Kantarou wandered into the dining room, hiding a yawn behind one hand. “G’mornin’,” he mumbled. “Haruka, Youko-chan –”
“Ah, Kan-chan,” said Youko. “We have guests.”
“Eh?” He blinked and looked. Seated at the table were a young man and a young woman, both of them looking tired and worn. Youko had set out tea for the both of them, but from the looks of it, both cups were untouched. “Ahah … ah. I’m sorry. I’m not really at my best early in the morning.”
“It’s hardly early,” Youko muttered. “I tried to wake you over an hour ago, Kan-chan, you just didn’t want to get up.”
Kantarou ignored her. “How can I help you?” he asked, reaching for his bowl of rice.
The young man cleared his throat, his eyes darting from side to side. Up close, Kantarou could see there were dark bags under his eyes, matched by similar marks on his companion’s face. “Ichinomiya-sensei,” he said softly. “My name is Suzuki Kentarou, and this is my wife, Sachiko.”
She inclined her head briefly, and Kantarou could see strain lines around her small bowed mouth. “Sensei,” she murmured. Automatically, he nodded back, then turned back to Suzuki when he began to speak again.
“A few weeks ago, a ghost started haunting us.” His voice shook a little, and his wife turned away, facing towards the gardens. “I didn’t want to believe what it was, because I am a professor of science. I don’t want to believe that such things exist.”
Kantarou scratched his cheek, unable to help a weak little smile. “Lots of people don’t,” he said. “Even other folklorists don’t like to admit the truth.”
Suzuki bowed his head. “Yes,” he said. “It was … awful. This ghost appeared one night and began following me everywhere. Most of our servants have left, and even when we try to leave the house, she follows us. We’ve had no peace since she appeared, Sensei! We’re begging you –”
The bells on Kantarou’s wrist chimed gently, and Sachiko made a surprised sound, clapping her free hand over her mouth. Suzuki went pale.
Under one of the trees in the backyard — the one Haruka liked to frequent — there was a slim black figure lurking. Even from a distance, Kantarou could see it had exaggerated downturned features, and the rest of its body trailed off into a faint, dark wisp of smoke. He stood, moving around the table to the porch.
“Hello?” he called. His bells rang louder with each step he took. Behind him, Suzuki was making small choking sounds, and Sachiko was silent as a ghost herself.
The ghost drifted out from behind the tree, seemingly shy of the sunlight. She had long dark hair that drifted around her like wings, and she wore a plain white kimono. Kantarou narrowed his eyes to watch her lips move, and read Ke-n-ta-ro-u. A faint twinge moved in his chest — nothing outright painful, but enough to be a warning.
“Hey,” he said softly. “It’s all right. You’re among friends, you –”
She froze abruptly and shrank back, collapsing into herself then vanishing. As Kantarou blinked, surprised, Haruka said from behind him, “Now what are you doing?”
“Haruka!” Kantarou turned around, then shook a finger. “Don’t just come and surprise us like that! I was trying to talk to the ghost!”
“Ghost?” One of Haruka’s eyebrows angled up. “This sort of thing again?”
“It’s part of my business, you know.” Kantarou puffed hair from his eyes, scowling at Haruka before he went to sit down across from Suzuki and his wife again. “You said ‘she,’ and it looked like the ghost was a woman. Was it someone you knew?”
“That …” Suzuki glanced away. “She –”
“If it’s someone you know, I might be able to help you,” Kantarou said gently. “I’ve had to deal with ghosts troubled by the need for vengeance before, so –”
“No, it’s not anything like that.” Suzuki bowed his head. Sachiko turned to him, laying her free hand against his shoulder. She looked tired and afraid, leaning against him perhaps more than was entirely proper, in public. “I … a friend from my childhood contacted me a few months ago …”
Kantarou looked at Sachiko, whose eyes were closed. “Ah,” he said. “And you didn’t feel the same way towards her?”
Suzuki shook his head with slow, ponderous deliberation. “No,” he said. “I liked her well enough. She was a sweet girl, but I was married, and –”
“I see.” Kantarou looked thoughtful. “Usually, though, a ghost haunts a place, not a person. There aren’t too many documented cases of that sort of thing.”
“Sensei, please.” Suzuki let go of his wife’s hand and bowed low, until his head was pressed to the tatami. “Please, I’m begging you! We haven’t had any sleep since she appeared, and –”
“It’s fine,” Kantarou said. “I’ll accept it.”
Suzuki looked up, wide-eyed. “You will?” he asked, his voice almost disbelieving. “Oh, thank you, Sensei, thank you, thank you –”
“One thing, though.” Kantarou leaned his elbows on the table, watching the two of them. “What was her name?”
“Her name?” Suzuki looked surprised for a moment, then looked away. “Agi Noriko. I hadn’t seen her for years, just –”
“That’s fine, you don’t have to tell me the story.” Kantarou got to his feet. “Give me a moment to collect my things.” He turned and headed back for his room, brushing past Haruka on the way.
“Ah, Kan-chan,” Youko called. “You didn’t eat your breakfast.”
“Save it for me, please,” Kantarou called back. “I’ll be back by lunch, I hope.”
Youko sighed, shaking her head. “It’s almost lunchtime anyway,” she muttered. “Honestly, doesn’t he even try to pay attention to the time?”
“I’m very sorry,” Suzuki said softly. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble, I –”
She immediately waved her hands and shook her head. “No, no, it’s fine,” she said. “Kan-chan just tends to forget things like eating when he’s tracking down youkai. Or ghosts, for that matter.” She shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. One more day isn’t going to kill him.”
“Of course it won’t,” Kantarou said, reappearing from the hallway. “Suzuki-san, if you would lead the way?”
The Suzuki household was two stories tall and sprawling, with a high fence built up around it. Kantarou tipped his head back to study it, wide-eyed. Though it looked fairly new, there was a weight hanging over the entire estate. Kantarou took two steps towards the gate and almost tripped, clutching at his chest as pain exploded outward from there.
“Ichinomiya-sensei?” Suzuki hovered nervously beside him. “Are you –”
Haruka put a hand on Kantarou’s shoulder and gave him a small push. “It’s fine,” he said. “It means that there’s something there for us to find.”
Kantarou didn’t say anything, too busy catching his breath. After a moment, as always, the pain subsided, and he was able to straighten, walking slowly towards the house. At the gate, Suzuki produced a heavy key and unlocked it, then led them inside.
There were no lights lit in the long hallways, and all the windows were drawn; entering felt like stepping into a completely different time zone. Kantarou rubbed at his arms to ward off the chill. Other than a distant ache, his chest was fine.
“Ichinomiya-sensei?” Suzki sounded almost pitifully hopeful. “Do you think you can help us?”
Kantarou looked around. “I’d need more light,” he said finally. “Do you have a lantern somewhere around?”
“Ah.” Suzuki looked surprised for a moment, then nodded. “There’s, ah — I’ll go find one. Sachiko, wait here.”
For a moment, Sachiko frowned. She reached for her husband as he walked quickly away, then let her hand drop without a word, her eyes downcast. Kantarou watched her closely.
To his surprise, Haruka was the one who said, “So, what’s all this about, anyway? Your husband seems to know more than he’s saying.”
Kantarou winced. “Haruka! Couldn’t you be a little more delicate?”
Sachiko pressed her lips together and shook her head. “My husband was friends with this woman for years,” she said softly. “The last time we saw her was when he told her we were engaged. She … took it badly.”
“I could imagine,” Kantarou said, looking around. “And, ah, their relationship –”
“My husband has never been unfaithful,” she said, with a flat note of finality in her voice. “Whatever that woman wanted, he was always mine.”
Kantarou blinked at her some more, but said nothing. When Suzuki reappeared with a lamp in one hand, Kantarou hurried to meet him, taking the lamp. “Ah, thank you, Suzuki-san, that’s –”
“I’ll go with you,” Suzuki said, not quite looking Kantarou in the eye. “I … the ghost always appears around me, and it wouldn’t do you any good to look for it when I wasn’t around, right?”
Kantarou blinked, then shrugged. “If you think it’d be better that way, Suzuki-san,” he said. “In that case, you and Sachiko-san stay between me and Haruka. It’ll be safer that way.” He lifted the lantern, and peered down the hallway.
Suzuki bowed his head. “Right, Ichinomiya-sensei,” he said. “That way leads to the gardens, this way will take us to the servant’s quarters. We –”
“The gardens, first,” Haruka said, from the back of their little group. “It’ll be good for us to have a look around.”
Kantarou nodded. “At the very least, we can explore the outside before we check inside,” he said. “There’ll be more room, if we end up having a confrontation in the gardens.”
Sachiko said nothing, following silently after Kantarou and her husband. Whatever else she might have said was silenced.
Two turns later, the heavy silence was broken by the faint chiming of bells. Kantarou stopped midstep and looked around, reaching slowly to pull his juzu free.
A low, aching moan rose up from his left. Kantarou staggered back, bumping into Suzuki, who’d gone sheet-white again. From around a corner, the same woman who’d appeared in Kantarou’s own yard drifted out, her hands tightly clasped together and her head bowed. Her long hair was undone, trailing out after her like a long cloak.
Kantarou stepped forward, the prayer-beads of the juzu clacking together softly. “Noriko-san?” he called. “Agi Noriko-san?”
She didn’t seem to notice him, drifting gently down the hallway without turning her head. Her sobbing was loud enough to echo off the walls. Suzuki whimpered and clapped his hands over his ears.
And just like that, the ghost stopped and turned her head slowly towards them. She looked straight past Kantarou at Suzuki, now being supported by his pale wife.
“Kentarou-san,” she whispered. “You’re here.”
She began to move forward, then stopped as Kantarou stepped between them, holding the string of prayer-beads up.
“Noriko-san,” he said, a little too gently to be outright wheedling. “You’re Noriko-san, aren’t you? You shouldn’t be here. This isn’t a place for you.”
“My … place … ?” The ghost’s head twisted to an unpleasant angle, and she blinked at him. “Kentarou-san …”
“You’ve been dead for five years,” Sachiko said suddenly. Her voice rang in the air, shrill and sharp. “Why can’t you just leave us, already? Just go away! Kentarou isn’t yours, and he’s not –”
“Sachiko!” Suzuki went even paler at that. “You fool, don’t make her angry –”
The ghost fell back, as though the sound of Sachiko’s voice was a slap. “I,” she moaned, pressing her hands to her face, “I –”
“Noriko-san, please,” Kantarou said, cutting in again. He could sense Haruka moving behind him, crowding their clients further back, away from the angry ghost. “Please understand, Suzuki-san is still alive, so he can’t be yours. This isn’t a place for you.”
The ghost clutched her head and moaned. Kantarou risked edging just a few steps closer, his prayer beads in one hand, and his other outstretched in a friendly gesture. “It’s all right,” he said soothingly, stopping when she bared her teeth at him in warning. “I know you’re afraid. I can help you find your path again, where you belong …”
She shrank away from his head. “We promised,” she moaned, an echo in her voice. “We promised, Kentarou-san and I, we promised –”
“But neither of you could keep the promise,” Kantarou told her, still gentle. “You need to let this go, or you’ll never be able to rest.”
She raked her fingers through her long hair, tearing out clumps of it. Phantom bloody footsteps appeared under her as she drifted towards him. Kantarou remained steady, gritting his teeth against the spikes of pain in his chest. A restless ghost was nowhere near as threatening as an oni, but it was still uncomfortable to be around.
“That’s right,” he said softly, as she came almost close enough to touch. “Noriko-san …”
“Kentarou-san?” she whispered, fixing her milky eyes on him.
Kantarou’s hand didn’t waver. “Not quite,” he said. “Kantarou. Ichinomiya Kantarou. Come on, Noriko-san, let’s go where you belong.”
“Kentarou-san, you look different.” The ghost named Noriko reached out, trailing her long fingers down Kantarou’s cheek. After a moment, a peculiar smile stretched her mouth. “I like it. Kentarou-san …”
” Noriko-san, you’re making a mistake,” Kantarou said evenly, though he took one step back. The ghost’s touch sent cold chills down his spine, which then seemed to gather over the center of his chest, where the scar was. “I’m not the person you’re looking for.”
“Does this mean you still love me?” The ghost lifted her eyes to his, almost coy. This close, she smelled like damp earth and old meat, and her breath on his cheek was icy. “Oh, Kentarou-san, I’m so happy …”
This time, Kantarou took a wide step back, trying to put some distance between the two of them. When she tried to follow, he held up the string of prayer-beads in warning. “Please, Noriko-san,” he said again. “I’m not the person you’re waiting for. I’ll help you, if you just let me –”
“What happened, Kentarou-san?” she asked. Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes and spilled over, leaving long thin red tracks down her cheeks. “We were so happy, and then you went away …”
“You were the one who left, Noriko-san,” Kantarou countered. “Suzuki Kentarou mourned you, and then went on with his life. I don’t know why you’ve woken up after all these years, but –”
“Kentarou-san,” the ghost whispered. “You’re still mine, aren’t you? All mine, no matter what that woman thinks.”
Her shape blurred before his eyes, and Kantarou yelped as she reappeared before him, her face a hairsbreadth from his. New stabbing pain ripped through him and he staggered, clutching at his chest. Noriko’s arms came around his head, holding him like he was some kind of lover, her cold cheek to the top of his head. Wrapped up by her, he found it impossible to breath — though he reached up to claw at her arms, he couldn’t seem to get a good grip.
“Kentarou-san,” she whispered into his hair. “Ah, Kentarou-san, I’m so happy we’ll be together. You’re mine, I’ll never let you go –”
Kantarou shoved at her, trying to loosen her grip. His lungs were beginning to burn, both from the proximity of the unhappy spirit and the lack of air.
And then, suddenly, the ghost’s arms fell away from around his head, and he was yanked backwards. He gasped loudly for breath. Even the stale, still air of the narrow hallway tasted good for that first moment. “Wha — Haruka?”
He was leaning in the crook of Haruka’s arm. Haruka held his shakujou forward, which for the moment seemed to be keeping the ghost at bay.
“Sorry,” Haruka said. He met the ghost’s eyes unflinchingly, and there were fangs visible when he spoke. “This one is mine.”
Kantarou stared at him, then yelped as he was unceremoniously dropped to the floor. “Haruka — !”
Noriko reached pleadingly for him, though she didn’t move past the threat of Haruka’s shakujou. Her lips moved silently, forming Suzuki Kentarou’s name over and over. Kantarou pushed himself onto his knees, looped the juzu around his fingers, closed his eyes, and prayed.
“Noriko-san,” he said quietly, “there’s somewhere else you need to go.”
At the end, though, she still stretched her hand out towards Kantarou with tears in her eyes. For just a moment, there seemed to be awareness in her face, and then she was gone. The sound of her voice lingered, shaping syllables Ke-n-ta-ro-u before that also faded.
Kantarou sagged back with a sigh, one hand over his chest. “Ahh,” he sighed. “I hate that part the most.”
A hand leaned into his vision. Kantarou looked up, and blinked at Haruka.
“Can you stand?”
“Yes,” Kantarou said, but took the offer of help anyway. “That was close. Maybe I shouldn’t have told her my name.”
“You lived,” Haruka said with a shrug. “Even if you screwed up, it turned out all right.”
Kantarou rubbed the back of his head. “I think that’s what they call a ‘back-handed compliment,'” he muttered to himself, then turned to Suzuki and his wife. “This should take care of the problem,” he said. “The thing is, if the ghost only appeared recently, if the last time you saw her was a few years ago …”
Suzuki bowed her head. “I don’t think she’s been dead that long,” he said hoarsely. He wouldn’t look at anything but his own feet.
“Suzuki-san?” Kantarou folded his hands into his sleeves. “Tell us, so we can make sure nothing else happens again.”
“… so it turned out that Noriko-san called him and asked that he come meet her, a few days before the ghost appeared. He agreed, but chickened out at the last moment, and she ended up taking her life.” Kantarou nibbled on the edge of a senbei cracker, looking thoughtful. “A woman’s jealousy really is a powerful thing, isn’t it.”
“All love is jealous,” Youko said, as she handed him his tea. “It’s just that in all the stories, the woman is the one who gets left behind.”
“It’s unfortunate.” Kantarou tipped his head back and blinked at the clear sky overhead. “If I found something I cared that much for, I wouldn’t let it go in the first place.”
“You’d think that’s how it works,” Youko agreed. “But humans are awfully fickle, Kan-chan. You can’t ever guess what their hearts will do, not even if you are human. I think.”
Kantarou reached for another cracker. “Maybe,” he agreed. “But I’ve spent too much time chasing after dreams to just let them go, don’t you think?”
Youko tipped her head to one side and looked at him thoughtfully. Then she glanced upwards; they couldn’t see Haruka from where they sat, though he’d vanished for the roof nearly half an hour ago. “You’re a special case, Kan-chan,” she said. “You don’t ever let go of what’s yours.”
Kantarou grinned. “No,” he said. “I don’t.”