The Bureau of Shame
After Ryouji died, the Bureau offered him a job before he’d even finished blinking his eyes open. “It’s not even much of a career change,” a man was saying, dressed in a worn black suit, the kind that Ryouji had used to wear for funerals. He was wearing sunglasses, though the light in the room was quite bad. “Not compared to your track record, anyway.”
Ryouji blinked. They weren’t in the theater he remembered being in last, no signs of the perp he was chasing nor the stage lights that had burned into his corneas with blinding accuracy before everything went black. The light was cold as ice here, glinting off countless metal surfaces. Ryouji thought, I’m in a box. Then he corrected himself: no, a morgue. The smell was unmistakable.
“My what—” he began. His words got swallowed in and his dry tongue felt like a slug in his mouth. “What’s going--”
“We don’t have much time,” the man in the funeral suit said, waving a stack of papers in Ryouji’s face. “The authorities will be here for the autopsy any second now. Do you accept or not?”
“Autopsy,” Ryouji said faintly.
The man clicked his tongue. He made a quick, birdlike movement, reaching to tap Ryouji’s forehead before Ryouji could protest.
An echoing BOOM nearly shattered his eardrums. Ryouji tried to cover his ears, belatedly realized that he couldn’t feel his arms. What he could feel of his body was shivering.
He sat up and--the reason he couldn’t feel his arms--was because he didn’t have any.
It wasn’t just his arms. From what he could see under the hospital scrubs he was dressed in, he didn’t have much of a stomach either. The gown curved inward, into the gaping hole where his ribage should be. There was no blood, no pain. Just...a lack. Ryouji tried to flex his hand and the feedback felt far away, like somewhere miles away his hand had just made a fist.
“Oh. I died?”
The funeral man looked grave. “You did, my boy. Do you remember what happened?”
Ryouji shook his head. His spine rattled in protest.
The man tsk’ed. “That’s to be expected, I suppose. You fought against a particularly vicious core, after all.” He checks his watch. “I expect your memories will return in due time, but I must press you for an answer. Will you join us, young Mr. Stoker? We are an organization that works towards preventing the kind of cataclysm you caused today by unwriting reality. I believe your skills will come in handy.”
“Because I was a detective?” Ryouji said, remembering.
“Exactly,” said the man, his lips quirked. “We track incidents and individuals who threaten the fabric of reality and set them to rights, and we’re hoping you’d be of help in the tracking part.”
Ryouji curled his hand into a fist, and again felt that sensation that somewhere far away, his hand really was in a fist. “Why?”
“Because you just caused a world-level cataclysm on your own,” said a new voice, crisper, and Ryouji quietly fractured his bones further trying to see who it was. “Because you did it without thinking. And because you invoked something far beyond your control,” said the voice, as the owner came to stand over him, “and now you’re stuck with it.”
Ryouji blinked and the woman smiled down at him. “I think you’d be a great asset, Mr. Stoker.”
She looked familiar, in the way that faded photographs look familiar. Ryouji felt like he was rubbing at the dust on his memory, trying to push past the wall of shock as he stared at her--green-eyed, caramel-skinned, loose dark hair spilling onto her chest-- when he realized:
“Kujou Otohime,” Ryouji said, eyes narrowing. “I've been searching for you for a year. The leads pointed to--” he shakes his head. “You’re supposed to be—”
“Dead?” she inquired cheerfully. “There’s a lot of that going around, huh? No time for that now.”
She made a gesture, a hand-wave dismissing what Ryouji personally thought was a pretty concerning situation. Her nails were painted bright purple, startling in the icy grimness of the morgue. It contrasted sharply with her clothes, which were just a textbook salarywoman suit jacket and skirt, the same ones that she'd been wearing in the photo that her husband had given Ryouji.
“So?” she said, smiling. “What’s it gonna be? Are you in or out?”
“Do I have a choice?”
Her grin widened, and Ryouji felt the first real emotion since he woke up: a crawling fear. Her mouth was--much, much too wide. Her smile stretched from one eye to the other, a slice of the crescent moon on a lonely night.
“Glad you asked!” she trilled. The funeral man behind her inclined his head, the first time he’d moved since Otohime had entered. He looked regretful, almost. “Not really, no. You’re too powerful to just go to your grave! Someone’s gonna get ya eventually, and we’re the nice ones. Aren’t we, Key?”
No response from the funeral man, presumably Key.
Ryouji shrugged. “Then sure.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, the woman before him dilated. The room seemed to shrink as she grew and grew, her stale business suit sloughing away to reveal a white bodysuit, dazzling. Every inch was covered in mirrors, reflecting back a thousand shadowy figures drenched in light.
Otohime smiled, now eight, ten feet tall, still growing. The sheer blinding brightness of the mirrors on her clothes-- on her skin as well, now-- drowned out the surroundings, till Ryouji wasn’t even sure they were still in the morgue anymore. Seemingly far off, he could hear sirens.
“Let’s get started, shall we?”
He still had his legs, and he stood on them, wobbling, when the light around Otohime faded into something a little less mind-stabbing: cold March air and the pinpricks of wet sakura petals getting stuck to his skin. They were now in front of the world’s most normal-looking office building. If he squinted right, it could almost have been the one he worked at before he left it all to start his shabby little detective agency.
Otohime--still impossibly large, the doorframes bending and twisting around her massive height-- lead them into an open plan office full of youngish men with glasses typing away on computers. There was a patch of too-green Astroturf over which someone had laid a few bean bags, and a ping-pong table that one of the youngish men was using as a plate for his snacks.
They looked up when Otohime entered. The stillness of the scene broke as they all converged on her like a hive of bees. “Onee-san,” they all whispered. Their eyes were level with somewhere on her navel, like they were addressing someone shorter. Normal-sized.
Otohime ignored them. She glided past as they clung to the seams of her too-bright gown. As they held them up to the faux-sunlight of the building, Ryouji noticed that the dim shapes on the mirrors were vaguely oval. Faces?
He didn’t have arms, so he interestedly peered at the computers they were passing by. A few displayed infrared maps of Tokyo, with pinpoints in locations Ryouji carefully memorized, but the rest was jarringly normal--datasets, reports, one with what looked like code of some kind. He was trying to look closer when he caught the man in the funeral suit’s eye. He shook his head. The look on his face--disapproving, almost scared--made Ryouji drop it.
Otohime came to a halt inside a glass office. “Out,” she said brusquely, brushing the men off her clothes. They fell off like startled flies. As a mass, they buzzed out of the glass office and back to their stations, now visibly restless. Before she closed the door, she called, “Kazari!”
One of the youngish men--almost identical to the others in his glasses and suit-- perked up from his station. “Yes!”
Otohime jerked her head. The man nearly tripped over his own feet as he ran inside the office to join them, eyes shining. Otohime slid the door shut and stepped behind the desk: above her was a twee sign that said in cutesy cursive: Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change. There was a picture of a cartoony man hanging from a noose to the left of the text.
There were more motivational posters like that around the rest of the room, all with tiny caricatures of men dying. Slightly disconcerted, Ryouji looked at Key the funeral man, who shook his head again.
“Is anyone going to explain any of this to me,” Ryouji asked no one in particular.
“In time,” Otohime said pleasantly. She was making herself comfortable on a chair behind her desk. “But I’m guessing you’d want to put yourself to rights first?”
The man beside Ryouji went still. For the first time, his gaze slipped from Otohime, and creaked over to where Ryouji was standing. He didn't look as cookie-cutter as Ryouji had first thought: his eyes were an unlikely purple, with the single dot of a beauty mark under the left. The rest of him was decidedly normal. His unusual eyes, behind his thick glasses, were wide and staring.
“No such thing,” Ryouji said easily, turning back to Otohime. His hands were his biggest tell, so in a way it was a relief they weren’t here to shake. “You can put me out of my misery, maybe.”
“Oh, we wouldn’t do you dirty like that,” said Otohime, now crunching something from a coffee mug with her teeth. “Not with young Kazari here.”
The man next to Ryouji’s whole body broke out in visible shivers. “You can’t--please--”
His voice fell and rose, not just in volume, but pitch as well. It sounded like voices layering over each other, a man's and a woman's. In his distress, Kazari's own body had started to lose definition.
Ryouji finally realized. He looked down at his own broken body. “No,” he said. “Whatever you’re suggesting, I don’t want it.”
Otohime stretched over her desk and stopped when she was a mere hairsbreadth from Ryouji’s face. “It’s a testament to human will to find out how many tragedies you will survive,” she said, her breath wafting up tufts of Ryouji’s hair. “What you want can only be truly shaped after you have it.”
“No,” whimpered Kazari.
Otohime smiled, that crescent moon smile with the jagged teeth that stretched from eye to eye. “Ryouji?”
Ryouji had that sensation again--somewhere, his fists were curling. “No.”
The air in the room juddered. Lights blared on along the breadth of Otohime's hair, almost in the shape of a jagged crown. Her eyes were blazing, too. A being of light. No, Ryouji corrected himself. Of mirrors.
“There’s another way!” Kazari shouted, and the deafening hum of a thousand mirrors stopped. “The Bone-Taker could put him back!”
Otohime paused. Her gaze went sharp.
“The--I know where she is,” Kazari stumbled. He was panting, sweat coating his whole face, which had lost most of its definition. “If we take his--his parts to her, she’ll put him back together!”
“You know where the Bone-Taker is?” asked Key, his voice cold and smooth.
Kazari’s eyes widened. A split second after Ryouji, he seemed to realize: this was what they really wanted.
“She’ll never be caught!” Kazari cried. “You won’t--” his bubbling words dissolved into sobs.
Ryouji’s head was spinning. The proportions of the office were losing solidity again, changing dimension. Straight lines began to curve. His sense of scale wobbled.
“But that’s why you’re going to lead her straight back to us,” Otohime said, her horrific smile wider than ever. “And our promising new recruit can find out what would have happened if he hadn’t agreed to our offer.”
Ryouji barely had time to duck before she leaned closer. Fortunately, Kazari reached his limit before he did: he felt a slender hand grab him and tug, before everything went a blinding white.