It’s funny how things change, yet don’t. When Mai got the phone call the day before, informing her that Naru and Lin were back in Japan and re-opening SPR, she was surprised, then angry, and then happy. Even though she had kept in contact with the Irregulars, this would be different from a weekly catch-up over tea. This would be Mai returning to her passion. If she could manage to be in the same room as the Narcissist without throttling him. Or dumping tea on his head. Or both .
In the six months that Naru and Lin had been absent from Japan, Mai had spent a lot of time going over her feelings for the handsome Narcissist and his nicer twin. While she recognised that Gene had been the one who inspired the feelings of affection in her towards the men, it was Naru who had flamed those feelings. Naru who had challenged her, Naru who taught her, saved her, even comforted her. Gene, though handsome with his smiles and guidance, didn’t leave as much of an impact on her psyche as his less social twin.
As she arrived at the SPR office building, Mai couldn't help but recall her last time being here: packing her things and leaving what had become an extension of her family. As she moved up the stairs she couldn’t shake the bittersweet feeling that came over her. This building held so many associations for her. Granted, some of those associated memories were terrifying, but others were affectionate. Sweet. And most of them circled back to Naru. More importantly, these memories were the basis of her family.
Realising she was standing in front of the office door, she took a breath and turned the handle. Opening the door, she was met with the sound of keys clacking from the office Lin used. She smiled slightly, that hadn’t changed. In fact, not much had. As she looked around the entrance way, she noticed her old desk. Even from the door she could see the thick layer of dust on the surface. Taking further note of the room, she could smell the stale, dusty air (though there was a hint of lemon she could also smell, how odd) and the layer of dust over all the shelves. A shudder ran down her spine. Please , she couldn’t help but mentally beg, please let Naru hire a cleaning service and not make me deal with this. It made her wonder what the state of the men’s offices were. Evidently not as bad if Lin was already working.
Stepping further into the office, dreading to see what other cleaning needed to be done, she could see heads over the top of the couch.
“Bou-san! Ayako-san!” Mai ran to them with a grin.
Bou-san leapt off the couch to swing her around. “Mai-chan! How have you been? I’ve missed you so- OUCH!” He let go of Mai to rub his head.
“Honestly, you derelict monk, you saw her two days ago!” Ayako returned her purse to her side and moved to give Mai a hug herself.
Mai laughed at the familiar by-play, returning Ayako’s hug and looking at the room’s other occupants. John and Masako sat side-by-side on the other couch, and Yasu was sitting in an armchair. As she greeted them all in turn, the door to Naru’s office opened, and the man himself walked out.
“Mai.” He walked several steps towards her before stopping; his eyes locked on her face.
At the sound of his voice, Mai turned to face the man that had taught her so much, and left her with so many questions. As they stared at each other, the tension in the room began to rise. She thought back to the last question he asked her: Me or Gene? She had her answer, but was she ready to share it with him?
Though Mai’s focus was on the man before her, she could sense the glances being thrown between the group behind her. As the two stared at each other, no movement or words spoken, the tension rose to the point of suffocating. Relief came in the form of Lin’s door opening, and the tall man stepped out.
“Taniyama-san,” he greeted with a nod.
Mai turned to him, smiling up at him as she did. “Lin-san! It’s wonderful to see you again.” At Lin’s faint smile in return, she looked back at the group and saw Naru had moved to take a seat in the second armchair.
“I know Lin and myself have only just returned, but there is a case I would like your combined assistance on.” Naru looked at the group before him. “But first,” he turned to Mai, “tea.”
Mai’s mouth dropped in shock. The office was filthy and the man expected there to be tea available?
“Ahh, Naru. I don’t think the kitchen is in a state to be used right now.” Mai shared a disgusted look with Ayako. Really, preparing anything in this filth? Though, now that she wasn’t distracted, the sitting area looked less dusty than the entrance did.
“There are new appliances in the kitchen, as well as new kitchenware. You will find tea in its normal cupboard.” Naru looked at Mai with a raised eyebrow. “The kitchen is, therefore, in a state to be used.”
Mai narrowed her eyes at the smugness she could feel dripping from the man. She turned on her heel to stalk to the kitchen. What she saw had her turning right around and moving to stand over the smug Narcissist that lived to annoy her apparently. Why was he my choice again?
“Why,” Mai asked through gritted teeth, “does the kitchen look freshly cleaned while the rest of the office looks like it needs several hours with a cleaning crew?”
Unfortunately, Naru did not look the slightest bit cowed by her presence. Did I really expect him too? “The kitchen is needed for a profitable work environment, as are mine and Lin’s offices. I organised a professional cleaner to come out yesterday to focus on those areas.”
The silence that spread through the room was awful. Before Naru’s words, Ayako and Bou-san had been squabbling over the importance of cleanliness (Hygiene is important for a reason, monk!) with Yasu adding the occasional comment to egg on the argument. John looked torn between trying to stop the squabble, or find a rag to clean down the bookcases; Masako merely sat quietly watching the room. Lin, already knowing what Naru had done, was the only person not watching the man and now livid woman in horror.
Mai could feel her face going red. She was going to throttle him. Not even fifteen minutes, and she was unable to be in the same room without wanting to inflict bodily damage.
“ Naru- ” was all she was able to get out before John spared the man.
“Mai-san. If you would be willing to make some tea, I’m happy to assist. I’m afraid that there is no-one at the church who makes tea with quite your skill.” She turned to see the blond smiling peacefully at her. “That way, we can also get to the details of the case Shibuya-san needs us for.”
The reminder of the case jolted Mai to remember why she was at the SPR office. “Thank you John-san. I’ll organise the tea. You stay there.” Besides, she never said she wouldn’t give Naru his tea via dumping it on his head. Looks like today was meant for both reactions after all.
Returning to the lounge, Mai was distracted from her plotting by the case files on the table. Taking a seat at the coffee table after handing out teacups, she shifted to face Naru, focusing on the details he was giving.
“Madoka has asked that we take this case. One of her oldest friends, Arakaki Sayuri, called in regards to strange things happening in their new home. Items moved or dropped and loud sounds coming from other rooms.”
Naru paused to take a sip of tea before gesturing to some of the photos on the table.
“The most alarming concerns focus on her son, Hideaki. Hideaki loves taking photographs and constantly takes his mother’s phone to do so. Lately, the boy has been taking photographs of seemingly random things. Claiming the photos are of his friends.”
Mai reached for several of the photos, the others each looking at the prints they had selected as well. Ayako was muttering about children and their need to use technology for everything. Even wasting time by scaring their parents with imaginary friends. (“Just because you’re an old hag doesn’t mea- OUCH!”) Flicking through the paper in her hands, Mai let out a gasp when she saw the last one. A shiver ran from her neck down her arms. Naru reached over to take it from her hands.
“Arakaki-san reached out when she found this photo taken on her phone.” Naru paused to show the photo to the rest of the group.
The focus of the picture was half a face. It was distorted and discoloured, with a bulging yellow eye. In the background, Mai could see a young boy asleep on the couch. Ayako’s expression changed from irritated to concerned. The rest of the group expressed either concern or horror.
“Naru-bou. Where is the case?” Even though Mai knew Bou-san had a serious side, it was still odd to hear him speak in such a severe tone. It made the situation feel tenser.
“Numata, Tsukuba, in the Ibaraki prefecture.” Naru responded. “I aim to leave tomorrow morning. I know it is sudden notice, but given Madoka’s connection to the family and the evidence provided we feel the need to move quickly. I’d like the assistance of as many of you as possible; will anyone not be able to attend?”
Mai shook her head at the question. “It’s summer holiday. I wasn’t able to find work this season, so I have no commitments stopping me.”
John indicated that the church would be happy for him to take the time to assist. “As a child is involved, they may even rush me out the door.” The lighthearted response eased some of the tension, and Bou-san quickly gave his agreement.
“The band is taking a break at the moment. Shiori-kun just got married and is on his honeymoon. We can’t really have a rock band without a drummer.”
“Think you can give my parents a legitimate reason for me to come along?” Yasu asked Ayako. “They like you, or more specifically, they like your medical connections. If you gave them a reason for me to assist you with a job, they shouldn’t give me any grief about joining the case.”
“Yasu, are your parents causing issues with you working with us on the odd job?” Ayako looked concerned about his answer. “I thought they were being supportive.”
“They mostly are, but given that researching cases takes me away from university studies, they’re less happy about the time it takes.”
Ayako nodded. “I can call them this evening. I need to call work anyway to make sure I’m not called in. I’ll make sure to let the receptionist know you’re doing some practical work with me if anyone checks.”
As each member of the group gave a positive response, it was obvious when one voice didn’t speak. Turning to Masako, there was a general air of enquiry about her availability.
From behind the kimono sleeve over her mouth came Masako’s voice. “Unfortunately, I have an unavoidable appointment tomorrow evening; however, I can make it the morning after.”
Naru nodded. “Should you be needed, we will send word. Takigawa-san, will you be able to drive yourself, Matsuzaki-san, Yasuhara-san, and John? Lin, Mai, and myself will take the van.”
“No problem, Naru.” The monk gave a thumbs-up. “When do you want us to meet you there?”
“I’d prefer to arrive before 8 a.m. That means, Mai?” He turned to the girl. “You’ll be needed at the office by 6.”