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Ghost Hunters, Lies, & Money

Chapter Text

Day One

 4:45pm 

On the road

Mai Taniyama shifted in her seat and pressed her forehead against Bou-san's SUV window. The world outside her was dimming in the fading light of the sun, absent mindedly she checked the time: almost five. That meant they had been in the car for nearly four hours. Mai attempted to stretch her cramped legs, and next to her Masako did the same. In the front passenger seat Ayako let out a loud yawn and mumbled some complaint about hardships. Bou-san's own yawn followed hers, then he announced that he had seen a sign for Nozomi a mile back and that they should be there soon. Everyone sighed in relief.

Mai glanced behind her seat and sent a smile John's way. John smiled back, not looking much more comfortable than any of them with all of Ayako and Masako's suitcases piled up next to him. Mai spotted the one of her own. She hoped she had packed enough now that she saw how much Ayako and Masako had brought, but then again they weren't ones to pack light...

Mai's gaze traveled over the two: Ayako's tight fitting t-shirt and long skirt looked as crisp as when she stepped in the car, and Masako's kimono looked as pressed and neat as ever. One would have never suspected they had been stuck in a car all afternoon. Mai looked down at herself: her tank-top was completely wrinkled, she had taken her jacket off at lunch because she had spilled some sauce on it when Bou-san went over a bump, and her skirt lay about her in saggy folds.

Just great.

With a sigh, Mai closed her eyes and thought forward to their arrival. Nozomi was a small town in a remote area far outside of Tokyo. They had been called a week ago by a Mr. Joji Sachi with claims that the old theater he worked in was haunted. When Mai had fielded the call she almost felt sorry for the guy, he sounded so desperate for their help, but Nozomi was situated half-a-day away and Naru would never take the case. But to her great surprise, she was wrong.

At first he did say no, in fact, Mai had barely gotten out what his claims were after she mentioned the distance. She returned Mr. Sachi's call with a sincere apology, but then he requested that he talk to Naru himself. Mai tried to persuade him otherwise, but he wouldn't hear it, his needs were too desperate. It was a long and terrible walk into Naru's office to hand him the phone, Mai swore the look he gave her would kill anyone not used to it. Firmly she handed off the phone. An hour and two cups of tea later it was settled, they would go. The man claimed his ghosts walked the halls plainly as day, so even with the inconvenience, Naru agreed.

And so here she was, stuffed in Bou-san's SUV; Naru's van driven by Lin a little ahead of them. It was thirty more minutes before they broke off from the forest surrounding them and came into a great clearing: Nozomi. Mai sat forward to look out at the sleepy town. Little houses dotted the land here and there, some children played in the dirt streets that wound around small stores, and then, there it was- the tallest more impressive building in town.

"There it is, the Miyuki theater," Bou-san announced slowing down and craning his neck to look up at it. Ayako chimed in with her own observations,

"Very nice, I've always wanted to go to a Miyuki theater house."

Masako and Mai nodded. The chain of theaters had been built before they were born and were known for excellent entertainment and quality. Bou-san pulled in next to Naru's van.

"It seems that it's well cared for," John commented. And it did. Flourishing flower beds had been planted around the entrance, the windows gleamed- it looked as though it had been built just that day. Mai stepped out of the SUV and took a better look at the theater. Even in the growing dusk, it seemed peaceful.

"Mai."

Startled, the young woman snapped around to see Naru staring at her, "Eh?"

"Hara-san..."

The medium came to stand behind Mai; her eye's took a quick sweep of the area, then finished with a shake of her head at Naru's inquiring look. Naru nodded thoughtfully and then Lin stepped out of the van and the two began to talk. Mai blushed. Why did she have to be so slow? Naru was asking whether she felt anything and she stood there like an idiot! But of course that Masako was there to swoop in with her insight! Mai sent her a look out of the corner of her eye, but she was gone, wandering here and there, in that dreamy way she always did. A heavy hand suddenly clasped her shoulder,

"What do you think Mai? We've never done a theater before."

Mai looked up at Bou-san with a slight smile,

"I don't know, I guess we'll see."

"Theaters are tricky..." Ayako commented, hands on hips, scrutinizing the building before her. Bou-san nodded,

"Lots of secret rooms, trap doors, and special effects..."

Mai looked at the two warily. Secret rooms? Trap doors? John joined them now, he seemed to be making his own opinion of the place, his eyes scanned it calmly and then landed on Lin and Naru,

"I'm sure Lin will be able to obtain blue prints."

Mai relaxed a little, John was probably right. Bou-san looked down at Mai with a wink,

"But there's a reason their called secret rooms..."

Mai looked back to the theater and swallowed hard, she could just see herself finding one of those secret rooms and getting trapped. She'd been having bad luck with that kind of thing lately...

"Are we ready?"

Naru's voice called Mai back from her thoughts. The others nodded and they entered the theater. The whole village of Nozomi was like stepping into the past and Mai was further enchanted by the inside of the Miyuki Theater. It was so temple like. The foyer had high vaulted ceilings; the floor they stood on was of highly polished cherry. The air around them was still, yet it seemed that if you were quiet enough, the walls would tell you their stories.

The room was sparsely furnished, oil lamps were lit here and there- all this temple was missing were some tatami mats. But then there were some things that clashed with the old. For instance, hanging from the vaulted ceiling, was a shimmering chandelier. And then there was the ticket booth in front of them and the red rug leading up to a set of ancient doors.

No one spoke, each of them consumed in their surroundings. Finally Naru walked forward towards the doors, and upon opening them, voices filled the air. Right off the lobby, in all its simplicity and grandeur, was the auditorium. Continuing with its clash of new and old, rows and rows of benches extended out from them, ending at a large low set stage. Heavy velvet curtains were tied off at the edges of the stage and as it appeared no lights were in use to illuminate it. Mai looked up- sky lights. Her gaze traveling back behind her, she found that there was an upper level. Rows of plush chairs filled the veranda. New and old, new and old. Beside her the rest of the SPR team was taking note of similar things.

"Well hello, hello!"

Surprised by the voice that broke the silence, Mai jumped. Walking eagerly down the center aisle was a tall young man with a bright smile on. Reaching them, he said hello again and gave a deep bow,  

"Joji Sachi, head playwright of this Miyuki Theater, and you must be my ghost hunters?"  

Mai flinched and sent a side long glance at Naru. Like usual though, he appeared unaffected,  

"Yes, we're Shibuya Psychic Research," he corrected evenly. The man nodded excitedly, oblivious to his error, 

"Perfect, just perfect!" his gaze then scanned the faces staring at him, searching for something...landing on Bou-san he drew himself up and his smiled relaxed a bit,  

"You must be Mr. Shibuya himself."  

Swallowing the urge to smile at the honest mistake, Mai glanced at Naru again. His eyes had narrowed a bit with annoyance, but his expression remained unfaltering. Bou-san meanwhile broke out in a wide grin,  

"Actually..."  

Naru stepped forward with purpose,  

"I am."  

Mr. Sachi seemed taken a back and then very embarrassed,  

"Oh, so sorry, of course you are."  

Just then a woman walked up,  

"Joji about this last scene..." she said distractedly, her face hovering over a play book. A fresh smile lit Mr. Sachi's face, 

"Nari, if you would look up from that script for one second you would see that our guests from Tokyo have arrived." The woman did look up.  

"Oh! Hello, it is very nice to meet you all," she went on hurriedly with a brief bow. The woman stood at about Masako's height with long black hair pulled into a braid, her set of soft brown eyes observed them all with warmth. Mr. Sachi looked upon her with approval,  

"Nari here is my best actress and I hope to work with her for many years, that is...if the theater isn't closed down."  

Naru raised an eyebrow,  

"Closed down?"  

Nari looked to Mr. Sachi quickly,  

"You didn't tell them?"  

Sachi drew in a deep breath and let out a long heavy sigh,  

"Come this way for some refreshments and everything will be explained."  

In some confusion and curiosity, they followed their strange new client out of the auditorium and through several halls.  

Mai walked near Mr. Sachi. She couldn't tell yet what she thought of him. He seemed nice enough, a bit excitable, but nice. His every move and word seemed to rise and fall dramatically as though he was the lead in his very own play. A flourish of hand here, a raised eyebrow there, a deep frown, a bright smile. Up and down, up and down.  

Finally, they reached a door which Mr. Sachi opened with an elegant extension of his arm, and motioned them all in. Two comfortable looking couches sat around a small table. Mai took a seat followed by Bou-san, Ayako, and John. Naru, Masako, and Lin took the other couch. Mai felt her cheeks burn hot,  

That Masako....  

But she didn't have much time to dwell; Mr. Sachi pulled up an extra chair and invited them all to tea. Nari went around to each of them, pouring warm amber liquid into each cup. Naru took his first sip and relaxed a bit. Mai smiled into her teacup, she knew just how much her boss seemed to depend on it.  

"I might as well fill you in a bit before she gets here," Mr. Sachi began, reaching a dramatic low, "And by she I mean Miss Toki Miyuki." Mr. Sachi paused effectively; there were a few intakes of breaths, including Mai's.

Miss Miyuki? The theaters are owned by a woman?  

"Mr. Miyuki's daughter? What does she have to do with this?" Ayako spoke up. Mr. Sachi cleared his throat, took a sip of tea, and answered,  

"Everything. Surely you've heard of Mr. Miyuki's untimely death some years ago? In his will Miss Miyuki was left it all, his fortune, his theaters. And now she wants to close them."  

Naru frowned,  

"Mr. Sachi, when I talked to you over the phone you said you were being haunted, you're not about to tell me that you think-"  

"Ah, but I am!" Mr. Sachi cut in, setting down his cup rather hard; "It is Mr. Miyuki himself!" Surprise filled many faces in the room, but Naru remained frowning.  

"I have seen him myself, we were once very close in life, and now he has come to haunt his first theater in vengeance against his daughter and her horrible intentions for his life long work!" Mr. Sachi persisted.  

"I have seen him too," Nari said quietly, having found a seat herself, she was watching and listening to Mr. Sachi intently. Naru turned his imposing gaze upon the small woman,  

"Have you?"  

"Yes, in my very powder room," she replied and something in her voice told Mai that it really bothered her.  

"Non-sense."  

Everyone looked up. A tall young woman with long blonde hair, dressed as if she had just walked out of a fashion magazine, stood in the door way. Mr. Sachi frowned equal to Naru.  

"Miss Miyuki, you are being very rude to our guests. They are, after all, a paranormal group. Nothing is non-sense to them." 

Looking for support he smiled lightly at them all. Mai returned the smile hesitantly, they believed in the paranormal of course, but that didn't mean that they believed everything was paranormal. Naru drove this thought home,  

"We take no offense Miss Miyuki, we are only out for the truth be it paranormal-" Mr. Sachi smiled wider at this, "or not." Mr. Sachi's smile fell. Miss Miyuki stepped in further, her arms crossed; she nodded agreeably at Naru,  

"Good. You'll find the only truth here is that there is no paranormal activity."  

"You dare to call Joji a lair? Me a lair?" Nari suddenly demanded. Miss Miyuki narrowed her gaze on the actress,  

"Not lairs, stallers."  

Mr. Sachi stood up in objection,  

"I would never use your father's memory to my own gain!" 

"You would if it protected his theater!" Miss Miyuki shot back. The tension in the air rose, Mai shifted uncomfortably.  

"You've got this whole superstitious town believing that the ghost of their beloved Takuya Miyuki is haunting his theater! You're wasting my time, but fine. I'm glad they're here actually, they'll see through your act and I'll get to close this waste of money."  

And with that the young woman stormed out of the room. Mr. Sachi sat back down, looking disgruntled. Nari stared after Miss Miyuki with hard eyes,  

"Don't listen to her Joji, all she wants is money. I know Mr. Miyuki is here."  

Mr. Sachi sighed,  

"I'm sorry you had to see that," he murmured, pouring himself a new cup of tea.  

"Mr. Sachi, do you believe this ghost capable of harm?" Naru persisted; his tone was low and irritated. Mai knew what he was thinking; four hours for nothing... they didn't come out to investigate a phony ghost and a feud. Mr. Sachi seemed a bit surprised by the question, but before he could answer, there was a loud crash in the next room and the oil lights around them blew out. Nari gasped sharply- 

"What?"  

There was the sound of sudden movement, and then a small glow filled the room,  

"Quick, I believe it came from Nari's powder room!" Mr. Sachi urged, having lit a candle, he was making for the door. Nari went after him at once, shortly behind were the rest of the SPR group.  

They darted down the dark hall. Mai observed the snuffed oil lamps she past in apprehension, all of them blown out? In a breathless moment, Mr. Sachi came to a sudden halt, dramatically he threw open the door and thrust in his candle. Nari gasped again and Bou-san was forced to take her arm to steady her.  

The powder room seemed completely up-turned. A rack holding several costumes was thrown against the wall; dresses lay strewn across the floor. A floor length mirror that dominated the room was severely cracked; its reflection now magnified the chaos ten times over. Make-up covered every inch of wall with garish reds and stark white and pale pink streaks. The few pieces of furniture in the room, a chair, a chest, a small table, were lying upside down, some were broken.  

"My- my room..." Nari spoke faintly. In the ghostly orange glow of the candle light, Mr. Sachi faced them, his expression pleading,  

"Now will you reconsider? Perhaps-" the playwright swallowed; something in his eyes said he didn't want to say what he was about to, "Perhaps our ghost, Mr. Miyuki, is dangerous in his after life?"  

Mai looked up at Naru, her boss seemed focused, he set his jaw.  

"Lin find us some lodging, we're staying the night." 

Lin made to leave, but a cry of protest from Mr. Sachi stopped him.  

"Wait- please, there is only one Inn in Nozomi, they are expecting you, let me take you there."  

Naru nodded,  

"Fine."  

Smiling brightly again, Mr. Sachi lead them from the room, Nari drifted to his side, he spoke to her quietly.  

"Do you need to sit down, perhaps some water?" John suggested gently. Nari was indeed pale, and looked quite shaken, but she only smiled weakly and waved his suggestions off,  

"Thank you, but I'm okay, really."  

Mr. Sachi seemed to approve of this,  

"Nari is my most resilient actress; I believe it would take more than a little scare to keep her down..."  

As they walked away Mai noticed Naru lingering at the door. She too fell back,  

"Naru..?"  

He shook his head,  

"It's quite an aggressive attack; Nari is an interesting target..."  

Mai nodded silently, what had Nari done to deserve this?  

"Hey, Mai? You coming?" Bou-san called from down the hall.  

"Oh! Yes..." Mai answered, glancing back at Naru before heading after them. Reluctantly Naru moved along too. A short time later they stood around Naru's van, suitcases in hand (or in Ayako and Masako's instance, piled around their feet...).  

"Ready? Great! It's just a short walk from here," Mr. Sachi continued. His brown eyes held such shine, his mop of brown hair bounced around with his quick movements; you would have never known minutes ago he had been grave and pleading. The group started to move forward, but Ayako and Masako planted their feet, sour expressions crossing their face.  

"Ahem," Masako cleared her throat, drawing attention back to them. Bou-san raised an eyebrow,  

"Aren't you coming Ayako?"  

The miko fixed the monk with a burning glare. The moon moved out from behind a cloud, the stars glowed dimly above them, it was getting late. Naru sighed and strode over to pick up two of Masako's bags. The bag in Mai's hand slipped out of her grasp,  

That Masako...  

Like usual the medium only giggled into her sleeve and played modest. Grumbling, Bou-san had little choice but to follow Naru's lead and pick up a pair of Ayako's bags. The miko smiled smugly at him, but there were still three suitcases at her feet. Masako found herself in the same position, but then Mr. Sachi eagerly stepped in,  

"Here now, I'll take these three," he offered, a winning smile lighting his face. Not quite as flattered as she had been by Naru stepping in, Masako only managed a small appreciative nod. Ayako now stood awkwardly, her remaining bags burning holes where they sat. Her face hardened, her eyes leering at them all expectantly. Just as Mai was sighing and about to take one, Lin stalked forward and snatched up all three. Ayako did a similar impression of Masako's giggle. Bou-san snorted,  

"Some thanks I get..."  

"Okay, everyone set? Let's go!" Mr. Sachi announced, seeming as if he were about to lead them all to some kind of resort. Mai was greatly mistaken in this assumption. The Koku Inn couldn't have been further from being called a resort. It was more of an over grown house where the owners allowed strangers to come sleep.  

"Hello, hello..." Mr. Sachi called setting down Masako's bags upon entering the Inn. Bou-san also relieved himself of his load. Lin and Naru continued to hold theirs with steely looks. John watched them sheepishly with his one bag. The small foyer they entered was lit by oil lamps, much like the theater, and held a simple desk, empty at the moment. Just then an ancient looking woman shuffled in, her hands holding a vase of fresh flowers.  

"Mrs. Koku, how are you?" Mr. Sachi beamed. The woman stood with her back to them, setting down the vase on the desk, she moved it a few a spots over, only to decide she did not like it there, and then moved it back.  

"Mrs. Koku?" Mr. Sachi persisted, his smile faltering a bit. Just then an equally ancient man crept in; he too faced away from them.  

"SAY, I WAS LOOKING FOR YOU. WATCHA DOING THERE?" he asked the old woman. Mai stared after them with wide eyes, for such a frail old man, he sure contained a powerful voice.  

"YOU SAY YOU WERE LOOKING FOR ME? I WAS JUST HERE, PUTTING UP THESE FLOWERS, I DON'T REALLY LIKE HOW THEY LOOK," the woman answered, practically yelling back at him. The man observed the vase thoughtfully, then slowly and precisely he moved it an inch to the left. The woman broke out in a wrinkled smile,  

"PERFECT MY DEAR!"  

They then shared a loud happy laugh. Mr. Sachi cleared his throat, but neither so much glanced his way.  

"I SAID, AHEM."  

Startled the old woman grabbed her chest and the old man put a hand on the desk to steady himself,  

"SAY, WHAT'S THE MEANING OF SNEAKING UP ON US LIKE THAT?" 

Mr. Sachi smiled again,  

"Sorry about that, I've brought your guests from Tokyo," he explained. The old man looked to the old woman,  

"WHAT DID HE SAY? WHO ARE THESE STRANGE PEOPLE HE'S WITH? I ALWAYS KNEW HE WAS AN ODD ONE, DOING ALL THOSE PLAYS AND SUCH."  

Mr. Sachi turned a shade of pink,  

"I just told you-"  

"I DON'T KNOW WHO THEY ARE, BUT THAT TALL ONE GIVES ME THE CREEPS," the old woman replied, eyeing Lin apprehensively. Lin shifted and if it were possible, his face turned harder.  

"MR. AND MRS. KOKU, THESE ARE YOUR GUESTS FROM TOKYO," Mr. Sachi shouted, his face now beet red. The old woman and man blinked surprisedly,  

"OH. HELLO." Everyone bowed stiffly and murmured their hellos.  

"JOJI, WHY DIDN'T YOU JUST SAY SO?" Mrs. Koku wondered, shuffling around the desk and pulling out some rusty keys.  

"I tried to..." 

Mr. Koku was busy counting everyone in front of him, "SEVEN," he yelled at his wife, "HOW MANY ROOMS DO WE HAVE LEFT?"  

Left? Mai thought, looking at the Inn falling apart around her.  

"SIX," the Mrs. Koku answered with a frown. Everyone exchanged wondering looks,  

"We can always share a room," John suggested with a kind smile. Everyone nodded.  

"WHAT ARE THEY NODDING ABOUT? ARE THEY SLOW OR SOMETHING? THERE'S NOT ENOUGH ROOMS," the old woman said to her husband who shook his head. Mr. Sachi stepped forward hurriedly,  

"No, no, I would never ask you to share, I'll be more than happy to have one of you stay at my place, not to brag but it is one of the nicest houses in Nozomi..."  

Ayako perked up and took Mr. Sachi's arm; she obviously liked the idea, unimpressed with what she was saw here,  

"How nice of you Mr. Sachi, if you would just help me with my bags-"  

"Ah-" Mr. Sachi said wriggling out of Ayako's gasp, "I was wondering if Miss Hara-san would join me?"  

Ayako's face drained of all color. Mai knew the look, and if Mr. Sachi had been Bou-san at that moment, he would have been wise to duck and cover his head. Masako looked over surprisedly at Mr. Sachi and with one last glance around, consented with a modest giggle,  

"Well, I suppose I have no choice?"  

"WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE TALL WOMAN? SHE LOOKS LIKE SHE'S GOING TO KILL SOMEONE. I DON'T THINK I LIKE HER EITHER," the Mrs. Koku remarked to Mr. Koku, who nodded in agreement.  

Pleased, Mr. Sachi picked up Masako's bags again, taking the two from Naru also. Mai frowned sullenly at the medium;  

Of course, she gets to stay somewhere nice....  

But then she caught her boss' eye, a small smile tugged at her lips, 

Of course, that means she won't be near Naru... 

"I guess it's settled," Mai spoke up encouragingly. Masako sent her a sharp look; noting her rival's triumphant tone.  

"You are okay with this, aren't you?" the medium asked, turning to Naru, charm dripping off her every word. He nodded,  

"Just be here tomorrow morning."  

Mai watched the exchange in disgust.  

"OH LOOK HOW THE YOUNG GIRLS GLARE AT EACHOTHER," Mrs. Koku tutted.  

"I THINK THEY BOTH HAVE THEIR EYES SET ON THAT PALE YOUNG MAN," Mr. Koku answered certainly.  

"NOT MUCH TO LOOK AT IF YOU ASK ME..." Mrs. Koku appraised with a grunt. Masako's cheeks burned crimson, and Mai was sure her complexion matched. Out of the corner of her eye she caught Bou-san fighting to suppress his laughter. Ayako smiled smugly next to him.  

"Um, time to go I think," Mr. Sachi suggested, trying to move things along, sagging slightly under the weight of all the medium's luggage. Masako agreed, and with a quick goodbye they were out the door.  

"THEY'RE LEAVING?" Mrs. Koku asked her husband confusedly, "WHY DIDN'T THEY TAKE THE REST OF THESE WEIRDOS WITH THEM?...LOOK AT THE TALL ONE, HE'S REALLY SCARING ME."  

Mr. Koku patted his wife's shoulder, "YOU CAN LEAVE NOW TOO," he told them.  

Ayako, silently smoldering from being nixed, found her voice.  

"WE'RE NOT LEAVING, NOW GIVE ME THE KEYS!"  

The two looked stunned, but then frowned and crossed their arms, 

"WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE OUR ROOMS TO ANYONE."  

Ayako, turning red, was about to start a shouting match with the old couple, when Naru stepped in. It was not like him to raise his voice, so he let his actions speak instead. A sizable amount of money was set on the desk. 

Mr. and Mrs. Koku stared down at it with wide eyes and without looking up handed off the keys. Naru took them satisfiedly, obviously understanding how to communicate with them better than half the people shouting that night. For a moment they stood in silence and then as an after thought, Mrs. Koku pointed to the left.  

Naru followed her directions and lead them all down a dark hall. Mai looked around at the place with a frown, chunks of the wooden walls were missing, the floor creaked with her every step, babies cried from the doors they past, twice water dripped on her bare shoulder. They reached the first door and in a flash Ayako snatched the key out of Naru's hand, unlocked it, and slammed it in his face.  

The young man glared coldly after her, but then moved on. Bou-san set the miko's bags down in an unceremonious heap, as did Lin. At the next door they came to Naru offered a key to John, perhaps out of gratefulness that he hadn't cause him any grief that day. John took it with thanks, said a pleasant goodnight to everyone, and shut his door.  

The next key to be handed out was to Lin. Silently the Chinese man took it, and with a slight nod at Naru went in. Bou-san leaned over and whispered into Mai's ear,  

"I'll take the next one, and then you can have a room near Naru..." 

Mai looked up at Bou-san, who was smiling teasingly, and turned slightly pink,  

"Th-thanks," she whispered back. The monk nodded understandingly and winked at her. Naru stopped at the next room and made to hand Mai the key, but Bou-san snatched it up, 

"Thanks much, I'm beat, goodnight," and with a departing smile, he closed his door. 

Naru narrowed his eyes after him. Mai stood awkwardly next to Naru; cautiously she glanced up at him. Even after four hours in a van and running around a rural town, he was still as crisp and handsome as ever. Mai felt her cheeks burn hot. Luckily Naru didn't glance down at her, he simply moved on. 

They passed through the hall silent as ghosts. A moment later they reached the right door. Naru finally looked at her, his gaze felt heavy, Mai found herself blushing again. He extended her key. Mai, trying to take it without touching his hand, ended up brushing his fingers anyways. She bit her lip, but Naru had no reaction, he just stood there staring at her.  

"Well...goodnight," Mai managed.  

"Goodnight, Mai."  

And then he walked away, a shadow in the dark hall. His words echoing in her head, Mai heaved a sigh, shutting her door behind her.

Chapter Text

Day Two

6:45am

Koku Inn

Soft light filtered through the murky window and passed across Mai's face. The young woman stirred, murmuring something in her sleep,

Naru...

A small bird perched it's self on her windowsill and let out a few hopeful chirps. Mai rolled onto her back, her hair lying around her head like an amber halo. The room was still, an open suitcase was pushed into a corner, a jacket, tank-top, and skirt lay in heaps about the room. Just then two knocks broke the silence. Mai frowned in her sleep and shifted to her side.

"Hey, Mai? You awake?"

Mai groaned as her mind flitted back to the conscious world,

"Leave me alone..."

"Mai. It's almost seven, time to get up," the voice persisted. Mai grabbed her pillow and covered her head,

"Bou-san, just give me a minute," she complained.

"You don't have a minute, they're serving breakfast now and Mrs. Koku has informed me that if you're not down there to give your order-"

"I'm not hungry."

"Mai!" Bou-san protested, "I'm risking my breakfast here, if you don't come out here right now, I'm going to have to leave you and-"

"Bou-san, I appreciate this, but I'm not hungry."

Bou-san crossed his arms and frowned stubbornly at the door as if Mai could see him through it; ironically she could in her head as she laid there.

"Fine, fine..." Bou-san said, making to walk away, "I guess I'll just eat and watch Masako take your seat next to Naru and talk to him all morning about Mr. Sachi's house and how lonely she was without out him and-"

Mai's door flew open. The young woman looked flustered, she was running a brush through her hair as she pulled on a sock. Bou-san smiled back at the glare she was giving him,

"Good morning sunshine."

"Shut up."

The two reached the dining room just as Mr. Koku was about to shut the doors.

"WELL WHO DO WE HAVE HERE? LATE ARE YOU? YOU SHOULD KNOW AT THIS INN WE DO NOT TOLERATE TARTYNESS," the old man shouted.

The din of breakfast was utterly drowned out and thirty sets of eyes were now on them. At the back of the room sat SPR. Ayako was smirking amusedly, as was Masako (who to Mai's horror was already seated cozily next to Naru). Bou-san also noticed this and gave her an unsympathetic, I-told-you-so look. Mai glared up at him because he was right, and she didn't want him to be.

"IT WASN'T MY FAULT, I WAS HERE ON TIME, BUT SHE WOULDN'T GET OUT OF BED," Bou-san yelled back, trying to redirect the blame.

Oh, nice Monk, Mai thought grumpily.

Mai tried to catch Naru's eye, but he was acting like he didn't know her, as was Lin. John stood and waved them over, immediately buckling as a sharp kick to the shin was administrated by Ayako. Mai smiled brightly at John (who was now rubbing his leg and wincing) and sent daggers at Ayako.

Marching over to their table, Mai took a seat next to Masako, who pretended not to care, and continued her rapt conversation with Naru,

"As I was saying..."

Bou-san took a seat next to Ayako, each sharing a glare as a greeting.

Seemingly invisible to the rest of the SPR team, Mai sat back and took in her surroundings. The dining hall was spacious, holding many tables, almost every one of them filled. The far wall was made up entirely of windows and let the morning light stream in. So far, Mai liked this room the best. At the table nearest them an older couple sat smiling and drinking tea, through the hum of the room, Mai caught bits of conversation:

"....I always loved Miyuki..."

"....just a couple more days now...."

"....I can't wait to see what it will be like this year?"

Interested, Mai found herself almost leaning out of her seat. Just then Mrs. Koku walked up, a large tray balanced on her hand. With a steadiness that was unexpected of her, the old woman began to set out different bowls of food. Smiles lit the hungry faces of the SPR group, thanks were murmured and they began to eat, that was...everyone except Bou-san and Mai. The two looked up at Mrs. Koku inquiringly and the old woman looked down at them smugly,

"LAST TO ARRIVE, LAST TO EAT."

Mai glared after the hunched figure retreating from their table, her stomach letting out a forlorn growl. Across from her, Bou-san didn't look any happier, eyeing Ayako's food desirously. In spite of him, the priestess ate every bite with obvious satisfaction.

"We'll set up at the theater after this," Naru spoke, bringing Mai's attention from her hunger,

"I would like to question Miss Miyuki further, Lin were you able to obtain her address from Mrs. Koku?"

Masako looked up from her bowl; Mai also fixed her gaze on Naru,

"Would you like some company?" the medium asked, jumping at her chance. Mai gritted her teeth; she blamed her empty stomach on her slow reaction,

That Masako.

Naru set down his chopsticks across his bowl, dabbed at his mouth, and then took a sip of tea,

"No thank you Hara-san, Lin will be there to take notes."

Masako's cheeks flushed and she returned to her breakfast. Mai smiled to herself, but her rumbling stomach prevented her from feeling entirely victorious.

Ten minutes later, everything was finished but the tea. Finally, a shuffling sound. Mrs. Koku approached. In her hands rested a small tray, with a clank she set two bowls in front of Mai and Bou-san. Rice, plain and cold stared up at them. The old woman kept a straight face, but her eyes twinkled maliciously,

"ENJOY."

Mai hadn't the energy to protest; she stuck her chopsticks into the sticky rice and swallowed a lumpy bite. Masako watched her eat with amusement and Mai stared harder at her breakfast, determined to look like she was enjoying it. Bou-san had no such intention,

"Bah! What kind of dish is this?" he exclaimed, snatching up Ayako's bowl and pouring whatever was left into his bowl. Ayako opened her mouth to protest, but thought better of it when she saw the look Bou-san sent her.

Naru finished his tea and stood, "It's getting late. Lin and I are going to pay a visit to Miss Miyuki, the rest of you can set up base, we'll meet later."

And with that he and Lin excused themselves from the table. Mai's cold rice stuck in her throat, having been given no tea of her own, she stole Masako's. The medium made a face, but gave up and left the table too,

"I'll be at the theater."

Ayako sat back in her chair, glaring at Mai and Bou-san as they ate,

"Come on John," she said finally, "we're not waiting for them to finish."

"We're not?" John said, being bodily dragged from his seat. Mai watched them all go with little interest; Bou-san stole some of John's food next,

"Want any?" he offered half-heartedly.

Mai shook her head slowly, her eyes sliding over to Naru's bowl. Innocently she drew it over to herself. Bou-san watched her in-between bites with a raised eyebrow. Mai pretended to ignore his look and peered into Naru's bowl: cold rice. Mai pushed it away rather hard and rested her chin in her hands with a sigh,

"Hurry up Bou-san; they'll need to help setting up base..."

Bou-san frowned at her,

"I'll take all the time I need thank you, remember you're the reason this happened."

Mai glanced at the table next to her, it was empty, in fact many of the tables now only held dirty dishes.

"Bou-san," she said in a lowered voice, "why do you think this place is so full? I mean it's, well-"

"A dump?"

Mai sent a guilty look around, "...yeah."

Bou-san shrugged, "I don't know, maybe there's some kind of festival going on nearby?"

Mai nodded thoughtfully, running her finger over the grains of wood in the table,

"Maybe..."

Just then the dining hall doors opened. A young man about Mai's age walked in. He looked surprised to see them, but then smiled and made a slight bow. Mai and Bou-san smiled back and politely nodded their heads towards him. The young man then set to work, with a tub and dish towel in hand he began to collect the dishes and wipe off the tables. Bou-san watched Mai watch the young man and tutted under his breath,

"...no loyalty..."

Mai's head snapped around and her cheeks colored,

"Eh? What was that Bou-san?"

"If only Naru was here to see how quickly-"

Mai, doing a good impression of Ayako, stomped on Bou-san's foot. Bou-san choked on his rice and cried out,

"Ow, what did you do that for? It's the truth-"

Mai made to stomp on his other foot, but then caught the young man's eye and laughed nervously,

"Hey- you okay?" she said patting Bou-san's back rather hard. The young man returned to his work. Mai narrowed her eyes at the monk across from her,

"Are you done yet?"

Bou-san narrowed his eyes back at her, "I am now."

"Good."

Mai stood and brushed herself off and the young man approached their table,

"I hope you enjoyed your breakfast," he said brightly.

Bou-san stood and the two of them faked a pair large smiles, "Oh, yes."

This satisfied the young man,

"I'm glad to hear it, I'm Niko Koku, my grandparents own this Inn."

With Bou-san's gaze burning a hole in her face, Mai smiled stiffly,

"Nice to meet you, I'm Mai Taniyama, and this is-"

"Houshou Takigawa," Bou-san cut in. Niko smiled and bowed again,

"Well, Takigawa-san...Mai, I hope you enjoy your stay with us, maybe we'll run into each other another time?"

Both of them agreed, and left in the wake of more bowing. Bou-san was rubbing his chin as they walked out the front door,

"Very old fashion this town..."

"Yeah," Mai replied blinking into the sunlight.

Outside, Nozomi was alive with activity, a large square ahead of them had what had to be half the town milling about, setting up what looked like stalls, little girls ran around laughing with bouquets of flowers. Men carried pieces of wood and piled them near a group who were all busy discussing something. A scattering of people had gathered to watch. Mai looked up at Bou-san questioningly.

"Maybe that festival we talked about?" he offered thoughtfully.

Then Mai caught sight of two people she recognized,

"Hey- that's Mr. Sachi and Masako."

"Huh?" Bou-san said, his eyes scanning the crowd.

"By the men with the boards," Mai persisted, tugging on his sleeve to get him to come with her. Squeezing past the throng, Mai and Bou-san came to stand behind the medium who Mr. Sachi was talking very animatedly to.

"So you see Masako, the stage will be built right here...."

Mai's eyes widened,

Masako?

Bou-san cleared his throat uncomfortably and Masako whirled around, actually looking relieved to see them. Eagerly she took Mai's arm like an old friend, a radiant smile turned on,

"Oh hello Mai, Takigawa-san-- Mr. Sachi here was just explaining Nozomi's plans for a stage in their festival, do continue Mr. Sachi."

For a moment Mr. Sachi had trouble composing himself, he struggled not to look put out by their arrival,

"Ah, well-- yes, we plan to build a stage," he managed feebly.

"Joji!" a sweet voice cried. Waving at him, Nari walked up. Mr. Sachi smiled lightly,

"Hello, Nari," he greeted. The woman clasped her hands together excitedly,

"Oh don't you just love the energy of this festival?"

Mai smiled despite herself, the actress seemed enchanted.

"Well yes, I was just telling Masako what some of our plans are," he explained, offering up a warm smile to the medium. Masako's kindly expression was strained.

Nari's smile fell, the enchantment draining from her eyes, "Oh."

"What is this festival?" Bou-san prompted, breaking the uncomfortable trend in conversation. Mr. Sachi drew himself up importantly,

"Only the most significant festival for miles. Its seven days of honoring our great Takuya Miyuki. At least eight neighboring towns come every year, and it's all driven by a love of theater."

And now Mr. Sachi looked enchanted. Bou-san crossed his arms and mulled this over in his head,

"A bit of bad timing calling us out here now, eh?"

Mr. Sachi blinked surprisedly, "You think? I wouldn't say so. You don't know the full story, but...now is not the time for that," he dismissed, lowering his voice.

"Where is John and Ayako?" Mai wondered to Masako.

The medium looked over to the theater, "I don't know I haven't seen them."

"Joji," Nari spoke up, her eyes landing briefly on Masako, "don't we need to go over some things?"

"Ah, yes. Masako would you like to join us? Some of this might interest you; I think I know a future actress when I see one..."

Masako's tight smile cracked; quickly her sleeve came to the rescue, covering her mouth in that flattering way Mai hated,

"Oh no, I would only be in the way, I'll go with Mai and Takigawa-san."

Mr. Sachi looked supremely disappointed, but then brightened,

"Very well, I'll be with you again shortly."

Mai exchanged a look with Bou-san. Masako looked flustered as they helped her away from their very forward client. As they made their way to the edge of the crowd, Masako reclaimed her arm and straightened her kimono.

"I hope you don't consider this a debt to you?" Masako spoke lowly, out of ear shot of Bou-san.

Mai raised an eyebrow at her rival, "Certainly not."

"Good," she said, composed again.

"I suppose we should join Ayako and John?" Bou-san suggested, not missing the exchange.

Mai, arms crossed against her chest, just glared silently at Masako. Masako simply stared ahead, pretending not to notice. Bou-san hung his head and sighed,

"Come on you two," he coaxed.

The three of them reached the theater doors. Mai stopped for a moment to focus. Next to her Masako did the same, an angelic hand rising to her throat. Mai found herself distracted, what a show off.... Bou-san was a few steps ahead of them, ready to go in,

"Eh? You two feel something?"

Mai closed her eyes. She willed herself open to anything, any feeling, any pulse of energy....nothing. Mai shook her head and opened her eyes. Bou-san nodded, they looked to Masako. She was taking a bit longer to feel out her surroundings, but Mai knew what the end result would be. Masako bowed her head and sighed,

"Nothing," she murmured.

"Well-- that's alright, let's find Ayako and John, maybe the equipment will pick up something?" Bou-san encouraged, pushing the doors open.

Mai and Masako passed through the entryway and froze. Mai's vision blurred, her head spun, her cold rice breakfast planning on making a quick exit. Mai clamped a hand over her mouth to prevent it. Beside her, Masako dropped to her knees.

"Mai! Masako!"

Bou-san's voice sounded fuzzy...distant. A strong hand seized her arm and pulled her along. Slowly, the sensation began to leave her- her vision sharpened, the floor steadied, her stomach stopped tossing around what little she had ate that morning. In a moment the only thing she still felt was a headache.

"Mai..?" Bou-san persisted. There were foot steps down the hall.

"What happened here?" Ayako's voice cried.

"Masako, Mai-- are you alright?" came John's soft voice.

Mai looked up at all of them; Bou-san was hunched next to herself and Masako, "I'm fine..."

"I'm okay too..." Masako answered.

Just then Naru and Lin walked in, both staring in surprise at the sight of them on the floor, they hurried forward, "What's going on?"

"Naru!" Masako cried, throwing herself at him, "It was awful..."

Hands clenched, Mai stood up,

"Don't worry, I'm fine..."

"What happened here?" Naru questioned, standing stiffly while Masako clung to him.

"I don't know," Bou-san spoke, baffled, "We were just coming in, when suddenly..."

"I felt sick, it was like the room was spinning," Mai explained.

"My legs gave out...the world grew so dark..." Masako added, her voice muffled by Naru's shirt.

Mai's blood began to boil. How was it that they both experienced the same thing, yet only Masako got to fall into Naru while he stood there without so much as a concerned look thrown her way? Naru disentangled himself from Masako's helpless form and guided her over to the capable arms of Bou-san. Masako was suddenly much better, and resisted any support from the monk.

"You say you felt it when you walked in?" Naru said, already heading back down the hall.

"Yes," Mai and Masako called after him, glaring at each other afterward.

Lin joined him at the doors, looking them over.

"You didn't see anything, did you?" Naru asked, running his hand along the door frame.

"If you don't count blotchy spots, no," Mai answered dryly.

Naru sent her a look, then returned his gaze to the door, "And you...Hara-san?"

"Not that I recall," Masako answered.

Naru closed his eyes, "Lin, what do you sense?"

The Chinese man stood back and closed his eyes as well, "I feel pressure, there's a slight pounding in my head...but it's so light, I would have to stand here a while to even notice it."

Naru nodded, "I feel the same...it's odd. John, Bou-san, do you notice anything?"

Both men came forward, they stood for a moment. John frowned after a while, "I feel a bit of unease..."

"I feel slightly warmer, uncomfortable," Bou-san commented. Naru nodded again and then he addressed the miko,

"Matsuzaki-san, if you would please?" Ayako stood taller and walked confidently towards the doors-- then she stopped. A sour expression came over her face,

"My head..." she managed. Bou-san guided her back into the hall. Naru lead the rest of them back as well, his eyes dark with thought,

"It's interesting; the women seem more affected by it."

There was the sound of laughter, two people turned the corner into the lobby. Mr. Sachi and Nari. Nari's laugh caught in her throat. A strange look came over her features. She brought a hand up, covering her nose. Her face was red in an instant. Her legs suddenly gave out.

"Nari!" Mr. Sachi cried, immediately at her side. Naru raced forward, pulling the actress along into the hall, a shocked Mr. Sachi following. Nari frantically grasped at her neck, Naru's eyes swept over her,

"Bou-san, water!"

Bou-san was gone in a flash, Mai had no idea how he knew where to find any, but he was back in the next instant with a cup full of it. Naru splashed it straight on her. Nari gasped and sputtered. Blinking the water out of her eyes, she breathed deeply. Tense moments past, her breathing slowed, her hand fell from her throat, she sat up better with Naru's assistance. Mr. Sachi leaned in close to her, he took her hand with concern blazing in his eyes, "Nari...are you-- okay?"

"What in the world?"

Everyone looked to the end of the hall. There stood a tall woman; her blonde hair falling onto her shoulders.

"Ah, Miss Miyuki-- perfect timing," Mr. Sachi's voice was brittle and strained.

Miss Miyuki frowned, a hard look in her eyes,

"Obviously not. Nari...is that you? Is she okay?"

"We think. Nari, how are you?" Mr. Sachi persisted. Miss Miyuki disappeared behind the corner, presumably to the ticket booth, then she appeared again with a bottle of water, she reached them and went to hand it off to Nari, who up until now, had just been staring around, eyes wide.

"Here." Ms. Miyuki offered. Slap. The bottle was knocked clear away. Nari's eyes burned,

"You-- you did this!"

Miss Miyuki's mouth hung open, she drew back, "Excuse me?"

"You made him this way, you are the reason for his wrath!" Nari exclaimed, her voice cracking.

The shock subsided from Miss Miyuki's face,

"You can't possibly mean my father?"

"Of course she does!" Mr. Sachi stepped in, rallying behind his actress. Miss Miyuki regarded him with contempt,

"You're impossible! I come for papers, and then I try to help, and this is what I get?"

Her voice was venom. Mr. Sachi faltered,

"Well--" he said, attempting the firm tone that had suddenly left him, "leave. This matter doesn't concern you, you'll get your papers later."

Miss Miyuki's posture stiffened, she looked as though she were about to protest, but then abruptly turned on heel,

"I'll be back. Have what I need ready."

The front doors slammed. Mr. Sachi watched after her, speechless, "The nerve of that woman!" he spat. His strength seeming to have returned, he looked back to Nari, "Don't worry; I won't let this happen again."

Nari nodded, and pulling a Masako, threw her arms around his neck. Mr. Sachi patted her back lightly. Uncomfortable, Naru stood up and looked to the rest of his team, "Let's set up base."

Nari was helped into the room they had talked in the day before, given some tea, and left in the care of John.

"This base of yours, where were you thinking?" Mr. Sachi wondered as they walked the hall. Naru glanced over at him,

"I was thinking Nari's powder room."

Mr. Sachi looked a bit surprised, then bowed his head apologetically, "Ah, with the damages and the mess...I'm afraid the room isn't ready."

"Is that so?" Naru answered.

Mai winced at the tone her boss was using. Uncomfortable, Mr. Sachi cleared his throat. Hurriedly he gave his suggestion,

"But the parlor is available...?"

"Fine. Lead on."

They reached the parlor. It was the room Mr. Sachi had briefed them in that first day. A fairly large space, the seating area, with it's table, two couches, and armchairs, took up the center. To the left was a kitchenette for entertaining, and to the right-- a polished wooden desk, recently cleared.

"Actually, I had them prepare the parlor for you yesterday...we even brought you extra tables," Mr. Sachi added. Naru looked back at his team,

"Okay, let's bring it in."

An hour later, ten camera screens glowed, throwing blue light over the walls. Mai stared at the screen watching the entryway, what was it that she had felt earlier? What had caused Nari's reaction? Naru adjusted a few dials on his computer,

"Lin, how are our generators working?"

Lin took a seat in front of a lap top, "Running, for now."

Naru nodded, "Mai--"

The young woman tore her gaze from the screens, "Eh?"

"Good work with the cameras."

Mai smiled, her eyes finding Masako, but the medium appeared to not have heard.

"Bou-san, Matsuzaki-san," Naru spoke, standing up from leaning over his computer, "I want you to get a feeling for this place."

The monk and the priestess nodded and left the room.

"Hara-san, go to John, I want you two to do some investigating for me, see what you can learn about Nari from the towns people."

A flicker of confusion crossed Masako's face before she nodded and left the room also. Mai now stood awkwardly again, what could she do? Naru looked over at her, his eyes softened,

"You look tired Mai, go back to the Inn and get some sleep."

Mai swallowed and nodded dumbly, so she was useful after all, he wanted her to dream...

Chapter Text

Day Two

12:45pm

Miyuki Theater

Mai turned the corner and stopped. In the afternoon sunlight, the heavy doors of the Miyuki Theater seemed normal enough. A twinge of pain in her head reminded Mai of the episode she had not more than hour ago. Sure they looked peaceful, but one step through them, and she could be on the floor. How was she supposed to get out?

Mai glanced around, and finding no solution, took a steady breath. Carefully she began to move forward, at any sign of discomfort, she planned to back away. Faster than she liked, she approached the doors,

So far, so good...

Her hand loomed before the handle. Mai let out a small gasp and drew it back. It was as if she had touched an electric spider web, her skin prickled. With a new found determination, Mai set her jaw and extended her hand again.

The sensation returned, but she was already grasping the door handle. Propelled by her discomfort she quickly turned it and burst through the doors. A wave of sickness hit her, her head pounded once more, but she was out, the worst was over it seemed.

Taking a moment, Mai sat herself on the theater's front steps. Her stomach took it's time to settle, her head showed no signs of ending its throbbing. Out in front of her the town still bustled about, a few stalls were even set up now.

So this is the Miyuki festival?

Mai watched how much attention to detail was being given,

They really must have loved Mr. Miyuki...

Slowly feeling better, Mai stood and headed for the Inn. That was when a thought at the back of her mind began to nag at her. It was strange. Naru had never asked to use her abilities before...why now?

For a moment it bothered her so much that she very nearly marched back into that theater to demand an answer, but it only took one thought of those doors and she continued on,

What is Naru thinking?

Lost in thought, Mai pushed open the Inn door and made her way through the empty lobby. She was just passing the dining room when someone called out to her,

"Mai?"

A bit surprised, she stopped and peeked her head in. Alone, in the far corner of the room, sat Niko.

"Oh, hi," she greeted; smiling weakly as she remembered the cold rice she ate that morning.

"I thought that was you, have you had lunch?" he wondered, already moving over to accommodate his guest. Mai held up her hands, about to politely decline, she had some dreaming to do after all...but an ill-timed growl of her stomach ruined it. The two shared a laugh, and reluctantly Mai sat at his table,

"I'll fix something up for you," Niko said, walking towards the kitchen.

"Thank you," Mai said, with a grateful bow of her head.

As soon as she was alone, Mai sighed and rested her head on her arms. Seemingly out of no where, a yawn came forth.

I guess I am tired...

The room around her seemed to grow comfortably warm. A bird flew past the windows letting in the soft afternoon light. The dinging room was silent, some where far off, a clang of a pot sounded. Without knowing it, Mai found her eyelids sliding shut.

She was in a dark room, heavy velvet curtains were drawn against large windows. The wooden floor beneath her feet was covered with an ornate rug depicting an outlandish play, with actors dressed as gods and goddesses on stage. For a moment, Mai was lost in its story. A loud crack drew her out of it. Looking up quickly, she noticed a fireplace, a warm fire burning inside. Mai closed her eyes and searched her feelings,

I'm dreaming.

Somehow she did not feel uneasy, only a bit sad. There was a soft muffled sound. Mai opened her eyes. Placed in front of the fire were two large chairs, one of them occupied. Mai froze, for a moment panic filled her, she had learned just how dangerous these dreams could be.

The muffled sound continued. In spite of her apprehension, Mai found herself drifting forward. The figure in the chair came into view. An older man, with the orange light of the fire dancing across him, sat weeping into his hands. The small sadness in Mai heart swelled. The corners of her eyes burned. Attempting to compose herself, Mai wiped her tears away; these were not her feelings....

The man brought his face from his hands. He looked right up at her. Mai's heart plummeted into her stomach. The man blinked and stared, his wet cheeks glistening, his eyes red and heavy with sadness. Mai let out a long breath; he was looking right through her. He stared at the same spot through her for what seemed like ages, as though in some sort of trance.

No, Mai thought, he's lost in memory.

Finally he turned away from Mai and looked into the fire, which now was burning low. With surprising ease and grace, he stood and tossed another log in. He then settled himself back down again. As if having a mind of its own, his hand reached for the small table beside him. On it a single picture frame. Staring into the flames, he picked it up, and drawing it to his chest, cried silent tears.

Mai stood there fighting her own emotions. Lured by something, she found herself standing behind the man's chair, looking down on him. Tenderly he drew the frame from his chest and gazed down at it. A small girl about seven smiled up at him, her beautiful golden locks spilling out across her shoulders, her bright blue eyes twinkling with laughter.

A spark of recognition, Mai narrowed her eyes and leaned in further,

Where have I seen that face?

The man placed his hand across the picture and closed his eyes, in a gentle voice he spoke,

"Oh my dear Kioko, what has happened to you?"

"Kioko..." Mai murmured, trying to remember something, anything...

And then something struck her. She stood back from the chair and cast a look around her. If this was her usual dream, then where was...

"Naru?" she called. Her handsome boss was no where to be seen. Mai looked back to the old man, what was she supposed to make of all this? Naru always visited her in her dreams, if even only to point...

Naru, where are you?

Suddenly things began to grow hazy around the edges, Mai's throat tightened, great emotion over came her. The man began to cry harder, and Mai cried with him, unable to stop this time. Suddenly she was tugged back. A firm hand on her shoulder gave another shake. A voice, soft at first, but growing louder, filled her ears,

"Mai!"

Mai jolted awake. Her face was wet with tears.

"Mai? Are you alright? When I came back with your food you were, just- just laying there," Niko explained. His face hovered close to hers, filled with obvious concern.

Disoriented and confused, Mai wiped at her eyes,

"Oh, um-- I'm fine," she stammered.

Niko didn't looked convinced,

"Mai...what happened?"

Mai opened her mouth to speak, but then shut it. It wasn't as if she could say,

Oh, you know...just had a psychic dream-- got a bit emotional, no big deal!

She thought carefully on her words. There weren't very many explanations she could pull out of thin air with this one.

"Allergies," she finally said, hoping that she didn't look half as stupid as she sounded. Niko blinked at her, he didn't seem to understand.

"Uh- I have terrible allergies. I had an attack, do you perhaps have any..." Mai's eyes frantically searched the room for something she could be allergic to, then-- there at the next table over-- "...lilies around?"

Niko's gaze fell on the vase of flowers, "You're allergic to lilies?"

"Yes," Mai answered, this was it; she was going all the way with this one, "Ever since I was little."

A sudden frown crossed Niko's face,

"I'm so sorry, you must be the most devoted Miyuki fan of all, to come to his Festival of Lilies, even though you're so terribly allergic," he said in admiration.

Mai's cheeks burned hot in guilt, Niko seemed to think her some kind of hero. She suddenly stood up,

"I better go, I really shouldn't be around them unless I have to," she said, already leaving the table.

Niko stood back to let her pass, his eyes still shining at her in amazement,

"Of course. I'll be sure to tell my grandparents not to put any in the dining room tomorrow."

Mai smiled strainedly at him on the way out, "Oh. Thank you."

"You're most welcome, Mai," he bowed. She was gone before he could right himself.

2:00pm

The Motoshi residence

Masako glanced over at John who sat next to her on Mrs. Motoshi's couch. He smiled at her kindly, but she could see he was just as thoughtful as herself. Mrs. Motoshi was proving to be quite a person; an interesting picture of Nari was being painted.

Earlier that day, when Naru had sent her to find John and investigate, she had been thoroughly confused. And who did he want them to investigate? Nari. The choice struck her as odd, and usually she prided herself on understanding Naru, but why the actress?

Dutifully though, she obeyed, and went to find John. He was sitting with the woman when Masako walked in.

"Here, how are you feeling?" John asked as he handed off a glass of water. Nari accepted it gratefully,

"Better. Thank you."

"It's no problem at all," John replied with an obliging smile. Masako cleared her throat and the young priest looked up. Masako smiled lightly and nodded to the both of them,

"John, might I see you for a moment?" John nodded and excused himself, Masako lead him a few feet from the door.

"Naru would like us to do some investigating," she began, staring distractedly at Nari. The actress sat motionless on the couch. John followed the medium's gaze,

"Investigating?"

Masako nodded, "Yes. Her."

John raised an eyebrow,

"Nari? Do you know why?"

"No," Masako answered, shaking her head, "He just wants us to ask around, see what we can come up with."

"Okay, I'll be right back," John said joining the actress again.

Politely, the young priest took his leave and followed Masako to the front doors of the theater. The medium paused. She closed her eyes, trying once more to feel anything-- anything at all to explain what she and Mai had experienced earlier. But there was nothing, not a single trace of a spiritual energy. Disappointed Masako opened her eyes and noticed John's gentle gaze settled upon her.

"Are you alright?"

Masako stood up straighter,

"I'm fine, I was just hoping to link what I experienced earlier when I passed through these doors, to a spirit, but I feel none."

John frowned,

"We should probably find another way out, surely there's a back door?"

Masako shook her head,

"No. I want to try again."

John nodded respectfully and followed a step behind. Masako reached for the door handle and let out a small gasp.

"Masako?"

The medium narrowed her eyes, and despite the discomfort, waved her hand around. The sensation crept over hand with steady intensity. John stood at her side and also extended his hand, a deep thoughtfulness filled his blue eyes. Masako began to feel herself grow sick. Quickly, she opened the door-- and rushed out. At the theater stairs she halted, collecting herself.

"It's strange," John murmured as he walked up, "It's as if I've felt this before..."

Masako nodded,

"Yes..."

A few minutes went by, but finally the medium recovered enough to continue on. Descending the stairs, the two of them took in their surroundings.

"Where do we begin?" John said, a bit overwhelmed as he watched half the town mill about the festival grounds.

"Do you want to split up?" Masako asked, looking to him.

John smiled and shrugged,

"If you think it would help?"

Masako took in the crowd,

"Perhaps not..."

Uncertainly they wandered the festival grounds. A few times John tried to ask some questions, but he was just met with much bowing and apologizes as they were too busy to talk. John sighed and gave Masako a sheepish look as yet another woman he tried to stop bowed and rushed away from him.

Masako brought her hands together; carefully she scanned the mass of people darting back and forth in front of her. Surely there was one person here who didn't have to race off somewhere? Masako's gaze traveled over the many stands being set up, but then, there-- in a shady corner: a group of old women.

"John, this way," Masako said, moving towards them. A bit confused, John followed, trying a couple times more to stop someone. No such luck.

The old women they approached had as many folds in their faces as in the yards and yards of fabric that hung about them. They seemed to be making costumes, their frail hands sticking needles in and out, in and out, of brightly colored material. Masako bowed deeply, followed by John. The women cracked smiles, their faces rippling like the water's surface after a stone is dropped.

"Pardon us, but might we ask a few questions?" Masako wondered, the smile she usually reserved for Naru painted on her face. The old women were charmed,

"Of course dear," one of them agreed, "but what questions could you possibly have for a couple of old timers?"

The other ladies cackled. One of them leaned over to her friend,

"Lookie there, ah to be young again..." she whispered loudly, winking at John who quickly turned scarlet. Masako shifted where she stood, they were getting off the point,

"Do any of you know the actress Nari?"

"Nari..." the first woman said knowingly, "bright girl, works well with Joji." The others murmured that they agreed.

"Come, come, you're making me hot standing there in the sun like that," another woman spoke up, motioning John to her side. There was more low cackling as John reluctantly sat near her. Masako knelt where she stood and pursued their cause,

"Surely you know more of her? Was she born here?"

The women reacted indignantly, grumbling amongst themselves,

"Of course she was! No one ever leaves Nozomi, that is...no one but--"

"Bah! Don't burn our ears with her name!" one of them suddenly protested. The women now stuck their needles in and out aggressively. Masako could tell she upset them-- respectfully, she bowed her head and stood, "Thank you for your time."

"What? You're leaving?" the one who had winked at John, asked, eyeing him now like a hawk.

"Not so soon," her friend added, smiling toothlessly at the helpless priest.

"Let him stay, us old ladies need some company, we'll babysit while you poke around," the old woman who had invited John to sit beside her suggested, taking his arm possessively.

John looked up to Masako in desperation. The others joined in, begging her to give him over. Growing tired of this, and sympathetic to John's embarrassment, the medium marched over and pulled John to her side,

"Sorry ladies, I need him with me."

Some gaped at her, some narrowed their eyes, all of them murmured their disappointment. Just as Masako was leading John away, the first woman spoke again,

"If it is Nari you want to know about, why not just ask her mother? They live not five houses from here."

Masako smiled and bowed again,

"Thank you very much."

Once they were out of sight, Masako let John's arm go,

"Thank you for that," he said gratefully. Masako smiled a rare amused smile,

"What would you have done if I had left you?"

John raised an eyebrow at her fringing hurt, but the gleam in his eye gave him away,

"Where do you think this house is?" he wondered, changing the subject skillfully. Masako stopped and pointed a few yards ahead of them,

"There. That's the fifth one."

The house was old, but well kept up. A sunny garden was planted all along the front.

"Look at all the lilies," John commented as they reached the front door.

"Maybe they're native to Nozomi?" Masako suggested a bit distractedly. How could they ask questions without raising suspicions?

"Follow my lead," Masako said, turning to John. The priest nodded and Masako knocked on the door. After a moment the door swung open, a short woman with Nari's hair and eyes stood before them inquiringly,

"Can I help you?"

Masako and John bowed,

"Hello, is this the home of the actress Nari?"

The woman blinked at them,

"Ah yes, I'm her mother, Sumiko Motoshi...can I help you? Is something wrong?"

Masako turned on her charm, she could see past the small woman. All along the walls, pictures of Nari, awards in Nari's name, theater scripts, costumes...

"Perhaps you can? This is John Brown, and I'm Masako Hara, maybe you've heard of me? We're visiting from Tokyo, we've seen your daughter perform, she's quiet something..." Carefully the medium let her last words dangle; she could feel John's confused eyes on her. Mrs. Motoshi's eyes widened, a radiant smile lit her face,

"Oh-- Hara-san, what an honor! Please come in! Nari isn't here, but I'm sure she'll be by soon, she really is something special isn't she?"

In that moment they were ushered in,

"Make yourselves comfortable, I'll bring some tea," the woman urged, motioning towards a couch. Satisfied, Masako sat. John followed uncertainly, his intent gaze eventually caused the medium to look at him,

"Yes, John?"

Beside her John was smiling at her crookedly,

"That was impressive."

Masako blinked quickly, taken a bit off guard, oddly her cheeks colored, she looked away, instantly her sleeve coming to her rescue,

"It was nothing."

John laughed good-naturedly,

"Nothing? I don't think so. I wonder if Naru has any idea how clever you are..."

Masako's head shot back to John, her cheeks coloring deeper,

"Pardon me?"

Just then Mrs. Motoshi walked in, a tray of rice cakes in her hands,

"The tea will be ready soon, rice cake?"

John smiled brightly and took one,

"Thank you."

Flustered Masako waved hers away, her cheeks taking their time to drain of color. Mrs. Motoshi sat down and crossed her legs; nervously she smoothed out her worn skirt,

"I'm afraid I didn't ask what it was you wanted here...?" she began; a light smile still gracing her face, her eyes searched theirs anxiously.

"We would like to learn more about your daughter."

3:30pm

The Miyuki Theater

Ayako closed the door to the room she had just investigated. She felt nothing, she certainly saw nothing. What was Naru doing? As much as she hated to admit it, they needed Masako for things like this. Bou-san joined her in the dim hall; he shook his head and shrugged.

"It's really no use, I don't feel anything, and even if there was a spirit in there, how am I supposed to tell?" the monk complained. Ayako sighed,

"Why do I get the feeling that we've just been sent on a wild goose chase?"

"Hey, that's Naru for you..."

Bou-san sighed with her. Ayako crossed her arms, burning a hole in the floor with her gaze.

"Something wrong?" Bou-san asked, raising an eyebrow at her.

"I bet this is all apart of some scheme of his, he wanted us out of there, I know it...what is that arrogant jerk up to?"

"Well, I'm all for finding out-- let's go back," Bou-san answered readily, he had spent enough time wandering around this theater.

"Sounds good," Ayako agreed, leading the way down the hall.

"Uh--" Bou-san spoke up, "base is this way," he said, pointing towards the hall to their left. Ayako paused looking back at him,

"No, it's this way," she persisted stabbing the air in her direction as to prove her point. Bou-san crossed his arms and shook his head,

"Nope, you're turned around, it's back this way."

Ayako's expression soured a bit,

"I think I know which way base is."

"No, you don't."

"Yes, I do."

"You don't."

"I do."

"Don't!"

"Do!"

Agitated and red in the face, both the monk and the priestess stood glaring at each other.

"Fine, if you're so smart, go that way-- but base is this way," Bou-san finally said, turning on heel and walking back to the left.

Ayako's stare sent daggers after his retreating back,

"Have fun getting lost," she called after him, storming down her own hall.

"Idiot priestess..."

The miko froze. Her face burned the color of her hair, with terrible deliberation; she turned around,

"What did you just say?"

Bou-san, some ways down his hall, barely heard her,

"Huh, you say something? Sorry, was it?"

Then the monk then caught sight of her, a blaring red figure in the dimness. Maybe she didn't say sorry after all...

"Hey, what's your problem?"

"Say that again, I dare you..." she muttered darkly.

"What's....your problem?" Bou-san repeated confusedly. Ayako marched a few steps towards him,

"Don't play dumb with me, Monk."

"Hey, now-- no need to be so angry..."

Ayako halted, her face twitching dangerously. Bou-san continued to stand a few feet from her in unease...what had he done so wrong? Finally, just when he figured she was going to blow, she merely let out a long breath, all anger draining from her. The only thing that remained was a hard glint in her eye.

"Fine. Be that way. I don't have time for your juvenile games," she said, waving her hand around like she always did when she found defeat. Stalking away from him, she left Bou-san to stare wide-eyed after her. His unease did not leave him...this couldn't be over; Ayako just didn't give up like this. She was more than halfway down her hall when he finally shrugged and turned to go his own way. Women, he would never understand them...

Just then-- a shriek. Ayako's shriek. Bou-san spun around and bolted down the hall. An instant later he found the priestess backed up against the wall, a perfectly manicured hand clutching her chest, her stunned face rather pale.

"Ayako..." Bou-san said, gripping her shoulder when she didn't react. Her eyes flicked to him, her hand extended to point to the mirror in front of her. Bou-san blinked in surprise, this whole section of hall was lined with them. Oval, gilded, and antique, their reflections smooth and silvery. Bou-san gazed at their refection in the mirror before them, Ayako appearing as startled as if she had seen a ghost. A small smile tugged at his lips,

"Come now Matsuzaki-san, we all have bad hair days..." he chided, unable to resist.

Her first real reaction, she snapped her head towards him with a fierce glare,

"This isn't about bad hair days, Takigawa-san, I-- I saw something..."

Bou-san's smile vanished; he raised a dark eyebrow at her,

"You saw something?"

Ayako grew impatient with him,

"Yes!" she snapped jerking her shoulder out of his grip and righting herself. Bou-san was slightly relieved to see the color return to her cheeks, less relieved to have her mouth working again.

"Are you doubting me?" she persisted, her stare piercing. Bou-san did not meet her gaze but instead looked into the mirror more closely,

"Just what do you think you saw?"

Ayako bit her lip and glanced around. Bou-san looked back to her inquiringly, this nervous gesture piquing his curiosity.

"Well...?"

Ayako fixed him with a look that dared him to laugh at the next thing she said,

"I think, I mean I know-- I saw myself...old...or...dead, I don't know which."

Bou-san's initial instinct to laugh at her vanity died when the word dead passed her lips. He now stared hard at the mirror. He passed his hand in front of it a few times, walked back and forth past it, tapped at it, but nothing-- he only saw his agitated refection. It was as if Ayako could read his mind,

"I know what I saw. I don't need you to believe me."

Bou-san's eyes met hers in the mirror. She had been unusually angry moments before, who's to say she didn't just imagine it?

"I don't know about this, but what I do know is it's getting late now, and base is back that way," he said thrusting his thumb back up the hall suggestively.

Ayako arms crossed tightly in front of her, snorted with frustration, then marched ahead. Bou-san shook his head. He ran a hand through his hair, watching himself in the mirror one last time. Nothing. He flashed a smile, young and good looking as ever. Rather confidently he proceeded after the fuming priestess.

Then-- his heart nearly stopped. Passing the last mirror, something ghastly leered out at him, as though it meant to climb out of the mirror itself. Bou-san froze, unable to look away from the decay in his face, his unnaturally wrinkled and sagging skin, the color of ash. A sound of shock must have past his lips, because Ayako was immediately at his side,

"What? What? Did you see it?!" she demanded, staring into the same mirror he was, only able to see his white face twisted with alarm.

"Bou-san--" she protested, shaking his shoulder rather hard. Suddenly he snapped out of it. He instantly took Ayako's arm and half carried her down the hall as fast as he could,

"Bou-san!" she gasped in confusion, half-heartily trying to pry herself from his grip, in truth she was more than happy to leave that place behind, but must he drag her? She had legs after all! He did not react to her repeated cries to unhand her, he just continued on, a cold sweat sliding across his forehead.

"Bou-san, stop!" Ayako exclaimed, digging in her heels. They were near base now and she certainly wasn't going to let Naru and Lin see them like this. The monk finally listened and came to a halt. Gingerly she pulled her arm away from him, which was now slightly sore from his strong grip,

"Thanks for that..." she grumbled rubbing it unnecessarily.

Bou-san looked to her for the first time since hauling her away,

"I'm sorry I didn't believe you," he managed. Ayako paused her rubbing to look back at him,

"That sounded sincere, you really are worked up, aren't you?"

"We need to tell Naru about this," Bou-san persisted, ignoring her sarcasm. Ayako nodded,

"Yeah, but you can't go in there looking like that," she said haughtily, and the next thing he knew she handed him a handkerchief from her robes and strode ahead. Bou-san watched her bemusedly as she passed into the base. He wiped his brow and followed after.

4:15pm

The Motoshi residence

Masako stared into her cold tea, the amber reflection thoughtful. Beside her John took his last rice cake, he was in the middle of asking Mrs. Motoshi why Nari had never sought work in a larger theater where her talent could be better appreciated? Masako looked up eagerly for the answer; they had been trying to get around to this question for an hour.

It turns out Mrs. Motoshi was about impossible to interview, every question asked was turned around and answered in rambles of her daughter's talent and beauty. It was like running in circles and, frankly, the medium was losing her patience. It was lucky John was there, his patience exceeded hers, he hardly seemed bothered that they had spent an hour with a star struck woman who couldn't answer a single question.

"Well..." Mrs. Motoshi began, seeming reluctant to answer a question that wasn't completely flattering to her daughter, "she doesn't want to, or at least-- she doesn't think she wants to," she added meaningfully.

Masako watched the woman in front of her steadily. She had never seen such shameless advertising in her life, and she was in the business. It was obvious that Mrs. Motoshi wanted her daughter out of Nozomi and on to bigger things.

"But why? Does she doubt her talent?" John interjected. Mrs. Motoshi's eyes widened and shook her head,

"Oh no, nothing like that. My Nari has great confidence in herself, it's just..." Mrs. Motoshi trailed off.

Masako gazed at her carefully, was it just her or did the woman look embarrassed?

"Yes...?" John prodded gently.

"Well...it's Joji, she--" Mrs. Motoshi halted, her eyes suddenly glistening. She leaned forward and took Masako's hands, "Please, please-- take her out of here. She doesn't know what's good for her." Masako was a bit surprised, but did not pull away from the woman's desperate grip,

"Mrs. Motoshi, what about Mr. Joji Sachi?" she persisted, her voice even. Mrs. Motoshi hung her head, and then slowly let go of the medium's hands. Settled back in her seat she fixed them with helpless gaze,

"She really isn't foolish by nature, honestly, but-- it's just she's so vulnerable when it comes to theater..." she began, still rambling on in half sentences. John intervened then before Masako could lose her patience,

"I'm sure your daughter is anything but foolish Mrs. Motoshi; please tell us what you find so hard to say."

Maybe it was the gentle way in which John spoke, or maybe it was because of his appeal to her daughter, but whatever the reason Mrs. Motoshi set her eyes on John and gave him a watery smile,

"You're too kind," she murmured, "I suppose I should start at the beginning?"

The medium and priest nodded encouragingly.

"Well as you know, Nari's always wanted to be an actress-- always. Her dreams came true the day she went to work for Joji. In her eight years there, Joji has always been playwright. The two have worked closely from the start, my Nari being the budding actress he needed to fuel his magnificent plays, but I suppose I should have seen it coming..." Mrs. Motoshi sighed and looked as though she might stop again, but she took in a deep breath and continued on,

"Nari fell in love. Joji was her day and night. I was happy for her, encouraged her at first, but I feared it might be one-sided. There were days in which she would come home bawling that he would never see her as anything but a friend, and then days where she would twirl around the room and exclaim that she just knew he loved her back. Things went on like this for some years, you can imagine my agony! My poor Nari! Meanwhile though she only became a better and better actress, and very soon his best. The two were inseparable. And then, just a few years ago, Joji began to cast himself in his plays, most often opposite Nari, as her love interest. Oh how excited my Nari was. She adored her plays more than ever, and worked late into the night. At the time, she seemed to never be apart from Joji, and I'm very sure she wasn't, I know hardly saw her. I began having to go to her plays just to see her longer than five minutes at a time! But she was happy, she beamed, she radiated love..." Mrs. Motoshi grew distant, a slight smile on her face, lost in her memories. Masako sat her tea cup down rather hard, and Mrs. Motoshi jumped in her seat,

"Oh right," she began again, smiling lightly at them, "yes, she was happy and in love. And it went on this way for ages. Whispers began to get around that the two were a couple, that their chemistry on stage was just too good to be an act. I half believed it myself, and Nari-- well she relished in these rumors. It was then that Joji-- in so many words, began to date Nari. He began to take her out to dinner, bought her flowers, and hung on her every word. Their loved blossomed. Ah, the bliss I felt for my daughter! Watching her it was as if she floated across the stage, her lines were recited in the greatest of feeling. Yes, it was all going perfectly, what we had waited so long for was happening. And then new whispers started. Someone had seen Joji buying a ring, were the two engaged? Nari nearly fainted when she heard these rumors, I didn't think the smile she wore would ever leave her face. We spent weeks and months wondering and hoping, secretly planning the wedding amongst ourselves. And then the moment came-- the play had just ended, they were taking their bows, and then-- in front of the whole town, he dropped down on one knee..." Mrs. Motoshi halted, her eyes suddenly welling up with tears. Uncertainly, John offered her a handkerchief. The woman took it gratefully, dabbing at her eyes,

"I'm sorry," she mumbled. Masako and John shook their heads,

"No, take your time..." But neither of them meant it, they waited impatiently to hear what happened next. Finally Mrs. Motoshi was composed again. Something now replaced her sadness: bitterness.

"Well, as I said he dropped down on his knee," she started again, wringing the handkerchief on her lap, "and then the theater doors opened, and in she walked. Miss Toki Miyuki. With no courtesy at all, she lamely apologized for barging into the middle of something, she had thought Joji was free to speak to. That, that-- awful woman. She ruined it! Joji was forced to excuse himself, the theater owner wanted to talk to him. Couldn't it have waited?!" the frustration in Mrs. Motoshi's voice gave way to sadness once again,

"My poor Nari, she pretended not to be devastated, she insisted that the proposal would come again, maybe even the next night? But Joji was busy the next night, and the next, and into the next week. It was Miss Miyuki, keeping Joji into the late hours of the night, demanding all kinds of odds and ends of paper work from the poor man. And what was worse, as the days slipped away, new rumors started: perhaps there would be no proposal at all? These rumors frightened me-- and left Nari in a fragile state. She went from being with him at every moment of everyday, to seeing him only a few days a week at rehearsals. And just like that, their would-be-engagement, their relationship, fell apart. That was six months ago, I'm afraid all my dear Nari is to him now, is an actress."

Silence settled over them. Mrs. Motoshi stared down at her lap, folding John's handkerchief with great concentration. Masako caught the priest's eye; he frowned slightly and then returned his gentle gaze on the troubled woman,

"Mrs. Motoshi, we're very sorry..."

Suddenly the woman looked up, a bright smile on her face,

"Oh no, please don't be. Now you know the reason for Nari being trapped here, a heart unable to heal. But that's where you come in isn't it? A new town, new people, a new theater...it would be just what she needs..." The suggestion hung plain in the air, neither Masako nor John wanting to touch it. Mrs. Motoshi held her smile, her expressive brown eyes searching theirs. Masako made a decision, she stood.

"Thank you very much for seeing us Mrs. Motoshi; it is my belief that your daughter is very talented. We look forward to watching her perform in the next days of our visit," the medium announced with a grateful incline of the head. John followed her lead, standing at her side, he murmured his thanks. Mrs. Motoshi seemed satisfied with this reply and saw them in good spirits to the door,

"No, thank you. I'm so glad you came," she insisted, bowing deeply. Masako and John uttered their last goodbyes, then departed. Masako walked ahead at a quickened pace, her thoughts spilling over into one another.

"Masako?" John called, jogging to catch up.

"I understand now. That's why Nari seemed so fond of Joji and so jealous of his attentions to me...she's in love with him," she said thinking aloud.

"His attentions?" John interrupted with a raised eyebrow. Masako just sighed and waved a dismissive hand,

"It's nothing I can't handle." John nodded, but remained a bit confused.

"Let's get back to base, I have a feeling Naru will be interested in what we have to say," Masako suggested, making for the theater. John followed after, trying to keep up with the medium.

5:00pm

The Miyuki Theater

Naru sat back in his seat holding his chin thoughtfully, "A hall of mirrors..."

"Yes," Ayako said, a bit irritatedly, after having repeated herself for the tenth time. Bou-san sat down next to her and handed off a steaming cup of tea. The priestess took it gratefully, her nerves still rattled from their incident less than an hour ago. Bou-san leaned back and stared into space, two cups of tea, and he still couldn't seem to shake his anxiety.

"Could you take me there?" Naru asked, sitting forward in his seat, his dark eye's flicking from Ayako to Bou-san.

"Well, I don't think I could, with the way Takigawa-san carried--" Ayako halted and then began to choke on the sip of tea she just took. Bou-san took the liberty of administering a couple of hard pats to her back, all the while Ayako waving him off.

"I'm-- okay. It's just-- hot!" she protested, standing to get away from the monk. Naru watched this utterly unamused, getting back to the point, he fixed on Bou-san,

"Do you remember the way?"

From where he sat, the monk shifted uncomfortably, he looked down at his hands,

"I suppose..."

Naru stood, and with one glance at his assistant, Lin stood too,

"Show me."

Ayako plopped herself back onto the couch, the farthest from Bou-san that she could manage,

"Don't even ask, I'm not going," she said defiantly into her teacup.

Naru shot her a look,

"We weren't asking," he stated matter-a-factly.

Ayako sent him a glare of her own and huffed into her cup. Returning his attention to the matter at hand, and away from self-important mikos, Naru addressed the monk sitting before him,

"Takigawa-san, we'll follow after you."

Bou-san stood reluctantly, he really didn't feel like going back there right now, but he had no choice. Naru and Lin followed him down, across, and through many halls-- a few times they made a wrong turn and had to go back. Finally they reached the right part of the theater; Bou-san knew it by the sudden knot he got in his stomach.

"This is it..." Bou-san said, his voice quieter than he liked, but Naru paid his uneasiness no mind and strode a head of him, closely followed by Lin.

The young researcher stood before one of the antique mirrors, his pale hand reaching up and running across its smooth surface. He stared, still as stone, his eye's apparently unseeing. Lin stood by in respectful silence.

Bou-san watched Naru with begrudging curiosity. He did this on almost every case and it always struck the monk as odd, was it some kind of meditation, did it help him to think better? He certainly always had something strange to say whenever he finished. As if on cue, the head of SPR looked over his shoulder at Bou-san,

"These mirrors aren't original to this theater..." he stated, and as if to prove his point he moved one over to reveal the flawless wall behind it, "Usually there would be a blank spot here; with as old as these mirrors look, they've only been recently placed here."

Bou-san raised an eyebrow,

"How did you think to look...?"

Naru, and strangely Lin, gave him a stare that asked him not to press the matter, but Bou-san wanted to know. Determinedly he opened his mouth to ask again when another voice filled the hall instead--

"Naru!"

The three men turned to look up the hall. Moving towards them were John and Masako.

"Naru," the medium repeated, coming to stand before him.

"Hey," Bou-san greeted, "where have you been? We've needed you today you know..."

Masako sent the monk an apologetic look and continued to address Naru,

"We've learned something that might interest you about Nari Motoshi" she said importantly.

Naru narrowed his eyes,

"Tell me."

5:30pm

The Koku Inn

Mai opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling, trying to remember what she had been dreaming. She sighed, she couldn't recall. Obviously it wasn't one of those dreams. That was okay with her though, she supposed-- one was enough that day. But did that dream really count?

What had she saw? It didn't seem like much to do with the case, and Naru...he was mysteriously missing from it. Maybe it had just felt like one of her psychic dreams? Maybe it had been nothing after all...

Someone slammed a door down the hall and Mai jumped. Clutching at her chest, she glared at her own door as if she could send her irritation down the hall to scold the person who had done it. Groggy, she sat up and glanced at the clock and then had to do a double take-- was it really already five?

She ran her hands through her hair and looked around, how could have so much time had past by? Did she really sleep that long? She had taken a shower after all, when she returned from leaving Niko, but that had been four hours ago. Had she really been so tired as to sleep that long? She frowned. Naru would be expecting her soon, maybe he already was?

Feeling no less irritated, Mai got out of bed as quickly as she could muster. In vain she tried to straighten her slept in clothes. In defeat she gave up and went to brush her bed head. Looking a bit fresher, Mai walked out of her room. She halted at the end of the hall, a thought suddenly coming to mind: Niko. She didn't want to see him right now.

Carefully she peeked around the corner...there was nobody. As quietly she could she walked the hall and then, approaching the dining room, in which dinner was in full swing, she rushed by-- through the lobby and out the front door, leaving a bewildered Mr. Koku to stare after her,

"WEIRD, JUST WEIRD," he grumbled to himself.

A safe distance from the Inn, Mai slowed down. In the last light of the day she could see that the flurry of activity around the festival grounds was simmering down as everyone made to go home after a long day of work.

They really had made quite some progress. Many stalls were set up, the stage seemed nearly complete, and strung across the whole width of the wide street, between stores and houses, strings of vibrant lilies. Mai blushed remembering her lie to Niko and hurried on.

She reached the theater and took its front steps two at a time before coming to a sharp stop. The sun's light had all but disappeared now and before her the two doors stood rather ominously. Mai closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them determinedly. She squared her shoulders and then burst right through.

Her plan worked-- sort of. In her sudden break through the doors, she had no chance to slow down and ended up colliding with the unfortunate Mr. Sachi who was standing near by.

"Ow!" he cried as the two went sprawling onto the floor. Mai's landing on the hard wood floor was softened mostly by her client. She flushed red and hurried to stand up,

"I'm-- so sorry..." she mumbled, helping the young playwright to his feet. Mr. Sachi stood and brushed himself off, on his face a kind smile,

"No harm done," he answered pleasantly. Mai didn't think him a particularly handsome man, but there was something appealing about his smile. Timidly she smiled back,

"Well, if you're sure..." Mai looked down the hall to her left, "I was just heading to base," she explained. Mr. Sachi smiled wider,

"Wonderful. I was just headed there myself, I'll join you."

Mai nodded in agreement and the two went forward in comfortable silence, Mai stealing looks at the playwright every now and then. It was odd. There was something about him, something even her intuition couldn't clear up.

"Ladies first..."

They had reached the door, and like a gentlemen Mr. Sachi stood to the side and opened it for her. She managed to send him a brief appreciative smile before stepping into the room and having her smile erased completely. It was utterly silent, not even Lin was typing. Mai recognized the fakeness of it instantly and had the unsettling feeling that she or Mr. Sachi had been talked about just moments before they entered the room.

The playwright behind her didn't notice though, and immediately his eyes fell on a radiant Masako. The medium sat rather stiffly on a couch across from Naru and there was something a bit forbidding in her air. Instead of filled with false modesty like earlier, her blue eyes met Mr. Sachi's with emptiness that even surprised Mai.

This went the same for everyone else it seemed. Ayako and Bou-san hardly looked up to greet them, Lin didn't look away from his computer screen, and Naru only looked up because he had too, and even then his stare sent chills down Mai's back. Only John, who stood at a small counter in the corner of the room, seemed pleased to see them and hurried forward with two cups of steaming tea.

"Thank you," Mai said rather loudly, upon being handed her cup by John. For good measure she sent her own glare around the room, challenging everyone to say why she was being greeted so coldly. There were no takers.

With a frown Mai found a seat in between Ayako and Bou-san (whom she accidentally jabbed in the side as she sat down...) and John pulled up a chair for Mr. Sachi who sat down uncertainly-- he obviously hadn't intended to stay for very long.

"Wow, you wouldn't even know it was Nari's powder room with what you've done to it. Everything set up okay?" Mr. Sachi said, breaking the heavy silence. For some odd reason, the mention of Nari seemed to only turn the rest of Mai's SPR team members more sour.

"Mr. Sachi, I'd like to ask you a few questions," Naru began, ignoring the man's first statement.

The playwright sat back in his seat,

"Ask away."

Mai glanced at Lin; his fingers were posed to transcribe the conversation.

"I happened to interview Miss Toki Miyuki this morning, she claims this whole haunting is some desperate attempt to keep this theater open," Naru announced, fixing Mr. Sachi with a penetrating gaze.

Mr. Sachi scoffed,

"But of course she said that, and I'm sure there were more lies where that came from, but to be clear: no, this is not some desperate last attempt to keep this theater open."

There were a few moments of Naru just staring; Mai could tell he was reluctant to buy this answer, though she didn't know why...

"She say's you convinced the town that the spirit of Mr. Miyuki is haunting this theater, and in doing so forced her to make a deal with you--"

Mr. Sachi slammed down his cup of tea,

"Outrageous!" he exclaimed, "It has always been believed that Mr. Miyuki's presence resides here, I did absolutely no convincing!"

Mr. Sachi took a deep breath to calm himself, and then, just to be safe, a sip of tea. His dramatic outburst still ringing in Mai's ears, he continued softer this time,

"Believe me Shibuya-san, I'm the last person in this world who would want to say Mr. Miyuki's spirit is haunting anything, let alone his own theater--"

Naru cut him off this time,

"Miss Miyuki told me you knew her father, that you two were very close. He appointed you playwright of this theater personally. I could understand how you would go to extremes..."

Mr. Sachi shook his head,

"No, it's not like that. Yes, I knew Mr. Miyuki. Yes, he and I were close. Yes, he appointed me playwright. But that just proves my point further; I respect him too much to drag his name through the mud. To say I would say that he haunts his own theater, terrorizing his own precious actors-- the nerve!"

"She says you've made a deal, that by the end of this festival, if you can't prove the existence of Mr. Miyuki's ghost, she'll be allowed to close down this theater without any resistance--"

"Exactly! Don't you see? That's why I've called upon you!"

"But you just said that you would never claim that Mr. Miyuki was haunting anything, so how can he be here at all? Which is it Mr. Sachi? Is he haunting this place or not?" Naru's voice had grown so deathly soft, so calm, that Mai shrank back in her seat. Mr. Sachi seemed to be feeling it too; his face had grown red and flustered,

"You're getting it wrong. I said that I would never want to be the one to say Mr. Miyuki was haunting anything. In all the years after his death it has been the belief of the entire town that Mr. Miyuki's presence still lingers in his first theater. This presence has always been seen as peaceful though, even auspicious. When he died, some of his other theaters took it hard, but we felt no ill effects-- in fact we only got more business! We believed it was him here that made us so prosperous and still did until six months ago when Miss Miyuki announced her intentions of closing the theater down."

"And now you don't?"

Mr. Sachi sighed and picked his teacup back up,

"It's not as plain as that, at least not for me anyways. The very night Miss Miyuki announced her intentions for the theater, there was an electrical fire. We were holding a rare evening play and one of the stage lights we hardly ever use caught fire. We were fortunate it was put out quickly, but it still ruined the whole production. Believe it or not, it was the first accident the theater has ever had."

Naru narrowed his eyes in thought,

"Ever?"

Mr. Sachi took a long drink from his cup, finishing his tea, he nodded solemnly,

"Yes, and there were more accidents to follow. At first it was just little things, something would be moved, or turn up missing, but then, things began to be found broken, scripts were found shredded. And then, even worse, rooms started being destroyed, Nari's powder room being one of them. Finally, worst of all, the actors themselves started becoming injured. Since that day six months ago I've had two actors break their leg, one break an arm after falling out of a strangely damaged stage set, five just up and lose their voice- not to mention that I've had to cancel more than three plays because almost the whole cast came down sick on opening night."

Naru eyed the playwright in front of him steadily, still skeptical,

"Have you ever considered back luck?"

Mr. Sachi set his teacup down, and his eyes traveled until they found the only window in the room,

"Of course I thought of it, in fact that's what I blamed it on, but bad things just kept happening over and over. Things we couldn't explain. Meanwhile Miss Miyuki went on with her plans and announced she was set on closing the theater the day after the festival. I thought long and hard about our once peaceful theater and began to put two and two together. When did Miss Miyuki announce her intentions? Six months ago. When did things start to happen? Six months ago."

"So you began to suspect Mr. Miyuki's spirit?" Naru pressed as the playwright's answers seemed to be going in circles. Mr. Sachi looked away from the window, his expression tired,

"In so many words. It was horrible for me to even think about, our kind Mr. Miyuki haunting our theater--"

"But people can change. Just because they were a good person in life, doesn't mean they have to be in death," Bou-san spoke up from beside Mai, "I've seen it before."

Just then Mai felt something, a jolt from deep inside her,

No, she thought, he hasn't changed. He's still a good man.

She was so overcome with this knowing it made it hard to listen to the rest of what Mr. Sachi said without protesting. Mai bit her lip and sat fighting herself,

Why do I feel this way?

Naru's eyes, which had remained focused only on Mr. Sachi, landed briefly on Mai,

"Something wrong?" he asked, his gaze now boring down on her. Mai was taken by surprise,

How does he always when know something's wrong?

She managed a semi-convincing,

"No. Nothing."

Naru held his gaze on her a moment longer than she liked, but finally turned back to Mr. Sachi,

"So you believe that Mr. Miyuki is haunting this theater after all, and you blame Miss Miyuki, is that correct?"

A small relieved smile graced Mr. Sachi's lips,

"Yes-- and now the festival starts tomorrow. I know Mr. Miyuki is here, doing all this. I need you to prove it."

"So that the theater won't close down? That is how it works, or at least that's how Miss Miyuki explained it to me. You prove there's a ghost and she'll move on. Mr. Sachi it is quite obvious that she doesn't believe there is anything haunting the theater, or she wouldn't make such a deal. I'm not sure I believe you either."

Mai flinched and looked around to the others. Masako looked more subdued than earlier, maybe she felt bad for the man after all? John next to her also looked as if something was bothering him. Ayako sitting next to Mai looked thoughtful and Bou-san on her other side looked as though he might believe Mr. Sachi. Lin sat alone of course, still facing his computer screen, still posed to type. Mr. Sachi sighed,

"I understand why you're so reluctant to believe me," he began, despair coming over his features, "but two actors left me just a week ago, and another left this evening. They're too afraid to come here any longer. The ones I still have can hardly concentrate on their work and here we have the biggest plays of the year coming up, I just-- pleasePlease, give me the benefit of the doubt, my whole career, my whole life, is riding on this. I'm not lying. There is a ghost here, as you'll find out. Just five days, just through the festival, that's all I ask. And if you can turn up nothing, if you still don't believe by then, then you may go, I won't bother you a moment more."

"You'll accept the theater closing?" Naru persisted.

"I'll help them nail it shut," Mr. Sachi declared.

Naru nodded,

"Very well then Mr. Sachi, we'll investigate your theater."

Mr. Sachi stood and gave a great bow,

"Thank you," he replied, a grateful smile lighting his face. Mai couldn't help but smile too. Mr. Sachi was a man who looked best when happy.

"Well, I'm glad we had this talk, but look at the time! Masako, might I escort you back?" the playwright wondered, holding the door open.

Mai glanced at the medium; she didn't think stone could be any stiffer. John, sitting beside her, looked confusedly between them. Mai was sure he had the same question in mind as she had earlier; did he just call her Masako? Mai moved her gaze to Ayako who was turning red from not laughing and at Bou-san who was smiling amusedly; he had been there with her earlier.

"Well Masako?" Naru spoke up, "Mr. Sachi asked you a question."

Mai nearly fell off the couch, all the amusement drained from her face,

Masako? Did Naru just call her Masako?!

To her right Ayako's mouth fell open and to her left Bou-san's eyes widened. Across from her John's brow furrowed in even more confusion. Even Lin turned around in his seat (though any change in his expression was undetectable...), but Masako's reaction was the worst of all, she practically flushed red to the roots of her hair and her sleeve did very little hide it.

Mai herself was now red as well, red from the anger bubbling up inside. A heavy hand rested itself on her shoulder; Bou-san sent her an apologetic look that she wanted to wipe off his face.

Mr. Sachi, missing all the small details, held out his arm, "Shall we?"

Masako finally stood, but slowly, with a certain weakness in her legs and a sparkle in her blue eyes, which never removed themselves from Naru. Before she let Mr. Sachi lead her out, she paused at the door to say,

"Goodnight...Naru."

And just like that she was gone and in her place the inky darkness of the hall, much like the inky darkness that was invading Mai's heart. Mai at that point was happy for Bou-san's hand on her shoulder, she was afraid it was the only keeping her from chasing the medium down and letting her have a piece of her mind. Ayako, having closed her mouth, chose to stand then.

"Well this really has been quite a night," she said sending a cheap wink to Mai who wriggled under Bou-san's grip, "but I must be getting to the Inn." And with that she left too.

Lin turned back around in his seat and began typing again. Naru crossed over to the window, staring out into the night.

"Thank you, John, Bou-san. You've been a great help today," he said. John nodded and stood. Bou-san was more reluctant to do so, but a third jab from Mai to the ribs provided the proper motivation.

Breaking free of his grasp she rubbed her shoulder unnecessarily. Bou-san merely ignored her implicating looks. A heavy silence filled the air. John and Bou-san stood ready to go, but Mai remained seated, staring at the back of Naru's head. Wasn't he going to say something, anything...?

Bou-san gave her a shrug and held out a hand for her to take. Feeling dejected, Mai let him pull her to her feet and guide her to the door, following after John.

"Mai--"

Naru's voice cut the air like electricity. Mai froze and Bou-san bumped into her. There was a brief pause, Mai's ears hurt from the strain she put into them, aching to hear his next words,

"Sleep well..." 

Chapter Text

Day Three

6:15am

The Koku Inn

Mai lay still in her bed, staring at the ceiling. She had been up for at least fifteen minutes, debating with herself. After being guided back to the Inn by Bou-san and John, she had sunk into her lumpy mattress like a stone. She had a strange feeling in her stomach. Masako. He had called her Masako.

Mai closed her eyes with a frown. Sleep well, he had told her. But the trouble was she hadn't. She hardly slept the whole night. Not one dream found her as she tossed and turned. All she saw when closing her eyes was darkness. It was all she saw now. With a frustrated groan Mai opened her eyes.

She needed to see him. Even if he annoyed her (which was likely...). Last night left her feeling too weird, she needed to do some damage control. So with a fiery resolve burning inside, she jumped into the shower, dressed, and made a b-line for his door.

Mai passed out of her room and glance down the hall...all around was silence, not even the cry of a fussy baby. Mai knew now why this was. The dining room had been opened at six, and as she and Bou-san found out, stragglers were punished on penalty of cold rice. Mai shivered at the thought and made a mental note not to keep Naru long. She smiled; maybe they could even walk to the dining room together?

A few steps away, room thirteen loomed. Mai took a deep breath, and closed the distance. She drew herself up, reached for the door, counted to ten...then recounted as she somehow lost track...Mai was suddenly struck with how stupid she must look, hovering outside Naru's door, her hand moving towards and away from knocking.

Just knock already! Mai scolded herself.

How many times had she burst into Naru's office? Without even knocking? This was no different. Not that she would go bursting into his room...but that was getting off point!

With a surge of energy, before she could stop herself-- Mai knocked, and then stared. Her knocking had come out rather more like pounding. Horrified at how loud she had just been in the silence, certain that she could have woken the dead-- Mai shrunk back to the wall behind her and cast guilty looks up and down the hall. More silence...and no angry Naru answering his door. Mai began to breathe again. She must have missed him, there was no way he could have ignored her knocking.

Mai hung her head and sighed. So much for walking to the dining room with him, let alone talking to him. She would have to try again later when they could be alone. With heavy steps, Mai made her way towards the dining room. The way she felt, she didn't care if she had to have cold rice again for breakfast. Her stomach flopped. Well, she almost didn't care...

But Mai needn't have worried about cold rice. Entering the dining room she caught sight of Ayako and Masako seated at a table that dominated the room, an icy silence settled between the two. Mai smirked slightly, the two had never really gotten along, at least she wasn't the only one having a bad morning. How did they get stuck alone together anyway-- not even Mr. Sachi was present, and he was always glued to Masako's side. A bit confused, Mai found a seat in between the medium and miko.

"Good morning," she greeted, rather brighter than she felt.

Ayako mumbled a sort of greeting back, but Masako didn't even attempt that, she simply drank her tea. The blood rose in Mai's cheeks. It wasn't that the medium had snubbed her, but she could afford a little courtesy after having such a pleasant night as she had last night.

Out of habit, she vainly reached for a distraction from her anger, a tea cup, but there was none for her. Just then Mrs. Koku bustled in with an order-- her old sharp eyes caught Mai's, and she froze. Mai was a bit startled, but recovered and held up Ayako's tea cup to signal that she wished for some tea. The woman sat down the tray she was serving and hurried away back to the kitchen. Mai lowered Ayako's cup slowly, surprised by the woman's prompt service, they hadn't exactly got off on the right foot...

"That's mine," Ayako snapped, snatching up her cup.

"Excuse me," Mai grumbled back.

Then she glanced at Masako-- another habit. The medium was not watching the exchange with amusement, but staring dreamily at the dining room doors, as if lost in thought. Mai shifted in her seat, a bit unsettled by how oblivious her rival was to their surroundings. Mai narrowed her eyes: Masako knew something...or she was thinking of last night. A thought struck her,

"Hey, where is everyone? Bou-san, John?" she wondered, watching the doors to the kitchen for Mrs. Koku with her tea, leaving Naru out of her inquiry on purpose.

Ayako shrugged,

"Where are any of the men?"

Mai blinked and looked around. It was a good question, there seemed to be none in the dining room this morning. She turned back confusedly to the priestess, but Masako spoke then,

"They are in a meeting with Mr. Koku. Today is the start of the festival."

The medium answered with so much cool authority, as if reciting privileged information, as though she were Naru herself, that Mai felt the flames of her anger rise again. Beside her Ayako didn't seem to appreciate her tone much either,

"Well all knowing one, what is this meeting for?" the priestess asked, a challenging gleam in her eye.

Masako glanced at them both, then turned in her seat to face the door again saying,

"Oh, I don't know...something or other."

Mai went from mildly glaring at Masako (grudgingly curious for her answer) to burning the medium down with her fiery gaze. Ayako next to her, after promptly closing her shocked mouth at the obvious snub, sent her a set of lethal daggers. Most infuriating of all, Masako hardly seemed to notice.

With all of this, it's easy to see how Mai missed Mrs. Koku returning with her tea. A steaming cup was set in front of Mai and she was then forced to stop glaring at Masako to thank the old woman (even though it had taken an awfully long time to bring out just a cup of tea...), but her thanks died on her lips. Standing behind Mrs. Koku, and still more flowing out of the kitchen, were the Inn's cooks, and in each of their hands, a large tray of delicious smelling food.

Mai's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. Mrs. Koku just stood there, smiling. Suddenly she gave a curt clap and before anyone could protest, nearby tables were being pushed to line up with the one they sat at. It all happened so fast-- the cooks that had gathered began setting all of their many trays on the joined tables; an empty bowl was placed before Mai. Mrs. Koku clapped again, all the men bowed, then left as quickly as they came.

There was a large silence in the dining room as every person stared amazed at the spectacle whirling around Mai. Then, most stunning of all, Mrs. Koku bowed herself, her smile breaking into a wide grin as she announced for all to hear (and probably those in the next town heard too),

"NIKO KOKU SENDS HIS COMPLIMENTS MISS TANIYAMA, ENJOY."

And with that she hobbled away, chuckling to herself. When the kitchen door finally swung shut behind the old woman, the silence broke and every table in the room was alive and buzzing with whispers.

Mai sat behind a mountain of food, pulling a very good impression of Masako last night after Naru had called her by her first name. She felt Ayako and Masako's gazes boring through her, but she simply kept staring into her empty bowl. Before they could make her speak, she stuffed her mouth with rice. Still keeping her head down, Mai pushed two empty bowls towards them,

"Hungry?" she asked when she could finally manage it (she may have taken an over zealous bite...). Ayako watched her with a raised eyebrow,

"Something you want to tell us?" she prodded.

On her other side, Masako stared with equal parts loathing and curiosity. Mai smiled slightly to herself, then shrugged,

"Oh, I don't know...there might be something or other."

While in the silence of Ayako turning her daggers on Mai, and Masako glaring at her indignantly, a bit of conversation from the next table over floated to her ears,

"- w hat a surprise..."

"Yes, I know. This is the Festival of Lilies, is it not?"

"Not very festive if you ask me, why do you think they removed them?"

"Beats me..."

Mai glanced at the tables around her, there were no lilies placed anywhere. Niko. He was the reason for all of this. Mai flushed red again.

Why did I have to lie about the lilies?

"Something wrong, you're going a bit red there," Ayako remarked, watching her critically.

Mai sent the priestess a sharp look, but any retort she was about fire back at the miko was defused by the dining room's double doors swinging open. Like a black cloud on the horizon, in stalked Naru- followed by Lin, Bou-san, and John. It took only the briefest of moments for them to spot their table, placed in the center of the room, the food piled there acting like a beacon. Mai shrank in her seat and beside her Masako all but swept out of her own to greet Naru,

"You're back," she smiled, "please have a seat, you must be hungry."

The group came to a halt at the table, Bou-san staring on with wide eyes,

"Obviously not as hungry as you are..." he murmured.

Masako's laugh came out light and airy, and gesturing to her rival, she declared,

"You're too funny Takigawa-san, but of course I would never order so much food. Perhaps the one you should be asking is Mai?"

Many pairs of eyes turned on the accused. Mai's cheeks began to burn red, and if she could have reached the medium's foot, she would have accidentally stomped on it.

"Me?" she said, fixing Masako with a dark look, "I have no idea how this got here, I certainly didn't order this."

Naru who was standing there silently, his gaze traveling over the many plates, finally spoke,

"I hope not," he interjected, taking a seat next to Mai, "SPR is paying for these meals, and I believe you owe SPR enough money..."

The young woman did not miss his implication, and in order to stop herself from saying something she would later regret, she grabbed for her teacup. Meanwhile, Bou-san helped himself to a seat and a plate on the other side of Mai,

"Well, it's one thing if you don't know how it got here, but it's another if you're going to let it get cold, and I for one am not about to let it get cold," he announced, taking his first bite. John and Lin took seats at the table soon after, the priest staring bewildered at the mountain of food in front of him and his small plate.

Across the room, the double doors suddenly opened again. Mai, busy glaring at Masako who sat making eyes at Naru, didn't notice the new arrival until it was too late. A shadow fell over Mai. Masako lifted her gaze from Naru to stare behind her rival and Mai quickly broke her glare from the medium to see what had caught her attention.

"Good morning Mai," a voice greeted. Startled, Mai turned in her seat to face Niko. Bou-san, sitting beside her, paused his continuous consumption of food to acknowledge the young man,

"Hey, you're Niko Koku, from yesterday."

Mai's foot blindly sought out Bou-san's foot, looking to stomp on it before he said too much,

"You remember him, don't you Mai?"

Realizing what she was doing, Bou-san narrowed his eyes at her and moved his legs away,

"Oh-- I see, someone's feeling guilty after all..." he intoned.

Mai smiled strainedly at Niko while trying to ignore Bou-san's comment,

"Of course I remember him," she declared. Niko laughed good-naturedly and Mai couldn't help but notice that it was a very nice laugh,

"I should hope she remembers me, we had lunch together just yesterday."

Bou-san's eyebrows shot up and he fixed Mai with an inquiring look,

"You don't say..."

"Mai, do introduce us to your friend," Masako spoke up, her face the picture of innocent curiosity. Between Bou-san and now Masako, Mai's face only began to grow deeper and deeper red.

"Oh my, what a blush, perhaps there's something more between you...?" Masako chided, her sleeve coming to her rescue, as she couldn't hold back a devious smile at her own cunning. Mai felt she was going to burst-- her foot shot out randomly, hoping to make contact with her rival's foot.

"Ow!" John cried looking around, alarmed. Mai shrank in her seat and proceeded to turn scarlet.  

"Well?" Ayako prodded when she didn't oblige. Mai narrowed her eyes at the priestess and now wished she had hit her foot.

"Allow me," Bou-san offered, hardly able to keep his amusement from coming through, "This is Niko Koku, grandson to the owner of this Koku Inn. We only met him yesterday morning, but apparently Mai has caught up with him again..."

Hopelessly Mai looked to Niko, expecting some look of shock on his face at the suggestions that Masako and Bou-san left hanging, but the young man just stood smiling all around at them.

"Mai, you have such nice friends," he said, turning his smile down at her. Mai couldn't help but notice that his eyes did this twinkling thing when he looked at her; helplessly she turned a few shades redder.

"Thank you...Koku-san," she managed. A look of surprise crossed Niko's face,

"Please, call me Niko," he insisted, his own cheeks turning a light shade of pink. Mai now wished the floor would open up and swallow her.

"Mr. Koku, will you inherit your grandparents Inn?"

Naru's voice cut the tension like a blast of fresh air. His cool voice returned Mai to her senses, all the red leaving her cheeks. Suddenly her chest opened up, she could breath again-- he had successfully taken the attention off of her.

Niko looked to Naru as if seeing him for the first time,

"Oh. Yes. Yes I will," he answered, a smile attempting to resurface again, but Niko noted that there was something distinctly unfriendly in the man's eyes, and with the way he sat, leaning towards Mai, almost dominantly, that he couldn't quite manage a smile again.

Mai looked over her shoulder at Naru; he had indeed shifted in his seat, leaning so close to her that she could smell the aroma of tea that always surrounded him. Masako didn't miss this either, her triumphant expression faltered. Mai felt her cheeks warming up again. After a tense moment of silence though, Naru relented, and moved away from Mai, feigning interest in his rice bowl,

"I see," he finally replied. Mai watched her boss carefully, she knew the look on his face. He was thinking of something, something was troubling him...

"Mai..."

It's was Niko's voice that drew Mai out of her thoughts, she looked up at the young man before her with a cheerful smile (a cheer she was hardly feeling...),

"Oh yes, Koku-san? I mean-- Niko?" she answered, cringing as she stumbled over his name. His face fell then brightened as she corrected herself,

"I must be leaving now; there is much to be done on this first day of the festival. I hope you are enjoying your breakfast, if you need anything at all--"

Bou-san, shamelessly finishing his second bowl, chimed in then,

"Did you order this?" he wondered, absently filing a third bowl while looking up at Niko.

Niko looked surprised, and then his face clouded, distractedly he stole a glance at the kitchen doors, "Didn't-- weren't you told so?"

Masako, watching the morning's events unfold with delight, was happy to put the young man at ease,

"We were, and I must say it was very generous of you to provide Mai with such a meal," the medium announced, a radiant smile illuminating her features.

Her ears now ringing with anger at her rival, Mai pretended to drop her napkin under the table, then she would scope out the whereabouts of Masako's foot...but quicker than a flash Niko had bent down, picked up Mai's fallen napkin, and gently returned it to the table,

"Here you are," he spoke softly.

Cheated out of her revenge, Mai's smile at his gallant act was forced,

"Thank you," she managed.

"So, it was you who ordered this food...for Mai," Naru spoke, bringing the conversation back on track. Niko blinked, looking a bit distressed at having to answer the same question again and again,

"Yes, it was me. I thought she'd enjoy a nice breakfast. It is nice, isn't it? You do like it, don't you?"

Mai shifted in her seat, feeling slightly uncomfortable, but Niko stared down at her with such a concerned expression, that she couldn't help but feel sorry for him and in turn gave him a warm smile,

"Yes, it's very nice, thank you," she answered with as much composure as she could muster. It was in this moment that her gaze broke off from Niko and those at her table; it was in this moment that she noticed was she was the center of attention again.

The whole room was in a hush as every person sat at the edge of their seats, straining to listen, hardly bothering in pretending to eat their food, which was now long since cold. Mai gave them a hard look and guilty they turned back to their tables, a few taking hurried mouthfuls of their spoiled food. Mai watched their faces pale and smiled,

Good. Cold rice is what you deserve.

Just then a loud voice shouted through the silence,

"NIKO!"

Startled, Mai jumped in her seat. The voice came from the hall outside the dinging room and was presumably Niko's grandfather. Recovering, the young man looked down at Mai and smiled a bit embarrassedly,

"My grandfather seems to need me; will I see you at the festival tonight?"

Mai stared into his imploring eyes and opened and closed her mouth a few times, she wasn't sure...would she be there?

"I'm sure you will, we'll all be attending," Masako answered, speaking for her rival with her usual charm. Niko smiled and nodded, seeming satisfied with this answer,

"Great, until then," he said, and with a meaningful bow to Mai, departed the room.

Mai sat in her chair wishing she had never left her bed that morning. It was silent for a few moments longer, and then it was as if someone turned on the sound, every table in the room was suddenly alive with chatter-- miserably, Mai couldn't help hearing bits and a pieces,

"...I heard that he likes her..."

"Oh please, more like he's madly in love--"

"Well shouldn't he love her? I heard they've been dating for weeks..."

"That's not what I heard...I heard he's planning to propose, he's got the ring and everything!"

"Well you're all mistaken, they're already engaged--"

"Engaged? I heard from a very reliable source that they've already married...in secret of course..."

"Oh, oooh, how romantic!--"

Mai suddenly stood, and in her haste nearly upset the table. Bou-san shot her a patronizing look as she nearly ruined his feast, but Mai hardly noticed. Her face felt hot, the room was closing in, she needed-- air!

"Ex-excuse me--" she mumbled, already leaving the table. But before Mai could make her quick escape, the dreaded double doors swung open again.

"Mai!"

Joji Sachi's dramatic voice filled the room, drowning out all the horrible pieces of gossip that were being whispered quite loudly. Mai was never so happy to see the playwright in all her life, and accepted his friendly pat on the shoulder quite willingly,

"So good to see you," he smiled, spying their table over her shoulder, his eyes instantly finding Masako,

"You weren't going anywhere were you?" he persisted, turning his bright eyes back on Mai. Mai spent only a moment debating an answer, a new smile spreading out across her face,

"No, not all. I was just stretching my legs, please join us...Masako has saved you a seat."

"Ah! Very good," Joji chirped with one last thankful pat to her shoulder as he made his way toward Masako. Mai followed behind him, not bothering to hide her grin. Her revenge would be swift and sweet. The medium's own smile began to fade as Mr. Sachi came upon her,

"Good morning Masako," he greeted, seating himself cozily beside her. The medium locked gazes with Mai, her eyes daring her to say one word...but Mai would not be intimidated, her turn had come,

"We're so glad you could make it Mr. Sachi, please, help yourself," Mai encouraged, feeling the weight of her rival's stare and smiling all the wider.

"Oh!" Mr. Sachi said, seeming to notice the food for the first time,

"My, what do we have here? Hungry today are we?" he joked, looking to Masako for her laugh. The medium obliged, but just barely.

"Just Mai," Masako answered after the polite laughter faded, none at the table missed the implication, and Mai felt her cheeks burning hot again.

That Masako! Mai thought, narrowing her eyes at the medium sitting across from her. Then a scheme struck her, and resuming a light laughter, Mai looked to Mr. Sachi who sat pleasantly drinking his tea,

"Yes, I'm afraid I was a little hungry this morning," she admitted, "You must have been surprised to see this much food when you came in," she remarked carefully.

Masako's gaze returned to her rival with a forbidding heaviness, she knew Mai was going somewhere with this, but was helpless to stop it. Mr. Sachi looked up from his tea,

"Come to think of it, I didn't notice at all..." he answered as absently he found his gaze drifting over to Masako.

Mai smirked, just was she was going for,

"Well I guess there are other distracting things in the room," she continued, emphasizing the word distracting while meeting her rival's gaze.

"Yes, distracting..." Mr. Sachi murmured, his eyes focused solely on the medium. Masako's porcelain cheeks began to show color, her eyes flashed at Mai, betraying her serene exterior.

"Mr. Sachi," Naru spoke, ignoring the war being fought in front of him, "we are here to investigate your theater, correct?"

Mr. Sachi broke his gaze from Masako and stared at Naru as if he had just declared the theater on fire,

"Correct. Correct, that's why your here, we agreed last night that--" Naru held up a hand to the man's ramblings,

"Mr. Sachi, I am not suggesting that we are pulling out, but since we are here to investigate, isn't that just what we should do?"

Mr. Sachi stared at Naru as if he had just been asked to solve a difficult equation,

"I'm-- I'm afraid I'm not following..." he answered unsteadily, nervous that he was going to say something that would make the paranormal team leave.

Naru did not sigh and his expression did not change, but Mai could tell his patience was being tested (and she knew this because she was guilty of testing her boss's patience regularly...),

"I'm talking about the festival. I was called from my room at five-thirty this morning to attend a meeting discussing the customs and rituals I must perform. I understand the significance of this festival, but are we here to investigate, or not Mr. Sachi?"

Mr. Sachi raised his eyebrows and opened his mouth in protest,

"Please, do not look at me; I did not pull you from your bed this morning. You are here to investigate. I'm sorry Mr. Koku dragged you into this, but it is traditional that all men in the town of Nozomi at this time participate..."

"So you wish us to take part in the festival, and not investigate?"

"I wish you to investigate--"

"So you wish us to investigate then, instead of take part in the festival?"

"No," Mr. Sachi protested, a bit louder than he had meant to, as tables around them hushed and stared,

"I mean, no," he repeated, quieter this time, "I wish you to investigate and partake in the festival. Is that so hard, can't you do both?"

There was an edge to Mr. Sachi's voice that Mai had never heard there. All the times before, when faced with difficulty, he had turned weepy and pleading, but this time he bit back. Mai found it strangely unnerving and looked to Naru to see how he would react.

Both men sat there regarding each other, Naru the picture of calm and Mr. Sachi the picture of frustration. Slowly, Mr. Sachi's breathing regulated and the red that had flushed his cheeks began to ebb away, the man straightened his tie and cleared his throat, realizing that he might have made a scene,

"I'm sorry," he said, though he hardly sounded it, "I mean to know only if you can manage both. The festival is held for the most part at night and it would be seen as quite positive by Nozomi's people if you did."

Naru's cool eyes met Mr. Sachi's,

"You mean so that they will believe you and us if we announce that there is a ghost," Naru clarified.

Mr. Sachi shifted uncomfortably in his seat,

"Yes. The people are terribly suspicious here; any bad marks and they will deny anything you say. You could bring them the ghost, and if you've offended them, they will look right at it and pretend it's nothing there, please..." Mr. Sachi was back to his pleading. Mai didn't know why, but she was relieved. Moments passed as Naru sat in his seat, his face expressionless. Finally, to the mercy of Mr. Sachi, he nodded,

"Fine, we will participate. If it takes time from the investigation, it will be at your cost," Naru announced, fixing Mr. Sachi with a penetrating stare.

For a moment the playwright looked as if he wanted to protest, he had not planned on a compromise, but instead he swallowed and nodded, there would be no arguing with Naru over this point.

The tension at the table began to dissipate after that, Mr. Sachi returned to drinking his tea, sending a few smiles to Masako. Mai looked over at her rival, but it was not to gloat, she had lost her desire to fight for the moment, and a silent truce was declared.

A small rumble came from Mai's stomach, and realizing that she had not eaten yet at all, she reached for her bowl. Cold rice stared up at her and Mai frowned. Setting down her bowl again she reached for one of the larger bowls of food, looking to add to the unappetizing rice, but when she lifted it, she felt it was quite light. Mai peered over the edge and stared into the nothingness. Empty. Undeterred, Mai reached for the next bowl, and the next, and the next. Empty. Empty. Empty.

Growing agitated, Mai looked beside her at Naru-- one bowl and his wasn't even halfway finished. Then she glanced at Masako, she also had only one. So they weren't guilty of eating all the food...Mai's gaze wandered over to Ayako-- two bowls, although it looked as if she had wanted it to appear to be just one as the second was pushed some inches away...Mai shook her head and moved on to John, who sat there still picking at his one plate.

With a growing suspicion Mai's eyes slid over to the monk seated beside her. Bou-san sat back in his chair, looking awfully content, and in front of him-- a small tower of bowls. Enraged, Mai opened her mouth to chew him out when she caught sight of Lin across the table. You would never know any different as he sat there stirring his tea, checking his watch, exchanging glances with Naru...but pushed just off to the side, where there was an empty space for one more guest, a tower of bowls even bigger than Bou-san's. Mai's jaw fell open.

"Mai, is that any way to act like a lady? Close your mouth," Bou-san admonished, stifling a belch as he said this. Mai recovered from her shock, and taking the unsuspecting monk by surprise, stepped on his foot.

"Ow!" Bou-san cried, bumping his knee in the process of sitting forward to grab his foot. Mai just smirked into her tea, but it was cold and then her stomach growled more loudly and somehow she didn't feel all that victorious.

"Time to continue our investigation," Naru said as he stood up, immediately followed by his assistant. Mr. Sachi stood also, a winning smile gracing his features,

"Very good, I'll follow you out."

Masako stood up from her chair and the playwright took her elbow ever so gently, guiding her from the table and past the other ones in the room. Mai stood and followed after them, noting her rival's irritation with amusement. Slipping past many of the tables, Mai soon found herself assaulted with gossip again, although this time...

"...goodness me, did you see that? Look at the way he's holding her elbow, so possessive..."

"....Joji Sachi I believe, wasn't he engaged not too long ago?"

"Yes, I remember. That Nari girl, such a shame..."

"My, hasn't he moved on fast? Who is that with him anyways?"

"Dear me, that's Hara Masako!"

"Why you're right! The famous television psychic..."

"With Joji Sachi? Who would have guessed?"

"Indeed..."

Mai was drawn away from the chatter by one of the double doors swinging into her face,

"Hey!" she exclaimed, rubbing her forehead as she pushed through.

In front of her, Bou-san paused, but seeing as she was alright, he shrugged and threw her a wink,

"You know what they say about karma..."

Mai glanced at his foot threateningly, but the monk made sure there was plenty of space between them as they continued down the hall.

Turning the corner the group entered the lobby. Mrs. Koku said nothing to any of them, but then caught sight of Mai (who was desperately trying to hide behind Bou-san) and called out,

"HOW WAS YOUR BREAKFAST?"

Mai halted, unable to pretend she didn't hear the woman, and sent her a smile,

"Very good, thank you," she answered politely, then attempted to hurry along, but Bou-san was walking so slow in front of her...

"MY GRANDSON LIKES YOU VERY MUCH, YOU WILL LIKE HIM TOO IF YOU ARE A SMART GIRL," the old woman shouted, a knowing smile on her ancient face.

Mai, practically trying to pass through Bou-san in order to get out the door, burned red. Mr. Sachi, in the lead of the group stopped and raised a questioning eyebrow to Masako who smiled,  

"It seems Mai has an admirer..." she said just loud enough for everyone to hear. Mr. Sachi laughed warmly at this,

"She is lucky then, Niko Koku is to inherit this Inn, which I hear is very successful, many a girl would vie to be in her position," he remarked, amused.

Mai listened to this with dread and continued to push Bou-san in vain. Finally, Mr. Sachi removed himself from the doorway and the group continued on, the old woman grinning widely at Mai as she left.

Being outside had never felt so good, never so free to Mai. Immediately she separated herself from Bou-san and walked ahead. A cool breeze whipped through her hair and brought a healthy glow to her face. Mai inhaled the fresh air and noted that there was a sweet fragrance on the wind, a floral scent.

Lilies?

Mai looked to the crowded town square where the festival preparations were all but finished, the garlands of the silky white lilies dancing about. Women and children raced here and there, adding the final touches, but where were the men? As if reading her mind, Bou-san came up along side Mai,

"No men out today. I suppose they're all writing."

Mai looked up at him questioningly, and the monk shrugged,

"Today honors Takuya Miyuki, the husband, and creativity," Bou-san recited,

"Or so I'm told," he added with a wink.

Mai cocked her head, still confused,

"Is that what they talked about in your meeting this morning?" she persisted.

Bou-san crossed his arms casually and looked around, squinting into the sun,

"Pretty much. Today, we're supposed to write a short story and enter it tonight at the festival. Once all the entries are collected, one story is drawn, and the man who wrote it is said to have the creativity of Mr. Takuya Miyuki flowing through his veins. He is then called Mr. Miyuki through out the rest of the festival," Bou-san answered, "Kinda strange, huh?"

"Interesting," Mai nodded thoughtfully, "does the whole festival have to do with men?"

Bou-san looked down at Mai with a sly smile,

"Nope, I heard it's the day of the wife or something tomorrow..."

Mai scowled at the monk beside her for sounding so delighted with the fact,

"Could you imagine," he continued, hardly able to contain his amusement, "Ayako as a dutiful wife?"

Mai's eyes drifted over to the miko who was walking ahead of them in high heels, and then shared a smirk with Bou-san,

"Hard to," she agreed.

They reached the theater, the old building stretched out before them, gleaming pleasantly in the sunlight. Mai narrowed her eyes; she would not be taken in by the innocent looking exterior. She knew what lay a head: those awful double doors.

Silently, she steeled herself as she climbed the steps. Naru, Lin, Mr. Sachi, and-- strangely, Ayako, all walked through without incident, but Mai knew that for her, it would be different. Sensing her hesitancy, Bou-san laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder, an unspoken offer to walk her through. Mai suddenly felt a surge of affection towards the monk and even wished she hadn't stomped on his foot quite so hard.

Behind her, Masako and John were the last to come up the stairs. Mai raised an eyebrow, wondering how the medium had managed to break away from their love-struck client. Her rival's cool blue eyes took in the doors, and from the look on her face, Mai could tell that she was having similar apprehensions about going in.

Drawing in a breath, Mai looked up at Bou-san to give him the okay, and they walked forward. For a moment the sensation was there, making her head start to ache, her stomach start to churn. In an instant they would be through, Mai hurried to name the feeling, something about it was so familiar...she took a firm step and that was it, she had been seen safely through by Bou-san.

"How was it? You alright?" the monk asked concernedly. Mai gave his hand on her shoulder a light squeeze,

"I hardly noticed, thank you Bou-san," she answered warmly. The monk let out a breath and straightened up,

"Glad to hear it. I'll just have to be your escort from now on then, and with you seeing that Niko guy, I don't think it's such a bad thing..." he decided knowingly. Mai reconsidered her regret for stomping on his foot, eyeing his unharmed one darkly,

"I don't need an escort and I'm not seeing Niko," Mai protested angrily.

Just then, out of the corner of her eye, Mai noticed Masako step through. The medium faltered on her last step, but luckily John was one step a head of her and able to offer a steadying hand. Noticing her attention was no longer on their argument, Bou-san followed Mai's gaze.

"Thank you," Masako murmured to John as she composed herself, letting go of his hand. The young priest smiled good-naturedly,

"It was nothing, are you alright?" he pressed, concern present in his voice.

The medium shut her eyes for a moment, an elegant sleeve coming to her pale lips. A tense second or two past and then her eyes opened again,

"Yes, I'm okay."

"Hey," Bou-san said, getting Masako's attention, "Mai seemed to feel better when crossing through the doors with my help, maybe John could help you next time?"

Mai smiled up at Bou-san, it was a well intended idea, but the medium didn't seem to take to it all that well. She made a small polite smile at the monk, meanwhile making space between herself and the priest,

"Thank you Bou-san, but I wouldn't bother John with helping me around--"

John glanced at Masako and opened his mouth to say something in which Mai thought, from the look on his face, might be contradictory, but she continued on without notice,

"If I should need help, I will simply call on Naru."

Beside the medium, John closed his mouth, a somewhat resigned expression upon his face.

The group went on, reaching a room halfway down the hall in which they had made base. Inside Mai noticed Lin had already taken his stationary place at his computer, his fingers tapping against the keys. Naru stood near his tall assistant, peering over his shoulder, pointing something out on the screen, Ayako sat on the couch examining her nails. Mr. Sachi was not present.

Hearing them come in, Naru glanced up at Mai, giving her a meaningful look in which, over the time she had spent working for him, she interpreted as; tea, now. Feeling a bit self-important, Mai made her way over to a small counter in the corner of the room. A small teapot sat on a single burner. Carefully, Mai filled the empty tea pot with water from the tiny sink next to her and lit the stove top.

Behind her, Masako, Bou-san, and John filed in, each taking a seat. Mai placed the lid on the tea pot and turned away from the counter, she knew better than to watch the water boil. Slowly her eyes traveled across the room and once again they landed upon Ayako. Mai bit her lip; something was bothering her about the priestess, why hadn't the doorway affected her this time? She decided she would ask later. Naru had moved to stand in front of them, his arms crossed over his chest, the look on his face telling them it was now time to get serious.

"Mr. Sachi wants a through and complete investigation, so we will give him a through and complete investigation. As of yesterday, Lin and I have completed our interviews, the first being Miss Miyuki and the last being Mr. Sachi," Naru began, his cool gaze traveling over every face in the room.

When his eyes met Mai's she felt a slight blush rush to her cheeks. On the couch, Ayako's cheeks also flushed red, but for a different reason all together,

"That reminds me," she cut in sharply, "what was the meaning of pairing Takigawa-san and I up, only to run around the theater? You must have known that we would not perform exorcisms without any proof of paranormal activity, and in order to have proof we would need--" Ayako paused here to look grudgingly at the medium sitting across from her, "we would need a bit of help from Masako."

"I understand your confusion Matsuzaki-san, and I assure you I had my reasons. From what I gathered from the blueprints, this theater is much bigger than it seems. I needed you and Bou-san to familiarize yourselves with your surroundings if you are to execute your exorcisms in a timely order. If you recall when I sent you out yesterday, I said nothing about performing anything," Naru explained, his voice even and his gaze steady on the defiant miko.

"As for Hara-san--" Naru's use of the medium's last name caused Mai's head to snap up from her thoughts,

Did he just call her Hara-san?

Mai looked to her rival and there was no doubting it, the medium's face fell and her eyes rose to Naru's imploringly. But as they soon saw, there was no hope for her-- his use of her first name had been a fleeting thing. A swell of relief rose in Mai's chest, a smile immediately broke across her lips. Distracted, Mai didn't notice the water boiling in the tea pot, and sharp look from Naru brought her back down to earth. Startled, Mai hurried to turn off the stove and add the tea leaves. When satisfied that his tea was being made, Naru returned to addressing Ayako,

"As I was saying, while she was busy doing an interview for me yesterday, Hara-san will of course, be available to you now when needed."

"Right. The interview with Nari's mother," the priestess persisted, "why wasn't I asked to go?"

Mai, who had successfully finished preparing the tea, looked over at Naru, afraid that Ayako had taken things too far, but Naru showed no impatience with her questions, in fact, at this moment, he seemed amused,

"No offense Matsuzaki-san, but this interview required a delicate touch, and I didn't think you were the best suited for the job."

Ayako shot Masako and John, who had been sent on the interview, an unjustified glare.

"But...if you are so interested in the interviewing process, I would be more than happy to have you stay behind on our next case and help Lin and I," Naru offered, a thin smile on his lips.

This finally silenced the miko, and with a smoldering glare sent to Naru, she sat back on the couch and said nothing more. Mai crossed over to the table and poured Naru a cup of tea,

"I never heard anything about this interview," she said moving on to Bou-san's cup.

"No, I assume you were having lunch with a certain Niko Koku at the time," the monk remarked.

Mai's cheeks instantly burned at the mention of Niko's name and with narrowed eyes she sought out her revenge, attempting to locate the monk's foot. Catching on to her train of thought, Bou-san realized the danger of saying such a thing with Mai so close, he moved his unharmed foot out of the way just in time.

"We talked with Nari's mother; she seemed very interested in moving her daughter on to bigger things. She also mentioned that Nari and Mr. Sachi were once a couple..." John answered helpfully, sending a kind smile to Mai, who returned it wholeheartedly,

"Really?" she persisted curiously as she moved to pour the priest his cup of tea. John murmured a warm thanks and took his first sip of tea,

"Yes," Masako replied stiffly, "he was going to propose."

Mai looked up surprisedly as she filled Ayako's cup,

"They were going to get married?"

The medium nodded,

"But then Miss Miyuki arrived, and things got put off..."

Ayako scoffed into her tea,

"Put off? Please-- the man got cold feet and jumped at his chance to get out of the engagement."  

Mai's brown eyes focused on Ayako, something in her voice sounded bitter,

"Men do not know how to keep commitments, Nari is better off without him."

A thick silence followed this statement. Mai stood from bending over the table and crossed the room to Lin's desk, pouring the last of the steaming amber liquid into his cup.

"How long ago was this?" Mai wondered, not completely satisfied with what she was hearing.

"I'm not sure, fairly recently I suppose?" John answered thoughtfully.

Mai nodded and returned the tea pot to the counter. She thought back to the day before, the festival grounds- the hurt look on Nari's face when she heard Mr. Sachi call Masako by her first name. Mai sighed to herself,

Ayako may think Nari's better off without him, but does Nari think she's better off? Could she still be in love with him...? ?

"Fine, so Bou-san and I were sent around to get lost in this theater and John and Masako were sent on a simple interview, but what was Mai sent to do? Have lunch with her betrothed?" Ayako persisted, feeling talkative again.

Mai whirled around from the counter, gritting her teeth, glad not to be holding the tea pot-- for she would have surely broken it. Fiercely, she opened her mouth to let Ayako have it, but then caught the look on Naru's face and decided otherwise. His eyes glinted darkly, it was obvious he didn't like this line of questioning; Ayako may have just broken through thin ice.

"Matsuzaki-san, I think I have made myself clear on why you all were sent on your respective assignments. I didn't not ask Mai to slack off and have lunch with Mr. Koku."

The heat in Mai's cheeks rose; she looked Naru with hard eyes.

Slacked off, did I?

"Enough questions, it's time to get to work. From the interviews we gathered from the actors and actresses of this theater, and from our personal encounters, Lin and I have pin-pointed some locations that will need attention. Mai--" Naru said, fixing a set of serious eyes on her, "you and John will be setting up the cameras and taking the temperatures of the rooms."

John nodded agreeably, but Mai only crossed her arms and looked away from her boss. Ignoring this, Naru moved on to addressing Ayako,

"Matsuzaki-san, I would like you to take Hara-san to the hall of mirrors. If she senses a presence there, you are free to perform a blessing."

Ayako exchanged a look with the medium, neither looked pleased to be working together, but a silent agreement was made.

"Bou-san," Naru said, finishing up with the monk, "I would like you to visit these select dressing rooms. The actors and actresses we talked to yesterday refuse to enter them, and as Mr. Sachi has stressed, it is critical to him that this theater runs smoothly. Your presence there could give piece of mind to his cast."

And that was it. With their orders, Ayako and Masako departed to the hall of mirrors. Lin handed a piece of paper to Naru, who in turn handed it to Bou-san. It was print-out of the theater and highlighted were the dressing rooms he wanted the monk to exorcise.

"So you won't get lost," he explained. Bou-san held Naru's gaze for a second, then nodded and left the room. Mai raised her eyebrows in confusion,

What was that about? Why would he get lost? Is this place really that big?!

"Here, you'll need this," Naru said handing over a chart to Mai. John crossed over to the large desk in the room and picked up a small camera and cord,

"Set up your first camera in the entrance," he instructed, already turning back to the computer screen Lin was staring at.

"Shall we go?" John wondered pleasantly. Mai blinked, removing her gaze from her boss, with a slight smile she nodded and they left the room.

Like usual the halls they walked through were dim, oil lamps providing orange light to see by. Mai and John entered the foyer, and in comfortable silence, he began to set up the stand and she started to take temperature readings.

"Naru already has an angle of the doors, he'll want one of the rest of room," John said, placing the camera on its tripod. Mai looked up from the chart she was marking, 68.3 degrees...

"Right," she agreed, walking over to the priest.

"How's this?" he wondered, making minor adjustments to the angle. Mai smiled and gave him the thumbs up,

"Perfect!"

John smiled back,

"Great, did you get a reading?"

"Yep," Mai answered, her eyes traveling over the chart again thoughtfully.

"Good, let's go back and get the next camera."

Just then something caught Mai's eye. A shadow. She froze on the spot; slowly turning in the direction she saw it.

"Mai...?" John called when he noticed he wasn't being followed back to base. Mai blinked and shook her head, there was nothing there. The room was empty. Managing a smile she caught up to John,

"Oh it's nothing, sorry," she dismissed brightly. John's gentle blue eyes regarded her for a moment, but then he nodded and walked on,

"Okay, if you say so..."

Arriving back at base, Mai helped John by taking a camera as well, and with orders to set up the next cameras in various rooms and halls, they headed out.

Mai shut the door behind her and marked, 70.1 on her chart. They had already set up several cameras that afternoon, and they were down to their last few.

"Where to next?" John asked after having set up yet another hall camera.

"A dressing room...finally," Mai said thankfully, this was the fourth hall camera they had set up in a row.

Mai's eyes traveled down her chart, all the halls seemed to have consistent temperatures. Quickly, they made their way to the dressing rooms on the other end of the theater. Mai looked around at the unfamiliar hallways and doors they past, Naru had been right, this theater was much bigger than it appeared. Suddenly, something Bou-san had said came floating back,

There are lots of secret rooms, trap doors, and special effects in places like this...

Mai swallowed and cast a wary look at her surroundings, nothing even vaguely familiar.

That Naru! Why didn't he give us a map of this place too?!

"It should be coming up here pretty soon, huh?" John said, speaking for the first time in a while.

Mai smiled nervously,

"Oh-- yeah, right..."

"Unless we're lost of course..." the priest chided lightly.

Mai's throat was dry and tight and her laughter came out rather like a squeak. Just then there were muffled voices, the hall curved and a door came into a view. Across the door, printed in clear letters, were the words: Dressing Rooms. Mai and John exchanged a relieved look, then opened the door.

The dressing rooms, as it turns out, were right off the stage. The distant voices they had heard in the hall were the actors rehearsing. With wide eyes, Mai scoped out the back of the large stage. She had always wondered what it was like behind the scenes. A small group of actors and actresses standing by the edge of the stage looked up from their playbooks to see who had just joined them.

Mai and John smiled cheerfully at them and with a slight nod in return they went back to work. Mai walked closer to John, avoiding stage sets propped up on the wall, various lighting equipment (not in use), and costume racks. Mai's gaze traveled curiously about the stage, noting the heavy curtains and the row of doors they were approaching. Each dressing room was embellished with a star and the actor's name; about ten were stretched out in front of them.

"I don't see Mr. Sachi's," Mai commented, reading the names on each of the doors. John's face took on a thoughtful expression,

"You're right, but then again, Nari's isn't here either."

Mai blinked surprisedly and looked to the priest beside her,

"That's right! I almost forgot. I wonder why that is..." John shrugged, just as confused as she was.  

Just then a door to their right opened, startling the two investigators. Stepping into the dim backstage was Bou-san, fully garbed in his monk robes.

"Bou-san!" Mai exclaimed, clutching at her chest, "You scared me!"

Bou-san nodded to John and glanced at Mai,

"Sorry, it's not my fault you're so jumpy."

Mai crossed her arms and glared at him,

"What are you still doing here anyways, I thought you'd be done by now," she remarked.

Bou-san raised an irritated eyebrow at her,

"Oh yeah? Well you try doing ten exorcisms in a row," he grumbled.

Mai observed the monk, he did look tired...

"Are you nearly done then?" John broke in curiously, hoping to prevent a fight.

Bou-san nodded,

"Just a couple rooms left."

"Great, Mai and I will just follow behind you and set up these cameras, then we can walk back to base together," John suggested pleasantly. Bou-san agreed, and the three went their separate ways.

John and Mai entered their first dressing room. Blindly the priest reached for the oil lamp and turned it up. The small room swelled with orange light. Mai let out a little cry of surprise and John gasped. Somewhere down the stage, Mai heard Bou-san shout. Footsteps came up behind Mai,

"My room!"

The two investigators turned around to face a horrified looking woman. Heavy footsteps ran across the stage,

"Chiho, what is it?" a breathless voice demanded. It was Mr. Sachi and with one look at his actress' dressing room, his mouth fell open,

"But, but-- it was just exorcised, wasn't it?" he sputtered, dumbfounded.

The room was destroyed almost exactly as Nari's was. Clothes were torn and strewn about the floor, makeup streaked up and down the walls, the mirror was shattered, the shards laying there catching the oil lamp's light and reflecting it by casting orange spots on the ceiling. Mai noticed Bou-san standing in the doorway behind Mr. Sachi and Chiho,

"This room too...?" he said, stunned.

Mr. Sachi turned to look at the monk,

"What-- what is going on?" he asked, his face pale.

Bou-san set his jaw, a heaviness coming over his face,

"I guess the exorcisms weren't entirely successful..."

Mr. Sachi blinked at his as if unable to understand,

"What do you mean, weren't entirely successful?" he persisted, alarm etched deeply into his features. Bou-san shifted where he stood, his eyes traveling over the disaster,

"I mean they didn't work," he answered defeatedly.

Mai frowned; the monk looked exhausted and disappointed with himself.

"Bou-san..." Mai said attentively. Mr. Sachi ran a worried hand through his hair,

"Is-- is that normal?" he wondered, guiding his actress back from the room as if he feared it contaminated.

The three investigators all looked to each other without an answer, nothing in the paranormal field was normal. More actors and actresses gathered around to see what was going on. Heels clicking against the hard wood floor, Nari pushed her way through and stared into the dressing room.

"Oh-- oh, Joji..." she breathed, a hand coming to her mouth. The playwright suddenly straightened up and faced the small crowd pushed in around him,

"Mr. Sachi, what's going on?"

"Mr. Sachi, are we in danger?"

"Should we be here?"

"You know, I had the strangest feeling just a moment ago..."

"Fear not, this is just a minor problem, you are all safe. Samuru, please take Chiho to the lounge and get her a cup of tea to calm her nerves. Everyone else, please continue to review your lines," Mr. Sachi ordered, his voice coming out clear and firm over the murmured anxieties of his cast.

This seemed to work, quickly the crowd dispersed and Chiho was whisked off by a fellow actor. All that remained was Nari who stood staring into the dressing room with obvious distress. Mr. Sachi looked to her with discomfort,

"Perhaps you would like some tea also Nari?" he suggested carefully. The woman shook her head silently,

"How long...how long will we have to live with this?" Her voice trembled, her eyes glistened, "All my life, I've thought of nothing but theater, but this morning I almost didn't come in..."

Suddenly, Nari let out a sob and crumpled against a stunned Mr. Sachi,

"There, there Nari," he said, patting her back uncertainly, "things will be okay, you'll see..."

The young actress pulled her head back just enough to stare into the playwright's eyes,

"I wish I could believe you, but as long as this keeps going on...I don't know if I can take it anymore."

Mr. Sachi's face turned troubled; firmly he took Nari by the shoulders and held her away from him,

"Nari, you will never say such a thing again, understood? You are a professional, the show will go on," the young playwright recited, obviously taking a stab at talking some sense into his star actress. Nari was released and hurriedly she began to wipe away her tears,

"Joji, you are right. I don't know what came over me..."

Mr. Sachi let out a sigh and smiled lightly at his actress,

"I really think you should get some tea, I'll take you there myself," he offered, holding out his arm.

Nari looked at his arm uncertainly, almost as if she thought it unreal, but then grasped it tightly, a blush rising to her cheeks that even Mai could see in the low light. As the two walked away, Mr. Sachi sent them one last look. It could have meant anything, but Mai understood it perfectly: do something!

A silence settled over the three of them, with a frown, Mai stared at the dressing rooms next to her,

"I don't understand, how did this happen without us noticing?"

Bou-san shook his head and walked past, purposefully he began opening each door. Curious, Mai and John followed close behind. Just like Chiho's, each room was destroyed and all in the same way. Bou-san leaned against the door frame of the last dressing room, staring blankly into the chaos. Mai placed a supportive hand on his arm,

"Bou-san, this isn't your fault, and no one was hurt..."

The monk looked to Mai, his expression softening,

"I know, it's just--" Bou-san let out a long sigh, "I felt so confident in how things were going."

Mai nodded and another silence stretched between them. A respectful distance away, John finally spoke up,

"Perhaps we should try and put up the cameras," he suggested with a faint smile.

"You're right, it's the least we can do," Mai agreed leaving the monk's side to join the priest, "Bou-san, will you help us?"

Bou-san straightened up and took a camera from John,

"Of course, who do you take me for? Naru?" he answered with a wink, sounding more like himself.

The three of them shared a small laugh at Naru's expense, then got down to work. Diligently, Mai marked the temperature of each room; oddly all of them came back as normal.

67.5...Mai jotted down, finishing up with the last room. For no particular reason (perhaps she felt eyes on her), Mai looked up and found she was being watched. Across the stage the actors and actresses that had left to rehearse stood together in a small group, their eyes fixed on Mai and not their scripts. They shifted uneasily, obviously spooked by what happened not fifteen minutes ago. Determined to show them that they had nothing to be scared of, Mai drew herself up confidently and pretended to check her chart again, as if all the answers to the case were laid out there before her,

If only...Mai thought earnestly as her eyes scanned the various numbers. John pulled the door to the final dressing room closed with a soft click,

"Finished," he announced with a relieved sigh.

"Let's get out of here," Bou-san urged, avoiding the hard gazes of the actors and actresses he couldn't protect.

Mai nodded and tucked her temperature chart underneath her arm. Out in the hall, Bou-san pulled a small piece of paper from his robes-- the map Naru had given him. Mai let out a sigh and relaxed. She had been less than thrilled to wander the empty halls of the Miyuki Theater again, but now...

Good, Bou-san can lead us back.

Beside her, John looked similarly relieved. Following Bou-san's sure lead, Mai let her attention wander...

Window, door, lamp.

Window, door, lamp.

Window, door, lamp.

Mai began to feel her focus slip. How long until they reached base...would she even still be awake by then? Mai was stuck by a sickening feeling. She was tired. Exhausted. She was slipping, falling under; she was going to...

Mai halted and clenched her jaw,

What's going on...?

Mai blinked rapidly, straining to keep her eyes open. It was almost as if time had slowed down, the room blurred around her and then all was suddenly clear. A door in a small corner off the hall they just turned down stood before her, calling to her.

"Mai?" a sharp voice brought her back to her senses.

Suddenly Mai was released from her daze. Her throat dry and her heart pounding, Mai looked to Bou-san who had come to stand by her, concern burning in his eyes. Mai opened her mouth but words wouldn't come, she was having trouble looking up at the monk, something was luring her gaze back to the door.

"That-- that door," she finally managed, and unable to resist, she found herself moving towards it, the draw becoming stronger and stronger as she neared it. Standing behind, Bou-san reached out for her, but missed.

Mai's eyes searched the door, but what for she didn't know. Following the grains in the wood her gaze traveled down past the door handle and to the floor, there-- sticking out barely an inch, an edge to a rug. Mai bent down, staring at it, mesmerized as though she had just discovered some valuable treasure. The corner was frayed, faded, and old, but Mai couldn't mistake it-- she had seen this rug before. A strong hand pulled Mai on her feet and a few steps back,

"Mai, what are you doing? Are you okay?" Bou-san asked, staring at her as though she had lost her mind. Mai stared back at Bou-san as if she barely recognized him, then shook her head, attempting to regain some control.

Silently, John placed himself between Mai and the door, his blue eyes troubled. Mai took a calming breath, her heart no longer pounding quite so hard, and managed a small reassuring smile,

"Sorry, I'm okay...really," Mai answered, stressing the last part when she was met with unconvinced stares. Mai went to look back at the door, but John obstructed her view and Bou-san's heavy hand still held her shoulder. With a slight frown Mai freed herself from the monk and moved around the priest,

"Bou-san there's something here, we need to go into this room," she explained, staring down at the familiar goddess depicted at the edge of the rug. Without waiting for answer, she reached for the door handle and turned it. With a click and a creak, the door opened. Mai coughed and covered her nose, a strong smell of must greeting her. Blinking into the dark and waving away the dust that swirled about her eyes; Mai took a step forward and froze.

Her eyes adjusting with every passing second, Mai's suspicions were confirmed. A fire place, two large chairs, and small table in-between them. She was standing in exactly the same place as in her dream, and stretched out beneath her feet, a rug spinning a tale of Greek goddesses. With wide eyes she glanced at the windows, as expected they were covered with heavy curtains.

"What...what is this place?" Bou-san asked, coming to stand by her side, looking around confusedly.

"It looks to be some kind of office, but why is it in such disrepair?" John wondered, running his hand along a shelf, dust coating his fingers. Movement near the fireplace-- Mai's eyes darted there and she let out a small cry. Suddenly Bou-san and John were alert,

"Mai-- what is it?" the monk questioned, his sharp eyes drinking in his surroundings. Near him, John held the cross at his neck and narrowed his eyes at the shadows.

Materializing before her, the shape of a man, and then he stood there, as real as herself. At this moment, Mai prepared herself for the icy feeling of fear to shoot through her, the scream to rise in her throat-- but there was nothing. She stared blankly back at the old man she had seen in her dreams, at his gentle old eyes, the seemingly real lines that ran across his distinguished face.

"Mai?" Bou-san persisted; she could feel him staring at her. Mai opened her mouth, and at the same time the old man raised a finger to his mouth, a silent plea not to say anything. Dumbly, she nodded,

They can't see him....

"Mai are you alright, why did you cry out?" John said, attempting to get through to her. Blinking, she tore her gaze away from the spot near the fireplace she was staring at,

"I-- I thought I saw a mouse," she answered, and for added measure she clung to the monk beside her. Bou-san stared down at her as though debating whether to believe her or not, after a moment he shook her off,

"Hey now, what has gotten into you?" he questioned, raising a critical eyebrow at her, "You're the one who wanted to come in here in the first place, come on let's go..."

John nodded earnestly and Bou-san placed a hand on her shoulder, looking to guide her out. Mai looked back to the old man, urgency clouded his features, his hand moved quickly to point to the small table. In the gloom a small frame sat alone, gathering dust. Mai's eyes widened in shock and suddenly she was wrenching herself away from Bou-san's grasp, she couldn't leave yet...

"Mai!" the monk cried after her, bewildered and worried something was wrong. Just before he could stop her, a shrill scream filled the air. The three of them looked to the door in panic,

"Ayako!" they exclaimed and at once they burst out of the room. Mai was halfway down the hall, her heart pounding in her ears again-- Ayako and Masako were in trouble...and yet, a part of her was still standing in that derelict room, moving towards that table....

Mai came to a halt, she was already yards behind Bou-san and John, if she hurried, they wouldn't even notice she was gone. Closing her eyes to gather strength, Mai turned back, running as fast as she could to the room. The door stood open, inviting her into the darkness. Panting, Mai stepped into the room, her eyes finding the old man still standing there, almost expectantly. Mai felt herself shiver despite the heat that rose up her neck and into her cheeks,

He knew I was going to come back...

Mai shook her head and clenched her jaw determinedly, she had no time for fear, she needed to see that picture and get out. With purposeful strides she crossed over to the small table. Dust rose in a cloud as she picked it up from its place, evoking a cough from Mai. Through squinted eyes she stared down at a photo of a little girl. Mai hesitated for a moment, glancing up at the old man, finding herself startled at how close she was now standing to him.

"Should...I take it?" she asked, her voice small in the silence.

The old man nodded, his eyes lit in the darkness. Mai swallowed hard and began to take apart the frame. Suddenly she was in a hurry, her fingers fumbled with the parts, but then-- success. Holding the fragile picture in her hands, Mai sent the old man one more look before running out of the room.

 

 

Chapter Text

Day Three

4:15pm

The Miyuki Theater

Mai burst from the room at full speed, her feet slapping the floor as she ran, a cold sweat breaking across her forehead. At some point in her rush, she managed to tuck the picture inside her pocket. The corridors blew past Mai as she turned corner after corner, but slowly it dawned on her that she had no idea where she was or where she was running to. Confused, Mai came to a halt at yet another corner. Panting she glanced around, the hallways in front of her and behind her were draped in a veil of silence.

Darn it! Which way did they go? Which way did I go...?

Mai straightened up, swallowing the lump of panic that had risen in her throat; this was no time to lose her cool. Taking a few deep breaths and closing her eyes, Mai strained to hear anything at all that would lead her towards Ayako and Masako. But there were no sudden cries, no foot steps, no voices-- nothing.

Mai opened her eyes with a frown, it was as if the world was muffled somehow-- or muted. A terrible thought crept in the back of her mind, maybe this was a side effect of the vision she just had? Maybe she could hear nothing at all? A cold shiver rushed through Mai, her heart began to pound, the panic rose again in her throat and this time she was helpless to swallow it.

In one frantic motion Mai kicked the wall nearest her and was answered with a dull thud and a surprised cry from herself. Mai winced and held her foot, she hadn't meant to kick out quite so hard, but relief filled her- she had heard the thud and her own voice.

Reassured that she had not lost her hearing, Mai decided to turn the corner she had just came up on, if she was lucky it would lead her somewhere she recognized. That was when she heard it-- like a shot Bou-san's voice reached her ears. Knowing that she must be getting closer, Mai broke into a run, wincing occasionally at the pain that flared in her foot.

Mai reached the end of the hall and realized that it branched off in two directions, Mai quickly looked left and saw nothing but an endless hall- but she then looked right and there, at the opposite end, stood Bou-san and the others. Relief swelled in Mai's chest, blocking out the protest her foot was putting up as she found herself running towards them even faster than before.

"Hey!" Mai called as she approached, but no one seemed to notice, they were all staring at the wall. Mai's eyes widened, stretched out across almost the whole length of the right side of the hall-- mirrors one after another, all gilded and gleaming.

The Hall of Mirrors? Mai thought as she recalled Naru's orders to Ayako and Masako.

Mai stopped a few feet away from them, just outside the reflection of the first mirror,

"Bou-san..." Mai persisted, looking at him with concern.

The monk stood there rigidly, unblinking, his face the color of ash. When she couldn't get a response, Mai looked to Ayako beside him. Her cheeks were drained of all color, her mouth open in a kind of eternal scream, her hands grabbed at Bou-san's sleeve in horror.

Mai felt the warmth of her relief leave her, replaced by cold fear. In alarm, she looked to Masako next. She looked like a broken porcelain doll, her dark hair falling wildly across her white face, her blue eyes staring unseeingly as though they were glass.

At the sight of the three of them rendered motionless, Mai felt the fear take hold of her mind, terrifying conclusions racing through her head. It was then that she saw John. He stood just on the other side of Masako, his hand clutching the cross at his neck, gazing into the mirror in front of him. Suddenly he looked away, and noticing Mai, shouted,

"Stay back!"

Stiff with fear, Mai did as she was told and stumbled even a few more steps from the mirrors,

"John..." Mai breathed, her eyes flicking to the helpless forms of her friends.

"Mai, it's the mirrors, don't look into them!" John warned, and with great concern he looked to the frozen figures next to him. In the next moment he swiftly took hold of Masako and attempted to pull her from the mirrors. A switch flipped inside of Mai, she had reached the point where she was numb from the fear and now the adrenaline was kicking in. Without thought she surged towards Bou-san, grabbed his arm and tugged-

"Bou-san, come on! Snap out of it!"

The monk wouldn't budge, he stood there in his dead weight, staring-- mesmerized by the mirror in front of him. Across from Mai, John was having trouble with Masako as well, and while her dead weight could hardly be called heavy, she had become limp, falling against John and then slipping from his grasp. The priest struggled to hold her up, moving inch by inch away from the mirrors.

Mai pulled and pulled Bou-san's arm, but he wouldn't even lean, and soon she began to fear she would tear his arm out of socket. Panting with a cold sweat, Mai let go of the monk's arm with a cry of frustration. How long could he be like this before some kind of permanent damage happened? Down the hall, John almost had Masako to safety. Mai looked to Bou-san with renewed vigor,

I won't give up on you Bou-san! Now move!

And then an idea struck Mai, and before she could think about what she was doing, she lunged at the monk, full force. For a split second Mai was suspended in air, and then she was falling as she gripped onto Bou-san. It was all over in an instant and the two of them hit the ground with a heavy thud-- a second thud following immediately after. Mai looked down at Bou-san, the monk had broke her fall, a look of pain filled his face as he let out a groan,

"Bou-san!" she cried and thoughtlessly she engulfed him in a hug that caused him to let out another groan.

"Ugh...Mai? What are you doing?" he protested, blinking up at her through watering eyes.

"Oh, sorry..." she mumbled moving off him, embarrassed. Gingerly, the monk sat up and looked around,

"Wh- what is going on here...?" he asked as he took in the sight of a worried looking Mai, and the fallen body next to him,

"Ayako?"

Shocked, Mai looked past Bou-san to see the figure of the miko on the floor beside them,

"Oh no, Ayako!" Mai exclaimed as she clamored to her feet and hurried to her side.

"I forgot...she was holding on to you...she must have fallen when we did," she murmured, taking the woman's hand and looking her over.

Ayako's tightly shut eyes flickered as Mai's warm fingers covered her own cold ones. Recovering quickly, Bou-san moved Mai out of the way, and took Ayako's head in his hands. She had landed with her head slightly propped up against the wall, leading Mai to believe that she must have hit her head on the way down. Bou-san checked her concernedly, tilting her head gently left and right, his fingers running through her hair, feeling for any swelling. As he felt the back, the monk drew in a sharp breath,

"She does have bump here, and it's pretty big, we need to get ice on it," Bou-san said, moving to pick up Ayako.

"Wait!" Mai cried, pulling down on his arm.

"Ow!" Bou-san exclaimed, "That hurt, my arm's sore for some reason..."

"Bou-san, you can't look into those mirrors," Mai persisted, avoiding saying anything about his arm.

"I know," he answered with a frown, "We need to talk to Naru, now."

Just then Mai remembered John; quickly she looked down the hall,

"John, how is Masako?" she called worriedly.

The priest was leaning over Masako's motionless figure; he looked up at Mai uncertainly,

"We need to get her back to base, Bou-san how are you feeling?"

The monk stood, careful to face away from the mirrors, and gathered Ayako in his arms,

"I'll be fine, it's Ayako we should be concerned about," he answered selflessly, but Mai could tell he wasn't okay; he winced holding Ayako's dead weight in his arms. Mai looked back to John,

"Here, let me help you," she offered as she saw John lifting her limp body with difficulty. Reaching them, she hung one of Masako's arms around her neck and leaned some of her weight onto her shoulder. John adopted the same position and the two of them made slow progress. It seemed like an eternity back to the base and several times Masako almost slipped from their hold. Mai gritted her teeth as she was forced to step on her sore foot again and again with the added weight of Masako bearing down on it. John looked over at her wonderingly, but Mai merely smiled through the pain.

Finally they reached base. Naru and Lin looked supremely surprised to see them, carrying each other and limping along into the room.

"What is going on here?" Naru demanded, stepping away from Lin's desk to intercept them. Bou-san laid Ayako down on the couch and sank down beside it, rubbing his shoulder with obvious discomfort,

"We need ice, now."

Naru looked to Lin and the tall man rushed from the room. Hastily Naru moved forward to take Masako from John and Mai, who by now were sagging from the effort of traveling all that way with her. Making it look easy he carried the medium over to an arm chair and set her down in it. With a dark expression he looked back to Mai and John, who each had collapsed into chairs of their own,

"What happened?" he repeated, taking off his jacket and placing it over Masako's cold form. Mai looked to John-- she had arrived too late to know the whole story. The priest glanced over at Ayako,

"We had just left the dressing rooms, the exorcisms hadn't gone well-- when we heard a scream. We ran to see what was happening, and when we got there we saw Ayako and Masako frozen in front of a wall of mirrors. We tried to get them to move, but they wouldn't, and then I looked into the mirror--" John paused here looking troubled.

"It was the same as before," Bou-san suddenly spoke, his voice forbidding, "decay and death..."

Mai felt a shiver run up her spine at hearing this, with wide eyes she stared at her two unconscious team members,

So that's what they saw...

Naru stood from Masako's side and paced the floor, a look of deep concentration on his face,

"What happened then?"

Bou-san grew quiet, rubbing his shoulder thoughtfully, "I'm not really sure..."

"I can't explain what it's like to see yourself...like that. It held us frozen there, that's when Mai arrived," John answered with a deep frown, as if he was staring into the mirror again. Sitting next to him, Mai gave the troubled priest a sympathetic smile.

"Mai arrived? You mean, she wasn't with you?"

Mai's smile faded at the sound of Naru's hard voice, she felt his eyes burning into her,

"Mai, why weren't you with them?" Naru persisted, his pacing stopped and his full attention on her. Mai's stomach dropped, she had been drawn back to the room by that old man, a man neither Bou-san nor John knew she had seen, a man who wanted his existence kept a secret...in her mind Mai saw him drawing a finger to his lips, a pleading look in his eyes.

If I can't say anything, what can I tell Naru..?

In her pocket the photo sat heavily and with every breath Mai feared Naru could hear it crinkle. Naru narrowed his eyes at her, her silence was only more incriminating,

"Well?"

"Yeah," Bou-san spoke up, "where were you?"

Beside her John looked to Mai, but not nearly as suspiciously as Bou-san and Naru were.

"Hey, I'm the one who saved you," Mai snapped turning her gaze on the monk, "you should be grateful I showed up when I did!"

"Don't change the subject, where were you Mai?" Naru cut in sharply, he was determined to get answers. Mai felt herself heat up, she was being forced to meet Naru's eyes, could she lie to him like that? Would he even believe her?

"I was coming, I just couldn't keep up with Bou-san and John."

Mai's words came out convincing enough, unfortunately there were so many holes in her statement that she knew Naru could see right through it. Naru crossed his arms and leered over at her, staring down her bold faced lie. He wasn't about to let her go, he opened his mouth, but never got the chance to speak.

Lin entered the room with two bags of ice, tailed by Mr. Sachi with two more bags. At the sight of Masako slumped limply in the chair, he let out a horrified gasp,

"Masako!" he cried, and ice bags abandoned, he ran over to her, "oh Masako, speak to me, say something..." he pleaded, holding her head in his hands, brushing her hair out of her face. John stood and Naru crossed over to the hysterical playwright,

"Mr. Sachi, please let Hara-san be," Naru requested, coming to stand between them.

Mr. Sachi's eyes were lit with concern, "But-- but she's hurt! She needs help!" he protested, taking her lifeless hand in desperation. Mai looked to John who was standing next to her, his face pale with worry; he kept opening his mouth, only to close it a second later.

"Please, Mr. Sachi, we're not sure what's wrong with her, you could do her more harm than good by moving her," the priest finally managed to say. Mr. Sachi stared at Masako as if she was on her death bed; he let his hand fall from hers dramatically,

"Fine. If that's how it is..."

Naru stared at his client darkly, unamused with his dramatics. Mai watched the relief pour over John's face, with a heavy sigh he sat down again.

"We have no reason to believe its anything serious Mr. Sachi," Naru assured, trying to coax the man from the medium's side. The playwright was reluctant to budge,

"Some ice, maybe some ice would revive her?" he persisted, planting himself firmly beside Masako. Lin passed in front of Mai, handing out a bag of ice to Bou-san, who ignoring the pain in his shoulder, administered it to Ayako's head immediately. The miko frowned at the sudden cold, her eyes flickering; she let out a soft moan.

"Don't be such a baby," Bou-san chided her, but his voice was surprisingly gentle.

While Ayako continued to stir, Mr. Sachi was trying to persuade Lin into giving him an ice bag,

"Please, I just want to see her move, twitch, anything," he pleaded, squeezing Masako's hand tightly in his.

"Mr. Sachi, she needs no ice. Lin, leave a bag for Bou-san's shoulder. John, are you hurt as well?" Naru questioned, his back to them. He had crossed the room to the small counter where Mai had made tea at earlier, and was preparing another pot. Mai watched him with a small smile, he could have asked her to make the tea, but he didn't.

"No, I'm fine thank you," John answered, sounding more like himself.

Lin did as Naru asked, left a bag of ice for Bou-san and gave none to Mr. Sachi. Sitting in her chair, Mai watched Bou-san apply his ice bag to his shoulder enviously. Her foot throbbed, how nice would it be to place a bag of ice on her swollen toes? Her eyes flicked to Naru who was handing off a cup of tea to John, his dark eyes caught hers for a second-- looking away quickly Mai gritted her teeth, there would be no ice for her.

Not without telling Naru what really happened anyways...

"Mai, for you."

Pulled from her thoughts, Mai looked up at Naru staring down at her, a tea cup extended towards her. Mai swallowed nervously, something in his eyes glinted at her as if to say, I know you're hiding something...

Not nearly fast enough for Mai's liking, Naru moved on, giving his next cup to Bou-san, and then Lin. Neither awake yet, Naru set aside Ayako and Masako's tea for later. Sitting for the first time, Naru placed himself in a chair between the miko and medium. Refusing to leave Masako's side, Mr. Sachi stood hovering over her, muttering things like, "I think I saw her move" and "If you look hard enough, her eyes flutter..."

"Hey--" Bou-san suddenly spoke up, "she's waking..."

Everyone looked to the couch he was sharing with Ayako. Indeed the priestess was stirring, and in the next moment-- she opened her eyes. An instant passed, her vision swam and then adjusted, without warning, she let out a cry and flew upright.

"Takigawa-san!" she shouted, whacking his shoulder rather hard for a person who had just been unconscious.

"Ouch!" he cried just as loud, grabbing his tender shoulder, "what's gotten into you?"

"What has gotten into me? What has gotten into you?! Get away from me!" she protested, her cheeks burning red, but Mai had a strange feeling it wasn't entirely from anger. Standing now, tending to his shoulder, the monk shot her a dark look,

"How's that for gratitude? See if I save you again."

Ayako closed her mouth and looked around the room at all of them for first time.

"Saved me? What are you talking about...?" she finally asked, this time sounding more uncertain than aggressive.

Bou-san sat down rather roughly, rubbing his shoulder. Ayako moved her legs out of the way and sent him a disgruntled look.

"I saved you. Hard to believe anyone would bother though..." he grumbled, reaching for his ice bag.

"Ayako, how is your head?" Naru asked, before she could argue with Bou-san. Ayako frowned slightly, gingerly touching the back,

"It hurts actually..."

Naru nodded and took a sip of his tea; meaningfully he looked to the bag of ice at Bou-san's feet. Ayako followed his gaze and the Bou-san reached down for the bag. With a shrewd smirk, the monk held it out just so the miko had to lean forward to take it. With an irritated huff, Ayako snatched it out of Bou-san's grasp. There were a few moments of silence in which the air crackled between them and then a gasp from Mr. Sachi broke the tension.

Sitting slumped on the chair, Masako's head moved, and then she let out a small whimper. A frown formed on her pale pink lips and her delicate brows furrowed in distress. John stood once again, worry flooding his features.

"Masako-- Masako it's alright, Joji's here. Follow my voice...come away from the light..."

Abruptly Naru stood, crossed over to the armchair, and brushed Mr. Sachi aside. The playwright sputtered in shock and offense, but Naru hardly seemed to care, and ignoring his client he ordered Lin to bring him a wet cloth.

"Naru..?" Mai whispered, leaning forward in her seat, her concern for Masako's health out shining her concern for just how close Naru was to her rival. Near her, John seemed pale and was staring at Naru with equal concern blazing in his eyes.

"But-- but you said there was nothing to be worried about!" Mr. Sachi protested, finding his voice again after his moment of shock. Naru shot the playwright next to him a hard look as he accepted the cloth Lin was offering him, murmuring his thanks.

Blocking out his client pointedly (which Mai could see was no easy task as with each second he was pressing in...) Naru leaned in close to Masako's ashen face and ran the cool rag over her forehead, his gaze deeply concentrated on her face. Mai was suddenly struck with a prickly sensation that ran up and down her spine, her stomach clenched slightly. He was too close now...too close...

And then Mai saw it, but only just so-- the medium's eyes had opened for the briefest of moments, then closed tightly. Naru must have been blinking in that moment, because he said nothing and persisted to run the cloth across her forehead and cheek in such a way that it made Mai's insides burn.

And then there was movement again, Masako began to frown much deeper than she had, her head began to jerk left and right, each time coming infuriatingly close to Naru's. There were relieved sighs and excited gasps around the room at this sign of life, Mai merely growled under her breath. The image of Masako opening her eyes moments before re-played in her head, she saw clearly what the medium was up to.

That Masako.

"Naru...Naru..." Masako began to mumble in her apparent unconsciousness. Mai gritted her teeth,

The nerve!

"Naru...save me...I--"

"Enough!" Mai suddenly shouted, standing up from her chair, her chest heaving. The room fell silent, all eyes bore into Mai with confusion. From anger or otherwise, her cheeks flushed.

"I...I mean, someone should wake her up already-- it's obvious she's-- uh-- distressed..." Mai mumbled unconvincingly.

Everyone blinked back at her blankly, but then passion sprung into Mr. Sachi, and before Naru (who was giving Mai a seriously dark look) could speak, the playwright exclaimed,

"She's right! She must be awoken before she is put through anymore--"

Mr. Sachi then boldly proceeded to squeeze himself next to Naru and just as his hand was reaching for her shoulder, Masako's eyes began to flutter open. She squinted with dim awareness at the faces above her,

"Naru?" she said in a decidedly weak voice. Feeling that perhaps she hadn't taken notice of him yet (but she had...) Mr. Sachi drew her hand in his and smiled down at her,

"And Joji too," he announced, adding emphasis on his name.

"Naru, it was so horrible..." she said, still pretending Mr. Sachi wasn't hovering over her face, and with one swift move reached out for Naru's shoulder. Mai self-imploded where she stood, but before she could recover her voice, Naru stood and Masako's hand fell unceremoniously back to her side,

"Someone please get Hara-san her tea," he said crossing the room in deep thought.

Mr. Sachi moved a fraction of an inch at the order, looking to offer the medium comfort, but his reluctance to leave her side was strong, and for a moment he sat uncertainly, suspended between the choices. But his distress was quickly put to an end as John leaped up to meet the task. He picked up the cup from the table and coming to a stop at the only place Mr. Sachi was not hovering over, extended the luke warm tea to her.

Masako, who had been staring stunned at the spot where Naru had left her, her mouth slightly agape, was forced to met John's eyes and thank him mildly for the tea. John stood there only a moment longer, and then returned to his seat.

At the other end of the room, Naru stood near the doorway,

"Mai-- Lin, follow me," he ordered and then vanished into the hall. Like always, Lin was out the door before Mai could even process that she had been spoken to, and feeling slightly stunned herself, hurried after them. They were already halfway down the hall when Mai emerged from base and she had to run if she hoped to catch them.

"Naru--" Mai panted irritably as she bounded up to them, "slow down a second-- what is going on?"

Naru's dark eyes flicked to her briefly, and not slowing his brisk pace any, he merely answered,

"Put your hair up in this."

Holding her side Mai came to a halt staring at the elastic band Naru held in his hand.

"Wha-?"

Naru, once again a few paces ahead of her, was forced to come to a stop. A moment of stillness and silence passed with Lin and Naru staring at her, and then with a strained laugh she realized that they meant for her to come and take it. A bit embarrassed and growing more and more confused, Mai shuffled up to Naru and took it from his hand, conscious of her fingers brushing the warm skin of his palm. Her cheeks now a fair shade of pink, Mai was glad for an excuse to bend down, and proceeded to gather her hair, her face conveniently out of sight of her handsome boss. Never the less, she felt his eyes on her as he said,

"Everything will be explained when we reach the Hall of Mirrors."

Mai righted herself, and having drawn her short hair into a sort of ponytail, they moved on. They were approaching the Hall of Mirrors faster than Mai had expected. For a brief moment the image of the old man flashed in her head, the photo was heavy in her pocket again, her eyes fell on Naru a few steps ahead of her-- and in that instant he glanced back at her. Mai tensed and quickly looked away.

How does he know! It's like he can read my mind...

Mai's stomach did a sort of flip-flop at the thought. If he could read her mind then-

He would know how I feel about him...

A blush began to creep up Mai's neck, but then her next thought completely extinguished it,

Then he would also know about the man. He would know I'm lying to him...

Mai squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, hoping to block out all images and thoughts having to do with her secret ghostly encounter, just in case Naru was reading her mind.

He probably can't though...she thought, trying to calm herself.

They turned a corner and all thoughts of mind reading and ghosts were jarred from her head completely. Mai's eyes were drawn down the hall, to the place where she had found half her friends frozen. Terrible images of their expressions flashed before her, and suddenly her feet felt as if made of lead, she could go no further. Naru detected her slowed pace, silently he took her hand. This surprising contact was enough for Mai to surface from her terror for a moment and blink surprisedly at the back of his head. Beside them, Lin said nothing and appeared to notice nothing.

Being more or less pulled along, Mai reached the part of the hall just before the mirrors, here Naru stopped and let go of her hand. He turned and looked at her,

"Mai, I want you to help me with something, could you stand in front of one of the mirrors?"

There was nothing forceful in the question, his tone was even and open for her to decline, even so Mai asked,

"Those mirrors, you want me to stare into one of those mirrors?"

Patiently Naru nodded,

"Yes."

Mai stared down the length of hall, every few inches one of the mirrors hung, gleaming in the dim light.

"But-- you saw what happened earlier-- I don't understand," Mai stammered, bewildered, glancing from Naru to the mirrors and back again.

Again Naru nodded, but said nothing to persuade her, the only thing betraying any emotion on his face were his eyes, they stared steadily into hers, conveying an unspoken message: trust me.

Mai swallowed and drew in a deep breath. Her mind was made up, she trusted him. Calmly, Naru stepped aside. This was where that mind reading thing came into play again; he knew her answer without her even speaking a word.

How...?

But Mai didn't have time to dwell long, for in the next moment she turned to face the mirror. Mai blinked. It was strange, she knew it was her face staring back at her, but it wasn't any version of her face she recognized. It was as if all color had been drained from her reflection, her skin was pale, wrinkled, and so thin that the bones it clung to were visible. Mai shuddered and let out a horrified gasp. She felt herself take a step back; she had the sudden urge to run, run far and fast, anything to stop staring into her horrible reflection.

Just then Mai noticed a light pressure on her shoulders, with some difficulty she was able to look up. Reflected in the mirror above her was Naru, he had come to stand behind her, his hands on her shoulders.

Naru.

Calm spread through out her, Naru's presence was the strength she needed to stay focused. She looked again into her ancient features, her hair falling white as snow around her face, her eyes clouded and lifeless. Suddenly Naru's grip was much tighter on Mai's shoulders.

Uncertainly she looked up to see Naru staring back at his reflection with the strangest expression, his eyes wide and hallow. Mai's calm evaporated from her, if Naru was disturbed by what he was seeing, things were just as bad as she thought them before. An icy sensation settled in Mai stomach, the urge to run consumed her again, but just before she could break away, Lin's urgent voice cut the air,

"Naru!"

As if broken from a spell Naru stepped back, pulling Mai with him, and then letting her go, turned away. Mai looked after Naru with a mixture of confusion and curiosity, trying to catch a glimpse of his face, but his back was to her. When Mai persisted, Lin stepped in between them, shielding Naru from view.

"How was it?"

Mai's eyes darted to where she presumed Naru stood behind him, was he asking her? After a moment of silence and steady staring on the Chinese man's part, Mai managed to say,

"Well...terrible..."

"Mai reacted as I figured," Naru suddenly spoke, and Lin stepped aside, revealing Naru to be facing them, completely composed. Mai looked from one man to the other, thoroughly confused, what was that? Why had Lin stopped her from seeing Naru?

"What do you mean, as you figured?" Mai finally asked some moments later, realizing that neither Naru nor Lin were going to explain what just happened. Naru looked down the hall, then back at them, and began to walk,

"I knew that you would not freeze like the others, and you didn't. You reacted as I figured," he answered vaguely. Crossing her arms Mai began to follow,

"You didn't know that for sure, what if I had ended up like Masako, or worse?" she protested, glaring at the back of her boss' head. It was barely detectable, but a small smile pulled at Naru's lips,

"You wouldn't. You do not appreciate your looks nearly as much as Hara-san does her own," he stated mysteriously.

Mai clenched her fists; she was beginning to get angry. Why did everything he had to say always end up with Masako? Wouldn't anybody give her a straight answer? Was what he just said an insult or a compliment to her anyways? Naru must have noticed her hostile vibes, because he then decided to elaborate,

"What you saw earlier, Mai, was not some supernatural effect of the mirrors, it was a self induced reaction. They were being held there by themselves. It was their shock. You may recall that John had not become frozen, why do you think that was?" This last part was asked with a glance back at her. A fresh blush rushed to Mai's cheeks, she hated it when he looked at her like that, she felt put on the spot, her brain felt miles away,

"Well-- uh...um," she struggled, unable to think of anything intelligible, steadily blushing deeper. Naru faced forward again,

"Vanity, Mai. John, and consequently yourself, as I suspected, are not vain. You were shocked with the sight of death; they were shocked with the sight of themselves old and decayed. This affected their sense of vanity so much that they became frozen where they stood, unable to look away."

The blush subsiding from Mai's cheeks, she attempted to think some of this through. So it was vanity that caused such reactions then? Mai pictured Bou-san, Masako, and Ayako and saw it made sense. Then an idea struck her,

"Naru," Mai began, keeping her voice as even as she could, "If their vanity caused Bou-san and Ayako to freeze, why did Masako..?" Mai trailed off artfully as Naru nodded,

"I suppose it affected her that much more," he allowed. Her vanity was that much moreMasako equals vain, Mai equals not, was the unspoken comparison Mai left hanging. Mai's hand wandered to where her ponytail was coming out,

"So, if you were just seeing if I would freeze or not, why did I need to put my hair up?" she wondered, raising an eyebrow at Naru.

"I did not bring you there to see if you'd freeze or not Mai, I've already explained that I knew you didn't take care of your looks enough to be vain--" here Mai winced at the out and out insult, "--I brought you there and had you put up your hair to test something. I am now positive that those mirrors, no matter how antique they look, are not original to this theater, I have reason to believe that they may have been put in just weeks ago."

Mai's eyes widened in surprise,

"What?"

"Didn't you notice? The reflection was of you with your hair down," Naru answered, his vagueness returning and with it Mai's confusion. Mai recalled her reflection to mind, Naru was right. She hadn't noticed before, she had been too terrified to catch such a simple thing, but Naru had.

"You had me put up my hair to see if my reflection would match it? But how did you know...?"

"It was a simple test. The reflection did not change; those are not normal mirrors..." Naru said quietly, more talking to himself now. Mai's anger was returning again,

"Well, I could guess that much! Most mirrors don't show yourself dead. But how did you know to check--" But here she was cut off by Lin,

"Naru, it's getting late, we should head back to the Inn."

Naru nodded,

"Ayako and Hara-san should have recovered enough by now."

Mai entered base first, seeing things to be much the same as when she had left it. Ayako and Bou-san were still sitting on the couch, though as far apart as possible. Masako was still in her arm chair; Mr. Sachi though (most likely at Masako's insistence) was now sitting in a chair drawn up next to Masako, looking a bit sullen at not being able to hover over her anymore. John was no longer sitting; instead he stood at the only window in the room, and upon hearing Mai enter, turned his gaze away from the view outside and smiled over at her.

Mai seated herself in the same chair as before, behind her Lin made for his computer chair, and Naru came to stand before them all. His dark eyes traveled over to Ayako and then Masako,

"How are you both feeling?"

Ayako glared at him, adjusting her ice bag from its place on the back of her head,

"At least I'm filled in now, how could you send me there again?! Look what happened!"

Naru sighed, "It's not my fault you're so vain..." he murmured under his breath.

"What was that?!" Ayako exclaimed with growing agitation. Naru looked to Masako pointedly, but she would not meet his eyes,

"Are you angry at me too for asking you to investigate the Hall of Mirrors?"

Just then she turned her brilliant blue eyes on Naru,

"No-- no, of course not. I agreed to it didn't I? I only wonder...well, I assume you've just returned from the hall, but I was not asked to go. Do you not think me competent enough to investigate anymore? I assure you I am quiet fine and unshaken by my experience--" Naru cut her off here,

"Hara-san, my choosing for you to stay had nothing to do with you being competent, but rather, able. I would not ask you to join us in your state, next time, of course, I will be expecting you to participate to the best of your ability," Naru explained calmly. Relief washed over Masako's face,

"Yes, of course," she smiled. Across the room Mai felt as though she was going to be sick, Masako's pathetic ploys never seemed to end.

"Now if everyone feels up to it, it's time we headed back to the Inn," Naru suggested. He was met with silent nods and everyone stood.

"Yes, good idea," Mr. Sachi agreed, getting up from his seat, and reaching out to help Masako from hers (she of course by-passed his hand completely...), "the festival begins in just a few hours, do you have your stories written?"

Bou-san, halfway to the door, and John lingering near Masako's seat (just in case she did need help getting up), paused and exchanged looks.

"Well, you know, between doing exorcisms all day and being hypnotized by a cursed mirror, I couldn't seem find the time..." the monk answered sarcastically.

"But--" Mr. Sachi began to object-- immediately Naru held up his hand and said,

"Don't worry Mr. Sachi, it is all taken care of, we will all have plays written for your festival."

Mr. Sachi closed his mouth and nodded satisfied, but Bou-san wasn't. He opened his mouth to protest, but one meaningful look from Naru caused him to close it again.

"He better have it taken care of..." the monk muttered.

Just then Mai glanced over at Lin who was lagging behind, he appeared to be printing out something, she raised her eyebrows,

Their stories maybe?

"Mai, what in the world did you do to your hair?" Ayako's voice suddenly asked as Mai proceeded into the hall, followed closely by Masako, Mr. Sachi, and John. Mai flinched as she remembered her hair was up in a messy half ponytail, she probably looked like an idiot...

"Oh, it's nothing," she said casually, and with a quick glance at Masako, added, "just something Naru wanted me to do..." as an after thought.

Mai smirked seeing the look on the medium's face and walked on ahead of them.

Masako's not the only one who came play this game.

Mai reached the theater's entrance first and came to an uncertain halt. A moment later she was rejoined by the group she had left and by Naru and Lin who had been a little farther behind. There was a thoughtful silence, and everyone looked around at each other expectantly, though no one seemed to know who should act first. Quite confused at why they were pausing, Mr. Sachi glanced from one person to the next as if waiting for some one to fill him in, and when no one bothered, he sighed impatiently and marched towards the theater doors. Making a big show of holding one open, he looked meaningfully at Masako,

"After you," he encouraged when she did not move. Masako seemed to be ignoring him pointedly, she had no interest in Mr. Sachi escorting her through the door, her sights were set on Naru. As unsuspectingly as she could, the medium began to inch her way closer to Naru, who at the moment was off in thought, looking the door frame up and down, occasionally touching the wood. Mai, who was not off in thought, saw exactly what Masako was up to.

Oh no you don't!

Mai, gritting her teeth, and as fast as she could (without being noticed); she slipped herself past Ayako and made her way for Naru. She was just squeezing by Bou-san, vaguely listening to Mr. Sachi's questions at why nobody was going anywhere, when a strong hand seized her shoulder. Mai let out a surprised gasp and looked up to find Bou-san smirking down at her,

"Come on Mai, Naru can wait," he whispered with a wink. With one last glare in Masako's direction, Mai sighed in defeat and let Bou-san lead her away towards the doors.

As they approached a bewildered looking Mr. Sachi, Mai began to feel her heart race. Even though she had been fine last time with Bou-san's help, she still felt anxious walking through the doors. Perhaps noticing her reluctance, Bou-san gave her shoulder one last reassuring squeeze and then they stepped past the playwright and out the door.

"Masako, what's the meaning of this, aren't you coming too?" Mr. Sachi persisted helplessly, as taking Bou-san's lead, Ayako walked out the door. Lin was next to follow with Naru exiting in deep thought, faster than Masako could beg his assistance. With a slight frown the medium watched him go, only then did she hear Mr. Sachi's pleas and notice that she was one of the only ones left.

"Are you not feeling well enough to walk?" John asked, taking an attentive step towards her. The frown vanished from Masako's face; she drew herself up and attempted to regain her composure,

"I'm fine, I was just...thinking," she answered having collected herself again. John nodded,

"Good. We should probably follow them then..." he continued, stepping now towards the doors suggestively.

"Masako, are you sure you're alright? Come along, I'll take you back to my place and you can freshen up before the festival starts," Mr. Sachi entreated, leaving his position at the door to offer her his arm. But before he could get too far, Masako impulsively grabbed John's arm and all but lead him through the door. Standing at the top of the stairs Masako released his arm and sent him a kind smile,

"Thank you for offering your help," she said, speaking ever so carefully, and though she was smiling, her eyes shown at John seriously. Recovering from his surprise, John was able to catch her meaning just quick enough to answer,

"You're very welcome, anytime."

Mr. Sachi looked between them confusedly for a moment, but then relaxed and crossed over to Masako's side, smiling brightly,

"Oh, if I had known you had offered your help first, I would have never stepped in after you, my mistake," he told John good-naturedly, "shall we go then? We'll catch up with you later," he assured John as he took the medium's arm and lead her down the stairs.

"See you at the festival," he agreed, watching them go.

At the bottom of the stairs John thought Masako glanced up at him, but as soon as he met her eyes she looked away. The priest blinked puzzledly, it happen so fast, was it possible that he had imagined it?

"John!" Mai called a few yards away, she had been watching, waiting with Bou-san for him to come. Shaking his head of these thoughts, John smiled and called back to her, quickly descending the stairs.

Mai looked to John who had just joined them, curiously. She had been more than happy to see Masako whisked off with Mr. Sachi (delighted actually), but beneath his smile, somehow to her, John seemed sobered by it. Some time had past as they all walked in comfortable silence before a rather loud growl from Bou-san's stomach caused him to speak,

"Man, I can't wait to get back to the Inn, I'm starved," the monk moaned, putting a hand to his empty stomach.

"I know," John agreed with a grin, "maybe with Mai's help we could have a feast again?"

Bou-san laughed and gave Mai a teasing look,

"Oy, how about it Mai? Will you pull some strings for us?"

Mai held her head up defiantly and crossed her arms; even still she was smiling,

"I don't know what you're talking about, I'm not pulling any strings, if you're so hungry order more food," she answered stubbornly.

"Hey-- be nice," Bou-san pouted, "you know all our food goes on Naru's tab, he'll never let us order as much as we'd like."

Mai found that it was only with strict determination that she didn't crack at the monk's pathetic stare,

"Not my problem, and since when did you start obeying Naru?" she asked, still unwavering. Bou-san shot her a dark look and grumbled something underneath his breath. Drawing her attention away from her starving company, Mai looked to the festival grounds they had almost past.

Dusk was now falling sharply, the sky a rose colored pink. Here and there bright paper lanterns were being lit. The scent of lilies was strong now, as was the smell of the many festival foods being cooked and set out in the small stands. Mai smiled, this would be the first festival she had ever attended like this, and had a feeling she was going to enjoy it.

"Mmm, something's being deep fried," Bou-san said, smelling the air longingly. Feeling her resolve weakening, Mai shook her head and patted his shoulder,

"Maybe I'll order something extra tonight," she mentioned with a pitying smile. Just then her stomach rumbled and Bou-san raised his eyebrows,

"We might need a little more than extra..."

Mai shot him a playful glare as they stepped inside the Inn. Upon seeing that Naru, Lin, and Ayako had already gone ahead to their rooms, the three of them split up in the hall,

"I'll see you at dinner," Bou-san said meaningfully to Mai before he closed the door to his room. Mai unlocked the door to her own room and shut it with a sigh. Her eyes drifted over her unmade bed, her suitcase lying open on the floor, and the days old clothes strewn about. It occurred to her that she hadn't done anything but sleep and shower in her guest room her whole stay in Nozomi.

Halfheartedly, she leaned down and began to gather her abandoned shirts, skirts, and socks. Tossing the heap into her suitcase, she attempted to shut it, and when that didn't work, she shrugged and threw herself on her bed. She closed her eyes; it had been a very long day. The silence was soothing to her ears. Mai rolled onto her side and was met with a crinkling sound.

With surprise, and then realization, Mai reached into her pocket and pulled out the picture she had found earlier. She examined it steadily, but still she was struck with only a vague familiarity, certainly not enough to place where she had seen that face before.

If I could only tell Naru about this, it would be so much easier for him to figure out...

With her hunger and exhaustion catching up to her, Mai sat up and set the photo on her nightstand. Yawning she crossed her room to the window and opened it, the cool evening air wafting in, refreshing Mai's senses. After a few minutes of standing at the window, she felt rejuvenated enough to attempt to pick something out to wear to dinner and the festival.

Heaving her suite case onto the bed, Mai rummaged through the few outfits she brought. After spending quite some time going over the same clothes, knowing she had nothing even remotely nice (or clean now that she noticed...) she settled on the same light pink skirt she had worn on her first day in Nozomi and her last clean top, white with some lace detail.

I'll be under dressed I know, but what can I do? Mai thought looking at the outfit she assembled with a slight frown.

"Well the lest I can do is iron out this skirt," Mai told herself, and picking it up she decided to go find Mrs. Koku and ask if there was an iron she could borrow.

Stepping out into the hall she found it mostly deserted with everybody busy setting up for the festival and getting ready for dinner. Thoughtfully she walked along, wondering where she should look for Mrs. Koku when the woman actually found her.

"OH. HELLO DEAR. IF YOU'RE LOOKING FOR NIKO, HE'S JUST GONE OUT TO THE FESTIVAL GROUNDS, BUT HE'LL BE BACK FOR DINNER," she shouted pleasantly.

A slight blush warming her cheeks Mai smiled and shook her head,

"Uh, no I wasn't looking for him; I was looking for you actually. I thought maybe you could tell me where I could find an iron?" she explained, holding up her skirt.

Mrs. Koku squinted at her and a look of dawning washed over her ancient face,

"IS THAT WHAT YOU'RE WEARING? GOOD HEAVENS NO GRAND DAUGHTER-IN-LAW OF MINE WILL BE CAUGHT GOING TO THE FESTIVAL WEARING THAT! COME FOLLOW ME AND WE'LL FIX THIS AT ONCE!" the old woman hollered in alarm, ushering Mai to follow.

Grandd aughter- i n- l aw!

"Ah-- um-- it's okay, really...if I could just have an iron...?" Mai protested weakly, finding herself being lead across the Inn. In front of her Mrs. Koku tutted loudly, occasionally glancing back at her with looks of sympathy,

"WE'LL FIX THIS, WE WILL."

Finally, after what felt like forever, they reached a rather large room, done up much nicer than any of the others she had seen.

"Wow...this is very nice," Mai commented, examining the velvet curtains that hung over the floor to ceiling windows. Behind her Mrs. Koku was bustling around distractedly,

"HONEY MOON SUITE," she announced, as she paused for a moment, wiggling her eyebrows at Mai. Mai turned as red as the curtains she was standing next to and Mrs. Koku continued on her busy search, chuckling to herself.

"AH, HA!"

Mai jumped a foot at the sudden exclamation, and holding her chest she saw Mrs. Koku hobbling up to her holding out a dress she had just pulled from a near by closet. It was old, but not unstylish, and was made of light blue satin.

"MY THIRD DAUGHTER'S, A FAVORITE WITH THE MEN," she announced knowingly, thrusting it into Mai's hands as she snatched away her skirt.

"RUBISH..." she muttered loudly as turned around and threw it into the closet. With her mouth hanging open Mai watched her favorite skirt thrown into the abyss and the closet door slammed shut unceremoniously.

"WELL, I'LL LEAVE YOU TO CHANGE DEAR," Mrs. Koku shouted with a smirk and then she shuffled out the door, slamming it too. Mai cringed and waited for the ringing to stop in her ears before she even looked at the dress again. It was simple, with no designs printed across the satin, and a little longer than she was used to, but the cut was flattering and the slits in the sides went up high enough so she wouldn't feel like she was leg locked.

With a resigned sigh and one last look at the closet which her skirt was now lost in, she slipped on the dress. A moment later the door burst open and Mai gasped having just reached for the zipper in the back. Happily, Mrs. Koku hobbled towards her,

"WONDERFUL, YOU LOOK EVEN BETTER THAN MY SUKI DID IN THIS, AND SHE HAD BEEN MOST ADMIRED FOR HER BEAUTY, MET HER HUSBAND IN THIS YOU KNOW..." the old woman yelled cheerfully as she reached to help Mai zip up, but Mai was a bit tall and was ordered to bend down. Hunching down, she allowed Mrs. Koku to finish zipping her up.

"THERE, YOU'LL KNOCK MY GRANDSON DEAD," Mrs. Koku predicted, appraising her with satisfaction.

Mai turned red once again and fiddled with her hands under such warm scrutiny.

"Thank you, but about Niko--"

"WELL DON'T JUST STAND THERE AND TAKE MY WORD FOR IT, LOOK FOR YOURSELF," the old woman encouraged, ignoring her protests and taking her by the hand and leading her over to a full length mirror just before the bathroom.

Despite feeling uncertain about the whole thing, Mai had to admit she did look nicer than she could have hoped. The blue fabric shimmered in the last of the day's light and fit snugly to her body. Mai looked over to Mrs. Koku with a grateful smile,

"Thank you, you really didn't have to do any of this..."

Mrs. Koku narrowed her eyes and cupped a hand to her ear,

"WHAT WAS THAT DEAR, DID YOU SAY SOMETHING?"

"I was just saying thank you, this was so generous..."

"EH? YOU'RE GONNA HAVE TO SPEAK UP DEARY," the old woman bellowed, straining to hear.

Beginning to feel flustered Mai tried again,

"I said thank you for--"

"HUH?"

"THANKYOU!" Mai shouted, red in the face.

Mrs. Koku smiled kindly at her,

"YOU'RE VERY WELCOME MY DEAR," she answered patting Mai on the cheek affectionately.

Mai smiled warmly back, but couldn't help but feel a bit awkward,

She's only treating you this way because she thinks you're going to marry her grandson....

"GOODNESS! LOOK AT THE TIME, DINNER HAS STARTED WITHOUT US!" the old woman cried with a glance at an old grandfather clock in the room, "LET'S HURRY BACK."

They reached the dining room in record time, the murmur of all those dining drifting through the doors they stood outside of.

"YOU LOOK STUNNING, I'M SURE NIKO IS WAITING FOR YOU, I'LL SEE YOU LATER AT THE FESTIVAL," Mrs. Koku assured, brushing off her dress here and there, and with a bright smile she turned and shuffled off for the kitchens, leaving Mai to walk into the dining room alone.

Mai was suddenly nervous, her insides felt alive. Naru. What would he think of her dress? Was Niko really waiting for her? What annoying thing would Masako say?

Wait, Mai thought with a smile, Masako is stuck with Mr. Sachi, she won't be at dinner.

And on that brighter note, Mai calmed herself, drew in a deep breath, and pushed open the doors. The noise overwhelmed her for a moment, there seemed to be more people here than usual, all the tables around her were filled with people talking excitedly, laughing loudly.

Feeling self conscious, Mai squeezed her way past the tightly packed tables, mumbling an apology every once and awhile. Finally Mai spotted her table, and fortunately no one seemed to have spotted her. Mai was hoping to make as quiet an entrance as possible.

"Hey, Mai! Oh. Wow," Bou-san greeted, waving her over with a grin.

The conversation ceased at the table and all eyes were suddenly on her. Mai's heart fell into her stomach. So much for a quiet entrance.

"Hi," Mai answered, moving towards the only open seat which was next to John.

"You look so nice Mai," John remarked warmly. Mai sat down, keeping her eyes low, but upon hearing this, smiled briefly up at John,

"Thanks."

"Very nice," Bou-san added, grinning at her proudly. Mai began to feel herself blush from these compliments.

"I'd say. Where did you get that dress? Looks a bit outdated, but...not bad,"Ayako commented, sizing her up with approval.

Ayako looked quite nice herself, wearing a stylish black dress with her hair pulled up and Mai was just about to say so, half jumping at the chance to change the subject and half really wishing to return the compliment, when Bou-san persisted,

"Outdated? How would you know? Oh, that's right..." Bou-san trailed off with a smirk while Ayako turned a dangerous shade of red,

"What are you trying to say, Takigawa-san?!" she hissed.

Bou-san quickly took a large bite of food. Mai felt relieved. As long as the attention was off her, and nobody mentioned her dress to Naru--

"Well, new dress or old, it doesn't matter. Mai looks great. Wouldn't you say...Naru?" Bou-san continued, unabashed, after swallowing his large bite. Mai looked up, she couldn't help it. Across from her Naru's dark eyes met her nervous ones. There was a thoughtful moment of silence and then he took a sip of his tea,

"I don't see any difference from usual..."

Heat warmed Mai's cheeks,

That Naru.

Pointedly, she crossed her arms and turned away from her boss. With her anger hardly subsided, a familiar voice suddenly filled her ears.

"Mai, wow. You look...amazing," Niko breathed; staring.

Her cheeks now flushed from self consciousness and not anger. Mai turned her attention to Niko, who now stood at their table, with a pleasant smile, his compliments quite welcome in the wake of Naru's indifference.

"Thank you Niko, you look very nice as well."

And he did, wearing smart looking black slacks and a crisp white dress shirt. Niko received this compliment with a blush of his own,

"Oh, it's nothing, not compared to you..." he murmured modestly.

"Ugh, really?" Ayako whispered under her breath.

"You're just jealous," Bou-san whispered back knowingly. Ayako fixed the monk with a glare,

"Excuse me, what's to be of jealous in that? She's wearing a dress that just fell out of dusty closet and he's drooling all over himself!"

Despite her objections, Bou-san merely smiled,

"Maybe, but you're still jealous..."

"That dress, I don't know why, but it's kind of familiar..." Niko spoke thoughtfully. Mai smiled nervously,

Oh you know, your grandmother lent it to me, it was your aunt's, the same dress she had met her husband in, actually, isn't that wonderful?

"Hm, I don't know why that is..." she lied; uncomfortably aware that she was sitting next to a priest and that Naru's eyes were burning a hole in her.

"You haven't ordered anything, aren't you hungry?" Niko suddenly asked, noticing that there was no food placed in front of her.

"Oh," Mai said suddenly remembering that she was, "thank you, I am, I just haven't ordered yet..."

Suddenly Niko was all eagerness,

"Well, let me set you up with something. I'll be sure to get you something special, just a moment--" he said breathlessly, leaving the table before he even finished his sentence,

"Niko--" Mai called, and impulsively she grabbed his hand to stop him.

The young man turned around and froze, his eyes moving to where her warm hand clasped his. There was no stopping the blush that rushed to Mai cheeks, and no taking back what she had just done, accidental or not.

"Ah-- uh..." she mumbled, flustered by the awkward situation she suddenly found herself in, still holding his hand, unsure if she should let it go, "Please, uh, don't worry about a large meal, I'd be happy with a small one..."

Still staring at her hand grasping his, Niko nodded, and answered slowly, as if his mind was on delay,

"Alright, sure, a small meal..."

Finally feeling it safe to let go, Mai released his hand, and Niko drew it to his side, giving her one last look before dashing off for the kitchen.

The silence at the table, when Mai returned her attention to it, was unbearable. No one even pretended to eat, they all just stared, with looks of mingled surprise and amusement, Naru being the only exception (well and Lin too, who seemed completely detached from the situation and was off in his own, much more important thoughts).

"So Mai, does you're dinner come with a side of Niko?" Bou-san asked, his lips twitching in his effort not to laugh, across from him Ayako was losing the fight as a few snorts escaped her.

"Shut up," Mai snapped, not in the mood for his jibes, but the monk would not be shaken off so easily, not with her so cornered as she was.

"Is this something we should expect now? You two walking around holding hands?" he persisted, smiling at her lightly.

Mai narrowed her eyes, her foot began to move around, so help her he would not get out of there unscathed. Blindly, her foot bumped against someone's and she hardly had a moment to wonder if it was Bou-san's when Naru looked up sharply at her. In horror her foot retreated, desperately she reached for her cup of tea, only to realize that she had none. This dinner had gone from bad to worse.

Mai was forced to endure prying looks and embarrassed silence until her food arrived. Unfortunately, it did come with a side of Niko, the young man drawing up a chair to sit on the other side of John, looking around the priest to gaze at Mai. It was no surprise that by this time Mai had lost her appetite; she looked down at her food, trying to seem tempted to eat it. Decidedly, Mai reached for her tea cup, and took a long sip.

"How is it? I had them make something off menu," Niko spoke, hoping to be met with looks of delight. Mai's mouth suddenly went dry; regardless of how much tea she just finished drinking. Her meal looked good, it smelled good, but at this moment Mai didn't think she could bring herself to even lift her chopsticks. Finally something started to get through to Niko, he noticed her hesitancy,

"Wait-- how stupid of me, are you allergic to something in there? I should have asked, considering your allergy to lilies, I should have known you would have more-- Mai, I'm so sorry, I didn't ask--" Niko rambled, looking anxiously at her. Mai stared at Niko stunned, and then was filled with guilt.

"Lilies? You're allergic to lilies? Since when--" Bou-san interrupted, but at that moment Mai started to speak loudly over him,

"Allergic? No, it's not that. I was just waiting for it to cool!" she exclaimed brightly, and with that, took an enthusiastic bite. Mai glanced over at Niko, pleasantly surprised,

"This is really good Niko, thank you."

The young man beamed under her praise,

"It was nothing, I'm glad you like it."

Mai nodded smiling and took another bite, her hunger returning with a vengeance.

"Oh no," Niko spoke, his eye catching on a window just beyond Mai, "it's getting late, the festival will be starting soon. I better get going; I have to help some friends set up. You will be there, won't you?" he said, appealing to Mai in the last part. Mai took a sip of tea and answered kindly,

"Sure, we'll see you there."

"Great," Niko replied satisfied, then gave Mai a small bow, and was out the door. A short time later Naru stood,

"If Mai is finished, we should be going too," he announced. Mai stood and met him eye for eye,

"I am done," she answered, feeling a bit irritated with him, though she didn't quite know why.

"Good, let's go then," he replied and then walked from the table, Lin following closely. Next went Ayako and John. Mai stood in her spot for a moment, glaring after Naru's retreating figure when a nudge from Bou-san coaxed her forward. Mai glanced up at him, intending to send him a sharp look, and was surprised to see him gazing down at her with something like understanding.

"I'm sure he thinks you look beautiful tonight, even if he won't admit it," the monk elaborated. Mai's expression softened,

"Thanks Bou-san," she smiled and the two of them walked out on better terms with each other.

It was a short trip to the festival grounds and the SPR group found themselves migrating there in a huge throng of people. The air seemed to buzz with excitement, everyone around them pointed, shouted, laughed, whispered, and gasped. And this was just on the way, by the time they finally did reach the town square where the festivities were being held, hardly anything could be heard above the celebration music being played, and hardly anything could be seen besides the back of the head of the person crowded in front.

A few fireworks in the shape of lilies were sent off into the night air and Mai found herself smiling and clapping. Passing by many of the brightly decorated stands, old women and young men called out their wares, begging them to stop for a look, or grab a bite to eat of their delicious food. Mai was fascinated by it all, the rush of colors, the happy sounds, the amount of people. So that they wouldn't get separated Bou-san had linked arms with her and ahead of them Ayako had snatched up John as her partner. Naru and Lin forged a path through the crowds.

"Mmmm, smell that? I think that's what was being deep fried earlier," Bou-san remarked, leaning in so she could hear him, as they past one of the many stands selling food. Mai laughed and gave the monk a look,

"Bou-san, you can't still be hungry? Didn't you have enough at dinner?"

"Maybe I would be full if someone had kept their end of the deal..." he answered, watching her from the corner of his eye.

"Hey!" Mai cried, swatting his shoulder.

"Ouch, Mai!" Bou-san protested, grabbing his still tender shoulder.

"Oh. Sorry. I forgot," Mai apologized with an innocent smile, "How about I buy you that deep fried thing after all..."

But just then a voice Mai would know anywhere shouted above the crowd, and after a moment her worst fears were confirmed: Masako had found them. It had been a faint hope, but Mai had thought that maybe with so many people around, they might never be able to met up, but alas... there was the medium standing before them in all her glory, giggling behind her sleeve as she just conned Naru into saying she looked 'nice'.

Nice? Bah! Mai thought angrily, nice and vain!

Bou-san sent Mai a sympathetic look and patted her shoulder.

"Isn't this just marvelous!" Mr. Sachi exclaimed, waving a hand at all the merriment around him.

"It is exciting," Masako agreed (still giddy from having extracted a compliment from Naru).

"Quite. And to think this isn't even the best part! The play has still to be preformed!" Mr. Sachi reminded, with a proud glance at the finished outdoor stage.

"Joji!" a voice suddenly cried, "Joji!"

Everyone looked in the general direction of the calls and a moment later Nari emerged from the sea of people surrounding her.

"Nari! Good, you're here. You need to get to the stage immediately; the ceremony will be beginning soon..." Mr. Sachi spoke hurriedly, now sending the stage anxious looks, checking his watch. The actresses smiled faltered,

"Yes, yes I know. I'll be there on time I promise, but--" she said, recovering her smile, "I had to see you before we started, I'd think it bad luck not too...what do you think of my dress? I had it sent from Tokyo."

Mr. Sachi went from nervous, to uncomfortable, to obliging.

"Yes, it's quite beautiful. Very similar to Masako's. You had yours especially made in Tokyo, did you not?" Mr. Sachi remarked, his gaze shifting to the medium. It was clear which dress he preferred.

A frown descended on Mai's face as she glanced at the actress. Nari looked completely crestfallen. She knew what must be running through her head and could feel the cold knot almost as if it had settled in her own stomach just then.

That Masako.

The only consolation for Mai was the expression that had settled on her rival's face. She was still trying to appear composed, relaxed and smiling, but Mai could see the crack in her mask, a dark line revealing her discomfort in being compared.

"Oh, from Tokyo too. What a pleasant coincidence," was all Nari could manage after Masako had stole all of her thunder. Mr. Sachi glanced at his clock and back up at Nari,

"Yes, yes we can see Tokyo's finest dresses put to their best between you two, that is for sure, but if you do not hurry back to the stage, Nozomi will not get to see it's finest play put to it's best," Mr. Sachi said urgently, as the crowds around them began to thin out, the majority of people thinking along the same lines: the ceremony was to begin soon. Nari nodded earnestly, her cheeks flushed from the unexpected compliment, and with a much lighter heart than before, she turned and hurried off for the stage.

"Good heavens, what Nozomi would do without me, I hardly wish to know..." he muttered under his breath, and then noticing how alone they were, added "shall we then?"

Everyone agreed and as expected Mr. Sachi, with Masako on his arm, lead the way to the stage. At Bou-san's side Mai continued to look around, admiring the paper lanterns with their orange glow in the inky dark, and the bright fireflies they attracted. They past under strand after strand of lilies over head, a fresh burst of perfume greeting them with each step. The stars above glimmered in numbers Mai could hardly imagine in Tokyo, and a warm wind stirred the balmy night soothingly. It all appeared so magical, like a dream, and Mai could see why everyone in Nozomi looked so forward to this.

Upon approaching, the stage was just visible above the heads of those who came before them.

"Hm. We've missed out on all the good spots, but never mind it. I have my place reserved and I am sure I can take one of you with me," Mr. Sachi announced. His offer was generally made, but there was no doubt who it was intended for. Especially when he immediately stepped towards the medium,

"Come Masako, we must hurry if we are to get there before they start..." he encouraged, holding out an inviting hand.

"Mr. Sachi," Naru suddenly said, his voice stopping Masako in her tracks, and consequently Mr. Sachi too.

"Yes? What is it? You can see the rush I'm in--"

"Please take these with you; they will need to be turned in," Naru instructed, taking a large section of paper from Lin and handing it over to the playwright. For a brief moment Mr. Sachi looked as if he might complain (you should have had them turned in by now!), but wisely decided not to and took them. A moment later they vanished into a sea of people.

Two spot lights suddenly swung around and focused on the stage, two large curtains suddenly parted. The festival music died in that instant. Mai bounced up and down on her toes trying to see over and around the tall man in front of her, but it was no use. She was too short. To her left Ayako gazed at the stage perfectly fine, being tall to begin with and then adding three inch heels. To her right John seemed to be just tall enough and was fortunate to have a rather small woman standing in front of him. On the other side of John was Naru and Lin, and of course they had no problem, they were in no danger of anyone there being tall enough to block out their sight. Mai let out a sigh and crossed her arms, then vainly bounced around on her feet again.

Maybe I could get John to trade me places, I might be able to see a little of the stage then...Mai thought with an uncertain look at the priest. Suddenly Mai felt herself being lifted off her feet. She let out half a gasp before she realized that it was Bou-san behind her who had picked her up and was now depositing her on his shoulders. The stage was now clear in sight; Mai blushed at this kind gesture,

"Bou-san, thank you, but are you sure? What about your shoulder..?" Mai wondered gently. Bou-san glanced up at her and winked,

"Not a problem, it only bothers me if someone smacks it."

Mai blushed further and laughed nervously,

"Sorry about that."

Just then a loud, rather old, voice resounded across the festival grounds.

"Welcome to the 4th annual Festival of Lilies!" Cheers and clapping exploded from the giant crowd gathered around the stage. On Bou-san's shoulders Mai clapped along with a smile.

"As you all well know, this festival has been held every year after our Mr. Miyuki's passing away, honoring the magic and creativity he brought to us. Today is the start of what will be a glorious week. Tonight represents the man himself, the husband, the playwright, Mr. Miyuki. According to tradition, I have with me one play written by each and every man in this town, one of these plays will have in it the spirit of Mr. Miyuki, the creativity he was beloved for, the one man who has written this play will be dubbed Mr. Miyuki and will represent the great man for the rest of the festival, what an honor I must say", the man on the stage announced, his voice, though old, was powerful and light. There was more clapping at this pause, and when it died down, the man continued,

"Now, from this pile, I will draw out the play and the man channeling our Mr. Miyuki, drum roll please..." the man continued, holding a hand over a very large stack of papers, glancing at the band off stage with a wink. The crowd laughed at this and a drum roll started promptly. Mai sat on Bou-san's shoulders in suspense, watching the old man curiously as he waved his hand about the stack of plays, squinting down at them, picking up a few, then putting them down. The drum roll pressed on and Mai found herself becoming anxious to hear the winner,

"What if it's you Bou-san?" she whispered down at the monk. Bou-san looked up at her with a grin,

"Then it would be Lin, because everybody knows I didn't write any play."

Mai laughed and shook her head. Looking back up, she was just in time to see the old man draw a paper from the middle of the stack. He held it up significantly and the roll drum ceased. A hush settled over all as he approached the mic and cleared his throat,

"...would a Mr. Niko Koku please step up to the stage?"

Murmurs and scattered applause issued from the audience as they all strained to look around to see if this Mr. Koku was near them.

"Niko Koku, as in the heir to the Koku Inn, Niko Koku?" someone shouted from the crowd.

"NIKO! OUR NIKO IS MR. MIYUKI!" someone exclaimed from the sea of people.

Sitting dumbfounded on Bou-san's shoulders, exchanging bewildered looks with the monk, Mai recognized the voice as being old Mr. Koku's.

"NIKO HURRY! GET UP TO THAT THE STAGE AND BE SURE TO CALL OUT TO YOUR DARLING MISS MAI!" a second voice cried.

With horror, Mai knew it to be Mrs. Koku's. Whispers spread like wild fire through the crowd, the end result being some people glancing back at her with amused smiles.

"She's staying at the Inn isn't she?"

"Yes, I was there just this morning. He's going to propose, I heard from a very reliable source..."

"ProposeTheir already engaged, engaged!"

"What? Surely not, not yet at least. Maybe he'll do it tonight? Right here on stage before all of us!"

"Oh my goodness, how romantic would that be? Oooh I hope he does!"

Mai felt her world sliding out beneath her, many more people were now turning to look at her, the proposal rumors getting from person to person, spread like a highly contagious cold. Giggles and shouts of disbelief were heard from as far as the front of the crowd within moments. Mai was suddenly struck with the urge to get down from Bou-san's shoulders; up there anyone could pick her out.

"Bou-san, let me down," she demanded in a strained voice.

The monk attempted to look grave, but his eyes betrayed him, twinkling at her in amusement. Swiftly she was let down as Niko's voice filled the air,

"I am so honored; I can hardly believe that this is happening..."

"Well it is, you're our new Mr. Miyuki!" the old man announced and loud applause rang out from the audience.

"THAT'S OUR NIKO!" Mr. and Mrs. Koku yelled from somewhere in the crowd.

Standing again, Mai had no hope to see the stage, and was all the happier for it. Her cheeks felt on fire and she was glad for the dim lighting around the stage. Determinedly she stared straight ahead at the back of the tall man in front of her, feeling the eyes of every one of her SPR team mates boring into her. Naru's especially.

"...and your play will be preformed within the hour. Now Mr. Miyuki, who is this Miss Mai you're supposed to mention?" the old man asked curiously.

If it was possible Mai blushed deeper and began to take small steps back,

Why? Why does this have to happen to me?

"Uh-- well...she's a friend of mine--"

"NIKO! A FRIEND? IS THAT WHAT YOU CALL YOUR LOVE?" Mrs. Koku protested from the audience.  

Now Mai really did feel the world slipping out beneath her feet, the people around her laughing and loudly whispering more rumors. She felt trapped; she had to get away...

"No, I mean yes...I mean she really is a friend of mine, but just a friend--" Niko was now sounding a bit flustered and embarrassed.

Mai felt his words with mild relief; he was uncomfortable with all this just like her,

He's not going to propose...

Just then a firm hand took Mai's elbow and she was suddenly being lead away as Mrs. Koku's voice rang through the air,

"JUST A FRIEND? NIKO DON'T BE SILLY--"

Fortunately, because of her surprise, Mai hardly heard this last part, and instead found herself absorbed in staring up at Naru's face. He said nothing and not so much as glanced at her the whole while he was leading her away. Mai had no idea where he was taking her. To the theater? Back to the Inn? Why he was taking her was an even more pressing question. Mai stared and stared at him, but received no answers.

They where halfway through the festival grounds when he made a small turn and lead her up to one of the many food stands lining the square. All around them was emptiness and silence, excepting the distant voices coming from the stage. Naru let go of her arm and cleared his throat. Slouching in a chair, half asleep, was young man. Mai was surprised to even see him. At this noise he shot up, running a hand through his hair, looking around wildly until he spotted Mai and Naru, and then he relaxed a bit.

"Oh, uh-- hi, how can I help you?" he wondered, glancing at the stage still crowded with people and back at them uncertainly. For the first time Naru looked over at Mai, his dark eyes were unreadable,

"What you would like?"

Mai eyes went from Naru, to the young man, to the food behind him, and then back to Naru again. Was this some kind of joke? Why was he doing this?

"She'll have an ice cream," Naru ordered, apparently unwilling to wait for Mai's recovery. The young man sent a look at Mai, then nodded at Naru and turned around to scoop some out of a basin near him. Mai spent the next few moments trying to catch Naru's eye, hoping to find some answer there as to why he had pulled her away from the stage and was now ordering her ice cream. But Naru's gaze never left the young man, watching him scoop the ice cream and then walk over and hand it off to him.

"Here you are, that will be..." the young man trailed off as he strained to see what the sign said. Naru placed some money on the counter and handed Mai her ice cream,

"Uh-- right..." the young man said, picking up the money and putting in his till, stealing bewildered looks at Naru and Mai every now and then.

"Thank you," Naru said and turned to lead Mai away, but then the man spoke again,

"Hey-- why aren't you at the stage?"

Naru paused and looked back at him,

"Why aren't you?"

The young man blinked at him,

"Well, I've got to watch the stand, being the youngest you know, the job falls on me..." the young man answered and then persisted thoughtfully, "yeah, nobody ever thinks of Kenji , even though he's just a year older than me. I've never gotten to go to the stage, can you believe that? I remember aunt Momo tried to help me once..."

Silently, Naru and Mai slipped away. Mai licked her ice cream, but could hardly taste it. It seemed all her senses had left her, she could hear nothing but Naru stepping along side her, she could see nothing but his face, she could smell nothing but the usual sent of tea that accompanied him.

"Here," Naru suddenly said.

Pulling her eyes away from his face, Mai noticed that they had arrived at small picnic table, set up next to another food stand, the owner of this one an old woman, who was snoring away. Obediently, Mai sat down, licking around the edges of her ice cream as it melted fast. Naru chose to remain standing. So many questions sprang into Mai's head, there were so many questions she wanted to ask, but every time she opened her mouth, nothing seemed to come out, she couldn't bring herself to say anything.

"You know something Mai, what is it?" Naru asked, his voice breaking the silence. Mai froze mid-lick.

"Huh?"

"You know something, what is it?" Naru persisted.

Is he talking about the man, the picture? Not this again!

Mai sat there struggling to compose herself, desperately searching for a convincing answer. In the mean time Naru's dark eyes found hers, across from her he placed his hands on the table and leaned forward, his expression now very serious.

"Mai, if you know something you're not telling me..."

A strange sense of courage suddenly washed over Mai and matched Naru's serious tone,

"There's nothing to tell."

Naru drew back and crossed him arms,

"You're lying."

Mai licked her ice cream defiantly. All the sickly sweet thoughts and visions that had filled her head a moment ago popped like a soap bubble. For a moment there she had found herself hoping against hope that this was Naru's way of rescuing her, saving her from her misery and embarrassment, but she saw his motives clearly now. He simply wanted her alone so he could grill her about what happened earlier; well she wasn't going to make this easy for him.

"I don't know what you're talking about..."

Naru gazed at her through narrowed eyes,

"Where were you Mai? I know you didn't just fall behind."

Mai took a large bite of cone and chewed for a long while, glaring at Naru the entire time,

"Believe me or not, I did fall behind," Mai answered stubbornly.

Naru met this answer with icy silence and Mai smiled lightly back, she would not freeze to death under his cold stare.

"Oy-- Mai!"

Mai's head snapped around to see Bou-san walking up to them, followed by the rest of the SPR team and Mr. Sachi.

"What's going on? You just took off..." he asked when reaching them, looking to Naru suspiciously, "am I missing something?"

"No, nothing," Mai answered brightly, "ice cream?" she offered.

Bou-san sat down next to Mai, eyeing Naru darkly, but accepted what was left of her bribe.

"Nothing, huh?" he persisted, still unconvinced, as he took a bite of the cone.

"Well, Naru was nice enough to buy me this," Mai answered, smiling ever sweeter up at her highly annoyed boss.

"My, what's going on here? Late night munchies? Couldn't this wait?" Mr. Sachi declared when he came close enough to see Bou-san taking another bite of ice cream. Masako looked from Mai to Naru and back. A smile pulled at Mai's lips.

So what if this whole thing was a set up to bribe me into talking? Masako doesn't have to know...

Deviously, Mai sent Naru another sweet smile, but faltered when he frowned at her and looked away. Masako caught this exchange and a fresh smile broke out across her face. Mai crossed her arms and stole Bou-san's last bite.

"Hey--" he protested.

"Is everything alright?" John asked, looking with concern at Mai. Mouth full of ice cream, Mai swallowed what she could and smiled warmly back at him.

"Everything is fine, we should probably head back before the play starts," Naru announced briskly, refusing to so much as glance at Mai. Mr. Sachi looked relieved at this suggestion,

"Yes, yes good thinking," he agreed, holding out his arm for Masako to take. Bou-san stood and gave Mai his arm. Walking back, the monk whispered in her ear,

"So what really happened?"

Mai shrugged thoughtfully,

"Ice cream, I guess."

Bou-san looked confused by this answer, but didn't push it as Mai seemed bothered by the subject. They reached the crowds once again and somehow Mai found herself standing behind an even taller person than before.

"I can give you a lift again..." Bou-san offered gently, but Mai shook her head. Enough was enough for one night; she wasn't about to risk being seen again. She would just stand and listen to Niko's play. The lights swung around and the curtains opened again, romantic music from the band filled the air. Nari's voice rang out,

"Ah, a place to rest after my long travels..."

Mai had a sudden vision of a fair maiden coming upon an olden day Inn. Her cheeks began to heat up again.

"Come in, please miss take shelter here!" a second voice, a male's, called out in reply.

"No, no, no..." Mr. Sachi protested, spotting Mai just standing there, staring at the back of the man in front of her, "This will never do, you can't see the stage!"

"Oh-- uh, Mr. Sachi, I'm fine...really," Mai tried to resist, but the playwright was already taking her hand and leading her off and around the crowd. For a second time that night, she was spirited away.

Well, at least this can't end with ice cream and a surprise attack...

"Here, how is this?" Mr. Sachi said, sounding satisfied as he held out his arms, gesturing for her to behold and admire the vast stage. Mai was much closer to it now and standing on a side where people were not packed in so densely.

"Thank you, this is much better," Mai whispered as the fair maiden accepted a wonderful meal from the obliging Inn keeper. Mr. Sachi beamed,

"Think nothing of it, it is my pleasure."

Just then someone caught Mai's eye, and apparently Mr. Sachi's too. A woman standing some feet off, quite alone, glanced back over in their direction, her blonde hair shining in the moon light, her eyes holding a hard glint in them.

It was over in an instant, her attention in the next moment was on the stage, in which the fair maiden had now come down sick and the Inn keeper was nursing her back to health. Mr. Sachi's smile vanished, he whispered to Mai seriously,

"If anyone questions you being here, you can tell them you are here on the compliments of Mr. Joji Sachi, they should not press matters then..." Mai followed his gaze to the woman and nodded slowly.

"Good," Mr. Sachi declared, sounding again like his cheerful self, "please enjoy the show!"

And with that the playwright hurried off again, most likely to rejoin his dearest Masako. Mai then tried to return her attention to the play unfolding, but found again and again her attention was really on the woman ahead of her.

There was something about her, something almost familiar, but alas Mai couldn't place it. With her attention so consumed, it was easy to see how Mai lost track of time and the play. She was finally returned to her senses by a particularly loud piece of music, and looked up just in time to see Nari accept the Inn keeper's proposal and throw herself into his arms. The curtains closed, the music died, and thunderous applause filled the air.

Clapping just as hard as the people around her, though she hardly saw any of the play, Mai saw the woman in front of her clap for a moment and then disappear into the crowd. Mai had half an inclination to follow her, but decided to stay put, least she run into the Kokus while tailing the woman.

The people around her now began to thin out, all laughing and talking of the marvelous play, none of them even thinking of questioning Mai. Quite alone now, Mai began to wander towards where the rest of SPR had been. Halfway there she was met with Mr. Sachi,

"Ah-- Mai! Just the girl I wanted to see! What did you think? Was Nari not wonderful as May?"

"May?" Mai asked distractedly, as Mr. Sachi linked arms with her, seeming all joy and excitement.  

"Yes-- yes, you remember. The wandering maiden whom the Inn keeper fell in love with!"

Mai felt her cheeks tinge with a blush,

He named her May...

"Oh, yes," Mai finally answered, "Nari was great!"

Mr. Sachi beamed,

"Yes, everybody seems to agree to it being one of her best performances, some say to my credit," the playwright remarked with a wink. Mai merely smiled strainedly.

"Hey-- Mai! There you are, you've got to stop disappearing on me like that!" Bou-san scolded as soon as the two of them came into view. Mai crossed over to Bou-san and linked arms with him, smiling warmly,

"Sorry, it's not my fault I keep getting carried away."

Mr. Sachi bustled forward toward Masako,

"Masako, my dear-- I haven't even gotten the chance to ask you how you liked the play?" he said expectantly. Masako smiled politely and admitted to having it like it quite a bit,

"I especially liked the female lead, May. Niko is quite creative for coming up with such an original character," the medium answered, emphasizing the word original while sending Mai a meaningful look. Mai pretended to not hear her and instead looked to the rest of the SPR group.

Over the next few minutes Mr. Sachi was able to obtain almost everyone's opinion of the play and to his satisfaction. John thought it nice and light-hearted, Bou-san thought it amusing and couldn't help here giving Mai a teasing look, Ayako thought it a bit boring, but admitted there was some fine acting. Neither Lin nor Naru had a comment on it.

"Well I'm quite happy you all liked it, but I'd say it's getting late. Masako, shall we turn in?" Mr. Sachi suggested, looking around to see the festival grounds emptying out. Masako nodded and said goodnight to them all, giving Naru one last look, before being lead away by the playwright. Mai attempted to make eye contact with Naru, but he seemed to be ignoring her.

Fine then, be that way, Mai thought, crossing her arms. Bou-san patted her on the shoulder and yawned,

"I think we better head in too."

There was murmured agreement. Like always Naru lead the way, closely followed by Lin. Shortly behind them was Ayako. Mai and Bou-san walked together arm and arm and John kept stride along side them.

"Hey-- hey wait!" a voice suddenly called after them. The three of them halted and looked back over their shoulders. Breathlessly, Nari came running up to them, her arms laden with roses,

"I'm-- I'm sorry to-- to bother you, but have you seen Joji?" she panted, looking to all of them anxiously. By the way her face glowed, Mai had the sinking feeling that Nari wished to hear him congratulate her on her great performance. Bou-san exchanged looks with John and Mai before speaking,

"Uh-- yeah, just a little while ago. He was, uh-- tired and was heading back to his house."

Nari's smile faltered,

"What?"

Mai frowned and nudged Bou-san in the ribs,

"Nice touch."

"He was heading home?" Nari repeated, the glow leaving her cheeks.

"Yes, but he spoke of nothing but your great performance all night. I'm sure he can't wait to talk to you about it tomorrow morning," Mai interjected reassuringly. Maybe she was over doing it a bit, but she felt for Nari, and would try and do anything to keep her spirits up. Nari smiled weakly and nodded,

"Oh yes, of course. Well...thank you, I guess I'll be going."

And with a polite bow she turned and walked off, her glow and excitement gone. Mai watched Nari go with a heavy heart,

That Masako!

"Come on Mai," Bou-san persisted gently.

Moving a long again, Mai was thoughtful and silent, hardly noticing the stands being closed up for the night, the lanterns being extinguished, or the crowds they waded through getting to the Inn. Mai might not have noticed anything at all until she reached her room if it wasn't for catching sight of a familiar face: Niko.

He was standing in a large group of people, off to the side of the Inn, his grandfather and grandmother pressed in near him. His eye caught her eye, he gave a smile, a slight blush, then that was all and he returned his attention back to his adoring company.

Mai found herself blushing, struck with an odd sense of embarrassment. His play more or less had been about her, what was she to make of that? His very grandparents wanted them married, how was she to deal with that? The very dress she was wearing tonight was his aunt's! Thinking these thoughts Mai only blushed deeper.

Mai crossed into the Inn hearing and seeing virtually nothing and was surprised when Bou-san stopped her.

"Mai look, refreshments. Do you want any?" the monk asked, eyeing the table they had set up longingly. Pulled from her thoughts Mai smiled encouragingly,

"I think I'll just go to my room, but you go ahead and eat Bou-san."

For a moment he looked reluctant, but then John assured him he would see Mai to the hall and he nodded, wishing Mai pleasant dreams.

John saw Mai safely to the hall, and then after hearing her own assurances of making it to her room alright, John wished Mai a warm goodnight of his own and entered his room. Alone again, but not sorry for it, as she only wished now to go to sleep, Mai made sluggish progress to her door.

10...

11...

12...

13...

Mai counted in her head before finally coming to a halt at her room: 14. Drowsily Mai patted her sides for her key, a moment passed and then alarm struck her,

My key! This dress doesn't have pockets! I've locked myself out!

This problem was almost too much for Mai in her current state and at that moment she almost had half a mind to just sleep next to her door. Mai looked down the hall; it was a long way back to Bou-san. Resignedly, not sure if she even had the strength to make it, Mai took her first step. But wait-- someone was coming towards her, a tall figure was moving down the hall. Suddenly Mai was awake, it was Naru.

He's not in his room yet? Mai thought, glancing at his door a few feet from hers. When he got closer Mai could see that he hadn't noticed her yet, or anything for that matter, he seemed lost in thought. Automatically he arrived at his door, not so much as blinking in Mai's direction and began searching for his keys. Mai was frozen in a moment of indecision,

Should I say something?

Naru found his key and was bringing it to his lock,

Well, if don't now I'm going to miss my chance--

"Naru..." Mai spoke up as he turned the handle and made to step inside.

"Mai?"

Mai adverted her eyes, feeling a blush creeping its way up her neck,

Dang it! Why does he always have to look at me like that?

Naru stepped back from his door and observed her for a moment,

"Is there something you want to tell me?" he asked in a lowered voice, stepping towards her.

Mai suddenly looked up in a panic, she had given him the wrong impression, he thought she meant to confess to her encounter...

"Uh-- actually, no. It's just; I seem to be locked out," Mai answered, glancing at her door and then back at him hopefully.

Naru froze where he stood, his arms crossed. For a moment Mai thought he might not help her with the hard way he was staring at her, but then he sighed and relented, brushing her out of the way so he could inspect her door,

"I'm not even going to ask how you locked yourself out," he said giving her a look as he reached for the door handle.

"Well there are not exactly any pockets in this dress..." Mai muttered defensively.

Suddenly there was a click and the door swung open. Naru stood back satisfied and then turned to go back to his room. Mai stared into her room stunned,

"Naru, how did you...?"

But her young boss was already opening his door again. Attempting to recover from her surprise, Mai shook her head and walked into her room, but just before she closed the door she thought she heard,

"You looked beautiful tonight."

Chapter Text

Day Four

5:30am

The Koku Inn

Mai rolled over in her sleep, her hand slapping the vacant pillow next to her. Her room was still and silent, gray light slipping through her window in the pre-dawn. Not for a moment as she dreamed of Niko, Naru, blue dresses, and ice cream, did it occur to her that her peace was about to be disturbed.

With a bang Mai's door flew open and then slammed closed. Sharp foot steps, like heels on a hardwood floor, approached, and with a swoosh that sounded like curtains being thrown open, pale light shown against Mai face.

Mai was quite suddenly yanked from her dreams. With a start her eyes flew open.

"Wha- Ayako...?" she stammered, her voice cracking from sleep. At the end of the bed with her hands on her hips stood a very irritated looking priestess.

"Come on, get in the shower, I'll pick out your clothes..."

And without waiting for an answer the tall woman bent down and began digging through her suitcase,

"Eh, these smell-- don't tell me you haven't been washing your clothes?!" she cried, surfacing with a t-shirt she held out in disgust.

Still in a daze, Mai decided to overlook the insult (even though embarrassingly true...) and cut to the chase. With a glance at the clock, Mai looked back to Ayako in confusion,

"Ayako, what are you doing in my room-"

"It was unlocked."

"-at five in the morning...?"

The priestess dropped the t-shirt and crossed her arms, a satisfied smirk formed on her red lips,

"Well, if I had to be up at this time, I sure wasn't going to let you keep sleeping."

Mai's brain struggled to keep up. This was not an answer she understood. Helplessly she glanced at the clock again and back to Ayako,

"But it's five in the morning!"

Ayako examined her nails,

"Yeah, well I didn't like it either, but tough. Now get showered."

Mai stared hard at the woman, trying to understand some part of this.

This is a joke.  J ust some stupid joke Ayako's playing on me....

And on that thought Mai threw herself back down in bed and pulled the covers over her shoulders.

"Hey! Mai, I'm serious about this! We're going to be late if you don't get out of bed!"

Mai shut her eyes, willing dreams to come take her, hardly caring about the thing they would be late for.

"Mai, I'm warning you, I am not a morning person and if you don't get out of that bed..."

Mai pulled a pillow over her head,

"Leave me alone Ayako, I'm so getting revenge on you tomorrow morning! At four I'll come stopping and yelling into your room and we'll see how you like it!"

The pillow was snatched up from Mai's head; Ayako leered down at her,

"You won't need to; Mrs. Koku woke me up this morning and if you think this is yelling, try listening to her!"

Mrs. Koku?

Mai groaned and rolled over,

"It's not my fault she doesn't like you, don't take out your problems on me!"

The priestess drew in a furious breath and then in one foul motion pulled Mai's covers right off the bed. Mai shot up,

"Hey!"

"Hey nothing! Get in the shower or I'm dragging you down there like you are!"

Mai had half the inclination to ask just where she was going to be dragged in her pajamas, but thought better of it when she saw the dangerous glint in the woman's eye. She meant it.

Feeling flustered and confused, Mai slipped out of bed and stalked off to the bathroom. When she emerged sometime later she found Ayako sitting on her bed, a neat pile of clothes next to her,

"I picked out the ones that stunk the least," she said wrinkling her nose at them. Mai gave her a dark look and snatched them up, marching back to the bathroom to change.

"Ready?" Ayako asked when Mai came out a second time. Smoothing out her shirt Mai gave her a cold look that the priestess took for a yes. Standing up the woman lead the way out her door and down the hall.

"Can you at least tell me where we're going?" Mai asked walking fast to keep pace with the priestess.

"Some meeting, I don't know. Mrs. Koku just said to be there and to bring you with me," Ayako answered, sounding just as annoyed as Mai was with the whole idea.

A meeting? Like the guy's meeting yesterday morning?

Mai and Ayako settled into a mutual, irritated, silence. Rubbing sleep from her eyes, Mai saw that a few people had ventured to wake up and wander the halls. A couple of them, holding their morning coffee and tea, smiled kindly at Mai. Somehow Mai couldn't manage a smile back. Like Ayako, she was not a morning person either.

Finally, after what felt like forever, Ayako's pace began to slow down; she looked intently at each door they passed.

"WE'RE STILL MISSING A FEW PEOPLE; WE NEED EVERYONE TO START-"

Mrs. Koku's distinct voice found Mai's ears, they were close. Three doors later, Mai could hear the ancient woman's voice as clearly as if she were standing next to her. Cringing, Ayako gave Mai a resigned look before opening the door and exposing their ears to the full force of Mrs. Koku's voice.

"AH! MAI MY DEAR, COME IN! WE WERE WAITING FOR YOU!" the old woman greeted, grinning widely as Mai shuffled in with Ayako beside her.

As best she could, Mai managed a smile back at her, her eyes sweeping the room she just stepped in. Half the size of the dining hall, the large room was filled with chairs, occupied by the Inn's female guests. In the middle of the throng of chairs and women, someone in a bright floral kimono stood up and Mai's stomach dropped: Masako. With a polite wave she invited them over and then sat back down. Ayako made a b-line for the medium and Mai was forced to follow,

"What are you doing here?" the priestess asked sitting down in the free chair next to Masako. The medium's gaze remained on the front of the room as she answered,

"Well, of course I was asked to come. Mrs. Koku instructions for the festival are important to hear."

"Instructions...?" Ayako persisted, not seeming to like the sound of it.

Masako glanced at Ayako out of the corner of her eye,

"Yes, you know, today is the day of the woman, the wife..."

"What?" Mai exclaimed, speaking for the first time since she sat down on the other side of Ayako. The medium looked fully at Mai, a small smirk playing on her lips,

"Yes, Mr. Sachi has told me all about it. I thought you would know, having Niko and all..."

Red flooded Mai face, she made a move towards Masako, but Ayako put an arm out to block her,

"So, you're saying this meeting is just like what the men had yesterday? We have an assignment too?" she asked while fighting Mai back.

Masako was looking towards the front again, attempting to seem cool and composed, but a smug smile kept tugging at her lips as she relished in Mai's reaction,

"Yes."

Harassedly, Mai threw herself back in her seat and massaged the part of her arm Ayako had been pushing rather hard against.

That Masako.

Just then the door opened again and two young women walked in, and with many apologies for being late, took the two remaining seats.

"GOOD, EVERYONE'S HERE," Mrs. Koku bellowed. The soft murmuring that had filled the room hushed as the old woman's voice broke over them. Smiling, the ancient Inn keeper continued,

"AS YOU ALL MUST KNOW, TODAY IS A MOST SPECIAL DAY. THE DAY OF THE WOMAN, THE DAY OF THE WIFE, THE DAY OF COURTSHIP!"

At this, more murmuring broke out, a few giggles and claps resounded about the room. Mrs. Koku chuckled,

"YES, FOR US WOMEN THERE IS NO DAY MORE SPECIAL, AND FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO DON'T KNOW--" the old woman's eyes somehow found Mai, "--I'LL TELL YOU WHY. THIS SECOND DAY OF THE FESTIVAL, THE DAY CELEBRATING MR. MIYUKI'S WIFE, YOSHI, AND THE INSPIRATION THAT HER BEAUTY AND CHARACTOR BROUGHT TO HIM, IS DESIGNED TO ENCOURAGE US ALL TO INSPIRE THE MEN IN OUR LIVES. YOSHI ODDLY WAS MR. MIYUKI'S BIGGEST INSPIRATION, AND WHILE MANY OF YOU WOULDN'T THINK A WIFE INSPIRING A HUSBAND AS ODD, YOU DIDN'T KNOW YOSHI. SHE WAS A NIGHTMARE OF A WIFE AND REGRETFULLY I KNEW HER PERSONALLY. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, YES-- BUT HAD A PERSONALITY LIKE A DRIED UP PRUNE!"

If it were possible, Mrs. Koku raised her voice even louder here to convey her distaste of the woman,

"SHE NEVER SUPPORTED MR. MIYUKI WITH HIS DREAMS OF BUILDING THEATERS AND WRITING PLAYS. BUT SOMEHOW HE STILL LOVED HER AND HER BEAUTY FOUND IT'S WAY INTO HIS MOST STUNNING CHARACTERS AND HER MANY PERSONALITIES INSPIRED SOME OF HIS MOST MEMORABLE CHARACTERS. THIS IS A TESTAMENT TO HIS GREAT TALENT IF YOU ASK ME. ANY BODY WHO COULD BASE A CHARACTER OFF THAT WOMAN AND MAKE IT HALF WAY DECENT IS A GENIUS. SO TODAY IS A DAY FOR INSPIRATION. EVERY WOMAN SITTING BEFORE ME HAS THE ABILITY TO BE ONE, BUT JUST ONE OF YOU WILL BE CHOSEN TONIGHT AS THE TRULY INSPIRING YOSHI MIYUKI!" the old woman announced, her voice painfully rising again in her excitement. Mai massaged her tender ears and found herself shrinking from the innkeeper's gaze as she exclaimed these things.

I've already inspired one character in Niko and one is more than plenty...

Beside her, Ayako was looking confident. Clearly she saw herself as beautiful and inspiring above anything else. Mai held in a snort. On the other side of Ayako, Masako had her mask in place once again and Mai was finding it frustratingly hard to judge what she was thinking. Just then, Mrs. Koku's loud voice penetrated her thoughts and she found herself forced to listen to more,

"IN ORDER TO BE COME THE ONE ENTITLED MRS. MIYUKI (MY GRANDSON HAS BECOME MR. MIYUKI IN CASE YOU DIDN'T KNOW...) YOU MUST STRIKE BEAUTY AND INSPIRATION INTO THE HEARTS OF ALL THE MEN AROUND YOU. YOU MUST DRESS YOUR VERY BEST AND HOPE TO BE GIVEN MORE LILES (WHICH THE MEN WILL PICK AT DUSK) THAN ANY OTHER WOMAN IN NOZOMI. NO SMALL FEAT I MUST SAY, BUT SOMEONE IS CROWNED YOSHI EVERY YEAR. BUT MORE ON THE LILES-- EACH MAN WILL BE GIVEN TWO. LET'S TALK THE FIRST ONE. YOU WANT TO BE GIVEN AS MANY OF THESE FIRST LILES AS POSSIBLE BEFORE THE END OF THE FESTIVAL TONIGHT, BUT THERE ARE TWO SIDES TO THIS TASK..." the old woman proclaimed, wiggling her eyebrows at them all,

"THERE IS THE PERSONAL SIDE AND THE IMPERSONAL SIDE. IF A LILY IS GIVEN TO YOU IT IS A SIGN OF ATTRACTION, ADMIRATION, AND APPRECIATION. THE MAN OBVIOUSLY THINKS YOU'RE BEAUTIFUL AND YOU INSPIRE HIM IN SOME WAY. BUT WHAT IF YOUR GIVEN A LILY BY A FRIEND...?" the innkeeper asked, eyeing them knowingly, before settling her gaze on Mai,

"CHANGES THINGS DOESN'T IT? THIS FRIEND IN NO WAY HAS TO GIVE YOU A LILY. IT IS A TOKEN OF AFFECTION AND NOTHING LESS. I CAN'T TELL YOU HOW MANY NEW COUPLES COME OUT OF THIS DAY, HOW MANY PEOPLE WHO WERE JUST FRIENDS AND BY THE NEXT MORNING WERE ENGAGED!" here again the old woman paused, her eyes staring so steadily at Mai that she had to look away,

"NOW, IF A FRIEND GIVES YOU A LILY IT DOESN'T ALWAYS HAVE TO BE A ROMANTIC THING, I'VE BEEN GIVEN LILES FROM MY SONS FOR YEARS AND FROM MEN I'VE GROWN UP WITH MY WHOLE LIFE AND BELIEVE ME THEY HAVE NO INTENTION OF WALKING DOWN THE AISLE WITH ME. SO WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO IS THE RELATIONSHIP YOU HAVE WITH THE PERSON. IF YOU'RE FRIENDS WITH THEM AND YOU GET A LILY, I'D SAY SOMETHING'S GOING ON THERE," a significant look was shot Mai's way,

"BUT IF YOUR RELATIONSHIP IS BROTHERLY OR VERY PLATONIC, I WOULDN'T THINK ANYTHING OF IT. GETTING A LILY FROM MEN WHO HAVE THAT KIND OF RELATIONSHIP WITH YOU IS MERELY A STRONG SIGN OF FRIENDSHIP AND SOMETHING TO CHERISH AND BE FLATTERED OVER. SO MY ADVICE TO YOU IS TO THINK YOUR RELATIONSHIPS OVER BEFORE TONIGHT--"

Mai felt her stomach flip flop and upon looking at Ayako and Masako, she saw that they no longer looked confident or composed.

Naru...who is he going to give his lily too? And Niko, is he going to give his to me?

Mai thought of his play with a growing sense of dread,

Probably.

"NOW TO THE IMPERSONAL PART. AS YOU KNOW THERE WILL BE TONS OF MEN AT THE FESTIVAL TONIGHT, AFTER RECIVING YOUR PERSONAL LILES-- IT'S TIME TO GO OUT AND GET SOME IMPERSONAL ONES. BE BEAUTIFUL, BE INSPIRING! TRY TO GAIN AS MANY LILIES AS YOU CAN FROM THE MEN YOU MEET. THE WOMAN WITH THE MOST LILIES TONIGHT WILL BECOME KNOWN AS YOSHI MIYUKI. ONE FINAL PERSONAL THING, THE SECOND LILY I MENTIONED EARILER. THIS ONE IS CALLED THE MOON LILY AND WAS PICKED AT MIDNIGHT OF LAST NIGHT DURING THE FULL MOON. THESE SPECIAL LILIES, GROWN ONLY NEAR NOZOMI, ARE A SIGN OF THE DEEPEST LOVE AND DEVOTION. EVERY MAN WILL BE GIVEN ONE OF THESE IN ADDITION TO HIS NORMAL LILY. IF YOU ARE GIVEN THIS, THINGS MUST BE QUITE SERIOUS BETWEEN YOU. A HUSBAND GIVES HIS WIFE THIS LILY. A MAN LOOKING TO PROPOSE WILL GIVE YOU THIS LILY," Mai suddenly looked at her hands, hoping to avoid the look she knew was coming from Mrs. Koku, a blush creeping up her neck,

"THE GIVING AND RECIVING OF THIS LILY IS NOT TO BE TAKEN LIGHTLY. AGAIN, LIKE WITH THE REGULAR LILY, A MAN MAY CHOOSE NOT TO GIVE THIS LILY OUT AT ALL, BE EXTREMELY GREATFUL TO RECIVE ONE. THERE IS NO CASUAL MEANING TO THIS PARTICUALR LILY, IF YOU ARE GIVEN IT, IT CANNOT BE MISTAKEN FOR FRIENDSHIP LIKE THE OTHER ONE," the old woman's words were final. A hush fell over the room as the women imagined who would give them such as special token of love. Mai felt a lump rise in her throat and a pit sink in her stomach. Would Niko give her this moon lily?

Please, no!

"Excuse me," someone spoke up, her hand in the air.

"YES?" Mrs. Koku asked pleasantly.

"Um...what if you're given two moon lilies?"

There was a sudden murmuring and many people turned in their seat to see who had asked such a scandalous question. Mai found herself curious for an answer. The old woman smiled solemnly,

"Then you are you are as lucky as you are unlucky."

The silence that stole over the room was impenetrable. Mai blinked in shock. She had never heard Mrs. Koku speak softly before, and from the look of it, no one else had either.

"WELL. I THINK THIS CONCLUDES OUR MEETING, GOOD LUCK TO YOU ALL!" the old woman announced blasting away the heavy silence that had just settled. It took a moment for everyone to get the hint and then room was filled with the low hum of murmuring and chairs being slid around.

Mai stood up from her seat with a troubled mind and a heavy heart. Behind her Ayako and Masako seemed to be feeling the same, and had anybody paid any attention to them, one might have thought they were going to their doom. Making slow progress through the crowd of gossiping, giggling women, Mai's main concern was not to be lead out near Mrs. Koku. That was the last thing she needed right now. Just then the conversation between the two women in front of Mai caught her attention,

"So, where is your husband?"

"At a meeting of his own, I believe Mr. Koku holds it?"

"Oh. Fitting I suppose. Well, I guess he's learning what to do with his lilies."

"All I know is that if I don't receive his moon lily, he's going to have problems..."

The women slipped farther ahead of Mai, babbling on. Mai suddenly felt very self conscious. Would Niko be the only one to give her a lily?

Certainly not Naru...

Mai glanced at Masako as they pushed through the door, her lips twisting.

I know who Mr. Sachi will be giving his lily to....

Once out in the hall the three of them walked on in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. The halls they passed through were full of people, the general flow moving towards the dining hall that had just opened. Mai felt anything but hungry. Upon reaching the doors and squeezing through them with dozens of people following, Mai saw without much surprise that the dining hall was already half full.

"Geez, it's a zoo in here..." Ayako grumbled sending a sharp look at a man who almost stepped on her foot. Mai nodded, attempting to forage a path between, people, chairs, and tables,

"I'll say."

"Mr. Sachi said it would be like this here after the start of the festival, this is the only inn for miles," Masako commented, dodging chair and person alike with grace and ease.

Mai glared back at the medium and opened her mouth to remark on Mr. Sachi, but just then someone scooted out their chair on her toe. Limping away, Mai finally caught sight of Bou-san, who was standing up, looking around the room.

"It's about time," the monk greeted taking his seat once again as the three of them approached.

Rubbing her side where someone had recently jabbed her, Mai gave Bou-san a look before plopping down beside him,

"Well, sorry to keep you waiting."

Looking flustered Ayako sat on the other side of Mai,

"This is crazy, all of that just to get to our table!"

"We didn't have a problem," Naru spoke, taking a thoughtful sip of his tea.

The priestess glared at him,

"You can just lead the way back then."

"Actually...it wasn't so easy for me," Bou-san said quietly, leaning over to Mai and pointing at his temple that looked like it was starting to bruise, "a purse to the head, some lady thought I was stealing from her..."

Mai tried to look sympathetic at Bou-san, mindful of her toe someone ran over, but couldn't help but laugh at the thought of some little old lady hitting the tall monk with her hand bag.

"Ha, ha," Bou-san said seeing her lips twitch.

"How was your meeting?" John wondered, smiling over at Mai.

Mai's teasing smile at Bou-san faltered and slowly she looked over at the priest, a self conscious blush tinting her cheeks,

"Fine, I guess...how was yours?"

John's expression mirrored her own, he smiled awkwardly,

"Um..."

"It was interesting, to say the least," Bou-san spoke up, answering for the uncomfortable priest.

Mai looked at Bou-san through the corner of her eye, she didn't like the way he had said interesting.

"Interesting or not I bet you didn't get a wake up call in the form of Mrs. Koku this morning," Ayako grumbled, keeping a sharp eye out for the woman. Bou-san leaned forward to look around Mai and raise his eyebrows at Ayako,

"Mrs. Koku came and woke you up?"

"Yes," Ayako answered shortly, reaching for a tea cup that wasn't there. "When are we going to get any help around here?"

"Why did she do that?" John asked curiously, missing the hints to drop the subject.

"How am I supposed to know?" the priestess snapped, drumming her fingers impatiently on the table.

Just then a sudden hush fell over the room. Ayako paused her drumming. Looking to the door that just opened, Mai shrunk in her seat. Mr. Sachi and Niko had just walked in with bright smiles on their faces. Mai stole a look at Masako and saw that she looked little better than herself. When both men were around they were on even playing ground, both in equal discomfort.

Hesitantly, Mai glanced at Naru, and nearly gave herself whiplash in looking away when she saw that he (probably the only one in the room) wasn't looking at their new arrivals, but instead was staring at her.

You looked beautiful tonight.

The words pushed their way into Mai's head before she could stop them. A steady blush rose to her cheeks, in her hurry this morning she had forgotten what had happened the night before. Had she imagined him saying that..?

"Well, well, well!" a voice suddenly boomed in Mai's ear. Startled out of her thoughts, the noise of the room came back to her in rush, all around her everyone was eating again, and standing very near her were Mr. Sachi and Niko. "I don't believe I could lay my eyes on three more beautiful and inspiring women!" the playwright exclaimed, his gaze lingering affectionately on Masako.

The medium pretended not to notice and stared straight a head. Here was an opening, a moment in which Mai could strike, but for some strange reason, her heart wasn't all that in it. She knew the look on Masako's face all too well these days.

"I agree," Niko added, his eyes finding Mai. "They're sure to have some of the biggest bouquets of the night."

Mai, who happened to like Niko as a person, couldn't give him the cold shoulder like Masako could to Mr. Sachi. She acknowledged this compliment with a half smile.

"Let's see here," Mr. Sachi said drawing up a chair from a nearby table and seating himself next to Masako, "have we ordered yet?"

Ayako looked pointedly at Niko,

"No. No one has come to help us at all and we've been here at least fifteen minutes now."

Niko's bright look fell, anxiousness clouded his face,

"Oh, really? Um..."

Irritated and embarrassed by Ayako's attitude, Mai glared at the priestess, before quickly looking to Niko,

"It can't have been that long, really it's fine Niko," she reassured, offering him a true smile.

"Actually, it has."

Surprised, Mai looked from Niko to Naru who had just spoken. She fixed him with a cold stare to match his own. An awkward silence filled the air,

"Well, let me see then if I can flag someone down," Mr. Sachi suggested pleasantly, hoping to lighten the atmosphere.

"No, no allow me--" Niko suddenly urged, standing up so quickly from his seat that he nearly stumbled over it.

"Easy now!" Mr. Sachi exclaimed, steadying the chair with a concerned look at the young man.

"I'll be right back, I'll go get someone from the kitchens, actually--" Niko persisted, his words coming out in a rush, addressing the last part to Mai, "did you like what you had before? What I made you last night? I can have it made again."

Mai blinked, stunned. She opened and closed her mouth, he was moving too fast for her to keep up properly,

"Um..."

"Oh, of course not! Of course you wouldn't. That was dinner, how dumb of me, I didn't think, I--"

"Niko," Mai said suddenly, standing from her seat. "I would love it, thank you very much."

Niko stopped rambling, and at Mai's encouraging smile, he relaxed a bit and nodded,

"Oh, okay, great. I'll be right back then."

And with that he hurried off through the packed dinging room. A fresh blush on her cheeks, Mai slowly sat down.

"I know that he must mean well, but wow..." Bou-san murmured to Mai with his eyebrows raised.

Mai chose to ignore this comment, wishing she had tea to drink to distract herself.

"Nice guy that Niko is, a bit odd that he's representing Mr. Miyuki...but his play was inspired," Mr. Sachi said, speaking into the silence with a shrug.

"Quite inspired," Masako agreed, a light smile on her face. Mai did not miss the implication and narrowed her eyes at the medium.

"Ah! I see your taste in theater is becoming quite refined," Mr. Sachi replied beaming at her proudly. "I think a few more days with me and you'll be quite a knowledgeable judge of the arts."  

Masako returned this compliment with a stiff smile. Mai grinned broadly, pay back.

"So, speaking of Niko," Mr. Sachi said in a lowered voice, still carrying the conversation as no one else seemed to want to speak, "how about that meeting this morning?" he asked, giving Mai a meaningful look and a wink.

Bou-san straightened in his chair and cleared his throat loudly; Mai glanced at him just quickly enough to see him urgently drawing a finger across his throat in the kill sign to Mr. Sachi. Suspicions arose, Mai's eyes darted to John who suddenly found the grains of wood in the table interesting, and thinking Mai wasn't still watching, sent Mr. Sachi a stricken look.

Feeling now that they were hiding something, Mai chanced a glance at Lin and Naru. As to be expected, Lin's face was carved out of stone, making it impossible to tell whether he knew anything or not. Naru, on the other hand, was surprisingly not as composed. He sat there drinking his tea, staring darkly at Mr. Sachi. Now the playwright looked the most nervous of them all and Mai could practically see his brain struggling to come up with something to change the subject.

"What about this meeting? Do tell..." Ayako prompted, having watched the exchange interestedly.

Mr. Sachi pursed his lips; he now seemed reluctant to say anything.

"It's noth--"

"Please Joji, do enlighten us--" Masako cut in.

Armed with his first name and a winning smile on her face, Mr. Sachi would have surely fallen to Masako's charms had Niko not arrived just then with breakfast.

"Breakfast is served," he announced brightly, placing Mai's bowl in front of her. "Well, sort of anyways..."

Mai tore her attention away from Mr. Sachi (which was extremely hard to do considering she had wanted to hear what he was about to spill...) to send an equally bright smile to Niko in thanks.

"Tanaka, will take your orders now," Niko continued, gesturing to the young man beside him before reclaiming his seat on the other side Mr. Sachi.

The orders were given in a matter of moments, and then with a small bow their waiter was off. Mai sat eating her breakfast (or dinner...) and taking long sips of tea, hoping to discourage anyone from trying to talk to her. The silence after ordering was dangerous territory for the men as both Masako and Ayako sat staring Mr. Sachi down, still hungry for answers.

"So, what did I miss?" Niko asked curiously.

Mai stuffed her mouth with a large bite; she would not be answering this one. Just as Masako looked like she was going to spring into action, her sleeve coming up to her mouth in a half-hearted attempt to cover her delighted smile, Bou-san beat her to the punch.

"Actually, we were just wondering why Ayako was woken up this morning by your grandmother?"

It wasn't exactly genius, but it was quick thinking and it did the trick.

"Oh," Niko said with a knowing smile. "I might have an answer for you. You see last night, before I turned in, she asked me if Mai knew of the meetings this morning, I told her I didn't know, so she asked me what room she was staying in, but-- but of course I didn't know that either..." Niko explained, coloring a bit at the last part.

Finishing her large bite Mai adverted her eyes from everyone and contented herself with taking another sip of tea,

"So..?" Bou-san persisted, looking to give Masako no chance in reclaiming the conversation.

"Oh, sorry. So, I suppose she went to wake Mai up this morning and went to the wrong room."

There was a pause and then Niko looked to Mai a bit embarrassed,

"If you don't mind me asking, what room are you staying in?"

"Fourteen."

"Fifteen."

Surprised, Mai glanced up at Naru. Had he just said room fifteen? Niko looked from Mai to Naru, from Naru to Mai and back again,

"Um..." he said, looking uncertain.

Feeling confused and slightly flustered, Mai looked to Niko attempting a smile,

"It's fourteen."

A few seats down from her, Masako pursed her lips, she would say nothing about Naru's slip up, least the lie was a sign of affection towards Mai. Ayako on the other hand, not concerned with such delicate matters, would not let it go quietly,

"Of course it's fourteen, it's right next door to you."

Seeming unconcerned, Naru deflected Ayako's penetrating stare with a shrug,

"My mistake."

Ayako opened her mouth to argue this, but found she had nothing left to say. The matter was frustratingly closed, but of course anyone who knew Naru, knew he didn't often make mistakes-- nor admit them.

A short while afterward the food arrived and everyone ate in thoughtful silence, Bou-san occasionally sending Mai looks out of the corner of his eye which Mai pretended not to notice.

"NIKO!" Mr. Koku called at the other end of the room. "IT'S STARTING TO RAIN, WE NEED YOUR HELP PROTECTING THE STAND."

Quickly, Niko stood and nodded at his grandfather who disappeared through the kitchen door,

"I'm sorry; I've got to go help. I guess, I'll see you tonight..." he said, staring down at her with a strange expression.

Mai swallowed her sip of tea with a loud gulp and nodded, not trusting herself to say anything. Niko lingered, seeming to hesitate in leaving her side, and then, in one quick motion he took her hand and brought it to his lips.

Surprised, Mai blushed to the roots of her hair. Equally red at his own daring, Niko managed one last bow before hurrying away. Mai sat in her chair after, hearing nothing and seeing nothing but the rain splatter the window directly across from her. When she finally did recover the first person her eyes fell on was Mr. Sachi, and if possible he looked odder than Niko had before he kissed her hand.

"Ahem, well if we're all finished..." the playwright spoke up, avoiding looking Mai in the eye, a small smile pulling at his lips. Mai was suddenly filled with the urge to wipe that smile off his face.

"I don't know about that, Mai might want seconds," Ayako smirked into her tea.

Mai stood abruptly, bumping the table with her knees, causing the miko to slosh some of her tea onto her shirt,

"Hey!"

"I am finished Mr. Sachi and if--"

Bou-san chose to stand then,

"--and if you'll excuse us, we'll go get our coats and then we can be on our way," the monk finished for her, hands already on her shoulders, guiding her away from the table.

Not waiting for an answer, the two of them braved the trip across the dining room; narrowly escaping with their lives after a waiter carrying someone's food nearly collided with Mai. It was with great relief that the two of them stepped into the hall.

"Man, if it's going to be like that at every meal, I'm going to start eating in my room," Bou-san declared, sending a resentful look back at the double doors.

Mai nodded her head seriously, fixing the doors with an equally dark look...but, then her thoughts turned on what they were leaving behind. She had escaped more than a crowded dinging room.

"By the way...thank you for that, back there," she said gratefully, referring to her rescue at the table.

The monk waved her gratitude away,

"Don't mention it; I was doing me a favor as much as you. Now, how about we get those coats?"

Mai agreed and the two of them proceeded down the empty hall in companionable silence. Reaching Bou-san's door, Mai waited outside while he searched around for his coat.

"I know it's around here somewhere..." she heard him say as he passed by the doorway and crossed to the other side of the room. Mai took a curious step forward and peered into the monk's room through the half open door. It was set up much the same as hers, but perhaps a little messier, if that were possible.

In addition to clothes scattered everywhere, there was a guitar propped up in the corner, papers were spread out on the floor, some old cups of coffee gathered on his window sill, and some of his bed pillows were thrown in random spots on the floor. Mai began to highly doubt his bed ever have being made since he got there.

"Here we are," Bou-san announced.

Mai stepped back and was busy looking around the hall when the monk joined her again,

"It was stuffed in the bottom of my duffel bag, I haven't needed it this whole time here," he explained as he locked his door.

"I know," she replied as they started walking again. "I wonder if the weather will change in time for the festival?"

Mai allowed herself a brief moment of wishful thinking,

Festivals can get rained out, right?

But Bou-san cut in with a bit of unwanted reality,

"Oh, sure it will. It's just a shower; I even saw some sun breaks."

Mai glared moodily at the back of his head and they continued on.

"So," the monk began after a few moments of silence, "what do you think of the festival?"

Mai caught his amused tone, with a sigh she crossed her arms,

"I think Niko is going to purpose. You know, with the moon lily and all..."

A heavy hand came to rest on her shoulder,

"Eh, don't sweat it. You can always tell him no, and if he won't get the message, can always deliver it for you."

Mai smiled, shaking her head,

"That won't be necessary, but thanks Bou-san."

The monk beside her eyed her steadily,

"I know I tease you a lot, but do you really like him?"

Mai met his curious gaze and then looked down at her feet thoughtfully. Did she like him?

Yes,  b ut not that way.  C ertainly not enough to marry him...

"He's a nice person." Mai answered politely.

Bou-san nodded,

"You don't really like him," he concluded.

Mai shook her head, relieved to say it with Bou-san there to understand.

"He must though....really like me, I mean," Mai prodded with a questioning look at Bou-san.

The monk returned her gaze innocently,

"Well-- sure, with all that kissy hand stuff."

Mai raised an eyebrow,

"You know more than that, something happened at this morning's meeting."

Bou-san looked away from her pointedly,

"I don't know anything."

Mai narrowed her eyes at him,

That   Bou-san.

"Yes-- you-- do-- Bou-san-- tell-- me--" she persisted, jabbing a finger into his arm with each word.

"Hey!" the monk protested, pulling his arm away. "That's my bad arm."

"Come on, it can't hurt that much," Mai muttered, her hand falling to her side. "I only pulled on it a little bit..."

"Hey!" Bou-san cried again, "You're the one who did this to me?"

"Yes, now spill or I'll give you a demonstration," Mai threatened, her hands coming to rest on her hips.

Bou-san stared down at her darkly,

"You know, you can be a little scary sometimes...kinda like somebody else I know."

Mai's eyebrow twitched, she did not appreciate the comparison to Naru.

"Just tell me already Bou-san, what happened with Niko this morning?" she urged, becoming impatient.

The monk, now walking as far left as he could, shrugged.

"Who says it has to do with Niko?"

"Because I know it has to do with Niko."

The monk fixed her with a penetrating look,

"Okay, answer me this first. What is going on between you and Naru?"

Surprised at the question Mai halted,

"What do you mean? I'm the one asking the questions here. This is about Niko not Naru."

A smile spread across Bou-san lips,

"Sorry, touched a nerve."

Mai snorted and started walking again,

"Bou-san, please just answer my question."

"You answer mine," he replied stubbornly.

She turned the key in the lock and looked back at him exasperatedly,

"I don't even understand your question!"

Bou-san eyebrow's descended critically,

"Hey, now. Don't even try and pull that trick. You know what I'm talking about, something happened yesterday with Naru and you know it."

Mai walked into her room and made directly for the suitcase Ayako had vandalized earlier.

"Who says it has to do with Naru?" she asked, mockingly.

Bou-san sent her a look and leaned against the door frame,

"Mocking me, huh? Alright then, come here and I'll poke your arm while I tell you, I just know... "

"I didn't poke your arm then," Mai mumbled, sending him a dark look, as she rummaged through her suitcase.

"Nice place by the way," Bou-san remarked with a smirk as his gaze traveled around.

"Just as nice as yours, you mean," Mai said over her shoulder, reaching the bottom of her suitcase: no coat.

"I didn't show you my room," Bou-san said suspiciously.

She sent him a smirk of her own.

"Mocking me and snooping on me, what next?" Bou-san proclaimed indignantly.

Mai sighed and began to look around her bed for her coat,

"I might step on your foot if you don't tell what happened with Niko," she answered, peering underneath.

"And I might not give you your coat if you don't tell what's going on between you and Naru," came Bou-san's voice from the doorway.

Mai sat upright and glanced at the monk, who indeed held her coat.

"Hey, where did you..?"

"I thought girls were supposed to be neat," he remarked, raising his eyebrows at her.

"And I thought monks weren't supposed to judge," Mai retorted, crossing over to him to retrieve her coat.

Just as she was about to take her coat back, Bou-san held it up higher.

Mai bit her cheek in irritation; she could sense what was coming.

"Not so fast. One answer for one coat. I'll ask again, what is going on between you and Naru?"

Mai crossed her arms and looked away from him, unable to bear the sight of his triumphant face.  

I will get you back for this Bou-san, she thought, eyeing his feet.

"There is nothing going on. I can't imagine what you're thinking of. If you're talking about last night, believe me that was not a date," Mai answered, facing him again.

"Interesting, but actually I was talking about the cold, endless silence that has sprung up between you two," Bou-san replied, obviously enjoying his power over her.

Mai stared blankly back at him,

"When hasn't there been cold, endless silence between us?"

"Its worse."

Mai shrugged,

"He's been in a bad mood, I don't know...."

Bou-san leaned forward towards her, Mai keeping an eye on the coat the whole time, looking for an opening to grab it.

"You know something you're not telling me."

Mai sighed and turned around.

I have another coat around here somewhere.

"Mai. You wouldn't answer Naru or me yesterday, where were you while John and I were running after Ayako and Masako?"

Mai paused her search. In her mind's eye she saw herself racing back to the room, the man pointing to the photo, her fingers closing around it.

"I told you, I fell behind," Mai said slowly as she looked to him.

The monk was not convinced,

"You fell behind? I don't believe it; you're faster than me most of the time."

Mai made a face at him and resumed looking for her coat,

"Sure, Bou-san."

"You don't fall behind," Bou-san persisted firmly, stepping away from the door frame.

There was a quiet moment while Mai poked around. She peaked under her bed: nothing. Sitting up she bumped her head against her nightstand.

"Ouch."

There was a faint rustle. The picture of the girl lay on the floor inches from her hunched figure.

"What's that?" Bou-san asked, looking to her with a raised eyebrow.

Holding her head with one hand, the other quickly picked up the photo and laid it on the nightstand,

"Oh, that? Nothing. But hey, we've been gone long enough, the others are waiting. Give me my coat and let's go," Mai said hurriedly, getting to her feet.

Walking past her, Bou-san deposited the coat in her arms and proceeded to pick up the picture. Holding her coat, Mai frowned. A vision of the ghostly man with his finger to his lips danced before her eyes.

"Who is this? She looks kind of familiar..."

Despite herself Mai perked up,

H e thinks so too?

"Do you recognize her?" Mai prodded, taking a seat on the bed.

Bou-san glanced at her and shook his head,

"No, who is she?"

Mai looked down at her lap silently,

To tell or not to tell...

"Mai?" Bou-san said, sitting down next to her.

Mai fidgeted with the coat, feeling the monk's eyes staring at her. A solution suddenly struck her.

I tell him, but only the parts I can tell.

"You're right Bou-san, I didn't fall behind yesterday," Mai began, unfolding and then refolding the coat on her lap.

Out of the corner of her eye, Mai could see him smirking.

"Go on..." he encouraged.

Looking for revenge, Mai's foot moved next to his suggestively. Seeing his smirk fade, Mai smiled and continued,

"I went back to the room. It was--" Mai thought quickly, "my intuition."

Bou-san nodded thoughtfully,

"What happened then?"

Mai reached over and took the photo from his hands,

"I was drawn to this. I think it's important to the case, but I don't know how..."

Bou-san leaned closer to her to get a better look,

"Like I said before, she seems familiar. If you think it's important, we should try and find out who she is," Bou-san suggested, looking to Mai for her consent.

Mai nodded eagerly. It felt like a million pounds had just been lifted off her chest. Bou-san could help her figure this out and she was no longer harboring a secret from him (or at least not a whole secret).

"So, you found it in that room..." Bou-san said standing to pace thoughtfully. "What do you think that place really is?"

Mai pursed her lips in thought, and then shook her head,

"I'm not sure; do you think Mr. Sachi would know?"

Bou-san brightened,

"Good idea, yes. We'll ask him when we get to the theater."

"Bou-san..." Mai suddenly said.

The monk looked over to her wonderingly.

"Do you think we could keep this to ourselves?"

Out of his confusion came a wise smile,

"This is the Naru part, isn't it?"

Mai glared but nodded. Bou-san smiled wider,

"This is what he's mad at you about; you won't tell him you found this picture?"

Mai stood and folded the coat over her arm, "Nope."

"But you'll tell me."

Mai looked up at Bou-san,

"He knows something he isn't telling me," Mai lied.

But maybe it wasn't a lie?

I'm sure there's  something  Naru isn't telling me.

Bou-san grinned at her, "It's no problem, your secret is safe with me."

Mai smiled back,

"Good, now how much do you want to bet that everyone left us?"

Bou-san cast a look at the door,

"I wouldn't put it past them."

Mai stood,

"Let's go, we can ask Mr. Sachi if he knows what the room is."

Bou-san nodded, looking at the picture once last time before following her out.

"You know, I was thinking..." he said as Mai locked the door, "what if she's one of the old actresses there? What if that was Miyuki's office or something?"

"An actress?" Mai repeated as they started down the hall.

I ha dn't  thought of that.

"Yeah, you've seen how Sachi goes on about Nari, maybe Miyuki had a favorite?"

"It makes sense, but isn't this kind of a young picture..?"

Bou-san looked thoughtful, but couldn't come up with an answer.

"We'll just have to see, I guess. There's a hall that I found when looking around with Ayako the other day, it's full of awards the theater has won, and tons of pictures cover the walls, maybe she'll be there?"

"Maybe," Mai agreed, "let's look when Naru sends us out to investigate."

After a short trip down the hall, Mai wasn't surprised to find the lobby empty.

They left us, typical.

Exchanging looks with Bou-san, Mai slipped her coat on and they stepped out into the light rain. Mai squinted into the bright hue the cloud cover was creating. Bou-san had been right, patches of blue sky and sun spots were scattered amongst the gray clouds. It would all be cleared up come this evening.

Mai looked out at the festival grounds they were passing. Most stands were closed up with colorful tarps draped over them to keep out the rain. A handful of people were moving about, carrying things to the stage, or taking things from the stalls. Mai wondered if Niko was one of them, running about in the wet and mud.

It wasn't long before they reached the theater. Mai started up the stairs, gripping the rail as the wooden planks were slick with rain. Just behind her, Bou-san nearly slipped. Mai laughed and then nearly fell herself. Reaching the top relatively unharmed, Mai took the monk's arm and then they two of them quickly passed through the doors. Mai only felt it for a moment, the stomach churning sensation, followed by dizziness, and a sharp twinge of pain in her head, but then it was over and they had stepped inside.

"I hate the rain," Mai said with a shiver, running her fingers through her damp hair.

"I know," Bou-san grumbled, shutting the door behind them.

Mai looked around, the theater today was dark, the only light being cast was from the oil lamps.

"Kind of a creepy vibe today, huh?" Bou-san said, looking around himself.

"Yeah," Mai nodded rubbing her arms.

Just then muffled voices carried to Mai's ears.

"Do you hear that?" she asked, lowering her voice.

The monk nodded and pointed to a cracked door in the far end of the room. Mai glanced at the ticket booth, and then beyond into the auditorium, as the other theater doors were open today.

"Actors?" Mai suggested, moving forward as she was unable to see the stage from this vantage point.

Bou-san caught her arm, and shook his head, slowly his gaze moved to the cracked door. Mai looked at it too, her breath coming out in white clouds before her.

"It's freezing in here," she complained, still speaking quietly.

Bou-san wasn't listening; his eyes were watching the door,

"I think the voices are coming from in there..."

Mai strained to hear better, but they remained muffled. Mai rubbed her hands together, the cold was slowly making them stiff.

Did someone accidentally turn the air conditioner on?

Bou-san looked to her and she nodded, they moved forward. Drawing nearer, Mai made a point of scoping out the stage, but as it came into view, she saw there was no one rehearsing on it. The muffled voices continued.

"Bou-san, no one is down there..." Mai whispered, her teeth beginning to chatter.

At the door, the monk motioned her over. Mai reached the door and there was just room enough to squeeze in below him. Peering through the crack, Mai saw a single room housing various pieces of theater lighting equipment. At the back of the room a door to the outside was open and standing next to this door, stranded in a sea of bouquets, was Mr. Sachi.

"This is the last one," a young man said, handing off the only bunch of lilies amongst the roses.

The playwright glanced down at the all the roses around him and then back up at the young man,

"Surely, this is a mistake, meant for someone else...?" he ventured, trying to hand it back.

"No sir, it says here that it is to be delivered to a Miss Nari Motoshi from--"

"Very well then, thank you," Mr. Sachi interrupted.

The young man bowed and then departed. Mr. Sachi stood for a few moments in silence, looking down at the lilies with a frown. He rubbed his face with his free hand,

"Kioko....please not Nari," he sighed and then, startling Mai-- in one quick motion he tossed the bouquet out the door.

"Mai," a voice suddenly said.

With a gasp, Mai nearly jumped out of her skin, bumping Bou-san hard in the stomach.

"Oy, watch it Mai," Bou-san protested bracing himself against the door.

"I'm sorry Bou-san," she apologized looking to him concernedly, before sending a sharp look at whoever had frightened her.

Standing several feet away was Naru, accompanied by the rest of the SPR group.

"What is going on here?" he asked, a frown descending upon his face.

Mai pursed her lips; she didn't feel like talking to him. Recovering slightly, Bou-san looked from Mai to Naru, and then quickly back at Mai,

"Mai, what's the matter with you? Why are you...?" he asked in half sentences, a frown also forming on his face.

Mai was suddenly confused,

What are they talking about..?

"What's the matter with you two?" she demanded, sending them both dark looks.

Naru glanced at Lin who, with a look at Mai, was gone in the next moment. Mai glared at the spot Lin had just vacated, what was going on here? She didn't feel much of anything but confused, but soon she started shaking and she realized that it must be from fear. Naru suddenly began crossing over to her, slipping his coat off in the process. Beside her Bou-san was doing the same thing. Mai looked between the two of them, beginning to feel uneasy.

"Bou-san...how?" John asked worriedly.

"I don't know," the monk answered, draping his coat around Mai's shoulders.

It was still warm from his body heat and a strange sensation spread from her neck and shoulders, a sort of hot pricking tinged her skin. Naru reached her and hung his coat over that of the monk's. Mai stared dumbly at him as he adjusted it, his gaze burning back at her concernedly. Suddenly, he took her face in his hands. Mai flinched; it was as if his palms were red hot, the prickling that was attacking her shoulders and neck, seared out across her cheeks.

"She's freezing, we need to get her back to base," Naru announced, looking to Bou-san.

The monk nodded and in the next moment Mai found herself being carried down the hall. At base Mai was set in the same chair Masako had been the day before. Lin had been waiting for them; a hot cup of tea was ready for Mai as soon as she was settled.

Mai hesitated taking the cup Lin was offering her, the heat radiating from it already making her skin sting. Compromising, she slipped her hands into Bou-san's coat sleeves and accepted the cup,

"Thank you," she murmured, staring into the steaming amber liquid.

Bou-san stood at her side, reminding Mai of Mr. Sachi the day before.

"Are you doing alright?" he asked, staring her in the same unnerving way everyone else was.

"Yes," Mai nodded, still uncertain of how she became unwell.

"Her color is returning," Ayako said, wringing out a wash cloth in the sink.

Ever since they had reached base, the miko had been racing about Mai, checking her temperature and procuring more coats such to layer her in. By this time, Mai was beginning to understand that it was not from fear that she had been shaking, but from cold. According to Lin, the foyer had dropped fifteen degrees after Mai and Bou-san had entered it.

"I'll never know how you get yourself into such messes," Ayako said, coming to kneel in front of Mai, running a warm cloth over her cheek.

"How come you weren't freezing?" Mai asked, looking up a Bou-san.

The monk shrugged, and patted Mai's shoulder,

"This coat is much thicker than yours, and I suppose I have more meat on my bones."

"He calls it meat..." Ayako muttered under her breath.

Bou-san raised a threatening eyebrow at her,

"What was that Ayako..?"

"What is the temperature of the room now?" Mai heard Naru asking.

He was standing near the desk, staring into a thermal image of the foyer, which now seemed to be normal.

"Here," Masako said, handing off a fresh cup of tea she had just made for the monk, who until that moment, had been locked in a glaring contest with Ayako.

"Thank you," Bou-san replied, taking the tea and managing to drink and still glare at the priestess.

Masako returned to the couch.

"How is she?" Naru asked some minutes later when Ayako had finished tending to Mai.

"She's much warmer, she'll be fine," Ayako answered moving to the counter.

Naru nodded silently, coming to stand near Mai's armchair.

"Do you feel fine? Or do you need to go back to the inn?" he asked, looking down at her, a challenging glint in his eyes.

Ignoring him, Mai was busy peeling off some of the many coats Ayako had layered her in.

"I'm staying," was her distracted answer while she fought with a coat she was half sitting on.

"Are you sure? I can walk you back," Bou-san offered, pulling at the coat she was fighting with.

"I'm sure," Mai persisted, becoming flustered as the coat wouldn't give.

The monk stood back from it and frowned,

"What's the matter with this thing?"

Silently Naru took Mai's arm.

"He-hey!" Mai stammered confusedly as she was pulled from her seat.

The coat fell to the floor. Naru released her arm and looked to Masako,

"Hara-san..." he began, ignoring the stunned looks Mai and Bou-san were sporting, staring at the coat and then at him.

"Show off," Bou-san muttered, taking a seat on the couch.

Having been called on, the medium turned her gaze on Naru, her serenity casting a bright glare against Mai in her dull disheveled state.

"What is your opinion?" Naru asked, his dark eyes meeting her eager stare.

Masako stood and stepped towards the window reflectively before looking back to Naru,

"There is nothing here. I see nothing, I feel nothing."

"Nothing!" Mai exclaimed, kicking away the coats piled at her feet. "How do explain what happened to me just now?"

The medium looked to her as if the question was pointless,

"The foyer is very drafty. It's cold and raining outside and you don't seem to know what a proper coat is," she answered simply.

Mai felt the blood rush to her cheeks,

That Masako!

"It dropped fifteen degrees," she argued, pointing at the monitor that was now showing the temperature at around sixty degrees.

"You think something's here?" Naru questioned, fixing Mai with a penetrating stare.

For the briefest of moments Mai's eyes met Bou-san's, but then they broke away, and finding Masako, she chose to glare at the medium rather than meet Naru's all too knowing gaze.

"Yes, I do."

Masako frowned back at her as she crossed to the couch,

"You're hallucinating then."

A fire began to burn in Mai's eyes, she opened her mouth to retort, but Naru held up a hand,

"Enough. Mai, you will join Hara-san room to room today, taking temperatures as she conducts blessings. Maybe then you two will be able to agree on what's here, or what's not."

"What?" Mai protested, her angry glare quickly turned on Naru.

Masako even opened her mouth to object, but caught herself just in time and managed to recover by clearing her throat.

"Do you have a problem with that?" Naru asked, staring back at her coolly.

Mai, not the least bit intimidated, was about to tell him exactly what her problem was, but a sudden rap on the door distracted her.

"Well, hello. Hard at work I see," Mr. Sachi greeted as he strode in with a wink.

Mai offered him a weak smile and took a step back from Naru, realizing she had gotten a bit too close to him in the heat of the moment.

"Can we help you Mr. Sachi?" Naru asked, obviously not in the mood for small talk.

Either missing or ignoring the warning signs Naru was sending, the playwright helped himself to a seat on the couch, squeezing in between Masako and John,

"Actually, I thought you could. I wondered if you had any opinions yet..?" Mr. Sachi answered, glancing warmly at the medium beside him.

Masako managed a thin smile and then discreetly began inching away from the playwright. Naru's dark eyes flicked to Mai,

"As it happens, we were just discussing that."

"And...?" Mr. Sachi persisted eagerly.

Crossing his arms, Naru faced the window,

"It appears we have some disagreements."

"Oh?" Mr. Sachi said, looking from face to face for a more revealing answer. "You are....undecided then?" he persisted when no one chose to elaborate.

"think there might be something here Mr. Sachi," Mai spoke up; ignoring the look Naru was giving her through the reflection of the glass.

"You are wrong," the medium protested, rising from her seat. "I see nothing here."

Mr. Sachi looked up at the medium with raised eyebrows,

"You...don't?"

"No," she answered certainly, drifting from the couch, putting much desired space between herself and the playwright.

"Matsuzaki-san?" Naru spoke, glancing at the miko for her opinion.

Sitting back examining her nails, the priestess looked up, surprised to be called on.

"What, me?" she asked, an arch eyebrow raised.

When Naru didn't answer but continued to stare at her coldly, she made a reluctant face and then closed her eyes. After a moment of meditation she opened them again,

"Well...I can't say I feel anything. This building, the property...it's quiet."

Masako looked over at Mai triumphantly,

"See, if even Ayako can tell there's nothing here..." she proclaimed.

"Excuse me, what's that supposed to mean?" Ayako snapped, leering over at the medium, who merely smirked behind her convenient sleeve.

"So...only Mai believes this theater is haunted?" a confused Mr. Sachi prodded.

Mai's eyes darted to Bou-san, he caught Mai's gaze and then looked to the playwright,

"Actually, Mai's not the only one. I've experienced things here that I wouldn't exactly call normal..."

Mr. Sachi nodded and then, seeming to notice him for the first time, looked to John who sat beside him.

"How about you?" he asked, looking to the priest intently.

John looked up and around at all the faces suddenly focused on him. Mai offered John a slight encouraging smile, which he returned before going on to say,

"I'm not sure. I can't say I've seen anything, but then I can't say nothing has happened. I guess I'll have to see in more time."

Mr. Sachi nodded again and stood up,

"Well, I know what I believe, and if some of you aren't sure yet, I'm sure a bit longer here and you'll agree, Mr. Miyuki is among us," he pronounced, his gaze lingering on Naru and Masako.

Mai came and squeezed in on the other side of Bou-san, the monk giving her a nudge as the playwright made for the door,

The room, he mouthed.

Oh, right. I almost forgot!

"Mr. Sachi--"

Mai broke off and looked sharply at Naru. For the second time that day they spoke at the same time. A silence quickly set in. Naru's calculating eyes were upon her, as if he knew she was about to ask a question he wanted to hear,

"Yes, Mai?" he prompted.

Narrowing her eyes at him she smiled thinly and waved it off,

"Never mind, really--"

"Mai, if you had something to say..." he entreated, looking at her pointedly.

Mr. Sachi looked from Mai to Naru and back again,

"Yes?" he said, appealing to both of them.

Mai found herself staring down Naru before she reluctantly looked away and smiled falsely at Mr. Sachi,

"Well, I really just wanted to pass on a message. I didn't have time this morning to buy her flowers, but if you could let Nari know how much I enjoyed her performance last night..."

Mr. Sachi's confused face broke into a wide smile,

"Why thank you Mai, I'll be sure to pass that on."

Mai smiled back, her gaze sliding over to Naru, who stood leering at her coldly.

"And you?" Mr. Sachi persisted, looking from Mai to Naru expectantly.

Naru's face relaxed into something of a curious nature,

"There was a hall of mirrors I came across yesterday, they seemed antique. Are they original to the theater?"

The question came out causally enough, but Mai's interest was heightened,

What is Naru thinking..?

Mr. Sachi blinked for a moment, but then broke out in another wide smile,

"Brought in by Mr. Miyuki himself. The passage used to run from the dressing rooms to the stage- and you know actors, always have to make sure they look their best. The hall was a way of doing that just before going on stage."

Naru's casual interest slipped, a sharpness entered his eyes,

"When were the dressing rooms moved to backstage?"

Mr. Sachi's smile faltered under Naru's heavy stare,

"Well, to tell the truth I'm not really sure. This theater has gone under more renovations than I can count, but of course they always kept true to Mr. Miyuki's vision..." the playwright trailed off, uncertain where this was going.

Naru nodded thoughtfully.

"Well," Mr. Sachi said after a moment of silence. "If that's all, I really need to be checking up on some things."

"That's all," Naru answered, turning from the playwright to head over to Lin's desk.

Mr. Sachi nodded, sent a quick smile to Masako, and then stepped out the door. As soon as the playwright disappeared into the hall, Mai looked to the monk beside her.

Later, he mouthed and Mai nodded. Naru glanced from the computer screen to Ayako,

"Matsuzaki-san, I would like you to visit the dressing rooms."

Ayako frowned, but stood,

"Fine."

Naru looked to John,

"How do you feel about the Hall of Mirrors?"

The priest stood and nodded his consent,

"I'm alright with it."

"Good," Naru answered, his gaze moving on to the monk. "Bou-san, I would like you to return to the foyer."

The monk gave Mai's shoulder a light squeeze before standing up,

"Sure thing."

Mai chose to stand then, sensing Naru was about to sentence her to a day with Masako,

"Naru--" she began, glaring at him threateningly.

Her boss merely ignored her and looked to the medium standing at the other end of the room,

"Hara-san, go through each room-- work your way to the back. Mai--" Naru persisted, glancing at back her with a look that left no room for argument, "you will join her."

Masako nodded, but Mai just stood there, her arms crossed, her displeasure plain to see. Naru moved from the desk over to Mai, handing her the temperature chart,

"You may go," he said, meeting her glare for glare.

Mai took it and then turned and marched away from him, wishing with each step that she had asked to go back to the inn after all. Mai crossed out into the hall with Masako close behind,

This is going to be a long day.

Chapter Text

Day Four

11:30am

The Miyuki Theater

Mai lead the way down the hall, her pace brisk, reflecting her irritation at being sentenced to a day with Masako. The medium followed a few steps behind, her lips pursed in silence. For a while all that could be heard was their footfalls and occasional huffs and grumbles.

"Here," Masako said, coming to a halt at a door Mai had already hurried past.

Mai looked back at her with an eyebrow raised,

"We don't need to take the temperature of every room Masako, let's move on to the foyer...” she answered, gesturing down the hall.

The medium gave her one look, then turned to the door, opened it-- and walked in. Mai watched with gritted teeth.

That Masako.

Mai approached the door and peered in. In the middle of the dark room, Masako stood motionless, her eyes closed. With an irritated sigh Mai held out the thermometer and scratched the temperature down. Looking back up, Mai saw the medium was straightening herself up, she glanced back at Mai self- satisfied.

"Nothing...” she said as she passed Mai out into the hall.

Mai glared after her and opened her mouth to retort, but suddenly snapped her head around. A shadow-- a figure standing at the edge of her vision. Mai stared hard around the room, but she could see nothing now. Curiously, Mai held out the thermometer: 58.7. Mai quickly consulted the chart, but she already knew the answer, the room had dropped five degrees.

With a slight frown, Mai's eyes swept the room once more, but it remained empty and dark.

Was that the old man...?

Mai shook her head and moved on. Masako, who hadn't bothered to look back once, was nearly to the foyer when Mai started after her.

That Masako. Someone was standing right there in that room and she didn't sense it at all. Figures.

When Mai finally caught up, Masako had already been there for few minutes, closing her eyes, trying to sense something Mai knew she could not. Mai watched the medium float from place to place in the large foyer critically. With a roll of her eyes she decided to collect some reliable information. Mai held out her thermometer as Masako moved near the doors.

"Mai."

Startled, Mai whirled around to see Bou-san stepping out of the room Mr. Sachi had been in earlier. Relieved that it was only the monk, she offered him a smile which he returned as he shut the door softly behind him.

"Hey," he greeted coming to stand beside her.

"Hey," she replied, jotting down the room's temperature, "what were you doing?"

The monk's smile turned into a smirk, he shrugged nonchalantly,

"Just following Naru's orders."

Mai glanced up at him, smirking as well.

"I see, and...?"

The monk rubbed his chin, considering the door,

"I think it's just a storage area, I could hear the generators outside."

"So your exorcisms were a success?” Mai teased.

"I'd say so, not a cursed rose petal left," Bou-san answered with a wink.

"What about those lilies though? Mr. Sachi seemed to think they were evil,” Mai persisted, looking a bit more serious.

The monk nodded knowingly,

"I guess it's something else to think about."

At the sound of foot steps, Mai and Bou-san glanced over to see Masako joining them, her arms crossed stiffly.

"I'm done here," she announced pointedly.

Pursing her lips, the only thing holding her back from saying she probably shouldn't, Mai looked to Bou-san,

"I'll let you know when we're finished.”

The monk nodded,

"Alright, you know where to find me."

Masako looked between them for a suspicious moment, but before she could ask anything, Mai breezed by her.

"Coming Masako?” she called over her shoulder as she trudged up the hall.

The medium eyed the monk for a moment longer, but then turned from him and followed in Mai's wake.

Mai plugged along, not bothering to look back at her rival. A moment later Bou-san's chant, in the form of deep muffled tones, found Mai's ears and she allowed herself a slight smile.

Deeper into the theater, turning down yet another corridor (hoping she remembered the way to the dressing rooms...), she heard the distinctive creek of an opening door. Mai halted and glanced back down the hall. Her gaze spotted a door swung open some feet back.

That Masako.

Mai blew out her cheeks and marched back down the hall to the room.

If she believes nothing is here, then why does she insist on checking  every  inch   of  this place?

As before, Mai found her standing in the middle of the room, her eyes closed in apparent meditation. The floor squeaked under Mai's foot and the medium became aware of her presence. Masako's head moved a fraction towards the door where Mai stood, a small smile pulled at her lips. Mai frowned as she whipped out the thermometer,

Of course. She does this to annoy me.

Mai took down the temperature and then, with great satisfaction, stuck out her tongue at the unaware medium, before turning to leave...but she was stopped dead in her tracks before she could so much as face the door.

There, standing in the hall just feet from her, plain as day, was the old man. As usual, a finger was drawn to his lips, but Mai couldn't help a small gasp of shock. The floor groaned under Masako's feet. Free of her trance she looked to Mai at her gasp,

"What?"

Mai swallowed, unable break her gaze from the ghostly man in front of her.

"Uh, um...”

The medium crossed her arms, came up beside her, and peered out into the hall.

"What is it, Taniyama? What are you looking at?"

Mai fought to keep her expression neutral as the ghost held his finger to his lips more desperately. With sudden inspiration, she squeezed her eyes closed and grabbed her foot,

"Looking at...? What do you mean? I just stubbed my toe on the way out," she answered, hoping her wince was convincing enough. For good measure she hobbled into the hall, complaining loudly of the pain.

Masako filed out behind her, watching this display with distaste.

"I have no idea what I'm so worried about...” she murmured, walking away from the scene Mai was making.

That Masako.

When she finished glaring after her rival's departing back, Mai risked a look at where the man stood-- but the hall was empty. Mai's head snapped around to face the room, but it was still and silent. Blinking in wonder, Mai looked further down the hall, and then back up it towards Masako, but the man had gone. Mai let out a sigh and brushed a strand of hair from her face.

That was close.

Gathering herself, Mai started after Masako, but not without one last look behind her. One thing was for sure, she was being followed. Mai reached the end of the hall and turned the corner to find Masako paused outside yet another door. Mai narrowed her eyes and took purposeful steps towards the medium, intending to pass her without looking back.

Fine, waste your time, but you're not wasting mine....

But just as she was blazing past, a pale hand caught her sleeve.

"He- hey Masako, what's the deal--" Mai began to protest, but was silenced by a sharp look from the medium.

Masako went back to staring hard at the door and that's when Mai became aware of muffled voices. The medium's hand dropped from her arm as Mai struggled to make out what was being said. She looked confusedly at Masako a few times, but the medium wouldn't meet her gaze.

Why are we listening in...?  W ho's in there?

As if in answer to her question, the door suddenly flew open. Startled, Mai gasped for a second time and Masako's hand had her arm in a vice grip again. Mai couldn't look any guiltier. The man who opened the door was not looking at her though, but instead at the medium who incredibly had managed to keep her composure.

"Joji, I was just about to knock,” Masako said before the surprised playwright could even open his mouth.

At the other end of the room, a curious Nari peered around Mr. Sachi at their visitors. The playwright's shock was quickly replaced by warmth,

"Well my dear, I'm so glad you caught me in time, I was just on my way out," he replied, stepping aside for Masako to enter, Mai following hesitantly after.

Masako released Mai's arm and drew herself up. Passing Mr. Sachi she offered him a cool smile, which he received as though she had beamed at him. When Mai passed he had more than enough smile to go around and offered her one which she couldn't help but return.

Then Mai got her first look at the room she had entered. It was large, two rooms really, with more windows than Mai had seen in any one place in this theater, all closed with velvet green curtains. In the dim, several wall mounted oil lamps burned, making the air a bit smoky and warm. The room was sparsely furnished for its size, filled with only a few things necessary in a dressing room.

Nari welcomed them with a smile of her own, and rising from her seat at her dressing table, she moved to clear a tray of cups from the small coffee table they had come to sit in front of.

"Excuse the mess, I wasn't expecting any more visitors," she said in a soft and kindly voice.

Masako shook her head dismissively and Mai said,

"Oh no, don't worry about it."

Mr. Sachi paused momentarily near the couch Masako and Mai had seated themselves at, looking as though he would like to join them (or at least Masako...), but then turned on second thought and took a chair facing them instead.

"So, to what do I owe the pleasure?” Mr. Sachi wondered good-naturedly, but then noted Nari and added, "Or considering that this is no longer my dressing room for the time being, to what does Nari owe the pleasure?"

Mai looked to Masako, she would have to be the one doing the talking, she got them into this, she would have to get them out. Masako looked as though she had no problem taking up the responsibility, maintaining a sense of composure, she answered,

"We were curious to see Nari's dressing room...” she began and it was all Mai could do not to glare openly at her. Mr. Sachi's cocked his head slightly; he was confused at the answer. Mai moved her foot to step on the medium's, but found she had (wisely) tucked them to the side.

"....and wanted to extend our congratulations personally," Mai added quickly.

The playwright seemed to like the end of this sentence better than the beginning, and his smile widened again, what Masako had said now lost to him.

"How very kind, did you hear that Nari?” Mr. Sachi asked, looking over at her. Nari, currently boiling a new pot of water, smiled warmly over at them,

"Thank you, that really is nice of you..."

"Of course--” Mai started to answer, her smile more relaxed now.

"No not at all, you really were charming as May," Masako chimed in, glancing at Mai out of the corner of her eye, taking a stab at revenge after Mai had stole conversation.

Mai clenched her jaw and glared as unassumingly as she could at the medium.

That Masako. Some thanks I get!

At this further praise Nari turned her attention back to the pot, smiling to herself...or perhaps not. For obvious reasons the actress wasn't on the best terms with the medium, her compliments were sure to be received coolly. Masako, oblivious to the newly settled stiffness in the air, continued on,

"I see we are not the only ones to think so though, your roses are lovely."

Nari turned back around with a laden tray of tea,

"Mmm, yes they are lovely," she answered.

"Can you pick out the one from me?” Mr. Sachi asked, sitting back in his seat, choosing not to look at Nari directly.

To Mai the question seemed slightly forced, or reluctant, as though he found the duty of being considerate to Nari difficult with Masako in the room. Mai frowned slightly; she had no sympathy for him.

Masako, with only mild interest, cast a look around the room. Set on virtually every surface was bouquet after bouquet. They ranged from large to small, elaborate to simple, and filled the room with a heavy sweet perfume. Mai spotted Mr. Sachi's almost instantly. Sitting there in all it enormity and beauty, it was better called an arrangement than just a bouquet. Several dozen roses, all at their peak bloom were surrounded by an assortment of lush greenery.

The most prominent thing about the arrangement though, was where it was placed. Where the many other bouquets all found homes set and stacked on the few available surfaces, Mr. Sachi's was set on Nari's small dressing table. It was in fact so big, that half of it sat over the edge precariously, but Nari didn't seem worried, and at the mention of it, she gazed at it with a blush tinting her cheeks.

"It's the one on the dressing table," Mai answered, murmuring her thanks to Nari who handed her a teacup.

Mr. Sachi looked to it and then at Nari who was also handing him tea,

"To commemorate a job well done," he said simply.

The blush left Nari's cheeks, silently she handed Masako her cup. Mai took a sip of the amber tea, gazing at the bouquet absently, and then a thought struck her,

"Mr. Sachi," she said, looking to the playwright, "why not lilies?"

Mr. Sachi, who had just finished sipping his tea, set down his cup rather hard. Nari glanced over at him as she took a seat, but said nothing. The playwright cleared his throat and looked to Mai with renewed composure,

"That's very observant of you, I'm sure you're thinking of the festival?” he said to Mai knowingly.

Mai was actually remembering how the playwright had treated the bouquet of lilies, but took another sip and nodded,

"It is the festival of lilies, right? But all you have here is roses...” she answered.

Nari gazed at her bouquets over the rim of her cup.

"I have an allergy to them," she spoke up, turning her soft eyes on Mai.

Mai choked on the sip she was taking.

An allergy? I told Niko I was allergic to lilies!

"Oh, are you alright?” Nari wondered urgently.

"There now, cough it out," Mr. Sachi encouraged nervously as he sat forward in his seat.

Masako had virtually no reaction, but as it seemed inconsiderate for her not to do anything, she delivered a particularly unhelpful and hard smack to the back. Mai regained composure and glared resentfully at the medium sitting next to her.

"Better?” Mr. Sachi persisted as Mai straightened up.

"Yes, thank you," Mai answered, still eyeing Masako darkly.

"You had quite a spell there, are you sure you're okay?” Nari said offering Mai a napkin.

Mai smiled and nodded,

"I'm sure; I must have just swallowed wrong. So you were saying, you're allergic?” Mai encouraged, looking to hear more after having interrupted.

Nari looked uncertain of going on, still concerned for Mai's health, but Mai was gazing at her so intently that she relented and continued,

"Yes, I've been allergic all my life. It's nothing major though, my supporters just send roses instead and I love them just the same-"

Mr. Sachi made a disapproving noise,

"Nothing major? It is major. Nari, your allergy is something to be taken seriously," he argued, looking to Mai appealingly, "She can become very sick, her allergy can even be life threatening."

In her mind's eye, Mai saw Mr. Sachi once again standing in that room, staring solemnly at the bouquet of lilies and the angry way he threw them out.

That's what made him so upset; he knew how harmful they would be to Nari....

A fresh blush rose in Nari's cheeks, she waved a hand to dismiss his fervent words,

"Please Joji, its fine, really. I just have to be a bit more careful during festival time, but everyone knows I'm allergic so people always look out for me."

Mai bit her lip thoughtfully,

If everyone knows that Nari is so allergic, then who would send her such a deadly bouquet?

Mr. Sachi sat back in his seat and said no more, his eyes moving among the bouquets. Mai imagined he was recalling the person who wasn't looking after her.

If only we had seen who it was sent from...

For a moment all that filled the air was the clinking of china and the soft tick of a clock, located somewhere off in the back of the room. Nari set down her tea cup gently and then smoothed her skirt looking up at Mai and Masako with a bright smile,

"So, you must be excited for the festival tonight?"

The question was a simple, conversational one, but Mai couldn't help noticing the way the edges of her lips faltered. Mai glanced at Masako and found a new fire was being lit in her belly.

That Masako.

Mai sat up straighter and turned her attention on the actress.

"Oh, right. I nearly forgot," she answered with a shrug and a sip of tea. Her answer was a lie, but a white one. She wanted to seem like it wasn't such a big deal, like the events of the coming night might not bring the exchanging of love tokens in the form of lilies the actress couldn't have, from men including Mr. Sachi to women including Masako. But for all her efforts, Mai could see that Nari hadn't bought it. Her eyes glittered with something Mai couldn't understand and then she laughed, the sound of it light and pretty.

"Don't be silly, of course you're excited. Women here wait all year for this one night," she persisted, pouring Mai more tea.

Unable to argue, even though the thought of it sent her stomach into a nervous flurry, Mai settled on staring at Masako. The medium was being strangely silent, given the many opportunities she was being presented with to wreak havoc. For some reason she seemed distant, as though not apart of the conversation.

"So, do we have many investigations under way today?” Mr. Sachi spoke up, looking to steer the conversation into more comfortable waters.

Masako blinked and looked to Mr. Sachi with hardly a smile, her most expressionless mask firmly in place,

"Of course, Naru has sent us all out. Mai and I have things to see to after we leave here," her answer all politeness and formality.

Instantly Mai's eyes darted to the playwright, expecting to see his curious smile fail against the harsh indifference directed at him, but he never faltered for a moment. Mai blinked in surprise, maybe he hadn't heard her? But he had and he nodded,

"Very good, I know the investigation is in good hands when you two are on the case," he replied, gazing affectionately at the unaffected medium, sparing a kind glance for Mai who could only smile bewildered back at him.

What is he made out of? Steel?

Mai slowly looked back to Masako, and if possible she looked even stiffer, but her mask was cracking, and Mai could see her breathing heavier in irritation.

Either Mr. Sachi is very determined or very blind.

Nari suddenly stood, her skirt swishing around her slender legs, she gathered the finished glasses, her fingers moving a bit clumsily, knocking tea cups over in her haste. Mai caught one she nearly dropped and in that instant caught a look of hurt in her dark eyes, but then it was gone and she smiled, murmuring her thanks.

The agitation in the room was now very thick, with both Masako and Nari unsettled. Mai glanced at the playwright across from her and took a wild guess that he was the cause of it all.

Masako wishes he would leave her alone, and Nari wishes he wouldn't leave her at all.

With Nari at the counter, loudly rising the cups and Masako staring determinedly at a point past Mr. Sachi, Mai stole this relatively safe moment to ask a question that was weighting on her mind.

"Speaking of investigations," Mai began, speaking as if nothing had passed, "we came across an interesting room yesterday."

Mr. Sachi, who had been currently involved picking lint off his black dress shirt, looked up at Mai attentively,

"Oh, really? What was it like? I'm afraid I can't recall just one. There are, after all, many interesting rooms here at the theater," the playwright answered readily, happy to have the conversation return to something he was familiar with.

Mindful that Masako was beside her, Mai answered, "It seemed to me like some sort of office, or study..."

Mr. Sachi raised his eyebrows in surprise,

"An office? Are you sure it wasn't a dressing room? Mine has been known to resemble one..."

Mai shook her head firmly,

"I'm sure. It was musty and filthy; I don't think anyone's been in there for a long time."

Mr. Sachi nodded, but held out his hands with a shrug,

"Well, I'm not sure what to think then. Either you're mistaken or there's a room in my theater I don't know about. The only proper office that was ever used here was Mr. Miyuki's and that's been locked up tight since his death."

Mai felt herself tense in surprise.

Mr. Miyuki's office?

Locked up?

Suddenly the room felt smaller. From every dark corner Mai felt as though she was being watched. At one point she thought she felt an unnatural breeze brush against her, but when she looked, she saw that it was just Nari passing by.

"So you see, you couldn't have found an office. Maybe it was my dressing room,” Mr. Sachi persisted knowingly in Mai's silence.

"Well," said the playwright after another silence had settled upon them, "I have some other things to tend to, but I hope to see you all tonight."

The three of them nodded and Mr. Sachi stood and made for the door. Nari followed him to it, saying goodbye and thanking him again for the flowers.

"Of course Nari, it was my pleasure," he answered, waving her gratitude away.

The actress nodded with a smile and watched him walk down the hall before closing the door. Mai, who was already standing, felt that they should be leaving too.

"Thank you for the tea Nari," she began suggestively.

The actress smiled as she drifted over to her dressing table, organizing some of her makeup,

"Thank you for the nice afternoon," she answered, looking up to extend Mai a kind smile.

Mai smiled back and then turned to send Masako a meaningful look, but the medium did not seem to notice, staring hard at her hands. A moment later she spoke,

"You've worked here a long time, haven't you?” she asked, finally looking up to meet the actresses gaze.

Nari paused, blinked, and then glanced over at Masako,

"Yes, for years. I live and breathe my work; I'm here day in and day out. In fact the only time I've ever been away from my work was when they renovated the theater three months ago, and even then...they had to keep me away by force," Nari answered, a bit of pride creeping into her voice.

Masako nodded,

"You're very dedicated."

Nari raised an eyebrow; color rising in her cheeks,

"And you're not? Joji has mentioned you're something of a celebrity, he thinks you have acting potential..."

Masako stood at this, as though the statement bothered her, but her eyes were soft and relaxed.

"I have no interest in acting.”

With a slight bow the medium left the room.

Mai watched this exchange in astonishment. When she finally recovered she remembered that she should probably be following Masako and turned to give Nari a small bow of her own.

The actress looked similarly struck by what just happened, but managed to bow in return and in a moment Mai was out in the hall, hurrying after the medium.

"Masako--" Mai called coming up behind her.

The medium held out a pale hand,

"Not a word Taniyama," she interrupted, sending a glare over her shoulder to further cement her point.

Mai could see now that her usual mask was firmly in place and all hopes of catching her off guard were dashed. A much needed silence settled over them as they walked through the hall, on the way to the dressing rooms.

Mai's head hummed with a thousand thoughts. It was as if this case was a puzzle and she had some of pieces before her, it was just a matter of making them fit together. After a few moments, Mai found her head was hurting.

If this is what it's like to be Naru, thinking all the time, it's no wonder he's so irritable...

They turned a corner and passed through yet another hall. It seemed the theater was a maze of them and all of them similar, with their low burning oil lamps and stretches of windowless wall. Mai blinked and rubbed her eyes after having found herself staring too long at one of the lamp's flames. Outside the pitter-patter of rain droned on, inside the pitter-patter of feet marched on.

It was a rough guess, but Mai sensed they would be nearing the dressing rooms soon.

And that room.  T h e  office.

Cautiously, with one eye always on Masako, Mai began to inspect each door they passed. It wasn't really the door she was focusing on though, but rather the crack beneath the door, her eye keen for the corner of a small tattered rug, which she knew from having walked over it, depicted a faded but stunning scene of Greek gods in the moonlight.

A few minutes later, Mai was growing increasingly aware that the long hall was becoming short, and still she hadn't spotted the door. Ahead of them, less than nine doors away was the single marked door to back stage and the dressing rooms. Determinedly, Mai gave her full attention to each room they passed.

Where is it? I should have seen it by now....wasn't it further back?

But then-- just was she was turning away with a frown, it sprung out of the darkness. Mai halted in her tracks. Like a failing neon sign only she would notice, there was the corner of the rug, just barely peaking out, layered with years of dust. Masako reached the back stage door and looked back down the hall. Realizing this, Mai quickly swallowed her triumphant smile and then for good measure grabbed her foot.

An exasperated expression washed over the medium's face and she turned around without a second look back. As soon as her back was turned, Mai stuck out her tongue and released her foot. With one last glance at the door, memorizing its place, she resentfully moved and followed the medium.

A moment later Mai stepped through the door marked with a star and on to a quiet stage. The rain fall was louder here and looking up Mai could see why. She had taken no notice of them before, but stretched out above her were skylights, and many of them. Mai watched the splatter of each rain drop thoughtfully. They reminded her of the case, so many little things adding up to such a big mystery...

"Are you coming?”

Mai blinked and brought her head forward again. A few feet away Masako stood expectantly in the shadow of the left stage curtain. Mai gathered herself and moved on.

"It's kinda quiet today...” Mai said after a minute, the silence getting to her.

Masako went to simply nod, but then added, "Yes....very," as an after thought.

Vainly, Mai looked up and down the stage for actors rehearsing, but there were not even the little groups she had seen before. The stage was silent, dark, and empty.

"Maybe they're in their dressing rooms?” Mai suggested, catching the medium glancing around the same as herself.

Again Masako went to nod, but caught herself and offered a small, "Perhaps....” into the silence.

A moment later a small cry filled the air. The medium whirled around in time to see Mai grabbing at her foot, glaring fiercely at wooden prop. Mai winced in pain, she really had stubbed her toe this time and it didn't help that Masako was already turning around unconcernedly.

That Masako.

Carefully dodging further props, Mai followed Masako to the dressing rooms, set just off the stage. Ten of them, looking ominous in the gloom, awaited their inspection. Mai slowly looked over shoulder, and then at the nearby shadows. Maybe it was because she was standing near the open stage, but she had the unnerving sensation she was being watched.

That Naru.

The medium moved forward with her usual grace and without an ounce of hesitation and opened the first door. Meanwhile, behind her, Mai was steadily becoming more and more uneasy, though she couldn't say why. The medium's pale hand reached for the nearest oil lamp and in the next moment the dark dressing room was awash with a warm amber glow.

This comforted Mai slightly and she eagerly entered the light. Masako only went a few paces more before she stopped and closed her eyes. While the medium was busy sensing nothing, Mai was hurrying to take down the temperature, strangely aware of the open door.

58.5, a little cooler than usual...

Masako opened her eyes and blinked for a moment, as if she was trying to recall something at the edge of her memory. Mai watched the medium uncertainly and sent a quick glance out of the dressing room and on to the stage.

Is he here? Could she be sensing him..?

The medium gathered herself and breezed by Mai, saying simply,

"nothing," as she stepped through the door. Mai followed in her wake confused and suspicious. The next room went similar to the first, with the oil lamp turned up, followed by meditation and temperature taking. Mai found that this next room was also quite cool,

They've been empty, maybe that's the reason... Mai thought as she jotted down a 57.4.

When finished Mai looked up, carefully watching the medium's expression, but there was no odd blinking or pause, Masako simply opened her eyes and left, again murmuring a “nothing”. Mai trailed Masako to each and every dressing room, finding the cool temperatures to be consistent and the medium's psychic ability inconsistent.

Mai walked out of the last dressing room, comparing her latest reading with the other rooms. There was a soft click behind her as Masako closed the door and then the sound of her dainty feet padding across the hard wood floor.

"Well, I'd say we've finished. I'm sure Naru won't be surprised that my answer still stands," the medium announced, her dark eye's glittering triumphantly. 

Mai raised an unaffected eyebrow at her rival,

"I'm sure he won't be, you couldn't sense a ghost if it was right in front of you."

A flash of red rushed to the medium's pale cheeks, but then she mastered herself and managed a smirk,

"And I'm sure you think yourself much more sensitive."

Mai, not bothering to master herself, shot Masako a glare,

"As a matter of fact, I do."

The medium scoffed,

"Please Taniyama; your delusions are alarming."

A fire was lit in Mai's eyes, she opened her mouth to retort, but then an odd creak expanded in the pause between their arguing voices. Mai dropped the fists her hands had formed, her eyes traveling across the floor and then climbing up to the medium's confused eyes.

Something strange was passing through the air around them and Mai wasn't sure whether it was fear, danger, or both. Their argument had lead them in the opposite direction of the exit to a dark, dusty corner with cables running by their feet like thick black snakes.

Mai took a breath and realized her mouth was open so she closed it and swallowed. Masako adjusted her kimono, already backtracking, attempting to remaster some composure.

"What?” she spoke, her voice sounding small in the growing silence.

Mai suddenly looked over her shoulder, but there was nothing. The medium crossed her arms,

"You really are delusional."

Mai snapped her head around and narrowed her eyes at her rival,

"You sense it, don't you? Even through your thick head I mean..."

Masako's dark eyes flashed,

"Excuse me?” she protested, taking a small step forward.

A long groan filled the air. Both Mai and Masako froze, a bizarre feeling breaking over them. It lasted only a few heartbeats, but felt like ages. Mai had just time to exchange a look with Masako, and then-- she knew they were going down.

The groan progressed into an ear splitting crack and before Mai could even blink, let alone register what was going on, the wooden floor gave way beneath her. Two cries rang out over the sound of wood snapping and breaking away.

It was impossible for Mai to judge how far she had fallen, but she knew when she hit the ground it had been long enough to have knocked the wind out of her lungs, but short enough for her not have broken anything. On her side she laid half stunned, breathing shallow breaths. All around her the air was murky with dust, some larger pieces collected on her eyelashes. Though she was fairly certain she hadn't broken anything, she resisted moving.

Breathe, just keep breathing.

Mai blinked, attempting to clear the falling dust from her eyes. Was Masako near by? Mai's eyes searched for her form, but from her limited point of view, all she could make out were scattered pieces of wood. Unable to see anything, Mai decided to listen, hoping to hear the breathing of her rival, but the silence seemed to have fallen with them from above. Mai frowned.

Then I'll speak.

She licked her lips, but found them coated with the same dust that was swirling all around them. Mai made a worse face at the taste it left in her mouth, but wet her lips again and opened her mouth to call out,

"Masako? Masako, are you there..?"

There was a dreadful silence and then a moan. The air having mostly returned to Mai's lungs gave her strength, and hearing Masako's voice finally inspired her move. Mai made to sit up, but slowly. She knew from previous experience the rush of sickening dizziness that accompanied sitting up too fast after a fall.

A moment later she had righted herself and found she was staring up a ten foot drop with an irregular shaped hole. The sound of wood being scrapped across the floor caused Mai to look back down. Behind her, a few feet away, sat Masako coated in gray dust. She looked so much like a fallen angel that Mai was struck with a twinge of jealousy, for she knew she must look like coated in dust: dirty.

That Masako, leave it up her to look good after a ten foot drop into a dust hole.....

But in the next instance, Mai took back her vanity, for there a grimace of pain settled on the medium's face.

"Masako, are you okay?”

Mai came to her side. It was even gloomier down here, but Mai could tell she was hurting.

"I'm fine, I'll just need an ice pack," the medium answered, delicately adjusting herself against a wall.

Mai could see now that she was favoring her left arm over her right one and reached out for it. To her surprise Masako did not flinch or pull away as Mai felt it,

"It's my wrist, I think it's sprained. I must have landed on it wrong," Masako explained and Mai nodded, letting it down gently.

"I'm sure it hurts, we've got to look for a way out of here," Mai said, standing up to better take in her surroundings.

Though it was dark she was able to see that they were in some kind of empty space between the stage and ground level. The earth underneath Mai's feet was rocky and dry and other than the fallen wood little else littered the floor. Mai left Masako's side to try and see beyond the dark, but it was impossible without a flash light. Mai let out a sigh and blew her dusty bangs out of her eyes,

"I had no idea this area existed," she said returning to the faint light the hole above them was creating.

"Shh-" Masako cut in, "do you hear that?"

Mai paused and strained to listen. At first there was only silence, but then something else made its way to her ears, something soft and low.

"Humming?” Mai whispered.

Masako nodded,

"Like machines..."

Mai stood, thoughtful for a moment,

"The generators, maybe it's them?"

Masako frowned and closed her eyes,

"Where are they keeping them? I thought I saw them near the front of the theater."

Mai nodded,

"Yeah you're right, they are..."

A silence settled on them, only interrupted by their labored breathing and the faint humming.

"It's cold," Masako finally said after several minutes. Mai rubbed her arms absentmindedly as she stared up at the hole they fell through,

"It is," she answered with a shiver.

Just then a thought occurred to her.

The thermometer.

Mai's eyes darted to the floor near her, searching for any sign of the piece of equipment Naru had entrusted her with. With a sinking feeling, her gaze roamed over the large pieces of wood that had landed with Masako and herself. A moment later any hope of finding it fell through her, like she had fallen through the stage.

"Hm?” Masako spoke up, noticing Mai's troubled expression.

Catching sight of her rival's curious stare, Mai's frown vanished, replaced by a look of indifference.

"Nothing. Just as something to do I was looking for the thermometer..."

The beginnings of an amused smile pulled at the edges of the medium's lips,

"Oh? And do you see it?"

A bit of heat rose to Mai's cheeks,

"Well, that's the thing about looking..."

Attempting to keep her smile in check, Masako adopted a look of false sympathy,

"That's really too bad you lost it. I think I over heard Naru saying they were expensive..."

Mai's eyes flashed in the dark,

"I never said it was lost I said I was looking for it--"

"I suppose," the medium went on, speaking above Mai, "you shouldn't quit your search just yet, there is a small chance that it could have landed safely. Perhaps it's underneath of one of those pieces of wood? Though if you landed on it, I'm afraid there's no hope."

A fresh fire was lit in Mai's belly, she didn't put up with this above ground, she wasn't going to put up with it ten feet below.

"Oh and I suppose it would be perfectly fine if you and your endless yards of heavy kimono landed on it?"

The medium's eye shown brightly in the dark,

"Excuse me?"

Mai crossed her arms and glared at her rival smugly, "I said--"

But Mai was cut off here by the sound of foot steps. Mai exchanged a silent look with Masako and called out,

"Hello? Anyone there?"

A moment went by with no response, the foot steps carried on. Mai narrowed her eyes and gazed up the hole,

"Actors maybe?” she whispered to the medium, who had managed to pull herself up.

Masako did not answer, looking more alert than ever, she listened to the sound of the foot falls.

"Maybe it's Bou-san? We've been gone awhile, surely they've noticed...?” Mai persisted, but her suggestions sounded weak even to her own ears.

Somewhere inside of her she knew it was neither actors nor Bou-san.

Minutes went by, a long silence stretched out between them filled only with the sound of someone walking closer and closer. Mai found herself colder and colder as she waited and listened, desperately trying to drive down the anxiousness that was rising inside of her. A quick glance at Masako confirmed she wasn't the only one feeling uneasy. The medium's face was tight with concentration and maybe it was the dust, but she seemed distinctly paler.

The foot steps slowed to a stop, a heartbeat passed and then there was a slight creak over head. Mai swallowed the lump that had risen in her throat and with an uncertain look at Masako, called out,

"Hello...?"

There was another creak and groan of wood, as though whoever it was changed positions. At this a new anxiety rose in Mai.

"Wait!” she cried, "don't come any closer, the floor could give out!"

Behind her Masako gasped,

"We'll be crushed!"

Mai shot the medium a look over her shoulder, and then with more determination spoke again,

"Hello, did you hear me? Don't come any closer--"

The foot steps moved along the rim of the hole, but no matter how hard she tried, Mai could only make out shadows. Just then there was another groan of protesting wood and something sharper appeared at the edge of the hole, but Mai barely had time to recognize this though before something black was released from up above. With a cry of alarm, Mai staggered backward to avoid it hitting her. For a panicked moment Mai thought she had come face to face with a snake, long and black, swaying in the gloom, but then Masako said,

"A rope?"

With blood pounding in her ears Mai blinked stunned,

"A- a rope?"

Taking a steadying breath, Mai gazed up at the hole, but there was no shape peering over this time. Hesitantly Mai looked to the rope dangling there,

"Hey," she said squinting at it in the dark, "this isn't a rope, it's a cable."

Masako stood away from the wall she was using to support herself and joined Mai in the feeble light the hole was creating,

"You're right; there were many of them all over the stage."

Carefully Mai took a hold of the cable and with a look at the medium, gave it a firm tug. Instantly the cable went taunt in her hand,

"It feels secure,” she murmured, giving it a few more yanks.

Masako pursed her lips uncertainly,

"This isn't safe; whoever it is up there won't even speak to us."

Mai frowned, still gripping the cable.

"What? Do you think someone is out to get us?"

Masako's lips became a thin line and she crossed her arms,

"I don't think it's safe."

Mai looked from Masako back up to the hole,

"We've been down here a long time Masako, and you're hurt--"

"Naru will come," the medium interjected confidently.

Mai shot Masako a look,

"Naru? He probably hasn't even noticed we're missing--"

"Well, maybe not you...” the medium murmured under her breath.

"--and by the time he realizes it, we'll have been stuck down here days," Mai persisted, pretending to not have heard Masako's last comment, although her eyes narrowed in the dark.

The medium frowned and then with a toss of her hair said,

"Fine. Do what you like Taniyama, but I'm staying here," and on that last word Masako sat where she had stood decidedly.

Mai blinked at the delusional medium for a moment, watching the newly stirred dust swirl through the air. Shaking her head she turned towards the cable and grasped it firmly in both hands.

That Masako, waiting for Naru...ha!

Mai took a steadying breath, trying to ignore the fact that her hands had become clammy and her heart felt as though it might burst through her chest. A pair of calculating eye's watched her from behind...there was only up from here.

Masako is wrong, there's nothing to worry about. I'm just going to climb out of this hole...

And with that Mai put one hand over the other and pulled her weight up. Mai had moved up an inch, but it was a satisfying one and she moved to place her left hand over her right, when the cable started moving on its own. Mai let out a little cry of surprise, and then, realizing that the cable was slipping through her hands, gripped it tighter. Masako's terse cry followed shortly after her own,

"Mai! Let go!" but by that point she was being pulled up so fast that she had no choice but to hold on, or fall again. Being yanked up through the gloom with her heart in her throat, Mai watched below as Masako's distressed form faded into hardly a shadow, above her the light coming through the hole's opening dazzled her eyes.

All too suddenly Mai found herself being deposited on the stage. Blinking awkwardly in the new light, Mai's unadjusted eyes searched out her rescuer and came eye to eye with a ghost. Mai gasped, her rapidly beating heart stalling in her shock as she recoiled, nearly falling through the hole again. It was only the ancient finger that he brought to his lips that stopped her from crying out a second time.

The old man!

Relief encircled her like a warm blanket. Mai found herself shaking slightly, but managed a meek smile and quickly drew a finger to her lips in understanding. 

"But how..?” Mai whispered, her heart rate returning to a more comfortable pace.

With a smile that told her she would understand later, he shook his head and pointed back down the hole. Mai cocked her head and peered down as well,

"What? Masako?” she asked, looking over at him, a few strands of hair falling in front of her face.

The old man nodded eagerly as he straightened up. Mai made a face and tucked the stray hairs behind her ear,

"That's nice of you to think of her, but last time we talked she seemed pretty bent on being saved by--"

But the old man cut her off there with another shake of his head. Mai crossed her arms a bit defensively,

"Well, I can hardly change her mind. Besides she doesn't believe any ghosts exist here, the shock of seeing you might be too much for her--" but Mai's argument was cut short again by the old man standing up and pointing dramatically at one of the dressing room doors.

Mai looked from him to the door and back. Feeling as though she was missing something she replied,

"The dressing room? Does this have something to do with the case?"

The old man dropped his arm, staring tiredly at her. For a moment there was an odd silence, and then the old man began doing something that looked to Mai like drawing in a deep breath.

"Go," he said in a long, drawn out voice.

His tone was more impatient than unkind. For a moment Mai, startled to hear him speak, couldn't think of what he meant. But with the way he looked now, the act of saying even one word seeming to have exhausted him, she wouldn't ask him to elaborate. Helplessly, she looked back to the dressing room door,

"Go?” Mai repeated.

With the little energy he had left, the old man nodded. With her mind whirling with questions, Mai began walking towards the dressing room.

What does he want me to do...?

Reaching the door that read Yuta Hiroto, Mai paused and looked back over her shoulder at the old man, hoping for some sign of what she was suppose to do there, but the spot where he had stood was vacant and dim.

Mai frowned feeling anything but reassured, but just the same she knocked. There was an uncertain moment, and then the sound of foot steps, followed by the door swinging open. Clearly the actor was surprised to see a young woman covered in dust standing outside his dressing room, but he recovered enough to politely close his mouth. He blinked, apparently waiting for Mai to say something, when she didn't-- he asked,

"Can...I help you?"

Mai blinked dumbly back at him (wondering when he had come...all the dressing rooms had been empty), but then it hit her. Suddenly she knew what to say. The vacant look was replaced by a bright urgency,

"Yes, I mean-- I hope so," she answered, her words coming out in a breathless tumble.

The man's expression changed into one of concern,

"What is it? Is there something wrong?"

Mai couldn't help but notice how his gaze traveled over her filthy, tattered appearance as he said these words. She blushed slightly, realizing she must look like the walking dead.

Not exactly Yoshi material.

Clearing her throat, Mai pressed on, "There's been an accident, the stage fell through--"

But that was all Mai could get out before the man, with wide worried eyes, pushed past her, calling over his shoulder,

"Where?"

Mai had to hurry after him just to keep up,

"Over there, by those cables--"

The two of them were upon the hole in moments. The actor knelt down near the edge,

"Hello, down there...are you okay?"

There was a moment of silence, but then the sounds of shuffling, and finally a small voice called up through the darkness,

"Where is Mai? What have you done with her?"

Mai, struck by the concern in the medium's voice, dropped down beside Yuta-san and answered,

"I'm fine Masako, I've brought help!"

The man frowned over at Mai,

"Are you Mai? What does she mean, what have I done with you?"

Mai blinked blankly, and then, thinking fast she shrugged,

"I don't know, maybe she's hit her head...?"

The actor's frown deepened,

"How long has she been down there? When did this happen?"

"Just a few minutes ago," Mai answered, becoming comfortable with the story she was building.

The man nodded and began inspecting the cables around him,

"These cables are thick, but I'm not sure they'll hold. Maybe I can find some rope laying around--"

"No," Mai answered quickly, and then at the odd look she was being given she added, "I mean-- time is passing and we need to get her out, surely these cables are strong enough? She's small."

That Masako.

The man studied the cable in his hand and then looked back to Mai uncertainly, "What happened to you in all this? Are you hurt? This is a restricted area, what were you even doing back here...?"

Mai glanced at the large hole urgently,

"We're apart of the paranormal team investigating here. I'm fine, though. It was my friend who was standing on the spot--"

The man held up a hand to silence her and nodded,

"You're right, we're losing time. We'll use a cable."

The next moment he was examining the many cables snaking around his feet. Mai looked down at her own feet where the cable that had rescued her laid,

"How's this?"

The man looked up and saw the thick cable Mai was pointing at,

"It'll work."

With the hiss of rubber against wood, Yuta-san sent the cable down to Masako.

"Grab it Masako, we'll pull you up," Mai called, leaning over the hole.

"Alright," came her muffled reply and then the cable went taunt.

Mai gripped the black cable tight in both hands, and on the actor's command, she pulled. It was unexpectedly more work than Mai thought it would be to pull the seemingly feather weight Masako up out of that hole, and it was with relief that Mai dropped the cable as Yuta-san finished helping Masako onto the stage.

Rubbing her sore arms, Mai looked over to her rival, and in the better light she could see she looked no worse for wear, covered in dust and all. Mai suddenly felt a stab of something sorer than her arms.

That Masako.

In the next instant Mai realized Masako was staring back at her, the medium blinked and then began to laugh behind a well placed sleeve,

"Taniyama, look at you--"

Mai sat up straighter and crossed her arms,

"You're one to talk, powder puff."

Yuta-san, apparently oblivious of the exchange, knelt down beside Masako concernedly,

"Miss, are you alright?"

The medium's amused laughter dried up immediately, with large innocent eyes she stared back at the actor,

"Yes, I think so," she answered, feigning a cough behind her crafty sleeve, "Thank you for everything."

The man waved a dismissive hand,

"It was nothing, but I do want to make sure you're really okay, let me escort you to a doctor--"

A pale had emerged from its sleeve to silence the actor, Masako smiled kindly,

"That's really not necessary, if you would just help me to my feet..."

Reluctantly the man found himself doing just that,

"But you could be hurt, you should let a doctor have a look at you," he persisted with a glance at Mai.

Having watched this display with disgust, Mai wanted to separate the two actors as soon as possible. Joining Masako, she offered a supportive arm,

"Thank you, but I think we'll be fine. Our team can help..."

The man frowned,

"Well, at least let me walk you to where you need to go--"

"Hiroto?"

The three of them, standing in the gloom, turned their heads at the mention of the actor's name.

"Hiroto, what in the world-- Masako, is that you?"

"Mr. Sachi," Yuta-san answered as the playwright hurried over to them.

"What is going on here?" Mr. Sachi persisted, looking Mai's filthy appearance up and down.

"There was an accident, the stage fell through," Mai answered, but she barely got her words out before the playwright was clutching horrified at Masako's arm,

"My dear, my dear tell me you're not hurt--"

"I'm not hurt."

Masako gripped Mai's arm tightly with her good hand.

"Hey-- ouch," Mai protested, attempting to yank her arm away, but Masako wouldn't let go.

"I don't believe it, look at you. You need to see a doctor right away."

"That's what I've been trying to tell her," Yuta-san agreed, crossing his arms.

"The only person I'm going to see--" Masako interjected firmly, "is Naru."

Mr. Sachi opened his mouth instantly to protest, but then closed it upon realizing she was serious about this. Yuta-san just stood there, bewhildered. Mai simply smiled at them both. She couldn't blame Masako for finally loosing her composure, after all, she had been trying to go see Naru after the investigation, when she fell through the hole... she was hoping to see Naru when he saved her (ha!), and now she wanted to go see Naru so he could fawn over her delicate state (ha! ha!), but a playwright and an actor were telling her no.

Mr. Sachi frowned, looking reluctant,

"Well, if you're sure my dear--"

"I'm sure."

"Then at least let me walk you back to base as you call it."

Masako nodded, still gripping Mai's arm, and gave Yuta-san a small thankful bow before turning to leave, dragging her rival with her. Behind them, Mai could hear Mr. Sachi exchanging hurried words with Yuta-san, and then hurried foots steps as he tried to catch up,

"Easy now Masako, you'll do yourself harm!” the playwright exclaimed, protesting the rate at which she was walking.

The medium made no answer, but only continued at her brisk pace.

"Really, you don't look too steady there. Here, let me support you," the playwright urged, taking up Masako's injured arm.

The medium gasped in pain, startling Mr. Sachi,

"My goodness, you are hurt," he cried, holding her arm more delicately now.

Masako frowned, but whether it was from pain or annoyance it was hard to tell.

"It's nothing," she answered pulling her arm closer to her side.

Mr. Sachi was the one frowning now, and in the next moment he stopped, halting Masako as well.

"It is something, now please, let me help you,” he pleaded, looking as serious as Mai had ever seen him.

Taking advantage of the medium's surprise, Mai quickly removed her arm from the vice grip it was trapped in and stepped a safe distance away. There was a heavy moment of silence, and then, with resignation in her eyes, Masako nodded and offered her arm. Looking pleased with himself, the playwright took it. The rest of the time was spent in silence as they passed through hall after hall, Mr. Sachi stealing concerned looks at the medium every other second, Mai stealing amused ones.

"Nearly there," the playwright announced as they approached the foyer.

Then they saw him. One minute there was empty space, the next-- a figure of a man. Stunned, a cry escaped Mai's lips and Masako gasped.

"It's-- it's him...” Mr. Sachi breathed in a quavering voice.

Beside the playwright, Masako blinked furiously, as though she couldn't believe what she was seeing. Mai stared and stared at the man, unable to look anywhere else but at his face, and the wall she could see through it.

He isn't solid, why isn't he solid..?

Suddenly he was moving towards them with large determined steps. Mai and Masako did not waver an inch, determined to interact with spirit, but in the next instant, with much more speed and strength than would be guessed of him, Mr. Sachi engulfed them both, pinning them against the wall as the ghostly figure rushed by them, dissolving into nothing.

There was a moment of just breathing and blinking, Mr. Sachi holding them both in an awkward kind of half embrace against the wall. For a disturbing moment Mai was reminded of the last time she was this close to Mr. Sachi, which was when she had plowed into him returning to base, and felt once had been more than enough. Mr. Sachi glanced at length down the hall before slowly releasing them,

"He's gone, are you both alright?"

Mai stepped away, putting some much desired distance between herself and the playwright.

"Yes, just fine," she answered, breathing out through her nose in an attempt to get rid of the sharp scent of Mr. Sachi's cologne.

Masako crossed her arms and replied with little more than a nod. Mai knew what was bothering her, it was bothering her too.

That Mr. Sachi.

"I'm not so sure, you look unsettled," the playwright persisted, handling them as he would Nari, thinking them traumatized by the incident.

"I'm fine," Masako insisted, straightening her dusty kimono in agitation.

"There now, you don't have to put on brave faces; you were nearly attacked by a ghost, if I hadn't stepped in--"

Masako, whose composure seemed to be faltering quite a bit that day, glanced at Mr. Sachi in disbelief,

"If you hadn't stepped in? If you hadn't stepped in I would have been able--"

Mr. Sachi blinked at the medium as though he couldn't understand her,

"Masako please; I know what a shock this was. Let me get you to base, I'll make you some tea."

Masako's pale cheeks burned red in anger, but the playwright seemed oblivious to this as he gently coaxed them along to a less distressing place.

"Hello," Mr. Sachi greeted as he stepped into base, Mai and Masako following broodingly.

For a moment there was dead silence, and then numerous things happened at once. An exclamation came from almost everyone in the room. Bou-san, who had been drinking some tea, began choking, John was up from his chair and upon them before Mai could blink, Ayako dropped the magazine she was reading, Lin turned all the way around in his seat to stare at them, and Naru, who had been reading some important paper, tossed it down.

"Please, there is no cause for alarm, I've saved them from the attack--" Mr. Sachi began, but no one was listening.

"Mai," Bou-san gasped between coughs, "what are you covered in?"

"Is that...flour?” Ayako persisted, staring at them with wide eyes.

John, hovering over them, peered into their faces anxiously,

"Are you hurt?"

Mr. Sachi nodded hurriedly,

"Masako is, her arm--"

"Her arm?” John repeated, looking to her worriedly.

"Where have you been?” Naru demanded over the chaos.

Mai narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms, the reason any of this happened was all because of him, and this was how he greeted her: where have you been?

"Oh I don't know, just killing time by spending two hours in a hole."

"A hole?” Bou-san said looking Mai over with confusion.

Naru narrowed his eyes to match Mai,

"You mean there was an accident?"

"You could call it that, though I think falling through a stage--"

"You fell through the stage?” Bou-san exclaimed.

"Yes, how did that happen? You didn't get a chance to explain," Mr. Sachi interrupted, looking to Mai intently.

Mai blinked rapidly, feeling a bit overwhelmed,

"I don't know-- it happened so fast," she mumbled, unable to concentrate.

John, with an attentive hand on Masako's shoulder, looked to Mai with the same concern,

"Perhaps you should both sit down?” he suggested.

Mai nodded, thankful that someone was thinking of her. In the next moment Mai found herself being helped to her seat by Bou-san, behind her Masako was lead by John and Mr. Sachi as though she had just survived an earthquake instead of a minor fall. Despite this flattering attention though, the medium still seemed to only have eyes for Naru.

"She needs an ice pack," Mr. Sachi announced as he guided the medium to her seat next to Mai.

John left Masako's side to retrieve one from Lin, who handed another to Bou-san.

"Here, I'm sure you can't fall through a stage without getting bumped somewhere," the monk said, offering the pack to her.

Mai took it gratefully, but didn't immediately apply it anywhere. Ayako left her seat to kneel in front of Mai,

"So you fell through the stage," she repeated, taking Mai's face in her hands, moving it this way and that.

Mai attempted to nod, but found she couldn't in Ayako's grasp, so answered instead,

"Yes, it gave way under us--"

"But I don't see how that could be!” Mr. Sachi objected, running a hand through his hair, "The stage was restored just three months ago!"

Mai frowned, moving her eyes towards the playwright as the priestess still held her head captive.

"Well, that didn't stop it from happening."

"All the same it still baffles me. What was going on at the time?” Mr. Sachi persisted, offering Masako a cup of tea which she refused.

"We were just standing there," the medium interjected, her right hand carefully holding the ice pack to her left wrist.

Mr. Sachi stared down into the tea,

"Well, that hardly makes sense...unless--" the playwright looked up suddenly, "it was something paranormal."

"Was it paranormal?” Naru's voice cut in.

At this Mai made a clumsy grab at the cup of tea Bou-san was trying to hand her, sloshing some of it on his shirt.

"Oy-- Mai!” the monk protested.

Gathering herself, Mai blinked and quickly took the cup,

"Sorry, Bou-san."

Naru was now staring hard in Mai's direction, and beside her Masako was also.

"Well?” Naru persisted, no longer bothering to include the medium in this question.

Mai pursed her lips defiantly,

What is this, an interrogation?

If Naru thinks targeting me will get answers, he has another thing coming...

"There was nothing paranormal about it," Masako spoke up, looking from Mai to Naru, "It was an accident."

Mai broke her fierce staring contest with Naru and glanced at Masako.

Is she serious? Does she really still believe there's nothing paranormal here?

"An accident?” Naru repeated, reluctantly looking to the medium as well.

"Yes," Masako answered firmly as she gazed back at Naru, pleased to have his attention again.

"Are-- are you sure my dear? Just think of our last encounter!” Mr. Sachi protested, looking to the medium and then Mai appealingly.

"What encounter?” Bou-san asked, glancing at Mai curiously.

Masako held up a hand and opened her mouth to argue, but the playwright wouldn't have any interruptions to his story,

"The encounter," he persisted, sitting forward in his seat, "with Mr. Miyuki himself!"

Bou-san's eyebrows shot up in surprise, and Naru's fell in suspicion.

"You saw the ghost of Mr. Miyuki?” Bou-san asked, looking to Mai and Masako.

"We didn't just see him, we were attacked!” Mr. Sachi announced, nearly sliding off his seat in eagerness, "The girls were terrified, naturally. Why if it wasn't for my quick thinking--"

"You were attacked?"

"Mr. Miyuki's ghost?"

"Terrified?"

"Enough."

Suddenly there was silence. Naru left the desk he was standing near to pace the room,

"Where did this happen Mr. Sachi?” he asked, his dark eyes searching the playwright.

Mai swallowed and stared pointedly into her tea as his gaze passed over her.

"Well, in the hall near the foyer," Mr. Sachi answered, looking bothered that his story was being reduced to simple facts.

"And he just appeared, there were no signs? Mai--" Naru said returning his attention to her once more, "what did the thermometer read?"

Mai, who was gulping her tea in case some question was shot her way, promptly began choking.

"Oy, Mai," Bou-san cried, giving her several claps on the back.

Masako sent Mai a sidelong glance,

"Mai doesn't know what the temperature was," the medium began, "because Mai doesn't know where the thermometer is."

Mai, having recovered somewhat from her coughing fit, glared fiercely at her rival, but Masako merely stared ahead.

"What happened to the thermometer?"

Mai could feel Naru's eyes on her, but she refused to meet them and instead brought her ice pack over her face,

"Oh right, it's my fault it's missing. I just love falling into black holes and losing expensive equipment," Mai answered, her voice muffled by the ice pack, which a moment later was snatched away.

"Give me that, you're doing it all wrong," Ayako protested, wrapping the ice pack in cloth before plastering it across Mai's forehead.

"That's alright Mai, we know it was an accident," Bou-san replied, patting her on the shoulder while shooting Naru a significant look.

"So this whole thing is going down as an accident?” Mr. Sachi spoke up, looking to each face imploringly.

"Well, obviously Mai didn't just chuck Naru's thermometer down a hole--" Bou-san began, turning to the playwright.

"It's not that, I mean the stage giving out...” Mr. Sachi persisted, seeming a bit flustered.

"I do not believe it was paranormal," Masako answered, ignoring the playwright's dramatic expression.

"But it was just renovated!"

"Hey, weren't you sent there this morning Ayako?” Bou-san said suddenly.

There was a pause as all eyes turned on the priestess. Ayako leered over at the monk,

"Yeah, so..?"

"Well clearly you didn't do a complete job..."

"Excuse me?"

"Matsuzaki-san," Naru interrupted, taking control of the conversation again, "did you notice anything when you were there earlier?"

Ayako, red in the face and still glowering over at Bou-san, answered Naru with a curt,

"No, I completed my work and left."

"I sensed nothing while completing my work either," Masako added, handing John her deluded ice pack.

There was a moment of silence while Naru worked things over in his mind. Beside the medium, Mr. Sachi sat frowning; firmly believing something paranormal had happened.

"Mai," Naru finally said, turning his penetrating gaze upon her, "what did you feel?"

Mai lowered the ice pack from her head, buying herself some precious seconds before she would have to lie and convincingly. Mr. Sachi leaned forward in his seat to get a good look at her; perhaps she would take his side?

Mai set her face much the same way she had seen Masako do it, and while the fresh memory of her rescuer re-played it's self in her mind, Mai looked Naru straight in the eye.

"I felt nothing."

"See," Masako spoke, "she even admits it herself, there's nothing here."

Mai glanced darkly at her rival,

That Masako.

With a sigh Mr. Sachi sat back in his seat,

"So what would you call our encounter earlier, a figment of imagination?"

The medium looked thoughtful and then opened her mouth to answer, but the playwright held up his hand,

"Pardon me my dear; I forgot what state of mind you were in at the time. Perhaps it is best for you to think of it as a figment of imagination," he persisted, giving both Naru and Bou-san meaningful looks.

Masako's dark eyes narrowed, but surprisingly it was John who spoke first,

"Are you implying that Masako-- a professional medium, couldn't handle the situation?" His tone, while still soft, was enough to cause Mai to glance over at the priest.

Mr. Sachi blinked, clearly taken back, but recovered quickly, and with a smile answered,

"Nobody is pointing fingers of course, her celebrity is still intact."

C elebrity?

Mai looked to Naru to see his expression and was startled to see him staring at her. It was obvious then that he hadn't been paying attention to Mr. Sachi, Masako, or John at all; he hadn't stopped staring at her since she had answered, since she had lied. The look spoke three words clearly: this isn't over.

Chapter Text

Day Four

4:15pm

The Miyuki Theater

Mai sat on the couch alone-- alright, she wasn't entirely alone-- but Masako hardly counted. A few feet away a small crowd had gathered around Lin and his camera screens. Mai glanced up at the many monitors, focusing on the one just visible above Bou-san's head as he leaned forward in anticipation.

Mai frowned at the scenes she watched stream by her, they were getting close...a moment later came Naru's order to stop. Mai blinked and glanced over at her rival who-- even while covered in dust-- still held some dignity, only the slightest trace of irritation betraying her when Mr. Sachi cried,

"See there, he's appearing!"

Mai looked to her lap where her ice pack lay melting. She was slightly more irritated than the medium, and more nervous too.

The old man-- Mr. Miyuki-- they'll see him. How can he ask me to keep his existence a secret when he's flying down halls? As it is...

Mai glanced up briefly at her boss, his serious face illuminated by fluorescent light--

Naru suspects something.

Mai sloshed the water around the ice pack as murmurs sounded from the group clustered around Lin's desk.

"Here he comes...” Mr. Sachi announced.

"That's Mr. Miyuki?” Naru spoke, from his tone Mai could tell that he was thinking hard.

Analyze all you want, but your not getting answers from me, Mai thought, tilting the ice pack up and down.

"The picture--" Bou-san pointed out.

"Lin," Naru interrupted, "can you focus it any more?"

There was silence, presumably the Chinese man shook his head, but Mai was too unwilling to look up and find out.

"Ghostly interference?” Mr. Sachi suggested.

"Electrical interference," Naru corrected, shooting the playwright down swiftly.

"You think so?” Ayako persisted, ignoring the finality of Naru's tone, "What makes you so sure it isn't a paranormal disturbance?"

There was a tense pause, Mai could tell Naru was in less of a mood to humor the priestess than usual, but finally he relented and said,

"Lin, what is your opinion?"

There was another pause and then,

"It could be either, but I would say electrical."

A huffy noise came from Ayako and then the couch sunk next to Mai. Mai looked up to see the priestess making a face,

"Lin what is your opinion?” she mocked under her breath.

Mai returned her attention to the ice pack on her lap only to have it snatched away in the next instant,

"Hey--" she tried to protest, but Ayako held it out of her reach with narrowed eyes,

"How old are you again? What do you think this is, a play toy?"

Mai frowned as she watched the priestess lay the ice pack across her own lap, pushing the melting ice around, and opened her mouth to object, but just then John spoke.

"Then what happened?"

Mai shot a look at Mr. Sachi and further along the couch Masako tensed. The playwright was silent for a thoughtful moment, but unaware of the pairs of eyes boring into him; he smiled sympathetically and answered,

"Well it's as I said, they were struck with terror. They even seemed to be locked into some kind of trance, gravitating towards his ghostly presence, if it wasn't for me..."

Outraged Mai stood,

"I was not struck with terror; if that stupid footage would work you would see--"

"There now Mai," Mr. Sachi interrupted, looking to her with the same irritating sympathy, "the state of your mind--"

"We were perfectly sound of mind," Masako cut in, her cheeks growing red again.

"Of course you were," John said peaceably.

Mai looked over to the playwright with narrowed eyes, she appreciated John's gesture, but she would not be soothed as long as Mr. Sachi was opening his big mouth. A moment passed and then something strange happened, the playwright's shoulders suddenly sagged; slowly he sunk into the nearest seat.

"I...can't believe...” he murmured looking pale.

Everyone was staring at Mr. Sachi now, even Masako looked a bit uncertain, but before anything could be said, the playwright continued,

"This is all her fault, haunting his own theater."

Naru, with his arms crossed and his back leaning against the desk, observed Mr. Sachi closely,

"You mean Miss Miyuki?"

Mr. Sachi, who now held his face in his hands, suddenly looked up,

"Yes! Yes, this is all because of her," he exclaimed, his eyes shining with the same injustice Mai had seen in him before.

"Because she disturbed him?” Bou-san clarified.

The playwright looked over to the monk with wide eyes,

"Yes, but disturbed is such a light word. Is a man merely disturbed when he abandons his grave to haunt his own theater in protest?"

Bou-san chewed on this a moment,

"I suppose not...but I have seen more extreme cases--"

"This is a case of the most extreme kind; the fate of this theater hangs in the balance!” Mr. Sachi persisted looking to them all helplessly.

His appeal was impressive; Mai even felt a twinge of sympathy, which was quite a feat considering the man was portraying her to be some fainting damsel.

"There is something here....he is here-- just please. Please, look a little longer," the playwright finished, meeting Naru eye for eye.

"We are staying Mr. Sachi, but I'll be the judge of what is here," Naru answered, offering only cold comfort in his words.

Still, this seemed to be enough for the playwright as almost immediately he looked revived.

"Then there is hope yet. If Mr. Miyuki has been drawn here all the way from the great beyond just to stop this abomination, then let his efforts not be in vain," Mr. Sachi persisted, his spirits rallying.

Masako suddenly stood,

"If we're finished here," she began, looking to Naru, "it's getting late and we should prepare for tonight."

Naru frowned, but managed to nod,

"We'll continue tomorrow."

"Wonderful!” Mr. Sachi announced, standing as well, "Shall we my dear?"

With much reluctance, Masako took the arm offered to her. Slowly the rest of them got to their feet and filed for the door, Lin shutting down the computers for the night.

"Excited?” Bou-san whispered to Mai, giving her a nudge in the side as they walked through the hall.

Mai made a face, but that was all she could muster at the moment, with one glance at the back of Naru's head her stomach twisted it's self into knots.

Excited isn't the word.

Reaching the foyer Mai was reminded of the harmful lilies sent to Nari earlier that day, their recent encounter with what seemed to be Mr. Miyuki's ghost, and of course those doors. Instinctively she drew nearer Bou-san as they approached them. With a smile the monk took her arm and they followed the playwright and medium out, Masako now gripping Mr. Sachi's arm.

After a moment of dizziness, Mai stepped over the threshold. Standing outside the theater, a stiff breeze broke over her, tossing her hair and refreshing her senses, bits of dust swirled away in the wind. Mai took in her surroundings, dusk was falling fast, the few clouds dotting the sky were now tinted a light purple.

"At least the rain has past," Bou-san remarked, side stepping a large puddle as he descended the stairs.

Mai, not entirely paying attention, nearly slipped as she followed after the monk, and was forced to snatch at the rail,

"Yeah...” she mumbled as Ayako passed her with an amused look.

"Careful Mai, you don't want to miss the festival," John said, coming up behind her and offering a steady hand.

Actually, that's not a bad idea, Mai thought miserably, but merely smiled back at John and accepted his hand.

Passing the festival grounds a few moments later, Mai was suddenly struck with how she must look. Desperately she glanced down at her filthy clothes,

Some Yoshi I'll make!

"Bou-san," Mai spoke up, attempting to brush away some of the dust in vain, "I need a favor, can I borrow your coat?"

The Monk looked down at her with a raised eyebrow.

"Please? I'll give it right back," Mai persisted, feeling a bit irked at him for making her plead.

"What's this about?” Bou-san asked, but then his eyes landed on the Inn ahead of them and a knowing smile spread across his face, "Ah-- I see, don't want your boyfriend seeing you all--"

"As if! Bou-san just give me the coat," Mai protested, tugging hard on his sleeve.

"Oy-- Mai, that's my bad arm," the monk exclaimed, rubbing it tenderly.

"Sorry, I didn't realize,” Mai murmured innocently, successfully rendering the coat from the monk.

"Well, this is where we leave you," Mr. Sachi announced, leading Masako to the left, "See you all tonight."

"Actually," Masako spoke up looking back to the group they were leaving, "I have something waiting for me at the inn."

Mr. Sachi blinked in surprise,

"Oh, something for tonight? Well then, let's pick it up," he agreed, guiding the medium towards the inn once more.

Behind them Mai watched Masako in curiosity, what could she possibly have to pick up? She exchanged a look with Bou-san who shrugged and they all moved on.

Mai glanced back over her shoulder, they were nearly past the festival grounds, but she could see that they were already alive with activity with the paper lanterns being lit and the smell of cooking food wafting on the air.

Despite being covered in Bou-san's large coat, Mai found herself feeling self conscious as she hurriedly walked through the inn's halls towards the safety of her room.

"I'll meet you in the dining room," the monk called after her as he reached his door.

"See you then Bou-san," Mai answered over her shoulder, stopping for nothing until she saw the number fourteen on her own door. With a sigh Mai unlocked her door and threw herself in, quickly closing it behind her.  

Finally, she thought as she heaved Bou-san's heavy coat off, wincing as she saw that it was now covered in dust also,

Oops....

After beating the coat to no avail, Mai gave up and laid it across the bed. Rubbing her bare arms, she began to think longingly of a nice hot shower...but then another less pleasant thought pushed its way into her mind. Her gaze slipped over the days and days worth of clothes strewn all over her floor,

What am I going to wear?

With a sense of foreboding, her eye caught sight of something blue. There, lying discarded in a heap in the corner of her room was none other than Niko's aunt's dress. With a resigned groan Mai drug herself into the bathroom,

Well it could be worse; I could go wearing what I have on now.

After scrubbing until she was nearly pink, Mai stepped out of the shower considerably less dusty and considerably more refreshed. Wrapping herself in a thin towel (generously provided by the inn), Mai glanced at herself in the mirror and frowned.

She hadn't felt it before, but its existence was made obvious when she saw its deep purple hue. A bruise, roughly the size of her fist, had spread its way across the better part of her shoulder. Biting her lip, Mai ran her fingers along it and found it was more than a little tender.

I must have landed on it when we fell through the hole....

Once she finished drying off Mai walked back into her small room and picked up the dress she would be stuck wearing for the night.

Maybe Niko won't propose to me if he sees what terrible fashion sense I have?

Reluctantly Mai slipped the satin gown on. Back in the bathroom, standing in front of the mirror, Mai resisted thinking about what decadent dress Masako might be trying on that very moment.

That Masako.

Running a brush through her hair, Mai halfheartedly entered her room once again. She blinked, gazing around at the golden tint cast across the walls by the sun's fading light. So this was it. In a few hours she would be on her way to a proposal.

With a sigh Mai sank into her bed and stared out the window which afforded a meager view an unattended garden at the back of the Inn. Muffled voices talked in the next room to hers. They sounded excited through the thin walls.

Maybe they're waiting for a proposal instead of dreading one?

Just then a new sound drew Mai out of her thoughts. Someone was knocking on her door.

"Just a minute," Mai called, trying to untangle her hair from her brush and adjust the straps of her dress, the bruise on her shoulder acting as a large purple accessory.

"Come in--" she finally said, rubbing her head where the brush had been stuck.

The door slowly opened and Masako stuck her head in,

"Am I interrupting anything?"

Smoothing her frizzed hair and further straightening her dress Mai answered,

"Masako? Oh, no nothing..."

The medium allowed herself a small smile and stepped fully into the room. Mai swallowed her next words when she saw what her rival was wearing.

That Masako.

For starters it wasn't a kimono. It was a dress was with a light rose colored fabric that looked so light it seemed as if it was going to blow right off her. Its delicate style fit the medium perfectly and it put Mai and her secondhand dress in a right irritated mood.

Masako stood for few moments in silence, her smile growing as she observed her rival's jealous expression, but the triumphant moment was slightly spoiled when she went to cover her smile with her sleeve-- only to find she didn't have one.

"Ahem," Masako said, clearing her throat, her smile fading, "Here."

Mai, who had been pointedly ignoring the medium and her indulgence in vanity, blinked and reluctantly looked back to her. Held in her pale outstretched hands (one wrist now bandaged) was a rather large white box. With a mixture of surprise and suspicion, Mai took the box.

"What's this for?” Mai asked setting the box on her lap and looking up at Masako questioningly.

The medium looked slightly uncomfortable for a moment, but then her expression cleared.

"For you," she answered simply, taking a seat on the edge of the bed beside Mai.

Mai raised an eyebrow at her rival,

"For me? What's in here...?"

Masako made a face and went to take the box back,

"This is so typical of you, Taniyama. Fine if you don't have the decency to accept a gift--"

It was Mai's turn to make a face,

"Wait, I never said that," she protested, taking the box back.

Masako smoothed her dress and glared at her rival out of the corner of her eye. Mai pretended not to notice and instead offered the medium a small smile,

"I mean, I'm sorry but I'm just not used to getting gifts--"

"I wouldn't get used to it," Masako cut in, “Just open the box.”

Mai shot her rival a look, but obeyed and pulled off the lid. Mai raised her eyebrows, lying inside was a kimono perfectly folded and crisp.

"Don't get too excited. This is only for tonight," Masako interjected before Mai could get a word out.

Mai ran her hand over the purple brocade,

"Sure, fine...” she answered, studying the gleaming silver threads.

"I mean it, Taniyama. And if anything should happen to it--"

"I know, know...” Mai answered absently as she pulled out the kimono to examine it in it's full length splendor. Masako sighed and gave up threatening her rival as she realized it was useless. Suddenly Mai let down the kimono and looked back at the medium,

"Why?” she asked.

Masako made a sort of shrug,

"You didn't panic today. You got us out of that hole."

"So this is a...thank you?"

The medium looked uncomfortable, her eyes warning Mai not to push it, but at last she nodded,

"Yes, I suppose you could think of it that way."

Mai nodded, looking over the beautiful kimono folded on her lap,

"You're welcome and thank you, it's perfect," she answered looking up to smile at Masako sincerely.

The two exchanged a pleasant moment. And then it was over. Masako stood, fingering her hair,

"It's as much of a favor to me as it is to you anyways. Just look at that thing you're wearing."

Mai's cheeks flashed red,

"What's wrong with it? Retro is in, you're just jealous you don't have a dress like this," she argued, forgetting that she had been ready to throw it out moments ago.

Masako laughed, by habit her elegant hand coming to her mouth, "Jealous of that? You wish..."

Mai stood with her hands on her hips,

"And what would you call what you're wearing? A flamingo?"

Masako promptly pursed her lips,

"As much as I'd like to Taniyama, I don't have time to stand here and argue with you, I have a festival to get ready for," she answered and promptly made for the door.

"Thanks for the loan!” Mai called after her.

Masako merely gave her a silent look and shut the door.

That Masako, Mai thought gathering the kimono in her arms.

With more eagerness than she'd admit to, Mai entered the bathroom to change. After several minutes of struggling to get the kimono on, Mai finally managed it. Mai observed her reflection. The shimmering lavender brocade was so smooth it appeared to be made of liquid instead of silk and the sliver threads that wove intricate flowers gleamed as they caught the light.

Mai laid a hand on the sleeve of her bruised shoulder, satisfied that it could no longer be seen. Seeing herself this way, Mai felt a surge of gratitude towards the medium.

Thank you Masako, Mai thought, allowing herself a small smile.

With distaste Mai bent over and picked up the dress she had worn before, its blue satin fabric looking dull and faded next to the vibrant kimono she now wore. Mai took one step and found herself falling forward, with a cry; she snatched at the sink and caught it just in time to slow her fall. Sliding to the floor, Mai frantically looked over the immaculate kimono for any rips of tears, and thankfully found none.

Letting out a relieved breath Mai sat for a moment, thinking over her predicament. She felt a surge of respect for Masako; it wasn't easy getting around in a kimono. Slowly Mai stood up and then little by little she hobbled into her room, nearly falling twice before reaching her bed. By this point, new thoughts were surging through her head concerning Masako and none of them were of gratitude or respect.

This is just like Masako; she can't do anything simply for the sake of doing it. She knew how hard it would be for me to put a kimono on and how awkward I would be in it. I bet she's laughing into her hand right now! It doesn't matter how beautiful this kimono is if I walk around like an idiot in it. That Masako.

With fierce determination to have the last laugh, Mai began practicing walking around her room. After a while she gained some balance and learned to take small steps, attempting to ignore the ugly, but easy to move around in, blue dress lying on the bed.

Soon though, Mai grew tired of walking, and seeing the graying sky outside her window, decided she should finish getting ready before it got too late. With a sigh she found herself in the bathroom yet again, looking over her small selection of makeup. She had just brought the lipstick to her lips when there was a sudden knock at her door. Startled Mai jumped and her hand slipped, the result being an unflattering pink line above her upper lip. Mai shot the door a frown,

"If you were hoping to find me tied up Masako, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I got into the kimono just fine," she called from the bathroom, struggling to remove the lip stick mark.

The door opened with a confused voice answering,

"Tied up? What have you got yourself into now?"

Glaring, Mai turned to see Ayako enter the room. The priestess, a large bag in hand, glanced around before catching sight of Mai. The miko raised an eyebrow critically,

"I guess I came just in time."

"Just in time to leave," Mai answered, rubbing at the lipstick mark resentfully.

"I see how you are, maybe I will then--" Ayako said crossing her arms and turning for the door.

"Wait, what is it Ayako?"

The priestess examined a well manicured hand,

"I don't know. I thought you might need help, which clearly you do, but if this is the welcome I get--"

Mai stepped back from the mirror and set down the tissue she was using on the lipstick mark,

"This is your fault. Can you get it off?"

Ayako, dressed elegantly in a long black evening gown, the straps criss-crossing over her back, marched over to Mai, bringing with her a bag, her black stilettos clicking against the bathroom floor.

"Here we are," she said, opening the mysterious bag.

Inside was more makeup than Mai imagined could fit.

"Hold still," Ayako ordered, opening a bottle of makeup remover.

Mai did as she was told and moment later the priestess announced that she was finished. Mai blinked and looked into the mirror, satisfied that the mark was gone.

"That's a nice kimono," Ayako commented as she retrieved the blush.

Mai gazed at the kimono she wore in the mirror,

"It's from Masako," she admitted, adjusting the sleeves.

"Really? I guess the new dress she's wearing has her feeling generous," Ayako replied with a significant look.

Mai frowned,

"She looks like a flamingo."

The priestess began dusting Mai's cheeks,

"You look like a plum."

"Hey--" Mai objected, bumping Ayako's hand.

The priestess drew back,

"What? I can't help it if I'm the only sophisticated looking one," she persisted, a smug smile gracing her red lips.  

"I don't suppose age has something to do with that?” Mai answered with a small smile of her own as Ayako resumed her work.

The priestess narrowed her eyes and made a huffy noise as she hunted down her eye shadow.

"So, I wonder what Naru likes best? A plum or flamingo?"

It was Mai's turn to be disgruntled,

"I am not a plum--"

"Though to be honest, he doesn't seem like fruit guy to me," the priestess went on as she applied a shimmery violet eye shadow to Mai's eyes.

"Oh, so you think he's a bird person," Mai remarked, narrowing her left eye at Ayako.

"Stop that," the priestess scolded as she switched eyes, "and no I don't think he's a bird person either. I think Naru is a man of sophistication."

Mai actually laughed at this, "Naru with you..."

A sudden poke was administered to Mai's eye.

“Ow--" Mai protested, reaching up to sooth her eye, but Ayako batted it away.

"Oops, slipped. Don't touch it; you'll ruin my hard work."

With a frown Mai dropped her hand as Ayako reached back in her bag for eyeliner.

"Ah, I almost forgot. It doesn't matter whether Naru likes plums or not; you're taken."

Mai's cheeks heated up,

"Excuse me?"

Smiling, Ayako began to trace Mai's eye,

"You can't forget about Niko. He's due to propose anytime, isn't he?"

"He is not going to propose, why does everyone keep saying that?” Mai demanded, feeling flustered at the mention of it.

Ayako's keen eye didn't miss her distress and teasingly she answered,

"He's head-over-heels. Of course he's going to propose."

"You're wrong, we're just friends," she objected.

Wisely Ayako said no more, but shook her head.

"How about you then, hm? Who will be proposing to you tonight?” Mai asked after she had recovered somewhat.

Ayako smirked,

"No one thank you very much, although it might be nice coming from Lin.”

Mai snorted, but then noticed Ayako was now applying mascara, and quickly covered it with a cough.

"What about Bou-san?” Mai wondered when she felt safe to speak again.

Ayako raised an eyebrow,

"What about Bou-san? If he even thought about getting down on one knee in front of me I'd kick him over.”

Mai blinked her newly finished eyes and gazed up at Ayako's reflection. She looked beautiful with her smoky eyes, red lips, and her long red hair done up in an elegant bun with a few strands left out to frame her face. Mai was sure she would receive many lilies that night...as long as she didn't open her mouth.

"Well, what do you think?” the miko prodded in Mai's silence.

Mai blinked and returned her gaze to her own reflection. For the second time that night, gratitude surged through her. Her cheeks were a soft pink, her lips a rich magenta, and her eyes shimmered with the same lavender as her kimono.

"Not bad, considering--" the priestess continued, but was cut off by folds of fabric suddenly embracing her.

"Uh- Mai..."

"Thank you Ayako," Mai answered into her ear.

Recovering, the miko allowed herself a small smile,

"Well, there's the thanks I was looking for."

The two of them released each other, and Mai began helping Ayako clean up.

"I think it's getting on time for dinner, I'm going to head for the dining room, are you coming?” the miko asked once she had zipped up her bag.

Staring into the mirror, pulling on a strand of unruly hair, Mai shook her head,

"No, it's okay, you go on without me. I'll be along in a minute."

Ayako paused uncertainly,

"Are you sure? You know what happens if you're late..."

"Its fine, I'm sure Niko will be there, if you know," Mai replied, a slight blush, not dusted on by Ayako, spreading across her cheeks.

"Uh-huh...” Ayako said, shaking her head as she left the bathroom.

A moment later the door closed behind the miko, and Mai sighed, gathering her uncooperative hair and then letting it go in defeat. Masako had provided the dress and Ayako applied the makeup, now it was up to her to fix her hair. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to want to be fixed. Attacking it with the brush again, she found that it was only making it frizzier.

Resignedly Mai left the bathroom. She had spent the last hour getting ready, and aware of her empty stomach, and the encroaching night, she decided to be finished.

There. I can be happy with this.

Stepping out of her room Mai found the hall to be loud and busy with the swish of evening gowns and giggling. She excused herself as she maneuvered past women destined to receive many lilies that night. Feeling warm and flustered, Mai caught sight of the double doors leading into the dining room. And then a realization struck her. Niko was behind those doors, Naru was behind those doors.

Suddenly she was filled with the urge to just turn around and hide in her room. No one had seen her yet...maybe she could just lie and say she didn't feel well? Compelled by a rising panic, Mai turned around to do just that-- but found she couldn't go forward. The area right outside the dining room had quickly become flooded with people-- she was stuck, with her only way out being to go in.

Standing there, being brushed past by men in dress clothes and old ladies in their best, Mai was rooted to the spot and reaching her limit. It was then that the wind of good fortune blew upon her-- literally. Her bangs stirred across her forehead. Mai blinked, drawn out of her dread. Slowly she turned, her eyes finding the escape she hadn't known existed a moment before. A door. Quickly, Mai closed the gap and disappeared before she was ever noticed.

Mai squinted, her eyes adjusting to the light, the last of the day's, which lit the small garden she had just stepped in. Another refreshing breeze took up the air around her and already she could feel herself relaxing. That was when she noticed him.

"John?"

Sitting on a crumbling garden bench, the young priest looked up surprised.

"Mai? Look at you. You look beautiful."

Self consciously Mai glanced down at her kimono, almost as if to make sure she wasn't really walking around in blue satin.

"Thank you, you look nice yourself," she answered with a smile.

And he did, sporting something not unlike a tux that made him look as dashing as any of the young men crowding the inn.

"How did you find me?"

Encouraged by his smile and the fact that he had moved over a few inches, Mai approached him,

"I just wanted a bit of fresh air before dinner and saw this door. You?" she answered, attempting to hide her anxieties behind a light tone.

John nodded with unassuming eyes and answered,

"Me too."

There was a moment of comfortable silence as Mai took her seat beside him. A while later she spoke again,

"I never knew this existed, I guess I should have though, I have a view of it outside my window..."

John gazed around at the over grown shrubs and tall grass surrounding them,

"I hadn't either, I just found it yesterday. It's been nice to step out."

"Mmm," Mai said in agreement, closing her eyes for a moment, letting the last of the suns rays warm her.

"How are you feeling?"

Mai opened her eyes and collected herself before glancing at John,

"I'm fine, I've got this great kimono from Masako, and Ayako did my make up and..."

John focused his kind eyes upon her and Mai trailed off in defeat.

"Actually...” she began again, gazing down at her hands, "pretty nervous."

Mai felt his smile before she saw it.

"You'll do fine, I've never seen anyone look more pretty", John encouraged, his voice soothing as always.

Mai looked up and offered him a half smile,

"Well, you haven't seen Masako yet...” she chided.

John smiled back just as brightly, but something passed in his eyes at the mention of Masako's name that Mai couldn't help noticing. Suddenly Mai's smiled formed a frown of concern,

"But, how about you? This festival isn't exactly...” Mai paused for lack of words.

"My kind?” he offered, his smile never diminishing for a moment, "It's quite alright."

"Are you sure? I'm sure no one would be offended if you didn't hand out lilies...” Mai persisted, just as concerned for him as he had been for her.

"Not hand out lilies?” John questioned, gazing at her with warmth, "But then I couldn't give this one to you."

"What? John--" Mai started as a pale lily was held out to her.

"Mai," John interrupted, closing her hand around it, "please take it. I feel closer to you than I have to anyone in a long time. I think...you're God's way of granting me the sister I always wanted."

Mai gazed back at him, a lump rising in her throat, her eyes burning at the edges...

I won't cry. I can't cry, not when I Ayako just finished my makeup...

For the third time that day, Mai felt a deep gratitude wash over her. Being an orphan, SPR had long filled the void in her life in terms of family. To her, Bou-san and John were the best brothers she could wish for.

"Thank you so much John," she finally managed, still fighting off tears.

Noticing this John quickly searched his pockets, and a moment later offered her a handkerchief.

"You're very welcome Mai," he answered affectionately.

Carefully Mai dabbed at her eyes,

"Great, Ayako won't be happy, look what I've done to her work..."

John peered closer at Mai's face,

"It doesn't look ruined to me," he remarked, providing a hopeful smile.

Mai smiled back, her fingers playing with the handkerchief,

"Well, whether it is or not, I guess there are worse things to be worried about than Ayako's wrath."

John made a face,

"I wouldn't be so sure...”

Mai blinked, slowly memories of all the times the miko's wrath had descended on Bou-san coming to the surface. The two of them shared a look and then broke out into laughter.

"I guess," John said after their laughter had died down, "we better be going in?"

Having stood, the young priest offered Mai a hand, and reluctantly she took it. If it had been up to her, she would have spent the entire night out here rather than spend one minute in there.

“You're right, we should...”

Silently, John watched Mai as they walked to the door. Sensing her nerves-- as he had plenty of his own that night-- he decided to try them both at ease,

"Mai? Would you sit next to me tonight?"

Mai, her hand on the door handle, blinked and looked over at John.

The priest stared back at her a bit sheepish, there was something in his eyes that told her he was just as bothered about something-- or someone in that dining room-- as she was. Mai smiled,

"Of course, sure!"

"Great. It's a deal then.”

Perfect. Now if I can just force Bou-san to sit on the other side of me, Niko won't be close enough to pass a rice bowl to me, let alone close enough to whisper a surprise proposal in my ear, Mai thought as the two of them stepped inside the now empty hallway.

"Everyone must be inside," John commented, glancing around at the open space.

Mai only had eyes for the double doors. Just then John walked into her line of vision; he held one of them open,  

"Shall we?"

Everything about his tone and expression was friendly and inviting, there was no reason for Mai not to just follow him. Except there was a reason-- two reasons actually-- and those two reasons gave her pause...but in the next moment, a perfectly timed distraction came up behind her.

"Oy-- Mai! Finally, where have you been?” Bou-san demanded, "I was just at your room, you know you're thirty minutes late for dinner..." But then the monk trailed off.

Reaching her, he stopped to stare,

"Wow, Mai you look-- are you wearing a kimono?"

Mai stared back at Bou-san a moment, attempting to decide what exactly he meant by that,

"So...?"

"Oh-- nothing," he hastily added sensing her offense, "It's just-- it looks great."

Mai's expression softened, she smoothed the folds of her kimono,

"Thanks."

"Bou-san," John spoke up, "you haven't eaten yet, have you?"

The monk glanced at the priest,

"No, but I'm not that hungry."

Mai glanced at Bou-san. Not hungry? Since when? At her questioning look, the monk remained expressionless, but something in his eyes told her she would soon find out.

"But," Bou-san continued looking back to John, "if you are...you better get in there before it's all gone, you know Ayako's appetite."

Sensing something, John looked from the monk, back to Mai. Politely, he inclined his head towards her,

"Are you...?”

Mai, feeling a not so gentle nudge to her side, shot Bou-san a glare before smiling at John,

"Save me a seat?"

The priest smiled back and nodded,

"Alright."

The moment the double doors swung shut, Mai turned on the monk,

"What was that?"

Bou-san adjusted the sleeves of his dress shirt,

"What was what? I'm not hungry, is that such a crime?"

Mai's gaze fell to the monk's feet, which he-- upon noticing this, took a precautionary step back,

"You know what I mean Bou-san, why do you have me out here?” Mai asked, returning her attention to his face.  

"Okay, okay," the Bou-san relented holding out his hands, "I don't know what you have to get so testy for, I think all this time with Ayako isn't good for you--" Mai proceed to give his feet another look, "but that's beside the point. This is our chance Mai," the monk said, lowering his voice, "The theater is empty."

"You want to look at the pictures now?” Mai replied, glancing at the double doors.

Bou-san followed her gaze,

"Come on Mai, there will be plenty of time tonight to impress Naru and Niko, this maybe our only shot--"

"Excuse me? For the last time this isn't about Naru and Niko," Mai protested, a blush growing across her cheeks.

The monk stared down at her, attempting to contain an amused smile,

"Sure, right. And I'm not hungry either."

"I promised John I'd sit by him," Mai argued, crossing her arms and looking alarmingly like Masako in doing so.

Bou-san sighed, his face relaxing from its smile, his brown eyes stared at the double doors,

"Knowing this place, if we go now, we can be back before dinner's served..."

The monk's eyes now turned on her to seal the deal.

"Fine. But if dinner's over before we get back, I'm blaming it on you."

Bou-san motioned her to go before him and shrugged,

"Fine, and while you're at it you can blame me for the fact that we're stuck in this town, dealing with a loony client, and you're getting proposed to tonight."

Mai sent the monk a look over her shoulder,

"Actually, that's not a bad idea."

Passing through the quiet halls on the way out, Mai could feel the energy in the air mounting. Even the silence was loud to her ears, as if she could hear the thoughts of the many hopefuls in love.

"Penny for your thoughts," Bou-san spoke up after they had reached the outside.

Mai, her eyes trained on the golden moon rising in the clear dusk sky, shrugged.

"They're probably not worth a penny."

"Maybe, maybe not," he agreed and Mai turned her head, catching the small smile on his face, "but just the same, I bet I can guess them."

"What? You're a mind reader now in addition to a bassist?"

The monk narrowed his eyes at her,

"You laugh now, but it won't be so funny when I'm rattling off your deepest muses."

Mai smiled challengingly at him,

"Well, what am I thinking?"

"You're worrying weather Naru is going to like that kimono on you, or whether he's simply going to think: great now I have two Masakos..."

"As if, Monk,” Mai objected, her cheeks distinctly red in the falling dark.

Bou-san's grin was equally noticeable.

"Well, if that's the best you can do, you're a million miles off your mark," Mai persisted, her arms crossed and a sour look set on her face.

That Masako.

The monk spent a thoughtful moment in silence.

"Okay, maybe I was joking there," he allowed, glancing at her with a shadow of his smile returning, "but I know you are nervous. The good news is though, you don't have to be."

Mai, who had taken to staring pointedly out over the festival grounds, looked back to the monk with kindness in her eyes.

"Thanks Bou-san."

The monk patted her shoulder reassuringly and they walked in comfortable silence. That was until Bou-san halted, a look of deep longing crossing his face. Mai allowed herself a small smile, she had smelled it too.

"Not hungry, huh?” she said with an eyebrow raised.

"I lied. Let's hurry so we can get back and I can eat," the monk answered, walking quickly onward.

Mai followed behind, shaking her head.

With her next breath Mai was remained that there were other smells than cooking food in the air. If the scent of lilies had been strong before, it was potent now. Passing the festival grounds, it was as if the perfume was invading her mind, leaving her in an almost dreamy state. Mai could easily see how Mr. Miyuki's favorite flower would set the mood for this romantic night.

Once they had reached the theater stairs a new emotion had temporarily replaced Mai's nervousness: excitement. There were a million questions racing through her head in regards to the picture. Would identifying the person produce any answers?

"Are you sure you know where to look?” Mai asked as she climbed the top step, taking the monk's arm.

"Yep, you just turn left at that one hall and make a right at that other," he replied, a grin tugging at his lips as he lead her through the double doors.

But Mai was not sending him a look, or looking to step on any toes at this. Instead her expression had suddenly turned pale and uncomfortable. The usual tug of sickness, followed by dizziness as she stepped over the threshold felt magnified, its grip on her tighter and its pull stronger.

"Mai, I was just kidding. I'm not going to get us lost, we'll be back in time for you to sit next to John," Bou-san relented in her silence and grave looks.

Swallowing, Mai looked up at the monk shaking her head,

"It's not that, the doors-- I felt sick," Mai attempted to explain, closing her eyes in an effort to shut out the dizziness.

Bou-san tilted his head in misunderstanding,

"Well, they usually do that to you Mai-- let’s walk it off..."

"Wait Bou-san," Mai protested, gripping his arm tighter as another wave of nausea passed through her.

Looking clarify the situation, he suggested in a lighter tone,

"You do have an empty stomach, maybe that's making you feel--"

"This is worse; I don't know what it is...” Mai answered, finally recovering somewhat.

The monk now looked down on her with concern,

"Are you going to be okay? Should I take you back?"

"No," Mai answered quickly, looking up at him with a reassuring smile, "I'm fine, let's go on."

Bou-san observed her for an uncertain moment, but when she tugged on his arm, coaxing him forward, he decided not to question her.

If the theater had been dim and eerie earlier that day, it was now nearly pitch black and utterly unnerving in its silent night hours. Mai gripped Bou-san's arm tighter as they made slow progress down the first hall off the foyer. Squinting in the darkness, the monk directed her towards the left side of the hall.

"It's hard to see, but base is close...maybe they'll be a stray flashlight we can use?” he suggested.

A moment later there was click and creak-- door to base swung open, and the monk entered the room first. What followed a was a bang and curse.

"Bou-san?” Mai asked into the blackness, barely able to make out his hunched figure two feet in front of her.

Grumbling, bent over and holding his foot, the monk answered,

"I forgot about the table, I think I broke a toe."

Mai sighed, and moving around the fuming monk, she started to look for the much need flashlight,

There has to be one around somewhere...

"Where are you Mai?” Bou-san wondered, working his way opposite of her.

"Over here-- at Lin's desk...I think.”

"You think they'll be one there? I'm going to see if Naru has one stashed with the equipment," the monk said, the sound of him rummaging through thermometers, cameras, and various other pieces in Naru's ghost hunting arsenal, loud in the silence.

As Mai's fingers clumsily brushed and bumped against different objects, common, but feeling foreign with her poor sight, it occurred to her that this could take longer than they had-- not to mention how long they had already spent in the dark, in a theater supposedly haunted.

Mai paused and blinked out against the black that surrounded her, her own heartbeat and breathing filling her ears. She had nothing against Mr. Miyuki, he had been peaceful thus far, but she couldn't help thinking that a sudden visit from him in the quiet and dark would be more than a little unsettling,

"Bou-san? Have you found anything yet?” Mai asked, imaging her voice as filling up the room, pushing any uninvited guests out.

"Hold on a moment," the monk answered distractedly, the clicking of metal on metal coming from his direction, "I think these are it--" and without warning a flare of white light shot into the room, momentarily blinding Mai,

"Hey--" she cried shielding her eye's as the beam moved away from her face.

"Oh, sorry-- here," he apologized, tossing a second one her way.

Mai caught it, then quickly turned it on. Comforted slightly by the two beams of light, and reassured that they were no longer in danger of tripping over something and breaking a leg, the two of them left base, hoping to find a matching picture to the one sitting on Mai's inn nightstand.

"How much further?” Mai asked as they hurried down hall after hall.

His face glowing in the pale light, Bou-san aimed his flashlight towards a corridor to their right,

"Over here..."

With just the sound of their feet padding rapidly across the wooden floors, Mai's light began searching the dim walls for pictures of old actresses, captured in a moment of glory and fame.

"Ah-ha, there's some pictures," Bou-san announced, his beam of light bouncing off a section of wall just ahead of them.

Mai pulse quickened, for some reason she suddenly felt apprehensive solving this piece of the mystery. Eyes. A presence. Mai felt something behind her. Quickly, her heart pounding in her ears, Mai spun around, her flash light casting a bright ark through the hall.

"Mai?” Bou-san said, noticing that she had paused.

Mai blinked. She saw nothing, no one was there. But yet...

"Sorry-- it was nothing...” she answered the monk vaguely, moving a head of him with a smile.

He wasn't so easily convinced.

"Mai...you haven't been seeing things have you?"

With her back to him Mai bit her lip,

Shoot. I need to be more careful.

"Seeing things Bou-san? I do have a pair of eyes you know."

"That's not what I mean and you know it," the monk replied, falling into step beside her,

"You would tell me, wouldn't you? If you saw something? You've been going on to Naru about how you think this place is haunted..."

Mai felt the pressure of his words, but it was no use-- if she could hold up against the likes of Naru, Bou-san had no chance of cracking her. The old man's secret was safe for a while more.

"You don't think unusual things have been happening, Bou-san? That hall of mirrors, our encounter with something-- just hours ago? Masako and I fell through a perfectly sound floor," Mai countered giving him an equally questioning look.

The monk looked thoughtful and then nodded,

"Oy, I'm on your side. Those things are odd, I was just saying..."

Looking to get off the subject before her guilt started making things difficult, Mai interrupted by pointing out the pictures they had just arrived at,

"Here! Help me look..."

And so the search began. Mai closed her eyes for a moment. What did she look like?

I wish I had brought the picture...

Struggling to recall details of a photo she had only observed a handful of times, a sudden chill ran up her back.

"Hey, Mai-- what are we looking for again? I mean I know an actress, but there must be twenty here and--"

The monk's voice faded out. Mai was no longer listening. An image, a vision appeared in her mind, sharp as the picture ever was-- a little girl's face. The chill left her and Mai's eye's sprung open. Her first impulse was to whip around to see what had just moved past her, but Bou-san was staring at her.

"Mai? You're not going to faint on me are you?"

Mai shook her head quickly,

"Faint? Uh-- no. I was just closing my eyes to think better...the picture was of a little girl with long blonde hair," Mai explained, her beam of light moving intently over the many pictures gleaming back at her.

Bou-san blinked and watched her a moment,

"Blonde hair you said?” he went on, joining her search.

"Yeah...” Mai murmured distractedly as she focused on each of the beautiful actresses smiling back at her.

They were all so much older, how was she ever going to pick one out to be the little girl?

"Hey-- would you look at this...” the monk spoke up.

Mai tore her eyes off the latest actress she was scrutinizing to look at what Bou-san had found. In a set of three large frames, complete with gold name plates, were pictures of the infamous Miyukis. Mai's eyes ran over the name: Tokuya Miyuki, and a slight pang came to her heart. Looking up, just above the name was the man himself gazing kindly down at her. Mai was not startled at his appearance, besides having slightly rosier cheeks; this was the same Mr. Miyuki she had been seeing the past three days.

"That's him, huh? The Mr. Miyuki we've been hearing so much of? How about it Mai, look anything like the ghost?"

Mai looked up at the monk startled,

"What do you mean? How should I know-- I've never...seen--"

"Never seen him? Then just what did you see today with Masako and Mr. Sachi?” Bou-san protested, giving her strange look.

Oops.

"Ooh that. I forgot. Um-- I can't recall, he was gone so fast."

I plead the fifth.

The monk returned her quick, innocent looking smile with an eyebrow raised critically.

"But, hey-- let's take Masako here tomorrow and ask her what she thinks, she having the better memory and all...” Mai rambled on under his heavy look.

And then realizing he wasn't letting it go all that easily, she became absorbed in examining the picture right below Mr. Miyuki's. That's when she noticed it. Empty. Blank. Gone. There was not a single trace that the frame had ever been filled, and if it weren't for the dusty gold name plate below it, Mai might have thought it was just there by mistake.

Toki Miyuki. Mr. Miyuki's daughter. Mai frowned.

"They must really hate her...” she said quietly, pointing to the vacant frame she was staring at.

Beside her Bou-san nodded,

"Yeah, but would you keep a picture up of someone in fancy gold frame who was planning on tearing your theater down?"

Mai's frown deepened,

"No I guess not," she answered as she imagined Mr. Sachi marching up to the picture and angrily pulling it out.

"I wonder if she knows she's been taken out of here," Mai went on; for some reason entranced with the fact that someone could be removed from her family like that.

The monk made a knowing noise,

"I'm sure, we've seen her here a few times, and I'm sure she's come before...it's her own fault."

Mai nodded,

"She was pretty cold, I wonder why should would hate this theater so much?"

Bou-san shrugged,

"I guess that's a question for Naru, he interviewed her."

Mai grew quiet, her questions disappearing on the spot as her eye's fell on the picture place directly next to Mr. Miyuki's. Yoshi Miyuki and oh what a beauty she was. Mai, if she had any hopes before, now despaired of ever emulating her stunning looks.

Inspiring? Try hypnotizing.

"Wow...” Bou-san breathed.

Yes, wow. But Mai soon saw something more. Haughtiness, sharp and cold, hidden but present in the woman's eyes. Mrs. Koku was not chiding before, Mai knew that if she could have given the picture a voice at that moment, she would have been greeted coldly, or not at all...

They say that a picture speaks a thousand words and Mai could hear them all: yes, I'm rich, inspiring, beautiful...and you are no one compared to me.

A pretty smile, a pretty face...and an ugly smugness. But none of that truly mattered, Mai had found her match.

"Is this? I can't remember very well..." Bou-san spoke, squinting at the photo as if that could help his memory.

The photo burned bright in Mai's mind, those sapphire eyes...the golden hair... all's the picture on the wall was missing was youth and innocence.

"Yes, I think so...” Mai finally answered, feeling strangely detached.

There was no light bulb going off, no real spark of realization. The discovery somehow seemed to fall flat. But what was she expecting? An eureka moment? This was it, there she was, mystery solved-- or at least part of it.

"Mission accomplished, but where do we go from here?” Bou-san asked, eyeing the picture as curiously as Mai.  

Mai blinked. Where did they go from there? What was all this supposed to mean? The picture she had found in the office was merely one of Mr. Miyuki's wife as a child. Why had the situation seemed so desperate, why had she gone back for the photo? What was it's significance?

"Earth to Mai," Bou-san said, waving a hand in front of her face, "I was asking what you wanted to do from here--"

"Um, sorry Bou-san, I guess....why don't we head back?"

"Sounds good, we can think on it and talk later," the monk agreed, stepping as to follow her lead out.

After a few moments of walking Mai found that some energy had returned to her and with it a dull headache. She walked with a quickened pace. Some excitement seemed to have caught Bou-san as well, his thoughts appearing forward thinking, forward as in the warm dinner hopefully awaiting him. Somewhere a nagging voice began speaking once more in Mai's head, drowning any thoughts regarding the Miyukis',

Festival, festival, festival...it whispered. Mai swallowed, her head throbbing a bit worse than before.

"So, it was a picture of his wife," Bou-san spoke in the thoughtful silence.

Grateful for this break in her quickly surfacing anxieties, Mai attempted to focus again on what they had just discovered.

"Yes...just his wife."

"It's strange, why would your intuition tell you to go retrieve a photo, if it's only his wife?” the monk mused, looking down at her wonderingly.

Mai gave him a helpless shrug,

"I don't know, that's what confuses me."

"Hmm, we'll have to think on it. I'll keep my eyes open," Bou-san offered as they turned the last corner.

Mai smiled up at him,

"Thanks, Bou-san-- for all your help. I couldn't have figured out this much on my own."

"I know," the monk answered with a wink.

Mai gave him a playful nudge and they entered the foyer. Then a new emotion gripped her. Dread. Looming in the pale light of their flashlights were the large doors, their only exit.

"Are you going to be okay this time around?” Bou-san asked gently, noting her pale complexion.

Mai could tell she was not, her stomach already churning, and the pressure in her head escalating. But she determinedly bit her lip and nodded up at the monk,

"I'll be okay, let's just get out of here."

He didn't believe her, but he nodded and then that was it, they crossed over to the doors and passed through them. Emerging into the sultry night air, the moisture from the earlier rain holding out, Bou-san was careful not to let Mai's arm go. Mai sank to her knees, grateful for an empty stomach as it felt as though it might turn it's self inside out.

"Just breathe Mai," Bou-san urged, his warm, heavy hand rubbing her back gently.

Taking deep breaths, Mai stood with the support of the monk,

"Better?” he asked uncertainly.

Mai nodded and gave him a small smile,

"Better."

Letting out a sigh, Bou-san helped Mai down the stairs,

"This isn't good Mai; we're going to have to find you a new way in."

"Yeah, but where?” Mai answered, releasing Bou-san's arm as she slowly felt strong enough to walk on her own again.

"What about that room we saw this morning, the one where Mr. Sachi accepted those deliveries of flowers?” the monk suggested.

"We'll have to ask him about it...” Mai replied, her mind drifting from the conversation as they passed the festival grounds.

Night had fallen fast over the sleepy town of Nozomi; each lantern light stood out like fallen star, and if you listened closely enough a few strains of music could be heard.

"A band?” Mai asked aloud, glancing at Bou-san.

"Maybe there will be dancing? I'll be able to show you my moves," the monk grinned.

Mai stifled a laugh as a vision of Bou-san preforming some of those moves entered her head. The monk narrowed his eyes at her,

"Hey, you think I can't dance? We'll just see, won't we?"

Mai, attempting to keep a straight face answered,

"We'll see."

"Then again...maybe you won't see at all," he persisted, shooting her a knowing look, "being busy dancing with Niko and such..."

Pink tinged Mai's cheeks and her eye's immediately sought out a foot, but the monk was too fast for her, and grinning mischievously he added,

"Or better yet...Naru."

"Bou-san, if you want to see your dinner--" Mai threatened.

"Oh Naru, what a wonderful dancer you are!" the monk mocked.

Mai made a disgusted face and hit his arm,

"I do not talk like that!"

Thoroughly enjoying himself, his teasing would have continued had they not come upon the Inn so quickly. Forced to swallow his smile and rubbing his sore arm, he lead them past the front desk, Mai glaring daggers after him.

As they reached the dining room, Mai came to a halt, telling Bou-san she needed just a moment, when really she felt like she needed several more years. The monk stood patiently as Mai nervously adjusted her kimono, fidgeting with every fold, her cheeks burning.

"Oh-- I nearly forgot," he spoke up, interrupting the anxious stream of thoughts rushing through Mai's head.

Looking up at him, she saw the monk search his dinner jacket, then pause and pull out something.

"Hold still," he ordered gently and then approaching her, he gathered some of her hair and held it to one side.

Confused, Mai longed to look up at what he was doing, but she did as she was told for once and didn't move. Feeling something slide into her hair and then hearing a click, Mai blinked and looked up at the monk who stepped away from her, looking pretty satisfied with himself.

"Not bad if I say so myself," he commented, making a final adjustment.

"Bou-san, what did you just put in my hair?" Mai wondered, reaching up to feel a smooth wooden hair piece.

"Something I found the other day, I meant to give it to you earlier, but I forgot--" the rest of what he was going to say was cut off by Mai engulfing him in a tight hug.

One arm squeezed her back while the other patted her head softly.

"I take it you like it?"

Mai pulled back and smiled at him, "Yes, thank you."

Bou-san gave her one more good-natured squeeze and then a gleam entered his eye,

"Why can't you be like this all the time? This is much better than all the bruising and batterings you give me."

Mai gave him a warning look and nudged him in the side.

"Hey, see--" he protested, but they were both smiling.

Straightening up again, Bou-san offered her an arm to take,

"Shall we?"

Mai took in a deep breath, it was now or never.

Never. How about never?

But that was it, they were already walking in. The double doors swung open and a low hum met Mai's ears. Every table was full, the lights were low, and the room warm. Mai couldn't remember crossing the crowded room, she was just suddenly at their table, and there was everyone.

"It's about time! Where in the world have you been? That boyfriend of yours has refused to serve us anything until you get here!" Ayako exclaimed, leering over at Mai.

Mai's throat tightened.

"Mai, good thing you're finally here," a voice greeted behind her, "Traditions must be up held you know."

The voice belonged to Mr. Sachi, but he had scarcely uttered these words and passed before her when he made a dramatic stop,

"Why, look at you," he cried taking her in stunned, "you're a different creature all together, I wouldn't believe it if I didn't just see it with my own eyes."

Mai's cheeks began to burn red, not from embarrassment, but from irritation,

Wouldn't believe it?

Mai, still standing next to the table, having yet been able to take a seat, let alone breathe, gripped Bou-san's arm tighter. It was all that was holding her back from wiping the approving look off of the playwright's face.

"She always looks very nice," John spoke up, correcting Mr. Sachi.

Mai managed a grateful smile at the young priest, and seeing that he had saved her a seat, she suddenly released her hold on Bou-san and went to make for the safety of it, when another voice came behind her.

"Mai."

She couldn't help it, she turned around. Niko. Mai's heart dropped from her throat to her stomach.

"Wow...you look-- you look so...you look...” he stammered, his face growing redder as he struggled to find the words.

"Beautiful."

Mai blinked. That voice, she knew it, but it didn't quite register. That voice never said words like beautiful. Not in reference to her. Helplessly she looked back to the table and found Naru staring, not at her, but at Niko. Naru. Had Naru just said she was beautiful? That was it. Mai was sure her heart would burst out of her chest.

"Ye-- yes," Niko answered, with growing confidence, "Yes, beautiful."

Mai felt his stare on her, but her eyes were locked, frozen on Naru, who was not even looking at her, but glaring past her-- at someone...but that didn't matter. What mattered was that this was the part where she was supposed to look Niko in the eye and thank him, perhaps compliment him back, did he look nice tonight? She didn’t know...

Suddenly there was a sharp pain in her foot, snapping out of it, she looked down quickly and then back up at her attacker, which was none other than Bou-san, giving her a look that clearly asked: what-are-you-doing?

Suddenly her heart was back in her chest, she could turn her head, and she could speak again. Clearing her dry throat, Mai looked back to Niko and with the warmest smile she could muster and said,

"Thank you...you look--" she swallowed, observing him in his crisp dress clothes, "very nice."

For all the awkwardness and painfulness of that moment, somehow her words still did the trick, and in the next second Niko beamed at her, red once again,

"Thank you..."

"Well, now that we have all our necessary compliments out of the way, shall we finally eat?” Mr. Sachi suggested, the first one to speak sense.

There was a murmur of agreement and somehow, Mai ended up in a seat between John and Bou-san. Niko nodded, and with one last lingering look towards Mai, he left their table and hurried to the kitchen. Apparently still feeling talkative, Mr. Sachi went forth in the silence that had settled it's self over them.

"This should be wonderfully delicious. It's unique to this festival, and quite a tradition. That's why we couldn't enjoy it before, Mai wasn't present and all of one's party is needed to share in it, symbolizing marriage I suppose, the sharing of everything?"

The question put out went unanswered. Mai was sitting directly across from Masako and for the first time that night she had a moment to see wheather her rival was smiling into her wrist (as she now lacked a sleeve) after having a first row seat to her humiliation. But no. To Mai's great surprise the medium was not smiling, in fact she was almost frowning...almost. Her eyes strayed no where, but remained focused on Naru who sat beside her.  

Mai narrowed her eyes at her rival and glanced in Mr. Sachi's direction. Unable to procure a seat next to his darling Masako, the playwright was forced to sit at the head of the table and stare down its length in order to catch glimpses of the medium's expressionless face. Suddenly Mai felt the energy at the table change and then Naru was staring her down. Taking a particularly brooding sip of tea, he pierced her with a glare that made Mai feel as if he could see right through her,

"So, where have you been?" 

A flash image of the girl came to mind. Yoshi. Mai swallowed and looked from Naru to Bou-san.

T his isn't going to be easy...

 

Chapter Text

Day Four

8:00pm

The Koku Inn

"So, where have you been?"

The words rang in Mai's ears.

Why now?

The question was so typical of Naru that for a moment Mai felt a flash of anger rise to her cheeks. Beside her Bou-san made a slight adjustment in his seat and then spoke with the confidence (let alone calmness) Mai didn't posses at the moment.

"Out for a walk."

Mai stole at look at the monk. Amazingly his expression remained unflinching even despite the glare Naru now directed at him.

"To the theater?"

"Perhaps we walked past it..."

A certain tension settled between Naru and the monk. The silence would have been unbearable had Ayako not cried out in protest,

"For a walk? We're all starving in here and you choose to go out for a leisurely stroll?"

The monk matched the priestess's glare,

"Remind me not to come between you and your hunger."

Seated safely away from Ayako, Bou-san did not have to feel the repercussions of this remark, but the miko's eyes glinted with the revenge she planned on taking later.

"A walk, eh? That's sounds refreshing actually. I'm sure Masako and I would have liked to have joined you," Mr. Sachi put in with an affectionate glance at the medium and then a wounded one towards the monk.

Sitting next to her, John gave Mai an imploring look, which seemed to say that he too would have joined them on their walk. Mai struggled to swallow a frown, guilt stabbing at her. She gone off gallivanting with Bou-san, and had left John to face the dining room alone.

Mai's hands fidgeted, longing to seek refuge in a nice hot cup of tea, but the food hadn't arrived yet. As her gaze rose from the table, Mai locked eyes with Masako. The medium's pale lips, pursed a moment before relaxing into a slight smile. Mai braced herself for what was to come next.

"Did you enjoy your walk?"

That Masako.

Mai felt Naru's gaze boring into her once more. Underneath the table, Bou-san's foot bumped against hers. Mai, attempting to restrain her glare at the medium, offered up a brittle smile,

"It was fine."

Masako continued unperturbed,

"I trust my kimono kept you warm?"

Mai's smile faltered for moment, but then she recovered--

"Certainly more than that piece of tissue is doing for you."

A bit of color entered the medium's cheeks,

"It's tulle, actually. And perhaps... but, I'm not worried. I'll find a way keep warm," she answered vaguely, her gaze drifting over to Naru.

Mai's own cheeks began to burn, but she managed to check her anger as her stare fell on Mr. Sachi,

"Surely," she agreed, sending a knowing look to the playwright.

The medium snapped her attention back to Mai, barely managing to keep her expression neutral at the implication. Mai, not bothering to contain her triumphant smile, was shaken in the next moment by an approaching waiter. Instead of carrying delicious food and long awaited tea, he brought with him a single lily and slightly sheepish expression. His arrival at their table brought silence.

"Compliments of the gentleman at table twelve," he announced.

A rush of heat crept up Mai's neck.

Not for me...please, not for me...

Across the table from her, Masako broke her intense glare away from her rival to blink up innocently at the uncomfortable waiter.

That Masako.

A small smile grew on Ayako's red lips, discreetly she mouthed, Niko in Mai's direction. A second heat wave flushed Mai's cheeks and vengefully she sought out the priestess's foot. The young man cast a look over his shoulder, as if to get conformation from the mysterious gentleman as to which woman should receive this token of admiration, and then with a slight nod, faced them all once more and extended the lily...

Mai watched his hand move forward almost as if in slow motion, past Lin-- it was going near Masako now...the medium's wrist was on the rise, ready to modestly cover her mouth-- but it went on (and the medium's wrist fell limply), moving by Naru who (Mai noted) looked especially deadly tonight, his sharp eyes staring at the lily as though his gaze could obliterate the flower somehow.

Mai swallowed. The progress of the lily was approaching her and now more than ever she wished she had a cup of tea to escape in. Those five seconds of suspense ticked by painfully-- but then, with great relief, Mai saw that his hand wasn't going to stop at her, but continued across the table to rest finally at: Ayako.

"For you ma'am," the waiter said, offering the priestess a self conscious smile.

Ayako returned this smile with one that seemed to say such flattering attentions were paid to her all the time, but Mai could see the surprise in her eyes.

"May I inquire the gentleman's name?" she asked, holding the lily up to her nose, enjoying the perfume it gave off.

The waiter shifted where he stood, looking as if he wished to glance behind himself, perhaps at table twelve, but merely answered with,

"My instructions were only to deliver the lily, that is all."

"Hmm," Ayako murmured and then setting down the lily she stood, "I will ask him, myself."

The waiter looked as if he wanted to protest, but then upon seeing the determination in the miko's eyes, shrugged and stepped aside. He had done what he was ordered to do, it was out of his hands.

With their view no longer obstructed, everyone peered across the emptying dinging room towards mysterious table number twelve, Bou-san going so far as to stand up for a better look. The monk sat down in the next moment, a strange look on his face, something almost like an amused smile. He seemed almost satisfied. Studying him closer, Mai almost could call it relieved. Most of the table returned their attention back to themselves. Ayako remained standing.

"Is this your idea of a joke?"

The waiter winced at the biting question and then looked hard at the empty table twelve as though pure will could bring the gentleman back.

"He was there a minute ago. It appears he has left, perhaps for the festival? It starts soon you know," he explained, and then desiring to have this uncomfortable conversation no longer, bowed and excused himself.

Mai watched Ayako uncertainly as the priestess returned to her seat. But her alarm was uncalled for as a small smile came to the woman's mouth, her hands taking up the lily,

"I believe this counts as my first lily of the night, Mr. Sachi?” Ayako asked and not particularly interested in the playwright's answer she went on, "I don't believe either of you have received one?"

With her smug smile, clearly the miko expected the reply to be no, but Mai was able to match her in numbers as well as in smile,

"I received my first lily before dinner."

"You did?” Mr. Sachi cut in surprised, but no one paid him any heed.

The miko paused in stroking the steam of her lily to raise a disbelieving eyebrow,

"Right. Sure you did."

Mai sat straighter in her seat, her cheeks tinting red,

"I did."

Never mind that it was a completely platonic gift, given by John...

Ayako sat back in her chair, looking into the lily given to her,

"Oh really? Where is it?"

Mai opened her mouth to announce something along the lines of right here, but then blinked as she realized it wasn't right here. It was somewhere else...but where? Mai glanced at John who was watching her with an odd expression, something caught between encouraging and discouraging. His smile was bright enough, but his eyes silently pleaded with her not to reveal it. Mai gave him a quick half smile and returned her attention to the miko.  

Just great. I lost John's lily and now I look like a liar...

"Well?" Ayako persisted; her expression growing more triumphant with every second Mai remained silent.

Pointedly ignoring the priestess' smugness, Mai's mentally retraced her steps.

Did I leave it at the theater?

No.

The garden. I left it on the bench! I could go out and get it, but John--

Mai smiled to herself,

"It's in my room, I left it there before Bou-san and I took our walk."

Beside her John relaxed a bit, Mai couldn't help noticing him glance at Masako. Mai blinked with confusion, but before she could put anymore thought into it, Ayako began again.

"Fine, but then who gave it to you?"

If Mai could have found the woman's foot, she would have stepped on it promptly, but there were simply too many feet under that table, and the risk of brushing up against Naru...Mai's cheeks tinged pink.

Naru. He had slipped her mind. It was a dangerous mistake. She could only imagine what brooding stare he had been giving her all this time...but when she chanced a small glance his way, she found he wasn't looking at her at all, but gazing off distantly.

With Ayako's last question burning her ears, Mai was prepared to refuse to answer, but was saved by something even better: food.

"Here we are," Niko announced, setting down a large circular tray in the middle of their table, "The finest festival food you'll ever eat."

"He speaks the truth," Mr. Sachi agreed, helping himself to a bowl of steaming rice.

With relief Mai pretended to be absorbed in dishing up, eager to get a bite in her mouth and have an excuse to not talk at all. A second waiter followed up Niko with a tray full of tea. The hot cup of amber liquid set in front of Mai was the icing on the cake and for the first time that night she felt content with her mouth full and a cup of tea to warm her hands. Mai wasn't the only one pleased at the arrival of food, beside her Bou-san filled a bowl with enough for three people, earning him a disgusted look from Ayako as he stole a dumpling she was reaching for.

"Don't you love all this sharing? A bit romantic, isn't it?” Mr. Sachi remarked a few moments later as he happily offered Masako the last rice ball (which she promptly declined).

"Oh, very,"Ayako murmured dryly, watching the monk down the table from her shovel in bite after bite.

"Well, I hope you all enjoy," Niko said after seeing them all with bowls filled, "I must be getting ready for the festival, but I'll...join you later," he announced, speaking the last part towards Mai with a slight hopeful smile.

Mai, currently mid-sip, looked up at him and nodded. Expecting a departing bow, his next words nearly caused her to choke on her tea.

"Oh, I was going to ask you--” he took a step closer to her chair, his voice somewhat lowered.

Mai swallowed her tea in a gulp. The pink rising in Niko's cheeks as he drew near didn't bode well. Tensing-- she could almost read the words will you marry me? in his eyes-- Mai's hand reached for Bou-san's arm. The sharp grating sound of a chair being slid across wood was heard in the next moment. Mai was temporarily released from her panic, her attention suddenly absorbed in the fact that Naru was now standing.

"Mr. Koku, could I have a word with you alone."

This was not a question, it was a command, and the low tone it was spoken in sent a shiver down Mai's back.

What is Naru doing?

Beside her, Bou-san was attempting to extract his arm from Mai's grip, her nails digging into his sleeve, the monk's expression displaying his amusement. Niko blinked calmly,

"Sure," he answered, "just a moment."

He was looking at Mai once more, he leaned in even closer, his voice coming almost to a whisper,

"I was wondering, I mean, I'm not sure how severe it is--" he began, his words faltering slightly as his cheeks grew more and more flushed.

Mai reassumed her grip on Bou-san's unfortunate arm; feeling confused as she tried to understand what she was being asked over the pounding in her ears.

"I guess, I just wanted to know if it was okay to give you a lily tonight..?"

Mai blinked. She opened her mouth to answer, but nothing came out, clearly her confusion was showing as Niko hastily went on--

"You know, with your terrible allergy to them. I wouldn't want to cause you harm. Nari must accept roses on this day, would you like a rose instead?"

Mai felt the tension that had built up in her release.

No proposal, at least not yet.

Mai could feel the weight of everyone's stares as their confusion grew and hers left.

"I'll be okay, lilies will be fine," she finally answered, her voice coming out a bit weakly.

Niko looked down at her a bit concernedly,

"Are you sure? You were so affected last time."

"An allergy? I was not aware you had any," Masako spoke up.

Mai shot her rival a sharp look.

That Masako.

"Oh, do you not know?" Niko asked, looking briefly at those seated at the table, "She has a terrible allergy, I found her in tears the first day I met her--"

The energy shifted at the table. Heat began to climb up Mai's neck; she was losing control of this conversation.

"An allergy to lilies huh?” the miko prodded, sending a small knowing smile to Mai, who proceeded to feel the heat rush up to her cheeks.

That Ayako! She thinks I made that up to avoid getting lilies from Niko...why did I have to pick lilies?!

"In tears?"

Mai's stomach suddenly clenched, that was Naru's voice and while every part of her didn't want to look towards him, she found herself doing just that.

"Yes," Niko was answering, seeming bothered that no one seemed to know of her dangerous allergy, "from her watering eyes."

The next breath that Mai took hitched somewhere in her throat as Naru turned his eyes on her, practically pinning her with his gaze.

"But," Mai gasped out, in an attempt to shut this conversation down, "I'm fine now, it's not that bad, really..."

Niko opened his mouth to argue, but Mai had had all she could take, and in a last ditch effort to persuade him, she placed a reassuring hand on his arm. A flash of red filled the young man's face, but it was worth it as it seemed to do the trick. Satisfied, Niko nodded and then looked up at Naru,

"You said you wanted to talk with me?"

Mai's hand went limp and was quickly removed from Niko's arm as she turned in her seat to face her boss once more. Naru met Niko's gaze, but then darted to Mai briefly.

What is his problem? There is no reason for him to have to speak with Niko alone!

Despite all her embarrassment in the last few moments, Mai still found she could summon up some anger and shot Naru a discouraging glare not for the weak of heart. Outwardly he did not to seem to acknowledge the look, but after a moment answered with,

"Perhaps later, the festival is starting, I'm sure you have work to do."

"I do. Thank you. I'll see you all soon,” Niko replied, and with a final bow to them all and a kind smile at Mai, the young man quickly departed.

There was painful silence at the table before Mr. Sachi broke it with his usual tact,

"An allergy to lilies? My dear this is serious, why we were just talking about that today!"

An involuntary memory of their conversation with Nari played before her mind's eye, images of Mr. Sachi holding the bouquet of deadly lilies, tossing them out...

"He's right. It is serious. Perhaps you should stay in? We wouldn't want to risk your health," Masako added turning her attention on her rival, feigning concern.

Mai met Masako's innocent gaze, her eyes glinting at her.

Not a chance.

"I'm fine. I've seemed to have adjusted to being around them," she answered as evenly as she could.

"Perhaps she should stay in," Naru remarked, speaking as though Mai had not answered.

Mai's gaze quickly swung over to Naru. Appearing utterly impassive, he took a deep sip of tea. Mai gripped her own cup with half a mind to toss its lukewarm contents on her boss. Mr. Sachi was nodding heartily and opened his mouth to agree, when Mai cut him off,

"I'm not staying in."

Even as the words left her mouth Mai found them strange. Wasn't it just hours ago that she would have given anything not to participate in this festival? Mai's eyes fell on Masako and her annoying proximity to Naru.

Things change.

"Mr. Sachi isn't it time we should be heading out?” Bou-san prompted, directing their attention to a more important matter.

The playwright glanced down at his watch,

"Oh. You're very right, let's get the show on the road-- can't miss a thing!"

Suddenly the table was busy with activity as everyone gathered their things. Mai sunk back into her seat.

Finally.

Bou-san stood up and looked down at Mai, offering her a hand, which she took gratefully.

"Thank you," she whispered as he led her from the table.

The monk flashed her a smile,

"Anytime."

Walking out of the dinging room that night couldn't have been any more different. Sure Mai's heart was still pounding and more than a little part of her wanted to change her mind and stay, but as she clung to Bou-san's arm, she found the once bustling dining room and halls completely empty.

"Ghost town in here, huh?” the monk remarked, as they turned into yet another desolate hall.

"Yeah,” she answered, enjoying the space, peace, and quiet before she was about to be plunged into chaos.

They reached the outside all too soon. There was a warm almost humid breeze in the air, the only reminder of the rain they had received earlier. Mai looked up into the sky and was rewarded with a clear view of hundreds of stars, each enhancing the romantic mood, acting as tiny candle lights. Bou-san pointed out the full moon,

"Couldn't ask for a better night," he commented.

Mai nodded grudgingly, a part of her had been holding out for rain. The monk began humming and then paused thoughtfully,

"How does that song go?"

Mai blinked at him with an eyebrow raised,

"What song?"

"Wait, its coming. Something like... can you feel the love tonight...?"

Mai made a face, attempting not to laugh. Looking away from him though, she indulged in a smile. His voice was surprisingly soothing and she made a mental note to ask him to sing for her again, just not now and not that song.

"Almost there," he announced, causing her to look back towards the festival grounds, her smile fading.

With as many fires going and lanterns stung out, the grounds appeared to be glowing. The shadowy forms of Masako, Mr. Sachi, Ayako, Lin, and Naru wavered in front of them. In a moment they would be upon the crowds, lost in ocean of lovers. Mai's stomach churned. Not only were the grounds teeming with many more people than she had imagined, but they were loud too, and as they neared, Mai found herself having to raise her voice just to talk to Bou-san over the shouts from the food stands, squeals of joy, and music which was being played live somewhere. Mr. Sachi slowed to a stop before they got in too deep.

"What do you think? Amazing, huh?” he beamed, using his stage voice to its full advantage, "We're in for an excellent night, the play begins in just under an hour."

Mai went pale as she remembered the last play she attended...where she was depicted as the love interest to Niko's main character. Bou-san winked down at her,

"I doubt Niko wrote this one, Mai."

Mai nodded trying to feel reassured, but instead only felt more anxious.

"Well, I suppose now is better than ever," Mr. Sachi began, turning to Masako and capturing her hands before she could pull them away. Mai frowned. She had been counting on enjoying this (heaven knows Masako was going to take pleasure in her proposal) but the similarity to what her own situation was soon to be, caused her almost to feel sorry for Masako...almost.

"Masako my dear," the playwright began, standing as though he was very tempted to drop down on one knee, "it is true I've only known you for a short time, but in that short time--"

Mai watched Masako's mask crack, taking a step back she attempted to free herself from Mr. Sachi's grasp, but he would not easily let go, his eyes closed as his profession carried on. Not so far off, Mai could see Naru having a word with Lin, the conversation ended and he took notice of Masako's miserable position. Something dark, perhaps annoyance, entered his eyes, and then he made short work of crossing over to them. Then something dawned on her. Mai glanced around, but John was no where in sight. After a moment of thought she couldn't recall him leaving the Inn.

"Masako--"

The name crashed into Mai's thoughts, causing her to forget everything. Naru had spoken it; he was upon them now and meant business. In one swift motion, suggesting a strange strength Mai had noticed in him before, he pulled the medium to the side, and without preamble, seemingly oblivious to Mr. Sachi's protests, he offered her a lily. Ayako's mouth opened slightly, Mai's hung agape. A firm hand suddenly rested on her shoulder, it was Bou-san making sure she didn't do anything vengeful (or in other words, embarrassing).

If Mai was shocked, Masako was more so. Never before had she seen her rival's cheeks flush such a deep red. They almost matched the color of Mai's at the moment. Almost.

"Naru, I don't know what...thank you," the miko mumbled, her composure crumbling, a rarity Mai wasn't sure she had ever seen.

There was no sleeve in the world big enough to cover up the medium's delight. Naru merely nodded,

"You're welcome."

Standing just a few feet away was Mr. Sachi, his expression matching Mai's pretty closely. The playwright opened and closed his mouth a few times before anything came out,

"Excuse me, I had been talking with her--"

Naru blinked, entirely unaffected by the borderline anger in his client's voice.

"Were you? Excuse me then. Please continue."

Mr. Sachi gave him one more offended look, then drew the medium to his side once more. Masako did not put up a fight, in a slightly dreamy state; she let the playwright babble on. By the look in her eye, Mai guessed she wasn't hearing a word the man was saying. Mai wasn't hearing much either, the name Masako in Naru's tone of voice ringing loudly in her ears. Bou-san shook her shoulder a bit,

"Hey, look--" he pointed out, trying to her draw her from her misery, "isn't that Nari headed our way?"

Mai blinked and glanced in the direction the monk had been indicating. He was right, the actress, arms already laden with roses, was hurrying towards them.

Quickly Mai looked to Mr. Sachi, who was now being extra long winded in his proclamation, and wished he would finish things up.

Poor Nari.

"Oh good, I found you," the young woman said, a smile lighting up her rosy cheeks.

Mai suddenly stepped forward to greet her, hoping to block out the sight of her love reciting his love to another woman.

"Nari, how are you? Look at all the roses you have," Mai replied brightly, making sure she had plenty of eye contact.

"I'm great," she answered breathlessly, "Where's Joji? I have to talk to him about the set, it turned out so nice--" In her eagerness, the actress had side stepped Mai and then froze.

"--and so in short my dear, I wish you to have...” Mr. Sachi went on, his voice suddenly loud amongst the murmur of the crowd, about to present the lily.

With a frown Mai looked back to Nari. The woman's arms went slack and for a moment Mai feared she would drop her roses, but she merely cradled them loosely, staring on.

That Masako.

Mai's frowned deepened as the playwright reached in his pocket, oblivious to the new member in his audience, and drew out what Mai knew she would be offered later...

"This lily is yours," he finished, placing a flower, identical to the one Mai had been given by John earlier in the medium's hands. Mai blinked in confusion.

A normal lily?

A small noise sounded from Nari. Relief? Masako seemed doubly confused and relieved.

"Thank you Mr. Sachi," she answered, managing to smile slightly.

Mai's brow furrowed as the playwright smiled back.

He goes on and on about his love, and then he only gives her a regular lily?

Coming out of his dreamy state of love, lilies, and smiles, Mr. Sachi realized he was not alone.

"Nari. Hello."

The actress took a better grip on her roses; she smiled at him, but just faintly,

"Hello, Joji."

Masako looked between the two and then put some space between herself and the playwright.

"Looks like you've been having a successful night, of course we could have guessed as much," he went on, trying a smile of his own on her.

It didn't go over so well as Nari's faded,

"Oh, you flatter me. I'm no Yoshi, but Hara-san here..." She let her dark eyes move over to the medium who was looking distinctly uncomfortable.

"Please, do not assume the same of me either," the medium tried to protest, shaking her head.

Nari smiled a little kinder,

"Don't be modest, look at the start you have, you've been here what? Ten minutes?"

Mr. Sachi shifted where he stood, not liking where the conversation was going, he attempted to draw Nari back to himself,

"Well, whether any of you ladies here become Yoshi," he began, making a point to include Mai and Ayako, "is neither here nor there, as you are all inspiring in my book. Now, Nari how is the stage coming along?"

This question seemed to work. Her attitude changed to a more business like manner as she glanced behind herself, just able to make it out in the distance,

"Excellent, the team really pulled through, they would like you to look over some last minute things if you could..."

Mr. Sachi nodded briskly,

"Very well, if you all would excuse me a moment, Masako--” he said, looking to the medium last for her consent.

Masako managed a slight nod and with that the playwright followed his actress into the swarming crowd. Mai let out a sigh. That had been tense. Mai sent a sharp glare at her rival, who received it with her mask once again in place. A nagging thought at the back of her mind came to the surface: John. With some concern she glanced around, and once again saw that the priest hadn't joined them.

Did he decide to stay back?

Driven by the need to know (nothing else could prompt her to speak to Naru at the moment) she strode over to her boss.

"Have you seen John?"

Naru gazed out over the crowd, then crossed his arms unconcernedly,

"No, but he'll turn up."

Mai made a face and opened her mouth to argue further, but found herself being dragged away by Bou-san.

"Hey-- wait, I was trying to figure out something," Mai protested.

"But it's my turn Mai," the monk countered, stopping and facing her.

Mai looked up at him confusedly,

"Your turn..?"

The monk grinned and drew out a lily from his jacket,

"Now Mai my dear, I know I've only know you for a short time, but in that short time--" he began, borrowing Mr. Sachi's lines.

"Very funny,” Mai objected, swatting his arm.

"Oy, Mai that's my bad arm," he cried, he eye's shining playfully as he grabbed her hands, "Let me finish--"

Mai pursed her lips, feigning annoyance, but she couldn't help the small smile threatening to grow.

"There, that's a good girl. Now, this is the part where I'm supposed to ramble on for ten minutes, but I'm going to give you the edited version. So Mai, please take this lily as a sign of friendship, because I've decided that I like you most the time (except when you do things like hurt my arm and break my toes) and if I had ever had a sister, I'd want her to be just like you."

The lily Bou-san was extending to her had gone slightly blurry.

That Bou-san. Why did have to go and be all sensitive and nice and--

Mai launched herself at the monk, crushing both the lily and him in a tight hug.

"Oy, Mai-- your lily," he pointed out, but hugged her just as tightly back.

"Thank you, Bou-san," she said as she pulled back a moment later.

The monk smiled kindly down at her tapping her nose with his finger,

"Your welcome."

Taking her smashed lily from Bou-san, Mai recalled that her first one was still (hopefully!) on the garden bench back at the Inn. Mai glanced over at Masako who was gazing down at one of her lilies and dangling the other carelessly. A slight pit formed in Mai's stomach. Naru. Her chance was gone, just like that. It had been a long shot, okay a real long shot, but some small part of her had hoped that she might get his lily. So much for that.

That Masako.

But before Mai could really feel sorry for herself, John emerged from the dense crowd.

"John!” Mai cried waving him over, "Where were you?"

John smiled in greeting to Mai,

"I'm sorry; I went to get your lily-- every one counts."

A bit surprised, Mai took the lily, holding the two with affection,

"Thank you, John."

"You’re the one, huh?” Bou-san wondered, nudging Mai playfully.

John smiled sheepishly,

"Guilty."

Mai heard Ayako snort and looked up just in time she see her smirk. Mai turned up her nose at the miko. They were the best lilies she could want to receive that night and was happy with them even if they did come from Bou-san and John. But Mai had forgotten one last lily she had yet to be given. Niko's.

Breaking a small path through the crowd came the newly crowned Mr. Miyuki and Mr. Sachi. Mai's fingers tightened around her two lilies with dread. Flanked by John and Bou-san, she hoped to shrink away behind them, but both shook their heads and stepped away, the look in their eyes saying: you gotta face this sometime.

"Bou-san...wait," Mai protested, her fingers fumbling for his arm as he moved away from her.

It was no use, though. There was Niko approaching her, a bright smile on his face.

"Mai," he greeted once he was close enough, he face flushing slightly as was usual whenever he talked to her.

"Niko," Mai replied, hoping her nerves weren't creeping into her voice.

"What do you think? Pretty special, hm?” he asked, referring to the festival, although she could see that he was just making conversation, only truly interested in one answer...

Mai watched the busy flow of the crowd moving past them, looking anywhere but at his hopeful face.

"Sure is..."

"I thought you might like it. I'm glad to see your doing so well around the lilies, I was still worried,” he admitted, a touch of tenderness in his voice.

At these words Mai finally met the young heir's gaze, managing a reassuring smile. A moment of silence past between them, Niko drew in a breath and shifted where he stood before speaking again,

"Mai, would you mind...would you walk with me a moment?"

Mai's smile faltered. This was it, it was happening, she was going to be proposed to....

"Sure," she croaked, surprised even that much came out.

Would she even be able to answer him?

Niko's smile grew wide,

"Wonderful."

With a silent last minute pleading look sent at Bou-san, Mai found herself being led away. The two of them walked awhile, putting some space between themselves and the SPR team.

"You've received some lilies," Niko remarked, noticing the two she held clutched in one hand.

Yes and two is more than enough, you don't need to give me a third one, really!

The young man's eyes remained on the snow white flowers, and then something passed over his face, a slightly troubled expression,

"Is one from...Shibuya-san?"

Mai to halted dead in her tracks, as if the words were somehow physical and had hit her. Niko stopped also and stared at her, seemingly almost afraid of the answer. Mai blinked stunned.

Naru?

"No. No, it's not...” Mai breathed, utterly confused why he would think such a thing.

Relief washed over Niko's features, he let out the breath he was holding and offered her his warmest smile yet,

"Oh, I see."

He seemed as if he wished to move on, but Mai couldn't go on any further, if he was going to ask her, he needed to do it now, right here. Sensing this, he faced her better,

"Mai, I'm really glad I met you."

Mai exhaled, forcing herself to breathe,

"Me too."

"There's a lot I could say...” he continued breaking his gaze from her eyes to stare at his hands.

Reminded of Mr. Sachi agonizingly long speech, Mai hoped Niko would follow up these words with, but I'll cut to the chase and spare you the slightest bit of misery.

"But I guess the most important thing I need to say, the most important thing I need to ask--"

It occurred to Mai that she could hardly hear Niko any longer with the hammering of her heart, the buzzing in her ears, but her eyes saw clearly. It was unmistakeable that any moment now the question would be asked...

"--is if...you would...be my friend. I've never met anyone as special as you."

Mai could have sworn her heart had stopped for a moment when the first words left his mouth, but what was that? Had he said friend? She couldn't believe it. It wasn't true, she hadn't heard right over the roar in her ears.

"So, if you would take this lily as a token of friendship...” he continued, a bit uncertain in her stunned silence.

It was a normal lily held out in his hand. Suddenly, it sunk in.

A friend?

Relief hit Mai like a wave, she could hear again, breath again, she was free. Finding herself smiling she took Niko's hand, giving it a firm shake,

Be your friend? Deal.

"Yes, yes I will."

Niko broke out in a fresh smile, released from his nerves also, and covered her hand with both of his, giving it an eager squeeze. Each of them wrapped up in the happy way things turned out, neither noticed the audience they had gathered. People, recognizing Niko as the one crowned Mr. Miyuki and remembering rumors whispered about him and this Mai girl, they stopped to see what they thought was a proposal in action. And judging by Mai's cry of yes I will, they were satisfied that it was successful.

Realizing they were still holding hands, Niko finally let go, and the two of them shared in another smile (this one a bit sheepish), but that was when they noticed the smattering of applause. Mai blinked and saw for the first time that they were now standing in a small clearing, the bustling crowd circled around them, many stopping to smile at her and clap. Mai blinked confusedly and looked to Niko who looked just as bewildered. Then she saw Bou-san, John, Ayako, Masako, Mr. Sachi...Lin. Standing there. Staring. Mai looked down at the lily in her hand and suddenly it all made sense.

Oh. Shoot.

"NIKO! WHAT IS THAT? MY GRANDSON IS ENAGED? REALLY?! MYGRANDSON IS ENGAGED! NIKO! WHERE ARE YOU?"

Mai's cheeks flushed with color. Niko looked to Mai and her horrified expression and quickly gave her nudge,

"Go, I'll deal with them," he said, scanning the crowd for his grandparents.

"But--" Mai protested uncertainly.

Niko summoned up a grin,

"Really, it's okay."

Mai smiled weakly back and then as she heard another shout of Niko's name, hurried over to the SPR group,

"Let's go," she ordered, slipping past them.

"Oy-- Mai," Bou-san cried, the first to come out of his shock, moving fast behind her to keep up, "just when were you going to tell me you planned on saying yes to this guy? Oh, and I'm the best man, right?"

Mai reached back to hit his arm, the monk dodged it, smirking widely.

"I didn't say yes," Mai argued coming to a food stand they could take refuge next to.

"That's not what I heard," Ayako chimed in, her arms crossed and her thin eyebrows raised.

"Engaged!” Mr. Sachi exclaimed, "I had no idea you had such feelings between you to! I mean I could tell some puppy love coming from him, some men are so shamefully obvious, but..."

"I am not--" Mai started to protest, but Masako started in then.

"I think it's a perfect match. You can stay here and work at the Inn, Mr. and Mrs. Koku will make wonderful in-laws, and we'll be sure to visit you every year during the festival."

Mai's cheeks burned red in anger, and she would have certainly gone about getting revenge had she not noticed just then that there was a person missing from this flood of torments-- Naru. Mai blinked,

"Where's Naru?"

Silence met her question; Masako glanced to her left, noticing the vacant spot that was almost always filled by him.

"Last time I saw him was when we found you throwing yourself at your fiancé," Bou-san piped up, smiling into Mai's glare.

"He'll be back," Lin answered, his tone even, giving nothing away.

Mai glanced over at the tall Chinese man. It was terrible, but she often forgot he was around. This entire festival must be his living nightmare.

"Oh. Thank you."

Mai gazed out across the festival grounds in thoughtful silence,

What is  it  with Naru tonight?

"Well it's no use waiting for him here, I'm sure he'll find us later," Mr. Sachi said, offering an arm to Masako, who pretended not to notice.

"Where are we going?” Ayako asked, becoming impatient with the fact that she had only received one lily that night and had not an opportunity for another.

"They have live music tonight, I trust you dance?” Mr. Sachi wondered, as though everyone in the world could.

Ayako nodded,

"Of course."

Bou-san nudged Mai with a smirk and she could see he was picturing Ayako dancing anything but well.

"Wonderful. Let's be off then."

Shaking her head and taking the monk's arm, they followed Mr. Sachi's enthusiastic lead across the crowded festival grounds. Moving through a mass of people was not an easy thing to do, and not very private either. Mai heard plenty of proposals, all ending in yes, saw more lilies presented than she could count, and heard so many squeals of delight that she thought she would be deaf by the time they got through.

Unexpectedly a man she was passing stopped her for a moment, looking to offer her his lily, but then took one look at Bou-san and gave a hurried bow and pushed his way through the throng. Mai watched him go in surprise, before frowning and giving the monk a not so gentle push.

"Thanks a bunch, you scared him away."

The monk grinned and then offered up a shrug,

"What can I say, I'm intimidating like that. It's my height."

"Well see if I walk with you much longer, where's John?" Mai murmured, moving to find the priest, but found she had nowhere to go as the crowd pressed in ever closer.

"Nice try, but your stuck with me," Bou-san announced triumphantly.

Mai narrowed her eyes at him,

"You can still face the other direction when the next guy comes."

"Next guy? Is there going to be more..?"

At the glint of offense in Mai's eyes, the monk quickly made sure his feet were out of the way, but he couldn't save his shoulder,

"Ow-- okay, fine, there might be another one, but between Naru and Niko wouldn't you say your plate's full?"

Mai made a face,

"Why does everyone keep mentioning Naru? What does he have to do with me?"

Bou-san raised and eyebrow,

"Who's everyone?"

Mai crossed her arms, irritated that they were even having this conversation,

"Niko. He asked me if one of my lilies was from Naru."

The monk made a strange sound, a slight knowing smile tugging at the corner of his lips, which he was now attempting to keep emotionless.

"Bou-san,” Mai prodded, eyeing him suspiciously.

The smile was successfully clamped down and the monk managed to look down at her straight faced,

"Mai."

"Why would Niko ask me if Naru had given me a lily? What would give him that idea?"

"Oy-- why are you asking me, how would I know?"

"Because," Mai said scrutinizing the monk beside her, not fooled by his innocent tone of voice, "something happened at the men’s meeting this morning and you know about it."

The monk continued walking, his expression remaining frustratingly neutral. After a moment of thought, he answered,

"I wasn't the only one at the meeting this morning, you know."

Mai raised an eyebrow at his cunning,

Nice try.

"I'm not bothering John about this and I'm certainly not bringing it up to Mr. Sachi, I'm asking you Bou-san."

Sensing her determination in this, he looked down at her with a mischievous glint in his eye,

"Maybe you’re asking the wrong person."

Mai sighed, leering up at the monk who was clearly enjoying his power over her in this,

"I'm not asking Niko either."

"Who said anything about Niko?"

Mai blinked and the monk's smile grew into a knowing one.

Naru?

Mai frowned sharply and was about to protest against the ridiculousness of the suggestion, when they arrived at their destination. A clear space, twice the size of Mai's room at the Koku's Inn stretched out before them, dotted with couples smiling and gazing lovingly into each other's eyes. The music, which had been muted before by the buzz of conversation, gained ground here as it swelled around them, given off by a small, but enthusiastic band. Strand after strand of lanterns were strung up above the whirling dancers, casting soft light over the space.  

"This is it," Mr. Sachi announced, practically shouting to be heard over the rise in the music.

A moment later the set ended, the moving bodies stilled, and a strange hush filled the air. Blushing women and smiling men cleared the area to give other couples a turn. Random notes sounded from the band's platform as they prepared for the next song. Mai took a step back, suddenly wishing to be back in the sea of people she had just come from. If she had intended to melt away from sight, Bou-san had no intention of making it that easy for her.

"Well looks like we got here right on time, shall we my dear?" Mr. Sachi suggested, offering his hand to Masako, who gazed at it as though taking it was the last thing she would ever do.

After a moment though, she relented and allowed herself to be pulled out onto the filling dance floor. Mai made to disappear, but Bou-san chose then to take hold of her arm and usher her forward, giving her a look that said clearly: if I have to do this, you do too.

Passing Ayako, Mai caught her staring on at the all the couples with her arms crossed, and then uttering a huff, she captured John's arm.

Poor John.

Facing forward again, Mai saw that Bou-san had stopped them somewhere near the center of the dance floor. Nervously Mai cast a glance at the band, which looked ready to begin.

"Bou-san, I'm not a very good dancer," Mai admitted, glancing down at her feet uncertainly.

"You'll do fine, just follow my lead, and besides--" he replied, flashing her a grin, "--you've done worse to my feet."

Mai looked up at him with narrowed eyes.

Oh yeah?

A startling set of notes suddenly filled the air and then-- they were moving-- and fast. Mai followed the monk's simple, but quick steps like a puppet being pulled by its strings. Noticing her clumsy steps and her lag in pace, Bou-san couldn't resist a teasing smile, which he swallowed in the next instant when Mai accidentally stepped on his foot, with her heel.

After a few dizzying turns around the floor, Mai found herself falling into a somewhat manageable pattern, and able to look up from her condemning feet. Smiling faces came at her and away in a blur, the swish of dresses embellished the lively tune they were all dancing to. Mai felt herself growing warm with the effort of keeping up with the steps, as something to do to stop herself from becoming dizzy, Mai looked up at her dance partner and found his attention else where.

Curious enough to risk stumbling over a step, Mai attempted to follow his gaze through the many couples moving in and out, to his real target. After dismissing a round old woman and a girl about her own age, the bodies parted just enough so she could make out John and Ayako following the edge of the floor. Bingo.

Mai allowed herself a small satisfied smile, almost positive that if it hadn't been herself who had received Bou-san's lily; it would have been the miko. Blinking, the monk focused once again on his own partner, and jumped slightly, surprised to find her staring back him with such an odd, knowing look.

How do you like the tables turned, huh?

Recovering he summoned up and quick smile, though it couldn't hide the self conscious, caught in the act, glint in his eyes. Mai reveled in her revenge.

"See something interesting, Bou-san?"

The monk narrowed his eyes at her a bit, attempting to lose his uncomfortable air, which Mai observed with much delight.

"Not in particular, I'll let you know if I spot Niko or Naru though."

Mai bit her lip. Her feet became a little clumsier.

That Bou-san.

"Speaking of Naru," Mai began, taking a stab at their earlier conversation, "you have some explaining to do."

Bou-san raised an amused eyebrow at her,

"I thought we agreed that I'm not the one to be explaining anything."

Mai was about to glare the monk down, but she stumbled over her footwork and was forced to look down to regain her footing,

"I agreed to nothing and I don't know if I really should be talking to Naru seeing as I don't know what happened this morning, but I do know this certain monk who was there and does know." Mai let her implications hang in the air as she gave Bou-san a hard stare.

The monk returned this with a long look. With a sigh he looked away,

"I don't know, I still say you should ask the man himself--"

Mai made a noise that was a cross between a scoff and a huff. Bou-san looked back to his flustered partner, another smile pulled at his lips at seeing her so worked up over this,

"But I guess if you must know..." he paused here to glance around secretively, "It was just about the end of the meeting, Mr. Koku had just finished telling us all about lilies, when some of the guys started teasing Niko about, you know...you--"

Mai felt her cheeks heating up as she pictured a bunch of guys she didn't know discussing her. Bou-san grinned,   

"Should I go on?"

Mai pointedly placed her hand on his sensitive shoulder and smiled,

"Please."

With his smile promptly wiped off, the monk continued,

"Anyways...they began to talk about you and proposals and marriage and such, asking how Niko planned to pop the question to you. The poor guy was blushing down to his roots, but smiling. He seemed to like the idea--" the monk paused here to wiggle his eyebrows at her.

"Bou-san, was I proposed to tonight? No," Mai protested, giving his shoulder a slight squeeze in revenge.

Still the monk smiled that infuriating knowing smile,

"Maybe there's a reason you weren't proposed to tonight, ever thought about that?"

Mai blinked at him darkly,

"Finish the story Bou-san."

"Fine," he agreed, shrugging out of her grip on his shoulder, "as I was saying, Niko was basking in all this marriage talk when suddenly Naru stands up--"

Mai's gripped intensified,

Naru?

Bou-san opened his mouth (weather to protest in pain or continue, is not known), but in that instant the music ended and Mai's rapidly moving feet came to an ungraceful halt. The grounds were strangely quiet again. Bou-san was smiling once more. Mai leered at him, but her hands had fallen to her sides, and revenge could not be taken. The floor began to clear and with it all of Mai's hopes of hearing the story completed,

Naru stood up-- and then...?

Mai firmly took up a dancing position with the monk again,

"Another round," she all but commanded.

"Oh I don't know Mai, I think my feet need a break, you’re not exactly a light step."

Just then they were interrupted,

"Mai! How did you like it?"

Mr. Sachi was standing at their side, Masako barely holding his arm,

"Oh, very nice."

The playwright beamed,

"The band is the one who plays for our theater, they do such good work. I feel up to another turn about the floor, but Masako here is tired-"

"Is that so, Mr. Sachi?" Bou-san cut in, looking down at Mai with a mischievous gleam in his eyes, "As it turns out Mai was just saying she felt the same way, and I'm tired myself, perhaps we should trade partners? I'd be more than happy to walk Hara-san back."

If Mai could have reached any part of the monk, she would have made him pay for every word he just said, but Bou-san was smart and as he spoke he began moving away from her and by the finish he had already taken up Masako's arm. Mr. Sachi, while not expecting such a suggestion, and not very fond of leaving his beloved's side, brightened after a moment and warmed to the idea,

"Yes, why not?"

"Great! Have fun," Bou-san said with a wink.

And at that (knowing he had to get out of there quickly) he walked away with Masako. Mai watched them until they could no longer be seen through all the couples taking the floor once again.

"Shall we?” Mr. Sachi asked pleasantly as the first notes of a mid-tempo song drifted through the air.

Reluctantly, Mai looked to her new partner and took up hold, smiling strainedly while desperately trying to keep as much space between them as she could. And then they were away, and while not moving as fast as before, the pace was still fast enough for Mai to be almost entirely absorbed in watching her feet. Mr. Sachi didn't seem to mind her silence, having enough to say for both of them. There was something to be said about almost every couple they past ( “acted with him last year”, “donated generously to the theater”, “had a nasty break up” ). For the most part Mai was able tune out the various gossip of her fellow dancers, but then her ears picked up on something she actually wanted to hear,

"....of course he had plenty to think about this morning at the meeting."

The meeting?

"Oh I'm sure," she said suddenly picking up where the playwright left off, "It's a thoughtful time for everyone."

"To be sure...to be sure... giving a lily is a great responsibility."

Mai frowned slightly; they were getting off topic.

"Are the meetings the same every year?” she asked glancing at the playwright briefly to show her curiosity. Mr. Sachi nodded,

"It's all the same every year, but with a mix of old and new festival goers in attendance... that sure can make things...different."

Mai smiled inwardly.

Now we're getting somewhere.

"Different..?” she encouraged, careful to not sound too interested.

Mr. Sachi looked to her and blinked, then smiled,

"Well my dear, they can change the dynamics a bit. Do things different sometimes. I myself can recall a few memorable meetings, one was today actually--" the playwright paused and looked out at the dancers distractedly, "Uh, um-- so you see they're just different--"

"Today there was an interesting one?"

The playwright tore his gaze away from all the faces whizzing by them to look once again at his curious partner,  

"It's nothing really...would bore you probably--"

Bore me, right.

"I could use a good story," Mai persisted, smiling as brightly as she could manage.

The playwright adjusted his hold on her uncomfortably; uncertain he glanced over his shoulder at the far end of the dance floor where Masako and Bou-san stood.

"Well...it kind of...involves you actually," he mumbled, looking embarrassed.

Mai raised her eyebrows in mock surprise,

"Me..?"

Mr. Sachi tilted his head towards her, enabling him to lower his voice. Mai's instinct was to lean back, the smell of the playwright's cologne filling her senses, but she held her position, eager to hear what he had to say,

"Well, yes. It's a strange thing-- don't understand it really, but some of the men at the meeting were discussing proposals and your name was brought up. It was implied, of course, that Niko would be proposing to you--" here Mr. Sachi cleared his throat and gave Mai some space,

"That's when Shibuya-san stood up. I was sitting behind him, so I couldn't see his face...but he seemed troubled, even more brooding than usual, and then just like that, he left-- in the middle of a meeting no less! I'm not sure, I was so surprised to see him walking away that I wasn't really paying attention, but he muttered something under his breath--" Mr. Sachi by this point had embraced the idea of sharing this juicy bit of gossip and was talking quite animatedly. All thoughts of concealing interest now thrown out the window, Mai felt her heart pounding in anticipation...

What did  he  say?

A long loud note caused Mai to momentarily to glance at the band, and to her horror she could tell they were reaching their finale,

No, wait.....not again!

"What did he say?” Mai prompted as the other dancers began to slow their steps.

Mr. Sachi blinked and took in his surroundings, coming down slightly from the excitement of sharing the story,

"Oh, is the dance over already? It feels as if we just begun..."

"Mr. Sachi," Mai tried again, attempting to keep her voice even as they slowed to a stop. Time was running out, past the couples near them she could see Bou-san waving her over, "what happened next?"

The playwright released her from his hold, looking thoughtful,

"....it is a shame that it's over, what was that? What happened? Well, he left-- and that was that. Different, hm?"

Mai opened her mouth to persist, but he began to give her an odd look,

"Is something wrong?"

Mai shut her mouth and quickly shook her head,

"No, everything is....just fine," she lied with a brief smile.

"That was very nice, we'll have to do it again," the playwright went on as he led Mai off the dance floor.

"Enjoyed yourselves?” Bou-san wondered as they approached him.

"It was a nice time," Mr. Sachi answered with a kind smile sent at Mai.

Her mind whirling as though she was still turning about the dance floor, Mai barely acknowledged it.

"If you'll excuse me, I've worked up quite a thirst and I must find out what there is to drink around here," the playwright continued, glancing around for a food stand.

Watching his retreating back, Mai turned on the monk beside her,

"Okay, just what did Naru say at the meeting this morning?"

Bou-san blinked down at her disapprovingly,

"Pumping an unsuspecting playwright for information, I'm shocked at you..."

"Bou-san, answer me. What did he say?” she persisted stubbornly.

"Who says I know?"

Mai crossed her arms and set her face into a determined frown,

"Because you do, now just tell me."

"Maybe I don't."

Mai opened her mouth to argue, moving her foot threateningly close to the monk's when a few loud cries came from the group of people next to them. Mai turned her head just in time to see John engulfed by women, old women. Exchanging a quick confused look with Bou-san, Mai could hear them raving,

"What luck! It's the handsome young man from a couple days ago!"

"It's nice to see you again," he answered with a polite smile.

Just then Masako joined them, offering a rare bow towards the gaggle surrounding the priest. Mai's confusion only heightened.

"Looks like John has a following," Bou-san piped up with a grin.

Mai nudged him in the side as she watched the old women greet the medium with the same respect.

"What a lovely night for the festival, if only I was a young girl again...” one of them, dressed in a dark blue gown fringed by feathers, said wistfully, her keen old eyes resting on John.

The young man took it in stride, smiling lightly,

"Yes, it is a good night."

With a boldness that made Mai blush another one of the women, her wrinkles particularly plentiful, seized John's arm, smiling up at him longingly.

"How many girls have you delighted tonight?"

John's face grew a bit pinker, but Masako rescued him from an answer,

"I see you have a few lilies yourselves, admirers?"

The women broke out into wide wrinkled smiles,

"Oh yes, but none would compare to him...” one answered, edging near the priest.

"My dear I bet you're a charming dancer, why are you not out on the floor?” another chimed in, beating the previous woman to his other free arm.

The other women began to run with the idea,

"Ah, there's an idea! Oblige us-- let us see you turn about."

"So dashing, yes do-- do go out!"

"Do you lack a partner? I would be happy to join you."

"Wait, you'll want me-- I am a much better partner--"

"Please Hashi, you trip standing still."

The bickering became more and more frenzied with John in the middle, each of his arms being pulled on, the other women crowding in to argue.

"Actually," Masako spoke up, calmly moving forward, and claiming one of John's arms from a startled old woman, "he has promised me a dance."

The priest blinked and looked to the medium with surprise at first, but quickly recovered and nodded,

"That's right, I have."

There were murmurs of disappointment from the group, mumbles of if only I were younger... Mai's head snapped back around to see what Bou-san made of all this, but all that was beside her was empty space.

"Bou-san..?"

Mai looked around and for a moment and the only familiar face she could spot was Lin, standing as though impassive to the world around him, but then-- a break in the crowds and there was the monk--with Ayako. With a glance back towards John (who was attempting to gently free himself from the old women) she made directly for the monk.

Ayako stood between the monk and another man, looking flustered.

"You remember-- from table twelve earlier...” the miko was explaining, her smile strained as she looked upon the man.

Mai stopped in her tracks.

That's the gentleman from table twelve?

Not only was he a good three inches shorter than Ayako herself, but a good ten inches rounder. The man offered the priestess an enchanting smile, running a hand through his thinning hair,

"Yes, that was me. I wished to speak with you, but was regretfully detained."

Bou-san stood, a wide amused grin on his face, watching the miko's predicament with pleasure. The man reached for her hand,

"But I have managed to find you now; would you do me the service of this dance?"

Mai raised her eyebrows,

Service is definitely the right word.

Ayako opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out, too shocked (perhaps humbled?) to find her usual fiery words. The monk decided to take pity.

"Well I'm sure she would," he began, pulling the miko to his side in one swift motion, "but you see, she's already promised this dance to me."

Ayako blinked startled, a rush of color flooding her cheeks. The man looked to her confirm this and quickly she smiled.

"Sorry."

With a frown the man watched the miko led away to the dance floor. Mai moved back through the crowd, hoping to get a better view. Coming out to stand near Lin, she could see John and Masako in the far right corner, each giving a brief wave to what Mai saw were the old women swarming around the edge of the dance floor.

Across from them, Mai could see Bou-san had brought Ayako to the center, the monk smiling, the miko looking annoyed. The first notes were drawn out long and haunting. Out of all the fast paced songs just preformed, the band had chosen now to play a much slower piece. The couples began to move across the floor, their steps slow and elegant.

"It's the waltz," a voice suddenly explained.

Mai blinked and looked up at Lin standing beside her.

"Oh, is that what it is?” she replied thoughtfully, catching sight of John and Masako spinning by, light smiles on both their faces.

A slight nagging curiosity grew in the back of Mai's mind. Unsure at her own daring she looked back up at the Chinese man,

"Do you dance Lin?"

His tall frame shifted, and Mai couldn't be sure (the lighting was dim) but she swore she saw a rare smile pulling at the corners of his mouth,

"Not often," was his answer after a moment.

Mai allowed herself a small smile at the thought of Naru's assistant moving in and out of all those love struck couples.

"Perhaps Ayako will ask you to later," Mai continued, taking advantage of his good humor.

Lin glanced down at her, his eyebrow rose slightly,

"I would decline. There is only one person in this world who could ask and expect the answer to be yes."

Mai blinked surprised at his answer. Cryptic and vague, it was like most of what the guarded man said when forced to speak, but this time... she had been allowed a glimpse to a bit of his personal life that was usually shrouded in mystery, unknown to probably all but Naru...and this person he just spoke of.

Lin's face relaxed from its smile and his gaze grew distant. Sensing his withdrawal, she respectfully decided to leave the man to his thoughts and said quietly,

"I think I'm going to find something to drink..." and at his small nod, never removing his dark eyes from the dancers, she slipped away.

Mai followed the edge of the dance floor, occasionally seeing Bou-san and Ayako appear in and out of the other couples crowding the floor, each gazing at each other in a way that hardly looked like hate...smiling to herself Mai continued on. After a while of forcing her way through the dense crowd, Mai quickly realized the extent of her thirst. Swallowing with some difficulty, she hoped that she could find where Mr. Sachi had disappeared to, and soon.

Surely he found something around here...

There was excitement in the air, several people around her mentioning that the crowning of Yoshi would be soon. Mai looked down at her three lilies with a frown.

It's probably for the better this way;  it would be awkward   if I was chosen as  Yoshi with Niko already crowned as Mr. Miyuki.

After a bit a longer of moving along with the crowd, Mai realized she had no idea where she was being led to. Stopping she rose up on her feet, attempting to get a better view of where she had ended up, desperate to catch sight of a food stand, but no such luck.

Considerably shorter than most of the people pressed in around her, she couldn't even manage to see past the head and shoulders of the person in front of her. Feeling slightly trapped and frustrated, Mai began to push her way through with a bit more energy than before, looking simply to get out of the human traffic she found herself in the middle of. Finally she found herself making some progress as there were fewer and fewer people in the direction she was headed. Escaping the buzz, heat, and cramped quarters, Mai found herself stumbling out into an open space off to the side of the bustling festival grounds.

A warm breeze took up the air around her, stirring Mai's sticky bangs from her forehead. Squinting in the dim light, as the moon had retreated behind a cloud and there were no considerately placed lanterns in this area, Mai saw she was standing near something not unlike a barn or, as she looked closer...an outdoor theater?

Mai took a few curious steps towards it. It was a covered structure, though the roof had several large holes in it. The only wall was set up behind the small wooden stage, the rest of the theater being open air with rows of wooden benches set out, now claimed by the weeds. Mai frowned in confusion, wondering why the theater worshiping town of Nozomi would let something like this fall into disrepair?

After a moment or two of thoughtful silence, Mai felt her thirst nagging at her once again, drowning out any more curious thoughts. With a sigh Mai turned to look once again at the swarm of people, illuminated in the night by the soft glow of fire light as they rushed on to various food stands and proposals. Mai made no move to join them. She felt somehow special to have found this little sanctuary from all the madness of the festival and even despite her raging thirst, she had the inclination to linger.

The next gust of wind that blew past her carried with it the smell of festival food-- and voices. Startled Mai glanced into the shadows, she had been sure she was alone out here. She didn't know what made her do it, perhaps guided by a surge of intuition, she dropped to the dusty ground, ducking behind one of the benches used for the theater, hidden by the tall grasses that grew up around it and the inky darkness all around her. Scarcely able to see, Mai could hear the voices growing from a faint broken murmur, into a strengthening tone. Words reached her ears: “alone”, “lilies”, “theater”...

Mai crouched down lower as she realized that whoever was out there was moving towards the theater. Why she was hiding she hardly knew, but she wasn't about to get up now...

"I had planned to restore it this summer, though after all the extra expenses, I never got around to it."

Mai nearly inhaled a mouthful of dust. She knew that voice-- Mr. Sachi. Covering her mouth and nose Mai struggled not to sneeze as a female voice answered him.

"Joji, you know that would be pointless now."

There was a noise of reluctant agreement from the playwright. Mai shifted carefully, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious woman he was with, the soft voice unfamiliar to her ears.

He's certainly not taking Nari for a midnight stroll.

Through the parting grass Mai could make out shadowy feet, the long dress that draped over the legs of the woman, but no color stood out in the infinite gray blackness that surrounded them. Mr. Sachi walked by, not five feet from her; she ducked sharply as he spoke, his voice loud in her ears--

"I know you’re unhappy about this..."

"Joji, enough apologizing...I'm not that upset."

There was silence in which Mai imagined the two were sharing a look, or a smile...or according to the closeness of their stance a...kiss. Mai pressed her hand tighter over her mouth to muffle the surprised noise she had just made, nearly biting her tongue.

"Take this-- please do not deny me this one thing."

Mr. Sachi was speaking once again, his voice sounding so much different than what she had ever heard out of him. It was serious, pleading, but not whining like with Masako, it held a certain firmness that she had never imagined he possessed. There was another long silence, Mai leaning dangerously forward in hopes of seeing something, anything-- but they had moved away, back towards the stage, and now the woman's reply came quietly.

"I accept it...thank you."

Their shadows began to move again, drifting away from the theater.

No! I have to follow them!

Just then a strong hand came to cover her mouth and in one swift motion she was pulled to her feet, held from behind. Mai let out a shocked cry and struggled, but she was no match for the strong arms that captured her, pinning her against a warm body that smelled strangely of...tea?

Led quickly to somewhere deeper in the shadows, frustratingly in the opposite direction of Mr. Sachi, Mai was finally released. The moment she felt her captor's hold relax, she tore away from him, whirling around with so much force she nearly fell over,

"Help--" she attempted to cry, but a firm hand reached out and caught her arm, steadying her and then pulling her near again. Warningly a finger was pressed to her lips.

Her heart beating hard in her chest she stared her attacker in the eye and then lurched herself back in surprise.

"Naru!” she gasped.

Her bossed glared at her sharply,

"Mai, be quiet," he warned.

Mai was now grateful for his grip on her arm, she was pretty sure that was the only thing holding her up at the moment.

"What do you think you're doing?” she demanded breathlessly, stunned at being so manhandled.

"Don't you think that's a better question for you?"

Mai jerked her arm from his hand,

"Excuse me, but last time I checked it wasn't normal to kidnap your employees and drag them through the dark--"

"Last time I checked normal people didn't crouch in the dark eavesdropping on innocent couples," Naru cut in, glaring at the dust coating Masako's flawless kimono. Color rose to Mai's cheeks.

"Innocent couples? There was nothing innocent about--" but Mai stopped here, seeing the eager gleam in Naru's eyes.

He hadn't arrived in time. He didn't know who she had saw.

That Naru.

Pursing her lips tightly Mai turned on heel and made to march away from her manipulative boss.

"Where are you going?” he asked, taking a few large strides and coming to stop in front of her, "What about the couple you were spying on?"

Mai crossed her arms and leered up at her tall boss, silently cursing his height advantage.

"Nothing," she answered stubbornly, moving to brush past him.

Naru caught her shoulder with his hand,

"It was not nothing, Mai," he countered, his voice growing dangerously low.

"Let me go," she protested becoming impatient and finding that she was now practically dying of thirst.

With a slight frown Naru released her. Mai moved along hurriedly.

"Why the rush...meeting someone? Perhaps that's why you were out here in the first place?” he persisted, speaking to her retreating back.

Mai halted and blinked, stunned. Slowly she turned around, taking that time to arrange her face into something like indifference,

"So what if I was?” she asked, playing along, "What does it matter to you?"

Naru looked away from her, out at the blackness around them, and then looked back with something like a smile,

"It doesn't matter to me. It's only natural that you would want to meet your fiancé where his obnoxious grandparents won't be looking over your shoulder."

Mai felt herself tense, her hands made fists at her sides.

"Don't insult the Kokus, they're good people," she snapped.

Although she had no idea why, her anger at Naru for some reason caused her to defend anyone under his attack. She had a feeling that if he had chosen that moment to bring up even Masako, her defense of the medium would have been sickeningly diligent.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to offend your future in-laws--"

"They're not my future in-laws," Mai objected, her hands coming to rest on her hips.

"Yes they are, perhaps you've forgotten what happens after you get engaged--"

"I'm not engaged to Niko!” Mai cried, her voice horse from how dry her throat felt.

Naru opened his mouth but then closed it. Something glinted in his eyes; he immediately looked away from her,  

"But I heard you--"

Mai bit her lip and let out a heavy sigh,

"He was asking for my friendship."

There was a pause,

"Why are you out here again, Mai?” he asked looking back to her with a remastered expression.

"I was thirsty."

Naru's eyebrow rose,

"What did you expect to find out here?"

"I had been looking for a food stand and got caught in the crowds; I came out here to escape them," Mai explained impatiently, "Now I'm going to find something to drink before I lose my voice." And with that she made her third attempt to leave.

Silently, like a tall black shadow, Naru came to walk beside her. Mai pointedly ignored him, staring hard at the crowds they were approaching. Actually welcoming the noise and chaos, Mai was willingly swallowed up by the mass of bodies, making sharp random turns often in hopes of losing her shadow. Unfortunately, Naru was not to be out witted, following so close to her that almost every breath she took smelled of tea. Mai breathed in through her mouth and trudged on with more effort.

After several fruitless minutes of going virtually no where, unable to see past the many people jammed in front of her (though she could frustratingly see that Naru rose above most of the crowd) she finally heard something welcome to her ears,

"Yakitori, get your Yakitori here-- best in Nozomi!"

Finally!

Perking up, Mai strained to pin point where the shouts were coming from, after a moment of listening she decided to head off to her left. Pushing her way through, the crowd became increasingly dense and soon she found herself slowing to a stop. Uncertain at why the group ahead of her was no longer moving, Mai bounced around on her feet, peering to the side, hoping to see what was blocking her progress. A voice from behind solved her curiosity,

"You're in line."

Mai snapped her head around to leer at her boss, but found herself stumbling back as she was facing his chest.

"Oh-- sorry," she apologized to the young man she just bumped into in her surprise.

His frown disappeared the moment he caught Mai's quick apologetic smile.

"No problem, you alright?” he asked, helping Mai regain her balance.

"Um, yes," she mumbled, attempting to compose herself.

The young man glanced down and Mai followed his gaze. Held innocently in his hand was a lily. With a slight smile he looked back up at her and Mai met his gaze with a self conscious blush.

"Would you, uh...” his voice suddenly trailed off as he caught sight of Naru.

Mai witnessed the exchange and (remembering the incident with Bou-san) spoke quickly,

"I will, thank you."

The young man blinked, looking to Mai a little confusedly, but then he managed to recover, and hurriedly handed off the lily. Without another word and just a brief bow, he left. Holding the delicate flower in her hand, Mai watched him plow through the crowd stunned. In the next instant anger replaced her shock. Turning on Naru, she fixed him with fierce glare,

"What was that?"

Her boss observed her unaffectedly,

"What are you talking about?"

Mai felt heat rising to her cheeks, her hands closing tightly around the few lilies she did have,

"You know exactly what I'm talking about--"

Naru shrugged,

"How should I know why someone would give you a lily..."

Mai crushed the lilies in her hand, her mouth falling open; she drew in a deep breath--

"Excuse me, but are you in line or not?"

Mai blinked rapidly, looking to the woman who suddenly stood next to her, pointing to the empty space that had grown behind her. Mai looked to the vacant spot and then back to the woman,

"Yes, I am-- sorry," and quickly she moved up, turning her back on Naru.

Her thirst burning away at her throat, Mai clamped her mouth shut; she no longer had any energy to fight her insensitive boss. There was an irritated sigh behind her and then movement. Mai didn't take her eyes off the old woman standing in front of her, but out of her peripheral vision she could see someone parting the crowd to her right. Mai blinked and glanced down at her sad looking lilies, some petals falling from her hand.

That Naru.

Stepping forward as the line crept along Mai began to fear lasting damage from her dry throat if she didn't get something to drink soon, when a voice very near to her caused her to jump,

"Here."

Mai looked to her immediate right to see Naru standing there, a nice cold glass of water in his hand. For that moment she abandoned all of her previous thoughts and anger, her mind could only compute one thing: water. Eagerly she grabbed for the cup, barely taking it from Naru's hand before taking large swallows. Nearly downing the whole thing in one instant, Mai was finally forced to take a breath. Looking up she didn't care about the looks she was getting from the people moving around her to rejoin the line, let alone the slightly disapproving one from Naru.

"Better?” he asked, his eyes regarding her critically.

Too breathless to speak yet, Mai simply nodded, enjoying the ability to swallow again.

"Good, we need to find the others," he ordered, leading the way opposite from which they had come.

Mai took some more grateful sips, this time less ravenously,

"Naru, how did you get this?"

"I asked for it."

Mai glanced back at the line they were leaving,

"But it wasn't our turn..."

"So?"

Mai drank thoughtfully.

"Then how--"

Naru shot her a look over his shoulder,

"If you don't want it Mai we can always give it back--"

Mai frowned and gripped the cup possessively,

"I never said that."

 

"Just drink."

 Mai looked down into her cup silently, she wasn't going argue him on this point, there were some other things she would argue...(Mai peeled a damp lily petal from her glass), but she decided to say no more.

Moving through the thick crowd was much more effective with Naru in the lead, his tall imposing figure practically clearing an invisible path for her to follow after. Mai noticed, as they past couples young and old, that there was a change in the murmur of the crowd. Proposals were quickly being replaced by talk of who the next Yoshi would be.

"It starts soon you know..."

"I have nine lilies, beat that."

"Wouldn't it be romantic if that girl Niko is engaged to is picked to be Yoshi?"

"Oh, soooo romantic!"

A flash of pink rose to Mai's cheeks, keeping her head down she hurried past the gossiping girls only to bump into Naru who stopped suddenly.

"Hey, Naru-- keep going," Mai protested, keeping a wary eye on the group of young women just few feet behind them.

"Miss Miyuki," Naru spoke, nodding his head towards someone Mai couldn't see. Moving around her Naru sized road block, Mai could see that they had stopped in a small break from the crowds near the stage. Mai's gaze then traveled until it found a cream dress, following it upwards she saw that the dress led to a neck of pale porcelain skin and a keen face set off by a pair of sapphire eyes.

"Shibuya-san," she answered, offering a small nod of her own, her golden hair falling over her shoulders, catching the lantern light attractively.

Suddenly Mai was painfully aware that her kimono was covered in a layer of dirt and her hair had long since freed a part of it's self from Bou-san's hair clip. Vainly brushing away at the delicate fabric, tucking a stray stand of hair behind her ear, Mai looked up to see that the woman was now staring down at her.

"I believe I only met you briefly before, Miss...?"

"Taniyama. Mai Taniyama."

Miss Miyuki smiled, which was a truly stunning flash of white,

"Well, Taniyama-san, are you enjoying yourself this evening?"

Mai blinked as though struck by something.

Her smile...why is it so familiar?

"Mai?” Naru prompted in her odd silence.

Mai came to with a start and then quickly glanced down, realizing she had been staring,

"Oh yes...it's been interesting," she managed to answer smoothing out some wrinkles from her dress.

There was a moment of silence and then Naru took up the conversation once again,

"And are you, Miss Miyuki?"

Slowly Mai's gaze rose, looking from her boss to the heiress. The woman's smile was softer towards Naru, and something about it was even more striking to Mai. She could almost match it to another's face...the vision was just out of reach.

"I am Shibuya-san," she replied burying her nose in a large bouquet of lilies. Mai's pleasant expression grew rigid. She didn't like the way Shibuya-san rolled off the woman's tongue, "but I'm sure I'm not the only one, Mai where is your collection?"

Attempting to hold a polite smile in the face of false intimacy and insult, Mai couldn't help a glance at her four dying lilies, one was even petal-less. Miss Miyuki followed her gaze,

"Left the rest at home did you? No matter, who really wants to be crowned as my mother anyways? Everyone knows her memory is little loved in Nozomi."

Mai drew in a small breath. Naru glanced at her, but she didn't notice, her mind miles away. The spark of recognition had been lit and now she knew what it was about Miss Miyuki's that was so familiar...

She has her mother's smile.

"Mai, something wrong..?” Naru questioned, his dark eyes observing her carefully.

Mai pretended not to notice his suspicious gaze,

"Just fine," she lied.

Naru's heavy stare lingered on her a bit longer than was entirely comfortable, but fortunately she was saved in the next moment by the intrusion of Mr. Sachi.

"Mai, Shibuya-san, what--"

The playwright froze mid-step, his friendly eyes turning cold as he spotted the heiress,

"Miss Miyuki,” he greeted curtly.

The woman turned to face the playwright,

"Mr. Sachi," she answered in the same clipped tone.

"We've been looking for you," Mr. Sachi went on addressing Mai and Naru, "Just having a quick chat here?"

"Yes, actually," Miss Miyuki answered for them, her attractive features hardening, "It seems you've managed to hire someone with some sense for once."

Mr. Sachi stood straighter, casting a look at Naru,

"I would appreciated it if you didn't harass my paranormal team."

Mai eyebrows rose,

His  paranormal team?

Naru shifted where he stood and fixed his client with a sharp look,

"I was the one to call on Miss Miyuki."

Mr. Sachi looked back to the woman unapologetic,

"My mistake."

"Mai!” a voice suddenly cut in.

Hearing her name, Mai glanced around before catching sight of Bou-san, followed by the rest of SPR.

"Hey, where did you disappear to?” he asked as he came up to her.

A bit of color tinted her cheeks as she recalled her recent encounter with Naru.

"I was getting a drink," she answered, though her eyes found Mr. Sachi.

What was he doing out there? Who was he with?

The monk followed her gaze and then looked back at her unconvinced,

"A drink huh? When did Naru come into the picture..?"

"Later," she urged, giving him a silencing look.

A small smile broke out across the monk's lips, but he said no more.

"Ah, Masako," Mr. Sachi said, coming up to the medium as if he suddenly realized she was missing from his side.

Talking with John, she blinked at the playwright as he interrupted,

"We're all together now, shall we find our places? The announcement will be soon."

There was a weak murmur of agreement which he accepted eagerly,

"Excuse us, Miss Miyuki."

And with that he escorted Masako away and into the gathering crowd. Ayako glanced at the luminous heiress, shimmering in her long white dress as if a lily herself, and snorted haughtily before turning on heel and following Mr. Sachi's lead. Naru nodded his head towards the woman,

"Good evening, Miss Miyuki."

Some of the stiffness left her figure and she bowed her head in return,

"It was good to see you again, Shibuya-san."

Rising her head she caught Mai's eye and offered a small smile,

"And you as well, Mai."

Mai managed a strained smile back and then took up Bou-san's arm and walked with him into the throng that was now massing around the stage. Glancing back at the theater heiress it occurred to Mai that the mysterious woman of last night's festival had been Miss Miyuki herself.

Her familiarity was because of the picture, she resembles her mother...

"Lost in thoughts of Naru?” the monk beside her prodded, interpreting her silence as meaning only one thing.

"Please, Bou-san," Mai protested, sending him a look.

"Well you give me little to work with. You're here one minute, gone the next, then some time later you turn up with Naru of all people. It leads a guy to think. Though you could help and fill those blank spots..."

Mai observed the monk thoughtfully,

"How about a trade? You fill my blank spots and I'll fill yours."

Bou-san was silent for a moment, considering her deal. With a slight smile he nodded,

"Fine. You first."

Mai made a face and poked him in the arm,

"You. I really should be hearing this from you for free anyways."

With a slight frown, Bou-san rubbed his arm,

"Okay, fine," he relented, "just leave my shoulder alone will you?"

Mai smiled sweetly,

"Sure thing-- now spill."

The monk crossed his arms and looked off in deep thought,

"Let me see, where were we...ah yes, so some of the guys at the meeting began asking Niko how he was going to propose to you--"

"We were past that," Mai reminded impatiently.

The monk raised an eyebrow at her,

"Well, excuse me...let's skip ahead here then-- how about, then Naru marched passed me and John and stormed out of the room--"

"Bou-san--" Mai protested, growing anxious for the answer, "quit being impossible and just tell me what Naru said--"

"Welcome Nozomi!” a voice suddenly rang out over the festival grounds and then there was a roar of applause.

No! Why now?

Mai glared fiercely over at the monk while all around them people clapped. Grinning, Bou-san held a hand up to his ear and shrugged, unable to hear or be heard over the deafening noise.

That Bou-san.

Standing closer to the stage than the night before, Mai found she could see without the monk's assistance. Holding the mic was a bright young woman who stood smiling out at the crowd, Mai frowned at her.

You just had to start when Bou-san was about to tell me everything...

"Yes, welcome everyone," the woman continued as the applause subsided, "tonight is the glorious crowning of Yoshi Miyuki!"

Mai shot Bou-san a quick glance, hoping to get him to talk now that she could hear herself think again, but the monk merely brought a finger to his lips and looked back up at the stage.

"This as been a night of inspiration and...love," she added, allowing a pause for the large sigh from the crowd, "and I'm sure there are many wonderful women in attendance tonight, but only one can be crowned as the beautiful Yoshi Miyuki and join last night's newly crowned Mr. Miyuki-- Niko Koku."

Mai felt her mouth go dry once again as Niko stepped forward on the stage, greeted by enthusiastic cheers and applause. Warily Mai glanced around, hoping no one recognized her. Fortunately everyone seemed to be focused on the young man waving to them all. From somewhere in the crowd loud shouts were heard,

"THAT'S MY GRANDSON!"

"HIS FIANCE BETTER JOIN HIM AS YOSHI, HE'S CHOSEN A REAL LOOKER."

Turning red Mai looked down at her four miserable lilies with great relief,

There's no way I'll be crowned Yoshi.

"Have you enjoyed this night? I hear there is someone special to you in this crowd," the woman went on, looking to Niko knowingly.

Even from all the way up on stage it could be seen that the young man had turned a few shades pinker,

"There are a lot of people special to me here tonight," he answered carefully.

"Very well then," the woman relented, smiling amusedly, "shall we crown your wife?"

There was a murmur of good-natured laughter which even the blushing Niko joined in.

Bou-san sent Mai a side long glance that she ignored, staring straight ahead, attempting not to make eye contact with Niko.

"All jokes aside, being crowned Yoshi is a great honor for any woman," the young woman went on once the crowd had settled down again, "Receiving the most lilies tonight means that you were the most inspiring and beautiful of all the ladies here and the number of lilies you have received will be proof of that. So let's not wait a moment longer, ladies gather your lilies."

Mai glanced uncertainly to the women standing around her. With looks of self importance they were taking care to gather up and adjust there bunches of lilies. Just a few feet away Mai could see Ayako frowning down at her fistful, plucking away an unruly petal from one of her lilies.

A handful is better than four...

Right beside the miko was Masako. With much exaggerated movements she switched arms with her tidy bunch of lilies which probably neared a dozen.

And an armful is even better than a fistful...

While questioning just how her rival had managed to collect so many lilies in the short time that she had been gone, Bou-san broke into her thoughts,

"Do you think if I ran fast, I could pick some more for you and be back in time for you to show them?” he wondered, his eyes sparkling at her playfully.

Mai sighed and smiled up at him,

"Thanks Bou-san, but I think it's best this way, the last thing I want is to be announced as Niko's wife."

"What, you mean your not?"

Mai narrowed her eyes at the monk,

"I told you already--"

"Oh. That's right, I forgot-- he just wanted to be friends...” Bou-san went on, shooting Mai a look.

"That's what he said," Mai argued, glaring into his newly forming smile, "Maybe if you would tell me what Naru said--"

Just then the woman began to speak again and the monk pursed his lips and looked back up at the stage apparently entranced.

That Bou-san.

"Okay, now the moment you've all been waiting for-- the rise of the lily. Ladies I will call out a number, if you have that many lilies in your possession then raise your bouquet, we'll continue on until only one woman remains--"

"What if there's a tie?” Bou-san whispered, seeming to find his voice again.

Mai shrugged and shook her head, how would they decide then?

"--then that woman is this year's Yoshi, are we ready?” the woman asked, answered by eager cheers, "Good! We'll start at...four!"

Four.

Slowly Mai's gaze dropped down to the four lilies in her hand. They suddenly felt heavy, burning away at her palm. Her whole right arm hung defiantly at her side, refusing to be raised.

Bou-san, keeping a close eye on her, watched as a small young woman behind Mai raised her arm, showing her four lilies as proudly as if she had four dozen. Setting his mouth, the monk reached for Mai's hand, and before she could protest, rose her arm up for all to see.

Bou-san-- !

Mai opened her mouth to protest, attempting to free her hand from his grasp, but it was no use, he just looked back at her with an unaffected smile. Jerking her arm helplessly, Mai caught sight of Masako peering over at her, a look of triumph on her face that no sleeve could hide, and lacking a sleeve that particular night-- there was nothing between Mai and her rival's delight. Looking away before she could see Ayako's amused expression Mai turned back to the monk with a glare,

"Bou-san--" she objected, with another forceful tug.

"What? You have four, show them proud!” he encouraged brightly, holding up her hand higher.

"You’re embarrassing me; this is nothing to be proud of!"

"Tell that to her," he remarked, glancing at someone she couldn't see.

Feeling flustered, Mai looked over her shoulder and caught sight of a petite young woman about her age, holding up her small bunch up with beaming pride. Mai flushed and faced the stage once more. Bad idea. In that moment she locked eyes with Niko. He offered her a small smile which she returned weakly, her face nearly catching on fire.

"Alright," the woman on stage continued, glancing briefly in the direction of Mai and Bou-san's struggling figures, "how about six?"

With her arm becoming sore, a numbing sensation spreading into her shoulder, Mai was abruptly released from the monk's hold. Ahead of them a few women raised their arms in the air of their own free will. Feeling the blood returning to her arm with a prickly warm rush, Mai glared out of the corner of her eye at the monk who stood beside her satisfied.

"Don't look at me like that," he said still staring up at the stage.

With a frown Mai flexed her fingers,

"My arm is half dead thanks to you."

The monk broke his gaze from the stage,

"Oh, never mind what you did to my arm--"

Mai narrowed her eyes and gave him a push,

"Oy-- should I raise your arm again?” Bou-san cried, rubbing his sore shoulder.

Mai crossed her arms tightly to be safe,

"You shouldn't have raised it in the first place."

"It wasn't that bad,” Bou-san remarked looking to her unconvinced.

"Yes, it was," Mai answered stubbornly.

"Okay, how about nine?” the woman on stage spoke as the women with six lilies lowered their arms.

Mai watched on as twice as many arms rose in their place. A blush creeping up over her neck, Mai glanced down the way to see Ayako raising her arm. Masako stood beside the miko, absently adjusting her larger bunch. Mai frowned and found herself crushing her own lilies again,

That Masako.

"Ayako managed nine," Mai remarked, forcing herself to look away from her rival and back to the monk.

"Yeah, I guess so. She could of had twice that if she'd done a lot more eye batting and a lot less talking," he replied, his eye's moving to the priestess, her arm held proudly in the air.

"You mean you didn't see her receive those lilies?” Mai asked, cocking her head at him, smiling slightly.

The monk blinked and looked back to Mai with an eyebrow raised,

"No, I was out looking for you," he answered matter-of-factly.

"Actually,” Mai went on thoughtfully, pointedly ignoring the monk beside her, “it makes sense. Imagine how many lilies Ayako missed out on because of your hovering?”

“I wasn't hovering, I was out looking for--”

“I'm a lily short because of you, and then I lost another with Naru--" Mai winced as soon as the words left her mouth.

The monk's eyebrows rose further up on his head,

"Naru too?"

"It's one of those blank spots," Mai explained simply, looking back to the stage to escape Bou-san's curious gaze.

"Over my dead body."

Mai blinked and snapped her attention back to the monk,

"Excuse me?"

"Over my dead body," he repeated, "That's what Naru said."

Mai's lips parted in surprise, she stared at Bou-san with confusion,

"I-- what?"

Smirking, the monk just shrugged,

"I don't know anything beyond that. One moment they're discussing Niko's proposal to you, the next moment Naru's out of his seat and storming out of the room. It was under his breath, but I know I heard him say it as he passed me: over my dead body."

Mai felt her face burn, her heart pounding in her chest. Bou-san placed a steadying hand on her shoulder,

"You're not gonna faint on me, are you?" he teased, amusement plain on his face.

Mai shrugged off his hand and shook her head, more to clear her mind than deny fainting; she was feeling a bit light headed...

A strange sort of giddy excitement filled her, replacing her momentary panic. A small smile pulled at her lips,

"He said that? Are you sure?"

Bou-san eyed her uncertainly,

"If I say yes, are you going to start doing that giggling thing girls do?"

Mai's smile vanished and she nudged the monk in the side,

"No, now answer me."

"Okay," he replied, still observing her carefully, "I'm positive that's what I heard. What it means-- hard to say, although I have some ideas..."

Her mind whirling, her emotions moving in and out of confusion and delight, she barely noticed the woman on stage announcing the next number of lilies,

"Alright, we're nearing the end here; is there a dozen out there?"

Mirroring the beginning of this ceremony, only a few hands rose into the air. One of them was Masako's. Mai glanced around to see if she could spot the medium's rival for the crown, and caught sight of two more bouquets in the air. One was made up of only roses.

Nari.

Mai frowned and her gaze found Mr. Sachi, but the playwright's attention wasn't on his actress, it was on the third and final contender: Miss Miyuki.

Bou-san looked down at Mai and the two shared a look.

This isn't going to be good.

"Well, it seems we have more than one complete bouquet...” the woman on stage began, looking down at the three women in surprise, "this happens only rarely, but we do have a way to decide."

The woman stood to the side and gestured towards Niko,

"Mr. Miyuki, please pick your wife."

Niko blinked, startled at suddenly having to make such an important decision. Uncertainly he walked to the edge of the stage and looked down on the mass of people below him, three elegant arms held into the air.

As Mai looked up at his nervous figure his eyes met hers and she knew in that moment that he wished he could pick her. With perfect timing his grandparents drove this idea home,

"THIS IS A CONSPIRACY! HE SHOULD BE ABLE TO PICK WHOEVER HE WANTS AS HIS WIFE!"

"THESE OTHER WOMEN JUST BATTED THEIR EYES AND GIGGLED INTO THEIR SLEEVES TO GET THOSE LILES, WHAT'S INSPIRATING ABOUT THAT?"

Despite the furious blush raging over her features, Mai couldn't help a small satisfied smile sent Masako's way. The medium briefly caught her look, then pointedly ignored her, smoothing her dress self consciously. Standing behind her and to the left was Nari. The actress stood holding up her roses with a glowing face, though occasionally her gaze would drop to the medium and her cheeks would color.

That Masako.

Even farther towards the right and up close to the stage stood the refined Miss Miyuki, her creamy skin continuing up to the pale bouquet she held, a testament of her beauty. Mai focused once again on Niko,

Who will he chose?

"Have you made your decision?" the woman asked with anticipation.

Niko managed a weak smile, "I have."

There was a pause as the young man looked once again at his choices, then drew in a deep breath,

"Nari Motoshi."

The silence was suddenly filled with loud applause. Mai broke into a genuine smile, looking back at the actress, who let out a cry of surprise.

"Joji! Joji-- can you believe it?” she exclaimed as she was being hurried up to stage, passing the playwright.

He managed a kind smile,

"Good for you, Nari!"

Mai's eyes quickly found Masako, hoping to savor the look of disappointment on the medium's face, but was stunned to find her rival looking rather composed, clapping along with the crowd.

"Nari Motoshi, this year's Yoshi Miyuki!” the woman announced from the stage as the actress climbed up, accepting a hand from Niko.

The applause carried on, several people from the crowd whistling. Blushing and smiling brightly, Nari waved down at her adoring audience.

"Any last words before we get you backstage and ready for your performance?” the woman wondered, looking to the delighted actress.

Nari paused in her waving to glance at Niko,

"Yes, actually," she answered, smiling kindly at the heir to the Koku Inn, "This is the first time I have ever received this honor, thank you very much."

Niko smiled and lowered his gaze,

"You're very welcome."

"What a wonderful end to this evening's ceremony. There you have it Nozomi, Mr. and Mrs. Miyuki!”

Nari and Niko bowed their heads to the cheering mass of people and then silently began to file off the stage, Nari still waving all the way. Mai glanced at Mr. Sachi and caught sight of him lowering his hand, a strange sort of smile on his face.

Her ears ringing and her hands stinging from all the clapping she had just done, Mai peered through the breaks in the crowd, trying to glimpse Miss Miyuki's reaction to all this, but the woman was no where to be seen.

"You'll have to excuse me, I must give the introduction for tonight's play," Mr. Sachi was saying, reluctantly releasing Masako's arm, "I'll be back."

No one objected to his departure and with that the playwright cut through the crowd, disappearing in the direction of the stage.

"Okay, your turn," Bou-san spoke up, nudging Mai in the side.

"My turn...?” she repeated, watching Mr. Sachi leave distractedly.

"Hey, don't even try that. This is an even trade, your blanks spots for mine," the monk persisted.

Mai came to and looked to Bou-san with slight annoyance,

"You want to hear it now?"

The monk crossed his arms and stared down at her,

"You couldn't wait."

Mai frowned, sending a quick look in Naru's direction. Her boss was currently absorbed in a conversation with Lin,

"Fine, but if any of this is over heard...” Mai went on, looking up at the monk warningly.

"I'm waiting Mai," Bou-san urged stubbornly.

"I went looking for a food stand," Mai began, lowering her voice so that the monk had to move closer to hear her, "...then things got interesting."

Curiosity filled the monk's eyes,

"Like what?"

Mai pursed her lips, stealing another glance in Naru's direction,

"I got separated from the crowds and found this empty space, just outside the festival grounds, I thought I was alone, but--"

Mai paused again; Masako was talking to Naru now, smiling and batting her eyes at him. Mai felt her blood pressure rise. Bou-san followed her gaze, then took her shoulders to get her to focus again,

"Don't get distracted, who was out there with you?"

Grudgingly Mai returned her attention to the monk and her story,

"Uh-- oh, right. I heard voices. One of them belonged to Mr. Sachi and the other was a woman's."

Bou-san leaned back and blinked at her,

"That's it, Mai? Just Mr. Sachi out wooing Nari? Maybe you should be relating this bit of gossip to Masako..."

"Bou-san," Mai protested, pulling on his sleeve to draw him near again, "the woman wasn't Nari."

The monk looked into her serious eyes unfazed,

"Alright, Mr. Sachi's a busy guy. Like I said, Masako's over there--"

Mai swatted his shoulder and ignored his cry of pain,

"You’re missing the big picture, Bou-san. What was Mr. Sachi doing out there with some random woman in the dark?"

A slow smile spread over the monk's lips,

"Let's see here Mai, it's the night of love and he's alone in the dark with a woman. I'll give you two guesses."

Mai let out a frustrated sigh,

"Bou-san this is serious--"

"I know," he agreed, adopting a grave look, "someone needs to let Masako and Nari know that Sachi's running around on them."

Mai frowned and crossed her arms,

"You're impossible."

"Well, sorry if my interest in Mr. Sachi's generous heart is lacking, but rest assured my concern isn't, let go break the news to Masako--"

"If you would just let me finish," Mai objected, yanking on his arm to stop him, "Mr. Sachi wasn't just out there to-- whatever you think he was doing. From my hiding place I heard him say--"

Released from her painful grip, the monk observed her with raised eyebrows,

"You were hiding? Why?"

Mai brushed self consciously at her kimono,

"I don't know, my intuition I guess. But that's not the point, something was off, he seemed uneasy--"

"That can happen when you’re cheating."

"He was whispering with her--"

"That's advisable if you don't want to get caught."

"He mentioned theaters and expenses--"

"Mai, he is a playwright, you gotta talk about something in between kissing."

"And he handed her something-"

"Even you can guess what it was."

"Bou-san," Mai said, growing red in the face, "you weren't there, he was acting suspicious."

The monk smiled back at her frustrated glare,

"That's because he was doing something suspicious, cheating is very suspicious. Now, we better wait on mentioning this to Nari, she having such a great night and all--"

"I would have heard more," Mai went on speaking over him, "but then Naru had to show up--"

"Naru?” Bou-san repeated, his interest recaptured.

Mai narrowed her eyes at the monk and avoided his knowing look,

"Nothing more happened after that; he let them get away--"

"Are you sure Mr. Sachi didn't see you? You couldn't have been hiding very well if Naru found you--"

"I was hiding just fine. Naru just appeared out of nowhere like he always does and ruined it by dragging me away--"

"He drug you away?” Bou-san wondered, looking on at her bemusedly, "Like manhandling?"

Mai flushed a deeper shade of red, but was fortunately spared answering that by Mr. Sachi's magnified voice.

"Hello, Nozomi!"

Applause was stirred at the sight of the playwright. Mai clapped, exchanging a look with Bou-san,

"Well, if it isn't the playboy himself..."

"Bou-san, shhh," Mai hissed, "No one can know."

"Does Naru know?” he questioned, raising a challenging eyebrow at her,

"No, so please keep it to yourself," Mai answered, staring hard up at the stage as to avoid the amused look on the monk's face.

"I see. Fine, your secret safe with me."

Mai sent him a side long glare,

"It isn't my secret."

"But you're keeping it," Bou-san argued, crossing his arms.

Mai heaved a sighed and faced the monk fully,

"I'll tell Naru...eventually. But for now, can we keep this between us, please?"

Bou-san nodded,

"Okay, okay...I promise."

The two shared a small smile before their attention returned to the stage and Mr. Sachi.

"This is my favorite part of the festival," the playwright went on, joining the crowd in a rumble of laughter before continuing, "Tonight's play follows the romantic meeting of our Mr. Miyuki and his beautiful and inspiring, Yoshi. Prepare to be captivated by their moving love story, acted in part by our very own Yoshi Miyuki-- Nari Motoshi, please enjoy!"

The crowd erupted in more applause as the lights around the stage dimmed and Mr. Sachi exited. In the few still moments before the opening notes, Mai was reminded of just how late it was. Above her millions of stars kept watch on all of Nozomi, a warm current blew across the festival grounds, strangely quiet and empty as everyone was gathered around the stage. And then came a long note off a violin, soon joined by a cello. The stage was suddenly lit and there Nari stood, an artistic idea of a forest filling the space around her.

"Now, where's the bed of lilies I've been sent to find..."

Nari's voice rang high and clear out over the audience. With grace she moved about the stage. Mai could see the light in her eyes and the glow on cheeks all the way from where she stood, the woman was truly blissful and it showed.

She won't stay that way if Bou-san's right, Mai thought darkly, frowning over at the vacant spot at Masako's side.

But was Bou-san right? Mai closed her eyes and attempted to focus harder on what exactly she had seen that night. It had only been too easy for the monk to turn what she seen into some secret love triangle, so why didn't she agree? Why did she still feel like there was another reason Mr. Sachi was out there with the woman? Why did she wish she could have heard more of their conversation, if it was only to be filled with sweet nothings?

Mai opened her eyes, the pressure of her thoughts weighting her down. It was no use, what she was feeling and what she saw were two different things.

Up on stage another actor was embracing Nari, murmuring words of love,

"My darling, let us never part..."

"My dear Joji, how I love you," Nari declared as she was released from the man's embrace.

Joji?

Mai blinked, stunned, as an audible gasp broke over the crowd.

Bou-san sent her a dark look which Mai returned, her cheeks reddening.

Poor Nari!

After a pause the actor she was with recovered and took up her hands in his,

"I-- I love you too, my dear Yoshi..."

There was another pause, presumably it was Nari's line, but she appeared to be frozen in place, her face as pale as ash. At a loss at what to do, the actor did the only think he could think of and held her in his arms once again. The lights dimmed for the change of scene and the audience was left in a hush of shock.

With a hand covering her mouth Mai looked over to Bou-san who let out a long breath,

"Well, it’s not like nobody knew,” he whispered helplessly.

To her right Mai caught sight of someone pushing way through the crowd. Mr. Sachi finally broke through to join Masako.

"My dear, sorry it took so long," he greeted her, appearing entirely unaffected.

The medium looked to him silently, her lips forming a thin line.

"He doesn't seem...bothered," Mai murmured, watching the playwright take Masako's arm, looking up at the stage with anticipation, as if he couldn't wait for a good show.

"Why would he be? He's got Nari singing his praises."

Mai nudged the monk with a frown,

"Mr. Sachi's not calculated Bou-san; this is all just some big, terrible, coincidence."

"It's a coincidence that three women are involved with him?"

Mai shot the monk a disbelieving look,

"Where do you get three?"

The monk grinned down at her knowingly,

"Nari, Masako, and...mystery woman."

Mai returned his look with a relenting sigh,

"Fine, three, but I still say it's coincidence."

Just then the lights brightened and the stage was lit once more. The silence in the audience was absolute, as though holding its breath, awaiting Nari's first lines. On cue the woman glided across the floor,

"Oh Takuya, this theater...it's stunning."

That was it. The crowd released its breath and the tension broke. The actor portraying Mr. Miyuki joined her, relief written upon his face,

"My dear this is ours now, I can inspire others as you have inspired me..."

The play progressed uneventfully. The final scene was an overly dramatic recount of the Miyuki wedding, the notes from the band swelling as Yoshi kissed her new husband. The stage darkened, with the music still ringing in her ears, Mai joined the crowd in applauding a satisfying performance.

The stage was lit again so that the actors and actresses could take their final bow. Mai glanced towards the cause of half the confusion that night. A few feet away Mr. Sachi stood with bright smile on his face, was clapping harder than anyone else around,

That Mr. Sachi.

Lowering his hands the monk followed Mai's gaze,

"No shame, huh?"

Mai frowned as she watched the playwright join arms once again with Masako,

"None."

The actors left the stage and slowly the applause around them subsided. A low murmur filled Mai's ears as the crowd began discussing the play, or rather Nari's performance. Behind her someone gasped and giggled,

"Can you believe she said Joji?!"

Mai bit her lip and resisted the urged to turn around tell off who ever was being so insensitive, but Bou-san gently took hold of her arm.

"Hm?” Mai wondered as she fought the temptation to send a glare over her shoulder.

"We should probably join the others," the monk suggested, glancing towards the playwright and the rest of SPR. Mai sighed and nodded, she wanted anything but to face Mr. Sachi...and Naru.

"See here, now we can get some more opinions," the playwright declared as Mai and Bou-san approached, "What did you two think of tonight's show?"

"I thought Nari was great," Mai answered, unable to keep a slight insinuating tone from her voice.

"She was, for sure," Mr. Sachi remarked and then looked to the monk,

"I agree with Mai," Bou-san said simply, sharing a brief glance with her.

The playwright smiled, feeling that there was something he was missing, but couldn't understand what.

Standing across from them, Mai felt Naru's gaze burning into her. Mai swallowed and stared down at her feet, her face steadily growing warmer.

Over my dead body.

"If that's it for tonight, we should head back," Naru spoke, his voice raising the hairs on the back of Mai's neck, she practically glared in concentration at a rock near Bou-san foot.

"Oh yes, very good idea. We don't want to be late for the meeting,” the playwright consented, drawing Masako to his side.

Mai blinked and despite her determination not to look up, risked a glance at Naru, to stare surprised at Mr. Sachi,

A meeting?

"What meeting?" Naru spoke, eyeing the playwright sharply.

Mr. Sachi looked to them all,

"Didn't you know? Day three's meeting is always held the night before."

"It works for me, there's no way I'm getting up at the crack of dawn again," Ayako muttered and with that she started to make for the Inn, following the steady trickle of people there.

"About that," Mr. Sachi tried to interject, but the miko ignored him, "uh, I guess she'll find out for herself soon enough..."

"We really should be going," he urged the rest of them.

Finally the group began to move out, John falling into step by Mai's side. The two of them shared a silent smile.  

"Are you okay?” the priest asked quietly as they passed through the emptying grounds.

"I'm okay, it's just been...a long night. You?"

"Good, actually."

Feeling calmer than she had all night, Mai's eyes shined at him teasingly,

"You had some interesting company earlier..."

John coughed, bit of pink coloring his cheeks,

"Masako and I met them a few days ago; they seemed to have taken...a liking to me."

Mai lips twitched as she tried not to laugh,

"I noticed."

Sharing in another smile, the two of them passed under the many strands of lilies strung up over entrance to the festival grounds. A few remaining clouds from the rain earlier that day broke free of the moon, letting it cast a pale glow over the flat landscape of Nozomi. Mai watched as her shadow stretched out before her, long and lean. Then another shadow came to mind, Naru.

I hope this meeting isn't anything like this morning's.

Her cheeks flushing pink, they approached the Inn. Nearly as noisy and chaotic as the festival grounds, Mai held onto Bou-san's arm tightly as they followed Naru and Mr. Sachi into the swarming building. Perfume and cologne mingled in the air with the sweet scent of lilies. The concoction was almost dizzying and Mai found herself longing to be out in the open again.

"I didn't know the Koku's had enough rooms for all these people," Bou-san commented, speaking with a raised voice to be heard over the murmur around them.

"Me either," Mai answered, ducking to avoid the elbow of the man squeezing by her.

Feeling suffocated by the heat and the close quarters of the halls, Mai was never happier than when she heard Mr. Sachi announce that the meetings were starting in the same large rooms as that morning.

"Here," Bou-san said, depositing Mai near Ayako, "I'll see you in a bit."

Mai nodded and let go of his arm reluctantly. Without her anchor she found herself already getting pushed around,

"Have a good meeting," Mai called to him, meaning in her tone, as he joined John down the hall.

With a quick grin the monk looked back at her,

"I'll be sure to keep my ears open."

Noticing Ayako's curious stare, Mai feigned interest in her sleeve.

"What was that about?” the miko prodded.

Mai looked up with a shrug,

"Who knows..."

The priestess narrowed her eyes unconvinced, but never got the chance to persist because in that moment Masako walked up,

"Are we ready?"

"After you," Mai answered quickly, gesturing the medium forward.

Masako paused a moment, eyeing her rival carefully, but then moved on, gliding ahead of them. Ayako and Mai followed after, sharing an uncomfortable silence-- the miko wanting her to speak, Mai unwilling.

Behind them and filling the hall before them were many of the women present at the festival that night. Many of them still carried their lilies and almost all were giggling,

"I don't know what I like better, tonight or tomorrow morning..."

"I know, I hope I can catch Noburo before Kasumi does."

Mai frowned uncertainly, just what was day three?

"WELCOME BACK, JUST IN HERE-- THERE YOU GO..."

Mai winced. Mrs. Koku's voice carried out of the room and rang loudly in Mai's ears. Could she face the old woman?

"Ayako, I'm not feeling well...could you tell me about the meeting tomorrow?"

The miko smirked evilly,

"Nice try, but everyone has to face their in-laws sometime."

Mai crossed her arms and leered over at the priestess,

"They're not my in-laws."

"You be sure to tell them that," the miko remarked, with a wink as they entered the crowded room.

Fuming, Mai kept her head down, searching desperately for a seat in the back of the room.

"MAI!"

Nearly jumping out of her skin, Mai was forced to grab the chair beside her.

"LOOKING FOR A SEAT?” the old woman shouted, her wrinkled face observing Mai with a strange smile.

Mai smiled back weakly, feeling unnerved.

"WHY DON'T YOU TAKE THIS ONE?” the ancient woman persisted, her smile growing wider-- a glint in her eye, daring Mai to refuse as she pointed to a chair in the front row.

The room had gone relatively silent. Mai swallowed and turned to begin the long walk to the front of the room. Feeling the keen old woman's eyes on her every step of the way, Mai fought to keep a composed expression. Once Mai had stiffly set herself in the suggested seat, the old woman looked to the rest of her audience.

"GOOD EVENING LADIES," she greeted, her voice loud enough to be heard clearly in the next room.

"Good evening," was murmured back in a much quieter tone.

"I HOPE WE ALL HAVE HAD AN EVENTFUL NIGHT," Mrs. Koku went on, her eyes practically pinning Mai to her seat as she spoke the last part.

There were more giggles at this and then the room quieted down again.

"IT'S LATE SO I'M GOING TO MAKE THIS QUICK. TOMORROW, AS YOU ALL KNOW, IS DAY THREE OF THE FESTIVAL. SINCE WE NOW HAVE OUR MR. MIYUKI AND MRS. MIYUKI CROWNED, IT IS NATURAL THAT THE THEME MOVES FROM LOVE TO MARRIAGE--" at this the old woman paused to shoot Mai a significant glance.

Mai shifted in her seat, her cheeks growing warm as she was sure the rest of the room was looking at her as well, she even thought she heard Ayako snort.

"SO TOMORROW IS A DAY OF UNION, AND WHEN I SAY DAY, I MEAN IT. THE FESTIVAL STARTS AT FIRST LIGHT AND ONLY ENDS AFTER THE NIGHT'S PLAY. I SUPPOSE SOME OF YOU ARE WONDERING WHAT IT IS THAT YOU MUST DO TO SYMBOLIZE MARRIAGE? ESSENTIALLY TOMORROW IS THE MERGING OF MR. MIYUKI'S CREATIVITY WITH YOSHI'S INSPRIATION. A PERFECT MATCH, AND THAT IS EXACTLY YOUR GOAL. AS SOON AS YOU WAKE YOU MUST FIND THE ONE PERSON WHO COMPLETES YOU, YOUR PERFECT MATCH," the old woman stared down at Mai, giving her a long look which even gave some of Naru's potent glares a run for their money.

"THUS ALL THIS WILL CREATE THE BEST UNION. NOW YOU MIGHT BE THINKING-- FINE, EASY. BUT YOU’RE VERY WRONG! LET'S SAY YOU LOVE SHOYA; YOU TWO ARE A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN. SO YOU GET UP IN THE MORNING AND HEAD OVER THERE, YOU KNOCK ON HIS DOOR AND SUMIKO OPENS IT. SHE HAS BEATEN YOU TO SHOYA. THAT IS THE REALITY OF THIS DAY OF UNION. THIS IS THE RULE AND IT IS A VERY BIG RULE: FIRST COME, FIRST SERVE. THERE IS NO SLEEPING IN TOMORROW LADIES," the ancient woman announced not without some enjoyment as a few of the women frowned.

Ayako's sigh of annoyance was loud enough to be heard across the room. She would be waking up at the crack of dawn after all.

"IN CASE SOME OF YOU ARE STILL LOST ON WHAT'S SO URGENT ABOUT TOMORROW, LET ME GIVE YOU A GLIMPSE OF WHAT THE HALLS OF THIS INN WILL LOOK LIKE COME MORNING: CHAOS. THERE WILL NOT BE A SINGLE PERSON IN THEIR ROOM. IT WILL BE A MAD DASH TO FIND YOUR OTHER HALF BEFORE SOMEONE ELSE FINDS YOUR OTHER HALF. I STILL SEE THAT SOME OF YOU AREN'T ALL THAT BOTHERED, WELL LET'S CONSIDER THE ONE BIG RULE ONE MORE TIME: FIRST COME, FIRST SERVE. YOU’RE NOT THE ONLY ONE GOING BY THIS, THE MEN ARE TOO, AND YOU KNOW WHAT-- THEY MIGHT WANT YOU FIRST. SO HERE YOU ARE, RUNNING FOR SHOYA TOMORROW MORNING WHEN ALL OF THE SUDDEN KEN COMES RUNNING UP-- AND THEN THAT IS IT. KEN IS YOURS FOR THE DAY," Mrs. Koku chuckled softly at the pale faces staring back at her, the idea of being stuck with Ken when they wanted Shoya, not to their liking.

"THE FIRST PERSON TO ASK FOR YOUR HAND TOMORROW IS THE PERSON YOU MUST ACCEPT. YOUR GOAL IS TO FIND THE PERFECT MATCH, YES-- BUT IT DOESN'T ALWAYS GO THAT WAY. YOUR IDEA OF A PERFECT MATCH WAS SHOYA, AND KEN'S IDEA WAS YOU. ARE WE UNDERSTANDING NOW?" There were a few weak nods. The old woman smiled satisfied,

"GOOD. IT'S VERY IMPORTANT YOU GET UP EARLY TOMORROW AND GET TO THE PERSON YOU MATCH BEST FIRST, WHILE MAKING SURE SOMEONE ELSE DOESN'T TRY AND MATCH UP TO YOU," Mrs. Koku's smirk grew wider at the sight of her uncomfortable audience.

"GOOD MATCHES ARE SEEN AS ASPICIOUS AND LUCKY, BAD MATCHES, WHICH USUALLY RESULT FROM RUNNING INTO SOMEONE YOU DIDN'T WANT TO BE PAIRED WITH, ARE SEEN AS TROUBLESOME AND UNLUCKY. THE BEST UNION OF TOMORROW WILL BE RECONGNIZED THAT NIGHT AS THE PERFECT MARRIAGE OF CREATIVITY AND INSPRIATION. SO GO OUT TOMORROW AND FIND THAT ONE PERSON WHO COMPLIMENTS YOUR CREATIVITY WITH INSPIRATION AND YOUR INSPIRATION WITH CREATIVITY. GO AND CREATE THAT PERFECT MARRIAGE AND REMEMBER THE BIG RULE: FIRST COME, FIRST SERVE."

These final words were met with nervous applause. Excitement and tension hung thick in the air as the women pictured that one person special to them...and who would try and beat them to him tomorrow morning. Her mouth dry, Mai glanced back at Masako. For a moment their gazes locked. The medium smiled coolly and Mai returned it with a brittle one of her own,

That Masako.

"WELL, I SUPPOSE THAT'S ALL FOR TONIGHT. I WISH YOU ALL LUCK COME MORNING," Mrs. Koku declared, dismissing them all with a large grin.

All except Mai. Slowly standing up, hoping to melt away with the crowd, she was stopped when the old woman spoke,

"Niko's room is located in the back half of the Inn."

Mai blinked, glancing stunned at the Inn owner as though she had shouted, but it was just the opposite, she had spoken softly. Mai looked over her shoulder, no one else had heard this exchange. After a moment the old woman took leave of Mai with a look that seemed to say, you know what to do-- and a nod. It was all Mai could do not to sink back into her chair.

"Coming?” a voice from behind her asked.

It was Ayako, a smooth smile spread out across her red lips. Mai stood up straight and with a frown led the way out the door, closely followed by an amused priestess and a thoughtful medium. Moving slowly through the congested hall, Mai heard plenty of whispers.

"I'm going to sleep outside of  Akito's  door tonight; it's the only way I'll avoid  Daichi  asking for my hand tomorrow!"

"Daichi? Eww. I hope I'm not stuck with someone horrible."

Mai stared hard at the wooden floor she walked over, attempting to block out any more conversation.

Niko.

Naru.

Lost in her thoughts, Mai barely noticed who was walking towards them until she nearly ran into Bou-san.

"Easy Mai, trying to take me out?" he teased, coming face to face with her.

"Oh-- sorry Bou-san...” Mai mumbled, stepping back.

"How about that meeting ladies?” Mr. Sachi wondered, coming up and taking Masako's arm with a meaningful look.

Mai pursed her lips, refusing to comment. Fortunately she was not pressed for an answer as Naru didn't seem to have the patience for trivial questions,

"If that's all Mr. Sachi, we'll call it a night."

A bit taken a back by Naru's abruptness, the playwright glanced at the women, but then nodded,

"That's everything."

"Good, then you'll excuse us," Naru commented, looking to the rest of SPR expectantly.

"Sure, good night to you all. I think I'll be seeing you early tomorrow."

As Mai turned to go, this last sentence halted her.

Who will Mr. Sachi pick? Masako? Nari? The mystery woman...but he can't.

A warm hand came to rest on Mai's shoulder, looking up she saw Bou-san staring kindly down at her,

"If you need any re-enforcement tomorrow...."

Mai smiled,

"I'll know where to find you."

Mai's smile vanished in the next moment when a familiar voice reached her ears,

"Good night...Naru, thank you for the lily," Masako said, standing firm as the playwright attempted to usher her out the door.

Naru turned to face her, offering her a slight nod,

"You're welcome."

Pink creeping over her cheeks and red blazing Mai's, Masako finally allowed Mr. Sachi to lead her away.

That Masako.

The halls growing empty, the group moved through with relative ease.

"Any news?” Mai whispered to he monk, half afraid of the answer, her eyes trained on Naru's dark figure walking ahead of them.

A smirk came to Bou-san's lips,

"Nothing to report except twice the normal glares."

Mai let out a relieved breath; she had had more than enough surprises for one night. John fell into step beside them, appearing in deep thought. With a slight frown, Mai touched his shoulder,

"John?"

The priest blinked and looked to her warmly,

"I'm fine. Just thinking is all..."

Mai nodded. She was doing a lot of that too.

"Thank you again John, for my lily," she added after walking a while more, watching a couple kiss goodnight.

Turning her head away with a blush, she caught the priest's humble smile,

"You're very welcome Mai."

On her other side the monk made a huffing noise,

"He wasn't the only one to give you a lily, but I see how you are..."

"Hm...you're right Bou-san; there was that other guy..." Mai answered looking thoughtful, but her eyes sparkled playfully.

The monk shot her a look,

"Thanks."

With a sigh, Mai summoned up the most dramatic expression of gratitude she could and took Bou-san's arm,

"Thank you Bou-san, for my lily and hair clip."

The monk looked down at her,

"That's more like it."

Sharing in a grin, Mai noticed the numbers on the doors begin to lower, twenty-two, twenty-one, nineteen...

Room eighteen loomed ahead. With purposefully strides, Ayako passed the three of them.

"As fun as all this has been, I'm going to have to say goodnight," the miko said, reaching for her door handle, her eyes pointedly avoiding the monk.

But, as Mai noticed-- stealing a look his way-- Bou-san's gaze wasn't avoiding the priestess.

"Goodnight," Mai and John echoed as the miko made to shut herself in her room.

The lighting in the hall was dim, but Mai could have sworn a slight blush touched the woman's cheeks. Mai nudged the monk and he let out a belated, "night" as the door shut in their faces.

"What?” he shrugged at Mai's hard look.

Shaking her head she looked away the monk,

Sometimes Bou-san...

Their small group continued on in thoughtful silence, following Naru's lead. A moment later room seventeen came along,

"Tonight was nice. You enjoyed it, didn't you Mai?” John wondered as they approached his door.

Mai smiled as brightly as she could, hoping Mr. Sachi and all she saw that night didn't reflect in her eyes as she gazed back at the priest,

"I did, but you owe me a dance," she protested lightly.

John smiled, a faint blush coming to his cheeks. Looking back into his blue eyes, she knew he was recalling his dance with Masako,

"I'll be sure to make it up to you," he promised.

John reached his room and opened the door,

"Good night," he wished with a kind smile.

"Good night," Mai and Bou-san answered.

The door to room seventeen closed and Mai and Bou-san continued on.

"I wish I knew what they talk about," Mai murmured, glancing up at Naru and Lin, some feet ahead of them, appearing to be in deep conversation.

The monk gave her a side long look, a slight smile coming to his lips,

"Oh, I have a guess."

"Bou-san!” Mai protested, her face flushing red as she gave him a shove.

Her cry caught Naru's attention; he paused speaking with Lin to glance back at the two of them. Bou-san grinned back at him and Mai turned a shade darker.

"Thanks a lot," Mai said in a lowered voice, narrowing her eyes at the monk, who held up his hands innocently,

"Hey, you're the one who has to go shouting things."

Looking back up the hall, Mai caught sight of Lin disappearing into his room.

"And then there were three,” Bou-san said so only Mai could hear as they approached Naru.

He barely gave them a look before continuing on, his mind apparently else where.

"My room's just a few doors down, but I could always escort you to yours if you're not comfortable being left alone, we wouldn't want anymore manhandling going on..."

Turning crimson to the roots of her hair, Mai shoved the monk hard and frowned when he didn't protest. Noticing her dissatisfaction he stated simply,

"Wrong shoulder."

Naru paused at the monk's door and Mai and Bou-san closed the gap, albeit slowly as Mai drug her feet, her face burning with the image the monk put in her head. Grinning all the way, Bou-san glanced down at Mai,

"Last chance...” he offered out of the corner of his mouth.

"Go," she retorted stubbornly, although she found herself gripping the monk's arm.

"Good night," Naru said, with a nod towards Bou-san.

The monk returned the gesture and then pulled Mai into a quick hug,

"Sweet dreams."

"Good night Bou-san," Mai answered, hugging him back.

"Oh, look at Naru. I think he's jealous. Be sure to give him a hug goodnight too," the monk whispered, looking at their boss as he pulled away from Mai, leaving her miserably red.

Unable to fight back, she was forced to watch the monk eye them both knowingly before closing the door.

The silence in the hall was punctured only by the sound of Mai's pounding heart. Swallowing she attempted to gather herself. Naru's gaze fell on her, then he started walking. Mai blinked, fighting down a blush. Words like manhandling and over my dead body spun around in her head, making her feel confused and flustered. Mai gave Bou-san's door one last look before drawing in a deep breath and following after her boss.

People were moving behind the doors she past, she heard music once and imagined a couple dancing, she heard giggles and pictured a bunch of girls counting their lilies, she heard someone say "Mai", and thought of--

Mai came to an abrupt stop, nearing walking straight into Naru. Swiftly he caught her wrist as she stumbled back. Heat emanating from his grasp, it was all she could do not to yank her arm free. Naru released her wrist and looked to her door,

"You were going to walk past your room."

Mai followed his gaze in an effort not to look at him,

"Oh, well..." Mai trailed off, uncertain what to say.

This is ridiculous, why do I feel so uncomfortable? This is Naru-- the cold-hearted, ambushing, work-you-to-the-bone, let Masako hang off him-- Naru.

"Good night," Mai finished, confidence coming from the spark of annoyance she managed to kindle.

Her angry thoughts and memories had to work on over time in the next moment though, when she met his gaze. Mai told herself the heat creeping up her neck was her just getting worked up and not another blush.

Mai cast a quick glance down the hall, some small part of her hoping Bou-san was coming to save her, and then back to Naru. Realizing that they were standing too close and that she had already said goodnight and should be in her room, Mai reached for her door handle, giving what she hopped to be a departing smile, only her way was blocked-- by Naru's arm. Mai's smile fell from her face. Bou-san had warned her about manhandling...

Leaning in ominously, near enough for her to smell the faint scent of tea that hung about him, he looked down at Mai-- fortunately though (or not?) his eyes meant business.

"Are you sure you have nothing else to tell me?"

Mai blinked, attempting to regulate her heartbeat as she stood in such close proximity to him, nearly pinned in her own doorway. But the small flame of anger was still lit in her chest,

Why is this question familiar? If he thinks that  a surprise interrogation  late at night will get him answers he's in for strike two!

Mai frowned back at his accusing stare,

"No nothing-- now if you don't mind--"

Naru's arm fell from the doorway and Mai backed a few steps into her dark room. Naru observed her for a moment, an emotion she couldn't quite place residing in his dark eyes, and then he looked away--

"Good night, Mai."

"Night," she answered, but he was already gone.

Slowly Mai closed her door, resting her forehead against the cool wood. With a deep sigh she stared down, surprised to see that she wasn't enveloped in darkness. A white glow lit the room. Mai lifted her head and turned to face the window with the view of the garden. The drapes pulled open from earlier it was letting in the full moon's light, the sliver beams shining brightest on her bed, where something sat, glimmering. Mai squinted in confusion and stepped away from her door.

What..?

Tentatively she approached her bed, unable to believe her eyes. Blinking rapidly Mai came to stand over it, it's delicate petals gleaming as if made of crystal. Her breath hitched somewhere in her throat, Mai reached down to take hold of the mysterious treasure left on her bed. Cupping it in her hands, she was finally forced to acknowledge it was real-- she had been given a moon lily.

Chapter Text

Day Five

5:00am

The Koku Inn

Mai blinked. She was standing alone in a darkened hall. For the moment she remained motionless, her eyes slowly taking in her surroundings which no longer included her bed at the Koku Inn.

I'm dreaming...

She took a step forward and shivered, her bare feet chilled as they passed over the cold hard wood floor. Ahead of her, though more dark and shadowy than she had ever encountered in the day, was a long and vaguely familiar hall, lined with pictures. Mai took in a small breath in recognition,

I've been in this hall before. This is the Miyuki Theater.

Another shiver passed over Mai as she gazed into the blackness beyond her. There was no flashlight this time, no Bou-san...but that didn't mean she was alone. Recalling her previous dream on this case, Mai was met with the image of a ghostly Mr. Miyuki.

This is just like last time.

Fighting the urge to close her eyes against the darkness that at any moment could reveal a supernatural figure, Mai took a brave step forward.

Mr. Miyuki is kind and he needs my help,  t here's no reason I should fear seeing him...but why can't Naru show up?

Keeping a hopeful look out for her boss, Mai drifted a few more feet, holding a fistful of her night gown. Passing by rooms bathed in moonlight, the ordinary objects that filled them seemed strange and sinister. Mai squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, resisting her imagination's attempt to take over.

This is just the theater, it only seems creepy because of the dark...and the fact that I'm alone here...and I'm not even sure why...

Forcing herself to stop peering in the rooms, Mai began to pay attention to the walls of the hall she was walking through. Many frames were hung there with photos new and old. Dark faces smiled down at her. Ignoring her nerves, Mai observed the pictures collected on the wall and tried to determine why she had been summoned here for a second time. As if in answer, an old man suddenly materialized a few feet away. Mai halted in her tracks, but found she was not startled despite his abrupt appearance. Once again there was a solemness about Mr. Miyuki's face from which she could only feel sadness, not fear.

"Mr. Miyuki,” Mai spoke, her voice loud in the silence.

The man brought a grave finger to his lips and then purposefully looked to the section of wall he stood beside. Mai furrowed her eyebrows in concentration,

"Is there something you want me to see?” Mai asked, her voice a whisper this time.

Mr. Miyuki managed to point a finger at the wall, further convincing Mai. Curious, but hesitant, Mai came forward. As she drew very near to the man, he moved back, but still gazed away at that part of the wall with dark helpless eyes. Struggling against a wave of sadness, Mai swallowed and examined the pictures hanging before her.

"It's you..." Mai began as she found herself gazing into those same eyes, only happier.

Proudly taking up much of the wall was the triangularly set frames of the Miyuki family. The ghostly form of Mr. Miyuki pointed again, drawing her attention from his lively self to the blank frame below and to the right of it. When she and Bou-san had seen it first earlier that day, they had been shocked but not surprised to see the heiress missing from her place on the theater wall. Mai blinked and looked sympathetically towards the old man whose stare was burning into the empty place where his daughter's picture should be.

"She wants to tear this place down," Mai explained in a soft voice.

Mr. Miyuki looked at her and shook his head, pointing once again towards Toki Miyuki's frame. Desperately trying to follow, Mai took another step forward and peered closely at the vacant spot.

"What is it? What do you want me to see?” Mai asked, looking up at him uncertainly.

The ghostly old man set his mouth in a line of determination and reached for the name plate beneath the picture less frame. Mai moved back, watching in confusion as Mr. Miyuki began pulling at the gold name plate. For a moment he struggled with it and Mai recalled how much energy it had taken for him to speak earlier that day. Mai was just about to offer a hand when there was a scraping sound and the name plate fell from the wall with a clatter. The old man straightened up, appearing a bit weaker than before. For a moment concern for Mr. Miyuki held Mai still, but with an encouraging look from him, she glanced back at the place where the name plate was-- and found one still remaining.

"Kioko...Miyuki..?” Mai breathed staring at the tarnished plate stunned.

"Kioko," Mr. Miyuki whispered achingly, his sad and tired form going hazy around the edges.

"Kioko," Mai repeated and then the theater was no more.

Something white and blaring pressed against her eyes and with a moan of protest Mai rolled over in bed. Mai opened her eyes, staring into pillow. Her heart was racing and her cheeks were wet. Slowly, a dull pounding in her head, she sat up. Sunlight streamed in replacing the moonlight of the night before.

It had been a dream, but one of her real dreams. Kioko. The name weighted heavily on her lips.

"Kioko," Mai spoke, her voice weak and cracking from sleep.

A flash in her mind-- a vision, the image of the name plate falling to the hall floor.

What does it mean..?

The pounding in Mai's head grew and she fell back into her pillow with a groan.

Was this was supposed to give me answers? I only seem to have more questions...

Laying there, her head spilling over with questions and thoughts, Mai was startled by the jarring slam of a door down the hall, followed by a shout: “Hachi, I ask for your hand!”

Suddenly, Mai was awake. A memory as alarming as her dream surged in and pushed out all thoughts except one: the festival.

It starts this morning.

Naru!

Mai threw off her blankets and stood, the suddenness of this movement causing a fresh wave of pounding to break over her head, but panic was governing her now and with a sudden vision of Masako knocking down their boss' door, Mai reached for her nearest bag of clothes.

"Where's that skirt?” Mai demanded, digging to the bottom, cursing the mess she had let it become.

Growing frustrated Mai turned over her bag and dumped its contents on her unmade bed. Miraculously the skirt fell out after some through shaking. Grabbing the nearest shirt, Mai threw her outfit on as the sunlight through her window grew brighter. Reminded every second that Masako could already be asking for Naru's hand, Mai snatched up her brush and began running it through her hair at a rapid pace before giving up and tossing it away. With a quick glance in the mirror Mai raced for her door and stumbled out into the chaos.

Mai froze where she stood, nearly pinned against her own door by the mass of people rushing by. The voices and shouts were so loud that Mai had a hard time hearing herself think.

Between this and last night, I'll be deaf by the time this festival is over.

With determination, Mai plunged into the swarm that was the hall. Dodging elbows and wincing as several people yelled in her ear, calling to their lovers, Mai stubbornly forced her way towards Naru's door.

Almost there...

Nearly pushed over by a man racing another man, Mai practically fell against her boss' door. Flustered and highly disgruntled, Mai glared after their retreating back. In an attempt to compose herself, Mai straightened her skirt, and tucked her hair behind her ears. Room number thirteen stood before her. It was then Mai realized she didn't know what she was going to say,

Hey there Na ru , will you spend the day with me?

Mai's mouth went suddenly dry,

Yeah, right...

Hovering before her boss's door, Mai felt a surge of irritation as someone cleared their throat from behind her. Not even bothering to turn around, Mai could see her rival's coy smile.

"Amusing Mai, but if you would step out of the way."

Mai held her hand higher, more firmly posed to knock, and glared over her shoulder,

"It is amusing that I was here first and you weren't. What's the matter; have to sneak out to avoid Sachi?"

The medium's pale cheeks tinged pink, but her face remained fixed in an unaffected expression.

"I do not sneak, unlike some people. Now if you won't move aside at least knock and stop hanging around like an idiot," Masako replied expectantly.

Mai gave her rival a long look,

"You want me to knock?"

"Clearly, how else is Naru going to come out so I can ask him for his hand?” Masako explained coolly.

Mai's eyes flashed,

"Excuse me?” she protested as she lowered her arm, turning towards her rival and blocking the door all at the same time.

A bit more color glowed upon the medium's cheeks,

"Out of the way Taniyama--"

Mai leaned back against the door,

"No."

Masako stepped forward,

"Knock or I will," she threatened.

Mai grinned,

"I'd like to see you try--"

A look entered the medium's eye and suddenly she was upon the door, her pale hand reaching out to knock. Desperately Mai did the first thing she could think of and gripped the door knob, giving it a good twist. The door swung inward and the two of them stumbled in with a cry.

"Mai!” Masako gasped in horror, her black hair tossed in front of her eyes which glared fiercely at her rival.

Mai regained her balance, but was unable to recapture her voice at the realization of what she had just done.

I just burst into Naru's room!

But their collected panic and embarrassment was all for naught as they saw in the next moment. Before them was merely an empty room. Mai swallowed and started breathing again,

"He's...not here."

Masako hastily brushed at her messy bangs and pulled at her kimono,

"You're luck amazes me. The nerve of you opening his door..!"

Mai blinked rapidly and crossed her arms, fixing her rival with a searing look,

"Well, if you hadn't attacked me--"

The medium's mask slipped as her mouth opened in offense,

"Attacked you?! Please."

But Mai blocked out the rest of her rival's protest as thoughts of more importance raced through her mind,

If Naru's not here...then where is he?

Mai's eyes then widened in realization,

The dining room.

Suddenly Mai was darting from the room, barely registering Masako's shocked look as she hurried out the door. It was Mai's turn to be shocked though as she rushed into the hall. It seemed impossible, but there were even more people filling the narrow space than before.

With great difficulty (as she was going against the flow of bodies), Mai pushed forward, glancing over her shoulder often, hoping Masako was stuck back at the room. Being prodded and jostled about, Mai passed Bou-san's door and wondered briefly where the monk was in this chaos.

Probably hunting down Ayako.

Just then Mai came face to face with another hunter: Mr. Sachi. The young playwright looked sharp, if flustered, in his best black dress shirt. Upon bumping into Mai, his surprised expression turned into desperation,

"Masako?" he breathed.

"Naru?" Mai gasped.

"That way," they both answered, pointing in opposite directions.

With a shared nod they were off again. Mai was still enjoying a lingering smile from picturing Masako's horror as Mr. Sachi caught up with her, when she caught sight of someone who wiped that smile clean off her face. Niko's head was bobbing in and out of the crowd several feet ahead of her, his eyes darting intently from person to person.

Shoot!

Her breath hitching in her throat, Mai moved as quickly as she could to the wall and pressed herself against it, hunching lower than the man walking in front of her.

Not now! This can't be happening!

Feeling slightly ridiculous and getting knowing looks from those who glanced her way, Mai crept forward stiffly.

Please don't see me...please don't see me...

Fighting down a guilty conscience as Mrs. Koku's voice echoed in her mind (“Niko's room is located in the back half of the Inn”), Mai passed Ayako's room, moving in the direction Mr. Sachi had pointed.

The dining room is this way, and Naru better be too!

"See something interesting down there?” a voice asked.

Mai froze and the man she was using as a shield entered a room in front of her. Suddenly feeling very vulnerable, Mai stood and glared up the person who so rudely pulled her out of hiding. Bou-san grinned down at her and then found himself being yanked forwards,

"Oy-- Mai, what?” he protested as she positioned him to block her from sight.

"Bou-san, don't move," Mai ordered, tugging on the back of his shirt to hold him still.

"Can I at least ask a question?” he wondered with some amusement, craning his neck to glance back at her.

"Hm?” Mai answered, peering carefully around the monk's arm.

"Naru or Niko?"

Mai gave Bou-san's shirt an unnecessary pull,

"What kind of question is that?"

"Well, you're hiding from one of them, my money's on Niko..."

"Is Naru in the dining room?” Mai asked, ignoring his last comment.

"So I am right--" the monk smirked.

Mai poked him in the back,

"Have you seen him or not Bou-san?"

"Who, Niko? I see him right now and here he comes--"

"What?” Mai cried as the monk stepped forward and waved.

In a great panic, Mai ducked her head and slunk along the wall as quickly as she could. Then many things happened at once.

"Masako!” a voice shouted from some distance.

"Naru!” a breathless voice, much nearer, called.

Mai's head snapped up as she recognized it to be Masako's. Several feet behind her Mai spotted Bou-san whom she assumed had approached Niko-- but was standing instead with Naru.

That Bou-san!

Mai's attention then darted down the hall where she knew her rival must be coming. Sure enough, through the mass, Mai caught a glimpse of a brightly colored kimono.

That Masako!

"Excuse me," Mai urged, fighting her way back to the place she had all but ran from.

"Masako!” a male's voice shouted again, this time closer.

Not pausing for a moment, Mai rose on her feet, attempting to spot Mr. Sachi among the many men filling the hall.

"Mai, there you are!” another called in the next moment.

Panic sized Mai as she knew it be Niko's voice. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed it-- the young man was quite a few feet behind her, but had seen her anyways.

Shoot!

Fighting down her guilt, Mai pretended not to hear the young heir.

"Mai!"

With her head down and a shameful blush tinting her cheeks, Mai pressed forward through the crowd, though she found she was met with more resistance then before.

What's going on?

Anxiously peering past the people crammed in next to her, Mai caught sight of a large group exiting the dining room, causing the already congested hall to fill to its capacity.

"Naru!” Masako called again, also stopped some feet away by the human wall.

Mai bounced on her feet nervously, hoping to glimpse their boss somewhere in the crowd, but had no such luck.  

This can't be happening! Masako can 't  get to him first!

"Masako!” a voice shouted directly behind Mai.

Snapping around she saw Mr. Sachi breaking his way through the crowd, excusing himself through the impenetrable mass by reminding everyone of his importance,

"Pardon me, official playwright business...Mr. Sachi, owner of the Miyuki Theater coming through..."

"Mr. Sachi!” Mai called, waving the agitated man over.

"Mai! We meet again, have you seen Masako?” he asked in a rush, glancing around uncertainly.

It suddenly occurred to Mai that the playwright was her chance to make it to Naru, maybe her only chance, and she was going to take it.

"Yes, I saw her somewhere over there," Mai answered; pointing vaguely in the area she had left Bou-san.

With a nod and not another word, Mr. Sachi began forcing himself through the tightly packed crowd,

"Mr. Joji Sachi here, make way..."

Mai hurried to follow, wondering if Niko was making his way to her in the same way Mr. Sachi was making his way to Masako. Would people part for the heir to the Inn? With a knot of nervousness forming in her stomach, Mai kept her head down and stuck close to the playwright ahead of her.

After progressing at a rapid pace through the masses, Mr. Sachi came up against two things much harder to break through, someone who didn't care who he was-- and Nari.

"What do you mean? I'm the owner of the renowned Miyuki Theater!” he argued hotly with a man who stood a good foot taller.

Mai shrunk back a bit, hoping to sneak past another way when a female voice cut through the murmur around them,

"Joji! Joji!"

The playwright stopped mid-sentence to blink and glance back. Making her way with equal efficiency as he through sea of people was Nari. Mai stole a look back at a distressed Mr. Sachi and decided it was time to go.

This is getting complicated...where's Naru?! I have to be close!

Mai pushed her way past Mr. Sachi as the young actress was about to reach him and found there was a bit of a flow to the crowd once again. Moving through as fast as she could, Mai heard her name called again, but this time from a different direction than behind her.

"Mai!"

Mai's heart skipped a beat before realizing that it was Ayako shoving her way towards her.

"This is madness!" the priestess cried, glaring sharply at a man who opened his mouth to protest to her pushing her way through.

"Tell me about it," Mai agreed, glancing behind them uneasily, "Have you seen Naru yet?"

Ayako smirked,

"Haven't found him yet? You better hope Masako--"

Mai snapped her attention back to the miko,

"She hasn't, Sachi's searching for her anyways..."

Never mind that Nari probably captured him. That Masako!

"Hmm, well I haven't seen Mr. Tall Dark and Brooding. Have you seen Lin?"

Mai raised an eyebrow,

"Lin?"

The priestess pretended not to notice this and went on impatiently,

"Have you or not?"

Still fixing the miko with a look, Mai shook her head.

"Well some help you've been, I'm going to keep looking," Ayako announced, but before she moved away she added knowingly, "You never asked about your fiancé and I have seen him."

Heat rushed to Mai's cheeks,

"We're just friends!” she protested, but it was only half-hearted and the miko had already disappeared.

Mai thought of Niko moving towards her, asking for her hand...and felt the knot in her stomach grow tighter.

We're just friends.

With renewed vigor, Mai urged her way through the suddenly thinning crowd. To her great surprise she stumbled upon the first open area she had seen all morning, and standing in it were Mr. Sachi, Nari, Masako, Niko, and Lin. Things suddenly happened very fast. In shock, Mai attempted to back up, but ended up stumbling up against someone,

"Oh-- excuse me, Mai."

"John?" Mai asked breathlessly, looking up into his blue eyes as he caught her from behind.

The bright smile he offered her faded slightly as he looked up to those standing around them.

"Mai?" Niko said, just noticing her.

"Masako!” Mr. Sachi cried hurrying to her, obviously having just come upon them as well.

Masako, with surprise equal to Mai's, allowed a few people coming through pass between herself and the playwright. That's when Mai spotted Naru, Bou-san, and Ayako just off to the side. Quickly Mai righted herself and rushed to the other end of the open space which was quickly filling again.

"Joji!” Nari cried, reaching for and just missing him as he attempted to get to Masako-- who had now also caught sight of Naru and was moving quickly towards him.

Mai nearly broke into a run as she saw the medium coming up behind her.

Naru!

Mai was upon her boss rather sooner than she expected. She stopped suddenly and his heavy gaze turned on her. A few heartbeats passed. Mai stood in silence, opening and closing her mouth, but suddenly nothing would come out. Beside her boss, Mai could make out Bou-san waving some kind of gesture, but she couldn't concentrate with the blood pounding in her head.

"Yes, Mai?” Ayako prodded, regarding her with an eyebrow raised.

Masako will be here any moment.  I have to speak now.

"Naru..."

"Naru--" Masako spoke coming to stand beside Mai, "I would be grateful if you accepted my hand."

And then that was it. It was over, Masako had asked. Mai looked over to her beaming rival and felt the knot in her stomach catch on fire.

That Masako!

"Oh my, I had no idea you were so popular," a voice suddenly spoke.

Something about it struck Mai and for a moment she forgot her anger and looked away from the medium. In her determination to get to Naru, Mai had not noticed the one other person standing with him: Miss Miyuki.

Naru set his gaze on Masako, whose smile was faltering a bit after having waited several moments for his conformation.

"Naru?” she spoke in her softest, most endearing voice.

The knot in Mai's stomach was slowly sinking as realization dawned on her,

Miss Miyuki  got to him first.

"That's very generous offer Hara-san," Naru finally spoke, his face remaining impassive, "but I've already been asked."

Mai's mouth fell open and Masako sleeve came to cover hers.

"Oh, excuse me," she murmured, fixing Miss Miyuki with a cold stare.

The woman merely smiled and took Naru's arm. The knot in Mai stomach exploded. But before Mai could do or say anything stupid, Mr. Sachi was upon them, and so was Lin, and John, and Nari-- and Niko.

"Masako, my dear," the playwright cried, taking the medium's hands, "the crowds I have fought to get to you-- why did you leave the house so early this morning?"

"Joji!” Nari interrupted, breaking through the people moving around them, "Joji, I ask--"

"Anyways, please take--" Mr. Sachi suddenly spoke, hurrying along as he spotted Nari.

"Accept my hand."

There was a moment of silence. Masako blinked and looked to John who had just spoken. Mr. Sachi appeared taken aback.

"Yes, I will" Masako answered, though she hardly seemed to know what she was saying.

"Uh, excuse me..?" Mr. Sachi attempted to protest, but found there was nothing to say.

"Joji--" Nari persisted, reaching for his arm.

"Wait!" Niko called, working his way over.

Mai tore her eyes from the scene she was watching unfold to face the young heir.

"Hey Mai, do you want to stick with me today?” Bou-san suddenly asked, looking down at her.

Mai's heart leaped.

"Yes," Mai answered quickly looking up at him gratefully.

She looked down and felt a rush of guilt, remembering what had happened just moments ago with Naru.

"Niko," she began, but he gave her a quick smile

"One moment Mai," he said moving past her.

Mai blinked and watched him approach Nari,

"I would be honored if you would take my hand," he spoke in a rush.

Nari, her hand still gripping Mr. Sachi's arm, looked to Niko in utter surprise.

"Me?" she asked.

Mr. Sachi was suddenly animated,

"Oh yes, what a fine idea! Our crowned Mr. Miyuki and Yoshi as partners today, nothing more auspicious! Great thinking Koku!"

And with great relief Mr. Sachi removed his actresses hand from his arm and placed it with Niko,

"Couldn't have planned it better, now if you'll excuse me," he continued, giving a fleeting look to Masako and John before moving away.

"Lin!” Ayako's voice cut the tension filled air, "How about spending the day with me?"

The Chinese man stood stiffly as the priestess approached him, taking his arm with a confident smile. Unable to refuse, she took his silence for a yes.

Mai shook her head and stared around at the pairs gathered around her. If someone had told her that morning that she would end up as Bou-san's partner, that Naru would end up as Miss Miyuki's partner, that Niko would go for Nari instead of herself, she would have laughed at them. Mai glanced up at the monk beside her wondering what his take was on this strange reality, had he hoped to be with Ayako? Slowly, Mai's gaze slid from the monk to her boss.

Like a prize she was delighted to win, Miss Miyuki held Naru close, smiling radiantly. Just off to the side of the surprising couple, was another as equally unexpected; John and Masako. The medium, initially relieved to be free of Mr. Sachi looked as though she was maybe having second thoughts, sending the priest beside her small uncertain looks. John himself appeared slightly uncomfortable. Mai caught Masako's eye then they both glanced at Miss Miyuki and a silent message was passed between them. No matter what their normal feelings were, it was time to unite against a mutual enemy: Miss Miyuki.

"Are we ready?” Naru suddenly spoke.

Mai couldn't look at him without a slight pang of embarrassment.

I must have looked so dumb standing there...opening and closing my mouth like that.

"Sure we are, let's eat," Miss Miyuki encouraged, looking towards the dinging room behind them.

Bou-san gave her shoulder a light squeeze,

"You were a little late," he whispered as they all started filing for the double doors.

Mai looked up at him sharply, her cheeks still burning,

"No thanks to you!"

"Me?” the monk said in surprise, "What did I do?"

"Don't play dumb Bou-san, you told me Niko was coming when it was really Naru!"

The monk looked down at her with wide eyes,

"Niko really was coming, I had just waved to him when he waved back and kept going-- I tried to flag him down so you could get away, but he wouldn't stop and then Naru strolled up with that dazzling thing on his arm," he explained, throwing a look at Miss Miyuki.

Mai's cheeks burned further, but this time in anger.

"I looked like an idiot, you couldn't have warned me?” she persisted with a frown.

The monk held the door open for her,

"You looked like an idiot, what about me? I was standing there doing this out of no where," he answered, pulling a finger across his neck repeatedly, "And if that wasn't enough of a warning for you, I'm sorry. I didn't have enough time to grab my trusty neon sign."

Mai sighed and shook her head, taking up the monk's arm again,

"I was so concerned with what I was going to say I guess I didn't notice you trying to stop me. Maybe it was luck after all that I couldn't find my voice, asking him and then being shot down like Masako would have been worse."

Stepping into the dinging room, Mai wasn't surprised by the crowded tables and the loud murmur. Doing something between a dance and a walk, Mai dodged chairs being slid back, elbows, and even a waiter. Naru found a table for them at the back of the room, near the windows. Missing from their party were Niko, Nari, and Mr. Sachi. Mai could think of someone else she wished was missing.

Mai sat heavily, doing little to hide her glare at Miss Miyuki who was seated across from her, the sunlight streaming in from behind the heiress casting her in some kind of glow. As usual John and Bou-san flanked Mai. Masako boldly took her usual seat on the other side of Naru. The re-formed rivals shared a satisfied look.

"So, Mai would you flag someone down, I'm starving," Ayako spoke up, seating herself next to an uncomfortable Lin.

Mai narrowed her eyes at the miko, but then her stomach let out a rumble, and resignedly she looked for someone to help them.

"Is Mai good with the staff here?” Miss Miyuki wondered, looking to Ayako.

Mai snapped her head back to the table so quickly she nearly gave herself whiplash. Next to her Bou-san snorted. Mai's shoe accidentally bumped into his. Ayako glanced in Mai's direction with a small smile,

"You could say they know her."

Mai's face began to heat, her hands reaching for a non-existent cup of tea.

"What Ayako means is--" Bou-san went on, sending a look at the miko.

"Oh, I forgot. She's well acquainted with the Inn Keeper's grandson," Miss Miyuki recalled, her full radiance turned toward Mai.

Mai's hand clutched on to the monk's arm with crushing force. With what could be considered perfect or ill fated timing, a waiter approached their table.

"The usual for everyone?” he asked, oblivious to the tension.

"Perfect," Ayako answered, ignoring the daggers Mai was shooting at her.

With a nod and a bow the young man was gone and the table descended into silence. Masako sat straight in her chair and then faced the heiress with one of her best masks in place.

"It was nice of you to stay for breakfast," she began, with a carefully placed smile.

The woman tilted her head, a light smile displayed in return,

"Of course, why would I miss it?"

"Oh, it's just you must have better things to be doing than spending the morning with a paranormal team," Masako answered, not missing a beat, her smile not faltering for a moment.

Mai smiled inwardly.

It's much nicer not to be on the receiving end of Masako's insult-with-a-smile.

"Perhaps, but in accordance with the festival rules, I'm not to leave Shibuya-san's side this entire day, and I don't intend to."

Mai reached for Bou-san's arm again, but the monk pulled it out of her reach. Masako's mask fell a faction, an eyebrow rising,

"Even through our investigation? You believe we're chasing nothing."

Miss Miyuki opened her mouth to reply, looking to Naru,

"Actually, I don't intend to enter the theater at all."

Naru's dark eyes moved to Masako,

"Miss Miyuki experienced strange occurrences last night and wishes for me to investigate. I'll be bringing Lin and I suppose in consequence, Ayako. The rest of you will monitor the theater."

Mai felt her anger bubbling up inside her,

Strange occurrences? She doesn't  even  believe in the paranormal.

Mai placed her hands firmly on the table and set her gaze squarely on Naru,

"But Mr. Sachi is your client--"

Her boss's sharp attention turned on her,

"It's just for a few hours Mai, there will be enough people at the theater to continue the investigation."

Mai wanted to argue further, but there was a finality to his voice that she couldn't fight. In frustration Mai sat back in her chair and across the table Masako looked equally defeated.

That Naru.

As if to stop her from exploding, a cup of tea was suddenly set in front of Mai.

Finally.

With an eagerness to drain the entire cup as if that would drain her irritation, Mai brought the much needed amber liquid to her lips. As the faces of Naru, Miss Miyuki, and Masako, who had a particularly strained expression, disappeared behind the rim of her glass, Mai inhaled a thankful breath, took a deep gulp-- and nearly sprayed it across the table. Her tea was stone cold. Coughing and sputtering, Mai attempted to wave off Bou-san administering unhelpful swacks to her back.

"I'm-- it's okay-- just--"

"SOMETHING WRONG?"

Mai froze. Her eyes slowly moved towards Masako and her pursed lips confirmed it.

Shoot.

"PERHAPS THIS WILL HELP IT ALL GO DOWN."

Just then three heavy platters were deposited on the table with a loud bang. Mrs. Koku loomed near Mai's chair with evil delight.

"COURTESY OF THE KOKU'S. ENJOY."

With a clap the woman and her wait staff left their table. A moment of silence hung in the air as people seated all around them paused to watch the table near the windows receive what they all knew to be the Koku specialty: vengeance.

Mai swallowed, and then regaining some composure, turned in her seat to glare down the nosy Inn guests. Promptly, talking with mouths full of food commenced. With a satisfied huff, Mai faced her own table once again, but found no one talking or eating.

"This is all your fault Taniyama," Ayako snapped holding up a charred indistinguishable piece of meat with her chopsticks.

A loud growling emanated from beside Mai.

"Uh..."

Bou-san was stabbing at a piece of lettuce from the nearest platter, unable pierce it. Heat flushed Mai's face and her hands went cold. There was a light pat on Mai's left shoulder and she looked to see John smiling at her brightest he could,

"This one looks just fine," he remarked, putting on show of dishing up the stone cold and unrecognizable food (was that rice?), sending encouraging looks across the table.

No one made a move for their chopsticks. Even as hungry as Bou-san was (his roaring stomach making it obvious) he placed his on the table and pushed them a few inches away.

"See, just fine," John went on bringing a shapeless lump to his mouth.

Across the table Masako brought her sleeve to her face in horror. Mai couldn't help a nervous frown,

"John...” she began, but he had already taken his bite and was chewing heartily.

And then something about him changed. His chewing paused. Slowly he lowered his chopsticks, blinking a couple of times, his face quickly tinting green. Mai covered her face with her hands and Bou-san leaned past her,

"Face that way!” he urged, aiming the priest for the aisle.

"I'm fine," he gasped as the monk thrust what was left of Mai's cold tea towards him,

"Here, drink-- get it down!"

"Oh, here does he need my napkin?” Miss Miyuki offered, waving it unhelpfully.

A loud cackling rang from the kitchens and Mai shrunk in her seat.

"I've officially lost my appetite," Ayako announced, tossing her own napkin onto the table in resignation.

After a moment more of chaos, John righted himself in his chair, drinking what was left of Mai's tea generously.  

"Thank you," he murmured when he came up for air.

"Welcome," Bou-san answered, sitting back in his seat, shooting Mai a wide eyed look. Mai narrowed hers back at him,

This isn't my fault!

Or was it? With a burning face, Mai stared at the nauseated people seated around her and sincerely wished the floor would open up and swallow her.

"Well, that was embarrassing. I must apologize," Miss Miyuki suddenly spoke, a hand placed at her chest, as though shocked.

Mai glanced at the woman in confusion,

Apologize?

"If I had known your breakfast would be a causality of the dislike I've garnered in this town," the heiress went on, "I would have let you enjoy it without me in peace."

"No," Naru suddenly spoke, "This has absolutely nothing to do with you. Mai seems to have managed to deeply offend the owners of this Inn. I apologize on her behalf."

Such a scathing speech left Mai on fire. Unable to contain herself, she stood abruptly, nearly knocking over her chair.

"Well, then. Let me restore peace to the table by leaving it."

And with one more smoldering glare directed at Naru, she stormed away.

"Mai!” Bou-san shouted after her, but she was halfway across the room.

Ignoring the looks she was getting from the tables she marched past, Mai reached the dinging room doors and swung them wide open.

That Naru!

Practically seeing red, Mai tore down the nearly empty halls towards her room. Throwing her door open and then slamming it closed, Mai fell across her bed with a huff. Staring hard at her sheets she noticed something sparkle faintly in the sunlight. Blinking, Mai ran her finger lightly over it, examining the glittering dust.

What..?

Mai's gaze moved to the floor just below her where the kimono Masako had lent her the night before lay in a heap.

The festival.

T he lily!

Between her dream and the chaos of the morning she had all but forgotten the mysterious gift left for her. Sitting up, Mai looked to her nightstand and sure enough there it was, no longer glowing, but just as real as the picture next to it. Carefully, Mai took it in her hands, staring down at the pale petals uncertainly.

Who would give me this..?

Mai closed her eyes in thought and the first face that came to mind was none other than Niko. It seemed the most obvious that he would secretly give her such a token of love, but hadn't he told her that night that he wanted to be friends? And what about choosing Nari that morning? Mai opened her eyes.

No,  not  Niko.  B ut who..?

Just then there was a knock at her door.

"Mai, you in there?" came Bou-san's voice from the hall.

"Uh--" Mai answered, looking to the moon lily in her hands.

Quickly she hid it under her pillow, just as the monk walked in.

"Hey, you okay?” he asked observing her closely.

Mai offered him a smile, stuffing her pillow back innocently,

"Yeah. I just needed a moment."

The monk's eyes moved to the pillow crammed behind her,

"Well, if you’re done punching your pillow, we should probably get going."

Mai gave Bou-san a look and got up carefully from her bed,

"I wasn't punching my pillow."

"No, I'm sure you were imagining Naru," he grinned, opening the door for her.

Mai sighed and shook her head.

Sometimes, Bou-san.

The two of them emerged into the empty hall and walked in comfortable silence, that was...until the monk's stomach growled.

"I know you didn't want to marry the guy, but couldn't you have played along a little while?” he complained as another rumble issued from him.

Mai gave him a firm look despite bring starved herself,

"I'm sorry your stomach was a causality of the dislike I've seemed to garner from this Inn. I'll be sure to let you enjoy your breakfast in peace tomorrow," she recited.

The monk smiled knowingly down at her,

"Mai, do I detect a hint of jealousy?"

Mai sent him a narrow eyed look,

"All you detect right now is hunger."

The monk raised an unconvinced eyebrow,

"Maybe, but I'm pretty sure I'm picking up a side of jealousy."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Mai answered, ignoring his smirk as they passed the dinging room, "Where is everyone anyway?"

"They should be outside," he replied as they moved through the foyer.

Mai kept her head down and took the monk's arm....just in case.

"Coast is clear," Bou-san murmured as they stepped out into the sunlight.

Mai lifted her gaze and then winced at the sudden brightness. It was a clear morning with an endless blue sky and a large burning sun. Where the Inn had finally thinned out its crowds, the grounds of Nozomi had filled. Scattered all around were pairs of people, most smiling and holding hands.

"Wow, it got busy out here," the monk commented, staring around at the clusters of people, "Oh look, there's Naru."

Mai blinked and held up a hand to shield her eyes. Sure enough, some yards away, was the rest of SPR and Miss Miyuki.

"I wonder why they're stopped?” Bou-san said, squinting at the group standing around.

"Maybe they're waiting for us?”

"Who's that old woman with them?”

"An old woman? Like the ones interested in John?” Mai asked, staring harder through the blinding sunlight.

"I'm not sure, let's go see," Bou-san answered, pulling her along.

"Well, it's about time," Ayako greeted them as they approached, clutching Lin's arm, "If I have to be assaulted by this old loon so do you."

Mai narrowed her eyes at the priestess, but felt growing confusion.

What old loon?

"What are we doing here?” Bou-san protested, looking to Ayako.

The miko merely pointed. Across from them were John and the old woman.

"Yes...I approve very much, now let me see your hand boy," her old voice croaked.

John complied, looking a bit bewildered.

What in the world..?

Mai glanced up at Bou-san who shrugged down at her.

"Ahh, you have given out a moon lily my boy," the woman announced with a yellow toothed smile.

Mai's raised her eyebrows.

John?

The young man attempted to pull his hand back,

"You must be mistaken," he suggested.

The old woman smiled wider and clucked her tongue,

"I see the dust on your hand, it remains for days. Anyways, I am the Wise Obasan, I mistake nothing."

Wise Obasan released his hand and John pulled it back to himself, rubbing his palm uneasily.

"Now, let me see if your partner received a moon lily, a very telling point in my decision...” the old woman went on, hobbling towards Masako, who stood some feet back with a mask firmly in place.

"No reason to be nervous my dear, let Obasan see your hand," she coaxed as she reached the medium who stood a few inches taller.

Masako clasped her hands tightly inside the sleeves of her Kimono and turned her nose up,

"I will not, this is completely unnecessary."

"Don't be difficult deary, I am old but not stupid, if you do not show me your hand I will assume you have received one."

Masako parted her lips in shock, her cheeks tinting pink,

"That's a dear," the old woman murmured, taking the medium's resistant hand.

"Ah-ha!” she suddenly shouted, "You have received one!"

Masako snatched her hand away, her pale cheeks flushing crimson. Mai's eye's widened.

Masako received a moon lily too?!

"Yes, yes...I declare you both to be a good pair indeed!” the old woman cackled.

John looked distinctly pale, unable to look at his partner. Masako recovered from her shock,

"I do not see how that makes us anything-- you have no idea who gave that moon lily to me!” she protested, her eyes landing briefly on Naru.

Obasan merely shrugged,

"I see what I see...who's next? Ah, yes-- the red headed woman..."

Suddenly Mai wished to be anywhere else.

That crazy old loon is going to make me show my hand  and  then everyone will know I've received a moon lily!

Carefully Mai began backing up, but was stopped by Bou-san who caught her arm,

"Where are you going? Don't you want to see who else makes a good pair?"

"Uh, I just remembered, I forgot to get something from my room--"

The monk raised an eyebrow,

"Wait, you didn't receive a moon lily did you Mai?"

"I'll be right back I promise--" Mai persisted, attempting to break free of his grasp.

"You did. Mai! Why didn't you tell me?"

"Bou-san, let me go," Mai hissed, struggling against him.

"Oh my, what nails," the old woman's voice declared, tutting at Ayako's pink polish.

"Excuse me, I thought you were supposed to be studying my palm," the miko grumbled.

"Patience," the old woman ordered, turning over the priestess’s hand roughly.

"Ow!” Ayako objected, but a stern look from Obasan silenced her.

"Hmm, yet another moon lily exchange," the old woman went on after a moment of staring closely at Ayako's hand.

Mai paused her struggle with Bou-san and he suddenly released her.

Ayako too?!

Slowly Mai's eyes slid over to the monk who now looked a bit self conscious.

"Actually, I'll go with you. I think I forgot my coat...” Bou-san began, stepping back.

"Bou-san, its seventy degrees out here," Mai remarked with an eyebrow raised at him.

The monk glanced down at her with narrowed eyes,

"I'm cold."

"You're chicken."

"No, but chicken would have been something I would have liked for breakfast thank you very much--"

"Chicken breakfasts are for chickens and I'm not going to marry Niko just so you can have one."

"And, what is this? No moon lily dust? You did not give one to your partner, hm? Very interesting,” Obasan spoke loudly, looking over Lin's hand closely.

"What are you getting at old woman?” Ayako protested, grabbing Lin's arm and pulling him close.

The old woman narrowed her eyes at the miko,

"I mean I'm marking you two as an unapproved couple."

Ayako opened her mouth in offense,

"You're what-- ?"

But Wise Obasan wasn't listening any longer; instead she turned on the squabbling pair a few feet away.

"Well, and who do we have here?"

Mai and Bou-san stopped mid-sentence to stare at the old woman grinning at them.

"My dear girl, what energy I sense about you. A good match for you would be someone with a steady sensible rhythm," she murmured, eyeballing Bou-san thoughtfully.

The monk shifted uncomfortably. Mai felt her stomach flop.

"Let's see the rest of the story, shall we?” the old woman urged, reaching out her bony hand for Mai's reluctant one.

"I'm going to grab my coat--" Bou-san announced, looking to dart away while Mai was tied up, but out of nowhere the Wise Obasan brandished a thick paper fan and swatted the monk across the knuckles,

"Ow!” he cried, rubbing his injured hand.

"Stay put young man, you're next."

Mai sent the monk a satisfied smile which he didn't return.

"Oh, yes...as I suspected," the old woman continued, looking up into Mai's eyes, "You've received a moon lily."

Mai heart leaped into her throat. Not quickly enough the old woman released her hand and turned to Bou-san,

"Let me see your partner now, so he can be on his way..."

The monk looked down at the little old woman shuffling towards him,

"Now monk, let me see what you've been up to."

"How do you know I'm a monk?” Bou-san asked, confusedly, letting the ancient woman take his hand without protest.

"Wise Obasan knows all, now hold still," the old woman answered, taking a better grip on his large hand.

"Ho ho, lookie here, yet another--"

"Person not to give out anything, that's me-- selfish. Well thanks for that Granny, I'll be going to get my coat now--"

A paper fan came down on the monk's shoulder,

"Not so fast there young man--"

"Ow, that was my bad shoulder."

Obasan grinned, "I know."

Bou-san glanced at Mai and she smiled weakly.

"Now as I was saying...you too have given out a moon lily."

"So we're approved, or a match-- or whatever you call it?” the monk asked, tenderly massaging his arm.

The old woman swatted Bou-san again.

"Oy! What--?” he protested, holding his stomach.

Mai came over to stand between the dangerous old woman and the monk.

"Young man, just because you gave a moon lily and she received a moon lily... that means nothing in itself. No...your energies are too different. She must be placed with someone else...someone like...."

The old woman turned around slowly, as if sensing for something, or in some kind of trance.

"Him," she declared, pointing across their group at Naru.

Mai faltered, her hand gripping Bou-san tightly as he was the only thing holding her up.

Naru?!

"Yes, he is right. His energies would perfectly balance yours,” Wise Obasan announced knowingly, her small old feet leading her to the President of SPR.

Mai felt as if she had suddenly come down with heat stroke. Her skin was on fire and her mind was mush. Naru on the other hand looked practically arctic. Anyone not accustomed to the severe stare set upon his face would have frozen, but the ancient woman continued to shuffle towards him, smiling as though she had just solved a difficult mystery.

"Them?” Miss Miyuki breathed bemusedly.

Obviously she thought the old loon before her was just that-- an old loon.

Through her muddled state Mai felt a small prickle of indignation in defense of the old woman,

Hey! There 's  nothing loony in suggesting us! She  isn't  called Wise Obasan for nothing!

The stooped old woman passed by Masako and the medium watched her with unhappy resignation. She would say nothing since it was Mai being paired with Naru and not the smirking heiress. But even still, it was clear she believed she matched Naru, not Mai.

"Such sensibility I sense in you. Maybe too much, but that is where she--" the old woman began, sending Mai a keen look, "--comes in. Her energies are much more unpredictable, they would encourage you to live a little. A life spent buried in work is no--"

"You know nothing of my life," Naru interrupted, his voice so cold that Mai winced.

The old woman stood unblinking,

"Of course not," she said after a pause with a slow smile, "but I do know the ways of the heart."

There was a great silence then between them, one short and one tall-- just staring at each other. Mai and Masako shared a brief look, though the medium's eyes held a chill Mai found all too familiar.

That Masako.

"If I may see your hand young man," the Wise Obasan finally requested, her sharp old eyes gazing up at him challengingly.

A moment passed.

He won't do it.

But then Naru uncrossed his arms and held out a hand. His compliance seemed to even surprise even Obasan, but she quickly took it up anyways. An image of a pale flower darted through Mai's mind. A thought suddenly struck her, sending her heart racing.

What if he's given a moon lily? What if...

Mai swallowed with some difficulty as it felt as if her heart had leaped up into her throat. Mai grabbed Bou-san's arm and gave it strong squeeze. As if reading her thoughts, he smiled slightly and mouthed: moon lily?

Mai ignored the monk-- the ancient woman was speaking again, her croaked voice difficult to hear over the blood rushing in her ears.

"Hmm. Interesting. A moon lily definitely though..."

Naru freed his hand from Wise Obasan's bony ones.

"If we're done here," he spoke simply, looking to his team and then Miss Miyuki.

Lin gave a ready nod, pulling his arm from Ayako's possessive grasp, and stepped forward. But Wise Obasan was not ready.

"But I have not given my decision," she protested as Naru began to turn away.

The young man glanced back at the old woman over his shoulder,

"I believe you have demonstrated it clearly enough."

A stray clouded passed in front of the sun and for a moment a large black shadow was cast over the flat dusty grounds of Nozomi. The Wise Obasan regarded the stubborn young man before her with a determined glint in her eyes,

"You know nothing of my demonstrations. You are a match. The best match and everyone will know as much tonight."

Mai blinked in the sudden gloom and felt a chill run along her back. Naru did not acknowledge that anything had been spoken; he merely walked on beside Lin, taking about something he obviously found far more concerning than threats from ancient matchmaking women. A stiff breeze blew across the festival grounds and whipped its way past the remaining SPR members. The cloud that had thrown a sinister tone on Wise Obasan's warning was now hurried away on the wind and the blinding sunlight returned.

Mai squinted, watching Naru's dark and blurry figure move along, Miss Miyuki flanking his other side. The old woman followed Mai's gaze and shook her head,

"Despair not my dear, he will be seeing things differently by tonight, or my name is not Wise Obasan," she reassured, a dark smile pulling up on her wrinkled features.

Somehow Mai could not manage a smile in return. It didn't matter though, the festival's ancient matchmaker merely nodded to them all and hobbled off, chuckling to herself.

Bou-san's shadow came to loom over Mai.

"That's one loony lady," he muttered, watching her pounce upon another unsuspecting group.

"Yeah...” Mai said absently, her mind whirling with moon lilies and threats.

Just then a brightly colored kimono glided past Mai's field of vision.

"Naru," Masako called.

The young man paused to look back at the medium,

"I will accompany you to Miss Miyuki's place. I can be of assistance in sensing what exactly has disturbed her," Masako's voice was firm.

She was not going to leave Naru alone with that heiress anymore than she was going let a crazy old woman proclaim Naru and Mai soul mates.

Mai took a step forward and opened her mouth, desperately searching for something to say that would secure her in coming too, but before she could speak, Naru placed the words in her mouth.

"Very well. Hara-san you will join us with John. Mai, head to the theater with Takigawa and run the routine tests."

Masako came to stand with Naru, her eyes briefly catching Mai's, a slight smile pulling at her pink lips. Mai clamped her mouth shut tightly, too frustrated to form any words (or at least any she wouldn't regret later). John departed from them looking uncertain, but Bou-san merely waved them off, gripping Mai's shoulder firmly with the other hand as he could see the fists she was making at her sides and the dark way she was looking at Naru.

"Have fun, we'll check in with you later," the monk called after them as the group finally moved on.

Mai shrugged her shoulder free of Bou-san's grip and glanced up sourly at him,

"How can you be okay with this? He's leaving us to do the grunt work!"

The monk looked down at the flustered young woman wisely,

"Alone is the key word here. You're just bothered because two of your rivals are going to have Naru to fight over all day, but you've got that soul mate thing going on and neither of them can compete with that."

"That lady is crazy Bou-san."

"She knew I was a monk and that you received a moon lily-- is that crazy? But that's beside the point, what I'm trying to get at here is that we will be alone in the theater."

"Yes, Bou-san. I realize we will be alone and Naru on the other hand will have plenty of company--"

"No," Bou-san protested, taking her shoulders and facing her, "We will be alone. No one to see us, I don't know-- trying to figure out a certain mystery...?"

Suddenly it dawned on Mai what the monk was trying to get out.

"Oh alone, you're right..."

The monk grinned,

"Aren't I always? Now, shall we?"

With her dream replaying itself in her head, Mai took Bou-san's arm and allowed him to lead her across the scorching grounds of Nozomi.

My dream...the hall...the name plate, was it real?

"Hey-- you alright?” the monk spoke after glancing at her and catching the distant look in her eye.

Mai shook her head to clear it of the many thoughts pushing their way in and then looked up at Bou-san.

What can I tell him? I can't reveal Mr. Miyuki. Do I tell him I had a vision?

"Hello-- earth to Mai," the monk persisted, waving a hand in front of her face, "Are you with me?"

"Oh, yeah. Sorry, Bou-san...I was just thinking."

"If it's about Naru, I don't wanna know."

Mai made a face and swatted the monk's arm,

"Actually, it's about the dream I had last night."

Bou-san gave her a side long look,

"Again, if this is about Naru--"

Mai swatted his arm harder and narrowed her eyes up at him,

"No, this dream did not include Naru. I was in the theater."

The monk's smirk was replaced with a thoughtful look,

"The theater? What kind of dream was it?"

Mai paused for a moment, thinking hard on just what she could tell her curious partner in crime, and then took the plunge.

"It was one of those dreams-- at least, I think.” Mai answered carefully.

The monk nodded encouragingly,

"And...what happened?"

The two of them reached the stairs leading up to the theater's double doors and Mai took up a better grip on the monk's arm. Her history with passing through the entrance into the theater was less than pleasant, but as of last night things had become a lot worse. Remembering her latest episode, Bou-san halted them just before the doors.

"You didn't die or anything when you walked through these doors did you?” he asked, looking down at her concernedly.

"Hm? In my dream you mean?” Mai wondered, staring at the wooden barrier before them.

Bou-san tugged her a step back,

"We can always find another way in...” he suggested, looking around at the building.

Mai smiled and patted him reassuringly,

"No, I didn't die in my dream. I'll be fine."

The monk eyed her carefully, "Are you sure?"

Mai stood taller and nodded firmly,

"Yes."

The monk still seemed uncertain, but took up Mai's hand just the same and pushed open the door.

One...

Mai counted in her head, as she took her first step. A sort of humming filled her ears.

Two...

She was passing through the doors now, her vision turning hazy and her head beginning to pound.

Three.

Mai drew in a steadying breath as they entered the main lobby. Her stomach was tense and glancing down she could see that she had squeezed the monk's hand until his was nearly white, but she had made it.

"You okay?” Bou-san asked as he gently pulled his hand from hers.

Mai smiled weakly at him as he experimented with flexing his fingers,

"Sorry...yeah, I'm okay."

"Good," the monk said, satisfied that both his hand and Mai were still intact, "Now how about you fill me in on this dream while I make us some tea?"

Mai agreed and the two of them walked on to base. With the sun blaring outside, the gas lamps in the Miyuki Theater seemed dull, unable to compete with the brilliant rays shining in. Mai looked away from the windows, somehow reminded of Miss Miyuki. Somewhere across Nozomi the heiress was showing Naru her home, inviting him to tea, tossing her blonde hair while smiling that radiant smile...

"Mai?"

Mai blinked and looked up,

"Huh?"

The monk, nearly to base had stopped to stare at her, paused in the middle of the hall,

"Are you sure those doors didn't affect you?"

Mai straightened up and started walking again,

"Positive."

The monk observed her closely as she passed him into the room,

"How positive is positive?"

Mai shot him a look over her shoulder,

"Positive, Bou-san."

The monk held up his hands,

"Fine...fine, but you seem awfully distracted."

"Tea, monk," Mai ordered, plopping down on the couch, thankful that he had offered to make it for once.

"Yes, Naru," he answered, striding over to the small counter.

Mai crossed her arms, but a small smile pulled at her lips.

While the monk was busy behind her, Mai sighed and sat back, finding the large room rather comfortable with just the two of them. The keyboard on Lin's desk was absent of its usual clicking and his computers hummed quietly in the background. Across from her the couch was empty of Masako and her mask-- it was also empty of Naru, but at the moment Mai decided that it was a good thing, otherwise she would be the one making tea.

"So, about this dream. You had it last night?” Bou-san spoke up, heating the water.

Mai gazed at the window in far corner, the light pouring in warming the room. Some of its beams reached the table Mai sat in front of and that's when she noticed something. A vase sat there, simple in its design but bursting with beauty were the lilies that filled it.

Lilies?

Several thoughts occurred to Mai at that moment, Nari being one of them. Who could have put them here? Everyone in the theater was aware of her allergy, and yet here sat a large vase, brimming with the white and potentially deadly flower. But just as quickly as her concern came, it fled her mind to make room for curiosity.

Ayako received a moon lily.

Mai sat up and looked over the edge of the couch at the monk who was currently placing their tea on a tray.

"Bou-san," she said as he walked his way over.

"Oh, finally decided to answer me then?” he asked, raising an eyebrow at her.

Mai accepted her tea cup thankfully,

"I'm sorry-- did you ask me something before?"

The monk sat down beside her,

"I was trying to get some details on your dream, but I'm beginning to think you never woke from it..."

Mai sighed,

"I promise to tell you everything, but first you have to answer me this," she bargained, eyeing the monk next to her.

Bou-san shrugged and brought his tea to his lips,

"Shoot."

"You gave your moon lily to Ayako, didn't you?"

There was a sudden coughing fit beside her as the monk choked on his tea. Mai merely smiled and took a sip of her own,

"So I am right...” she smirked, sounding remarkably like the monk every time he had pressed her for personal answers and received such a reaction.

The monk recovered and sent her a look,

"I don't know who you've been talking to, maybe a loon of a lady, but I've never given Ayako anything."

Mai sat down her tea cup and crossed her arms,

"Liar. She received one, if you didn't give it to her than who did?"

"Lin probably," was his weak reply and he quickly took another mouth full of the hot tea.

He made a face as it burnt his tongue and she smiled slyly,

"Wise Obasan said Lin had given no moon lilies, so that can't be it. It was you Bou-san, now own up."

"Naru then because it wasn't me," he persisted adamantly.

Mai opened her mouth to argue, but then the monk smiled as he regained his footing in their war of words,

"Oh excuse me; it couldn't possibly be Naru because he gave his to you."

It was Mai's turn to swallow a mouthful of scolding tea,

"I don't know who gave me that lily," she objected, her cheeks heating at the mere thought.

"You'd rather it be from Niko then?” Bou-san countered, disbelievingly.

"This isn't about me," Mai argued, attempting to turn the assault back on the monk, "This is about you and why you left Ayako that moon lily--"

"What this is about is your dream," Bou-san replied, swiftly changing the subject, "You promised Mai, now spill."

Mai frowned, tempted to remind him that she promised so long as he answered, which he did not do, but she could tell that, at least at the moment, there was no getting a straight answer out of him and she would have to settle for his choking as being a tell-tell sign of his guilt. Mai adjusted herself on the couch and gazed down at the mysterious vase of lilies left there.

"It's kind of vague," Mai began.

Especially the parts with Mr. Miyuki in it.

"That's fine, tell me what you remember," the monk urged.

Mai ran a finger around the rim of her tea cup in thought,

"I was in the theater, it was night, and I was standing in that hall we visited yesterday."

Bou-san set his nearly empty tea cup down,

"So we're on the right track then? With that picture I mean."

Mai nodded,

"I think so, especially since I found myself--" she paused here to search for a way to leave Mr. Miyuki out, "--drawn to a certain photo."

The monk looked to her eagerly,

"Really? Which one?"

Mai closed her eyes for a moment, her dream playing itself through her mind, the haunting image of Mr. Miyuki staring at his daughter's empty frame.

"It was the blank one Bou-san," Mai answered as she opened her eyes.

The monk was thoughtful for a moment, but then his eyes widened in realization,

"Miss Miyuki's?"

"Yes," Mai sighed, setting down her cup, "but it just gets better from there."

"What else?” he prodded.

"The name plate, her name plate-- it just..." Mai halted here, once again thinking up a way to write the ghostly man out, "...fell off. Behind it was another one...and this one read Kioko Miyuki."

The monk gathered their finished cups and looked to her with surprise,

"Another name? Do you think this has something to do with our picture?"

Mai frowned in thought and stood as well,

"That's what I'm not sure about, are these two things some how connected?"

The monk set down their tray and faced Mai,

"Well there's one thing we can do, let's go see for ourselves." 

Chapter Text

Day Five

11:00am

The Miyuki Theater

They turned another corner. Mai blinked, her eyes attempting to adapt to the growing dimness. With the oil lamps extinguished and fewer windows as they went, each new hall they came upon became increasingly gloomy. Mai brushed at a section of bangs stuck in place against her forehead, it was also increasingly humid.

"Kinda stuffy in here," Bou-san commented, rubbing the back of his neck.

Mai nodded, looking intently at the walls, waiting for the moment when she would spot the cluster of pictures.

We must be close...

Maybe it was the still air, the strange silence as they walked, or the fact that Mai had gotten little sleep the night before, but somehow, before her eyes, moonlight spilled out across the hall floor.

Mai paused; the sliver light was gone, replaced by a blank wood floor. A warm hand touched her shoulder,

"Mai?"

Mai shook her head and smiled lightly at the monk who was looking on at her concernedly,

"Sorry-- it's nothing..."

The two continued on and so did her waking dream. They passed an open door and the room was transformed, suddenly dark as night, the objects inside cast in shadows. The moment she paused, everything returned to normal.

Mai moved on at a quickened pace, the brief flashes of what she had experienced the night before rising to the surface as if urging her on, guiding her to the hall of pictures.

"We must be nearly there? I don't remember it taking us this long last time," Bou-san remarked, running the back of his hand over his brow as the stale air was getting to him.

Feeling equally uncomfortable in the heat, Mai took up a handful of hair, holding it away from her neck,

"We must be," she agreed, her eyes trained on reading the wall ahead.

Then, out of the gloom, a frame emerged-- and then another. As if pieces of ornate decoration, photograph after photograph stretched down the wall. The mix of black and white and color held countless sets of eyes, each staring down at Mai as if curious of her presence. There was one frame among them though who did not own a set of eyes and that blank spot was the one Mai came to stare into.

Making up the corner of her family triangle was Miss Miyuki's frame, its gold edges tarnished. Bou-san came to stand behind Mai,

"So the name plate just fell?" the monk asked his eye's traveling over the black letters which spelled out the heiress's name: Toki.

Not Kioko, Mai thought her fingers reaching out to brush the cool metal.

After a moment she answered the monk, shutting out the image of Mr. Miyuki.

"Yes, it just dropped to the floor..."

"And there was another name behind it?" the monk prodded, narrowing his eyes at the plate as if he could identify its secrets.

Mai nodded and her hand dropped back to her side, "Kioko..."

Behind her Bou-san straightened up, "Well, let's see what this frame is hiding."

Purposefully the monk moved around Mai and took hold of the name plate, his fingers closing around the edges.

Mai stepped back, the beating of her heart suddenly loud in her ears, her eyes unable to look away from the golden plate about to be removed. The tense moment stretched into seconds and those seconds stretched into minutes. Mai blinked,

"Bou-san, do you need some help?"

The monk released the name plate and stood back,

"I don't know what it is, no matter how hard I pull, it won't give."

Mai bit her lip and moved forward. Gripping the sharp corners firmly, she gave a quick tug and then-- nothing. Bou-san watched her make another attempt, his head tilted in thoughtfulness,

"Maybe...there isn't another one here after all?"

Mai paused and brushed her sticky bangs out of her eyes before pulling again,

"The dream felt so real, Bou-san..."

The monk nodded, "Okay, maybe it was a message? Maybe we should start investigating this name Kioko? Maybe..."

Mai blinked, her eyes boring into the name printed in black across gold--

"Maybe Miss Miyuki knows something?"

Mai turned to face the monk, her eyes shining with the revelation. Bou-san's face was lit with the same excitement, the rush of finding an answer to a troubling question,

"That's it Mai. You were lead to Miss Miyuki's frame because she's the one you need to ask."

Mai let go of the name plate. That was it. They had figured it out. The dream was a message from Mr. Miyuki-- his daughter must know something. Mai pursed her lips,

So then why do I feel so uncertain?

A hand patted her shoulder approvingly,

"Good work, now we're getting somewhere."

Mai looked up to the monk grinning satisfied down at her and managed a smile back, some of her unease leaving her,

"Right, it's a start."

"Well I don't know about you, but I'm miserable back here, let's return to base," Bou-san suggested, plucking at his shirt in an attempt to keep it from sticking to his skin.

Mai let out a breath and her bangs hardly stirred from where they were stuck to her forehead,

"Let's go," she agreed, her eyes drawn one last time to the name plate that had refused to give up its secrets.

A strange sort of sting entered Mai's eyes as she turned away. Quickly, before Bou-san could see, she wiped away a few tears that had suddenly welled up. Mai blinked at her wet hands, blurred through her watering eyes in confusion and slight alarm. What was going on? A memory penetrated her bewilderment-- the original dream...the man...the tears...

Mai covered her face with her hands, hoping to calm herself before the monk-- walking a few steps ahead-- noticed her odd state.

This can't be happening again!

A bit flustered, Mai rubbed her stinging, tearing eyes-- hardly able to make out the hall floor. In the next moment her throat was seized by a burning sensation. Bou-san let out a cough,

"Mai? What is--" he was cut off by another coughing fit.

Mai gave in to the sudden urge that squeezed her lungs and joined him. The distorted shape of the monk turned to face her,

"Do you smell that?"

Mai nodded vigorously, leaning against the wall now for support as her vision weakened to identifying only light and merging colors,

"Smoke."

The smell of it was choking her now.

"The theater must be on fire-- we have to get out of here," Bou-san said glancing up the hall were the smoke had snaked past them, filling even their exit with the suffocating gray haze.

Blinking away a mixture of sweat and tears from his eyes, the monk reached for Mai's hand but felt the grip of someone else pull him sharply.

Mai pressed her shoulders against the wall, the collar of her shirt aiding in her breathing. The strange smoke, which caused her throat to burn and her eyes to tear like never before, had consumed the hall. Mai's vision was now practically useless, squinting it was as if she was looking at the world through a murky snow globe, the smoke casting her watery surroundings dim and gray.

"Bou-san?" she croaked, no longer able to see his dark shape amongst the blur, "Bou-san?" she tried again, one hand reaching out blindly. Only empty air met her fingers.

"Bou-san..." Mai's voice was growing weaker with every attempt, the smoke filling her mouth and lungs.

A slow panic set in. Where was he? Was she alone? Mai was suddenly struck with an image of the monk unconscious on the floor.

"Oh no, Bou-san..." Mai rasped, dropping to her knees, desperate to find him in her blindness.

A moment passed, broken by her coughs. Her hand ran out over the hard wood floor, but never touched anything that felt like the monk. Her heart pounding in her chest, Mai decided that he must have been separated from her.

He's probably looking for me now; I need to move from here...

Even with her shirt covering her nose, it was getting harder and harder to breath. Mai was becoming tired and out of breath. She coughed again,

Why can't I catch my breath? I thought it was supposed to be easier to breathe near the ground...or is it standing up...or...

It was getting harder and harder to think. Mai's head felt fuzzy and confused. A heavy understanding overcame her: she was not getting out of there herself...

Mai pushed herself up from off the floor, her eyes squeezed shut, she swallowed with difficulty, her mouth and throat as dry as ash. The image of an old man surfaced in her mind and she held on to it tightly,

Mr. Miyuki I need your help...please help me...

With all the energy she could summon Mai called on the spirit of the man who had lead her there...to find her...to save her...then she opened her eyes. A tall dark shape. Relief broke over Mai.

"Mai--" a voice spoke at and the same time she breathed, "Mr. Miyuki--"

A firm, warm hand took Mai's wrist and the black shape loomed closer,

"Mr. Miyuki?" the voice repeated.

Mai's eyes widened, she may have not been able to distinguish the face, but her ears knew the voice-- and it did not belong to a ghostly theater owner.

A single thought shot through the slow motion of her mind with crystal clear understanding,

No.

"Naru," she nearly gasped and then with her free hand clutched at her eyes, which burned with a vengeance at her daring to open them so wide. A series of body shaking coughs followed this and the grip her boss had taken grew tighter.

Without a word, he pulled her into his arms, the collar of her shirt slipping off her nose as it was buried into his chest, the smell of tea canceling out the smoke for a brief wonderful moment. Mai was barely able to register that this was the first time she had ever found herself so close to her boss-- before the ground was pulled out from underneath her feet. The moment of strange contentment was gone; she was being carried down the hall at a surprising pace.

Mai blinked rapidly, her vision clearing faster than she imagined possible. The wooden walls of the theater passed by her; a gentle wind rustled her disheveled hair. With her legs dangling over one arm and the rest of her body held up by his other, Mai's face hovered impossibly close to Naru's. Mai swallowed and stared determinedly down the hall, resisting the urge to study his impassive features.

All at once thoughts rushed at her as if on attack, questions, feelings...

Fire!

She had yet to see the red hot flames she imagined to be eating away at the theater. She resisted thinking about the searing heat, enjoying the moment of cool surrounding her.

Bou-san!

At this thought, she instinctively gripped Naru's shoulder tighter. Mai closed her mouth and forced down a painful swallow, shifting in the arms that held her with an expression of alarm,

"Bou-san," she whispered strainedly, unable to find her voice.

Naru's dark eyes flicked to her briefly,

"He's fine."

"We left him," Mai protested, her voice cracking as she attempted to rise it.

Focusing straight ahead Naru stalked on,

"He's fine," he merely repeated.

Mai opened her mouth in confusion, but promptly closed it as the air tasted of ash.

Mr. Miyuki!

The thought darted through her mind like a streak of black smoke, as black as the set of eyes suddenly regarding her. It was if in their close proximity he could hear her thoughts, the old man's name ringing in his ears as was well as hers.

Her vision nearly restored, she could see the questions waiting on his lips. But there was another set of lips that appeared before her clearing mind's eye, a ghostly pair with a single pleading finger placed against them. Mai pursed her own lips firmly as Naru's parted,

"Mai, when I reached you--"

A series of coughs conveniently seized her and some of them weren't even forced. Mai's chest ached from the effort and length, but the secret remained her own, Naru was successfully foiled.   

A moment later she was unceremoniously released from his hold. Contact with the floor after being held with such lightness felt heavy and jarring. A bit disoriented and uncertain at why she had been so promptly let go, Mai blinked her newly stinging eyes up at Naru.

His height returned, he stood as a tall and imposing figure. The smell of tea that she had enjoyed breathing was quickly evaporating into smoke. A fresh burning touched Mai's throat. Her hand moved to her neck, but before she could say anything, Naru strode past her. Mai blinked and turned after him, her hand aiding her eyes now, attempting to rub away the burn.

Light, blinding and white. Mai's hand fell away from her eyes and she squinted into its warmth, the sun's rays a million times cooler than the flames she imagined engulfing the theater.

"Are you coming?"

A few steps ahead Naru had paused in the open space normally closed off by the theater's double doors, the bright of the outside casting him in shadow. Mai nodded, a mixture of relief running over her. Naru had gotten her out.

Mai passed through the entrance without incident and emerged into classic Nozomi chaos.

"Finally! Are you alright?" Mr. Sachi was upon her before she could draw in her first breath, his dark eyes shining with concern.

"Mai!" a second voice called and the playwright barely had time to step aside before Bou-san pushed past him. A moment later she pulled into a tight smoky embrace.

"Bou-san," Mai rasped, looking up at the monk who was still gripping her shoulders, "What happened? I was worried--"

"I am terribly shocked at all this," Mr. Sachi cut in, his voice raised as if addressing a crowd.

Mai blinked and peered past Bou-san to see that half of Nozomi had gathered outside the theater,

"But I assure you there is no fire-- so you all may move along."

"No fire?" Mai repeated, glancing quickly at the building she had just escaped from, "But the smoke..."

Bou-san's lips were set in a line; absently he rubbed his shoulder and then titled his head towards Mr. Sachi. Mai's gaze traveled from the monk's unhappy face to the playwright's flustered one, a confused frown growing across her own,

"Mr. Sachi set the theater on fire?" she whispered disbelievingly, her words coming out in a wheeze.

Bou-san looked to Mai with his lips pressed firmer and suggestively jerked his head once again. Mai blinked uncertainly and quickly glanced back at the playwright...then she noticed his company.

"But there is a fire-- a fire in their souls!"

Mr. Sachi threw the slowly dissipating crowd a look as they all paused again at the mention of fire,

"There is no actual fire," he argued exasperatedly.

The ancient woman standing beside him paid his attempts at putting out her own fires no mind,  

"It is actual young man and burns within them--"

"There is no fire!" Mr. Sachi cried, waving his hands dismissively at the crowd that stood and stared.

Mai felt her face growing warmer and warmer as realization dawned on her.

Wise Obasan.

"Your closed eyes may not be able to see the flames, but I--"

"There--"

"Wise Obasan can see them and will show all of Nozomi--"

"Is--"

"What cannot be put out, what will consume them if not revealed--"

"No--"

"I have decided upon my Chosen and there will be no stopping this union."

The word fire died on the playwrights lips. Red in the face and seemingly breathless he stared at the old woman,

"Your Chosen?"

A wide slightly maniacal smile stretched across the woman's face. With her keen beady eyes she looked from the surprised playwright to the interested crowd. A dramatic hush had fallen over them; pairs and pairs of eager eyes watched as the old woman drew herself up,

"Yes...my Chosen."

Mai shifted where she stood, nearly as red in the face as Mr. Sachi had been. She could almost feel the attention of the crowd turn on her.

Naru and I are her Chosen.

Mr. Sachi eyed Mai with an odd expression and then shot a brief look at Naru who stood over Wise Obasan's shoulder,

"Ahem, well like I said...the theater is safe-- let's move along now."

But the playwright might as well have been talking to himself; a loud murmur had broke over those clustered outside the theater.

Mai gripped Bou-san's arm and inched behind him. Obliging her, the monk became a human shield. Through the buzz that filled the air Mai heard her name being shouted. A moment later a panting John climbed the theater steps.

"I'm-- so glad-- I finally reached you," he said between breaths.

Mai peered out from behind the monk and instead of a priest she found a cold bottle of water.

Nothing ever looked so good. Mai had the bottle open and half gone before she noticed John smiling at her.

"Thank-- you," she managed, a bit breathless herself.

The monk beside her reached down and plucked the bottle from her hand,

"Yes-- thank you."

Mai watched him polish it off, thinking longingly of the tea they had made back at base not an hour ago.

I could drink the whole pot.

With her thirst awakened, Mai found herself distracted from the events taking place around her. The crowd massing around the theater had begun to thin, many in the group walking off with their partners for the day, whispering...

"Just how attention starved as a child were you?"

Mai blinked and snapped around to find Ayako standing there.

"We leave you alone for an hour and the next thing we know you're burning to death," the priestess went on, walking up to Mai and absently looking her over.

The spark of anger that was initially lit within Mai was put out by the worry she could tell Ayako was hiding.

"She wasn't alone, I was there," Bou-san corrected.

The priestess shot the monk a look before returning her attention to her patient,

"My point exactly."

Bou-san eyebrows rose in offense,

"You're saying this is my fault?"

Ayako offered an implicating silence, steadying Mai as she let out a series of coughs.

"Oh right, because I just love filling theaters with smoke and being dragged around by crazed old women," he protested, leering at the priestess.

"What happened?" Mai asked as soon as she could breathe again.

"One moment I was reaching for your hand-- the next I find myself being yanked down the hall. That crazy old loon has quite a grip."

Mai watched as the monk massaged his sensitive arm,

"You mean Wise Obasan did all this?"

The monk nodded shooting the ancient matchmaker a dark look,

"I was disoriented. I tried to get back to you, but that woman gripped my shoulder in her bony fingers and wouldn't let go. She held me captive until Mr. Sachi stumbled upon us-- that's when I learned there really wasn't any fire, she had lit all these satchels of brush and was letting the smoke fill the place."

Mai suddenly felt guilty for hurting Bou-san's shoulder. Ayako crossed her arms and fixed the monk with an unimpressed look,

"That woman has one foot in the grave and you couldn't fight her off?"

The monk held his shoulder defensively,

"Who said anything about a grave? With the grasp she had-- I'd say she has both feet well above ground."

Ayako arched an unconvinced eyebrow at him.

"If you don't believe me have her read your palms again and be sure to mention the one foot in the grave thing," the monk challenged with a smirk.

"Graves? Is everyone alright?"

Mai turned to see Masako gliding towards them,

"Yes, no thanks to Takigawa here," Ayako answered, ignoring the look Bou-san was shooting her.  

Masako's blue eyes regarded Mai carefully, her pink lips pursed,

"You look no worse--" she began and Mai could see the words than usual forming on her tongue, but she held them and continued,"--for wear Taniyama. You were able to find your way out okay?"

Mai returned her rival's innocent look with a knowing one, able hear the unspoken words in the question,

You mean did Naru help me find my way...?

Enjoying Masako's uncertainly, Mai let her attention wander over to their boss. The medium followed her gaze,

"I had some help," she answered simply, locking eyes with her rival.

"That had nothing to do with a fully capable monk," Ayako put in, examining her nails, determined to give Bou-san grief for the rest of the case.

"Sachi!" a voice suddenly called, breaking the tension that was mounting.

Nari ascended the stairs two at a time, nearly colliding with John.

"Oh-- I'm so sorry," she exclaimed breathlessly.

John shook his head and helped her regain her balance. The playwright turned from the company of the Wise Obasan to face his winded actress,

"What is it? Everything alright with rehearsal?"

"Yes-- but what about here? I just heard from one of the food vendors that the theater was on fire, or somebody in the theater was on fire, or two people...I had to make sure--"

"You've heard right my dear, two people and they stand before us ablaze."

Nari blinked, noticing Wise Obasan for the first time. She looked startledly between herself and Mr. Sachi,

"But..I--" she stammered, her face quickly flushing crimson.

"Nari!" a voice cried.

Her stomach already in her throat at the scene playing out before her, Mai glanced towards the voice and caught sight Niko running towards the theater. Her heart now joined her stomach.

"Wait--" Mr. Sachi cut in looking from Nari to Wise Obasan uncertainly.

The old woman merely grinned at the chaos and high running emotions.

"Is everyone safe?" Niko asked as he mounted the stairs, his eyes immediately finding Mai, Bou-san no longer acting as her human shield.

Several sets of eyes followed the heir's gaze, including Naru's. Now Mai felt ablazeA brittle chuckling returned their attention to the ancient matchmaker.

"Fire, fire everywhere and not a drop to drink," she murmured amused.

"Everyone is quite well," Mr. Sachi answered belatedly, attempting to take control of the uncomfortable situation.

"I'm so glad," Niko sighed, his eyes smiling at Mai.

Mai felt her heart and stomach drop to her feet.

"Wise Obasan, you'll have to pardon me, but I have a theater to take care of, not to mention a rehearsal to over see," Mr. Sachi persisted, looking to get the troublesome woman away from the building she nearly burned down.

"Very well, I was just leaving," the old woman consented, holding out her hand for him to take in parting.

Mr. Sachi hesitated but then obliged, anything to get her out of there...

Faster and swifter than her looks let on, the ancient matchmaker yanked the playwright's hand over and was studying his palm before he could so much as blink, let alone protest.

Bou-san raised his eyebrows and fixed Ayako with a look that clearly said: see?

"So what? She's a quick old thing, doesn't mean she's strong," Ayako muttered.

The monk frowned and leered over at the priestess. Mai patted his arm supportively, the truth was that grip on the helpless Mr. Sachi did look strong.

"Ah-ha, thought so...I thought so," Wise Obasan announced triumphantly.

"What?" Nari breathed, ignoring the attention suddenly aimed at her.

The old woman merely patted the playwright's hand and smiled mysteriously,

"Another time dear...another time."

And with that she hobbled down the theater steps and across the dusty grounds of Nozomi. The group gathered on the theater porch watched her progress in silence. It wasn't until the matchmaker disappeared around a corner that Mr. Sachi found his voice.

"Well, you'll understand when I say that you two are not allowed within twenty feet of this theater for the rest of the day."

There was a further silence. Mai didn't understand,

Is he talking about me? Naru?

Mistaking the silence the playwright continued on,

"I mean the damage that could have been done...someone could have been hurt not today, not to mention my theater was nearly burned down."

"And who are you referring to Mr. Sachi?"

Naru's voice cut through the air for the first time since inside the theater, his tone a stinging reminder of just who Mr. Sachi was addressing. The playwright cleared his throat, his gaze landing briefly on Mai before finding Naru again,

"Well-- you of course...and Mai. It seems quite obvious that Wise Obasan has marked you as her Chosen."

Mai suddenly felt warm, really warm. Her bangs were sticking to her forehead again and her throat was as ashen as if she had just gulped a giant cloud of smoke...again.

"Of course it would just be for today," Mr. Sachi repeated into the dangerous silence following his loaded statement.

"There is no reason for me not to enter this theater," Naru countered.

Mai winced at the finality of his tone. Normally this would end the discussion, but Mr. Sachi paused and then opened his mouth again.

"Actually, there is. You're not familiar with this woman but let me tell you..." the playwright's gaze fell on Nari, "If you've been Chosen there is no escape."

Nari nodded and turned her wide dark eyes on Naru,

"He's right-- she will try everything to get you to agree to be her Chosen. She made Joji believe I was drowning."

"She made us believe Mai was burning," Mr. Sachi explained, casting a look in her direction. Mai swallowed ash.

Nari followed his gaze with a frown,

"So there was a fire?"

"No-- thank goodness. She's not that desperate...yet. That's why neither of you can stay around here--"

"Every festival Wise Obasan chooses a couple that she thinks best represents the love and union of Mr. Miyuki and Yoshi. She chose Joji and I two years ago," Nari further elaborated, her soft eyes still focused on Mai,

"It was a day like this. Joji had asked me to be his partner and we decided to spend some time in the woods. There's a shallow stream that runs through that we were admiring. Joji heard someone calling his name, so he left for a moment. I waited, dangling my feet in the water, when I felt someone approach from behind me--"

Frowning deeply, Mr. Sachi took up the story,

"When I stepped out of the tree line, one of my actors was there. He told me that there were problems at the theater. I was just about to call Nari when Wise Obasan came towards us, shouting that Nari had fallen into the stream, I knew she couldn't swim..."

Mai was transported to earlier that day, deep in the theater, the smoke...the panic...

If Naru hadn't come...

"I was pushed into the water and was so surprised I couldn't react immediately. Fortunately it was late summer so the stream was really only a few feet deep, but Joji arrived before I could recover and stand up-- the only thing he saw was me submerged," Nari continued, her gaze now cast intently upon the playwright.

Mr. Sachi shifted where he stood, his eyes darting to Masako for a moment,

"Naturally I pulled her out. If Wise Obasan's goal was scaring me into an attachment, she succeeded only in the scaring part. The woman has lost her mind if she thinks any of the schemes she tries will encourage a match."

Nari titled her head, her stare never wavering from the playwright's face even as he made light of any feelings he had for her,

"But Joji...you gave your moon lily to me that night."

Mai felt a sudden stab of pain and embarrassment for the actress. The emotions shining in the Nari's eyes starkly contrasted with the blank look Mr. Sachi returned.

He's either blind or a jerk...or he's a blind jerk.

Her sympathy for the woman was quickly replaced though with a more demanding feeling. The words moon lily invaded her mind, driving out all thoughts, but ones of the pale flower she had found lying on her bed. Color began to rise in Mai's cheeks as an unexpected revelation sealed her misery,

Someone standing on this porch with me gave me that  m oon lily.

Mr. Sachi's voice broke into her snowballing thoughts,

"I didn't offer you that moon lily because of Wise Obasan," he answered simply.

Mai frowned, swallowing a bit of her agony to feel a bit of anger for Nari. With the tone the playwright was using, he could have been merely discussing the weather rather than the feelings between two people.

Nari lowered her gaze from Mr. Sachi's face to stare down at her hands.

"The point here is," the playwright continued, looking to steer the conversation away from old flames and crazed matchmakers, "if you resist becoming her Chosen-- you best be prepared for some forceful persuasion, none of which I want anywhere near my theater."

"Then you'll have no trouble with me borrowing them for the day," a voice suddenly spoke.

With the click of heels against the hardwood, Miss Miyuki joined them, her sapphire eyes taking in the gathering.

"Miss Miyuki," Mr. Sachi greeted, his voice holding a sort of edge, "so nice of you to check up on us-- we're quite well thank you."

The woman regarded the playwright indifferently,

"It would be far too lucky for the theater to just burn itself down; I knew there would be no injuries."

"I'll have you know Mai here was trapped inside; if it weren't for your partner there may have been a very serious injury."

Mai looked to the playwright with surprise at his sudden dramatic take on a situation that moments ago had been described as harmless smoke.

"Hey-- I was in there too..." Bou-san muttered.

"The only thing you could have seriously injured was your shoulder," Ayako remarked, "...and maybe your pride if you had any to begin with."

"Taniyama-san looks to be among the living," Miss Miyuki said appraisingly, "and since you won't risk the danger, I think I'll take my chances and hire your team for the day."

The playwright narrowed his eyes at the heiress standing before him,

"What could you possibly need with them?"

The woman shrugged casually,

"Disturbances. I'd like them to point me towards the faulty pipe or bold villager who enjoys making things go bump in the night."

"Masako and John, I'll ask you to stay behind and monitor things here," Naru spoke striding towards Miss Miyuki, answering for Mr. Sachi before he could open his mouth.

The medium and priest nodded their heads in consent as Naru passed, Masako's posture stiff and curt. Smiling to herself, Mai relished the reversal of their situations, ignoring the glare her rival shot into her retreating back.

"Very well then-- I have damage control to take care of," Mr. Sachi said, watching Miss Miyuki depart with his paranormal team in tow.

A shadow was cast over Mai as she descended the stairs. Looking up she locked eyes with Lin. She attempted to summon up a smile, but faltered under the penetrating look he pinned her with.

"Oy-- Mai," Bou-san protested coming down behind her.

Mai blinked, absently waving off the monk complaints as they stood mid-way down the steps.

What was that look all about? Mai thought, watching the tall Chinese man stride ahead, catching up with his boss.

"What's with the look?" Bou-san asked, peering down at her curiously and then following her gaze, "Ah-- what have I told you? Thoughts of Naru and stairs don't mix."

Mai reached back to swat him, but missed,

"I wasn't looking at Naru," she answered, shaking her head and making quick work of the rest of the steps.

"Right, because Lin regularly stops you in your tracks..."

"He gave me a strange look," Mai murmured, eyeing his dark figure ahead.

"Naru?"

"Lin."

The monk eyed her side long,

"Isn't that what Lin does?"

Mai sighed and crossed her arms,

"You didn't see it Bou-san, it was...strange."

"Lin can kill with a piece of a paper, he is strange...don't tell him I said that though--"

"I don't know, I have a weird feeling..."

"I think someone's inhaled too much smoke today," the monk suggested, patting her on the shoulder.

"If I did it was your doing," Mai argued, throwing him a look.

The monk made a face, his eyes roaming across the dusty grounds of Nozomi towards a certain priestess,

"Hey, don't go listening to Ayako. That woman is as crazy as that loon of a matchmaker whom I fought heroically to reach you."

Mai followed his gaze to the miko and then fixed his shoulder with a knowing look,

"I wouldn't say that too loud. They know your weakness."

"Speaking of weaknesses...how was your rescue?" Bou-san wondered, swiftly changing the subject.

A sudden breeze rushed across Nozomi, stirring Mai's hair and teasing her nose with the light scent of tea. Fighting off a blush, Mai composed herself by remembering the less-than-romantic ending to the encounter,

"He tried to press me for information."

Bou-san looked down at her with raised eyebrows and wide eyes,

"You're burning to death and he decides to pump you for answers? Some gentlemen. Honestly, what you see in him..."

A small smile tugged at the corner of Mai's lips. She made no move to defend Naru as his sudden attack had been, at the least, unwelcome-- and let the monk beat up his image a little longer before continuing,

"He's suspicious of me Bou-san; we're going to have to be careful."

"Suspicious of what, the picture? How could he know about it? Unless..." Bou-san trailed off, slowly looking to Mai.

Mai felt her stomach twist itself into a knot. She hadn't been thinking when she told the monk Naru had been questioning her.

Bou-san thinks this is about the picture...

The memory of that moment back in the theater played before her mind's eye; Mai could see the interest in Naru's face,

"Mr. Miyuki?"

This was much bigger than a picture. This was about a ghost whose existence she was keeping secret. Only how much longer she could was now up to how hard Naru was going to pry. She had a war on her hands and she could use all the allies she could get. Ignoring the twinge of guilt Mai looked up at Bou-san,

"Bou-san, there's something I need to tell you..."

"Unless-- think about it..." the monk went on, looking down at her in revelation, "Naru could have been the one to give you that moon lily and if that's the case then guess who saw that picture sitting on your nightstand?"

Mai's next breath was lodged somewhere in her throat. An image of Naru walking into her room, a white flower glowing in his hand, his eyes sweeping across the darkness and then they land on her small bedside table, sitting there is a picture he's never seen before...

Blinking rapidly Mai nearly gave herself whiplash looking up at the monk,

"If it was him...but we don't know that," she reminded, biting her lip in uncertainty.

How could I have been so careless?

Bou-san stared down at her unconvinced,

"I guess Sachi could have thought it would be fun to add one more heart to his collection..."

Mai gave the monk a push and a grin broke over his features,

"I am no victim of Mr. Sachi's. There's still a chance it was...was--"

"Niko?" Bou-san added helpfully.

Mai could see his smiling eyes and hear his relief in her ears,

"Maybe..."

"Nah. It's Naru. In fact, maybe he gave you his moon lily purely as an excuse to break into your room?"

Quickly squashing a small disappointed voice shouting no! and ignoring the heat creeping up her neck; Mai fixed Bou-san with a pointed look,

"One theory at a time monk."

"Oh. Touched a nerve."

Mai stretched, one hand reaching for his arm,

"Hmm? What was that Bou-san? Your shoulder is bothering you?"

The monk quickly side stepped her reach,

"I was saying I think it's time we commence Operation Kioko."

"Operation...Kioko?" Mai repeated thoughtfully, her arm falling to her side.

Bou-san gazed ahead suggestively. A large house, fronted by a rare tree and pond loomed before them. A flash of gold invaded the scene: Miss Miyuki. Standing near enough for every breath to smell of tea, the heiress was talking with Naru, her words just out of earshot, though by her smiles it was something she found amusing.

"Operation Kioko," Bou-san reminded, seeing the fiery look entering Mai's eyes, "We need Miss Miyuki alive if we're going to get answers."

"Bou-san!" Mai protested, jabbing him in the side, "What do you take me for?"

"Ouch-- I don't know, ask my feet and shoulder."

Mai crossed her arms and looked the monk up and down,

"Ayako's right, you are sensitive."

"No, what's sensitive is our mission," the monk corrected, sparing a dark look for the miko, before looking back to his partner in crime.

"And what exactly is that...?" Mai asked, her eyes following Miss Miyuki as she strolled beside Naru and Lin, the sun next to storm clouds.

Bou-san's gaze settled on the heiress as well,

"She knows something about our mysterious Kioko, maybe there will be something in her house that can help us? We really should pick some code words..."

Crossing her arms tighter to her chest, Mai forced herself to look away from the Miss Miyuki,

"Code words?" she repeated absently.

"If either one of us finds out something, we should say apple, then we'll know--"

Mai blinked and looked to the monk,

"Apple?"

"Yes, it can't be obvious. And if either of us is compromised--"

Mai took hold of Bou-san's forearm, stopping them just short of Miss Miyuki's front gate and the rest of SPR,

"Compromised?"

The monk looked down at her,

"Mai, let's be serious about this, agents get compromised all the time--"

"Serious? Bou-san our code word is apple."

"And chicken is our word if we're compromised."

"Bou-san?"

"Yes, Mai?"

"Are you hungry?"

"If I am it's your fault," he reminded pulling his arm from her grasp and moving on towards the gate, "Remember...chicken," he repeated out of the corner of his mouth.

Mai stared after monk before shaking her head and commencing Operation Kioko.

Chicken.

The moment Mai crossed the threshold of Miss Miyuki's property the dusty grounds of Nozomi gave way to clean stone. Staring at the path she was to follow past a shimmering pond, Mai found herself taken by surprise. It was as if she had passed over an invisible line and left the chaos of the village behind. There was a hush here she had not experienced even in the garden with John.

Proceeding with unusual quiet, Mai ventured further into the strange oasis. In the next moment the spell was broken by the clicking of heels against slate. Mai tore her gaze away from the graceful tree that dominated the space above the pond to face a flash of red and white. Ayako stood before her with a slight smile.

"It's a peaceful tree," she said simply, with a brief glance at the pine.

Mai nodded thoughtfully, watching the branches move in the breeze.

"What's not peaceful is taking orders from Naru. I'm no babysitter. He's waiting so let's go," the priestess continued already turning back towards the house.

Mai took one last breath, looking to draw in as much serenity from her surroundings as she could before plunging into world where she hoped to find apples and not be chicken.

The two of them reached Miss Miyuki's house and a renewed determination filled Mai as she gazed upon the heiress.

What do you kno w...?

"So we're gathered now," she said in way of greeting, her sharp blue eyes shifting to Naru beside her, "Will you be starting, or shall we have some tea first?"

Mai felt the hot sun at the back of her neck and pursed her dry lips, refusing to look at her boss, but earnestly wishing he would choose the tea...

"We'll start."

That Naru.

"Very well, should I give another tour?" Miss Miyuki wondered, glancing towards Mai and Bou-san.

"There's no need for that. You can show Takigawa-san to your office where that face appeared in the window. Lin, set Mai up with a thermometer and take her to the back half of the house," Naru ordered.

Something about the tone of his voice caused Mai to tense.

Lin...?

Drawing on her reserve of serenity, Mai mustered up a smile and faced the Chinese man, attempting to ignore the memory of the odd exchange between them earlier.

Bou-san looked from Naru, to Lin, and then Mai.

"Say, is that chicken I smell?" the monk suddenly asked, his eyes finding his partner's.

"Chicken?" Miss Miyuki repeated.

"Chicken?" Mai's smile failed her.

"Yes, chicken," Bou-san confirmed, stressing their code word, "Do you smell it?"

"Well it's possible one of the food vendors is cooking already," Miss Miyuki answered, missing the fact that the question had been directed at Mai.

Mai fought the urge to frown at her partner,

What is Bou-san thinking? We can't be compromised already...

"I don't smell anything," Mai replied pointedly.

It was the monk's turn to frown; crossing his arms he strained his eyes towards Lin without moving his head,

"Are you sure?"

"Of course she's sure," Ayako cut in, "You're just smelling things. I always knew it would only be a matter of time, your stomach has finally won control over your head."

The monk's eyes cut over to the miko, but before he could protest, Naru took control of the situation,

"Let's get the rest of this investigation underway, there will be time to eat later."

Mai stared determinedly at the stone beneath her feet, looking to avoid her partner's concerned look and her boss' cold gaze. A shadow passing by and a quick squeeze to her shoulder let her know of their exit. A moment later two sets of heels past her field of vision and disappeared into the house. Mai suddenly found herself alone-- with Lin.

Swallowing Mai looked up, squinting into the sun as she glanced at the Chinese man. Lin stepped forward, successfully blocking out the blinding rays, his tall figure towering over Mai.

Chicken.

"Are we ready?"

Mai nodded and accepted the thermometer extended to her. Silently, his face betraying nothing, Lin lead the way into Miss Miyuki's home.

Stepping through the door Mai found herself in a large open room at conflict with it's self. At first it seemed that the serenity of the outside was being carefully conducted inside, with sliding panel walls and clean tatami mats stretched across the floor-- but then something shiny and definitely electric caught Mai's attention.

She blinked, paused in the middle of the room, staring at the blank black screen with surprise. Aside from the computers they were using for the investigation, Mai had not encountered a single piece of technology since arriving in the old time village of Nozomi.

"A television?" she spoke to herself.

"Is that strange?" was Lin's response a moment later as he passed her into the house, hardly sparing a glance for the expensive furnishing. Not interested in an answer, he moved on from the room. Mai followed after him, thinking that it was strange.

For Nozomi anyway.

A moment later they entered a dim hall with no sign of the others, causing Mai to wonder at how large the Miyuki home really was. Struggling with the questions swirling around her head and keeping up with the Chinese man's large strides, Mai decided to fill the silence as they turned another corner, making virtually no sound at all.

"Did Miss Miyuki inherit this house from her father?"

Her voice was suddenly loud in the quiet of their padding feet and she frowned against it.

"Miss Miyuki has not shared her life story with me, but I would guess so."

From his tone Mai could tell that it was a story he didn't care to hear.

Her frown deepened as they lapsed into silence once again.

Thanks for that stimulating conversation...

Mai stole a glance behind them as they walked on, seeing nothing but the hall stretching out and the countless doors they passed. Mai was reminded of the theater's endless passageways and hoped they would be reaching the back of the house soon.

It's so quiet...

She strained to make out the faintest noise, but neither Bou-san and Ayako's bickering, Naru's curt orders, nor the click of tea cups meeting saucers, came back to her ears. The only sound that carried on the air was that of her own breathing.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of walking silent as ghosts, Lin slowed his pace and then came to a stop outside a wooden door.

"Miss Miyuki has reported seeing a ghostly figure in this room," the Chinese man spoke, his level voice not disturbing the quiet as Mai's had. It seemed to blend with it somehow. Mai looked from him to the door they stood outside of.

"Is it a guest room?" she asked, her voice coming out a bit distant as an unwelcome thought grew in the back of her mind,

Please say that this isn't--

"No," came Lin's answer, "this room used to belong to her parents."

The thought surged forward triumphantly, leaving Mai to feel a certain amount of dread.

Mr. Miyuki's room...

"Is something the matter?" Lin asked, his dark eyes regarding her closely.

Reminded of the dark look he sent her earlier that day, Mai attempted to shrug off his attention and reached to open the door with a smile.

Sliding the wood panel aside, Mai stood in the open doorway. The alarms going off loudly in her head and the urge to shout chicken! (as if Bou-san could even hear her...) were suddenly replaced by an unexpected calm. She moved slowly forward, feeling-- strangely, as she did in the front garden.

This peace...

But her serenity was short lived. Mai could feel Lin's heavy gaze boring into her from behind. She felt rejuvenated somehow though, at least enough to face him.

"We need base readings, Brown-san was unable to finish with what happened at the theater," Lin explained stepping in, glancing briefly at the chart in his hand.

Mai nodded silently, unable to trust her voice just yet. All around her were reminders of just whose room she had entered. The surrounding walls held almost as many frames upon them as the theater's hall of pictures. The faces here stared out of their glass homes, smiling, holding on to an eternally young Mr. Miyuki.

As the readings on the thermometer moved, so did Mai, drawn to the images of his living self. The ghost of Mr. Miyuki was a mere shell of the vibrant man he once was. Lin shifted were he stood, moving towards the draped window, his intent gaze never leaving Mai. Forcing herself to look down at the digital numbers, Mai called out the base reading of the room in the most unaffected voice she could manage,

"It looks like...73.7"

There was the scratching of a pen against paper as the Chinese man took down the results. Mai's eyes found the walls again, scanning the framed playbooks, drafts, and programs that shared space with the many photos. Mai suddenly took in a breath. The scratching of the pen paused and Mai winced-- in the silence the slightest noise could be detected.

"What is it?"

Mai swallowed and turned quickly from the wall she was facing, grabbing at her foot,

"It's so dark in here, I kicked the bed post," Mai said hurriedly, making a show of painful, grimacing, expressions.

Lin lowered his chart and examined Mai critically. Slowly his eyes drifted to a spot just past her shoulder,

"What's that?"

Mai gripped her foot so tightly her knuckles went white,

Chicken! Bou-san do you hear me,  c hicken!

"What's what?" she asked, drawing on the last of her serenity to keep her voice steady.

Lin, ignoring her feeble attempt at distraction, merely stepped forward, crossing the room towards her.

"Ow, my foot," she persisted, and in a last desperate effort, hopped right in the Chinese man's way.

Lin never broke stride, but simply pushed past her hopeless one legged figure and reached--

"This, I knew I wasn't mistaken--" Lin was saying, but Mai had her back to him and her eyes squeezed shut.

Her mind working furiously to recover from her compromising position, she slowly opened her eyes again and turned, bracing herself for the worst and prepared to do some of the best lying in history.

"Brown-san said he had lost it," Lin continued, his dark eyes looking up from the thermometer in his hand. Relief. With a clunk the thermometer Mai was grasping fell to the ground.

"Oh," she said, glancing down at the expensive device she had just dropped, along with her foot and panic.

A thermometer, just a thermometer!

"Careful. I believe you own SPR enough in damages," Lin reminded, though his tone was a missing a bit of its conviction.

Something was on his mind; Mai could see the thoughts forming in his dark eyes. She wasn't out of the woods yet, not by a long shot.

Chicken.

"Your foot feeling better?" Lin persisted and Mai had the unnerving feeling that he could see right through her.

Mai's foot twitched,

"It's not broken," she answered lightly, "...well since we got our base reading..."

With a painful smile, Mai reached down to pick up her fallen thermometer, determined to stare anywhere else but at the wall behind him. After a heavy pause, the Chinese man gave a nod and motioned towards the door, his head bent over his chart, but his eyes on Mai. She made for the door, feeling as if she was caught in quick sand and the more she struggled the worse it was getting.

Chicken,  c hicken,  c hicken!

Mai stepped out into the hall and it was if she could feel an invisible target attached to her back. With a frown, Mai rubbed at her shoulder blade, attempting to fight the paranoia. She was trapped in the back of the house with Lin and no witnesses. Mai froze suddenly, her eyes widening and then narrowing in fury,

That Naru! He did this to me! If I make it out of this alive I swear--

The clunk of the door sliding shut brought Mai from her vengeful fantasies.

I f I make it....

Lin turned, his gaze coming to rest on her with purpose. The hall before them was incredibly empty and silent. Mai felt herself struggling,

"Well I'm sure our partners miss us, I think we're actually breaking the rules by being apart, let's go join them and I won't tell anyone if you won't."

Mai finally closed her mouth, unable to stop the tumble of nervous words from spilling out, which betrayed her emotions and incriminated her further.

"I'm only going to ask this once. What do you know, Mai?"

The calm of his expression reminded Mai enough of Naru that for a moment she felt a spark of anger instead of fear,

"I don't know what you're talking about--"

Lin stepped away from the door, his height causing Mai to feel uncomfortably small. With great effort, Mai drew herself up and matched him stare for stare.

That Naru.

"The trip spent here in Nozomi has amounted to a great waste of time. I am going to suggest we close this case," Lin spoke, his tone revealing his distaste for the old time village.

A moment before Mai had been stealing herself for a further attack; she had not expected this confession. Having not braced herself for surprise, she was not able to contain a stunned look.

"Close the case?" she repeated uncertainly.

The Chinese man observed her carefully,

"Yes, unless you have something you want to share?"

The branch that Mai had been holding on to, the lifeline saving her from a quick sand ending, snapped quite suddenly. Unprepared for the switch of gears, Mai realized the trap she had just fallen into a moment too late.

"I-- what could I know?" she answered clumsily.

Lin's tactic had been effective, she was flustered and he was counting on an inevitable slip up.

Chicken,  c hicken,  c hicken,  c hicken...

"I've been watching you, Naru has been watching you. He asked me not to interfere, but if you know something you will tell me now. I will not spend a moment longer in this town."

For a moment Mai considered this. Obviously Lin's time spent in Nozomi-- attending romantic festivals and disastrous meals-- had been just as unbearable for him as it was for her. Mai pursed her lips; her eyes drifting past the Chinese man to the door behind him.

"I have nothing to share."

Lin fixed her with a look much like he had earlier on the theater steps-- a look of suspicion and knowing.

"Are you sure?"

Mai stood stiffly, it took great effort to draw her eyes away from her source of strength and face her accuser,

Mr. Miyuki, your secret lives to see another day.

"Yes. Positive."

Lin inclined his head slightly in a sort of nod, an acknowledgment of her answer, though his eyes remained unconvinced.

"I'm glad you're so certain. You will have no regrets then when I make my request and we pull out of this pointless ghost hunt."

Mai let out a sudden cough, reminded of the smoke she recently inhaled...in the theater...where a ghost remained....who needed her help.

No regrets.

This is another one of Lin's tactics, he's trying to guilt me into answering, but Naru wouldn't pull out-- he won't walk away from a challenge.

The two of them stood motionless in the empty hall, the silence between them filled with thoughts and doubt. Finally, Lin took a step past her and the standoff was broken. Mai let out a long breath she didn't know she was holding. Feeling slightly light headed, she turned and followed the Chinese man away from Mr. Miyuki's room and all of its unrevealed secrets.

There was one secret, though, that Mai could not be lead away from and that was the one she was carrying with her at that very moment in the form of three names as they strode down the hall, moving now at a much quicker pace than before. As Mai's confused mind whirled with what just happened, a small point of heat burned in her stomach.

That Naru.

Whether Lin acted on his own was beside the point. Her infuriating boss had paired her with her prosecutor and could not be completely innocent of her interrogation.

He was probably hoping for this.

In the next moment Mai was quite certain her heart was about to burst out of her chest when a door opened and Naru stepped out, followed by Ayako, Bou-san, and Miss Miyuki. The narrow hall was suddenly crowded, but Mai didn't notice as she only had eyes for her partner. Her expression practically screamed, chicken!

"Good, we've just finished here," Naru greeted with no preamble.

Mai felt her stomach twist as boss and assistant exchanged a brief knowing look.

"Is that tea I smell?" Mai spoke up, looking to Bou-san meaningfully, "You wouldn't have had chicken or apples with that, would you?"

Bou-san's eye widened considerably and Ayako's narrowed. Shooting the monk a disgusted look, she glanced back at Mai.

"You really need to spend less time together..."

"Chicken and apples...with tea?" Miss Miyuki remarked.

"Who has apples with their tea?" Bou-san persisted, using their code carefully.

"I do," Mai answered, "and chicken, lots of it."

Ayako made a repulsed face,

"Mai, chicken? That monk is finally rubbing off on you--"

The face Bou-san pulled at Mai's mention of lots of chicken was worse than the miko's, though he managed to return her glare.

"Takigawa-san, since you've completed your work in the office, I'll show you to the Miyuki's room," Lin said, breaking in to the strange conversation.

Mai tensed and her eyes darted sharply between Naru and Lin. Neither held an openly readable expression, but when you slave day in and day out for someone, you begin to recognize things. And Mai recognized a lot of things right then, all of them chicken.

They can't get me, so they're going after Bou-san!

"I promised Bou-san some lunch, after this morning I owe it to him," Mai cut in, ignoring the shift in Naru and Lin's attention from the monk to herself, "I'll even settle for a few apples."

This was appealed to Miss Miyuki which Mai saw was wise as Naru was already opening his mouth to object.

"I've just bought some this morning; you're welcome to them if you're hungry. The kitchen is just through the living room," the heiress answered, looking at Mai a little oddly, but consenting nonetheless.

Mai had to suppress a smile of triumph and with deliberate actions she stepped forward, holding her boss's gaze as she rescued her partner.

"Since they've decided to take a lunch break, I'll go to the Miyuki room, then some work will actually get done,"Ayako suggested with confidence, striding to her partner's side.

Mai turned just in time to catch Naru's curt nod and Lin's resigned expression. She relished in her revenge.

"I'll finish getting your interview Miss Miyuki..." was the last thing she heard before she and Bou-san entered the living room.

Mai's grip on the monk's arm was tight as she pulled him across the empty living room,

"Is it safe--?"

"Shhh," Mai cautioned, with an urgent tug.

"Ow, Mai--" the monk protested, attempting to free his bad arm from her deathly grasp.

"Quit whining, I just saved your life," Mai shot back at him as she dragged him through a set of swinging double doors. The resemblance to the Inn caused Mai to frown.

Perfect.

At least Niko wasn't waiting on the other side-- or Mrs. Koku welding a pan. Mai shuddered and made a mental note not to attend dinner that night.

"Bou-san you'll never believe what I've just been put through," Mai suddenly rambled, turning on the monk mid-step, causing him to stumble.

"Oy-- Mai," Bou-san protested, a finger flying to her lips, silencing her.

"We've got to be careful...their might be listening devices..." he went on, his eyes taking in the innocent kitchen, "we should talk in code..."

Mai spotted a glass fruit bowl on the counter next to her; swiftly she picked up an apple. By the time he faced her again, he had an apple pressed to his mouth.

"Have an apple Bou-san, but that's all the more code I'm going to use, this kitchen isn't bugged and I have a lot to tell you."

The monk nodded and bit a large chunk out of the apple with a crisp snap,

"I warned you going with Lin would leave you chicken."

Mai made a face at her partner; she did not need an I told you so right then.

"I didn't think we'd be compromised so quickly--"

"So you were chicken, what happened?" the monk wondered, suddenly looking her over.

Mai managed a small smile and waved off his attentions,

"Bou-san this isn't a spy movie, the worse thing Lin did was stare at me with one of those suspicious looks he learned from Naru...or Naru learned from him--"

"Mai, this is full scale espionage-- and Lin is Naru's hitman."

Mai wanted to laugh at the monk's suggestion, but couldn't quite manage it. Her recent experience with the Chinese man was a little too fresh in her mind.

"You know I'm right. We're his targets and he won't rest until we've spilled all our--" the monk paused here dramatically, "secrets."

Mai swatted his arm and Bou-san smirked,

"Fine, if Naru is having Lin do his dirty work, we'll just have to be more careful."

"He must be pretty desperate to get your answers, recruiting Lin like this," the monk commented thoughtfully, taking another bite of apple.

Mai frowned slightly. As much as she wanted to blame Naru for all this, Lin had told her that he wasn't involved...

That Naru. I can't even be mad at you properly.

"I don't know, Lin seems to be doing this on his own. I'm sure Naru has told him that he was suspicious of me, but when he was interrogating me, he said that he wanted to get away from this town. Lin might just be trying to hurry and close this case..."

"...and if he thinks you have the answers," Bou-san finished for her knowingly.

"Exactly," Mai nodded, crossing her arms in frustration.

She didn't want Naru to escape this so easily when he regularly grilled her for answers.

He still paired me with Lin.

The munching in Mai's ear stopped and she glanced at the monk to see him looking from the fruit in his hand up at her,

"We talked chicken, now how about them apples?"

 

Chapter Text

Day Five

2:00pm

The Miyuki Residence

Mai paused, staring at the shiny red fruit sitting in Bou-san's hand.

How about them apples?

The monk followed his partner's stare to the apple he was devouring,

"Want some?"

Mai shook her head, finally looking away from the nearly eaten fruit. Her gaze found the kitchen doors. There was a crisp snap loud in her ear and she turned her head slightly only to find Bou-san hovering very close.

"You think they're out there...listening?” he wondered, his voice dropping to a low whisper.

Mai glanced back at the kitchen doors, an amused smile pulling at her lips as she imagined Naru and Lin straining to hear through the key hole.

"I don't think so Bou-san," she answered, her hand reaching into the glass bowl at her elbow.

The monk straightened up and took one last thoughtful bite of apple as Mai picked one for herself from among Miss Miyuki's bananas and oranges.

The weight of the fruit in her hand was no where near the weight of the secret she was holding.

"I think Lin might have discovered the same apple as I did," Mai began, staring down into the shine coming off its red skin.

"Might have?” Bou-san prompted, an eyebrow climbing up his forehead.

"I don't think he knows it's an apple-- only that it was something important..."

"And what gave him that idea?"

Mai frowned slightly, staring past the fruit in her hand to the floor where her uninjured foot resided.

"There was a picture Bou-san, I was taken by surprise--"

"What happened?” the monk questioned, taking the apple from her hand and causing her to look up.

Recalling the event brought a surge of anxious energy and Mai took back the fruit, proceeding to roll it between her palms in thought,

"It was so quiet in there I swear Lin could hear my heart pounding across the room. My small gasp came out like a shout."

A second eyebrow rose to join Bou-san's first one, "So you shouted and when he demanded to know what you've discovered--"

Mai made a face and firmly placed the apple back in its glass home,

"I didn't shout and I told him I stubbed my toe," she answered, sparing a glance for her foot.

"...and he believed you?"

Mai glanced up from the floor and fixed the monk with a look,

"Yes," there was a pause as she was reminded of Lin's unconvinced stare, "maybe..."

Bou-san crossed his arms and matched her stare,

"Maybe? Mai, this is sensitive information-- we can't be leaking it to the enemy!"

Mai frowned at his use of code words and attempted to ignore the nagging feeling in her stomach that he was right and Lin now knew exactly how sensitive the information was.

Naru's hitman...

"Mai stay with me-- this is no time to crack under pressure," the monk persisted, "We may be able to salvage our mission, what was the apple?"

Mai narrowed her eyes in recollection, her gaze fixed on the kitchen wall past the monk's shoulder. Behind him the scene transformed in her mind to that of Mr. Miyuki's bedroom, the memory sharpening to include a polished wooden frame, a picture of a young girl, and a name that she didn't expect.

"We were wrong. I was wrong Bou-san," Mai finally spoke, blinking as she emerged from her thoughts.

"Wrong about what?" the monk urged, glancing to where she had been gazing absently a moment ago, as if hoping he could see the answers she saw there.

"The apple was a picture," she answered, bringing his attention back to her.

"And not just any picture either?” he intoned knowingly.

Mai nodded in confirmation,

"It was of a young girl. There was a message engraved in the wood--"

"My wife Yoshi, all my love...” the monk ventured, bringing his head near hers as their voices dropped to whispers with the heavy secret.

Mai pursed her lips and drew back, prompting Bou-san to raise his eyebrows once again,

"Well the Yoshi part, but--" she paused and shot the innocent double doors a look, feeling a bit ridiculous, but this was sensitive information, "the girl in the picture I saw-- it wasn't Yoshi, or at least the Yoshi we thought. We were wrong."

Bou-san's eyebrows dropped in confusion,

"The pictures...don't match?”

Mai shook her head silently, the image of each little girl standing out vividly in her mind,

Th ey don't match.

"Then...who is it?"

Mai let out a long sigh and shrugged helplessly.

"I have no idea."

The monk made a thoughtful sound and ran a hand through his short hair,

"Well, it looks like we're back to square one."

Mai made to nod, to agree with her partner in their defeat, but then caught herself-- a flash, an image in her mind, the golden plate, the name printed there...

"Maybe...not?"

The monk turned towards his partner in mild curiosity,

"What? Did you see another picture while stubbing your toe?"

Mai glanced at his feet in warning before meeting his questioning gaze,

"No, Bou-san. But I just realized that we may already know how to reach square two."

In the interest of preserving his feet, the monk carefully stepped away from his partner,

"And that is...?"

With a meaningful glance over her shoulder, Mai looked towards the closed kitchen doors then reached into the crystal bowl at her elbow and took up the apple again,

"Miss Miyuki," Bou-san said, answering himself with a smile.

Mai helped herself to a bite of the fruit she held in her hand,

"Time to commence operation Miyuki."

Almost as if on cue, the very woman pushed open the kitchen doors. Mai let out a strangled noise, nearly coking on the bit of apple she attempted to swallow. Fortunately, her partner reacted with more composure,

"Miss Miyuki, let me help you with that," the monk offered, seeing the heavy tray balanced on her arms, laden with the afternoon tea.

"Oh," she allowed with a smile as Bou-san transferred her burden to the counter.

"I see you located my fruit bowl," she remarked with a glance at the oranges and bananas she had left.

Mai lowered the apple in her hand,

"Yes, thank you."

The heiress turned for double doors, her hair moving with her like a golden curtain,

"Well if you are satisfied, I believe Naru could use your assistance."

Mai stared after her, her mouth half open to say something-- anything, this was the perfect moment; she had so many questions...

"Miss Miyuki--"

Mai blinked. She had not moved her lips-- the voice belonged to Bou-san. Quickly she shot her partner a grateful look; this could be their only chance.

The heiress paused, her cool blue eyes glancing back at them,

"Yes?"

"I wonder if..."

Just then the second kitchen door beside Miss Miyuki pushed open and, like a silent shadow upon the wall, Lin appeared. Startled, Mai dropped her apple, not even glancing down as it bounced and rolled to the middle of the floor. The monk promptly swallowed the rest of his sentence.

Miss Miyuki blinked, looking to them expectantly in their stunned silence. Just behind her, Lin gazed at them steadily, as if aware of what he had just walked in on.

"You were wondering...” the heiress repeated after another moment of wordless staring.

Bou-san suddenly cleared his throat,

"Ahem-- yes, I was wondering if any of the other rooms in the house needed exorcising?"

Mai flexed the fingers of the hand that had dropped her apple, a slow breath of relief leaving her chest,

Fast thinking Bou-san.

The pressure of Lin's gaze felt like a million tons against the side of her face as Miss Miyuki answered,

"Perhaps, if there is anything here to exorcise at all," she nodded, "I'll consult Naru on what he wants to do next."

And with that the heiress left the kitchen. Mai and Bou-san were left alone...with Lin. Mai ducked her head and bent down to retrieve her fallen apple, unwilling to meet the Chinese man's penetrating stare. Bou-san remained still and then looked from Lin to the fruit bowl,

"Banana?” he offered.

Lin's expression changed a fraction,

"No, but perhaps an apple?"

Mai righted herself suddenly, a few strands of hair falling in her eyes. Bou-san shifted where he stood, but then managed a shrug,

"I believe we've eaten them all, unless you want the one Mai dropped..."

The Chinese man's sharp eyes moved to the bruised fruit clutched in her hand,

"No, I'm sure there's more where that came from."

And with that vague answer, Lin turned from the kitchen as well. Mai dropped the apple.

"Mai," Bou-san scolded, looking to the fallen fruit that rolled to his feet.

With wide eyes she looked to him,

"Bou-san he was using our code--"

The monk frowned and leaned down to pick up the apple, "We need to go covert, regroup."

Mai stared over at the fruit sitting in her partner's hand,

"How? We've already blown our cover."

Bou-san examined the skin which was now dull, bruised, and nail marked,

"We need new code words and a decoy operation."

Mai glanced uncertainly around the room,

"Like what...?"

Bou-san looked up from the apple, his eyes moving to the kitchen counter,

"Teapot?"

Mai crossed her arms and shot the monk a look,

"Teapot?"

The monk returned the look, but then his gaze fell on the sink behind her,

"Okay then, faucet."

Mai raised an eyebrow,

"Faucet?"

The monk narrowed his eyes at her and continued on,

"Curtain?"

"No."

"Oven mitt?"

"No."

"Toaster?"

Mai blinked and looked to the counter,

"Bou-san, there's not even a toaster here--"

The monk shrugged,

"What's your point?"

Mai sighed,

"Bou-san, you really want me to walk up to you and say, 'I've just found a toaster?'"

Her partner crossed his arms,

"That's the thing about code words Mai--"

Just then the kitchen doors swung open and there stood an unamused Ayako,

"What are you doing in here, eating the whole kitchen?"

Startled Bou-san dropped the apple in his hand and it rolled until one of the miko's black high heels stopped it. Looking over their stunned silent faces, her red lips frowned,

"Maybe I don't want to know."

"We were just finishing up...eating," Mai explained, staring down at the apple that was now trapped under Ayako's foot and beginning to lose its peel.

The priestess blinked at them unconvinced,

"This?"

Bou-san crossed the space that separated him from the miko so that he was nearly face to face with her,

"Yep, just finishing," he answered, bending down and removing the fruit wedged underneath her heel. With the monk standing again, Ayako was forced to stare at the oozing piece of fruit he held before her. In disgust, she quickly backed away from him,

"Ugh, Naru wants you so just get out here," she ordered as abandoned the kitchen.

After waiting a moment, the monk turned to look at his partner with a smirk and found her equally disgusted,

"Ew, Bou-san..."

The monk blinked and looked to the mush in his hand,

"What? I didn't really eat it--"

"That was all you could come up with...?"

"It got her out of here didn't it?"

Mai moved past him, glancing at the once apple with a sour face,

"Ugh, just come on..."

"Wait, we didn't pick our code words--" he protested, as she reached the double doors.

Mai paused and peaked through the crack between them, glimpsing Lin and Naru. Swallowing stiffly, she cast a wild glance at the kitchen counters,

"Sugar bowl and spatula," she decided and with that tugged on the monk's arm.

"Sugar bowl and spatula," the monk exclaimed in a loud whisper as she urged him through the doors, "and you thought toaster was bad?"

The apple was dropped again just as the kitchen doors closed. Joining the others, Mai released Bou-san and pointedly ignored the look Naru sent her way.

"Glad you could join us."

Mai smiled tightly, but refused to meet his gaze,

"I feel much better now, thank you Miss Miyuki."

The woman nodded her head with a smile of her own, then looked to Naru standing beside her,

"Did you want to see the cellar now?"

With her gaze lowered, Mai watched as Bou-san rubbed his hand, sticky with what was left of the apple. Her eyes narrowed in thought at Miss Miyuki's suggestion,

This place has a cellar?

Ayako spoke her surprise,

"Your cellar is haunted?"

Her interest growing, Mai risked a glance at the heiress, carefully avoiding Naru. Unfortunately he wasn't avoiding her. Feeling the heavy pin of his dark eyes, Mai watched as Miss Miyuki gestured with an elegant hand,

"Is any part of this house haunted? I am not what you would call a believer Matsuzaki-san, I simply want to know what is causing things to go bump down there."

Mai tilted her head curiously,

"Like a pipe?"

Miss Miyuki lowered her hand, looking to her with a nod,

"Exactly."

"After you Miss Miyuki," Naru spoke, stepping back for her to pass.

Mai quickly averted her gaze as he moved into it. Bou-san edged near, his voice low as they followed the heiress from the room,

"We need to throw them off, let's use some decoy code words."

Mai blinked and stared up at the monk,

"Like what?"

Bou-san gave her a meaningful look and then straightened up, sending a quick glance at the Chinese man walking behind them,

"What a nice rug this is."

Mai looked down at the hall runner stretching across the wooden floor,

"Oh, yes. A very nice rug, almost nice as that vase I saw over there."

Bou-san cast her a side long glance which she returned. Just over their shoulders, Lin remained silent and expressionless.

"But I think I still liked that fruit bowl in the kitchen best," Mai added, speaking loud enough to be heard by Naru and Miss Miyuki leading the way.

"I think you're right Mai, the fruit bowl was the best," Bou-san answered, speaking carefully.

Just in front of them Ayako snapped her head around with a glare,

"What, are you house hunting now?"

Bou-san sent her a dark look,

"Not with you--"

Ayako narrowed her eyes,

"I wouldn't house hunt with you even if you begged, you clearly have no taste-- this hall runner is hideous."

Miss Miyuki raised her eyebrows and tossed a look over her shoulder,

"I'll have you know I had this flown in from Cairo."

"It's great," Bou-san smirked as Ayako clenched her jaw.

Mai glanced between the two and shook her head. Just then Lin moved up and around them,

"I'm partial to sugar bowls myself," he remarked as he past.

Mai felt her heart skip a beat,

Sugar…bowls…

The smile gracing the monk's face faded as the tall Chinese man strode to join Naru at the front. Slowly he glanced down at his partner and mouthed one word:

Spatula.

Mai made to swallow, but found her mouth dry.

Chicken.

The group continued on in the silence of rustling clothes, soft breathing, the crinkle of paper as Naru glanced at his notes, and in Mai's case-- the thud thud of her heart. Guided by the Egyptian hall runner (its beauty disputable...) through many twists and turns until Mai was sure the Miyuki house was some kind of labyrinth, they finally came to a halt.

The door they stood in front of was barely distinguishable in the low light of this part of the house. On the way Mai had counted fewer and fewer windows, until all that stretched out beside them was a dark expanse of wall. The air that hung around them held a certain chill...dampness. Mai frowned slightly, attempting to rub away the tingle at the back of her neck.

Miss Miyuki paused before the wooden door, turning her head to look back at them,

"This cellar was added several years after the original mansion was built to suit my father's growing interest in wine, though I can't say he ever got around to placing more than a few bottles down in this dank place. Be warned that the steps are uneven and slick."

On this ominous note, she turned the handle and stepped into relative darkness. Mai hovered near her partner, biting her lip uncertainly. Bou-san gave her shoulder a brief squeeze before following Naru and Lin's lead into the black before them.

Mai moved forward with some hesitation, a flash of Ayako's red hair vanishing into the shadow beyond the first stair. Taking in a breath, she allowed one last glance down the hall behind them, then passed through the threshold.

Two things became obvious very quickly. First, Miss Miyuki wasn't exaggerating about the roughly designed steps which were of varying lengths and more than a little wet. Second, the heiress had left out an important note: the smell. Barely a foot in, the thick must hit her as if it were a physical mass, sticking to her lungs and evoking a sudden coughing fit.

A disgruntled noise floated up from a few stairs below her,

"Ugh, its smells like something died down here. Are you sure it's a paranormal problem you've got?"

Through her wheezing, Mai made a face, picturing herself stumbling on to an animal skeleton...or worse.

"I'm not sure what the problem is Matsuzaki-san, that is why I have you here after all," Miss Miyuki replied, her voice muffled as it traveled up to them. The earthen walls surrounding them absorbed the sound, not giving the slightest vibration or echo.

Mai removed her hand from the door frame that was supporting her and ventured down the second step, having the sense of now being quite separated from her group. The sole of her shoe shifted under the change of her weight, but she kept her balance and quickly made for the next stair, one hand holding her shirt collar to her nose. Proceeding in this careful way, wishing fervently for a rail to reach for instead of molding walls, she imagined that she had descended about halfway into the cellar.

At this point the priestess ahead of Mai had grown quiet and other sounds rose to her, disoriented. Somewhere water was dripping, someone was breathing heavy...

Wait, that's just me.

Swallowing with some difficulty she blinked and hesitantly moved down another stair. Mai squinted, straining to focus her vision. Slowly, bit by bit, she could make out the next few steps, the distance of the walls, which were actually quite wide, and occasionally even the flick of Ayako's long red hair.

Almost there...

In her eagerness to reach the bottom, Mai took the next two stairs at one time- and misjudged the distance. There was the squeak of a sudden slip, a small gasp, and then a terrible pause as she felt herself propelled down the steps. The forward motion was unstoppable and with a delayed cry she crashed into something solid.

"Hey, wha--"

That something was Ayako and for a hopeful moment she thought the fall was over, but the force of the hit was too strong and in a rush they hurtled onward down the last of the stairs. Mai squeezed her eyes shut; bracing for the bruising impact of the cellar floor, cursing wet steps, and her own clumsiness...when something caught her.

A gasp pushed past her lips as she was gripped around the shoulders. Nearby there was a loud curse, muffled groan, and a distinct thud. Taking breathless lungfuls of the stale air, much of her hair flung wildly in her eyes, Mai blinked attempting to make sense of where she was...who was holding her so tightly.

"Oy, woman!" Bou-san's voice exclaimed and her attention was drawn to her partner.

Pinned to the floor, his face hovering close to the ground, was the monk with Ayako nearly sitting on his back. If he had broke her fall then who...?

"Move! You're crushing my foot," the priestess protested attempting to free her leg.

"You move! You're crushing my entire body--"

Ayako shot him a sharp look and made to stand, but her strength failed her and she came down heavily on the monk once again. With another shout and grumble exchanged, Lin came forward, offering his hand to the flustered miko, relieving an agonized Bou-san.

Seeing the tall Chinese man cross over to them, Mai was forced to recognize that this left only one other person strong enough to stop her from careening into the cellar floor....shifting in what still felt like a firm hold, she turned to face him.

"You won't collapse will you?"

The question fell on deaf ears as Mai stared into the dark eyes of the person who had now saved her-- not once, but twice in a single (unfortunate) day: Naru.

"Mai?"

Struck with something between frustration and gratitude, she blinked, her thoughts struggling to keep up...she needed to do something...oh right-- answer.

"Um, yes-- I can stand..."

She was promptly released in the next moment and she felt herself sag in the sudden loss of his support. Slightly annoyed, she attempted to ignore the cold that now touched her shoulders in the absence of his grasp. Miss Miyuki's face replaced Naru's as he stepped away,

"My what a day you're having. Are you alright?"

Mai adverted her eyes from the spot where her boss had been standing, tugging on her shirt,

"I'm fine, but I could use a change of clothes."

There was an appraising silence and then,

"Yes, I see. Well, if you're not hurt, I'll have Naru start the investigation and then we can get you back to the Inn."

Mai looked up to agree, but the heiress had already turned from her to meet with the ghost hunter. Bristling further, Mai felt a warm hand descend on her shoulder once again,

"You have that look.”

Jumping slightly and brushing the hand off her shoulder in the process, she glanced up at the monk standing beside her.

"What look?” she challenged, plucking at her shirt casually.

"The I-can't-stand-Miss-Miyuki-because-she-is-Naru's-partner-but-I-have-to-play-nice-because-I-need-answers-from-her, look."

Mai glanced down at Bou-san's feet, greatly tempted to wipe the smile off his face,

"I don't know what you're talking about," she answered stubbornly, eyeing his nearest shoulder.

The monk noticed the implication, but didn't seem particularly bothered by it,

"Wrong one," he smirked with a wink, "but seriously Mai, the guy places a hit on you and you're still pining after him, throwing yourself into his arms left and right. I say let her have him--"

Mai narrowed her eyes and turned to face her partner fully,

"I am not throwing myself at him. I was trapped in a smoking building, no thanks to you, and fell down a flight of stairs. I can't help that he was the one to catch me, would you have had me land on you instead?"

The monk shot a significant look towards the miko who was clinging to Lin and walking gingerly on her one foot,

"You might have aimed her toward Naru."

Mai shook her head, swallowing an encouraging smile as she pictured Ayako flattening Naru the way she did Bou-san. Her amusement vanished altogether in the next moment though as she finally took in her surroundings. The cellar that she had so gracefully tumbled into the moment before was dark despite her adjusted sight and even colder than she had anticipated. As far as she could see through the gloom were wine racks sagging with age and neglect rather than bottles. The decaying stands, it seemed, stretched across the entire width of the cellar, creating a strange optical effect. Mai blinked, losing count of the many rows, each one narrow and uninviting.

"Are we ready?” Naru spoke into the hush that had fallen between them, his dark gaze sweeping over both Mai and Ayako.

With their consenting silence he continued,

"Let's begin. Miss Miyuki has reported hearing a loud crashing like sound coming from here, because of this I would like a base temperature reading for the entire cellar, the integrity of the racks you pass checked, a running number of wine bottles, and the sites of any that are broken marked. Ayako and Lin, if you would take the east portion of the cellar. Miss Miyuki and I will cover the center, Mai..." Naru once again focused his attention upon her, "you and Bou-san will search the west side. Is that clear?"

There was collective nod. Mai, pointedly facing away from her boss, stared into the area of darkness assigned to her. The sound of low murmured voices and shuffling across the dirt floor signified that the other groups were starting.

"Ladies first," Bou-san spoke gesturing towards the nearest row.

Mai stared over at her partner with narrowed eyes, "How generous, and here I thought chivalry was dead."

The monk fixed her with a knowing look,

"Well, with Naru as your model..."

Mai made a face, glancing over her shoulder in the direction her boss had disappeared in,

"Naru is not my model for a gentleman."

The monk considered her, his amused brown eyes barely visible in the low light,

"Oh? And who would be your white knight, Mai?"

Mai crossed her arms and started for the first row, hoping to distract her partner.

"Hm..?" he prompted in her silence.

She gazed at the wine racks they passed with extra attention,

"I don't know...someone who’s actually kind to start."

Bou-san nodded thoughtfully,

"That's a good one, I'm always telling you I don't know why you’re pining after such a jerk."

Mai let out an irritated breath, "I'm not pin--"

"So you like nice ones. I don't know about you, but when I think of nice a certain person does come to mind..."

Mai stopped suddenly, causing the monk to nearly bump into her. Without an explanation she reached out to give the fragile looking wooden stand next to her a tentative shake. It groaned and squeaked dangerously, but remained all in one piece. Satisfied, she moved on at a brisk pace, leaving the monk to stride after her.

"Hey, just because you don't want to marry him now, doesn't mean you don't want to marry him ever. Niko does fit the nice description..."

Mai set her jaw, her eyes flicking from wine rack to wine rack, counting any wine bottles there,

"I am not marrying Niko Bou-san; I don't care how hungry you are. Have another apple."

There was a pause in which Mai thought that she might be able to change the subject, but the monk wasn't quite done yet,

"Of course nice can't be your only qualification, so maybe Niko isn't what you're looking for..."

"I told you Bou-san--"

"Women like romantic things, don't they? Like receiving...flowers?"

Uncertain where he was going with this, Mai nodded and pushed on, noticing very few bottles of wine.

"Niko gave you lilies--"

Mai stopped a second time as broken glass crunched underfoot. Curling a section of hair behind her ear, she shot the monk a look,

"His grandparents bribed you with food didn't they?"

Her partner matched her stare, "They don't own enough food to bribe me."

Mai shook her head and bent down to examine the remains of a wine bottle,

"What's your point Bou-san?"

The monk shrugged,

"Just making an observation."

Mai blinked and stood up,

"And that is...?"

The monk moved around her to take a look at the broken glass,

"That Niko isn't the only one giving you flowers and doing generally nice things for you."

"Bou-san," she protested, suddenly catching on, "you have no proof that Naru gave me his moon lily and he only saved me today because he had too."

The monk regarded her and she hoped in the darkness he couldn't see the red that rose to her cheeks.

"He saved you twice."

"You saved Ayako."

"I didn't save her; she landed on me, big difference."

Mai glared down at her partner and the wine bottle,

"Do you have something to mark this or not?"

Bou-san reached into his coat and produced a small red flag,

"Courtesy of Lin."

The monk leaned forward to insert it in the cold dirt floor when he suddenly halted. Mai tilted her, peering at him curiously,

"Hm?"

Slowly Bou-san turned his head to face her, his eyes looking sharply at the flag in his hand. Mai furrowed her brow in confusion,

"Bou-san, wha--"

"There," he spoke loudly over her, "Perfect. We've marked the spot, now let's move on."

Bewildered Mai watched on as the monk held a warning finger to his lips before slipping his hand back into his coat once again. Inside he retrieved three more flags. Taking them out he set them on the cellar floor next to the one he originally stuck there and stood up.

"Bou--" Mai tried again, but that was all she could get out before the monk was holding a finger to his mouth again.

She pursed her lips, uncomfortably reminded of Mr. Miyuki's ghost. In the next moment Bou-san took hold of her arm and lead her down the narrow row. Mai allowed him to pull her along several feet before finally freeing her arm and demanding him to stop,

"Bou-san, what is going on?"

With an uneasy glance back towards where they came, her partner adopted a grim expression,

"We let our guard down..."

Mai frowned and stared past him, the flags they abandoned no longer visible in the distant gloom, "How? What are you talking about?"

The monk returned his attention to her with a frown of his own,

"Lin."

Mai blinked, not understanding such a simple answer, but then she drew in a sharp breath,

"You think....the flags are bugged?"

Bou-san raised a sudden eyebrow at her,

"Is that the kind of gasp you made back in Miyuki's room? There’s no way he believed you stubbed your toe. Seriously, that's the most obvious oh-I-just-found-something-important noise I've ever heard."

Mai took hold of his shoulder,

"Bou-san, forget the gasp-- you really think Lin would do that?"

The monk carefully free himself from her grip, his face rearranging its self back to a look of proper concern,

"Why not? This is covert warfare and we let the enemy infiltrate our camp--"

Mai took a step back from her partner, her mind working furiously to remember what they had talked about and with some relief she glanced back up to him,

"It's okay; we didn't say a word about Miss Miyuki or the picture the whole time."

The monk nodded but there was something in his eye that told her she was missing something,

"You're right; we just talked about..."

Mai froze feeling her heart ram into her throat before plummeting into her stomach. The half amused, half apologetic, look her partner was giving didn't help either,

"On the bright side at least our mission isn't in jeopardy and now you and Naru can have a nice heart to heart and end all that angst-- oy!"

Mai poked at his chest,

"This is all your fault!"

The monk rubbed at where she jabbed him,

"Hey, at least I noticed-- think what you could have said if we had kept going--"

Mai turned from her partner, "It doesn't matter, because you're wrong."

"Mai" Bou-san protested, "this was Lin's chance to catch us planning something, you really think he'd pass that up?"

With her hands on her hips Mai strode past the monk, "I'm going to find out..."

Stalking through the darkness, down the small aisle of empty wine racks, Mai attempted to ignore her flushing cheeks and pounding heart.

That Bou-san. Why did he have to harass me about...

Eyes fixed to the dirt floor, Mai shook her head,

No, not Bou-san. That Lin. He's the one who decided it would be fun to hunt us...

A pile of red flags and glass loomed before her,

No, it's not even Lin--

Clenching her jaw, Mai stopped and stared down at handy work of her so called white knight,

That Naru.

"Well, are they...?" Bou-san suddenly whispered behind her.

Startled, Mai jumped and shot a look over her shoulder at the monk hovering near her. Her partner raised an eyebrow, but gave her a little room. Satisfied, Mai turned back to the abandoned flags. With her breath caught in her throat, she slowly bent down...

Her fingers grasped the tiny end of the flag, visions of Naru and Lin listening to her speaking with Bou-san flashing through her mind. Mai squeezed her eyes shut against the blush that was threatening to overwhelm her face, turned sharply, and pressed the thing into the monk's chest,

"Just check it," she ordered, forgetting to whisper, handing the flag off as if it was burning her hand.

With a frown Bou-san took the flag in his hands, his eyes narrowed as he studied it in the dark. The few moments it took for him to run his fingers across the back and front felt like an eternity. When the thoughtful silence continued with the monk examining it in detail, Mai could take it no longer,

"Well? Are they?"

Pausing his inspection, Bou-san looked up to her, "Well I'm no expert, but I guess I don't see anything obvious--"

"I knew it..." Mai let out a lengthy breath, feeling the heat leaving her cheeks with relief.

The monk eyed her unconvinced, "Yeah, you looked real confident when you forced the thing on me."

Ignoring him, Mai leaned down to fix the original flag planted next to the glass,

"None of this would have happened if you weren't so paranoid. Let's just finish marking the next spots and get out of this place."

The monk crossed his arms,

"I'm the paranoid one? I just mention they might be bugged and you look like you're going to have a panic attack."

Mai stood and fixed her partner with a look as she strode past him,

"Oh and you were just fine with it, that's why you practically dragged me away from them."

The monk followed her, picking up the rest of the markers,

"Hey, I was just being cautious. Besides, they still could be bugged, don't know if the metal end of this flag is just the pole or a listening device after all."

Mai pursed her lips at the suggestion,

"Well then we probably shouldn't talk."

"Probably. We wouldn't want Naru to know--"

"Wouldn't want Naru to know what?"

There was the sudden crunch of wine glass and a gasp,

"Why isn't this marked? Are you trying to get people killed?"

Mai felt her stomach lurch and she turned to face an angry Ayako, having stumbled onto their broken wine bottle in the dark. Mai didn't have time to consider the miko's wrath though because hers wasn't the only voice that had spoken. Standing beside her, barely visible in the gloom, was the tall figure of Lin, his question lingering heavily in the thick air.

Wouldn't want Naru to know what..?

Mai's gaze flicked to the monk trying to catch his eye, but his own gaze moved to the flag in his hand as if he blamed it for summoning the Chinese man.

Chicken.

"Really, one foot wasn't enough for one day?” the priestess ranted on, oblivious to the tension building between the other members of their small group.

"It was marked. I can't help it if you're going blind in your old age," Bou-san answered, quickly jumping at his chance for a distraction.

The bait worked like a charm. Even in the dim light of the cellar, Mai could see the miko's pale face glow red,

"What did you just call me?"

"I'm sorry, is your hearing going too?"

Mai was sure that the only thing holding Ayako back from rearranging the smirk on her partner's face was the fact that both high heeled feet were hurting her. Even despite this she made a threatening step forward, her eyes blazing in the dark. Fortunately (or not) Lin was not about to let the argument get out of hand, especially when he himself had stumbled into something he wasn't expecting. Mai had the distinct feeling of standing on broken glass herself.

"Our client is waiting for our return, Matsuzaki-san and I were sent to bring you back," he explained, his tone low.

"Oh, hear that Bou-san? We're all finished down here," Mai repeated with a strained smile as she reached for his arm.

The monk, eyes locked with Ayako, offered a smile of his own,

"Great."

Lin, standing only feet away, but cast in shadow, looked to his partner,

"Are we ready?"

The only thing the priestess seemed ready for was extracting revenge on a certain monk, but she answered by crossing her arms and turning sharply from them, leading the way down the narrow row. With the miko's figure stalking away, the three were left in a moment of tense silence.

"Ah-- we better catch up," Mai encouraged, tugging the monk's arm, following his gaze to Ayako's retreating back.

Her partner though, seemed to need more motivation-- his stare still focused on the distant gloom, a slight frown upon his lips. Meanwhile Lin had quietly adjusted himself to stand perfectly in the middle of the aisle.

Uncomfortably reminded of her encounter with the Chinese man earlier that day, Mai decided to act. Her fingers moved stealthily along the monk's neck to his sensitive shoulder.

"I think the air might be getting to you," she persisted, giving his shoulder a light squeeze, "I said we better be getting back."

Her partner jumped slightly, looking down at her in protest,

"Oy-- what was that for?"

Mai meet his gaze meaningfully,

"Let's go back, I'm starving for some chicken," she urged through clenched teeth.

The monk blinked and quickly looked from her to the man looming silently before them.

"Ah-- yes...chicken sounds great."

"You didn't use many of your flags," Lin spoke, ignoring their nervous talk and taking notice of the markers in the monk's hand.

Mai resisted the urge to glance at her partner,

"Didn't really need them," she answered simply, her cheeks suddenly warm with thoughts of listening devices and knights.

"Matsuzaki-san was just unlucky then I guess to find the only broken one," Lin replied, indicating the pile of glass behind him.

"We had already marked that one, she probably kicked it over when she marched through it," Bou-san pointed out, crossing his arms at the mention of the priestess.

"I see..." was the Chinese man's calm response, his heavy stare focused on Mai.

Thinking more and more of flags and the monk's uncertainty that they weren't bugged after all, Mai shifted where she stood.

"I'm sure Naru is waiting..." she tried, looking down the dark aisle of wine racks, greatly tempted to bolt.

But then that would mean leaving Bou-san behind...

He left you in a smoking building.

Mai inched forward at the same time the Chinese man stepped aside,

"You're right, they're waiting."

Mai blinked in surprise, but then recovered. Wasting no time in passing Lin, her eyes darted to the monk who followed behind her.

Chicken.

With her back to the tall Chinese man, she strode down the secluded row, every slap of her shoes against the cold dirt floor carrying her towards witnesses. Her partner seemed to share the same comforting idea, matching her step for step.

Coming upon the end of the aisle Mai could make out several figures gathered ahead in the gloom. The tallest and darkest form stood facing her.

That Naru.

"And here they are...” he spoke, addressing the waiting group.

Mai felt rather than saw his stare. Determinedly she looked away from her boss, telling herself that the heat rising to her cheeks was anger. Even still, with every blink the imprint of a flag passed through her vision.

"If we're all gathered now, why don't we return upstairs?" Miss Miyuki suggested, the soft smile she directed towards Naru bright even in the dim of the cellar.

She was met with no resistance and a moment later the Mai found herself carefully ascending the steps she had fallen down barely an hour before. Out of amusement or concern, Bou-san walked beside her this time, one hand hovering at her back. Despite her badly injured feet, Ayako lead the way out.

Reaching the top of the lengthy stairs, Mai stared down the hall she stepped into with narrowed eyes, her sight adjusting to the better light. Suddenly, at the end of the corridor, a streak of color darted into view. Startled, Mai jumped and stumbled backwards, nearly taking a second tumble when the monk standing behind caught her arm,

"What is it with you and falling?” he protested, urging her away from the steps, "I wouldn't push your luck with Naru's heroics, he's done a lot of saving today--"

Mai, ignoring him, disbelieving her eyes, blinked repeatedly and strained to see around her partner. The color was still there and approaching fast-- but, as she finally understood, it was more of a who than a what.

"Mr. Sachi?” she murmured, confused.

"Mr. Sachi? What are you talking about-- did you hit your head on that last trip down the stairs?” Bou-san persisted, staring down at her with uncertainty.

"Mr. Sachi-- what are you doing in my house?" Miss Miyuki suddenly spoke, moving past Mai and her partner to confront the man standing in her hall.

The playwright, slightly out of breath, straightened up and met the heiress with equal irritation,

"I'll have you know I've been searching this place up and down for ten minutes trying to find you. But never mind that, Mai and Shibuya-san are needed outside."

Coming up from the steps, Naru brushed past the assembled group, his sharp eyes trained on the playwright,

"And why would that be?"

To his credit, Mr. Sachi didn't flinch, and instead smoothed his hair back into place,

"Well we all are really, but you especially, considering you two are her chosen..."

Mai swallowed stiffly, feeling the color drain and then flush her cheeks,

Not this again.

Standing beside her, Bou-san took this moment to shoot her meaningful sidelong glance. Mai stepped closer to the brave monk, laying a hand on his shoulder with a tight smile. The threat felt a lot emptier when he returned the grin and waved his other hand. Wrong shoulder.

That Bou-san.

"Look, we've only got a few more hours until the festival begins. Every year on this day, Wise Obasan gathers the couples and has them dance in the square. From these dancers, she narrows her choices down to about ten couples, though it seems quite obvious whom she favors this time around..."

Mai noticed the significant look the playwright was directing towards her-- and adopted the same cold stare Naru was currently pinning him with, with the added addition of a raging blush.

"You had to invite yourself into my house to tell us this?" Miss Miyuki questioned, her glittering blue eyes turning hard.

Mr. Sachi drew himself up in offense, tugging at a sleeve self importantly,

"Not by choice. I could really care less if it was simply Masako and I dancing out there, but Wise Obasan was talking in such a way-- I certainly didn't want her running through my theater with burning brush again--"

"She threatened you if you didn't find us?” Bou-san persisted with raised eyebrows.

The playwright nodded and the monk glanced from Ayako to his partner knowingly, "See...I told you she's a crazy old loon."

Mai shifted where she stood and looked away from the monk, vivid memories of just how insane the woman really was still fresh in her mind. Miss Miyuki turned her attention from Mr. Sachi,

"Naru, if you are done conducting your investigation, I suppose we should go and get this over with-- it is traditional to dance."

Mai's gaze snapped up from the floor where she had been staring to the back of the heiress' golden head. She knew that tone. That was the same sweet, tempting, unsuspecting tone Masako used time and time again to lure Naru...

That Miss Miyuki.

Before Naru could give any kind of answer, Mr. Sachi was already speaking with relief and energy,

"Great-- excellent. Yes, very traditional, must do these things you know, after you..."

Miss Miyuki ignored the playwright's gesture to have her lead the way and instead crossed to Naru with an encouraging smile,

"Shall we?"

Mai felt her cheeks burn a few degrees hotter before her own arm was captured by Bou-san,

"Don't worry, old loony's on your side," he reassured, following her gaze to the heiress and her boss.

Mai accepted his grasp, but frowned at his obvious enjoyment of her misery,

"You mean the same one that held you captive?” she countered.

The monk's amusement faltered for moment, but then he recovered with a renewed smile,

"Well I guess she would have to be strong if she locks couples up in rooms until they profess their love for each other."

Mai tripped on her next step, looking sharply at the grinning monk beside her.

"At least that's what a little birdie told me..."

Recovering, Mai righted herself and regarded him with eyes narrowed in disbelief,

"You don't know any little birds."

The monk stared down at her with a raised eyebrow, "Don't be so sure."

Mai crossed her arms against her chest, trying to ignore both the monk and the scene forming in her mind.

If I was shut in a room with Naru the last thing professed would be love.

Feeling flustered, Mai attempted to focus her attention straight ahead, but then she caught sight of the heiress leaning towards...

That Naru.

Distracted by Miss Miyuki's forward behavior, aware of Lin's heavy gaze trained from behind and Bou-san's interested glances, Mai found the only comfortable place to look was upon herself.

With a quiet sigh she fingered the fraying edge of a shirt that told the story of her day all too well. Once white and clean, it now carried a smoky tint coupled with smudges of dirt and the smell of must. Mai swallowed, suddenly realizing just how dry her throat was, how hard her head was pounding. The last couple of days had not been gentle on her.

She passed one of the few windows gracing the Miyuki home's walls and was forced to squint and look away, the late afternoon sun already in full burn. Was today really only the fifth day she had spent in Nozomi? Somehow it seemed like eternity since they had first meet their client and were subsequently drawn into the many romantic politics, ghostly hauntings, odd festival traditions, and crazy matchmaking plots of the small town.

Mai's stomach decided then to give a dull ache of protest to the hour. It had now gone most of the day on just a few bites of apple.

Apples...

The thought put a taste her mouth that was sour with secrets and mystery. Who was the girl in their photo...why was she so important, and what could Miss Miyuki know?

Pursing her lips in determination, Mai looked up from her worn shirt to the immaculate heiress in front of her,

I have to speak with her...alone.

The group continued to wind their way through the many corridors and halls of the Miyuki house guided by Mr. Sachi in relative silence, but their expressions spoke volumes, from Miss Miyuki's alluring smile to Lin's dark stare. As if able to hear her thoughts in the quiet of their breathing and walking, Bou-san dipped his head towards his partner,

"At this rate you might burn a hole through her head, and we've already discussed how that's not a good idea..."

Mai blinked, shaken out of her revere, and took notice of the monk leaning towards her,

"Bou-san you're going to attract attention," Mai whispered with an implicating glance towards the Chinese man following behind them.

"Me? If Lin didn't know our target before, he knows now," the monk countered in a whisper, looking between his partner and the heiress.

Mai shook her head and then leaned back towards the monk,

"She's our answer Bou-san, we've got to find out what she knows-- and soon."

The monk nodded and righted himself, crossing his arms thoughtfully,

"Well if you can tear yourself from Naru tonight, maybe there will be a chance..."

Mai pulled a face,

"Its not me stuck to him, Miss Miyuki is his partner, how are we going to tear her away?”

"You," her partner answered without a pause, as if it was the most obvious answer.

"Me?” Mai repeated, not particularly liking his tone.

The monk nodded and sent a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure there were no unwanted listeners, but Lin had fallen several steps behind as Ayako had claimed his arm for support as she limped along. With a growing smirk, the monk faced Mai,

"What could be more simple? She would be alone, because you would be with Naru."

Mai felt heat rise to her face and she shot an incredulous look back at Bou-san's calm smile,

"I'm sorry, maybe you don't remember what our mission has been all day-- to keep information and ourselves out of Naru's hands, but sure, why don't we just sacrifice me?"

The monk raised an eyebrow,

"Easy, no need for dramatics. You've been trained well for this mission, I know you won't crack under his interrogation, and with you keeping our enemy busy-- I'll be taking his partner for all she knows."

Mai crossed her arms tighter against her chest as if they could protect her from the monk's logic, spy lingo, and the sudden rush of thoughts and scenarios, all whispering that he was right...

That Bou-san.

After lengthy and flustered silence, Mai finally spoke again,

"And what do you expect me to do, promise answers, faint into his arms?"

The monk shrugged,

"I don't think you'll have to do much, I think with Wise Obasan's help, we'll be lucky to get you two apart."

Mai flushed a deeper shade of crimson, but with the glint in her eyes, it was hard to tell if it was from anger or embarrassment,

"Why don't you distract him?” she persisted, blowing away a few strands of hair that had fallen in her eyes, refusing to uncross her arms to brush them away.

The monk turned to her and she could feel the amusement in his gaze,

"Well for starters I'm not nearly as distracting as you..."

Mai jerked her head towards him with a silencing glare, before casting a glance ahead of them, Naru and Miss Miyuki were slowing down as they entered the living room,

"Says who? You and a crazy woman? A distraction is a distraction Bou-san, and I think I should be the one to speak with Miss Miyuki," Mai whispered in protest.

The monk merely shook his head, their conversation cut short by Lin and Ayako drawing near. Mai frowned and looked away from her partner,

This is not over.

Ahead of them, Mr. Sachi had reached the front door and with a smile pulled it open, no doubt reassured that no part of his theater would be smoking for a second time that day. In spite of this, Mai was greatly tempted to plant herself on Miss Miyuki's couch and never leave.

Recognizing the stubborn look in her eye, Bou-san took up his partner's arm once again, guiding her towards the door,

"This is no time to be chicken," the monk urged, leading her out after Naru and Miss Miyuki.

Mai tugged her arm free from his grasp as she stepped out in the Miyuki garden and the last of the afternoon sun. Outside the air was now balmy, but the warmth felt pleasant against her cool skin.

Mai let out a slow breath and closed her eyes for a moment. Peace. The same peace she had experienced hours before as she walked the stone path was greeting her again. A warm orange tinted her skin as the sun began to dip below the tree line surrounding the small town of Nozomi. For an instant, in the calm dark of her closed eyes, she could almost imagine she was alone, completely alone. There was no Lin to stalk her, no Naru to taunt her, no Niko to fawn after her, no Masako or Miss Miyuki to fight, no crazy Obasan, no intimidating Koku's, not even a Mr. Miyuki to keep secrets for...

It was then that Mai felt the familiar and jarring slip of her consciousness into oblivion. She was falling...falling...some where in the back of her mind a small voice of caution was shouting something: she wasn't really alone--

Mai's eyes flew open. The garden was awash in a true twilight now, shades of gold coloring the wise old trees around her. It was so incredibly quiet that she could hear her every heart beat, and yet there were other sounds: a breeze through the leaves, laughter...

Mai slowly turned where she stood on the stone walkway, looking for the source of such happiness,

"Bou-san, do you hear that? Where is it coming from?"

There was no answer. Mai blinked and glanced to the left where her partner had just been standing. Empty space. The steady beat filling her ears sped up as realization dawned on her: she was having a dream. Suddenly her eyes were searching the garden for someone else,

"Naru?" She called, her voice carrying a strange sort of echo.

No answer, just as before. She was perfectly alone in the fading sunlight-- except she wasn't. A sweet voice, light...almost familiar...Mai spun around completely and found herself staring into a face that held as much mystery as joy.

"You," Mai breathed in surprise, gazing down upon a small girl with an angelic smile, stunning blue eyes, a bouncing mass of blonde curls, and melodious laugh. All at once her thoughts were moving at the speed of light, she had so many questions...but it was no use, the girl was still giggling, looking through her in delight as if she were a ghost. And that was because she was. Mai didn't exist here...in this memory.

Mai, having naturally leaned forward in her eagerness to have her questions answered, stood straight again, and turned her head towards the man she knew would be standing there: Mr. Miyuki. He looked just like the painting in his room, young and so full of life. Mai felt the same pang of sadness as before, but he was all smiles and laughter, his own blue eyes twinkling in the last of the day's light,

"Hold still my sweet or how will I take your picture?"

Almost against her will, Mai was looking back at the girl who was now standing patient with an even brighter grin than before. Mai suddenly struck by the scene before her: this was it-- this was the exact moment her photo was taken, from the floral kimono she wore, the way her small hands were clasped, to the shadows on the trees behind her, to the way the breeze caught her hair...

It was then, without warning, that the edges of Mai's vision began to darken. As if being stretched out of shape, the garden began to blur, the laughter and voices became muffled...

Wait-- Mai wanted to protest, attempting to hold on to the disintegrating world around her, I don't understand...

But it was too late; she was beginning pulled from the space in time that had been shared with her. The last thing she saw before a mass of buzzing darkness over took her was the pained face of a ghostly Mr. Miyuki.

Mai.

Her eyelids fluttered.

Mai!

She shifted her head.

I guess you'll have to give her mouth to mouth, Naru...

Mai woke with a start, her heart racing, her head nearly colliding with a hovering, grinning, Bou-san.

"Look who’s awake. Oh well, Naru-- next time," he spoke over his shoulder.

The panic that was spreading a profound blush across her skin caused Mai to suddenly sit up, desperate to defend herself, unable to see Naru past her partner's shoulder. Mai opened her mouth, what she would say she still had no idea, but then blinked in confusion. There was no one there...

Observing her unstable condition, the monk rose from his crouched position on the stone pathway and took up her arm,

"Gotcha," he smirked down at her.

Mai frowned,

"Where is everyone?"

Bou-san's smile changed into something more serious,

"I think the better question is where were you?"

Mai shook her head, her eyes traveling over the same garden she had been in just moments before,

"Here..."

"You were dreaming of being here?” the monk persisted, watching her uncertainly.

Mai's gaze continued along the tree line to the place where the girl had stood,

"Yes, I think so...I was in some kind of memory..."

"Memory? How do you know?"

Mai felt herself moving a step forwards, the weight of Bou-san's grip reminding her that she had returned to reality,

"She was there...” she murmured, her expression distant.

Her partner eyed her carefully, and gently drew her back,

"Who Mai? Who's memory, who was where? You got to give me some complete sentences here--"

The fog of her mind was quickly dissipating and Mai squeezed her eyes shut to organize just what she was going to tell the monk,

"I was with the girl in our photo Bou-san; I was there on the day it was taken."

What wasn't being said rang loud in her ears... I know this because I was on one of my regular trips into Mr. Miyuki's cryptic dimensions.

Her partner's interest only intensified the uncomfortable feeling tightening in her stomach,

"You were with her...in her memory...here?"

The image of Mr. Miyuki's grave face lingered before her eyes, but Mai pursed her lips as she made her decision,

I can't help you all by myself. We can trust Bou-san.

"No, not her memory."

The monk turned his thoughtful eyes upon her as the shadows in the garden grew,

"Not her memory?"

Mai looked away from his curious gaze to the place where the young Mr. Miyuki had stood, smiling so warmly...

"Mr. Miyuki's memory."

Chapter Text

Day Five

3:45pm

The Miyuki Mansion

There was a still moment as Mai's words registered in her partner's ears,

"Mr. Miyuki," he repeated, "as in dead playwright, owner of this house, Miss Miyuki's father-- Mr. Miyuki?"

A stiff breeze rippled the pond they stood near, catching Mai's bangs so that they fluttered before her eyes,

"That's the one, Bou-san..."

The monk blinked and took a step towards her, "You think you were in his memory?"

Mai nodded firmly, "I know I was."

Her partner paused and then threw a cautious glance at the garden gate, drawing Mai's attention there as well.

Where is everyone?

"Then, he exists? I mean--" the monk lowered his voice, his eyes shining as he turned to her in the last of the daylight, "He's really...around-- Mr. Sachi is telling the truth after all."

Mai swallowed, trying to hide her discomfort at being unable to mirror her partner's excitement. What was news to him, she had known nearly from the start.

"You didn't believe it before?" Mai asked, recalling his support against Naru and Masako's doubts.

Bou-san looked thoughtful and shrugged, "Well, I knew you were having strong feelings and strange things were happening, but aside from that encounter in the hall, no one has seen him until now-- your vision changes everything."

Mai bit her lip, attempting to ignore the pang of guilt welling up inside her chest. With a frown, she grasped the monk's arm, causing him to look at her.

"Bou-san," she began, her eyes darting to the garden gate, "I've been keeping a kind of promise, and if I’m going to tell you anything more, I need to know you'll keep the promise too."

Her partner followed her gaze, and then turned back to her slowly-- his brows furrowing in concern and confusion,

"Mai, what are you into? A promise, for who...?"

Mai released his arm and took a step back. This was it, the moment of truth.

At that very instant, the sun, hanging low in the sky, slipped down behind the Miyuki mansion. Mai was glad for the shadow cast upon her face,

"Mr. Miyuki."

"But, how? Mai-- he's dead."

"Exactly."

There was silence between them for a few beats as the words sunk in. The monk's eyes widened then and he suddenly took her face in his hands,

"Mai," he said, almost breathlessly, his astonished face peering intently at hers, "am I to understand that you've been talking, making promises-- to the ghost of Mr. Miyuki?"

Her eyes locked with his, Mai gripped his wrists. Reading the surprise and uncertainty in his expression at this revelation, she knew had a lot of explaining to do. Mai only hoped, as the image of the ghostly playwright surfaced in her mind, that she had made the right decision...

I know it is. I can't keep lying to him; I need Bou-san on this one.

"Yes Bou-san, nearly this whole--"

"Oh. Are we interrupting something?"

Startled at the unexpected voice, Mai gasped and Bou-san jumped. Their heads snapped around to the garden gate. Standing there in the dim twilight was Ayako.

"Uh-- this isn't what it looks like," the monk began, his hands still holding his partner's face.

But perhaps holding wasn't the word. In his alarm, the monk had ended up squashing her cheeks, forgetting his own strength. Mai let out a protesting noise and wrenched herself free. He spared her an apologetic glance as she rubbed at her irritated skin.

Mai wasn't the only one disgruntled at the moment. The priestess that had nearly walked in on the entire history of Mr. Miyuki's ghostly activities was leering over at them darkly. It appeared she was catching her breath. Apparently she had hurried over, if her hair was anything to judge by-- the usually immaculate strands flying in all directions.

"I guess you found the doctor," Bou-san volunteered into the tense silence, nodding to the man beside the miko.

Doctor?

Mai followed the monk's gaze to the gentlemen just to the left of the priestess. He seemed as old as Nozomi itself (or at least as old as Wise Obasan…) and stood there looking awkwardly between Bou-san and herself, seeming to not know which was his would be patient. This statement of the obvious seemed to rankle Ayako,

"Yes, I found him-- no thanks to that arm candy of Naru’s," she snapped, brushing impatiently at some of the hair that had fallen into her eyes.

"I thought you said there was someone to treat?" the doctor cut in, sounding doubtful.

Ayako let out something crossed between a huff and a sigh, and waved a well-manicured hand in Mai's direction, "Yes, her."

Me?

Mai shifted where she stood and looked up questioningly at her partner. He shrugged and whispered out of the corner of his mouth,

"You passed out, remember? How were we to know it was just a dream?"

Realization dawned on her,

Oh, that’s right...

She had been so caught up in her vision and explaining things to Bou-san that she had forgotten what had lead up this point. It must have been startling to see her collapse in Miss Miyuki's front yard, but then--

Where is everyone?

In dire need of answers, she opened her mouth to ask, but just then the doctor approached her.

“Now, let’s take a proper look at you, I understand you tripped and fell…”

She told him I tripped?

Mai made a face and shot a look over at Ayako, but the miko merely shook her head and murmured,

“Doctor Okuchi, give her through look over-- I’m sure something’s been knocked silly...”

Mai let out a sharp objection at this, but it fell on deaf ears, and she was lead to Miss Miyuki’s front steps. Seeing the accident prone girl to Mr. Okuchi's care, Ayako then turned sharply on heel to confront Bou-san.

Unsuspecting, his reaction was delayed as she raised a hand-- he barely had time to flinch, anticipating vengeance, but it never happened. Instead, he felt his coat sleeve being clenched tightly, and before he knew it, he was being yanked away from Miss Miyuki's garden path to somewhere more secluded.

Stumbling a bit as they came to an abrupt halt, Ayako stepped further into his space; her eyes shining dangerously at him. Bou-san swallowed and leaned back as much as he could-- he knew this look, she meant business, but her hand still gripped his arm, keeping him right where she wanted him.

"That's it Takigawa, tell me what's going on here."

The monk's stomach dropped further, great-- an interrogation of his own. Though they were standing in relative privacy, just out of ear-shot, he could still spot Mai being tended to by the good doctor, though not being the best of patients. She had seen the miko drag him away and was struggling to observe them, whilst being poked and prodded. Bou-san caught her eye, and she gave him a look that silently shouted: don't tell! Despite what he had just learned, the little he had just learned, did she really think he would? This was Ayako, not Lin. He made a better spy than that.

It was Ayako’s turn to be taken unawares, as the monk suddenly took her shoulders in his hands,

"What's going on? We're investigating."

Bou-san watched with some enjoyment as the priestess shifted in his firm grasp, her face the picture of surprise, but (unfortunately) she collected herself soon enough,

"And that investigation involves chicken and apples?" she demanded, incredulously.

Bou-san paused for moment, the events of the last few days running through his head, something was nagging there…

That promise. Just what kind of promise is Mai keeping?

Pulling himself together, he nodded,

"Strangely, yes. I think. Look, we're working on something here, and we want you on our side, but our side on the outside--"

Ayako opened her mouth to protest, but the monk pressed on,

"Just until we can get a handle on it, we're not sure what the big picture is yet."

At least, I’m not sure…

Ayako closed her mouth, her red lips forming a tight line. She fixed him with a long hard stare,

"This outside doesn't happen to include Naru and Lin, does it?"

All Bou-san could do was nod again, he still didn't know exactly why himself. Mai owed him a full explanation for this...

Maybe it was the seriousness of his expression and tone, a seriousness he so rarely demonstrated, but after a moment of tense silence and penetrating looks, he felt Ayako's shoulders relax a fraction. The miko drew in a deep breath and finally broke her gaze from his face, her attention traveling to where Mai still sat at the front of the house, being fussed over.

"You two better not be getting mixed up into any real trouble," she exhaled, her eyes locking with his again, "I can only mend so many bumps and bruises."

"We'll be safe, I promise,” he swore, drawing himself up to full height, which even in her heels, Ayako couldn't match, "scouts honor."

The priestess let out a scoff at this and finally wriggled free from his hold on her. She sent him one last scrutinizing look, clearly still full of suspicion and curiosity at what they were up to, as she stalked away. Funnily enough, he knew how she felt. He needed to talk to Mai.

Mai fidgeted where she sat, attempting to crane her neck around the doctor that kept asking her to do distracting things like open her mouth and take deep breaths.

That Ayako!

She was as bad as Naru or Lin. Mai wasn’t tied up for half a second before the priestess was making off with her partner-- and from the look on her face, no doubt to interrogate him within an inch of his life...but interrogate him about what, she didn’t know. What could Ayako possibly want from him? And then a horrifying thought struck her:

Lin. Ayako is Lin’s partner.

Mai actually lurched where she sat, her heart pounding in panic. There was an impatient noise,

“Miss, please-- no sudden moments. Now I’ll have to take your pulse again,” the doctor spoke, taking up her wrist once more.

But Mai didn’t need his expert opinion to know that her heart was racing, she could feel it ramming up against her rib cage as her eyes frantically fought to meet Bou-san’s again from across the yard.

Chicken, Bou-san! Do you hear me, chicken!

“Goodness, that can’t be right-- 150…” the doctor murmured beside her, staring hard at her arm as if it were some kind of mistake.

Mai wasn’t listening. Her legs twitched involuntarily, aching to leap up and interrupt before anything could be said. The miko had arrived just before Mai could explain the particulars of her promise, before she could swear the monk to secrecy…

He doesn’t know how important it is not tell. He’s never seen the look on Mr. Miyuki’s face.

It was that look that haunted Mai, she could see it now everywhere she turned, lingering at the corner of her eye, in the shadows, that expression of desperate sadness, that finger held pleadingly to his lips.

Only Bou-san was supposed to know.

“You seem to be on edge young lady, am I making you nervous? I assure you that I’m only here to help.”

Mai startled. Mr. Okuchi’s voice had the same gravely quality as Mr. Miyuki’s and for a short moment she had thought...

“How about a deep calming breath, hm?” the doctor persisted.

Distractedly, Mai nodded, her gaze still fixed on the shadowy figures of Ayako and Bou-san.

“And inhale--”

Mai drew in a slow breath, the air scented of summer grass, when her lungs suddenly sized. The need to cough, long and hard, was over powering. When she finally recovered, Mai could see Mr. Okuchi was deeply frowning at her now. Not entirely comfortable with the way he was looking at her, she quickly turned her head to see if either the monk or the priestess took notice of her coughing fit, but neither so much as glanced in her direction-- Bou-san had Ayako’s shoulders in his hands and was staring at her intently…

What is going on? What are they talking about…since when do they stand that close together?!

With her heart thundering in her chest and the doctor treating her as though she had one foot in the grave, Mai squeezed her eyes shut. Calm. She needed to calm down. She was jumping to conclusions. She needed to evaluate the facts first.

Like the fact Ayako rarely took orders from anyone. Even if asked to by Lin, it was hard to believe the miko would do his dirty work. Mai knew that Ayako toyed with the idea of being attracted to him, but Mai wasn’t sure that it was enough for her to do his bidding.

Mai felt her shoulders relax a bit,

Right, she can’t be helping him, there’s not enough incentive!

Mai unclenched her hands from the nervous fists she had made, feeling better by the moment. She was being silly about Ayako. But then again...the priestess had a habit of turning up at all the right times lately, just before Mai was going to share something important with Bou-san.

Mai thought about her cropping up in the kitchen, the cellar-- now. Her tone was suspicious when addressing the two of them, but maybe she was just curious? A curious person who also just happened to be…Lin’s partner. Mai swallowed, hard.

What if Lin promised her his moon lily, in return for her help?

Ayako had only started being nosy, after Lin’s interrogation had failed.

How badly does Ayako want his moon lily?

These thoughts were too much, she couldn’t bare it. Mai’s eyes flew open, and she came face to face with the miko.

“What are you doing? Not passing out on us again I hope?” Ayako turned her attention from Mai, to Mr. Okuchi, “well, what’s the diagnosis?”

The ancient doctor crowded his way into Mai’s field of vision, looking her up and down in a grim way. Mai crossed her arms, as if to block his view.

“Well,” he began, “it appears there’s quite a bit wrong with her, but I’ve determined that none of it is due from a bump on the head.”

Bou-san approached from behind them, trailing Ayako after their conference.

“Why are we staring, is there something wrong with Mai?”

Ayako narrowed her eyes at him in annoyance, and her hand flew up to cover his mouth as the doctor continued,

“…though without my instruments, I’m fairly positive that this young woman has not been taking care of herself. She’s suffering from dehydration, mild smoke inhalation, and fatigue. I’m recommending a day or two in bed and plenty of fluids…”

Mai blinked back at the faces peering down at her.

What? There  is  something wrong...?

The careless, slightly disapproving, air Ayako had adopted wavered; her hand fell from the monk’s lips,

“Really?”

Concern clouded Bou-san’s features, he pushed past the doctor and put and arm around Mai’s shoulders, pulling her to his chest protectively.

“Oy, why didn’t you tell me?”

“I- I didn’t know…” Mai mumbled, dumbfounded, against his shirt.

It smelt slightly of smoke, she wrinkled her nose and drew back a bit.

Ayako came forward then. Despite her cool demeanor, her lips were pursed and Mai could see the worry in her eyes.

“You idiot, you didn’t know you were tired and thirsty?” she admonished, though gently, taking Mai’s chin as she often did when inspecting her for injury or illness.

“Well, there’s really nothing left for me to do for her, she’ll be fine if she gets the rest she needs,” Mr. Okuchi continued, watching the moment between the three of them somewhat uncomfortably.

Her eyes still studying Mai, the miko waved the doctor off, “Yes, thank you-- we’ll see that she does.”

Bou-san nodded to the man and he offered a stiff little bow to Mai before shuffling towards the garden gate, mumbling to himself in a loud whisper: strange tourists…

As soon as Mr. Okuchi was gone, Ayako turned on Bou-san.

“This is all your fault.”

The monk’s eyes widened in offense, unwittingly he gripped Mai tighter,

“And how is that?

The priestess threw him a critical look,

“You know exactly how. She’s suffering from smoke inhalation because of you.

“Not this again. Mai, you know I tried to get you out. You know that, right?” her partner asked, gazing down at her in earnest.

Mai blinked and her attention flicked from the monk’s pleading face to the miko’s piercing one, “Uh--” she began, shifting to the left, loosening herself from Bou-san grip.

She knew those tones. She knew those looks. She knew the two people standing around her all too well. She had the distinct feeling that she was about to be caught in the middle of something that she didn’t want to be.

“What she knows is that you left her in a smoking building,” Ayako persisted in lieu of Mai’s answer.

Mai halted in her attempt to inch away from the monk’s grasp. Cursing the priestess for putting words in her mouth, she snapped around to face the monk. Hurriedly she shook her head, but her partner’s eyes weren’t on her-- they were on Ayako.

“Are you…” Mai nearly fell over as the monk suddenly released her, in the empty space above where she sat; he leaned towards the miko, “accusing me of something?”

“Yes,” Ayako responded plainly, meeting the monk halfway, “I’m accusing you of leaving your partner in a smoking building.”

Nearly pinned between their two bodies, with the way they had advanced on each other, Mai wriggled quickly from her spot on the steps and jumped up.

“And out of this unfounded accusation, you’re blaming me for her smoke inhalation?” the monk protested incredulously, edging even further into her space.

The priestess shrugged indifferently and tossed her hair,

“If the shoe fits.”

“Wha-- wait,” Mai suddenly cut in, waving her arms dismissively. She could read the warning signs, things were about to get out of hand, “If we’re going to blame anyone here, it should be Naru!”

The two of them were nearly nose to nose now, each breathing hard, but the mention of Naru did the trick, the fight was defused. Taking notice of Mai for the first time in several heated moments, Bou-san locked eyes with Ayako for an instant longer before he cleared his throat, brow furrowing, and took a step back.

“Naru?” he repeated, confusedly.

Coming to her senses, Ayako worked at collecting herself, though-- not fast enough. Mai saw the startled look that passed through her eyes when she realized just how close she had been standing to the monk. In a rare flustered moment, the miko turned her head away. It was hard to tell in the low light, but her cheeks appeared to have turned the color of her hair. She let out a huff, arms crossed tightly across her chest, and put much needed space between herself and the monk in the form of several feet.

“Naru?” she prompted also, when Mai didn’t speak.

Satisfied that there was now a safe distance separating the priestess and her partner, Mai took notice of the questioning looks being aimed at her and realized that she needed to explain.

“Yes, Naru.”

Yes, let’s blame him.

Ayako raised an eyebrow, “We heard you the first time. I’m asking why Naru? What would he have to do with any of this?”

Mai narrowed her eyes a bit at the miko, but in glancing Bou-san’s direction, she could see he was curious where she was coming from with this too…

Isn’t it obvious?

Feeling baited by the priestess, Mai crossed her arms, perfectly mimicking her haughty stance,

“Because he’s the reason I was left alone in that theater in the first place.”

Mai spoke with feeling, but little conviction. She knew she was being unreasonable in making Naru out to be the guilty party for her being trapped in a smoking theater, but Naru was unreasonable. It was all his fault she felt this way. Guilty on two counts!

Bou-san’s protests of “but you weren’t alone!”-- were drowned out by Ayako:

“That’s why he should be to blame? He ordered you to into a building you were investigating, and because there just happened to be maniacal match-maker on the loose, it’s his fault?”

Mai gripped her arms tighter and set her jaw in stubbornness,

“Yep. His fault.”

Mai’s forgotten partner was holding his chin in thought, attempting to follow her flawed logic,

“Well, if you look at it from the match-making angle, that she hunted you down because she wants you two together, he is half to blame--”

The miko shot him a withering look,

“You’re seriously going to try and pawn this off on him?”

It was clear that she thought Mai was reaching. Bou-san was still her prime target.

The monk snapped his head around at her,

“Excuse me, but Mai has a valid point. That guy should rein in his feelings, saying things like over my dead body at the very idea of Niko proposing to Mai-- it’s no wonder Wise Obasan picked them as her chosen. If they weren’t her chosen, Mai never would have been attacked.”

Ayako eyes widened and her mouth fell open in a very unladylike way, “Wait-- he what...?”

In a flash, Mai’s skin was on fire at the mention of those four very flustering words. She threw a hard look at the monk, who seemed lost as to how things got so off track. Hurriedly Mai spat out,

“It’s Naru’s fault because it’s about time he gets blamed for something.

This little outburst drew both Bou-san and the priestess’ attention. Chest heaving, she locked eyes with both of them, daring each one to argue her point. Weak and childish as it was, neither did. Triumphant at their silence, Mai uncrossed her arms and breezed past them,

“Now, wasn’t there somewhere we had to be?”

You, maybe…” Ayako murmured, a strange knowing look coming over her face.

Over my dead body.

Mai faltered, a vivid red creeping up over her neck--

That Ayako!

“Oy, easy now! I think you’ve had enough falls for one day,” her partner said suddenly, darting to her side, taking her elbow as though she were a delicate invalid.

Mai fixed him with a dangerous stare,

That Bou-san.

As furious as she was with him for sharing such sensitive information with a potential enemy, for Ayako was by no means clear of being guilty for something herself, Mai still allowed him to support her. Her legs really were tired.

They passed through the garden gate, the monk leading her carefully and the priestess following behind closely, an amused smirk playing on her lips. Mai stared straight ahead, attempting to ignore the miko, but she couldn’t ignore the thoughts vying for her attention.

Is Ayako really working for Lin?

She glanced at the monk walking next to her, he didn’t know of her suspicions. What did he tell the priestess during that private interview they had? What if he was compromised? Could she do that to him?

Bou-san turned his head to look at his partner,

“Hm?” he prompted, feeling her concentrated gaze boring into the side of his face.

Mai blinked, frowning a bit, “Bou-san…” she began, but then quickly pursed her lips.

The miko was just a few steps behind them. Near enough to hear every word. If Ayako was doing Lin’s dirty work, she’d be listening closely. They couldn’t talk. Not now.

“Nothing,” she trailed off quietly.

For good measure she turned away, but that was just to hide her frustration. Intentionally or not, Ayako was foiling her chance to speak with the monk…and not just about the miko and her double-crossing ways. There was another major topic up for discussion, one that had not left the fore-front of Mai’s mind since the moment she revealed his existence: Mr. Miyuki.

There was a quiet moment as the three of them passed through the dusty streets of Nozomi in the falling dusk. The scent of lilies found Mai once again. Strings of the celebrated flower were hung between the small town’s houses and buildings.

It’s amazing how such a simple thing can bring so much trouble, Mai thought, squinting up at them in the gathering dark. It would be time to light the lanterns soon.

“Do you, uh-- smell chicken, Mai?” Bou-san spoke meaningfully, bringing her out of a revere filled with mysterious faces and moon lilies.

“Hm?” Mai mumbled, trying to catch up with what her partner had said, with what he meant.

Did he just ask me something about chicken?

And then it dawned on her.

Oh. That chicken.

Apparently the monk hadn’t been convinced by her dismissive nothing. He was using their code, coaxing her to speak, since she wouldn’t seem to do so freely.

Good, thinking Bou-san!

It hadn’t occurred to her to use these special words around Ayako.

“Yes, I do smell chicken,” she replied, earnestly.

“You…do?”

Mai nodded slowly, and let her gaze wander to the miko following behind him. Obviously confused on how they could be comprised when he could see neither Naru or Lin around, her partner glanced behind them, and when his eyes landed on an oblivious Ayako, his head snapped back around to Mai in surprise. Mai nodded once again, her expression stricken.

This silent communication wasn’t enough for Bou-san. He countered her affirmative nod, with a head shake of his own. No. Yes. No. Yes.

“You really smell chicken on her?” he questioned seriously, despite the words coming out of his mouth.

The revelation, if it were true, was no laughing matter.

“What in the world are you two talking about? Smell chicken? On who?” Ayako suddenly protested, eyeing them both strangely.

Mai pretended not to hear and ploughed on. She couldn’t stop now. She had to get this out. She had to let him know before it was too late…

“I really think so. I think she grills chicken and flips it with a spatula Bou-san.”

The monk’s disbelief merged with astonishment, and then his face finally settled into something like contempt. He managed not to glance at the miko, but just barely.

“Figures…” he muttered to himself, running a hand through his hair.

If Mai didn’t know better, she would say he almost looked disappointed. She bit her lip,

“I’m not positive about the chicken, but--”

“Really, what is it with you two and food?” the priestess demanded with more than a little irritation, not appreciating being ignored.

The monk turned and looked at her this time,

“I guess that’s for me to know and you to find out,” he shot back, his tone deeply insinuating.

“Excuse me?”

“Ah--” Mai jumped in, seeing the dangerous turn this was taking. She had told Bou-san about her suspicions to protect their mission, not to have him use that information to compromise it himself! “we’ll talk chicken later; Ayako isn’t hungry like we are…”

The priestess made a disgusted sound and marched around them,

“This is ridiculous…”

As the miko passed, a well-manicured hand grabbed hold of Mai’s wrist and pulled,

“Come on.”

“Hm?”

Mai blinked in surprise, throwing a look back at her partner, who she was leaving behind.

“You know, I was blaming that fall for you being knocked silly, but I’m starting to see it’s just all the time you’ve been spending with him,” Ayako muttered, tugging Mai along, “You need a girlfriend to hang out with Mai, someone to talk to about hair and clothes and guys. You do not need to be spending your adolescence talking about food with a washed-up monk!”

“Hey, just who are you calling washed-up?” Bou-san protested in offense as he came up behind them, “And we do talk those things!”

Ayako made a face and snapped her head around to Mai with a look that said, seriously?

Mai gave a helpless sort of shrug.

“Ugh-- this is exactly my point,” the miko laminated, putting more space between her and the person she deemed a bad influence.

“Wait a second here--” the monk persisted, taking hold of Mai's free arm “who are you to decide who she should be spending her time with?”

The priestess turned to face Bou-san with an unimpressed look,

“I’m the closest thing she’s got to a family. This is an intervention.”

Mai, who had been standing uncomfortably, being tugged two different directions (going deaf in each ear from the shouting…), suddenly glanced at the miko.

Family?

The monk balked, “An intervention?”

“Yes, I’m doing her a favor!” Ayako fired back.

And how’s that?”

“I’m saving her from you!”

Ducking her head, trying to move out of the way of the verbal sparring match happening across her, Mai finally took notice of her surroundings.

They had made it. Over the raised voices of Bou-san and Ayako, she could hear a live band playing music for the couples who she could see spinning around, several yards away. They were in the center of town.

Mai shook herself free of the two of them.

“Look we’re here!”

But they didn’t seem to hear her. Or they just didn’t care. Neither was backing down now…

“Well, intervention or not, she’s my partner,” Bou-san said, drawing Mai towards him possessively, “We can’t be separated.”

There was a moment of abrupt silence as the fighting ceased and the band changed sets. The miko locked eyes with the monk in a stare down which Bou-san was challenging her to argue that fact (and Ayako looked as if she just might…), but then she broke her gaze.

“For heaven’s sake Mai,” she warned, crossing her arms, “don’t talk men with him. He’ll set you up with the likes of Sachi.”

Mai’s gaze slid from the miko to her partner. It wasn’t like Ayako to just give up. His surprise seemed equal to hers…but he recovered quickly,

“Sachi? Please. She can do much better than Sachi. Naru for instance--”

The miko's eyebrows flew up in interest, and Mai's mouth fell open,

“Oy, don't act so surprised. Her feelings for him are obvious, and if that's who she likes then I'm happy being a supportive friend.

That last part was meant for the priestess, but it was doubtful if she caught it...she was too busy pinning Mai with a significant look, barely able to keep a delighted smirk in check.

“Ah...wait, no! Remember what you said about him and guy talk, you’re right, he’s terrible at it!” Mai countered, trying to do some damage control, but failing miserably.

That Ayako...that Bou-san!

“I don’t know about that now,” the miko murmured, giving the monk a considering look, “He may be better at it than I gave him credit for…”

Just when Mai was about to turn on her partner, taking swift revenge for all the secrets he may or may not have spilled that day, a new voice interrupted.

“Well, my theater may burn down, but it’s a comfort to know that you’re all having such a nice chat.”

It was Mr. Sachi. He looked just how Ayako had when she had interrupted Mai and Bou-san earlier: sweating, out of breath, hair flying and…irritated.

“You have no idea what I’ve just been through hunting you down--” he sputtered, dabbing at his perspiring forehead.

When none of them moved, or even reacted, he let out a large huff,

“What, does this look like a game? Oh, never mind it!”

Exasperated and panting, the playwright approached Mai, taking her hand,

“Come along, she’s waiting!”

And without any time to object, just like that, she found herself being dragged away again. 

Chapter Text

Day Five

5:45pm

Nozomi Town Square

Mai frowned, struggling against the hand that tugged her through the gathering inside the town square.

“Mr. Sachi-- wait,” she protested with a low voice, trying not to attract attention, but the pair of them were already drawing plenty of stares with the way she drug her feet and he marched on.

Without so much as glance back at her the playwright spoke soothingly,

“Almost there, yes-- no theater of mine will burn down…”

Mai’s eyes narrowed at the back of his head,

That Mr. Sachi!

Frustrated, Mai reverted back to fighting his grip which, though clammy, held fast-- knowing with dread that every step she was forced to take was leading her to certain doom.

Her arm sore and her efforts in vain, Mai was just about to despair of breaking free, mentally cursing her captor, when she felt a new grip take hold of her. In a swift and unexpected motion she found herself yanked in the opposite direction of where she was being pulled.

In equal surprise Mr. Sachi lost his grasp and Mai lost her footing. Stumbling, Mai grabbed on to an arm, her face squashing into a chest which smelled vaguely of smoke…

Bou-san?

“Sorry Sachi, she owes me this one,” was the monk’s explanation, with a jerk of his head towards the dancing couples a few yards from them.

His mouth open in offense, the playwright worked at composing himself, smoothing down his shirt,

“Pardon me, but Mai has a very important appointment with Wise Obasan,” he countered, reaching out to snatch Mai back, uninterested in what the monk’s claim on her was.

Bou-san shifted Mai to stand on his left and looked to the disgruntled playwright with a shrug,

“Tell that crazy old biddy that she’s here with her partner.”

And with that Mai felt herself being led away yet again, the words, ‘but my theater!’ being shouted desperately after them.

Being pulled along willingly this time, Mai let her partner steer her through the throng of people towards the make-shift dance floor, a bit dizzy and more than a little tender from all the different directions she had been dragged recently.

It was as she bumped into various strangers, just squeezing by in some cases, that she caught sight of some familiar faces. A little off to the side, back where she had originally been taken captive by the distressed Mr. Sachi, was Ayako…with John and Masako.

Genuinely glad to see John, who she hadn’t since she left him and the medium at the theater, she gave a shout and a wave, but the band was tuning up for the next set of music and her voice was drowned in a cacophony of notes.

All there was time for, when the sound died down, was a further glance at the small group, Ayako talking with them, perhaps explaining why they were here and not at the Miyuki Mansion or the theater.

“…and then of course Mai had to go faint again…”

This fragment of sentence somehow miraculously reached Mai’s ears as she passed by unseen, Ayako’s voice carrying across the murmur of people, and she made a face at the miko’s blatant insinuation that she was just attention seeking. She had half a mind to stop right there and interrupt, but Bou-san didn’t seem to notice them, and kept moving, tugging her after him.

That Ayako!

And then that was it. They were there, in the space designated for the dancing couples under Wise Obasan’s watch. Not unlike the previous festival night, the two of them were once again out on a dance floor, each with burning questions to ask.

Mai recalled fleetingly that her questions then had been all of what had happened at the men’s meeting. A flood of color washed over her face as she remembered Bou-san’s answer, an answer she had been taunted with again just earlier:

Over my dead body…

“Uh-- you okay there Mai? Your face is beet red--” the monk suddenly spoke, his voice invading her flustered memories. Mai started, her eyes meeting his in guilty consciousness, then she shook her head hurriedly, as if that could somehow shake off her embarrassment and confusion.

Stray hairs flung in her eyes, Mai let out a huff at her partner's plainly amused face, no doubt taking an educated guess at who was just occupying her thoughts.

“Wipe that smirk off your face monk, it’s time to get serious. I need answers.”

This statement was met with raised eyebrows and a scoff,

You need answers, what about my answers? Hm? How much longer are you going to leave me in the dark here, another week?”

Mai stumbled over a step and was forced to hop until she caught up with the monk’s feet again. Fortunate for her the pace of the dance was slow and the distraction gave her a chance to hide her expression. Mai winced and frowned. Despite his semi-chiding tone, his reproach stung. The two of them had always been a team, confidants, partners. She had told him as much as she thought she could, but she was sorry she hadn’t been able to be completely honest with him. Until now, that was. The decision to reveal Mr. Miyuki was a hard one, made entirely by herself, but if she was ever going help him-- she needed help too.

Please understand, Mai thought, silently appealing to both injured parties-- the ghost and the monk.

“Hey Mai,” Bou-san began when she didn’t respond; his intent gaze focused on her, ignoring the blur of people spinning around them, “I’m not mad, if that’s what you’re worried about. I just want answers. I want to know what going on; I want to know what you’re wrapped up in. I want to help. We’re a team, right?” this last part was accompanied by a gentle half smile that would have had an effect even on Ayako in her worst mood.

Mai squeezed the hand that held hers as they danced and returned the smile with a firm nod,

“That’s right.”

Nothing more was said for the next few moments, the two of them just happy to be moving about the dance floor, grinning at each other like conspiring fools, but then out of the corner of Mai’s eye-- a flash of black, and a thought suddenly occurred to her that had not before: Naru.

He was here. How could she have forgotten? Was he dancing, weaving in and out of lovesick couples like she was?

Nervously her eyes darted to every face that whirled by,

Not him, not him, not him…

“So, you have something to share with the class Mai, let’s hear it,” Bou-san spoke, fixing her with an encouraging look, as oblivious to his partner’s anxiety as she was to his words.

The only thing Mai could hear at that moment was her pulse pounding in her ears. Her heart had rate sped up, though she was helpless to define the exact trigger when it came to her boss-- was it because she was angry with him, because at any moment she could turn around and he could be standing there…because Miss Miyuki would undoubtedly be wrapped in his arms?

That Naru.

The monk had just opened his mouth to question her again, when she shook her head much the same way she had moments before, her hair flying and skin flushed.

“Oh…am I interrupting thoughts of Naru again?”

Mai’s head snapped around at the mention of his name, “Hm?”

Her partner let out a sigh as if disappointed, but the effect was ruined by the smug knowing smile spreading across his features,

“Mai, none of this mind wandering stuff-- you gotta stay with me here, we’ve got important things to talk about…”

“Wait, no Bou-san--” Mai hurriedly tried to correct as she caught up with what he was saying.

“No? You weren’t thinking about him?”

“Yes, I was but--”

The monk’s eyebrows rose, “So, it’s yes then?”

“Bou-san,” Mai protested under her breath, fearing that even the mention of his name might summon him. Her hand was squeezing her partner’s once again, but this time in desperation rather than affection, “He’s here. Somewhere. We can’t talk apples now or we’ll be chicken.”

There was a moment of consideration. Bou-san’s locked eyes with her and then his gaze shifted to the blur of people spinning around them.

“Bou-san, I need to know what happened while I was dreaming,” Mai continued, while her partner scanned the masses moving about them for a tall dark figure.

The monk blinked and looked back to her with an arched eyebrow,

“Oh, so you get to ask all the questions you want…”

Juggling her guilt and her responsibility to keep Mr. Miyuki’s secret (in a crowd that included Naru…), Mai heaved a sigh,

“I know you’ve been waiting Bou-san, I’m sorry-- but just not here. When he isn’t around we’ll talk. I promise.”

There was a thoughtful pause as her partner seemed to be resigning himself to the fact that she was right. The risk of being chicken was too great. He began to nod, his gaze still fixed on the ever shifting pairs of couples, partners, that spun past them, when something like a wry smile crept its way across his lips,

“You’re right, we’ll talk later,” he agreed and Mai’s shoulders relaxed in relief, “…but I’m not sure when later will be though-- since you’ll be spending tonight with him.”

Having leaned in towards the monk while discussing such classified topics as Mr. Miyuki, Mai suddenly drew back sharply,

“Hey, what do you mean by that?!”

“Oy, easy--” the monk protested, his foot nearly trod upon, “I mean you’ll be spending it with him because of operation Miyuki, what did you think I meant?”

Ignoring Bou-san’s mock incredulous tone, her face burning for the umpteenth time that evening, Mai concentrated firmly on her feet as she considered this,

Operation Miyuki, I forgot about that too…

All of her thoughts since waking up from that dream were of one thing: Mr. Miyuki’s ghost. After a moment of contemplation Mai’s head snapped back up,

“Wait,” she objected, releasing her partner’s shoulder so that she could wave a disapproving finger at him, “I never agreed to that part of the plan-- I told you before Bou-san, it should be me interrogating Miss Miyuki.”

“And I’m telling you that’s not sound mission planning. This operation is critical Mai, you can’t let your personal feelings get in the way. Do you want to help the old man, or not?”

Mai shot the monk a particularly hard look for mentioning Mr. Miyuki out loud, even in such a vague way,

“Bou-san, I’m the one he trusts. I’m the one keeping his promise. I should be the one who approaches Miss Miyuki--”

“Gee, that might be a persuasive point if I knew what the promise was--”

“Bou-san!”

“Mai,” the monk countered with great patience, his tone reasonable. He spoke carefully, as if explaining a difficult concept, “the truth of the matter is this mission will fail if I’m the one babysitting Naru. I’m not the right person for the job.”

Itching to wipe the expression of complete certainty from her partner’s face, Mai worried at her lip in an agitated away-- then pinned the monk with a challenging stare, “And that makes me the right person?”

Just then the tempo of the song they were dancing to slowed to an end. The final notes streaming out, the two of them came to an unknowing stop, matching each other stare for stare, one positive the other disbelieving.

“Yes,” the monk answered as the music faded to nothing, “because Naru likes you.”

Though his tone was conversational, it was as if the monk had shouted these words in the sudden hush of the dance floor. Mai’s heart skipped a few beats in the space of that moment. Hearing those words spoken had strange effect upon her. She opened her mouth, needing to say something-- oh, that’s right, deny it!-- but nothing would come at first. She blinked, swallowed, then let out a rather weak scoff.

“Please Bou-san, you’re starting to sound like Wise Obasan.”

Her partner blinked down at her, “You think I’m crazy?”

Mai glanced up at him, dropping her hold (the song having ended), and swatted him in the arm, “When you say things like that, yes. But we both know what you’re trying to do here. Really Bou-san, siding with Wise Obasan just to make a point?”

It was the monk’s turn to shake his head, “I’m not crazy, Mai. Today alone he’s saved you from a smoking theater and from a bad fall down the cellar steps, not to mention he caressed your face in front of everyone when you fainted. He’s put himself between you and another love interest, he’s given you his moon lily--”

Mai stiffened in surprise, thoughts crashing into one another.

He did…what?

“Finally got your attention, hm?” Bou-san noted with a knowing smile, reading the surprise on her face expertly.

“I...you mean-- what?”

Frowning at the monk standing across from her, Mai’s flustered nerves were further distressed when strands of music began to play, signaling the next dance. She had precisely two seconds to decide what to do…

That Bou-san...and Naru.

Hurriedly she took up her partner’s hand and they were off, just narrowly avoiding being swept up by the other couples.

Infuriatingly, Bou-san didn’t seem fazed by her pulling him into a spontaneous second dance,

“Feeling spry this evening?” he wondered, though he knew exactly why he was being towed around the dance floor once again. She wanted answers…answers she couldn’t get in the company of Ayako, Masako, and John.

Spry?

In all actuality nothing could have been farther from the truth. Fatigue had set in. Mai’s legs felt heavy and tired. And then there was her thirst. Her throat felt as parched as the dusty grounds of Nozomi, but…

“Explain, Monk. Now,” she ordered shortly, her feet fighting to keep up with the quick tempo of the new song.

Seeing her struggle, her partner steered her away from other dancers, easing their pace.

“You’ll need to be paying attention to me, and not your footwork,” he remarked at the relieved and grateful look on her face, “And heaven forbid you trip and fall because you were trying to listen and dance. That would be embarrassing. Coordination is not exactly your strong suit. Just looking out for you.”

Mai’s relief merged into anger in the form of a glare sent the monk’s direction, but that was all she had energy for,

“Bou-san- spill.”

Her partner drew in a deep breath, eyeing her carefully,

“Alright, but remember, you wanted to know. And absolutely no weak-in-the-knees business, you only get to collapse on me once a day.”

Why is he speaking like that…

Mai felt her cheeks beginning to grow warm once more,

Just what happened in that garden?!

Noticing him staring at her expectantly, she gave a curt bob of the head, implying that she would do her best not to faint on him...again.

“Well, as you know we were just leaving the Miyuki Mansion, you had just agreed to distract Naru at the festival so I could question Miss Miyuki--”

“Hey, I never agreed to anything--” Mai suddenly interjected.

“Mai, I’m telling the story. Do you want to hear it or not?”

Mai pursed her lips, only a most desperate need of hearing the rest of what had happened keeping her silent.

Satisfied there would be no more interruptions, the monk continued,

Anyways…we were all following Naru's lead out, I had just moved ahead of you as you'll remember, when he abruptly halted, and turned around. Confused, I did the same and that’s when I saw you faint. Being the closest, I tried to catch you, but-- ah…I might have softened the landing anyway--”

Mai fingered her head with a grimace, pondering damage done to her poor body since arriving in Nozomi…

The monk cleared his throat and patted the top of her head in a sort of consolatory way before proceeding,

“Naturally I was worried for you, it’s not normal to just collapse. After a moment of shock, Ayako was the first one at your side. I will give her that, she cares about you. Thank goodness for her medical background, I don’t know what she was thinking becoming a priestess, she instructed me to keep your feet elevated, so I did. Then Naru approached. Ayako announced that your vital signs seemed good, but to tell you the truth I don’t think he was really listening. He just kept staring at you in this serious way. If I didn’t know any better I’d say there was real concern in his eyes--”

Here her partner threw her a meaningful look, but it was lost on Mai who was still firmly rooted in the events unfolding, too focused on trying to make sense of what she was hearing to be baited.

“…then he knelt down next to you, with everyone looking on, and laid a hand across your forehead. He stayed just kneeling there with this... expression on his face. I can't explain it, I’d swear he was reading your mind if I knew it were possible. The highlight though, was the part where he trailed three fingers down your temple, along your cheek. Like this--”

And before Mai could protest, Bou-san was demonstrating, his large hand releasing hers to cover her forehead. He ran three fingers down the side of her face in something like a caress. His actions were fact-of-matter, but it was such an odd gesture for him, let alone Naru…Mai rubbed at that cheek in a self-conscious way.

“He really did that Bou-san?” she mumbled, her skin flushed scarlet.

“Yep,” he answered, wrestling down a smirk. He was clearly enjoying this turn of events. It only stood to serve his point, “Naru likes you Mai. We can use that to our advantage. Keep him distracted tonight and I can get the information that we need from Miss Miyuki. You’ve got to trust me on this one.”

Hand cradled against the side of her face, Mai blinked up at him in confusion,

“Wait-- that can’t be it. What happened next?”

The monk shrugged, “Well, then he pulled a Naru. But never mind that, we have a good angle going here--”

Pulled a Naru?” Mai interrupted, forgetting that she had agreed not to.

Her partner sighed as though she was being unnecessarily difficult,

“You know what I mean, you’ve seen it. His mood changed, the concern vanished from his eyes just like that. He suddenly stood up and marched straight to Lin, not sparing a glance for any of us. The only thing he said was that you were ‘fine’, and then the two of them left. It was strange. But Naru is, no offense--”

Mai waved away his apology, thinking hard.

Naru really just left? But how could he know I was fine?

“Why were we alone when I woke up?” she asked, attempting to fill in the blanks.

“Ayako said you needed a doctor, and she enlisted the help of Miss Miyuki. Mr. Sachi then left after them, reassuring me that he would tell Wise Obasan why you were late.” The snort that followed this showed Bou-san’s disapproval of the playwright’s priorities.

Mai was nodding silently,

“And then I woke up, with you-- and we talked, and Ayako arrived with the doctor…” It all finally made sense.

“Thanks for staying with me,” she murmured, looking up at her partner with a small smile. The monk returned it with a wink,

“What are friends for?”

It just so happened that Mai found a precise example in the next instant.

Friends are for keeping you out of trouble.

Mai let out a winded noise as she spun backwards into something solid and warm.

“Oh, excuse me, I--” she began, immediately apologizing to the dancer she had collided with, but as she turned around the words died on her lips.

“Are you really this clumsy, or just determined to injure yourself today?”

Reeling from her shock, Mai was grappling with just what to say or do, but at the comment-- her stalled heart sputtered back to life. Her wide eyes narrowed.

“What? I was dancing. You bumped into me.”

There were a thousand alarms going off in her head, chicken running through every thought-- but his insult saved her. It gave her a reason to be angry with him, forgoing being flustered or anxious, and she held on to that anger like a life preserver.

When he didn’t reply, Mai’s eyes took a quick survey of him and found that he didn’t seem to be dancing at all, he merely stood there, partner-less. Mai frowned and cast a glance around at the other couples,

“What are you doing? This is a dance floor. You’re holding everyone up--”

“Uh, Mai--”

“Not now, Bou-san,” Mai dismissed. The hot air that had built up in her over the course of the day had finally found an outlet in the form of the inconsiderate man standing before her and she had no patience for interruptions, “Some people are actually trying to enjoy themselves, try thinking of someone else for a change--”

“Mai--”

“Not now, Monk.”

“But, uh--”

“Who exactly should I be thinking of?”

Mai felt her irritation spike,

“The other dancers.”

“And what other dancers would that be?”

Mai’s eyebrows flew up in amazement. She made to wave her arm at all the couples spinning past them, her lips parting to exclaim, ‘these dancers!’-- but there were no other dancers. The dance floor was half empty, and those that were left were dropping hold.

“That’s what I was trying to tell you, the song ended…” Bou-san murmured behind her as she stared.

That. Naru.

Mai felt the prickly warm sensation of her skin flushing creep its way up her neck. She had been successfully disarmed by this announcement, and without her shield of righteous anger to hide behind, she was left vulnerable to other feelings.

Over my dead body.

Naru likes you.

“Right, well. Thank you for the dance, Bou-san.”

Ignoring the weight of her boss’ gaze, Mai turned towards her partner and gave a good yank to his arm, looking to pull him from the dance floor. At that moment, she would have carried him bodily away if she could.

Chicken.

But then, not for the first time that day, Mai felt an unexpected hand grasp her free arm, and she was drawn back…to face Naru again.

Her first instinct was to recoil. In a quick and panicked movement, she snatched her arm back from him. Her heart was pounding now. She could sense Naru’s surprise, she was surprised herself-- but in that instant she had felt some strange aversion to his touch…something was lingering at the back of her mind, some intuition that was too foggy to make out…

Bou-san, watching from behind her-- made a strange noise, something between a snort and clearing his throat.

“Oh, what is this? Playing hard to get my dear?” a voice suddenly croaked.

A separate feeling of intuition struck Mai then. It was the sense that many interested pairs of eyes had turned on her, and one set of them belonged to Wise Obasan. Unfortunately, her psychic abilities did not fail her.

Daring to steal a glance away from Naru’s hand, which she had been staring at since it had dropped from her arm, Mai looked in the direction of the voice-- and regretted it.

Standing in a clearing of people, all peering with great curiosity at the awkward group assembled in the middle of the dance floor, Mai spotted the ancient matchmaker.

“Ah, there’s no need for games dear. It’s unnecessary when you’re destined to be together,” the old woman persisted, her knowing voice carrying loudly through the hushed town square.

Seriously?” a protesting voice cut in.

Mai’s gaze fell on Miss Miyuki and Masako standing near the front of the gathering-- and by the looks on their faces, neither seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was a victorious instant where she wanted to shout, ha!-- but her triumph over them was spoiled by the fact that she would have happily traded places. Being the center of Wise Obasan and Naru’s attention wasn’t all it cracked up to be…

Just then a voice all too familiar jumped in to take up the ancient woman’s cause,

“Yes-- yes, destined to be together-- just like my theater is destined to stand for all of time. Now, aren’t they supposed to be dancing? Where’s the music?”

Encouraged by Mr. Sachi, Wise Obasan grinned and nodded towards the band. As if waiting for her cue the entire time, they hurriedly nodded and took up their instruments. Mai watched this exchange darkly, long drawn out notes of a slow song filling the evening air.

I wonder if she threatened to burn their sheet music if they didn’t cooperate.

“I’ll just leave you to it then,” Bou-san suddenly announced, “and don’t worry about your partner Naru, I’ll make sure she doesn’t feel neglected while you spin around the dance floor.”

Mai startled at these words and whirled around on her partner, but she was too late. He had wisely slunk away from her vengeful reach. She could hear the hidden message in his voice clearly, this is your chance-- distract him!

Mai opened her mouth to shout after the treacherous monk, but someone knocked into her shoulder just then, catching her off guard.

Hey--

When Mai looked back, her partner had gone. Pursing her lips, Mai glared in the direction he had disappeared.

Oh no you don’t Bou-san! You think you can strand me out here with Naru while you question Miss Miyuki? That’s  my  mission!

Mai made to storm after him but she was jostled again, this time from behind, as yet another spinning couple collided with her. She barely caught their departing, sorry!-- before another pair of dancers breezed past.

Mai shrunk where she stood and crossed her arms over her chest protectively, seeing that now the dance floor was once again a moving sea of whirling bodies. And she was stuck in the middle.

“Now who’s holding people up?”

Before Mai could register the words, she was being pulled to the left, narrowing missing another errant couple.

Mai murmured a small thanks and feeling strangely self-conscious she tired to put space between herself and her boss, but Naru turned towards her with purpose.

Dumbfounded, Mai stared at him.

Is he isn’t really…going to dance with me?

But it turned out that was exactly what he intended to do. Without further remark or any real expression, he raised the wrist he had captured and his hand slid up to close around her fingers. Questions rushing through her head faster than the pairs of dancers brushing past them, Mai found herself in hold…with Naru.

The first thing Mai attempted to do was make sense of it all. She could feel the burning interest of the crowd they past. The two of them were Wise Obasan’s chosen.

But he can’t be doing this because of  her , can he? There’s no way!

This was Naru. He wasn’t the type to crack under pressure, be bribed, tricked, threatened, or blackmailed…it just wasn’t possible that the old match maker had managed to persuade him into dancing with her in front of so many gawking on lookers. She had no leverage with the head of SPR like she had with the town’s people of Nozomi.

Firmly dismissing this thought as ridiculous, that left room for an idea far more alarming.

If he isn’t doing Wise Obasan’s bidding, that means he’s doing this of his own free will…

Mai’s heart raced, and her feet slowed. Bou-san’s voice came back to her taunting and certain,

Naru likes you Mai.

Mai faltered. If she were Masako, she surely would have swooned. In the chaos of her mind, she did the very thing she didn’t want to do-- she looked him in the eye. And suddenly she was composed.

This isn’t a dance of romance. Naru doesn’t like me.

Mai recognized that expression-- and it wasn’t one of love. Naru’s features were set in a look of quiet determination; she could practically hear the questions waiting on his lips. Unfortunately she couldn’t relish in her victory over Wise Obasan and Bou-san’s theories. Naru with an agenda was even worse than Naru enamored.

Mai swallowed and shifted in the stiff hold she found herself in. From this alone, she couldn’t see how anyone interested in watching them could still think they were worthy of being selected as the chosen ones. There was so much room between their bodies that her real partner could have fit comfortably.

Bou-san, chicken! Who likes who? You just want Miss Miyuki to yourself!

“Mr. Miyuki.”

“Hm?”

Just like that Mai was jolted from the thoughtful daze she had been moving around in since she entered the dance floor. She managed to keep the panic out of her eyes, by narrowing them. It was the perfect trap. Naru (who perhaps learned a thing or two from Lin?) was an expert, having waited for just the right moment, giving her a chance to let her guard down, letting her become entirely preoccupied with other things and then-- he launched his attack. Mai made a face to cover her nerves at the sudden mention of the very man she wanted to hide from existence,

“Forget it. We’re dancing,” she admonished, “Everyone knows you don’t mix work and pleasure. I’m not a workaholic.”

Mai’s casual dismissal came out more or less firm and final. That’s it, her tone of voice said clearly, end of conversation. Disappointingly, this didn’t seem to concern Naru in the slightest.

“In the theater you said Mr. Miyuki’s name instead of mine. Why?”

Mai felt the momentary confidence she had in silencing Naru, drain away.

Oh sure he likes me Bou-san! That’s why instead of enjoying the first dance we’ve ever had, he’s interrogating me!

“Mai, answer the question.”

In a burst of frazzled energy, Mai practically shouted back at him,

“I was desperate; I thought it was a real fire! I was reaching out to anyone that could save me-- his name just came out!” His name. Not your name.

“You’ve seen him before.”

“No.”

“No? You mean you didn’t see him in the hall with Masako and Sachi?”

“Wait, yes. You confused me! I saw him that time-- but that was so quick, it doesn’t really count--”

Her thoughts catching up, Mai then eyed him critically, “But you already knew that. What are you trying to get at exactly?”

In the next instant though, she deeply regretted the question as the force of his answer hit her,

“The truth.”

Neither spoke after that. They each needed to regroup. Mai, breathing heavy looked away, frowning hard. The space between them crackled with tension and frustrated emotions.

No. He’s not going to make me feel   guilty.

She was going to keep her promise. Bou-san would help her, they would figure things out. While this reassuring thought eased some of the unexpected sting of Naru’s words, something small and nagging still felt as though it was pitted in her stomach. Mai defiantly ignored it. Because if she didn’t, she’d have to acknowledge that, even though she denied them at every turn, the words and ideas Bou-san and Wise Obasan shared-- had actually got her hopes up...and that would mean the nameless thing she was feeling now was the sinking feeling of disappointment.

But right at that moment, most prominently of all, Mai was tired. She didn’t have the stamina to dance with Naru any longer-- physically or mentally. Sighing through her nose, she looked back to her boss-- thinking that maybe she could bow out, but the look in his eyes when they met hers said that he was still clearly focused on the truth. Before he could speak again though, Mai changed the subject to something that put her on the attack.

“Not that you care, but I’m fine.”

It was supposed to come out implicating, a barb, reproachful, but her voice betrayed her emotions.

Naru likes you.

Naru doesn’t care.

Disregarding the way her throat tightened, Mai clenched her jaw and tried again,

“…well, you know-- aside from what the doctor said. Something about smoke inhalation, fatigue, and dehydration.”

Mai blinked. Did she just imagine it, or did Naru just squeeze her hand? Cautiously, she looked to him, but if she ever thought she could read his subtle expressions, this was one that she couldn’t. Though the lantern light around them wasn’t very strong, his face held an impenetrable shadowy quality.

“This dance is over,” he suddenly spoke, the band still playing behind them.

They came to a stop and Naru released her. That’s when she realized how close they had just been standing. At some point in those last few moments, he must have taken proper hold of her, for she sagged when she stood with the loss of his support.

She watched his progress through the crowded dance floor as the song officially ended, all the happy couples slowing their rapid steps. Her eyes followed him all the way to the edge-- and straight to Miss Miyuki. But not before he encountered Bou-san. Mai started, and took a panicked step forward, but it was just a brief exchange of words and then the head of SPR continued on, taking the heiress with him.

Mai was halfway to her partner before she realized her feet had moved. Excusing herself through the throng of people, Mai reached the monk who looked to her with an expression she wasn’t expecting. It was the same one he had given when he had left her and Naru alone together.

Bou-san, your theories are all wrong.

“What did he say? Are we chicken?” she questioned, refusing to acknowledge the knowing look he was directing at her.

“Chicken?” he repeated incredulously, “No, not after dancing with you.”

That dance, we’re you even watching? You don’t know the half of it…”

The monk smirked at her,

“You’re right, I don’t. I just know the part where he asked me to take care of you.”

Mai looked away from her triumphant partner and stared at the emptying dance floor, frowning.

Not that you care. She had said that to him.

Mai felt a warm hand on her shoulder. Her partner had come to stand beside her.

“See what I’m saying now?” he prompted, his gaze following hers, “Naru likes you.”

Chapter Text

Day Five

6:15pm

Nozomi Town Square

See what I’m saying now? Naru likes you…

Arms crossed, Mai watched absently as the dance floor became emptied of all its spinning couples. The musicians put down their instruments. With that, there was no longer any music to drown out the words ringing in her ears. Bou-san spoke them so confidently, so easily, as if it were so obvious…as if it made sense. This only frustrated Mai further.

According to the monk she was enough to drive the collected Naru to distraction. In Wise Obasan’s opinion she was apparently solitary Naru’s soul mate. If the dance she had just finished with him was anything to go by, they were both wrong…and yet, he had told Bou-san to take care of her.

Mai winced and frowned. Naru was a contradiction her tired mind couldn’t even begin to sort at that moment.

Knowing that her partner was waiting for a reaction to his last statement, Mai cleared her throat and shifted under the reassuring touch of his hand on her shoulder. She decided then that it was hopeless to argue. Whether she’d be any good as a distraction or not, it was her assignment now. Operation Miyuki had to work, this was their only lead. Miyuki. Miss Miyuki, had Bou-san already spoken with her? Mai glanced at the monk standing beside her, just about to question him on this, when a small pretty voice spoke from behind them,

“Takigawa-san? I must be leaving now, but I wanted to thank you for the dance.”

Mai blinked and turned in the same instance as her partner. There, standing just off to the left of them, was Nari. She gave a bob of her head and a kind smile to Mai, which was returned good-naturedly. With pleasant exchanges happily given and received, a nagging thought shouting for attention caused Mai to shift her gaze to the object of the actress’ gratitude,

Wait, he danced with Nari…when? What about--

“No, thank you,” Bou-san answered graciously, with a slight bow. The easy charm oozing out of him was enough to make Mai smirk despite the urge to roll her eyes, and it elicited a small blush from Nari.

“Oh-- you’re very welcome,” she murmured, all pink lips and cheeks, “And I’m sorry, but you’ll have to excuse me now, I should find Niko. See you soon.”

With smiles and much waving the two of them saw the actress off, her petite form quickly swallowed by the swarm of people clearing the area. After a beat, a few distracted people jostling into them, the monk made to move along as well,

“Come on Mai, it’s time we joined the others,” he began, reaching for her elbow, but Mai’s thoughts and temperament had already moved on-- with purpose she dodged his hand and pulled on his sleeve instead, halting him in his tracks.

“You danced with Nari?”

Her partner’s momentary surprise morphed into amused taunting, “Jealous?

As if,” Mai snorted.

“Liar,” Bou-san grinned.

Not to be so easily diverted, Mai drove her point home:

“What about Miss Miyuki?”

“Oh, I said hello--”

Mai gripped the monk’s sleeve tighter, her eyes widening,

“You said hello? What about the interrogation? You had me dance with Naru for nothing?

“Nothing? Don’t let him hear you say that, he won’t wash that hand for a week I’ll bet--”

“Bou-san!” Mai gave her infuriating partner’s shoulder a good swack, but given there was no real reaction, it must have been the wrong one, or it was finally healing…

Ignoring her incredulity, the monk took up both of her shoulders, “Mai, relax. This kind of thing takes time. I can’t just start my interrogation cold, we’ll never get any answers. I have to build trust, a relationship. I’ll spend tonight cozying up to her, and when the moment’s right, and you have Naru wrapped around your finger-- then I’ll strike.”

That. Bou-san.

Wrestling with the desire to pull her partner back out on the dance floor and step all over his feet, Mai fixed the unapologetic monk with a disbelieving look,

“There was no point in having me dance with him.”

“Sure there was. I established contact, learned a little more about my target-- and you built mood. I’d call phase one a success. ”

The sour frown Mai’s mouth had twisted into at the monk’s logic and his mention of mood, lifted in sudden interest:

“You learned something? About Miss Miyuki?”

The monk nodded and put a guiding arm around her, he began to move away from the dance floor, lowering his voice as he spoke,

“Like all skilled operatives know, finding common ground is key. Our conversation wasn’t really going anywhere, so on a whim, I brought up the fact that I’m in a band out of Tokyo.”

Mai’s face skewed up in confusion, “You thought there was a chance she’s a groupie?

It was Bou-san’s turn to look down at her exasperatedly,

“No, I didn’t think she was a groupie, Mai. I was just hoping she liked the city. Common ground, remember? Which, I’ll have you know was the perfect instinct. It turns out that’s where she lives. She works at an up-and-coming fashion house.”

Mai blinked, her feet shuffling automatically through the crowd, as she considered this. It made perfect sense: Miss Miyuki’s immaculate looks, her clothes. Mai had even thought of her as having come straight off a runway, or stepped out of magazine when she first meet her…an uncomfortable thought sprung up in Mai’s mind before she could stop it,

I’m supposed to be distracting Naru from a  model  tonight?

“Interesting, huh?” Bou-san continued, oblivious to his partner’s despairing thoughts, “She was plenty eager to talk of Tokyo, I don’t think Nozomi’s really her speed. It’s something I can build on, bring us closer.”

The monk’s tone was certain, he smirked in satisfaction. Mai looked away from him with a small sigh,

I’m glad one of us is confident that this will work…

With slow progress the two of them wound their way through the thick mass of people, eyes darting face to face.

Where are the others?

Naru had left with Miss Miyuki, and presumably Lin…but everyone else?

Mai twisted, craning her neck to get a better look at the profile of a young man who reminded her of John, but then he turned. Mai blew out her cheeks,

Not him.

Wondering if Bou-san was having any better luck with his height advantage, Mai made to tilt her head questioningly at him, but the gesture was cut short as in the next instant, she was forced to practically duck-- just narrowly avoiding an elbow to the face, courtesy of a woman to her right who had launched exuberantly into the arms of her lover.

“Whoa, passionate bunch. Better be careful,” the monk remarked, gripping her shoulders tighter as he whisked her a healthy distance away, “Don’t need you getting more injuries, do we?”

“Where is everyone?” Mai asked brushing at her sticky bangs, still a bit flustered from the near miss.

Her partner shrugged and opened his mouth, but just then the flow of the crowd came to an abrupt stop and the answer became clear.

Wise Obasan stood across from them in a small break from the throng, and a few feet from her, the rest of their missing SPR team. Mai’s eyes meet John’s and he gave a little start, a warm smile lighting his features at the sight of her, but her attention was torn away almost immediately as the ancient matchmaker spoke,

“Well, thank all of you for attending my little pre-festival ceremony. It is quite the turn out this year…” the old woman grinned as if she had just spoken some secret joke, “You’ve all been delightful to watch, but as you know, only a single pair of you will be deemed my chosen and thus selected as Mr. and Mrs. Miyuki.”

There was an excited murmur among the crowd, several young women near Mai giggled and tugged on their partner’s arms.

“I have narrowed down the candidates through this dance, but I can’t believe there can be much suspense in the matter this year. I think I have made my choice perfectly clear--”

The murmur went up a frenzied octave; Mai sensed the heads nearest her turn in her direction. Not missing the implication, Mai felt herself growing uncomfortable; she shifted, hoping to slip behind Bou-san…

“What are you doing? This is good for our mission. It’s the perfect cover for you being near Naru and not me tonight,” the monk whispered, resisting his partner’s attempts at slinking away.

Agitatedly, Mai pulled at his hands, which held her shoulders firmly,

“Bou-san, I am not being Wise Obasan’s chosen-- that’s ridiculous…”

A cackle of laughter halted Mai’s struggles; Wise Obasan was talking again,

“Ah, there can be no doubt, but still-- it’s been wonderful to see you all. We shall meet again tonight when I make the official announcement.”

There was a smattering of applause, low mutters were shared as the audience watched the ancient woman turn and hobble away, surprisingly light on her feet. Pointedly ignoring the departing I’m-up-to-something glint in the matchmaker’s eyes, Mai hurriedly shrugged her partner’s hands from her shoulders. Free from the crowd’s interest and the monk’s grasp, Mai stepped forward. Bouncing on her toes, she attempted to spot John again through the newly moving sea of people.

Where are they  now?

That’s getting off easy.”

Mai dropped down, her focus broken, “Hm?”

“Wise Obasan,” Bou-san spoke, a slight confused frown pulling at his features, his gaze still lingering where the ancient woman had stood, “Don’t you think it’s a bit weird the way she just left?”

Weird?” Mai repeated absently, distracted by a couple shamelessly intertwined right in front of her.

Catching sight of the look on her face, the monk snorted, then took up his partner’s hand and pulled her along,

“Yes, weird. She didn’t call on you or Naru, even though she mentioned her chosen. She didn’t even bring up your passionate dance…nothing. Something’s not right.”

Watching the oblivious couple disappear behind them, the grimace Mai was making changed into an uncertain frown,

“What are you saying Bou-san?”

“What I’m saying is, you saw that glint in her eyes--” the monk shuddered here (perhaps remembering his close encounters with the woman…), “I’d be on high alert tonight if I were you.”

At this, Mai’s frown deepened. She wanted nothing more than to turn to her partner and firmly dismiss his worries-- you’re just being paranoid Bou-san…but she faltered. A feeling of unease grew within her. In successive flashes, she recalled the scene at the theater that very morning. The threat of fire, the panic, the rescue…

The words of caution Nari and Mr. Sachi (Wise Obasan’s previous chosen) had shared filled her head with haunting clarity:

“…you're not familiar with this woman but let me tell you... if you've been chosen there is no escape..."

"…she will try everything to get you to agree to be her chosen. She made Joji believe I was drowning..."

Heart beginning to race, Mai shook her head as if she could shake off the validity of the monk’s concerns, but unbidden a final memory surfaced in her mind and sealed her newly formed doubts: the ancient matchmaker outside the Inn, her selecting Naru and Mai as soul mates, Naru disregarding the idea, her vowing against him:

"You know nothing of my demonstrations. You are a match. The  best  match and everyone will know as much tonight..."

And now the time had come. This was tonight. Mai swallowed with some difficulty, her palms had become clammy.

That Wise Obasan.

“Hey,” a voice belonging to neither Nari, Mr. Sachi, nor Wise Obasan, prompted.

Pulled from her troubled thoughts, Mai looked up at her partner. He gave her shoulder a light squeeze, concern still laced his features, but she found for a new reason other than the tyrant matchmaker,

“You’ve gone a bit pale there, you okay?”

“Oh,” Mai responded, blinking any lingering revere away, “I’m fine, just thinking…”

“About…what? About Wise Obasan?”

Mai nodded silently, lips pursed, but then she tilted her head in curiosity as a new idea occurred to her,

Does he remember her threat? He was there.

Jumping on her chance, Mai went to open her mouth, but the monk was already speaking again, a smirk forming on his lips,

“I knew it couldn’t have been about Naru, you weren’t blushing.”

Mai elbowed her partner and then fixed him with a stern look,

“You’re right about it being weird. The more I think on it, I can’t be the distraction. I should perform the interrogation. It’s just too risky otherwise--”

Not even halfway through, Mai could already see the protests forming on the monk’s lips. Hurriedly she added, “You know, considering Wise Obasan’s agenda and my health. She could try something really dangerous this time…”

This point had some effect: the monk’s gaze turned grim and thoughtful, he clenched his jaw as if mulling over his defeat, his brow furrowing…but in the next moment his face suddenly cleared,

“Hm, good argument, but there’s a flaw,” he whispered leaning down towards her.

Mai glanced at him, confused by his hushed tone, but then she noticed the small group of people they were approaching: Ayako, Masako, and John.

Finally!

Nearly upon them now, Bou-san spoke quickly, his voice low,

“If you’re concerned about the risk, where is it safer than next to Naru? If you get into any trouble at all, he’ll just save you again, and you’ll have a nice new memory to blush over.”

That Bou-san.

Ready to counter his weak logic, glaring at the monk’s grin, she was seconds away from extracting sweet revenge, her fingers finding his shoulder…but there was no time for retaliation-- they were within earshot of the group and Masako had stepped forward to intercept them,

“Unbelievable,” she began, an angry glint in her dark eyes.

Mai was surprised at her tone before she realized that the events of that evening could not have been very pleasant for her rival. It had apparently touched a jealous nerve with the usually unflappable medium.

If you only knew Masako…

Tired, and not particularly up for a fight, Mai opened her mouth to try and say something soothing, like she had been forced to dance with Naru (which was, sadly true…), but in the next instant she swallowed those words as the medium raised an elegant hand to her,

What--

Mai flinched, thinking that the worst has happened and the famous psychic had lost it in an envious fit (she knew it would have to happen someday!)-- when rather than a slap, she felt a firm, but gentle, pressure on her forehead.

Still tense, Mai slowly opened her eyes and blinked uncertainly at her rival. Masako stared back, observing her with her lips pursed thoughtfully. There was still a hardness to her gaze, but it confusingly didn’t seem directed at Mai…

“Well, a bit warm-- but who knows how it’ll be later when you’ve gone and exerted yourself like this? Really, you’d think someone of that age would have more common sense.”

“Huh?” Mai mumbled, her confusion lingering. She didn’t know whether to be insulted or not…

Masako’s hand dropped away and she tucked it tightly into her other arm against her chest, her disgust quite apparent,

“Wise Obasan,” the medium finally clarified, noting Mai’s puzzled look, “You had no business out on that dance floor. You can’t dance as it is, and then she’s got you paired with Naru of all people, trying to manage a two-step while half dead on your feet.”

That Masako.

Mai felt herself grow hot at her rival’s obvious jabs, she now had a strong urge to recount the dance she had apparently butchered, relishing over the fact that it took place in Naru’s arms-- but something in Masako’s manner stopped her.

It was subtle, and the medium was doing her best to hide it, but Mai suspected she sensed genuine concern somewhere under all of that mock interest in her health.

“And who let her go out there like that?” Ayako suddenly chimed in, coming up to inspect Mai herself.

Mai just had time to see her partner raise an eyebrow, before her face was captured in the miko’s hands, and her attention was turned over to the woman’s nursing ministrations.

Great, here they go again…

“Wise Obasan said her chosen had to dance together.”

Please, you’re her partner. The only person she had to dance with is you.”

“You heard Mr. Sachi, the old biddy was going to burn down his theater or worse if they didn’t!”

You care about his theater?”

“Mai wanted to dance!”

Ayako’s only response was a derisive snort. Her careful eyes still focused on her patient, she commented,

“You’re the picture of fatigue.”

There was a lingering implication left hanging in the air: because Bou-san had you dance…

“Oy,” the monk protested, casting a glance at Mai’s pale face before glaring at the back of Ayako’s head, “you’re not really trying to place blame on--”

The miko released Mai’s chin, and pointedly ignoring Bou-san’s angry objections, spoke over him,

“John, can you give Mai your arm? We need to be heading back to the Inn.”

Standing out of the line of fire, avoiding the daggers both monk and priestess where throwing at each other with their gazes, John nodded and came forward,

“Of course,” he agreed, offering her a supportive hand.

Mai took it with a grateful smile, “Thanks John.”

“Shall we?”

Ayako turned on heel, the crowd nearly cleared from the town square around them. It was time to get ready for the festival. Satisfied that her partner had Mai in his care, Masako nodded and swiftly followed after. That left the three of them: Mai, John, and Bou-san, to trail along...the latter leering dangerously after the priestess.

Thinking things were settling down, Mai relaxed her shoulders a bit, and leaned against John’s support. The group managed three more feet before Ayako jerked to a stop and snapped her head around. As if still silently fuming, and compulsively needing the last word, she spoke to the monk directly,

“By the way, I know exactly what happened. Mai needed to dance with Naru, because you needed to put the moves on his partner. That’s right, I saw you chatting Miss Miyuki up. Disgusting.”

With this, she took several long strides in her heels and marched ahead. Mai’s eyes widened.

Uh-oh.

That wasn’t it at all…but their plan, they couldn’t reveal it--

Mai threw a helpless look back at her partner; surely this would provoke something out of him. But his expression was neutral. He subtly shook his head, as if to say don’t worry about it.

Mai crinkled her brow, but-- her eyes shouted at him. I don’t care, he mouthed under her probing stare, dismissing her concern-- but his crossed arms and tense posture seemed to tell a different story.

Mai bit her lip and turned away,

Great.

There was a guilty twinge to her stomach. This misunderstanding was because of her, because of Mr. Miyuki, because of the secret…

Unintentionally, it seemed the mystery surrounding the ghostly playwright was now driving a wedge between Ayako and Bou-san, just as it had between herself and Naru. This wasn’t what she wanted.

It’ll be okay, I’ll clear everything up. We just need a little more time-- a chance to find out what Miss Miyuki knows…

It was the thick scent of lilies wafting on the air that drew Mai from her worries. That, and the voice accompanying it,

“There are so many. I wonder if they grow them locally?”

Mai blinked away the consuming images of Mr. Miyuki, Naru, and Bou-san from her focus, to pay proper attention to John’s question. They were halfway back to the Inn now, and passing under the strands and strands of lilies the townspeople of Nozomi had strung up. Mai was also stuck by the sheer number of them, they were integral part of the festival and used for most of the proceedings. She had not considered how they were able to gather so many.

“Locally? Do you think?” Mai wondered in reply, grateful for the distraction. It stopped her from dwelling.

Holding his arm, she managed a small smile in a surge of affection for the young priest. Whether he realized her anxious state or not, it was just like him to give relief from whatever was bothering her.

“I remember at one of the festival meetings, Mrs. Koku said that the moon lily is native to Nozomi. Maybe they grow this variety here too?”

Moon lily.

Mai had opened her mouth to agree that they must…but at the mention of the significant flower, the words stalled in her throat.

She kept forgetting.

She had been given one.

It was back in her room, under her pillow, unthought-of in the chaos of the day. Swallowing harder than she intended, Mai shook her head, attempting to keep up with the conversation,

“That’s right,” she nodded, hoping John didn’t notice the pause, “There must be lily fields somewhere near here…”

Genuinely interested, Mai gazed out through the gathering dark, but the trees surrounding Nozomi were dense. There was no obvious cleared land.

“We should ask Mr. Sachi,” the young priest suggested, his curiosity matching Mai’s, “He would probably know something about it.”

“Good idea,” Mai nodded.

“If it’s true, let’s go see the fields together,” John suggested with an encouraging smile.

“Definitely. I’ll hold you to it. You still owe me a dance you know…” Mai reminded, nudging him gently, thinking on other plans they had made.

“You always seem to be partnered up,” John pointed out, careful to avoid mentioning her most recent one.

Mai snorted and pulled a face, “You have my permission to cut in whenever you’d like.”

John raised his eyebrows, silently wondering (not for the first time) what he must have missed earlier that day-- but gave a ready nod, “Alright then, my next dance is all yours.”

Put at ease by her friend’s company, Mai found herself feeling much less agitated by the time the group reached the Inn.

I can handle this. We’ll get the answers we need tonight.

Having lead them (and hurriedly at that), Masako and Ayako were already waiting at the front door of the Koku’s when they shuffled up. Through her growing exhaustion, Mai still had a sense enough to detect something odd as she glanced over at the two. They were standing close, their heads bent together... as if they had been talking.

Hmph. What could they have to say to each other..?

Mai felt the weight of their eyes, and then the answer struck her.

They're  still worried.

Mai frowned and messed self-consciously with her bangs, thinking how terrible she must look to make them stare.

And I’m supposed to distract Naru tonight,  right

Masako came away from the door, with purpose, and peered into her rival’s face,

“You should really sit this one out, Taniyama. That old woman is out of her mind, making up ridiculous relationships. Who knows what she’ll get up to tonight? You’re better off in bed.”

Mai blinked back at the medium, trying not to be too suspicious, uncertain what to do with the friendly concern she was being offered. The bonus Naru jabs certainly weren’t helping...and as if determined to put Mai off any good will-- the psychic continued smoothly,

“Rest, and think nothing of that chosen business. I’ll be sure to keep Naru close. Wise Obasan won’t have a leg to stand on with me around.”

It’s not a leg that she needs…” Bou-san muttered, listening in from somewhere behind Mai.

That Masako.

Her frayed nerves prickling, Mai opened her mouth to say thank you, but no thank you, at Masako’s obvious attempts to lock her away-- but with a flash return of genuineness, the medium pulled back and turned a set of serious eyes on the young man standing beside Mai.

“I have to be going to Mr. Sachi’s now, I’m already late, but I’ll meet up with you later. Keep an eye on her.”

Still acting as Mai’s crutch, John gave his friend a quick look and squeeze to the hand,

“I’ll make sure she’s taken care of,” he agreed, attention returning to the medium.

“We’ll all make sure,” Bou-san assured, his hand coming to rest on top of Mai’s head affectionately.

Some are better at that than others it seems…

The monk’s head swung in the direction of the front door, but Ayako had already turned around, her red hair swishing behind her as she disappeared into the Inn.

“Never mind her,” Mai murmured, “I know you’ll look out for me. She knows it too-- it’s just…”

Mai broke off awkwardly here, noticing both Masako and John looking on with interest.

“She doesn’t bother me,” Bou-san dismissed promptly with a shrug and ruffle to her hair, “Are we going to head in?”

But Mai caught the low tone to his words and frowned to herself.

Sure you’re not bothered…

The sky was indigo over the low structure of the Koku Inn, everyone murmured that they were ready and Masako parted from them, with one last long look at Mai.

Fidgety with all the concerned stares and appraisals, Mai walked at a faster pace than before, with John at her arm. She wanted to be at her room as soon as possible. Bou-san followed in their wake in a thoughtful silence.

They reached her door without incident, the halls sparse with most people busy getting dressed up for the festival. That would be a different story in a matter of an hour, when dinner would be served. Mai planned on a quick change. She had no intention of being late this time.

Thanking John for his assistance (she hadn’t realized how tired she had become…), Mai stepped into her room and shut the door behind her, catching Bou-san’s significant look through the crack as it closed and he passed by, on the way to his own room. It clearly said: I’ll be over soon.

They had talking to do. But not now. For the first time in what felt like ageMai had a moment to herself. Coming to stand at the edge of her bed, she heaved a sigh. The covers were thrown back, left undone in her hurry to leave that morning. She had been running to--

Him.

Mai blinked, and brought a tired hand to her forehead. Had it really just been that morning when they settled on partners? It hadn’t been a total failing though; she had fended off Masako, but…

Miss Miyuki.

She would have her turn facing her that night it seemed. She was supposed to distract Naru from a model. A model. Mai fell sideways into her bed with a grunt. She closed her eyes and was lost in a moment of dizzying relief. Sleep was a welcome thing at this point; she could probably stay curled up this way for a whole week. Maybe Masako was right? Maybe she was better off in bed…

Mai frowned as if she had a bad taste in her mouth. She threw herself over, and opened her eyes.

No. I’m doing this. Masako and Miss Miyuki are going to have to deal with me tonight.

Staring at the ceiling, it was as if her mind was a tape and someone had pressed rewind. The events of the day all rush in on her:

The Kioko dream…

The mad dash for partners…

Wise Obasan…

The theater fire…

The rescue…

Operation Kioko…

Lin’s interrogation…

Operation Miyuki…

A second dream…

Ayako closing in…

The dance with Naru…

Her assignment now…

The festival. That was next.

Mai frowned, her head throbbing. Restlessly she threw an arm out-- and made contact with something other than her sheets…something delicate

Curious, she lifted her head a fraction-- but she knew before her gaze settled on the object. Its perfume scented the air, its pollen dusted her hand, the discovery of it in her room the night before danced through her memory,

A moon lily.

Mai’s fingers closed around the stem. Captivated, she held it before her nose, studying its petals. Someone given her this. Someone.

Who?

Mai groaned. She had had enough with mysteries. Since stepping foot in Nozomi she had been up to her neck in them. It was in that moment that she remembered the greatest one of them all: Mr. Miyuki. Her recollection of the last ten hours had left out one key point, she had told his secret. In the next second, startling her, there was a knock at her door, followed by--

“Mai?”

Recognizing Bou-san's voice, she sat up. It was time to talk. 

 

Chapter Text

Day Five

 

 

7:00pm

The Koku Inn



There was a soft click as the door closed, and then there was Bou-san, standing in her room.

"I took extra precautions just to be safe-- pretended like I dropped something outside your door and had to pause to pick it up. Then double checked, but I had no tails on me. Coast was clear. Pretty good, huh? Hey, you feeling worse?

The self-satisfied smirk pulling at his lips fell at the sight of her lying there. Mai waved his concern away, scrambling to edge of the bed to sit properly,

I’m okay, I was just resting a bit.”

Concern lingered in his features as his gaze travelled over her,

You hardly look it. Mai, I know we have a lot of planned for tonight, but if you think you’re not up-”

No, this is it Monk. I’m fine, I promise,” she reassured hurriedly, refusing to let their chance go, not to mention…

Miss Miyuki and Masako won’t get off that easy.

Her partner sank into the bed beside her, his eyes trained on her unrelentingly,

Maybe you think that, but I’m supposed to be looking out for you…” he reminded.

The tone of his voice lowered at this statement and Mai frowned, recalling Ayako’s unjust accusations.

Bou-san,” she protested, taking his arm, “you do look after me. You help me, and you’re going help me get answers. Tonight.

She smiled up at him, and he gazed down with the same unconvinced stare, but after a beat, his expression softened into something like bemusement, and he let out a sigh,

Alright, alright. Does this mean you’re on board for your assignment then?”

He quirked an eyebrow at her, and Mai shifted where she sat. She would have loved to give in to her desire to be irritated with her partner, as she could just feel his knowing grin. But his good humor had just returned and she had grudgingly accepted her part in operation Miyuki. She was going to distract Naru.

Still, that doesn’t mean I’m excited about it. Quit giving me that stupid look Bou-san!

Mai released the monk’s arm to cross her own as she answered,

Yes, I’ll keep him busy while you talk with Miss Miyuki.”

Her partner’s grin widened, but catching the warning look she threw him, he seemed to think better of making any insinuating remarks and instead replied,

Great. Well that’s settled, but-- as nice as it would be to discuss your plans for distracting Naru-- it’s not actually what I came here for…”

Mai blinked and turned her attention back to the monk, “You mean, Mr. Miyuki .”

Bou-san gave a meaningful nod, his face adopting a more business like expression.

Mai worried at her lip, talking- out loud - about Mr. Miyuki still felt strange… wrong …but she had already brought the monk in. He deserved to know the whole story. He needed to know, if he was going to help.

Where should I start?” she began, her mind a sudden jumbled mess of ghostly encounters.

Well, as much as I’d like the unabridged version-- we really don’t have the luxury of that at the moment. The festival starts in under an hour, and before that, there’s dinner. How about I ask the critical questions, and you fill me in?”

The critical questions. Alright,” Mai agreed, hoping the monk didn’t notice the touch of color that rose to her cheeks at the mention of dinner.

Festival dinners had become synonymous with hide-under-the-table embarrassment. She had yet to get through one unscathed. What would this one be like?

Distracting.

Mai swallowed and pulled herself free from her panicked dwellings just in time to hear her partner’s first question,

When did you first see Mr. Miyuki?”

Oh, uh-- the day we met Niko. He came to me in a dream, one of those dreams…I was standing in that room we found the picture in. I asked Mr. Sachi about it when I was investigating with Masako, I guess it was his office. It’s been locked up tight since his death.

I didn’t know you had gotten a chance to ask. You were thwarted by Naru that first time,” his baiting glance at her was ignored here and he continued, “but this is important. If it truly was sealed like that, Mr. Miyuki means business. The energy it must have taken to unlock it for you, so that you could go and retrieve the picture…”

Her partner whistled low and Mai startled from an unexpected memory: the playwright’s ghost in the theater when she had fallen through the stage, him pulling her to safety, his exhausted manner afterwards, the exertion in speaking the word ‘go’ to her…

He’s desperate. We have to help…

Bou-san, he’s pouring everything he has into guiding us. If the picture was worth that much effort in getting it into my hands, it has to hold the answers we need.”

That’s what tonight is all about, right? Don’t worry Mai, we’ll help him,” the monk assured, recognizing the mixture of compassion and conviction that now animated her pale and tired features.

His young partner was lead by her feelings and intuition, if she decided to fight for something or someone, she would never quit until she succeeded, or was brought down kicking and screaming. His lips curved in an approving smile.

Oblivious to the monk, the concern she had for another reviving her, Mai leaned over to the small nightstand beside the bed. Her fingers closed around the picture so frequently discussed, and yet still so mysterious. A little girl, unknown.

Bou-san help me, what do we know about this picture?”

Her partner made a thoughtful noise and his large hand covered hers, procuring the photo,

We thought it was of a favorite of Mr. Miyuki’s,” he recalled, “- an actress maybe…but after you saw that portrait of Yoshi Miyuki-”

There was such a strong resemblance. I was so sure…”

Mai blinked, recalling what she had seen in Mr. Miyuki’s dark room, a frame filled with the young Mrs. Miyuki, her hair cropped short. No smile, no golden curls. There was still a chance she could have been mistaken, and she might have believed so, but if it weren’t for the memory she had fallen into just a short time ago: Mr. Miyuki had been there. He was the one who took the picture of the girl. It couldn’t have been Yoshi…

It wasn’t his wife, but that’s why we have operation Miyuki in place. Miss Miyuki must know who it is in this picture--”

And whoever Kioko is,” Mai finished, nodding with pursed lips.

In the next moment the photo was handed back, and Bou-san’s voice drew her stare from the girl in the picture,

We’ve gotten a little off track here,” he commented, tapping the edge of the photo, “There’s not much time, you should be getting ready-- but there’s one more thing I need to ask…”

Oh.

Mai ducked her head in guilt. Her passionate need to aid Mr. Miyuki, to solve the mystery surrounding him, had derailed their original conversation. And stolen most of their time.

Sorry, Bou-san…”

He laid a heavy hand on her head dismissively,

There’s plenty of time to talk later. Just tell me this. I know why we’re doing what we’re doing tonight, interrogating Miss Miyuki, trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on here…I just don’t know what for. What’s this secrecy you’ve been sworn to? If Naru was in on this, we wouldn’t have to separate him from Miss Miyuki. He would probably have already asked all the right questions and Lin would have her answers typed up, ready to analyze. In fact, the whole team would help--”

Mai blinked. She could have imagined it, but she thought she caught something in his voice there... regret?

Is he thinking of Ayako?

--we could use their resources. I’m committed to this Mai, I want to solve this case, but I need to understand why no one else can know. At first I thought we were keeping it from Naru because you two were having another lover’s quarrel and you wanted one up on him, and I was fine with that-- oy, easy!”

There was a definite change in his voice here, Mai had none too gently nudged him in the ribs.

Lover’s quarrel, as if.

That Bou-san.

Geez,” he murmured rubbing his side and decidedly putting more space between them, but there was a sparkle in his eye that said he was more amused by her reaction than injured.

Preempting any teasing comment, Mai recollected herself-- attempting an answer she wasn’t quite sure of herself.

Why?

You’re right Bou-san. This case would probably be solved already if we had...” Mai paused. Naru’s help came to mind but, but defiantly she squashed that thought-- “…the help of everyone. The hard part about this is that Mr. Miyuki never told me not to tell-- but in every dream he’s there, holding a finger to his lips, his eyes pleading with me not to say anything...so I haven’t, up until now. Nobody can know he exists Bou-san. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but there must be a reason.”

A look of deep thought settled over the monk’s features. There was a moment of quiet as the two of them sat there, minds full of the restrictions and their consequences in taking on the Miyuki case.

Sneaking a look at her partner’s face, Mai had a worrying feeling that maybe her explanation wouldn’t be enough. Without seeing the ghostly playwright before him, his dire gesture for silence, would her partner really blindly agree to go at odds with the rest of the SPR team and help to keep this secret?

Ayako.

It’s not fair to him.

I’m asking too much…

Feeling a fresh surge of guilt well up, Mai opened her mouth to try and fix it, release him from his obligation of helping her-- but he spoke first,

You’ve told me now, and nothing’s happened-- right? No vengeful ghostly visit? Maybe it has to do with trust? I’d say he’s a pretty good judge of character to choose you, maybe he needs more time with the rest of us? I’ll guard his secret, until we figure things out. Then we can pull everyone in on it. And in the meantime, it’s actually kind of entertaining playing spy games with Naru.”

At the smirk that spread across the monk’s face, Mai let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding. He was going to stick it out with her. He wasn’t going to leave her alone in this chaotic mess. Already feeling vulnerable from the trying events of that day, Mai smiled back, but then had to look away, rubbing at her eyes.

I wish I knew the reason Bou-san,” she murmured, staring down at her lap until she was sure her sudden tears had dissipated.

Well, maybe we’ll know soon, hm? I think we’re on to something,” he persisted.

His tone had lightened considerably; he seemed to have put his heavy thoughts behind him. With the instincts of a cunning spy, his focus quickly returned to operation Miyuki, “ My assignment is already underway; I’ll continue to get friendly with Miss Miyuki. And then, interrogation time. It’s your turn Mai. Feeling particularly distracting?”

Mai snorted, her gaze taking a full view of the dirty contents of her suitcase strewn about the floor (the result of her shaking out all her clothes that morning in her rush to partner up with…a certain someone ): Niko’s aunt satin dress laid dully at her feet, and even Masako’s kimono, which she had most recently worn, looked dingy in the dim light of her room.

Define distracting Bou-san, because if you think for even half a second I’m going to be attractive distracting compared to Miss Miyuki in a fifty year old dress, and fevered-- think again.”

Her partner’s eyebrows rose at her flat rejection of what he was implying at the word distracting , but to her chagrin-- he didn’t seem put off in the slightest,

Hm. We’ll see, huh?”

That Bou-san.

Mai stood, throwing a hard look back at his defiant certainty. It was her that was put off. What made him so confident? Did he… know something?

No, impossible--

Didn’t you hear anything I just said, but nevermind-- keep thinking what you’d like about what’s going to happen tonight. I promise to hold up my end, Naru will be too busy to care about you spiriting Miss Miyuki away.”

That same strange knowing painted across his face, the monk stood also, and proving that he hadn’t heeded her at all, he remarked:

For better or worse, you’re more distracting to Naru than you know.”

Mai’s gaze snapped to his in surprise, then hastily retreated. Blinking rapidly, struggling to not to appear affected, she cleared her throat and replied,

Thanks Bou-san, but I don’t need a pep talk. I already told you that I’ll do my part. Distracting or not.”

Pep talk? Try the truth,” her partner countered, shooting her a pointed look, “Anyways, the final countdown to operation Miyuki has begun. You have T-minus thirty minutes to hone your arts of distraction.”

Mai, who wasn’t much appreciating the monk’s vague insinuations, disregarded his attempt at changing the subject before she was done with it,

Wait, what's that supposed to mean? The truth? You make a lot comments about Naru lately...why?”

Her words came out in a flustered huff, she could see the monk heading for her door. If he moved another inch without answering her, she was going to cut him off.

His reply was murmured under his breath, his back to her as he proceeded to leave,

I’m trying to make it fair. Since you two seem to insist on playing this game…

Mai, bewildered by what he said, didn’t try and stop him. He gave a quick goodbye, made plans to be back soon to pick her up for dinner, and then he was gone.

Mai stood in his wake, her head swirling with questions.

Fair? To make it…fair?

Mai groaned and scrunched her hair up in her fingers. She was too tired for this. She had too much to think on, without adding Bou-san and his cryptic allusions to the mix.

Mai’s gaze fell on the window across her room and she determinedly pushed her confusion aside. Darkness had settled on Nozomi, and if she wasn’t careful she’d end up late for dinner.

I am not going to be late.

Five minutes later found her kneeling on her bed, alternately picking up and tossing down different articles of clothing. Nearly everything she had brought with her was now dirty. With all that she owned spread out before her, her situation became starkly clear. She had nothing decent to wear, let alone anything along the lines of distracting .

Mai wiped her bangs out of her eyes for the umpteenth time, ignoring the fact that her forehead was more than a little warm to the touch, and sighed. She had to wear something . Sliding off the bed she bent down and took up Masako’s kimono. It was her only option.

I hope she doesn’t mind if I borrow it again .

Mai was pretty sure the chance to wear it had initially been a one-time offer…but desperate times called for desperate measures. She’d risk Masako’s wrath.

She can’t very well rip it off me?” she murmured to herself, envisioning herself as Cinderella and Masako as one of her evil stepsisters. Mai frowned and shook her head.

Concentrate. Time to make this work.

The shimming fabric wrinkled in her hands, she gave the forlorn kimono a couple good shakes, but only succeeded in making herself out of breath. A bit red in the face, she laid it out across her bed, running palm after palm over the obnoxious creases that had formed overnight. No use.

Standing back, hands on hips, Mai glared down at the heap of material. It looked nothing like the stunning silken garment that Masako had pulled out of the box twenty-four hours before. Even worse, she noticed with alarm, there was a large spot were dirt seemed to be buried into the fibers…in a flash of successive memories she recalled the damaging incident:

The festival grounds.

The abandoned stage.

Hiding from Mr. Sachi and his mystery woman, crouched on the ground.

Naru turning up and--

Manhandling.

Mai felt her face flush, additional heat radiating from her cheeks and forehead. She told herself it was anger, and her fever.

Just the thought of him makes me ill!

Coming to the end of her patience, and feeling the press of time against her, Mai stood debating whether she might not try and see if she could borrow an iron at least from the Inn, but the last time she attempted to do that-- her eyes fell on the satin dress crumbled against the wall-- she was helped by Mrs. Koku. Mai shuddered at the idea of being caught alone with that woman again, and changed her mind about the wrinkles.

They're not so bad, and it’ll be dark…

Mai, so absorbed in her dilemma, didn’t hear the door knob turn. She was nearly startled out of skin in the next moment when a voice broke into the staring contest she was having with the offending kimono,

It’s late in the evening…she’s wondering what clothes to wear…

Mai whirled around, dropping the kimono in the process,

Oy, careful! You could have tripped--”

Bou-san!”

What? You don’t like my singing?”

You scared me! What are you doing lurking at my door?”

The monk, who had hurried forward at her panicked movements, tutted at her,

I wondered how getting ready was coming along, I guess not that well…”

Mai bent down and picked up the discarded kimono,

You didn’t need to check up on me, I’m figuring it out.”

Oh, you’ve got it all taken care of then? That Masako number is going to do the trick? Is that dirt--”

Mai snorted ,

Masako number? That Bou-san!

It was an accident, now out-- how am I supposed to be distracting when you’re in here distracting me?”

Mai you can’t wear that, look at it! Masako is going to have a fit-- and what accident was that by the way…?

Mai seeing that her words weren’t going to be persuasion enough, she crossed over to the monk and began backing him out of the room,

We covered the critical questions earlier, and I am not wearing Niko’s aunt’s dress again-- so it’s the kimono or nothing.”

Mai bit her tongue. Her partner’s face suddenly transformed into a look of mischievous delight,

Well, given those choices-- nothing would be distracting…oy!”

A well placed swack made contact with his shoulder. In his amusement he had forgotten how close Mai was standing.

What? It would be distracting! So would that dirt stain on Masako’s kimono, for that matter…but that’s not quite the distracting we’re going for, is it? How about a third option?”

The monk had wisely moved away from her, giving her and her glowering stare a wide berth. He watched with some relief as she lowered her arm while she listened. He was now right next to the door. Mai titled her head at his proposal,

What do you mean a third option, Bou-san? I told you I have nothing else--”

Allow me to present option number three,” her partner interrupted, making a grand gesture towards the doorway.

Is that my cue?” Nari asked as she peeked her head in.

Mai blinked, surprised to see the actress’ petite form smiling at her door,

My third option is--

Nari?” Mai spoke, her confusion written plainly across her face.

Is option three,” Bou-san finished for her, beaming triumphantly.

Takigawa-san told me what an important night this is for you, and I wanted to help, if I could,” the actress kindly elaborated, seeing that Mai still seemed a bit uncertain of what was going on, glancing at her partner with wondering looks.

At the word help , Mai noticed that Nari had not come empty handed-- she raised three objects: a hanger with a stunning dress hung from it, a pair of incredible heels, and what looked like a cosmetics bag.

Oh , Mai thought finally understanding, she’s going to help ...

Bou-san came away from the doorway and approached his partner, his hand coming down to pat her head. He spoke smilingly, but in a tone too quiet for Nari to hear,

See, with some assistance from headquarters, you’ll be distracting yet Agent Taniyama.”

So, he arranged this for me?

Mai felt her previous irritation with her partner abate (originally inspired by his vague comments about Naru and his insistence that she would be distracting no matter who she was going up against), a surge of appreciation taking its place. With how and when and thanks waiting on her lips, the monk turned from her to grin at Nari,

I guess I’ll leave you both to it, thank you again.”

It’s really no trouble, I was in the same position myself not too long ago…”

This last part was murmured with a slight conscious coloring of her cheeks. Not wanting to embarrass her, Mai quickly looked away. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Bou-san do the same. In the next moment he was speaking of coming back soon to get her for dinner.

She’s thinking of Mr. Sachi.

What a jerk.

A beat later, Mai’s anger at the playwright was wiped out with another idea,

But what did she mean....in the same position…?

She doesn’t think-- she can’t think… that Naru is to me what Mr. Sachi is to her?

Mai felt a sudden tap to her shoulder and she was yanked from the crash of thoughts pouring through her head of misunderstandings, failed romance, and troublesome men--

Hey, you with us?” her partner coaxed, eyeing her oddly.

Mai shook herself, and mustering up a smile, looked from Nari to Bou-san with sudden alertness,

Uh, yes. Sorry. Thirty minutes will be fine.”

Her stumbling answer, based on a vague assumption, seemed miraculously to satisfy him. The monk nodded, though not without an extra-long stare at her, and then made for the door. Once it was closed behind him, Nari came forward, all the regret Mai had seen in her features, replaced by a bright look.

Mai attempted to mirror this expression, truly relieved that the actress had come to rescue her from her dressing misery, but…

Mr. Sachi.

Naru is not my Mr. Sachi.

Preoccupied by the misunderstanding she was certain they were heading for, Mai didn’t notice Nari speaking until she was nearly done,

“…housekeeping can’t be a focus. But I can see these must have been your choices?”

Mai heard her with a start,

Housekeeping...? Oh.

A flush creeping up her neck, Mai turned and hurried about the room, snatching up her discarded clothes that were strewn about the room, stepping on Masako’s kimono once or twice in the process.

What am I doing? I’m supposed to be distracting-- not distracted. Concentrate Taniyama!

In still contrast to the flurry of action Mai was preforming, Nari calmly picked up the abandoned kimono and satin dress of festival nights past and laid them at the end of Mai’s unmade bed. Her sparkling eyes told Mai she was more amused with the mess she found herself in, than repulsed,

Don’t trouble yourself Taniyama-san, you should see my dressing room most days. There’s only so much time, shall we begin?”

Mai halted, in the middle of stuffing another shirt into her bag, and managed,

Oh, right.”

With happy deliberation, Nari then set down the dress she had brought, and her makeup.

Takigawa-san mentioned the word distracting frequently when talking to me of what look you were going for, and while I believe there are many styles that would suit you, I think this fits the criteria nicely.”

Interested, and thinking darkly on her partner and the image he must have painted for the actress (she wants to be very distracting , you know-- catch Naru’s eye …)-- that Bou-san! Mai quit her frenzied packing and joined Nari at the bedside.

Do you like it? I borrowed it from the costume department; I thought it just the right amount of distracting and sophisticated--” she was forced to pause here, as she caught sight of Mai’s alarmed and guilty expression, and anticipating her protests she hurriedly continued, “Oh it’s really no problem at all at to borrow from the theater, they won’t miss it for this one night. It was made for a character I played last year, a government official’s mistress, so see: distracting and sophisticated.”

Mai swallowed and felt her color heighten. She had worn the lucky dress of an old aunt, Masako’s charming kimono, and now…she’d wear the dress of a mistress?

That. Bou-san.

But, Mai couldn’t say she didn’t like the dress. It was, in all actuality, the nicest she ever had the opportunity to wear. It looked to reach just above knee, and the top portion was in a strapless accentuating style, ruffled around the trim. The cut seemed to be of a kind that would flatter every curve. The material which it was made of was a velvet fabric in a rich dark green that looked so touchable that Mai was tempted reached out a hand to test the softness. Observing it, feeling Nari’s eyes set on her, curious of her opinion, Mai smiled and answered,

Wow, it’s so pretty, thank you-- but are you sure it’s alright...? ”

The actress beamed,

Entirely alright, and I’m so glad you like it. Here, you get dressed and I’ll get set up.”

Mai found the dress deposited in her arms and with an encouraging nod, Nari turned from her, pleasantly busying herself in pulling out the vast collection of makeup she had brought.

Okay, I’ll be right out,” Mai said unnecessarily, her gaze falling on her previous options of the night.

The satin dress and the kimono weren’t even in the same league as what she had draped over her arm. With still some amazement at how she had managed this change of fortune, from turning up at the festival in a stained or outdated look, to going as in something astonishingly sophisticated, she shuffled for the bathroom.

Distracting.

Mai blinked back at her reflection, her surprise etched across her face. The dress was a curiously great fit, and Mai felt as if she had slipped into someone else’s skin. She was no longer Mai Taniyama, but Agent Taniyama.

Her eyes roving over the dress, Mai’s attention was caught by the fading bruise that darkened her exposed shoulder. Rubbing at it, she was grateful that it no longer hurt. She frowned a bit, but there was no use for it. The bruise would have to be an accessory.

Moments later there was a light knock at the door. Startled, Mai paused in her conscious tugging at the hem of the dress, and answered with a sort of squeak,

Um-- yes?”

Mai? Are you ready in there, do you need any help with the zipper?”

Moving a bit stiffly, distressed to see that the dress rose up a bit when she walked, Mai half leaned for the door handle and opened the bathroom door,

Oh, no I’m okay. It has a side zipper…”

Goodness, look at you!” Nari exclaimed upon seeing her.

Mai felt her cheeks ignite, she quickly fussed with the top, her hand clumsily covering her bruise.

What, did I do it wrong? Oh, and I know the bruise is horrible, but I fell through the stage…”

The actress’ face relaxed into a warm smile and shaking her head, she gently took up Mai’s wrist,

Nothing’s wrong Taniyama-san, and the bruise is a non-issue, leave it to someone in the entertainment business.”

Mai stared after the small woman, the color leaving her face, her expression caught between an appreciative smile and bewilderment. She wants to help me.

I need it. Thank you.

It’s Mai,” she spoke up, belatedly reacting to Nari’s formal speech.

The actress’ who stood in front of Mai, a brush in one hand and compact in the other, responded with a kind hand guiding her sit,

Well Mai, I think I’m going to keep it simple. But you do have lovely eyes, so those are going to be dramatic. Or…is the word distracting?

Her curious teasing made Mai lower her gaze consciously.

Oh no, here it comes…

Not knowing the details about operation Miyuki, the monk feeding her ridiculous ideas, and what she seemed to assume herself about Mai’s feelings for Naru, she was given her the wrong impression…

Ah, um-- Bou-san has an active imagination, it’s annoying. I’m sorry if he tried to pull you into his delusions.”

Ha, there!

But an unmoved, “hm,” was all the reply Mai got out of her clear denial.

She doesn’t believe me…?

The brush sweeping lightly over her face, there was a moment of quiet, but then Nari continued,

It’s hard when people don’t know the whole story, isn’t it? They guess at things, it makes…you not want to bother explaining.”

Mai’s lips parted, she felt her color changing again,

Uh--”

This was a direct reference to her feelings for Mr. Sachi. Mai didn’t know what to say,

But it’s not like that with Naru and I...

It’s okay though,” the actress spoke, seeming to miss Mai’s uncomfortable expression. Her own eyes didn’t seem to see anything but the makeup she was applying…“I understand what it’s like to have to appear one way, and feel another. Wise Obasan, Takigawa-san, everyone else who whispers…it’s a bit exciting isn’t it? You can’t show it of course; you can’t know how he feels for certain yet. Discretion and privacy are treasured in this town for a reason. I do hope you know however, with me you can always express yourself however you wish. I won’t whisper like them.”

Mai swallowed, her mouth dry, her heart in her throat. The actress’ voice had been surprisingly steady throughout this declaration, though she knew what pain the subject must cause her.

She’s supporting me. She thinks I’m in the same situation.

Feeling the tick of every second, realizing how difficult it would be to convince her that Naru wasn’t Mr. Sachi, Mai settled on a simple response, not feeling equal to much more than that in the wake of such an admission and a gracious offer of confidence,

Nari…I understand, thank you.”

Mai’s tone held genuine sincerity. She felt deeply for the actress, it was all she could do not to frown.

I won’t whisper like them.

Those whispers, they must have tormented her for years…

That Mr. Sachi!

This town!

Some of Mai’s anger must have blazed through the mask of calm she was attempting to keep in place, for Nari suddenly said,

Oh, did I poke you? I’m sorry--”

Oh, no- it’s not that, I- ah…I think my foot’s asleep!”

For good measure Mai shook her leg, one hand wildly waving away Nari’s concern.

Goodness, that is a terrible feeling. Well, I’m almost done, then you can move around again…”

Mai didn’t answer, using the fact that Nari was then applying lipstick as an excuse.

That. Mr. Sachi.

Working at keeping her brooding thoughts in check, Mai watched as the actress added the finishing touch to her makeover-- concealer deftly spread over the dull purple mark on her shoulder.

There, that should do the trick,” she murmured, standing back to admire her handy work, “Oh my, not bad if I do say so myself. Go have a look.”

With a grateful smile, Mai slipped off the bed and headed for the bathroom, resisting the urge to tug down on the edge of her dress.

I don’t have legs long enough for this!

In the mirror, Mai stared back at a version of herself she had never seen before. Everything about her makeup was light, excepting her eyes, which stood out now, in a way she didn’t before imagine possible. All her years in preforming arts had served her well, Nari had an expert’s touch.

This is me…?” she breathed, amazed.

Is it good? I think you look amazing, your eyes were a great canvas,” Nari praised kindly from the other room.

Mai’s gaze fell to the bare skin of her shoulder, carefully she touched were she knew her bruise to be, but it had vanished under the magic work of the actress.

I'm distracting.

There was the clicking of Nari packing up her things, and Mai hurried out of the bathroom,

Thank you so much...for everything,” she said, more relieved and grateful than she felt she could express.

As stark reminders, the kimono and stain dress still laid on the bed, leering up at her. Mai frowned and flipped the mess of her blankets over them, seating herself on top.

You’re very welcome Mai, it was my pleasure,” Nari replied with a warm smile, makeup bag and hanger in hand, “Do you need anything else though? Don’t forget the heels I brought you, and what about your hair?”

Heels and hair? Oh-- that’s right.

Mai brought a hand to her bangs, and bushing at them distractedly, she glanced around,

Um, I have this clip-- somewhere…”

Her head tilted at her thoughtfully, Nari began rummaging in her bag once again,

I have some hair spray, if I remember right, when I was playing the mistress, they had me pin my hair up halfway…”

A couple minutes, some bobby pins, and a generous spritz of hairspray later, Nari had transformed her hair from its limp state (borne of a long day involving a fire, Naru, dancing, exhaustion…), to something resembling a model’s.

Beaming at her approvingly, Nari was just making some last minute adjustments, Mai murmuring her thanks again, when they heard the click of the door handle.

Mai couldn’t see him, but she knew it was the monk, come to bring her to dinner. Not wanting to ruin the actress’ hard work, she remained still, but greeted him with,

I’m almost ready Bou-san, we won’t be late.”

There was a low whistle and then,

And then she asks me, do I look alright? And I say darling, you look wonderful tonight…

That Bou-san.

Nari’s hands fell away from Mai’s hair and she turned to look at her partner, who was leaned up against her door frame. Charmed despite herself, she did love it whenever he sang, she smirked at him:

Well, distracting enough for you?”

Wonderfully distracting. He doesn’t stand a chance.”

Mai pulled a scolding face at his reply. Quickly, she glanced at the actress, anticipating her reaction, but she tactfully pretended not to notice, and said instead,

I’m so glad you both are pleased. And I think that means my job here is done. I’ll see you both at the festival?”

Smiling, they both assured her that she would. And with many thanks repeated, Nari saw herself out, though not without pausing to say,

As we say in the theater-- break a leg tonight.

And then her petite figure, and bright encouraging smiles, were gone.

You two seemed to bond nicely.”

Yes,” Mai answered staring at the hall through her empty doorway. It was slowly filling with people, “Girls do that over makeup and hair.”

Apparently. But it wouldn’t be bonding over a heart to heart involving certain men..?”

Mai bent down to slip on the stylish heels Nari had left for her, her eyes cutting triumphantly to the monk,

I knew it. It knew it was you who filled her head with all those thoughts of Naru and Sachi…”

The monk pushed himself off from the door, moving so that she could close it, his eyebrows raised defensively,

I did no such thing, thank you very much. That was all her. When I brought up the fact that you needed help during our dance, we got to talking about you…the festival…Naru-- she seems to believe you’re in a situation much like she was.”

Well, I’m not,” Mai countered defiantly, shutting the door harder than she intended. She wobbled for a moment; awkwardly adjusting to the new height she had just gained.

Hm.” Her partner snorted.

Mai clenched her jaw. She was sick of that response.

Naru is not Sachi.

Bou-san’s warm hand took up Mai’s arm, and he guided her forward, people beginning to crowd around as they all gravitated towards the dining room.

Hey, you’re not going to be cold wearing so little?”

Mai shook her head, summoning a small smile, “No, I feel a bit warm as it is.”

The monk blinked down at her, his hand traded places, moving to her forehead,

Do you have a fever?”

Mai gently brushed him off, getting odd looks from tho se pressed in around them. In a lower tone she answered,

What, you can’t tell?”

He shifted, and keeping his expression strangely neutral, he said,

I think you might, but you should go see Ayako to be sure.”

Mai opened her mouth, but he pointed a finger at her,

No arguments. If you have a fever, you should be in bed.”

Mai didn’t reply. The last thing she was going to do was sit this one out. Not now.

I’m fine, I’ll be fine…I’m just tired.

Near the dining room doors, the mass of people congested further. Mai and Bou-san came to a halt. Standing there she felt him lean against her, speaking in her ear he whispered,

You have your strategy all worked out?”

Strategy?” she repeated, a bit distracted by the woman who had just elbowed her.

Yeah, you know-- a game plan. You’re distracting Naru tonight, how?

Mai pursed her lips, her eyes darting around for inspiration. The truth of the matter was that she had no strategy. She hadn’t thought past getting ready.

Every heard of winging it? She wanted to protest, but it was a weak retort-- spies didn’t wing anything. This was a serious operation, she didn’t have a plan…and then her gaze fell on the kimono an old woman was wearing.

Bingo.

All at once the group was moving again, the two of them shuffled forward. As Mai’s hand touched the door she answered,

Of course I’ve got my strategy covered, Monk. I’m going to be Masako for a night.”





Chapter Text

Day Five

7:45pm

The Koku Inn

The dining room doors swung open, and the two of them were carried in on the tide of people hurrying to their dinners. It was then that Mai was met with a sight she had not encountered since arriving in Nozomi: empty tables. She wasn’t late for once. They had their pick of places to sit. A bit surprised, Mai halted, and threw the monk beside her a questioning look: where?

He made to answer, but there was a second surge of people coming through the doors now, and he was forced to shuffle forward. Mai felt herself bumped by someone from behind.

“Excuse me. Are you alright? Oh...!

Recognizing the voice, Mai turned to face her accidental assailant with assurances of being fine, determined to secure a table for their group before they were all filled, but all these thoughts and ideas failed when she caught sight of Miss Miyuki’s expression, her bright blue eyes wide with what only could be called shock,

Well, look at you- my…”

“My god, Mai...?!”

A second voice rang above the heiress and in the next instant Ayako was upon her. The miko seized Mai's shoulders; her keen gaze taking obvious notice of her dress and it's flattering cut,

“Hmph, well you’ll have Masako beat with this one, but who did this to you? Tell me this isn’t that monk’s work,” she muttered with a shrewd glance toward him.

Did  this?

That Ayako.

“Uh, Nari helped-”

“Hm, that’s why it’s familiar.”

Mai blinked and swung her attention around to Miss Miyuki.

She recognizes the dress?! But Nari said it was fine to borrow, that no one would notice!

“Oh, about that…”

Mai’s words died in her mouth. She was properly looking in the heiress’ direction now, attempting to explain the loan from the costume department, and there- right behind her, was Naru.

Startled, Mai snapped her mouth shut, feeling a warm flush spread across her skin. From somewhere over to her left, she could practically hear Bou-san silently shouting:

This is it! Mission commence!

Her thoughts traveling at the speed of light, her instinct was to act, but her body language was lagging behind…

Think Masako. You  are  Masako.

Against every usual feeling, Mai dared to return his stare, imitating what she thought was an elegant and distracting gesture: her hand coming up touch lightly at her collar bone. It always seemed alluring in the movies. But Mai wasn’t preforming on the silver screen, and Naru wasn’t a leading man.

With her focus so entirely on gazing back at him through her eye lashes, and holding her hand just so- Mai's composure failed her in other areas. Already unsteady in her towering heels, her ankle gave out.

In a flailing motion completely inelegant, and the wrong kind of distracting, Mai lost her balance, and would have fallen, had not Ayako grabbed at her,

“What in the world..? I knew it. You’re feverish, aren't you? Are you having some kind of seizure? Hold still-”

Seizure?!

“I'm fine! I just stumbled, let go-” Mai protested, her cheeks burning, though more in anger now than embarrassment. She had no intention of letting the priestess sideline her.

Yanking herself free from the woman’s nursing ministrations, Mai pointedly dodged her partner’s alarmed looks. The cause of his panic was a toss-up: at this point it could be concern for her health, the mission, or both.

This wasn’t how things were supposed to go!

“Feverish, who? Mai...?” A voice spoke up, belonging to none of those crowding her. A sharply dressed John then peered past Miss Miyuki’s shoulder.

“Mai is,” Ayako persisted with a frown, snatching up her wrist again as if she were an unruly child.

“Really? But just look at you, you look amazing…”

Mai paused in her struggle against her captor, to summon a genuine smile for John,

“Thank-”

“It’s no wonder she’s warm, it’s boiling in here. Good thing she left the rest of her dress back in her room.”

Mai’s smile stiffened and her gaze shifted from the young priest’s face to the coyly smirking one beside his.

That Masako!

“Hey, I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m starved and we should probably find a table …” Bou-san suddenly chimed in, with a meaningful jerk of his head towards the mass of people bottled up behind them.

Oh.

In the unexpected commotion around her, Mai had forgotten where she was, still standing just a few feet from the double doors she had so confidently passed through. What a difference a few minutes could make.

Judging from the expressions of the hungry inn guests trickling past them, they had caused quite a traffic block. Not to mention a scene. Gossip flowed freely. Hearing bits and pieces, it apparently had gone around that someone was deathly ill. Busy tongues whispered concerns of it being contagious. Then someone recognized Mai, and things went from bad to worse.

Isn’t that Wise Obasan’s chosen?”

Yes, that’s them. Oooh see, they’re not partners. Scandalous.”

Well, she’s quite something! Look at that dress!”

Yeah, hey- where have I seen that…?”

Her? Catch sight of him.”

Coloring, Mai opened her mouth to set the record straight- scandalous, us?- but felt herself suddenly torn from the wash of snide remarks. It was time to move on, and Bou-san was taking the lead. Traded from the miko’s grasp to the monk’s, Mai hurried to follow without tripping.

“What was that back there?” her partner demanded out of the corner of his mouth, on their way to an open table. Mai absently noticed that there weren’t many left now.

“What was what?”

The monk raised his free hand and waved it around clumsily, “That. Was that your Masako impression?”

“Hey, I’m working on it,” she hissed back, knowing full well he had a point. Her antics might have distracted the silly people of Nozomi, but Naru…?

Mai let out a breath, blowing her bangs from her forehead as they came to a stop.

“Just remember, our mission depends on this,” Bou-san murmured in parting, releasing her arm.

There were eight chairs before her. Naru would be sitting in one. She should sit next to him. That’s what Masako would do. Masako.

Wait. That's what she  will  do-

Mai’s head snapped around to see the rest of their group approaching the table. Miss Miyuki was walking slightly ahead, Ayako close on her heels. Masako trailed somewhere behind, but she couldn’t immediately make out who she was walking beside.

If I plan this right…

Mai’s attention then turned to Naru. Timing was everything…her boss and his assistant (which she realized she had completely missed in the chaos of her dining room entrance) were working their way around the edge of the group, talking in that low, suspicious, way they always did.

It’s like they’re never  not  up to something.

“Here, Miss Miyuki.”

Behind Mai, her partner had pulled out a chair next to his.

Watching the monk with interest- he was obviously following his objective- her eyes darted to the heiress.

Graciously she smiled, murmured thanks as she took the seat, but Mai caught the quick glance she threw back towards Naru. He was to sit on the other side of her.

Not so fast.

But that was exactly how things went.

Yanking out the chair in front of her, Mai clumsily reenacted what she had just seen her partner do for his target.

“Here Nar-”

But in a rush of tea scented air, he was already past her.

That. Naru.

What followed was a succession of musical chairs the likes of which Mai had never seen. Miss Miyuki was speaking to Naru before he even reached her side of the table, breaking free from the flow of questions Bou-san was assailing her with,

“You didn’t tell me your office is in Shibuya?”

Naru pulled out the seat, “Is it important?”

There was a flash of red and then,

“Oh, are we neighbors or something? Do you work in Shibuya?”

Ayako. Appearing out of nowhere the woman had helped herself to Naru’s chair, and just like that- successfully stole both his spot and his conversation in one swift motion.

Thank you,” the priestess remarked, acknowledging Naru who stood behind her, hand still holding the chair back- all appearances seeming as if he had gallantly pulled it out for her. Without missing a beat, she launched a new stream of questions at the heiress beside her.

Faced with the undesirable options of sitting on Ayako or physically prying her from her captured seat, Naru turned to the next vacant spot. His expression, though vaguely irritated, was no match for the flustered surprise barely held in check by Miss Miyuki. Superseding them both though, was Bou-san. Naru wasn’t the only one who had had the heiress’ attention stolen away. Mai could feel his displeasure at the miko from across the table.

The monk’s predicament suddenly startled Mai into action- the mission! She had a second chance now; there was a free chair on the other side of Naru!

She had made it only a half a step though when, in a flutter of black and blue, Masako helped herself to the place beside Naru. Mai halted, a fresh wave of heat flushing her face, this time not from her fever…

That. Masako.

Seats completely occupied on that side of the table, still not even sure how it happened, Mai desperately threw herself in the next best spot- sitting directly across from her target.

Shortly following her were the abandoned partners of Ayako and Masako. To her left and right, Lin and John sat. Mai snuck a glance at them, but neither seemed upset at the table politics. John had ended up opposite Masako, and Lin seemed only too pleased to be seated away from Ayako.

Everyone settled, happily or not- focus then turned to the real reason they were all there: food. As if on cue, a waiter approached. He looked as if he wanted to start at Bou-san’s end of the table, but the monk was so concentrated on stealing Miss Miyuki’s conversation away from Ayako, throwing in a comment every time the priestess paused for breath, that he completely missed the waiter’s attempts at getting his attention.

With no other choice he addressed Lin instead, followed by Mai, John, Naru…he arrived at the miko, but she- like Bou-san, was oblivious to the world outside her conversation with the heiress. Taking pity on the helpless waiter, who kept clearing his throat in futile hope of being heard over Bou-san and Ayako’s competing voices, Mai ordered for them:

“They’ll just have what I’m having.”

The waiter gave Mai grateful smile and then paused, taking her in properly for the first time. A sudden brightness came to his eye; he lowered his note pad and leaned against the table between herself and Lin.

“Hey, you aren’t from around here are you?” he began, his gaze lingering on her.

“Uh- no, Tokyo actually…” Mai mumbled, a bit surprised at his closeness. He reminded her a bit of Niko, friendly, about the same age, but…

“You attending the festival tonight?” he continued, his eyes still fixed on her in that way… definitely not like Niko…

Mai blinked under his stare. Her mind felt miles away, but something was nagging through her fatigued state…

“Oh- yes,” she answered.

Why is he looking at me like that?

“You got a partner?”

A partner?

“Um-” delayedly Mai made a vague wave at the monk sitting across the table, still rambling on at Miss Miyuki. The waiter raised an eyebrow,

Well, you know…OUCH!”

The young man lurched back from the table, grabbing at his foot. Lin was standing.

“Sorry, did I get you there?” he asked calmly, casting a glance at his chair, which Mai realized he must have pulled out over the waiter’s foot…

“I think you’ve taken all of our orders.” That was Naru’s voice.

Red in the face and breathing a bit hard, the young man released his foot. With nothing more than a grunt he departed their table, sparing not even a second look at Mai.

Lin sat back down in his seat, noticing Mai’s stunned expression, he merely commented:

“I was uncomfortable. I had to adjust my chair.”

John, who witnessed the whole thing, looked slightly concerned,

“You don’t think he's- uh, hurt...do you?” he murmured, turned in his seat to watch the waiter hobble away.

“Let’s hope he's not, and that Mai’s flirting was enough to get us our food on time.”

Mai stiffened in her seat and snapped her head around to face her rival,

Flirting?

Masako shrugged, adjusting her sleeve, “Just calling it as I see it…”

That Masako.

Grudgingly, Mai let the remark pass. She could just hear Bou-san shouting in her head: now is not the time to pick fights! She had a mission to complete. It didn’t stop her from glaring darkly across the table though.

Thinking of her partner, she directed her attention a few chairs over. He hadn’t said a word during the whole flirting incident, which she thought was odd- but then she saw why.

Leaning against Miss Miyuki’s arm rest, he was pulling out all the stops.

“Well, we’ll just have to do lunch there sometime...”

“Ha, don’t listen to him. He's spent half his life exiled on some mountain. When we get back I’ll take you to some place really trendy.”

Exiled…!”

“That’s not necessary-”

“I insist!”

The charming smile fixed to the monk’s face cracked with each interjection. Ayako was taking no prisoners. The question was why though?

I thought she couldn’t stand Miss Miyuki.

Mai shifted in her seat, her gaze slipping from Bou-san to the woman of the hour. Unexpectedly, her flustered attitude had vanished. Poised with a cool smirk, she had seemingly relaxed into the conversation being thrown at her.

Mai pursed her lips and her eyes darted further down the table…Naru’s profile, his head turned, listening- a disheartening thought began to form….

Great. It isn’t  just  Miss Miyuki.

Her stare continued along, finding Masako. The medium was sitting just so, her hand subtly resting next to Naru’s.

Mai frowned,

I’m up against half the  table

This was more than a road block; it wasn’t what she signed up for. Versing a model with a fever was challenging enough, but war-games between Ayako and Bou-san, and Masako clinging to her target…

How am I supposed to distract him  now?

Facing almost certain mission failure, it was then that the tea arrived. The server stood beside Lin, a new one. Mai’s straightened in her seat, the very idea of a steaming cup of tea rejuvenating her. She felt anything but distracting. She had the chills, goose bumps crawling across her exposed skin...after a cup though, maybe she could tackle her competition yet?

Mai watched their waiter with as much interest as Naru watching Bou-san and Ayako, her eyes following his every reach…

The first cup of tea was placed in front Bou-san, then Miss Miyuki, Ayako…Naru…Masako…John-

Mai allowed herself a ready sigh, it was her turn now. She turned toward the server, hand out…but with a thud the cup was set before Lin. The tray now empty, the young man tucked it under his arm.

But…?

As the waiter turned to leave, Mai grabbed at his sleeve,

“Wait, what about mine?”

“Oh, uh-” he answered, pulling himself free of her, walking backwards, “yours will be out shortly, they’re behind back there.”

Mai hand fell away, along with her voice. Her throat was suddenly all the drier for all the cups of tea surrounding her.

Behind?

Those Kokus.

She sunk back in her seat. It was no longer just her eyes burning. Lin shifted his chair beside her, out of her peripheral vision she could see him staring intensely after someone. John peered at her concernedly,

“I don’t see how they couldn’t manage getting you a cup,” he began, his hand pushing his towards her, “but I’m really not that thirsty-”

Mai was in the middle of summoning a smile at John’s kind gesture, when a commotion was caused at the other end of the table.

“Drink!”

Two cups were shoved in her direction, half their contents sloshed on the table in the process. Mai looked over at Ayako and Bou-san, but they were already back to arguing and questioning, a willing Miss Miyuki playing along.

Knowing they meant well, she reached for the half empty cups, John helpfully passing her a napkin- when a third cup was placed in front of her. Mai blinked and followed the retreating graceful hand to Masako. She merely gave her silent nod, and then she too was once again absorbed in what she had been doing, which was watching Naru.

Mai felt her gratitude mingle with irritation, but accepted the medium’s offering. Ayako and Bou-san’s sat beside her in reserve.

A few swallows later and Mai was thinking clearly again. Fingers wrapped around her cup, her focus returned to the mission. Naru. She had to get his attention. It was time to take a page out of her rival’s book.

What would Masako do if she was being ignored…?

But the answer was right in front of her. Mai’s gaze slipped over to the medium. Naru was obviously more invested in Bou-san and Ayako’s conversation than anything else going on at the table, but yet, as Mai watched, every now and then he would speak a few words with Masako. Mai narrowed her eyes, carefully noting her technique. There. Mai’s eyebrows rose. Her rival’s hand pressed against his arm. Touch. Her touch was what was breaking his concentration.

Mai bit her lip,

She’s next to him, how can I…?

Mai drank more of her tea, openly glaring at her target. Touch. She had to touch him.

Just then Masako’s hand moved to settle right beside Naru's, her fingers lightly brushing…

Hey, over  here-

And in one attention grabbing move, Mai stuck out her foot, bumping his. His reaction, however, was not what she was aiming for. He gave the briefest of glances, not even turning his whole head towards her, and then his focus was recaptured by the rest of the table again. His foot didn’t shift an inch.

That Naru.

It was as if she had been tugging at his sleeve and he had brushed her off, having better things to pay attention to. In consequence though, his lack of reaction fueled hers. She felt her boldness the second his eyes turned on her. Cheeks coloring, her instinct was to jerk her foot back, but no. That was her instinct. Not a Masako instinct.

That’s it. I’m committed.

Fighting against the urge to retreat, persevering in the face of Naru’s apparent indifference (something she normally balked at her rival for doing…), Mai planted her foot next to his.

Not for the first time, she felt ridiculous. Her attempt had failed. Spectacularly. He had barely noticed her touch, must less been distracted by such contact.

Bou-san is wrong.

Worse though, it seemed her plan had blown up right back in her face. Mai could hear the blood pounding in her ears as she sat there unmoving, desperately trying to think of what to do next…and not think of how Naru’s pant leg hovered near her skin.

Great, now I’m the distracted one...?

Looking to block out the awkward situation she had somehow plunged herself into, Mai hid behind the rim of her tea cup, drinking large swallows.

Think like Masako, think like Masako…

She didn’t remove her foot. Naru didn’t look towards her.

Moments ticked by. John mentioned that they never brought Mai her tea. Mai’s foot remained. Naru stared down the table. More time passed. People were beginning to finish their dinners, they left the dining room. Ayako and Bou-san continued to trap Miss Miyuki in conversation, their topic turning to favorite vacation destinations. Still Mai did not move. Neither did Naru.

Mai was tired, more tired than she had recognized. Her eyes burned from her fever, she rubbed them with a frown. Somewhere, in the vague recesses of her mind a thought surfaced: she was comfortable. Mai’s frown deepened as her sleepy mind pondered this. Comfortable, how?

Her leg, it was now practically leaning against Naru’s, her posture no longer stiff with the anxiousness she had felt. Nothing had happened, and so she relaxed. The contact. It was nice. She had forgotten.

She was tired, he was comfortable…Mai’s leg leaned and her eyelids slipped shut, but-

Wait! What am I doing?

Mai’s heart was pounding again; her head snapped up- cheeks burning. Her eyes bore self-consciously into Naru’s profile, but still no reaction. She hardly managed to be grateful, cursing herself for such wandering thoughts:

Naru, comforting? Snap out of it Taniyama! You’re tired- contact with the table is comforting at this point!

Calming down, Mai purposefully pulled her leg away from his. She drank deeply from her tea cup.

It’s the fever, you’re delusional…

Then she froze, in the gulf of cool air now whispering across her skin, she felt Naru shift. It was the barest of movements, but she felt it. His leg was closer to hers again.

Mai began to choke mid swallow, the word distracting flashing through her mind and then-

“So, who ordered the shrimp tempura?”

Their food had arrived. Once again a server was standing behind Mai. The table became alive; Bou-san put an immediate claim on what he hadn’t even ordered. Recovering from her coughing fit, with the aide of John, Mai watched the server pass a steaming bowl to the monk.

“And this one...?” the waiter continued, holding up another such tempura bowl.

Mai raised her hand, “Oh, that’s-” but she was cut off by Ayako:

Right here, thank you- I’ve only been waiting all night, what do they do back there, drive to the ocean themselves?

That Ayako.

Mai turned in her seat, staring up at their server; pointing a finger at his tray, “That last tempura bowl is mine.”

He blinked and looked down at her as he placed Lin’s plate before him.

“Last tempura bowl?”

He handed Miss Miyuki her meal.

“Yes, that last tempura bowl.”

The waiter continued to distribute the orders, Naru next…

“I’m sorry Miss; it seems I was only given two for your table- was there supposed to be another one?”

“We ordered three tempura bowls,” Mai persisted, giving him a reassuring look, as if he would just check again he would see it, but there was only one bowl left…and that one was set in front of John.

Holding out the empty tray, the server shrugged, “I don’t know what happened, were you on time to order? I might be able to ask the kitchen for another bowl, but they’ll be closing down soon…”

It was the tea all over again. Mai’s stomach ached for good meal. The waiter was walking away.

“Hey-” she opened her mouth to protest, fed up with the games the Inn was playing with her, when there came a loud scraping sound across the hard wood floor. Her leg was suddenly cold.

“Excuse me a moment.”

Naru had left the table and was halfway to the kitchen before the words had even registered in Mai’s ears.

“Quite the gentlemen, isn't he?”

Mai watched the black doors swung shut after her boss.

Gentlemen.

Gentlemen?

Thinking that she heard wrong (her fever was making her mind sluggish), Mai pulled her gaze away- and found herself locking eyes with Miss Miyuki. It was she who had spoken.

Mai startled. There was something strange in the heiress’ stare…

A dismissive snort followed Miss Miyuki’s statement. Ayako, arms crossed, watched the scene with an arch eyebrow raised,

Please, you’re witnessing a rarity. This town must be getting to him or something…”

Masako suddenly sat up straighter, her silky black hair swinging with the movement,

“Speak for yourself; Naru is always courteous to me.”

The medium’s sharp eyes shifted to Mai, as if daring her to say otherwise. But Mai was in no state to start an argument; she was having trouble as it were deciphering the situation…

What are they talking about...?

The black doors swung open again and Naru walked out. His pace was calm as he crossed over to them, nothing like chair upsetting strides he took moments before. Reaching the table, Mai could have sworn he exchanged a glance with Lin, but then Miss Miyuki was talking and his attention was on her,

“Everything alright?”

Naru sat. His leg returned to its previous position. Mai swallowed.

“Nothing was wrong to begin with. Just an ordering mistake.”

There was an odd hush at the table. Bou-san suddenly cleared his throat and Mai’s eyes darted over to him in time to catch a meaningful look. She could tell he was just holding back waggling his eyebrows at her.

That Bou-san.

“Well, I’ve always said the service of this place leaves a lot to be desired. Don’t you agree, Miss Miyuki?”

And just like that the monk was back at it again, building trust with his target as he spooned huge bites of steaming rice into his mouth. Ayako quickly followed suit, jumping in with horror stories of unrecognizable meals.

Putting a hand to her forehead, Mai winced and decided confusion and fever did not mix especially well. For all the significant glances being thrown around the table, she still didn’t know what any of it had to do with her…

Naru had them fix a mistake they made with his order, how…?

There was the sound of approaching footsteps from behind her. Lin and John turned to look, and bewildered, Mai did too.

“Miss?”

A man stood beside her with a tray balanced on one hand- a waiter? Wait no- her eyes took in his crisp white apron…the chef?

“We do apologize; I can’t think how your order got lost. Please enjoy.”

The conversation at the table ceased. Suddenly Mai understood.

Oh.

A large plate was set before her: rich salad greens, fresh rice, and sizzling strips of tender meat stared up at her enticingly.

It wasn’t his order he was fixing…

In her stunned surprise, watching the chef also place a fresh cup of tea on the table, she spoke before she could stop herself,

“But, I didn’t order any of this…”

“Of course you didn't, it's not as if you could afford it. That looks like the most expensive thing they’ve got on their menu,” Ayako interjected unhelpfully, none too subtly shooting Naru a look. She wasn’t the only one. Bou-san was smirking.

“Mmm, that smells good Mai. It’s awfully distracting…”

Mai choked on the generous bite she had just taken.

“Eat your own food Monk,” she retorted with a bit of a struggle.

Distracting.

There was that word again. But was it true? Had she really affected Naru…?

Quite the gentlemen, isn't he?

Miss Miyuki. She had known what he was doing the moment he left the table. How?

A nagging voice at the back of her head urged her to capitalize on this, to smile and bat her eyes, croon her thanks- to pull a Masako. But for some reason, the best she could manage was a blush, and a red face was anything but alluring

What’s wrong with me? Why am I so bad at this? It must be the fever…

Mai kept her head bent over her meal, pointedly staring at her rice. She was starving and the food was good.

“Thank you,” she heard Lin speak. He was dismissing the chef, who had been standing there awkwardly while the whole table was offering commentary on the plate he had brought.

Mai hurriedly added her thanks, as the man left the table. The chef wasn’t necessarily the one she needed to be grateful to though...

“Delicious, hm?” John wondered. Mai nodded, stirring her meat,

“It is, do you want to try some…?”

Just then, a pale hand reached out and plucked up one of the many cups surrounding Mai. It was Masako’s. She was taking it back.

That Masako.

Interested to see if her rival was wearing that sour face she did whenever she was jealous, Mai longed to sneak a look…but she was sitting so close to Naru.

Just eat your food Taniyama.

And so she did, feeling better with every bite. She would think about what just happened, the mission, distractions, after. The rest of the table fell away. She didn’t hear Ayako and Bou-san’ bickering, didn’t feel John’s smile, didn't see Lin’s glances, Masako’s frown, Miss Miyuki’s appraisal….Naru’s stare.

 

Chapter Text

Day Five

8:15pm

The Koku Inn

Mai’s chopsticks scraped the bottom of her plate. She was nearly finished. Her stomach felt wonderfully full…but there was still an emptiness about her. She found she was now hungry for something else entirely: answers.

Trouble was…those answers could only come from Miss Miyuki. In secret. Away from a crowded dinner table that included Naru. Operation Miyuki was looming before her yet again. Mai set her chopsticks down; it was time to regroup.

The events of the last thirty minutes filtered through her mind like a slide show, resulting in a flush to her cheeks. The disastrous first impression at double doors, the table seating fiasco, Ayako and Bou-san’s attention stealing antics, the forgotten tea, her rising fever, her bold attempt at a Masako impression, no dinner…

Wait. There was dinner.

Mai stared down at her empty plate, her shoulders tense with the urge to snap her head up and take a proper look at her boss, study his expression- she hadn’t managed to since she had realized…

He fixed my order. He bought my dinner.

She recalled Miss Miyuki’s strange words (referring to Naru as a gentlemen), and Bou-san’s obvious significant looks. They had known what he was doing. And that it was for her. Mai frowned, her gaze still fixed to the table.

But was he really distracted by me...?

Inwardly groaning, she rubbed at her forehead. It was no use. She wasn’t going to be able to sort out the situation or her feelings regarding it anytime soon, and certainly not sitting there as sick and foggy headed as she was...but then, as if by divine intervention, a snatch of conversation from the next table over caught her attention:

“…oh, I didn’t see that play”

You must! Mr. Miyuki’s original work is so much more than what’s been put on during the festival…”

Mr. Miyuki. An image of a saddened man with a finger pressed to his lips surfaced in Mai’s mind. She knew what she had to do. Fevered state or not, she had to try.

For the mission, for Mr. Miyuki…

Mai straightened up in her seat, blinking the playwright from her eyes. Discarding the words distracting and chosen, she decided she would focus on one thing only: facts.

The facts were that she had just finished a nice hot meal, courtesy of Naru. Figuring what this meant, in terms of her mission- fiercely blocking out a loud Bou-san sounding voice shouting: it’s because he likes you!- she began to concentrate hard, determined to come up with some other conclusion that didn’t match Wise Obasan’s or her partner’s.

If he doesn’t  like  me, if I’m not  distracting …what am I to him?

“Mai?”

Mai startled from her thoughts, “Hm?”

It was John, his blue eyes peered uncertainly at her, “Oh, well- you looked a little upset just now, I wondered if anything was the matter?”

Mai touched her lips. She must have been frowning in her deep thought. Quickly, she smiled and picked up her cup of tea,

“Um, nothing really…I think I got sleepy is all. I’m so full and my meal was so good.”

“Alright, if that’s all…” John relented with a kind look, seemingly satisfied, and Mai shared an extra smile with him, moved by his concern. He was a good friend.

Friend.

The word lodged in Mai’s mind. In that moment a groggy set of unexpected connections were made: Naru wasn’t her destiny, he was her friend.

Of sorts…

Mai set her tea down firmly. No, she wouldn’t get hung up on the details, this was her answer. The distracting theory tossed out the window, she clung to this new approach with all her might, boldly ignoring everything that didn’t fit in with it (would a friend play footsie…?).

So what if Naru wasn’t generally friendly? He was her friend. And what he did for her that night he would do for any friend. Her ideas building steam, Mai let out the anxious breath she had been holding ever since Bou-san had given her this assignment. She wasn’t distracting, she wasn’t Masako. Now she didn’t have to be. She was going to keep Naru’s attention- but as a friend…as a very bothersome, interfering, friend.

My specialty. He won’t have moment’s peace.

For the first time since dinner was served, Mai lifted her gaze with the intention catching Naru’s eye. What pair of eyes she did meet surprised her.

Her full lips curved a bit, Miss Miyuki nodded her head towards Mai, and then casually turned and answered something Ayako asked her.

Mai blinked and gave a delayed nod in return. It was odd, despite the woman’s half smile, something about the exchange felt…

Unfriendly.

Her sluggish mind struggling to process this, Mai’s attention shifted- traveling down the table to her partner. The monk had seemed to have perked up with dinner, and between bites he was interjecting into Ayako and Miss Miyuki’s conversation with ease.

Sensing her stare, he gave a meaningful look, followed up with one of his most satisfied smirks. He clearly thought between his progress with the heiress, and her special dinner order, everything was going according to plan. Mai smiled back. It was going according to plan.

There’s just a slight change, Monk...

She looked away from her partner, feeling that if she watched for too long he might be able to tell that she had gone rogue. But it didn’t matter. The mission was still the same. She was going to distract Naru by any means necessary.

It was then that Mai realized that she was stalling. Her eyes were still avoiding Naru. Even though she was liberated from her awkward attempts at being a Masako impersonator, it wasn’t going to be any easier to distract her boss. The friendly approach was a help, but the ties between them had been strained since arriving in Nozomi, they didn’t talk much and if they did…it was an interrogation.

Be yourself Taniyama, and think fast!

“Thank you for dinner,” she blurted, before her foggy mind could catch up to her mouth. Her gratitude was directed straight at Naru, and so was her gaze. There was a beat, his all too familiar stare fell on her. Somewhere in the background Ayako and Miss Miyuki ceased their murmuring.

“You’re welcome,” he began, laying down his own chopsticks.

Mai swallowed. She knew there was something different about this dinner. Her boss wasn’t normally what you would call chatty, but this was the first time he had spoken to her since entering the dining room. Her heart did a weird clenching thing that she stubbornly ignored as the rest of his answer followed:

“…but there was really wasn't much of a choice. The wrath you’ve managed to incur from this Inn was going to make us late for the festival.”

Mai’s mouth opened, but she bit back her retort.

Remember, friendly.

Instead, her eyes defiantly held his, even though she knew her cheeks must have gone red. This was just like him. But it didn’t matter. He had responded to her. She could build on this.

Miss Miyuki cleared her throat delicately, “Yes, we can’t be late- and look at this, are we really one of the las