bonnefois: ghost_factory @ LJ (Default)
[personal profile] bonnefois
Title: A Ghost Of A Chance
Series: Hetalia
Character/pairing: America/Belarus, Denmark/Norway, Japan, Sweden/Finland, Sealand, England, Romania
Rating: PG-13
Word count: 11764
Summary: When Nataliya mysteriously loses her textbook, she and Alfred get trapped in a college without dorms during a snowstorm. Even worse, she begins to realize they might not be as alone as they thought.
Author's note: WIPbigbang 2017. From this prompt at the kink meme.

Vasil: Romania.

Lukas: Norway.

Mikkel: Denmark.

Lukas and Mikkel were listed as possible names for Norway and Denmark by Himaruya.

Betaed by Sarah.

For Carrie, who I've owed for a long time. Sorry about the wait.



One cold and gray day, a bustling storm had rolled in from the north. After the last bell had rung, students shirked their duties and dove headfirst into a war. Classes split into teams within seconds of choosing. Screams and shrieks and laughter filled the cold white landscape. It wasn't even the end of November, and yet the lights had already been hoisted high. One thing she'd learned about studying in America was that they always seemed to anticipate the holidays much sooner than any other place she'd lived. Even strangers would stop and strike up conversations with strangers about their plans, be it Christmas, their date for Valentine's Day, or what parties they would attend for around Halloween.

Nataliya walked past them with cold indifference. Snowballs sailed over her head as each team got invested within this fictional, pointless war, and would whoop it up with every strike or miss. Her long gray skirts were edged with frost.

"Nataaaliyaaa! Watch out!!"

Nataliya craned her neck, only to see someone hurtling in a tackle in front of her. Gold hair and a worn and familiar bomber jacket. Alfred dove in front of her. Three snowballs hit his chest. Alfred, her brother's worst rival. Alfred and Ivan's rivalry was so intense that many had termed it The Cold War Redux. It extended even off the field, well into Alfred's bizarre additions to history and literature class.

"Ha, I caught them all! Check that out!"

Mikkel laughed. His large snow shovel was hoisted over his broad shoulders like an axe. Frost tipped the edges of his prickly, light brown hair. He had taken off his cap, probably to toss it at Lukas. "At least you're good for a human shield. Hey, Lukas! Throw some more!"

"Shut up, this is the tackle that won all the games," Alfred said. "And go ahead! I'll take them all!"

"Like a hero would?" Lukas asked dryly.

Only his blue cap shone above the wall of ice. Say what you would about their Nordic classmates (and Arthur certainly would). At least they knew their snow.

"Why is Matt there?" Alfred asked.

"Vinland," Lukas replied.

"Traitor," Alfred muttered.

"They just dragged me over. I've been doing nothing but wall building over here," Matthew said. Only an ash blond curl showed itself above the high fortress walls of castle Scandinavia.

Alfred turned towards her with a bright smile.

"Are you okay? Also, did you see that amazing catch right there? It should be slow-mo," Alfred said.

She brushed off her skirt. "Thank you, I suppose. However, you almost knocked me down."

"But, I took the hit, like a real hero, isn't that right, Elsa?"

Nataliya grimaced. "Don't call me this."

"But Elsa's great. It's my favorite of all. Matt says I'm ridiculous, because Tangled wins for Eugene being so relatable and the perfect boyfriend. I think he just has a type."

"Are you daft? They call me this--- to say I'm an awful person. An ice queen. Don't mock me and expect me to appreciate it."

"But but--- Let It Go was the biggest hit of the year or any year!"

"Go on, save your insults for my brother."

"It's not an insult!" Alfred called after her.

But Nataliya did not respond. The door swung closed while the snowball fight raged on.

*

The snow only got worse. She could barely see out the windows due to the thick snowflakes that were howling down and obscuring everything in white. Nataliya ignored the several announcements over the speaker and kept her gaze upon the math notes in front of her. Americans knew nothing of snow. She had lived in Siberia, and she’d known the full extent of "General Winter."

Still, she didn't linger. Once the sun went down, the temperature would plummet and she still had a long ways to go.

There were no dorms on campus. Rather, the college owned an apartment complex a few blocks down. This was the closest the college would ever get to having dorms, which meant that after classes, the college grew quiet, even dreary and drafty, like there was a darker edge across the brick walls.

Nataliya, however, didn't live in those dorms. She had an apartment with her large family several blocks down. If the buses had already stopped due to the weather, she'd have to walk the whole way.

She checked her bag once again. Her shoulders already had a dull ache from carrying the weight of this many textbooks around. A sound behind her made her pause. There was a knife at a holster around her thigh if need be.

"Nataliya!"

She turned. Alfred again. Wasn't the first humiliation enough? To think, he'd try and turn her into a damsel just to get one over her brother. Maybe he was even flirting with her just to make Ivan jealous. She pursed her lips.

"Hey, did you hear? They're closing up shop early because of the storm." Alfred slid into the chair just opposite her. He had several new bandages across his cheeks, covered in superheroes. She couldn't tell if it was done on a dare, a prank, if he actually was hurt, or he just really liked super heroes.

"Yes, I'm not deaf," she said.

"You got a bus pass ready? There's a winter storm warning and everything! But don't worry, I'll carry your books over there!"

"I know my way."

"But it's getting dark. I'm not about to let somebody walk alone--"

"If they try anything, I will gut them." She reached down and pulled out the knife hidden away at her thigh holster. Her expression darkened. "Everyone knows if they cross me… they'll regret it."

Alfred's eyes widened. "--cooool! That's so great, you got your own catch phrase. You sounded like Clint Eastwood right there. All you need is a cowboy hat, and like--" He tried to sing some theme she didn't know. Presumably, relating to the Clint Eastwood person. Nataliya had never been one for westerns. "Anyways, I'd be a total creep if I let you walk alone in this blizzard. You ready?"

"No; I have some things I need to attend to." She closed the door and walked on out. She was surprised-- and even a little disappointed --when he didn't follow after her.

Halfway through the college hallways, Nataliya realized that her book bag seemed lighter than usual. Her mind had been full of Alfred, his strange behavior, and whatever he was planning this time. She mentally walked herself through the day. Where could it have gone?

Her traitorous mind kept stopping back to the snowball fight, his lashes white with frost. She shook her head to clear it. He was just trying to get back at her brother. This was just some stealth attack, hidden behind seemingly guileless smiles and nicknames.

She doubled back until she was back near the library. The rows of books, the order and quiet always calmed her. Though the rising unease filled her. That textbook had cost eighty dollars, and it had to be express shipped to reach her in time, which had cost almost twenty dollars for the shipping. That was an extra hundred dollars she just didn't have.

"Nataliya! I thought you left!"

She turned towards the voice. The halls had been surprisingly empty. There was almost something in the air-- a feeling that made her wonder if she should've brought some hematite to stick in her pockets and ward off evil. But it was probably just another frat party snuck onto the grounds again. Drunken frat boys, demonic possession, they had the same sort of aura in the end.

Alfred broke into a big grin. He was always so sunny and happy-- and too good to be true. She bristled and stepped back. He couldn't be guileless. "I was just helping the janitor lock up this wing. His girlfriend had just come to visit, and he was dying to cut off early."

"I left my textbook,” she said. “There's a test tomorrow. I don't want to fail."

"Oh, I'll help you find it! No hero would ever let a lady go check her books herself."

She studied him, his broad shoulders and vintage bomber jacket, the ripped jeans not from fashion, but how much sports he played. And that smile...so slightly crooked and filled with naive hope. "Two people looking will make it take less time."

"Yeah, that's what I was thinking!"

First, they checked the lecture hall. The rows of seats were wiped clean. Not even a dictionary was left there. Nataliya slowly closed the door behind her.

The ominous presence lingered, far off.

"Do you think... maybe a ghost came through here?" Alfred swallowed. "I mean, not like I'd be afraid of a ghost. A hero can't be afraid of anything, the only thing to fear is fear itself, but--"

"More likely the janitor."

"Yeah, you're right. Then how about we check the lost and found?"

They walked together down the hallway. Alfred chattered away, but Nataliya's mind was full of her textbook-- and the class she would surely fail if she didn't find it as soon as humanly possible.

One sock covered in penguins, one jacket. No textbook.

"This is one rad sock. I bet it'd make a great sock puppet. Just imagine the shadow puppets you'd make with this baby!"

Alfred tilted his head in thought. "I don't wanna nick somebody's favorite sock, but this would be a great thing for next time when I head out there...."

"There?"

"Oh, I hang at the children's hospital. I buy little toys and bring 'em to the kids. I go in and tell them stories, too. They won't let me walk on my hands anymore because I fell into some stuff."

She could only imagine him, surrounded by children who were so low on hope. She faltered for a moment. She had clung to the idea that there was some kind of agenda behind everything he did. Because the alternative would be that he really was as good, that he really was sweet on her, and where would that leave her?

Nataliya ducked her head to check her book bag again. To give her fingers something to do to distract them and not think about how warm his skin would be, how she wanted to push that errant curl back. Of course, no book magically appeared.

"Where else could it have been?"

"Maybe a thief took it."

Nataliya frowned. "A thief?"

"Those things are expensive! Maybe there's a textbook black market going on where unsuspecting students get their books just taken from under their noses and then they’re sold to other desperate students."

A thought struck her, and she started towards the library again. In the low light, it seemed older somehow. The windows had frosted over, giving the place an eerie ambiance.

"But the number one rule in horror movies is not to split up. Well, that and don't go off to have sex."

"Then stay. It's your choice."

She stalked forward, her skirts swishing.

"Hey, wait up— Wait, is that a knife?"

Nataliya glanced down. Her shirt had shifted just enough to show the holster at her hip; the one at her thigh still remained hidden. "No, it's a scepter."

"Really? Cooool! In fact, it looks just like a knife!"

"Of course, because it is a knife, I already told you I had one."

"Whoa." Alfred rubbed at the back of his neck. "But it looked different."

"You can never just have one knife. Besides, I have to go through a bad part of the city.”

"You should've told me, I'll walk you home anytime. If anyone tries anything, I'll punch 'em out."

"You offered. But I'm not some damsel and I'm not a way to get a one up on my brother."

"Whoa, whoa, you have to let this go. Sure, we fight, but you and me aren’t related to that at all."

"What could you possibly want with me other than revenge?"

"Revenge? Whoa, this became a spy movie really fast. Does this mean I'm James Bond? But he's English." Alfred thoughtfully stroked his chin.

"Spy movie? This isn't a game--"

"No, it isn't! Why wouldn't I want to be friends with you? You're cool."

She tilted her head at this. "Cool?"

"Yeah, you walk through like Natasha from the Avengers, but with better grades in Russian Lit. and less red hair. You'd probably pull off the leather bodysuit if you tried, though."

"Natasha is my nickname."

"Really? See, I told you. You could cosplay her easy."

"What is this Natasha like?"

"Wait, wait-- you haven't seen the Avengers yet? Seriously?" Alfred was wide eyed and incredulous. "But it's such a good movie!"

Nataliya shook her head. "No. I have been busy with studies and I work full time."

"What the hell? ScarJo is amazing. You and me, we gotta go through the MCU together. Then I'll start picking stuff from the 616 and my favorite other parts of the multiverse. Just avoid the Ultimates. It's so bad. I did a dance when it was canceled. Okay, Ultimate Spider-Man was decent, but the Avengers? That was an insult to humanity."

"I have work. It is hard to find time off for such things."

"Wait, where do you work. Retail?"

"Butcher shop... as an apprentice."

"Oh, cutting stuff?"

She nodded.

"Whooa, that's badass. You really are some potential superhero... or supervillain. I'm not sure which."

Nataliya gave a half smile. Alfred had no idea.

"Yeah, they closed this wing--"

"For construction," Nataliya finished for him.

"That and the huge amount of ghosts. My friend Kiku said it's ghostier than a Japanese horror movie. He also told me not to watch any weird video tapes that people sent, but who the hell even uses VHS anymore? But he made me a thing to keep it away, see?" He pulled up a tiny bag he'd hidden under his shirt. It had a dragon on it, though Nataliya sensed some kind of prank. She didn't know Japanese, but she suspected it probably had the Japanese equivalent of "kick me."

She could feel a chill in the air. But she moved on towards the other library. She'd been allowed a special pass to research something obscure for her last paper.

The second library was just as dusty as she remembered. Alfred let out a loud sneeze.

"Bless you," Nataliya muttered.

Now, where could she have lost time? When it came to remembering when she'd last seen a particular textbook, she couldn't place the date.

Other than a large list of the Dewey Decimal system, a relic of the pre-internet days, and a thick layer of dust, the tables had nothing on them.

She bent down and peered beneath each table. She caught sight of her footprints from then and followed them.

"Ooh, good one," Alfred said.

"I should've checked it the first. I was--"

She didn't say the word distracted aloud. She turned away with flushed cheeks. How could she look her brother in the eye and admit that his worst rival was actually kind of cute? That his smile thawed something within her that had long since been cold or that the way he went on was quite endearing?

She'd been protecting her eldest brother all this time. To fall for his biggest enemy would be unthinkable.

"It really has up and vanished, huh? When was the last time you saw it?"

"Russian Lit," she answered.

She tried to remember. Gilbert had stormed the class, with a new prank that would surely land him in some sort of trouble again. He and all the bad friends trio were always in some kind of perpetual trouble. Though Francis' tended to be more because he couldn't keep it in his pants, as opposed to grand pranks. Well, that and his habit for public nudity and streaking.

"Gilbert rushed in naked, then..."

Alfred couldn't help but chuckle. "Dang, streaking into Russian lit. Maybe he has a crush on someone."

"I thought he liked Elizaveta, considering the time he took over the loudspeaker."

"I thought he was into Roderich, considering the way he just keeps… stealing his clothes as treasures… and mooning him… and flashing him… and breaking naked into his dorm room to play Roderich's piano naked." Alfred counted out on his fingers as he listed all of Gilbert's actions.

"I thought he was trying to intimidate him."

"Maybe he wants them both. Sounds like something he'd do."

"I thought you were friends?"

"We play video games together sometimes, but a hero keeps his boxers on the inside of his pants."

"What about Superman?"

"Okay, the boxers come out, but only when fighting crime. And on top of leotards and spandex."

"If you say so..." She tried to remember past this. "No, I definitely had it then. I put my textbook up to avoid looking at him. And I had it when I was in the first library. I can't remember if I had it in the second library."

"It's hard to remember boring stuff, huh? It's a good thing I watched so many horror movies. I know exactly how to be genre-savvy."

Alfred started to count on his fingers.

"One: it's never a prank when the creepy noises come; two, don't mess with Native American burial grounds, that's just disrespectful; three, no hanky-panky."

"Hanky panky? You sound like an old man."

"I have to be careful about swearing or I'll accidentally slip up in front of the kids at the hospital," Alfred said. "If I sound like an old man, that's fine, because George Washington was old, badass and a hero!"

His utter adoration of the founding fathers was actually quite charming. She wouldn't be surprised if he had his room plastered with framed pictures of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington right next to some superhero or sports star.

"Well, there's no danger in any of those."

"Yeah, a hero never goes all the way on a first date!"

Nataliya lifted her brows. "Good to know, I suppose."

As they left the second library, a door at the far end of the hallway slammed shut.

Alfred nearly leapt in shock. "I-I'm sure it's just the janitor. I thought he went home."

But Nataliya could feel gooseflesh on her arms. She knew a ghost when she felt one. Outside, the snow pelted the windows until she could barely see the gray sky.

*

They peered together into the room, through the door. An Italian, a Greek, and a Spaniard all snored loudly, passed out on hammocks and cots strewn through the room. It was like the beginning of some kind of joke, but she wasn't laughing.

"The Nap Club! I didn't even think of them. I always thought they'd be the first to die in a zombie apocalypse. Guess I was right. At least the ghosts haven't eaten them yet."

Feliciano turned over and muttered something about pasta. Herakles had about five calico cats sleeping across his chest until it was practically a cat blanket. Another cat came to rest on Herakles' head. He didn't even stir.

Suddenly, a cat was lifted up into the air. Alfred looked alarmed, but Nataliya held up a long, elegant finger to her blood-red lips. They noticed a spectral hand reaching out to stroke the fur of the white, floating cat. A giggle filled the air as the bright light twirled and disappeared.

"---I guess the ghost that haunts there likes cats."

"You aren't afraid?"

"Heroes aren't afraid of ghosts. Besides, this one likes cats. It can't be evil. Nobody who likes cats are evil."

"People who like cats can be evil. Just look at all those James Bond villains."

"You watch James Bond?" Alfred asked eagerly.

"Sometimes they come on television while we eat. Brother always roots for the villains, but they never win."

"Think maybe the ghost likes textbooks, too? That doesn't sound right. Nobody likes textbooks, not even nerds."

If the ghost had taken an interest in one of her other, more personal items, she might understand. But a textbook? "We'll just have to see."

The cold had grown unbearable, even for her, who had spent winters in Siberia before visiting relatives. She shuddered. Nataliya jerked her hand away from the doorknob.

"What? Did you get static electricity? Gil gets me with that all the time. He says that he's just helping me style my hair, so I'll look like one of Kiku's anime heroes."

She saw something floating by, circled in blue light.

"That way!"

Alfred's sneakers squeaked on the floor as they followed the blue sheen. They rushed towards the lunchroom. Despite no dorms, there was still a cafeteria that served almost edible meals once a day.

The window was fogged over. What could they have left in the kitchen to make it like that?

"My textbook!"

A giggling sound filled the room as the floating light-- and her textbook --sped through, straight towards the deepest part of the kitchen. Nataliya carefully went in past the white tiles. There were knives, cast iron pans, and stainless steel boilers which could go flying, should the ghost be angered.

The floor had once been white, but over time it had been streaked with all kinds of stains that never quite came out. It looked like the beginnings of soup, ready to be put in the pot. It wouldn't be a tasty stew, that was for sure.

A shimmer shone just past a steel door. Across the front was the walk-in freezer, which read: Warning: the lock sticks. Do not attempt going in alone.

"Quick, grab that cast iron pan," Nataliya said.

"Oooh, I never thought I'd be Rapunzel in this situation,” Alfred said. “I can't exactly toss down my hair."

"Wedge it in there, and stay near the outside, just in case."

She took a wary step into the freezer. Her knife would be useless against a ghost, but still, she clutched the cold, familiar metal to center herself.

Something rattled at the far end. She glanced back to see her textbook land just near a bucket. Carcasses hung from meathooks and slowly creaked and teetered. The Monday Meatloaf Special seemed even less appealing now. She reached for the textbook, only for the bucket to slam against the wall. The sound echoed through the freezer. She gripped the textbook, only to find herself on the ground, shoved over by an unseen force. The textbook slipped from her hands and floated away.

"Nataliya!"

She looked up to the sound of footsteps and saw Alfred just above her, with his hand outstretched.

"Okay, we're getting out of this together. Let's bounce!"

The door slammed behind them. A chill passed through her as she heard the scraping sound of a lock falling into place.

They maneuvered through the carcasses- the next lasagna specials, to be sure -only to see the door closed.

"Oh, no, no, no! I left it wedged and everything!"

He rushed back to the closed door, and tried the handle. When that didn't work, Alfred slammed against the door. It didn't remotely budge.

"I told you to stay!"

"I heard something and got worried." Alfred rubbed at his shoulder. "Thaaa--t's going to leave a bruise. Wow--that's real sturdy. This is the tackle that sunk a thousand other teams, and this door still has the audacity to keep standing."

Were there even a thousand teams for him to beat? Besides, it was no surprise; the door was made of thick steel. Alfred beat on the door with his fist. His breath fogged up the small window at the top.

"Hey, we're stuck in here! Anyone out there? Lukas? Mikkel? Come on!"

They could hear giggling behind the door and that light.

"Wait, my phone--"

Alfred pulled it out, only to find the battery on the top was turning red. No signal, even if his phone hadn't been on the brink of blacking out.

"What about yours?"

She pulled out her flip phone. It wouldn't even turn on.

Alfred started to snicker. "You have a drug dealer phone!"

"I paid ten dollars for it. It suits my needs."

"Breaking Nataliya… you'd probably kick Walt's ass."

"Excuse me?"

"You never saw Breaking Bad? I gotta show you it." He broke off in a shudder. "I guess with all these big things, I could do Rocky stuff to keep warm."

He wiped at his face. "I can't even feel my hands. Are we really goners? I never figured I'd go out like a hamburger. Kind of ironic, come to think of it."

He pulled off his bomber jacket and held it out to her.

"You'll be cold."

"But you'll be cold. I can't be happy if you're cold."

"Because of your 'heroism?'"

"Because it's you. I don't want you cold or sad."

He draped his coat over her shoulders. She touched the vintage brown leather with her fingertips. She didn't meet his gaze.

"Why do you bother? You aren't one-upping my brother like this, this isn't about your stupid heroics. Why do you even bother?"

"This isn't about movies or moves-- it's the right thing to do."

"Is that all?"

"Look, maybe I wasn't exactly as honest as I could've been." Alfred scrunched up his nose.

There it was, the guile she was waiting for. She lifted her chin in defiance. "Then what were you really planning?"

"Hey, girlfriend ends in friend. So yeah, I said I want to be your friend, but I want to be your friend and more. I want to watch stuff with you and fight crime, but also kiss you. I'm into you! Really, really into you! And it's got nothing to do with Ivan and me going head to head and everything to do with you---cute--you are."

Cute? She grimaced. Even the thought was bizarre. Nataliya was well aware that she was, and always would be, the creepy and cold and quiet girl. Just as she'd heard dozens of times by classmates and people on the street.

"If you aren't lying, then you have bizarre taste. If you are..." She trailed off and touched her hand to her knife. "Then you'll never lie to me and tease me again."

"Whoa, whoa! As hot as this hold up is, I am one-hundred percent not lying. If you put me through a lie detector test, it would bro-fist me just because I'm that much truthy."

He shivered and wrapped his arms about himself for body heat. She reached out her arms and pulled him close. Slowly, his face lit up.

"Hey, Nataliya, I was never teasing you or being mean. I gave you nicknames just because they fit. I really do think you're cool. In fact, I really wanted to ask you out after this. I guess I never will get a chance now."

"I can hardly believe you of all people would give up so soon."

"We can't call out, everyone's left, and we're going to freeze to death soon. Face it, we're goners."

She cupped his chin. Slowly, his eyes widened. "Weren't you the one who always believed in hope and truth and heroism, all those little things?"

He slowly closed his eyes, relaxed in her grip. The shudders were getting so much that her teeth chattered, but the moisture and heat of his chapped lips against hers momentarily warmed her.

*

Meanwhile, the meeting of the Occult club grew tense. A book had been laid across the table. Candles flickered, as the pages were turned. Arthur shook his head.

"Someone brought a presence in here," Arthur said.

"There's always been ghosts in the closed wing,” Vasil said. “It's from some time when a speakeasy burned down. The school was built over the ashes. They didn't even do a ritual to ensure the dead had departed."

"Of course I know about them. But this is a new ghost and it's moving outside of the closed areas."

"Did you forget to send the spirits back at your last seance session?"

Arthur sputtered. "Do you think I'm a complete amateur? I didn't become president of the Occult Club by chance!"

"I figured it was that your eyebrows drew the most spirits, like a lightning rod."

Arthur grimaced. "As if you have anything to say about eyebrows."

"It remains, someone summoned something here. And I know it was recent. I pay attention to my surroundings, unlike some people."

"I pay attention."

"I was talking about Herakles. He fell asleep on my Book of Shadows. It's covered in cat hair."

"Asleep? How could he? It's several inches thick, at least. How did he even get in here?"

Vasil shrugged. "Cats sleep anywhere; Herakles is no different."

All of a sudden, the door burst open, and a little bundle of energy and sailor shirts rushed in.

"Arthur, Arthur, I'm here!"

Like a pair of doting parents, Berwald and Tino followed. "Careful, Peter!"

Vasil turned to him slowly. "You have something on your hands."

"What? I washed them--"

Vasil lifted his palms up. "Do you see that, Arthur? Ectoplasm."

"As clear as day," Arthur said. “You've been playing with the equipment here. Don't tell me you've gotten into the spirit board.”

Peter flinched, and drew back guiltily. "I was just pushing it around! I didn't do anything!"

"Dammit. There's no telling what he summoned. He probably didn't even remember to say goodbye."

Peter started to bawl.

"There, there," murmured Berwald. Tino reached down to pull Peter into an embrace.

"We'll punch all the hellish things from the underworld you accidentally summoned," Tino said brightly.

Berwald nodded.

"We'll have to find it first and make sure it didn't prey on anybody else," Arthur muttered.

"No more playing with spirit boards," Vasil said.

Peter wiped at his red-rimmed eyes. "I just wanted to be like you. Like my big c-cousin!"

Arthur bent before him. "You're just starting out. You've got a long ways to go before you can even think about drawing any magic circles, let alone talking to the other side." He rustled Peter's hair. "Now go off, you scamp. Aren't you hungry or something? Children usually are."

"Children usually are? You sound like an old man," Vasil said.

"Speak for yourself, you're wearing a tiny top hat!"

"It's called fashion. Look it up sometime."

From behind Tino, Lukas strolled in. He narrowed his eyes as he surveyed the room. "Someone unleashed something from beyond the veil in here."

Vasil nodded. "That's what I've been telling him."

"Well, we'll evacuate the place," Arthur said. “The janitor left early, and everyone else went home on a winter storm warning, so it should be rather empty.”

"What you call a winter storm, we call a nice spring," Lukas said.

"Yes, I get it, you're all Viking ice spirits," Arthur rejoined. “Some of us actually prefer livable habitats.”

"Since when is the land of constant rain and spaghetti on toast liveable?" Vasil asked.

Tino laughed. "That's a new one. I guess we'll have to split up and make sure there's no one in here while we secure the perimeter in case the ghost is strong enough to escape."

"The nap club," Vasil said pointedly.

"Oh, right," Arthur said. “Well, they shouldn't be too hard to move. Tino, you know what to do.”

"I'll carry them! We'll check the rest of the club rooms just to be sure. C'mon, Berwald."

Berwald plucked Peter up and hauled him off. The three of them wandered off towards the row of rooms slated for extracurricular activities down the hall.

"We'll take the abandoned wing," Lukas said. "You cleanse this room."

Arthur looked mildly irritated, but Lukas didn't wait for his smart-ass comment before he left the room. Arthur rolled his eyes.

"Troll boy is coming for your status as president," Vasil said.

"Don't you think I know that?" Arthur snapped. "Just get the salt already."

"I think you're salty enough to keep all the spirits at bay."

Arthur glared. "Don't make me prove to you why I got elected president, Vasil."

"I already have to look at you. That's a curse worse than you could ever cast on me."

Arthur rolled his eyes.

*

Lukas stared down the hall.

"That way, huh?" Mikkel grinned. "We should go ghostbusters on that ghost's ass!"

"A hamburger wrapper...." His face paled as he lifted it up. "That could only mean one thing--"

"The Hamburglar is hiding out here?"

Lukas ignored him. "This way."

Mikkel hoisted him up over his shoulders. "We'll go twice as fast this way. Just call me your miiiightyyy steeed! It's fitting in more than one way!"

"You've used that dick joke five times this week," Lukas said.

"It's still funny," Mikkel said.

They wove through the rows of tables.

"So, rider, you going to tell me where to go next?'

"...kitchen."

"Yeah, I could use with a snack, too. Maybe they even have something edible in here. It's a long shot, but it just might work."

Salt had spilled across the floor. Several pans were displaced and strewn across the floor. The rest still hung from a series of hooks on the wall. As they walked further in, the pans began to move and clatter against each other.

"Someone raided the kitchen," Mikkel said. "Who just takes a random cast-iron pan and tosses it about? Drunk people, maybe."

Lukas didn't reply. But a glint of blue hovering about the door caught his eye.

"I can't believe they'd be such idiots-- no, actually I can. Mikkel, pry that door open immediately!"

Mikkel smirked and pulled back the door. It let out a massive creak. The pair inside pulled apart suddenly.

"Should we come back at another time?"

"I get wanting to make out where there's danger, but next time just join the mile high club, okay?"

"L-later! We g-got to get out of here before we f-freeze!"

They limped out into the kitchen. The freezer door slammed shut with surprising force.

Mikkel chuckled. "Satisfying sound. I almost get why you'd want to pick that place as a make out spot."

"That's because you're an idiot," Lukas said.

"The door wasn't even locked. This is an odd place to hide. What, did Nataliya desperately need snow or something?"

"What? It was locked-- it was completely locked! I've been tackling against that thing for ages, and everybody knows this is the tackle that saved a thousand games."

"Perhaps the ghost unlocked it."

"Hey, my phone is working again." Alfred frowned. "The battery was completely drained, but now it's back. What's with this?"

"Ghosts," Lukas said.

Alfred nearly dropped his phone. "G-ghosts? Really?"

"Did you not see the floating textbook?" Nataliya asked.

"No, you were way ahead of me. You told me to watch the door."

"First, they must get warm," Lukas said.

He poured a line of salt across the entrance. If only she'd thought of that. She'd let herself get caught in the moment and forget integral monster hunter rules. Nataliya rubbed her hands together and stared down at her skirts. They were laced with frost.

"Here, drink this."

Somewhere in the cupboard, Mikkel had found some Swiss Miss instant cocoa mix. The warmth of the cups brought feeling back into her fingers.

Nataliya had a high tolerance for cold and had even once taken down a wandering yukionna who had terrorized a village, but even she had her limits.

"Th-thanks!" Alfred said. “I really thought we were goners.”

"What happened? It seems odd. I know for a fact she's sensitive. We've been trying to get her in the Occult club for ages," Lukas said.

"I was careless," Nataliya said. "Distracted, even."

"Oh, I feel you. Lukas is the same when I'm around and I peel my shirt off," Mikkel said.

"In your dreams," Lukas said.

"That too."

She stared down at her cocoa and sighed. Little marshmallows floated in what was left of the brown, thick and warm liquid. She took another sip and let it warm her from the inside out.

"My textbook suddenly went missing. Alfred helped me look, but suddenly we saw a ghost. I knew I didn't have the proper resources to fight it, but I didn't want to fail, so I followed after recklessly."

"It isn't a vengeful spirit," Lukas said.

Alfred sputtered. "We just got locked in the k-kitchen freezer! That sounds pretty vengeful to me!"

"I can't ascertain its motives. But it tried to draw us here to unlock you."

"Well, it did pet cats. Nobody who likes cats can be bad... unless they're a Bond villain."

"If we could contact it, perhaps we could find a way to appease it."

"Wait, Nataliya, didn't you get your textbook?" Alfred said.

"...it disappeared. All that effort for nothing."

"Well, I wouldn't say it was nothing."

Mikkel chuckled. "A little longer and you'd have been really sharing that body heat." He lifted his thick eyebrows suggestively.

"Only in a PG way. Maybe PG-13 at most, but that'd probably be for the action scenes. Heroes respect whoever they're dating!"

"Not everyone is a boor like you," Lukas said.

"No, they're a bore, apparently," Mikkel said.

"That reminds me! I bet Kiku would know what to do." Alfred swiped his phone. He scanned through the contacts on his phone, until he hit 'K.' "Yo, Kiku. We survived, though the ghost tried to lock us in the freezer."

He explained the rest of what happened so far that day as Kiku listened carefully.

"Alfred-san, you said others are there? Put it on speakerphone, please. That way I can address them also."

"Can do," Alfred said.

"Was it two men?"

"No, a girl and a guy," Lukas said.

"Ah, not a fujoshi ghost, though she may still have fujoshi tendencies. It sounds like you have a romantic ghost haunting the college."

"Romantic ghost?"

"Yes. Love may be her motivation. Perhaps that is why the door opened. If you hadn't been too busy kissing, perhaps you would've noticed."

"I didn't even tell you that! A-are you psychic or something?" Alfred blushed. "Aw, come on, it wasn't that freaky. A hero never goes all the way on a first date."

"Yes--- wait, I need to take this message. Call me back in a few minutes." The call ended abruptly.

"Good to know." Mikkel snickered. "I'll protect you, Lukas. Protect you with my dick."

"You are a dick," Lukas said.

Nataliya opened up her backpack and pulled out a wrapped up series of tools. No, not the stake. She'd already used up the holy water and hadn't replenished... She always meant to replenish it, but that would require going to Europe again with the Hunter's Convention and tracking down Father Germain. With his unceasing hunt for the undead, that could be quite a feat. Her fingers hovered above the many tools of fighting the undead. She'd been truly careless this time and allowed Alfred to distract her from an obvious ghost. It was his fault with his broad shoulders and big smile and those blue eyes.

Alfred just gaped.

"What? Everyone needs a hobby."

Alfred beamed. "Holy crap, you're so cool! You're even cooler than I thought you were! You really are a superhero!"

She smiled despite himself. His joy was infectious. "We can celebrate together. Right now, we've got a ghost to force back across the veil."

"So do you have crossbows in there? Magic guns?"

"The college may be lenient, but not that lenient," Nataliya said.

They wouldn't even let her keep the stash of silver bullets near, much to her dismay. What if one of her professors turned out to be a werewolf? Then what would she do? Put a collar on him and try and make him heel? Hardly.

"But you do have crosses and whips?"

She stared at him. "Whips? Just what are you suggesting?"

"What, you never played Castlevania? The holy Belmont whip!" Alfred mimicked slinging a whip, complete with sound effects.

"I can't say I have. I was too busy fighting actual vampires."

"Whaaaat? It's a classic! Once this is all over, I'll have to get you started. Dunno where. Maybe Ecclesia. Shanoa reminds me a lot of you, with how she's so strong and emotionless and badass."

"Is that supposed to be a compliment?"

"Yeah! Shanoa is the greatest. Man, Nataliya, you have got to show me your knife collection when this is all over! Wait, do you do that knife-gun thing?"

She frowned. "Knife...gun...thing?"

"Like Russian Roulette, except stabbier. Russian Gun-lette… where you stab the table between your fingers. People play it in the movies!"

"I've never tried it."

"Come to think of it, I think only mobsters do it. Unlessss, you're secretly a big mafia killer as well as an exorcist and college student! I bet you pilot a Gundam too."

"You watch too much anime with Kiku," Lukas said.

"No such thing. Wait, wait-- maybe Nataliya is totally a magical girl, too! Maybe a dark one... like Homura." Alfred's face lit up. "Wait, do you got a whole arsenal of guns and stuff? That would be so frigging cool! The ghost comes in and you just go boom, boom!" He made a series of noises which she assumed were machine gun sounds.

"That would blow up the entire college," she said. "Also, guns are ineffective for ghosts."

"Aw, but I bet you could get them with magic guns. Wait, do you think I can punch a ghost, or do I need something else?"

"Why don't you ask Kiku?"

"Good idea!" He swiped his phone and waited as it rang. "Hey, Kiku. Long time no hear, huh? Hey, can I punch a ghost? No? Dang, I was hoping for some good ghost-punching action!" Pause. "H-hey, anyone would be freaked out by Hanako. I use the bathroom. She could be in there, just waiting... nobody wants to die while taking a dump! That's so unheroic! That doesn't make me any less of a hero! It didn't matter if you could see the zipper on that old movie we saw, that face was creepy!"

"So, Kiku called you a dumbass, what else?" Mikkel quipped.

"He didn't call me a dumbass," Alfred said.

"It was merely implied," Lukas said.

"He said there needs to be a barrier and if she gets lost, she might terrorize tons of people to make them kiss and pet cats all over the city."

"Wow, what a dangerous ghost," Mikkel said dryly.

"Tino and Berwald already set up a barrier around the front door, but did they get the back door? They're pretty good at back door stuff." Lukas held out a heavy book. "Take this."

"Let me guess, I get to carry the stuff."

"Menial labor and brute force are all you're good for."

Mikkel lifted his eyebrows suggestively. "Not all I'm good for."

"We've already established that you're a complete dick."

"Damn right I am."

"So, what are we supposed to do?" Alfred asked. “Just go home? Pet cats? I like the last idea best.”

"We send the ghosts home," Nataliya answered.

*

They crossed over back to the closed wing. The long hallway was filled with shut doors that identically resembled each other. It seemed almost endless in its expanse. At the very end was a single door with a red frame. That was where she felt the air turn cold. Each step closer took her closer to the dead. Alfred kept glancing around him as the doors closed behind them.

"H-hey, Nataliya. We should hold hands… y’know, for good luck. It'll keep the ghosts away."

"Don't be afraid. Ghosts can feed upon that energy."

Alfred gulped. "J-jeez, that's just what I didn't want to know."

Laughter echoed down the hall. It felt different somehow. Older. Still, Nataliya knew a lost soul when she heard it. "Do you want to be a true hero, Alfred?"

He gave her a shaky thumbs up. "Eeeh---- I can do it. If someone as cool as you is beside me, the g-ghosts won't stand a chance!"

Nataliya pushed open the red door.

The simple classroom was overtaken by memories of another time. Inside, floating dancers soared across the ceiling. The feel of heat, and scent of smoke filled the air. She wore a long white dress of older times. The twenties, she'd guess. Above them translucent dancers floated to the sounds of an old victrola. Right next to a stack of records was her textbook. She'd recognize it anywhere from the amulet bookmark she'd left between its pages. The tassel, with runes that Lukas had made himself hung down, shifting like a metronome in the faint breeze.

"There you are, my prince..."

In a quick motion, Nataliya poured salt around them.

The ghost girl giggled. "Do you think that would stop me?"

The long drapes fluttered as a great wind. The circle held even as the woman circled around them. She twirled like she was dancing with her arms held out.

"What is your name?" Nataliya demanded of her.

"My name?" She tilted her head. "I've almost forgotten. I've been waiting so long for my date to arrive." She swayed in time to the music. "Just one kiss, just one dance, my love. I've been waiting for so long."

"Your name," Nataliya said firmly.

"Georgina...that sounds right. It sounds like an old song I've almost forgotten the words to, but I still remember the melody. Like..." She started to hum a tune, and floated nearby.

"Georgina, you must return to where you came from!"

"Just one dance," she said. "Then my prince will take me home. I've been waiting for so long. What a mean boy to keep a gal like me waiting this long."

"All right," Alfred said. He stepped outside of the barrier.

"Don't!"

"It's just a dance. Besides, a hero never leaves anybody crying."

Georgina reached out. His eyes turned glassy as he danced along with her.

"What a smart boy. That's why you're my prince... Now we'll be together forever....my love."

Nataliya stepped beyond the salt barrier.

Another ghost appeared. This was a schoolgirl with thick glasses and a bag covered in little charms.

"It doesn't end this way. The story can't end this way!"

If this was the ghost that had been summoned via the ouija board, then who was that?

"Alfred! You have to resist her! She'll drag you over to the veil with her!"

Georgina's image faded into something darker, smokier. "Can't a girl dance in peace?"

The ghosts above grew thicker, stronger with the Georgina's anger. They spread out like a web.

Alfred's eyes had turned glassy. Now, Georgina wrapped around him like a snake made of smoke. Her eyes burned like a set of coals.

Knives wouldn't work with ghosts, not even if they were blessed by priests. And Georgina was rapidly coming to the point where no reason would work.

Nataliya lifted up her shaker of salt and threw it across the dance floor. The glass shattered and the ghosts moved back with a grumble.

"I have to cut in," Nataliya said coldly.

"You're a real square. He's my prince. He wouldn't be interested in a plain and cold girl like you."

Slowly, comprehension came over his blue eyes. Alfred was stunned out of his trance. "That’s not true! Nataliya is the coolest person I’ve ever met! She should have her own comic series and television show and that wouldn't be enough! She'd need at least a multi-movie deal! Then she'd have to play herself because there isn't a person around who would be cool enough to portray her!" In that moment, he let go of Georgina's hand. Nataliya quickly grabbed his wrist and pulled him to the pile of salt and glass in the middle of the floor. The scent of smoke filled the room. Alfred coughed and reached for his jacket. He instantly pulled it off and handed it to her. "We have to get out of here!"

Every day, she relived the same fire. What a horrible existence to be caught in for decades and decades. Waiting and agony, waiting and agony.

"We need to fill her last wish."

"But we have no idea where the guy could be," Alfred said.

"We can do both. When I count to three, get ready to run, and don't let go of my hand."

Alfred nodded. "You don't have to tell me twice."

The ghosts behind them were a howling horde, a dark cloud of smoke and agony. Each step felt like it might be their last. She struggled for breath. It was like swimming through ashes. The doors in the hall opened, one by one. Dark clouds of eyes oozed out of the room. The closed wing, the kitchen, the front entrance was so close. Alfred never let go of her hand, not even once. It was only when the cold air hit her that she finally gasped for breath.

Alfred bent down and coughed. "Jeez, I sure got my training in for today."

They were still alive.

*

A candle flickered in the Occult club. The salt barrier was thick enough that though the doors rattled, they didn't budge.

Arthur glared at his cards. After three spreads, they'd been reduced to playing strip poker with tarot cards. Vasil wore nothing but his top hat, his clothes beside him in a neat folded pile. Arthur had an inkling Vasil was throwing the games. At least it wasn't Monopoly. In the Nap Club, Herakles and Feliciano slept on, unaware of the chaos around them. Down the hall, Mikkel and Lukas walked on, unperturbed by the ghosts.

Mikkel snickered. "Well, somebody pissed them off. It's trolls versus ghosts now."

Lukas rolled his eyes.

A thin sheen of light surrounded them. The troll perched on Lukas' shoulder was almost visible now.

Outside, Berwald and Tino looked up from the little snowman they had finally given in and let Peter make.

"I guess it really was good we took a break. It would've been horrible if Peter was in there when this happened."

"I'm a big boy, I could've handled it," Peter protested.

Tino patted his head. "Sure you are. Though we really need to get Peter home. It's way past his bedtime."

Peter puffed out his cheeks. "I said I'm a big boy! I don't need bedtimes! I can fight ghosts!"

"--Nap Club," Berwald muttered.

"Oh, we were supposed to go get them, weren't we? Oops." Tino just shrugged his shoulders. "Looks like we'll have to go get it later."

The windows rattled. The ghosts were unleashed.

*

"Crap, there's other people in there but we can't even get anywhere near it," Alfred said. "I don't just wanna leave them behind... heroes don't do stuff like that."

"I wouldn't worry about Arthur and Vasil. They can take care of themselves."

"Yeah...but I studied for the next test and everything. I don't want to have studied for nothing!"

"You'd rather take an exam?"

"Heroes don't study for exams only to fail them because they got delayed and they forgot all the study stuff."

Faces appeared in the frosted glass. They slowly burst into bright burning flames that disappeared in wisps of smoke.

Maybe if she'd be able to check the archives, she could know. But there was no way of getting safely in there. She sighed. What a mess they'd gotten themselves into, and she hadn't even gotten her textbook though the next exam was the least of her worries.

The bell at the top of the school, long abandoned for anything but show, started to ring. Had the ghosts already gone up that far? Slowly, she saw shapes of what the school had once been: a grand ballroom collapsed into fire. Beside her, an ember of fire shone through the night. A cigarette and a spectral figure wrapped in the gray night. He wore a battered black leather jacket and his dark hair was greased back. The door suddenly sprang open. Alfred stepped in front of her.

Who had displaced the salt? Or had the ghosts come together in such rage that the salt did nothing to stop them?

Give him back!

It was a roar across the city. The ghosts coiled like a snake. Howls of agony and the scent of fire filled the air. Nothing in her arsenal could fight this. He let go of her hand and took a step forward.

"Alfred, don't you dare! Alfred!" She grabbed his wrist and refused to let him go. She wasn't about to let him make some heroic sacrifice. Not now, not ever.

"Hey, I saw her first. You wanna square?"

The fire was doused. Georgina's maelstrom of anger was instantly calmed. Her eyes widened as she rushed towards him. The gray smoke spun, the dancers swirled about into ash above a flapper caught in time.

"I always dug a bad girl," said the ghost. "Come on snake, let's rattle."

"My date stood me up. Care to be my prince?"

"I ain't the prince type. But if you want a villain, I'm your man."

He took her hand, and the fire faded.

The air was filled with snowflakes. A quiet had fallen over the city. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked. The flames had finally gone out.

"Aw yeah, here's one for dumb luck!" Alfred lifted his arm in a whoop.

"It isn't done yet. We've still got the textbook stealing ghost. And I'm out of salt."

"There's probably more in the kitchen unless Mikkel decided to make fries or something. Mmmm...fries. I'd kiss someone for some fries right now."

"Kiss? Isn't the term 'I'd kill for some fries?" Nataliya mentally wondered if she'd gotten the idiom wrong all along. It'd be just like her to accidentally turn a harmless idiom violent.

"Heroes don't kill people randomly."

Nataliya gripped his coat. "Don't you dare do something stupid like that again!"

"You're going to have to be more detailed. Which stupid thing?"

"Going outside the barrier! Dancing with a ghost! Trying to sacrifice yourself for me again and again!"

"Oh, that stupid thing. Well, hey, it got us saved, so no worries."

She clutched his coat tighter. What would she have done if he left? For so long she'd been ignoring what had been there all along.

Alfred grinned. "If I wasn't mistaken, I'd think you care if I live or die."

She let go of his coat. "Fah...."

"Oh, come on, Nataliya! Don't be cross with me."

"You want to be my boyfriend? Fine. But you stay in the barrier when I tell you! No more rash things like running out to dance with a ghost."

"Wait, really? You'll go out with me?"

Nataliya started to put her tools away. The snow crunched beneath her feet. "If you can keep up, that is."

"So cool. You'd be like...Cucumber Girl."

"Cucumber Girl?"

"Cool as a cucumber!"

"I liked it better when you were comparing me to Disney characters and superheroes," Nataliya muttered.

With more than a little wariness, she opened up the doors to the school again. The halls were quiet. They still retained the feel of the ghosts like an echo. For once, it wasn't just an unearthly chill; it was an unbearable heat. But as the seconds passed, it began to dissipate.

"So where do we start? I say kitchen."

"You're right; we need more salt."

"I was thinking a snack, but I'm down with pouring salt all over it."

She gave him a slight glare, not quite the usual full arctic force but enough for him to get the message.

The textbook floated in the middle of the kitchen like the ghost was waiting for them. The pans slowly clattered and then stilled.

"I'm sorry for pushing you. I only meant to borrow it."

Alfred stepped in front of her. For once, his face was filled with fury. She'd never seen him like this with clenched fists like he was ready for a fight. "You expect us to just take that? You almost killed us!"

Her face shone with something like giddiness. She cupped her cheeks. "But it got you to finally talk. Really, I unlocked it right away. I never meant to hurt you. I just wanted you to finally realize!"

Nataliya clasped her hand across his arm. "She doesn't feel full of wrath. I believe her."

"Jeez, be a little more careful. We almost kicked it."

She hung her head. "I just wanted to talk to someone. I didn't mean to hurt anyone. When that boy came to the board, I was so happy. And when he didn't say goodbye and I could come back, it seemed like a second chance. I died and nobody even noticed. They just kept on with their lives."

She looked up, her translucent face shone with tears. "I just wanted friends. And when someone reached out to me through that board… I was so happy."

"It hurts when nobody sees you," said a voice from outside the glass. Slowly, Matthew appeared into the kitchen.

"Matt-- when did you get here?"

"I was here the whole time, you all just didn't notice," he said bitterly.

"Walking through school, no one noticing...thinking I could just die and nobody would notice..." The girl ghost hung her head. "It's a lonely existence. I wish we could've met earlier. I think we would've been friends." She sniffled. "I never even got to find out how the season of Magical Princess Mochi Mochi ended. I really, really wanted to see that. I wanted to have friends and go back to Japan. Back to when I was happy. It's not fair that my life ended so soon." She could have flared up and turned red with the injustice but near Matthew, she remained calm.

"Tell us your name," Nataliya said quickly to distract her from the overwhelming sorrow. “We'll leave flowers on your grave.”

"And tell me what happens with Magical Princess Mochi Mochi? I so wanted to know if she and the prince got together."

"I'm sure Kiku will know," Alfred said. “He always knows stuff like that.”

"Oh, that's wonderful. I wish I could've seen it, but I..." Her image flickered.

Panic grew in Nataliya's chest. It was a dangerous edge they were dancing on. Should sadness overwhelm them, she might grow truly violent.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude! My name is Sally Tahno." She bowed. "I'm getting really rusty. It's been so long since I was back in Japan with my grandparents. I had to stop so much of what I learned here when I moved." Before anyone could respond, she floated over towards Matthew. "Your bear is cute." She reached out to the little translucent bear that sat on his shoulders.

"Oh, that's just Kumojaro," Matthew said. “He's always around.”

"It's your guardian," came a voice from just beyond the room.

Lukas walked in with Mikkel not far behind.

"The bear. He shields you. However, his shield has the side effect of rendering you invisible. Those with spiritual power remember you better, because they have enough strength to counter him."

Matthew looked irritated and tapped the little bear on his shoulders. "Jeez, Kumomochi, all this time it was you?'

"Who?"

"Come on, Kumojiji. I'll go tell Arthur and Vasil the ghosts are gone. Maybe they'll actually pay attention to me this time."

"Um, goodbye! It was nice to meet you!" Sally said.

Matthew glanced back with surprise. "Uh-- nice to meet you, too."

"Was I rude?" Sally clutched her skirts and hung her head. "I didn't mean to be--"

"He's just not used to being remembered," Alfred said.

"Maybe that was what happened to you," Lukas guessed. “Maybe you had a guardian spirit so protective, they kept you from everyone.”

"Lukas' don't give enough of a fuck to keep him hidden away. His personality does the job and drives everyone away anyway." Mikkel laughed.

Lukas' jaw twitched. "Mikkel, do you like living?"

"You can't curse me, your trolls are my bros. Besides, who are you going to get to carry your shit? Berwald is too busy mooning over Timo to be your personal gopher."

Lukas crossed his arms over his chest and gave Mikkel a glare, but he had no argument to make.

"A guardian spirit?" Sally perked up. “That's like a Ghibli film. Maybe I'll meet them someday.”

"Do we need to get that spirit board again or something?" Alfred asked.

"No, I'll go back. I'm sorry for the trouble I caused." Sally bowed her head. "I hope I see you all again and-- I'm so glad you two figured it out. It was like one of my shows come to life." She had one last giddy lovestruck look before she faded into nothing.

"She didn't cross over," Lukas said.

"She still had things to do like that anime crap. But, as long as she isn't trying to kill us, it's all good."

Alfred sent a couple texts to Kiku.

I'll take care of it came a few moments later. Alfred smiled, and put the phone back in his jacket. "Another case solved. Hey, if we're in the kitchen already--who wants to get something? Fighting ghosts is hard work!"

Mikkel laughed. "There's nothing good in here. Let's head to Mickey D's and get something greasy."

Alfred beamed. "Now that's what I'm talking about."

He put his hand about her shoulders, but slowly as he kept looking down to make sure she was okay with it.

"I could use a burger," she said.

"Just when I thought you couldn't get any cooler."

*

Kiku burned strips of paper. Across them were spoilers for all of season 2 of Magical Princess Mochi Mochi. A figure appeared in the smoke.

"Are you Alfred's friend?" she asked shyly. "The Kiku-san he mentioned? I hope my pronunciation hasn't gotten while I was overseas. I tried to keep up my Japanese skills for when I came back to visit my grandparents."

"You are doing fine," Kiku said.

He brought out a series of DVDS. Sally let out a gasp as she caught sight of the colorful pink covers with magical princesses on them.

"Oh, you got them? And these are the Deluxe Collector's Edition, too! With the concept art, special interviews, and a limited edition figma, and a whole ten minutes of deleted scenes!"

"We could watch together, you know. As long as you behave."

Her eyes grew wide as she took in the collection of figures and DVDs in the room. "You got the Redgold Magical Princess Mochi Mochi figma? That's limited edition! I couldn't even preorder it, because it ran out in under an hour! And---there's all of PreCure Plaid Princess here! Oh, I always wanted to watch that season, but..." Her smile faded. "I died... You know, I took the book because I wanted to see if I could write something in it. They reminded me so much of the pair on Sakura Smiles. A cold but cool girl, and a bouncy heroic boy. I tried to tell them, but I'm not sure they understood."

Kiku rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "You're right. They do resemble Tanaka and Asuka."

"I know, right? Like a real life Tanaka and Asuka! I didn't mean to worry them, but that was how Tanaka and Asuka kissed. I thought for sure it would work. I unlocked the door right after, but they didn't notice-- they were too busy kissing." Sally pressed her hands to her cheeks and giggled. "And it was such a good kiss, too. Like there should've been an orchestra of music behind it. I could almost image the score." She twirled a little and began to hum a tune that didn't exist. "Do you think Matthew could come too? Do you think he'd like...anime?" She looked up shyly.

"Don't fall in love with the living. It can only end in heartbreak."

"Don't be silly, my heart belongs to Saburou-kun, the dreamy hacker Samurai in Future Neo Tokyo, but he looked so lonely. Maybe he needs a popular person to make others notice him like Kimi ni Tidoke."

"You certainly know your anime."

She sat down. "When I came home, I'd watch shows. I pretended I was a senshi as a child whenever I was scared. And whenever I was on familiar bases, the scenes of cities I remembered made me happy. See, Mother was in the armed forces. She moved bases a lot." Her expression sobered at this. "I wonder if they miss me."

"Of course they miss you."

"Even when I was alive, it seemed like I was already a ghost. No one noticed me. I slipped in and out of schools when Mother had to ship out. The only comfort I had was what reminded me of home: my shows."

"One day, I will bring you to see your family. But perhaps that will cause you to pass on. And it would be a tragedy for you to miss the second season of Magical Princess Mochi Mochi."

Sally smiled. "Thank you. C-could we---do you think we could be...friends?"

"Of course we could, Tahno-kun," Kiku said.

"Just Sally is fine."

She hummed along to the theme song as he turned on the DVD.

*

The next weekend was booked up. All the snow meant that classes were canceled and the butcher shop had closed. And so it was that Nataliya took a much needed break.

Alfred had already packed more snacks than she could finish in a week, let alone a night. There were all kinds of sweet candies, a bucket of popcorn, a bag of something greasy from some fast food joint, and a pair of two liter pops.

It was Alfred's house they ended up at, for the apartment she lived in was always full of family— and some were none too happy about her new boyfriend.

Besides, his couch was larger, if not more worn. It had been recovered so many times that she couldn't tell what the original material had been, only that now it had a fleur de lis pattern.

"Yeah, Matt got it like that because he was ticked off at Arthur. Every time Arthur forgets him, he goes super French just to piss him off."

"Well, everyone needs a hobby, I suppose," Nataliya said.

Alfred laughed. He eagerly pulled out a stack of DVDs. "All right, Bloodbath 2017 is on," Alfred said. "We've got The Haunting of Hill House, The Conjuring, all the classics like Jason and Freddie, and now The Bye Bye Man." Alfred laughed to himself at that.

"Oh man, when that came out, the memes about it were hilarious. You should've seen. Maybe I've still got some of them in my Twitter likes somewhere. Wait, does this count as our first date or was the other thing a date? I mean, standing in a circle of salt is pretty romantic, right?"

Nataliya stroked her chin thoughtfully. "That was more like a confession scene, I suppose."

"Cool, good to know. First date trial of courage is on!"

He turned on the television with a snicker. "I almost feel like Sadako is just going to come out there and come chill with us." But as the first spooky music came on, and the camera panned on a dark house, Alfred clutched to her arm.

She looked impassively his way and lifted an eyebrow. "The movie has barely started and you're already afraid?"

"Hey now, I'm-- not scared, really."

"You shouldn't be. It's incredibly inaccurate."

"Really?"

"Bad CGI doesn't even begin to show the horror of facing the undead."

"Ugh, you're supposed to say it doesn't existttt."

"You've seen actual ghosts. We fought them together."

"And they almost killed me! Besides, this is a vampire movie." As the horrifying cloud of darkness took over the town, or at least on the television screen this time, he squeezed her hand tight.

"The garlic is a myth; the stakes aren't."

"Makes sense, otherwise there wouldn't be any Italian vampires, and in the stories tons of them are Italian. Heh, you can be my hero."

"We can take turns."
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