when both of them were swaying. Especially Reigen was swaying. They wound up sort of hooking elbows together just to keep each other upright, which made holding an umbrella all the more strategic and taxing.

“You shouldn’t walk home alone,” Serizawa said. “I’ll walk with you.”

“You shouldn’t walk home alone,” Reigen countered. “I’ll walk with you.”

“Damn, you’re right,” said Serizawa, who had entirely expected that to remain a thought rather than a statement but drunk brains are like that sometimes.

“We’ve made a mistake.”

They had, and they were fumbling down an alley as a result, trying to avoid puddles in their nice shoes. The lights from the surrounding shops were spots of bright color smeared across the wet asphalt. Reigen’s weight against his side was slightly warmer than the cold.

Meanwhile Serizawa’s brain was churning for a solution for how they could be sloppily drunk safely in two places at once.

“Come over to my place!” he said abruptly.

Wait, that was a terrible idea.

“That’s a great idea!” Reigen gawked.

Alcohol should be illegal.

 

~

 

They awkwardly stalled outside Serizawa’s door, unsure of who should go in first. The walk and train ride had sobered them considerably, and now they were greatly regretting this spur of the moment decision, but they were also both too sheepish to bring it up. Finally, Serizawa shook out his umbrella and clasped it shut and went in first.

He was now painfully aware of the implications of inviting someone over to your apartment after having drinks.

Reigen was looking pale as well but followed after him, removing his shoes alongside his.

The entrance hall was cramped, and they sort of knocked into each other a lot, much more cognizant of it now thanks to their situation, mumbling quick “sorry”s every time.

“Can I--?” Reigen asked, pointing at Serizawa’s bathroom.

“Go ahead!”

He closed himself up in there like he intended to swim down and escape through the drain.

Serizawa bolted to his room to see if anything needed to be cleaned up. He’d given the place a pretty aggressive deep clean after his anxiety the other day, but it was still obviously the room of somebody with limited means. He made his bed more tightly, cursing that he’d never learned how to make the corners look neat.

… The bed. He leaped back from it as if burned. Oh no, that was not what he’d meant to think about at all.

Did Reigen think Serizawa was coming onto him? Serizawa wouldn’t come onto his boss, that would be crazy. Reigen was attractive but not like that, or ok maybe like that but that was neither here nor there, Serizawa would never endanger their friendship for something like--

The toilet flushed and the sink above the toilet tank ran.

Oh god, Reigen’s friendship was very dear to him, what should he even do?

At the last possible second he scrambled up on top of his bed to access his shelf of figures and grabbed the hidden ero figure and shoved her bodily under his pillow to hide her even more. He just had time to hop to the floor again before Reigen emerged from the toilet down the hall, looking stricken.

What now?

Serizawa’s heart was scampering around his ribs like a hunted rabbit. He instinctively reigned in his aura, but with a note of surprise he realized that he was mostly ok.

He was nervous, not panicking.

This was embarrassing, but it was still just Reigen.

“Did you play Nintendo 64 as a kid?” Serizawa asked, voice cracking.

Reigen stared at him like an eel had just fallen out of his nose.

“Yes,” Reigen said slowly.

“Want to try against me right now?”

It was the stupidest thing to say probably but Reigen’s look of relief was like he’d narrowly avoided getting hit by a train so apparently it worked.

“Yes,” Reigen said. “Let’s do that.”

They did.

They sat on the floor with their backs to the foot of Serizawa’s bed and played Mario Kart 64 on his tiny television. Two grown men, still in business suits. Ridiculous.

It was actually the same Nintendo 64 Serizawa had played almost religiously when cooped up in his room at his mom’s house. He’d dropped by to claim some of his things, but even stepping back into that room again had given him a bad feeling, and he found he had no idea what to even say to his mother at this point. When he left for his own apartment, he might have been fleeing a little bit.

Reigen chose Bowser. So he’d been a Bowser kid, huh? Serizawa chose Toad.

“The graphics are this bad now? They’re making my eyes hurt,” Reigen said, but he played surprisingly well. He was the sort of player who unconsciously moved back and forth to follow the way his car moved. His shoulder bumped Serizawa’s a few times. The casual not-weird contact was a godsend after their faux pas.

“I remember my dad forbade me from playing on the living room tv because watching this made him nauseous,” Serizawa said. “I kind of understand now.”

Serizawa hadn’t seen his dad at all since rehabilitation.

“You have fond memories of your parents,” Reigen pointed out.

“Do you?” Quick deflection. Serizawa was learning a thing or two about sales himself.

“Yeah. I had a pretty normal childhood.” Reigen tilted away from him as he pulled Bowser into a particularly sharp turn to avoid careening off the racetrack. “I can’t really complain.”

“That’s it?”

Reigen shrugged. “I love them, I guess. Do you love yours?”

“Yeah, I do.” Serizawa’s Toad was a couple players ahead of Bowser. Luigi, played by the computer, was between them, proving a formidable artificial foe. Something about Reigen’s reticence bothered him. “Do they love you?”

“I’m not drunk enough anymore for questions like that,” Reigen admonished. “I don’t know. It’s harder to know when you’re an adult.”

So Serizawa wasn’t the only one. Maybe it was more of a normal person experience than he’d expected.

“Do you always keep this place so clean?” Reigen asked, changing the subject. “You make me look bad.”

“You let a lot of trash pile up?”

“Yeah, I don’t even know where it comes from.”

“... Me too. I just cleaned it all recently because it freaked me out.”

“Well, that’s normal I guess.”

Normal.

God, it was good to be normal in such an un-normal way as this.

Reigen’s long legs were spread out toward the game console, his dark socks lumpy. Serizawa was far enough ahead of all the other players that he could risk taking a good look at Reigen beside him. The rain had plastered some of his hair in a little loop at his temple that for some reason made Serizawa’s chest tighten.

He found he still wanted to kiss Reigen, even though he was only just tipsy now.

That was unexpected and alarming.

“What the hell!” Reigen yelped, and Serizawa jumped, fearing he’d read his mind before the truth of the matter settled in. Reigen had just been hit by a turtle shell and passed by Princess Peach, that’s all.

“You got hit by a green one?” Serizawa said, turning back to the game. “Nobody gets hit by the green ones, Reigen…”

“Shut up. I haven’t played this in literally years.”

Serizawa was about to brag that he still played video games fairly regularly, but then he realized that he hadn’t played this game with someone else in very many years indeed.

He’d missed out on this, on a friend sitting beside him and swearing at the television.

“We can’t all be shut-ins, I guess,” Serizawa said, entirely joking, and he liked that Reigen was able to bark out an appreciative laugh despite the darkness of his humor.

He just liked Reigen in general, really.

“I’ve got a lot to learn,” Reigen muttered.

They stayed up too late like this.

Chapter Text

By the time Reigen left Serizawa’s, the rain had dwindled to a light drizzle again, but Serizawa insisted Reigen take one of his umbrellas with him.

“Are you sure it’s not too late to walk home?” Serizawa asked, utterly unaware of the extent of his own kindness. “You can stay if you need to.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Reigen said with an encouraging pat to his arm. He was already on Serizawa’s porch with Serizawa’s umbrella in hand, and that was enough to make him want to bolt. “We fight ghosts, remember? I think I can survive 1am.”

“You’re sure you’re sober?”

“Hey hey, don’t get so bossy with your boss.”

That left Reigen to walk home alone, with Serizawa's white umbrella lilting idly over his head, the street lamps illuminating the sputtering raindrops like falling moths.

It was very quiet this late. There was the sliver of a moon above and a few stars that managed to eke out through the light pollution. Reigen's head was foggy, the remnants of his drunkenness pinching in his sinuses, and a weird warmth in his face, all the way to his ears. His chest was tight and squidgy. Like his heart kept flopping around in there, like a landed fish.

It was nice spending time with Serizawa. When was the last time he visited a friend's home? Best not to ask those sorts of questions.

He turned a corner and stopped dead in his tracks. There was something under the streetlamp ahead, or else his eyes were playing tricks on him. The surrounding darkness seemed to shimmer at the edge of the light, warping the air like heat over asphalt in summer. It shifted and solidified… and turned green.

“Ah,” said Reigen, as Dimple appeared with a vague pop.

“Did I scare you?” Dimple leered.

“Don’t say weird things.” Reigen resumed walking, passing Dimple, who followed him and dipped to float under the umbrella near his ear. Dimple always gave off the faintest hint of a weird smell, like burnt plastic. “What are you doing here?” Reigen asked.

“Just hanging around,” said Dimple. “I saw you walking alone and was hoping you were still as drunk as before so I’d get to see you fall on your ass. But you’re disappointingly sober now.”

“Are you our stalker? Creepy.”

“It would be creepier if I just hung around the Kageyamas' all night while they were conked out. Besides, Rit-chan says intimidating things in his sleep.”

“If you’re not careful, Dimple, it’ll start looking like you enjoy spending time with us.”

Dimple bobbed in that way that was his version of a shrug. “Everybody needs a hobby.”

Dimple didn’t seem like he intended to leave. Apparently, Reigen wasn’t going to walk home alone after all. He never thought his life would lead to being chaperoned by an evil spirit, but then again there was quite a lot about Reigen’s life that was hard to explain.

“Did you two fuck?” Dimple asked.

Reigen almost tripped over his own shoe, beaming himself in the chin with the umbrella rod.

“What the hell kind of question is that?” he sputtered.

“Well, that was Serizawa’s apartment, right? I didn’t look, because I’m such a gentleman and all, but it’s easy enough to put two and two together.”

“No,” Reigen said, straightening himself out and quickening his pace with great purpose. “We were just sobering up.”

“You two are agonizingly virginal.”

“We’re just coworkers.”

Ah. But that wasn’t quite true was it?

Reigen’s heart fish-flopped bodily into his stomach.

It was true Serizawa had become important to him. The time they’d been spending together outside the office lately… It was fun. It was more fun than Reigen had had in a long time.

Why did it make him feel so lonely all the sudden?

Dimple didn’t call him out on it, just gave a vague hum, as if entirely uninterested in the semantics of human relationships. The drizzling rain pattered on the plastic of Serizawa’s umbrella, almost soothingly. As they got farther from neighborhoods and more into town, Reigen could smell the leftover remnants of long-passed traffic in the wet air.

“Maybe I should have stayed over,” Reigen said, talking mostly to himself. “My apartment’s going to feel a lot emptier now.”

“Guess you two are close friends after all,” said Dimple.

Reigen laughed, the sort of laugh that was too loud and scraped his throat. “I hope not!” he said. “I like him too much to wish that on him. We all know friendship from a guy like me can only screw people over in the end.”

That came out a harsher joke than he thought it would be.

Dimple side-eyed him. The unexpected sobriety of his expression said it all.

“Don't.” Reigen raised a hand. “I’m not in the mood for consolation from my imaginary friend.”

“If you say so,” said Dimple easily. “You're bullheaded as usual, I see.”

“That's rich coming from you.” Reigen shot him a crooked smile.

Dimple did in fact follow him all the way home, their banter fading into oddly amiable silence.

 

~

 

Reigen frequently had weird dreams after drinking.

In tonight’s dream, he felt like he was floating somewhere indeterminable, a world of impressions more than pictures. He was somewhere bright and warm. He was maybe in the Spirits and Such office, surrounded by all those ragtag teenagers he’d somehow collected recently. Tome was there.

Mob was there too. God, he missed Mob. It was such a relief to have him here.

They circled around him as smudged outlines of themselves, like the scribbled crayon drawings of a child, unrecognizable visually and yet he knew each of them so well just because of how they felt to him. The specific emotion they each gave him, something nuanced and unnameable. They ebbed and flowed together like a liquid painting of good memories.

Then they left, one by one, and the world was the peaceful orange of late evening, the office empty except for him and Serizawa, that same daily ritual.

Serizawa.

He brought along a whole bucket of emotions of his own. Serizawa who was level-headed, kind, and careful. Who saw the world in a way Reigen desperately wanted to see it.

It was maybe a sex dream all the sudden.

There weren’t any particulars, but Reigen was aware of the vague fuzz of arousal, the kind that happens in dreams, slow-building and never quite satisfying. But he found he didn’t really need to be satisfied in that way.

The arousal was nice, but what was really intoxicating was this feeling of overwhelming intimacy. Like Reigen was wrapping his arms around someone, and they were somehow surrounding him entirely. Maybe he was holding the glowing warmth of a soul to his chest, or maybe a man taller and broader than himself, and he was clinging so tightly.

Reigen had the impression of kissing without really kissing anyone. Being kissed by empty air. Somebody treasuring him in a way he’d never really experienced. He was surrounded by this feeling of belonging and affection and safety pressing in on him, some deep knowing that this was exactly where he needed to be, and exactly where he always would be. It wouldn’t stop. It wouldn’t leave this time. And he was so happy.

And all wrapped up in it were those all-so-familiar feelings of Serizawa Serizawa Serizawa…

My friend. This man and everything he is. This man I--

His alarm clock screeched by his head, and he woke up with a jolt. Everything else fell away, and he was left with a feeling of frightening emptiness.

 

~

 

Life was normal for two weeks. Reigen had a habit of burying life’s stranger problems under his work. It just so happened his work at Spirits and Such was engaging enough to keep most problems at bay indefinitely.

On Tome’s day off, Serizawa told Reigen about how he’d attempted to broach the topic of his out of body experiences with his therapist.

“She didn’t really get it,” Serizawa admitted.

Well of course not, that’s not really a problem non-psychic people have, Reigen thought, but he didn’t say anything about it, because hey it was good of Serizawa to be on top of things in his own way.

“Do you have an idea yet of where those episodes are coming from?” he asked instead, balancing a pencil between his two index fingers in the name of cultivating casualness.

“I’m not sure,” said Serizawa. “I think it’s not just anxiety, though. I think it has something to do with how I feel about myself.”

“How's that?”

“Well, she did bring up the less psychic version of out of body projecting. When people feel like they leave their bodies in moments of intense trauma. Maybe mine is kind of like that, but instead of trauma I'm just running from… me. From being who I am right now. Like my soul's out there hoping to find a new person to be entirely.”

Reigen frowned at him, not much enjoying this answer, likely as it may be.

“Well, what did I tell you?” Reigen pointed the pencil at him accusingly. “I told you you’re a good person, right? That was a declaration from your superior, you know.”

“Ah, you’re making me blush. And anyway didn’t you make me a deputy something?”

Somehow it had turned into jokes again.

The next day was Friday and their whole morning was booked for an onsite exorcism at an abandoned parking garage. It was another popular haunted spot to do a test of courage, which eventually led to people’s courage running out and a subsequent visit to the Spirits and Such homepage.

It was on the other side of town, so Reigen and Serizawa took a taxi, wincing at the expenditure. Dimple came with them. Until Serizawa’s body-dropping habit was properly settled, they’d taken to bringing Dimple along as a safety precaution on serious jobs, just in case. Reigen after all had… psychic limitations. Serizawa accepted this logic with a smile but Reigen could tell he was a little embarrassed that it was necessary.

The two men sat side by side, their knees pressed into each other in the tight cab space. The contact was simple and solid, like most of their contact was. Dimple, for some Dimple reason, decided to ride inside with them, perched in Serizawa’s increasingly curly hair like a sort of throne. To anybody with even faint traces of psychic powers, it looked like Serizawa’s head had burst into green flame. Odds were Dimple was just up there to annoy him, but he wore the contented expression of a fat cat taking a sun nap. That was just a Dimple way to operate.

To Serizawa’s credit, he took it in stride, dutifully listening to Reigen’s usual spiel of aggrandized small-talk. Reigen smacked Serizawa’s knee to illustrate a point, kind of bumping his own knee in the process due to proximity, and Serizawa smiled, showing a hint of teeth.

Reigen was keeping an eye on him, closer than it appeared from the outside. He was always kind of keeping an eye on Serizawa, but especially in light of recent events. A weekend at a ryokan wasn’t going to solve it, it seemed. The problem with Serizawa was he was too hard on himself. He worked too diligently in the name of proving himself worthy of standards nobody held him to.

Hey, it's not a joke, Serizawa. You're one of the best people I know.

Reigen’s attentiveness may have had another, less altruistic motive as well.

These moments when he and Serizawa could just laugh together so comfortably… maybe Reigen sometimes clung to them, wanting them to last just a tiny bit longer than was possible.

After all, these moments would be gone someday soon, whenever Serizawa left. Reigen found himself trying to take in every detail, like maybe if he just noticed them all he could commit them to memory permanently, for future perusal in Serizawa’s inevitable absence.

Remember the flash of Serizawa's teeth. Remember the way those tired creases around his eyes bundle when he laughs.

It was kind of funny, really. Wasn't Reigen supposed to be less selfish by now?

 

~

 

With some suspicious side-eyes from the cab driver but no questions asked, they were dropped off at their destination. The presumably haunted parking garage was about five stories above ground, flush with the street and with an open air layout. The walls of each floor came up to about waist-height with a guardrail and then were just open to the outside, without windows.

“I guess you’ve never done a test of courage, have you, Serizawa?” Reigen asked, as they entered easily through a door with a No Trespassing sign.

“Not in the traditional sense,” Serizawa said.

The door led into a sort of corner tower staircase, which they followed up to the third floor. Of course the elevators were defunct by now. They passed graffiti and empty fast food wrappers and containers, and an impressive number of cigarette butts. Serizawa picked his way around everything a little warily as Dimple circled his head.

Dimple actually quite liked Serizawa. Perhaps Reigen wasn't the only one keeping an eye on him these days.

“Third floor is the haunted one,” Reigen said, as if announcing the winner of a gameshow. “According to the gossip, anyway.”

“I was a test of courage a few times myself, you know,” said Dimple, as they pushed through a door marked 3 and exited the stairwell.

“Were you good at it?” Serizawa asked with his usual polite interest.

“Good enough to give these guys a proper critique,” Dimple huffed.

They'd exited onto the broad expanse of a whole empty level of the garage. The lines between parking spaces had faded, and graffiti circled the concrete columns holding the building together. Dimple left the vicinity of his humans’ heads to float higher, up near the tall, concrete ceiling.

Despite the fresh air coming in, you could tell it was a spot for some good ghost stories. The graffiti choices were darker here, looking more like arcane sigils than gang tags, and around each column and wall there were raggedy dolls strewn around, of various styles. Felt dolls, teddy bears, even a ball-jointed doll or two. Probably this had something to do with the specific urban legend associated with this place, kids coming and leaving a toy in the middle of the night as part of the dare.

Reigen sauntered down the length of the garage, inspecting the perimeter with his hands in his pockets. He meandered over to the guardrail and glanced over at the street below, giving a low whistle. Long way down.

“It’s not so spooky in daylight,” Serizawa commented. While Reigen’s attention was outside, Serizawa had squatted at a pile of dolls and was prodding at them curiously. “I guess you have to come here at midnight for the full ambience.”

“The client did a test of courage here last week and claims some sort of entity followed her home,” Reigen said. “It possessed her dog and attacked the family for three nights, then disappeared. She’s worried it might come back, so she really wants us to eliminate it to make sure it’s gone for good.”

“That’s bad form for a spirit,” Dimple said disapprovingly. “Possessing animals is considered animal cruelty.”

“But possessing humans is ok?” Serizawa asked.

“Humans deserve it mostly,” said Dimple, without missing a beat.

“What about dolls?” Serizawa lifted a baby doll, hands under its arms with ridiculous care, as if holding a real baby.

“It's not unheard of, but a little cliche for my taste,” said Dimple.

Reigen came over to join them, his dress shoes tapping resoundingly in the empty garage. “Do you feel anything off, Serizawa?”

“Yes, but it’s strangely muffled,” Serizawa said. “If muffled is the right word.”

“I smell something faint,” Dimple agreed.

Reigen plucked the baby doll out of Serizawa's hands by its head, squinting at it threateningly. “Anything you dolls wanna tell us?” he muttered.

“You’re the only one making this creepy,” said Dimple.

Reigen stared the doll down. It was the sort of doll with eyelids that closed but one was stuck halfway and the other eye had been scratched down to paintless black.

Seemingly satisfied by its silence, Reigen handed the baby back to Serizawa, as if it had been his to begin with, and Serizawa laid it gently back on its nest of other dolls, with an odd respect.

Serizawa stood. He and Reigen just looked at each other for awhile, and they both shrugged. They were getting nowhere fast with this investigation.

Or that was how it looked, anyway, but then something very bad happened.

Reigen punched Serizawa.

Serizawa staggered and clutched his jaw, staring at him with a vague look of hurt. “Wha?”

Reigen’s eyes were even larger than Serizawa's. His knuckles stung and he was left momentarily speechless, meeting Serizawa’s gaze.

“Uh,” said Reigen. “Sorry, I don’t know what I--”

But any explanation he could possibly come up with withered, because the same arm that had lashed out at his friend was now raising higher, and he had no idea how that was happening. He could feel his arm, he could feel it move, but he wasn’t telling it to. He tried to pull it back down but his elbow jerked away from his instructions.

“Woah, this is new,” Reigen said, marveling as his hand wobbled on his wrist beyond his control. His fingers curled and twitched, tight in his knuckles, starting to get painful even. His thumb popped and sent a shiver down his spine.

“Aw hell, watch it!” Dimple zipped over to Serizawa’s shoulder, looking serious. “The idiot’s gotten himself possessed.”

“Reigen?” Serizawa asked, his face going pale.

“Sorry,” said Reigen, trying for a smile. He couldn’t move his legs either, suddenly. Or at least not by his own command. “This is awkward. I guess I kinda asked for--”

His own throat strangled out his words, teeth clamping down on his tongue. He let out a choke of a noise and his mouth filled with the tang of blood.

Oh shit. This was actually bad, wasn't it?

His body lunged for Serizawa of its own accord.

He tackled Serizawa with preternatural strength, a dark aura clouding his vision as he knocked Serizawa to the ground and straddled his chest. His arms flew into rapid, crazed action, hitting Serizawa, clawing at him--

Serizawa grappled for his wrists, holding him off. There was blood beading from a scratch on Serizawa's forehead, blood under Reigen's fingernails, and oh god Reigen had done that to him oh fucking shit--

He could feel the bones in his wrist grind together in Serizawa's grip, but his hands still scrabbled and strained for Serizawa's face. The two men wrestled against each other, the wave of Serizawa's own psychic energy making the hair stand up on the back of Reigen's neck.

Reigen's mouth fell open and he snarled with a voice that was not his own, lurching against Serizawa's hold as if to bite at him.

“Reigen!” Serizawa was shouting. “It’s me, Katsuya! I’m your friend!”

I can hear you fine, you idiot, but I can’t get out!

Reigen was horribly aware of everything, every hit he landed on Serizawa resounding against his own flesh. If he had any voice anymore he would be crying out apologies and swears and begging Serizawa to just hit him back already.

“l’ll kick it outta there!” Dimple announced from above, but he sounded nervous. Then Reigen's body suddenly became altogether too crowded. Red circles warmed his cheeks, but then faded, then appeared again. They flickered with an energy like tv static against his skin. For a horrible grotesque moment his body fell against Serizawa's chest, recoiling in on itself, Reigen's hands clawing at his own hair, his own lungs screaming.

There were three forces inside of him. Reigen himself, something terrible, and the oddly familiar presence of Dimple at the edge of his consciousness.

“Oi Reigen! Follow my voice and all that! Hurry up!”

Reigen tried to, with everything he could possibly give, but the dark aura surrounding him only hitched higher, rising from his back, licking at the ceiling. He was vaguely aware that Serizawa's arms were around him, clutched tight, Serizawa's voice frantically rambling into his ear. But then with a horrible crack and a smell like ozone Dimple was expelled from his body and thrown across the length of the garage. He was sent wheeling out over the guardrail into the outside air like an untied balloon.

“Dimple-san!” Serizawa gasped, but there was no answer. Dimple had lost his fight.

And now Reigen's hands had freed themselves enough to dart up and wrap around Serizawa's neck.

A voice came from Reigen's mouth that wasn't his own, even though he could feel his own tongue move to articulate it. It wasn't even a human voice, and what it spoke were not words but rather some twisted, unnatural squeal, almost like multiple voices clashing together, fighting to escape.

Serizawa sputtered for breath, pulling at Reigen's abnormally strong fingers at his throat.

No no no no this couldn't happen.

Serizawa’s aura flared and a woosh of psychic power hefted up under Reigen’s chest and threw him into the air. He tumbled across the garage, landing on the concrete floor, banging his knees and scraping his chin.

“Augh fuck!” That was his own voice suddenly. For a split second he had control of himself again and hunched there on all fours. His ribs ached.

“Shit.” Serizawa rarely swore, so Reigen took that as a compliment.

Yes. Shit indeed.

They both got slowly to their feet, staring each other down. Serizawa’s hands were extended placatingly but also at the ready to dispel more psychic power. “Reigen… Are you alright?”

“Uh,” said Reigen woozily. It seemed Serizawa had knocked some sense into him. But something still wasn't right. He could feel that awful thing inside him rising again, slithering up his spine. He instinctively took a few steps back, until the backs of his legs were flush with the guardrail at the edge of the garage.

“It's not gone,” he said, his voice tripping over itself to get out as fast as possible, before he lost control of it again. He could already feel his throat fighting against him, against his own will. “You'll have to fight me, Serizawa. Don't hold back.”

But Serizawa was staring at him with such an expression of utter horror. Even from across the room, Reigen could see his hands shaking.

“Hit me again!” Reigen shouted, with all the command he could muster when he already felt like his knees were barely holding him up anymore. “HIT ME!”

The black aura returned, roiling around him again. He staggered and gripped the railing behind him so hard his knuckles hurt. He could already feel the evil presence willing his legs to take him back towards Serizawa, to hurt him, and he was shaking violently trying to fight it.

Serizawa stared, wide-eyed, something absolutely heartbroken and helpless in the slackness of his mouth.

Reigen couldn't speak anymore. His lips moved on their own, and he could feel them twist into some horrible smile-thing, his teeth bared.

Whatever else it did with his face must have sealed the deal.

Serizawa’s eyes rolled up in his head and with a flash of blinding light, his soul leaped out from the back of his neck and he crumpled in a heap to the floor.

Oh. Oh no.

Reigen’s body hurt, his knees hurt, his chin was dribbling blood down his neck from being flung across the floor. He was convulsing, his body trying to wrench forward toward Serizawa's defenseless soul, as he somehow still managed to keep his hands clutched to the railing behind him.

Serizawa’s soul just sat there on the floor next to his body, staring at Reigen with big trusting eyes, blue and amorphous. Its tiny, half-formed legs were hunched around itself, tail drifting, dreamlike.

They’d lost. Who knew what sort of horrible things he might do to Serizawa now when his friend was so vulnerable? Dimple still hadn’t returned from wherever he’d been cast off to…

Reigen needed time.

His heart was pounding in his head, almost like the fists of his own soul trying to break out.

He needed to protect Serizawa. He needed to buy time. Until Dimple got back. Until anything. He just couldn't let himself hurt Serizawa like this, not when Serizawa was so exposed, when he trusted Reigen so much to have his shit together in these situations--

Reigen couldn’t move his head but he could move his eyes enough to glance over his shoulder at that drop behind him. Down three stories, to an unforgiving street.

His hands still gripped the railing, by some miracle. He was clinging on to whatever small agency he could keep, but it was rapidly dwindling, ebbing and flowing but always with less and less power on his side.

There was only one thing to do, right?

His possessor couldn’t use his body to hurt Serizawa if it was too broken to possess anymore.

He was terrified, his insides quivering. He squeezed his eyes shut. He had always been a coward, and he was a coward now, but he was a coward with priorities goddammit. He tried not to think of the look on Katsuya’s face when this was all over...

He mustered all his strength, and then in one great release of willpower he leaned back and threw himself over the railing.

“Arataka!”

He fell, a long way down.

Chapter Text

From a young age, Serizawa Katsuya was easy to pick on.

He was quiet, awkward, melancholy, and worst of all he was different from everybody else.

He was not a lovable victim, but rather the sort of victim who might accidentally hurt people, and so his bullies were tacitly endorsed even by the adults in his life, who feared those powers of his which they did not understand.

All of this taught Serizawa an important lesson: he was a problem. He hid, because he was afraid of his own terribleness.

Such a person, who grew up never daring to dream for a normal life, of course was not prepared at all when a normal life suddenly fell into his lap. He was not acclimated to real kindness, realer even than the cold resourcefulness of his “shachō.” He was grateful to a degree of wonderment, feeling so very blessed by the simplest of gestures from the people that finally began to sprout up around him. Kageyama Shigeo must be one of the most special people on earth to give such kindness to someone terrible like Serizawa. On some level, Serizawa knew the logic of this was false. But logic means nothing to the heart. The heart only knows what it feels.

And Serizawa felt he had gotten absurdly lucky. A part of him looked up to anyone who deigned to be a true friend to him, as if they did so only out of kindness and never out of their own selfish need to be with someone they genuinely liked. Despite working very hard, slowly building a tiny bridge for himself back to reality with just the simple tasks of one day to the next, he saw all of his accomplishments as another sort of luck.

This was foolish. Serizawa, who had been taught all his life that there was something wrong with him, still could not fathom that he was a perfectly decent man.

Maybe he even knew this about himself.

Whenever his soul left his body, it knew what it was doing. It knew it was hiding from the truth. It was hiding from the fact it had earned this life, because somehow such a fact was the antithesis of its identity. It hid in the idea of its terribleness, in the desperate need to be someone else. And maybe each time, in a sense beyond consciousness, he understood he was hurting himself for no reason.

You’re a good person.

Why was that so overwhelming to try and understand?

If you trust my judgment, and I say you’re a good person, what does that mean? Reigen had said that.

Serizawa saw that truth as well in the joy of his friends around him, in the affection of Tome, in the easy respect of Shigeo.

He was surrounded by evidence, and slowly but surely it was breaking down the former truth of his terribleness to replace it with something entirely new. A new identity, a new conception of himself. Serizawa Katsuya was learning from the ground up that he was worthy.

These processes, however, take time. And he still had a long way to go.

But people have a skill for finding ways to keep on going, even when they are themselves works in progress. Serizawa had learned when to take his pills and when to schedule his homework and many other loopholes to keep moving forward in life, and here in this parking garage he was about to discover a new loophole for continuing that quest of being his own man.

For in that moment, as Reigen Arataka, a most treasured friend, threw himself from a building in self-sacrifice, Serizawa realized something, a fact of life that clicked into place somewhere deep within his disembodied soul, deeper even than conscious awareness.

He had run from the responsibility of fighting Reigen’s possession, fearing his own ineffectualness. He had run from standing up and facing forward and wielding his power with assurance in the face of such tremendous stakes. He had left his body entirely, once again.

But all self-doubt and questions of worth silenced when his soul realized not only that he could actually lose Reigen, but that Reigen needed him very badly.

He needs me, in this moment, more than anyone.

Serizawa did not know yet if he was a good enough person. He did not know if he would ever be a good enough person, or what parameters that would even entail. He did not know what his future would bring, or if he was quite equipped to face it. These were things he needed to work on, things he might always be working on to some degree.

But in this moment none of that mattered as much as this simple fact he did know with absolute certainty:

There were people in his life, right here and right now, whom Serizawa loved very much. Who loved him in turn.

And they needed him to be around.

They did not need a theoretical good man. They needed Serizawa Katsuya.

So he would be that for them.

 

~

 

Serizawa wasn’t quite cognizant during this revelation. His consciousness was foggy whenever his soul was out of his body, and so this information sank into him like a sort of water rather than conscious thought. His soul, huddled there on the floor like a large tadpole, its limpid eyes trained on Reigen’s struggle, changed somewhat. Its hind legs grew longer and more muscled, sprung tight with potential. Then, like the growing frog it somehow was, it turned and leaped back into his body of its own accord. This was a choice he made not with his mind but with his heart. His soul fused into his back, the light fading.

He woke up with a horrible jolt just in time to watch Reigen throw himself backwards over the railing.

“Arataka!!” The name gasped out of his throat, and without thinking he lurched to his hands and knees and half-crawled his way to his feet, running for the edge of the garage. He was too slow. Even as he worked himself up to a real sprint it was surely too slow. His heart plummeted at the very thought.

This can’t happen. I can’t lose him.

He flung himself against the guardrail, half falling to his knees and knocking the wind out of himself, and reached over the side with both hands. He threw his aura after Reigen’s falling body with everything he had of himself.

Reigen had fallen about two stories when Serizawa caught him. His aura encircled Reigen mid-fall, holding him bobbing gently in place above the street. There were a few people passing by who gawked and ran, shooting glances back over their shoulders, but Serizawa didn’t care about them.

He cared about his friend.

He stayed frozen there for a long moment, breathing heavily, letting the reality slowly sink in that he’d actually saved him. He had saved Reigen.

Well, mostly.

Down below, Reigen's body began to twist and writhe against Serizawa’s hold, the unnatural movements of his possessor making his elbows jut at weird angles.

Serizawa had had enough of this evil spirit.

He lifted Reigen back up to the third level bit by bit, turning him to face him. He held him carefully floating there at eye level, just beyond the railing. Reigen’s face was not his own, snarling and spitting. The black aura of his possessor pushed out against Serizawa’s energy surrounding him, and Serizawa could even feel it, a sharp coldness scratching at the edges of his consciousness, building pressure like an egg trying to crack open.

But Serizawa was no longer afraid of this entity. It paled in comparison to the fear of just moments ago, when he had felt so sure that Reigen would die.

He straightened up, stepping back from the railing and planting his feet squarely on the concrete floor. He met the gaze of whatever was looking out through Reigen's brown eyes.

You can’t have him, Serizawa decided. He’s mine.

And with his expression stone cold, he clenched his hands into fists, hard enough to sting his palms, and his energy holding Reigen tightened.

Reigen’s body jerked and arched and shrieked, the distorted screaming of too many voices at once erupting from his mouth like bile. Perhaps these were the voices of the dead this spirit had feasted on. It didn’t matter now. Serizawa had chosen not to lose this fight. He increased pressure, Reigen’s arms hugging himself, his legs wheeling, and then the aura of his possessor finally began to seep out of him, like wringing a sponge. Sticky black energy oozed from his mouth and eyes and nose and even the blood of his scraped chin.

With one last wrenching motion, the entity released itself from Reigen entirely, an amorphous smog of darkness and eyes and unattached teeth rolling and clicking together. In a last ditch effort, it went hurtling toward Serizawa head-on, finally facing its true opponent. It would take his body instead.

But Serizawa was not the only one tired of this nonsense.

Dimple swung back into view around the side of the building and opened his mouth impossibly wide, his greenish body enlarging and morphing with his lips. Then he sucked up the whole mess of that horrible spirit in one satisfying chomp, swallowing it into oblivion.

Teamwork. It was part of the Spirits and Such work philosophy.

Dimple's body reverted back to its normal size with a squishing noise, and he gave a vague “ugh” as if this meal had not been very tasty at all.

And now Serizawa could see Reigen again.

He was still floating outside, held securely by Serizawa’s energy. He was watching Serizawa with wide and somewhat helpless eyes, his arms and legs hanging limply in the embrace of the psychic aura glowing around him.

It was really him. Serizawa could tell at a glance. Serizawa released an enormous breath, his whole body sagging except for his hands still shakily extended to keep Reigen afloat.

Reigen was ok. He was safe.

They just stared at each other for a long time. Then Reigen looked down at the drop underneath him and gave a yelp, flailing as if to dog-paddle his way back to the garage.

“S-Serizawa!”

But Serizawa was already reeling him back over to solid ground.

He lowered Reigen to the floor, very gently, just hovering him there a second until Reigen gingerly got his own feet under himself, and then the energy dispersed. Reigen wobbled a little with the sudden effects of gravity again. His tie was thrown over his shoulder. That scrape under his chin looked messy, but nothing a bandage wouldn’t fix. It probably stung more than it was actually serious, which explained why Reigen was wincing and blinking a lot, as if staving off tears.

Dimple circled them a few times, vocally checking for other damages.

“You’ve both got two legs still… two arms… heads, presumably with at least half a brain inside. Well fellas, this looks like another success.”

“Success. Yes,” said Reigen, still catching up. It was as if his voice had forgotten how to work. He cleared his throat. “I’m alright, thanks for asking.”

“Of course. The 21st century's greatest fraud is harder to kill than a cockroach,” said Dimple, in a way that was somehow both admonishing and affectionate at the same time. He kept circling Reigen's head a little too closely, almost fussy even, until Reigen waved him off with a flapping hand gesture.

Then Reigen had the gall to put a hand on his hip, as if to play this off as a perfectly normal day, before turning his attention back to Serizawa. Something about that whole motion was what made Serizawa’s legs finally move.

He crossed the space between them, his shoes thunking purposefully on the floor, and he walked straight into Reigen’s chest, winding his arms around Reigen’s shoulders in a crushing, incredibly relieved hug.

Reigen gave a soft “oof”, his hands hovering awkwardly at Serizawa's back before resting into a return embrace. Or at least an attempt at it. Hugging was not something they had done before. But Serizawa wasn't thinking about any of that. His body just did what it wanted. His large hand came up to cradle the back of Reigen's head, palming rough hair, as he squeezed him close and buried his face in Reigen's shoulder. He held so tight he shook with it, or maybe he was shaking for a different reason. It didn't matter. Reigen was warm and real in his arms. Safe.

Dimple hung back from them, and Serizawa could not see his face but he suspected Dimple's expression was the knowing, patient kind. Sometimes Dimple understood them better than they understood themselves.

They hugged for altogether too long, shifting and patting backs and trying to disengage but then just falling right into another hug again, like they just couldn't let go of each other for this moment, in a way neither of them could explain. It was just important. Serizawa ached with how important it was.

When they finally did pull back, Serizawa had to sniff back the tears that hadn't fallen yet but were sure trying to. Later maybe he'd be embarrassed by all this, but not now. His emotions were all up in his throat, and again without thinking, he brushed his thumb over Reigen's cheekbone, above his bleeding chin. Again, a gesture without any particular meaning except his hand had wanted to do it so badly. He traced Reigen's cheek to the hair hanging over his ears and then trailed off, pulling his hand away. Something quick and inexplicable.

“I’m just really glad you’re alright,” he said, his voice wobbling terribly. “You know?”

Reigen met his gaze and took a moment to swallow. For a split second, he looked absolutely wrecked.

“Yeah,” he croaked. “Yeah, I know.”

He pulled up a teetering smile.

 


~

 

After double checking that the parking garage had no other evil spirits hanging around, the three of them left, the now defunct test of courage site still aesthetically creepy but now much less dangerous in actuality.

Serizawa couldn't stop looking at Reigen, like a big idiot. He just stared unabashedly as Reigen and Dimple both attempted to joke away the seriousness of today's job. It was like he suddenly needed to notice all the details of Reigen's face he took for granted, or else they might disappear. The shape of his nose, that particular familiar way light reflected in his eyes, that one front tooth of his that kinda sidled in front of the others--it was all very important now. Reigen pulled out a pack of tissues from his suit jacket and was dabbing at the scrape on his chin as they waited on the street corner for their taxi to take them back to the office. He kept licking the tissue to help rub off the drier blood, like a finicky mom.

The witnesses from earlier had thankfully scattered during the action but now it would be wise to leave before any authorities might arrive. They after all had a payment to collect.

Somehow their taxi was the same driver as before, looking even more suspicious at their increased state of disarray. Reigen put on an expert smile as he stuffed altogether too many soiled tissues in his pocket. He prattled off a fabricated explanation like it was smalltalk, abundant gesticulations included, until the driver just sort of grunted and held the door open for them.

Dimple had been watching Serizawa very closely this whole time, no doubt noticing how quiet he was being. He sighed dramatically.

“Well, I'm out of here,” he announced, bobbing over the head of the cab driver, who could not see him. “You guys have caused me enough stress for one day. I'm going to give myself some spa time.”

“Thank you, Dimple-san,” Serizawa said seriously. He didn’t even care about putting on appearances in front of the driver, not after everything that had happened today. The driver followed his gaze to the empty space Dimple occupied, visibly creeped out.

Dimple seemed uncomfortable with the genuine praise. “Yeah… See ya,” he mumbled, oddly shy.

“Ah, Dimple. One more thing,” Reigen said. The cab driver again wheeled around to try and see who they were talking to, face twisted up.

“Yeah, what is it?” said Dimple, clearly relieved for an excuse to be rude again.

Reigen smiled, all customer service charm. “Don’t tell Mob, ok?”

Dimple squinted at him for a long moment. It might have even been a glare, on the scale of Dimple disapproval. “... Well, if you say so,” he said easily, and then flew away in a zigzagging lurch.

That exchange bothered Serizawa.

The cab driver shivered and urged them to please get in the car already, his professional politeness usurped by his customers’ foreboding weirdness. Continuing to fake smile, Reigen slid into the backseat and Serizawa followed.

The driver drove them in tense silence. The silence in the back wasn't much better. Reigen was staring pointedly out the window and Serizawa was staring pointedly at him, at the long curve of his neck.

Serizawa was very bothered, actually.

“Reigen--”

Reigen waved a hand. “We don’t have to talk about it,” he said quickly.

“Yes we do,” said Serizawa, and he surprised even himself with how sharply he said it. He sounded angry.

… He was kind of angry.

Reigen had whipped around at his tone to stare at him, so much less sure all the sudden than the typical Reigen fare, tongue swiping briefly over his upper lip. “Uh, Serizawa--”

“Back there. You did that on purpose didn’t you?” Serizawa said.

Reigen’s eyes flitted away. “Yes.”

“Why on earth did you think that was a good idea?”

Reigen just stared down the seat in front of him and didn’t say anything.

“Would it really have been a success if you’d been killed?”

“Come on, Serizawa, we’re in a cab--”

“Answer the question,” Serizawa demanded.

Reigen was frowning now, hunched a bit, like a chastened child. He picked at a hole in the seat in front of him with his finger. “It seemed like the least damage that could be done. It was an intense situation, ok? That just seemed like the deal that would give us the most advantage. You wouldn’t be hurt, and maybe Dimple could come back and exorcise it.”

“I wouldn’t be hurt?” Serizawa’s voice was dangerously low and Reigen glanced at him nervously. Serizawa reigned in the frustration bubbling up in his chest, taking a deep breath and letting it out again. On the exhale his shoulders slumped. Could you be angry and deeply saddened at the same time?

“Reigen, that would have hurt me immensely if something happened to you,” he said.

“That’s not really what I’m talking about, you know that. In that situation--”

“No. You don’t get it. A part of you doesn’t get it.”

“Get what?”

“You don’t get how much that would ruin me.”

Reigen’s petty protests died on his tongue and his jaw clamped shut.

“Can you really even picture it?” Serizawa’s voice had lost its edge but remained steadfast in its quietness. “If you’d been hurt, or worse, if you’d been killed. Do you even know how I would take that? What about Shigeo? And Tome? I don’t think you really understand it.”

“I know you’d miss me,” Reigen tried, his voice high and tight, but it was a weak effort and he didn’t try to push it further. He looked pale, and suddenly Serizawa saw how very unkempt he was after this whole affair. His hair was mussed, his suit rumpled. There were bags under his eyes. Reigen, who was always on top of things and putting on such a grandiose face, was suddenly thin and tired and so very normal. He couldn’t hide it, in this moment.

Serizawa pressed into that, because he needed to. He needed Reigen to at least start to understand.

“No,” he said gently. “You really don’t know.” His own voice cracked and he took a moment to gather his thoughts. “You’re my best friend, Arataka. I love you dearly.” The words came out slow and thick, sticking to the back of his throat. “I’m not sure I know how to live without you in my life anymore, and I sure as hell don’t want to try any time soon.”

That sat between them for a long time, raw and exposed.

“... You can’t just say things like that,” said Reigen, his hand coming up to lay over his eyes. He sat very still, bowed forward, and Serizawa could see his shoulders shaking, could see the grimace of his mouth under his hand trying unsuccessfully to hide everything he was feeling right now.

Reigen always hid things like this.

Serizawa reached across the space between them and gave Reigen a fortifying pat on the back.

That’s what Reigen always did for him, right?

Reigen choked on a sound that might have been a sob in another life, if he were more ready to share such a thing. But he grit his teeth through it and sniffed firmly. He sort of nodded, to show he’d gotten the message.

Serizawa pulled his hand back into his lap and they just sat in silence for awhile, both gathering themselves together in the face of what they’d experienced today, all the unsaid things that had so abruptly needed to be said.

Finally, when they were almost all the way back to Spirits and Such, Reigen lowered his hand and leaned back in his seat, expelling a big breath of air that puffed out his cheeks. His eyes were red.

“You too, Katsuya,” he said, very quietly. “You’re someone I love too. So much.”

Ah.

Maybe it was the nature of this insane day, but somehow Serizawa believed him when he said that, without hesitation for once.

Everything else in life could be the chaos it always was, but right in this moment they were just two people who loved each other, sitting side by side. There was something so simple about it.

Chapter Text

It was probably pretty stupid not to just take the day off after a morning like that, but Reigen and Serizawa were both the sort of stupid that found comfort in working. The office stayed open its regular hours.

Things got a little awkward.

It started with the cab driver, who nervously tried to give them words of encouragement as they disembarked and seemed to have cried for some reason but nonetheless took their money and left. Reigen just caught Serizawa’s eye and huffed a breath of a laugh. They both glanced away quickly.

The shabby little cubby of Spirits and Such was waiting for them, like a loyal dog. Everything was where it should be, including the clutter. The houseplants were healthy and doted-on and utterly ignorant of the morning’s events.

But the two of them unfortunately had wounds to attend to, which was a strange social situation to navigate when they were both trying their best to move past the details. Reigen slapped a big ol’ bandage meant for elbows onto his chin, and insisted on going at Serizawa with their little plastic first aid kit as well. Serizawa was mostly alright, but there were a few scratches on his face that Reigen felt too guilty to ignore. They were from Reigen’s own fingernails, after all. He hated that.

He made Serizawa sit on his desk and gingerly applied a butterfly bandage just above his eyebrow for him. The physical strain of being possessed earlier was weighing on Reigen, making his limbs and back ache. Even his fingers felt stiff, as they fumbled against Serizawa's forehead. His thumbnail nudged the coarse hairs of Serizawa's eyebrow out of place and without thinking he smoothed it down again with his knuckle. Realizing he’d done it made him nervous.

They couldn’t really talk when they were up in each other’s faces like this, not without making things weird, and the silence was suffocating, packed full of all the things they knew but weren’t saying. They knew where these scratches came from, what they’d almost lost, what they’d said to each other and what that meant. How do you even follow up such things except to stubbornly decide that everything will be normal now?

Serizawa’s eyes were lowered humbly to Reigen’s neck, to avoid awkwardly staring up Reigen’s nose, and Reigen found himself noticing the darkness of Serizawa’s lashes against his cheeks too.

For a moment he wanted very much to just pull Serizawa's face to his chest and hug him again like this. He was overwhelmed by how very lucky he was to have stumbled upon this man in his life.

You're my best friend, Arataka. I love you dearly.

When had Reigen ever earned something like that? It felt like cupping a tiny egg in his hands. Wasn't he just going to drop it and mess it up? A part of him wanted to get rid of it fast before it wound up shattered, and yet… There was something inside it, something mind-boggling and precious, if he could just be brave for once...

He finished up his work and gave Serizawa’s jaw a silent pat of dismissal. Serizawa smiled crookedly, glancing up to meet his eyes again.

Reigen had to swallow. His heart was in his throat doing funny things.

“Looking good, champ,” Reigen told him, his voice too hoarse, and Serizawa’s little laugh was kind.

They did a whole lot of not talking that afternoon, as if they’d burned themselves out on it for the time being. They unwound into their work, conversing only in passing to facilitate it. They got a couple of walk-ins and Reigen turned on his usual charms, but while remaining conspicuously seated at his desk. He was awfully tired.

Tome came by in the afternoon and seemed to instantly read that something had happened. For all her weird hobbies, she was no fool. At the very least, the bandages on her employers’ faces must have been a hint. She didn't ask, and just got to her own work quietly. She wasn't a slacker anymore either. She'd meant it when she promised she would work hard here.

At one point she brought them both tea unprompted, her pace brisk and her head lowered. She didn't meet Reigen's eyes as she delivered his tea to his desk, producing a coaster and everything. Her fingernails around the cup were short and boyish but painted with an obnoxious amount of glitter, like she was hoping to channel some of the galaxy itself into her tacky teenage wardrobe. Her mouth was set with humbling determination.

“Should I be suspicious?” he teased, because seeing her so quiet was bothering him. “Are you trying to poison us?”

She looked up finally, her eyebrows knitting, and for a horrifying moment he thought she might cry but instead she pulled a face at him. “I’d never poison Serizawa-san.”

“Hah!” Thank god for sass. He took the tea from her and just held it under his chin to let it warm his face.

It occurred to him that somehow he was surrounded right now by people he could really rely on.

How had that happened?

One of the last customers of the day was the woman who had asked for them to exorcise the parking garage in the first place, coming to deliver her payment in cash. She was a lot younger than she'd sounded on the phone. She barely looked older than Tome.

Reigen smiled and kept the details of the exorcism to himself. All she needed to know was that they beat the thing. “We're happy to help,” he told her, and gave back half of the bills she'd handed him.

“I'm sorry, but… I thought the price was 8,000 yen?” she stammered.

“That thing was nasty,” he said. He should know. He was still feeling it. “Your dog must be pretty fragile right now. Take it to the vet and take care of your family, alright?” He flapped his hand nonchalantly.

She blinked back tears and bowed, clutching the bills to her chest. “Thank you, Reigen-sama.”

-sama had a nice ring to it. He'd have to remember to gloat about that when he was less exhausted.

When she left he looked up to find both Tome and Serizawa staring at him.

“Is something on my face?” he asked.

They both just smiled, which probably proved it was a private joke, except the fondness of their expressions made him return to his computer quickly, because his face was getting too warm.

He really loved these people.

 

~

 

Mob called Reigen the next morning. It turns out getting possessed can really leave you with a nasty migraine, so Reigen was still in bed, waking up with a snort and a swear. He groaned and half rolled onto the floor in his sluggish crawl to his phone, answering with his eyes still squeezed shut. “Katsuya, I’m fine,” he said.

“Shishou?”

Oh. This was not Serizawa. Reigen swung himself upright and blinked his apartment into focus.

“Mob.”

“Yes.”

Dimple, that traitor. He must have spilled the beans about yesterday’s mishaps. What could even be said about it?

“What’s up?” Reigen asked lamely. He didn’t know if he had the energy for another lecture. It took all his tired mind could come up with last night just to convince Serizawa to get to his night class instead of hovering.

Don’t break your perfect attendance record on my account, Reigen had said. I couldn’t stand it.

You’ll call me if you need anything? had been Serizawa’s condition, said with such sternness that it was clearly an order and not a suggestion.

He’d also insisted on walking Reigen home after they closed up. By the end of the day Reigen was beyond exhausted, his limbs like jelly and his brain doing a painful dance against the inside of his forehead. In that moment, he was thankful to have Serizawa for a mother hen. As they walked down the street together, he thought he even felt the warm buzz of psychic energy thrumming along his back, helping to hold him upright. Or maybe he imagined it.

There was a long silence on the phone and Reigen began to tense. “Mob--”

“You called me a couple weeks ago,” Mob said at the same time. “I was at a club event so I didn’t hear it. Usually when I miss your calls like that you’ll leave a message or call back a few days later, so I just waited. But you didn’t. Before I realized it, two weeks had already passed and you hadn’t said anything else. So I wanted to make sure things were alright.”

Reigen’s still ghost-addled brain had to chug along a bit to process what Mob was saying here. Mob wasn’t this good of a liar. That meant he really must not know what happened yesterday if he wasn’t mentioning it at all. Dimple had kept his word.

Mob wasn’t calling him because of a life or death accident, then. He was just calling him. Just to call him.

“Ah,” Reigen said, laughing a little as if to expel some of the lightness that had appeared in his chest. “Things have been fine. You know. The usual.”

“What did you want to talk to me about before?” Mob asked.

Well shit, Mob, it was two weeks ago! Reigen had no idea Mob thought so much about his dumb phone calls.

“Oh it was nothing important, I don’t think. I can’t even remember now.” His voice petered out and he just sat there in his pajamas at the edge of his bed, with that bandage on his chin scrunched up from sleeping on it. His body still ached.

“I was thinking,” he said, because he knew Mob, this quiet boy who would wait patiently and indefinitely for you to get to the point. “Why don’t we get some ramen sometime? I think that’s what I wanted to ask. That’s all.”

Why was that such a nerve-wracking suggestion? Especially in comparison to all the shit he’d been through already this week? But Mob just made a quiet noise of assent.

“Ok,” he said simply. “I’m free tomorrow.”

“Great. Yeah. Let’s do that.”

“Can we go to the usual place, shishou?”

Reigen realized with some mortification that his throat was closing up, with an emotion he couldn’t put a name to. Maybe he was still off-kilter from yesterday. From everything.

“Yeah, that’d be great,” he said. The words came out scratchy so he took a moment to swallow and sniff a little. He laughed it out. “Hey, Mob…” he added. “You know you don’t have to call me shishou anymore, right?”

“I never really had to call you that,” Mob pointed out, and Reigen laughed again.

“I guess you’re right.”

“It’s still true,” Mob said. His tone was vaguely thoughtful, as if he was deciding something. Choosing the correct answer on a test or which shoes to wear.

“What is?”

“Calling you ‘shishou.’ I called you that because it was true, in its own way. So I still call you that because it’s still true.”

That hit Reigen like a brick maybe. It knocked the wind out of him and left him pressing his lips together to make sure whatever sound was at the back of his throat didn’t escape, because he knew it was bound to be embarrassing as all get out.

“... Hey, Mob,” he said.

“Yes, shishou?”

He hesitated the barest moment, then ran headfirst with faith.

“How’s school?” he asked.

Mob told him this time.

Reigen leaned back against his pillow and they talked for almost an hour, so easily.

 

~

 

Things had changed and yet nothing had changed at all.

Surely the casual camaraderie and brief touches he shared with Serizawa throughout the day were the same as they’d always been, but maybe Reigen found himself appreciating them a small bit more. It was a weird thing. This feeling would probably fade in a few weeks, and then he could get back to taking Serizawa’s presence for granted.

He kind of liked that though. He liked the privilege of taking Serizawa for granted. Spirits and Such felt like it was in the second half of a life maybe, like it was simply wandering towards a death it knew was inevitable. But for the first time Reigen had a feeling he might be able to keep some of these people afterwards. In some small way. Just perhaps.

The weather was starting to get hot, and one afternoon they were all fanning themselves with makeshift fans folded from old promotional ads when it occurred to Reigen that he was in a great mood. It was the sort of great mood that makes a person realize that they haven’t had an actually great mood in ages.

Best to do something about it, then.

He laid his fan across his desk with much ceremony and clapped his hands together.

“It’s only walk-ins for the rest of the day, and I don’t think anyone is going to be coming around in this weather,” he announced.

“Why are we even here then?” Tome muttered. The fan she was using had slightly less structural integrity than Reigen’s. The three of them had had an impromptu fan-folding contest, but Reigen was not to be beat in the ancient skill of menial crafts.

He pointed at her over his desk. “That’s exactly the right question!”

“What?”

“Why are we here?” He smacked his palm on his desk for emphasis and spun his chair around to stand.

“What?” Serizawa asked, deciding that Tome’s previous What deserved backup.

“I’m bored,” Reigen said, as if this was the most obvious conclusion. He yanked off his tie, folding it to stuff in his pocket. “Let’s get ice cream or something.”

“You mean it?” Tome beamed.

“I mean everything I say,” said Reigen, which he did not mean at all but they both understood that.

For the first time in years, Spirits and Such closed up early. The two workaholics, with their protogee workaholic in the making, walked downstairs to the street together and turned themselves toward the sweet shop just a few blocks away. Serizawa and Tome both wore their backpacks, and talked animatedly about the entry-level physics they both had learned. Tome liked the sciences that gave her a better understanding of the sci fi books she read. She kind of wanted to write one. Was she secretly a really driven young person? An overachiever ready to awaken from the long slumber of slackerhood? Serizawa had a funny habit of bending a bit closer to her level when he really got invested in their conversations, his eyes lighting up in that quiet warm way that they did.

It was actually a cloudy day, but the air was heavy with humidity and stuck to their clothes grossly. An early summer storm was gearing up, maybe. It occurred to Reigen that Serizawa hadn’t brought his umbrella today. Even the most prepared are sometimes caught unprepared, after all.

The sweet shop was just a nookish place, barely with indoor standing area in front of the counter, but their selection was decadent. As soon as Reigen said he’d be the one buying, Tome bullied her way to the front and started scrutinizing the menu for maximum payoff. Serizawa bumped shoulders with him as he got out of her way, smiling and absently cupping a hand at the small of Reigen’s back as he stepped around him. Reigen smiled back except he was mostly facing the counter so he just kind of smiled weirdly at a display for half-price mini cones.

Tome only got one scoop, to Reigen’s surprise. Apparently she respected her boss’s wallet more than she let on. But she did go all out for the homemade cone, her choice of chocolate balanced neatly on top. Reigen got a humble scoop of vanilla and brown sugar in a cup. Serizawa went even humbler with just a blue ramune popsicle.

They walked as they ate, meandering in the general direction of the train station. Sometimes they talked and sometimes they just ate and the silence was comfortable.

“I haven’t had one of those in ages,” Reigen said, as Serizawa finally opened the paper packaging of his popsicle. He’d let it sit too long before opening it, so it stuck to the inside of the paper gooily.

“Want some?” Serizawa held it out for him, the blue melting down the stick onto his fingers already.

Reigen had finished his cup--he’d kind of scarfed it down actually--and hesitated a moment. Then he took Serizawa’s hand in his to steady it and leaned over to bite off some of the treat.

The coldness hurt his teeth. He’d never been a good ice cream biter. Somewhere between that and the popsicle’s already melty condition he wound up accidentally breaking off a huge chunk of it. It hung from his mouth until he could get his fingers up to stuff it fully in, and then it was just a giant mouthful of very cold, very sweet horribleness. His eyes almost watered.

“Ah,” said Serizawa, blinking down at the remains on the popsicle stick. “You ate half of it.”

Reigen was chewing aggressively and painfully, trying to get this thing down. He put on an overcompensating smile, which involved a lot of his lips pinching desperately to keep popsicle inside, and patted Serizawa’s back. But Serizawa wasn’t actually mad. There was a slyness to his side-eye. Tome was appalled.

They finished their desserts and threw away the excess, but they didn’t quite make it to the train station before the heaviness of the air began to turn into actual rain.

“I think it’s really going to pour soon, Arataka,” Serizawa said, with a sense of dutiful urgency, despite the way he’d taken so casually to using Reigen’s given name recently.

“Is that another of your psychic powers?” Reigen asked, already glancing around for shelter. They were at the edge of a park, and he led the way toward a small pavilion by a playground.

“No,” said Serizawa. “You can just feel it sometimes.”

They got under cover just in time before the sky opened up and started dumping rain. Tome gave a low whistle. The rain definitely smelled like the summer kind, warm and maybe thick with the specific grit of a hot city. It rattled like bullets on the roof of the pavilion and on the plastic of the playground slide. It was shaped like a dinosaur.

“I think I came here once as a kid,” Tome said, watching it all fall down.

“You’re still a kid,” Reigen said automatically.

She didn’t even fight back. “It’s not the worst way to spend an afternoon,” she decided. “That’s what I meant.”

The two men just stood there in awkward yet somehow comfortable agreement. They made for a strange group here, but there was a camaraderie in this, in getting stranded, in still having the taste of sweets in their mouths.

“Do you think at all about what you’ll do after school, Tome-chan?” Reigen asked.

“Of course not. I’m a first-year. Did you think of that stuff as a first-year?”

“A little,” Reigen said.

“Did you think of this?”

“Good point.”

He would never have imagined this.

Serizawa watched the two of them a long moment, before turning to the rain again. It was really pouring, in big chunky streaks. The grass was overflowing with it. Suddenly, Serizawa shrugged his backpack off his shoulders, and propped it up neatly against one of the benches the pavilion sheltered. Reigen thought he must have just gotten tired, but then he also took off his suit jacket.

“Katsuya?” Reigen said, and then Serizawa flashed him the most enormous grin and just walked straight out into the rain.

What the hell.

Tome made a half impressed and half delighted whoop of a noise as Serizawa turned to face them, arms held out, backing up further into the downpour. The rain quickly plastered his dark hair to his head and made the white of his shirt stick to his chest, and he just kept grinning at them in the most exultant way, as if channeling the stupid teenager he’d never been able to live as. He and Tome were definitely on the same wavelength. She was getting out of her backpack too and leaving it by his and already chasing after him before Reigen could even find the right words to stop her. He just let out a vague “Oi!” as she ran cackling into the water, yelping in both celebration and discomfort at the onslaught.

Had Serizawa finally cracked? Was he insane now?

But then Reigen really saw him there. Serizawa had stuffed his hands in his pockets and thrown his head back, eyes closed and scrunched up in a wobbly smile as the rain fell directly on his face. All at once it occurred to Reigen that he had probably never seen Serizawa happier.

“Aw hell,” Reigen muttered, fighting out of his own suit jacket now. He folded it over on the bench beside Serizawa’s and followed his idiot employees out into the storm.

It was cooler and messy and somehow exactly what he needed after the heat of the day.

“Have you lost your mind, Serizawa-san?” Tome was shouting, as if that sounded like the greatest plan in the universe.

“MAYBE SO!” Serizawa bellowed, and they got into an absurd sort of shouting contest, seeing who could be more obnoxiously loud just for the hell of it. Reigen instinctively had his arms wrapped around himself as his shirt soaked through, but by the time he reached them he couldn’t help the smile pulling at his cheeks as well. He swore loudly as he landed in a puddle and Tome shrieked at him with gusto.

They were all just… yelling. For some reason. Yelling and soaked to the bone. Reigen swung an arm around Serizawa’s waist and yelled as loud as he could, not even words really, just random stupid noises, and he almost didn’t even notice how Serizawa’s arm wrapped around his back in turn, holding him up through the screaming, Serizawa’s voice laughing beside him.

It was altogether better than having an umbrella, probably.

As Reigen straightened out, he wound up against Serizawa’s side and just stuffed his head into the crook of Serizawa’s wet neck, grinning. With their shirts so drenched, leaning against him was more like touching skin than cloth.

“This is stupid,” he declared. Serizawa simply made a noise of agreement, muffled somewhere under the rain sound.

Tome looked between them with the smile on her face frozen somewhat, as if she’d been struck by something, an idea turning over in her mind. Her hair was like a scraggly mane wrapped around her face and she squinted through the droplets in her eyelashes. Then she broke out into a larger grin that was very warm and very sure of itself, like the world was exactly how she wanted it to be.

“Your bandage fell off,” she told him.

The bandage on his chin. So it had. His chin must still be a scabby mess but the rain made him feel fresh and new.

Serizawa’s arm was still around him. It stayed there a long time, even when they started returning to shelter, exchanging their jokes. His presence was solid and steady, just like always.

Chapter Text

Serizawa tapped his pencil against the open page of his textbook.

“That’s an awful lot of tapping you’ve been doing,” said Takemoto, sitting across the table from him.

It was the weekend and they were studying for their history test next week. They'd developed a tradition of bringing their books and notes to Mobdonalds and spreading them out over a booth table to quiz each other over fries. Serizawa felt he was already getting too old for an actual Mobdonalds lunch--it never sat well with his stomach any more--but he did have a weakness for soda during studying time, and something about turning through the glossy pages of a textbook with your fingers a little fry-salty had become a tactile comfort in his life.

Takemoto Kira was the first friend Serizawa ever made, after Mob and Reigen. He was 25 and in Serizawa’s class. These study dates were mostly for Serizawa to help him out, but Serizawa enjoyed the company, and teaching the concepts helped his comprehension anyway.

Today, however, he couldn't seem to keep his interest in his history notes. And Takemoto had noticed.

He was watching Serizawa without judgment, slurping his milkshake. His sandy-colored hair had little peaks of sweat at the forehead from the heat of the walk over, and he was still wearing the plain, collared shirt he wore for his convenience store job. Serizawa felt oddly thankful for his presence. Ever since Reigen's “accident” Serizawa had been feeling rather tender about the important people in his life.

“Takemoto-kun… Do you know what you want for your future?” Serizawa asked him.

“... I take it we’re not talking about Commodore Perry anymore,” said Takemoto, just to make sure. He could be a little slow on the uptake sometimes, but not in a bad way.

“Yeah. I got distracted thinking about my life instead,” Serizawa said sheepishly.

“That’s not like you. Usually you’re the one who keeps me on track.”

“Sorry about that.”

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah, I’m fine, it's just… Do you think about what you’ll do after you finish this?” He gestured at their open books and notebooks strewn across the table. “After school?”

Takemoto put his shake down, pursing his lips in thought. “I guess I’ll just do the same thing I’m doing now. I’m already working, of course. But I’ll be able to apply for better jobs now.”

Serizawa smiled ruefully. “Yeah… Probably the same for me. It’s strange, though. Doesn’t it feel like it should be more exciting somehow?”

“Dunno. Maybe it’s more like that for high school-aged high schoolers.”

“Maybe.”

It was a little disappointing. There wasn’t anything climactic about it if you were still just the same person after the accomplishment as you were before it. But then again, Serizawa was still getting used to the business of collecting accomplishments in the first place. Maybe they were always like this.

“It’ll be a pretty big deal for my dad though,” Takemoto continued. He looked sideways and towards the ceiling in the same way he did when trying to remember a quiz answer. “Honestly, I’m mostly doing this for him. He’s always been there for me in my life, so… I’m glad I can make him happy a little.” He shrugged, his expression so bland as if this abrupt sincerity was no big deal. “I think sometimes that’s all I really want anyway. When I think of my future, I don’t think too much about what I’ll be doing or where I’ll be going. But I know the people I want to be in it. I think more than anything I just want to keep being a good son to my dad, as much as I can. That means more to me than what job I have.”

That was the thing about Takemoto. He had trouble with studying, but he was wise in the ways that mattered.

“But don’t you ever feel like you want to better yourself?” Serizawa asked. “Like maybe this accomplishment will help you become a more complete person?”

Takemoto looked at him a long moment, with his heavy-lidded and somewhat vacant eyes.

“I think I see what your problem is,” he said.

“What’s that?” Serizawa asked nervously.

“You’re trying to prove something, Serizawa-san. You want to get better because you don’t think you’re good enough already.”

Ah.

Takemoto smiled a little, almost apologetically for being so honest. “Have you ever thought that maybe you don’t have to change to be good enough? Like…” He made a frustrated noise, running out of eloquence. He wasn’t the best with words either. “Maybe it doesn’t matter what your job is or your education, if the real problem is you just don’t like yourself. If you don’t like yourself, you’ll always kind of not like yourself no matter what you do. People don’t change that much. So to fix that sort of problem, maybe it’s less about what you do next and more about… figuring out how to like yourself the way you are. If you just like yourself, you’ll like yourself even if your job is shitty, right? You don’t need a high school equivalency for that either.” He shrugged again. “That’s what I think, anyway.”

A lump had formed in Serizawa's throat. Not in a bad way. If anything, it was a very good way. Lately Serizawa kept finding himself overwhelmed by good things.

“Thank you…” he said. “You know, I… I’m really glad we’re friends.”

“Me too,” said Takemoto simply, and then he returned to his notebook as if he hadn’t just said something of such vital importance.

Maybe that was the best way to say vitally important things.

“Serizawa-san, how do you memorize these dates so well?” Takemoto asked forlornly.

Serizawa turned his notes toward Takemoto and began pointing out his strategy with his pencil. There was something comforting in exchanging help in their own ways like this.

 

~

 

When Serizawa stopped and thought about it, working at Spirits and Such made him very happy. Perhaps it was the sort of quiet happiness he wouldn’t have even noticed if it hadn’t been for the events of Reigen’s possession reminding him that he could so easily lose it all.

He loved their tiny office, and he loved Mob and Dimple and Tome, and he loved their regular customers who would sometimes even bring them home cooking, and he loved Reigen. Somehow Serizawa had fallen completely in love with his life but it had been so simple and ordinary that he hadn't even realized that's what it was. Had he been expecting something bigger? Maybe a part of him still wanted something bigger, some grand finale. But he didn't hate this quiet peace at all. Not right now, anyway.

The only real problem was his own incongruence. It seemed like his luck ought to run out eventually. All these good things had happened but he still felt like he hadn't done anything yet. Like this should be someone else’s life, like he’d stolen some worthier person’s luck and friends.

He tried to just keep moving forward and not get stuck in his head too much about it.

His history test was that Wednesday afternoon due to scheduling conflicts, and afterwards he came back to work to find Reigen and Tome fussing over the plants on the windowsill. Tome was giving them water from a cup and Reigen kept smacking her wrist and exclaiming “Too much!” when it was time to stop and go to the next one. Serizawa wondered if part of why Reigen was so adamant about his plant wisdom was just to impress her. Nevertheless, Tome used to complain about how boring plant care was but nowadays had developed into something of Reigen's apprentice. They were just like that.

Reigen looked up as Serizawa entered, offering a thumbs up.

“Aced it, Katsuya?”

“Won't know until a few weeks, but I guess I'll trust the intuition of the century’s greatest physic,” said Serizawa, depositing his backpack in its usual partly hidden corner behind the ficus.

Reigen grinned. The scrape on his chin had fully healed, but there was a tiny, light scar there now if you looked at his face closely enough.

Serizawa was slightly alarmed that he'd been looking at Reigen's face closely enough a lot lately. He swallowed the weird flutter that rose in his chest, letting it settle to a general mellow warmth that had become very familiar.

“I flunked my last history test because I included my own theories,” Tome piped in, rearranging the decorative stones in the pot of a succulent with her fingers.

“That’s a terrible strategy,” Reigen said.

“I'm joking. I'm not an idiot. But while I was writing what the teacher wanted to hear, I was really thinking about my own research into ancient contact.”

It said a lot that neither Reigen nor Serizawa had to ask what kind of contact she meant. Instead Reigen snapped his fingers approvingly.

“That's much better,” he said. “As long as you can read your teachers, you'll be fine. Right, Katsuya?”

“Something like that,” said Serizawa.

It was a slow afternoon, the kind for doing paperwork, but Serizawa found himself nervous. He had a proposition to share later. When Tome left for the evening, switching their sign to closed like always on her way out, Serizawa was again distracted from his work, this time watching Reigen typing away at his laptop on his desk. The blinds were open on the window behind him and the lowering sun was angled just right to throw a headache-inducing glare across the room. It made the edges of Reigen's hair brighter and ruddier, and he squinted at his screen, no doubt only half noticing that the light was making it harder to read. He got engrossed like that.

Finally, Serizawa got up from his own desk and crossed the room to close the blinds himself, stepping easily into the space behind Reigen's chair. Reigen blinked a little at his less inscrutable screen as the blinds lowered with a jangling thwip.

“Thanks,” he said, not looking up. “I'm gonna be a little late tonight. You can feel free to go.”

Serizawa made a noise of acknowledgement but just stood there at Reigen's side, glancing at his work over his shoulder. He was on Twitter. Not all that pressing of work, then… Sometimes Reigen just preferred to unwind at the office. It was something that would be ok to interrupt, in other words.

Nevertheless, Serizawa worried his lip in his teeth. His heart was thumping insistently at his Adams apple.

Not wanting to invade privacy, he shifted his gaze to the back of Reigen's neck, the delicate hair there, the backs of his ears, but that was somehow worse.

He'd hesitated for too long. Reigen slid him a wary look, hunching a little defensively over his computer.

“Sorry,” Serizawa said immediately.

“What's eating you?” Reigen asked. He turned his chair toward him, trying for some dignity which was hard when Serizawa was the one standing and Reigen came up to just his chest.

To diminish some of the awkwardness, Serizawa lowered himself to sit gingerly on the edge of Reigen's desk.

“I've been thinking… about my out of body problem,” he said.

Reigen didn't say anything, but his interest was immediate and perhaps charmingly transparent. He went ahead and closed his laptop, then crossed his arms over his chest. “Yeah?”

“Yeah…” Serizawa breathed in deeply, trying to find the right explanation.

He didn't know how to say that he wasn’t sure if he’d ever be comfortable in his own skin. That liking himself was too nebulous of a goal, to the point that it felt impossible. So he just didn't say that part.

Instead his eyes flitted to the scar on Reigen's chin.

“I've been thinking a lot about what happened at that garage, and even at the hotel,” Serizawa said. “I know we’re doing our best, bringing along Dimple for exorcisms until I’m sorted out, but… it's unsafe, Arataka. I can't keep working with you if there's this chance I'll just fly away when you need me. I couldn't bear it if you were hurt because of that.”

Reigen's eyes had widened. “Hey… Come on, don't go blaming yourself for any of that…” There was a strange thread of desperation in his voice.

“I'm not,” Serizawa said. “But I need to be practical. I think if I can't figure out how to control this… I will need to resign.”

He never wanted to feel as helpless as he had watching Reigen fall. They hadn't talked about it beyond their initial relief. They hadn't talked about what could have happened if Serizawa hadn't been able to get a hold of himself in time, but Serizawa knew very deeply what that would have entailed. He'd even had a nightmare about it. He was awoken by his bed levitating, and then falling suddenly with a thud like his heart plummeting into his stomach.

Reigen, for all that he'd always said Serizawa could just leave if he wanted to, was clearly unprepared for this conversation right at this moment. “Woah, wait a minute… you're not…” He stopped and reined himself in, his widened eyes flickering to the window plants and then back to Serizawa. “Katsuya… Are you quitting right now?”

Serizawa took another deep breath. The way Reigen’s voice broke made wet pressure prick at his sinuses and the back of his throat. But now wasn't the time for crying.

“No,” Serizawa said softly. “But I'm giving myself an ultimatum. I need to solve this problem or I can't work here. I… I need to pull my own weight.”

“You pull plenty of weight--” Reigen protested, irritated immediately, but Serizawa quieted him by putting a hand on his thigh. That shut Reigen right up. A little too well, actually. Serizawa took his hand back and cleared his throat.

“I have an idea,” he said. “I have some strategies I'd like to try to develop better control over my out of body experiences. I'm not giving up just yet.” He offered Reigen what he hoped was an encouraging smile, but Reigen's brow was still furrowed. “Ah… What I'm really saying here, Arataka, is I need your help. Or at least… I would like your help.”

Reigen watched him for a long moment, his unease warring with his trust for Serizawa right there on his face. Serizawa really cherished that trust. Finally, Reigen nodded.

“What do you have in mind?”

“I’d like to… practice,” Serizawa said. “I think if I try to leave my body on purpose, I might get a better feeling for how the whole thing works. So I’d like to--uh, if you’re ok with it--I’d like to start training myself here. Just if we have free time… Maybe I can try to undergo an out of body experience intentionally, and practice getting back into my body on my own.”

“You really think that will work?” Reigen asked slowly.

“It’s worth a shot, at least. I figure trying it out in a closed, safe environment is much better than figuring things out on the job.”

Reigen gave a vague Huh, not of confusion but of appreciation. He liked the plan, then. “Yeah, if you do it here we could call in help if we needed it… So you would be safer exploring this stuff,” Reigen finished the thought. “And I can supervise you.”

“Exactly.” It was probably more of a relief than it ought to be that they were on the same page so easily. Hadn’t Reigen already proven to Serizawa multiple times that he was allowed to ask for help, that things with Reigen were just easy like that? It shouldn’t be a surprise. But Serizawa found himself smiling hugely anyway. “Ah… And there’s one other reason I want to do this with you. Again, if you’re alright with it.”

“Of course,” said Reigen, and gestured for Serizawa to continue.

“The three times this has happened on accident… Each time, you were the one who helped me get back into my body. I’m not sure how… But that’s always been the same. You’ve always been involved.”

Reigen looked almost sheepish. “Uh, that’s…” He unfolded his arms and sort of clapped his hands together between his knees. He smiled crookedly, but the sincerity in his eyes was painful. “I’m not sure how much help I can actually be in those situations.”

Well, it was normal for Reigen not to have much faith in himself when it came down to it, in moments like these of importance and actual honesty. But that didn’t deter Serizawa at all. He had faith enough in Reigen for the both of them.

His smile grew into a grin of its own accord, and the way Reigen’s lips pinched together in a strange sort of humility meant that really that was all Serizawa had to say about it.

Still, Serizawa said it in words too.

“Don’t worry. I trust you.”

Reigen nodded dumbly, frozen a little in the face of that. Then he rubbed his hands as if to warm them back to life and suddenly hopped to his feet.

“Let’s try it right now,” he said, with the sort of fake confidence on which he’d hung his entire name. “If you’re ready, I’m ready.”

Serizawa loved him very much just then, and stood as well. They were too close. They were behind a desk. They laughed about it.

“Yes. Let’s,” he said.

He really meant for a Thank You to be in there somewhere, but it got rather glossed over in maneuvering around each other and awkwardly grinning away another moment of unexpected intimacy. Maybe it was understood anyway.

Or, more likely, Reigen had never particularly expected Thank Yous to begin with.

 

~

 

Serizawa laid out on his back on one of their sofas, trying to get comfortable even though his feet dangled over the armrest. It was a small sofa.

Reigen sat on the opposite seat from him, his suit jacket flung across the coffee table between them and his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He was ready for action. He set a timer on the nice watch he liked to wear.

“If you’re out for longer than fifteen minutes, I’m calling Mob,” Reigen said.

Serizawa nodded dutifully, just tucking his chin to his chest and letting it fall back again against the armrest behind his head. His hands were folded calmly over his stomach and he had to focus very hard on not fidgeting. He took deep, even breaths.

“Are you ready?” Reigen asked, the barest hint of anxiety creeping into his voice.

It was somehow encouraging. Reigen wouldn’t be the right person for this job if he wasn’t a little bit nervous too. If he didn’t care.

“Yeah, I think so,” Serizawa said, not so much because it was true, but because he was deciding he was going to be ready right this second. He was as ready as he’d ever be, anyway.

He closed his eyes, still breathing deeply, his heart hammering in a way that rather undermined it.

Serizawa had no idea how to initiate an out of body experience, but emotions seemed to be the first thing to try.

He tried to remember how he was feeling the past few times he had left his body on accident.

Scared. Hopeless. I don’t want responsibility. I don’t know if I’m good enough to handle it. I want to run away.

I don’t want to be myself.

He breathed in and then on the exhale he went deeper.

I hate myself.

I don’t want to be myself because I hate myself so deeply.

He just held that feeling in his chest for a moment, not letting himself react to it or get overwhelmed. Just holding it. Turning it around like a rubix cube in his hands, looking at the details. Just trying to understand it. It hurt but he didn’t have to be hurt by it. He could just study. He could just practice feeling it. Maybe then he would be less afraid of it.

I don’t want to be myself.

I don’t want to be myself.

He could feel the edges of his aura reaching out across the room, gently, moving like choppy waves in an ocean storm but never crashing.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

“I’m right here, Katsuya,” came Reigen’s voice, so quiet and unsure but so very honest.

I hate myself.

Fluidly and gently, Serizawa drifted away.

 

~

 

Reigen fiddled with his nice watch, his fingers feeling like clumsy sausages rather than his own body. Serizawa had succeeded, at least at phase one. As Reigen watched, Serizawa calmed as if to sleep and his tadpole soul climbed right out of his chest, bathing the room in brilliant white light. The stack of magazines they kept on the coffee table had started levitating as Serizawa fought with himself, but now flopped back down to the table and slid off to the floor. Reigen’s own tie also stopped floating, falling gently to his chest. There was an ambient clattering of small clicks and thunks as various objects around the office did the same.

Serizawa hadn’t levitated anything big, though, so Reigen hoped that was a good sign for this running smoothly. In the meantime, he was now staring down a glowing blue frog.

Serizawa’s soul just sat there on his body’s chest, like a cat curled up with its owner. Had it gotten bigger? It seemed fatter somehow, and its hind legs in particular had gotten longer, so that it perched there as if ready to jump. Reigen finally met its big vacant eyes, which were staring at him. The darkening, warm light from the sunset outside the blinds had been replaced with blinding white and the watery glow of the tadpole’s bluish tail. It reflected strange undulating patterns against the wall, making Reigen feel like he was inside an aquarium.

“Well…” he said. “Hi.”

The tadpole leaped and Reigen squawked, instinctively pulling his leg up to shield himself. But the tadpole only landed on the coffee table with a wet slap of a noise and then hopped again straight over Reigen’s head.

Ok. This was going to be a problem if Reigen actually lost the damn thing.

He scrambled out of his chair and followed it. It was just hopping and floating around, as if it was a real animal exploring the place. It trundled along the carpeted floor, dragging its own belly along in abortive little thrusts, until it reached a bookshelf and floated up in the air to look at the globe on the top shelf. Those hind legs were definitely looking froggier, hanging limply alongside its tail. There were little webbed feet forming and everything.

“Don’t make a mess of the office, your body will feel very guilty about that when he wakes up,” Reigen drawled, following it warily.

It turned in mid air toward him, big blue eyes staring. Then it pushed off the top shelf with its long legs and sent itself diving straight for him. Reigen awkwardly held his arms out for it, and it settled against his chest like the first time he’d found it. Again, it didn’t quite touch him, but there was a strange warmth radiating from its blurry edges. It felt stronger now… and yet somehow more indistinct at the same time.

Was it dangerous for Serizawa to keep doing this? Was he going to damage himself?

But Reigen’s worry was sated by the frog’s eyes closing and then something incredible happening.

The soul gave off a great big pulse of light and energy, something Reigen could see but also feel slamming into his chest and through him in a way that punched the breath right out of him. It made him stagger, but it wasn’t bad. It was almost like… it was something so good that it immediately brought tears to his eyes.

He couldn’t possibly explain it. Another pulse happened right after, a wave of blue energy that flew out from the tadpole as its epicenter. But it wasn’t just energy, it was emotion. When it hit Reigen he felt a whirlwind of emotions all at once, all somehow making complete sense even though they were all so jumbled together into one instant.

He felt profound fear and loneliness, hopelessness, but also courage, and perseverance, and so much love.

And he found himself suddenly sobbing, the sort of crying he hadn’t done in years, just heaving and bawling and choking with it because it was all so much but also so familiar.

This was Serizawa. These were his emotions. Reigen somehow just knew. The pulses continued, growing softer and softer, but with each beat Reigen began to see these feelings more clearly for what they were.

There was so much love. Serizawa was such a loving person, even when he was so lonely.

And on some level he’d chosen to share this with Reigen. All of it. The good and the bad, the embarrassing and the broken. Reigen couldn’t possibly deserve such a thing. He couldn’t fathom the honor of this.

All he could do was just cling to Serizawa’s soul, hugging it as close as he could, its warmth burning against his chest, his heart so flimsy and frantic against his ribs.

He had never seen Serizawa as clearly as in this moment. And he found that understanding him fully only made him like Serizawa so very, very much. It was painful even, how completely he felt for this person.

He just cried and got snot and tears all over his own dumb face, and the pulsating emotions quietly faded to just the vague warmth of familiarity.

He sniffed loudly, and without thinking brushed his lips against the frog’s back, just to let some of it out, just to keep these shaking feelings from breaking him. He didn’t quite touch the soul, but he felt warmth against his face, like steam or a blush.

He hoped on some level Serizawa could feel it too, or at least what he meant by it.

 

~

 

Serizawa was not quite aware of what he was doing, but there were certain impressions that seeped into his consciousness this time.

For one thing, Serizawa was relieved. He was relieved because he was allowed to share himself, all of himself. He felt lighter, freer.

And this sharing went two ways. Souls are complex things, complex in the same ways as emotion and experience, and so their rules are undefinable. Serizawa’s soul interacted with the world through emotion, as if its very footsteps sent emotion out into the world around it. It just so happened that Reigen, without quite meaning to, had opened himself to receiving those signals. And in doing so, a link was created.

Serizawa sent out emotion like an exhale, and then on the inhale he brought in Reigen.

Reigen Arataka was a good man. Serizawa felt that tremendously deeply. Reigen was a good man who loved deeply and wanted nothing more than to keep from hurting people with it.

He shared Serizawa’s same fear, in a slightly different shape. He also hated himself, and did not know if that would ever change.

Serizawa felt it the same way Reigen had so easily felt his emotions in turn. Like water from two cups pouring together into the same space. Becoming indistinguishable.

Serizawa did not learn all of this cognizantly--if anything, he had always known these things. But he felt it all on his deepest level. He felt all of what Reigen was, in complete reciprocity.

This accidental connection was so strong in that moment that Serizawa’s soul felt perfectly happy to play for the rest of its allotted fifteen minutes of freedom. For the first time, it felt completely safe. It leaped around the room and sent levitated pencils pinwheeling in pretty starburst shapes through the air. As Reigen followed it around, getting himself together enough to tease and reprimand it, the little soul even played with him. Weaving between his legs and fluttering his tie and sitting squatly on his head.

They understood each other so completely, that when the time ran up, all Reigen had to do was ask Serizawa’s soul to go back.

“Get back in your body now, alright? I need you in there.”

In Serizawa’s euphoria, his soul simply agreed. It wanted to be itself, at least right at this moment, because this man needed him. Serizawa needed him in return. There was something solid and unshakable in that.

His soul leapt back into his chest with a sound almost like a chirp.

 

~

 

When Serizawa opened his eyes he felt tired, bone tired, but also like he’d somehow come home. He sat up creakingly with some help from Reigen, who looked like a goddamn mess. Reigen had very obviously cried, his eyes red and his voice thick as he mumbled vague “There we go, that’s it” platitudes and rubbed Serizawa’s back. He was kneeling on the floor by the sofa, cramped and doting.

Serizawa didn’t quite remember what had happened, at least not as events. But he was overwhelmed. Some small sliver of the emotions he’d experienced were still there, raw and vibrating, and that was enough to be overwhelmed.

Reigen smiled at him, nervous and red-faced. His hair was slightly tousled.

“Alright, buddy?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Serizawa mumbled. He met Reigen’s eyes, and his heart stuttered.

So much had been happening recently, and sometimes you just reach a point where every ounce of you decides “to hell with it.”

Just, to hell with it.

Serizawa cupped Reigen’s face in both his hands and leaned down and kissed him.

Chapter Text

The kiss was careful, but not hesitant.

Reigen went perfectly still for a moment as Serizawa’s lips met his own, so oddly chaste between the warmth and firmness of Serizawa’s hands framing his jaw. It was so simple. It was the kiss of somebody who’d never had any experience with wooing others and perhaps wasn’t interested in those finer arts anyway.

It almost made Reigen want to cry again, that same swell of emotion expanding in his chest, but instead of tears he rose a bit taller on his knees to press his mouth more deeply against Serizawa’s. His hands came up to grip Serizawa’s wrists, perhaps a bit too tightly, clumsily, holding his hands in place.

Don’t let go of me.

Serizawa, in his typical fashion, was a quick learner. One simple kiss melted into another and a third, a string of them, exploratory and slow. Serizawa pulled away just far enough to let out a shaky breath against Reigen’s lips, ducking to place a strange little kiss down on his chin, around Reigen’s new scar. His hands didn’t leave the sides of Reigen’s face but they gently tilted his head back, and he shifted slightly on the sofa and returned to Reigen’s mouth.

Reigen hadn’t felt this way kissing someone since he was a teenager. His head was spinning. He wouldn’t be surprised if he started shaking like a leaf, as mortifying as that would be. He was still riding the high of those emotions he’d experienced only a few minutes before, and they actually hurt in his throat. All he could do was squeeze Serizawa’s wrists, not knowing if the pulse in his thumb was Serizawa’s or his own, and kiss him for all he was worth.

How long had he wanted this? Had he even known he wanted it, or had he hidden from it so well he hadn't noticed?

With his lower lip he nudged Serizawa’s mouth open and took the opportunity to teach Serizawa a few more things a kiss could do. Was this Serizawa’s first time kissing like this? Did it matter? Reigen’s heart was pounding in his chest and all he could think was to get as close to Serizawa as possible in this moment, before it was over. Serizawa’s tongue slid against his shyly and Reigen let slip some strange needy sound from the back of his throat, where those overwhelming feelings were all clogged up and choking him. God, he wanted this.

His hands fumbled up from Serizawa’s wrists to actually take his hands in his, still framing his face awkwardly, his fingers curling to dig beneath Serizawa’s palms and Serizawa obediently enclosing them into fists, his knuckles rough against Reigen’s cheeks.

They had to breathe, unfortunately. They parted for just a moment, and Reigen leaned in again to get back to it immediately, but Serizawa pulled farther away. To look at him. They met each other’s eyes and saw each other’s faces now, and the reality of what just happened sank to the bottom of Reigen’s stomach like a stone.

Serizawa’s eyes were wide, his lips still parted, a bit swollen from the attention. He mirrored Reigen’s shock and… something else, something a little worried flitting across his expression for just a moment.

… Was it regret?

It could be any number of things, but the moment that word occured to Reigen it hardened in the center of his brain and refused to leave.

It hit him all at once what was happening.

That experience with Serizawa’s soul… Something about it was supernatural. It had certainly left Reigen reeling and overwhelmed with emotion. He could only imagine how it might have affected Serizawa. Everything was too intense, too raw, too frazzled. Of course anybody would kiss anybody when they were so overcome like this.

It occurred to Reigen that he was here to help protect Serizawa during this experiment. From whatever his out of body experience might create.

If this continued, would Reigen be taking advantage of him? Wasn’t Serizawa very vulnerable in this moment?

Reigen lowered his hands, taking Serizawa’s with him, still clasped together.

“Ah… I’m sorry…” He cleared his throat. “We shouldn’t…”

“Shouldn’t?” Serizawa murmured, something like hurt in his eyes.

Reigen gave a laugh, a desperate attempt to shake off how much the absence of that closeness hurt now, leaving his insides all jangling and hollow. “It’s nothing bad! Just… I think we’re not really ourselves right now, and… I mean, you just hopped back into your body, this might not…” This might not be what you want. “This might not be the smartest timing,” he finished.

They both just stared at their hands between them. Reigen was so much more aware now of how warm Serizawa was. His palms felt hot, and his thumb circled one of Reigen’s knuckles briefly before Serizawa pulled away entirely, Reigen’s hands just hanging there empty for a moment before falling to his sides.

Reigen’s smile was much too big, trying much too hard.

“How do you feel? Since you’re back in one piece, I mean?” He was rambling now, eager to carry them further and further away from the gravity of this situation. “That seemed to go really smoothly, don’t you think? Your soul followed instructions pretty well this time…”

“Yeah,” Serizawa said, subded. “Yeah. I think it was successful.”

“Successful. Exactly.”

The silence then was agonizing. Serizawa watched him over his nose in the most strangely hesitant way and Reigen hated it. He hated how he’d let this get ruined so thoroughly.

He staggered to his feet and banged his shins on the coffee table trying to cross the room. He couldn’t look at that face. How could he feel so alone so quickly?

“Let me get you some tea!” he said boisterously. “I’ll treat you to some ramen on the way home. To celebrate. Gotta… you know, replenish…”

“Arataka--” Serizawa piped in, getting to his feet all at once, his voice high and strained.

And Reigen would admit it. He was scared.

He was too scared for whatever Serizawa was going to say next. If it was a rejection, he couldn’t bear it. If it wasn’t… A part of him couldn’t bear that even more.

He spun around with the biggest bullshit grin in his repertoire and interrupted him. “Or we could get whatever you like! Just say the word. Don’t be shy. It’s your dinner.”

Just throw money at them. Buy food. Love that didn’t have to admit it was love.

Serizawa looked at him, his face hard to read, his eyebrows a bit lowered and his eyes big and sad. “... That’s ok,” he said finally. He circled around the coffee table and made a beeline for his backpack behind the plant. “I should head home… I’ve, you know, I’ve got homework…”

“Right! Yes. You’ve got a lot going on.”

“Studying.”

“Yes. A lot of, um… life. Things.”

“Yeah.”

Serizawa looped his arms through the straps of his backpack quickly and awkwardly, with his back to Reigen.

It was terrible. It was the worst thing Reigen had done in a long time.

A voice at the back of his head was just about screaming You’re losing him, stupid!

But he just stood there absolutely frozen as Serizawa hustled out the door under his backpack, so flustered he forgot to say goodbye. The door closed with a click that was equal parts mundane and deafening.

 

~

 

Reigen sat at his desk in the office for ages afterwards, as the evening got darker and darker through the blinds. Technically speaking, it wasn’t unusual for him. Back when he first started Spirits and Such he would often just laze around the office well into the night, sometimes even sleeping over. Engrossed in his work. Avoiding the nagging emptiness of his apartment.

Maybe that was why he’d fallen so quickly for houseplants. It was nice to grow something alive, and to keep it. He’d talk to them.

He talked to them now. Or maybe just to the office at large.

“Things have changed a lot, haven’t they?” he said. His feet were propped up on his desk and his hands were folded behind his head and he was staring at the ceiling, trying very hard not to crumble in on himself.

He wasn’t talking about Serizawa--god, he hoped things hadn’t changed too much there. But he was very pointedly avoiding thinking about any of that.

Instead he meant the office itself, all these plants, everything. Spirits and Such. It had changed an awful lot since it started.

The original office had spent its first few months smelling vaguely like cigarette smoke. He’d decorated for the sake of putting out a good image to customers, but for a long time it was so stale, lacking the knickknacks and character of actual use. Now every shelf was brimming not only with books--his, Serizawa’s, Tome’s, Mob’s--but with photographs, abandoned stationary, stupid found artifacts like a bracelet they didn’t actually have a Lost and Found for and a rock shaped like a dog that a twelve-year-old Mob had brought in and forgotten about so long ago. The cupboard above the coffeemaker had their preferred mugs carefully delineated, their diverse tea tastes, their individual hoards of snacks.The office had all the boring paraphernalia of a life.

Of multiple lives. It was evidence of the people who surrounded him.

These nights he spent alone in the middle of it all were different knowing that the next day the place would be alive with other people again, rather than just the same old Reigen Arataka, alone and powering through.

I want to become somebody.

That was a pretty stupid thing to want when you didn’t actually ask who you wanted to be.

Was the somebody he was now the kind of somebody he’d been hoping for?

His face felt hot, like the pressure of biting back on his feelings was making it go red. He finally made a frustrated noise and slapped both hands over his eyes.

“Katsuya… You idiot.”

But those were just words, just a meaningless push against the silence. The real idiot was Reigen, like always.

What sort of somebody did Serizawa see when he looked at Reigen? Was it somebody lovable? Was it a somebody Reigen could even live up to?

The plants, as always, had no wisdom to offer.

It was getting late, so Reigen finally rose and shouldered back into his suit jacket and locked up. Spirits and Such, which had become so much more of a home to him than his actual home, went quietly to sleep. He missed it the moment he stepped out of the building, the night already a deep inky blue.

His loneliness sat heavier and heavier on his shoulders the closer he got to his apartment’s side of town. When had he come to dread it so much?

He thought of playing stupid video games at Serizawa’s place instead, with his onlooking shelf of anime figures, and it made his chest ache.

Serizawa. He couldn’t avoid thinking about him indefinitely.

There was some sort of accident on his train route. A series of fallen powerlines meant that he had to take a completely different way home or else stand around sulking for hours. He wound up just walking a few extra blocks, thankful for the distraction.

He’d really enjoyed kissing Serizawa. That was what he was trying so hard not to think about, of course. How much he wanted it.

He wanted Serizawa. He’d always known he wanted Serizawa in his life, but the shape of it had never been so frighteningly clear. He didn’t think he could do it. Serizawa wasn’t a houseplant, something to nurture and then sit on a shelf to be silent and bear witness to his late night, one-sided ramblings. Reigen wasn’t equipped to grow something so complicated, to keep something like this alive, this thing just barely sprouting between them.

Good god, it was terrifying. He could kill it.

He turned a corner and saw his apartment complex up in the distance and it felt like he might really work himself up to a panic attack of his own, just looking at it.

He hated being alone in his stupid room. He’d hated it for what felt like forever.

And he was realizing with each step he took now that he’d wanted Serizawa like this for a long time.

Maybe even from the very beginning.

He’d hidden it so well, through jokes, through responsibility. Even through friendship.

But what Reigen really wanted here wasn’t friendship.

His loneliness wasn’t only for friends.

He was breathing in and out much too deeply for the mild exercise by the time he fumbled with his keys in the lock of his door and shouldered inside. He tripped on his own shoes on the threshold and just… stood there. His breathing was loud enough now that he could hear it.

Oh shit. He grinned, open-mouthed around his own gasping and gave a weird keen of a laugh. How ironic… If he were an esper himself, maybe his own soul would go flying around at a moment like this. But he wasn’t and it didn’t.

What would it look like? His soul? Who was that somebody that Serizawa saw when he looked at him?

He wobbled and then just sank ungracefully to his butt right there in the hallway, his limbs all jittery.

“Fuck,” he said, laughing so he wouldn’t cry. “Oh fuck, what am I doing?”

He was in love with Serizawa.

That soul he’d gotten such a complete and intimate glimpse of today… All of those myriad things that made Serizawa who he was… Reigen loved all of it. It was all beautiful to him, all those pieces together in their exact configuration. And Serizawa was only continuing to get better, to get happier…

Where did Reigen fit into that?

Or rather… How could he possibly deserve it?

No, even worse. The real issue bubbled up in his chest and he hugged himself and buried his face in his knees.

The most frightening truth here was that Serizawa already thought he deserved it. Serizawa thought he was worthy. The somebody Serizawa saw in him was deserving of Serizawa’s friendship and possibly even something more…

Serizawa wanted him too. Reigen couldn’t avoid it.

That was the moment when Reigen could no longer resist what he was feeling, when he finally realized exactly what this feeling he’d been trying to stave off even was. And he cried again, right there into his knees.

He was happy. A scary, incomprehensible sort of happiness. He was so impossibly honored by this vote of confidence, from a soul like Serizawa’s. It stunned and amazed him.

He had, for only the second time in his life, been declared a good man. And this time, a tiny spark of himself wanted to start believing it.

 

~

 

Reigen woke up before his already early alarm the next morning, and got right down to what he did best. Practicing his argument. He ran a lint roller over his sleeves with aggressive determination and recited his spiel to himself in the bathroom mirror as if prepping for a job interview.

First things first: apologize for the misunderstanding.

Second things second: ask if Serizawa's feelings were genuine, just to make sure.

Step three was the most dangerous and Reigen had pre-written five different variants depending on the response and general attitude of step two.

Afterwards he decided to brush his teeth a second time, rigorously enough that it made his gums bleed so he spat out a frothy pink mess down the drain. He scrutinized his shirt, cursing his lack of foresight, but thankfully had not dripped any toothpaste globs on himself. How'd his hair look? He fingered it down with some water.

When he finally left the bathroom, he turned on his tv to shut up his brain as he waited for an appropriate time to actually head out for work. He threw a glare at his coffee machine because fuck, he'd forgotten coffee and already brushed his teeth (twice). What was fucking wrong with him?

Nah, he knew exactly what was fucking wrong with him.

He had not actually cared about romance in much too long, which would only logically make him very bad at it.

He barely registered what was happening on tv right in front of him, until he heard a familiar street name.

He looked up and made eye contact with the local morning news anchor, with her intense expression but soothing voice. Her show was usually pretty bland but she gave good information so he’d grown fond of her mundane daily presence. She was talking about a series of unexplained incidents around town. Fallen power lines. Damaged storefronts. Even parked cars crushed as if by some immense force but without any evidence of what could have done it.

It was something of a crisis actually.

“Police are working with the city to investigate but have yet to uncover any leads,” she said. “One witness claims to have seen the windows of a convenience store simply implode for no reason. Of course we need to take such accounts with a grain of salt until further information arises.”

Her steady boringness was a godsend, especially with pictures of the rather grisly damages showing in the box over her shoulder, but Reigen was still getting a bad feeling.

“One detail that is truly perplexing is the perceived pattern of these occurrences…”

She went to a voice-over as the screen showed a full map of Seasoning City. The fallen powerlines and other damages were marked in red, and the pattern was indeed alarmingly clear. It was a big fat circle, looping all the way from the powerlines that had interrupted Reigen’s train home last night across several blocks and back again.

To most people, the perfection of this circle would just be peculiar and random. Perhaps Tome was watching at home and already whipping out a book on crop circles to help formulate her own theories.

But to Reigen specifically, that circle spoke volumes.

He knew that part of town well, those street names an intimate part of his daily grind. He knew immediately what was right smack dab in the middle of that circle, what the destruction had so geometrically enclosed.

That’s where the Spirits and Such office was.

It couldn’t be a coincidence.

His earlier besotted planning fell to the wayside and he was out the door in minutes.

 

~

 

Something had definitely been there. From the outside, damages didn't look so bad except for the window. The one right behind Reigen's desk. Something had busted through it, big jagged pieces of glass still hanging from the opening like teeth amidst the mangled blinds. There was hardly any glass on the street below, so it must have burst inward, something big barrelling right into the Spirits and Such office.

He took the stairs of the office building two at a time, finding the familiar door unlocked and ajar despite the Closed sign. He threw it open.

Oh.

The place was wrecked.

Serizawa had beat him there, and stood unharmed in the center of a whirlwind of destruction, looking up as Reigen entered with his eyes quietly distraught. He was safe. That was good, that eased at least half of Reigen’s fears. But everything else...

Reigen's desk had actually been cleaved in half. The two pieces tipped in toward each other, all of his paperwork and office tchotchkes fallen through the middle to the floor. The plants they'd aligned so delicately along the windowsill were smashed, pots shattered, bleeding dirt onto the carpet.

Bookshelves were completely overturned, books shredded. The sofa Serizawa had laid across just last night sported large gashes as if from massive claws, the stuffing rended. Their cupboards were thrown open, dishes broken. Serizawa's desk was fucking upside-down and their doofy little reception desk, modeled exactly after Mob's from way back at the beginning, was just shards of cheap painted wood.

It took Reigen's breath away, a little bit.

Everything was so easily gone.

Serizawa was watching him, but Reigen couldn't pull his eyes away from just… everything.

"I was just about to call you," Serizawa said, his voice admirably steady. "I found it like this when I came in… There's a strong residual energy, but I can't tell what it could be or where it went."

Reigen realized his shoulders were tight enough to snap and carefully tried to relax. It didn't work so well. He nodded dumbly.

"I'm so sorry, Arataka."

"It's…" He really almost said Fine but stopped himself, the word souring in his mouth. It was not fine. "I'm glad you're alright. I'm glad nobody was here when… whatever this was happened."

"Me too," said Serizawa softly.

They fell into silence, because what else could even be said?

Those were his plants on the floor, as good as dead. His… his life, really. Everything he cared about was somehow connected to this shitty little office and now…

Serizawa stepped closer to him. Laid a hand on his shoulder. Reigen wanted to collapse into that touch but feared he wouldn't be able to build himself up again if he did.

"Did you see the news?" he asked, after a fortifying breath.

Serizawa shook his head. “I don’t watch it as much as I should,” he said, with a rueful attempt at a smile.

"Something was circling the office all night," Reigen said. "Something big, something nasty. I doubt we'll be able to take a job worth anything right now, but…" He ran a shaky hand up through his hair, smiling too, a little manically. "But at the very least we can't leave something like that wandering around town. Right, Katsuya?"

Serizawa very carefully used the hand on his shoulder to turn him towards him, adjusting Reigen's lapels and tie. He met Reigen's eyes quite deliberately, wouldn't let Reigen look away, his eyes so dark and warm.

"Right," he said, with a simple gentleness.

I'm in love with you, Katsuya.

It was such a plain sentence to say, he'd said it in front of his mirror a dozen times this morning before deciding it wasn't the right track for their discussion, but how could they talk about any of that in this sort of situation?

Instead, with stupidity and boldness in equal measure, Reigen just pressed a hard close-mouthed kiss over Serizawa's lips, more a quick affirmation than anything pleasurable. He pulled back just as quickly and Serizawa looked at him, eyes searching his face, quiet and grounded.

Then Serizawa's face softened into such a big smile, genuine this time even though his eyes were so sad, and Reigen felt the weight of the world slide off his back.

Serizawa’s warmth was everything. It really was.

“What did you guys do this time?” said Dimple.

Reigen almost leapt out of his skin and Serizawa turned very quickly towards the wall, covering his rapidly reddening face.

“Dimple. How long have you been here?” Reigen groused.

“Just came through the wall,” said Dimple. He was bobbing above them, his eyes scanning the chaos of the room, his expression much more serious than his words. “Shigeo is on his way up.”

“Mob? He should be getting ready for school.”

Mob indeed appeared in the doorway soon after, wearing his school uniform with his somewhat longer hair, never quite stylish but at least attempting it. Dimple automatically lolled back to float above his shoulder, the place he’d always belonged the most.

“Mob! You should be getting ready for school!” Reigen repeated, but it got kinda snagged in his throat because somehow seeing Mob in the ruins of this place made it all the more real. Mob who had made this place into someplace to begin with.

“Sorry, shishou," said Mob. "I was worried."

His eyebrows were furrowed just slightly, and his eyes held a sympathy and nervousness similar to Serizawa’s. It seemed everybody could read Reigen like a book these days…

“We’re fine,” Reigen said. “Nobody was here when it happened.”

“And what happened, exactly?” asked Dimple, following as Mob stepped further into the room. Mob’s gaze traced the destruction as if following the lines of a drawing.

“We’re figuring it out,” said Reigen.

“Let me rephrase that,” said Dimple, and turned unexpectedly toward Serizawa. “What did you do?”

“Me?” said Serizawa.

“Yes… This place is crawling with You today. Residual psychic energy, I mean. It’s no wonder you attracted something with it."

Reigen spun around to look at Serizawa, whose jaw tightened. “Oh,” he said.

“You must have done something really powerful," Dimple said.

Serizawa was starting to flush. "... Yes. I did. Yesterday evening."

"I didn't say it was a bad energy," Dimple muttered, glancing away a moment with uncharacteristic embarrassment.

… Ah. Dimple could tell couldn't he? Like they'd just left a big stamp of their feelings for each other permeating the office. Great.

“It’s not your fault, Katsuya,” Reigen said quickly, before Serizawa could dare think that it was.

“It isn’t,” Mob agreed. He’d come to stand over the ficus, which had been overturned and uprooted from its pot, a mess of leaves and dirt on the floor.

In the most gentle way, he knelt and took the little tree’s trunk in one hand, returning it to its pot and carefully levering the whole thing upright again. Reigen had never wanted for Mob to be the one to pick up his master’s broken pieces, but that was how it always seemed to go, wasn’t it? The way Mob did it with such a small, pleased smile was a little agonizing.

Could he sense it too? Whatever energy Serizawa’s emotional out of body experience last night had created? Did he know?

Mob turned back to them, the smile still there but a little more self-conscious.

“Something that feeds on strong emotions… I don’t think I’d like a spirit like that,” he said slowly, still not quite used to voicing his own take on things. “I’m starting to think that a person’s emotions are very important. I wanted to come help protect yours, Serizawa-san.”

When had he grown so sure of himself? But even though he’d spoken primarily to Serizawa, his eyes slid over to Reigen and that’s where they stayed.

“You shouldn’t be trying to take care of adults, Mob,” Reigen chastised.

“I can take care of who I want,” Mob said easily, not at all in a tone of argument. Instead, it was more like the gentleness he’d shown the plant was being offered to Reigen as well.

Maybe that was just the best way for Mob to be himself. To be a person like this.

Reigen swallowed thickly.

Who knew if he’d be able to revive Spirits and Such this time, with damages like this and his pocketbook so chronically empty. But the people were right here in front of him, weren’t they?

That was going to take some getting used to. Maybe it had been true for ages, but just like his feelings for Serizawa he hadn’t been able to see it clearly.

“We keep talking about a spirit, but what even is it?” he asked, sliding his hands into his pockets. Again avoiding the realm of declarations and gratitude, because it was rather too much to take at the moment.

Mob’s unfazed expression said he knew that very well by now.

“It’s very big,” he said, going along with Reigen’s cue after years of practice. “It looks like a skeleton.”

“A what now?”

“We came over because I saw it on the news,” said Mob. “I don’t think non-psychics can see it, otherwise those reporters were really missing out on some key points…”

“How big of a skeleton are we talking?” Reigen asked.

“Very big,” said Serizawa, who all at once was looking not at them but at the broken window.

Mob and Dimple both turned that way as well.

“I guess it came back,” said Mob. “At least that’s kind of convenient, maybe?” He tried a smile. He still wasn’t the best at those and where they were appropriate.

The faltering in his sureness probably meant that the view out of that window was not at all a good one, at least for psychics and spirits of Dimple’s ilk. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) Reigen couldn’t see it. All he got was an empty view of outside, divided somewhat by the still half-hanging blinds.

The way Serizawa came to stand in front of him and protectively nudge him backwards with one arm also suggested some things.

“Its eye is there, looking inside,” he said, for Reigen’s benefit. “Or uh… one of the sockets where an eye should be.”

“Well shit,” said Reigen. “That is pretty big.”

He really should have had that coffee this morning.

The office erupted again.

Chapter Text

Protecting Reigen quickly became a priority. Serizawa and Shigeo both thought of it first and foremost, flanking the non-esper on either side and throwing up barriers as the evil spirit’s hand crashed in through the remains of the window.

The hand was easily the size of Reigen’s desk, its long bony fingers rattling at the joints, straining at nonexistent ligaments. The bones themselves were grimy and off-color, like yellowed teeth, or like they’d just recently been pulled from meat. The skeletal hand came straight for them, closing around their psychic barrier like it was a tennis ball.

“What does it want?” Serizawa asked, the hairs at the back of his neck standing up at the feeling of those fingers scraping against his aura. He was staring ahead at just a wall of bone, the interconnected pieces of a humanlike palm. “You were talking like you knew a lot about it, Dimple-san.”

“To be fair, I always talk like that,” said Dimple, who was still at Shigeo’s shoulder like a loyal parrot.

“What’s going on?” Reigen asked. That’s right, he couldn’t see it.

“It might be best for you to hang back a bit, shishou.”

The enormous hand squeezed more tightly and tiny fissures began to appear in their joint barrier. Serizawa could feel the buckling and cracking of it at the edges of his consciousness. This had never happened before with one of his barriers. He shot a look at Shigeo, who met him with wide eyes and a thin, worried mouth. They shared a moment of understanding.

This thing was an extremely high level spirit. They couldn't hold it back like this.

In the next moment, Shigeo psychically threw a bookshelf up at the hand as a distraction and Serizawa heaved Reigen half into his arms and hustled him across the office. They'd just gotten out of the way as the hand came crashing down to the floor, shaking the entire room.

"Mob!" Reigen shouted over Serizawa's shoulder. Serizawa had half fallen over him, shielding him by the sofas, and they both turned frantically back to Shigeo. He was on the floor underneath that massive hand, his head barely visible in the dip between its thumb and forefinger. He was alright, his expression more alarmed than hurt, but definitely stuck.

This wasn't going to be a simple exorcism at all.

Reigen fumblingly tried to get up and run to him, but Serizawa pushed him back down with his hands firmly on Reigen's shoulders.

"You stay here," he demanded. Reigen shot him a stinky look but Serizawa was already hustling back into the fray, barring any argument.

The spirit's hand just stayed there holding Shigeo down. It seemed fairly uninterested in him. It was, however, interested in Serizawa. He saw its face through the gaping window, its big sunken eye sockets staring at him blankly.

"Shigeo-kun, are you alright?" Serizawa asked breathlessly, falling to his knees and already trying to pry the bony fingers off of the boy with his powers. Dimple, hovering above the thumb, met Serizawa's eyes nervously then flew back to keep Reigen in check.

"A little winded," Shigeo admitted. "I'm, uh… I'm really stuck under here." It sounded like he was trying very hard not to worry Serizawa.

It didn't work overly well, because then an immense crunch rang out through the building. It didn't come from the hand holding Shigeo down, thank goodness. But when Serizawa looked up to meet the empty eyes of that spirit again his heart went cold.

It had brought up it's other hand, fingers curling at the side of the window frame, and it was pulling. Cracks spidered through the wall, the very foundation of the building. Chunks of drywall rained down in clouds of dust. It pulled further, slowly wrenching the wall away. Then with one mighty explosion of cracking and splintering it tore a massive handful of the wall clean off, taking the window frame with it. It flung it all down to the street below--Serizawa could hear distant screams--and now the skeleton's face was fully exposed, peering into the larger space it had torn for itself, resting it's other hand at the edge where Reigen's floor cut off straight onto open air.

Its neck was hunched and long, holding its overly large head on bobbling vertebrae that snaked down into a cavernous rib cage. It's jaw dropped with a jangling clack, its molars each the size of Serizawa's torso, and then without lungs it took a deep breath inward.

Serizawa had to cling to the hand on Shigeo to keep from being pulled into that massive mouth. The remains of the decimated office suddenly burned with a brilliant purple aura, emanating from the sofas, the ruined plants, the remaining walls, everywhere. It was like Serizawa could suddenly see the aura of this place itself, its spirit. And not only that but his own imprint on it, and Reigen's, and the psychic leavings of what they'd shared together last night. Emotion, familiarity… everything that made this little office home.

As soon as the aura became visible it started to be sucked up into the skeleton's mouth, sneaking in between its teeth in little purple tendrils and straight down its throat in big gulping mouthfuls of energy.

No… For reasons Serizawa couldn't explain, he desperately did not want this to happen. This monster was stealing something precious. Something that was his.

But it was all happening so quickly. And the more the skeleton ate of this place's psychic energy, the more Serizawa began to feel fatigued, drained himself. Confused.

What had happened between him and Reigen last night? He found himself shifting from questioning its legitimacy to instead fighting to remember what had even happened at all. How had he felt? What was that feeling he had when he was with Reigen?

Who was Reigen?

No, this was wrong. Something was very very wrong. Serizawa was losing something he needed.

He was all at once faced with the feeling that nothing had changed, that nothing had happened after Claw, that Serizawa Katsuya simply hadn't had a life at all after Suzuki Touichirou was thwarted, and that emptiness was too much to bear--

Then out of absolutely nowhere Reigen raced across the room, ran up the side of a wall and pushed himself off into the side of the skeleton's skull, smashing his knees right into its cheekbone. The skeleton's jaw dislocated at the collision point with a thundering pop, falling lopsidedly to the floor, reducing Reigen's desk to splinters.

"Emergency Diversion Smack-Down!"

This was not one of Reigen's special moves. That would be ridiculous. But the red circles on his cheeks explained it, as well as how he was able to backflip away from the attack and hustle into relative safety again.

The purple aura dribbled out of the skeleton's broken mouth, returning to its rightful place amongst the room, and Serizawa's head cleared. He knew who he was and where he was and who these people were that he loved.

Love. He knew all at once what had happened last night with Reigen. It was something very important and god he never wanted to lose that feeling again.

The hand holding Shigeo down lifted, as the skeleton raised both its hands instinctively to its broken jaw. Shigeo scrambled to his feet, and Serizawa could have hugged him in relief but instead just steadied him with his hands on his shoulders.

Dimple, with Reigen in tow, rushed to their side.

"We're getting out of here," said Dimple's voice through Reigen's mouth. It was not a suggestion.

The whole room shook again and they didn't stop to waste time checking what the skeleton would do next. Instead they all sprinted out the door and into the stairwell.

They clamored down the first set of stairs to a landing between floors, finally turning back to stare up at Spirit and Such’s open doorway. It glowed faintly purple again, the auras within swirling and ebbing.

“What the hell is going on?” Reigen asked, in his own voice, as Dimple generously exited through his forehead.

“Are you alright Serizawa?” Dimple asked instead, ignoring him.

“Shouldn’t you be asking Shigeo-kun that?” Serizawa tried a laugh but it came out far too jittery and upset. How could they possibly fix any of this? The whole building would be destroyed at this rate… The office was already gone.

“No,” said Dimple, and he and Shigeo exchanged worried looks, as if they knew something no one else did. “I should be asking you that.”

“What’s going on?” Reigen asked again, more quietly, his expression so earnestly serious. It twinged somewhere in Serizawa's chest, whenever Reigen cared so fully like this. To be on the receiving end of that dedication, rather than Mob or Tome, always sort of took his breath away.

“I told you didn’t I?” said Dimple. “That office is covered in your energy right now, Serizawa. Your… I don’t know how to explain it for living people. It’s like the residue of your soul. Whatever you were doing last night, your soul really smeared too much of itself around the place. Emotions, memories… That’s what the gashadokuro wants. It wants your soul stuff.”

“A gashadokuro?” Reigen said. “I guess I should have guessed it was that… Giant skeleton and all… But I thought those drank blood?”

“And other bits,” Dimple said darkly. “But that’s only sometimes. The whole point of these things is that they’re jealous of the living. Kind of obsessive bastards, in my opinion. Feel way too sorry for themselves. But they want what they don’t have anymore. They want blood and innards and flesh. But they also want emotion, connection, everything that makes a life good and worthwhile. They want to feel alive again, even for a moment. So they’ll try and steal that from you.”

Serizawa thought of the momentary emptiness he’d felt, its utter totality, and a spike of fear ran through him. It was worse than getting the blood sucked out of you, maybe…

“It’s just my soul that left such an imprint?” Serizawa asked. “Not anybody else’s?”

“Mostly yeah,” said Dimple. “There’s some everyday psychic residue from everyone else who’s ever been in that room, but that’s not strong enough to get this guy’s attention.” He turned fully to Serizawa, at least as much as an amorphous green cloud can do so, and looked chagrined. “You’re kind of the one at stake here, buddy. There’s a chance it won’t stop at just that residue either. It might get a taste for you and try to eat your whole soul.”

They all stood in silence with that information for a moment. Reigen was looking very pale indeed. Shigeo was staring down at his tennis shoes, their prim white shoelaces.

“So what do we do?” Serizawa asked.

“Well, when it comes down to protecting your soul, only you can do that,” said Dimple. “Since it’s yours and all.”

“I’m not sure how much Dimple and I can do,” Shigeo said softly. “We could distract the skeleton, but…”

“The final blow has to be yours, Serizawa,” Dimple finished. “You have to properly stake your claim to your own soul. That’s the only language guys like this will listen to.”

Serizawa’s stomach felt heavy, like it had filled with liquid lead that slowly hardened now. Like a certain dread had been waiting within him all along for a horrible moment like this. But he swallowed and nodded firmly.

“You won’t be alone in there,” Reigen said, leaning forward rather aggressively into their little circle. “We’ll all be there with you.”

“No,” said Serizawa. “I would prefer it if you weren’t.”

Reigen looked like he’d been slapped.

But all Serizawa could think about was everything he had to lose in there. Not only himself but… his life here. How much this place had affected him, every emotion of his that was tied down here.

These were his emotions. And he realized suddenly that he absolutely could not allow something to take them away from him. To take away the life he had created here.

It was perhaps the most important work of his life, what he'd done here in this little office, and he couldn't allow those feelings to be swallowed up and erased by something with no soul of its own.

“I don’t want you three to get hurt, if I’m the only one who can stop it in the end,” he explained. “And besides I… I feel like this is just something I have to do alone.”

He remembered Takemoto, could almost hear the exact cadence of his voice saying You’re trying to prove yourself.

Maybe he was. But either way, this fight meant something. It meant everything.

For the first time, Serizawa had a life for himself that he wanted to defend above all else.

“Alright,” said Shigeo, but he looked a little pained in his agreement. His eyebrows furrowed slightly, but there was a certain knowing in his eyes as well. An understanding, and perhaps even some pride. He had always supported Serizawa in a way Serizawa couldn't possibly repay… just by understanding him. Knowing what it was that Serizawa's heart truly wanted most. "We’ll be out here, if you need us. Please be careful, Serizawa-san.”

“Don’t uh… Don’t give us anything to clean up,” Dimple muttered, which basically meant the same thing.

Serizawa found that he didn’t quite want to look at Reigen’s face, to see what kind of emotion he might have put there. Reigen’s silence was rather telling enough. So instead he raised his chin and said, “I’ll do my best.”

He turned and began back up the stairs alone.

But Reigen held him back.

Serizawa turned to him, but Reigen’s expression was utterly bewildered, like he really hadn’t planned on reaching out and taking Serizawa’s wrist in a deathgrip, he just did it. Slowly he uncurled his fingers and let Serizawa’s arm go, watching it the whole time as if operating complex machinery.

“Uh,” said Reigen, his eyes flicking up to Serizawa’s.

He wasn’t going to stop him, for the same reason Serizawa hadn’t stopped him either back when it came to confronting Mob in a tornado of psychic energy all that time ago. Sometimes, there were just things that needed to be done, regardless of the possible consequences.

But Reigen still wanted to say something. The pause hanging between them thrummed with the tight energy of the right words not quite coming fast enough.

“Before you go, uh.” Reigen started and stopped again, the corner of his mouth pulling back in a sort of laugh at his own expense. “You should know… shit.”

“I should know shit?”

“No.” Reigen laughed hopelessly. His eyes were soft and brown and a little terrified but also so warm.

All at once it hit Serizawa, exactly what Reigen was trying to say. He felt it as surely as that energy the spirit had come to steal from their office, that energy they’d shared that Serizawa wanted to protect so badly...

“You’re trying to tell me you’re in love with me,” he said, awestruck. It wasn’t a question and that was kind of amazing.

“Yep,” Reigen said weakly, smacking the p with an awkward sort of finality.

Serizawa’s face was hot and he understood the laughter now. It was all they could do really. He laughed too, a giddy huff through his teeth.

“I guess I’d better not die then,” he said.

“Yes. Please see that you don’t.”

This was everything to Serizawa. These feelings, these connections, these precious memories with these people.

He would protect it with everything he had.

As Serizawa backed his way up the stairs, still exchanging self-conscious grins with Reigen, the last thing he saw was Shigeo’s bemused smile before finally turning to face the task ahead.

It was just another exorcism. He’d be quick about it.

He had people waiting for him.

 

~

 

Serizawa stepped through the doorway of the Spirits and Such office and into a fire of purple energy.

He could barely see through it now. The gashadokuro had rehinged its jaw, clicking it back into place like a puzzle piece and was already pulling that aura--Serizawa’s aura--back into its mouth. Serizawa stood in the center of the room across from it, planting his feet firmly.

He was angry.

“I won't let you take this from me," he said. "I guess that makes me your opponent, gashadokuro-san."

He let his power stretch out from his skin, hair standing on end, reaching out to meet the energy roiling around him. With all his power, he entwined his aura with the auras of the room and wrenched it all back out of the skeleton’s throat in one mighty pull. The gashadokuro’s jaw clamped shut after it, perhaps in surprise, as the energies settled about the room again, safe.

The beast just stared at him, meeting his gaze with an infinite emptiness.

“I should warn you, I won’t lose,” Serizawa told it.

Its teeth ground together, rumbling like the wheezing foundation of the building under its huge hands, framing the sides of the room.

Serizawa felt the flickering of the office's aura, it's purple flames brushing against his consciousness. It felt very much like his own aura, and as he stood there immersed in it those flames began to coalesce into the flickering of memories, in and out, just barely kissing his brain and then ebbing away again. Memories from the spirit of this place, as he saw it. His own memories. It gave him pause, made his throat tighten.

He remembered himself. A bumbling nervous man, too big and clumsy for his own body, getting a matter-of-fact haircut on his first day of work here. Learning how to pour tea politely and fucking it up. There was a lot of fucking up at things that were now so simple for him, so second nature. He’d forgotten he struggled with them at all.

He saw awkward stilted conversations with Reigen as they both were first trying to acclimate to each other during slow periods of work. Reigen compensated with boisterousness but Serizawa could see so clearly now that he was nervous too, made nervous by Serizawa’s ineptitude. If Serizawa had had more self awareness then he would have been mortified, but looking back now it just was what it was. He had learned so much, without even noticing. He moved around the office now like he’d always been here. He talked to clients, talked to Reigen, so easily. Exchanged jokes that Reigen genuinely laughed at.

He saw when Tome first started haunting their office. And to his surprise, the Serizawa Katsuya she met was actually rather sure of himself. At the very least, he was sure of his place here.

His place here… It was given to him and yet he’d worked so hard to earn it too. At the end of it all, it felt less like he should know why he was here and more that he just knew so deeply that this was his place. The place he belonged.

He knew now that he could do the same thing anywhere. He could start something fumbling and awkward but turn it into belonging just by the slow course of time and effort. And yet… Did he really want to leave this place at all?

Wasn’t he here to save it exactly because it was where he wanted to be most?

The images cleared and he was staring down the bottomless eyes of the gashadokuro, its teeth clenched, waiting for him. It stared right at him and he thought maybe he saw loathing in its fleshless expression.

This was a creature without a place, without a life. Where Serizawa would keep growing, this spirit had inevitably stopped forever, and it hated him for it.

Its mouth fell open again, its ribs rattling, and it gulped in a breath much more powerful than any of the ones before.

Serizawa threw out his arms, stretched his aura out toward the flickering flames of energy throughout the room and clung to them. He held this energy back with all of his might.

“You won’t take this,” he said, surprised by how much his voice shook with the effort he was exerting.

The gashadokuro kept pulling, with more and more strength.

Soon Serizawa was at his absolute limits. He had so rarely used 100% of his power, and now it was spread so thinly throughout the entire room, trying to hold every intangible morsel in place, every emotion, every bit of love and warmth he’d ever felt here, and the fear and hopelessness too. The pain as well as the victories. It was all the most important thing in the world to him.

“You won’t take this,” he repeated, fighting against the strain in his own throat.

The skeleton sucked in deeper, and Serizawa felt the heels of his dress shoes scrape forward across the hard floor. It was dragging him in.

Serizawa twisted his eyes shut, breathing haggardly. He would not give this up. He would sooner die than give this up.

The flickering memories danced across the backs of his eyelids and he tried with all of his might to focus, to find something of purchase to grasp onto, some rock to cling to as he was swept down this fiery river of energy.

Perhaps it should have been obvious that his mind would land on Reigen.

At the end of the day, it was always Reigen. Back when he was barely keeping his head above the water, when he’d lost not only Suzuki but all of his illusions about him, Reigen’s simple requests were what kept him occupied. Reigen’s lack of judgment. His easy companionship. Even as things got easier, on any sort of bad day, Serizawa could get through it because he knew that Reigen would be there at the end of it all.

Reigen was the one who always brought Serizawa’s soul home when it didn’t want to be Serizawa anymore.

Reigen was in love with him.

Serizawa was so terribly in love with him too.

So he thought of Reigen. He thought of Reigen’s stupidest smiles, and his hands rolling around his wrists as he told a particularly colorful story, and he thought of just sitting here in this room, at their respective desks, just the two of them in comfortable and familiar silence. This was theirs.

Serizawa was being pulled forward rapidly now, his legs barely able to fight back, his psychic powers already occupied elsewhere throughout the room. His eyes flew open and he found himself directly in front of that enormous skull, its mouth gaping around him, the tips of his shoes almost touching its teeth. He’d protected the aura of the room, but he had no energy left to keep his own physical body held back.

… Was he losing?

No.

This couldn’t happen.

“No,” he said, the word so unbearably soft, just a breath escaping his lungs. “No. No no no.”

He didn’t want to lose everything he’d accomplished. He didn’t want to lose himself.

He didn’t want to fail Reigen like this, not now, not when everything finally made so much sense.

The skull’s mouth opened even wider, and with a great howling of inhuman breath it pulled him inside.

Everything snapped and fell apart. Serizawa’s hold on the energies around him untethered and he all at once was scrambling blindly at the roof of the skeleton’s mouth as it sucked him in further, trying to take him down into its ribcage, into who knew what. His powers failed him. He was just a man clawing his hands against slippery bone. He managed to wedge his knee between two molars and clung to a hole in the mouth’s bony palate for dear life.

Something was leaving him. His body managed to stay in place, but his chest and head began to glow a pale blue and slowly, painfully slowly, he watched as something was pulled out of him.

He couldn’t comprehend it. His consciousness was failing. Darkness began to creep at the edges of his vision, and in the center everything was pale bluish light and a lumpy figure slowly emerging from his chest. It stared at him with big, frightened eyes. A large frogish thing.

Was this what his soul looked like? He never thought he would look it in the face.

He never thought he would watch it swimming desperately against the pull of the monster’s throat, trying to get back to him. It finally wanted to be Serizawa Katsuya, and yet now it would be taken away for a different reason. Removed forever into the belly of this horrible thing.

No. Please no.

I want my life.

I want everything that I have.

He felt cold and heavy, his mind spinning further and further away from him. He was losing himself.

He thought of Reigen holding him back before, not wanting him to die and yet respecting him so thoroughly that he would allow it to happen if it was what Serizawa needed.

It would all be gone. Every step he’d taken since walking into this office would be gone.

“It’s not… yours…” Serizawa choked, reaching out for his own soul, torn asunder, in some terrible place between alive and dead, between conscious and unconscious. The gashadokuro wanted all of this, everything Serizawa had taken so easily for granted, because it had no life of its own. He understood suddenly its sorrow, the immeasurable emptiness of its existence. “It’s mine. It’s mine.”

He stretched his arm out further, the little tadpole swimming for him as fast as its stubby tail would allow, and with each stroke of its little limbs, its arms and legs grew larger, reaching for him as well.

It’s me. I’m mine.

I will never, ever, ever give myself up.

His own soul pressed its head into his palm, pressed all of its emotion and personhood against him, and with a roar of every last ounce of power in his chest he let 100% of his energy explode out from him, shattering the bone around him, tearing through teeth and cheekbone and eye socket and out into the room itself, a power greater than he’d ever used before.

Everything went white and hot and incomprehensible for a long moment. He wondered if he had died.

And then he found himself, somehow, standing. He was at the edge of the ruined office, looking out through the destroyed wall onto sunlight and fresh air. The skeleton was gone. Black wisps of spiritual energy fell all around him like feathers, dissipating before they hit the ground. Every small piece of the gashadokuro faded away into nothingness.

A successful exorcism.

Serizawa felt like his head was floating. He wasn’t quite there, wasn’t quite aware, and as he looked down to his feet he understood why. His soul was still outside of himself, sitting squatly between his shoes and looking up at him. Surely only his own psychic energy was able to hold him awake and upright without it.

Serizawa thought distantly that his soul looked rather cute.

He felt like he wanted to help the little thing, to take care of it.

As he watched, the tail wiggled itself out of existence, growing smaller and smaller until it was gone, and then his little soul hopped towards him, in one big strong bound, a full frog now. Instinctively, he opened his arms to receive it.

It leaped into his chest and he held it close, only to realize he wasn’t holding anything at all. His arms only wrapped around himself, tight and warm.

He felt… love.

He was surrounded by it, not only his love for Reigen and this place but a different kind. An affection for the pieces of himself that he knew lived in this office too, in the simple placement of his coffee cup, in the place he kept his backpack, in the plants he split watering with Reigen. This place not only belonged to him, but he himself belonged to this place and to the other people here.

And for the first time, Serizawa found himself loving his own presence too. He saw it with abrupt clarity--where he fit into it all. What a nice piece he was of this whole thing. Why he belonged.

He thought this man, Serizawa Katsuya, was rather nice. He wanted to help him and take care of him. He wanted to see how far this man could go.

Then the darkness at the edges of his vision finally overtook him and he fell forward, his own aura catching him and lowering him gently to the floor. In the same motion, his soul joined into wholeness again within his chest, the pieces of himself coalesced, and everything returned to where it should be.

Serizawa Katsuya, in the ruins of a cheap office, was exactly where he should be.

Chapter Text

Mob was staring at him, as they both hunkered down behind the stairs to more or less shield themselves from whatever might be happening above. Reigen kept shooting glances up at the office’s open door and was generally trying to ignore that Mob was staring at him.

Mob was smiling, in one of his small, kind of dopey ways.

“What?” Reigen hissed finally.

“You’re in love with Serizawa-san,” Mob said, and Dimple’s leer was a lot less pleasant as he hovered at Mob’s shoulder.

“Yes,” Reigen said, in the tone of a man trying very hard to maintain his dignity in front of a fourteen-year-old.

“I had a feeling,” Mob said.

“How can you have a feeling?” Reigen asked snottily, with an accusatory finger pointed at him. “You haven’t been around in ages.”

“Oh no, I had a feeling a long time ago.”

Reigen huffed out a laugh, his venom dying. “A long time ago, huh?”

Maybe Reigen was a lot stupider than he already thought he was. He loosened his tie because really who had time for a proper tie when you were hiding out from a giant skeleton?

“I think he’ll be ok,” Mob said, his smile fading as he too looked up to the top of the stairs, where purple light was framing the doorway of Spirits and Such.

“... Do you?” Reigen asked quietly.

Dimple looked uncertain, but Mob did not.

“Yeah,” Mob said. “I’m happy for him. And for you, shishou.”

Reigen swallowed and drummed his fingernails on the stair he was knelt by.

He didn’t like this. He’d done this so many times with Mob, it seemed like: just sitting back uselessly while someone he cared about had to face something terrible that never should have happened to them. It was a frustration he would never get used to.

What if I lose him?

That thought had never occurred to him with Serizawa, not like this. There was always the thought that his not-quite-employee would jump ship one of these days, but never a situation where he might actually--

All of the sudden, the light in the doorway disappeared, like a switch was snapped off. The three of them exchanged looks, and then Reigen immediately led the way, climbing a couple of stairs on all fours as he pulled himself to standing and hurried to the office.

His heart sank as soon as he glimpsed inside the room.

“Katsuya!”

The office was in shambles, the furniture damn near shredded, the far wall completely gone with a look out on the surrounding buildings now, and right in the middle of it all Serizawa was motionless on the floor, face-down. Reigen crossed the room in an instant and slid to his knees beside him, hands hovering uselessly over Serizawa’s back. He didn’t even know whether to touch him or not. Useless.

“Katsuya… Hey, come on, don’t…” He finally gingerly jostled Serizawa’s shoulder but got no response.

Mob caught up, falling beside him, and Dimple zipped over to Serizawa’s head, tilting upside down to squint at his face.

“... His soul’s in there,” Dimple said.

“And he’s breathing…” Reigen muttered. He gave Serizawa a few more pats, getting bolder with them. There didn’t seem to be any physical injuries… Slowly, more careful than he was with just about anything, Reigen turned him over onto his back. Serizawa’s arm flopped listlessly along with the movement, his face hanging at his shoulder, chin tucked to his chest. He just looked passed out for the most part. Reigen’s throat tightened, and without thinking he placed a palm over Serizawa’s forehead.

He was just… relieved.

“Psychic burnout,” Dimple declared, and Mob’s worried expression relaxed. “Happens to the best of ‘em. I don’t sense that spirit anywhere. Serizawa must have actually exorcised it.”

“He’s very powerful,” Mob said.

“Yeah,” said Reigen. He smiled crookedly. “You two have that in common.”

It hit him all at once again how very lucky he was to have this person in his life, both of these people in his life, how easily he could just as well not have them and yet how solidly they were here, even when everything else around them was in ruins.

“Shishou… Are you going to cry?”

“No,” Reigen said. “Absolutely not.”

And he wasn’t. Maybe he was done crying, but he guessed his face still showed a certain genuine squishiness that Mob wasn’t used to. The sound of sirens grew closer outside, and with the whole wall gone they could just lean over a bit and see that quite a crowd had accumulated down on the street. The police and some paramedics had arrived.

“Please identify yourselves!” Some big shot had a megaphone. Was he talking to them?

“Are you talking to us?” Reigen called down. He gestured at Mob to scoot back a little so he wasn’t so visible to the gawkers. As much as Mob had been through, he was still just a kid at the end of the day, and it was no good for a kid to be getting such weird attention…

“Sir, are you responsible for this?”

It was time for Reigen’s skills to come into play.

“Absolutely not!” Reigen lied. “This is my office. We are victims. If you just let me call my landlord, I can prove it--”

“That won’t be necessary!” said the man with the megaphone, in a very official fashion. Kind of a stuffy guy, apparently. “A rescue team will be up to meet you shortly. Please stay seated and remain calm.”

“I mean, the stairs are fine so we can just walk down--”

“PLEASE STAY SEATED AND REMAIN CALM.”

“Alright alright,” Reigen muttered. Stuffy indeed.

He turned to Mob with a sort of Can you believe this guy? face and was surprised to find his ex disciple staring at him again. Not with the curiosity of before but certainly with… something. Something about the man still laying prone between them, probably.

“Shishou,” said Mob, and then he stopped as if not sure what else to say. He had a look on his face like he had a whole pep talk he wanted to give, or some advice--“don’t mess this love thing up, shishou”--but he had never been good with words, not like Reigen, and so he just sat there in silence blinking at Reigen with a stunned sort of genuineness.

What else could be said, really?

Reigen patted his shoulder, his hand sliding down to Mob’s forearm and just staying there for a long moment.

“Thanks, Mob,” he said.

He never said that enough, did he?

 

~

 

Reigen hated hospitals. The muted quiet was the antithesis of the chaos he preferred to exist in, and he’d spent enough time in his life gregariously bullshitting people that he could easily read the bullshit in the smiles of the nurses and secretaries. These were people whose job it was to smile at you while your family was dying. It kind of gave him the creeps.

Serizawa, thankfully, was not dying, but getting in to see him was a bureaucratic hassle. The doctor assigned to him seemed to be having a sort of existential crisis at not finding anything actually wrong with him and insisted on running a stupid amount of tests. Meanwhile, Reigen was left stranded in the waiting room, trying to win over the front desk with some wheedling smiles of his own and only achieving a stalemate of customer service politeness between them.

To make matters worse, Dimple had decided to take up residence in his head.

You’re sure sweating a lot, Dimple said, his voice flitting across the back of Reigen’s mind like one of his own thoughts, but with a familiarly different cadence. They did this sometimes when they needed to communicate and be discreet about it. Dimple not-quite possessed him, and they spoke internally. The first few times they’d melded minds like this Reigen had felt so on the spot that he’d just automatically thought of the worst possible things he could think of while trying not to, and it was absolutely mortifying. Now it was no big deal. Dimple knew too much already so you kind of just had to accept it.

I’m sweating a normal amount for a long day, Reigen griped, unconsciously shifting a little in his uncomfortable waiting room chair.

He wasn’t entirely sure why Dimple had decided to stay with him while Mob went to school. Mob had wanted to stay too, which made more sense, but Reigen had insisted that Mob not tarnish his perfect attendance record. When things got particularly absurd, it was important to remember the essentials. Mob was a teenager who needed to pay attention to his studies, and Serizawa would be fine.

Serizawa will be fine, he thought.

Yeah, I’m not too worried about him, said Dimple.

Then who are you worried about? That was another thought he wouldn’t have said aloud if they were communicating verbally, but there was no stopping it unfortunately. A thought was a thought.

Dimple didn’t answer. Figured.

An old man slowly shuffled toward the front desk, and Reigen began counting how many seconds it took him to get there. He expected Dimple to join in on the mean game but the spirit had other plans.

Dramatic love confessions in times of high stress are kinda troublesome, Dimple said.

Oh no, not you too.

I’m just saying. It’s easy to say things in the moment and think you mean it but then when everything’s calmed down you’re not so sure anymore.

He was right. What comes after a confession? The hard part, probably.

Reigen sat with that for a long time, rubbing a thumb over his other hand.

I’m sure of it, he thought.

So what will you do now?

The old man finally made it to the front desk. Good for him.

I don’t know, Reigen thought. I didn’t think that far ahead.

That’s not like you, Dimple pointed out. Usually you plan everything perfectly to cover your own ass.

That’s because I never know what I’m doing.

Do you know what you’re doing now?

Reigen almost laughed. No way.

But he loves you back doesn’t he?

I guess.

You guess.

Probably.

You should tell him again. That whole I Love You thing. Make sure it gets through his thick head. And yours.

It’s dawning on me that you’re trying to give me romantic advice and that’s a little terrifying.

I’ve gotten overly invested in my hobbies.

Reigen really hadn’t thought this out. If the next logical step with Serizawa was a relationship, he had no idea what to do with that. He’d perhaps never been so genuine in wanting something in his life, so raw and unfettered by schemes and self-aggrandizement. Or maybe it was more like he’d never allowed himself to be so openly excited like this since he was a kid, a little idiot who hadn’t been hurt yet and didn’t know better. He felt like a molted crab. It would be so easy to just crush him. For a man whose first priority had always been self preservation, it was the exact opposite of every instinct he had.

But he did want it. Whatever it was.

Dimple saw all of this, sitting in his head. How embarrassing.

I’d tell you it’ll all be alright, but I really don’t know, Dimple said with rare honesty.

I guess nobody does, Reigen thought fairly.

That was the thing about relationships. Even the best of intentions could go wrong. Sometimes you could do everything right, everything by the books, and it still went wrong. It was so random. Humans were so flighty.

But what else could he do? He’d meant it. He loved Serizawa, in exactly that way, and he’d offered it on a silver platter.

Well, I guess these things are usually decided by two people, he thought. I’ll see what Katsuya thinks.

It was a solid end to the conversation.

Just don’t be stupid, Dimple said, but he said it so softly it might as well have been a vulnerable affection of his own.

He lifted up out of the top of Reigen’s head and took his leave for the day, just like that.

 

~

 

Reigen found himself alone in Serizawa’s room.

It was small and a little cramped for the machinery stuffed into it, but none of that was needed for Serizawa. He was just laying there in the plain white bed under a thin blanket, as if taking an impromptu nap. They’d bullied him into a hospital gown but that was about all they’d done to him.

The planes of his face seemed sharper in the harsh light, the shadows deeper, particularly under his eyes where those perpetual bags liked to live. But it didn’t make him less handsome. Or maybe Reigen was just glad to finally see him.

Some chairs were aligned neatly along the wall and he pulled one over to Serizawa’s bedside, trying not to scrape the legs on the floor out of some weird instinct to be quiet. Pretty silly, really. It’s not like Serizawa was sleeping normally…

He perched himself in the chair a little too straight-backed, hands on his knees, and looked at some middle distance on Serizawa’s chest. The bedsheets rose and fell with his easy, rhythmic breathing.

“Hi,” he said awkwardly.

He was very glad Dimple was gone. He’d never hear the end of this.

But it also meant he was alone, without anybody else to filter his thoughts through.

So much had happened these past few months. Reigen could still remember meeting Serizawa, how much of a wreck he looked back then. You almost wanted to laugh at the guy except he was so earnest and genuine you'd feel bad about it, and he’d happened to save Reigen’s life to boot. Reigen could also remember the first time Serizawa laughed in front of him. Not one of his nervous apologetic laughs but a real one. It was during his first week at Spirits and Such, with his new haircut and newly shaven face, and he’d spilled tea on Reigen’s desk and Reigen didn’t even remember what stupid joke he said to make him feel better but it worked because Serizawa snorted, eyes crinkling, and tried to hide his smile in his hand but not before Reigen saw it, teeth and all. It had filled Reigen with such a strange pride to make that happen. He wouldn’t have even dreamed back then that Serizawa was fast on the course to becoming his best friend. His companion.

Serizawa shifted in his sleep and turned his head away from Reigen. Reigen leaned forward, his back still weirdly straight as if bowing, and stage whispered, “Are you waking up?”

He didn’t get an answer for a long time. Then Serizawa turned his face upward again and his eyes were blearily blinking open.

Reigen smiled despite himself.

“Hey big guy,” he said. “Good to have you back.”

Serizawa’s eyebrows furrowed in a sleepy sort of way as he finally turned his gaze on Reigen, still struggling to keep his eyelids open.

“Arataka,” he said, his voice gravelly, and Reigen’s heart did a backflip. It really got overly excited these days. It was getting him into trouble with its playing around.

“Hey,” Reigen repeated. “Welcome to the hospital. You gave us a little scare. Do you remember?”

Serizawa let his eyes close for a long moment, frowning almost humorously hard. “Gashadokuro,” he said finally.

“Bingo.”

“It’s gone right?”

“Yes. You got it.” Reigen scootched his chair closer, so his knees were almost flush with the side of Serizawa’s bed. “How are you feeling?”

Serizawa’s eyes opened and he tilted his head for the different angle at looking up into Reigen’s face. He smiled, the lines around his eyes lifting.

“Good, actually,” he said, almost ruminatively.

Reigen wondered if he could perhaps take credit for some of that smile but quickly kicked away the thought. That was selfish and… stupid. Nevertheless, he could only smile in return.

“Glad you’re in one piece,” he said, finding himself suddenly much more nervous.

Serizawa just kept smiling at him, in such a warm open way that was rare even for him. It was like something had lifted, something that had been weighing him down for a long time, so long you’d think it was just a part of Serizawa being Serizawa and wouldn’t realize the man could actually be happier.

He reached his hand out for Reigen, just holding it there palm up, his elbow propped up on the bed. Reigen swallowed and accepted it, entwining their fingers.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Serizawa said. “You’re exactly who I wanted to see.”

Reigen laughed, high-pitched and very, very stupid. “Yeah, Mob had to go to school, but he’s alright too. And Dimple uh, you know, is doing Dimple things--”

“Arataka.”

“Yeah?”

“... I don’t know. I’m just feeling really good today, I think. Something’s happened.”

“What sort of a something?”

“I don’t know how to even start explaining it. But I’m just really glad you’re here.”

Serizawa’s hand was warm, his fingers slightly thicker than Reigen’s, but their knuckles slotting so comfortably beside one another.

Reigen was caught in the trap of very much needing to say something but for once in his life not having any words to do it with. He could spiel jokes and bullshit endlessly if not for the need to breathe, but this… This was uncharted territory.

Serizawa knew. There was such knowing on his face, and it was painfully gentle.

"We don't… have to Talk if you--"

"Don't," Reigen rasped, his smile jittery. "You keep giving me a cop out but… I have to say some things."

"I can go first if you want."

"... That'd be great."

The look in Serizawa’s eyes was so… open. It reminded Reigen of the wonder that had been plastered all over Mob’s face when he first met him, except it was different too. It was deeper, it was softer. It was awe not for an ideal but for… Reigen. Just Reigen. Affection, just like that. Nobody had ever looked at him quite like this. Admiring him while also seeing him. It made Reigen nervous and comforted at the same time.

“I’m just really glad I met you,” Serizawa said. “You… You’ve had such an effect on my life. I don’t think I’d be where I am now without you.”

“Where you are now? In the hospital?” Reigen asked, and he could have strangled himself for resorting so automatically to joking to defuse the earnest seriousness of Serizawa’s words. His heart might do the job for him. It had leaped up into his throat like a physical thing and he could barely swallow.

Serizawa, thankfully, laughed. “Happy,” he corrected. “I think I’m finally figuring out what it means to be happy.”

That was all your work, Katsuya, not mine. But it would be even worse to flat-out refuse the gift Serizawa was offering him here. And that soft expression hadn’t let up at all. It left Reigen exposed, so kindly.

He really needed to tell Serizawa he was in love with him.

Now was the time, wasn’t it? He hadn’t actually said it even in the face of possible death before, hadn’t said the actual words. If he had any hope of matching the things Serizawa was offering him here, he needed to stop being so cowardly.

Just say it.

I’m glad I met you too. I hadn’t even realized I was so unhappy until you showed me what happy really is. I admire you so much. I admire what you’ve been doing. I’m so proud of how far you’ve come. I want...

The words just wouldn’t come out.

"... I'm scared shitless," Reigen said finally. "Really. This is… You're the best thing that's happened to me in a long time. I feel like I barely dodged messing up Mob, I have no idea how to do something like… this. This, uh…" Wait. They hadn't actually said they were in a relationship yet. He was getting ahead of himself dammit.

But Serizawa was simply watching him with ardent attention as always, like this was all perfectly normal.

"I don't know what I even want," Reigen finished lamely.

Serizawa just watched him, waiting, and then when nothing else came, he slowly pulled away his hand. Reigen’s heart plummeted, but Serizawa was just repositioning. He got his elbows under himself and sat up with a long sigh. With both of them sitting, he was a little taller than Reigen again. His ordinary handsomeness sort of hit Reigen like a truck. "I know what I want," Serizawa said softly.

Uh oh. "Yeah?"

"I just want to be with you,” Serizawa said. His voice had gotten so much quieter, like they were whispering secrets over a shared bed. “You know? All this time… I've been working to try and get better, all the time, and that will probably always continue. I'm not sure what I want the end result of that to be, or if there even is an end to it. All I know is that that's what I need to be doing right now, in this moment. That it makes me happier every day. And I know that right now, the other thing that makes me most happy is just… you. Being with you." There was a shyness to his smile then, finally hitting a note of uncertainty after all his courage. "I don't know what the future will bring, but I know that right now having you in my life is...perfect. It’s exactly what I want. So I guess to me that means I'm in love with you."

Reigen could have fallen into a thousand pieces at that moment and he wouldn’t have been surprised. He clenched his teeth and breathed deeply and tried to just…

How could he possibly top that?

He let all the air out of his lungs in a great whoosh and just plopped his forehead against Serizawa’s shoulder, his whole body caving against Serizawa’s sturdiness.

“Is that… all there is to it?” he asked, his voice slightly muffled against Serizawa’s sleeve.

“Does there need to be more?” Serizawa asked back.

Reigen chuckled. “I guess not.”

Serizawa freed an arm from his mess of blankets and looped it around the small of Reigen’s back, resting his hand against his hip.

To hell with it.

Reigen lifted his head finally and flashed Serizawa one of the biggest, wobbliest smiles in his repertoire.

“I’m in love with you,” he said. He felt absolutely ridiculous.

Serizawa’s face lit up in a pleased, slightly surprised sort of way, for a split moment before Reigen dipped forward and kissed his soundly on the mouth.

“I love you,” Reigen repeated against his lips. Serizawa barely had time to move in turn before Reigen had already moved on, kissing Serizawa’s cheek, the side of his nose, his eyebrow. “I love you,” he said, over and over in between contact. “Serizawa Katsuya, I love you, I love you.”

He was downright giddy now. Now that he’d finally gotten the words out the deluge of them wouldn’t stop. They both wound up laughing at how stupid it was. Serizawa pulled Reigen closer in his arm, and Reigen lifted both hands to tilt Serizawa’s face around to kiss every centimeter of him. They were barely even kisses any more, just grinning and miming, and that repeated mantra. “I love you.” And laughter. Like it had turned into a joke, but not a dismissive one now. More like a secret joke between them, a sign of connection.

They both were terribly, utterly happy.