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Funny How Things Change

Chapter Text

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.”

Mai groaned.

Chapter Text

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?

“You’re late.”

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.

“Mai.”

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.

Chapter Text

Yasu had taken the time to explain to Hideaki what several of the more specialised tools they used were, like the EMF meter. Given that Yasu mostly researched people and locations for SPR; Mai wasn’t sure if Yasu actually knew that much about the technology SPR used, or if he was just convincing on a topic he knew nothing about.

Mai certainly didn’t understand much beyond the need for a camera and temperature check in each room. It wasn’t that she had no interest in understanding the higher level tech. The issue was whenever she asked a question about it, the complex explanations Naru or Lin gave made her head spin.

Either way, she was glad that Yasu had taken over the task of explaining why they were doing various checks and putting the cameras in specific places. The downside, though, was that Mai was the one to do most of the work since Yasu was busy with Hideaki.

“We take the temperature of each room so we know if it changes suddenly. We also make sure the cameras are getting both audio and video so we can keep watch on the computers back in base.” Yasu said as he gestured to Mai struggling with the camera stand.

“So, the cameras watch the rooms even when it’s dark?” Hideaki’s sceptical response was somewhat expected. Afterall, he only had access to his mother’s phone camera. It wasn't designed for recording images in the dark.

“Yep!” Yasu announced. “As well as tracking the temperature in the room, these cameras are able to switch mode and record in the dark by noticing different temperatures on objects. We can see different coloured objects based on the temperature it gives.”

“Wow!” Hideaki’s eyes were locked on Yasu’s face. From the corner of her eye, Mai noticed he was star-struck.

 Yasu had moved on to explain why temperature recording was important. “That way if a spirit appears, we know which room to focus on so we can track the spirit.”

Mai couldn’t help but snort at this. It would be more educational if he actually helped take the temperatures.

Caught between frustration at Yasu’s lack of help and frustration at the thermostat she was using for not giving a clear read on temperature, Mai didn’t notice the sudden silence from the other two.

“Mai-chan.” Yasu said her name quietly, but enough to get her attention.

Turning to Yasu, she saw why it was needed. Hideaki was staring at the corner of the room, fear and determination warring on his little face.

“The camera needs to point there.” Hideaki pointed his finger to the corner of the room.

Focusing, Mai thought she could see a wavering shadow darker than the natural shadow of the wall. A shiver ran down Mai’s back, and she unconsciously rubbed her arms. Throwing a look at Yasu, Mai nodded at him to direct the camera to the corner.

“Hideaki-kun.” Mat squatted down to be closer to the boy’s height. “Hideaki-kun, who’s in the corner?” she made sure to keep her voice quiet. She didn't want to startle the boy or the spirit that was causing him such fear.

“The Bad Man.”

Mai shared a look with Yasu before turning back to the boy. “Why is he a bad man?”

Hideaki shook his head. “He’s The Bad Man. He likes to hurt my friends here. They’re all scared of him.” Hideaki turned to Mai. “You can make him leave? Can you make him leave my friends alone?”

“We’ll do everything we can to make him leave Hideaki-kun. I promise.” Mai hoped it wouldn’t be a difficult promise to keep.

 

When they returned to base, Lin wanted to know why one of the camera’s wasn’t where he directed. Their explanation led to Naru demanding more details.

“Once again. Tell me what happened.”

Mai groaned, she’d already told Naru twice. What was going to change with a third telling?

Yasu jumped in with his observation of what happened. Naru nodded when it matched Mai’s.

“Now we know Mai did not forget to tell us something.”

Mai’s eyes widened and her jaw went slack at the comment, before her face started heating. Why that arrogant, narcissistic, jackass. I’m going to- 

“Did you notice anything while you were with Arakaki-san?” Yasu asked Bou-san, John, and Ayako before Mai could get out an angry retort.

Bou-san shrugged. “No. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Mai slumped in her seat. It wouldn’t be worth it if she did go after Naru. Who knows what he’ll do to my office job list. A horrible thought occurred to her. Did he get the bathrooms cleaned?!

Naru looked contemplative. “Mai, did you notice anything about the spirit once you were aware of its presence?”

Mai pulled her thoughts away from the office and remembered the room. “Honestly, not really. Before I was aware of it, the temperatures kept fluctuating, but I was using an older thermostat and didn’t really pay much mind to it. Afterwards, a chill, maybe? I was more focused on Hideaki-kun.”

Mai recalled what she noticed while speaking with Hideaki. “I think there was a shadow in the corner, but nothing really drew my attention. It felt like I wasn’t meant to notice it. I wouldn't have noticed if Hideaki-kun didn’t point it out.”

Naru nodded, and turned to the spiritualists. “John, Takigawa-san, I would like you to go through the house with Mastuzaki-san and focus on a spiritual walk through.”

John nodded with a determined look. Bou-san nodded a beat behind him. No one liked cases involving kids.

“Before you go though, Mai,” Naru turned to look at the woman. “what happened in your dream?”

Mai frowned slightly, pulling forward the memory of the dream and the emotions that came with it.

“I was a child. I was cold and scared and sore all over. The room I was in was dark and I desperately wanted to leave but couldn't. There was another person.” Please don’t hurt me. “I knew who the person was.” Please. “And they terrified me. They were the reason I hurt.” I want to leave! “The door was locked.” I want to go home! “But I could hear his heavy footsteps coming towards the room. Whenever he unlocked the door, I knew more pain would come.” Okaa-san! “ I desperately wanted my okaa-san.”

The group watched as Mai’s eyes lost focus, drifting towards the back wall.

“The only thing that scared me more than the man...” NO! PLEASE! “... Was the garden.”

Silence echoed in the room when Mai finished speaking.

Distantly, Mai heard Naru address the others: “Take that walk through now, and go through the garden as well.”

Mai wasn't sure how long she remained lost in the memory of her dream. When she regained focus of the room around her, she saw Yasu and Lin both typing away at computers. Turning her head had her eyes connecting with Naru’s.

For the second time in as many days, their gazes locked. So many questions flowed between them. How have you handled your powers? Did you miss me? Perhaps most importantly to them both: Have you made your choice? Pity neither knew how to ask or respond in words. Eventually, Naru tipped his head towards her in silent query. Are you ok? Mai gave a slight smile in return. I will be.

“I’m going to find Hideaki-kun. Hopefully he can tell me more about his friends and The Bad Man.”

As she stood to leave the room, Naru stood also. “I will join you.”

At Mai’s confused look, he smirked. “This way you will not forget any of the details.”

Mai rolled her eyes and left the room.

 

They found Hideaki with a tablet in the front living space. Sayuri was nearby, preparing lunch in the kitchen.

“Mai-nee-san!” Hideaki’s grin spread across his face when he saw who entered the room.

“Hello, Hideaki-kun. What are you up too?” Mai sat near the boy and peeked at the screen.

“I’m looking up ghost hunters. I wanted to know more about what kind of stuff you guys do.”

Mai felt Naru sit next to her. “What in particular do you want to know?”, asked Naru. Mai looked at Naru in shock. Did he just offer to explain ghost hunting to a kid?

While Mai was in shock over the uncharacteristic behaviour of her boss, Hideaki started to bounce in his seat. Questions poured out of the boy in the way only children can achieve. Rather than shut down the child, Naru answered as many questions as he could. Mai was amazed that he even used child friendly language. He wasn’t dumbing down his responses, but he wasn't using four to five syllable words to explain anything either.

Eventually, Naru managed to steer the conversation to why the team was present at the house. “Hideaki-san, I know your parents have told us about what is happening in the house, but can you tell us about your friends and The Bad Man?”

For a man who disdained most people as unable to stand up to his level of intelligence, Mai was amazed at how he had managed to get the child in front of them to feel comfortable enough to open up. Vaguely, she remembered he had behaved well with the children at the church orphanage at Christmas time. Even if I did spend most of that case possessed. Mai felt her face reddening at the memory of her behaviour towards Lin on that case. She shook away the memories and refocused on the conversation in front of her.

“When we moved in, I met my friends. They get scared easily. They kept telling me I need to leave. Whenever they saw okaa-san or otou-san though, they would get quiet.” The boy looked upset for a moment. Then a large grin formed. “They like to watch when we play family games.”

Mai watched as Naru’s face softened. She smiled when he caught her eye and saw her watching him. Her smile grew larger when he snapped his attention back to Hideaki. His face was removed of any warmth.

“Kaa-san and tou-san don’t see them, so I keep taking photos of my friends to show them.” Hideaki looked frustrated at the lack of photo evidence of his friends. He looked at Naru. “Could your cameras take a photo of them?”

Naru looked at Mai again and responded, “Some of our cameras might be able to. But it won't be a photo like the ones you take. It will just let us know that they’re there.”

“You mean like the temperature cameras?” Given Yasu’s explanation earlier, Mai wasn't surprised by the boy’s question.

“Yes.” Naru said.

“Hideaki-kun.” Mai jumped into the conversation before the boy would bombard Naru with questions about the hows of cameras they used; Yasu wasn’t able to go into that. “You said The Bad Man hurt your friends. Can you tell us how he did that?”

Hideaki went quiet. He didn't speak for several minutes, before whispering. “I don’t want to talk about him. My friends told me not too. If I talk about him, he’ll come and hurt me.”

“Has he hurt you before?” Naru’s voice was lower than normal.

Mai could have throttled her boss. What a horrible question!

The boy shook his head. “He’s tried, but one of my friends always distracts him. Or gets kaa-san’s or tou-san’s attention and they come in. The Bad Man doesn't like being around adults.”

Mai could hear Sayuri stop moving in the kitchen. Turning her head slightly, Mai saw Sayuri looking at Hideaki in horror. Mai realised that this was likely the most Sayuri had heard about The Bad Man. Turning back to the boy, Mai assured him and his mother. “Hideaki-kun. I promise. We won’t let him hurt you.”

Chapter Text

Returning to the base after Sayuri rushed to Hideaki and held him against her, murmuring questions and reassurances for them both, Mai made her way over to the chair beside Yasu. Today had been exhausting. No matter how hard she tried to keep her eyes open to wait for the others, she couldn't avoid the heavy feeling of sleep calling.

Waking in her astral plane, Mai couldn't help but feel alone. While she’d had a few dreams since finding Gene’s body, none of them had seen the medium return as her spirit guide. With a shake of her head, she focused on what was in front of her.

The house was different. Different colour, different build. She could make out the mountain in the distance, it’s angle made it clear this was the same land the Arakaki’s home was built on. The nearby trees were also the same, though some were just saplings.

She moved closer to the house and noticed a path to the gardens in the back. Mai knew she needed to take that path. As she walked around the house, she could see that the gardens were cared for; each garden bed free of weeds and the plants full bodied. Turning the corner into the larger garden space, Mai saw a figure digging deep in the soil behind the fruit trees. A shiver spread through her body.

On the ground beside the hole was a boy. Mai’s hands flew to her mouth. As she watched, the figure, she now saw it was a man, climbed out of the hole before pushing the body of the boy into it. Once occupied, the man started to fill the grave.

The scene shifted. Mai was standing in a dark room. As her sight adjusted to the dim moonlight from the window, she could see another boy. This one was curled in the corner of the room, trying to be as small as possible. From the little amount of light, Mai could see bruises on his arms and bloodstains on his clothes . Just as she took a step towards the boy, she could hear loud footsteps coming down the hall. Impossibly, the boy curled even smaller. Somehow, Mai could hear his whispers.

“Please. No. Leave me alone. Let me go. Please, no.”

Mai turned as the door unlocked and opened. The first thing Mai noticed about this man was his eyes. They were an eerie yellow.

The man entered the room. Humming, he turned on a lamp on the wall. In the brighter light, Mai could make out more details of the man’s face. Committing as much to memory as she could, Mai followed his casual movements through the room. When he sat in a chair within arms length of the boy, she couldn't help but cry out.

The boy looked even worse in this light. He was so thin, his clothes were hanging off him. The bruises varied from deep purples and greens to sickly looking yellows. Mai was concerned about the amount of blood on the boy’s clothing. It ranged from dried dark patches to brighter red smears. How was the boy still alive? He needed help!

Forcing down her shock, Mai could hear the man talking to the boy. “Today wasn’t too bad.” He leaned back on the two fair chair legs.  “The prices at the market have dropped, so I was able to find some nice things to eat.” He dropped the chair down to all four legs. The boy flinched at the sound. “Have you been a good boy today?”

At the question the boy moaned, his muscles tensing in fear. “Come over here. Sit with me and tell me how good you’ve been.”

“Please.” The boy turned his head and begged. “Please, let me go home.” He sobbed. “I want my kaa-san.”

As soon as the words had left the boy’s mouth, any kindness the man presented was gone. With a roar the man leapt to his feet. Kicking at the boy, the man started to yell. “What have I told you! She’s gone! She’s never coming back! You should be thankful for what I give you! Why are you being such a bad boy?!”

The man kicked the boy into the wall before reaching to pull him up. When he raised his fists to strike the boy, Mai turned away. She couldn’t watch this anymore. A sob tore from her throat.

She could feel the tug signaling her return to her body, relieved she heard the man say: “You’ll be one for the garden, won’t you?”

Mai woke with tears in her eyes. Choking on her breath she fought the bile rising in her throat. Ignoring the alarmed voices around her, Mai pushed herself out of the chair and raced out of the base to the bathroom. Ayako followed her there. After Mai dropped to her knees by the toilet, the woman pulled back her short hair and rubbed her back. Once Mai finished throwing up, she turned into the Priestess’ embrace and sobbed.

 

When Mai and Ayako returned to base, there was a sudden hush. Mai felt like she could break with a wrong movement. While she didn’t want this solemn attention, she appreciated the care her family had for her. Taking some deep breaths, Mai moved to sit in a different chair than earlier before putting her head in her hands. She needed a moment to centre herself, and being in the exact space where she woke up wasn’t going to help.

She soon heard the clink of a teacup on the table in front of her. Lifting her head, Mai saw Naru’s hand retract from the cup. He waited with a concerned look in his eyes until she grasped the cup and took a sip. Tea after horrible dreams is becoming a habit. He then moved back to his chosen chair, telling Yasuhara to share what he had found.

With a solemn nod, Yasu spoke. “I focused my research on missing children in the area. There wasn’t much to find, an occasional runaway, but nothing that stood out about missing kids. So I focused on the history of the area and the people here.” He spun his laptop around and showed the group a collection of photos. “These are photos of people who had a history of strange or violent behaviour. Especially around children.”

Mai barely paid attention after seeing the photos. That was him. Second row, third from the left. That was the man from her dream.

Seeing the look on her face, Yasu stopped talking. “Mai-chan.” Mai’s eyes snapped to Yasu’s. “Who do you recognise?”

Taking a breath, Mai pointed out the photo of the man from her dream.

“Nagai Kenta,” Yasu identified. “He was detained after an incident with a neighbourhood youth and eventually found himself in a psychiatric hospital for delusions and violent behaviour.”

Naru frowned. “Is that all?”

Yasu raised an eyebrow. “I can do some more digging. I haven't got information about everyone on the list yet. I can focus on him now.”

Naru nodded before turning to Mai. “You dreamt?” She nodded. “Tell us what happened.”

Slowly, Mai explained her dream. The horror she felt was still fresh in her mind, and she saw it reflected on the faces of the team around her.  By the time she finished, she was glad for the cup of tea, even if it was now tepid. She was thankful just to hold something.

 

Those who went on the spiritual walkthrough had nothing to report. There was some mild lingering fear in the garden but nothing that screamed spiritual presence to them. So roughly an hour later, when Yasu felt prepared enough to share his research, the team was eager to move forward.

“Alright: Nagai Kenta. I did some digging, and found that Nagai-san was a victim of childhood abuse. His father was incarcerated for the murder of his mother, who was found buried in their garden. Nagai-san was taken in by elderly relatives and moved to this property with them. He had a reputation for being different, but was deemed harmless. Nagai-san was in his mid thirties when he was detained.” He gave a significant look to the group over his glasses.

“According to hospital records Nagai-san was reported as being submissive around adults. Especially men. He would try to avoid all adult contact and his delusions often centred around young boys. He would spend his time in his room just talking. When asked who he was talking to he would give a name, but not one anyone recognised. Occasionally, the ‘conversations’ would result in a violent rage. After six months in the hospital he was found hanging by a bedsheet. It led to several reforms on hospital safety procedures for psychiatric patients.”

Mai felt a chill run through her hearing about Nagai-san’s life. She felt pity for him. To have lived through the torment he had, only to pass that torment onto others... “During Nagai-san’s time at the hospital, this property was bought and the original structure torn down. New houses have been built on the land, but nothing like this has occurred in any of the new builds or with the previous owners.”

That struck Mai as odd. Apparently Bou-san agreed. “Why? What’s so special about the Arakaki family that this would start up?”

Yasu turned to his notes, “The reason for that, I believe, is that none of the previous owners had a young boy in the family. One owner was a middle-aged couple with teenage children; another had young children, but girls. No one fit the criteria for the spirit to gain interest in the proceedings of the house.”

“Which means Hideaki-kun is the trigger and the one most at risk,” Ayako said. “I can make some charms for him that will help keep away negative spirits until we figure out how to get rid of this one.”

Naru nodded. Moving over to Lin he said: “We need to deal with this quickly.”

Lin agreed, “While Hara-san might be able to commune with Nagai-san, I don’t think jourei will be possible for this case. We would have to wait for her to arrive before moving forward.”

“We will need to prepare for jorei. I do not want to take any chances.” Naru said.

Mai frowned at hearing this. Jourei, or the peaceful moving on of a spirit, was always her prefered type of exorcism. Nagai-san had already gone through so much trauma. Would destroying his spirit through jorei really be better?

Bou-san let out a groan and rubbed his stomach. “There was a soba noodle shop we spotted on the way up. I’ll get some for dinner. Any requests?”

After collecting orders, Mai, Bou-san, and Yasu walked out of base. Bou-san to fetch dinner and since Yasu couldn’t decide what he wanted he was making the trip too. Mai was heading to the kitchen for tea. After waving off Bou-san and Yasu from the door, Mai entered the kitchen to find Sayuri bent over the sink washing dishes.

“Arakaki-san?”

The woman startled. “Oh! Taniyama-san. Is everything ok? Can I get you anything?” Despite her attempts to hide them, Mai could see her red-rimmed eyes.

“Everything is okay, Arakaki-san. I’m just needing to make tea. Are you ok?” Sayuri seemed to brace herself against the sink. Mai persisted. “I can understand how scary these situations can be. Is Hideaki-kun doing ok?”

Sayuri gave a watery chuckle. “He’s doing better than I am. I had no idea this was happening until that photo! How do you handle this?” She looked away as more tears filled her eyes.

“That’s why we do what we do, Arakaki-san.” Mai comforted. “To stop things like this from getting worse than they already are. No one can control how these things start, but we aim to stop them from continuing.”

“Thank you.” Sayuri wiped her eyes. Giving herself a shake, she straightened. “I know Hideaki-kun showed you earlier where everything is. Please, feel free to ask if you need any help.”

As the women continued on their tasks, Mai was distracted by a forbidding feeling. Where was Hideaki-kun? Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. She had to find Hideaki.

The sound of something smashing came from an upstairs room. Mai and Sayuri both faced the noise shock. Mai could see horror and fear develop on Sayuri’s face before the woman ran out the door screaming for Hideaki.

Mai was only a few steps behind.

Chapter Text

“Hideaki!” Sayuri’s scream rang through the house as she raced up the stairs. Turning onto the upstairs landing she stopped and called out again: “Hideaki!” There was another smashing sound from the room to the right and Sayuri ran into it.

Mai reached the top of the stairs in time to hear Hideaki’s cry of pain from behind the door to her left. “Arakaki-san!” She called, but couldn’t see the woman. Turning to the room before her, Mai readied herself to chant before bursting through the door.

As soon as she entered, Mai could see Hideaki in the corner of the room trying to get away from the dark entity pulling him by his arm to the window.

“Nau-Maku-San-Manda-Bazara-Dankan!” She chanted before moving to make the Nine Cuts. “Rin-Pyou-Tou-Sha-Kai-Jin-Retsu-Zai-Zen!”

As she finished, the spirit writhed and dropped Hideaki before it turned towards her. Despite not being able to see any details before, Mai could now make out Nagai’s bulging ochre eyes glaring at her.

Mai was about to begin chanting again when she heard John’s voice call through the room. “Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.”

Keeping her eyes locked with the spirit, Mai shifted to allow John better access to the spirit.

His prayer continued. “In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God. The Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Through Him, all things were made. Without Him, nothing was made.”

Mai could hear the swish of water and felt the dampness as John used Holy Water. Nagai’s shadow flinched with every drop of water that fell on him.

“In Him was life. And that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness. The darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. In principio.

Upon those final words Nagai’s spirit disappeared. Near silence filled the room, only broken by small sobs coming from Hideaki. Mai moved to the boy, trying to see what harm had happened. She winced at the red marks on his arms, some of the edges already starting to turn dark with bruises. There were several small cuts on his arms and face as well.

“Hideaki!” Sayuri burst into the room. At the sight of her son she crumpled against the wall in tears. Sobbing, the distraught woman moved towards her son as he turned his head.

“Kaa-san.” he whimpered.

Absently, Mai watched John turn to Ayako, Naru, and Lin in the hallway. “Ayako-san,” he got the attention of the horrified miko. “Please get your med kit. Hideaki-kun needs to be looked at.”

She nodded before rushing down the stairs. Seeing that there was no longer present danger, Lin moved to return to base. “I’ll check the tapes. Hopefully we can get more details from them.”

“Lin,” Naru stopped him. “Contact Arakaki-san and let him know what has happened.”

John agreed. “His family needs his support right now.”

Lin nodded before continuing down the stairs.

John and Naru turned into the room again. Mai turned to watch the same scene they did: Hideaki clinging to his mother. John moved towards the pair to help move them to a different room, assuring them that Nobuyuki was being called and should be home soon.

While John was busy with mother and son, Naru moved over to Mai.

“Once everyone is back in base, I want you to go over what happened.” He said.

Mai nodded. Her eyes followed the Arakaki’s out of the room.

“Mai.” His softer tone got her attention. She felt her cheeks flush at the small but sincere smile he gave her.  “You did well.”

Mai’s eyes widened at the unexpected, and rarely received, praise. They maintained eye contact until they heard Ayako coming up the stairs.

“Naru-” Mai cut herself off. What? What could now possibly be the right time to say? He raised his eyebrow at her and she shook her head. “Don’t worry. I’ll help Ayako-san with Hideaki-kun.”

She then smiled in a way that made Naru’s eyes narrow. “You’ll have to get your own tea.”

Before Naru could open his mouth, Mai stepped around him to direct Ayako to the room the family was now in. She smirked as she felt Naru’s unimpressed look dig into her back before she heard his footsteps on the stairs.

 

Ayako treated Hideaki’s injuries and gave the boy sitting on the bed some pain medication. Mai had managed to get Hideaki smiling by telling funny stories about some of the cases they’d worked on.

“And so, because we all needed to pretend to be couples, Ayako-san and John-kun went on a ‘date’ together,” she said.

Hideaki let out a giggle at that. “But onee-san, she’s really tall and John-nii-san is short.”

Ayako snorted. “We got enough comments about the pairing then, thank you.”

Mai rolled her eyes. At least he didn’t call you old.

“Hideaki!” Nobuyuki hurried into the room. “Sayuri. Thank goodness you’re both ok.” He moved to his family on the bed, embracing them both. Ayako and Mai shared a look before excusing themselves from the room.

On the way to base Ayako couldn’t help but praise Mai for her quick thinking. “You’ve gotten better at using the Fudo Myo-O and the Nine Cuts. It was good that you turned Nagai-san’s attention away from Hideaki-kun. Given the force of the bruising and pulling on his arm, any more damage and he would have needed a hospital visit.”

Mai winced at that news. Entering base, Mai found herself engulfed in Bou-san’s arms.

“Jou-chan!” He swung her a little. “I heard! You did so well!”

Mai gasped for a breath, awkwardly patting Bou-san on the back. Suddenly, he let her go jumping a little and clutching his knee.

“Damn it, woman!” He growled at Ayako. “Watch where you’re swinging that thing.”

Ayako sniffed, setting the offending med kit down by the wall. “If you’d have let Mai-chan breath, I wouldn't have needed to make you let go.”

To avoid the oncoming squabble, Mai moved away from the pair to the rest of the group. Yasu grinned at her while handing her soba.

“You’d better eat.” He said. “Between the adrenaline and the spiritual energy you used, I’m surprised you’re still standing.”

Mai smiled as she sank into a chair. Eating her food, she chatted about the car ride to town with Yasu while the rest of the team finished their dinner. It wasn’t long before Naru gained their combined attention.

“Given that not everyone was present during the attack, I would like for us to share what happened.” He then looked to Mai. “Starting with Mai. You were the first on the scene. What happened?”

She swallowed her final mouthful of soba and started to explain.

“I was in the kitchen with Arakaki-san. We chatted before I started to make tea. I didn’t get far though. There was something wrong. I had just thought I needed to find Hideaki-kun when there was a smashing sound upstairs.”

She drank some water and continued. “Arakaki-san knew. As soon as we heard the sound she was running up the stairs screaming for Hideaki. I almost tripped over some boxes in the hall, so by the time I got to the top of the stairs, she was already in one of the rooms.”

John nodded his head. “I heard something smash and her scream. I don’t know about the others, but I wasn’t sure if the smashing sound was just something dropped. I was in the front room when I heard the scream. I’d started moving towards the stairs when she screamed again.”

Ayako let out a huff. “I was in base with Naru and Lin.” She said. “Until we heard the scream I didn’t think there was anything to indicate something was happening. I certainly didn’t hear anything smash.”

How? Mai wasn’t sure how the base couldn't have heard the sound. There was a camera in the room she found Hideaki in. How was it that nothing was noticed through the cameras?

Before Mai could ask, Naru spoke. “What happened when you reached the top of the stairs?”

Mai blinked and focused on the question. “I couldn’t see Arakaki-san.” She said. “I heard Hideaki-kun cry out in pain. I called out to Arakaki-san but didn't wait for her to respond. I went to Hideaki-kun.”

Mai struggled to explain what she saw next, the memory made her stomach turn. “I saw Hideaki-kun. He was being dragged by his arm towards the window. He kept struggling to get away.”

She took a deep breath. “I used the Fudo Myo-O, then the Nine Cuts. Nagai-san dropped him and turned to me.”

“You’re sure it was Nagai-san?” Lin asked.

Mai shuddered. “I could see his eyes.”

“What happened next?” Naru prompted.

“I was preparing to chant again when I heard John-san’s prayer.” She looked at the priest with a smile. “I shifted to the side so he could access Nagai-san better, but still have enough room to chant if I needed it.”

Naru nodded. Ignoring Bou-san in the background exclaiming his pride at Mai’s thinking, he turned to John. When John’s view collaborated with Mai’s, the group turned to planning what to do next.

“We need to make sure Nagai-san is gone.” Bou-san said. “What about the other spirits here? Hideaki-kun has mentioned his ‘friends’ but I haven't noticed any spiritual activity other than Nagai-san.”

Mai had noticed that too. She had a feeling she knew why only Nagai-san was noticed, and barely at that.

“What if,” Mai began, “what if we don’t notice the spirits, or Nagai-san well, because we’re adults?”

The team turned to look at her. Mai could see they were confused.

“Explain.” Naru said.

Shifting in her seat, Mai tried to explain her thoughts. “We know that Nagai-san didn’t like adults. His records from the hospital say as much. In my dreams, the focus has always been on a young boy and an abusive adult.”

In a flash insight she continued with a distant look. “His father beat his mother to death, and beat him as well, before burying her in the garden. After his father was incarcerated, he moved to this property and, eventually, relived his past. Only this time, he was his father. He buried the boys behind the trees. Who’s willing to bet his mother’s body was recovered somewhere similar in their garden?”

She shared a look with Yasu and he moved to his laptop to check.

“What does that have you do with adults not being able to see the spirits?” Ayako asked.

“I think,” Mai said, “that Nagai-san spent so much time and energy trying not to be noticed by adults. That this was a holdover from his childhood. His victims tried to hide from him too. I think that in death, the need to hide from adults has been so engrained that we can’t notice them because of it.”

Naru had a thoughtful look on his face. “It would explain why only Hideaki-san is able to interact with them. However, he said that the spirits of his friends would watch when he played games with his parents. Why would they do that if they avoided adults?”

“Probably because they all missed their own parents.” Bou-san rebutted. “The common theme is the boys wanting their okaa-san. Watching a healthy family interaction was likely something they missed.”

“A question I have though,” said Mai. “Why did the smashing lead Arakaki-san away from Hideaki-kun? In the past the noises have always been to protect him.”

There was a pause as the group thought this over. Then Naru spoke. “We need to talk to Hideaki-san.”

Chapter Text

“Why?” Ayako asked as she frowned at Naru. “He’s just been through a trauma Naru. He needs to rest!”

“He is the only one who is able to see the spiritual happenings in this house,” Naru deadpanned.

Ayako’s frown adapted to a scowl. Naru’s answer reminded Mai of her earlier question. “Did the cameras catch anything?”

At his unimpressed look she turned to Lin. “Surely the cameras caught something?”

Lin grimaced. As she followed his gesture to look over the computers, he pulled up the feeds from the upstairs cameras.

Mai gaped. There was nothing. The feeds only showed empty rooms. Why isn’t Hideaki-kun showing up? She looked to Lin in disbelief.

“How?” She asked.

Lin’s mouth pinched. “The feeds were interfered with. When you look over the frames, they repeat. The temperatures dropped but since the visual didn’t show any changes it was only a mild concern.”

Mai’s eyes narrowed. “The temperature dropped?”

Lin nodded. “In the room you found Hideaki-san in.”

“What about the room Arakaki-san ran too? The one she heard smashing from,” Mai asked.

Lin paused before looking over the computer feeds and sighing. He gave a pained look to Mai. So, it dropped there too. Why did the noise lead away from Hideaki-kun?

Turning to Naru, she made an unimpressed face. “You’re right. We need to talk to Hideaki-kun.”

 

Talking to Hideaki turned out to be easier said than done.

“No,” Nobuyuki said. “No, you can’t talk to him. In fact, I don’t want you to talk to him or Sayuri. Your coming here was to stop these things, not make them worse!” His angry red face was almost pushed against Mai’s as he yelled.

“Arakaki-san,” Mai tried to reason with the distraught father. Her hands were palms out in front of her as she tried to gain some space.

“No!”

“Arakaki-san,” Naru’s icy voice cut through the air. “This would have happened even without our being here.”

Nobuyuki twisted to face Naru; his face, already red, took on a deeper shade.

“Did our being here move forward the attack on Hideaki-san? Possibly,” Naru spoke before the man could rage at him.

“However, we are able to put a stop to this. We will remove the threat and make sure Hideaki-san is safe. To do that, we need to speak with Hideaki-san.” All of this Naru said with a cold voice. His eyes locked in a glare with Nobuyuki.

“Nobuyuki,” Sayuri’s voice came from the stairway. Mai saw that neither Nobuyuki or Naru had ceased their glares at the other and turned to watch Sayuri descend the last few steps.

The woman walked to her husband with a determined look on her face.

“Nobuyuki,” She repeated, voice firm. “Let them do their job.”

At this, Nobuyuki whipped his head to his wife. “What?!” The anger on his face became disbelief. “You can’t be serious!”

“I am.” Tilting up her chin, Sayuri’s gaze was serious. “They have done more to help Hideaki than either of us. If it weren't for Taniyama-san and Brown-san our son could have died.”

With that, she turned her attention to Mai and Naru. “That being said, I would prefer to be present when you speak with Hideaki.”

“Of course,” Mai agreed.

“Can we speak with him now?” Naru asked at the same time.

Nobuyuki started to interrupt, but became silent with the angry look his wife threw him.

“Yes,” Sayuri said, “we will meet you in the front room.” She then moved back up the stairs, her footsteps were heard as she climbed. Nobuyuki, almost vibrating with frustration, gave a huff before stomping out of the house.

After a moment of silence Naru looked at Mai. “Tea.”

Excuse me?” Mai narrowed her eyes in irritation.

Naru sighed. “This is likely going to be a difficult conversation. Tea would be good for settling everyone’s nerves.”

Oh. Mai blinked. That sounded almost like Naru… cared. She shook her head. Of course he cared. The previous cases they’d worked on had shown that.

With a subdued nod, Mai moved into the kitchen. Naru watched her as she moved about. Realising he hadn't left, she asked if anything was wrong. He looked at her with a blank expression and opened his mouth. Mai waited for him to speak, but he shook his head before entering base.

Oh-kay. Mai sent a confused look at his back before continuing her task.

 

In the time it took Mai to prepare enough tea for the team and the Arakaki family, everyone had moved into the front room. Setting down the teacups onto a low table, Mai took a seat between Naru and Yasu.  Across from her, on the couch, were the Arakaki’s. Hideaki sat tucked between his parents. Looking at the scowl on Nobuyuki’s face, Mai wasn’t sure how easy this conversation was going to be, even with Sayuri’s support.

Lost in these thoughts, she startled when Naru began to speak.

“Hideaki-san. Please tell us what happened this afternoon.”

The boy looked uncomfortable at the question. Biting his lip, he looked at his mother, who nodded.

“The Bad Man doesn’t like having you here,” Hideaki said in a quiet voice. “He watches a lot, but doesnt like grown ups. He heard me when I said my friends get kaa-san or tou-san when He tries to hurt me. He wasn’t happy.”

Mai felt Naru’s posture, already proper, become even more so. He’s figured something out.

“When I was upstairs, I saw one of my friends go into the back room. We don’t usually play there because of all the boxes.”

“Hideaki-kun,” Mai interjected, “That was the room you saw The Bad Man and had us point the camera to the corner. Is The Bad Man in that room a lot?”

Hideaki slumped into himself. “The Bad Man likes that room because the window looks over the garden.”

He looked at Mai with tears in his eyes. “But I saw Taro-kun go in there! I didn’t think The Bad Man would be in there if Taro-kun was going there! I didn’t think He’d be there.” The boy broke down sobbing.

The SPR team watched awkwardly as Sayuri pulled him into her arms and tried to quiet his cries. Nobuyuki glared at the team before comforting his son.

Taro-kun. Mai leaned into Yasu and asked, “Did Nagai-san’s hospital records keep track of the names he would say he was talking with?”

Yasu blinked at her surprised. “I don’t know. I’d have to have another look. You think Nagai-san continued ‘conversations’ with his victims? That Taro-kun is one of them?”

“I think,” Mai said, “it’s not beyond possibility that Nagai-san relived his interactions with his victims. He was already reliving his childhood. Without boys to fill any roles, his mind just… stood in.”

Yasu’s brow creased in thought. Humming quietly he promised to look into the files again. Refocusing on the room, Mai blushed when she realised she was the centre of the team’s attention.

Naru’s gaze bore into her face. Her blush deepened when she realised this. Before her head burst into flames, John broke the silence.

“Hideaki-kun, did you see Taro-san when you went into the room?”

Hideaki, who had calmed down considerably, sniffled before answering. “Yes. Taro-kun wanted to show me something. He was starting to tell me about it when The Bad Man showed up.”

Sayuri rubbed his back as his breathing started to hitch again resulting in hiccups.

“The Bad Man,” Hideaki managed to voice between hiccups, “he started yelling at us.” Mai moved from her seat to pass him a cup of tea. With a tremulous smile he accepted it and took a sip. When he tried to speak, Mai shushed him and told him that he should finish his tea first.

As Hideaki sipped slowly at his tea, trying to get rid of the hiccups, Mai took the opportunity to pass out tea to everyone in the room. Smiling in response to Sayuri’s thanks, Mai was surprised with Naru’s foresight. Tea really was needed for this conversation.

Instead of returning to her seat, Mai knelt close to Hideaki. As he finished his tea, Mai took his cup and placed it on the table. Taking his small hands in hers, Mai tried to project an aura of strength and comfort to the boy.

“What did The Bad Man say?” she asked.

Taking a deep breath and gripping her hands, he answered. “I didn’t hear it all. I was scared. But I heard him yelling something about being ungrateful and naughty.”

Mai squeezed his hands slightly and rubbed her thumbs across his fingers before asking, “What happened to Taro-kun?”

“He tried to stand between me and The Bad Man.” Hideaki squeezed her hands so hard Mai almost flinched. However, Hideaki was looking into her eyes and Mai didn’t want to break that connection.

“The Bad Man pushed him. And turned to me. He hit me.” Hideaki took another deep breath. “He hit me a lot. Taro-kun tried to distract him but it didn't work. Then he disappeared.”

Mai could hear the sharp breaths around her, but she didn't let her focus shift from the boy in front of her.

“Hideaki-kun,” Bou-san said, “what happened after Taro-kun disappeared?”

Hideaki flicked his eyes towards the blond before looking at his lap. Mai could see him chewing on his lip, and decided to speak.

“Did he say anything about going to the garden?” she asked.

Hideaki’s head shot up and he looked at her with startled eyes.

“Yes.” Hideaki’s voice was quiet, but clear. “He said if I was going to be such a naughty boy, that he was going to put me in the garden with all the other brats.” Hideaki’s voice became increasingly hysterical. “He said that since I couldn’t be grateful for what he’d given me I didn’t deserve anything.”

“That’s why he was pulling you to the window when I came into the room.” Mai expanded. Her no-nonsense tone eased Hideaki’s panic somewhat. “Walls and floors don’t always matter to spirits. So he was going to drag you to the garden even though you were on the upper story.”

Hideaki nodded. Sayuri, who had been gripping her husband’s hand throughout this part of the conversation and struggling not to make any dismayed sound, lost her battle to be quiet. With an exclamation of anguish, she once again pulled Hideaki to her. Nobuyuki’s face was pale as he realised just how much danger his son had been in.

As Mai looked back at the SPR team her intuition once again kicked in. “Taro-kun likely made the smashing sound from the other room because he couldn’t stay in the room Hideaki was in. It was effective. We were there quickly.”

“So now we just need to know if Nagai-san is exorcised,” John said. “There’s no point in doing another one if he’s already removed.”

At this Hideaki wriggled away from his parents. With a frown on his face, he looked at John very seriously. “He’s still here.”

At the surprised looks he received, he peeked over his shoulder. Turning back he explained. “I saw Him before. He didn’t come near me because I was with kaa-san and tou-san. But He was watching us before.”

Mai shared a horrified look with Ayako before Naru spoke. “Now that we have confirmed that Nagai-san is still here, we know to move forward with an exorcism.”

He and Lin shared a look before the tall man spoke. “I would prefer to do that when everyone is rested.” At the Arakaki parent’s objections he explained why.

“For Nagai-san to remain after John-san’s exorcism earlier, he must be strong. By completing the exorcism when we are at our full power, there will be no mistakes due to tiredness and more power behind the exorcism.”

“While we could attempt an exorcism tonight, it is getting late and everyone is tired. A failed exorcism might enrage Nagai-san to attack again. Regardless of who is present,” Bou-san furthered the explanation to the Arakaki family.

“That being said, since Nagai-san avoids you both,” Ayako said to Sayuri and Nobuyuki, “it would be wise to have Hideaki-san sleep in your room tonight.”

“Absolutely.” Nobuyuki said. He stood from the sofa and bowed to the SPR team. “Thank you for what you have done. And what you are going to do.”

Mai’s eyes widened. After his earlier behaviour this was a dramatic change. With his thanks given, Nobuyuki gathered his son and moved upstairs.

Sayuri, who looked shaken by the day’s events, wished the team a good night’s rest and asked if they needed anything. At the team’s negative response she also bowed and returned to her family upstairs.

Chapter Text

Sleep didn’t come easily for Mai. Her dreams filled with fear and muffled begging. She woke constantly throughout the night, feeling eyes on her. Every time she woke, she looked around the room. No one else appeared to have difficulties sleeping. Between Ayako and Bou-san, Mai couldn’t tell who snored the loudest. Each time she tried to fall back to sleep, her gaze was drawn by the window looking over the garden. Once, she thought she could see yellow eyes watching them. Eventually sleep would claim her, dragging her into more unclear dreams.

When Mai woke in the morning, she could feel exhaustion pulling at her; slowing her down from her normal energetic self. Raising a hand to cover her yawn, Mai saw that the room was empty. Eh? Given that she was usually awake before Ayako, this was confusing.

Leaving the room to find the team, Mai could hear voices coming from the garage. Stepping inside, she met the sight of Bou-san wearing his monk robes. He and John, who was wearing his cossack, were discussing the best way to conduct the exorcism.

“Hey, sleepy head,” Ayako said with a smile. She waved Mai to join her sitting near a table filled with food. “I tried to wake you earlier, but you didn’t move. I had to check your breathing; you were so still.” The redhead peered into Mai’s eyes. “Did you sleep ok?”

“Not really,” Mai answered. She reached for some food and mentally battled against the fatigue. Hopefully food will help.

“I kept waking up,” She explained. “And my dreams were odd.”

“How so?” Mai jumped in her seat when Naru spoke from behind her. Geez! He needs to wear a bell or something!

“Errr...” Mai wasn’t sure how to answer. There was a niggling sense of something about her dreams, but the more she thought of them the further away they seemed.

“I…” She tried to explain the sensations. “I can’t… really. I don’t remember.” Her voice weakened at this realisation. She looked up to Naru in alarm. “I don’t remember. I know there was something I needed to share, but I can’t remember.”

Hearing the distress in her tone, everyone stopped what they were doing and looked towards her.

Being the closest, Ayako tried to calm the woman. “Hey, it’s ok.” She rubbed Mai’s arm from where she was sitting. “Trying to force yourself to remember won’t help. Relax.”

Mai was frantic. There was something she needed to share. What was it?

“Mai-chan,” Yasu was saying, “I had another look into Nagai-san’s hospital records. To see if they recorded the names of his conversation partners.”

Mai focused on Yasu. “And?”

The man shook his head. “If they were ever listed, it wasn’t in his hospital records. There’s mention of the conversations, but no names.”

Mai’s mouth twisted at that. I was so sure...

“I also looked into the murder of his mother,” Yasu continued. “You were right. She was buried behind the trees in their garden.”

Mai bit her lip. There was something wrong. Something they hadn’t prepared for.

“Mai-chan.” Bou-san looked at her in concern. “What’s wrong?”

Mai shook her head, unable to put into words the feeling of wrongness building up inside her. At her obvious discomfort, the group shared glances before returning to the conversation at hand: the exorcism.

“Hideaki-kun said that the upstairs back bedroom was Nagai-san’s favourite place,” Bou-san said. “That should be where we focus the exorcism.”

Mai frowned. No. That’s wrong.

“We’ll need Hideaki-kun to be present during the exorcism,” John said. “I don’t think Arakaki-san will agree to that, however.”

Mai’s frown deepened. No. Hideaki-kun shouldn’t have to face him again.

“It may be the only way to remove this spirit,” Bou-san argued. “Surely they’ll understand that.”

Nagai-san is angry. It’s not just Hideaki in danger anymore.

Mai’s head was pounding. She rested her head in her hands and tried to think through the pain. Above her, voices were debating the safety of having Hideaki involved.

A shrill cry cut through the air. Without stopping to think, Mai hurled herself out of the chair and towards the noise. Turning the corner to the doors leading to the garden, Mai could see Sayuri being dragged towards the trees in the yard’s back corner.

“Arakaki-san!” Mai pushed through the doors and tried to close the gap between herself and the struggling woman. As she ran, she saw Bou-san from the corner of her eye overtake her. He raced past the woman and came to a stop facing her.

As he began the Fudo Myo-O, Mai could feel the hair on the back of her neck prickling. It won’t be enough. Nagai-san is too angry.

Mai stopped her run and forced her breathing to calm. Walking forwards, Mai called out to the spirit. “Nagai-san.”

“Mai! What are you doing?!” Ayako’s voice rang out.

Mai didn’t respond. She knew she only had one chance at this. “Nagai-san. Arakaki-san is not your okaa-san.” The air near the terrified woman shimmered.

“Doing to her what your otou-san did to your okaa-san other won’t change anything,” Mai said. The space began to flicker. Small tufts of darkness appeared in the air.

“You wanted your okaa-san,” She stated. “Didn’t you, Kenta-kun?”

At this, darkness formed the shape of a man. The only feature that was clear were the yellow eyes staring into Mai.

Mai could hear the exclamations of shock and fear from others. Distantly, she noticed Bou-san help Sayuri move towards the house. She stepped closer to the dark entity.

“She tried to protect you, didn’t she?” Another step closer. “She tried to stop your otou-san from hurting you.”

Mai couldn’t hear anyone else anymore. She was so focused on Nagai.

“He got rid of your okaa-san. And then there was no one to protect you.”

The yellow eyes narrowed as she took another step forward.

“So you repeated with other boys what your father did to you,” Mai said. “You would treat them like your father treated you, and when they begged for their okaa-san you did what your father threatened you with.”

With a final step, she stood before the spirit, flashes of last night’s dreams running through her mind. “‘If you want your okaa-san so much, I’ll bury you with her.’ Right, Kenta-kun? The only reason he didn’t do that was because the police came.”

The darkness in front of her shifted. Where before there was darkness shaped like a man, now there was a young boy. His yellow eyes looked up at Mai.

“I was always naughty,” Kenta said. “Even when I tried to be good, otou-san always said I was naughty. And naughty boys need to be punished.”

Mai knelt down to be closer to the boy’s height. “But you weren’t a naughty boy Kenta-kun,” she said. “You know, I bet your okaa-san is waiting for you. You could go be with her.”

Kenta looked unsure. Mai shifted so they could both see behind her. Hideaki was clutching Sayuri, tears streaming down his face. Nobuyuki had his arms wrapped around them both.

“Kenta-kun,” Mai got the boys attention. “I have no doubt that your okaa-san is waiting for you. That she wants to see you so much.”

Kenta looked at Sayuri once more, before he disappeared. Mai could feel the air settle, but it wasn’t quite right yet. Taking a deep breath, she stood and turned to look at the watchers.

“Hideaki-kun,” She called. The boy looked up from his mother. “Do you think you could ask your friends to come say goodbye?”

Hideaki looked surprised at the request. Slowly, he let go of his mother and moved to where Mai was standing. As he called out names, young boys began to appear in the garden. There were gasps of shock from the Arakaki parents.

Taro-kun. Yoshiro-kun. Toshiaki-kun. Mai took mental notes of the names Hideaki-kun spoke. As Hideaki chattered with his friends, his parents moved towards their son and the apparitions.

Turning to his parents Hideaki said, “Kaa-san, tou-san. These are my friends!”

Sayuri looked stunned to be speaking with the spirits. Nobuyuki, however, bowed. “Thank you. For protecting my son.”

The boys became bashful. The boy with a gap between his teeth, Taro-kun, smiled. “He’s our friend. He played with us and let us watch when you played games. Besides,” the boy’s smile dropped, “no one deserves the garden.”

“You do not need to stay now,” Naru spoke. “With The Bad Man gone, you can go back to your parents.”

The boys shared excited looks. As they each gave Hideaki a hug, they disappeared.

 

“That was something jou-chan,” Bou-san said as they packed up base. Mai flushed at the comment.

“No, really,” he continued when she started to protest, “the rest of us were just ready to force him away. You managed to talk him down and protect Arakaki-san.”

“Your powers are really becoming something Mai,” Ayako agreed. “How did you know that stuff about his kaa-san?”

Mai paused in picking up a box of cables. “I just… knew,” she said.

Honestly, she didn’t have any other explanation. Which about sums up my powers. Sighing at the thought, she moved out to the van.

As she placed the box in the van, she felt a change in the air. Stepping away from the van, she saw Naru leaning against its side.

“Mai.” His cerulean eyes locked onto her face.

Mai didn’t respond. She didn’t know what to say. Since Naru’s return to Japan there had been several moments where words should have been spoken, and never were.

Naru pushed himself off the van and stepped toward her. As he moved, his eyes never left hers.

They stood close together, and Mai felt a small smile on her face. Taking a leap of faith, Mai gave a response to an old question. A response that was a long time coming.

“Your question was stupid, do you know?” Mai’s smile grew at Naru’s confused look. “There was only ever one answer I could give.”

Naru’s eyes took on an intensity she had never seen. At least the man’s not a complete idiot.

“What would that answer be?” he asked.

Mai raised her hand to his face.

“Onee-san!”

Mai and Naru both startled at Hideaki’s call.

“Damn it!” a voice muttered from nearby. Walking around Bou-san’s car, she found its owner and Yasu both crouched behind the door. Fully able to see and hear what was happening at the van.

Oh they better not have been spying on us.

Yasu. Bou-san.” Her growl must have been terrifying because the two men blanched.

“Onee-san!” Hideaki ran up to Mai. The two men took the chance to scurry back to the garage. Saved by a child.

Looking down at the boy, Mai’s anger at the two interlopers left. Hideaki’s grin was still contagious.

“Hideaki-kun.” Her smile matched the boys. “What’s made you so excited?”

“Kaa-san said I can get a camera! A real one!” Hideaki’s excitement grew. “She said she wants to see all my photos.”

“That’s wonderful Hideaki-kun.” Mai said.

They moved around Bou-san’s car and towards the house. Hideaki was chattering away about the types of photos he wanted to take. Just before they got to the front door, Hideaki stopped.

“Thank you onee-san,” He said in a serious voice. “You said you would make The Bad Man go away, and you did.”

“I’m glad I was able to help,” Mai said with a gentle smile. There was a loud crash, like something was dropped, that Mai spun around at. By the van, Yasu was trying to placate a livid Lin after dropping a box of equipment. Huffing a laugh, Mai saw Naru speaking with Sayuri and Nobuyuki. Moving over to the group, Mai joined them in giving farewells. She saw that Hideaki had found John and was telling him about his future camera. By the look on John’s face, the boy hadn’t given him a chance to say a word.

Mai’s amusement grew as Lin stalked into the house before he visibly calmed himself. Catching sight of where Naru was, he also moved to join their group.

“Our thanks, once again,” Sayuri said. She had some bruising on her lower arms from that morning, but the relief at knowing her family was safe made her face bright with emotion.

“It was no issue for us. Besides,” Lin replied with a small smirk, “Madoka-san would have our heads if anything happened.”

Sayuri let out a laugh. “Yes. She probably would.”

With final goodbyes given, the team split into Bou-san’s car and the SPR van. Mai sent a longing look at the car before shuffling into the van’s cab. I may love the man, but that doesn’t mean I want to be stuck in a van with him for ages.

As she sat between Naru and Lin on the long drive home, she could feel her earlier exhaustion creeping back. It wasn’t long before she fell asleep.

 

Waking in her Astral field, Mai was confused. The case was finished. Why was she here?

“So the idiot scientist bought a clue, huh?”

Mai went still at hearing the voice. 

“By the way, they’re right you know. You did well on this case. And your powers are growing more powerful.”

She slowly turned around.

“Gene.”