The branches bobbed above his bench, low and creaking. Take inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with the vague scent of damp concrete and fading blossoms. He let the night chill clear his mind, pump some energy back into his sore limbs. Weary, his gaze trailed upwards.
The final clusters of petals kept disintegrating into the promise of future fruit and the thin sheet they left on the ground. A few pale dots floated down, landing on his cheeks and forehead. He welcomed them, tempted to close his eyes, soak up their soft, airy coolness and let the drone of the city lull him to sleep - a luxury he still couldn’t afford, despite the Truce.
He shifted and the floral remains slid down along the plain coat he was swathed in. The quiet crunches by his feet reminded him that Ryuu was far from done with the stick he’d been so eager to retrieve earlier. Take leaned over to pat the fox-like head of his shiba inu and scratch the spot behind a pricked ear.
A calm, ideal night with just the two of them and their old acquaintance, the apple tree. Take’s lips curved faintly. No more noisy throngs of sakura-gawkers; no blind chases and filthy alleys, at least for tonight.
He should’ve listened to his grandparents instead of pursuing the mirage of a meaningful job. It wasn’t too late, though. Might as well retrain, become a walking and breathing stereotype since he was halfway there already. The CCG guy nobody looked at twice - or even once, if he happened to be in the company of some of the organization’s celebrities. Just a few steps and he’d be the lonely, invisible accountant or technician. With some luck, he could even sport thick glasses, a beer belly and a balding head.
Dull work? Definitely. But it had its perks. Unpaid overtime couldn’t possibly include editing jokes out of Kuramoto’s reports and getting covered in various unsavory substances. Besides, tools and numbers didn’t bite people or require radical methods to be stopped when they ran amok.
A single petal spiraled down slowly. He caught it midair, wishing for someone to-
“They kinda look like tiny, faded tanzaku*, hmm?”
Take’s head jerked to the left. He jumped to his feet, serenity shattered to pieces. He yanked Ryuu away, who dropped the piece of wood with a startled yelp. His free hand dived instinctively into a special pocket to pull out his quinque knife. He held it before him, tip pointed towards the threat.
Because this was a threat.
A hood, a different mask. The same quiet, raspy voice and snake-smooth manners. Take had dealt with those on too many unfortunate, always memorable occasions. Of all the ghouls…
No damn Face.
The bane of CCG patrols and the Hirako squad. Slouching on the other end of the bench as if he’d been there ever since the thing had been planted in the park. And Take hadn’t heard or felt a thing. Neither had Ryuu, apparently, who was sniffing No Face from afar.
“White’s a little dull on its own, if you ask me,” No Face spoke again. “But it suits trees. Better than you Doves, anyway.”
Nobody asked you. Take quickly put the bench between them and the ghoul.
“So eager to shed blood on such a beautiful night.” No Face turned towards them, elbows planted on the backrest, hidden chin resting on gloved palms. “Why, Hirako-san, I hadn’t pegged you for one of the zealots.”
Did No Face always chat with potential meals? He seemed to be operating solo, as usual; bored enough to leave the fourth ward he was haunting like a corporeal poltergeist. A chance meeting while hunting or indulging in his offensive hobbies?
Just my luck.
Your average ghoul registered for monthly ratios of Rc cells shakes and pills, got a decent job and minded their own business, or at least stayed under CCG’s radar. Unlike this blacklisted specimen, who drew obscene graffiti on the headquarters walls (and windows), made prank calls and lured investigators into humiliating ambushes which sometimes involved buckets of glue, showers of feathers and encouragements to “Fly, little Doves! Be free!”. Not to mention the rotten seaweeds from last time. No Face’s hands might be empty tonight, but that didn’t guarantee Take and Ryuu would be spared from a few foul tricks.
Take scanned the area; no civilians in sight, at least. He weighed his options. Fight? Out of the question, with Nagomi at home, tucked into her metal case, and his dagger inadequate against this particular opponent.
Flight? They couldn’t hope to outrun No Face, even on a good day. Turning their backs on him would be even worse than having him in front of them.
An awkward retreat, then? Until Take could call for backup. If he ever got the chance. They’d lingered too long. How foolish. Adrenaline tingled through him, as familiar as the thick leash and the knife handle in his white-knuckled grip.
He risked a step back. Two. Failed to take the third, because Ryuu had suddenly decided he wanted his stick back and tried to drag Take forward. “Heel,” Take hissed, jerking the leash when Ryuu ignored him. Such terrible timing.
No Face remained still. In fact he started humming, his pose deceptively casual and inhuman gaze fixed on them. Gloating over Take’s predicament, probably; and the furious pounding of his heart, since no poker face could hide that.
The glowing, unreadable kakugan. The sounds muffled by that beaked monstrosity of a mask…Take’s skin crawled. He caught the words “Hira-Hira” while he attempted to shuffle backwards, a nickname as insulting as the rest of the nonsense No Face spouted on every occasion. Strangely fitting, though, with all the petals fluttering around them.
Take forced himself to stay positive. If something happened to him tonight, he’d be excused, maybe permanently, from writing heaps of paperwork nobody bothered to read. And from Arima’s endless nagging, Koori’s ranting, Mado senior’s lecherous show-me-your-quinque harassments…And from those dreadful lunches with his own grandparents, of course. The list went on and on, but that just about summed things up.
A tug alerted him that Ryuu was determined to recover what was rightfully his. Take glanced down at him before focusing on No Face again. Ryuu had nothing to do with his poor career choice. No Face could bathe Take and his squad in curdled strawberry milk and spoiled fish soup, but he wasn’t laying a finger Take’s dog.
He tugged at the leash, paused to step in front of Ryuu, shielding him with his own body when No Face shifted slightly. Just in case.
“Shouldn’t it be the other way around, man’s best friend protecting you?” No Face chuckled, tilting his hooded head. “I’ve always wondered why aren’t ghouls assigned any best friends…?”
The rest of his words were drowned in loud barking. Not the usual “Enemy! Stay away from my owner!”, but the enthusiastic “Let’s play!” kind. Ryuu wriggled forward, tail wagging in tune with Take’s frantic heart rate.
Silly, trusting mutt. Take fought to control him while holding the dagger defensively.
“Still not talking to me, first class?”
Talking? Take’s gaze kept darting between Ryuu and the faceless ghoul. He managed another strained step back.
“Ah, I see,” No Face mused. “I suppose I deserve this for getting carried away with the paint balls.” He stood slowly.
Take pulled harder but Ryuu squirmed and whined in protest. “No. Heel!”
Ryuu replied with a scream - the kind of sound only an extremely displeased shiba inu could produce. He let out some more cries, for effect, alerting half the Tokyo population that he refused to cooperate.
Take wished he could cover his ears while the highlights of his unimpressive life flicked before his eyes. Take Hirako, thirty, first class investigator. Perfectly able to subdue berserk ghouls, organize and boss his squad around. Perfectly unable to train and control his own spoiled pet.
He sheathed his knife, then bent to do the unthinkable. His arms almost wrapped around twenty pounds of canine fury which twisted with the force of two hundred. Ready to lift Ryuu off the ground and slight his pride.
Ryuu dodged; escaped. Take tried to grab him but tripped over the leash coiled around his legs. Ryuu lunged for the bench. His worn collar gave.
Take managed to recover his balance, just barely. He mentally cursed the wasted a few valuable seconds to free himself from the damned cord. He rushed forward, stomach clenching and carefully cultivated calm sizzling like ice in a furnace.
Ryuu was faster, though. Forget the stick, his target had been No Face all along. He was already jumping on him, curled tail fluttering happily - a behaviour normally reserved for Take himself and Kuramoto, but only if the latter brought some particularly tasty snacks.
“Ry-” The cry froze on Take’s lips. No Face leaned down…
No! Don’t you fucking dare-
…and petted Ryuu’s orange fur.
Take became aware he’d thrown his dagger at No Face only when the weapon clattered on the pavement. Untouchable, No Face was already perched on a gnarled branch high up in the apple tree. He regarded Take steadily through the lower set of mask holes. Ready to strike, at last?
“Thanks for the show, Hira-Hira. It was really fun to see your mother-hen side.” He vanished with the foreboding promise of “Later” and a gentle rain of withered petals.
Pulse throbbing in his throat, Take stared up at tiny new leaves and groaning boughs. Ryuu kept barking and circling the trunk.
They look nothing like tanzaku. Still …what does someone like him wish for, anyway?