They don’t find their first real ghost until about four houses in. Shiro lags behind, nervously eyeing a young spirit as she taps her heel against the railing of the rickety deck they’re all traipsing up. She’s somewhere between six and twelve, bouncing between forms with each dull thud of her shoe. She’s stable, perfectly visible, her energy radiating pure curiosity as she cocks her head at their mismatched band of ghost hunters.
Lance loudly laments that this will be their Picasso while Keith fiddles with dials on his EMF meter. Pidge checks and rechecks her video camera. Allura and Coran talk in whispers by the van where Hunk’s still dragging out the rest of their equipment. Shiro swallows and looks up at the house. The spirit stops tapping her heel when Lance makes a beeline for the door.
“Mama isn’t going to like you all on the deck,” she calls, her form flickering before she stands in front of Lance. Shiro flinches. Lance walks right through the spirit, heedless of her squeak of surprise. She re-materializes back near the railing, her cheeks blown out in annoyance. “That’s so mean! You don’t just break into someone’s house!”
We’re not, Shiro wants to say, I promise, we’ll leave soon, please don’t do anything rash. But he stays silent, fiddling with the straps on his bag. The spirit stomps her little foot and goes marching right back up to Lance as Lance yanks open the door with a cheerful “Y’ello!”
“Lance –” Shiro starts, right as the spirit grabs the door and slams it shut.
They collectively jump, Lance shrieking in surprise as he stumbles back into Keith. Keith grabs him around the waist, wide eyed, and Pidge tucks herself against the two boys as they stare at the door. Shiro drags his hands down his face. Perfect.
“I knew it!” Lance shouts, arms windmilling. Keith doesn’t release him, brow furrowed. “Holy shit, did you see that? Pidge, please say you got that on tape. A ghost tried to lynch me!”
“I did not!” the little girl gasps, just as Shiro says, “Lance, half the windows are broken in this house. There’s likely a draft –”
“How can you say that?” Lance gestures wildly at the door. “I could have lost a limb!”
“Really, Lance?” Pidge says. Shiro wiggles his prosthetic fingers in agreement. Lance purses his lips, cowed, but he perks up.
“All right, Mr. Skeptic, I’ll show you this place is haunted.”
Keith finally stops eyeing the door like it’s a particularly vicious animal. “You said that about the last house.”
“And the house before,” Pidge volunteers. She’s yet to move away from Keith, tucked tight against his side as she points her video camera at the door.
Lance whaps his hand against Keith’s shoulder, worming free of Pidge and Keith. The spirit materializes in front of him, her arms crossed over her chest. She’s all puffed annoyance and crackling with sudden menacing anger. Shiro – panics.
“Lance, wait, okay, hold on.”
Stumbling up the stairs, Shiro pushes between Keith and Pidge, pausing before the spirit. She glares up at him, defiant little chin raised, hair swirling ethereally around her face. Shiro makes eye contact. He smiles and desperately attempts to convey that they mean no harm, that they won’t upset anything in the house. The spirit blinks, her hands jumping up to her mouth before she squeaks and disappears with a rush of cold air. Shiro sags.
“Please be okay with this,” he whispers, trying the handle. The door eases open with the ungodly sound of rusted hinges. The air stills. The girl stands on the stairs, watching him avidly as he steps inside.
The rest of the team creeps inside with various levels of uncertainty. Lance pushes furthest into the house, though he pauses before entering any of the rooms, glancing over his shoulder at the others. Keith and Pidge poke around in the closets beside the stairwell, Pidge’s camera blinking as she records. Hunk crosses over the threshold with equipment bundled under his arms, eyebrow raised at Shiro.
“Where’s a good place to set up?”
“Don’t go in the kitchen,” the spirit volunteers. It’s a test.
“Set up in the living room. We shouldn’t go in the kitchen just yet,” Shiro says. The spirit gasps again, flickering down three steps until she’s standing at height with Shiro. She stares. Shiro ignores her while Lance starts knocking on the walls. Hunk sets everything down in the dusty living room, sorting the equipment out and setting up tables. The spirit vibrates beside Shiro, her presence leaking cold energy.
“Mama is in the kitchen. She’s always in the kitchen. We’re not allowed in there when she’s cooking,” the spirit says. She radiates excitement, prickles of ice blooming against Shiro’s skin. He shivers but tilts his head in curiosity. The spirit continues, elated. “You can hear me! I haven’t talked to anyone else in so long! Who are you? Why are you here? Make sure to stay out of the kitchen.”
“Why?” Shiro can’t help but ask, ducking his chin to disguise the word. Most spirits have a focal point, an area they revolve around; if this girl is stuck because of whatever is in the kitchen then he’ll have to do something about it. He leans against the wall, turning enough that he’s facing her. The spirit claps her hands together, shifting delightedly to her twelve-year-old self.
“You can’t go in the kitchen. Don’t go in the kitchen.” She screws up her face, eyebrows furrowed. “That’s not – don’t go in the kitchen.”
Repetition. She’s stuck in a loop and Shiro’s no doubt making it worse. Gently, he says, “I have to.”
The spirit’s form visibly shudders, an eraser dashed along the edges. She grips her hair. She grips Shiro’s arm. Ice pours over Shiro’s skin in a wave, an ache bone deep and devastating.
“Don’t go in the kitchen!”
The outburst knocks two of the pictures on the wall down, the shattering glass sprinkling over Shiro’s shoes. Shiro startles back, hands coming up to placate or protect or – something, but the girl disappears with a sob and the air settles once more.
Lance barrels around the corner, Keith at his heels. “What the hell?”
Kicking off the glass on his shoe, Shiro reaches for a possible lie, anything to cover up an actual spirit’s involvement. Lance interrupts before he can. “Did something knock down all these pictures? Did we disturb someone? Hunk! Get those video cameras set up! We got a live one!”
“Lance –” Shiro starts, but Lance is already bouncing into the living room, his excited energy mixing with the uncertainty blanketing the house. At least he didn’t go to the kitchen. Shiro eyes the hallway leading past the pantry. A hollow darkness stretches beyond it. He goes in search of Pidge, herding her away from the entrance to the kitchen just to be sure.
When they all reconvene to the living room, Hunk doles out equipment while Allura reads off assignments. Keith and Pidge head upstairs, setting up cameras and microphones in discreet places to pick up any activity. Shiro corrals Lance and keeps him far away from the dark hallway, instead pointing out the stairs to the basement and the two closets that flank it. Hunk and Coran talk EMF waves and triggers while Allura steps outside to take a phone call.
The spirit hovers near the kitchen entrance whenever Shiro or Lance step too close, prickles of uncertain energy like ice chips against Shiro’s skin. She isn’t being picked up by the EMF or Lance’s video camera, and she tentatively moves around the strings that trigger the cameras. That she takes the time to do so at all is impressive. Most spirits are a singular focus, be it for evil purposes or simple pranks, and don’t care about avoiding traps. This little one seems to have maintained most of her humanity.
With the cameras set up in all viable locations, Lance heads for the last hallway. Shiro scruffs him before he can get far. “I already got the kitchen.”
“What? No, you didn’t.” Lance kicks his legs, twisting in Shiro’s grip, but can’t wiggle free. “Dude, you’ve been tailing me this entire time, so unless you’ve magically managed to split yourself in two, the kitchen is the only unaccounted space. We gotta get all those cameras up for the ghost’s prime time event!”
The spirit disappears before Shiro can respond. Down in the basement a camera whines and they catch the flash through the open door to the stairwell. Lance freezes. Another whine and the camera flashes, this time in the closet across the way. Lance takes a step back, bumping into Shiro’s chest as he stares. Shiro grabs Lance’s hip to steady him. The little girl darts between the cameras, alighting them but ducking under the lens to stay out of sight, over and over, a continuous circuit of activity that sends the cameras into overdrive. She finally flickers back to the kitchen entrance, a pleased smile on her face.
“Holy shit,” Lance breathes. He hasn’t moved yet, pawing at Shiro’s hand in excitement. “Please tell me you saw that. You saw that, right?”
“We should check the main cameras,” Shiro suggests.
“I knew this place was haunted!” Lance whirls, beaming wide at Shiro before he hurries toward the living room, calling for Hunk. Shiro exhales and heads toward the entrance to the kitchen.
Inside, checkered green linoleum stretches from corner to corner. Half the cupboards are rotting on their hinges, the dark paint peeling and chipped. An island breaks up the kitchen from the dining room. Shiro toes the threshold and the spirit sidles up beside him, a blast of chilly air preceding her.
“You shouldn’t go in the kitchen,” she whispers, forlorn and sad. Shiro glances down at her little head, bowed and serious as she worries a ghostly lip. “Mama would be upset.”
“Was she often upset when you went in?”
“I think so.” The spirit furrows her brow, tilting her head up at Shiro. “I don’t – she was mad when I went in there yesterday. Was it yesterday? Mama was making noodles. She yelled.”
Before Shiro can reply, Allura calls, “Shiro, have you set up the cameras in the kitchen? We’re lacking the feed.”
“Sure thing!” The spirit is gone when Shiro turns back, even the icy hover of her presence lacking. Shiro digs in his bag for the wall cameras and, without setting foot in the kitchen, places them on the doorframe pointing inward. Maybe they’ll catch sight of this ‘mama’ figure the spirit keeps on about. Maybe Shiro will be able to help them both.
He checks on the others. The rest of the team stands clustered around the living room feeds, Hunk bouncing between the mics and the cameras themselves. Lance excitedly talks with Pidge about the possible evidence they’d just collected while Keith toys with his EMF meter, nodding at whatever Coran is telling him. Pausing in the entrance to the living room, Shiro closes his eyes. With the team in one place, he should be able to free the spirit without interference. Without a word he about faces, bracing himself. His metal arm aches.
Peering into the kitchen, Shiro startles at the cold brush against his wrist. The little spirit stares unerringly at the stove, her fingers flexing through his prosthetic. “Don’t go in the kitchen.”
“It’ll be okay. I’m here to help you,” Shiro says, gentle. The spirit quivers. She tugs at him, but Shiro slips away from her grasp and takes the first step into the kitchen.
Silence. The floorboards creak under his shoes, a shot of sound that startles his shoulders tense. Back in the living room, Hunk shushes the rest of them. If they come charging in Shiro’s not sure he’ll be able to help the spirit. The girl hovers at the door, biting her lip and flickering loose and fast. She hasn’t looked away from the stove yet. Shiro creeps closer to it, taking time to place his feet just so.
When he reaches the old gas stove, he hovers his metal hand over one of the elements, hoping to catch the energy that’s tied up in the little girl’s soul. Nothing. Frowning, he flexes his fingers and moves to another element, and another when he still garners no response. The metal of the stove has begun to rust, thick splotches of dried red eating away at the white. Shiro takes a step back and the floorboards groan.
“Don’t!” the spirit gasps, hands over her mouth as she flickers. Shiro’s gaze darts to her and then back again. His arm hasn’t tingled yet, no residual energy left over, and he has no idea what’s tying the spirit to this place. Another step back. Another creak. The girl sobs. Shiro frantically tries to pinpoint the source of her distress. Another creak. Another. Another. The walls start to shake, a shiver climbing from the baseboards. The girl wails when Shiro bumps into the island, his hand slapping down against a cupboard.
All at once his arm reacts, thick heat shooting straight up his elbow and into his shoulder. He gasps, scrambling for a hold, and the floorboards buck. He drops to his knees. In the living room, the rest of the team shouts as the lights blow out, one by one. The spirit howls.
Twisting, Shiro yanks open the cupboard. Pots and pans come clanging out, each noise increasing the rage of the spirit behind him. His arm pangs, metal fingers burning, as he pulls out everything he can. There in the back is a small spatula, melted plastic warped and dusted with age. He reaches and his fingers barely brush it. The stove behind him clangs open and the unmistakable whoosh! as it ignites sparks understanding. She’s started a fire. Shit, shit, shit.
“Come on,” Shiro mutters, dropping to his stomach to get a better look. He can just...reach...
When he finally grasps the handle the air stills. Silence pervades, a prelude to something much worse. Shiro wiggles backwards quickly, digging in his bag. The team hollers in the living room. Shiro has to hurry.
“Stop!” the spirit snarls, slamming into the small of his back. Shiro gasps, fingers spasming, but he gets the vial free and nearly drops it. Pure quintessence. Cleanse the object of evil and unlatch the soul from the impurity. He flicks the lid open and douses the entire spatula with the contents.
Again the world stills, an uncertainty hanging in the balance. When Shiro pushes to his knees the spirit crouches in front of him, the little girl marred by the hollow magic that binds her to this place. She’s pockmarked now with ethereal scars, blue and purple and red. Her eyes bleed yellow. She digs her fingernails into her arms, green oozing between the cuts, and throws back her head. Screams. The wallpaper curdles right off, falling in sheets, and the ceiling sprinkles dust down in a wave. Shiro grabs the spatula and runs.
In the hallway the polish has disappeared from the floorboards. The wallpaper falls like stripped tree bark, collecting in coils against the baseboards. Lance and Keith stand at the base of the stairs, Lance’s video camera shaking and Keith’s EMF meter shrieking. They don’t have time for this. “We need to get out, now!”
“Now, Lance, hurry!”
Shiro grabs Pidge around the shoulders and shoves her toward the door. Keith and Lance stumble after her, Lance holding up his video camera as the walls start to shudder again. Hunk waffles on the threshold, his equipment laid out and wailing. The spirit crouches in the corner behind him, yellow gaze near iridescent, teeth bared and clothes darkening with shadows. Shiro’s hand burns around the spatula handle.
“We can come back for it, we need to get out, Hunk, move!” Shiro barks and Hunk jumps forward and races out the door. It slams shut behind him. The spirit snarls. Shiro steps between her and the doorway, wielding the damn spatula and hoping the quintessence is doing its work. Otherwise he’s about to be in a world of hurt.
The air displaces and the spirit stands in front of him. No longer is she a playful young girl of twelve but an older woman, dressed in rags with a feral pointed grin. White hair hangs in strings over her shoulders and her cheeks have cracked into thick red lines, bruising the skin a near purple. She smiles. Shiro stands his ground.
“You’ve learned some new tricks,” she says.
The foolishness of brandishing a spatula isn’t lost on him, but the spirit can’t seem to step closer with him holding it. “Release the little girl.”
“What use would that be?” the woman paces, her eyes glowing brighter, her skin swelling with purple bruising. Her fingernails click together. “She has such a pure quintessence. It is a shame you sought to release her from this bond. She won’t find peace now.”
“Let her go,” Shiro grits out. The woman steps right into his space, a swish of sound. Her robes brush over Shiro’s shoes. His hand scorches.
“You have no grounds to be making demands,” the woman laughs, her clicking fingernails hovering over the spatula. Sweat collects at Shiro’s temple, sliding over the line of his jaw. The pain in his arm is unreal. “Your powers have grown so spectacularly. Perhaps I will allow you to have this one. Grow, Champion, and we will meet again soon.”
A blast of energy sends him catapulting backwards, head cracking firmly against the wall as he slumps down it. His vision blotches, stars pricking the edges, but he retains his hold on the spatula. Before him, the spirit has returned to her original form, a child of six and twelve, gaze torn open and terrified. She reaches for Shiro.
A crack-boom of noise and the spirit is gone. Shiro drops the spatula and heaves.
The door had slammed closed tight after the team’s escape, effectively trapping Shiro inside, and Allura had simply beaten it down to get back in. Shiro opens his eyes when she crouches beside him, her gaze wild, and he cracks a smile where he’s sitting against the wall.
“You fool,” Allura says fondly, before she stands and calls for the rest of the team.
Pidge is the first to reach Shiro, not even bothering to crouch and yanking his head against her stomach while she hugs him. Shiro muffles a laugh against her clothes, fingers caught on the hem of her shirt. Keith follows quickly after, worming his way between Shiro’s knees and gently combing his fingers through Shiro’s hair, looking for any cuts and bruising. Keith puffs out his cheeks at what he finds.
“The hell happened?” Lance asks, crowding up behind Pidge so he can look down at Shiro.
Shiro hums. “The house is drafty.”
“Bullshit. Drafts don’t cause the wallpaper to peel!”
“Medic coming through,” Hunk says, dropping down on Shiro’s other side. He hands Keith the bandages before fixing Shiro with a look. “Next time don’t shove us out. Those drafty houses can be a doozy.”
“I know.” Shiro closes his eyes while Keith and Hunk go all medic on him. A hand touches his metal wrist and Shiro flinches, joints creaking. Hunk tsks.
“Were you touching the stove? Your hand’s all burnt.”
Shiro wordlessly turns in Pidge’s hold to stare down at his palm, the scorch marks from the spatula warped into the metal. It’s nothing a few of Pidge’s repairs can’t fix. The spatula sits against his thigh, plastic melted beyond recognition, and Hunk bumps it with his knee as he scoots closer. The evil spirit that had taken over the girl had – known him? Somehow? Shiro shudders when Keith pushes his hair back, fingers prodding a particularly nasty cut.
“Quiznak!” Lance snarls, startling Shiro. Lance fiddles with his video camera, resting it on Pidge’s head as he scrolls through footage. Pidge doesn’t seem particularly bothered, her fingers tangled in Shiro’s bangs. “I didn’t get anything good. How is that possible?”
“Told you it was a draft,” Shiro murmurs, closing his eyes once more.
Pidge snickers before bumping the camera off her head. Lance squawks, offended. Allura talks in whispers with Coran, hovering near her Paladins and wondering aloud if they should stay in the house. Lance is immediately for, Hunk is against, and Pidge argues both sides with reckless glee. Keith stays stubbornly quiet, tightening the bandage around Shiro’s head. Shiro’s prosthetic prickles. The girl had reached. The evil spirit had called him Champion.
Why can’t helping spirits be easy?