Those Nosy Teenagers
Akiko sat at her desk with a thud. She had managed to make it to school just before the bell rang. Her dad would never let her hear the end of it if she started really playing hooky. They had already faced that problem in her first school.
“Look who showed up today,” a boyish voice cooed from the back entrance to the classroom. “Heard you were sick, Tennin.”
“Something didn’t sit well with me, so my father had me stay home yesterday.”
“Sounds like a helicopter-parental to me. He doesn’t get out much, right?” The tall student walked up behind Akiko, leaning forward to hover over her. “You two seem... close.”
“If you’re trying to make me feel intimidated, Kikuchi, you suck at it. They might call you a demon around here, but we both know you’re just trying to get your non-existent rocks off.”
Kikuchi Junko grinned sadistically at Akiko’s comment. This was what made poking at her so fun. The girl had a stubborn bite, but the aggressor wanted to hear how much bark she could make.
“Maybe we could find out in the showers after phys ed, huh?”
“Not in this millennium, lesbian,” Akiko groaned as she threw up her crossed arms in rejection.
“Damn!” Junko sighed heavily, looking up at the front of the room.
“You should know her tropes by now, Junko,” a tiny girl said, standing beside one of the front desks. “I doubt there’ll be a plot twist to make Tennin change teams.”
“I gotta try, Emi,” Junko shrugged, standing upright. “Like you should try my beef buns today. Yum!”
Tanaka Emi made a drained expression as she dropped her school-issued satchel to the floor before taking her seat. The permanent bags under her eyes reached just passed her plastic frames. Between the sluggish motions and droopy eyes, it was obvious she had not slept well the previous night.
“You look like a tanuki that barely escaped turning into roadkill,” the taller student spoke with a hint of concern. Walking over, Junko squatted to check out Emi’s face. “How many episodes did you binge last night?”
“If you skip the opening and ending and fast forward through the recap, the episodes are less than half an hour. If I hurry, I can trade out some box sets at the library before the new ones get grabbed.”
“That is why you are a shell of a human being at school, Tanaka,” a bold, regal voice spoke from the front entrance of the class. “I believe we are about to convene, so we can criticize later during a break.”
The class stood up when the student strode toward her desk in the center of the room. Akiko was the only one still sitting, but her attention was focused on the pocket watch in her lap. The young woman noticed the only eyes not on her, narrowing with curiosity.
“I see you are feeling better today, Tennin,” she spoke with a haughty air in her tone. “Did you bring some remedy with you to school? You seem transfixed.”
Akiko closed her eyes with a sigh. It would seem Lady Yoshida Chikako had noticed her mood change. The woman was almost obsessive about changes or imperfections. She did not feel like entertaining the pushy school idol, so she just started winding the watch to distract her.
“I’m feeling better, yes. Thank you for asking, Yoshida.”
If it had not been for the teacher’s entrance, Chikako would have pressed further. The young men and women sat at their desks to begin the day. Chikako stole a glance at Akiko every once in a while. Something was different, and she wanted to know what.
Kazuki glanced up and down the sidewalk. This was the sight of the last victim’s death, and he was surprised to see so much foot traffic. It was a strip mall area of boutiques and cafes, a hot spot for dates and casual meetups. After casing the main sidewalk, he had made a note of the store hours. All of them were late, after the time of death.
“Well, how does a big ugly jump someone surrounded by open businesses without a single witness?”
He had bought a coffee to sit on a bench, observing the crowd. Most looked like couples on lunch dates, or people enjoying some retail therapy during a work break. Sipping his dark roast, the former detective tried to imagine the late-night scene here. He couldn’t use his two decade old memory for reference. If only he had someone to ask, but who would volunteer information to a college freshman playing cop?
“You take it black, huh?”
“Huh?” Kazuki glanced back at a tomboy standing behind his bench. She appeared to be in high school, but her clothes gave a middle school delinquent vibe. A ponytail of obsidian locks was pulled tight behind her head, and her black eyes stared blankly with boredom. When had she gotten there?
“Your coffee,” she said in a flat tone of voice, “you like it black, right?”
“Yeah... It’s easier to grab it and go.” Blinking innocently, he felt like he should recognize her from somewhere, but he had seen a lot of faces over the years. “I hate to sound rude, but have we met?”
“Not yet. My partner asked me to look at the crime scenes while he took a nap.” Climbing over the back of the bench, she plopped down next to him. Her dark purple tracksuit further confused him as to who she was exactly and why she was talking to him. “You are exactly the way he described you, by the way, Kazuki.”
Kazuki gaped at his real name. He was not used to people knowing it without him giving it. It usually did not end well. However, she had mentioned a partner told her about him, a male one. Did that make her a shinigami?
“I don’t often give my real name, so forgive me for asking who gave it to you, Miss...”
“Yamamoto,” Mei filled in the blank for him, “and my partner is the spazz that got himself bit last night by an oni. I see you already got started on the case for us. Care to share? I’ve been on rotation for two weeks.”
Her exasperated expression made him smirk. This was You’s partner that hadn’t been able to help much. She was so young to be a shepherd of the dead. He couldn’t help wondering what held her soul back.
“Sure thing, but what rotation were you held up on? Mr. Ono made it sound pretty important.”
“Unscheduled deaths,” she groaned, grabbing her ponytail behind her head to tighten the hold. “Everyone has an assigned shinigami at death, but the ones that die off schedule show up early. The department takes turns waiting for those to walk through the veil a week at a time.”
“Then why were you stuck for two?”
“Covering Ono’s shift cause the case needed his face to talked to the cops...”
“I can see where you might be irritated there.” Kazuki smiled, sympathetically. It made sense in the long run, but that seemed unfair to both of them. Who was he to judge Meido’s intricate, inner workings though? He reached to pull out his notepad for the shinigami before returning to the case.
“So I was doing some research at my school library from the newspapers,” he flipped open the notepad, “and I noticed an interesting pattern in the deaths. I think the oni started on the outside of town, working inward. It’s like they're trying to narrow down the location of their target.”
“It is Tennin Akiko, right?”
“Well, they call her the unpaired bird or bride, but the context clues do point in the direction of Akiko.”
“I heard you’re some kind of a yokai expert or something. This is weird for oni, right?”
“Not if they’re working for a bigger fish,” Kazuki sighed heavily. He took another sip of his coffee before explaining. “Oni are pretty territorial normally. They only leave their caves and dens when they get promised a reward - usually food or new hunting grounds - or they need something. The dumber they are the easier it is to play them. I'm fairly certain we’re dealing with the black variety - the most vicious temperament of oni - the kind powerful, malevolent beings pick up to do their dirty work.”
“I know the red and blue ones back at the office are okay, but outside the pagoda is a different story. Anything goes in the lava pits. I guess the guy Takahashi’s been hunting is stirring up trouble again. Those tennin can’t catch a break.”
Kazuki watched the shinigami as she rambled for a moment. He had seen how tired Akiko and Karura were when he met them last life. The way this shinigami spoke seemed as if this sort of attack was not uncommon for them. No wonder the tennyo was embittered. She was fed up with living in fear.
“I hope I can do something about that.”
“You?” The tomboy turned her head to stare at him. “What do you plan on doing? You have a weird aura, but you’re still mortal. Why stick your neck out for immortals?”
“Didn’t you get the 'old soul' memo? I have a lot of experience racked up from thousands of years of encountering humans and nonhumans alike. I might not have the power to take all of their suffering away, but tennin were never meant to live this kind of life. They should be allowed to go home sooner than later.”
“Got a soft spot for tennyo, don’t you?” Mei stared at him with a judgmental gaze. “Most guys have that temptation or worship thing for them. I don’t get it, but I’m counting my blessings on that.”
“I guess you could say I hold tennin close to my heart, but there was something I wanted to tell Mr. Ono last night. He never gave me any contact information though. I didn’t want to drag the woman we saved back into anything, so I was hoping someone would find me today. Care to hear my theory?”
“Sounds like You..." Mei groaned, slumped back into the bench. "I’m all ears.”
“These murders aren’t exactly in secluded areas. The first one was in a park, but it was out in the open. The same goes for the other ten victims. I got to thinking there had to be something preventing these oni from being noticed, and I think I know what it might be after checking out the entrance to my apartment complex: Demon oil.”
“Oil? Was does oil have to do with anything?”
“Demon oil is used to anoint sacrifices and practitioners for ritual. Sometimes, it can even be used by yokai to trick human senses to conceal something, like an entrance or item. It works like a spell to deceive the senses. The scent is there though, and it’s pretty strong for my nose. Do you know if any of the victims recalled a unique cologne or perfume before they died?”
Mei looked skyward as she mulled over the detail. She had questioned the first victim before getting pulled. You had promised to try making sense of the case until she got back, but then, she ended up bringing in some of the victims on her watch. Had any of them mentioned smelling something though?
“Wait... The first victim mentioned a weird cologne before she blacked out. The guy grabbed her neck from behind and strangled her. The size of the hand alone told me this wasn’t human, but our supervisor wanted solid proof before calling it a supernatural crime. After getting pulled off rotation, I guess they finally did it.”
“Then we have a bigger problem,” Kazuki said in a serious tone. He leaned forward as he considered their next move. “The oil only fools humans. If you aren’t human, it would tip off the oni when you noticed them.”
"But wasn’t that woman from last night human? She noticed the oni. I heard You was able to augment her memory without any trouble, so she must not know how to resist or shield.”
“My guess is that her sixth sense is stronger than average. Some humans have that gut feeling still, but she’s one of the few that follows it.”
“Well, now that we have a good lead,” the shinigami said as she stood from the bench, “think you could walk the scene from last night with me? I’m a lot more observant than You.”
Kazuki laughed lightly as he stood to follow after her. As she walked with her hands behind her head, he couldn’t shake the feeling he had met her somewhere before. After running into his old kouhai that morning, anything was possible at this point.
After school, Akiko walked toward her club room. She belonged to the Folk Dance Club, and they loved her skill with a biwa. Being a tennyo made playing second nature. She just wished her voice was as good as her cords.
“Tennin,” Junko called when Akiko rounded the corner, “got a minute?”
“Don’t you have tennis practice, Kikuchi?”
“Yeah, but I was hoping to grab you before Chikako did. She's been in a mood since this morning.”
Akiko rose an eyebrow, wondering how any of this was her problem to assist. Crossing her arms, she stared back at the taller student, waiting for an explanation. Junko rubbed the back of her neck with an anxious smile, which made Akiko groan loudly.
“What did she send you to ask me about? I’m entitled to my own privacy despite how much all of you eat up gossip.”
“Aww, don’t be like that, Tennin,” Junko huffed a boyish laugh. Leaning down, she tried to get her face as close as the other would allow. “You know how she is. Chikako’s just curious about what you were looking at this morning. You normally don’t smile much around here. It was cute.”
Akiko narrowed her amethyst eyes at Junko’s amber ones. Personal space aside, the girl was hitting on her again. It wasn’t that she was against the orientation. She did not appreciate how Junko enjoyed flaunting her dominance to stun others enough to make a move. It made her seem like people were mere toys for her to play. The tennyo wouldn’t fall for such antics, but she really wished others would resist her advances more.
“It’s none of your business, so tell your unrequited love that she can pull her hair out guessing. My personal life doesn’t involve your sacred, school politics. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
As Akiko tried to round the taller girl, Junko reached for her arm. Gripping it just enough to hold her, that sadistic grin spread across the athlete’s face. Akiko glared up at it, defiantly.
“Chikako won’t be pleased, but this could be fun. Don’t disappoint me, Tennin. I just love how feisty you can get.”
“Get a room.”
Akiko pulled her arm away, continuing toward her club room. She felt annoyed to be on the other end of Junko’s entertainment, but there really wasn’t an alternative when she didn’t belong among them to begin with.
Junko smirked after her for a while before heading toward the chemistry labs. Sliding the door aside, she noticed Emi, sitting on the floor against the wall with a portable DVD player. Sighing, Junko realized she must be binging again.
“What did you discover, Kikuchi?”
Junko turned to see Chikako sitting with a compound microscope. The athlete’s cheeks felt warm at the sight of the mature student. Akiko had hit the nail on the head about the one-sided feelings. Chikako was a beautiful sight to behold.
“I caught up with her before she got to her club,” she finally spoke up as she approached. “She wouldn’t give me anything, but I can tell she's hiding something. It’s like you said, Chikako. She’s found something precious.”
“I suppose it cannot be helped,” the other replied, not looking away from her scope. “Tennin has always been the secretive sort. I find it unsettling for her to change so quickly though. You need to discover the nature of that change, Kikuchi. I doubt you have any objections to a declared target.”
“Not at all, but you could make it worth my while from time to time.” The teenager eyed her peer as a predator would a meal. “Just a little something for inspiration...”
“My gym bag is beside Tanaka,” she replied flatly. “If you must sate your lust, you may touch but not take.”
Junko gaped in surprise. Chikako never let her have such freedom with her personal belongings. She knew better than to steal though, for Lady Yoshida was as vicious as she was beautiful. Junko slid around the lab tables to pounce the gym bag. Unzipping it greedily, her first prize was a lacy thong.
“Don’t even think about it,” Emi said flatly, startling Junko.
“How did you even notice with those huge headphones?!”
“I can sense my surroundings. You have to to prevent spilling food and drink in bed after lights out.”
“You might be scarier than me, Emi, and that’s saying a lot.”