Apparently in this universe ghost hunters have like idol fangirls and magazines and stuff, I guess. I swear I don't plan any of this, this universe just kind of happens to me. Also I never know what to rate ghost things. PG-13??
eta: I guess it's worth knowing that Hanako-san is a ghost that is supposed to haunt school bathrooms. You knock on the 3rd stall door and ask, "Hanako-san, are you there?" and sometimes she says "Yes, I'm here" and then if you push open the door there she is. It's an urban legend, and students dare other students to do it.
"Demon Date only has him at number three this month, though."
"Those things don't mean anything. Jun-kun is first because they're promoting his drama."
"Ehhh, so unfair!"
Kitayama lifted his head up from his desk to eye the girls next to him. There were three of them, gathered around the desk by the window, gossiping loudly and flipping through a slick, trashy idol magazine, interrupting Kitayama's nap. He yawned, sitting up to stretch, and only gathered after a minute that they were actually discussing Yamashita Tomohisa, another student at Horikoshi. Of course Kitayama knew that there was a section at his school for students already working as ghost hunters, but there wasn't any particular reason for students from that section to cross paths with him, here in the sports section.
"Kiyoko's in his class. She says he missed a whole week after taking down that umbrella lady in Chiba. She sits two desks behind him."
Kitayama was up and behind them before they realized, all of them startling when Kitayama leaned in to get a closer look at the magazine page. Yamashita was lounging by a window looking pensive, shirt half unbuttoned, and very blond.
"That guy goes here?" he asked. "Is his hair even allowed here? He looks like a host."
"I don't want to hear that from you," the first girl sniffed, eyeing Kitayama's close-cropped soccer haircut.
Kitayama got it, that guys who showed some kind of ghost talent were popular. No matter how you looked at it, it seemed heroic going into dark places like a constant test of courage and that a couple guys got killed trying it every month, so it was a dangerous and sexy job, made even more so by the fact that the most talented receptors were usually the youngest. Unlike kinetics and shields, who honed skills through training and tended to improve over time, receptors were usually most sensitive in their teenaged years before their brain chemistry settled down.
What Kitayama didn't get was the weird idol culture that had built up around these guys, especially the photogenic ones. Magazines, TV appearances, handshake events…any way you looked at it, it was weird. Some of them even starred in dramatic reproductions of their own incidents, and that was the weirdest. Kitayama always though, shouldn't those guys be busier? Weren't there enough ghosts to go around or something? It sure seemed like there were.
"I just don't see what all the fuss is about," Kitayama said, reaching down to poke Yamashita's face on the glossy magazine page.
"He captures ghosts, clearly," the girl answered. "He risks his life going into haunted places!"
"Yeah, but we've got a whole section of those guys." Kitayama raised an eyebrow. "You aren't falling all over them. What makes Yamashita-kun so special?"
"You kick a ball around," the girl retorted, pulling her magazine out from under Kitayama's hands. "What makes you so special? You couldn't do the kind of stuff he does in a million years."
Kitayama was still thinking about that later in the afternoon, classes over and on his way to soccer practice. He was running a bit behind after staying to copy over some notes, and there wasn't anybody in the hallway with him. Was being a famous hunter different than being in idol? Was it better because they were doing something dangerous? If that Yamashita guy could do it, any of them could, right?
Somehow it all made him think of an unpleasant senpai he'd had in middle school, one who'd delighted in picking on first years whenever the coach's back was turned. During training camp he woken up a handful of them in the middle of the night and tormented them with tests of courage. Kitayama can still remembering him saying, "Scared? Can't do it, can you? Why don't you just quit?" but it hadn't worked on him the way it did on the others. Being told he couldn't do something just made Kitayama want to fight harder.
"Ugh, why am I even thinking about that guy?" Kitayama said out loud to nobody, and just then two girls burst out of the bathroom just in front of him, their indoor shoes squeaking against the floor at their panicked escape. Probably bullying an underclassman, Kitayama thought with some contempt, then sighed and hoped they hadn't left somebody naked in there or something. Of course it had to be a girls' bathroom, making the entire situation awkward.
Nobody was around, so it was him or nothing to make sure nobody was hurt or needed help. Pushing open the door, Kitayama called hello. A rush of cold air made his arms goose bump in contrast to the humid air of the hallway.
"Are you okay? Is anyone in here?" Kitayama asked. A burst of high-pitched giggles answered him, echoing in the small space, followed by a soft groan. Shooting one last glance over his shoulder to see if a teacher had appeared, Kitayama spat a, "Fuck it," and tromped into the bathroom.
Inside, it looked at first like a female student had another female student backed into the corner on the floor, but after a second, Kitayama started to register all the things that were wrong with the situation. The face of the student on the floor was paper white and frozen in an open-mouthed grimace of fear as she huddled there, clutching her knees to her chest. The student looming over her had hair cut in a bob at least thirty years out of date, and now that Kitayama was paying attention, her skirt was red, red suspenders over her white summer uniform shirt.
"What the hell?" Kitayama asked, laughing. "Are you seriously hazing somebody with a fake Hanako-san? For real?"
"They made me call her!" the girl on the floor sobbed, sounding hysterical. "They made me!"
"Calm down, it's just—waaagh!" Kitayama yelped in spite of himself when the girl turned his way. Her eyes were blood-red, her smile made of razor sharp teeth, and there was no way she was a student anywhere on earth. She lunged for Kitayama, her shrill laughter echoing off the walls again, making the hair on Kitayama's arms rise as he scrambled out of the way. He tripped over his own feet, landing hard on his ass. The other girl was still huddled in the corner, eyes white all the way around. Kitayama snapped at her, "Get out of here! While she's looking at me!"
She didn't even seem like she'd heard, petrified, and Kitayama gave an aggravated snarl. Then he looked back up and froze himself, because it wasn't Hanako-san looking down at him anymore, but his senpai from middle school.
"Scared?" he asked, looking somehow just as much bigger than Kitayama as when Kitayama had been a first year. The blood red eyes and sharp, snapping teeth weren't improving his appearance. "Can't do anything, huh?"
That's when Kitayama got it, that it wasn't his senpai or Hanako-san, it was a thing looking into their heads somehow. The girl was thinking about how scary Hanako-san would be, so that's what she got, and Kitayama had been thinking about middle school just earlier in the hallway. The difference was that Kitayama wasn't scared of urban legends or that stupid senpai, and telling him to just give up only made him want to fight.
There wasn't anything to grab for a weapon, so Kitayama yanked out the only thing he could think of, which was his wallet with the chain attached. His mother had told him he looked like a shady character with that thing hanging out of his pocket, and Kitayama hoped so as he fumbled the catch free of his belt loop and swung the chain in a circle as he struggled to his feet. He snapped the chain forward, only meaning to drive the thing forward and expecting it to pass right through, but instead it wrapped tightly around the thing's forearm.
For a split second they stared at each other, Kitayama unable to tell whether it was more surprised than he was that that had happened, and then it let out a screech that turned Kitayama's blood to ice. On instinct, he swung with all his strength and slammed it into the mirrors. It screeched again, and skittered along the wall up to the ceiling, yanking on Kitayama's arm. Kitayama's fingers were starting to go numb from being pinched by the chain looped around it.
"Would you get out of here already?!" Kitayama hollered at the girl, and maybe he sounded scarier than the thing, because she finally went, stumbling as she skittered out of the room. The thing tried to follow, jerking Kitayama half a meter across the floor before he dug his heels in and yanked it back.
Not that he had any idea what to do with the thing now that he was alone with it, and Kitayama was just about to let the chain go and make a run for it himself when the door slammed open and two other male students ran in. One of them had a glass jar tucked in the curve of his arm, fumbling the stopper open, and the other a number of small metal cubes whizzing around his head, both hallmarks of hunters.
"Took you guys long enough!" Kitayama snapped, yanking down hard on the chain as he was almost pulled up off his feet. He looked up to glare, and the thing's shape was changing again, apparently influenced by the new people. For a second, it looked like a nurse with a huge syringe, then more like a centipede slithering along the ceiling, then a…centipede nurse? Kitayama would have laughed at the thing's apparently confusion, if the next yank didn't take him clear off the floor. "HEY! DO SOMETHING!"
The rest of the experience was a blur of shrieking and green flashes of light, Kitayama having the wind knocked out of him when he came down on his back hard on the floor. By the time he blinked the stars out of his eyes, the mirror was cracked and the guy with the jar was wrestling the lid closed, the thing inside a swirling mass of reddish-brown that made Kitayama's eyeballs ache when he looked at it directly.
That guy was also Yamashita Tomohisa.
"You're Yamashita-kun, right?" Kitayama asked. Yamashita blinked at him when Kitayama growled, "Of fucking course you are," and let his head thunk back down against the floor.
Fifteen minutes later they were in the hallway, trying to explain to a teacher what all the fuss was about, the teacher scratching down notes.
"Yeah, it changed shape a couple times, like it was trying to be a thing we were scared of," Kitayama said. He was holding a wad of toilet paper to his face where Cube-kun hadn't been very careful with his aim. Maybe he was the one with the thing about nurses. "Listen, can I please go? I'm already super late to practice and my coach is gonna make me do three hundred laps as it is."
The teacher paused, pen going still. "Practice? You aren't in the hunting division?"
"Sports division," Kitayama explained. "Soccer."
"You fought a ghost in the bathroom with just your wallet chain and you're from the sports division?! Have you even been tested?"
"Nothing like this has ever happened before," Kitayama said. After a pause, he added, "Is that a thing I can do? Get tested for this stuff? How do you do that?"
"Well, I suppose, but usually they test much younger…" the teacher seemed to get a hold of himself suddenly. "Setting that aside, Kitayama-kun, let's talk about what you were doing inside a girls' bathroom…
"Wait, wait," Senga interrupted, waving his hands. "You went to Horikoshi and THEN became a hunter?"
"I was in the sports section, yeah." Kitayama wasn't sure how this water break had become story time, but here he was anyway, Senga staring wide-eyed, Nikaido looking deeply skeptical.
"You're lying, right? That's stupid," Nikaido scoffed. "People go to Horikoshi because they're already licensed hunters but have to finish school. Nobody goes there and then somehow passes the tests afterwards!"
"And yet, here I am! Stuck with you, and you." Kitayama bopped Nikaido on the head with his water bottle, then thumbed over his shoulder. Behind him Tamamori was whining at Miyata about how neither one of them could undo the knot in the middle of his chain. "And also that guy. So if this is some weird dream I'm having, feel free to wake me up."
"Did he tell you the part where he got put on warning for being in the girls' bathroom?" Fujigaya asked, his sudden appearance in the doorway making all three of them turn around. "He's awake. I said I'd take over so you can talk to him."
"Thanks," Kitayama said, news of Yokoo being conscious getting him on his feet faster than anything else could. The cracked ribs still ached as he stood, but Kitayama ignored them. "I won't be long. Make Tamamori and Nikaido switch roles every other round or Nikaido just hides in the middle."
"Aw, come on!" Tamamori protested, making a face about what he thought of Fujigaya taking over training. Miyata patted Tamamori's shoulder, and Kitayama added that Tamamori wasn't allowed to hide behing Miyata either.
"Can't we come too?" Senga asked, hopping to his feet next to Kitayama. "Just for a little! We're worried about Yokoo-san too." Nikaido, still on the floor, made a face, and Tamamori grumbled that he was fine without that guy yelling at him. "Well, I'm worried."
"Not yet," Kitayama refused Senga, making him pout. Kitayama ruffled his hair. "He just woke up. If he's feeling up to it, tomorrow, maybe. But don't get your hopes up."
"Aww," Senga sighed, but let Kitayama shove him back towards the others.
Kitayama tried to tell himself that too, don't get your hopes up, on the way to Yokoo's infirmary room. The tight clench of Fujigaya's jaw and the lines around his eyes said that Yokoo was definitely not out of the woods yet. But waking up was a first step, at least.
It seemed like all Kitayama did was start over, in school, in hunting, in this group, over and over and over. He hadn't told Fujigaya yet, but lately whenever he talks to Takizawa, Kitayama got the feeling that the younger four weren't going to be just their temporary training assignment anymore. So it was another do-over, then, another start from zero. You would have thought Kitayama would have gotten better at those, after having done so many.
He wanted desperately to talk with Yokoo about it before he tried to bring it up with Fujigaya, but even if Yokoo was in a state to think about it, it was cruel to ask him about how the three of them were supposed to start filling in the hole between them. He didn't even know whether Yokoo remembered what happened before he was knocked out, or how much Fujigaya had told him.
Kitayama paused at the doorway to take a deep breath, to steady himself. Yokoo was awake, they were alive, and that was step one.
Next up is doctoggy!