The only similarity between the elaborate bathroom in Naru’s suite and the minimal, rectangular one in Lin’s, Mai thinks, gripping the rounded edge of the countertop, is the red and black marble. With the lights off and the door closed, enclosing the small space in the minimal light that slips under the door, the colors of the polished surface are washed out, but Mai can see the galactic crystalline structures in perfect clarity, as clearly as she can see the reflection of the bathtub-shower behind her when she looks up from the sink.
She shouldn’t be able to see this well in the dark. There are a lot of things Mai shouldn’t be able to do.
Staring at her face in the mirror, Mai can’t quite relate with the woman she’s looking at. She looks different. Her hair is long and smooth, and her eyes the only spots of color in the otherwise grayscale shadows of the room: wine red. It feels like looking directly into the uncanny valley. Like she’s facing a replica that doesn’t quite match the original.
She can hear Lin and Naru in the other room, speaking in hushed whispers.
They’re talking about you.
Ignoring the accompanying fog of nausea creeping up inside her stomach, Mai turns on the chrome faucet with shaking hands, bending over the white sink and washing her eyes out. Cold water drips from her nose and eyelashes, rolling down her neck as she raises stinging eyes. In the mirror, it looks like rivulets of blood, dark red tracks leading down from her hairline and eyes, accumulating in the lines of her mouth, but it’s not. It’s not.
The smell of sulfur has lingered all over her since she woke this morning, alone, in the freezing king-size bed Naru refused to share. She doesn’t recall dreaming, but the clay boy has been clinging to her mind like wet drapes stuck to a windowpane since she woke.
If she closes her eyes, she can see him standing in the center of a dark, musty room with cement floors and a high ceiling, a small, tattered cushion in the corner of the room, the corner of a red record sleeve peeking out from underneath.
You’re running out of time.
Mai squeezes her eyes shut even harder, bracing her elbows on cool marble and leaving her weight on the counter, taking pressure off of her spine that aches every time she moves. She’s feeling worse every day, more frail, more drained. A gnawing hunger follows her everywhere she goes, and she’s been eating as much as she can without drawing attention to herself, or, more attention than Naru already pins her with every time she enters or exits a room, his eyes like physical weights on her shoulders. It hurts. She’s hollowed out and it hurts. Naru knows something is wrong, is waiting for her to tell him, but she can’t. She thought she could but she can’t.
The pungent smell of burning skin stings her nostrils, and she finally notices the damp hands pressing down on her shoulders, pressing her elbows painfully into the countertop. She doesn’t need to open her eyes to see white sclera staring into her mind, his singed hands popping near her ears. When she speaks, the words come out soft like feathered down spilling out of a pillow, or a white lily wilting in the rain, trampled on the sidewalk.
“What do you want?” The hands on her shoulders are burning, but something tells her it hurts him more than it hurts her, just to touch her skin. “Why did you bring him here?”
“You won’t survive, like this,” he says, pushing down harder until her legs cave under the inhuman strength, her knees hitting the tile painfully. She hooks both arms over the counter, trying to stay upright as she takes labored breaths in the thick stench of the room; it burns her lungs. “He has something you need.”
“I don’t care,” she pants, palms sliding on wet marble, water still dripping off her chin and onto the floor. “I won’t let you hurt him.”
A laugh escapes her before she can catch it, and it rattles like the tail of a rattlesnake.
The hands slide down her back, adrenaline firing off under her skin as adolescent arms encircle her waist from behind, squeezing her ribs, and she can feel the heavy textures of his peeling face against her upper back above the bandages, heat radiating off of him and singeing her skin, like she's leaning back on the edge of a fire.
The water dripping onto her lips turns to salt, and she realizes tears are slipping out from under her shut eyelids as she hyperventilates, pressing her forehead to the hard edge of the counter until she thinks it’ll bruise.
“He’ll let you.” When he pulls his cheek away, she thinks something peels from his face, sticks to her skin, and she gags, stomach rolling at the sensation.
“I’m sorry,” she gasps, without understanding the words, only the pain in her chest, the tears that won’t stop falling, the horrible sinking feeling that this is all her fault. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.”
He hushes her softly, hugging her tighter, her ribs straining against his strength. “You haven’t changed at all. You haven’t learned a thing.” A sob tears itself from her throat, and Mai shivers on her knees, trying to force her body to act. Why isn’t she fighting back? Why can’t she lift her head?
Why does it feel like she has no right to fight him?
“Don’t ignore your instincts, Mai-chan.”
Aggressive pounding on the door disperses the weight on her back, and Mai sinks all the way down to the floor with her knees spread beneath her, shivers wracking her limbs, a hot, filmy residue all over her back and neck as Naru’s voice penetrates the fog in her head.
“Mai, open the door.”
She can’t bring herself to answer, but it turns out she doesn’t have to. The lock clicks open on its own, Naru’s ki crackling in the air around her, evaporating the cloud of sulfur pressing down on her lungs as light opens up the room.
Her eyes find his black boots on the ash-brushed tiles, climb the black fabric of his charcoal jeans up to his long-sleeved thermal of the same color, before stopping on the shadowed angles of his face, his eyes bright with the power she can feel pulsing at the surface of his skin, anger turning calm blue volatile.
“Where is it?”
Mai opens her mouth and shakes her head slowly, blinking liquid out of her eyes, her fingers curling and uncurling in her lap. His fury is an oppressive force, lowering the vibrations of the room, slowing down molecules and freezing the air.
“Why didn’t you call out?” he asks, and Mai can’t look away no matter how much she wants to. “Why didn’t you call for me?”
At her prolonged silence, Naru steps further into the bathroom as Mai senses two more souls hovering near the doorway, their concern pressing against her mind. Naru shuts the door in their faces, the hard click of the lock loud in the confined space, sending them into darkness for the second it takes him to flick on the light switch.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says, quieter than intended, and Naru’s stare only intensifies, and how could she ever have thought the clay boy’s presence was heavy compared to this; how could anything compare to the spiritual pressure Naru is emitting, practically splitting the room at the seams? Why would she submit to anything less?
Her mind freezes, a detached feeling growing in her gut as she retraces her thoughts.
Since when does she ‘submit’ to anything?
“I felt it,” he says, looking down his nose at her, and Mai tries not to incriminate herself more than she already has, crying on the floor in an unlit bathroom. “I felt your fear.”
Wiping the itching lines of water or saline from her face with the back of her hand, she can’t focus on his words, can’t focus on much beyond the hollow feeling inside her core that expands and contracts when she thinks about it, and suddenly the ki behind Naru’s eyes isn’t pushing her away, it’s pulling her in. The emptiness grows, and she crawls toward him over damp spots on the tile, her pencil skirt and blouse restricting her movements, prompting Naru to hold a hand out to her, his gaze still concealing his own panic and relief just beneath the surface, leaking over through the golden thread.
His larger hand encloses hers, and his eyes are hard but his touch is gentle. “Don’t lie to me.”
Letting herself be pulled to standing, her knees only wobbling slightly in the process, Mai faces Naru as confidently as she can, her senses slowly returning. She smiles without feeling, and any softness hiding in his expression is pushed out, leaving chiseled marble in its place.
“No promises,” she says, pretending to meet his eyes, and catches her own reflection in her peripherals. Her white blouse is dotted with drops of blood, falling from her face.
Glancing down at where Naru’s hand holds hers, she sees red staining her skin. It isn’t real.
He lets go of her hand, and his palm comes away red.
“What are you measuring?”
Naru ignores her, hovering over a series of monitors and computer equipment Mai can’t even begin to parse the function of. He’s barely spoken more than a word to her, since this morning; after he was done drilling her for information on the clay boy, of course. For some reason, Mai held back again, couldn’t bring herself to share what was said between them. It felt too… personal, she thinks.
“What are these for?” she asks, as Lin sticks another circular pad with red and yellow wires coming off it onto her upper back, pulling at her skin as he adjusts it.
Lin shuts his mouth at Naru’s cool tone, giving her a mildly sympathetic look before placing another sticky pad on her upper back above the line of bandages, then adding to the others on her temples and sternum. The wires lead away to her left, hooking up to the ambiguous machines and computers stacked on the large metal racks Lin built in the center of the room, taking up half the living room of his smaller suite with their usual shelves of equipment.
Trying not to show how her head is pounding, Mai sinks down in her stiff wooden chair Naru pulled away from the cherry brown table and situated next to the tower of mechanical junk. The more Mai tries not to think of the loud buzzing in her brain, or the gloves and sunglasses she isn’t wearing, leaving her irritable and sensitive, the more she fixates on what she wants to ignore.
Mai doesn’t like this. Any of it. The chair is uncomfortable, and Lin’s hotel room smells weird. Or, it doesn’t smell weird, it just. Doesn’t smell like Naru. Not that she wants everything to smell like—ugh.
The fan inside one of the computers is working particularly hard at keeping the whole thing from overheating, and Mai for the umpteenth time wonders what the hell Naru is doing, scanning all those monitors, including his laptop screen, which is also hooked up to another boxy machine that does… something. Mai has never had any interest in the technological aspects of Naru’s investigations, but now she’s slightly, maybe-a-little regretting that, since she has no idea what they’re monitoring.
“Stop moving,” says Naru, scrolling through data, leaning over the table like the restless, idiotic scientist he is; and Mai does not look at the veins in his left forearm as it flexes under his weight, the sleeves of his black thermal pushed up to his elbows.
She hadn’t even noticed she was fidgeting, scratching the stiff fabric of her pencil skirt. Sighing woefully, she leans back against the hard frame of the chair, stickers itching. Her eyes hurt. She can’t believe Naru made her take off her sunglasses for this. Well. Yes, she can. But it’s still annoying. Everything is annoying. Especially the static in her brain that picks back up every time Naru is more than five feet from her, or at least it feels like it. The sensory overload has subsided somewhat since this morning, but it comes in waves. At least being around Naru feels like linking up with something stable, with a steady frequency that’s easier to bear. But she’s getting a little too used to how easy it is to breathe when his aura is leaking into hers.
The events of this morning flash behind her eyes, red fingerprints on everything she touched, taking hours to fade away, and she shoves the memory back down.
Lin finishes wrapping a thick, ocean-blue band with a rubbery fabric texture around her upper arm with velcro. It feels strange, like the plastic clip on her finger, a red light blinking at the tip.
“Is that too tight?”
Mai shakes her head. “It’s fine.”
Lin nods, ever serious, and Mai finds herself wanting to attempt a smile. She wonders if Naru knows how gifted an onmyoji Lin actually is, if he can feel it, too.
It wasn’t until Mai began researching on her own that she learned what exactly an onmyoji does, how impressive it really is. When Lin summoned his shiki in the past, she didn’t quite understand the nature of his abilities. According to the elaborately dressed shopkeeper—who Mai can’t help but trust, despite her intangible aura and ethereal clothing—practitioners of onmyōdō are able to conjure and give shiki ‘life’ through their own spiritual powers, which is why a shiki’s power is directly connected to the spiritual power of the onmyoji that conjured it. Lin’s shiki are incredibly powerful, able to not only defeat high-level spirits but, if he wanted to, possess animals and humans, influencing their will. Lin has never spoken about or demonstrated such abilities, but the shopkeeper was insistent that a powerful wielder could do that and more.
Feeling Lin’s spiritual energy from across the room, opening herself up to his consciously suppressed aura, Mai wonders if Lin would be able to conjure the oni-like shiki the shopkeeper spoke of, while blowing fragrant smoke into Mai’s face with a devious smile: the shikiōji. Only the most powerful practitioners have managed it, and even then it is legendarily difficult to control.
It’s hard to imagine that level of fearsome power from Lin, whose presence is always so calming, whereas Monk’s presence as of late feels like a nest of wasps inside her head.
Speaking of power:
Moments before the knock at the door, Mai recognizes the presence walking down the hall coming to a stop in front of the suite, but it’s like her mind is trying to split in two; she knows who it is, she knows it’s Monk, but something inside her doesn’t recognize him when she can’t see his face, revolts at the blinding light of his energy, like a heated blade she can’t see but feels.
A loud beeping from one of the monitors goes off, and Naru watches the screens intently, as if Mai isn’t about to crawl out of her skin, as if the exceptionally powerful exorcist about to enter the room is nothing to worry about. Breathing faster, heart rate speeding up, Mai grips the wooden arms of the chair as tight as she can without dislodging the weird finger clip, a sharp prickling at the back of her neck that makes her want to flee.
‘Don’t ignore your instincts, Mai-chan.’
With only a short, communicating look with Naru, Lin opens the door and lets him in.
It’s immediately worse.
Rigid in her chair, wires pull at her skin as Mai leans away, the wooden arm of the chair digging into her side as she tracks the powerful exorcist walking casually toward her with her eyes, and the inaudible voice that lives in her head whispers right in her ear: Too bright, don’t get close.
“How ya holdin’ up, jou-chan?” he asks, grinning, his light hair pulled into a messy pony, but her adrenaline is pumping as if she were staring a lion in the mouth. What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me?
“Mai, calm down,” Naru says, still watching the monitors as Mai’s instincts peak, his expression hiding the alarm slipping into their connection at whatever he’s seeing.
“Mai,” he says again, at her lack of response, and turns his gaze onto her.
Moving away from the table, Naru crosses the short carpet space between them, peeling the sticky pads off of her, unwrapping the blue thing off her arm, and removing the finger clip before turning her chin up with his fingers to make her look at him.
Locking onto familiar indigo, his body a protective barrier between her and the exorcist, she feels a little better, more grounded. Enough to speak through gritted teeth.
“I’m fine,” she says, swatting his hand away from her face and pushing against the arms of the chair to help her stand, forcing him to take a step back or risk their bodies touching, glaring down at her.
She won’t be weak. She won’t let herself need him this much.
Naru backs away toward the computers, his eyes flicking over her, and Mai focuses instead on observing the growing confusion on Monk’s face, his shoulders sagging in his army-green t-shirt. She feels a bizarre mix of emotions, her affection for him mixing with a foreign fear and resentment that she can’t understand. What is she doing? It’s just Monk, it’s just, it’s just…
“Sorry,” she says, putting some distance between them anyway, unconsciously following Naru toward the metal shelves, stepping over discarded stickers and wires as she goes.
After rolling up the sleeves of his white dress shirt, Lin brushes by her, startling her slightly, as he picks up the wires and other light equipment Naru uncharacteristically dropped in his haste to unhook her, then glances back at Naru with the eye not covered by his bangs; they share a coded look that sends Mai’s head tumbling further into paranoia.
The door to the hotel room slams open again, revealing a winded Yasuhara in his blue shirt and khaki pants, panting from running. All eyes turn to him as he glares at Monk. “I told you to hold the door.”
Monk laughs, hiding his hand behind his head, squinting his eyes with his smile. “I thought you were joking.”
“Why would I joke about that?” Yasu snaps, straightening his shirt collar, and joins Lin by the table, glancing briefly at the modern art hanging on the wall behind it—a white canvas with bright green and orange splotches of paint strung along the center in concentric circles—and curls his mouth down in distaste.
“Lighten up,” Monk says, exuding amusement as he flops down on the navy blue couch against the far wall, once he’s done examining the fake palm tree potted in white ceramic in the corner of the room.
“Be quiet,” Naru says, once again leaning over his laptop, and both Monk and Yasu roll their eyes, unconsciously in sync.
“Good to see you again, too,” Monk says, nodding to Naru and then Lin, before waving hesitantly at Mai, again. “How’re you doing?”
“I’m fine,” she says, too clipped, too tense, from the way everyone in the room save for Naru visibly cringes at her tone as she leans back on the edge of the grey plastic table Lin assembled last night.
She accidentally jostles the table, and Naru shoots a hand out to steady a short camera tripod, glaring at her as he does so. Sheepish, she purses her lips and redirects her attention to the exorcist—to Monk, she corrects, shaking her head slightly.
“The new office looks good,” says Monk, holding onto his calm even as he eyes Mai with something too close to suspicion to be read as concern. He can’t be concerned. They don’t care about you. They hate you. They hate what you are.
Once again shaking the bizarre thoughts from her head, Mai smooths her hands down her skirt, subtly wiping off the sweat from her palms while mentally counting the steps between her and Monk; he has a long reach; the coffee table is between them, but with his height he could easily be in striking range with only a few steps.
Striking range? Mai rubs her eyes with the back of her right hand, taking a deep breath. She’s not right. Something is wrong.
Yasu’s eyes roam the wall of equipment as he walks over to Lin, starting a quiet conversation with him while pointing at one of the larger screens. Mai isn’t stupid. She knows he’s talking about her. They’re all talking about her. They don’t trust you. You’re unnatural.
This isn’t good. She doesn’t understand her own head. This isn’t safe.
“I want to leave,” she says, causing the room to go quiet.
She doesn’t need to look up from the grey tread-flattened carpet to know at least half of them are sharing an uncomfortable silence, looking at each other for ideas of what to do, or deciding who will be the one to say what Mai already sensed the moment they walked through the door; that she isn’t allowed to leave. That they’re holding her here.
Like a prisoner, something deep inside her says, sinking its claws into her shoulders through her blouse, and she feels her senses begin to dull, her mind wanting to detach.
“She doesn’t look so good,” Yasu says.
Walking toward her, Yasu tries to feel her forehead with his palm, but Mai slaps his hand away on instinct, hitting her heel on the leg of the table in her haste to get away, her heart rate accelerating, quickening breaths drying out her lungs. She registers the sound of something falling over on the plastic tabletop, but doesn’t feel safe enough to look away.
Mouth in a grim line, Yasu lowers his hand, and there’s not enough time for her to react to Naru stepping past Yasuhara with an irritated expression, urging him out of the way with a hand on his shoulder. Naru ignores her proverbial snarling as he puts his hands on either side of her head, thumbs pressing into her temples. Almost immediately, Mai starts to feel her energy connect with his, lightheaded like she’s about to pass out, following his rhythm until everything eases and becomes manageable.
These are her friends.
She closes her eyes, breathing deeply, focusing on the pressure of Naru’s hands on her head, and gets her mind back under control. He’s getting better at this, more efficient. By the time Naru removes his hands, she’s feeling more centered than she thought possible, but slightly nauseous; she has to be careful. She’s relying on him too much.
When she opens her eyes again, Yasu is standing behind Naru, looking at the back of his head with a complicated, pinched expression. “She lets you touch her.”
Naru pulls his sharp eyes from Mai’s, looking over at Yasu like he forgot he was in the room. “And?”
Mai’s senses click back into place, enough for panic to overtake fatigue.
“Yasu,” she says, and it’s meant to be a warning, but the wounded look Yasu directs at her over Naru’s shoulder leaves her stunned, makes her thoughts disperse like dust blown into the air.
“She doesn’t like to be touched.”
When Naru’s gaze floats back to her, his narrowed eyes remind her of a wolf catching a fresh scent, making her more nauseous than she already was. “Since when?”
“Maybe, between ten and six months? That’s when she started wearing gloves nonstop. Is that significant?” he asks, but his tone says he knows damn well it’s significant, that he wants to play dumb and find out what Naru thinks first.
Naru looks back at Mai with undisguised analysis, and Mai narrows her eyes before getting brave and crossing the suite to join Monk on the—now that she looks closely—blue and grey triangle-patterned couch. The stiff hotel cushions don’t give as much as she’d like as she sits on the end of the couch by the left armrest, as far from Monk as possible.
“Hey,” he says, smiling at her like she hasn’t been acting like a total freak since he got here, and Mai winces into her own attempt at a grin.
“Sorry,” she says, again, and his smile falls slightly, his arm stretching over the back of the couch as he looks her over.
Opening her mouth to answer, she overhears Naru still asking Yasuhara about her gloves.
“Don’t talk about me when I’m right here,” she says, glaring at the two men standing by the plastic table full of electronics with their arms crossed, looking like the most reluctant conversationalists she’s ever seen.
In response to her mild outburst, Naru stares at her out of the corners of his eyes, his face still turned toward Yasu. Mai thinks she’s gotten similar looks from dogs, trying to pet them while they eat.
“Should we leave the room?” he asks, insincere, and Mai digs her fingers into the cushion under her thighs until it hurts her nail beds.
Monk leans forward in her peripheral vision, leaning his elbows on his blue-jean covered knees, watching them with the air of an indulgent older brother. “Don’t worry about those two,” he says, “they’re only pretending to hate each other. Probably.”
Rolling her eyes, Mai stands up—abruptly, based on the way Monk flinches—and makes her way around the maple coffee table, unsteady in her new-ish heels. She takes extra precaution weaving through the maze of metal shelving cluttering the living room part of the suit, until she sees the mixed wood and metal of the black mini fridge and sink in the back corner of the room, away from prying eyes.
Leaning down and opening the fridge, scanning the rows of water bottles and cans of juice and coffee, Mai grabs a can of coffee and shuts the door as she straightens back up. Popping the tab, cold aluminum irritating the sensitive palm of her ungloved hand, Mai stares at the abstract painting above the minibar instead of turning around and facing the others, following red and blue lines of paint across a white canvas like thin veins, flowing up in reverse gravity.
“By the way, where’s Mai staying?” Yasu asks, causing Mai’s hand to pause in bringing the can to her lips. “Masahiro-san says he saw her leave with an overnight bag.”
“If you’re asking me if Mai is staying with me, the answer is yes,” says Naru, feigning distraction very convincingly, above the sound of typing. If Mai hadn’t spent so long listening to his voice, she would have missed the tension.
“In the same room?”
Mai winces at Yasu’s flat tone, reluctantly seeking out their faces among the sea of metal poles and wires. Naru is adjusting dials on a black electrical box, referring to his black notebook every so often, expression deceptively neutral. Yasuhara is wandering around behind him, picking things up and likely putting them back in the wrong spot, just to irritate him.
“Your concerns have been noted,” says Naru, and Yasu stares at his back with a blank expression.
Clutching the can tighter as she watches Naru lean over the desk, hair falling into his eyes, Mai swallows her embarrassment and raises the coffee to her lips, taking a long drink. The cold liquid soothes her dry throat, the perfect amount of bitterness on the back of her tongue.
“You didn’t respond to our texts last night,” Yasu says, picking up a manila file from the wooden table they pushed against the wall to make room for the larger plastic one, then flipping it open. “Monk and I were trying to get a hold of you.”
“I had my hands full.” Naru looks up from the desk and straight at Mai through the shelves separating them, shooting her a dark look that catches her off guard.
Mai chokes on her coffee, nearly turning and spitting it out over the sink. She looks away to swallow, retreating to the safety of the dual-colored sideways drips on the wall.
It’s not an exaggeration; Naru spent a good amount of the night policing the wards to keep her from tearing them down, and Mai did her best to keep him distracted so he wouldn’t find the small pile of loose cigarettes she hid in the closet before he disposed of the pack. Mai couldn’t relax in the center of the empty king bed, and she could feel Naru’s restlessness from across the suite. Altogether, they couldn’t have gotten more than three hours of sleep before Naru’s alarm went off at 6:00 am. Apparently he doesn't use the snooze button. Whatever. Don’t blame her when neither of them can function by six o’clock this evening.
“Oh?” Yasu’s uncommonly venomous tone draws her eyes back over, his smile edging toward a grimace.
“Is that a follow-up question?” Naru asks, facetious, before he shuts his laptop and walks over toward the left side of the tall shelves of computers.
From this angle, Mai is the only one who can see the brutally cold look in his eyes, however briefly it lasts, but she can’t figure out if it’s directed at himself or Yasuhara.
Apparently losing patience with the awkward mood of the room, Monk sighs and runs his hand through his hair. “I’m gonna call Ayako again,” he says, groaning like an old man as he gets up from the couch and makes for the door. Mai can’t blame him.
Light reflecting off his glasses, Yasu picks up a pencil from the desk Naru was working at, twirling it in his hand. “Is Mai going to be your assistant, again?”
“That’s up to her.”
Naru unplugs a long, thick black cord from a metal box with lots of lights and buttons, then starts winding the cord up in an intricate braid of loops that Mai immediately recognizes as the way he tried endlessly to teach her to store their extension cords years ago; she never properly learned it, always snuck around and had Monk do it for her.
“The office wouldn’t be the same without Mai falling asleep on her desk,” Yasu says, with a joking tone, but something about this interaction feels off, makes Mai cautiously set her can of coffee down on the black marble counter by the sink.
After winding it up with impressive speed, Naru places the braid-like cord on top of the metal box, then examines his hands for residue, bangs falling into his eyes again when he looks down. Maybe he needs a haircut.
“You underestimate Mai’s stamina,” he says, the image of calm and collected. Feeling her eyes on him, he looks up at her through his hair, and Mai is glad she put down the can because her fingers go completely numb, and for the life of her she can’t tell if the look he’s giving her is actually sexually charged or if she’s being mocked. “I’ve hardly seen her sleep in days.”
Yasu’s normally unnoticeable energy spikes from across the room, and Mai is beyond humiliated at the heat she can feel in her face, and Naru is just looking at her not-smirking, but he might as well be and what the Hell is he doing?
Seemingly unconcerned with the turmoil he’s caused, Naru pushes his already rolled sleeves up needlessly, more habitually than anything, and starts for the door, ignoring Yasuhara’s rigid presence by the table completely.
“Where are you going?” Lin asks from his place behind the shelves, and Mai startles; she’d forgotten he was there.
“We need more cups from the restaurant.”
At the thought of being left with Yasuhara in the wake of that performance, Mai hastily navigates the mess of equipment, only bumping into the edge of one metal rack on her way to Naru by the door.
“I’ll help,” she says, slightly out of breath, and Naru merely glances at her, pulling the door open, revealing the yellow wallpaper of the hallway.
The sooner she can get out of here the better; Yasuhara’s confusing emotions are grating against her nerves.
In her eagerness, Mai just about shoves Naru the rest of the way into the hall, shutting the door behind her. Brushing her hands off his arm, he starts down the gold-lined hall without her, shoulders relaxed, like nothing that just transpired has anything to do with him, and Mai clicks her tongue against her teeth as she jogs to catch up—nearly rolling her heel—grabbing his forearm and pulling him to a stop.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she whisper-yells, letting go of his arm as soon as she realizes she’s touching skin. She may not have had a psychometry incident when Naru touches her, yet, but that doesn’t mean she’s immune.
Slowly turning to face her, he steps closer than decency dictates, almost nose-to-nose. “You’ll have to be more specific.”
The hall is empty except for the odd large floor vase with craggly black boughs sticking out of it, but Mai can’t help but feel exposed under his gaze, her eyebrow twitching with irritation.
“What was that, with Yasu?”
Naru looks at her like she’s either full of shit, or very slow. “He prefers you.” Indigo eyes drop to her lips briefly, and Mai does her best not to notice. “It’s a distraction for him. He won’t be useful if he’s too busy pinning away to do what I ask of him. I’m merely suggesting he focus his attention elsewhere.”
Her confusion must show enough for Naru to misread her. “Away from you,” he clarifies, and Mai ignores the implied insult to her intelligence.
Yasu ‘prefers’ her? What does that even mean? Her face is turning red the longer he looks at her; she can feel it. “You could have asked me before saying that to him.”
“You could have asked before using my deodorant.”
Her face heats up even more. She thought she’d been sly about that. “I couldn’t find mine.”
There’s a spark of humor in his eyes, and Mai’s heart overreacts. “That’s because you threw it at my head,” he says, and pivots to leave, making it several steps down the hall before she gathers her voice amid her raging embarrassment.
Fine. She can be petty, too.
“And what if I prefer Yasuhara?”
He stops walking. When he turns around, there’s a challenge in his eyes that makes her pulse jump, but she holds his gaze defiantly. “You don’t,” he says.
“How would you know? You don’t care either way, right?” Mai cocks her weight to the side, resting her hands on her hips. “Maybe I’m tired of waiting.”
Despite the unnamed emotion that flashes over his face, it almost looks like his face freezes in place as he takes a moment to think. She can feel him gauging her actions, weighing her comments until her palms start to sweat. His black shoes tread quietly over grey carpet as he walks back to her, but he doesn’t stop when he reaches her, continues forward until Mai gives into her instincts and backs herself into the wallpaper in the same moment his hands knock hers aside, replacing them on her waist. Heart hammering at the unexpected proximity, she imagines she can taste the orange he tried to convince her to eat earlier in the air between them. He looks down at her lips, still too close, still holding onto her waist, his gaze like a physical stroke inside her.
“If you prefer him,” he says, and Mai’s nails scratch the grains of the wallpaper, her shoulder blades bruising against the wall from how hard she pushes back into it, “what are you tired of waiting for?”
His face is so close, his eyes darker in the brightly lit hall, and Mai can’t think of anything else as her index fingers find the smooth leather of his belt and hook over the top, wedging the tips of her fingers between the belt and his jeans without her permission.
“You don’t,” he says, and Mai shivers at the low timbre of his voice.
She doesn’t get a chance to respond before he’s gently removing her hands from his belt, stroking the tops of her hands with his thumbs before releasing them, and backing away from her.
Mai stares shell-shocked the entire time it takes him to walk back down the hall toward the elevators, glancing at her cooly over his shoulder before disappearing around the corner.
Mai’s mental and bodily functions start to recover a few seconds after he’s out of sight, and she’s still thinking over what he said, sagging against the wall, as she catches her breath.
Even then, it takes a minute for the egoism of the interaction to really dawn on her. Agitatedly smoothing out her blouse, Mai mutters under her breath. Arrogant, narcissistic asshole. Whatever pissing contest he’s in with Yasuhara has nothing to do with her. It’s all ego.
Feeling her hot cheeks with the backs of her hand, she huffs, too ruffled to care what the others will think if she goes back into the room like this. She can’t do anything about the redness of her face.
She steels herself, preparing to go back inside, when she remembers she said she’d help carry the cups. The following internal battle doesn’t last long before she growls and whips around, stalking down the hall after him. If she doesn’t go, he’ll really think he’s won the argument.
Damn it, damn it, damn it.
Having pulled a chair away from the table into the living space of the hotel room, Mai sits upright with one ankle crossed over the other—the Cambridge cross, Naru had called it once, while explaining a British tabloid article on royal etiquette Mai struggled to understand without translating. She still doesn’t really get it, but she liked how it sounded, and she thinks of it frequently when she catches herself seated as such.
Her heel wiggles every so often, and she plays with her fingers on top of her pencil skirt with anxious energy. She brushed her hair this morning, but it already feels tangled again, and she’s reluctant to ask Naru for his comb again. If he would just leave it on the bathroom counter when he’s finished with it like a normal person, then she could just steal it without him knowing, which would be way less uncomfortable, for some reason. He’s such a difficult mix of overly neat and completely chaotic.
Even right now, Naru sits directly across from her on the couch, elbow on the arm rest, wearing an all black combination of a perfectly pressed long-sleeve dress shirt and pants he recently ironed—having gone back up to the room to change clothes after Mai ‘accidentally’ spilt the orange juice he’d been trying to force her to drink down his shirt and into his lap—but the bags under his eyes make him look like more like an exhausted mortician than a scientist. Or maybe that’s just what scientists look like. The fact he almost exclusively wears black doesn’t do much to counteract his gloomy aesthetic, either. Mai had often wondered over the years if he’d ever expanded his color repertoire, if maybe he’d just been in mourning when she’d worked for him, but it seems some things don’t change on their own. Not that it bothers her. She’s not sure she’d recognize him in an actual color.
“You seem calm.”
He says it objectively, without inflection, but Mai knows his voice well from those hours on the phone, can tell he’s satisfied with her decision to sit down and humor him. It’s useful, she’s finding, that she doesn’t have to go off of his blank expressions anymore. However, regardless of what Naru thinks, her agreeing to sit doesn’t mean she’s agreeing to talk things out with the group.
“I feel calm.” She looks down at her unpolished nails, then at the hem of Naru’s black pants over his black boots.
The differences between Lin’s understated suite and Noll’s travesty of modern design are worthy of criticism; the bedroom is easily half the size, the bathroom incomparable, but at least it still has large windows shining morning light onto the turned-down bed Lin didn’t sleep in, too busy setting up equipment and rifling through boxes of hastily sorted files for the reopening, from the looks of it. The living room, however, has no windows, and the abstract line painting behind the couch is a poor replacement.
Yasu’s closed-lip smile is a default, a place-holder while he listens and absorbs what’s happening around him as he leans back on the wall by the couch, next to where Naru sits with a pen and notepad in his lap, tapping the end of the pen against the paper every few minutes. Monk sits casually on the carpet beside the coffee table, wooden beads looped around his wrist as he leans back on his hands toward Ayako, who sits on the end of the couch behind him in a yellow jacket and black turtleneck, wearing her concern in the delicate turn of her lips and deceptively impartial eyes. Similarly, Monk doesn’t even try to hide his unease, eyebrows furrowed in a serious expression.
Whatever Naru said to them when he had them alone earlier did a number on them; they all look ten times more tense than they did this morning.
Well. Everyone except for Lin. The onmyoji hangs back from the group, sitting at the wooden table a ways behind Mai, but she can feel his eyes on her back, quietly powerful.
“Do you have any questions before we start?” Naru lifts his tea to his lips and drinks, staring at her over the rim.
Yes. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Yasuhara snorts, uncrossing his arms, and starts folding up his white shirt sleeves while relaxing back against the wall, grey eyes amused behind his glasses.
“We’re just going to talk.” And record you. There are so many cameras in the room, one of them is bound to be on. Worse, Naru is using his neutral ‘client voice.’ It makes her eyebrow twitch.
She uncrosses her ankles, recrossing them in the opposite direction. “Why the special treatment?”
Naru finished individually interviewing each of them already, saving Mai for last. There’s got to be a reason she alone is being questioned so publicly. Especially since she’d already set her terms; she’s not telling the group a damn thing until she’s ready.
Naru follows his cup with his eyes, setting it down on the coffee table. Her throat is dry. A hot cup of tea sounds amazing. She should have poured herself some while she was at it. She gave everyone else a cup except Yasuhara, who passed on the offer.
“Insight,” he says, mildly.
She sighs out her nose, her shoulder muscles starting to ache. Naru’s steaming cup of tea is looking better and better. She brought some tea blends from home, and the one she served today is sage and moringa. Naru hasn’t complained, but she can tell he’s wishing for good old English tea by now. He just wants Mai to make it for him.
“Why don’t you start with the scar on your arm.” Naru is trying to appear casual. It isn’t working. She can feel anxiety rolling off him in waves. He’s uneasy about questioning her. It would be annoying, if the gold light between them wasn’t so calmative. “How did you acquire it?”
“Why don’t we start with something else,” Mai counters, and smiles pleasantly.
She keeps her eyes on his velvet blues, attempting to stretch her consciousness over into his, to pull out what he’s thinking, but it’s like running her hands across a stone wall. She can’t help but start thinking of that cup of tea in front of him again. If he doesn’t like it, he should just say so and let her have it. It’s wasted on someone who doesn’t enjoy it.
Everyone seems to take turns shifting in place, anxious silence an unfamiliar friend among the usually lively group. Mai refuses to feel guilty for it. She lives in anxious silence. They don’t have to be here. In fact, they shouldn’t be here. She doesn’t have the energy to spare.
“Alright,” Naru says, with barely repressed ire, “where would you like to start?”
Mai lets her eyes wander to Ayako’s sunflower-yellow jacket; it’s easier to look at than her tense expression. Only she could pull off that color without looking childish, or fruit-like.
“So when you say insight, you mean to say witnesses?” Mai languidly brushes her hair over her shoulder. It was itching her neck, which only reminded her of her parched throat, and Naru’s unloved tea, probably getting cold. “People to help you tell if I’m lying?”
“You think I can’t tell by your voice?”
“Can you?” she asks, eyes snapping back to his.
He’s pissed. She can tell by how indifferent he looks. Good. That’ll teach him not to treat her like a client again.
“Jou-chan.” Mai’s eyes reluctantly break from Naru’s and turn to Monk. His body language is relaxed, open, one bent knee pointing to the ceiling, but his expression and tone are firm. “He’s just trying to help. Go easy on him.”
Go easy on him? Mai bites the inside of her cheek, resentment blooming inside her gut. She hasn’t asked for any of this. In fact, she’s done everything in her power to prevent this, and now they tell her to go easy on them? She feels static between her fingers and squeezes her hands into fists on her thighs to hide it. Maybe she’ll just get up and leave the room, brew some more tea so she doesn’t have to diligently avoid looking at Naru’s barely touched cup.
“What did you see in the restaurant?” Yasu asks, causing Naru to stiffen.
Mai gives Naru a brief, nervous look, before meeting Yasuhara’s gaze. “This isn’t the time for that.”
Yasu crosses his arms. “It is the time for it. I didn’t think it’d… I wouldn’t have done it if you would have just talked to me.”
Naru looks between them, sitting up straighter on the couch, pen poised over the notebook balanced on his knee. “What are you talking about?”
Yasu sighs and adjusts his glasses with a finger, scooting up to sit more on the arm of the couch. When he speaks, he sounds hesitant, guilty, and Mai clenches her teeth because somehow it makes it so much worse. “I tested her, a bit.”
The beat of silence before Naru turns his eyes to the taller man, tilting his head near-imperceptibly, speaks volumes; at least, to Mai it does. It makes her nerves sing, makes her slide her hands down her thighs and curl her hands at the edge of her skirt fabric just to have something to hold. This isn’t looking good for Yasu.
“You did what?” Naru’s voice is a soothing volume, emanating calm, which is the first red flag. The second is how the room gets a little colder, almost a full degree. She glances at the tense body language and Monk and Ayako, watching Naru with rapt attention, and she figures they sensed it, too. “You failed to mention that bit of information, earlier.”
“Yasu,” Mai warns, trying to communicate with her eyes past the reflective lens of his glasses. Drop it.
He disregards her, crossing his arms tighter, shifting against the wall to get comfortable. “She wasn’t going to admit to anything, she won’t ask for help so I thought if I just pushed a little—”
“No,” Naru says, sliding his gaze to Mai, his narrowed eyes chilling the air in her lungs, “continue.”
“I took her out to dinner.”
Mai feels a jolt of something unfamiliar through their connection, something that makes her feel almost nauseous, but Naru’s expression doesn’t change, his eyes never leaving hers, and Mai feels herself going lightheaded again.
Yasuhara continues, unaware of Naru’s whirlwind of thoughts beneath his facade of calm. “The place was built on top of an old sewing house that burned down in the latter half of the Edo period. There are no records of supernatural activity, or any strange experiences or hauntings, so I thought… I thought if I brought her there and she had a reaction… I thought that might mean she’s gotten to the point where she responds to locations even without the presence of spirits. And then maybe she’d ask for… It sounds really stupid now.”
“And?” Naru asks, and Mai’s mouth is drying out from that stare, her heart racing in her ears as she clutches her skirt tighter, stiff fabric chafing against her overheating palms until she can’t take it.
“Yasuhara,” she snaps, chair rocking back as she stands abruptly, clenching her fists by her sides.
“She threw up outside.”
Mai thinks she might vomit, again. Naru taps his pen on his notepad leisurely, but she can feel cold anger and something sour radiating out from him, can feel his failing efforts to stay objective. “Mai? Would you like to corroborate this?”
“There’s more,” Yasu interrupts, properly chastised, but it’s like once he started talking he couldn’t stop. “At one point, she started saying she… That she wanted to die beautifully? Like she was already dead. I think she may have been channelling.”
Naru is breathing the sort of careful way he does when something truly beyond his patience has occurred. If she were to guess just by looking, she’d say his pen is one, tiny, dangerous burst of energy from snapping in half. He looks at Monk and Ayako’s guilty expressions.
“And you knew about this?”
The awkward nods from both of them leave Mai in shock, and she quickly looks away from their faces, looking down at the swollen veins on the tops of her feet from the heels possibly constricting blood flow. How much have they figured out?
Naru’s silence is a powerful thing. It makes her want to crawl out of her skin, makes her want to run out of the room.
Forcing her legs to move, Mai walks slowly over to the cherry wood table where Lin is set up with his grey laptop and yellow legal pad, then grabs her cloth purse from the table, careful not to meet Lin’s eyes.
“Do you think that’s wise,” Naru says, and she ignores him, “to wander off on your own, after what happened this morning?” Taking a deep breath, she looks up and to the right at Naru. He’s watching her closely, toying with his black pen in his right hand, and his eyes probe hers as soon as she lets them. “Sit down.”
It’s not the pull coming from their shared connection that makes her stay, nor the sensory memory of skin sticking to her back, peeling away from the clay boy’s face.
‘Don’t ignore your instincts…’
Her instincts are telling her to leave while she can and wait for Naru to follow, then corner him once he’s alone. To do what, she isn’t sure.
‘He has something you need.’
Mai purses her lips. Spirits lie. Spirits mislead.
And that’s why Mai backs up to the wood table and sits on top of it by Lin’s laptop, crossing her left leg over the right, then crossing her arms to match. She’s not listening to a word that little mud-caked shit says.
“Look,” Yasu says, and Mai pointedly doesn’t look up from her shoes, examining a white scuff mark that reminds her of the stain dead skin cells leave behind when rubbed on soft fabrics. “Whatever’s happening to her, it’s progressing quickly. If we wait around until she decides to talk to us, by then it’ll be too late to do anything.”
“That doesn’t excuse—” Ayako starts in, and Mai tunes out their bickering.
Mai leans back on her hands and rests her eyes, irritation simmering under her skin. On top of her back starting to itch and burn again, the lack of tea in her hands makes it impossible to relax. Maybe she should just take Naru’s cup while he’s distracted. He probably won’t even care, but something about the way he’s pretending to drink it is too annoying to ignore. She should only serve this tea blend from now on, until he stops being ridiculous and admits he has a childish palate and dislikes things that taste ‘too green.’
“Just take the damn tea,” Naru says, and Mai startles, opening her eyes to take in his equally perturbed expression.
They stare at each other in silence, both at a sudden loss for words. Was that a lucky guess? Mai’s heart is hammering against her ribs, telling her it wasn’t, and the way Naru looks at her like a germ under a microscope makes Mai think it really could only have been one thing.
It never occurred to her what it would mean, that the link goes both ways; that Naru might pick up just as much detail from the connection as she can, despite his lack of innate talent for it. From the looks of it, he’s still wrapping his head around what just happened, too.
Trying not to show she’s rattled, Mai slides off the table, avoiding the others’ eyes as she carefully picks up Naru’s cup from the coffee table by its thin white handle, and reclaims her seat. The tea is still hot. She holds the steam under her face.
“Thanks,” she says, dryly, and feels the awkwardness in the room grow. That first sip soothes her throat and her nerves.
Naru clears his throat, but Ayako talks over him. “I know you don’t owe us this,” she says, and Mai watches the greenish hue of the tea ripple in her cup, “but it’s our preference not to stand by and do nothing while you clearly are dealing with something difficult.”
It’s impossible, Mai finds, to resent straightforward speech. Of course, in the end, it would be Ayako’s sensible approach that loosens her tongue, makes her want to cooperate. Maybe that was Naru’s plan. To let them win her over.
But as soon as she thinks it, she feels another set of negative emotions in the way. She feels defensive. Protective. Not of her former SPR family, but of herself. Mai tries to massage her neck muscles with one hand, balancing her teacup in her other, the tension that was starting to ease picking back up full force. This doesn’t make any sense.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
She can feel the disappointment in the room, but she won’t be swayed. Until she understands what she’s reacting to, she isn’t going to put anyone at risk, herself or otherwise.
“Who are you protecting?” Naru asks, and she glances up in time to catch him leaning on the armrest, fingers brushing his lips. “Who are you most concerned for, right now?”
Mai grits her teeth. This gold light situation is more trouble than it’s worth. She looks at Ayako, who smiles reassuringly. The electric itch is spreading from her palms, up her arms.
“Forget it,” Mai says, and rubs her arms with her hands, trying to stimulate feeling in her limbs.
“What are you trying to hide?”
“Naru,” she says, depleted, and raises her eyes to meet his stare.
He really looks like he hasn’t slept a wink in days, like he rubbed plum-charcoal under his eyes and couldn’t quite wash it off. How he still has the energy to nag evades her. “I want a detailed list of all psychic and spiritual phenomena you’ve experienced since I’ve been gone, and I want it by tomorrow evening.”
Mai scoffs before she can stifle the reaction, sets down the teacup and scoots off the end of the table again, brushing her hands off on her skirt and glancing around the suite, looking for where she left her sunglasses. “No.” Not a good enough try.
“What do you mean, no?”
“No, I won’t be turning in my homework tomorrow, sensei.”
She can feel Naru’s eyes on her face, and she reluctantly stops scanning the metal racks of equipment to gauge his expression. He looks unaffected, tapping his pen against his notebook again, and that’s how Mai knows he’s truly irritated with her: the more indifferent, the more irritable—at least that’s how it used to be. She’s not sure anymore.
Monk shifts in his makeshift seat on the carpet, running his hand through his hair, and Mai’s eyes unfocus entirely, her senses involuntarily shifting over to her less conventional perception as Monk speaks. “Mai, we’re just trying to—”
“Help?” she asks, his bright aura making the loud static in her head increase. In her mind’s eye, she sees all of their grim faces, all of their pitying thoughts swirling around the room and bonding together in a conglomerate of condescension and misplaced emotions. “How do you plan to do that?”
She doesn’t need to use her eyes to sense Naru’s fog-like presence standing and walking closer to her, rounding the coffee table at an unrushed pace. “That depends on what the problem is,” he says.
Mai feels herself sinking further and further inside her own head, feels the shadows creeping up around her. “And if I’m the problem?”
“You’re not a problem, Mai.” Naru is right in front of her, she can feel his aura brushing up around her, and she tries not to sway into him.
They’ll lock you away.
“You’ll put me in a crate, ship me back to England to be your lab rat.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“You promised you’d leave them out of it.” She wishes she could see his face, wishes the world wasn’t made of such thick, dark fluid. “You promised.”
His hand is warm on her forearm, gentle. His touch is the color purple. “You want to know what will happen if you’re the problem?”
She has no answer, other than to remember to blink when her eyes start to burn.
“You’ll learn to control it.” Naru’s words are close enough to taste, like warm cinnamon feelings. Her feet ache from standing. “Like Gene did. Like I did. Even Lin.”
Naru puts his hands on her shoulders, then her neck, and Mai takes deeper and deeper breaths as his energy stabilizes her. He believes what he’s saying. She can feel it. Breathing in as much as she can before letting the air out slowly, Mai enjoys several moments of stillness before her eyes clear again, and she meets Naru’s focused stare as he reluctantly lowers his hands from her skin.
Pitying stares press against her from all sides, like hot blades to her skin. She can’t look at them. She’s humiliated at her own behavior. They’re just trying to help. She knows that. They just care about her. She knows that, too. But her stomach is hollow. She’s a mountainous cavern. Hunger pains contract her stomach at the thought of Naru’s hands on her again, and she has to look away from his eyes, too.
“I’m hungry,” she says, and is terrified she means something else. Something different.
Naru’s shadow hasn’t moved from in front of her, and no amount of staring at the espresso brown door to the hotel room will change that.
“That’s good,” he says, but there’s a note of hesitance; he can feel her. She always forgets he can feel her.
“Let’s eat, together, Mai,” says Ayako, her energetic voice attempting to revive the room.
“You should eat,” Naru adds, needlessly, and Mai nods her head just to move her neck, just to feel in control of her body.
Trust her instincts, huh?
Mai puts a hand on her chest, confirming there isn’t a gaping hole where her body should be, and feels the shadows caving in.
As soon as Mai closes the bathroom door behind her, Noll is grabbing Lin by his imperfectly-ironed sleeve and Monk by his somewhat aggravatingly muscled arm, dragging them into the far corner of Lin’s suite to huddle around the dark green blades of the dracaena dorado.
“There was something gathering beneath her,” Lin says, requiring no prompting, only glaring marginally past his thick bangs as Noll lets their arms go, “condensed, foreign energy.”
Monk nods his agreement, light glinting off the two silver stud earrings in his left earlobe. “Something definitely wasn’t right about it. It felt diseased.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Noll says, crossing his left arm in front of him so he can rest his right elbow on his left wrist. He taps his bottom lip with his middle phalanx, working over the information he’s hearing. “You didn’t actually see it, then?”
Noticing something about Noll’s tone, the Buddhist monk tilts his head minutely, expression turning serious as he crosses his arms tightly and adjusts his stance to be wider. Most misinterpret such posture as being defensive, or reflecting stubbornness, but the act of crossing one’s arms can often more accurately be understood as ‘hugging’ oneself, or self-soothing, when experiencing discomfort of varying kinds. In this case, based on the other minute facial tics taking place, Noll would bet Monk is merely anticipating Noll’s next statements and attempting to mitigate his unease and concern.
“I felt it,” Monk says.
Letting his eyes wander down to the sharp leaves of the house plant, Noll takes a moment to let that sink in.
Noll isn’t usually the one with the best spiritual sight in the room. And yet, when Mai was standing in front of the table looking strained and dazed, he saw a faint, black mass of shadows starting at her ankles, climbing all the way up to where the ‘head’ manifested behind her shoulder. It felt dense, true, but he struggled to distinguish it from Mai. He wouldn’t call it diseased.
It felt familiar. It felt like Mai.
Hand going still against his lips, it occurs to him that he’s feeling defensive. He feels insulted on her behalf. Stranger, still.
“Matsuzaki?” Noll calls, turning away from the two men he dragged into the corner to find the red-headed doctor leaning on the cherry wood table, carrying her yellow jacket over her forearm.
“You know I don’t sense spirits in the city,” she says, frowning, and Noll observes with the barest hint of humor that his defensiveness is spreading.
“So we’re just going to ignore the boiling tea cup?” Another voice interjects, and Noll notes Yasuhara retying his shoelace by the couch, glancing up at them from behind mussed hair from too much anxious finicking. “Because that happened.”
To be fair, normally, the fact the liquid in their tea cups appeared to heat to a low boil when Mai was at her most agitated would be a detail worth discussing. But Noll already knows she has the potential for dangerous levels of ki leakage when pressed, and he’s more focused on the half-formed entity he observed behind her, clearly provoked by her emotional state; again, this supports his hypothesis that her subconscious is currently storing and controlling her abilities, but whether that was a spirit or something else is still undetermined. He would have liked to have Hara visit today and assess Mai’s situation, but Hara hasn’t been answering his calls.
She’s ignoring him. And Noll is starting to get suspicious.
“I want one of you to get Hara on the phone,” Noll says, and drops his arms, leaving the corner of the room in favor of examining the cup of tea on the table behind Matsuzaki, “let her know we’ll be needing her tomorrow at the latest.”
“No, really, don’t stop your conversation on my account. Just thought someone should address how Mai just boiled water with her mind, but that’s fine,” Yasuhara says, and Noll gives up on preserving evidence he doesn’t care to, picking up the delicate china and looking at the underside without spilling the tea.
“The tea cups are irrelevant.” Satisfied that there are no markings or other damage to the cup itself, Noll looks to Lin, the older man sharing a tense look with Monk that Noll is going to question him about later. “I may have to rely on you to handle her apartment, when the time comes. She’ll retaliate if I push too far.”
“Irrelevant? In what world is that irrelevant?”
Suppressing an exhale that would have revealed his fading patience, Noll levels the glasses-clad investigator currently gathering up paperwork from the coffee table with a look he hopes is dry enough to discourage further discourse. “This world, wherein we’re discussing paranormal activity and not the laws of thermodynamics. In either case, your input is unnecessary.”
“I sense spirits, sometimes,” he says, nearly dropping a slew of manila files that were sliding off the top of the stack in his arms, before he adjusts his hold. “I can be spiritually sensitive.”
He makes it too easy. “Vaguely sensing spiritual activity when in known, active locations is as being stabbed with a screwdriver is to being a mechanic.”
Scoffing, Yasuhara hikes the files up further in his arms, wrinkling his blue shirt further. “I have some spiritual awareness.”
“Of course,” Noll says, and puts the cup down by Matsuzaki’s manicured nails, as the woman shoots disapproving looks in his direction, “about as much as an earthworm, by my assessment.”
“Ha!” He pushes his glasses up with his free hand, undeterred. “How do you know earthworms aren’t—”
“Okay,” Monk cuts him off, passing by Noll to take half of the files from Yasuhara’s fumbling arms, and Noll finds himself reluctantly curious what the investigator was planning to say. “We’re going to check out the lounge.”
Being corralled toward the door, Yasuhara shouts over his shoulder. “You’re speciesist!” And maybe it’s for the best that he was cut off, after all.
When the door shuts behind them, Noll reluctantly meets Matsuzaki's cat-with-cream expression as she flips her hair over her shoulder. “What?”
“Nothing,” she says, and pushes away from the table, sauntering after the others.
Lin appears in his peripherals, and Noll catches himself crossing his arms for reasons other than sore shoulders or resting his arms. “You shouldn’t take it out on him.”
Throwing an unamused look Lin’s way, praying the implied ‘shut up’ is received, Noll grabs Mai’s—or his, initially—tea cup and tips it back into his mouth.
The tea’s still warm.
Somewhat successfully tuning out the clamor of the newly reassembled SPR members attempting to carry a couch into the main room of the office, Noll stares at the polished flat top of macassar ebony, strips of light and dark reddish brown arranged in striking diagonals across the wide expanse of the executive desk he didn’t ask for and doesn’t want.
The same irrational, empty feeling he’s had since yesterday occupies his chest as he follows the lines down to the clownishly elaborate sides of the base, littered with intricate wooden carvings that evoke a similarly chaotic, claustrophobic feeling in him as Jan Matejko's Battle of Grunwald, depicting a clash of bodies and weaponry piling atop one other in an epic battle.
He’s being punished. This is what he gets for shoving work off on Lin and asking him to handle the new office’s furnishings, foolishly not realizing Lin would delegate the task to Madoka, who is proving to be a worthy adversary even with the whole of Europe and Asia wedged between them.
It’s too large for his office.
Noll intended to have his—simple, refined and unobtrusive—desk face the door to his office, backlit by the modest window on the far wall, but this hulk of wood would render him barely able to squeeze past the edge of the desk every time he wanted to pass by it, which would be neither dignified nor enjoyable for himself or anyone who he tries to meet with.
Hence, the desk’s current position shoved against the accent wall, leaving him to face the white and red rectangles of the thin brick veneer tile with his back exposed to the rest of the room. He’s forced to turn his head to the right every time he wants to check his own doorway—the view from which is currently of Mai kicking off her heels and climbing over the brown leather couch with metal studs along the armrests, another loose white blouse tucked into the grey pencil skirt she definitely wore yesterday; the skirt Naru watched her slide up over her thighs this morning in his peripheral vision as he pretended not to notice her disrobing and redressing while he was still in the room, trying and failing to read through his emails.
He watches her flick a disheveled Yasuhara on the forehead, causing him to nearly flinch out of his glasses; he watches her smiling and laughing with the team for presumably the first time since Noll has been here; and it should be a good thing, but something heavy settles in his gut at the sight. Something toxic.
He’s glad she’s feeling better.
It almost makes his sleepless night worth it, having spent the first half the evening convincing her to sleep alone, then attempting to bargain with her to reveal the location of her stash of cigarettes—the only explanation he can find for the fact they keep showing up even after he’d been sure he threw them away—and the second half of the night wrestling her away from the replacement wards he put up on the walls and headboard of the bed while Mai tried every evasive tactic ever recorded to get a chance to take them down. It’s concerning behavior; aversion to wards is never a good sign, and the fact she’s done it multiple nights in a row is even more suspicious. Although, her ki didn’t seem to change last night, or at least not as much as their first night in the room. That’s not to say she doesn’t have a spirit attachment influencing her behavior; it might be hiding where Noll and Lin’s senses can’t reach it. Its influence could also be subject to change, depending on the strength of the wards.
And based on that bizarre reaction to Monk yesterday, a spirit influence is seeming more likely than he’d originally thought. He’d been so sure it was primarily a subconscious manifestation… It would be a partial relief, if Hara were to disprove Noll’s suspicions.
Unfortunately, Hara is blatantly refusing to answer his calls.
The young medium is keeping her distance, and, judging from the interactions Noll witnessed between her and Mai at the antique shop, Noll thinks he might have an idea as to why. Her and Mai have obviously grown closer while he was gone, and yet the others claim Mai rarely shows up to group events or socializes. Even more suspicious is that Mai frequently spoke of the others on the phone with him, but not once, ever, did she mention her growing friendship with Hara. Not once in three years.
He may be jumping to conclusions, but it’s probable Hara knows something; something Mai doesn’t want Naru to know.
Likely sensing his eyes on her, Mai turns her cheek to where Yasuhara and Monk are trying to move the couch with Mai on it. She casts an incendiary glare at Noll, her mussed chestnut hair turning auburn in the sunlight framing her face.
Still angry, then.
Noll allows her to hold his gaze as long as she wishes, directing her ire at him until she grows bored of his seeming lack of response and goes back to shouting with the others about where, exactly, the couch should be in relation to the matching leather chairs.
When she looks away, Noll’s gaze slides down to the inner crook of her elbow, able to see the faintest outline of the bandage holding the piece of cotton to where the puncture was made.
Mai hasn’t spoken a word to him since he delayed her breakfast and dragged her to a surprise, private phlebotomy appointment on the outskirts of Ikebukuro around 7:25 am—private, so Noll could supervise the procedure, keeping a hand on the back of her neck at all times, regulating her ki for her to prevent any unwanted ‘accidents’ while she was having her blood drawn.
Their interactions have been understandably tense, since.
Tearing his eyes from her ivory, chiffon-like shirt sleeve, Noll sighs and looks over the stack of requested case files on the far right side of the massive desk, then sits down carefully on the equally ridiculous leather office chair that squeaks and makes Noll feel like a toddler sitting in his father’s office on ‘bring-your-adopted-son-to-work-day.’
Sliding the top file off the manila stack, pinching it between his thumb and index finger to drop it onto the wood in front of him, Noll wonders not for the first time what it means to be the leftovers from a two-for-one adoption scheme, where one was worth twice its price and the other came free. He’s overheard the hushed words of one-too-many staff at their estate, huddled in dusty corners, to naively imagine the situation to be anything other than what it is: “Why couldn’t it have been the other one?”
It doesn’t bother him. The “other one” has been Noll’s moniker at the estate ever since he first arrived there. And he worked somewhat tenaciously at maintaining it, withdrawing from social interaction, allowing Gene to foolishly take the unspoken place of “socially appropriate one” and subsequently allow himself to be burdened by others, repeatedly—a trait he clung stubbornly to even in death. Noll has never taken offense to such remarks. In fact, staring down at the already accumulating workload in front of him while the others laugh uproariously and stub their toes on the coffee table, already tasting the hours of over-soaked tea and mind-numbing research ahead of him, Noll could not agree more vehemently.
Still caught up in his thoughts, Noll opens the file, unfocused eyes blurring the first several lines of the page.
The voice finally registers as more than white noise, and Noll looks to his right despite the already growing pain in his neck from the repetitive action, eyes falling on Lin leaning through the open doorway, looking as sleepless and irritable as Noll feels, his normally crisp dress shirt wrinkled, his black tie undone and hanging around his shoulders, trademark vest nowhere to be found. It’s been a while since Lin has called him that.
“I called the number on the prescription you gave me,” he says, soft-spoken, which Noll appreciates almost as much as he appreciates Lin not commenting on how ridiculous his sparse office arrangement currently is, not having had the chance to unpack or assemble any of his file cabinets in the midst of trying to make this atrocity of a desk fit. “The woman says the pills were on the table before they vanished.”
The words take a moment to sink in. Noll leans back in his oversized chair, ignoring the squeaking, and rotates it to face Lin as he crosses his left leg over the other. “Vanished, literally? Not hyperbolically.”
Noll swipes his favorite ball-point pen from the groove in the wood at the front edge of the desk designed to hold it, clicking it into the writing position, then clicking it back into place. “She could be lying.”
“I doubt that.”
Lin’s tone peaks his interest, draws his gaze back up to the taller man’s grim expression.
“Suzuki Kazane was a high school student who passed away over a month ago.” Lin glances at the pen in Noll’s hand, shoulders more stiff than usual. “The woman I spoke to was her mother.”
Ah. Noll clicks the pen once again. Lin finally decides to further enter the office as Noll eyes the rough grains of the faux brick wall, rust-red and eggshell-white blending together like they got mixed up in the wash. Once the door is shut, muffling some of the commotion outside, Lin leans on the edge of the desk closest to the exit, and Noll takes a moment to hate Madoka for how multiple feet of space remain between them; the desk is that obnoxious in size.
“She could still be lying. Perhaps she sold them.”
“Oliver,” Lin warns, his one visible grey eye slitted in disappointment.
Before he can start in on his favorite lecture on respecting the dead and the grieving, Noll spins his chair to face his desk once again, uncrossing his legs and refocusing on the tall stack of client requests Monk, Yasuhara and Lin managed to drum up in a slightly concerning amount of time. If Noll were honest with them, he doesn’t plan to accept any requests for investigation for another couple of weeks, if he can help it. He plans to coast on savings until the grant kicks in and Mai is more under control.
“Thank you for the update,” he says, by way of dismissal, and Lin only hesitates a stubborn moment before making his way back out of the office, leaving the door wide open behind him, the rising voices once again bouncing around the inside of Noll’s skull.
Taking a cleansing breath that doesn’t cleanse anything, whatsoever, Noll manages to focus his eyes on the first page of the file in front of him, then squints in confusion. This isn’t a request; it’s an open case file on a two bedroom apartment in Tokyo. Apartment #133. The client claims to hear recurrent screams of what sounds like a young girl, accompanied by strong, disturbing smells of something “foul” burning.
Noll doesn’t remember ever taking this case, but it’s possible it slipped through the cracks before he left Japan and somehow found itself in the wrong stack when they were sorting through old cases. Searching the page for the date, Noll’s fingers tense, wrinkling the file in his grip. March 31st of this year.
Today is the 24th of March.
This case is dated exactly one week from today.
A loud knock on the door frame jerks his attention up to the lanky, glasses-wearing individual in the doorway, sticking one hand in his khaki pants pocket while holding up a neatly bound folder in the other.
“Daddy brought gifts,” Yasuhara says, grinning as if he honestly isn’t disgusted with his own existence, and Noll feels the tension drain from his shoulders just from being in proximity to such a willful idiot.
Of course. He must have forgotten to tell him he’s no longer interested in the antique shop, having already ruled it out with Mai as a cause of her phenomena. Sauntering in with a little too much ‘pep’ in his step, Yasuhara drops the thick folder onto Noll’s desk with a smug expression that almost garners sympathy.
Naru glances at the report, flipping through a few pages before letting the cover fall shut, disinterested. “Thanks,” he says, somewhat insincere; a little thanks can go a long way, Mai claims, and now is as good a time to test that as any. Emphasis on the ‘little.’
He can picture Yasuhara’s slowly evolving expression without even looking, instead sliding his laptop closer to him and hitting the spacebar to wake up the screen.
“Aren’t you going to read it?”
Noll types in his password and tries to make this as painless as possible.
“I won’t be needing it, but I appreciate the effort expended,” he says, restoring his previously closed browser.
He can practically hear Yasuhara’s string of thought snap.
“What do you mean you don’t need it? You asked for it.”
“I required it. Now I don’t require it.”
A lazy glance in the other’s direction confirms Yasuhara’s face is fraught with irritation behind his trademark smile, and Noll doesn’t question the near-pleasurable satisfaction he derives from watching the taller fume before yet another shadow fills the doorway, sandalwood bracelets knocking against each other on Monk’s wrist as he sweeps into the room and quickly steers Yasuhara away with an arm over his shoulders, like the tide called in and out by the Moon.
“Come on, champ. Let’s get something to eat.”
“I don’t want to eat, I want to be respected,” he says, letting Monk drag him away, nevertheless.
Once they’re gone, Noll’s eyes wander back down to the file resting open beside his laptop, the one with next week’s date. But when he reads the page again, he finds none of the same information, finds only a request to investigate a local shrine due to missing cats.
Noll doesn’t waste time questioning his senses. He wasted too much time that way before he returned to Japan; before he realized Mai’s abilities were likely waking up abilities in him, abilities he previously lacked use for. Triggering latent potential.
The problem is, Noll doesn’t know which type of omen this is. If a similar case comes up, is he meant to take it or pass on it? Is this a warning or a lead?
Feeling an unsettling tug at the base of his spine, Noll finds himself turning to look back out through his doorway and meet’s Mai’s pinched expression. She walks stiffly in black heels, white-knuckling a tray holding a light green ceramic teapot beside a white cup and saucer, and places the set down on the far edge of his desk.
Noll hadn’t asked for tea.
He drags his eyes up her legs, over her skirt, all the way up to her fiery eyes, looking for something out of place, something that might explain what she’s doing here after ignoring him all morning. There’s a healthy flush to her cheeks, and Noll wonders if he needs to turn the AC on, or if she’s overworked herself traipsing around the new office with the other rambunctious SPR members. It dawns on him that Matsuzaki isn’t even here yet—only Mai, Yasuhara and Monk. He nearly groans at the thought. It’s going to get so much worse.
“I’m going with Monk and Yasu to get lunch,” she says, firm, like she thinks he’ll object.
“Bring Lin with you,” he says, careful not to let his eyes linger on the not-quite plunging but definitely diving neckline of her blouse, or the slim fit of her skirt as she cocks her hip; he’s unused to seeing her dressed like this; it’s going to be an adjustment.
Placing his pen down on the desk, Noll’s eyebrow twitches as even that movement manages to make the leather chair squeal. Fine. Madoka wants a phone call? If she keeps playing at this type of retribution, Noll will make sure she gets lots of phone calls from many people—maybe even a few from HM Revenue and Customs.
Noll catches himself staring at the curling ends of Mai’s hair and forces his eyes up to hers, quickly retracing the conversation to find his place. Right. Monk. Until he can figure out why she tried to obliterate him in that alleyway, why he triggered her fight or flight response in the hotel—until he can confirm it’s safe for her to be around him—she requires extra supervision.
“Bring Lin,” he repeats, and folds his hands together, elbows propped on the armrests as he turns his chair to face her fully.
She purses her lips, clearly holding back a retort as her thin, left ankle wobbles slightly in her relatively short black pumps. So she’s not used to those shoes, after all. Noll has been wondering how recent some of these changes are; wondering when she started dressing business-casual, started wearing heels, started smoking. He wonders why she wears them, if they make it difficult even to stand. It’s possible she just likes them, but Noll has his doubts.
“No,” she says.
Mai meets his skepticism with equal force, tilting her chin up slightly. “Just Monk and Yasu.”
His chair complains loudly as he leans on his right elbow, tracing his lower lip with his thumb as he thinks. She has that look in her eyes; the look that means she isn’t budging. This means something to her.
His mind sends him back to how miserable she looked having her blood drawn, eyes wide, hands shaking; the entire affair made Noll’s skin crawl. He needs to see her CMP, at the very least, couldn’t risk not having her blood panels and failing to give her the help she needs. But it turned out to be more of a violation than Noll was originally concerned it would be, as he’d been thinking of it as a routine medical necessity more than anything, but, given her response, it was crossing a line.
He owes her some leeway, here.
“Fine. But stay close, and bring your phone.”
A small, barely-there smile makes itself known in the corner of her mouth, and she holds up the cheap flip-phone she’d insisted on—begged for, if he’s honest—while shopping yesterday, regardless of the touch screens and smartphones at her disposal. The look Lin had given him when they exited the store with that laughably simple device bordered on accusation. Noll had shrugged, watching Mai grinning at the blue screen of the phone, clicking through the minimal menu. It’s what she wanted.
She’s out of sight before he can shake himself from the memory.
Noll only stares at the space she used to be for a few long seconds before turning his attention back to his laptop, clicking on the first unread email in his inbox with his eyes braced for pain. If he reads one more message signed off, “Best of wishes to you and your fiancé,” he’s going to gouge out his eyeballs.
It’s from Higashi, the perpetually pineapple-patterned-sock-wearing researcher Noll swiped the grant out from under at the last minute. Noll still feels a bit guilty about that. He and Higashi often compared neurobiology notes between projects.
The message reads simply:
Reading the message again once more, the blank space in his chest begins to fill itself, an insuppressible smirk growing on his face.
Someone misses him.
“Too bad it’s not the weekend,” Monk says, picking up the metal tongs and flipping the still-grey angel shrimp on the flat black grill, built into the center of the table.
“Okonomiyaki sounds good,” Yasu agrees, but for how much they complain about missing out on weekend deals, they seem to be having a suspicious amount of fun frying up half the ocean, instead.
She wanted the pork kimchi fry, but without Ayako to back her up, it’s hard not to get out-voted by the boys’ enthusiasm. Mai tries not to be bitter, stealing a grilled scallop off of Monk’s plate, and pops it into her mouth, her chopstick dexterity fully restored thanks to the better-fitted gloves Naru gave her. The buttery flavor bursts in her mouth as she chews, the juice of the scallop reminding her of hot soup on a cold day.
It’s not cold today, but it's overcast outside, and that’s close enough. Mai peers out the tall windows at the colorful, graffiti-style murals covering the walls of the courtyard. A sakura tree grows up through a large hole cut into the middle of a cardinal red picnic table, leaving a mess of petals on the wooden patio below it. The air feels alive when the breeze follows patrons in from the street, sharpening the warmer smells of seasoning, amplifying the sizzling and crackling of meat on each table’s grill as she chews and swallows.
If Mai opens her mouth and sticks out her tongue, it tastes like it might rain.
“Yeah, yeah, we get it,” Yasuhara says, misunderstanding, and steals the tongs from a sputtering Monk as soon as the nicest, juiciest looking shrimp is fully pink and cooked, only to pick it up and deposit it on the square white plate in front of Mai. “We’ll get pork, next.”
Pulling her tongue back in her mouth, Mai smiles behind the gloved hand holding her chopsticks. She’s not going to bother explaining herself—not when she’s getting her way, at least.
“So,” Monk says, takes a swig of his beer, and then swallows like the mouthful was slightly more carbonated than he was expecting. “Why didn’t you invite the doctor? ”
The heat rising up from the grill probably makes her face look more red than it would be otherwise. She’ll always have that excuse, she tells herself, setting down her chopsticks in favor of resting her hand over her stomach. Promises or no, she’s not going to have room for pork, by the time they’re done with eating the ocean out of house and home.
“Why should I?” she says, examining her left glove for any stray drops of cooking oil.
Monk shrugs noncommittally, pinching the front of his mud-brown t-shirt and airing out the front, sweat starting to shine on his neck and collarbones from leaning over the grill so long before Yasu took over. Speaking of Yasu, the glasses king has a pinched look on his face that Mai can’t even begin to understand.
“No reason,” Monk says, “just surprised me, is all.”
“Yeah,” he says, staring at her like she’s overlooked something quintessential. “Don’t get me wrong,” he adds hastily, smiling with warmth as he wipes up the condensation his beer left on the table with a white paper napkin, “I’m glad it’s just you. It’s been a while, you know? But I mean,” his eyes flick to Yasuhara briefly, who outright glares at him, “you’ve hardly separated since he got here.”
The observation shouldn’t feel like an insult, shouldn't put her on her heels, but it does. “So?”
At Monk’s neutral expression, Mai’s anger lowers down to a simmer, matching the heat on the grill as Yasu reaches around the edge of the table and turns it down. “We’ve missed you. A lot.”
Inhaling heat, Mai feels the sincerity of his words like being knocked on her back by a bull, like having the earth shift under her feet while she tries to run. She seeks out Yasuhara’s eyes and finds him equally earnest, the reflective lenses of his glasses turning the dark ocean-grey of his irises into colorful abalone.
Caught between their solemn expressions, Mai is struck on the back of the head with something like painful, horrible gratitude; gratitude for her friends who continue to care, gratitude for the fact she’s alive to be here, and above all gratitude for the fact she packed her sealing oil in her duffel, allowing her to redo the sigils all over her body in the bathroom this morning, allowing her to sit here in this crowded restaurant and stare into their wounded faces and repent.
She’s an awful, selfish person.
“You’ve been worried,” she says. It’s a truth, not a question.
Monk nods silently, giving her room to speak, and Mai fills her lungs with spiced air. For the first time since she started smoking, Mai feels a genuine craving coming on for a cigarette. It makes her palms itch. Closing her eyes, she takes a moment to think, tuning out the lively chatter surrounding them, tuning out the two sets of eyes in front of her.
For all her reservations, she’s happy to be back in SPR. To be together with everyone. But it’s likely temporary. Regardless of what he’s planning, Naru can’t stay here forever, she knows that. The UK and Japan don’t allow dual citizenship; if he chooses one, he can’t have the other. Even more pressing is how the team will react when they begin taking on investigations and her abilities start becoming apparent. It’ll bring on so many questions, push back against so many walls she’s carefully crafted between them. She’s pushed them away so far, and yet they’re still trying to know her. Trying to be here. Mai feels lower than the grease Yasu is currently scraping off the grill, lower than the blackened residue leftover on the metal tongs.
She owes them an explanation.
“I’ve been experiencing an increase in psychic activity,” she says, keeping her eyes closed so she doesn’t have to face them. Cowardly until the end. “Naru has been helping me get my abilities under control. That’s why we’re together all the time.”
Her hands shake under the table, and she squeezes them into fists. The silence from the two men in front of her goes on for eternity, and she gathers the courage to peel her eyes back open, blinking into the light of the afternoon bustle of the restaurant, eyes landing on a purple, red and yellow mural of a stylized tiger, black arching stripes cutting dramatic lines along the body, until her gaze lowers back down to the faces in front of her.
Confusion mixes with humiliation, rising up in her stomach with the grace of a thrashing squid caught on a jig. Staring at their matching grins, despite all her fears, they look like she just told them New Years is coming again, early.
Mai gapes, uncomprehending as they begin piling food on her plate, scooping it off of theirs and onto her square of porcelain. Before Mai can utter even a word, trying to wrap her brain around their reactions, Yasuhara is practically climbing out of his chair, waving down their server with a wild arm.
“Pork! We’d like pork!”
When Mai returns to the new office, laughing her way up the cement path to the door as Monk tries to pick Yasuhara up bridal-style and carry him over the threshold as the other pretends to swoon, the sun is already on a downward decline, sinking into an airbrushed sky of soft purples and reds.
They missed the mark for “just taking our lunch” by several hours, but her phone never rang, and Mai hasn’t felt this good in months, hasn’t felt so unburdened in possibly her entire life, kicking off her heels in the white-speckled tile entryway to free her sore toes. It almost looks like a genkan, set off from the rest of the hardwood flooring.
Flopping down lengthwise on the brown leather couch they never quite agreed on a place for, relaxing her sore muscles and sinking into the perfect combination of cool and squishy but firm, Mai wonders why it is she feels so good. She didn’t tell them everything, in fact, she barely told them anything, and she didn’t want to accidentally give more life to the clay boy or the shadows by telling the others about them. They didn’t press her, either, didn’t try to get her to tell them the specifics of her abilities or her struggles, as long as she confirmed she’s receiving help from Naru. But it felt so healing to trust at least a little, to open up just a small amount and let herself be led around town by her rambunctious boys.
It felt like having a family, again.
After Yasu and Monk’s voices drift into the kitchen of the expansive office, the door closing behind them, the distribution of weight shifts on the cushion by her feet. Even with her eyes closed, she doesn’t startle when deft hands gently lift her lower legs and guide them back down onto a lap; she’d recognize him anywhere, in any condition, even with her greater senses blocked by her gratuitous use of sealing oil.
He presses his thumbs into her right calf muscle in a circular massage, and Mai groans in appreciation. She hadn’t realized how sore her legs are from all that walking.
“Sorry we took so long,” she mumbles, trying not to drool on the leather as she yawns and stretches out, her right elbow popping as she extends it out from the couch, then lets it dangle off the edge of the cushion.
Naru’s hands work aimlessly along her calf, wandering off track frequently, lightly tracing his fingers over her shin, eliciting goosebumps. It should feel strange, she thinks, this casual intimacy, but something about it feels almost nostalgic. Warm. Safe.
“You weren’t needed here,” he says, and Mai snorts at the lack of tact. He slides his thumb up the tender muscle following the outside of her shin, and Mai forgives him for all his faults.
It’s taken her these past few days to realize how much Naru thinks and speaks with his hands, prefers communicating with touch. It surprised her, at first, given how much he generally detests physical contact, to the point even Lin keeps his distance. Then again, maybe it makes perfect sense, knowing how much he prefers to hold back, how few of his thoughts and feelings he feels compelled or willing to share. Maybe physical touch is Naru’s first language, and he doesn’t want to say too much.
The others’ energetic voices are still muffled by the door to the kitchen, and Mai says a quick, mental prayer that they’ll stay there long enough for Naru to finish massaging her legs; he’s unlikely to get caught dead or alive in a position like this.
“I’ll get up in a minute,” she promises, thinking of the piles of cardboard boxes needing to be unpacked in Naru’s office, and sighs into the cushion as Naru massages that same, hyper-sensitive muscle near her shin she didn’t even know she had with increasing pressure, sending a flurry of sensation down the length of her leg.
Naru doesn’t respond, doesn’t make an offhand remark about her general incompetence, and eventually Mai’s lips pull up into a smirk as she recognizes what this is, her body sinking further and further into the couch, like gravity is increasing only for her.
It’s an apology.
Closing the door to Lin’s office behind him, glancing back to ensure the white blinds are drawn over the glass pane on the door, Noll ignores the blip of envy at Lin’s reasonably sized walnut desk with two green-cushioned chairs facing it.
Noll comes to stand behind one of them, bracing his hands on the coarse fabric. Looking up from his laptop, Lin only needs one visible eye to communicate his impatience with the interruption. And here Noll thought Lin wanted him to be more communicative about his plans.
“You’re certainly taking a laid back approach, today,” Lin says, already on the offensive. “Yesterday’s measurements were inconclusive. I’m surprised you haven’t given it a second attempt.”
Wordy, for Lin. Tapping his finger on the firm back of the chair, Noll generously tolerates the clumsy attempt to work him for more information. He came here to share, after all.
“You’ve heard the one about how to boil a frog, I assume?”
Backlit by an open window that faces the grey cement wall of a building behind theirs, Lin closes his laptop, the bluish tint on his face from the light dispersing. “The fable claims if you raise the temperature of the water slowly, giving it time to adjust, the frog won’t jump out,” he says, referring to the 19th-century belief like the old fool he is at heart.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Noll says, drumming away at the seat, and suppresses humor at Lin’s irritable glower. “No matter how gradual the heating, no frog with working limbs will allow itself to be boiled alive. The frog will always jump out.”
“And your point is,” Lin prompts, pushing his chair back from his desk, and Noll’s eyes drop down to the dark grains of the hardwood flooring, following the imperfect leveling that makes it so authentic.
“Do you know why the frog jumps?”
Sighing impatiently, Lin shifts in his normal-sized chair, and Noll keeps his gaze occupied with the cushion under his hands, noticing the small patterns of dark blue squares on the fabric, so small he almost didn’t spot them. Lin humors him, as always. “Pain.”
“Survival instinct.” Noll lifts his eyes from the cushion, meeting Lin’s reluctantly engaged expression. “It’s an involuntary act stimulated by the body, requiring no awareness or decision-making on the part of the frog, whatsoever.”
Inhaling and sighing again, Lin crosses his arms across his white shirt, raising his observable eyebrow. “I assume I’m meant to connect this to Taniyama.”
If he hasn’t put it together by now, Noll isn’t interested in waiting for him to catch on.
“It doesn’t matter how gradually I pull information from her, how carefully I space out my attempts to pressure her,” Noll says, staring his seriousness into Lin’s grey eye. “If I approach ‘boiling,’ if I cross that line, it won’t matter how slowly I worked up to it. She’ll jump, whether she wants to or not.”
Understanding dawns on Lin’s face. “You think you’re approaching a threshold,’” Lin says, and Noll subtly nods his affirmative. “But she seemed to be doing well today.”
“Exactly.” At Lin’s blank expression, Noll sighs—it’s contagious—and begins rolling up the black sleeves of his dress shirt, airing out his forearms. “She’s shown a pattern of stark highs and lows, one minute she’s fine, the next she’s not. She rarely gets through a full day and night in one state of being. And today was a major high. Which means—”
“Tonight is a major low,” Lin finishes, and Noll tilts his head in acknowledgement, stepping between the consultation chairs and picking up a hollow bell from Lin’s desk. “What do you need from me?”
“Keep your phone nearby, loud enough to wake you.” Noll gives the bell a silent shake, fixating on the absence of sound. “We’ll set up this week and run the tests on the potential ectoplasm, but I’d prefer to wait for her blood panels before taking any additional steps.” At the very least, he feels confident she’s hypoglycemic, which is why he’s been putting orange juice in front of her at every opportunity, despite her resistance. Another thought occurs to him. “And get Hara on the phone. Use someone else’s cell, if you have to.”
A hand covers his to still the bell, and Noll glances up at Lin’s agitated expression. “It’s annoying,” he says, and Noll raises his brows, lowering the bell back down to the desk when Lin lets go.
“I’ll be in my office, if you need me. I say we give it another hour before calling it a night,” he says, turning to leave.
“Feeling like calling Madoka, yet?” Lin drawls, and Noll tries not to let his ki slip, twisting the door handle with a-touch-too-much force.
“I’m 2,000 times more likely to die in a plane crash.”
Smirking internally at Lin’s disapproving silence, Noll shuts the door firmly behind him, accidentally making eye contact with Yasuhara, who’s currently shoving business cards in all of his available pockets, creating rectangular bulges in his light beige pants.
The taller man opens his mouth to explain, and Noll holds up a placating hand—no need—before pivoting and retreating to the dark serenity of his office.
The biggest rock in the formation makes the perfect chair, flattened at the top and facing a thick, moss-covered tree trunk resting on a boulder at an angle, forming a natural archway over the dirt path that winds through the dense greenery lining the meadow.
Mai breathes in the colorful smells of the soil drying out in the heat, the breeze soft on her skin, not as cutting as the ones that rip through the forest at night.
Kami-sama didn’t come today.
Stretching her short legs in front of her on the boulder, the skirt of her white yukata stained with grass, Mai wriggles her toes, running her hands through her hair and feeling a pang of sadness as her fingers reach the ends sooner than expected, hair chopped short to her shoulders as punishment for trying to play with itoko again. At least they didn’t find the special red music he gave her; she hid it in the shadows when they were busy not-looking.
Closing her eyes, she tilts her head up toward the beams of sun weaving through the leaves, hot on her face.
She doesn’t want to go back inside. She doesn’t want to go back.
Two sets of footsteps wandering through foliage in her direction snap her out of her dreamy haze, fear sharpening the edges of her consciousness as she opens her eyes and quickly climbs down the rocks, scraping her forearm on stone, her toes digging into damp earth and grass as she drops down. She doesn’t make it more than a step toward the cover of the tree line before two boys a little older than her, dark haired and wearing modern-looking clothes, step into the clearing.
Freezing in place, wishing she was hidden in the trees with the yokai that scattered at the strangers’ arrival, Mai tries to recognize them as their eyes land on her, tries to tell if they’re part of the extended family.
One looks at the other, then back at her, and it’s only then that she realizes they look almost exactly the same, if not for their auras and clothing. One has a ring of dark purple-blue around him and wears a light grey t-shirt and black pants. The other has a warmer, golden aura and wears a navy blue jacket with grey shorts.
“You should play somewhere else,” says the one in the t-shirt. He has a mean face. Cold eyes, too cold for summer. She shouldn’t answer. Mother says not to talk to anyone in the forest.
Curling her toes in the craggy grass, feeling weak on her sun-soaked legs, Mai tries to center her weight under her, getting ready to run.
“There’re lots of animals and snakes here. It’s probably not safe to play without an adult,” the other one adds, taking a small step toward her and smiling gently.
He speaks in a much nicer tone, seems much nicer in general, his eyes bright and warm, but it doesn’t make her feel any better.
In fact, his demeanor confuses her, stalling her legs, forcing her to look both boys over more carefully. Their clothes and shoes are still mostly clean—they can’t have been wandering around the forest for long—and their faces aren’t familiar, but they’re uncommonly perfect, bizarrely pretty, and she wonders for a moment if they’re a strange pair of yokai she hasn’t met, yet; but they can’t be. The others wouldn’t have run, if that were the case. They don’t look that much older than her, either, having just recently turned nine; she knows she’s nine because her itoko told her so, and he never, ever lies.
Sizing up the softness of the nicer one’s smile, his odd efforts to put her at ease, it occurs to Mai that they might think she’s younger than she is. Mother says she’s small for her age. Weak.
After a tense moment of consideration, she thinks it’s okay to speak to them.
“I’ll be fine,” she says, throat sore from disuse, “I’m not alone.”
The first to speak, the one with the mean face, is now ignoring her, seemingly more interested in a nearby maple with large arching branches, thousands of tiny eyes peeking out from between its blood-orange leaves. The yellow-aura boy is still smiling at her. It’s weird.
“Oh?” he says, tilting his head, and Mai’s discomfort grows; she doesn’t like his tone; he’s making fun of her. The other children all make fun of her when they think she can’t hear, when she’s wrapped in shimenawa, being led back down the stairs. But Mai tries not to care. Mother says to always look confident, don’t let them know you’re scared.
Standing up straighter, Mai tilts her chin up and tries to look strong. “Yes,” she says, and steps toward the comforting whispers of the stones behind her.
They don’t leave, standing in the clearing with all the calm in the world, and Mai continues to stare at them warily. She’s curious about them, curious about where they come from, why they’re here, but she can’t risk getting too close. Their auras don’t feel like the others in the temple, not white-hot. But the yokai are afraid, so they might be from another exorcist family. None of her friends will play while those two are here.
“Can you leave now?” she asks, and the smiling one looks over her head, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Maybe we could all walk together?”
She tilts her head, sharp ends of her hair poking her neck, trying to feel their intentions like Mother taught her. It’s difficult, she’s still learning, and his bright smiles aren't helping at all, the gentle forest wind lifting his hair in slow movements.
Maybe they’re lost.
They might be tourists. She thought their way of speaking was a little funny, different from other outsiders she’s met.
Stepping away from the rocks, she brushes off her yukata and starts walking over to them, tall blades of grass itching her shins, and the too-smiley one’s eyes go wide as he steps forward and shouts, “Watch out!” at the same time Mai feels a large, damp hand close around her wrist. She turns and looks up at a tall, gelatinous, purple friend with cherry red eyes, a sprout of red leaves coming out of its head.
They feel suspicious, it wants her to know.
Mai looks back at the boys looking at her with constipated expressions. Mother only lets her play in the forest if she hides from family members and suspicious people.
“You’re right,” she says, and looks back at Tomma-san's beady eyes. “You can follow us.”
It nods, making clumsy, gelatinous noises as it trails over the uneven earth behind her. The strangers’ expressions only get weirder the closer she gets, the wet sounds of Tomma-san following her through the grass as she goes. And they have strangely colored eyes up close, too, like the pictures of foreigners itoko showed her. Blue, but purple. Purple, but blue. Pretty.
“The fastest way down the mountain is that way,” she says, pointing east, through a cluster of increasingly large-trunked trees with darkened bark and bright yellow-green leaves, “but it’s easy to get lost, so I’ll show you.”
The nice one at least remembers his manners, bowing with that funny look on his face.
“Sumimasen,” he says, and Mai can’t help but feel bad for him. No one has ever tried to protect her before, other than Mother and the mountain spirits. And Kami-sama. It makes her feel warm, but nervous.
People are nice when they want things, Mother says. She needs to be careful.
“You can call me Mai,” she says, and wipes her sweaty palms on her yukata. Never give strangers your family name.
She doesn’t mean to make him uncomfortable, but the way his face looks like it’s about to burst into flames makes it seem like she did. She wonders if she’s done something strange, again. It’s so hard to know how to talk to outsiders. His silent doppelgänger, on the other hand, barely emotes at all, other than to look grossed out by the purple residue Tomma-san left on her wrist. She wonders why there are two of them. Were they invited here? Why would Kami-sama need two of the same person? She wonders which one is the spare.
“Then you can call me Yuujin,” the nice one says, recovering with a smile and gesturing to himself, then his duplicate, who looks away into the trees, black hair shiny like the river at night. “And this is Kazuya.”
She nods politely, even though he doesn't turn her way, instead hides his hands in his pants pockets. “Okay,” she says, “follow me.”
She starts toward the thicker part of the forest, toward the path, small rocks and dried leaves sharp against the bottoms of her feet without the pillow of grass. Brushing her fingers over rough tree trunks as she goes, feeling them sing at the touch, she notices all the nearby friends popping out of their hiding places, falling into step behind them and keeping pace in the trees as she steps over felled branches and twigs, being extra careful of any odd shapes in case one of them is actually a friend.
Listening to the rustling, crunching steps of the shoe-wearing boys behind her, she feels kind of jittery. She doesn’t have many interactions with others; people who don’t know. She tries to remember how the other children talk to each other. It’s been so long since she’s had to do this.
“Where are you from?”
“We’re traveling with family,” says Yuujin behind her, and Kazuya scoffs.
It’s not a friendly sound. He didn’t answer her question, but that’s okay. Mai slows down so she can hear them better, Yuujin smiling in awe at the small, brown and white faces of the mushroom yokai tripping over one another on the sides of the path, and wipes some of the dirt off her cheek.
Travel. A magical word. Mother travels a lot, but she says there’s nothing good.
“I never get to go anywhere,” she says, and lowers her eyes back to the increasingly mossy earth underfoot.
“Your parents let you go to the forest,” Yuujin says, and Mai tries not to let her sad feelings show, focusing on the special feeling Kami-sama taught her to listen to when she’s navigating the mountain.
“Mother says I belong in the forest,” she says, and stares as hard as she can at the wiggly-worm tree roots around them, leading down the mountain like steps. “She says I belong to the mountain.”
The human footsteps behind her falter and slow. She glances back to check that they haven’t hurt themselves on a gap between the roots spiraling up from the earth, but instead she accidentally meets with dark eyes.
Kazuya is looking at her with a new expression, something sort-of-maybe not mean. She hopes she didn’t say something weird. It makes her feel fuzzy in her chest, so she tries to smile and faces forward again.
“She doesn’t like the forest anymore, but she knows I like it,” Mai explains, and feels her spirits lift back up when she catches sight of a yellow-striped snake friend curled up under a bright green bush to their left, trying to nap.
“You really surprised me,” Yuujin says, walking a little faster to keep up. “I didn’t think… I’ve never met anyone else who can see yokai.”
Is that not normal? Mai considers her response as she climbs over a particularly large tree root, scraping her knees on bark, the flora growing larger the deeper into the forest they go.
Mai has only met people who can see her friends. Even the strangers who visit the mountain all seem to be able to do this; she's never thought it was anything special. Maybe it's not normal wherever they're from. Or Kami-sama doesn’t want to meet anyone who can’t, maybe? Sounds familiar, like something she’s overheard in the temple, the brief moments she’s allowed near the family. Some family members are born without the ability, but they always go away eventually.
Eyes catching on one of the smaller rocks shivering in the damp dirt, Mai redirects her step to avoid hurting the weak yokai in disguise. She guesses they might be hard to see, sometimes.
“Like Tomma-san?” she asks, and Yuujin makes a sound of agreement. “Lots of people can see them.”
She almost tells them how Mother and all her family can, but she catches herself. Too much truth is never good, Mother says. Mai has a hard time with that.
“Hah, is that so…?”
She peeks at Yuujin and sees him smiling sort of strangely, rubbing the back of his neck again. Kazuya, for once since they’ve met, looks interested, narrow eyes focused on hers, so she decides to talk to him.
“You see them, too, right?”
It takes him a minute to respond, but Mai doesn’t mind. Some of her friends don’t speak at all. Sometimes it’s better not to. “Not as well as my brother,” he says, and flicks a purple seed-eating yokai off his shoulder.
Brother. That makes even less sense; why would one family need two of the same child? So confusing. She’ll ask itoko next time he visits her. Maybe one of them isn't real. Maybe one of them is a grown up yokai in disguise.
Now that she thinks of it, Kazuya does sound sort of grown-up. He might be real but with a grown-up brain. That happens sometimes. No wonder he looks so serious.
“How’d you get your grown-up brain?” she asks, glancing over her shoulder at his blank expression and nearly tripping on a branch before catching herself by leaning on a big mound of black tree roots, blue moss squishy against her hands as she climbs up the rounded limbs.
Ignoring his rude tone, Mai struggles to get her footing on a slippery part of the wood. “Mother says lots of bad things have to happen to get a grown-up brain, and that’s why you shouldn’t be sad.”
She’s getting frustrated with her slow progress when a white-haired, human-looking friend with a blank mask and poofy clothes crouches down at the top of the roots and pulls her up by her waist, putting her down on her feet.
“Thank you, Gin-san,” she says, catching her breath at the top.
Turning around, she watches Kazuya and Yuujin climb up much easier than she did and feels some embarrassment, but they’re bigger and older, she tells herself. She’ll be strong like them super fast.
To her right, Mai sees the bushes with the special blue flowers that make noise at night, which means they’re getting closer to the path. When they join her at the top with dirt on their hands, Mai turns to Kazuya, who has a small dirt-smudge on his cheek and an odd look in his eyes.
“How’d you get it?” she asks. He stares at her for a long time. She turns to Yuujin, whose face doesn’t look much happier than Kazuya’s, slightly lighter blue eyes dulled in the shade. “Do you have one too?”
She frowns when they don’t reply. She guesses you’re not supposed to ask about that.
“It’s not bad,” she says, and starts walking toward the bushes, her feet only slightly sore from having abandoned her sandals, “Mother says the sooner it happens the better, so you hurt people less.”
“How does that work?”
Mai stops and turns around. Yuujin looks sad. She didn’t mean to make him sad. “I don’t know,” she says, feeling a little ashamed. “I don’t think I have one yet.” She looks down at her hands, dirt stuck under her nails, and nudges a small, round stone with her toes, half-buried in the ground. “I don’t want to hurt people, but I don’t think I want a grown-up brain, either.”
She thinks back to sitting alone in the basement last night, listening to the far off sounds of dinner upstairs, making shadow friends on the walls to feel less hungry. Her tummy kind of hurts. She crouches down on the ground, toes gripping the dirt, and hugs her knees, staring at the tan lines on the grey stone. “If it hurts a lot, I don’t want one.”
After a few seconds, that weird purple fills her peripherals as Kazuya crouches down right beside her, their elbows brushing as he digs the rock out of the ground. Mai sniffs as a wet earth smell fills the air in front of them, and she watches him smooth the clumps of dirt off the stone’s surface with his thumb before placing it in the palm of his hand.
Incredibly, the stone floats up into the air, hovering several inches above his hand, rotating and spinning in the air slowly. Mai stares wide-eyed and speechless at the display, still unable to find words even after the stone is back in his palm. No one, no one in her family can do that. She’s sure. He holds the stone out to her, and she opens her hand.
“It doesn’t hurt,” he says, and presses the stone to her palm, squeezing her hand with the rock between them. His skin is warm, and it makes her face feel funny.
She constructs a wobbly smile, awkward from her unpracticed muscles.
Kazuya lets go of her hand as he stands, and Mai can see Yuujin not far behind him, smiling at his brother softly. He makes it look easy. Taking a deep breath, she stands up straight and brushes herself off, dropping the stone back onto the path where it belongs. Things should never be taken from the mountain, Mother says. There are always consequences.
“Okay,” she says, wiping her dry eyes with the sleeve of her dirt-stained yukata, “let’s keep going.”
As long as she’s back before dark, she won’t get in trouble.