The day seemed like a miracle to Mai. She was going to be on time for once! Even as the thought crossed her mind, she was jostled by the crowd on the footpath and lost her footing. Falling into a nearby wall, Mai took a minute to rub her hip where she landed. The pain brought a flash of last night’s dream to mind.
It was dark. The body Mai was in felt cold and scared. Her breathing was shallow and shivers racked her body. Curling into herself to find some warmth, she tried to quiet her gasping breaths. Everywhere ached. From the dull throbbing on her arms to the sharp pain in her belly that spiked with a deep breath. She didn’t like it. She didn’t want to be in here.
Through the window, the clouds moved, letting in a sliver of moonlight; just enough to make out the trees outside. She wanted her okaa-san! Why did He make her go away? Stifling a sob, she rubbed at the bruises along her arms. Heavy footsteps moved towards the room she was in. Panic gripped her. No! Please, not again! Okaa-san!
Mai re-focused on the street around her, aware that she was getting odd looks from those walking past. Shaking off the remaining sensation of the flashback, Mai took a moment to return to her normal breathing pattern after the shallow breaths taken in sync with the dream.
As much as she wanted to help, people and spirits alike, she wished that she had more control over when these dreams would occur. If she could control the point of view she witnessed them in, that would be amazing too. Her mind flew to the Urado mansion, and she shuddered. Please, don’t let these dreams be similar. She wasn’t sure she could mentally survive going through such intense dreams again.
Pushing off from the wall, a task made more difficult by her shaking hands, Mai looked down at her watch.
“Ehhhhh!” Naru was going to give her the Glare of Doom™. Lin was going to back it up with his patented freezing stare. All thoughts of the dream left her mind as she raced to the SPR office, where she was supposed to be five minutes ago.
When she arrived at the office, she could feel her stomach drop. The van was packed before she arrived, which was never a good sign. Taking a fortifying breath after her dash through Shibuya, she moved towards the cab of the van. It’s empty?
Mai squealed and turned on her toes. Oh, no. The Glare was aimed right at her.
When she opened her mouth to apologise, Lin spoke instead. “Let’s go. Traffic is already horrible and only going to get worse.”
Well, at least Mai was spared the expected stare, though the exasperated look in Lin’s eyes didn't really make her feel much better.
Mai pouted in the middle seat. Apparently, a lecture followed by the silent treatment was to be her punishment. Yes, she was ten minutes late. Yes, she wasn’t there to help load the van. But did Naru have to make his opinion of her intelligence quite so clear. She was going to be on time. It wasn’t her fault she remembered her dream from last night. Speaking of which.
“Hey, Naru,” she said as she turned to the man on her left. Honestly, even when irritated at her, for reasons beyond her control, the man was attractive. Truly, the man had no right to be so good looking this early in the morning. Why is this van cab so small? A flush crept up her cheeks as she tried to covertly move her leg away from his. At his raised eyebrow Mai remembered her question.
“Has Arakaki-san mentioned anything about footsteps?”
Naru looked sideways at her before speaking. “No. Why?”
“No reason!” Mai tried to laugh the question away. “Just curious.” She pulled her face into a big grin to emphasise her words.
Pity the grin did nothing against the unimpressed deadpan he sported. She sighed. The man really was grumpy this morning. “I remembered part of my dream from last night this morning.” She watched as Naru closed the case folder. “It’s what made me late to the office.” She cringed into Lin at the disapproving look in Naru’s eyes.
“When, exactly, were you going to inform me of your dream?” He said. His icy tone didn't make Mai want to move away from Lin anytime soon. Wasn’t that saying something?
“Ahhhhh.” She sweatdropped. “When the whole team was together?” She was annoyed at herself for her voice raising at the end. That was supposed to be a statement! Maybe.
“I see.” The unimpressed expression didn’t look to be leaving anytime soon. “I expect you to be ready to give all the details of your dream once we’ve set up base. All of the details, Mai.”
Six months was not enough time to psych herself up to become immune to his bossiness. She could feel her head bobbing in agreement. Mai gave praise to every deity she could think of when they arrived at the house fifteen minutes later. Even though she was stuck between Naru and Lin, neither were the type to remain in the van for longer than necessary.
As she left the van’s cab, Mai looked at the property before her. It looked like a typical suburban Japanese home. Nothing out of place. It seemed almost too ordinary. Except that the hair on the back of her neck was prickling the longer she looked at the house. She didn’t like it here. Not at all. She shivered.
“Are you cold?”
Mai shrieked as Yasu’s voice sounded right behind her. She spun around to face the unrepentant grin on Yasu’s face. “Yasu!” She said as she smacked his shoulder. “don’t sneak up on people!”
Yasu laughed, blocking her hands as they tried for a second smack. “But Mai-chan!” He pleaded. “I called your name and everything. How could you not have heard me?”
Mai paused. Really? Had she not heard someone as loud as Yasu calling her? She shook her head slightly. Moving on from the creepiness of the house and the annoyance at Yasu, she looked past him to see Naru speaking with an attractive couple by the front door.
Moving towards them, Mai could hear the introductions being given. Arakaki Sayuri, Madoka’s friend, and Arakaki Nobuyuki, Sayuri’s husband. Mai could see just by looking at them that they were tired and scared. As Mai was introduced, she made sure to give the most comforting smile she could.
“Thank you for coming,” Nobuyuki said. “This has alarmed us all. We’ve only just bought the house and can’t afford to move again so soon. These occurrences are disturbing, though. Hideaki is focused more and more on photos. It’s becoming an obsession. The moving objects and loud noises are frustrating enough. His fixation with his photos of nothing, that he claims are his friends, are making everything worse.”
Sayuri frowned at her husband. “Though that doesn’t explain the photo I found.” She then spoke to the group. “It was unsettling when I found it. I asked Hideaki about it, but he went quiet. I haven't been able to talk to him about it at all. He just stares at me before moving to a window overlooking the garden whenever I ask.”
Naru shared a look with Lin, before turning to the Arakaki couple. “We’d like to start as soon as possible. I’m sure Madoka informed you what we need space wise.”
The couple nodded. “She did. While we have a spare room in the back of the house for you to rest in, it’s going to be an office eventually, I’m afraid the only truly empty room large enough for your base is the garage itself,” Nobuyuki answered. “I apologize for any inconvenience.”
At this news, Naru looked like he would object. Lin answered before he could comment. “That will be fine Arakaki-san.” He shot a warning look at Naru. “We appreciate your providing what you can; we have certainly worked in tighter spaces.”
With that, the team set to work setting up base in the garage. Naru was not happy about the location. That was clear by his movements. Even his directions were sharper than usual.
Yasu, being Yasu, decided to take the opportunity to mention the need for so many extension cords. And how chilly the garage was. Was the room secure if they all needed to leave? All aimed at the goal of seeing a nerve tick in Naru’s forehead. Is he brave or suicidal? Mai wasn’t sure at this point.
By the time the tables and computers were set up, Naru had an edge to his aura that had even Yasu starting to worry.
“I’m going to make some tea.” Mai was desperate to get away from the stormcloud that was her boss.
Walking into the house, Mai looked around for someone to show her where the kitchen was. As she moved further in, she heard a small voice ask: “Who are you?”
Surprised for the third time that morning, Mai spun around to the voice. In front of her was a young boy. Perhaps eight years old? “I’m Taniyama Mai,” she said automatically. “Are you Arakaki Hideaki-kun?”
The boy grinned at her. “Yep!” His smile was contagious; Mai couldn't help but grin back. “Are you one of the ghost hunters?”
“I am, yes. But before I’m allowed to do any hunting, I need to make some tea for my boss. Could you show me the kitchen?”
With a giggle, the boy set off to the kitchen, dragging Mai by the hand. While she made tea in the mostly unpacked kitchen, Mai found herself being interrogated about what it was like to be a ghost hunter.
Eventually, Mai had explained that: no, ghost hunters didn’t hunt ghosts to ‘kill’ them, but rather to help them move on to the next plane (specifically not mentioning the ability to forcefully remove spirits if necessary). She was now explaining that SPR used technology to gain evidence to support their work on cases to a fascinated Hideaki. Given what Mai had been told about the boy’s love of cameras, she probably should have expected him following her back to base, firing off questions about the hows and whys of ghost hunting technology.
Given that anything beyond the basics with the technology side of things was way over Mai’s head, she was grateful to be back at base and able to distract him by pointing out Lin sitting in front of computers to field his questions. She giggled at the surprised look on Lin’s face due to the appearance of the boy; turning away quickly before he could see the smile on her face.
After introducing Hideaki to the room and ensuring Naru got his tea, Mai asked Yasu where the others were.
“John-san and Bou-san went to talk to Nobuyuki-san before he left for work. I believe the hope was he would open up more with a conversation just between men.” Yasu let out a snicker. “I’m not sure how that will work since Ayako-san went with them. Anything to escape a thunderous Naru.”
“Oh, and you had nothing to do with his mood.” Mai raised an eyebrow before letting out a snigger of her own. “I take it the cameras aren’t set up yet?”
At Yasu’s headshake, Mai walked over to Lin to check where he wanted the cameras to be placed.
“Hideaki-kun,” Mai turned to the boy. “would you like to help me and Yasu-kun place the cameras?”
The boy’s face lit up.