The four had returned to the guest house hours ago to retire for the night, but Mai was still unable to sleep. Gene had clearly had a vision and Naru didn't even ask him what he had seen—rather, he seemed to already know without any spoken words passing between them. "We'll talk about it tomorrow," he had said simply, his weariness evident in his voice. "Gene's in no state to discuss now." Though his excuse only considered his brother, both of their exhaustion was apparent: the older of the twins would be asleep again as soon as his head hit the futon. And that was that. She'd nodded to him, suppressing her questions. Even Lin didn't ask questions, seemingly trusting the twins' judgment.
Lying awake on the futon after everyone else had gone to sleep, her thoughts tumbled endlessly in her mind. She supposed it was telepathy. It shouldn't have surprised her, really—knowing the twins, it was entirely plausible and nothing about it was unbelievable. And yet it did; she was surprised. Did Lin know? Either he did or he was able to hide his surprise. Before that moment, she'd never witnessed anything to hint at their possession of such an ability. Underneath her surprise, much to her shame, were feelings of jealousy. She also felt threatened. After all, if the brothers could communicate without speaking aloud, why would they bother? She tried to tell herself there was no reason to be envious, that she trusted both completely and that it was irrational to be jealous and completely unfounded—but lying awake, alone in the darkness, she was unable to convince herself completely.
When Mai finally did fall asleep, her sleep was not restful but replete of anxious dreams. The dreams started with leaving her apartment in a hurry and frantically trying to get to the office—Naru will yell at me if I'm late—and yet when she did arrive it was not the office at all, but rather Kaori's school. Passing through the hallways, she found she was looking for the other members of SPR: not only Naru, Gene and Lin, but also John and Masako, Ayako, Takigawa and Yasuhara. Several times she thought she saw someone just ahead only to find the students from her class looking down at her in disdain. Taniyama, right? I'm sure you'll figure out how things work around here. Shying away from the taunts of Kataoka and her friends, Mai hurried from the classroom only to find herself back at the base in the guest house. Running up the stairs, she found Lin working tirelessly at the computer and Gene surveying readings from the equipment. Neither of the men paid her any mind, absorbed in their own work.
It was at the end of her dream when she caught sight of her reflection in the glass. Seeing her full stomach, she became suddenly aware of the fact that she was pregnant. Looking around the room desperately, she was hit with the realization that was Naru was most definitely absent—not just from the room or the case as a whole, but absent from SPR and her life as an adult woman, heavy with child. He was not the father.
The tears that filled her eyes woke her when they trickled down her cheeks and into her ears. She rose and left the room silently, not about to let herself wake the others by crying over a silly dream. She went to the kitchen instead and made a cup of tea, trying to convince herself that was all it was.
The dream presented itself to him suddenly and in an almost matter-of-fact manner, too quickly for him to even consider creating the link for his brother to join him. He watched without emotion as the events of Yoshimasa's demise unfolded before him. After her death, Natsumi had searched for Yoshimasa in Arakawa and Tokyo first before following his brother to Kanazawa. Her spirit finally found him there, smoking on the roof of his new school. Crying out in both fear and anger, her spirit went for him and a struggle ensued. He was too close to the railing. Whether it had been her intention to kill him or not, it didn't matter. He couldn't possibly survive the fall.
Gene awoke, sweating but calm. He slowed his breathing, listening to his quiet surroundings. He had a feeling in the back of his mind that something was out of order, but it took some time before he could pinpoint what was not right. The room was just a little too quiet. As he listened, he realized he could distinguish between his brother's and Lin's steady breathing. He could feel the presence of the two, but Mai was no longer in the room.
Her place on the futon was empty, but reaching a hand over his brother's slumbering form he could feel it was still warm. Her absence confirmed that persistent feeling that something was amiss. He frowned slightly to himself, wondering for a moment if she'd just gotten up to use the loo. Closing his eyes, he spread his hand on the futon, stretching the fingers wide and placing his other hand on his brother's. He'd never borrowed his brother's abilities before, but at the time it didn't seem like a difficult measure. He only needed a second or two of psychometry to know if he should be worried about Mai or if he should wake the other two.
The vision was only several seconds, but it was long enough for him to see Mai's eyes open wide in the night, terrified of sleep. As she sat up he could see the lines on her cheeks were tears had fallen. She hugged her chest with trembling arms and left the room, all without making a sound.
Gene debated for only a second of whether to wake his brother before he rose and slipped out of the room, alone. He hurried down the hall and downstairs to find her sitting in the dim kitchen with a cup of tea.
She raised tired eyes to his and it was apparent that she was shaken. "Some tea?" She offered, her voice quaking.
"I'm okay," he said, drawing water from the tap and sitting next to her. "But what about you? Are you all right?"
She rested her face in her hands, covering her eyes. "I just had a bad dream. It's nothing... I know it's nothing."
"Want to talk about it?"
Mai shook her head, closing her eyes as she pressed her hand against her forehead. "I'm okay, Gene," she said, opening her eyes and managing a smile. "I just.. need to not dwell on it. It was just a bad dream."
He frowned, suddenly worried she'd seen the same vision he'd had, either from the evening before or from the middle of the night. "Not about Kaori—"
She shook her head again, quickly. "No, nothing like that. Nothing about the case, I think." Her voice wavered slightly and he peered at her questioningly. She smiled again, though this time the expression was forced. "I'm okay, Gene, really." She sighed and pushed her hands over her forehead, resting her elbows on the table. "We should be concerned about Kaori, not me. Do you and Naru know what you're going to do tomorrow? Did you come up with a plan? Lin-san will make the hitogata of Natsumi, won't he?"
Gene nodded. "He has all the preparations ready. Lin said it should be complete by mid-morning."
"Will Yoshimasa's spirit come back when the hitogata is complete? Will you convince him to leave when he returns?"
Gene paused and whet his lips. "Yeah, probably," he said vaguely. "I don't think it'll return to the house. I don't think it's able to; not after John's exorcism. We'll have to lure it out again at the school." He paused, watching her face for her reaction. "It'll be wary of us now, after what happened tonight. But there's probably a place Yoshimasa can't resist, if the opportunity presents itself. We'll take the hitogata there and perform another exorcism."
"A jourei cleanse?" She asked quietly.
"If we can," Gene said. "Hopefully if he believes he can enact his revenge he'll pass on his own. Otherwise, we'll have to force him to go."
Mai frowned a little. "That doesn't bother you?" Memories of how deeply Masako had been disturbed at the thought of forcing a spirit to return to the spiritual realm rose in her mind.
"When faced with the choice between the spirit or Kaori, I choose Kaori." Gene said evenly. "I know that what happened to Yoshimasa—his death, at least—was not his fault. But he allowed his spirit to become twisted in his quest for revenge against someone who has already left this world. I would prefer to convince him to leave of his own will. To trick him into satisfying his desire for revenge, even, to cleanse his spirit. But we must ensure Kaori's safety first. That is our priority."
Mai nodded slightly. "Yeah, I suppose you're right," she said, her voice dropping again. Her fingers tightened on her teacup and her eyes unfocused as she gazed at the table.
He frowned slightly, studying her. He could sense that her thoughts were elsewhere. "What's bothering you, Mai?"
Mai was silent for a moment. "I should be dead," she blurted, her voice falling to a whisper.
Aha, Gene thought. So this was her dream. "And so should I," he countered calmly.
"Do you ever think.. think that because he saved us..." She squeezed her hands together anxiously. "That Death will come for him? Because he brought us back to life?"
"No," Gene said sharply, his face hard. He didn't have to have his brother's reasoning or intellect to know what it was Mai had dreamed of to unsettle her so. He paused, his eyes softening slightly but his lips were still drawn in a stern line. "The universe doesn't work like that, Mai. Death isn't some entity keeping score or with quotas to fill. Noll saved our lives and that's all there is to it. He's not any more likely to die because of the fact."
Mai gazed at him, trembling. Gene's expression and tone made him look more like his brother than she'd ever seen before. Had she not known it was Gene sitting in front of her, she probably would have mistaken him for his twin.
"If it truly went against the nature of the universe, to save our lives, he wouldn't have been able to do it. Don't you think?" She said nothing, and Gene smiled slightly. "That's what I believe. If there is order in a chaotic universe, if there is a divine plan—surely we're only following it to the best of our abilities. What Noll did was only a small part of that."
His smile softened as he reached toward her, laying his hand upon hers. "Don't worry, Mai. My brother's bloody stubborn, you know? He's done some reckless things in the past—bringing us here, for starters—but now that we're all together I think he's a little more cautious. Don't you?"
Mai could only nod dumbly. A smile finally reached her lips and she grinned weakly. "That's what happens when you get older. You understand your own mortality better than before."
"And the three of us more than anyone." Gene agreed. "Drink your tea, Mai, and let's go back to bed. Noll will be angry with us if we're both deadbeats tomorrow."
She giggled and lifted the teacup. The sound was unnatural, but he knew her mood would slowly reverse itself. "Yeah. I guess you're right."
The rain had stopped in the night but it was still dark and overcast in the morning. Mai yawned behind her hand and she smiled apologetically at Naru, whose jaw tightened as he resisted to do the same. "Sleep all right?" He asked her lightly. She nodded in response but turned her gaze away. He frowned slightly, knowing what her averted eyes meant. He glanced at his brother, whose mouth was wide open in a long yawn. "Are you sure this is the best option, having Mai take the hitogata to the roof by herself? Yoshimasa's somewhat familiar with Mai now."
Gene nodded. "I'd offer to do it but after the exorcism yesterday... I don't think Yoshimasa would take the bait. Mai's never attacked him. And we certainly can't send Kaori because it's too easy to confuse her with Natsumi. After all, that's what he's been doing this entire time."
Naru turned toward Mai. "Does that sound all right to you?"
"Of course." She smiled as she inhaled the steam from her tea. "Whatever you think is best."
Naru frowned slightly. "I won't ask you to do it if you have any misgivings," he said.
Mai shook her head quickly. "I don't have any."
Gene looked up at a sound from the front hallway. "Kaori's here," he said. "Perhaps she wants to eat breakfast with us."
They had only just exchanged pleasantries and Kaori had sat down at the table when her mobile phone rang, her face blanching at the sound. "Oh, crap," she muttered. "I never called my mom yesterday." Steeling herself, she picked up the phone before the next ring. "Hi, Mom."
"Kaori?" Sitting next to her, Gene could just hear her mother's voice, and in turn passed the sound through their telepathic link to his brother so he could listen in as well. "How are you? Is everything okay? I was worried when you didn't call yesterday..."
"I'm sorry, Mom, everything's fine. I wasn't feel very well in the evening so I ate dinner and did my schoolwork and went right to bed," Kaori lied.
"Oh, honey," Kaori's mother's voice softened and her immediate concern was apparent. "Why don't you take the day off school and rest up?"
"I'm fine now, Mom, I feel a lot better—" Kaori protested.
"Nonsense," Naru heard her mother say through the telepathic link from his twin. "If you aren't feeling your best it really would be better to take it easy, and then you'll be recovered for tomorrow. I'll call the school."
"Okay," Kaori agreed reluctantly.
"You rest up now, Kaori, okay?"
"I will, Mom," Kaori promised. "Okay. Bye now. Love you too." She hung up the phone, giving the three a helpless look. "Now what?" she asked, spreading her hands. "She's going to call the school and tell them I'm sick. I can't go to school now."
"You'll stay home today, like your mother wants," Naru said without a moment of hesitation. "Ichirou is confident the spirit won't attack here. We'll confront it at the school. John and Lin can stay here with you if that would set you at ease."
Kaori passed her eyes between them. "Are you sure?"
Gene smiled at her. "Trust us, Kaori-san. By the end of today the spirit will be gone for good."
"Last night you said it wasn't Natsumi." Naru and Gene both nodded in unison and obvious relief crossed her face. "Then... who? Do you know who it is?"
"The spirit following you is that of Yoshimasa Itaru."
"Yoshimasa?" She gaped at them for a moment. "I didn't realize... that he had..." She couldn't bring herself to say the word died. "But... why? Why me?"
"It seems he is mistaking you for your sister." Naru said.
"When Yoshimasa died, he blamed the situation on her." Gene continued. "I don't believe it was her fault, though her spirit did visit him."
Kaori looked pained and her face darkened. "It was his fault she died," she finally muttered.
"Well..." Gene's voice trailed off. "Natsumi did seem to think the same thing."
Kaori gazed at her tea in silence for several long moments. "And he won't come back here?" She finally ventured.
"Definitely not," Gene said confidently. He glanced at Mai, who had remained silent throughout most of the breakfast. "We'd better go to school, though, or we'll be late. C'mon, Mai."
Mai sat at her desk, occasionally fidgeting in her seat and nervously biting her fingertips. When she caught herself doing it she had to sit on her hands, but somehow she kept finding herself returning to the bad habit she'd thought she'd broken long ago.
Lin had been making the hitogata at the house since they'd left for school that morning. She and Gene had gone alone, as Kaori was staying home at her mother's request and Naru stayed to assist the onmyouji with the hitogata in the minute ways he could. She'd had no contact with any of the other members of SPR, not even Gene who was only several classrooms away down the hall.
Mai received the text message from Naru only seconds after the bell rang for lunch period, causing her to jump. Luckily the movement went unnoticed, the other students gratefully putting away their books and retrieving lunches from their desks or lockers. She retrieved the mobile from her pocket and flipped it open. Ready, the text read.
She left the classroom as if to go to the cafeteria, but ducked down a side hallway instead, heading for the front entrance. Naru was waiting for her outside the doors.
He passed her the hitogata, wrapped in a thin sheet of paper. "Lin put an obscuring spell on it," he told her. "Yoshimasa won't notice at first. But you'd better go straight to the roof. Depending on how eager he is to enact his revenge will give you more or less time."
"I'll go now," Mai said, turning to leave. "Gene said he'd meet me at the stairs."
Naru reached forward and touched her arm, causing her to stop. "Be careful." He said simply, a slight frown revealing his concern. "I'll be outside with Lin. And Gene will be right behind you."
Mai smiled reassuringly. "I'll be careful, Naru."
She hurried down the hallway, weaving between the students and saw Gene waiting for her near the stairwell. With a nod of his head he motioned for her to follow him, and the two hurried up the stairs before any passing students could notice them ascend. The stairs were completely empty at the third floor by the roof exit; it appeared to be a low-traffic area of the school. Gene tried the doorknob, frowning slightly to find it locked.
"I was hoping I wouldn't have to do this," he muttered, and dropped to a crouch by the lock, pulling a small, slender tool from his pocket. Mai gaped slightly as he picked the lock. He nodded in satisfaction when it opened. Peering outside, he made sure that there were no students outside before turning back to face Mai.
"Ready?" He asked, his hand still holding the door. Mai nodded. "I'll wait here," he said quietly. "Put the hitogata close to the edge of the roof but don't go too close yourself, and back away from it as soon as you've set it down. Hopefully Yoshimasa will take the bait, and if he feels he's enacted his revenge, he'll pass on immediately." His face tightened, his eyes darkening. "If not, we may have a more dangerous spirit on our hands. If he even looks your way as if he's going to come after you, Mai, call me immediately, understand?"
Mai nodded wordlessly and Gene gazed at her seriously. "Even if it means we'll botch this exorcism, call me the second you feel uneasy. Don't be afraid to use the Nine Cuts."
"Got it," she nodded again.
"Lin's shiki, me and Noll are all on standby—"
"Gene," Mai said, giving her best reassuring smile at the boy, "it'll be fine. I should hurry, though, right? The obscuring spell will wear off."
Gene pursed his lips slightly. "I know," he muttered. "Sorry. Just trying to be... cautious."
Mai nodded and touched his arm as she pulled open the door, stepping out onto the roof. She inhaled deeply, relishing both the quiet and the fresh outside air. As Gene had instructed her, she trotted quickly as she crossed the distance to the edge of the roof, unwrapping the hitogata from the paper and placing it on the ground, backing away. She glanced around, waiting for the spirit to appear, shivering slightly as a gust of wind blew across the roof. She hadn't even thought to bring a coat, she realized, frowning to herself. Steeling herself against the chill, she stared forward, watching the still hitogata where it lay. A minute passed, then two, and still nothing happened.
Mai bit her lip, glancing back toward the door where Gene was waiting. She'd assumed the spirit would appear immediately, and now that it hadn't she didn't know what to do. Was the obscuring spell stronger than Lin had thought? Or was there something else they'd overlooked? She pulled back her sleeve to look at her watch. It had been five minutes, now. How long should they leave the hitogata there, waiting for the spirit to take it?
There was a sudden crash behind her but Mai didn't even have time to jump—even as the noise reached her ears something heavy slammed into her back, knocking her from her feet and the breath out of her lungs. She caught herself with her hands to soften the fall on her knees, wincing as her palms scraped and her tights tore on the rough grit of the rooftop. She lifted her head quickly, looking for the spirit. She pressed her lips together tightly as she saw him, the shape of the spirit standing between herself and the hitogata.
"You," the spirit hissed, and Mai realized with a panic that it was not even looking at her—but past her, back toward the door. She turned to follow its gaze, afraid of what the crash she'd heard behind had been. Her eyes widened when she saw that the door had been wrenched from its hinges, the metal creased and bent at a severe angle. Gene was crouching several feet away, eyes narrowed as he stared the spirit down.
"Gene, are you okay?" Mai called desperately, willing him to stand up so she could see he was unhurt.
"I'm fine, Mai," he said calmly, though he did not turn to meet her gaze, his eyes steadfast on Yoshimasa's spirit. "He didn't hurt you when he knocked you down?" She shook her head and he nodded shortly. "Good. Stay where you are. Don't approach him."
"I suppose you're here to stop me from taking what's rightfully mine," the spirit that was Yoshimasa continued, advancing toward the hitogata with glee. "But you know what they say. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth."
The spirit lunged for the piece of wood and it flew high into the air, up and over the railing that lined the roof, a slow arc as it descended toward the ground. "This is what you did to me! This is all you deserve!" The spirit screamed, its voice a vengeful howl. Mai covered her ears at the painful sound but was unable to block its voice. She could hear the shrill scream of a girl, but knew it was what the spirit was projecting onto the hitogata—Gene had warned her that she might hear it—and it was cut short with the sickening, crushing sound of a body landing on solid pavement below. The spirit began to laugh insanely, overcome with glee to see its enemy's demise.
The laughter stopped and it suddenly hissed in anger. Mai looked up, instantly nervous and alert at the change in the spirit's mood.
"No," the spirit screamed, rage replacing its mirth. "What are you doing there? You think you can save her?!"
Mai knew with sudden certainty that Yoshimasa's spirit had seen Naru, waiting for them on the school grounds below, and just as he had been unable to tell Kaori and Natsumi apart he was unable to distinguish the twins. To the enraged spirit, Naru was the same boy who had attacked him the night prior, who had used the Nine Cuts against him and had banished him from the house of his target.
"I won't let you! I'll kill you too!" The spirit screamed.
Her eyes widened when she saw the spirit lunge off the roof and was scrambling to her feet and running toward the edge of the roof before she even realized what she was doing. "Naru!" Mai cried, gripping the railing with white-knuckled hands. "Look out!"
From the distance she could see Naru straighten as she called his name, the spirit nothing more than a dark streak that rushed toward him, a being of hatred and murderous intent. Could he even see it? She didn't know. Seconds before the shape of the spirit would have collided with the unprotected boy, a light that was both silver and golden and incredibly bright suddenly surrounded him, growing in intensity and swallowing the black shadow of the spirit. It continued to brighten and Mai's eyes began to water at the searing light, though she couldn't tear her gaze away. An agonized scream echoed in the schoolyard before slowly fading away. The light remained for several moments in the silence before it, too, began to fade.
When the light had completely disappeared, Mai blinked as her eyes adjusted, still watering from the brightness, and focused on Naru on the ground below. Both he and Lin—whom she hadn't even noticed moments before, standing close behind him—stood looking up toward her and Gene, who had appeared at her side, having sprinted across the roof as soon as she herself had run toward the railing.
Gene's chest was still heaving. "He's gone," he whispered, exhaling heavily in relief. "Yoshimasa's spirit is gone."
Mai was completely dumbstruck by the strange light they'd just witnessed, unable to speak. "What was that?" She finally whispered, still staring down at Naru, afraid that if she blinked she'd see that he'd been possessed by the spirit.
"That," Gene said calmly, matter-of-factly, "was a kekkai. A psychic barrier."
"How... how did that happen?" She asked, her voice only marginally louder than before.
Gene frowned slightly, his eyes connected with his brother's. "That's a good question," he said quietly.
"What... what about Yoshimasa?" Mai blurted, swinging her head around to meet Gene's eyes. "What happened?"
He hesitated for only a second. "The kekkai forced him to go," he said simply, honestly. "He couldn't stay in this world when he tried to go through it."
Mai winced slightly, looking down at the ground beneath them where Naru and Lin were collecting the pieces of the shattered hitogata. "Then it was a forced exorcism."
"To put it simply, yes." He sighed, placing his hand on Mai's shoulder. "Revenge has its toll, Mai. Yoshimasa allowed himself to be completely consumed by hate. We gave him what he wanted and he still hadn't satisfied his desire to kill. We couldn't have convinced him to leave peacefully. He'll have to face the consequences of his actions. There's nothing more we can do." He sighed and shook his head, reaching toward her to take her by the arm, leading her away from the railing. "Let's go. Our work here is done. We need to tell Kaori that Yoshimasa's gone and close the case." He frowned as they approached the misshapen door, still sagging on its hinges. "I'll have to ask Lin what to do about that," he muttered. "Maybe he can ask Aahil or his other shiki to hide it from the students and school faculty until we can fix it."
Mai suddenly stopped in her tracks as she realized something, eyes wide and drawing in a shallow breath. "Gene, we need to hurry!" She exclaimed in a panic, grabbing his hand and pulling him forward as she tried to drag him inside.
Gene frowned, staring at her. "What's wrong?"
"The... barrier, if Naru used his PK—" her voice rose frantically. "Gene, you need to—"
"No, Mai," Gene said calmly, placing his hands on her shoulders to quiet her. "Noll didn't create it. He didn't use PK. He's fine." He gazed at her solemnly, waiting for her to calm down. "You hear me? He's fine."
Mai struggled for words. "But..." she frowned and crossed her arms across her chest. "Then you created the psychic barrier? Or did Lin? I didn't know Lin could do that."
"He can create them," Gene admitted slowly, the two continuing down the stairs. "Though I don't think he could make one so quickly. No, Mai, it wasn't Lin, and it certainly wasn't me." He turned his head toward her and gazed at her with a curious and bemused expression on his face. "I'm pretty sure you made that kekkai."
Mai stared at him incredulously and finally laughed nervously. "Come on, Gene, be serious. There's no way—"
"I am being serious," Gene said, holding her gaze. "Completely, one hundred percent." Mai faltered under his serious expression and he placed his hand gently on her shoulder. "Come on, Mai," he repeated. "Let's go."
Mai was undeniably nervous when she met Naru and Lin outside, but Gene glossed over what had happened as if it didn't matter. "Let's go to Kaori's straightaway," he said, leading the three toward the van.
Lin visibly hesitated and Naru pursed his lips, frowning at his twin, but Gene spoke again before his brother could counter. "I don't think now is the place or the time to discuss what just happened," he said, glancing at Mai. She had her hands stuffed deep in her pockets and was biting her lip, eyes trained on the ground and an unreadable expression on her face.
"And what do we tell Kaori? And John?"
"That the exorcism was successful." Gene shrugged and opened the front passenger seat of the vehicle, motioning for his brother to get in. "That the spirit was banished and can't come after Kaori any more. The truth, Noll."
Naru pointedly opened the back door rather than take his brother's offer to sit in the front, who shrugged and sat down. He slid into the back seat next to Mai. For the first time in many years, he could not even begin to decipher the look on her face. Exhaling silently, he simply took her hand in his own as Lin started the van and the vehicle pulled away from the school.
"Now may not be the time to talk about it," he murmured quietly, his voice only audible to her ears under the rumble of the car. "But.. thank you, for what you did. And that was... tremendously impressive."
Mai frowned slightly, unsettled, and would not meet his gaze. "But I didn't do anything, Naru. I really didn't."
John met them outside when they arrived at the house, his bright blue eyes hopeful as he saw them. Naru gave a short, affirmative nod, and the priest breathed a sigh of relief. "It worked, then?" He asked, leading the way and opening the front door.
"Not exactly as we planned," Naru admitted, removing his shoes and shrugging off his coat. Kaori met them in the hall, her eyes nervous and hands twisting together anxiously. "But the exorcism was successful." His face softened ever so slightly as he met the girl's eyes. "We can assure you that Yoshimasa Itaru will not bother you ever again," he informed her. "Our investigation is complete."
Kaori exhaled, her face and body relaxing at the news. "What a relief," she whispered, clasping her hands together, a soft smile lifting her features. Her dark curls fell over her face as she dipped her head. "Thank you," she breathed, bowing deeply. "I don't know how to express my gratitude. Thank you."
"We'd be happy to leave the equipment for a day and monitor the data to ensure he doesn't return," Gene said. "He's passed to the other side and cannot return, but if it would provide you peace of mind—"
Kaori shook her head. "No, I don't think that's necessary." She smiled again, meeting each of the team members' eyes in turn. "Thank you."
Naru inclined his head. "As you wish. Then we'll remove the cameras and pack up our equipment."
With John's assistance, breaking down and packing up the equipment went much faster than the set-up had been when they'd arrived. Mai showed the young priest how to properly pack each camera into its case, how the cords were organized and how Lin liked the equipment arranged so he could pack it efficiently into the van, and he caught on quickly. Preoccupied with showing John their "dismantling techniques", as she liked to think of them, Mai nearly missed seeing Naru open the violin case on the piano and slip the letter back inside. Seeing her eyes on him, the boy shrugged slightly and went back to work.
"I guess that's it, then," Gene said, looking around the empty base with a wistful look on his face. He held up his hand at Mai until she mimicked his action so he could give her a high-five. "First case with SPR a success!" Mai smiled slightly at his antics but the warmth did not quite reach her eyes; Gene could see she was still preoccupied with what had happened earlier.
"We'd be happy for you to come by our office sometime," Naru said to John, passing him a business card. "If you're interested, we can give you a copy of our case report."
"Much obliged," John said, giving a short bow. "Thank you. I'll take you up on that."
Naru nodded toward Kaori. "We'll mail you a copy as well. It should arrive within the week. Please feel free to contact us at any time if you have any concerns. You can call the office and I believe you have Mai's mobile."
Naru turned back to John. "Considering that Kaori-san didn't tell her parents what we would be doing, if her mother asks you, please feel free to tell her that you exorcised the spirit yourself to put her mind at ease."
John looked surprised. "Oh, well, I guess that depends on Kaori-san," he said, looking toward the girl. "Kaori-san, what would you like me to tell your parents, should they ask?"
"Oh, um," Kaori looked at a loss for words. "If you don't mind," she asked Naru, "it would be easier for me to simply tell my mother that John-san got rid of the spirit. She would believe you if you said there had been a spirit," she told John. "And then she would know I wasn't lying or making it up. And that it was gone."
John nodded politely. "As you wish."
"Um," Kaori started, hesitating, and then the girl bowed again, deeply, holding out an envelope to Naru and Gene with both hands. "Thank you so much, for everything you've done," she said. "I'm terribly indebted to you. Thank you."
"We're only happy we could assist," Naru said, bowing and his brother did the same, taking the proffered payment. Mai and Lin bowed politely as well.
After Gene took it from her, Kaori produced another envelope which she offered to John, bowing again. "Thank you, Father Brown-san."
John didn't seem to know what to do, but reluctantly took the envelope. "Grateful to be of assistance," he echoed, bowing as well. He waved a hand in parting to the other group. "I'll see you later." He smiled kindly to Kaori. "I would be happy to see you with your parents at church sometime, Kaori-san. Take care."
"Take care," Naru said, the others murmuring their goodbyes, and the four climbed back into the van.
"Well, then. Back to the office to unpack the equipment?" Gene asked, buckling his seatbelt.
"We need to return to the school," Lin said evenly. "We'd better do something about the door to the roof that my shiki have been concealing."
"Oh," Gene looked abashed. "Yeah. We'd better do that." When Naru raised an eyebrow at his brother, he continued, explaining. "Um. I'm afraid part of the exorcism involved that door getting blown off its hinges. I didn't mention it at the time." He shrugged. "Don't worry, Noll, I'll write up a detailed account for the report."
Classes were over for the day when they had arrived. Mai had left her schoolbag in the classroom, so she separated from the twins and Lin to retrieve it while they went to inspect the damage to the door. She was leaving the classroom and heading back to the main hall when, rounding a corner, she almost collided with another student, dropping the books she held in here arm as she avoided him. Much to her surprise, it was, once again, Yasuhara.
"Oh! Yasuhara-san," she exclaimed, bending down to pick up the books. "Excuse me, I'm so sorry."
Yasuhara picked up the book at his feet and looked at her curiously, smiling slightly as he passed it back to her. "I should apologize as well."
"No, it was my fault." Mai waved her hand vaguely. "I wasn't paying attention. Sorry."
"I'm intrigued that you remember my name," he said, tilting his head slightly as he studied her. "Though just yesterday, it was only in passing and we weren't introduced..."
"Oh! Forgive me. I don't mean to be rude. I'm Taniyama Mai." She introduced herself quickly, smiling brightly and offering a short bow.
"Yasuhara Osamu. Nice to meet you."
"Ah, well, I suppose I should be on my way..." Mai faltered slightly, nervous to be under his scrutiny.
"Your friend, from the other day," Yasuhara said thoughtfully. "What was her name?"
"Oh... you mean Kaori? Murata Kaori." Mai said, tipping her head as she looked at him quizzically.
Yasuhara grinned. "Yeah. I had a feeling Yamano wouldn't tell me her real name. She here, by any chance?"
She shook her head. "No, Kaori-san was sick today and didn't come in."
"That's such a shame. I hope she feels better." Yasuhara grinned, if possible, even brighter. "You wouldn't give me her phone number, would you?"
Mai hesitated. "Um, well, I probably shouldn't give it to you without at least asking her first..." Yasuhara was a good guy, she knew, but it wasn't right to give out a girl's phone number to him without her consent—a girl she didn't even know very well. What would happen if Yasuhara started pursuing Kaori? She wondered. Yasuhara had been with plenty of casual girlfriends when she'd known him—but Kaori seemed nicer, smarter, and more mature than the impression she'd gotten from rest of them. Would she be setting the girl up for heartbreak or providing Yasuhara with a good distraction and a valid reason not to return to SPR, when the time came? She didn't know, and she bit her lip, wondering again if it was really possible to keep things as they had been, the last time around.
Her refusal didn't faze him in the slightest; Yasuhara simply shrugged. "No matter, I'll be back here in a couple days; maybe I can see her then." He smiled at her, eyes narrowing slightly as he studied her. "You're not a student here, are you, Taniyama-san?"
His question caught her off-guard. "Oh," Mai said again, fidgeting where she stood. "Well, no. Not exactly." She suddenly saw Naru's approaching form over Yasuhara's shoulder and she smiled slightly, lifting her hand to him in a wave.
Yasuhara turned as well, a curious smirk snaking across his lips. "This must be your boyfriend," he murmured nonchalantly, and Mai blushed at his spot-on observation. Seeing her flush, he laughed. "Sorry, but I'm always right about these things."
"Yasuhara Osamu," the boy introduced himself, nodding to Naru when he was within earshot.
"Shibuya Kazuya," Naru said as he inclined his head. He glanced at Mai. "Mai, ready to go?"
She nodded, shifting her books in her arms. "Yeah, I need to return these to the teacher's office." She dipped her head to Yasuhara as they turned to leave. "Well, I'll see you later..."
"Actually," Yasuhara said quickly, smiling and pulling out his mobile phone. "Could you give Kaori-san my number? Or you can ask her if she wouldn't mind if you passed it along to me, and text it to me later."
"Okay," Mai agreed dubiously, still not sure how she felt about the development, and the two exchanged numbers quickly. Yasuhara grinned apologetically at Naru. "Thanks for being so understanding, Shibuya-san, though I assure you I don't have any ill-intentions with Taniyama-san's phone number."
"Certainly not," Naru said, sounding slightly bored.
"Well, then..." Mai excused themselves, inclining her head again politely. "Nice to see you, Yasuhara-san."
"Likewise, Taniyama-san, Shibuya-san. Take care."
"Oh, Yasuhara-san," Naru said, turning as they were about to leave and passing him his card, as if it were an afterthought. "My office is looking for several additional part-time investigators, so if you happen to know anyone, please feel free to pass along my information or direct them to our office."
Yasuhara looked at the card with a raised eyebrow, though he did not look skeptical the way some might upon reading the words 'Psychic Research'. "I'll keep that in mind, Shibuya-san."
"You fixed the door, then?" Mai asked as she and Naru walked side-by-side down the empty hall.
"Not yet," Naru admitted, motioning with his head for her to follow him up the stairs. "Actually, I came to get you. Gene thinks I should do it with PK and I see no reason why not to try."
Mai frowned, biting her lip. The only time she'd seen Naru use PK—while realizing what it was he was doing, at least—was in the cave under the Yoshimi family inn, and the outcome still frightened her. "With Gene... you can use your PK safely, right?"
"Correct," he supplied. "And we thought it would be best if you were present. Considering you've never seen anyone pass PK energy to another, it could be both illuminating and educational for you."
Mai's eyes were downcast as they rounded the corner and started up the last set of stairs. "It still makes me a little nervous," she muttered. Glancing to the side as they passed a hovering shadow, she frowned again slightly. "Is that... one of Lin's shiki?" She questioned.
Naru didn't even look to where her eyes were focused, knowing he couldn't see it himself. "Yes, they've established a perimeter, of sorts. Lin cast a simple spell to discourage anyone else from coming this way."
Lin and Gene were waiting for them as they came up to the last landing. "You really think Naru can fix this with his PK?" Mai asked dubiously, eyeing the mangled door.
"Noll can do it," Gene said confidently.
"The screws were simply wrenched from the hinge," Lin said, pointing to the area in question. "If we can bend the door back into shape it will be no problem to repair it."
"The door remembers its shape," Gene said calmly. "It should be easy to coax it back into it." He grinned at his brother. "Easy for Noll, at least."
Noll exhaled sharply through his nose, the sound almost but not quite a snort. "As always, Gene, I only do half of it."
Gene did snort loudly at this. "A little more than half."
Mai and Lin both stood back against the wall, watching the twins. "As you recall, the last time you saw Naru use PK he simply threw unbridled energy at the ebisu," Lin said quietly. "While not as much of his psychic energy will be needed, this will require substantial more control."
"Which is where Gene comes in," Mai said, just as quietly.
"Precisely. The longer they pass the energy between them, the easier it is for Naru to shape it and control it."
The twins had stepped apart several paces, forming a triangle with the door at the apex. Naru closed his eyes in concentration, while his brother's gaze was trained on his face. Mai watched in awe as Naru opened his eyes and held up his hands, a small ball of bright blue energy appearing between them. He tossed it toward Gene effortlessly, who caught it in his hands, turned it over, and tossed it back. It went from the size of a chestnut to the size of a tangerine in seconds, and as Naru caught it, he turned it over in his hands three times before tossing it back. When Gene caught it, it was the size of a large apple, and as he turned it over in his hands it did not grow but instead began to change color. As Gene held it the silver light seemed to become more golden, the blue intensifying and lightening into white. Passing it back to his brother, they did this several more times, the color fluctuating slightly until it settled on a mix of lavender and pale golden yellow.
It looked like the sky, Mai thought, the sky at dusk or twilight when it was somehow blue and green and purple and rosy orange all at once. She realized she was sweating and as she reached to wipe her forehead, she noticed her arms were trembling.
"Ready?" She heard Gene ask, though she realized, with a frown, that his lips hadn't moved. Naru gave a short nod in return, and turning his body toward the door, raised his arm up in a gentle, sweeping motion as he received the last toss from Gene and directed it toward the door. His body moved fluidly in a way Mai had never seen before—So this is qigong, she thought—his arms moving gracefully together in a steady motion, his torso pivoting smoothly with his arms.
"Help me with this, Gene," Naru said calmly, and she watched in amazement as the door began to bend back into its original shape.
"The way it was before," Gene murmured. The entire door glowed as the metal began straighten and smooth. "That's right. A little more."
Mai felt her vision waver and she pressed her shaking hand to her head, trying to quell the dizziness. Naru said something to his brother but she couldn't understand him through the buzzing that had started ringing in her ears. Her vision swimming in front of her, she felt the ground shift between her feet and she stumbled, trying to regain her balance, barely noticing that Lin had reached out to catch her when she began to fall.
"Mai?" Lin asked and drew in a sharp intake of breath. Even without seeing him, she knew he was frowning. "Aahil," she heard Lin's voice through the noisy static in her ears. "Create a shield in front of Mai. Nasida, help me draw the energy off of her." Retrieving first something from his pocket and placing the small object on the ground, he placed his cool hand on her burning forehead. Mai closed her eyes, exhaling in relief at his comforting touch. Slowly she began to relax, her dizziness and trembling subsiding, and she felt the gentle current of psychic energy passing between her skin to Lin's hand. She was still very much aware of the energy, even after it left her body, and could feel it being collected in the object Lin had placed on the floor.
When Mai opened her eyes again she realized Lin was supporting her weight with one arm, the onmyouji kneeling on the floor and his other hand still at her forehead. "That was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," she murmured. "Is it over?"
Lin's eyes softened in relief, his lips quirking upwards in a smile. "They're finishing. Are you alright?"
She nodded briefly, though distracted as she tried to see the object on the floor. "What is that?"
Lin picked up the small object off from the floor and held it out for her to see. It was a flat red stone, banded with brown and white stripes. "Onyx. It can absorb a tremendous amount of psychic energy but cannot release it easily. Can you stand?"
Mai nodded, and Lin helped her to her feet, returning the stone to his pocket. As she turned her gaze back toward the twins, she saw Naru drop his hands, his body relaxing. They had finished.
"The molecular structure won't be the same. Ultimately, the metal will be weak in the crease where it was bent," Naru said, nodding in satisfaction. "But it shouldn't be an issue." The twins turned to face Lin and Mai, their faces changing instantly when they saw how Mai stood weakly, still holding onto Lin's arm for support.
"What happened?" Naru demanded as they strode over to the two quickly, eyes traveling between the tall sorcerer and Mai.
"Mai began to absorb the excess energy you two were releasing," Lin said quietly. "I drew it off before it became too much for her body to handle. I also had Aahil create a shield in front of us. I imagine the shield also prevented you from noticing what had happened."
Naru swung his gaze to Mai's, his eyes dark and nearly unreadable. One thing she could see clearly, however, was worry. "I'm sorry," she said, meeting his gaze nervously. The longer she held his gaze she more she could see how troubled he was, and that made her more anxious than anything else.
"Don't apologize, stupid," Gene chastised lightly, though she could see that the older twin was also unsettled. "I guess we shouldn't do that again."
"No," Naru said slowly. "Not for some time." His eyes searched her face. "How are you feeling?"
"I feel fine now," Mai said honestly. "Maybe just a little shaky." She looked at her hands. "A little jittery. And I guess I feel nervous and confused."
"Understandably," Gene said, his hand reaching forward as if to ruffle her hair. Naru frowned and grabbed his brother's elbow before he could touch her, shooting a questioning look at Lin.
"The residual energy shouldn't be a problem from Gene," Lin said quietly. Seeing Naru's pointed look, he winced and sighed slightly, correcting himself. "Nor.. from you, Noll. I'm sure it's dissipated from your hands already." He shook his head. "Let me put these screws back in the hinge, and let's go back to the apartment."
"But, the equipment in the van—" Mai began to protest, but the sorcerer silenced her with a frown.
"We'll unload the equipment tomorrow," Lin said evenly. "Right now our priority is dinner. Naru and Gene just used a sizeable amount of energy, and replenishing that is our first order of business. Not to mention after what just happened I wouldn't be surprised if you've exhausted yourself as well. While you may not feel it now, any after-effects will probably come soon."
Mai glanced nervously at Naru, his lips drawn in a thin line. "If Lin hadn't been there to drain off the excess energy you were taking in, it would have been disastrous," he said tightly.
She looked at her hands, cringing slightly as she remembered a time from long ago. "Like that time Madoka asked me to try to absorb and shape PK."
"Yes. Though the circumstances were completely different, the principle is the same. Simple energy overload." Naru frowned, and glanced at Lin. "Lin, it is imperative that you begin giving Mai qigong training immediately."
"I was going to suggest the same thing myself," Lin said, bending to align the free-standing door up with the hinges. "Gene," he gestured, and the older brother nodded, trotting over to give the other man a hand.
Mai watched as Gene held the door and Lin replaced the screws, but her attention was on the silent boy standing stiffly beside her, knowing that Naru's mind was racing, digesting the facts and probably calculating the beginning of a theory on what had just happened.
"I'm sorry," she said again, quietly.
Naru exhaled and shook his head, shifting his feet. "No, Mai, don't be sorry. This is just.. unexpected." A wry smile formed on his lips. "Don't apologize. You should be proud of your abilities. It's not an easy thing to absorb psychic energy like that."
Mai huffed and folded her arms across her chest. "My special ability of being a hindrance."
"Don't say that," Naru frowned.
"Well—" Mai waved her hands in the air, gesturing ambiguously as she didn't know what to say, grumpy and irritated at the entire situation. "I did it wrong, obviously."
"Handling someone else's psychic energy doesn't come naturally to anyone," he said evenly. "I'm worried, yes, but only because I understand, perhaps as well as anyone can, how dangerous psychic energy can be," Naru continued quietly. "And if this was bound to happen, sooner or later, then I'm glad it happened now. When Lin was here to see what was happening. We're lucky this didn't happen on a case."
Mai looked at her hands, knowing he was right and bit her lip to keep herself quiet. She was as confused and annoyed as ever, but wouldn't allow herself to take her frustration out on him. "Yeah," she finally whispered softly, scowling at the floor. "It's unexpected, all right."
Lin straightened as he finished with the screws on the lower hinge. "Good as new," Gene said with a grin, closing the door.
"Not bad," Lin agreed, a small but tender smile on his lips as he glanced at the twins. Mai knew he would not say it aloud, but the man was undoubtedly proud of the twins, and proud of Naru as his once pupil and now a qigong master in his own right.
"Dinner?" Gene asked lightly. Seeing his brother standing stiffly and Mai still looked like she might either burst into tears or start an angry tirade—either was equally likely—Gene put an arm around each of their shoulders, pulling them close. "I think we'll all think a little clearer when we've eaten something."
"Yeah," Naru said, his voice only a little sullen. "You're probably right."
Lin breathed a sigh of relief and wondered how he had ever survived nine years of Naru without his twin brother.
The drive back to the apartment building passed in silence, and when they arrived at the apartment Lin began to prepare dinner while the three teenagers settled at the kitchen table. Mai pursed her lips as she watched Lin set a pot of water on the stove to boil and begin to effortlessly chop onion and cabbage, the feeling of watching someone else prepare dinner unfamiliar and almost disorienting.
"Is there anything I can do to help, Lin-san?"
The man paused. "There's frozen edamame in the freezer," he said. "Please heat that up for me, if you would. I'm afraid dinner tonight will be quite simple."
She nodded and hopped to her feet, watching as he tossed the onion in the pan, the vegetables sizzling and steaming in the hot oil, and he quickly sliced two carrots which went into the pan as well. "Yakisoba?" She questioned as he retrieved a package of thin, crinkly noodles from the cupboard. Seeing him then take a carton of vegetable stock she revised her guess. "Ramen?"
Lin shrugged his shoulders. "Close enough. I would have said lo mein if you'd asked directly, but I suppose they're just two sides of the same coin."
"It smells really good already," Mai said with a smile, dumping the frozen soybeans into a ceramic bowl, pouring a little water into the dish and placing it in the microwave.
By the time the edamame was ready, the soup was simmering on the stove and the noodles prepared, ready to add to the broth when the vegetables were cooked. "Should be less than ten minutes," Lin said as he sat down, his voice tired.
"Thank you for making dinner tonight," Mai said sincerely, setting the steaming bowl of edamame on the table with a second empty bowl for the pods. The four took turns reaching for the food hungrily, nibbling on the simple appetizer.
"So, what should we talk about first?" Gene asked his brother tentatively. "Mai creating the kekkai, or Mai absorbing our psychic energy?"
Naru leaned on his elbow, dropping the bean pod into the discard bowl and reaching for another. "I suppose it would make sense to discuss the latter, as I believe Mai could only create the psychic barrier because she'd been absorbing your energy for some time."
"You're certain it was me?" Mai asked Gene again, frowning.
Gene nodded. "When you created the kekkai the energy felt really familiar." He glanced at his brother. "It felt the same as if we had created the psychic barrier together," he continued. "In fact I'm pretty sure if we made one together, right now, it would look and feel almost exactly the same. No doubt about it."
"You also said that Aahil confirmed Mai's spiritual aura complements your own," Naru said, nodding at his brother. Lin also nodded at this in agreement.
"What does that mean, exactly?" Mai questioned.
"Your spiritual aura reflects your psychic energy," Lin stated. "As psychic twins, Gene's and Naru's auras complement each other. They fit together so closely—pardon the cliché, but it seems an apt analogy—like two halves of a whole."
"It's why I can absorb Naru's psychic energy—why we can pass the psychic energy between us, as you saw today," Gene said.
Naru nodded in agreement. "Everyone has some sort of spiritual aura, but it is rare that they can connect so seamlessly. While a spiritual aura is intangible, imagine that it has defined, uneven edges." He held up his hands, his fingers spread wide to illustrate the point. "Our spiritual auras are so complex that the edges rarely align with others. When they do, it may be only partial, or a fraction of the aura that seems to overlap with another's." He placed his fingers together to demonstrate. "You can think of it as the interlocking pieces of a puzzle. Most people aren't doing the same puzzle and their pieces are completely different. In rare cases, some of the pieces, so to say, are interchangeable and fit together. Depending on how much the auras overlap determines their compatibility."
"So the edges of my aura align with Gene's?" Mai asked, eyes moving between the brothers.
Naru nodded. "To put it simply. I'd always suspected your aura was similar to Gene's, and Lin's shiki confirmed it. So similar, in fact, that it's like a mirror image. You take in the energy he releases naturally, just as Gene naturally absorbs energy from me."
Mai bit her lip. "So the reason I could create that psychic barrier today was because I had absorbed psychic energy from Gene..?"
He nodded again. "You've always been receptive to Gene's psychic energy. Gene is receptive to mine. In absorbing Gene's psychic energy, in turn you also took some from me."
"Best of both worlds," Gene joked, but held up his hands in apology when his brother shot him an annoyed look. "Sorry, Noll."
"So, last time..." Mai's voice trailed off and she bit her lip.
"You started having visions when you came in contact with Gene's spirit," Naru said. "His psychic energy was completely diminished, compared to now, and he couldn't serve as a link from me to you." He frowned, pursing his lips. "It would make sense that the kekkai was created with excess energy, as you weren't affected in the slightest by its creation."
"Right," Mai started slowly. "If I did create the psychic barrier, I certainly did it without realizing it, and it wasn't like the way I felt before when I had visions. I always felt exhausted afterwards."
"Yes," Lin nodded. "Gene may have influenced you to have visions before, but you relied on your own psychic energy to carry them out. His presence may have awakened your psychic abilities, but it was only a nudge forward for you to realize your potential. Today, however, you weren't drawing on your own energy to make the barrier," he continued. "If you were to try to do it again, right now—not having the reserves built up as you did before, certainly it would be quite tasking indeed."
"If I even knew how to do that," Mai muttered. "Okay, so I had this extra energy, somehow. That still doesn't explain how I did it! I've never seen a psychic barrier, not like that, let alone know how to make one."
Naru shrugged. "That, to me, is the only question at the heart of this matter. It may simply be the fact that your talents lie in your adaptability. Your instincts are finely tuned toward danger. Having the excess energy at your disposal allowed you to protect me without thinking when you saw I was in danger. Instinctually."
Mai frowned as he said the word instinct again. "But... why didn't this happen before, then?" She protested, still unwilling to believe that she had created the psychic barrier herself.
"I was dead," Gene said simply. "The residual energy you absorbed from my spirit was completely minimal. It was enough for you to start having visions, and as you absorbed my psychic energy you taught yourself how to use your own."
"Great," Mai muttered, looking at her hands. "So the short of it is, I'm like a sponge. An uncontrollable sponge."
"Not uncontrollable," Lin countered quietly. "Just as qigong helped Naru learn how to control his PK, it will help you." He rose to his feet. "Now might be a good time to have dinner. The soup's probably ready now."
Mai and Lin had cleared the table after dinner, tidying the kitchen. When Mai returned to the sitting room, she smiled when she saw that the two brothers had both fallen asleep on the sofa.
"They must really be exhausted," she murmured, sliding the book out from Naru's hands and placing it on the adjacent table. No doubt he'd meant to read it and stay awake.
"Undoubtedly." Lin looked at her curiously. "I have to ask, you're not?"
She shook her head. "I feel fine, really."
He looked relieved. "That's good."
"A little tired, but nothing more than having a long day." She yawned into her hand and sat back down at the kitchen table. "It could have gone really bad, huh?" Mai asked quietly.
Lin nodded but said nothing.
"Thank you, for helping me. I would have been in serious trouble, for sure, if you hadn't been there."
He shook his head. "It was nothing, Mai," and the two lapsed into silence. The apartment was quiet again for some time.
"They can speak to each other using telepathy, can't they?" She asked slowly, glancing at the sleeping brothers.
Lin nodded again thoughtfully. "Yes, but it seems to be a recent development."
She nodded, speaking aloud to herself. "I thought I heard Gene, when they were passing the energy to mend the door, but I'm pretty sure he didn't say it out loud."
"It probably came with the other energy you were absorbing," Lin said, nodding his head again.
"Yeah..." Mai scrunched up her face as she thought. "I don't understand," she said, her eyes squinting at him in confusion. "Lin-san, you helped draw the energy off me when it was too much. And you've done that before, too. Why... why couldn't you do that for Naru? I mean..." She faltered. "When Gene wasn't there. But it was the same reason Naru collapsed after using his PK, right? Psychic energy overload?"
"The magnitude of the psychic energy is completely different, Mai," Lin said quietly. "Imagine, if you will, that Naru is a sun, or a star. His psychic energy is radiation. As the sun radiates light and heat, he constantly radiates a small amount of energy, but at his core there is an unimaginable amount of energy in reserve. You absorbed the energy coming off of him, but you could also let go of that energy," he continued gently. "Naru cannot let go of his own energy like that, and I cannot take it from him. Only Gene can do that."
Mai frowned slightly, nibbling on her lower lip. "And actively using his PK would be like a burst of energy, like.. a sunspot or something."
Lin smiled slightly. "Yes. It's not a perfect analogy, but I find it's easier to think of these abstract matters in something more familiar and concrete." He fished the onyx stone from his pocket and passed it to Mai. "Take this stone."
"I can feel the energy in it," Mai marveled quietly.
"Yes," Lin agreed. "Like you, this stone can absorb and store energy. And as long as the energy fed to it was within its threshold, it would continue to absorb energy."
"And if it was above the threshold?"
"The stone would break." Lin said evenly. "Being an inert object, the stone has a high threshold. Though Naru could break this easily if he tried." Mai passed the stone back to him and he held it in his palm. "You have a human body, Mai, and we are fragile creatures. When I passed the energy you had absorbed from Gene and Naru to the stone it became hot, much too hot to touch. When your body absorbed the psychic energy you had an equivalent reaction, infinitely more complex and dangerous because you are not a stone."
"So qigong would help me avoid feeling ill when being around their energy."
"To mitigate the effects of overexposure." Lin nodded. "To be clear, it is only when Gene and Naru manipulate their psychic energy together the way they did today that poses a threat to you. This 'sunspot' occurrence, if you will. The purpose of qigong is to first teach you how to absorb energy like the stone. How to stabilize the energy your body takes in. With practice, you raise your own threshold. The complementary side is to teach you how to control what you've absorbed; how to release it." He held up the stone again. "This stone can absorb energy, but it cannot release it without someone to coax it."
"So at least I'm better than a stone," Mai said brightly. "I made that kekkai."
A smile twitched at Lin's lips. "Though the first step is to become as much like the stone as possible."
"Thanks, Lin-san," Mai teased, giggling. "Naru may be a sun, but the best I can aim for is just a rock."
Lin's smile curved as it widened. "What is a stone but a collection of stable matter? What is a star besides a lump of burning hydrogen?"
Mai shrugged her shoulders at Lin's philosophical answer. "Okay, then, what's Gene in this metaphor?"
"Astronaut," a voice said from behind them. Turning, Mai saw Gene standing sleepily in the doorway, leaning against the frame. "Definitely a space-traveling astronaut." He squinted at the clock on the wall. "Is it really only nine-thirty? Feels like the middle of the night."
"It became late. I should walk you home, Mai," Lin said, returning the stone to his pocket.
Gene shrugged, crossing the kitchen to draw some water from the tap. "Stay here," he said nonchalantly. "You can sleep in Noll's bed, Mai. I don't think he'll wake up to move from the sofa." He shrugged again and grinned at her. "Though I'm pretty sure he wouldn't mind to find you there if he did."
Mai blushed, wondering if Gene would say such a thing when he was completely awake and coherent. "I'll just go home," she said. She held up her hands as Lin crossed the room, reaching for his coat. "It's fine, Lin-san, you don't have to walk with me. It's only two blocks. Thank you, but you're exhausted too."
Lin paused but took his coat anyway. "I don't mind, Mai," he said. "And I need a little fresh air before I sleep tonight."
"When should we start my qigong training?" Mai asked Lin as the two walked down the quiet street.
Lin pursed his lips. "As Naru said, we should begin as soon as possible. I prefer an early morning session; I find it easier to begin training with the fresh day, rather than to try to unburden oneself with the troubles the day has inevitably accumulated. As a beginner, it will certainly be easier for you."
Mai nodded, having supposed as much. If Lin was going to give her qigong training it would have to be either before or after school; knowing Lin it was more likely to be the former. "Tomorrow morning, then? What time?"
"We can wait a day if you prefer."
"Hmmm, no, it's probably better to start right away," Mai said decisively. "How long would it take? The session, I mean?"
Lin considered her. "Let's start with an hour long session. It may be shorter, in actuality, but it would be better to plan a little extra time." He smiled apologetically. "I'm afraid you may find the beginning sessions to be rather uneventful. I don't know how often you practice meditation—"
"Pretty much never," Mai admitted, embarrassed.
"You needn't be ashamed, Mai," Lin said, and the tall man smiled ruefully. "I always thought it would be beneficial to go over meditation with you, and Naru and I had discussed a basic training regimen when you first came to London. Of course, it didn't happen, as the more time passed the easier it was to put it off. It's obvious now that we should have."
"Sorry," Mai muttered. "Again, my fault. If that one time with Madoka hadn't happened..." her voice trailed off. She didn't allow herself to think of that often; if she hadn't been so foolish to allow Madoka's PK experiment, would she have lost her abilities the way she had? Would she have been able to continue as an investigator at Naru's side, rather than being relegated to clerical work on most of the cases?
"It's not," Lin said sternly, shaking his head. "Besides, Mai, you are only a sixteen year old girl." He quirked a smile at her. "Last time at sixteen, you knew nothing of meditation, so any way you look at it, this will be an early start."
"Fifteen," Mai whispered, looking at her hands and suddenly feeling both very young and foolish and, at the same time, very old for her age. "I'm only fifteen."
"Then even more so. This will be your fresh start to learn more breathing exercises and meditation techniques than you ever imagined." Lin smiled, and Mai found herself grinning as well. "Shall I come by at six o'clock?"
Mai nodded agreeably. "Sounds good to me."
"Don't eat breakfast," he instructed, and she nodded.
"Okay." Suddenly overcome with emotion, she threw her arms around the tall man's middle, hugging him tightly. "Thank you, Lin-san," she whispered. "For everything. I'm so lucky to have a great friend like you. I never thought.. when we first met.. that we would be friends like this. But I'm so glad. Thank you."
Lin patted the top of her head gently, a fond smile on his lips. "And I should say likewise, Mai."
Original update 4 june 2014 (Edited)