Meifu Investigation Agency
"Guess it's a good thing the cops won't let the maintenance guys fix anything yet," Mei commented as they entered the back entrance of the apartment building. "I can do some looking around them without being noticed. Show me the window our big ugly came in though."
"Sure thing," Kazuki replied as they approached the elevator. "It's on the second floor, so it wasn't too big of a jump for our perp."
As he reached to call the elevator down, a second hand brushed against his. Glancing up, he gaped at Yukiko's face. He raked his brain to think of a way to clue the shinigami in on the woman's identity.
"Oh, Suzuki-kun," the senpai said with a smile, "I see the police are already working on that stalker. I can't believe I forgot to call them last night."
"It's fine," Kazuki laughed lightly. "I actually called after I walked you home, Miss Sato." Kazuki beamed as obviously as he could, hoping Mei could pull the pieces together.
"Is this lady after you, senpai?"
Kazuki gaped down at the shinigami's blank expression. Of all the things to say, did she have to jump down the pervert angle?! He laughed lightly, trying to save face as a joke or something.
"You'll have to excuse my kouhai, Miss Sato. She has a habit of saying what's on her mind. At least, she's honest, right?"
Yukiko laughed lightly at the recovery. While she was a bit embarrassed by the question, she couldn't deny that her neighbor was dreamy material. Too bad she was his senior. It seemed desperate to even think about pursuing an underclassman.
"It's all right," she said at last. "Honesty is a positive trait to have. I'm sure she can learn a great deal from you, Suzuki-kun." The elevator opened to let them in. "I guess we can share a ride up."
Kazuki sighed with relief. At least, the woman seemed to have enough sense not to listen to a kid's instigating comments. Still, they were heading to her floor to look at the window. It would be obvious what they were looking for. As they took the elevator up a floor, he tried to think of something to say.
"Come on, senpai!" Mei grabbed Kazuki's hand as soon as the doors opened. Dragging him down the hallway, she didn't give Yukiko the chance to say a word.
"You sure are a good actress," he said once they were out of earshot.
"You learn to milk the babyface for all it's worth in this business. If people don't take you seriously, then you play them like guitars for what you want. You says I'm scary good at it."
They stopped running when they reached the broken window. It was roped off with police tape, but with only plastic covering it, it was easy enough to look up close without disturbing the scene.
"Looks like the oni bled," Mei muttered. "Guess it's a good thing cops use gloves at crime scenes these days. I think oni comes up as animal blood on record."
"Does it really?" Kazuki asked curiously from behind her. He was observing the broken glass in daylight. "Who made that a thing? I know oni blood is highly acidic from the miasma. Can forensics even process it these days?"
"Criminal science is crazy these days. I swear they're gonna find evidence of a shinigami in a crime scene one day."
As the two continued to look over the window, Yukiko watched from further down the hall. This confirmed for her that he was investigating the stalker. Why was a child involved though? She pulled out the card the private detective had given her. Just what was this Meifu Investigation Agency? Perhaps she needed to look into them a bit... if only to make sure her kouhai wasn't in any sort of danger.
Heading back for her apartment, Yukiko went straight for her desk. Her notes and research materials were still scattered around, but she pushed them aside to turn on her desktop. While she waited on the system to boot up, she retrieved a bag of veggie chips and got comfortable.
Pulling her hair up into a bun, she opened her web browser to do a search for the agency. After fine-tuning the search filters, she found one source that seemed legitimate. It wasn't a review page or referral site. It was a blog from a graduate student in Tokyo.
"When I received a card from the private investigator from Meifu Investigation Agency, I thought I wouldn't have anything to offer them, but the detective came to see me again about a string of mysterious deaths. Within the week, the incidents stopped, and the detective was never seen again. While the lives lost can never be replaced, we somehow felt safe again. That was when I knew something was up."
Yukiko felt like she was on some kind of conspiracy theory page, but she couldn't help resonating with the writer. She felt oddly relaxed for a woman with a black bruise on the back of her neck. Was a stalker really capable of something like that?
Having jotted down the information Takashi had been looking up before her, she decided to try seeing what the press said about these other crimes. The articles were as tasteful as the journalists could be, but the fact of the matter was that eleven women had been murdered, gruesomely. Throats slit open by a serial killer with no definitive clues to a perpetrator.
"Suzuki-kun, why are you involved in this?" She asked, hugging her knees to her chest. He seemed like such a gentle person, so how could he possibly be assisting this agency that looked into mysterious deaths? Perhaps she needed to make an excuse to talk to him about his major.
"For all I know, he might be a criminal justice guy. You never can pick them out these days."
Yoko was rubbing her temples at her desk. The oni standing next to her appeared just as irritated, but she was trying to think. Apparently, Fujimoto Mamoru and Suzuki Takashi did not exist even in the lost files, and while oni had a reputation for keeping excellent records, she was beginning to question their vision.
"How can neither name exist?" She finally asked in a strained voice, holding back the urge to consume the oni in her shadow.
"I mentioned that last time the names were nowhere in our regular files, but even among the lost souls, neither name exists as you requested."
"That's statistically impossible!" She bit back at the comment, but she refused to face the oni, not wanting to lash out at him directly. "Are there no other files we can look through?"
"None in the mortal compendium, ma'am. As this is a request from the Lord Prince himself, I do not wish to cast it aside. I am just as troubled by this development. Can you offer me any other means to search?"
Yoko folded her hands in front of her mouth as she pondered the question. As an old soul, did that make Kazuki mortal? He gave off a mortal aura, showing decay as his lifespan moved forward. Any shinigami knew how to read that. Pulling her hairpins out, she raked her fingers through thick, brown locks to massage her scalp, groaning.
"Never in my career have I ever had to ask a soul about themselves just to find them in the system. I suppose I need to do some inquiring on his part. We know these mortals existed, and he isn't lying about his identity. There has to be a better way to do this."
"Shall I speak to Lord Eiji about it? I know I have kept you from watching the tennin to ask you about this."
"That might be for the best," Yoko sighed in defeat. Lifting her head to let her chestnut locks fall behind her around her mid-back, she glanced at the oni. "I do need to get back. I heard Yamamoto is trying to keep an eye out, but she has investigating to do."
"Perhaps you could contact her?"
"No, I don't need to bother her." Yoko stood from her desk to fix her hair, twisting it about a metal kanzashi hair stick to wrap it up. Her posture became stiff again as if the topic bothered the shinigami. Pinning her hair tightly, she straightened her desk before heading for the exit. "Tell Lord Eiji I appreciate his assistance with this. He has been more than generous with this side investigation."
As she walked down the stairs, straightening her blazer, Yoko rolled all the pressing issues at hand around her thoughts. The stairs leading to the court floor gave her time to reflect. Somehow the murmur of the souls helped her focus.
First, the tennin had been located by oni again. That fact alone was concerning, after nineteen years of quiet. Karura had said Kazuki cleansed the oni's spirit, so that might have left a cold trail for however the enemy was tracking them. She still had yet to discover how that was being accomplished, and the idea that someone could violate a holy shrine such as the Karyoubinga with foul intentions meant she was looking at a powerful entity.
Second, the old soul had returned to try protecting them. He offered his help without asking anything in return, which either made him a martyr or a guardian of some kind. With nothing on file to reference, she could only trust his word, and while she wanted to, the shinigami's gut told her there was something here that needed attention. Her shadow was practically itching with curiosity at who had seen inside her mara.
Third, there were two oni stalking the streets, looking for her charges. As much as she welcomed Kazuki's assistance, this was her job. Lord Eiji had given their protection to her care two hundred years ago, and she would see this through to the end, when they returned to Tendou safe and sound.
The doors of the pagoda opened outward to show her the chaos of Meido. She started walking the path for the Veil, head held high. Resting a hand against her belly, she remembered her resolve to see a mission to the end.
"Never forget what you are fighting for," she said as she walked forward, "and you will never be lost, right, Lady Mochizuki?"
Kazuki sat on his balcony, sipping some black tea. Reflecting on everything that had happened thus far, he smiled at the thought that he had been bored this time yesterday. While the past seemed to be catching up with him, he hoped it wouldn't cause trouble for the present. After all, he had learned the hard way how crossing lives could lead to harsh consequences.
It seemed interesting that so much was coming together now. His time as Mamoru must have left roots for him to pick up from with Akiko and Narita. Thousands of years' experiences held a purpose now, saving a pair of tennin trapped in the Mortal Realm. He had always hoped to be of help to others, but right now, he felt more compelled than ever before.
"To think, after all this time, I would finally cross paths with a tennyo that needed me for once." He smiled sadly at the sentiment.
A knock at the door got his attention, pulling him back from his thoughts. He had been sitting on the floor of the cement balcony, so he had to cross his living room back to the front door. Who would be trying to get a hold of him so close to dinner?
"Miss Sato? Is everything all right?"
"Oh, yes, Suzuki-kun," Yukiko said nervously. In her arms, she had a basket. "I had wanted to thank you for last night, so I put together a welcome basket. Everything you need to start out your first apartment!"
"Thank you. You didn't have to do that." He took the basket she extended to him with a grateful smile. "I was just sitting for a moment before going out again. Can I offer you something?"
"Ah, actually... I was hoping to ask you something..."
Kazuki blinked at her face. Her eyes held concern but not out of guilt. Something was bothering her. Had her memory been stirred up again?
"Please, come in," he said gently. "I'd be happy to answer if I can. Though I'm not sure what I can offer my senpai."
"Thank you, Suzuki-kun."
Yukiko stepped inside the threshold. She felt anxious about the topic she wanted to bring up. Most freshmen didn't even know what major they wanted in their first semester, so this seemed intrusive. Still, she wanted to know if he was chasing a career with this investigating agency, and if so, she wanted to make sure he would be safe.
"I noticed you were by the window at the end of the hall today with your kouhai..."
Kazuki gaped in surprise. They hadn't shaken her it seemed. She must have been watching from afar to not alert either of them to her presence. Then again, she didn't have a dangerous aura to begin with.
"You aren't in... any sort of... trouble... on my behalf... are you?"
"How do you mean, Miss Sato?"
"Well," her voice was small and nervous, "Mr. Ono mentioned he had been talking to you about his case before you came to help me. That case was the recent, unsolved murders over the past week or so, wasn't it?"
"Miss Sato, I can understand your concern, but you needn't worry about me. Mr. Ono is a professional. He was just asking for my input on some things."
"So you are a criminal justice major?!" She gawked at the youth. Her expression was a mixture of shock and awe. Kazuki couldn't tell if she was pleased or not about his answer.
"No... actually." He smiled back at her with amusement. "I'm actually on the kendo team. I came to reconnect with someone I'm related to. If I had to pick a major off the top of my head though, I'd say Folklore and Mythology are my favorite, but that could change with time, right?"
Yukiko gaped back at his relaxed face. He wasn't offended by her questions. If anything, he was more than willing to answer them to put her mind at ease. Her kouhai was so mature to be this considerate toward her. She felt foolish for poking her nose in his personal business after he'd saved her life.
"It can... I'm sorry. All this buzz in the newspapers, and now right outside our apartment, has my mind spinning with thoughts. Perhaps I wasn't as collected as I thought I was after last night. Forgive me for bothering you." She bowed low to emphasize her sincerity.
"No, please, Miss Sato," Kazuki set the basket down to help her rise. "There's no need to apologize. Last night was frightening for you, and I'm grateful I was able to help. You should allow yourself to process those feelings, so you can release them in a healthy way. You have nothing to be ashamed of."
Yukiko stared at him, speechless. He sounded so much older than eighteen. She felt her cheeks grow warm. What was she doing? This was her kouhai for goodness sake! She wasn't desperate enough to fall for a teenager... was she?
"Th-Thank you, Suzuki-kun. You don't know what that means to me. I hope the welcome basket helps you get started. If you need anything, I'm just a floor away."
"I'll remember that, Miss Sato. The same goes for you. I'd be happy to help you if I can."
Yukiko nodded excitedly as she quickly exited the apartment. Walking toward the elevator, she covered her face to hide how red she was getting. Just thinking about his encouraging words made her heart flutter. She stabbed at the button to try summoning the elevator sooner.
"Now you've gone and done it, Yuki," she muttered to herself as she got in the elevator. "Mother always told you to look out for the young ones! Those dreamy eyes will get you every time!"
Kazuki closed the door after her with a soft smile. Poor woman, he'd opened that door of opportunity unintentionally. She was an upperclassman with a major to focus on, so he hoped that would pull her back from whatever thoughts were swarming her head right now. It didn't take his special eyes to see the attraction in her gaze.
"Nothing good can come from falling for me," he said softly.
After putting the basket in the kitchen, he set out for the Tennin' residence. He had tried waiting a bit longer to arrive closer to when Akiko would get home. The old soul felt restless now, so he couldn't wait to be among friends. The walk from his apartment to their home was about fifteen minutes, but he tried to walk as slow as possible to drag out time.
It really was something being back in this town after two decades. Not too much had changed. It was mostly the faces, but that was normal. Walking so slow gave him time to reminisce.
"Do you always walk so slowly, Kazuki?"
"Kurara!" Kazuki jumped at the voice. He glanced around to see if he was at the house yet. They were at the recycling collection around the corner. "You scared me there a second...!"
"You seemed to be walking aimlessly," Karura added curiously. "I do not recall you ever walking that way before. Are you well?"
"I was just taking in the sights," Kazuki answered innocently. "It's been almost twenty years since I died. Growing up this time around, I used to dream about coming back to walk these streets with you and Akiko. I really was excited to see you yesterday, old friend."
"I must admit I was surprised," Karura said as he started walking back toward his home. "I am accustomed to death, but seeing someone come back is a hope I never dared to dream."
"Why not?" Kazuki asked as he sped up to Karura's side.
"It makes me wish Karyou could return to us."
Kazuki blinked up at the tennin as they walked in silence. He had heard a little bit about Akiko's mother yesterday, but he had been afraid to press things with all the tension. Perhaps he could one day find the courage to ask about the legendary priestess.
"Akiko is not home just yet, but you are welcome to come inside," Karura said once they reached the gate. "Did you realize you left your bag yesterday?"
"Well, Miss Takahashi was practically shooing me away at that point, and you seemed pretty angry about whatever she said. I figured I would let sleepy dogs go back to bed."
Karura smirked at the comment, opening the gate to welcome him inside. They decided to work on dinner together, while they waited. Kazuki confessed that he enjoyed helping out, even as a guest, so Karura put him to work. In the end, he asked the old soul to teach Akiko how to cook.
"Dad, I'm home..." Akiko groaned.
"Welcome home," he returned her call, "Kazuki is here. We are in the kitchen making dinner."
"WHAT?!" She wailed, making Kazuki laugh silently.