Saving Face

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Saving Face
Part One: Effacing
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I sit up in bed, rubbing my eyes and running the nail on my index finger along the crease of my eyeline to clear fluid and crusted material. Rubbing my fingers together, I flick and pinch them to clear them of the residue. I look around at my room with bleary eyes, blinking and yawning as I turn my glance to my bedside clock, noticing that the alarm hasn’t gone off. When I check to see the time, it is 05:40. I sigh softly and zone out for a time and then finally motivate myself to swing my feet out of bed onto the wooden floor of my apartment’s bedroom.

I stare blankly into space and close my eyes for a long moment, considering how I feel today. I can’t remember any dreams I may have had, but I feel as though my sleep hasn’t been especially restful. As I sigh softly and muse on how awful my life has become recently, I picture the face of a beautiful girl with stunning green eyes and lovely brown locks worn in a short style. It was a girl who had captured my heart from an early age. She has claimed it forever, and none others have interested me very much.

Oh, Reiko-chan… why did you have to die? If only you had given your heart to me, yours would have been protected forever. Why couldn’t you care for me the way I care for you? My eyes well up with tears and I grit my teeth angrily to fight them.

I jump fiercely to my feet, open my eyes, and turn them to the hallway towards the door out from my small, cramped apartment. I sigh and pad to the door, turning towards the door in the small hallway opening to my washroom closet. I open the door and step into it. I absentmindedly scratch an itch on my rear through the shorts I wear to bed. Without looking at myself in the mirror I already know that my eyes are redlined and bloodshot.

Ugly, insufficient. I was never good enough looking to catch the interest of Reiko-chan… She would never love me, but I hoped she might. She was just recently broken by the man she had given her heart to. A complete asshole who couldn’t appreciate what she could offer a man. I wanted to go to her side and embrace her, but she wouldn’t meet me.

My cheeks are lined oddly in places making my naturally high cheeks look extra pronounced. The shadows around my black to brown eyes make me look creepier than I would like. My hair is black, shaggy, cut short in a professional but not exceptionally stylish manner. My childhood friend Reiko-chan suggested I try makeup to improve my look, but I could never bend my neck and stoop to such methods to correct it. Unfortunately, with the job that I have, being a low paid salaryman, I can’t afford plastic surgery, but I’m not vain enough to really seriously entertain the idea of spending good money just to make myself look a little better.

I glare at myself in the mirror and tug down my shorts, letting them hit the floor. Throwing my tee shirt off, I sigh. I pick up my clothes and throw them out of the small washroom closet, closing the door. After starting the shower, I wait for the water to warm up and then jump into the bathtub to soak myself. Others might take time to take a leisurely bath, but I don’t have the time or the interest in baths. Inevitably, my mind turns to Reiko-chan as I start washing my hair and my body.

Oh, Reiko-chan… why did you have to throw yourself from the top of a building? It’s only thanks to your ID that the police was able to identify you. You had to choose the messiest and most terrifying way to die that I can think of. What must those last moments have been like? Seeing the ground rush towards you. Did it hurt? What could have driven you to such deep despair? That man wasn’t worth so much grief! You were such a strong and wonderful girl. It doesn’t make any sense. Why? Were you thrown from the roof? The tears flow from my eyes uncontrollably now that the running water in the shower can mask them.

“I’m not certain that I can face work today!” I scream aloud, sobbing.

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I stand in front of the wash closet mirror some time later, my eyes still red and bloodshot. I have taken too much time for grief. I won’t be able to pay my rent and eat properly if I keep fooling around. I’m a twenty-five year old salaryman, not a fool. I have no family, no friends to rely on. I must be strong. I must power on and keep going. Surrender is not an option, never! I castigate myself fiercely as I adjust my tie. I glare towards my reflection, wondering if that glare is a typical look for me. My heart is good and I’m kind, I’d never hurt anyone. I do my best to help the unfortunate people I run across as I am able. Even so, I have no friends. Maybe it’s the scowl, or just my face?

I sigh, grimace and step out of the wash closet and around the corner to my apartment proper. I walk to the corner of the room that is my kitchenette. I open my small cabinet and remove a slice of bread from a bag and pop it into my small toaster, pulling the lever down to get it started. I open the small refrigerator and remove an egg. I break the egg open and crack it open into a waiting frying pan. I start the single burner underneath it, ready my cooking chopsticks, and prod at it carefully as it heats and fries. I move it periodically, and after a time I flip it and grill the other side. When the toast pops up, I lift the pan, turning off the burner, and use the chopsticks to lever the egg onto the toast. I quickly enjoy my breakfast standing there. Afterwards, I walk to my bed and lift my working case.

I review the apartment, making certain that I’m forgetting nothing, and leave it, locking the door behind me. I head along the railed walkway to the stairs downstairs and from there along the street in the direction towards the closest train station. I take a deep breath, enjoying the morning air. I catch the eyes of strangers passing by and offer an attempted friendly smile. Typically people flinch away from me. I shake my head and continue along the narrow street leading from my apartment building and as I do, I see a group of children passing me on their way to their school. I suppress a desire to smile and wish them a good day, but it never goes well, and as typical they eye me suspiciously. I shrug and continue my way onwards.

I approach the train station after twenty minutes of walking, and walk quickly down the stairs to the station proper. It’s odd; for some reason there is no one else in sight. Normally it’s packed around this time, but for some reason there is no one, not even any officers are stationed that I can see at the moment. Why would that be? I frown at nothing in particular and make my way through the ticket taking stands, sliding my magnetic card over the reader as I go. As it opens the way, I pass through and head down the remaining stairs to the train boarding platform.

Why is the station so empty? Is today a holiday that I’m not thinking of? I laugh aloud when I realize that it’s Halloween today, October the thirty-first. I shake my head. What a creepy situation for such a day. That holiday is not a sufficient reason for this anomaly.

I trot along the platform and over to where I usually board the train to wait for the train’s arrival in order to board car number three. Is it obsessive compulsion? No, I just form habits and roll with it. I yawn again casting my gaze around in another attempt to spot another person on the platform, but perhaps because I wonder if I might see something else; I can’t help still feeling creeped out by the lack of any people. When the train pulls in, the usual jingles play as it comes to a stop and the doors slide open. I look inside car number three and see the it is empty as well. Even this car is empty? What of others? Goosebumps rise on my arms and legs as I board it, looking around anxiously again. The same recordings play, announcing the next stop. I sigh, take a seat by the door, and slip my phone from my pocket.

This situation is too much. Maybe I should just ride the train to the next stop and board the next back home, or maybe I’ll walk home from there. I don’t like what this oddity says about how my day will be.

“Hello! Is someone there?” I call out as the doors close and the train starts moving. I consider moving through the cars to see if I can find one that may contain people. It will make me feel so much better if I were to find that other cars are occupied. Even so, I sigh as I open my browser on my cell phone and find myself compulsively navigating to the article that was all that announced the death of Reiko-chan, only a week ago. I review the details, grateful not for the first time that the pictures taken at the scene of her grisly death are censored. Suddenly, the lights in the car flicker and go out. I look out the windows and note that the train is still underground.

“Auuuughhhhhhuuuuu!” I hear the sound of a voice and turn to look with relief and then shock when I see the bone white face in the darkness, somehow clearly visible though nothing else is. I study the face, noting two dark maws that seem to be full of shadows. It gazes towards me and its face has no features at all; its mouth hangs agape permanently. What is this? A Halloween prank? Even though it might be, I still feel a strong instinct to run away. I leap to my feet and dash through the darkness of the rocking car in the direction I know I’ll find a door leading to another car, and when I come close I throw myself blindly at it.

“Auuuughhhhhuuuuuiiiiii!” The creature utters strange noises behind me. I suddenly doubt my instinctive flight, and I shake my head, thinking myself foolish. A noh face yokai? It’s a classic costume choice. If someone wants to terrify me on Halloween, it is probably a wonderful choice, isn’t it? If it really is a noh face, why does it want me? Because I’m here and no one else is? I laugh and struggle to open the door to put distance between myself and the potential prankster. The door unfortunately refuses to budge as I struggle with it. As I do, I start to feel the panic resurge within me to the surface of my conflicted emotions.

It doesn’t move any closer than within reach, and continues to groan at me. “Auuuuughhhhhhllllliiiiiiiiiiiii!” Unable to flee, I turn again despite my fear and meet its eyes. It’s a prankster, not a noh face… it’s a fine joke on me. You aren’t supposed to look it into the eyes, but that might make them stop. This kind of terrorism is not uncommon on Halloween. I blink as it continues to obnoxiously groan at me, but faced now it suddenly rushes at me with its clawed fingers stretched wide to seize my head. I try to look away from its dreadful clutches and its empty gaze. “What are you doing, you sick bastard? Leave me alone! What do you have against me, you freak?”

It grimaces and moans annoyingly at me a last time. “Auuuuugghhhhhhlllllllliiiiiiiiiii!” My face starts burning like it’s on fire! I scream and throw myself to the floor, I know that my face can’t truly be aflame, even so I reactively flop and roll around, slapping my face and patting it frantically. Moments later, the interior of the train car light up again. I blink, blinded by the sudden return of the light, and as my vision recovers I sit up, disheveled. I peer around; everything looks subtly different. I rub my eyes and the sensations I receive from my fingers seems strange to me as well. When I consider how it feels, it’s as though I’m rubbing my forehead instead and my hands rubbing don’t block my vision. It’s a strange sensation, being able to see my hands as I rub my eyes. I think that I can feel all the usual muscles in my face; my eyelids, cheek muscles, lips, nose, ears, and eyebrows.

My stunned panicking is interrupted not long after when the train chimes that the it is momentarily approaching the next station. As it slows and stops, the doors slide open, and immediately people start filing into the car. I look at them, and I’ve never been so happy to see people as now. They see me and unlike the usual expressions of distaste, flat indifference, or simply being ignored, I see open loathing and terror in their expressions. I haven’t even tried to smile at them. I try to, but it doesn’t change anything. “Yokai!” a man screams and lifts his suitcase high above as he runs towards me with an aggressive expression.

I flinch and raise my hands to ward him off, and as I do, I gasp. “What are you doing? I’m not that unattractive! I know I don’t look my best today!” I stagger and gasp as the man’s suitcase strikes my head. I fall to my backside on the floor of the train car, clutching my head.

“Call the police!” he yells loudly, menacing me with his suitcase.

“What if it’s a costume?” a woman suggests, looking disgusted and worried.

“It’s too good! He has no face! It’s no mask! He’s a noh face! That hit didn’t budge it a bit, and see the red spot? It’s obvious, isn’t it? You know the rumors, everyone! It’ll victimize us!” he yells. I gasp and seize my suitcase as I scramble to my feet and dart to the nearest door, wobbling. The onlooking people who have boarded the train dash away as far as they are able as the man’s words sink in. A man leaps through the door back onto the platform ahead of me running in terror. He quickly sprints through the platform up the stairs. I run after him desperately; as I run, other people spot me and scream. Their yells echo all around me. Once in a while, I think I hear an amused laugh as though some assume it’s some prank, as I had.

I run past the groups of people and they stare as I make my way up the stairs and to the ticket taking stands. Some of them whisper the same words that someone has already uttered onboard the train. “Yokai.”

I sweat furiously as I bolt to slip through the ticket taking stands; a police officer stationed there moves towards me officiously. I look at him, feeling as though my mouth is gaping open, but I realize that I don’t have a mouth when I place my hand to it. I scream loudly and the people around me scream in turn. I vault over the ticketstands and dash onwards, but I hear pursuit behind me to my dismay. I push past the officer, flailing as I make for the stairs leading out.

“Stop and lie down!” the officer barks out behind me. I gasp, crying as I continue to run, pushing my way through the crowd, weaving through it. More people scream as I dash to the stairs and up them, taking them two and three at a time as I flee. A man watching as the police officer chases me through the crowd draws back to strike me, like some kind of hero of justice. I peripherally notice people with their phones out snapping pictures and taking video. I gasp and desperately sidestep the man’s attack, throwing myself to the side against the nearby rail along the stair; I wobble, nearly falling.

The man stumbles due to his inertia and falls forward. I reach out and snag his shirt, pulling him up to the rail. I bolt again past him, resuming vaulting my way the rest of the way onto the street. As I break into the morning sunlight, I cover my face with my hands. People passing by still stare at me strangely as I run, but I keep my hands up, covering my face the whole way. I hear pursuing feet for a long moment, but the sounds fade behind.

I gasp for breath, sweating from head to toes, soaking through my business suit. Oh, Kami! What have I done to deserve this punishment? Please forgive me! I’m a good man! Why does the world despise me? What am I now?

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I somehow manage to find my way back to my apartment in spurts and sprints along alleyways towards home. On the way, I turned my face away from any inquiring people I passed by, and if my hands slipped away from my face, I quickly covered it again with my hands. I pant and moan and cry before my wash closet mirror. My clothes are now plastered to my body with sweat.

“I’ll never leave my apartment ever again! I’m a shut-in going forward from today! Oh… but what about the rent? I have no other income! How can I work and live like this? Oh no!” I scream as I turn my no-eyes to behold my appearance. My face is more disgusting and terrifying than ever. My face is blank with no features as though it were a curved fleshy flat surface. I moan, falling to my knees before the sink, screaming and crying. Reiko-chan! I now understand it! I understand why you killed yourself! When life deals you an impossible hand, and there’s nothing else you can do, what is left for you in the world? Oh, Reiko-chan… I’ll follow you and meet you in another life! I wail and despair, pulling my hair.

My despair and crying is interrupted when my phone rings in my pocket. I let it ring four times before I remove it, my hand sweaty and yet cold. I look at the screen and see the identification of the caller; it stuns me. Reiko-chan? I gasp and swipe to quickly answer it.

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Saving Face
Part Two: Facetious
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“Reiko-chan! Are you alive? Was your death a joke? W-wonderful!” I cry aloud, exulting. “What an amazing Halloween prank on me!”

A creepy voice answers. “You must find the noh face, Susumu. Find it before the strike of the twenty fourth hour tonight or it will possess your face for eternity, and you will be a yokai, a noh face. Do what you can to survive. Surrender is not an option.”

I gasp as the voice speaks those words to me. I stare at the screen again, unable to believe that this is Reiko-chan’s phone. The voice is not Reiko-chan’s! The caller hangs up after completing its morbid message for me. “R-Reiko-chan!” I gasp out. That voice sounded inhuman! I rush to dial Reiko-chan’s number back, but no answer comes. I let it ring over and over again and sob for a long moment. When I note the time is 11:40, I sit up and scream.

“What if it’s true? Will I truly be a yokai for the rest of my life? Is that my fate? No! I will fight it with every fiber of me!” I yell aloud and run out of the wash closet to my living room and throw myself to my knees before the sitting table. I open up my laptop and turn it on, desperate to start up my web browser. I open it as soon as possible and start typing madly. Noh face attacked yokai victim what do I do?

I go through the results desperately, finding fiction, literature on what to do when someone encounters certain yokai, and a lot of random posts by people with user names like “Noh_face”, but the usual legends seem strange and silly. None of what I see seems credible, and I can’t find any steps for how to deal with noh face! How do I find it, how do I face it? I shriek and practically pull my hair out as I worry about it. I click through more bogus search options until something catches my eye.

“Shinohara Spiritual Detective Services, Tokyo,” I read aloud, my voice trembling and gasping. I peruse the page information, looking for a phone number, but I find none. I look for an email and none is posted up! As I click around, I see a physical address posted. I notice that the address isn’t too far away from me. I can walk it in a half an hour, but considering how I look now, how will I be able to make it there? I rack my brain, sending the address to my phone. I slam down the lid of my laptop and jump to my feet as I dash back and forth in my room wildly, panting and moaning. I throw myself onto my bed and curl up, hiding for ten minutes before I recall that I don’t have the luxury to whimper and hide.

I’ll be a yokai forever if I don’t fight it! I leap up again, dash to my closet, slam it open and rummage through it, making a mess of everything. I remove a pair of jeans and a button up shirt. I throw them onto the floor of my room, and continue rifling through my things for what I need. I find a superhero costume that I wore at the office two years prior when I first started with them. I remove the mask. I run back to the wash closet with it and tie the mask around my face. The ridge that goes over your nose makes it look somewhat as though I have one, but if someone looks, they’ll see that I don’t have one. I move my mouth muscles as though to chew my lip, but I can’t.

I look at myself, feeling a little better at least. It seems as though I have eyes at least due to its tinted eyeholes. I open my medicine cabinet and remove a box of germ masks. I pull one free and put it on and scream as I realize a fatal miscalculation on my part. No ears! I stare at myself in the mirror again.

I look at the strings that are supposed to hang from your ears. I throw the germ mask into the sink and furiously style my hair. I pull it down the sides of my face, and it springs back to where it usually rests, run water through it to force it down over where my ears would normally be.

I cry as I grab another germ mask and wrap it to create an elastic band that I can use to keep the mask in place. I loop it through the eye mask I wear and shake my head wildly from side to side seeing if it will stay in place, and it does, although it shifts a little. I sigh and groan as I step into my living room again. I dash towards the clothes I set aside earlier. I peel off the sodden suit and towel myself off, drying the remnant of damp coating my body. When done, I pull on a new pair of boxers and the jeans I haven’t worn in a while. I pull the button-up shirt on, button it, and finally grab my wallet, phone, and house keys and pocket them.

In a rush, I dash out of the room and slam the door behind me. I dart away in a panic, but I belatedly remember my door as I dash back to lock it. I pull the phone out of my pocket then and review the address I need to find, then bolt down the stairs to find it. I don’t want to be a sweaty mess when I get there in the process making a bad impression. I calm myself, panting, and force myself to walk it. If anyone gets a clear look at me and they see how I really look now under these masks, it will be bad! So bad! And the detective, if I’m sweaty and looking horrible when I get there, how can I fail to make a bad impression? He might laugh in my face, thinking I’m a bum!

I walk down to the street again and the people I pass by look at me and laugh at me, but the usual expressions of concern or fear seem to be absent for the moment at least. Now I’m just an oddity.

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“Shinohara Spiritual Detective Services -- 8F,” I murmur as I read the signs on the tall building I stand before. I open the door nearby and walk along the cramped, run-down hallway towards an elevator. I press the button to activate it and wait, my hands stuffed anxiously in my pockets. I cast my gaze around as I wait impatiently.

I hope I don’t share the elevator with anyone. As I wait, a girl steps up the hallway wearing a skirt. She looks to be eighteen or younger, and she’s short. She has long dark hair that spills around her shoulders. She wears a shirt with words printed on it. I read them. ’I’m not weird. I’m just yuri.’ Seriously? She stops next to me; I look down at her and she slips her phone out of her pocket and flips through it. I finally look ahead so as not to be thought rude for staring.

“What were you looking at, moron?” she asks me. The elevator dings and she steps into the elevator and holds her hand up when I move to board it as well. I hesitate, and the doors slide closed. I watch as the elevator goes up. I sigh and my hands form fists as I slam my head against the nearby wall. I have to adjust my masks again, hoping they’re properly in place as I press the button again repeatedly. I can’t stand her! I groan. There is no reason we couldn’t share the elevator ride! What a snob! I exclaim.

I wait what seems like forever until the door opens again. I step onto it quickly and rack my brain to remember the floor the office is on. I hit the eight button and shift from foot to foot manically, waiting. The elevator rocks alarmingly as it starts moving upwards. Despite my concern, I reach the floor safely. Maybe it was for safety? I leap out of the elevator, looking back at it, and wonder if it’s a death trap.

I dash up the hallway on the eighth floor and look around for 8F. I finally find the correct door. A really unprofessional sign hangs on the wall nearby with semi-cute doodles of monsters, yokai, and rabbits for some odd reason. I see the name of the business there in handwritten kanji and hiragana. “Shinohara Spiritual Detective Services,” I read aloud. A little sign is tacked to it underneath which reads further. “No male solicitors are welcome at the moment.”

I gape, or at least I try and fail. I rack my brain trying to review mentally the information I saw on the website online. It didn’t say anything about them not accepting male customers! What kind of a professional business like this turns a customer away for their gender? That’s disgusting! I try the door and find it locked. I growl and knock fiercely on the door, slamming my fists on it repeatedly. I continue for fifteen minutes, and finally I hear the door lock disengage and I see a familiar face. It is the girl I saw at the elevator! She glares at me furiously.

“Oh, it’s you, idiot. What do you want, loitering around my office?” she yells.

“Loitering? I’m here for business! Where’s the detective? This sign is a mockery!” I yell, slapping the clumsy sign with the palm of my hand.

“Don’t damage my office, my door, or my expensive sign, or you will be billed and the bill will be enforced by local police,” the girl snaps, and moves to slam the door. I gasp and dash forward to slam my foot down in front of it to keep her from closing it on me and scream. The door hits it harder than I expected!

“Wait! I’m desperate! Tell me, where is the detective? I need a spiritual detective!” I yell out.

“Really? You’re a sexist idiot, aren’t you?” she accuses me with thinly veiled contempt.

You’re sexist! You little…” I yell back, stunned at her temerity to throw that kind of an accusation at someone else when she is clearly a man hater!

“Sexist? Me? Not at all, I just don’t care to see any ugly male faces around here today. Go away,” she growls, hands on her hips. “If you don’t start walking away, I’ll call the police. You’re incredibly creepy, and just exactly what kind of stupid costume is that supposed to be? What kind of halfwit came up with that kind of a costume concept? You’re a king of idiots.” She scowls witheringly at me.

“Wh-What? You’re way dumber than I am! How can you turn your back on someone in need? Find the detective for me! I’m serious here! My face was stolen! I was the victim of a yokai! I’ll be a yokai if I don’t find that noh face inside the next twelve hours! Please find some compassion in your little shriveled heart!” I gasp and scream as she slams the door repeatedly on my foot.

“Move it, or I’ll wreck it,” the girl threatens me. I try to gape at her. She’s a foot or two smaller than me and she’s threatening me like she’s taller than I am! The girl stares at me expectantly and then clenches her fist under my no-nose. For the first time, considering the competent fighting stance she’s assumed, I feel actually concerned that she might really destroy me. I gasp and go to my knees and bow to her.

Please! Please help me! However you can! I’m desperate. I don’t know where else to go. Oh no… I’ll be one of them. It’s hopeless!” I sob and curl up right there. She remains quiet for a long moment and then I hear her exasperated sigh.

“You’re pathetic… what kind of a man are you? Really… fine, come in for a cup of tea, but if you try something funny, I will end you,” she threatens as she steps away and into the room. I look up, somehow tears streaming from my no-eyes. I crawl into the office and look around. The office is messy. There are piles of books, looking eldritch to me. As I right myself I see a desk with a classic magical array etched into it. In the corner of the office I see a rolled-up futon and rudiment cooking equipment.

Does she actually live here? Does she live with the detective? In this cramped office? I gasp as I look around and see her walk over to a water-heating machine. She opens a tea bag, drops it unceremoniously into a cup, and pours water into it. I climb to my feet, looking at her. She looks over at me with another ‘put upon’ sigh. She walks to me, proffering the cup. “Drink it, calm down, and get out. I’d tell you to go right away, but I don’t have enough cups. I can’t afford to lose any.” She frowns.

“What? You still aren’t taking me seriously? Why? What’s not a big deal about my face having been stolen?” I gasp as she presses the cup into my hand.

“Alright, that’s a big thing to claim. Why don’t you show me? Take care not to cough on me, though. If you make me sick, I’ll kill you,” she states. “Stop just complaining to me, back it up with evidence.” She frowns. I sigh and shake my head in response.

“I don’t want to mess up my masks, but alright. Here.” I reach back to unfasten the masks and do so with tears pouring from my no-eyes. She stares at me for a long moment, and shakes her head in disbelief.

“I’ve seen some pretty crazy things… You don’t look like a noh face, but honestly, maybe I can believe it.” She steps up to me, reaches for my collar, pulls my face down, and brings her free hand down on my face. It smacks my face hard. She feels all over and nods to herself. “You really don’t have some kind of elaborate mask… it’s real,” she exclaims.

She hesitates for a moment and nods. “Alright. Sit down.” She gestures to a seat, walks behind her messy desk and sits down. “So how much money do you have?” she asks. “What would you be willing to pay to find this noh face yokai?” she asks me. “The name is Shinohara Rui. Call me Shinohara-sensei or you can leave right away.” She scowls.

“S-sensei? Well, okay. Shinohara-sensei… I’m Miyata Susumu.” I take a seat and look at her over the desk and move to sip the tea and moan as I realize I can’t drink tea either! SO INSENSITIVE! HOW COULD SHE BE SO CRUEL?

She looks at me and facepalms. “You know, I didn’t know you wouldn’t have a mouth… so I’m sorry,” she mentions.

“I… I don’t have much money. I haven't worked a lot lately. A friend of mine died and it hit me really hard,” I explain, sighing.

“Oh… that’s rough. Life really is crapping on you, isn’t it?” she comments, sounding halfway sympathetic. “Alright, I’m not hurting for money. I’ll help you, but only if you find a cute girl to give me a kiss. I’ll take that as payment,” she says.

“W-what? A kiss? You’re cute… why are you that desperate?” I ask her, trying to blink at that.

“I’m not. I like kisses.” She smiles. “Not from men.” She waggles a finger. “You can owe me.”

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Rui leads the way out of the building. Once again she stops me from entering the elevator with her, and the idea that it is for safety and not for the sake of being rude is reinforced. I wait and take the next elevator down, finding her waiting in the lobby; she leads the way out and up the street to a bus station, then points to the sign.

“We’re taking the bus, but it’s not on me. You’d better be able to pay or I’ll leave you here.” She waggles her finger imperiously at me. I groan and shake my head.

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Saving Face
Part Three: Undersurface
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“Fine. That’s fair,” I respond. When the bus arrives, I follow her on board and swipe my magnetic card over the reader; we ride for four stops. She pulls the cord before the fourth stop and leads the way off. We swipe our cards again on our way out. We walk through downtown through the streets. She leads me into a building, and we take another elevator up to the fourth floor. This time she doesn’t force me to take a separate elevator. I’d smile if I could. She takes me to a door that opens into a curious shop, full of antiques, strange decorations, and some particularly creepy things like fingers in sealed bags. I gasp when I notice them and look at Rui with a blank expression. I mean it to be a questioning look, but she doesn’t respond, of course.

She walks up to a girl managing the shop and holds her hand up, indicating that I should stay away. She walks over to her and chats with her quietly for a long moment looking in my direction once in a while. The girl nods and smiles. She’s taller than Rui, looking pretty goth with long dark hair tied up in twintails, her eyes a shining hazel to golden in coloration. She smiles at me with plump pale lips; I see fangs glint in the low light.

I flinch as I see them. Rui and she talk for a bit longer; then Rui leans in and plants a kiss on her lips. The girl grins, baring her fangs. Rui winks and steps back towards me. I look at her and she smiles. She’s wearing gothic clothing, shredded pants, and a halter top in black. It seems contradictory that she wears a necklace with various symbols on it looking like pentagrams. The centerpiece of the necklace is nested between her plump bosoms, a decorated black rosary with a red gem set in it. She wears metal-studded bangles on her wrists.

“Ume didn’t see any noh face recently. She told me about a rumor of a serial killer at large, or something like that.” She shrugs at me. “So, Miyata… we need to move along. We have ten hours.” She gestures and leads the way out and back down to the street. She leads me down the way for a half mile and up a narrow alleyway. We walk to another door. She opens it on a flight of stairs leading down into darkness. Rui walks down easily without any concern. I frown and try to gape. Was that girl dressed up for Halloween or was she actually a real monster?

I follow her, frightened more than I can say. I cling to the rail in the darkness as Rui carelessly dashes down the stairs. We go down what feels like two floors and come to a door. Rui opens it fearlessly and walks in. I follow her, looking around with fear in my eyes. The room is darker than the previous one. As we wait, a slurping noise echoes in the darkness. I scream as I see it come into sight. A large and faintly luminous greenish-yellow blob of something covered with eyes and teeth. It does not have a human like form at all, and the existence of it terrifies me.

“Good afternoon, Rickey,” Rui greets it. I stare, stumbling mentally over the name. Rickey? Is it an American yokai? Do those things exist? Or… why? I try to blink and draw away as it slurps and gurgles at Rui. Rui cups her ear with her hand and nods her head thoughtfully. “Oh, Rickey… no… it’s not food. I don’t barter for information. Don’t forget you owe me for not taking you down!” She waggles a finger at it.

The strange scene of her threatening a true monster floors me. What kind of fearless ridiculous person is Rui? “A-are you okay?” I ask her, stammering. I draw against a wall as it slurps in my direction.

“Oh… he was a victim of a yokai. I thought you might know about a serial killer. Come to think of it, where did this happen to you?” Rui looks towards me. The thing slurps at Rui and she blushes. “No… I’m still not interested in men, idiot. Keep your flattering to yourself! Hush!” she snaps at the thing, which flinches at her tone.

I have a meltdown at that exchange, but I manage to reply. “You only asked now? Really? What kind of an investigator are you?” I gasp.

The creature suddenly looms and gurgles in my direction.

“No, Rickey. That idiot is my client. Don’t do something stupid. I’m flattered that you think so much of me,” Rui says and Rickey deflates, turning back to Rui.

Oh, Kami… dodged a bullet… Why can’t I dodge all of them? I plead. “Um… it attacked me on the train. The Yamanote Line… it was so strange… this morning there wasn’t anyone in sight when I got on the train, and there wasn’t anyone on it, and it attacked me after it left the station,” I relate to her, my tone panicked.

“That’s a very odd story.” Rui frowns. “It’s hard to believe. When is a station deserted? And a train. They’re usually occupied.”

“I know that… I’m not an idiot,” I protest loudly.

“Definitely an idiot, but a sympathetic one.” Rui shrugs. “What do you think of that, Rickey? Do you know anything about an empty station?” she asks it.

Rickey hesitates and then gurgles for a long moment.

“A rash of concerned riders on the Yamanote lately?” Rui asks with a puzzled expression, fingering her chin.

Rickey gurgles for a while longer at her.

“Oh… really… the serial killer… Ume-chan mentioned that… I wonder… maybe I should ask Natalya.” Rui frowns. “Alright, thank you, Rickey. I’ll see if I can get you some of your favorite candy. I won’t forget it,” she reassures it. It gurgles in reply and shakes.

“Oh, good. See you again.” She waves and walks back towards me and the door. “Come on, idiot,” she addresses me and opens the door. I follow, casting a glance over my shoulder at Rickey. It gurgles somewhat menacingly, so I feel like I don’t dare correct her. She takes me upstairs, and I sigh in relief when we reach sunlight again. She gestures and I follow her once again. We walk for another period of time, this time around three quarters of a mile.

She leads me into a door on the first floor this time for a change. This time, oddly enough, it’s a clothes shop, full of women’s fashion. Rui walks in and wanders to a rack of clothing, and I start to wonder whether or not she’s taking this case seriously anymore. I stare at her as she casually looks through the racks of blouses, dresses, skirts, but she mostly focuses on the cute or trendy clothes versus professional outfits. I try to frown at her, but I can’t; she glances at me once or twice, but my lack of expression doesn’t convey anything to her. Only the way I stand, shifting from foot to foot, may convey impatience.

She ignores me largely and finally I walk over to her and groan. “What are you doing? It’s been an hour! You’re shopping with the time I have left? What’s wrong with you?” I shriek. Rui sighs and looks at me with a despairing expression.

She reaches up and pats my no-face through the germ mask. “Don’t worry about it, you fool. I’ll take care of it. When I take a case I’m serious to the end. Keep in mind that I’m not legally on the hook here, but I do feel for you. Just don’t forget to find a cute friend to give me a kiss. There’s nothing too hard about that, right? Who else would go to such trouble for your miserable butt for such a simple reward?” She smiles.

I try to gape at her. She thinks she’s so great. What an inflated ego! I moan internally. She’s a maniac, isn’t she? How can she so casually address…

An elegant woman walks into the shop proper with braided blonde hair. She’s dressed professionally and looks absolutely stunning. Rui squeals when she sees her and rushes into her arms. The woman spreads her arms for Rui and embraces her tightly. Oh… My… Kami… Why isn’t my detective like her? She looks so friendly, and so professional, and so amazing. Her eyes shine a beautiful and stunning blue as she embraces Rui. Her face is so gentle, yet so aristocratic with its European and Baltic features.

“Natalia!” Rui squeals and giggles as Natalia pets her and tousles her hair like she’s a child. The contrast between what I’m seeing now versus the unfriendly, threatening little girl who I’ve been dealing with so far makes me tear at my hair trying to figure her out. She’s bipolar! That has to be it! I scream internally.

“Kyaaaa! Natalia! Can I have a kiss today?” Rui asks cutely. I collapse.

Natalia bends down and gives her a kiss that defies all the logic remaining in my mind. She’s gone from a doting mother to a potential lover in a short period of time.

I stare at the floor, my eyes fixed, and zone out as they talk together quietly.

“Come on, let me feed you two.” Natalia speaks up, and for the first time I notice that she speaks with a Russian accent; she sounds so polished and elegant. I look up at her with my eyes... Well, honestly, I don’t have eyes, but if I did, they’d be sparking at her. No, I look at her blankly.

“Oh… Natalia! He doesn’t have a mouth…” Rui corrects Natalia with a rueful smile. It dawns on me and I start crying, and somehow the tears pour down my face and soak my germ mask.

“Oh, my. How insensitive. I’m so sorry. Please come along and relax a least. What an unfortunate existence. Being a yokai isn’t too bad, you know. You get used to it. Some of us can find a place in society, but there are many of us who are very unsociable, or otherwise can’t compensate. At least you can. That’s a good thing. You don’t look wonderful, but maybe a full cowl would help… with prosthetics… I understand that you don’t have any facial features at all,” she comments sympathetically. I gaze into her eyes and cry tears of joy for her compassion.

She steps up to me and helps me to my feet, leading me to the rear of her shop and a comfortable-looking sofa in a room decorated in a very western style. I smile and drop gratefully into the comfy looking sofa, happy to be able to relax a moment. “I don’t know what I can offer you to refresh yourself… I wonder if you could take fluids via IV? I have a set somewhere,” Natalia offers solicitously.

“N-no need…” I reply. She has IV equipment? Why? I try to gape -- wait, and she’s a yokai? Why does she have something like that?

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I stare at her again when she lets her ears and tail appear, just as blonde as her hair, with dark streaks across the rims of her ears and marking her tail. She winks at me and honestly, she has to be the sexiest looking yokai I’ve ever seen, and she gives me hope for an existence as a yokai if things go south. No… I can’t think that way! I’m not like her! What is there to feel better about my situation? What if I turn into something worse? If I’m a noh face, will I look like it did? Will I moan unintelligibly for the rest of my life? Oh, Kami! Spare me! Save me! I shriek mentally.

“So, Natalia, have you heard anything about a yokai serial killing along the Yamanote line?” Rui asks. “A noh face stole…”

“I know. You mentioned it, Rui-chan.” Natalia laughs. “Hmmm…” She thumbs her cheek and looks at me with a puzzled expression. “Come to think of it, I’ve heard some customers complaining about strange looking people showing up in the stations along Yamanote over the last month or so… noh faces, or so they thought. I wondered about it, but it could be related,” she suggests. “But it’s not really my job to track these things. I’m a clothier after all.” She smiles warmly at Rui.

“I love your clothes, Natalia! They’re so inspired. You capture the spirit of Japanese fashion so wonderfully, with a wonderful Russian tint to it.” Rui giggles, gushing.

“Awww… that’s so sweet. I’m so happy that you’re a fan, cute Rui-chan. Stay as long as you like. My shop is a haven for you two.” She smiles warmly. I blink as it occurs to me that she’s Russian and she’s a kitsune maybe. Do they come from other countries? They must since foxes exist on many continents… they exist in England, too.. Or the ones left… so I wonder what an English Kitsune might be like?

“You’re so amazing, Natalia-sama!” I exclaim, blushing at using her first name, but I haven’t been given a last name. She smiles warmly at me.

“Oh, thank you very much.” She winks at me.

“We have to go, though, Natalia! We don’t have a lot of time. It’s obvious that we need to search where it’s hunting. Now that we have information, we should figure this out.” Rui pulls her phone from her bag and nods to herself. “Just five hours remaining. Let’s go!” she exclaims.

I vault to my feet and gasp, stunned at how I’ve been lured into wasting time here. “Let’s go! Right now! Thank you, Natalia-sama!” I bow deeply to her. Rui hops to her feet and smiles.

“You’re not such a hopeless idiot, I think,” she notes as she leads the way out of the rear of the shop. Natalia follows us to the door of her shop and waves to us. I cry tears of sorrow as I wave back to her and follow Rui. She’s so crass and cruel to me… I want Natalia-sama! I moan internally.

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Saving Face
Part Four: Multifaceted
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I follow her quietly, looking to my own cell phone from time to time marking the time. We reach the nearest Yamanote station via a bus ride. She leads me down into the station and we swipe our passes to run in; as we reach the platform, we find something jarring. The station is crowded this time, but oddly, like me, everyone else is wearing germ masks. Rui studies them all with an alarmed expression. “Is there an outbreak?” She looks at her cellphone, flipping through page to page and shakes her head. “I don’t see any major postings… what’s going on…? Was it just recently announced?” She blinks and looks at me.

“Did you somehow start a fashion statement in only a few hours?” she jokes.

“No! I don't think many have seen me today. Don’t be an idiot,” I growl.

“Well, I think it’s possibly the former… and honestly… I’m not comfortable going without one. I have to say, you at least blend in. Maybe you should have worn a costume. Wasn’t that mask of yours from it?” she inquires.

“W-well… yes… a superhero costume… but I’d feel like an idiot running around in it all day.” I reply bashfully.

“Well, you are an idiot. And it’s Halloween! Don’t forget. It won’t be long before we start seeing people dress up. I would too if I weren’t on the job right now. Because of you, I can’t have fun tonight,” she chastises me rudely.

“Um, I’m sorry…” I trail off, drooping visibly.

“Oh… it’s okay. Don’t be such a pansy. Guys are supposed to be bold and strong. I have to say I like that you seem to be gentle. You seem like the suffering quiet type. Tell you what, if you lose your job and we don’t find your face you can be my bodyguard.” She smiles at me.

When did she ever need a bodyguard? She’s fearless. She’s small, I will admit that, but she’s ridiculously fierce!

She leads me quickly onwards through the crowds in germ masks towards a vendor on the platform. The shop has some delicious-looking bento on sale. I gaze at them longingly. How can I eat anyhow now? Oddly, my stomach gurgles as I stare at the food. How do noh face eat? Oh no… do they grow maws in their stomachs? Oh, Kami… if so, I’ll be a real monster! I scream aloud and people stare at me and oddly Rui pats my arm.

“Be quiet, idiot,” she admonishes me. “They don’t have any germ masks. Hurry. We need to move along quickly! I will not catch something on your account!” She waggles her finger and dashes away.

I follow her quietly, tears pouring from the general region of my non-eyes again. She stops in front of the kiosk and inquires. “Do you have any of these germ masks for sale?” she asks cutely, looking up at a man behind the counter. But she hates men! Why did she flip that switch now? She wants something? Oni! I think, staring at Rui. The man smiles warmly at Rui and nods.

“Come to think, I keep a few with me just in case, and I’m not worried about it, but you can have one, no charge.” He turns into his kiosk and rummages around, producing a wrapped mask and handing it to Rui. “Have a great day! What’s your boyfriend there supposed to be anyhow? Creepy superhero street bum?” he asks.

“Why yes, it’s a self-invented hero. He prowls the streets looking for lowlifes to beat down, but he’s a germaphobe… he’s afraid he’ll get sick. He doesn't have much money so he wears street clothes. He has a great benefit in that he can blend in when he takes off the eye mask, but when he puts it on he’s super serious and you know you’re going to get your butt kicked,” Rui makes up. I try to gape at her, but I feel happy that I can’t since that would have ruined her weird story. Rui smiles warmly and waves and leads me away, unwrapping the germ mask, and pulls it on over her ears, pulling at it until it covers her chin and nose and mouth. She winks at me. “When I put on my germ mask, I’m serious.”

She’s going to kick my butt? I panic. She doesn’t beat on me, at least. I can thank Kami for that. We wait another minute to board the train. I look at the direction the train is going, and think to myself, this will take me back to my station, the site where my pain today started. I feel traumatized. I’m terrified to board this train… I don’t want to be anywhere near the station. They chased me out. When I hedge and try to draw back she grabs my sleeve and hauls me into the train with surprising strength. This girl needs a bodyguard? Oni!

I look around, terrified, as we stand in the car. I draw up against the far door and squeak as I realize something might reach through the window and grab my throat. I scream and push my way towards the center of the car, but I don’t feel any better. Rui watches me and sighs as she pushes her way to my side.

“You’re such a girl… you were a guy, right? You smell like one.” She rolls her eyes. “Hey, Susumu… lift me up. I can’t see around these heads. Don’t you have the strength enough to do that?” she criticizes me.

I gape and glare at her, though of course my expression is blank. I sigh and clasp my hands for her to step onto. I wince as she steps up and lift her as much as I am able. She nods to me and grabs a nearby handle, holding onto it and taking a lot of her weight off of me. I hold her up while she looks around the car. People around stare at us, and I start fidgeting at the way people stare. Oh Kami, don’t let them see my face. I hope no one here saw me before! I worry unreasonably.

We ride like that and I brace my knees for the turns and rocking of the train. We stop from time to time and passengers board and disembark. Everyone stares at our spectacle. I try to bite my lip but I can’t. I look around nervously.

“Oh… I think… something…” Rui suddenly says. I freak out when she speaks and she shakes and wobbles as I panic. “No! Idiot, keep stable. I don’t want a broken head!” she yells at me, and everyone stares at us again. More than a few people laugh and point.

“Oh… they’re cute together…” I overhear one girl’s comment and I scream internally. No! You’re reading it wrong! I’ve never had a girlfriend! I’m hopeless, but I’m not desperate! I will not date an oni in a tiny body! Maybe she is a yokai and I don’t know it! How else could she be so comfortable around them? One of them! Of… of us… oh no... I cry again.

When we approach my station, Rui hops down and pats my head on the way down. “This is your station, isn’t it? Let’s go. We need to look around. I have an idea.” She gestures imperially and I flee from the train almost as much in panic as earlier when people chased me out. Returning to the scene makes me scream endlessly internally. She leads me up and down the platform, finally heading towards where the tunnel leads back in the direction we came from. She studies the chained-off path for maintenance purposes. She frowns and looks at me. “We need to explore. Let’s go,” she says and moves to jump over the chain.

I turn and see a familiar face and I scream internally. The same police officer from earlier! The one that chased me down! No, no, no, no! All the no! I tug on her shirt sleeve and she looks back at me straddling the chain; she notes where I’m looking and sighs when she sees the officer. She smiles brightly.

“Oh daddy… I’m so sorry… I messed up… I didn’t realize it was off limits…” She puts her finger cutely to her mouth and blushes prettily.

ONI! I look at her and flags raise high up. She’s showing yet another frightening side of her. “Uh... um… yes… sweetheart… we… You need to behave. Let’s go. We really need to go.” I try to act. I’m such an idiot, I can’t act at all! I berate myself.

The policeman stops in front of us and Rui pours on even more cuteness and with her skirt and shirt she can pull it off, but it still reads: ‘I’m not weird. I’m just yuri.’ Huge contradiction, idiot oni! I think fiercely in her direction. She just continues to smile fetchingly, and for a wonder the policeman smiles and nods.

“Have a wonderful day, you two.” He waves and I stare at him, grateful that the eyes on the mask are tinted. He can’t see any expression on me.

“Why, thank you! P-please have a great day yourself!” I try. Rui tugs me away and casts an exasperated expression at me, rolling her eyes as we hurry along the platform to the stairs.

“When you lie, don’t compound it… keep it simple. You’re so bad at it,” she sighs.

She’s an expert liar… FLAGS! I think. She smiles at me and leads me up the stairs.

“So that didn’t work out… but I have an idea. I have a friend not too far from here…” she comments.

ANOTHER one? Who is she? WHAT is she? I gape.

I follow her quietly, wondering. Even though she’s an oni she seems somewhat reliable and capable. Somewhat.

“Were you just thinking I’m incapable?” She seems to read my mind.

O-ONI! I flinch. “Not at all, I think you’re amazing… so multiskilled…” I laugh stupidly.

“Oh… that’s nice.” She smiles.

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She leads me from the station and we walk for a mile this time. She said it’s nearby! ONI! I protest silently. Along the way she stops at a konbini. She stops by the drinks and looks at me. “You look like you’re low on funds… I’ll get you a tea. Oh wait… I’m so sorry… but I’m so thirsty. How are you doing?” she asks me, seeming to be concerned for me.

ONI! ONI! ONI! I’ve started crying again.

She selects a drink and leads me to a rack with large umbrellas. She selects one and wields it like a sword for a moment before using it like a walking stick. She looks at me and winks. I look outside again, seeing it’s getting dark. It’s also not looking at all like it will rain to me. “It’s not going to rain?” I comment as I study the weather reports to reassure myself and I return my no-gaze towards her.

“Why do you need an umbrella?” I ask her. She peruses the candy aisle and chooses some strawberry chocolates, and takes all the above to the counter. She’s wasting my time again! She’s so evil! I should just give up and resign myself to being a monster for the rest of my life. Maybe I’ll find that roof that Reiko-chan threw herself from. If I die there, maybe we’ll be together forever! I’m still crying. Rui looks at me and pats my arm comfortingly.

“Don’t worry, we’ll be going soon.” she smiles. “I’ve calculated it out.” She completes the transaction, and uses the umbrella as a walking stick. She hands me the candy and drink, expecting me to carry them for her. I do so, because I don’t dare resist her, I think wryly.

She rudely makes a call as we walk, and I sigh tiredly as I trudge after her, thinking about where that exact roof might be. I don't feel much better at this point. Can a noh face fall to their death like a human can? I wonder morosely.

She speaks into the phone for a while, then hangs up and grins at me, winking again to try to encourage me, as though she thinks she’s an idol or something. She even poses for a moment with her fingers up on her forehead like a warrior of justice. I shake my head and follow her. She leads me into an alley, another dark alley. Of course it’s another dark alley, night has fallen. I study my clock. 21:20. Just short of three hours to be human… if I’m human anymore now as is. I’m going to die.

We walk up to a dead end and I stare at her for a long moment. She looks at me. “Are you an idiot? Why did you lead us here? There’s no door here!” I yell, panicking.

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Saving Face
Part Five: Effacement
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“You turn into a rude person when you freak out. Have some faith in me. I’m looking out for you now, you know. Shut up, idiot.” She lifts the umbrella and brings it down on my head gently. Afterwards she lowers it and strikes the wall before us low where it meets the ground. Amazingly, there’s a poof; the wall disappears and a man takes its place. I stare at him. His build looks burly and he has a long semi-puffy tail, and he has fluffy oval shaped ears. His eyes glow faintly. He has black and brown hair that seems peculiarly spotted, possesses thick lips and classic African features, but not they’re not exaggerated the way they’re portrayed in anime and manga. Akuchi wears a tee shirt with a hoodie over it despite the warmth. He wears something with a pattern on it that looks exotic and seems to be a skirt-like garment. I think about a name for it that is more manly. A kilt maybe? But is that what he calls it? I don’t want to ask. Or is it a real skirt?

He looks at Rui with a grin. “Nice to see you again, little one. I didn’t fool you at all, it seems.” He laughs merilly. I examine him further and try to gape. Is he African? Is he black? What is he exactly? A bear? A cat? I don’t often see those of that race, could he be a tanuki? I stare at Rui, who grins back at him.

“Akuchi, of course I’m wise to your tricks. Don’t waste any time. I explained it by phone. I played your little game, so follow me. You know the rules.” She waggles a finger at Akuchi. He grins broadly at Rui.

“Of course, little one. I’m always your steadfast companion. Show the way, and I will help you, but I am concerned… I don’t have the skill to hide my appearance… I can become invisible, but it could be awkward. I might sneak away.” He grins.

“Don’t worry about it, Akuchi. It’s Halloween; pretty soon you’ll fit in perfectly.” Rui winks at Akuchi and he chuckles.

“This western holiday. It has caught on here, I see?” He grins.

“With younger people, mostly,” Rui comments and pulls Akuchi. We follow Rui; passersby stare at Akuchi, of course, and myself as well. We look a strange group.

We walk for the mile again returning to the station, and I’m wilting at the end. Am I thirsty? Hungry? Do I need sleep? What kind of an existence do I have? Along the way, I notice that groups of young people walk together in cosplay or costumes, now that it’s late in the night.

We make our way down into the station again. We rest on the staircase and when the people around peter out a bit, Rui turns to Akuchi. “Do your magic for us. Like I said, we need to be invisible,” she says.

“Invisible?” I ask.

Akuchi nods and looks at me with a big grin. “It’s my trick. But it doesn’t last long on mortals. You have fifteen minutes to get where you need, and don’t bump into anyone. Good luck!” He grins and digs into his skirt, or kilt.

Does that mean I’m mortal still? Wait… where did he pull those leaves from? My thoughts are interrupted when he slaps them onto our foreheads. Rui doesn’t bat an eyelash, but she becomes transparent to my eyes and pulls me quickly along. I scream mentally, wondering where those leaves have been. She rushes me down into the station and we vault over the ticket-taking stands. I run after her, panting, and start sweating profusely again. It makes me remember my desperate flight from this station. Ironic!

We make our way through the sparse crowd in the platform back to the chain-blocked passageway; she vaults over it as well, and I follow her, stunned at how fearless she is. She plunges into the darkness of the tunnel, only dimly lit once in a while. I follow her, stumbling as we run through the darkness. I feel the leaf drop from my forehead after a short time in the passageway and scream as a train blows past.

I look into the lit train at the people on board. They stare at us, and some point at us. We are dimly illuminated, as it passes by quickly. Rui urges me along faster. I pull out my cell phone and check the time. ”Twenty-three-thirty!” I scream. It’s very nearly midnight! Oh, no! We wasted so much time! Nooo! Will I become a yokai down here in the darkness? Oh, Kami! I weep for my ruined life.

Some time later we come to a larger area along the walkway. Rui pulls out her phone and activates the flashlight function, shining it around; it bathes a nearby door with light. “Yet another door in a scary dark passageway!” I gasp.

“Don’t be a baby,” Rui admonishes me as she reaches into her bag, propping her umbrella against her leg. She pulls out a strange-looking object from her bag and shines the flashlight on it; it’s some kind of strange compass with symbols and writing on it. It looks eldritch. She studies it and nods to it, flashing a broad smile towards me, and points to the door. She pockets the compass and lifts the umbrella. “Break it down, idiot,” she orders.

I gape at her, or try to. When I think about what time it is, desperation kicks in and I slam against the door repeatedly. I panic and whale on the door, pleased that I finally have something that I can lash out at, as I was unable to all day. I slam and rail against the door that doesn’t budge, not that I’m the strongest. Finally, I gasp and sigh as I reach down to try to simply turn the knob to open it. Amazingly, yet frustratingly it’s unlocked! I look back towards her with exasperation fuming from my frame. I grit my imaginary teeth and clench my fists as I have a fit.

Rui laughs in a silly and cute manner. “Oh… I thought for sure it would be locked.. but don’t you feel better now? I know I would.” She grins at me.

I continue to face towards her and blink at her comment, or at least try to. After a moment I’m forced to nod to her. “I-I guess I do.” I no-facepalm.

Rui looks to me and chuckles gleefully. “Good. Therapy success! So let’s see if my theory pans out. Let’s go.” Rui salutes me again. I sigh and push in the door, opening it fully as I inspect the inside. As I do, I decide that I’m terrified of what I’ll see. I walk inside and see nothing for a long moment. I remove my cell phone from my pocket again, activate the flashlight function, and shine the light around; I scream shrilly as I see something horrifying indeed. Faces float in the room, like a gallery. I stare at them, and they gaze back at me emptilly. They’re complete with ears, noses, eyes, mouths. It’s like someone has cut off the entire face with everything attached to it. Come to think of it, without a nose or a mouth how am I breathing? How? How do I cry? Is it a part of being a noh face? Is it magic? That defies biology unless these “tears” are actually sweat or something. I panic.

The faces seem to peer into my soul; I gaze at them, consumed by terror. I’d blink if I could, but after another moment, it seems as though they draw closer to me. It seems like it might be an illusion caused by my stressed-out, nearly driven insane mind. I can’t help staring at the disembodied faces as my stomach clenches. There is nothing specifically about them that connects them. They vary from ugly to beautiful, male to female to androgynous, old to young. There are so many it terrifies me. I see one in the corner of my eye that I think I recognize, someone I think I know, but suddenly a heavy cold metal object strikes me over my head. I collapse forward to my hands and blood drips down from my scalp. I look backwards over my shoulder, grateful that despite the pain in my head, at least my vision is somehow not impaired by the blow. I stagger, feeling dizzy and unsteady. When I turn, expecting to see Rui standing over me with the weapon that assaulted me, I see her collapsed on the floor, her own hair bloodied. I see another familiar face… I look at the figure of our attacker.

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Saving Face
Part Six: Palefaced
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“Look… I’m beautifullll…” it slurs at me. “Why are you in my home? Get out, you are not… weeerrrrrrrrrrllllcommmeeeee…” it moans out. Its voice is my voice! It’s like I’m speaking to myself! I lift my phone and shine the flashlight on it, revealing my face on its dark form. It grimaces at me and flinches for a moment before darting forward with the crowbar held up. “Like me… get your own collection… out, ouuuuutttttttt!” it rages at me, and I roll back and forth to avoid its frantic strikes. I roll up against the wall, seeing the faces above me. They terrify me even more! I climb to my feet as I prepare to run. Nohface strikes at me again, and I have to weave, stumbling from side to side as I back myself into a corner of the room. I see the faces turn towards me in the darkness at that moment and I scream as Nohface brandishes the crowbar towards me.

As it lifts the crowbar to deal a probably lethal blow, it staggers as its own head is struck. It screams and wails, turning towards Rui, who has blood dripping down the side of her face. She wields the umbrella like a sword, menacing the noh face with it with aplomb. She wobbles on her feet, and it capitalizes on the situation, retaliating. Rui blocks its strikes with the umbrella hastily, but it buckles and bends under its repeated furious attacks.

I stare at them for a long moment. With a wail, I rush forward amidst the floating faces and tackle the noh face. It snarls and moans piteously as we hit the ground. We roll violently across the floor as it starts struggling and striking at me. I fight it like I haven’t fought anyone since my youth. Hatred for this creature consumes me as we grapple. The crowbar falls to the floor clattering as we fight, rolling from one side to the other. It moans piteously with my voice as though I’m fighting myself. An insane version of myself!

“Be careful, Susumu!” Rui cries out loudly, sounding unbelievably worried for my wellbeing. When did the oni come to care for me? Would she mind if I were to die, here? I wonder as I throw and fight the noh face. I grasp for the crowbar and suddenly the darkness starts diminishing. I begin to feel strange. I can see suddenly as though it’s daylight. I seize the crowbar and whale on it like it whaled on me with it; it flinches, dodges and flees.

“Noooo, nooooooo! Mine!!!” the noh face screams at me, trying to close on me, but I wildly wield the crowbar.

“No! Mine! My face! You’ve stolen it! It’s mine! Give my face back! Now!” I scream out loudly, and the words I babble out stun me. What now… is a change? What time… how much… I think, and all I can do is continue harassing the noh face with the crowbar. I chase it out of the room, shrieking and yelling incomprehensibly. It yells back at me, equally unintelligible. It desperately bolts forward, ignoring my wild flailing of the crowbar. With savage intent, it knocks the crowbar from my hands and I wail as it closes on me and grapples with me. It throws me fiercely; as I fly, I grab hold of it and my momentum wrenches it back to the pavement. We jostle and wrestle madly and shortly fall a short distance to a hard lumpy surface. I groan and continue to wrestle with the noh face, ignorant of the situation. I regain a measure of clarity when I hear a strange noise that is yet hauntingly familiar. What’s that sound? I try to remember it.

Susumu! Hurry! Get off of the tracks! Look! The train is going to hit you! Please come back to yourself! You’re losing your mind! Don’t let the transformation take your mind from you. You still have five minutes!” Rui cries out, her voice echoing loudly in the tunnel. I gasp and cry out a response. “Five minutes… only five minutes to be human!” I sob.

I see the train barreling down on me along the tunnel. I look towards the noh face, and as it moves to attack me, I score a heavy blow on its face. No, my face. It wails annoyingly as I jump from the tracks and scramble to safety. The noh face scrabbles at the ground amidst the tracks as it mindlessly yells and shrieks. I look down towards it with satisfaction in my heart, knowing what will happen to it. Then I realize what will happen to its face. My ugly face! It finally notices its danger and an expression of terror comes across my face. I gasp; reacting by instinct, I reach down towards it and madly gesture. “Take my HAND!” I scream at it.

It stares at me for a moment that seems to stretch out. I see my mouth open gape with an expression of idiocy that I could not have imagined my face to be capable of expressing. In the last moment, it reaches out and takes my hand, and I haul it free from the tracks with a grunt and a grimace. I moan with the effort. The train roars past us a split second later, its horn blaring at us as we collapse to the ground beside it.

“Nearly DEADso a BAD… such a bad… to be the hunted… the feeling! I KNOW it! You terrrrrrrrfffffffyyyy meeeeee!” it wails.

I terrify YOU? Really? Who is the monster here? What a strange creature this noh face is! I wonder at its odd behavior, and rue the fact that I was reduced to that myself in my excitement. I look at it with a no-expression of terror myself. Will I succumb to it again? It’s almost… isn’t it?

“Susumu saved you, fool yokai! Be grateful! I’ve never seen such bizarre... mindless... selfless... kindness. I can’t believe you.” Rui bends down to pat my head and I gasp as sweat and blood leaks from my head.

“Noh face… give me my face… quickly… now… I don’t want to be… like you. Please,” I plead. The noh face climbs to its feet and stares at me blankly with my face. It nods and actually smiles as it dashes into its lair, making gleeful noises. I find my cellphone on the ground as I cast my eyes around, still able to see everything clearly. I wince as the screen comes on and blinds me a moment, but I look at the clock and see that I only have one minute left to be human. I hear its feet slap the pavement as it rushes back, screaming gleefully.

“I LIKE you… no fear now… I will not hunt anymore for faces… take my favorite pretty thing… is my thanksness to youuuuuu,” it moans, and makes a gesture to throw something at me. It flies at me and strikes me, bowling me over. I gasp and nearly pass out due to the pain and shock. I open my mouth and lick my lips and I wonder that I have lips and a tongue again. I reach up to touch my face and I exclaim finding simultaneously that the voice is not mine while the face feels subtly different. The voice that I hear that issues from my throat doesn’t match up with the one in my mind. It’s incredibly disturbing. Rui closes the distance between us and places a hand on my shoulder as she shines her flashlight on me.

“Oh… Susumu! You were gorgeous! You didn’t tell me!” Rui gushes as she crouches in front of me. She’s only faintly illuminated by her screen, but I think she’s actually blushing. I stare at her, stunned by her words and manner. She’s never looked at me like that before! She hates me, she can’t stand me. Why has she warmed up to me suddenly? I cast my eyes around me as it finally dawns on me that everything is pitch dark around us again except for what the flashlight function illuminates. It occurs to me that at this point I don’t see the noh face. Rui looks around with me and shines her flashlight around us.

“Where did the noh face go?” she asks as she stands again and paces around, searching. She checks the room and shines the light around it. “The faces are gone… what has it done with them?” she asks, pondering.

I watch her with a sigh, crying tears of joy that I’m alright, but I also cry for those people who lost their faces forever. I wonder what the other victims will do? Maybe they will do what I thought to do. I was going to throw myself from just any building at hand, but ideally, I would have preferred that it be the same one Reiko-chan threw herself from. I climb to my feet as I rub my head where the noh face first hit me. Rui rushes back to my side and smiles warmly.

“Well, we should get out of here to your home, Susumu. It’s been overwhelming, I know! But gosh, you’re so beautiful!” she giggles as she gushes. “I’m so happy for you. Come on!” She takes my hand and leads me away. I look down at her, watching her acting so cute and happy. I can’t think of her as an oni anymore now that she’s showing me her kind side. Maybe it’s karma? I muse.

“Yes… you’re amazing, Rui! Oh.. sorry… you called me by my name, so I automatically… I’m so sorry.” I bow to her as we go back the way we came. She looks towards at me in the darkness and giggles at me.

“It’s fine. Thank you for complimenting me! I’m pleased that I was able to help you regain your face. Don’t worry about my payment right away. You need plenty of rest. I’ll come see you in the morning. Can you give me your address, and your phone number? I’m concerned for your wellbeing now, so I suppose we can be friends,” she says. I smile, touched by her words, and laugh softly.

“I… I would like that. You helped me so much, Rui. I hope I never see another yokai ever again for my entire life,” I assert and blink again, touching my cheek, wondering at how my voice sounds. Something hauntingly familiar about the voice catches my heart. I wipe tears from my eyes as we break out into the light of the station and vault over the chained-off area again.

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Saving Face
Part Seven: Facelift
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I see another horrifying visage. The same officer is still on duty, and he’s watching the passageway. When my eyes meet his, he stares at me, stunned, and turns to look towards Rui. “Father, my ass!” he barks loudly.

“Oh crap… that cover story isn’t going to fly anymore. Oh, it’s a good thing I thought ahead…” Rui chuckles nervously as the policeman rushes forward, lifting his baton.

“Stand down! You have questions to answer! Your lies are unbelievable! Have you been tricking and pranking this station all day? I recognize your form, but not that face! Do you get kicks preying on the fear of passengers here? The rumors of the noh face that has been spotted around here have fanned the flame of the passengers’ fear! They’ve been hiding their faces routinely for the last week! Some days they don’t even come here! The level of fear has risen to ridiculous levels!” he barks as he stops before us. He removes two pairs of cuffs from his belt. “Turn and assume a submission posture or I will subdue you!” he orders. I gasp and turn, putting my arms behind me, chewing my lip. I look to Rui and give her a Run! look.

“Oh, don’t worry.” Rui winks at me. “Ume has our butts covered! Trust me!” she cackles cutely. Suddenly, as the officer seizes my wrists to cuff them, a burst of smoke explodes around us.

The officer yells loudly, cursing as all around us forms dart about quickly. Capes flutter in the smoky air. I cough and gasp for breath as hands seize my arms and pull me away for a distance. Then there’s a familiar face right in front of me. Ume! She winks at me and flashes her fangs, twirling her hair around her finger, and she wields a brush liberally on my face, painting it with unnatural hyper-speed. My clothes are ripped quickly from my body with unnatural strength. I stand in a daze as new clothes are fitted on me. When the smoke clears, I look towards Rui and immediately notice that she looks like a goth lolita vampire with complete fangs. I can barely recognize her!

She grins at me and flashes her fake fangs, perhaps in imitation of Ume’s manner; unable to resist, I grin widely at her, flashing my own at her. I barely noticed them slipping them into my mouth! I look down at myself and turn red from head to toes. They’ve dressed me in a similar dress. It doesn’t suit me. I’m a man and I’m taller than Rui, but they actually put me in a dress! I have a flat chest! I scream, and my voice actually sounds convincing. Ume hushes me, putting a finger over her luscious lips as they spread with mirth. A large group of vampires gather around to mill around us and Ume pulls us after her through the platform. The policeman stares towards the crowd of vampires, gaping. We blend in perfectly with the others! It’s like we’re a part of some Halloween party group bound somewhere. Other vampires I see dressed up like classic Dracula or Grandpa Munster. Others are going as animesque vampire characters. I cover my mouth to suppress uncontrollable laughter.

We’re escorted through the ticket stands. Another police officer watches us as we pass through and blinks, shaking his head. He sighs visibly about young people.

Ume sees us out of the station into the cool moonlight. As I gaze upwards, I notice that the moon is full, ironically. She looks to us and suddenly I feel myself seized with Rui in a group hug by her.

“You’re looking so much better now. I’m so happy for you! Have a wonderful night!” she cheerily wishes me. She leans towards my ear. “If you ever want to try the vampire life, since noh face doesn’t suit you, you can look me up. I’d love to have a nibble.” She punctuates it with a nibble of my ear. I blush and stare at her with wide eyes, but she doesn’t actually draw much blood. She winks and blows a kiss at me as she walks over to the waiting group of vampires who rescued us in the station. They bow or curtsy towards us with flourish, and I can’t help laughing aloud, delighted as I return the bow with considerably less grace. Rui tugs me along afterwards and she winks at Ume as she waves her goodnight. We hurry then many blocks towards my apartment. Rui escorts me there the whole way for some peculiar reason that I am unable to fathom.

When we arrive outside my apartment building, I look at her, and honestly I can’t restrain tears of joy, floored by how kind and wonderful she really has been to me lately. No matter her earlier attitude, she stuck it out with me and in the end resolved the situation. Thanks to her I will not be a yokai, as far as I am aware. Because of her efforts, I am no longer a noh face!

“Thank you so much, Rui… I can’t thank you more for what you’ve done for me today. This has been a truly memorable day.” I smile warmly at her. “What do I owe you? Oh, a kiss from a girl. I don’t know any anymore. There was an amazingly beautiful girl that I grew up with and she won my heart and I adored her, but she didn’t love me back. She killed herself, and…” I cry softly, sniffling. Rui reaches out and comfortingly hugs me.

“Oh, no… you’ve been all alone dealing with that… and being the victim of a wayward yokai. I’m so sad to hear that someone you cared deeply for died,” she empathizes. An Oni? She’s a complete angel! How could I ever think poorly of Rui-chan… I love how amazing she is…

“Hmmmm… it’s sad that you don’t know someone who would be willing to pay for your services. That would normally be a dealbreaker here, but the way you’re looking tonight makes me feel silly. My brain goes fuzzy and my knees wobble… so let’s call it even now…” She pulls my face down and suddenly seizes my lips hungrily with hers. I stiffen, and then I melt, turning into jello when she kisses me so passionately out of the blue. I have never been kissed in my whole life. My first kiss is Rui’s? I blush, unable to think clearly. It feels like an hour later when she finally breaks the kiss. Afterwards, I lose my strength entirely. I collapse to my knees right in the street before my apartment building. I peer upwards to her face and gasp for breath for a few moments, feeling glad that the makeup Rui applied to my face hides my blush. Seeming to be aware despite it, Rui smiles warmly at me.

“I know you’re a man, but you trigger me like this… so I had a delightful idea. I’ll be back by your place in the morning with a present for you. I think you need something special to show you the way to move forward with your life. It’s not the end of your life, only the beginning, Susumu. That is the meaning of your name, isn’t it? Progress! Moving forward step by step!” she says encouragingly. “You lost someone special to you, but you do have the strength to keep going. Believe in yourself! I believe in you. See you soon.” She winks at me and trots away, looking happier than I’ve ever seen her.

She skips like a young girl, looking ridiculously happy to have kissed me even though I’m a man. I blush and squirm in a very unmanly way as I watch her go. When she’s gone, it occurs to me that I should walk her home. Oh, Kami… am I the girl in a relationship now? But that’s getting way ahead of myself. Why would a lesbian ever care for a guy like me? Anyhow… I reach down and touch myself to reassure myself that nothing has changed. I sigh, comforted by the proof of existence of my manhood down under the dress. Surely the vampires must have seen it briefly. I was naked in a station for a moment, really? I scream in a very unmanly way as I realize that fact. I’m relieved, but is it really a good thing? If Rui might be interested in me, she wouldn’t be happy to find a penis in my underwear. I laugh.

I climb to my feet and dust off the goth dress as I chew my lip. I quickly climb up the stairs to the second floor and my apartment door. I fidget at my door when I realize that the vampires destroyed my clothes. I now have a costume I never would have purchased, for sure! Oh, but maybe I should return it to Ume. I’m certain that it is worth a lot!

When it dawns on me that I’m missing something important, I scream aloud.“My keys!” I desperately paw at my body all over.. I find a hidden pocket in the skirt and discover my possessions tucked inside.

“My wallet, phone, and my keys!” I gasp aloud. Wait… Rui doesn't have my number, but she has my address… I guess that’s fine?

I open my door to stumble inside, locking the door behind me, and sigh in relief as I finally relax, back in my home. The apartment is cramped, but I feel safe here. I wonder if I’ve developed a complex from my experiences recently? My world has become a unsteady and truly frightening place in a single day, but on a positive note, maybe I’ve also found… love?

I walk into my wash closet to clean off the makeup. I scrub the layers of black and white makeup they’d used to give me that classic ghastly pallor. I use a towel to finish off cleaning my face. I finally spit out the fake fangs in my mouth, and set them down on the sink. I finally look at myself in the mirror; my face is red from scrubbing and cleaning, but I can see it clearly now and experience the worst shock of the entire day, believe it or not.

“R-Reiko-chan…” I gasp aloud as my eyes open widely. Tears start flowing from my eyes, and I can’t stop them. I touch my neck as I notice that my Adam’s apple is gone. This hairline is hers, the face is hers, everything from the neck up is hers, not counting my hair and my mind. Unable to bear the irony of the situation, I fall to my knees, crying aloud. How can I work like this? I’m strange now. What can I do? What kind of a future do I have? Oh Reiko-chan, I’m so sorry for you. Oh, Rui… What now?

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Susumu and Rui will return in the Halloween mixed tape… for a short aftermath story...
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Postface: As mentioned, the epilogue is included in the TGS Mixtape organized by Trismegistus Shandy and Hikaro! You all at Topshelf get to read the entire first seven parts before anyone else gets to read them! :D I hope you enjoy my Halloween story! Look for it around the 30th of October!



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