The tension runs thick again, not like black miasma but like suffocating sheets of ice, each layer stacked and convoluted, enveloping every corner of the small attic. The air pressure dives down hundreds of feet and then he’s below sea level, his breaths coming out short and choked.
“Tell me,” Shu controls his volume, but it’s glazed with frost, nearly cracking at the edges, “what game is he playing at?”
He’s never been friendly, but he’s also never been angry like this – it’s a foreign avalanche of emotions and he’s drowning himself in it. It’s anger as much as it is distrust, a tidal wave of suppressed feelings crashing down, manifesting in the form of palpitating heartbeats and an equally discordant mind.
A gentle voice calls him and if not for a steady hand gripping his shoulder, clutching down on his tensed muscles, he wouldn’t have registered it.
The touch is distant to him, however. He doesn’t hear the speaker’s voice as clearly as he should from this proximity. A dormant memory engulfs him just as quickly as his emotions plunge into utter turmoil. He jolts violently – a defense mechanism – and he’s yanking the arm away, forcibly ridding himself of the contact.
“Don’t touch me.”
It comes off completely glacial, unmeasured, and he doesn’t know it until he’s wrenching onto the other’s arm with enough strength to crack bones. It’s the second time today that he finds himself blinking back into clarity, and this time too he’s shaking slightly in the aftermath, crumbling away at the pressure.
If Glenn notices the tremors, he doesn’t voice it. Discerning eyes bore into him and Glenn merely sits still, letting him vent out his anger, his emotions – whatever state they’re in – and he takes it without complaint. “Alright,” he whispers, “I won’t touch you.”
It snaps Shu out of his turmoil; then he’s staring back into warm amber, liquid gold tinting on its edges, and he’s lost in their tenderness, their soft comfort that’s so unlike the cold abyss of his own. Shu loosens his grip and he knows it’ll leave deep red marks for hours.
“—I’m…” he doesn’t finish because he doesn’t know what to say.
Glenn nods as if he’d understood anyway. Perhaps he does – he’s always understood him in unfathomable ways.
They sit in silence for a while after that, Shu regulating his breathing into calm, closing his eyes to clear out any obstruction and Glenn just watching. Suddenly it’s just the two of them in the room, closed off into their own space. The other three remain completely still, their presence negligible, and even Meng Yun has stopped transcribing on his little brown notepad.
Gilbert breaks the quietude first. He looks around warily, traveling his eyes from his colleague to his boss’ intimidating little brother. “…Uh, should I continue reading the note?”
The crumpled note is still held firmly in between his fingertips but he’s at a loss of what to do. Glenn doesn’t seem to notice nor care about his dilemma. Shu opens one eye and prompts to continue.
“Read it.” His tone is schooled back to the cold indifference moments prior.
Gilbert clears his throat, “’Dear our family’s estranged young master, if you are done with your rebellious—'"
“Skip that part.”
He goes over to a new section. “’Are you eating well? Are you taking care of your health? Big brother thinks you’re not growing enough—'"
“Skip that one too.”
“’I bought you a new house, but why are you still living in that old apartment building? Are you getting into fights again? Are you going to university? I heard you got expelled again—'" Gilbert furrows his eyebrows and stops reciting. “Uh, young master, when was the last time you saw the boss?”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Young master bro,” Gilbert settles and if between this and the former, Shu will unhesitatingly go with the former.
He sighs. “Can’t remember.”
“Okay well, I’m just going to tell you that it’s a little scary. He’s been keeping track of…” Gilbert trails off and decides to just recite instead, “The boss says that when you were sixteen, you skipped one year of school and went for combat training instead. When you were seventeen, you picked up the terrible habit of smoking despite your… weak and feeble body. Throughout high school, you beat up half the kids in your class and sent six of them to the hospital in a single day. You went to detention nineteen times in one year.”
Gilbert makes a sound of awe. “Wow, nineteen times! I think you spent more time in detention than you did in school. Anyway, the boss tells you to be more friendly to your peers and do your homework properly. He had gotten a lot of calls from the faculty and had to bail you out every time. Also, at age eighteen, you—”
“Finished?” Shu interrupts him coldly.
“Uh… in the fall of 2016, you also got suspended for excessive violence on school grounds. One of the kid’s mothers sent an aggressive note to the principal. The details are as follows...” Gilbert clears his throat and starts again – this time in an extremely shrill voice that sounds more like a screeching bird than a human. “’My little boy was gravely injured by your problem child! How dare you allow this to happen to him? Robbie broke both of his front teeth and had to get stitches all over his arm! I demand compensation and I want that boy expelled promptly!’”
His list of deeds doesn’t end there. Somehow the contents on the piece of paper had turned out to be less of a message and more of a novel on his entire life, fueled by a brother’s undying passion that is by all definitions, criminal stalking. Shu highly doubts this is legal and is seriously considering on filing a restraining order. Unfortunately, the police officer next to him seems to be very much enjoying this, judging from the amused smile that grows wider with each incrimination.
“…There’s another complaint from the same year. Another suspension for destroying school property? Detonating a hydrocarbon explosion in a chemistry lab? And then let’s see… the boss tells you to stay away from gangs and…”
“Gangs?” Glenn whispers to him, the mirth in his voice apparent.
“Accident,” Shu just tells him firmly.
“Oh!” Gilbert suddenly adds in his own comment amidst the ramble, “This is good, there are fewer problems during your university years. However just a month ago, it says you were, again, on disciplinary suspension for physical assault against a faculty member. Damn, young master bro, what did you do?”
Glenn answers for him instead with a smile, “Exorcising a demon. Is that right?”
Shu’s eye twitches. “An accident as well.”
“Demons?” This time, Meng Yun is interested. He suddenly pops up from his sprawled position on the ground, face glimmering with enthusiasm. “Big bro, can you tell me more about that demon? What kind of weapons did you use? Did you use garlic? Holy water? Sacred bullets?”
“Yun, it’s a demon, not a vampire,” his sister tells him but she, too wants to get to the bottom of it. “What did you exorcise it with? It’s important for research.”
Shu is certain that exorcism isn’t a field within marine biology or pharmacology – or anything relating to the sciences, really. He answers anyway because it’s rare for Meng Qing to ask him such stimulating questions of the occult. “I was equipped with a holy cross. And a radio transceiver.”
Meng Yun pushes up his glasses and starts taking notes. “I hear demons are particularly sensitive to sound,” he mutters and where he heard that from, Shu has no idea, but he’d rather not know. “What kind of communicator did you guys use?”
“It was gauged to be ineffective,” Shu agrees. “Later we… devised a new method of cryptology.”
The bespectacled youth nods seriously. “Like a secret code! That’s genius! The demons will never know even if they possess human intelligence. How did you use the holy cross? Did you do a ritual? Like a cool spirit cleansing circle?”
“I hit him with it.”
Glenn looks entertained. “Him?”
“Is that important?” Shu asks instead, already done with the topic.
It’s not important, not to him, but Meng Yun is left calculating the Newtonian mechanics of whether blunt force will also work on spirits and ghouls and if they, too, are bound by the law of physics. Meng Qing is pondering medicinal concoctions that can be created with demon specimens and Gilbert still seems enthralled by his school-life shenanigans – “kids these days have too much energy,” he had muttered with the wisdom of an old sage, “I don’t even remember being in school.”
It’s yet another shift in conversation and the group’s led askew, the original purpose lost in the trivialities.
“Is there more?” Shu cuts in.
Gilbert browses through the page again. “Oh yes, in the spring of—”
“Skip to the end.”
“The last message is to stay away from the Corruption.” Gilbert runs a finger through the last line of text. “Boss tells you to not get involved with any of this.”
“And what should I do? Should I run away? Go into hiding, or this time…” He leans against an armrest and stares coldly at the letter. His voice is lowered with scorn when he continues, “Maybe I should stay home and wait for him again?”
Glenn looks at him and says softly, “I also think it’s too dangerous.”
“I don’t want to get involved. It’s just…” Shu sighs. He blinks slowly as if recalling some distant memory, and when he opens his mouth again, there’s a trace of fondness behind the usual stoicism. When he murmurs quietly, he’s not speaking to anyone but himself. “There’s a person I know. He’s too nosy for his own good, too overbearing but he’ll get caught up in this and he’s…”
“He’s important to you.”
Shu rests his head on the rear frame of the couch, eyes half-lidded, focused on an uninteresting stack of papers on the floor. “He is.”
“Then let’s go find him.”
When he turns to the side, Glenn’s expression hasn’t changed – infused with the same warmth that ventures into an unknown territory and Shu rejects instinctively. “Our goals don’t align anymore.”
“My intentions have not changed,” Glenn says, and the line holds more secret directed to him alone.
He raises an eyebrow. “Does Officer Lenos of the task force find it entertaining to blend in with civilians?”
Glenn chuckles. “Only a very specific, law-breaking civilian.”
“—Okay wait,” Gilbert suddenly calls out. “Before you two start again, let me finish the letter.”
“Still not done?” Shu is no longer interested in the letter of defamation, which serves zero purpose other than to provoke him.
“Well I’m sort of done, but there’s an afterword on the bottom. It’s ridiculously small, written with a blue fountain ink pen and actually the boss’ handwriting is quite horrendous so I’m really a genius for reading this to you at all. Don’t you think I need a raise? Anyway, it’s in some lingo, a sort of internet hieroglyphic if I may, fairly negligible but still—”
“I have a headache,” Shu implicates clearly.
“It says ’with lots of love’…” Gilbert clears his throat and squints at the words – it’s already a foreboding sign when the words are undecipherable to even the self-proclaimed genius. “’A.k.a. LOL, your supportive big brother. Kissy face emoji. Heart emoji. Beating heart emoji. Post-script: Your brother worked hard to learn how to text from the children of your generation, but why are you not replying to my messages? Sad emoji.’”
Just when he had thought that was the last of it, Gilbert starts again.
“’Post-post-script: Worried face emoji. Modern smartphones have GPS features on them, so the next time you get lost going to a convenience store, don’t hesitate to turn on your location. Or call your big brother.’”