“I promise you don’t need to.”
They’d relocated to a Denny’s, on Hajime’s dime, when it became obvious that, once again, they were in for a wait on a phone call (which in this case might never come) — and that Sano was extremely hungry but not about to suggest anything more expensive than going back to his apartment and making some ramen noodles. Hajime, trying to pick Sano’s brain on the details of the message or messages he’d left, had only been able to determine that Sano was a little embarrassed and blocking more determinedly than usual. So conversational tactics were in order.
“I don’t know if I trust your promise any more than I trust your ability to leave rational messages about ghosts.”
“You’re the one who said I should do it because I have a connection with him or whatever. Plus I’m the one who’s gotta be haunted by him for god-knows-how-long if we can’t find some way to get rid of him!”
“Did you tell her that?”
A little awkwardly Sano replied, “I told her everything I needed to.”
“I still think I should leave her a follow-up message.”
Unexpectedly Sano went on the offensive. “And what would you say? ‘Hello, Mrs. Himura, this is Hajime…’ what’s your last name, again?”
Amused, Hajime supplied it.
“‘This is Hajime Saitou, and I’m attempting to exorcise your husband’s ghost. I’ve tried a variety of techniques rooted in various cultures, including traditional Shinto rituals, but since nothing seems to be working I thought I’d look you up and ask what his favorite band was so I could play the proper music during my next attempt. And did he like beer? How did he feel about cats?'”
Sano’s voice, for the first few syllables a decent attempt at imitating Hajime’s, had become more and more stilted as this absurdity went on, until finally Hajime actually laughed aloud. “Don’t be an idiot,” he said, but he also stopped trying to get Sano to tell him what he’d said on the phone.
When their slow and somewhat clumsy waitress, her blaring thoughts on stressful home responsibilities barely even partaking of the here and now, finally brought them their order, Sano started in on the strawberry-decked blueberry pancakes on his plate with an immediacy and gusto that would have made up for the price Hajime would be paying for them even if he’d begrudged it in the first place. Hajime had seen him eat pizza in much the same manner the other day, and at the time had speculated that Sano didn’t get enough to eat on a regular basis. Now, after longer exposure, he rather thought that Sano just loved food that much. The young man certainly didn’t have anything to say for several minutes while he made massive inroads on his breakfast-themed early dinner.
Finally, though, Sano did manage to slow down, and to tear his eyes from the plate long enough to remember that there was someone sitting across from him. His anger was, for the present, at the level Hajime had come to consider standard for his current haunted state, and the food had otherwise put him in a good mood. So his easy tone was no surprise as he remarked, “So, ‘Hajime Saitou,’ huh? Doesn’t sound too bad. ‘Saitou Hajime’ sounds better, though. Got a nice ring to it.”
He paused, frowning slightly, and Hajime, though without any skill whatsoever in divination, could very clearly see what was coming. “Actually, now I think about it,” Sano said slowly, just as expected, a piece of sausage pausing halfway to his mouth as he pondered aloud, “it sounds… familiar. Saitou Hajime… where have I heard that name before..?”
Hajime sighed slightly, but then grinned as the best possible response occurred to him: “Let me know if you remember.”
Sano flared. It was like having a mobile campfire Hajime could toss fuel onto at any time. “What, you’re not going to tell me? So you admit you might be famous or something, but you won’t remind me where I might have heard your name?”
“That’s right. It’s that old saying, ‘If you have to ask, you don’t deserve to know.'”
“I’ve never heard that saying,” Sano protested.
“Then it’s even more applicable.”
Sano fell to speculating. “You must be named after some actor your mom thought was hot. Probably from one of those horrible Japanese dramas I never… oh, but if your parents named you after… it would have been in…” He gave Hajime an assessing look. “The seventies or something. What was on in Japan back then…”
With a dry chuckle, Hajime shook his head. “I doubt my parents have ever watched any of those horrible Japanese dramas.”
“Oh, yeah, they sent you here for college, didn’t they? So maybe they were watching horrible American shows. In the seventies — and I’m just guessing, here,” he added proddingly, “since I’m not that old — wouldn’t it have been… Saved By the Bell? But they wouldn’t have gotten a name like ‘Hajime’ out of that…”
“Wrong decade. And sitcoms wouldn’t really have appealed to my parents either.”
Sano caught at the sardonic tone of Hajime’s statement and, completely abandoning the name issue, wondered, “Oh, really? What do they watch instead?”
“If they watch anything, it’s not for entertainment. Stock market analysis is more their speed.”
“Oh, you’ve got one of those stereotypical Japanese business families!”
“Says the son of miserly immigrants.”
“Only my mom’s an immigrant,” Sano protested angrily, “and only my dad’s a miser.” Based on what Sano had told him yesterday, Hajime didn’t think the second point was entirely true, but it didn’t matter; he’d wanted to bait Sano more than compare stereotypes.
As Sano calmed a little after his flare-up, Hajime admitted, “But you’re right. My parents are both top executives in the company my paternal grandfather owns, and we were all expected to join in as soon as we were old enough.”
“‘We?’ So you’ve got siblings?”
Hajime nodded. “An older brother and sister.”
“And did they both go into the family business like good little offsprings?”
Again Hajime nodded. And again he was feeling just a little nonplussed. Glad though he was to have avoided the ‘Saitou Hajime — where have I heard that before?’ conversation, which he’d had enough of by the time he’d turned twelve, he still thought Sano was more than justifiably interested in his past and his family.
“So if they were already doing the thing,” Sano mused, “there probably wasn’t as much pressure on you to do it too?”
“You might think so…” At the memories, Hajime smiled distantly and wryly. “But two out of three wasn’t enough for my parents.”
“Well, yeah, that’d be a failing grade on an assignment…”
“And my parents are ruthless; it comes from the type of work they do: petty hostile takeovers and driving rivals out of business… I wasn’t the only one in the family who didn’t like it.”
“Funny…” Sano set down his glass after a sip of soda, and looked at Hajime with a thoughtful grin. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d be the type to not like ruthlessness.”
“Oh, no.” The smile Hajime returned Sano, he’d been informed in the past, made him appear rather evil. “I have no personal objections to ruthless tactics in a good cause.” He rolled his eyes slightly and tried not to sigh. “But this is telecommunications. Whatever my parents may think, this is not a beleaguered band of heroes fighting oppression and tyranny. They make cell phones. There are appropriate times and places for ruthlessness, and this isn’t one of them.”
And there he’d gone and impressed Sano again. It was almost embarrassing.
“So what’d they do, send the yakuza after you or something?” Sano was only half joking, his eyes wide with interest and admiration.
“I wouldn’t put it past them.” Hajime too was only half joking. “Though that’s more my brother’s style than my parents’. But, as I’ve mentioned, it was my mother’s father who helped me out. He never approved of the way my parents did business, and he could see that I was on his side… the money he left me could almost be considered a bribe; he was paying me to get away.”
“This is why your parents didn’t watch horrible Japanese dramas: your whole family was a horrible Japanese drama.” Sano’s attempt at scraping the last of the syrup and grease off his plate wasn’t working very well, mostly because he was using a fork, and this in addition to his conjuration of the ghost out of the path of staff and patrons in the increasingly busy restaurant was evidently building his anger up again.
Once more Hajime chuckled wryly, and they fell silent as Sano finished his Dr. Pepper and Hajime bent his attention to the remainder of his own dinner.
Finally, “Do you really think she’s going to call back at all?” Sano asked, and the quietness of his tone did little to hide his shifting mood.
“That depends on what you said to her.” Calculatedly Hajime added, “If it was as stupid as I’m inclined to believe, probably not.”
They threw that topic back and forth for a while to work off some of Sano’s anger. He sometimes had surprisingly clever retorts, which combined with the constant and almost measurably predictable ire to make him an unexpectedly enjoyable conversational companion (when he wasn’t gaping over some perceived trait or accomplishment of Hajime’s as if he’d never met another human being before). But eventually, unfortunately, they had to talk business again: they were both finished eating, and it would be best to let Sano take the ghost somewhere less full of innocent bystanders.
“Whatever nonsense you left Mrs. Himura on her voicemail, it will probably take her a while to decide to call you back, if she doesn’t just decide you’re insane and try to ignore you. We need to give her some time, so I suggest we both go home for now.”
Of course Sano had to argue this too, as they left their table and moved to pay for the meal and exit the restaurant; and since he didn’t bother to lower his voice, his frank mention of the ghost haunting him won them some looks on the way out both skeptical and interested.
Despite the United States government taking a dim view of the idea of widespread knowledge on the topic, talking about magic in public generally wasn’t considered dangerous or inappropriate, since anyone unaware that magic actually existed simply didn’t believe the discussion was serious… but such conversations did sometimes have interesting, even entertaining results. Once, after the conclusion of some business arrangements on the phone, Hajime had been approached by an unfortunate homeless gentleman that had overheard him discussing exorcisms and wanted to tell about all the dead celebrities that wouldn’t leave him alone. Hajime’s diagnosis had been ‘crazy and malnourished’ rather than ‘haunted.’
Sano, who was the opposite, continued to grumble as they headed back to Hajime’s house, and rather on a whim Hajime decided to relate the aforementioned experience. It proved a good thought, since the ensuing conversation distracted Sano all the way to their destination; he didn’t even have time to complain again about the condition of his car. He did recover some of his annoyance when instructed to contact Hajime the moment Kaoru Himura called him (if she, in fact, did so), but still the two men parted in relative peace. And Hajime went inside thinking the day not entirely wasted.