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a sigh of relief

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The air in the car was thick, and that had nothing to do with the seasonal humidity. The exorcism had been a disaster, and the clients were clearly unhappy, but that was the least of Reigen’s worries.

What he cared about was how Mob was feeling.

The young esper was in the backseat, squished between two of the college-aged clients. He was as silent as ever, and from the glances Reigen could catch in the rearview mirror, the boy was just staring down at his hands in his lap.

This had been a rough one.

Usually, Mob could rid the area of evil spirits in a matter of seconds (sometimes minutes if the spirit was stronger than normal). This time, however, no exorcism had taken place.

Mob claimed that the ghosts, of which there were three, were a family; they were living in the demolished house peacefully, not causing harm to anyone. Dimple backed this up, but Reigen didn’t need him to. He trusted Mob’s word.

That had brought Reigen to a crossroads: the clients wanted the spirits gone because they were scared, but Mob did not want to do the job because they were a harmless family. That made Reigen stuck between a possible bad review for his service or Mob’s opinion of him changing, morphing his image into that of someone who makes innocent ghosts suffer and people do things they’re clearly uncomfortable with.

When it came down to it, it was an easy decision.

Once Mob started shaking, once it was evident the boy was in deep turmoil over this job, Reigen knew he had no other option but to shut it down. Screw the clients, they wouldn’t know any better. He could throw salt at them and claim the deed was done and they’d be none the wiser.

But Mob . . .

Mob would hold this moment in his heart and mind forever. This was a crucial decision, one that determined what type of esper, what type of person, he truly was: does he spare the innocent and risk the clients, or does he take away the happiness of a family so that others feel safe?

For Mob, a kid with a heart of gold and a conscience better aligned than Reigen’s would ever be, this was the furthest thing from an easy decision.

He needed guidance. He needed his master.

Reigen regretted not making up his mind quicker. He kicks himself for not telling Mob right away that he didn’t have to do anything he was uncomfortable with. That was something they hadn’t breached before. All the previous evil spirits had been, well, evil. These were the first that presented no threat, no hindrance to humans.

In those tense moments, where Mob listened to the man beg on behalf of his family, hands shaking and heart beating faster than normal, the words of his master were what would have helped. And not just any words: he needed Reigen to tell him, yet again, it was okay to run away.

This was slightly different, as they weren’t running from danger. But it was a situation so taxing, so tumultuous that all Mob needed to know was that it was okay he didn’t want to do it, he could spare these spirits, it was fine if he felt bad about it, it was okay if he left them alone.

Reigen took too long pondering, spent too many precious minutes with his hand on his chin, determining whether his pocket would feel significantly lighter without these people’s money.

Money wasn’t the real issue, though. It was more about the satisfaction, and the subsequent risk that they would expose him. With the website up and running flawlessly, there came with it the potential for Internet scandal: online reviews. These moody students could take their dissatisfaction out on him and spread negative stories: Reigen Arataka steals your money and doesn’t even exorcise the spirits. He makes you drive him and his weird child apprentice miles just for him to throw salt into your eyes and take your money without the thought that he could be doing wrong. Avoid this psychic at all costs, if he can even call himself that.

Reigen’s stomach churned at the mere thought of such a review. He would be ruined. Mob would find out. Things would be bad.

The car jolted suddenly, and Reigen was jerked from his thoughts as he flew forward, hands instinctively reaching out in front of him and landing on the dashboard. He let out a sharp huff, shot a glare at the driver who mumbled a weak apology, and fully turned to look at Mob.

The boy’s black hair almost seemed to stand on edge, but it didn’t look like he moved too much when the car slammed forward. He was sandwiched between those two people pretty good.

“You okay, Mob?” Reigen wasn’t risking messing up anything else with the esper tonight.

Mob gave a nod, hair bouncing a little. His bangs rested just above his eyes, hiding his eyebrows, making it hard for Reigen to really read his expression. His mouth was in a taut line, and he blinked once when Reigen kept staring.

I’ll talk to him when we’re back. About what happened. Now obviously isn’t the time. These bozos seem to be buying my salt trick. I think I can live with charging them for a cheaper package than they planned if they get antsy about the whole ordeal.

The car jerked forward, Reigen moving with it. His seatbelt locked up and he let out a grunt, not having been prepared for that. The driver received another cold stare. He didn’t half-ass an apology this time.

They arrived back at the office not too much later after that. Reigen invited them back up, offering to reevaluate payment if they wanted. Lucky for him, they all seemed exhausted and perturbed, and they were willing to hock up the money for the original package they had settled on.

“Thank you for doing business with me. The issue of spirits is one of a very grave manner, and I hope you understand this.” He leveled them with his most serious expression. He wasn’t bullshitting this time. “Sometimes, things happen that are a bit . . . harder to judge than others. My apprentice and I had to evaluate the situation correctly before we could take action. That’s why there was such a delay. Please do not take that personally, or think that we were trying to fool you or cheat you out of your money.”

That’s what I normally do. Well, sorta. I do help people, just . . . not exactly how they expect to be helped. As long as they’re content, I can’t feel guilty about taking their money.

“That being said,” Reigen continued, clearing his throat before the next part, “I understand if you were dissatisfied with this exorcism. Especially with my methods. They are unique, but--they’re what earned me the title of the greatest psychic of the twenty-first century. I would appreciate it if you kept this experience to yourselves. The intricacies of spiritual exorcisms . . . many people do not understand what they are getting themselves into when they come to me. Spreading a rather intense encounter like the one we had today might put off some people from seeking help. So, for that reason, I would sincerely hope you--”

“We won’t rat on your business, old man.” The driver’s drawn-out, bored sounding voice cut through Reigen’s speech, and damn had he been on a roll! “Today was shit, but--you exorcised the spirits, right? You took our money, so that means they’re gone? For good? Like--zip?”

Reigen nodded, standing up a bit straighter and adjusting his jacket. “Precisely. Like zip. They’re gone for good. My student and I determined an exorcism via salt--with the salt being thrown onto your bodies since it seems the spirits attached to you a bit--as the best course of action.”

“Fine. Then--whatever. Thanks, man. And thank your little friend, too.” The student shifted his car into drive and took off before Reigen could respond.

Thank god, because Reigen was currently at a loss for words. An uncomfortable, sharp feeling had settled in his stomach when the man uttered those last words.

“Thank your little friend, too."

Mob hadn’t done anything. That was the whole point of the decision, that he wouldn’t have to perform an exorcism. Logically, Reigen knew the clients didn’t know this. They were just being polite, eating up the words Reigen just spat at them.

And yet, Reigen felt like he had done something utterly wrong. Not to the clients. Screw them, they were history. He got their money and their word not to complain; there wasn’t anything else he could need from them.

No, Reigen felt like he did something wrong to Mob. He left him hanging, forcing him to think, even if just for a few moments, that he was going to have to destroy the innocent souls of a happy family. Reigen made Mob take the full responsibility of the situation. He made Mob come to the realization that he was living in a world unlike any other: one where he had control in more ways than the average person.

Mob wasn’t just protecting humans; he was also putting them in danger. And the same went for spirits: he was simultaneously their worst nightmare and also, possibly, their savior. It was up to Mob what he wanted to do. It was his decision to make on who survived and who perished.

That’s an awful responsibility to place on the shoulders of a person, yet alone a middle schooler. Mob was barely fourteen. He didn’t need to be weighed down by the understanding that he was the only thing separating life from death for these life and energy forms.

And Reigen was the reason he now had come to terms with that. From the client the day before, asking Reigen to curse someone, to now this, Reigen was the root cause of Mob fully realizing that he held a position unlike the majority of the earth’s population.

How could Reigen call himself Mob’s master when this was the type of lesson he was imparting to him on the daily?

Letting out a deep sighing, willing that uncomfortable pain in his belly to go away, Reigen turned to the building, eyes landing on the small figure of the boy his mind was swimming about. Mob stood with his hands in the pocket of his sweatshirt, eyes trained on the ground as he kicked a small stone back and forth between his feet.

His expression was so blank, Reigen wondered for a second if he was even still thinking about what had just happened. Then he remembered this was Mob, who always tried to hold those types of issues in, who tried to paint himself as calm and unconcerned.

Mob was most definitely thinking about the exorcism, or lack thereof.

Reigen took a few steps forward, clearing his throat and trying to mentally shake off the jitters that had settled all over him. “Alright, Mob, it’s pretty late, but how about we go up to the office real quick? I can give you your pay and then you can go home.”

Mob glanced up from his stone, dark eyes unsurprisingly blank. “Why would I get paid? I didn’t do anything today.”

Shaking his head, Reigen patted Mob’s back, forcing him to turn around and guiding him toward the door. “You still came along! And you helped me make the decision about what to do. The fact that you show up every day and sit in the office with me is worthy enough of pay!”

Lies. I’m gonna probably forget to pay him the next slow day we have. And I’ve really only given him money for doing real exorcisms. Crap, I’m a really shitty master, huh?

“Oh. Okay.” The boy’s voice was back to it’s normal timber: monotone, straightforward, borderline apathetic. Characteristically Mob.

The climb up the steps was silent, and Reigen resisted the urge to fill the silence with nonsensical whistling or humming. His shoes slapped against the steps louder than Mob’s, and for some reason, it made him feel self conscious. Here he was, an average conman, overpowering, overshadowing, silencing a kid who was more powerful than he could ever understand. A kid who took on the role of god.

Those types of thoughts should have frightened Reigen. He should have been nervous about the possibility of Mob becoming sick with power, becoming delusional and realizing that there was nothing stopping him from really becoming like a god. However, those fears never arose inside him. The kid was too strong morally for that kind of shit. And besides, Reigen had been instilling in him for years that he was just as normal as everyone else.

Though tonight might have messed with that a little bit.

Man, I really fucked up, huh?

They reached the office, and Reigen unceremoniously unlocked the door, letting it swing inside. He flicked the lights on and made his way to his desk. Give Mob the money and then let the kid leave. He needs to get home, he’s just a kid.

Reigen paid his apprentice no attention as he set about his goal. He didn’t watch Mob walk in slowly, didn’t see the boy quietly shut the door and then go over to his little receptionist desk. As he clattered around with the money box, loudly sorting through coins and bills, he definitely didn’t hear the soft signal of tears. He didn’t catch the little whimpers and muffled sobs that came from the esper in training. The conman was too focused on distracting his guilty conscience with the task at hand: money to Mob, money to Mob, money to Mob.

Once he finally looked up from his desk, a few more coins than usual in his palm and ready to give to Mob, Reigen heard the boy’s silent tears. He saw his shoulders shake, watched his head bob forward where it was buried in his hands.

The coins clattered to the desk, filling the office with the loudest sound yet. Mob looked up, eyes just peeking over his fingertips, and when he saw Reigen staring right back, he turned his back to his master. The fake psychic watched Mob’s shoulders move as he most likely tried to wipe the tears off his face, as if Reigen wasn’t fully aware of what the esper had been doing.

Cautiously, Reigen rose to his feet and made his way around his desk. “Hey, uh, Mob? You okay?” His shoes clacked against the tile floor and before he knew it, he was standing next to Mob’s tiny figure, which was still shaking. “Uh, do you--”

The black-haired kid jumped, clearly not aware that Reigen had made his way over. His face was shiny, his eyes red rimmed, and Reigen noticed his nose especially wet, probably with snot.

“I--I’m sorry, M-Master,” Mob stuttered out, still remaining turned away from the man. “I don’t mean to--I--sorry.”

“What are you apologizing for? Crying? Mob, don’t be sorry for that.” Reigen knelt down, and only with the motion did he realize just how tiny Mob’s desk was. How small this kid was in general. How small and tiny and seemingly insignificant he seemed and yet--

He was one of the most powerful people in the world.

“No I--I mean, I’m sorry for that, too. For crying. But I . . .” He trailed off, and Reigen had to resist the urge to reach out and physically turn him around. He wanted to have this conversation correctly, but he also recognized that the only way this would go well was if it was at Mob’s comfortability level. “I messed up today. I was--I ruined it. I--I’m sorry I--”

“Hey, hey, hey,” Reigen began, keeping his voice lower and softer than he realized it could go. “You’re alright. Don’t apologize for that, Mob. In fact--I’m the one who should be saying sorry. I put you in a difficult position and almost made you do something you didn’t want to. I’m sorry.”

Mob shifted, slowly turning to face Reigen, where the man now had a better view of the kid’s saddened face. He looked utterly devastated. And it was all Reigen’s fault.

“M-Master, you--”

“I was wrong to make you go through that. I will never--and I mean never, Mob--ever make you do something you don’t want to, alright? That’s not fair to you. If something like this happens again--something that I ask you to do and it upsets you--just say so, okay? I don’t want my apprentice doing things that make him upset.”

Reigen flashed a smile at the young boy, and he slowly reached out, placing a gentle hand onto his shoulder and giving a soft squeeze. He let his thumb run back and forth as Mob sniffled, raising a tiny fist to rub at his eyes.

“I--but Master you--you always know best. You--that’s why you’re--that’s why you--”

“Sometimes I’m wrong. I know--hard to believe! But even masters can be wrong. Especially when their student is clearly uncomfortable. I’ll never ask you to do something like that ever again, okay Mob?”

Reigen waited patiently as the young esper let the words settle into him. He watched the understanding flood Mob’s system, a little bit of tension draining away. His eyelids closed a bit, his shoulder slumping forward. He let out a shaky sigh.

“Okay.” His eyes slowly made their way up to Reigen’s own before skittering away, but the fleeting moment of eye contact was enough for Reigen to tell that Mob believed him. “Thank you, Master.”

“Of course, Mob. I’m sorry we didn’t establish that boundary sooner. It’s essential for all masters to recognize there are things their students should never have to do.” Reigen gave the boy’s shoulder one final squeeze before standing. “Now let me get you your pay and you can head home, alright? I’m sure you’ve got some homework to do.”

Mob nodded once, mouth opening then closing, whatever he intended to say dying off. Reigen snatched the coins off his desk and sauntered back over. Mob held his hands out and Reigen dropped them into his palms, the clinking sound filling the atmosphere.

“Thank you, Master. Wait--this is too much.” Mob plucked two coins from the pile and tried to hand them back to Reigen.

“No, Mob. That’s your pay. Keep it.” He shoved his hands into his pants pockets for emphasis, showing he wouldn’t take what the boy was trying to give back.

After a moment of thought, Mob nodded, slipping the coins into his pocket. He stood, too, and went to reach for his bag before stopping short. Reigen cocked his head, but realization hit him when the boy’s small body did.

Mob’s face was pressed into his chest, his arms wrapped tightly around Reigen’s middle. A hug. The kid was giving him a hug.

Reigen’s movements were awkward and robotic as he pulled his hands out of his pockets, slowly bringing them around Mob’s tiny frame. He had to bend down a little, but it was worth it when he felt the esper’s shoulders rise and fall with a contented sigh.

There was a muffled “thank you” against Reigen’s shirt, and he brought a hand up, gently patting Mob’s pitch black hair.

“You’re welcome, Mob.” The words made his tongue heavy. He shouldn’t have been saying them. This young boy shouldn’t have been thanking him after he put him through such moral turmoil. Reigen was the last person on earth Mob should have been thanking.

And yet, here the boy was, tucked against the conman, squeezing around his stomach after repeatedly thanking him for being a half-decent human being every now and then.

Another pat to his head, and Reigen pulled back, looking down into the boy’s shining eyes. There was the feeling akin to a punch in the gut as Reigen took the esper in, pure gratitude radiating from his features as he thanked his master once again. For what, Reigen really didn’t know. All he knew was that he wasn’t worthy of that gratitude.

Reigen couldn’t bring himself to respond this time, so he merely nodded and awkwardly cleared his throat. Mob didn’t seem put off by this as he grabbed his bag and slung it over his shoulder.

“Bye, Master. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Mob gave a little wave as he started toward the door.

Reigen panicked for a moment as he realized he had to respond, and he barely managed to choke out, “Night. See you, Mob,” before the kid disappeared out the door.

With a deep sigh, Reigen returned to his desk chair, head swimming with everything that had happened. He rubbed at his temples, trying to will away the headache he could feel starting to form. He glanced behind him, through the slats of the blinds, catching sight of Mob’s tiny figure making its way down the sidewalk.

Hundreds of emotions bubbled underneath Reigen’s skin, but the most prominent was that of guilt.

“I’m sorry, Mob,” he muttered to empty air. “I’m really, really sorry.”