"Please? It's been way too long!"
A spirit was skulking at the front of Ryuuzaki's shop, pleading with the older woman for a pack of cigarettes as usual. Tezuka noticed that his hands were almost trembling with desire as she lit up a cigarette of her own, and blew the smoke into his face. Even though the smoke blew right through him, Tezuka saw the crestfallen expression of his face and reached out for the packet that Ryuuzaki was just about to keep.
The spirit nearly salivated as Tezuka's slim fingers shielded the lighter's flame from blowing out while Ryuuzaki was still shaking her head in exasperation at Tezuka's softhearted behaviour towards anything spiritual. He bent down and placed the lighted cigarette on a ledge near the spirit and let him have it.
"Don't smoke too much. It can't be good for your health even if you're dead."
"I won't! Thank you!" The spirit beamed at him.
Ryuuzaki frowned at him darkly as they walked into her shop together.
"You're spoiling them as usual, Tezuka."
"We've offered him food, transportation and even burnt him entire houses, but he's still at my doorstep begging. That conniving ass knows enough to appear only when you normally arrive to pick up your goods. Don't think I'm going easy on you either, that cigarette's going to cost you another 2 bucks. Honestly, you're so nice to spirits yet you're so cold to humans. Don't you think that's a little strange?"
Tezuka answered distractedly, browsing through a shelf stocked with several new items. There were candles that promised to last twice as long as the older models, and upgraded versions of vehicles and clothes to reflect the changing fashions in the netherworld. He caught sight of magazines that were written for the dead, and several prints – thick ones at that – that promised unlimited pleasure to the departed reader. He shook his head and tuned back into the lecture that Ryuuzaki was still giving him.
"…and you're not getting any younger, you know. You know very well that this department will only hire you up to the point when your physical capabilities can hold up, and after that, they'd be more than happy to kick you out of there. It's been established for years and yet, every six months, I still have to report at the department to fight against them who are still trying to eradicate the Division of Paranormal Affairs!"
"Well, you can't blame them for trying. As it is, I'm the only person they've got to get rid of."
Ryuuzaki snorted in derision.
"Don't you think ridiculous how they call it a 'department' and how they try to get you to stick to 'proper uniform' with polished shoes and badges? They're trying to classify you like one of them, when they haveno idea what dealing with spirits is like. For heaven's sake, you're alone in there because no one else is insane enough to want to join you!"
Tezuka muttered something inaudible as he strode a little faster into the backroom which kept the more dangerous equipment and offerings.
" – what? What?" Ryuuzaki sputtered as she came to an abrupt realization.
"TEZUKA KUNIMITSU. You are not telling me that you've rejected another application to join your department, are you? Because if you are…" Ryuuzaki swore colourfully at the taller man who had turned away to hide the slight beginnings of an embarrassed flush.
"Oishi! Talk to him for me, won't you?" she appealed to the spirit who lingered in the background and chuckled at his friend's predicament.
The spirit looked at her sheepishly as he wrung his hands anxiously and tried to think of some reason to convince his friend. He had been partners with Tezuka for the past few two years and he looked exactly the same as he did, on the day that he died. His hair was still cut in a short bob and his fringe fell across his forehead in a unique fashion, while his body was unscarred mostly, except for the gunshot wound that was concealed by his hair.
"Tezuka… Ryuuzaki-sensei has your interests at heart too. I'd be leaving in a couple of days, and what will you do after that? You know the rule for operating in this department…"
"I told you that I'd be fine on my own, didn't I?"
"Aa… but you had to throw yourself off the roof to catch that man, and if I hadn't been pulling you back from behind, where do you think you would have landed?"
"I know, I just…" he shrugged helplessly as he looked at his friend, and felt the guilt as keenly as he had, on the day that he had shot him.
They had been partners in a regular division several years ago, when Tezuka had been assigned to take care of the new rookie. They worked together for some time before they were given a new assignment to go undercover in a drug bust. Everything had gone according to plan, until Oishi had slipped up and got himself caught by one of the men. He was the highest ranking officer on the spot and the other officers were paralysed with fear as one of the suspects held a gun to Oishi's head and told them to back off. He indicated to Tezuka that he would duck just as Tezuka fired – yet somehow, the suspect had seen the change in Tezuka's eyes and thrown Oishi into the line of fire.
Oishi sighed. He knew that look on Tezuka's face only too well.
"Don't blame yourself anymore. We were friends, weren't we? I know you didn't mean to shoot me. It was only a horrible mistake, and I'm going to be reincarnated in two days anyway, so let's forget about it? Nonetheless, you still need a spirit partner when I am gone..."
"Look, Tezuka, if their time to die has come, nothing can prevent them from dying. Even though the mark on your hand indicates that everyone close to you will die violently, it doesn't mean that it's your fault. You maybe be cursed, but that is also fate's doing, not yours."
Tezuka sighed. He knew when he was beaten, and he had to admit that it was true that he needed a new partner, as the department had always operated on the premise of having one man and one spirit as partners.
"I understand. I'd consider the next applicant seriously."
"Oh don't bother!" Ryuuzaki grinned, almost brimming over with smugness.
"I did some calculations and found out that you will be getting a new partner pretty soon."
Tezuka almost dreaded to ask.
"Who is it?"
"He'd be giving you 18 presents upon the time of your meeting. He will be connected to the number 167. He will not be completely of Japanese descent."
"Aa." Tezuka filed away the information in his head to consider later as he reached out for the bag of supplies which Ryuuzaki was holding out to him. From the corner of his eye, he noticed that Oishi looked relieved at the idea of his replacement coming in time, even if he looked a little dejected at the same time. He made a mental note to buy Oishi's favourite food for him later.
Tezuka stopped in surprise when he walked out of the shop and saw numerous traffic summons on his car.
The policeman smiled and waved him over.
"Tezuka-san! How good to meet you at last!" the officer said, still smiling.
He was feeling distinctly bewildered at the friendly attitude of the officer, who acted as though they were good friends. Even stranger were the tickets which were given to him for…speeding? Illegal parking? Poor upkeep of his vehicle? Environmental pollution?
"Oh, don't bother counting. There are 18 tickets altogether." The officer continued blithely.
"I'm Fuji Syuusuke by the way. Would these 18 tickets help you to reconsider my application, which you callously rejected the other day?"
"Are you actually blackmailing me?" Tezuka said incredulously.
"Well, I was hoping it wouldn't come to that, but the number's 167 if you're serious about complaining. Why wouldn't you accept me though? I'd be an asset to the team, even though I've heard rumours that there's no one else in this division except for you…"
"Why do you want to enter my department so badly? It's going to be scary and dangerous. You could get seriously injured in a lot of situations."
"Saa…who knows? I've always wanted to do something for society, since I've been able to see spirits ever since I was young." Fuji looked serious when he lifted his head to look at Tezuka.
His eyes opened to reveal glimmering, unearthly orbs of the deepest blue.
Tezuka sighed inwardly. He really ought to have known.
"Get those things off my car and report for work tomorrow at 9."
A/N: Oh benevolent reader, I humbly offer up my skills and sleep to bring to you another puny chapter to appease your enraged soul!