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The Ghost of Giffords Library

Chapter Text

Prologue

 

Ask Mai Taniyama how she chose which country to study abroad in, and the only answer she could give was "intuition."

Having never traveled outside of Japan before in her life, and unlikely to see another such opportunity in the foreseeable future, Mai was at first overwhelmed by the choice before her. A semester abroad. Her one chance to travel and experience a different culture. Where would she go...?

She had no particular favorite, but that wasn't to say she wasn't interested. In fact, every country looked so interesting and worthwhile that she couldn't possibly choose between them. Mai had spent hours pouring over brochures. Considering her concentration in English, it only made sense to go to an English-speaking country, but that still meant choosing between the likes of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, the Philippines, and more. How was she supposed to choose?

In the end, Mai went with her gut. She had been wavering back and forth between the US and UK for nearly a week, but at the very last minute, something within her screamed: America! America!

And that's how she wound up at an university just outside of Boston, with a quiet, laid-back suburban campus, close enough to the city that she could easily go sight-seeing on weekends. So far, despite the jetlag, Mai had managed to successfully move into her dorm and gone through orientation. And tomorrow, classes would finally start.

But now, she was having second thoughts. Spring semester began in January, and as she was beginning to find out, New England winters were blistering. She'd been here only a few days now, and already there had been a snow storm, effectively bringing her sightseeing plans to a halt. Today, she'd only managed to visit the dining hall and grocery store before freezing winds forced her to take shelter in her dorm room for the rest of the day.

But it wasn't only the weather that discouraged her. Mai had to admit, she was feeling overwhelmed. Everyone here spoke so fast, it was hard to keep up, making her feel stupid whenever she tried talking to someone. And the thought of taking classes entirely in English intimidated her.

She ought to be excited. She had dreamt of this for so long, had saved up for it, working two part-time jobs and studying her butt off to make the grades. She'd only just gotten here...so then why did she suddenly want to go home?

Curled up in bed, Mai sighed. It must be the culture shock setting in. She felt a little pathetic being homesick so soon, but she couldn't deny that right now, she just really wanted to hear a familiar voice.

She supposed that, at times like this, most people would call their family. Since she didn't have that option, Mai decided to try ringing her friends. It was morning in Japan right now. Maybe she'd be able to catch someone before they left for school or work.

After trying a few numbers, someone finally picked up. "Hello?"

"Hi, Keiko! Guess who's calling?"

"Mai? Oh my gosh, is that you? You're calling from America right now?!"

"That's right! Good ole U.S. of A!"

Keiko let out a small squeal, before quickly lowering her voice. "Oh, sorry, forgot I was on a train..."

Mai laughed. "Mind having a chat during your commute?"

There were the expected questions. What's it like over there? How are you adjusting? Are the food portions really that big? Are you ready for your first class? And...

"So...met any cute American boys yet?"

Mai snorted. "Saving that for last, were you?"

"No, seriously! Go find yourself a foreign boyfriend! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, Mai! You've gotta take full advantage of it!"

"That's not why I'm here, though!" Mai groaned.

"Oh, come on. It might do you some good. Like maybe help you get over Daidouji-kun."

Mai huffed. "There's nothing to get over, Keiko. He's ancient history."

"But you haven't dated anyone else!"

"I just haven't found anyone I like. Besides, I'm trying to focus on school now..."

Keiko scoffed. "Since when did you become such a serious student? Relax! Go to some parties! Have a fling with a hot guy! Enjoy your youth!"

"Keiko! I'm trying to be a responsible adult here!" Mai laughed.

"Mai," Keiko sighed, turning serious, "I'm only telling you this because someone's got to. I know you have it rough, but don't forget to have fun too, alright?"

Mai smiled, tears in her eyes. "Okay. Thanks, Keiko."

"Oh, here's my stop. I've gotta go. It was great hearing from you, Mai! Good luck and stay safe!"

After she hung up the phone, Mai lay back in bed, suddenly contemplative.

Keiko was right. This was her one chance to live and learn in a foreign country. She had to make the most of it. So what if the weather was lousy or her English wasn't perfect, she would adjust. And as for her loneliness, she would just have to make new friends, among the other visiting students and local students too. That was all part of the experience.

Mai nodded to herself. And why not attend a party or two? It couldn't hurt. Even better if she found someone to go with...

She stared up at the ceiling. "A cute American boy, huh...?"

Actually, there was someone...well technically, they hadn't really met. She wasn't even sure if he was real or just a figment of her imagination, but...

Since the day she'd arrived here, she kept seeing him in her dreams. A teenage boy. She couldn't quite recall his face now, but she was sure it wasn't anyone she'd met before. Or at least remembered meeting.

He never did anything noteworthy. He always just stood in the background, watching her silently. Most of the time she hardly took notice of him, but once or twice their eyes had met, and he'd smiled at her.

Who was he? Why did he keep appearing in her dreams? Maybe he was someone she'd seen at the airport, who for some reason had become burned into her subconscious. Or something like that.

Whatever. Real or not, he was too young for her anyway. Shaking her head at that silly thought, Mai cracked open one of her text books. Stupid jetlag. Hopefully reading about classic literature would put her to sleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

 

January

Friday

 

Mai's first week of classes went by in a whirlwind of snow and syllabuses. The weather hadn't let up, but she only had to travel around campus, so it wasn't so bad (putting aside the numerous times she'd slipped on icy sidewalks). The classes themselves weren't too bad either, but then again, they'd only just started. She was already fearing next week, when her first assignment would be due.

Mai knew she would have to put at least twice as much time and effort into her work than usual just to keep up. So much for going to parties and so forth; she prepared herself for long hours holed up in the campus library.

Might as well get a head start, she thought. So when her afternoon class was over, Mai headed over there at once.

When she first saw Giffords Library, a large, stately red brick building with white columns at the entrance, Mai had a rather romantic impression of it; she pictured leather chairs, ornate lamps, and antique mahogany desks.

Inside, it was much more modern and ordinary. There were computers, and students sat at unremarkable wooden tables with hard wooden chairs that hurt your butt after an hour of sitting in them. As far as she could tell, the only thing that set it apart from other libraries was how drafty the place was. More than once, Mai would be sitting or wandering among the shelves when she'd feel a sudden chill in the air, even when she was nowhere near the windows or entrance. And she wasn't the only one who felt it; she noticed people tended to keep their coats on in here.

But Mai had no time to mourn the loss of her idealistic dream. She had work to do. She'd already compiled a list of books she might use for researching her first assignment, and quickly set about finding them.

It was when she was looking for the last book on her list that it happened. She'd spotted the book on a high shelf, beyond her reach. Bemoaning her petite stature, Mai looked around for a footstool, and seeing none, looked around again to make sure no one saw her use the bottom shelf as a step ladder.

Putting one foot on the shelf, Mai hoisted herself up and reached for the book. It was still just out of reach of her fingertips. She stretched her arm and got on tiptoes. It was so close. If she could just...

Wait. Did the book just wriggle? Mai stared up at it, open-mouthed, but it had ceased moving. Dismissing it as a trick of her imagination, Mai reached for it again. But this time...

WHOOSH.

The book shot out of its place on the shelf as if it were a rabbit scared out of its hiding place.

Mai gasped in surprise, and at the same time, her foot slipped off the shelf, causing her to stumble backwards and fall ungracefully onto her butt.

The next second, she heard a loud creak. Mai looked up to see the bookcase teetering over her.

"No..."

But then, just as suddenly, the bookcase jolted back upright, with such force that all of its books immediately became dislodged. Mai had only enough time to shriek and cover her head before the heavy books came tumbling down on top of her in a dusty avalanche.

Seconds passed, and the number of falling books dwindled to two, then one, then silence. The dust began to settle. Mai opened her eyes and coughed. She was buried in a pile of books, but she was alive.

"Oww..."

As she groaned, Mai heard a pair of footsteps rapidly approaching, and then a breathless male voice addressed her in English.

"Are you okay?"

In a daze, Mai tried to think of a reply that was at least half-way intelligible. But all words, English or otherwise, failed her when she looked up at her rescuer.

He looked to be around her age or older, with pale skin, jet black hair, and striking dark blue eyes with long eyelashes. He wore a green turtleneck sweater over black slacks, the combination of which accentuated his tall, thin frame.

He also happened to be drop-dead handsome.

Seeing her struggle to speak, the man furrowed his eyebrows and tried again. Only this time, he asked in Japanese. "Are you hurt?"

Mai just gaped at him.

Could anyone blame her for being a little stunned? After all, within the span of a minute or two, she had nearly been crushed by a huge bookcase, pummeled by a barrage of books, and now out of nowhere this gorgeous guy was speaking to her in Japanese.

But maybe she was trying his patience now, because a stony expression slid over his fine features. "Do you have brain damage?" he deadpanned, again in Japanese.

"E-eh?" Mai finally croaked. "Do you mean me?" By reflex, she found herself replying in Japanese too.

He sighed. "I'm certainly not asking the ghost."

"Gh-ghost?"

"Yes. This library is haunted."

Mai stared. Was he joking? But his face was completely serious...

The man held out his hand to her. Automatically, Mai took it and he pulled her to her feet. Once she was standing, he gave her a quick look over with his eyes, then crossed his arms expectedly, as if to say, 'Don't make me ask again.'

"O-oh, yes, I'm fine," Mai stammered. She felt sore all over, but wasn't in any real pain. "Bruised, but not broken," she smiled wryly.

"Good." He turned away at once and began picking up the dislodged books and shelving them. After a second of hesitation, Mai started to help, feeling somewhat responsible. But as soon as she'd picked up a book, he took it from her hands.

He worked quickly, barely even looking at the covers before putting the books back on the shelves. He seemed to know exactly where each one should go...did he have them all memorized?

Mai watched, mesmerized, as his long, thin fingers slid the books smoothly into their rightful places. And the way he stooped to pick up more books and straightened to shelve them- a movement that might look awkward on some, but he managed to pull it off with a natural grace.

Totally ridiculous. No one needed to look that good shelving books.

Mai shook her head, realizing that she was staring. But then a book he held in his hand caught her eye.

"Oh! That's the book I was looking for!"

He paused.

Mai reached for it, but then froze, recalling what had caused all this. "That book...it was so weird...it flew out of the shelf like it was alive or something." She gulped. "And then the bookcase...I don't know what happened. It lost balance, and then it suddenly righted itself..."

He probably wouldn't believe her. She would find it hard to believe herself if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes and the bruises to prove it.

"That sort of thing isn't so uncommon here," he said calmly.

Mai looked up at him, eyes wide. "Wait, do you mean..." her voice fell to a hush, remembering what he'd said earlier, "...it was a ghost that did it?"

"Most likely."

A shiver ran down her spine. A number of popular horror movies ran through her mind. Oh, god. Was it trying to kill her? Was she cursed?

But as if he could read her mind, the man shook his head. "I don't think he meant any harm."

"Eh?"

"He was probably only trying to help you reach the book." He frowned at it. "He was just clumsy about it."

"Okay...?" That sounded like an awfully considerate ghost. Was he just trying to make her feel better? But he did seem oddly knowledgeable about it... "Have you...actually seen this ghost?"

"No. I don't see spirits. But my brother does, and he has assured me that the spirit haunting this library is harmless. So don't worry."

Mai was taken aback by this assertion. Usually, when people claimed such things, they liked to brag about it (a certain girl from high school came to mind). But the way he said it, he didn't seem to think it was a big deal at all. Well, he did say it was his brother, not he himself. She wasn't sure if that made him more or less credible though.

"Harmless, huh..." Mai said dubiously, looking at the books on the floor.

"...Accidents happen."

Still, Mai shuddered. Good intentions or not, that still meant a ghost had been standing right next to her when she reached for that book. She rubbed her arms, suddenly feeling cold.

The young man sighed. "I give you my word. This ghost will not hurt you again."

"Really?" Mai looked into his deep blue eyes. Honestly, she didn't know how far she could trust him. But right now...she got the feeling he was being sincere.

"Yes." He hefted the book in his hand. "Now do you still want this or not?"

"Oh! Yeah...thanks."

He handed it to her, and Mai inspected the book. Thankfully, there weren't any ghostly fingerprints or blood or anything of that sort. The cover felt a little warm, but otherwise it was totally normal.

Mai smiled up at him, feeling a little better. Alright. She would believe him, for now.

"My name is Taniyama Mai, by the way. I'm studying abroad for the semester. I'm from Japan."

"Yes, that much is obvious," he muttered, turning his attention back to the shelves.

She winced, but went on. "Are you from Japan?"

"No."

"Have you ever visited?"

"Never."

"Well, your Japanese is really good! You sound almost fluent. Does someone in your family speak Japanese?"

This time he didn't answer, going from one word answers to complete silence. Mai wondered if she'd offended him in some way. She decided to change the subject.

"Speaking of ghosts, my friends and I used to love telling ghost stories. When we were in high school, we'd hang out in the AV room after hours telling each other stories, hoping a ghost might show up if we did. I don't think we ever saw one, but it was still pretty fun."

As she talked, the man finished shelving and began to walk away. Mai followed after him.

"Oh, but there was this abandoned school building on campus that was supposed to be haunted. A girl in my class said it was, anyway, and there were all these stories about it. I heard the principal even hired some exorcists to cleanse it. But then one day, right in the middle of classes, the whole thing just came down. It just fell apart. It was really something. We never found out what the cause was, but it really freaked everyone out..."

The man suddenly stopped in his tracks. "Listen," he sighed, looking back at her. "Do you need something?"

Mai blinked, caught off guard. "Um, no, not really..."

"Then why are you still talking to me?"

Then without another word, he turned and strode away, leaving her frozen on the spot.

If she said she wasn't hurt, she would be lying. Mai was the only Japanese student here, so she hadn't heard a word of the language since her call with Keiko early in the week. Suddenly finding another fluent speaker had been comforting, and he'd seemed nice enough at first, so...

Maybe she had gotten a little carried away. He didn't seem the type to want to strike up a conversation with a stranger. He'd checked if she was injured and put away the books; wasn't that enough?

But still...he didn't have to say it like that! She was only being friendly, after all. He could have just said he was busy or something. Talk about rude.

Mai frowned at his retreating back.

"...Jerk."

 


 

That evening, when Mai looked at herself in the shower, she cringed. With all the bruises she'd attained at the library, along with the bruises she'd already accumulated from slipping on ice outside, a good fifty percent of her body was turning black and blue. If anyone saw her like this, they might think she was being abused.

She groaned. This was probably going to hurt a lot more tomorrow...

But Mai soldiered on. Some girls from one of her classes had invited her to their study group that night, and she wasn't going to miss it. They'd seemed really nice, and Mai was hoping she could become friends with them.

She had a quick dinner and arrived at the small campus cafe just in time. The girls- Kendra, Liz, and Allison- were already there with their books out, and waved at her as she came in. After ordering a hot cocoa, Mai joined them at their table, nervous but eager.

Since classes had just started, there wasn't much to study yet, so they talked about their first assignment and chapters of the textbook they'd read so far. Then they asked her about Japan, and Mai haltingly described life in her country. They listened patiently, and by the end, Mai was feeling proud of herself for managing to sound coherent.

And then, all too quickly, the conversation steered towards that of a more gossipy nature.

Now it was Mai's turn to listen, as the girls talked about the lives of their friends and acquaintances since the start of Winter Break. The pace of the conversation sped up as they became more enthused, and with the people in question all being unfamiliar to her, Mai's attention began to drift.

She sipped at her hot cocoa and glanced out the window. It was snowing again, though thankfully only light snowflakes this time. In the distance, she could see the lights of Giffords Library glimmering in the darkness. Before today, she would have thought it looked picturesque; now it was just spooky.

"What's wrong, Mai? Something on your mind?"

"Yeah, you keep zoning out."

Mai snapped to attention at her name, mentally adding 'zoning out' to the list of phrases she'd have to look up later. "It's not a big deal," she said, shaking her head.

"Are you sure? We're not boring you, are we?"

Truthfully, yes. But she wasn't about to say that out loud, so instead she asked what had been on her mind. "Is it true that the library is haunted?"

They blinked at her.

"Oh, yeah. You noticed?"

"Not everyone does. It isn't obvious unless you spend a lot of time in there."

"I used to study there during my first semester..." Liz shuddered. "Never again. Place gives me the creeps."

"Tell me about it. I saw a chair move by itself once. Scared the crap out of me."

After what Mai had experienced, a chair moving didn't sound like such a big deal. She wondered if she was the only one who had such a big incident happen to her in her first week.

"But he told me it was harmless..."

"Who?"

"Oh, a guy I met at the library today. He was..." Mai pursed her lips, trying to think how to describe him, "...interesting."

The girls exchanged glances.

"Was he handsome?"

"And aloof?"

"And really rude?"

Mai nodded. Apparently he was well known. "Is he a student?"

Kendra scoffed. "Nah, he just works as a Library Assistant." The girls exchanged glances again, smirking. "But we like to call him the Ghost of Giffords Library."

Mai blinked, astonished. "He's the ghost?"

For a moment, she wondered if it was true. After all, he was right there when the accident occurred. But no, he'd felt solid enough...

Liz grinned. "Because he's so pale, you know?"

"And they say the hauntings have gotten worse since he started working there."

"I've never seen him leave the place, either."

"I think he lives there, like the Hunchback of Notre Dame."

"Well I heard he dropped out of high school. God knows how he even got the job. I thought they only hired students for that position, but he's not in any classes."

By now Mai had realized that they were only joking about the ghost thing. Relieved, she sipped her cocoa while the other girls continued to gossip.

"You know what I think?" Allison said. "He's some kind of savant- you know, someone who's a genius at one thing but crap at everything else? Or he's on the autism spectrum."

Liz snickered. "Is that your professional opinion, Miss Psych Major?"

"It's just a theory, okay? It might explain how he got hired. Maybe he's related to one of the school's higher-ups?"

"He has a brother," Mai said abruptly, remembering. "He said he sees ghosts."

They stared at her for a few seconds before bursting into laughter.

"Really? He said that?"

"So he's into that kinda stuff, huh?"

"I told you, he's got an obsessive compulsive thing going on! I bet he spends all day reading up on the occult and lurking around trying to catch ghosts."

They laughed harder. "I can totally see that!"

But Mai frowned at their laughter. This really didn't sit well with her. Taking a deep breath, she said slowly, "So you'll say the library is haunted, and call him a ghost, but then you'll make fun of him for daring to believe in ghosts?"

They stopped laughing. An uncomfortable silence fell on the table.

"...Jeez, Mai, we're only joking around."

"Yeah, you don't have to be so serious."

"Besides, you can't blame us for wanting to pick on him, Mai," Kenda explained. "We've all approached him, at one point or another- with his looks, how can you not?- but he's shut us all down. And he's really brutal about it too. It's like he judges you for everything you are...actually, it's like he can see right through you." She shuddered. "It's kinda creepy, actually."

"You know what, I've been thinking...maybe he's gay? That would explain it, right?"

"Hmm, I don't know...he's turned down guys too."

"What? Seriously?"

"Where'd you heard that?"

Liz bit her lip, trying and failing not to break into a grin. "...Jerry totally asked him out before Winter Break."

This got them all talking at once.

"Oh my god, no way!"

"I need more details on this. Like burning."

"You'll have to ask him," Liz giggled. "He refused to say anything. He did look really put out by it though!"

More giggles.

"God, I've never wanted to be a fly on a wall more badly. Seriously, this is gold."

Mai found herself so disgusted by this conversation that she excused herself early, earning her a few looks. As soon as her back was turned, she heard whispers. So much for making friends; they probably wouldn't invite her again. She probably wouldn't accept even if they did.

What was so fun about speculating over someone like that? Curiosity, she could understand- but they were so mean-spirited about it. Just because they'd been turned down? And then they were gleeful hearing someone else was turned down...bitter much?

And true, he hadn't been quite nice to her either...but he hadn't been awful. In fact, she probably would have been a lot more scared if he hadn't been there at that moment. Whether he'd intended it or not, his presence had reassured her.

But more than that, something about him stuck with her. Something about his expression when they first laid eyes on each other, before the stony mask came down.

It was a look of worry...and guilt.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

 

As Mai had predicted, the pain from her bruises only worsened the next day.

The timing could not have been worse. A group of other study abroad students were going into the city that weekend, and they'd invited her to come along, but Mai regretfully had to decline. As much as she wanted to, she didn't think she could do much exploring with her body as sore as it was. She would only slow everyone down.

She told them she wasn't feeling well. Which was the truth, but she didn't think anyone would believe her if she explained what actually happened, so she didn't bother. She hoped they wouldn't take it the wrong way...she didn't want to ruin any more chances at making friends.

And so Mai spent another lonely weekend huddled in bed. It was depressing. When was she going to start enjoying herself?

She was sorely tempted to call someone again. But with the price of international calls, that was a luxury she could not afford to indulge in often, and she didn't want to sound desperate for company.

Unwittingly, Mai found herself thinking about that guy from the library again. Good-looking and spoke Japanese... If only he were more sociable, she would be over there in a heartbeat, ghost or no ghost.

...Wow, she really was desperate for company. She didn't even know if he worked weekends.

But at last, Monday morning arrived, and Mai dragged her aching body out of bed for classes. Thankfully, concentrating on school distracted her from her loneliness for the time being, and Mai quickly became caught up in her routine.

 


 

January

Wednesday

 

Mai stood nervously before Giffords Library. She had been avoiding the place since the accident, but her assignment was due this Friday, and she really needed to start working on it in earnest.

She took a deep breath. "It's okay, he said it won't hurt me..." she said, and pulled open the door.

As soon as she walked in, Mai caught a faint whiff of smoke. Startled, she looked around, but there was no sign of a fire, and the scent was gone almost immediately. And no matter how much she sniffed around afterwards, she couldn't smell it again.

Maybe it was just her imagination...though this was a haunted library. She wasn't sure what would be worse: smoke from an actual fire or that of the fire and brimstone variety. Yes, she would much prefer it to be just her imagination.

Mai shook her head. Concentrate. The sooner she finished her business here, the sooner she could leave.

She returned a few books she'd decided she didn't need, and went to look up a couple more. This time, she dragged a footstool with her when she went searching for the books, but as luck would have it, she couldn't find one of them. It wasn't on its shelf, or on the neighboring shelves, or anywhere near where it should be.

Frowning, Mai looked at the scrap of paper where she'd jotted down the information. It ought to be available, according to the online catalog. Maybe it was misplaced. Mai decided to ask for help.

However, she soon realized that this place was seriously understaffed. The one librarian she could find was at the front desk, busy checking out books for students. There was a long line too. She'd feel bad disrupting. Mai walked around the library again, hoping to find someone else, but it really seemed there was no one else available.

...Except him.

She found him standing next to a cart full of books, silently sorting and shelving them. So it was true that he worked here...

Mai approached him awkwardly. She had to admit, she was curious whether any of the other things she'd heard about him were true. Of course, she took all the gossip with a huge grain of salt, but there was an undeniable air of mystery about him that practically invited speculation. There was no way she could ask, though. That would just be rude.

At last, she cleared her throat to get his attention.

He didn't look up.

She cleared her throat again, loudly.

He took no notice.

With customer service skills like this, it was a wonder he kept his job.

She continued standing there until finally, he looked up. "May I help you?" he asked coldly in English.

Mai felt a little disappointed. She'd hoped they could speak in Japanese. Either he had already forgotten about her, or was deliberately trying to put distance between them.

She should have spoken up first. But it was too late; it would just be awkward replying in Japanese now, so Mai reluctantly answered in English. "I need help finding a book please. It isn't where it should be."

She passed him her scrap of paper. He looked at it, then went off to the designated section without a word. Mai followed behind and watched him peruse the shelves just as she had.

Once he'd finished checking to see if it'd been misplaced, he headed over to a computer.

"Are you sure it's still available?" he asked, sitting down and pulling up the online catalog.

"Yes, I just checked twenty minutes ago."

He checked again anyway.

"See?" she said, pointing at the screen. "It's still there!"

"It was worth a look. For all I know, you don't know how to use this thing."

She crossed her arms, pouting. "I'm not stupid."

"Could have fooled me," he muttered.

"Hey!" Now that was just uncalled for!

He stood up and went to check the books on some nearby tables.

Mai followed him, frowning. "I'm sorry, did I do something to offend you?"

Silence. He completely ignored her.

"Because if I did, I'll apologize. But otherwise I don't see why I deserve to be treated this way."

More silence.

"Hellooo?"

"I assume you'd like me to actually find this book rather than waste your time engaging in idle chatter?"

The nerve of this guy. Why had she wanted to talk to him again? "Like you're doing much. You're just checking tables. I could do that. If you don't know where it is, you can just tell me."

"I assure you I also loathe wasting time. But there is a reason I'm checking tables. There is a good chance he was using your book."

"He?" Mai blinked, and then it dawned on her. "You don't mean...the ghost?"

He didn't answer.

"The ghost reads books?" she asked incredulously.

"What else do you think he has to do in here?"

Well, she couldn't argue with that logic.

But now she wasn't so sure she wanted the book anymore. She'd rather not get involved with that ghost again, if she could help it. Mai followed at a slower pace now, putting some distance between them as he continued moving among the tables.

Finally, he paused at an unoccupied table that had a stack of books and papers on it. He took a quick look at the papers, examined the books, and pulled one out from the middle of the stack. Then he took a notepad and pen out of his pocket, wrote a short note, tore the sheet out and placed it on top of the stack of papers.

He turned back to her with the book. "Here." It was the one she was looking for.

Mai gulped. She glanced at the note he'd left, but from this distance, all she could make out was that it was addressed to someone whose name started with a C.

"But...won't he want it back?"

"It's fine."

"What if he comes looking for it...?"

"That's why I left a note. He understands that current students' needs take priority. He won't mind."

Hesitantly, she took the book from him. Again, it seemed completely normal.

"Is that all?" he asked.

Mai looked up at him. "You're so...nonchalant about this," she said, amazed.

"I'd have to be, wouldn't I? Not everyone can handle working in a haunted library." Wow, could he have said that any more arrogantly?

"Is that why you were hired, even though you're not a student?" Mai blurted, before she could stop herself.

He stared at her.

"Oh, um...I heard people talking about you..."

"You don't say."

"Yeah..." Mai bit her lip. "They said some awful things, actually..."

"Awful?"

She gripped the book to her chest guiltily. "Well...they called you a ghost, and said you might have a developmental disorder..."

He smirked slightly.

Mai blinked, puzzled by his reaction. "Doesn't that...bother you?"

"Why would it bother me?"

"Because they're gossiping and spreading ridiculous rumors!"

"It's nothing new."

"But...they talk about you like you're some kind of freak!" she huffed.

"I don't see why that should concern you," he said plainly.

He was right. It was none of her business. But still...

Mai looked away. "...I just don't like seeing people bullied."

"I'm not so helpless or sensitive that I need to be defended by someone like you."

Jeez, she wouldn't be surprised if he didn't have any friends, if this was how he treated people being nice to him.

Mai huffed again. "Oh I'm sorry, then I'll try not to make that mistake again!" She grumbled under her breath. "Why'd I even bother? They were just being stupid anyway...honestly, if you weren't hot, I bet they wouldn't even care."

"You think I'm hot?" he asked.

Mai flushed. Did she say that out loud?! "Well...that's what they seem to think..."

"Hm." He looked away, disinterested. "Then at least they have good taste."

Her jaw dropped. She couldn't believe this guy. So he wasn't just a condescending ass, he was a narcissist!

...That's it, from now on she was calling him Naru-chan. Naru-chan the Narcissist!

She chuckled to herself at the oh-too-perfect nickname. But her amusement was short lived. Maybe it was a little hypocritical of her, getting angry at others calling him names, and then calling him one herself...

She looked down at her feet. Would he even answer, if she asked for his name? Probably not. He didn't seem to trust others easily. She couldn't blame him, if he was so used to being bullied...

Mai glanced up at him. He was watching her curiously.

"It really doesn't bother you?" she asked.

Naru sighed. "Do you need to be so persistent?"

She sputtered. "W-well, maybe it's not my place to worry, but...I can't help how I feel, okay?"

He shook his head. "Why should I care what they think?" He picked up a book from the table and began flipping through it. "If anything, it's advantageous. The more people think they know about me, the less they'll feel the need to ask."

"Or maybe they just don't ask because you have a rotten attitude," Mai mumbled.

"Either way, it's convenient."

She rolled her eyes. "Do you just hate talking to people that much? Or do you have something to hide?"

She'd meant it jokingly. Mai expected him to come back with another sarcastic reply, but instead, he just looked up and stared at her, expression unreadable.

...No way. Did she just hit the nail on the head? Mai opened her mouth to speak again, when she heard the grating sound of wood scraping against floor.

Mai whirled around just in time to see a nearby chair scooting away from its table all on its own. Her eyes widened.

Okay. She would take back what she thought before. That was freaky.

"O-oh my god...was that..."

Naru showed no reaction. He just stood there, blue eyes studying her carefully. Then he shut his book and placed it back on the table.

Great. The ghost was back. She had to get out of here before it figured out she had its book!

"O-okay, I guess I'll get going now!" She gave Naru a quick wave. "See you, Naru-chan!"

She turned to leave, but then another chair scooted forward, this time right in front of her, blocking her path. Mai gasped and backed away.

"What did you just say?" Naru asked quietly.

Something in the tone of his voice forced her to tear her eyes away from the chair. Slowly, she turned to see his eyes narrowed at her in a cold glare that sent chills down her back.

"Did you just call me 'Naru'?"

"I-I uh..."

Suddenly her heart was pounding. Here she was, stuck between Naru and the ghost, and she honestly couldn't say which of them scared her more right now.

"Where did you hear that?"

"N-nowhere. I just came up with it. You know, 'Naru'...as in naru-cissist?" She laughed nervously. "I don't know your real name, so..."

Was he actually offended? He said he didn't care...

Wait a minute. He asked where she'd heard it?

"Do...do other people call you that too?" Well, it was very fitting.

But Naru didn't answer. He continued scrutinizing her for a moment longer, before letting out an exasperated sigh and walking away.

Mai was torn between relief and fear. The jerk left her alone with the ghost!

Looking back at the chair, Mai gently laid the book back on the table, hoping to appease it. She edged away, and seeing nothing else move, she quickly made her escape.

It was a mistake coming back here after all. She'd had enough of both ghosts and narcissists for a lifetime.

 


 

As usual, Noll came home around half past midnight. Gene was still up, though in his pajamas. He didn't bother to look up from his magazine as he heard the apartment door open and close.

"There's lo mein in the fridge!" he called out. His twin never ate dinner on his own, so he always ordered extra.

Noll said nothing in return, just hung his coat in the closet, and turned the light on in the kitchen. Gene heard the hum of the open fridge. "Shouldn't you be studying," his younger brother muttered.

Gene felt a twinge of annoyance at the fact that Noll could tell he was slacking without even looking. "I already did, mom."

"We'll see about that." One of his brother's few past times was checking over Gene's homework.

He heard the door of the fridge close and soon the microwave started up.

Meanwhile, the lights flickered. The bathroom door swung open and the bedroom door slammed shut. The coffee table rattled violently and began to levitate.

His poltergeisting was worse than usual tonight. Something had him agitated.

Gene casually rested his feet on the floating coffee table. "What's eating at you, Noll?" he asked.

For a long while, Noll didn't answer. Only once he'd finished heating up his dinner and came to sit on the couch did he finally speak again. "...There's a girl at the school," he said. "A Japanese study abroad student. She said some...unnerving things today."

Gene looked up in surprise. His brother, talking about a girl? Was hell freezing over? "Unnerving how?"

"Unnervingly accurate."

"Ah," Gene nodded. That explained it. "You think she might be a psychic?"

"It's possible. Though it's just as likely to be merely a string of coincidences."

"If that were the case, you wouldn't be so bothered by it." Gene put his magazine aside and asked seriously, "...You don't think she's working for Elijah?"

"If she were, it would already be too late." Noll paused to eat his noodles, straight-faced as always. "But no, she seems too clueless for that. If she does have ESP, my guess is that she's not yet aware of it."

Gene breathed a sigh of relief. He really didn't want to move again. "Well, do you think she'll snitch on you if she figures it out?"

Noll thought for a moment, then shook his head. "She doesn't seem the type to intentionally spread rumors."

Gene raised his eyebrows. "Well, alright. What's the problem then?"

"What do you mean, what's the problem?" Noll snapped.

"You just said she's not a threat to us."

"I said she won't intentionally spread rumors. There's no telling what she might unknowingly leak to others..."

"So just tell her to keep it secret."

"That would imply I'd have to actually tell her my secret."

"Why not? If she's gonna find out anyway."

"Do you hear what you're saying?" Noll moved to put down his food, realized the coffee table was levitating, and glared at it. The table immediately fell back to the floor.

Gene quickly moved his feet off before his brother could yell at him for that too. "I'm just saying, if she's not a threat, you might as well befriend her. It could be to our advantage."

"That's stupid. Why should I expose myself to a stranger?"

"Quit being stubborn, Noll."

"Quit being stupid, Gene." Noll shoved noodles in his mouth. "There's nothing to prove she's a real psychic, anyway. I'm only speaking hypothetically."

"So find proof, genius. Then we can discuss what to do."

Noll narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "...What exactly are you playing at?"

Gene grinned. "What, can't your older brother think it'd be nice if you actually made a friend? And a girl, to boot."

Noll scowled. "Don't be ridiculous."

"So what's her name? Is she cute?"

His scowl deepened. "Why should I know her name?"

"You could try asking her. Don't you know that's the first step in making friends?"

"Pointless."

"See, Noll, this is exactly why I get laid and you don't. You're wasting that beautiful face of ours."

Noll heaved an exasperated sigh. "Another word, and I'm eating in the bedroom."

"That's terrible manners, Noll."

"And what would you call the manners of someone who put their feet on a table people use to eat on?"

"Alright, alright, I get it." Gene opened his magazine again, still grinning. His brother drove him crazy sometimes. So it was only fair that he drove him crazy too.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

 

Mai did her best to put the latest incident at the library off her mind. Thankfully, she soon found the perfect distraction. The group of study abroad students were gathering for dinner at the local Irish pub on Saturday night, and Mai pounced at the opportunity.

She'd already met most of them during orientation, but she took this chance to reacquaint herself with the group. Though some of them had thick accents that she found difficult to decipher, Mai found herself impressed with everyone's level of English fluency. There was something beautiful about the fact that, despite coming from countries all around the world, they were all united in the same experience, all speaking the same language.

Of course, she still couldn't help feeling a little left out; many had already formed fast friendships over the previous weekend. But if this was going to be a weekly thing, she still had plenty of time, and Mai was able to spend the night talking and laughing to her heart's content.

Overall, she had a great time, and her good mood persisted through all of Sunday too.

And then it all came crashing down Monday morning, when she got the grade back for her first assignment.

It was dismal.

If she were at home, she would have called up one of her friends to cry about it, and they would have taken her out for ice cream to cheer her up. But she wasn't close enough with anyone here to do that. And she wasn't in the mood for ice cream anyway with these frigid temperatures.

So Mai bought herself a cafe mocha at the campus cafe to douse her sorrows.

Sitting alone sipping her drink, Mai mulled over what she should do. This wasn't exactly a great start to the semester.

Maybe English just wasn't her thing after all. All the other study abroad students seemed so capable. But as for her, it had just been one disaster after another. What was she even doing here?

Mai grabbed a napkin and covertly dabbed at her eyes. She took a deep breath, forcing herself to calm down. She didn't want to start crying in the middle of a cafe.

This wasn't the first time she'd had doubts about her choice in major. Maybe she should have gone with something else. But even now, she had no idea what she would have chosen otherwise...

Mai shook her head. There was no use regretting it now. She was already here. She had to do better next time. So what could she do to improve?

Maybe a change in environment would help. She had to admit, it was difficult concentrating in her dorm, especially in the evenings. The walls were paper thin, which meant she heard everything going on in the surrounding rooms, from impromptu drinking parties to...other nightly activities. She'd resorted to wearing headphones and listening to music just to sleep, but she found music a bit distracting when she was studying.

Maybe she could study in the cafe? But it tended to get crowded; there was no guarantee that she could secure a table, and she'd feel guilty taking up that much space by herself. Not to mention it could get noisy in here too, and she'd probably run into Kendra and the others...she'd rather not overhear any more crude gossip.

What other options were there? Maybe something off campus? But she'd rather not walk too far, considering the weather...

Her gaze wandered out the window, and...there it was, Giffords Library. A potential solution to her problem.

"Ugh," Mai groaned.

After all, that's where she had been planning to study in the first place, before she discovered it was haunted. Would she be able to concentrate in there though? Certainly not if a ghost kept throwing books and furniture at her. And she couldn't deny that what happened at the library had distracted her for the rest of the week, when she ought to have been focusing on her work.

But she didn't have any problem with the place until that first incident, when she met Naru...

Come to think of it, Naru had been there both times the ghost showed up. Maybe it liked to hang around him? He did seem to get along with it, if his little handwritten note indicated anything...

But no, she couldn't blame him for her grade. That would be irresponsible. She was the one who was too chicken to go back to the library, who let her fear affect her concentration. Technically, Naru hadn't done anything but help her out. It wasn't his fault.

Mai drummed her fingers on the table, thinking. Maybe...if she just avoided him, the ghost would leave her alone? That seemed simple enough to do. It wasn't like Naru would miss her company anyway. He'd probably already forgotten about her all over again.

She sighed. It was worth a try, at least.

 


 

After the incident last Wednesday, Oliver didn't see the girl come in for the rest of the week. Consequently, he figured he must have scared her off for good this time. It was no skin off his back if that were the case. He'd already revealed too much, and she had that unnerving knack for guessing things correctly. It would be for the best if she didn't return.

But when he saw her back on Monday evening, busy studying at a table, it gave him pause. He circled the area a few times, pondering his move. He could always just ignore her, as he usually did with people. And yet...

Find proof, Gene had said. Annoyingly, his brother had a point. There was no use in worrying over something that may not even be true. It might be risky, but he had to be sure if the girl had ESP. He decided to take it as a challenge.

However, he did not fancy starting a line of inquiry on his own. At least, not in an obvious way. It would be too much of a hassle, and he did not want to give the false impression that he was 'interested.' That would be even more of a hassle.

Nodding to himself, Oliver decided on a plan of action. He approached her table, book under his arm. Then, taking the seat across from her, he sat down, and without a word to acknowledge her, opened his book and began reading.

Her reaction was predictable, her emotions easy to read- first, her eyes widened and her jaw dropped in surprise. Then her brows furrowed in confusion. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. Then she pursed her lips and turned her attention back to her work, trying to ignore him. But her hand gripping her mechanical pencil shook with growing frustration. He counted the seconds.

She snapped.

"Shouldn't you be working?" she growled in Japanese.

This again. Japanese had always been his and Gene's 'secret' language. He never used it with anyone else, even when he came across other Japanese speakers...until now. He'd been careless; at the time, it seemed like the fastest way to get a coherent reply out of her. And now she couldn't let it go. Which was exactly the reason why he didn't like using it with other people.

But fine, just this once, he would humor her.

"I'm on my break," he replied in Japanese.

"You spend your breaks in here too?" she asked incredulously.

He did, in fact, spend the entire day here, even when he wasn't on the clock. "I don't think that's any of your business."

She huffed and attempted to focus on her work again. But it was only a matter of time before she cracked. Yes, experience told him that people liked to talk, regardless of whether he wanted them to or not. He did not need to initiate a conversation; she would do it for him.

He had planned to use this time for reading anyway. If she didn't take the bait, he wouldn't lose anything. If she was provoked, it would be her own fault. If she asked probing questions, that would only reveal how much she knew, as he was not obligated to reply. Yes, this seemed like an efficient use of his time.

And besides, it was amusing seeing her get so worked up.

 


 

She couldn't believe it. He was just sitting there and he was getting on her nerves.

While she wouldn't have thought much of it or even minded if it were anyone else, this was Naru. Reclusive, antisocial Naru, who didn't seem to want anything to do with her, even now. But if he wanted to avoid talking, why sit across from her? Why not just go to an unoccupied table? What did he want?!

This was driving her crazy, and did not help her concentration at all. Maybe she should just move to another table. But that would feel like admitting defeat. And what if he moved with her? While that seemed unlikely, she couldn't have anticipated this would happen either.

She glanced up at him again, but his attention was focused firmly on his book. It was irritating just how indifferent he looked. He was doing this on purpose, right? She almost hoped he was trying to annoy her because it was embarrassing to think she was getting this worked up over nothing.

Well, at least there was one thing she could feel triumphant about.

"So, you'll speak to me in Japanese now?" she asked with a small smirk.

He glanced up at her very briefly. "Better than having to endure your attempts at English, I suppose."

"Excuse me?"

"Your pronunciation is poor. I'm surprised anyone can take you seriously."

"Gee, thanks."

"And you call yourself an English major?"

Mai's face flushed. After her latest grade, this especially stung. What was his deal? Sure, maybe her pronunciation wasn't the best, but he didn't have to come out and say it!

"Well then how many languages have you mastered, smartass?"

"Five. I'm still working on Russian."

"Wow," she said, raising her eyebrows. "You must have a lot of spare time."

He was silent for a moment. Then he shut his book with a snap and abruptly got up from his seat. But instead of leaving, he went to a nearby bookcase and began browsing the shelves, his back turned to her.

Mai stared. Did she...touch a nerve? Why? Rumors and mean gossip didn't seem to faze him, but he was bothered by this?

She quickly rethought her statement. The guy was obviously smart (maybe too smart for his own good), but he wasn't a student. Instead, he worked seemingly full time as a Library Assistant. Surely he would want to enroll if he was able to? Unless there were circumstances that prevented him from doing so...

She felt a twinge of regret. She could understand that, perhaps better than most people. She counted herself incredibly fortunate to be able to attend college now, and even study abroad for a whole semester, but it took a lot of work, and a hard-won scholarship, and she still worried about paying off her loans after graduation.

Mai bit her lip. Maybe she should apologize. But then, he was the one who started it by degrading her, wasn't he?

She opted to change the subject instead.

"How'd you know I was an English major, anyway?"

"...An educated guess, based on your choice of books and the fact that you chose to study abroad here."

"Oh. Right." There were many English majors among the study abroad students, so that did make sense.

Mai sighed dejectedly. "...English was actually my worst subject in high school. Well, one of them," she admitted sheepishly.

He paused. "...So why major in it?"

She shrugged. "I didn't know what else I wanted to do, and English seemed like it would at least be useful. Like maybe it could land me a job where I could travel, or do something interesting."

"Ah. You're one of those types."

"What do you mean?"

"The type of student who attends college not because they have a specific goal in mind, but because they feel obligated to due to parental and societal pressures."

Mai flushed again. She couldn't deny it, but having it spelled out like that... "Oh sure, maybe I'm just a boring person with no dreams or ambitions of my own. But even boring people have to eat, you know. Those are just the times we live in. You can't get a good job if you don't have a degree in something, right?"

He was silent.

Crap. She did it again. "W-well, I mean, there are exceptions! And not everyone who has a degree is guaranteed a good job either...unless you have connections and stuff...and besides, money can't buy happiness!"

The silence was deafening. Mai wanted to crawl into a hole.

She groaned, burying her head in her arms. "Though I guess I'm not one to talk...I'm the one who was stupid enough to choose a major that would be tough on me. And if I fail, it would've all been for nothing. Just a waste of time and money..."

This was a real fear of hers, failing at college. If she couldn't graduate, if she couldn't find a decent job, if she couldn't pay off her loans...what would become of her then?

At last Naru spoke. "I never said it was wrong to pursue a good education. If you have the means, it makes sense. But most people in your position would choose something easy just to get it over with. Instead, you deliberately chose a difficult path; it shouldn't come as a surprise that you'd struggle."

"I know..."

"...But I can respect someone who works hard, even if they don't have the talent or intelligence to back it up."

Mai looked up at him in surprise, not sure if she should feel flattered or insulted.

"You may not have a concrete goal, but at the very least, you're moving forward," he said quietly, back still turned to her. "You ought to appreciate that."

She smiled faintly. "Yeah, I guess..."

"Of course, I question whether hard work would even be enough in your case, if your English is still at this level."

Her smile quickly turned into a frown. "Well that's why I'm studying, isn't it? Or at least I was, until someone had to come and break my concentration!"

"If your concentration is so easily broken by someone's mere presence, then you do have a problem."

And that problem is you, she wanted to scream. "Well maybe my English isn't good enough for your standards, but I'll have you know that I am not as stupid or incompetent as you think I am!" she growled.

"And what makes you think that?"

"Because I'm here, aren't I?" she said proudly, standing up. "I made it here all on my own, without anyone's help! That's something!" That's right. She was in America! She had already come this far, who was to say she couldn't go all the way?

He turned to look at her. "...You may have a point."

This caught her off guard. But before she had time to think of a reply, he went on.

"Also, if you raise your voice like that again, I will have to ask you to leave. Might I remind you, this is a library."

Mai's mouth flapped uselessly for a moment, before she ground out through grit teeth, "You can't kick me out, you're on break...!"

He glanced at the clock on the wall. "My break just ended two minutes ago."

"Oh, is that right?!" Mai grabbed her books, stuffed them roughly in her bag, then stomped right up to him. "Well then excuse me, I need to go outside and SCREAM."

Then she promptly turned and stormed out of the library.

And yet once she was outside, and had time to cool her head, Mai realized that she felt a whole lot better about her situation. Weird. Who would've thought that talking to Naru of all people would give her exactly what she needed?

But the end result was that she still didn't know what to make of him. He alternately cheered her up and pissed her off- or even both at the same time. It was confusing and incredibly frustrating.

But at least the ghost left her alone this time. It made no appearance during her next few visits either. And Naru was easy to avoid now that she knew what time his break was. She proved this with an experiment.

When she came back on Tuesday evening, Mai made sure to sit at a different table than the one she did previously, just in case she'd unknowingly chosen a table Naru happened to frequent. Then, at the same hour, she left the library, taking her things with her but leaving some books to save her place, and returned just a few minutes before the end of his supposed break.

She found him sitting at her vacated table, just across from where she'd been sitting. Mai watched him secretly from behind a bookcase until the hour was up, at which time he shut his book and left the table.

Somehow, instead of being annoyed, she felt oddly amused. Mai returned to the table with a small smile. Was he disappointed that he'd missed her?

From then on, she decided to stop questioning it. He joined her at her table the next day too, and the day after, and Mai didn't bother to complain. Actually, she got used to it fairly quickly. It's not like he ever said anything to her, and it was only for one hour, so it didn't affect her concentration now that she'd gotten over the shock. And he could be somewhat companionable when he kept his mouth shut. So he could sit there and look pretty all he wanted. She wouldn't let it get to her.

Giffords Library turned out to be a viable option after all. Mai didn't even dread her visits anymore. Whatever Naru or the ghost decided to dish up, she decided she could handle it. She wouldn't let them scare her away from accomplishing her goals.

 


 

The week was almost over, and Oliver was growing frustrated. He'd gotten no more information out of the girl since he first started sitting with her.

Well, that wasn't quite true. If there was one thing he was now sure about, it was that she truly posed no threat. She'd stopped talking to him or asking questions. She'd lost interest in him sooner than expected. It usually took much longer for girls to get over him, and here he was, practically offering himself on a plate. But if she was a statistical anomaly, she was at least a harmless one. If he just left her alone, there should be no problem.

So why was he still investigating her?

The answer came to him rather easily. Curiosity. He wanted to know if he was right. If he was being honest with himself, the challenge had, for a time, provided some distraction from his mind-numbing existence. But as things stood now, it wasn't much different from just sitting in the break room.

His current strategy was convenient. Comfortable, even. But it was getting him nowhere.

Oliver sighed. Perhaps it was time to step out of his comfort zone.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

 

January

Friday

 

Mai sat in the library at her usual table, trying to make it through a laborious piece of literature that she had to be ready to discuss by next week. She was just starting to nod off when Naru's voice roused her.

"Hey."

Mai looked up in surprise. Naru stood by her table, his book and a black coat under his arm. She glanced up at the clock; it was only 7:40 PM. His break didn't start for another twenty minutes.

"What are you still doing here?" he asked.

"Huh?"

"We're closing early."

"What?! Why?!"

He just raised an eyebrow at her, as if the answer were obvious.

And when Mai went to the entrance, she realized why.

For the past week, she had heard people on campus talking about a "nor'easter," but being unfamiliar with the term and too preoccupied with schoolwork, Mai didn't pay it any attention. And now that came back to bite her.

What had just been a light flurry of snow when she came in had now turned into a full-blown blizzard.

Mai stood in front of the entrance in shock, watching as the few other remaining students ventured out into the storm. She hadn't even brought a proper coat or boots.

There were only three people left in the library now. Mai, Naru, and a middle-aged white woman with a plump face and red hair, who Mai recognized as the head librarian.

The woman was currently talking to Naru. "Are you sure you don't need a ride?"

"My brother is coming to pick me up."

"Well, if you say so. Give my regards to Eugene, then. And make sure to lock up when you leave."

"Of course."

The librarian turned to Mai next. "How about you, dear? Do you need a ride?"

Mai waved her hands. "Oh, no, I couldn't trouble you..."

"Are you sure? It's really no problem."

Mai glanced out the window. This weather looked treacherous to drive in. As tempting as the offer was, she couldn't ask the woman to take a detour just for her sake. "My dorm is on campus. I will be alright, thank you."

The woman smiled. "Alright, just be careful."

The librarian pulled on her coat and began the process of insulating herself with gloves, hat, and scarf. Meanwhile, Naru took a cell phone out of his pocket. He flipped it open, dialed a number, and held it to his ear. After a moment, he began to speak. In Japanese.

"It's me. I'm staying at the library tonight."

Mai stared at him. The librarian took no notice.

"Quit whining. You'll have to make due on your own." He paused to listen to the other end. "Right. Goodnight."

He turned off the phone and put it away.

"I thought your brother was coming," Mai said to him in Japanese.

"I lied. We don't have a car."

By now the librarian had finished her preparations. She beamed at the two of them. "It's a beautiful language. I keep telling myself I need to learn someday."

Mai smiled weakly.

"I'll be off then! Don't want to make the husband worry," she chuckled. "You two be careful out there!"

Naru nodded and Mai gave a small wave. The librarian pulled the door open and immediately disappeared into the icy gale.

The door slammed heavily shut behind her, the noise echoing in the following silence.

"...Do you think she'll be okay?" Mai asked.

"She's a native New Englander. She'll be fine," Naru replied.

But Mai looked at him. When he lied about not needing a ride, did he do so out of consideration for the woman's safety? Maybe he was nicer than she'd thought...

Without another word, Naru turned to head back into the library.

Mai hesitated. "Um..." She called after him. "Do you think it'd be okay if I stayed here too?"

He paused, looking over his shoulder at her.

While it was true that her dorm was on campus, technically it was on the other side of campus. Mai really didn't want to walk all the way there in a blizzard, especially now that a better option had presented itself.

But he was probably going to say no. She was the one who turned down the offer of a ride, after all. She had no right to complain.

But to her surprise, he nodded.

Mai smiled in relief. "Thank y-"

"As long as you're not too noisy."

"...What makes you think I'll be noisy?!"

"You're being noisy now."

"I'm just talking!"

"Exactly."

Mai huffed. Then, fuming, she followed him back to her table, where he sat down opposite of where she'd been sitting. Still glaring at him, she took her own seat and began pulling her book back out of her bag, when it suddenly hit her.

She was going to stay overnight. At a haunted library. With Naru.

Mai gulped. She held her book open in front of her face to hide her blush. This was the kind of scenario she'd expect to read in a shoujo manga, not to happen in real life! Or maybe it was more like a horror movie? She was trapped with the ghost too, after all!

How did she get into this mess?!

An hour later, however, Mai had realized that this was going to be a very dull evening.

Sure, in theory, it all sounded exciting, but all they'd actually done so far was just sit at a table and read. Naru still showed no interest in her or even the slightest inclination of putting his book down. This was just going to be an extended version of one of his breaks. At this rate, she'd have to put her hopes in the ghost for some excitement.

...Not that she wanted anything to happen. But was it too much to hope for some light conversation? Even just to distract her from the eerie creaks and groans emanating from the otherwise dead silent building?

Mai coughed. She could swear it echoed.

"Stop fidgeting." Oh wow, he finally said something!

"I'm not."

"Yes, you are."

"No I'm nooot~"

He sighed.

"If it bothers you that much, you're welcome to go sit anywhere else," she smiled.

He didn't move.

"I hope your ass falls asleep," she muttered.

"Very mature."

Yes, this was going to be a very long night.

 


 

If he wasn't already sure that the girl was just a clueless simpleton, this would have been a bad idea. As it was, she was just very irritating. But in a disconcertingly familiar way. Oliver mulled over it for a while, wondering what this reminded him of.

And then it hit him. It was just like talking with Gene.

He groaned inwardly at this realization. He really didn't need another Gene in his life. And now he was in for what would surely be a very trying evening.

And then, speak of the devil, he felt a familiar 'knocking' at his mind. Gene was trying to reach him through their hotline.

He probably didn't have anything of worth to say, but Oliver decided to let him through anyway, just in case it was an emergency. Fortunately, he was well practiced in maintaining a completely neutral expression while communicating telepathically with his twin.

What do you want, Gene?

Talk to me!

...Why should I do that?

Because I'm here all alone and I'm booored.

I can't simply talk on command. Do your homework.

I already did! I've read my text books too! But I'm starting to get cabin fever here!

Didn't you buy those board games for just such an occasion?

I can't play by myself!

You can play Solitaire.

The whole night?!

My purpose in life is not to amuse you, Gene. Learn to entertain yourself.

How about this? We can play chess through the hotline. Just tell me where to move your pieces.

No.

Aww, come on. You know your brain can handle it.

I'm busy.

Oh, I see. Too busy spending time with your lady friend, are you?

...What are you talking about?

Gene sounded rather smug suddenly. Why'd you call me on the phone, Noll? Why not use the hotline?

Oliver had no answer to that.

You're the one who's always grousing at me about conserving minutes. I've never even seen you use your phone.

It was true. Oliver hardly ever used his phone; he only kept it with him in case of emergencies. The only reason he even had one was because Gene managed to score a two-for-one deal when buying his own phone second-hand.

The fact that you called me on the phone instead of the hotline leads me to believe that you wanted to be overheard by somebody. And the fact that you spoke in Japanese leads me to believe that that somebody is the Japanese girl you told me about.

Damn. Gene was unusually sharp today.

She's with you right now, isn't she? He could practically feel his twin's cheeky grin through their mental link.

Oliver fought the urge to sigh. He was never going to hear the end of this.

Before you jump to any ridiculous conclusions, I merely thought this would be a good opportunity to observe her for an extended period of time.

Riiight. Just you and her, alone, for the whole night. That sounds like an opportunity, all right.

Charlie's here too, Oliver thought, and cringed inwardly. Even he thought that sounded like an excuse.

You know, I'd be willing to leave you alone for the rest of the night if you'll just admit that you wanted to spend more time with her~

Suddenly there was a loud crash from somewhere in the library.

The girl froze. "What was that...?" she whispered.

Wonderful.

Oliver took a deep breath. "Stay here," he said, putting his book down and standing up.

"Wh-where are you...?"

"I'm going to take a look. Don't move."

He went toward the direction of the noise. As he'd suspected, he found a table toppled over onto its side along with a few chairs, and a whole shelf of books littering the floor.

Noll? Gene asked. What happened?

Oliver ignored him, righting the table and chairs.

Noll?

...Shut up, Gene. Just shut up.

Gene was silent for a while. Oliver got to work shelving the books.

...Okay, I'm sorry. I'll leave you alone. Just let me know if anything interesting happens?

Goodnight, Gene, Oliver thought firmly.

...Goodnight, Noll. He heard no more from him after that.

Once he'd finished shelving the books, Oliver returned to the table he shared with the girl. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw him.

"What was that? Is everything okay?" she asked.

Oliver calmly slipped back into his seat and picked up his book. "Just the usual," he said.

 


 

After that disturbance, Mai found it increasingly difficult to focus on her reading. She kept glancing around her, even more conscious of every little noise. She was glad Naru was here with her, at least. She didn't know how she'd get through the night otherwise. But then, if he wasn't here, she wouldn't have had the nerve to think of staying in the first place.

"I guess you must be used to this kind of thing, huh?" she said to him. "Since your brother can see ghosts."

"You could say that." He didn't even bother looking up from his book.

"I bet you must have lots of interesting stories from when you were growing up."

"Not really."

"...Are you just saying that because you don't want to talk about it?"

"Who knows."

Mai sighed. Why'd she even bother? Well, at least he was responding to her now. That was marginally better than being flat-out ignored.

She shivered. The library was already chilly enough on normal days, but it felt even colder now. Mai wrapped her coat more tightly around her, wishing she had something warm to drink. If this were Japan, she could just head over to the nearest vending machine...

And suddenly she felt nostalgic for Japanese vending machines with their hot drinks. She could really go for a can of corn soup or oshiruko right now...

Then, as if on cue, her stomach rumbled loudly. That's right, she'd missed out on having dinner too...

"Um, you wouldn't happen to have any food around here, would you?" Her stomach growled again.

Naru sighed. "Follow me." He stood and led the way.

He took her behind the front desk and further onwards, to a room that appeared to be the staff break room. There was a table with chairs, a sink, a refrigerator, a microwave, a coffee maker, and a water cooler that dispensed both cold and hot water. And there were two vending machines; a snack machine and a machine with bottled drinks.

The drink machine was disappointing. It only had sodas, flavored teas, and water. All cold. At least the snack machine had more variety. Mai pulled together all her change to purchase two bags of chips and a chocolate bar for her meager dinner.

Then she peeked into the cupboards above the sink. She quickly found tea bags, and a few mugs that she assumed belonged to staff members.

"Do you think it's okay for me to use these?" she asked Naru, who was currently buying himself a bag of pretzels from the snack machine.

"If you wash them and put them back, no one will know."

She took that as a yes. Mai looked at her tea options. Jasmine, Earl Grey, mint, green...

"Hey Naru, do you want some tea?"

But he was already gone. Mai shrugged and took down two mugs.

By the time she returned to the table, Naru had already finished eating his pretzels. Mai set a mug of tea in front of him. He blinked.

"I didn't ask for anything."

"I'm being nice, Naru. But you don't have to drink it if you don't want to." She returned to her seat, setting her own mug down on the table.

Naru eyed his tea suspiciously.

Mai rolled her eyes. "It's just Earl Grey, not poison."

Then it occurred to her that maybe he wasn't a tea drinker. She did read that coffee was more popular here in America. But this just seemed wrong to her somehow.

Naru raised the mug to his lips and took an experimental sip. His face showed no reaction. But he took another sip, before setting the mug back down and turning his attention back to his book. However, he continued drinking intermittently.

Mai took a sip of her own tea. Ahhh. That really hit the spot. She breathed in the aroma, letting the steam warm her face for a moment. Then she opened her bags of chips and began to eat.

In the silence of the library, the sound of crunching echoed loudly.

"Can't you eat quietly?" Naru asked.

Mai crinkled a bag noisily just to annoy him.

His eyebrow twitched.

They sat there like this for another hour. Mai ate her chocolate bar, and when she'd finished her tea, she got up to go make some more. As she passed by Naru, he held up his own empty mug to her.

"Are you done with it, or do you want more?"

He didn't answer.

Mai frowned. "I'm not going to make you more unless you ask."

"What happened to 'being nice'?"

With a growl, Mai snatched the mug from his hand. She stomped back to the break room, grumbling. "Arrogant ass. Needs to learn some manners..."

She washed out the mugs and picked out two more tea bags, starting to wonder if making him tea had been a mistake. But the task itself wasn't an inconvenience, since she was already making her own anyway. And she supposed this might well be an admission that he'd liked it. But why couldn't he just say it in words like a normal person? Jeez.

Mai added hot water to the mugs and set them on the counter, waiting for the tea to steep. She hummed a little as she watched the time on the microwave's digital clock. Once three minutes had passed, she retrieved the now soggy tea bags and went to throw them in the trash.

And then the lights went out.

Mai blinked, suddenly finding herself in a pitch black room. She looked around. She couldn't see the light of the digital clock, or any light from beyond the break room. It must be a power outage.

"You've got to be kidding me," Mai muttered.

Feeling around, she slowly found her way back to the counter where she'd left the mugs. Now what? First of all, it was going to be hard enough making her way out of here empty-handed, let alone with two hot beverages. She'd have to leave the tea behind. Secondly, she wasn't familiar enough with the building that she was confident she could go back to the table. Maybe she should just find somewhere reasonably comfortable and stay put, rather than tripping over any number of obstacles on the way. Yes, that seemed like a good idea.

Mai was just about to take another step forward when she froze. She heard footsteps approaching.

Oh god. What if it was the ghost? And she couldn't see anything. She couldn't defend herself.

Her heart pounded as panic began to set in. She thought about calling for help, but what good would that do? Naru would be just as blind in this darkness.

She clutched at the countertop, trembling. The footsteps were coming closer. Maybe as a last resort, she could fling tea at it...

Then a thin sliver of light shone in her face. Mai shielded her eyes with her hand.

It was Naru, wielding a penlight.

Mai let out a big sigh of relief. "Oh, thank god!"

"For what?" Barely sparing her a glance, Naru went straight to a cupboard, taking out a bag of tealight candles.

"Nothing, I guess," she muttered.

Naru stuffed a matchbook in his pocket, then with the bag of candles in one hand, and the penlight in the other, he moved toward the entrance. "Are you coming or not?" he asked.

"H-hold on!" Mai took the two mugs gingerly in hand and followed.

Thanks to the penlight, they navigated their way through the library with relative ease, but Mai still took care not to trip on anything. She was grateful Naru didn't walk too fast, though of course, it made sense that he wouldn't want her to spill any of his tea in his library.

"Good thing this place had candles though, huh?" Mai said. "I mean, who would've thought?"

"They were left over from a seance."

"...Oh. I see..."

Finally, they reached their table, and Mai set the mugs down. Naru let her hold the penlight as he opened the bag of candles. The candles were so small that it looked like they'd have to use several to get any decent light. Naru pulled out ten.

"Ooh, can I arrange them?"

"I don't care."

Mai handed him back the penlight and got to work. She arranged them in a circle, then a square, then she made a zig-zag pattern.

Naru sighed impatiently. "Are you done? We're wasting battery."

"Oh, sorry. Go ahead," she said sheepishly.

Naru put the penlight on the table and took the matchbook from his pocket.

As soon as the first match was lit, an uneasy feeling washed over her. Mai flinched at the flickering of the small flame and averted her eyes.

Naru looked at her after lighting the first candle. "What's wrong?"

"N-nothing," she said, shuddering. She rubbed her arms, willing the odd feeling to go away. "I'm fine."

But Naru continued staring at her, eyebrows furrowed. The flame slowly crept up the match.

"Naru, you're going to burn your fingers!"

He brought the flame up to his face and blew it out. Then he broke off a new match, but paused before lighting it. "...Do you need a moment?"

"Huh?"

His eyes were on the single lit candle, expression blank. Did he...understand? She didn't know where this inexplicable fear suddenly came from, but he seemed to know something about it.

She decided to be honest. "I...yes."

He waited.

Mai sat down in her chair and took big, deep breaths, gazing at the lit candle. See? It was just a little thing, a pinprick of light and warmth. Nothing to be afraid of.

Gradually, the uneasiness faded away. She could breath a little easier now.

She gave a short nod. "Okay, I'm good."

Naru lit the next match, and continued lighting the candles.

Mai hugged herself. "That was weird. I've never been afraid of fire before..."

"It happens," was all he said.

She glanced up at him as he worked. He probably had all the answers about this place, didn't he? Or at least, he seemed to think he did. She bit her lip. "...You said these candles were used for a seance, right? You don't think the ghost will show up if we use them, do you...?"

"Well, he is most active at night. But I see no reason why he would bother us unless we specifically call on him. Candles alone won't summon a ghost. Although if you'd arranged the candles to form a pentagram, perhaps that could have summoned something."

Mai laughed nervously, not sure if he was being serious. "You would've stopped me if I did, though, right?"

"I don't know. It might have been interesting."

"You have a strange notion of 'interesting.'"

"If I remember correctly, you were the one who used to tell ghost stories in hopes of summoning a ghost?"

"Well yeah, but..." She blinked. "Wait, so you were actually listening to me back then?"

Naru didn't answer. He finished lighting the last candle and took his seat. Then he grabbed a mug of tea and took a sip.

Only a second later did Mai realize that he'd mistakenly grabbed the mug she had been using.

Well...it was dark. She couldn't blame him for getting them confused. But Mai wondered if she should point this out. Maybe not. After all, she did wash them out beforehand, so it's not like it really mattered. Still, she felt a little awkward drinking from the other mug.

They sat in silence for a while, just sipping tea.

Now that she'd calmed down, Mai found that she could appreciate the warm glow given off by the candles. It was really quite beautiful. Even romantic. Mai smiled, resting her face on her hands as she admired the candlelight.

Meanwhile, Naru opened his book and began reading.

Mai gave him an exasperated look. "Ugh, how can you even read with this dim light? You're going to ruin your eyes."

"It's not like there's anything else we can do, is there?"

"I think most people would take this opportunity to have long, involved conversations and get to know each other better."

"Good thing I'm not 'most people.'"

She rolled her eyes. Then she tried thinking of any other activities two people could do without much light.

Unfortunately, most of her ideas were of the kind that she would rather die than admit out loud.

Mai covered her burning face with her hands. What was she thinking?!

"What's wrong?" Naru asked.

"Nothing!" she squeaked.

She stayed like that for a few more minutes, until she thought it might be safe, and lowered her hands. Then her heart skipped a beat.

Naru was watching her, candlelight reflected in his dark eyes.

This was too much. "I-I'm going to the restroom," Mai said shakily, getting up from her seat.

But then she hesitated. Should she take one of the candles? Was there even a way to hold one without burning herself or spilling hot wax all over her fingers?

"Here." Naru held his penlight out to her.

"I can take it?"

"I wouldn't want you to trip with a candle and burn the whole place down."

He had a point, but did he have to phrase it in a way that made her sound clumsy?

"Thanks," she mumbled, reaching for the offered penlight.

But he wouldn't let go of it.

Mai looked at him, and realized that he was staring at her again, a serious expression on his face. They were both holding onto either end of the penlight. She felt her face start to heat up again...

"Don't drop it in the toilet," he said.

"...Sorry?"

"Don't drop it on the floor either. If you do, I expect to be reimbursed."

He was referring to the penlight. Now Mai's face grew hot for a different reason.

"Of- of course I wouldn't- why would you say that?!"

"I think it is a perfectly reasonable expectation to have when lending someone a personal possession."

"But you don't have to say it! You really have no social skills to speak of, do you?!"

"Make sure to wash your hands too."

"What do you take me for?!" she squawked.

He smirked, then let go of the penlight.

He was totally getting a kick out of this!

"JERK!"

For the second time that night, she stormed away from him, seething. Once in the women's restroom, Mai had half a mind to drop the penlight on the floor just to spite him, but she wasn't that immature. Instead, she took very good care of it, wrapping it in paper towels before placing it by the sink where it could illuminate a stall. There, that would show him.

After finishing her business, she washed her hands and face, then did what she could to clean her teeth with her finger. It was as she was drying herself off with a paper towel that she finally registered just how tired she was.

Being with Naru for this long was exhausting. But it was just as well; if he insisted on reading the night away, then she might as well try to get some sleep, though she didn't look forward to the prospect of sleeping in that hard wooden chair.

Now feeling refreshed, Mai exited the restroom and headed for their little island of light. But she paused on the way, spotting another faint glow from beyond a row of bookcases.

Huh. What was Naru doing over there?

Without thinking, she changed course, making her way over to the new source of light. But it wasn't Naru who she found there.

It was a young man, around her age, with wavy brown hair and round wire-frame glasses. He had a disheveled appearance, from the creases in his shirt to his hair sticking up in places. He didn't seem to notice her at first, fully focused on the paper in front of him on which he was writing busily with a fountain pen. Other sheets of paper scattered the table he sat at in a haphazard manner, along with several books, laid open or stacked on top of one another. By all appearances, he was in the middle of writing a lengthy research paper.

Mai approached, surprised that she hadn't noticed him until now. "Oh, hello!" she said in her best English. "Are you staying overnight too?"

The man froze at her voice. Slowly, he looked up at her. "M-me?" he asked hesitantly.

"Yes, of course," Mai smiled. "I'm staying here too, along with a...friend of mine. If you would like, you are welcome to join us."

The man gazed at her in disbelief.

"Oh, where are my manners? My name is Mai. Mai Taniyama. What is yours?"

But he just continued staring at her, his jaw dropping open and glasses sliding down his nose.

That wasn't exactly the reaction she was looking for. Was something wrong with her English? Or was he just not used to being approached by girls like this?

"What are you doing?"

Mai jumped at the voice from behind her. She turned to see Naru there, using the lit screen of his cell phone as a light source.

"God, Naru, you scared me!"

"Who were you just talking to?"

"Oh, well there's another student here who..." The table was now dark and unoccupied. The mess of papers and books remained, as well as the fountain pen left on top of the paper he'd been writing on. But the man himself had vanished without a trace.

"He...he was just here!"

"What did he look like?"

Mai looked at Naru in confusion. "Uh...he had wavy brown hair, wore round glasses and wrinkled clothing, and he was..." He was glowing. Why didn't that strike her as odd until now?

Her breath hitched as she realized the truth. Naru's complete lack of surprise only confirmed her suspicion.

"...Oh, god. That was the ghost, wasn't it?"

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

 

January

Saturday

 

Thankfully, the storm had cleared by morning. Gene, eager to just do something, went outside with his snow shovel to join the neighbors in clearing the sidewalks and walkways in front of the apartment building.

After a couple of hours, old Mrs. Harper, the half-deaf widow from next door, stepped outside to thank everyone for their hard work and offer them a nice hot cocoa.

"I appreciate the offer, ma'am," Gene grinned at her. "But I'm waiting for my brother to come home."

"Oh, was he not here last night?"

"Nah," he said, grin turning devious, "he was staying with his girlfriend."

"What?!" gasped Samantha, the other next-door neighbor. She dropped her shovel in shock. "Is that true?!"

"Um..." He'd suspected that she had her eyes on Noll for a while, if only because Gene made it known that he dated often, and she had yet to lodge any noise complaints. And while he knew Noll wasn't interested in her, maybe this wasn't the best way for her to find out...

"Is that right?" Brian, the upstairs neighbor, and the only neighbor who ever complained about the noise, chose that moment to approach, carrying his shovel over his shoulder. "Is that why it was so quiet last night? And here I thought you were the noisy one."

Gene laughed nervously. "Well, we both have our moments..." For once, maybe he should have taken a cue from Noll and just kept his big mouth shut.

And then lo and behold, there he was. Noll came trudging through the snow toward the apartment complex, looking rather disgruntled.

At the sight of him, Samantha let out a sob and hurried back to her apartment. Brian narrowed his eyes in suspicion. Mrs. Harper offered him a hot cocoa.

Noll ignored them all and headed straight for their first floor apartment. Gene followed on his heels, glad for an excuse to get out of that situation.

"Morning, Noll! How are you feeling this fine day?"

"Tired." Noll opened the door, went inside and began to untie his boots.

"Long night, huh? Did anything good happen?"

After taking off his boots, Noll straightened and raised an eyebrow at him.

Gene tried and failed to hold back his grin. "You know...did you get laid?"

Noll gave him a disgusted look. "I was going to tell you what happened, but now I don't think I will."

"What? Aww, come on! I'm just kidding around! Tell me, Noll! Come on~~" Gene followed him around like a lost puppy as Noll grabbed a change of clothes and headed for the shower, only stopping once the bathroom door was shut in his face.

Fine then. He'd already waited this long. He could wait a little longer. And so Gene waited patiently for Noll to come out of the shower, waited while he then meditated for an hour in the living room, and waited as he went into the kitchen to find some breakfast. Only then did Noll speak again, peering into their nearly empty pantry.

"You couldn't buy any bread?"

Gene shrugged, leaning against the wall. "Nope. Shelves were picked clean by the time I got there. I did manage to snag a carton of milk, if you want cereal."

Noll reached into the back of the pantry, then frowned. "Really, Gene?" He pulled out the colorful box and waved it at him. "Lucky Charms?"

Gene couldn't help but snort. "What? I like it."

"You're not ten years old anymore."

"But they're magically delicious!"

"Next time, I'm doing the shopping," Noll muttered darkly, closing the pantry and going to find a clean bowl.

Gene scoffed. "And what are you going to buy? Bran Flakes?" He made a voice. "My name is Oliver and I like bland-tasting food!"

"You don't need to do a voice, Gene. We have the same voice."

"But then it'd sound like I'm saying it!"

Apparently deciding there was no point in arguing, Noll kept his mouth shut, pouring himself a bowl of cereal, adding milk, then grabbing a spoon and extra bowl and heading to the living room. Gene sat next to him on the couch as Noll began scooping out the colorful marshmallows and dumping them in the extra bowl. When he was done, Gene picked up the bowl and slurped down the soggy marshmallows.

"So!" Gene said, setting the bowl back down on the coffee table. "Ready to talk now?"

Noll sighed resignedly. He ate another spoonful of cereal. Gene waited as he chewed and swallowed. Then he finally spoke.

"...She met Charlie."

"No way! Seriously?!"

"Her description matches yours, almost word for word. Even if she researched the library's history and saw his name in the papers, I can't imagine she could have found a picture of him, so that's the most logical conclusion."

Of course, Noll had personally scoured all the records, so he was staking his pride on this claim. But Gene was inclined to agree; from talking to surviving relatives, he'd learned that in life, Charlie had been notoriously camera shy. Baby pictures were all that remained.

"But he doesn't show himself to just anyone! You know how shy he is!"

"He didn't show himself to her, Gene. From what she told me, it seems she found him."

"Impressive!" Gene sat back, thinking this over. "So at the very least, she's spiritually sensitive..."

"She also showed other signs of sensitivity, but they weren't as conclusive."

"And? How did she react to seeing him?" Gene asked excitedly.

"Apparently she didn't even realize he was a spirit at first; afterwards, she seemed rather shaken. But she also noted that he doesn't frighten her as much now that she knows what he looks like."

Gene chuckled. "Well, it is Charlie." He smiled to himself. He'd met other mediums before, even sought them out when he was younger, and each time, it made him happy to know that there were others who saw spirits the way he did: not as frightening unknown entities, but as people.

"You know what? She sounds interesting. I think I'd like to meet her."

"Suit yourself," Noll shrugged. "Just don't tell her anything."

"So when does she usually come by the library?"

Noll frowned. "Why would I have her schedule memorized?"

"You disappoint me, Noll. I thought you were more observant than that."

"...On evenings from 7 to 10 PM, occasionally on afternoons between 12 and 2 PM."

"Very helpful, Noll, thank you," Gene said cheerfully.

 


 

In the morning, Mai finally emerged from the library, parted ways with Naru, and began her journey home. On the way, she came across people already having snowball fights and making crude snow sculptures on campus. She might have found this amusing any other day, but she'd hardly gotten any sleep last night, and making her way through the piles of snow without proper boots wasn't fun. So as it was, she hurried past the revelry, dodging snowballs and wanting nothing more than to shower and take a long nap.

To her relief, when she returned to her dorm, she found that the power was back on. And so, after showering, changing, and eating whatever non-perishable food she had in stock, Mai prepared herself to clean out the contents of her mini fridge.

However, that proved unnecessary. She sniffed everything to make sure, but it sure didn't look like anything had spoiled. But the power outage at the library had lasted all night...

Mai popped her head out into the hall, just in time to see the RA walking by. She called out to him.

"Excuse me, but did the power go out here last night?"

The RA, Eric, gave a start. "Oh, Mai! You made it back! God, I was wondering where you were last night!"

Mai smiled sheepishly. "I'm sorry. I was staying with...a friend." Maybe 'friend' was stretching it, but she didn't think it would be wise to say she'd spent the night at the library, or with a guy she barely knew.

"That's good, I was worried you'd gotten buried in a snowdrift and we wouldn't find you until Spring," Eric smirked.

Mai pouted. She wished she could say she wasn't that careless, but the fact was that without Naru, she might have been in quite a pinch last night.

Eric just laughed. "Sorry, what was your question again?"

"Was there a power outage here?"

He blinked. "No, I don't think so? Why, did your friend's place lose power?"

"Uh...I heard that the library lost power last night."

"Really? That's weird. I haven't heard of anywhere else on campus losing power, and I'm pretty sure we're all on the same grid."

"Oh." Mai considered this for a moment, before giving him a polite smile. "Thank you for answering. I guess I was misinformed."

"Yeah, probably. Let me know if you need anything, alright?"

"Yes, thank you."

Mai shut the door and leaned against it, thinking.

So only the library lost power. Why? Could it have been intentional? As it didn't seem to be a natural power outage, that seemed a likely explanation. But then who was the culprit?

The most obvious answer was the ghost. But somehow, she couldn't lay the blame on him so easily now. Not after seeing what he was really like. When she'd met him, he was just minding his own business, and seemed genuinely shocked that she'd approached him. She just couldn't picture him doing something like that.

But then, assuming no one else had snuck in without them knowing, that left only Naru. Could he have turned off the power?

It was certainly possible. He worked there; he probably knew where the circuit breakers were. And he could have gone anywhere while she was off making tea.

Why would he do that, though? To scare her? It was hard to imagine any other reason...actually, no. There was a perfectly plausible reason why a man might turn the lights out while secluded with a vulnerable young woman. But she couldn't suspect that of him if only for the fact that he didn't do anything to her. He'd been a total gentleman the whole time...at least by action, if not by words. Unless he had been planning something, and just changed his mind?

Suddenly, she recalled his words from last night: "It's not like there's anything else we can do, is there?" And that look he gave her, candlelight reflected in his eyes... Mai shivered.

If...if she'd responded differently back then...would he have tried something...?

Mai shook her head frantically. What was she doing, jumping to such outrageous conclusions?! There was no way! She needed to hurry and get her mind out of the gutter so she could think about this seriously!

After all, there could very well have been an innocent reason, and he just couldn't be bothered to explain! Yes, that seemed more like him! Even if she had no idea what that reason could be.

But still, there was no denying that something fishy was going on, and Mai wondered if she should tell somebody about it, just in case. She bit her lip, thinking it over.

...No. She didn't want to possibly get him in trouble just for a sneaking suspicion she had. She'd rather have him explain it in his own words first. But that meant she'd have to confront him about it. And that thought was nerve-wracking, to say the least.

Groaning, Mai crawled into bed, curling up under the warm covers. She'd think about it later. For now, she needed sleep.

 


 

February

Monday

 

To everyone's disappointment, the streets had been plowed enough over the weekend that classes were not even delayed by the time Monday arrived. And so students shuffled off into class, praying for another snow day.

But as for Mai, her more pressing concern was what she'd do when she saw Naru again. In the end, she'd put off thinking about it until it was too late. And so Mai entered the library that evening with still no idea what she was going to say. And at 8 PM sharp, Naru came to sit across from her as usual, as if nothing had changed.

Mai glanced nervously up at him. How should she approach the subject? She didn't want to sound like she was accusing him of something, but if she didn't lay her suspicions out straight, he might just ignore her. But what if she was wrong? She'd not only sound stupid, it might jeopardize the tenuous companionship they managed to form over the past week.

Before she knew it, half an hour had passed. At this rate, she'd miss her chance to bring it up. But maybe that was for the best. She probably didn't know anything after all, maybe it'd be best just to forget about it...

"Spit it out," Naru said suddenly.

"Huh?"

"You've been trying to work up the nerve to say something for the past half hour and it is getting irritating to watch. Either say it or don't."

He was watching her? Since when?!

"H-how could you tell?"

"It's written all over your face."

Mai flushed a little. Was she really that obvious? "I was just thinking of a way to say it delicately..."

"Do you think I care whether or not you say it delicately?"

Well, no. And he certainly never extended the same courtesy to her, now did he?

Mai frowned. "Fine. Just don't get mad at me, okay?"

Naru looked up at her with a bored expression.

She took a deep breath. "You're not some kind of axe murderer, are you?"

He stared at her.

She stared back.

An awkward silence stretched between them.

...Okay, maybe that had been a little too blunt.

Finally, Naru put his book down, looking more exasperated than she'd ever seen him before. "If I were, do you honestly think I would just say 'yes'?"

"Um..."

"You do realize that by asking me this, you would just be making yourself my next target?"

"If you were an axe murderer."

"Yes. If I were an axe murderer."

"...So is that a 'no'?"

He let out a long sigh. "What exactly brought this on? Is it another rumor?"

"No..." She glanced away. "I was just wondering why you turned the power off the other night..."

He stared at her again. "...When did you realize this?"

So he didn't deny it. No, he all but admitted it! "Saturday morning. I heard none of the other buildings on campus lost power."

"I see. But why do you assume I did it? It could have easily been the ghost."

"He's not the type."

"And how do you know this?"

"Just a feeling."

"Hm." He looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he narrowed a glare at her. "Have you told anyone else about this?"

"N-no. I thought about it, but..."

He continued glaring at her for a while longer before letting out another long sigh and looking away.

Well, at least he didn't seem too angry. "...Are you going to answer my question?" she asked meekly.

"If you must know, I turned off the power because I wanted to test something."

"Test what?"

"If I deem it important for you to know, then I will tell you."

"In other words, you're not going to tell me?"

In reply, Naru picked up his book again.

Mai let out a frustrated noise.

"And no, I am not an axe murderer," he added. "My weapon of choice is an ice pick."

"What!"

"In case you couldn't tell, I'm joking."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "I didn't know you had a sense of humor. And it's not very funny if you say it with a straight face, you know."

"Would you prefer that I say it with a smile?" He flashed her a fake-looking smile.

Mai shuddered. "No! That's even worse!"

"Then you will have to settle for my straight face."

Exasperated, she watched him turn his attention back to his book, and shot out her hand. "Wait! One last thing. At least tell me this: Did this 'test' of yours even work?"

He regarded her for a moment. "...It was worth the trouble." Then he returned to his reading, from which he didn't emerge for the remainder of his break.

Mai sighed. Really, he'd done little to reassure her about his intentions, but somehow, she felt more at ease. Although she'd never really felt in danger in the first place; she just wanted to see how he would explain himself. And she supposed a half-answer was better than nothing.

But at the same time, something was off. The thought occurred to her as she left the library that night. If the ghost wasn't the type to pull a prank like this, then what about all his other appearances?

Was he the one who tried helping her reach for a book? Was he the one who dragged chairs in front of her to scare her off? She tried picturing that mousy young man in either scenario, and it didn't seem to fit.

So that left the question: Could there be another ghost haunting that library? And if so, did Naru know about it?

Mai looked back at the library warily. Naru did admit he couldn't actually see spirits; if there was a different entity, could he even tell? But he had his brother; maybe he did know. Maybe that was what his 'test' was all about- maybe he'd been trying to call the spirit out. And maybe he'd kept quiet about it to avoid frightening her...

Maybe, maybe, maybe. All she could do was speculate. Even now, Naru remained just as mysterious as the ghost(s) in the library, and he seemed intent on keeping it that way. She would probably never know the whole truth.

But then, she did have three more months to go.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

 

February

Tuesday

 

Oliver looked up from his cart of books to check the clock on the wall. Five minutes to eight. Almost time.

He sighed. Since when did sitting across from an obnoxious girl for an hour become the highlight of his day? Not that he had anything else to look forward to...

Up to now, his breaks had been a treasured chance for peace and solitude. He'd seclude himself in the break room with a book, away from the prying eyes and questions of students. The irony that he did the exact opposite of that now did not escape him, and though he'd accepted that he couldn't gain anything from hiding, it was still no less annoying to think about.

Two minutes to eight. Oliver abandoned his cart, made his way to the break room, retrieved his book, and went looking for the girl's table.

The question he'd been mulling over lately was how he should proceed from here. Friday night had provided remarkable results; he had sufficient evidence now to support the theory that the girl had some form of ESP. The challenge was met. He ought to be satisfied. The wise thing to do now would be to distance himself again before she inadvertently gleaned any more information from him.

But he wasn't satisfied. Perhaps it was just his curiosity getting the better of him. But he wanted to know more. He wanted to question her. However, that would require alerting her to her latent abilities...

The urge was preposterous. The logical part of him naturally deemed this to be a risky and altogether unnecessary move. Making her aware of her abilities might lead to her using them more proactively, which was the very last thing he needed.

But the increasingly frustrated and rebellious part of him argued that leaving her ignorant would be leaving things...unfinished. And what was his life up to now but a series of logical, risk-averse decisions that ultimately prevented him from pursuing anything worthwhile? For all he longed for peace and quiet, once he finally had it, he felt like it was killing him slowly.

Oliver shook his head. No. He couldn't allow his feelings on that matter to influence what he did here. This might only amount to be an insignificant distraction, but it could also be an irretrievable mistake. When weighing these possibilities against each other, the answer was obvious.

Just one more day. If he learned nothing of interest tonight, that would be the end of it.

Having decided that, when he finally found the girl, and discovered that she was fast asleep, he was admittedly disappointed. And exasperated. For all her complaining about the hard chairs here, she seemed awfully comfortable now.

On closer look, she appeared to be using a book as her pillow. He narrowed his eyes. She'd better not be drooling on that book.

He went to her side to make sure. Thankfully, she was not. It didn't seem to be a library book either, but he still couldn't abide the thought on principle.

He gazed at her for a moment. She was remarkably quiet this way. And her sleeping face was the very picture of innocence. He frowned, suddenly reminded of the other night.

...Honestly, if there was a saving grace to this whole situation, it was that the girl was naive enough to bring her suspicions to him first, before anyone else. If allowed to develop into a rumor, that could have proven quite troublesome. And as stupid as it was for her to ask him such a question, it implied a degree of trust. Trust that he hadn't exactly earned.

Her naivety was exasperating. But he found he did not dislike it.

Oliver sighed. In any case, there was certainly no point in being here now. He might as well return to the break room. Or perhaps he would stay, just in case she woke up...

He turned away, and heard a small clatter as his shoe hit something. Looking down, he spotted a pink mechanical pencil on the floor. It looked familiar; it must be the girl's. Perhaps it had rolled off the table while she was sleeping.

Shaking his head, Oliver stooped to pick it up.

In hindsight, he should have known better. Usually, he would cover his hand with his sleeve when touching other people's belongings, or simply not touch it at all, but for whatever reason, this time he had let his guard down. He sensed the strong energy linked to the pencil the instant he touched it, but by then it was too late. He was sucked into a vision immediately.

But though it started as an accident, he couldn't say the same for the rest of it. He'd had enough experience with this by now that he knew how to break himself out of most visions, provided they weren't too intense. And yet he pushed on, for nothing more than his own damn curiosity.

It began with the girl sitting at a kotatsu alone in a small apartment, using the pencil to do her homework. He assumed this was her home in Japan. From there, it went backwards in time, but always in the same place, in the same situation. Days flew by like pages in a flip book. Now she wore a school uniform, and seemed stressed; studying for entrance exams, perhaps. Now she was back to doing homework. Sometimes she munched on snacks or watched TV while she worked. Always alone.

This couldn't be all there was. The pencil had strong emotions associated with it. There had to be something more. Almost reflexively, he dug deeper, pushing farther back in time.

And suddenly, she wasn't in the apartment anymore. She sat at a kitchen table, in a house. Her uniform had changed too, and she looked younger. She must be in junior high. She continued doing her homework at the kitchen table, but this time she wasn't alone; he caught flashes of other faces, people young and old coming in and out of the kitchen as she worked. A family. The girl smiled politely at them, sometimes made chit-chat. But it wasn't a familiar atmosphere. It felt awkward, like she was intruding in someone's home.

And then he found it. The source of the strong emotions. The flow of memories ground to a halt to linger on one scene.

The girl sat alone. It was late; everyone else had gone to bed. The kitchen was dark but for the solitary light above the kitchen table, bathing the girl in a dim spotlight. Before her lay an open notebook. She held the pencil in her hand, poised to begin writing. But her hand shook. Warm teardrops dotted the blank pages of the notebook. The girl sobbed. Fresh grief tore through her heart.

Then the scene changed one last time.

The girl appeared to be browsing in a stationary store. She plucked the pink mechanical pencil off a display and skipped up to a woman who had the same brown eyes and hair that she did. "Ooh, can I get this one?" she chirped.

"Sure, honey. Just put it in the basket," the woman smiled.

The memories ended there.

Oliver opened his eyes. Then closed them again. He sighed.

He shouldn't have done that.

Not only had he invaded her privacy, he wasn't playing fair. Here he was probing into her secrets, while keeping his own secrets to himself. She might be a latent psychic, but she had no idea what she was doing. He knew damn well what he did.

Oliver stood and placed the pencil back on the table. This was all a mistake. He never should have gotten involved. He began to walk away, but then the girl gasped.

He froze and looked back at her. Did she wake up? But no, she appeared to still be asleep. However, her face had an agonized expression, and her hand was at her throat. As he watched, she began to cough and choke.

It couldn't be...was she...?

The girl gasped desperately for air. "Help...can't...breathe..."

Oliver sprang into action. He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her roughly. "Hey, wake up! Wake up!"

If this was what he suspected it to be, then there wasn't a moment to lose.

 


 

Mai had only meant to doze off for a moment, but she must have fallen into a deeper sleep than she'd thought. She had pulled too many all-nighters lately; perhaps it was inevitable that that would soon catch up to her.

It was a crackling sound that awoke her. Mai blinked her eyes open, and stared blearily at the reflection on the mahogany desktop. The dance of light fascinated her in her half-asleep state, until she smelled the smoke.

She shot to her feet, nearly falling over her chair in her haste. She gasped in horror at her surroundings.

Flames leapt from bookcase to bookcase and curled towards the ceiling. Paper shriveled like it was nothing, becoming tinder for the ever-expanding inferno. Glass popped as the fire crept up desks and engulfed everything on them, even the lamps.

Everything burned. She was completely surrounded. There was no way out.

"H-Help!" Mai cried. "Help, I'm trapped! Is anyone there? Can anyone hear me?!"

Only the roar of the flames answered her. Had everyone evacuated already?

"Where is everybody?! I'm still in here! I'm still-"

Then she choked, and began coughing as she inhaled smoke. God, how did this happen? Why did no one wake her? Hadn't anyone noticed she was there...?

No, perhaps not. She always liked to keep out of the way. She always liked to avoid other people. And now that came back to bite her; they must have forgotten that she even existed.

The smoke grew thick. It was hard to breathe. Mai fell to her knees as she coughed and wheezed.

Tears welled up in her eyes. Was this it, then? This was how she'd meet her end? Alone and forgotten...with all her hard work going up in flames...

A distant voice echoed. "Wake up!"

Would anyone remember her when she was gone? Would anyone even care? Or would all traces of her disappear, crumbling into ash, as if she had never existed in the first place?

The heat was unbearable now. The flames crept ever closer. The ceiling above her groaned.

Mai hugged herself and let out a sob. "Please...someone...anyone..."

"WAKE UP!"

Mai awoke with a jolt.

The first thing she saw were blue eyes. She stared up at them in a daze before recognizing the face they belonged to. "Naru...?"

Then her eyes widened. "NARU!" She grabbed his arm. "Quick! We have to get out of here! There's a fire!"

"No, there isn't."

"We have to let everyone know! We have to get everyone out or they'll die!"

"Listen to me. There is no fire."

"But I just saw-"

"Look around you."

Mai paused, then finally tore her eyes away from his to look around. Sure enough, she didn't see a single flame.

"But...but there was just..." She began to breath quickly. Her whole body trembled.

"You need to calm down. Take deep, long breaths."

"B-but I..."

"Follow my instructions. Breathe in...and breathe out. In...and out."

Mai closed her eyes and obeyed. His calm voice soothed her nerves. Gradually, she was able to relax.

"What happened?" someone then asked. "Is everything okay?"

Mai opened her eyes to see the head librarian standing nearby, looking at her worriedly. A crowd had gathered, groups of students staring at them and whispering to each other.

"She'll be fine," Naru said. "She just had a bad dream."

"We don't need to call a paramedic?"

"No, that won't be necessary."

For some reason, she took his word for it. Nodding, the librarian turned to disperse the crowd.

Naru took Mai's coat from where it hung on the back of her chair and draped it over her shoulders.

"Th-thank you," Mai said, shivering.

He took a step back. "Are you feeling better?"

She nodded, gulping. Mai looked down at her hands, which were still shaking slightly.

"Was that...really a dream? But it felt so real...I thought I was really going to die..."

Naru walked to the other side of the table and took a seat. He then folded his hands together and looked at her.

"Tell me what you saw."

Mai shuddered as she recounted the dream. It still felt fresh in her mind; she could almost feel the heat of the flames, and the smell of smoke seemed to hang in the air. She shook her head when she was done, willing the memory to go away.

Naru's expression remained neutral. "Was the library you saw in your dream the same library we are in now? Or was it different?"

"What?" Mai blinked at him. "I-I don't know...everything was on fire."

"Try to remember. This is important."

Mai furrowed her eyebrows. "Um..." She tried to recall the layout of the library, its furnishings... There were bookcases, of course...and desks...mahogany desks, with ornate lamps, and leather chairs...

She gasped in realization. Aside from the fire, the library in her dream had been the splitting image of the idealized library interior that she had first imagined before entering Giffords Library.

"Well?" Naru asked.

"It all looked kind of fancy...and old-fashioned...and there weren't any computers..."

He nodded. "Then it was retrocognitive."

"Wh-what?"

"If you'd seen the current library, it would have been a precognitive vision, meaning the library may someday burn. Instead, it appears you've had a retrocognitive experience."

"You've lost me."

"The library that you saw was Giffords Library on the night of April 25, 1929."

Her jaw dropped. "So you're saying that I saw into the past...?"

"That's what I've been saying for the past minute now," Naru said testily.

"You can't be serious."

He glanced away for a few seconds, as if considering something, before returning his gaze to her and resuming his questioning. "...Have you ever had visions like this before?"

"Visions?"

"For example, when you touch objects, do you sometimes see things concerning its history or that of its owner?"

"Uh, no...?"

"Then have you dreamt of things like this before? About people, places, or events that you previously had no knowledge of?"

Immediately, Mai recalled the strange boy who kept popping up in her dreams lately. But that couldn't be right. Those were ordinary dreams. They weren't visions. "No, I don't think so..."

"And have you ever known things you should have no way of knowing, or intuitively sensed things, only to later find out that your hunch was correct?"

Now this made her wonder. She did guess that Naru was the one who turned the power off. And she'd had a clear image in her mind of what Giffords Library once looked like before even stepping inside for the first time. But couldn't that just be a coincidence? Couldn't she have seen a picture of it somewhere and just forgotten about it? Or couldn't her mind have supplanted her mental image into the dream? Was there even any proof that that's what the library really looked like?

"M...maybe. But...how do we know that my dream was even real? Maybe it really was just a dream. I dreamed of a fire in the library, that's all. It doesn't mean anything."

"Did you know that there was once a fire here?"

"No...but in hindsight, I guess it makes sense. I mean, I thought I smelled smoke here once, and I felt really uneasy that time you lit a candle..."

"You prove my point."

"And what is your point? Why are you asking me these things?"

He sighed. "Have you ever considered the possibility that you may have ESP?"

"ESP?"

"Extra-sensory perception. A sixth sense. You've already demonstrated some level of spiritual sensitivity, so it would not be a stretch."

"Me? Seriously?" She boggled at him. There was no way. This was the stuff of movies and television. How could she have powers like that?

"It doesn't ring a bell? Has no one ever suggested it to you before?"

"Well..." Mai bit her lip. Now that she thought of it... "There was this one time...but it's a really stupid story. You probably don't want to hear it."

Naru raised an eyebrow. "I think I can judge for myself whether or not it is stupid."

For once, Mai realized, she had his undivided attention. Spurred on by this fact, she began hesitantly.

"It was on the day I graduated high school. After the ceremony, my friends and I went to get a palm reading at a fortune-teller's...just for fun, you know, to see what might be in our futures after high school. I don't remember whose idea it was originally, but it was my friend Michiru who found the fortune-teller. Her readings were supposed to be really accurate.

"Anyway...my friends went before me, one after the other, and I was watching them. The fortune-teller told them about their future careers, their love lives, how long they would live...the usual stuff. She told them about themselves too, to show that she knew what she was talking about, but it all sounded really vague to me. Like the sort of stuff you could say to anyone and they would identify with it. And the rest sounded like guessing based on their reactions. But I didn't want to spoil everyone's fun, so I kept my mouth shut.

"When my turn came up, I was just planning on playing along. But as soon as I sat down, the old lady grabbed my hands and squeezed them really hard..." Mai shuddered at the memory. "Then she cackled and said..."

"Now I see, my dear...you are like me. You do not need a soothsayer to read your fortune. You possess the power to find your own destiny. Follow your instincts, and they will lead you to where you are meant to be."

Mai looked at her hands. "I know...I know it was just as vague as everything else. I know she was just trying to scare me since I wasn't buying her act. But something about that stuck with me..." In fact, since that day, she had begun putting more trust in her gut feelings. That was partly how she chose both her major and where to study abroad...though it was too embarrassing to admit.

She glanced up at Naru. "It's stupid, right? She was probably faking the whole thing."

Naru steepled his fingers together and looked thoughtful. "...It's entirely possible that she was a fraud. She could probably tell you were skeptical just from your body language and facial expressions. You aren't exactly difficult to read."

"Hey!"

"However, there are genuinely people who use their abilities to make a living. But they may not always be able to get a clear reading, and in those cases they are forced to improvise. As a result, their predictions are often a mix of truth and lies. I can't discount the possibility that your fortune-teller was a real psychic, but even if she was, there's no telling how much truth there is in her fortune. In short, I can't see the future, so I don't know if it's real or not. I can only attest to what I've observed personally."

"And that is?"

"That you are very intuitive."

Mai didn't know whether to be flattered or not. And not because he had insulted her, because surprisingly, this time he hadn't. She just didn't know how to feel about all this. She'd never considered herself to be special in any way. It was a little hard to believe.

"Do you recall any other details about your dream?" Naru asked. "For instance, did anything strike you as unusual?"

Now that he mentioned it, some things didn't add up. She'd been staying up late recently, sure, but not to the point of pulling constant all-nighters. And she never actively avoided people. It was like she wasn't really herself...

Then she gasped, realization setting in. She looked up at Naru with wide eyes. "The ghost...he died in that fire, didn't he?"

"He did."

So it wasn't just a dream after all. It actually happened.

Mai gulped. "Who...was he? Do you know?"

"He was a student named Charles Dunberg. He was finishing his thesis on the night of April 25, 1929, when a fire broke out in the library. At first it was thought that everyone had safely evacuated the building, but the next day, a charred body was discovered among the smoldering ruins. Dental records later confirmed that it belonged to him."

Mai felt sick. "...That's horrible." So he really did die alone and forgotten...but what about his family?

As if reading her mind, Naru went on. "He was survived by his mother, step-father, and a little sister. Only the sister still lives, but as she was young when her brother left for college, she only has dim memories to remember him by. Apparently he became distant from his family after his mother remarried and did not make friends easily."

"Oh..."

So he wasn't really close to anyone. No wonder...

Mai recalled the crushing loneliness of his last moments, the fear, the regret. That part of the dream had resonated most strongly with her. The sudden, world-shattering realization that you are alone.

She had felt it before, and she felt it even now; especially since coming here, disconnected from everyone she knew back home. It wasn't an easy thing to shake off, no matter how much time passed. She couldn't imagine it would be any easier as a ghost, with no one able to see or talk to you...

Naru's voice interrupted her thoughts. "Would you like to hear more?" he asked.

Mai looked up at him in surprise, then nodded uncertainly.

Without missing a beat, he continued. "After the fire, two thirds of the building had burnt to the ground, and Giffords Library was rendered unusable. Plans for rebuilding were put in motion, but efforts were stymied during the Great Depression, so the library was not fully functional again until 1941. That was when the first occurrences of paranormal activity were recorded.

"At first they were little things, barely noticeable- pens missing, books not where they ought to be, cards from the card catalogue misplaced. Most of it seemed to take place overnight, while the library was closed. It was suspected there was an intruder. So on the night of October 8, 1948, a librarian by the name of Mabel Hopkins decided to stay overnight to catch the culprit in the act. What she witnessed could not be explained by logic- books floating out of shelves and an invisible specter penning a paper. Mabel Hopkins turned in her resignation the next day, and thereafter, Giffords Library was rumored to be haunted."

Mai listened intently, in awe of the fact that 1) Naru was suddenly so talkative, 2) he was actually telling her things, and 3) he even had all this stuff memorized.

"Beyond these infrequent appearances, however, Charlie did not cause much trouble until recently, when the card catalogue was officially retired in favor of the online catalogue. This was no doubt frustrating for him, as Charlie never learned how to use computers."

"Charlie has an unusually sharp memory for a spirit; even if copies of his thesis are found and thrown away, he can rewrite it entirely from scratch. However, in return, he has lost most of his memories from life; at this point, he hardly remembers his home or family. The library had become his entire world, and he suddenly found that he could no longer function within that world. So out of desperation, he took to vandalizing the computers in hopes that the card catalogue would be reinstated."

Mai gasped.

"This, of course, proved to be a great expense to the library, and only furthered its reputation. Staff members quit regularly; new hires only lasted one or two months. By the time I started working here, the head librarian was at her wit's end. But my brother and I quickly realized the problem, so we convinced the library to reinstate the card catalogue, and I took to finding and printing online sources. The vandalism stopped almost immediately."

Mai nodded to herself. Now it made sense. That's why the librarian had listened to him earlier. She trusted him when it came to this stuff.

"However, Charlie did not pass on. He continues to linger, working on his thesis night after night."

Mai tilted her head at this. "But why? Is it that important to him?"

Naru shook his head. "While the computers had upset him, the real problem is that he's a perfectionist. Year after year, he finds new sources and rewrites his entire thesis to incorporate them. At this rate, he won't cross over as long as this library continues to function. So I struck a deal with him."

"Hold on, I thought you couldn't see ghosts?"

"My brother channeled him for me." He said this so casually that she had no choice but to accept it.

"...Okay, so what was the deal?"

"I gave him a deadline. Charlie promised that he would finish his thesis when I decide to end my employment here. In return, I agreed to leave him be, and that I would read his thesis upon its completion."

Mai blinked. "Don't tell me he still wants to be graded on it?"

"Hardly. He's well aware that he's dead. At this point, he only works on it out of self-satisfaction. However, he said that it would mean a great deal to him to have at least one person read his life's work."

Mai smiled sadly. "Yeah...I guess it would suck to work on something for so long, only to have no one read it..."

But she got the feeling that wasn't all there was to it. Maybe...he was trying to leave something behind. It wasn't just a thesis paper to him; it was proof of his existence. And after so many years, he finally found someone to entrust it to, someone who might understand...

It was quite sweet, really.

Mai wiped a tear away from her eye and let out a small laugh. "So I guess you really are friends."

Naru furrowed his eyebrows. "...We have a mutual respect."

"Don't say that. You'll hurt his feelings."

"I don't believe I've said anything hurtful."

"But he could be right here listening, and you wouldn't even know it."

He shrugged. "Again, I don't see why he would be offended."

"You really don't get it, do you?"

"Get what?"

She sighed. Well, if Charlie was happy with this arrangement, she supposed that was all that mattered. "Never mind. And...thank you for telling me about him. After what I saw, it really makes me feel better." She gave him a small smile.

He looked slightly bemused at this. And then abruptly, he got up and walked away.

Mai blinked after him. Well...it was nearing the end of his break. She supposed it made sense for him to leave.

However, twenty minutes later, Naru suddenly returned, this time carrying a stack of books and clipped-together papers. He set this all in front of her with an unceremonious thud.

Mai gave him a bewildered look. "Uh, Naru? What's all this?"

"Reading material."

"I can see that..."

"Then don't ask stupid questions."

He pulled a book from the top of the stack and began to flip through it. "This will give you a general overview of various psychic phenomena and what is known about them. It should not be too difficult. If you wish to read further, there are various studies on the subject published by accredited researchers. The work of Martin Davis is particularly illuminating. This library's collection is limited, but it's possible to acquire more by Interlibrary Loan..."

Wait a minute. Was he assigning her homework?!

"Whoa, wait, hold on!" Mai waved her hands. "Why do I have to read all this?!" She didn't remember signing up for this class!

"If you knew you might have certain abilities, wouldn't you want to learn everything you could about them?" he asked, as if this were obvious.

"Um, not really...?"

He gave her a look, and she could sense that what little respect he had for her was quickly dwindling away.

Mai tried to explain herself. "Well, what I mean is..." She licked her lips. "I don't know if I want to get mixed up in all this supernatural stuff. Once in a while is okay, but I don't want to live it, you know? I just want a normal life..."

It was barely perceptible, but she saw Naru stiffen at this.

"Naru...?"

He looked away, gaze focused on some point in the distance. "...True, if you've never been inconvenienced by your abilities, you certainly have that choice," he said quietly. "But some people are never meant to have a normal life." He turned back to her. "If you want a fulfilling one, it's best to just accept that."

He shut the book in his hands and handed it to her. "Read this. You might learn something."

"But I..." she stammered.

"Just read it." From the look in his eyes, he wasn't taking no for an answer.

And before she could say anything more, he stalked off.

 


 

Gene knew something was up nearly the moment Noll opened the door. At once, his homework flew off the coffee table and landed in a pile on the floor. He hurriedly gathered everything up and zipped them safely away in his backpack, which he then tossed in the bedroom closet to (hopefully) prevent further damage.

His second clue was when Noll ate only half a slice of pizza for dinner. He always had a small appetite, but he could usually finish at least one slice. Unless he was distracted.

Noll also didn't say a single word the whole time. He silently passed Gene the rest of his pizza, and after Gene scarfed it down, took the plate back to the kitchen to wash up.

When Noll headed straight for the bedroom next, Gene decided it was time to speak up.

"Uh, Noll? What's up?"

No reaction. His brother continued walking.

"Noll?"

He put his hand on the door handle.

Have you gone deaf? Gene thought at him.

Noll finally turned to him. "What?"

"Everything okay? You seem a bit distracted. Did something happen?"

"No."

"Let me guess, it was that Japanese girl again?" Gene smiled innocently.

Noll looked irritated, but didn't deny it.

"So tell me what happened!"

Apparently deciding it would be easier just to get it over with, Noll strode over and crossed his arms. "I found her sleeping, then she had a vision of the library burning."

"...What? Really?" Gene took a moment to process this, then asked uneasily, "You don't think it was precognitive, do you?"

"No, it was the old library."

"Oh." Well, thank god for that. "Wait, but then isn't that..."

"Yes. It's the same vision I had of Charlie's death."

Gene took a deep breath. "So it's possible she has psychometry?"

"I don't think so. I questioned her about it, and she claims she's had no experience with it before. However..." Noll hesitated. "...I was using psychometry on her at the time, so it's possible that might have triggered something."

"You what?! I thought we agreed you shouldn't do that anymore!"

"It was an accident," he said defensively.

"Noll, you're saying you might've caused this girl to have a death vision!"

"It's only a theory. It's entirely possible that she did it on her own."

"But still..." Gene shook his head in exasperation. "You really need to be more careful."

"At any rate, I broke her out of it in time, so she didn't see the worst of it."

"And did you comfort her? Please don't tell me you just left her there like that."

Noll looked insulted. "I calmed her down. And I told her about Charlie."

Gene smiled. That was honestly better than he'd expected. "So you're learning."

"Yes, I did gain some interesting information from her this time," Noll said, and Gene resisted the urge to facepalm.

"Is that right...?"

"She definitely seems clairvoyant. And as I thought, ignorant of her own abilities; even reluctant to believe she has any. She has a healthy amount of skepticism towards the whole idea."

In other words, she didn't think of herself as a special snowflake. He doubted Noll would find her tolerable otherwise. Gene looked forward to meeting her even more.

"All the same, I encouraged her to give it some thought, and recommended a book so she could attempt to educate herself."

Now this took him aback. "Which book?"

"Mind Over Matter: Signs of Psychic Phenomena."

Gene knew the book. He had read it too.

He sat back, stunned. "...So, I guess that settles it. You're befriending her."

Noll frowned. "I never said that."

"You might as well have. You gave her that book, didn't you?"

He looked away. "I was only leveling the playing field."

"If that's what you want to call it..."

"You're reading into things."

"I don't think I am. Besides, it's high time you started opening up to somebody."

Noll scoffed.

"I'm serious. For god's sake, Noll, you've never had a single friend. The closest you've got is Charlie, and you can't even talk to him without my help."

"That's the way I like it."

Gene rolled his eyes. "Seriously, don't you ever just want someone you could talk to about your problems?"

"I talk to you."

"I'm family. It's not the same. There must be things you're not completely comfortable sharing with your brother."

"And why would I feel comfortable sharing it with anyone else?"

"Most people branch out, Noll, and find someone they're comfortable with."

"You say that as if it is even an option for me," Noll muttered bitterly.

Gene smiled sadly. "And that's why I'm telling you, when someone just falls in your lap like this, you've got to grasp that opportunity. Otherwise they're just going to slip away."

Noll took a deep breath, closing his eyes.

"Eugene."

And with that one word, the mood shifted.

"I would appreciate it if you'd stop assuming I want the same things you do."

Gene faltered. "Wh-what do you..."

"What I need isn't a friend. It's control. It's training. It's help."

Oh no. Not this argument again. And before Gene could stop him, Noll said the words that he'd come to dread.

"I want to contact ASPR."

"Noll..." Gene looked away with a heavy sigh. "You know how I feel about that. It's too dangerous..."

"Not any more dangerous than continuing to let my abilities run out of control, I would think."

"I just don't want to see you get turned into a human guinea pig again, okay?"

"You're being irrational. They can't all be like Elijah."

"But how do we know that? How do we know these people are any better?"

"ASPR is a legitimate organization with roots in academia. They do research with the goal of furthering understanding and acceptance of parapsychology within the scientific community."

"You know that's not what I'm talking about," Gene frowned. He didn't care about scientists and their lofty goals. The only thing he cared about was whether their humanity was intact.

"Well, I don't see you with any better ideas," Noll frowned back.

"Noll, I told you. Our abilities are waning every year. Even your PK is starting to settle down a little. If we just wait, it might become manageable on its own."

"For how long?" Noll's voice was low with anger. "How many years do I have to wait?"

The temperature suddenly dropped. The lights flickered. A rapping noise echoed off the walls and ceiling.

"We don't know how long it might take. We don't even know if there's a precedent for it. For all we know, I might have to live with this my entire life." Noll's voice grew quiet as he hissed, "I don't want to spend my whole life working in a damn library."

Gene gulped guiltily. That job had seemed like a godsend at first. And it truly was. But Noll was capable of so much more, and he knew it. Moreover, the environment was a constant reminder that others were advancing toward their futures, while he was stuck, stuck with what might as well be called a disability for all the trouble that it brought him. And all that pent up frustration only made the poltergeisting even worse.

"I know, Noll. But think of the risks..."

"I can deal with the risks."

Sure. Maybe he could handle it. But Noll didn't remember all those days and weeks and months he'd spent comatose. He wasn't the one who had to sit at a bedside, alone, while his only family in the world barely clung to life. Gene couldn't do that anymore. He couldn't take it.

"I'm sorry. But I can't agree to this. We're safe here."

"For the time being. We never know when that might change."

"But until it does...why let go of a good thing?"

Noll let his arms drop to his sides with a sigh. "...Fine. Then I'll go on my own. You can just stay here and live the way you want to."

"What?!" Gene jumped to his feet in shock. "You can't do that!" It was unthinkable. Impossible. They had always been together.

"Of course I can. I'm not a child."

"You can't," Gene repeated hoarsely. "You...you need me."

Noll raised an eyebrow. "Do I?"

Gene sucked in his breath.

Noll was right. They weren't children anymore. They didn't need to cling to each other like they used to.

He'd feared this would happen one day. Gene knew it was long past time they started forging their own paths. But he'd always told himself, 'Noll needs me. I can't let him down again. I can't leave him alone.'

But maybe that had become an excuse. Maybe he was the one who couldn't let go. Despite his special circumstances, Noll had always been more independent-minded. Wasn't it entirely possible that now, Gene needed Noll more than Noll needed him?

Yet at the same time, he couldn't deny there was also a part of him that found Noll's offer tempting. That thought maybe starting separate lives wouldn't be such a bad idea.

And that scared him.

"No." Gene shook his head, numbly. "No, I can't let you go alone. You never know what might happen..."

"Then are you coming with me?" Noll asked, with more than a hint of impatience.

"Noll, I..." And then he knew. He wasn't only worried about his brother's safety. They should have never stayed in one place for so long. He should never have come to know what it was like to...settle. "...I can't."

If the fury wasn't immediately obvious on Noll's face, it was evident enough in their surroundings. The steady rapping transformed into a loud banging. They heard several crashes from the kitchen, and the coffee table flipped over and flew across the room. With a grating metallic snap, the closet door was wrenched from its hinges and followed suit.

At times like this, he could understand why people thought his brother terrifying.

They stood opposite each other in the middle of that cacophony, the door and the coffee table whirling around them. Gene urged himself to remain calm. He needed to say something to calm Noll too. But his mind was distracted, full of panicked thoughts.

Someday, Noll would leave. That was almost a certainty now. And then Gene would lose him forever, either because he got himself into trouble, or because their relationship would become irreparably damaged in the process.

Gene had no choice. He had to come along.

And suddenly, he was struck by the unfairness of it all. He clenched his hands into fists.

"Noll...have you ever known me to hesitate when it came to choosing you over anything else? I have always put you first-"

"Until now."

"Why can't you do the same?!" Gene snapped. "For once, why can't you think about what I want?! I'm not asking for much! I'm not asking you to drag yourself across the country, to drop everything at the slightest hint of trouble, to never get close to anyone because you know it won't last-" Gene stopped himself then. He had said too much.

But Noll didn't look surprised. He gave him an appraising look. "So it finally comes out. Turns out perfect, selfless Gene isn't such an angel after all."

He said it so haughtily that Gene felt like punching him in the face.

"Don't be an asshole, Noll," he growled.

"I can't help what I am." And now Noll glared at him, eyes cold as ice. "I can't help any of it. But at least I'm not ignoring the problem."

And then he stormed off into the bedroom, the door slamming shut behind him with a loud bang.

The closet door and the coffee table crashed into a wall, adding new dents. Gene cringed.

After a moment, guilt flooded in.

Gene hurried to stand in front of the bedroom door. "Noll, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said all that. I didn't mean-"

The overhead light shattered, sending glass and darkness descending on the hallway.

Gene quickly backed away, deciding it would be best just to let him calm down for now.

There would be no point in cleaning up until after all this settled down, so Gene went to wait on the couch, head in his hands. God, how could he be so stupid? He'd made it sound like he blamed Noll for everything. Like he'd only stuck with him out of obligation. This would only make him feel even more of a burden...

His thoughts were interrupted by a loud banging on the front door. Gene got to his feet with a sigh, already knowing who it was. Sure enough, Brian stood outside in his pajamas, looking furious.

"Look here, do you have any idea what time it is?! I don't know what the hell you're doing in there, but cut that shit out! Some of us have work in the morning!"

Gene listened blankly as Brian berated him with thinly veiled threats to call the police and have them thrown out. He answered automatically and then shut the door in his neighbor's face. He wasn't in the mood to be polite anymore.

It took about half an hour for the rapping noises to finally quiet down. After waiting another ten minutes to make sure nothing moved again, Gene went into the kitchen to clean up. Thankfully, all their dishes were made of plastic, so there wasn't too much damage. He dumped everything in the sink, then mopped up the milk, food, and condiments that had flown out of the refrigerator.

The closet door, he couldn't do much about. If he left it lying around, it would only become another dangerous blunt object the next time Noll had an accident. So with some difficulty, he carried it outside and threw it in the dumpster.

Coming back to their apartment, he grabbed a flashlight, broom and dustpan and went to sweep up the glass in the hallway. He'd replace the lightbulb tomorrow. Now, he was too tired.

By the time he'd finished, it was nearing 3 AM. Gene collapsed on the couch. His first class was in four hours. God, he hated morning classes. Maybe he would skip, just this once.

He heard nothing but silence from the bedroom. Noll had probably tired himself out by now. But it was still too risky to go inside. He'd just have to crash out here. And if he overslept, so be it.

Gene sighed, staring up at the ceiling. He wanted to talk to someone. But would anyone even be up at this hour?

Nevertheless, he pulled his phone out of his pocket, flipped it open, and began scrolling through his long list of contacts. Once or twice he paused, almost pushing the call button, but in the end he couldn't do it. Gene snapped the phone shut and sighed again.

"I'm such a hypocrite."

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

 

February

Wednesday

 

Mai yawned. She had just gotten out of her afternoon class. Now she only had one class left at 5 PM and then she would be done for the day. She hadn't done her homework for that class yet though...she really ought to have last night at the library, but she fell asleep, and then all that stuff happened...

And even when she got back to her dorm, she was too preoccupied pouring over that book Naru recommended her, looking for some kind of clue...to what, she had no idea. But what Naru said to her had left her intensely curious, and she ended up staying awake later than she should have. Leaving her sleep-deprived and ill-prepared for her classes.

This was all proving to be too much of a distraction. As much as she wanted to curl up somewhere warm and crack open that book again, she needed to focus on school. School. That was her priority. She needed to finish her homework...

Sighing, Mai headed toward the library. Right. Plan of action: Do homework, then a quick lunch. No falling asleep, no peeking at that book, no talking to ghosts or narcissists. That should be simple enough to do.

It should have been.

But then she saw Naru standing outside the library, leaning against one of the white columns at the entrance, and she could hardly believe her eyes. She'd seen him outside once before, in the half-light of early morning after the storm, but it was another thing to see him in broad daylight.

Not only that, he wore jeans. And a red parka. Well...this was a new look for him. And admittedly he looked very nice. But it only added to the surreality of the situation.

What was he doing out here? As far as she could tell, he just stood there, arms crossed, glowering at anyone within eyesight. Students gave him a wide berth as they entered or left the library, shooting glances at him and whispering to each other. At least she wasn't the only one who found it odd.

Slowly, Mai climbed the steps to the library, peering at him curiously. She paused when she reached the top, wondering if she should even bother asking.

Naru noticed her presence. Their eyes met. He stared at her for a moment, then tilted his head quizzically.

"Konnichiwa?" he said.

Now he was greeting her? What the...

"Ko...konnichiwa..." she answered bewilderedly.

And what he did next really threw her for a loop.

He smiled at her. And not the flat, fake-looking smile he'd shown before, but a true one. At the same time, his stance also relaxed, turning casual rather than guarded.

Mai boggled at the transformation. Okay, who was this pod person and what did he do with Naru?

"You must be the Japanese study abroad student," he said in Japanese.

"Um, yeah? Shouldn't you know that already?" she replied, half-convinced he'd gone out of his mind.

He looked amused. "Actually, this is the first time we've met."

"...What?!"

He chuckled at her reaction. It was a very attractive chuckle.

Mai blinked hard. This...couldn't really be Naru...right?

She took a wild guess. "Are you...Naru's brother? The one who can see ghosts?" At least, she hoped it was his brother, and not Naru with a split personality- that might just be too much weirdness for her to take.

"Yup," he said, and then with a smirk, "He's told you about me?"

"O-only a little. I didn't know you were twins..." And completely identical, at that! This was still blowing her mind.

"Well, I'm surprised he's said anything at all." He raised an eyebrow. "By the way...'Naru'?"

"Oh!" she blushed. "Th-that's just something I call him. You know, Naru...short for...narcissist." This was really embarrassing to explain, she realized.

He laughed. "Nice!"

"You're not offended...?"

"No, it suits him. And actually, that's pretty close to my pet name for him."

"It is?"

He nodded. "I call him Noll, short for Oliver."

And bam, just like that, she knew Naru's real name. Mai's mouth dropped open in surprise. Who knew it could be so easy?

"I'm Eugene, by the way. You can call me Gene." He offered his hand. "It's nice to finally meet you in the flesh."

She shook his hand. "Pleasure is mine...Gene." Her face grew hot. She knew it was normal to be on a first name basis in America, but she still found it awkward at times.

"I hope you don't mind me asking your name? I don't think Noll knows either...at least, he hasn't told me."

"Really? But I told him when we first met." Mai frowned. "I guess he forgot..."

Gene smiled apologetically. "Hate to say it, but I wouldn't be surprised if he did. He doesn't find most people very memorable."

"Great..."

"He definitely remembers you now though! He's told me a lot about you, actually."

"Really?" she asked skeptically. She doubted he cared. What would he even have to say about her?

"Well, it's a lot for him. By ordinary standards, I guess it's not much."

"Uh huh..." she muttered to herself, more disappointed than she would have expected. Then she realized that Gene was still waiting. "Oh, sorry! My name's Mai. Taniyama Mai."

"Mai, huh?" He smiled kindly. "That's a nice name."

She gawped at him.

"Is...something wrong?"

She shook her head. "S-sorry, it's just...you're so different..."

Gene laughed. "Yeah, we get that a lot."

He had a really nice laugh. Now why couldn't Naru laugh like that? No, wait...on second thought...that would be weird.

"Anyway...have you had lunch yet?"

Mai snapped out of her thoughts. "Um, no..."

"Perfect. I've been wanting to talk to you, actually. If you're not too busy, do you want to go get something to eat together?" He winked. "My treat."

"Well..." Mai glanced at the library. She needed to do homework...

Oh, to hell with it. She could wing it right before class. It wasn't every day that she was asked out by Naru's charming twin brother, after all!

"Sure!" she beamed. "That sounds great!"

 


 

Mai yawned again.

"Didn't get much sleep?" Gene asked as he led her off campus.

"No, I stayed up pretty late, then I had to wake up for an early class..."

"Ah," he said with a slight smile. "I'm in the same boat. Got like only three hours of sleep last night. I count it as a miracle that I even made it to my first class."

"Ooh, that's tough," she winced sympathetically. Now that he mentioned it, he did have bags under his eyes, though it did nothing to diminish his handsome features.

But wait. Did he just say he had a class? "So...you go to college? Are you a student here?"

"Nah, I go to the local community college."

"Ohh..." No wonder she hadn't heard any gossip about him. Still, she was forced to reevaluate her previous assumptions. Was money not an issue after all? Or maybe they only had enough for one brother...

They continued chatting about their classes as they walked. Inconsequential stuff about weird professors, confusing assignments, annoying classmates. But while they talked, Mai noticed something.

His smiles were fake.

Not all of them, of course. There were plenty of times that his eyes lit up with genuine mirth, mischief, or kindness. But his default smiles looked forced; as if he was making a show of telling people that he was okay. And his eyes...

His eyes were lonely.

"We're here," Gene announced suddenly, coming to a stop.

They stood before a restaurant located in the local strip mall. It was one Mai hadn't gone into before; she'd taken one look at the menu in the window and shied away due to the prices.

Now Mai looked at the same menu uneasily. "Uh...I don't know about this, Gene. I thought we were just going to some cafe. This place looks expensive..."

She'd feel guilty having him treat her at a place like this. And besides, they'd only just met; it felt a little premature.

"Don't worry about it, Mai. I'm not trying to impress you or anything. I work here, actually; I'd just rather go somewhere I'm familiar with."

"Oh..." Well, in that case...

They entered the restaurant, where they were met with murmurs of soft conversation and the clinking of silverware. The decor inside was simple but classy, with dim lighting, and all of the staff wore sharp uniforms.

Mai unwittingly thought of Gene wearing one of those uniforms. Good God. Why had she never come here again?

The hostess blinked at them as they came in. "Gene? I thought you weren't on shift today?"

"I'm not. Today, I'm a customer."

"And you brought a date...?" The hostess turned a wary eye on Mai.

"Sort of. Oh, hey..." As if just thinking of something, Gene went up to the hostess and whispered in her ear. She turned bright red.

"So? Is it available?" he asked, pulling away.

"W-well, yeah..." The hostess glanced at Mai again. "But I don't know..."

"Pleeease~?"

The poor hostess melted before their eyes. Flustered, she grabbed two menus and led the way. "F-follow me please."

As they walked through the restaurant, Mai shook her head. What a charmer. And he made it look so effortless too. He probably got really good tips.

"Genie!" an elderly woman called from a table as they passed by. "What's the meaning of this?! They told me you weren't working today! And I asked for you!"

"Sorry, Mrs. Montgomery! Maybe next time!" he called back, with a lethal smile and wink combination.

Yes, he definitely got good tips.

When they approached their table, Mai suddenly understood why the hostess had been reluctant to seat them there. This was...a very private table. Secluded in a far corner of the restaurant, with curtains hiding it from view of the other tables, the booth held a secret, intimate atmosphere. She imagined it was the sort of table where mobsters did their business dealings, or that men asked for when they wanted to propose to their girlfriends.

She felt her face heat up. This was a bit much, wasn't it? Again, they'd only just met! And it was only supposed to be a friendly chat...right? What did she just agree to?!

Gene laughed. "Calm down, Mai. I just don't want our conversation to be overheard."

Hearing him speak in Japanese, the hostess looked surprised. This gradually gave way to a frown as she seated them and read the daily specials.

The booth was American-sized and large; the table nearly came up to Mai's chest, and her feet dangled above the floor, making her feel like a child. Once the hostess left, she laughed nervously. "You know, Gene, I'm pretty sure no one's going to understand us if we're speaking Japanese anyway. Was this really necessary?"

He shrugged. "You can never be too careful."

Oookay? She'd thought he was a lot more open than his brother, but maybe he was just as cagey after all. Just what did they have to hide anyway?

"What's with all the secrecy? You two aren't criminals, are you?" Mai asked, raising an eyebrow.

She expected him to laugh. But instead, he smiled grimly. "That depends on your definition of 'criminal.'"

Mai's eyes widened.

Gene became quiet after that, perusing the menu that he no doubt already had memorized.

Meanwhile, Mai vaguely wondered if she should start running. There were plenty of warning signs by now; even she could see that. But somehow, she found herself feeling more intrigued than worried. Was this...intuition? Or was she just a naive idiot?

But before she could continue on that line of thought, their waitress arrived.

"Eugene," she said stiffly.

Gene looked up and froze. "Isabelle. I...didn't know you were on shift today."

"I'm covering for Lacey."

"O-oh..."

The waitress, apparently named Isabelle, was beautiful, with long strawberry blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, and red lips currently turned down in a deadly scowl.

Gene gulped audibly. "I swear, it's not what it looks like. She's just...a friend. Of my brother's."

Isabelle narrowed her eyes. "Your brother. Really. And does your 'brother' know that you're here together?"

"Well...no."

Mai fidgeted in her seat. Why did she feel oddly like she was cheating on someone?

Isabelle huffed, shaking her head. "I can't believe you'd just come flaunt her in my face like this."

"Like I said, I didn't know..."

"I never thought you were the type to stoop so low."

"If you would stop assuming the worst of me and just listen..."

"Oh, so this is my fault?"

Mai watched them go back and forth in English and wondered if she'd missed something. These two clearly had some history together. Did she just get caught in the middle of a lover's quarrel? Was she the Other Woman now? What was going on?

"Um," Mai began hesitantly, "maybe it's not my place to speak up, but..."

"You're right, it's not," Isabelle snapped dismissively.

"Isabelle, please," Gene sighed wearily. "Look, how about we just go somewhere else..."

"What, leaving so soon?" she crooned. "Why? Is my service not good enough for you?"

He cringed.

She gave him a thin-lipped smile. "Sit tight, lover boy. I promise I'll take very good care of you." Then she turned and walked away.

Gene let out a loud groan and slid down in his seat. "Maybe I didn't think this all the way through..."

"She's not your girlfriend, is she?" Mai asked.

"Ex-girlfriend."

"Ah..." Now she could sympathize. She herself had once seen her ex with a new girlfriend shortly after they'd broken up, and it was not a pleasant feeling. At all.

Gene sat back up and bowed his head in apology. "I'm so sorry for putting you in this situation, Mai. I...think she'd be more upset if we left at this point..."

Yes, she sure seemed determined to torture him thoroughly.

Mai laughed awkwardly. "Your treat, right?"

"Right. Order anything you want. Appetizers, dessert...anything."

The offer was tempting, but honestly, Mai was more concerned for Isabelle's feelings than her own discomfort at the moment. She flipped through the menu. Better to get this over with quickly.

Isabelle appeared before them again a short time later, slamming two glasses of water on the table, causing them to slosh. She hadn't even taken their drink orders, Mai realized.

"So? What do you want?" she asked, pulling out her pad and pen.

"Chicken marsala, please," Mai said quietly. Gene ordered a seafood pasta.

Isabelle jotted their orders down, then took their menus. But before turning away, a sly smile formed on her lips. She leaned towards Mai, and whispered something while gesturing to Gene, though her words were too fast for Mai to catch.

"Isabelle!" Gene protested, turning red.

"Hmph." Isabelle tossed her ponytail and walked away.

Mai held up her hands. "It's okay, I didn't get any of that. Honest."

Gene slid down in his seat again, hands over his face.

Prudently, Mai decided to change the subject. "So...what was it you wanted to talk about?"

It took him another moment to recover, but finally Gene straightened up. He cleared his throat. Then he leaned forward and put on a mock serious expression.

"I would like to ask what your intentions are with my brother."

Mai frowned. "Intentions? What intentions?"

Gene snorted. "Okay, sorry. Let me rephrase that. I'm curious to know what you think about him."

"What I think?" Mai pursed her lips in thought. Then she sighed, looking away. "...I can't hate him. He has the worst social skills I've ever seen, and sometimes he really pisses me off...but then other times he'd surprise me. I guess I'd like to get to know him better, but he's so secretive that I don't think it's going to happen."

Then she realized what she just said. "S-sorry. That's really rude of me, isn't it...?"

Gene smiled. "No, it's fine. I'm glad you're honest."

"I hope that's not the only thing you wanted to talk about..."

"Well, I'm also curious about what happened yesterday. Noll gave me the gist of it, but..."

"He did?" Mai blinked. "So you know about my dream...?"

"The one about Charlie, right?"

"You know Charlie?" Mai gasped, before slapping herself on the forehead. "Wait, what am I saying..."

He laughed. "Oh yeah, Charlie's great! Keeps to himself, you know, just minding his own business. Not very talkative though; I think he feels more comfortable around Noll. Birds of a feather and all that. But can you believe he actually keeps track of dates? It's amazing. He's real meticulous about citing all of his references correctly."

Mai smiled. The way Gene went on, it sounded as if he was talking about someone alive.

"Naru told me about how you two dealt with his problem. He seems to think that Charlie just needs to finish his thesis to move on, but I kind of got the feeling Charlie just wanted a friend. What do you think?"

"Mm, I think it might be both. I don't think he's self-aware enough about it to bother looking for friendship, but he still craves it deep down. Noll would say I'm overthinking things, though," he smirked.

"Speaking of overthinking things, Naru says I might be some sort of psychic..." Mai mumbled.

"He's been suspecting that for a while now."

"Do you think he's right?"

"From what Noll's told me, sure, I subscribe to that theory."

How much did Naru tell him? It was still weird to think of him talking about her to anyone...

"By the way, he said that he recommended you a book. Have you read it yet?"

A jolt of excitement ran through Mai's body. "Yeah! Well...skimmed it, mostly."

He nodded thoughtfully. "And did anything stick out to you?"

"Well..." Mai paused to dig the book out of her bag. "I looked at the chapter that explained visions; what retrocognitive and precognitive means, and other stuff that Naru asked me about."

"Like psychometry?"

"That's the one where you see visions when you touch things, right?" Mai asked, suddenly feeling rather smart.

Gene nodded, smiling. "Anything else?"

"Umm..." She flipped through the book to come to one page that had jumped out to her. It contained an illustration of a young maid in a kitchen, with pots and pans levitating around her.

"There's this one section, about the p...polter..."

"Poltergeists?"

"Yeah, that. It reminded me of what's been happening at the library, with books and furniture moving. At first I thought it was the ghost, but now that I actually know Charlie, I can't imagine that it's him."

"So you think that a poltergeist is the one causing it?"

"I'm totally off, aren't I?" Mai sighed dejectedly.

But Gene's smile grew even wider. "You're not wrong. The library does have a poltergeist problem, but it isn't Charlie."

Mai felt another jolt of excitement. Was she actually going to get answers?!

"Then...there's another ghost?"

Gene shook his head. "As far as I know, Charlie is the only spirit inhabiting that building."

But if it wasn't a ghost, what could it be? "...It's not a demon, is it?"

"I would sure hope not!"

So not a demon either...thank goodness.

Mai turned back to her book, skimming the pages again, until she found a relevant paragraph: Outbreaks of poltergeist activity are often found to occur around a 'focus' individual; typically an adolescent female, though there are known exceptions. It is thought that in some cases, this is a manifestation of spontaneous psychokinesis stemming from the individual...

"Hold on, you don't think I'm the one causing it, do you? I've only been here since January! This has been going on for a while, hasn't it?"

Now Gene was practically grinning. "No, it's not you either."

"Then who..." She froze. Who was in the library all day? Who had been there every time she witnessed objects move?

A focus individual.

"Is it Naru?!"

Gene burst out laughing. "Man...I don't know what we were so worried about. I'm not sure you would've gotten it on your own."

"Are you calling me stupid?" Mai pouted. She expected that from Naru, but she'd thought Gene was better than that.

"I prefer 'adorably oblivious.'"

She blushed. "Wait, so...let me get this straight. Naru has telekinetic powers?"

"Psychometry too. We're both pretty gifted. Or cursed, depending on how you look at it."

Mai just gave him a blank look. Usually, she might ask to see some proof before she could believe this stuff, but technically, she already had. And this explained everything. It all made sense now...

She thought back to when she and Naru first met. That bookcase that nearly fell on her...that had been his doing?

"So these are...accidents? He doesn't mean to do them?"

"Yeah. He has trouble controlling it." Gene shrugged. "It's actually calmed down a lot compared to when we were kids. There used to be a point where it was nearly constant. These days, it usually only happens when he's feeling excited or upset."

Her disbelief must have shown on her face, because Gene chuckled. "And yes, he does feel those things. He's not a robot."

She rolled her eyes.

"Anyway, that's why the library was such a great find. It's camouflage, see? Anything could happen in there, and no one would suspect he's the one behind it. They'll always assume it's the ghost first. Thanks to Charlie, that library is the one place he can have peace of mind...or at least, it was until you came around."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

He smirked. "From what he told me, it sounds as if you were scoping him out from the beginning, whether intentionally or not."

"Is that what he thinks?!" Mai quickly thought back to all their previous interactions. Maybe there was some truth to that. "I...I didn't mean anything by it! I was just curious..."

"I think you were a little too on the nose for his liking though. Stressed him out a bit."

"Oh jeez..." So basically, she had invaded his only safe space and turned it into a place of uncertainty. No wonder he didn't seem to like her... "But why can't he control it? Doesn't he know how?"

Gene's smile faded. "From my understanding, Noll's PK is particularly powerful. Too powerful, actually. He can control it to an extent, when he's consciously trying to use it. But a lot of times, it just leaks out unintentionally- resulting in the poltergeist. And it takes a toll on his body. If he uses too much PK, he could pass out, or shut down completely."

He sighed, staring down at the table. "...As you might imagine, this is a problem when he has little control in the first place. Whenever he's had a really big accident...it's nearly killed him."

"...You're not serious?" Mai stared at him in disbelief. Then her blood chilled as she realized the implications of this. "But...doesn't that mean he could die just by experiencing strong emotions?"

Gene's expression turned grim. "Yeah...that's what it means."

"But that's...horrific! I-I thought he seemed emotionally repressed, but I didn't think..."

"Even worse is when his psychometry is acting up too. He might get pulled into a vision unexpectedly, and if it's an intense one, his PK would go haywire at the same time and..."

"Oh my god." Tears welled up in her eyes just thinking about it. She couldn't imagine living like that- not allowing yourself to feel, never knowing what to touch, because one wrong step might just get you killed...

"Can't...can't he get help? There's got to be some way, right...? I mean, you can't just do nothing!"

Gene heaved a heavy sigh. "We've tried before, but... You've got to understand, Mai. We've lived with this our whole lives. It's sort of become the norm."

"The norm?!"

"And there are risks that come with seeking help."

"Like what?!"

"For one, we have to actually tell people."

"And what's so bad about that? If people find out, is it really that big of a deal? They're just accidents! People can't judge him for that!"

"Not everyone is as forgiving as you, Mai," Gene said wearily. "And, well...it's kind of a long story."

There was a tense silence.

This was all so wrong. But Mai tried to calm herself down. As much as she wanted to just shake Gene and make him come to his senses, she didn't know the full story. She shouldn't be jumping to conclusions.

Obviously, Gene wouldn't want his brother to live like this either. There had to be a reason behind his reluctance.

Mai gulped. "If you're willing to talk...I'm willing to listen," she said softly.

Gene offered her another one of his broken smiles. Then he took a deep breath.

"I guess...I should start at the beginning."

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

 

"Everything began with our mother. She was Japanese; emigrated to the States a few years before we were born, I think. The only thing we know about our father is that he was an American. Mother didn't even remember his name, so it was probably a one night stand."

Gene shifted in his seat. "Anyway...she was thought to be mentally ill. Apparently diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Looking back on it, though, she might have had some kind of psychic ability, and was unable to control it. I mostly remember her complaining about voices in her head and locking herself in her room all day, leaving us to fend for ourselves. She used to drink a lot too. She didn't work, seldom went out to buy food...needless to say, our standard of living was...poor. Eventually, child protective services took us away, and Mother was admitted to a mental hospital. A year later, we heard she killed herself."

Mai covered her mouth in shock. God. They were orphans...just like her.

Gene stared down at the table, eyes distant. "When I first started seeing spirits, I used to fear that I'd see her someday. Had nightmares about it even. Fortunately, that hasn't happened yet. I honestly don't know what I'd say if I ever do see her. I don't hate her, but I don't feel any love for her either. I guess I feel sorry for her. But more than anything, I'm just afraid one of us might turn out like her."

Mai bit her lip. "As in...losing control? Or..."

"Losing our minds?" Gene shrugged. "Either, I guess. If you think about it, it's hard to tell whether you really are psychic or just insane. Are the things I'm seeing and hearing actually real? I've often wondered, especially since Noll and I experience things differently. It wasn't until I actually met other mediums that I began to gain confidence, but I'm still never completely sure where the line is. And with all the problems Noll's had...all I can really hope for is that things will never get that bad."

Mai gulped. When Naru suggested she might be psychic, she'd wondered if it all might be coincidence or a trick of the mind; she hadn't gone so far as to consider mental illness. At least in her case, she wasn't aware of any family history...

"One thing I'm thankful for, though, is that Noll isn't the type to dwell on things. Though maybe it's more of a survival mechanism than anything. For all I know, that's the reason why his PK has calmed down recently; maybe he's just gotten better at suppressing certain thoughts and memories."

"Was he...a lot more emotional when he was younger?"

Gene smiled slightly. "If you're asking if he was more like me, then no. He's always had that personality. But we had a stressful childhood...I don't think any kid is equipped to deal with some of the things we've been through."

"You mean, even after...?"

"Yeah. Even after we were taken away. We were only five when we came to live at the orphanage, and we had trouble adjusting at first. Mother only ever spoke Japanese at home, so we barely knew any English. That was just one of the things the other kids picked on us for..."

Mai blinked at this. And Naru still had the nerve to pick on her faulty English? "Did they say things like 'I'm surprised anyone can take you seriously'?"

"It was a bit more racist than that," he said regrettably. "And to make matters worse, that was right around the time our abilities began to develop..."

Gene sighed. "In the beginning, neither of us really understood what was happening. It took us a while to even realize that it was Noll causing the poltergeists. For the longest time, I thought it was my fault. Spirits kept seeking me out, and I thought they were the ones hurting him, because he was in the way." He shook his head. "When I look back on it now, it's obvious that wasn't the case. If spirits were throwing objects about, I would have seen them. But I was so scared and confused back then..."

A mental image flashed in Mai's mind, of a young boy throwing himself over his twin, crying, as objects flew around the room. She couldn't imagine how terrifying that must have been for a child...

"But one incident forced us to see the truth. It happened when we were eight years old. There was this married couple who visited us at the orphanage, and they became interested in adopting me. But only me. At first I refused going anywhere without Noll. But then I got to thinking...if he wasn't near me anymore, maybe the ghosts would leave him alone?"

He sighed again. "It was a tough decision. In the end, I couldn't even bring myself to say goodbye, I was so broken up about it. But I did it for Noll's sake. I thought it would be the best for him. ...I was wrong."

Gene closed his eyes. "We barely made it out of town before Noll leveled the whole orphanage."

For a moment, Mai forgot how to breathe.

"I think the official explanation for it was a 'dry microburst.' But I knew what really happened. And that was when I first realized, that Noll had the power to not only hurt himself, but a lot of other people too." He took a deep breath. "I've never blamed him though. It was my fault. I was the one who left him."

"Gene...you were just children. You couldn't have known..."

He shook his head. "It didn't matter. I had to take responsibility. So on that day, I swore to myself that I would never leave him again. And I've kept that promise to this day."

"Then...did that couple...?"

"The adoption was called off. I threw a huge fit when they tried to drag me from the hospital, so that probably soured their impression of me," he said wryly.

"Oh...that's too bad." If only the brothers could have been adopted together...

"Good riddance, I'd say. They never liked Noll. They only liked me because they thought I was the 'perfect' child," he scoffed. "Yeah, right." He took a sip of water.

After that, their conversation had to be put on hold, as Isabelle approached with a tray. Their food had arrived.

Mai sat in shocked silence while Isabelle placed their dishes in front of them. She was glad the waitress didn't say anything this time; she didn't think she could respond normally just yet.

She was already beginning to see Naru differently. How must he have felt, when Gene left like that? Did he even know his reasons? Or did he think he had been abandoned by his only family? And then to have caused all that...

It was too much to bear, both for him and Gene. And at only eight years old...

Once Isabelle left, Mai let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. She looked up at Gene again, only for her heart to nearly skip a beat.

Gene was staring down at his food with a frown.

For a split second, Mai thought it was Naru sitting there. It really was unnerving how much they looked alike. "Wh-what's wrong?" she asked, hoping it might spur him into making an expression that didn't remind her of his brother.

"I think she spit in this..." he muttered.

"Oh..."

An awkward pause.

Finally, Gene sighed. "Well...it's not like we haven't traded spit before." And he began to dig in.

Mai tried not to gag. She tentatively inspected her own food for signs of spit. Thankfully, she didn't find any. But she didn't have much of an appetite anymore...

They ate in silence for a few minutes before Gene resumed his story.

"With the orphanage destroyed, next we were put into foster care. It wasn't much better, to be honest. At times, it was even worse. No one wanted to keep us for very long, either, so we kept being passed around from foster home to foster home. Our caseworker was the closest thing we had to a mentor, and he literally hated us because he kept having to drive us across the country. To be fair, though, we didn't make his job very easy. Some places, we didn't even stay for more than a day. As soon as Noll walked in and stuff started flying around, well...you could see why they would freak out. Everyone thought we were cursed."

He twirled his fork in his pasta. "We at least got to see a lot of the country, though. I think we've lived in...34 states now?" He took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. "I'm still disappointed we never wound up in Hawaii. I've always wanted to go."

The corner of Mai's mouth twitched. "I imagine your caseworker wouldn't have been happy taking you that far..."

"Hey, a kid can dream, right? I told him he could get a free vacation out of it, but he never took me seriously." Gene sighed tragically.

Then he chuckled to himself. "I remember one time, we were placed with this super religious family who became convinced that we were possessed by demons. We found that pretty funny, so we played it up for a while...until they called an exorcist on us." He shrugged, taking another bite of pasta.

Mai raised her eyebrows at this, but he didn't seem to think it important enough to elaborate on. She got the feeling that this was only one of many such anecdotes. What a pair of troublemakers they must have been.

"All that moving around must have been really disruptive to your education, though..."

"Yeah..." His gaze turned distant again. "School has always been difficult. I struggled with it, of course, but...Noll had it especially hard. He'd get sick so often, from either his psychometry or PK acting up, that he'd usually miss about half the school year. Fortunately, he was smart enough to keep up in grades with just self-study, and he always excelled in test-taking. But when he actually attended class...with his personality and being absent so often, he was already a social outcast. But add on all the teenage hormones flying around, and PK...and it was just a recipe for disaster." Gene let out a long sigh.

"It all culminated in our Sophomore year of high school, with that incident..." And then he stopped talking. Gene looked down at the table, chewing his lip nervously.

"...What happened?" Mai asked, not sure if she actually wanted to hear the answer.

Gene seemed to be having trouble deciding what to say. Finally, he looked up at her, his eyes anxious. "...Have you ever seen the movie Carrie?"

The question caught her off guard. Mai briefly thought back on the film. She had seen it once during a horror movie marathon at a friend's house. If she remembered correctly, it was about a shy teenage girl with telekinetic powers, who was bullied relentlessly by her peers, culminating on the night of her high school prom, where she had a bucket of pigs blood dumped on her...and she finally snapped, killing everyone in the auditorium.

Her blood ran cold. "...Oh god..." Mai said, eyes wide in horror.

Gene grimaced. "Yeah...it wasn't that bad, but it was still...pretty bad..."

A long silence followed that statement. Gene grabbed his glass of water and took big gulps, quickly draining it. Setting the empty glass back on the table, he heaved a heavy sigh.

"After that, Noll stopped going to school period."

Mai's hands trembled as she gripped the napkin in her lap. She didn't want to think Naru was capable of something like that. But at the same time, she could see how it might happen. Who didn't have a dark thought once in their life, when feeling wronged? And for most people, that's all it would remain: a thought. But if that thought could manifest in reality, beyond your control...

An image flashed in her mind- a school hallway, drenched in blood.

Mai doubled over with a gasp, tears in her eyes.

"Mai?" Gene asked, sounding concerned.

She shook her head. "It's alright, I'm fine." Her voice sounded raspy. What was she getting so upset about? It wasn't like she was there. It wasn't like she had ever experienced something so horrible first hand...

But tears still ran down her face, unbidden. She recalled that look of guilt in Naru's eyes when they first met, and her heart hurt. Suddenly, her own problems seemed trivial, insignificant. All this time she'd been worrying about grades and homesickness, he'd been carrying a much heavier burden.

At last, Mai tried to compose herself, wiping her face with her napkin. "S-sorry," she sniffled. "I didn't mean to interrupt."

Gene was watching her with a gentle look in his eyes. "...It's no problem."

Their food lay cold and forgotten. They both half-heartedly picked at it before Gene once again resumed talking.

"Anyway...after we turned eighteen, we were homeless for a while."

Mai flinched. There was more? And...did he just skip a number of years?

"For a long time, we had trouble finding work. Our resumes were a mess, and too many questions came up during interviews that we couldn't adequately answer. So we had no choice but to rely on our abilities just to survive. Busking on the streets and so on."

"B-busking...?"

"Performing magic tricks," he said with a small smile. "Noll provided the 'magic' and I did the performing, mostly. It was surprisingly profitable, but drew too much attention. Eventually we found work as assistants for a psychic, and then for a private investigator. Both were way more trouble than they were worth. So we moved out here, and Noll managed to nab that job at the library. And once we got some money saved, he insisted I should continue my education, so I began taking a couple classes, and an acquaintance from college set me up with the job here. We've been living in the area a little over two years now...and it's the closest we've ever had to having a real home." He folded his hands together. "And...I guess that's it."

Mai blinked. That was it? She got the feeling that wasn't the whole story; he had certainly glossed over a lot. But Gene looked unsure what else to say.

Maybe she ought to say something. But what? What could she say, after what she'd just heard? A general expression of sympathy just didn't seem enough...

Mai managed a weak smile. "...Well, I can say that you two have definitely had a more interesting life than me."

Gene snorted. "Yeah, for better or worse! It's been interesting..."

Now there was an understatement.

Mai took a deep breath and thought to herself for a moment. It was a lot to take in.

On one hand, their story didn't change her mind at all on the question of whether Naru should seek help. No, now she was absolutely convinced.

But, she could understand why they were so reluctant to talk about it. Their experiences had conditioned them to think that Naru's PK drove people away, or worse. If she were in their shoes, she would probably feel the same way.

And now, she could also see that just getting help wouldn't solve everything.

"You're right. It's not as simple as I thought," she said quietly. "I mean, Naru dropped out of high school, didn't he? Even if he does gain control, what's he going to do after?"

"It's actually not too bad on that front," Gene said. "If nothing else, he's got brains. He took the GED test last year and passed with top scores, so he could technically attend college if he wanted to. I bet he could get a decent scholarship too."

"But he doesn't want to?"

He shook his head. "Not yet. Not with the way things are. It's too risky. He only took the job at the library because the offer was too good to pass up. But he still doesn't like going out on campus when people are around."

"Can't blame him..." Mai mumbled. He was already a topic of rumor and gossip even without going outside. "But he doesn't seem too happy about it."

"He's not." Gene sighed. "That library is as much a prison as it is a sanctuary. The truth is, he's bored out of his mind. He's been searching for ways to remedy the situation, but there's only so much you can do with independent research. That's why now...he wants to contact ASPR."

"ASPR?"

"The American Society for Psychical Research. They're the most prestigious psychic research lab in the country. Noll thinks they might be able to find a way to help him. He actually has a letter written out to them already; he's even put it in an envelope, stamped and addressed, ready to send out. He keeps it next to his pillow. All he's waiting for is for me to say yes."

"Then why don't you? It sounds great, doesn't it?" Mai frowned. "Even if it turns out they can't help, it's still worth a try!"

"But once we reveal ourselves to them, they'll connect us to all of Noll's past accidents...whatever happens, we're bound to get a lot of attention." Gene ran his hand through his hair, shaking his head. "I actually met them, once, when they came to investigate what happened at the orphanage. Noll was still in a coma then, so they only questioned me, but I was too terrified to talk. I thought they'd put Noll in jail if they found out..."

"But they'd understand, right? If they study this stuff, then they'd know Naru didn't intend to do these things!"

"Would they, though?" He gave her a hard stare. "There's no way to prove he didn't do them on purpose. He could have lashed out intentionally, and then just said it was an accident. He could be a murderer, and there'd be no way to stop him."

"Gene...how could you say that?" Mai said incredulously. "He's your brother!"

"I know. I don't believe it either. But that's just the way some people think. If they don't know him, or let fear cloud their thoughts..." He averted his eyes. "Regardless of intentions, no one's ever truly safe around him, you and me included. And when people realize that, there's no telling what they might do."

Mai gulped. She didn't want to think about it, but he had a point...

He went on. "And like I said, we've...tried it before. After the incident at the high school, someone from a different psychic research lab came and found us. He offered to help us...but instead, he experimented on us."

Gene clenched his hands into fists. Suddenly a heated look came into his eyes. "We should've left him a lot sooner than we did. But we were desperate. And he used that to his advantage. 'We need more tests,' he'd say. 'We can't decide anything until we have more data.' So he'd subject us to experiment after experiment...Noll got the worst of it, naturally. He kept being forced to do larger and riskier demonstrations. He was pushed beyond his limits more times than I can count. For a while, it seemed like as soon as he got out of the hospital, he went back in again. I know that eventually, it would have killed him. But Elijah wouldn't have cared. As long as he had his precious data," Gene spat.

Mai listened numbly. It seemed that as soon as she thought things couldn't get any worse for them, they did.

"The worst part of it all, if you can even imagine, is that he still has video evidence. Of everything. When we tried to leave, he used that to blackmail us. Said he'd leak it to every media outlet in the world. Then we'd have nowhere to run." Gene let out a strained laugh. "We still live in fear of that happening, years later. I imagine the only reason he hasn't done it yet is because then he'd lose what he sees as 'exclusivity.' Because he's still looking for us. He still thinks he owns us."

So on top of everything else, they had an abusive stalker? This was too much.

She took a shaky breath. "...I see. So that's why..."

"Noll keeps assuring me that ASPR will be different. They have credibility. I know he's right, but...I can't help being afraid." He looked away. "When you get right down to it, nothing good has ever come of telling people about Noll's abilities. They either react with fear, or try to use him."

Mai furrowed her eyebrows. Something didn't add up. "But...you told me."

"You already had it halfway figured out, Mai."

"Yeah, but...you don't even know me. We just met today. I could be anybody. Why would you trust me, and not them? Naru wants to trust them, right? He wants to take that chance because he thinks the benefits will outweigh the risks. I still think you should let him."

Gene sat back, seeming to wilt. For the first time, she could really see his exhaustion. "...Maybe I'm not being completely honest," he said wearily. "Actually, it's not just that I'm worried for Noll. There's...a selfish reason for it too."

"Selfish?"

He picked up his fork and poked at his food. "All my life, I feel like I've been chasing some semblance of...normalcy. I've never talked about it with Noll, but I've always dreamed of it. Having a home, having a family... Since moving here, I feel like I finally have a chance at it. This...is the most comfortable we've been in...ever. And I guess I'm just not ready to give that up yet."

He set down his fork with a sigh. "But in reality, I've just been living a double life. Here..." he motioned to the restaurant around them, "...I'm just a normal guy. I don't see ghosts, or deal with any of the supernatural. But then I go home, to my real life, and...everything's a mess. I don't like to think about it anymore. I'm just so...tired."

His shoulders slumped. "I'm a terrible excuse for a big brother, I know. Prioritizing my needs over his. Noll doesn't even have the luxury of living in denial..."

Mai gave him a sympathetic look. She could see this was a difficult thing for him to admit. And though she was the one who drove him into this corner, she couldn't find it within herself to blame him. Older brother he may be, but he had his own needs and wants; he'd also suffered, and now he felt trapped and alone.

"The way I see it, Gene...you already gave up your chance at a normal life to stay with Naru, all those years ago. You made a choice. And you can't take it back."

He cringed at her words. "Yeah...I know. And I wouldn't take it back even if I could, but..."

"I'm not done," she smiled. "I still think it's admirable that you made that choice in the first place, and that you're still sticking by him today. I think...Naru's lucky. I'm an orphan too, and I would've loved to have a sibling who would look out for me the way you did."

Now Gene was looking at her as if in a new light. Mai squirmed under his gaze, embarrassed.

"Sure, you could do better. But no one's perfect. And...I can understand how you feel. Everyone wants somewhere they can call home. It doesn't make you a terrible person for feeling that way, Gene. It makes you human." She sighed. "Well...that's just what I think, anyway."

She looked up, just in time to see the first tears trailing down Gene's face.

He quickly turned away, hiding his face in his sleeve.

"Sorry...sorry...it's just..." His voice sounded thick and muffled. "It's always been just the two of us, you know...and I...I don't always know what to do. I don't know what's best."

"Oh, Gene..." Mai hesitated, before reaching over to gently take his hand. She gave it a light, assuring squeeze.

From what she'd heard, it seemed a miracle that Naru had even survived this long, or that Gene turned out as well as he did. She supposed they both must be fundamentally strong people. Or maybe they'd only made it this far because they had each other.

"It's okay. You did your best. You've both been really brave..."

He broke down even harder at that. Maybe he'd never been told that before. Maybe it was something he'd really needed to hear.

Mai continued quietly holding his hand, allowing him to let it all out.

Then, from the corner of her eye, she saw Isabelle approaching.

The waitress froze in her tracks the instant she saw Gene crying. A wide array of emotions flashed across her face, before she turned stiffly right around and left them be. Mai watched her go with a small smile.

Once Gene had calmed down, she spoke up again. "You know...Naru told me something yesterday, that I think I'm finally starting to understand."

He blinked at her with red-rimmed eyes.

"He said that the only way to live a fulfilling life is to accept that you can't have a normal one. Or something like that."

Gene let out a half-hearted chuckle. "Figures that he's already given up on the very concept of normalcy."

But Mai shook her head. "I don't think that's it. For Naru, the only way to find normalcy is by fixing his problem, right? And the only way to fix it is by accepting that he has one."

He stared at her. "Well, when you put it that way, it does sound obvious."

She smiled. "Maybe...maybe he's not just doing it for himself. Maybe he's doing it for you too."

Gene smiled wryly. "...Yeah, you're probably right. I know it kills him to think he's being a burden. And I know the only reason he even bothers asking is because he wants my support and approval. Even though he wouldn't admit it."

"So will you give it to him? Your support and approval."

"Yeah...I guess I will." He closed his eyes, finally looked at peace with the decision.

Mai let out a sigh of relief.

They lapsed into silence again after that, as they returned to their forgotten meals.

Mai marveled at the fact that despite everything, Gene soon managed to finish everything on his plate. Of course, he had probably known real hunger in his life...and this wasn't exactly cheap. Mai hurriedly tried to finish her food too.

A little later, Isabelle showed up again, carrying a pitcher of ice water. Without a word, she refilled Gene's glass. Gone were all traces of resentment. Now, she just looked sad.

Next, she gathered their plates, all while avoiding eye contact, and asked, "Any dessert?"

Gene glanced at Mai; she shook her head. "Just the check, please."

Isabelle left again.

Gene cleared his throat, dispelling the awkward air. "So...I'm sure this goes without saying, but I'd appreciate it if you kept everything we talked about a secret."

Mai waved her hands. "Oh, of course! I'm...honored that you even told me anything..."

"Well, to answer your question from earlier, Noll seems to trust you. So as far as I'm concerned, you've already passed the hardest test."

"Are you sure about that?" she asked dubiously. "I really don't think he likes me. I think he tolerates me, at most."

But at that, Gene only grinned. "He tolerates me too."

 


 

Isabelle brought the check just as Gene returned from a visit to the restroom. Mai took a peak at it and groaned.

"Something wrong?" Gene asked, sliding into his seat.

She sighed. "You really don't have to pay for all this, Gene..."

He shook his head, smiling. "Mai, don't worry about it. Really. I consider this is a special occasion." But he paused while pulling out his wallet. "Just...don't tell Noll that we ate here, okay? He'll get on my case about it."

Mai couldn't help but giggle. "I guess I know who the money-waster is between you two."

He huffed. "Hey, I'll have you know that I always stay perfectly within budget. I'm just not dating anyone right now, so I happen to have some money saved up."

"I'm guessing Naru doesn't have a dating budget though."

"He has a book budget. That's almost worse."

Mai giggled again.

Gene examined the check. "Hmm," he said, pursing his lips.

"...What is it?" Maybe it was too much, after all...

"Nothing, just...wondering what I should do for the tip. I know the service wasn't great, but it'd be pretty rotten of me to give her a poor tip, right? I'm the reason she's feeling this way..." He sighed. "But if I'm generous, would that come off as, like, pity money?"

"Uh..." Truthfully, tipping wasn't really a thing in Japan, so Mai wasn't familiar with the etiquette involved. And this was an unusual situation too. "Maybe...give her an average tip, and write 'I'm sorry' on the check? And then explain things to her again later...? That's all I can think of, sorry."

"No, that sounds like a good idea. Thanks." He smiled appreciatively.

He paid, and they quickly left the restaurant. Mai let out a breath as they stepped out into the crisp air. She just couldn't get used to fancy places like that.

Beside her, Gene squinted into the sunlight. "Ugh, I need coffee."

Mai hefted her bag on her shoulder. "I've love to join you, but I should really go get ready for my next class..."

"Oh, sure. Sorry for keeping you so long. And...sorry for dumping all that on you, even though we just met," he said awkwardly.

"It's fine, Gene." She smiled. "Thanks for lunch."

He smiled back. "Thanks again for listening. I'm glad we talked. It was...cathartic, you know?"

"I'm happy I could help." And she meant it. "...See you again sometime?"

"Yeah, definitely. How long are you staying?"

"Just until the end of the semester."

He nodded to himself. "Maybe next time, I can drag Noll along too."

"Sure, maybe," she laughed.

And with a friendly wave, they parted ways.

Mai glanced back at him once she left the strip mall, and saw his red parka streaking toward a Starbucks.

Well. That was certainly the most unusual lunch date she'd ever been on. Not that she regretted it, but it sure wasn't what she'd expected...

However, as Mai walked back to campus, guilt gradually grew in. She knew all of Naru's secrets now. But...it wasn't as if he was the one who told her. He didn't even know what she'd just learned. What if he didn't want her to know? No, judging from his past behavior, he probably didn't.

Of course, it wasn't like she had gone in knowing that Gene would tell her their whole life story. But she did nothing to discourage it.

Mai groaned. How was she supposed to face him tonight? No, she couldn't. It was too soon. She was already emotionally drained enough as it was, and she still had a lot to process...

Tomorrow. She'd see him tomorrow. And then, if need be...she would apologize.

 


 

Noll came home that night with a slam of the door. He marched straight to the bedroom, without even a word or a glance in Gene's direction. It was unusual for him to stay angry for this long, but that fight yesterday had been one of their worst.

And there was a chance that they might fight again tonight too. Gene waited for the inevitable.

A few minutes later, Noll came out again.

"Gene. What did you do with my letter?" he asked evenly, apparently trying his best to control his temper.

"I sent it out," Gene answered casually.

"You what?" An uncharacteristic look of surprise crossed his twin's face.

"I sent it out. You can thank me when we get a reply."

Noll just stood there, seemingly at a loss for words.

Gene grinned. "Oh, and I met that Japanese girl today. Her name is Mai, by the way. Figured you'd be too proud to ask."

Noll furrowed his eyebrows, before his eyes widened in realization. "What did you tell her?"

"Oh, a few things..."

"Gene."

"Maybe everything."

Noll stiffened in shock. Something shattered in the kitchen. "I can't...I can't believe you'd..."

Gene knew it was presumptuous of him, brazenly inviting a stranger into their inner circle without Noll's consent. An inner circle that, up to now, had consisted only of the two of them.

But Noll had already laid the groundwork for it himself. By giving Mai that book, he'd provided her with all the clues she'd need to figure it out on her own. He might not admit it to himself, but Gene couldn't miss the significance of this. One way or another, Mai was going to know, and Noll had permitted it.

"You were right about her," Gene said seriously. "I think she can be trusted."

"I never said that..."

"This will be good for us, Noll. We need to start opening up to people. People who aren't scientists trying to pry into our brains."

His brother still looked unconvinced. Gene sighed.

"Don't you ever get tired of being alone? I know I'm sick of it. But I've never trusted any of my girlfriends the way I trust Mai."

Truthfully, a part of him had worried she might turn out to be another love-struck girl with only shallow interests in his brother. But she quickly defied those expectations. Mai was down-to-earth, yet optimistic, with a certain undeniable charm that immediately put him at ease. She was also compassionate, empathetic, and seemed to genuinely care about Noll. Yes, he liked Mai. He liked her very much.

"I've just met her, and I already feel like I've known her half my life. I think that's a sign."

Noll scoffed. "Don't tell me you're going to start dating her."

Gene just smiled innocently. "Why, you don't want me to?"

Noll chose to ignore the question. Instead, he motioned between the two of them, frowning. "'Alone'?"

"Yes, Noll. Alone. You might be satisfied with this arrangement now, but if we ever go our separate ways, or if something happens to one of us..."

He let that hang, hoping there was no need to elaborate. Gene had had plenty of time to contemplate that possibility during his brother's many hospital stays, but he knew that in many ways, Noll took his presence for granted.

At this, Noll finally conceded, letting out a deep sigh. "You had better not be wrong about this."

"Look at it this way. We'll try things your way, and we'll try out mine. Whatever sticks, right?"

For his part, Gene had felt this coming for a long time. He'd gone to meet Mai today fully prepared to bare his soul. Maybe this was what it felt like to go to confession. He felt lighter now, less burdened.

The fact that she wouldn't be with them for very long comforted him too, as horrible as that sounded. He couldn't deny that he'd used her; unloading his troubles on her without fear of commitment. If anything, she was a good trial run (and now he really felt horrible).

Gene put on a strained smile. "Besides, she'll only be here for a few months, right? What harm could she do?"

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

 

It came as no surprise to Mai when she could barely concentrate on finishing her homework that day. She barely payed any attention during her evening class either. And at night, it took her forever to fall asleep, as she unwillingly replayed the conversation from that afternoon over and over in her head.

When she did sleep, it was fitful; marred by anxious dreams she could only dimly remember, like catching fleeting glimpses of a movie. A pale hand sticking out of rubble. Picture frames flying off a mantel. Water on a tile floor. And an enigmatic smile.

The next morning, Mai woke groggy and staggered to class ten minutes late. Once again, she had to ask herself how she, just a normal college student, got mixed up in all this. And of course the answer would be that she wasn't so normal after all, if Naru were to be believed. That was little comfort. And yet she was pretty well off in comparison, so she could hardly complain, could she? Oh god, what was she going to say to him today?!

She still couldn't muster the nerve to visit the library that afternoon, but by evening, she finally forced herself to climb up those steps. She couldn't put it off forever. Any longer, and Naru would know she was avoiding him, and he might think it was for the wrong reasons. She had to get this over with for her own sake too; her grades were going to take a nosedive at this rate.

Once inside, Mai found an unoccupied table, laid out her things, and opened her notebook to a blank page. Writing out what she wanted to say might help. She got started.

Hi, I met your brother yesterday, and he told me...things.

She scratched that out.

So I heard you have telekinetic powers-

Way too blunt.

Start off with a joke? Ha. As if that would work on him.

Start off with an apology? That was probably most safe. And the rest would depend on whether he accepted it or not...

She had jotted down about a page of possible lines by the time 8 PM rolled around. Mai braced herself. For once, she was prepared. Whatever happened, she could do this.

But what she didn't expect was that she wouldn't have a chance to say anything at all.

An hour passed.

Naru never showed up.

Mai clutched her head. After an hour of restless waiting, her nerves were now shot. What did this mean? Was he avoiding her now? Did he hate her? Or worse, what if they'd decided it had been a bad idea telling her after all, and they'd packed up and left?

She got up from her seat. She had to know if he was still here, at least. And even if he didn't want to talk to her anymore, as long as she could just get this off her chest, she could deal with it. Besides, just sitting there worrying wouldn't accomplish anything.

So she began wandering the aisles, looking for him.

As she searched, Mai sighed. Despite her worry, she couldn't help but wonder if she might be overthinking things too. What if he didn't even care?

Ever since she came to this country, all she had wanted was to make a friend. She'd thought she saw hope for that in her last conversation with Naru, and her conversation with Gene only cemented that hope. But maybe she was being presumptuous. What if Naru only began sitting with her because he thought she might have ESP? And now that he'd satisfied his curiosity, maybe he didn't have a reason to hang out with her anymore. Maybe he'd even forgotten about her already, and she was doing all this worrying for nothing. She didn't know what would be worse.

Mai shivered, as a cold draft suddenly blew through. She was just about to turn back to go retrieve her coat, when she saw it.

A book was floating down the aisle towards her. Mai froze.

At first she thought she might be seeing things, but no, it was definitely levitating in midair. Mai edged over to the side of the aisle as it moved to pass her.

"Charlie...?" she whispered nervously.

No response. The book kept on floating.

Could it be...no, it was definitely a possibility. But how to make sure...?

Gulping, Mai crept underneath the book. Then, gathering her courage, she reached up and snatched it out of the air.

She flinched, expecting a reaction of some sort. But nothing happened.

Mai looked at the book in her hands. The cover felt warm.

She had read something about this. Objects moved by poltergeists have been observed to have a rise in temperature, feeling warm to the touch...

It was Naru. He was here.

Mai clutched the book to her chest and began searching for him again in earnest. She moved quickly, peering down each aisle with a glance. She nearly missed him when she finally did find him, sorting books in a cart at the far end of an aisle.

Naru's expression was blank, eyes focused on the books in front of him. But his movements were slow, as if distracted by something.

Mai took a deep breath and approached slowly. She came to a stop when she was right in front of him. He didn't notice at first. She shifted on her feet awkwardly and cleared her throat.

He looked up.

Their eyes met.

Mai opened her mouth to speak.

But her words were drowned out by a sudden cacophony of noise.

The screeching wail of heavy wood scraping against floor. A series of loud crashes. A resounding thud. And then, screaming.

The two of them stood staring at each other, eyes wide. Mai's mouth hung open, words she'd meant to say now forgotten.

Naru moved first, dashing towards the direction of the noise. Mai followed on his heels.

When they arrived on the scene, it was easy to see what had happened. A bookcase had toppled over and collided into another bookcase, and then another, in a domino effect. In all, three aisles worth of bookcases had fallen, sending dust into the air and scattering books all over the floor. It was a great mess.

Not only that, a young woman's incoherent screeching could be heard from beneath the last toppled bookcase. A young man, who had apparently narrowly missed being pinned himself, was shouting "Holy shit! Miranda!" and futilely trying to lift the bookcase by himself.

"Oh my god," Mai gasped, before rushing to the other side of the bookcase to help lift it. Of course, her strength wasn't enough to make much difference, and with the added weight of the other bookcases, it would be impossible without a large group effort.

"Hang in there, Miranda! We'll get you out!" the man wheezed.

Mai's hands already hurt from the strain. They needed help, fast. She turned her head towards Naru. "Naru, help! We-"

But he stood frozen in place, wide eyes seeing but not seeing the scene before him. She called for him again, but he still didn't budge. He might not have even heard her.

The lights flickered on and off. She heard more screaming. The bookcase in her hands began to vibrate and Mai let go in surprise, only to see all the books around her rise into the air.

"What the fuck! What the fuck!" the young man was shouting.

All the bookcases around them now rattled violently. Books shot across the room, forcing people to duck their heads. Tables and chairs danced across the floor, crashing into people and other furniture.

As everything rattled and shook, screams filling her ears, it reminded Mai of a really bad earthquake. But earthquakes subsided. This only kept building. Building and building...until...

Images flashed in her mind. A hand sticking out of rubble. Blood-splattered walls. Her breath caught in her throat.

She turned to Naru again, and the scream that left her throat sounded desperate even to her own ears. "NARU!"

Then with a small gasp, he snapped out of it. His eyes briefly met hers, then took in the situation with a glance. Clenching his hands, he then jammed his eyes shut and began taking long, deep breaths.

'What would that do?' she thought, but it seemed to work. The rattling began to die down. The books around her dropped to the floor. That's right. He needed to be calm. Her panicking wouldn't help matters at all.

"It's okay...it's okay..." she began saying, like a mantra. She'd meant it for the benefit of everyone around her, but when she thought back later, she would realize that she had been saying it in Japanese. So it might have been only her and Naru who understood the words.

Nevertheless, the disturbance soon came to a stop, leaving them all shaken, but alive.

Hearing the commotion, the head librarian and other students from around the library soon gathered at the scene, and they were successfully able to free Miranda from under the bookcase. Thankfully, she was not injured, but by then, Miranda was in hysterics. She sat on the floor sobbing in her boyfriend's arms.

For a while, everyone still lingered at the scene, perhaps in shock, staring at the aftermath. The whole area was a complete mess.

"What the hell was that? An earthquake?"

"On the east coast?"

"It's not impossible."

"But the ground wasn't shaking, was it?"

"I didn't feel anything..."

"It-it wasn't an earthquake!" Miranda cried. "It was the ghost! It tried to k-kill me!"

Her boyfriend let out a nervous laugh. "Y-yeah right. Don't be ridiculous, Miranda. There's no such thing as...ghosts."

"Then what was that?!"

A hush fell. The librarian floundered for words, seemingly unsure whether to confirm or deny the claim. Mai glanced at Naru; he was silently righting an overturned table, face turned away.

When the boyfriend spoke again, his voice had risen an octave. "I'm sure there's a...perfectly reasonable explanation. Seriously, Miranda. You're being silly."

"Oh, screw you!" Miranda shoved him away. "I'm getting out of here!"

"Wait! Miranda!" The boyfriend grabbed her purse and chased after her.

More murmurs followed their exit.

"You know, maybe she's right..."

"I thought this place seemed weird."

"What else would make things move like that?"

"God, I'm getting the creeps. Let's get out of here."

"I know I'm never coming back again."

"Yeah, same here."

"Maybe they should call the Ghostbusters? Am I right?"

"Shut up, it's not funny."

"Or maybe it was aliens?"

"I said cut it out!"

People began milling out. At the same time, the librarian finally snapped back to her senses and began ushering the remaining students out of the library.

As the area emptied, Mai headed over to Naru, who had in the meantime righted the toppled bookcases and begun shelving books.

She'd only meant to ask if he was okay. After all, that was a lot of PK. She went to his side and opened her mouth to speak.

"Hey, are you-"

WHOOSH. The books flew off the shelf again.

"Eeep!" Mai jumped.

Naru let out a frustrated growl and stalked off at once.

Realizing her mistake, Mai called after him weakly. "S-sorry!"

But he was already out of sight.

Mai slapped a hand to her forehead. What was she doing? That wasn't even a proper apology.

Besides that, he was angry, wasn't he? Yes, he was definitely angry. His reaction just now proved it. And he was hard enough to deal with on a good day...

Sighing, Mai looked at all the books littering the floor. Well, maybe she could at least help clean up.

She knelt and began gathering books in her arms, then placing them haphazardly back on the shelves. Many of the books were warm to the touch. In the cold library, they felt surprisingly nice in her hands. And to think just earlier, she had been scared of it.

That's right. She had been scared. Having heard how much the brothers had been rejected in the past because of Naru's PK, she didn't want to be one of those people who reacted only in fear. But in reality, it wasn't so easy. Gene had been right. Seeing it happen before her eyes was scary.

Mai sighed. She knew it couldn't be helped. But she still felt disappointed in herself.

Once she'd finished picking up most of the books, and did an admittedly sloppy job of putting them back on the shelves (she would leave the rearranging to the pros), Mai dusted herself off and thought of what to do next. Should she go after Naru again? She didn't want to just leave things the way they were...but maybe now wasn't a good time.

Still pondering, she began wandering back towards her table for the time being. The library was eerily quiet; quieter than usual, anyway. It seemed to be deserted now, which was hardly a surprise. If she didn't know what she already knew, she'd want to get out of there as soon as possible too.

But perhaps only because it was so quiet, she was able to hear it. Soft voices. Mai paused and looked around. Then, peering across a row of books, she spotted what looked to be the head librarian and Naru standing a few aisles down.

Mai didn't mean to eavesdrop. But her curiosity got the better of her. Silently, she crept closer, until she was standing right behind the bookcase nearest to them.

"Do you think Charles is angry about something?" the librarian asked anxiously. "It's never been this bad before...what if it continues?"

"It's too early to say. He's never been violent before. Unless we see a trend, it could be that he was just momentarily upset."

"But what could have caused this? I'm just worried...someone could have been seriously injured tonight. I think it might be best to close the library until we get this all sorted out."

"I don't think that would be necessary." Naru took a deep breath. "...But if you'd like, I can ask my brother to come tomorrow and see what the problem is."

"Oh, please, could you? That would be a great help." The woman relaxed visibly.

He nodded.

The librarian sighed. "I just hope nobody sues over what happened. I don't know how any of this would hold up in court."

Naru remained silent.

Mai bit her lip. Was it always like this for him? Unable to take responsibility, but still doing whatever he could to fix the situation...always by himself.

Maybe there was something she could do. No, there had to be. Since she was partly responsible this time, it was only fair that she shared the burden.

The librarian went on. "In any case, I still think we should close the library for tonight. It just seems safer, don't you think?"

"That would be wise." A pause. "I can close up as usual. I'd like to clean up more before I leave."

"What? Are you sure that's a good idea?" The woman sounded nervous again. "Staying here on your own...what if something happened?"

Naru let out a small sigh. "I honestly doubt anything else will happen tonight."

"But how can you be sure? No, no, I can't let you do that. I'll call my husband...let him know I'll be late..."

"Um," Mai spoke up, stepping out from behind the bookcase. Suddenly both their attentions were fixed on her; Naru's expression tightened visibly.

Mai gulped. Unable to stand just watching anymore, she'd jumped out without thinking, but now what?

"I-I'm sorry, I overheard...but I think he's right. Charlie was upset, but he seems to be over it now. He wasn't trying to hurt anyone either. It was just...an accident."

The librarian stared at her, wide-eyed. "How do you...?"

Well, here goes nothing. "I can see ghosts too." It wasn't a total lie! "N-Not as good as Gene, though...I'm not sure what the problem is exactly. It's just a feeling..."

The librarian raised her eyebrows and looked to Naru for confirmation.

Grudgingly, he nodded.

"Well!" the librarian said in surprise. She looked between the two of them. "I suppose that does explain things. I thought you two seemed close."

The dead silence that followed that statement made it sound like a cruel joke.

Sensing the awkward air, the librarian said embarrassedly, "I'm sorry, did I jump to conclusions?"

"In any case," Naru said, pointedly ignoring the question, "I will be quite fine on my own. You don't need to stay on my behalf."

"Yes, but..."

"It's been a stressful night," Mai said, wringing her hands together. "I think we should all go home and rest, or it could...affect Charlie's mood." Oh god, what was she saying? Did that sound even remotely convincing? She smiled nervously at Naru. "So you shouldn't stay for very long either."

He looked away, but sighed. "...Fine."

"Well...if you say so..." The librarian still looked unsure. "I'll go get my things, then..."

Once the woman left, Mai let out a huge sigh of relief.

Beside her, Naru huffed. "For someone who just wants to live a normal life, you're sure quick to pretend you're a medium."

Really? That's the first thing he says to her? "I'm not doing it for fun!" she retorted, but he had already walked away. Gah! Couldn't he stay still for just one minute?!

A moment later, the librarian was back, holding her coat and purse. "Oh? Where's Oliver?"

"He went off somewhere..." Mai sighed.

"I see." The woman smiled, and offered her hand. "I'm Joanne, by the way. You are...?"

"Mai Taniyama. I'm studying abroad for the semester." Mai smiled back and shook her hand.

"Oh, only for that long? Shame. And I was almost considering offering you a job."

Mai giggled. "You really must be short-handed."

"Well, we lose staff every time something like this happens." She shook her head. "You'd think being a librarian would be a relaxing job, but it's given me more gray hairs than I bargained for."

Mai's smile faded. "Oh. That's..."

"And it doesn't help that I don't know what to believe." Joanne's smile turned wry. "I'm afraid you aren't a very convincing liar, Mai."

Mai froze. Oh...crap crap crap crap crap! What had she been thinking? This was his boss. She was going to ruin everything!

"Now, I've seen things I can't explain, and both Oliver and his brother have been very reliable in the past. So if he says you are what you say you are, then I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. But I need you to be clear on this: Are you sure there's no more danger tonight?"

She nodded, throat tight.

"All right. In that case, I'm curious to know why you're so eager for me to leave this evening."

Mai took a deep breath. She could not get away with telling another lie. "The...the truth is, there is something that I would like to discuss with Oliver...privately. So I was trying to find some time alone..."

Which was true. She wanted to talk to him properly after all. And if Naru was going to freak out every time she tried, better to do it with no witnesses.

"Ahh, so that's the reason." Joanne nodded to herself.

"I-I'm sorry for lying!" Mai bowed, red-faced.

"Well, it's not like I can't understand. I have been in your shoes before."

Mai highly doubted that, but she decided to keep her mouth shut this time.

"Anyway, how about we put this behind us?" Joanne smiled kindly again. "I do feel better knowing you'll be here with him. And I'll need all the help I could get with this little...ghostly problem."

"I don't know how much I could do, b-but yes. Sure." Mai bowed again, reflexively.

"Wonderful. I'll be off then. Please tell Oliver not to stay too late. And," she added, winking, "good luck."

As she watched Joanne leave, Mai groaned to herself. What did she just get herself into? One thing was clear, though: she would not underestimate that woman again.

Sighing, she set off to find Naru once more. If this attempt failed too, she would just have to call it a night. Jeez. Why did he have to make this so difficult?

Since he'd wanted to clean up, Mai headed for the scene of the incident first. She imagined he was probably grumbling over her slapdash work by now. But instead, she caught sight of him on the way there.

Just as he started swaying on his feet.

Mai let out a gasp and dashed forward, but he managed to catch himself on a nearby table.

She hovered worriedly over him for a moment. He looked even paler than usual now. Oh no. What if he needed to go to the hospital? Was it that bad? How bad was a 'bad' accident?

"Naru, you don't look so good. Maybe you should..."

She reached for his arm.

But he stopped her with a cold glare.

"What. Are you doing."

Mai quickly backed away. "W-well I..."

"No one asked you to stay."

"I know, but...I thought I should stick around to, you know...help."

"Why."

"I...guess I feel kinda responsible. For what happened tonight. I mean, if I hadn't startled you..."

"I was not startled."

Okay, bad choice of words. "But all the same, it was my fault. So I should at least do whatever I can."

Naru huffed, then pulled out a chair and sat down heavily. He rubbed his temples. "...The library is closed. You are not an employee. You have no reason to be here."

"Oh, who cares about that! It's not like this is the first time I've been here after hours!"

Of course, he couldn't deny that. Instead, he sighed. "It seems Gene has neglected to inform you of a few ground rules," he said bitterly.

Mai blinked. "Rules?"

"Rule Number One: Do not assume you know what I am feeling. Because in all likelihood, you don't."

"Okay?" Great. It's not like he was easy to read in the first place...

"Rule Number Two: If I tell you to leave me alone, you will do so. No questions asked."

Well, maybe that made sense...for safety reasons...

"Rule Number Three: Do not coddle me. I don't need your pity."

Mai stared. It took a moment for what he said to sink in, but when it did, it felt like a slap across the face. "Pity?" she repeated hollowly. So that's what he thought this was? "...Pity?" But hurt quickly turned to anger. "You think this is pity? What's wrong with you? Can't you tell when someone's worried about you?!"

He blinked. "...I can tell that you're sticking your nose where it doesn't belong."

"Of course I am! After what happened, isn't that only natural?! I don't know about you, but when I see someone in need, I can't just turn away and mind my own business!"

"It sounds to me like you're only trying to clear your own conscience."

She flinched. It was true, guilt did play a part...and she did feel sorry for him. And if that was all it was, then he would be right. But there was more to it. She cared about him. At times like this, she truly wondered why, but she couldn't deny it. He wasn't just a stranger to her anymore.

Not that she could admit it, though. Not with his attitude. It's not like she couldn't understand, either. She didn't usually tell people she was an orphan because she didn't like being treated differently. But she knew they only did so out of concern.

She wasn't looking for appreciation or anything, but still, was this any way to treat someone who was just trying to help? How ungrateful could you be?

Mai balled her hands into fists. "And so what?! Is that really such a bad thing? Even if helping people makes you feel better, that doesn't change the fact that you're helping them! Isn't that what really matters? Besides, you could say that about just about anybody! Even your own brother!"

"Yes," he said, with no change to his tone. "I could."

"Wha..." This took her aback for a second. Wait, he didn't really believe that, did he? But before she could think further, he went on.

"In any case," he said coldly. "I never asked for any help. So if you expect me to aid you in some self-serving need to feel nice, then I'm not interested."

And now she wanted to scream again. "Why is this such a big deal?! Can't you just accept someone's help without questioning their motives?!"

He let out a frustrated sigh. "I don't need help. Go home. I can handle things here."

"As if! You looked like you were about to faint! If there's anyone here who should go home, it's you."

He scowled and looked away. "I'm fine," Naru said, voice chilling even further.

Jeez, what was with him? Couldn't he just admit it?

Then it hit her. He was embarrassed. Now that she thought of it, it seemed obvious. It must be humiliating, for someone so controlled on the surface, to have his emotions manifest in such a public way, beyond his control. And then to have someone know it was him...

At any other time, she might have found this sad, or even funny. But right now, it just ticked her off.

She put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes at him. "Oh, I see what this is now. You're just being sulky because you can't fool me into believing you're just an aloof badass anymore. Well I'm sorry for diminishing your cool persona, but don't you lash out at me just because your pride's injured!"

"I'm not-" he began, but she wasn't done yet.

"And for the record, there's nothing wrong with being emotional! It only proves you're human! Sure, in your case it might cause some problems, but it's still not something to be ashamed about!"

And now he turned to glare at her. "You talk as if you understand. But you're only going off of hearsay. You know nothing of what it's like."

This almost made her hesitate. A part of her knew she was going too far, but she was too worked up now. "Of course I don't! But does that mean I shouldn't try? Why do you think I've been chasing you around all night? How am I supposed to understand if you won't even talk to me?!"

The shelves around them began to rattle, but she took no notice.

"And sure, maybe I shouldn't have heard all that from Gene! Maybe you didn't want me to know at all! But what's done is done! Unless you can erase my memory, you'll just have to deal with it! I mean, it's not like I'm blabbing your secrets to everyone or trying to hurt you! I'm just trying to help!"

"Well, you certainly aren't helping now."

"That's because you-"

"You're being a nuisance. Go. Away." He said it in a low growl that left no room for questions. He wanted her gone, end of story.

At once, her anger seeped away, leaving her feeling only empty.

"...I'm sorry," she said quietly, and ran away.

First she had her heartfelt concern thrown back in her face. Then her intentions were doubted. And now, a very clear rejection. Like a kicked puppy, Mai retreated to the restroom to lick her wounds.

She spent about half an hour in there, sniffling and wiping her eyes with paper towels. As she did, she couldn't help but think back to what Kendra had told her, weeks before: 'It's like he judges you for everything you are...actually, it's like he can see right through you.'

She could understand what that meant now. His words cut straight to the bone, and they stung, all right.

Why did she even think she could get along with a cold guy like him? She knew this would happen. Was she a masochist?

If only...if only he hadn't been kind to her the other day. If only he'd never started sitting with her. Then she wouldn't have had any expectations. No...false hopes.

Mai smiled bitterly at herself. She'd thought the same thing after her boyfriend dumped her, years ago. She really hadn't learned a thing.

Finally, tired of feeling sorry for herself, Mai washed her face and emerged from the restroom. And then, she hesitated.

She ought to go home. That was what Naru wanted, after all. She really had no business being here any longer.

...But dammit, she was still worried. She knew it would bother her all night if she didn't at least check on him one last time, to see that he was okay. And, well, tonight was already a disaster. If he got mad at her again, so be it.

Cursing herself, she made her way back to where she'd left him.

He was still there. Only now he was slumped over the table, head in his arms, motionless.

Her stomach dropped in dread, and she nearly ran to his side again, but she stopped herself this time. She looked more closely.

His back was rising and falling, just slightly. Which meant he was breathing, at least. And by the slow pace of it, he seemed to be asleep. Just asleep.

Mai let out a sigh of relief. Jeez, don't scare her like that.

But even so, she couldn't just leave him like this. What if he didn't wake up? And even if he did, what if he still needed to go to the hospital after all?

No matter what he said, she couldn't just not worry. She'd leave him alone, fine. But she would still watch over him, from afar.

Having decided that, Mai returned to her table at last. But the first thing she saw when she got there was her page of notes. Groaning, Mai sat down, laying her head in her arms.

"Ugh...I suck."

She was supposed to apologize. Instead she insulted him and told him to get over it. What was wrong with her? She practically ambushed him at a vulnerable moment and that was how she reacted?

"Stupid...stupid...stupid..." she said, knocking her head against the table with each repetition. Who was the insensitive one here? He was right. She had just been forcing her feelings onto him. How she felt didn't matter. She wasn't the victim in this situation.

Sighing, Mai sat there with her forehead against the table. She felt exhausted. Two nights in a row with very little sleep, all that stress from worrying, and now eyes dried out from crying made her eyelids feel heavy. All of a sudden, she didn't care. Or, to be more accurate, she was just so sick of herself that she didn't want to think about it anymore.

Right. She should stop thinking about it. She would just close her eyes for a moment now, and slip away...into...nothing...

The next thing she knew, she heard an incredulous voice from beside her. "What are you still doing here?"

"Nwah?!" Mai straightened with a jolt, then winced at the bright lights of the library and the sting of her forehead being ripped from where it had been plastered against the tabletop. After a moment, she realized she was drooling too, and hurriedly wiped her mouth with her sleeve.

Only then did she realize who the voice belonged to. Naru stood beside her, looking thoroughly exasperated.

Oh. This was awkward. Not to mention embarrassing...

"If you're so tired, might I suggest you go home and sleep? I'm sure it would be more comfortable." This almost sounded reasonable if not for the sarcasm dripping from his voice.

But Mai still felt too guilty to get properly riled up. She huffed halfheartedly. "You fell asleep too."

He sighed. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"

"No. Should I?"

"It's half past midnight."

She paused. "...Seriously?" So much for not staying late.

His eyes narrowed. "Do you honestly plan on walking home at this hour?"

"Well, yeah. Guess I'll have to, huh? Sucks."

"You're naive. A young woman walking around a deserted college campus alone in the early morning hours is just asking for trouble."

She frowned at him. "I don't need you telling me that. I know the risks, okay? I'm not a child."

"You should have come with a friend."

"It's not like I was expecting to stay this late!"

But then he looked away, and it occurred to her that he might actually be worried for her.

She waved her hands. "Honestly, it's not that big a deal! I do it all the time in Japan and nothing's happened!"

"But this isn't Japan," he said edgily.

"Well, what do you expect me to do? I'm already here, it's already this late! I just have to suck it up and walk home, don't I? I'm not happy about it either, but I don't have any other choice!"

Naru was silent for a moment, mulling it over. Then, "I'll take you," he announced abruptly.

"What?" Was she mishearing things? He couldn't have just said...

"Where do you live?"

"...Winston Hall," she answered in disbelief.

He nodded to himself. "Get your things." Then he walked away.

Mai stared after him. Was this really happening? Why the sudden change in attitude? Was this what they called 'tsundere'? No, maybe 'kuudere' was more appropriate for him...or did this even count as 'dere' at all?

She was snapped out of her thoughts as Naru started turning off the lights in the building. Mai hurriedly gathered all of her belongings. Then, pulling on her coat and gloves, she went to wait for him at the entrance.

Naru joined her a few minutes later wearing his black coat. She stood outside, shivering, as he locked the door. "Wow, it's really freezing this time of night," she mumbled. "Do you walk home this late every day?"

"Yes." He pocketed his keys, briskly descended the steps, and began walking in the direction of her residence hall.

"Which way do you live?" she asked, following. "You're not going out of your way, are you?" She hoped not; he ought to rest, not walk an extra mile in freezing temperatures.

But Naru didn't answer. He just stared straight ahead.

...Come to think of it, that morning after the snowstorm, he'd gone off in the opposite direction, hadn't he? With a groan, Mai stopped walking. "Naru, you really don't need to do this! I swear I'll be fine!"

He ignored her, continuing to head in the same direction regardless of whether she followed or not. Mai groaned again in frustration and hurried to catch up.

For all his complaints about receiving help, he sure was stubborn when the situation was reversed. Jeez.

They walked in silence but for the crunching of sidewalk salt beneath their feet, their breaths turning to fog in the cold air. The campus was deserted, cast in shadow and frost. Moonlight reflected on white snowbanks, making them appear to glow, and flickering street lamps lined the path, lighting their way.

The flickering got annoying after a while though. Were they all like this? She could have sworn they'd cast a steady light before...

But then Mai looked around, and realized the street lamps only flickered when she passed beneath them. And then she remembered who she was walking with.

Mai glanced at him. Naru had the collar of his coat turned up, hands shoved deep in his coat pockets. His eyes had a slightly glazed look to them...great, he was tired.

She sighed. "Naru, why are you doing this?"

He blinked, snapping out of his daze. "What?"

"Why are you being so nice all of a sudden..." She averted her eyes. She didn't deserve it, did she? Not after what she'd said...

Naru took so long to answer that she assumed he wasn't going to. But at last, he spoke.

"...Gene sent out my letter yesterday."

Mai looked up in surprise. "What? He did?" She smiled. "That's great!"

He nodded. "I assume you were the one who convinced him. I...owe you for that."

"Oh." So that's what this was about. Mai looked down at her feet, embarrassed. "I wouldn't say I convinced him...I think he was already considering it. He just needed a little...push."

"It's the same thing."

"Yeah, I guess it is..." She fiddled with her coat zipper nervously. "So...you aren't mad that I found out?"

He let out a deep sigh. "...I'm annoyed. There is a distinction."

She laughed at that, mostly out of relief than anything. "Well, I promise I won't tell anyone. And...sorry about earlier."

"I overreacted. It wasn't all your fault."

Mai smiled. She supposed it was best to just leave it at that.

She looked up as they passed under another flickering street lamp. Even though she'd seen it with her own eyes, it was still hard to believe that Naru was causing all this. But come to think of it, it he was affecting the lamps, what about her? Was it even safe to be walking with him like this?

Not that she thought he would put her in danger if there was any risk of that. But still...

"Hey, can I ask you something? Does your PK...affect living things? Like, can it alter cells and stuff?"

"That would be PK-LT. And no, if I were capable of that, I'm sure Gene would have mutated already."

Mai made a face. "That's a pleasant thought..."

"You brought it up."

So she did. That was one less thing to worry about, though.

"Hmm." She put her finger to her chin in thought. Since he was actually being receptive for once, she might as well use this opportunity to ask more questions. "Can you fly?"

"What?"

"Don't tell me you've never tried it before! That would be so cool!"

"Any number of things could go wrong. I'm not stupid."

"Yeah, but aren't you curious?"

He sighed reluctantly. "...We tested it once when we were kids. All I succeeded in doing was breaking a leg."

"Ouch." While that sounded painful, the mental image made her grin. She could only imagine that Gene was the one who talked him into it.

"Okay, one more question. I know it's probably a bit late to ask this, but...the first time we met...it was you, wasn't it? Not Charlie. You moved the book and bookcase."

Naru frowned. "Yes."

Mai giggled. "So let me get this straight: You tried to help me reach that book?"

He grunted in annoyance. "The sooner you got your foot off the shelf, the better."

"You could've just come over and gotten it for me yourself!"

"It wasn't worth the trouble."

"Yeah, right. You just didn't want to talk to me."

He shrugged.

Mai rolled her eyes. "Well, that's still what you ended up doing anyway."

"Unfortunately."

She stuck her tongue out at him.

It was a shame, though. If he'd come up and reached for the book from behind her, like in a scene from a shoujo manga, it might have set her heart aflutter. But these days she knew better than to expect something so cliche. Besides, being nearly crushed in an avalanche of books was way more indicative of what their relationship turned out to be. She laughed at the thought.

Naru looked at her. "What?"

She skipped ahead a couple steps and turned around to look at him. "Nothing~"

He took a step towards her, frowning. "I don't see what there is to laugh about."

With a giggle, she backed away. "I saaaid~"

But she got no further than that. Her feet slipped out from under her. Half a second too late, Mai realized she had just stepped onto a wide patch of ice.

Before she could fall back, however, an arm caught her around the waist. The next thing she knew, Mai's face was buried in something warm and she was on her feet again.

Once she'd gotten over the surprise, Mai pulled away slightly, and felt her face immediately heat up.

Naru was holding her upright against him, his arm still around her waist. Her face had just been buried in his chest. He looked down at her, and their foggy breaths intermingled.

"Idiot. Watch where you're walking."

"S-sorry!" Flustered, Mai quickly tried to back away, but her feet skidded on ice again, and she slid right back into his arms. She clutched at his coat with an embarrassed squeak.

"You don't learn, do you?"

"Sh-shut up!"

"I could let go, you know."

Face burning, she looked up at him with a whine, halfway between angry and pleading.

The corner of his mouth quirked up briefly. "Hold still," he breathed, placing both hands firmly around her waist.

"Wha-" she started, as he lifted her up, and then suddenly she was floating, light as a feather, until her feet landed gently on a non-icy section of sidewalk a few steps away.

Mai gaped. She pointed a shaky finger at him. "You...you just..."

"Don't make me do that again," he said coolly.

She nodded dumbly.

Smoothly, Naru stepped over the patch of ice, long legs allowing him to cross without effort.

As he passed by her, Mai muttered, "Show off."

He smirked.

They continued walking. Mai spent the next few minutes trying in vain not to think about what just happened.

She wondered if it all might have been a dream. What with her briefly floating like Mary Poppins back there, that wouldn't be so farfetched. But it all felt too real.

She could still recall his secure grip on her waist. His blue eyes and long eyelashes. His warm breath on her face...

SMACK! Mai slapped both hands against her face. Enough!

Naru gave her a strange look. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing," she grumbled, cheeks stinging.

Another few minutes later, and they stood in front of her residence hall. Mai turned to Naru one last time before he could leave.

"Um, thanks for walking me. But are you sure you're okay? Gene told me that using too much PK can hurt you..."

"I'll be fine."

"Yeah, but after what happened at the library... And what you did just now..."

"It wasn't much."

"Are you sure? Maybe I should walk you home."

He gave her an exasperated look. "That would defeat the point of this entirely."

"Oh, right. Because something might happen on my way home, so you'd have to take me again, and then I'd have to take you back, and then we'd just be at this all night, huh?"

As if to escape such a fate, Naru promptly turned right around and began walking back.

"Goodnight, Mai," he said.

She was so stunned by this that it took her half a minute to remember to respond.

"Goodnight!" she called loudly, momentarily forgetting that it was past midnight and people might be sleeping.

She saw him shake his head, and then he blended back into the darkness.

Beaming, Mai returned to her dorm.

She just couldn't hate him after all.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

 

February

Friday

 

Oliver was roused by sunlight shining directly on his eyelids.

"Turn it off," he mumbled, shielding his face with a hand, but it was too late. He was already awake, and he quickly became aware of the exhaustion in his body, a painful bump on his forehead, a throbbing headache, a dry mouth, and that he was uncomfortably hot and sweaty.

Kicking off the blankets and opening his eyes, he saw that he still wore his sweater and slacks. He must have gone straight to bed without changing. Shifting in his bed (or to be precise, a used mattress laid straight on the floor), he next realized that Gene's own mattress was vacated.

Gene had woken before he did. Impossible. What time was it?

He reached for the palm-sized alarm clock between their makeshift beds and squinted at the numbers. 10:24. He would usually be at the library by now.

Did he forget to set the alarm last night? No, even if he did, he should have woken hours ago, what with the noise Gene made as he got ready in the morning.

How did this happen?

As if to answer his question, he heard the front door open and close. A moment later, the bedroom door opened and Gene stuck his head inside. "Oh good, you're awake."

"Close the blinds."

Gene rolled his eyes. "Good morning to you too." He walked over to the window, carrying a small paper bag and bottle of orange juice in one arm, and closed the blinds. The room fell into dim semi-darkness. "You know, I nearly missed my class because of you, sleepyhead."

"Learn to wake yourself up for a change."

"Hey, I can wake up just fine. Just not on time."

"And how is that 'just fine'?" Oliver groaned, trying to sit up. But his body felt too heavy, and he plopped back down in defeat.

"Don't push yourself. Here, I got you a breakfast sandwich." Gene placed the paper bag and bottle of juice by his pillow.

Getting a whiff of fried egg and ham, Oliver's stomach growled. Come to think of it, did he eat dinner last night?

"I already called Joanne, by the way. You've got the day off. She said you can take tomorrow off too, if you need to. Apparently she's not expecting much business at the library anytime soon..."

Gene sat cross-legged on the floor beside him. "So...what happened?" Gone was his teasing manner. The question was serious. "And don't tell me 'nothing.' I know for a fact that you were with Mai last night."

"What?"

"It was past 1 in the morning and you still weren't back, so I knocked and you told me you had walked Mai home."

Oliver had no memory of this.

"Oh, right, and then you passed out at the front door. I had to drag you into bed."

So that explained the lump on his head...

Yes, now he remembered. That long, miserable walk home. By the time the apartment was in sight, his face and hands had gone numb, and he could barely keep his eyes open. Even if he weren't already exhausted, it was too far to walk and too damn cold. He never wanted to do it again.

Oliver closed his eyes, tracing his memories to understand how he ended up in such a situation in the first place. Mai had fallen asleep in the library again...and before that, they'd had an argument because...

"...I had an accident."

"Yes, I've gathered that much," Gene said wryly.

Oliver understood. He wanted to know why.

As if he could tell him, when he didn't even know the reason himself. All he knew was that somehow, he'd felt it might be risky to face Mai again so soon, so he'd kept his distance. And that hunch turned out to be right, when she tracked him down anyway.

There were certain thoughts Oliver never allowed himself to consider. Thoughts he deemed to be too dangerous. Last night, he found himself thinking quite a few of them.

"Will we need to move?" Gene asked.

"Who knows. It might just blow over."

Truthfully, they had moved over much less before. But this time, Gene wasn't the only one reluctant to leave.

For one thing, they had only just sent out the letter. He needed to stay at this address for at least a little while longer to wait for a reply.

"Mai was there, wasn't she?" Gene sounded apprehensive. He took a deep breath. "...Did she get scared?"

"Yes. And no." He'd seen fear in her eyes, all right. And he'd thought it would all be over after that, just as it had been countless times in the past. But instead of running away, she kept coming after him with a dogged persistence. It didn't make sense. She didn't make sense.

"If anything, she'd not afraid enough," he sighed. "She told Joanne that she's a medium."

"She did what?"

"She was trying to corroborate my story. But she can't lie worth a damn." Oliver pinched the bridge of his nose.

This time Gene laughed. "I knew she was a keeper," he grinned.

"How is this a good thing?"

"It's sure not a bad thing. When has anyone ever done that for us?"

There was no need to answer. They both knew the answer was 'never.'

"Personally, I like the honest types. Isn't it cute how she just blurts out what she's thinking?"

"More like moronic."

"I prefer to think of it as pure-hearted."

This gave Oliver pause. True, what he'd seen as nosiness and naivety could perhaps be interpreted that way. And she did seem to lack any ulterior motives.

In that case, Gene would like her.

"...Right."

"Anyway, if she let you walk her home, I guess it wasn't a total disaster." Gene smiled. "You did good there, Noll. I'm proud of you."

Oliver didn't know how to respond to that. He wasn't used to receiving honest praise, even from his own brother. So instead he furrowed his eyebrows and said, "I told Joanne that you would come by today. Try fitting that into your schedule."

"I was already planning on it. I'll go before work," Gene shrugged. "Can you take care of lunch yourself?"

Lunch... He supposed that in a few hours, he might be able to drag himself to the kitchen. "I'll manage."

"Okay. Call if you have trouble." Gene made a knocking motion on his head.

He probably wouldn't. Gene had both classes and work, and adding a trip to the library meant that he would likely be on his feet all day.

Besides, whether he asked for it or not, Gene would probably make another trip back here anyway. That's just how he was.

Gene got back on his feet. "Oh, before I go, do you need help using the bathroom?"

Oliver answered only with a glare.

"Suit yourself. Don't blame me if you wet the bed."

"Gene."

"I'm going, I'm going."

He went to the door, but this time Oliver stopped him. "Wait."

Gene looked back, eyebrows raised.

"...If you see Mai, don't tell her I collapsed."

Gene blinked. "Sure. But why?"

Knowing Gene, if given the opportunity, he would probably go into all sorts of needless details just to embarrass him. If Mai were to find out about something, Oliver wanted to be the one to tell her.

But more than that, Mai's words from last night sprang to mind.

"She would make a big deal of it."

A smile crossed Gene's face. "Gotcha."

 


 

Mai woke that morning feeling well-rested for a change. Which was a surprise, considering she had still gone to bed rather late. Maybe it was because she'd felt like a weight had finally lifted from her last night. Whatever it was, she went to her morning class in relatively good spirits.

It was during breakfast, however, that she remembered her troubles were far from over.

"Hey, did you hear..."

"Last night at the library..."

"You wouldn't believe..."

The dining hall buzzed with whispers and gossip. Mai sat among this slowly chewing her bagel for a few minutes before deciding she wasn't hungry anymore.

And once again, her thoughts turned to Naru. Did he make it back okay last night? Was he feeling any better? How was today going to turn out for him, with all this attention?

She decided to pop in at the library real quick before her afternoon class, just to see how he was doing.

Giffords Library was just as quiet as it was last night. Mai saw scant signs of people, except at the scene of the accident, where a few groups had gathered. Some of them wore gothic clothing and had dyed hair or piercings. Generally all of them were taking photos.

That probably wasn't good. Mai was just glad she had done her part in cleaning up last night, or it would have looked much worse. Right now, there was only some overturned furniture.

How did word spread so fast? Was this all over social media? What a nightmare.

Preparing herself to find Naru in an awful mood, Mai took a quick walk around the library, but didn't see him. Was he hiding among the stacks again? Ugh, what a pain.

But then it occurred to her. Maybe it was too early. What were his hours anyway? Did he even work in the morning? She knew he stayed until midnight, and had a break in the evening. And she'd seen him here in the afternoon. But even working full time, surely he wouldn't be here for over ten hours? Unless he came in early and just hung around until it was time to work? She couldn't imagine wanting to stay in a library for that long every day, though then again, this was Naru...

In the end, she decided to come back later, when she knew he should be around. Looking for him now might just be a waste of time.

So Mai caught up on her homework, went to her afternoon class, and had lunch. When she came back to Giffords Library, it was nearing 1:30 PM.

She took a quick walk around again, but still didn't see him. What was she burning all these calories for? She wished she could just call him or something. That would make things so much easier.

Sighing, Mai headed for the front desk. Maybe she could ask Joanne for help.

As she'd hoped, the head librarian sat at the front desk, appearing listless. Usually there would be a line of students checking out books, but today, no one was there.

Joanne perked up a little when she saw Mai. "Good afternoon!"

"Good afternoon. Um, I was wondering if you could tell me where Na- I mean, Oliver would be right now. I'd like to have a quick word with him."

"Oh, I'm sorry, dear. He's not in today."

"What...?" Mai's stomach dropped as a number of worst-case scenarios flew through her head.

"His brother called this morning and said he's sick. I thought he did look a little unwell last night...I suppose all the stress must have exacerbated it."

Mai put her hand to her mouth. "I shouldn't have...I shouldn't have let him go home alone last night. I knew he wasn't feeling well, but I just...he said he'd be okay..."

"Calm down, dear. I'm sure it's not life-threatening," Joanne smiled.

"But I..."

"It's not your fault. These things happen. And for Oliver, it's nothing new."

Mai's eyes widened. "What do you mean? Does he get sick often?"

"Once in a while, yes. He's told me he has a recurring health problem. I try not to pry, you know, but..." She lowered her voice. "I think he's had a very rough background. Unfortunately, the job doesn't provide any benefits, but he's so hard-working, the least I could do is let him take time off."

"Does he...work full time?"

"Mm. It was originally a part-time position, but he asked for more hours, and we're so short-handed...I had to pull a few strings. I've tried to have him promoted too, but I'm afraid our hiring manager isn't quite as understanding."

"Oh..."

Joanne perked up. "But you know, I'm glad he's made a friend. He's so introverted, and he doesn't seem to have much of a life outside of work. I know it's not my place, but I do worry."

Mai smiled. "Well, I'm glad he has such a kind employer."

"Oh, stop. You flatter me."

Mai's smile waned. Joanne really was a kind, accepting person. But...she was being deceived. Was it really necessary to lie to her?

Then again, how far would the woman's trust and understanding go if she were to find out that Naru was the one causing problems in the library? There was no way to know for sure.

This was a matter of survival, after all. If Naru lost this job, things would no doubt become very difficult for him and Gene both. In that case, she could understand erring on the side of caution. But that didn't mean she had to like it.

"Oh, come to think of it," said Joanne. "You're familiar with Eugene?"

"Yes, I've met him."

"He's here right now, if you'd like to talk to him."

"He is?!"

"I saw him head over to the reference section a little while ago. He said he would report to me once he's done, so you can probably still catch him there."

"I will. Thank you!"

Mai rushed toward the reference section. But when she got there, she didn't find him. She must have been too late. Mai sighed. Would she have to search the whole library again? She was really getting sick of this.

But once she'd caught her breath, she heard a soft voice. She looked around and headed in what she thought was the direction it came from. A minute later, she spotted his red parka.

At first, she thought he was alone. But looking again, he appeared to be talking to someone. No, more like having a one-sided conversation. Gene stood next to an unoccupied table, gazing at an empty seat, speaking softly, pausing, and occasionally laughing by himself.

She had to admit, it was an unsettling sight. But she knew better about what she was witnessing. Mai stood at a distance and waited for him to finish, not wanting to interrupt.

After a few minutes, the conversation seemed to come to an end, and Gene turned to walk in her direction. He saw her immediately and waved his hand.

"Oh, hey Mai!" he greeted cheerily.

"Gene!" Mai trotted over.

Coming closer, she noticed he still had bags under his eyes. Did he not get much sleep again last night? Just when did Naru get home?

"I was hoping I might see you again," Gene smiled, and Mai blushed despite herself.

"Y-you were talking with Charlie?" she asked, glancing over his shoulder at the empty table.

"Yeah, just checking up on how he's doing. Not that anything's wrong; more just to reassure the staff, you know?"

"Oh, yeah. After what happened yesterday..."

"Charlie just gave me the details. I'm sorry you had to see that, it must have been scary."

"Oh, no, it's fine. I'm sorry it had to happen." Mai bit her lip. "Um, speaking of which...I heard Naru's staying home today?"

Gene hesitated. "Uh, well, yeah."

"Is he okay?"

"Oh, he's fine. Just resting a bit."

"I shouldn't have let him go home like that. I'm sorry..."

"Don't worry about it, Mai. He's just tired. He'll be back to normal on Monday, I promise."

Mai sighed. "He's going to be so mad at me, isn't he..."

"Nah. When I checked on him this afternoon, he was busy drafting another letter, so I doubt he was too inconvenienced. Actually, he's probably relieved he doesn't have to come in today to deal with the aftermath."

"Really...?"

"Yup!" Then he smirked. "You were really worried, huh?"

Mai flushed. "Well...yeah! After what happened last night, if he collapsed on the way home, it would've been my fault!"

"Like I said, don't sweat it, Mai. It happens all the time. But..." He thought for a moment. "You know, if you ever want to check on him again, you can just call him. Here, I'll give you his number." He pulled out his phone.

"What?!" Mai spluttered. "Gene, you can't just give me his number! Not without his okay!"

Gene gave her a perplexed look. "I don't think he'll mind though."

"That's not the point! It just...wouldn't feel right!" And besides, the whole reason for yesterday's fiasco was because Gene had told her Naru's secrets without his permission. She very well couldn't repeat that.

"Well, okay. I'll just ask him then." Gene glanced toward the ceiling.

"Uh, Gene? What are you doing?"

He didn't answer for a long moment. Then he looked back down at her with a smile. "He says it's fine."

Mai stared. "You talked to him?"

"Yup."

"Just now?"

He nodded.

"...How?"

Gene laughed. "Guess I forgot to mention this, huh? We have a sort of telepathy. It only works between us though. Probably a twin thing."

"You're kidding."

"We can pass energy through our psychic link too. It's hard to explain, but we do that whenever Noll needs to use a lot of PK, so he doesn't pass out or worse."

Mai still couldn't get over the 'telepathy' bit. "...You're really not just pulling my leg?"

He laughed again. "You'll believe everything else, but not this?"

Mai pouted.

"Here, if you want proof, you can just ask him." Gene flipped his phone open, found the number, and called. He held the phone up to his ear. "Hey Noll, Mai wants to ask you something. Don't hang up." Then Gene passed the phone to her.

Mai nervously pressed the phone to her ear. "Uh...hi."

"What do you want?" came his abrupt reply.

At his voice, a combination of irritation and relief washed over her. He sounded just the same. Same old grumpy, rude Naru.

"Did Gene just ask you something?"

A pause. "...He asked if you could have my phone number."

Mai gaped at Gene. "I can't believe it. You two really are telepathic!"

Naru sighed. "You'll believe everything else, but not this?"

"Okay, that is creepy."

"What?"

"N-no, I'm not calling you creepy..."

"How else am I supposed to take that, exactly?"

"The two of you just said the exact same thing and it weirded me out, okay?"

Another sigh. "Never mind that. Where are you calling from now? The library?"

"Uh, yes."

A grunt of annoyance. "From now on, take your calls outside."

"What? But it's cold!"

"A library is no place for loud phone conversations. If I catch you doing it, I will kick you out."

"Seriously?!"

"Do I sound like I'm joking?"

"I don't know, you sound exactly the same whether you're joking or not, Mr. Straight Face!"

"Lower. Your. Voice."

"Jerk," she hissed softly into the receiver.

"I'm only doing my job, Mai."

"You're not even on the clock."

"I'm not saying I'll kick you out right this moment, am I?"

"Whatever. So I can have your number?"

"I don't care. Just don't call me when I'm busy like today."

"Busy?! You have the day off!"

"That doesn't mean I don't have things to do. Now if you don't mind."

He hung up.

Mai looked at the phone with distaste. "Jeez."

"What's with the sour face?" Gene asked, looking amused.

"He just lectured me on making calls in the library and hung up."

Gene snorted. "Sorry about that...he's new at this."

"You sure look like you're enjoying this, though," Mai said dryly, handing him back his phone.

"How could I not? It's just so priceless. Noll...talking with a girl." He shook his head, chuckling.

Mai rolled her eyes. "Maybe he's not so lucky to have you after all."

"Hey!"

Mai folded her hands together. "By the way, I wanted to ask you something..."

"Yeah?"

She bowed her head guiltily. "I...kinda told Naru's boss that I could see ghosts last night..."

"I heard."

"And, well, now she seems to have these expectations of me. And I want to avoid lying to her as much as possible, if I could help it. So I was wondering if you had any...uh, tips?"

Gene blinked in surprise. "You mean, in being a medium?"

She waved her hands. "I wouldn't go so far as saying that. But...just enough to sound convincing?"

"Hmm." He put a hand to his chin and looked her over. "Well, you do have potential. You found Charlie by yourself, right?"

"But I didn't mean to! And it might have just been a fluke! I couldn't even see him when you were talking earlier..."

"Still, that means you have some spiritual ability. Maybe not to the point that you see spirits day to day like I do, but it's there. Which means it could potentially be trained and developed."

"Trained...?"

His face suddenly lit up. "Sounds like fun! Sure, I could teach you!"

She laughed nervously. "Maybe just a few lessons, then..."

"Great!" He clapped her on the shoulder. "Looks like I've got myself an apprentice."

Oh boy. He was taking this entirely the wrong way. But...maybe it wouldn't be too bad. At least it would lend her better credibility. And it might even prove useful someday. Yes, she should think about this positively.

If nothing else, it would give her an excuse to hang out with Gene. That put her in better spirits.

Gene flipped his phone open again. "Here, I'll give you my number too. And can I have yours? My schedule can be unpredictable, so I'll let you know when I have time. How does that sound?"

"Yeah, sure!" Mai pulled out her phone too, and they traded numbers.

"Call if you ever need anything, alright?" Gene smiled, tucking his phone away. "I know it must be hard staying here by yourself, so don't be afraid to rely on us. That's what friends are for."

"Y-yeah...thanks." A warmth spread through her heart and across her cheeks.

"I should get going now, I've got work soon. See you later, Mai."

"Okay. Seeya!" Mai waved as he headed back toward the front desk. At this point she realized that she had a goofy grin on her face. But she just couldn't help it.

And for the rest of the day, Mai found herself turning on her phone every so often, just to admire the two new additions to her contacts list: Naru and Gene.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

 

Mai spent her Saturday rather normally. Sleeping in, taking care of laundry, doing some reading, buying groceries. After that whirlwind of a week, it almost felt like she had returned to reality. She even felt up to attending the weekly pub meeting with the other exchange students that night.

Unfortunately, the hot topic of discussion was Giffords Library again.

"You all heard what happened, right? Do any of you believe it?"

"Personally, I don't believe in any of that supernatural nonsense."

"But there were eyewitnesses..."

"I heard someone actually saw the ghost. That it was wrapped in chains and moaning..."

"Come on, really?"

"Isn't it romantic, though? Ghost stories in a foreign land..."

"I bet it's a hoax. Or some people got high on weed and hallucinated the whole thing."

"But didn't someone actually get hurt?"

"Yeah, I saw her post on Facebook!"

"How reliable is she, though? Isn't her boyfriend denying the whole thing?"

"Former boyfriend, you mean."

Mai remained silent through the whole conversation, not trusting herself to not give anything away. Which, given that the entire point of being there was to socialize, was a real bummer.

"Hey Mai, you hang out at the library a lot, right? Did you see anything?"

Mai choked on her soda. "N-no...?" she managed to splutter between coughs. How did they know how much time she spent there?

The other students exchanged glances and grins. Huh? Did she miss something?

Thankfully, they soon turned to another subject, and the rest of the evening went smoothly.

Sunday progressed just as normally, until around 5 in the evening, when her phone suddenly rang.

Mai picked it up, saw "Gene" on the screen, and her heart skipped a beat. "Hello?" she answered.

"Hey, Mai. Are you busy?"

Mai was currently lying in bed reading. "Not really. Why?"

"I was wondering if you could meet me outside for a bit. There's something I want to show you."

"What? Right now?"

"It won't take long, I promise. Barely half an hour. It's not far."

Mai looked at her clock. She had been planning on going to dinner in an hour anyway. And she was curious. "Okay, sure. Where should I meet you...?"

Ten minutes later, she hurried to the edge of campus.

It was already dark outside, but she spotted him easily because he stood under a street lamp. Well, also because a small group of young women were crowding around him, whom he coolly ignored.

...Okay, he was definitely pretending to be Naru, right? That had to be intentional. Come to think of it, he acted that way the first time they met too...

Sure enough, when he saw her, he dropped the act, waving his arm and smiling. He jogged over to her.

Mai became distinctly aware of several glares cast in her direction. Ack. And then she noticed what Gene was holding in his other hand.

A bouquet. Mai blinked. Did he have a date after this or something?

"I'm glad you could make it," Gene said in Japanese once he'd reached her. "Sorry it's on such short notice. They're saying it's going to snow again tomorrow, so I wanted to get this over with before then."

"No problem. But...what's this about?"

"Well, before I teach you anything, I thought it'd be better if I show you what it's like to work as a medium. Just a small demonstration."

"Huh...color me intrigued." So it was ghost stuff. Mai wished he could have thought to do this while it was still light out, but as long as she was with him, it wouldn't be too scary...right?

"It's just a few blocks away, come on." He led her off campus and they walked together.

Trying to distract herself from her nerves, Mai spoke up. "By the way, how's Naru doing?"

"Good. If school isn't cancelled tomorrow, he'll probably make it into work."

"That's a relief." She sighed. "And I don't suppose you've gotten a reply from ASPR yet...?"

"It's probably too early for that. We're thinking we'll wait a couple of weeks before following up."

"Oh. Well, I hope they get back to you quickly." But maybe not too quickly, she thought guiltily. What would happen once they got a reply? Would they move away? She was only just getting to know them...

Soon, they reached a busy intersection, and as they stood waiting for the light to turn so they could cross the street, Gene handed the bouquet to her. "Here, could you hold onto this for me?"

Confused, she took the flowers. "What are these for?"

"I want to make it look like we're just paying our respects." He pointed to across the street, where she saw the snow had been cleared just enough to reveal a small roadside memorial, with a white cross and wreath of flowers.

Mai felt a chill run down her back. "Oh..."

Gene leaned closer and whispered. "Do you see her?"

"Um, no?" She looked again, half-expecting to see a long-haired specter right out of the movies, but there was no one there. "Who am I looking for?"

"Her name was Temika Gordon." His expression turned grim. "Three months ago, she and her mother were walking to a bus stop when a distracted driver swerved onto the sidewalk and hit them. She was just six years old."

"That's...horrible..."

He nodded. "Temika was killed on impact. Her mother was taken to an area hospital, where she fell into a coma and died two days later. Temika's spirit was left here all alone."

"What about the mother? Did she cross over?"

"I'm not completely sure. I took a walk around the hospital lobby and couldn't sense her in the building. I couldn't find her at her home either. And I waited a few weeks just in case her spirit returned to this spot. The best thing would be for them to be reunited, after all. Judging from the circumstances, though, my guess is that she's already crossed over. But Temika is still in shock. It happened so quickly, she hasn't realized she's died. All she knows is that she's been left behind."

The thought pained her heart. "Poor thing..."

"Cases like these are typically harmless and easy, and there's no point in letting her continue to suffer like this. So I want to put an end to it."

The light changed. As they crossed the street, Mai's heart began to beat faster. Oh god. They were really doing this.

They approached the roadside memorial. Gene crouched down in front of it and folded his hands in prayer, closing his eyes. After adjusting the bouquet in her arms, Mai followed suit.

Meanwhile, traffic continued on behind them as usual. Mai couldn't help but feel very conspicuous, even with the darkness and bouquet to disguise them.

After a moment, Gene murmured to her. "She hasn't noticed us yet. Can you see her?"

Mai peeked her eyes open. She saw the white cross and wreath in front of them, but nothing else. "No..."

"Try focusing your other senses. Concentrate."

"But what if I still can't..."

"Don't worry. You're not being graded for this." She heard a smile in his voice. "Just try."

Mai took a deep breath and closed her eyes again. Okay then. Other senses. She heard the cars driving behind them, humming engines and tires splashing through slush. She could smell the exhaust, the dirty salt and sand mixture in the nearby snowbanks, and the floral scent of the flowers in her arms. The air was cold, but her warm gloves and clothes protected her from the chill. In her mouth, the sticky aftertaste of a soda she had been drinking earlier.

And then she heard it.

Momma, where are you? Momma...

The faint sniffling of a young child.

Mai gasped. "I can...I can hear her...!"

"Good. Now open your eyes."

She did.

A young black girl, her hair in pigtails, sat on the pavement before them, hugging her legs and rocking back and forth.

Mai gaped, then looked to Gene. He nodded to her, and put a finger to his lips.

She understood. She would just watch.

"Temika?" Gene spoke softly.

The little girl stopped rocking. After a moment, she raised her face slightly, watery brown eyes peering up at them over her knees. "...Who're you?"

Mai held her breath. Her heartbeat sounded loud in her ears. But Gene spoke casually, seemingly unconcerned.

"My name's Gene. You look a little lost."

Temika's eyes wavered up and down from his face to the sidewalk. Her grip tightened around her legs. "...My momma told me not to talk to strangers."

He smiled kindly. "She's a smart lady. But don't worry. I'm here to help you find her."

"Really?" The girl raised her head a little higher. "You know where my momma is?"

"Mmhm. She's been looking for you too. She's really worried."

Relief washed over the child's face. "Where is she?"

"Do you see a bright light anywhere?"

Temika looked around. She seemed to catch sight of something down the street and stared in its direction.

"It's pretty..."

"That's where your mother is waiting."

She looked back at him. "How do I know you're not lying, mister?"

Gene laughed. "You're very smart, too. But I'm afraid you'll just have to trust me."

Temika pouted.

He gave her a gentle smile. "It's okay. You'll be just fine. There's nothing to be afraid of."

This seemed to have a hypnotic effect on the girl. At once, the doubt in her expression disappeared. She got to her feet.

Gene stood up too. "Do you think you're ready?"

Temika nodded slowly. "Will you...walk with me?" She extended a small hand.

"Of course." Without hesitation, his hand closed over her ghostly appendage.

Warmth and relief filled the little girl's eyes.

Mai stood and watched as they walked down the street together. She supposed it must look strange to any passersby, but in that moment, it didn't matter.

After about ten steps, Temika suddenly came to a stop. A delighted smile lit her face, and she looked up at Gene one last time.

"Thanks, mister!"

Gene just nodded.

And with that, the girl dashed forward, arms outstretched. "Momma!"

And she vanished in a blink of light.

Mai let out a little hiccup. She realized tears were running down her face.

Gene looked back at her. "Mai? Are you okay?"

She hid her face behind the bouquet. "That was...beautiful," she sniffed.

Gene came back to join her. Mai wiped her face on her coat sleeve and laid the bouquet down beside the roadside memorial. They both stood for a moment, looking at it. Mai wondered if they should say something, but 'Rest in Peace' didn't seem like enough. She had been so young...

At last, Gene said, "Let's go." In silence, they turned and walked back to the intersection.

As they waited for the light to change again, he asked, "Any thoughts?"

"You make it look so easy."

He chuckled half-heartedly. "I wish. I had to work at it."

Mai glanced at him. The lonely look was back in his eyes. And just a while ago, he had smiled so sincerely...

The light changed and they crossed the street. Walking back to the campus, Mai spoke again.

"You know, when it comes to ghosts, I usually expect something scary. But she wasn't scary at all. She was just a little girl. A scared, lonely little girl."

He nodded. "When you get right down to it, that's what all ghosts are. Scared, sad, lonely people. And once you understand that, it's not as scary. It was the same with Charlie, right?"

"Yeah."

"They all want something. Most times, it's something they can't have anymore. But you can still help, if you listen."

"And you do this...all the time?"

"When I can. I tell people it's volunteer work, which I guess it basically is, just not for the living. But sometimes I don't stay in one place long enough to get to them all. So when I spot one, I try to take note of it so I can come back when I'm able to." He shrugged. "I'm thinking someday, once I'm financially stable enough, I'll take a road trip and go back to all those places. It weighs on my mind, you know? I could've helped them."

Mai gazed at him in awe. "That's great, though! I mean, even if they're not living, you're still helping people. And since there aren't a lot of people with your gift, that makes it all the more important."

He smiled. "Thanks. I like to think of it that way too."

Mai blushed and looked down at her feet. Up to now, she'd mostly thought of this 'supernatural stuff' as creepy or weird, but this demonstration definitely changed her mind.

"To be honest...I haven't really thought about what I wanted to do after college. Not deeply, anyway," she admitted. "At best, I'd like to do something that lets me travel once in a while. Or maybe I could be an English teacher. But I figure that most likely, I'll end up with a dull office job, serving tea to self-important men all day." She rolled her eyes. "Even then, I'd at least be comfortable, so I thought it wouldn't be too bad. But maybe...if I could learn to do something like this, even just on the side, it would feel more...fulfilling."

Gene's smile faded. "I don't think I could recommend that. It can be dangerous, you know. Not all spirits go so easily, and they can be hard to predict. Unless it's an emergency, I wouldn't recommend approaching one on your own."

"O-oh..." Her heart sank.

"Sorry. It's just...in my case, I have years of experience, and I always had Noll with me when I was younger. There've been times I could have gotten really hurt if it weren't for him. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure you could do it, given the time. I just don't know if we have that time."

"It's fine, I understand." Mai sighed. He was just thinking of her safety. And she did only ask to learn the basics.

"Maybe if you knew a spiritualist, someone who could come with you...?"

"I don't know anyone like that back home." And even if she found someone, how would she know they were the real deal?

"Too bad." He sighed. "I think you'd make a great teacher, though. And don't Japanese schools have lots of ghost stories?"

"You have no idea," she laughed. "It gets pretty creepy sometimes."

"Then maybe this stuff will come in handy someday," he grinned.

"Maybe. Either way, this would be a fun story to tell my students."

"Oh man, people are going to hear about this? Be sure to mention my good looks too. That'll catch their interest."

They both laughed.

He left her once they returned to campus. After saying their goodbyes, Mai headed to the dining hall, feeling thoughtful.

Despite his warning, she still liked the idea of pursuing something like this on her own. Maybe she could self-study once she returned to Japan. It was worth thinking about, at least. Though maybe she was getting ahead of herself. After all, her training had only just begun.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

 

February

Monday

 

"Whaaat? School isn't closed?!"

As Gene had said, sure enough, it snowed the next day. Mai woke up to a window filled with white, and went straight to her RA's room, hoping for news of a snow day. But no such luck.

Eric laughed. "Sorry, just a two hour delay."

Mai groaned. "New Englanders are as tough as I've heard…"

"Hey, it's better than nothing, right?"

"Yes…" At least her morning class was cancelled.

She turned to plod dejectedly back to her room, but Eric called out to her.

"Oh, and Mai?"

"Yes?"

He hesitated before rubbing the back of his neck. "How should I say this… That 'friend' you stayed with during the last blizzard…I don't suppose they're a student here?"

Mai stared. How did he know? "No, he isn't…"

"Ah, I see." He frowned. "Well, it's not my business telling you who to associate with, but…be careful, okay? And if you have any problems, don't be afraid to tell me. I'm always here to help."

She blinked. "Okay. Um, thank you." What exactly was he getting at? Be careful of what? But at least he seemed to mean well…

She went back to her room and slept in for another hour, then got herself ready to trudge through the snow for some breakfast.

The dining hall buzzed with commotion when she arrived, but Mai paid it no mind, getting her tray and loading it with warm food. It was only once she'd sat down that she noticed something was off. A group of students sitting a few tables down were staring right at her. She strained her ears and caught a snippet of conversation.

"Is that her? Really?"

"I think so."

"Hey, I think she's in my history class."

"Shit! She's looking at us!"

They quickly turned their attention back to their food.

Now what was that about? Sure, she stood out here more than she did in Japan, but she was far from the only Asian on campus.

Then she realized that they weren't the only ones looking at her. Half the dining hall appeared to be sending her covert glances and whispering amongst each other. What the...?

Mai quickly looked herself over, just in case she'd left her dorm without wearing pants or something, but everything seemed to be in order. What was the big deal, then?

Her answer came sooner than expected.

Kendra, Liz and Allison marched up to her table, faces grim. Without even a word, the three of them sat across from her.

Mai got a bad feeling. They hadn't talked in weeks, not since their first meeting at the cafe, so there had to be a reason behind this. "Good morning..." she said hesitantly.

They didn't return the greeting. "This is an inquisition," Kendra said, dead serious.

"Huh?"

"It's about the Ghost."

At her blank look, Kendra sighed.

"You know, the Ghost of Giffords Library."

It took Mai a second to remember that they were talking about Naru, not Charlie. "O-oh. What about him...?"

"We know something fishy is going on. And don't try to deny it. We have more than enough evidence to prove our case."

This put her in a nervous sweat. Oh no. Did she let something slip?!

Mai gulped. "I...don't know what you're talking about..."

The girls rolled their eyes.

"Don't play dumb, Mai," Liz said. "Are you or are you not dating him?"

A few seconds passed as Mai took this in, and then she burst out laughing. "What?!" Is that what they were suspicious about? Oh jeez.

They seemed taken aback by her reaction. "You heard me. Are. You. Dating. Him?" Liz asked again, as if unsure whether Mai understood the question.

"No! How did you even come to that conclusion?"

"Like I said, the evidence supports it."

"What evidence?"

Kendra held up a finger. "First of all, there have been multiple reports of people seeing you two sitting together at the library."

Well, she couldn't deny that. And since it was in public, she probably should have expected that people would've seen them together.

"So? We like to sit together. That doesn't mean we're going out."

"He never sits with people!" Allison exclaimed.

"Not until you came along," Liz glared.

"Second. Last week, he was seen waiting outside the library for someone."

"Outside!" Allison screeched.

"Waiting for you, apparently. Because as soon as you showed up, he was reportedly seen smiling and laughing!" Kendra said with a shudder, as if scandalized by the very thought.

Mai almost laughed this off as a fake rumor, before realizing they must have meant Gene. "Wait, but that was..."

Then she hesitated. Gene pretended to be Naru while on campus. Did that mean they didn't want it known that they were twins? If they wanted to keep a low profile, that might make sense...

"Third. On Thursday night, you were seen together outside your dorm."

"At like one in the morning!" Liz added. "How is that not suspicious?!"

"Oh my god, who is telling you all this?"

Kenda smiled slyly. "I have my sources."

"What were you doing together that late at night, huh?!" Allison pressed.

"It's not what you think! He just walked me home! We were at the library until late..."

Liz let out a loud gasp. "The library closed early that night! Were you alone together?!"

"W-well, yes, but nothing happened!"

"Fourth," Kendra said, decisively. "Just last night, the two of you were witnessed meeting up for a date."

"That wasn't a date-"

"He had flowers for you!"

Mai buried her face in her hands and groaned. Even she couldn't deny that the evidence looked damning. And she couldn't even explain the truth.

"Would you believe me if I said those flowers weren't for me?" she tried weakly.

"Nice try. We're not buying it."

"Fess up, Mai. Even if that wasn't what it looked like, it is a solid fact that he gives you special treatment!"

"How did you do it? How did you seduce him?!"

Mai spluttered. "I-I did no such thing!"

"Did you throw yourself at him?"

"I would never-"

"Have you kissed?"

"No!"

"Have you slept together?!"

"NO!"

Her shout immediately drew the eyes of anyone not already listening avidly to the interrogation. Mai shrank in her seat, wanting to disappear.

"Sure, Mai. Sure."

"You're not convincing anyone, Mai."

"Just hurry up and confess already. Make it easier on yourself."

This was ridiculous. Why was she being treated like a criminal? Mai grit her teeth and straightened up. She had had enough. "For the last time, we are not dating. This is all a big misunderstanding."

"Mai, please-"

"And even if we were," she continued, raising her voice, "how is it any of your business? What do you hope to accomplish once I confess? Do you plan on seducing him yourself? Do you honestly think he's stupid enough to fall for something like that?"

Their mouths snapped shut in unison.

"In that case, here's a tip: if you want to get along with him so much, you could start by not spreading lies!"

Someone began to clap slowly. Soon, a few more people joined in.

Faces flushed, the three girls stood up, and after sending her one last affronted glare, they quickly left.

Good riddance. She couldn't believe people could be so disgusting. Mai huffed and returned to her tray.

Her food had gone cold.

 


 

After that unpleasant encounter, Mai thought she was done with the whole business. Unfortunately, it seemed she had been too late.

It was incredible just how short people's attention spans were. Almost overnight, it seemed the hot topic of gossip had switched from the library ghost to the supposed relationship between her and Naru.

For the rest of the day, eyes followed her wherever she went, and complete strangers, people she had never even exchanged words with before, continued coming up to her to ask if the rumors were true. Some of them seemed merely curious, even awe-stricken. Others were bitterly jealous and confrontational like Kendra and company. And as the day went on, they seemed to grow bolder. Soon people were openly glaring at her in class, to the point that the professor had to ask them to pay attention to his lecture.

Though, it wasn't all bad. At the end of her evening class, as she put away her notes, a voice called out to her.

"Hey, congrats."

"Huh?" Mai looked up. It was Aubrey, the bespectacled black student who sat next to her. Other than working together on a couple of assignments, they hadn't really talked before.

Aubrey hefted her backpack over her shoulder. "I heard you're dating that guy from the library. Way to go."

Mai gave a strained laugh. "Th-thanks?" She wanted to deny it, but if this was going to be a positive interaction, she didn't want to ruin it.

"By the way, they aren't giving you any trouble, are they?" Aubrey gestured to Kendra, Liz, and Allison, who were glaring at her from the entrance of the lecture hall.

"Not too much..."

"I've known them since high school, so I know they can be a real pain. But I've got some dirt on them myself, so if it starts to get ugly..."

She looked over at them. They scurried out.

Mai smiled. "I don't think that would be necessary. But thank you. I appreciate it."

"No problem. Just don't be afraid to speak up, okay?" And with a small wave, Aubrey descended the steps of the lecture hall.

This development cheered her up so much that Mai didn't give any second thought to visiting the library that night. She'd thought Aubrey seemed nice. Maybe they could be friends. It'd be nice if one positive thing could arise from this.

Preoccupied in her thoughts, she was startled by the sound of a chair being pulled out. Mai looked up to see Naru at the other end of her table. He didn't say anything to her, or even look in her direction. But he sat down with his book as always and began reading.

It was the first she'd seen him in days, and he didn't look any different. Well, better rested, certainly. But his blank expression gave nothing away. It was as if nothing had changed.

But that very fact relieved her. She'd been half convinced that he wouldn't sit with her anymore, since he avoided her the last time.

However, her happiness was short-lived.

"Hey, isn't that..."

"See, I told you."

Whispers accosted her from all directions. Before she knew it, a crowd of people had gathered, hiding behind the bookcases surrounding their table.

"I knew it. They are together."

"Why her? She's not even all that pretty."

"I bet it's because she's Japanese."

Mai bent over her notes in a lame attempt to hide her burning face. This was humiliating. How could they say these things out loud, let alone within earshot of her? And Naru. He had to be hearing this too. Oh god.

She glanced up at him, and could hardly believe her eyes. His cool demeanor remained intact, still fully focused on his book. Was he carved out of stone? How could he not react even the tiniest bit to this situation?

As the minutes ticked by, her shock gave way to irritation. He did realize what was going on, right? There was no way he couldn't have not noticed. With all this commotion, why wasn't he telling them off? Was he really going to just sit there while she was being insulted? He could at least give her a word of encouragement, like Aubrey did.

The only conclusion she could come to was that he meant for her to deal with the situation, so he wouldn't have to lift a finger. But of course, if she started yelling at them, he would probably scold her for being loud in the library. It was so unfair. It's not like this was her fault.

She glared fiercely at him. Man up, would you?!

But he continued reading his book, not even sparing her a glance.

...Fine then. Ignore this!

She chucked her eraser at him.

The eraser, which happened to be shaped like a cartoon frog, bounced off his forehead and landed on an open page of his book.

An audible gasp came from the crowd. Then silence fell as everyone waited with bated breath to see what happened next. Mai held her breath too.

For a long moment, his expression did not change. And then, with a twitch of his eyebrow, his gaze slowly rose to meet hers in a frigid glare.

Mai gulped. Well, it was a nice life...

Very calmly, Naru palmed the eraser, inserted a bookmark in his book, and closed it. Then, with the stealthy precision of a predator about to strike, he rose from his seat.

He looked around at the crowd of people.

"It would appear that college students these days have it quite easy, if they have nothing better to do than to stand around speculating about the lives of others. It must be nice, to have so much free time on your hands."

Silence. He narrowed his eyes.

"Or perhaps it's that your heads are so empty, they would float away if not weighted down with frivolous gossip. Pity they couldn't be filled with something useful instead. This institution is wasted on you."

If looks could kill, he had just slaughtered the whole crowd.

Shrinking under his stare, one by one, the audience began to wander away, still in complete silence. Within minutes, the two of them were alone again.

Mai sighed in relief. Naru gave her a disdainful look.

"Don't look at me like that," she frowned, and held her hand out for the eraser. "Here."

Naru blinked. He opened his fist to see the frog eraser in his palm. He glanced back up at her again.

Then, while still maintaining eye contact, he silently slid the eraser into his pocket.

Mai's jaw dropped. Wait...did he just...

He leaned forward. "Next time, show some self-restraint," he whispered, then coolly walked off.

Mai stared after him in disbelief. That...that thief...

 


 

February

Tuesday

 

Things didn't get much better the next day. In the morning, Mai had bought a coffee at the cafe to take with her to class, when someone knocked it out of her hand as they passed, muttering "Oops." The styrofoam cup landed in the snow, its hot contents pouring out.

For a moment, she just stood in shock. By the time it occurred to her to chase after the person and demand they pay her back, they were already out of sight. She hadn't even gotten a good look at them.

Mai had never been bullied like this before. Sure, she was aware of some people who used to whisper behind her back in high school about her orphan status, but nothing this bad. She had probably been lucky in that regard.

But to think she would experience this now, in a foreign country, over something so stupid... This was definitely not how she'd expected her study abroad experience to play out.

With those miserable thoughts, Mai rushed to class, hoping to avoid meeting anyone along the way.

As soon as class ended, however, she was ambushed right outside the building. Again, it was by a female student she had never seen nor spoken to before.

"Hey, you're that girl dating the guy at the library?"

She sighed wearily. "No, we are not dating."

The student crossed her arms. "Well, someone sure is. And who else could it be but you?"

Mai paused. "…What do you mean?"

"As if you don't know. My friend just asked him out for Valentine's Day, and he told her he was taken."

"...What?!" 'Taken'...as in already with someone? Did she understand that correctly? And if so, when did that happen?

Seeing her surprise, the other girl raised an eyebrow. "Wait, so it's not you?"

"I…don't…think…so…?"

Suddenly, Mai wasn't so sure. Last night, when he rebuked the onlookers, he hadn't exactly denied a relationship between them. Was it possible he could have gotten the wrong idea, somehow…?

She knew it was unlikely. But still, something was definitely off here, and she had to get to the bottom of it before anyone else came asking. Quickly excusing herself, Mai rushed to the library.

Once inside, she pulled out her phone, and typed a quick text: 今どこ?

She almost didn't expect a reply. But a minute later, her phone buzzed: I can't read that.

Oops. It was so easy to forget he wasn't native Japanese.

She quickly sent another text, this time in English: Where are you right now?

After another minute: Where do you think?

Smartass. What section are you in?

Her phone buzzed. Guess.

She should have known that having his number wouldn't make things any easier.

Fed up, Mai started walking in a random direction. As she went, she jabbed a stream of random letters and numbers into her phone and sent it.

She heard a faint vibrating noise come from her left. Mai marched in that direction and soon found Naru with his phone in hand, staring quizzically at the screen.

"There you are!"

Seeing her, Naru put his phone away. "Mai, I'm working."

"I need to talk to you."

She stomped up to him and put her hands on her hips. "Are you dating someone?"

He answered without missing a beat. "No."

"Then why was I just told otherwise?"

He must have seen this coming. Naru sighed. "I said I was taken. Not that I was dating anyone. If people want to misinterpret that, it's their problem."

"Wait, what? Who are you 'taken' by, then?"

"Myself."

She gave him a long stare. "Wow, you really are a narcissist."

Naru just shrugged. "It only took two words to make her give up. Quite a timesaver. I honestly don't know why I never thought of it before."

"Okay...putting your warped personality aside, you just had to pick now to start using that?!"

"Why not?"

"Because in case you haven't noticed, everyone thinks we're dating!"

He shrugged.

What? Did that mean he didn't mind? Or that he didn't care?

Who was she kidding, it was obviously the latter.

"Does it bother you that much what people think?" he asked.

"...When it gets to this level, yes! Aren't you bothered by it?"

"I find it rather convenient. It's served as a suitable distraction from last week's incident and has gotten people back in the library. On top of that, people have been leaving me more or less alone."

She couldn't believe this guy. "Well, it might be convenient for you, but it's not for me! All those people who used to bother you are just coming to me now! Do you know how annoying that is?!"

"No, I'm sure I have no idea," he said dryly.

"They won't even believe me when I try to explain the truth! And now this?! You're making me out to be a liar!"

"Mai, calm down."

"You calm down!" she huffed.

He sighed. "Just be patient. People's minds are fickle. They'll have forgotten about it by next week."

Maybe he was right. They sure seemed to forget the library incident pretty quickly. "But…that still means I have to suffer through it this week!"

"I'm sure it's nothing you can't handle."

"Wha—"

"In any case, if someone had to be confused for my girlfriend, I'm glad it was you."

This caught her off guard. "…R-really?"

"Yes. It seems you hardly have any admirers here. It's been quite peaceful on my end."

Now she wanted to throw something at him again. "Well good for you, asshole! Excuse me for not being as popular as you! Just because I'm not pretty, or smart, or talented..."

"If you're fishing for compliments, you're asking the wrong person."

"Oh believe me, I am well acquainted with your terrible personality!" she hissed.

"I'm not the one who resorts to middle school antics such as throwing things at people."

Mai spluttered and pointed an accusing finger at him. "Look who's talking! You stole my eraser!"

"Correction: I delivered it to the Lost and Found."

"You what?!"

He gave her a smug look. "Just doing my civic duty, Mai."

Yeah, right. He had probably been waiting for an opportunity to reveal this to her. What was he, five?

"Oh, don't look so proud of yourself," she growled, and flounced away.

 


 

Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of her bad day.

When she went back to her dorm that evening, she found Eric standing in front of her room, scrubbing at the door with a rag.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

He turned his head, looking abashed. "Oh, Mai…sorry, could you come back a little later?"

"Why? What's the prob…" Then she saw it. The word SLUT spray painted across her door in red paint.

Eric sighed. "I was hoping I could get this removed before you'd see it…"

Mai said nothing. She just glowered at the door.

He came over and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry. I promise I'll find out who did this."

"It's fine," she said finally. "I don't care." She held her hand out for the rag. "May I?"

"Mai, it's okay, I'll clean it."

"No, I'd like to."

She spent the rest of the night furiously scrubbing at the door, taking her frustration out on it. In the end, her whole arm ached, and the paint still wasn't completely gone, but she felt better for having done something. And when she realized she'd skipped out on going to the library that evening, it didn't feel like a very big loss.

 


 

February

Wednesday

 

The next morning, Mai went to retrieve her eraser from the Lost and Found. As it turned out, this entailed going to the campus police department, where she had to describe her silly-looking eraser to a straight-faced officer, then wait as he went to search in the back for her tiny lost item. In all, it was a pain in the ass. And as a form of petty revenge, she had to admit it was effective.

But really, she ought to be the one taking revenge on him. Why did she have to go through this?

Mai sat in the dining hall, glaring at the eraser as if she could curse Naru through it. Selfish prick. Why, she oughtta...

Someone approached her. "Hi. I heard that you're..."

"We are not dating," Mai snapped, forgetting her manners.

The stranger, a young woman with wispy blond hair and green eyes, looked taken aback. But then she relaxed into a smile. "I'm glad to hear that."

Mai blinked. Something was different about this one. She didn't sense any hostility from her, nor did she seem simply curious.

"My name's Heather. May I sit with you?"

Mai nodded. Heather sat across from her with her tray.

"My name's Mai. …And I'm sorry, I was really rude just now..."

"Oh, it's fine," Heather laughed. "I've heard all the rumors. It must have been a rough week for you."

Finally, someone understood. Mai let out a long sigh. "It's been ridiculous..."

"I can only imagine. And you're not even really dating him?"

"No, we're just…friends. I don't know why people have such a hard time believing that."

"Well, you have managed to get closer to him than anyone else." Heather poked at her food with a sad smile. "It's impressive. Up to now, I thought I was the one who'd gotten closest, but even I can't claim to be his friend."

Mai stared. Oh. Was there some kind of history here? Naru had never mentioned her before, but…

She scratched her cheek. "So, uh, how do you know Na- I mean, Oliver?"

"Oh, his name is Oliver?" Heather looked up with a smile.

Crap. Should she not have said that? "W-well, some people call him that," she laughed nervously.

"Duly noted," Heather nodded. "Let's see, I first met him last semester. I was working late on a paper, and I ended up staying alone at the library until closing time. So he…offered to walk me home." She blushed at the memory. "We barely talked the whole time, but it was very…gallant of him."

Huh. So it wasn't just a fluke. He did have a nice side. Still, Mai couldn't help feeling disappointed that she wasn't the only one he had walked home. She wasn't even the first.

"Of course, I tried to thank him again the next day, but he sort of…brushed me off. Like he'd forgotten who I even was." Her eyes saddened. "And that was the end of it."

Mai groaned. "He did that to me too!"

"He did?" Heather leaned forward eagerly. "But you're friends now, aren't you? How did you do it? How did you get him to pay attention to you?" Her eyes practically sparkled in anticipation.

Not this again. Mai sighed. "People keep asking me this. And the answer is 'I don't know.' I didn't do anything. He started coming to me."

"But…why? Not to be rude, um."

"No, it's okay," she sighed again. "I know I'm not anything special. If I had to guess, it's because we have…some things in common." Most likely psychic powers, if Naru's interest in the subject was any indication. But she couldn't very well say that.

"Is it knowing Japanese? Someone told me they heard you speaking it together."

"…Yes, let's go with that."

"Maybe I should learn," Heather muttered to herself.

"I could be wrong though! I don't know what's going on inside his head. Maybe if you give it another try, it'll work out next time?"

"About that…" Heather bit her lip. "Mai, I was wondering if I could ask you for a favor."

"Sure. What is it?"

"Could you introduce me to him? Maybe, if you do it, this time he'll remember me. That's all I ask for." She clasped her hands together tightly. "I just want another chance."

Mai thought this over.

She had to wonder if it was a good idea. She didn't want to give Heather any false hopes. But it was such a simple request, how could she say no?

Heather did seem like a nice person. And she was interested in him because she had seen Naru's kind side. It wasn't just based on looks. In that case, Mai wouldn't mind rooting for her.

"…Okay," she said.

"Oh, thank you! Thank you so much! You're the best!"

"If you ask me, though, you could do much better than him. He's not exactly boyfriend material."

"What makes you say that?"

"Well, for one, he's really antisocial. He's also self-absorbed, insensitive, condescending, doesn't care about others' feelings at all..." And this wasn't even getting into any issues involving his PK.

Heather wrinkled her nose. "I thought you were his friend."

Okay, so maybe she felt a little guilty for bad-mouthing him like this. Even if he deserved it. "I just want to prepare you, so you don't get hurt."

'Don't get hurt.' Oh no…what did she just agree to? Was she just setting Heather up to be verbally eviscerated?! What were the chances that Naru would actually be nice?

Mai clutched her head. She needed to talk to him about this beforehand.

Fortunately, Naru still had the nerve to come sit with her that evening at the library. After checking to see that there were no onlookers this time, Mai began to explain.

"Who?" he asked.

"Heather. You know, the girl you walked home last semester? …You do remember her, right?"

"I vaguely recall something like that occurring," he said disinterestedly.

Mai felt affronted on Heather's behalf. That was a precious memory of hers, and he barely remembered it. Jerk.

"Anyway, she asked me to introduce her to you again. So be prepared to meet her tomorrow, okay?"

"What?" Now he gave her his full attention, frowning. "No."

"And don't be rude. If you're going to turn her down, don't be so harsh about it."

"I am not going to date someone just to avoid hurting their feelings."

"And I'm not saying you should! I just want you to be a little nice for a change. I don't think that's a lot to ask!"

"If I'm going to be hurting her anyway, what difference does it make?" he muttered.

"It makes a world of difference! Words hurt. Yours especially. A harsh rejection can seriously hurt someone's self esteem, and it reflects badly on you as a person."

"This is all a moot point. I'm not meeting her."

"You could at least give her a chance! She really seems to like you!"

"Most people do, until they get to know me."

Well, at least he was self-aware. "Warts and all," she added. "You don't even have to date her, you know. You could just be friends. Who knows, you might hit it off!"

"No."

"And why not? Can you even give a good reason?"

"Certainly." He narrowed his eyes. "First of all, she is only using you to get to me. Don't be fooled."

"Using me?" Mai blinked. It honestly hadn't occurred to her that she might be in a position to be taken advantage of. "But she seems so nice."

"I speak from experience, Mai. You don't know how many people have come to me in the past hoping to get closer to Gene. Believe me, there is no end to it. For future reference, once you've said 'yes' to one person, that leaves you open to be taken advantage of again. What will you do if five more people come asking? Ten? Fifty? Are you going to agree to all of them?"

"Wow, Naru. You really think fifty people want you?"

Actually, based on her experiences this week, that was probably a low estimate. Dammit.

"I am not going to meet someone only because you're too nice to say 'no.' You don't need to humor these people. It is a colossal waste of time."

She opened her mouth to protest, but Naru cut her off.

"Secondly, I highly doubt friendship is what she's really after."

"You don't know that! Maybe she just wants to get to know you! God, for all you know, you're missing out on being friends with a whole bunch of lovely people because of your attitude."

"So you can say with confidence that she has no ulterior motives?"

"Well, no, but…"

"Then I rest my case." He returned to his book.

Mai frowned. A part of her felt bothered by this. It almost sounded as if he couldn't even comprehend the idea that someone would sincerely want to become friends with him. But if that was the case, then what about her? Did he think she just wanted to get in bed with him too?

What was she to him, anyway? Just a convenient tool? An experimental subject? He certainly didn't seem to care what happened to her this week, and if his walking her home wasn't any guarantee of friendliness…

Mai sat back, suddenly losing all her drive. But, a promise was a promise. She had to make one last effort.

"You owe it to me," she said.

He gave her a sharp look. "I don't owe you anything. None of this is my fault."

"Oh, really? I'm not the one deliberately making misleading statements. Here I'm trying to get out of this mess, and you just made it worse. I really think this is the least you could do to make it up to me."

Naru looked away. "…They would think whatever they wanted to think, no matter what either of us said."

"But still! I'll have you know, one of my goals for studying abroad was to make friends with other students. How am I supposed to do that if half the campus hates me?"

He said nothing, still resolutely turned away. Did he feel at least a little remorse?

"...Fine," he sighed at last. "But just this once."

 


 

February

Thursday

 

As they'd planned the day before, Mai met up with Heather for lunch at the dining hall before heading to the library.

"Really? He agreed to meet with me?" Heather beamed.

"Yeah…" She didn't add that he did so reluctantly. Or that he'd outright refused at first.

"Thanks again, Mai! I really appreciate this."

"No problem. Ahaha…" Mai felt strangely nervous about the whole thing. As if she would be somehow responsible for the outcome, whatever it may be. "But are you really sure about this? If you do end up dating him, you're going to get a lot of unwanted attention…"

"I know," she smiled. "But I think it would be worth it, don't you?"

This struck her as a bit naive. At the same time, Mai felt a small knot of something in the pit of her stomach. Shame.

When they entered the library, Mai took out her cellphone, but hesitated. If she wanted to call it off, now was her last chance.

She glanced at Heather. The girl fiddled restlessly with the strap of her purse while peering around at the stacks.

No, she couldn't let her down. Mai sent Naru a text: We're coming.

Minutes later, they found him. He was facing a bookcase, shelving books as usual.

"Naru!" Mai called softly.

He glanced over his shoulder at them, and with a sigh, turned around. He immediately crossed his arms and stood with his back against the shelves, waiting.

Heather's face had already turned pink just at the sight of him. She whispered in Mai's ear. "He has such a smoldering gaze, doesn't he…?"

"Uh, sure." Mai just thought he looked annoyed.

They walked up to him. Heather glanced at Mai expectantly.

Mai cleared her throat. "So, uh, this is Heather." She spoke in English for Heather's benefit. "You remember her, right…?"

"Yes," he said stiffly.

This was probably a lie, but Heather brightened considerably at the confirmation.

Mai gestured to Naru. "And this is, uh…"

"Oliver," he supplied. Phew.

"Oliver," Heather began shyly. "I-I just wanted to thank you again for before. It was really sweet of you, to walk me home like that."

"Mm."

"I want to make it up to you. Do you maybe want to go somewhere to eat? How about tomorrow…?"

Well, that was fast. She'd asked him out already. Maybe Heather was bolder than she looked.

He shifted on his feet. "I don't have the time."

"Oh, then it doesn't have to be tomorrow! How about this weekend?"

"I have plans."

"Next week?"

"I'm busy."

Mai had to admit, a defanged Naru was fascinating to watch. Without any bite to his words, he was surprisingly weak, clearly playing on the defensive. She almost felt bad for him.

"That's okay, we can plan things around your schedule! How about we exchange numbers? That would make things easier."

And now she was asking for his number. Impressive.

But Naru didn't budge. "I don't make a habit of giving personal information to strangers."

"But we're not strangers now! And I'm a good friend of Mai's. You trust her, don't you?"

Whoa, 'good friend'? They'd only met yesterday!

Come to think of it, Mai realized, she really didn't know anything about Heather. Maybe this was a bad idea…

Naru scowled. "Whether or not I trust Mai is not the issue. First of all, I have no intentions of dating anyone."

So he finally said it straight. Not that it was any surprise at this point…

Heather's smile faltered. "Wh-who said anything about dating? I only want to get to know you better. We can meet at the library, if you'd prefer…?"

"I'd prefer to work at my workplace."

"But you spend time with Mai during your breaks, don't you?"

Naru sent Mai a quick glare. She gulped. Yeah, this was a bad idea.

"If you're aware of that, then you would know that my break time is already occupied."

"That's not a problem, though! I could just join you two! I mean, would you mind? Would that be okay?"

Whoa, whoa, wait. What was she saying? Join them? But that was their personal time!

Naru pursed his lips and didn't reply. It seemed he'd finally run out of excuses. Instead, he turned his gaze to Mai.

Heather turned to her too. "Would it be okay with you?" she asked sweetly.

Mai's mouth felt dry. The word 'sure' lingered on her lips, merely out of politeness. But to say yes would practically be an invitation. And truthfully, she didn't want Heather invading their time together. It would be so awkward. Not to mention, it already felt like a miracle that Naru continued spending time with her. What if he stopped coming because of this?

"Um…" she faltered, biting her lip.

Naru and Heather continued staring at her, waiting for a response. The pressure mounted with each passing second. Wait, why was she the focus now, anyway? It's not like she was the one being asked out!

"Uh…"

Naru sighed impatiently. "If you don't want her joining us," he said in Japanese, "why don't you just come out and say it?"

"Why don't you say it?!" she snapped back in Japanese. "Don't put this all on me!"

"If I recall correctly, you're the one who asked me not to be rude."

"Then just turn her down without being rude!"

"I've tried. She refuses to take a hint. What else do you expect me to do?"

"I don't know! It's not like I'm some all-knowing expert on turning people down!"

"Obviously."

"Hey, what's that supposed to mean—"

Meanwhile, Heather watched owlishly as they went back and forth in Japanese. Eventually, her face paled in realization and she threw her hands up. "N-never mind! I'm sorry. Just…forget about it!" And she dashed away.

Mai didn't understand what happened at first. Then it hit her. Oh no. Did she just ruin it?!

"Wait…Heather, wait!" She chased after her.

When she caught up, Heather was in tears.

"I'm s-sorry, Mai. I got d-desperate…"

"No, it's okay! I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get in the way—"

"You didn't! I dragged you into it and I…" Heather dug out a tissue from her purse. "…I shouldn't have."

Mai waited as she blew her nose and calmed down a little.

"Do you want to try again?" she asked softly.

Heather shook her head. "I already made a fool out of myself! I c-can't face him again!"

"So…you're giving up?"

She nodded. "I don't think I stand a chance…"

Judging by his reactions, probably not.

Mai sighed. "I'm so sorry it turned out this way…"

Heather sniffed. "It's alright. I tried. Now I can move on without any regrets," she hiccuped.

Oh jeez. Now she really felt bad.

Heather put on a strained, teary smile. "Thank you for helping me, Mai. You're a really n-nice person."

Mai watched her leave, not knowing what to say.

After a while, Naru came to stand next to her.

"This would have ended a lot sooner if you'd allowed me to speak freely," he said under his breath.

She glared up at him. "Why? What would you have said?"

"That I don't like people who piggyback on other relationships. It's cowardly and pathetic."

"Jeez, Naru! You would've broken her poor heart!"

"And this is any better?"

"Well…" Maybe he had a point. In the end, she was still hurt. But a swift rejection could have been like ripping off a bandaid, rather than something drawn-out and humiliating. "Okay, but you still don't need to word it like that! Why do you have to be so mean?"

He looked her right in the eye. "I think I have the right to point out when people make me uncomfortable. Or do you think that's reserved only for women?"

This rendered her speechless for a moment.

He was right. If the target of all these unwanted advances were a woman, she might have reacted differently to the situation. But instead of looking at it from Naru's perspective, she immediately sympathized with Heather instead.

Going further, Mai imagined what it would feel like to have a friend who guilted her into meeting someone, without any regard for her feelings, and then got upset with her when it didn't turn out well. That would be really off-putting and annoying. She wouldn't want to be friends with someone like that.

Tears welled up in her eyes. "…No," she said. "I don't."

He sighed. "There's no need to cry about it."

"B-but…" Who was the insensitive one here? He'd given every indication that he wasn't interested, but she had been so concerned with her own grievances, she didn't even care. From the start, maybe this hadn't been about protecting Heather's feelings after all. In the end, it had just been all talk, and she wound up hurting both Naru and Heather in the process. She felt so disappointed in herself, she couldn't stand it.

Mai opened her mouth to apologize. But Naru spoke at the same time. Their voices overlapped with the exact same words.

"I'm sorry."

For a second, she wasn't sure she'd heard correctly. Mai looked up, eyes wide.

Naru went on. "You shouldn't have been put in this position in the first place. I acted poorly. I should have given you my support from the beginning."

Wow. Wow. A sincere apology. Mai just nodded, stunned.

"Have you been harassed? Received threats? Has anyone tried to hurt you?"

"N-no…nothing like that."

"If it escalates, you should report it. To the school, to the police, to anyone who will listen."

She nodded again, wiping her eyes. "Okay...thanks."

He glanced away. "If you would prefer I kept my distance from now on..."

"No! I-I mean, you don't have to do that. Just let them think what they want, right? This whole thing is stupid anyway, and if anyone hates me for it, then they weren't worth knowing in the first place."

Hell, she was the one who ought to be asking for forgiveness at this point. And since he understood what he did wrong, she didn't mind forgiving him. Naru had been bullied in the past too, after all. Maybe that's why his first instinct was to protect himself. If he dealt with this kind of thing on a daily basis, she could understand that.

She held out her hand. "Friends?"

He stared at it as if it were an alien appendage. Then his brows knit together in a way that suggested he was solving a complex math problem.

Mai continued standing there with her hand awkwardly extended, feeling more embarrassed with every passing second. Her arm was getting tired too. She wished she hadn't bothered with the gesture now, but she couldn't take it back.

Get it together, man. Aren't you supposed to be smart?

Finally, he reached out his hand, and tentatively brushed the tips of her fingers with his own. Not quite a handshake, but it would do.

Mai quickly stuck her hands in her pockets, trying to contain herself. Inside, she was screaming.

"A-anyway, it wasn't all bad. Some people were really nice to me this week. I guess it helps to know who your real friends are, huh?"

Naru tilted his head slightly. "I suppose your RA would be one of them, then?"

"Wait…how do you know that?"

He looked away.

"Naru?"

He sighed. "I was paid a visit this morning. He wanted to know you were being treated well."

"You're kidding." Wow. Eric sure was dedicated to his job! She giggled. "Oh my god, what did you say to him?"

"Nothing of importance."

"Come on! I'm curious!"

"This has taken enough of my time already. I need to return to work."

"You know, if you don't tell me, I'm just going to ask him."

"Feel free." He walked away.

She stuck her tongue out at his back.

 


 

The next day, no one came to ask Mai about her and Naru. She still got glares here and there, but it seemed most people had either gotten tired of the subject, or accepted it as fact and simply moved on. And Mai found that she didn't care anymore.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

 

Valentine's Day

Three years ago

 

Mai sped through the school building, looking left and right. First she had checked his classroom, then the cafeteria, then sought out his friends, with whom he sometimes ate lunch with. But he wasn't with them either, and when she asked where she might find him, they had all shrugged.

Really, what was he thinking? Didn't he know what day it was? Their lunch break only lasted so long. She knew she should have gone to him first thing in the morning, but she couldn't muster the nerve…

Just in case, she checked the roof. They had eaten lunch there together several times. But she ran into another couple instead, and hastily excused herself. Still no sign of him.

At last, slightly out of breath, she went down to the courtyard, and at last spotted him.

He sat on a bench with his back to her. His brown hair and school uniform didn't stand out, but she had learned to recognize him on sight. Her heart melted when she realized it was the very same bench where he had confessed to her, under the cherry tree. That tree's branches were now bare, but that didn't matter. The location was perfect.

Mai stepped up behind him, her hands sweaty as she gripped the box of chocolates she meant to give him. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself.

Satoru. Satoru. The name was on the tip of her tongue. Today was the day, she'd told herself. She would call him by his given name for the first time.

"…Sa…Daidouji-kun~!" Dammit, she still couldn't do it.

Oh well. She had the whole rest of the day. There would be plenty of opportunities.

He turned at her voice. "O-oh, hey, Taniyama!"

"Jeez, I was looking all over for you!" Smiling brightly, she came over and plopped herself beside him on the bench. "You weren't hiding from me, were you?" she joked, elbowing him in the side.

But instead of his usual witty comebacks, Daidouji remained silent. He stared down at his shoes, expression unreadable.

"Hellooo?" She leant her head against his shoulder. "This is your girlfriend speaking!"

"…Hey, Taniyama? I've been thinking…"

"Hmm~?"

"Maybe we should break up."

The smile froze on her face.

"…Eh?"

 


 

Valentine's Day

Present

 

Mai wandered down an aisle of the local grocery store, basket in hand. She wasn't looking for anything in particular, just browsing out of boredom. She had already done most of her schoolwork that morning, and the rest she felt too restless to touch just yet. So here she was, at the grocery store on a Saturday afternoon. How exciting.

She didn't have anything to look forward to tonight either. The weekly pub meeting with the other study abroad students had been cancelled that night, due to too many of the members having somehow already found dates for the evening. Some people didn't waste any time.

Sighing, Mai rounded a corner, and her eyes were immediately assaulted by the eye-searing pinks and reds of an elaborate Valentine's display. Oh. Great.

She was just about to turn away, when another thing caught her eye. A sign reading CLEARANCE: UP TO 90% OFF!

Well, how could she resist that?

Mai walked over, ignoring the garish hearts and balloons to zero in on the candy. She had already added a couple bags of Dove chocolates to her basket when she heard someone call from behind her.

"Mai?"

She turned around, and another splash of red filled her vision. "Oh, hi, Gene!"

He came over, carrying a half-filled shopping basket of his own. "I didn't know you shopped here!"

"I could say the same thing! What are the odds?"

"Well, this is the closest grocery store around," he chuckled. "But could you imagine? What if we'd met here first instead?"

"I totally would have thought you were Naru."

"You did anyway," he said, looking amused.

"O-oh yeah…" She scratched her cheek sheepishly.

"So, I see you're perusing the chocolates." He gestured to the display. "Anyone special in mind?"

"Nah. I just saw it was on clearance."

"Well, now's your chance. By tomorrow it'll all be replaced by Easter stuff."

"I'm looking forward to trying Easter candy too! But I can't resist cheap chocolate, mmm…"

"Damn, now I'm tempted," he muttered, looking at the boxes of candy.

"Hey, I know! I can get you something!" Mai beamed. "As a Valentine's Day gift."

"Really? Thanks!" he grinned. "In that case, I'll buy you one too."

"N-no, you don't have to! It's not even White Day!"

Gene winked at her. "We don't have a White Day, Mai. Here, both men and women exchange gifts on Valentine's Day."

"Oh, right…" She blushed a little. "So, uh, which one do you want…?"

They both picked out their preferred chocolate for the other to buy. But Mai still lingered in front of the display.

"Maybe I'll get Naru one too…"

Gene smiled. "Sure. Just to warn you though, he doesn't really like chocolate, or sweets in general."

"Ehhh? What kind of person doesn't like chocolate?!"

"Right?" he chuckled. "I think it's still worth a try though. Just don't expect him to eat it right away."

"Hmm." Mai screwed up her face in thought. What were the odds that Naru would even accept it though? She could imagine him just flat-out saying he didn't want any.

"…What about dark chocolate? If it's not too sweet, do you think he might eat it?"

"Maybe. Like I said, it's worth a try."

She thought about it some more before throwing her hands up. "Whatever! If he doesn't want it, then that's more chocolate for me!"

"That's the spirit!" he laughed.

She browsed the display for its selection of dark chocolate. "75% cocoa…is that dark enough, or do you think I should go darker?"

"For him, I don't think anything less than 100% will ever be 'dark enough.'"

"Are you saying I should just get him a bar of unsweetened chocolate?" Mai made a face. "Would he eat that?"

"I doubt it, but at least he'd know you don't do things halfway."

They both laughed.

Mai considered actually buying the unsweetened chocolate, just for laughs, but maybe giving Naru a joke chocolate would be mean. He probably wouldn't care either way, but still. Plus it would be a waste of money.

Finally, she chose something and they headed to the registers.

 


 

When they walked outside, they were greeted by a dark, overcast sky.

Mai grimaced. "Ugh, this weather."

"I know, right?"

"I was actually thinking I might go into Boston today, but it's so dreary, I can't get in the mood."

"I know what you mean."

"But I feel like if I just go home now, I'd be bored all day."

"My thoughts exactly."

They glanced at each other.

"…We could do something together?" he suggested. "Unless you bought anything that needs to be refrigerated?"

"I didn't. And sure, that sounds great," she smiled. "Any ideas?"

"We could go bug Noll at work."

"Gene! He'd kick us out!"

"Sure, he's threatened that before. But I've never actually tested it."

"Gene!"

"Okay, okay, we'll leave him alone," he laughed.

Mai sighed in relief. Truthfully, after the past week, walking around campus with Gene on Valentine's Day seemed a bit shameless. Those flames had just died down; she didn't want to fan them again.

Gene put a hand to his chin in thought. "We could go see a movie?"

"Is there anything good playing?"

"I dunno." He pulled out his phone. "Let's check. I feel like watching something stupid."

A few minutes later, they both groaned. "Come on, really?"

The listings for the closest theater had only serious dramas or romcoms. In other words, date movies.

"I was hoping for something with action, or at least animated."

"Wrong day for that, I guess," Mai sighed.

"You know, now that I'm actually single, this is pretty annoying."

"Tell me about it!"

Mai shivered. They had been standing outside for a while now, and the chill was getting to her.

Gene seemed to notice. "Let's think about this inside. We can grab a coffee and eat our chocolate."

"Good idea."

They went to the nearby Starbucks, where they both ordered lattes, and found cushy seats in the warm interior of the store.

Gene took a sip of his drink. "I'm trying to think of haunted places we could go to…"

Mai nearly choked on hers. "Do we have to? Today?!"

"I'm joking, I'm joking!" he chuckled, and pulled out a box of chocolates from his shopping bag. "Here. Happy Valentine's Day."

"Likewise. Here's yours."

They traded boxes with a smile and set to unwrapping them.

Mai popped a chocolate in her mouth. "I'm surprised, though. You, of all people, don't have a date today?"

He smiled awkwardly. "I don't feel like it this year. Actually, I asked my manager if I could come into work today, but he wouldn't approve…"

"What? On a busy day like this? Why?"

He rubbed the back of his neck. "He thinks the male customers wouldn't appreciate me 'stealing all the attention'…"

Mai burst out laughing. "He has a point!"

"Hey!" Gene pouted. "And what about you? Why don't you have a date?"

"Who, me? I'm nobody! Besides, everyone on campus thinks I'm dating Naru."

This time it was his turn to burst into laughter. "What?! Seriously?!"

Oh no. Why did she say that? Mai blushed. "I-It's just a misunderstanding, okay?"

"Oh man, that is great!" He wiped tears of mirth from his eyes. "You've just provided me with so much teasing fodder."

Now she really regretted it. "No…don't! I take it back!"

"Too late! I'm never gonna let you guys forget this."

Mai buried her face in her hands and groaned.

He chuckled and shook his head. "But seriously? If that's the reason you couldn't get a date, then I'm sorry."

"No, it's fine. To be honest, even if I was asked out by somebody, I would probably turn them down. Especially today."

"Oh?" Gene raised an eyebrow. "Any particular reason?"

She sighed. "Well…Valentine's Day just brings back bad memories."

He stared at her in silence for a moment. "Do you…want to talk about it?"

"There's not much to say. I was just dumped, that's all."

"On Valentine's Day? What an asshole!"

"Pretty much." She stared wistfully at the chocolate in her hand. "We had a lot of good times before that, though. I mean, he confessed to me under the cherry blossoms, that's as cliche as you get. And then there was my birthday, the summer festival, Christmas…" She sighed. "It was really nice. He was nice."

But even nice people could sometimes be cruel.

Actually, Gene reminded her of her ex. A lot. They were both warm, friendly, funny. And somewhat careless. Maybe that's why, sitting here with him, she suddenly felt nostalgic…

"So then…what happened? If you don't mind me asking."

"Well…" She sipped halfheartedly at her drink. "We got together at the start of my second year of high school. I hadn't really noticed him before then, but his confession was just so sweet, I decided to give it a shot. But it still took me a while to properly fall for him, and even after I did, I worried that I wasn't giving back enough. So when Valentine's Day rolled around, I wanted to put my heart into it. Got my friends to help me make homemade chocolate and everything. And it was my first Valentine's Day in a relationship. I guess you could say I had a lot of expectations. But…I didn't even get so far as giving him the chocolate."

 


 

"…Can I ask why?"

Mai gripped the box tight in her hands, trying to hide it from view.

Daidouji grimaced. "You really want to know?"

"How can I accept it if I don't?"

He sighed heavily. "Well, basically…I think I mistook some things about you. Like, I thought you were more of the carefree type. Since you're always smiling. But once we actually started dating…"

Mai listened numbly as her boyfriend— now ex— began listing reasons.

"For starters, we never get to hang out. You're always working. Thanks to that, I don't feel like I actually got to know you until a few months in."

How was that her fault? She needed to save up for college. And it's not like she didn't feel bad about it either, but every time she had to turn down an invitation, he'd told her not to worry about it, that he didn't mind. And she'd felt grateful that he was so understanding. But come to think of it, he hardly asked her out at all these days…

"And even when we do go out on dates, the way you act, it's like you're hanging out with a brother. Or with your dad." He made a face.

"Th-that isn't true!" she protested, but mentally, she was thrown into confusion. Could it be true? Sure, it took her a while to realize her feelings for him, but she couldn't help that. She didn't start out in love. And she didn't have a brother, or even remember her father. How could she know for sure?

"And you're too self-reliant."

"Wh-what?"

"That time you got fired from your job and spent a month searching for a new one? You never told me about it. I had to hear it from your friends, weeks after the fact. How do you think that made me look?"

"I didn't want you to worry—"

"I was your boyfriend, Taniyama. You could have relied on me more."

Mai remembered now. One day, he'd suddenly brought it up. 'So I heard you got a new job?' And she'd certainly felt awkward about it, but he asked with a smile, so she didn't think it bothered him.

"On top of that, you're clingy."

"Clingy?!" He had just criticized her for being too self-reliant, how did that make sense?

"That time I went on vacation with my folks, you acted like it was the end of the world. It was just two weeks! It's not like I was leaving you forever!"

Now this stung. That had been right around the anniversary of her mother's death. But she didn't tell him that, of course, and she may have been a bit irrational in her worry when she heard he was going overseas…

Tears gathered in her eyes. "You're leaving me now." It just now hit her that this was really happening.

"Yeah. I am." He let out a long sigh. "I'm sorry. We had some fun times together. And I really do like you. But I don't think it's going to work out."

He didn't even try to work it out. They could have talked about it. Why didn't he just tell her? Why couldn't he be honest?

She'd thought they had something. Was she really someone he could cast out of his life so easily? Was she that much of a burden?

Mai swallowed hard. She couldn't let him see her cry. "…Okay."

 


 

Gene glowered at the table. "I'm sorry. That's awful."

"It's okay. It was a long time ago."

"He ought to have been more understanding. The 'too self-reliant' thing especially…that's messed up. He knew you were an orphan, right?"

"Yeah. I didn't talk about it much though. And the thing is…he had a point. Even then, I didn't tell any of my friends what happened until after Valentine's Day was over. I didn't want them to worry or cancel their own plans. So I spent the day alone." She smiled wryly. "They were all upset when they found out. And I would have felt the same in their shoes. They wanted to be there for me. But I didn't give them the chance."

"Mai…"

"Well, we were young; maybe he wasn't ready to deal with something like that yet. And maybe we just wanted different things. When I look back on it now, I think he was pretty patient with me. We did date for ten months. But I also get to thinking, maybe I'm just not ready for a relationship. I mean, I can't change who I am. And it's not like I'm in any big hurry to get married, either. I'd like to get myself sorted out first; graduate college, find a stable job, you know. I have time."

Gene wore a complicated expression. "…I guess I can't fault you for thinking that. To be honest, I'm kind of in the same boat at the moment."

She looked at him. "Really?"

"Yeah. …After I broke up with Isabelle, I've been doing a lot of thinking. It's not like I'm hung up over her personally, but it was just the latest in a string of failed relationships, and I wanted to figure out what the problem was."

"Did you? Figure it out, I mean."

He nodded. "Secrets. Secrets destroy relationships."

"Ah…"

"None of my past girlfriends could understand why I wouldn't bring them home, why I wouldn't let them meet my brother, why I couldn't tell them about my past. It doesn't take long for them to wonder, for their imagination to run wild… And I do want to open up to them. But…it's difficult. And when I can't trust them, they can't trust me."

He sighed. "I know that sounds kind of obvious. But I've always been great at starting relationships. I just can't ever seem to keep them."

"No, I understand," Mai said softly. "That does sound tough…"

"Anyway, for the time being, I decided that I shouldn't go jumping into new relationships just because I can. First I need to take a step back and decide whether I really like the person, or if I'm just…starved for affection." Gene looked embarrassed. "You know what, this is getting depressing. Do you want to go do something fun?"

They had both nearly finished their drinks and chocolate. "Yeah, sure. Let's."

He looked up at her, eyes wide. "Hey, I just had an idea. Do you want to come over to our place?"

Mai blinked. "Really? Can I?"

"You totally can! You already know everything, so there's nothing to hide!" He leaned forward eagerly. "You can be our first guest!"

"I'm honored," she giggled.

"It'll be great! We don't have a TV, but we have board games! And I know that sounds dull, but it'll be fun, I promise!"

Mai laughed. He looked so excited, almost like a little boy. "I'll take your word for it."

 


 

As it turned out, the twins' apartment was only a ten minute walk from the strip mall.

"Wow, nice location," Mai said as they approached the building.

"Yeah, it's convenient. Rent is a bitch, though."

He led her to the door of their first floor apartment and dug his keys from his pocket. But once he'd put the key into the lock, he paused.

"Gene?" She noticed his ears had gone red.

"I…just remembered the other reason why we never invited anyone over…"

"Other reason?"

"It's kind of a real mess," he mumbled.

Aww, he was embarrassed? How adorable.

Mai patted his back. "Oh, don't worry about that! You should see my apartment in Japan, it's a mess too. No judging!"

To be honest, considering she was about to visit a guy's bachelor pad, she was expecting a certain degree of messiness. Unless there were porn magazines lying around, she would probably be fine. "I mean, it's not like there's anything scandalous, right?"

"No, of course not!" he spluttered, and turned the key in the lock.

The door opened into a dark hall. Gene flicked on the hall light. Mai saw a closet door on one side, and a counter on the other which let her see into the small kitchen.

She hovered near the entrance, unsure whether to take her shoes off or not. In Japan that would be common sense, but this was America, but the twins were part Japanese, but they were raised in American homes…so what customs did they follow? Thankfully, Gene stooped down to untie his boots, so she hurried to do the same.

Once their shoes and coats were off, Gene deposited his shopping bag in the kitchen, then led her to the dark living room. "Ah…just a sec." As if remembering something, he hurried into what appeared to be the bathroom, coming out a moment later with an armful of clothing which he tossed into the single bedroom and shut the door firmly behind him. Then he went to the light switch and turned on the rest of the lights.

When he said it was a mess, Mai had expected clothes and moldy food littering the floor. Instead, the room was very…empty. The floor was clean, and the only pieces of furniture were a beat up coffee table and a couch, both of which looked used enough that they could have been dragged right off the street. There was a closet with a missing door, the hinges sticking out. And the walls were covered in scratches and dents. She didn't even want to imagine the damage fees they would have to pay, but they probably stopped caring after a certain point.

She glanced over at Gene, who was watching her reaction.

"Told you," he said with a nervous smile.

"Please, this is nothing. And you have all this space. It's like twice the size of my own apartment!" She twirled around a little with her arms spread wide. "The hiiills are aliiive~ with the sound of muuusiiiic~"

Gene snorted.

"Don't laugh at my singing ability!"

He covered his grin with his hand. "Sorry. Go on, then."

"I don't know the rest. Besides, I thought we were here to play games."

"Thanks for the reminder. Come on." He went to the doorless closet and pulled out three plastic storage bins which had been stacked on top of each other. The bins were all taped shut with packing tape. Peering into the closet, Mai saw a variety of cleaning tools and supplies, all securely taped to the walls. Even their rolls of tape were taped down.

"PK-proofing," Gene explained. "Reduces the hassle of cleaning up."

He began unstacking the storage bins. The first one was filled with books, the second with spare blankets, and the third with board games. Mai assisted him in tearing off the layers of packing tape on the third bin.

"I really can't imagine Naru playing board games," she mused.

"I bought them right before a big snowstorm. Because sure, he had all his books to occupy him, but I was bored out of my mind. So I made him play with me."

Finally, the tape was off and the bin was open.

"So what do you want to play first?" Gene asked.

"Umm, I don't know. What do you want to play?"

"Hmm." He looked over the games. Then a mischievous grin crossed his face. "Let's test your English vocabulary." He pulled out Scrabble.

Mai groaned. "I'm going to regret this, aren't I?"

 


 

When Oliver returned home that night, he knew something was off before he'd even taken one step inside. Upon opening the door, he heard a girlish giggle, and froze in the entryway.

"Oh, I think Noll's home." Gene called from the living room. "Noll! Come over here!"

He remained frozen for another few seconds, then entered, letting the door close. He stooped and untied his bootlaces. Once his boots were off, he took a deep breath, and ventured toward the living room.

"Surprise! We have a guest!" Gene sat crosslegged on the floor in front of the coffee table, grinning.

Across from him, Mai sat on the couch. She smiled shyly and gave Oliver a small wave.

Oliver stared, completely thrown off. They'd never had anyone here before.

What was one supposed to do in this situation?

Act like he normally did? Yes, that made sense.

He made his way back to the entrance. Distractedly, he took off his coat and gloves, putting the gloves on the counter and hanging his coat in the closet. Then, per his usual ritual, he went into the kitchen and peered inside the fridge.

"Noll, we have pizza!" called Gene.

Oliver shook his head. What was he doing? He shut the refrigerator door and entered the living room once more.

The overhead lights flickered.

As he approached, Mai scooted over on the couch, giving him room. After hesitating, he sat down next to her.

Gene slid a clean paper plate over to him on the coffee table. "Help yourself. The pizza's gotten cold though."

"It's fine," he muttered. The pizza box was on the floor, as the coffee table was already taken up by a board game, greasy used paper plates, napkins, and soda cans. They seemed to have been in the middle of playing Sorry!

As he helped himself to a slice, Mai began rambling.

"Wow, seeing you two together is surreal. You really do have the exact same face, huh? Oh yeah, Naru, Gene was just telling me about how you guys always get into a fight when you play Jenga. He said you'd move blocks with your PK during his turn."

Oliver frowned. "Then I'm sure he hasn't mentioned that he would purposefully annoy me during my turn so that I would poltergeist and knock the tower over."

Mai gasped. "Gene! That's terrible!"

"I call it strategy," Gene shrugged. "Noll's just plain cheating."

"You always started it," Oliver muttered before taking a bite of pizza.

Mai rolled her eyes. "I think you're both cheaters."

"Besides that," Oliver said, "don't you think it's rather late?" It was half past midnight. How long had they been here together anyway?

She looked sheepish. "Ahh, yeah. We were playing games, and kind of lost track of time…"

Lost track of time? How could anyone play board games for more than a couple hours and not get sick of it?

"And then we figured, it was late enough anyway, I might as well wait for you to get home."

"Why would you need to do that?"

"Well…" Mai looked at her hands.

Gene reached over to poke her arm. "Mai~"

"I'm getting there, don't rush me!" she said, slapping his hand away playfully.

Oliver suddenly found that he had no interest in whatever she was about to say. He placed his half-eaten cold pizza back on the plate and grabbed a napkin, appetite gone.

One of the soda cans began to spin on the table. After a few neat twirls, it toppled over and rolled onto the floor.

Apparently it was Mai's, as she stared after it. "Good thing it was empty…"

"Oh, spills are nothing. We're used to it. Right, Noll?"

Oliver said nothing, wiping his hands on the napkin and then crinkling it into a ball.

The lights flickered again.

Mai gulped. "A-anyway, as I was saying…"

But she was interrupted by a loud BANG from the kitchen. Mai jumped and reflexively grasped at Oliver's sleeve. "Wh-wh-what…"

Gene snickered behind his hand. "Kinda intense tonight, huh?"

Oliver glared at him, simultaneously trying not to take notice of Mai's hand against his arm.

The colored pawns began to tremble and move across the game board. This caught Mai's attention. She laughed nervously.

"W-well, we can always start…"

The board flipped off the table, sending cards and pieces scattering across the floor.

"…over…"

A moment of awkward silence.

"It's a bit late to still be playing board games, anyway," she mumbled.

Oliver clenched his jaw. "Mai…"

At this, she finally noticed she was holding his sleeve, and practically leapt to the other side of the couch. "S-sorry!"

And then the knocking started. At first, just light tapping across the walls and ceiling.

"Okay, Noll, calm down…"

Quickly escalating to loud banging.

BAM. BAM. BAM. BAM.

Mai jumped again, pressing her hands against her ears.

He was scaring her.

Oliver stood up. "I'm going out."

Without looking back, he strode to the entrance and grabbed his coat from the closet.

"Noll, wait!"

"Wait! Naru!"

He paid them no heed. As soon as he'd pulled his coat and boots on, he opened the door and stepped out.

As the door began to close, he heard Gene's voice. "Maybe this was a bad idea…"

The door slammed shut with a WHAM.

Once outside, his breath fogged before his eyes, and Oliver realized he was breathing heavily, his lungs filling with icy air that made him cough. Shivering, he quickly set to putting as much distance between him and the apartment as he could.

That being said, there was nowhere he could go at this hour, and it wasn't long before he realized that he'd left his gloves back in the apartment. But he couldn't just go back and retrieve them now. Nor did he feel like walking any long distances without them. So he stuffed his hands deep in his pockets and made his way over to the small garden in front of the building.

Most of the lights in the apartment building were out. The moon was a waning crescent, its thin light barely breaching the cloud cover. Only the street lights cast spotlights amid the shadow, and they began flickering the moment he passed. The air was dead silent, making the crunch of his feet over snow all the more louder as he stepped into the garden, desolate at this time of year but for a few leafless bushes and a frozen-over bird bath.

He stood in front of the bird bath and stared at his reflection in its icy surface, illuminated intermittently by the flickering street light above.

What had Gene been thinking, inviting her over like that? Without even telling him? Did he have no concept of personal space? And letting her stay so late, when that just meant she would have to walk back in the dark alone? Mai ought to have known better too. What reason could she possibly have to delay leaving? Surely board games weren't that interesting. It all sounded like an excuse.

Of course, it didn't come as any surprise that those two would get along. He'd seen it coming a mile away. Everyone adored Gene. It was almost reassuring in its predictability. Mai had been an outlier in many ways, so it was a relief to know that he no longer traversed uncharted territory.

But that didn't mean he was interested in watching them flirt right before his eyes.

SNAP. A crack ran through the iced bird bath.

He couldn't understand. Gene had only known Mai for half the time Oliver did, and yet he'd closed the gap between them with lightning speed. No, he'd gone even further. How did he do it? How did he approach people so easily?

And here he couldn't even handle a guest…

CRACK. Another jagged line marred his reflection.

Oliver balled his hands into fists in his pockets. He had come off like a temperamental child in need of pacifying. And she had seen everything. His lack of control. His sheer helplessness in the face of a stupid emotional response.

He couldn't blame her for being afraid. Couldn't blame any of them. They ought to be afraid. He couldn't keep himself from hurting them.

CRACK.

He was only a burden. A walking disaster. They all realized it in the end. Becoming involved with others was a pointless endeavor.

SNAP. His reflection was barely visible beneath the spiderweb of cracks.

Sometimes he wondered why he even bothered. Perhaps there was no light at the end of the tunnel. No peace. No purpose. Perhaps this was all that life amounted to: enduring.

CRACK.

Existence was a chore.

And with a final SNAP, the entire bird bath crumbled, leaving a mist of ice and dust in its wake. Oliver stared at the pieces, wide-eyed.

Shit.

He had let his guard down. How could he let his thoughts travel down such a dark path? Irresponsible. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths of cold air, hurrying to calm his mind.

A while back, he had stumbled across a possible solution in his readings: meditation. Since then, he practiced it every morning, albeit in an amateur way, and he found that it helped, a little. At the very least, the practice proved helpful in clearing his mind in a pinch.

Breath in. Breathe out. Erase all thoughts. His mind was blank. Nothing. Sweet nothing. Floating in a sea of black, where no one could reach…

Noll, are you still out there?

Oliver opened his eyes, just as he heard the apartment door open behind him.

"Noll?"

He turned to see Gene and Mai peering at him from the doorway, backlit by the room's warm glow. They both had their coats on. Mai held a plastic shopping bag in her hand.

"Um, I'm gonna take Mai home now. Do you want to get inside?"

Another surge of irritation. The bushes around him shook off their icicles.

"No. That won't be necessary."

"Huh?"

Oliver started walking, past the parking lot, toward the street.

"N-Naru?"

"Are you coming or not?" he asked, raising his voice.

Mai exchanged a look with Gene, then chased after him. "W-wait up!"

Oliver regretted this decision almost immediately. He could already tell it would be excruciating. She would probably insist on talking to him. And no gloves. Why did he keep doing this to himself?

He heard Mai's footsteps behind him and quickened his pace.

"Naru, wait!"

He continued fast-walking, making sure to maintain a careful distance.

"Naru!"

He could ignore her the whole way if he wanted to.

"Would you slow down already?!"

Then her footsteps sped up, and she sprinted past him to block his way. "Here! You left this!" She held out his gloves.

He stopped, considered her for a second, then took the gloves and pulled them on. "If you run like that, you'll slip on ice again," he muttered.

"And whose fault do you think that would be?" she growled.

He moved to walk past her, but she blocked his way again.

"No more speed-walking," she said.

"I would like to get this over with quickly."

Mai flinched slightly. "Well, if you hate it that much, you should have just stayed home and let Gene take me!" she snapped.

So that's how it was. He had just gotten in the way. "Then next time, I will be sure to do that," he said coldly.

Her face fell.

He passed by her and resumed walking.

"Naru, wait…I didn't mean…"

But he didn't look back.

The whole thing was idiotic. What a waste of time and energy.

 


 

The rest of the walk passed in silence. Mai plodded along, forcing Oliver to eventually slow his pace so he wouldn't lose her entirely. Once they reached the campus, he stopped and waited for her to catch up, sighing impatiently. Was she trying to make this go slowly? He still needed to walk back after all this.

He spared a glance at her. Her eyes were downcast, the shopping bag held loosely in her hand.

Something was wrong. Where did all her previous spunk go? It wasn't as if he'd said anything cruel. Or was it the cold that was getting to her?

Whatever it was, the sooner he got her home, the better. The silence had become unnerving.

After what felt like a million years, the residence hall was in sight. Oliver stopped in front of the building. As soon as she went inside, he would turn around and leave.

He heard her footsteps approach, then come to a stop right behind him. A rustle of her shopping bag. Then he felt a thin rectangular object press into his back.

Puzzled, he looked over his shoulder, but Mai was looking down, so he couldn't see her expression or what she was pressing against him. He relented and turned around to face her.

She held a box of chocolates in her hand.

Her eyes darted upwards, and at his questioning look, she raised her head. Uncertainty filled her expression.

Finally, Mai took a deep breath, and put on a pained smile. "…Happy late Valentine's Day."

He blinked.

She held the box out to him again. Oliver took it without thinking. The second it was out of her hands, Mai dashed past him with a hurried "Goodnight!"

He heard the door of the residence hall close behind her. Oliver stood there alone, staring at the box of chocolates in his hand. He sighed.

He hadn't even realized it had been Valentine's Day.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

 

Gene jumped up when he heard the door open. He'd been worrying nonstop for the past hour, but had refrained from knocking in case he might interrupt something.

He went to the entrance to see Noll shutting the door behind him.

"Did everything go okay?" Gene asked.

Noll ignored him, bending down to untie his boots.

Gene stuck his hands in his pockets, fidgeting. When Noll didn't speak for another minute, he blurted, "Nothing happened, by the way. We just talked."

Noll paused mid-way through removing his gloves. "…So?"

"Just thought you should know."

"It's none of my business," Noll muttered.

"Really, Noll? After your display tonight, that's not very convincing."

Noll leveled a vicious glare at him, which Gene took as his cue to shut up.

He still didn't know what happened though! Maybe he should text Mai…

But then Noll took something from his coat pocket and placed it on the counter. To his relief, Gene saw it was a box of dark chocolates, the seal unbroken. So Mai managed to give it to him after all. But as expected, Noll didn't eat any.

Then again…he didn't throw it away either.

Gene watched as his brother hung up his coat then disappeared into the bathroom. He glanced at the box of chocolates. Usually, Noll leaving food around meant that Gene was welcome to eat it. But in this case, it gave him pause.

Truthfully, he was tempted. If it weren't for Noll, he might have already asked Mai out, he liked her well enough. But knowing both their histories, that could prove to be a mistake. After all, if it weren't for Noll, he might not have trusted her enough to open up in the first place.

So for now, he decided, he would leave it alone. Just to see what happens. Most likely, the box would gather dust, or get banged up in the next PK tantrum. But maybe, just maybe, his brother would one day find himself in the mood for chocolate.

 


 

Sunday was miserable. After waking up late in the morning, Mai took one look at the gray sky outside, and the events of last night came rushing back to her.

Sure, it started out nice. She and Gene had spent hours just playing games and talking, and it was the most fun she could remember having for a long while.

So how did that end with Naru being effectively run out of his own home?

She mulled it over all day. If only she'd said or done something differently, maybe it wouldn't have turned out that way. Of course, she knew it was silly to think that when she couldn't redo the past, but every time she remembered seeing Naru standing alone outside in the cold, her heart ached.

And then, to top it off, when he offered to walk her home despite all that, she threw it right back in his face. Why did she have to lose her temper like that? It was the worst possible timing.

She actually drafted a text to him. Sorry for what happened last night. But she was too afraid to send it. What if she made things worse somehow? Maybe it was better to leave him alone…

So she texted Gene instead. Is everything okay?

She got a reply after a few minutes. Yeah, he's calmed down. Acting like nothing even happened.

She sighed. I feel terrible. I bet he hates me.

Her phone buzzed. What? Why would he?

Why? That was hard to put into words. But that cold look he gave her last night had chilled her to the bone.

Before she could answer, Gene sent another text. Mai, you did nothing wrong. Trust me, he doesn't hate you.

She typed her reply. I don't know. Nothing ever seems to go right with him.

This time it took Gene a long while to reply. Then finally… I know he's difficult. But please don't give up on him.

Mai smiled a little. Okay.

Since he didn't respond after that, Mai set her phone aside with a sigh.

If only Naru was as easy to talk to.

The truth was, Naru wouldn't have been her first choice for a friend. In fact, if she hadn't been desperately lonely, she might not have given him a chance. Gene, on the other hand, was exactly the kind of friend she had been looking for. Hanging out together yesterday, she'd felt a particular void being filled, a void that she'd felt since the first day she came here. If she had met him first, perhaps at the grocery store, she would have been completely satisfied.

That didn't mean she wanted to drop Naru, of course. But she wished he was easier to get along with. Though maybe that said more about her than it did him. She knew his problems weren't all his fault, but she still couldn't help getting frustrated.

Maybe this was how Daidouji felt about her, toward the end. The pain in her heart deepened. The day after he dumped her, she'd seen him already talking and laughing with another girl. The very picture of 'carefree.'

No, she couldn't give up on him. She wouldn't be able to forgive herself otherwise.

With that settled, Mai spent the rest of the day finishing her schoolwork, trying to take her mind off the whole thing. But at one point during the evening, as she was outlining a paper, she reached for her eraser.

And just like that, she was reminded that Naru had held onto it overnight. An involuntary giggle escaped her.

She may have been annoyed by it at the time, but it just struck her as funny now. Naru carrying such a silly looking thing around, all for the sake of playing a prank.

"What an idiot," she said, shaking her head, and returned to her work with a smile.

 


 

February

Monday

 

Mai was roused by the blaring of her alarm clock. Scrunching her eyes, she reached blindly for the snooze button. Just ten more minutes. She was having such a nice dream…

But she knocked the clock onto the floor instead. Groaning, Mai leaned over the edge of the bed to grab at it. Finally, it went silent.

She fell back in bed again. But of course, now the dream had left her.

Pity. And it had been so nice. Now what was it about again…?

Mai lay there for a moment in her half-asleep state, trying to grasp at remnants of the dream before they could escape her completely. But as she did, her eyes grew wide, until she was staring up at the ceiling in horror. A scream tore from her throat.

This was quickly followed by a pounding on her door. "Are you okay in there?!" called Eric.

Mai struggled to compose herself. "Y-yes! I just saw…a bug!" she called back.

But it had been no bug, but a dream. The sort of dream she could never live down. The sort of dream that was all the more mortifying because it had some basis in reality.

In her dream, the events of Valentine's Day had played out differently, at least the very end of it. After giving Naru the box of chocolates, instead of running away, Mai had stuck around. In fact, she stood on her tiptoes, and kissed him softly on the lips.

In response, he had sighed. Then he wrapped his arm around her waist like he'd done once before, and kissed her back. To which she threw her arms around his neck without hesitation. And so on.

Looking back on it now, she could just die. Even worse, she kept recalling even more minute details the more she thought about it (and she couldn't stop thinking about it, despite herself). Like the flash of blue eyes before he kissed her, his soft bangs brushing against her forehead, the coolness of his skin…it was a very vivid dream.

And then there was the boy. At some point while they were making out, Mai had opened her eyes, and from the corner of her eye she caught sight of the teenage boy who often showed up in her dreams lately. He stood half hidden behind a tree, watching with a triumphant grin.

This made her want to die even more. Even if he wasn't real, to think there had been a witness…what was wrong with her subconscious?!

Mai rolled around in bed until she actually fell out, landing on the floor with an "oof" in a bundle of blankets. But this didn't help. Her face was still burning hot. So she dug herself out of her cocoon, threw on a coat over her pajamas, and dashed out of her dorm room. Outside the building, she flung herself into a snow bank, hoping it would cool her down a little.

She sunk face first into the snow, and regretted it at once. Not only was it very cold, she nearly suffocated herself. Flailing, she managed to raise her face just enough to breathe, then climbed out, leaving behind a messy snow angel.

Yeah, that was a bad idea, Mai thought, brushing snow off her now damp pajamas and shivering. She looked around, hoping no one was there to witness her stupidity. And realized where she was. The front of the building, the very setting of her sweet/horrible dream…

NO. What was she doing?! Mai rushed back inside. After that, she quickly got ready for her first class, hoping to put all thoughts of the dream behind her.

If only it were that easy.

She could barely concentrate during her first two classes. And going to the dining hall in the morning only reminded her of how, just a week ago, she had been accused of seducing Naru. And now she'd dreamt of doing just that? WHY.

It wasn't her fault, Mai told herself, only half listening to her evening lecture. It was Kendra and the others who put those ideas in her head. It's not like she really wanted to do that. No way. Inconceivable. Plus, she'd been thinking about him all day yesterday, so it was only natural that that would carry over into her dreams.

Though actually, it wasn't only yesterday that she'd been preoccupied over him. It was remarkable just how many times she'd lost sleep over him, or her focus on school. The past few weeks had been a whirlwind of emotion, upending all her expectations of a fun, but peaceful, study abroad experience. If her friends in Japan knew that she had spent much of her time here obsessing over a guy, they would tease her mercilessly…

…Oh god. Put it that way, and it really did look bad. Mai groaned.

"Hey," Aubrey whispered from beside her. "Are you okay?"

Mai attempted a smile. "Ahaha, yeah…"

No, she was not okay!

Why him, of all people?! That cold, humorless, insensitive asshole?! Sure he was handsome, but he didn't have any social skills…though his awkwardness was a bit endearing…and he could be surprisingly nice sometimes…and she had to admit, his blunt honesty was as refreshing as it was infuriating…

Mai groaned louder, burying her head in her arms.

"Seriously, Mai. Maybe you should go see a doctor."

And as she exited her last class, Mai was faced with yet another dilemma: Should she go to the library this evening? Could she, even? Her stomach twisted with anxiety. Again, not going could be taken as her avoiding him for the wrong reasons, but she could hardly face him in her current mindset. Not with that vile dream still fresh in her mind. But they had parted ways on such a sour note, she couldn't just leave things like that…

Why did everything involving him have to be so difficult?!

Unable to work up an appetite, Mai decided to skip dinner, and spent a good ten minutes pacing in front of the library. Anyone who saw her probably thought she'd gone mad. Finally, she let out a growl, and charged inside.

She didn't have to stay the whole time. She only had to show her face. That should be enough.

She quickly found a table, pulled out all the books and notes from her bag, and stacked them in front of her. Then she sat huddled behind this miniature barrier.

Mai sighed. Her face still felt hot. It had never ceased feeling hot the whole day. And she was tired, so tired…

She heard the scrape of chair against floor nearby and nearly jumped out of her seat. Mai looked up. But it wasn't Naru. Just a male student she didn't know.

"Sorry, are you using this chair?" he asked.

Mai shook her head. "N-no."

"Great. Thanks."

He dragged it over to another table where his group of friends were waiting.

Mai looked at the clock. There was still an hour to go until Naru's break. Gah, what was she getting so worked up about?!

But as the clock ticked closer to 8, her anxiety grew. Would he come? What if he didn't? Maybe she should have apologized after all. She could do it now, it wasn't too late. She reached for her phone, then hesitated. No, maybe it would be better to say in person. If he came. But if he didn't, what should she do?

At 8:00 sharp, Mai grabbed a book from her stack and stuck her face in it, pretending to read. A minute later, she heard the scrape of a chair. Oh god. Her stomach twisted in simultaneous relief and dread. She couldn't bear to look. She couldn't…

Mai peeked over the top of her book. Naru sat across from her, reading. As usual, his expression gave nothing away. Again, as if nothing had changed at all…

He glanced up at her, and their eyes met.

Her heart jolted.

They both immediately looked back down at their books.

Mai's heart pounded, a slideshow of memories flashing through her mind. Candlelight reflected in his eyes. An amused glint, as he graced her with a half-smile. A flash of blue, right before he pressed his lips against hers…

Nope. She couldn't do this anymore. Only a few minutes had passed, but she'd had enough.

Mai gathered her things. "I-I'm gonna call it a night…" she said hoarsely.

Naru only glanced at her briefly before returning to his reading.

She left the table without another word spoken between them.

Mai walked home with mixed feelings. On one hand, she was glad to have gotten out of there. But she also felt disappointed. In herself, mostly. She should have made at least some effort to repair their camaraderie. But instead, she ran away yet again, ending the night on another awkward note.

After all, it's not like he was going to put in any effort. If she left things the way they were, they might just drift apart again. It was a depressing thought. But that was reality.

Back in her dorm room, Mai attempted to do some reading, but gave up after half an hour. Productivity was just a lost cause today.

She climbed into bed, exhaustion weighing her eyelids. Hopefully, she wouldn't have anymore foolish dreams tonight.

 


 

February

Tuesday

 

When her alarm went off in the morning, Mai turned it off with an unrestrained groan.

Good news: She'd had no dreams (that she could recall, anyway).

Bad news: She felt horribly sick.

It surprised her just how sick she felt, considering she hadn't noticed any symptoms yesterday. Then again, she had been very preoccupied. But as soon as she set one foot out of bed, the world spun around her, and she nearly crumpled to her knees. Wobbling, she managed to make it to her desk chair, where she sat to catch her breath.

Oh, this wasn't good. She felt her forehead. Blazing hot.

Fortunately, her morning class on Tuesdays/Thursdays wasn't as early as the one on Mondays/Wednesdays/Fridays, so she still had a couple hours to go, if she skipped breakfast. And while the thought of warm food was tantalizing, she wasn't ready to go outside yet. So Mai threw on a couple more layers over her pajamas, heated up a mug of water in the microwave, and lay in bed sipping hot water for another hour.

That seemed to do the trick. By the time she had to leave, she felt good enough to stand properly. She always recovered quickly. Which was good, because after spacing out so much recently, she couldn't afford to miss a class. Mai got herself ready, making sure to dress extra warmly, and ventured out into the cold.

Bad idea. Baaaad idea. An hour and a half later, Mai staggered back to her dorm in misery. She could usually power through most colds, but this one proved to be too much for her. Regretfully, she called her professors to let them know she would be missing her remaining classes, then promptly passed out in bed.

Hunger awoke her hours later, just after 4 PM. Mai stared blearily up at the ceiling as her stomach attempted to cave in on itself. Strangely, a song was stuck in her head. What was it again? Oh yeah, that lullaby her mother used to sing to her…

She could sure go for some rice porridge right now. Just like her mother used to make her whenever she got sick, with eggs and seaweed and bonito flakes mixed in, and an extra secret ingredient that Mai never figured out. She'd tried to recreate it several times in the years since her mother's death, but could never get it quite right. She hadn't thought of asking for the recipe as a child, so now it was lost to time…

Great, now she was really hungry. Mai dragged herself out of bed. Sifting through her meager food supplies, she came up with a microwaveable rice packet and soy sauce. Well, it was close enough. This would have to do.

As she sat sniffling and waiting for her rice to heat up, Mai wondered how she'd gotten to this point. It was probably the face-plant in the snow that did it. Yeah, that had to be it.

And what exactly were you doing face-planting in the snow? asked a familiar voice in her head.

"I wasn't thinking clearly, okay?" she grumbled.

It would appear you weren't thinking at all.

"Yeah, yeah."

Then Mai paused. She clutched her head and groaned. Was she seriously just arguing with Naru in her head?

"This is bad…really bad…"

The microwave beeped. Her rice was done.

Mai dejectedly poured soy sauce over the rice, stirred it around a little, then took a bite. She sighed. It just wasn't the same.

Nevertheless, she managed to finish it, and went straight back to bed.

 


 

The next time she was woken, it was by her phone's ringtone. Mai glanced at the time as she reached for her phone. 9:23 PM. Ugh, was it really still the same day? It felt like a week had gone by.

"Hello?" she answered with a cough, not bothering to check who was calling.

"Hey, Mai."

Suddenly she was wide awake. Mai sat up. "Gene! Hey…what's up?"

"Just checking on you. Noll told me you left the library early last night? And that you didn't come in today. Are you feeling alright? He said you looked a bit under the weather yesterday."

Mai was speechless. Naru noticed? Even she didn't realize she was sick until this morning. Not only that, he'd told Gene about it?

There was a pause on the other end as he waited for her to speak. When she didn't, he went on. "Or…is it some other reason…?"

She snapped out of her daze. "No, no! I'm not avoiding him, if that's what you're thinking! I'm just feeling a little sick."

"Oh, good. I mean, it's not good that you're sick of course, but…"

Mai laughed awkwardly. "No, I get it. Sorry to make you worry. And…thanks for checking on me."

"No problem. So, do you need any help? Any medicine? You don't need to see a doctor?"

"It's not that bad," she coughed. "Just a small cold. I think I can sleep it off."

"Are you sure? I can get you something from the store after work."

"No, you don't have to go to the trouble!"

"It's not any trouble, I promise. What do you need?"

"Then, uh…tissues, I guess?" She didn't want to ask for too much, but she was running out.

"That's all? What about food? Are you eating properly?"

"Uhhh…" Mai thought back to her only meal of the day and could not honestly say yes.

She heard him sigh. "I'll get you something, then."

"Sorry…"

"Don't worry about it. It might take a couple hours, but I'll be there."

"That's fine, no hurry." She smiled. "Thanks, Gene. I really appreciate it!"

He chuckled. "Like I said, don't be afraid to ask for anything, okay? We're here for you."

"Okay." Oh no, she was tearing up. "See you later."

"See you." He hung up.

Mai lowered the phone from her ear and stared at it.

It hadn't ever occurred to her to call them herself. Even if it did, she still wouldn't have, just to avoid making them worry. But what do you know, they worried anyway.

She really was hopeless. Sighing, Mai lay back down.

At 10:45, she got another call. "I'm here!" said Gene. "Want to meet in the lobby?"

"Wow, that was fast! Yeah, I'll come right down." Then she paused. "Wait. I didn't tell you where I live, did I?"

"Oh, it's fine. Noll told me where to go."

"Did he…" Just how involved was Naru in this, anyway?

She went down to the lobby. Gene was waiting with two plastic shopping bags in hand. The people at the front desk were staring at him, and it occurred to her how it might look, meeting Gene in the lobby in her pajamas. Oh, whatever. She was beyond caring right now.

Gene held up the shopping bags to show her the contents. "Okay, so I got you the tissues, some orange juice, and chicken noodle soup. You have a microwave, right? You can heat this up?"

Mai nodded. As he said, there were three tissue boxes, two big containers of chunky soup, and three bottles of juice.

"Aww, Gene…these must have been so heavy to carry."

"What, you think I can't handle it?" he chuckled. "We were more concerned about how much would fit in your fridge, otherwise I would've bought more."

If Mai weren't sick, she'd be so tempted to give him a hug right now. Instead, she smiled at him softly. "Thank you…I'm touched."

He blinked rapidly. "Y-yeah…like I said, no problem."

And then Mai realized that she'd forgotten her wallet. "Oh, crap. Sorry, how much was it? I'll pay you back."

He shook his head. "Don't worry about it, Mai. It's my treat."

"But you're always treating me!" she whined.

"Really? I could have sworn it was just once."

She pouted.

He laughed. "Okay, how about this? Next time, you can treat me."

"Well…okay." She still didn't like it, but maybe it'd be best not to argue for now.

Gene hefted the bags in his hands. "Show me to your room? I'll carry these up for you."

"Wow, what a gentleman."

"I try."

She led him to her room. As she got out her key, she turned to him. "Thanks, I think I can take it from here."

But he was looking past her, at the door. Or more specifically, at the faint remnants of red spray paint.

Mai gasped and put her back to the door, trying to cover it up. But it was too late.

He looked exactly like Naru in that moment, expression dead serious, blue eyes burning with fierce emotion.

"…Do you know who did that?" he asked quietly.

"No," she said. "But I have people looking out for me here. So it's okay."

He didn't look convinced.

Mai put on a smile. "Gene, really! It's okay. Don't worry about it."

He let out a sigh and looked away. "…I'm sorry if I've been too forward."

"What? No, don't say that! It's not your fault."

He shrugged. "I'm really not one to talk, you know. I've never had any friends either. Sometimes I have trouble distinguishing the line…"

Mai blinked. "Not one?" She found that hard to believe. He seemed like the type to make friends with everyone he met.

"I've had lovers and acquaintances. Nothing in between."

It took Mai a moment to realize what he was implying. Then she looked at the floor, fighting a blush. "…Oh."

"So if I ever cross a line, please tell me, okay? I don't want to make you uncomfortable."

She nodded. "Kay. But…you're fine, honest. People are just stupid."

He gave her a small smile, and handed the bags over. "Goodnight, Mai."

"Goodnight…"

She watched him leave, then let out a big sigh. Phew. Talk about awkward. That got her heart beating pretty fast though. Especially that intense look he had…

Mai shook her head hard. Soup. Right. She needed to get this stuff in the fridge…

Minutes later, she was heating up a bowl full of chicken noodle soup. Her stomach growled loudly at the aroma wafting from the microwave, and when she took it out, she breathed in deeply. Oh. So this was what Heaven smelled like.

It tasted delicious too. It wasn't rice porridge, but the broth warmed her from the inside out just the same. She drank every last drop, then served herself a second helping.

As soon as she'd finished the second bowl, Mai grabbed her phone and sent Gene a text. The soup was amazing! Thank you so much~~

Then she curled up in bed, feeling warm and cozy. Mai sighed blissfully. She really was lucky to have made a friend like Gene. He was so sweet and thoughtful…

Then she thought this over. Normally, in this situation, Gene would end up taking all the attention and credit. And he did deserve a good deal of it. But it wouldn't have been possible without Naru.

Naru deserved some credit too. After all, he did worry for her…right? Though, why couldn't he have just called her himself? Oh right, he was working, and didn't like making calls in the library. And he probably thought it was unnecessary to get personally involved, when he knew someone who could get to her faster.

But she still would have liked to hear from him. Even if all he did was snark or call her stupid for getting sick in the first place. It would have been enough to know he cared.

Then again, when he helped people, he didn't tend to make a show of it, did he? No, he tried to avoid getting involved any further than necessary. Maybe he didn't want to bother. Or maybe it was just difficult for him.

That's right. To people like her and Gene, helping people was practically second nature. But for Naru, it probably wasn't so easy. He didn't like attention. He didn't even like people. But he still extended a hand when it was needed.

She should say something to him. He'd probably already heard everything from Gene, but she still ought to tell him herself. Just because he wanted to be hands-off about it didn't mean she had to be too.

Mai took a deep breath and composed a text to Naru. Gene brought me soup and supplies so I will be ok.

She sent it. But that still didn't feel like enough. She wasn't properly communicating her gratitude. She needed to be more honest.

Biting her lip, she quickly wrote another text. Then she sent it before she could change her mind.

Thank you for noticing.

Mai stared at the screen for a moment, then buried her face in her pillow. She felt…so embarrassed. She knew she had no reason to be, but…someone please kill her now.

Then her phone buzzed and she nearly dropped it in surprise. She sat up with a jolt and looked at the screen.

It was from Gene. No problem! I hope you feel better. :)

Mai let out a long sigh and collapsed back in bed. No offense to Gene, but she'd thought…for a second, she had hoped…

She couldn't deny it any longer. The clues were all there. And while he may not have been her first choice, he'd intrigued her from the start nonetheless. So who could say she wouldn't have still been drawn to him, no matter how or when they met?

In the end, she never did get a reply from Naru. Mai dozed off in bed, phone still clutched in her hand. Let the dreams come. She'd be ready to face them in the morning…

 


 

Mai sat in a cafe with Keiko and Michiru. From the starry decor and the view of Ikebukuro from the windows, she recognized it as the one her friends liked to frequent, that served parfaits based on the zodiac. Mai looked over the menu, torn on which one to order.

"What are you having, Mai?" Michiru asked.

"Well, I usually go with Cancer, but I think I'm in the mood for something different today."

"Ooh, have you tried Gemini?"

"Hmm, I haven't." She looked at the photograph on the menu. "But that does look pretty good. Maybe I will…"

When she looked up again, she saw him. The teenage boy. Same blue eyes, freckles, dirty blond hair. He stood near the entrance of the cafe, staring in her direction.

Oh. So this was just a dream.

Mai set the menu down on the table. "I'll be right back," she said to her friends. Then she stood and marched over to the boy.

"Hey, you!" she said in English.

The boy blinked. He looked around, checking to see if she was addressing someone else.

"Yes, I'm talking to you!" Mai growled, hands on her hips. "I saw you watching the other night, and I don't appreciate having a voyeur in my dreams! So do me a favor and get out!"

The boy's eyes widened. "Y-you're lucid…"

She didn't recognize the word. "What did you just call me?"

He gulped. "I-I'm sorry! I didn't— I mean, I just— I'll go now." He opened the cafe door and dashed out.

Mai hesitated. She hadn't expected him to back down so easily. Now she felt kinda bad.

"Wait!" she called, chasing after him. But by the time she'd descended the stairs and gone outside to street level, she'd lost him.

Mai looked up and down the street. She saw no sign of him among the passing crowd of pedestrians.

"…Huh," she said, heading back into the building. "That was weird."

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

 

Mai woke up in the morning feeling significantly better than she did the previous day. She still had a cough and a runny nose to deal with, but the worst seemed to be over. It was enough that she could attend classes and go to the library at least. Unfortunately, it seemed that expressing her sincere gratitude didn't make Naru any more receptive.

"Hey, did you get my texts last night?"

He grunted.

"I'm feeling much better, by the way."

"Really." It was the sort of response she'd expect if she'd told him about the weather. He didn't even look up from his book. Seriously, that was all?

She sighed. Well, it's not like she had been expecting much. But she'd hoped for more than this. Here she'd had such an important realization last night, and it was like it didn't even matter.

At least they were talking again. Sorta.

"Uh-huh. Gene bought me orange juice and chicken noodle soup. Isn't he sooo thoughtful?"

"You don't say."

Even the old-fashioned jealousy ploy failed. Who was she kidding, he'd practically pushed Gene in her direction. He didn't care.

"So what did you think about my theory that hippopotamuses will destroy the world?"

He shot her an annoyed look. "What?"

"Just making sure you were listening." She stuck her tongue out at him.

But she wasn't done just yet. Her next stop (well, the next day, when she had the time) was her RA's room.

"Hey, Mai," Eric greeted her at the door. "What's up? Anything you need?"

"Um, there was something I wanted to ask you." She glanced down both sides of the hall. There could be eavesdroppers anywhere. "In private, preferably."

He raised his eyebrows. "Yeah, sure. Want to come in?" He held the door open for her.

Once the door was firmly shut and they had both settled themselves on Eric's bean bag chairs, Mai spoke again. "I heard that you, uh, visited the guy at the library last week. You know who I'm referring to?"

His eyes widened slightly. "Oh, yeah. Him."

"Thank you for doing that, by the way."

"Oh, no problem. Gotta look out for my residents. All those rumors flying around, and what happened to your door…" He rubbed the back of his neck. "Just wanted to be sure you were safe."

Mai smiled. He really was a good person.

"Well, I was just wondering…what did he say to you when you confronted him?"

"What did he say? Hold on, let me think…" Eric scratched his head. "Something along the lines of, he wasn't aware of how bad the harassment was, and that the two of you weren't dating, but he would still take responsibility for the situation."

"Oh. That's all?"

"Not what you were expecting?"

"Well, he was being so secretive about it, so I thought that there might be something…more."

Eric smiled wryly. "Sorry to disappoint."

Mai said her thanks and returned to her own room, where she threw herself onto her bed with a defeated sigh.

This only confirmed what she already knew: That Naru did not return her feelings.

Honestly, she might be a little weirded out if he did. That didn't seem like him at all. The more she thought about it, what happened in her dream seemed like only the stuff of self-indulgent fantasy. Naru, kissing her? Yeah, right. And she didn't even want to think of how he would react if she kissed him.

In many ways, he was the worst person to fall in love with. No matter what happened, she could only see heartbreak ahead.

 


 

On Saturday morning, she got a phone call from Japan. Mai never thought she would dread a call from her friends, but she just knew they would end up breaching topics she had no interest in discussing at the moment. Nevertheless, she answered cheerfully.

This time, it was both Keiko and Michiru. Apparently they had just returned from a night out together.

"So how's Boston?"

"Well actually, I haven't really gone into the city yet…"

"Are you kidding me? How long have you been there already? What are you DOING, Mai?"

"I know, I know. But stuff keeps coming up! The weather is either too lousy or I'm not in the mood," Mai sighed. "But Spring Break is coming soon, so I'll have plenty of time then!"

"Please tell me you've gone to at least one party."

"No one's invited me! I don't even know if there are any parties around here."

"What? So you haven't made any friends?"

"I have. But they're not in those kinds of social circles. Well, actually, I think a couple of the other exchange students are big partiers, but we're not very close."

"So who ARE you hanging out with exactly? Nerds?"

Mai laughed nervously. "You could say that…" Though, now that she thought of it, maybe Gene would know of some parties? She should ask him sometime.

Keiko groaned. "Mai, what is happening to you over there…"

"It's not easy, okay? I'm not very confident in the language yet. And I really like the guys I did make friends with. They're even fluent in Japanese."

Mai knew she couldn't avoid bringing them up if discussing her experiences here, so she might as well get it over with. As long as she didn't say too much, it should be okay, right?

"Whoa, really? That's some luck."

"You said guys? Plural?"

"Yeah…two brothers."

"So they're like, Japanese-American?"

"I think they're half? At least half. But yeah, I really lucked out there, huh?"

"Are they cute?"

Mai sighed. She couldn't avoid this either. "Drop-dead handsome."

Her friends squealed.

"Oh, Mai! I take it all back! I am SO proud!"

"Way to go, Mai! Reel in those American hotties!"

Despite herself, Mai couldn't help getting caught up in their enthusiasm.

"Oh, and they're identical twins too. They look exactly alike."

"Whaaaat?!"

"Are you kidding?!"

"But their personalities are completely different. One's nice and friendly and the other's aloof and introverted."

"Oh my god, it's like a manga!"

"Is this real life?!"

Mai giggled. It honestly felt good to talk about them with someone.

"Please tell me you have pictures!"

"Sorry, no luck there."

Keiko made an exasperated noise. "Okay. Mai. New mission: Take some damn pictures. And send them to meee~"

"No fair! Me too!"

Mai laughed. "I'd have to ask them."

"But seriously, that's almost too good to be true, isn't it?"

"Yeah, really! You have hit the jackpot!"

Mai wrinkled her nose. "Ew, don't talk about them like that. Besides, we're only friends."

"Really, Mai? You're hanging out with two hot twin brothers all the time, and you don't feel any excitement?"

"Of course I'm excited—"

Giggles.

"Oh, grow up. I mean, I am really glad I met them. But it's not anything like what you're imagining."

"Are you sure about that, Mai? I swear you were just gushing a minute ago."

"I really like them!"

"But do you like like them?"

Mai blushed. As she'd thought, she couldn't keep this hidden either. "M…maybe. At least…one of them…"

They both gasped.

"She admitted it!"

"This is serious!"

"There's love in the air!"

"Oh, my little girl's grown up! I'm gonna cook red rice when I get home!" Michiru sniffed loudly.

Mai's face burned. "Guys, please…"

"So, which is it? The nice one or the aloof one?"

"The aloof one…"

"Huh. I didn't think you were into the introverted type."

"I didn't either!" Mai groaned.

"So have you kissed yet?"

She groaned louder. "I told you it's not like that!"

"Well, why the hell not? You haven't told him?"

"Of course I haven't! I don't see any hope, so why should I?"

"Hold on. Why don't you see any hope?"

Mai sighed. "First of all, he's not into me."

"And how do you know that?"

"He's not into anyone! He's so antisocial. And I heard him say it himself, that he doesn't want to date anyone."

"But maybe he'd make an exception for you? You never know!"

"I doubt it. He really doesn't seem interested."

"But you said he's aloof? Maybe that's just how he is."

"It's not like he's totally indifferent, right? You are friends?"

"Well, yeah. I think he does care, a little. But not as anything more than friends."

"Mmm, I'm not convinced. You do tend to be blind to these things, Mai."

"Yeah, Daidouji-kun was ogling you for like half a year and you never even noticed."

Ugh, did they have to bring him up again?

"And if he's so antisocial, but you're still his friend, that means you're special! I think you totally have a chance, Mai."

Mai bit her lip. Maybe they had a point. If it were about anyone else, she might be inclined to agree. But again, this was Naru. She didn't want to get her hopes up.

"Okay, well, even if he is interested, I don't want to start something serious when I know I'm just going to leave in a few months."

"You could have a long-distance relationship?"

"No way. He hardly pays attention to me even when I'm right in front of him. It wouldn't work. Besides, he's just like me: A poor orphan. We might never be able to visit each other."

"Jeez, Mai. You sure know how to pick 'em…"

"Then just have a fling?"

"But I don't want to have a fling! I'd want it to be the real thing." She couldn't imagine Naru agreeing to something like that either. He'd probably take it as an insult.

"Then what DO you want, Mai?" Keiko sighed.

"...What we have now is good. It's perfect."

"Are you sure you're not just afraid?"

Mai had no answer for that. Of course she was afraid. Who wouldn't be, if they knew how Naru treated people who showed any romantic interest in him? And yes, she wanted to be closer to him, but that was never going to happen. So why ruin what they already had?

He'd agreed to be her friend, for god's sake. That was a major accomplishment in itself.

"I mean, sure, you could just stay friends. But it seems like such a waste. It took you how many years to find someone you like?"

"It's not like he'll be the last. Hopefully."

"But if you keep making excuses like that, you'll just keep letting opportunities go. You'll end up an old maid in no time."

"Hey!"

"We just want you to be happy, Mai. Who knows, one or both of you might find well-paying jobs in the future. Travel could become possible. Maybe you could make it work?"

"Yeah, but…but I had a plan. I want someone who's financially stable. Someone with a big family. Someone I can see everyday. I want to date and get married like normal."

Her parents had both been orphans. Mai always thought they'd made a mistake marrying each other; after all, she was left all alone as a result. So how did she end up falling for someone who was the exact opposite of everything she was looking for?

"You say that as if you're not secretly a romantic."

"Every relationship takes work. It's never going to be perfect. You know all my troubles with Hideki, right? But sometimes it's worth it."

Groaning, Mai slid off her bed and onto the floor. "But I can't…it's not…if it was just one of these things, maybe I could overcome it! But all together? And there's still stuff that makes it challenging on top of everything else."

"Such as?"

"I can't really explain. But even if I can handle a relationship, I'm not sure that he can."

"Wait, what are you talking about? Like mental issues?"

"I promised not to tell anyone. Sorry."

Her friends sighed in unison.

"Wow, Mai. I don't know what to say…"

"Are you sure you didn't get a bad fortune way back when? 'Unlucky in love' or something?"

Mai inhaled sharply. "...I didn't get a love fortune back then, Keiko."

"Oh yeahhh, you got that really weird one. What was it again?"

The old woman's voice echoed in her memory. Follow your instincts, and they will lead you to where you are meant to be.

Mai chewed her lip. But what did that mean? It was so vague. Did that mean 'go for it'? Or something else?

Suddenly, she felt like she stood at a crossroads. Two options lay before her, and she felt they might take her in completely opposite directions.

"Mai? Are you listening?"

Which was her 'destiny'? Where was she supposed to go? Was there even a guarantee that either options were good ones? For all she knew, her destiny was to die in a ditch somewhere. What if she 'went for it' and that just led to disaster? What if she didn't and she regretted it for the rest of her life?

What did her intuition say? Mai closed her eyes and focused. Like casting a stick onto the ground, she waited to see where her instinct pointed.

...This isn't the time.

Mai opened her eyes. "Now isn't the time," she said.

"Huh?"

"He's...going through a rough patch right now. I don't want to bother him with this when he already has so much to worry about. It would only cause him trouble."

She heard Keiko sigh. "Then when IS the time?"

"Maybe never." Mai smiled sadly. "But I think that's what's best. Right now, he doesn't have a single friend. I don't think he even believes he's capable of having a friend. So that's what I want to be for him. His friend."

They were silent for a long moment. Then Michiru sighed. "Oh, Mai...you really care for this guy, don't you?"

Mai just nodded. She knew they couldn't see it, but if she said anything out loud, she was afraid she might cry.

"I'll tell you what, when you get back, we'll all go out together and you can cry to us about it, okay?"

"Yeah." Mai wiped her eyes. "Thanks."

She had her answer. But her heart hurt even as she accepted it.

 


 

And so life went on.

Mai went to the weekly pub meeting that evening, hoping to take her mind off of things. But it only drove home just how out of touch she was with the other exchange students. While she had been dealing with her various dramas surrounding Naru, they had all furthered their friendships even more. Tonight, they were discussing their plans for Spring Break, and Mai listened in, feeling hopelessly left out.

"You're so quiet, Mai. Something wrong?" someone asked.

Hah. They thought she was quiet. She'd sure like Naru to hear that.

"How's it going with your boyfriend?" someone else asked.

Mai smiled weakly. "He's not my boyfriend."

Silence fell over the table for a moment, before they quickly changed the subject and returned to their boisterous conversation.

Mai focused on eating her fish and chips. Maybe she should go home.

She noticed two girls beside her whispering to each other. If she recalled correctly, their names were Katrina and Soo-jin, German and Korean students who had bonded early on over their shared love of K-pop, and only grown closer since. They kept glancing at her as they whispered, so she could only assume they were talking about her. Mai braced herself for the inevitable questions.

However, when they did come, they weren't what she'd expected.

"Mai, are you doing anything during break?"

She blinked. "Um, I'd like to check out Boston. I haven't had much time for that yet."

"Aw, but you can do that anytime! Why don't you try visiting somewhere else while you can?"

"Soo-jin and I are going to New York. Do you want to come?" Katrina asked.

Mai perked up. "Wow, can I? You won't mind if I join you?" New York sounded amazing.

"The more the merrier! We're thinking of staying most of the week and going to a Broadway show."

Her hopes died at once. "Oh…I don't think I can afford that…"

"But we'll be taking a bus and staying at a hostel. It shouldn't be too pricy."

"Well, I don't know…"

"What if you left a few days early? You'd get to see the city, and you'll have time for Boston."

"Maybe, but…"

"It's New York, Mai! You should totally come with us!"

They both smiled at her. Ah. She saw now. They were taking pity on her.

But, maybe that wasn't such a bad thing.

Mai smiled back. "In that case, I'd love to come! Oh, but I'll have to skip Broadway."

On Sunday, she went over to Katrina's room so the three of them could hash out their plans. Actually looking at the prices, it wasn't as bad as she'd feared. Three nights stay at a youth hostel, plus outgoing and return trips on a bus would bring her to less than $200. Her meals would have to be cheap, but it was doable.

And while she did feel like she was intruding, Mai was grateful that they'd thought to invite her on their trip. Being with them almost felt like being with Keiko and Michiru, at least in spirit. And maybe that was just what she needed right now.

Yet when she saw Naru again on Monday evening, her heart still twinged with pain.

Someday, he would just be a distant memory.

Mai shook her head. She needed to focus on the present. Making happy memories. That was the best she could do with her time now.

Telling herself that, she faced him with a brave smile.

"Hey Naru, what are you doing for Spring Break?"

"Nothing," he replied.

A short silence.

"…Okay, but won't the library be closed? You'll have a lot of free time, right?"

"Perhaps. Perhaps not."

He really needed to learn how to hold a conversation. "Come on, Naru! It's Spring Break! I'm not expecting you to party at a beach or anything—" she snorted at the mental image— "but don't tell me you're just going to stay holed up in your apartment the whole time?"

"Is there a problem with that?"

"I don't know, it just seems kind of sad. And I was hoping you guys might want to hang out a little…" Okay, so that was her real motive.

He sighed. "I am trying to save money. If we receive a reply from ASPR, we may have to visit, or even move to, New York. It would be quite the expense."

"Oh." That made sense.

"Gene will be working double shifts during the break as well. So if you want to fool around, you'll have to look elsewhere."

That hurt a little. She just wanted to spend time with them. He didn't have to put it like that.

Mai rested her head on her arms. "Well, I'm not rolling in funds myself. But I'll only be here for a few months, and this is the most free time I'll have."

"Don't you have other friends?"

"I do! I'm actually going to be visiting New York City for a few days with some other exchange students. But I'll still have time left over, and I'm closer to you guys…"

And then she realized something. "Wait. So, ASPR still hasn't sent you a reply?"

"No."

"But it's been what, three weeks? Don't you think that's long enough? Could it have gotten lost in the mail? Maybe you should've emailed them instead."

He rolled his eyes. "I've sent them email as well."

"And still no reply?" she gasped. "It sounds like they're ignoring you!"

"Perhaps."

How could he be so calm about this? "What do you think is the problem? That they don't believe you?"

Naru nodded. "I'm sure they must receive similar correspondence all the time, most of them frauds."

"Isn't there something you could do? Maybe send proof? Like a video or something?"

"Anyone these days could make a similar video using special effects. It wouldn't prove anything."

"Well, then what are you going to do?"

"Be persistent. And patient."

At her questioning look, he explained. "Any psychic researcher worth his salt would have taken notice of any one of my various...accidents across the country. They only need to realize that these different cases were perpetrated by the same individual, and then look at my letters claiming to be said individual. I plan on sending a new one every week, recounting each case in intimate detail. Eventually, someone will connect the dots."

"Huh. But won't that take a long time?"

Naru shrugged. "I've waited this long. A little longer won't hurt."

She wondered if he really meant that. When she heard they'd sent the letter, she had expected help to come pretty quickly. Instead, it was looking like it'd be a struggle just to be noticed. He looked unconcerned on the surface, but secretly, maybe he was disappointed too.

"Hey, you know what? Since I'll be in New York, maybe I could stop by and ask about you?"

His eyes snapped to her face. "No. That won't be necessary."

"Why not? Asking is free, right?"

"Don't do it."

"Well, are you at least going to give me a reason why?"

"I don't need you tarnishing their impression of me."

And what was that supposed to mean? Mai ground her teeth together. "I'd say some impression is better than no impression at all."

"Don't," he said seriously. "It's not your business."

Jeez. Couldn't he let her do one nice thing for him?

She sighed exasperatedly. "Fine. Then do you want anything from New York?"

"No."

"I'm gonna be looking for souvenirs anyway. I've never traveled before, you know, so this'll be my first time buying omiyage! I'm really looking forward to it."

"I doubt you'll find anything. We don't have that custom."

"Yeah, but you do have gift shops! I saw them at the airport! And this is New York City, they're bound to have something."

He just shook his head. "Sounds like a waste of time and money."

She scowled at him. "Well, maybe you don't understand, but I've always had friends and coworkers giving me omiyage from their trips, and this is my chance to finally give back! It'd be downright rude if I went back empty-handed." She jabbed a finger at him. "So tell me, what do you want?"

"I don't see why I have to be included in this."

"You're included because I want you to be. Simple enough?"

"I don't want anything."

"I'm going to be getting you something anyway."

"I don't want anything."

A devious grin crept across Mai's face. That's it, she was going to get him the most absurd, ridiculous, unnecessary souvenir she could find.

He balked at her expression and looked back down at his book in a hurry. "Suit yourself."

Fufufu. Oh, she would.

 


 

When she returned to her dorm that night, she got a call from Gene.

"Sorry, Mai, I know we just started, but I don't think I'll be able to train you in any medium stuff for the next few weeks. Between school and work, my schedule is swamped."

"No, that's fine! I'll be busy too, with midterms coming up." She groaned.

"Agh. Yeah, tell me about it."

"But I was wondering…well, hoping…" Should she ask? Was she being unreasonable? "Maybe the three of us could hang out at least once during the break? Maybe go into the city together… It's fine if you don't have time, though!"

"Oh, yeah! That sounds great! I was planning on dragging Noll out sometime anyway, otherwise he wouldn't get any fresh air. I think I could get at least one day off."

"Really?!" Mai kicked her legs in excitement.

"Yeah, I'm definitely up for it! Is there anything in particular you want to do?"

"Not really. If it's touristy stuff, I could do that on my own. I just want to spend time with you guys."

"Okay. Then how about we have lunch in the city, and see where it goes from there?"

"Sure! I could even treat you guys! I do still owe you one, and maybe if I pay for Naru, he'd be more inclined to go."

Gene laughed. "You know the way to his heart, all right. I'll be sure to mention that."

"Ahaha…" If only it were that easy. She would just have to trust Gene to convince him.

 


 

The rest of the week was a sleep-deprived haze of studying and working on midterm papers. Her lack of focus during classes had finally caught up with her, forcing Mai to spend most of her waking hours in the library. She would have gladly stayed until closing time too, except once past 11 PM, Naru would come and glare at her until she left. Which, she had to admit, she didn't mind too much, because she could hardly afford to even look at him anymore when he joined her during his breaks.

Though, she did use the opportunity to express her woes.

Mai moaned in frustration.

"Quit whining," Naru muttered.

"But it's so haaaaard…"

"You sound like a child."

"I wish I still was one. College suuucks…"

And one evening, she became desperate enough to make a proposal.

"Naruuuu~"

His eyebrow twitched.

"Naaaaaruuuuuuu~"

"…What do you want."

"Could you edit this for me?" She held out a draft of her midterm paper.

He spared it only a glance. "Don't you get them peer-edited?"

"We do. But I don't want my editing partner to think I'm stupid, and this paper is such trash."

"So you'd rather push that burden onto me?"

"You already think I'm stupid. What difference would it make?"

He put a hand to his chin in thought. "Good point."

Of all the times for him to agree with her. Mai put on a strained smile, reminding herself that she was asking for a favor. It wouldn't be good to snap at him now. "Just read it, would you?"

Reluctantly, he set his book aside and took the paper. She watched nervously as he read.

When he finished, he tossed it onto the table. "You're right. This is trash."

Thunk. Her forehead met the table. "Please don't tell me that's the only thing you have to say. Haven't you ever heard of constructive criticism?"

"If I were to point out all the flaws in this paper, it would take all day."

"So point out half the flaws, and take just half a day?" She put her hands together. "Please? Please please pleeease?"

"What do I get out of it?"

"I'm paying for your lunch, remember? Gene told you?"

He didn't reply. But he sighed, and took out his pen.

Mai did a small fist pump under the table.

Naru pulled the paper back towards him and proceeded to immediately write all over it. Mai stared. For the next ten minutes, his pen moved nonstop. If she didn't know any better, she'd say he was rewriting the whole thing.

Finally, he tossed the paper back to her again. "There."

Warily, she looked through it. As expected, the pages were covered in corrections. He'd crossed out entire paragraphs and filled nearly every margin, half with suggestions, half with cutting remarks. For a guy who couldn't seem to care less, he sure had a lot to say.

Mai couldn't muster a smile. "Thanks…"

He folded his arms. "I don't hear enough gratitude. I've wasted most of my break on this."

She bowed low to the table. "Thank you, Naru-sama!"

"Better."

Arrogant ass.

Still, aside from the wholly unnecessary insults, his corrections turned out to be very helpful. Mai safely finished her paper and turned it in the following week, feeling more confident about its chances.

And so, with more studying, trip planning, and moaning and groaning, Mai managed to survive midterm week. She left her last exam on Friday with a deep sense of relief. Outside the building, she stopped to breathe in the early March air. The weather was still chilly. Snow still blanketed the ground. But Spring Break had officially just begun.

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

 

March

Saturday

 

An eruption of excited squealing startled Mai awake. Blinking, she realized she sat in a bus seat, leaning against the window. Oh, right. She must have dozed off sometime during the four-hour journey.

In the seats in front of her, Katrina and Soo-jin were practically plastered to the window, snapping pictures on their phones.

"What's all the fuss…?" Mai asked.

"Look, Mai! Look!" Soo-jin leaned over her seat to show Mai her phone.

On the screen was a somewhat blurred photo of a "Welcome to New York" sign.

Mai gasped.

"We're almost there!"

That being said, there wasn't much else to see for a good while. This wasn't the most scenic route, and once they reached the city proper, traffic was slow. But soon they were in Upper Manhattan, and then Harlem. Then, up ahead, they saw a line of trees.

"Oh, wow! Is that Central Park?"

Apparently it was. The bus drove along the park for a block, and then went down a street in the Upper West Side, finally turning onto Broadway. Eventually, they drove right past Times Square, Katrina and Soo-jin squealing all the way.

Mai was glued to the window herself, drinking it all in. The roads were filled with the iconic yellow taxi cabs, and rickshaws that swerved dangerously among them. Everywhere she looked, a dizzying display of bright signs and advertisements, concrete and storefronts. So much to take in at once, it was overwhelming.

Mai couldn't help but grin. It reminded her of Tokyo.

At last, the bus arrived at its destination in Midtown Manhattan, just before 2 PM. Mai and her companions disembarked and grabbed a quick lunch at a cafe across the street. Then came the challenge of figuring out the subway system. But after some confusion, they managed to find the right platform. The subway was dirtier and smellier than Mai was used to in Tokyo, and the trains less punctual. But the way everyone crammed into the train cars was much the same.

They made their way to the youth hostel, which ended up being in a residential area on the Upper West Side, only a short walk away from both the subway and Central Park. A brownstone townhouse building with a tall stoop, strangely, the first thing that jumped to Mai's mind was the set of Sesame Street. Unlike downtown Manhattan, this wasn't like anything she had seen in Tokyo.

Inside, the rooms were filled with bunk beds. Once they had checked in and found their beds, the girls sat down to take a breather. By then, it was already late in the afternoon.

"Okay, we have a few hours until it gets dark," Katrina said. "What should we do before dinner?"

Soo-jin turned to Mai. "What do you want to do, Mai? We have the rest of the week to do what we want. So the first few days are up to you."

"Well, sightseeing, I guess. But for starters, can we check out Central Park? Since it's right there."

"Good idea!"

They set off, entering the park and heading south along a wooded path intersected with quaint bridges that made Mai feel like she was in a fairytale. There was even a small castle, from which they got a great view of the surrounding park, including the Great Lawn, where people were having picnics and playing ball on the grassy green, and the Turtle Pond below. They ventured into the rocky outcrops of the Ramble, a rugged maze of trails that gave one the impression of being in the mountains, until they came across the Lake, where ducks and geese drifted lazily along with rowers in boats.

Besides the evergreens, the trees were still mostly bare at this time of the year, though Mai did spot some budding cherry blossoms. Above the treetops, skyscrapers loomed, casting their magnificent reflections over the waters. In short, it was a beautiful, but surreal, clash of nature and civilization. And the chilly weather lent it all a tranquil, magical mystique. Watching the sun set over the park, Mai took a deep breath of fresh air, exhilarated.

In the end, they were only able to cover a third of the length of the park by sundown. For dinner, they went to the Shake Shack across from the American Museum of Natural History. Dining on hamburgers and milkshakes in the enclosed sidewalk cafe, they spent over an hour talking excitedly about everything they'd seen.

They only came down from their high once they returned to the hostel. Mai collapsed into her bottom bunk, exhausted from all the walking. Katrina and Soo-jin sat together on the bunk opposite from her, staring at their phones in companionable silence as they caught up on social media. She watched them sleepily for a moment, and felt a sudden pang of loneliness.

Mai took out her own phone and looked at her contacts list. Saturday night…Gene was probably busy at work right now. And she doubted Naru would reply if she just texted him out of the blue…

Just how needy was she, anyway? She'd just spent an entire day hanging out with people. Jeez.

She connected her phone to a charger and set it aside.

"So what are you two planning to do the rest of the week?" Mai asked.

Katrina looked up. "Oh, we were thinking of going clubbing. You're not interested in that kind of thing, are you?"

Mai shrugged. "I'm not disinterested. It sounds kind of fun. But I've never had the time for it. And I don't have anything to wear." She looked down at her dull, bargain bin clothes. Yup, she really wouldn't fit in that kind of environment. "I am interested in going to some parties eventually though. Have you been to any?"

"Yeah, a couple. Sanjay's been in touch with some guys who hold one every weekend."

"Huh…" Why didn't she hear about this before?

Her companions shared a guilty glance.

"…Sorry we didn't invite you. We really didn't mean to exclude you, Mai. It's just that…well…you always seemed to be lost in thought at our meetings, and there were all these rumors. We thought you must be busy, so we didn't want to bother you."

"We saw you with that guy at the library," Soo-jin added. "He's really handsome, who could blame you for wanting to spend more time with him?"

"Oh…that makes sense, I guess," Mai said, blushing.

They leaned forward, phones forgotten as their curiosity finally got the better of them. "So did you two break up?"

"We've never even dated."

"Oh…did he reject you?" Their gazes turned sympathetic.

"No. I haven't confessed."

"Why not?!"

Mai sighed. She didn't feel like going over this again. Instead, she brought up another thing that had been nagging at her lately. "…Have you ever thought about whether the friendships we make over here will last? After we leave, I mean."

They blinked.

"Not really," Soo-jin said.

"We can still keep in touch," Katrina shrugged.

"I already have friends who live in other countries. I've never even met most of them."

"As long as we have internet, it shouldn't be a problem, right?"

Mai frowned. "I'm not so sure. I didn't think deeply about it at first. I just wanted to make friends. But now I'm wondering if there's a point in becoming close, because what if we do drift apart after I leave? Would it mean our bonds weren't so strong after all? That I wasn't as important in their lives as I hoped I was?"

They exchanged a worried glance.

"Mai…even if you do drift apart, it wouldn't be your fault? It wouldn't be anyone's fault. People just get busy."

"I know. But that's why I doubt it would last. We could say we'll keep in touch, and we could mean it. But before we know it, we'll get caught up in our own lives and start to forget, contacting each other less and less until it just…stops. Eventually, we'll only think of each other maybe once or twice a year, if at all."

"Wow, that's pessimistic of you."

"I think it's realistic," she said quietly.

"But if you're afraid of becoming close, wouldn't that just be a…what is it called? A 'self-fulfilling prophecy'?"

"That's just what I was thinking!"

Mai stared.

"I think all you can do is try and hope for the best, Mai. Same with all things."

"Yeah, if you keep thinking like that, you can never move forward."

Moving forward. That's what Naru was trying to do, wasn't he? And while reality still kicked him in the teeth, he wasn't giving up.

Mai nodded, smiling. "I guess you're right. Thanks."

She shouldn't get discouraged just yet. And for now, there was no point in thinking about it. Mai got up to get ready for bed, determined to get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow was a big day.

 


 

Sunday morning, the three of them woke up early to eat a breakfast of pancakes at the nearby diner. They then hopped on the subway and headed back downtown.

Excitement and nostalgia coursed through Mai as they wandered the streets. The sky was crowded with towering skyscrapers. The streets bustled with people. Everyone was in a rush to get somewhere, and seemed to know instinctively when the light would turn on crosswalks, or ignored the signals completely, crossing even while cars were barreling toward them.

But whereas in Tokyo, an apology was constantly on one's lips, here people bumped into her without any apology. Traveling the sidewalks often involved dodging not only crowds, but trash bags, street preachers, and street vendors selling all manner of foods, handbags, posters, and T-shirts.

The people watching was fascinating though. For one, she had never seen so many ethnicities in one place before. She felt like even more of a minority, just a very small part of a large mixing bowl. At the same time, she blended in more with the crowd; being Asian here did not stand out much.

She got a thrill every time they came across a Japanese restaurant, of which there were a few, but as much as she wanted to, she held back from eating at any. They weren't exactly cheap. Instead, she and her companions shared a New York style pizza for lunch at one of the many pizza places in the city, which was a worthwhile experience in itself.

They spent the day mostly checking out famous landmarks, like Times Square, Broadway, Rockefeller Center, and Grand Central Terminal. Mai's one selfish wish, however, was that they visit the Kinokuniya bookstore across from Bryant Park. Thankfully, both Katrina and Soo-jin had an interest in manga, so they didn't mind. Mai wasn't looking for anything in particular, but after taking one step inside, she began to tear up. Japanese books and stationary. A little slice of home, right before her eyes.

When she got to the cafe on the second floor, she nearly cried again, and ended up splurging on food. She didn't mean to spend so much, but at the sight of the various bentos, breads, and onigiris, her self control evaporated in an instant. She justified it by telling herself that this would be her food supply for the next two days. Less justified was the cake and pudding that she ordered and ate right there in the cafe. But it was so worth it.

By mid-afternoon, Mai had taken so many pictures that her phone nearly ran out of battery (fortunately, she had a portable charger). She felt tempted to send some of these to Gene, but still felt hesitant bothering him if he was busy. She figured she could just show him when they met up later.

Naru, on the other hand, was free, so she decided to annoy him by sending him random photos that she found amusing. Predictably, he didn't reply, but she got a giggle out of imagining him looking at her pictures of funny looking dogs and people wearing Elmo costumes with that blank expression of his.

At night, Katrina and Soo-jin managed to coax her into shelling out the $34 needed for a ticket to the Top of the Rock observation deck. Though it seemed too expensive at first, Mai was glad she did. The view of New York City at night, in 360 degrees, with all its glittering lights and shining towers, was simply breathtaking.

"See, aren't you glad you came, Mai?" Soo-jin asked from beside her, as they gazed out in awe.

Mai smiled. "Yeah. I really am."

 


 

On Monday, Katrina and Soo-jin had their matinee Broadway show, so Mai was left on her own for her last full day in the city. Tomorrow, she would have to go back to Boston. She bemoaned the shortness of her trip. There was so much to see, and not enough time!

But after thinking it over all morning, Mai made up her mind. Today, she would visit ASPR.

Having looked it up online beforehand, Mai knew that ASPR was also on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, though several blocks farther south from the youth hostel. Still, considering how close she was to the place, she wouldn't be able to forgive herself if she just walked away. After all, once she returned to Japan, there was little she could do for Naru besides ask if he was okay. She wanted to do something to help while she was still here. And besides, it wouldn't hurt to just pop her head in real quick and ask them to read his letters, right? She had to at least try.

So she set off. Instead of using the subway, Mai decided to walk, taking her time to enjoy the beautiful weather and the view of Central Park. She smiled, watching families, joggers, bicyclists, and horse-drawn carriages winding the paths. It was all so peaceful. But as she approached her destination, her nerves grew. What would she say? How would she introduce herself?

And before she knew it, she had arrived.

When she'd first heard of it, Mai had expected some kind of big, impressive research facility. In reality, ASPR looked a lot like the youth hostel; a narrow, five-story brownstone building in a quiet side street next to Central Park. There were parked cars lining the street, but next to no traffic or foot traffic. The neighboring buildings looked like they might be apartments. Not exactly the kind of place you'd expect to find a paranormal research lab.

She had to recheck the address, then look at the plaque next to the door to be absolutely sure. But there it was, "American Society for Psychical Research."

There was an ornate black security door over the front door, and white curtains inside. She peeked through a gap in the curtains and saw another set of doors inside, also with curtains drawn over them. She couldn't even see into the lobby. All the windows were curtained shut too. She gave the security door an experimental tug, and it wouldn't budge. To her dismay, the front door didn't even have a handle. How did people get in?! Finally, she looked to the side below the plaque, and noticed buttons corresponding to the various floors.

Mai gulped. Oh great, she was going to have to buzz them to let her in, wasn't she?! Way to up her anxiety!

She paced in front of the building for several minutes, gathering her nerves. Maybe she should turn back? No, no, she had come so close! And she would never get a chance to return. She couldn't chicken out now.

For Naru. She would do it for Naru.

Taking a deep breath, Mai dashed up the front stoop and jabbed at a button. She didn't hear anything. She jabbed it again. Then she jabbed another one, just in case. One of them had to work. She was just about to jab yet another one when the door finally opened.

A woman with short brown hair answered the door. "Yes, may we help you?" she asked.

Mai quickly stood to attention. Through the open door, she could just barely glimpse a lit wall lamp, a white staircase, and computers in an interior room.

"Um, hello…a friend of mine sent a letter to you a few weeks ago. I was just wondering if anyone has taken a look at it…?" Mai suddenly felt stupid. What was she doing here?

The woman frowned. "What is your friend's name?"

"Oliver…" Come to think of it, she didn't even know his last name. "Oliver something…" Now she really felt stupid.

"You say this is your friend?"

"Y-yes." Mai flushed.

The woman sighed. "Unfortunately, we can't respond to all reports of paranormal experiences, due to the volume we receive. But we'll have it added to our archives. Have a nice day." She began to close the door.

"W-wait, but, it's not just an experience! He has a really serious problem! So it would be great if you could help him…"

"What kind of problem?"

"Well…" Would Naru want her to just blurt his secret out loud? Here, on the street? "A-actually, he can describe it a lot better than I can, so if you just read his letter…"

The woman looked unconvinced. "I'm sure we will get to it soon enough. Is that all?"

No, she couldn't just let it end here! "U-um, is there someone I can talk to about this more thoroughly?"

"You'll have to schedule an appointment. Email us with you or your friend's contact information and we will get back to you." The woman proceeded to spell out the society's email address.

"Is there any way faster—"

"If this is urgent, tell your friend to send us an email and we can set up an appointment."

"But—"

"Is that all?"

Mai floundered for words.

"Then have a nice day."

The woman closed the door.

Mai stood there for a while longer in shock. Then, hesitantly, she turned and descended the stoop, looking back one last time in hopes that the door might open again, this time with someone more agreeable there to greet her. But no luck.

So she left the side street, crossed the road into Central Park, and wilted on the nearest bench. She stared blankly at the passersby; people walking their dogs, tourists speaking a variety of languages. On the benches on either side of her sat business women eating their lunches.

Mai wished she could feel angry. That would be so much easier. But even she thought she'd sounded suspicious back there.

They had been more secretive and distrusting than she'd anticipated. Maybe that was a shared trait among people who dealt with the paranormal. She supposed it made sense. These people took the subject very seriously, but maybe a lot of the people who came to visit didn't. Maybe it was a good thing she couldn't tell them Naru's full name. She might have just made things worse…

Mai groaned. Stupid, stupid, stupid! She couldn't tell Naru about this! He would be so angry.

Sighing, she finally got up from the bench. She couldn't keep dwelling on this forever. Might as well spend the rest of the day shopping for souvenirs…

 


 

Mai stood in a souvenir shop, surveying row after row of nothing but the exact same Statue of Liberty figurines and "I Love NY" mugs. It was beyond frustrating. There had to be more than this. She couldn't just stuff a bunch of these in her suitcase. Or could she?

As she pondered this, Mai glanced up. And saw him. The teenage boy, watching her from the far end of the store.

Oh. This was just a dream. Mai abandoned the souvenirs and walked over to him.

"I haven't seen you in a while," she said to him. As far as she could recall, the last time he'd appeared in her dreams was when she'd chased him away.

The boy licked his lips nervously. "I-I wanted to apologize. About before. I didn't mean to invade your privacy. I just…didn't think you'd notice."

She crossed her arms. "You know that's not really an apology. It's pretty gross, actually. Like, being a peeping tom isn't okay if the girl doesn't notice."

He turned bright red. "You're right! S-sorry. It won't happen again…"

"It better not," she huffed, and moved to turn away.

"W-wait!" he said.

She looked back at him, eyebrow raised.

"I was wondering…could we be friends?"

Now this got her attention. Mai gave him a wary look. "Friends?"

The boy nodded. "I want to get to know you better. I've never met anyone like you before, so…"

"What's that supposed mean?"

"Japanese," he said quickly, looking down at his feet. "I've never met anyone who's Japanese. A-and I've always been curious about the language and culture…from watching anime, you know. Would…would that be okay?"

He glanced shyly up at her, blue eyes peeking through blond bangs, freckled cheeks a bright pink. Well, he was a cute kid, if a bit nerdy-looking. And his offer could easily have come off as creepy, but he seemed sincere enough.

Mai sighed. "Okay, why not."

This seemed to cheer him up. "So…you're in New York?" he asked, gesturing to the figurines and mugs. "Do you live here?"

"No, just visiting for Spring Break."

"Oh…"

She sighed. "Now you've reminded me. I was having such a good time, until today."

"Why? What happened?"

"There's a place I wanted to visit, for a friend…" The souvenir shop faded away, to be replaced by the side street next to Central Park. Mai looked up, and there was ASPR, with its forbidding barred door.

"…But they wouldn't let me in. I was all geared up to do this, you know, for love and friendship, but I couldn't even take a step inside. How pathetic is that?"

The boy looked up at the building, then back to her. "Well, this is a dream," he pointed out. "You can do whatever you want."

She considered this for a moment. "Hmm, good point."

She went up the stoop, grabbed at the black security door, and gave a tug. It opened easily. Then, as if a gust of wind had blown through, both sets of curtained doors flew wide open.

"Cool!" Mai grinned.

She led the way inside, to a dark, empty lobby. No obstructing woman to stop her this time.

There was a desk in the lobby she hadn't noticed before. The doors to the interior room were shut. Mai looked around, wondering what to do next, and her gaze naturally led her to the white staircase. "Okay, time to explore."

She climbed up the stairs to the second floor. And let out a soft gasp.

It was a library. The walls were covered in shelves holding countless books. Browsing them, Mai saw that they came in a great variety of languages, and as far as she could tell, they all had something to do with the paranormal.

"Wow…"

She sunk into a chair, gazing at the shelves around her. "I bet Naru would love it here…"

"Who's 'Naru'?"

The boy had followed her upstairs. He stood looking at her curiously now.

"Oh, just a friend of mine…"

"From Japan?"

"No, I met him here."

"In New York?"

She shook her head. "At the university I'm studying at."

"Is he the guy you were making out with?"

Her face flushed red in an instant. "S-so what if he is?!"

The boy tilted his head, eyebrows furrowed. "Why do you call him 'Naru'? Is that supposed to be a nickname or something?"

"Yeah…for 'narcissist'…" She buried her face in her hands, embarrassed. "I swear, it makes sense if you meet him."

"And you came here to help him?"

"Yeah. He sent them a letter, but they never replied."

"But why here?" The boy frowned.

"Well, they're supposed to be pretty legit, I guess. Their archives sure are impressive at least…" She took a look around again.

The boy seemed to have more he wanted to say, but he looked conflicted. At last, he sighed and changed the subject. "So you're studying abroad?"

"Just for the semester."

"What university?"

Mai opened her mouth to answer, but then paused. Something struck her as odd. Why was she being questioned like this? In a dream? By a dream person? If he was just part of her subconscious, shouldn't he already know the answers?

"Why do you want to know?"

His eyes widened slightly. "Just curious."

Mai stood up. "Who are you anyway? Let's get that out of the way first. I've already told you a lot about myself, but I don't even know anything about you. If we're going to be friends, shouldn't you return the favor?"

"M-me?"

"Have we met before? Did I see you somewhere, in real life? Or did I conjure you out of thin air?" She took a step forward.

He stepped back. "I-I don't…"

"Let's start with a name. Do you even have one?"

He ducked his head down, bangs covering his eyes. "Y-yeah…"

Maybe he didn't actually have the answer. If he was part of her subconscious, whatever he told her might just be something her mind made up. Even so, she wanted to know. "Then what is it?"

The boy chewed his lip. He glanced up at her warily. "My name…"

Mai? Hey, Mai!

"My name is…"

Mai, wake up!

Mai opened her eyes.

Katrina peered down at her from over the bunk. "Hey, doesn't your bus leave in like an hour?" She pointed at her wrist watch.

Mai's eyes flew wide open. "Oh, crap!"

After that, it was a mad rush to get changed, pack all of her things, scramble to the subway, and travel to the bus stop. It was basically a miracle that she made it in time, and by the time she was relaxing in her bus seat and about to nod off again, the dream was all but forgotten.

And so ended her New York trip.

Chapter Text

Chapter 17

 

March

Thursday

 

Mai clutched the paper bag to her chest and looked around. She was in Boston Public Garden in downtown Boston. Gene had suggested they meet up here, at something called "Make Way for Ducklings" near Charles Street. She found Charles Street easily enough, since it ran right between the Public Garden and Boston Common, but it took some wandering and asking around before she finally found the landmark: adorable little statues of ducklings and their mother duck, standing all in a row.

"Mai!" She saw Gene waving at her from a bench in front of the statues. Naru sat next to him, reading a book. She smiled and ran over.

"Hey! Sorry to make you wait."

Gene stood. "Nah, we just got here ourselves." He briefly looked her over. "You look nice today."

"Thanks!" she beamed.

She had agonized over what to wear all morning, finally settling on a red plaid skirt (one of the nicer pieces of clothing she owned), and a white sweater to go with it.

Mai turned to Naru, and stared. He looked the most casual she had ever seen him. Under his black coat, he wore just a plain black sweater and gray jeans.

She glanced at Gene, who wore blue jeans and his red parka as usual. Suddenly she felt a little overdressed.

Naru, meanwhile, barely acknowledged her with a glance, still focused on reading. She might have considered greeting him, maybe commenting that he looked nice in jeans, but she kept her mouth shut. No need to feed his ego if he wasn't willing to return the favor, she thought with a huff.

Gene looked back and forth between them, then offered awkwardly, "So, now that we're all here, want to get going?"

"Sure, Gene. Lead the way!"

They exited the park and set off down Charles Street, where Gene had told her he had a cafe in mind. The city had more of an old European atmosphere here, Mai observed, with red brick sidewalks and buildings, the street lined with charming storefronts.

She glanced back at Naru, who tagged along in silence a few steps behind them, nose still stuck in his book.

It figured he had to bring a book. Of course he wasn't actually interested in hanging out with her. If it weren't for Gene, he probably wouldn't even be here. She could see it now. He was just going to ignore her all day…

After a while, Gene leaned over to whisper in her ear.

"Something wrong?"

"Nothing," she muttered. "Just reminded that he doesn't actually want to be here, that's all. No big deal."

He sighed. "Don't let it bother you, Mai. If he really didn't want to come, he wouldn't have."

"Uh-huh…"

"Trust me, he might piss and moan, but he'll still go along with most things if you give him a push."

"I heard that," Naru said, and Mai nearly jumped out of her skin.

Gene stopped to look back at him. "Noll, if you've got any complaints, why don't you say hi to Mai first? You hurt her feelings."

Oh no. This was embarrassing.

Naru sighed. "I didn't think it was necessary."

"A little common courtesy doesn't hurt, Noll."

"Gene, it's fine! Really. Let's just drop this, okay?" Mai pleaded.

Naru sighed again. "I didn't intend to hurt you."

"Yeah. I know." She looked away. "Just forget it. Let's go."

They continued on.

 


 

Oliver was incredulous. Had he really upset her without even doing anything? The whole thing seemed ridiculous to him. Greetings were just superfluous chatter, and it wasn't as if this was the first time he'd forgone one. She ought to be used to it by now.

What a pain. This was exactly why he didn't bother with people. And yes, there were things he would much rather be doing with his free time than loitering in the city. He didn't know why they insisted on him coming along; surely they would have a much better time together without him as a third wheel.

He looked up from his book to watch them walking ahead for a moment. Then his gaze drifted back down— but before he could refocus on reading, he was distracted, eyes drawn to a patch of bare skin.

That's when he realized. Mai was wearing a skirt.

Oliver furrowed his eyebrows. He could have sworn that up to now, she'd worn more sensible clothing like jeans or leggings. Was this the first time?

Her legs looked cold. The skirt came to just above her knees, and she wore knee high socks, but that still left some bare skin in between. What had gotten into her head to think that was a good idea? It was still cold outside. Her sweater looked warm enough, so it wasn't as if she had completely misread the weather. It made no sense.

Fortunately, they soon reached their destination, a small Italian cafe which Oliver remembered having modestly priced fare from the time he and Gene had visited before.

They entered and chose a table next to the window. He and Gene sat on one side, with Mai on the other, across from Gene. Once they'd settled in, a waitress came to take their drink orders.

Oliver shivered. Though they were inside, the chill still had not left him. He longed for something warm to drink, and so when the waitress looked at him, he said it without thinking:

"Hot tea."

Gene looked at him in surprise. "Since when did you start drinking tea?"

Oliver realized his mistake, but too late. When he looked over at Mai, he saw a wide grin on her face. He wasn't sure he liked that expression.

Mai turned to the waitress. "I'll have hot tea too, please."

Gene looked lost. "Well, don't leave me out! I'll have tea too."

Once the waitress had left, Mai rested her head on her hands, continuing to grin at him from across the table. "Why, Naru…I had no idea you were such a fan of tea."

No, he definitely did not like that expression. "I don't see how ordering it once makes me a 'fan.'"

Actually, he had had it more than once in the past weeks. In fact, it had become a daily ritual for him to drink a mug of tea in the break room in the mornings before he started work.

"See, this is why it's good to try new things!" she hummed, undeterred.

"It's just a beverage. It's not that big of a deal."

She turned to Gene. "You should've seen his face when I first made him tea. He looked like he thought I was going to poison him."

"Huh. Well, we'd never really tried it before," Gene admitted. "Besides sweet tea, anyway." He glanced at Oliver. "But now this is starting to make more sense…"

Oliver huffed and opened his book. He'd had about enough of this.

A few minutes later, pots of hot water, tea cups, and a selection of tea bags were brought to their table.

Oliver closed his book momentarily to sort through the tea bags, finally selecting earl gray.

"Naru, is that all you've had? You should try something else," Mai said, looking at the other options.

"I have. This is fine."

"Oh, really? Which ones?"

"All the ones at the library."

She smirked. "Okay, I guess that is a good selection. But have you tried chai? Chamomile is good too."

"I'm not in the mood."

Meanwhile, Gene stared at the tea bags, at a loss. "Which one are you having, Mai?"

"I guess Masala Chai. I'm in the mood for something spicy."

"What do you recommend?"

"Umm, if you're a beginner, maybe English Breakfast? Though if Naru likes earl gray, maybe you will too."

"I dunno. We have pretty different tastes, actually." Gene took out a few different tea bags and sniffed them. "I guess I'll go with English Breakfast."

They poured hot water over their tea bags and waited.

"You drink tea often in Japan?" Gene asked Mai.

"My mother used to make it at home, though mostly green and barley tea. And I worked part time at a cafe, so there's that."

"Oh, so you're a pro, then?" he smirked. "I applied to work at a Starbucks once. But I didn't have the right experience."

"Well, that's clearly their loss."

"I know, right? I would've made a great barista!"

"I doubt it," Oliver muttered. "You're too clumsy. I wouldn't trust you to prepare anything."

"Hey! I'll have you know, charm makes up for a lot of things. When I spill stuff at my job now, people think it's endearing."

Mai giggled while fishing out her tea bag. Oliver and Gene followed suit.

Gene sipped his tea. "Huh. Interesting. Kinda bitter, though."

"You can add cream and sugar, that might soften the taste."

"I'll try that. First, though…" He grabbed Oliver's cup. "I want to compare."

Oliver glared at him. "You could ask first." He hadn't even taken a sip himself yet.

"But then you'll just say no." Gene took a sip. "Whoa! This one smells funny."

"It takes a bit of getting used to," Mai agreed.

Oliver retrieved his cup. Yes, it took some getting used to at first. But afterwards, it became strangely addicting. And he'd been without for close to a week. Perhaps this outing wasn't such a bad idea after all.

The waitress came back shortly to take their orders.

Gene looked at him. "Noll, the usual?"

I don't care, Oliver replied, sipping tea contentedly. He hadn't even bothered to open the menu.

Gene ordered for both of them.

When Mai had made her selection and the waitress left, Gene turned to Mai.

"So what have you been up to lately?"

"Well, I went into Boston yesterday. Walked along that harbor I kept hearing about. Tomorrow I think I might check out the Freedom Trail. Oh, and did I tell you I went to New York over the weekend?"

"Wow, really? How was it?"

Oliver blinked. She hadn't told Gene about New York. Then had he not gotten any of those obnoxious pictures…?

"It was great! Well…mostly."

Oliver glanced up and noticed her eyes on him. She quickly looked away.

He narrowed his eyes. Suspicious.

"Oh yeah," Mai said, quickly changing the subject. "I got you guys something!" She opened the paper bag she had been carrying.

"Ooh, souvenirs?" Gene clapped his hands excitedly.

"Yup! I want Naru to open his first though." She pulled out a smaller paper bag and set it on the table in front of him. The smug grin was back on her face.

Oliver sighed. "I said I didn't want anything."

"Yeah, and I ignored you. Open it!"

She really wasn't subtle at all. He could already tell he was going to hate it. But Oliver let out another sigh and reached his hand into the bag. His fingers met the feel of rubbery plastic. Frowning, he pulled it out.

His eyes were immediately assaulted by bright pink. Blinking, he next registered the open-mouthed, vacant expression painted on the object's face. It was a rubber duck. A bright pink rubber duck wearing the Statue of Liberty crown. And as if that wasn't bad enough, its rump was emblazoned with the stars and stripes of the American flag. He cringed.

Mai burst out laughing, Gene following soon after.

"Oh, my god—" Gene gasped. "That is amazing! Where did you find that?!"

"A souvenir shop! As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to get it! Isn't it perfect?!"

"I suppose there's no accounting for taste," Oliver sighed, putting the offending item on the table. "I can't believe you would waste money on something so idiotic."

"Aw, don't say that, Noll!" Gene managed between laugher. "I'm sure she chose it very carefully— with love—"

They doubled over, laughing even harder.

"I don't even care!" Mai finally grinned, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes. "It was worth it just for the look on your face!" She turned to rummage in her paper bag, pulling out another small bag. "Gene, here's yours!"

"Awesome! I get one too?" Sure enough, it was an identical rubber duck. He broke out in chuckles again. "I can't— I can't get over the look on its face—"

"Right?! There were yellow and orange ones too, but I think the pink one's the best."

"No, I agree! This is great! Thanks!" Gene placed his rubber duck on the table next to Oliver's and gave it a squeeze, making it squeak. "Look, Noll! We're twins!"

The two of them doubled over again, pounding the table and clutching their stomachs.

Oliver sighed, the only one at the table not seemingly losing his mind over a toy. "I'm surrounded by children."

 


 

After that, Mai told Gene about her trip to New York, showing him pictures on her phone. Naru went back to reading while sipping tea. Even after their food arrived, he continued reading, holding his book in one hand and his sandwich in the other. This struck her as rude, but she decided to let him off the hook this time, considering all the teasing she'd just subjected him to. And he'd already seen some of the pictures.

"But it was such a pain looking for good gifts, you know?" Mai groaned. "In Japan we have these nice boxes of individually wrapped snacks you can give out to people. In New York, it was just stuff like mugs and snow globes and bobble-head toys. What's up with that?"

Gene laughed. "Sounds tough. So what did you end up getting?"

"Keychains and magnets. Not very exciting, I know, but it had to be small and cheap…"

"Well, I'm sure your friends would appreciate the thought."

She and Gene had finished their sandwiches by now, but Naru, who ate more slowly, still had half a sandwich left over. But instead of finishing it, he just wordlessly pushed his plate over to Gene. Gene automatically picked up the remaining half sandwich and began eating it.

"Uh…" Mai glanced at Naru. "Is that all you're having?"

"Oh, don't worry," Gene said. "Noll doesn't usually eat much. You're done, right?" he asked Naru.

He didn't answer.

"See?" Gene said, as if he'd proven his point.

Mai felt embarrassed to realize that this meant that even she had eaten more than Naru. Shouldn't the guy have the larger appetite?

Though, Gene had eaten plenty, she observed, as he swiftly finished off the sandwich. Mai frowned. "So let me get this straight. You eat a lot, and Naru eats a little. But you still have the same body type?"

Gene chuckled. "Pretty much. I just don't get fat. Lucky, huh?"

More like totally unfair, Mai groaned mentally. "But still, even if you're twins. It doesn't seem to add up. Where's the difference?"

Gene leaned forward on his elbow. "You really want to know?" he asked conspiratorially.

"Uh, sure."

"The difference is in stamina," Gene said with a naughty wink.

An incoherent sound left her throat.

"I can keep going, and going, and going. Noll would probably pass out on his first try."

"You don't need to elaborate!" she squealed. She did not need these images in her brain, good lord!

"Just ignore his crude comments," Naru cut in.

Mai jumped. Had he been listening the whole time?! But glad for the interruption, she took the bait. "Why, Naru. Joining in on the conversation? I didn't even know you were listening."

"It's hard to ignore two idiots blabbing away at my side."

"Then what's the book for, hmm? I'm starting to think you only pretend to read so you can act like you don't care."

Gene whistled. "Well observed."

"Are you suggesting I'm unable to pay attention to two things at once?"

"No, but you can't fully concentrate on either if your attention is divided, can you? Maybe you should decide whether you actually want to participate in the conversation or not."

"Perhaps for you that is the case, but my brain works differently than yours."

She leaned forward and hissed. "Oh, is that so? Then maybe you can give a detailed summary of the page you were just reading?"

Naru looked up, snapped his book closed, and began reciting, seemingly verbatim, the entire contents of the page.

A minute in, Mai threw her hands up in defeat. "Okay, okay, I get it! You have a freakish memory and multitasking ability!"

"A lesson well learned," he said, opening his book again.

Despite his annoying arrogance, this successfully changed the subject of the conversation, to Mai's relief. But a little later, while Gene went to the restroom, Naru spoke to her again.

"I apologize on my brother's behalf. He has a tendency to be inappropriate at times."

His face was turned away as he said it. He looked uncomfortable.

Wow. She hadn't expected that. And it was kind of nice knowing Naru was actually capable of being embarrassed.

Mai scratched her cheek. "Yeah, I see what you mean…does he tease you like that a lot?"

He just grunted.

She giggled. "Have you thought of defending yourself?"

"I have no reason to take him seriously."

"Oh, so you don't think you'd pass out?"

He did a double take.

"Is that any of your business?" he deadpanned.

Mai felt herself turning red. "…No, guess not." Why did she ask that? Why?!

Naru heaved an exasperated sigh. "Don't let him rub off on you."

"Who's been rubbing off?" Gene asked, returning.

Mai let out a squeak. Naru groaned.

 


 

Gene tapped his fingers on the table as they waited for the check. He looked at his two companions. At the moment, Mai had her gaze carefully averted, blushing cutely. Noll was back to reading as if nothing had happened, but Gene knew they had been talking about something while he was gone.

What's got Mai so flustered? he finally asked, unable to contain his curiosity.

You, obviously, Noll shot back with a flash of annoyance. His empty cup spun in its saucer.

Gene quickly grabbed the cup and held it in his hands. Me?

Crap, maybe he did go a little overboard with the teasing.

He bit his lip. He was used to hanging out with girls. And he was used to hanging out with Noll. But as he was beginning to realize, this situation differed from both.

Of course, Gene wasn't stupid. He could see that Noll was the one Mai really wanted to see today, and he was only there to facilitate that. He had already suspected it beforehand, but now actually seeing them interact for an extended period, it was obvious. And after the debacle that was Valentine's Day, it was probably the least that he could do.

He wouldn't do it for just any girl, of course. For one thing, Gene had been looking forward to hanging out with Mai himself, and after working nearly nonstop the whole week, he needed a break. And Noll hadn't seemed overly opposed to the idea once he was given the excuse that Mai would be paying for their lunches.

Actually, he had dreamed of having an outing like this someday. Only in his head, it had always been one of his girlfriends as the third person in the trio, presuming he ever found someone Noll could stand having as a sister-figure. Who would have thought it would be Noll who found someone to fill that role?

Frankly, it was bittersweet. He'd gotten too used to being the only person of importance in his brother's life. And he had doubts that their relationship would make any significant strides before Mai had to leave for Japan. This was Noll, after all. He wondered if they would ever find someone like her again…

Gene caught Mai's eye finally as they received the check. "Hey, how about I pay for the tip?"

"What? No, Gene, we had a deal."

"Paying for three people is a lot though. We can split the tip, at least?"

"But I'm the one who wanted to meet up today. It's the least I could do."

"Nonsense. I should be thanking you for helping me drag my brother out today."

"I didn't do anything! You're the one who—"

Noll groaned. "We split the tip three ways. No one is allowed to complain."

That shut them up. But Gene spotted a small smile on Mai's face as they all pulled out their wallets. So easily pleased.

As they left the cafe, he and Mai discussed what to do next, and they settled on taking a proper walk through Boston Public Garden. As Noll trailed behind them again, Gene and Mai looked at the various statues scattered throughout the park and little labels listing the names of the different trees. Unfortunately, the Public Garden at this time of year looked pretty lackluster. Nothing was in bloom and the trees were bare. There was even snow still left on the ground.

"I bet this place looks beautiful in the summer," Mai sighed.

"Yeah, it's too bad. Once the flowers are in bloom and the Swan Boats come out, it's really nice."

"Sounds like a good date spot."

"Oh, you bet," he smirked.

Mai rolled her eyes. "Hopefully I'll have time to visit again before I leave for Japan…"

"You should! It's totally worth it."

They stood looking out over the Lagoon, the branches of the weeping willow next to them trailing the water. Some ducks quacked and splashed nearby.

Mai sighed again.

Gene looked at her, noticing she looked kind of down suddenly. Did something in their conversation depress her?

They continued walking, this time in silence. Gene mused over what he could do to liven things up. But he had to admit, he was at a loss here.

If this were a proper date, he'd know what to do. There would be more touching and flirting, for one thing. But he kept having to hold back, reminding himself that Noll was just a few steps behind. And that's not what Mai was looking for from him, anyway.

The idea came to him when they spotted a one man band. An old man playing music on a variety of instruments at once, using mechanical contraptions tied to his limbs. He had a can at his feet, filled with cash.

Mai brightened at the sight, and they watched from a short distance. "That's pretty impressive," she said.

Inspiration struck him like a thunderbolt. "…Hey Mai, I told you before that we used to busk, right?"

From the corner of his eye, he saw Noll look up from his book.

"Yeah? You said you used to do magic tricks?"

Gene grinned. "Want a demonstration?"

Her eyes widened. "Really?! Wait, you mean right now?!"

"Why not? We have the time."

"You can't be serious," Noll said.

"Mai already paid for our lunch today. I think we owe her a show."

"That wasn't part of the deal." If you want to show off, you can leave me out of it.

Okay, so maybe he did want to show off. But was that really a bad thing? Come on, it'll make you look good too!

Do you think I care?

Gene turned to Mai. "You want to see some 'magic,' right?"

She smiled. "It does sound cool…but I don't want to inconvenience you or anything…"

Look, she totally wants to see it!

"Okay, first thing's first! We'll need to buy some costumes!"

"No," Noll said firmly. "We can't afford to waste money on something like that."

"We just have to make back what we spend. Shouldn't be a problem, right? Tourists are out and about. Or do you think you can't manage that?" Gene stuck out his tongue.

Noll frowned.

"Are costumes really necessary?" Mai asked.

"If we want to get attention, yeah!"

"Uh, I think you two draw plenty of attention on your own…" Mai glanced over at a group of girls who were goggling at him and Noll.

Maybe she had a point there. "Well, also as an extra precaution. This one time we were busking in Chicago, someone took a video of us and put it online. That…was pretty bad."

Necessitating they move all the way to California, levels of bad.

"Oh. So you don't want to be recognized?"

"That's the idea."

"Maybe you just shouldn't do it, then," she mumbled.

Noll sent him a smug look. Damn logic!

"Nah, it'll be fine! As long as we're careful!" He gave her a wink. "You'll keep an eye out for paparazzi, won't you?"

"Sure, but—"

"Then it's settled! We're holding a show!"

"Gene," Noll started.

How about this: I'll give you my share of the profit, and we can go to the bookstore later. Deal?

Noll glowered. You think you can bribe me? But Gene could already sense his resistance weakening.

That's the idea.

Noll sighed. That was as good as a 'yes' for him.

"Then off to the store! Oh, but first…"

Gene went over to the old man and slipped a few dollars into the can in silent apology. He was going to have some competition today.

Chapter Text

Chapter 18

 

As Gene led them out of Boston Public Garden and into Boston Common, Mai hung back to walk with Naru.

"Hey, are you really okay with this?" she whispered to him. "You'll be using PK, right?"

"If it's with Gene, there should be no problem."

"Oh, really?"

He sighed. "Sometimes it's best just to let these silly ideas of his play out, or you'll never hear the end of it."

"Huh." She was starting to get the feeling Gene usually got what he wanted. At this point she couldn't tell who spoiled the other more.

But she had to admit, this was exciting. She couldn't even imagine Naru dressed in costume and performing magic tricks, so it was hard to believe that she was going to get to see it in person today.

She wished Gene would slow down though. She hadn't gotten to see much of Boston Common yet either. Right now, Gene strode purposefully forward, focused only on his goal. What was the big rush?

As they cut across the park, she saw a dome-like structure supported by columns in the distance.

"Ooh, what's that?" she asked.

Naru looked where she was pointing. "Parkman Bandstand."

"Bandstand? So people perform music there?"

"That's what one would assume."

"Right." She rolled her eyes.

She looked around some more. Though it was chilly, quite a few people were out and about. Because it was Spring Break, probably.

Mai spotted a strange woman up ahead. "Wow, do people dress up in period clothes here too?" Maybe she was putting on a costume play, that would be fun.

"What?"

"See that woman over there, in an old-fashioned dress?" She pointed.

Naru squinted. "Where?"

Suddenly a hand clamped down on her shoulder, making her jump. Mai looked back to see Gene standing behind them, his other hand on Naru's shoulder.

"Gene?"

"Detour, detour~" he said, steering them in a different direction.

"Why? What's wrong?"

"Just don't feel like going over there," he said with a thin smile. "Let's go this way, it's a lot nicer."

She looked to Naru, but he just shrugged.

Maybe it was best not to question it…but she wondered, with a shiver, if there was a reason Gene was hurrying through this place.

They crossed over the grass to another path, and from there, walked to the edge of the park. Then they crossed the street and walked along a few businesses until they came to a small costume shop.

Inside, they wandered down a few aisles full of costumes and costume-making materials until Gene found a rack holding a variety of masks.

"Here we are," he said, browsing the masks. "Noll, which one do you want?"

Naru stood back with his arms crossed, refusing to participate. "I don't care. You pick something."

Gene gave him a sly look. "Are you sure about that? I might just pick something you don't like~"

He grabbed several ridiculous looking masks. "Look, I'll even model them for you!" He put on a serious expression and turned to Mai, holding each mask up to his face in turn.

In no time, she was bowled over with laughter.

"And how about this one?" Gene asked, dead serious with Groucho glasses on. "Does it make me look handsome?"

"Gene, stop, I can't breathe—" Mai gasped helplessly.

Naru scowled. He walked over to the rack and browsed, finally choosing a plain white opera mask that covered the upper half of the face.

"Boo, boring!" Gene said. "Why not something with more color?"

"It's your job to stand out, not mine." Naru held the mask up to his face and turned to Mai. And waited.

Mai blinked. Was he asking for her opinion? She raised her eyebrows questioningly.

But he didn't say anything. Just looked at her and waited.

She tilted her head, considering how it looked. The mask gave him sort of a Phantom of the Opera vibe. Pretty fitting for the so-called 'Ghost of Giffords Library.'

Mai grinned. "It suits you."

He blinked. Then without a word, he lowered the mask and headed for the register.

"Hold up! I haven't chosen mine yet!" Gene called after him.

"Buy your own mask," Naru said, pulling out his wallet.

Gene clicked his tongue. "Mai, could you make sure he doesn't run off while I get my stuff?" He put the masks back and began searching in earnest.

"Oh, sure…"

She went to lean against the register counter with Naru as they waited for Gene. But eventually she got bored and wandered off down an aisle, where she found some hats. She picked a fancy wide-brimmed feather hat for herself, and brought back a black bowler hat to plop on Naru's head.

Since he didn't complain, she went and found a pair of round Nerd Glasses next, and slipped them onto his face.

This time he sighed.

She giggled and went off again. She found a pink feather boa to wrap around her neck, and got a black one for Naru, but he was too tall for her to maneuver it around his neck without some cooperation.

"No," he said.

"Come on! Just lean forward a little!"

"No."

"Having fun?" Gene snickered, finally coming up to the register.

Naru took off the glasses and handed them back to her. Pouting, Mai retrieved the bowler hat too, and went to put everything back.

After Gene made his purchase, they left the store and walked down the street again.

"Sorry I kept you waiting," Gene said.

Mai shook her head. "It's fine. What were you looking for?"

"Well, I was thinking back to all our old routines, and I thought I might buy some props. But some of them were expensive, so I had to pick and choose…"

They stopped at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change.

Suddenly, Mai felt something brush against her back, and noticed Naru's hand reaching behind her. "Wh-what are you doing?"

He held up a pink feather, from the feather boa earlier.

"Ah…"

Gene chuckled. "You have some in your hair too."

"Really?"

The two of them proceeded to pick more feathers from her hair and clothes. Mai blushed, feeling like a monkey being groomed. They were right at a busy intersection too, so there were onlookers.

"Thanks," she said, when they were done. "Jeez, and I was only wearing that thing for a couple minutes…"

Gene laughed. The light changed and they began to cross the street. Mai glanced at Naru walking beside her, just in time to see his slightly upturned lips.

Her heart skipped a beat. Dazed, for a moment she stopped walking right in the middle of the crosswalk.

"Mai?" Naru turned back to look at her. He was no longer smiling.

Maybe she had imagined it. Mai shook her head hard and hurried to catch up.

 


 

When they made it back to Boston Public Garden, Gene led them around some more as he searched for a suitable spot. At last, he chose a corner next to a tree and they began to set up.

Naru put on his mask at once. Gene set down his plastic shopping bag and pulled out his own mask. It had purple sequins on it, with peacock feathers sticking out of the top.

Mai giggled when she saw it. "Gene, oh my god…"

He put on the mask. Next he pulled out a glittery black cape and a magic wand.

"Here, could you hold onto this for me?" Gene took off his parka, stuffed it in the plastic bag, and handed it to her.

"But won't you be cold?" He only wore a thin long-sleeve shirt underneath.

"Nah, I'll be fine." He threw on the cape.

Naru handed her his book.

"Oh, this too?"

"Don't drop it," he warned.

She rolled her eyes. "Yes, sir." She put the book in the plastic bag with Gene's parka.

"Here, I'll take that." Gene took her paper bag holding the souvenirs. He emptied it, flattened it, and laid it on the ground in front of them, then placed the two rubber ducks on top.

By now, people were taking notice of them, and a small crowd had gathered, wondering what was about to begin. Mai quickly distanced herself from their 'stage' area, blending into the audience. Gene turned to Naru. They stared at each other for a moment; she guessed that they were communicating telepathically.

Finally, the twins nodded to each other, and Gene turned to face the audience. He took a deep breath.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" he announced, lowering the pitch of his voice and putting on a mock accent. "Thank you for joining me on this lovely afternoon. I am Rufus the Magnificent, and I have journeyed here today from deep in the forests of Bostonia to captivate you with magic!" He flourished his arms dramatically.

"But first, I must ask all of you to refrain from photography or taking video of what you are about to witness. According to tradition, these secrets must only be seen in person. Can everyone promise me that?"

Half the people in the audience nodded or muttered, "Sure."

"Wonderful! Now that we've gotten that out of the way, allow me to introduce my silent assistant, Gregor—" he gestured to Naru, who gave the audience a short bow.

"And my two familiars, Eugenia and Olive." He gestured to the rubber ducks.

Mai was already struggling to contain her laughter. She heard some chuckles from the audience too, and a little girl beside her pointed out, "Those are rubber duckies!"

"Very well observed, my dear! But you see, these aren't ordinary rubber ducks. They are imbued with life and magic!"

The audience laughed again.

"Don't believe me? Then allow me to show you! Fly, my pretties!"

And the rubber ducks levitated. The audience gasped loudly as they soared above their heads, over the tree tops, then glided gracefully back to their spot on the paper bag.

After the initial shock had passed, the crowd applauded appreciatively.

"Whoa, how did he do that?" Mai heard someone murmur.

"Wires. It's gotta be wires."

Hearing the commotion, even more people began to gather. Before long, the crowd had doubled in size.

Gene took a bow. "Thank you, thank you. Now as you may have noticed, my brand of magic is rather different from the usual tricks and slight of hand you are used to seeing. You see, this magic is a secret tradition passed down many generations in my home country of Bostonia. I myself inherited it from my old master, the great sorcerer Blarfagus."

Laughter.

"But magic is not the only thing I have inherited! When a great sorcerer passes down his teachings, he also passes down his shadow, to act as a guide. The student must always have this shadow with him, lest he betray the old traditions. Can anyone guess where the shadow is now?"

Someone shouted. "The assistant!"

Gene gave a hearty laugh. "Oh, no no, I'm afraid not! Gregor is a regular human, just like you and me! Guess again!"

"The cape?" someone else suggested.

"Aha!" Gene pointed at them, then gave his cape a twirl. "Yes, this is indeed my master's shadow! And— oh, oh dear—" The cape unwound itself from his neck and went to float in the air beside him as if it had a mind of its own. "Ah, master! This is not the time!" Gene cried in exasperation.

He turned to the audience. "You see, my friends, one thing my master always loved to do was to dance with pretty ladies. Alas, that does not change even when it comes to his shadow! I am afraid he will not cooperate until he has had at least one dance. Will any lady like to volunteer?"

The crowd tittered. Two or three hands went up. The cape seemed to waver between them, before floating away, finally stopping in front of Mai.

"Ah, it seems he has chosen you!" Gene grinned mischievously.

Mai's jaw dropped. "Uh…b-but I…"

"Come, don't be shy!" Gene ushered her to join him in front of the audience.

Hesitating, Mai put the plastic bag down and stepped up. Jeez, she wasn't prepared for this! And wasn't it a little too obvious that she was their friend? She spared a quick glance toward Naru. Was that a smirk on his lips…?

But she didn't have time to look longer, because everyone's eyes were now on her and the cape. As they faced each other, the top of the cape dipped down in a bow. Mustering her courage, Mai grasped the edge of her skirt and did a small curtsy.

Someone in the crowd whistled. Oh, this was so embarrassing.

"I-I-I don't know how to dance…" she stammered.

"No worries, my lady! Despite my master's love of dancing, he never learned how to dance either!"

Laughter.

"What am I supposed to do?!" she said in a panicked whisper. How did one dance with a disembodied cape?

"Just follow his lead," Gene whispered back.

The cape began to float in a slow circle around her. She hurried to follow. Gene started clapping, establishing a rhythm, and the audience joined in. The 'dance' amounted to Mai spinning awkwardly in a circle with the cape, as people laughed and cheered.

Then she felt something prod her in the back. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Gene's wand levitating in the air.

"Oh no! It seems my master's old wand has gotten jealous! No, no, stop this! You must not fight!"

The cape and the wand were now engaged in a scuffle.

"Run, pretty lady! Gregor and I will put a stop to this!"

Mai escaped back into the audience as the twins grabbed the wand and cape, pretending to drag them apart.

She breathed a sigh of relief. Thank god that was over. She would much rather stay a spectator.

Thankfully, they picked other members of the audience for their next round of volunteers, and Mai was soon enjoying herself again. The act was more than just a spectacle; it incorporated humor and storytelling too, making it entertaining in more ways than one. Mai found herself deeply impressed.

Of course, it made sense that they were good at it. They had done it just to survive once; they had to be. But, though it might have just been part of the act, she thought they looked like they were actually having fun. She hoped they were.

"Now, some of you may be wondering," Gene went on, after returning the volunteers, "'Rufus, if you have such amazing powers, what are you doing entertaining tourists in a park?' Very good question, my friends! You see, my poor assistant Gregor has a very serious condition—"

Naru made a show of coughing.

"—and alas, my master's teachings forbid me from using magic for material gain! So if any of you fine people would be interested in making a charitable donation—"

The rubber ducks levitated off the ground, allowing the paper bag to open by itself. The ducks then appeared to carry the bag toward the audience.

"—it would be very appreciated!"

At once, people rushed around the bag to deposit money. Most of them seemed to do it just for an excuse to get a closer look at the floating ducks, looking for wires and speculating on how it was possible. This part was particularly risky and Mai watched nervously from afar. But people seemed to take things in stride even if they could not figure out the trick. Some left still scratching their heads

"Huh. You think that really was magic?"

"Yeah, right. There's no such thing."

As some people left, more joined the crowd, and so the twins started another round, quickly reintroducing themselves for the new audience members before continuing where they left off in the story. This went on for another half hour before Mai finally noticed one woman in the audience.

She stood a few steps away with her phone out, aimed at the twins. As she wasn't in the front row, they might not have noticed her themselves yet.

Mai bit her lip. Gene had asked her to keep an eye out, but he hadn't specified what to do if she did catch someone filming them. Should she tell the woman off? Or should she let the twins know after the show was over? No, there was no telling when the woman might leave, taking the evidence with her. They ought to act quickly.

She gave a small wave, hoping to catch Naru's eye. His face turned toward her slightly. She pointed to her side. She saw him follow the direction of her finger and frown.

SNAP! In the next moment, the woman's smartphone erupted in a shower of sparks. She shrieked and dropped it on the ground. The crowd made a wide berth around her, raising voices in surprise and alarm. A man came forward to stomp out the flames.

"Damn lithium-ion batteries!"

Mai's jaw dropped, and she turned back to Naru, eyes wide. Wow! Was that really necessary?!

He looked away.

Obviously, this was enough of a disturbance to ground the show to an abrupt halt. Gene faltered for a moment, before exclaiming, "Ah, bad luck, miss! This is why my master told me never to trust technology!"

Some scattered, hesitant laughter.

He grabbed their bag of money and withdrew a handful of cash. "Please accept this as my condolences!" He offered the money to the shell-shocked woman, who accepted it with a mumbled thanks.

Next, Gene turned to Naru and made some silent gestures, clearly displeased. Naru remained looking away.

Meanwhile, Mai sprung into action. She took out a handkerchief from her purse and used it to pick up the blackened husk of a phone. Folding it carefully in the fabric, she then handed it back to the woman. "Here, miss. Will you be okay? Do you need to call somebody? You can use my phone, if you'd like."

"No…no, I'll be alright. Thank you…" The woman walked away dejectedly.

In all, this incident cost them most of their audience, people wandering away in droves. Some still lingered, hoping the show would continue, but Gene's heart no longer seemed to be in it, and it definitely seemed unwise to keep going at this point. Gene announced that the show was over, and they began gathering their things.

The crowd dispersed, with the exception of a few people who remained to talk to Gene.

"You know, I've never seen anything like that before. I've gotta admit, I'm impressed."

"Yeah, you were amazing! How did you do it?"

Gene smiled placatingly. "Well, a magician never reveals his tricks."

"Do you do these shows regularly?"

"Got a website? I want to tell my friends about it."

"No, I'm afraid it's just a hobby…"

Seeing this, Naru grabbed the paper bag and strode over to Mai. "Let's go," he muttered.

"Huh? What about Gene?"

"He says he'll catch up to us."

Mai looked back at Gene one more time before following after him.

Naru led her out of the park, taking his mask off on the way. They walked along the street headed toward Boston Common in tense silence.

"…That poor woman, though," Mai said at last. "She didn't deserve that."

"She should not have been filming us."

"But she might not have heard the warning. People kept coming and going the whole time. You guys should've given her all the money."

"That would have made it obvious that we considered it our fault."

"That's…okay, that's true. But really, Naru? You didn't have to go that far! You could have hurt her!"

"I've already heard enough from Gene. I get it," he grumbled.

"But couldn't you have just—"

"It was an impulse," he snapped. "I did not plan it."

She shut her mouth. "…Oh. So you're saying it was an accident?"

"Believe what you want."

Mai stared at his stiff posture. She was reminded of what Gene had told her before, that it was easy to doubt Naru's motives. There was no proof that he hadn't meant to do it. She could only take his word for it.

If he was innocent though, it wasn't very fair of them to blame him for it either. He hadn't wanted to be put in that position in the first place. And now he was on edge again.

"Well…no one got hurt, and the show was a success otherwise. Let's just forget about it, okay?"

He didn't answer.

Mai sighed. And things had been going so wonderfully up to now. "It was really fun, you know? I'm glad I got to see it. I never imagined you could be so…"

Playful. She'd glimpsed that side of him before, but not like this. Because even if Gene was the one who came up with everything, Naru was the one who put it into action. And the result had been something right out of a kids' movie.

She smiled. "It was kind of cute, actually…"

Naru suddenly stopped, causing Mai to nearly collide with him. He turned and gave her a look of disbelief.

Mai paled. Did she really just say that out loud?! "M-maybe that's not the right word…"

"I would think not," Naru said, still looking at her as if he doubted her sanity.

Her mind was in free fall, searching desperately for a way to recover.

"Yeah, I-I mean, you're not 'cute' at all! More like rude and arrogant! Hahaha…"

Now he was frowning at her. "Better than being obnoxious and simple-minded."

"What?!" she spluttered. "I…I am not obnoxious and simple-minded!"

"I didn't say that you were." And now a cocky little smirk had worked itself onto his face. "I simply stated that being rude and arrogant was preferable to those traits, and you immediately assumed that must refer to yourself. It seems you are more self-aware than I thought."

Why did she like this guy again? "Well gee, thanks for proving me right, Naru. How about we add 'tactless' and 'condescending' to the list?"

"Considering those are just synonyms of the two previous items, perhaps we should add 'uncreative' to yours?"

"Gah!" She shoved his back. "Just keep walking! We don't want to keep Gene waiting!"

"I will accept that as you conceding defeat."

"Oh, shut up."

They continued walking, but Mai's heart was still beating like crazy. That had been way too close. And though she was relieved they'd narrowly avoided the subject, a part of her felt disappointed too…

She needed to be more careful. At this rate, she really might just blurt it out someday.

 


 

The two of them finally settled on a bench near the Parkman Bandstand. As soon as they'd sat down, Naru began sorting and counting all the money they had earned.

"Wow, you guys made a lot," Mai said, watching him. Even considering they had to give some away.

"Of course."

"Something I can do to help?"

"Find the receipts."

She dug out the shopping receipts from the costume shop and read out the total prices. Naru pocketed the amount corresponding to his own purchase.

"You also owe me a new handkerchief, by the way," Mai told him.

Naru sighed and handed her five dollars. It had been a cheap handkerchief, so that just about covered it, but boy, was he stingy.

By then, Gene finally caught up to them, slightly out of breath and with his costume bundled under his arm.

"Phew, I finally shook them off! How's it going?"

Naru handed Gene his share of the money. "I'm keeping the profit."

"Yeah, yeah." Gene set down his costume to put the money away.

Mai stared at him. "Gene, you look really cold."

He shivered. "Yeah, the adrenaline's starting to wear off, haha."

"That's not something to laugh about! What if you catch a cold?!" She quickly pulled out his parka and shoved it at him.

"Don't worry, Mai, I've been through w…" he paused to sneeze, "…worse."

"I knew you shouldn't have taken it off," she hissed. "And you even took the cape off too!"

"But I wanted to do the shadow dance bit! I had to!"

"I'd rather you not get sick just so you could embarrass me," Mai pouted.

"Oh, that was Noll's idea, actually."

Mai turned to glare at Naru.

He pretended not to notice. "There was nothing preventing you from wearing the cape on top of your parka, Gene."

"Are you kidding? That would've looked—" Gene paused to sneeze again, "—awful!"

"So it was vanity."

"It was showmanship! You have to suffer for your art, you know!"

Naru rolled his eyes.

Mai sighed. "Just put your parka back on, please?"

Gene complied. Then he sneezed again.

She dug out a pocket tissue from her purse. "Here."

"Thanks," he said thickly, and blew his nose.

Naru stood up, looking impatient. "Let's go."

"Wait, where are we going next?" Mai asked.

"Bookstore." He set off. The two of them followed behind.

Gene turned to Mai. "But you enjoyed the show, right? I'm not gonna die for nothing?"

"Gene…" she groaned. "Yes, I enjoyed it. You were very creative."

"Just 'creative'? Not 'amazing' or 'awe-inspiring' or even 'hilarious'?"

"Maybe I'm getting used to your antics," she teased.

"Aw, come on! Noll gets a new book out of it! I just want praise!"

"You reap what you sow," Naru muttered.

"Would it kill you to be sympathetic?" Gene whined at him.

Naru ignored him.

With an overdramatic sob, Gene draped himself over Mai's shoulders. "Maaai, I'm dying and my brother doesn't caaare!"

"Eww, don't get your germs on me!" Mai laughed, pushing him off.

"You too? Alas, no one loves me!"

The bookstore was soon in sight. It, too, was just across from Boston Common, though on a different street than the costume shop. Following Naru's lead, they crossed the street and entered the small Barnes and Noble.

Immediately, Mai saw why Naru wanted to visit this particular store, as it seemed to be affiliated with a college. The front of the store was decked out in college apparel and school supplies. Without hesitation, Naru headed further into the store, leaving her and Gene to browse on their own.

Before long, Mai spotted a children's picture book on display titled "Make Way for Ducklings." Smiling, she skimmed through the story about a family of ducks traveling across Boston, finally making their home in Boston Public Garden.

"Oh, you found it," Gene said, coming to join her at the display.

She nodded. "Let me guess, those statues were based on this book?"

"Yup! Cute, huh?"

"Yeah, definitely." She closed the book and put it back.

Gene looked at her. "You know what, you should ask Noll to buy you a copy. It'd be a nice souvenir."

Mai blinked at him. "What? No, I couldn't."

"He might have money left over from the earnings. It's worth a try. Besides, you bought him a souvenir, so it would only be fair."

"I don't think that counts, Gene. And I don't want to pressure him into buying something for me if he doesn't want to…"

"Okay, then how about this." He handed her one of the paperback copies. "Hang around him with this in your arms and see if he gets in the mood. No pressure."

Mai wrinkled her nose. "Would he even notice though?"

Gene shrugged. "Like I said, it's worth a try."

She still felt doubtful, but clutched the book to her chest and went to search for Naru. It was a small store, so it didn't take long for her to spot him, flipping through a thick book.

"Hey," she said, sidling up next to him.

His attention remained on the book. Mai waited another minute before trying again.

"What are you looking at?"

"MAYBE HE'S READING PORN!" Gene shouted from across the store.

"What? No way!" Mai peered at the book in Naru's hand, but from all appearances, it was just a science textbook. Oh, right. This was a college bookstore. It was unlikely they sold porn here anyway.

Naru sighed and returned the book to its shelf. When their eyes met briefly, she flashed him a sheepish grin. He just gave her a blank look and moved on to the next shelf of books.

She continued following him around as he browsed, deciding to just stay silent and observe. He didn't question it; or, more likely, he just forgot she was there. But when he decided on a book, he headed for the register, and she went to stand in line behind him.

As the minutes passed, however, and Naru came closer to the front of the line, she grew increasingly uneasy. He probably hadn't even realized she was holding a book. Even if he did, surely he assumed she was going to pay for it. Maybe this was a lost cause.

Mai stepped out of line, ready to head back to the display so she could return the book.

Then Naru spoke up. "What's that?"

She froze. Looking back, she saw Naru staring at the book in her arms. Blushing slightly, she held it out so he could see. "Um…I decided not to get it after all."

"A picture book?" He raised an eyebrow. "I assumed you were at a higher reading level. Perhaps I was wrong."

"Oh, shut up! It's cute and memorable, okay?" This was a mistake after all.

But then Naru sighed. "How much is it?"

"…Eight dollars…"

He held his hand out.

"…Wait, seriously?"

"I'll have just that amount left over. Or do you not want it?"

She scurried over and handed it to him, struggling to keep from breaking into a grin. "Th-thanks."

"Mm." He looked back toward the register.

Mai turned away, inwardly screaming. She couldn't believe that worked! It was official, Gene was a genius. She had to tell him at once.

She found him standing by the window, looking across the street toward Boston Common. As she approached, she saw Gene wave, a small smile on his lips.

Mai walked up beside him and looked to where he was waving. She saw no one. The grounds there were deserted, not to mention there was a fence enclosing it, and…wait, were those gravestones? Was that a graveyard? Right on Boston Common? Why didn't she notice that before?

"Um, who are you waving to?" she asked.

"Just a friend of mine."

"I…see." She looked again. She still saw no one.

He turned to her. "By the way, did it work?"

Her excitement returned at once. "Oh my god, yes! It did! How did you know he would do that?!"

"Just a hunch," Gene laughed.

A few minutes later, Naru joined them, two plastic bags in hand, one of which he gave to Mai. She thanked him again, and while she was at it, gave him back the book he'd asked her to hold onto earlier.

By then, it was starting to get late, so they decided to call it a day and went to the subway. Mai chatted with Gene the whole return trip home, while Naru read his new book. It was only once they'd gotten off at the last station, and were walking to the bus stop, that Mai remembered one last thing she'd wanted to do today.

"Can I take a selfie with you guys?"

The twins looked at her.

"Sure!" Gene said.

"Why?" Naru asked.

Mai rolled her eyes. "Because you're my friends and I want something to remember you by, duh."

"You'd forget otherwise?"

"No, that's not the point—"

"Hey, why not?" Gene shrugged. "Let's get our pretty mugs saved for posterity."

"Are you sharing it with somebody?" Naru frowned.

"My friends in Japan, maybe? Is that okay?"

"Fine by me," Gene said.

"Why?" Naru asked.

"Oh my god, Naru, do you have to be suspicious of everything? I'm not putting it online, if that's what you're worried about!"

"But will your friends?"

"Fine!" she groaned. "I won't send it to them, I'll just show them in person! Is that okay?"

He shifted on his feet and said nothing.

"Don't worry about him, Mai. He's just camera shy," Gene chuckled. "Let's do this."

And so once they reached the bus stop, she got out her phone, and the twins stood behind her. But she immediately encountered a problem.

"You guys are too tall! I can't get your faces to fit in."

"Maybe we should stoop down?"

"Yeah, that might work."

Naru sighed wearily.

Finally she was able to get all three of their faces in the same shot, and snapped a picture.

When she looked at the resulting selfie, Mai let out a shriek of delight.

In the photo, Gene, wearing a mischievous grin, was making bunny ears behind Naru's head. Naru looked as stoic as ever, and completely oblivious.

"This is the best!" she cackled.

"I aim to please," Gene said proudly.

Mai sensed Naru peering over her shoulder and shielded her phone protectively. "Don't destroy my phone, okay? I can't just go and buy a new one."

He glared at her and walked away.

But while he wasn't looking, Mai aimed her phone at him and snapped a quick picture. She looked at the screen. She'd caught his side profile, arms crossed and staring down the street with a bored expression. But he still looked exceptionally handsome.

Mai blushed guiltily. She was being such a creep right now! She should delete this.

Then she heard a camera snap noise. Turning, she saw Gene aiming his phone at her, looking amused.

She flushed in horror. "GENE! No, delete that right now! I can't believe you'd—"

He laughed and held his phone high above his head where she couldn't reach. "Nope! Perfect blackmail material! Just think, if Noll saw this…"

"GENE!"

"Sneaky Mai, being sneaky~"

She was practically climbing over him in an attempt to reach his phone, when Naru called back.

"What are you two idiots doing?"

Mai froze.

"Just engaging in some friendly horseplay!" Gene grinned. "Care to join?"

Naru just scoffed and looked away again.

Gene took that opportunity to whisper in her ear. "Someone has a cruuush!"

Mai blanched. Oh, no no no. Gene was possibly the worst person to have figure this out. Not only did he have a literal telepathic link to Naru, he didn't have a stellar record of keeping people's secrets either, at least in her experience.

She grabbed at his parka. "Please don't tell him!" she hissed. "Please!"

"Ooh, no denial. Nice."

"Gene, I'm serious!"

"Okay, okay," he laughed. "My lips are sealed." He gave her a wink.

Mai pouted. She still wasn't convinced. "And the picture?"

He lowered his phone to show her as he brought it up. "Aww, look at you," he cooed, pointing at her blushing face in the photo. "That's just adorable."

"Gene." She wanted to punch him right now.

"Annnd it's gone." He deleted it. Then he looked at her and burst into laughter. "Holy shit— your expression— you look just like Noll!"

"I can really understand how he feels," she said through grit teeth.

"Oh god— the murder in your eyes— I can't—" He doubled over, wheezing with laughter.

Mai left him and went to stand next to Naru, fuming. "How about you and I think of some way to embarrass your brother next, yeah?"

Naru glanced at her, eyebrow raised. Then he looked away, a small smile tugging his lips. "Sounds good."

Chapter Text

Chapter 19

 

March

Sunday

 

Mai lay sprawled out on her bed, kicking her legs restlessly. Early afternoon sunlight poured in from the window, lighting her dorm room and illuminating dust motes in the air. Time seemed suspended, or at least, moving far too slowly.

After spending four straight days in Boston, Mai had gotten her fill of sight-seeing, and now she was bored. Using her last day of Spring Break to relax had seemed like a good idea at first. She'd slept in, and gotten a nice breakfast at the cafe. But now she had nothing to do. Well, she could get a head start on reading for her classes, but she didn't feel like touching her books until the evening.

If she were being honest with herself, boredom was only half the problem. After hanging out with the twins on Thursday, going back to Boston by herself the next two days had felt lacking. She couldn't help but notice the distinct absence; no one to talk to, no one to walk with. It just wasn't the same.

And now here she was, in her room, doing nothing. Naru was probably in his apartment, doing who knows what. But they were within walking distance, they had no school or work, and it was a beautiful day. What a waste.

She picked up her phone. He'd probably say no. But it was worth a try anyway, right? She had nothing to lose.

Mai took a deep breath and called his number.

"What do you want?" he answered.

Her heart picked up in pace. "Hey…are you at home right now?"

"Yes."

"Have you had lunch yet?"

"No."

"If I bought lunch and brought it over, do you want to eat together? My treat. And I'll leave right after."

A short silence. She waited in suspense.

"…Fine."

Mai pumped her fist. "Great! Do you have any preferences?"

"No."

"Then I'll just get whatever. Okay, see you in a bit!" She hung up.

That went way better than she could have imagined. Beaming, Mai grabbed her purse and headed out.

 


 

Oliver sat cross-legged on the floor, back against the couch, tapping his pen restlessly on the coffee table before him, which he used as a desk. Though the overhead light was off, he'd left the kitchen light on, and the bedroom door was open, allowing natural light from the window to stream in. This left him sitting in the dim interval between two light sources, which suited him just fine.

Nearly an hour had passed since Mai ended her call. He didn't know what had possessed her to offer him lunch, but he was just beginning to get hungry, and it would save him the trouble of preparing something himself. He couldn't think of a reason to say no.

But now he was starting to regret it. More than once in the past hour, he had reached for his mug or his pen, only to see it had moved from where he last put it. The kitchen light had flickered a few times as well. And then he remembered what happened the last time Mai had visited.

Needless to say, he did not want a repeat of that. He'd been having trouble concentrating ever since.

Oliver heard a knock on the door, and in response, the bedroom door slammed shut. Sighing, he got up, deposited his mug in the kitchen, then answered the door. Mai greeted him with a bright smile.

"Hi! Feeling hungry?"

"You can't stay long," he said.

Her smile faltered slightly. "Well, I wasn't planning to…why, you've got something planned?"

"No." Because it wouldn't be safe. "Just because."

"Oh…well, okay." She lifted the paper bag in her hands to show him. "I saw there was a Mexican place nearby, so I wanted to try it. Are you fine with que…quesa…"

"Quesadillas?"

"Yeah, that."

"It's fine." He took the bag and went back into the living room as she removed her shoes.

He turned on the lights and tidied the coffee table so they could eat, but Mai still didn't enter the room. What was taking her?

"Mai?" he called, and returned to the entrance.

He found her standing frozen, staring at the counter with a blank expression. No, he realized belatedly, she was staring at the long-forgotten box of chocolates he had placed there nearly a month ago.

Oliver didn't know what to do. He waited for her to react somehow, to get angry or complain, but nothing came. She just looked…disappointed.

Seconds ticked by slowly. Finally, unable to take it anymore, he strode forward and grabbed the box from the counter. It had a thin coating of dust over it, which transferred to his fingers, but he ignored this for the moment and held the box up in between them.

"Dessert," he said.

Mai's mouth dropped open.

Next, he stepped into the kitchen, wet a paper towel, and wiped the box down. Once it was clean, he washed his hands and refilled his mug with tap water.

Mai still hung around the entrance to the kitchen, looking awkward.

"Are you washing your hands?" he asked, moving away from the sink.

"Um, sure."

While Mai took her turn washing her hands, he looked in the fridge. There was one can of soda left. It belonged to Gene, but he wouldn't mind. Once Mai had finished drying her hands, he handed the soda to her.

"Oh…thanks," she said.

He led the way back to the living room, mug and box of chocolates in hand. There he took his place on the floor with the couch at his back. Mai sat across from him with the coffee table in between them.

She took out the carry out containers from the paper bag, handing one to him, followed by some small sauce containers, which she regarded with a quizzical look.

"What are all these sauces?"

He raised an eyebrow. "You've never had Mexican?"

"Well, there was a Taco Bell in Shibuya, but I've only been once…"

"Taco Bell doesn't count."

"Then no, I haven't."

Oliver sighed. He set the little containers on the table between them. "Guacamole, sour cream, salsa." He didn't feel like explaining further.

"And do I just dip it in them…?"

"If you wish."

Mai tore off a piece of her quesadilla, dipped it in the sour scream, and ate it. "Mmm! Oh, this is good!"

Oliver spooned guacamole onto his quesadilla and took a bite.

They ate in silence for a few minutes, with occasional interjections by Mai commenting on the food.

"So, I've been meaning to ask you," she said at last, "does Gene have any embarrassing secrets?"

He blinked at her.

"You know, something I can tease him about. It's not fair that he gets all the fun!"

So she had been serious about that suggestion.

He thought for a moment, but of the embarrassing incidents he could recall, he imagined Gene would only laugh them off. "I may not be of much help. He is infuriatingly shameless."

"I've seen him get embarrassed before though! Like when he brought me here the first time, he was all bothered about what a mess this place is. And it's not even bad."

He frowned. "Then perhaps I can enlighten you on some of his nasty habits."

"Eww. How nasty?" She made a face. "Actually, never mind. I don't want to know."

"Suffice it to say, if it were up to him, this place would be a trash heap."

"Oh, so you do all the cleaning?"

He nodded. "Most of it. When Gene does clean, he does a slapdash job of it, leaving me to finish the rest."

"That's gotta be annoying."

"Obviously."

Truthfully, Oliver didn't like cleaning. It felt like a waste of time. But his poltergeisting made it a necessary skill, and if he didn't want to live in poor conditions again, he had no choice but to pick up Gene's slack. Consequently, the apartment was dusty, but otherwise clean.

"But wow, I didn't take you for the domestic type," Mai said teasingly.

He scoffed. "Does doing the bare minimum count as 'domestic' now? I shudder to think what your place looks like."

"Hey! I can keep clean! My mother didn't teach me nothing," she huffed.

Oliver could have continued bantering, but at the mention of her mother, that temptation quickly died. As far as he could recall, this was the first time she had brought up the subject of her family to him. He obviously knew more, but considering how he'd learned of it, that wasn't something he was keen to reveal.

He wondered if she'd told Gene. Those two seemed to have a much easier time talking to each other. In contrast, Mai did not divulge much about herself in his presence, and Oliver did not know how to ask.

He shook his head, focusing on his food again. This was not something that he usually cared about.

The rest of the meal passed in silence. Oliver finished one quesadilla, leaving the rest to save for dinner. Mai finished all of her food.

Once she did, Oliver took the box of chocolates in hand and opened the seal. Mai stared at him as he opened the lid and placed the box on the table between them.

"Eat," he commanded.

She frowned. "But I bought these for you."

He sighed, took one of the chocolates, and popped it in his mouth. It wasn't as if he were allergic, after all. It wouldn't kill him to eat it. He just didn't enjoy it very much. But he could dilute the sweetness with sips of water, and if it was to avoid that look of disappointment on her face, it didn't feel like a big sacrifice.

Mai seemed to cheer up after that, and helped to eat the chocolates. They managed to finish the box between them.

She sat back, sipping her soda. "So what have you been doing all week?" she asked.

"Why do you need to know?"

She sighed. "It's called making conversation, Naru. Just answer the question?"

It had become a habit, he realized. Pushing people away. He did it without even thinking.

"I've been working on my letters."

"Oh yeah, you said you were doing that. How's it been going?"

"It's taken longer than anticipated."

"Oh?" She leaned forward. "What are you having trouble with?"

"Past events can be difficult to write about."

Her eyes widened slightly. "Yeah…I guess they would be, huh?" She sipped her soda, looking pensive. "But they say writing can be therapeutic. Maybe it'll be good for you?"

"Hmm." He didn't really care. He just wanted it over and done with.

"Do you want to talk about it? That might help."

"No."

"Well, then maybe go outside and take a walk? Refresh your mind a bit."

"I can think better in here than out there."

"In here. In a dark room, all by yourself."

"Yes. I prefer it that way."

She hugged her knees. "Just sounds depressing to me."

"Well, not everyone is like you, Mai."

He felt grateful for the solitude. Eventually Gene would come crashing back into his life, but until then, he could be alone with his thoughts and not have to worry about frightening anyone.

Though, he supposed the occasional break wasn't too bad. This hadn't turned into a disaster yet.

"Can I read one?" she asked.

"What?" He snapped out of his thoughts.

"Can I read one of your letters?" But a second later, she seemed to think better of it. "…Or, is that too private?"

Oliver thought it over. Certainly, the accounts were all very personal. He was not proud of any of these incidents. But it might be beneficial to have an outside opinion, and Mai was the only outsider with full knowledge of his past.

He opened the folder he'd placed on the couch, shuffled through his drafts and selected one. "Here," he said, handing it to her.

Mai's face lit up at once. He watched as she began to read. Very soon, the smile fell from her face, to be replaced by an expression of concern and sympathy.

This particular letter related an event that took place when he was twelve years old. In private, he and Gene referred to it as the "school bus incident," as it had resulted in him lifting an entire school bus full of children, which had gotten quite an amount of press at the time. Even now, when he browsed paranormal websites, he would see mention of it as an infamous case of known paranormal activity, and thus he had chosen it as one of the incidents to relate in his letters to ASPR.

When Mai finished, her expression had changed yet again. This time, her brows were knit together, and she was frowning slightly.

She handed the paper back to him. "That was…hmm."

"You look dissatisfied."

"Well, I kinda am."

He sighed. "I'm not proud of what happened."

"No, no, it's not about the content!" She waved her hands hastily. "Sorry. It's about the writing."

"Excuse me?" She was going to criticize his writing?

"Just hear me out, okay? Basically…there's no sense of urgency. And it felt detached. You had all the facts and details of what happened, but I couldn't see any of the emotion."

"It is a factual account. Emotion has no place in it."

"No, I think it does. What happened here, this accident, you caused it because you felt something, right? But I don't see any of that in the writing. Don't you think that should be important? This stuff doesn't happen in a vacuum. If I don't know what you felt, I don't know why it happened. It doesn't even seem connected to you; for all I know, it could be a ghost or an alien or some other supernatural entity. You might as well just be another bystander, observing what happened."

Oliver looked at the paper, skimming through the words. To his surprise, she was exactly right. From this account alone, no one would be able to tell that he'd caused the accident.

"…They're scientists. I thought they would value objectivity."

"Well, maybe they will, I don't know. But in this case, I think it'd be better to write from the heart. Play to their sympathies. You're asking for help, not writing a report."

"That's not my forte," he admitted.

Mai smiled. "Then think of it as a story, and put yourself at the center of it. You're not just the narrator, Naru. You're the main character."

He gazed at her for a long moment. Who knew she could be so insightful? "…I'll take that into consideration," he said at last.

When she finished her soda, they cleaned up, and Oliver followed her to the door. He watched as she put her shoes back on. Perhaps he should say something.

"Thank you for lunch."

Mai looked up, mouth dropping open again.

"What?" he frowned.

"So you do know some manners."

"I'm polite when it's warranted."

"I don't think that's how it works, Naru." She smirked. "But you're welcome."

And then she left, with a smile, a small wave, and a "See you tomorrow."

He stared after her for a moment. This had been oddly refreshing.

…Well, back to work.

Oliver closed the door and returned to his spot in the living room. He got out a fresh sheet of paper. First, he would start by rewriting this letter.

But before he'd even written one word, he was stuck.

How did he feel? How was he supposed to know? Could he even remember?

He had written everything just as he remembered it the first time; what more was there to say?

The tip of his pen seemed glued to the paper. He would get nowhere at this rate.

Oliver sighed, putting the pen down. Was this even worth the effort? Even if he did appeal to the heart, that might not improve his chances of being taken seriously. But now that Mai had pointed it out, he couldn't imagine the letter in its current form would be convincing either. He couldn't just ignore her advice.

Five hours passed, with him still unable to write a single word. He'd wanted to finish this before Gene returned home, but that was looking impossible now. And tomorrow, he returned to work. If only he'd had that conversation with Mai earlier in the week, he could have had more time…

Resisting the temptation to just give up on the whole thing, Oliver reached for his phone with a growl of frustration. Time to shelve his pride.

He called Mai's number and put the phone to his ear. She picked up after a few rings.

"N-Naru?! What's wrong? Why are you calling me?!"

"Mai, I need your help."

"Oh god. Do I need to call an ambulance?!"

"What? No, Mai, calm down." He took a deep breath. "I am having…difficulty with this letter. I would like your advice."

A long silence. Then finally, "Naru, what is wrong with you today? Do you have a fever?"

He pursed his lips. "Mai."

"Okay, okay, sorry. Wow, uh, sure. I'd be glad to help."

"Good. Tell me, how would you approach writing something like this?"

"Well…first, I'd try to remember how I was feeling back then…"

"But I don't know how I felt back then. It was a long time ago. I don't remember."

"But it was memorable enough to stick with you, right?"

"I suppose."

"And even if you can't remember how you felt exactly, you can still imagine it, right? You know yourself. You know how you react to things."

Did he? Oliver frowned. The way she described it, that seemed to be a normal experience for her. But he could not relate. "Give me an example," he said.

"An example? Uhh. Well, I don't clearly remember when I moved out of my house in Kanagawa—"

"Kanagawa?"

"I was born there. I used to live there with my parents until my Dad died."

"I see." He didn't know how he should react to this. He hadn't expected her to divulge something like that so easily.

"Anyway," she cleared her throat. "I was too young to remember exactly, but I was probably scared, and sad, and anxious. I probably really missed my Dad and our home. I don't have to remember to know that much."

"Because you know yourself," he nodded. Yes, he could understand that logically. But he still could not apply it to himself. "Perhaps I don't know myself," he muttered.

The line fell silent.

"…Mai?"

"…Um," she said finally. "Sorry. I, uh…maybe I can talk you through it? How does that sound?"

He winced at the tone of her voice. This was humiliating. "Fine," he growled.

"Okay, hopefully I remember all this right…let's start at the beginning. You and Gene are waiting at a bus stop. Then an older boy starts harassing you."

"Yes."

"How do you feel about that?"

"I don't know."

"Don't you feel scared?"

"Why would I be scared?"

"He's older than you, right? That means he's probably bigger and stronger. That's a threat to your safety."

"But I could easily rip him apart if I so wished."

"Oh jeez, Naru." Her voice quivered. That probably was not the best thing to say. "D-did you want to?"

"Of course not. I would rather he left us alone."

"But he doesn't leave you alone, he keeps threatening you. And you don't want to hurt him. How does that make you feel? Frustrated?"

"Yes."

"You keep telling him to stop, but he won't listen. He doesn't believe you can hurt him back. How does that make you feel?"

"I think he is boorish and stupid. He doesn't know what he is dealing with. He is letting a perceived advantage over us get to his head, and he will regret it."

"So you're angry? Do you hate him? Do you pity him?"

"I don't care enough to call it hate. I just want to be left alone."

"Then are you sad? Because he won't listen?"

'Sad.' That sounded so extreme and simplistic. He could not imagine applying that word to himself. "No."

"But he won't stop, so you know you'll end up hurting him. You don't know how bad it'll be, or what the consequences could be. If he'll die, if you'll hurt anyone else…"

"Yes."

"Are you afraid?"

Back to that again. But this time, it felt a little more appropriate. "…Perhaps."

"So…" Mai took a deep breath. "So you toss rocks at him with PK. Why?"

"As a warning. So he would back off before it's too late."

"And it works. He screams and runs away. But…" She hesitated.

"Mai. Do not bother trying to be 'sensitive.' It just wastes time."

"Jeez. Fine." She took another deep breath. "…Gene moves at the last second, and the rocks end up hitting him."

"Yes."

"He…he falls to the ground, and stops moving. You see blood on his face. …How do you feel?"

"I've seen people like that before. They are usually dead."

"…You think you've just killed your brother." Her voice fell to a hush. "How does that make you feel?"

Oliver opened his mouth to speak, but his stomach gave a sudden wrench. He clapped his hand over his mouth and swallowed hard against the nausea.

"Do you feel shock? Sadness? Guilt?"

Something felt on the verge of breaking. No. Stop. He couldn't allow it.

"Naru?"

Oliver steadied his breath as best he could. "I don't know."

Mai paused. "You don't know? Or you don't want to know?"

"What?" he snapped.

"It kind of sounds like you're running away."

"I didn't ask you to psychoanalyze me."

"You asked for my help. And I thought we were getting somewhere."

He grit his teeth. What did she know about it? "I am not running away."

"But—"

"You don't know me!" he spat. The harshness of his own voice surprised him.

He heard her take a sharp breath. "…Maybe, but you just said you don't know yourself either. And I'm just— trying to understand you." Her voice sounded strained, like she was trying not to shout or cry. "Unless you want to give up? We could just hang up, and forget all about it. Is that what you want?"

She was right. He was being an idiot. He had asked for her help and she was doing her best to be patient with him. And now he had hurt her again.

"Naru?" she sniffed. "Do you want to stop?"

Truthfully, he did. He felt deeply uncomfortable with the whole situation. But that would be running away. And if his only options were to do it alone, or to ask Mai, right now, the latter seemed like the safer option.

Oliver sighed. "No. I'm sorry."

He heard her sniffle again, and waited for her to compose herself.

"…Okay. Well, do you want to start over?"

"No. Continue where we left off. But, do not ask me to identify what I am feeling. If I could do that, I would not be asking you."

"Sure. Then let's focus on how you reacted physically. Did you scream? Did you cry?"

"No."

"Then what did you do?"

"I just stood there, and things occurred around me."

She groaned. "That just takes us back to square one!"

"That is my experience."

"But what was going on inside your head while you stood there?"

"Again," he sighed, "If I could tell you that…"

"Didn't you think about helping Gene?"

"Of course. For a moment."

"So why didn't you?"

"…I froze. It might have already been too late. And the poltergeisting had already started. Whatever I might do, or think, could just make things worse."

"So you panicked."

"…Yes."

"And if you're convinced you'll make things worse, doesn't that just make you more anxious? And if you're more anxious, doesn't that just make it worse? Like a self-fulfilling prophecy…"

"I…suppose."

"And meanwhile Gene's still lying there, not getting help…and you can't stop what's happening long enough to get him any—"

"And people are screaming. I cannot think rationally if they are screaming. It is distracting."

He didn't have to remember the exact circumstances to know this. It was what he experienced, every time.

"So you keep driving yourself farther into a corner, and things keep building and building and building, and you don't know what to do—"

Her voice abruptly faded. Suddenly, he couldn't breathe.

He saw the scene before him, clear as day. Gene, lying lifeless on the ground, blood trickling down his temple. His own hand outstretched, trembling, but unable to reach.

It was all his fault. He couldn't even save his brother. He could only stand there, powerless to act.

Screams pierced the air from seemingly every direction. There was a roar in his head, his heartbeat thudded in his ears.

Stop. He just wanted it to stop. STOP.

And then he heard a heavy metallic groan. The screams increased in volume. Turning, he saw the school bus lift into the air…

Tears pricked his eyes. He'd done it again. Everyone was going to die.

"NARU!"

With a gasp, Oliver snapped back to the present.

"Naru? Hello? Are you still there?!" Her voice sounded very faint and distant.

The phone must have fallen out of his hand. He didn't know where it was now. He seemed to be lying on the floor. A crashing sound alerted him to the coffee table slamming into a wall.

With a groan, he sat up. Looking around, he saw papers scattered everywhere. The couch was upside down and on the opposite side of the room. All the lightbulbs had shattered, littering the floor with shards of glass, which glittered in the orange glow of sunset leaking from the open bedroom doorway.

"Are you okay?! Naru!"

He crawled toward the sound of her voice and found his phone in a corner. He put it to his ear and mumbled, "M'fine."

Mai sighed in relief. "Hold on, I'll come over—"

"No," he said sharply. "Stay there."

"But—"

"I need to be alone for this."

"Naru…"

His hands shook. His breath was heavy. His vision blurred.

"Say something," he muttered.

"Huh?"

The screams still echoed in his head. Any moment now, he could be pulled back, back into that moment, or countless others like it; an endless maze.

"Talk."

"Wh-what do you want me to say?"

"Anything. Just talk."

"O-okay, um. Well, I went into Boston again yesterday and…"

He listened to her prattle on for a while about her adventures in the city. He didn't really pay attention to what she said; he just listened, letting her voice anchor him to reality.

Gradually, the world reconstituted itself around him. His breathing began to calm.

Mai stopped talking. "…Naru?"

"I'm here."

This. This was feeling. And he hated it. It was too much, all at once, too overwhelming. It paralyzed him, turned him stupid.

But he couldn't let it be for naught. He needed to write something while still in this state of mind.

His pen had disappeared somewhere. He looked around, finally found it near the upside-down couch. He retrieved it, then grabbed the nearest sheet of paper and smoothed it across the floor. He put the phone down and set pen tip to paper.

The room fell silent but for the scratching of his pen. His hand moved automatically, feverishly transcribing every thought before it could flit away.

"Naru? Are you still there?"

"Shush. I'm writing."

"Oh…"

His handwriting was uncharacteristically wild. He almost felt possessed. He only stopped when he ran out of room on the paper.

Then finally, in the dim, dying light of dusk, he sat up and looked at the finished product.

Look at me. Look at what I am. I don't want to be this. I don't mean for it to happen. Look at me. No one knows me. No one wants me. I am weak. I am dangerous. I am cursed. Don't look at me. I ruin everything I touch. I deserve nothing. No one should be near me. I should not exist. Please help me. I just want to live my life. Why won't anyone help? LOOK AT ME.

Oliver recoiled. These words did not belong to him. They were raw and needy and desperate. He did not recognize it as himself.

Reflexively, he grabbed the paper and crinkled it up in his fist.

"Are you still there?" Mai's worried voice broke through his thoughts.

"…Yes." Perspective. He needed perspective. Taking a deep breath, Oliver smoothed the paper out again. What he'd written was an impassioned plea, a cry for attention. A poltergeist personified. This was just what he needed.

And now he remembered. It was after this incident that he'd stopped fighting back against bullies. Every time, the fear that he would inadvertently hurt someone overpowered whatever terror they tried to instill in him. So he let them do whatever they pleased. But that still didn't present disaster in the end…

"Naru? Are you done?"

He picked up the phone and held it to his ear again. "That's enough for now," he sighed, leaning against the couch. He felt drained.

"Okay…will you be alright?"

"Yes. I'm going to rest for a while."

"Sounds like a good idea. I can come help clean?"

"No. Let Gene do it."

Mai giggled. Then there was a short pause, neither of them bothering to hang up yet.

"So…" she began hesitantly. "Did this help?"

"…Yes, it did."

He heard her gasp. A moment later, she asked softly, "Hey, Naru? When you're done with this…are you going to let me read it?"

Oliver thought about it. Truthfully, he did not want this mess to be seen by anyone, even in a refined form. But if anyone deserved to see it, it would be her.

"Perhaps." He tilted his head back, smiling grimly in the darkness. "We'll see."

Chapter Text

Chapter 20

 

Gene already knew something was up when Noll told him over the hotline to buy new lightbulbs on the way home. So he wasn't exactly surprised when he entered the apartment that night to find it pitch black.

"Noll?" he called.

Silence.

A shiver of dread ran down his spine. He walked in, not bothering to take off his shoes. Shards of glass crunched under his feet. He wandered blindly toward the bedroom, hoping he wouldn't have to trip over a body on the way.

He felt around for the doorknob and grasped it in his hand. Gulping, Gene opened the door.

"…Oh for Christ's sake, Noll."

His brother lay in bed, reading a book with a flashlight.

"Would it kill you to answer me?!"

"Welcome home, Gene."

"What the hell happened here, anyway?"

"I was writing."

"I hope you did some cleaning before I came home?"

"You mean in the dark?"

"At least get up and help me put in the new lightbulbs!"

"No. I'm tired."

"Well, I'm tired too!" Gene went over and flopped onto his own mattress.

"Lazy."

"I've been working all day, Noll! Don't give me that!"

"So you're just going to leave glass lying all over the floor."

"Until tomorrow, yes!"

They both sighed.

Silence settled in the room again. Noll turned a page in his book.

Gene turned over to look at him. "You okay?"

"Mm."

Whatever had happened earlier, Noll at least seemed calm now.

"I brought leftovers from work. Do you want some?"

"Sure."

"Then give me that flashlight."

He went to the kitchen. Taking quick stock of its condition with a swipe of the flashlight, Gene sighed again. He got out a trash bag and began filling it with the trash strewn over the floor.

In the process, he noticed some things that seemed out of place. He found a quesadilla, for one, and a carryout container to go with it.

Noll got carryout? Unusual.

No, there were two carryout containers here. And an empty box of Valentine's chocolates. Gene raised his eyebrows.

He walked back to the bedroom doorway.

"Hey…did Mai come over today?"

"Yes."

Now things were starting to make more sense. "Don't tell me you two got in a fight?"

"No," Noll replied, sounding annoyed.

"Oh, I see. So you just got so excited being alone in a room with her that you—"

"Gene. I do not have the patience tonight."

Sniggering, he returned to the kitchen.

As he heated up the food in the microwave, Gene mused over this new development. He was admittedly surprised that they managed to come together on their own without him having to arrange anything. Mai must be gutsier than he'd thought, and Noll more forgiving. He was curious about what exactly had transpired, but he supposed that wasn't any of his business…

Oh, who was he kidding, he was dying to know!

And since Noll hardly ever told him anything, there was of course only one person he could ask.

 


 

Mai yawned. The train's gentle rattling threatened to lull her to sleep as she stared out the window, watching apartment buildings, advertisements, and businesses passing by. The sky was a bright orange, the city's lights just starting to come to life.

She heard a muffled cry, and turned her head towards the noise. She saw a train car crowded with people, all with their faces turned down, staring silently into their phones.

Among them was a foreigner. Which wasn't unusual in itself; Tokyo had many tourists from overseas. But this one looked familiar.

It was the teenage boy from her dreams. His dirty blond hair stuck out like a sore thumb among the sea of black. He was crammed in between two salary men, looking decidedly uncomfortable.

The sight made her laugh. "Bad luck. You caught me during rush hour."

He squeezed through the crowd towards her, where she stood near the door, clinging to a grab handle.

"Is it always this crowded?" he groaned.

"Sometimes."

They had met a few more times since New York, the dreams always innocuous and usually taking place in Japan. Since he'd expressed interest before, she had tried to consciously steer her dreams in that direction.

He didn't look very happy about it though.

"How long are we staying here?" he sighed.

Mai heard the announcement over the speakers and smiled. "Don't worry, this is my stop."

The train arrived at the platform, and they got off. The doors closed behind them and soon it was off again, leaving them alone on the platform. Mai looked around, furrowing her eyebrows. "Huh…this isn't where I meant to go."

"What do you mean? Where are we?"

"Umm, I'm not sure." She continued looking at the surrounding city. This place felt familiar, but she could not quite place where she had seen it before. Frowning, Mai descended the platform and left the station, the boy following behind her.

She wasn't sure how long they explored, but after a while, Mai came to a stop along an ordinary suburban street. On her right was a playground surrounded by trees.

"This place…"

Mai approached the entrance of the playground. Cicadas buzzed. The sky flushed crimson and orange, setting sun casting black shadows across the stark grounds. A crow cawed from the nearby treetops.

"I feel like I've been here before…"

In a daze, she reached her hand out to touch a nearby rocking horse.

"Mai!" a voice called.

She turned. A tall figure now stood in the middle of the playground.

A wide smile spread across her face. "Mommy!" She ran into her mother's waiting arms.

Mother smiled down at her. "How was school, honey?"

"Okay!" She grabbed her mother's hand and dragged her over to her favorite swing set. There were more important matters at hand. "Swing! Swing!"

She sat in a swing and Mother pushed her. Mai always loved this. The feeling of soaring through the air, laughing and kicking her feet into the violet sky.

Soon, however, Mother spoke up. "Mai, guess what? I have some very important news."

"What is it?"

"Mommy got a new job. In Tokyo."

"Tokyo?"

"Mmhm. We're going to be moving soon."

"…Moving?" Mai frowned, trying to understand what this meant. For a moment, they were both silent, only the creaking of the swing echoing in the playground.

Mother took a deep breath. "We can start over. It'll be fun. You'll see. You'll have a new home, a new preschool, new friends."

"But I want to stay here."

"I know, but…"

"This is where we lived with Daddy."

Mother sighed.

Mai's grip on the swing's chains tightened. "I don't want to go, Mommy. Something terrible will happen."

"Something terrible?" asked the teenage boy, standing at the edge of the playground.

"There'll be an accident, and then…"

Silence. She no longer felt the reassuring push of Mother's hands on her back. Mai continued swinging for a moment before looking around. "Mommy?"

The playground was now empty but for her and the boy.

Her voice hitched in panic. "Mommy, where are you?"

"What happened?" asked the boy, eyes widening.

"No…come back!" Mai jumped from the swing, landing back on adult feet. She ran to the entrance of the playground and looked back and forth down the street. "Come back!" she croaked.

The boy gasped in realization. "She's dead, isn't she?"

"NO!" Mai fell to her knees, covering her ears with her hands. "No, no!"

"I'm sorry," the boy gulped. He looked away. "I shouldn't have seen this. I'm sorry…I'm sorry…"

 


 

Mai awoke with tears in her eyes, her alarm blaring in the background.

Sighing, she turned the alarm off, then lay back in bed and wiped her eyes.

Why did she dream of that now? Was it because of what happened yesterday? Dredging up old memories she didn't know she had anymore…

Mai reached for her nightstand. Her fingers closed around a small metal object. The key to her old childhood home.

She gripped the key in her hand and held it to her chest.

She could understand now. Mother didn't want to leave either. That's why she brought this key with her, to remember the home they shared with Father. And eventually, Tokyo became home too. Because they'd had each other.

And now, here she was, farther from home than she'd ever been before. Mai felt a sudden surge of homesickness, her eyes beginning to water again.

"No, that's enough." Today was the first day back from Spring Break, she had to start it right. Mai took a deep breath and climbed out of bed.

But as she got dressed, her mind wandered back to last night. Was Naru doing okay? He'd insisted he would be fine before they ended the call, but…

She grabbed her phone, ready to write a text, then hesitated. If she asked how he was doing again, would that just annoy him? But the entire reason she had his number was so she could check on him, right?

To hell with it. Good morning! Are you coming to work today? There. Maybe that was subtle enough.

Just as she finished dressing, she heard her phone buzz. Mai glanced at the screen.

Yes.

Mai frowned. His usual blunt response didn't tell her much. Is that a good idea? she texted back.

She didn't know how bad it got last night, but she would honestly feel better if he took it easy today. Though, if she were in his shoes, and just coming off of a week-long break, she might try to tough it out too. At least he seemed responsive. Maybe she was worrying too much?

She was nearly out the door when Naru sent his reply. I'm coming in late.

Mai sighed in relief. Well, better than nothing. OK. Rest well!

Mind more at ease, she left for her first class.

Her morning class mostly involved the professor explaining their upcoming final project. In all likelihood, her other classes would follow the same script.

Time flew by too quickly, Mai decided. Before she knew it, half a semester was already over. In about a month and a half, she would already be returning to Japan.

Contrary to how she felt earlier this morning, the thought made her panic a little. She hadn't done nearly enough here yet! She still had so much work to do for school, she wanted to spend more time with her new friends, and…though this was out of her control, she at least wanted to know Naru would be okay before she left.

Sighing, Mai headed for breakfast, when her phone rang. This time it was from Gene.

"Hey, I know this is out of the blue, but would you be interested in getting lunch together this afternoon?" He paused. "I promise, this time it'll be fast and cheap."

Mai laughed. "Sure!"

They met up off campus, right after her afternoon class. As promised, they got fast food, and since the weather was pretty decent, they decided to eat outside. Gene led the way to a small playground nearby.

"Come on, we can sit over here." He pointed at a bench opposite the swings.

Mai froze, struck with deja vu.

Gene looked back at her. "Mai? What's wrong?"

She shook her head. "N-nothing." Giving the playground a wary glance, she sat with him on the bench and began to eat.

"So is there something you wanted to talk about?" Mai asked.

Gene looked up forlornly from his fish sandwich. "What, can't we just hang out?"

"Oh, of course! I just thought…"

He laughed. "I'm kidding, sorry. Actually, there was something I wanted to ask you…" He took another bite and chewed thoughtfully before continuing. "You wouldn't have any idea why Noll destroyed the apartment yesterday, would you?"

Mai looked up in dismay. "Oh no, was it that bad?"

He shrugged. "It could've been worse."

"I was on the phone with him during it. Things got kind of…intense…"

"Whoa, sounds dirty."

"Perv! Not like that!" she growled. "We were just talking about one of his letters!"

"Ohhh." He looked away pensively. "Huh. He hasn't talked to me about any of them."

"Well, he was having trouble with one, and I'd just given him some advice when I came over earlier…"

"I see." He glanced at her, a small smile across his lips. "And what happened to the chocolates?"

She blushed. How did he know?! "We ate them together…"

Gene chuckled. "See, didn't I say it was worth a try?"

"Yeah, but after he forgot about it for a month, it looked like," she pouted.

"But he still ate them, right?"

She nodded.

"And he opened up to you?"

"A little, I guess."

"Well, that's further than anyone else has gotten."

Mai didn't know what to say. On one hand, it made her happy to hear that. But seeing the wistful look on Gene's face, she also felt…guilty?

"…I was probably just the most convenient person for him at the time. I don't think it meant anything more than that," she mumbled.

Gene shrugged. He finished his sandwich and crinkled up the paper wrapping. "Things went okay while you were over, then?"

"Yeah, it was okay."

"Great! Then maybe we could have you over more often!"

He smiled vibrantly and offered her his french fries. Mai blinked, but sensing it was genuine, she returned the smile.

"I'd love that," she said, and helped herself to a fry.

They cheerfully finished their food. But as they threw their trash away, Gene glanced at her again.

"By the way…I've been putting some thought into how I should go about teaching you."

"Oh." With everything going on, she had nearly forgotten about that. "You don't have to worry about it so much, Gene. It's not like formal lessons, I'm not paying you. And I know you're busy and all…"

"No, it's fine. I've been kinda scatterbrained about it myself. But I know it's hard to find guidance about this stuff, so I'd like to do what I can, even if it's just helping you get to know yourself better."

Mai smiled. "Well, okay. Then what do you have in mind?"

"I was thinking back to how I was taught by other mediums in the past, and we usually started by testing what I was actually capable of. And I realized there's still a lot I don't know about what you're capable of. So that's where I'd like to start, by testing the range of your abilities."

She nodded uncertainly. "Sure…what does that involve?"

"Well, first of all, we'd need a safe, comfortable environment. Some place that's haunted, but not too unpredictable. And I figured, what better place than Giffords Library?"

"Oh, good idea!" She had been half expecting him to suggest a cemetery, so the library sounded like a much better alternative. "Do you think Charlie would mind, though?"

"Nah. He's pretty cool about these things. And to tell the truth, I've already talked it over with Joanne, and she gave her okay. I don't think Noll would be hard to convince either."

"Wait, is Naru coming too?"

"Someone needs to let us out in the morning."

"We're staying overnight?!"

"Yup! Preferably Saturday night, after the library closes. That way we can stay up all night without having to worry about school or work." Gene smirked. "You two already had a sleepover there, right? It's the same thing, only this time it's actually approved. And we can bring blankets and pillows, so it should be more comfortable."

"I guess…" She had to admit, this sounded pretty fun. After all, she was better acquainted with Naru and the library now, and throwing Gene into the mix would make it a whole new experience.

"So then it's settled? Is this Saturday okay?"

"Yeah! Sounds great!"

Mai spent the rest of the day in a much better mood, now that she had something to look forward to. Her mood improved even more when she got her midterm paper back, and her grade was even better than she'd expected.

When Naru showed up at her table that evening, folder in hand, Mai looked up at him eagerly.

"Naru, look!" She held up her graded paper, beaming.

He blinked. "What?"

"It's the paper you helped me with!"

Understanding dawned on his features, followed by a small smirk. "It seems you took some of my suggestions into account."

"The actually constructive ones, anyway," she said, and stuck her tongue out at him. "By the way, did Gene tell you? About this weekend?"

Naru merely grunted and sat down. He pulled a sheet of paper out of his folder and got out a pen.

Mai stared. Was that his letter? "…You're going to work on that now? Here?"

He shrugged. "As apparently I won't have the time this weekend."

"Oh…sorry." Crap, why didn't she think about that? "We could reschedule?"

"Joanne has already given her approval," he sighed. "It's fine."

"Well…if you say so." She still felt kind of bad about it though.

Mai continued glancing at him for the next hour. He didn't seem to be making much progress. He spent more time frowning at the paper and tapping his pen against the table than actually writing.

Eventually, she spoke up. "Do you want help?"

"No. I know what I need to write. I am trying to find the proper wording."

"Oh." Mai let out a small sigh. "Well, that's relatable, I guess."

For the next few nights, she watched him openly struggle, writing and crossing out lines, eyebrows constantly furrowed.

But on Friday night, he sat down not with his folder, but with a book.

"What happened to your letter?"

"I sent it out this morning."

"Oh, congrats!" She clapped her hands.

Naru gave her a strange look.

Mai stopped clapping, feeling vaguely embarrassed. "Uh, I hope they reply this time!"

"Thanks," he said stiffly, then opened his book.

And that was it.

She didn't want to feel entitled, but Mai couldn't help feeling disappointed. Even though he had only said 'maybe,' she'd found herself looking forward to reading his letter. And after what Gene said the other day, well…she'd hoped that he was right, that Naru was opening up to her.

It had been a long shot in the first place. Though a part of her whined, 'Why do a bunch of strangers get to read it but not me?' she of course knew why. Naru was a private person. He wouldn't show anyone how he really felt unless he absolutely had to. He'd only called her out of desperation in the first place. It was her fault for reading too much into it.

Mai sighed. Well, he'd agreed to help her and Gene out this weekend. She supposed she should be grateful for that at least.

 


 

On Saturday night, Mai went to the Weekly Pub Meeting, but could barely keep from squirming in nervous excitement the whole time. Despite her disappointment yesterday, she really was looking forward to this sleepover. But at the same time, Gene said he was going to 'test' her abilities, and now that the day had come, she realized she had no idea what that meant. Should she prepare for it somehow? What if she didn't meet his expectations, and he decided she wasn't worth teaching after all?

She had hoped some light conversation would help take her mind off of things, but it was no use. Mai wolfed down her dinner and excused herself early.

Back at her dorm, she stuffed pillows and blankets into her suitcase, along with toiletries. Then, at a loss for anything else to do, she spent the next couple of hours rereading the book about psychic phenomena that Naru had recommended her before.

Finally, just before midnight, she left her dorm, trying to look natural as she rolled her suitcase past the front desk. Fortunately, there weren't many people out this late at night, so she didn't come across anyone else on her way to the library.

Half the lights were already off when she arrived. Mai hid in the shadows as the few remaining students left, and when the coast was clear, she dragged her suitcase up the steps.

To her surprise, Naru was waiting for her just inside the entrance, tapping his foot impatiently.

"You're late," he frowned, in lieu of a greeting.

"Nuh-uh! I'm just on time!"

He sighed.

Mai looked around. "Where's Gene?"

"He's on his way."

"Okay. What are you guys doing for dinner? I already ate, but since we have time, I can go get you something?"

"No need. Gene is bringing something."

"Oh, okay. I'll go wait for him, then!"

Mai deposited her suitcase, then went to stand by the entrance, humming excitedly.

Ten minutes later, she saw a figure in the distance, approaching slowly. Mai squinted into the darkness. Was that him? Soon after, the figure stepped under a street lamp, and Mai saw him carrying what looked like two large duffel bags and a plastic bag in his hands, and two sleeping bags over his shoulders.

"Oh my gosh, Gene! Let me help with that!"

She ran over and took one of the duffel bags. "Oof! What do you have in here?!"

"I stuffed as many of our blankets and pillows as I could," Gene panted. "I really didn't think it'd be this heavy…"

She helped him lug everything inside. Then they went to the break room, where Naru heated up the food and Mai made them all tea. Though she was pumped on adrenaline now, she knew she would need some caffeine to last the night.

After the twins had eaten dinner and they all finished their tea, the three of them returned to unpack their things. They looked down at the combined heap of blankets and pillows.

"…Wow, this is a lot," Mai said. She was worried they wouldn't have enough, but now it seemed like too much.

"Yeah. Enough to build a big nest for us to sleep in!" Gene grinned.

"Wait. You mean, together?" Mai asked nervously.

"Pass," Naru said.

Gene laughed. "Alternatively, since I brought our sleeping bags, Noll and I could use those and Mai can sleep like a queen."

"That doesn't seem fair."

"In that case, Mai, I would gladly take your place," Naru smirked.

She glared at him. "That really doesn't seem fair."

"Oh! I have another idea!" Gene said. "We could make a blanket fort!"

"Ooh, sounds fun!"

Naru groaned. "Could you be any more juvenile?"

"Let's take a vote. Who here thinks we should build a blanket fort?"

Mai and Gene both raised their hands. Naru did not.

"Two against one!" Gene whooped, giving her a high five. "Blanket fort wins!"

Naru sighed. "Do what you want. Just don't forget what we're really here for."

"Yeah, yeah. Work first, play later." Gene turned to Mai. "Then, let's get down to business. Mai, I want you to try and find Charlie on your own again."

"Oh…um, okay. I can try." Mai gulped. She didn't even know where to begin.

"We could try to recreate the circumstances from when you did before," Naru muttered. "Get the flashlight. I'll be right back." He walked away.

Gene pulled out a flashlight from one of the duffel bags. "Okay? What for?"

"He's probably going to turn off the lights," Mai said. "They were off the last time."

"Oh really? Power outage?"

"No," she frowned.

A moment later, all the lights in the library went off. Gene turned on the flashlight. Naru found them after another minute, using his penlight.

"Let's retrace your steps," he said. "You were in the restroom?"

"Uh, yeah."

"Then start from there."

They made their way to the women's restroom. When they got there, Gene turned to her. "Okay, Mai. Go ahead."

Mai stared into the darkness. How was she supposed to do this? She couldn't see anything, let alone a ghost.

"Um, let's see. I was looking for a light. Naru and I had lit candles, and I wanted to go back to our table…"

"How'd you make your way in the dark?"

"Naru let me borrow his penlight."

"Here." Naru handed it to her.

"Thanks." Mai began walking. The twins followed behind her. "Anyway, I saw a light in a different direction…I think it was this way? And I thought it must be Naru. But it turned out to be Charlie."

"I see, so he appeared to be glowing to you?" Gene asked.

"Yeah." And there it was, the table where she'd seen Charlie. But it was dark, and there were no papers or books scattered on the tabletop. Mai bit her lip. "He's not here…"

"He manifests all over the library. Just because he's been in one place doesn't mean he'll appear there again. But no pressure, Mai. Just take your time."

No pressure, he said. But she couldn't help but feel inadequate. What if it had really been a fluke, and this was all a waste of time?

"Try sharpening your senses, like last time."

"Right." Mai closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and concentrated. The musty smell of books around her. The smooth plastic of the penlight in her hand. The sound of their breathing…

At last, she opened her eyes and set off again, heading in a random direction.

"Hellooo? Charlie? Are you there?"

She led them around the library for several minutes, looking around. Now she remembered how spooky the library looked in the dark; at any moment, she felt like something might jump out at her from behind a bookcase. Albeit, in this case, that would actually be helpful.

Mai glanced back at Gene sheepishly. "Am I getting close?"

She could hear the smile in his voice. "Sorry, not telling."

"That time you found him, did you sense anything beforehand?" Naru asked.

"No?"

"Were you in any sort of altered mind state?"

"I was feeling tired, does that count?"

"Possibly."

They walked around for several minutes more before Mai came to a stop. "I'm sorry, Gene. I can't do it. I really have no idea where he might be."

"Don't worry about it, Mai. It's normal for psychics to have their off days."

"In my case, I think it'd be rarer to have an on day," she sighed.

"We could be starting on the wrong foot," Naru mused. "That night, we had lit candles beforehand. You appeared unsettled by the flame. That could have triggered your ESP."

"Oh, yeah! I forgot about that…"

"Would you mind if we recreate it?" Gene asked.

"Sure, it's fine."

"Stay here. I'll go get the candles." Naru took the flashlight and went off again.

They sat down at the nearest table and waited. Mai thought back to that night at the library. Naru might have a point. Even she'd thought what happened with the candle was weird. And now, it all seemed too convenient. Turning the lights off, forcing them to use candles…

She frowned. Come to think of it, Naru was being awfully cooperative today, wasn't he? And he didn't complain about the sleepover at all. Suspicious.

When Naru returned, she glared at him. "You know, I'm starting to get the feeling you've been experimenting on me."

He handed the flashlight to Gene, and for a split second, the light illuminated Naru's face, revealing an eerie smile. "Now what would lead you to think that?"

"Ugh, you creep! I should've known something fishy was going on!"

"In his defense," Gene cut in hastily, "we were still kind of wary of you back then. No offense, Mai."

"None taken," she grumbled. "I'm just frustrated. I was so close to guessing the truth! Argh!"

Naru laid out a candle. "For someone with such sharp instincts, you are remarkably dim."

"Oh, shut up!"

He got out a match. "Ready?" he asked, suddenly dead serious.

She sighed. "Go ahead."

He lit the match. Gene shone the flashlight on the table, and as Mai watched, Naru slowly lit the candle.

"Well?" Naru asked, after extinguishing the match. Gene turned off the flashlight, leaving the candle as the only source of light.

Mai stared at the candle flame.

"Um, knowing what I know now about the library, I feel pretty uneasy seeing fire in here. But not like I was back then. That felt more…instinctive."

"Well, it was worth a try."

"Come to think of it," Gene said, "for a while after we moved here, Noll couldn't look at fire either."

"Really?" Mai looked toward Naru in surprise.

"Mm. I'd found Charlie's fountain pen and used psychometry on it. I had the same vision you did."

"Oh. Oh. You mean, about the fire…"

"Yes."

Mai shuddered. "I'm sorry. Then this 'experiment' must have been uncomfortable for you too…"

"I chose to do it. It's fine." Naru leaned over and blew out the flame.

With the little flame extinguished, they now sat in complete darkness.

"So…what's next?" Mai asked.

"Hmm," Gene said. "Well, if you're having an off day, I guess there's no point in forcing it."

Mai winced. "Sorry for wasting your time…" She felt like a fraud.

"It's not a waste of time, Mai. Honest. I was prepared for this. Besides, I know you have ability. Just last week, you saw a spirit in broad daylight."

"…What? When?! Where?!"

"On Boston Common. An old woman in Puritan clothing, right?"

Mai thought back. That must have been when Gene started acting strangely and steering her and Naru around.

"I guess? I didn't get a real good look at her…"

"You pointed right at her. I didn't want to scare you, so I didn't mention it at the time, but…I'm familiar with that one. Whenever I try talking to her, she starts screaming in Gaelic and it can be kind of unsettling, so I thought I'd spare you that experience."

She was glad to have been spared that indeed. Just imagining it was unsettling, and it sure didn't help that they were currently sitting in the dark. "But…later that day, I saw you waving at someone in a graveyard, but I couldn't see who you were waving to…"

"That kind of inconsistency isn't unusual. Not to brag, but I'm more of a special case." Gene turned the flashlight back on. "Anyway, now I know what to focus on with your training, so tonight wasn't a loss at all."

"Well, okay." She sighed. "What do you want to do now? After drinking all that tea, I'm not really ready to go to bed yet."

"If you want, I could give another demonstration? It's been a while since we've done a proper seance."

"Oh wow. You mean…?"

Gene held the flashlight up to his face and grinned. "Yup. I'll channel Charlie for you."

Chapter Text

Chapter 21

 

Having decided their next activity, Gene then requested that they take a short break before actually starting the seance. So Naru went to turn the lights back on, and they all went their separate ways for a period.

But when Mai returned from the restroom, she found Gene arranging several chairs in a circle.

"Gene? What're you doing?"

"Getting the blanket fort started." He waved her over. "Quick, before Noll comes back."

She helped him spread the blankets out on the floor and over the chairs. "What about the seance?"

"Well, I was thinking we could save time and do the seance inside the blanket fort."

"What about candles? Don't you need those?"

"They're bells and whistles, mostly. Helps put you in the mood, but I don't really need them. Besides, I think it'll be more fun this way!"

"Hmm, I guess." Honestly, she had been expecting something more dramatic, but what did she know? And he sure seemed confident in his abilities.

Gene grabbed some books off the nearby shelves and stacked them on the chairs to secure the ends of the blankets. Mai watched this dubiously, just knowing it would end up annoying Naru even further.

And speak of the devil, she saw Naru approaching.

"Oh shit, hide!" Gene hissed, then dove into the blanket fort. Mai grabbed the pillows and followed him inside, giggling.

Through the space between the edge of the blankets and the floor, she saw Naru's feet come to a stop a few feet away.

"The hell is this?" he said.

"Didn't we agree on a blanket fort, Noll? Come inside! It turned out great!"

"This is ridiculous," Naru grumbled. "I'm not going in there."

"Come on, Noll! Learn to live a little!"

"Yeah, don't be such a spoil sport!"

"I never agreed to this in the first place."

"It's just a blanket fort, Naru! There's nothing to be afraid of!"

They began cooing, coaxing him to the blanket fort as if he were a frightened animal.

"Here, Noll!" Gene whistled. "Over here now!"

"It's okay! You can do it! Just a little closer!"

Gene pulled a book from behind him. "Look, Noll! I've got your book!" He teased it under the blanket. "Come on, boy! Come and get it!"

Mai doubled over in a fit of giggles.

Naru clicked his tongue. "Give me that." He strode over.

"Nu-uh! You have to come inside!" Gene hid the book behind his back again.

"Fine. There are plenty of other books out here I could be reading."

"Ah, but then you'll miss the seance! Don't you want to speak to Charlie?"

So this had been Gene's true aim.

"You can do that out here."

"Nope, I'm too comfy. Don't feel like moving."

She heard Naru sigh, mutter "Moronic," and then he crouched to enter the blanket fort. Mai moved over to make room. A minute later, Naru sat with his arms crossed and face turned, staring resolutely at a blanket wall.

"See? Isn't this cozy?" Gene grinned in the dim light.

"Just get on with it."

"Alright." Gene turned to Mai. "Before we start, have you ever attended a seance before?"

Mai shook her head. "Well, I've used a Ouija board once in junior high. Does that count?"

"Not really. Unless you're a professional, you can't usually summon a spirit using Ouija boards."

"And I'm guessing you're not going to use one?"

"Right. There are two ways to summon a spirit. Evocation, which is conjuring a spirit without possession. And Channeling, where the medium goes into a trance, allowing a spirit to possess their body and talk through them."

"And you do Channeling?"

Gene smiled. "That's right."

"…Are you still able to see what's going on while it's inside you? Or are you shut out of your body completely?"

"It depends. If a spirit possesses you by force, you tend not to remember anything. But if you call on the spirit yourself, you can have a degree of control over it."

"And is that…useful?"

"At times, very. Like if the spirit has any last words for a loved one, it's better to let them say it themselves."

Mai nodded. That did make sense. While the thought of relinquishing control of one's body to another entity sounded scary, if it came to reuniting loved ones, that might just be worth it.

"Do you have anymore questions?"

"No." She shook her head. "I think that's it."

He nodded. "Okay. I'm gonna put myself in a trance now."

Gene closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Gradually, his breathing slowed, and his entire posture relaxed, until his head drooped, and he slumped forward, as if asleep. It took only a matter of minutes.

Unfortunately for Mai, the tense silence also called attention to a fact that had only just become apparent to her: they were all sitting very close.

The fort was big enough to fit three adults, but just barely. Mai became uncomfortably aware that she was squeezed into a tight space with two very attractive men. Her knee was brushing against Gene's, and if she moved just a little, her elbow would be knocking into Naru's.

Mai began to sweat. Who thought this would be a good idea?!

"Are you even paying attention?" Naru said under his breath. He sounded way too close.

"Uh, yeah?" she said distractedly.

Then Gene let out a deep sigh, and a shiver ran up Mai's back. Something was here.

Slowly, Gene straightened his posture. His eyelids fluttered open.

And then before her eyes, Gene became a different person.

As soon as he realized that she was in front of him, Gene began to twitch nervously, eyes flicking from her face to the floor. Though he still looked the same, it was clear: this was someone else looking through Gene's eyes.

Mai smiled hesitantly. "H-Hello, Charlie? Is that you?"

He gave a short nod, licking his lips.

Crap. She should have thought about what to say to him. "…How are you?"

"Dead," he croaked.

"Um…right." She faltered. "Uh, sorry about before, when we met. I didn't realize you were…you know…"

"It's alright," he mumbled. His hand moved to push up nonexistent glasses.

The conversation died there, as Mai tried thinking of something else to say. This was painfully awkward.

"Charlie," Naru spoke up suddenly. "I saw your new additions today."

"You did?!" Charlie leaned forward. "What did you think? Did it seem forced?"

"You took some leaps in logic. However, I think you have enough evidence to support your argument elsewhere in the paper."

And then the two of them launched into an in depth discussion concerning Charlie's thesis.

Wide-eyed, Mai looked back and forth between them, trying to follow the conversation. But it was a lost cause. As soon as they had started, they were in their own little world.

Finally, Naru listed out a number of suggestions, while Charlie nodded eagerly.

"Yes, yes, good point, Oliver! Thank you, I'll take note of that—" He looked around, but there was no pen or paper in sight.

"I'll leave a summary of my comments on top of your draft," Naru said. "You should find it there."

"Excellent. I'll definitely take a look. Please give Eugene my thanks again."

Naru nodded.

Charlie sat back, looking satisfied. He closed his eyes, and then, as if a transparent film lifted off, he was gone, leaving only Gene, still in a trance.

"Wow," Mai said after a moment. "Nerds."

"Thank you for such eloquent commentary." Naru rolled his eyes.

"No seriously, I was totally feeling the bromance there," she teased, nudging him with her elbow. "I didn't even know you could talk that much."

He turned to look at her. "Perhaps the problem is the lack of intelligent individuals with whom I could hold conversation."

Mai scoffed. "Oh, I see. So I just need to get my nerd game on, then you'd be all over me."

Naru smirked. "I didn't realize you were so desperate for attention."

Her mind ground to a halt. Wait…what were they talking about again? "U-u-uh, well…"

"Are you guys done flirting yet?" Gene yawned.

Mai jumped. She hadn't realized he'd woken up. "W-we weren't…"

Gene waved a hand nonchalantly. "I mean, if you want to continue, then by all means, go ahead. Just pretend I'm not here. I'll take a nap, so wake me when you're done."

Her face felt so hot right now, Mai was sure steam must be coming out of her ears.

Naru glowered. "Gene. That's enough. You're making her uncomfortable."

"Oh, would you prefer I go somewhere else then?" Gene grinned. "How loud do you plan on being, exactly?"

Mai squealed. "Gene! Cut it out!" She chucked a pillow at his face.

Gene caught it, laughing. "Okay, okay, sorry!"

She and Naru breathed a sigh of relief.

"…But seriously, you two should just make out."

Then, with a loud screeching of chairs across floor, the blanket fort collapsed in on itself.

In the ensuing scramble to escape the heap of blankets, Mai reached out blindly, and felt her fingers connect with someone's face.

"Ow!"

"Sorry!" she squeaked, and moved in the other direction. Only to crash her head against someone else's.

"Agh!" they both cried.

She crawled in the opposite direction again and found the edge of the blankets. Once free, she took a gasp of air, wincing at the bright lights of the library.

Soon after, Gene emerged from beside her, rubbing his eye. And from the other end of the blankets, Naru crawled out, rubbing his forehead. Oh.

Gene collapsed on the floor, laughing breathlessly. "So much for the blanket fort!"

 


 

After that, they cleaned up what remained of the blanket fort, Mai and Gene folding blankets while Naru put away all the books. Naru finished his part in record time, and walked off without a word, or even a glance in their direction.

Mai decided to follow Naru's example and gave Gene the silent treatment. It proved surprisingly effective.

"Mai~~ I'm really sorry! Please forgive me?" Gene whined, as they folded a blanket together.

"I asked you not to tell him," she hissed, finally breaking her silence.

"Technically, I didn't!"

"Did you even hear what was coming out of your mouth?!"

"Again, I'm sorry! But…I just couldn't resist! And in a way, it's you guys' fault." He let out a chuckle. "You totally forgot I was there!"

"That's it." Mai let go of her end of the blanket, letting it fall. "You can clean up the rest by yourself."

"Aww, come on, Mai!"

"Have fun." She began to walk away. "I'm going to try and straighten out this mess."

"Hey, but in all seriousness, Mai?" he called after her. "You know it wouldn't be any fun teasing if he didn't like you, right?" Gene sent her a wink.

She felt her face heat up again. "...Do me a favor, Gene. Don't get my hopes up." Then she sped away before he could get another word in.

Stupid Gene. He didn't know what he was talking about. Sure, he was Naru's twin, and knew him better than anyone, but still! It was all nonsense.

But the way Naru had looked at her back there…for a second, it made her wonder…

No no no no no! Mai smacked herself on the cheeks. She had already made up her mind that she wouldn't pursue a relationship. She didn't need this kind of temptation!

She found Naru a short while later, sitting at a table and writing something on his notepad. She had to take a moment to compose herself first, hiding behind a bookcase and covering her face with her hands as she remembered what happened earlier. God, she could just die from embarrassment. But more importantly, what did Naru think of it? Was he grossed out by the insinuations? He'd barely even looked at her since the blanket fort collapsed…what if he didn't want to talk to her?

But she couldn't go on avoiding him. It would be like ripping off a bandaid. She could do this.

Gathering her nerves, Mai walked up behind him and cleared her throat. "Hey…what are you up to?"

"What does it look like?" he grumbled.

"Uh…" Great. He was still in a bad mood.

"I'm writing my comments for Charlie."

"Oh."

Another moment lapsed in silence. Mai bit her lip. How should she approach this subject? Her mouth began moving before she'd decided. "Um, so about earlier. I wasn't trying to hit on you or anything…"

"What?" He turned to look at her with a glare.

Mai panicked. "W-well, you seemed upset, so…I was worried you felt uncomfortable, that's all!"

"I am not upset." Naru turned back to his notepad. "Gene is an idiot."

"Yeah…" She supposed that was one way to sum it up.

Mai sunk into the chair opposite from him, suddenly feeling exhausted. Maybe it wasn't such a big deal after all. Naru sure didn't seem to care. She sighed, watching him blankly.

A minute later, he ripped the pages out of his notepad and placed them on a stack of papers beside him.

That's when Mai noticed the fountain pen lying next to the papers. "Is that it? Charlie's pen?"

Naru nodded.

She eyed it nervously. "Huh. It looks so innocent…I'd never think it could have that kind of vision attached to it."

"I had hoped it could provide some clue as to his identity. Unfortunately, I never know what I might see until I try."

"Scary…"

"Have you ever touched it?" he asked.

"What, the pen? No. Not that I can recall, anyway. Why, because of that vision?"

"Yes…" Naru seemed to be lost in thought. A moment later, he sighed. "Mai…I have something to confess."

"Huh?" she blinked.

He looked away. "I admit, I have not been entirely forthcoming about some things…"

Whoa whoa whoa, where did this come from?!

"Wh-wh-what do you mean?" Mai asked, hardly daring to hope.

"I have used psychometry on you once in the past. By accident."

…Huh?

"Psychometry?" she repeated dumbly.

"You had dropped your mechanical pencil, and when I picked it up, it sucked me into a vision."

She blinked a few times, trying to process what he just said. Way to almost give her a heart attack! "Oh…okay. What did you see?"

"Your memories associated with it."

"…Was it the pink one?"

"Yes."

"Oh…" She looked down at the table, thinking about who had bought her the pencil.

He must have seen Mother. So he'd known about her all this time? And he'd never said anything…well, she could understand feeling awkward about it. And she had never thought to bring it up herself. In any case, if it was an accident, she couldn't really get mad about it.

"Mai." Naru's voice broke her out of her thoughts. "I would like to test something."

"What?" She looked up with a frown. "Another experiment? Now?" Sheesh. He really didn't know how to read the mood.

"Yes. I have been thinking about your vision of the library, and what might have triggered it."

"Oh, that again?" Mai sighed. "Couldn't it have just been a fluke?" Just like everything else…

"Perhaps. Or perhaps it was only a glimpse of your true potential. I know you have said you have no experience with psychometry, and have never had such visions before. So that leaves me to question what else might have triggered it. The vision as you described it was identical to the one I had before. And it just so happened that you saw it while I was using psychometry on your pencil."

"What are you getting at?"

"That I could be the reason you had that vision. Of course, this is only conjecture. But perhaps my using psychometry on you somehow connected our mental channels and triggered your post-cognitive vision. Or perhaps your mere proximity to other psychics caused your abilities to awaken. Or perhaps I had nothing to do with it, and it is entirely situation-based. In any case, I would like to recreate those circumstances, to see whether there might truly be a correlation."

Mai was having trouble following all this. She tilted her head. "Um, okay. So what you're saying is…?"

He let out an exasperated sigh. "Must I spell out everything?"

"Hey! I'm tired, okay?"

"I would like to try using psychometry on you again while you sleep, to see whether that might trigger another vision."

Her eyes widened. "What, like the one with Charlie? Cause I don't really want to go through that again…"

"That's understandable. But if you'd like, I could ask Gene to wake you immediately if you show any signs of having a vision. I am only offering considering we are here tonight to test your abilities."

Yeah, right. He clearly just wanted to satisfy his own curiosity. But, he did have a point. That was the whole reason they were here tonight. And so far, she'd been unsuccessful at everything else they'd tried. It might be nice to prove that she wasn't totally useless.

Mai took a deep breath. "…Okay. Let's give it a try."

 


 

"Wait," Gene interrupted later, as Naru explained the plan. "You told her about that?"

Mai looked at Gene. "You knew?"

"Oh, uh, yeah…Noll told me about it the night it happened."

"More secrets, huh?" Mai pouted. What else were they still hiding?

"I had to tell her," Naru said. "If we are doing this, it needs to be with her permission."

"Yeah, no experimenting on me without my permission, Naru." Mai rolled her eyes.

"Well, I agree with that, but…" Gene pursed his lips. "…Is this really a good idea? We don't know what might happen…what if she sees something scary again?"

"That is why it will be your job to wake her in the event that that happens."

"There's also privacy concerns…are you sure you're okay with this, Mai?" Gene turned to her, eyebrows furrowed worriedly.

Mai shrugged. "I don't have anything to hide. And we're already dealing with ghosts, so I'm prepared for a degree of scary. Just…be sure to wake me, okay?"

He still didn't look convinced, so she smiled. "You wanted to help me get to know myself, right? Maybe, if this is something I can really do, it'll be useful someday."

To be honest, she wasn't convinced that anything would happen at all. But it was worth a try.

"Well, okay…"

They made a makeshift bed out of the blankets and pillows for her to lie on. Once everything was set up, Naru turned to her. "Mai, I'll need something of yours to do a reading on. Preferably something you use or carry often."

"Oh, right. I didn't bring my pencil this time, so…" Mai searched her pockets. But when her fingers came in contact with the object, she hesitated. "Um, there's this…" She took it out and showed him.

"A key?"

She nodded. "It was the key to my childhood home in Kanagawa. I carry it around now as a lucky charm. Do you think it would work?"

His eyebrows rose. "…Yes, it would."

She handed it over to him, her heart quickening as she did.

Mai lay down on the makeshift bed, the twins kneeling on either side of her. Gene held her hand and smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry, I'll be right here."

"Y-yeah." Why…was she so nervous all of a sudden?

She glanced at Naru beside her, with her key in his palm.

She felt like she had just handed over an important piece of herself. Which seemed silly, even though she knew it wasn't. In reality, that's exactly what she just did.

"H-hey, Naru?" she asked. "What kind of things would you be able to see exactly?"

"With this strong of an emotional mark, potentially anything."

"Anything?" Mai gulped. Maybe this was a bad idea after all. "You know, on second thought, there's some things I'd really rather you didn't see." Even as she said this, she inwardly cringed. That sounded so unfair. And after she'd pushed Naru to open up to her so much…

But Naru only nodded understandingly. "If I focus on finding one particular memory, it shouldn't be a problem. Is there anything you wouldn't mind me seeing? Anything you might have forgotten, that you'd like to relearn?"

Mai thought. "…My childhood home, maybe. It's been on my mind lately. And my Dad. I don't remember him very well, so um, just anything about him would be nice."

"Alright."

It was weird, talking about her family. She didn't do it often. It often just got too awkward and uncomfortable. And this, letting Naru actually peek into her past, was really personal. The whole thing made her nervous and…admittedly, a little scared.

She knew she had nothing to be afraid of. It's not like either of them would judge her for anything in her past. But this was something she'd struggled with even back when she dated Daidouji.

"Mai, you need to sleep for this to go anywhere. Close your eyes."

"Okay, okay," she mumbled.

She closed her eyes, willing her nerves to settle. Calm down. Calm down. She wouldn't even be able to fall asleep at this rate.

Minutes passed in silence. At last, Mai let out a frustrated growl and opened her eyes. "Ugh, I'm sorry, but I can't do it! I can't just sleep on command!"

She moved to sit up, and then froze.

Standing across from her a few feet away, and peering down at her curiously, was the blond-haired teenage boy.

"Oh…I guess I did fall asleep."

Mai groaned. But if this was just a normal dream, did that mean the experiment failed? Or maybe Naru hadn't started yet, and a vision was still to come? She glanced at the Naru beside her, frozen in place like a statue. It was no use, this Dream Naru couldn't tell her what was going on in the real world.

Sighing, Mai stood and walked over to the boy.

"Hi," she said.

The boy smiled nervously. "Having fun?"

Mai glanced back at the twins.

"I guess. Sorry it's not in Japan this time. Do you want to go somewhere else?"

"No, no!" The boy waved his hands. "This is just fine."

"Are you sure?" Mai raised an eyebrow. "There isn't much to do here."

"Yeah! I don't mind just hanging out." He looked around. "So…what are you doing in a library?"

"Well, there's a ghost here. Seemed like the perfect place to practice."

"Practice?"

"Medium stuff," she shrugged.

The boy looked around at his surroundings again. "A haunted library, huh…"

Mai sighed. "It kind of sucked, honestly. These guys think I could do all these things, but I keep failing. I feel so incompetent."

His eyes widened. "You're a psychic too?"

"Apparently. And I guess I've seen a few things, but it's so hit or miss. I'm not like them. It doesn't come naturally to me at all. And I know they keep explaining they don't expect me to succeed, but that just makes me feel worse, you know?"

She knew she was whining at this point, but what did it matter? It was her dream, she could vent if she wanted.

"Ugh, I didn't even care about having psychic abilities before! But next to them, I feel like…like…"

"You can't compare," the boy said quietly.

"Exactly!" She let out a big sigh. "It's bad enough that they're handsome and have people falling all over them wherever they go. That's seriously so annoying…"

"Then why do you like them?" The boy clenched his hands at his sides. "If you feel that way, why do you like them?"

Mai was at a momentary loss for words. "Well, obviously, they have a lot of good qualities too. I'm just being petty."

"Then you're just like the rest. You're 'falling all over them' too!" he accused.

"Uhh, sorry?" What got him so heated all of a sudden?

"Never mind," he said darkly. "I got what I came for. I'll leave you now." The boy walked away.

"Hey, wait…" What was that about? 'Got what he came for'? What did that mean?

But before she could think any further, she was pulled from sleep by the sound of Gene's voice.

"Noll! Noll, wake up!"

Mai jolted awake. Gene no longer kneeled beside her. Instead, he was next to Naru, who lay prone on the blanket beside her.

"Naru?"

Then the noise hit her. Banging, knocking, creaking, crashing, from all directions. She saw several chairs and tables scoot across the floor in front of her. Books toppled from a nearby shelf.

"Naru!"

She sat up. Even as Gene shouted and shook him, Naru was unresponsive, his eyes crammed shut, face twisted. Beads of sweat ran down his temple. His breath was labored. His hand, still clenched tight around the key.

What was happening? What went wrong?!

Mai hurriedly took his hand, and one by one, pried his fingers loose, until the key fell to the floor, its teeth having dug dark grooves into his palm.

"Noll, wake up! NOLL!"

Naru awoke with a gasp. His eyes immediately darted to her face. They widened, moisture gathering at the brims.

"N-Naru?"

The next moment, the look was gone. He covered his eyes with the back of his hand, letting out a shaky breath.

"Noll? What happened?"

"It's fine. It's…I'm fine." He lowered his hand, eyes now closed and expression back to being impassive. The noise and movement around them gradually died down.

Once it had all come to a stop, he tried to sit up, but then winced and lay back down.

"Naru?! Are you okay?"

"Shit," Gene muttered. "Okay, just take it easy. Try not to move."

"What's wrong? Gene, what happened to him?!"

"It's fine," Naru said again. "It's just some paralysis. It should fade after a while."

"It's okay, Mai." Gene gave her a weak smile. "This has happened before."

Something didn't feel right. Why was he paralyzed? Why did he look in pain? Why did he have tears in his eyes? What happened?!

"Naru." She looked straight down at him, meeting his eyes. "What did you see?"

His gaze slid from hers. "…It was a jumble. Memories from throughout your childhood. It was quite intense; I could hardly make sense of them. It overwhelmed me, that's all."

No. No, that wasn't right. It didn't make sense.

"Liar!" she shouted. "You're lying, I know it! Naru, tell me the truth! What did you see?!"

His eyes widened at her outburst. "I…"

Tears sprang to her eyes. She grabbed at his shoulders. "Tell me! It's about me, isn't it?! I have a right to know!"

"Hey, hey!" Gene cut in, trying to pull her back. "Mai, why don't you try to calm down?"

"No!" Mai shook her head. Of course, she knew. She knew there had to be a good reason for Naru to keep this from her. That he was trying to protect her somehow. But she didn't care. That look he gave her, when he opened his eyes…she needed to know what that meant.

Naru let out a deep sigh. "Alright."

At this, Mai drew back. She stared down at him, hands gripping her knees, waiting with bated breath.

His eyes remained averted as he spoke. "…Mai, I believe this key used to be in your mother's possession before it came to you. Correct?"

She sucked in a breath. "Y-yeah…"

"While I was searching for your childhood memories, I inadvertently synched to her instead of you."

"Oh god," she heard Gene say.

Mai suddenly felt cold, from head to toe. She stared at Naru, uncomprehending. "Wh-what…?"

Naru turned to look her straight in the eyes, his gaze full of regret. "She was worried for you to the very end."

And just like that, the wound was torn afresh. Tears spilled down her face. An unintelligible cry escaped her throat.

Before she knew it, Gene had her in his arms, and she was wailing into his shoulder, unstoppable. Her chest ached. She sobbed, harder than she had in years.

It was like the day of the accident all over again. Getting the call at school, learning what happened. Waiting at the hospital for the news. Listening to the doctors as they explained. All the while, her body and mind rejecting reality. Asking Why, Why, Why? How could this happen? How could she leave her?

She didn't know how long she cried. Eventually, she found herself curled up on the blankets between the twins, Gene still holding her against him as she was wracked with shuddering gasps.

The last thing she remembered before falling asleep was a soft whisper. So quiet that she could have imagined it.

"I'm sorry."

Chapter Text

Chapter 22

 

Mai cracked open her eyes. An unfamiliar ceiling came into view.

"Huh…?"

She blinked slowly. Where was she?

Groaning, Mai tried to sit up, only to realize that she was bundled in a cocoon of blankets on the floor. Oh yeah…she had slept over at the library. And, she now recalled, Naru and Gene had slept here with her.

Any other time, she might have been embarrassed by this, but right now she was too tired to care. Where had they gone off to, anyway? They were nowhere in sight.

Mai rubbed at puffy eyes and untangled herself from the blankets. She staggered towards the break room. Her mouth was dry, and her throat sore. Tea might be nice.

But as she approached the break room, she heard a voice from inside.

"…Shit."

Mai paused. That sounded like Gene.

The voice went on. "Do you think you can make it home?"

"I'll manage," came an identical voice.

"Let me see your head too."

What was going on? Mai peeked inside.

Naru sat in one of the chairs around the table. Gene stood in front of him, with his hand on Naru's head. Or at least, that's how it looked at first glance. But then she realized Gene was raising Naru's bangs, to inspect a dark bruise on his forehead.

Mai let out a sharp gasp, hands flying to her mouth.

Their heads whipped in her direction. Naru's bangs fell, hiding the bruise once again. "Oh no," Gene said.

She took a step back, the events of last night rushing back into memory. "What is that…what— what—"

Gene rushed to her side at once, only to then stumble over his words. "That…well…sometimes, when Noll gets hurt in visions…he gets hurt in real life too."

Mai shook her head, tears welling in her eyes. No. No, she never wanted this. It was bad enough that Mother had to suffer. To think that Naru experienced the same thing…

"W-we need to take him to a hospital!"

"What?" Gene blinked. "No, Mai, it's not that serious—"

"I'm not going to the hospital just for some bruises," Naru said.

"But you were— you were hit by a car!" Her voice broke.

"Not personally. Besides, I don't have insurance."

Gene put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Mai, try to calm down. I looked him over. It's okay."

"But you always say that and he's— he's not—"

"Mai." Naru pointed at the table. "Come here."

"But…but..."

"Sit."

Gene guided her to a chair and sat her down.

Naru slid a mug of hot tea over. "Drink."

Automatically, Mai clasped the mug in trembling hands and took a sip. The warmth and scent of earl gray immediately soothed her tired senses.

The twins were silent as she continued to drink, watching her carefully.

Once the mug was half empty, and her shaking had lessened, Mai finally set it down. "Sorry," she said. "For making you worry."

"It's fine, Mai," Gene said, taking a seat next to her.

Mai looked at Naru. Unwittingly, her eyes traveled up to his forehead, before she quickly lowered them back to her tea.

She did this to him. It was her fault.

Her hands tightened around the mug. "I'm…I'm sorry you got hurt. I should've told you the key used to belong to my mom."

Naru sighed. "It's not your fault. I failed to ask enough questions, and I failed to explain the risks properly. The experiment had been my idea in the first place."

"I should've seen it coming too," Gene muttered. "I think we all failed in some way…"

They lapsed into silence again.

When Mai finished the tea, Naru finally looked back up at her. "…And? Did you have a vision?" he asked.

"Noll!" Gene growled.

"It is a valid question."

"I'm not sure," Mai said. Did she have a vision during the experiment? She could dimly remember waking up in the library, seeing the boy…but nothing beyond that. "Sorry, after everything that happened, it's all fuzzy…"

"Well, we can't blame you for that," Gene said. "And Noll, just lay off the questions for now, okay?"

Naru sighed.

Minutes later, they were all chewing on snack bars from the vending machine for breakfast.

Gene spoke up. "Listen, Mai…we have to be out of here soon, but do you want to come over to our place later today?"

She blinked at him.

"I mean, we're not doing anything special. Just homework and stuff. But you're welcome to join us."

"Really? Is—is that okay?" She looked to Naru, who just nodded.

While a part of her just wanted to curl up in bed with her head under the covers, it was also a relief to think that she wouldn't have to spend the whole rest of the day alone.

Mai smiled. "…That'd be great. Thanks."

 


 

Once they finished breakfast, Mai and Gene hastily cleaned up the mess left from last night, righting furniture and shoving books back on shelves. Then they turned to packing up the blankets and pillows.

As they folded the blankets, something slipped out and landed on the floor with a clink.

Gene picked it up, then sighed, handing the key back to her. "Here…you should have this back."

"Oh…thanks." Mai gazed at the key in her palm, unsure how to feel about it anymore. Up to now, she had seen it as a lucky charm. A memento of happy, precious memories. She didn't think it also contained so much…pain. Swallowing heavily, Mai enclosed it in her hand and returned it to her pocket.

With everything packed, they went to the entrance, where Naru was already waiting, leaning against a wall and reading his book.

"Noll, ready?"

Naru turned to look at them and just nodded.

Mai eyed the luggage. They probably shouldn't expect Naru to do any heavy lifting right now. "Do you need help carrying anything?"

"It's fine," Gene said. "I've left the sleeping bags in the break room for now, so it's just these." He hefted the duffel bags. "Besides, you've got your suitcase."

"Well, okay. Then I think I'll drop off my stuff at my dorm and take a quick shower. Is it okay if I come by in an hour?"

"Yeah, that's fine."

Outside, the sky was gray and overcast. They walked out, and Naru locked the door behind them. Then they set off in their respective directions.

Mai paused to look back, watching the twins leave. She couldn't help but notice that Naru walked with a limp.

 


 

As it turned out, her shower was not 'quick' at all. She stood in there for nearly an hour, hot water pouring over her as she replayed memories of the day of the accident in her mind. Going over the facts and details.

There had been a traffic accident. Though Mother suffered injuries from impact with the car and ground, her death had not been instant. The ultimate cause: shock from blood loss.

"She was worried for you to the very end."

Those words repeated in her mind over and over. Mai wished she could ask Naru more about what he'd meant. Just how conscious had her mother been for all of it? What was she thinking in her last moments? Did she die with regrets?

Of course, it wasn't hard to imagine— Mother had been an orphan too, so she must have been worried about leaving her own daughter alone, with nowhere to go.

Was there something, anything she wanted to say? Any last words? Naru was the only one who could tell her now. The only one who could bridge the gap…

Mai shook her head, sending drops of water flying. No way. How would she even go about bringing that up? And would she want to make him relive all that again? But then, it's not like she would ever get another chance…

She turned the water off. The white noise of the shower dissipated, leaving only soft dripping sounds that seemed to amplify in the silence.

She quickly got dressed and grabbed her school bag, arriving at the twins' apartment far later than she had planned. Hopefully, they weren't waiting for her.

Mai knocked on the door.

No response.

She knocked again, then felt her phone vibrate in her pocket. Taking it out, she saw it was a text from Naru.

It's open.

She twisted the door knob and sure enough, it was unlocked. Mai peered inside. The hall and living room lights were on. "Hello?"

Nobody answered, but presumably at least Naru was here. She let herself in, shutting the door behind her and taking off her shoes.

Mai found Naru in the living room, lying on his back on the couch with a book in his hands, casting a shadow over his face. Not exactly a warm welcome, but she could forgive him for not wanting to get up, given the circumstances.

"Is Gene here?"

"He went out to buy groceries," Naru answered.

"Oh." Mai looked around at the sparse surroundings, noticing a few new dents in the walls. It had been awkward the last time she'd visited too, but this time she really felt like she was intruding. She hoped Gene would come home soon, to help smooth things out.

Mai set her bag down on the floor and sat in front of the coffee table. "So how are you feeling?"

Naru turned a page in his book. "Fine."

She was really starting to doubt his use of the word 'fine.' "Does it…still hurt?" she asked quietly.

He just grunted.

"Can I get you anything?"

"No."

"Are you sure? You don't need an— an ice pack or anything?"

"No."

"How about a pain reliever?"

"I already took one."

"Oh…do you want anything else?"

"No. Mai, would you quit fussing?"

"Sorry." Mai hugged her knees. She didn't want to annoy him. But she felt so helpless. "It's just…I never got to do anything for my mom while she was dying, so…"

Naru let out a long sigh. "…I'll have a glass of water."

Mai got up and went to the kitchen. After some calling back and forth about the location of the cups, she brought him back a mug of tap water, which now sat untouched on the coffee table.

For a lack of anything else to do, Mai got out her textbook and tried to read. But she just couldn't concentrate.

She wanted to ask after all. She wanted to know. She needed to.

After a few minutes, Mai finally gathered the nerve. "Hey…can I ask you something? About what you saw last night…"

Naru sighed wearily, as if he'd been expecting this. "Mai…"

"What?"

"That wouldn't be a good idea."

She cringed. This wasn't starting well. "Wh-why not?"

Naru sighed again, then shut his book and set it aside. He stared up at the ceiling, expressionless. "What would be the point, Mai? Would knowing all the morbid details bring you any peace?"

Mai shuddered, remembering the bruise, the limping. "Was it…that bad?" She wasn't sure she even wanted to know the answer.

"I've seen worse."

That still wasn't very reassuring.

She licked her lips. "Well, I…I'm not saying I want to know everything. I just want some answers, that's all. Unless…would it be too upsetting?"

What was she saying? Of course it would be upsetting. Maybe she should drop this. He clearly wasn't in the mood to talk…

But Naru just frowned. "Why is it so important for you to know?"

Mai stared. Did he even need to ask? "Because it's my mom."

He thought it over some more before shaking his head. "No. It's not my story to tell."

"But...you're the only one who can tell me."

"I shouldn't have even seen it in the first place. To be honest, I would rather just hurry and forget."

"Forget?" Her heart laced with pain. "…No!" she cried. "Don't forget!"

"What?" Naru looked at her.

And now she knew she was being selfish. To him, Mother was just a stranger. These memories were only a burden. But she couldn't help but think— but want that it meant a part of her lived in him now. In whatever shape or form.

"Memories are all that's left of her! You can't just— throw her away!"

He furrowed his eyebrows. "Why? It's just data."

His impassive words sent a chill down her spine. 'Data'? That was all this was to him?

Naru let out a sigh, then, gripping the back of the couch for support, he sat up and turned to face her.

"Mai. I am not your mother."

She gaped at him. "…What?"

"I cannot be her surrogate. I am no more her than I am you or Charlie."

Her jaw dropped. "I-I know that!" No way. Was he actually suggesting…? No. She wasn't trying to treat him like someone else. Let alone her mother. What the hell?

"I understand what you're trying to do. You think this might give you some connection to her." His tone wasn't harsh, but it wasn't kind either. "But she's gone, Mai. There's nothing you can do for her anymore."

She flinched.

Naru sighed. "Just let it go."

Hot tears brimmed in her eyes. She'd thought he of all people could understand. After all, it was something he'd experienced! He even had the scars to prove it! But it was becoming more clear by the minute. He didn't get it at all.

"…It's not that easy. I can't just stop caring. That's not how feelings work."

She clenched her hands in her lap. How dare he. What right did he have to decide something so personal for her? To psychoanalyze her? What did he even know?

Mai leaned forward, slamming her hands on the coffee table.

"You say you understand, but you don't! How could you? You don't even understand yourself, so how could you understand me?"

Naru blinked. "Mai—"

"How could you know how I feel?! It's not like— not like you—"

"Had a loving mother?" he finished bluntly.

Mai paled, drawing back. "N-no, that's not…that's not what I—"

"It's true," he said, a sardonic smile creeping across his lips. "Perhaps I don't understand. I can't muster any interest in my own mother, so I do find it difficult to relate to your situation."

"N-Naru, I…"

"However," he dropped the smile, now dead serious. "If there is one thing I do know, it's that your mother would not want you to torture yourself over this."

She took a sharp breath. The memory of that look in his eyes, that split second after he'd woken up, flashed in her mind.

How could he? How could he hold that knowledge, that connection, in front of her, almost within reach, and then refuse her any more?

Mai shot to her feet, glaring down at him even as tears blurred her vision. But before she could say another word, she heard the front door open.

"I'm home!" Gene called from the entrance. They both froze.

The door closed, there was some rustling, and then Gene walked into the living room, bags of groceries in his hands. "Hey, Mai! Sorry, I was hoping I could get back before you came…are you guys okay?"

Mai brushed at her eyes and took a step back. "Sorry, I…I think I'll just leave."

"What? Why?"

"Sorry. I shouldn't have come at all." She turned and hurried past Gene toward the entrance.

"No, Mai, you're totally welcome here!" Gene dropped the groceries and chased after her into the hall. "What, did you and Noll get in a fight?" he asked, lowering his voice to a whisper.

Mai stopped. She felt sick. She had probably just undone any progress that she'd made with Naru. How could he trust her again? How could either of them?

If Gene heard about what she'd said…would he be disappointed in her?

"Mai?" Gene tentatively touched her arm.

She shook her head, eyes stinging. "Sorry. Sorry. It's just, I said some things that I shouldn't have and…"

He let out a small sigh. "It's okay, Mai. You have every right to be upset about what happened. Noll knows that too, he won't hold it against you. This is just a really weird situation…I don't think there is a right way to deal with it."

She sniffed, trying to hold back more tears. His kind words were more than she deserved.

"I won't force you to stay. But we're both worried about you, and we want to help. Noll didn't complain about you coming, right?"

Mai glanced back toward the living room. True, while Naru hadn't been particularly welcoming or open to conversation, he didn't push her away either. She was doing the running away all on her own.

"I guess," she rasped.

Gene smiled. "Do you want to stay for lunch, at least? I could make grilled cheese."

Actually, despite having little to eat all day, she wasn't hungry. But Mai nodded. They were trying to help. Maybe this was one of those times she should accept…even if she couldn't stomach it at the moment.

"It's really easy to make, I'll show you how." Gene called out to the living room. "Noll, do you want some grilled cheese?" Without waiting for an answer, Gene grabbed the grocery bags and led the way into the kitchen.

He handed her a bag. "Here, will you put these in the pantry? It doesn't matter what shelf."

Sniffling, Mai complied and opened the nearly empty pantry. There were only a few items to put away. Pop-Tarts, peanut butter, cereal. A can of soup or two.

Meanwhile, Gene opened the refrigerator to store away the other groceries. Mai caught a peek inside; even with the new additions, it was nearly empty too. They didn't seem to have much in the way of fresh food.

Gene got out bread, cheese, and butter, then shut the door. "Okay, ready?"

Mai stood behind Gene, watching as he spread butter over one side of each slice of bread, then sandwiched slices of cheddar cheese between them. Then he heated a frying pan on the stove and began grilling them.

"Huh," Mai said, as he flipped a sandwich over. "That is easy."

"Right?" he grinned.

Gene served one sandwich, and then another, onto plates. "Here's yours. And here's Noll's. Could you take it in for him?" He started grilling the third sandwich.

Mai thought she would rather walk right out the door. But Gene was trying so hard. So she took the two plates and peered into the living room.

Naru was back where he was in the beginning, lying on the couch and reading. Mai couldn't help feeling slightly irritated at that. It was as if nothing had happened.

She entered, placed the plates on the coffee table, then hesitated.

She didn't feel like sitting next to him right now. But she didn't want to face him the whole time either. Mai wavered between the two choices, before approaching the couch.

"Um…can I…?"

Naru gave her a quick glance, then nodded.

Mai sat on the floor with her back to the couch. Soon Gene came with his own plate and sat across from her. "C'mon, Noll. Sit up and eat."

With a soft grunt, Naru sat up behind her. Mai tensed as he reached past her for a plate.

They ate in silence for a while.

"This is really good," Mai said at last. The toasted bread gave a satisfying crunch with each bite, and the melted cheese oozed out like molten gold. It was messy, but warm and comforting.

"I would hope so! It's the only thing I know how to cook," Gene admitted.

Mai smiled a little. "I'm not much for cooking either. Mostly just noodles. Udon in the winter, somen in the summer…and I buy all the side dishes at the convenience store."

"That sounds so good though." Gene pretended to wipe drool from his mouth. "To be honest, we've never had much Japanese food. But I'd love to try more of it."

"Well, it's not like I'm an expert either. I've never had anything fancy. I don't eat out much, and I buy most of my food for cheap. But my mother used to make things…I really miss it."

"Home cooking, huh?" Gene sighed. "That does sound nice."

"Yeah…" Mai lowered her sandwich, staring at her plate. "She was always busy, but she always tried to find time to cook. Even if we couldn't sit down to eat together, she'd make me a bento for lunch, or leave dinner for me in the refrigerator. I didn't even realize how much that meant until she was gone. I wish I'd appreciated it more. I wish I could thank her. I wish she could have realized that I wouldn't have minded buying lunch if it meant I could spend more time with her instead. And I wish I wasn't such an idiot, that I could have thought to help her more in the kitchen, if just to learn her recipes. I was such an idiot. I can never forgive myself for that."

Before she knew it, tears were streaming down her face. Mai didn't even know where any of this had come from. She'd never thought to put it into words.

The twins were silent, just listening as she went on.

"Sorry. I guess there's just a lot I've wanted to say, but…I never got the chance. I never got to say goodbye."

She took a shaky breath, then turned to look at Naru behind her. "And I know, saying it to you isn't the same thing. But it's the closest I've got right now. Okay?"

Naru just nodded. Good. At least he would give her that.

Gene handed her a wad of napkins. Mai wiped her hands and face and blew her nose.

"She sounds like a really good mother," Gene said softly. "She really must have loved you."

Mai smiled weakly. "I think she tried her best."

They went back to eating. But after they finished their sandwiches, Gene suddenly leaned forward. "Hey, I have an idea!"

"Huh?"

"We should all cook something together! Maybe something your mom used to make? I mean, we don't have to get it exactly right, it can be something new too! What do you think?"

Mai just stared at him.

Then Naru finally spoke up. "None of us can cook."

"Well, yeah, but we can pick something easy? Mai, do you have any ideas?"

"Um…" She thought. "I saw Japanese curry roux at the grocery store here. I guess if we just follow the directions on the box, it shouldn't be that hard? They sell microwaveable rice too…"

"Then we'll make curry!" Gene said, as if the matter was settled.

"You can't be serious," Naru muttered.

Somehow, Naru's attitude about it only made her more inclined towards the idea. "Sounds good to me," she huffed. "But um, do you guys have a pot?"

"No, but I can find one for cheap!" Gene rubbed his hands together in excitement. "What else do we need?"

"Uhh, a cutting board, a knife, a ladle?"

"This sounds like an unnecessary expense for one meal," Naru said. "One which may or may not even turn out edible. And if we move again, we won't be able to take these things with us."

"Aww, but it'll be fun! And it's not like Mai will be here forever." Gene gave his brother a pointed look. "I think the experience will be worth it."

"How about this?" Mai turned to Naru. "Gene and I will pay for everything and do all the work. All you have to do is show up hungry. Deal?"

Naru frowned down at her. But then he sighed. "Just don't burn the place down."

After that, Mai found herself sticking around, cheering up more as they made their plans. They decided on the date and time: Saturday night, after Gene got off from work.

Naru returned to reading, while Mai and Gene shared the coffee table between them as they did homework. For the rest of the afternoon, at least, she could put everything behind her.

 


 

Hours later, Mai checked the time on her phone. It should be getting dark now. She ought to get going if she wanted to make it to dinner.

She began to pack her things. "I should head back…"

Gene looked up. "Are you sure? You're welcome to stay longer. You can even stay over, if you want."

Mai smiled. "No, that's fine. I need to wake up early for school anyway. Thanks for having me over though."

Gene climbed to his feet. "I'll walk you, then."

"What? Gene, it's okay. It's not even that late."

"I just want to walk with you," he shrugged. "Noll, you don't mind?"

Naru's book was shadowing his face again. "Do what you want," he muttered.

Mai didn't know what to say to that. But then, she didn't really know where things stood between them at the moment. Like Gene said, Naru didn't seem to hold anything against her for the things she'd said. But that didn't mean he wasn't hurt by it.

She should apologize. But…maybe she would sleep on it first.

She and Gene left the apartment. It must have rained while she was there, because the streets outside were wet and shining, reflecting the streetlights. A thin fog hung in the air, clammy and cold.

"They're saying it might snow again this week," Gene said as they walked. "Winter just won't let up, huh?"

Mai hummed noncommittally. Exhaustion was creeping up on her.

They stopped at an intersection, waiting for the light to change. Mai looked up, and realized where they were.

It was the intersection where she'd watched Gene help Temika. Just across the street, there was a new wreath placed at the scene of the accident. If she strained her ears, she could almost hear the sound of crying— only in her imagination, of course.

The light changed. Mai followed Gene across the street, her eyes still locked on the roadside memorial.

Deep down, something had felt off, that day. And now, it finally clicked.

"Hey, Gene…can I ask you something?"

"Hmm?"

"You said before, you searched for Temika's mother, but you couldn't find her. So you assumed she'd already crossed over, right?"

He nodded.

"I didn't really get that. I mean, Temika was still here. She was waiting for her mother all that time. How could she just leave her behind?"

He coughed awkwardly. "Well, I don't think that was any indication of how much she loved her daughter or anything. Sometimes, people just don't linger. No one can say why."

"But I don't get that."

Gene stopped walking. "Mai…you're worried about your own mother?"

She nodded.

He took a deep breath. "All I can say is, I've never sensed that anything was haunting you, Mai."

"How would you know, though? Can ghosts cross oceans? Maybe she's still around, she's just not here?"

"I…honestly don't know," he admitted.

"What if she's still stuck at the site of the accident?" Her voice hitched. "What if she's always been around, and I just never noticed, because I couldn't see her?"

If only she was like Gene. If only she wasn't so useless.

"Mai." Gene stepped closer, grasping her shoulders. "I'm sorry. No, I can't say anything for sure. It's all just a gut feeling. But…not everyone who has regrets end up sticking around. Otherwise, nearly everyone would become a ghost. I don't know your mother personally, so this is something you'll have to ask yourself: Do you think she would linger?"

"But why wouldn't she? If she was so worried about me. I was so scared and alone. I wanted to see her again. I know it's horrible of me, but…I wished she did."

"You wished?" Gene smiled kindly. "As in past tense?"

"I…" Mai froze.

She thought back to the days and weeks and months following the accident. For a long time, she was scared and sad and lonely. And that had never really left her. But eventually, she took inspiration from the memory of her mother following Father's death. Steady and reliable despite the pain. It was a sad legacy to inherit, one that Mother knew too well. But Mai learned from example: she had to live.

Seeing that, even if Mother had lingered, what were the chances that she would still be around, even now?

Lost in thought, Mai only realized they'd reached the campus when Gene suddenly came to a stop.

"Will you be okay, Mai?" he asked. "If you still want to talk, I'm free."

She considered this, but shook her head. "It's fine. I'm pretty tired, so I'll probably just go to bed." She looked up at him sincerely. "Thanks, though. For everything."

He didn't say anything, just leaned over and gave her a quick hug. Mai was so surprised by the action that she didn't even think to hug him back before he pulled away.

"Goodnight, Mai." He gave her a bittersweet smile, then turned to leave.

Mai watched him go, a little stunned.

 


 

Later that evening, right as she got back from dinner, Mai's phone buzzed with a text. Expecting it would be Gene, she closed the door to her room behind her, then checked her phone.

Her heart skipped a beat. It was from Naru.

I'm sorry that I hurt you. What I said was insensitive.

Just that might have been enough, but then he went on.

However, I stand by my reasons.

"Fine. Then let's hear them," she muttered, and sat in bed, waiting for him to continue. He was going to continue, right? He wouldn't just leave it at that...but then, this was Naru.

Fortunately, the next part arrived a few minutes later.

To put it simply, your mother had a head injury. She spent much of the vision disoriented, her thoughts barely coherent. If you were expecting me to speak for her, I cannot do that. It wouldn't be my place, and it wouldn't be authentic. I would have to infer, to embellish, to make any meaningful sense of it. I assume that is not what you want.

Her heart sank. Yeah, that made sense. God. What had she been expecting? A fully formed monologue? This wasn't TV. This wasn't a movie. What was she, stupid?

While she was still processing this, he went on.

Moreover, I have seen this sort of scenario in the past. Three years ago, Gene and I worked for a psychic in San Francisco, where we used our abilities to help people communicate with their lost loved ones. At times, this helped them find closure. But other times, they became obsessive, and had difficulty letting go. It quickly became unhealthy.

Mai read this with held breath. He was sharing something about his past. Voluntarily.

The woman we worked for liked to exploit these people's pain for profit. She instructed us to feed them small amounts of information, just enough to keep them coming back for more. Only half of it was true, the rest embellished. The whole business was distasteful, to say the least, and we quit as soon as we could.

"Oh my god…"

Perhaps because of this, I jumped to conclusions. Perhaps I was wrong to think you would become as demanding and needy. But it is a dynamic I would like to avoid in our relationship.

Mai sat there for a long while, reading over these texts, letting them sink in. So this was what he'd been trying to get at today. He'd just done it extremely poorly. If he'd only explained this all earlier, instead of coming off as an unsympathetic asshole…

But she could see now. He'd been trying to be considerate, in his own way. He could have just made something up to placate her, but he chose honesty. She could respect that. And more than anything, she now saw the concern that underlaid his words. Concern for her, and for their friendship.

She composed her reply.

Thanks for explaining. I think I know where you're coming from now. I don't want that to happen to us either. I'm sorry. I jumped to conclusions too.

She took a deep breath.

Can you just answer one thing though? When you said she was worrying about me to the end...was that true?

She waited. Would he reply? She was tempted to just call, but maybe he felt more confident expressing himself by text. After all, it must take him a while to type on that ancient flip phone of his, but he did it anyway. She needed to be patient.

Finally, her phone buzzed.

Yes. Her thoughts, while scattered, were nonetheless focused on you the entire time.

That was it, then. That was all she would ever get. No message from beyond. No more.

Mai held back her tears long enough to type a reply. Thanks. That's all I need to know.

Then she put down her phone and dug out the key from her pocket. She stared at it, the metal warm in her hand.

"Thank you for worrying about me," she whispered. "I'm sorry I couldn't be there for you. But thank you. I think I'm okay now. You raised me to be strong, so I'll be okay."

She knew no one would hear this. But that didn't matter. This, too, would become part of the key's memory. It wouldn't just contain pain. But resilience too.

Chapter Text

Chapter 23

 

A car horn blared, loud and unceasing. In the distance, sirens and muffled voices. He saw only asphalt, filtered through a green haze.

The view changed, to that of a man in a hospital bed, his face gaunt and pale as the sheets around him.

"Take care of her for me."

A little girl sat in a swing, her pigtails fluttering in the wind.

"But I want to stay here."

A family altar, lit incense, framed pictures of lost loved ones.

"I'll do my best."

A girl in a school uniform, running to the door, lunch bag in hand.

"I'm going!"

The horn blared on and on into oblivion.

 


 

Oliver opened his eyes, the blaring still ringing in his head. It took him a moment to realize that it had morphed into a buzzing sound, coming from the cell phone beside his pillow.

Morning light filtered through the bedroom blinds and Oliver blinked drowsily. Someone was calling him?

Gene? No, Gene wouldn't call him on the phone. And Joanne already knew he wouldn't be coming in to work today. Which could only mean…

He picked up the call and put the phone to his ear.

"Hey, Naru!"

Mai sounded unusually chipper today, given how upset she had been the last time he saw her, but perhaps due to lingering influence from his dream, he felt relieved to hear it.

But just as quickly, he remembered that this feeling, these memories, did not belong to him— and that he should never have seen any of it.

"...Naru?"

"Yes?" he answered at last.

"Are you okay?"

Eyelids still heavy, Oliver let them drift back to a close. "Mm."

"I'm guessing you're staying home today?"

"Yes."

"Oh good. Um...I can bring you lunch if you want?"

"...Why?" While it would be convenient not to worry about feeding himself, after the past two days, Oliver had quite had his fill of social interaction.

"Well...you are hurt, and...I know I said some harsh things yesterday, so I...want to apologize…"

Had he imagined that text conversation? "You apologized last night."

She sputtered. "J-just because you're satisfied with that doesn't mean I am!"

"So this is just to satisfy yourself?"

Mai groaned. "Do you want food or not?"

For a second, he remembered the pitiful sight of her hugging her knees, asking for something, anything to do. "Fine."

"Okay, then see you soon!"

She hung up, and Oliver let the phone drop from his hand. He tried rolling to his side, and his body screamed its various aches and pains. He still felt sore all over. Either awake or asleep, there was no escape from it just yet.

Oliver sighed. Even after all that, she still wouldn't abandon them.

He recalled what Gene said yesterday morning in the library, looking down at a sleeping Mai after they'd woken up: "We've probably scared her off for good this time, huh?"

Afterwards, Gene had spent all day trying to keep Mai from leaving...and as usual, Oliver practically sabotaged all his efforts. Gene didn't blame him for it, but still, it was the least he could do to try to mitigate some of the damage.

Thankfully, it seemed to pay off. But now that they had staved off the inevitable once again, Gene would no doubt cling to her even more. It was a familiar pattern.

Mai, on the other hand, was less easy to predict. He just couldn't figure her out.

For instance, she'd asked if she could read his letter. But then she seemed to forget about it, scheduling something with Gene right when he'd been intending to finish it. It was enough to make him question whether she was really interested or had only said so out of courtesy.

And then there were these medium 'lessons.' From what Mai had said before, he'd thought she wasn't interested in exploring her abilities. Did she change her mind? Or was it just an excuse to spend time alone with Gene?

Yet they apparently wanted him to join them. So he went along under the assumption that she had changed her mind at some point, but even then, she didn't seem terribly interested when he engaged her in theory about her vision.

What was she even getting out of this? Was it worth all the grief he had caused her?

"You don't even understand yourself, so how could you understand me?"

She was right, of course. It really was stupid how much mental energy he'd expended on this.

"Stupid…" he murmured, and drifted back to sleep.

 


 

Mai hurried down the street toward the twins' apartment.

When she woke up this morning, she'd found a text from Gene waiting for her: Are you doing okay?

She'd smiled and responded with, I'm feeling a little better now.

And as she scrolled back through last night's conversation with Naru, she came to a decision. Enough moping; now it was time to give back.

To start with, her apology to Naru last night just didn't cut it, in her opinion. He'd beaten her to the punch by apologizing first, so hers just seemed like an afterthought. She needed to fix that. And Gene had been so kind and considerate yesterday. She wanted to thank him too. After all, she couldn't do anything for someone who was already gone, but she could treasure the people she had now.

So here she was, knocking on their door. Again, it took a while for Naru to answer. Just in case, she checked her phone and saw another text from Gene: Good to hear! Let me know if you need anything. :)

While waiting, she texted a reply. Okay! I'm bringing Naru lunch now.

She got another text soon after. Lucky bastard. Have fun!

Mai smothered a laugh, then looked up just in time to avoid the door swinging open, nearly hitting her in the face.

"Whoa!" she said, stumbling back. "You scared m—" Her voice left her.

"What?" Naru said, blinking sleepily. He wore a black t-shirt.

And sweatpants.

And to top it all off, he had a slight bed head.

Mai goggled at him. "Did you just wake up?"

He rubbed his eyes. "Is that a problem?"

"No! By all means, enjoy your day off." Maybe it was inappropriate, but she couldn't help appreciating the sight of this Ultimate Casual Naru.

Without another word, he limped off to the living room. Mai shut the door behind her and followed him.

"Are you really okay?"

"Tired." Naru sat on the couch and yawned.

"Can I get you anything?"

"Water. And Tylenol. In the bathroom cabinet."

Mai nodded, glad he was receptive to receiving help today.

She located the bathroom cabinet easily enough. But it had been duct taped shut. Mai sighed and spent the next minute ripping off tape.

Finally, she came back with a cup of water and Tylenol. "Here."

After he downed the pills and water, Mai opened her bag and dug out a napkin-wrapped bundle. "Sorry I woke you up. But I'll get out of your hair as soon as we're done eating, okay?" She handed it over.

Naru raised an eyebrow, unwrapping the bundle to reveal a hastily prepared sandwich. "Did you...make this?"

"I snuck it out of the dining hall. I can't afford to get carry out all the time." She flushed guiltily. "It's free food, don't complain!"

"I wasn't complaining," he sighed.

Mai sat on the floor and took out her own sandwich. She glanced at him as they ate, taking in his disheveled appearance again. Damn. It was so unfair that he could look good even like this. And not just good...cute. His eyes still had a sleepy glaze to them.

She shook her head. Snap out of it! She was here to apologize.

"So when do you think you'll come back to work?"

Naru chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "Possibly Wednesday."

"Do you want any help when you do?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Don't you have school?"

Mai shrugged. "I can spare a few hours."

"...What did you and Gene do with those books on the floor?"

"We put them back on the shelves."

"In what order?"

"Uhhh."

He sighed. "The last time you tried to 'help' by shelving books, you only created more work for me. You can't just stick them in there haphazardly. I had to go back and reshelve everything."

Mai pouted. "Jeez, sorry. We didn't have time, and it's better than having them lying around for people to trip on."

"You could have just stacked them on the tables."

"I thought that might look suspicious. Whatever, do you want me to take them all out again?"

"Yes. Lay them out on tables and I'll sort them. Then you can shelve them in that order."

Wow, that sounded like a lot of physical labor. But better that she did it than Naru in his current condition. "Got it," she nodded.

They fell back into silence. But a minute later, Naru spoke up again.

"And?"

"Huh?" she blinked.

"Will you be continuing your training with Gene?" he asked. Then added, "I ask only because he will likely feel too awkward to bring it up himself."

"Oh...I don't know." Mai looked at the remains of her sandwich. She hadn't even thought about their lessons until now; compared to everything else that had happened, it seemed so trivial. "Maybe."

"You aren't afraid?"

"What do you mean? Afraid of training?"

He didn't elaborate, just looking at her.

"...I mean, I guess I do sorta feel in over my head? Like with yesterday...you've been dealing with this stuff your whole life, and you still don't have it all figured out. And when I put myself in your shoes, I'm not sure that I could do much better. It's a lot more complicated than I expected..."

"...I see."

There was an awkward pause. Mai took a bite out of her sandwich, feeling self-conscious. Why was he asking her this all of a sudden anyway?

She gulped down her food and let out a nervous laugh. "That's probably not something I'll have to worry about though, with my abilities. I think we've established that I'm not nearly as capable as you guys."

"It's not a competition, Mai."

"I know."

"If you are using us as your point of comparison, then—"

"Yeah, I get it. You guys are special." That sounded snippier than she intended. But when she thought back to that night at the library, and her every failure to prove her potential, she could only recall disappointment.

Mai finished her sandwich and crumpled up the napkins in her hands. "And I know, Gene said my abilities could be trained, but he also said we don't have the time for that. So all I have to rely on is raw talent, which it turns out, I don't have much of anyway. So there doesn't seem to be much point anymore."

Naru furrowed his eyebrows. "I don't understand. What did you think was the 'point'?"

"Well, I was hoping I could actually do things with my abilities. And now...I guess I just feel silly for getting my hopes up like that."

"Hm. And I was under the impression you didn't care," Naru said.

"Yeah, I didn't care when we talked about it. But Gene changed my mind."

There was a sudden chill in the room.

"Oh?" he frowned.

Mai shivered. Yikes. Maybe that was the wrong thing to say...

"Wh-what I mean is, I'm not interested in it intellectually, like you are," she explained. "I wasn't even sure about these lessons when Gene first suggested them. I only wanted a few tips, you know, because I told your boss I was a medium. But when Gene showed me what he could do...it just seemed so useful. And I wished I could do that too."

Naru put a hand to his chin. "So you care more about practical applications."

"I guess," she sighed. "And I guess learning about this stuff could still be useful, even if I can't do it myself. It wouldn't hurt to continue. I just...have mixed feelings about it."

Mai rubbed her arms. The temperature seemed to be returning to normal now. "So, what do you think I should do?"

Naru took another bite of his sandwich before answering. "If you were really interested in developing or controlling your abilities, then it would be stupid to refuse help. However, that doesn't seem to be your true motive. What do you really want?"

"That's…" That was a good question. What did she want? Mai thought back to that night Gene demonstrated a cleansing for her. Gene, gently guiding Temika to the light. Temika, running to it with her hands outstretched. It had been so beautiful.

She thought about Charlie, the loneliness of his death. Naru, talking to Charlie in the blanket fort. The satisfaction in Charlie's face as he left Gene's body.

And then she thought of Naru, standing frozen in the library amid screams and chaos. Gene, breaking down in tears before her at the restaurant. Naru's voice on the phone, acknowledging that yes, she had helped.

Mai bit her lip. "I think...meeting you guys opened my eyes to a lot of things. I know now, that there's people out there like you, suffering in the shadows…I don't know what I want to do exactly, but I can't turn a blind eye on it anymore. I want to help."

Naru gave her an exasperated look. "Then you really are an idiot."

"Wh-what?!"

"You don't need to be a psychic to help people."

Mai blinked slowly. Well, when he put it that way...

"But...but Gene— he can do things no one else can. And that means he can help people in a way others can't. And I think that's really, really important…"

"That doesn't mean you should diminish what you are already capable of."

"I…" Mai didn't know what to say. Was that a compliment?

"I don't plan on relying on my abilities for the rest of my life either," Naru said. "Up to now, I had no choice. But there are other, better things I could be doing."

"R-right." Mai flushed. She must sound so short-sighted. "Sorry."

He looked away. "In any case, it is up to you what you want to do. If your mind is set on being a psychic, I'm sure Gene is still willing to help. But you will have to bring it up to him."

"Yeah…" she nodded. "I must've really worried him yesterday, huh?"

Naru said nothing and went back to eating.

She would figure it all out by the end of the week, Mai decided. But for now, she sent Gene another text:

By the way, I'm really looking forward to our curry party! ^^ Thanks for coming up with the idea! Talk to you soon~!

 


 

Sure enough, Naru returned to work on Wednesday, still limping, but not as badly as before.

Mai was waiting for him. In the hours between her afternoon and evening classes, she pulled out all the books she and Gene had shelved on Sunday, and after Naru sorted them, she began the task of reshelving them following his orders.

Joanne spotted them at one point as she was passing by. Looking amused, she said, "My, I didn't realize we had taken on a new employee."

Mai laughed nervously over an armful of books. "I'm just a volunteer."

They also caught a few stares from passing students, all of whom seemed to be thinking along the lines of, 'Look at those two, they're at it again.'

Jeez. It's not like they were making out or anything. People and their imaginations...

When they finished, she slumped over in a chair. "Ugh, I'm tired."

Naru just looked over the shelves and gave a nod of approval. "Good work."

She was glad to have done it anyway, but hearing those words made it feel all the more worthwhile.

Meanwhile, Gene contacted her several times over the week regarding what they would need for their curry party. They ended up deciding that he would buy the cooking utensils, while Mai would buy all the food.

On Friday, Gene sent her a text confirming that he had obtained everything on his end.

Great! I'll buy the rice and ingredients tomorrow, she texted back.

Can I go shopping with you? he asked. If you don't mind waiting until I'm out of work...

She replied, Of course! I need you to let me in your apartment anyway, so we might as well go together.

Oh duh, of course. Then I'll see you tomorrow?

Mai stared at his texts. Like Naru said, Gene hadn't even mentioned her training all week. Was he planning to bring it up when they met in person, or avoid the subject for the rest of her stay?

He was probably just afraid to hurt her again, or make her feel pressured to continue when she might not want to. Gene was very considerate, after all, and she appreciated the sentiment. But in this case, she was glad that Naru had straight up asked her, otherwise she might not have given it much thought herself.

She still didn't have a concrete goal, or even completely know how she felt about her own abilities. But for now, she did have one answer.

Mai sent her reply. See you tomorrow!

 


 

March

Saturday

 

Mai stood outside the grocery store, waiting. She rubbed her hands together, breath fogging in the night air. It was nearly April, why was it still so cold?

A little after 10:30 PM, she saw Gene exit the restaurant on the other side of the strip mall and hurry over to her.

"Sorry, did you wait?" he asked.

"Not too long."

"Oh good." He turned to head inside. "Ready?"

"Hold on, Gene."

"Hm?"

Mai wrapped her arms around him in a hug.

Gene jolted in surprise. "Whuh?!"

She pulled away quickly, a blush rising on her cheeks. "S-sorry. I just, uh, I wanted to thank you for being so kind to me last week, but I couldn't think of what I should do. I mean we're about to cook so I can't buy you food, and I don't think this is the kind of thing you pay back with money anyway, so this— this was all I could think of. Because I wasn't in the right mood to return your hug last week, but I am now." The longer she rambled, the more embarrassed she felt. Mai cringed. "I'm sorry. Was that weird?"

Gene had been staring at her, slack-jawed, but now he broke into a grin. "Nah. That was perfect."

She smiled, still feeling awkward, but relieved. Now she just needed to bring up the other thing.

But that could wait until later. First, shopping.

They entered the grocery store and went to the Asian foods section. Mai loaded up the cart with packages of microwaveable white rice, then found the curry roux and read the ingredients list on the back of the box.

"Hmm."

"Is there a problem?" Gene asked.

"No, just...you don't happen to know how to cook meat, do you?"

"...No?"

They looked at each other.

"Let's stick with vegetables."

"Yeah, that sounds safe."

After buying everything, they split the bags of groceries between them, Gene carrying the rice, and Mai carrying the rest. They left the store, setting off toward the apartment.

But no sooner had they started walking, Mai stopped. Something white and fluffy landed in her eyelashes. She looked up.

Snowflakes were gently falling from the dark sky, speckling their hair and clothes with white.

"Guess the meteorologists were right after all," Gene said.

"Yeah…" Mai said. She hoped it wouldn't be too heavy; Naru still had to walk home tonight too.

"Here, you'll catch a cold." Gene reached over, pulling her coat hood over her head.

Mai blinked, taken aback, but then she laughed.

"What?" Gene asked, putting his own hood up.

"That just seemed like a really big brotherly thing to do."

He looked confused for a moment. Then, as if realizing what he just did, he stammered, "Oh shit, sorry. I didn't even ask..."

"It's okay," Mai laughed again. "I don't mind." It made her feel kind of warm, actually.

Gene blushed and looked away.

They continued walking.

"Do you think Naru will be okay coming home, if it keeps snowing?"

"He'll be okay...he keeps an umbrella at work for times like this."

When they reached the apartment, Gene headed straight to the kitchen. "Just a minute, I'll get everything set up."

Mai deposited her bag of groceries on the counter. "Okay. Mind if I use your bathroom?"

"Go ahead."

Mai made her way down the hall. But before she could reach the bathroom, she paused, staring into the living room.

Something was different.

A plastic folding chair had been added to the living room furniture, right across from the couch and coffee table. And on the chair was a floral-patterned seat cushion.

"G-Gene…?"

"Yeah?" Gene stepped out of the kitchen.

She turned to him, teary-eyed, and pointed to the chair.

"Oh, that?" He rubbed the back of his neck bashfully. "Yeah…I felt bad for making you sit on the floor the other day. Sorry it's so cheap…"

"No, it's great! Thank you…"

She wiped her eyes and hurried to the bathroom, shutting herself inside.

She knew she shouldn't be getting so emotional over this. It wasn't a big deal. It was just a chair.

But to her, it meant a lot. They had created a place, just for her, in their home. Where before, there had only been a couch with room for two, now there was enough seating for three.

Mai smiled, tucking her hand into her pocket and touching her key. "Hey, Mom?" she whispered. "I've made some really nice friends over here…"

 


 

A short time later, the two of them stood in the kitchen, hands on their hips, surveying the ingredients set out on the counter. A box of curry roux, carrots, potatoes, and onions.

"All right," Gene said. "I've never done this before, so I'll be following your lead, Mai."

Mai looked at the back of the box again. "Let's see, first we chop the vegetables…I remember helping my mom with this, but I only peeled stuff…"

"Right." Gene handed her a knife, then picked up another knife and turned to the cutting board. "Then how about you do the peeling, and I'll do the chopping."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, just tell me how big you want the pieces."

Mai peeled the onions first. Then, as Gene chopped them, she started on the carrots next.

They worked slowly and carefully. Gene's chopping was pretty rough compared to how Mother used to do it; he couldn't seem to get the sizes even, so there was a mix of too-large and too-small pieces.

Mai smiled and shook her head. This definitely wasn't going to be like Mother's curry.

"That's weird," Gene frowned. "I didn't think it would be this hard…"

"It's fine," she laughed, now peeling the potatoes. "You should have seen me try to boil eggs for the first time."

"Oh? What happened?"

"Mom wanted me to boil them for her before she got home so she could make potato salad. I didn't think it would be hard, I saw her do it all the time. But then the water overflowed onto the stove, and the kitchen filled with smoke, and I panicked and tossed the whole pan in the sink, only I splashed myself with hot water in the process, so now I had burns down my arm, and the eggs were only half cooked, and most of them cracked open in the sink. It was such a mess…"

Gene's shoulders shook in silent laughter.

"And this is why I'm proud I can cook noodles now."

"Yes," he snickered, "you've come so far."

"Not eggs, though. I'm still not touching those."

Gene laughed again, then abruptly dropped his knife, hissing and clutching at his left hand.

"What's wrong?" Among the pieces of orange carrot on the cutting board, she now saw a splash of red. Blood dripped from his hand.

"Oh my god—" Mai dropped everything and rushed to his side with some paper towels.

"It's— it's fine, I just nicked myself," he winced, wrapping his hand in the towels, which immediately seeped red.

"First aid kit?!"

"Under the sink in the bathroom."

Mai dashed to the bathroom and found the cabinet under the sink.

It was duct taped shut.

She groaned and began ripping at tape. "Are you putting pressure on it?!" she called.

"Yeah!" Gene called back from the kitchen. "But wow, the blood just won't stop."

"Oh jeez." She hurried her efforts.

Having retrieved the first aid kit, Mai rushed back to the kitchen.

"Is it still bleeding?"

"Yep," he chuckled.

"And what's so funny?" she frowned, opening the first aid kit and digging out bandages.

"It's just that I thought this might happen."

"...Actually, so did I. But I thought it would be me."

"Good thing I sacrificed myself to the Cooking Gods instead, then."

She turned to him, exasperated. "Please don't tell me you did this on purpose?"

"Of course not! Just saying, if we needed a blood sacrifice, I've already got that covered."

"I'm not that desperate for a good meal," Mai muttered.

He laughed.

"Anyway, we need to stop the bleeding." Mai grabbed fresh paper towels and approached him. "Let me see?"

He removed the bloody towels and held his hand out to her.

She could see the cut was on his index finger, close to the knuckle. It didn't look too deep. The bleeding started again after a few seconds, but clearly it had begun to slow.

Relieved, Mai wrapped his finger with the fresh towels, then gripped it in her hand, applying pressure.

They stood like that for a while, Gene leaning against the counter, and Mai squeezing his finger. He looked away. "So, uh, how are things going?"

Mai cleared her throat. Maybe this would be a good time to bring it up.

"Well...I was thinking about what we should do for my training…"

"Oh...that." Gene cringed. "You don't have to worry about it, Mai. I understand if you want to quit. Something like that would turn anyone off…"

"No, that's not what I'm saying." Mai sighed. "I'd like to continue. But maybe we could change the focus?"

"Change focus?"

"Yeah. Instead of training my abilities, I want to learn more about you. How you came to learn and master all these things."

His eyes widened. "Oh, uh, sure. If that's what you really want…"

She nodded. "The way I see it, your knowledge and experience is really valuable. It'd be pretty stupid of me to turn it down. Even if I can't use it for myself, there's always the chance I might find someone who could."

Understanding dawned in his expression. "Like if you became a teacher?"

"Yeah. Something like that." She let go of his finger, checking on the cut again. The bleeding had stopped. She led him to the sink so he could wash the wound.

Once his finger had been cleaned and patted dry, Mai applied an antibiotic ointment.

"Honestly, I've never been particularly good at anything. I've always gone through life without any real direction. So thinking I had the same potential as you made me feel...special." She gulped. "But...I'm not like you, Gene. My abilities just aren't that reliable."

"Mai…"

She put a large bandaid over his finger. All done. But instead of letting go, she clasped his hand in hers.

She knew it was pathetic. Just because she got discouraged, now she wanted to half-ass things to avoid bruising her ego even more. She couldn't deny that.

But still, Naru's words gave her hope. There were more possibilities out there, and she wanted to keep herself open to all of them. So she would learn what she could for now, but there was no need to rush.

"Sorry. I know you wanted to teach me all these things. But I just think this would be a better use of our time."

"No, it's fine," Gene said. "I'm...sorry if you felt pressured. I think I got over-excited, being able to share this stuff with someone..."

"Gene…" She looked up at him. "I really look up to you, you know? And thanks to you, I'm finally figuring out what I want to do." She smiled. "So thank you."

He smiled back. Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, they hugged.

When they pulled back, Gene chuckled in relief. "Well, I'm glad we didn't ruin it for you completely. To be honest, I was nervous about bringing it up…"

Mai laughed. "Naru said you would be."

"He...did?"

"Yeah. We talked it out, and that really helped too."

Gene raised his eyebrows. "Oh...huh."

"By the way, I was wondering...Naru told me something then, but I'm not sure if I interpreted him correctly. Do you think you could translate…?"

"What'd he say?"

"Well, he was saying that if I wanted to help people, I don't need to be a psychic to do it. Then he said I shouldn't diminish what I'm already capable of…"

"Ahhh…" Gene's eyes softened. "He probably meant that you're fine just the way you are, Mai. You've already helped us out a bunch, so you shouldn't put yourself down so much."

"Holy crap, it's really like another language. Why does he have to phrase everything so harshly?!"

Gene laughed. "He's just shy, so he has trouble saying sentimental things like that."

"Shy, huh?" That was hard to imagine, but also not at all surprising. Mai smiled. "But I'm glad. I was hoping that's what he meant…"

Then she blushed, realizing what she was saying. Crap, she was practically asking to be teased now!

"A-anyway, we should get back to making this curry if we want to finish it in time!"

Gene looked amused. "Right."

She went to work washing off the knife and cutting board. "I'll do the rest of the chopping. No more knives for you, mister! You're on stirring duty."

"Yes ma'am."

"And no more funny stories! We need to be focused."

"Roger that. From now on, we're dead serious."

Of course, the seriousness didn't last. Once she'd finished peeling and chopping everything, and began sautéing the vegetables, Gene pestered her with cooking disaster stories of his own.

"...And that's when Noll forbade me from ever using a blender again."

"Okay, stop," she begged, between giggles. She turned off the hob; the onions were now a caramel brown, the carrots and potatoes singed nicely. She transferred the vegetables from the frying pan to a pot of water and consulted the box again.

"Now we wait for it to boil. Then we let it simmer, and add the roux, and simmer some more."

"Got it," he nodded, brandishing the ladle in his right hand.

Since the rest was pretty simple, Mai decided to leave it to him, only checking occasionally to see that nothing was going wrong. But Gene kept a close watch on the pot and seemed to have everything under control.

In the meantime, she cleaned the kitchen and put the first aid kit away. By now Mai was starving; she wasn't used to having dinner this late, and though she'd had a snack earlier in the evening to tide her over, the smell of sautéed vegetables had roused her appetite.

About ten minutes after they'd added the roux, Mai went to check on him again.

"What do you think?" Gene asked, stirring the pot.

Wow. It actually looked and smelled like curry. Did they really succeed? Mai's stomach growled loudly, and she was about to give her approval, but then she looked closer.

"Huh? Where'd all the potatoes go?"

Gene scratched his head. "I think they...dissolved? Is that supposed to happen?"

"...Um…"

The onions had disappeared too, blended into the thick brown curry. Only small bits of carrot could be made out.

"Maybe we overcooked it," Mai said.

"But we followed the directions, right?"

"I thought we did…"

"Have the Cooking Gods forsaken us?"

"Maybe your blood wasn't good enough, Gene."

"Hey!"

She took the ladle from him and gave it a stir. "Well...at least the consistency is okay. I'm sure it's edible, at least!"

Just then, she heard the front door open and close. Mai poked her head out of the kitchen and saw Naru setting down his umbrella.

"Naru, welcome home! Hope you're hungry!"

He just gave her a dubious glance before stooping to untie his boots.

Meanwhile, Gene had already gotten out bowls and spoons and was now excitedly tearing open packages of rice. Mai smiled and bounced on her toes; this was finally starting to feel like a party.

They had begun microwaving the rice when Naru stepped into the kitchen. He quickly scanned the room, as if checking for damage.

"Just in time, little bro! Ready to taste our masterpiece?" Gene winked.

Naru looked in the direction of the pot. "You call that a masterpiece?"

"Yeah! We put all our heart and soul into it! It's gotta taste good!"

Mai flashed a thumbs up. "Don't worry! I bet it's the best home cooking you'll ever have!"

"You bet?" Naru deadpanned. "Have either of you actually tasted it yet?"

They gave him a blank stare. "...No?"

He turned to leave. "I'm going to buy something."

"WAIT!"

They grabbed him before he could reach the door and managed to drag him down the hall into the living room.

"Have some faith, Noll!"

"Just give it a try first, okay?"

"It smells good, at least!"

"And besides, it's not too late for me to offer my blood!" Mai added.

"What?!" Naru said.

"I'm joking, I'm joking!"

They deposited him on the couch, then Gene turned to Mai. "You make sure he stays! I'll go serve the curry!"

"Yessir!" she saluted.

Gene ran back into the kitchen. Naru heaved an exhausted sigh, surrendering to his fate.

Mai put her hands on her hips, determined to watch over him. But now that she was here, her attention was stolen again by the chair. Her chair.

Maybe she could give it a try...

Shyly, but giddily, she edged over to the chair and took a seat. She gave a little wiggle, testing the cushion. It wasn't the most comfortable thing in the world, but she loved it all the same. Beaming, she looked up, only for her eyes to meet with Naru's, as he sat opposite her.

Smile frozen on her now burning face, she slowly lowered her gaze to the coffee table. He...probably saw the whole thing...

Thankfully, Gene soon returned to the living room, balancing three bowls of curry rice, two cans of soda, and a glass of water in his arms. "Behold, my serving skills!"

"Woooo!" Mai cheered.

"Thank you, thank you," Gene said, bowing his head as he laid everything out on the table. "I expect a big tip."

He sat on the couch and shoved a spoon in Naru's hand, then picked up his own spoon.

"Okay," Mai breathed. "The moment of truth."

She and Gene each scooped out a spoonful of rice and curry. They stuck the spoons in their mouths. Seconds passed. Then...

"Mmmmmm!" they both squealed.

"What is this?" Gene said, quickly eating another mouthful. "How is it so good?!"

"It's not my mom's curry, but it's still great!" Mai cried. "I missed this so much!"

"It's not as spicy as I expected, but it's savory, and a little sweet? So this is Japanese soul food! No wonder!"

Naru watched them scarf down the curry for a while, then took a bite himself. Afterwards, he ate steadily without comment.

Mai and Gene continued making a ruckus until their bowls were empty, at which point they sat back, quietly basking in the afterglow. Only the occasional clinks of Naru's spoon against his bowl rang out.

"...I think I want more," Gene said finally.

"Yeah, me too!"

Gene jumped up with his bowl and ran to the kitchen.

"Ah, wait up!" Mai stood, but was stopped as Naru held out his empty bowl to her.

She blinked at him. "What? Are you done? Or do you want more too?"

Naru didn't answer.

Mai narrowed her eyes. Setting her bowl back down, she crossed her arms and stared down at him silently, waiting. This staring contest lasted half a minute before Naru opened his mouth.

"…Seconds."

She beamed. "Coming right up!" She took both bowls and skipped to the kitchen.

Gene was peeking his head out into the hall, obviously listening, and mouthed the word 'victory' to her. Mai grinned back at him, and they exchanged a high five.

With second helpings served, they returned to the living room, and the three of them resumed eating, this time in contented, comfortable silence.

Halfway through, Mai put down her spoon, pausing to just take in this moment. She watched the two identical brothers eating across from her.

She couldn't remember the last time she felt so welcome in another person's space. As if she belonged there. Even when she visited her boyfriend's home, or lived with her teacher, it never felt like this.

She felt so warm inside.

"...This is nice," she murmured. "This must be what family feels like."

Smiling, she picked up her spoon again, but before she could raise it to her mouth, she noticed that all movement had ceased on the other side of the table.

Gene was gaping at her, tears in his eyes. Naru was frozen, staring wide-eyed down at his bowl.

...Oh. Had she said that out loud?! Mai waved her hands in front of her, face turning hot. "P-pretend you didn't hear that!"

Gene unfroze, letting out a short laugh. "Mai…"

"Please! I'm so embarrassed," she moaned, covering her face with her hands. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to presume…"

"Mai, it's all right. It's an honor."

She peeked through her fingers to see Gene smiling gently at her. He nudged Naru with his elbow. "Right?"

Naru glanced away, but gave a short nod.

"See?"

Mai laughed a little in relief. She was still embarrassed, but she lowered her hands and wiped the tears that had formed before she knew it.

Gene wiped his eyes too. Then a brief struggle ensued as he forcefully tried to make Naru bow his head to her, Naru fighting him off.

Mai laughed.

She was glad she came here after all.

 


 

In the end, between the three of them, they finished the entire pot of curry.

Oliver looked over the dirty pot, ladle, bowls, and spoons in the kitchen sink. Since the other two had done all the cooking, it was only fair that he did the washing up. He rolled up his sleeves and got to work.

Gene and Mai continued talking in the living room. From what he could make out over the running water, it sounded like Gene was telling her a story from his childhood, of the first time he had met another medium. Oliver assumed this meant Mai had talked to him. What conclusion did she reach?

He shook his head. No, it was none of his business.

So then...why did he intervene in the first place? He had been asking himself this question the whole week. It couldn't simply be because Gene was attached to her. Before, whenever Gene revealed that he had a new lover, Oliver would only shake his head. It wasn't even worth asking what happened to the last one.

But if he hadn't done it for Gene, then why? Simply because he felt responsible for the current mess?

Or perhaps...he'd just been curious. Yes. He wanted to know what Mai would do, and why. And since Mai did not tell him these things, he had no choice but to ask.

Why did it even matter to him? Oliver pursed his lips. None of it made any sense.

Then, to add to everything, Mai had to go and say that. 'Family.' That word never did them any favors. Normally, it would only make him wary. And yet, the way she said it...there was no intent behind it, either to coerce or deceive. She only spoke the words as they occurred to her. One might call that simple-minded. Or 'pure.'

Oliver turned off the sink. The voices in the living room had died down by now. He heard a door being opened, another murmur of voices, and then quiet. What was going on?

When he'd finished drying and putting everything away, Oliver returned to the living room. To his surprise, Mai was now lying on the couch under a blanket, fast asleep.

"She got sleepy," Gene explained, returning from the bedroom with another blanket in his arms. "Can't blame her, it's pretty late. I told her she could stay over for the night."

Oliver nodded. It wouldn't be a good idea to send her home at this hour, even if it weren't snowing.

He walked up to the couch. Mai was curled up on her side, hair splayed out on a spare pillow. Seeing the slow rise and fall of her shoulders, it surprised him how deeply she could fall asleep in such a short amount of time.

"As soon as she lay down, she was out like a light," Gene chuckled. He covered her with the extra blanket, then stepped back, gazing down at her fondly. "She's great, isn't she?"

Oliver didn't know what to say to that. But he could not disagree.

Gene nudged him with his elbow. "Didn't I tell you she'd love the chair?"

"She did seem stupidly happy about it."

"I knew this would be a good idea."

"You may be right on occasion," Oliver conceded.

Gene laughed. And then let out a sigh. "...I'm really going to miss her."

Oliver glanced at his brother, at the sad smile on his face.

What were they doing?

Mai was going to leave them, whether on good terms or bad. They knew that from the start. Letting her get this close...not only was it pointless, it was bordering on masochistic.

They should have learned by now. Again and again they had done this. Again and again...

Oliver reached down to tug the blanket higher on Mai's shoulder.

And again.

Chapter Text

Chapter 24

 

Sunlight poured in through the wide windows of the cozy living room. Mai blinked from where she stood beside the couch. This didn't look like the twins' apartment. There was a fireplace, wallpaper, more furniture, and quaint knick-knacks all over. Was this someone's house?

Not only that, across from the couch, in Mai's chair— no, in the place her chair would have been; this was a cushy loveseat— sat a young woman with blond hair.

Who's that? Mai wondered.

"Mr. Daniels has told me a lot about you two," the woman said, her gaze pointed slightly downward.

Mai turned to look at the couch. Two boys sat there, their bodies nearly engulfed by the large cushions. They looked about nine or ten years old, with black hair and blue eyes. Identical twin boys, wearing identical sullen expressions.

...Naru? Gene?

The woman looked between them, not sure who to address. "Eugene, I hear you have some imaginary friends? You know, I used to have one too when I was a kid," she said. "I played with her all the time."

One of the boys sighed. "They're not imaginary," he muttered.

"Of course, of course…" The woman seemed at a loss. She looked at the boy who had not spoken. "And Oliver, you like to read?"

Naru didn't even bother to answer, staring blankly at the coffee table.

"What kind of books do you like? Do you have a favorite author?"

Still no answer. Gene spoke for him. "Noll doesn't like fiction. He thinks it's a waste of time."

"Ah, a non-fiction reader." The woman nodded to herself. "What subjects are you interested in?"

"He likes science. But the books in school are too easy, so he thinks they're boring too."

The woman smiled. "Then I have just the thing."

She stood and left the room. In her absence, Gene craned his neck, trying to catch a peek through the open doorway. Naru merely sighed.

When the woman returned, she had a hardcover book in her hands. She sat across from them again and offered the book to Naru.

He blinked.

"I bought this just a while ago. Do you like astrophysics?"

Hesitantly, Naru accepted it. For a moment, he just sat there with the book closed in his lap, his hand laid flat on the cover.

Finally, Gene nudged him with his elbow, and Naru opened it. They both let out soft gasps.

Mai peered over the boys' heads. The book looked brand new, and nearly college-level. Page after page were filled with dense text in small-point font, and only sparse illustrations.

"You could keep it, if you'd like?" the woman said.

The boys looked up at her, disbelief clear on both their faces.

"Really…?" Gene asked quietly.

"Of course," the woman smiled.

Disbelief turned to awe. Gene's eyes filled with burgeoning hope. Naru lowered his gaze to the book again, running his fingers down the crisp white pages and sharp ink.

Mai smiled down at them. Good for you, Naru.

The scene faded, then the living room reappeared. Now Naru sat alone on the couch, reading the book, clearly engrossed.

Glimpsing movement in the corner of her eye, Mai turned and saw the blond-haired woman pass by in the nearby hallway, carrying a basket of laundry. Gene trailed behind, carrying a smaller laundry basket. He gazed up at her adoringly as they walked, like a puppy.

Days flew by as if put on fast forward. The pattern continued; Naru glued to his book, and Gene glued to the woman's side.

Naru even had the book open at the dining table.

"Oliver, no reading during dinner," the woman chided gently as she served food.

He glanced up, then silently, though reluctantly, closed the book.

Aww...you were actually a pretty cute kid.

Gene followed the woman all throughout the house, helping with various chores, acting like a perfect little angel.

At one point, he nearly followed her into the bathroom.

"Eugene?!" the woman gasped, a second away from closing the door in his face.

He flinched, then backed away, face red and mumbling an apology.

Mai giggled at this, half out of second-hand embarrassment, half because he was just so adorable.

The twins were in the living room again, sitting on the couch. Naru was reading as usual, while Gene contentedly ate a bowl of cereal and watched cartoons on TV.

Mai felt happy for them. But, at the same time, something was off. Gene never mentioned anything about this woman to her. Would this...could this last?

Then, as if her thoughts summoned it into reality, the scene changed.

She stood in a kitchen. The twins ran in, chased by an older boy. For a second, Mai thought they might be playing tag, until the boy snatched the book out of Naru's hands.

"What's this?" he asked with a sneer. "You carry it everywhere. Is it like your blankie?"

"Give it back!" Gene made a grab for it.

The boy held the book over his head, out of reach.

Oh no.

Meanwhile, Naru stood with his hands at his sides, expressionless.

The boy jeered at him. "What's wrong? Don't you care what happens to your precious book?"

Naru still gave no reaction.

"Then you won't care if I do this." The boy gripped the sides of the cover and tugged.

Stop!

There was a ripping sound. The spine tore.

With a growl, Gene lunged at him.

A brief scuffle ensued. The book fell, landing at Naru's feet.

Before long, Gene was thrown to the floor too, with the older boy's hands at his throat.

No...stop!

Gene struggled to breath, trying unsuccessfully to free himself from the other boy's grip. The boy sat on top of him, laughing.

Stop it!

Then, a cold voice cut through the laughter.

"Let. Him. Go."

The boy looked up. His smile faded. A kitchen knife levitated in the air, the point just an inch from his face. Beyond it, Naru's blue eyes glared down at him.

Mai held her breath. Time seemed to come to a standstill.

A scream reverberated through the kitchen, breaking the silence. They all turned as one to see the blond-haired woman standing in the doorway, hands over her mouth in horror.

Oh no…

The scene changed. A small upstairs bedroom, with two twin beds lined along opposite walls. Naru sat on one of them.

In his hands were the remains of the once-beautiful book, the binding ripped apart, pages falling out. He tugged at a roll of tape, trying valiantly to put it back together.

He didn't cry, or appear outwardly upset, but she could see it in the slump of his small shoulders. His eyes, so bright when consumed with reading, now held a more hollow look.

I'm so sorry, Naru. Mai wished she could hug him, tell him that it wasn't his fault. He was only trying to protect Gene.

The door opened. The blond woman walked in, face pale. She held a tray in her hands. She placed it on the bed beside Naru and then backed away quickly.

Naru froze. Slowly, he turned to look at the tray. On it was a bowl of macaroni and cheese.

Mai stared with him, trying to comprehend. What? What's going on?

Then Gene entered the room, looking distressed. "Why? Why can't he sit at the table with us?" he demanded.

Lips tight, the woman turned and pulled Gene by the arm, trying to lead him out of the room.

"It's not fair!" Gene cried. "If he's eating here, then so am I!"

She continued to tug on his arm. "Eugene, come downstairs."

He dug in his heels. "No!"

"It's not safe," she hissed.

Gene's eyes lit up with fury. He wrenched his arm out of her grip, and then screamed, "I don't care!"

He gave the woman a hard shove. She stumbled out of the room. Gene slammed the door after her.

A moment of tense silence. And then, his shoulders shook. He began to sob.

Gene... Again, Mai wanted to run over to him, hold him tight. But she remained rooted to the spot.

She heard a sigh. Naru stared down at his ruined book. He set the tape dispenser aside. Then he climbed off the bed, crossed the room, and tossed the book in a wastebasket.

 


 

Mai opened her eyes.

She was back on the twins' couch in their small apartment. Sunlight streamed into the living room from the open door of the bedroom. A still silence hung in the air.

Though she'd returned to reality, Mai continued to lie there, in a daze.

What...was that? A dream? About the twins?

It had felt so real. She could recall everything as clear as if she'd been there. Their faces, familiar yet unfamiliar in their youth. The raw emotion. The heartbreak.

Why would she dream of something like that? What kind of person was she to place her friends in such a situation, even if only in her subconscious? Unless, of course, it wasn't just a dream…

And with that thought, she became fully awake. Where were her friends, anyway? And how long was she asleep? It seemed to be morning, but she couldn't tell what time it was.

Mai moved to sit up. And jumped.

Naru was sitting on the floor by her feet.

Already dressed, he sat cross-legged with his eyes closed, breathing slowly.

"...Naru?"

He didn't say anything, eyes still closed. He wasn't asleep, was he?

"What are you doing?"

His eyebrow twitched. "Meditating. What does it look like?"

"Okay? Do you always do that right here?"

"Yes. And before you ask, Gene was called in to take over an early shift, so he isn't here."

"Oh…"

And with that, Naru took a deep breath and went back to ignoring her.

At any other time, Mai might have been content to keep watching him, or simply go back to sleep. But seeing him there, she couldn't help but think back to that dream, comparing his features with that of his younger self.

"Hey...sorry to bother you, but since you're here anyway, I should probably tell you this before I forget."

"What?" he said irritably.

"I think...I just had a vision. And it was about you guys…"

Naru's eyes snapped open. He turned to her, now with rapt attention. "Tell me."

Mai took a deep breath, then described everything about the dream she could recall.

Afterwards, Naru stared down at the floor, expression grim.

Mai glanced at him nervously. "Well? Is any of that even real, or did my mind just make it up?"

"…These events did happen," he said finally.

"You're kidding. But how…?"

"Did Gene tell you about any of this?"

Mai shook her head.

Naru put a hand to his chin in thought. "The details are too specific and accurate to have been simply imagined…"

Mai gulped. So it really was a vision. "You weren't using psychometry, were you?"

"No."

"Then if it's not your psychometry...what else could have triggered it?"

"Your proximity to other psychics may play a factor after all. Or perhaps…" He regarded her in silence. "Perhaps your senses were trying to warn you."

"Warn me about what?"

He didn't reply. Instead, he asked, "Are you sure you haven't had visions like this before? About either of us?"

"I— maybe."

"Maybe?" he said sharply.

She winced. "Now that I think of it, I might have seen something right after Gene told me about your past, but I just assumed that my mind imagined it, and I can't remember exactly what I saw anyway...sorry, I'm not sure."

Naru opened his mouth to speak, but then seemed to change his mind, and just sighed. He sat back, shaking his head.

Mai bit her lip. "By the way...who was that woman? If…if you don't mind answering…"

"One of our foster mothers," Naru said. "...One of the better ones."

She thought he wouldn't elaborate beyond that, but after a moment, he went on.

"For a while, we had hoped that she might adopt us. Gene used to call her 'our Miss Honey.' He had read a book where a character named Miss Honey adopted a child with abilities like mine, and he became obsessed with the idea."

Mai nodded slowly. That sounded like a movie she'd seen once as a kid.

In that story, she saw all of Gene's young hopes laid out. The protagonist was a genius young girl with telekinetic powers, who lived with neglectful parents. But her teacher, Miss Honey, recognized the girl's intelligence. Eventually, the girl revealed her powers to Miss Honey and used them to save her from a horrible aunt. Then Miss Honey adopted her, and they lived happily ever after.

Her heart ached. She could see exactly why Gene would see themselves in that little girl, and why he would be looking for a Miss Honey of their own. It all seemed to be going so well too. If not for...

"Who was that boy?"

Naru sighed. "Another orphan. She was asked to take him in a few weeks after we'd arrived. We were already familiar with him, because he was like us; passed from home to home. He had a tendency to cause trouble wherever he went. It was only a matter of time before we clashed."

"You didn't explain that to her? That he was the one who started it?"

"Gene did. But that couldn't erase what she'd seen."

Naru fell silent after that, ruminating.

"To her credit, she sent him back right away," he continued. "And she still tried to care for us, even after that incident. She was never cruel. Our hopes were just too high."

"I don't agree with that," Mai said quietly. "She didn't have to treat you...like that."

"She was afraid. Fear is a natural response," he said. "If Gene hadn't blown up at her, we could have continued living comfortably."

"No," she said forcefully. "Gene was right to be angry. You can't expect him to be happy living with someone who thought you were a monster."

Naru looked away, eyes distant. "...Things rarely turn out as well as fiction. That's all."

Mai decided to drop the subject. He didn't seem to want to argue. And she'd probably just reminded him of something he would rather forget.

And then it sank in. What she'd seen was very personal. Neither of the twins had confided in her about it either. Would they have even wanted to, if given the chance…?

Naru climbed to his feet and looked down at her. "Breakfast?"

"What? Oh, um, sure." Shaking her head, she got up and followed him.

In the kitchen, Naru surveyed the contents of the pantry and pulled out a half-filled jar of instant coffee.

"We only have coffee."

"That's fine," Mai mumbled.

He went to a cabinet and got out two chipped mugs, placing them on the counter. Mai walked up beside him.

"Hey, um...I'm really sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to see all that. It just…happened."

Naru found a spoon and opened the jar of instant coffee. "It wouldn't be my place to blame you for that, Mai."

"But…" She knew how off-putting it must feel. Mai rubbed her arms. "...I still don't like it. It'd be one thing if you guys told me about it first. But this isn't how I want to get to know people. It just feels like…"

"Cheating," Naru said.

Mai looked at him in surprise. "Yeah...exactly."

Briefly, their eyes met. Then Naru turned his attention back to the mugs, focusing on spooning instant coffee into them.

Mai smiled. It made her feel a little better, at least, to know that he could relate.

"I guess you must always feel like that, huh? Whenever you accidentally see something?"

What a weird thing to have in common.

"No."

She blinked at him. "You don't?"

"It's usually just an annoyance. I've never cared to know more about other people, so it has never felt like that until recently."

"Huh. Guess that makes sense."

But then Mai paused. Wait. 'Until recently'? What did that mean?

How recently? Like as of last month? Or last week?

Her heart beat faster. If she was interpreting this correctly...in other words, he didn't feel guilty about seeing things accidentally until he actually had a personal interest? Did that...could that mean…?

"So...does that mean…you want to...get to know me?" Her question ended in a squeak.

Naru froze.

A rattling sound drew their gazes down, as one of the mugs first shook, then spun on the countertop, before falling off the side and onto the floor with a loud clink.

Naru clicked his tongue. The chipped mug had cracked open, sending small fragments and instant coffee all over the floor.

"Oops?" Mai said weakly.

"Move." Looking irritated, Naru pushed her out of the way and stormed out of the kitchen. She heard tape ripping, and then he returned with a dustpan and broom.

As he crouched to sweep the debris, Mai stepped up behind him. "Is there anything I can—"

"No." He threw an arm out. "Just stay back before you step on something. And don't hover over me."

"Okay, okay. Jeez." She went to stand by the wall. Way to overreact. Even if she did step on something, it wouldn't kill her.

What was he so grumpy about anyway? So what if he broke a mug? She broke stuff all the time and she didn't even have telekinetic powers.

"Was that your favorite mug or something?" she asked.

"I don't have a favorite mug," he grumbled. "They're all replaceable."

"Right…"

After he finished sweeping up the mess, Naru threw it all in the trash and left the kitchen. And went to the entrance.

"Um…" Mai watched him pull on his coat and boots. "Where are you going?"

"Out to eat."

She looked back into the kitchen. The remaining mug and open jar of instant coffee were still left on the counter. "I thought we were going to eat here?"

"I changed my mind."

Mai blinked. He was just going to leave her here? Alone? In his apartment? "Can I come with you?"

"Do what you want," he muttered, opening the door.

Mai rushed to gather her things and scrambled after him, lacing her boots outside as he locked the door.

The snow last night didn't seem to have been heavy. Most of it had melted already. The roads were clear and people were going out and about normally. Dodging piles of slush, Mai followed Naru to the nearby Starbucks, which was already crowded at this time of day.

Naru got in line in front of her, and when it was his turn, he only ordered hot tea.

"Aren't you going to eat anything?" Mai asked as he paid.

He ignored her and went to the waiting counter.

Mai frowned. She had been thinking of ordering lemon pound cake, but maybe she should go for something less sweet instead.

As they waited for their drinks, Mai looked around at the available tables. "Where do you want to sit?"

Just then, his drink was set out. Naru grabbed it and headed straight toward a table by the window without a word.

"Okay…"

Once she had her own drink, Mai walked over, pulled out a chair at his table, and sat. Naru stared out the window, seemingly lost in thought. Did he even notice she was there?

"Do you want half of my croissant?" she asked.

He ignored her, sipping his drink.

She split it in half anyway, placing one half on a napkin in the middle of the table.

Mai nibbled on the remaining half, glowering at him.

How long was he going to keep up the silent treatment? It was bad enough when they were out with Gene, but it was just the two of them here. Talk about rude.

But, come to think of it, he never answered her question back in the apartment. And that was worrying. Did she totally misinterpret everything and creep him out? Was she the one in the wrong here?

But...it's not like he told her to go away or leave him alone. He let her accompany him here, even sat with her as he drank his tea. If he really wanted her to get lost, he'd say so, right?

So what was his deal? They were actually connecting earlier, and now he suddenly decides to be aloof again?

She thought back to what Gene said yesterday. "He's just shy." Could that be it? Was Naru...embarrassed?

...No. No way. But then, what else could explain his mood change?

Mai fidgeted in her seat, suddenly feeling self-conscious. How must they look to outsiders right now? Certainly not like they were enjoying each others' company. It probably looked like they just had a fight and she had dragged him with her anyway. That wasn't fair. It made her seem like the bad guy.

Well, if she was just going to be ignored the whole time, there were other things she would rather be doing. Like taking a shower, and getting a change of clothes. She didn't have to sit here and take it.

She finished her food, threw out the trash, then returned to the table to get her purse. "I think I'll go home now."

No response.

"Feel free to have the croissant. I'm not eating it anyway."

He still didn't acknowledge her.

Mai frowned. Then, she had an idea. Or rather, an impulsive whim, but it sounded so appealing at that moment that she decided to act on it before she could change her mind.

Ignore this.

"Well, seeya," she said, then leaned down and pecked him on the cheek.

In a perfect world, she would have then calmly strode off as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

Instead, she ran.

Bursting through the cafe door, she tore down the street. Five blocks later, Mai finally stopped to catch her breath. Her heart hammered so hard she thought it might jump out of her throat. Oh god, what had she just done?!

"Oh my god oh my god oh my god…"

What had she been thinking?! She might have just ruined everything, and for what?! A mere millisecond of smug satisfaction?!

Maybe it wasn't too late. She could play it off as a joke or an accident! That might work, right?! Or maybe they could just pretend it never happened. No, no, she should say something! He might take it the wrong way! Well, technically, it was the right way, but he didn't need to know that!

Hands shaking, she pulled out her phone. Crap! What the hell should she say?!

 


 

It all happened so quickly.

By the time Oliver turned to look at her, Mai was already out the door. By the time he realized what just happened, she was already two blocks away. He watched her dash down the street through the window, blinking.

Oliver put a hand to his cheek, finally registering the brush of lips on skin.

What… Did she just…?

The tables and chairs in the cafe began to vibrate. The other customers let out cries of surprise. "What?! An earthquake?!"

Shit.

He got to his feet and quickly left the cafe.

Soon, he found himself pacing back and forth in a deserted playground. He couldn't entirely recall how he got there. Around him, the swings, seesaw, and merry-go-round were all in full motion, as if a host of ghost children had come out to play.

Likewise, his thoughts were in a whirl. Why did she do— that? Did he unknowingly send some kind of message?

Admittedly, he hadn't been paying much attention to her since they left the apartment. It was entirely possible that he'd missed something. But what if this had something to do with what she'd asked in the kitchen?

Could it be that she'd misinterpreted what he said? Was she under the impression that they had started something?

Before his mind could begin to process the horror of that scenario, his logic clamped down on it. No, no. That would be ridiculous.

She must have tripped. Yes, that made the most sense. Surely it was just an accident.

But then why would she run off after making such an easily misinterpretable action? Wasn't that inconsiderate?

Perhaps she had been too embarrassed to apologize. Yes, that made perfect sense. But eventually she would have to say something? Otherwise he would be forced to come to the most obvious conclusion, and where would that leave them? How was he supposed to respond to something like that?

Suddenly her voice echoed in his memory. "It was kind of cute, actually."

He paused in his pacing. Then shook his head. Stupid Mai. How inconsiderate could a person be? Why did he have to waste time worrying about something like this? She owed him an explanation.

His phone buzzed. One of the swing chains snapped.

Oliver took out his phone and looked at the screen. The text was from Mai.

SORRY.

He breathed in slowly, then let out a long sigh.

So it was an accident after all.

Relief flooded through him, followed by a strange emptiness.

He wrote a reply. Be careful next time.

Her reply came only seconds later. OKAY.

What an idiot.

As he put his phone away, he realized belatedly that this would have been a perfect opportunity to tease her about her clumsiness. But he couldn't get in the mood.

He blinked at his surroundings, the playground equipment gradually slowing to a stop. What was he doing here? What had come over him? Did he just poltergeist in public?

Fortunately, there was no one around. But what about the cafe? There were plenty of witnesses there. What if someone put the pieces together?

...Why was any of this happening.

It didn't just start now. All morning, his head had been muddled, distracted, to the point that he didn't feel in full control over anything he said or did.

A chill ran down his back at the implications. He could have hurt someone without even realizing it. How irresponsible could he be?

Feeling faint, Oliver sat on a nearby bench. A wave of exhaustion came over him. He clutched his head.

Whatever it was, he knew it was her fault.

Chapter Text

Chapter 25

 

Mai sniffled. She sat on her bed, the picture book "Make Way for Ducklings" open in her hands. She had yet to read it properly since Naru bought it for her, and unable to concentrate on schoolwork, she had finally dug it out. But her focus only went as far as looking at the illustrations, and the cute pictures of ducklings traversing the now familiar Boston landscape only made her heart hurt even more.

Since returning to her dorm, she had spent much of the day trying (but failing) not to overanalyze Naru's last text.

'Be careful next time'? What did that even mean?!

'Next time' seemed to imply forgiveness— at least, that meant he wasn't cutting her off, right? Right?!

But 'be careful'...that definitely sounded like a warning. Oh god, did he figure out how she felt about him? Did she take it too far? Was he telling her to back off?!

Terrifying. This was terrifying. And she had no idea what to do next.

Groaning, Mai closed the book and set it aside. Even picture books were too challenging for her right now.

What she needed was advice. And she thought of asking Gene at first, but where would she begin? That she had unwittingly witnessed a painful episode from his past? Or that she'd kissed his brother without consent? With her nerves frayed enough as they were, it was more than she could handle at the moment.

Mai grabbed her phone and looked at the time. It was currently Sunday evening. Which meant that in Japan, it would be Monday morning. Maybe it was too early now, but they might be able to get back to her before her first class at least...

She typed an email.

Please help. I screwed up.

(And yes, this is about 'the guy.')

Once sent, she drew the covers over her head and willed herself to sleep. Whatever happens, she would deal with it in the morning.

 


 

Gene finally returned that evening, having apparently picked up an extra shift on top of the one he'd covered in the morning.

By then, Oliver had finished tidying the kitchen and spent the afternoon lying on the couch, trying in vain to clear his head and forget what had happened. He winced as he heard the front door open, accompanied by his brother's call of "I'm home~!"

A moment later, Gene appeared in the living room. "Huh, where's Mai?"

"She went home. Obviously."

"Damn, I missed her."

Oliver sighed. "Did you really think she would still be here?"

"I don't know, you two seem to get up to interesting things while I'm not around," Gene said with a cheeky grin. "So, did you have fun?"

Glaring up at the ceiling, Oliver thought back to that morning, when Gene received the call from his manager. While initially peeved that he had to come in on such short notice, a mischievous gleam had then entered his eye. Afterwards, Gene went out the door with a wave and a smirk. "Look after Mai for me~"

Of course, Oliver realized what he was up to, but merely rolled his eyes. As if leaving him and Mai alone for a few hours could change anything.

If only he'd known.

"Hmm?" Gene leaned closer. "Did something happen?"

Oliver considered his options. If he told Gene everything, then he would have to deal with incessant teasing for an undetermined amount of time. Or he could ignore him, and deal with incessant pestering for an undetermined amount of time.

The first option didn't agree with him at all. Not only would it be incredibly annoying, he did not feel inclined to reward Gene for his machinations. The latter option also had its own dangers; once Gene grew tired of pestering, he might turn to Mai for details, and who knew what that could lead to?

And so Oliver settled for a third option: telling only part of the truth.

"Mai had a vision."

Gene froze. "...What?"

"When she woke up, she told me she had dreamed of something from our past."

His brother's eyes widened. Clearly, not what he'd expected to hear. "What...what did she…?"

"Did you ever tell her about 'Miss Honey'?"

"No— oh, shit." Gene turned pale. "She saw that?"

Seeing him look unsteady on his feet, Oliver sat up to make room on the couch. Gene sat down heavily beside him, face in his hands.

Oliver waited for him to process this. Losing Miss Honey had been especially devastating for Gene, and this no doubt unearthed some buried memories.

"It could have been worse," he offered as consolation.

"Yeah," Gene sighed, lowering his hands. "It really could have."

An uneasy silence hung between them, as examples of 'worse' crossed their minds.

Gene smiled weakly. "I guess that was always the risk, huh? Befriending another psychic?"

Oliver glared at him. "I warned you about this at the very beginning."

"So you did." Gene shook his head. "And? How did she react?"

"Sympathetically."

"That's Mai, all right." Gene's smile widened. "...Yeah, I don't think we need to worry too much with her. Besides, if only for now, we're 'family,' right?"

That word again. As expected, Gene had latched onto it. Reflexively, their eyes came to rest on Mai's chair.

"What do you think?" Gene asked.

"What?"

"About Mai. This doesn't scare you off from her, right?"

"...You ask that now?" Oliver looked at him incredulously. "We have already crossed that line. She is too close for comfort."

Gene rolled his eyes. "Don't be so dramatic, Noll."

"Do you have any idea how much trouble she's caused me? I've had more accidents in the past two months than I have in the past two years. She is a menace."

Gene burst into laughter. "But you've adapted pretty well, all things considered! Remember how you freaked out the first time she came over?"

"And whose fault was that?" Oliver bristled.

"But now she can stay overnight and you don't even blink." Gene smiled at him. "I'm proud of you, Noll. You've come so far."

Oliver fell silent at the unexpected praise, lost for words.

"I think this proves my hypothesis. PK or not, you can form relationships. I mean, this is all new to you, so of course it's stressful at first. But you're adjusting. And I swear, you look more chill around her every time I see you together."

Now he gave Gene a dubious look. While it was true that he was getting used to Mai's presence, incidents like today's proved that dealing with her was still precarious at best.

None the wiser, Gene went on. "I'm really glad you found her. It's a valuable experience, you know?"

"...Experience?"

"Yeah. This way, you'll have it easier next time."

'Next time.' Oliver stared. The words did not compute at first, until he realized what Gene had said earlier. 'Relationships.' Plural.

The lights flickered briefly.

"...I see," Oliver said quietly, clenching his fists. "Is that how you see her, then? As a stepping stone? She hasn't even left and you're already looking past her."

A guilty look crossed Gene's face. "Well...I mean...there's not much we can do about her leaving…"

"Weren't you the one who said that if someone falls in your lap, you shouldn't let go of them?"

"And I meant that! But…"

"I would have expected you to be begging and pleading for her to stay."

Now Gene put on a bitter smile. "...I like to think that I've grown more realistic about things like that."

"You?" Oliver scoffed.

"Yeah. What's wrong with mentally preparing myself? If you don't like it, why don't you stop leaving everything up to me and go beg and plead yourself?"

"...It wouldn't change anything."

"Right? All you'd do is make her feel guilty for having her own life. We can't do that to her." Gene sighed. "Believe me, I wish she could stay. But I think the best we can hope for is that we'll find someone like her one day. Someone who actually lives in the same country."

"...In that case, I have a counterpoint to your hypothesis." Oliver folded his hands together. "Mai is a special case. She was uniquely suited to sympathizing with us, and the chances that we ever find someone like her are extremely low. Furthermore, just because I've acquired 'experience' doesn't mean I have the interest in pursuing something similar again. Frankly, it's exhausting. Mai is enough. I don't need anyone else."

Gene's mouth hung open. "...So, what are you going to do after she leaves, then?"

"Go on with my life. If you want to bring someone else into our circle, you can try. But don't expect me to treat them the same."

More stunned silence. Then Gene whistled. "Damn. I didn't realize you'd gotten so attached."

Oliver scowled. "That's not it. Unlike you, I don't need people around me to be happy. That's all."

"'I will never love another! No one else could compare!'" Gene swooned dramatically. "Isn't that what you just said?"

"Gene," Oliver growled.

"Honestly Noll, you're only 21. It's a little early to be pining after one girl for the rest of your life."

"Gene!"

Mai's chair fell over with a crash.

They both froze.

Oliver slowly turned to look at the space the chair had been inhabiting. Logically, he knew that he was the one who had caused it to topple. But somehow, he couldn't help but see Mai there, interjecting.

Gene got up. He went over to the chair and righted it, then looked down at it, pensive.

"...Don't get me wrong, Noll. Mai is special to me too." He sighed. "She accepted us. She proved that it was possible for us to become close to someone. And I'll never forget that."

He ran his hand over the back of the chair, smiling fondly.

"I'm really, really glad we met her. Thanks to her, I'm finally figuring out exactly what I want in a relationship. But she's not ours to keep."

"...I know."

Gene shrugged. "It's a lesson I had to learn over and over again. But this is your first time, right?"

"What are you talking about? I was with you all those times."

"Yeah, but you always kept your distance. From that couple who wanted to adopt me. From Miss Honey. And that one girl, in high school?"

"Gene—" Oliver growled. He was venturing into dangerous territory.

"And from Elijah." Gene's hands tightened on the chair. "We've both been let down, over and over. But I think this is the first time you might take it harder than I will."

It was becoming hard to breathe. Oliver stood up.

"I'm going to bed."

Gene raised an eyebrow. "Really? It's still early."

"I'm tired."

Thankfully, Gene didn't say any more, and just nodded.

Oliver shut the bedroom door behind him and lay down in bed, not even bothering to change clothes. He put a hand over his eyes, as the walls and ceiling reverberated with light knocking sounds.

Gene had grown more pragmatic than he'd expected. Which should have been a good thing, but for some reason, the conversation had left him...unsettled.

Was it because Gene had changed without him realizing? Because he couldn't read his twin anymore, and that caught him off guard?

Or was it the sheer hypocrisy of him pushing Oliver to become close to someone, knowing it couldn't last?

Or perhaps, more disturbingly, it was because Gene was right. That of the two of them, Oliver was the one more 'attached.'

Because Oliver could not relegate Mai to merely 'experience.' She had become something more than that. Something not so easily replaceable.

Oliver moved his hand to his cheek, where she had made contact that morning. It had been so fleeting, he could not say whether he hated or enjoyed it. Normally, the thought of a stranger sticking their face into his personal space would revolt him. But with Mai...he didn't know how he felt about it. In the aftermath, he had been less preoccupied over what she had done than what it could mean.

He could not tell if that held any significance. And there was no one he could ask for help in understanding it. Gene could throw around all the insinuations he wanted, but in reality, the only person who could possibly understand how Oliver felt was himself. And yet he didn't. For once, he envied the confidence and ease with which Gene could identify and articulate his own feelings.

Frustratingly, Gene also had a point about his lack of experience. He had nothing to compare this to. The closest thing to 'friendship' that he had was Charlie, but Charlie was long dead. And the closest thing to 'romance' was a series of unwanted advances and...something that never developed beyond being mere acquaintances. And even that was questionable.

If push came to shove, would he call Mai a 'friend'? Yes. 'Family'? Perhaps. But 'love' sounded like an exaggeration. 'Attraction' sounded just as alien. To tell the truth, none of it sounded quite right.

...If he had to assign a word to it, he supposed it would be 'trust.'

For example, if he were to avoid her tomorrow, he could trust that she would worry and come looking for him. And he could trust that she wouldn't easily abandon him, even if he upset her. The only other person he could trust to that extent was Gene.

She trusted him too, despite everything. She'd entrusted him with that key. Not only that, she tried to understand him...and he found himself wanting to understand her.

But beyond that, he didn't know what he wanted from her. He wouldn't mind if she stayed. But he wouldn't beg her to. Like Gene, he'd already accepted that she would leave. And it was too soon to tell how much he would miss her, if at all. But...yes, he could at least acknowledge that parting with her would be more difficult than previous times.

Would she feel the same?

"You might take it harder than I will."

Oliver breathed in sharply.

Suddenly, he saw Gene's pitying smile superimposed on Mai's face. If those two were as alike as he'd thought...

Then if anyone should be relegated to 'experience,' it would be him. Mai would move on, continuing toward her goals and pursuing new relationships. And he would remain stuck, with no control, no direction, no future. Just a strange, sad anecdote from her past.

A dry laugh escaped his lips. If, in the end, he was the only one left feeling like this...then he could think of only one word for that.

Pathetic.

 


 

Mai awoke to the sound of her ringtone. Groggily, she dug her phone out from among her covers and looked at the screen. It was 6:05 AM.

The next thing she registered was the name of the person calling. Michiru.

Mai sprang up, answering the call. "Michiru!"

"MAI! We saw your email! What happened?!"

"I'm here too!"

"Keiko!" Relief filled her upon hearing their familiar voices. Mai set the phone on speaker and placed it on her bed. She had almost two hours until class; plenty of time to talk.

"Thanks for getting back to me, you two. I promise I'll pay you back for the long distance call…"

"Oh, don't worry about that! What happened?"

"Yeah, tell us!"

"Where should I start…" Should she tell them about the vision? No, that would just open up a whole new can of worms. "I stayed over at the twins' place Saturday night—"

Her friends squealed.

"—And nothing happened," Mai said, rolling her eyes. "But when I woke up in the morning, it was just me and Naru. Gene had to go to work suddenly…"

"'Naru' is the one you have a crush on?"

"Yeah. Anyway...we got to talking. And he said he didn't care to know more about people until 'recently.' So I asked if that meant he wanted to get to know me."

More squealing. Mai blushed.

"He, uh...didn't answer. He just got grumpy and weird and unresponsive."

"Wow. What a tsundere."

"Right?!" Mai exclaimed, glad that she wasn't the only one to see it that way. "And I just got so frustrated with how he was acting, that I...uh...kissed him on the cheek."

Loud squealing. Mai leaned away from her phone.

"Holy crap, Mai! Way to go!"

"I didn't know you had it in you!"

"I'm not asking to be praised!" Mai whined.

"And? How did he react?!"

"...I don't know. I ran away…"

There was a pause on the other end. "Oh, Mai…" Keiko sighed.

"But I texted him that I was sorry soon after, and do you know how he replied? 'Be careful next time'! Like, what does that even mean?!"

"Did you ask him?"

"...No…"

Her friends both sighed.

"But all I can think is that he's saying I'm on real thin ice and need to watch my step, and oh my god, how am I going to face him now?!"

"That's kinda a weird way to put it, though..."

"Yeah, and one vague text isn't much to go on…"

"Try asking in person so you can get a live reaction!"

"I-I don't think I have the nerve…"

"But you had enough nerve to kiss him?!"

"Oh, and weren't you saying you were just going to be his friend?"

"I know! I know, but...a lot's happened since then."

"Like what?"

Mai bit her lip. What did change since the last time she'd cast a stick on the ground? What was different?

They had grown closer. Significantly closer. And she'd begun to suspect...to wonder...if he might feel the same way.

"His brother seems to think he likes me."

"That's a good sign!"

"And we've kinda almost flirted. I think."

"Considering how oblivious you are, that's a really great sign!"

"And he asked me to help him write something really personal."

"Aww, he trusts you!"

"And I think he values our relationship. Enough to take the time to clear up a misunderstanding, anyway. But that's not necessarily romantic…"

"It's not, but combined with everything else, it's still a good sign!"

"So I'm not crazy? You think I really might have a chance?"

"Well, I think the key piece of the puzzle here is how he reacted to you kissing him."

"Yeah! If only you hadn't run away…"

"It's probably given him something to think about, at least."

Anxiety gnawed at her again. Naru's reaction? She could hardly imagine. They were right, his text didn't tell her much at all. What was he thinking? How did he interpret what happened?

"Okay, tell me honestly...do you think he knows? That I like him?"

Another pause.

"I mean...let's be real, Mai. He probably does."

She groaned.

"Either that, or he's really confused," Michiru mused. "By running away, you avoided confronting your feelings just the same way he did. You realize that, right?"

"I guess…"

"Maybe you two are made for each other. You're both hopeless."

"But you still managed to get this far. At this rate, you might as well just go all the way."

"Wh-what?! Nooo…"

"You'd rather leave things still a trash fire?"

"N-no...but…"

"I don't think you can take this one back, Mai. And you know, maybe it just means that deep down, you really do want to tell him?"

"Yeah. What were you thinking, when you did it?"

Mai groaned again, but sat back, thinking back to when she was in the cafe with Naru. What was her thought process then? Did she sincerely want to express her feelings for him?

...No. Her reason was much pettier than that.

"I wanted him to pay attention to me."

Mai flushed with guilt. She'd told herself she would be a friend to Naru. But at that moment, she hadn't considered his feelings at all. She'd acted selfishly.

"...Maybe I'm not as altruistic as I thought I could be..."

"Don't beat yourself up about it, Mai. You're only human."

"Yeah, everybody feels like that when they're in love!"

"I don't deserve him…"

"What?! Why?!"

Mai took a shuddering breath. "The thing I keep wondering is...did that count as assault? Did I assault him?"

A pause.

"Ahh...hmm."

"Well…"

"I did. And for the worst reasons too." Mai hugged her knees. "I'm horrible."

"It was just a peck on the cheek, Mai. And you don't know how he felt about it. He might have appreciated you finally making a move!"

"But if he didn't?"

Michiru sighed. "In that case, I guess the best thing you can do is apologize and focus on regaining his trust."

"Yeah…that's probably the best option..."

"I'd say you should make it clear that it won't happen again...but if he likes you back, that could complicate things. He might think you regret what happened."

"But I do regret it! Even if we end up starting something, that's not the way I want to do it!"

"Okay, then tell him that. Maybe not in those exact words, but tell him you'll respect his boundaries."

"R-right…" She sniffled.

"Can I just ask one more thing?" Keiko spoke up. "If it turns out he does like you, what are you going to do?"

"I don't know." Mai shook her head. "That would be up to him, I guess."

"But you're potentially up for anything? Even if it's difficult?"

It was hard to imagine even getting that far now. But Mai sighed. "I guess."

There was another pause. She could just imagine her friends exchanging grins.

"Things really have changed, huh? Last time, you were moaning and groaning about how difficult it would be."

They had a point. And it wasn't like all those issues had gone away; neither had her reservations. But, looking back over the past month or so...

Mai's gaze drifted to the picture book on her nightstand.

...She had a better idea of how it might work. Of how it might be worth it.

"It would be difficult. I understand that even more now. But we've been through some difficult stuff already, and got through it, so…it doesn't seem as impossible, I guess."

"You'll get through this too, Mai. I know you will."

"I hope so." Mai wiped tears from her eyes. "Thanks, you two. This really helped clear my head."

"No problem, Mai!"

"Just let us know if you need to talk again, okay?"

"Okay."

"Good luck. You can do it!"

"We're rooting for you!"

The call ended.

Mai reached for the picture book. She held it in her hands, looking at the cover, before nodding to herself and hugging it tightly to her chest.

"Okay, I can do this." She knew what she had to do now. That was a start.

She picked up her phone and sent Naru a quick text. Hey, can I talk to you tonight? There, now she wouldn't be able to avoid it later.

It was still early in the morning, so she didn't expect a reply right away. Instead of waiting, she began getting ready for class, trying to take her mind off of it.

When her phone buzzed just ten minutes later, she jumped. But the text was from Gene.

Hey, sorry I missed you yesterday. Noll told me about your vision. I'm sorry you had to see that.

Mai stared down at her phone screen. "Crap." Now she felt awful for not telling him about it first.

But also...Naru told him? Did he only mention the vision? Or...anything else?

She texted her reply. I'm sorry too. I didn't mean to see it and I wish I could explain why.

It's fine, he replied. It happens. Maybe we can help you figure that out. Though I think Noll is more of an expert in that field.

It really didn't sound like Naru mentioned anything about the kiss. Otherwise, Gene would be teasing her relentlessly about it now. But what did that mean?

If he wants, she typed hesitantly.

Gene sent a reply. Oh, I'm sure he'd be glad to. ;)

What?! A winky face?!

What do you mean? she typed quickly.

Oops, gotta head to class! Talk to you later!

"GENE!" she screeched. What? What?! Did Naru say something after all? Or was this just his usual teasing?

Resisting the urge to fling her phone across the room, Mai took a deep breath. No. Don't think about it. Just focus on what she needed to do right now.

It was only after her first class, when Mai was heading to breakfast, that she finally received a text from Naru.

Could you just say it now?

Mai stood in the middle of campus, weighing her options. Of course, he might prefer to do this by text, like last time. Should she prioritize his comfort? But her friends had a point, she needed to see him in person to get a proper read on things after all.

After pacing back and forth and deliberating more, Mai sent her reply.

I'd prefer to talk in person. When is a good time for you?

After a few minutes, he replied. Is it important?

Great. She was really getting the sense that he didn't want to talk. It is to me.

More minutes passed. Mai's stomach growled, but she ignored it, walking in circles restlessly.

His reply, when it came, was not what she expected.

I will meet you outside of your residence hall after I've finished work tonight.

That would be past midnight. And not at the library? Not during his break? Was this his way of saying he didn't feel ready to see her yet? Or did he just not want any witnesses? Either would make sense, but she also couldn't help but feel a sense of finality, like this might be the end of their nightly library meetings. Or their relationship period.

 


 

Mai shivered, hugging herself for warmth. She looked up at the night sky, moon and stars just visible through a break in the dark clouds. No snow in the forecast tonight, but it was still cold.

She had foregone going to the library at all today. How could she, after receiving that text? Studying in her dorm room sucked, but she could live with it for now, until they cleared things up. She just hoped Naru would actually come as he said.

Thankfully, at half past midnight, she saw him walking down the path toward her residence hall. Mai raised her hand awkwardly. "Hey," she called.

He stopped and leered up at the building behind her.

"Naru?"

"Follow me." He turned and walked back the way he came.

Mai hurried after him, then slowed down when she noticed the street lamps flickering as he passed beneath them.

"Being extra careful, huh?" she murmured, keeping a short distance.

He led her off the path, away from even the glow of street lamps, until they stood in a relatively open, deserted area

"Um, it's kinda dark here…" She could barely make out his face like this.

Naru looked up, and just then, the clouds parted, moonlight pouring down upon them.

"Whoa. Did you do that?"

"Don't be stupid," he sighed. "So? What did you need to talk about?"

Mai gulped. Okay. Here goes.

"I just wanted to say…I'm really sorry for...k-kissing you the other day. It was stupid, and I should have known better."

Now she wished it was dark again, her face and ears growing hot.

Naru, for his part, just blinked.

For a long moment, he stared at her, frozen like a statue. She was almost tempted to poke him, in case that would give him a jumpstart. But she didn't want to risk anything, so she just waited patiently.

Finally, his brows furrowed. "I don't understand. Are you saying it was intentional?"

"I..." Wait. He thought it wasn't?

"What exactly did you intend to do?"

She let out a squeak, flying into panic mode. "I-It was spur of the moment! I wasn't thinking!"

"Obviously." He sounded frustrated.

Mai fought back tears, her heart beating wildly.

Should she do it? Should she tell him? He wanted an explanation. And of course he did, she still hadn't managed to explain a thing. Could she even resolve this, without providing one?

She squeezed her eyes shut, mentally tossing a stick again. What did her instincts point to?

...The truth. Tell him the truth.

Mai opened her eyes. "I like you. A lot." She kept her gaze fixed on his shirt collar, avoiding meeting his eyes. "So when you didn't answer my question that morning, and ignored me, I got frustrated. Basically, what I wanted to do was...get your attention." She could barely hear herself over her own heartbeat. "But! I know that was the entirely wrong way to go about it, and that it crossed a line. I'm really, really sorry!"

She looked up nervously.

Naru's eyes were wide.

"You don't have to say anything if you don't want to," she added quickly. "I'd just be really happy if we can still...be friends?"

Naru went into a long silence again. Without his PK visibly affecting the environment, she realized it was still difficult to read him, even though she stood right in front of him.

At last, he pinched the bridge of his nose, letting out a long, exasperated sigh. And when he finally lowered his hand, this time he reached out toward her.

"Huh?" Mai tensed as his hand went to her face. But instead of a gentle touch, his fingers pinched her cheek and tugged.

"Ow ow ow ow! What are you doing?!"

She pulled away, rubbing her cheek.

"Now we're even," he said. Then strode away.

"W...wait. Naru!" She scrambled after him.

"It's late. Go to bed," he said, returning to the path.

"Wha— you're the one who called me out here this late!" she sputtered.

Naru looked back at her. "Is that all you wanted to say to me?"

Mai stopped. "Y...yeah," she nodded.

"And you don't need an answer right away?"

She nodded again. She knew she was being selfish, forcing her feelings on him like this. So the least she could do was not pressure him about it.

"Then goodnight, Mai."

And he left.

Mai stood on the path, watching him go. Slowly, she put her hand on her cheek again. She had to admit, she felt let down. His reaction was so...indifferent. But it wasn't the most romantic of confessions anyway. And she felt relieved too.

He didn't reject her. But he didn't say he returned her feelings either. Maybe that meant he couldn't say for sure yet. In that case, that was an answer in itself.

And for now, she supposed that would be enough.