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 Refreshing Waters (Whumptober 2021)

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Saturday Morning, 10am - Mori no Kawa Ryokan and Onsen, Tochigi Prefecture 


“So, what are you going to do first, Ayako?” asked Houshou, looking around the lobby. “This place seems pretty nice.” 

I wonder if you and I would be able to just chat in the mixed bathing section? It would be nice to get some time to ourselves. 

“A hot soak,” she answered promptly, red lips curling into a smile. “Maybe a massage after that, and then another soak just to get all the knots out.” 

I could do that. 

A blonde head was nodding beside her. 

“I’ve always loved hot springs, but I’ve never been able to try any of the outdoor ones before, so that’s where I’m going to head before dinner." John’s blue eyes sparkled with anticipation. “What about you, Bou-san?” 

Soaking with sake and stars, even if that means I need to sneak the bottle in myself.

The monk rubbed his chin for a few seconds.  

“I’ve always found relaxing outside, staring up at the night sky, an amazing way to connect with the world. There are a few outdoor baths here, so I’ll head to one later on. Not sure yet if I want to go to the men’s baths or the mixed bathing one though.” He glanced at Ayako and winked. “Depends on the view.” 

Ha, I think her face is redder than her hair right now. 

“There’s also the question of which one is most beneficial to drink or bathe in,” Masako pointed out, snagging a pamphlet from the stack they were standing next to. The pictures on the front went through the seasons in a clockwise order, starting with a snowy winter and ending with fiery autumn. “Look. The chloride waters are recommended for people with dry skin, or who are slow to warm up, and the iron spring water helps women with anemia when drunk. Each bath here relies on different spring sources, so we’ll be able to mix and match.” 

Ugh. Drinking iron heavy water doesn’t sound good at all. 

“Really, this was an amazing idea, Naru!” Mai chirped, smiling at the dour-faced leader of Shibuya Physic Research as he reached the check-in desk. “I still can’t believe you’re treating us to an entire weekend at a hot spring!” 

“I can’t either,” muttered Houshou, letting out an oomph as Ayako’s elbow found its way into his side.

That was probably a delayed reaction to my comment earlier. Normally, she’s ribbing Naru harder than the rest of us. 

“Would you rather I had left you behind?” Naru turned away from Mai and faced the tall, thin clerk at the front desk. “Shibuya, Kazuya. You should have a reservation in your system.” 

A few quick key taps and the clerk nodded, a lock of hair dripping down to cover his eye.

This is going to be a wonderful weekend. Not a single thing to worry about for once. 

“Yes, I see that you have a weekend stay with access to all our facilities for five men and three women. There are three rented rooms in total, with a split of two men for one, three men for another, and the three ladies in the last room. I will need to make a copy of Mr. John Brown’s foreigner card and passport, in addition to Mr. Koujo Lin’s foreigner card and passport.”

The two men stepped forward and produced the documents, which the clerk took with him to the copy machine in the corner. 

Stupid law. Houshou frowned, and Lin nodded in his direction. They live and work here, their gaijin card should be enough. It’s not like places ask me for two pieces of identification every time I stay a night somewhere. 

The passports and cards were handed back, and he placed three sets of keys in front of Naru in a shallow blue bowl. 

“Thank you very much for staying at the Mori no Kawa Ryokan and Onsen. Dinner is from our autumn course and served from five thirty until eight thirty. Please let the staff know ahead of time if any member of your group has food allergies, and we’ll substitute the dish. The hot springs are open until three thirty in the morning, when they are closed until five thirty for cleaning and restocking. No tattoos are allowed, and if we see one, we will ask your entire group to leave.” The man trailed off, staring at John. The priest, though, was busy looking over the pamphlet with Masako and didn’t notice. 

Really? Can we get over this and start our little mini-vacation?

“Hey, John,” said Houshou, nodding to the clerk. “He’s got a question to ask you.”

“Oh?” The priest beamed at the man. “I’m sorry I missed it. What else did you need from me?” 

The clerk smiled again, but, Houshou noticed, there was a fakeness about it. 

Like he’s talking to a dog he doesn’t like. 

“Our facilities don’t allow people with tattoos to partake in the onsen. I’m sorry, but even though you’re a foreigner, I will have to insist that you stay out of the bathing area.” He gave a very slight bow, and moved the bowl of keys closer to Naru, whose eyes narrowed. 

Wait... Did that little shit just throw John out? 

John’s face morphed into confusion, and now it was the entire group of SPR’s turn to stare down the clerk. The man’s eyes flickered to each of them, but then he straightened up and resolutely pushed out his chest. 

Ugh. He’s doing that “I’m going to stand my ground because I’m right” pose. Houshou had to smirk at the thought running through his head. I’ve seen it enough when our “fans” tell us we’re singing the song wrong, or playing the wrong chord.  

“Was that a question?” asked John, rubbing the back of his head.

That was nice, giving the guy a second chance to own up to his mistake. The monk turned to see Osamu getting ready to speak, and he grinned. It’s a good thing you have friends to stand up for you, John, because while you try to be kind to others, we have no problem letting people know when they’re being idiots.  

“No,” Osamu replied, pushing up his glasses and glaring, “it’s not. He’s making an assumption, most likely falsely based on past experiences, that a foreigner must have a tattoo simply because they are foreign.” 

A slow tapping sound spread throughout the lobby. 

Ayako has entered the fray. 

“Now, I didn’t say there was anything wrong with tattoos,” the clerk said, holding up his hands. Another older man appeared behind him, almost as if he had been summoned with magic. While both of them were dressed in suits, the second man was older, with more visible white hair, and deep lines etched onto his forehead. 

The senior in charge. Houshou sighed. Maybe this will be taken care of soon. 

“Is there a problem here, Takeuchi-san?” He asked, looking at the group.  

“I was just reminding our guests that anyone with a tattoo, foreign or not, is not allowed in the baths,” explained the clerk smoothly. 

And that’s how you look like you’re doing your job when you’re really being an ass. Slick.  

“Interestingly enough,” commented Lin as he looked up from his phone, “your clerk didn’t ask our friend if he has a tattoo. John, does the Catholic church allow priests to have tattoos?” 

John laughed and shook his head. 

“It really depends on the priest, but mostly, tattoos are considered ill-advisable since many members of older congregations would see it as a scandal. Priests are supposed to take a vow of poverty after all, and spending money on a tattoo flies in the face of that vow. I’ve never been interested in getting one anyway, so that’s never bothered me.” 

A flicker of emotion crossed over the new man’s face, but he didn’t turn to his clerk again. 

“Can we get our stuff to our rooms now?” asked Houshou, pointing at the suitcases surrounding the group. “Since you’ve told us the rules?” 

“I’m sorry,” interrupted the older gentlemen, holding up a hand, “but, are you saying that you do not have a tattoo, sir?” 

Yes, he is, and I’d like to start enjoying my weekend, thank you. He opened his mouth, but Ayako beat him to it. 

“John’s speaking Japanese,” snapped Ayako, walking over to put her hand on the priest’s shoulder. “You should be able to understand him clearly.” 

“My apologies, I’ve always had problems with Kansai-ben.” He gave a bow to John, then turned to Takeuchi-san. “Kenta, please go into the kitchen and see if there are any jobs you can help with.” 

Ha! Enjoy your punishment for letting your prejudices get the better of you!

“But, sir,” protested the clerk, eyes wide. “I still have three hours left of my shift.” 

“Yes, and for that time period I’ll be taking over your position.” Neither of the men moved an inch. “Now, Kenta.” 

With a scowl on his face and the smallest of huffs, the man turned and strode out of the room, closing the door behind him loud enough that it echoed in the lobby. 

And he still has a job... I wonder if he’s related to the owners of this place?

“I’m sorry about that.” He bowed to them. “My name is Hirose, Yoshi, and I am the manager.” 

“Is it normal for your employees to discriminate against obvious foreigners?” asked Lin, arching an eyebrow. Houshou had to put a hand over his mouth before he laughed too loudly at the snarkiest word in the sentence. 

He’s got a point there. Out of two of them, John’s hair and eyes are the most eye-catching. 

“Kenta—” whatever Yoshi was about to say was buried under a loud shout from the area behind him. For the next few seconds someone screamed, cursed “the fools,” and slammed a door hard enough that one painting on the wall fell to the floor. 

What the hell was that? Houshou wanted to ask, but there was enough of an awkward feeling in the lobby that he didn’t want to be the person to bring it up.  

“What that your employee?” demanded Naru, looking at the back area. 

We can always count on Naru to handle situations like these with just the right amount of empathy and social kindness. Houshou bit his bottom lip to keep from laughing, but judging by the glance his boss sent him, he wasn’t successful.  

Yoshi winced, taking out a handkerchief and patting his face. For the next few seconds, he said nothing, and thankfully, the lobby was quiet. Quiet enough that he could hear Mai whisper to Osamu that maybe this place wasn’t the best place to be.  

I agree, there have to be better onsen in the area. 

“Yes, and no,” Yoshi finally said, tucking his square bit of cloth away. “Yes, that was an employee of mine, but no, that was not Kenta. That was Yamashita-san. He’s been... slightly upset ever since we added the Demon’s Cursed Painting to the art auction.” 

Slightly? I don’t think I want to meet the guy when he’s really upset then. Then Houshou’s brain caught the rest of what had been said. Questions came from everyone in the group and Yoshi actually stepped away from the counter, as if the onslaught of questions directed at him would stop if he wasn’t manning the front desk. 

“The art auction,” he answered first, addressing Masako, “starts in about an hour, at noon sharp. We have statues, paintings, sketches, and even a few pieces of pottery.” 

He turned to Naru next. 

“We’re having an art auction in the building since we need to make more repairs than usual this year, because of the heavy rains and typhoons that hit us earlier this season.” 

Then he looked at Ayako. 

“All of you are more than welcome to join. There is an entry fee of ¥2,000 per person, but I am happy to extend the invitation to you as an apology for how my clerk acted during check in.”

Yoshi face Houshou. 

“The Demon’s Cursed Painting is part of a legend in our rural area. There were two children once, daughters of a prominent citizen that liked to live here during the snowy winters. The older one, Akari, seemed to be cursed. She lost her husband and young child in the same season, was attacked by a dog, and narrowly escaped having a fatal accident in the mountains.. After that, she stayed mostly by herself in a small hut somewhere near the river bend. She had an intelligence and a calmness that made her many friends here, and even with her curse, several said that she had a healing touch, so they were happy enough to go to her when they were sick. The younger one, Haruki, was blessed with a fiancé from the town, but one day accused her older sister of stealing the man away from her with a love potion. Before anyone could intervene and get to the bottom of the argument, Haruki had killed her fiancé, her older sister, and then herself.” He stopped at the gasps from Masako and Mai and nodded. “The town buried Haruki, but the other two were never found. Then, several young men went missing in the following months. Their bodies remain missing to this day, but near the place where the last one had vanished, the kanji for spring was found scratched in the dirt. The story of their ghosts is told every summer, and there are tours of the area for anyone that wants to take them.”  

Wait, you use this legend for tourism? 

“Seems a little gruesome,” muttered Ayako. Mai nodded from next to her. 

“What happened then?” asked Naru. He made a motion to Lin, and Houshou saw that the Hong-Konger was tapping out notes on his phone. In addition, from out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Osamu had angled his cell phone to better pick up the old man’s voice. 

I think we found our next case, even if we weren’t looking for it. 

“We dug up her body, burned it, and one of the Buddhist monks traveling through the area fed her hungry ghost, and the incident was laid to rest.” Yoshi spread his hands. “That’s it.” 

“Why was that guy so angry then?” asked Houshou, motioning to where the commotion had been. 

“Yamashita-san has been... for a lack of a better word, obsessed with that painting. He talks about nothing else, and if we ask him to do anything out of that painting’s sight, he doesn’t move.” 

Naru made a slight noise. 

That’s him getting hooked. Houshou cracked his neck. Though, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind a look at that painting either. 

“Yoshi-san, I run a business called Shibuya Physic Research, and I would like to see this supposed ‘cursed’ painting of yours to see if there’s any truth to the legend. Would you be so kind as to escort us to the art auction before it’s opened to the public, so we can inspect the object in question?” 

Called it. SPR’s on the case! 

Yoshi blinked. He cleared his throat, then nodded. 

“I... I would like for that to be done, yes.” 

Naru nodded, then turned to the team. 

“Ten minutes to store your belongings and to return to the lobby. Bring whatever supplies you feel you might need.” 

And that’s mostly directed at me and John. Houshou nodded, and Naru let slip a slight grin. Right. Let’s check out this painting, then have a good onsen soak. 

Chapter Text

Saturday Morning, 10:50am - Mori no Kawa Ryokan and Onsen, Tochigi Prefecture


The hallway Yoshi-san led them down was an interesting mixture between traditionally old and new conveniences. There was an all-wood hand rail with intricate carvings that “spilled” over the part most people grabbed with their hand, flowing back up the wall so that the darkness contrasted beautifully with the color behind. From what Houshou could tell, there were more scenes than seasons, so while the winter wood created white snowflakes, autumn had leaf cuttings up against an orange-red strip of wallpaper for one section and creamy yellow depicting a full moon with clouds later on, past the rippling blue summer lake. 

“These are beautiful,” said Masako, managing to stop and inspect them all while still keeping up with the group. “An image cleanser for the eyes and a way to soothe the soul.” 

Yoshi beamed. 

“Thank you very much for the compliments. My father was the one who carved the lavender field, and my brother’s hand made the summer lake.” 

Houshou nodded to himself as the others oohed and aahhed. In front of him, Lin whispered something into Naru’s ear.

Not surprised. They keep most of the really old ryokans in the family, and he’s probably working as a manger since he wasn’t good enough as a woodcarver. 

“Are all the people in this town so talented?” asked Naru. 

“We seem to have more than our fair share of artists,” Yoshi said, nodding. He continued walking down the hall, the sharp clacks that had sounded in the lobby muffled by thick carpet. “The art auction, for example, limited the items accepted to those created here, or by people from here who have since moved away.” 

“Who created the cursed painting?” asked Osamu. “How old is it?” 

Yoshi turned around and shrugged, keeping his gaze down. 

“The legend happened in the Tokugawa Period, around 1700.” He shook his head and began leading the group down the hallway again. “The only reason I remember that is because kabuki was becoming popular, and the legend was a perfect fit. Hungry ghosts, a lover’s envy, suicide, murder.”

True. Change the names, make the elder sister and fiancé fall in love despite all the problems with the idea, and everyone would love it. 

“As for the painting itself, the donor was listed as anonymous.”

Wait? Was listed? 

“Does that mean you don’t know who actually donated it? Or they wished to remain unnamed and you’re going along with the request.” Houshou’s question came just as the group stopped outside of double doors just as detailed as the woodcuts they’d passed, but instead of focusing on the seasons, had a detailed view of an outside bath on the left side and an inside bath on the right. There were several people on the other side, too, if the muffled sounds were anything to go on. 

I wonder if they change these for the season, too? I can see a full moon and several autumn leaves floating on the top of the waters. 

“We don’t know,” Yoshi admitted. “The painting wasn’t there one day, but then it appeared between a teapot and vase. Now, as we’ll be entering the room before noon, please make sure not to touch anything. I didn’t bring you so you can glimpse everything else we’re auctioning off.” 

“Only the cursed painting,” said Mai, snapping off a salute. “Sure thing!” 

Yoshi looked at Mai, turned to Naru, who just smiled at him, then shook his head and opened the doors. 

“What’s his problem!?” fumed Mai, her hands clenching into fists. Houshou ruffled her head as he walked by, grinning as she let out a huff and joined them. 

He’s not quite sure what to make about your level of energy, that’s all.

“This is an amazing set up.” Lin stood on the inside of the doorway, his gaze sweeping across the large room. They had set five tables up on tatami mats, delicate lace cloths laid over each, and the simple colors allowed gazes to be drawn gently to each focus. 

Ceramics with statues at the far end, followed by black and white sketches, paintings in the middle, another table with colored sketches, and then ending with pottery whole and fragmented. I wonder how much this collection is worth?

“There’s only a small grouping of items on each table,” Ayako pointed out. “How is this going to be enough for repairs?” 

Yoshi’s eyes twinkled. 

“Minor items are not always cheap nor insignificant,” he replied. “This way, please. The painting I wish to show you is at the end of its table.” He strode off, ignoring the staff members whispering and pointing as he went past. 

“I’m surprised at the size of this place,” John quietly commented, popping up near Houshou’s elbow. “I thought most traditionally run ryokans were on the smaller side.” 

“They are.” Houshou looked around the room. “Either this one was built large in the first place, or they’ve pieced together several rooms that are normally private. I don’t see where the walls would normally be, though. Usually there are pretty obvious places where they’re slotted in.” 

They followed the rest of the group to the other side of the room, standing at the back as Yoshi presented the cursed painting to Naru, who took it without hesitation. 

Masako and Mai don’t look happy about being here...Houshou kept a close eye on the younger members of his team. Can they already feel something?

The painting itself was a mixture of black and white, mostly the forest in the background, and had hints of color for the two women wearing kimono in the foreground. On the left, the woman was slightly stooped, almost as if life had done its best to break her down. On the right, the other woman was wide-eyed with wonder and excitement, her face looking off of the page to someone or something unseen. Their kimono had multiple layers, showing them to come from a wealthy family, and their colors differed slightly: pointed star-flowers of pink and white against a pale green cloth for one and a pale peach colored background with olive green and coral pink geometrical patterns for the other.

What’s so cursed about this? 

“This is the painting of the two sisters. You can see Araki in green and Haruki in pink.”

“I don’t want to touch it,” declared Masako, her and Mai taking a step away from Naru as he reached out and held it. “It feels... angry.” 

Their boss pointed at an artist’s stamp at the bottom. 

“Osamu, take a picture of this and see what you can find out about the painter.” 

“On it.” He stepped forward and snapped a few photos from different angles. 

“They look like they’re happy, at least,” said John. “In the painting.” 

“No,” Masako said bluntly, shaking her head. Next to her, Mai was trying to discreetly wipe away tears. “They’re not.” 

Okay, I think we need to get these two out of here, or at least away from that thing. 

Houshou exchanged a look with Naru. 

“I think you two would be better off doing something else,” the monk said, taking point. 

“Like what?” asked Mai, glowering at him. “We’re not kids, you know.” 

Naru took over, spinning something that would take the two of them out of the room as Yoshi cleared his throat and shuffled off backwards, leaving the area near the group and walking over to where an older woman was rearranging placards. 

No, none of you are kids any longer. It was a bit strange, sometimes, being one of the older members of SPR. On the other hand, a while back they’d gone from being a team to being a family. And it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who feels more protective about the younger folk. He, Lin, and Ayako had gotten drunk enough one hanami that they’d managed to have a conversation about the responsibilities they felt. Lin, of course, felt the most for his charge, but had accepted caring for the others, too. 

Even if his excuse was that them getting hurt would upset Naru.

Ayako had snorted at that, pointing out that since she was the one with the most medical knowledge, her list of family to look after focused most on the adults being self-sacrificing idiots. 

She’d then pointed out that Masako, Mai, and even Naru needed more emotional guidance than anything else, even if Osamu, Lin, and I are usually the ones needing more medical help. 

At that point, Houshou had gotten pinned by glares from both of them, since he was the one who went through the most patches and was the worst to be checked for hidden injuries. He’d tried to explain that out of everyone he was the most expendable, but the two of them had slapped him upside the head for daring to admit the truth. 

Thankfully, that topic hasn’t come up again. It was like they’d needed to release the stress, and once that had happened, they were fine. Until the next time we drink together, at least. 

He watched the two women head over to where Yoshi was, probably on a mission to dig more information out of him about the legend, the painting, or possibly both. Then Houshou’s eyes caught one of the staff members making their way to the end of the table.

Well, hello there.

Tall and thin, they weren’t carrying anything, rearranging anything, and as far as he could tell, they had just come into the room.

Something’s off about them. What are you up to if you’re not working?

He stepped around John, touching the smaller man gently on the shoulder. Immediately, he looked in the same direction. 

“Bou—”

“Shhh...” he said, putting a finger to his lips. “I’m just going to check this out.” 

Nobody has said hello to him. At a place like this, where coworkers have been together for years, or are from branches of the family, someone should have said something to him. Acknowledged him in some way, even if just to give him a cold shoulder.

It was a flimsy reason, but it was better than just saying he had a gut feeling. 

To be fair to Naru, he takes instincts into account. Hell, most of our cases wouldn’t have been as easily solved if Mai’s dreams hadn’t helped. 

He slowed his stride and stuck his hands into his pockets in an attempt to appear harmless. His target was standing in front of the painting, eyes staring and mouth ajar. Houshou slid up behind them. 

“It’s a brilliant piece, right?” He whispered in the man’s ear. “Really evocative.”  

The blood drained from the man’s face, so he continued. 

“I’m sure you can tell us a lot more about it though, can’t—” Houshou’s question was cut off as a fist smashed into him, right above his stomach.

Fuck! The monk folded over and crumpled to his knees, facing the tatami floor, mouth open as he desperately tried to draw in a breath. 

“Bou-san!” 

“Leave him alone!” 

“He’s got the painting, don’t let him leave!” 

It’s okay, you’re okay, you’re breathing, you’re fine, Houshou chanted to himself, taking shallow breaths that gradually became deeper. He looked up to see the thief clutching the painting to his chest, trying to make it past angry SPR members at the same time they were evading the clutches of the ryokan’s staff. He pushed against his legs, standing up again, even if his posture wasn’t as straight as it had been before. 

The thief dodged a female staff member, then backed away from Osamu. 

Naru’s got his eyes on the painting, Masako and John are helping some of the staff members move fragile things from the tables, Lin and Ayako are covering the exit with outstretched arms and a swinging purse, Mai’s in the middle of the room, and Osamu’s the nearest. He looked around, trying to figure out where they would head next. If the kid keeps advancing, they’ll back up towards me

And that gave him an idea. Controlling his breathing so his harsh gasps wouldn’t give him away, Houshou took a few steps back, then stretched out his foot.

Their back is to me, so they shouldn’t be able to avoid tripping. He waited, arms at the ready to snatch the painting. Three... two... one! 

Houshou stiffened his leg. The fake staff member hit it and fell backwards, but before they bent too far, they dropped the painting. As the border hit the floor, they grabbed the monk and used their body’s momentum to fling him into the wall. 

Fu—Houshou let out a cry of pain as his head cracked and broke his vision into pixels. For the next few minutes, his only thoughts were about not passing out and being able to see properly again. He could hear others in the room calling out that he was down, Ayako ordering him not to move, and Naru telling Osamu to scoop up the painting. 

Fuck, I’m going to need headache medicine tonight. He touched the back of his head and frowned when his fingers felt something tacky. Blood. Either I hit harder than I thought or something cut me.

“Bou-san, are you okay?” 

No.

Ayako was on her knees beside him, opening her bag even as she gave him the peace sign. 

“How many fingers am I holding up? And follow them if you can.” 

“Two.” He almost growled as she pulled him forward and sprayed antiseptic where his fingers were. He did curse as she began wiping it with a small piece of gauze. 

“You got lucky,” she said, smiling at him. “Your thick head protected you.” 

Not enough.

“The painting?” he ground out instead, trying to look past her and see where it had gone. 

Don’t snap at her Houshou, she’s just doing her job. 

“Naru has it now,” she whispered, nodding to where their boss was holding it against his waist, paint up so he and Lin could point at specific spots. 

“You need a hand up?” asked Osamu, suddenly appearing in Bou-san’s vision. 

“Is he okay, Ayako?” 

“How are you feeling?” 

Ayako was already repacking her purse, tucking the blood-stained gauze into a small plastic bag. 

“He’ll be fine, Mai. I’ll have to check it later, but as bad as it looks, I think the only problem is the swelling. The cut on the back has even stopped bleeding, and his eyes stayed with my fingers.”

“The thief?”

“They got away,” said John. “Legged it out the door and went left. But you prevented them from taking the painting!” 

Good. Houshou groaned as he felt the growing lump on his head. And I really hope that goose egg doesn’t evolve into a concussion

“I’m so sorry for that,” apologized Yoshi, hovering over the downed monk. “I never though—Here, let me get some ice for you.” 

They were wearing a staff uniform, but nobody called out their name, which means they don’t actually work here. He tried to recall what had happened. He hit me, stole the painting, swung me into the wall, and went off running... but not to the lobby!

“Lin, Osamu, follow me!” shouted Houshou, getting to his feet and wobbling for a few worrying seconds. “I think I know where he went!”

All they’d have to do is strip, and we’d never be able to pick them out from the other guests here. 

Not waiting to see if the others were behind him, Houshou barreled out in the main hallway, going left and deeper into the ryokan even as his head pulsed its unhappiness at him. 

Like hell I’m letting them get away!  

Chapter Text

Saturday Afternoon, 12:01pm - Mori no Kawa Ryokan and Onsen, Tochigi Prefecture


Houshou ran down the hallway, dodging the few quests that were up and about at this time of the day. 

Thankfully, it’s just noon. That means most guests will have checked out by now and won’t have arrived to take a late afternoon/early evening bath. 

And that’s exactly where his brain had pointed out the failed thief was most likely to go—the changing rooms. 

The only question is, did they enter the men’s or the women’s? He tried to remember what they’d looked like, if there had been a prominent Adam’s apple or enough of a beard for him to choose one entry way over the other. 

“Where are you going?” huffed Osamu, running on Houshou’s right. 

“They only place they could hide and still come back for the painting,” pointed out Houshou, slowing down a bit and looking behind them. “Lin?” 

“I think I heard Naru tell him to do something else.” Osamu stopped, pushing his glasses nervously up his nose. “So... which one will it be?” 

If we go into the women’s side and cause a commotion, we’re all going to be thrown out of here, case or no case. Left or right? 

“Stand out here,” he ordered Osamu. “And question every person who comes out. I’ll go to the men’s side first and see if I can find him there.” And without waiting for Osamu’s agreement, Houshou swept aside the dark blue noren and turned into the men’s side corridor, ignoring the sign that told him to take one of the complimentary towels with him. The carpet had stopped when the walls had started, and now the flooring was an easier type to clean water off of, some type of non-slip wood. Houshou took off his outdoor shoes and held them in his hands as he walked into the locker room. It smelled moist, but not in a bad, moldy way—just in a way that let a person know a lot of heat and water was common in this area. 

Bench after bench on either side of him remained empty. No wet footprints dotted the floor, and the sound of hairdryers was absent. 

Maybe they went to the women’s side because they thought we wouldn’t check it?

At the last row, lockers numbered 90-100, there was a skinny man sitting on the bench, getting dressed in a button up plaid shirt and a pair of blue slacks. A towel lay folded neatly nearby, a pair of glasses resting on the top. 

They weren’t wearing any glasses when they hit me. Still, if they were the only person here...

“Hello!” Houshou greeted them, taking a seat on the bench and leaning forward to put his shoes on the top shelf in the locker. “I thought I’d be the only one taking a bath now.” 

“You will be,” muttered the other person, buttoning their shirt back up. “I just got done with mine.” 

“Any good?” asked Houshou. “It’s my first time here.” 

“You’ll like it. There’s a cold bath inside, as well as a steam sauna.” He fixed his collar, then reached out to put his glasses back on, adjusting the wire frames before leaning over to open his locker. When he straightened up, white shoes in his hand, Houshou couldn’t help but smile. 

Gotcha. 

“Nice try, but you can’t fool me that easily.” They flinched, so Houshou continued. “You were the thief in the auction room.” 

“I don’t like that you’re calling me a thief,” they said in a low voice. “It’s rude. Leave me alone.” 

I’m sure you’d like me to do that, but we need some answers. And I’d feel better if they arrested you for assault and injury. He resisted the impulse to rub the back of his aching head and instead focused on the loudest clue in the room.

“You wear glasses, huh?” The monk reached over and plucked them off of the man’s face. “Funny thing about onsen and glasses. A person’s body temperature is high enough after soaking that they’ll fog their glasses when they get dressed again.”

Even if you can explain blow drying your hair or being such a neat person, you folded your towel to the ryokan’s standards, you can’t ignore science as easily. 

Their eyes flickered to Houshou’s. 

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

“I mean, I don’t wear any myself, but I have friends who do and I’ve heard them complain about that happening time after time.” Houshou leaned forward and grasped the man on their arm. “Why don’t you come back to the room and explain why you tried to steal that cursed painting?”  

“No!” He exploded, shoving Houshou—the monk kept his grip and pulled the man off of the bench with him. For the next few seconds, they were rolling on the floor, Bou-san using his arms to shield him from the wild blows raining down. 

Damn it! 

“Stop it!” he shouted, wrenching the two of them away from the bench. 

“Let me go!” they shouted in return, pulling hard enough against Houshou’s grasp that the buttons flew off. Within seconds the two men were back on their feet, Houshou throwing a ripped shirt to the side and the mysterious thief laughing. “Looks like I got my wish.” 

Not yet. 

Houshou looked behind the man and grinned. 

“Thanks.” 

“You’re not getting me with that old—” he stopped as Osamu laid a hand on his shoulder, the blood draining from his face. 

When it works, that’s when we call it tested and true. Houshou took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. That onsen bath is looking better by the minute. 

His arms ached from blocking punches, and the jerk had thrown in a couple of good kicks, too. 

Still, we need to get him back and figure out what the hell’s going on. 

Groaning, Houshou stretched and cracked his neck. 

“Right, kid. You take his right, I’ve got his left. Then we’re going to deliver a present to the people in charge here.” 

The man left out a snarl, but with an unknown person at his back, he did nothing. Houshou wrapped his arm around the man’s, then wrapped his right leg around as well so he wouldn’t get an impulse to run away. Osamu set himself up on the man’s other side. Eyes flashed with hatred following the realization that he’d been “captured” by one man without a weapon. 

“Let me go,” he shouted, pulled against Houshou’s arm and leg; the monk tensed, keeping hold even as the man writhed. 

“You’re caught, get over it,” he finally snapped when the man’s head smashed into his check. The trio started making their slow way back to the art auction room, stopping every few seconds to get a better grip on their thief, or when more and more people appeared in the hallway, dragging him. 

If you didn’t want to face the consequences, you shouldn’t have 

“Bou-san!” Ayako waved at them from the doors, her eyes narrowing at she looked at Houshou. “You got hit again.” 

“A couple of places,” he agreed, nodding. 

And hopefully that’ll be it for this case. I’m a little tired of being a punching bag. 

“Are you okay?” 

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” He smiled at her as they passed through the door. 

Happy the entrance is wide enough to fit all three of us. 

“Naru!” 

A small pathway cleared for them and they dragged the man to the end of the painting table, where someone had put the canvas back on the easel. The monk nodded to Osamu, and they pushed the man forward. He immediately went to find an escape route, but between SPR, a few fascinated early arriving ryokan guests, and all the staff members curious to find out what was going on, there was no escape. 

“Why?” asked Yoshi, pushing himself to the edge. “Why did you try to steal the cursed painting?”

Good question to start with.

“I need it,” he replied, panting heavily. 

... did his eyes just flash red?

“For what?” asked Naru. Houshou glanced around to find his team. Masako was near Mai, and the two of them were near Yoshi. Naru was across from them, Lin hunched over his phone next to him, and the others...

Osamu’s by me, and I see some blonde and red off to my right. And the kid’s pulled out his phone for recording. Heh, Naru doesn’t even have to order us at certain points. We run like a well-oiled machine.

“I... I just need it.” The man’s eyes were darting all over the crowd, and his hands were shaking. He took his glasses off, and there was an audible crunch as they broke in his hand.

Creepy. Though, at least his eyes look a normal black now. 

“Where were you going to go with it?” asked Houshou, pitching his voice to carry above the gathered group. “What would you have done with it?”

“I don’t have to answer you.” 

“No,” said Yoshi, shaking his head. “But you will need to when the police arrive.” 

That was the magic word. The thief stood up straight, widened his now-red eyes, and started breathing hard enough through his nose that Houshou could see nostrils flaring. 

Not good.  

He stepped forward; the thief grabbed something from an inner pocket, snaked a hand into the crowd nearest to him, and pulled Masako to his chest. A knife glinted at her throat, the blade resting right under her jaw. 

FUCK! 

The pleading look in her eyes caused that worried feeling in Houshou’s gut to twist.  

“Stay away from me!” her captor shouted. “Or she dies.” 

I will not let you hurt her. 

“If she does,” countered Naru quickly, “there will be nothing to stop us and no one to save you.” 

There were a few heavy seconds of silence. 

That’s not enough for him. 

“If you kill her,” Houshou said, taking a deep breath. “You’ll be put in jail and won’t be able to do anything with that painting.” 

“Fine....”

Ha, knew that would work. 

“Take one step near me and I’ll cut her.” He gave a nasty grin. “Is that better?” 

Much, actually. Now that he could breathe again, Houshou started thinking about how he could get their medium out of danger... preferably before John, Mai, or both of them did something extremely stupid. 

“Listen up,” the man said. “In the next five minutes, I want the painting and a car with gas.”

“And then you’ll let her go?” asked John, his voice tight. 

No, he won’t. He’s going to want a hostage for whatever he’s doing. Houshou could feel it in his bones. 

“She’s coming with me,” the thief said, shaking his head. 

Knew it. Somehow, I’ve got to convince him that she’d be a horrible hostage. An idea came to mind, and Houshou had to hold his breath and calm his heart. Then he held his hands up and took a step forward. 

“STOP!” 

Masako let out a small squeak and Houshou felt his stomach drop. On her pale neck was a single drop of blood. 

Fuck, I hope this works. 

For a second, it seemed everyone in the room was holding their breath. And then the thief was glaring at Houshou. 

“What do you want, asshole?” 

“I want—” Houshou cleared his throat and saw Naru giving him a look to shut up. He continued. “I want you to exchange hostages. Her, for me.” 

The thief laughed.

“Why the hell would I exchange a smaller, more docile woman for a stronger man—the same asshole who chased me into the locker room and caused this fucking situation?” 

I’m sorry Masako, I really don’t mean what I’m about to say. 

“She’s high-maintenance and weak. I mean, look at her.” Houshou pitched his voice so there was a faint tone of disgust. “How many people actually wear a kimono without it being a holiday or special occasion? Also, if you need her to hurry, she’s only going to slow you down.” 

The thief looked Masako up and down; she shivered and turned her face away as much as she could. 

“Fine. I’ll exchange her for that other woman she was next to. The one in the cream blouse and red skirt.” 

Mai. Houshou could already feel the heat of Naru’s glare. 

“She’s even worse. Never shuts up, stumbles over everything, and has nightmares every time she sleeps.” 

I’m sorry, Mai. Please remember that I do respect you. 

“The redheaded woman.” A sneer developed on the man’s face. 

“Shrill, abusive, and she likes to slap people when she’s pissed.” 

I love you for who you are, Ayako—no matter what I say; you know that! 

“How do you know these people?” 

Houshou slid forward a half an inch. 

“You’re picking out my team members. We’ve worked together for years, of course I’m going to know them.” 

The thief cackled. 

“Fine. What do you have that I want? Do you have a car?” 

Fuck, we took the train. 

“Not this time,” said Houshou, keeping his hands high even as he slid forward another half inch. “Gas has been a little expensive lately. But if you let her go, I swear I will obey your orders and not attempt to escape.” 

He’s not going to trade us. The look in the man’s eyes was very much otherworldly and wild, but there had been no change at the proposal. No flicker of greed, no narrowing while calculations went on in his mind. 

“Bou-san!” hissed Mai, glaring at him. 

Heh. No, I don’t want to go along with the crazy guy, but I can take a beating better than you or Masako can. And none of you should have to go through something like that. His mind conjured up images from the haunted labyrinth, and he tried to shove them back where he normally kept their more worrisome cases.

“Bou...?” The red eyes dimmed a little, and Houshou had to keep himself from stepping back as the man's eyes snapped to him.  

Ugh. Feels like he’s staring into my soul. 

“Say it again!” 

What?

“I’m willing to trade myself for your hostage.” 

“Not that, you idiot!” The man turned, pulling Masako with him, and nodded at Mai. “She called you ‘Bou-san.’ Why?” 

“Because I’m a Buddhist monk.” Houshou swallowed.

That’s it! Now there was the reaction he’d been looking for; greed. Could it be this easy?

“I used to be at Mt. Koya.”

“... get over here,” the thief hissed. “And where’s that car!?” 

Yoshi came forward, holding a black key fob. 

“This belongs to one of the ryokan’s van—”

“Shut up, old man. I don’t care.” The burning gaze turned back to Houshou. “Take the key. Get down on your knees. And put your hands over your head.” 

I’ll do all of it, just let Masako go. 

“And face away from me.” 

Houshou nodded. He claimed the key from Yoshi, giving the older man a distracted smile, and used the few seconds of free time he had left to look through the crowd and make eye contact. 

Ayako, John, Lin, Naru, Mai, Masaki, Osamu—take care of each other. I swear I’ll make it back. 

And then he felt the coldness of a blade laid against the back of his neck. 

“I’ve texted my partner,” whispered the thief, close enough that Houshou felt moisture in his ear, “and if you do anything to fuck me over again, she will kill every single one of your friends.” 

Right... well, don’t fuck this up, Houshou.

Chapter Text

Saturday Afternoon, 12:34pm - Mori no Kawa Ryokan and Onsen, Tochigi Prefecture


It wasn’t only him that was silent. Everyone around the room was collectively holding their breath, almost as if daring to breathe would fan the flames of knife guy’s insanity. Bou-san’s ears picked up the sound of something rubbing against silk. 

Probably John rubbing Masako’s back. Or maybe it’s Mai giving comfort. He bit the inside of his cheek and didn’t cheer like he wanted to at getting their compassionate medium out of this stupid situation. She might be safe for now, monk, but you’re still in trouble. Keep your eyes and ears sharp, try to escape when you can.

“Get up.” There was a slight nudge at the back of his neck and for a few seconds, he thought the knife had sliced him. Then he realized the guy had used the flat of the blade to push and was giving more directions. “Open your hand and give me the key. Pick up the painting. And start walking, slowly, to the entrance. Nothing stupid. No heroics.” 

I can do that. Probably. 

“How would—?” Houshou broke his question off, suddenly very sure he didn’t want to know the answer.

Try not to antagonize him. Make sure he gets away from everyone else. 

“How would I kill them?” The question was whispered just for the two of them and it made the hair on the back of Houshou’s neck rise. 

I don’t like how that thought was at the top of his mind. 

“My partner’s used poison before. She’s also a crack shot. Between the two options, I’m sure you can imagine what would happen.” 

In Japan? How the hell did they manage that? The only legal guns here are for hunting or pest control. A thought flickered across his mind as he stood up. Is there really any difference between shooting humans and shooting animals? 

He felt the blood drain from his face at the answer he came up with. Not at all. Fuck. 

Houshou shivered as he uncurled his fist and offered the key. It was snatched up, nails lightly scratching against his palm, and he wasn’t sure, but he might have imagined the low moan from someone nearby.

I promise I’ll be fine . Don’t worry about me.

“The painting.” 

“Yeah, yeah,” muttered Houshou under his breath, lurching in the direction of the cursed object.

“Are you getting an attitude with me?” 

Shit.

His stomach knotted at the question, but he cleared his throat and put all the sincerity he could into his voice. 

Just pretend Naru’s annoyed, and you have to placate him. You’ve had plenty of practice doing that over the years.

“Sorry, I just meant that I was getting it.” Without waiting for an answer, he took the final two steps he needed to the painting, and glanced at the two women again. 

That’s creepy. It feels as if the younger woman is looking straight at me. I thought she was staring beyond the edge earlier. Houshou picked up the painting, the canvas just wide enough that he would need both hands to carry the item. Probably why the asshole ordered me to move it. I won’t be able to do anything without dropping it and alerting him.

He began walking toward the front door, step by slow step, eyes resolutely looking in front of him to where a path had opened up. There were whispers on both sides, in addition to the prickly sensation he couldn’t ignore at his back. That damned knife. 

I don’t want them to worry about me. He let out a little huff of air mid-stride. Truthfully, he didn’t want his last glimpses of everyone to be tears and anxious faces. Especially Ayako. I don’t know what this guy wants with me, but after how he reacted to me being a monk, I’m going to go out on a limb and say I’ll be hostage for a while longer. 

“Houshou.” The word cut the soft chatter like a hot knife through butter. He knew exactly who said it and what the single word meant. 

Naru, in the auction room, concerned since he didn’t use my family name or a title. Almost as if it had been an order, Houshou sought where his boss was, not allowing himself to focus on any of the others in the room. Over there. By the doorway. 

“Keep safe,” the younger man said, raising his chin and glaring.

He looks pissed... probably not at me, though. Sure, I did volunteer myself for this, but better me than Masako. He’d agree with me on that. I know he would.

Houshou couldn’t say anything though, not with the knife at his back. He couldn’t even nod without his captor seeing it. Instead, he winked, hoped Naru got the message, and continued walking, stepping from the tatami room onto the hallway’s carpet, and after a few minutes there were two sets of feet echoing in the lobby. A conversation started up behind them, but it died down almost as quickly. Then he pushed open the front door with his shoulder and the sounds became bird calls.

I’m a little disappointed there aren’t police greeting us out here. Then again, I’m the one in front, so if they were here they’d use the sasumata* on me, not the asshole who needs it. A step into the sunlight caused him to blink and sneeze, but thankfully the knife didn’t pierce him.

There are a lot more cars here than I thought there would be .

“Our car better be out front,” muttered the man behind him, putting more pressure on the knife point. “We’re losing time.” 

Should have asked Yoshi where it was parked. 

A few seconds later, one of the dark vans with the ryokan’s name and logo painted on the side flashed its lights and beeped. Third one from the left, near the bushes and the front door. 

“Perfect, right in the front row.” 

Yeah. Perfect. 

The two of them took steps toward the van, Houshou keeping an eye open for opportunities to escape, but there were none.

A beautiful day, a group outing at an amazing onsen, and we have to run into this asshole. Ugh. When are we going to have the chance for a vacation like this again?

“I’ve unlocked it, so put the painting—gently—into the back, then open the passenger side and lean in, hands up where I can see them.” 

Houshou obeyed. 

Not like there’s anything else I can do at this point. They still have that knife, and I enjoy keeping all the blood in my body. 

The car door slid open, revealing the same type of seats Houshou and SPR had sat on earlier, ones which were colored quite dull. As a bonus, this car smelled as if someone had spilled a full bottle of wine in it last week. Bit like smoke, too. Houshou coughed as set the painting on the floor, directly behind the driver’s seat so it wouldn’t fall if the brakes were suddenly applied. As he bent over to settle it in, the knife’s point briefly moved from its much lower place at his spine. Houshou readied his right leg to kick out, hopefully hitting a small and delicate spot for maximum pain, but before he could do anything, the blade was back. Higher up and resting between his shoulder blades.

“You can let me go now,” the monk pointed out instead, inwardly bemoaning the fleeting moment of opportunity. “You’ve got your painting, your car. You don’t need me.” 

The knife traveled slowly up and down Houshou’s back. Zip. Zip. 

I can feel a bit of drag... is he cutting my shirt?! 

The monk bit his tongue and put all of his focus on how the seat texture felt under his left arm, trying not to flinch at each additional slicing noise. 

Fuzzy seat. Patterns are pretty old at this point. Houshou sighed. With the look he gave me earlier, I don’t think he’s going to just give me up. 

His hands were placed to rest behind his back, and when he didn’t keep them there, an itching sensation grew along the inside of his arm as a reminder of who was in charge. 

I get it; I get it.

Houshou put his hands back to where they had been placed and didn’t move them again, not even when the knife’s touch fell away. Something cold and plastic wrapped around his wrists. Smooth, too.

But most importantly, not bladed! A bit of hope blossomed in his chest. Now! 

He threw himself backwards at the same time something smashed against his head and rocked him forward.

Fuck!

Houshou squeezed his eyes shut against the pain, and, against all intent, he fell onto the plush seat before him. Worries and concerns set themselves off in his brain, but he couldn’t concentrate on those small things. All the energy he could muster was on not tumbling into unconsciousness. Then the plastic loop tightened around his wrists, cutting into the skin with a sharp bite. His body was rolled so he was on his side, facing the driver’s seat and looking at the top of the painting. Sunlight burned dark orange circles onto the back of his eyelids. 

...fuck...my head...hurts...

“... sto’...” mumbled Houshou, daring to crack his eyes open. His captor was mainly shadow at this point, darkness blurred around the edges.

...help...

“Can’t stop.” The man paused. “There’s little enough time left and still do much to do.” 

The monk groaned. Apparently, that was the signal for his legs to be plucked from the ground and held in the air, pinned together at the ankles. It was long enough for a slight zipping sound to penetrate the puddle that was currently his brain.

what’s he doin’?

His feet were pushed, forcing his knees to bend and putting the entirety of his body on the seats. A seatbelt clicked over his midsection. 

I need out! Houshou struggled, trying to bring his arms out from behind him and release the buckle. No matter how much he twisted and pulled, the only thing that happened was a growing feeling of something wet and sticky. Tacky. Then the door slammed shut and fresh ripples of pain spread out from his head. He groaned and kicked weakly at the side of the van. 

Ayako’s... gonna... kill me.

“Shut up. You’re still alive.” Another door slammed, and Houshou barely heard the van’s engine start. Then there was a piercing bell sound, one that was quickly shut off, and the van lurched. Houshou opened his eyes and forced his body to pay attention.

If there’s any chance of making it back, I need to remember how to get there. He clenched his jaw and had to shut his eyes for a few seconds. Ugh. All the cigarette smoke and old wine... don’t throw up. 

“Let me…go.” 

The guy didn’t answer. Houshou arched and kicked the back of the other seat—only once. The action wasn’t worth aggravating his injuries. 

“No,” the guy eventually said, angling the car so it was ready to turn onto the main road. “And, in fact, to make sure we’re not followed.” 

He leaned over the seat and reached into Houshou’s right pocket, feeling for something that wasn’t there. 

What are you... Bou-san realized what the asshole was looking for. Fuck you, don’t you fucking dare!

Uttering a curse, the thief popped the van’s emergency brake on. Houshou heard a click as a door opened, followed by a repeat that was much louder and closer. A slight breeze washed over him, and then the thief was leaning into the backseat, sticking his hand into Houshou’s left pocket. 

No! The monk squirmed, trying to move his body away, but there wasn’t anything he could do. He snapped at the man’s arms, but he was quick enough to move away from the barred teeth.

“Bingo.” The asshole actually chuckled as he waved the phone, then he slammed the door shut again, causing Houshou to grit his teeth and try to ride out the pain. 

What the hell’d he hit me with? Didn’t he only have a knife?

Another door slam, the fourth in probably as many minutes, and this time Bou-san couldn’t hold back a cry.

“Time to go.” The car lunged forward and there was a loud crunch as they drove over something. 

My phone! 

“You, monk, are going to help us.” 

Houshou wasn’t stupid enough to say anything, but he glared at the seat he was tied up behind. 

Yeah, that’s a no from me. 

“We’ve been waiting for our lady to come back for a very long time, but she needs assistance. Assistance we haven’t been able to give her.” The man looked over at him, then turned back to the road. “Until now.”

Listen, Houshou. Smile and nod. Figure out how to escape.

The words weren’t sticking in his brain. He heard noises, but for the next few minutes the sounds washed in and dribbled out. Finally, the white noise died down and what the guy was saying sunk in. Something about cherishing the woman, and her needing to be in the world again so she could experience the true love that would set her free from her curse. 

Oh, fuck me. They’re trying to resurrect that woman’s spirit! 

“And that’s why I brought you.” The van turned onto a bumpier part of the road and bounced up and down. Then it slowed. 

Come on body! Get the door. This is our chance!

“I can’t let you see where we’re going, though.” The van stopped again. “We should be far enough away by now that there’s time.” 

Time for what? Houshou held his breath and slowly let it leak out. Keep steady. Don’t panic. We’re still near the ryokan, and they’ve probably called the police by this point. You’ll be fine. 

When the sound of the driver's door opened, an idea popped into his head. Houshou squirmed, worming down on the seat so both feet were firmly pressed against the armrest on the other side. Let’s hope I’ll hit hard enough.  

He waited, tightly wound, but didn’t react when his door clicked open. It was after a kiss of air ruffled his hair that Bou-san pushed off as hard as he could, driving his head into the man’s stomach. 

“Fucker!” 

Houshou had only squirmed half out of the van when his ponytail was caught and yanked, wrenching his neck and stopping all movement. 

“All that listening and promising not to try escaping. That was bullshit, wasn’t it?” 

Of course it fuckin’ was, how stupid are you? Houshou’s thoughts scattered as a hand wrapped around the upper part of his neck and squeezed. 

“I didn’t want to have to do this,” he heard the man say. It sounded as if the words were coming from underwater. “I was only going to put a blindfold on you and gag you.” 

No! I can’t breathe! 

“Just remember, this is all your fault.”

Houshou tried to move away from the hand, but the iron grip was unyielding. Gradually, he could feel his body growing slower, weaker. His muscles stopped listening to his mind’s frantic commands.

No! 

Bit by bit, the darkness he’d been trying to keep at bay consumed him. And then there was nothing.

*****


Unknown Day (probably still Saturday?) Unknown Time (afternoon?) - Unknown Place (still Tochigi?)


*****

Houshou groaned as someone took his feet and began pulling them. 

What... He blinked a few times, his back shirt riding up as his body continued moving across something slightly fuzzy. The smell of old wine and cigarettes forced him to remember the van, and from there it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to remembering the rest. Oh, fuck me.

“What the hell did you do this time?” asked a woman’s voice. She sounded close, but not near enough to have hands on him. 

It’s probably that guy...

“Aki. Hito.” The woman sounded pissed. 

Heh. A brief smile flicked on his face. She sounds almost like Ayako. 

“Seriously, what did you do? Please, pease don’t fucking tell me you kidnapped a guy and brought him to our hideout, because that’s going to bring the cops here.”

That’s exactly what he did. Now let me go!

The hands around his feet disappeared and Houshou was left looking up at the ceiling of the van, legs just brushing the ground outside.

“I brought us a monk!”

“You were just supposed to bring the painting. I’ve been waiting here for hours, and for what?” There was a sniff. “A guy who doesn’t even look like a monk.” 

Wait a sec. If she’s been here for hours, then there’s no way she was back at the hotel. It took a few minutes to click, but when it did, anger wiped away the pain. My friends weren’t in danger!

Houshou struggled to sit, kicking out to get the needed movement. Neither the woman he heard nor the man who’d kidnaped him helped, but after several efforts, he sat upright, panting more than he’d like. As soon as his eyes could focus on Akihito, he stared at the man with disdain.

Damn you!  

“What’s your problem, monk?” Akihito rolled his eyes. “Didn’t you get what you wanted? Funny. You begged for me to take you, as long as I left your friends alone. And that’s exactly what happened.”

“You lied to me.” Houshou’s voice was cold. Hard, despite the pounding in his head. “You said your partner would kill them.” 

I could have escaped. A smaller part of him asked when, exactly, that would have been, but he didn’t listen.

“No shit.” Akihito snorted. “You wouldn’t have come if I hadn’t.” 

Damn it! 

Crying out in anger, Houshou jumped at the man, toppling the two of them to the ground. With his hands still trussed behind his back, he couldn’t strike, so he settled for kneeling, shoulder-checking, and head-butting as much as possible. Akihito threw a punch and Houshou rolled off, tucking his head against his shoulder in an attempt to protect his face 

“Give up,” said the woman.

Houshou was grabbed by the collar and yanked off Akihito, and a hard fist connected with his nose. His head snapped back in slow motion. All sound instantly turned to a ringing noise, and when the hand let go, he fell to the ground, stunned.


sasumata* is a pole weapon used for capturing a suspected criminal and it looks like a giant prong, with the two tines going around the person's chest, waist, arm, legs, etc. (if there is more than one person helping subdue the criminal, one will be on the left side, such as the upper arm, and the other will be on the opposite side, such as the lower right leg).