Wafting incense smoke and the cheerful greeting of the most cheerful of the various cheerful young ladies that worked here assaulted Hajime as he stepped into Forest of Four. He’d grown accustomed to the first — apparently no self-respecting follower of shallow mysticism would set foot in a store that did not reek of incense, and he recognized the need to appease the customer base — and, to be honest, he didn’t mind the smell too much. The second, however, was consistently jarring.
“Good morning, Mr. Saitou!” the clerk chirped. When he nodded at her, she went on, “He’s with another client right now, but you can wait for him over by the hall.” She pointed to the area in question, with which he was familiar enough, and he nodded again.
The chairs against the wall beside the corridor leading to the employees’ area were, to all appearances, designed for people waiting for friends in the fitting room. Hajime didn’t appreciate being mistaken for the companion of someone that would shop a place like this, but had little choice; fortunately, Aoshi usually didn’t keep him waiting too long. Aoshi didn’t care much for people — living people, at least — and even this circumstance of having two appointments on the same morning was unusual.
It would be an even more unusual circumstance if the medium had three appointments on the same morning, but a young man sat crookedly in the chair closest to the hallway very much as if he too was waiting to talk to Aoshi. This was a little irritating; now Hajime would be forced either to sit beside this stranger, one of whose legs was drawn up so that the foot protruded under the armrest onto the next chair over, or take the seat closest to the fitting room. Disliking both options, he decided to remain standing. He did give the young man a dark, somewhat annoyed scrutiny, though.
The guy didn’t really seem to fit here. He didn’t sparkle, for one thing. He didn’t have that empty-headed look Hajime had seen on the faces of so many patrons of this establishment — the look that promised to believe (and consequently purchase) anything at all that said ‘cosmic’ somewhere on it. Actually, the best word for this kid was ‘punk’ — assuming Hajime had his subcultural terms straight, that is; he was fairly sure that was what the absurd hair, excessive jewelry, spikes, and chains signified. In general this strengthened the impression that the young man was here to see Aoshi and not to shop.
The young man had been mirroring the examination, and now asked lazily, “Exorcist?” He gestured casually to the sword in Hajime’s hand.
Hajime nodded, his guess confirmed. Nobody that was just here for an ‘I do believe in faeries!’ bumper sticker would have made the connection between his weapon and his profession.
Removing his foot from the chairs and stretching spiky-black-jean-clad legs out in front of him, the young man said, “You can sit down… I don’t know what’s taking him so long, but he’s gotta be finished soon…”
Tacitly declining the invitation, Hajime glanced down the hall at the closed door of Aoshi’s office. “You’d think with as much as he prefers to be left alone, he wouldn’t schedule appointments so close together.”
The young man laughed. “You’ve met him, huh?”
“And here I thought I knew all his regulars.” The young man, Hajime found when he turned back toward him, was gazing thoughtfully up at him. “I must just have missed you every time. You come here a lot?”
“Sometimes.” Hajime’s tone was slightly skeptical at the prying question. He didn’t really care who or what the guy was, or he would have looked into his head by now, but he couldn’t help feeling a little curious about a punk teenager he’d never seen before that seemed to know Aoshi as well as he did.
“He dig up for work you,” the kid was wondering, “or what?”
Hajime raised a brow. “None of your business.”
The young man scowled faintly, coiling back into a less relaxed position. Hajime was interested to see a slight aura appear around him at this, but it faded along with the scowl as the young man shook his head. Then he reached out. “I’m Sano,” he said.
Wondering why they were doing this, Hajime stared at the extended hand for a moment before shaking it and giving his own name.
“I see red,” Sano explained unnecessarily, stretching his legs out again and putting his hands behind his head. “Aoshi keeps me medicated.” His grin turned somewhat harried. “I especially don’t need to be dealing with this shit this week; I’ve got papers to write and finals.”
Hajime nodded his understanding. Sano, he guessed — actually, it was more of a sense by now than a guess — went to the local college, and angry shades were undoubtedly distracting at the end of a semester.
“You really can sit down.” Sano patted the seat next to him.
“I have no desire to sit on your dirty footprints,” replied Hajime.
“Wow, fine.” There was that aura again, flaring up with Sano’s annoyance. “Jerk.”
Hajime smirked. “You don’t just see red,” he observed.
“No,” Sano replied, a little wearily. “I absorb ’em for people sometimes; good way to make money, which you probably know, but then I have to find a way to get rid of it all.”
With a disdainful laugh Hajime said, “Stupid of you to absorb anything when you knew you had finals coming up.”
As he’d expected, Sano flamed again. “Hey, I’m not just going to–” he began, but his anger faded as he realized Hajime had done it deliberately. Then he seemed torn between mild appreciation and continued anger at being manipulated. Eventually he settled on a low simmer, his angry aura minimal and his face merely resigned.
“Just doing my job,” Hajime murmured complacently.
At that moment, the door at the end of the employees’ hallway opened, and they heard someone saying, “Thank you very much, Mr. Shinomori!” in a tone that was far too bright for Mr. Shinomori to be likely to appreciate. Sano stood and watched the cheerful customer emerge from the hall. Then he turned to Hajime and smiled slightly. “Well, it was good to meet you,” he said with a wave. And for some reason he actually seemed to mean it.
Hajime hesitated, then nodded. He saw no reason not to, since he would probably never run into the guy again.