Disclaimer: All the world's a stage, the men and women of Ghost Hunt merely players.

Practice Makes Perfect

(A.N.) Yay! Much quicker update this time around. I feel very proud of myself. So, this one comes from prompts mentioning nightmares and interaction, coming from BlackBelt and Kyia Star respectively. Thanks to everyone who reviewed. You will find cookies in your imaginations. XD


"Let me out!"

It was very dark, like tar or pitch. It was a darkness that was blacker than the blackest midnight, promising no intrusion from light. She had always been afraid of this sort of darkness. It was the stuff of nightmares and horror stories, the kinds of things that had given her the creeps ever since she was very young.

She'd always known, somewhere deep inside her heart, that those stories were true.

Her fingers were bleeding, the fingernails torn and ragged from clawing at the wooden prison. Panic had already to set in, however, so she was hardly concerned with that pain. It was air that she needed to save her worry for. How long could the air last in the compartment?

How long did she have to live?

Cold terror set in once again, chilling her very soul. She pounded against the top of the box with her bloodied fists, screamed with her already hoarse voice. "Please!" she sobbed at the top of her lungs. "Please let me out!" Tears streamed down her clammy cheeks. She thrashed in fear, irrationally hoping that it would save her in some way. But the only results were the bruises the hard pine walls of the narrow box left on her body. A feeling of needling pains accompanied the ache of the bruises.

The coffin was beginning to leave behind splinters.

oOo

Taniyama Mai woke screaming and kicking. "Let me out!" Her breath came in desperate pants, lungs feeling starved for air. Her wild motions caused her to roll off the futon she'd been sleeping on, the blankets knotted around her, constricting her. It was no wonder she'd dreamt of fighting for air.

Almost immediately, manicured hands caught the shaking girl's shoulders. "Mai?" Ayako asked, still hazy with sleep. She'd been woken by the teen's cries.

Without answering, Mai buried her face into the miko's pajama-clad shoulder and sobbed as if the world was ending. It was dream, the brunette told herself silently. Just a dream. It's not real…Not for me. The thought wasn't as comforting as she'd hoped it'd be.

As Ayako wrapped her arms around the girl's thin shoulders, another voice came from the futon to the right of Mai's. "What happened?" There was a rustle of fabric, the sound of bare footsteps, and then light flooded the room as the room's third occupant, Masako, flicked the switch on the wall.

"I think she had another dream," Ayako replied quietly, rubbing soothing circles on Mai's back. Her tone turned bitter as she added, "Just like Naru wanted."

Sighing in acknowledgement of the truth in the miko's words, Masako knelt down, automatically smoothing the fabric of her sleeping yukata under her. She laid a delicate hand on Mai's shoulder. "It's alright," she murmured. "Remember that it's only a dream."

"Then why did it feel so real?" the distraught girl wondered. She held out a bruised, scratched hand so that the other two women could see it. "Why does it always feel so real?"

"I don't know," Masako replied. She frowned slightly, disturbed by Mai's distress and injuries. Usually, the girl would already be shaking off the experience, would summon up a reassuring smile for them.

The three women fell silent for a few moments while Mai attempted to get herself under control. Ayako continued to rub her back, while Masako never left her side. Gradually, Mai began to calm down, her tears slowly but surely drying up. Though the residue of fear remained with her.

"I know," she finally said into the quiet.

It was Ayako's turn to frown. "Know what?"

"I know why it feels so real. Because, once, it was."


Morning dawned too slowly for Mai's peace of mind. She hadn't gone back to sleep after waking from that horrible nightmare. She didn't have the courage to chance having that dream again. So, she'd sat on her futon, waiting for the dawn to come and wishing that S.P.R. had never taken the case. On paper, it had all seemed so simple. Old house dating back to Emperor Koumei's time, weird and inexplicable sounds that occurred late at night, people seeing the apparition of a girl wandering the halls… Just your normal run of the mill haunting.

Yeah. Right, Mai snorted in her head, staring at her injured hands. She was still trying to pull herself together. She would act as if nothing was wrong, as if she was happy, even though she was scared witless. She didn't want any of her impromptu family to worry about her, after all.

So once the sun began to rise, lightening the sky outside the window to pale indigo, the brunette pushed herself to her feet with a groan. The bruises made her muscles feel stiff. At least the splinters were easy to get out. She grimaced. Ayako had done her best to be gentle, but the process had still hurt.

In thirty minutes, she washed her face, brushed her teeth and hair, and dressed. She was still straightening her purple T-shirt with quarter length sleeves when she entered the base. Unsurprisingly, both Naru and Lin were already awake, seated at a table laden with papers and monitors. Alone, either could make a normal person feel un-industrious. Together, they made the entire human race seem lazy.

The thought was amusing enough that it gave Mai's smile a jump-start. As long as that initial spark was there, she could keep smiling for a while. After that, she was sure that something Takigawa or Yasuhara said would make her smile again. That was usually how it worked on days when she felt this depressed.

With as much enthusiasm as she could muster, Mai chirped, "Good morning!"

Naru didn't even look up from the documents he was examining. "Mai, tea."

At least Lin-san was polite enough to look at me, the girl groused silently. She did as she was bid, taking her time to make the tea properly. The process was familiar and comforting, and a little of her anxiety disappeared in the normalcy of the situation. As much as she disliked Naru's rudeness, she really wouldn't have it any other way. The world would experience Armageddon before Naru was anything but his bossy, narcissistic self.

That bossy, narcissistic self that Mai loved.

Still, he could have looked at her in acknowledgement like a normal person would have.

Resisting the urge to deliberately spill the scalding tea all over her heartbreakingly beautiful boss, Mai set down a cup of black tea near his elbow. Another cup, filled with jasmine tea, she handed to Lin.

Her small task finished, Mai found herself wondering what to do. She didn't want to be the one to bring up her dream, still uncomfortable with the whole "hi-I'm-psychic" thing. She didn't like the undue attention it brought on her, except when it was Naru's.

The black wearing ghost hunter in question was frowning slightly as he continued to peruse the papers in front of him. "The only strange occurrence that could be linked to the phenomenon being experienced here is the disappearance of one of the previous occupants' daughters, Iwakura Haruko," he commented. "Rumors said that she ran away."

"Lies," Mai muttered involuntarily. Her bruised hands tightened around the tray she'd used to serve the tea.

Both Naru and Lin froze in what they were doing. The girl found herself pinned under Naru's deep Prussian blue and Lin's sharp black eyes. "Explain," Naru ordered.

Hugging the tray to her chest, Mai bit her lip and shook her head. She didn't want to think about it.

Critically, Naru examined his clearly reluctant assistant. There were dark circles under her eyes, as if she hadn't slept. The hands that were clamped down on the tray were white-knuckled with tension and were black and blue. The part of her forearms exposed by her shirt also bore purplish marks. His eyes traveled down her form, picking out the bruises on her long, exposed legs. "Tell me what happened, Mai." It took a great deal of effort to keep his voice even and unchanged. That well-buried part of him that was obsessively protective of Mai was seething with rage.

A few moments passed by while Mai worked up her nerve to talk about the dream. "I'm not sure if this is what you wanted to know but…I think you're looking for a grave," she finally said. "I don't know where, but somewhere on the grounds, I guess. Close." Her face took on a far-away look. "The box was made of pine. I could smell it." She breathed deeply, pausing for a long couple of seconds. It was clear that she was horrified. "I think she was buried. Alive. She kept screaming. 'Let me out'." Just saying the words made goose bumps break out on her skin. "Over and over again. 'Let me out'. No one did."

If Naru had been anyone but himself, he would have reached out to touch her shoulder or her hand. He would have tried to be comforting. However, he could only be who he was and that meant that he didn't do anything of the sort. He just wasn't good at such close human interaction. End of story. Though a voice was snarling quite angrily in the back of his mind that he most certainly could offer the girl comfort anyway. "Anything else?" he inquired coolly. Under the table, his hands curled into fists. Lin shot him a sideways glance, and Naru couldn't help but think that the older man knew exactly what was in his mind.

"Um, no. That's it." Mai's hands began to relax their death-grip on the tray, even though her shoulders shook slightly. She felt cold for some reason.

"Sit down before you faint, idiot," Naru commanded, pushing a chair towards her with his foot.

"R-right." She all but collapsed into the seat. Why do I feel so weird? It doesn't make any sense. Automatically, she pulled the chair a bit closer to the table so that she could lean her elbows on the smooth surface. Maybe I'm just tired...

Her thoughts were interrupted by a feminine screech. "Naru! I want to have a word with you!"

Lin winced slightly at the sudden and sharp noise, but he continued typing away on his computer. He couldn't resist thinking that what was about to happen was not only going to be interesting, but also highly entertaining.

Ayako threw open the door to the base and stalked inside, her high-heels clacking dangerously against the wooden floor. It was a good thing the floor wasn't tatami, or else the woman would have found herself punching holes with her stomps. The doctor's eyes glittered in a predatory sort of way as she marched up to the president of S.P.R. and, once she halted before him, her hands planted themselves on her hips. "What the hell is wrong with you?"

"I believe I should be the one asking that question, Matsuzaki-san."

A lesser woman would have cowered before the teen's icy tone, but Ayako was so incensed that she couldn't be bothered. "You are the most insensitive, cold-hearted, uncaring, selfish—."

"Do you have a point to make? Or are you only going to list a bunch of synonyms?" Naru cut in, glaring. The woman didn't know a damn thing about him.

"You," the miko snapped, "you are a brat!" She shifted her sparking eyes onto Mai's pale face. "Look at her! This is making her sick!" She pointed at the girl for emphasis, as if Naru had missed the tell-tale trembling and marks.

"No!" Mai protested, half-rising from the chair. "I'm fine. Really. There's nothing wrong with me."

"The hell there isn't!" Ayako snarled. Despite her enraged tone, she was gentle when she pushed Mai back down into the chair. "And don't you dare get up anytime soon unless you're going to go lie down and sleep."

"That's enough, Matsuzaki-san." The warning in Naru's words was clear as day. His fists remained clenched together, tension making his hands and arms ache. His short fingernails were digging into his palms hard enough that there would be lasting indents. "I'm sure you have duties elsewhere. Perhaps you could even be useful this time around by performing a successful exorcism," he bit out, resisting the urge to bare his teeth at the infuriating woman.

"Why you little—!"

Mai reached out and touched the miko's hand lightly, a pleading look in her brown eyes. She hated to see the people she cared about fight. And it really wasn't Naru's fault that she was having such horrible dreams, despite the fact he encouraged it. She wanted to help if she could. "It's alright," she murmured. "I promise."

Ayako looked down at Mai's sincere expression and sighed. "Fine," she said, her eyes softening. "But you better take it easy. Doctor's orders." A small smile crept up on the woman's lips. No one could resist when Mai was that serious.

Mai's answering grin was dazzling. "Yes, Matsuzaki-sensei."

"And you," Ayako added, spinning back to Naru, "are going to leave her be. That means no fiddling with equipment or excessive walking."

"My actions concerning my employees are none of your concern," Naru answered, keeping his dark blue eyes fixed on the data on the table. As if I didn't already know those things, he seethed. He knew Mai's limitations better than anyone, having observed closely her ever since he'd first met her. Initially, he'd done so out of habit since he was a people-watcher by nature. But then, as he grew more attached—one might even suppose attracted was a better word—he kept an eye on her for his own peace of mind and, sometimes, he did it because watching her was simply enchanting.

Ayako opened her mouth to start shouting again and only Mai's intervention headed off the explosion before it happened.

"Maybe Monk-san could help you with the exorcisms. There are a lot of rooms to go through. More than twenty of them! Can you believe that? What could anyone need so many rooms for?"

Recognizing the distraction for what it was, Ayako stared rusty tanto blades at Naru for a few moments more before letting herself be deterred. "I suppose that perverted old man would be useful," she acknowledged with a toss of her head.

Mai giggled. "Probably. Now go on. The sooner you guys get rid of the ghost, the sooner we can all head home."

It wasn't until the miko closed the door behind her as she exited that Naru's fists relaxed slightly. That woman doesn't know when to keep her thoughts to herself.

The ghost hunter slid some data read-outs recorded the night before over to the girl. "Go through those. You do know what to look for, right?"

"I'm not exactly new at this anymore, you know," his assistant replied dryly, absently rubbing at a blood-shot eye. "This is what? The tenth or eleventh serious case I've been on?"

Deciding that replying was beneath him, Naru continued to sift through the information in front of him. Yasuhara's research was extensive (and there was more to come) and it would take a while to get through everything.

The minutes ticked by and the silence stretched, broken only by Lin's typing and Mai's yawns or sighs. Every now and again, the girl would glance over at her handsome boss/crush and loose her train of thought. It was a wonder that he didn't catch her during her little staring sessions, even if they only lasted for maybe a few seconds at a time. Her face seemed to be in a permanent state of blushing, much to her embarrassment. Not that it's surprising, she griped to herself. It happens all the time when he's around.

In all actuality, Naru had caught Mai a few times when she'd kept her eyes on him for an extended period. It was not something he completely understood her motivation for. He wasn't doing anything remotely interesting. There wasn't any reason for her staring. Though he didn't mind when she blushed. She was absolutely adorable when she did that. Not that he would ever admit that to anyone. Most of the time, he didn't even admit it to himself. He also found that it was extremely difficult to resist—which he did despite that difficulty—the compulsion to push her short chocolate hair out of her face whenever it fell forward.

After some more time passed, Mai became keenly aware that Naru had not ordered tea. Which was strange. Very strange. Is he sick? Or maybe he fell asleep with his eyes open? She peered at him as closely as she dared. However, she didn't see anything that struck her as out of the ordinary.

"Is there something you need, Mai?" Naru inquired, flipping to the next page of Yasuhara's report. He smirked inwardly when she flushed a deep magenta color.

"N-no. Nothing!" she denied. Immediately, she turned back to the papers in front of her and did her best to look thoroughly engrossed in them. Stupid Mai! she chastised herself. Just because he's… No. Don't even go there. Work!

Another half-hour whittled away. Lin kept an eye on the monitors to ensure that Ayako and Takigawa were proceeding with their exorcisms unhindered. Naru continued the tedious task of sifting through information. And Mai…Well, Mai nodded off. She was slumped over the table, her head pillowed on her arms, face peaceful.

By the time Naru noticed his pretty assistant had fallen asleep, she'd already been out for a good five minutes.

Lin also found his attention drawn to the slumbering girl when he realized that Naru was no longer being as industrious as before. Instead, the teen was gazing silently at Mai, probably unaware of Lin's scrutiny. "It would probably be best," he stated, turning back to the screens, "if you took Taniyama-san back to her room, Naru." He would have preferred to have said nothing, but he knew Madoka would have murder him if he hadn't.

Naru's shoulder's stiffened in surprise at the Chinese man's voice, wondering how long the man had watched him stare at Mai. It was not something he dwelled on though. The sorcerer's suggestion was actually a good one.

Wordlessly, he slid his arms under her body, lifting her with a soft grunt. She was surprisingly light, he realized as he cradled her against his chest. He could afford to be so gentle with her now since she was asleep. It wasn't as if she would ever know.


She was suffocating. Her lungs could get enough oxygen no matter how many breaths she took. Her chest felt painfully tight, as if a heavy lead weight had been strapped there. It hurt. She was dying and it hurt. Just like in a ghost story…

"Please let me out, Daddy," she whispered. "I…promise to be good." She hadn't meant to make him angry. What had she done this time? She couldn't remember. "Please…"

Feebly, she raised her arms and pushed against the top of the coffin. Her sensitive fingertips passed over the gouges made by her nails. It was no use. The wood didn't move. Why was that? Was the box nailed shut? Or had she been…buried?

She pounded against the wood anyway, though she was ready to just give up.

No. Keep fighting, a small voice, her intuition, encouraged.

She didn't bother to listen to that voice anymore. It had been bothering her for a while, but listening to it hadn't done her any good. No matter how hard she'd struggled, she hadn't escaped from the coffin.

More lead weights seemed to attach themselves to her arms and legs and head. Her chest hurt even more now and her shallow breaths did nothing to alleviate the pain. In fact, the action only made it ache worse. Each breath burned, even as a queer numbness began to spread inward from her fingers and toes.

"I won't leave," she promised herself. "I won't leave until he comes for me and lets me out." Tears poured from her eyes, sliding down the sides of her head. The salty water was surprisingly warm.

Her eyelids drooped closed, feeling heavy. Those damn lead weight, again.

She didn't open them again.

oOo

When Mai woke up this time, there was no violent thrashing and no excruciating sobs. There was only heart-wrenching sorrow and soft tears. She shut her eyes almost as soon as she'd opened them. She would just cry for a little while. Then she'd go and report to Naru. She barely spared a second to wonder why she was back on her futon instead of in the base.

So lightly that the brunette wasn't even sure she'd felt it, fingers brushed over her tear-stained cheek. Sure that it was Ayako, she caught the hand with her own, not making the effort to open her eyes. Keeping a hold on the hand, she sleepily pushed herself into a sitting position. Her crying never halted.

"Mai."

Startled to hear the baritone of Naru's voice instead of Ayako's alto, Mai's eyes flew open. Sure enough, it was her boss and not the miko who was seated next to her futon. It was his hand that she'd so securely wrapped hers around. She was too surprised to let go. "Naru? What are you—?"

Her question was cut off when Naru yanked unceremoniously on her hand, pulling her to him. His other arm wrapped around her shoulders. "Idiot. You're too sensitive for your own good," he muttered, feeling awkward. He really was not good at this sort of thing. Where was his idiot brother when he needed him? No, scratch that. I'll kill him the minute he touches her, ghost or not.

Mai knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth. She shut her mouth and buried her flaming face against Naru's neck. A feeling of safety spread through her, soothing her trembles and her tears. Her heart, however, began to pound uncomfortably fast. Shyly, she loosely wrapped her arms around his waist. Maybe she was bias, but Mai was of the opinion that Naru gave excellent hugs.

At first, Naru stiffened when the girl he held had encircled him in her own arms, but recovered before she could even think to pull away. The arm he had around her shoulders tightened a fraction, pressing her head more securely against his shoulder. She was making incoherent sounds against the fabric of his black suit jacket and he strained to make out her words.

"No fair," she babbled softly. "Who would…good…this?"

As a narcissist, Naru's ego couldn't help but expand. Maybe this whole interaction thing wasn't as troubling as he thought it was. He apparently had a knack for it, if Mai's reaction was any sort of indication. And it couldn't that difficult to learn. Only around Mai, of course.

Experimentally, he lightly smoothed her hair, letting his hand continue down her neck and mid-way down her spine. Then he repeated the motion. The girl sighed in contentment, appearing to have completely forgotten to be embarrassed.

I suppose that practice makes perfect.


(A.N.) Thanks for reading! Oh, and I don't want to sound picky but... Well, tell me if this makes sense. I have over 160 people who have this series on their story alerts. I have 22 reviews for the last shot. Does that seem incongruous? Not that I'm not flattered, but I wish that people could leave me some sort of comments. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I want you to review, not just add me to your favorites or alerts. How am I supposed to make these better if you all don't tell me how? So REVIEW! Love and peace to you all. Ja-ne.