Chapter Twelve - Training, Mirror And Exorcist
A scene of utter devastation unfolded in the torture chamber of limbo.
Dozens of unconscious souls floated facedown on the surface of bubbling pits, acting as makeshift logs for the daredevils who would jump on the challenge of transversing through the heat and filth. The key instigator was of course, a badass gunslinger decked in his familiar outfit of fedora hat and trenchcoat. He leapt and danced on the narrow ledges between the numerous pits, deftly dodging and parrying the blows from his final prospective victim, a poor soul who had to wear a skirt despite being clearly masculine in appearance—
"For the last time, I'm not wearing a skirt!" C (for convenience's sake as usual) yelled, the edges of his white gown flapping furiously as he threw in another jab. "And stop talking to yourself, you crazy cowboy!"
I leaned back and let his fist scrap my fedora hat, tilting it askew.
"That's the twentieth time you've hit my poor Dora-chan," I pouted at C's fuming and twitching beard. "Say sorry or I'll spank your bottom."
"Go to hell!"
I received his ramming kick with a cross block, allowing the momentum to somersault me through the nauseating smoke, over the drifting makeshift logs in a sea of red, before landing nimbly on another ledge. Staring at my frustrated opponent, I marvelled at how far I had progressed in my combat abilities since the days of squatting my way to victory.
I could have given Gerardine a run for her souls now.
Thoughts about the vampire inevitably lead to thoughts that I would have preferred not to recall. Even so, snippets of images and voices seeped in, determined for me to play the unwitting eavesdropper.
"Thank you for listening to a creep's love story back then."
"You know what to do now, don't you?… Shoot me."
Under the moonlight, time trickling to a standstill, the drawing of three forever etched into the memory of a soul who ironically couldn't remember his own.
It was the worst during the immediate aftermath of the incident. A subsequent discussion with Takeshi lead to the proposal that I treated the damned souls in limbo as punching bags, if only to serve as a triple purpose of distraction, dish them sinful ones more punishment, and hone my own fighting skills.
Though admittedly, I was the punching bag during the initial stages. Not until Ryou Sasaki intervened with his Kung Fu coaching did I finally manage to—
"Eat shit, cowboy!"
C's knuckled fist met my stomach, knocking the breath out of me and ceasing my soliloquy. I doubled over and watched the triumphant soul tower over me with watering eyes. My leather boots started to lose traction on the increasingly slippery ledge.
"Any last words before I send you flying?"
I inhaled a deep gasp of air before replying with a smile.
"What?! Spit it out then!"
Grinning, I pointed at C's groin region.
"You forgot to zip your skirt."
Even before he could look down out of natural reflex, I was onto him right away, unleashing a ruthless combination of chops and elbows which whiplashed his neck like an abused rag doll.
A return blow to his abdomen meant that it was his turn to ask for a walking cane.
A sweeping kick flipped up his white gown and showed me the things that I would have preferred not to see.
I also made good my earlier promise with a finishing move. One that involved smacking C's fleshy buttocks so hard that the impact tossed him into the pits, splashing out a rain of gooey, scorching matter that I immediately shied away from.
Poor fella didn't even have the chance to argue his point.
"You can stop crying now, Dora-chan," I comforted my fedora hat. "I have taken revenge for you."
I watched as C resurfaced and became log number fifty, before deciding to make my way back up for a scheduled meeting with the soup lady. An abrupt wave of giddiness almost sent me tumbling and becoming log number fifty one, though I regained my balance quickly, anchoring my lasso onto the rocky protrusions of the chamber walls.
Note to self: Never engage in long, drawn-out battles where the unpleasant sensory influxes will overwhelm you and turn you even more insane (e.g. cooing to your own hat).
Why does Takeshi want me to train here in my gunslinger form anyway?
I perished the trivial thought. Maybe the human-like attributes put me at a disadvantage and spurred me into levelling up faster or something. Either way, there were more important issues at hand.
Tugging on the lasso, I sprung off from the ledge and scaled along the wall, heading for the mirror room.
"You are late, Kenichi," the soup lady folded her arms. "Don't you know that it's a punishable offence?"
I plucked off my hat and caressed it.
"But grandma, Crystal was bullying Dora. I had to do something."
"I'm just going to pretend that I understood what you were saying," the soup lady sighed with the knowledge that further indulging my nonsense would be unwise. "Follow me."
I obeyed, our footsteps echoing in tandem as we crossed the mirror room, its floors and walls seemingly coated with glosses of obsidian. No fanciful ornaments or tapestries decorated and draped over this minimalistic venue. It was clearly designed with one sole purpose: to depress the souls which had to undergo the humiliation of rewatching their entire life play out before them in painful, minute detail.
Said culprit waited at the end of the room. Its golden, intricate frame and silvery surface counterpointed the predominantly duller colours of the scene. Yet, no reflection emerged as we approached.
That mirror was apparently still having a bitchfit.
"Mind your language," the soup lady warned. "But yes, that mirror would save me a lot of trouble if it started acting like one."
"And I wouldn't have to bumble around searching for my memories without any clue of sort," I agreed.
Upon hearing my reply, the soup lady furrowed her brow and lapsed into a momentary silence. The pensive expression wrinkled on her face unsettled me into bouts of fidgeting. It was rare to see her this troubled; even rebellious spirits overturning her cauldron before the gate didn't so much as ruffle the feathers of her limited emotional spectrum.
"I have a question for you, Kenichi," she finally spoke, her voice heavy.
"Ask away, grandma."
"And I want you to answer it seriously."
"Yes, ma'am," I saluted and stood at attention.
The soup lady sighed and gazed into my eyes.
"What have you been doing for the past few months?"
Oh, that was easy. And I thought it was something philosophical pertaining to the secrets of life and the universe, requiring me to rack my non-existent analytical brain.
I started counting off the list of activities with my fingers.
"Er… babysitting Haiiro… er… accompanying Yagami-chan to school… er…balancing numerous teacups on my hands and legs as part of Ryou's training regime… er…"
"I said seriously."
"Screwing up Takeshi's journals and ledgers…" I froze as the implication of her words hit me. "But I wasn't joking."
The soup lady's gaze burnt through the wall of half-truths that I have erected around myself.
"Okay okay," I raised my arms up in placation. "I haven't done much in the manner of proper exorcist work ever since the Gerardine case. But that's because there weren't any new ones to handle in the first place—"
"That's not what I'm referring to, Kenichi," the soup lady interrupted.
"Then tell me what on goddamn earth you want!"
I stopped myself, surprised and shocked at my uncharacteristic outburst. The palpitations of my heartbeat and the heat creeping into my cheeks told me that the anger was very much real, not something illusionary that a magician would conjure out of thin air with his deft sleight of hand.
I didn't understand the reason for my outburst.
I didn't understand it at all.
"Sorry…" I bowed. "I didn't mean to blow up on you like that."
The soup lady waved away my apology.
"You are angry at yourself, aren't you, Kenichi? You are angry by your aimless bumbling around, without any clear goal in sight? You are angry by the fact that you have slipped into the laid-back nature of your current life, your drive to seek your true identity long gone?"
The flames of anger flickered alive once more, yearning to yell accusations at her presumptuousness. It was however fizzled out by the gradual recognition that she was right.
I was content with the way my life was right now.
I was content if I remained as Kenichi whateverhislastnameis for the rest of eternity.
And I knew that it couldn't carry on this way.
"I can't blame you," the soup lady said, the melancholy of her smile reminiscent of a girl who had haunted me for many nights. "I wish I can be more forthcoming with you, Kenichi. But that will necessitate meddling in the spokes of fate. And it's not in my power to do so."
She closed her eyes.
"Will you listen to what I have say, regardless?"
There was no point lamenting about her cryptic nature. Perhaps it simply formed part of her job requirements.
Before the mirror which had long ceased to be a mirror, I nodded and agreed to her request.
She told me two things.
The first was an anecdote about the Judge.
He took responsibility for powering up the mirror into performing voyeuristic life playbacks of the souls brought before it. He also delivered verdicts; the hopelessly sinful ones plunged straight down to hell, the less corrupted counterparts accepted the relatively gentle punishments of bubble baths in limbo, while the generally conscience-abiding folks got their express tickets to the soup queue.
The system involved a three-way cooperation between the soup lady, the Judge, and the Crimson King of hell sovereignty. And for a while, it worked seamlessly.
Until the Judge made a fatal mistake of falling in love.
Impulse claimed control, flinging rationality out of the window. He abandoned his duties and eloped with the girl into the real world, where they both assumed human identities.
Naturally, the cogs in the system jammed into a standstill, inconveniencing the two who remained. The Crimson King in particular was absolutely infuriated, ditching rationality as well in favour of pursuing the culprits.
Leaving behind an overtaxed soup lady and near anarchy in the netherworld.
"That was why the Moritas were allowed to do what they did," she concluded. "Under normal circumstances, Gerardine wouldn't even be able to take a single step outside hell, let alone get resurrected."
"Hold on a second," I massaged my forehead to relieve its strain from the information overload. "Why are you telling me all these? Is this a precursor to my next mission: Operation Find-The-Two-Lovesick-Idiots-And-The-Crazy-Psycho-Chasing-After-Them-And-Restore-Parity-To-The-Universe?"
The soup lady's repeated silence indicated that I probably should have kept those whimsical thoughts within. Though that was a paradoxical statement in itself.
"Kenichi," and there was that gaze again. "You never quite took down that mask of yours, did you?"
My voice trailed off as the hallucination episodes returned, whisking me back to that fateful night at the amusement park.
Ruined wooden unicorns, clawed fingers of death, fluttering paper charms.
And azure eyes smiling so brightly that they hurt.
When I blinked back into consciousness, the soup lady was already making her way out of the mirror room, leaving behind a dazed gunslinger still lost between the realms of obsidian, silver and inky skies.
"Where are you going? Is the meeting over?"
That was when she told me the second.
"The cycle had begun once more, Kenichi," her tone had regained her usual placidity. "Take care of yourself."
She never looked back with her reply.
I relieved myself from the burden of human sensations and floated my way back to T Corporation, eager to find a distraction to rid myself off the cold flooding of confusion. As soon as I entered the familiar, mundane surroundings of the Exorcist Division Room, Ryou's broomstick whooshed through my head.
There was no disobeying the master.
I activated my gunslinger form. A few minutes later, I found myself in the ludicrous situation of doing clapping push-ups behind a corner desk, while having lit joss-sticks placed precariously below my chest.
That sadist was indeed the stickler for methods adopted in traditional martial arts movies.
"Quiet," Ryou ordered. He paced back and forth before me, tapping his broomstick against his palm. "Count?"
"Forty…" I replied through gritted teeth, beads of perspiration raining on the carpet. My muscles were already screaming from the prior explosive exertions. There was simply no way I could hit a hundred at this rate. "Sensei, could I have a little break? I mean, I just fought earli—"
At the very next moment, I found myself screaming like a little girl after the broomstick came crashing down and whacked my back. Joss sticks and chest kissed, the fiery remnants of their love imprinted on the latter.
"Up," Ryou ordered, unsympathetic to my sniffling plight. "Crybaby."
That remark proved sufficient enough to fire up whatever manliness I had left remaining in my reserve. I rattled off the next ten out of sheer adrenaline, shouting out the numbers with such vigour that I would have impressed army supervisors.
It was evidently enough to fool Ryou into heading for a short coffee break. But not enough for him to issue a reminder to his spy into ensuring that I didn't cheat in his absence.
Haiiro nodded fervently and flashed a thumbs-up.
Once the door clicked shut however, he lost all interest in me and returned to playing with his rubber ducky. Which was absolutely perfect for all intents and purposes.
If not for one crucial fact.
I blamed the Morita household for making this random modification. It had confused Yuriko, confused me, and most importantly, the owner himself. For weeks, he had wondered about the change as though he was pondering the complexities of Fermat's Last Theorem.
Simple epiphany struck him later on. He decided to forgo appearances and treat his inanimate friend for who it really was.
And it rubbed me the wrong way.
"Your meowing duck is distracting, Haiiro," I complained. "Please stop squeezing it."
Haiiro ignored me. He lowered the duck's beak into the bowl and made it lap the milk up like a kitten. I cringed at the sight of the drenched marker-drawn whiskers, and cringed further when Haiiro meowed the duck in happiness.
The poor creature must be begging to be put out of its misery right now.
Don't worry, Duck-kun. Someday, I'll trick a dog into eating you up and you'd reincarnate into your proper dignified form.
"Gaaaah, stop it, Haiiro. I can't concentrate," I resumed my push-ups. "….KYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!"
I have totally forgotten about the loving joss sticks.
My screams muffled the hesitant sound of the door clicking open, and an equally hesitant sound of a voice fearing intrusion.
"Erm… excuse me?"
I gulped and leapt onto my feet, readying the excuse that I was practising for the scream king competition. That plan collapsed as soon as I took in the visitor.
Never had I seen a person who could put my looks to shame. Everything about him sparkled bishounen, from the slender build, sleekly combed hair, to the high cheekbones residing on a face which would send countless girls into dreamy sighs… and I had no interest in describing further.
Henceforth, I would refer to that schoolboy as D—
"Erm… excuse me," D said again, unperturbed even after the rubber duck meowed its welcome. "Would you happen to know where Yagami-sama is?"
"Yagami-chan?" I scratched at the back of my head. The choice of honorifics were certainly intriguing; I didn't know that my exorcist partner was of worship material. "She's at school at the moment. Do you need me to pass her your message? …Wait, if it's a confession, I'm not doing it for you. Nothing can substitute the true feelings sung by the infatuated—"
Ryou stood at the doorway, his mouth dropping open.
D stood before the corner desk, his mouth dropping open.
And then the two ran up to each other, clasping hands together like a long separated couple. The rapid-fire dialogue which transpired between the duo sadly lacked romance.
Though it easily ranked among the strangest and briefest in the history of human communication.
"Oh," Hideaki rubbed his chin and pointed at me. "But this gentleman says that she's at school… I'm confused… did Yagami-sama undergo a sex change operation or something?"
Ryou stomped towards me and whipped my buttocks.
"Idiot," he cursed. "Takeshi."
Add another to the list of Kenichi's embarrassing moments, fellas.
"It's fine, Sasaki-sensei," Hideaki defended. "I wasn't being very specific. Please don't hit him."
And hell you weren't, bloody bishounen. Why couldn't you just address the man by his first name? Yagami-sama here, Yagami-sama there, how utterly disgusting.
This earned me another twack and a blushing behind.
"Please stop, Sasaki-sensei," Hideaki grabbed the broomstick. "You weren't that violent when you trained me."
Ryou's expression softened and allowed his former protege to wrestle the weapon out of his hands. In the meantime, Hideaki began addressing the poltergeist.
"Ah, so you are the famous chick magnet," he shook Haiiro's limp limb. "You are indeed as adorable as claimed."
The rubber duck squeaked a mew of embarrassment.
Bloody bishounen, already up to your sneaky PR tricks. Didn't think I could see through your plan, did you? Heading down the streets, using Haiiro as leverage on the poor girls innocent enough to fall into your wiles, and then breaking their hearts once you were done with them—
"Sasaki-sensei!" Hideaki shouted. "Calm down and leave the room for a bit!"
Ryou cursed, letting the broomstick clatter against the desk before stomping out of the room.
My behind must be crying tears of blood right now.
The humming of the air-conditioner mediated the awkwardness that was hanging in the office. I stared at the numerous printers, computers, stationery and documents stacked everywhere, knowing that I have clearly crossed a line.
You are a little crankier than usual, cowboy.
"It appears that we have gotten off on the wrong foot," Hideaki chuckled nervously. "Kenichi? That's your name right?"
"Yeah… sorry, Hideaki. I think I'm still having my period."
Hideaki burst into uncontrollable fits of laughter.
"Ahahaha… a partner with a sense of humor! I think this will work out just fine!"
Wait a minute, partner? Work out?
"Yep, as a new member of the T Corporation Exorcist Division," Hideaki offered an outstretched hand. "Hideaki Yamamoto."
I accepted it, the cold touch of his fingers contrasting with the warmth of mine.
"Pleased to meet you, Kenichi. Make sure you don't die under my watch, okay?"