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tomorrow isn't always another day

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One dark cold evening in December, Mob arrives for work on a day much like the last.

“Ah, Mob. Just who I wanted to see,” says Reigen, as grandly as though he’s addressing Mob along with a vast and eager audience of thousands. But he’s not. Mob knows he’s not. There wouldn’t be space to hide them in the agency’s cramped office. “No, don’t get comfortable, there’s no need to take your coat off. We’ve had an emergency call; we’re heading out straight away.”

Obligingly, Mob neither gets comfortable nor takes off his coat. Instead he loiters in the doorway and watches Reigen filling his pockets with spare capsules of printer ink. “Am I really?” he says.

“Really what?” says Reigen, wedging a packet of printer paper beneath his arm.

“Just who you wanted to see,” says Mob. “Am I really?”

“Of course you are,” Reigen assures him, and gives Mob a pat on the shoulder so vigorously encouraging that once it’s over Mob finds himself facing the other way, ready to leave again, swept up in Reigen’s natural whirlwind and blinking in confusion. “We’re off to exorcise a haunted photocopier, so it’s essential that you’re there. For your own good far more than mine, of course – every student deserves the chance to watch his master at work from time to time, Mob, it keeps the inspiration flowing. Gives you a goal. Reminds you—”

He fumbles one of the heavy packs of copy paper beneath his arm. Mob spreads his fingers – it doesn’t fall; it hovers, bobbing gently, until Reigen scoops it back into place. “Reminds you what you’re aiming for,” he concludes, and they go out into the chilly evening.

 

+++

 

The haunted photocopier is on the sixth floor of a towering office block that plunges impressively upwards into the night, its hundreds of tiny bright-lit windows shining like someone covered it in sequins. The haunted photocopier itself doesn’t strike Mob as particularly haunted, or even slightly haunted, but it coughs and gags like a man who’s accidentally swallowed a fish bone, shuddering against the wall so hard that the leaves of the waxy potted plant beside it tremble in dismay. And from the way that Reigen exhales heavily at the very sight of it, pacing up and down as he regards it, utterly intent, Mob can tell that there must be something about it that he’s missing – this is clearly no ordinary photocopier.

“A secretary spectre,” Reigen says at last. He rubs his chin, still gazing intently at the photocopier. “Yes – yes, a secretary spectre. You’ll often find them manifesting in office environments, and especially at times of stress – any recent layoffs?” he demands suddenly, whirling on the office manager with a look as fierce as wildfire blazing in his eyes. “Recent budget cuts? Recent pressing deadlines? Recent changes to the usual coffee brand in the breakroom? Recent incidents in which someone failed to flush the toilet as thoroughly as they should have and an air of paranoia filled the office for hours afterwards as everyone nurtured their own unspoken suspicions as to who, exactly, had been responsible for those remarkable skidmarks?”

The office manager is desperately nodding, her hands flung up to defend against the rapid-fire barrage.

“I thought as much,” says Reigen, composed once more. “Much like your common squid, the secretary spectre reacts to stressful situations by ejecting clouds of ink behind it in its panic. Which, as you can imagine, creates significant problems in your typical office – such as this,” jerking his thumb at the belching photocopier, “which in turn creates an even more stressful situation as employees struggle with the consequences, which then causes your spectre to panic further, and so on and so forth. You’re lucky you called us when you did, you know; these vicious cycles never get better on their own.”

“Is there... a cure?” ventures the manager, timidly.

“Absolutely,” says Reigen, and adjusts the knot of his tie. “Stand back, please.”

The manager complies.

Further back,” Mob tells her in an undertone. “My master needs space to work.”

“This,” says Reigen, “is a secret technique that I like to call—”

OFFICE OCCULT SMASH!!! A whirling shower of salt, transforming the office into the inside of an exorcist’s snowglobe – Reigen’s suit jacket flung aside, his sleeves rolled up, the A4 paper drawer of the photocopier slammed open – Reigen dives to his knees beside it and plunges his arm inside it to the elbow like a vet helping a particularly recalcitrant cow through the process of birthing its calf, rummaging and clattering, panting with exertion, his face screwed up with the effort of the exorcism—

Inside the photocopier, something goes ping.

The blockage in the paper tray unblocks. The photocopier stops shuddering and falls into a placid silence.

Slowly, Reigen withdraws his arm and gets back to his feet. He wipes his brow; he unrolls his sleeves. “It’s done,” he says. His voice is low. “I won’t tell you to honour the memory of the spectre that departed this earthly plane here tonight, but... don’t forget it. Don’t forget the way it suffered. Don’t forget the anguish that your stress caused it to experience.”

A silence has fallen across the entire office floor, weighty and oppressive. Every face at every desk is turned to Reigen, Mob, and the once-haunted photocopier; every face at every desk is blank with shock, the way Mob’s found that clients often get when they’re experiencing their very first psychic phenomenon.

“And don’t forget my payment, either,” adds Reigen, briskly pulling on his jacket. “I’ll email you the invoice as soon as I’m back at my office. Make any cheques out to Spirits and Such Consultation Agency, that’ll be fine. Mob?”

“Coming,” says Mob, and hurries after him.

No one follows them out. The silence left in their wake is shell-shocked.

Eventually, Mob says, “Master, you don’t usually... ask clients to remember the spirits we exorcise, do you?”

The lift slides down another three stories before Reigen answers.

“Did you see how busy that office was?” he says absently, hands in pockets. “At this time of night? Too much stress isn’t healthy, Mob; they’re working so hard in there they’re more likely to reach an early grave than an early deadline. It never hurts to remind people they should take a little time to relax, now and then... Now,” as the doors open on the ground floor, and he strides out across the lobby, and out into the night, adopting his most educational tone as Mob hurries after him, “now, a little bit of stress, that’s what you need to keep you on your toes. That’s just right. Just what the doctor ordered. And that’s precisely why working for me is the healthiest decision you’ve ever made in your young life, Mob. Bear that in mind.”

“Master,” Mob begins again, two streets later, “I couldn’t see a spirit in that photocopier.”

“Well, of course you couldn’t,” says Reigen, indulgently. “Isn’t that’s why I’m the master, and you’re the student? Don’t get ahead of yourself, Mob. All things come with time.”

Mob’s content with that. Reigen claps him heartily on the back and takes him out for dinner to celebrate a job well done.

 

+++

 

One bright cold morning in December, Mob wakes up on a day much like the last.

“You were talking in your sleep,” Dimple informs him. He’s luminescent in the gloom, like a blotch of deep-sea fungus risen from the darkest and most unfathomable fathoms of the ocean; then Mob turns on the light and Dimple looks like what he usually looks like: a wad of radioactive chewing gum. “I yearn for power, that kind of thing. I crave the experienced guiding hand of a wise supernatural mentor to maximise my own potential – that one’s actually a direct quote, by the way. I seek dominion over—”

Mob closes the door in Dimple’s face. Dimple pours himself out through the hinges and pursues him into the bathroom.

“You know me, Shigeo, I’m not the kind of guy who’d tell you to trust your gut. Facts,” announces Dimple, getting into his oratorical stride as Mob splashes his face with water and gasps from the cold, “that’s what I like. Cold hard facts. None of this wishy-washy oh-I-just-had-a-feeling crap. Trust no one and nothing but your own eyes and ears, and also my eyes and ears—”

Mob looks up at Dimple’s reflection, green and luminescent and bobbing in the mirror. “You don’t have ears,” he says.

“Artistic licence,” says Dimple. “My point is, your subconscious is desperately trying to make itself known, and what it wants more than anything is—”

Mob closes the door in Dimple’s face. Dimple pours himself out through the crack between door and floor, spies Ritsu at the foot of the stairs, and hastily disappears up through the ceiling.

Cold daylight floods the kitchen as they eat breakfast, and Mob blinks it from his eyes as he pulls his shoes on in the hallway afterwards.

“Got your sports kit?” says Ritsu, wrapping on his scarf.

“Yes,” says Mob. “Wait,” adds Mob. “I just need to,” explains Mob, and then he races back upstairs and grabs his sports kit. “Got it,” says Mob, back in the hallway and wheezing only slightly.

Ritsu smiles at Mob. Mob smiles at Ritsu. The day is off to a tremendous start.

 

+++

 

When Ritsu steps through the school gates he’s swallowed from sight instantly, like he’s a breadcrumb and the swirling eager crowds of students are a pond of hard-up ducks.

Mob goes to his lessons. He sits through his lessons. He does his best at his lessons. They’re expanding brackets in Maths, or at least everyone else is expanding them – Mob mostly watches them multiply across his page in hopeless bewilderment instead, brackets spawning brackets in some hideous punctuation procreation.

Lunch arrives, and so does Mezato, who pulls up a seat to join Mob at his desk with the pre-emptively belligerent attitude of a girl who’s almost hoping someone tries to stop her just so she can inform them with steely determination that she cannot and will not be stopped. “Gossip reporting is its own valid journalistic subgenre, I’ll allow you that, but it is not investigative, and it’s an insult to the investigative tradition to pretend the two are equivalent. Gossip journalism is... prurient. It’s tawdry. It’s like stealing underwear from someone’s line just so you can show off that they wear underwear the same as all the rest of us do. It is not investigative, Mob-kun,” finishes Mezato, and slams her open palm against the desk so hard that Mob’s lunchbox jumps. “Not – at – all.”

Mob chews, and swallows. “Someone’s... stealing underwear?”

“Sure, you could put it like that,” says Mezato. “Metaphorically.”

“Metaphorically,” echoes Mob, concentrating hard. “I see. Metaphorically...”

“What I mean,” says Mezato, “is that you’d better not talk to Salt Mid’s brand new Celebrity Blogging Club if you know what’s good for you. Because I know what’s good for you, and that’s not it. They’ve got no journalistic integrity.”

“Who don’t?” says Mob. “The underwear thieves?”

“They haven’t contacted you?” says Mezato.

“The underwear thieves?” says Mob.

“The Celebrity Blogging Club,” says Mezato.

“I don’t know what that is,” says Mob. “But thank you for warning me, Mezato-san. I’ll ask my mum to hang mine and Ritsu’s laundry inside from now on.”

Mezato stares at him hard for a moment, then flips her notepad closed. “You’ll have to excuse me. My information was wrong,” she says crisply. “Forget everything I said, Mob-kun. We never had this conversation.”

“Didn’t we?” says Mob in surprise, but she’s already clapped him bracingly on the shoulder and set sail once more for the choppy seas of inter-club journalistic warfare.

The afternoon comes. The afternoon goes. The Body Improvement Club is focusing on the bicep/tricep combination this month, and today they’re in the bright-lit classroom-cum-weights-room-cum-psychic-haven of the Telepathy Club, working out to the backing track of video games bleeping and junk food rustling and sporadic manly grunting. Mob wheezes and heaves and pants and struggles on his pull-up bar, while Tome sits back with her feet on the table and informs him of recent developments in the field of satellite intelligence and her hunch that Mob, if he just tried hard enough, could hijack a military satellite for her and force it out into the furthest untrodden reaches of the solar system.

Mob wheezes and heaves and pants and struggles on his pull-up bar.

“Excellent,” says Tome, and flips a page in her magazine. “There’s a military tech convention coming to town this Saturday. You can come with me, Mob-kun.”

Aahk – aah, aghk,” says Mob, who’s doing a pull-up. He really is. The bar is there and so is his chin: he’s doing a pull-up. He clings there, choking, wheezing, his feet thrashing the air; urgently, he insists, “Gaahgk—”

A cry of astonishment goes up, and then another, and then the room explodes with it: “Kageyama-kun! A pull-up! Kageyama-kun’s doing a pull-up! A remarkable achievement! Kageyama-kun, your progress is astounding! Fantastic! A pull-up!”

The room fills and swells with echoing bellows of joy. The delighted faces of the Body Improvement Club swim in Mob’s vision, which is hazing over with grey fog and flashes of prettily twinkling stars... but the muscular arms of President Musashi are there to catch him before he hits the floor.

 

+++

 

The sharp mean cold of winter has already turned the evening dark, but warm light gathers up behind shop windows, spilling out into the streets with every opened door. Mob trudges along with his hands in his gloves in his pockets, breathing smoke, all the way to Spirits and Such Consultation Agency, and up the narrow stairs, and into Reigen’s office.

Reigen glances up from his keyboard. “Ah, Mob. Just who I wanted to see,” he says – and then falls suddenly silent, and utterly still, and fixes Mob with a stare so intense that after a moment Mob looks uncertainly behind him, in case he’s misunderstood and it’s not really him that Reigen’s staring at, in case there’s something much more interesting there.

But there isn’t. There’s only the door. Reassured, Mob looks back at Reigen and settles in to tolerate the staring.

Eventually, Reigen says, “No?”

“No what?” says Mob.

Reigen looks hard at Mob another moment longer, and then he shakes his head, once, vigorously, like he’s got water in his ears; he shoves back his chair and stands. “No, don’t bother closing the door. We’ve had an emergency call; we’re heading out straight away.”

Obligingly, Mob wedges the door open with his foot and loiters there, watching Reigen filling his pockets with spare capsules of printer ink. “Am I really?” he says.

“Really who I wanted to see?” says Reigen, wedging a packet of printer paper beneath his arm.

Mob nods. Then, “Yes,” he says, just in case.

“Of course you are,” says Reigen. Casually, he adds, “Don’t you wonder how I knew that was what you meant?”

“No,” says Mob. He asked the same question yesterday, after all. He just likes to be greeted that way; he likes to be reassured that Reigen means it.

“No,” echoes Reigen. He wraps on his scarf; he tugs at his lapels. Then his hands stay at his lapels, drumming a fiddly pattern there, before he snaps out of it and shoves the door wide. “No, no, no. No, of course not. Let us walk, Mob.”

They walk. Specifically they walk down the stairs, which are narrow and gloomy, and which end in an equally narrow and gloomy door.

“But wait!” Reigen bursts out, with a flourish of sudden, theatrical recollection. “I haven’t even told you the emergency we’re dealing with! It’s—” as he whips around and fixes Mob with another sharp, assessing stare, “—a haunted photocopier.”

“Okay,” says Mob.

“A photocopier,” says Reigen, still subjecting him to fiercely intense scrutiny, “which... is haunted.”

“Okay,” says Mob again. Then he remembers he should put his gloves back on before they go outside, so he does. His gloves have a frog on the back of each hand; they were a present from Ritsu two years ago, and they’re his overall favourite winter clothing. He looks happily at the frogs, and then he looks happily up at Reigen.

Reigen’s attitude of intense examination dissolves. “Guess it’s just me, then,” he says, and claps Mob on the back. “Let’s go exorcise this photocopier, eh?”

They go out into the chilly evening.

 

+++

 

Not only is the haunted photocopier in the same towering office block as the day before, but it’s on the same floor; it’s in the same wing, and beside the same potted plant, and gurgling with the same dissatisfied sounds of indigestion as the photocopier of the day before. All signs indicate that it is the same photocopier as the day before, but Mob doesn’t question the return visit. Some spirits are like weeds; you chop off the head but the roots remain, lurking below the ground, ready to seize the first chance to sprout again. And with spirits as with clients, some are just more likely to keep on causing trouble after the fact – more than once, Reigen’s been called up the morning after an exorcism by a client infuriated to discover that post-exorcism vacuuming services weren’t included in the price, and that the vast quantities of salt sprinkled gaily through their house are their problem and their problem alone.

A true professional, Reigen doesn’t assume today’s problem is the same as yesterday’s problem. He conducts the same examination, has the same conversation with the same anxious office manager; he cries the name of the same secret technique before he strikes, but this time he tosses much, much more salt while pirouetting into action, and rummages inside the paper tray for far longer.

Inside the photocopier, something goes ping.

The blockage in the paper tray unblocks. The photocopier stops shuddering and falls into a placid silence.

Reigen stays where he is, sheathed to the elbow in the photocopier’s innards. “Mob,” he says. “Is that – in your opinion, as my most promising young student, is that... exorcised? Properly? Thoroughly? Is this thing ghost-free?”

The photocopier never had the aura of anything supernatural around it to begin with, and it still doesn’t now. “Yes,” says Mob.

“You sure?” says Reigen.

Mob squints obligingly at the photocopier. It remains unhaunted, unpossessed, uncursed; it’s a solid beige lump of utterly ghost-free office machinery. “Yes,” he says, decisively.

“Good. Good, good. Just what I thought,” says Reigen, and withdraws his arm. “There’s no use being a consulting psychic if you can exorcise but you can’t diagnose the problem to begin with. So that was just my little test, Mob. Which you passed, of course. With flying colours. Yes, yes – utterly ghost-free, of course it is...”

“The secretary spectre’s... gone?” says the manager.

Forever,” says Reigen, impressively.

There’s no lingering around tonight, no little speech on the dangerous negative consequences of stress – but then there’s no need; the office workers heard it all yesterday. They’re probably all still mulling it over, Mob thinks. They’re probably letting it sink in. That’s what Mob does, whenever Reigen says something that gives him more to think about than he’s used to thinking about – he has to take his time with it, like Reigen’s wisdom is a heavy meal and Mob’s only slowly digesting it, feeling sleepy and confused for a few hours afterwards until he’s broken it down and absorbed it, piece by piece.

In the lift, it occurs to Mob that for some reason Reigen’s mood must have been a little subdued earlier, because now it’s not and the difference is unmistakeable: he’s bouncing on the balls of his feet, sporadically bursting into tuneless whistling, occasionally beaming down at Mob.

“Dinner?” he says, when he catches Mob carefully studying him in the lift’s mirrored wall. “Ramen? My treat.”

“Thank you,” says Mob gravely.

“I can’t wait to get to sleep tonight,” says Reigen. He claps his hands together and rubs them, and grins at Mob with an overspill of such vibrant, fizzing energy that even his aura sizzles with it; if energy like that could be tapped, then Reigen could power the city’s electrical grid alone. “You know the great thing about tomorrow, Mob? It’s another day. It always is. That’s what I love best about tomorrow.”

 

+++

 

One bright cold morning in December, Mob wakes up on a day much like the last.

“You were talking in your sleep,” Dimple informs him. “I yearn for power, that kind of thing. I crave the experienced guiding hand of a wise—”

“You already told me,” Mob says absently.

“I did not,” says Dimple. He floats around in front of Mob while he’s wriggling into his trousers, and glowers indignantly into his face. “I only came up with— only heard it last night, so I couldn’t have. You’re just—”

Mob sends a flow of energy to his hand and bats him aside.

He’s already shivering and dripping at the bathroom sink before Dimple feeds himself through beneath the door and resumes. “On some level, clearly, you recognise what I’m saying. You recognise the truth of it. You recognise that, deep-down, what I’m saying is exactly what you’re feeling, and if you want my advice then frankly I’d—”

Mob leaves the room and closes the door in Dimple’s face.

Cold daylight floods the kitchen as they eat breakfast, and Mob blinks it from his eyes as he pulls his shoes on in the hallway afterwards.

“Got your sports kit?” says Ritsu, wrapping on his scarf.

Mob opens his mouth. He closes his mouth. He turns and hurls himself back upstairs, grabs his sports kit, and hurls himself back downstairs at such high speed that he has to fling up a barrier to stop himself colliding with the opposite wall. “Got it,” says Mob, wheezing.

Ritsu smiles at Mob. Mob smiles at Ritsu. The day is off to a tremendous start.

 

+++

 

When Ritsu steps through the school gates he’s swallowed from sight instantly, like he’s a breadcrumb and the swirling eager crowds of students are a pond of hard-up ducks.

Mob goes to his lessons. He sits through his lessons. He does his best at his lessons. They’re expanding brackets again in Maths, which is a relief – perhaps Mob wasn’t the only one left hopelessly baffled by yesterday’s lesson.

Lunch arrives, and so does Mezato, who pulls up a seat to join Mob at his desk with the pre-emptively belligerent attitude of a girl who’s almost hoping someone tries to stop her just so she can inform them with steely determination that she cannot and will not be stopped. “Gossip reporting is its own valid journalistic subgenre, I’ll allow you that, but—”

Mob chews, and swallows, and listens seriously. Sometimes he forgets what he was about to say to someone as soon as he opens his mouth, so it only makes sense that sometimes it happens the other way around: Mezato’s probably just forgotten that she already warned him about the underwear thieves yesterday. What with her schoolwork and club activities and occasional assuming of undercover identities to infiltrate shady corporations and expose the sordid truth within, she’s always very busy, so she must have a lot on her mind – it’s only to be expected that sometimes, like now, she loses track a little.

“It is not the same, Mob-kun,” finishes Mezato, and slams her open palm against the desk so hard that Mob’s lunchbox jumps. “Not – at – all.”

Mob nods, in grave understanding. “Is this about the underwear thieves?”

“Sure, you could put it like that,” says Mezato. “Metaphorically.”

Once more on familiar ground, Mob nods again. “Metaphorically,” he agrees. “I’m glad you warned me, Mezato-san. I’ll be careful.”

“Ah-ha! Then you know what this is about, do you?” The aggression’s gone – it’s enthusiasm now; she’s studying him with bright-eyed fervour. “You already know who I’m talking about? Do you? Mob-kun? Do you?”

Mob tries to lean as far away from her as he can without her noticing. Lunchtime isn’t usually a time that he expects to have to think too hard, but now he’s thinking as hard as he can – it was only yesterday, he should be able to remember... “The Celebrity Blogging Club!” he bursts out in relief. “The Celebrity Blogging Club, I remember!”

Mezato’s already scribbling notes. “So they have contacted you, then? How recently? Did you meet them? Will you meet them? Tell me in detail every question you remember that they asked you, Mob-kun; this is very important. If you have any records of your contact – emails, perhaps, phone records—”

Mob doesn’t. Mezato’s not deterred. She assures him that by supporting her he’s supporting traditional print media, then cross-questions him relentlessly for another fifteen minutes and sets sail once more for the choppy seas of inter-club journalistic warfare in a mood of blazing victory.

 

+++

 

The afternoon comes. The afternoon goes. Outside the sun sinks as early and as gloomily as the day before. Inside, in the bright-lit classroom-cum-weights-room-cum-psychic-haven of the Telepathy Club, the Body Improvement Club exert their biceps and triceps to the fullest.

Mob did a pull-up yesterday, so he can do a pull-up today: that’s what he tells himself, as he wheezes and heaves and pants and struggles at his pull-up bar. A pull-up yesterday! A pull-up today! A pull-up yesterday! A

“Isn’t satellite technology fascinating?” Tome asks the room, in a tone of affected nonchalance. She must be reading the same magazine as the day before, thinks Mob – and then he thinks, A pull-up yesterday! A pull-up today! and heaves himself panting a half-inch higher than he was before. His breath scalds his throat like he’s got a furnace inside him instead of lungs.

Tome’s still hung up on her latest pet theory. It’s not surprising – she gets theories the way dogs get lice, burrowing down deep and frustratingly impossible to dislodge, no matter how hard anyone tries. And like a dog with lice, she’s also always eager to spread her theories as far and wide as possible. Mob wheezes and heaves and pants and struggles on his pull-up bar, and Tome patiently explains to him once again the likelihood that, after telekinetically hijacking and psychically hacking a range of military satellites, Mob will be able to make every last one of her extraterrestrial dreams come true.

A pull-up yesterday! A pull-up today! A pull-up yest— a pull-up! A pull-up!

His second ever pull-up! It is a pull-up! The rest of the Body Improvement Club gather round him, applauding him, cheering him on, as delighted by his achievement today as they were yesterday; and giddily, happily, as a pitch-black faint rises up to swallow him and he falls limply into President Musashi’s muscular arms, Mob dares to dream that tomorrow he’ll do two.

 

+++

 

The first thing that strikes Mob, when he steps out of the cold dark of the evening and into Reigen’s office, is the smell. The office often smells of cigarettes, but not like this – not so overpoweringly that Mob has to clap one frog-patterned glove across his mouth, doubled up coughing in the hallway.

Reigen’s inside the office, pacing. There’s a curt, distracted rhythm to his pacing that suggests he’s been pacing for a while. “Mob,” he says, by way of greeting. “Come in, come in. Close the door behind you.”

“Do I have to?” says Mob, muffled by the glove still pressed across his mouth.

Reigen looks at him blankly, still pacing. “Oh – right,” he says suddenly, “right, right...” He detours from his patrol of that three-metre square of carpet and swerves to fling open the window. A rush of cold air comes in. It doesn’t disperse the fog of cigarette smoke, which is so thick that the whole office is clouded with it; it looks like the haunting site of some toxic, spiteful poltergeist grown fat on exhaust fumes.

Mob closes the door anyway.

Reigen jerks his head in thanks and keeps pacing. “Have you,” he begins, abruptly, and stops just as abruptly. He stubs out his cigarette and keeps pacing, already shaking another from its carton. “Have you noticed anything... strange, Mob? Today? Or yesterday?”

“Anything... strange,” echoes Mob, and falls quiet as he thinks.

Reigen’s lighter strikes. The flame catches. He inhales hard and keeps pacing, watching Mob as closely as though he’s bet his life savings on a single baseball game and Mob’s the scoreboard, updating in real time.

“No,” says Mob, eventually. “Sorry,” he adds, but Reigen waves his apology aside.

“Let me put it another way,” says Reigen. He’s agitated, more jittery than usual when he jabs his cigarette around. “You had a normal day, did you? Went to school? Nothing weird?”

Mob works his way back through his day. “I don’t think so,” he says at last. He hesitates. “But... I did a pull-up,” he offers shyly.

“Nothing weird about that,” says Reigen, and jerks his head back to exhale smoke towards the smoke-blurred ceiling. “You’re just getting strong, is all. You’ll be benchpressing buses before long. Ripping the sleeves off your school uniform every time you flex.”

Mob’s heart swells with pride. “And I did one yesterday, too. Tomorrow...” The inspiration hits him suddenly. “Tomorrow... I’ll do two.”

“Damn right you will,” says Reigen. He snatches his coat from its peg. It takes him several tries to hook the zip; his hands are trembling. “Okay. Okay okay okay. Then it’s just me. Just me! All on my own. Fine, that’s fine. Hey, Mob – you’ll never guess what we’ve been called out for today!”

If Reigen thinks Mob will never guess, then Mob’s content to trust him. He waits expectantly.

“A haunted photocopier,” says Reigen, leading the way down the stairs. He looks back at Mob across his shoulder, and though he’s grinning, there’s something about the grin that feels a little strange to Mob. Less coolly composed than usual, perhaps. More maniacally wild-eyed than usual, perhaps. “A haunted photocopier! Ha! Would you believe it! What d’you make of that, Mob?”

Reigen’s hands are shaking so badly that he’s having trouble opening the door. Behind him, unnoticed, Mob lifts his finger and guides the key without a word towards the lock.

It’s still bitterly cold outside. They set off for the business district. “Well,” says Mob, “maybe it’s... because it’s warm? Inside a photocopier? If a spirit’s very cold in the afterlife, then... maybe that’s nice. Maybe it’s comforting.”

“Maybe,” agrees Reigen. He’s walking fast, his gaze twitching side to side. “Let’s try a thought experiment, Mob. All right? Say you’re a spirit. Say you’re in a photocopier. Say you put a curse on someone. Just one person. Just the person you most resent for disturbing your rest. Say you’re feeling... really smug about this curse. What’d make you lift it?”

Mob thinks hard. “Maybe... an apology...?”

“An apology?” says Reigen.

“If the person really meant it,” says Mob. “And they promised not to disturb me again... But for a curse, an exorcism would be better.” He thinks hard again. “But... if I’m the spirit... you’d have to ask me to exorcise myself, Master. I don’t know if I could do that...”

“No one’s exorcising you on my watch, kiddo,” Reigen promises, and Mob’s growing worry dissolves in relief. He hurries up, trying to keep pace with Reigen’s jittery speed. “Okay, new thought experiment. Say you’ve been cursed. Say you’ve been cursed by – a spirit. One that psychics can’t see. Okay?”

“Those types of spirits don’t exist,” says Mob.

Reigen raises his voice like he’d prefer not to have heard that. “Say you’ve taken a talented colleague of the greatest psychic of the twenty-first century to the place you got cursed, but he said there was nothing there. He said there was nothing there for him to exorcise.” The crossing light is red. They wait. “But you did get cursed there,” says Reigen. “You know you got cursed there. And yet the psychic says you couldn’t have been cursed there. Then what?”

The lights change. They cross the road.

“I don’t understand,” says Mob. “Then what... what?”

“Then what do you do?” says Reigen, and the sheen of self-possessed cool that overlays his voice cracks; for an instant, he sounds as dangerously close to the brink of panic as he looks. “If you’ve been cursed by an invisible spirit that psychics can’t see?”

“Those types of spirits—”

“—don’t exist,” says Reigen. “They don’t exist, I know. You said.”

They walk. They keep walking. Two streets later, Mob ventures, “Master, is everything okay?”

It’s like Reigen’s been waiting for the question. He stops dead on the pavement, grips Mob by the shoulders, and stares down into his eyes with an expression as haunted as though every ghost the pair of them has ever exorcised has taken up residence behind it. “Mob,” he says. “Mob,” he says again. “Tell me, Mob. Look at me and tell me. Tell me truthfully. Do I look cursed to you?”

Mob looks at him, and tells him truthfully. “No.”

Reigen says nothing. Then he says, brightly, “Ah, sorry, perhaps you didn’t hear me. I said—”

“—cursed?” says Mob.

Cursed,” says Reigen, grimly.

“No,” confirms Mob.

“Are you sure?” says Reigen. “Perhaps you’d better have another look.”

“No, I don’t think so,” says Mob.

“But I think so,” says Reigen.

His tone of voice is meaningful. Mob’s not sure exactly what the meaning is. “You’re not cursed,” he says.

“Well, you didn’t look very long,” says Reigen. “Let’s just stand here for a moment, like so, and you can have another look, a nice long look, and really think about it...”

“You’re not cursed, Master.”

“You seem very sure about that, Mob.”

“I am,” says Mob, and he is. There’s no chance he wouldn’t know about it if Reigen was cursed. A thought occurs, and he brightens up. “Is this another thought experiment?”

Reigen’s grip on his shoulders tightens, briefly. Then he lets go. “Something like that,” he says glumly, and trudges on towards the office blocks again.

 

+++

 

Again, it’s the same office. Again, it’s the same photocopier. But with spirits as with weeds, some are just more resilient than others; some just need a few more doses of weedkiller poured across their patch before they get the message.

It’s their third visit now, and they know what they’re doing – that’s why Reigen cuts the manager short when she begins to explain the problem. That’s why Reigen doesn’t examine the photocopier this time, either; and it’s probably also why he gets down onto his knees before it immediately, without even taking off his jacket, without even salting the carpet to prepare.

“I’m sorry,” Reigen tells the photocopier. His voice is low but fervent. He bows his head to it. “I’m sorry. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? You just want a lie-in, you just want a few more minutes – you’re going to get up, there’s no risk of you sleeping in... And then your alarm goes off and it’s almost patronising, right? Like, it thinks you can’t do this without help? It thinks you’re just gonna lie there all day if it doesn’t keep making all that goddamned noise? How’s it any of your alarm’s business what the hell time you feel like getting up? So I get it, trust me. And I’m sorry. I’ll keep my nose out this time. You mind your own business and I’ll mind mine. All right? We’ve got a deal? Give me a sign if we’ve got a deal.” He glances up. “Mob, tell me if it gives a sign to say we’ve got—”

The creaking, groaning photocopier gives a particularly drawn-out creak. A thin tail of smoke curls out from the A4 paper drawer.

Thank you,” says Reigen, in a voice of fervent gratitude. He bows even lower to the photocopier before he stands. “Seems like that’s all sorted, then. Mob?”

“Oh – coming,” says Mob, jolting himself hurriedly from his reverie. He spares one last glance for the photocopier before he follows after Reigen, but it’s just doing what it always does: creaking, and groaning, and now also smoking slightly. It couldn’t be less supernatural if it tried.

“What do you mean, that’s sorted? You haven’t fixed it!” cries the manager, giving chase.

“Oh, I think I have,” Reigen says smoothly. “In fact, I think you’ll find I’ve fixed a lot more than you ever realised needed fixing.”

With faultless dramatic timing, the lift chimes. The doors sweep open.

“You’re welcome, incidentally,” adds Reigen, and together he and Mob step inside.

 

+++

 

One bright cold morning in December, Mob wakes up on a day much like the last.

“You were talking in your sleep,” Dimple informs him. “I yearn for—”

“Ritsu would exorcise you if he knew you keep saying this,” says Mob.

“You don’t even know what I was going to say,” says Dimple, but he doesn’t dare to speak again.

Mob dresses, and washes his face, and ignores him all the way down to breakfast.

Cold daylight floods the kitchen as he and Ritsu eat, and Mob blinks it from his eyes as he—

Wait!” he blurts, before whirling on the spot and bolting back upstairs – he grabs his sports kit and hurls himself back down the stairs, clattering and wheezing as he goes. “Forgot – forgot my, my—”

Ritsu’s waiting as requested. “Got your sports kit?” he says dryly.

Yes,” says Mob gratefully.

Ritsu smiles at Mob. Mob smiles at Ritsu. The day is off to a tremendous start.

 

+++

 

The difference between school today and school yesterday is, unfortunately, negligible. But it always is. That’s the problem with school: time passes, but maths is never not impossible.

Lunch arrives, and brings with it the discovery that Mezato’s still focused on the issue of the underwear thieves. But that’s understandable – so’s Mob, when he remembers it. She’s looking for an audience more than a conversation as she scribbles down her notes, and Mob’s content to provide.

The afternoon comes. The afternoon goes. In the bright-lit classroom-cum-weights-room-cum-psychic-haven of the Telepathy Club, the biceps and triceps of the Body Improvement Club receive a hearty workout. As single-minded as ever, Tome resumes her entirely one-sided discussion of the merits of satellite-aided intergalactic correspondence. And, as stubborn as ever, she once again secures Mob’s wheezing promise that he’ll accompany her to this Saturday’s upcoming military tech convention.

It occurs to him that he’s not sure how far away that is – what day is today? – but then he manages his third ever pull-up, and in the sudden explosion of excitement through the club room the issue of what day it is entirely slips his mind. The raucous celebration lasts even after his arms go numb, even after he collapses to his knees; it lasts even while he’s hyperventilating. Mob’s not sure he’s ever been happier while hyperventilating in all his life.

 

+++

 

Right on time,” says Reigen, when Mob pushes open the office door – which Mob does warily, at arm’s length, one glove across his mouth and nose, just in case he’s greeted by another heavy, opaque cloud of cigarette smoke... But there’s no need today: whatever had been troubling Reigen so badly yesterday must have passed, for he’s sitting casually back in his desk chair, his hands laced across his stomach, regarding Mob with his usual look of professional amiability. “Yes, right on time. Exactly on time. Just when I was expecting you.”

Mob nods seriously – in the working world, it’s important to be punctual. It shows you’re reliable. When you’re reliable, people pay you more. When you’re paid more, you’re happier, more successful, and more emotionally fulfilled – unless you’re still only an apprentice, in which case money is irrelevant, and happiness, success, and emotional fulfillment can be found instead in the number of spirits you exorcise per month. Reigen’s taught him that, and Mob’s learned. He comes in; he removes his coat, his gloves; he seats himself at his desk, and awaits further instruction.

Further instruction doesn’t come. Mob looks at Reigen. He’s gazing up at the ceiling, swivelling his desk chair idly side to side, apparently lost in thought. Mob looks back at his desk. No paperwork awaits him; no clients have been scheduled. There’s not even a trace of the stink from yesterday – when Mob inhales deeply, he smells only the usual smells: incense, and sweet greasy massage oil, and the old, faded nicotine ghosts of cigarettes past.

Mob’s just starting to wonder if he should get started on some homework when the phone rings.

He picks it up. “Spirits and Such Consultation Agency, how can—”

Reigen leaps to his feet, vaults the desk, and rips the phone cord from the wall.

“—we help you?” finishes Mob. He pauses, collecting his thoughts. “Ah – sorry. My master says we can’t help you. Goodbye,” he tells the dead line, and hangs up.

“I didn’t tell you this,” says Reigen, with the most dazzling smile he can manage despite how hard he’s breathing, his hands braced against the wall, “and that’s my fault, Mob. But we’re not taking clients today.”

“Okay,” says Mob.

“You don’t want to know why?” says Reigen.

“Not really,” Mob says honestly. “Will you help me with my homework?”

Reigen takes another deep breath, and then he straightens. He adjusts his tie, he adjusts his cuffs, he adjusts his smile back to its usual winning brilliance. “Of course,” he assures Mob, “of course. But first, Mob... Do you know what I did today?”

“Can’t you remember?” says Mob in surprise.

“No – no, I can remember. I was inviting you... to guess,” says Reigen, and makes his point with a gesture like he’s swatting a thousand tiny flies.

Mob thinks hard. “You... I think you, um... Maybe you—” Another thought strikes. “Will you still help me with my homework even if my guess is wrong?”

“Okay, forget the guessing. The guessing was a bad idea. I’ll just tell you,” says Reigen, and pulls up a second chair to join Mob at his desk. “This morning, my alarm went off an hour early. Must have set it wrong by accident. Then I got the train to the office. My first client was a woman in her mid-forties, good hair, bad shoes, she’d been feeling the oppressive weight of negative psychic energy haunting her ever since she didn’t make it through the first auditions of some reality show, so I exorcised her demons with a discount massage. Did some emails, took some calls. Went out for lunch, but the burger place had a burst water pipe so it was closed, and the street was flooded. Came back. Had another client. Sent him out draped in so many protective charms he looked like a decorative ornament. Took a call about a haunted photocopier, and waited for you to arrive. And then you arrived.”

The theatricality has gone from Reigen’s tone; his voice is low and urgent, and again he’s studying Mob intently, like Mob’s the beach and Reigen’s the guy with the metal detector, desperately hoping for even a glint of gold beneath the sand. If Mob knew what Reigen was looking for, he’d help him find it; but he doesn’t know, and he can’t guess.

“I... see,” he says, at last. “If someone called about a haunted photocopier, why aren’t we—”

“And you know what I did yesterday?” Reigen presses on. “First, my alarm went off an hour early. My first client failed some reality show auditions last month, so I exorcised her demons with a discount massage. Couldn’t get a burger, since the place was flooded out with a burst water pipe. My second client wanted exactly one hundred personalised protective charms. Took a call about a haunted photocopier, waited for you, and went to see the photocopier. And you know what the very last thing I did last night was?”

Mob doesn’t. He shakes his head.

Set the alarm,” says Reigen. “And double-checked it. And it still went off one hour early today. You want to hear about the day before that?”

Mob doesn’t even have the chance to answer before Reigen’s hurtling on again, driven with all the unstoppable, high-speed pressure of a locomotive engine.

“To start with, my alarm went off an hour early. My first client was a reality show reject, and I cured her troubles with a massage. The burger place was closed due to flooding. My second client just wanted charms. My third client was asking about a haunted photocopier, so I went with you to see the photocopier. And you know what I did as soon as I got home?”

Mob doesn’t. He shakes his head.

Set the alarm,” says Reigen. “Because it’d gone off an hour early the day before. And it still went off an hour early again the next morning.” He looks at Mob for a long, fidgety moment before he says, “Do you believe me?”

“Of course,” says Mob, in some surprise. He always believes Reigen. If he couldn’t believe Reigen, then who in all the world could he believe?

Reigen’s shoulders sink with relief. “Good. Okay. Okay. What d’you make of it, then?”

“Of what?” says Mob.

“Of – all that,” says Reigen. “What I just told you. How the same things keep happening to me, over and over.”

“Oh, that,” says Mob, and once again he falls into deep thought, gazing without seeing at the large glossy poster of Reigen on the far wall behind the real Reigen, who’s looking a lot less dazzlingly composed than his poster-self. “Well,” continues Mob, emerging at length from the depths of contemplation, “I think... sometimes it’s nice to have a daily routine. If you find a routine that you like, and it’s comfortable... then that’s good. So I’m glad you’ve found yours, Master.”

“No,” says Reigen. “No, you’ve misunderstood. It’s not a routine, Mob. It’s not me. I’m not doing this stuff, it’s just – happening. And I can’t stop it happening. I can’t stop it.”

“You told me I always have to take responsibility for my actions,” says Mob.

“But these aren’t my actions!” cries Reigen. “I can’t stop it! I can’t control it! I’m stuck, Mob! And you said I’m not cursed, and you said that photocopier’s not haunted, and if that’s not the problem then—”

His computer erupts with a sudden storm of shrill beeping: email notifications flooding in.

“It’s about the photocopier,” says Reigen, scrolling. “I ignored all their calls and disconnected the phone, so now they’re—”

In his suit pocket, his mobile starts vibrating too. With a look of vague nausea, Reigen takes it out – he checks the screen – he hurls the mobile against the floor and then stamps on it, grinding his heel into it, before kicking the wreckage into the wall.

“Nothing important,” Reigen says confidently, when he looks up and meets Mob’s wide-eyed stare. “I said we’re not taking clients tonight, so we’re not taking clients. Simple as that. You want to show me that homework of yours?”

“Ah – yes!” blurts Mob, who in all his confusion had almost forgotten he had homework left to do at all, and with a hasty gesture he empties the entire contents of his schoolbag upwards into the air and brings the glowing, bobbing clutter soaring towards him across the office’s whole cramped width.

 

+++

 

One bright cold morning in December, Mob wakes up on a day much like the last.

He’s learned his lesson, though – he doesn’t forget his sports kit, and he sets it proudly beside him at the breakfast table just to make sure that everyone else can admire the way he hasn’t forgotten it, too.

“But it’s only because you kept reminding me about it,” he adds gratefully, to Ritsu.

“About what?” says Ritsu, who’s pouring them both a glass of milk. The glasses and the milk are all on the other side of the kitchen, but that’s how Ritsu prefers it; the cold morning daylight is warmed by the bright pulse of his psychokinetic glow.

“My sports kit,” says Mob. “I almost forgot it today, too. But then I remembered you reminding me, and that reminded me.”

“When did I remind you?” asks Ritsu. He’s frowning slightly, though it’s more likely to be with concentration than confusion – their milk is levitating towards them across the room.

“Yesterday,” says Mob. He lifts his hand to let Ritsu land his glass directly in it. “And the day before. And the day before.”

“But you didn’t do club activity yesterday,” says Ritsu. “Remember? We finished school at the same time. I walked to Reigen-san’s office with you.”

“But I did a pull-up yesterday,” says Mob. “I... did do a pull-up. I’ve done... a pull-up... every day...”

His voice fades. Ritsu is looking at him in concern, his own milk forgotten, still bobbing forlornly in the air behind his shoulder. Mob did do a pull-up yesterday, he has been doing pull-ups every day... but the Body Improvement Club only holds an indoor meeting once a week.

Maybe they’ve been on a special winter schedule, and he just forgot about it. Maybe it’s healthier to exercise inside in winter, because the days are so much colder. He has been going to an indoor meeting every day, so there must be some sort of explanation.

“You have been reminding me,” Mob says at last, with an effort. He grips his sports kit tightly, for reassurance. “I know that. I wouldn’t forget you, Ritsu. I’d never forget about you.”

“And I’d never,” says Ritsu, and stops. His expression clouds. And then he starts again, abruptly, like he’s not sure why he ever stopped, “forget – about you, either. I... would never forget you, brother.”

A silence grows between them in the kitchen.

And then Ritsu’s forgotten milk tips forward, as Ritsu’s attention strays – and at the same instant Mob whips around to freeze the liquid mid-spill, Ritsu’s hand shoots up to trap the glass itself inside a leak-proof psychic bubble – and the situation is contained, through teamwork.

Mob smiles at Ritsu. Ritsu smiles at Mob. The day is off to a tremendous start.

 

+++

 

But aside from the peculiar issue of the Body Improvement Club, there’s also the fact that today, again, they’re expanding brackets in Maths.

Not that Mob’s complaining, of course – it’s like rubbing at a dirty windowpane with his sleeve, getting a little clearer every time the class goes over it, and a sense of nervous anticipation is growing inside him with the thought that one day soon he might actually have cleared away enough of the grime of incomprehension that he’ll actually be able to see inside. (What he’ll see inside is another issue. Yet more brackets, probably.)

It’s not Maths that’s the problem. It’s every single other lesson that’s the problem. They’ve been studying the exact same material in every class all week, and when Mob flips back a page to prove to himself that he really did make all these same notes just yesterday, there’s nothing there to see – his notes are gone, his work is gone. It’s like all his exercise books have wiped themselves clean overnight, reset to the beginning like a badly rebooted computer.

He consults Mezato over lunch.

“The Celebrity Blogging Club told you that, did they? They’ve got something in the works?” She drums her pen rapidly against her notepad, thinking hard. “None of my contacts have mentioned this to me – must be pretty secret, so far, but if they’re telling you... Some kind of sabotage? An ambush? That’s the tabloid way, Mob-kun, watch out for the gleam of long-lens cameras in the bushes – they’ll set you up and catch you out... Yeah, I’ll have to look into this. Thanks for the tip-off,” says Mezato, and gives him a comradely clap on the back as once again she leaves him to his lunch.

It’s a nice conversation, but it’s not a very helpful one, or even really a very comprehensible one.

He tries again with Tome, after school.

“You what?” says Tome. “You’re gonna have to grunt less, Mob-kun, I can’t understand a thing you’re saying.”

Mob would like to grunt less, but he’s on his pull-up bar again, and apart from wheezing and heaving and panting and struggling – all of which he’s doing plentifully – it’s difficult to do anything but grunt.

“Listen, while you’re doing that, I’ll just tell you about this satellite research I’ve been doing, okay? It’s incredible stuff,” Tome assures him, shaking out her magazine. “You’ll love it. Everyone loves it. I guarantee you’re gonna love it, Mob-kun.”

Mob achieves another pull-up today, and doesn’t collapse afterwards for a whole thirty seconds. It’s a shaky, staggering thirty seconds, but it gives him enough time to yank a chair from the Telepathy Club’s table and snap it towards him in the grip of his telekinetic lasso, and he falls back into it with relief.

And over the sound of his heaving breath, his hammering heart, the adrenalin pounding through him in a frenzy, Mob notices something else that’s strange: the rest of the Body Improvement Club are cheering him on for achieving his first ever pull-up.

It wasn’t his first ever pull-up. Mob’s never been surer of anything in his life than he is that that wasn’t his first ever pull-up.

 

+++

 

Reigen meets him at the school gates with a violin case and a mood so violently cheerful that Mob can see it in his aura: fizzing, jubilant, occasionally sending off unpredictable ricochets of psychic sparks.

“Called out for a haunted photocopier,” he tells Mob, and hefts the violin case as though that explains everything.

It doesn’t explain anything, as far as Mob can tell; but he’s glad for the distraction, and relieved to see Reigen so happy again, and they walk together into the city, talking, breathing smoke, admiring the winter decorations.

It’s the same haunted photocopier. It still doesn’t seem haunted to Mob’s expert eye; but there must be something wrong, he reasons, or they wouldn’t keep getting called back for it. And in any case, expert as his eye might be, Reigen’s is a hundred times more expert than that – and that, Mob further reasons, must be why the office manager doesn’t even mention the way that Reigen ignored all her calls yesterday: she knows he’s a professional, and she respects that professionals all have their little quirks.

“Stand back,” says Reigen, as he faces the photocopier. “Further back, Mob. Further back. And you’d better put up a barrier; you don’t want to get splinters in your eyes.”

Mob obediently puts up a barrier. It shimmers between him and Reigen like a soap bubble as he asks, “Why would I get—”

Reigen opens the violin case, removes a baseball bat, and smashes it into the haunted photocopier.

Slam – the paper drawer shatters – crash – the feeder tray shatters – thud, thud, crack – the lid of the scanner shatters – and outraged cries ring out around the office, people jumping to their feet, as Reigen’s still swinging, and swinging, and swinging...

He’s a professional. He knows what he’s doing, even if Mob doesn’t. Mob extends his barrier to include everyone except Reigen himself. This is a master at work; he mustn’t be interrupted. The manager dives forward to drag Reigen away – to no effect; she rebounds from a wall she can’t see, and Reigen swings back and gives the photocopier another good whack.

 

+++

 

The photocopier isn’t really a photocopier anymore by the time Mob and Reigen leave. And they don’t really leave, either; they’re pursued from the premises at top speed by the manager and several members of security, accompanied by shrieked promises that the police have already been called, and Reigen’s business will be ruined by the morning, and both of them are fraudsters who’ll never find work in Spice City again.

“God, I hope so,” pants Reigen, when at last they slow to a halt in the shadows of a murky alleyway. “At least if the police make me spend all of tomorrow talking my way out of the consequences of today that’d mean there are consequences, which would mean tomorrow isn’t today. Won’t be today.”

Mob’s too busy wheezing to reply.

“Worth every minute, though,” adds Reigen, with a smile. It’s a tranquil smile. It suggests he’s found a well of deep, serene inner calm, and intends to make the most of it. “Beating the crap out of that thing was the best thing I’ve done all day. All four of today.”

 

+++

 

Late that night, there’s a knock on Mob’s bedroom door.

The warm energy massed outside is Ritsu’s, and Mob rolls over to let him in before he’s even realised he’s awake – a bleary beckoning gesture, and the door swings open. “Ritsu?”

“Can I talk to you?” says the Ritsu-shaped silhouette in the doorway. “I’m sorry, brother; I know it’s late. But I don’t think this can wait.”

Mob nods, yawning.

“It’s about what you said this morning,” says Ritsu. He’s speaking softly, and in the gloom his expression is calm; when he uses telekinesis to shut the door behind him, his control is faultless – it fits home without a sound. “Do you remember, brother? You said I’ve been reminding you about your sports kit recently, but I couldn’t remember it happening.”

Mob nods again, and props himself up on his elbow. Usually he has Dimple for a murky green nightlight, but Dimple knows what’s good for him, and it’s not Ritsu – he’s nowhere to be seen. The only light in the room is Ritsu’s own, the unearthly halogen shimmer of power leakage: very faintly, Ritsu is glowing. “I remember,” says Mob.

Ritsu nods. Then he asks, “How many times have I reminded you about your sports kit?”

The question is very calm, and so is Ritsu. But his power is crackling through him like the electric current in a circuit wired by an incompetent DIY enthusiast – it’s holding together, and it’s functioning, and anyone who didn’t know what they were looking for probably wouldn’t even realise that, underneath, the whole thing is being kept together with nothing more than a few paper clips, sellotape, and sheer stubborn force of will. An electrical current wired as precariously as that is the sort of electrical current that might short-circuit at any moment. Right now, that’s how Ritsu feels too.

Out of respect for his little brother’s intensity, Mob thinks hard before he answers. “Four,” he says at last. “I think... four. Because I’ve done four pull-ups.”

Ritsu says nothing. He shouldn’t be glowing. If his electrical current was better wired, he wouldn’t be glowing; but something heavy must be weighing on his mind tonight, for he doesn’t even seem to notice when the shudder of a psychic tremor passes through him – rippling his hair, lifting his pyjamas, as though he’s briefly in an eerie underwater world of his own accidental making... And then he nods, and says, “Four. I won’t forget this time. Thank you, brother.”

“That’s okay,” says Mob, relieved. So long as Ritsu’s happy, he doesn’t mind not understanding what’s going on. “I won’t forget, either. Ah – I won’t forget my sports kit, I mean... Thanks to you, Ritsu.”

Ritsu nods, gravely. “Sleep well,” he tells Mob, and then he’s gone again, as silently as he came.

For anyone else, being so deadly serious so late at night might seem strange. But it’s Ritsu; it would be stranger if he wasn’t. Mob’s sleep is peaceful, and he slides back into it with ease.

 

+++

 

One bright cold morning in December, Mob wakes up on a day much like the last.

He takes his sports kit downstairs with him, but leaves it beside his shoes in the hallway while he’s having breakfast – there’ll be no missing it, that way. Ritsu pours them both a glass of milk and doesn’t mention the night before, so Mob follows his lead and doesn’t mention it either. Sometimes a good night’s sleep is all you need to get things sorted out in your head, and perhaps that was all Ritsu needed, too. Whatever he was trying to sort out, it feels like he’s succeeded: that volatile, precarious feeling is gone, his power back to normal, flexing with the same smooth control as a well-trained bicep.

They leave the kitchen together as Mob’s telling Ritsu about his recent string of pull-ups.

“That’s amazing, brother. You’re making incredible progress,” Ritsu tells him seriously. Then the seriousness slips a little, and he gives Mob a small private smile that warms Mob’s heart faster than even a blowtorch could. “Better make sure you don’t—”

A sudden silence. Mob’s pulling on his shoes. He stops and looks up, confused.

“—forget... your sports kit...” says Ritsu, who’s motionless a few steps down the hall. His stare is fixed on Mob’s shoes. No – on Mob’s sports kit, beside his shoes. “You’d better not— Don’t— You... shouldn’t forget your—”

The power surge is so strong it raises Mob’s hair too. Gone is the placid resting calm, and back is the ferocious volatile surge of a short-circuiting fuse, right there in the hallway with their mother still upstairs and their father sipping coffee in the front room. The family’s coats hanging from their pegs begin to float upwards. The door to the cupboard under the stairs slips its latch and slams open wide. Ritsu’s still staring. He still hasn’t moved. His hair is rising; his clothes are rippling in a wind that only he can feel.

Mob’s sports kit levitates jerkily from the ground. He snatches it out of the air. “Ritsu! Ritsu!”

Ritsu’s stare moves from Mob’s sports kit to Mob himself.

And then, just as suddenly, it’s over. Winter coats plummet down around Mob – he catches them with his own power and floats them back into place; there’s the tinkling of cutlery starting to rain back down in the kitchen, and Ritsu wheels about without a word and hurries off to deal with the mess.

Mob finishes putting on his shoes, and wonders.

 

+++

 

“I’m sorry,” says Ritsu, when they’re already halfway to school.

“That’s all right,” says Mob. “Just – if anything’s wrong, Ritsu... Will you tell me?”

“I don’t know if anything’s wrong,” says Ritsu. “I can’t tell. Yet. But I know – if I remember,” he says, his voice tense, “I know I’ll – I know there’s something to remember...”

He’s walking fast, but he notices the sideways look of concern Mob gives him.

“But I would tell you,” Ritsu assures him. “I will tell you, brother. Just as soon as I know. I promise.”

 

+++

 

School is even stranger today than yesterday. Again, their lessons are all the same. Again, there’s no trace of the previous day’s work in any of Mob’s books. Maybe it’s a special new revision technique, he thinks; maybe it’s to stop students relying on their written notes and make them use their memories instead.

But if it is a revision technique, none of the teachers have mentioned it. If it is a revision technique, then Mob doesn’t understand why he seems to be the only student in the school who isn’t finding it helpful – and he must be the only one, because no one else is complaining about it; no one else has even mentioned it.

Maybe he’s just the only person in his class who ever pays enough attention in lessons to notice that they’ve been studying the exact same material for five days in a row now...

...but that doesn’t sound likely: Mob’s always been a daydreamer.

 

+++

 

Mob does one and a half pull-ups at the Body Improvement Club that evening, and then he goes to work.

The office is still open, which is a relief – after the fiasco with the baseball bat last night, Mob had half-expected he’d arrive just to see the police in the process of gutting the premises, Reigen in handcuffs, the erratically blinking neon sign of the Spirits and Such Consulting Agency gone dark, extinguished at last, forever. But the sign is shining, and the light in Reigen’s window is on, so Mob goes inside.

“I tried to catch a flight,” says Reigen, instead of hello. “To where, you might ask. To anywhere, I would reply. That’s the precise exchange I had at the sales desk in Spice City Airport this morning, word-for-word, and not long after I was bound for Shanghai.”

Wide-eyed, Mob looks from the suitcase on Reigen’s desk to Reigen’s passport lying negligently beside it to Reigen’s casual travelling clothes – which are exactly the same as his usual clothes, except with sunglasses propped atop his head. “You went to Shanghai?”

“I did not,” says Reigen.

“But you said—”

“The plane took off, realised it hadn’t refilled its fuel tanks, and landed again. So we were all refunded,” says Reigen, “and I tried again. Oslo, this time.”

Mob’s wide-eyed stare grows wider. “You went to Oslo?”

“I did not,” says Reigen.

“But—”

“The plane was attacked on the runway by a flock of pigeons. They swarmed us,” says Reigen, “it was astonishing. I could see it from my window seat. They were hurling themselves at the engines. So then the engines clogged, and the flight was cancelled, and we were all refunded. And I tried again.”

Reigen’s next try had taken him to Milan, or rather it had taken him as far as the checking-in desk for a flight to Milan, where it transpired that no one would be flying to Milan because the pilot had firstly been involved in a fistfight with an air traffic controller and secondly been arrested. Reigen left the airport and got on a train, which he rode for an hour and a half, as far as he could go, following the line out towards the city limits – at which point an unexpected obstruction on the tracks meant that the train couldn’t continue, and everyone had to get out.

So Reigen started walking. He knew the fringes of the city; he knew the woods out there. He walked and kept walking, and one street away from the sign he knew would tell him You Are Now Leaving Spice City! Come Back Soon! he hit roadworks, walled in by high spiked fences.

He took a detour.

Roadworks blocked that detour too.

He took another detour.

There were no roadblocks here, but instead there was a vast uncrossable pothole which appeared to have opened up at some time in the last week, and which made the route from the city utterly impassable.

Reigen stopped walking and started running.

Roadworks, potholes, streets roped off by police tape, streets fuming with noxious gas and under patrol by faceless government officials in hazmat suits, streets undergoing sewer work from which passersby were repelled by the force of the stench...

“There was no way out,” concludes Reigen. He tosses up his passport and catches it, with theatrical nonchalance. “There is no way out. I thought maybe, y’know, it’s a time loop, everything’s repeating – well, what if it couldn’t repeat? It couldn’t repeat if I was in Milan, could it? And even if it did, I wouldn’t care. If the same three clients kept calling me with the same three problems while I was in Milan, I’d just hang up and go back to getting extremely rich by dealing with all those thousands of Italian ghosts no one’s bothered to exorcise since the Roman period. I’d just eat a pizza. I’d be in Milan.”

“But you’re not in Milan,” says Mob.

“I’m not in Milan,” agrees Reigen. He tosses up his passport again, and this time Mob splays his fingers and catches it mid-air. It floats there, glowing green. “So that’s that, isn’t it? I can’t leave the city. And I can’t leave this day. And you won’t even remember this conversation tomorrow, will you?”

“I will,” says Mob. He’s not offended; he’s just correcting him.

“If you say so,” says Reigen, and he smiles. But it’s an oddly sad smile, and there’s nothing for him to be sad about.

Mob says it again: “Master, I will.”

“All right, all right, I believe you,” says Reigen. “Well, listen, I’m sick of this haunted goddamn photocopier. We’re ignoring it again. If I’m stuck in this day, I may as well make the most of it. You with me, Mob?”

Mob lets the passport drop back onto Reigen’s suitcase. “How can you be stuck in a day?” he asks.

Reigen turns up his palms in an eloquently hopeless shrug. “You’re the psychic, kiddo. You tell me. Wait – I mean,” immediately and hastily, “you’re the apprentice psychic, so you tell me... as a way to improve your powers. Because obviously I’m also a psychic. And far stronger than you. And despite being the most expert psychic genius of my generation or indeed of any generation, this has got me baffled. Which is unusual, very unusual, because of how stunningly impressive my powers are.” He sneaks a look at Mob, who’s listening expressionlessly. Reigen relaxes again. “Well, then. There you go. I’ve got no idea. But – listen, if you do, Mob, if you’ve noticed I’m looking any more cursed than usual, if any inspiration hits you – anything... Then let me know. All right?”

Mob nods. Then he adds, “You’re not cursed, Master.”

“Yeah, you said,” says Reigen heavily. He gets to his feet. His pockets are jangling. “C’mon, let’s go play arcade games till we bankrupt the business. I’ve cleared out my account; I’ll get it all back tomorrow, anyway. You want a milkshake?”

Mob shyly confirms that he would, in fact, like a milkshake.

“Then it’ll have to wait,” announces Reigen, “because first of all I’m going to trash you at the arcade dance machines, and I’m not having you saying it wasn’t a fair match because you had to stop and throw up halfway through. I won’t be going easy on you just because you’re my disciple, Mob. Expect no special treatment. Are you ready for that?”

“I’ll... do my best,” says Mob, powerfully impressed.

 

+++

 

One bright cold morning in December, Mob wakes up on a day much like the last.

Ritsu’s waiting for him at the foot of the stairs. “You’ve got your sports kit,” he says, as soon as he sees Mob, as instantly as though he’s been waiting for the chance to blurt it out.

Mob does. “I do,” he agrees.

Ritsu gives him a smile of exhausted relief. Mob returns the smile. He’s not sure why Ritsu’s so happy about his sports kit, but he’s happy that Ritsu’s happy; and he’s happier still that Ritsu doesn’t seem about to accidentally flip the switch into psychic meltdown mode today, either.

“Six days,” says Ritsu. “I knew it. Don’t worry, brother. I’m working on it. This won’t last.”

“What won’t?” says Mob.

“Today,” says Ritsu.

“Today... won’t last?” says Mob, and Ritsu gives him a look of victorious pride. It seems to Mob that today never lasts – that ‘never lasting’ is one of the major features of ‘today’, compared to ‘yesterday’, which will always have been in the past, and ‘tomorrow’, which will never not be in the future – but he doesn’t mention it. Ritsu’s glowing with anticipation instead of psychic effluence, and that’s a change for the better, no matter why.

“All right,” Mob says agreeably, and lets Ritsu pour them both a glass of milk.

 

+++

 

School repeats again.

Defeating Reigen on the arcade dance machines three times in a row the night before had been such a heady rush of excitement that all of Mob’s cloudy, unformed worries about his lessons had been pushed out of his mind – but now they’re back.

He tries asking Mezato’s opinion on their endlessly resetting schoolwork, but Mezato still only wants to talk about the Celebrity Blogging Club. Acting on a sudden, unsettling hunch, Mob tries offering her an exclusive video interview in which he’d willingly out himself as the leader of any cult she wants him to... but Mezato still only wants to talk about the Celebrity Blogging Club.

He tries Tome instead, but she’s no better than Mezato: she’s still hung up on the possibility of Mob hijacking a military satellite for her, and she won’t be distracted. Tome does tend to latch onto a single idea and cling to it for weeks on end, but usually she does it with wild creativity – Mob will hijack the satellite, hack the satellite, bring the satellite down to Earth and park it in Tome’s Spice City backyard, ride the satellite into space and report back to her on where it goes... And she hasn’t been doing that, either. It’s the same idea every day. Nothing’s changed.

Mob does two pull-ups that night, and the Body Improvement Club fall over themselves to express their deafening, delighted astonishment that he’s gone from none to two so quickly.

It’s like they’ve forgotten all his other pull-ups. It’s like his other pull-ups never even happened.

But they did. If Mob’s sure of anything, he’s sure of that: those pull-ups definitely, definitely happened.

 

+++

 

Reigen’s waiting for him outside the school gates again that evening. He doesn’t have a violin case this time, but he does have a briefcase, which is big and brown and which Mob’s never seen before.

“I had a lot of time to kill while I was trying to flee the city yesterday,” he tells Mob, as they walk into the city. The briefcase makes an odd clinking sound where it’s swinging at Reigen’s side. “So I was refreshing a lot of news sites, just scrolling, just looking for something to read... My internet data’s been resetting every night, so it’s fine,” he adds, with a dismissive wave of his hand. Mob nods – that sounds like just the sort of clever data scheme that Reigen would enrol in. “So today I’ve been doing a little experiment. A little financial experiment.”

Mob risks a guess. “With... a briefcase?”

“Sort of,” says Reigen cheerfully, and he pats Mob’s shoulder. “Here, this is our stop. Let me do the talking, all right?”

Mob always lets Reigen do the talking, but he nods obediently anyway.

Their stop is a shop with a forlorn window display of old, dusty clocks. Inside it’s just as dusty, and Reigen makes straight for the deserted counter; he raps on it hard until an elderly man emerges from a back room, and then he flashes one of his more disarming smiles. “I’m here to see the Lizard, mister. He knows who I am.”

The Lizard, it emerges, is a man with very impressive muscles – Mob eyes them with an expert, envious gaze – who either earned his nickname because of the tattoo or got the tattoo because of the nickname; either way, a vast green lizard with an unfriendly expression wraps itself around his back and writhes across his muscled stomach, which Mob knows because the Lizard greets them naked to the waist, with a long knife tucked casually through the beltloop of his jeans.

They spend only fifteen minutes or so with the Lizard, tucked away in the clock shop’s other back room, which is behind a hidden door, and which smells of stale alcohol, and which is occupied by several other large and muscular men with intimidating animals tattooed over their intimidating muscles, but that fifteen minutes is long enough for Reigen to make half a dozen loyal best friends for life. It’s also long enough for Reigen to become some several hundred thousand yen richer.

“C’mon,” he tells Mob in an undertone, when the money has been wrapped in a package and the package is tucked beneath his arm. He grips Mob’s shoulder and takes a step backwards. “Look casual. Don’t look worried. We’re gonna get out of here, no problem. Keep calm.”

“I am calm,” says Mob. “Excuse me... Lizard-san? About your pectoral muscles... Do you mind if I ask what sort of daily weights routine—”

“It’s been an absolute pleasure doing business with you gentlemen,” Reigen butts in at once, his voice smooth as cream, and with his hand on Mob’s shoulder steers him from the shop at a relaxed, ambling pace that turns to a flat-out sprint as soon as they’re round the corner. The briefcase rattles and clatters all the way; the package of money bumps along beneath Reigen’s arm.

They stop eventually beneath a flyover bridge, in the gloomy shadow of its overhang, where no streetlights reach. Reigen sets his briefcase on a ledge, spins the dial of its padlock, and flips it open: it’s full of money.

“I spent the morning placing bets,” he explains, packing the new bundle of money in as well, “on things I knew would happen because I read about them yesterday, and I’ve spent the evening collecting on my winnings. So this is the experiment, you see. If I’m rich today, will I be rich tomorrow? Ah – Mob, could you just...?”

There’s so much money in the briefcase Reigen’s having trouble getting the lid to close. Obligingly, Mob lifts a finger and compresses it beneath the weight of psychokinesis. “What’s on your wrist?”

“A handcuff,” says Reigen, and pulls back his sleeve to show Mob. There’s one around Reigen’s wrist and one around the handle of Reigen’s briefcase, and between them is a very short length of chain that clatters and rattles with every movement. “That’s part of the experiment too, you see. If I’m rich today, and if I go to sleep while quite literally inseparable from my fortune, then will I still be rich tomorrow?”

Mob respects Reigen’s reasoning, but he doesn’t always understand it. “You’re going to sleep like that?”

“A safety measure,” says Reigen. “Safety against time loops. I’m cautiously optimistic, Mob.”

“How will you get undressed?” says Mob.

Reigen looks down at his handcuff too. “Well, of course,” he says, after a moment, “I did consider this problem in advance, naturally I did, this certainly isn’t the first time it’s occurring to me, but ultimately I decided that a single night’s discomfort was a worthwhile price to pay for fortune beyond imagining.”

Mob pursues the point. “You’re going to go to sleep in your suit? And your coat? Chained to a box of money?”

“You know what, Mob, that’s really not the issue here,” Reigen says loudly. “The issue is massive wealth. My massive wealth.”

“But if you roll over on it in your sleep and hurt yourself—”

“I’m an adult man, Mob,” says Reigen, more loudly still. “And the wonderful thing about being an adult man is that if I want to go to sleep alone and fully dressed while embracing a briefcase full of money, then I can. That’s my right, as an adult man. That’s something you can look forward to, when you’re an adult man.”

“No, thank you,” says Mob.

Reigen gives him a narrow look, like he’s trying to decide how much offence he ought to be taking from Mob’s flat voice and equally flat expression; then he relents, and yanks his sleeve back down and sets off again, handcuffs jangling. “Well, there’s plenty of other stuff to look forward to, I guess. Wednesday, for a start. I cannot wait for Wednesday. Not that that affects you, obviously...”

It’s true: Wednesday has never seemed any more exciting to Mob than any other weekday. They walk, and they walk.

And then Mob stops dead on the pavement, and blurts, “Master Reigen! Wednesday!”

“Tuesday, actually,” says Reigen. He swings around and walks backwards, looking at Mob with a frown. “Again. It’s always Tuesday, recently. But don’t worry about it – that’s my problem, not yours. You won’t even remember it was Tuesday today when it’s Tuesday tomorrow.”

“But,” says Mob. “But,” he says again. “But, but, but—”

Reigen’s there, then, his hands on Mob’s shoulders, steady and soothing. His briefcase is bumping against Mob’s arm; the handcuffs are jangling. He’s speaking, his voice just as steady and just as soothing, but whatever it is he’s saying is drowned out by the alarm siren wailing inside Mob’s head. “—then, Mob. Okay? That’s it, that’s good. That’s great, Mob. You’ve got it. Breathe in – breathe out. Breathe in—”

“It’s not the weekend!” blurts Mob.

Reigen says nothing. Then he says, “Nope.”

“It should be the weekend!” says Mob. The words are bursting out of him like they’re jet-propelled. “I thought – I thought this had been a long week! It has! It’s been too long! I shouldn’t have gone to school today! I should have stayed home and relaxed!”

“Wait – wait, Mob, hang on a minute—”

“I shouldn’t even be at work!” cries Mob. He’s staring up at Reigen with wide-eyed horror. Reigen’s staring back down at him with an expression much the same. “It’s Sunday! It should be Sunday! I should be at home with Ritsu!”

“Mob—”

“It has been Tuesday too long! It has! It has! It—”

I know it has!” yells Reigen.

Mob stares at him, breathing hard. In his own silence he realises that his power’s snuck up on him when he wasn’t paying attention; it’s simmering slyly beneath the surface, like a vast, scalding pool of lava bubbling just below the rim of a volcano – not erupting, not hurting anyone – just making its presence known, just making sure everyone remembers what it could do to them if it wanted to.

He squeezes his eyes shut tight and breathes in deep; he forces his power back into his own control; he opens his eyes, and sees Reigen’s wild-eyed stare barely an inch from his own.

“...Master?” says Mob.

“You said the week’s been too long,” says Reigen.

“It has,” says Mob. His voice is flat again. “I’ve spent too many days at school. I don’t know why Ritsu didn’t stop us going this morning... It’s not like him to forget something like that.”

“Do you remember how many days you’ve spent at school this week?” inquires Reigen.

“...Seven.”

“So you remember Monday,” says Reigen, “and you remember Tuesday. And then you remember Tuesday another five times.” He’s got the same kind of gleam in his eye that he gets when a client drops in with a particularly troublesome problem, like his mind is already racing on a dozen steps ahead, beyond the exorcism process, already typing up the invoice with a theatrical flourish as he adds a string of noughts to the end of the total cost. His grip on Mob’s shoulders tightens. “Tell me, Mob. Do you remember... what we did yesterday?”

Mob gives a toneless report: “I beat you at the dance machines. And you bought me a milkshake. But at first you didn’t want to, because I’d beaten you. But then I asked you if it hadn’t been true when you told me a man always keeps his promises, and you changed your mind.”

“A man always does keep his promises,” says Reigen, in a voice of manic good cheer. “Yes. Yes, yes. And you remember all of that, do you? And the day before?”

Mob thinks harder still. “You... exorcised the haunted photocopier with a baseball bat, Master.”

“Oh, that wasn’t an exorcism,” says Reigen. “That was just revenge.”

He lets go of Mob and steps back. He’s still looking at him. Mob waits, expectantly.

“So you’ve been in the time loop with me,” Reigen says at last. “This whole time. And you never mentioned it.”

“Time... loop...?” echoes Mob.

A time loop – time going round and round – the same things happening, again and again – everyone forgetting everything that’s happened, because time’s looped round and now it never happened to begin with...

His eyes snap open wide again. “I’m in a time loop!”

“Ah, excuse me. Let me rephrase,” says Reigen, perfectly composed. “You’ve been in the time loop with me this whole time... and you never realised it?!”

“A time loop,” says Mob, dazed by the thought. “A time loop...”

“Are you kidding?” howls Reigen. “I’ve been going on about it all week! I thought you were losing your memory every night like everyone else is! Why did you think we’ve been called out to the same goddamn photocopier six days in a row?!”

“I don’t know,” says Mob, still dazed. “I didn’t think about it. A time loop... Master,” says Mob, suddenly focused and suddenly sharp, “does that mean I’ve technically done seven and a half pull-ups in one day?”

 

+++

 

Not even the discovery that he’s never been alone inside the time loop is enough to stop Reigen doggedly collecting on every last one of his bets. An hour or so later they emerge from a steep, subterranean staircase into the night; a barred door slams home behind them, and the exhaustion hits Mob like gravity magnified a thousandfold, dragging at his steps, sagging from his shoulders.

Reigen stashes the last of his winnings in the briefcase. Mob forces it closed with telekinetic pressure. They head back for the train station.

“I’m sure it was that photocopier,” says Reigen. “Call it gut instinct, call it natural psychic genius, but I’m sure of it. I can sense it. It all comes back to the haunted photocopier. It must have put a curse on us that first night.”

“It wasn’t haunted, Master. And you’re not cursed.”

Unconcerned, Reigen waves that away. “Trust me, Mob. There’s always a pattern to these things. Making order from disorder, finding logic in the chaos... That’s simply how society works. That’s what society is. And aren’t spirits as much a part of our society as anyone?”

“Not really,” says Mob.

Reigen chooses not to hear that. “It began with the photocopier, so it’ll end with the photocopier. That’s how it works, Mob. Nice and tidy, nice and clean. We’ll go back to that office, and we’ll get it sorted out – properly, this time. Easy as anything, you’ll see.”

Mob yawns, and yawns again, and by the time he’s finished yawning he’s forgotten what it was he wanted to say to begin with. His train is flashing on the display – one minute to arrival.

“But we’ll get some rest before all that,” says Reigen, his voice softening. He pats Mob’s shoulder. “We’ve got all the time in the world, no point pushing ourselves. Go get some sleep, eh?”

 

+++

 

Late that night, Mob’s woken by a knock on his window.

He rolls out from under the covers, makes the half-asleep decision that that’s already more than enough effort for one night, and lies on the floor for a while instead.

But then another knock comes, and Mob heaves himself up and goes to pull his curtains.

Teru’s outside. He says something, but Mob can’t hear through the closed window; so he opens the window, and immediately slams it closed again – it’s freezing out there. He hurries around his room getting as dressed as he can: socks, more socks, a woollen jumper, his old school sports jacket, a pair of gloves and a hat and a scarf, and another scarf, and another scarf... Bracing himself, Mob flings the window wide again. “Hanazawa-kun?”

“Good evening,” says Teru. He’s sitting sidesaddle on a bicycle, which is glowing with psychic energy and levitating just outside Mob’s windowsill. His legs are crossed primly at the knee; his posture is regally straight. His only concession to the cold is a pastel yellow jumper with a picture of a dolphin on it. “Something important has come to my attention, Kageyama-kun. Can we talk?”

Mob nods hurriedly. The biting cold has woken him all the way up now; he pulls one of his scarves up over his mouth and nose.

“Then I’ll begin at the beginning,” says Teru, whose voice is so dynamic and attitude so confident that even now, shivering and bewildered in the middle of the night, Mob still can’t shake the feeling that he’s accidentally wandered onto the set of a film that’s shooting with Teru as the star – that this isn’t just Teru, but Teru playing Teru in a blockbuster dramatisation of Teru’s own life. “My first clue was a sense of déjà vu. My second clue was also a sense of déjà vu, which brought back my initial sense of déjà vu.”

Mob nods, listening seriously.

“By which I mean that I remembered doing what I was doing before,” continues Teru, “and then I remembered remembering it. And the next day I remembered remembering the act of remembering it – and it was then that my suspicions became certainties.”

“I see,” says Mob, although he doesn’t.

“I knew you would,” says Teru, and gives him a smile so warm and trusting that Mob immediately regrets it.

“Actually... I don’t. Sorry. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Not to worry,” says Teru. His smile loses none of its warmth, and Mob’s shoulders sink in relief. “Let me explain myself, then. In short...”

He’s silent for a moment, thinking. His bicycle bobs gently in the grip of his own telekinesis, glowing yellow, leaving ghostly trails on the darkness. Mob breathes into his gloved hands and waits.

Teru begins again. “In short, Spice City is suffering severe disruption of the temporal flow, complicated by the recent materialisation of geographical constraints – phenomena which I’d imagine are connected, though I can’t prove my suspicions on that count. But I will say that I’ve never found reason to doubt my powers of analysis before.”

Mob blinks. “Um,” he says.

“Think of it as a hard reset every night. The city is rebooted, its data wiped, and our memories...” Teru swipes one palm across the other: our memories are cleared. “Thanks to the memory interference, I can’t be sure how long I was trapped in the cycle before I broke it. I’ve attempted to self-hypnotise and retrieve my own memories, but my experiments... haven’t ended well.”

“Um,” says Mob.

“They’ve mostly ended in concussion,” admits Teru. “So that’s the situation as I see it, Kageyama-kun. I’ve done what I can, but an esper as unremarkable as myself can only do so much alone. It’s time for us to stand united. It’s time for me to share with you the darkness I’ve discovered.”

Time, time, time... Mob brightens up. “Ah – is this about the time loop?”

For a fleeting instant, Teru’s unshakeable composure seems shaken. “Then... you’re already aware of it?”

“Me and Master Reigen are going to end it tomorrow,” Mob tells him confidently. “So don’t worry about it, Hanazawa-kun. You should go home and sleep. It’ll all be over soon.”

“It... will?” says Teru, with rather less dramatic intensity than a moment ago. If Mob didn’t know better, he’d almost think Teru was disappointed. “Well, if you find yourself in need of any assistance... I’ve been fighting the memory control for several days now. And I’ll be available tomorrow.” His bicycle floats a little nearer, close enough that he can grip the windowsill and address Mob directly, privately. “May I ask how long it took you, Kageyama-kun? To begin recovering your memories?”

“Oh, I never lost them,” says Mob.

Never?” says Teru. “You remembered everything? Then – you must have known we were trapped inside a time loop from the very start?”

Mob opens his mouth to correct him... but Teru’s gazing at him with so much awed respect that, instead of telling him he spent six days awake inside a time loop without even realising it, Mob hesitates.

“Remarkable,” says Teru, taking his silence for modest agreement. He shakes his head, his smile even warmer than before. “Truly remarkable, Kageyama-kun. As ever, it’s an honour to watch you work. I should have anticipated that you’d always be half a dozen steps ahead of me.”

And with one last smile he’s gone, one hand resting casually on his handlebars, leaving a glowing telekinetic trail behind him as he swoops up away into the night.

 

+++

 

One bright cold morning in December, Mob wakes up on a day much like the last.

The first thing he does is find Ritsu, who’s already awake and fully dressed, pacing distracted circuits around the kitchen table as various breakfast foods judder and shake around him: the cereal box rattling on the counter, the milk sloshing in its carton, the spoons in his and Mob’s empty bowls whirling around to stir the nothingness inside them into a frenzy.

At the sight of Mob, the spoons fall back into their bowls. At the sight of Mob’s expression – even more serious than usual – Ritsu’s own creases with concern, and he takes a step towards him.

Mob takes a deep breath. “We’re in a time loop,” he says, and braces for the fallout – confusion, bewilderment, disbelief, rejection...

“I know,” says Ritsu. “I broke the memory control the day before yesterday, brother. Don’t you remember?”

Mob looks at him blankly. Then he rewinds – back one day, and back another day, to Ritsu’s fixation on his own repeating conversations about the sports kit... and Ritsu’s uncharacteristic meltdown at the sight of the sports kit... and Ritsu pledging that no amount of memory wiping would erase Mob from his heart... and Ritsu saying, Today won’t last, brother...

“Ah,” says Mob at last. “Ah, yes. I didn’t realise.”

“I talked about it with you,” says Ritsu. He says it cautiously, like he’s not sure which of them is misunderstanding which. “We discussed it, brother.”

Mob nods. “I didn’t realise.”

“You didn’t realise we were discussing it?” says Ritsu.

“I thought it was something else,” explains Mob. “I wasn’t sure. But now I know we’re in a time loop, so it’s different.” He sits down at the kitchen table, and adds, “Me and Master Reigen are going to break it after school.”

Ritsu’s look of weary affection turns sharp at once. “After school?”

“Well, after club activities,” Mob concedes, levitating the milk towards him. “Would you like a glass, Ritsu?”

“No – no, brother, wait. Wait,” says Ritsu, and grabs the milk from the air. “If you’ve got a plan, then why wait at all? Why don’t you do it now?”

Mob looks at him, wide-eyed. “Now...?”

“It’s lasted long enough, hasn’t it?” Ritsu presses. He’s fierce with excitement; his usually cool aura is sizzling with it. “What reason is there to put it off? I’ll come with you if you want me; two espers’ll be better than one—”

“—better than two,” says Mob sternly, “me and my master—”

“—better than your master, anyway,” says Ritsu, “better than Reigen-san. I’m serious, brother – even if I can’t help, I can be back-up. Support. Anything you need, but let’s not wait. Let’s give this city back its freedom as soon as possible.”

Mob pours himself a glass of milk. “I can’t,” he says. “I have school today.”

Ritsu looks at him. Then he pulls out a chair and sits as well. “You’re in a time loop,” he tells Mob, in a voice so gentle and so serious that Mob recognises it at once as his most soothing voice; it’s the voice Ritsu usually reserves for crisis situations involving Mob and rollercoasters, or Mob and public speaking, or Mob and suddenly jolting awake in a cold panic at one in the morning with the realisation that he’s forgotten some piece of homework due first thing the next day. “You’ve done the same lessons six days in a row. You don’t need to go to school today, brother.”

“But it’s a school day,” says Mob.

“It’s been the same school day for six days,” says Ritsu.

It’s a good point. “My master... might have other plans for the morning already,” Mob says doubtfully.

“If your master’s plans are so important he can’t put them on hold long enough to free the city from a week-long time loop, then he doesn’t deserve to call himself your master,” says Ritsu. “That’s assuming Reigen-san deserves to call himself your master anyway, which he doesn’t. Brother, I won’t tell you what to do... but I really do think you should consider skipping school today.”

Mob’s wavering. The combination of Ritsu’s gentle certainty and Ritsu’s sensible reasoning is convincing, but... it is a school day.

“The sooner you break the time loop, the sooner the weekend will come,” adds Ritsu.

“I’ll call Master Reigen,” says Mob, his phone already in his hand.

 

+++

 

At this time of the morning, Reigen hasn’t yet reached the stage of the time loop where he receives a call about the haunted photocopier.

“That’s usually about three in the afternoon,” he tells Mob, as they enter the office block’s lobby uninvited. “So they won’t be expecting us, because as far as they know they’ve never even contacted us. We can case the joint before anyone’s even worked out who we are. Ah – yes, thank you,” he says, raising his voice and one confident hand to the receptionist as the two of them breeze past towards the lifts, “if you could just call up, let Marketing know I’m here; I’ve brought the prototypes, they’re expecting me...”

The lift doors slide closed. The receptionist’s protests are silenced.

“You’re sure it’s not the photocopier,” says Reigen. “And you’re sure I’m not cursed. So let’s expand the investigation. Let’s broaden our scope.”

Mob’s listening, his eyes closed. The lift slides higher and his awareness unfurls wider, reaching out to span the building’s heights and widths and depths, opening his mind to the presence of any psychic energy that’s not his own – he’s broadening his scope.

“I’ll let you take the lead on this one, Mob, since you called me up so eagerly this morning – you can be in charge of ghost-hunting, spirit-stalking, et cetera et cetera... And meanwhile I’ll assume a back-up role. Available for consultation, if you need me, but overall a more supervisory role than usual. A more hands-off role than usual.”

“You’re always hands-off,” says Mob, eyes still closed.

“It’s important for students that their mentors take a hands-off role sometimes,” Reigen assures him. “It’s like learning to ride a bike, Mob. Even when the stabilisers come off, you’re still going to have me running alongside you, taking a hands-off role, ready to catch you if you fall. That’s what I’ll be doing today.”

The lift chimes to a stop. Mob opens his eyes. “There’s a first-rank evil spirit on the fifth floor, Master.”

“Can you exorcise it?” says Reigen.

“Yes,” says Mob.

Reigen spins on the spot a few times and yanks his elbow back in victory, fists clenched; he stages a brief but vigorous punching match against thin air; he straightens up and throws his head back like a man at last blissfully liberated from a burden that’s kept him weighed down all his life, and the noise he’s making gets louder and easier to understand: yes yes yes yes YES YESSSSSSS—

And then just as abruptly he collects himself. “The fifth floor it is, then,” Reigen says serenely, and tugs at his lapels.

Mob leads the way.

 

+++

 

“Yeah, well. You basically just pissed me off,” says the evil spirit, and shrugs a translucent, matter-of-fact shrug: what you gonna do? “Barging in here and acting like you owned the place, going on about how stressed everyone was... Did you ever think maybe we like the stress?”

“Do you?” asks Mob.

“No, I fucking hate it,” says the evil spirit. It’s wearing the shape of a man in a business suit, and it’s sitting on the table of an empty conference room. “I mean, I hated it. I’m dead now, whatever. But if I hated it, then everyone else should have to hate it too, right? They don’t get to have a stress-free work experience just because I died before society realised, hey, guess what, stress is bad.” It flicks its fingers dismissively. “That’s not fair.”

In Mob’s experience, evil spirits aren’t usually too happy when they realise the exorcists have come, but this one seems oddly pleased to have them there – or at least, it seems pleased to have an audience. Its aura had brightened up the moment it caught sight of them, like it’s been doing nothing all week but drifting around its office block, hoping to be confronted, waiting for a chance to hold forth on its opinions.

“It’s not fair to trap the city in a time loop, either,” Mob tells it.

“Oh, cry me a river,” says the evil spirit, and sits forward to glower between the two of them. “Listen, you know what it’s like in these places? You get up. You come to work. You go home. You sleep. You do it again. You do it every day, and then you’re dead. Nothing changes! You get unlucky, it doesn’t change even when you’re dead! So I locked an entire city into a time loop? So what! I was locked into a time loop every single goddamn day of my entire professional life, and who cared then? I never got the chance to travel further than the train stop I took home each night, but who worried about that? Who came to exorcise my boss to bring me freedom?”

“It’s only exorcism if you’re dead,” says Mob. “Your boss was alive, so that would have been murder.”

“And we don’t do murders, but we do do exorcisms. Mob?” says Reigen.

Mob nods, and lifts his hand.

“Wait! Wait wait wait!” cries the evil spirit. “Listen, you’ve got to feel sorry for me, haven’t you? You’ve got to see my side of it, haven’t you? All that crap you were spewing about how unhealthy stress is – I mean, aren’t I the prime example? Can’t you see what a damaging negative effect my work environment’s had on me throughout my life? Aren’t I pretty much the victim here?”

It’s a passionate plea. The conference room rings with its eerie, spectral echo.

“Nope,” says Reigen. He snaps his fingers. “Exorcise it, Mob.”

But Mob doesn’t. It’s not a very likeable evil spirit, as evil spirits go... but Mob does know how it feels to do the same thing, day in, day out, unchanging. Even before he got stuck inside a time loop, he knew that feeling far too well; and even though it’s been a long time now since that was his daily life, he remembers how easy it was to feel useless, and helpless, and ground down into hopelessness.

At least this monotony can be broken with an exorcism. Some monotony isn’t so easily cured.

Mob lowers his hand. “Master, what if... we made the office a nicer place to work? Then everyone would be less stressed. And this boring-looking evil spirit would be happier too, so we wouldn’t have to exorcise it.”

“You think I’m boring-looking? Kid, try checking out a mirror next time you— I mean,” the evil spirit corrects itself hastily, assuming an expression of pitiful regret, “it is very hard for me to live here. That sounds like just the thing to make me change my ways.”

“See?” Mob says happily.

Reigen gives him a long look. Then he turns and gives the evil spirit an even longer look, until it hunches defensively away from him on the conference table. “All right,” Reigen says at last. “But if we’re doing this, Mob, we’re doing it my way. It’s time to watch the master at work.”

 

+++

 

TROPICAL ANTI-EVIL STRIKE:

Using brightly-coloured paint, cardboard cut-out scenery, inflatable beach toys, and sand to decorate the interior of an office block with a tropical island theme, reducing the negative psychic atmosphere and causing all employees and/or evil spirits to feel more relaxed. Reigen’s secret technique.

 

+++

 

“The spiritual energy in here is more relaxed already,” announces Reigen, as he gets up from fixing the paper jam in the not-very-haunted photocopier on the sixth floor. He brushes sand from the knees of his baggy surf shorts and surveys the office, his sunglasses propped atop his head. “Yes – yes, I can feel it. You should find far fewer problems with your office machinery being haunted from now on. You should find your blood pressure is far closer to the healthy zone too, from now on.”

“Who are you?” says the office manager in bewilderment. In this version of the time loop, she still hasn’t called Spirits and Such for help. In this version, she never will. “What have you done to my office? Why are there palm leaves glued to the ceiling? Why are we all wearing flower garlands? Hey – hey! Get back here!”

Mob hitches his novelty inflatable pool lounger up beneath his arm and follows Reigen hurriedly from the office.

The evil spirit is floating in the corridor outside, waiting. It’s swapped its ghostly business suit for a ghostly Hawaiian shirt; it’s swapped its tie for a flower garland; it’s paging through a glossy travel brochure for the Caribbean islands, one of many left strewn throughout the office block. “I gotta admit, I’m less bored already,” it tells them. “Did you know there’s over a thousand species of fish in the Caribbean Ocean? Crazy stuff.”

“So you’ll end the time loop?” says Mob.

“Oh, fine,” says the evil spirit. “Fair’s fair, I guess. You’ve put a bit of variety in my life, I’ll put some back in yours. Consider the loop broken.”

“And the block on leaving the city?” says Reigen.

“That too,” agrees the evil spirit, and it pushes its magazine across for the two of them to see. “Seriously, would you look at the colour of that sand?”

Mob and Reigen share a look of victory.

And then they share a sprint for the lifts as the office manager once more calls security, and a sedate walk across the lobby as Reigen assures the receptionist that they’re certainly not the pair of trespassers dressed head to toe in beach clothes that security are looking for; they share a freezing cold walk into town, and a dash for the nearest public toilets to change back into their normal winter wear; and then they share a long, leisurely celebratory lunch in Mob’s favourite ramen restaurant, and afterwards Reigen walks him back to school in time for Tuesday’s final meeting of the Body Improvement Club.

“See you tomorrow, then,” says Mob.

“Tomorrow,” says Reigen, savouring the word. “Tomorrow... Isn’t it fantastic how tomorrow is always another day? God, I love tomorrow. See you tomorrow, Mob. Let’s start the future as we mean to go on.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

+++

 

One bright cold morning in December, Mob wakes up on a day much like the last.

“You were talking in your sleep,” Dimple informs him. “I yearn for—”

Mob slams the door in his face and races down into the hall, yanking his coat on over his pyjamas, phone already pressed against his ear. “Master, it hasn’t—”

“Oh, believe me, I’ve noticed,” Reigen says grimly. “Meet me there, okay? Twenty minutes.”

Mob’s there in fifteen.

They find the evil spirit on the third floor, dozing between two cardboard palm trees in a cardboard tropical panorama Reigen took from outside the front of a travel agent’s. It’s the only decoration left: the rest of the office has been returned to its bland white pre-exorcism state, reset when the time loop cycled back again.

The evil spirit jolts awake at the sound of their racing footsteps. “Okay, I got bored again already – so what? I’ve got a very short attention span; that’s always been my problem. But listen, I was thinking – you know how I’d never get bored again? You know what you could do? Move me to a cinema. Right? You get what I’m thinking?”

“Mob,” says Reigen.

“Got it,” says Mob, and lifts his hand.

Wait!” the evil spirit blurts, scrambling up. “Wait wait wait, maybe I didn’t make myself clear enough – I’m thinking, in a cinema, there’s always something new to watch. Right? The old stuff goes out, the new stuff comes in, I’m never gonna get bored like that, am I? There’s always something interesting to—”

Mob splays his fingers. The evil spirit dissolves.

Somewhere far above the city, Mob feels a strange sense of something... unknotting. Like a tangled shoelace pulled loose at last, the world smoothes out; the natural flow of things resumes.

Reigen claps him on the shoulder, and Mob smiles up at him.

“Should’ve just done it to begin with, shouldn’t we? C’mon, let’s get some breakfast. My treat.”

“Starting the future as you mean to go on,” remembers Mob.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” says Reigen.