Mai opened her eyes against the sunlight that streamed in through the blinds of her window and warmed her face. It was one of her few days off she recalled absently, eyes staring unfocused up at the ceiling above her, and it was a fact that left her reeling with relief. The sound of people talking below her second story window could be heard, though they were too muffled to make out exact words, she could tell they were happy. She rolled over in bed and sighed. She wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep and rest her tired mind and body but she didn't want to her waste the day away when she had to go back to work tomorrow.
She groaned and pushed herself out of bed with a yawn, adjusting her rumpled pajamas, he padded into the bathroom. She paused in front of the mirror and took in the dark circles and outgrown haircut thoughtfully. A lot can change in a year, she thought tiredly. The human existence can be so chaotic and fluctuating at times that it often left her head spinning. But if there was one thing Taniyama Mai was good at it was adapting. She was used to having to support herself. So when the mysterious figure that was her previous employer returned to his home land after recovering the body of his lost twin, she had immediately found herself another job. There may have been a day or two reserved for moping between employments but I digress. She may have had to acquire a second job on top of that as well in order to make up for the amount she had originally been making with her unique job at SPR but she wouldn't complain.
She shook her head and smacked her cheeks to get some color in them before washing her face and scrubbing the sleep away. She dried her face then scanned the bathroom counter blearily in search of her toothbrush. It was cluttered with hair ties and bobby pins, a stick of deodorant, but no toothbrush. She scowled and pulled the cabinet door open to check in their but only found a few bottles of body spray and a comb.
"What the. . ." she muttered and trudged out into the room that acted as her living room and dining room together, and searched every surface available before she found it. Her toothbrush and toothpaste were thrown on the kitchen counter over her mathematics book.
Speaking of mathematics, she wouldn't open her mouth when she nearly fell behind in school because of how much she was working. Her teachers were sympathetic and helpful, however, and for that she was eternally thankful. She would not have passed on to the next year if they had not allowed her time to catch up.
She sighed and returned to the bathroom with her find, toothbrush and paste clutched in her hands, and set about finally brushing her teeth while she continued to think.
She had been advised to find herself a decent mode of transportation just so she could save time between her two jobs and classes. After she had to get her second job she agreed that it would be very helpful. And so four months into her new life, for that is what she had dubbed it after the office had closed, that she found herself cruising through the streets on an old scooter bought off of her friend's brother's dad who fixed up mopeds for fun.
At the thought of her scooter she shuffled out of the bathroom, still brushing her teeth, and peered out of her bedroom mirror where she could just see the off white vintage looking scooter in the parking lot below. She was always worried that someone would run off with it. Sure it was heavy but two guys could easily heft it and throw into the back of a van or truck.
She lifted her eyes to the ceiling, silently asking for guidance with her mouth full of toothpaste, before returning to the bathroom. Anyways . . .
A lot had happened in a year. She had dated a few people. A fact that greatly surprised her old team members when they caught wind of it. She had dated one guy for at least five months out of the year since he left. He had been very kind and sweet but it made her feel like a piece of glass. As if he were afraid that one wrong word or slip up would leave her shattered and he would be left with the pieces. He had really been hurt by her decision to end it.
Mai had even found herself a stalker at one point. It had been a terrifying two weeks in which she constantly watched over her shoulder and would hurry to Monk or Yasuhara's homes in search of refuge. She had first noticed the man when he came into the tea shop three times in one day. He was pretty average looking, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, and had maybe been in his early twenties. But he had been strange. He seemed nervous but determined to catch her eye whenever he interacted with her and it quickly became unnerving. Thankfully she noticed him the first night he tried to follow her home in his car and simply made her way to Monk's apartment. He was the closest and also strongest person she could think of and if anyone could fight off some creepy guy it would be the base player.
Mai had hurried up the steps to Monk's apartment, hands tight on the strap of her bag, and knocked urgently. She glanced down into the parking lot where she could see his car idling in the dark with lights off, watching patiently, and she paled. When Monk had pulled the door open she had thrown herself into his apartment and slammed the door after her.
"What the hell," Monk had exclaimed and rested his hands on her shoulders, taking in her pale and nervous state.
"Some guy was following me home," she explained breathlessly.
His expression had instantly darkened. He took her home that night in his own car. The next day they worried about collecting her scooter but after that incident Monk had started giving her rides when he could. Until the day when her stalker was caught and arrested after attacking a certain band and, to quote Monk, "Getting his ass beat".
Mai didn't know how he had convinced his entire band to back him up while he picked a fight with her stalker but convince them he did.
The memory caused a small smile to pull at her lips as she finished brushing her teeth and she rinsed her mouth. She could only imagine what would have happened had she not kept in contact with everybody. Thanks to them she had avoided a lot of strife. But it was Ayako that took her away on 'Mini-cases', as they had dubbed them, to help exorcise small shrines or homes for pocket money. The smiles on the faces of the people they helped were what really boosted Mai's morale but Ayako had always made sure to give her fifty percent of whatever they made despite her protests. Though their mini-cases were enough to make her happy, it was never long term, and she would find herself slipping into, not quite depression, but a definite funk of some kind.
Mai sighed and exited the bathroom with a stretch, her feet shuffling in the thick carpet of her apartment, and picked up the remote from off the coffee table in her living room and turned the tv on. She watched the news for a few moments, wondering what the weather would be like later that afternoon, and contemplated on calling one of the three team members she kept in constant contact with. It would be a nice day to go out and do something other than work or school.
Yes, a lot can change in a year, but it is sometimes for the better.
Mai had a busy schedule and had become even more confident in her life decisions because of it. There was something about constantly being aware of where you were needed next that reassured her. So the strangeness of having her schedule open that day left her feeling rather surreal. She should be doing something, she thought, but there was nothing that needed done. She hummed in thought and turned towards the kitchen to find herself something to eat.
Working at the tea shop down the street from the old SPR office was nice. The owners had loved her as just a customer so when she had sidled into the shop one Sunday morning and asked if they were hiring they had been ecstatic. She had made several friends there, though she wasn't particularly close to any of them, they were still a nice group to talk with. And when she had let slip one day, a Thursday she thought it was, that she had once been a paranormal investigator they had suddenly become her fan club. At least, that was what Yasuhara had dubbed them upon meeting her at the tea shop one day.
She enjoyed working at the animal shelter near her school well enough. In truth she preferred the animal shelter to the tea shop, at least when the animals got nasty with her it was a simple matter of bribing them with food, but angry tea deprived people were harder to deal with. She knew from experience and so was not really surprised the first time a guest snapped on her for not having his favorite tea. She had been able to quell that situation quickly enough by offering another tea she knew the man would like judging by how well-kept appearance and preferences.
Also, if an animal stalked her it was cute not terrifying. . .
Mai snorted at the thought and pulled a cup of ramen from her pantry before setting water to boil on the stove. She could make herself some tea too. She pulled a set of chopsticks out of a drawer and fiddled with them while she waited for the water to boil. Her eyes fell on the math book still sitting innocently on the counter and she scowled. Her grades had improved immensely since last semester now that she had transportation and a bit more free time but she also had a convenient Yasuhara to tutor her when things got too difficult. Her English had done a one-eighty. But that did not mean she enjoyed school. Quite the opposite.
But still . . . She sighed and set the chopsticks down and leaned onto the counter, resting her chin in the palm of her hand, and closed her eyes.
There were times when she missed the quiet stretch of the hours in a dusty office with nothing but the sound of page turning and keyboard clicking to tempt her ears only to be interrupted by the convenient arrival of the entirety of the irregulars. Suddenly she would be rushing around to prepare tea for everyone, tidy their coats and shoes, only to laugh when He would throw open the door to his lair and complain about the noise. And they would gossip like a bunch of old ladies. Though their brand of gossip leaned more towards the paranormal . . .
The sound of the kettle whistling jolted her into action and she pushed herself away from the counter. Half of the water was used for her tea while the other half went to her ramen. She set the tea cup on top of the cup of ramen, satisfied with her genius, and turned away to watch the new on her tv across the room.
She had always been horribly prone to nostalgia and it only grew worse with the disbanding of SPR.
But no matter, she only ever had a minute or two to think before she was rushing off to class or a shift, night times were used for dreamless sleep nowadays too. She would be fine. She still had her family, her friends, and now her new jobs to keep her occupied.
She prodded her phone on the counter, wondering if she would be contacted by any of those friends or family, but sighed when she realized how unlikely that was. They were all so used to her working and never having any free time.
She turned back to her tea and ramen and took the two into the living room where she set them down on the table before flopping back onto the couch. She set her phone down on the seat next to her and lifted the remote in her hand, flipping through the stations until she found a show she liked, before reaching for her ramen.
So when a year had passed, and she had settled into her new routine quite nicely, and she had made some headway in her school work, and the days had finally started to blend together in contentment, she found herself at a crossroads when her phone rang the morning of her first day off in three weeks. She stared down at the cellphone while the talk show she had been watching continued on in the background of her thoughts and wiggled her sock covered toes in the fabric of her couch nervously. She did not recognize the number but she knew who it was. She knew who it was because she had not specifically thought of him in precisely three months and twenty seven days yet he had suddenly sprung into her mind that morning with no provocation whatsoever, and she knew who it was.
But a lot had changed in a year. And she debated ignoring the call. But something in her would not allow it. Somewhere within her there was a petulant child who crossed her arms and stomped her foot and demanded that she answer that phone or so help her! It was the little girl who dreamed of helping those helpless souls pass on, of hunting the bad ghosties, and fumbling through dark crumbling buildings with nothing but a flash light and a determination to move forward.
So on the fourth ring she slid her finger across the screen and brought the phone up to her ear and casually let out a questioning hello, as if she did not know who exactly it was on the other line but she was willing to hear them out because she was a confident and independent person who had a few spare moments to give.
And that was all it took.
Just that one word in that one voice that she had not heard in a year was enough to open the floodgates of her memory and force the tidal wave of recollections to spill fourth through her mind's eye. All those memories she had taken such precaution into NOT recollecting were splashing back and forth between the walls of her brain and heart and she could feel the telltale burning of her eyes, threatening to spill over with tears.
"Yes," she answered in a hesitant tone. The cup of ramen she had been nursing forgotten in her hand while it continued to send steam up into the air of her apartment.
"I am planning on reopening the office, the job is yours if you want it . . ." And his tone was as cool and collected as she always remembered it being but he had trailed off in what she knew to be his own unique form of hesitation. As if he wanted her to think that he expected her to use her brain to fill in the blanks … but she knew better.
There was silence on his side of the line while the words swam through the memories she still had sloshing about in her mind and she hesitated.
She stood from the couch and set the cup of ramen down ready to pick the perfect course for pacing so that she could organize her thoughts and make the right decision but she never lifted her foot to take the first step.
"Of course," she answered with a relieved sigh.
"Great," he responded professionally and she heard a door open and close in the background, "You'll start Monday."
And then he hung up and she was left stunned, staring wide eyed at her phone, before she finally began pacing her living room. What had she just done? She had worked so hard to put it all behind her and yet one word from him had been enough to obliterate whatever progress she had made. She lifted a hand to her forward and groaned.
But was it such a bad thing?
Surely he would be calling everyone back together again because there was no way he had just called her, she snorted at the idea, he probably called her last. In fact, he probably had already called everyone a month ago and had just now informed her so that he could imagine her suffering.
It was another ten minutes of pondering before her phone screen lit up from where she had left it on the couch and she pounced on it, like a wild animal discovering its first meal in days, and answered.
"Yes!" She sounded nothing like she had on the phone with him but she did not care because it was Yasuhara who was on the other line this time.
"Yo!" Yasu greeted cheerily. "I'm assuming you got boss man's call?"
Mai let out a sigh of relief, at least he hadn't waited a month before finally letting her in on the plan, and laughed nervously. "Yeah, he did, I'm not sure how to react," she admitted sheepishly.
"Go get it, how else would you react?" he instructed with a laugh which quickly turned into a grunt and a crash, "Hime-chan your brother is having an important work call, now is not the time to throw things at him."
Mai blinked at her phone before laughing, "Tell Hime-Chan I say hi!"
"Hime-chan, the wife says hello," he shouted, Mai assumed because he was across the room from his little sister, and Mai snorted.
"Mai, Mai, Mai," she heard a little voice cheering in the background and Mai smiled.
Mai sat down at the table Yasuhara had grabbed for them, the restaurant fairly small but quite popular, and she sighed.
"Ugh, don't do that the moment you see me," Yasuhara admonished and snapped his text book shut while adopting a rather cold and blank expression. He had practiced the art of mimicry for as long as he could remember and while some people tended to more difficult than others he had to admit, that one was the easiest, which only served to amuse him.
Mai groaned and dropped her head into her hands, ignoring the laughter that bubbled up out of Yasuhara's mouth, before leveling him with a glare. "Why do you do these things to me?" she demanded quietly and dropped her arms to the table in exasperation.
"Because I find it funny?" Yasuahra quirked a brow and shoved his text books aside while Mai pulled her bag over her head and set it down in the seat next to her.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," she bemoaned.
"You can always elope with me, we'll run away and start a new life . . ." he offered imploringly and Mai could not resist the laugh.
"I feel like he would find us one day . . .Or he would just send Lin," Mai shot his idea down and snorted.
"Poor Lin," Yasuhara said quietly. The shared a moment in silence in which they prayed for the silent but diligent man who would no doubt soon need glasses.
"How do you think he'll react to your new boyfriend?" Yasuhara asked seriously and took a sip from the water sitting in front of him.
Mai's face fell and she turned her eyes to the window where she could see several people making their way down the streets, heading home after a long day's work, and ignored the look Yasuhara gave her. The sun was just beginning to set and the light shot through the window directly into Mai's eyes as if the sun itself was giving her a pointed look as well.
"I ended it a couple days ago," she muttered and reached for her phone in her bag to avoid Yasu's face.
"Poor guy, he really liked you too . . ." Yasuhara sighed.
"He wasn't all that intelligent," Mai explained lamely but her eyes brightened when their waitress slid in front of their table.
"What can I get you guys?" she asked brightly, obviously in busy work mode due to the sudden influx of people as soon as school had let out, and was putting on a smile. Mai wondered what kind of thoughts she was hiding beneath the cherry red lipstick. Probably something along the lines of when she was getting off and what she would do that night.
"Ramen!" She and Yasu sang out simultaneously.
"You know, if you keep comparing everyone to Naru then you're never going to settle down, like, ever," Yasu lectured and pulled her phone from her hands and setting it aside. "There is literally no one like him in the world and the one guy that might have come close is currently kicking it in the afterlife."
Mai smacked at Yasuhara's hand and snatched her phone back but laughed at the image of Gene, swimming trunks and sun glasses, sitting in a beach chair by the pool. "Don't talk about Gene that way, it's rude," she grumbled but there was an evident blush on her face.
"I'm just saying," Yasuhara defended with a casual shrug.
Mai sighed and once again looked out the window. She was worried how he would act around her once he got back, would he treat her the same? Or would he turn even more obstinate and cold towards her than ever before. She certainly couldn't imagine him being any more kind or polite, the thought alone sent a shiver up her spine.
"You eat a lot of ramen," Yasuhara commented when they had gotten their food and picked up their chopsticks.
Mai looked down at her bowl and found it to be true. It was a quick and easy meal and always reminded her of home. She lived off of it. "Yeah, and you talk a lot of shit, what's your point?" she shot back haughtily and pulled a strand of noodles up to eye level before taking a bite.
"Oh, feisty today, must be because you know your love is coming back," Yasu deflected her comment and smirked when her face turned bright red.
And so a lot can change in a year but she once again found herself standing in the now much dustier office. Her jeans wet from the rain outside and her hair, now a bit longer, plastered to the back of her neck did not even register with her because the musty air of that office had never smelt so good. Because she could hear the footsteps of someone coming up the stairs a few minutes behind her. Because there was a bag of tea and a brand new tea set sitting innocently on the counter in the kitchenette. And because, on her desk that had not seen any use since the doors had been locked behind him, sat a mountain of paperwork and a blank application.
And everything felt right.
The sudden relief that washed over her nearly had her in a puddle on the floor. Her knees felt like jelly and her hands shook as she turned to watch the door open behind her. She could forget about all those allnighters she suffered to get through her school work, the days she had gone without a single meal purely because she just didn't have the time, the awkward first dates and boring mundane conversations, the thought that she would spend the rest of her life remembering the good old days and wishing they had never ended.
But Oliver Davis and Lin Koujo did not see the relief on her face when they stepped through that door, arms laden with equipment and folders filled with research (and a wet paper bag containing their lunch), no, what they saw was something quite different. They saw an exhausted woman, pale and flustered, who looked as if she had not eaten a decent meal in months. There were dark circles under her eyes and her hair had outgrown its ruffled bob. She was wearing a pair of skinny jeans, something they could not recall her even owning, and an old band t-shirt that looked like something Bou-san would own.
And she smiled the most radiant smile they had ever seen. Though it may have hidden a few feelings of uncertainty and embarrassment. It was all the more beautiful for it.
"Naru-Chan, Lin-San! Welcome back!"
There had been a moment in which Naru had been forced to recompose himself. Because a lot can change in a year. And he was not expecting Mai to actually arrive on time but, much less, had he expected her to be so happy and yet look as if she had been stranded on an uninhabited island for a month.
And he could not fight the condescending smirk that tugged at his lips.
But Mai did not notice because she herself was smiling so brightly that her eyes were closed.
His own eyes slid over to take in the form of his assistant and noticed that the stoic man was also wearing a small smile of his own.
"You're actually on time," he observed coolly.
And suddenly Mai had to force the smile on her face not to break and found her fists clenched in a threatening manner, "I know, it's hard to believe," she laughed. Of course he would choose to comment on the one thing that would utterly ruin the moment. How Naru like of him. It was like she had never confessed her love for him and he had left her standing in the middle of a forest before leaving for England. How convenient for him, she thought darkly.
"I expected you to be at least a few hours late," Naru continued to comment as he breezed through the room and into his office, the door left open, and set down his arm load of equipment and papers. The dark room had obviously not been aired out or dusted since his departure and Mai was pleased to hear a sneeze from behind the half opened door.
"Of course you would," Mia muttered as she too decided now would be a good time to set her bag down and stroll over to her own desk to see exactly what kind of paperwork he was silently demanding her to fill out. She could hear Naru shuffling about in his office while Lin set down the bag with their food in it on the table and took a seat on one of the black couches that took up the center of the main room.
With trembling hands she reached for the paper but her mind was on the man in the other room. There were conflicting emotions raging within her, joy and anger being chief among them, and she was finding it hard to control herself. She wanted so badly to march on up to him and smack him in his pretty face. Maybe that would finally cause some semblance of an actual expression to form.
She could feel Lin watching her.
So awkward, she cried in her mind, but focused on the application in her hand. It was different from the one she had first filled out, purely for the purpose of having it on file of course, as that one had been for a clerical position. But this one, this unholy monster of paperwork, was for the position of official investigator.
"Hey, Naru-," she had been about to question him on the new position, disbelieving of her apparent promotion, when the front door of SPR swung open and a familiar figure appeared. "Yasuhara!" She exclaimed happily instead.
"Hello Mai," the young man greeted cheerily as he walked into the office, school bag over shoulder, and set his hands on his hips to take in the sights. It would seem he had already been reunited with the two stoic men as he only gave Lin a brief nod before moving over towards Mai. "I know you've been really busy lately, what with your two jobs and all those extra classes you're taking to graduate early, but how's the baby doing."
Mai only laughed at his rambling but both Lin and Naru paused in their various tasks to stare at the two questioningly. "He's fine, he's fine, quit your worrying."
She was glad that Yasuhara had taken it upon himself to show up a day before the office actually opened in order to support her. She had not asked him to but the young man had offered, more like stated, that he would be there to help ease the tension he knew would arise between the two.
Lin and Naru made eye contact, from the corners of their eyes of course, over the back of the couch.
"He's right here," she continued obliviously and lifted the bag from the desk where she had set it gently before. It was a rather large bag, certainly big enough for a baby, but it was not a proper mode of transportation for a child at all. She unzipped the leather bag and lifted it so as to allow Yasuhara to peer inside.
"He looks so much better since you started bottle feeding him," Yasuhara said in a cooing voice while he stuck a hand in the bag to touch whatever it was that was inside.
"I know! It's amazing, a few more weeks and he'll be ready to go up for adoption and I already have someone interested," Mai cooed back while she watched Yasuhara stroke the creature inside her bag.
"Am I to assume you brought a living creature into my office?" Naru's cold voice emanated from the doorway of his lair and the two turned to receive his cold stare nervously.
"No…" Mai mumbled while Yasuhara grinned from ear to ear.
"Get it out of here," Naru stated blankly as he moved to join Lin on the couches.
"But Naru, I have to be with him at all times so that he can become accustomed to human contact, otherwise he won't be able to go up for adoption, and he can't survive on his own in the wild," Mai hurried to explain. She rushed over to her once again boss and sat down on the couch next to him. "See." She held the bag open and nearly shoved it into his face while the man pulled apart the set of disposable chopsticks that came with his meal.
Naru steadily ignored the bag that seemed to yawn like a black hole in his peripheral. He refused to look at whatever kind of creature it held and would have continued to eat his meal, content to ignore the childish woman at his side, if it had not been for the annoyed look he knew would be taking over her face.
As if to prove him right an irritated "Naru!" shot through his left ear and he sighed, lifting his eyes to connect with Lin's across the coffee table, the man smirked into his bowl of noodles, before turning his eyes onto the bag. Only an idiot by that point would have expected an actual baby to be bundled up within the bag, though he was certain that is what Yasuhara had intended for him to think, but he was not exactly expecting the bundle of fur that he found.
"Isn't it cute?" Yasuhara prodded from where he stood behind the couch, leaning over to look into the bag again.
"Adorable," Naru stated blandly before returning to his own bowl of food. "You were working at an animal shelter then," he added before taking his first bite, "How fitting."
The small chinchilla slept on within its dark home unaware of the attention it was getting.
While Mai ranted out against his attitude and his need to constantly belittle her, he too, smirked into his bowl of noodles as balance was restored.
Mai let go of the job at the tea shop, claiming that she would be making enough tea for a life time at her old job, and was glad that the old couple that owned it were happy for her. They had noticed that she was not as cheerful as she had been when she was just a costumer, popping in once a week or so to pick up an order of earl grey, and had wished her luck in her endeavors. The job at the animal shelter was a different story. She had so many little friends there that she could never leave them without knowing they had all found good homes and so she decided that she would become a volunteer and come in on her free days to help out.
There was a Welcome Back Party planned for the members of the SPR office that Friday, an event that took a week of figuring out everyone's schedule, but was finally in the process of actually happening. And amidst it all neither the physic prodigy nor his female assistant mentioned the events that had transpired between them a year ago just before they had all disbanded. And it seemed like they were determined to keep it that way.
Mai's days were a lot more peaceful now that she was working a single familiar job while going to school. SPR had yet to receive a case, though she doubted Naru would accept one any time soon, as there was a lot of cleaning up to do, and so her days had been simple paperwork and chores while Naru and Lin worked to reestablish SPR.
That's not to say that her days were not filled with strife, though she was not as physically strained as she had been during Naru's absence, she was now so emotionally. While sitting at her desk in the office she often found her eye wandering to his door and her thoughts wandering to the relationship they had. A year had gone by and in that year she had come to a conclusion.
She loved Naru.
She had spent countless nights agonizing over her thoughts and feelings towards him and his ghost of a brother, whom she had not seen since his body had been found, and realized that it was quite idiotic of Naru to assume that it was his brother that she had loved. Naru had been the first one she had met. It had been his cold and confident attitude, mixed with a bit of caution and care, that had pulled her into his life. When she had dreamed of Gene it was with the hope that it was a side of Naru she had yet to see, and so she had grown feelings for Naru. Gene had become a close friend, yes, but he was dead. And it had not been him who comforted her at the bottom of a well with a talking coin and a smile.
That was Naru.
He infuriated her, poked and prodded her mentally, and constantly pushed her to her limits. And amongst all that he gifted her with a small smile on occasion that stole her breath away every time. He taught her all she knew about the paranormal field that she had become enamored with, so much so, that when she had tried to return to her simple life she found that she could not. And grew depressed.
She had labeled it the Peter Pan syndrome on one of her darker days, thinking that she had pulled a Wendy and fallen for the first guy to sweep her away on an adventure to a new world. But on that same day she had come to the conclusion that she truly loved him.
And he claimed she loved Gene.
Mai sat back in her desk and sighed, rubbing at her tired eyes that had yet to catch up on rest since she reclaimed her job, and looked out the window behind her. It was the day of their party, something that Naru had originally refused but after much prodding from Mai had agreed to have. And by agreed she meant that he had simply stopped voicing his opinion against it.
They had all agreed to go out and celebrate at a local restaurant that they used to frequent and year prior. It was spacious enough for a large group and the owners knew their faces well enough, at least they thought did, and hoped to surprise them with their reunion as well. Mai could recall several nights, when they had returned to the office after a case, and would all complain about hunger until they finally managed to muster the strength to shamble down to the restaurant. Naru even came once or twice, though he usually stayed behind to go over the case, and had sat with them while the older members of the team drank and provided entertainment.
She sighed and returned to staring at the computer screen in front of her, eyes to bleary to really see, and wondered if she could get away with taking a cat nap before they left when Naru's door opened and he stepped out into the main room quietly.
This was a rarity, as he only ever came out when there was noise or a client, and would usually call for Mai or Yasuhara (who had taken up Mai's clerical position) if there was anything he needed. She perked up in her chair as he approached.
"What's up, Naru." She asked nervously against his intimidating stare.
"It occurred to me that I never asked if you had a passport," he answered and set a folder brimming with paper on her desk for her to look through later.
"Passport," she repeated curiously but upon seeing the quirked brow and hearing the disappointed sigh that came from him she rushed to respond. "I actually just got mine a few months back, I was planning on taking a trip before graduation," she stammered out with a blush at her own inability to correctly process and answer a question fast enough for him.
"Good," he said and turned from her desk just as Lin exited his own private office. The tall man was pulling on his suit jacket and sent an imploring look towards the two.
Glad that she understood that Lin was looking to head to the restaurant early in order to get a table large enough for their group, she stood and pulled on her cardigan from the back of her chair. As she slid her arms into the sleeves of the light sweate she gave one last stretch and headed for the door.
"I'm starving," she admitted with a laugh to which Lin responded with a short nod and a small quirk of his lips. She could not deny the excitement she felt at finally getting everyone together again in one room let alone one table.
"Are you coming," Lin shot back at his charge questioningly, as the man had yet to move from Mai's desk.
"I'll catch up with you," Naru responded absently as he lifted his hand to his mouth in thought.
"You better," Mai muttered threateningly under her breath, as he was the guest of honor, so to speak.
Naru heard but did not respond to her comment as the two left, instead, his eyes lingered on the photo on her desk of two young Davis brothers. His eyes slid to the decorative mirror hanging on the wall just above her desk thoughtfully.
"Ugh, I can't believe that Naru," Mai complained as they traveled down the stairs and out onto the street in front of their office building. She stepped into the parking lot where her scooter sat and went about pulling her wallet from beneath the seat while Lin waited patiently.
"I can't believe you can't believe it," Lin responded lowly and eyed a suspicious man whose own eyes seemed to linger on the oblivious Mai.
Mai turned back to look at Lin in stunned amazement before letting out a giggle and moving out to the sidewalk. Lin had just made a joke when a little over a year ago he would have ignored her statement all together. How times change.
"I can't believe that you can't believe that she can't believe it," a new voice spoke up from just behind Lin and the man turned to find Yasuhara still clothed in his school uniform.
The three walked across the busy street and into the restaurant that was already looking busy. Lin spoke to the hostess while Mai and Yasuhara bowed over his phone, watching a video of a supposed ghost sighting, and another party walked in through the door behind them.
The restaurant was lively with a full bar in the very center packed with people, there was a small stage set up for live music, and rows upon rows of booth seating. In the back there was a party booth big enough to fit ten people. The lighting was low and all the tables and flooring were dark wood, if it weren't for the many wide windows on every wall the room would have been almost too dark to see in. Several fish tanks were set up throughout the main room and while the fish were small they were all of bright colors and exotic origins to make up for the lack of color within the room itself.
The hostess led them back through the restaurant to the very booth they had hoped to acquire and the three slid in without further thought. As it was, Mai sat in the middle of the large table, Lin beside her, and Yasuhara had decided to remain on the other side of the table. Thankfully, Lin no longer held Mai in as much low regard as he used to, otherwise she would have felt very uncomfortable. There were times that she forgot the man hated the Japanese for the crimes they performed against the Chinese in the past thanks to how much their relationship had changed since the day she yelled at him for hating her just because she was Japanese. And he had laughed at how much like Gene she was. Now she could safely say that, as part of her SPR family, he was like a slightly intimidating grandfather.
Mai lifted her eyes from the menu in front of her to see the familiar form of Monk waving at her from across the restaurant. Ayako was hanging off of one of his arms and waving, a little less energetically than the man, but wearing a smile to rival his. The two had finally gotten together some months ago and though their bickering had not lessened the intensity of them had. Mai had begun to see the much sweeter side of Ayako more often now that the two had officially started dating and she couldn't have been happier for the two. They had unofficially adopted Mai as their daughter and often called or stopped by to check on her when either had the time. It had been Bou-san who had suggested she get a scooter and had even loaned her some money to buy it. Of course she had immediately paid him back out of embarrassment and guilt but the Monk had only laughed it off and claimed that she owed him one.
"Bou-san, Ayako!" Mai greeted cheerily as the slid into the booth on the other side of her. Monk bumped shoulders with her in greeting.
"It's good to see you, little lady, I was beginning to worry after a month of no contact," Bou-san exclaimed before reaching past her to give Lin a firm handshake which the Chinese man returned politely. "How are you, Lin-san?"
"Good, and yourself?" Lin asked in return. He had noted to close proximity of the Monk and the priestess with a small twitch of his lips before moving on without comment.
"Pretty great, actually," Bou-san shot back with a laugh before leaning back into the booth with an arm behind both Mai and Ayako.
"Mai, did you ever use that gift card I gave you?" Ayako questioned under Monk's loud voice. She leaned forward onto the table to get a look at the girl.
"Not yet, I haven't had the time," she answered with an embarrassed laugh.
"That's fine, I was hoping you hadn't because I'm planning on going shopping next week and wanted to bring you along." The priestess smiled at the girl excitedly and laughed when her eyes lit up just a fraction. She had quickly learned that, although Mai had little money to ever actually go shopping, she did so enjoy the event and was more than content to window shop and offer her opinion when Ayako invited her.
"Oooh, shopping, can I come?" Yasuhara asked from across the table with what could only be described as a shit eating grin. He had propped his head against his hand and listened as the others spoke.
"I feel like you're planning something," Ayako muttered suspiciously but said no more after his questionable laughter that followed her comment. "Figures," she muttered.
Mai laughed at her friend's antics and was pleased to see everyone getting along. John was soon to arrive after and had opted to sit next to the rather lonely looking Yasuhara on the other side of the table. He had remained in Japan for the past year, intent on helping those he could both religiously and paranormally when he had the time, he claimed that the Japanese culture also very much intrigued him and spent the majority of his time learning about the various spirits and demons that cultivated their paranormal legends. His accent had even gotten a little better over time and it no longer caused the others to giggle when he greeted them cheerily and shook hands with everyone at the table. Though Mai had taken it upon herself to stand and hug him over the table with an excited grin.
John blushed a light pink before he finally sat down, something that Yasuhara picked up on right away.
Masako arrived next and it was a curious sight to see the petit girl in her usual attire of a formal kimono in the casual atmosphere of the restaurant but everyone greeted her with a smile which she returned and bowed before taking a seat next to John.
"Where's Naru?" She asked after she had settled and taken a sip from the glass of water in front of her.
She certainly hasn't changed, Mai thought irritably but smiled at the woman nonetheless. Out of all of them Masako had been the one that she had the least contact with as the medium was always busy with her ever popular television show but they had spoken a handful of times. Nothing more than polite conversation just to make sure the other was still alive, mind you, but even that small amount counted as friendship in Mai's book. They had been rivals for Naru's affection, after all, but after the big reveal and his abrupt departure they had found themselves in an awkward truce. While Masako regretted her actions in blackmailing the man, she could not deny there had been true feelings behind her actions, but that regret kept her from making any further advances towards him. They two girls were on shaky ground, unsure of what to think of the other, but unable to deny the bond they had formed through working together. One day, Mai was certain, they would move past it all and that thought was what allowed her to smile kindly back at the medium and answer her question.
"He was still at the office when we left, he should be here shortly," she said with a small irritated sigh that Masako caught and responded to with an understanding smirk.
"Of course," she answered with a delicate laugh.
"Gosh, you'd think he'd have the decency to show up to his own welcome back party on time," Ayako admonished with crossed arms. She leaned back in the booth and let out a huff of air that ruffled her bangs and caused the monk next to her to chuckle knowingly.
"He has to make a grand entrance," Yasuhara defended with a laugh.
"Well, while he's working out how best to walk through the door we should order appetizers," Bou-san called across the table and the other laughed in agreement.
"I don't know, we should probably just put in our whole order, he does have to decide on which black coat would look best," Yasuhara commented thoughtfully as his eyes scanned the menu in front of him.
Mai covered her mouth with a hand in an attempt of hide the fit of giggles that threatened to overtake her. She was just so happy to have everyone together again, and making fun of her narcissistic boss on top of it, that she could not wipe the smile from her face. She wished the moment would last forever. This was part of what she had so dearly missed, even Lin's stoic but reliable presence beside her, because they had not all been together in the same room for a year and it felt like her whole life had suddenly just shifted back into clarity. Tears pricked at the corner of her eyes while she laughed at the continued banter around her and she hurried to wipe them away before anybody could notice just as the man of the hour slid into the booth at the other end of the table, directly across from Mai, and leveled a blank stare at her.
Suddenly they were all talking at once and greeting the cold and logical man like the long lost friend that he was and for once the smart mouthed manager found himself at a loss for words amongst the chaos. It was one thing to begrudgingly socialize with fellow colleagues in his line of study or distant relatives that he had only ever met a handful of times, but another to sit down at a table with a collection of people he had handpicked and deemed worthy of becoming permanent members of his team. A team that had grown into something he would loosely call his friends.
"I see you are all doing well," he observed dryly.
There was a varied chorus of agreements before Ayako deemed in necessary to point out the one fact they had all been ignoring since the man sat down at the table, "Did you really bring work with you?" Because, sure enough, Naru had brought with him a small stack of manila folders that he had dropped onto the tabletop in front of him.
"It will be discussed after," he answered cryptically and crossed his arms to lean back comfortably in his seat while the others scowled in annoyance or, in Johns and Masako's case, laughed lightly.
"Well, if it isn't my little crew of ghost busters!"
They all turned towards the woman who had spoken and smiled. They did not know her name, only that she liked to go by Joe, but she had always been the one to take care of them. And she delighted in the cold anger she often provoked in their manager by calling them the Ghost Busters and various other popular paranormal tittles. She was decidedly tall for a Japanese woman, and had shaved half of her head while long tendrils of pink hair spilled down her shoulder and back from the other side, although she pulled it back for work and usually tied a bandana around her head.
"We're back!" Mai answered cheerily and lifted her hands to display the collection of paranormal investigators.
"Took you long enough, I was beginning to think you all had gone and gotten yourselves spirited away," Joe shot back with a laugh.
"Nah, that's just Masako's job," Yasuhara chipped in and laughed when Masako shot him a dirty look over the sleeve of her kimono.
"I did hear that you two finally got busy," Joe continued and pointed at Monk and Ayako with her pen before scribbling something down in her notepad.
Ayako blushed scarlet and became rather flustered while Monk chuckled and scratched at his cheek.
They placed their orders with Joe, who was all too excited to have them back and was quick to suggest their usual, before she turned away to get their food started.
"How's the scooter running Mai?" Monk asked the girl next to him curiously while Yasuhara spoke quietly, and suggestively, to the priest next to him.
"Eh, it was making a funny noise a few weeks ago and I spent a whole day trying to figure out what it was," she answered thoughtfully, "but I gave up and took it to Tana-san and he said I needed a new oil filter which means the garage that I took it to last month didn't do a proper job." She recalled the day she had spent in the parking lot of her apartment with her laptop and a handful of tools she had borrowed from Tana-san attempting to solve the problem on her own. "I guess I'll never become a mechanic," she bemoaned playfully.
Monk laughed and ruffled her hair with something akin to pride in his eyes, "The fact that you tried to figure it out yourself first says a lot about you, little lady."
Mai blushed under his praise but laughed happily.
"Our little Mai is growing up," Bou-san whined to Ayako next to him and the red head rolled her eyes up to the heavens imploringly.
"She is a mother now," Yasuhara commented from across the table knowledgably.
Masako's eyes widened curiously and she turned her attention to Mai for answers but it was Ayako who clucked her tongue and said, "You're still carrying that rat around with you?"
Mai scowled, "He is not a rat, he is a chinchilla, and yes," she snapped back and, as if to emphasis the fact she clutched the bag that had been resting atop her lap defensively.
"I thought you would have quit that job the moment Naru called you," Ayako said with a sigh. She eyed the young woman critically, as if she feared Mai was falling apart right before her eyes.
"I did, technically," she answered with a pout, "Now I'm just a volunteer."
"Uh-huh," Ayako agreed, "And when do you volunteer."
"My days off," she answered as if the woman was stupid and winced when Ayako leveled a glower at her.
"The point of this was so that you could finally have some free time to rest," Ayako snapped.
"Now, now," Monk leaned forward to block their view of each other, "this is not the time to pick fights. We are here celebrating the return of our lovable Naru-chan. Not to criticize Mai on her lack of common sense."
"What did you just say, you fanboy?" Mai muttered darkly but though the monk had heard he continued to smile obliviously.
At the head of the table Naru let out a small sigh to which John responded with an endearing smile. The rest of dinner passed in much the same manner only a few of the SPR members got a bit more rowdy as alcohol was consumed. Even Lin was looking a little more relaxed. Yasuhara's cheeks were pink and he had been making John feel more and more uncomfortable with his comments but the whole table knew he was not as drunk as he wanted them to think. He had started to hit on Monk again when Ayako had busted out into a fit of laughter at the shiver that wracked the monk's body.
Naru had settle with a cup of tea, continuously refilled thanks to their attentive Joe, and listened to the constant chatter with the same composed expression he wore when reading over case files. He ignored Ayako's squawking, Monk's whining, and the constant sarcastic proddings of Yasuhara and instead set his eyes on the pile of folders that had been moved off to the side while they ate.
"I think now would be a good time to bring up the case," Masako commented quietly but her words shushed the whole table as all eyes turned to Naru imploringly. It seemed everyone was ready to get back to work, the job they actually enjoyed, and were eager to hear what sort of case Naru had brought them upon his return.
And like that the somewhat approachable air Naru had adopted since his return vanished.
He set his tea to the side and pulled the folders in front of him and opened the top most one, his eyes flicker over its contents carelessly before looking up to meet the eyes of his team critically. "First, I will start off by stating that this case is not like any other we have taken on before," he said ominously and his voice, though quiet, carried across the table easily.
"How so?" Monk asked, ever the one to voice the questions they all had on the tips of their tongue but were too afraid of voicing for fear of sounding unintelligent in front of their boss.
"Several deaths have occurred," Naru answered flippantly and leaned forward and clasped his hands together in front of him.
There was a moment of silence in which they all pondered exactly what that meant before John spoke up, "All the more reason for us to help then," and that seemed to calm the nervous atmosphere that had welled up after those foreboding words.
Naru nodded curtly towards the priest before scanning the group around him, "I got the call regarding this case when I was still in England but at the time I was not too inclined to take it. The case involves an old mansion in which its original owners, a married couple, were involved in drug trafficking. The wife was shot and killed by the husband who was later tried for his crimes and sentenced to life under house arrest. He died of old age but it was noted he declined into insanity long before that. It is now owned by the state and has since become a hotel, museum, and a restaurant. It is often used to host large city events and festivals throughout the year." He gave a brief explanation of the property's history wryly before flipping through a few pages in the top folder, all for show, as he had memorized every aspect of the case weeks ago. "Since then there have been reported sightings of white figures walking through the woods on the property at night, crying can be heard in several rooms of the house itself, bloody messages are left for others to find, and over the course of several decades three women have gone missing only to be found the next night floating in the nearby lake – dead - during large events."
Mai stared with wide eyes at her boss in astonishment and she was not surprised to realize she was the only one. Already her heart was pounding at the thought of the tortures those women had endured. A spirit powerful enough to actually kill was rare, in fact, she could only recall two instances in which they had dealt with such a thing before. She clasped her trembling hands in her lap and dropped her eyes to them in slight annoyance. If she was scared now then Naru would have no faith in her.
"Were these women drowned?" Ayako asked in a hushed tone.
"No," Naru answered curtly, "Strangulation is the determined cause of death."
"Damn," Monk hissed and sat forward in the booth with a stunned expression.
"Naturally I would understand if some of you wished to sit this one out," Naru added and shared a look with Ayako and Mai. "Masako had already agreed to help as she was one of the two who brought this case to my attention."
Masako sat, if possible, even straighter in her seat and lifted a kimono clad sleeve to her mouth while she sent a look to the other two women in their team. "My director went ahead to the location with the hopes of filming there and advised that I speak with Naru first before I joined him. This alone was enough to cause worry as he is a very stout hearted person," Masako explained quietly.
The table fell quiet at that and Mai rubbed her thumbs together nervously in thought.
"Mai," Naru questioned.
Mai jumped upon hearing him call her name and lifted her eyes to meet his. She was sad to see that the cold tone he had adopted since the case had been brought up remained and she was reminded of the man who had left her standing in the dark after her confession. A lot can change in a year but her temper was not susceptible to the passage of time and so she resisted the urge to scowl and instead squared her shoulders. "I'll go," she answered calmly, I am not a coward unlike some people I know . . .
Naru nodded and turned his eyes to the priestess in the midst who had crossed her arms and turned her head away, "I'll go too . . ." she muttered, "Someone has to keep an eye on Mai."
Mai rolled her eyes but said nothing against Ayako's comment as it was obvious the woman was just trying to hide her fear while at the same time bolster her courage. It was admirable of her, Mai thought, since she was always the one more susceptible to fear, yet she had never left during a case despite how often she voiced that she wished she could.
"Good," Naru snapped the folder shut, though it lacked the satisfying sound his notebook usually exuded, and continued with "I hope you all have your passports because we leave the Tuesday of next week for America." He stood from the booth and passed out the rest of the folders, copies of his own, out to each member of the team.
"What!" they squawked in unison.
"Why would you take a case in another country?" Bou-san exclaimed in surprise.
"More importantly," Yasuhara spoke up, "Who would ask you to take a case in America?" He eyed their boss curiously with a devilish glint to his eye, always hoping to get some information on Naru.
"My father," Naru answered coldly and turned away from the table to return to the office.