Ito-sensei was late. This simple fact was big news at school, as Ito-sensei was always on time. Half an hour early, even. She was a teacher of the old form, the kind who tolerated absolutely no nonsense in her classroom and gave every indication of mourning the loss of corporal punishment. By the time Fuuto rushed through the door to classroom, Ito-sensei was officially three minutes late and there were murmurs about signs of the apocalypse amongst the students.
Fuuto was just glad she wasn't there to yell at him for being late again. Especially since it wasn't his fault he'd been waylaid on his way to school by the ghost of a car-crash victim. And he'd nearly tripped over a cat trying to get through the school gates. It wasn't even nine o'clock, and it already really hadn't been his day. And a pissed-off Ito-sensei would have been just what he'd needed to round it off. He had the sinking suspicion that Ito-sensei had been holding a grudge against him ever since Hanuman had snuck into class and knocked over several expensive and surprisingly fragile pieces of lab equipment. Apparently she hadn't believe Fuuto's insistent reassurances that it was only a coincidence that the monkey had chosen his seat to hide under.
But as the minutes crept by, even Fuuto found himself beginning to worry. Knowing his luck, the old bat had probably expired the night before while grading his lab report, and he was about to find himself with yet another ghost on his tail. He was almost relieved when the door to the classroom slid open.
It wasn't Ito-sensei's gnarled hand on the door frame, though. A young man, his arms full of assorted files and folders, nearly tripped on his way through the door. "Ah, sorry, sorry! I'm really sorry. I know I'm late." He dropped the paperwork onto Ito-sensei's usually impeccably neat desk. "As you've probably guessed, Ito-sensei won't be here today. Or the rest of the week, as I understand it. Something about a family emergency."
A murmur went through the class. Most couldn't seem to decide what to be more surprised about-- that Ito-sensei had a family, or that she'd actually go so far as to miss school for their sake.
"In any case," the young man continued, "my name is Tokiwa, and I'll be your substitute science teacher for the next week. I hope you'll all treat me well." His hair was messy. The suit he was wearing was nice enough, but the tie was hopelessly crooked. On anyone else, it would have looked ridiculous enough to prompt snickering and snide comments from the class at large. But on him, it somehow looked charming.
Tokiwa smiled, prompting the entire female student body to sigh as one.
With a soft groan, Fuuto let his head thunk against his desk. He found himself missing Ito-sensei already.
Save for the girls in Fuuto's class taking an unheard of interest in balancing chemical formulas, the rest of the school day passed uneventfully. All the same, Fuuto found himself entirely too ready to leave. Something about the unassuming grin of that substitute teacher made his hackles rise. He was just too nice.
"And he's managed to singlehandedly seduce every girl in the class just by talking about molecules!" Fuuto snarled, jamming his hands into the pockets of his school uniform pants. The people standing next to him at the corner inched slowly away.
Garuda shifted uncomfortably on Fuuto's shoulder. "Your Holiness..." he began, ruffling his feathers.
Fuuto ignored him. "I bet he's an incubus or something. I just bet he is."
"You felt a malevolent aura about him, Holiness?"
The light changed and the "walk" sign began to flash above the crosswalk. "Well... not exactly," Fuuto admitted as he started across the street. "It's more like he was almost too normal to--"
With a screech of tires, a car careened around the corner, heading straight at Fuuto and the other pedestrians on the crosswalk. The driver laid on the horn, a look of horror twisting his features. It looked like he was hammering the breaks to no avail.
"--oh, for the love of--" With a growl, Fuuto raised a hand, ignoring the screams of the panicked and scattering crowd around him. A moment later the car collided with an invisible wall. He had enough time to meet the eyes of the shocked driver before the airbag obscured his view.
"Your Holiness!" Garuda screeched, digging his talons into Fuuto's shoulder. "Your powers are still developing! You shouldn't take risks like that! What if it hadn't--"
Fuuto grabbed Garuda by the scruff of his feathery neck. "You don't have to yell in my ear like that! Jeez, if it hadn't worked, I would've moved or something. Anyway, I had a pretty good idea that it was gonna. Shut up for a second, okay? I gotta concentrate."
The feathered guardian fluffed his feathers in irritation, shut his beak with a clack. Fuuto stalked through the still-stunned spectators to the other side of the street. Shoving his way around the corner, he made his way over to a small vase of wilted flowers sitting by a lamp post.
He tapped it with the edge of his foot.
"Oi, I know you're there, so stop hiding. What the hell was up with that stunt, anyway?"
Fuuto sighed and crouched down next to the vase. "Okay, listen... what was your name? Mari? Listen up, Mari-chan. I know you're confused an lonely. You're probably even a little angry. I mean, I know I would be in your situation. But you're not going to solve anything by causing more accidents like yours."
As he spoke, the image of a young woman in a floral-print sundress slowly faded into view. She was lovely, her beauty unmarred by the gaping, bloody wound on the left side of her head. Through the blood staining her face, her expression was sad and a bit petulant.
"I've got a pretty good way to fix the problem of your loneliness, you know. But you're gonna have to trust me." Fuuto straightened up and held out his hand. After a moment's hesitation, the ghost placed one slim hand in his. "All right. You've gotta move on, Mari-chan. There's another life waiting for you on the other side of the wheel. Forget your anger and your confusion and let the light take you in. It'll be okay."
As the ghost began to disappear, Fuuto smiled softly. "It'll be okay," he repeated again, quietly. "Bye, Mari-chan."
Garuda coughed after a moment of silence. "Good work, Your Holiness," he said, his voice proud.
"Yeah, yeah," Fuuto grumbled, adjusting his schoolbag. "That's twice she interrupted my commute, you know." But there was no real venom in his voice.
He didn't notice the small black cat perched on the top of a nearby trashcan, watching him with unblinking golden eyes.
"Fehmut," Tokiwa began with a sigh, "I still don't see what the problem is." He was sitting on the floor of his cramped apartment, papers spread out before him on the low table.
The Egyptian boy fixed him with a withering glare. "The problem is that he's doing your job. For free."
Tokiwa fiddled with the pen he was supposed to be using to write his lesson plan. The lesson plan that Fehmut was currently sitting on. Sometimes Tokiwa thought that the cat influenced the Pharaoh more than the latter would like to admit. "I'll remind you that you're the one who keeps picking up pro bono jobs for me," he said.
If Fehmut had a tail in his current form, he would have been lashing it. As it was, he crossed his arms in irritation. "It's fine when you do it for free sometimes," he said slowly, as though he were speaking to a particularly slow child, "but you usually charge. If people get used to having spirits exorcised for free, they will never pay us!"
"Since when are you so worried about money?"
To his surprise, a slow blush crept over Fehmut's tanned features.
"Fehmut?" Tokiwa asked, raising an eyebrow.
Fehmut ducked his head in embarrassment. "... since you bought that expensive cat food for us with the bonus off the paycheck for your last job," he muttered. "We quite liked it."
Even Fehmut's transformation a moment later and the resulting swipe paw over his face couldn't stop Tokiwa's hysterical laughter. "Blasphemer!" the cat hissed, retreating to the other end of the table to wash his tail sulkily.
"Okay," Tokiwa finally managed to choke out through his giggles. He prodded his face delicately where Fehmut's claws
had scraped his skin. "I'll see about talking to him. If it's so that the great Pharaoh can get his choice of gourmet moist cat food, I'm sure he'll agree to work something out."
"We are placated for now," Fehmut sniffed, completely missing the teasing note to Tokiwa's voice. "Now fetch me my dinner."
"Yes, your majesty."
Tokiwa-sensei was eyeing him.
Frankly, for Fuuto, that was too much. The disinterest in his fawning fangirls were one thing. As was the too-nice aura. Even the haughty-looking foreign boy in too-large clothes who sometimes met Tokiwa-sensei at the gates was something Fuuto hadn't been prepared to pass judgement on. But the staring was the last straw.
"I think I should just introduce him to Sohki and call it a day," Fuuto mumbled, leaning against the railing at the roof of the school. "Or wait. Maybe that'd be a really bad idea."
Hanuman, who'd delivered his lunch, dutifully patted Fuuto's arm in reassurance. "You're really popular, aren't you, your holiness," he said.
"But what if I don't want to be?" Fuuto groaned "I'm not even wearing that damn earring anymore. It's not fair!"
Wisely, Hanuman refrained from any comment on the topic of the earring. Even referencing that particular incident had been known to set Fuuto off into one of his more spectacular tantrums. Sohki loved it.
With a sigh, Fuuto slid down to sit at the base of the railing instead, and picked up his yakisoba bread. "Oh yeah," he said between mouthfuls, "there's something I wanted to ask. None of the guardians are cats, right?"
"Um... cats?" Hanuman asked, blinking. "Like, a housecat? I don't..."
"Yeah. Somehow I didn't think so. I was just kinda hoping it was an assassin, because at least I'm used to that."
Hanuman cocked his head to the side in confusion. "Your holiness?"
Wordlessly, Fuuto pointed to the door to the roof. A small black cat jumped in surprise at being spotted, then attempted to nonchalantly lick its haunches as though it didn't care.
"It's got earrings," Fuuto said by way of explanation. "No normal cat has earrings."
"Oh dear," Hanuman said.
The cat disappeared down the stairs.
"Kamishina-kun, can I speak with you a moment?"
Fuuto had known it was coming, but he still inwardly flinched when Tokiwa-sensei's question came after class. Mentally, he ran through any number of practiced Sohki-avoidance techniques and came up empty. "Um... sure," was all he could say. "Just, you know, my mom's expecting me home to help with dinner, so..."
Tokiwa-sensei laughed. "Oh, it shouldn't take that long."
I'll bet, Fuuto thought, rather uncharitably. "Okay. Sure. What's up?"
After a brief glimpse out the door to make sure no one was watching-- which really just served to further contribute to Fuuto's unease-- Tokiwa-sensei flashed him a somewhat embarrassed smile. Fuuto noticed detachedly that he had a bandaid on his nose. "Ah, this is-- well, it's not something I really have a problem with, but circumstances being what they are, you see..." He trailed off, evidently unsure of how to continue.
Fuuto waited for him to go on.
"It's about your exorcisms," Tokiwa-sensei finally burst out.
"Oh, well, if that's all, then--" Fuuto stopped and mentally rewound. "Wait. What?"
"They're a little bad for business," Tokiwa-sensei was saying, as though he hadn't heard Fuuto. "And--"
But whatever else he was going to say was lost as the door to the classroom burst open. "Your holiness!" Garuda shouted. "We're here to save you!" A moment later, Genro rounded the corner, growling, with Hanuman hanging onto his back for dear life.
Fuuto buried his face in his hands to hide the embarrassed flush. "... um, guys, I think it's--"
"He doesn't look that dangerous," Genro said dubiously at the same time. "I mean, he's kind of scrawny, for one."
"Are those... shikigami?" Tokiwa-sensei burst out.
In the resulting confusion of unanswered questions being shouted every way, a new voice rang out. "There will be quiet or we shall be most displeased!"
Everyone turned towards the voice's source. The small black cat from the roof jumped down from the windowsill and stalked over to the motley group. In the blink of an eye, where the cat had been standing was a young, middle eastern-looking boy with a scowl on his face. "No one will threaten the source of our food while we have any say in it," he said haughtily.
Genro scowled. "Listen, kid, I dunno who you think you are, but--"
"How dare you speak to us in such a manner! Who do you think you are?!"
"We're the guardians of the Holy King of Dhalashar!" Hanuman piped up in a manner that he clearly thought was helpful.
Tokiwa-sensei looked as though he'd swallowed a bug. "Dhalashar?" he asked. "The Holy King?"
Without raising his head, Fuuto held up a hand and waved weakly.
The foreign boy scowled. "So what? We are more than a king. We are a god."
"... the problem is, Fehmut, I think he is too," Tokiwa-sensei murmured, elbowing the boy.
"Your holiness?" Garuda asked, landing on Fuuto's shoulder. "Are you all right?"
Fuuto just groaned.