"Damnit," he swore. He'd spent the last few minutes tearing through his overnight bag apart searching for his phone cord. Frustrated, he pushed the bag away from him, leaning back against the wall. "It's not here. I must have left it."
Mai didn't say anything for a long minute, watching him absently out of the corner of her eye. The revelation that something was desperately trying to get their attention by stealing their things had not spurred any sort of reaction from Lin-san, nor did it take Mai out of her spiraling bad mood. She'd just plopped down in her chair again and stared resolutely up at the monitors as if hoping they would give her some sort of answer.
When it became apparent they weren't, she yawned. "This is getting us nowhere." She said, stretching her arms high above her head. "What time is it?"
Naru closed his eyes. Without a phone there was he could have answered that question. For the first time he was regretting having never invested in a watch, at least then he would know exactly how much of his life he was wasting in this apartment.
Lin paused in his typing long enough to answer, "11:30."
"The first recorded activity happened at exactly 4 o'clock, right, Lin?" When Lin gave a low affirmative grunt, Mai went on, "It's possible that the same thing might happen again tonight. Naru-chan, we should have all the equipment ready just in case."
"Right," Naru said, but didn't make to move. He'd already checked all the cameras not even ten minutes ago out of pure boredom. There was no need to check on them again.
With his eyes closed he couldn't see the face Mai must have been making at him, but he heard her chair groan slightly as she turned toward him. "What are you doing?"
"It looks an awful lot like sleeping."
Naru shrugged, "To each his own."
"Well, if you're not going to be useful, you might as well go to sleep."
He peeked an eye open. Mai wasn't looking at him but down at her interlocked fingers. "Do you really mean that?" he asked.
"Yeah, sure. I don't see why not." She cast a glance around the small, cluttered room. "There's not enough space in here to lie down comfortably though. You could sleep in the room next door."
He opened his other eye and leveled her with a tired glare, completely incensed. "You want me to sleep in the room where a ghost nearly hit you with a lamp and took my head off with a book?"
She waved a hand at him dismissively. "The room itself isn't privy to any sort of activity. It just so happened the object it was linked to was in there, now that it's in base with Lin I highly doubt there will be any more activity there." She said matter-of-factly, paused, then met his gaze. "Unless you would like to sleep in the base with Linー"
"No, I'm okay." He grabbed his night clothes still lying in a heap on the floor beside his bag and made to stand.
"Actually," Mai said, raising from her seat. "I could use some sleep, too. Lin, make sure we're up before 4 A.M."
Lin-san nodded and Mai strode from the room with a small duffle bag in tow. Stunned by her sudden realization that they would both be sleeping in the same room, Naru didn't make a fuss when Mai stole into the bathroom to change first. He waited quietly out in the hallway for her to finish and just when he thought he would give himself whiplash from how many times he'd thought he'd heard something creaking behind him, she came out.
Mai had apparently changed into her pajamas too ー a two-piece, rose colored ensemble that infuriated some deep, previously unknown part of him. He stared at the space of bare, pale skin below her throat where the night shirt came together in a V.
"What's wrong, Naru-chan?"
He could feel heat rising to his cheeks and looked away quickly, "N-nothing." He said then hastened into the bathroom before she could get a look at his face. He held his breath and leaned against the back wall until he could hear her soft footfalls leading away from the door.
What was that? he berated himself. What was so rousing about Mai in her pajama's? He pushed his palms to his eyes and saw again the soft pink against her pale skin in his mind's eye. This was going to be harder than he thought. Forcing the image away, he pulled off his clothes and changed into a pair of threadbare pajama pants and t-shirt. He was just going to have to keep reminding himself that Mai was his boss, that was all. Whatever it was he thought about her, she was his boss.
With that thought, he left the bathroom was more confidence than when he'd entered. However, it all melted away when he reached the doorway of the room they were to sleep in.
Even though he made a point to not look directly at her, Naru was particularly conscious of the small space between where Mai was settling under her blankets and where he ought to have been. There was no way he was going to sleep that close to Mai, hell, even Lin-san who would be keeping watch on the readouts in the next room all night would still be too close for comfort. Would it be possible for him to sleep in another room? He entertained the thought of sleeping on the floor in base but… No. Maybe he should stay up with Lin-san after all.
Or… maybe he could just move the desk? He was sure if he had something like that between himself and Mai's sleeping form, he might be able to rest peacefully. Or maybe it was wishful thinking. Well, he thought to himself, setting his sleeping mat down by the door, might as well try.
He could feel Mai's gaze follow him across the room. "What are you doing?"
"Moving the desk," he said simply. It was taking an unsurmountable amount of effort not to look back at Mai as ー he could see from the corner of his eye ー she brushed a hand through her short hair. But she didn't question him again.
The second his hands touched the cool, smooth wood of the desk, he felt it. A swirl of memory and emotion, pushing at the fringes of his wind, sweeping over him. Threatening to take over. A groan escaped him. He tried to pull his hands away ー the desk could stay ー but he couldn't move. His feet, his hands were rooted to the spot as his mind spun and he was pulled down, down, down.
Naru jerked up, head aching, back aching even more, and the sound of shattering glass still ringing in his ears. When had he fallen asleep? He rubbed the space between his chin and cheek, feeling the scratchy short hairs growing there. He'd forgotten to shave again. A notebook laid open to a page smothered almost completely with black ink ー ink that had been smeared in the center where his cheek had lain.
Annoyance spread through him as he thumbed the page, scanning the extent of the damage. He would have to rewrite the passage later. With a sigh he closed the notebook, it's hard red cover worn from years of handling. As he pushed the chair back, a light tinkling brought his attention to the floor and the shattered remains of a glass cup. He must have knocked it over in his sleep. Standing, he stepped over it and padded silently through the open sliding door to the kitchen, where he pulled another glass from the cupboard. Forgoing the ice, he poured a generous measure of gin and sipped it. The amber liquid ignited a line of fire down his throat, burning all the way down.
Besides his muffled sigh of discomfort, the rest of the small apartment was quiet. Yuriko must have left, then. He grimaced, clicked his tongue, and sipped again. They'd fought again. They always fought. He couldn't remember what exactly about this time but was sure it had something to do with the mounting bills or what she called his 'alcohol problem'. This time, he drained the glass. He didn't have a problem ー it was Yuriko who was the problem. Always nagging him.
It wasn't his fault. None of this was his fault. He was only a pawn in the hands of people who thought themselves superior; a scapegoat for their sloppy crimes. As if they would have blamed him if they'd just seen what he'd seen. It was a witch hunt ー didn't she understand that? After all he'd done for her; brought her from her parents' old home in the country, to this city. Built her an apartment with all her favored traditional Japanese decorations. Couldn't she see, he'd done it all, everything, for her. Did she even care?
He slammed the glass back down on the counter a little harder than he'd meant and poured himself another glass.
The scene changed.
"I told you to just take the stupid deal," Yuriko hissed, her long dark hair cascading over his shoulder as she spun to face him in the doorway. She crossed her arms over her chest, shivering. "Now look what you've done. It's freezing in here."
"And I told you," Naru adjusted his position in the same old wooden chair, elbow resting on the edge of the desk, trapping the rim of his empty glass with a lazy finger. "It will be fine. Ikeda-san is a man of his word ー he will be able to prove I'm innocent."
The room dissolved into silence. Naru fell back in the chair, just enough to reach the small drawer at the bottom of the desk. It opened with a muffled scraping sound as he withdrew that worn red notebook and set it on the desk. He already turned to the page where he'd left off and picked up his long-feathered quill before Yuriko spoke again.
"When, Hikari?" Her breath came in misted puffs. She shifted uncomfortably in the doorway, rubbing her arms for warmth. "We can't even afford heat."
The scene changed again.
"This is your fault!" Yuriko raged, pulling on her coat so hard it nearly ripped. "You lied to me. You told me everything would be fine. Now, look!"
Naru didn't say anything at first. He laid his head down on the hard desk, feeling the edge cutting into the skin of his forehead. He stared absently at the long-feathered quill laying abandoned in his lap. He couldn't write with all this racket. After a moment he said, weakly, "Everything is fine."
"Are you insane or just too thick to see what's going on right in front of you?" She licked her lips ー chapped from the intense cold ー striding across the room as she stuffed random object into a large bag. "We're losing the apartment, Hikari. We haven't been able to pay the rent in months and you ー you think everything is just fine?"
Now Naru lifted his head, reaching for a sip of his gin, but the glass was empty. He pursed his lips, "Ikeda-san is taking care of it."
"Yes, of course he is." Sarcasm dripped from words. Yuriko suddenly stopped in the middle of the room, the bag dangling from her shaking fists fit to burst with random knickknacks. "I'm leaving, Hikari."
Naru's chest heaved. He'd been expecting this. He thumbed the corner of his notebook; there weren't many pages left. He would have to get a new one soon. Would he be able to afford it?
Enraged by his silence, Yuriko strode across the room, seized the red notebook and hurled it straight across the room where it hit the back wall with a papery flutter. Naru was on his feet before he'd even realized what he was doing. He'd scurried to the place where the notebook fell, haphazardly trying to gather the pages that had torn free.
From behind him he heard Yuriko retreating to the doorway. When she spoke again, her voice was as cold as the winter air. "You can stay here and freeze to death with your gin and that damned notebook if that's what you want, but I can't. Not anymore."
The scene changed for the last time.
Naru was once again sitting slumped over the edge of the desk, head resting in one hand, tiny shiny brown capsule catching the light in the other. There were four others like it sprawled out over the desk. A steaming cup of tea sat in the corner of the desk, filling the room was a fresh peppery scent.
Naru regarded the capsule with dark curiosity, reading and rereading the four-digit serial code etched into one side, eyes dancing carefully over the small skull and cross bone symbol beside them. This was his... only option.
Ikeda-san had just called; it was over. There were coming to get him.
Prison was not made for guys like him. After months of nothing but drinking, he was unkempt, and unruly. He hadn't shaved in weeks; his hair was so long it threatened to poke him in the eye and the smell of alcohol seemed to radiate from him. He would be forced to spend years in a 4-by-8 cell for a crime he didn't even commit. What then? What would he do if he ever got out? No office would ever have him. His own girlfriend wouldn't have him. Naru spared a glance at the packet of official looking documents he'd thrown together days earlier. What if all his research was for nothing?
"This is your fault." Yuriko told him, slamming the door behind her. "You deal with it."
His life was over.
Naru pinched the capsule tighter between his fingers, pulling it apart with a soft pop, so that white powder splashed down onto the face of his red notebook. Staring down at the substance, he wondered briefly if it would hurt. He wasn't even sure what the damn thing was but he was sure it would do the job.
With a shaky sigh, he brushed the white powder into his hand and sprinkled it slowly into his tea cup, watching it dissolve in the dark liquid. He added the contents of two more of the capsules to the drink before he lifted the cup to his trembling lips and sipped. The taste was so bitter, so utterly disgusting that it took all his strength not to spit it out. He squeezed his eyes shut, swallowed, then too two more small sips. Would it be enough?
Wiping his mouth on his sleeve he set the cup aside. How much time did he have? Minutes? Hours? Part of him wish he knew, the other part was content not knowing. He must have had time for a few last words. A note, perhaps? Wasn't that what people did in times like these? Assert their innocence with their last, dying breath? With well-practiced precision, he opened the old red notebook to its last remaining blank page and smiled ruefully. At least he wouldn't have to worry about scraping the money together to buy a new one.
He picked up the quilled pen, twirled it lazily between his thumb and forefinger. Oh, how he would miss this. The feeling of the pen in his hand, scratching meaning into blank parchment. How much longer? Minutes, probably. Not enough time to write everything he wanted to say, not enough time to spill all his secrets, reveal all his regrets. Minutes. His traitorous heart beat harder in his chest, unknowingly racing toward its own death. Pumping the poison through his veins.
His eyes found the clock hung on the wall opposite. Not long now.
He pushed the chair out, sitting silently, trembling hand poised above the blank page, a drop of ink already threatening to blotch the parchment. What should he say?
What was befitting of his last words?
He spun the quill again and this time the ink did blotch the paper, spider webbing out. He wiped the sweat from his brow, squinting at the ink. The lines of the paper blurred and rotated before his eyes. Bile rose in his throat.
No, not yet. He wasn't ready yet. He had to write something ー anything. But his hands shook, his fingers not responding to his brain. How was it so that a book so filled with his thoughts would never know his last? The pen fell with a muffled thud. His hand convulsed, twitching and writhing. Not yet.
Next was his chest. It felt as if fire had ignited on his veins. His lungs seized ー he couldn't breathe. Tears streamed from his eyes as the world slipped out from under him and next moment he was lying curled in the ground. This was not what he thought it would be. He gulped down a breath, gasping around the bile tearing apart his nose and throat. But it was too late. His heart thundered to a halt and the chiming of the clock announcing the four o'clock hour fell on deaf ears.
Tears dropped down, staining the wood of the desk.
Mai's voice broke through his muggy thoughts, rooting him back firmly in his own head. He was no stranger to psychometric visions, but he'd never been very good at coming back out of them again. He swallowed hard, still feeling the burn of the poisoned tea down his throat. His stomach churned, "Sorry," he choked out.
Mai stepped beside him, arm reaching out as if to console him. She peered into his face, lips thin with worry. "Are… you crying?"
"What?" As he said it he felt the lingering wetness of tears that had slid down, over his cheeks. "Oh ー no. I ー I stubbed my toe on the corner." He whipped the tears away with a shrug of his shoulder as he leaned away from the desk, pretending to nurse his injury. His eyes were drawn back to the desk feeling as if he were missing something. He found the very last and smallest of the drawers; the same one Fujino-san kept his notebook in. That… couldn't be a coincidence, could it?
He reached for it.
"Naru!" Mai seized the hem of his sleeve, tugging him so fiercely he stumbled sideways, off-balance.
"Whatー" he hissed, but he already knew. An inexplicable draft was trickling down his back, icy and undoubtedly familiar. The lights overhead flickered, bathing them in swaths of darkness. A low, trembling rumble pressed against his ears as if he'd been thrust into a crowd of angry people. "Mai," his voice caught in his throat. He knew he was speaking but he couldn't hear his own voice above the din of the invisible crowd. He righted himself slowly, leaning in as close to Mai as he dared. "It's him."
His declaration was punctuated by the appearance of a wavering, pale figure. Naru swallowed hard, fighting the impulse to press his palms to his ears. His heart pounded hard in his chest. The figures wrinkled sweater-vest was hazy, as if appearing through a veil of water. His pallid, greying face scowled down at them, mute.
Mai was staring, open mouthed. It was such a look of absolute shock that Naru was forced to wonder if Mai had ever actually seen a ghost before. But then she blinked and took a half step toward the ghost. "Hikari-san?"
Naru caught hold of her wrist. Part of him felt the need to correct her, but that same icy feeling from before was ebbing into his fingertips, making Mai's skin burn like fire where they touched. Fighting the very present need to let go, he pulled her back toward him, hissing, "Mai, don't."
She didn't give any indication that she'd heard him, but then again, he wasn't sure that she could have. The disembodied voices were relentless, heckling them just beyond understanding. But Mai's voice rang loud and clear over the jumble of voices as she said, "Did someone kill you, Hikari-san?"
Fujino-san glared at the pair of them, his eyes a shining, golden brown. Naru felt a wave of dizziness followed closely by a pang of dread in the pit of his stomach. Was it him, or was the ghost becoming more solid? He clenched his jaw, mastering himself as the ghost of Fujino Hikari nodded. "They killed me."
"They?" Mai asked, innocently. "More than one person?"
"I think he means the company." Naru breathed in her ear. It was the only way she could have possibly heard him. "He blames the company for his death."
Mai searched his face curiously, mouth opening and closing as if on the verge of asking him something but thought better of it. "Fujino-san," she said, finally, "it… really wasn't you who stole from the company, was it?"
The ghost seethed, narrowed eyes glowering furiously down at Mai. Naru stepped sideways, not taking his eyes off the very substantial figure until he was half blocking Mai from view. He didn't see why he should let a ghost harm Mai, but really, he couldn't understand why he was the putting himself in danger.
...Where was Lin-san?
"Lin-san!" Naru yelled toward the open door. The chatter of the invisible voices swelled to drown out the sound of his voice.
"It wasn't me!" Fujino-san screeched, surging forward.
He looked so real, so solid that Naru flinched away from him, pulling Mai back with him. "Lin-san, help!"
The ghost was so close now they could see his whole mouth shone silver. It coated his teeth as he barred then in barely restrained fury, spilling over his lips and down his chin. "Tell them the truth."
Naru pulled Mai back again, her skin nearly searing his, but his hips hit the edge of the desk. There was nowhere else to go. They were trapped and he was one misplaced finger away from a repeat of that psychometric vision. He curled his fingers into a tight fist.
Mai showed no sign of fear but a longing to understand. "We know it wasn't you." She said, pleadingly, "but what can we do—"
"It is the notebook," he breathed. He seized the notebook from Mai's limp hand. "The proof — the proof is in here, isn't it?"
Fujino-san's eyes flicked down to the notebook. "…in there." He raised a pale finger and a fierce lash of wind grazed the back of Naru's hand. He cried out in surprise, retracting his hand back to his chest, but there was no pain. The force had only been enough to knock the notebook from his grasp — It clattered to the floor, splayed open to some page black with ink and covered in overlapping tea stains.
"Here?" Mai bent slowly, tugging Naru's arm as she did. He didn't take his eyes off the ghost as she righted herself, notebook in hand. She didn't spare a glance up again as she bowed her head over the open page, reading, "'January 4th, 2,000 transferred to account number 1204017. February 1st, 4,000 transferred' — this is it, Naru. There's a whole list of money transfers here."
"Is that what you wanted?" Naru asked. Fujino-san's face had smoothed over, the anger gone from his eyes.
He almost looked… relieved. "Show them."
Mai jerked her head up, eyes sparkling with determination. She hugged the notebook to her chest, but made no move to speak. "We will, Hikari-san. I promise."
Fujino-san closed his eyes, mouth falling open in a low sigh. Naru couldn't help but notice the silver that had coated his lips and teeth was gone. He blinked, and Fujino-san was gone.
Naru scoured the room, "Where did he go?"
"He's gone, Naru-chan." Mai said lightly. She breathed a small sigh, smiling. "He's moved on."
"Moved on?" He repeated. The warmth had begun to seep slowly back into the tips of his fingers. "How can you be sure?"
"We will have to do some minor tests but… I have no doubts. Hikari-san's spirit has moved on. It seems all he wanted was someone to know the truth. To get some sort of justice for himself." She glanced down at his hand still holding her wrist as if noticing it for the first time. "You're freezing."
He let go with a fervor that sent a flutter of nausea through him. His knees buckled. Mai's rose-colored shorts flashed at the edge of his vision, the feel of her arms wrapping loosely around his forearm heralding the crack of his knees against the barren floor.
Mai called his name again, sinking to her knees beside him. "Are you all right?"
"Perfect," he whispered, though, from the way his head pounded he may have just thought it. He meant peeked up at her from beneath his overgrown bangs but found his gaze drawn back to the desk at his side. He was almost at eyelevel now with the lowest, smallest desk drawer, an inexplicable feeling welling in his chest. This time when he reached for it, Mai didn't stop him.
It opened with that same muffled scraping sound and for a long, confused second, Naru thought he was back in the psychometric vision, staring down at that worn, red notebook. However, the feeling was shattered when Mai reached passed him and pulled the obviously blue notebook from the drawer.
"My notebook," she said, tired, but relieved. She blinked down at Naru who was still bent double, peering into the drawer. "How did you know it was there?"
"I didn't," he murmured quietly. I guessed, he finished to himself, reaching into the small space to pull out a jingling array of silver keys.
Naru spent the entirely of the ride back to base with his head between his knees, breathing slowly out through his nose. It'd taken a lot less time to take down all the equipment with Mai helping, especially since they were leaving some of their devices behind to be sure that there was no more spiritual activity, but every second felt like an eternity. It felt as if every muscle in his body had disintegrated, leaving his arms and legs shaking beneath the weight of the boxes he was forced to carry. They couldn't have been done soon enough. As soon as he'd sat down in the seat, Mai scribbling happily in her notebook beside him, he'd bent double, using what remained of his strength to keep himself from vomiting.
After finding all the missing objects, Mai and Naru had burst back into base, both still in their pajamas. Lin's face remained impassive as Mai recounted the last five minutes, until she got to the part where Fujino-san had been the most threatening.
"I called for you," Naru said, hoarsely.
Lin-san's eyebrows raised ever so slightly. "You did?"
Naru seethed, exhaustion getting the better of him. "Twice."
"I guess he didn't hear you, Naru-chan." Mai explained lightly, padding his shoulder as if consoling a tantruming child. "It was really hard to hear anything other than the voices." She said, to which Lin-san's eyebrows raised even further and Mai launched into the rest of the story.
Back in the van, Naru clenched his fists in his hair, fighting back another wave of queasiness. What was taking them so long? He thought he might pass out before Mai and Lin-san returned from their last trip making sure all the leftover equipment could function on its own. What would they do then, if they found him here, slumped against the door? He snorted, immediately regretting it as bile burned his throat. Mai would probably let him fall out.
Thankfully, he was still fully conscious two minutes later when the duo returned and slid out to allow Mai to take the middle seat. He didn't fancy sitting next to Lin-san even if it was a short journey. Mai had assured him that he could return to his apartment tonight, but expected him to be at the office in the morning. Too sick to complain, he acquiesced and a few minutes later they were pulling up to his complex.
He slinked out of the van, letting his overnight bag dangle loosely from one hand. "Good night—" he started but then Mai slid out behind him smiling tentatively.
"I'll walk you up the stairs."
"That isn't necessary," he said quickly. The last thing he wanted was a repeat of the other morning; the mere memory of it was threatening to bring on a completely different wave of emotion. "I can make it myself—"
Mai didn't let him finish. She pulled the bag out from his grasp and strung it over her shoulder, marching towards the staircase.
They walked in silence, Mai leading, all the way to the second-floor landing where she stopped to watch him climb the last few stairs. "How did you know?"
He breathed deep through his nose, desperate to keep the world from slipping out from under him as it was threatening. "…Know what?"
"About Hikari-san." She said, "It was like you knew exactly what to say."
Naru shrugged, taking back the bag and crossing the last few feet to his front door alone. He didn't want to think about it, but the lingering taste of gin and poison was still burning the back of his throat. "It was just… A feeling."
Mai laughed, a high ringing sound not unlike a bell. A knowing smile stretched her lips as she gave a small wave and started back down the stairs. "Good night, Naru-chan!"
The next morning was the hardest he had had in a long time. The simple act of pushing the covers off him was a feat in and of itself let alone showering. His whole body felt as if he'd been through a grinder then clumsily rebuilt by someone with a vague understanding of human function. But at least he wasn't feeling nauseous anymore.
The walk from the train station to the SPR office building was the worst part by far. Not only did he have to remember ambiguous set of directions relayed to him days ago, but he also had to go out of his way to avoid the small cluster of girls ogling him from the other side of the train.
Eventually though, he'd found the building, coaxed his legs to climb the stairs to the top and pushed open the door labeled SPR, Society for Psychical Research. A bell overhead announced his arrival.
"Hey, kid." A low, man's voice called from the sitting area, a voice that was too jovial to be Lin-san. Naru had barely taken in the wide space lined with bookcases and the desk by the entryway when his attention was drawn to black leather chairs and couches arrayed in a square in the center of the room.
Mai was standing just behind the furthest chair. She turned to smile at him, dressed in the same monochromatic ensemble she'd worn when they first met. "Good morning, Naru-chan. I take it you didn't sleep well?"
To be honest, he had slept better than he had in a long time; the bruises under his eyes were just a side effect of the other aches he was currently experiencing. He didn't answer, not because he didn't want to, but because he'd just realized just who exactly had called him 'kid'.
Mai gave a wide gesture to the man reclining in the client's armchair with long blond hair held back in a low ponytail and a cocky grin, "Naru-chan, you remember Takigawa-sanー"
"From the case at my school." Naru finished for her, leveling the older monk character with a glare. "I remember."
Takigawa-san smiled ruefully, "I see the ghosts haven't scared you off yet."
"I see you still haven't cut your hair yet." Naru snapped back.
Unperturbed by the palpable waves of annoyance emanating from her assistant, Mai gestured to the two occupants on the long couch. "And John-kun and Masako-chan, too." Behind her hand he recognized the bright-eyed foreigner and Mai's friend, the raven-haired medium, whom bowed their heads in turn.
Naru spared a fleeting thought for her choice of dress ー Hara-san was still sporting her flowery kimono that made her look almost doll-like ー but inclined his head to each respectfully. "Good afternoon."
Hara-san lifted a hand to hide her pink cheeks. "Hello again, Shibuya-san."
"Hi," John intoned.
Nau stepped carefully out of his shoes, saying, more out of escaping the awkward tension then actual concern, "Where's Lin-san?"
"He volunteered to take the notebook and our case report he to the police. He will be back later."
Silently, Naru congratulated the older assistant on the well thought out excuse. Lin-san must have known Mai would be inviting the other psychics to the office and made the excuse to leave. Lucky bastard.
"Police?" Takigawa-san asked, pitching an eyebrow. "Rough case?"
"No," Naru replied through his teeth.
"A bit." Mai said, standing and smoothing her skirt. "But first, would everyone like some tea?"
Hara-san nodded, folding her hands delicately in her lap. "Yes, thank you, Mai-chan."
"Tea would be appreciated," John-san said with a modest smile.
Naru followed quickly after her, shedding his jacket to drape over the edge of the couch. She was not about to leave him alone with these idiots. "I'll help."
"Actually," Takigawa-san wagged a finger at him as he passed, "I'd prefer iced coffee. If you've got it."
Naru threw a glare over his shoulder. "This is an office, not a café. If you want coffee go downstairs."
The kitchenette was a very small space, separated from the rest of the office by the wall. The space had obviously never been meant to accommodate more than one person at a time as there was barely enough room for Naru and Mai to move around without touching. Mai had already taken the kettle from the counter and filled it with water by the time Naru entered, leaning beside the microwave.
"Why are they here?" He said with as much apathetic malice as he could. Unfortunately, his want to sound indifferent and his badly concealed contempt toward the aforementioned they made it sound more like he was merely disappointed.
Mai offered an innocent look, brown eyes crinkling a bit at the edges. "I invited them."
"I'd worked that part out for myself, thanks." he said.
He glanced sideways at her, watching. Even though he hadn't meant to be funny, he had expected her to laugh. She was just weird that way, finding humor in his seriousness. He would even go as far as to say it was something he'd come to expect and even admire about her. Now, however, she didn't laugh. She didn't even crack a smile. Instead, she brought several teacups down from the cabinet and arranged them on a large carrying tray, eyebrows drawing slowly together. Naru studied her new expression, the one he associated with 'researcher Mai'.
"After the last case," she said slowly, not looking at him, "I think it would be wise to have a spiritualist or two at hand. In England, we usually have a team of spiritualists at any one time but... I thought..." she trailed off.
Naru refrained from rubbing the still aching cut across his cheek. He knew what she meant, though he thought there may be a different way of going about asking for help. He certainly didn't want to be forced to spend time with people who questioned their ability to handle things simply based on their age.
"I'd underestimated Japan," Mai went on, "but I won't be making that mistake again. Takigawa-san is a strong Buddhist monk, John-kun is an accomplished exorcist, and Masa-chan has more than proved herself as a medium. All together I think they would make JSPR a well-versed team."
Naru, who thought none of them had proved useful to them at all, threw his boss a mischievous grin, raising an eyebrow. "What happened to Matsuzaki-san?"
Mai puffed out her lip, pausing in her efforts of weighting out tea leaves. The look she was giving him was a mixture of betrayal and utter contempt. "Why?" she said, accusingly, "Were you looking forward to confessing to her?"
"Confess?" If he hadn't been afraid of bashing into the mini fridge, Naru would have taken a step back in shock and disgust. "To thatー" he stopped himself, searching for the right word. Somehow, calling her a hag as he'd been about to do just didn't feel right. She couldn't have been much older than him, anyway.
"Right." She said and to his relief, Mai's grin was back; though, he thought it had become rather fixed as she returned to shaking a spoonful of black leaves into the steeper. "I guess a girl like Masa-chan is more your style?"
It took a long minute for her words to register. A moment that was marred by the high, calming chime of the front door. Mai didn't give him a chance to collect himself. She abandoned the tea tray, fixed a welcoming smile on her lips, and crossed the space of the small kitchenette in two strides. "Hello, how can we help...you..."
Naru watched her smile falter, sliding slowly down her face as she turned quickly to look at him over her shoulder than back to the strange at the door. The whole office seemed to have fallen under a sudden hush.
"Um, hello." Naru froze, hand poised halfway to his teacup. That voice ー it couldn't be ー "Is Kazuya here?"
Mai's gaze seemed to thaw him. Her brown eyes were as round as saucers, flicking back and forth between him and the stranger as if she were watching a tennis match. "...Na...ru?"
Naru sprinted the length of the small kitchen, hearing his brother's melodious chuckle as he rounded the corner.
"Oh, no. I'mー"
A/N: Second case solved! This was the first out of two planned original cases, so I would really like your guys' feedback on what you liked and what you didn't so that I can try and do better with the next ones. A continuous thanks to Mimori Taniyama and for being the most amazing beta out there. And, a shout-out to everyone who reviewed;
NinjaPenguinLover, The Night Whisperer, soulsborne123, Mo. auxier, and Chamele.
Thank you all so much for your feedback! I've made this chapter extra long in case my updates become even more sporadic over the next couple of months while I focus on finishing my degree, but hopefully it won't be that long. There is a lot of things I can't wait to write about. Anyway, see you all in the next chapter.
Read, relax, and review!