Somehow Hajime had been adapting to Sano’s shields even as Sano had been learning to erect them. They’d been growing together, specifically alongside each other.
Sano can usually deal with angry shades, but the one that’s currently haunting him is a little different. And though he and the exorcist he’s been referred to manage to solve the problem by the end of Spring Break, it’s a week that may lead to difficult choices.
Technically, cell phones weren’t allowed out at Imperial Panda II for those that were on the clock. But aside from the fact that the manager currently on duty was more than a little attached to her Blackberry and inclined to be lenient, the maintenance guy pretty much went his own way all day and didn’t have a lot of critical eyes looking over his shoulder. And there was no way in hell Sano was going to be away from his phone in case that woman called him back.
She didn’t. As Sano unloaded the delivery truck and kept the ghost away from people, shelved the load and kept the ghost away from people, organized the dry stock area for the second time in the last ten days and kept the ghost away from people, fixed the oven again and kept the ghost away from people, then took his lunch break to eat an uninspiring free meal, keep the ghost away from people, and look forward to the second half of his day, he grew increasingly impatient and concerned. And this was largely in response to the apparent increasing impatience and concern of the ghost.
Yesterday’s approach of Kaoru Himura, Sano thought, had made Kenshin more restless. It was difficult to tell for certain when the ghost seemed so aimless in general, but Sano did feel that dragging his unwanted guest out of people’s paths required more effort and led to a quicker and more intense buildup of anger today than previously. Kenshin never made any move to leave Sano, to go anywhere or do anything other than what he’d been doing all along, but it was pretty clear that he wanted to do something; and Sano was sure it had something to do with his widow.
What had Hajime said they would do if she never called back? ‘Start behaving like cads,’ hadn’t it been? At least Sano had that fairly hilarious memory to cheer him up a bit, even if the referenced caddishness, seeming more and more likely with each passing hour, was little to his taste. He didn’t want to think about the effect it might have on the unfortunate woman if they started more or less stalking her. What a miserable idea.
Of course the alternative was to think about his own situation. How long could he keep working so hard to prevent Kenshin’s angry aura from harming and enraging people around him before he decided he just didn’t give a shit and let the ghost do whatever it wanted to anyone that came near him? Or, worse, got so angry himself that he actually started deliberately conjuring Kenshin in the direction of others?
The last couple of weeks had been difficult and frustrating, especially at school where there were a number of innocent bystanders in a small space for hours at a time; and studying and homework had been practically impossible… and that had all been before their visit to Kaoru’s apartment had kicked things to a higher level. If they didn’t manage to get this solved before Spring Break ended… if Kenshin was going to keep acting like this… Sano might as well just drop all his classes, quit his job, and move out onto a secluded island right now.
When Imp Panda finally turned him loose that afternoon, he managed to make it all the way home before his frustration got the better of him and directed his fingers to dial Hajime’s number. This waiting had been the exorcist’s idea, after all; the least he could do was suffer alongside Sano.
“I actually expected to hear from you much earlier,” was Hajime’s greeting.
“I was working,” Sano replied angrily. “I kept my phone on through my whole shift — nine hours! — and she never called.”
“We already acknowledged that possibility,” Hajime reminded him. “She may never call.”
Remembering what would happen in that case, Sano demanded, “Isn’t there some way we can do this without bugging her? I mean, you’re a communicator; why can’t you just read her mind?”
“Getting past someone’s shields and reading their mind when they don’t want you to is difficult and takes a lot of practice.”
“Practice you haven’t had,” Sano finished bitterly, “because you’ve been playing with shades instead.”
Hajime said nothing, as if he just wasn’t going to bother with an answer to that.
The noise Sano made, half whine and half growl, sounded so much like a dog that even he was taken aback… and maybe a little amused, which helped. “I don’t want to,” he said next, “but… do you think I should call her again? Or maybe we should go back to her place and see if she’ll talk to us there this time?”
“No and no. If we’re too persistent, she’ll call the police. There’s only so much Chou can smooth over for me.”
“What good are you, then?” A second silence came from the other end, and the vacuum of that silence eventually dragged out of Sano a grumbled, “I mean… what the hell am I supposed to…” And again he made an angry sound, even more frustrated now because he was too annoyed to offer the apology of some sort he felt he probably should have for his unfair implication. Without Hajime, after all, his chances of finding out the identity of the ghost and locating the widow would have been practically nonexistent.
Now Hajime spoke, and, instead of calling Sano on his rudeness or even continuing on the topic they were more or less discussing, he said, “You grew up around here, didn’t you?” And while Sano in surprise was working to change gears Hajime added, “For a given value of ‘grew up.'”
“Sortof,” Sano replied, wondering why Hajime wanted to know and bristling at the casual insult. “We moved here when I was just about to turn fourteen.”
“Paso Robles, down south.”
“And were you born there?”
“Nah, we moved there when I was two or three; I was born in Carson City.”
“Did you like Paso Robles?”
Sano thought he saw now what was going on: this was distraction, pure and simple. Well, fine; he could handle that. “It was OK. Not a big Japanese population, so I got most of my heritagey culture from anime.” At Hajime’s derisive laugh, Sano continued determinedly in a tone that sounded incongruously angry. “The best part was right when we moved out, actually; this earthquake hit pretty much the same day we were loading up the moving van.”
“And that was a good thing?”
“Well, not for the people that died, obviously, but it was pretty damn cool anyway. It was a 6.5, and it made this fucking enormous sinkhole open up in the library parking lot. I just checked online, like, a week ago, and they still haven’t fixed that thing, seven years later.”
“You’re so attached to the town that you’re still checking on it?” Maybe because of the level of investment Sano had displayed in the subject, Hajime too actually sounded interested.
“Not the town, just the sinkhole. Sinkholes are awesome.”
“Yeah. And earthquakes. I mean, they’re bad for people, but they’re still… cool. This one hot spring under the town used to be totally dead, but the quake brought it back to life. You know what kind of seismic activity that takes?”
“A 6.5, presumably.”
“Well, yeah, but, I mean, there’s a specific combination of circumstances to get a hot spring going again to the surface and have it stay that way; it’s not something that happens every day.”
Now a third silence emanated from Hajime’s end of the phone, though Sano thought he caught the distant sound of one of the cats — Misao, probably — asking a question. And this silence didn’t seem designed to abash Sano or make him rethink his words; rather, it sounded pensive. Finally Hajime asked, “And why aren’t you studying geology?”
“Oh. Well. Not as much money there as where my dad wants me.”
“Do you have reliable statistics on that?”
“Not off the top of my head!”
“Maybe you should look it up.”
“Yeah, sure, maybe I should… if this goddamn ghost will let me do anything without wanting to put my fist through the monitor.”
Hajime laughed, which was annoying. “It’s at least something to think about while you wait for Mrs. Himura to call.”
“I am so fucking tired of waiting for phone calls.”
“Better not get into big business, then.”
With another annoyed noise — Sano had always been good at those, but lately he’d been taking the art to new levels — he said in frustration, “I’ll call you again later,” and abruptly hung up.
He found, however, that his mood was more mixed than before: just as angry, certainly, but now with an added restlessness born of interested thoughts. As he’d talked to Hajime he’d been pacing the linoleum of his tiny kitchen with a heavy step; when at some point in the process the ghost had joined him, he’d taken — as he not infrequently did at home — to turning gradual circles as he moved back and forth so as to keep his back to the thing at all times. The anger seemed to grow more slowly when he wasn’t looking at it. Now, however, he’d stopped moving and turned to face the computer on his cinder-block-and-particle-board desk across the room.
The truth was, he hadn’t given geology any conscious thought, but in the back of his head he’d always just sort of figured it was one of those science things that taught you a lot of interesting stuff but didn’t provide a lot of career opportunities unless you happened to live in Antarctica. But it would be kinda cool. OK, more than kinda; he was excited and cheered just thinking about it.
Well, if he was careful and got up and away from the computer the moment he felt the rage building too far, it was worth checking, wasn’t it? He’d been assuming all along geology wasn’t a viable option, so it wasn’t as if he could find out anything worse than what he’d already thought. And what else did he have to do right now? Get pissed… play video games and eventually throw the controller in the toilet… maybe call Hajime back and try to abuse him… Except that Hajime had made this pleasant suggestion, so that didn’t quite seem fair. Of course it had simply been in an effort to keep Sano distracted and occupied until either the woman called back or the exorcist decided they’d waited long enough… but Sano couldn’t help feeling grateful, which was an intriguing contrast to his still-present anger.
At the very least, as the man had said, this was something to think about.
One of the impressions Hajime had already gotten about Sano without actually having it confirmed for certain was that he didn’t rise early by choice. Therefore, when the exorcist’s phone rang at around eight o’clock on Thursday morning and displayed Sano’s number, Hajime could only consider it a good sign. And when Sano’s greeting was a somewhat breathless, “She left me a message,” it was as if he’d had a divination confirmed.
“She called at, like, three in the morning,” Sano went on. “It woke me up, but I didn’t get to the phone in time, but it’s fine ’cause she left a message.” He sounded almost giddy, and once again Hajime had to sympathize a little; given the current situation, it was no wonder this progress in their attempt at getting rid of the ghost pleased the young man so much.
“What did she say?”
“She wants us to meet her at Isei Park at noon. That’s not too far from my apartment — actually I used to hang out there all the time when I was a kid; do you know where it is?”
“I’m sure I can find it.” Hajime was grinning somewhat, almost in spite of himself, at Sano’s tone: it was so unusually happy, but without having lost any of its customary underlying anger, which made for an odd sound.
“Well, I’m going to head over there right away.”
“Four hours early?”
“I straight-up called in sick to work, so I’ve got the whole day. I’ll take my books and see if I can get some studying done, and probably grab some breakfast on the way over at that place next to…” Suddenly seeming to decide that Hajime probably didn’t really care what his exact plans were — which assumption, though logical, was not entirely true — Sano finished abruptly, “So anyway, I’ll see you there around noon, right?”
The answer Hajime had planned on giving was overridden by Misao making her insistent way around his neck to the hand that held the phone and yowling into it as best she could while trying, at a bad angle, to keep her balance.
“Hi, Misao,” Sano was chuckling from the other end even as Hajime lifted her off his shoulder and set her on the floor.
“She has nothing real to say,” Hajime translated. “She just likes phones.”
Sano was still laughing. “Yeah, I got that.”
“Did you?” Without allowing Sano to reiterate the fact that he had, Hajime continued, “Anyway, I’ll meet you at the park later.”
“Right. See you then.”
Hajime set the phone on the floor for Misao to yell into until she realized there was no one on the other end, and stood a few moments in silent thought. Although the upcoming meeting with Kaoru Himura might be significant and productive, there was no guarantee that it would be. He didn’t for an instant believe that the ghost’s anger would just suddenly dispel and the ghost himself fly off to the afterlife the moment they encountered his wife; Kenshin undoubtedly had something he wanted to say — probably a maudlin goodbye that wasn’t worth nearly the amount of trouble he’d been giving Sano — and of course he couldn’t communicate with her while all channels were blocked by the shade. So today’s talk with his widow was little more than an exploration of another possible avenue to getting rid of that shade, and might prove disappointing for nearly everyone involved.
Well aware of this, Hajime felt it would be wise to talk to Sano about it before Mrs. Himura showed up — to give him a cautionary reminder that this was just one step in a longer process and he shouldn’t expect too much. Sano, it seemed, was good at emotions in general; of course his constant anger had amused Hajime all along, and just now his happiness and excitement over the phone had been almost infectious… but, interesting as it might be, the exorcist didn’t really feel any desire to see Sano in a state of despair.
Actually, Hajime had the most unaccountable inclination to go to Isei Park right now to annoy Sano for the next few hours. It had nothing to do with the ghost; he just wanted, essentially, to poke Sano and see what he did. He’d never had such an entertaining client before. Of course, he’d never had a client with a disembodied soul floating around him; Sano couldn’t help being unusual.
Well, there wasn’t really anything keeping him from it. He had no other cases on — he’d lined up a meeting for next Monday with what sounded like a blue shade victim (though it might turn out to be perfectly natural clinical depression; those situations often did), but at the moment it was all Sano — and he’d cleaned his entire house yesterday. He’d even already had breakfast. And there was surprisingly little noise from his conscience in response to this desire deliberately to bother another human being for no better reason than his own pleasure.
As it happened, he didn’t set out right away. He spent a good twenty minutes wearing Misao out with the laser pointer while Tokio watched with a put-on disdain that couldn’t hide her desire to join in, then about the same amount of time answering an email and paying a couple of bills. But it was barely nine o’clock when he did leave the house, and not even nine thirty when he arrived at the park near the center of the Asian district and started looking around for Sano.
Even this early in the day, the convoluted concrete skating area was alive with mobile, shouting kids — it must be Spring Break for more than just Sano. The latter, with his blue-gelled hair, enormous backpack, and glowing undead friend, was easy to spot on a bench nearby. Perhaps this had been where Sano used to hang out; his current look might even partake somewhat of the skater style, but Hajime was unclear on fine subcultural distinctions and couldn’t be sure.
To test the young man’s mood, Hajime greeted him with, “Trying to reconnect with your fellow childish idiots?”
“Wow, that was harsh even for–” Sano was attempting simultaneously to turn toward Hajime (who’d approached him from behind), look at his cell phone to see the time, check that the ghost wasn’t making any trouble, and give an angry gesture — all without dislodging the messy arrangement of textbooks and notebooks across his lap and the bench beside him. And in keeping with this, he was attempting to say several things at once. “What time– why are you already– are you trying to say skaters are– I’m not even–” And at last, inevitably, he dumped his things all over the ground, and, swearing, jumped up to recover them.
Hajime leaned against the bench and looked down. He might have considered lending a hand, since the spill had to a certain extent been his fault, but it was more amusing just to watch. He got the feeling Sano hadn’t really been terribly deep in study in any case. Anger, perhaps — the usual anger — had been keeping him from it, but there was also, Hajime thought, a certain measure of that same excitement and happiness he’d heard over the phone evident in Sano’s somewhat jerky movements gathering up his stuff from the grass. Yes, they would definitely need to have a talk about today’s prospects; Sano’s optimism was a pleasant thing, but he needed to be prepared for its inevitable dispelling.
It turned out, however, that Hajime was in for a bit of a surprise. For by the time Sano had gotten himself resettled on the bench and was stowing his school things away in his backpack in a clear indication that he didn’t plan on attempting to make any further use of them right now, he was already well into a dissertation that revealed the cause of his current mood to have far less to do with Mrs. Himura than Hajime had assumed.
“So after you bugged me about it yesterday,” he was saying, “I went online and looked up stuff about geologists and the kinds of jobs available for them and shit… and you were totally right…” Admitting to this didn’t seem to be the slightest problem, so pleased was Sano. “I really needed to look before I decided about that!”
“Of course you did, you idiot.” Hajime was a little surprised at the friendliness of his own tone, but having thus started, he decided he might as well continue; so, with no real concept, himself, of the career options of an aspiring geologist, he went on in some legitimate interest, “Good news?”
Sano twisted to face him, pulling one leg up entirely onto the bench and placing both arms on its back as he gave Hajime a grin that was almost childlike in its enthusiasm. “So you know oil, that thing everyone’s fighting over all the time? Guess who those companies hire.”
“And that fact never occurred to you before?” Of course, it hadn’t occurred to Hajime either, but he wasn’t the one with an apparently long-standing fascination with weird underground activity.
Sano’s brows twitched a little at the sarcasm, but he wasn’t sidetracked. “I’m not really all that interested in finding oil, because that sounds boring and stupid; I’d rather be taking readings inside live volcanoes or something… but there are jobs like that too, and the point is, I can tell my dad about the oil thing, and he’ll totally go for it.”
“So you’ve decided on this?” For the brevity of this statement, the skepticism of its delivery compensated by adding a heavy, unspoken, “Already?”
This time Sano did emit some anger in his response. “I make fast decisions, OK? Nothing wrong with that.”
“Somehow I’m not surprised,” murmured Hajime. And he really wasn’t. He really wasn’t terribly condemnatory, either; to his understanding, most people changed their majors several times before any permanent fixation, so the distance of the conclusion to which Sano had jumped wasn’t likely to make much difference in the long run.
“Besides, I’ve kinda wanted to do this for years.” While still defensive, Sano’s tone was creeping back toward the excitement of only moments before, which seemed to be the resilient sort. “It wasn’t just the stuff in Paso… you can’t live by the San Andreas most of your life without getting interested in earthquakes!”
“I think most normal people can,” Hajime said easily.
Sano made one of those frustrated noises he was so good at, but even this held a note of interest and enthusiasm. “Well, normal people are stupid,” he stated defiantly.
Hajime had to agree.
“Seriously, though, online yesterday, I found all sorts of interesting shit about volcanologists and stratigraphists and people who specialize in just one specific geological era, and…”
And as Hajime settled in to listen to Sano’s ongoing raving, he reflected in mild surprise that, though this wasn’t exactly what he’d planned on doing, he didn’t at all regret his decision to come to Isei Park two and a half hours early.
To what extent he’d been going on and on about everything he’d found on the internet yesterday, and, perhaps even more intriguingly, to what extent Hajime had been indulging him in that, Sano didn’t realize until the ghost gave a sudden stiffening or intensifying and seemed to shift its orbit somewhat in the direction of the parking lot and the playground. The usual heat-wave overtook him at this increased ghostly activity, all the greater because his internal anger had, to a certain extent, been pushed aside for the last couple of hours. Of course Hajime had been making rude interjections all along in order to draw it out, but Sano’s excited happiness had been dampening that outlet.
Now he experienced a second instance of the futility of trying to look around behind him and check both the time and the ghost all at once; but Hajime, who had eventually joined him on the bench, announced that it was 11:40 and Kaoru Himura had just gotten out of a car over in the parking lot.
“How do you know that’s her?” Now Sano too was looking over at the woman, who was distant enough that her features couldn’t be made out in detail.
“Don’t be stupid. She’s an Asian woman arriving near noon, looking around nervously, and getting a three-year-old out of her car.”
Since she hadn’t been doing either of the latter activities when Hajime had made his initial pronouncement, and since being Asian didn’t signify anything when nearly everyone here was, Sano said pointedly, “So you mean you guessed.”
“The man with her is her father.” Ignoring the accusation, Hajime continued to gaze thoughtfully across the grass. “At least she had the sense not to come alone, in case we do turn out to be psychopaths.”
“You’re still guessing.” Sano’s heart wasn’t in it this time, though, as his attention had been entirely caught by the little boy the presumed Kaoru Himura was doing something to the shoes of in preparation for turning him loose in the playground. Even from here the bright red of the kid’s hair drew the eye, in stark contrast to the mother’s black. What was it Aoshi had said about Kenshin? ‘Half Japanese, half American?’ It showed in his son. Sano snorted faintly. ‘American;’ what kind of description was that? He never would have inferred red hair from that.
The man Hajime had identified as Kaoru’s father, closing the passenger door of the car they’d come in, was talking to her now with some rapidity, even urgency. Hajime supplied, “He thinks this is a bad idea.”
With a skeptical glance at his companion, Sano wondered, “How can you get that from over here?”
“I can only get a very vague impression,” admitted Hajime, “but that’s more because of all the people around than the distance. But look at his body language.”
He had a point; the man pretty clearly wasn’t happy about the whole situation. Kaoru must have told him the purpose of this trip, and the ‘psychopaths’ scenario suggested a moment ago probably seemed the most likely to him. Apparently, however, having decided to do this, Kaoru was not going to be talked out of it, for she replied with an evident determination despite her body language that suggested she still wasn’t entirely sure about this course of action.
The little son was tugging at his grandfather’s hand, eager to get to the playground; meanwhile, Kaoru was gesturing quite clearly in the direction of Hajime and Sano over by the skate park, and the man was shaking his head. “She knows who we are,” Sano muttered. With the ghost twitching in the direction of its wife, tugging enthusiastically at Sano’s psychic hand, he thought he knew exactly how that grandfather felt.
“Your hair,” said Hajime in a tone of reminder, and got to his feet facing the distant party as if acknowledging a greeting. Presently, thinking vaguely mutinous thoughts (he liked his hair), Sano joined him standing. Eventually the three by the parking lot broke up; Kaoru Himura came in their direction, while her father and son moved off toward the playground.
With every step the woman took toward them, the force of the ghost’s straining against Sano’s hold grew perceptibly stronger, just as it had as they’d approached her apartment the day before yesterday. It felt like restraining a large, increasingly excited and determined dog, assuming it was a dog that couldn’t keep from rendering him more and more irate as minutes went by. He wondered what precisely would happen if he just let go.
As Mrs. Himura drew nearer, Sano tried to distract himself from the growing anger by studying her face and figure. She was fairly short, with black hair and blue eyes, and he couldn’t really work up much more of a mental description than that. ‘A beautiful Japanese woman,’ Aoshi had said, but Sano thought this had come more from the woman’s husband than the medium, because Kaoru, while not ugly or anything, definitely had a sort of girl-next-door look that Sano would not have described as ‘beautiful.’ And actually, that was interesting, because why– But she had reached them and, with the stiffest backbone Sano had ever seen, offered the following greeting:
“I haven’t decided that I don’t think you’re crazy, or that I’m not crazy for being here, but I’m giving you a chance.”
“Thank you,” Hajime nodded. “Of course we understand your reservations, and we appreciate you coming to talk to us at all.” He extended a hand. “I’m Hajime Saitou, an exorcist. And you’ve already heard from Sano.”
Sano hadn’t observed this particular professional act in Hajime before, probably because Sano himself was an abnormal sort of client, and he found the polite, slightly obsequious tone a little creepy. Kaoru, however, seemed somewhat reassured, for just a tiny bit of the tension left her shoulders and she shook Hajime’s hand before turning to Sano.
Although there was no physical movement involved in holding the ghost, still Sano felt as if he rendered his grip less secure by giving Kaoru his hand; but he also felt, first, that it would be counterproductive to start this conversation by being rude or unfriendly, and, second, that he didn’t want to be outdone by Hajime. “Good to meet you,” he said as he returned the woman’s firm handshake. Then, because that had already sounded a little angry, he added less darkly, “Glad you came.”
She heard the anger, and the subsequent enforced cheer did not prevent her from tensing up again. It wasn’t merely uncertainty about a weird meeting that showed in her bearing and visage; there was unhappiness and weariness there too… a weariness of long standing, and an unhappiness that had etched delicate lines around her eyes before this. It made Sano even angrier just seeing it; he couldn’t stand the thought that he was contributing to her pain. And this further increase in ire she noticed too, and stiffened even more.
Hajime stepped in. “Let’s have a seat and talk.”
As if reluctant not to keep wary eyes on the dangerous one at all times, her gaze left Sano sluggishly, followed Hajime’s gesture to the bench, then moved to the exorcist’s face. Without budging she asked, “You say my husband is here right now?”
For the answer Hajime glanced at Sano, who said, “Yeah, he’s…” Helplessly he indicated, knowing how it would look and sound. “He’s right here.” He tried very hard to speak calmly as he added, “I’m working hard holding him still, so we’ll let Hajime do most of the talking.”
Kaoru stared at what surely looked to her like a normal empty patch of air, her eyes directed at a point where she probably guessed the face would be, but which, with the height at which her husband was floating, was actually chest or stomach level — assuming this form of the ghost corresponded with his actual physical attributes (which would mean Kenshin was pretty short).
With an expression like a brittle surface that must eventually crack, she abruptly turned away from the ghost and sat down on the bench.
Hajime took the place beside her, though he did not look at her, and said, “I’m sorry to have to ask, but what can you tell us about your husband’s death?”
Sano, who hadn’t returned to the bench himself but stood, every bit as stiff as Kaoru, at its end looking down obliquely at her, now glanced at Hajime with a surprise that momentarily cut through his growing anger. No, Hajime’s tone wasn’t gentle or comforting — despite only having known him for a week, Sano already believed with assurance that the world might come to an end at any gentle or comforting tone from Hajime — but in the calm, low voice there was an audible (to Sano) desire not to wound or even disturb more than necessary… and this, from that source, seemed extraordinarily thoughtful.
Whether Kaoru recognized the unusual consideration, Sano could not tell. In any event, she took a deep breath and, staring down at the clenched hands she’d laid on her knees, began speaking very rapidly, as if she felt that if she didn’t get through her story quickly she wouldn’t be able to get through it at all.
“I don’t know how much you already know, since I don’t know how you found me, but if you’ve read the articles or talked to the police you probably know as much as I do. On November 23rd last year, Kenshin was taking the bus home from work — he worked at the Humane Society, which you probably know is way across town from here, but we lived a little closer to it then; I only moved back here to be near my parents after…” She gave a pained-sounding clearing of throat and paused for a moment before going on at the same pace as before. “He was on his way home, waiting for his connecting bus, and there was a gunfight in the street near the stop. It was a gang thing.
“They said he must have tried to take shelter down a little street behind the bus stop, because that’s where he was found. It’s not the best area — it was the stop at Hamlet and 11th, if you know it, which is statistically the worst part of the city for gang activity — and though there aren’t a lot of gunfights, they do happen, and there does happen to be a bus stop right there, so it was inevitable that eventually someone would…”
Her face had been growing more and more brittle throughout this dissertation, her voice tighter and tighter. Something was going to crack, and the result was sure to be sobbing and tears and probably a good deal less coherence. She cleared her throat again and took a deep breath that was not entirely steady.
“He didn’t always take the bus to work; we do have a car. It was perfect coincidence that I needed it that day.” Her voice sank as she added in a self-accusatory tone, “But of course I didn’t need it. I work from home… I didn’t have to go shopping that day… if I hadn’t kept the car — I didn’t need it — he wouldn’t have been at that bus stop. He would never have been at that bus stop.”
Tears were definitely starting to surface; it was difficult to see her eyes, which were still turned down toward her knees and the hands clenched thereon, but the intonation was unmistakable. She was on the verge of losing the careful control she’d undoubtedly built up painstakingly over the last few months of repeating this story.
She was also lying.
It was extremely frustrating. Exactly what she was lying about, exactly why she was lying, and exactly how it pertained to the current situation and her husband’s ghost, Hajime could not begin to tell, but she couldn’t hide from him the general sense of untruth behind her words.
What she could hide from him was just about everything else. She was guarding so fiercely, he couldn’t even get at completely unrelated thoughts in her head. Moments like this made him regret never training more thoroughly in communication, and he decided then and there how he was going to be spending his free time after this was over, so bothersome was it not to be able to reach a truth that would, presumably, help everyone present.
“He was actually shot twice,” she went on, surprisingly with no great increase in breakdown of control: “once just behind his right ear, and the other just in front of it. He was unconscious when he was found and taken to the hospital, and it took him less than an hour to pass away. I didn’t even make it over there before… I didn’t get a chance to…” After another trembling breath she went on more steadily, “They said, if there was any pain, it was probably over with quickly.”
Throughout this discourse Sano had been shifting restlessly, and, though Hajime doubted the young man could sense the dishonesty, it was clear that the woman’s words — especially these last — were not helping to decrease the already significant level of anger he was trying to deal with. But Kaoru, gaze still fixed on her knees, did not appear to notice this.
“The police also said that the sweatshirt he was wearing might have contributed, since he’d pulled the hood up, probably to hide his face and hair in the dark or something, and that might have made him look more like a member of one of the gangs. I always thought he should wear a jacket that didn’t look so… young… he was thirty-two, but you’d never guess… and it was mine in the first place; I mean, it was grey, but it was a woman’s hoodie…” Apparently these somewhat rambling details were more difficult to relate than the physicalities of the death itself, and the tears were now visible on her face. Hajime deemed her distress genuine, but couldn’t pass judgment on the accuracy of her account.
“He was always doing that: wearing my clothes without realizing that anyone would think it was weird. And the really weird thing was that they looked just fine on him — usually better than they did on me. But I still used to give him a hard time about it, because of Kenji and the neighbors and because he never seemed to notice that it was a little weird.” Her words were becoming more and more difficult to understand as sobs broke into her sentences and a constricted throat marred her pronunciation. “For a while after… last November… I kept thinking, ‘If I could just have him back, I’d never get on his case about that again. He could wear anything he wanted — not just jeans and things, but dresses or whatever — if he would just come back.’ And every time I realized I was thinking that way, I got so angry at myself for being so stupid… but it still took a while to stop.”
This latest set of revelations, Hajime thought, was probably totally honest, since it really had nothing to do with Kenshin’s death, and the overwhelming sense of deception had faded somewhat from Kaoru’s demeanor. But whether she was making a subtle attempt to get away from the topic about which she felt the need to lie, or whether she really had been sidetracked in her grief by memories of her late husband’s quirks, Hajime could not guess. In any case, it wasn’t getting them anywhere.
“Mrs. Himura,” he began, in the cool tone of a lecturer, “the problem here — at least the first problem that needs to be dealt with — isn’t so much your husband himself as the angry energy surrounding him. When someone is haunted by this type of energy — which is called a shade — it has a number of negative effects on them; headaches and an extremely bad mood are the most common. As you can see, Sano is currently suffering these effects because, for some reason, your husband has been haunting him for three weeks.”
He’d been ready to go on for as long as she remained silent until the entire situation was laid before her, but at this point she broke in. “Why?” She sounded a little desperate. “Why would he go to a complete stranger?” With an uncertain glance at Sano she added, “Or did he know you and just never mention it?”
Sano, clearly beyond the ability to speak, shook his head. Hajime almost expected a countdown to appear in big visible red numbers above the spiky blue-gelled hair at any moment, and continued his explanation to Kaoru more quickly. “That’s one thing we’d like to figure out. But besides the effects on Sano, just the fact that your husband is still here at all needs to be addressed. It’s not healthy for anyone to stay in this world after death, and whatever is holding him here needs to be dealt with.
“But the shade energy is blocking all attempts to communicate with him. We can’t find out what exactly is holding him here if we can’t talk to him — and it’s more than likely that some sort of communication is what he needs in order to move on anyway. So the most important point at the moment is why he’s so angry. If we can dispel the anger, we can move on to the next step in this process. And the probability that his anger is related to the circumstances of his death is overwhelming.”
Her tears were in abeyance for the moment, and she looked faintly confused and equal parts wary; in her mind, the walls seemed to have become thicker and rougher than before. “OK,” she said slowly and relatively levelly. “I can see why that would be important.”
Abruptly Hajime stood, and the movement made Mrs. Himura shy back toward her end of the bench. “I’m sorry to startle you,” he said. “As I mentioned, we appreciate that you came out here at all to talk to us. Unfortunately, if you’re not prepared to tell us the truth, I’m afraid you’re not going to be any help to us.”
The barriers suddenly doubled, and her level of agitation increased perceptibly. He would never have deliberately put her back up like this — it would have been so much more politic to continue the conversation on a non-threatening level and try to work the answers out of her — but to his left he could sense Sano about to explode. What direction the young man’s anger was currently pointing really didn’t matter; it was clear that he might do something everyone would regret after not much longer.
“What–” Kaoru was saying, rising hesitantly from where she’d been seated, wringing her hands.
But in favor of taking Sano’s arm in a firm grip and pulling him away along the sidewalk, Hajime gave every indication of completely ignoring her.
The entire world seemed to exist behind a thick filter of intense red that fluctuated between the color of fresh strawberries and that of clotting blood. Nothing around him was recognizable, and Sano didn’t entirely know what was going on; it was like a video game where half the time you were in a mirror of reality that only corresponded vaguely with it, and the controls had gone all twisted and frustrating. His body was trembling; his blood was pounding so noisily that he couldn’t hear a thing above it. He also didn’t realize for some time — he didn’t know how long — that he was moving.
More than once he had wondered what the anger would be like when it became ungovernable, but now (Unfortunately? He would have to decide later) he was in no frame of mind to analyze it. Nor could he tell exactly what his status really was. Prior to this there had been a sort of scale or gradient by which he could measure the level of his wrath and its probable effects on his behavior, but this was off the charts.
He was walking. With the tenacity of someone in shock not knowing what he clung to, he maintained his grip on the ghost, and every step he took jarred the anger in him as if he were filled with liquid to the brim and about to be shaken into spilling. The anger was all the worse in that it was without object, without reason. Of course it had been that way all along, but this was… he needed an object… he needed a reason for this overwhelming rage. And why was he walking? Hadn’t they been talking to Kenshin’s wife, whom he couldn’t decide if he was angry at or just angry about? Hadn’t they been working on dealing with this problem, not walking away from it?
Through the film he saw Hajime, who looked distant and sinister and very red. Hajime, the disdainful jerk still pretty clearly more interested in some dead guy he’d never actually met than in Sano.
Suddenly he had an object.
He realized Hajime had hold of his arm only when he wrenched free. Turning to face him, fists clenched… well, he meant to demand what the fuck was going on, where they were, where Mrs. Himura was, and any number of other things… but the noise that broke from him had no words and practically no semblance of humanity.
Hajime spoke, but to Sano he was every bit as incomprehensible as Sano had probably been to him just now. All that came across was the insufferable calm and indifference with which Hajime always seemed to treat him, and it was enough to cause a critical mass. Whether or not he could measure his current level, whether or not he could judge its probable effects, there had clearly been a line, and it had clearly been crossed. With a burst of increased tension that set his muscles creaking and straining, Sano charged the other man with flying fists.
There was no impact, but the next thing he saw, as he caught himself and whirled, was Hajime slipping quickly out of his jacket, which he dropped onto the grass, and loosening his tie. The bastard didn’t even have the decency to look concerned that Sano had struck at him; on his harsh face appeared merely a sort of bored, almost passive determination to do what had to be done. It was maddening.
The next blow met flesh as Hajime raised an arm to prevent it reaching its real target. The one after that went wide as Hajime retaliated into Sano’s ribs with his left. Pain felt absurdly good at the moment, and there was a bizarre accompanying sensation as if he were slicked over with a liquid coating of anger and the punch had splashed a certain amount of it right off of him. But that was nothing compared to the astonishing, glorious release in tension when his subsequent attempt connected with Hajime’s shoulder and seemed to deliver anger along with kinetic force.
So tightly was he packed with rage that he felt he must literally explode and decorate the park with viscera and pressurized blood. He was so heavy and overheated, his movements seemed reeling and clumsy… and yet somehow, simultaneously, pointed and devastatingly impactful as he drove an elbow toward Hajime’s neck and a knee toward his abdomen. And, though not precisely what he’d been going for, it was hardly any less a release of anger when neither connected and, in fact, Hajime half sidestepped and gave him such a hard hit to the shoulder that he spun past and crashed to the ground.
After half a hot breath that was barely enough to bring him the red scent of the grass beneath, Sano was on his feet again, twisting to throw another punch at the man that seemed to have been waiting for the attack without taking advantage of the fall. This time Hajime’s raised arm wasn’t quite in time to prevent a hit to his high cheekbone, and to Sano this felt so good that he let out a growl of satisfaction at the cracking contact. It wasn’t unanswered, though, as, in a spray of released anger, that hard left of Hajime’s slammed next into Sano’s face in almost precisely the same spot.
Chaos roared in his hearing like a riotous crowd, and the waves of pain rippling from the point of that last hit were temporarily affecting his vision as well, but the driving impulse of forward and against kept him moving. Hajime blocked him, blocked him again, hit him in the stomach, dodged and kicked and sent him sprawling a second time, but Sano was undaunted. His craving for the feeling of his knuckles against Hajime’s face had not been satisfied by one instance.
Through the haze of rage and adrenaline, as he struck out once more and was denied, he wondered vaguely how it was that Hajime seemed so good at this. Hadn’t he seen Hajime with a sword on more than one occasion? What kind of martial arts training did the bastard have? Had he ever mentioned? But attempting to remember things like that was not only extremely difficult in Sano’s current state of mind — though, he thought, becoming slightly easier as moments passed — it was also dangerously distracting when fists were flying, and probably what won him the next couple of blows to his chest.
The diminution of his anger had been steady and gradual, but the realization that he was within measurable levels again was abrupt and startling. The result was a sudden winding down as if a power source had shut off, and he found the arm he’d raised for a punch sinking along with the adrenaline and the desire for further violence. His fist loosened as his wrist came to rest on Hajime’s shoulder instead of progressing as he’d intended. Hajime’s movement also ceased as he perceived Sano’s changing state, and he was looking much less crimson.
“Back, are you?” he wondered, and Sano was pleased to find the words more or less comprehensible.
Sano’s reply that he thought so was less smooth, because it turned out he was panting and shaking like a drug addict, but Hajime, at least, seemed to understand. He nodded, then gave Sano one final punch across the face.
The unexpectedness of the hit increased the amount of anger it caused Sano to release, and he swore loudly as he sprawled back onto his ass on the ground. But he was seeing clearly now, hearing accurately, and, he thought, properly aware of his surroundings and situation for the first time in he didn’t know how long.
For example, he was realizing that he and the grim-faced man standing over him were not alone. Hajime’s thoughtful frown was sufficiently engrossingly infuriating that it took some doing to drag Sano’s attention away from it, but this was accomplished by the realization that they were loosely surrounded by a group of kids. It was primarily the skate park crowd, past whom Hajime had probably paraded Sano to get here, and some of them looked as if this was the best day of their lives. He doubted it was very often they got to see two grown men (one in a suit!) beat each other up right in the park in front of them. Some were still cheering, some laughing; a few, seeing that the fight was over, were analyzing it — evidently Sano had pretty clearly lost — while others stood in interested or even horrified silence.
As the pain of the various instances of successful application of Hajime’s fists began asserting itself, now without nearly as much satisfaction attached as earlier, Sano turned back to the source of this discomfort. Hajime had retrieved his jacket and folded it over one arm; he seemed unmoved by the seam at the shoulder of his shirt that had split or the dark spot already intensifying on his face.
Sano was still quite angry, and readier than not to turn and roar at the gawking kids if they didn’t shut the hell up — and Hajime was not excluded from this wrath… but the sight of those results of the fight summoned up a simultaneous sensation of almost affectionate gratitude. How many people, even in the pursuit of a significant source of interest in their career, would fall so readily into a fist fight with an non-paying client just to work off some excess anger? When Hajime held out a hand to help Sano up, Sano reached for it thankfully, and, upon standing, clasped it briefly in both of his own in lieu of a verbal expression of appreciation that probably wouldn’t have come out very coherently at the moment.
Beginning to be convinced that the entertainment was at an end, the kids were dispersing. This was for the best, since Sano didn’t have any clear idea where the ghost was, and he didn’t want breaking up a brawl among a bunch of suddenly incensed little skaters to be the next thing he had to do today.
“You’re quite the thug,” Hajime was remarking, sounding unsurprised.
Assuming that his mental shields had taken just as much of a beating as his body, and that Hajime could therefore pick up on his memory of just how many fights he’d been in during high school, Sano did not bother explaining, only said, “You’re pretty damn good yourself.”
Hajime also neglected explanation, which was annoying since Sano couldn’t read his mind. He was looking around, presumably watching the kids returning to their previous activities, and straightening his tie in a seemingly unconscious movement. Sano too looked around, and found the ghost not far off doing its usual thing. He gave an angry sigh and addressed Kenshin at a grumble: “Fucking ghost making me randomly attack people… You’re going to owe me big when this is over…” Then he frowned and turned back to Hajime. “Hey, did I hear you say the lady was lying or something?”
“She was. Come on.” The exorcist gestured. “It’s not a good idea for us to be here much longer after that.”
Sano wasn’t actually sure what he was gesturing at, and was too annoyed to ask, but didn’t mind following. Well, he was annoyed about following, but he did it anyway.
Hajime was beginning to explain, as they walked, about the finale of the conversation with Mrs. Himura that Sano had been too irate properly to mark. The fact that Sano, under Kenshin’s stupid influence, had essentially blown their only chance at getting information out of her could only irritate him further, and as soon as he had the gist of what Hajime was detailing he couldn’t help breaking in with, “Big fucking waste of time today’s been.”
Hajime made a thoughtful sound even as he raised a hand to the growing bruise on his face. “It might not have gone as badly as you think,” he said cryptically, and walked on.
His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:
Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.
Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.
During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.
A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.
A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.
A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.
Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.
Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.
During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.
During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.
A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.