Sunlight streamed in through the open window and blazed a path across the office, illuminating the teal rug and coffee table that rested upon it. There were a few scattered papers left behind by Yasuhara when he had rushed off to class last minute. The possible cases were left for him to look over and then he would pass them on to Mai for review. But in that moment she could not bring herself to move over to collect them. The sun warming her back and the cup of still steaming tea resting between her hands locked her in place while her mind wandered drowsily like the dust particles floating through the air.
The quality of life for those working with SPR had drastically shifted after the Prudence Case, though none of them had bothered to voice their thoughts on it, Mai was inherently aware of it. Suddenly, the world had seemed much larger, fuller, and riper with more possibilities than it ever had before. She could sense it even as they returned to their normal lives and reclaimed the old office for use, once more taking on small cases brought to them by the locals of Japan, and passing the days with tea and basic paranormal investigation.
For Mai most of all. She had reached up into the heavens and pulled down a goddess to assist in cleansing a demon. Simple restless spirits were nearly nothing in comparison, even if their stories were still just as sad. Somehow, the world in her mind had doubled in size. There was now an extra layer, or aspect, to the paranormal world that mingled with her everyday life. She imagined that it was how the heroes of fantasy stories felt. The ones where a modern day man or woman slipped through a portal into a fantasy world to take part in some great quest. Like she was living two lives at once.
Mai heaved a sigh, head lulling forward, as boredom rose up within her. They hadn't taken a case in nearly two weeks and she was growing restless. Naru seemed to have no desire to take on anything worthwhile since their return and was content to work quietly in his office, claiming to be working on a new research article inspired by Mai's achievements with Prudence and her mother. Which was great, except, Mai had had nothing to do for days now. She had even resorted to cleaning the whole office from ceiling to floor twice over and had begun experimenting with different teas and coffees. So far, Naru had called her on every new brand she had offered him secretly while Lin, she had begun to realize, had no care for what she put in front of him and would drink it down without a second thought.
She worried for him.
It had never occurred to her just how oblivious he could be about anything that didn't revolve around Naru or the paranormal. Or Madoka, for that matter.
A week after their return from Florida Lin had proposed. It had been the talk of the team and Yasuhara continued to tease the man about it to that day. Yasu claimed that he had thought Lin was a robot, built by Naru himself as a child to be his own caretaker, and was completely taken by surprise that Lin had manifested emotions and fallen in love. Lin would only sigh and refrain from commenting. It was obvious that he hoped that Yasuhara would give up on him if he refrained from reacting but Lin did not know the young man as well as Mai did, and she knew for a fact that he would not give up so easily.
Mai set her tea down, limbs heavy in her relaxation, and turned in her chair to look out the window behind her. People shuffled along the sidewalk below casually, it was early in the week and still a little hot out, but the café below was attracting a lot of business those days. It was rare not to see it packed and Mai was glad. She had felt guilty after quitting so last minutes even though the owners had been so understanding and even happy for her getting her old job back. They deserved to be successful.
Mai smiled and leaned back in her chair.
She jumped a little at the sound of her name and spun her chair back around to face Naru as he stepped out of his office. He lifted a hand to the door frame and she looked over his appearance with a critical eye. He had been spending nights in the office again, that much she could tell, by the dark circles under his eyes and the wrinkled shirt that hung from his frame.
"Did you need more tea?" she asked curiously, wondering why he had not just called for her from his desk as he normally would. She pushed herself to her feet, nearly tripping over the wheels of her chair as she did.
Yes, tea. That seemed to be what their relationship would always revolve around. Mai had hoped that, after all that had happened during Prudence's case, they would have, maybe, progressed? He had kissed her after all. But upon their return to Japan it appeared as if Naru was having second thoughts. Whatever physical contact he had grown used to over in America had vanished overnight. Of course, she might have just been over thinking things, as he had been extremely busy furthering his research and, besides the recent two weeks, they had been swamped with minor cases.
Naru paused and looked her over briefly before he pushed himself away from the door frame and stepped over towards the front door, "Would you like to get lunch?"
Mai blinked, uncomprehending, before she hurried around the desk while reaching for her purse that she had left on the couch wearing a winning smile. Maybe there was hope for him yet, after all, she thought as she stepped through the door he held open.
Lin peeked out from his office and she just caught Naru waving him off from the corner of her eye before he shut the door behind him and offered his arm to her. Nervously, Mai lifted her own arm to wrap around his and quickly dropped her eyes to the floor before them as they walked down the hall to the staircase that led to the sidewalk outside.
Mai heaved a sigh as she absently sifted through the rack of clothing before her. Outside the shop in the mall, people shuffled through the concourse, and their muffled chatter barely penetrated the stuffy store. It was not enough to block out Ayako's surprised squawk nor was it enough to hide her sigh in return. "He took me out to lunch," Mai reiterated and pulled a black top out to examine while Ayako clapped excitedly behind her.
"Alright, Mai," she stated, suddenly taking on a serious air about her while she lifted a clenched fist. Her eyes glinted as she continued, "Now is your chance to lure him in for the kill. He's shown continued interest. You have to get him to marry you before his attention is pulled away by some other small medium."
"Ayako!" Mai admonished, voice raised. She fought down the blush but looked back down at the black top hesitantly. It was a loose fitting sweater but it had a gather on the side that would hug her waist and several slits cut into the long sleeves. She hugged the sweater to her chest possessively while Ayako chuckled knowingly behind her.
"What did you guys talk about?" the priestess questioned in a more genuine tone while eyeing a pair of black slacks.
"We didn't talk about much, Naru was Naru," Mai answered with a resigned shrug, "he mostly stared out the window but he did seem kind of upset about something."
"Did he finally discover the stick up his ass?" Ayako muttered ruefully and folded the slacks over one arm.
Mai snorted, failing to restrain her mirth at the statement, before she headed for the cash register. "Who knows?" she called back over her shoulder. Naru had been in a rotten mood for a while but she had not been able to work up the courage to ask him about it. She made a mental note to muster the nerve to do so while she used the gift card from Ayako, given to her all those months ago, to pay for the sweater.
"I'm sure we'll hear about it soon," Ayako bemoaned as they left the shop and headed to the next. Mai had requested the second half of the day off so that she could go shopping with Ayako, after they had been talking about it for months, and she was honestly thankful for the much needed girl time. Monk was on a tour around Japan with his band at the moment so it was no surprise that the woman had reached out to her for some company. Mai was just happy that they were once again a solid part of each other's lives. In the time that Naru had been away they had all remained in contact but it was impossible to ignore the distance that had begun to stretch between them. A few scheduled phone calls missed, a few special events passed without word from one or the other of the group, and Mai had begun to worry. But now, with their dark shadow of a boss' return, they had snapped back together like a rubber band.
"I'm just surprised he offered," Mai continued with a frown, "He reverted back to his usual self since we got back . . ." Seriously, it was like he had read her mind in that moment and realized he was slacking.
"Honestly, Mai, I don't think the man has ever been romantically involved with anyone in his life," Ayako said, "He probably has no idea what he's doing, so don't take it to heart." She reached over to ruffle the girl's hair with a kind smile.
Mai smiled in return, thankful for Ayako's caring heart, and looked ahead as they entered the next shop. She still had another three thousand yen on the gift card to spend and she wanted to find a few more articles of clothing that would help her feel a bit more confident before her birthday dinner that Friday. She would be turning eighteen and it would be a large event, though she would not yet be a legal adult in Japan, in many of SPR's other cultures, she would be. Additionally, it was her first birthday after graduating high school. She had been debating on continuing into a college the year before but with the return of Naru, she had hesitated, as paranormal investigating was her passion. She had put it on the back burner and had nervously skirted around the topic for as long as she could but it was weighing on her heavily.
A lot could change in year. Including her academic goals, she guessed.
Mai lifted her arms over her head to stretch, ignoring the plastic bag from the last shop as it bumped her ear, and let out a relieved groan. It was nice to get out and walk around for a bit. They spent the next hour shuffling through the mall in search of more finds before Ayako dropped Mai back off at the office. It was quiet as she slipped in and set her bags down behind her desk. She could hear the steady typing of Lin and Naru's dueling laptops but no other sound permeated the stuffy atmosphere. She moved over into the kitchenette to make one last round of tea for them before she would return home for the evening. Rocco needed to be walked before she could turn her attention to her growing pile of laundry in her closet. One of the other things she had been putting off for as long as she could.
The water boiled as she reached for the pot to allow the tea to steep. Once done, she breezed through the two separate offices and collected the empty teacups left from the last serving, and returned to wash them out.
She hadn't even noticed the gloomy specter that was her boss as he followed her back to the kitchenette before he called her name.
She continued to pour tea without pause, used to him appearing out of nowhere by that point, and hummed in response as she set the pot down carefully. She felt his arms wrap around her waist in the next moment and his head rested upon her shoulder shortly after.
Mai froze, back tense in surprise, before she allowed herself to relax and glance down at him from the corner of her eye. All she could see was his mop of black hair but it shone in the small kitchenette light. He almost never initiated contact, in fact, after they had returned from the US she could not recall him doing so at all. She was uncertain as to what prompted his spur of affection but she was certain it was due to the research he had been swimming through over the past two weeks. She fought down the blush threatening to paint her face scarlet and chuckled.
Really, what was going on? He had even taken her out to lunch. What switch had been flipped in his brain that had him turning his attentions to her that day? Regardless of the situation, Oliver Davis was a man of logic and intelligence, and the sudden spurt of odd behavior set Mai on edge, though not completely against his actions.
"You must be tired," she stated quietly and reached up to run her fingers through his hair.
Naru grunted in response and tightened his hold on her.
Worry ebbed around the spike of pleased excitement in her chest but she was afraid to move, as if Naru was a wild animal that she had finally coxed over to her, and break the spell that had fallen over him. She felt his weight shift, leaning more on her, and she reached up to feel his forehead. He was running a bit warm, she thought with a hum, and resisted the urge to let out a disappointed sigh as she spun in his hold and led him out towards the couch. Naru shuffled along behind her wordlessly and sat down with a sigh of his own with fingers lifted to the bridge of his nose as an obvious headache swelled forth.
"I just made some tea," she murmured quietly as she retrieved the cups from the kitchenette and set one down in front of him. She slipped into Lin's office to drop his off. "Naru's down for the count, Lin, were you two planning to head home soon?"
Lin pulled his eyes from the computer screen, stoic face painted in the harsh light against the dark of his office, and blinked while he reoriented his brain in reality. He lifted a hand to his face and rubbed at his eyes before he reached for the cup of tea Mai had sat down next to his hand. "I'll talk to him in a moment," he murmured while the warm caffeine kick started his system.
"You look like you could use a good night's sleep yourself, Lin," Mai observed dryly.
Lin bestowed upon her an exhausted smile before she retreated back out into the main office to check on Naru. He had leaned back in the couch, head resting against the back, while the now empty cup sat before him on the table. Mai smirked and stepped forward to grab the throw blanket from one of the chairs and pulled it over him.
Naru was lost to the world for the next eight hours, most likely. She dropped a kiss atop his head, giggling quietly at her cleverness, before she moved over to her desk to collect her things. She peeked back into Lin's office to let him know she was on her way out and he only lifted his eyes from the screen momentarily to offer her a nod in response.
Mai spent the next three minutes shoving her bags into the seat of her scooter, wrestling with the latch, before she gave up and just sat down on top of it. The latch clicked shut and she sighed before she slid the key into the ignition and her scooter puttered to life cheerily. If she hurried, she could be home in ten minutes but she never felt particularly rushed on her nightly drives. The world was far quieter and the air fresher and, sometimes, she just really liked to take the extra time to organize her thoughts from throughout the day.
Tonight was no different. As the wind rustled her hair that fell below her helmet, she took a moment to remember Naru's touch and she giggled. She had long since learned that he had an aversion to physical contact regularly, and the way he had stuck to her side in Florida had surprised her, but he seemed to regress back to his old ways once more. However, it appeared that exhaustion caused him to subconsciously, or consciously, seek out some form of physical comfort. It was cute and more than a bit endearing to know that she had now moved up on his list to his number one go to for such a thing. She would have to tell Gene, she was certain he would delight in the information.
Mai made it home safely and the next few days passed by in a similar haze as the others had. Naru had refused two other cases by the time Friday arrived and she was beginning to grow suspicious of his actions. How could he afford to keep paying them if they never took any work? She had a theory of what was to come but she refrained from pestering him about it as she left the office to get ready for her birthday dinner. It was practically a miracle that he was coming out to eat with everyone and she didn't want to run the risk of putting him in a bad mood.
She pulled her newly purchased black sweater on over her head, please that the night was cool enough for it, and jumped into a pair of denim skinny jeans that were ripped at the knees while Rocco gnawed on a bone in his bed. She could just see him in the mirror as she adjusted her hair and debated on doing something with it. It was getting long. She shrugged and put it in a messy bun before tugging at a few strands to frame her face. If Ayako were present, she was certain she would have demanded she layer her face in makeup before daring to set foot outside her door. She settled for a bit of mascara instead.
"Well," she exclaimed with her hands on her hips. Rocco lifted his ears but continued to gnaw on the bone. "This is as good as it's going to get," she finished and moved away from the mirror to snatch her phone from her bed. Naru and Lin had offered to pick her up and she had just received a text from the boss man himself informing her of their arrival. As soon as she had read through the text there was a knock at her apartment door and she quickly hushed Rocco before he let out one of his customary greeting howls. She had told her landlord that she had adopted a dog but she had been able to skate around the exact breed and she was determined to continue doing so for as long as she could. She was certain his size would pose an issue should it ever come to light.
Mai hurried to the front door and pulled it open to reveal Naru himself standing in the breezeway with crossed arms. She was surprised to find that he had traded his black dress shirt of the day in for a charcoal grey button up and a black coat.
It was the first bit of color she had seen on him since she had first met him and she hated how much it made her blush.
"I'm glad my appearance is pleasing but I don't plan on standing here all night," Naru chided with a quirked brow.
Mai stammered and when she failed to come up with an adequate response, scowled, before she reached for her black purse by the door and stepped out to shut the door behind her. She locked the door before turning back to face him with her own raised brow. It prompted Naru to offer his arm, the slightest of smirks present, and lead her down the stairs into the parking lot where Lin sat waiting in the car.
He paused at the passenger side door and leaned towards her to murmur in her ear, "You look beautiful," and then opened it to allow her access to the front seat.
Lin quirked a brow as Mai sat down next to him, face bright, and glanced back curiously as Naru slid into the backseat. Mai refrained from commenting, still affected by the quiet words in her ear, and stoically focused on her hands in her lap. The fact that she was upgraded to the front seat was not missed by her in her chaotic euphoria brought on by his whispered words.
Naru rested his head against a propped fist and smirked as Lin pulled out of the parking lot and headed back towards the direction of the office. The idea of a relationship with Mai had always been on the back burner in his mind but as time had worn on, and she had grown on him like the invasive vine that she was, he could admit that there was a certain amount of entertainment to be had in her company. But really, he was just thankful that she was patient with him as he stumbled along through the foreign concept of dating.
"Takigawa-san sent a text to confirm that they were able to get our usual table," Lin's voice penetrated the strange mood of the vehicle and Mai let out a relieved sigh.
"That's perfect," she exclaimed in excitement. "'Our usual table'," she repeated with a chuckle as she turned her eyes back out onto the passing street, "I always wanted to be a regular somewhere."
"It's a nice feeling," Lin commented quietly with a soft smirk. He could appreciate Mai's statement as he had been a bit of a drifter back in the day. Returning to a usual haunt always had a way of making someone feel as if they belonged.
"I appreciate you guys doing this," Mai mumbled while she fiddled with her purse in her lap. "I never really had any big birthday parties. It was always just a friend or two who would take me out," she explained with a wistful smile.
"Everyone is happy with an excuse to be loud and obnoxious," Naru drawled from the back seat.
Mai and Lin shared exasperated looks before Mai chuckled.
The restaurant was packed when they arrived. There was a gathering of people outside waiting for tables and hardly any parking available in the lot. Lin opted to avoid fighting for a space and chose to pull into the office lot across the street and park in his usual spot. They walked across the street together and shuffled through the crowd into the restaurant without hesitation. As soon as they entered through the doors the sound of the city was muffled and Monk's voice could be heard over the several bits of conversation and laughter as Mai followed behind Lin's tall form. He cut a path through the crowds like Moses in the Red Sea. If Moses had an edgy haircut and demon servants at his bidding, anyways.
"The Birthday Girl has arrived!" Monk exclaimed. The statement was followed by a wolf whistle from Yasuhara himself while the others at the table smiled and waved as they approached.
"I'm glad everyone made it!" Mai cheered as she covered the remaining distance to the table and reached to give John a hug. The man had just returned from a trip back home and she hadn't seen him since their last big case.
"Happy Birthday, Mai," John stated and squeezed her back before reclaiming his seat.
"Thank you," she shot back over her shoulder while Yasu pulled her in for a hug of his own. Ayako had stood to pull Mai from his arms so she could pinch her cheeks and wish her a happy birthday as well. Mai laughed, embarrassed, and was thankfully saved by Monk when he scooped her up and carried her away from Ayako to sit down next to him.
Lin chuckled lowly and claimed a seat next to Masako, the calmest of the group, which left Naru to sit down next to Mai. She smiled at everyone at the table before she pulled a menu towards her.
All eyes turned to their waitress, a familiar woman, and chuckled as she reached forward to ruffle Yaushara's hair. She had traded in the pink hair dye for blue that day, and her long locks were piled at the top of her head.
"It's Mai's birthday," Monk informed Joe with an award winning smile.
"What?" Joe exclaimed, "Congratulations, desserts on me tonight then!"
They place their orders with Joe and while she disappeared to get everything started, Ayako took the opportunity to set a gift bag in front of Mai excitedly. Mai blinked in surprise before she grinned and pulled the bag into her lap so that she could pull the paper out. There was a mall box at the bottom and Mai blanched. She lifted the box out of the bag and hefted it in her hand as she raised stunned eyes to Ayako.
"This is an expensive gift, Ayako, I don't know what to say," she mumbled in awe.
Ayako smiled, bittersweet, and reached around Monk to ruffle her hair. "You deserve everything the world has to offer, Mai, a nice phone that doesn't die at thirty percent is the least I could do," she assured her dryly.
Mai bit her lip but could not fight back the chuckle that escaped and set the box on the table in front of her to read over the back. "Thank you," she mumbled as her shoulders hunched up around her ears.
"Mine next," Monk stated and slid a small paper bag in front of her.
"Oh boy," Mai moaned, hoping this would not be a night filled with presents from everyone, because she did not know if she was capable of processing the amount of gratitude she knew it would invoke. But her wishes would go unheard. Monk had found her a t-shirt that simply read "Ghost Hunter" in white block text across the front and back. It had made her laugh and she had agreed to wear it on their next case, ignoring the quirked brow this earned from Naru, and set it in the bag along with her new phone. John had found her a leather cord bracelet meant to ward off evil spirits. He claimed it could protect her while she astral projected on their cases. Mai had not wasted anytime with that one and had him help her tie it on. Yasuhara had gifted her a "Utility Belt" that she could use while crawling through old creepy buildings. It was really just a fanny pack but Mai could not deny that it would be useful. She set that one in the bag along with her others gifts with a snort and a shake of her head that left the table laughing. Masako had shyly slid a small box over towards Mai next and the young woman was touched as she opened to find an ornate hair comb made from plum blossom jade. Her eyes had been misty throughout all of the exchanges, but the comb set her over the edge, and she felt a tear slide down her cheek. She quickly wiped it away before lifting the comb to her hair and sliding it in just below her bun. A small metal and gemmed flower was still visible and added just a hint of femininity to her outfit.
"These are all so amazing guys," she murmured while clutching the bag to her chest with watery eyes.
"I do have a gift for you as well, Mai," Lin stated quietly as he offered her a small white box.
Mai lifted her hands to accept the gift with wide eyes. The table fell silent, as they were all a bit stunned at the quiet man's revelation, before they leaned forward to get a look at the contents of the box after Mai had opened it. Silver glinted in the light as Mai stared into the box before she reached in to lift the object into view for all to see.
It was a key. It was a simple house key, nothing special about it, but the implications of what it represented were enormous. Slowly, her eyes lifted to the key to meet Lin's eye and then moved over to take in the stoic man next to him who had crossed his arms and turned his head towards the window, face bare of any emotion.
"Martin and Luella purchased a large property in the area and it happened to have a mother in law suite," Lin explained lightly as Mai dropped the key into her palm and marveled at the warmth it exuded despite having only been held by her for a handful of seconds. "Luella would like you to move in and take care of the property in their absence, of course, Naru and myself will be in the main house but neither of us are that adept at keeping up with such a large property," he continued haltingly, clearly feeling a bit awkward for having to be the one to pass on the offer.
Mai hummed absently and refrained from commenting on Lin's statement. She highly doubted that the man was incapable of taking care of the housework, but she could not imagine Naru cleaning anything other than his SPR equipment. It would be a bit much . . . She was also aware that Luella was attempting to disguise the kind gesture as a request for help and it touched her heart. Luella knew her well enough to understand that she could not accept such an offer unless she had earned it.
"That's amazing," Ayako spoke up in the stunned silence.
It really was, Mai observed distantly, before she leaned forward over the table in the best bow she could provide from her seat in the large booth. With this new opportunity, she would be able to easily support herself and Rocco without the stress of budgeting all her funds away towards bills. While the pay that Naru supplied to her was more than enough, between rent, utilities, and her own expenses, she had barely been scraping by. As much as Naru cared, which she knew he did, he could not afford to provide her the pay that he did to people like Masako and John, as she was not as experienced as them. She had no prior teachings in the paranormal or any sort of resume to build off of other than her recent work with SPR directly. Over time, she knew she would be given a raise, but it was hard to say when that would be or how much it would help her in the long run. But if she could live rent free . . .
"Will you inform Luella that I am incredibly grateful and will accept her offer?" she muttered out through brimming tears.
Lin smiled kindly and reached over to grip Mai's hand reassuringly before pulling away and shooting Naru a rather satisfied look.
"And does Naru have a gift for our Mai?" Yasu prompted with an elbow jab to Lin. He had to reach across Masako to accomplish such a feat and the medium scowled from behind her sleeve.
"I don't find satisfaction in publicly parading such gestures," Naru spoke up simply, "But I do have a new case for all of you."
The table groaned as the man lifted a stack of manila folders from the booth seat at his side and dropped them on the table with a resounding thud. Mai didn't even recall him bringing them in, but then again, he had been walking behind her. She gripped the key in her hand tightly as Naru passed the folders out for everyone's convenience.
"You can't be serious," Ayako bit out but accepted the folder proffered to her thoughtlessly.
"The property in question happens to be in England," he began as he clasped his hands together and leaned back in the booth with his characteristic blank face. "As per the last international case, no one will be forced to travel, but I believe it would be a great opportunity for you all to become acquainted with BSPR itself. The owner of the property is a large supporter of our work and recently purchased the building in hopes of turning it into a historical attraction, but given its less than pristine history, he has requested the best BSPR has to offer investigate. You all should feel greatly honored that my father reached out to us first."
"Wow," Monk mouthed in awe as he opened his folder to eye the photo of the building in question.
"I'm not surprised," Yasu stated as he flipped through the papers feverishly, "We are the best looking group of paranormal investigators out there."
Naru heaved a sigh but refrained from showing any further reaction to Yasuhara's comment.
Monk was snickering as he elbowed Mai and dodged a well aimed smack up the back of his head by Ayako.
John shook his head mirthfully while he read through the articles provided dutifully. They were a great team, they all knew, and hardly any of it was due to their appearances. They were a collection of vastly different but effective abilities that, when combined, was nearly fool proof. John had witnessed them come out on top of hopeless situations more times than he could count. Where Masako's abilities to sense spirits failed, Mai's ability to learn their stories prevailed, and when those failed then Yasuhara's ability to research picked up the slack. When Ayako had no trees to rely on, Monk's cleansing and protecting chants rushed in to overcome, and should those fail, John stepped in to force any spirits out. And should any one of them trip up and fall into peril, Lin would rise up like the black knight he was with his shiki, and if they ever fell into a life and death situation, Naru was there as a last resort to blow anything away.
It was honestly astounding that they all managed to find each other. Whether or not Mai had run amuck that first case they all took on together, John was acutely aware that they would not have stayed together without her presence.
It was fitting that they were celebrating her birthday together in that moment and showering her with their gratitude.
"The property is larger than any we have investigated before, so we'll have twice the equipment to manage," Naru continued briskly. "This home, a modern palace in its time, was built to host and entertain hundreds of guests weekly, however, it was discovered that all those attending the last ball had perished overnight due to poisoning. The owner of the house, a woman by the name of Florence Wicks, was found in the courtyard where it is presumed she jumped to her death after witnessing the massacre. It is suspected that she had them all poisoned."
"Jesus," Monk exclaimed. John shot him a look and Monk bowed his head in a silent apology before turning his eyes onto the photocopy of the property image with a heavy sigh. It was a sprawling palace that boasted several large fountains and pools, now empty of any water, and spiraling towers at each end.
Mai shifted in the booth and ran a hand over the folder nervously.
"Since then, it is claimed that any who enter the property do not return. Given that workers have been present over the past couple weeks updating the electrical system and plumbing, and no one has reported anyone missing, this may be more fiction than fact," Naru added before he lifted his eyes to take in the rest of his team seriously.
"So we'll be traveling to England? For how long?" Mai questioned after the group had fallen silent. She was no longer in school, so she didn't have to worry about missing any school work, but the thought of being away from her home town for any great length of time made her nervous.
"We'll be there for two weeks," Naru answered simply as he shut the folder in front of him and slid it off to the side. "More depending on the case, but I doubt it will take us long to resolve everything. We have a month to get things in order before we are required there. Please, let me know whether or not you will be able to make the trip within the next two weeks so that we have time to purchase plane tickets."
Mai let out a relieved breath as they exited the restaurant. The atmosphere in the room had grown heavier and heavier after Naru dropping the news of their next case onto them. Sure, they were all reasonably excited to travel but, judging by their last international case, any haunting worthy enough of pulling them out of the country was going to be a hefty one.
There was a part of her that was a little miffed Naru had ruined the last bit of her birthday dinner with the case, but she understood. It was difficult to get the whole team together unless they were on a case and it was the best opportunity to discuss the possible case face to face. They had a good time, regardless, so she didn't feel the need to complain out loud.
Naru rested a hand on her back as they strode across the street while she readjusted her bag full of gifts absently. She nearly tripped over the curb as they reached the sidewalk and cursed as she caught herself with her other foot.
Naru spared her a momentary glance before lifting his head to face Lin as the man moved to unlock the car. He guided her to the front seat once more before he slid in behind and Lin started the car.
"You should start packing, you can take the week off to move into the property, and we'll hire a moving company to assist," Naru drawled while flipping through a few papers pertaining to the case.
"That seems a bit much, Naru," Mai mumbled nervously in the front seat, "I can just rent a truck. I'm sure Bou-san and Yasu would be happy to help."
Naru let out a breath through his nose and snapped the folder shut before setting it aside on the seat next to him. "My option provides optimum assistance in minimal time and I would prefer you were sorted as soon as possible so that you can travel without worry," he stated.
Mai scowled and leaned back in the seat before she lifted her hands into the air, "Fine, I'll have everything packed by Monday."
"Good," Naru said.
Naru opened the car door for her when they arrived and once she had stepped out he shut it. She paused and turned to look back curiously, brow quirked, as Naru leaned against the door with crossed arms.
"What is it?" she asked hesitantly.
Naru offered her a half shrug and leaned forward to place a kiss on her forehead. He pulled away, half smirk present thanks to her stunned expressed, and murmured, "Happy Birthday, Mai."
Mai nodded her thanks, dumbstruck, before she turned and shuffled back up the stairs to her apartment with gifts in hand. She could see Naru from the corner of her eye, still leaning against the car door with crossed arms, as she unlocked her door and stepped into her apartment.
Rocco greeted her with tail wagging but something out of place caught her eye as she stepped in and shut the door. There was just a bit of green peeking out from behind the entranceway wall and as she shuffled forward to get a better look, her heart stopped, and she lifted her hands to her mouth in shock.
There were dozens of plants scattered about her apartment, some sporting colorful flowers, and others heavy with draping vines. Her kitchen counters and island were practically drowned under the colorful foliage while every windowsill was laden with more than they could rightly hold. On the counter was a notecard, filled with a simple message in English that read: "There is plenty of space at your new home to start a garden."
Mai ran across her apartment and fumbled with the blinds over the living room window before she slid it open and leaned her head out. Naru stood below, just as he had been when she last looked, and she beamed down at him with a laugh.
"You sly dog," she called into the night and smiled sweetly when he lifted a hand before turning to open the car door and dropped into the seat. The car idled for only a moment before it pulled away and Mai shut the window before turning to take in all the flowers again. Her cheeks were scarlet and nothing could wipe the smile from her face that night. The gesture meant more than some would know. Mai's mother, before her untimely death, had been a florist. To that day, when Mai remembered her mother, her thoughts would then turn to the home they shared that had always been overflowing with flowers and their accompanying sweet smells.
She wondered what he would have done had she refused to move in with them. The thought probably hadn't even crossed his mind.
In one night, Mai had received a new home, a garden, a brand new phone, protection from evil, an antique jade comb, and a pretty cool shirt. Oh, and a fanny pack for her adventures.
What a life she lived.
"Oh, my gosh, look at John in this picture!"
Mai followed Ayako's finger as she pointed at a photo of John in his robes while Yasu and Monk appeared to be fighting over him. Yaso was cradling the priest to his chest while Monk shouted something in retaliation. John just looked mortified.
"I remember that day," John mumbled thoughtfully before he chuckled and turned the page of the photo album.
Everyone had come over to Mai's apartment to help her pack over the weekend, but as all similar situations go, they had ended up distracted when Mai had whipped out the album she had been putting together over the past few months. The photos ranged from their second case together all the way up to their trip to the US. Mai had collected them from everyone via phones and cameras before she took them to a local shop to be printed. Now they all sat on the floor huddled around the book, with the exception of the more refined members of their group (Lin, Naru, and Masako) as they were not present.
"I think that was just after the church case," Monk mumbled and he lifted his eyes in thought.
Mai chuckled as she leaned back on her palms and scanned the living room, eyeing the remaining things to be packed, and heaved a sigh. She didn't have much in the way of furniture, besides her sofa and a small mismatched coffee table, but she did have a lot of stuff. Textbooks and novels, clothes and knickknacks that she collected over the years, and a plethora of pillows and blankets. Her kitchen was another level of its own, however, and she was dreading tackling that. But Ayako and Monk were assisting her with sorting through things to be kept and things to be tossed and it was a huge help.
Monk laughed as Rocco rolled over, his head in his lap, and pawed at his chest for belly rubs.
Mai smiled before she pushed herself to her feet and dragged a box filled with textbooks toward her front door. They would be donated to the local library. She immediately regretted dumping all of the tombs into one box because it weighed a ton. Huffing and puffing, she set it aside and returned to the living room. She had tied her hair back with a bandanna but it left her brow bare of anything to catch the sweat that threatened her eyes. She wiped at the sweat while Yasuhara breezed by caring a smaller box to be stacked next to the kitchen island.
"Where's Naru and Lin? Shouldn't they be helping since it's their home you're moving into," Ayako grouched. She had flipped over another page in the album and found a picture of the two in question sitting behind a bank of monitors, thus spurring the question.
Mai shrugged, "Honestly, I can't imagine Naru would want to help with this considering he's probably going to be overseeing the actual move itself. And Lin goes where Naru goes."
Ayako snorted and turned away from the album to fold another blanket and layer it into a box by her side where the others rested. "Speaking of which, Mai," Ayako stated seriously, "If anything happens while you're there, you call me immediately."
Mai blushed and hurried over to the kitchen, which she suddenly gained the drive to tackle, and laughed nervously. "I can't imagine anything along the lines of what your mind is probably producing, but I will," she stammered as she lifted a box onto the counter and started loading it with various cooking tools.
"Such a Naru response," Yasu commented from the other side of the living room.
Monk and John laughed while Mai heaved a sigh and gave the box in front of her an indignant shove.
"Keep talking like that and no one's getting pizza," Mai grumbled.
Monday morning came much quicker than Mai would have thought. She had stepped outside onto the breezeway where she had organized all the plants Naru had gifted her, she had assured the landlord they would be moved that day, and made sure they were alright before she returned to her apartment and sat down in the middle of her living room floor. She stared at the now empty walls with a mixture of emotions swirling within her chest. The warring sadness and excitement left her a little numb, as if she couldn't believe she was apartment wasn't anything special but she had lived in it for nearly four years now and it had been her first home of her very own after moving out of her teachers house. Birthdays had been spent here, SPR had gathered here, and she had slowly rebuilt herself after a heartbreak and loss of a prominent person in her life here.
It saddened her to leave as the rooms had been filled with memories. Even if they weren't all particularly good, they were hers.
She turned to the front door as it opened, revealing Naru and Lin standing in the breezeway, and she smiled sadly.
Naru glanced about the apartment before his eyes rested on her and he moved into through the entance and kicked his shoes off. Mai gawked upon noticing that he was wearing black sneakers instead of his usual dress shoes. In fact, now that she noticed, he was wearing dark grey sweatpants and a black t-shirt as well.
"The movers will be here in a few minutes," Naru informed her casually as he strode over the once plush carpet and sat down next to her.
Lin shut the door behind him and followed Naru's example but he brought with him a bag of something delicious smelling, as well as a tray of coffees. A couple of paper plates were passed around and each of them divided up the six rice balls Lin had purchased between them. It was a meager breakfast lacking in protein but it would fill their bellies while they worked and was light enough not to leave them feeling nauseous in the heat.
Rocco sat next to Mai with his nose twitching and tail wagging.
It was probably one of Mai's favorite memories in that apartment because it was the most casual she had ever been with Lin and Naru. A part of her hoped these sort of moments would continue as they lived together. She took a sip of her coffee to hide the smile, though she was certain Naru caught it from the corner of his eye, before she adjusted her bandanna and stood.
"Ayako will be here with her jeep to help me with the plants, she said it would be best not to leave them to the movers to deal with," she spoke up as the two men watched her push a few boxes out of the way of the door.
"It should be a quick move," Lin commented lowly while swirling the coffee in his cup absently. He had only added a bit of creamer but the cashier had neglected to provide any stirrers and he did not want to bother Mai to go in search of a spoon when everything was packed away.
"Honestly, everything will probably be moved in one trip, and then I get to unpack and decorate," Mai rambled excitedly. She couldn't wait to have a home that had a yard for Rocco to run in. Not only that, but she would no longer have to deal with upstairs neighbors stomping around or being quiet for those below her.
There was a knock on the door and Mai hurried over to pull it open. An older gentleman in a baseball cap greeted her with a slight bow as he lifted a hand to pull at the bill. He looked kind enough, with warm eyes and laugh lines, and he offered her a cheery smile as he introduced himself.
"I'm told we've got a young lady to move today," he stated while Mai stepped back to pull the door further open to reveal the apartment. "It's good to see you're fully packed!" he crowed with a laugh as he stepped in and placed his hands on his hips, "I can't tell you how many times we've shown up and people are still in the process of boxing everything up."
Mai laughed and rubbed the back of her head bashfully, "I can't imagine. I wanted to be as courteous as possible given how physically demanding the job is."
"I appreciate it, Taniyama-san," the man replied before he stepped forward to greet Naru as he approached. The two men shook hands before the mover, named Hiro, called in the rest of his crew who immediately filed in to tackle the large furniture first.
Mai moved into the kitchen to be out of the way and marveled at the movers who made quick work of her furniture in record time. Between their trips up and down the stairs Naru and Lin had already begun shuffling the stacked boxes down into the parking lot. They set them down so that the movers would not have to make as many trips up to the apartment and save everyone some time.
"You know they make boxes specifically for moving books," Naru drawled dryly as he passed the kitchen hefting a large box in his arms, "They're small so as to prevent this."
Mai stuck her tongue out at him before she pulled a box of cold water bottles from the fridge and set them out on the counter for everyone. Rocco was tied to the fridge handle by his leash to prevent him from getting in the way while everyone was trekking through the apartment and he whined pitifully as Mai moved around him. She heard Naru grunt as he stepped out of the door with the box of books and could not stifle the snicker that escaped.
"Wow, Naru, I didn't know you had actual muscles," Mai heard Ayako comment from the breezeway before she stepped over the threshold and scanned the apartment with a sigh. She looked fresh and casual that morning with her red locks piled in a bun at the top of her head, sunglasses pushed up, and wearing denim capris and a black tank top.
"I know, I wish I could hire movers every time I have to move, they're so quick," Mai spoke up, causing the woman to turn in her direction.
"I'll say," Ayako shrugged and moved over to drop her purse onto the kitchen counter. "Why don't we start loading up the jeep with all those plants so we can get out of here," Ayako proposed before cracking open a water bottle.
"Sure thing," Mai chirped in response and led Ayako back out into the breezeway.
"I still can't believe he did this," Ayako muttered with a smirk as she reached down for a plant and ran her fingers through its leaves lovingly.
"Me either," Mai shot back with a laugh and hefted a pot in each arm before standing, "It's a good thing I agreed to move in, otherwise I'd have all these and nowhere to put them." She turned to head down the stairs but her path was unexpectedly blocked by a tall figure who reached out to steady her by her elbows and smoothly spun them about so that Mai was once again on the correct path towards the stairs.
"Three years and you're still just as clumsy," Naru observed in exasperation.
Mai blushed and clutched the plants to her chest under his scrutiny while Ayako let out a laugh. "Leave her be," she warned teasingly as she shoved one of the plants into Naru's arms. The man gripped the pot instinctively and, surprisingly, did not scowl at Ayako. He simply let out a light sigh and turned to move past Mai and down the stairs. They watched as he reached her jeep, the back door opened, and set the pot down before wiping his brow. "And here I was worried he wouldn't make a good husband," Ayako commented.
Lin breezed past them with an amused scoff, "Well, if that's all it takes . . ."
Ayako's jeep was filled to the brim with plants by the time they were done and the movers were pulling out of the parking lot. She offered to follow the movers so that she could start working on organizing the plants as soon as possible and Mai passed her house key over to her before she turned to the two remaining men with a satisfied sigh.
"That was quicker than expected," Mai said.
Naru ran a hand through his hair, now wet with sweat, before he gestured towards Lin's car wordlessly. Lin moved to start the car while Mai climbed the stairs one more time to get Rocco. The dog trotted down the stairs at her side, tail wagging, and butted Naru's leg as they passed.
Mai flopped in the backseat of the vehicle, already blowing cold air into its interior, and Rocco sat down by her head panting. She hadn't done much of the heavy lifting but the heat had certainly gotten to her quickly enough and her eyes grew heavy as the car gently rocked her into a light nap.
Mai dreamt of her old house. The one she had lived in with her mother and father. Time had stretched and warped some of the details, leaving them fuzzy and a bit disjointed, but the front hall looked the same as she remembered. There was a small table near the door where her mother's prized bonsai tree sat, tiny and majestic, its twisted trunk illuminated in the dim light that streamed in through the windows next to the door. Mai looked down and stepped out of her shoes before she moved forward hesitantly. The air felt heavy and quiet, like that of any long abandoned building mourning the loss of its occupants, but she could smell familiar seasonings that her mother had favored cooking with.
There was the sound of pots and pans clanking about on the stove and a woman peeked her head out from the kitchen doorway with a quirked brow. Her hair was long and curled and gently floated through the air as a smile spread across her delicate but wild face. She had sharp eyes and arched brows that leant her a royal appearance that, when combined with her wild hair and joyful nature, often likened her to a wood nymph. Mai had always wondered why her mother did not have pointed ears.
"What are you doing here, silly?" she cooed as she stepped out into the hall while wiping her hands on a dishrag.
"I missed you," Mai answered quietly with a shrug.
Her fingers trembled at her sides.
"I'm always right here, little Mai, I'm not going anywhere," her mother assured her and pulled her into a light hug.
Mai's eyes watered.
"I hear you are going to be living with a handsome young man now, Mai, how did that happen?" she tittered teasingly while lifting Mai's chin to examined her face and tug at her hair playfully.
"It's a long story," Mai stammered with a shaky smile.
"I know," she said with a light sigh and a small frown, "I've picked up on a bit here there." She fell silent for a moment before lifting her hands in the air and shook them about to dispel the atmosphere, "I always knew you would do amazing things, though, so it's no surprise. You remember what I taught you for new homes?"
Mai nodded dutifully, "Boil water and cinnamon with the windows open."
"Good girl," she murmured and reached up to ruffle her hair. "Make some good soup the first night and share with everyone to fill the place with company and laughter. And put your books up first thing. Wash your clothes and you better have dusted everything before moving it . . ."
Mai laughed and wiped at her eyes, "I did."
"Alright," her mother said quietly, "I think you're ready."
The words were happy but weighed down with forlorn longing. Her mother twisted the rag in her hands before she flapped them about again and spun Mai around towards the door. "Don't waste anymore time here, Mai, go, and have fun," she urged her cheerily as Mai slid her shoes back on automatically and reached for the door handle.
Mai paused to turn back to her mother, "I love you," she mumbled haltingly.
"I love you too, little Mai."
Her eyes opened just as Naru was opening the car door and reaching in to shake her shoulder. She caught his hand in hers and pushed herself into a seated position, feet dangling out of the car, as she wiped her eyes. Naru stood over her, fingers intertwined with hers, and watched as she scrubbed the tears from her face with a frown. Rocco leaned forward to snuffle her face and she chuckled tiredly before reaching up with her other hand to scratch the top of his head.
"What's wrong, Mai?" he asked quietly. Outside of the car, movers were finishing up with the process and Ayako was speaking to Lin in the driveway, waiting on them to finish. He shifted to block it all from her sight.
"Nothing," Mai assured him and stood with a heavy sigh. She lifted her eyes to his, noting the way he looked at her patiently, before she dropped her gaze to the grass in front of her. "I dreamed of my mother . . ." she answered quietly.
Naru rested a hand on top of her head, much like her mother hand done in her dreams, before he pulled her into his shoulder for a quick embrace. Mai relaxed with her forehead resting along his collar and heaved a shaky sigh. He smelled a bit like sweat but the freshly laundered shirt and scent of pine from something he used prevailed. Always perfect, this one, Mai thought with a roll of her eyes. But it was nice, to be held by him, and her hazy eyes fixed on the grass below absently. The sound of his heartbeat filled her ears and the warmth he exuded calmed her mind.
"Let's get you unpacked," he murmured in her ear and stepped away so that she and Rocco could move up the driveway and he could close the door.
Mai pulled at Rocco's leash and guided him over to Lin and Ayako who looked over in their direction as they approached. Rocco trotted along beside her while she lifted her eyes to the property in awe. The first thing her brain registered was that it was three stories tall and very modern. It had a large second story deck that looked out over the rest of the sloping neighborhood and large welcoming double doors. Wide pavestones cut a path around to the back of the house where some of the movers could be seen carrying the last of the boxes to their destination.
"Holy crap," she mumbled in awe while Ayako snorted with crossed arms.
"It's certainly something," the woman grumbled, "I don't think my house growing up was even this nice and my parents were loaded."
"Why don't you go and take a look at your new home, Mai?" Lin recommended quietly.
Mai grinned from ear to ear before she hurried after the movers with an excited Rocco at her heels. The path led her through a tall gated white fence and spat her out into a sprawling backyard filled with large boulders and grass. Trees lined the yard for privacy sake and their tall branches threw cool shade over the yard and large back patio of the house. But more importantly, her new home. The mother in-law suite was much smaller than the actual house but it was built in much the same way. Cement white walls and a pair of welcoming dark wood doors stood atop a cement foundation. The movers were shuffling in just as she stepped up onto the small front porch and slipped inside.
"Oh my gosh," she whispered.
The building was two stories. The first floor comprised of a living room, kitchen, half bathroom, and a laundry room. There was even a little office nook on the other side of the kitchen with large windows that looked out into the trees and backyard. But her favorite part was the large loft bedroom that looked out onto the living room. A set of stairs to her right led up to her new bedroom and she climbed them excitedly while Rocco sniffed about with perked ears.
Her bedroom was already set up just as it had been in her old apartment, minus her bed sheets and wall décor, but there was far more space to move about. She kept Rocco at her side as she shuffled into the bathroom, all white tile and dark oak cabinets, and nearly cried at the sight of a shower stall and a claw foot bathtub.
"We're all done!"
Mai walked back out into the bedroom and leaned over the railing just as Hiro waved a quick goodbye to her before stepping out of the door while the rest of the movers filed out after him. The living room was stacked with boxes between her couch and bookshelves.
"I'm jealous," she could hear Ayako state as the woman stepped into the small house.
"I'm a little overwhelmed," Mai admitted sheepishly and she descended the stairs into the living room. The kitchen was tucked away under the loft bedroom and, much like the bathroom, comprised of white tile and dark wood. Solid white porcelain countertops gleamed in the overhead lighting.
"Don't you worry," Ayako waved her off as she lifted a box marked 'Kitchen' and brought it into the mentioned area to be set on the counter, "We'll get you settled and it will feel just right."
It was only noon, Mai realized as she and Ayako got to work on putting everything away in the kitchen. They would have plenty of time to get everything sorted so she spared a moment to set a pot of water and cinnamon on the stove to boil while she flitted about opening all the windows she could. Ayako only quirked a brow at her actions while she lifted plates into cabinets and shoved the rest of the pots and pans away.
There was a knock on the door before Lin entered and gave the place a quick once over before turning his attention to the women. "I'm going to run to the store to pick up supplies for the house, do you need anything?"
"Ah, yes!" Mai exclaimed before she dove into one of many boxes and pulled out a cook book. "I wanted to make dinner for everyone tonight," she explained while she flipped through the pages carefully. The book was old and had several loose leaf pages with hand written recipes scattered about it. Mai paused on one page in particular and lifted it from the book thoughtfully, eyes scanning the list of required ingredients, before she handed it over to Lin. "I should have enough for this," Mai murmured and sifted through her purse on the counter for a moment.
Lin and Ayako shared a smile before Mai turned about with a bill in hand and passed it to Lin.
"I'll be back shortly," Lin assured her before disappearing.
"I'll invite Monk over," Ayako stated while Mai emptied the last kitchen box.
"That would be perfect," Mai replied in kind.
It took them two hours to get everything sorted which, to Mai, was surprising. The unpacking part of the process was much quicker than packing but she supposed it made sense. She had gotten rid of so much thank to Ayako's organizational skills. The priestess was currently seated in her living room flipping through channels on the recently set up TV while she waited on Monk to arrive. Lin had returned to drop off her requested supplies and a pot of Japanese chicken noodle soup was boiling away on the stove as Mai sat on her bed staring at the walls of her new room. Everything was so new. Even the carpet still had that pleasing new scent.
Mai had taken some time to rinse off all the sweat of the day while Rocco continued to scope out his new home. He was able to navigate the stairs, thankfully, as he had much practice thanks to Mai's second story apartment.
She had pulled on a fresh pair of jeans and a t-shirt, the rest of her clothes already cycling through the washer machine, and combed out her still wet hair by the time someone knocked on the front door. Rocco let out a cheerful bark and Ayako calmed him before shouting for whoever it was to come in.
"Whoa!" Monk's voice filtered up to Mai as she hurried down the stairs.
The five of them, six including Rocco, shared dinner that night around the kitchen island. There was much laughter at Mai, and surprisingly Naru's, expense that night but Mai was just happy for the pleasing sound that filled her new home.
Mother always knew best
It was Monk doing the herding this time around as they all shuffled through the airport in a mass of bodies, bags, and foul attitudes. John was too tired to be their shepherd due to the fact that they had left late in the evening and had all been up for twenty-four hours or more, depending on their schedules. Monk, who was quite used to late hours due to his profession, was still up and coherent with just a single cup of coffee.
Mai was dragging her feet, but she was still present mentally, as Naru breezed past her with phone in hand and held before his face. The man was supernaturally aware of his surroundings, she was certain, because as much as she had wished he would run into something, he never did. He stepped over luggage and glided past the other travelers without any sense of hesitation. She wasn't jealous. Maybe.
"Yasu, please bring John back here, he's confused again," Monk called over their heads with an exasperated sigh.
Yasu turned to look back and spotted John standing among another group of seven or so assorted Japanese tourists of varying heights. "I want to be offended but it's John," Yasu forced out through a fit of laughter before he hurried over to grab the priest by the arm and drag him back.
Mai giggled and shared a mirthful glance with Masako, clad in her favorite red kimono and blue obi, before she hefted her bag and checked to make sure Rocco's leash was still attached to her belt. Naru had been able to have him registered as an emotional support animal, which was a huge help when it came to travel, given that he had become such a prominent member of the team. Since Mai's abilities to astral project did not qualify as a medical condition, Rocco was not permitted to go through the training to become a fully fledged service animal, but his ability to protect her empty body was still sorely needed during cases. Mai thought it best, as she did not want to abuse the system after learning more about it, and potentially impact the public view of service animals. Any client they take is advised upon interview that they have a large dog on the team who would be present during investigations and to let them know if it would be an issue.
Rocco was just happy to get pets from all their clients and related friends and family. He was very obedient and gentle with everyone, Mai personally made sure of that, again, so as not to negatively impact public view of service animals.
Mai stretched, letting out a relieved sigh as her spine realigned itself after spending hours cramped in a plane, and dutifully followed Monk as he led the way down a flight of stairs towards pick up.
Just like last time, they were greeted by an excited Madoka in a large black van supplied by BSPR.
"Hey guys!" the woman called them as they stepped out into the grey daylight of London. It was a bit chillier than it had been in Japan and Mai was grateful she had chosen to wear a large grey sweater, accompanied with black leggings and boots, or she might have suffered.
They offered tired but somewhat cheery greetings in return but Madoka turned her attentions to Lin, who she threw herself at, causing the man to nearly drop his laptop bag in the process of catching her. Madoka laughed while Lin grunted under the added weight. The two hadn't seen each other since Lin had proposed to her and they were all certain it had been killing Madoka not to be able to be by his side at all times possible. She had sent them plenty of photos of her ring as well as ideas for bachelorette parties and bridal showers. Though the girls of JSPR were not going to be part of the bridal party they were invited to participate in all the events to come.
Naru stepped forward to pull the van door open and wordlessly hurry their party along. They all stumbled forward to squeeze into the van which happened to be surprisingly spacious on the inside. Lin claimed the front seat, and Mai, Yasuhara, and Naru the first row as per their last international. But with the addition of Masako the arrangement differed from there. She had chosen to sit next to John, who promptly slumped against the window and shut his eyes to the world, while Ayako and Monk sat in the very back. It worked out nicely, as their arguments would be muffled by the distance and with Rocco between them, they couldn't even touch each other to spark irritation.
"And once again, Mai, we find ourselves in the same position. How do we let things keep coming between us?" Yasu lamented as Madoka giggled in the front seat.
Mai snorted while Naru let out a sigh.
"This is giving me a strong case of déjà vu, now that you mention it," Mai agreed thoughtfully as she lifted her eyes to the rest of the van.
"We are creatures of habit," Yasuhara drawled while he leaned his head against the window with a tired sigh. "I'm going to laugh if this case is another love triangle."
Mai scowled and reached across Naru, ignoring the way he stiffened momentarily, and smacked Yasuhara on the shoulder. The man let out a squawk before he laughed under her barrage and lifted his arms in defense.
Monk let out a bark of laughter from the back that had Ayako groaning in annoyance at the loud noise.
John startled, having only fallen asleep seconds ago, and let out a grunt when he knocked his head on the window.
"Are you alright, John-san?" Masako questioned quietly with a sleeve lifted to hide the slightest of smiles. Priest he may be, but the whole team was aware of just how adorable John was. It was why none of them could ever bring themselves to be angry or annoyed with him.
"M' good," he mumbled while lifting a hand to rub at his face. He glanced about the van momentarily before crossing his arms and leaning back in the seat to shut his eyes once more.
"Are we going straight to the property, Naru?" Mai asked the man sitting next to her quietly as the van fell silent. The pull of exhaustion was too great and the majority of the passengers had shut their eyes against the rainy day outside of the van.
Naru lifted a hand to rub at his mouth before he glanced up at Madoka, who offered a small shrug in answer, and sighed. "We'll be stopping at my parent's house before setting out tomorrow," he responded quietly. The thought of ushering everyone into his childhood home was exhausting in and of itself but he was all too aware that setting up base in SPR's current state would be even more so. The best course of action was to make sure everyone was fully rested before setting foot on a haunted property.
They did have an image to uphold now.
"Will your mom be there?" Mai asked excitedly. She had loved getting to know Luella and the woman had offered her so much kindness it was enough to break her heart, the thought of seeing her again shoved the last vestiges of exhaustion from her body.
"I would assume," Naru shot back and offered her a quirk of his lips before he returned to reviewing the case file in his lap.
Mai leaned back against the window with her hands clasped and posture straight before she turned back curiously and opened her mouth.
"Twenty minutes, Mai," Naru spoke up before she could even voice her question and smirked again when he heard her teeth click shut. She was so predictable.
"The dog keeps breathing in my face," Ayako grouched from the back seat.
The rest of the car ride went by in relative silence while everyone was lost in their thoughts. Nerves over the upcoming case were only settled by the thought of a decent night's sleep and there was not much else to be discussed, so no one even bothered to open their mouths. Madoka glanced back at them through the rearview mirror periodically just to make sure everyone was alive but when they had finally pulled through the gated driveway of the Davis household she could not resist jerking the vehicle to a stop and loudly proclaiming, "We're here!"
The passengers were all jostled awake or startled and allowed their complaints to be heard as Madoka jumped out of the car to greet the approaching Luella with open arms. All the while shouts and grumbling could be heard spilling forth from the vehicle. She may as well have kicked a beehive.
Mai laughed as she pulled the door open and jumped down onto the gravel driveway with a relieved sigh. She reached back for her suitcase but found that Naru had already set it on the ground next to her. She smiled at him in gratitude before jumping to attention as Ayako guided Rocco out of the van.
"I'll take him, Ayako, thank you for keeping him company," she schmoozed.
"You're welcome," Ayako grouched and passed her the leash hurriedly.
Mai watched as the woman pulled her bag and suitcase from the van before marching up the driveway to greet Luella while Monk trailed behind her with a hand thrown behind his head. He had only packed one suitcase, thankfully, but he was also lugging Ayako's duffel at his side. Mai distantly heard him mumble to Ayako: "Why don't we get a dog?" To which the woman rolled her eyes and waved him away, causing the man to laugh.
"I can't wait to relax," Mai groaned as she stretched for the second time that day. Her shoulders popped before she nudged Naru and trekked up the path to give Luella a hug. "How are you?" she asked excitedly as the woman wrapped her arms around her.
"I'm well!" Luella stated happily and looked Mai over. The action sent a pang through Mai's heart as she gripped her chin much like her mother had done in her dream all those weeks ago but she wiped it away and plastered a smile over top of it like any pro. "Did you get moved in? Is everything going well?" she questioned her as they walked side by side up towards the front door of the sprawling property.
"The place is amazing, I feel like a princess," Mai admitted with a laugh.
"I'm glad, you deserve it, dear," Luella patted her shoulder before she pushed the door open and gestured Mai, as well as the rest of the trailing SPR group, into the home.
Mai guessed she really shouldn't have been surprised to have been pushed into a grand foyer with an equally as grand staircase, but she was. It was obviously an old house built to impress and, with attentive hands, had aged very well.
"We have three guest bedrooms and plenty of couches so don't hesitate. . ."
Mai could hear Luella speaking but as she allowed the house to fill her sense, the woman's voice grew distant, and the memories within the home swelled forth to greet her. Not that she could view them, as there were no spirits present, but she could feel the emotions. There was a gentle happiness here, she thought absently, tapered with melancholy but altogether stronger for it. Happiness that could rise up over the despair of life was something to take great comfort in. It was the same atmosphere that had prevailed within her mother's home when she was growing up. It was familiar. It was comfortable. And it felt like home. Even the air, carrying the scent of books and carpeting, eased whatever tension may have been building within her during their trip over.
"Mai . . ." Naru called to her from her left.
Mai turned her head, surprised to find him standing directly next to her, and smiled. "It's nice, Naru, it feels like home," she whispered while the others gathered in the foyer chattering away. Luella was playing an excellent host, answering all of their questions and instructing them on where to go, but it was not enough to break Mai from the trance that she had fallen in.
Naru rested a hand upon her back, pulling her a bit closer to him, before he guided her towards the stairs. "Would you like to wash up and take a nap before dinner?" he asked her quietly.
"That sounds amazing," she murmured as they ascended the stairs, Rocco trailing behind her hesitantly, and turned down a hallway that was lit with wall sconces and a single reading nook with a large window. The floorboards creaking lovingly beneath their feet as they walked, worn from years of use but well polished.
"You can stay in Gene's room, I'm sure he wouldn't mind," he said as he pulled a door open to reveal a bright bedroom. Two large windows looked out onto the street and allowed the grey light in while a lamp on a side table spilled forth its gentle warmth with a quick flip of a switch. The floor was covered by a large green rug and the bed and drapes sported similar greens. The sloping wooden ceiling only served to provide a cozier feel to the room. "The bathroom is right through this door," he explained as he stepped forward and flipped the lights of the bathroom on.
Mai watched as he disappeared and smiled once the sound of running water filtered out to her before she stepped in and set her suitcase down at the foot of the bed. Rocco's leash was unhooked so that he could sniff about the room freely and she watched him for a moment in amusement. She sat down with a tired sigh, pleased that the bed sunk beneath her weight comfortably, and pulled her boots off of her feet.
She glanced about the room, taking in all the books and knickknacks that had never been removed, and reached for Gene in the back of her mind. They couldn't communicate while she was awake just yet, though they had been working on it, but she could feel the faintest brush of emotions against the back of her mind. Happiness and comfort. He was glad to host her in his home, it would seem.
Naru appeared in the bathroom doorway and paused to watch her for a moment. When she had turned her eyes back to him he stepped forward and kissed the top of her head.
Mai smiled tiredly up at him before he said, "My room is right next door if you need anything."
Mai nodded in understanding and watched as the man left the room and quietly shut the door behind him. She sat for a moment longer before deciding to check out the bathtub while pondering Naru's odd behavior. She tried to recall if she had complained out loud, at some point, about his lack of affection but nothing came to mind. Maybe it had something to do with his research, she theorized tiredly, as he had stopped working on it after the day he had taken her out to lunch. Had that been his way of celebrating the completion of his project?
"You're rooms pretty cozy," Mai stated as she stepped out onto the astral plane in front of Gene.
"It's my batcave," Gene agreed with a laugh. He had shoved his hands into his pockets as she approached but he reached forward to give her a hug once she was within reach. It had been a few weeks since they had last seen each other, due to the lack of cases, and he had missed her smile. You got tired of speaking to a grumpier version of yourself after a while and Mai was the perfect remedy.
"The whole house is amazing," Mai continued as she stepped back, "It feels like my old home."
"I thought so too when we first moved in, I thought it was too good to be true," he murmured as he ruffled her hair. "Noll told me you guys have a big case coming up . . ." he trailed off imploringly.
"Yes," Mai chirped, "I'm just glad to be working again. I figured we had another important one coming up since Naru hadn't taken any back in Japan for a while. Have you seen the place? It looks like a forgotten fairytale."
"I know of it," Gene responded with a light frown, "I've got to be honest, I'm a little nervous about this one. I know the last one was no joke but . . ."
"Is it that bad?" Mai questioned nervously. She wrung her hands together while Gene spoke.
"It just feels . . .wrong? I went there once, on a dare, but I never went inside. People have gone missing there in the past. But it felt strange. Not exactly haunted, more like . . ." he trailed off again while he searched for the words, "More like a spider. Lying in wait."
Mai blanched and heaved a shaky sigh before she leveled him with a rueful look that only served to make him laugh. "On that confident note, I think I might try and get some actual sleep before we prance right into the lion's den," she muttered.
"It'll be alright, Mai, I'll be there with you every step of the way," Gene assured her with a kind smile.
Mai gave him another hug before she retreated into true sleep. Snuggled beneath the heavy comforter and swathed in the comfortable darkness of Gene's room, she felt more safe than she ever had before a case.
She didn't dream during her nap but it still took a few knocks on the door for Naru to wake her. She was just rolling over and attempting to hide under the covers when he opened the door with an annoyed furrow between his brows. Mai groaned as he stepped forward and rested a hand atop her head comfortingly.
"Come on, Mai, mother wants everyone downstairs for dinner," he said and sighed when she finally pulled the covers down to stare at him groggily. "You can sleep afterwards," he added temptingly.
Mai giggled as she pushed the covers off of her and sat up. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, Naru had just resorted to bribery to get her moving, and it tickled her. She dropped her hands onto the bed next to her while she tossed her gaze about in search of her suitcase.
Rocco slept on throughout their conversation, soft breaths tickling the comforter under his nose, while Naru scowled at the sight of the dog sleeping on the bed.
Naru glanced about before he pulled the suitcase out from under the bed and lifted it onto the comforter for Mai's convenience and in an effort to hurry the process along. "Just put on some jeans, Mother is rather casual at home," he advised and gave her figure a quick once over, noting that she had opted to wear pajama shorts and a t-shirt for a nap.
Mai yawned and nodded in response before lazily waving Naru away so that she could get changed.
Naru retreated from the room after leveling her with a warning look, daring her to try and go back to sleep, and she slid out of her shorts to replace them with a pair of leggings just to be spiteful. She pulled her baggy grey sweater back on over her head before padding out of the room in her socks with Rocco at her side to head downstairs. She allowed the distant chatter of the rest of the JSPR team to guide them to the kitchen where some had gathered.
"The sleepyhead has arisen," Luella exclaimed as Mai entered the room and laughed when the girl blushed lightly, before she stepped around the kitchen island and ushered Mai into the dining room. A large table took up the center of the room and almost everyone was already seated around it nursing cups of mulled wine or coffee.
Rocco's nose was going crazy as he took in all the new scents.
"Did you solve the case, Mai?" Yasuhara asked as she claimed a seat next to him. Rocco settled under the table at her feet quietly.
Mai scowled and resisted the urge to elbow him, "No, we haven't even gotten there yet!"
Yasu groaned and flopped back in his chair, "I was hoping we could walk right in, tell them what's what, and then spend the rest of the two weeks sightseeing."
"In your dreams," Ayako muttered from where she sat on the other side of the table.
"No, in Mai's dreams," Yasu shot back in mock confusion.
"That's how you get smacked, Yasu," Monk stage whispered.
Masako dropped her gaze to the table as Ayako seethed and John laughed nervously, attempting to dispel the rising anger. After a light nap, he seemed to be back in good spirits, while the rest of the group had just grown more obnoxious.
Naru sat down at the table next to his father, who was looking over some paperwork pertaining to the case, but made no comment on their behavior. There was no point. His parents had already been exposed to their unprofessionalism but had still deemed them worthy of the case. Naru saw no reason to try and keep them in check in his own home. At least they weren't in public.
Mai sighed quietly but turned as Luella entered the room carrying what looked like a pot roast and Madoka followed with a bowl of mashed potatoes in one arm and a bowl of salad in the other. The ladies worked to get everything sorted and at some point during their flurry of very much awake movement, Mai had found a glass of mulled wine in front of her. She reached for it hesitantly before taking a small sip and humming in pleasure. It was warm and tangy on her tongue and blossomed in her stomach.
"You can have one glass, but after that you get water," Ayako warned and Mai nodded with a cheesy grin.
Luella sat down at the other head of the table, next to Mai, and gave her a quick smile before she urged everyone to dig in. It was another flurry of movement while everyone served themselves and took their first bites of Luella's cooking.
It was amazing.
Mai hadn't had such a home cooked meal before, at least, not that she could recall. It was simple but the mashed potatoes were so buttery and smooth and the roast beef was packed with flavor. She wanted to keep eating even after she had cleaned her plate so filled it once more with salad while the others talked around her.
"It was delicious, Luella, thank you for cooking such a meal," John spoke up after he had finished. He had taken a moment to offer up a prayer before digging in like the others around him.
"You're all welcome, I've missed the energy you bring to the table, things have been quiet since we returned home and I was excited to hear you all would be coming to London," Luella responded. She paused for a moment, eyes cast down to her plate in thought, before she looked up and gave them all a smile.
She misses having children in the house, Mai thought, and knew it to be true. Just as she knew Naru would call the day he asked her to join him in reopening SPR. Without thought, she reached out to grip Luella's hand and smiled in support. "Maybe we can come over more often, make it a once a year thing, now that I'm not paying rent I can set aside money for it," Mai offered quietly.
"I would love that," Luella stage whispered and Mai chuckled.
"How have your abilities been progressing, Mai?" Martin spoke up from the other end of the table. He pulled the reading glasses from the bridge of his nose and set some of the papers aside to get a good look at her. Martin was a decent man, Mai knew, but he left her feeling rather uncomfortable on occasion. He was a true scientist but he often ignored social cues and would push for information where Naru, after years of working with Mai, had learned when to fall back. Still, he had been more than happy to work out a deal with Mai that still allowed her to live her life and enjoy her privacy.
"There hasn't been much to report," Naru answered curtly. It was obvious to those at the table that Naru did not feel it was a good time to push Mai for information when they had a large case to tackle tomorrow.
"I haven't had much of an opportunity to see just how much I'm capable of since our last case together," Mai spoke up after Naru, casting him a quirked brow for answering for her, before she turned back to Martin, "We haven't had anything too difficult since."
Martin hummed and pulled the papers back thoughtfully for further review. Mai rolled her eyes and shared an exasperated look with Luella before returning to her salad. It amazed her how much the two men were alike. All work and no play, with little concern for anything else. Mai was certain that even if they were brought along on an all-expense paid vacation on a secluded island without internet they would find some way to get some work done. They'd probably train seagulls to carry research papers back to BSPR.
Once the table was cleared and dishes were done, JSPR disbanded to their assigned sleeping arrangements, and the house fell silent once more. The quiet atmosphere was only broken every once and a while by hushed whispers and the squeaking of a floorboard or two as the more restless of the group settled. Mai listened to it all as she laid down in Gene's bed once more facing the ceiling. Little glow in the dark stars and planets had been carefully placed among the dark wood to imitate the darkness of space and she wondered how often Gene had stayed up at night, eyes flicking between the small pinpricks of left over light, waiting for sleep to take him away into his dreams.
She was so nervous about the upcoming case that she was finding it hard to close her eyes, fearful of what dreams she would witness, as she was certain they would not be the pleasant disjointed recollection of information gathered throughout the day.
She really did feel as if they were about to walk into the lion's den and she worried it would be the one case SPR did not return from, solved or not.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the quiet creak of the bedroom door and she gripped the edge of the comforter, frozen in paranoia, before she let out a relieved sigh at the sight of Naru. He held a candle in his hand as he slipped into the room and shut the door behind him. Mai quirked a curious brow, not that she was unhappy to see him, but confused as to why he had chosen to visit her in the dead of night with a candle as if he himself were a ghost from years long past.
Rocco lifted his head from where he laid, curled by Mai's feet, and whined with a wag of his tail.
Naru set the candle down on the bedside table before he settled at the edge of the bed with a sigh and clasped his hands together in a clinical but thoughtful pose.
"What's wrong?" Mai asked worriedly. She shuffled into a more elevated position so that she could get a better look at him in the provided candle light. He looked tired, but then again, he had looked tired for a long while and she doubted a day of travel would do him any good in catching up on rest.
Naru turned his head to look back at her, eyes searching in that cold and logical way of his, before he reached over to grip one of her hands in his. His skin was cold to the touch but it soon warmed with her provided body heat as he seemed to gather his thoughts.
"I wanted to apologize for my behavior after we returned from America," he began quietly and turned to look back at the carpet beneath his feet, "I didn't mean to make you feel as if my feelings had diminished in any way . . ."
Mai's brows furrowed in confusion but she twisted their hands together to interlace their fingers.
"Social norms and physical contact have never been my strong suite," he continued with a grimace, "That was always Gene's area."
Mai gasped, causing the man to lift his eyes to her in confusion, before she grinned mischievously and said: "The great Naru admitting his flaws? I never thought I would see the day."
Naru scowled and turned away from her, "It is not a flaw, merely something I do not yet have a suitable amount of experience in."
"That sounds more like you," Mai drawled dryly before she laughed.
Naru smirked but lifted his other hand to rub at his mouth in an effort to hide it from view. It was almost as bad as Masako with her kimono sleeve.
"I know you don't like physical contact all that much, Naru, you don't have to apologize," Mai assured him gently, her eyes flicking about the profile of his face, before she smiled and ran a thumb across the back of his hand in an effort to reassure him.
"I don't mind physical contact," he corrected quietly, "I've just never had much of it."
Mai tightened her hold on his hand and offered him a reassuring smile even while her heart wept at his statement. His childhood and abilities prevented him from having many opportunities of physical affection, she understood, but was glad he was making the effort with her.
Naru pushed himself to his feet and moved over towards the towering bookshelf in the room while he scanned the titles of the various volumes that lined its shelves. His fingers hovered over each book before they settled on one and he pulled it from its nestled nook smoothly and turned back to the bed to reclaim his seat. Sensing what he was attempting to do, Mai scooted over on the bed until her back nearly touched the wall. Naru leaned back against the pillows and headboard, legs crossed at the ankle above the comforter, and lifted an arm for her to move up under it. Mai complied with a blushing grin and rested her head on his chest while he settled his arm around her shoulders and flipped the book open to a dog eared page with his other hand.
"I need to breath, Mai," he commented dryly.
Mai loosened her arms around him with a suffering sigh.
He wanted to read by candlelight, she thought with a giggle before she shut her eyes against the gently flickering light and listened to the sound of his heart beating beneath her ear. It was steady and reassuring and the combined warmth of their bodies eased her mind like nothing else could. She pulled the comforter up to her ear as his gentle breathing lulled her into a light doze, fears of the upcoming case forgotten for a moment, while his eyes skimmed through the words before him but struggled to process the information. He was too focused on the gentle warmth on his chest and the softness of her breathing.
It was nerve-racking and new but he could not deny the calmness it instilled upon the storm ridden sea that was his heart. The clouds were still there but the waves dwindled to gentle ripples and the torrential downpour that bled the horizon together slowed to a drizzle.
He took a breath and dropped the book onto the bed.
"Will you stay?"
Mai's eyes shot open and found early morning light spilling in through the large windows. It illuminated the bedroom in soft grey light and crawled across the comforter delicately until it stopped just above her head. The room was quiet and, based off of the lack of any other noise from the house itself, she assumed that everyone was still asleep or just in the process of dragging themselves back into the waking world as she was. She took a moment to enjoy the light morning air, rife with the smell of books and freshly laundered sheets, and filled her lungs while her mind processed the words that had filtered in through her mind in her sleep. They had sounded so real that she had expected a woman to be standing right over the bed. But there was no one.
But then the surface beneath her shifted and the arm around her shoulders tightened momentarily and she blushed.
Naru had come in to read last night, and she had fallen asleep, and now it was brought to her attention that he had as well.
She didn't want to move. She could not recall ever being so comfortable in her life and the only thing she could compare that moment to was being held in her mother's arms as a child. She felt safe and warm and the sleepiness that still clung to her body melded her to Naru's side like hot glue. Judging by his soft breaths, he was still asleep, and she was loathe to wake him when he had gotten so little rest recently.
She closed her eyes again and let the quiet of the early morning lull her back into a doze while her mind wandered back to the words that had slipped through her dreams. It had been such a sad voice, filled with so much loneliness, that her heart ached with the need to comfort whoever had spoken. "Will you stay?" was such a desperate question when punctuated with the sound of a tight throat filled with emotions. It had warbled and petered out, like the person had been crying, and begging for someone not to leave them. Someone who didn't want to be alone. . . Something that she was painfully familiar with as she struggled with her mother's death alone.
She opened her eyes to find Naru leaning over her, a hand resting upon her cheek with his fingers splayed through her hair, and a furrowed brow. "You were crying," he stated simply and ran a thumb beneath her eye.
"Oh," she mumbled and lifted a hand from under the covers to wipe at her other eye curiously.
"Did you have a dream already?" he asked lowly as he analyzed her face in the morning light.
"Not really," she pondered aloud, "It was just a voice . . . It could have been anything."
"What did it say?" he continued patiently. Perhaps he was enjoying the moment of being curled around the only woman he had allowed himself to have any feelings for while locked away from any possible witnesses. But he doubted he would ever be able to bring himself to voice such a feeling and it would stay locked away within his chest along with any other vulnerable emotions.
"She asked 'Will you stay?'" she answered hesitantly and lifted her eyes from his collarbone to meet his cobalt stare.
Naru hummed thoughtfully before he pushed himself up into a sitting position and ran a hand through his hair. He had slipped his shoes off at some point in the night and wrapped his legs around Mai's when she had presumably kicked the blankets off of her feet due to the heat. He let out a low groan as his back protested against sleeping in Gene's overly soft bed. He straightened his back and rolled his shoulders to relieve some of the built up tension.
"We'll get a better idea of what we're dealing with today once we get to the property," he muttered as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, "We'll be staying there since they were able to finish updating the electric and plumbing."
Mai watched him and listened as he spoke but she had slowly been pulling the comforters up over her face as her blush intensified. She had never gotten such an intimate moment with Naru before and watching him as he went through the process of waking up (out of the bed they slept in together!) was mind boggling. His hair was mussed, voice gruff, and eyes lidded while the last vestiges of sleep were desperately hanging on, begging him to get more rest.
"Get packed up and meet down in the foyer in an hour," he instructed her and stood to shuffle back into his room with shoes in hand.
Mai heaved a sigh, lifting her hands into the air over her head, before she dropped them back down onto the bed in exasperation. The peace and surreal morning was shattered with the prospect of work. But at least she enjoyed her job and the people she worked with. She rolled over on the bed, burying her face in a pillow, and wondered if she would be able to work up the will to pull herself from its warmth in time to avoid any scathing comments from her boss.
Ayako was the picture of perfection as Mai shuffled down the stairs pulling her suitcase behind her. With a good night's rest she had put herself back in order and the casual but professional skirt and blouse she wore were at odds with Mai's jeans, tank top, and baggy sweater with boots. But more importantly, her mood had done a one eighty and she greeted her with a warm smile as she approached.
"How did you sleep?" she asked as Monk stepped forward to ruffle her hair teasingly.
"I slept well . . ." Mai stammered nervously while a blush crept across her face. If only they knew . . .
Ayako quirked a brow and looked as if she was about to open her mouth to question her further but was interrupted as Yasuhara appeared and sleepily flung an arm over Mai's shoulders. Mai stumbled under the surprise onslaught but laughed as the man groaned and threatened to slide to the floor.
"I didn't sleep a wink," Yasu muttered and straightened before adjusting his glasses. "I wanted to get a head start on research and accidentally slipped down the rabbit hole," he explained, causing Ayako to lift a brow while Monk snorted. "I know of all the local cryptids now, don't hesitate to ask."
John smiled but there was no hiding the sigh that escaped him as he shifted his bag on his shoulder.
"The majority of that information will not be used for this case, but it is good to know that your attention is so easily derailed, Yasuhara, so that I may better manage you," Naru muttered coldly as he descended the stairs with a rolling suitcase behind him. He ran a hand through still damp hair and with the way the morning light fell through the window behind him, he looked like a model.
Mai rolled her eyes and turned away while Yasuhara laughed and rubbed the back of his head, "You wound me, boss man, but feel free to manage me however you want."
Naru deemed the statement unworthy of a response and walked over to Lin, in the process of discussing the best route to take to get to the location, when Luella swept into the room wearing a floral dress with a cream cardigan and a wistful smile. She pulled Naru into a hug and the man only spared her the briefest of pats on the shoulder while he continued speaking. Luella seemed unfazed as she turned to the rest of the group and clapped her hands.
"Just so you all are aware, BSPR will be hosting a gala this Saturday, and you all are more than welcome to attend. It's a bit of a graduation ceremony for all those studying parapsychology who will be staying on to research with us," Luella informed them cheerily and made sure to look them each in the eye as she spoke.
Masako lifted a sleeve to her mouth and said, "I would be honored to attend. I hope my usual attire will suffice."
"Of course! It is a formal event so your kimonos would be perfect," Luella assured her.
Mai blanched and turned wide eyes onto Monk. The two of them were the scruffier of the group, usually choosing to dress in jeans and t-shirts, as they owned little else. Monk grimaced before offering her a helpless shrug. She guessed they would be crossing that bridge when they came to it but she did not foresee them having time to go shopping for formal attire during their investigation. It would have been nice if Naru had told them beforehand, she thought irritably, and glanced over at the man from the corner of her eye.
"You all were sent an email containing the information," Naru's voice wrung out clinically.
Everyone cast their minds back to recall if they had seen such an email and Yasu was the first to laugh while the others rubbed their necks and kicked at the floorboards shamefully. In Mai's defense, she didn't have a laptop and she was still struggling with her smartphone, so she had not even thought to check her email when Naru so rarely sent anything out to them.
She blamed Yasuhara. He was always on his laptop. He could have told her.
Ayako nudged her as they filed out of the house and into the rainy day, "Don't worry, Mai, I'll take you shopping when Naru's not looking."
Mai giggled conspiringly while her boots crunched over the gravel driveway to where there were now two BSPR vans parked and idling. All of their personal belongings were shoved into one car, along with themselves, while Madoka climbed into the van that housed all of the equipment they would be utilizing. As Naru had mentioned to them back in Japan, this was going to be the largest property they had investigated to date, and they had double the amount of equipment to cover it all. The perks of working directly for BSPR was the practically unlimited supply of cameras and microphones at their disposal. Being able to get their hands on all of the latest tech certainly helped a bunch too.
As they all settled within the vans, Mai couldn't help the bubble of excitement that grew in her stomach, because she had the distinct impression that there would be a lot of fun to be had during this trip regardless of whether or not Naru approved. Due to the size of the property, Naru estimated that it would take them two weeks to resolve everything, but they would be taking a break to attend a party? That was certainly a first and not something Mai would pass up.
"I don't want to wear a suit," Monk grumbled from the back of the Van while Ayako scrolled through her phone, already looking through local store's websites for suitable clothing, and it caused Mai to chuckle.
"Too bad," Ayako shot back dryly, eyes focused on her phone.
"What if we just wore our work attire?" John questioned curiously from just behind Yasuhara.
"You want to show up to a party in all our religious wears?" Monk questioned irritably.
"Then everyone would flock to us with questions and I don't want to run the risk of stains," Ayako murmured absently as her eyes alighted on a possible option for Monk.
"I guess you're right," John sighed and glanced down at his jeans forlornly. He didn't exactly have the funds for a nice suit at the moment, given that they had not taken a case in so long, and Naru only paid him as a consultant per case.
"Naru, what if we don't have the money to go shopping?" Mai questioned quietly and John felt a rush of gratitude towards her for choosing to speak up where he would have chosen to suffer through it and figure it out himself.
Naru was scanning through his black notebook but spoke up in response, "I'd be willing to provide you all with payment in advance if that would help."
There was a collective sigh of relief from John, Mai, and Yasuhara.
"I'm gonna buy a sparkly suit," Yasuhara murmured jokingly, causing the rest in the van to laugh, though Ayako only scowled in annoyance.
"As long as it's professional," Naru drawled absently.
Lin could not resist the smirk that pulled at his lips and snorted.
"Lin's first laugh on this case, someone mark it down! I want to keep track," Yasuhara exclaimed.
"You're the one with the laptop, Yasu," Monk said with a bark of laughter.
"Hehe, now I get to be just like Lin, keeping secret notes on everyone in my laptop," the young man muttered as he pulled said computer from the bag by his feet mischievously. Mai shook her head as he opened a document, true to his word, and marked down the momentous event triumphantly.
All the while Lin sighed and studiously ignored the faint amusement he felt radiating from his charge. Naru was probably just happy not to be their primary target for a change.
The drive passed in relative silence from that point on. Some muffled conversations still took place but they did not rise above the level of calm that had fallen over the vehicle as Lin expertly navigated the streets of London and then the continuing countryside. Naru had given up on studying his black book and had rested his cheek against a fist, eyes vacant as the scenery passed him by, and Lin was quietly hoping that some of the more rambunctious of the group had fallen asleep.
"I don't mean to be that person," a low voice spoke up from the back and Lin sighed, knowing full well that person was going to be that person, "But, are we there yet?"
Lin lifted his eye to the heavens above while Naru seemed to ignore the question all together.
"No, Yasuhara-san, we are not there yet," Lin answered shortly. Was the steering wheel bending under his grip? He wasn't sure. But after an hour of driving with their ragtag group, he was reaching his limit.
"Hey, Yasu," Monk called from the very back.
"Yes, my love?" Yasu sang back with a loving smile sent of his shoulder.
"What's your favorite London Cryptid?" Monk continued with a twitch of his brow and a strained smile.
Lin thanked the heavens for the gift that was Takigawa Housho and his ability to read a room and not just the spirits that may inhabit it.
Mai leaned forward in her seat and her head hit the back of Lin's with a gentle thud. It seemed that she was at her limit as well.
It was another twenty minutes before Lin turned off of the small winding road and onto a gravel path that cut through wild forest and spat them out into a sprawling clearing that spread over several hundred acres. Flush against the line of trees in the distance was the largest Victorian palace, for that was the only word Mai could think to use to describe it, she had ever seen in her entire life picture or otherwise. She gripped Lin's seat as she leaned forward between the two men with wide eyes and open mouth. The photo that Naru had provided them all did the place little justice. Tall towers on either end of the building reached for the sky while nature threatened to reclaim what was once taken from it, vines crept up stone walls and chimneys, looking as if the mansion had simply grown up from out of the ground like any mountain. Sprawling pools and fountains among overgrown hedges and trees decorated the front of the property, loaning it that haunting quality abandoned theme parks echoed with.
"Holy shit," Monk whispered in awe as the vehicles came to a stop on the gravel driveway just in front of the main doors. The doors themselves stood nearly fifteen feet tall and were carved out of dark wood with intricate patterns chiseled into their surface.
"I don't know if two weeks will be enough," Yasu murmured with his face pressed up against the window before he recalled that they had come to a stop and pulled the handle on the door to climb out into the light drizzle that had begun to fall.
Mai hung back as everyone else filed out of the van and pulled their luggage along behind them. She was scared. Not due to any overwhelming presence that was reaching out to her, but due to the fact that she now completely understood Gene's statement. As the front doors were pushed open by the caretaker of the mansion, she felt as if it was the maw of a beast, yawning wide to swallow them whole. She gripped the driver's seat in front of her as her fingers trembled in apprehension and the rest of JSPR gathered around the caretaker to speak with him casually. Masako hung back, kimono sleeve held to her nose, and lifted her face to take in the height of the mansion before she turned back to meet eyes with Mai. She shook her head slightly.
Masako didn't sense anything.
Mai looked to Rocco, who was seated at her feet though his head was still level with hers, but the irish wolfhound was panting lightly while his nose twitched and tail wagged. He seemed ready to go explore their new location.
She jumped at Naru's voice and found the man waiting, one hand in his pocket, as the rest of JSPR was led inside by the caretaker. She unbuckled her seatbelt and guided Rocco out onto the driveway while struggling to pull her suitcase behind her. Ever the cold gentleman, Naru stepped forward to take Rocco's leash from her while she fully exited the van and pulled the door shut behind her.
"Sorry," she muttered before she reclaimed Rocco's leash from Naru, their fingers brushing against each other, and taking small comfort with the warmth that kindled in her stomach.
Naru reached for her as she pulled away, gripping her upper arm gently, and pulled her back to face him. "Did you sense something?" he asked quietly.
Mai bit her lip and glanced back at the door where she could just make out Monk's back as they were led through the grand foyer. She lifted her eyes to meet Naru's once more and mumbled: "Gene said he felt like this place was like a spider, waiting in its web, and I can't help but feel like he was right."
Naru quirked a brow, the slightest wrinkle of confusion between his eyes, before he tightened his hold on her arm momentarily. "Masako doesn't sense anything evil . . ." he murmured as they walked forward together at a slow pace.
"Rocco doesn't either," Mai admitted and glanced down at the dog as he padded along at her side. They passed through the doorway and Rocco sniffed the air before pulling at Mai's arm in the direction of the distant voices of JSPR. Monk and Ayako were arguing playfully in hushed tones and Masako was making a light, but volatile, comment. "But I feel like we were just swallowed by the beast," Mai murmured nervously as she glanced back at the doorway before leveling Naru with a wide eyed and pleading expression.