Chapter 6:

Chapter 6

I Accidentally Killed The Protagonist

"Farewell, Shintaro. Until tomorrow!"

Ezu shrivelled up a little, visibly walking himself through the human greeting process in his mind. For all his eccentricity, Shigenori was kind enough to wait for 'Shintaro' until he was able to figure out that waving was the answer, still puffing out his chest and holding his arms up high like the thin, green stem of an undernourished sprout.

"S-See you tomorrah" croaked Ezu, uncurling his fingers.

For all the grief and anxiety being in his presence gives me, I should be glad that Shigenori is the closest friend Shintaro has. Any weirdness that Ezu has is almost immediately cancelled out, or even outclassed, by whatever that guy ends up doing.

(Also, it's pronounced 'tomorrow')

With Shigenori walking away into the distance, Ezu confirmed that it was safe to communicate with me openly again. His lips moulded as if wrapping around a suspicious vegetable.

"To... Twomorrow"

Close enough.

After a first day at school that made me feel oddly like a tense parent, we had, somehow, survived to the end. However, Ezu still had a lot of work if he were to convince anyone that Shintaro had made it through the morning unscathed and fully formed.

I fondled around in my ghost pocket (nickname, it probably has a cooler sounding name officially) and found Shintaro's house keys. I say keys, but I realise I hadn't looked closely last time, and all that was on the keyring was a single key as well as an accessory of a girl with pigtails wearing a loose black jacket and a flaming blue eye, which I assumed was from an anime of some kind.

Following the address I had on my file, I found myself leading Ezu and I toward a district of town at the bottom of the hill a short walk from the school, a cluster of concrete buildings and metal railings with various ramen shops and one-yen stores hastily sandwiched in between. We ascended a set of precarious corrugated metal stairs along the side of an apartment complex, which Ezu audibly struggled to navigate to the point that I had to float him the rest of the way there.

"I'm not doing that for you every time, you know. It's not just the fact that people would wonder why you're flying, but... well, it's just kind of embarrassing..."

Ezu's cheeks flashed red, but none of the rest of his expression changed to match it. It was like he was mimicking what my face was doing. Kinda creepy.

I followed along the doors, looking for the number.

"42... 43... 44... ah, 45."

Number 45's grey, slightly dirty front door awaited us. There was a messy pile of advertising leaflets stuffed into the front slot, and an old, wiry doormat.

"So this is his personal dwelling?"

"Yes. Or, should I say, yours. I don't know if his parents are home yet, but based on what I have on file, they work later than when his school day finishes, so if we get into the house without a hitch, we shouldn't arouse suspicion when they do."

"What about this entrance?"

Ezu gestured toward a high, hatch-like window that appeared to enter into a bathroom not far from the main doorway.

"That's not an entrance," I said in an attempt to dissuade him.

"It resembles the 'door' you mentioned earlier, but smaller and rotated to a different angle, but the gap is large enough," he continued, ignoring me. "Why bother with this 'key' mechanism when there is already an open entranceway right here?"

"H-Hold on, it'll take about two seconds for me to-"

Before I could even finish my sentence, Ezu had managed to mangle his body and squeeze through the thin gap in the window. I knew this not because I saw it, but because I heard the terrible crash like muffled thunder from behind the wall, and a soft whimper.

"...Let's use the door from now on," I heard quietly from inside.

Trying the key from Shintaro's jacket in the lock, a series of creaks and clattering careened through the door and it opened, but only slightly. Manifesting myself with some physical strength, I push on the door and was met with some resistance, so I peeked my head into the gloomy, unlit apartment, the gap only just wide enough to accommodate me, to see what was blocking the way.

Behind the door was a stack of clear plastic bags filled with rubbish, about three or four. I didn't question their presence, all that mattered to me was getting inside the apartment.

Ezu picked himself off the floor from where he had fallen in, rubbing the back of his head, and strolled into the kitchen, which was a short distance away from the porch where I had entered. There was a red substance trickling down his forehead, and when it reached his eyebrows, he took notice, and swiped some onto his finger, sniffing it.

"Mm... this smells delicious."

Without a second thought, he brought it to his mouth, but I grabbed his arm before he had a chance.

"That's... shampoo. For washing your hair. Not for eating," I groaned, struggling against his unusual strength.

"Then why do humans make it smell so appealing?" he sighed, wiping it away.

He started to take in the room for the first time. Naturally, all the time I had spent struggling with the door, which I realise was pointless since I could technically just fly through solid objects, drew him toward the bags.

"He has a strange way of storing things. How inconvenient..."

"They're actually refuse bags."

"Refuse? Is that not supposed to be disposed of?"

"Well... yes. Yes, I suppose it is."

One small bag I could understand, especially if Shintaro or his family were supposed to take the bins out tonight. But this much? What the file had told me about him didn't mention anything about poor housekeeping habits...

We wandered further into the house. It was only one floor, as it was already the higher of the two floors of the building. The fact that it was built on the incline of the hill meant that the back windows were higher compared to the nearby houses and shops, their dark-blue tiled rooves subtly visible in the evening dark. All my sightseeing had caused me to lose sight of Ezu, who had already made his way into one of the bedrooms.

This bedroom appeared to be Shintaro's, based on the fact that the walls were sparsely decorated with some game posters and there were models and books strewn about the few furniture pieces. Without needing any coercion, Ezu was picking away at the drawers and desks, and I decided to join him, in search of something he could wear.

Graphic t-shirt... graphic t-shirt... long-sleeved t-shirt... and it looks like the rest is somewhere else. Does this guy seriously have no high-necked shirts? He must not have been much of an outside person. No wonder Shigenori was his only friend...

I handed Ezu some white silk wrappings from one of the drawers, which I assumed was Shintaro's mother's.

"Use these under the t-shirt. It must take a lot of effort to use camouflage on every point of your body, so this should mean you can focus more on the face and hair, the parts that are more likely to give you away. Wrap the top of your chest and up to your neck and that should keep anything suspicious hidden."

After applying the wrappings, and revealing to me some of his unusual alien biology that I will strike from the record, Ezu went over to Shintaro's computer desk and found something of interest. Much like a pet or a baby, Ezu seemed content picking up anything new he happened to find.

"Hey, what are these?"

"Those are Shintaro's headphones, I guess. So... that makes them yours now, if you want to use them."

"Head...phones?" he pondered to himself, rotating them around so he could inspect them. "So... this is a cranial version of the small device that was inside that piece of outerwear earlier?"

"Well... they both transmit sound. Headphones don't work on their own though."

I slipped out Shintaro's phone and pulled the headphone cord toward me, plugging the jack into the phone.

"You use it to listen to things from other electronic devices. Like music."

"...Music... as in, for recreation?"

"You must have music on your planet, right?"

"We have something like that. If you ever heard it, you might not call it the same, though."

"Hm... pass me your hand."

He held out his hand and I clasped his fingers. Pinching each finger at a time, I tried them on the fingerprint sensor on the phone until the correct one, his right index finger, unlocked the device. While I was doing this, Ezu was jittering and darting his eyes about, as if he felt vulnerable.

"This is how you open the phone. He probably has a passcode too, but unless he's forgetful enough to need it written down somewhere, the fingerprint sensor is the best bet. Luckily, your camouflage is advanced enough to where it can replicate that kind of thing."

"Why did you want to unlock it? Also, you assume a lot about what I can do..."

I scrolled through the phone until I found what I was looking for, then passed the headphones to Ezu.

"Here. You put them over your ears."

He tentatively squirmed the headphones over his head until they were secured. I pressed onto the screen and Ezu flinched for a moment as the sound reached his ears. As the song started to play, his expression warmed, and his eyes grew dewy and ecstatic in innocent pleasure.

"This is human music? T-This is amazing."

"You're welcome to keep listening for a while if you want. Learning Shintaro's music habits will no doubt come in handy, too."

Leaving the room, I saw Ezu perch on the edge of the bed, flicking through his new music library with eagerness. The next part of the apartment to view seemed to be the living area, but I did inspect around the corners to see if I could spot any other bedroom doors, but as I went, there didn't seem to be any others at all. In the living area there was a medium-sized kotatsu with some cutlery atop it, including a half empty glass and a bowl of rice which still contained some soy sauce residue and a few grains. In front was a modest television, the almost mopey colouration informing me that this member of the household was one of its oldest. In the cabinet below was a games console from the previous generation, and a neatly arranged set of games, one of which had the case open and the disk lying on top of the console.

I cracked open the shutter-like door at the end of the living area, which revealed a washing machine and various baskets and bottles of detergent. The narrow, dusty enclosure radiated the thick, soupy smell of laundry.

"Is this good?"

I turned around and spotted Ezu, wearing some clothes he had picked out from Shintaro's laundry basket. A black t-shirt worn over the wraps I had given him, a blue hoodie, a pair of shorts, and the headphones that he had become attached to worn around his neck. I had no way of confirming if the real Shintaro had looked like this, but in my head, this was the real thing, or at least just as good. Ezu looked, as far as I could interpret, somewhat proud of himself.

"Mhm. That's good."

His eyes then widened all of a sudden, and he stepped back, lifting his arms to his waist. I spun around to catch whatever had spooked him.

In the window behind the kotatsu had appeared a cat, an abnormally small calico. It raised its head in curiosity, slinking along the sill and hopping down onto one of the cushions inside, through the gap that had been left ajar.

"W-What is that? I have heard you mention the other tiny beasts from outside, with their wings and beady eyes, but this... this creature... is it intelligent? Are humans not the only species I must conquer?"

The cat walked closer to Ezu, who staggered backwards. Once the cat was close enough, it sniffed at his leg and then froze up.

Darting away, the hairs on its back rose, and Ezu did the same, pouncing onto all fours. They glared at each other as if they were two cats fighting outside the bins on a street corner. 

"Little hairy beast, I will not allow you to intrude on my mission!"

He charged at the cat and collided into the floor, caught off guard by how nimble it was. They dashed about the room, and every so often I would lift or move fragile items out of the way, realising that I was long beyond the point of being able to put a stop to it.

I let the chaos going around me fade into the background, and took another moment to observe the room. The single cushion, the games console with one controller, empty cups of instant ramen... Even though the fact that Shintaro lived alone was convenient for my operation, I couldn't help but be aware of, in the corner of my mind, a twinge of uneasiness about it. The files that Story Spirits are given are supposed to include as much information as we need to do our jobs and develop the protagonist's story. So... why was the fact that Shintaro lives separate from his parents not included? Their names are there. Even his relationship with them. But not this. Are there things that protagonists can hide even from us? That they don't want to be part of their story?

I wasn't sure how much I wanted those questions answered. Besides, it no longer mattered. This was Shintaro now.

He had finally managed to pin down the cat, which was now violently hissing and scratching at his face. Despite this, he looked at me, completely unfazed.

"I have apprehended the beast. Should I exterminate it?"

I lowered my head in exhaustion. As the cat continued to scratch, Ezu's disguise flickered away, and his soft blue skin was revealed once again. It seemed, as effective as it was against humans, the neighbourhood stray had seen right through my ruse. Oh well, so long as cats don't develop the ability to talk any time soon, there shouldn't be anything to worry about...