The next thing Hajime said to Sano, a few miles later, was, “You can’t park there.”
“Wha-” Sano looked around and observed the fire hydrant he hadn’t noticed before. “Oh. Well, how long do you think this is going to take?”
“At least long enough for your friend to catch us up,” Hajime replied dryly. “And beyond that, I don’t know.”
“Hmm.” Sano started to consider whether he could get away with leaving his car in a no-parking zone for an afternoon in an area like this, but eventually his decision was made based on the expression on Hajime’s face. This was the third time now that he’d had to start his car today at Hajime’s bidding.
It was a nice old neighborhood, the kind filled with an eclectic blend of housing styles in an equally extensive range of sizes. Hajime’s home didn’t look extravagantly big, and had a very boring, plain front yard, but the property values around here were probably pretty high, so Sano thought the odds were still on Hajime having some kind of income other than what he made chasing shades.
Given that the legal spot he’d found to park in was halfway down to the next street, Sano was grumbling by the time he got back to the small driveway entirely occupied by Hajime’s car. The older man gave a condescending smile and gestured for Sano to follow him across a patio to the side door he’d evidently already unlocked.
Hajime was barely five feet into the house, and Sano, who was just closing the door behind them, had barely had a chance to start looking around at the kitchen into which they’d walked, before a cat, jumping off the counter nearest the door, wrapped itself around Hajime’s legs with a long, screeching meow. Hajime nudged the animal out of the way so he could step further into the room to allow Sano to do the same; then he bent and picked the cat up by the scruff of its neck. It didn’t seem to mind; in fact, it immediately climbed onto his arm and ran up to his shoulder, where it began nuzzling his head.
“I’ve told you to stay off the kitchen counters,” Hajime said to it.
The cat gave another high-pitched meow.
“That doesn’t excuse you,” Hajime replied.
A second cat appeared in a doorway that apparently led out of the kitchen into a hall. This one did not seem nearly as excited as the other, younger cat, and after a brief meowed greeting sat aloofly looking on. It was mottled brown and grey and black, whereas the smaller one on Hajime’s shoulder was black with white paws.
“I’m sure you did,” said Hajime.
Sano could do nothing but stare. Cats? Really? And one of them of a decidedly kittenish nature? These were the familiars of this harsh, suit-clad, sword-wielding exorcist?
Hajime looked over at him with a faint smirk. “What were you expecting?”
Sano wasn’t really worried that Hajime had been intentionally prying into his head at that moment; his astonishment and skepticism had undoubtedly been plain on his face. He did, however, try his best to suppress the mental image of a sleek rattlesnake with hypnotic yellow eyes that sprang up in response to Hajime’s question. It didn’t do much good, though, if Hajime’s faint snort was any indication.
Just then, the little cat launched itself unexpectedly from Hajime’s shoulder across four feet of empty space onto Sano. It didn’t fly quite far enough, and scrabbling claws dug into Sano’s shoulder as the animal tried to get onto it. With a noise of surprise and pain, he raised his hands to help the cat up and try to keep it from ruining his t-shirt. Once it had its balance, it bumped its little head into his ear and meowed at him.
“He’s bringing a shade here,” Hajime answered the cat’s question. “I think it may be a ghost, and I want you two to take a look at it.”
The little cat’s whiskers were tickling Sano’s ear, and he couldn’t tilt his head far enough away to make it stop. He noticed out of the corner of his eye that the other cat had come into the room and was now sitting at his feet, looking up at him. “Hey, stop!” He couldn’t keep the laughter entirely out of his tone as the little one continued pushing at him.
Smirking again, Hajime let this go on for a while before stepping forward to the rescue. Lifting the little cat off of Sano with one hand, he said, “This is Misao.” He replaced her on his own shoulder. “And that’s Tokio,” he added, pointing to the other. She gave a dignified meow.
“Hi, cats,” Sano said with a wave.
Misao was still looking at Sano curiously, and now said something in shrill cat-talk.
“Probably not,” Hajime replied. “The shade follows him around, so it will catch up with us soon.”
Bending to pet the older cat, Tokio, Sano continued to listen in bemusement to the conversation he could only understand half of. Misao said something excited, to which Tokio replied disdainfully, and then Hajime said, “Tokio, your self-righteousness isn’t fooling anyone. Misao, you had some this morning.”
Crawling down Hajime’s arm and then dropping to the floor, complaining the entire way, Misao proceeded to jump on Tokio and start wrestling with her rather ineffectually (given that Tokio was at least twice her size).
Sano stood straight with a laugh, withdrawing his hand from what had become a swift-moving bundle of batting paws and gently biting mouths. He had no idea what to say.
Hajime gave him a look that said he didn’t need to say anything, which gave Sano something to say: “Stay out of my head!”
“I’m not in your head,” Hajime replied mildly. “You’re just projecting. Haven’t you had any training?”
The anger abruptly flaring off Sano in response to this clearly stopped the cats’ mock battle (which had ranged to the other end of the kitchen) and caught their interest, for they came over to him again — one eagerly, the other sedately. Misao stopped just in front of Sano’s left boot, and, after a couple of heaving, wiggling motions, leaped straight up to dig her claws into his knee and scrabble upward. Sano made a noise of pain at the same moment the kitten let out a similar protest when her stomach evidently came into contact with the spikes at his knees.
“Explain your pants to Misao,” Hajime commanded, turning away toward the refrigerator.
“My… what?” Sano was helping Misao up onto his shoulder again, though precedent indicated she probably wouldn’t remain there long. Recovering, however, he directed his next words at the little cat. “Yeah, my pants have spikes on them. Probably not the best thing to climb. Can you understand me? I’m not a communicator…”
She gave a chirping mew that was pretty clearly an affirmative, while at about the same moment Tokio from the floor had something to say as well.
“Now explain to Tokio what you do,” was Hajime’s next instruction. He emerged from the fridge with a couple of cans of beer, one of which he non-verbally offered to Sano.
Accepting the Asahi Dry with surprised gratitude, Sano crouched down to pet Tokio again, setting the can on the floor and opening it absently with his free hand. “I see red,” he told the cat. For all he knew that cats made some of the best familiars available, it still seemed strange to be talking to someone whose eyes were slitted and head tilted as he scratched her jaw. “I absorb angry shades, and then I always have extra anger left over. Would you stop?” This last was aimed at Misao, who was bumping again, tickling him with her little whiskers once more as she meowed something right into his ear.
“She wants to know why your pants have spikes,” Hajime supplied from where he was leaning against a counter, drinking his beer and watching in amusement.
“Why are my pants important?” Sano wondered, talking half to the cat and half to its human familiar.
“It’s important to her,” Hajime shrugged.
Tokio said something at this point that seemed to irritate Misao again, for once more the kitten flung herself off the shoulder she’d made her seat and attacked the older cat. Sano took up his beer, stood straight, and watched Tokio bat Misao around the kitchen. It might not have been what he’d expected, but this was really funny. With familiars like this, you’d probably never get lonely. Of course, their effectiveness at recognizing ghosts had yet to be seen.
“Tokio’s been with me for four years now,” Hajime said, whether in response to Sano’s unspoken thoughts, or just because he felt it was the right moment to explain this, Sano couldn’t guess. “Her senses are well developed. She’s never encountered a ghost before, as far as I know, but I have no doubt she’ll be able to tell the difference.”
Hajime smirked. “She’s learning.”
Misao clearly realized that she’d just been undervalued, for she flung herself at Hajime’s ankle, little claws blazing. Sano laughed as Hajime bent to pick her up again and the cat twisted and clawed her way around his hand onto his arm and up to his shoulder. Hajime’s suit was nice-looking at a glance, as had been the one he’d worn when they’d first met in December, but now Sano bet that a closer inspection would prove them, and probably any other piece of clothing in his wardrobe, full of little claw-pricks and pulled threads.
Misao began batting at Hajime’s ear, which action he placidly ignored. “Let’s go sit down,” he suggested, turning.
He led Sano into a small front room somewhat sparsely furnished in a mixture of American and Japanese styles. Sano had already guessed that the man had either moved here from Japan or at least come from a more strongly Japanese background in America than Sano had, but thought this was not the moment to ask. They sat on the sofa — leather; must have been expensive — and set their drinks on coasters on a chabudai used here as a coffee table. The cats accompanied them, Misao having at some point, unseen by Sano, abandoned Hajime’s shoulder again, and now the little one leaped onto the table, skidded right across its smooth surface, and fell off the other side.
Sano was beside himself with laughter at this sight, Tokio was making some disdainful remark from where she sat primly by Hajime’s leg, Hajime was reminding Misao that she wasn’t allowed on the coffee table either, and Misao herself couldn’t seem able to decide whom to assault first. She leaped at Tokio, who neatly dodged her and jumped up onto the sofa; she dove for Sano’s feet, but was thwarted by his boots; and finally she went for Hajime’s ankles again, since above the tops of his shiny businessman shoes he was unprotected except by cloth. And at about this point Sano’s laughter faded and he started to lose track of the situation when he felt the shade — ghost? — once again drawing near.
The cats sensed it not long after he did. Tokio jumped down from where she’d apparently been waffling over whether or not to sit on Hajime’s lap, and Misao abandoned Hajime’s legs with a perky swiveling of head and pricking of ears. They watched the opposite wall with the taut attention they might have given the sound of a skittering mouse, and Sano half expected them to leap forward to the attack the moment the shade appeared. He only wished it were something as innocuous as a mouse…