Plum blossoms against the hazy sky, deep pink against faded blue, and the bright yellow splash of the flowers’ stamens is the same color as Makino’s hair. The girl hops down the park steps then turns to look back up at Sasaki.
“Like, are you sure you don’t want to go a shrine today, Sasaki?” she asks, tilting her head. She’s wearing brightly colored ribbons for the day, pink and white; you’d never even notice the skull barrettes helping keep her hairbuns in place unless you saw her from behind. It’s cute, in her own distinctly morbid way.
“Not really.” Sasaki shakes her head as she descends the stairs.
Makino pouts at her, tapping a pinwheel she’d gotten at the entrance on one shoulder. “But we’re missing all the displays.” The taller girl remains quiet, watching the trees. Makino sighs, complaining, “We’re going to get married late.”
This brings a wry smile into the corner of her companion’s lips. “Wishes on hina dolls aren’t going to make us any more marriageable,” she observes, passing on by. A small stream trickles through the grounds ahead of them, crossed over by a low bridge, its bright red paint standing out amidst the dark trunks of the plum trees.
Makino crouches down in the spring grass beside it, dipping the edge of her pinwheel into the water and watching its wings turn slowly in the current. She’s still pouting slightly, Sasaki notes. She reflects to herself that the issue is probably not marriage—who even gets married right out of school anymore, anyway? —as much as it is Girl’s Day in general. She knows, because she knows a great deal more about all of her partners than she lets on, that Makino’s mother was a single parent, ostracized by family members, and that Makino was placed in the foster system after the woman’s suicide. She’s probably never had a full court display in her home, for her own sake.
Sasaki hesitates, then squats down beside her, dipping her fingertips into the water. It’s faintly warm in spite of the chill of the morning. She’s silent for a moment, thoughtful. The breeze, bobbing the flowers playfully overhead, stirs through her dark hair.
“…But some clam soup might be good for lunch,” she offers, watching sidelong as Makino instantly perks up. “And the shirozake’s going to be best at a shrine.”
The smaller girl’s arm is suddenly twined through hers and Sasaki finds herself being hauled up to her feet. Makino beams at her and goes up on tiptoe to peck her on the cheek; thankfully, she doesn’t embarrass anyone by saying anything, and the two of them head on down the path together as around them the day grows warmer.
Outside, rain drums down onto the pavement, muffling the sound of traffic and leaving the room a tight chamber of pressure and heat. A zenith, a tipping point, and Sasaki breathes out, comes down. Hand wrapped around Numata’s wrist, she lowers herself gingerly onto his stomach, legs folded on either side of him. He smiles up at her, loose and still mildly dazed. He looks strange without his sunglasses, a little too normal; perhaps she’s the same.
“You know, you oughta let me come along to help you intimidate people more often.” He doesn’t protest as she guides his hand back down to the rumpled sheets, just gives a long, satisfied sigh.
Sasaki rolls her eyes, raking back her hair, and looks around for even a room fan. A drop of sweat runs down the curve of her back and she shifts, suddenly worn out, slumping down next to Numata.
“You don’t even have air conditioning, do you?” she asks rather than giving him an answer either way. “Typical.”
“It’s nice at night,” he says, and it’s always just a little surprising how agreeable he is after compared to how combative before. “You wanna open a window?”
“Please do.” She closes her eyes, listening to him move around the room, and stretches on his futon. A breeze stirs in the room moments later, rain-scented and cool on her overwarm skin. She luxuriates in it for a few minutes, heedless of the sense of his appreciative stare, and calculates the time. It’ll be sundown before long, time to go spring the trap on their newest unsuspecting murderer. She’ll have to take a shower first, and Numata’s tiny bathroom and worse shower are not going to cut it. She really ought to be up and moving. Next time, she’ll have to plan ahead more.
Sighing, she sits up, patting around on the ground for her shirt, summer white, and made of a thin fabric that is by now probably hopelessly wrinkled. Numata gets to it first and drapes it over her shoulders. It’s getting really obvious, the way daytime TV influences his romantic habits. She doesn’t complain, fingertips closing on the rims of her glasses.
“I’ve got to get back to my apartment,” she says, slipping them onto her face, then picks up Numata’s sunglasses.
“Spoilsport,” he complains as she pushes them up the bridge of his nose, but he’s grinning as he says it, and the shape of his eyes behind dark glass is a familiar enigma. With the shields back up, he doesn’t lean in to kiss her again as he sometimes does in the slow warmth of afterglow, but he does offer her a hand up to her feet. She humors him, and takes it.
Low on the horizon, the thin sliver of a harvest moon glows like an eclipsed lantern. A chill breeze blows over the empty fields and Sasaki tightens her coat, pulling a pear out of her bag and listening thoughtfully to the whirring chirrup of the crickets.
“Are you sure this is all right, Sasaki?” Hesitant footsteps, picking their way through the harvested rows and occasional mushroom towards her, and Yata’s no sooner phrased the question than another voice chimes in, “Yeah, what if the farmers call the cops?”
Kereellis really sounds nothing like Yata at all. The voice is rougher, with a curiously tinny quality, as if one were hearing it down a long pipe. It reminds her that when she first met him, it had prompted her to go and do some research on how small science had managed to get two-way radios. There’s no coughing rumble of cloth over a microphone, though, and the sound quality isn’t muffled by the heavy felt and insistent hand movements.
“Or worse, what if they’re abductee rednecks, out for revenge?" There’s a muffled thump and Yata yelps. “You’ll never take him alive!”
All right, the sound quality isn’t normally muffled by insistent hand movements. Sasaki rolls her eyes, turning to find her co-worker trying to pry his own hand off of the backside of his pants.
“They were still nervous about that corpse we found out here back in August, so I told them we’d give it a good Shinto blessing for growth next year,” she answers, and ignores Numata’s groan of protest from the bonfire. “It’s fine.”
Kereellis whips out to the front again to face her, painted-on eyes staring, dragging Yata behind him. “So why couldn’t we have made goat-chin over there do it before the sun went down, huh?” the puppet demands. “What, now we’re going to get ghosts in our stargazing?”
Sasaki watches Yata turn his hand around to soothe the puppet; he’s still looking a little worried himself. It’s Yata’s first star-viewing with friends, at least ones who even halfway believe him about the alien channeling, and he wants it to be perfect. That’s how he is, particularly about all things Close Encounters of the Third Kind. She tosses him the pear, watching the way Kereellis moves out to snap at it before Yata’s eyes even track the arc, and pointedly ignoring the puppet’s cries about assault.
“It’s fine,” she repeats. “I even checked the weather beforehand; we’ll have clear skies all night.”
The young man falls silent, taking the last few steps over to her and looking up. Overhead, the stars emerge one at a time from the dusk, a huge panoply of them from horizon to horizon. Sasaki smiles at the sky with faint satisfaction and asks, “We’ll be able to see the Milky Way, right?”
Yata nods nervously, hands fidgeting. With his head tilted back, she can see his sunken eyes scanning the heavens with nervous anticipation. He points northeast, to the right of where the moon is rising.
“You can see the brightest parts already. Mirfak’s up, and you can just see Schedar.” His hand sweeps upwards and she lifts up her chin to follow, turning as he finishes the arc. “There’s Deneb, and Vega, and in an hour we’ll be able to see the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex.” She can pick out a few of the constellations—Cassiopeia, and the broad sweep of the wings of Cygnus—but the star names are mostly lost on her.
“Can we see Kereellis’ home star?” she asks, folding her arms on her waist as she stares upward.
The puppet lets out a bark of derisive laughter. “Not past that showboating Alcyone you can’t!”
Yata shrinks visibly behind Kereellis. “He’s right. It’s too small. We can see the system, though!” he finishes in a rush, brightening up hopefully. “It’s in the Pleiades; they’ll be bright even with the moon out. Actually just a few years ago astronomers at UCLA found out that there were terrestrial planets forming around HD 23514. Kereellis’ species might have company someday.” He looks up at the sky wistfully, then steals a glance over at his teammate. “Does—that mean you believe in Kereellis, Sasaki?”
She turns her eyes away from the stars to look down at him. Kereellis is uncharacteristically quiet, though she supposes if she had a better spiritual sense she could feel his attention, but Yata looks hesitant and vulnerable. She suppresses the urge to ruffle his hair. He doesn’t like being touched very much, and she’s not Makino.
“I don’t actually care if Kereellis is a real alien or not,” she answers, “But I don’t have any interest in employing useless people at this firm. You have a gift and it works. That’s all I need to believe in.”
The puppet says something foul about homo sapiens self-centeredness, but Yata is giving the ground an abashed smile and blushing, so it’s a net win. She rummages around in her bag and pulls out an apple, nudging Yata’s elbow and smiling at him when he looks up.
He smiles back shyly and the two of them fall silent, watching the sky. Behind them, the scent of woodsmoke gives way to roasting salmon and potatoes, and overhead, the light of far-off stars shines as through clear water.
Sasaki flips through the calendars dispassionately—cute dogs, cute cats, cute birds, traditional gardens… She supposes she ought to have gotten to this sooner, but then, it’s not like she ever uses calendars; it’s only for the club room that she’s here at all.
“Hey, Sasaki, what about this one?”
She looks up as Kuro leans around the corner and holds up a calendar, a cartoon of a dead girl splashed across its cover. She’s chibi-styled and chubby, with large grey eyes, a black hoodie, and stitches at the corners of her mouth and across her hands. Sasaki turns her stare up to Kuro and can’t stop herself from glancing briefly over his shoulder. She’s never seen the spirit in person, but she has dreams sometimes, she has since Okinawa, and there are glimpses now and again, caught in fragments of glass or eddies of water. The memory of twisting scars and the sight of Kuro’s jacket hood pulled up against the intermittent snowflake that gusts into the stall is enough to raise her eyebrow.
“Cute and dead. Well, Makino and Numata will like it,” is all she permits herself to say, shrugging and setting down the stack she’d been looking through. “Let's get that one.”
Her teammate tucks it under one arm and trails her up to the register, where she lets him make small talk with the attendant while she rummages in her purse for a few hundred yen bills. Then, bag around one of Kuro’s wrists, the two of them head out back into the withering wind. She wraps her scarf back around her shoulders and walks in silence as they make their way through the rest of the new year’s market booths and back towards the subway.
Kuro slows at a storefront displaying kotatsu and seasonal blankets. She pauses, glancing back at him. He doesn’t comment, but from his scowl she can guess he’s weighing the price.
“I’ve got an old one I don’t use if you need one,” she volunteers.
He gives her a narrow-eyed look then grins pointedly. “Must be nice to be able to afford new ones,” he says, baiting, but resumes walking. She doesn’t let her bland expression change, thinking about the faded flower pattern of the quilt tucked away in her closet. She certainly doesn’t tell him that a) it’s from her parents’ things and b) that Midori had used it until she’d gotten a new one, at which point she’d pressed it onto her younger sister, just going into college.
Sasaki hates her older sister’s sentimentality sometimes.
They board the subway in silence, Sasaki sitting and Kuro holding a rail, both watching the darkness of the tunnel walls pass by. Christmas is in a few days, and the car is covered in advertisements for romantic gifts and places to get traditional dinners. Makino has designs on Yata’s evening, Sasaki knows—Kereellis has been making dire pronouncements about it that go largely over his “host-body’s” head. Numata is scuttling between his apartment and the clubroom like a hermit loathe to leave the winter seclusion of his cave and associated warm fire, but she suspects he’ll wind up calling Kuro in a fit of tipsy self-pity and they’ll watch terrible movies until Numata passes out. She gives it even odds that they’ll manage to stumble across a corpse somehow while making a beer run and there’ll be a gruesome-yet-touching Christmas miracle.
Sasaki herself is without plans, at least plans other than “take advantage of online bloggers’ loneliness by plying them for whatever interesting secrets they might have,” and she intends to keep it that way.
Kuro skips his own stop, which she takes to mean he’s accepting the quilt after all. By the time they disembark in her own neighborhood, the early dark has set in, and their breath clouds visibly in the air as they walk back to her apartment. A few plum trees line her street, and while next month they’ll be flowering despite the mid-season frosts, right now they’re still bare and black. It’s snowing harder, billows of it waving in the streetlights like sheets on a clothesline. Patches of it cling to her hair even after they’ve brushed off in the breezeway; she can feel Kuro examining them absently as they head upstairs.
“I don’t have any fugu,” she says as she lets them into her apartment, pulling off her coat, “but there’s some oyster soup if you want some.” She moves on into the kitchen when he nods equitably, pulling out the leftovers container and putting it on the stove to reheat.
He’s standing by her bookshelves examining her rows of textbooks on law and death and several of the mid-soft sciences when she returns with the folded quilt. Unspeaking, she sets it down on her coffee table and then sits down on her couch, crossing her legs and staring at it hard over her knit fingers.
Kuro looks at it, then at her. It’s ridiculously obvious that the flowers don’t suit her, she knows, and she can feel the shift in the air when he realizes it too.
“You sure it’s okay?” he asks quietly, his voice carefully empty of inflection. Any of the others would ask in pity if they asked at all. She nods neutrally, and he says nothing else, just sits down carefully next to her. Sasaki stares at the blanket, counting numbers in her head, until she’s staring through it and sighs softly, relaxing by a slow release of inches until she and Kuro are shored up against each other in a deliberate, companionable silence, and she’s thinking of nothing more troubling than whether she has any onion to add to the soup.
Sasaki is keeping a list in the back of her mind. First shrine visit: the one in Midori’s neighborhood, at four in the morning. First sun: watched with Midori while eating mochi and fielding awkward conversation. First rooster crow: on the radio, because she lives in Tokyo not a barn. First bath: hot, scented, and blessedly peaceful.
She stops at the only open convenience store she can find on her way to campus the next day. (First purchase: an osechi ryori assortment large enough to feed her firm.) The street is full of entertainers, pine branch decorations and wandering families meeting up and laughing together. She walks through it all with a calm, steady stride.
Kuro is already in the clubroom when she gets there, which is no great surprise, though his being asleep on the couch is unexpected. (First dream, she remembers: a heron and Mount Everest, which she does not think is particularly funny.) She boots up her laptop and sets the food out, but otherwise lets him be.
The others trickle in—Yata wakes Kuro by knocking on the door of his own clubroom before sticking his head in. The two of them play card games sprinkled with profanity from Kereellis until Makino breezes through the door with a plastic container of clear ozoni, a covered plate of sashimi, and kisses on the cheek for everyone. Sasaki smiles at her indulgently, permitting herself to be drawn away from her computer. The four of them play karuta, chatting about the origins of the poems, until Numata pushes the door open with one hand.
He’s wearing a post office cap above his sunglasses, carrying a stack of postcards under one arm, and stares at them when they all turn to look up at him.
“Got roped in by a recruiter, huh?” Makino asks, unimpressed.
“They’re extra desperate for student help this year,” Numata replies, surprise giving way to a smug grin. “Check it out; we got cards.” He hands them to Kuro, who flicks through them then passes them around.
“Those ones from the post office gal and the botanist chick we got yesterday; I was hanging onto them,” Numata points out as Sasaki looks over the pair of expertly professional cards from Yukiko Moriguchi and Yayoi Kusakabe.
“Like, I guess you can trust government workers to get their postcards in the mail right on time,” Makino comments, looking over Sasaki’s shoulder. “Wow, how cute!” This comes at the pink-with-strawberries card from Nene and (according to the girl herself) Itayado.
“We got one from that weirdo Reiji Akiba,” Kuro puts in, holding up a plain postcard with a photograph of ferns.
“I think this one’s from our crying Grandma,” Yata says, squinting through his bangs at the unfamiliar kanji scribed across a handwritten notecard.
“And look—from Chihaya!” Numata brandishes a card with a carefully-inscribed wish for good luck in the new year, then pulls it back to his chest to read it out excitedly.
Sasaki listens with half an ear. In amidst the smattering of cards from other clubs and professors, there’s a glossy, elegant black rectangle embossed with a snake in gold foil. It’s from Nire, of course.
Happy New Year to our young friends with the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. Wishing everyone good health.
She smiles leanly to herself. The word used for health means health of the spirit, not of the body. As with every interaction they have with Nire, it’s pointed. But that makes it fun, in its way.
(First calm: sitting surrounded by her firm in the midmorning of January 2nd, listening to their voices intersect and tumble over one another, talking about the last year and not prying about the past beyond that, lackadaisical enough to take the future as it comes. There’s not much money in this business, but the karma pays dividends.)
A knock on the door silences everyone. Yata breaks the interlude, venturing, “…Hello?”
(First visit: of course it’s Sasayama, setting an unsurprising tone for the new year.)
(First load: Unidentified businessman still clutching a packet of children’s money.)
“Get up, get up, come on, who wants to be working during the New Year’s holidays?”
“The faster we get it solved the faster we can all go back to our toso sake, right? Right.”
“Old man, you’ve got toso and you didn’t bring any?!”
“Drinking contributes to youth delinquency, kid; now come on.”
“Hah! On Epsilon IV they say the new year’s party isn’t complete until you’ve slithered into the wrong teleporter at least once.”
“Like, of course we get crows instead of sparrows. Typical.”
She looks up at Kuro and permits herself a faint smile.
(First laugh: nothing yet, nothing in a long time, but maybe this will be the year.)
She closes her laptop, tucks it in her bag, and follows her team out the door.