Epilogue:

Two days later…

"…And that's it," Michiru told her friends as they sat, just the three of them, under the large sakura tree, eating lunch. It had been Mai's choice to eat there today and she'd stood firm to it despite protests from her friends. Mai absolutely refused to allow the memory of her first kiss being stolen under said tree to ruin her enjoyment of eating under it and using it as a haven. With the ghost possessing Hotaru gone, life had gone back to normal—frighteningly so. The boys, embarrassed and shy, had apologized; their girlfriends had, too. The principal and vice-principal had issued a formal apology to Mai for all the trouble. After that, school carried on like the events of the past ten days had never happened. In a way, she was glad. She hated it when things were drawn out. Looking out over the tree, Mai knew that she wouldn't totally forget. But then again, if I do, I'm not human, am I? She frowned. Telling Akira-kun that I couldn't return his feelings must have been very painful for him, Mai recalled, thinking back to after the ghost was totally gone.

"Akira."

The dark-haired boy stopped at the doorway and looked at Masahiro curiously. Kanaguchi Masahiro never called his name, if he could possibly help it.

"What?"

Crossing his arms and leaning against the doorjamb to prevent his leaving, Masahiro nodded his head once in Mai's direction. "I think you have something to discuss with Mai-chan."

"But—"

"Now," he said, his voice firm and leaving no room for arguments. "Hotaru can wait. She's in good hands right now. Besides, it'd probably be better if you weren't there for a while. She's still in a state of denial and you being there isn't going to help. Let the priests talk to her and calm her down."

Sighing, Akira turned from the door and approached Mai, who'd just returned from taking down the cameras with Lin-san. A hush fell over the others the closer he got, and he noticed that the rest of the people she worked with flanked her. More like they're surrounding her, he thought. He wanted to act cool and ignore them, but Shibuya-san and the rest cut imposing figures. Brown-san was with Father Toujo and Hotaru at that moment, so there was no one to dispel the tension radiating from the close-knit group. He clasped his hands behind his back and gave her a nervous smile. "So…I guess that's it, right? You're not going to go out with me."

"I can't," Mai told him. "Honestly, I still see you as an older brother, not as a boyfriend. I'm flattered you like me that way, but I can't date you under false pretenses. That's not fair to either of us."

"That's true."

"I'm sorry." Mai bowed deeply to him. "I can't acknowledge your feelings. Please forgive me!"

"I apologize as well, for putting you in uncomfortable situations," he replied, bowing back to her. Straightening, he smiled sadly at her. "All's well that ends well, right?" he asked.

"Yes," she said, smiling at him.

"And… you have someone else, right?" he asked, nudging her with his elbow and winking.

"Maybe," Mai replied mysteriously.

"You're no fun!" he complained. He smiled at her laughter. "I've missed hearing you laugh. I hope I'm never the cause of your tears, again."

She smiled. "I won't let that happen. You," she said nodding in the direction of the now-clear doorway, "have a new chance. A new beginning. Go for it."

Akira blinked. "When did you get so wise?" he wondered. "Does it go back to your work?"

Spying John, Mai smiled. "I think it's okay for you to go see Hotaru, now," she said, not answering his query.

All's well that ends well, she thought, wincing a bit and wishing that her headache would go away. She really did want to eat the lunch that she'd spent hours preparing, but she had no appetite. It had started off as a dull pain in her head, but as the day progressed, it had steadily grown worse.

"How's Hotaru doing?" Keiko asked.

Mai snapped back and focused on her friends, trying not to grimace at the pain radiating like lightning through her head.

"She seems to be doing better," Michiru said. "She and Akira worked things out between them and made up. She's still talking to Father Toujo, but she's also been referred to a therapist by Brown-san. Akira's been really supportive of her therapy and he's doing everything in the world to help her. Sorry to tell you this, Mai, but it looks like he's lost interest in you," Michiru finished, winking.

"Oh, well," she replied, not sounding the least bit upset. "That's okay." She crossed her arms over her stomach and curled up against the tree; it helped alleviate her headache just a bit. "I didn't want to date him anyway."

"I know," Michiru said, watching her friend with a curious expression on her face. "Mai…"

"Hmm?" she asked, peering at her through half-lidded eyes.

"No, it's nothing," Michiru said, shaking her head.

"Really?"

"Really," she replied, looking at Mai's barely eaten bento pensively.

Straightening, Mai began to repack her lunch, cringing while she did. Maybe I should go to the nurse, she wondered. I haven't been feeling very well all day long. She blinked to get rid of a sudden wave of vertigo. This headache's completely draining me and sapping my appetite.

"Mai." Keiko's voice brought her back.

"Yes?" she asked, fighting through a wave of dizziness.

"Are you okay? You're awfully pale."

"Am I?" She chuckled faintly. "To tell you the truth, I haven't been feeling well all day."

Keiko and Michiru looked at each other, worried. "Maybe you should go home," Keiko suggested. "I'm sure the teacher will understand."

"Oh, no," Mai protested. "I can't. Who's going to make Naru his tea?" she joked. If I don't go in, I won't be able to see Lin. I wanted to ask if there were any special foods he wanted me to make for the picnic Saturday. Thinking about food was starting to make her nauseous.

"Learning to use a tea maker doesn't take years to master. I'm sure Shibuya-san or Lin-san can manage," Michiru said firmly, not smiling at Mai's feeble attempt at joking.

Mai shook her head faintly. "The bell's about to ring." She pushed herself to her feet. Nausea hit her full on and she felt her body sway. Far away, she heard her friends call out to her. They sound frightened, she thought. This… isn't going to be one of those dreams. I don't think I'll dream… at… all… She was out before her body hit the ground.

Lin looked out the window, agitated. The sun was out—it was a gorgeous spring day. As much as he didn't like Japan or her people, Lin had to admit that Japan had lovely spring seasons. Taking advantage of the of the cooler weather, he went out into the reception area and opened the windows, intent on having the smell of Cherry blossoms while he worked on writing up his report from their latest case. He sighed in frustration and moved the laptop to the coffee table. He was edgy today and he didn't know why; his Shiki were jumpy, and Naru was in a very foul mood. Odder than that, both Takigawa-san and Brown-san had called the SPR office sounding anxious. When Lin asked why, they were perplexed and couldn't exactly state a reason.

"But," John said, "I have a feeling that something… isn't quite right with Mai-san."

Yasuhara-san also phoned inquiring if Mai was all right. And that's odd. As helpful as Yasuhara-san is with research and investigating, we know he isn't psychic. Still, Lin thought, frowning and looking at the phone as if he expected it to ring soon. Rising from the couch, he went to Naru's office and opened the door. "Naru."

"I'm busy," he snapped in response, his mood blacker than before.

The phone rang and Lin ignored it along with Naru's building temper. "This… anxiety… do you think it's something to do with Mai?"

The phone stopped ringing and Naru looked up from the book he was poring through. "I don't know," he said finally, looking out the window in his office. The phone started ringing again and Lin frowned. "But," he commented glancing at the clock on his computer pensively, "it would make sense, wouldn't it?"

Lin agreed with him and left the office, leaving the door open. Frowning, he approached the now silent phone. I guess it wasn't important, he thought, looking at his watch. Where was she? Mai should have been here nearly an hour ago. Being this late was unlike her.

The phone started to ring again, vehemently disagreeing with his conclusion of not being important. A sense of foreboding curled into his stomach as he looked at the device dancing in its cradle. The sun ducked behind some clouds as he approached the phone and if Lin had been able to think of anything else at the time, he would have groaned at the cliché. Something was very wrong. He knew that unpleasant news waited on the other end of the line. He picked the receiver up. "Shibuya Psychic Research—"

He broke off and listened to the frantic voice on the other end with a frown etched onto his face. Lin slammed the phone down. "Naru!" he called.

Mai was in the hospital. She'd collapsed just before the bell signaling the end of lunch had sounded. Michiru had phoned them and told them what happened and where she'd been taken, a different hospital than the one closest to her school. She apologized for informing them so late, but it had taken a fair amount to find out which hospital she was moved to. That made them think the worst had happened. Eight days they'd put up with that curse never once thinking there might have been something besides rape that they'd missed.

How careless of us, Lin thought as he and Naru entered the hospital and stalked to the reception desk where someone would be waiting to talk with them. They stopped a few feet from the large desk and stared at the person who stood there jotting down notes on a patient's chart.

"Matsuzaki-san?" Naru called cautiously. When she didn't answer, he called out to her again. He wasn't expecting her to whack him on the head with the clipboard she was using.

"I heard you the first time!" she snapped. "And that's Matsuzaki-sensei to you! So long as I'm wearing this coat and in this building you'll call me by my title."

Crossing his arms, Naru frowned at her. "I certainly hope you're a more successful doctor than priestess," he told her, noting how tired she looked. Mai's condition couldn't be that bad, could it? Images of frantic care, CPR, and resuscitations ran through his mind and Naru firmly ordered himself not to be stupid. Matsuzaki-san—no, Matsuzaki-sensei wouldn't stand in front of them so calmly if Mai's condition were that serious.

The clipboard whacked his head again. "Matsuzaki-san…" he said, his eyes glittering dangerously.

"What a brat you are!" she complained, handing over the chart she'd been reviewing to the nurse at the desk. Lin stifled a grin. "He can check out as soon as his blood work comes back clear. I know his wife's been calling non-stop, so hopefully, that will satisfy her," she told the nurse.

"Thank you, Matsuzaki-sensei. Oh, I have a message from your mother."

Ayako paused, expecting the nurse at the desk to hand her a message.

"She said, 'If you don't come pick up your plants, I'm going to throw them out.'"

Ayako sighed. She hadn't phoned it. "If you see her, tell her I'll pick them up tonight."

"Yes, doctor."

Reaching over, the priestess picked up Mai's chart and motioned for Lin and Naru to follow her. As they followed Matsuzaki-san, Naru wondered why he hadn't noticed it before. She did have a lot of free time to devote to SPR when they needed her.

"Did you have any clue?" he asked Lin.

"None whatsoever," Lin replied quietly. "But thinking about it, it makes sense."

Yes, Naru thought, it did.

"Inside, please," Ayako said, drawing him from his musings.

They walked into her office, took the chairs facing the desk, and watched her settle herself in the comfortable-looking chair behind the desk. It struck the seventeen-year-old odd—seeing her behind a desk was unexpected. She looked perfectly in place there. Looking around the office, he noticed that it suited her entirely. The large window behind her let in plenty of sunlight that would feed the myriad of plants in the corners and on her desk; it probably acted as a form of relaxation or therapy for her. Naru got the sense that she didn't allow people in her office very often, preferring to speak to them in or outside her patients' rooms; there was no examining table in the room or any other paraphernalia a doctor would need to tend to patients in the office. This room was a haven, he decided, spying the small iPod accessory and iPod sitting on a file cabinet. Her degrees stood above the cabinet, in beautiful, ornate frames.

"So?" she said, leaning back and crossing her legs. She looked more tired than ever.

"You're a doctor."

She looked annoyed. "And? Is there something about this that bothers you? You should have done your homework."

"Nevermind," Naru said, sighing. "What's wrong with Mai?"

"Other than being exhausted, stressed out, and having a touch of anemia? Nothing," she said.

"Why is she at this hospital?" Lin asked. "It's a private hospital—she can't possibly afford treatment here."

"She's not paying for it," Ayako told him. "My family owns this hospital. Our insurance is taking care of it. She's here because I've listed myself as her emergency contact and caregiver—it's easier to get hold of me, than it is to get either of you on the phone."

"When will she be released?" Naru asked ignoring the barb.

"We're keeping her over night just to be sure. After that, she'll be released into my care the following day," she told him, reaching over to a long, verdant fern leaf and toying with it idly. "After that, we'll see you both at the picnic, Saturday, provided that she doesn't collapse again. I don't think she will," Ayako said gently, seeing the looks in their eyes—especially Lin's. "But it's better to be safe than sorry, as the saying goes. I live in a secluded area. Being away from her apartment and the people that she normally interacts with will be good for her."

"I don't remember agreeing to the picnic," Naru said.

I.e. you don't want to go and socialize, Ayako thought. "But you'll be there, right?" she asked. "Mai's looking forward to it—it might bring about a relapse if you weren't there, too."

Logically, he knew that wouldn't happen. Mai was not that faint of heart. But she'd be awfully disappointed and he was in competition with Lin for her. Seems I have no choice, Naru thought. We can't have her collapsing again. He stayed silent and received a serene smile in return. Naru sighed and stood; it seemed Matsuzaki-san had bested him this time—the young president decided to let her have the victory. "What room?"

"Two-eleven. By the way…" she started. "I would appreciate it if you didn't tell Mai I'm a doctor."

"I'll think about it," Naru replied.

"When was the last time I requested something from you?"

"I had no idea that word was in your vocabulary, Matsuzaki-sensei,"

"I'm serious this time."

Naru didn't answer. Heaving another sigh, he left the office. Lin rose, preparing to leave as well, when Ayako's voice stopped him. "Hold on a minute, Lin-san," she said.

Pausing, he looked back at her and frowned when she motioned for him to come back. "Are you going to lecture me?" he asked, reclaiming the seat he'd vacated briefly.

"Do I need to?" Ayako asked, looking at him quizzically. "You hardly strike me as a teenager. But if you'd like, we could start with the basics, then the do's and don't's of dating, and finish with protection."

Lin stared at her. She really is in her element here. First Naru and now me. Lin and Naru zero; Matsuzaki-san, two. "I'd rather you didn't, actually. Our relationship is far too—" he broke off and watched her silently before asking, "How long have you known?"

"You know, just because Naru figures things out faster than the rest of us doesn't automatically make everyone else an imbecile," Ayako groused. She waved a hand at him, dismissively. "I'm not blind. I'm not stupid. How long it's been going on or building, that I don't know and I don't want to know."

"Fair enough. You said you wanted to warn me? How so? And please spare me a long lecture. I do not intend for our relationship to go as far as you insinuated for quite sometime."

"Humph. Aren't you confident?" she asked.

What's that supposed to mean? Lin wondered.

Her tone turned serious. "I know you're eager to go to Mai and see how she's doing—but I want you to think on something."

"What would that be?"

She crossed her arms and frowned. Lin was reminded of a big sister in that stance. "You're not the most communicative person in the world. I don't know who's worse at communicating, you or Naru. When you do communicate, you're very polite and eloquent, but let's face it, we have to pull teeth to get that from you at all. Mai's going to expect you to include her in a great deal of things—she doesn't know differently because she's never been in a relationship before."

Definitely a big sister, he thought, amused. Between her and Takigawa-san, I'll have to watch my footing. "Speaking of communicating," he said, watching her for a moment—there was absolutely no way he was leaving until the score had been evened out some, "why don't you tell Takigawa-san how you feel? With the way he acts around you, I'd say his feelings are the same."

Ayako smiled wanly. "I'd have to give up what I am," she told him cryptically. She lost the smile and looked out the window with a small frown. "And I don't mean being a doctor."

"I didn't think you did. It's just a title, Matsuzaki-sensei," Lin told her standing. "You'd be able to keep your power, you know this. 'What's in a name?'"

"'That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,'" Ayako finished. "Romeo and Juliet."

"Well done. Apt, in your case, don't you think?"

"There you go with the eloquence I was telling you about," she said propping her chin on a fist.

"You're not going to say a word."

"I'm a coward," she told him. "I just can't."

Coward, he thought. What a funny concept. Who's she trying to fool? "Liar," Lin said at the doorway. "I don't know what you're keeping quiet about, but it's your business and not ours. I won't tell Mai anything, but if you don't show up soon with a good excuse, she's going to wonder."

"Not to worry. I'm off in five minutes," she told him, giving him a snarky grin.

"How kind of you to use us as a way to waste time."

She waved his comment away. "Twenty minutes isn't going to matter. I've been here since three o'clock yesterday morning."

Lin stared at her, doing a fast calculation in his mind. "Thirty-eight hours in two days. That's not healthy."

"Is it so different from what you and Naru do?"

"It is," he confirmed. "We make sure to eat and rest."

"It couldn't be helped this time. One of our employees had to fly home for a family emergency. We don't know when she'll be back either; she's yet to call us with any sort of news. In the meantime, her shifts had to be filled. I'm younger than my parents are. It's easier for me than it is for them." She stood. "Go and see Mai. I'll be along shortly. Room two-eleven," she said by way of reminder.

This time, he really was dismissed. "SPR will share the hospital bills. Be sure to give us a copy of the invoice. Mai is our employee, after all."

Opening the door, he shut it softly behind him and began to follow the signs to get to Mai's room. Once there, he rapped gently on the door. "I'm coming in," he said quietly, walking into her room. A faint but steady beeping noise greeted him upon opening the door. The heart monitor sat near the bed, recording her heart rate. She was sitting up in bed and studiously reading her school text while taking notes; Naru's workaholic attitude was probably rubbing off on her. He noted with amusement that they'd probably clothed her in a child's hospital gown. He frowned at how tiny she looked. Frail, haggard, and utterly lacking her usual enthusiasm; there were tired shadows in her eyes. Matsuzaki-san was right, it would do her a world of good to relax and allow herself to be pampered. She looked up and smiled radiantly at him and he watched her eyes return to their normal selves. Inwardly, he breathed a sigh of relief as the dreadful exterior he'd just seen melted away.

She'll be just fine in Matsuzaki-san's care, he told himself, pulling up a chair close to the bed. He reached out and took her hand, joining their fingers. "How do you feel?" he asked, noticing the IV that was hanging discreetly near the bedpost. He checked to make sure that he wasn't holding the hand the IV was connected to.

"Better," she said, cheerfully, squeezing his fingers reassuringly. "My headache's gone and I'm not feeling nauseous anymore. I do feel a bit tired, but if I sleep now, I won't sleep at night." She made a face. "They're keeping me over night," she said, pouting a little.

He smiled. "That's standard. You collapsed at school. They want to make sure it's nothing serious."

Mai grinned, but looked around the room pensively. He could tell what she was thinking. Leaning forward, he kissed her gently, startling her a bit. "Don't worry," he told her simply. "We asked them to bring you to this hospital." It occurred to him that if Mai ever found out the truth, she wouldn't be very happy. Leave it, he told himself. That's for another day. If you stress her out and Matsuzaki-san learns of it, you'll have to worry about what's in your tea!

"Where are Naru and the others?" he asked.

"Ah… Naru left to greet John and Masako. They won't let her in my room just yet because she has a cold and might be contagious. The doctors are checking to make sure she isn't," she told him. "Bou-san and Yasuhara-san went to buy some drinks. It's funny…" she said, trailing off and looking out the window.

"What is?"

"I knew she would catch a cold on Sunday. I wasn't just thinking that, 'well, it's raining—she just might catch a cold.' I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that she would definitely catch a cold that day."

"Stop fretting about it," Lin said. "Your intuition isn't limited to just dreams any more. Just let your abilities develop. There's little you can do to stop them anyway."

Mai's answering smile was slightly strained.

He understood immediately. Really, she was very easy to read. "We're with you every step of the way," he told her, giving her hand a quick, comforting squeeze. "Not just Naru and I, but Matsuzaki-san, Takigawa-san, Brown-san, Hara-san, and Yasuhara-san, as well. Well, Hara-san I'm really not so sure of. However, it really lies with you. You'll have to be able to suspend your fear and take things as they come. There's no sense in worrying about something that's nothing."

"And…if it becomes something?" she asked.

"Then you come to us. Immediately," he told her. "Do not wait."

She got the unspoken message, do not wait like you did with this latest incident. She smiled in relief. "Thank you," Mai said gratefully.

"Not at all," Lin said, leaning over and giving her a longer kiss than the last. He broke off when he felt Matsuzaki-san's presence rushing to her room. Sitting back, the Chinese man prepared himself for what he hoped was decent acting on her part.

A few seconds later, the door slammed open and Ayako literally pounced in. "Mai!" she exclaimed. "I got here as soon as I could. I… what happened? Why are you in the hospital?"

Mai's grip on Lin's hand tightened. "I collapsed at school, that's all."

"You collapsed at school?" she asked, putting her hands on her hips and leaning over the girl. "Have you been eating? Sleeping?"

Tone it down, Matsuzaki-san, or she'll figure it out real soon, Lin thought, watching her expressionlessly.

"Well… I thought I had. I'm fine though! Really," she said, waving her free hand frantically to ward off the extremely worried priestess. "They're releasing me tomorrow," she offered.

Ayako sighed. "Oh, you," she said, sliding into a vacant seat near the bed. "Stop scaring me."

"Sorry," Mai said, apologizing. "It wasn't intentional, you know.

"Did you say they were releasing you tomorrow?" she asked.

"That's right!" Mai said, smiling.

"Who are they releasing you to?"

"Eh?"

"Someone's got to take responsibility for your well-being after they release you! Don't you know how these things work?" Ayako asked, encroaching again on Mai's personal space and glaring at her. Mai cringed and leaned away towards Lin.

You stay right there, Matsuzaki-san, or Mai will find out the truth of this farce you're playing—by accident of course, Lin thought.

That seemed to communicate to the doctor who froze right where she was.

"I'm just going to go back to my apartment," Mai told her.

"Back to your apartment?" the priestess asked incredulously. "Oh, no! Absolutely not! You'll end up right back in the hospital again if you do! No, I've decided. You'll stay with me until Saturday."

"Eh!" Mai cried. "I can't do that! What about school?"

What about my ears? Lin wondered.

Ayako shook her head and stood. "You'll get your homework and class work from your friends, of course. All right, it's decided! In order to compensate me for being scared out of my wits—you will stay with me until Saturday! I'll go tell the nurses." That said, the priestess left the room before Mai could say anything.

Lin had to give her credit—that was smooth, especially since it had already been decided. Now… if my ears would stop ringing… the world would be a much better place.

"Lin?"

Mai's voice startled him from his musings. He looked at her curiously.

"Sorry about that. Ayako's so pushy sometimes!"

"Don't worry about it—it's not going to get any better," he said grimly. "Everyone else is back."

The door flew open again, admitting Naru, Bou-san, Yasuhara, John, Ayako, and Masako.

"I guess they decided she was safe after all," Mai said, trying not to laugh at the mask over the medium's face.

I guess, Lin thought, stifling his own laugh and sitting back to watch the chaos. It was safer that way.

Saturday afternoon…

Staying with Matsuzaki-san, Lin decided, had definitely done Mai well. He observed her with amusement, noting that the priestess had spoiled her charge rotten. There was a healthy glow to Mai's fair skin that came from rest, relaxation, and pampering. Her hair was pulled partially back and clipped with a simple but elegant barrette. The pale-pink sundress Mai wore flattered her petite body and the sandals added a nice touch. The Chinese man was certain that her entire wardrobe was now different. But that's a good change, he knew. Mai needed to be spoiled a bit and Dr. Matsuzaki needed someone to care for and spoil. The end justifies the means, Lin thought, watching her approach him with a soft smile.

"Did you miss me?" Mai asked.

"Things were quiet while you were with Matsuzaki-san," he agreed.

"What kind of answer is that?"

"A truthful one," Lin told her.

She pouted for a moment before a sly smile crossed her face. Before he could even contemplate what she had in mind, she stood on her toes, threw her arms around him, and kissed him. There was nothing innocent about it or the way she pressed her body to his. If he didn't know any better, or if he could actually think at that moment, he'd have wondered if Matsuzaki-san had anything to do with this. Her pulling away was something of a shock to him and Lin blinked to reorient himself. Mai staying with Matsuzaki-san, he decided right then, had been a very bad idea.

"So…" she drew out, "did you miss me?" she inquired innocently.

Lin blinked again and tossed the priestess a nasty glare. Bending down, he whispered something in her ear and smiled when her jaw dropped and her face turned redder than a tomato. "But feel free to do that again as many times as you'd like," he told her, straightening. "I don't mind at all. In fact, I like the consequences even better."

Mutely, Mai nodded and he flashed a brief smile at her. "Come. The picnic spot is this way," he told her, taking her hand and leading her to the designated place.

"Taniyama-san! Lin-san! Over here!"

"Watanuki-kun, Doumeki-kun," Mai said, greeting them cheerfully. She looked curiously at the other two that were there. "I'm sorry. I don't think we've met."

"Ah! That's okay!" the brunette said, smiling at Mai. "Kunogi Himawari," she said, bowing from her spot on the picnic blanket. "Pleased to meet you!"

"Taniyama Mai. Same to you," Mai replied bowing back. She turned to the tall woman lounging comfortably in the shade with a glass of steaming tea. She was…cunning—a wily fox; beautiful but terrible. That was the best way that Mai could describe her. She seemed happy to meet them, but at the same time, there was a knowing look on her face that told Mai all she needed to know. A pinprick of fear ran down her spine looking into the woman's shrewd, red eyes. All at once, Mai knew exactly who she was and even had a brief inkling to what she was. "You must be Ichihara Yuuko-san, Watanuki-kun's boss."

"Yes, you may call me that," she said, nodding once. "It's good to finally meet you, Taniyama Mai-chan," she said, rousing herself to look the girl in the eye. Unconsciously, Mai shied away, not caring if she seemed rude—she didn't want… Mai didn't know what she was scared of or what she didn't want Ichihara-san to see, but… for reasons she couldn't explain, she just didn't want to meet her eyes directly. Lin's back suddenly formed a solid wall between her and Watanuki's employer. Mai found herself grateful for his interference and breathed a sigh of relief.

"Ichihara-san, what a pleasure to make your acquaintance at last," Lin said. "But…I don't believe introductions between us are in order, are they?" he asked, staring her in the eyes.

Mai and the others looked on in shock—it was unlike Lin to be so…hostile. His tone and words were as polite as ever, but there was something in his stance that made them all wary. If Mai looked- really looked, she would see that he was gathering power; his Shiki were glowing, ready to amplify his power. What she could see without having to look was two sorcerers preparing to do battle. That was what the others saw, too.

It's like he's preparing to cast some sort of spell, Ayako thought, shivering unconsciously. Looking over at Naru, she saw the teenaged president on his guard and frowning. Is this woman that dangerous? Turning her gaze to the woman Lin had squared off against, Ayako felt a chill trail down her back. Yes, she thought, she is. What is she? A hand settled itself on her shoulder and she looked over to see the monk next to her. She felt her cheeks grow warm; shrugging off his hand, she turned her head away in a haughty gesture, missing his quick grin.

Yuuko's mouth curled into an amused smile and she eased herself back into the shade she'd been enjoying. "No," she replied, picking up her tea and taking a sip, "they aren't." Her ruby-red eyes focused on Mai who was still standing behind Lin. "My apologies to Taniyama Mai-chan; it wasn't my intention to alarm you. We're here to eat and drink! Watanuki, I want sake!" she crowed suddenly, looking at her employee.

"You're starting that already!" he shrieked at her.

"Of course!"

Relieved, Mai nestled her forehead into Lin's warm back and breathed out.

"It's all right," he told her quietly. "I don't think she intended to harm you. Still, you've only just recovered. It wouldn't be good for you to suddenly go back to the hospital." Moving slightly, he settled his hand on her back and led her to the picnic blanket, encouraging her to take a seat next to Takigawa-san and claiming the seat next to her. Naru joined him, forming a sort of half circle around Mai and she smiled faintly at the support.

"I'm Mokona Modoki! Shake!" a childish voice called.

Mai squealed when a black…something pounced into her lap. The SPR group stared at the creature curiously. It was small, round, and black, with black eyes and an odd, blue gem in the middle of its forehead. Even Lin's Shiki were puzzled as to what the creature was. Its long, floppy ears reminded Lin of a rabbit, but if that's what it was, it needed to go on a diet. "What are you?" she asked, looking down at the creature. Is it a bunny? A pork bun? What is this thing? Mai wondered, gently patting it. She didn't dare poke it—if it was with Ichihara-san, chances were that if and when it was provoked, it would bite, whatever it was.

"Mokona is Mokona! Shake!" it said again, thrusting a small paw towards her.

Tentatively, she reached out and shook the tiny thing's paw and smiled. "You're so cute!" she gushed, picking it up and showing it to Masako, who smiled and patted the Mokona's head cautiously. It seemed to enjoy the attention and pretty soon had the ladies at its beck and call, leaving the men alone.

"That's weird," Bou-san said, watching the women. He took another bite of fried chicken, savoring it.

"It is, isn't it?" John said, watching them with a nervous smile.

"But that thing is awful cute," Yasuhara said, munching on a mixture of potato salad, macaroni salad, and coleslaw. "It reminds me of you, Takigawa-san," he told the monk with a sly smile.

"That again!" the monk exclaimed. "Haven't you given that up yet, young man?"

"No. Why should I? It's so easy."

The monk hung his head in defeat. "Just you wait, young man. One day, I'll definitely get back at you."

"Oh? We'll then. I'll be waiting."

"It's not dangerous, is it?" Naru asked Lin, taking a bite of biscuit. Mokona was sitting contentedly in Mai's lap and eating the bits that the part-time worker was feeding it, while Kunogi-san told the others all about the creature's exploits at a Hyaku Monogatari escapade she'd attended. The other ladies listened with rapt attention while Yuuko looked on with a gentle smile.

"It's not," Lin said, picking up his can of cold tea and taking a liberal swallow. "It's just sickeningly cute." Lin suddenly found himself at the center of attention when John, Takigawa-san, and Yasuhara-san turned to stare at him.

"Are you…" Yasuhara started.

"Could it be…" John found it hard to continue with Lin's glare.

"No way!" the monk said.

"You're jealous," Naru finished, smirking. "How the mighty have fallen."

"Does this mean you'd like to tell everyone the truth, Naru?" Lin asked.

"Lin!" he said, ignoring the clamoring from the other three asking what the Chinese man was talking about.

"You have your trump card; I have mine. We're even," Lin said, helping himself to another piece of chicken and macaroni salad.

"Are we… too late?" said a new voice.

All eyes looked up to see three faces—one new. Kanaguchi Masahiro and his sister Keiko had arrived. The older girl next to him was assuredly Megumi, the fiancée. She wasn't as tall as Matsuzaki-san, but she was lithe and statuesque—this was emphasized with the calf-length lavender skirt and white top that she wore. Her hair was long and blond and wavy and accentuated her gentle, gray-green eyes. Looking between the college students, Lin wondered how Masahiro had coaxed her into dating him period. Mai climbed to her feet and charged over to the older girl, throwing herself into welcoming, outstretched arms.

"Megumi-oneesan!" she said. "It's been so long since I've seen you!"

Megumi laughed. "Yes, it has. I've been busy with classes and my part-time job, which is acting as my internship."

"Where do you work?" Mai asked, leading her to the picnic blanket. The other two followed and helped themselves to the food.

"At a hotel. I work at the front desk," she told the high school student as she filled a plate with food.

"Megumi-oneesan is studying Hotel-Restaurant Management at Kyoto University," Mai told them. "Oh! I'm being rude, aren't I?" she asked, turning to her. "Let me introduce everyone to you. This is Hara Masako—you probably know of her."

"I do. It's nice to meet you in person, Hara-san."

"Next we have Matsuzaki Ayako—a shrine maiden," Mai said.

"How do you do?"

Smiling, Ayako nodded at the younger girl.

"Takigawa Hoshou," Bou-san said. "I'm from Koya-san."

"Oh. Are you a practicing monk?" Megumi inquired politely, noting his long hair.

"Part time, I am. My full time job is with a band."

"How lovely," she replied, smiling.

"This is John. He's an exorcist," Mai said, looking at the blond-haired priest.

"Really? That must be exciting."

"It has its moments," John told her serenely.

"This crafty-looking person," Mai said, motioning to Yasuhara, "is Yasuhara Osamu-san. He's a freshman at Tokyo University. Be on your guard and don't let him rope you into anything. If you don't believe me, you can ask Bou-san."

"Taniyama-san, you wound me!" Yasuhara cried dramatically.

Megumi laughed quietly. "You do have a cunning aura," she told him.

"This is my boss, Shibuya Kazuya," Mai said, introducing Naru. "We call him Naru for short."

"You're the boss?" came the incredulous question. "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought…" she trailed off, looking at Lin.

"Lin Koujo," the Chinese man said, introducing himself. "I'm Shibuya-san's assistant."

"Are you… you are…"

"Chinese. I come from Hong Kong, yes. I don't bite, Megumi-san."

"Again, I'm so sorry. Forgive the intrusive question… but are you the one Mai's seeing?"

"Yes, I am."

Mai shot Masahiro a dirty look. He shrugged as if to say, 'Don't kill me, please.'

"I see," Megumi said. "I heard from Masahiro that she was currently dating someone she worked with. I confess, I'm rather surprised that it's you."

"Why is that?" Lin asked.

"Many Chinese do not like the Japanese for the events of World War II."

"That's true. But it's stupid of me to include national problems in personal relationships, don't you think?" he asked, watching Mai smile.

"Yes… it would be," Megumi said, slowly. "Forgive my intrusion. It was none of my business. I'm sorry Mai, Lin-san, everyone," she said, bowing.

"Let me introduce you to everyone else," Mai said, grinning nervously.

The picnic continued on without a hitch from there.

Later that evening…

Everyone else had left. Bou-san took Naru back to the office and John took Yasuhara-san to his house. Matsuzaki-san took Hara-san home and Yuuko with her guests had left around four. Masahiro and Megumi had left shortly after to catch a movie and Keiko left too, saying she had homework to finish. Lin and Mai were left to themselves and they strolled contentedly along the path between the sakura trees. Spying a bench that was half hidden, Mai grabbed his hand and led him over to it. Curious, he followed her and sat down when she motioned for him to.

"I was going to ask you on Tuesday if there were any special foods you wanted me to make for the picnic, but I ended up in the hospital instead. I forgot to ask you, then, too."

Lin stayed silent and watched her as she opened up her backpack, took a wrapped parcel out and handed it to him. Intrigued, he untied the kerchief, revealing a beautiful obento holder. Separating the top from the bottom revealed an array of candied fruit slices that looked tempting. How did she know that I like candied fruit?

"When my father was alive," she said quietly, "he loved these things. I don't remember very much from then, but I recall my mother making this treat often; I used to help her when she did. I thought… that you might enjoy them, too."

He picked up a lime slice and popped it into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. Not too tart, but not overly sweet, either, he thought appreciatively. "One of my sisters also makes candied fruit. She uses honey, however. But I far prefer yours," he told her.

Mai blushed and curled up into his side, watching the sky as the stars came out. "I'm glad," she said quietly. When all the stars were out and twinkling, Mai lifted her face for a kiss and he obliged. I'm content right here, she thought. Let's just see what the future will hold for us. She sighed when he deepened the kiss. I think it'll be something exciting!

-End.

And that's it for Shades of Lust. Thank you all for reading and reviewing and sticking with it. Thanks to everyone who influenced it and gave me ideas: notably, kagedreams, thisissong, aishoka, yamikakyuu, lkk-sensei, miss koneko, and everyone else.

If anyone is interested in drabbles, you are more than welcome to visit my writing journal for Ghost Hunt drabbles. Kyia Star's writing journal.

And a million and more thanks to my awesome beta-reader, TitianWren for her extraordinary work! Without her help and expertise this would have been an eyesore! I briefly considered posting the original, uncorrected master copy of this and thought better of it—I don't want to scare people away.

One last, quick note, I have a poll up on my profile page. Others have reviewed and asked if there would be a sequel. I will leave whether or not I write one up to you all, the readers. Please vote. If you'd like to drop by my livejournal and comment as well, you may do so. You'll find that link here: Poll Entry. It is a public entry so you don't have to worry about being on my friend's list. Thank you all for your input!

I'll see you all in my next story: a one-shot that's an extremely belated birthday gift for yamikakyuu. I did promise that as soon as I was done with Shades of Lust I would finish her story. That's next so look forward to it! Sorry, I don't have any previews to give you all, but I can tell you this: Lin, Gene, Noll, England, and…well, that's all I'm going to give you. Not a word, Sayu-chan, or I'll never lend you Charlie again. XD

Kyia Star