Mob walks with his head down, watching his feet, as a general rule – but today, as he passes through the subway beneath the street, something lifts his eyes.
There is new graffiti, the paint gleaming and vibrant, standing out among the faded lewd scrawlings and old gang tags. He stops and stares at it for a long time, taking in all the details, the crisp lines and perfect form. He recognises this figure, painted so painstakingly where few people will see it: this is gashadokuro, a yokai in the form of a huge skeleton. It is said to be made of the bones of those who have died in war or famine, carrying their grudge within its towering frame. It is not a benevolent yokai by any means, crushing its victims, biting off their heads to sate its endless hunger. Luckily such things – unlike spirits – are mere folklore, banished to books and neglected brick. He wonders who painted it here and why.
He tears himself from the fresh paint and keeps walking, emerging into the street. It’s a hot afternoon, late but still bright, and he’s on his way to the office after track training. He’s in high school now, with more homework and harder exams, and he doesn’t work for Reigen as often as he used to, as much as he’d like to. Once or twice a week has to suffice. He picks up his pace as he turns down streets he knows like the back of his own hand, his schoolbag banging against his hip. It’s been almost a week.
He turns the corner, seeing the familiar faded sign the tinge of old bone. A rush of warmth fills his belly as his eyes go down the kanji, the crooked shape of them etched into his brain. This is his graffiti, the words that colour the walls of his mind. He lets himself into the building and climbs the narrow staircase, opening the office door carefully in case Reigen has a client. He’s alone, however, hunched over his laptop, and Mob admittedly feels a little twang of jealous relief. It’ll be nice to have all his attention for once. Having Ekubo and Serizawa around is fun but he misses the old days when it was just the two of them. Lately he’s been missing it more than ever. Nostalgia, maybe. He’s almost eighteen, aware of his impending adulthood, of entrance exams and university and jobs, real ones. He wishes it could stay this way forever, that he could have Reigen all to himself again.
“Hey, Mob,” Reigen greets him. He waves lazily. “It’s pretty quiet today. I sent Serizawa home early. You can probably go too, if you want.”
Mob doesn’t want. He puts his bag down on the coffee table. “I’ll stay,” he says, “just in case. I have some homework I can do.”
“Sure, sure.” Reigen sounds a little distracted. “It’s nice to see you, anyway. It’s been a while.”
“Six days,” says Mob, who definitely wasn’t counting. He crosses the office and comes behind the desk to see what Reigen is working on.
“Photo exorcism,” Reigen says dryly, clicking around on a wedding photo. There’s an ominous figure looming between the unwitting bride and groom. “Probably a jilted a lover or something. I asked if they wanted us to do something about, you know, the actual spirit but they just want the photograph to look nice.” Reigen shrugs. “It’s pretty fiddly because of all this lace and tulle. I should charge double for this sort of thing…”
“Mm,” Mob agrees absently, knowing he won’t. Reigen is in a short-sleeved shirt, a rarity, with his pink tie loose around his unbuttoned collar. When Mob leans down close to look at the spirit in the photo, he can smell the sweat on him beneath his familiar punch of smoke and jasmine and Daiso aftershave. The golden hair at the nape of his neck is damp. Mob swallows, steps back.
“You okay?” Reigen asks, glancing at him.
Mob gives an awkward nod. “Hot,” he mumbles. “I-it’s hot.”
“It is,” Reigen agrees. He dips his body to the side, opening the safe one-handed, and takes out a thousand yen bill. “Here, go get us a drink from the store.”
Mob takes the note, carefully folding it. He doesn’t even need to ask what drink Reigen wants. Years of familiarity mean he knows almost everything about him. Almost.
The 7-11 is cool and bright, the light clinical. Mob stands in front of the refrigerator, enjoying the cold air in the clammy crooks of his arms. Some middle schoolers bustle around behind him, chattering over ice lollies and manga comics, and there’s a crowd of older guys buying drinks at the counter. He sneaks a look over his shoulder; the guys are in leather jackets despite the heat, probably out on bikes. One of them, tall with an undercut, has a gashadokuro painted on the back of his jacket. For some reason it takes Mob by surprise and he looks away again, his heart thumping. He doesn’t know exactly why. It’s common to see yokai and oni painted on jackets, graffitied on walls. Perhaps twice in the same day is just a bit much for him, those empty sockets staring at him, hollowing him out. He waits until the guys are gone before grabbing the drinks and hurrying to pay.
Reigen is still fussing on the laptop when he gets back. Mob puts his can down next to him and gives him the change.
“Thanks, Mob.” Reigen picks up the can and presses it to his neck, sighing. “God, that feels good.”
“U-uh… I have… homework,” Mob says dazedly, struggling to tear his eyes away. His mouth feels dry, aching with thirst, as he stumbles to the coffee table and sinks into one of the old blue chairs. He faces away from Reigen, cracking his can of melon soda with his powers, fumbling to pull out his books. Distractions. Fractions. That ought to do it.
It doesn’t really do it. The problems are difficult and boring and he can hear Reigen sighing with frustration across the room. At least he’s not facing him; there’s really no excuse to be looking up at him every ten seconds. …Not that he looks at Reigen that often.
The afternoon grows long, deep burnt orange spilling in through the blinds. Reigen finishes his editing and prints the photograph, wandering around the office in the heat, fanning himself with it. He shows it to Mob as he passes him. All traces of the ghostly figure are gone.
“You think they’ll be happy with this?” he asks. “It’s the best I can do.”
“Looks perfect to me, Shishou,” Mob replies, squinting at it. “Your exorcism skills are improving.”
Reigen taps him on the head with the photo. “Cheeky,” he teases. “Come on, it’s late. Let’s get some dinner, Mob.” He stretches as he makes his way back to the desk, Mob watching the arch of his back beneath his damp shirt. “I’m starving.”
The night is a hot one. Mob can’t sleep, lying on his futon with the blankets pushed halfway down his body. He has a test tomorrow and knows he needs the energy but sleep won’t come. Instead he’s filled with a low gnawing feeling, his powers prickling like static, leaving him restless. He turns this way and that, trying to get comfortable, but he can’t. He still feels thirsty, somehow empty even though he and Reigen ate late. Golden yolk breaking over rice, how messy Reigen is when he eats, how content Mob feels in those moments…
He gets up, the sheets sliding off his legs, passing his window on his way to get some water. Something makes him stop, some tug on his powers, his senses. He cracks the curtains, easing them back. His blood freezes.
The gashadokuro is out there. It’s far away, hulking over the tall buildings in the city, but he can see its bent spine and empty eyes. It has a strange soft glow to it, blurred at the edges like the sprayed-on paint, and it seems to have no weight or mass, moving between the buildings without disturbing the ground. Mob wrenches open the window, stepping onto the balcony. He grasps the rail with white knuckles, his heart racing as he watches this monster from legend – pure folklore, nothing but an old wives’ tale! – moving silently through Seasoning City.
He rallies his power, feeling out the gashadokuro; maybe he can exorcise it before it does any damage, kills anybody—
Nothing. He frowns, groping frantically as the yokai moves further away. He can’t feel anything at all coming from this thing, not even the faintest trace of energy given out by the weakest of spirits. He shakes his head, rubs fiercely at his eyes. Is… is he dreaming? Hallucinating? Do… do yokai not give off any spiritual energy?
He dashes to Ritsu’s room, being as quiet as possible as he shakes him awake.
“What, what?” Ritsu mumbles, batting at him. “Nii-san? Is something wrong?”
“Come quick.” Mob grabs Ritsu’s arm, pulling him out of bed. “Do you see this?”
“Do… do I see what?” Ritsu stumbles after him, still half-asleep, letting Mob manhandle him into his room and onto the open balcony.
“That!” Mob says, pointing. “Gashadokuro!”
“That… what?” Ritsu shakes himself awake, looking out at the city. “Nii-san, there’s nothing there.”
“What?” Mob turns, looks. Ritsu is right. There’s nothing towering over the buildings, sliding seamlessly between the cracks. The gashadokuro is gone. “But… it was just here—”
“Did you say gashadokuro?” Ritsu asks. “That’s not a real thing. Spirits are one thing but yokai are just folklore.”
“I…” Mob trails off. He doesn’t know what to think, feeling stupid. “I could have sworn I…”
Ritsu knocks him on the shoulder. “Bet you were just dreaming.”
Mob exhales. “I guess so,” he mumbles. He steps back, looking at his brother. “Sorry I woke you.”
Ritsu yawns, waving him off. “It’s fine. Better than Shou calling at three in the morning.” He shuffles back inside. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” Mob echoes. He stays on the balcony a while longer, watching, waiting, staring into the hot empty night.
The gashadokuro does not come.
The next day, Mob is distracted. He struggles through his test but his mind isn’t on it at all, his gaze drifting towards the window. He doesn’t know what he’s expecting to see.
At lunchtime he searches a few of the spirit-spotter forums that Reigen sometimes uses for research but there’s no mention of anyone seeing any yokai last night, skeletal or otherwise. He texts Teruki to ask if he saw anything on his side of town, receiving a no, a winky face and a lot of sparkling emoticons in reply. …Maybe he really did dream it. It just looked so real, so vivid, even though he knows deep down that it can’t have been.
The graffiti is still in the underpass, its eyes blazing bright, its hungry mouth gaping wide. He wants to be satisfied – that it was only this, some brilliant fragment of this image that settled in him, disturbing his dreams but nothing more.
“Hey, Mob,” Reigen greets him. “It’s not like you to come two days in a row. Serizawa is here so you don’t need to—”
“Have you had any clients in today talking about yokai?” Mob interrupts, cutting off his talk of Serizawa. He doesn’t want to hear that.
“Yokai?” Reigen repeats. “Like… kappa, tengu, that sort of thing?”
“Yes.” Mob leans across the desk towards him. “Gashadokuro, specifically.”
“No,” Reigen says, going back to his laptop. He’s wearing a black tie today, loose, thrown over one shoulder. “Yokai aren’t real, Mob.”
“Well… can you look?”
“Look for what?”
“Look and see if anyone reported seeing a gashadokuro last night.”
Reigen stops, squinting up at him. “Did you see a gashadokuro last night?”
“I…” Mob feels himself go red. He feels like an idiot. “I don’t know. I thought I did but… when Ritsu looked, it was gone.”
“Sounds like you were dreaming,” Reigen says. “If something that big was roaming through the city, it would have been on the news.”
“They can make themselves invisible,” Serizawa says helpfully, coming in with a 7-11 bag. “Good afternoon, Kageyama-senpai.”
“Hello, Serizawa-san,” Mob replies, feeling a bit irritated. He’s not sure if he’s more annoyed with Serizawa for being here or Reigen for being obtuse. At least Serizawa kind of defended him so… Reigen. For now.
“Did you see anything, Serizawa?” Reigen asks. “Or sense anything?”
“No,” Serizawa says, taking cold cans out of the bag. He hands one to Mob, who is grateful for it. Serizawa always buys extra in case he turns up. “But that doesn’t mean Kageyama-senpai didn’t see anything.”
Reigen sighs deeply, looking between them. Eventually he reaches for his can and cracks it, pressing it to his bottom lip. “So what do you want me to look for, Mob?”
Mob shrugs. “Just… if anyone saw anything like that. I looked on the forums myself but I’m not good at unearthing stuff. You’re better at it, Shishou.”
Maybe it’s the heat but Reigen clearly isn’t in the mood to have his ego stroked. He puts his can down and huffs. “Fine,” he says, “but if you only came here to be a pain in the ass, I’m not paying you.”
“Fine,” Mob retorts. Three hundred yen an hour seems like a moot point if there’s a gashadokuro wandering around the city biting people’s heads off. Maybe.
“I’ve heard that sometimes yokai only appear to those who need to see them,” Serizawa says, trying to be helpful.
“I think that’s only the good ones,” Reigen says, typing lazily. “I doubt anybody needs to be visited by gashadokuro or umibozu or…” He trails off, looking up. His eyes meet Mob’s.
“Kuchisake-onna,” they say in unison. Mob feels an unpleasant jolt in his belly and Reigen puts his head down, working a bit harder.
“Kuchisake-onna?” Serizawa repeats. “The yokai with the slit mouth?”
“Yes,” Reigen says distractedly. “She’s real. We fought her a few years back. I mean, Mob, the chances of you seeing this thing are still pretty low but… maybe there’s something in it…”
Mob sinks onto the edge of one of the blue chairs. “What if it is real?” he asks. “And… I’m the only one who can see it?”
“Kageyama-senpai is the strongest esper I know,” Serizawa replies, sitting opposite him. He smiles. “If anyone can defeat it, it’s you.”
In the end, Reigen comes up with nothing. It’s a quiet afternoon and Serizawa leaves early to head to his evening class. Mob feels more warmly towards him than he did earlier but he admits he’s not exactly sorry to see him go. Not that Reigen is paying him much attention, concentrating on his task. Eventually, however, he gives up, leaning back in his chair.
“Mob, there’s nothing,” he says. “I’m sorry. Or… wait, I’m not sorry. That’s a good thing.”
“Okay.” Mob isn’t sure how to feel. Maybe relieved. Reigen even called up Shinra and a few other psychics to ask if they’d heard anything about a gashadokuro, all to no avail. Mob supposes this means there isn’t one, or at least not a dangerous one. “Thank you for looking, Shishou. I appreciate it.”
Reigen gets up, stretching, his back popping. Mob looks fixedly down at his homework.
“I’m still not paying you,” Reigen says, getting his jacket, “but I will buy you dinner. Come on.”
“Can I get chashu pork?” Mob asks.
“Fine,” Reigen grumbles, “but not too many. You’re growing way too much, kid. It’s making you greedy as hell.”
Mob snorts. “That’s kind of rich coming from you.”
Mob sleeps fitfully that night. It’s sweltering again and it’s hard to get comfortable. He lies on his back, remembering how he scrubbed at Reigen’s face with a napkin at dinner and made them both embarrassed.
“I can do it myself,” Reigen had complained, the tips of his ears red.
“But you never do,” was Mob’s reply. “You eat so messily.”
“Why are you watching me?”
“I-I’m not watching you!”
And so forth. Mob’s cheeks burn now and he rolls over, burying his face in the pillow. Tomorrow is Saturday so he doesn’t have to go to school or to the office. Reigen didn’t indicate that he needed him. Serizawa will probably help him out, anyway, if a real case arises.
Mob sits up. He can see the glow through the crack in the curtains. Rising, he pads softly to the window, pulling back the fabric. The gashadokuro is there, hulking over the tallest buildings, moving slowly. As before, he can feel no energy from it, no evidence of it truly existing. There’s nothing he can do about it, one way or another.
He decides he will go to the office tomorrow, after all.
“Mob, it’s not that I don’t appreciate you being here,” Reigen says. “I really do – but I don’t want you neglecting your studies or clubs. You’re in your final year of high school, after all. Enjoy it. You don’t need to come here every day of the week.”
“I want to,” Mob replies, looking straight at him. “I can do work here. It’s fine.”
“Shige’s becoming a man,” Ekubo says sagely, floating near Reigen’s shoulder. “He’s getting territorial.”
“I’ll melt you,” Mob says, going back to his books.
Ekubo rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. You’re just proving my point.”
“Have you seen any yokai around?” Reigen asks, jabbing at the ghost with a rolled-up newspaper. “Like, say, a gashadokuro.”
Ekubo snorts. “That crap isn’t real.”
“What, like kuchisake-onna wasn’t real?”
“Look, Shigeo’s already told me he’s seen something that looks like a gashadokuro every night for over a week,” Ekubo snaps, floating out of Reigen’s reach. “But I haven’t seen or sensed anything like that.”
“Maybe I’m just going crazy,” Mob says gloomily.
“Or you’re growing more powerful,” Reigen suggests. “You can sense things weaklings like Ekubo can’t.”
“Look who’s talking, you lying f—”
“Anyway,” Reigen goes on, “it’s getting late. Doesn’t look like we’ll be getting any walk-ins tonight. Let’s get dinner.”
“Ugh, I don’t want to see you stuffing your face like an animal,” Ekubo says, phasing through the wall. “See ya.”
“He’s just jealous ‘cause he can’t eat,” Reigen says dismissively. He stands up, shutting the laptop. “What are you feeling, Mob? Ramen? Barbecue? Definitely gyoza—”
“You can pick, Shishou,” Mob says. “But… before we eat, can I show you something?”
Reigen glances at him as he shrugs on his jacket. His brow creases a little. “Of course,” he says. “Is everything…?” He trails off. “Well, aside from the obvious.”
Mob nods, picking up his bag. He waits outside the office door as Reigen shuts the place down for the night and locks up. They descend to the street, stepping into the blueish glow of the dusk, and Mob leads Reigen the way he walks to work. They come to the underpass, which – as Mob recalls, somewhat belatedly – holds a little history for them both, somewhat unpleasant. This was where he first learnt that Reigen wasn’t as perfect as he’d always thought, that he was capable of being petty and selfish and unkind. This is where he first saw him as truly human, as flawed and vulnerable as anyone else.
“This old place?” Reigen says uneasily. He remembers, too.
“Yes.” Mob points to the graffiti of the gashadokuro, still as bright and fresh as the first day he saw it. “This graffiti appeared and then, that night, I saw it.”
Reigen folds his arms, squinting at it. “Do you think they’re connected?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well… do you feel anything from it?”
“No. It’s just graffiti. There’s no spiritual energy at all – from either, actually.” Mob turns to him. “…Maybe I really am going crazy. I’m starting to see ghosts that aren’t even there—”
“Mob.” Reigen steps close to him, taking his face. “We’ve been through a lot together. You’re plenty of things but crazy is not one of them. I believe you. Okay?”
Mob exhales, nods. “Okay.”
Reigen squeezes his cheeks. “Good.” He lets go, stepping past him. “Now come on – let’s get those gyoza. I’m hungry.”
Mob looks at the painting. “Me too,” he says softly.
That night, Mob waits for the gashadokuro. He stands on the tiny balcony, his hands clenched on the metal rail. He’s in his pyjamas but he has his school shoes on his feet. Tonight he means to follow it, find out why it’s here, where it goes.
He’s falling asleep standing up, thinking blearily that tonight, of all nights, it might not come – but eventually he sees the sizzling blur of it in his peripheral. He shakes himself awake, watching it trail sluggishly between the buildings, and climbs over the rail, stepping out into the night. He wraps his power around himself, crossing rooftops with the lightness of a snowflake, chasing the yokai down at a distance. As he does, he can see that this creature is not solid, that people on the streets below pass through it without noticing. He understands that it is here for him.
Eventually the gashadokuro stops. Mob frowns, carefully letting himself land on nearest roof. The yokai extends one translucent skeletal finger, pointing to the run-down building opposite. It’s an apartment complex. Mob squints, perplexed. He’s never been here before but the place feels familiar—
Oh. This is Reigen’s place. He knows because Reigen is leaning on the balcony, smoking. Apparently he can’t see the giant skeleton pointing right at him, which Mob has accepted by now.
He swallows, his heart thumping in his chest. He can’t go back now and leave this thing gnawing at him, ever-unsated. He lets himself down, careful as a spider, and floats in front of Reigen. Reigen, of course, recoils violently, clutching his chest.
“Mob, jeez, you frightened the—” He coughs, regains his composure. “Wh-what are you doing here?”
“The gashadokuro is here,” Mob says. He puts his hands on the rail, leaning close.
“Is it.” Reigen raises one eyebrow, glancing past Mob’s shoulder. “I don’t see anything.”
“Yeah,” Mob says. “It’s not here for you. I followed it.”
Reigen inhales, looks away. “And it led you… here.”
“Yeah,” Mob says softly.
Reigen looks back at him. Mob can’t read his expression; cornered, maybe. Scared. Defeated. He wants to ask but something deep within him urges take take take, insistent, ringing in his ears. He presses forward, closing the gap, kissing him. He half-expects Reigen to push him away but he doesn’t. They kiss and the night is frozen and the ringing in his skull grows louder and louder and then it stops. They break the kiss, panting.
Mob looks behind him for the gashadokuro. It’s gone.
“Well?” Reigen asks gently. “Are you satisfied, Mob?”
Mob turns back to him, pressing their foreheads together. “I guess.”
“You brat,” Reigen sighs. He pats Mob’s cheek, grinning. “At least come inside. You shouldn’t be out if there’s a bone-crunching yokai wandering around.”
“It’s gone now,” Mob admits, clambering over the rail.
“How convenient.” Reigen stubs out his cigarette, gesturing for Mob to enter his apartment. “After you. I’ve got some leftover takoyaki. Are you hungry?”
“Always,” Mob replies.