The Oldest Profession
"Errrr….. could you please repeat what you just said?" asked Aotsuke Shigure, priest of the Aotsuke family shrine. The man who sat opposite him sighed and closed his eyes briefly.
"There's a bakemono eating lunch at my restaurant right now."
"Ah." The priest blinked, trying to process what he had just heard. No good; it just wouldn't budge. "Is this—a common problem for you? I mean, does it happen often?" He realized vaguely that he sounded rather like a doctor checking symptoms on a TV drama. *'Say ahhhh… now, does it hurt when I do this?'*
"Well… yes, actually, Shinkan-sama. She eats there about once a week, maybe twice, almost always at the same table if it's open, and she almost always orders the same thing." The balding restaurateur shrugged, ticking off items on his fingers. "Onagi most days, or maybe the special—sometimes she orders a bowl of miso, and she likes sodas instead of tea—"
A faint "mmph!" noise behind the man made him pause, glancing over his shoulder suspiciously. Nothing; the recently-remodeled consultation room was innocent of eavesdroppers. Of course, if he had spared a thought towards the porch outside he might have seen the shadow of someone leaning against the wall just beyond the door…..
Fortunately for all concerned, however, the visitor was slightly deaf; the priest considered this a clear sign of the mercy of the heavens.
"—ahh, she—where was I?" Shigure's visitor frowned. The priest sighed, managing to summon an encouraging smile on his thin face. "You mentioned that the bakemono who visits your restaurant likes sodas--?"
His voice trailed off as he took in the complete and utter weirdness of what he had just said, but Tetsuzai Itamae, owner of the Tetsuzai Family Café, merely nodded in agreement. "Right, right. She always pays in cash—oh, and sometimes she has green tea ice-cream afterwards—"
Shigure carefully kept his face blank as the restaurateur rattled on; Tetsuzai-kun wasn't exactly a shining beacon of brilliance and intellect, but he had known the man for years, and he didn't tend to lie; he hadn't the wit to do so, actually. He just ran his little restaurant on the edge of the city like a good businessman, catering to the local working class who didn't feel like driving or walking further than a block or so for a decent lunch or dinner. Plain food and plenty of it—that was what Tetsuzai-kun and his slightly oversized family (there were three daughters and four sons, to Shigure's best recollection) dished out on a daily basis. Nothing unusual about his place at all.
Except for the bakemono, of course.
Shigure sighed; he could feel a headache coming on. *The snickering on the porch isn't helping, either.*
"…and she doesn't dress like you'd expect a bakemono to do—I mean, nothing like the monsters you see on those late-night movies, just normal clothes, Western really, and she mostly looks like a normal person except for the eyes and the claws and the teeth and all…"
*Oh dear.* "Excuse me… 'eyes and claws and teeth and all'…?"
"… you'd think she'd at least try and look like a proper monster, but—what? Oh, didn't I describe her?"
Shigure rubbed at his eyes. Definitely a headache. He deliberately ignored the almost-inaudible sounds of someone successfully muffling hoots of laughter from the porch outside. "No, Tetsuzai-kun, you didn't. Just what does this… bakemono woman look like?"
The shadows by the door leaned closer; the very tip of something burnt-orange—fur? hair? flickered past as someone or something turned their head to make a whispered comment. *Note to self: Must remind those two to improve their eavesdropping skills* thought Shigure irritably.
The man shrugged, fiddling with his teacup; the priest politely offered him another cup, but the businessman waved him away rather brusquely. "Hmph; well—it's like I said, Shinkan-sama: she has sharp claws and teeth, and her eyes are funny. Oh, and her hair. Aside from that, she doesn't seem to be making much of an effort….." Taikan-kun shook his head irritably. "Young people these days--!"
(Near-silent snorting noises from the porch at this point…..)
*'Young people—' At this rate I'm going to need brain surgery before much longer.* The priest kept his voice rather mild, carefully choosing his words. "So….. You have a fairly frequent lunch-client who doesn't seem to be human; she comes in on a regular basis, pays for her lunch, eats quietly and leaves your premises without causing a fuss." Shigure cocked his head inquisitively towards his visitor, who nodded firmly, a slightly belligerent look in his eyes. "Well then….. what seems to be the problem?"
Tetsuzai-kun stared at his host, looking affronted. He opened his mouth to remonstrate with the priest, then visibly caught himself as he recalled his manners. Spreading his hands before him the restaurateur frowned sternly. "I," he announced, "have always complied with the zoning laws; how do I know if I can serve bakemonotachi in my restaurant?"
*What? Does he expect a crowd next week?* The priest took a calming sip of his tea, eying Tetsuzai-kun with some wariness.
"It's like this, Shinkan-sama—" and the businessman leaned forward earnestly over the table, making Shigure edge just the smallest bit back. "Otowadasu Keiichi down the road is licensed to serve alcohol, and I'm not; Naoko-san two doors up from me handles the breakfast crowd, and I don't. If it's alright for me to serve monsters lunch, I don't have a problem with that….. but I want to make sure it's legal, you understand?" He sniffed, settling back and crossing his arms, a sour look on his lined face. "I've never seen a zoning permit for bakemonotachi before—I don't even know how many I can allow in my café! This bakemono seems to be happy enough with my regular cooking, but what if the next one that comes along wants something, well, *exotic*?? The ones in the movies always seem to eat people….." Tetsuzai-kun sniffed again; he seemed more annoyed than worried.
Shigure, on the other hand, was currently working on his second or third helping of worry. The priest smiled gently at his guest in lieu of edging out the door (not the polite thing to do at all, he reminded himself sternly). "I, errrr, see….. laudable, laudable certainly, Tetsuzai-kun. Obeying the law, an excellent way to prosper….. and I'm certain that serving, ah, 'long pig' would violate any number of health regulations….." He wondered silently if the restaurateur had been sniffing the oven-cleaner a bit too much of late. These middle-aged businessmen— one never quite knew about them.
He set his cup down on the low table between them with a clink of porcelain. "If I might inquire….. Just what, precisely, would you like me to *do* for you in this matter, Tetsuzai-kun?"
The middle-aged man shrugged, arms still crossed. "Whatever priests do in this sort of situation, I suppose. I mean, you *are* an exorcist, ne? That's the tradition for your family, just like mine have always been cooks, right? Well, then….."
Shigure hesitated, tucking his hands into his sleeves. "You want me to drive away your cliental?"
Tetsuzai-kun gave him a look as though he had suggested he serve up his youngest daughter as sashimi. "Of COURSE not! But—if I'm not licensed for bakemonotachi among my clients—"
This caused a snort (fortunately unnoticed) rumble of muffled sniggering from the unseen audience on the porch, and the priest once again eyed his guest askance. "Ahh, Tetsuzai-kun? I seriously doubt that *anyone* in the city is licensed to serve bakemonotachi as clients. Now, one might look at this in two ways…. There's the possibility of trouble-- or you have the potential to open up a new market altogether."
The businessman seemed struck by this; an eager gleam shone in his somewhat beady eyes for a moment, but it was soon replaced by worry. "Hmmmmmmm….. But if I'm not licensed—"
Shigure sighed again; he required aspirin. "I'll tell you what, Tetsuzai-kun—let me see what I can find out about your… client… What days does she usually come in on? Oh, and—what's the special on those days? It's been too long since I tasted your cooking—we can consider it part of the investigation, don't you agree?" He smiled complacently at the restaurateur's somewhat disgruntled nod of acceptance as the man began to reply. "Just you, though—no assistants……"
If he had to investigate this foolishness, at least he'd get a good meal out of it. As he slowly rose to his feet, another thought made Shigure blink; "Ahh—Tetsuzai-kun? You don't seem to have any problems believing in monsters, and I find that a bit peculiar; most people nowadays would be a bit less credulous. Might I ask… why are you so easy about this?"
The businessman shrugged prosaically as he stood up. "Shinkan-sama, it's none of my business whether or not my clients are real—their money is, and that's all that matters to me." He dusted his hands together with the satisfied air of someone who had washed their hands of the whole affair, someone who could at last go about his business in the secure knowledge that it was all someone else's problem now.
Out on the porch, another stifled grunt of laughter shook the wall. Shigure frowned fractionally towards the faint sounds, ushering his guest out with a thoughtful look on his lined face. *Idiots.*
As Tetsuzai drove off, the priest stomped back towards the house with a lowering scowl beginning to shadow his features like a thundercloud, dark and promising rain to follow. He stopped halfway to the building, regarding the two figures on the porch sardonically. "And what, may I ask, are you both so amused by?"
Aotsuke Ushio (high school student and current bearer of the Kemeno No Yari) grinned at his father, dark eyes snapping. "Nothing much, old man; just enjoying the show." He leaned back against the post, shoving his hair out of his eyes with one free hand. "Looks like you're about to go on a wild goose chase, ne? Bakemonotachi in restaurants….." The words trailed off into snickers.
Beside him the large, tiger-striped predator blinked pupil-less silver eyes up at him and grinned with far too many sharp teeth. "Hrrrr… Is this what priests do these days? Serve the foolish whims of merchants?" Growling laughter made the birds in the nearby trees take flight, streaking across the early Spring sky. The bakemono stretched his huge length across the boards of the porch, claws faintly scoring the wood; a glare from Shigure made him draw them into their sheaths a little almost involuntarily.
The elder of the Aotsuke clan narrowed his eyes as he considered his offspring and….. whatever Tora was—his house-bakemono? Not quite a shikigami, not quite an enemy (not anymore, at any rate), not quite a guest….. "Don't you two have territory to defend or something? Monsters to fight, evil menaces to drive away?"
"Nope." Ushio slid down the post to sit beside his furred partner, the Spear resting across his lap; he stretched his arms above his head in unmeaning imitation, joints popping. "Been there, done that, got the… uh, scar-marks…" Beside him Tora yawned cavernously.
The priest smiled at them then, causing an uneasiness to flicker across the teenager's face. "Really? Well, then; since you both seem to be at loose ends, you won't mind looking into this, will you? After all… this is far more your sort of problem than mine, isn't it?" He chuckled complacently, suddenly in a much better mood.
His son sat bolt-upright. "But—" Beside him Tora growled faintly, a look of irritation on his broad, striped face. Knifelike claws slid back out of their sheaths to dig into the porch again.
"Of course, if you don't think you're capable of handling this….." This time the growl was louder.
Ushio blinked, a dismayed expression filling his eyes. "Why the hell are WE handling this? I mean, he came to you, right? *You're* the priest here—I'm just—"
"—the Spearbearer. So… go do whatever monster-hunters do in this sort of situation." His father gave him a smile that he had seen since he was a kid, and the boy groaned in protest—that smile said that the matter was closed.
As he made his way up the creaking steps, Shigure glanced over at the sprawling bakemono; annoyed silver eyes regarded him back. "Make sure he does his job, will you? Wouldn't want the Aotsuke family reputation to suffer….."
Tora gave a short, gruff snort of laugher, stretching again. "Fine. Thanks SO much, Priest." He glanced sideways at his rather disconsolate partner. "Well, brat?"
Ushio muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath regarding his father, restaurants and having to work in general. "Yeah, yeah……. Okay, I guess. But if we're going, we're at least gonna get a meal out of it."
The bakemono beside him shrugged a monstrous shrug. "Well enough." He rose to his feet, cracking the knuckles and toes of each clawed member.
The Spearbearer eyed him with a slight amount of surprise as he stood, dusting off the seat of his pants. "Huh; *you're* sure giving in easy enough. Why?"
Tora shrugged again. "Whyever not? You're buying, after all….."
To be continued…..
Ysabet's Notes: Hiya! Another Ushio & Tora fic, when I should be working on my Detective Conan stuff, or my InuYasha stuff, or my Gundam Wing stuff or my Yami No Matsuei stuff (I *SWEAR* I'll finish "Eden"! Promise! Cross my heart and hope to be a Shinigami!). But this just wouldn't lie down and sleep, so….. I'm going to have fun with it. It'll be lighter than Jaws/Claws or I Of The Beholder—watch for other anime characters to pop up now and then! Hope y'all enjoy….. Oh, and as for the source of this one? Well, I got to thinking about bakemonotachi answering want-ads. Go figure.