The reunion party ended that night with an air of equal parts excitement and worry but it was with lighter hearts that they parted ways and retired to their homes. None of them could deny the satisfaction they felt at returning to the field and now they would even be going international on top of it. But while Mai felt these things just as strongly, if not more so, then her fellow team members she also had several negative emotions reawakened by Naru's return to his work mode. The little bit of distance they had managed to close between them was now set back tenfold and her recollection of her confession to him was once again replaying on an infinite loop in the back of her mind. It was maddening.
They would be traveling to America in a week and because of this the office was closed, as they would not be able to take on another case for at least two, and that left Mai with little to distract herself with but school and the animal shelter. And while she loved school her mind was just not sufficiently occupied by the droning lessons of her teachers or the mindless gossiping of her fellow peers and friends.
She was only happy when she was taking care of the animals that she had grown to love and even then their playful antics were not always enough to keep her mind from wandering to her boss. What he was doing, what he thought of the case, and the most important of all, how he felt about her. Because she had never gotten an answer from him, he had simply responded by asking a heart breaking question before exiting her life, and she had been left to ponder his feelings for a year.
Her nights were filled with failed attempts to get a jump start on class work so she would not fall behind during the trip but she often caught herself spacing out and or rereading the same sentence multiple times before giving up. Consequently, she also got very little sleep, and so by the time Tuesday morning rolled around she was thoroughly incensed and ready to get the case started so she could ACTUALLY distract herself with something she knew would force her to concentrate.
She had not slept the night before, excited for the trip, angered by Naru's existence, and fearing that, with the return of her SPR life, so too would her dreams. And this was a case she was utterly cowed by for some reason that she could not name. It was the same fear that gnawed at her stomach during the Urado case. Her life was in danger and yet she had yet to even set foot on American soil. There was more to the story than what Naru had claimed, without a doubt, but whether he was aware of it or not she did not know. She only knew what her gut was telling her and as experience had shown her gut was normally a trustworthy ally.
So it was with relieved surprise that when a quiet Lin climbed the stairs to her apartment and knocked on the door, she answered within seconds, and she was already packed and ready to go. Her freshly showered hair was pulled into a messy bun at the top of her head and a disposable cup of coffee was steaming in her hand while the other held onto the rolling suitcase at her feet.
"Do you have everything you need?" The usually silent man questioned not unkindly. He had instantly spotted the dark circles under her eyes and the exhausted aura she radiated and had decided that she would need a gentle guidance to ground her in reality.
Mai blinked up at him and reached for the backpack strap on her shoulder as if to assure herself that it was there, glanced down at the suitcase to make sure that too was present, before turning back to take in the messy apartment. "Ah, I almost forgot," she said quietly and turned back into her apartment, leaving her suitcase at the door, and disappeared into her bedroom. Lin smirked after her and watched as she returned while slipping a necklace over her head. From the simple silver chain hung what he knew to be her old house key, the one she had lived in with her parents, and had acted as her lucky charm ever since. "I left it in the bathroom," she said in way of explanation.
Lin only nodded and stepped out of the way while the girl closed and locked her apartment door. They shuffled down the steps of her apartment and down to the van that sat idling at the curb, its headlights on and illuminating the still dark parking lot. Lin opened the door for her and helped her into the back seat, lifting her suitcase in after her once she had slid across the seat, and shut it before climbing into the driver's seat.
"Do you have everything?" Naru asked in an ironic echo of his assistant. He was writing down a few notes in his black folder as he spoke but he glanced back at her in time to catch the annoyed scowl on her face.
She couldn't help but notice how perfect he looked in the morning while she felt like a zombie. Irritably she took a sip of her still hot coffee and turned to look out the window, unintentionally ignoring his question, and wondered how long the flight would be.
Behind the wheel Lin smirked but made no comment on the small sigh that escaped his charge's lips.
They arrived at the airport on schedule and met up with the rest of the team who were all in varying states of exhaustion, though Mai noted that Yasuhara seemed the most energetic out of everyone, and grudgingly shuffled through security before boarding the plane. Mai was thankful she was still half asleep by that point because the hour and a half it took would have been miserable if she had actually been conscious. Ayako would not stop whining about how tired she was and Monk was silent on the matter as he had yet to have a single cup of coffee that morning.
John was the true hero of the hour, unlike Yasuhara who used their displeasure as a form of amusement, because he was constantly ushering them forward after Naru and Lin. The shepherd of the flock, so to speak, and did not let their sour attitudes bother him. A kind word here and gentle touch there and they were moving forward towards boarding the actual plane before they knew it.
Seating was a nightmare, Ayako demanded to have the window seat but Yasuhara would not give it up, and while Mai wanted one as well she was not about to ask Naru for anything unless it was whether he wanted sugar or a slap in the face with his tea, such was her unexplainable ire with him. Plus he had paid for her ticket and she felt it was not in her place. So she settled for a seat next to Yasuhara, who Ayako refused to sit next to, and settled in for the long haul.
Their flight was seventeen hours long.
Mai was glad she had brought a book.
Masako had flown out ahead of them to meet with her director and for that Mai was also glad. While she considered the girl a friend she did not know if she could deal with her prim and proper self while she STILL felt like a zombie.
When the plane had finally left the runway and taken to the air Mai had shoved her face against the window to watch and ignored Yasuhara's comments about how forward she was. It had been worth it, she decided when, despite the fact that she could not quite see the rising sun from her position, she could see the colors it painted across the city of Tokyo where she had lived all her life. She waved goodbye before returning her butt to her seat and glancing about the plane curiously to see what other passengers were doing. Satisfied that they all seemed rather carefree, talking amongst themselves, she sat back in her seat and pulled a pair of headphones from her backpack to listen to music while she read. The book she had deemed worthy of her first flight was the first Harry Potter, something that Yasuhara took note of joyously, but he warned the book probably wouldn't last her the whole flight.
It was an hour later, between conversations with her flight partner that she heard Naru snap his folder shut and shift in his seat behind her. Reminded of his existence she lifted her eyes to the heavens and hoped it was not her that he was about to pay his attention to but of course it would be, as we all knew the kind of luck Mai had.
"I hope you've improved your English while I was away," he commented a moment later and just from his tone of voice she knew he wasn't even looking in her direction.
"I'm sorry, what did you say." She shot back in only slightly accented English. "I couldn't hear you over all that narcissism."
A row ahead of her she heard Bou-san erupt with a bark of laughter while Ayako snickered into her hand. Somewhere off to her left she heard John sigh good naturedly.
"He said he underestimated the power of determined and studious students and is quite impressed with our achievements," Yasurhara spoke up from behind his school book joyously.
"That's what it sounded like but I wasn't quite sure with the English accent," Mai said in return.
"Ils ne sont pas pleinement d'eux-mêmes," Naru muttered. He shared a smirk with his assistant, though his was in regards to his one up and Lin's was for his lack of humility.
Mai and Yasuhara silently high fived, glad they had gotten a rise out of Naru, and returned to their books for another length of time before they grew bored with reading and chatted about school. Yasuhara was in college now and enjoying the new experiences and was determined to give Mai an example of what to expect.
It was exactly five hours into their flight when Mai got up to stretch her legs and use the restroom but her walk was ruined when she felt a shadow detach itself from its seat and follow her through the aisles of seats into the back.
"What is it Naru?" She grouched and turned to face him in front of the stalls. She noted the slight quirk of a brow that displayed his annoyance, she had deliberately waited until they had reach the bathrooms to confront him as she knew it would irritate him, he was so prim and proper just like a certain medium she knew.
"If I have done something to invoke you wrath I would prefer you to say something rather than pout about it. This case is one that my father requested of me and I do not want your actions to reflect upon the team as a whole when we get to America," he stated simply, staring at her in that cold and logical way of his that both irritated her and caused her face to flush in admiration.
But her blush did nothing to mask the rage that overcame her face and she knew it. "Well excuse me for being human!" she snapped and stepped into the bathroom, slamming the door shut in his face.
Naru scowled at the innocent door before turning on his heel and returning to his seat with an irritated sigh. As he dropped back into place he caught a smirk on Lin's face and asked, "Yes?"
"You have no skill with women," Lin answered dryly and flipped through the sheaf of papers on his lap thoughtfully.
Bou-san let out another bark of laughter from two rows ahead and Yasuhara nodded in agreement.
"Maybe if we taped a mirror to Mai's face he would be more considerate," Ayako muttered.
Naru shot a glance over the seats to the top of her red head and clenched the armrests of his seat.
Lin took notice of this but did not comment.
When Mai returned to her seat she studiously ignored Naru and put her earbuds back in to avoid any further conversation with anyone, determined to block out their comments, and closed her eyes. She allowed her thoughts to wander and for the first time in a long while she wondered what her parents would think if they saw her now. They probably would have never pegged her as the type to end up as a paranormal investigator. She could imagine her mother's reaction too. She would blink at her in confusion and give a nervous laugh before saying something like "If that's what you're sure you want to do . . . but be safe!" Then she would make some kind of desert in celebration or take her out to dinner and would ask her a hundred questions, trying to understand her daughter's passion for such a strange field, but would be proud of her nonetheless. Because that's just who her mother had been: a kind, gentle, and ever curious women who had the most open mind in the world. Her father had been a bit like Bou-san, a little funny, a little overprotective, and a lot of cheesy puns. He would probably make a joke about ghost busters or something.
Mai chuckled at the thought, causing Yasuhara to glance at her curiously, and shifted in her seat to get more comfortable.
Before she knew it she was being pulled into a nap. Her breathing mellowing out into a soft even pace and her head lulled onto Yasuhara's shoulder, though the boy made no comment seeing that she had fallen asleep, and she found herself on a familiar plain. Beneath her feet was miles of placid water and from it floated the gentle light of spirits beyond count, floating in the empty space, and the darkness set her free.
She wandered through the plain, wondering what it was she would see now that Gene had passed on. She had no guide to nudge her in the right direction and she had learned through experience that, instead of a coherent story, spirits often shoved prominent memories in her direction in the hopes that she could piece them together. It tended to be disorienting but she was generally able to work through what she was given as if she were a grade school teacher reading her student's first attempt at an essay. It was kind of endearing in a way.
She giggled at the thought.
"Will you be my princess?"
Mai turned on the spot, wondering where the voice had come from. It sounded like a man but she did not recognize the voice. In her mind's eye she saw the figure of a woman in a glowing white dress, so long it trailed beneath her in the water of the astral plain, and she watched as the woman nodded. The only discernible feature Mai could make out was her luminous smile, highlighted with red lipstick, and the soft tear that trailed down her cheek.
It was dark outside the plane, the night sky bright with stars, and for a moment she wondered if they were actually flying through the astral plain. She imagined it would look much the same even the ocean below could act as the reflective expanse of calm water that represented the floor of the astral plain. Several of her fellow passengers had begun to nod off into sleep by that point, tired from their early rise, even though their flight was only half way through. She heard the distinct snoring of Monk and the slightly more feminine snoring of the Miko in front of her and she stifled a giggle. She lifted her arms in a stretch and pushed herself out of her seat and sighed.
She found herself in a much better mood after getting some shut eye and turned to glance over at her narcissistic boss only to find him slouched against his arm rest, head propped up with a loose fist, and eyes shut against consciousness. Lin had pulled out his laptop at some point and seemed engrossed with whatever it was he was reading so she did not bother to ask why it was Naru had a hand mirror clutched in his free hand resting across his lap.
Does he look at himself before he goes to bed?she wondered jokingly before traveling back to the bathroom. She fixed her bun, which had become a bit lopsided during her nap, and lightly smacked her cheeks to wake up and add some color to her pale face. She recalled the dream she had seen and was quickly overcome with a feeling of nostalgic melancholy that nearly overwhelmed her. She blamed it partially on her reminiscing on her parents as well as the memory the spirits had chosen to show her and partially on the fact that she was finally working with all of her friends again. Despite her own personal one sided drama that seemed to plague her mind constantly.
She was still wiping her eyes when she returned to her seat but the only one that noticed was a concerned John who she smiled at and waved her hand about in the air as if to say it was nothing. John nodded and smiled in return.
Their flight passed without further incident, especially after Yasuhara finally fell asleep and they could enjoy some actual comfort, but not before Mai slid her thumb across the screen of her phone and found her background changed to a rather embarrassing selfie that Yasuhara must have taken when she fell asleep on his shoulder. She was not able to stop the laugh that bubbled out of her throat and she showed the picture to a curious John who chuckled.
"You should keep that one," he advised through his mirth.
"I will," Mai answered with another laugh, "Maybe I should make a scrapbook."
"I'm sure you would enjoy the project," John answered with a kind eye. He knew Mai to be a secretly crafty person and a scrapbook seemed like a good way to spend her free time. She was such a nostalgic person as it was and having a photo album on hand suited her.
Mai finished her Harry Potter book just as the seat-belt lights flashed on. She was glad that she had taken a nap and spent a good amount of time conversing with her friends between reading otherwise she would have been bored out of her mind. Not quite true, really, she probably would have just stewed over the incident with Naru thus inadvertently entertaining herself. But a bored Mai was better than an angry one.
They stepped off the plane, pushed forward by the ebb and flow of the crowds around them, and moved into the actual airport with many sighs of relief. The flight had been ridiculously long and they were all tired but in Tampa, Florida the sun was still shinning. It was midday when the plane touched down on the tarmac therefore the airport was packed with people and Mai found herself being dragged through the crowd by way of Ayako. It seemed the woman feared she would get lost and while that was not a completely unheard of situation it still irritated the girl to no end but she attempted to reign in her frustration and let out a small sigh instead.
Naru and Lin lead the way ahead of them, the crowd seemed to part like the red sea around them, and they all moved to collect their luggage before exiting the building. Up ahead Mai could just make out Masako standing next to the largest black van she had ever seen. And next to the medium was someone Mai had not expected to see at all.
"Lin!" the strawberry blonde woman called over the crowd, waving her hand wildly, and the Chinese man stopped in surprise.
"I should have known," Lin muttered to his charge angrily.
"She's staying at a nearby hotel with mum and dad," Naru answered in response, though his eyes were trained on the screen of his phone as he walked.
Lin's shoulders fell slack in relief as said women ran up to him and jumped, throwing her arms around his neck, and nearly knocked him to the ground.
The rest of the group laughed at his expense.
The large van was loaded up with their luggage and equipment and they all piled into the vehicle, relieved to feel the warmth seeping through the air vents, and shuffled about until they were all comfortable. Naru had given up the front passenger seat for Lin, who was then able to sit next to Madoka who had driven the behemoth of a vehicle to the airport to pick them up, and was now squished between Mai and Yasuhara. Not able to pass up on a chance to poke fun at his boss the young man mumbled sadly, "I feel like something has come between us Mai . . ."
Mai snorted and crossed her arms, her face directed towards the view outside her window, and shot back, "You mean like an inflated ego?"
"Mai," Naru growled in a warning tone, a rare display of his frustrations, and ignored the stunned silence that radiated from the other members of SPR. He had already broached the subject of her attitude at the beginning of the flight but it seemed that she had not taken his warning to heart.
Yasuhara whistled and turned to look out the window as well, possibly feeling a bit guilty for indirectly getting Mai in trouble, but most likely he was enjoying her struggles.
Mai scowled but drew pinched fingers across her mouth in a zipping motion and then proceeded to throw away the key in a begrudging promise to keep her mouth shut for the remainder of the car ride.
Up front Madoka sent Lin a questioning glance from the corner of her eye to which the man responded with a slight shake of his head. He would explain later when it was just the two of them. If a moment like that ever arose anyways. The odds were very slim.
Mai had never before been to America and she had certainly never been to Florida before. The sights were a bit breathtaking if she were honest. While the city of Tampa was small in comparison to Tokyo it made up for it with the abundant amount of water surrounding it. Indeed, to get to their destination they drove across a five mile long bridge that cut a path across the bay. She stared at the green blue water and jumped when she saw the fin of a dolphin break the surface as they drove past. The bridge continued over land and through a sea of trees before Madoka took and exit ramp that spat them out into the middle of downtown St. Petersburg, one of the older cities in Florida, and Mai found herself shoving her face against the window to take in the old buildings that crowded the small streets and cobblestone alleyways. People of all kinds populated the area and many could be seen out walking their dogs, enjoying the cold weather, or eating in the outdoors sections of restaurants.
"Kind of a cool town," Bou-san commented from the very back of the van. "I bet you there are a lot of underground bars and concerts here."
"There is an upcoming concert that will be taking place on the property," Madoka commented cheerily as she navigated the streets, "It's one of the reasons they insisted we investigate now as it is a rather large event for Florida. Apparently there are fourteen bands scheduled to play." She continued knowledgeably and laughed when Monk jumped in his seat while fumbling to form a response. "If I remember correctly the flyer had Linkin Park on it. That's the only band I recognized."
"Linkin Park!" Monk exclaimed.
"You're such a fanboy," Ayako muttered with a sigh which caused the others to chuckle.
Madoka turned onto a street that ran beside the sea wall. Trees and large plots of grass separated the road from the ocean and exotic looking vines fell from the branches of the wide trees from which Mai could see several children swinging. She smiled at the sight and leaned back in her seat as the tree's thickened and the road pulled further away from the ocean. They drove through what looked like an entrance to a park, red brick gates and a wrought iron sign overhead that read "Vinoy Park", before the trees thinned and they could make out the large mansion ahead of them.
The road had turned into a driveway that looped about in front of the building, creating a drop off point, which Madoka pulled to a stop.
"It's almost as big as the Urado house," Monk commented as he ducked and stepped out of the van into the chilly open air. He adjusted the strap of his backpack that hung from one shoulder and turned back to give Ayako a hand out of the van.
"Thanks for making the comparison," Mai muttered irritably and shaded her eyes against the sun to take in the mansion for herself. It had a grand front entrance, white pillars and hundreds of potted plants and trees decorated a large patio that also held enough outdoor furniture to seat dozens of people, in fact, she trailed her eyes to the left and found that a set of doors were thrown open and the smell of baked bread wafted out into the open air. Large paneled windows, beginning a foot above the ground and nearly running to the ceiling of the first floor, displayed what must have been a restaurant within the building. She could see several parties of people enjoying a late lunch inside while smartly dressed wait staff rushed about to and fro. The majority of the building was made of crumbling red brick, thin glass windows, and warm light that radiated through them even in the middle of the day. Green vines crept across the walls and white pillars and lent the building age.
Mai found it a lot more charming then the Urado house, so much so, that she found herself smiling up at the building excitedly. Her jet lag momentarily forgotten, she decided she would take the first opportunity she could to explore the building and learn what secrets it held.
"It's quite lovely, isn't it?" Masako spoke up from next to Mai, she had clasped her hands in front of her as she spoke, and gazed up at the mansion as well.
"It is," Mai agreed wistfully. It looked like something straight out of a fairy tale to be quite honest.
"During the day it's fine, but at night . . ." Masako trailed off and shivered. She wanted to give her friend a warning before she experienced anything. She knew Mai had latent abilities of her own and that she would be especially sensitive to the spirits that roamed the halls after hours.
"Really . . ." Mai trailed off with a feeling of foreboding and pursed her lips in thought. So the house was elegant and welcoming in the daylight but at night it changed.
"Alright everybody," Madoka called and clapped her hands to garner their attention. "I'll help you set up base but then I have to return to our hotel and prepare for the dinner tonight so let's make this quick!"
Naru stood off to the side with a quirked brow but said nothing against his teachers controlling attitude and instead turned to look up at the building darkly. Inside he could see several people laughing and enjoying themselves but the atmosphere of the house seemed hollow and fake. His eyes landed on a man who was approaching them quickly from the front entrance. He was wearing a black suit and had combed his salt and pepper hair back with gel. His shiny black leather shoes squeaked as he walked and Naru found his nervous smile to be quite irritating.
"Good afternoon!" the man called with a slight stutter. "I'm glad you have all finally arrive, My name is Sam, I'm the manager of this establishment," he continued while he flitted about the group and shook each and every one of their hands before they even had a chance to respond. "I'm afraid we are very busy today, we just have so many guests . . .but please feel free to make yourselves comfortable and utilize the staff however you see fit. I have already showed Ms. Madoka the rooms you will be permitted to use so please," he finally paused to draw a breath and gestured for them to go on ahead to begin their set up.
Naru took a moment to mentally note that, though the man tended to ramble, he was also efficient in his ravings. It comes with being a manager of a large business, he supposed, and watched as the rest of his team each grabbed their luggage and whatever equipment they could manage before turning to follow Madoka into the building.
"There's even an indoor pool and hot tub, I already scoped out all the good places," Madoka continued to talk as she lead the way through the red carpeted hallways large enough for five people to walk through side by side. The walls were dark wood and several chandeliers hung from the ceiling to throw their sparkling light throughout the halls. But the air was heavy, weighed down with nearly a century of memories trapped within its wall, and it was something they all felt and took note of bid did not comment on. Despite the windows that lined every outward facing wall, the sunlight seemed inable to penetrate the dusty darkness of the house, and several lamps were spaced out down the halls to provide
"A hot tub!" Ayako repeated happily.
Naru was silent while the rest of the team oohed and ahhed over the features of the mansion, excited to see everything for themselves, and lifted a finger to his lips in thought. They would only have a handful of hours to set up base and conduct interviews before night arrived. Furthermore, the team would probably want to turn in early that night after the long flight, even he was feeling the jet lag, though he was most surprised with the energy Mai was displaying. Usually she was the crankiest one of the group next to Ayako.
It took an hour to set up base. Thankfully all members of the team were present for the case and made short work of building their headquarters, usually it would have taken him and Lin a total of three to get everything in place and powered up, but with his supervision and direction everyone had finished in record time.
The room Madoka showed them to was large, containing two full sized couches, a fire place, and several tables and chairs scattered about. Ornate and plush rugs gave the room a homier feel and the tall windows that overlooked the park and let in sunlight lent the room a more airy atmosphere. Soon the antique furniture was covered with monitors and miles of cord and wiring.
"The women's quarters will be through that door," Naru stated after they had finished set up, "I want someone on guard at all times in case one of them goes missing. It was never explained how the previous victims were taken and I would rather we not find out." He stood in the center of the room, casually leaning against one of the fold out tables that they had brought with them, and crossed his arms.
"Roommates again," Ayako sighed.
"Aw, come on, it'll be just like old times," Mai poked the woman and laughed when she fanned her away despite the smile threatening to break through her scowl.
Masoka lifted a sleeve to hide the small laugh that escaped her lips.
"Aye, Aye Captain," Yasuhara saluted Naru while Monk snorted.
"Good," Naru nodded curtly and pushed himself away from the table, arms still crossed, before continuing, "Let's conduct our interviews and then we can retire for the day. Dinner is served at seven o'clock sharp and that leaves us with four hours to interview the entirety of the staff and current guests. Mai!"
Mai jumped, startled out of her thoughts of American food, "Yes!" she squeaked in surprise.
"Make some tea while the others round up the staff, you and I will each interview one staff member at a time, please be as quick and thorough as possible." He moved away from the table to retrieve his notebook from the table where they had set up all the monitors and opened it to a blank page while the others shared a look before breaking into their appointed tasks. Madoka had already bowed out and Masako had left to meet with her director who was debating on filming the investigation despite Masako's warning against it. That left Monk, Ayako, John, and Yasuhara to gather the staff.
Mai watched her friends go before dropping her eyes to the rug beneath her sneakers thoughtfully. She had forgotten that Naru had technically promoted her upon his return. The thought left her feeling proud of herself for moving up on Naru's intelligence scale although he still compared her to a wild animal.
While she set about preparing tea with the portable stove top and kettle they had brought along with them she allowed her mind to wander towards the upcoming interviews and the proper questions she would ask. She had never liked how cold Naru tended to be during interviews and so she vowed to be as courteous and friendly as possible. Something she knew he would probably criticize her for. She shook her head and poured three cups of tea and deposited two in front of both Lin and Naru before she moved over to the couches, pulling her own notebook from her bag as she did so, and uncapped a pen the moment she had seated herself. She would have to take diligent notes as there was only one Lin in existence and he generally assisted Naru with his interviews. She was proven wrong, however, when the Chinese man pulled up a chair and sat down at the head of the coffee table between the couches. Ironically, had they been back home in the office he would have been in the exact same spot.
"He doesn't think me capable of taking notes, does he?" She drawled dispassionately and watched the man's face for the telltale smirk that she was correct. She stewed in her anger while Lin opened his laptop and pulled up a blank document. "One step at a time, I guess," she muttered and leaned back in her seat with a sigh.
Naru had set up his own laptop at a table and was just scanning through the claims one last time when the doors opened and Yasuraha gestured two ladies into the room. They both wore powder blue uniform dresses and white sneakers indicating they were the maid service. One was closer to Mai's age while the other looked to be nearing her fifties. As instructed by Yasuhara the younger stepped up to Naru's table while the other moved over to Mai at the couches.
Mai smiled at the older woman and stood from her seat as she approached, "Good afternoon, my name is Mai," she held out a hand to the woman, secretly pleased when she shook it and returned her smile, "I'll be interviewing you today so please be patient with me."
The woman laughed and sat down on the couch. She seemed to be a generally good natured person and Mai was glad to see that the crow's feet at the corners of her eyes were more from laughter than age. "Nice to meet you, my name is Grace," she responded kindly and crossed her legs before placing her clasped hands atop her knee. Her hair was blonde with a bit of grey peeking through and her eyes a very warm brown.
"Lovely name!" Mai commented and made note of her name in her notebook. She wrote down a brief description of the woman as well so she wouldn't forget her face before clearing her throat. "Now, would you mind telling me what it is you experienced while employed in this establishment?" she asked politely, reminded of how little time they had to interview everyone when she caught sight of Naru glancing over from his table while he spoke with the younger maid.
"Of course," Grace nodded cooperatively and paused to collect her thoughts, "I've worked here for almost ten years now and in all this time I think I can safely say I have only personally experienced a handful of things. It was my first night on the job when I first had an experience, funnily enough, when I was switching out the towels in the bathroom of one of the third floor rooms when I heard someone crying in the bedroom. It sounded like a man but when I called out to see who was there, it stopped. I didn't think much of it at the time, I figured I just might have been hearing someone pass by in the hall, but when I told some of the other girls about it they all claimed to have had similar experiences."
Mai nodded and made note of the male crying before shifting in her seat, "Have you heard it since." She asked.
"Yes, several times over the years," Grace answered dutifully. "After that, some years later, I was cleaning out one of the rooms used for storage and I started to feel really hot and itchy," here she shrugged and scratched at her head in thought, "I just remember leaving the room and discovering all these scratch marks all over me."
"Are you sure you didn't cause them yourself, you were itchy after all," Mai questioned kindly.
"I didn't have any nails to speak of, I still don't, years of hard labor and cleaning have destroyed them," Grace answered with a laugh and lifted a hand for Mai to see. "The scratches showed up a couple more times over the years but within the past couple months I recently found a bloody message in the bathroom of the main suite."
"A bloody message." Mai repeated curiously, she noted that Lin had paused in his typing, before urging the woman to continue.
"Yes , it was on the floor in front of the sink and said, 'It's in the blood'," she shrugged as if to say 'you can figure that one out' before uncrossing her legs and standing. "That's all I've got I'm afraid, and I really should get back to work."
"Ah, of course, thank you for your cooperation Grace," Mai responded with a smile and waved to the woman as she left before returning back to her notebook to write down the message and commit it to memory.
Another woman was lead in by Yasuhara to occupy the seat Grace had just vacated and Mai was not surprised to see her give Lin a nervous look. Mai laughed and greeted the woman just as she had greeted Grace before commencing with the interview. It was a long afternoon filled with elaborate stories that Mai had to decipher and discern the truth from. Some of the woman who spoke to her were honestly frightened by their experiences and many were considering leaving because they were occurring more and more frequently as time passed while others were obviously just looking for attention. Despite their lies it was important to note that Mai treated each with the same kindness and respect and only made small notes about their questionable stories in her notebook.
Mai quickly picked up on the pattern the interviews had taken up and by pattern she meant the way in which Yasuhara sent all the young girls to Naru and the older to Mai. She was a bit peeved by this but she supposed it also made a bit of sense. The older women would not really respect Naru as he was both much younger and male while the younger women would be intimidated by him and thus more obligated to tell the truth. The older women would get along with Mai because she herself was female, well-mannered and polite.
Three hours into the interviews and Mai had comforted four sobbing maids, an annoyed waitress who complained about missing out on tables, and a frightened manager in training amongst all the other interviews that had gone smoothly. She herself had consumed four cups of tea and given countless others to their guests and realized she would have to find somewhere to purchase more if Naru would not be a happy camper tomorrow. Not that she could ever tell if he was truly happy or not and she really couldn't picture him as a camper of any kind. She wondered if she could borrow some from the kitchen downstairs.
She had not seen any of the other SPR members, accept for Yasuhara when he led someone in, and she could only assume they were out investigating the mansion. She stifled the petty jealousy she felt welling up in her stomach and let out a sigh. After they had finished up interviewing the staff they had spoken with a handful of guests who claimed to have felt like they were being watched and often thought they heard laughter or crying throughout the nights. Nothing to horrible or extraordinary. And so Mai had closed her notebook and left the note taking up to Lin from then on but she did notice even his steady typing had slowed.
When Naru had finished up with his last interview she was glad to hear the snap of his notebook. The moment the last woman had left the room she stood and stretched, groaning as she did, and was satisfied to hear her spine click back into place. She sighed and turned towards Lin with her hands on her hips.
"That was worse than Yasuhara's school," she commented dryly. Lin lifted his one visible eye to the heavens upon recalling that debacle and Mai laughed. "I think Grace was the most informative, she also seemed the least emotionally unstable out of the lot, plus she was the only one who mentioned that bloody message. I might try talking to her again later."
"I agree," Lin stated thoughtfully as he shut his laptop.
Mai pulled her phone from her jeans pocket to look at the time, noted that they had a half an hour before dinner, and turned to glance over at Naru who had moved over to one of the many plastic boxes they had started keeping their notes and research material in. He was shuffling through one of the boxes, most likely looking for something to compare his notes to, when the door opened and the rest of the team returned.
"How'd it go?" John asked Mai as soon as he saw the relieved expression on her face.
"Good," she answered with a shrug and a smile.
"I'm starving," Monk whined as he strolled in, clutching at his stomach, and flopped onto one of the couches. He set his feet on the coffee table and glanced about in search of Ayako who had followed in after him but had immediately disappeared into the girl's room.
"You're always hungry," Mai said in place of the red head.
"Did any of you happen to do a walkthrough of the property?" Naru asked while he scanned through the information on a sheet of paper her had just pulled from the box and circled several lines with a pen.
"We all did," John answered, "We met up with Masako as well and asked her what she felt as well." John sat down on the couch across from Monk and pulled at the knees of his jeans.
"And?" Naru prompted.
"She said there were several spirits here, though she didn't feel they were particularly violent, but admitted that she had not stayed overnight yet. Ayako felt there was something here and said the indoor pool particularly gave her the creeps," John answered with a gentle laugh at the end. "I personally feel that whatever is here is biding its time."
"Hmm," Naru hummed and returned the paper to its proper location before shutting the box and turning to face those of his team that were within the main room. "We'll set up cameras and take measurements tomorrow but for now you all should prepare for dinner." He moved over towards the door, probably to get ready himself, but he paused with his hand on the handle and looked pointedly at Mai and Bou-san, "Wear something nice," he stated coolly before departing.
"I feel attacked," Bou-san said with a snort.
Lin let out a low chuckle before standing to follow Naru's example but said nothing.
Mai scowled at the door and kicked at the couch before storming into the girl's room. Stupid Naru with his stupid rude attitude, she thought darkly and shut the door behind her. Their room was fairly large, almost as big as the main room they had claimed as base, with three queen sized beds, each covered in a mountain of pillows and covered with ornate comforters. Three windows ran the span of one wall, each with its own deep set window sill for seating, and a tv hung from the wall across from the beds. It was obvious the room had been set up for them as Mai did not think hotel rooms typically housed three large beds like theirs did.
Mai noted that the bathroom doors was closed, light spilled from the crack beneath it, and concluded that Ayako was already getting ready and so moved over to the bed that she had claimed as her own. Her suitcase was resting on top of it and she flipped the top open to find something decent to wear. By the time Ayako had finished in the bathroom Mai was wearing a pale olive green dress that fell just above her knees, a brown jacket, black leggings, and a pair of matching brown leather boots. She wiggled her toes in the pointed shoes and smiled. They were her favorite pair of shoes she owned.
"I'll do your make up for you," Ayako stated after mentally approving the girls choice of clothes. She stood with a hand on her hip in a black dress and patent leather heels. She looked very elegant and Mai could not help but feel a bit childish in comparison but she smiled and accepted the offer.
Mai followed the woman back into the bathroom and sat on the toilet lid and clasped her hands together while Ayako rummaged through her vast collection of makeup, kept in a black leather bag, and sighed.
"I know Naru's being an ass," Ayako commented without looking up from her task. "But I'm sure it has more to do with his parent's than anything you did."
Mai blinked up at Ayako blankly before blushing and dropping her gaze to her hands. "It's not that, not really anyways . . ." she trailed off sadly.
Ayako pulled a compact from her bag and quirked a brow at the girl sitting on the toilet, "I'm sensing a secret."
"Maybe," Mai muttered but obediently turned her face up for the miko while she applied the beige powder to her face. She always forgot how observant the woman could be when it came to normal life things. Paranormal wise she was a little bit rusty but then that would imply she had skill beforehand and Mai refused to believe that simply out of teasing endearment. She smiled at the thought.
Ayako finished with the compact and examined the girl's eyes before searching for a neutral eyeshadow before snapping, "So spill. What's got you in such a funk? Ever since Naru came back you've been scowling and sighing and acting like a brat."
Mai pursed her lips but let out a sigh, "I confessed to Naru before he left for England," she muttered in one go. If the band aid was coming off she might as well rip it, she decided, and hunched her shoulders against the stunned silence that followed her statement.
"What?" Ayako squawked and smacked the girl on the head irritably, "Why didn't you tell me!"
"Because he didn't give me an answer!" she shot back just as loudly.
"He didn't . . . What did he say?" She asked in an aghast tone, she had yet to apply the chosen eyeshadow, too caught up in the thought of her little Mai confessing her love to the man she had been pining after for years.
Mai blushed, horribly, and swallowed. "He said 'Me, or Gene'," she responded sadly and dropped her eyes to her shoes. She had told Ayako long ago about her dreams the dead twin brother of their boss had guided her through. So it came as no surprise when she gasped and nearly crushed the eyeshadow pallet in her hand.
"That little shit," she glowered at the floor, imaging his face, and scoffed. Of course he would be a smart ass about it, he was probably uncomfortable with the thought of emotions and had said the first thing that had come to mind before making his escape. She turned sad eyes onto the girl in front of her and ruffled her hair comfortingly. "We'll just have to make him fall for you then," she mumbled thoughtfully and set the eyeshadow down in search of another.
"What?" Mai questioned in confusion.
"Don't worry about a thing," Ayako advised with a grin. Instead of the neutral browns she had planned on using she instead applied a smoky grey highlighted by a light pink.
Ayako was careful with her makeup, deciding that Mai was a natural person thanks to her great skin and bone structure, she settled for simple eyeliner and a light pink lipstick, and focused on bringing out the lovely brown of her eyes. She fixed her messy bun, pulling down delicate strands to frame her face, and only stepped back to take in the full effect when she was satisfied.
"I'm going to beat that boy's ass, one of these days, and he won't look so pretty then," Ayako muttered while she put her makeup away and shut the bag. She checked her own appearance in the mirror, running a hand through her hair one last time, before turning back to Mai expectantly. "I bet Masako's already claimed a seat next to Naru so we better hurry if you want to get the seat across from him," she stated as she left the bathroom and collected the clutch she had picked out for the night.
"Across from him?" Mai repeated confusedly and followed her out of the bathroom, shutting off the bathroom light as she left, and watched the woman as she checked the contents of her purse.
"Yes, across from him, so he has to look at you," Ayako answered with a conniving smirk and grabbed the girl's arm, dragging her out of the room, through the base (now empty) and out into the hall.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and Ayako planned on making that statement abundantly clear to Naru one way or the other.
"Ayakooooo," Mai whined after the miko but gave up the fight. She was doomed. The amount of melancholy that Mai exuded was evident while they traversed the halls and eventually the stairs that led into the grand foyer of the old mansion. She barely kept up with the woman and instead focused on dragging her feet across the plush carpet with a sigh. It was embarrassing to be turned down the way she had but it was even more embarrassing to have your mother sister figure take up the reigns to salvage the situation by enacting petty revenge.
Whatever kind of seating arrangement Ayako was expecting when they stormed into the restaurant downstairs was certainly not what she found. Naru sat at a long table, situated along the far wall that was filled with windows looking out over the park property, with his back to the view and an unfamiliar man sitting at the head of the table to his left and a women sitting directly across from him. Lin sat to his right and Masako across from him. The priestess mentally cursed and continued to pull Mai along before depositing her in the chair next to Masako and claimed the seat next to her.
Mai blinked, surprised to find herself already seated, and took in the faces around her before turning her gaze to the candlelit table and admired the plants that acted as a living table runner. Above them strands of light crisscrossed through the high ceiling of the restaurant. It truly felt magical, especially with the view she had of the lake from her seat.
Mai let out a content sigh before glancing over at Naru, then did a double take, because the man was staring at her with a quirked brow. Her own brows scrunched together in confusion and she watched as his expecting expression turned to one of disappointment. She scowled at him in return, not understanding, and silently scoffed when he turned his face away from hers deliberately.
"Should we give you two a moment?" A feminine voice asked through a quiet fit of laughter.
Mai jumped and leaned back in her chair to view the person sitting on the other side of Masako while the girl in the kimono lifted a sleeve to hide the smile on her face. There sat a small blonde woman, a lively and amused expression on her face, wearing a white skirt suit and a pair of pearl earrings. She set her sights on Mai with a kind smile and the girl immediately jumped out of her seat and bowed before her frantically.
"I am so sorry ma'am, I wasn't paying any attention at all," she fought the blush defiantly but it seemed her efforts were all in vain as she felt the telltale heat on her cheeks anyways. She refused to lift her head.
"That's quite alright, my goodness," the woman laughed and waved Mai off, "Sit down, sit down, don't worry yourself over something so silly. I'm Luella Davis, Noll's mother."
Mai lifted her head and gaped at the woman before bowing again, "Taniyama Mai, it's a pleasure to meet you!" She exclaimed before straightening and then bowing to the man who she could only assume was Martin Davis before reclaiming her seat embarrassedly.
Luella turned bright eyes onto her husband wearing a smile, "She's the cutest little thing I've ever met," she whispered to which the man chuckled and only shook his head in response.
"I'm Matsuzaki Ayako, it's a pleasure to meet you," Ayako greeted the two with a polite smile before sitting back and flicking Mai in the ear discretely. The girl jumped, already in a flustered state, and covered her ear defensively while scowling at the woman irritably.
Luella continued to smile, "She reminds me of a sugar glider," she mumbled and noticed the irritated expression that overtook her son's face amusedly.
Across from Mai, Lin smirked into his glass of water and attempted to cover up his chuckle with a cough but Mai caught it anyways and stared at him as if he had betrayed her. He quirked a brow at her as if to ask her what exactly it was that he had done to cause that expression and she dropped her eyes to the table top in embarrassment.
"Is it pick on Mai day again?" Yasuhara's voice rang out as he approached the table and the girl wished she could sink to the floor underneath the table to avoid any further commentary. The young man bowed to the Davis's and introduced himself properly before taking the seat one over from Lin and grinned over at Mai apologetically as he had been unable to resist the temptation.
"Apparently," Mai mumbled.
"Picking on her?" Naru questioned lightly, "We're merely observing her lack of manners."
"Even better," Yasuhara replied on point. "While we're at it we should do Naru too."
Martin let out such a loud laugh that the rest of the table was immediately put to ease and he smiled at Yasuhara cheerfully, "That, I am afraid, would take far too long." He leaned back in his chair and loosened the tie around his neck while sending an amused glance to his son.
Madoka chose that moment to return from the rest room and slid into the seat next to Lin and smiled at the rest of the table cheerfully before turning to Lin and whispering something to him. She was quickly followed by John and Bou-san who took the last two seats at the table.
"What did we miss?" Monk questioned upon noticing the stifled laughter and amused atmosphere.
"Just the usual, "Ayako responded dryly, "Mai making a fool of herself and those two chuckle heads poking fun at her and each other." She gestured to Naru and Yasuhara as she spoke before taking a sip of her own water and setting it back down with a tired sigh.
"Ah, the usual then," Monk responded with an assured nod and immediately lifted his menu from the table to look over its contents critically.
"It never ends," John added with a laugh from where he sat at the end of the table.
"Think of how awkward it would be if it did," Yasuhara said and turned his gaze onto the priest with a smirk.
"It would be a little . . ." John trailed off looking for the appropriate word, ". . .stiff . . ." he seemed to realize his mistake the moment Monk snorted into his water and covered his face with a hand.
"The priest isn't allowed to hang out with Yasu anymore," Monk muttered into his drink while Yasuhara laughed.
"Ugh, real mature," Ayako grouched and dropped her head into a hand with a disgusted sigh all the while Naru sat with his eyes closed against the immaturity his team was displaying for his parents to see.
Mai, too, felt embarrassed for their behavior but there was also a part of her that was enjoying it. She loved her family dearly and the kind of behavior they were witnessing now was one of the reasons she had missed hanging out with them all together again. She was also glad for the suffering that she knew Naru to be feeling at the moment. She smiled into her hand, much like she knew Masako to be doing, and lifted her eyes to her boss curiously only to find him staring back at her blankly but she knew he was thinking something along the lines of "Look what you've done" and she could not stop the peel of laughter that erupted from her lips and caused the rest of the table to fall silent.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she apologized through her laughter and was glad when Monk and Yasuhara joined in.
"Mai," Naru admonished quietly.
"Oh leave her be, Naru, she's been such a depressed little thing since SPR disbanded," Ayako came to her defense and although she didn't say it, everyone at the table knew what she meant, sine you left for England.
"It's true," Masako agreed quietly, "She's only good at two things after all: Tea and ghosts. Imagine how lost she felt when you left."
"Oh, you poor thing," Luella cooed from the other side of Masako and reached around her to rub Mai's back comfortingly.
"Luella, dear, I don't think you're helping," Martin attempted to reign in his wife but only sighed when she shot him an annoyed look. "Why don't we get down to business and go around the table with detailed introductions? You all have been working with Noll for quite a while and I would like to know what parts you play in this diverse team he has seemed to have brought together." The man leaned forward in his seat and rested his elbows on the table invitingly, giving them all his attention. At some point he had taken his black suit jacket off and placed it on the back of his chair for comfort.
"I'll start," Yasuhara began cheerily, "As I said my name is Yasuhara and I was the last to join the team. Naru accepted a case at my school and I offered my services as Mai's underling. Since then I have been the go to person for research and grunt work." He ended on a good note, to which the other were surprised, they had been waiting with bated breath for him to make some kind of inappropriate comment and while his explanation had been . . . questionable, it was still far better than what they had expected.
"Ah," John sat of straighter in his seat and smiled at the Davis's, "My name is John Brown and I am a catholic priest. I helped in a case two years ago and have been working with SPR ever since. I think that was the same case we all met on actually . . ." he trailed off thoughtfully.
"You all met on one case?" Martin questioned curiously and turned to look at Naru for further information.
"The principle of the school trusted none of us to get the job done properly and took it upon himself to higher an expert in several different fields," Naru answered simply and set his elbows on the table and clasped his hands.
"Strange fellow," Martin commented before turning his eyes to Monk expectantly with a nod for him to go on.
"My name is Takigawa Houshou," he introduced seriously and bowed his head, "I am a monk though I am currently working as a base player with a local band in Tokyo. I often take cases on the side and have been working with SPR since the same case."
"A monk with long hair," Luella chuckled but made no further comment.
"As I said my name is Ayako, I am a self-taught shrine maiden, though I often work at my parent's hospital and am a successful doctor." Ayako introduced herself quickly before glancing over at Mai expectantly.
Mai shifted in her seat, suddenly feeling everyone's eyes on her, and rubbed the back of her head embarrassedly. "You can call me Mai, I am actually a student at the school we all met at. I started working for Naru when I broke one of his cameras and simultaneously injured Lin. After that I was doing all the filing and cleaning in the office and acted as an assistant on cases." She twiddled her fingers and glanced over at Lin who was wearing a blank expression but he grimaced at the memory, recalling how rude he had been to Mai upon their first meeting, and glanced over to Naru curiously.
"Mai also has latent psychic abilities and has shown signs of precognition as well as the ability to astral project, both of which have been useful on cases," Naru added after she had fallen silent and Martin shot him a critical look.
"You never mentioned this," he accused lightly and turned his eyes onto the jittery girl across the table.
"I didn't find it relevant," Naru responded coolly but did not take his eyes off of Mai as he spoke.
"On an amusing side note," Luella interrupted what she was certain would have been an argument between the two, "How in the world did that little thing manage to injure you Lin?" She shot an aghast look at the man who had been quit the entire meeting.
"She knocked a shoe rack over onto me," he answered dispassionately.
Monk guffawed and slapped the table, "I never knew that was how you were injured, that is too funny." He continued to chortle as Lin sighed tragically and Madako patted his shoulder comfortingly.
"You could have killed the man," Yasuhara exclaimed.
"It was an accident, he startled me!" Mai defended irritably.
"Never scare Mai or she'll attack you with furniture, got it," Yasuhara ignored her pleas.
"It's alright Mai, everyone knows you didn't do it on purpose," John offered from his end of the table.
"Anyways," Martin declared and settled the table down with a wave of his hand, "We of course know who Hara Masako is as we have had the pleasure of meeting her yesterday. Now," here he paused and lifted clasped his hands together, much like Naru, "let's discuss this case."
But it was not to be for as soon as those words had left his mouth their waiter appeared to take their orders and it was twenty minutes of decision making, chaotic conversations, and a silent Naru and Lin who took it all in tiredly. It was nothing new, really, Martin should not have expected such a large group of misfits to concentrate when food was around. But still, Naru took some sort of satisfaction out of allowing his father to experience what he had been dealing with for over a year. Even though it was the exact opposite of the impression he had wanted to make. He could already tell that a lecture was brewing but it probably had more to do with Mai than anything else. Naturally.
Once the orders were all settled Martin reclaimed their attention, "I assume that Naru has already briefed you on the situation and gone over the case details with you?"
The team members all nodded their heads and gave the man their undivided attention.
"Good, that makes this easier for me," he paused and leaned forward, lowering his voice so that only their table would hear his next words and said, "The manager of the property is a good friend of mine and had previously mentioned the possibility of hiring someone to investigate but a few months ago he called me up to inform that they had found another victim in the lake. The first in a decade. He was very distraught and worried that another would turn up at the upcoming concert and he wants this taken care of before any more lives are lost." Martin paused as if to organize his thoughts and shifted. "I understand that this will be a dangerous case and I appreciate you all coming out to help and if any of you wish to leave I would not blame you in any way for choosing the safety of your life . . ." he trailed off and scanned the faces around him, noting their nervous but determined expressions, and sighed.
Mai gulped, they had not been told of the most recent victim, and she suddenly felt a cold sweat overtake her. She lifted her eyes to the window, noting that the sun was sinking below the tree line. Night was approaching, when all the reported activity had taken place, and she felt Masako tense beside her as she too felt the ominous feeling wash over her.
"You did not mention there had been another victim," Naru's voice cut through the cold fear that had washed over the table like a blade of ice all its own.
Martin nodded curtly, "I'm sorry but I was still dealing with other matters at the time," he said and leveled a look of deepest regret at Naru and the others at the table shared knowing looks. The death of Gene, it seemed, had rocked the small family of four to the point of breaking.
Luella lowered her eyes to the table for a moment before lifting them once more to take in the team Naru had put together while he was away in Japan and was suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude for the people that had stuck by her son even when she knew he had tried to push them away. And she had a feeling it all had to do with the flustered girl sitting between the other two women of the team looking like the world had just come crashing down around her ears at the indirect mention of their late son.
Naru stared at his father for a few moments before he leaned back and gave a curt nod in response to his reasoning. He, of course, understood and accepted that the death of his brother would have affected his father.
Mai glance over to Naru knowingly and swallowed the spit that had gathered in her mouth. Their meeting had suddenly turned so serious when it had been so light and jovial not minutes before. She felt emotionally exhausted and the jet lag was weighing on her heavily all of a sudden. She rubbed at her eyes frustratingly and looked down the table at the others, sympathizing with the serious expression that adorned Monk's face. He too had found the situation uncomfortable while Ayako had turned her face away as if to give the family a moment of privacy. John was looking down at the table sadly and Yasuhara's expression was unreadable behind his glasses and next to Mai Masako had closed her eyes and covered her mouth with her sleeve once again.
She had never felt so removed yet included at the same time. She had unknowingly known Gene for a year before she realized who he was yet she had never met him in the flesh or seen how he interacted with his family. And at the same time she did not know what it was like for the others who had never known of him until the very end. She felt like a bridge spanning the distance between the two parties. Stretched.
"We can discuss the rest tomorrow," Naru spoke, the first words said aloud in several minutes.
"Yes," Luella jumped at the chance to break the tense atmosphere, "I'm sure you are all looking forward to a good meal and some rest after your flight."
There were relieved sighs all around and several sets of shoulders fell.
Mai dropped her eyes to her clasped hands in her lap tiredly.
Their food arrived shortly after that and Mai spent the rest of her time watching how Naru's parents interacted with the others at the table, surprised by their friendly nature, and amazed that Naru turned into such a cold and logical person with them as his guardians. If she thought about, she was a pretty even combination of her own parents, but then again she had been raised by them whereas Naru had been adopted at a later age. She wondered what had happened that had caused him to become so callous.
She hadn't even tasted the food she had ordered, a chicken salad with an extra side of croutons and dressing, and only realized she had been staring at it absently when Ayako had nudged her with her shoulder.
"You're not falling asleep on us now, are you?" she asked loudly and startled the girl from her thoughts.
"What? No, just thinking," she laughed nervously and waved the woman off.
Naru, who had been conversing with his father on the topic of Japanese spirits verses the English, paused and glanced over at Mai. He narrowed his eyes before standing, "Mai," he said her name in such a quiet tone that she almost missed it the first time and only looked up from her plate when he had called her again.
"Yes?" she answered nervously.
"If you're tired then you should sleep," he stated coldly and pushed his chair in.
Mai blushed, thinking he was being polite, but then the realization set in and she turned her face away from him. He only wanted her to sleep so that she would dream about the case. It was the same old routine. He would practically force her into sleep so that they could hurry up and close a case before moving onto the next.
"I'll take you back," he continued despite the sudden cold shoulder.
Bou-san stood suddenly, "No," he practically snapped, "I'll take her. You stay and catch up with your parents." The monk pushed in his chair and laid a hand on Mai's shoulder before leveling a stern look at Naru.
Mai pushed herself out of her chair, refusing to meet the eyes of her employer, and allowed monk to lead her away from the table. Ayako glanced around the table before jumping out of her seat and hurrying after the two. She caught up just before they had exited the restaurant and latched onto Mai's hand with her own and followed them out the door.
Naru watched the three go with narrowed eyes, a hand still lifted towards the chair Mai had just vacated.
"Lin's right," Yasuhara spoke up with a nod, "You have no skill with women."
Naru shut his eyes and turned away to reclaim his seat once more with a sigh.
"Ayako and Monk have been acting as her stand in parents ever since SPR disbanded, they know all of her woes after all . . ." Yasuhara trailed off and took a sip from his glass of water while Naru crossed his arms and retreated into himsel
Next to him Lin sighed and Madoka shook her head.
"Noll?" Luella questioned curiously.
But he did not respond to her.