Hoshino, Hoshino, Hoshino - wait, they might not have a nameplate up yet if they just moved in. Daigo fumbled with his phone to bring up the address he’d been sent - with a short pause to look around and ensure no one saw him almost walk into a telephone pole - and doubled back down a missed alleyway toward his destination. He swore one of the arson victims’ houses was this way too; maybe they’d finished renovating the old building and Hoshino moved right in.
That was insanely creepy, now that he thought about it. Probably better not to bring that up.
When he arrived at the Hoshino residence, the ginger gave the building only a cursory once-over before he peppered a few frantic knocks on the door. Both hands cupped around a compact styrofoam takeout box, held in front of him almost like a present, and he bounced excitedly on the balls of his feet as he waited for an answer.
It was a difficult thing, waiting. Noriaki had never been very good at it. But it was necessary in this specific instance—while he was sure his mother would be over the moon that he had already made new 'friends', he certainly didn't want her knowing just how he had obtained those friends. Nor did he want her to see him sneaking off into a burned building with that same friend and bring about all the questions such an act would spawn. So he had told Daigo to show up long after she had gone off to work.
The teen had half-assumed the ginger wouldn't show up at all. He had been notably evasive in class, and took off down the halls before he could disentangle himself from Nakano earlier in the day. If he didn't show, well, there was always the next day. They shared a homeroom, so he couldn't be evaded for too much longer. Just as the former athlete took to sliding on his shoes, he heard a rapid series of knocks at the door. So it seemed his invitation had worked."I almost didn't think you'd show up—"
He paused after he slid the front door open, quirking a brow at his classmate, "Is… that food?"
Daigo perked up rigidly as the door opened, somewhere between excited and surprised despite him clearly having known his classmate would answer. He held the box in question out for Hoshino to take with a nod.“Uh-huh! We had some leftover katsuobushi that we were gonna toss - don’t worry, it’s still good - so I made some onigiri and threw it in there,”
Daigo chirped enthusiastically, “There’s three if your parents want some too. I… probably should’ve asked if you have siblings, now that I think about it.”"Thanks, I guess? I'll let my mom know when she's home. But I didn't exactly invite you here for dinner."
He took a few steps back to gingerly place the offering on the table near the door. He then gestured towards the street with his head, moving to step through the door and shut it behind him."Let's go for a little walk."“Um… okay,”
Daigo muttered, hovering close to Noriaki as they moved away from the door. This was definitely going to be about yesterday, great. He knew he should’ve expected as much, but his brain stopped working somewhere between the invitation and Daigo actually leaving his house, with little room for complex thought in between.“The cat… lady… thing isn’t gonna follow us, is she?”"Haven't seen her since homeroom today. I think she either found someone else to pester, or Nakano scared her off. Either way, I'm counting my blessing."
Noriaki led his fellow a few houses down the street, his hands tucked into the pockets of the hoodie he had donned shortly before preparing to leave. He stopped just in front of the house that had gotten him dragged into this entire affair, turning to look directly at it."Tell me exactly what you see in front of us, Hinari-san."
The fidgety redhead turned to follow Noriaki’s gaze, his head swiveling side to side in search of anything unnatural or out of the ordinary. Whatever he was supposed to be seeing, he couldn’t see it. Was there something off about the house? Did the demon cat live there?“Uuuuh. A… house?”
He responded sheepishly, almost wincing at the reaction to his imperceptiveness, “You gotta help me out here, I wear these glasses for a reason.”
Noriaki pulled his hand from his pocket shortly after Daigo insisted he could see nothing. In it, he held his phone, and after navigating the touchscreen with a few taps of his thumb, he held it up towards the house. A soft clicking sound indicated he had taken a picture."Tell me what you see now."
He said coolly, holding the phone out so the redhead could see the image it had just captured.“Oh, that’s one of the houses that burned do- wait, you just took that.”
Daigo shifted his gaze rapidly between the phone and the building before them. “How’d you do that?”"I walked home with the president and an acquaintance of hers today. Both of them seemed to see it as it appears in the picture. Until Monday morning, it looked like that to me as well,"
The youth explained, sliding his phone back into his pocket, "But now I see a fully finished house, and so do you."
He sighed as he stared at the illusionary structure. As much as he wanted to ignore the very poignant reminder of his situation, knowing that Daigo could also see the house just confirmed his suspicion—that this place was going to be ground zero for the trials to come. "Does the phrase 'It is located in a place consumed by flames that should be no more.' mean anything to you?"
The ginger turned an unsettled glare toward Noriaki. Nothing could just be a coincidence around here, could it? He lowered his voice conspiratorially, even though he knew no eavesdroppers would have any idea what anything they were saying meant anyway, “You’re having those weird dreams too? And the butterflies? You seeing them?”"Have been since Miss Handsy dragged me through the mirror inside that house Sunday night."
He answered nonchalantly, "Considering she's since taken to dragging other people in as well, I don't think I can ignore this anymore. Which means you can't either."
Daigo let out a whiny groan, his posture sinking as if the noise was deflating him. This wasn’t his job! Couldn’t the police be the ones fighting magic hands in circus funhouse hell? After a short period of dramatics, the boy picked his head back up.“What exactly are we supposed to do about it though? I don’t exactly know where that hand thing likes to hang out so we can beat it up.”"For now? Wait, probably. The guy in the dream mentioned we're waiting for 'others' to awaken. Which means he's dragging more people into this little charade. I imagine this place will be the meeting point once everyone is to his satisfaction,"
Noriaki told his none-too-pleased companion, "But he also said there's something useful waiting for those that have. Which is why I called you here. I don't want to get attacked all by my lonesome."“A-attacked?”
Daigo questioned as his face paled, “You’re- no, no, I’m not going in there. We’re not going in there. What if a bunch of ghosts live there?!”"Then we'll kick their asses. You've got that big beetle thing from yesterday, just summon it if things go wrong."
The teen was quick to retort. Without missing a beat, he began to walk through the yard of the abandoned house, steeling himself with all the confidence he could exude to reassure his rattled attache."Don't make me pick you up and carry you in. I'm a lot bigger. I could definitely do it."“Waitwaitwaitwait! I don’t think I can summon him anymore!”
Daigo pleaded, though he still followed after Noriaki as he advanced, “I mean, I haven’t really tried, but… I mean, won’t a giant beetle man get the cops called or- or the army or- what if there’s more hands? Or a… a… Shadow! We needed like five people to kill the last one!”
Eventually, the fiery-haired teen planted his feet and refused to move any further. “Every time I follow you, I get into trouble.”
Okay, it happened once, but it was enough."You're in trouble whether or not I get involved. If you keep trying to dodge this, that cat girl is just going to take to pestering you every day until another pair of hands decides to drag you into the goddamn Shadow Realm. I know from experience,"
He retorted in his own stubborn way, "If we go in now, we might find something useful that will make the next time it inevitably happens to us easier.""Still, if you're gonna fight me on it, I don't have a choice. C'mere."
The teen pulled his hands from his pockets again at that point, advancing on Daigo with his arms out.
Daigo danced nervously from foot to foot, as if searching for a direction to flee. “Hey- no- stop it! I’ll scream- or… something!”
What the boy may have had in agility, he utterly lacked in physicality and athleticism, and he managed to duck under the arms but not actually put any distance between them. “No fair! Your legs are too long!”
He briefly considered complying long enough for his more athletic peer to turn his back, but there was no way he’d outrun him anyway even with a head start."Screaming only works for girls."
Noriaki tutted in a dismissive tone as the ginger ducked under him and tried to make a hasty retreat. He very briefly considered how this might look to any of the neighbors, but he doubted many of the older folks were still up and about at this hour, and a couple of teenage boys roughhousing wasn't an especially uncommon sight in a school neighborhood.
As admittedly fun as it was walking after the backpedaling ginger, they did have a reason to be there, and Noriaki wanted to put that business to bed as soon as possible. As they made another circuit around the yard, he suddenly pushed off his back foot, diving low to drive his shoulder into Daigo's midsection. As he straightened up, his arms locked around the smaller boy's back, hefting him up not unlike how someone might handle a sack of grain."Y'know, for someone who lives at a restaurant, you sure don't weigh a lot."
He remarked just a little boastfully as he turned back towards the house's entrance and began to lug his cargo towards it.
Daigo squirmed aimlessly as he was seized and hoisted upward, his limbs constantly in motion but not actually accomplishing anything. One arm reached up to hold his slipping glasses into place while the other futilely slapped at his aggressor’s back, not even hard enough to hurt. Eventually the reality of his position settled in and the ginger just hung limp in acceptance, though if Noriaki could see his face, he’d notice a childish pout and the faintest dusting of red on his cheeks.“Meanie,”
He grumbled, “And unlike the greasy crap you probably eat all day, our restaurant makes real food, not heart disease in the shape of a chicken filet.”"Don't be such a baby, it's not that bad,"
Noriaki chided the struggling redhead, "If you behave, I'll take you back to my room and let you play with the cat."
As he stepped up the porch, he half expected to feel the burned wood to cave beneath him. Despite this, everything felt rather... real. Even when he reached out with one hand and pushed open the front door, it simply slid aside like any other. As he ducked inside the house with Daigo in tow, he found himself almost marveling at the scene within."It's like nothing changed at all. You can even see the slippers from whoever must have lived here last."
Daigo stopped paying attention somewhere around the point he heard ‘take you back to my room’ and didn’t tune back in until they were already inside. He craned his head upward and toyed with his glasses to try and get a decent view from his awkward position on Hoshino’s shoulder, though he couldn’t catch much more than the entryway. “This is insanely creepy,”
He whispered cautiously, afraid he might alert the horrid spectres that once inhabited those slippers to their presence. “Should we, uh, take our shoes off? To not piss off the ghosts?”"Might as well,"
Noriaki set the boy on his shoulder down at that point, taking care to take off his sneakers and place them beside the front door. He did opt not to take a pair of slippers, though. It felt wrong, wearing a very possibly dead person's personal house slippers.
With his footwear discarded, the teen opted to wander a little farther into the house. Everything seemed comparatively normal, if a little high class for his tastes. Having actually seen the interior after the fire, it was unnerving to see whatever force had taken over the house painstakingly recreate the dwelling as it had been beforehand. It occurred to him to search for the mirror at first, but as he rounded into the kitchen, he spotted one of the irritating little precursors to disaster—the damned blue butterflies—stuck on the screen door leading out the back."Alright, you fuckers, I know how this works: but I can set you on fire now if you decide to pull something,"
He grumbled belligerently as he approached the door, "Hinari-san, back me up here. I'm opening this door."
Daigo turtled up a bit as he was set down - for some reason, standing on his own two feet in the ghost house made him feel even less
safe - though he quickly followed suit and removed his shoes. Never far from his partner in crime, he scampered through the house, throwing furtive glances left and right as if anticipating a jump-scare at any moment. Was this a crime? Did the space they were in even exist or was it part of that mirror place?“Back you- what am I supposed to do, stomp on the monster’s big toe?!”
Whatever force he had at his disposal inside the mirror yesterday, he didn’t feel it now. He wasn’t even certain Khepri would fit in the room they were in either. Horns trapped in a ceiling fan was a pretty lame reason to die.
Once Daigo finished speaking, the faintest sound of footsteps could be heard. If the pair strained their hearing, they could guess it was coming from the second floor. After a few seconds, the sound grew."You'll figure out something."
Noriaki replied, placing a hand on the door handle. He could hear the footsteps, apparently approaching from somewhere below. With a breath to center himself, he quickly pulled the door open, throwing himself through the doorway in an effort to surprise whatever was approaching before it could surprise him.“Wait- what was tha- there’s someone in here I thi- don’t open the door yet!”
Daigo hissed frantically as he heard the noise, cutting himself off with a different thought every time something new crossed his panicked mind.
The lack of light served to stretch the shadows on the walls, cloaking the stairs in darkness. Nonetheless, the sound got louder and became fully unmuffled in a few seconds. Another shadow stretched over them, the footsteps coming to a halt.“What are you doing here?”
The voice was all-too familiar to the pair, and once the footsteps resumed, a light overhead turned on. The hallway was revealed to have walls littered with picture frames and a length of stairs leading upwards. At the base stood Mira, unfettered by the pair. She appeared just as she did on the other side, with the exception of a simple, frilly black dress she wore. Her tail swung quietly behind her as she approached the two, curious.
Noriaki paused for a long moment as he stared down the cat girl at the end of the hallway. After a time, he turned back to Daigo, giving a determined nod."You were right. Let's get the hell out of here."
The redhead managed an impressively girlish yelp as he ducked behind Hoshino for cover at the interloper’s approach. He took a step away once her identity became more apparent, though one of his fists remained balled up in the back of his classmate’s shirt. “You’re probably faster than me, so gimme like a five second head start, okay?”
Letting out a sigh, Mira shook her head. “Honestly, why bother coming in if you’re just going to leave without accomplishing anything?”
She asked."I came here looking for someone else. Not you. Never you. I've had just about all I can take of you."
Noriaki answered, weighing his odds on managing to barrel through the house with Daigo clinging to his back as he was.
Mira was less than amused at Noriaki’s words, though she did drop her gaze. “...Someone else?”
She ended up asking."The girly looking guy. From the Velvet Room."“Oh,”
was all she offered, though she did dig into her pocket. “The door’s at the end of the hall. You’ll need this if you want to go see William.”
Revealing a key, she held it out for either of them to take, though she didn’t make eye contact.
Noriaki narrowed his eyes at the offering. After another moment, he nodded."You heard her, Hinari. Go take the key."“Wh-what? Me?”
He sputtered, still clung to Noriaki’s shirt, “Is that all I am to you? Your- your… crash test dummy? What if she’s a shapeshifting evil thing trying to eat us?!”
Letting out a huff, Mira glared at the two. “I’m not a monster!”
She snapped. “You can’t get through the door on this side without a key, so I’m offering one to you!”“Then he can take it!”"I don't know if I want to now! You're being real evasive about this key, Hinari. I think you're trying to bait me into it!"“You’re right, I am! Now go pick it up Mister I-Carry-Daigo-Into-Dangerous-Houses!”
Daigo crossed his arms petulantly and huffed. It’d serve him right for insisting they enter in the first place.
It seemed as though Noriaki had little choice. Daigo had betrayed him at the last moment, and he had to contend with the cat girl he had come to dread by his lonesome Padding his way forward, the teen reached out to snatch the key from her hands.
Throwing Noriaki an unamused look, Mira sighed. “I’ll leave you to it, then,”
She muttered, pushing past the pair to reach the living room.
Noriaki stepped aside to let the cat girl stomp her way into the living room. There were probably questions to be asked as to why she seemed to be inhabiting the ghostly dwelling as if it were entirely normal, but it was better to approach one mystery at a time—in this case, the Velvet Room took priority.
With the key in hand, he made his way back to where Daigo stood and, gesturing to the redhead to follow, began to walk down the darkened hallway towards the alleged entrance.
As Mira passed, Daigo hopped aside squeamishly, as if afraid to let her touch him. He turned a lopsided frown back toward his companion at Noriaki’s beckoning, though he hovered behind him obediently while they ventured further into the abyss.“So, uh, what’s her problem?”
He asked at a whisper, “Wasn’t she the one that wanted us involved in the first place?”
Girls never did make any sense to him, honestly. Even monster girls."I think she's upset we don't much like her. Y'know, after she lured us into a monster infested hellhole."
Noriaki theorized, although he didn't have too long to ponder it. As they arrived at the door, he held the key up towards it, looking for any kind of hole to slide it into.
The key in Noriaki’s hand began to glow blue before bursting into flames. Dropping down to the ground, they covered the entire door before fading away, painting the door blue. Its frame glowed before a doorknob appeared, though the door itself clicked and slowly swung open. Revealing an all-too familiar sight of the luxury train cart, standing next to the desk was an equally familiar blond haired man. Should either boy turn around, they would find themselves somehow already inside the room. The door behind them was closed, though the doorknob remained.“Welcome to the Velvet Room,”
William greeted the pair, giving his customary bow. “And so you’ve found the door on your side. I congratulate you.”
Daigo responded with only a nervous laugh before immediately turning around to make his departure. That was all that had been asked of him, right? Investigate? Well, they’d investigated; he could leave. Unfortunately, it seemed the Velvet Room had already engulfed him before he had a choice whether to enter or not. Hopefully the phenomenon didn’t repeat when he tried to leave.“Well, it was nice seeing you in… not a dream. Are we not dreaming? This still kinda feels like a dream. Y’know, you don’t have to tell me, I’ll just… uh…”
The redhead rambled as he slowly inched toward the exit.
Contrary to his companion's nervousness, Noriaki found himself filled with indignation. It was almost concerning that he already found himself accustomed to the morphing of whole rooms around him, but this had been the third or fourth time, so it was to be expected that the surprise had begun to wear off. What remained was thoroughly buried under his flaring temper, which was readily apparent in the way he thrust an accusing finger towards William."Before I say anything else: are you the asshole who decided to drag us into this, or is it the cat? I need to know who gets the worst of it."“I am unsure of which cat you speak of, but I can assure you that any frustration you have can be resolved easily, esteemed guest,”
William replied calmly, his free hand resting on the desk. “As for your question, I can’t say for sure. My master is the one who normally beckons to our guests, but as he has been away for some time, I do not know who it was that beckoned you or the other guests here. The circumstances for your arrival have been unique, all things considered.”
He looked over at Daigo for a moment. “If you would like to rescind your responsibilities, you may very well do so. I’ve already cancelled one contract,”
He said gently. “I would only ask that you hear my request, first.”
At the mention of an easy escape, Daigo swiveled back around, though his hand hovered mere inches away from the doorknob. “Just like that? Cancelled? Done?”
He prodded as he bounded back toward William, pausing only to slap Hoshino playfully on the arm, “I’ll remember you fondly when the shadow hands eat you.”
Approaching further, the fiery-haired boy hiked up on his tiptoes eagerly before the attendant, his best puppy dog eyes on display as the boy waited to hear the nebulous request that stood between him and freedom. “Of course. Every contract has its clause,”
William stated. “I would not recommend it personally, however, but to each their own. You need only surrender all your given memories until the corruption has been cleared.”
Daigo’s bouncing stopped immediately and his face soured. “So what, you want me to just be a vegetable until… I don’t even know what the corruption is! It’s a hand!”
He crossed his arms with a pout and paced back to Noriaki’s side, content to let the more intimidating teen talk.“I did say I wouldn’t recommend it, esteemed guest,”
William replied, concerned. “The corruption took the form of a hand in your world, but it can take any shape. Fortunately, your actions have banished it back to the other side for now.”
Noriaki very nearly directed his ire to Daigo after the short boy decided to boast of his own escape so happily. Thankfully, it seemed karma had other plans in store for the amateur chef, and his hopes of abandoning the affair were thoroughly crushed by William. As he watched Daigo slink back to his side with a pout, he finally had a chance to speak on his own. "So let me get this straight—you have no idea who dragged us into this bullshit, but you're more than willing to hold our minds hostage until we dance through all the little hoops you desire, which almost assuredly involve fighting demons while you lounge around in this dumb ass train car?"
he asked rhetorically, "You're a real piece of shit, you know that? Between you and the moron with the cat ears, I'm not sure which one I wanna fight more. Considering you don't have a pair of tits to speak of, though, I reckon it might just have to default to you!"
William listened intently to every word Noriaki said and let him have it out. Once he finished, however, the blond didn’t seem fazed by the threat. “It would seem you are displeased with the situation,”
He summed up Noriaki’s words. “It is unfortunate.”
He paused for a moment, deciding to open his book. “The previous guest was unable to fulfill their contract. Perhaps their regrets reached out to all of you,”
He suggested. “However, I must remind you that all that enter here do so willingly. No one is coerced, no one is forced to do so. While the circumstances as to why the option appeared before you are unclear, there is a part of you--subconsciously, perhaps--that wishes to fulfill the contract.”"I must remind you that you're a cock sucking snake, and I guarantee if you ask anyone who shows up here—including the one whose memories you sucked out—not one of them would tell you they want to be here, subconsciously or otherwise,"
the temperamental teen practically spat, "I figured there would be something of use here if I made the trek, but with how eager you seem to be to dodge the blame, I doubt I'll get any. So do me a favor and keep yourself out of my head going forward. The less I see of your smug, satisfied ass the better."
Looking a touch disappointed, William didn’t respond right away. Instead, he flipped his book open to a page, the book glowing as five small fires burned on them. “If that is your wish, then I will not reach out to you again. Before you go, I will offer what little you know so that you may fulfill the contract as quickly as possible,”
He said, releasing the book and letting it float in front of him.
Each flame turned into a different color, and William pointed to the first one. “The corruption has brought about five pillars in The Reaper’s Lair. This is the primary domain of a demon named Lilith, who seeks to spread the corruption through both worlds. As she is now, she is invincible. However, by dismantling the five pillars, her power will wane, and thus she will be able to be challenged on equal ground,”
He explained. “The Shadow that you defeated was spawned by the fifth pillar. I believe it will seek out a host sooner than later and use their negative emotion to gain the power it has lost. While this may make it seem like your work was for nothing, it is the opposite: it will be forced to show itself, and thus you may be able to use the flames of rebirth to give it a second life.”
Closing the book, the flames disappeared. “I will always be here if need be. Do you have any other questions for me before you depart, esteemed guests?”
He asked.“Uh, yeah, how are we supposed to find a host or a pillar or whatever?”
Daigo grumbled as he postured up next to Noriaki. If magic hand kidnappings were going to become commonplace occurrences for him, he wanted a warning.
Raising a finger, William said nothing until a small, blue butterfly came from seemingly out of nowhere. It fluttered past the pair, resting on William’s finger. “Help from afar will always be there to expose the source in your world,”
He explained. “While it may take them time to find it, a change in behavior, or perhaps a sudden withdrawal may also be indications that others may find themselves corrupted. The atmosphere in a location can also be a hint.”
He paused for a moment. “...I believe there is someone who has been Awakened that also has the ability to sense the corruption in your world. Her ability is modeled after the butterflies as well,”
He said slowly. “She may be someone to look for.”
The redhead puffed his cheeks out in an exaggerated pout. How utterly unhelpful. With how much he already disliked those butterfly things, he couldn’t imagine he’d enjoy the company of anyone who passively acted like them. But of course, he couldn’t just ignore the butterflies, or Tall, Dark Blue, and Smarmy here would catch him with a contract clause and mind control him or something. He hated lawyers.“Told you we shouldn’t’ve come here,”
Daigo grumbled toward Noriaki accusatorially, “Can we go now?”"Yeah, yeah. Cryptic bullshit and butterflies. I've since caught on to how things work."
Noriaki grumbled at their 'host' and his long winded help. It truly was a talent, to say so many words with so little meaning, but it was a talent that he wanted no part of going forward. When Daigo espoused a similar level of disdain for their situation, he decided it was time to go."If you want to be helpful, crack open that door you decided to shut behind us."
His parting words were about as sharp as anything else he said during their little rendezvous, and with them, he reached to seize his redheaded companion by the wrist and drag him out of the disconcerting train car they had found themselves in.
Giving the pair a bow, William stated, “The door will always be open for you. Farewell.”
A vague sense of befuddlement filled Daigo’s head as they crossed the threshold of the Velvet Room again, leading the boy to briefly jerk in Hoshino’s grasp as he feared some final malediction from William. Once the dreamlike haze faded and the sobriety of reality had settled in again, he fearlessly turned around and childishly blew a raspberry back at the door. "Well that didn't go quite how I wanted it to,"
Noriaki muttered to himself once they were free from the train car, "Don't suppose you have any opinions on what to do next?"“Not unless you wanna ask Mira,”
Daigo suggested halfheartedly, “But I don’t think I wanna stay in this creepy house any longer than we have to.”
This was probably the worst way the night could’ve ended anyway - barring another shadow hand attack - so he wasn’t in any hurry to enter any more supernaturally-charged conversations.
Still, the redhead made no moves to dart for the exit, and instead he simply observed Noriaki with a vapid, expectant gaze, as if waiting for a cue that he was allowed to leave."You're a paragon of decisiveness, y'know that?"
Noriaki asked with a roll of his eyes. He mirrored the redhead's willingness to exit the house as soon as possible, and so he wasted little time making his way back the way they had come, taking extra care not to run into the catgirl on their way out.