When they entered Aoshi’s office, the medium was in the act of moving the chairs from before and behind his desk into positions facing the center of the room. His quick, vigorous motions declared what his face, morose as usual, could not: that he was excited and interested by the promise of a ghost. Hajime couldn’t help considering that Aoshi would be extremely, possibly dangerously disappointed if for some reason the ghost turned out to be something less than he expected or if by any chance he wasn’t able to communicate with it; and the fact that he was already so worked up — and, indeed, that the cashier girl had run back so enthusiastically to talk to him — on nothing more than Hajime’s statement showed satisfactorily how much the exorcist’s word was worth around here.
Semi-darkness always hovered in this room, whether to create the atmosphere favored by its gloomy occupant or for legitimate magical purposes Hajime had never known or cared; but there also always seemed to be an unearthly gleam to Aoshi’s eyes even in the shadows. Today it was brighter than usual as he looked up at them. “Whose spirit is it?” he asked — which from him was a fairly typical greeting, since he rarely bothered with polite, meaningless phrases such as ‘Hello’ or ‘Have a seat.’
“We don’t know,” Hajime replied, having a seat. He tilted his head toward the young man entering behind him. “It’s haunting Sano.”
As Aoshi’s eyes shifted to Sano, the latter commented with just a touch of bitterness, “Oh, you want me to tell him?” He’d been annoyed outside about Hajime ignoring him and playing up the ghost to the other customers, but Hajime was fairly sure that he’d also understood, which was why he wasn’t flaring as brightly as he could be right about now. By suggesting Sano explain to Aoshi what was going on, Hajime hoped to reassure the young man a little that he and his predicament weren’t forgotten.
Sano didn’t get the chance to explain, however, nor was he likely to think himself unforgotten. For at that moment the ghost moved into the office after him, partially through the wall, and procured every last bit of Aoshi’s attention.
The pale glow of the shade contrasted enough with the shadowy room actually to illuminate objects that had previously been close to invisible. It was an uncanny light, and all the more eerie to Hajime for the thought that the other two living humans in the room saw it as red, and therefore, undoubtedly, the entire office as tinted by that color (and that many other living humans, had they been present, wouldn’t have been able to see it at all). It made Aoshi’s eyes glow an even brighter blue, but Hajime supposed that, from Sano’s perspective, they must have been purple or even entirely red.
The medium began to circle the ghost like a prowling panther, examining it from all sides meticulously up and down; and whether aware of this scrutiny and deliberately permitting it or for some totally unrelated reason, the ghost was holding still. Finally Aoshi asked in a half whisper, “Who are you?” It seemed intended as a rhetorical question, however, for he didn’t wait for an answer; evidently he could already perceive the difficulty with the shade energy.
“We’ve tried everything we could think of,” Sano put in at this point; it was clear by his expression, where he’d seated himself in the chair next to Hajime’s, that he wasn’t entirely sure whether or not Aoshi would even hear him. He went on anyway. “We haven’t been able to get through to him. There’s just too much shade in the way.”
Aoshi might indeed not have heard him, for all the reaction he gave. He’d gone perfectly still, staring unblinkingly at the ghost now, and looked as if he might remain that way for some time. Hajime caught Sano’s eye and shrugged; Sano, who had been scowling slightly, relaxed a little and actually smiled. Hajime had to smile faintly too when he caught from Sano the projected thought (deliberately this time, he believed), Should’ve seen this coming. Which was certainly true.
What he also should have seen coming was Aoshi, when he finally moved, beginning to go through the motions Hajime and Sano had exhausted the day before yesterday. He doubted it would take Aoshi nearly as long to realize the futility of standard communication or even standard necromantic efforts, but for the moment he sat back in the rather uncomfortable chair and watched only idly. Beside him, Sano had extracted from a spike-edged pocket a cheap pre-paid phone and begun texting someone.
Just to see if he still remembered how to do it, Hajime reached out mentally to read the message as it was sent. Apparently Sano was responding with an apologetic negative to a request that he come into work today, but Hajime wasn’t able to catch the exact wording — which was probably for the best, as he abhorred textspeak.
If Aoshi had bothered to listen to what they had to say about the ghost instead of completely shutting them out and wading in on his own, he could have skipped the steps he was working his way through now; but it wasn’t unlikely that he would have made the attempt anyway, believing that communicator-turned-exorcist Hajime and Sano, whatever Sano might be, weren’t as skilled at contacting the dead as he was, which would be a natural enough assumption.
In any case, while Aoshi tried various methods of talking to the ghost, sometimes with verbal questions but more often in complete silence, Hajime somewhat absently continued to follow Sano’s text conversation. There was a reiteration of the work request and the information that the other maintenance man had called in sick — apparently X, Y, and Z weren’t going to get done, and this was some sort of disaster — followed by a firmer, less apologetic refusal from Sano and his statement that he didn’t want any extra hours this week since he had a lot to do.
When Hajime caught an incoming message in reply wondering whether this week wasn’t Sano’s Spring Break, he was beginning to get a feel for the exact words in addition to the general meaning — but just then Sano glanced abruptly over at him with a suspicious expression, and Hajime withdrew his mental nets. It was interesting that Sano could sense what he was doing when he claimed that seeing and absorbing angry shade energy was the extent of his magical abilities. Hajime turned his full attention back to Aoshi.
It took fifteen or twenty minutes for the medium to determine that what he was trying wasn’t going to work; but, despite this being quite a decent time in comparison to the several hours Hajime and Sano had spent at similar pursuits on Saturday, Sano was by then shifting restlessly in his chair from one bored-looking position to another, and slowly, gradually, growing angrier. Why angrier? Why would Sano be absorbing the shade at this point? He wasn’t doing it on a large enough scale to be of any use to Aoshi, and otherwise it just seemed stupid.
But Hajime didn’t have a chance to ask or otherwise figure it out, for Aoshi at last appeared to have remembered that there were living people in the room besides himself. He’d turned toward where they sat, and, though the engrossed, fascinated gleam hadn’t left his eyes, the latter did seem a little more present now. “You’ve never once been able to communicate with him?” he asked abruptly. It was his usual saturnine tone, but for some reason he spoke Japanese; and this was no ambivalent ‘him,’ but a distinctly masculine pronoun.
“That’s right,” Hajime confirmed in the same language, and reiterated Sano’s earlier statement about the shade energy getting in the way.
Sano had sat up straight and was watching Aoshi with interest now. Aoshi’s face, lit oddly by the single lamp on the desk and the softer, less pleasant glow of the shade, was impassive as he turned away from the other humans again and regarded the ghost once more. He’d been standing right beside it this entire time, and Hajime wondered at his fortitude. That Aoshi was immune to most normal emotions Hajime had long facetiously speculated, so perhaps the shade wasn’t affecting him as it would normal people, but surely he must at least be getting a headache over there…
Now Aoshi was looking for something on one of the shelves full of arcane miscellany that lined the office walls. Hajime definitely sensed an eyes-rolling sort of Finally! from Sano, and had to agree; whatever Aoshi sought would undoubtedly be part of a more pointed and expert attempt at ghostly communication, which was, after all, the reason they’d come.
The next thing Hajime picked up from the young man to his left — was Sano deliberately projecting, or was he really just that bad at guarding his thoughts? — was an image of the three of them lit by flickering candle-flame sitting cross-legged on the floor around an intricate set of chalked lines, holding hands, eyes closed, while Aoshi chanted dramatic nonsense. Hajime snorted, and saw Sano’s cheeks twitch against a repressed grin. Clearly he had intended Hajime to see that, and Hajime was grudgingly impressed: a lot of legitimate communicators couldn’t send ideas that sharply visualized.
The object Aoshi eventually located and withdrew from an unnecessarily ornate wooden box on one of the shelves was small enough to be mostly hidden by his hand and wrist as he turned back toward the ghost. Even when he made a couple of quick motions through the space the ghost occupied — a diagonal slash followed by a quick stab in the same spot — Hajime couldn’t see exactly what it was. However, Hajime and Sano were instantly on their feet in the wake of Aoshi’s movement, and had both taken a step closer with quick indrawn breaths.
As if whatever Aoshi held had cut a fissure right into the shade energy surrounding the ghost and laid the latter bare along that narrow line, Hajime could suddenly see hints of a human neck and collarbone and shoulder, glowing and translucent, in the midst of the shade. He wondered if it was the same grey-white hue to Sano’s eyes; if so, it must be a striking contrast against the red.
Aoshi’s inward thrust put his hand and the item it clutched inside the constricting fissure, which then closed around the medium’s wrist; it seemed clear that he’d made it in; he’d managed to penetrate the shade that had so completely defied Hajime and Sano. The latter two had gone still after leaving their chairs, and only stared as Aoshi’s eyes fluttered closed and his entire body drew up with a deep breath and stiffened into total motionlessness.
Long, tense seconds dragged into one minute, then continued on toward two. Sano was shifting impatiently again, even more agitated now than before, and Hajime was attempting to discern what it was that Aoshi held. The shade glow and the darkness of the room combined to make this nearly impossible, but it seemed to be about the size of a pen.
To anyone not necrovisual this would have looked absurd: Aoshi standing there with one hand raised, appearing to be straining somewhat to keep what he held in place in the air; Hajime and Sano also standing, staring at him wordlessly; the atmosphere rigid, expectant. Hajime thought Aoshi’s face was paling somewhat with effort, thought he saw the medium’s frame tremble slightly, and therefore thought he was prepared for what would happen next.
When the break came, when Aoshi shuddered and abruptly jerked his hand back — indeed, jerked his entire body back all at once as if tearing away from some painful adhesion, drawing in another deep, unsteady breath — Hajime stepped quickly forward to support him. And what Hajime hadn’t been prepared for was Aoshi to collapse backward into his arms, eyes rolling up under closing lids, a completely dead weight.