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You Have Zero Voicemails

Chapter Text

She can still hear the metal grinding of the chains being pulled back up from the murky lake, winding around and feeding through the machine bolted to the stern of the search and rescue boat. 

Fifteen hours. It took fifteen hours for the divers to find him. “The rovers kicked up a lot of dirt, we had to stir the lake bed to...” The woman had paused and pursed her colorless lips while Mai stared at the back of Naru’s head instead of at her eyes’ weary blues. “To float him up.”

“Right,” Naru had said, and his spine sloped elegantly beneath the fine, rumpled fabric of his shirt, as if they weren’t talking about his brother. As if it didn’t even hurt anymore. As if he could feel nothing at all, not even the scrapes throbbing on both palms.

Standing at the shallow edge of the forest, Mai listens to the remaining sounds of the recovery team, their laden gears and far-off voices bouncing off the rocky shoreline and filtering up through the trees as they prepare to pack it in. Pale beams of light heat the backs of her legs, inflaming the purpling bruises and bleeding scrapes she collected when they stumbled and slid their way to the lake’s volcanic edge, swept away by the adrenaline of knowing. 

The adrenaline is long gone. She shivers in her dirt-stained, yellow tank and fraying shorts. Naru has his back to her and his face turned up toward the tree line, a slowly darkening canopy of green rustling above them, blackening the sunset. She can’t remember at what point he lost his blazer; the wrinkled back of his black dress shirt is just as tired and muddy as Mai’s. A few yards to their left, a flock of birds takes flight from the branches of an ancient maple, dispersing in a flurry of staccato cries and beating wings, and for once Mai doesn’t even startle, is too transfixed by the rigid line of Naru’s shoulders, the stillness of his body. Gene’s presence niggles at the back of her consciousness, and for not the first time that day she wonders why she is the one he seems to be set on comforting . Go to him , she wants to say, follow your brother home , but she can’t bring herself to reach out and touch his consciousness like he’s urging her to do.

And home is, inevitably, where Naru—where Oliver —will be going.

Mai squeezes the small metal object in her fist and feels it firm her resolve. Her instincts plead with her to speak, to step forward, to do anything that could possibly close the rapidly expanding distance between them, but her voice is faltering, her feet are fixed to the earth, and the space continues to expand in almost-silence. 

Fifteen hours. Mai knows it would have been faster, far less painful, if Naru had let her wander off into the trees and sleep like she’d wanted to, let her astral body glide over the water so she could see Gene beckon, but she has been dutifully silent today, and he has been duly firm on not taking risks. 

He’d also pointed out that there would be no real way to inform the searchers without arousing suspicion, anyway, but it felt more like he was telling her that she wasn’t needed, that she was as useless as she’d always known and feared, like he’d found what he was looking for—and who was she to stand by his side during a moment so concomitantly significant and repelling, such as this?

Here and now, wrapped in the goffered shadow of the trees, wearing her feelings in the pinch between her shoulders and her neck, “Naru,” is all she manages to utter—quiet and uncertain, too far from her persona and too close to the truth. Pitiful.

Slowly, like someone emerging from some deep meditation, he lowers his face and turns a quarter of the way to meet her eyes. His indigo eyes have gone flat and, if Mai weren’t able to feel his suffocating aura pulsing between them, she might think he’s possessed. Absently, she  rubs the metal object between her index finger and thumb, letting it absorb her humanity and become warm. He doesn’t speak, and Mai is too tired to wince from the sting of Naru’s indifference. 

The sun is quickly setting, deep purple light beginning to peak out from between the tree trunks, and Mai can feel her heart in her throat as her thoughts insist that she is almost out of time, that now is her last chance to tell him—that she has to tell him how she feels, just once, before he leaves. But something else, something that lives and grows inside her and is stronger than her needy-whimpering-soul, holds her back even as it pushes her body forward, and she takes one, two, three steps, stopping in the orange-dusted leaves less than a foot from his back.

She watches his once impeccably shined shoes displace earth and shorn pieces of tree bark as he turns to face her. At some point during her observation, she must have begun holding her breath, and she is reluctant to let her lungs go. Forcing the air from her lungs, she extends her hand out, the weight of her former house key centered in her upturned palm, and flinches when her fingertips brush the fabric of his shirt. She doesn’t wait for his response, throws the rest of her strength into her words.

“Take it,” she says, and doesn’t dare look up.

It is important to her that he knows she didn’t come here to argue; Naru’s purpose in Japan has expired, and there’s nothing she can do to change that. Her chest aches, but Mai has become accustomed to untimely departures and the pain that comes with them. She didn’t follow him here for anything but goodbye.

As the silence broadens, she almost wishes she could see his face, but she can easily imagine his calculating frown. The image brings a soft smile to her lips.

“Stop being an idiot and take the key,” she says, unable to keep her smile or the moisture gathering in her eyes out of her voice.

She is unsure if she imagines the gentle caress of fingers against the back of her hand as he carefully takes the key from her palm, but it’s over before she can do more than question her senses. Hesitantly, she lifts her eyes and is met with the full intensity of Naru’s gaze.

“You’ll need another job,” he says, not unkindly.  

Her irritation is weak; she wasn’t expecting a ‘thank you’ anyway. Her stomach feels hollow, and sweat is gathering at the nape of her neck.

“I’ll be alright,” Mai says, and puts on a show of shrugging with a cheeky grin, tries to be more like the version of herself that has made a home at SPR—a home she will soon be losing.

“I didn’t ask,” comes his toneless reply.

This is the part when Mai is supposed to huff and rage, but she feels the fight leave her at the same moment that the fatigue of the day finally knocks her in the knees, causing her to stumble one step to the side. She misses the way Naru’s open hand twitches toward her before she rights herself, but she catches the movement of him sliding her cherished old house key into the front pocket of his slacks.

Relief she can’t describe or justify rolls through her with his acceptance of the token, nearly weakening her to the point of collapse. She can feel Gene fluttering about the edges of her consciousness in a mild panic, and she can’t help the disjointed laugh that briefly bubbles out past her lips. Tears spill from her eyes and run into her mouth and off her chin. She is going to miss them; she is going to miss everyone so much.

The hand on her shoulder doesn’t surprise her as much as it should. Naru’s eyes are more detached and inspecting than sympathetic, but his discomfort is apparent in the tension of his shoulders and neck. His hand is so warm. She is close enough to smell his shower gel, subtly spiced. It makes Mai want to laugh even more. Why does my chest hurt so much?

Sudden movement in front of her startles her, and her eyes focus on the small rectangle of paper that Naru is holding too close to her face to be anything but socially inappropriate or impatient. Swallowing, Mai slowly takes the card from him with both hands and examines it with obligatory graciousness before raising her eyes to his in question.  

“Your business card?”

Naru seems to find his calm in the face of her confusion, relaxing his shoulders as all traces of discomfort leave him. “Though you will no longer be employed by SPR, I expect you to inform me of any changes or developments in your psychic abilities. Lin or myself will arrange a schedule of monthly over-the-phone check-ups in order to monitor your progress.”  

Sound refuses to come out as Mai works her lips in irritation, and she finds no words with which to articulate her building indignation that are as biting or intelligent as she wants them to be.

His smirk is every bit of condescension he can fit into one look. “I’m a researcher, Mai.”  

With a sigh, she falls back on routine. “Narcissist.”

In the distance, Lin’s voice can be heard, likely calling out for Naru’s location; they’d wandered off without telling anyone their destination. Mai sets her jaw and moves to turn toward the sound, but is stopped by Naru’s grip slipping down to her upper arm, keeping her at bay—unable to move closer, unable to fall further away, and isn’t that how it has always been? Hasn’t it always been Mai dangling over some dark edge of bleakness, with only a firm grip on her forearm keeping her from falling out of sight? She can hardly remember when things were any different. 

She opens her mouth to comment, but catches the upturned corner of Naru’s lips and bites her tongue, vexation coming back full force. “What?”

Naru continues to smirk, his hand a distracting weight. “Try to stay out of trouble while I’m gone.”

For a moment, Mai is struck dumb. Maybe it’s the context, being in the forest so near his brother’s painstakingly recovered body, but she can’t help but take the request-disguised-as-an-insult seriously. But for dignity’s sake, she rolls her eyes and tugs her arm free before pivoting away, making her way back to the lake. Listening to Naru’s soft tread behind her, Mai clutches his business card tightly in her hand, ignores the strange tightness in her chest and tries not to imagine herself slipping farther away, or the icy grip of the abyss that always feels too close, ready to pull her in, held back by only the thinnest of milky films. She thinks of none of these things, and keeps her eyes on the ash-brown haze of dirt and rock before her.

These feelings are only temporary, anyway.

 

Chapter Text

“Sleep schedule.”

“No changes.”

“Astral projection.” 

“Infrequent and uneventful.”

“Touch sensitivity.”

“None.”

Holding the phone flush to his ear as he leans back in his office chair, Noll sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose, heavy with fatigue. He can hear Mai’s exhaustion in her responses as well, though he can’t begin to parse the reason for her lassitude. Her breaths come slowly as of late, as if she is always on the edge of sleep. It unnerves him.

“You seem to have stabilized,” he summates, rubbing a small house key between his left thumb and index finger.

The urge to touch the energy seeping out of the object is strong as the day he took it from her outstretched hand. He can feel her presence pressing against the metal, trying to pass through and touch his fingers. If he wanted, all it would take is a small burst of his power to make the connection, to feel her fully, to see her. As always, he resists. In Lin’s words, passing curiosity is not worth dying for and, in Noll’s case, using ESP even once may very well do the trick.

“Yes,” she says, and nothing more.

The listless air of her voice tugs at his gut. The desire to use the key is strong tonight, and the fact that he can’t determine why only serves to strengthen the urge.

“When is the last time you projected?” Noll asks.

“Two months ago. We’ve already talked about it.”

He tightens his jaw, closing his hand into a fist around the key, feeling the metal heat up. Her answers are all like this tonight: to the point, rehearsed. She has become increasingly tight-lipped about her abilities over the course of the three years he’s been in England, but tonight it’s as if she’s given up on trying to sound natural altogether. He isn’t even taking notes, is too irritated to even pick up the pen.

“Any visions?”

“Haven’t had one in years. Must be the Chamomile.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Naru, it’s two in the morning. I need to sleep.”

Shit. He forgot. His neck and shoulder muscles relax for the first time since she picked up the phone; the nickname is, as always, a bit of a relief. It’s a note of familiarity, a reminder that she isn’t quite so different from her younger self as she sometimes seems to be. Not that he spends his time imagining such transformations. Besides, he always feels a strange sort of satisfaction when he hears her patience thin, the weariness in her voice briefly replaced with annoyance. They haven’t talked about their argument the other day, but Noll can feel her resistance and feels disinclined to push. She answered the phone, after all; no sense in testing his luck.

“Five in the afternoon is the earliest I can call,” he says.

This semester he doesn’t have time to call before his lectures, and a cacophony of faculty meetings and office hours take up the majority of his available time in between. The time difference between England and Japan has been difficult for them to schedule around for the past few years, even just for a phone call—though over time their calls have been increasing in frequency, once every two months becoming once a month, becoming twice a month with the occasional impulsive update or question, until they’d settled on a scheduled weekly phone call supplemented by intermittent and often wildly unrelated texts, calls, and emails throughout the week.

“We should switch back to weekends, to account for your school week,” he says.

He pretends not to notice or enjoy her small surprised inhalation, easily picked up by the phone’s sensitive speaker. Some trifling, almost possessive feeling tightens his abdomen, and he hastily shoves the emotion down. He would never have first insisted on frequent phone check-ups if he’d known how intimate it would feel, being able to hear every breath as it leaves her lips, soft sounds he would never notice in person, sounds that never penetrate the barrier of public space, amplified in his ear. Mai has said before that Noll is the only person she calls regularly, complaining playfully about the inconvenience. Noll hasn’t known what to do with that information, nor with the feeling of calm that takes him whenever he mulls it over—privately.

“That would be helpful,” she says quietly. Her voice is still tense, but it’s softening.

He decides to try once more. “Is there anything in particular I should be asking you, Mai?”

She’s silent a beat too long. Noll squeezes the key.

“No, I…” she laughs, stilted, “everything is alright.”

Nothing about her demeanor is ‘alright.’ Noll sits forward in his chair, rubbing the key thoughtfully. His office has a large window that looks out on the campus below, but he keeps the blinds closed. Light barely manages to slip past them, casting thin lines across his desk. He adjusts the way he’s holding the phone to get the speaker closer to his ear. He can hear her breathing. Slow, slow breaths. Measured.

She is lying to him.

He has known for months, but he suspects it has been going on for longer. He has no proof other than a sinking feeling, but his intuition is rarely incorrect. Of course, it would be unwise to confront her—not because he is afraid to, but because she is stubborn and will likely cease answering the phone altogether, which would result in Noll being forced to inconvenience himself by contacting Monk or Yasuhara to ensure her powers are behaving stably. That she’s alright. Safe. His mouth twitches into a frown.

“Mai.”

And the little sigh that leaves her, the audacity of it.

“Yes?”

“Are you still documenting your dreams?”

“I haven’t been dreaming.”

“You haven’t been sleeping, you mean.”

“Naru.”

“Mai.”

A small group of students walk by his closed office door, their laughter echoing off of the hallway walls despite their low volume. His shoulders are tight. He tries to rub his neck without having to put the key down and ends up accidentally scratching his skin with it, but the sting is slight, hardly worth noticing. On the edge of his desk, behind a smattering of paperwork and notes, is a cup of tea gone cold.

“I should probably go,” she says softly.

‘No,’ he wants to say, ‘you should probably stay.’

She chuckles, even though he hasn’t spoken. Even her laughter is muted, tired. Several long breaths pass between them, Noll absently rubbing the key with his thumb, Mai uncanny in her silence. It’s a new skill for her, silence. Noll can’t say he’s entirely pleased with it.

“Mai?” he asks, tempering his voice to sound appropriately unimpressed.

“I’m fine,” she says absently.

Noll narrows his eyes, glaring at the pen he was using to grade papers an hour ago. “I didn’t ask you that.” 

“I need to go, I need…”

She trails off, but Noll can’t help but lean forward in his seat because there it is again, that new tone he’s been hearing from her lately. It makes him uneasy when she sounds this way, like she’s about to float off into space, and he’s nowhere near close enough to grab hold of her. It’s not what she sounds like when she’s drifting off to sleep mid-call. This is something different.

“You need to what, Mai?” he asks, trying not to sound urgent. In the resulting silence, he can hear the subtle rustling of her hair against her pillowcase. Inhaling slowly, he closes his eyes and leans back, his leather chair complaining bitterly at being reclined. “Mai—”

“I’ll text you tomorrow.”

A short beep precedes the line falling silent. He doesn’t know when he began holding Mai’s key near his lips, but he is too tired to care once he notices. He doesn’t even open his eyes, just feels the warm metal against his skin as he reluctantly lowers his phone to his desk. In a few minutes, he needs to prepare for his next lecture, but for now, he allows himself to rest.

It’s fine, he tells himself. If whatever she’s hiding has been going on as long as he suspects, one more day likely won’t do any damage. Probably. Hopefully.

He’ll try again tomorrow.

 

...

 

It’s a beautiful house, if a bit out of place. European in design, with shimmering chandeliers and vaulted ceilings and polished wood floors that creak pleasantly when stepped on. The owner of the house seems fond of the color red, has included in every room at least one object of the same rusty shade, hidden amongst the books and hand-stitched pillows collecting dust on shelves and unused chairs. Standing in the foyer, Mai watches fine-spun particles spiral down in a sunbeam from the tall stained glass window crowning the narrow staircase. A religious figure, Mai gathers, is depicted in the colored glass fragments, head encircled by a golden disk, elaborate blue and red fabrics draping off the figure’s shoulders and pooling around her bare feet.

“—of course, take your time. Some doors might be locked. If you need anything, just shout. I’ll be in the kitchen with Ritsuo.”

Mai nods her head absently, listening to Mrs. Kobayashi with half an ear. “I won’t be long, I think,” Mai says, eyeing the way the air distorts at the top of the stairs, like heat rising up from the road in summer.

There are multiple presences here. Mai can feel them all watching her from around various corners, keeping their distance. Children. Young, but not confused. Just lost.

On the phone yesterday, Mrs. Kobayashi detailed her and her son’s experiences in the home, claiming that they've seen a little girl covered in water and decay standing in her son’s closet nearly three nights per week. She never does anything but stare white-eyed, but it’s frightening her son Ritsuo to the point of sleeplessness.

She didn’t mention the others.

“Let me know if you need anything,” Mrs. Kobayashi says tightly.

“Thank you,” Mai mumbles, and turns away. Slowly, as not to startle the enraptured spirits, Mai slips her cotton gloves off of her hands one finger at a time as she moves toward the stairs.

Mrs. Kobayashi heard of Mai from a friend, whom Mai helped deal with a particularly nasty spirit at an onsen last year, but she still bears the rigidity in her shoulders and the frown hidden in the corner of her mouth that so often indicates clients’ discomfort. Even after experiencing the paranormal first-hand, many still find Mai’s abilities to be less plausible than their own insanity, and Mai can’t really blame them, especially on the nights she wakes up and she is not herself but a thousand other people living a thousand lives per minute, and it’s all she can do not to slip away into the crowd and leave her body for permanent oblivion.

The only reason most of them even accept her assistance is the fact that Mai doesn’t profit from or advertise her ‘services,’ if you can even call wandering around buildings, touching clients’ possessions, and audibly talking to herself for hours on end a service . Clients find her by chance or through word of mouth. And who would run a scam that doesn’t even pay? At least, that’s what Mai hopes they think. Truth be told, Mai never even planned on continuing these investigations after SPR disbanded, but those who need help always seem to find her, regardless, and who is she to tell them no when all she’s ever done is leech off of the kindness of others? The short answer is this: no one. Mai is no one at all.

As she steps onto the first landing, her gloveless hand skims the smooth, polished wood of the handrail and, for a moment, her vision warps into a cornucopia of light. A breath and a pause, and then information begins to trickle in.

There are eight children in the house and one more outside in the yard. They aren’t attached to the home; she can feel them orbiting around individual objects: a wooden spoon, a white stuffed rabbit, a comb. Like a collection. A small hand is tugging at her pencil skirt, but she continues up the stairs without looking down.

It’s a little boy at her heels. He’s curious about her. If she focuses on his hand, Mai can see him being thrown through the windshield of a car by the force of the crash that killed him. He died slowly, with blood filling his lungs. He’s here because of a brown leather handbag in the attic—his mother’s. She can see it vaguely, covered in dust, tucked into a corner. Mai brushes her fingers over his hand gently, but doesn’t look. She has gotten better at knowing when not to look.

They carry on like this through the house, children slowly coming out of hiding to follow her slow progress around the upstairs bedrooms. It fills her with a deep sense of melancholy, all these small souls in orbit.

In some ways, Mai feels like she’s going blind. The hallway exists in her mind as a concept more than a tangible reality, her surroundings vague and distorted by the mist fogging all of her senses but one.

No sign of the drowned girl. She keeps looking.

She finds herself in the upstairs study, surrounded by looming bookcases and a mahogany desk with golden knobs on its drawers. She wonders, briefly, what Mrs. Kobayashi’s husband does for a living. Placing her hand on the desk’s leather-padded surface, Mai closes her eyes, sees a stern-faced man with wire-rimmed glasses, chewing on the rubber end of his pencil. She tastes it, a bitter tang, like aluminum. A writer. Mystery novels. Before Mai can go too deep into the vision, she jerks her hand back from the desk.

The gramophone.

She turns around in search of it, finds it nestled in the corner of the room, sitting atop a cherry wood table, the table’s surface protected by a red shawl. There’s a record already set to play. It’s brighter in this room than the others, three uncovered windows lining the wall, light streaming in, illuminating the dust one would expect to find in a room that’s gone unused for a while. Mai wonders where Mrs. Kobayashi’s husband went. Perhaps she should have touched the desk a little longer, but she needs to be careful not to go too deep. Slowly, Mai is drawn closer to the gramophone, her arm outstretched. She can feel tiny hands pressing against her back, hips and legs, urging her forward. Her chest is tight and heavy, as if someone is squeezing her ribs.

Light glances off the brass head of the gramophone and her fingers tremble violently as she gets closer to where the needle stands erect above the stilled record. A gust of hot wind against her back causes her to pause, suddenly uncertain, but her eyes are unfocused and she can’t seem to back away, feels herself lowering the needle down to rest in the first groove, the record already, inexplicably, spinning. The music that fills the room crackles like a wood fire, wind instruments crooning out long, slow complaints into the air, shifting notes just enough for Mai to know the song is carrying on, that the record hasn’t skipped. It’s a song Mai has never heard, but she recognizes it, feels it tumble through her, knocking her knees. Small hands keep her standing.

She can see the song. The number 133 in eroded brass numbers on a wooden door with cracked white paint; a pale hand gone white knuckled clutching a white robe. She hears another sound underneath the cries of the antiquated machine, and it takes her a moment to understand what it is and why it makes her feel so much. 

It’s her phone.

In front of her, the gramophone is silent; all the records are stacked on the shelf in their protective sleeves, covered in a thick layer of dust. 

She removes her phone from her shirt pocket, flipping it open and pressing the green button to answer the call without looking at the caller’s name. “Hello?”

“Mai.”

Relief blossoms in her chest. The sigh that leaves her is involuntary in every way. “You're early,” she says.

Naru is silent for a breath, and she doesn’t need to use her abilities to know why. He heard the quiver in her voice, is just deciding if he wants to broach the subject.

“Do you have a moment?” he asks, in a tone that says very clearly, ‘I’m not an idiot, I just don't have time for this.’

Mai rubs her left index finger and thumb together absently, eyes continually flicking between the nearest window and the gramophone. The grass outside rolls in the wind, seeming to stretch into eternity until it reaches the border of the sky.

“I’m finishing up a workout, can I call you in a few hours?”

Naru is quiet for a moment longer. She can hear his doubts as if they were her own.

“In one hour,” he says, stiffly.

Mai doesn’t have time to wince at his tone. Naru isn’t unobservant, but he won’t press her without more evidence. She can assuage her guilt later. 

“Okay, good,” she says, staring out into the field behind the house, “that’s good.”

“Is it?”

“Talk to you soon,” she says, and hangs up the phone, slipping it back into her shirt pocket. 

Turning away from the window, she comes face-to-face with a young boy, no older than fourteen, standing to the right of the gramophone. He is covered in what looks like a thick layer of mud baked into his skin, his eyes swollen and yellow. Even his hair is caked to his head with the clay-like substance, cracked and hardened like the desert floor. Mai barely breathes, adrenaline coursing through her body. As she stares, she begins to see steam coming off of him in thin curls.

“Are you looking for the girl?” His voice is a dry whisper, like a crackling fire. It sounds painful.

“Yes,” she says, and pretends her voice carried louder than a whisper. 

The steam rolls off his shoulders in larger and larger waves, hypnotic. “She isn’t here,” he says, “she stays in the well until nighttime.” His head tilts, as if considering Mai through his sightless eyes. “That’s not why you’re here,” he adds.

Mai takes a subtle step back from the spirit, the beginnings of fear crawling up her spine. This doesn’t feel right. “Why am I here?”

Slowly, the boy points at the red record sleeve in Mai’s hand, one she doesn’t remember picking up off the shelf. She nearly drops it.

Before she can ask anything else, Mai hears Mrs. Kobayashi’s voice, tinny and far off. Mai turns her head slowly to see the woman standing in the doorway to the hall, watching Mai with a strange look on her face, clutching the hand of a young boy in overalls as he hides behind the skirt of her white dress. That boy is alive, is looking past Mai with big brown eyes. Ritsuo.

“Miss Taniyama,” the woman tries again, enunciating slowly, like she has had to repeat herself one too many times, “would you like to take a break downstairs? I’ve made lunch. You could join us...”

Mai stares at Mrs. Kobayashi for one, two, three seconds before remembering how to use her voice. “Thank you, Kobayashi-san, but I think I’ll stay up here for a little while longer.” 

She smiles as warmly as she can, but the careful mother does little more than frown and nod politely before making her way out into the hall, her son peering at Mai with wide eyes as his mother drags him behind her.

Mrs. Kobayashi pauses in the hallway and looks back at Mai with a strange look in her eyes. “Taniyama-san,” she says softly, “how did you get into this room?”

Feeling her lips pull into a slight frown, Mai runs a finger around the worn edges of the record in her hands. “I don’t understand.”

Pursing her lips, Mrs. Kobayashi glances down at Ritsuo, who has been tugging at her skirt, eyes fixed on something further down the hall. “This room… I always keep it locked.”

Mai nods slowly in understanding, but doesn’t feel the need to comment. She continues to watch Ritsuo until he manages to successfully pull his mother away from the room with his nervous energy. Mai continues to stare at the oak door, several minutes later, when it drifts closed on its own with a hollow click.

By the time Mai looks back at the gramophone, the clay boy is gone, black burn marks on the floorboards where he once stood. She hopes Mrs. Kobayashi won't be able to see them. Mai can't afford the pay for damages.

The wind rattles the window, and the hands of the children start to tug at her clothing again, little fists of fabric pulling her toward the glass. Mai clutches the nameless record tightly to her chest and lets them lead.

 

...

 

Sitting on the frayed brown tatami of her studio apartment in Taito, Mai looks up at the ceiling as the white paint begins to bubble ever so slightly in the left corner with a grimace. The rain is coming down hard tonight, and it looks like it’s just a matter of time before it springs another leak. She’s beginning to think the relative security that comes from renting a second-floor apartment may be outweighed by the idea of a ground-level room with less frequent water damage. Naru’s soothing voice persists through the low quality speaker coming from her phone on the floor in front of her, a relaxing rhythm easing the tension in her shoulders, if not the ache in her knees from sitting so long.

“If the donors expose Brunstein as a fraud, it’s a given that he'll drag their reputations through the mud as recompense,” Naru points out, “There’s no reason to risk an investigation if all Brunstein wants is for the hotel to be renovated.”

Mai hums in thought, folding the last pair of pants from the load of laundry her neighbor Masahiro brought over ten minutes ago.

Three months after Mai moved in, she and Masahiro—the thirty-eight-year-old shop owner whose apartment is directly below hers—struck up a deal: Mai babysits his eight-year-old daughter Kimiko on certain weeknights, and Masahiro lets her throw her clothes in with theirs on wash day, sparing her a trip to the local laundromat. Since Mai only owns five or six outfits, and since they live a little uncomfortably close to the old Yoshiwara district—a fact that has made Mai more than a little paranoid about keeping lecherous Edo-period spirits out of her apartment—it really isn’t a bad arrangement. Besides, Masahiro says she reminds him of his sister Ayame who lives in Germany, and the two of them tend to find a sort of odd sense of companionship when life gets particularly tough. And Mai trusts him. Sure, the rectangular glasses always perched on the bridge of his nose are a little scuffed up, and he never shaves the layer of scruff closest to his skin, and he has a gnarly chain-smoking habit, but he’s a good dad—or he tries to be. Especially in weather like this, as he steps outside to smoke in an effort to keep the second-hand away from Kimiko. 

Mai listens to the rain hitting the window at a steep angle and thinks Masahiro must be getting soaked. He’s going to catch a fever by Monday. She has half a mind to pull down the bed sheet tied loosely to the curtain rod above the window and look outside, but she doesn’t like to see the bars.

I guess it comes down to identifying why the donors would open an investigation of the hauntings if they weren’t prepared to have the hauntings debunked,” Mai replies in Japanese, and suppresses a groan as she stands, her knees straining.

Naru hums in agreement. “In other words, we need to take a different course of action depending on if they genuinely believe there is something supernatural at work or if they're running a con.”

‘We.’ Mai indulges in a private smile at that. “ Hai .” She carries her pitifully small stack of neatly folded work clothes over to the small closet built into the side of the room.

“If construction resumes and the hotel gets finished,” she says, switching to English, “then the rumors leading up to its opening could help the business by, um, making more, eh...making the public curious, so by the time they open—”

“The guests will come running,” Naru finishes her thought, and Mai can practically see the way he strokes his jaw with his thumb in thought, “but—”

“There was no reason for them to bring an outsider into this, unless the hauntings are causing genuine disturbances and delaying construction.”

Naru makes a sound of ascent, and Mai’s smile grows; Naru already knows everything they are saying, but it helps him relax before the week starts anew if he can talk about whatever task or case he’s preparing to close out. It’s something he used to do with Lin, leaving the rest of SPR in the dark about what he was thinking—to everyone’s (especially Mai’s) irritation. Mai can’t help but feel a bit of pride that he now prefers to waste time sounding ideas off of her in the middle of the night, rather than his former guardian.

“Mai, I have an unrelated question for you,” Naru says, distracted, the sound of pencil on paper audible even through the phone.

Straightening the pile of clothes so that none of them hang off the edge of the shelf, Mai feels torn between trepidation and amusement. “Okay,” she says.

“Dufton or Mulburn; what do your instincts tell you?”

Mai blinks and lets all of the air out of her lungs, feels herself involuntarily pull taut the invisible gold cord she often feels tugging at her core when she thinks too hard about Naru. She sees black tread marks leading off the edge of a fog-covered road, a bent bicycle caught in the metal railing, dangling over a steep cliff, its back wheel still turning. Great Done Fell. The words fill her mind, but she doesn’t understand their meaning.

“Close,” she says absently, the vision still fading, “it’s close.” She knows it.

The faint sounds of Naru scribbling on his notepad fill the space. “Thank you, Mai.”

Luckily, he can’t see how her face has paled. That genuine lilt coming from him always has her a little weak in the knees, is one of her favorite ways that Naru has grown over the years, but it makes her sick to think of what his reaction would be if he knew the truth of her response—the truth of what she’s been hiding. These aren’t lucky guesses, anymore, not her ‘animal instincts,’ as Naru liked to tease her for years ago. This is something else entirely.

She can barely remember when she first noticed the thin, translucent gold cord flowing out from her center, or when she realized it’s somehow related to Naru. The best guess she can hazard is that one day she woke up in the middle of the night, and it was just...there . As if it always had been. She still hasn’t really looked into it, is slightly afraid of what she’ll find, and every time she thinks she might try to find out what it means, something more pressing is brought to her attention. Most recently, she had been struggling to exorcise a vengeful spirit from the employee bathroom at the pawn shop she works at, one of her three jobs; the gold cord had been the least of her concerns.

“You’re welcome,” she says, kicking a few books to the side, trying and failing to slide the closet door shut.

She gives up after accidentally tipping over a pile of scrolls, watching them roll into the living space, she picks her phone up off of the floor, placing it in the breast pocket of her blouse.

On her way to the kitchen, she navigates the scattered piles of books and scrolls that start in the closet and follow the border of the room. She tries to keep them up against the walls, but her collection of occultism has grown too large for her to prevent them from spilling out into the middle of the room.

There’s a beat of silence that she feels compelled to fill. “How are your students this semester?” 

Mai hears the beginning of a sigh that Naru lets die before it fully escapes, accompanied by the papery rustling of Naru scratching away at his work with his pencil; he’s such a diligent annotator. It would make Mai laugh, if he weren’t so efficient at it.

She’s not at Naru’s level, but she likes to think she has improved her note-taking skills since she was forced to drop out; she’s had some extra time to devote to her private studies, the evidence of which is plastered all over her apartment in the form of quasi-effective sigils, seals, and charms designed to ward off spirits and to prevent astral projection, as well as piles of notebooks filled with Mai’s personal observations from each case she works, correlating with all the relevant research she can get her hands on at the few libraries close to her apartment and her jobs in Ikebukuro.

“My morning seminar is...energetic,” he says, tone flat.

It widens the smile already nestled in the corner of Mai’s mouth. She can imagine. After all, Naru is young by both professor and researcher standards, not to mention impossibly handsome, if not the most expressive person you’ll ever meet. The students who aren’t intimidated by his cold and aloof demeanor are likely groveling at his oxford-clad feet. Mai hasn’t seen his face since the last time they had a conference call with Yasuhara over lunch, almost two years ago. She can’t help but feel a little jealous of his students, getting to work with him like she used to. A pang of regret catches her off guard, and the smile freezes on her lips as she makes her way into the kitchen, grabbing a cup out of the chipped cabinet and filling it with tap water. She considers putting a pot of tea on the hot plate Monk got her for her birthday a few years ago, but decides against it; she doesn’t have the patience, and it would be a waste to brew a whole pot just for herself. She’ll wait until the next time Kimiko is over; she’ll serve the raspberry tea she’s been saving just for her.

“How much grading do you have left to do?” Mai asks, mostly to distract herself.

“It’s contained,” Naru says, which means he’ll be up all night finishing it. “How are your classes?”

Pursing her lips, Mai stares at the cheap laminate countertop and the yellow stains in the kitchen sink, fixating on the crack forming along the outer edge of the porcelain. “Good,” Mai says, keeping her voice neutral despite the way her stomach wants to turn. “I got my English grades up, so I’m happy with that.”

At least Mai can back this claim up. Ever since the spike in her abilities, she’s found languages unsettlingly easy to pick up, and she’s focused most of that energy toward becoming fluent in English—because of its practicality, she tells herself, having little to do with the man currently sitting in his home office in England. Her and Naru’s conversations now flow effortlessly between English and Japanese, a fact she is more than a little proud of.

“Have you decided where you’re going to college?” Naru asks, the serious note in his tone indicating his awareness of the coming disagreement. Recently, they have it almost every month. “You’re running out of time to take the exams.”

“I’m not going, Naru.” Mai doesn’t hide her irritation, instead she lets it seep out to relieve some of the tension in her shoulders.

Naru’s silence never fails to make her feel like Hell. The first time this subject came up, it had taken both of them by surprise; Naru couldn’t seem to fathom Mai’s reasoning for not applying, seemed to take the entire thing personally despite the fact that it’s Mai’s life to do with whatever she wants. Sure, Mai would love to go to college, but that’s not on the table for her, not in her current situation.

Not that Naru knows her current situation. He’d just assumed that she would—that she could

Because of the lies Mai has been telling him. Which makes this argument, like most of their recent spats, her fault.

Mai sips her cold tap water, bitter-tasting and mineral-heavy. Naru’s silence continues to weigh heavily on her as she stares down into the simple grey-and-white cup given to her by Ayako what feels like lifetimes ago.

“Naru, I don’t…”

The unspoken lie burns the back of her throat, and Mai closes her eyes, trying to think of a way she can make him understand. She studies well at home because she can control her environment, can block certain energies out, can contain herself. How can she explain this without telling him how many jobs she’s lost due to ‘public breakdowns’ and ‘psychotic episodes’? Even if she somehow managed to make up for the fact she’s a high school dropout, how could she even dream of getting a degree when she can’t ensure she can get through a single lecture without alternate planes bleeding over the borders of reality before her eyes?

Not to mention that she could never even dream of affording any of it; as if paying for college wasn’t far enough out of her reach, she would have to stop working in order to go full-time and receive any kind of aid or scholarships, even if she studied abroad in a country with plenty of aid for out-of-country students, meaning she would have to quit all three of her jobs. Give up what little income she does have in a gamble that she’ll be able to get through a degree? How?

Even if she opted for online schooling, she would still have to pay. The excuse sounds frail even to her own ears, but she refuses to allow herself to think harder about it.

She can’t. And that’s why she won’t.

“We’re not done here,” Naru says, a note of finality in his words that might have actually worked three years ago.

Mai gently places her cup in the sink, no longer thirsty, and turns to open her discolored and overactive fridge, frowning slightly at it’s empty bowels. When she first moved in, before she’d put up the seals, the noises it would make in the middle of the night used to send her into fits.

 She tries not to slam the fridge door, but doesn’t totally succeed. “What exactly makes you think you even have a say in this?”

“The second you decide to give me a half-decent explanation, I’ll be happy to entertain the thought,” Naru drawls.

Mai snorts derisively, crossing the small room in a few strides. She busies herself retrieving her bed and pillow from the closet, rolling out her sleeping mat in the middle of the tatami, her phone jostling in her shirt pocket every time she moves her arms.

“Insufferable narcissist,” she hisses, shaking out her wrinkled blanket with a tad more aggression than necessary, “God knows how any of your students can stand you.”

“My students are already in college, hence I’ve never had to talk them into it.

“Then call one of them,” Mai snaps, grabbing her phone from her pocket to speak directly into it, “I’m sure they’ll enjoy it.”

“Don’t—”

Mai snaps the phone shut with a plastic ‘click.’

Breathing loudly in the subsequent silence, Mai distantly recognizes the sting of irritation, but she feels disconnected from her emotions, like they don’t belong to her. In fact, her entire body begins to feel abstract and distant, like a dream she forgot immediately upon waking.

The gold cord goes slack.

A ripple seems to permeate the air, oxygen suddenly dense, and Mai finds herself gently swaying side-to-side. Eyes wide, she feels her gaze drawn to something on the shelf in her closet. She doesn’t remember leaving the closet doors open. Moving closer, she sees something in the back corner, tucked behind a spare blanket. Carefully, she reaches up and takes the object in her gloved hands. The steady barrage of rain hitting the window drowns her thoughts in white space as she turns the antique record over in her hands, smoothing her hands over its blank red sleeve.

She’d solved the case rather quickly.

Mrs. Kobayashi’s husband had been collecting objects reportedly haunted by children for a book idea, a novel he’d been planning to start writing the summer before he’d passed. He died overseas without ever revealing to his wife what he’d been working on, or the true nature of the strange objects he’d been bringing into the house for over a year. The only spirit actually tied to the property was the girl who drowned in the well centuries before, who had been drawn to the boy’s room by the toys he keeps in his closet. Mai thinks the girl planted the idea in the father’s mind; she thinks the girl wanted more friends, more children. Ones that wouldn’t be afraid of her like little Ritsuo was.

Fortunately, Mai had been able to transition the children, had sent them into the light one by one, all except for him: the boy baked in mud. She couldn’t find him again. She has a sinking feeling he has nothing to do with that house, but rather approached Mai directly.

Mai stares at the rusty red sleeve, worn and faded around the edges from excessive handling, the rain suddenly loud and violent in her ears, a thunderstorm inside her skull. She sees his blank eyes rolling around his skull in her mind’s eye and clutches the record tight to her chest, a shiver causing her to flinch as it travels down her spine. 

She doesn’t remember asking if she could keep the record. She doesn’t even remember taking it home.

Something tightens around Mai’s throat, and she realizes with a start there are black spirals of smoke drifting up around her. Following the smoke as it rises, Mai’s eyes catch on the bubble in the white paint of the ceiling. It’s more swollen than it was ten minutes ago. Attempting to take a deep breath, Mai chokes on the black, swirling mass, and as she’s hunched over and coughing, clawing at the invisible rope tightening around her neck, she hears the sound of the bubble bursting, the paint peeling open, the rainwater finally pouring in.

 

Chapter Text

Outside the window, the sky is turning red. Mai intermittently watches its hue deepen and change while tuning out the steady rhythm of voices rising and falling, of dishes being scraped, and of chopsticks breaking and splintering in the hands of tourists. Looking away from the skyline, she attempts to focus her eyes and ears on Yasuhara’s animated expressions, studiously ignoring the fire ravaging the restaurant in her peripheral vision. He plucks a piece of meat off the grill and places it in his mouth, barely letting his chopsticks touch his lips. He chews through the rest of his statement. Mai can see shadows writhing inside the flames, flickering in the glare reflecting off his glasses. She finds herself reluctantly curious about the mechanics of that—of a vision manifesting so strongly that its light behaves according to the laws of the physical plane, casting shadows and reflections onto reality.

“…and so we were thinking we could all meet at your place next week,” Yasu finishes, patting the side of his mouth with a red folded napkin.

Mai fights the urge to grimace, fidgeting with the hem of the long red scarf she wrapped around her neck after a last-minute glance in the mirror before leaving the apartment. Recalling how long she had laid there on the tatami after being given the angry red ring currently throbbing beneath her scarf, she carefully arranges her face into a casual if regretful smile, and briefly looks down at her untouched plate of food. Yasu senses her refusal before she gives it.

“Oi, Mai,” he says, “it’s your turn to host. Even Ayako has hosted before.” 

Yasu keeps his tone playful, but Mai doesn’t miss the calculating light in his eyes. She’s starting to think the whole purpose of him organizing these occasional gatherings of the disbanded SPR is just to corner her into revealing the location of her apartment. Knowing Yasu, he already knows where she lives, but he can't call bullshit without admitting to sleuthing, so he's waiting for Mai to crack. But that’s just paranoid thinking.

Either way, Yasu should't hold his breath. Mai doesn't crack as easily as she used to.

“My landlord is strict,” she says softly, and pushes a piece of sashimi to the edge of her plate, poking at the fleshy pink fish with her chopsticks, which slide awkwardly in her gloved hand, “and I wouldn’t want to make Sensei uncomfortable.”

She’s still not used to using chopsticks while wearing gloves. At first it made her feel self-conscious, suddenly handling chopsticks so sloppily due to the bizarre feeling of the utensil in her cotton-covered hand. She’d felt like everyone’s eyes were on her. Admittedly, it’s strange, but it’s better than risking an unwanted vision, which would really have people’s eyes on her. The last time she’d let her guard down and accidentally touched a spiritually charged object with her bare hand, the vision had overpowered her to such extremes that she’d completely lost her sense of self, as if she’d been possessed by the spirit she was connecting with, and passed out. She’d awoken with a disturbed client and the worst headache of her life. And so the gloves became another item in her everyday kit of "please, please don't look at me" essentials.

“Ah, the steep price of living in Ikebukuro,” Yasu bemoans, and Mai’s chiding look is practiced and easy despite the ache in her gut.

She doesn’t live in Ikebukuro, she works in an antique shop, a pawn shop, and a restaurant there. But she might as well live there, for how little time she spends at home in a week. And her landlord isn’t strict; he only knocks down her door once a month to collect rent, and he takes cash. The sensei she was living with before she was hired by SPR moved to Kyoto over a year ago, and Mai had never even moved back in with them in the first place, had instead run through the money she’d saved while working as Naru’s overpaid assistant while looking for work. But her makeshift family doesn’t need to know that.

Trying to ignore the tightening of her chest in the wake of Yasu’s disappointed gaze, she makes the mistake of glancing off to the side of their table. Instead of seeing the patrons at the table next to her, she meets the bulging eyes of a young girl standing among the chaos of women attempting to flee the raging fire, flames licking up the side of her clothing and face. The girl cannot scream as she chokes on the smoke, but Mai sees the red flesh of her mouth as she opens it wide and tries, crumpling into a ball on the floor. She is looking right at her. Mai shuts her eyes with a hiss, throat tightening around the urge to vomit as the smell of burning hair and skin mixes with the aromas of seared meat and heady spices, flooding her nose and stinging her windpipe. She gags into her napkin, disguising it poorly as a cough, eyes burning from holding back tears. Such a horrible, horrible way to die.

“Mai?”

Lowering her napkin into her lap, she lets her hands shake under the table and focuses on stilling her shoulders before she opens her eyes. Yasu is leaning too far forward, his royal blue tie nearly touching the grill, and his eyes are wide with equal concern and curiosity. She practices one of the breathing techniques she has been reading about to bring her emotions under control before she speaks—five seconds in, five seconds out—although it doesn’t work as well as she’d hoped, considering the acrid aromas that fill her mouth with every inhalation. 

“Sorry. I think I might have eaten something rotten for lunch. I’ve been getting stomach cramps all afternoon,” she says. 

Yasu’s frown tells her he doesn’t believe the lie, but Mai doesn’t really mind, because his pursed lips tell her he’s going to let it go. 

Her mind is racing. This definitely isn’t just residual energy; it can’t be. It’s so... real...like these spirits are trapped here, reliving their deaths. That woman had looked right at her. She sees. Mai wonders if it would be safe for her to come back here tonight, after closing. Maybe if she could break in after dark, maybe she would have enough time to try to release these spirits before the authorities arrived...

“Do you want me to drive you home?” he asks.

Mai grips her skirt in her hands and shakes her head gently, eyeing Yasu’s tie warily. “I’d rather have the fresh air and walk.”

Yasu leans back in his chair and smooths out his tie against his white dress shirt, casting a surreptitious glance out of the window by their table at the heavy falling rain. Mai immediately feels her cheeks flush, but sits up straighter in her seat. If she’d remembered it was raining, she might have chosen a different excuse. When he looks away from the rain, they share a tight smile before Yasu goes back to delicately placing food in his mouth, raising his eyebrows in a silent question that Mai deliberately ignores.

“What do you think, is this restaurant worth the hype?” Yasu asks instead, winking as he chews. 

Mai offers a tight smile, albeit not earnestly, for the first time in thirty minutes. “I probably wouldn’t recommend it,” she says.

She feels something nudge against her shoe and her lungs leap into her throat, fear momentarily freezing her smile in place as she imagines the kind of horrific scene that could be happening underneath the table. Charred, bubbling flesh flashes before her eyes and she gags and tightens her hands into fists, focusing on the pinch of her nails digging into her palms even through her gloves, before she notices the deceptively calm expression on Yasu’s face and is shocked by an entirely different revelation.

Yasu has pressed his dress shoe gently against the side of her kitten heels and is eyeing her carefully, absently twisting his chopsticks between his fingers. Sweat breaks out on the back of Mai’s neck as the afterimage of indigo eyes hover in her mind’s eye. Breathing deeply, feeling sick in several ways at once, she slowly draws her feet back in and toward her chair, away from Yasu. His expression only gentles, and it makes Mai’s neck burn with shame.

“Did you know this place used to be a sewing house?” he asks.

Mai struggles not to dip back into the vision, tries to bury the sight of yards of fabric consumed by flames, black masses in the smoke flinging garments aside and piling against the locked doors of the entrance. 

“I didn’t,” she says, and carefully reaches across the table, stealing a shallow sip from the cup of sake that Yasu charmed out of their waitress. 

“It burned down. Terrible accident,” he says. 

She rolls the sake around her tongue, washing away the foul taste of her vision. “Wouldn’t have guessed.”

Yasu’s grin widens and becomes forced, and she tells herself that she’s not being entirely deceitful, because she really didn’t know about the fire—at least until she started hearing the screams. Yasu sighs and leans even further back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head. Mai catches a flicker of worry in his eyes, but pretends she doesn’t. 

“You okay, Mai?” he asks quietly, and it’s just so simply worded. Direct, well meaning, mildly intrusive.

Not for the first time, she hesitates to answer. 

If she wanted, she could tell Yasu. She could tell him about her dilapidated apartment tucked away on a side street. She could tell him about how impossible it was to pick up enough shifts at work to make rent while in her last year of high school, hence her secretly dropping out, or about skipping meals or endless budgeting. She could tell him about the hours spent hovering over her phone with a certain narcissist’s number pulled up on the screen, though she never actually makes the call—at least, not the one she wants to make: the call. The ‘I’m not okay,’ call. She practices it in her spare time, just in case she ever gets the nerve. ‘Hey, I know it’s late, but I’m losing touch with the 3D plane and have this horrible sinking feeling I might not survive the year.’ It’s a work in progress.

But as she meets Yasu’s imploring gaze, her chest tightens. Telling Naru would be better than telling Yasu. Telling Yasu means telling everyone. It would only cause them pain. She barely gets to see her old SPR family as it is—the last thing she wants is to make things uncomfortable by troubling them with her problems.

Am I okay?  She considers how to best answer the question.

There is a body on the ground beside the table. A young woman, not much older than Mai. She has found death, began suffocating from the smoke before Yasu began eating. Her clothes are blackened, her once thick hair now turned to ash. The flesh of her face bears the wet, pinkish and charred textures that Mai is beginning to associate with death by fire. Mai briefly tries to remember what color the woman’s eyes were, what shade of brown they were before they began to boil. The eyes will always burst before they burn, like blisters weeping before a flame. Mai looks away, thankful that the woman died from the smoke before she could find out what fire does to the human body. Mai knows a lot about what happens to bodies, now. More than she ever hoped to know.

Mai, on some level, knows she is not okay.

But Mai, former member of SPR, former assistant to Naru—that Mai is always okay. More than okay. And that’s the way she likes to keep it.

“I’m fine,” she says. And means it.

Yasu dabs his chin with his napkin. “You’re okay.”

“I am.”

She is.

She is okay. “I promise,” she says, with a smile that Yasu doesn’t even attempt to return.

His eyes are fixed on a point on the table, right where her food is. Furrowing her brows, Mai follows his line of sight as dread curdles in her stomach.

In front of her are both of her chopsticks, stuck vertically in the center of her untouched bowl of rice. Chills run down her spine, and as she lifts her gaze to Yasu’s expression, she sees the answer to her unspoken question in his eyes: she put the chopsticks there, herself.

Carefully, she lifts the chopsticks and places them on top of the bowl, but before she can parse together an excuse, she glances down and to the side of the table, accidentally fixating on the figure of the prone woman as flames curl up around the sides of her arms, neck, face. Her skin is melting off of her bones, her eyes burned through, black and begrimed, right down to the sockets, and Mai can’t make herself look away.

“You look pale.”

Mai nods her head and feels like her eyes are melting away painlessly, caving in, emptying out. The sounds of the restaurant slip away, and all that’s left is the distorted ambiance of the factory falling apart, the ceiling close to caving in. “This is a terrible way to die, isn’t it?”

Listening to the wooden beams crackle and groan, Mai reluctantly turns her head to glance at Yasu. His mouth is set in a grim line, his eyelids lowered behind his glasses. Mai’s gaze drifts back to the black tar inside the woman’s skull. “I wanted to die beautifully,” she says.

When she looks up at him again, his head is tilted forward, his hands gripping the edge of the table, turning his knuckles white.

“You want to die beautifully, too, don’t you,” she says.

Yasu’s shoulders rise and fall with a slow breath. By the time he lifts his head, Mai has forgotten what she’d been saying, and she wonders when his face began to glisten like sleet.

 

...

 

In the brick-lined alley behind the restaurant, Mai watches the rain carry her swirling vomit into the gutter, her throat stinging like an open wound. The taste of bile lingers, but it's preferable to the effluvium she had to flee from, sputtering pathetic excuses over her shoulder that Yasu might not have even been listening for, looking so stern under the romantic lights, uncharacteristically grim.

Laughter from the street bounces off of buildings and grazes her neck, the thinnest of blades—but that isn't right, she's just imagining that. Shoulders shaking from the cold, just the cold, Mai leans heavily on the wall in front of her, feels the dips of dried mortar scratching at her face. Her ankle rolls over in the pair of heels she paid half price for, just for this dinner. Maybe she should have taken Yasu's offer to drive her home, shitty neighborhood be damned. She smiles, barely a wince of an expression. Nah. She's made it home before on worse legs than these.

 

...

 

After a twenty-minute walk from Inaricho Station, Mai finds herself stumbling up the stairs of her run-down apartment building, stepping over trash and discarded items. Rain-soaked and shaken, she is numb to the occasional drop of water rolling off her overgrown bangs and down her cheeks. In her rush to leave the restaurant, she forgot to grab her coat; her black pencil skirt and blazer are soaked through, and she can feel her white blouse sticking to her chest, turning transparent. She’s lucky she didn’t run into anyone depraved enough to notice or care.

Her hand shakes as she shoves her key into the lock, jiggling it until it slides into place and turns. Pushing the door inward, she practically falls inside, clumsily turning around to shut and lock the door. She stands there in front of the closed door for as long as it takes her to feel like moving any of her limbs.

Something is wrong. Or, she thinks, more wrong than usual. She’s been begging the universe to throw her a bone since she sensed “it” while exiting the train, begging for it to be nothing just this once. But it's still there—that slowly building sickness inside her, like her organs are being coated in thick layers of black mire until even breathing feels like a struggle. Whatever this thing is, it isn’t going to be ignored for much longer. She can feel its patience thinning. And here she was thinking she might get a break after the night she’s had.

Shivering badly, she toes off her heels mechanically, pulls off her scarf, drops her keys on the floor, and walks straight into the cramped bathroom covered in the same pale shade of yellow tiles as the weathered entrance to Inaricho Station. With unsteady fingers, she fumbles through peeling herself out of her soaked clothes, then hangs them on the narrow shower rod that she can’t be bothered to buy a proper curtain for. It’s such a small bathroom anyway, and the risk of a roommate walking in on her is non-existent. She can put that money toward something more important, like her next meal.

Standing bare in front of the sink with a knot in her stomach, she stares at the grey square of paint where the mirror used to be, before she tore it off the wall and threw it in the dumpster behind the building. That was the night she moved in.

It seems so long ago that she squeezed all her belongings into two cardboard boxes and left Sensei’s house, left SPR. Or did SPR leave her? It's so hard to remember things, lately. Yesterday, she introduced herself to her new manager at work, who smiled in that awkward way that tips Mai off to the fact she's made another mistake. Turns out that manager, Jun, is the one who hired her three months ago. He thought she was joking. Which, to be fair, is really the best way that could have worked out.

Reaching out to touch the empty wall, thinking of how her hair has finally grown past her collarbones—even if nobody seems to notice her small, worthless attempts to appear feminine, to be beautiful—her fingertips stop a hair’s width from the peeling paint when a wave of nausea cinches her throat shut, like she's held together by drawstrings.

The gasp doesn't quite make it out of her, sounds closer to a gargle, but it hurts the same as if she'd coughed, loud and raw. The world around her begins to pulse and warp, her vision narrowing to a point on the bathroom sink.

No, not right now, no.

She chokes, gripping the edge of the sink, trying to slow her fall as her knees give out. She manages to somewhat save her kneecaps, but her grip loosens with the next disorienting wave of oppressive atmosphere, and she folds onto the freezing tile floor with a choked-off sob that feels an awful lot like giving up. She doesn’t want to have any more visions tonight, she doesn’t want to fall in and out of her body; she wants to sleep, to actually, fully sleep for the first time in months—she doesn’t want to see. She’s seen enough tonight to last her a lifetime. Can't the universe feel that? Can't the karmic balance figure out that she is past her limit, at least for tonight?

Apparently not.

You have to do it.

Mai focuses on the distorted voice echoing inside her head, desperate to remain conscious while distantly aware of her body going into mild convulsions, thick saliva gathering at the back of her tongue.

Do what? I have to do what?

She feels a cold hand caress the back of her neck and she curls sharply inward, cringing away from the touch. The convulsions worsen as the tiled floor dissolves into water, and a web of icy limbs wrap around her frame to pull her under, inhuman nails digging into the flesh of her arms, abdomen, thighs. As a cold hand tangles in her hair and pulls her head down into the growing pool, dark, thick river water quickly floods her open mouth, and the voice continues to reverberate inside her even as her lungs burn and her awareness fades into the blackness that surrounds her.

 

...

 

When Mai wakes, there is fire in her lungs. She chokes, involuntary heaves forcing liquid out and air in. Her throat burns as someone guides her onto her side, and she presses her face to the cold tile floor as she struggles to catch her breath.

“Well, this is awkward.”

Masahiro’s gruff voice grounds her a bit, and she is able to weakly turn her head. Masahiro is crouched on her bathroom floor beside her in a coffee-stained t-shirt and plaid blue pajama pants, expression severe. His glasses have a new scratch in the left lens.

“What—” she croaks out, but Masahiro shakes his head to quiet her.

“Don’t try to speak yet, that probably stings,” he says, and Mai assumes he means her throat, which doesn't sting but burns like Hell during a heat wave. He carefully begins maneuvering her into a sitting position, hooking her arm over his neck and shoulders. “Can you walk?”

Taking stock of her body, Mai does her best not to let it show that she just realized she is in her bra and underwear. Better to be found half-naked and alive than found later, half-naked and drowned to death. She hates herself for being relieved she's clean shaven, but quickly loses interest in her own self-hatred, too tired to keep it up. Fatigue does have some benefits.

“Yeah,” she rasps, and helps him stand her up, careful not to slip on the waterlogged tile floor.

After several minutes of awkwardly fumbling through her messy closet and being helped down the stairs, Mai is sitting on Masahiro’s faded orange couch, fully clothed in flannel and wrapped in a brown, itchy wool blanket that she’d tried twice to refuse before reluctantly accepting, if just to ease the stress between Masahiro’s brows. Kimiko is fast asleep in the corner of the apartment, spread out over her bed mat in the haphazard, childish way energetic children often sleep.

Masahiro offers her a mug of something hot, and she doesn’t try to dissuade him this time. A quick sip burns the tip of her tongue, but it’s worth the way the steam clears her sinuses and warms her nose. Peppermint tea. It's been a while.

“That should numb your throat, a bit,” Masahiro grumbles, settling down on the floor in front of her, “which should make it easier for you to explain how the Hell you managed to drown in a shower.”

Taking another sip, letting the flavors roll over her tongue, Mai takes a minute to look over him, to really look. The grey bath robe he put on over his sleepwear has a hole in each elbow, and the bags under his eyes rival her own. His hair sticks up in at least seven distinguishable directions, but it's still remarkably thick for a man of his age, only a few fine grey hairs around his hairline. And he's looking at her like she's got much explaining to do.

Mai stares back at him over the rim of her mug. “I fell.”

The silence that follows is neatly punctuated by Masahiro’s most emphatically unimpressed face, the one where none of his muscles seem to move at all except for one eyebrow that twitches ever so delicately. “What’s with that half-assed answer?”

Mai stares into her tea, watching the steam curl. The dampness of her hair on the back of her neck is starting to irritate her. She misses owning a hairdryer. She wants to be alone right now. She’s too tired to act properly grateful, even if she feels it. She doesn't want to explain this.

She hears Masahiro hum in thought, and jumps slightly when he slaps both of his hands on his knees. “Okay, I’m going to tell you what I’ve already figured out, and then you can join in.

“I got a massive leak in my ceiling, and when I went upstairs to check on you, you didn’t answer. I tried the door. It was locked. Then the door unlocked itself. Then I followed the sound of running water and found you doing your damndest to drown yourself in the bottom of your shower with a fuckin' towel over the drain. Looked difficult. I don’t think it would have worked. Looked more like waterboarding.

What I’m saying is your lock is fucked up and you're shitty at killing yourself. And those marks around your neck don't help your case, either. Sound about right to you?”

A chill makes its way down Mai’s spine and back up her neck at Masahiro’s words. She hadn’t even known she was doing it. Did she imagine the floor melting? Is she just losing her mind?

“No, I…” Mai stops, clutching the mug tighter with both hands, ignoring how it burns her fingers.

She has no explanation she can give him without saying too much. Nothing that won’t just make it worse. Right now she figures he thinks she’s just destitute and depressed and, as much as it pains Mai to lie about this, it’s better than having him think she’s a complete nut job.

So she says nothing.

After a while, Masahiro sighs in a way that belies his age, the sigh of a single father in his thirties who just took on another problem because he’s too damn nice, and stands up in front of her. She jolts when he puts a firm hand on her shoulder and squeezes once.

“Hang in there, kid. You’re not alone in this.”

Later, as she listens to the sound of Masahiro pulling another bedroll out of his closet, she stares unfocused at the worn tatami and watches the world blur, warm tears falling on the tops of bare feet. She squeezes her hand into a fist.

Hang in there.

"Hey, Hiro," she says, voice still scratchy from the most recent abuse. He turns to look, both eyebrows raised. She doesn't care; she likes the nickname. She gives the best nicknames, after all. "Can I try one of those cigarettes, later?"

Her eyes dart over to Kimiko sleeping peacefully, then back to him. His lips are pursed, but his eyes are shining with the internal debate.

She sees her victory in the defeated look on his face. He wears it heavily. "Sure, kid."

Mai tries to smile, but from the grimace Hiro sends her way, it doesn't go as well as she was hoping. Oh well. She's hanging in there, right? That's all she has to do.

Raising her tea to her nose, she inhales deeply, appreciating the subtle aroma of mint.

"Kid."

Mai glances up and sees Hiro standing stiffly by the extra bed mat he prepared for her, his pajama pants more wrinkled every time she looks. He looks like the sort of man who isn't used to not having the words he needs to get something done. Mai has the sudden and intrusive thought that Hiro isn't actually a shopkeeper, but something else. Something corrosive. Like a detective.

"You can lean on us a bit, you know," he says.

He looks sad, and she hasn't even answered, yet. Mai smiles, genuinely this time, and his shoulders only sag under a heavier weight.

"Thanks, Hiro."

He smiles half-heartedly. They stare at each other for a long time, sharing a tangible thought.

It absolutely must, must get better than this.

Chapter Text

Lying on the floor, staring up at the bottom of a cherry wood bed frame, Noll should not be thinking about Mai’s most recent rant concerning Western hotel designs and their “reinforcement of socioeconomic elitism.” He probably shouldn’t even be lying on his back under a hotel bed. Under any bed. It’s impossible to tell when the carpet was last cleaned—Mai would rather bathe in a swamp than walk barefoot on hotel carpet, so she claims, although Noll doubts she left room for any consideration of snakes, alligators or other swamp-bound creatures in her haste to hyperbolize—but given the musty stench steadily rising from the dust every time he shifts his shoulders, it's possible she may be on to something. 

According to the witness’ mother, her daughter was hiding underneath the bed during a game of hide and seek when she saw an apparition of what she describes as a soldier missing one eye. After careful interviewing, it became clear that she was describing a man in an American officer’s service uniform and that, judging by the cloth belt she described, the man died post-1942. Noll had inquired, obviously, about if the girl is interested in history, perhaps has a working knowledge of military actions during WWII, and if her parents often watch films that showcase actors in period clothing of the type, but he received denials on all fronts: “She’s too young for that,” the mother said, with a tone Noll didn’t completely agree with. He and Gene used to watch war films when they were younger than eleven. And the girl, Rasha, easily could have seen this type of officer’s uniform on the internet or otherwise. But the ability to recall fine details based on casual viewing… Well. It’s not impossible.

It’s still the underside of a bed: dark, cobweb-infested. Irritating. This is likely a waste of time. He’s not even paying attention. Three American G.I.s could have marched through his line of sight three times over and he wouldn’t have bloody noticed. Unbelievable. But it’s just that Mai was so upset when he told her he wasn’t charging Brunstein for the second investigation, irrationally so—which, to be honest, is to be expected from her, the irrational bit:

“Why the Hell shouldn’t they have to pay? They lied the first time, that’s why you couldn’t identify the problem, it was their fault! I-I mean imagine the mental complex it takes to charge what they do for a room with one bed just because they add a balcony, or to make everyone feel like ‘oh, gee, I guess I really don’t deserve fresh air because I don’t make as much in a month as the fucking businessman above me who booked a whole suite for themselves and their favorite sex worker,’ I mean imagine!”

Shocking, for some reason, to hear Mai say the words ‘sex worker.’ Even more than the cursing, actually. 

Apropos his best interest, Noll wisely refrained from mentioning he is currently staying in a luxury suite on the ninth floor, traveling just with Lin.

The carpet is starting to itch. Having had enough, Noll begins shimmying his way back out from under the bed, ignoring how he can’t quite discern if his hair is being disheveled by cobwebs or just friction, when a strange smell catches his attention. He sniffs, smelling mostly dust, but then there’s something... sour. Unpleasant. He lowers his nose to the carpet, but there he detects only must. Nothing like the other scent. It isn’t until he successfully exits from under the bed, straightening up and lazily brushing debris off his shirt and pants, that the odor becomes truly apparent. 

Examining the empty room, the still shadows cast from the low light of the standing lamp over the green cushioned chair and the loosely drawn golden curtains, Noll carefully follows the smell, walking around the queen bed with its ivory and gold bedding and pillows, over to the inner-side of the room, and finally to the closed bathroom door. Light spills out from under the door, illuminating the now dust-covered toes of his oxfords. The smell is strongest here. Brimstone. Eyeing the ornate doorknob, a glimmer of light draws his eye back down to his feet, which are now surrounded by what appears to be water seeping out from under the door.

Noll turns the handle, its metal unusually cold for the temperature of the room, and pushes the door open. The bathroom in front of him is not the hotel room’s bathroom. The tiles are yellowing and cracked in visible places, the sink rusted and exposed below the aged porcelain bowl. All, even the toilet, appears clean, well taken care of, but damaged beyond repair. There’s no mirror, just a square of grey paint that doesn’t match the rest of the walls. The shower is running, spouting over the tile floor with no curtain to block it, and the water isn’t draining, is overflowing from where the floor dips slightly beneath the shower head onto the rest of the bathroom floor, and now that he’s paying attention the sink also seems to be overflowing, water cascading over the sides of the bowl and splattering loudly on the tiles in front of him, soaking the bottom hem of his pants. The powerful odor stings his eyes, like standing in a room with burning chemicals.

Keeping one hand on the door handle, he takes his notepad out of his pants pocket with the other, flipping the cover open one-handed while repositioning himself so that his back is to the open door, holding it ajar against the wall so he can slide his pen out of the binding and take note. But the problem is, he isn’t holding a notebook anymore. He’s holding a brown clipboard that secures a stack of paper, documents that appear to be medical notes, files, perhaps, all of which are blurred, like looking through fogged glass. Impossible to make out. 

A splash hits somewhere in front of him. His eyes snap up to the shower drain, where dark tendrils are flowing out, trembling in the barrage of water, but fine in texture, almost… almost like… 

Dropping the clipboard, Noll takes halting steps toward the drain, ignoring how his shoes slosh through water, or how the spray soaks into his clothes as he kneels down, unable to judge why his heart is beating so fast, or why his chest feels so tight, like he’s—like his emotions are combusting, like he’s losing something he can’t, he absolutely cannot lose. He brushes a tentative hand over the mass, then threads his fingers fully into the now recognizable brown hair as it curls in the water, marvels at its softness, pulling through the tangles as more of it flows out from the rusted drain, and he’s barely breathing, can barely remember why it matters as he tugs more and more hair up from the pipe, winding it around his forearm as he goes, until that isn’t enough and he hastily unscrews the plug altogether, popping it off and tossing it to the side before he twists the hair into a rope-like wad that he can grip more firmly, with both hands, and yanks as hard as he can. 

He feels the source give, the rest of the hair coming up without struggle, blood coming up with it, surrounding him on his knees, seeping into his clothes, both arms wrapped in beautiful, perfect brown locks that make his eyes burn and his throat close and fuck, fuck this can’t be it, this can’t be it

“Oliver?”

Noll blinks. Looks down at his empty hands. The blinding white of thermoformed acrylic. He’s on his knees in a square bathtub, facing a pristine silver spigot and drain. Dry. His ears are ringing. He notes, in an abstract sort of way, that his face is wet.

“Lin,” he acknowledges, and pushes himself to standing, straightening his shirt collar. 

He doesn’t bother trying to disguise the tears. They’re still welling, senselessly, silently.

Lin hovers in the doorway, hair pulled back with a hair tie, sleeves of his black turtleneck rolled neatly up to his elbows,  holding Noll’s notebook in his right hand. “What… are you doing?”

Noll steps out of the bathtub, mindful not to test his legs too much, and turns on the sink faucet, pointedly ignoring the uncharacteristic shake of his hands as he dips his head and washes his eyes out with water. 

“I’m currently still evaluating that,” he says, noting the way his voice scratches, before twisting the faucet off and looking himself in the mirror, face and bangs dripping, eyes red, completion pale.

“Did something happen?”

He can taste copper. He checks his teeth for blood, feels around his mouth with his tongue to test if he’s bitten his tongue or something else, but nothing is amiss. “Yes.”

In his peripheral vision, Noll observes Lin’s demeanor shift from concerned to investigative, a subtle change in the way he carries himself. “Did you learn anything?”

This, glaring into his own eyes, thoughts racing, heart rate still slowing, Noll has to consider. “Have there been any claims related to bathrooms on site?”

“No.”

“Water?”

“No.”

“Hair, blood?”

Lin slides all the way into the bathroom, leaning back on the door and crossing his arms. “No. What happened?”

Giving himself one more hard stare, Noll shakes his head, grabs a hand towel off the rack to his left and roughly wipes the water off his face, dropping the towel in the sink on his way out. He stalks past Lin, who stays wisely to the side, and makes a sharp turn toward the door to the room.

That. That had nothing to do with this case. Noll feels it in his spine, like he just had his head pulled from a trash compactor at the last second, his whole body fired up with adrenaline, hairs raised, stomach doing loops. That was something else. Something personal. Something Noll is going to uncover more about before he decides to share any details with anyone else. He can’t afford any interference before then.

Brunstein can wait. Noll needs to get to their estate library, gather materials from his office, go home, and get his thoughts in order.

“Oliver, where—”

“Keep that notebook, use it to do as much as you can here before I get back. And call Madoka. She’ll want to assist with this, and she’ll be pissed when she hears I’m leaving you alone,” Noll says, barely remembering to grab his black coat from the otherwise empty closet before making his way to the front door.

Jerking the door open, he casts a quick glance at Lin for confirmation, who is glaring quite remarkably from where he stands in the middle of the living space, clutching Noll’s notebook to the point of turning his knuckles white.

“You haven’t told me—”

“I’ll be in touch,” Noll says, voice inexplicably raw, and sweeps out of the room into the brightly lit hallway, passing by elegant flashes of art deco imitation, obligatory gold geometrics and the occasional sculpture of Grecian maidens.

Mirrors flash in the edges of his vision, exactly two meters apart, lining the hall, but Noll keeps his gaze rigidly forward, doesn’t want to catch a glimpse of himself, or anyone else. It’s been years since he's caught Gene's reflection inside his own. Not since they found the lake. But on days like this… Noll isn’t tempted to test the odds.

He figures Lin will stay mad for a few weeks. But by then Noll will have an explanation and will be able to fill him in, explain his actions. It won’t take much longer than that. Nothing ever does.

Noll places his hand on the outside of his coat pocket, feeling the barest outline of a key through the heavy fabric, feels his temperature rise, his heart beat a little harder.

Usually.

...

 

Last night Mai dreamt she was in the woods, bathed in sunlight. Every leaf rustling above her was a vibrant, glowing green. The breeze was thick and warm, and the hand in hers was even warmer. Even the earth under her back was dry and welcoming.

‘You’ll have to go back in soon,’ he said.

‘I don’t want to,’ she said, and he squeezed her ungloved hand. It’s been a while since she’s felt skin with her bare hands. It feels strange.

‘Me either,’ he said, and continued to lay beside her in silence.

A peaceful, wonderful dream. Uncommon, for her, these days. She wonders whose memory it was.

Midday in Ikebukuro, sitting on a cold, green metal park bench, Mai looks up at the spidery trees lining the cement walkway and pulls her wool coat tighter around herself—a gift from Masahiro this morning, “to cut the awkwardness of waking up in your neighbors apartment” after a night like she’d had. It’s a little worn around the sleeves, its brass buttons have long lost their shine, not to mention where the stitching has begun to come loose, and the pattern has faded significantly into a slightly despairing grey, but it’s cozy. Smells a bit like moths, though. Moths and ash.

For the twentieth time, Mai turns the cigarette over in her gloved hand, tracing the line where the orange paper ends and the white begins. 

An hour or so ago, Mai was working the storefront of the pawn shop when a young man in a striped shirt tried to pass off a handful of his handmade, ornate belt-buckles as authentic recovered relics from the Qing dynasty in China. Mai had held them in her hands a moment or two longer than necessary just because the memory was so peaceful, his hands so steady while placing each crystal. He’d looked shocked when she respectfully declined them, hurt, almost. And Mai can understand why. He’d slaved, after all.

The cigarette looks so small and pristine in the palm of her hand, even with the faint creases from it being in her jacket pocket. She chews the inside of her cheek.

She doesn’t have a lighter. Masahiro was probably banking on that.

Even if she did, she isn’t sure exactly how to go about it. It looks easy enough when other people smoke. If she takes off her gloves, she can probably learn from Masahiro’s memories, but that sort of casual breach of privacy is something she’s trying to avoid making a habit of among friends—she hopes she and Masahiro are friends—and she can’t always control what sort of memory she calls to the surface. 

A couple of years ago, she made the irreparable mistake of using ESP on a lost wallet found at the cafe she was working at and ended up experiencing the most perplexing sexual act involving a rubber band and a paper cup she could never have even imagined (second hand, of course). Off putting as it was, it didn’t come anywhere near close to her worst visions of the unsavory variety. At least that one didn’t make her physically ill. Unremarkable sex, apparently, rarely leaves an imprint. She has nothing to even compare it to, nor many opportunities to find out if that’s really as good as it gets. She hopes it isn’t.

Her lunch ends in twenty minutes. If she’s going to do it, she should do it now.

Mai is going to ask someone for a light. She’s seen people do that in movies. It always works. Unless one of them has a secret agenda, or is a murderer.

Looking around, Mai spots a few different candidates nearby: a teenager with a backwards hat in a lively conversation with his loose-sweatered friend, both of their skateboards propped against the metal fence between them and the trees; a woman in a lavender pantsuit with peach lipstick and sharp eyes sits on the bench across from her, checking her watch every five minutes, large black circles under her eyes; and an older gentlemen with a five-o’clock shadow and a peaceful aura radiating out from where he sits on a large rock, looking up into the branches of a tree.

Mai stands up in a jerky, nervous maneuver that almost has her stumbling to the side, still not totally used to her new heels. She doesn’t know why she bothers wearing them; they aren’t going to give her what she doesn’t have; they aren’t going to lengthen her legs or darken her hair or turn her into a tall beautiful woman with milky skin and midnight eyes watching her approach like she’s been expecting it the entire time.

“Hello,” the woman says, and her voice is rich and soothing and everything Mai has ever wanted to be and never will.

“Got a light?” Mai tries not to analyze how successfully the phrase comes off her lips, pretends as if she hadn’t practiced in the employee bathroom for several minutes this morning.

The woman crosses her legs, takes one look at Mai’s neck, bruises poorly covered with foundation, and pulls from her black leather purse a silver lighter, along with an unopened pack of cigarettes with a foreign brand name, and then shoves both items into Mai’s fumbling hands.

“I’m trying to quit anyway,” she says, in response to Mai’s confused expression.

Mai feels ashamed and grateful in equal doses. “Oh,” she says, and then hastily, “thank you.”

The woman’s smile is brilliant, unnaturally white, and the thin lines around her eyes make her dark under-eyes stand out more. Her black hair is in a tight bun, but the perfect strands that fall into her face remind Mai painfully of Ayako’s sweeping red locks. She even looks similar in bone structure. How long has it been since Mai has seen her? The thought stings.

“I’m guessing you don’t get many breaks, either,” the woman says, and Mai’s eyes only burn for a moment.

Slowly, to give the woman a chance to object, Mai lowers herself to sit beside her on the bench, keeping a cautious distance between them and balancing her new gifts where her skirt dips between her thighs. The floral notes of the woman’s perfume sing in the air around them as the breeze picks up, then dies down again.

“My boss gave me a caffeine pill this morning,” Mai says, without mentioning that it didn’t quite keep her from dozing off on the glass counter during her shift, unable to get back into her body for a frantic fifteen minutes while her physical body drooled on the display case.

The woman hums and uncrosses her legs, smoothing down the soft fabric of her pants with both hands. Even that gesture appears luxurious, on her.

“Those don’t help if you have a tolerance,” she says, a smile forming in the corner of her thin lips, “have you tried something stronger?”

Mai shakes her head, fiddling with the lighter without dropping Masahiro’s loose cigarette before the woman reaches for it. Mai’s flinch backward is automatic, and the woman merely checks Mai’s expression before trying again, this time taking it from Mai’s hands without issue, careful not to touch her. She flicks the lid open, and the flame sparks up immediately.

“It’s a Zippo,” she says, and Mai nods as if the word means something, “Here.” She positions the cigarette in Mai’s hand, balanced between her index and middle fingers, then nudges her hand toward her mouth. “Just hold the smoke in your mouth, you don’t want to inhale much the first time.” Her eyes twinkle when she smiles. “Trust me.”

Mai takes a quick breath to stall her nerves and places the cigarette gently between her lips as the woman holds the flame to the tip, watching Mai with the sort of motherly patience and warmth that makes Mai want to scream and cry on the concrete.

She inhales and coughs, nearly jostling the pack off her skirt.

The woman’s laugh is heartier than she would have imagined, fuller, nothing like the tinkling bells hanging off the headpieces of maikos, or the wind chimes that sometimes hang at the bases of shrines.

“I warned you,” she says, and it’s been so long since Mai’s heard those words said by a live person, with no ill intent.

Mai tries again, this time letting the bitter, ashy taste fill her mouth before slowly letting it out in a small cloud of smoke. The woman is still smiling. She gestures down at the pack in Mai’s lap with a delicate finger.

“You’ll like these better than whatever you’ve got there,” she says with humor, “they’re more suited to a lady.”

Mai contemplates the red embers on the edge of the paper, can’t help but wonder at how strange it is to have something burning closer and closer to her face.

“Modiodal,” the woman says suddenly, causing Mai to look up at her face. The humor is still there, but now also… pity. It sits like lead in Mai’s stomach. She holds up a small white pill bottle.

“What’s that?”

“For staying awake. You can get a prescription by saying you have narcolepsy,” she says, smiling once again, then checking her leather watch. “Well, that’s all the time I have left,” she says, and stands up with all the ease and grace Mai was expecting. “Try and stay optimistic, yeah?”

Mai crosses her ankles and makes her very best effort to give this woman a pleasant smile, and dies a little when the woman’s eyes turn sad for just a split second in response. People used to love Mai’s smile. It was one of the only compliments she ever used to get.

The woman’s absence leaves her chilled by the breeze, and Mai thinks this is why they say not to go inside when hypothermic if you need to go back out again, like being given just enough feeling in your limbs to want to saw them off.

It takes a moment for Mai to spot the pill bottle on the bench where the woman was. Ha. Modiodal, huh? She picks up the prescription bottle, shaking it a bit to hear it rattle, and slips it into her own fraying handbag, along with the new pack and lighter. She can verify the pills' origins later, when she’s at home. The woman’s name and address are on the label. Clever way to offer a lifeline. Mai hopes the woman won’t take it personally when she doesn’t reach out in return. Mai’s problems are probably a little different than what that woman, Kazane, has in mind.

Mai lifts the cigarette to her lips and inhales. It stings, her throat still a bit raw, but she holds it in, and when she breathes out, it doesn’t hurt. She coughs anyway from the tickle in her lungs.

This, she determines, like most things, will take practice.

 

...

 

Noll stands stiffly by the curb, waiting for the Taxi he called for thirty minutes ago to come to a complete stop in front of him. Sliding into the black leather interior of the passenger side, Noll pointedly avoids looking at the taxi driver as he states his destination to deter any unnecessary conversation.

It fails to deter his phone from ringing.

He taps the green circle with his thumb and holds the phone to his ear, fiddling with the direction of the air vents so he feels the AC as little as possible.

“Yeah.”

“Oliver,” Madoka says, and he can almost picture her seated in her office, having her afternoon tea, napkin folded elegantly on top of her favorite off-white Prada skirt. 

That was fast. Noll purses his lips and glares at the impeccably maintained mahogany dashboard, then the custom brown leather wheel, the taxi driver’s gloved hands. The seat is cold, but asking the taxi to put on the seat warmer feels like a sign of weakness he can’t afford to show right now. 

“Your mother called,” she starts with, instead of the anticipated jab about leaving the case to Lin.

“Riveting.”

Noll shuts the air vents altogether, leans back in the seat and goes to pull his notebook out of his pocket before remembering he left it with Lin. If this conversation is going to be as worthless as he predicts, he’d hoped he could at least get some work done.

“She says you haven't applied for the sabbatical.” He hums in acknowledgment, eyeing a scuff mark on the leather seat beside him. This is a much more effective punishment than the direct route. He’s impressed, as always. “Some of your colleagues have expressed concern. That you seem distracted.”

It doesn’t surprise him that people have noticed. He has been conflicted. Distracted. Ever since the board first brought up the opportunity to work abroad for a semester or two. The thing is, his family, his tenure, are in England. Taking a sabbatical to temporarily put off the reality that is his situation, to spend time where he wants to spend it, but can’t stay…

It’s not advisable.

To get used to things again. To get used to her, again. Get comfortable being the way they are and then have to do it all over again, say goodbye again.

Noll went to Japan to bring Eugene home. There’s no need for a return trip.

But they offered him the sabbatical.

He doesn’t even want to think about it. Mai has her own life. Stability. Friends. She’s still finishing high school. Finding a career path. He knows better. And worse, Lin has already insinuated that, if Noll were to be completely honest with himself, part of his insistence, even urgency, to get Mai to attend university—while he is absolutely concerned for her well being, for her future livelihood—may be additionally motivated by a subconscious desire to open up the possibility of, well.

Where she might attend.

And since he happens to know first-hand how hardworking and earnest she is, despite all of her many, many, many flaws, first and foremost being her absolute refusal to be bloody careful with expensive equipment, and as he also happens to have a somewhat coveted position at a particularly esteemed institution of higher learning, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Mai might wish to take advantage of such a strong letter of recommendation and decide to come… here. And if Noll were to make a particularly well-timed and sizable donation, perhaps purchase a building, perhaps set up a scholarship fund for students in the field Mai happens to be pursuing, then who would the college be to turn away the well-meaning philanthropy of one of their faculty? Of course, Mai wouldn’t like the idea of Noll pulling strings, but strings are meant to be pulled. And the last three years seem to have made her somewhat more practical. She might not be so opposed.

But of course, Noll would never make such a suggestion.

“How long are you planning to put off seeing her?”

Noll knows she is no longer talking about his mother. He pretends anyway. “I just saw her last week.”

 “Oliver.”

With a shallow exhale, he closes his eyes, resisting the urge to let his head hit the headrest. “What are you digging for, Madoka?”

“Your feelings.”

“What about.”

“Your feelings about the sabbatical.”

The taxi hits a bump, and Noll allows himself to be jostled and displaced. No point in tensing up. “And?”

“You care for her.”

That shouldn’t sting. It really shouldn’t. 

Muffled traffic sounds help mute his thoughts, make the car feel insulated. Small. “Feel free to make your point.”

“You don’t date. You hardly speak to anyone outside of a professional setting. You’re practically married.”

“You underestimate the word ‘practically.’”

“You share a phone plan. You pay her phone bill.”

“It makes more sense that way. Took her months to agree to it.”

“Oliver,” she says, and Noll will never stop being envious of how condescending she can sound with just a word, “if you miss one of her calls, you’re in a bad mood for the rest of the day until you manage to call her back. You spent that last department meeting staring off into space and going over the last conversation you had with her—don’t you dare deny it. You have a separate journal just for Mai-related things. You’re like a lovesick long-distance stalker. Your mother has been looking at wedding catalogues for a year.”

That… is alarming.

“That notebook is strictly research-based.”

“You’re being unnecessarily stubborn.”

“Am I?” He doesn’t mean to sound so serious. The strain of the day must be getting to him. At least he has time to rest his eyes.

Madoka’s sigh is audible. Quite the show of irritation. Very French. She’s only been there a month and she already sounds like a Parisian. “If you play this game much longer, you’re going to force her to give up on you. And no amount of begging will bring her back once she’s done. She’s going to meet someone, Oliver.”

Noll is silent. He opens his eyes and looks out the window. River water flings fractals of light as they pass over the bridge, the road texture turning rougher. Every time the ripples flash into his eyes, it leaves vibrating green afterimages behind, nearly as captivating at the small rapids themselves. He presses his tongue to the back of his bottom teeth, considering his response.

 “I don’t see why she shouldn’t.”

“You know exactly why, and you need to do something about it.”

Noll drums his fingers on his thigh, letting the muffled sounds of the engine, the soft whir of the air conditioner that the Taxi has set to a too-cold temperature, soften his thoughts and clear his chest of the tight feeling that has been building since this morning. He doesn’t see why he should do anything about it, save speed it up, perhaps. It would be good for her to have someone. Someone who can sweep her off her feet. Someone like Gene. Mai would have adored him. She did adore him, actually. Noll sometimes wonders if she still sees him. He hopes not; too long on the mortal plane is a treacherous thing for the uncorrupted. Treacherous enough for the living.

“Right,” Noll says, “when the wedding invitation comes, I’ll write them a check.”

“Liar.”

Noll looks out the window as the river slips out of view, replaced by an expanse of grey, concrete sidewalks and roads breaking off in different directions, and smirks just to fill the growing sickness in his gut. “Am I?”

Her silence doesn’t say much. Disappointment, maybe. Noll doesn’t care to stick around for her to gather her thoughts, ends the call with his thumb and tucks his phone into his inner coat pocket.

“Troubles with the ol’ girl?” asks the driver, who Noll continues to not look at.

Plastering a false smirk on his face, Noll turns his gaze to the taxi floor, full of crumbs and cough drop wrappers. Mai had a sore throat last they spoke, an extra bit of rasp. She wouldn’t admit it, but Noll could tell. Could hear the difference. Could feel it in his own throat, today. His head is throbbing. His thoughts aren’t making sense. Noll isn’t a medium. He isn’t. That was Gene. “You know the story.”

The man probably doesn’t know the story. Noll hasn’t told him anything. But people prefer to think they understand. It makes life easier when you let them pretend.

“Is she worth it?”

Oddly, Noll recalls a moment late last semester when he was grading papers. Mai stayed on the line for hours after she should have gone to sleep, barely speaking at all save for occasionally spouting off a random thought, or reading a line from the bit of Saussure she was chipping away at. She stayed on the line until he could hear her fall asleep, her breaths deepening and slowing to a soothing pace. Noll fell asleep with his head on his desk, the phone right by his ear, listening.

“Not at all.”

“Well there you have it,” the man says, and laughs. 

Noll closes his eyes and turns his face toward the window, no longer interested. He sees spiraling hair, sees it wrapping around his torso, arms, face. He can taste it, like the smell of warmth.

Fatigue is catching up with him. He hasn’t slept in almost thirty-four hours. He forgot to eat lunch, he’s just now realizing. He can almost hear Mai’s exasperated reprimands, as if she’s all-knowing, right there in his head. He wishes he could hear her now. Wishes he could just listen to her breathing and fall asleep anytime, anywhere.

“I guess you better apologize for whatever you did, then,” he says, and laughs some more. Friendly. No ill intent. Still moronic.

Noll briefly considers how that conversation might go; what he has to apologize for, and to whom. “Might be better to let it go. Let nature run its course.” That was a little too honest. He’ll take a short rest when he gets to his apartment, curb some of that honesty.

That man really needs to stop laughing like that. Like Noll is a teenager who can’t work out a simple her + you equation. “If I had a bird that made me stew like you are right now, I wouldn’t be thinkin’ half as hard about it as you are. Tell you that.”

He hadn’t known he was ‘stewing.’ Noll covers his mouth with his hand, giving up and turning his gaze to the driver. His dark hairline is healthy, his skin a bit sickly pale, but Noll doesn’t have much room to talk in that area. He’s wearing a crisp yellow button-down with short sleeves and driving gloves. Noll is in long sleeves and a wool coat. The cold temperature of the taxi makes even less sense than it did before.

“Anything else?” Noll asks, dry, but the driver only chuckles and shakes his head.

“Good to be young,” he says, and Noll lacks the will to be contrite.

Noll sighs behind his teeth, his gaze drifting back to the grey streak of the street outside the car window, and feels the edge of a genuine smirk against his fingers.

Maybe he’ll call her later. When things start making more sense.

Chapter Text

“Well?” Mai asks.

Mai glares at the record on the floor in the middle of the room, contained in a circle of purified salt. She’d realized a tad too late how difficult that was going to be to get out of the tatami, later.

“Now’s your chance.”

The rain is picking up outside, hitting the window, drowning out the silence as Mai folds her legs under her, her most flowy skirt still managing to cover her knees. Masahiro accidentally shrunk some of her clothes this week. She’s not particularly bothered, since some of them had started to hang off her a little unsettlingly. This fixed the worst of it. Besides, answering the door to Masahiro wearing a too-small t-shirt and a hilarious frown was worth any inconvenience.

The room still smells like the pancakes Kimiko ran upstairs to give to Mai this morning, waking her up remorselessly. At least her father had the wisdom to bring not just a cup, but a whole pot of coffee, which he left on her hotplate without even mentioning it. Neither of them even mentioned her bizarre decor, or looked twice at the materials scattered about the edges of the room. Mai is genuinely excited to watch Kimiko grow up into even more of a whirlwind than she already is, would have loved to have met her mother. Masahiro claims Kimiko is all him, but something tells Mai that isn’t completely accurate. He lets Kimiko get away with too much for that to be true.

The red record sleeve hasn’t moved an inch. Neither has the salt. She doesn’t want to touch it, knows better than to put herself at its mercy again. But she needs to understand so she can solve the problem. 

“What do you want?”

Eyeing the hundreds of paper sigils of varying religions, practices and spiritual points of view stuck to every bit of wall all along her apartment, Mai would like to hope the reason the spirit isn’t manifesting is because she did such a good job inking them all herself and imbuing them with energy. But clearly that doesn’t matter with this one. 

She closes her eyes, trying to feel the room.

Nothing. She can’t sense a drop of spiritual power. As if it’s really just a vinyl record. And this is how she’s spending her day off. She doesn’t even have anything she could just play the record on to get some clues the old-fashioned way. Normally, she could connect with the record and listen through clairaudience, but that would require opening herself up, and she’s not up for the risk. Not with this spirit.

The faint remnants of watered-down bleach tickle her nose, briefly overpowering the smell of pancakes and coffee. This morning, she’d finally gotten the courage to clean the bathroom, to the best of her abilities, and assess the damage from the flooding. Somewhat dismally, the bathroom mostly looks the same, with some added water damage around the cabinet. Nothing as disheartening as what she walked in on last night. 

When she got home from work yesterday, all her notes and reading materials had been thrown all about the apartment, some of her dishes were broken on the tile in the kitchen, and a jar of tomato sauce was broken in the fridge, spilling all over the shelves. It was like the scene of an epic temper tantrum. It took all night to clean and reorganize all the information back the way she'd had it—organized chaos, if you will—and then put up all new defensive wards. She’d just fallen asleep when Kimiko knocked. 

Head falling to the side, Mai realizes she never opened her eyes back up, was about to nod off like this. With a sigh, Mai gives up on project “give the spirit a chance to be reasonable” and stands up, knees aching, dusting some excess salt off her skirt.

The apartment feels stifling. Heavy. She can still feel the tomato sauce running down her arm while she cleaned it, even though she washed her arm until she was raw. Maybe she just needs to go out. Get some fresh air.

Walking over to the kitchen, she grabs her blue cloth purse from the countertop, then rifles around for her keys until she feels the cold metal. Double checking her blouse for syrup stains, she slips on her shoes one at a time in the entryway, hopping slightly as she uses her index finger to help with the heel, when she remembers she needs to turn on the standing lamp so she won’t come home to a dark apartment, since she doesn’t get much natural light through the bed sheet covering the window. 

Quickly skipping over the salt circle and supposedly cursed object, switching on the light in the far corner, she turns toward the door, but halts in the doorway to the bathroom. Peering into the shadows, she’s hit with the memory of a cold hand tangling in her hair and pulling her head down under, river water rushing into her lungs, liquid ice, of nails scraping her naked flesh, keeping her eyes open through it all, watching the light disappear above the water’s surface.

With an abrupt inhale, Mai snaps out of the flashback, adjusting her purse strap with shaking hands and hustling out of the apartment, locking the door behind her as she’s immediately pelted with lukewarm rain. She’d forgotten it was raining. But like Hell she’s going back in there for a coat or umbrella.

Taking the stairs two at a time, probably unwise considering the slick concrete, she gets the sense her phone’s about to ring and pulls it out of her purse, just as the outer screen lights up with a call from Monk. Feeling more than a little guilty, Mai places the phone back in her bag, ignoring the call. He and Ayako have been trying to make plans with her, and there’s nothing more she wants than to sit under their kotatsu and drink their medicinal teas and listen to Monk play bass lines while Ayako hums along, but… With everything going on… It doesn’t seem wise, to put them in harm's way, unknowingly. And she doesn’t like to admit it, but she’s more than a little wary after that dinner with Yasu, if not outright suspicious.

Downstairs in the outdoor hallway, she knocks on Masahiro’s door to let him know she’s going out. They do this for one another, for some reason. Mai doesn’t overthink it. But it makes her feel safe.

The door opens in, Masahiro wearing a frayed grey bathrobe over a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, and a plastic crown on his head. “Yeah,” he says, as if that’s a greeting, and scratches his five o'clock shadow.

Mai smiles, leaning forward to see if she can catch a glimpse of Kimiko dressed like a princess. “Are you having a royal party without me?” she asks, and Masahiro’s mouth doesn’t smile, but his eyes do. He got his glasses fixed, she notices.

“What can I say, I’m prince-fucking-charming,” he says, and does that thing with his hand where he almost reaches into a pocket for a cigarette, then catches himself and aborts the movement.

Hai hai,” Mai chuckles, and lights up with a fantastic idea. It takes her a moment of shuffling items around in her bag to find what she’s looking for; she really needs to clean this thing out once a while. “Here,” she says, beaming as she holds out a small hairpin studded with red rhinestones, a teardrop pearl dangling from the end. “You can let Kimiko wear it around the palace today, if you tell her it’s special and to be careful.”

He raises an eyebrow as if to say ‘Sure about that, kid?’ but takes the hair ornament from her outstretched hand. “I’ll keep an eye on it,” he says.

“Good. I’m heading out for a bit. Shouldn’t be out too late. Your majesty,” she says, and curtsies just a little mockingly.

“Oy,” he says, as she’s about to walk away, “we’re having katsudon for dinner tonight,” he says, and levels her with the sort of practical, expectant look that makes Mai want to know what he really does for a living.

“Is that…” Mai feels herself blush, unsure why her blood is rushing to her head. She can count the amount of times she’s been invited over to someone else’s house for a family dinner without running out of fingers.

Masahiro doesn’t roll his eyes, but his eyebrows say it all. “An invitation to fuckin’ court, yeah. No offense kid, but you suck at feeding yourself.”

Warmth that starts in her chest radiates through her rain-soaked skin and clothes, and Mai finds her eyes welling up embarrassingly. Masahiro looks a bit exasperated, but doesn’t ridicule. “Stay there,” he says, “let me get you something before you go skippin’ off in the rain like a stray dog.”

 

… 

 

Walking down Dogenzaka in Shibuya, Masahiro’s large, pink and white polka-dot umbrella held tightly in her hands, Mai can’t keep this weird smile from bubbling up on her face. ‘Oh very mature,’ he’d said, at Mai’s bursting laughter, ‘very grown-up of you.’

Surrounded by glittering lights and colors in the rainy street traffic, the ads on buildings flashing brightly, reflected by the rain pooling in pockmarks and gutters, Mai keeps looking down at her hands, feeling pleased. She’s wearing her nicer, black leather gloves. She thrifted them as a small gift to herself over the holidays. And she gets to have katsudon for dinner. And Masahiro’s umbrella is pink with polka-dots

Stepping over puddles, watching her tennis shoes on the sidewalk instead of watching where she’s going, the black asphalt in the rain looks almost like a river in her peripheral vision. As soon as she thinks it, Mai is no longer in Shibuya. 

She’s a small child, standing in a shallow creek bed. A young boy plays a few feet away, splashing around, catching baby kappas. Being gentle with its tiny green body, Mai picks up one with a beak bent like a frown. “Look, this one looks like Kazu!” The other boy laughs and splashes water toward the boy sitting by the creek in the shade, not paying attention to them, his nose in a book.

Coming back to her senses, standing still in the flow of traffic around her, Mai suddenly feels like a stone in a river. Feeling weird, not sure what she just saw, but unwilling to let it tarnish her good mood, Mai shakes it off and gets back into the flow of pedestrians.

 

... 

 

The blankets are down by their hips again. He’s lucky she hasn’t kicked them off completely, along with their pillows, what with her habit of shoving them down in her sleep multiple times a night, with varying degrees of success. Without opening his eyes and risking the pain of daylight, he smooths his hand down her arm, trying to ease her goosebumps back into her skin. Despite how eager she is to discard all bedding whilst asleep, of the two of them she’s the one who gets cold easily, doesn’t seem to mind her own discomfort enough to address or prevent it. She’s like that with most things. Noll thinks it has more to do with not liking feeling tangled up or confined than not being used to western beds. And the dreams. 

Keeping his eyes closed, he pulls the blankets back up over her shoulders, tucks his other arm under her pillow, her head a comforting weight, and then drags his free arm back over her waist to pull her closer to his body heat. She hums her contentment as he curls around her, presses his nose and lips to her hair and inhales deeply, preferring the lingering notes of smoke and whisky from last night to the taste of his own mouth. 

Truthfully, Naru doesn’t particularly care for ‘pub nights,’ but it’s worth it for how Mai’s eyes light up as she virtually climbs over the table to stick her finger in Yasuhara’s laughing face when they argue, or how easily Mai circulates the room, hardly able to take three steps without getting pulled over to the bar or into another lively conversation with another one of the seemingly hundreds of people Mai has managed to make an impression on in the comparatively short time she’s been here. If it weren’t for the way she still hovers around the outside smoking section with that anxious, longing look, Noll wouldn’t mind it at all.

“It’s too early,” she mumbles, drowsy, likely hung over. She’d actively protested Noll’s suggested two-drink limit, by a large margin. “Naru,” she whines, slightly slurred by sleep, “let’s move to France.”

Noll can’t help but smirk, eyes still shut, discarding a few lazy kisses in her hair. He’s known this was coming ever since Madoka came by last week and charmed Mai with her new spaniel and stories about her trip to Honfleur. Thing is, he and Mai just got back from three weeks in Bordeaux a few months ago, and she spent more time at the wine museum vocalizing how Noll’s mother of all people would ‘love to see this,’ ignoring Noll’s many attempts to inform her that his mother has in fact seen it , than actually wanting to taste the wine. By the end of the trip it was the L’impasse de la Fontaine-Bouquière, a historic alleyway—an alleyway —that held her attention the longest. An hour and twenty-three minutes, to be exact. Noll isn’t sure how to feel about that. And as soon as they got home, she gave all their home appliances a faire la bise.

So he very much doubts it’s a legitimate suggestion; she just likes to ask to see what he’ll do. Does it all the time, about exotic pets, extreme diets, clownish wall art; sometimes about more serious things, like how little he visits his parents, how little he visits Gene’s grave—and do they really have to pretend that Gene is hovering by a block of cement and talk to him when they know bloody damn well he isn’t there, but she insists—constantly testing his limits, probing for the moment he’ll say she’s asked too much. Noll doesn’t mind. It reminds him of when he and Gene were first adopted; Gene behaved similarly, then. Noll has always been more interested in what he can get for himself without having to ask.

Although, she did enjoy the Place de la Bourse. Maybe he’ll take her to Versailles soon, when the semester breaks. Madoka would be happy to lead her around the grounds while Noll lags behind, keeping an eye on her without “smothering Mai with his protective instincts,” as Madoka so kindly put it. But frankly Madoka hasn’t had to pull Mai out of a well six different times.

Seven. He forgot about Spain.

“Paris might be tolerable,” he says, thinking of his most pleasant experience as a guest lecturer last summer. Quick-witted students. Critical.

Still resisting wakefulness, he slips his hand underneath her silk camisole, tracing her spine with his fingers, relishing in the way she still shivers. Part of him is still living in suspense, dreading the day she stops reacting to his touch, stops blushing when the back of his fingers brush the skin of her thigh, or when he tucks her hair behind her ear in public.

Mai snorts, grinning against his chest. “What did Frida Kahlo write to Nickolas? They sit for hours in the ‘cafés’ warming their precious behinds, and talk without stopping about ‘culture,’ ‘art,’ ‘revolution’ and so on and so forth, thinking themselves the gods of the world, dreaming the most fantastic nonsense, and poisoning the air with theories and theories that never come true.” She laughs. “It’s like she knew you.”

Overly harsh. Noll suppresses a smirk. He doesn’t recognize the quote, but there’s no doubt in his mind it’s close to exact. Mai has an inhuman memory, when it comes to things she likes or that make her laugh. Or things that hurt.

Noll pinches her side, enjoying how she edges closer to him to evade his hand instead of away. He never should have showed her the way to the library. Should have let her keep reading the map upside down. Her insults are getting too whetted.

He tries to block some of the light penetrating his eyelids by sliding down and tucking his face into the crook of her neck, the earthy remnants of what might be sage clinging to her skin. “You’ll fit right in.”

Truthfully, Noll prefers the solitude of the countryside to large cities when traveling. But lately he finds he wants to keep her as far away from forests and sweeping landscapes as possible. Sometimes it scares him, how her skin glows in the light between the trees, the slightly red hue to her brown eyes, and he’ll have to hold tightly to her wrist and pull her back onto the trail, into his chest, just to make the panic go away.

“We both would,” she says, and he can feel her holding back more tittering.

“Hm.” He slides his hand up over the soft skin of her ribcage, following the bottom curve of her breast with his thumb. She sighs happily as he moves his hand around her back and up, his arm between her skin and her shirt. “Why do you even wear this thing?

Her answering laugh is musical, warm against his ear. Massaging the nape of her neck, the particularly breathy quality of her responding moan more than catches his interest. Shifting his weight, he rolls over her, appreciating her blunt nails on his back as she wraps her arms around him in kind. He grazes the edge of her jaw with his teeth before capturing her chapped lower lip between his own, holding his weight with one arm so he can grip the meat of her thigh and encourage her leg up over his hip, pressing his hips into—

Air.

Wide awake, Noll stares at the crisp white sheets beneath him, a cold sweat on the back of his neck chilling him through. The room temperature is unusually glacial. The sheets and bedding are starched, the early morning light is replaced with the evening glow filtering in through the window. The sun’s almost down. He’d only meant to lie down for a few minutes. He checks the black electric clock on his nightstand: he slept for nearly three hours, missed the conference call.

Christ.

 

… 

 

Sweat dripping from his hairline, Noll’s back hits the hardwood, finishing the last set of sit ups and depositing the weighted plate onto the padded mat beside him on the floor, struggling for oxygen a little more than usual. He shakes a little as he sits up, trying to pull it together, ignoring his overworked muscles as he stands, blinking saline into his eyes. He grabs his wrinkled black shirt from the chair he dropped it on earlier and throws it onto the middle cushion of the lighter grey couch where he’s less likely to forget about it. 

His sweatpants cling uncomfortably to the sweat on his thighs as he wanders into the kitchen, grabs a glass from the ivory high gloss cabinet over the sink and fills it with tap water. He drinks it quickly, polishing it in one go.

Taking a few deep breaths, sweat cooling his overheated skin, he hits the middle button of the black electric kettle and hears it hum as it turns on. He stares at the waterline on the side of the machine as the water level bobbles, both hands pressed to the cold marble counter when only hours ago everything was velvet skin and warm sheets. He feels sick, weak in his limbs, like he’s gone days without eating.

It was just a dream. A realistic dream—not realistic but… real. It felt real.

He can still smell smoke and alcohol. He can smell it on his skin. He’s losing his grip. He leans over to the sink and splashes water on his face. Dabs himself dry with the towelette. He needs to sit down. He closes his eyes and leans his elbows on the counter, head tilting forward, fingers tightening in his sweat-soaked hair, pulling some tension into his scalp to relieve his growing headache.

Madoka has it wrong. 

She was so focused on Noll's predilection to suppress his emotions that she asked all the wrong questions, focused on just his end decision instead of the decision-making process. The fact of the matter is Noll has known for a long time how he feels about Mai, how Mai feels about him, more or less. He isn’t an idiot. He’s the opposite of an idiot. He teaches master seminars on neuropsychology and the subconscious. You can’t maintain this level of communication, spend this many hours wrapped up in another person’s thoughts, and not come out of it with emotions. Attraction, even. It’s a natural consequence of extended interactions. He wants her.

It doesn’t change the fact he’s not going to make an overture. 

Even if she jumped at the suggestion, it’s a bad idea however he looks at it.

Case one: he formally requests her as his assistant again. It would put pressure on SPR to allow her into the association, even without a resumé, which could help get her foot in the door as a personal, investigative or lab assistant under his supervision so she’d be cleared to enter the university labs, and if what he remembers of her studying habits is accurate, she’ll need all the pressure on her side she can get. If his motives, however, are found to be in any way unsavory, say, if he were in an unprofessional entanglement with his assistant , then he’ll have the ethics committee bearing down on his arse faster than he can pull his pants up. So he could do his best to bring her up to speed and make her a full-on investigator. Ethics would still be dubious considering she would technically still be operating under a hierarchy that puts him above her, but it’s better than nothing. Assuming she even wants to join the association or participate in research. He isn’t even sure she would want to join him on investigations. She hasn’t expressed interest in participating beyond discussion since he disbanded SPR in Shibuya, but she’s always engaged over the phone, always happy to be involved, and her knowledge has expanded phenomenally since they last worked together, uncannily so.

Or, for the sake of argument, case two: say Mai is opposed to both participating in investigations and the ‘bed my way into the upper echelon of research’ plan— Jesus , not bed , she’s not throwing a leg over for credits—but for some unfathomable reason still wants to involve herself with Noll. What is he to suggest? He picks up his life, drops his tenure, moves to Japan and just… ‘figures it out’? Or is he to suggest she drop her life and friends to move here and ‘figure it out,’ get a job, perhaps translating, since it doesn’t always require a college-level degree, while he’s pulled away in an endless parade of research and lectures and conferences and she’s left at work and then waiting for him… Where? At home? In empty hotel rooms? Or on campus at one of the many universities she does not want to attend ? Mai has no trouble making friends, could probably build a life for herself anywhere, but would she even want any of it, once she had it? 

Or God forbid Noll manages to convince her to continue her education and she decides to take advantage of his letter of recommendation, and she decides to go to school here. In which case Noll would be knowingly pursuing and sleeping with a student at his university, possibly even a student in his actual department , and he would once again have the ethics committee on his arse and likely lose all credibility with the board, which would put not only his research in jeopardy but also Mai’s enrollment based on his letter of rec., so the whole thing would have been a moot point.

So, yes, Noll could hypothetically, as Madoka put it, “Do something about it.” 

But then what ? Noll isn’t sold. This is why Noll dislikes overly-emotional people. Except for Mai. Mai is the exception. And also the problem.

Sighing deeply, Noll pinches the pulse-point above his eyes, fed up with even his own attempts to weasel out of this.

He could just reopen the damn Japanese branch of SPR. They offered him the damn sabbatical, which would give him a chance to get things set up, get the damn board’s support, and get the damn funding. Higashi is applying next month for a university research grant in Japan that would require most of the overseas funds; Noll would be spitting in the face of a project Higashi’s team has been prepping for all year. Because Noll’s project would win out. Noll isn’t proud of it, but he’s infinitely better at greasing hands and flipping skirts. Higashi would be crushed. 

But Noll could have her. If she wanted him.

A shrill beep makes him cringe, hands tightening in his hair. The water is ready. 

Unfolding himself, Noll straightens up, grabs his teacup left on the counter from earlier, and drops in a fresh tea bag from the jar beside the kettle to steep before pouring the water, letting the steam hit his face. He stands there longer than he should, watching light brown coloring spread in graceful tendrils. His head is throbbing. It’s past three in the morning.

Maybe he just needs to hear her. Just to fill the space, to remind his primordial brain that she’s not gone, just not here. The distinction between the two is getting thinner. 

Grabbing his cup on the way, he walks over to the dark grey couch, grabs his cell phone off the coffee table, and sits, microfiber irritating his heat-sensitive skin. He should shower and cool off first. Eyeing Mai’s contact on his phone, he recognizes this as one of those moments in which he knows he’s being impulsive but can’t seem to stop himself. 

He calls her. She answers on the first ring. 

“Naru.” There’s a cheerful note to her greeting that he’s missed. She sounds good, better than a few days ago.

“Mai.” His voice comes out comparatively rough, and he clears his throat.

“Miss me?” she says, her tone playful. Expecting a pithy dismissal, a quick put-down. But Noll’s words are stuck in his throat, and Madoka’s are slowing down his response. You’re going to force her to give up on you. “Naru? You there?”

Damn it. Damn it, Madoka. “Yes.” He feels like he’s running a temperature. “I’m here.”

She pauses. “Oh-kay,” she says, pitched slightly higher than usual. “Is everything alright?”

He wants to hang up, wants to keep her on the line. Doesn’t know what’s gotten into him.

“Naru…?”  

Noll’s left hand is twitching again. Can’t stop looking at it. Noll doesn’t twitch. Not unless he’s physically compromised. 

“Fine,” he says, staring at his hand, wondering when it'll stop. 

“If it’s something I can help with—”

“No. It’s,” Noll untenses his shoulders, tightens his hand into a fist, forcing it steady. He thought he’d worked off his excess energy. “I’m just. Tired.”

“O-okay, but if you’d rather rest—”

“I’d rather talk. Hence why I called.” He’s trying to be rude, but he can’t tell if his voice sounds how it feels, like he’s having an allergic reaction.

“Oh, that’s right,” she says, soft, warm. It relieves something in him, something that aches. “Can I… Is there a way I can help?” Shivers roll down his spine, and it’s irritating because that wasn’t even suggestive and yet. And yet.

“Just.” He leans back on the couch, rubs his hand over his eyes. “Talk.”

“About?”

“Anything. You.” He can’t swallow correctly, like an idiot. “Your day,” he corrects, somewhat convincingly.

He listens to her sigh, the one that means she’s thinking, before she begins to speak in Japanese, and the relief of not having to ask, not having to admit that’s what he wanted… Noll has no words. Sometimes he forgets English is his second language since he’s more advanced in it, forgets how comforting the sounds of his childhood can be, even if he can’t recall much of that part of his life. It’s hard enough to remember anything that took place before Gene’s death; he’s spent too much time trying to forget.

Oh, I know what to tell you,” she says, giddy, “listen to this urban legend I heard about this office in Tokyo…” 

She launches into the story, and Naru feels the tension slowly leaving his body, just from listening to the gentle rhythm of her voice, letting her draw his mind out of his body and make everything calm. Make everything simple.

He doesn’t have to make a decision, yet. He has time. They have time.

He just needs to wait for it to be right.

 

 

The problem with stores like this, Mai thinks, is it’s impossible to find what you’re looking for quickly. With its long, tall wooden shelves and maze-like arrangement, it's designed for careful exploration, for those who prefer aimlessness to objectives, prefer to discover what they need only once they’ve run headlong into it.

It’s bigger than it looks when you first walk into the front room, a cubby-like space filled with intricately woven rugs and potent-smelling candles. You have to round the corner and meander through the first few rows of shelves to even notice the expanse of the shop. Thick, brightly colored strings are tied to a brass knocker bolted to the front desk, leading all around the store’s seemingly hundreds of bookcases and shelves of obscure, unmarked merchandise. Mai has yet to find where it all ends, and there’s no good vantage point of its endless rooms. She’s yet to even run into another customer while wandering the store, lulled into a trance by the ancient, spiced smells and soft lights filtering through fabrics of every color draped from the ceiling, bright enough for reading but little more than that. Mai hasn’t figured out what makes the pink string different from the orange or yellow strings, or any color for that matter; hasn’t been able to decode the overall organization of the store’s items, if there is any, but the colors certainly keep you from getting lost. 

It’s a bit unconventional, but Mai has never left the store without finding something of pertinence, ever since the first time she took a wrong turn down a dark alley in Shibuya and found herself walking down weathered stone steps and through a wood doorway blocked only by an ornate cloth that hangs like a partition. And, to be honest, not much strikes Mai as truly strange these days. Especially not when it’s a warm, safe-feeling place where she’s allowed to take shelter for hours without being asked to leave.

Mai currently sits cross-legged on the floor in one of the longer aisles, aged books and stacks of paper spread out around her on the hardwood. Her back rests against a packed shelf of similarly bound books of burgundy and gold, facing a more eclectic collection of bells and trinkets and boxes, as well as various texts and notebooks. Masahiro's pink umbrella lies open on its side in the middle of the aisle, drying.

Mai broke her own golden rule, it seems. She came here looking for something specific, and she’s been more than disappointed; she’s been turned around the dust-filled aisles for hours, and found only a handful of useful information.

She’s been trying to figure out this new spirit’s, the clay boy’s, as she’s been thinking of him, nature. It’s clearly strong, easily breaking through her protective barriers. It is sentient, doesn’t appear to act randomly. Is it being controlled by someone else, or does it have a will of its own? Could be demonic. Often take childlike or feminine forms. But the mud, the swollen eyes, the whole thing is hardly apt for fooling someone with a false sense of security. And it went on the offensive almost immediately.

‘You have to do it.’

Mai mulls it over, gently toying with the delicate bit of rice paper between her thumb and index finger. Whatever it is, it wants something. Wants her to see something. It has an objective, and it’s trying to batter her into cooperating, wearing her down. The fact that it skipped negotiations altogether and went straight to terror-tactics could suggest frustration, impatience. Which could mean Mai isn’t the first. Or it could mean something else entirely. Maybe it’s just heavy-handed. But it’s too soon to tell. She’s jumping to conclusions. Naru’s words from years ago pop into her head: “Always focus on what you don’t know.”

She doesn’t know… pretty much anything, at this point. But the most obvious question is why it hasn’t followed through on its implied threats, why it hasn’t made its demands more clear. And she doesn’t know what else it’s capable of, since she doesn’t know what kind of spirit it is. But it unlocked the door for Masahiro, and it released her before she sustained any permanent damage when it strangled her before that. There must be a reason she is being prodded but kept alive.

Looking up from the page of hand-written text that has begun to blur, Mai blinks her eyes back into focus, and studies the wicker baskets filled with bells and charms of various metals and colors on the middle shelf in front of her. She feels a sad little pang. They remind her of Monk and Ayako. 

She misses her SPR family. Even Masako. Even Lin. Actually, especially Lin; it wasn’t until a couple years after he and Naru returned to England that Mai truly began to understand the significance of having an omnyoji at her side in difficult situations. A rare blessing, while she had it. Even if Naru was more often than not the one to save her back then.

She’s sort of glad Naru isn’t around to get caught up in her messes, anymore. Or make fun of her for things like accidentally breaking a thousand-year-old seal and having to play a series of humiliating games, the least of which involving having to carry an egg in a cup on the top of her head while walking up a mountain, to coerce the yokai into going back to the spirit world so she wouldn’t have to reseal it. She’s not an exorcist, after all. Sure, she still occasionally uses the Nine Cuts technique Ayako taught her so long ago, but lately the cuts are just…

Too big. Overzealous.

And yet, despite its destructive power, using that technique as of late feels a bit like squeezing a water balloon through a straw. It doesn’t feel natural.  It almost stings, sometimes.

And recently, if normal spirits get too out of hand, Mai can usually just sort of… touch them and… burn them away. Or something like that.

Besides, more and more, Mai finds most untainted spirits and weaker yokai willing to negotiate. She hardly ever requires the various techniques and tricks she’s picked up over the years. Even the troublesome ones seem to prefer favors to fighting. And yet this new entity seems to have a different idea of negotiation, closer to Mai’s experiences with corrupted spirits, or yurei.

Kneeling in front of the wicker baskets lining the middle shelf, she taps some bells with her finger, then picks up a small golden ring of five keys, a small smile resting on her lips at their pleasant sounds as they knock against one another. She wonders why that is, that her overall interactions with yokai in particular have changed so much in the last year, increased even; if her attitude toward the spiritual realm has changed, and therefore changed the way she’s received, or if there’s been some other, less detectable, shift.

“Nothing today?”

An Indonesian woman no older than fifty steps into view, a sparkling orange shawl wrapped around her shoulders, intricate tattoos visible on her hands where she props them on her hips, wrinkling her thick, floor-length purple skirt. Mai was startled when she first saw the tattoos, but she always refrains from asking about them, too polite to point them out. And Mai really doesn’t want to offend the shopkeeper who has been so, if not outright friendly, at least generous, and patient. Despite how impossible it would seem to find someone in here, Mai often catches the woman following her around the store. But she never makes Mai feel unwelcome. Just a bit like a zoo animal. Or a spider in a jar. And also underdressed, in her blouse and skirt.

Mai smells the Tobacco as the woman saunters toward her, smoking out of a long cigarette holder. The outfit and the smoking are a bit dramatic, in Mai’s opinion, not to mention bad for the merchandise, but considering how Mai probably looks just trying to walk down the street, talking to herself at regular intervals, she feels immensely hypocritical just thinking it.

“Not unless you’re holding back on me,” Mai says, trying to sound coy instead of exhausted.

“Whaddya need?”

Mai looks up at the flowing colors above her, rippling in an undetectable breeze. Not, ‘What does she want?’ But, ‘What does she need ?’ “I wish I knew,” she says, and grins sheepishly.

The woman looks her up and down, hair pulled tight into a bun on the top of her head, elaborate gold chains dangling down from her hair onto her uncovered shoulders. “Hm.” She tilts her head, considering, large earrings jingling, and Mai is impressed at how her expression can be just condescending enough to look productive. “Wait here.”

When she comes back several minutes later, Mai has shifted to sit holding her knees to her chest, and is playing with a brass bell tied with a red ribbon. Not wasting any time, the shopkeeper strides right up to Mai, towering over her, and holds out a bundle of what looks like dried herbs and sticks bound with lavender and green string. “Free, for you,” she says, “You’ve been negligent.”

Still groggy from the overall atmosphere of the store, Mai takes the smudge sticks gratefully. No point in arguing with or insulting the woman when she says she needs it. She lifts it to her nose and inhales deeply. Sage is the only smell she recognizes. She hasn’t been buying much this month, trying to save up some cash to get Ayako a birthday gift that won’t humiliate her. Her birthday’s only three and a half months away, and Mai is still struggling to come up with a thoughtful enough gift that will be able to compensate for whatever expensive thing Ayako is going to come up with in July when it’s Mai’s turn. Which reminds her: everyone back at school is graduating. She’ll have to call them and congratulate them. Feels kind of awkward, though, like maybe they will have forgotten about her. She doesn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.

“Thank you,” Mai says with a grimace, bowing her head while struggling to stand. Bracing a hand on the bookcase, she puts the carefully wrapped bundles of dried sage into her cloth purse.

“Should be burning morning, noon and night, with blood like yours,” the woman says, with a sharply raised brow. A double-take confirms the woman looks as dead sure of herself, black eyes narrowed and focused, as she sounds.

A little confused, Mai fiddles with her purse strap, conscious of the notes and books chaotically placed around her feet, trying to find the right question to ask. But then the woman is walking away into the abyss of shelves, dust stirring around her as she flips her shawl and turns around the corner, her jewelry chiming and swaying as she goes. And Mai, more and more, is too unsure of herself to follow.

 

 

The heady smells of the shop still clinging to her clothes, Mai’s stomach aches with a familiarly hollow, irritating cramp. Hungry. Trekking around downtown, everywhere she looks there are people holding coffee cups and small paper bags of snacks. She wishes she could stop in a cafe for a sandwich. Swinging Masahiro's umbrella by the handle, careful not to hit anyone walking by, Mai tries to put a little pep in her step. She misses having more spending money, fondly remembers buying her first kotatsu, how she used to pull the blanket skirt up around her chin and lay her face on the tabletop, trying not to fall asleep from the luxurious warmth settling in her bones. 

She sold it to a coworker last winter, when a vengeful spirit broke the pipes under her kitchen sink and she had to call a plumber, back when she’d been too shy to ask Masahiro for help.

Avoiding cracks in the sidewalk, Mai misses a step and stumbles, vision turning staticky around the edges, the abrupt sensation of falling in her gut that usually signals she might start to drop into sleep and astral project. She props herself against a shop window and takes deep breaths, keeping her eyes open wide, and starts doing simple addition problems: 4 + 2 = 6; 7 + 11 = 18; 12 + 12 = 24. It’s a trick she learned from Naru, back when she used to come to him for advice about these things. “Anything that requires just enough thought to keep you engaged, but not enough to make you stall too long or cause confusion. For you, for instance, I’d suggest trying to name different types of farm animals, since anything else might be too challenging.”

That had been the first time Mai actually hung up on him without calling back. She smiles fondly, feeling her mind begin to ground itself again. Hiding in the shadows of pedestrians passing in front of her in groups, Mai unzips her purse, digs until she feels a hard, plastic tube, and pulls out the bottle of pills. Twisting the plastic cap open, she tips a couple white capsules into the black palm of her gloved hand, then throws them back, swallowing them dry.

The pills have been working. She’s staying awake longer and more easily. Her waking visions might be getting a touch more immersive, but it’s hard to say, and she’s definitely not sleeping through the night, but she wasn’t before, either, and at least she isn’t leaving her body as much. 

She hasn’t been able to remember her dreams well, either, and hasn’t been experiencing as much precognition, but she doesn't mind.

Well, this morning she sort of minded. She woke up feeling warm. Like being held. And she immediately thought of Naru, the sharp edge of his rarest smile lingering behind her eyes. She laughs painfully at her wishful thinking, and meets the startled brown eyes of a woman wearing a chiffon-like yellow scarf, judging her silently in passing. God, her subconscious still hasn’t taken the hint.

She accepted her feelings for Naru weren’t going to go away easily the very first time he called her in the middle of the night without reason, no intention of discussing her abilities or anything else even remotely related, and went straight into a tirade about the ignorance of his next-door neighbor, who evidently overhead him and Lin in a heated argument and left a book on his porch titled “Heaven is Real: How Faith in the Afterlife Changed My Life.” He’d been so annoyed by the implication that he immediately returned the favor by leaving a massive cardboard box filled with used books on religion, history, sociology and psychology on their porch the next day. Mai had never known he could be so petty. She’s been done for ever since.

A flash of sun obscures her sight, and it takes Mai a moment to recognize the lightweight fabric in her hand. The yellow scarf. Jumping away from the wall, Mai scans the crowd of suits and brightly colored coats and subdued school uniforms funneling down the narrow path before it lets out onto the main road, but she can’t locate the woman. Looking down at the scarf lying limp in her fist, Mai purses her lips and shuffles her tennis shoes against the pavement, a sick, unsettling emotion twisting up her insides.

Against her better instincts, it twists her lips into an uneasy smile.

 

...

 

Surrounded by white walls adorned with red- and black-framed concert pictures, Yasuhara makes a point to sit in a relaxed manner as he joins Ayako and Monk at their virgin-white, circular kitchen table in their apartment in Shibuya. His indoor slippers have little grip on the light wood floors, and his shin still aches slightly from where he botched his stride where the living room floor drops down a step from the kitchen earlier. Wondering if there is a polite way to move a massive green-leafed plant further away from you when your host has placed them inconsiderately close to all the furniture in their moderately sized apartment, save for Monk’s instruments, Yasuhara eyes the black leather sofa across the room longingly. Why can’t they be sitting over there, instead of on Ayako’s minimalist white, steel and plastic-feeling chairs? 

Monk puts his smartphone down on the table. “She didn’t answer. Again.”

Ayako groans and folds over, red hair splaying out over the table like an abstract painting, and Monk puts a sympathetic hand on her forearm.

“Why is she pulling away from us?”Ayako asks, dragging herself back up, cheek slightly red from even that short time being squished against the table.

Monk turns to Yasuhara with his big, brown puppy-dog eyes, who tries not to crack under their weight. “Has she been ignoring you, too?”

Yasuhara rubs the back of his neck, forcing a smile. His elbow hits the house plant. Agh. Too close. “Ah, not until recently.”

“She won’t even visit shrines with me anymore.” Ayako leans back in her chair dramatically, and Yasuhara wonders at how comfortable she manages to appear while sitting on this piece of modern-art garbage, but her distress is real. “She loves visiting shines!”

Yasuhara just keeps smiling, and is the plant actually getting closer? “I’ll visit the shrines with you, nee-san.”

“Ugh, die.”

Yasuhara laughs, and Ayako takes a loose swipe at him, not really trying to hurt but causing him to lean closer to the foliage, and it almost feels like the plant dodges. He might be hallucinating.

Monk is still looking at his phone with genuine sadness. “What if she’s in trouble?”

They both turn to Monk, sobering. “I have a really bad feeling about it,” Ayako says, brows furrowed as she crosses her arms in front of her on the table, holding her upper arms, one step removed from hugging herself.

Yasuhara looks down into his cup of green tea, bits of leaf floating near the bottom—possibly the brutalized family of this houseplant—and commits himself to the path forward. “Actually,” he says, “that’s what I wanted to talk to you both about.”

He looks up at their faces, and finds himself gaining faith looking into their eyes as he meets the expressions of a monk and a miko, no longer the squabbling couple from seconds before. 

“Tell us everything you know,” says Ayako, and Yasuhara nods. 

Pushing his tea away from him, simultaneously using his leg to slide the heavy potted plant an inch or so toward the wall, he starts in.

 

...

 

Standing outside her apartment in llama pajama pants and a white tank top, leaning over the damp metal railing, Mai watches smoke curl up and up from the cigarette between her fingers, shivering imperceptibly in the night air. The yellow scarf wrapped around her neck lifts gently with the breeze, smoke sputtering, burning the bud down faster, until the wind dies down again. Because of the scarf, she smells like another woman's perfume. It's kind of nice. Floral.

Dinner had been nice, too. Kimiko was still wearing her favorite little mermaid dress. The red-jeweled hairpin looked precious in her dark, straight locks. Mai can’t remember the last time she smiled so much, ate so much. She can still feel the steam rising up from the bowl into her face, if she tries. Masahiro has basically informed her that he expects her to be joining them regularly, until she gets "a damn therapist, Jesus, kid, you look like Hell.”

Mai smiles down at her gloved hands, lifts the cigarette to her lips and pulls, exhales smoke. This is going to stain her teeth, probably. But it’s not like it matters.

If Mai is going to be around them more, she needs to keep herself under control.

She looks at the name and number on the white pill bottle in her other hand. 

Eventually, she will run out of pills, and she’s going to have to contact Kazane for more.

Mai can’t afford a prescription, doesn’t have the insurance. Kazane was kind enough to share these, she might not be willing to allow Mai to buy more off of her. But something tells Mai she will be.

She’ll never know until she tries.

Placing the cigarette in her mouth to hold, she pulls her phone out of her pajama pocket and flips it open. Looking between the pill bottle and her keypad, she types the number into her phone with numb fingers. With one last steadying breath, turning into a suppressed cough, she inhales ash and hits ‘call.’

Chapter Text

The Tokyo address Kazane gave Mai leads her through a series of narrow side streets, dark shop windows lining the sidewalk despite it being late morning on a Saturday, until she comes upon the towering metal gate Kazane had mentioned over the phone, propped open by two stone dragon sculptures, one on each side. Beyond it lies an expansive park with gravel pathways winding through lush green grass, sakura trees at various stages of bloom multiplying the further in she gets. She can’t remember having been here before, having been sakura viewing in most of the popular spots around Tokyo at one point or another, but it’s beautiful, everything Mai would want on a March day like this, when the sun peeks out from behind the clouds and warms her skin. 

She finds Kazane under a large sakura tree almost in bloom, an eclectic picnic spread out on a red blanket, perfectly placed on a pristine spot of lawn beside the gentle creek bed that cuts through the park. She’s wearing the same chic lavender pants suit as when Mai last saw her, which strikes Mai as odd at first, but she herself cycles through only a few outfits during the week, and she really shouldn’t judge. In fact, she feels underdressed in just her jean shorts and navy knit sweater. 

Her dark eyes are as deep as Mai remembers, her skin as fair, her lips a succulent peach hue, her black hair just as sweeping and elegant, even pulled back in a loose bun, held in place with a red and gold hair ornament. She smiles warmly as Mai joins her on the cotton blanket, sitting formally on her knees and setting her purse down beside her.

“Thank you for meeting me,” she says, and Kazane only smiles knowingly, sitting casually with her bent legs to the side. 

“We’re soulmates, after all,” she says, and Mai laughs, Kazane’s relaxed mood and the rhythmic flow of water soothing her nerves. 

She thinks she can hear the faint notes of wind chimes, but doesn’t see any hanging from the pink- and white-covered branches around them. Kazane brought a wide variety of food, and Mai feels her face heat at the thought she might have been expected to bring something. Kazane didn’t mention a picnic, or she would have come prepared. She says as much, and Kazane laughs and shakes her head, delicate stud earrings catching in the light. 

“You did bring something. Yourself.” 

Her smile is bright, and Mai finds herself wondering how someone can look so beautiful with such dark shadows under their eyes. How someone can be so kind. As if Mai were someone special to her, someone precious, instead of an insomniac without health insurance she met on a park bench.

She’s pulled from her thoughts by Kazane holding out a black box with red inner lining. Mai doesn’t recognize the food, but the small portions appear to be some sort of silvery leaf wrapped around a red fruit-like substance.

“Have one.”

Mai takes one between her thumb and index. It’s cold to the touch even through gloves, like it’s been sitting in ice. “What’s it called?”

“Does food taste better with a name?” Kazane puts the box back down on the blanket, picking out one of the fruits and popping it in her mouth.

Still contemplating the question, Mai follows suit. The icy cool of the leaf dissolves into the warm, unexpected spice of the fruit, juice filling her mouth with a complicated taste reminiscent of cinnamon. It should be a strange combination, but something about it gives her the ache of nostalgia in her gut.

“So,” Kazane says, tucking a strand of hair back from Mai’s face, and Mai doesn’t even flinch, feels more like pillowing her head in the woman’s lap and crying. “What did you want to talk about?”

Gathering herself, she shakes her head slightly, a weird, buzzing feeling traveling through her limbs, down to her fingertips. “I wanted… I wanted to ask if there was a way I could get more of those pills. For staying awake.”

Kazane nods amicably, pulling an elegant white bottle with a red cork from the brown basket next to her, delicate lotus flowers etched into its side. “I figured as much,” she says, placing the bottle down carefully on the blanket that dips in the soft grass under its weight. She takes out two small, white, handleless ceramic cups and sets them on either side of the bottle. “Have you experienced any side effects?”

Mai opens her mouth to lie, not wanting to jeopardize her chances of getting more, but the truth comes out unbidden. “I get headaches,” she says, and Kazane smiles that motherly smile that makes Mai feel like she’s done something wonderful.

“Here,” she says, pulling a silk golden pouch from the basket, holding it out toward Mai, her long burgundy nails complimenting the rich color of the fabric.

The bag is even softer than it looks. Mai swears she can hear chimes right over her head, but when she looks up there are only tiny flower yokai, camouflaging themselves among the blooms. Inside the pouch are what look like nursery versions of the silver leaves from the fruit.

“They’ll help with the headaches,” she says, uncorking the bottle and pouring. When one cup is full, she hands it to Mai. “Drink.”

“No, no I,” Mai laughs lightly, but finds herself holding the cup anyway, “I’m underage.”

The look Kazane spares her from under her lashes makes Mai want to go blind, so she wouldn’t have to see what the antithesis of all her greatest insecurities looked like in person form. It makes her feel like a child, makes her ache for her mother and for Ayako, for the last time she was held in someone’s arms and rocked to sleep.

“Your blood is older than this Earth,” she says, voice even more soothing than the babbling creek, and Mai feels compelled to believe her. “You’re stardust, after all.” She raises her own cup to Mai. “Drink,” she says, and throws her own back.

Without a good reason to say no, Mai swallows the clear liquid down. It’s delicious, like a spring day distilled with mild fruit and the lingering burn of a strong mint. It’s the best thing she’s ever tasted, she thinks, but again, it feels unbearably familiar, guttingly so.

“There’s a story about the place this sake comes from,” Kazane says, pulling the ornament out of her hair, letting it fall around her shoulders. 

She pours Mai another cup. Mai hadn’t intended to drink it so fast, but she can’t find it in her to be embarrassed. 

“There’s a mountain not far from Kamakura where few humans can venture. The powerful pass through a natural gateway, marked by a fallen tree. Inside the forest, the trees grow large and strong, spreading their serpentine roots all across the ground, covering the forest in luminous green leaves that sprout and fall in all seasons, causing beautiful and strange plants and flowers to burst from the earth.”

A heavy feeling sinks into her bones as she speaks, swaying slightly to the melodious sounds of her voice, the chimes singing in the distance, the creek swelling, becoming a river. It almost sounds like a poem, just because of the way she says it; like it’s sacred. Kazane pours her another cup. She doesn’t remember drinking that last one.

“There’s a legend that a river of sake flows beneath the mountain, surfacing in caves and streams for those whose blood pleases the mountain. They say it’s the sake of the spirit realm, flowing up to nourish the souls of the yokai that live there.”

She smiles warmly as she places the bottle in the grass beside her. “Do you believe in yokai, Mai?” she asks, and traces Mai’s cheekbone with her elegant fingers, tucking her hair back behind her ear.

“Yes,” she says, as if she’s lost the ability to lie, as if there’s not a cell in her body that believes this woman will reject her, will not believe her. “I see them. I see so many things,” she says, heart beating slow, the breeze caressing her face and legs like a lover. “I wish I didn’t.”

Kazane tuts in gentle disapproval, holding Mai’s face in her cool hands, eyes dark as the blackest corners of the Earth. “The things you see are a part of who you are, how you were born. The spirit world runs through you. It only hurts because you fight it,” she says, and Mai’s mind feels like it’s full of fog, but the ley lines of her body are humming, the meal feeding something hungry inside her, giving it life.

“Take it with you,” she says, and it echoes inside her head, like a command.

Before Mai can reply, she’s cradling the corked bottle in her hands, sitting alone in an empty lot behind a grocery store, knees sinking into grassy clumps of dirt. 

The gold pouch is nestled in her lap atop her jeans. The sharp pang of loss reverberates through her chest, and Mai takes deep breaths, closing her eyes and trying to take herself back to the garden, but the river is replaced by the loud drill of nearby construction, and the breeze is brisk against her skin, the far off singing chimes drowned out by the city waking up.

 

...

 

She probably shouldn’t be drinking the sake.

Watching shadows pirouette across the water-damaged ceiling of her Taitō apartment, surrounded by granules of salt she failed to properly remove from the tatami that now stick to her skin and leave little pink indents behind, Mai lies on her back with her phone open on the mat beside her. She wasted most of the day away, went straight home after her brief shift at the café. The sun is a giant orange descending on Mai’s apartment, making the white sheet covering the window glow its fading sunny hue.

She taps the excess ash off of her cigarette into the ceramic water dish, the one she used to put out for stray cats, acting as her temporary ashtray. She’s careful to not hold the cigarette over any of her books, wards, scrolls or notebooks, and she’d be worried about setting off the smoke alarm, if her apartment had a working one. Silver lining.

She’s been drinking the sake. A lot. The bottle doesn’t run out. Mai pours another cup. Tips it back like a shot, letting it slide down her throat without resistance. 

So. Kazane was never even human. It shouldn’t surprise her. And it sort of doesn’t. Even if it does. But it really, really doesn’t. And the sake is good.

Since that first cup, she’s been recalling snippets of a dream she had several nights ago, flashes of indigo irises; of prayers spoken against her neck; of teeth and deft hands, hot on her winter-chilled skin; a pleasant pressure building between her hips. She’d dreamt of Naru, and the pills had made her forget. Maybe Kazane is right. Maybe it’s fighting it that makes it all so hard.

She wants to call him. 

Her cheeks are flushed. She shouldn’t speak to him. Not so soon after thinking about… that.

It’s the alcohol. The hormones. Her body rebelling against eighteen years of solitude. It doesn’t have to be more than that.

She covers her eyes with her forearm. Her skin is hot to the touch. With a huff, tired of her own indecision, she grabs the phone of the tatami and hits ‘call.’ It rings three times before he picks up.

“You haven’t even pretended to look at colleges, have you,” he says, and it’s embarrassing how his lowered voice affects her.

It’s the visual that gets her, she thinks, of him speaking softly into the phone, lips close to the speaker, trying not to disturb his colleagues in neighboring offices. She doesn’t even have the spare attention to be irritated by his comment, just sits up enough to pour another cup of sake. 

“And if I haven’t?” Her voice comes out strange to her ears, unfamiliar. 

“Idle seniors face natural consequences.”

“Such as?”

“More than a scolding, if you slack off enough.” She can hear him typing, can sense she only has half of his attention.

Mai taps her cigarette over the dish. “Will you?”

“Will I, what?” 

The sound of typing persists in the background. Her heart is racing. She takes a pull of smoke, lets it out slowly, adjusts how she’s laying. She feels lightheaded. There are no explanations for the shadows swirling across her roof, almost calming, like a puppet show. 

“Scold me, sensei?”

The typing stops. 

Oh

She realizes what she’s said. She can feel her pulse in her throat, presses the fingers holding her phone to her cheek, cold against her flushed face. A small voice in her head is objecting, but it’s unimportant compared to the way she feels right now. Powerful. Awake. Wanting.

Naru doesn’t reply immediately, and a prick of worry hovers near her consciousness, but she wants to press, doesn’t want to play inside the lines. She has the sake of the spirit world in her, after all.

“You make it sound like you want me to,” he says, dryly, switching to Japanese, and something in his tone makes her nerves thrum deliciously.

“I wouldn’t mind a good dressing-down,” she says, “if it came from you.”

She can practically hear Naru’s thoughts scatter. God, she shouldn’t be saying any of this, she shouldn’t be doing this, disrupting the careful balance they’ve worked so hard to maintain all this time—what is she doing?—but it feels good, like hot static in her abdomen. 

After dropping her cigarette butt in the water dish, covering her eyes with her now free hand, she listens to the stunned stillness on the other side of the line, mentally pleading with him to understand, to forgive her for whatever delusion she’s currently living in. She almost laughs.

“Mai…” His tone is stern, but Mai can smell blood in the water, sense him grappling, fighting to right the conversation she’s purposely derailed. The tatami is rough against her bare skin, grounding.

“Tell me you want me,” she breathes, and it’s a miracle her voice doesn’t waver.

There’s a loud clatter, like something breaking, but then Naru’s silence is unnaturally so, not even his breathing audible. With her eyes closed, she can imagine him sitting rigid at his desk, staring at the phone in his hand like he can intimidate the answers out of it. She stifles a breathy laugh, absolutely buzzing from the high of putting him on his heels, the way her veins are singing with power as she reaches inside herself and finds his light. Before she even consciously decides to, she feels the cord snap taut, feels his loss for words, his shock, confusion, panic; senses his mind whirring in his own personal moral-quandary Hellscape; and underneath that, something torrid, something that makes her toes curls and her spine arch: desire . She clings to the emotion, wants to fall deeper in.

Mai,” He warns, but Mai can feel him now, knows how tense his body is, how badly he wants to bend to her, let her have what she’s trying to take. She knows what he doesn’t know: that he’d already decided to give in to her demands, before he even answered the phone.

“I dreamt about you,” she says, rolling onto her stomach, floor scratching her arms, salt irritating her skin. “It was really you, this time. The sake helped me remember.” 

“Whthe sakeare you—are you drunk?

She can’t help it, bursts into laughter, rolling back onto her back and kicking her feet out. She’s never heard Naru cut himself off like that before. “Maybe. I’m not sure.” She feels like she’s drinking pure life essence, pure power. But power can be inebriating, too, she muses.

Naru implodes. “How ?” He sounds oddly relieved if she listens past the irritation and disbelief, and she can picture how he sinks back in his chair, mind in chaos before concern takes over. “Are you at home?”

Mai takes a moment to wrap herself in those emotions, sink into his protective instincts, relishing in the fondness he rarely shows. “Hai hai.” she grins. “Someone gave me a bottle.”

“Someone?” Immediately suspicious. It would be laughable, what little faith in people he has, if the reasons weren’t so tragic.

“A friend. I took it home with me.”

“Was it at least a sealed container?”

Mai chuckles through her words. “It’s spiritual sake. Very powerful. It doesn’t need a seal.”

In her mind’s eye, he has his face in his hand. “Of course it is.” 

Poor Naru doesn’t believe her. Pity forces her to settle down a bit, and she hums a tune she forgets the second it leaves her lips. “I miss you,” she says, smiling to herself, placing her own hand on her ribcage where Naru touched her in her dream. “Narcissist.”

Naru sighs, depleted, but fond. “Shut up. Stay home and sleep this off. And drink water.”

Haiii.”

“Idiot.” 

Even after she hangs up, she’s still holding fast to his feelings through their connection, nestled in his quivering affection, so it only makes her laugh more, darkness waltzing across her eyes, telling her it’s all going to be okay, that the blinding lights will be leaving soon.

 

...

 

Face-down on the white granite counter behind the register, Mai can feel her coworkers’ worried glances on her back. 

She spent the first half of her shift performing a complicated sequence of over-pouring tea, wiping a customer’s lap with the same dish rag she used to mop the hot water, and misplacing orders all around the café before finally dragging a chair from the back room and sitting herself in front of the register, against company policy, she’s aware.

But none of it even matters because nothing she can do today could possibly make her feel more humiliated than what she did yesterday, projecting her feelings onto Naru like that. She’s never drinking again. The hangover isn’t worth it. Her stomach has felt like the North Sea all morning, and her head is splitting.

The worst part is how Naru has been more preoccupied with nagging her about who gave her the sake than with what she even said, so beyond unaffected by her asking him to tell her he wants her that he doesn’t even have the decency to be uncomfortable or avoid her. If anything, he’s doubled his attentiveness, which suggests not only has she humiliated herself by virtually throwing herself at someone clearly disinterested, but she’s now given him the impression that she’s emotionally and physically unstable and vulnerable, and now he’s on high alert for someone taking advantage, checking in almost an insulting amount, and Mai has no one to blame but herself. And maybe Kazane. But mostly Mai.

Recalling the gift from theMai assumesmountain yokai, she pulls out her little bag of dried leaves from Kazane out of her green apron pocket, pops a couple in her mouth. She really shouldn’t just be taking herbs from stray spirits, but something about Kazane is so painfully familiar, trustworthy. And the leaves are addicting. They taste unlike anything she’s ever had, the satisfying stinging sensation of mint but sweet like a drop of honey. And yet it feels like she’s missed them. It doesn’t make any sense.

Masahiro and Kimiko are expecting her again for dinner. Maybe she should cancel. Sighing, she lifts her head up off the counter, scanning the restaurant section of the café for her manager. When Mai was first hired, she thought it was cool to work somewhere that had a café section and a restaurant in the back, but that was before she realized the owners only hired enough people to reasonably run half the establishment at a time.

“What are those?”

The voice comes from behind her. Mai turns and sees her only male coworker, Mizuno, pulling his shoulder-length hair back with a hair tie, looking over her head at the bag of leaves. Jazz music plays quietly through the speakers in the ceiling, and the steady rise and fall of polite conversation goes nicely with the clatter of dishes being cleared, coffee being drunk, newspapers being ruffled and left behind on tables.

“Nothing,” she says, and puts them back in her apron.

Rolling his eyes, Mizuno turns around and starts cleaning the espresso machine, white shirt poofing out around the green straps of his apron. “Let me know if you need anything,” he says, and Mai spares some fondness for him, resting her cheek back on the cold granite.

Actually.

“Do you think you could talk Chiba into covering the rest of my shift?” she asks, looking back over her shoulder, and Mizuno looks back at her over his own.

Chiba hates Mai, but she’s been trying to get a date with Mizuno since she was hired last month. If anyone can do it, it’s him.

“I think anything that gets your face off the most germ-filled part of the counter and gets my chair back in the break room is a great idea.”

Ugh. Pushing away from the counter, wooden legs of the chair scraping tile, Mai will take what she can get. “Great,” she says, and pats Mizuno on the back, startling him and making him spill the coffee grounds he was packing into the machine.

He glares at the side of her head, and Mai smiles facetiously and curtsies on her way out from behind the counter, weaving between tables and heading for the freedom of the street.

 

...

 

Standing in front of the building, Yasuhara wonders if he should have taken the train rather than left his car parked a couple blocks East. The two-story outdoor complex is heavily aged, to put it lightly. It’s painted a horrible faded yellow, and there are large cracks in the cement walkway wrapping around the lower units, merging with a weathered staircase with metal rails that leads up to the second floor apartments. The doors are metal with a peeling coat of what looks like watered down salmon-colored paint, and most of the doors don’t even have numbers on them, just the faded outlines where metal numbers used to be.

He guesses he’s seen worsehe only ran into a few weirdos between here and the last blockbut it’s by far not what he was hoping to find when he tracked down Mai’s apartment. With a resigned sigh, he walks up to the building. If the landlord is honest, Mai is renting the end unit on the second floor. Heading for the stairs, he spots a man leaning against an empty vending machine, smoking a cigarette.

“Can I help you?”

Yasuhara stares, uncomprehending, until a moment of recognition rings all the bells in his brain at once. He’s wearing glasses and a dirty bathrobe, but that face is hard to forget.

“Perhaps you can.” Yasuhara smiles, careful not to put his hands in his pockets, since the last time he did that in front of him he loudly told him to ‘stop playing with’ his ‘willy’ in the middle of the station. “I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to run into you here.”

“I take it you’re not here for a consultation.”

“Unfortunately not.” He maintains the smile. This is painfully awkward, but Yasuhara is accustomed to that, by now.

Souto sizes him up, arms crossed in front of him, cigarette hanging from his mouth. “You the one she’s always yellin’ at on the phone?”

Yasuhara is working very hard to stay smiling. “No, that would be the other handsome genius.”

“Pity. Was hoping I’d get to kick the shit out of you.”

The berating tone helps Yasuhara relax a little, eases off the grin; he’s glad they’re still on good terms. “Is she home?” He gestures upstairs with a hand.

“You’re gonna need to do better than that,” Souto says, settling against the wall, blowing smoke out in front of him.

This is going to be difficult to prove. “I’m her friend.”

“Where you been, then?”

And he’s back to the grinning. It’s habitual. “She can be hard to track down.”

“Ah. So you’re her friend that she won’t give her address to.”

“You tell all your friends where you live?” It’s not a threat, but it could be.

Souto raises an eyebrow. “She ain’t home. Why don’t you come inside, Kabuki.”

“I think I demonstrated ingenuity and commitment in that case, and I resent being mocked for it. It hardly warrants a nickname.”

“Oh, it warrants.” He smirks.

Yasuhara’s throat burns as he watches Souto finish his cigarette faster than he's ever seen anyone do so and start walking toward a downstairs unit. 

Yasuhara follows, and it almost feels like nothing’s changed since he was Souto’s intern at the police station, trailing behind him on investigations.

It’s a bit cramped, and there are kid toys scattered randomly over the floor, but it’s not as bad as he’d feared. Inside his unit, folders are laid out all over the tatami. A desk pulls down from the wall, with two foldable chairs on either side that could easily fit in a closet for storage. A laptop is on the table, plugged into the wall, charging. Yasuhara takes his shoes off in the entryway, not looking forward to how the floor is going to feel through his socks.

“You working from home now?” 

Souto snorts, standing over by the sparse kitchen and pouring himself a cup of coffee. “WP won’t have it any other way.”

Witness protection. So that’s where he went. “No offense, but I’m surprised they set you up somewhere like…” Yasuhara looks around, not sure how to say ‘shithole’ without offending the particleboard cabinets.

Souto waves his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Looks worse than it is. It’s Masahiro, by the way.”

“Ah, Masahiro-san. Suites you.” 

Masahiro grins roguishly. “Still blowing smoke up my ass like an intern. Going private hasn’t changed you.”

“Not nearly enough, no.” He looks around, casually wandering over to the deskstepping over a horse plushieand thumbs through the file on the table. “Sexual harassment?” Who’d he piss off? He’d been working homicide before he disappeared into the ether. Or, rather, witness protection. Yasuhara still can’t quite convince himself he’s in his apartment.

Soutoer, Masahironods and slugs back some coffee. “Convictions have gone down again. Nobody wants to put their eggs in this basket, and the big kahunas are adding lawyers like it’s going out of style.”

An almost genuine smile finds its way to his lips as Yasuhara observes the meticulous notes taking up all the margins. “But you’re piling on eggs.” 

Masahiro looks at him like he’s an irredeemable idiot, and it’s so nostalgic that he almost chokes. “I’ve got a daughter.”

“Right.” His eyes catch on a hairpin on the kitchen counter in front of Masahiro. A small burette with red stones and a dangling teardrop pearl. “That belongs to Mai.” He would know. He gave it to her for her birthday two years ago.

Masahiro looks down at the hair piece and nods. “Oh, good. You can see. Hey, you graduate yet?”

Trying to reevaluate Masahiro without letting the uneasy feeling in his stomach touch his semi-permanent smile with suspicion, Yasuhara moves on from the files, eyes scanning the rest of the unit for anything of Mai’s. “I take it you two are close?”

It doesn’t take long for Masahiro to guess the real question. When Yasuhara looks back at him, he scrunches his nose. “Jesus, the kid? You think I’m a fuckin’ creep?” He shakes his head, getting out another cigarette. “I take it back. Private did change you. It made you worse. You sound like Akagi.” 

He shuffles over to the window, slippers almost as frayed at the tatami, and pops it open before making his way to the foldable chair by the desk, settling in and pulling a cigarette from the pack that materializes seemingly out of thin air, but in reality he picked it up off the window sill. He flicks his bic and lights up, takes a deep pull and leans back in the seat. He considers the cigarette in his hand, thinking.

Yasuhara stands a few feet away, the fresh air coming in from the window not all that fresh.

“So, you here to help her or screw her over?”

Guard going up, Yasuhara raises his eyebrows and smiles wider. “Something I should know?” 

No one has ever really looked at Yasuhara like he’s supremely disappointing quite as effectively as SoutoMasahiro. It makes him feel kind of special. Stockholm syndrome, probably. “Anyone ever tell you you’d make a shit detective?”

“Yes, you. Repeatedly.”

“Oh, good.” He taps the ash off into a mug of water. “I’ll make this easy for you, Kabuki, since I already know you’re her shitty friend because she talks about you, and because you’re either not intelligent enough or not diligent enough to figure all this out on your own.” He takes a pull, and Yasuhara lets that one roll off him. He speaks again on the exhale. “Figure she’s at a bit of a breaking point.”

Yasuhara takes a few steps closer to the desk, accidentally stepping on the stuffed horse this time, nudging it to the side with his foot. “What does that mean?”

Masahiro shrugs. “Kid never takes a break. Working different jobs, up all night having nightmares, from the sounds of it. Finally gets a few hours to herself and I see the kid hauling thirty books up the stairs with a beach towel. Last week she dropped a bunch of scrolls down the stairs and they went fuckin’ everywhere.” He shakes his head. “Who the fuck reads scrolls? And after all that she comes down here and plays house with the kiddo like everything’s sunshine and roses.” He coughs around the smoke, smiling slightlya face Yasuhara has yet to have directed at him. “She’s a nice girl. Oughta get better friends.”

That’s probably the longest Masahiro has ever gone without calling him an idiot, even if he ended with an insult. Yasuhara knows he is being judged, but he can’t decide if he deserves it. Feels like he might.

“Do you know when she’ll be back?” It'd be nice if he’d been offered a seat.

“Not telling,” he says, and rests the cigarette between his lips. “Feel free to grab a file and make yourself useful, though, for once in your young life.”

“That’s…”

“If you say it’s illegal, then you make it more illegal,” he warns, already flipping through paperwork.

Somehow, it doesn’t feel like a choice. Yasuhara smiles grimly, swipes a file from the pile on the desk, sits on a clean-ish spot on the floor surrounded by troll dolls, and gets to work.

 

...

 

“Pass the soy sauce?”

Kimiko sticks her tongue out as she fully extends her reach across the low table Masahiro pulled out of storage, pushing the soy sauce toward her dad.

“Thanks.”

Avoiding Yasuhara’s eyes across the table, Mai tries not to grimace at her food, for fear they’ll think it’s the pork cutlets that are turning her stomach at the moment.

“So,” Masahiro says, “how long you two been friends?”

Kimiko is alternating between playing with her chopsticks and playing rock-paper-scissors against herself, and Masahiro gives her a skeptical glance but doesn’t stop her.

“A while,” Mai says, automatically vague, and sips her water from the plastic princess cup Kimiko poured for her.

“Four years, give or take,” Yasu adds, cutting Mai a placid smile that says, rather judgmentally, ‘stop evading.’

Chewing slowly, Masahiro briefly tilts his head, as if choosing to accept the discrepancy between their answers. “And how’d you get so close?”

“School,” Mai says, in the same moment Yasu says, “Work.”

Mai and Yasu stare one another down across the table, Mai glaring fiercely, Yasu grinning with equal fervor. Kimiko raises her eyebrows at them, stops quietly lecturing her food about manners, and starts eating.

Between them, Masahiro makes a considering sound while he eats, seemingly unaffected by the tension. Swallowing his food, he reaches for the can of beer next to his bowl and takes a swig, exhaling loudly as he places the can back on the table. 

“Alright, who’s going to be the big kid and tell me what’s going on here.” Kimiko starts to raise her hand and Masahiro waves her down with a flick of the wrist. “Not you, sweetheart. But good job. Never lose your courage.”

The yellow light from the kitchen reflects off of Yasu’s glasses as he breaks their eye-contact and puts down his chopsticks, and Mai clenches her jaw.

“We went to school together, but we became closer through working for a temporary Japanese branch of the Society for Psychical Research, in Shibuya. Under the directive of Dr. Oliver Davis, we took on clients struggling with paranormal phenomena. I was only brought on a few cases.”

Anger and frustration make Mai’s skin itch, her hands tensing into fists in her lap. She doesn’t stop glowering at Yasuhara when he looks back at her, and even then he has the nerve to smile fondly when he locks eyes with her, refusing to back down.

“You never mentioned you were an investigator,” Masahiro says, casual, and slurps another noodle from his bowl. “That explains all the books.”

“I was an overpaid assistant,” Mai says, and takes another, more aggressive, drink from her cup without breaking eyes with Yasu. “All I did was make tea and take notes when clients came in.”

The way Yasu’s eyes narrow leaves no doubt that he’s willing to contradict her, and Mai isn’t interested in hearing it. “Your food’s getting cold,” she says, nodding to his half-eaten dish.

“As is yours,” he says, motioning to her completely untouched meal, and Mai would curse under her breath if Kimiko weren’t still shoving pork in her mouth and watching their conversation like a game of tennis.

“So,” Masahiro cuts in, wiping his mouth with a unicorn napkin, “Oliver Davis.” He completely ignores Mai’s grimace, instead looks at Yasuhara. “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say he’s the ‘other handsome genius.’ Yeah?”

Shifting on his knees, Yasuhara suddenly looks slightly uncomfortable, picking up his chopsticks and filling his mouth with pork. 

“Mhm,” he affirms, and Mai can’t take it, slams her palms on the table, making everyone jump but Masahiro, and pushes herself to standing.

“I just remembered,” she says with a smile, busying herself with gathering her jacket from its place on the couch, wrapped around a teddy bear. “I have to be somewhere.”

“Where?” Yasu says, standing and stalking toward her, tatami creaking when he steps on a weak spot. “Home? So you can avoid me and everyone else for the foreseeable future? Or did you add another job while no one was looking.”

“Should I put my earmuffs on?” Kimiko asks, still at the table.

“No, sweetheart, pay attention so you can outsmart them later.”

Hai.”

Facing Yasu’s unrelenting stare, jacket clutched tightly in her hands, Mai feels something building in the space around her, like static electricity. Something is pulling energy from the molecules in the air, gathering strength. Glancing wide-eyed at Kimiko, sitting neatly with her legs tucked under her teal Ariel dress, straight black hair kept off her face with pink plastic clips, Mai feels like all of her inner organs are shrinking. No, no. Not here. She has to get away from them.

Without giving them a chance to object, Mai darts for the door, slamming it open and breaking free from their stares, bolting down the outdoor hallway toward the concrete staircase up ahead.

A winded shout of her name precedes a firm grip on her upper arm, yanking her to a stop. She whips around, leveling her most pleading look at Yasu, who stands panting in front of her, gel-styled hair flipped out of place, his blue tie crooked. 

“How long have you been living alone here?” He gestures around them with his free arm, eyes wide. “Living like this.”

Mai feels out of breath from just that short run, can’t form words with her open mouth. She can still feel the oppressive energy circling around her. 

“How long did you think you could hide it?”

She shakes her head, tugging weakly on her arm. No, we don’t have time, you have to go.

“For the record, the only reason it took me so long to track down your apartment is because you’re living here illegally, in a unit not up to code, which is, by the way, unbelievably stupid.”

“Let go,” she says, voice weak with fear.

Yasu’s gaze flicks over her expression, his arm tightening instead of loosening. “Mai, for the love of all that’s holy, just tell me what’s going on.”

He’s going to get hurt. It’s going to hurt him. The thought snaps Mai’s hesitation in half, and with the spark of energy she lets through, Yasu rips his hand away from her arm, jolting back a step and gaping at her, thin lines of what look like electricity dispersing around his wire-framed glasses as his hair raises slightly. “What…” 

Not waiting for him to recover, Mai makes a run for the stairs, practically throwing herself up the steps, ignoring how her thighs complain. Yasu’s footsteps aren’t far behind her.

“Mai! Wait!” 

Mai doesn’t wait. Her momentum carries her into the metal railing at the first landing, and she’s slow to bank and turn up onto the next flight, but she manages to evade Yasu’s swipe for her hand by jumping for the next steps, knowing he won’t try to grab her and risk sending her off balance.

“Why won’t you let us help you? You act like you’re alone but you’re not. You have people who care but you push us away and pretend like we’re not even here.”

“Go away,” she yells, and feels the relief in her legs as she makes it up onto the second floor, stumbling slightly as she starts into another sprint, this time for her door: the last unit, directly above Masahiro’s place.

“I thought you wanted us all to be a family? To take care of each other?”

The words are like a sucker punch to the gut, takes the wind right out of her and makes her sprint sputter out into a weak jog that she can’t help but give up on. “You think I don’t want that?!” she says, and pivots, Yasu skidding to a stop in front of her and grabbing her wrist to be safe, “Of course I want that. I want to belong with everyone but there are things that you don’t know that I can’t tell you and I need you to stay away from me until it’s safe!”

“Mai, what are you talking about? Why isn’t it safe?”

“You have to go.” Mai jerks her wrist to break his grip, leaning toward her apartment door that feels farther away by the second, but even stunned his hold is strong. 

“I’m sorry,” he says, and it feels like spikes going through her chest, how torn up he sounds, “I’m sorry I didn’t see it sooner, but I’m here now and I’m trying.” Mai makes the mistake of meeting his grey eyes, letting him plead with her. “So please, let me try. Let me try to help.”

Mai’s heart beats a mile a minute. Her back is sweating even from that small exertion, her heart sagging inside her like a lead weight, tempting her to stay put.

“Please,” she says, barely audible, more desperate than she intended, “please go.”

“Mai, we’re your friends! Don’t you understand that?”

The street lamps flicker in the distance, and the air turns heavy. 

They’re out of time. 

With a burst of strength, Mai shoves Yasuhara as hard as she can, tearing her wrist from his grasp and spinning around, making a final dash for her unit.

“Mai!”

He takes too long to get back up from where she knocked him down, giving her the extra seconds she needed to pull the spare key on her necklace out of her shirt and shove it into the keyhole, turning the bolt and swinging the door open. The rubber scrape of shoes hitting concrete gets closer as she falls through the doorway, turns, slams and locks the door behind her, Yasu shouting from the other side. 

In the resulting silence in the dimly lit room, she’s breathing hard, facing the door, considering her decisions. She just shoved him. She can’t tell if she’s doing the right thing anymore, or if she’s hurting others more than she’s protecting them. As Yasu pounds on the door, sending vibrations up her arms, it’s so tempting to unlock it, to let him come storming in and be her best friend like he’s always been. Her thumb barely touches the edge of the lock, toying with the idea of undoing the latch, when the standing lamp in the far side of the room behind her goes out, darkness heavy like a rubber blanket thrown over her head.

The slash is so swift, so cleanly done, it takes several seconds for Mai to notice the searing dampness on her back, or the sharp pain radiating in a line across her spine as her knees give out from under her. She’s still gripping the doorknob. This isn’t real. This isn’t happening. Yasuhara’s muffled voice finds her through the door.

“Mai, please, just… Give me a chance.”

She’s in shock, mind racing to process what she just felt. She’s in total pitch black, not even the normal amount of light brightening the minor gap under the door that lets the draft in, or the faint warmth of the street lamps below her covered window.

She jolts as a delicate hand wraps gently around her throat from behind, freezing her in place. “Tell him to leave,” it says, a wisp of a voice, so faint Mai almost doesn’t understand the words.

She opens her mouth, trying and failing twice to force air from her lungs and generate sound, that same paralyzing fear she felt on the bathroom floor squeezing her chest, a fear she can’t even explain. She wills herself to turn around, to fight back, but her entire spirit is screaming, demanding stillness. Her instincts are aflame. This is not a normal spirit. This is not human. Was never human. Not anything like the creatures she’s encountered before.

“Lea—” Her voice breaks, and she tries again, louder. “Yasuhara, leave. Please.” She’s shaking. She’s never felt fear like this before, not in her visions, not with Urado in the Labyrinth. This isn’t normal fear, fear of death, fear of pain. It’s deeper. Fear of—fear of something else. Something worse.

She can’t tell if Yasuhara listens. Everything sounds far away, like there’s cotton in her ears, like the whole world is blocked by a wet film, covering her eyes, her ears. Everything but the thing behind her.

“He doesn’t understand,” it says, almost coos, elegant fingers combing her hair back from her face, nails noticeably sharp, “He can’t help you.”

Eyes wide in the dark, Mai tries to summon her power, find the spark inside her and push it out, but it’s like trying to pull oil out of water with less than three fingers.

Soothing hushing in her ear makes her shut her eyes tightly, a sob trapped in her throat. “You can let go, now.”

Mai feels an intangible nudge pass through her, and falls away into abyss.

When she wakes, she’s lying in a circle of salt and blood, clutching the red record tightly to her chest.

Chapter Text

The industrial clang of construction echoes between buildings as Mai squints against the overcast light, surrounded by the guttural engines of bus lines and the occasional motorcycle, cars honking further down the street out of sight. She stands at the edge of the intersection, waiting for the walk sign to signal it’s safe to cross.

She’s finally away from most of the Ikebukuro foot traffic, the colorful signs and reflective buildings giving way to concrete blocks and power lines, so many thick black cords draped from one pole to the next they look like dystopian curtains. Blurs of white, grey and blue vehicles, passing over the thick white lines cross hatching the intersection in front of her, start to make her eyes hurt, so she directs her gaze down at her shoes and the pale rectangular bricks underfoot. There’s something brown splattered on her white sneakers, but her thoughts resist explanation. Her phone buzzes in her pocket, set to vibrate so she won’t have to know who’s calling unless her precognition or claircognizance tips her off.

She hasn’t spoken to anyone outside of work in five days, only the obligatory call to Naru to let him know she’s alive. She only worked a half day at the pawn shop today, has been passing through her shifts this week as if in a dream. Maybe she has been dreaming, just unable to tell the difference. Her paycheck is going to be disappointing, if she keeps failing to be present, to do basic things like go to work and go home.

Mai rubs her uncovered arms. She noticed earlier that the few people around her are in sweaters, jackets and pants, not a single other person wearing shorts and a t-shirt like her. All her pants were dirty. The afternoon feels soft around the edges, like reality has lost its fine lines, all the faces and buildings and cars blending together into a stream of color. She doesn’t feel cold, either. But the sloppily self-applied bandage on her back, covering the large cut traveling from her left shoulder to the bottom right side of her ribs, itches horribly.

Glancing away from her white sneakers, which she’s just now realizing are still stained with dried blood, Mai is in a sterile-smelling room, an adjustable hospital bed in front of her. The woman is in so much pain, sweating profusely, that Mai almost doesn’t recognize her own mother. Mai stares in shock at her wavy brown hair sticking to her forehead, longer than Mai remembers. She’s lying under the covers, hands folded  on top of the blankets over her swollen belly. There’s a man in traditional clothing whose face Mai can’t see standing over her, and for some reason it’s making Mai feel queasy. Limbs feeling weak, Mai takes uneasy steps forward, trying to get closer to the man without him noticing. She feels dizzy, like she’s going to vomit. “No,” she whispers, not understanding her own response, “you can’t, you can’t do this. It’s not right. This isn’t right!”

Just as the man turns to look behind him, she’s shoved back with inhuman strength, falling out of her vision, only the sight of the clay-covered boy scowling at her remaining. She stumbles back, trips over the curb and falls on her butt right as a bus barrels down the street, blowing her hair back as it passes only feet away from her shoes.

“Holy shit.” The voice comes from a stranger next to her, a kid in a junior high uniform with orange headphones around his neck.

Her mind is slow to piece together what just happened. Did she almost die? Did the boy spirit save her?

“You okay?” the middle-schooler asks, and tries to help her up, but she hastily climbs to her feet, scraping her calf on the sidewalk as she does so, and staggers away from him. 

Avoiding the eyes of the other people hovering nearby, Mai starts walking in the opposite direction, mind reeling. If she really almost died, she doesn’t feel anything she should, no adrenaline, no relief. Numb. 

Retreating to an even less crowded side-street, she steps into the mouth of a dark alley and rests against the cool wall, her body feeling overheated. At her feet is a pile of takeout trash and empty beer bottles. There are four cinder blocks in two stacks, and a square of cardboard beside them that may have completed a makeshift table.

It’s been fifteen minutes and she’s still close to hyperventilating, trying to think, but her scalp feels like it's vibrating, and she grips her hair at the roots with both hands to try and stop it, sinking down the wall so she’s crouching, not caring how it painfully scrapes against her bandage.

“You’re not trying hard enough.” Mai doesn’t even startle at the heavy presence behind her, speaking into her ear.

“To do what?” She can’t help but be pissy, not in the mood.

“You’re not ready, yet. You would have died.” The boy is legitimately irritated with her, for some reason. She can tell.

“Go away.” She growls, sick of this kid, bossing her around, scaring the shit out of her.

He circles around and glares down at her, superiority in the line of his dirt-covered shoulders. “You’re being weak.”

Irritation flares, even if her body’s too lazy to move from against the wall. “I’m not, I didn’t do it on purpose,” she hisses, tightening her fists in her hair, the absence of moisture burning her eyes.

Oya oya!” A male voice bounces off the walls, two sets of shuffling footsteps from deeper in the alley “Looks like—”

“What?!” She snaps, and drops her hands, snagging a few hairs in the process. The men stop about a meter away, a hint of caution in their posture. Staring at their facial piercings, baggy shirts and smug, frozen smiles, Mai finds an emotion she can still feel. “It looks like what?”

The one with bleached shoulder-length hair raises his hands in mock-surrender, taking a small step toward her. “Woah, hey, easy. We’re just making conversation.”

“I don’t feel like talking,” she says, through gritted teeth. 

Matching his glare with her own, sparks go off behind her eyes, and it feels like everything she hasn’t felt in the last thirty minutes is boiling down into a bubbling tar pit inside her, letting off steam. She feels disconnected from her body, a desperate fury growing in her stomach as her hand slowly wraps around one of the discarded bottles.

“Sure you do,” the blonde says, coming closer even as his friend, looking unsure, moves further away.

“Ito, let’s just—”

“No,” he holds a placating hand out to the shorter man, “this bitch interrupted me.” He looks back at Mai, no more false smiles. “I wasn’t finished.”

“I don’t. Want. To talk.”

His eyes flash with something familiar, and Mai has a sensory flashback of being slapped, held down. Her cheek stings. 

She remembers a time when having her throat slit used to leave her shaking for hours, before she’d grown more sensitive to the common injuries, to the things that happen quietly, behind closed doors. She wishes murder was the worst side of humanity. She wishes she didn’t know any better.

And even though she knows, deep down, that this asshole in front of her is all bark, no bite, her primal brain won’t stop shuffling through all the times in the past year she’s felt helpless, or the gnawing moment of reckoning years ago when she learned vicariously how fragile the body can be, how impossible it is to fight off an attack not because they are somehow better but because there are more of them, or they have more mass. Mai has spent hundreds of sleepless nights at the mercy of mass. Has witnessed and felt things she will never speak of, images of torn clothing and bruised skin and gaping, invisible wounds that will never leave her. But Mai also has visions of war, of the spark of swords scraping and piercing skin, the gun blast too close to the face. She knows what it’s like to believe in enemies. She knows the crunch of cartilage between her teeth, knows how bitter biting an ear off to win a fight tastes, just like she knows how it feels to lean into the upward wind on the edge of a cliff, and let herself fall when the wind subsides. Her limbs are alive, siphoning power out of the air. And it comes as a revelation that for the first time in months she isn’t afraid because this time the enemy is flesh and blood, human. The knowledge hits her like a satori .

She can’t feel her fear.

“Then keep quiet, bitch,” the blonde says, and takes one step too close.

And she does. She keeps quiet, and swings down.

The downward strike against the edge of the cinder block shatters the bottom half of the bottle, glass shards stinging her exposed arm and leg, glittering in the air between them as her eyes forget to flinch closed, and her blood sings like a cold flame, burns and numbs at the same time. She tastes sulphur on the back of her teeth.

The men cringe backward, the more cautious of them reaching for the blonde’s arm, tugging him sideways in the same moment that Mai lunges up and out, shadows swelling in the air around her as she sees in slow motion their widening eyes glisten, hears the muted shout of the friend as the bottle’s sharpest edge skims the retreating side of the blonde’s face, cutting a clean line through his cheek. Mai watches the vibrant red swell to the surface of his skin and spill over, bright as the fragments still bouncing off the walls of the alley.

The blonde staggers into his friend’s hold, whose rescue succeeded more than he knows. Mai had aimed for the eyes.

“What the fuck?!”

Despite the outburst, the blonde doesn’t fight the other as he yanks him back, uttering an urgent “Come on” while dragging them both quickly down the alley, back the way they came from toward the backstreet, tripping over cans and paper debris.

Mai barely watches them go, ignores the ruckus receding around the corner, the crunch of plastic beneath shoes fading by the second. Her eyes are on fire, bursting in her skull.

She stares a moment longer at the green glass of the bottle in her black-gloved hand, at the small bit of blood lacing its edge, before dropping it on the concrete. It makes a series of loud ‘tinks’ as it hits cement and rolls. Her leg and forearm sting from small abrasions, and she feels telltale liquid heat soaking the back of her shirt. She’s reopened the wound.

Dazed, she puts a hand on her purse strap, following the line of fabric across her chest. As violently as the feelings filled her, they’ve left her just as fast. Empty.

A sour smell invades her nostrils, stings her lungs. Something cold and sharp drags lightly across her cheek, then tucks her hair back behind her ear. It occurs to Mai they aren’t nails, they’re claws, but the knowledge prompts no emotion.

She expects the entity to comment, to jeer, but no words are said. Voices from the street, cheerful conversations and laughter, echo between the cement walls bordering her, and she’s never felt closer to a crack in the pavement, a hole in the Earth that years ago she fell into.

It’s getting late. The sun is sinking, turning the pavement orange.

She slowly makes her way out of the alley toward the warm glare of the sidewalk, blinded by the blues and yellows and pinks, the infinite colors of street clothes and neon signs. She has nowhere important to be, no one waiting for her at home. She can go anywhere, and it won’t make a difference.

Bracing a gloved hand on the cold, shaded wall, no one holding onto her arm as she turns the corner, she steps into the lights and disappears completely into the crowd.

 

 

Noll is unimpressed.

Unimpressed with the burnt toast he had for breakfast. Unimpressed with the neuroanatomy papers his early morning seminar has produced. Unimpressed with how long it took him to grade them, anyway. He’s unimpressed with the fact the sun of all days chose today to come out and put everyone else in a chipper mood, as if his colleagues needed another reason to say benign and irritating things to him in the faculty workroom like ‘Sun’s sure out, innit?’ while Noll waits impatiently for someone’s assistant to figure out how to perform the mind-numbingly simple task of scanning a document into a PDF so he can use the bloody copy machine and go sit in his office with the blinds shut and the lights off.

He’s also unimpressed with his focus. It’s Noll’s day to oversee the research lab, and he’s doing a piss-poor job of it. Watching from behind a one-way window as a sweaty thirty-seven-year-old man from Yorkshire tries to tip over a glass of water with PK, hooked up to every irrelevant piece of equipment they have—because apparently the upstart running this experiment has no idea what he’s even looking for and lacks the self-awareness to simply ask his seniors if the machine he’s currently using measures blood pressure accurately considering the subject literally just visibly faced a cigarette and coffee in the hall less than twenty minutes ago—Noll is once again, unimpressed. The moron is even wearing a white coat and hovering over the subject, as if the phrase ‘white-coat hypertension’ means nothing to him.

Noll looks at his watch, noting the time, as well as how worn the black leather strap has gotten. He’ll need to replace it soon. He still has thirty minutes until his meeting with Lin. If this keeps up, that’s going to feel like an eternity.

He shouldn’t have looked at his watch. Now he’s even more irritated, impatient. Glancing at one of the monitors the ‘researcher’ managed to set up properly without help, Noll picks up his pen and scratches a few notes aggressively on the legal pad resting on the counter next to the screens.

He’s upset her. 

After days of radio silence, he finally managed to prompt a response by outright threatening to file a missing person’s report, but the paltry voicemail he received—which she purposely left on his office phone when she knew damn well he was in lecture—was a blatant dismissal. She hasn’t been truly furious with him in over a year, not since they had that ridiculous fight about whether or not Noll was being “too apathetic” about the needs of his team while on investigation—an investigation and team, mind, that she had no connection to whatsoever yet felt compelled to insist he handle the unrequited affections of a young investigator “more delicately” after she foolishly professed to him in front of her peers, and he hadn’t even told Mai what the woman had said and yet she just knew and was so moronically empathetic, even for her—

And since over time their arguments have become less of the ‘refusing to speak to you’ variety and more the ‘I’m going to bombard you with my position until you yield’ sort, he almost forgot Mai’s latent potential to be uncommonly childish and legitimately vengeful when triggered. But, like riding a bicycle, the motions are easy to fall back into. How a woman can go from “Tell me you want me” to "I'll be busy all week, don’t bother” in under seventy-two hours, without any interference on his part, will never be an appealing mystery.

He presses the comm. button with more force than necessary. “Run it again.” He narrows his eyes at the screen. The data showed a slight anomaly, despite barely a wobble from the glass. He wants to be sure it wasn’t simply co-occurrence.

She can’t be irritated at him for not playing along. She was drunk. And hormone-driven. And amusingly apologetic the next day. She’d been chagrined, but not angry. Relieved, if anything, that Noll was letting it roll off him—at least, from her perspective. He accidentally used PK in response to her inflaming request, asked in that uncharacteristically sensual tone of voice that’s haunted his thoughts ever since. He broke his favorite cup, spilled tea on his laptop, and had to spend the rest of the evening monitoring his physical condition for ramifications.

So what the Hell is it, then?

“Dr. Davis?” The researcher on the other side looks approximately in the general direction of where Noll is standing behind the glass.

Noll hits the comm. button. “What?”

“Let’s take fifteen.” Noll looks at the sweat on the subject’s brow, the glass having barely moved an inch.

“Fine.” He flicks the comm. and monitor switches off, shutting down the program he was running side-by-side the tests so he can lay into Biffman’s teaching assistant who ‘just happens to be his nephew’ properly during the next norming session. Nepotism is the enemy of science. Unless Noll is doing it, because at least he keeps his underlings from running amok. Mostly.

Even if she is pissed about him not reciprocating, something doesn’t sit right in his gut. He’s been unable to sleep, unable to focus. He feels almost anemic, at times. And these headaches. Sometimes they border on unbearable.

He toys with the key in his pocket. Still irked, he leaves the lab, letting the door to the observation deck slam behind him. Walking down the hall, he nods his head at appropriate intervals when passing fellow faculty. He bites his tongue when he spots Biffman walking in his direction, likely about to check on his nephew. 

“Sun’s a beaut today,” he says, and Noll almost uses his PK just to break one of the windows lining the hall and throw himself out of it.

By the time he ducks into the stairwell, Noll is deeply confused by his own priorities. Why is he trying to stay here? He can fund his own research, rent out a lab if he has to. Footsteps echoing on linoleum, Noll takes a deep breath of stale, quiet air. No one is in the dismally lit stairwell on a day like this. Noll always prefers stairs to elevators. They’re faster than waiting, and he can use the exercise after lazing around in his office half the morning, unable to complete any work.

Turning the corner, he looks down the stairs at the landing of the next floor, and stops cold. 

Blood.

A large pool of it, only a few feet from the base of the last step of the flight. It’s fresh, still growing, but when Noll blinks the image disappears altogether. He can hear his blood rushing in his ears, the beginnings of tinnitus ringing in his head, like he triggered a flash grenade. Careful to keep his balance, Noll sits down on the top step, bracing his elbows on his bent knees and touching his interlaced fingers to his tightly shut mouth.

For some horrible, unthinkable reason, when Noll saw the blood… 

He thought of Mai.

Just acknowledging the association makes the churning of his stomach worsen, a panicked, urgent feeling overriding his greater senses, and it doesn’t fade, gets worse with every moment he sits and stares. Abruptly, he pushes to his feet, body acting without his permission as he sprints back up the stairs, every hair on his neck fully standing up, the only thought that matters being his cellphone on the edge of his desk in his office, all the way on the fourth floor.

 

...

 

It’s been about fifteen minutes since Mai locked the door behind the last customer of the day. The sun has long since slipped under the cityscape, no longer throwing beams of light through dust-lined stained glass or off of intricately framed mirrors whose edges have softened and browned with age. Behind the counter in the center of the room, surrounded by aging furniture, clothes, nick nacks and other memorabilia, Mai perches on the edge of a wooden stool behind the cash register, watching. 

It took her a few weeks to get used to it. Being alone in the store.

Well, mostly alone. 

Leaning her elbows on the glass countertop, resting her chin in the palm of her hand, she marvels at the way the evening shadows curl around the spirit of a young woman in a paisley dress. She’s been sitting at the vanity they received yesterday morning for nearly three hours. Admiring the small smile in the corner of the woman’s mouth, Mai can’t help but recall how nervous she first was about working in an antique shop, fearing she would be, at best, overstimulated. A few spirits are always coming and going, lingering around the aisles, staring blankly into WWI typewriters and running their transparent hands over linen, but never really demanding her attention. She’s almost started to enjoy it, compared to her other interactions.

This job is a good fit for her, she thinks. She doesn’t have the required knowledge about antiques and how to spot them, but she can use her abilities to learn how old the object actually is and if the history its seller claims is truthful. Similar to the pawn shop. And, though the store can feel a bit crowded at times, even when it’s empty of customers, Mai is comforted by the spirits, in a way. It keeps her at ease during late shifts like tonight, when the store would otherwise feel so empty, the street outside so dark.

And like most spirits just passing by, they are easily ignored, barely existing as a wisp of a thought, or the glare of the sun bouncing off of glass, caught in the corner of her eye. Well, the ones in the front room are easily ignored. Rarely do any wander far enough to find themselves in the back half of the ground level; these rare artifacts, as it happens, are rarely as attractive to wandering spirits as they are to the living.

As for the second floor, Mai avoids going upstairs as best she can, and the harmless spirits know to stay away as well.

Shaking herself out of her stare, Mai turns back to the cash register and resumes doing her final count of the day, her leather gloves squeaking softly with her movements. That’s another thing she likes about this job: nobody looks twice at an antique store employee wearing gloves.

The metallic jingling of the bell hanging over the entrance snaps Mai’s attention to the door. Her eyes fall on the fogged window surrounded by its mahogany frame, the bolt still in the locked position. A quick glance confirms the woman at the vanity hasn’t left her seat. The ash-black taste of coal fire hits the back of her tongue and flares her nostrils, causing her heart to race and her shoulders to tense, the back of her neck tingling unpleasantly as she rises from her wooden stool behind the counter.

Leaden footsteps strain the floorboards of the second floor. The steps travel from the storefront, slow and heavy, stopping over her head. She feels sick, her body quick to nausea. Turning her head slowly, she risks a cautious glance at the dark stairway to her left, eyeing the narrow staircase lined with rich, navy blue carpet leading up to the cursed object collection. Mai only goes up there a few times a week to do inventory, for good reason.

A loud crash from the floor above her makes her flinch. Squeezing her hands into fists on the counter, she shuts her eyes and takes deep breaths. She hates the late shifts, hates knowing that something is trying to make her go upstairs, knowing that it is manipulating her, and not being able to do anything about it. She has to check the merchandise. It’s her job. She repeats this to herself as she grabs the keys from the bottom desk drawer, reluctantly leaves her spot behind the counter, and makes her way toward the stairs.

The stairway is painted with shadows, the door at the top barely visible from the bottom despite the short length of the flight. The carpet muffles her steps to even her own ears, and each breath she takes is disproportionately loud in the absence of sound. 

When she reaches the top of the stairwell, her hands only shake slightly as she unlocks the dark wooden door and turns the handle. She tells herself that the way the door swings open is because of the hinges, that it’s hung off center, despite knowing better. Most days, she can tell the difference between common occurrence and the paranormal with her eyes closed. The preternatural wind that crawls up her arms and around her waist only stops her for a moment before she collects herself and ventures forward.

The blue carpet of the staircase continues into the cluttered, square room, its narrow walkways lined with objects encased in glass shelves, each nearly as tall as her, each item bearing an informative yellow label next to the asking price. The lights turn on automatically as she passes under them, quickly glancing around the room and checking off a mental list of each of the items. Nothing is out of place. As expected, there is no explanation for the shattering noise she heard only moments ago. Her eyes linger on the back wall, the shelf filled with various uniquely bound books, tomes and scrolls, and finds herself for not the first time being drawn closer to it. 

The energies pulsing around her are strange, repressed. It’s the reason she hates coming up here; unlike the benign spirits that wander in with the various items downstairs, these spirits rarely reveal themselves to her. Instead, it feels like having a thousand intelligent eyes in hiding, watching her every move, reading her every thought. They feel desperate, hungry. It’s unsettling.

The objects on the bookshelf are the least overtly imposing of all the collectables in the room, lacking the visceral associations of the dolls and sculptures, or the eerie ticking of the clocks and watches, but Mai can feel the danger emanating from them. She feels seduced by them, enticed, and there is nothing more dangerous than a spirit or object that can lead you around by your own desires. They know her weaknesses, they know how badly she wants to understand, to learn, to know. It’s how they are able to pull her toward them every time, until she catches herself with her fingers hovering above one scroll or book in particular before she sharply pulls her hand back. 

Ignoring the wailing in the back of her mind, she smells the same acrid, bitter ash from before and searches for the source. Her eyes land on a flat, dusty object near the back of the shelf, and as soon as she recognizes it her nerves begin to buzz. Extending a gloved hand to the familiar red record slip, she gently picks it up and brushes some of the dust off to reveal its rusty hue. She isn’t naive enough to wonder how the record got there.

The bell rings downstairs. Mai glances up at the doorway to the stairwell, trying to remember if she left the door open or if it opened itself, and stares down into the stretching darkness. When she looks back at the unfamiliar notebook in her hands she nearly drops it, fingers shaking, like her motor skills are deteriorating after hours of overuse. The journal is brown, leather bound and soft at the edges. She slides the book back onto the shelf and backs away quickly, bumping into the glass case behind her. She can feel them laughing at her.

Before anything else can make a fool of her, she hurriedly makes her way back to the stairwell, shutting and locking the door behind her with more force than necessary, her face burning in humiliation. She hates the second floor. She hates it. 

Turning to take the first step down, she meets swollen white eyes, set deep in a desert face.

“Sorry, for this.”

By the time she parses the words through his cracking voice, a sharp tug on her waist and shoulders has already pulled her off balance, the handrail too far from her outstretched hand, her mind too slow to prevent the coming fall. The shadow blocking the light in the doorway dissipates, and for a brief moment, she’s completely weightless.

Until she isn’t.

She hears the break before she feels it. 

It’s louder than how she’s heard it in visions. Her ears are ringing. Air won’t flow through her anymore, like she’s trying to breathe with wooden lungs. Her left side is throbbing, and she can already feel bruising forming on both hips, her head reeling from whatever it was she hit it on during the fall, but she hasn’t felt anything in her forearm, not since she heard the snap and felt the jolt shoot up her arm and into her shoulder, that first burst of lightning before her brain shut out the pain. There is blood gathering around her, and she can’t feel it. She can see the sharp edge of ivory bone sticking out where her arm bends how an arm should never bend, and she can’t think, she can’t move, her hair feels wet and she can’t breathe and she has to do something because it’s not going to be numb forever, she knows but she can’t think, can’t move—

Breathe, breathe.

Lying on her side at the base of the stairs, staring into the blood pooling around her, she tries to roll herself onto her back, managing with little more than a whimper. The ringing in her ears slowly evolves into a different sound altogether, a collection of bells that, after a short delay, she only barely registers as her cell phone going off in her jacket pocket. It’s Naru’s ringtone. The timing doesn’t feel like a coincidence. It never does.

“Answer it.” 

The words echo gently from the shadows pooling out of the wall, glistening like oil. Confusion pushes fear into the background, her mind racing to catch up with what’s around her whilst her head aches with a deep, pulsing pain that makes it hard to think. Answer it? Why would—?

It wants her to talk to him. It wants Naru. That’s why it pushed her. The instant she thinks it, she knows it’s true. She can’t answer the phone without playing into its hands, whatever that may be. 

She tries to test her mobility, to twist herself onto her stomach, to engage her core so she can push herself up with her good arm, but her ribs protest woefully and gravity pulls her limp arm into increasingly painful positions that make it impossible for her not to hiss and whine, exhausting her in seconds while her head swims. Giving up, she lies on her side as still as possible, panting, 

“Answer it,” the boy says, stepping out of the shadows and into the flickering lights of the store, illuminating his charred hands, still steaming. It looks painful, and fresh.

Mai tries again to engage her core and her good arm, barely lifts her head off the floor before the boy squats beside her, grabs her shoulder and twists her torso to stick his hand in her right jacket pocket, Mai failing to stifle a yell as the movement pulls on her damaged ribs, and flips her cell phone open before lifting his burnt hand to her ear. Another dark figure waits in her peripheral vision, stepping out of the black spill. She can smell hair burning.

“Speak,” the boy says.

“Hello,” she says, barely a rasp, staring at the dusted brown of hardened clay clinging to the boy’s sallow cheeks.

Naru is breathing hard, like he’s been running. The delay before he speaks is palpable. “What’s wrong?”

“I ... it’s...” She chokes down another breath, eying the dark silhouette moving toward her, light bouncing off its shoulders. That. That is the one from her apartment, from the alley. It’s unmistakable, the way her emotions immediately begin to riot, her already pain-clouded mind freezing cold.

“Mai?” Naru’s voice distorts through the aged speakers of her phone.

“It’s nothing,” she says. Her voice wavers too much to be convincing, but she winces through it. The boy is leaning over her. She can feel his presence, can taste his sulphur. She can barely hear Naru speaking, can barely focus on his words, can’t think past the feeling of that thing coming toward her.

“Tell him,” the boy says, close enough for her to feel the heat coming off him, a walking coal fire.

“Why are you breathing like that?” Naru sounds alarmed, but the situation is salvageable, she can fix this, she can— she can fix this.

Trying to ignore the ominous numbness in her right arm, the weight of the aura above her, she forces herself to respond despite the urge to wheeze. “It’s, I’m just.” She rolls her eyes upward, can’t get her brain to work fast enough, can barely keep her eyes open. Everything hurts, everything is boiling. “I’m alright. I fell.”

“...You fell?”

“Y-yes.”

“How far, exactly, did you fall?”

“Tell him,” he hisses, now standing over her, his clothes torn and singed, bald spots appearing in his hairline from visible burns the longer he remains near her. 

Mai shakes her head, glaring as hard as she can with how her vision swirls in and out of focus, tears prickling her eyes. The boy tilts his head thoughtfully, lifts his dirt-covered boot over her broken arm, and stomps. Another deafening ‘snap.’

The sound that comes out of her is unlike any she can remember making. Sharp, acute pain. No shock. No adrenaline. Only the reality of bone fracturing against bone, puncturing muscle, broken skin stretching to accommodate the new ways the bones bend and splinter inside her. She doesn’t want to hear herself wheeze and sob. It isn’t real. It isn’t happening, she’s still at the top of the stairs, she is going to snap out of it and all of this will—

“Tell him,” he repeats, and digs his heel further into her splintered arm, blood pulsing out around his boot, drawing out another set of agonized cries from her burning throat. He holds the phone out facing toward her, arm fully extended. She can do little more than croak and twitch. The boy lowers back down to her and presses the phone to her ear. For the moment, the line is eerily silent, only the sound of Mai’s labored breathing filling the air.

“Mai?” Naru’s voice is hardly audible, closer to a gust of wind than her name.

Vision blurring, Mai gapes into the spirit’s blank eyes as it leans over her, the pain in her chest suddenly unbearable. She’s never heard Naru like that. She never wants to hear him like that again. Mai shakes her head, turning her head away from the phone, tears trailing over the bridge of her nose, down her chin. 

“Please,” she whispers, limbs cold, heart bursting, “please, enough…” She shuts her eyes, a sob escaping her, ribs complaining as her lungs contract. “Don’t do this to him.” The words hang in the air for a long pause, and she can feel the boy hesitate. Hope forces her eyes open, but she can’t find the energy to move her head, can only see the vague shape of darkness hovering at the edge of the room, watching.

“You’ll die,” the boy says.

Steeling herself, Mai rigidly turns her head toward the crackling voice, dazed with pain, shivering. The boy is in perfect clarity beside her, crouching with his hands on his bent knees, his head cocked as he examines her with his swollen sclera. She watches his lips split and bleed as they curl into a small frown, teeth black as wet charcoal.

“You’re being selfish again,” he says, nudging her mangled arm with his boot, and a wet whimper escapes her before she bites her tongue, hot tears gathering in the corners of her eyes and blurring his gruesome face.

“Mai!”

The boy applies more pressure, leaning his weight on her injury, and Naru’s voice is lost to her scream of pain, to the curdling grind of bone against wood as her mind whites out and her lungs whistle morbidly.

She can’t. She can’t do it. 

The weight on her arm disappears, but she can barely tell the difference. Distantly, she registers a hard piece of plastic being held against her face, hears Naru’s voice breaking in unfamiliar ways, but she can barely even understand him, her head has gone somewhere else, and the longer she goes without answering the more forceful the voice in her ear becomes, the more she wants the noise to stop.

Once her lungs loosen enough for her to speak, Mai takes a long, painful breath and pushes sound out. She has to say something. He thinks she’s dying. She has to speak, even if her words are withered and torn. “I’m here. I’m okay.”

Naru’s answering breath is sharp. “Tell me where you are. Give me an address.”

The boy nods once, expression severe. It’s a challenge to keep the pain out of her voice, but she tries. “I’m at work. I fell, I, I uh, I...” The boy beside her frowns, and he looks so much like a child that her voice nearly refuses to work, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—”

“Mai,” he pleads, and he’s never sounded so desperate, like he’s falling off the edge of the Earth, “tell me where you are.”

Mai stares past the spirit at the ceiling, tears dripping down the sides of her face and pooling in her ears, rolling off her jaw. She traces the exposed wires of the hanging lamps with her eyes, maps the collection of cobwebs hanging off them, grounding herself through the pain. If the spirit wants something with Naru, it can’t be good. She can’t, she can’t. She’d rather die.

As if reading her thoughts, the boy blocks her view of the ceiling, shadowed face hovering over hers, black veins around its eyes, its hands prying her mouth open with unnatural strength, and by the time she notices the black bile dribbling from its mouth, it’s already too late. It opens its mouth slowly, letting the hot tar-like liquid pour into Mai as she struggles frantically to push its hands away with her good arm. As soon as the sour viscous hits the back of her throat, she’s truly unable to move, to even feel the floor against her back. From far away, she hears herself pleading for help, and her gut fills with something thick and boiling. She wants to scream, but can’t feel her mouth, like the thread connecting her to her senses was cut with a knife.

Naru, help me, please—

At the sound of her own voice, panic sends a surge of energy into her limbs, feeling beginning to eek back into her nerves. “No,” she sobs, gaining control of her voice, trying and failing to jerk her head away from the hands holding her jaw, writhing on the hardwood, still not in full control of her body. She manages to turn her gaze enough to catch the blood spilling from the gouge in her arm where the bones forced their way out, and she hopes delusionally that it will shock her brain back into function, but the world warps further.

With a growl, the boy grips her hair painfully and yanks her head forward, and Mai’s eyes snap back to the spirit, black tar sticking to its chin and neck, a pool of black growing by her head where he is squatting, soaking into her hair. “Tell him!” She blinks slowly, liquid dripping out of her mouth, onto her neck and sternum, half her breaths coming up gargles.

Fury contorting his face, breaking lines in the clay and exposing bile-covered teeth, he drops down onto her, shaking her head and shoulders roughly as he straddles her, causing pain to ricochet through innumerable injuries she hadn’t felt before and cries to tumble from her freezing lips, her vision quivering. A hard hit to the side of her head sends her migraine singing, everything spinning, spiralling down into his continued shrieks demanding the same thing, over and over and over: “Tell him! Tell him! Tell him!”

Dropping Mai’s limp head on to wood, he grabs the collars of her shirt, and she suddenly wishes she could see the true color of his eyes.

“What is wrong with you?” he shouts, something about it making her want to laugh, but all that comes out is a wet choking sound, like a clogged drain. She can’t breathe through thick gunk blocking her airways, and the lack of oxygen is taking its toll fast, black spots dancing across her eyes, lulling her to sleep. She feels herself being jostled and moved, the spirit guiding her onto her side. A forceful kick to the gut, and she starts hacking, puking up thick, black mucus-like globs onto the floorboard in front of her. 

Maybe she does want to die. Maybe she’s wanted that for a long time. It’s getting too hard to tell. Dazedly looking around, blood soaking into her side where her unrecognizable arm partially rests, drool hanging off her bottom lip, her eyes land on the shape a short distance from her face, familiar scratches along its black frame, it’s cracked screen lit up fluorescent blue. Her mind does flips, eyes widening at what feels like lightning striking her spine as she recognizes Naru’s labored breaths through the static, her priorities snapping back into place at inhuman speed.

"Who are you?" His voice crackles through the worn speakers, like he can’t get enough air either, but none of that matters as much as the horrifying significance of what he said. He can hear the spirit. He’s going to talk to the spirit.

“No, no,” she pleads, coughing up tar as she tries to raise her head, get closer to the bright light of the phone, “I’m alone, I’m—” She’s hit with another wave of vertigo, and catches a glimpse of the spirit as he frowns down at her, picking at his peeling face.

“Who are you?” Naru yells, and Mai’s desperation increases, clawing at the floorboards, crying out in pain as she crawls one-armed toward the phone as the spirit simply nudges the phone out of reach.

“I fell down the stairs, I broke my arm and I tried to move—”

Slapping her mouth shut with his hand, he presses his putrid flesh against her lips and teeth, immediately starting to smoke where he touches her. Slowly, without moving his hand, the spirit hovers on his knees above her, leans down so that they’re nose-to-nose, the spidery veins around his eyes pulsing hypnotically. "Tell. Him." His voice is thick and terrible, a low gurgle lingering at the back of his throat from the bile, and Mai swears her heart stops, sputters out and gives up.

“Tell me what?” Naru demands, pure pain, pure fury, and Mai’s heart hurts because it’s happening to him again, hasn’t he suffered enough? Isn’t it enough to live through the death of his brother? To have to hear it, to be powerless to stop it… It’s too much, it’s too much to live through hers, too.

The second he removes his hand, Mai spits in the boy’s face, not taking the time to savor how he flinches back, steam rising from tiny specks of bile that hiss and sizzle on his face.

“Naru,” she rushes, “Just hang up, hang up the phone, Naru, please.” Her words sputter out in a whimper, and Mai breathes heavily in the following silence, ribs pinned by inhuman weight.

Squeezing her eyes shut, Mai inhales the boy’s sour, earth-like scent, listens to his death rattle breaths, and flinches as a crusted, scabbed hand gently pets her cheek. “You’re making this harder than it has to be.”

Mai fails to hold back another sob, keeping her eyes closed, as if not looking will make it all disappear. The boy sighs, forlorn. She thinks she’s going to be sick. Retreating deep inside herself, she tries to find the gold cord inside her, searches the darkness with her eyes closed until she feels it tug at her navel, and she latches into its warmth. Deep breaths. Just keep breathing. This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.

“Tell him you miss him,” he whispers, breath rancid hot on her face, and Mai grits her teeth as hard as she can, “Tell him to come back. You don’t have much time.”

He’s lying. Spirits lie. She knows it. He has to be. She isn’t… She isn’t dying. Unless she is. She can’t think. Everything is so hazy—everything except for the spirit tugging on her hair and stroking her cheeks. Maybe she’s already dead. Maybe she’s been dead for years. She feels dead. Maybe that’s why everyone left.

“Don’t be afraid,” he says quietly, like he’s sharing a secret, “Don’t you want to see him?”

“What do you want,” Naru’s voice breaks, for the thousandth time, “tell me what you fucking want,” and hearing the raw, gut-level torment, Mai finds herself thinking of the emergency responder’s words in the hospital after the car accident that killed her mother. He said it was a miracle that Mai had been unharmed. Mai has never before questioned if she was actually lucky. If she would hurt someone as precious as Naru, just by being alive. She should have died with her mother when she had the chance. 

Tilting his head, the boy hums thoughtfully and digs his fingernail into her cheek. “That’s not good.”

“Naru, please, hang up,” Mai sobs, “I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—”

“That’s enough.” A quieter, soothing voice emerges from the other side of the room, from the heart of the shadows.

Everything is swimming around her, and Mai finds herself nodding gratefully, head lolling to the side, where all she can see is the black pool eeking closer to her face. The boy pokes her cheek, and Mai registers the sound of plastic and other components being crushed.

“Naru?” Mai mumbles, half-heartedly moving her face away from the touch. It doesn’t work; he pinches her cheek. “Why doesn’t anything hurt?”

She feels like she’s in a cloud, like there’s nothing beneath her, like she doesn’t even have a body where someone isn’t touching it. The boy brushes hair off of her face, spreading wet grime as he goes. “I took your pain away. You don’t need it anymore.”

“Oh,” she says, drifting. He’s right. Everything feels good, like the floor is made of soft sand and she’s slowly sinking, little granules climbing up her icy limbs. She lets the sand suck her under, fill in the gaps between her eyes and mouth, and lets the cool, ancient dark calm her heated skin.

 

 

Noll’s eyes are slow to focus on his hands where they’re pressing into the linoleum floor, which he quickly observes is covered in a thin sheet of ice. Sweat has gathered and frozen at his hairline. He’s shaking. There’s a phone on the ground by his stinging hands, the left of which is in a tight fist. His knees ache, like he braced a fall with them.

Mai. 

In a trance, he picks up the phone he’d dropped on the floor when the line disconnected, presses it to his ear, redials again, listens again to the message that this number can’t be reached. His breaths cloud in front of his face, frost hanging from his hair in front of his eyes. A glance up reveals glass fragments covering the floor by the window, sparkling, the blinds rattling from the breeze flowing into the room.

Clutching the phone, he pushes himself up off of the ground to sit up; his limbs are sore and stiff. He hooks an arm on the edge of his desk and uses it to assist him in standing, sliding on the ice. Attempting to redial Mai’s number again with his right hand, he becomes more aware of his left; it hurts, curled tightly around a hard object. He opens his hand to reveal Mai’s old house key, bloodied by the small wounds it has made in his palm. Images of dark red pooling around Mai’s head, her mangled arm, her bruised flesh, her tear-streaked face, hover in his mind’s eye.

His mind feels slow, filled with dust. It’s happening again.

He redials again.

He feels sick, his head is pounding, his skin is crawling. Her frantic apology echoes in his head obsessively. “I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—” The voice behind hers, warbling, sinister—

There’s commotion behind him as the door slams open, hitting broken furniture and books that have fallen from the shelves as Lin bursts into the room, dark hair amiss, face pale as he takes in the demolished office. Noll stares, shell-shocked, at his friend and mentor as the walls curve in around him, tipping, sliding out of place.

“Find her,” he manages to croak, as his knees hit the floor, the rest of him soon to follow.

Chapter Text

At this time of night, the basement walls feel like they reach all the way up into the night sky, shadows circling above her like dark clouds. Adjusting the straw rope that itches her shoulders even through her white yukata, white papers tickling the underside of her forearms every time she moves, Mai holds the black music disk to her chest, humming along with the notes singing in her head. She waited long enough that no one will be coming to check on her, just like he said. ‘They’ll shake the nusa at you if they find it,’ he warned, and that was plenty. Mai hates the nusa. It makes her feel icky. And no one will be able to take it away, if she keeps it a secret.

I’ll keep it safe, itoko, she thinks, as the melody thrums quietly in her throat.

 

...

 

Mai wakes up like coming out of a womb, eyes crusted closed, steeped in blood. Blind and gasping for breath, she lies trembling in the lukewarm liquid, head full of cotton, and flexes her fingers. Her lungs expand fully, unblocked. The aches all through her body feel muted, easily ignored, despite how her muscles won’t stop quivering. Slowly, so slowly, she lifts her left arm, rubbing dry flakes of blood from her eyes, skin pulling as she uses her fingers to force her eyelids apart, gritting her teeth at the slight sting. Sight restored, she blinks the blur out of the wooden ceiling, until she can see the colored glass of the antique lamp hanging above her, before attempting to turn her head to the right, lungs spasming as she lays eyes on her right arm.

Below the darkened cuff of her jacket sleeve, rolled above her elbow, the unbroken skin on her right arm is streaked with drying blood, pinkish scars contoured by reddish-brown where the fractured bone protruded. The skin is whole. The blood is staining her skin but the arm is whole.

No. No no. No.

She takes deeper and deeper breaths, a whine building in her throat the longer she stares at the new skin. Trying to sit up, core engaging weakly, but not painfully, her ribs sore but manageable, she stops as her hair pulls at her scalp, stuck to the floor. She closes her eyes, whine still trapped in her lungs, and sits up further, until she feels her hair come loose from the floor in a congealed peel, just like the back of her jacket, and she inhales sharply through her nose and don’t think, don’t think, don’t think about it just, just. Trying not to hyperventilate, she struggles into a seated position, eyes taking in where she’s been laying and no, no no no the pool of blood is huge, is all around her, turning black, all over her clothes, soaked into her skin, soaking into the floorboard, glistening like oil paint, framing her in a massive, massive—it’s too much, it’s so much blood and it’s not, she can’t—she takes more deep breaths, lungs only working half as well as only moments ago, bones rattling inside her skin and breathe, breathe, breathe.

She needs—she needs to clean it up. She needs to clean it up now.

Her gloves and shoes slip on the wet floor, unsteady as she wobbles to her feet, taking short, stiff steps through the blood, past the new vanity set, past the counter, all the way to the bathroom. Her fingers jerk uncomfortably when she tries to use them, flipping the light switch on, white fluorescent bulbs stuttering to life over the grey tiles and storage closet, as well as the white porcelain sink and toilet. She stumbles toward the closet, yanking it open and smearing blood across the handles, as she frantically searches through the collection of soap—knocking over a bottle that falls out onto the tile—toilet paper, and cleaning supplies, leaving bloody fingerprints on everything she touches until she finds their emergency first aid kit. Dragging it out, she drops it on the tile, crouching down to pop open the plastic latches. She dumps out the variety of bandages and finds the bottle of hydrogen peroxide. Forcing her fingers to lock around it, she grabs a fresh stack of paper towels and a yellow sponge from the middle shelf, cradling the objects in her arms, and limps back to the blood, knees locking, not moving fast enough, and the whine finally breaks loose from behind her teeth because she can’t lose this job, she can’t, she can’t—She can’t clean anything while wearing bloodied gloves. Gasping, dropping the items near the mess, she struggles to pull them off her fingers, tugging at them until they make a sickening wet sound as they hit the floor.

She falls to her knees at the edge of the pool and starts laying down paper towels. They turn dark red the moment they fall, and she swallows a distressed sob as she pushes the towels together with her hands, blood squelching between her fingers, getting under her nails as she scrubs at the bottom layers where it’s dried and clumped, stuck to the hardwood.

She doesn’t understand. She doesn’t understand. Her hands are too unsteady, muscles too weak, there's too much of it, the paper towels are saturated immediately, the sponge is just spreading it around and so she drops the sponge and stares at her shaking palms, red staining her fingers, dripping, and it doesn’t make sense, nothing makes sense because this can’t be her blood, this can’t have all come from her because nothing is broken and she’s just, she just imagined the whole thing and and it’s all—and there’s so much of it and maybe it came from her head, maybe she hit her head and that’s why it’s all, all—she takes wheezing breaths, slowly raises her fingers to feel the back of her skull, blood clotting in her hair, and gags, stomach turning, closing her eyes, clenching her teeth, her whole body trembling uncontrollably as she tentatively prods where the wound was, encountering a thin bald spot concealed on the back of her head, thick like scarring, where she felt her skull crack on the hardwood. A strangled noise crawls out of her chest as she lowers her shaking hands, trying and failing to swallow, feeling like she’s going to swallow her own tongue before there’s the phantom feeling of bile sliding down her throat, and she turns and heaves onto the previous clean wood, vomiting black clots, a red film, and seeing it only makes her gag more, as she sobs through a second round of heaving, seeing through a wet blur. When it stops, she wipes her mouth with the back of her arm, tremors wracking her body like she’s hypothermic.

Knees bruising on hardwood, hair sticking to her neck, she closes her eyes and lets tears fall silently, her hand pressed firmly to her forehead, holding her hair off her face, breathing in the acidic smell of her own sick.

She’s going to do this. She will get through this. She forces her lungs to work, to fill all the way up with oxygen and blow it out slowly. Again. And again. She breathes as long as she has to, until the shaking eases, until her heart rate slows, until her knees throb from being in one position too long. One step at a time. Don’t worry about the rest, just the next step. Just the next right thing.

She needs to wash out her mouth, before the metallic taste makes her sick again. She fights her way back to standing, back into the bathroom, fluorescents humming loud, casting a green tint on the room as she turns on the sink and puts her mouth under the running faucet, gargling and spitting until the taste is less potent, trying not to watch the grey and pink water swirl down the drain. Holding the sides of the sink, she lifts her head and don’t look in the mirror don’t look don’t look don’t look, breathe. Breathe. Just keep breathing. Next right thing. Next right thing.

She needs to get her hair up off her neck, off her face. She has a hair tie in her purse.

Back out in the store, she finds her purse in the brown wooden cubby behind the counter. Trying not to get blood on the outside, she digs carefully until she manages to find the hair tie, despite her shaking. She tugs her thick, tangled hair together, and it pulls painfully as she puts it up in a bun, clotting blood squishing through her hair, drawing another half-sob from her chest. With it off her skin, she can breathe a little better. Until she looks down at her blood-covered legs and shoes, sees the footprints and drops of blood she’s been tracking all around the store, and her throat closes on a whimper oh Godno, no come on, come on, breathe, breathe. She swallows something coppery.

She can do this. She can do this. Her vision tunnels, and she talks herself through it, talks herself all the way to the supply closet, talks herself through grabbing the yellow bucket and mop, the black plastic crate that holds the floor cleaner and the yellow rubber gloves. She can do this, she can do this. 

She has all night. She has time. She has time. She can go slow, just breathe, keep breathing. She takes another full breath in, lets it out, hands still shaking, and starts lugging the supplies toward the mess.

 

...

 

The half-peeled salmon-painted door opens inward, revealing a tired Masahiro in his weary slippers and crooked glasses, grey hairs sticking out of his sideburns, wearing a yellow t-shirt that says vaguely ‘I Volunteered’ and faded blue jeans. 

“Oh. Kabuki.”

It’s not even that cold and yet Yasuhara feels like his lips are going numb the longer he stands here, trying not to fidget in place, his left hand still stuck in a death grip around his phone, like it has been for the past fifty minutes. “You don’t happen to know where Mai is, do you?”

Warm light stretches across his face as he leans on the doorframe, and Masahiro levels Yasuhara with a skeptical brow that only emphasizes how crooked the lenses are. “Why don’t you call her?”

He can’t stop smiling, his stomach twisting. Hand on the back of his neck, Yasuhara forces words out past his teeth. “Her phone’s dead.”

His former mentor takes a hard look at him, brown eyes almost black behind the lenses. “What’s got you so riled up?”

Shivering in what could generously be called a mild breeze, Yasuhara drops the smile and shifts his weight to his left leg, the right one starting to cramp. “I got a call from our old boss’s assistant, saying to find Mai. It’s an emergency.”

Masahiro inhales, then sighs, scratching his jaw. “Hm.” He drops his hand from the door, checking his brown wristwatch. “She works. Probably clocked out about,” he frowns, looks back into his apartment, then leans forward again, “maybe an hour or so ago?” And Yasuhara finds himself somewhat distracted by why he needed to look inside for that when he’s wearing a watch on his wrist.

“Do you know where she works?”

He leans his weight on the door and lets it open further, stepping to the side and motioning Yasuhara to enter with a lazy wave. “In Ikebukuro. Generally speaking.”

At least it’s warm inside, even if he shouldn’t be taking his shoes off as the door clicks shut behind him, should be moving faster than this, not looking over the toys lined up on the orange couch, the floor temporarily cleared of kid stuff, and wait where’s the kid? His confusion must show.

“Weekend at a friend’s house. Nice people,” Masahiro says, and bolts the door into the locked position, which doesn’t help the feeling that all of this is taking too long. “So. Any idea what’s got ‘em worried?”

Yasuhara sits on the couch, troll dolls rolling toward him, the cushion giving way more than he was expecting. Rubbing one sweaty palm on his pants, he clutches his phone tighter. He’s afraid to put it in his jacket pocket, afraid he’ll miss a call. “No. Is she running late?”

“Not yet,” Masahiro says, grabbing two blue mugs from the cabinets, “but to be honest, Kabuki, it wouldn’t be strange if she were.”

“She’s late often?” He’s not sure why that bothers him so much.

“Yup. Sometimes doesn’t roll in until morning, looking like she stepped in shit and bit into a lemon.” He opens another cheap-looking cabinet and pulls out a small coffee can, then opens the lip with a ‘pop.’ “So. What kind of emergency are we talkin’?” 

Outside the window, the street lamps dot the street with an electric glow, barely visible from the reflection of the well-lit room in the glass. There might not be time for this. Lin didn’t have the details when he called, only knew it was serious enough to send Davis into a fit. He hasn’t called with any updates, but Yasuhara assumes it’s only a matter of time before whatever Davis was ‘incapacitated’ by is dealt with and more information begins to flow. He should just come out with it. “He said ‘likely life-threatening.’” Yasuhara has spent the last hour trying to convince himself they’re being overdramatic.

It isn’t working.

Masahiro hits the coffee measuring spoon, which is just a regular soup spoon with a white label on the handle that reads ‘coffee,’ on the edge of the plastic filter, freezing in the middle of his task. Yasuhara watches as he exhales out his nose, then taps the spoon on the counter. Thinking. “Alright.” Yasuhara sits up straighter as Masahiro drops the spoon in the can and walks over to his slightly crooked wooden standing coat rack, grabbing his wool coat and pulling a jumble of keys out of the pocket. “You stay here in case she comes back.”

Wait. What? “Where are you going?” Yasuhara stands and takes a hesitant step toward the door, but Masahiro waves him down with a glare. 

“Don’t worry your pretty little intern head about it,” he says, already unlocking and opening the door, stepping out. He steps back in to point at Yasuhara with his keys, “Stay here,” before shutting and locking the door behind him.

Yasu stares at the grey side of the door, standing for what feels like several minutes trying to understand what just happened. He guesses… someone should make sure to be here, if she comes home. But he feels uneasy, like he’s not doing what was asked of him, not doing anything to help. That said, he’s never actually seen Souto—er—Masahiro, fail. For once not needing to step over any childish objects to get to the kitchen, he saddles up to the counter and puts an extra scoop of coffee into the filter.

Wait. Did he just call me pretty?

 

...

 

It’s cold.

It’s all she could think about on the walk here, shivering in the vintage pink yukata she borrowed from the store; it’s all she can think about now, huddled in the relative shelter of the phone booth, staring through her reflection on the glass out into the early morning, the street lamps still on, the sky still dark, because if she thinks about the sensitive skin of her arm, raw from scrubbing, then she’s going to think about the pink hue leftover from the blood that just wouldn’t lift, and then she’s going to think about how she never realized how heavy blood is, how much liquid mass is circulating through her body at every moment. Even her cloth purse feels like it’s bending her spine out of alignment, pulling at the stray hairs falling out of the only haphazard bun-ponytail hybrid she could manage with one hair tie, tangled hair damp from rinsing out as much of the blood as she could in the sink, the water still running red every time, until her hands were shriveled and excoriated and it was time to go.

She wonders how long until sunrise. There are no people out yet, save a few men in suits trying to find their way home after a late night drinking with coworkers and god it’s cold and everything smells like bleach; she burned away her senses scouring the bathroom and now the world smells like a chemical burn but it’s sterile, everywhere is clean, especially her shoes which will smell like bleach for the rest of forever.

Her head hurts. Her eyes are burning. She feels seasick. She’s sore. She’s sleep-deprived. But mostly wanting to rub warmth into her goosebumps but too tired to lift or move her arms more than necessary. It took all she had to insert the right amount of coins and dial the international operator and recite Naru’s number from memory, and she’s cold. She’s frostbitten but in her bones, in the deep parts. Her lips and nose are numb, her hands are numb, the back of her neck is damp, her lower back is damp but it’s just sweat it’s just sweat it’s water and sweat salt and water and bleach breathe, breathe, don’t think. The ground is wobbling again. Like standing on jello. She leans on the glass wall, pressing the hard plastic phone to her face, waiting for the line to connect.

“Your call has been forwarded to an automatic voice messaging system…”

Voicemail. Her eyelids are heavy. She lets them close, sags against the booth as she listens to the rest of the default voice message he’s never bothered to change. It isn’t until a few seconds after the beep that she remembers she has to speak. 

“Naru,” she says. Her mouth is too dry for talking. She swallows saliva, tries to clear her throat. “I’m okay. I...It’s okay now.” She breathes, wincing at her own voice. “I…” She licks her lips, tries harder. “I have some things I need to tell you.” She rests her hand over her eyes, head sliding down the glass. “I’ll explain everything. Just. Don’t come.” Silent tears catch her off guard, and she bites her lip. She wants to see him. “Let me fix this,” she says, gathers strength from the silence, and hangs the phone up on the receiver with the last of her energy before sliding down to the sticky floor of the booth, losing water she can’t afford to lose to her feelings, looking at the world through fogged glass.

He’s already on the plane. She knows it. She’s known for hours.

She hits the glass with her open palm, impact traveling up her arm, tears falling harder until she can’t see in front of her. Damn it, Naru. Legs straining, leaning on the glass for support, she tumbles out of the phone booth, into frigid air.

 

...

 

4:48 am. Less than an hour to sunrise.

Masahiro is walking down a block of mismatched two-story buildings, tucked away on a side street with more bike racks along the sidewalk than people likely employed by the row of stores. Coming up on the edge of the street, he turns left and finds the one that stands out from the others, built further back from the road, a mixed metal and wood building with an aluminum awning and its own walkway. Took him a hell of a lot longer than he’d been hoping to find it. In the end, he was able to narrow down a list of her conversation points, all of which tend to lean toward complaining about dust or cleaning typewriters or something along those lines, with the occasional odd comment about dropping a dish here and there. But if he went with just the weird shit, which seems to come up more often, he came up with a long list of antique, vintage and pawn shops in Ikebukuro. From there he just had to thin the list based on hours of operation. This is the thirteenth store he’s been to, and he’s got a feeling it’s the one. Walking up to the door, he looks in through the window. Dark. He tries the door. Locked.

He circles around the back, pants getting caught on a few shrubs, and finds the back entrance facing a network of alleyways he didn’t know were there. He tries the metal door, and it opens without a hitch. Unlocked. Not a great sign.

First thing he notices, stepping into the pitch-black hallway, shoes squeaking on the polished wood floor, is how heavily of cleaning products it smells. Using his phone as a flashlight, he navigates the creepy-as-hell network of weird fucking old shit, until he enters a new room of less weird but still old shit, where the chemical smell is the strongest. He almost mistakes a grandfather clock for a thin man in a stupid hat. Turning the corner, careful not to bump his hip on the edge of an antique vanity, the light of the flashlight reflects off a different floor texture where the space opens up. Getting closer, he sees one large section of the floor is cleaner than the rest of it. The smell burns his nose and eyes, it’s so strong. Turning the flash on, he snaps a few pictures, and that’s when he notices the distance from the stairs. Moving slowly, he steps around the cleanest part and steps up onto the first carpeted step, tipping back and testing the direction his weight falls. It lines up, more or less, with the clean section of the floor. A quick jaunt up the stairs reveals the upstairs is locked. Key’s probably under the front desk somewhere, but he doubts he needs it. He has a feeling. He’ll sweep the rest of the place, then circle back.

The next place of priority is the bathroom. He risks hitting the light switch, fluorescents flickering on. The room smells very, very strongly of bleach. He sniffs, nasal cavities itching, having a fit. This is a bad sign.

A look down in the sink has his stomach feeling heavy. Blood residue on the underside of the faucet, around the base of the knobs, and caught in the metal edge of the drain. Hard to clean, easy to miss. After snapping a couple photos, scanning the tile floor, he leans down to see behind the toilet. Freckles of dried blood left on a baseboard behind the toilet. More on the grey paneled cabinet, around the handles, and on the backside of the door to the bathroom. That’s the thing about blood. It gets fuckin’ everywhere. Damn. He’d been really, really hoping she was just blowing them off. He snaps a picture of each of the items.

Masahiro exhales out his nose, a leaden weight in his gut. This isn’t looking good for the kiddo.

The back door was unlocked. That could be a coincidence, but it’s unlikely. Someone either left in a hurry, or didn’t have the key. Or both. Someone needed to get cleaned up. Pulling a tissue from his pocket, he carefully pulls the cabinet open. Shit’s everywhere. Bottles lying on their sides, boxes pushed out of alignment, and an emergency kit front and center on the middle shelf, as if someone just shoved it in. May have been injured. Maybe Mai hurt herself, tried to clean it up. Popping open the kit reveals a fully stocked set of bandages, sanitizing wipes, a stitch-kit, and gauze. There’s a sizable empty space where the plastic was formed in a bottle shape. Okay then. Not injured. Just wanted the hydrogen peroxide, commonly thought of as good for lifting blood stains.

Setting the kit back down in the cabinet, he moves a little faster into the main store area, eyes roaming until he sees what looks like a cleaning closet.

Empty. Just a broom and a dustpan. The floors look well-maintained, like they require regular polishing. Someone like that would keep a mop on hand, at least.

Someone caused a big spill, and they cleaned it up in a big hurry.

This is looking bad. This is looking real, real bad.

They were in a hurry, missed a shit ton of blood during clean up. Left the door unlocked. 

They went out the back door.

Masahiro makes his way extra slowly, tracing the route from the bathroom to the back door, looking for anything out of place. The objects kept nearest the walkway are crooked in some places, could be nothing, could be the attacker bumping into things, but nothing indicates a drag, no objects out of place low on the ground, where a foot or a knee might knock something over or pull a chair out by the leg. It gives him hope, which is a dangerous thing.

Stepping outside into the early morning air, he takes a deep breath of fresh, unbleached oxygen, looking at what’s immediately visible. He’s flustered, he’s tired from cleaning, he’s an amateur who didn’t think this through; he might have a hostage. And he’s probably got some shit to throw away.

With that in mind, he wanders around the alleyways a bit until he finds a large green dumpster, a wood crate sitting suspiciously close to it, the only one of its kind. They’re short. After taking another few pictures, he drags the crate from the alley and uses it as a stool, lifting the lid and shining his flashlight inside. Black trash bags fill the bottom, but on top of that is a blood-crusted mop and yellow bucket, still full of dark, gooping, drying blood and what looks like multiple rolls of blood-soaked paper towels. Beside it is a plastic grey bag that stands out from the others. He takes as many pictures with the flash on as he can before his fingers just won’t. It’s a lot of blood. He’s seen enough of this shit to know.

There is no hostage.

Keeping the lip up with one hand, he puts his phone in his mouth, flashlight facing into the dumpster, he carefully pulls his utility knife out of his pants pocket, flicking the blade out, and cuts open the plastic bag just below the knot. He uses the flat edge of the blade to pull the bag open, far enough to see what’s inside. Bloody clothes. The clothes Mai was wearing this morning. He feels sick. Damn. Fuck. It hurts. It never doesn’t hurt. This is why he doesn’t do this shit anymore. Shit.

His phone starts vibrating between his teeth, rattling his skull. Trying not to flip his shit, he quietly lowers the lid and takes his phone out of his mouth. It’s shitty intern. Fuck. He’s gonna have to tell him. He answers.

“Masahiro-san!” The relief is clear in Yasuhara’s voice, giving him pause. “She’s okay. Lin called. Mai left a voicemail on Naru’s phone while they were on a flight.”

… Uh.

That throws a wrench in it. But he’s too experienced to let hope blossom. “What time did she call?”

“Not long ago. Why?”

Holy shit. “He’s sure it was her?”

Yasuhara seems to notice something is up with his tone. Good for him. “He seemed positive,” he says, then, “What is it?”

Masahiro looks back at the black lid of the dumpster, struggling to piece this together.

It could mean a lot of things. She could be calling under duress, held hostage. She could be lying, but she shouldn’t have the mental faculties to lie or make a call at this point. She would be knocking on death’s door, on a good day. Or it could be someone who sounds like her. But the amount of blood indicates someone is critically wounded or most likely dead. Even if it was just a head wound, this much blood is critical. Fatal. Every time. 

No forced entry. Short. Amateur. Tired. Flustered.

Oh fuck.

Yasuhara said ‘life-threatening.’

He didn’t say whose life was threatened.

Masahiro will be the first to admit he jumps to conclusions, but he would also be the first to admit his gut has solved more cases than his filing system. And right now, his gut is screaming bloody murder at him without a doubt in the damn world that Mai made that call by her damn self, just like she cleaned the shop, and dumped the evidence in the first dumpster she could find like the traumatized first-timer she is.

“Nothing,” he says, and tips the lid all the way open, resting it against the wall. “I’ll head back in a few.” 

Right after he cleans up this fucking mess.

 

...

 

Pink suds swirl around yellow tiles, spiraling down the rust-lined drain, and Mai keeps forgetting to blink, scrubbing furiously at her arms with a dish sponge. The rough pad is overkill, chafing her skin, but she’s too numb to feel anything but the tug and pull of the motion. The hairs she accidentally pulled out while scraping dried blood from her scalp and hair are stuck to the shower wall beside her; rehydrated, they leave reddish brown streaks down the tile that Mai can’t look at.

She hurt him. 

Yasu caught her walking toward the stairs, tried to talk to her. He tried to grab her shoulder. He tried to hand her a phone, Naru waiting on the other line, and she shocked him back. She didn’t mean to, but now all she can see is his morning shadow jerking away from her, stretching along the sidewalk in front of her apartment building. She couldn’t even look him in the face, turned her cheek to speak to him. Told him to ‘Go home.’ She didn’t check to see if he listened. Didn’t want to know. Didn’t want to stop moving.

She hasn’t stopped moving since waking up with her back against a tree, bark itching her skin through the yukata, a hazy memory of long nails petting her face, lulling her to sleep. Water gently rolls off her back in gentle warm rivulets and she can’t stand it, curses the weak water pressure in her apartment. She can’t even see in front of her, doesn’t even have the extra energy to tremble, mind on what feels like a constant, timed loop between the sensation of falling, the sensation of having her bones crushed beneath a boot, and the sensation of not having sensation. She always thought she’d be desensitized if something like this were to happen, having vicariously lived and died through worse, but she isn’t. It’s different, in her own body. Her own bones. Her own blood.

She rubs sight back into her eyes, staring at a trail of soap scum on the tile wall in front of her.

The light inside her hasn’t stopped tugging at her spine, trying to get her attention. He’s upset. He’s furious and he’s coming. She can feel it. 

For the millionth time, her mind circles back to Naru’s voice over the phone, and her stomach churns, throat tightening like she’s going to puke. She covers her mouth with her hand, swallowing it down, closes her eyes, leans her head on the tile, hair catching on one of the cracks, pulling at her sensitized scalp. She can’t fix it now. She just has to be ready.

Her scrubbing has slowed, her skin beyond numb, vibrating with pain she can’t feel. Mai looks down at the tangled mess of her wet hair, now down to her chest, sticking to her breasts, and grits her teeth behind closed lips. 

It had grown longer back then, too. After the accident. Naru won’t know the difference, but Yasu might. She’ll have to be careful. If she were smart she’d cut it. 

She blinks, and the hospital room is cold. Brown hair pasted to milky skin, eyes squinted in agony.

Mai is starting to look like her. 

Seeing her own body again, shivering under the cooling spray, Mai tilts her head, running her peeling nails through her damp locks. Maybe she won’t cut it yet. Not until she has to.

It isn’t until she’s stepping out of the shower, faucet still dripping after being twisted off, that she remembers she doesn’t have a clean towel.

Moments later, facing the wall framing her front door, wet hair dripping onto clothes she’d thrown over her drenched body, now plastered to her raw skin, Mai curls her toes against the frayed tatami. There’s hardly an inch of visible paint on the walls, covered in hundreds of paper wards and sigils, black ink swimming on the canvas if she stares too long. She can hardly remember what color the walls even are.

Ripping the first paper off the wall, she gasps, crumples the ward in her hand, feeling a twinge inside her, but she keeps going, tearing them down, letting them fall like leaves to the forest floor, chipping away at something deep in her core, and Mai wishes it were raining. She wishes for the droning whir of wind and water hitting her window, drowning out the sounds of tires squealing in her head, the smell of burning rubber, the feeling of her head smacking against the window, hot and cold, blood on cool leather.

Her arms are burning in her long sleeves, reaching and tearing and reaching while she shuffles the remnants under her naked toes, risking a paper cut as she sheds the walls of months of research, frantically pulling it all down around her, begging the universe to cave in, the white-hot implosion before the outward blast, and Mai barely feels the pulse of energy leave her, only hears the papery rustling of all the wards floating down at once, swept up and in circles by invisible breezes, brushing against her legs, still drying in the air under her floral skirt.

The walls are a light yellow, like a duckling’s soft down.

It takes hours to separate the wards from the piles of notes, books and scrolls spread out on the tatami, hours to shove all of her collection, her bells, her puzzle boxes, her charms and idols, all of it into the two large cardboard boxes she’s kept folded up in her closet since the day she moved in, just in case, only some of the books leftover once they’re filled, lining her closet floor. It takes hours to hold the red record in her bare hands, energy assaulting her from all sides, a carousel of images and sensations spinning around her head, not one of which coming from the record. Hours to put it in the box with the others, smoothing her thumb down its weathered edge, the barest whiff of a dream drifting away from her before she can recall what she saw.

Twelve hours. It only takes twelve hours to get from London to Tokyo. 

She looks at the coppery blood stain in the center square of the tatami. 

It’s not enough. It’s not going to be enough. 

She doesn’t know how she makes it downstairs, knocking on Masahiro’s weathered door, the faded green imprint of the number twelve stained into the paint. Masahiro opens the door, and she doesn’t see him, can’t use her eyes when all her other senses are battling for control, but she feels him, his crackling life essence as he sizes her up.

Mai tries her best to look where she thinks his eyes are when she speaks. “I need a crowbar.”

She doesn’t know what his face does, but she feels his concern rippling over, and knows what his answer will be.

 

 

Wedging the crowbar under the mat, Mai throws all of her weight into the movement, the fibrous sound of partially ripping up the stained, middle tatami mat filling the small space. She can feel Hiro’s eyes on her as he hovers in the doorway. 

“Redecorating?”

“Just cleaning up,” Mai grunts, adjusting her angle, hands stinging in her feeble grip on the metal.

“Any particular reason?” 

She can’t get a solid enough grip on the crowbar, can’t get her muscles to cooperate as she heaves the edge of the mat up and loses her balance, falling back on her ass. The spirits hiding in her peripheral vision are laughing, mocking her, making her pay for keeping them out so long.

“I have a guest coming.” 

“What’s that stain?”

Mai doesn’t have time to be anxious, crawling back over her feet, picking up the metal, warmed from her hands, once more. “Wine.” 

She doesn’t need him to believe her. She only needs Naru not to see it.

“Must be some guest,” he says, and Mai feels her back strain as her legs refuse to do the work, wedging the mat up a little more, but not enough. “Hard to impress?” 

Mai scoffs, and has a hard time differentiating her thoughts from Masahiro’s. He knows it’s a blood stain. He’s been thinking about it the whole time, wondering what happened. “Very.” She grits her teeth, gets it partially ripped up, but not all the way. Sweat tickles her hairline, makes her feel physically sick, seemingly every one of her muscles straining for her attention.

She feels rather than sees Hiro breach her doorway before he takes the crowbar from her burning hands. 

“Alright then,” he says, digs the crowbar under the mat, and rips it the rest of the way up.

Staring at the square, aging wood frame and black laminate, Mai wonders why she’s surprised that’s all it is underneath.

 

 

There’s not enough light in her apartment. She never realized how much of a problem that is, to only have one weak standing lamp in the corner of the room. She doesn’t have guests at night. She doesn’t have guests, ever. But now, hands fumbling, tossing back two of Kazane's pills, she’s watching the shadows run wild over the walls, pushing against her exhausted mental barriers, and thinking Naru is going to hate her. He’s never going to forgive her for lying about this, about living like this and he’s almost here. She can feel it, her gut twitching in equal panic and anticipation.

Swallowing the capsules dry, she recaps the plastic bottle and shoves it in her purse, sliding the bag further down the counter, away from where her teapot is steeping on the cooling hotplate, the kettle resting at the bottom of her cracked porcelain sink. 

The clock on the kitchen counter glows red. Just past eleven. She feels as naked as her yellow walls, can feel spirits hovering around the edges of her mind, attracted to her like fish to a light, hovering, reluctant to get too close. Earlier, standing uncomfortably naked in her water-damaged bathroom, she drew as many energy seals as she could on her skin with oil, and for now they’re holding, but she’ll have to do it all over again as soon as she showers. She’ll deal with the side effects later. Right now she has to keep it together. Everything feels too visceral against the sensitive skin of her fingertips without her gloves on, the edge of the counter too sharp, the sink faucet too cold, but he’ll ask too many questions, be too suspicious if she wears them at night. Deep breath in, slow breath out. The whole room smells like the sage and the other mystery herbs she burned earlier—like lavender but not quite, palo santo but not quite—but she can’t do much about that except open the window, which she tries not to do, doesn’t like how the sheet billows and forms shapes in the breeze.

Checking once more that her purple sweater hangs normally over her black and beige floral skirt, that her white socks haven’t slid down from mid-shin, that her hair is dry and loose around her shoulders, she tries to imagine what he’s going to see. She doesn’t have a mirror. She has no idea what he’ll be looking for, but she’s done everything she can think of, she’s done what she can. And since her tatami was in a tea room pattern, she’s been able to cover the square hole in her floor with a blanket, Masahiro’s borrowed low wood table on top of it, holding the blanket taut. She doesn’t deserve a neighbor like Hiro.

Indigo flashes in her mind’s eye, and she grips the edge of the counter until her knuckles hurt.

Two sharp raps on the door confirm her fears.

It takes all her willpower to push away from the counter and walk haltingly to the door, legs resisting. She stares at the salmon paint peeling off the door, hand on the cool metal doorknob, blood rushing past her ears like she’s a stone in a river, tumbling downstream.

She opens the door.

Even obscured by the shadows from the street lamps, casting triangles of light across his face and shoulders, he is unmistakable. 

He wears familiar clothing; a long black coat, grey scarf, and black pants; but his features are sharper than she remembers, more defined, her eyes correcting her memory of him like updating thousands of snapshots into a new, cohesive image. His shoulders are broader, his posture rigid but fatigued, jet-lagged, with dark shadows under frigid indigo eyes, hair a mess, pants wrinkled, and somehow he’s still so breathtakingly perfect, even more than she remembers.

Her mouth opens, but no sound comes out, cold air wafting in from outside, penetrating her sweater. She isn’t ready, feels paralyzed in his gaze, all her planned statements disintegrating, falling through her fingers like so much sand.

Apparently, he wasn’t expecting her to say anything. 

He pushes past her, into her apartment. The soft sounds of him taking off his shoes rise up to her ears from behind her, but Mai can’t look away from the slick metal railing, droplets of condensation reflecting the street lights, thousands of tiny snow globes stuck to the surface.

By the time she recovers enough to turn around, he’s walking slowly around the dark wood table, scanning her apartment with his eyes, and Mai has the sudden urge to scrub the oils off her skin and let herself feel him completely, know exactly what he’s thinking. Currently, only certain things leak through. Contrasting the fluidity of his movements, what she can sense of his energy feels raw, frayed at the edges, a riptide beneath the sea of calm on the surface. He pulls the pale pink bed sheet covering her window aside, glancing out at the metal bars, then lets the sheet fall back into place.

“Close the door,” he says, and Mai can’t remember how to breathe.

He moves on to the kitchen, scrutinizing every square inch, and Mai is trying not to think audibly because she can’t tell what he’s seeing, and for the life of her she can’t recall if he has a photographic memory or not. Trying not to let her paranoia show, trying not to look at her closed closet doors lest he take notice, she shuts the door behind her and locks it with frozen fingers, breathing particles of ice. It’s coming from him.

His roaming gaze stops on the two mismatched ceramic teacups on the counter, and Mai’s heart stops with it. Two cups. He didn’t tell her he was coming. His eyes are sharp, too guarded for her to know if he’s writing it off as intuition or logic or anything other than what it actually is. She’s been spoiled, gotten lazy. His voice is so much easier to read than his face.

“Tea?” she asks, breathless, and his eyes lock onto hers, and she shouldn’t have spoken, shouldn’t have drawn his attention to her because now he’s looking and she doesn’t know what he’s thinking and she’s never dulling her senses like this ever again, can’t stand not knowing.

His eyes look darker than she remembers in the warm light coming from the naked lamp, his aura heavier, colder. She doesn’t remember him like this.

He looks down at the teapot, picks it up by the handle with his black-gloved hands, and pours tea into both cups. Mai’s pulse doubles as he moves the cups onto the counter closer to her, standing behind it, watching her like a bird of prey. She has to come to him.

She swears she can see her breath in front of her as she approaches, ankles feeling weak as she shuffles toward the kitchen, the counter not nearly enough space between them as he lifts the cup to his lips and sips, still watching her from over the blue and white rim. There’s a ripple in his energy, but she’s too blocked to interpret it. She doesn’t touch her own cup. She needs to take control of the conversation. She can’t let him have the first word, or she runs the risk of falling into a verbal trap.

“I—”

“Whatever you’re planning to say,” he starts, and her words get caught in her throat, his hard stare as flavorless as his uninflected tone, “don’t.”

Air thickens in her lungs as she flounders, thinking fast. “It’s not what you think.”

In the following silence, droplets of water fall from the faucet, impossibly loud when they hit the bottom of the sink. 

She can’t look at him, rubs her forehead with her hand instead. Her eyes flick around under her eyelids as she tries to think, tries to figure out what the next right thing is. She’d forgotten how smothering his aura can be when he’s not actively suppressing it. Unlike Monk’s spirit, which glows like hot metal, with potential to strike, Naru’s is like a dark indigo mist, not unlike his eyes, pressing down on the room, saturating. The slide of leather against skin as he pulls off his gloves sends chills up her neck. She needs his eyes off of her.

“Whatever you saw, it’s what it wanted me to see,” she says. Dangle a thread. Distract his attention.

Fabric shifts as he moves around the counter and stops less than a foot away from her, her entire body tensing at the proximity. She tries to step toward the living space, but he grabs her wrist, his hand stronger than she remembers, more masculine, rougher on her skin. They used to be soft.

He waits a long minute before moving his hand up her recently injured arm, lifting her forearm into the light, gently pushing her purple sleeve up past her elbow and brushing his thumb over the white web of scars where the bones broke skin. She can barely stand the soft touches, skin too raw from scrubbing. When she braves his eyes, the challenge in them is clear. Explain.

“It’s not what you think,” she repeats.

He says nothing, and her eyes get caught on the lines of his bangs, falling into his eyes.

He moves slowly, but she can’t track his movements, can’t respond fast enough to prevent his fingers from brushing her temples, weaving through her hair, and he’s way too close, his herbal breath on her face, dark eyes watching her like he’s analyzing and compartmentalizing every frame of her reaction, her heart beating out of her chest. She draws in a short inhale as he presses his fingers into her skull, moving in concentric circles, eliciting a shiver as he feels around the whole of her head for, she realizes too late, evidence of a wound. His fingers stop on the new scar tissue on the back of her head, and Mai’s mouth goes dry. Again, he says nothing, and meeting his probing gaze feels like locking horns with a bull in a blizzard. She grits her teeth behind closed lips.

Finally getting the motor control to step away from him, hair catching on and falling from his fingers, she retreats to the other side of the counter, tile cold through her thin socks. She picks up her tea, taking a longer drink than necessary, lets the hot sage and moringa blend soothe her cracked throat, then sets it down on the counter, feeling more in control. The script comes easily.

“You saw what I saw. What I thought happened.” She looks up at him briefly, just enough so that she’s not avoiding his eyes. “It was a spirit-induced hallucination.” She licks her lips, staring at a ring of moisture on the counter. “It’s attached to an object in the store I work at. It preys on fears.”

When she glances up again, she hears his fingers drum on the counter, his eyes making her want to shrink into the floor. 

“I never told you what I saw,” he says, and Mai feels like a lizard caught between the cat’s teeth, frozen in place. Shit.

She stares back at him, unsure how to recover from her immediate, catastrophic slip. It had never occurred to her to pretend she didn’t know he used his abilities, that he saw her bleeding out. It’s such an obvious mistake, she feels like an idiot. She basically just admitted she was injured, by assuming that’s what he saw, as opposed to her flailing around on the floor, unharmed.

He doesn’t even gloat, the light from her singular lamp cutting severe angles across his face. 

“It wanted you to tell me something. What?”

Mai slides her palms onto the counter on either side of the orange and white teacup, struggling to recall if it’s his or hers, since they’ve switched places, still recovering from her instant failure. 

“It doesn’t actually want anything,” she says, and swallows, like it’s difficult to say, like she’s telling the truth. “It just created the scenario I was most afraid of.”

He pulls his grey wool scarf off, dropping it on the far side of the counter, and starts undoing the buttons of his long coat, exposing the wrinkled black dress shirt underneath. His silence says more than his words, and Mai feels the sharp edge of panic prodding at her mind, because he doesn’t believe her. He shrugs out of his coat, looking around for a coat rack, and it isn’t until he immediately loses patience and drops it on the tatami on his way to the low table, that fear weakens her knees, making her grip the counter for support.

The spirits previously hovering around the edges of the property dispersed the moment he arrived, his aura driving them away, and Mai can understand why as his tightly controlled energy pulses under his skin, radiating out, raising the hairs on her arms like static, and she has the intrusive desire to hold an EMF detector up to his skin.

“You were tortured,” he says, sitting down by the table, one leg bent on the tatami, his arm resting on the other knee pointing up to the ceiling. Everything about the causal posture screams ‘trap,’ but Mai pretends she doesn’t notice, placing both of their cups and the teapot on the only tea tray she has, covering the water stains on the small bamboo surface. “Why?”

“It only looked that way,” she says, catches the blip in his energy and quickly corrects, “felt that way. To me.”

Her legs wobble—hopefully—imperceptibly as she carries the tray to the table, cups rattling on the bamboo tray as she carefully lowers down to her knees and places it on the tabletop in front of him.

When he doesn’t respond, Mai bites the inside of her lip, because while she was scurrying to clean up her messes, Naru was strategizing, choosing an approach; he would have wasted no time once confirming her safety, has had hours of travel to do nothing but think.

“That must have been hard for you,” he says, and there’s something so wrong about it, it makes her skin crawl. A peak at his face reveals accusing eyes, undisguised suspicion, and Mai’s gaze snaps back down to her hands, curling in the soft material of her skirt. “Anything you want to share, before my turn?”

The tatami itches her shins, but she’s afraid to shift out of her formal pose. “No.”

After a short pause, Naru picks up the blue accented teacup, and drinks. Mai waits out his silence, brain clouded with hypotheticals depending on what he says next, what his next move is, guilt gnawing at her throat as she pretends she didn’t put him through hell, pretends this entire situation isn’t her fault.

“You lied about where you live. You lied about where you work.” Naru traces the thin handle of the cup with his fingers, pinning her down with his stare. “Why not lie about this?”

Mai swallows down her rising panic, gripping her bunched skirt in her fists. She needs to throw him off the trail. Anything, something that could derail him completely, or at least distract him enough to let her weasel out of this line of questioning.

“I’m sorry I lied,” she says, and watches his fingers go still, hovering over the handle. “I should have told you where I lived.”

“Yet you didn’t,” he says, and curls his finger through the ceramic loop, “why?”

Mai stares at his cleanly trimmed nails, the elegant strength in his hand, and steels her resolve. “Embarrassment.”

Instead of lifting the cup, he continues to trace the inside of the handle, and the image is bizarrely sensual, adds pulses of heat to mix with sickening discomfort, drying out her mouth. 

“What did the spirit want you to tell me?”

“It didn’t want anything,” she breathes, entranced by his hand, following the lines of the cup, circling the rim, steam still rising in delicate curls.

“It hurt you. Why?”

“It…” Her thought trails off, watching his thumb gently stroke the side of the cup.

“What did it want?”

Mai tries to clear her head, smoothing her skirt down her thighs, eyes following the cup as he lifts it to his lips, watching her over the rim, and it isn’t until she gets caught in his gaze that she understands she’s been tricked into eye-contact, her scattered thoughts running naked through her mind, without her guard up to keep him from reading her expression, and the words bubble up from her chest without her control, like he’s pulled them out by the roots.

“I’m in love with you.”

She feels the floor drop out from under her, like she just threw herself out of a plane.

She did not just say that.

She did not just say that.

Naru lowers his cup to the tray, staring at her with an inscrutable expression as Mai feels the blood drain from her face, horror still accumulating at what she’s just admitted, and she can tell by the calculating look in his eyes that definitely wasn’t the truth he’d been trying to pull out of her but by some cruel god it’s what came out and she rips her gaze away from his, covering her mouth her hand, feeling suddenly dizzy, black spots swarming the edges of her vision.

The familiar sound of his barely suppressed sigh, his heaviest disappointment, leaves her stomach hollow, a nauseating ache in her gut. She keeps her eyes fixed to the wood grains of the table as he reaches behind him and drags his coat closer, shuffling the fabric around. He places an open notebook on the table next to the tea tray and clicks his black pen into the writing position.

“When did the spirit first make itself known?”

Mai lowers her hand from her mouth, forcing her gaze up off the table. His eyes are softer than expected, and it only makes it worse, her eyes burning from blinking too little. “What?”

He raises a perfect eyebrow, tapping his pen on his notepad. “When did it start?”

“When did…” Mai wets her dehydrated lips, reaching for her cup and drinking the hot liquid down too quickly, a slow burn creeping up from her chest, tongue on fire. When did any of it start? She has no idea what sort of answer to give him, can’t think properly while still weathering the storm of humiliation and rejection whirling around her emotions.

Naru stops tapping his pen. After a few moments of Mai’s heart trying to eject itself from her chest, he lowers his eyelids into a mild glare. “The beginning, Mai.”

Reeling from the anti-response to her confession, Mai puts her cup down with force, jostling the tray, hand unsteady, throat stinging with shame and why is she even surprised he would blow her off like this? Why would he react any other way than as a stupid, narcissistic, obnoxious, self-centered, egotistical, inconsiderate scientist, and fine she’ll play along, she’ll talk, but she’ll share only what she wants, and she’ll start from whenever the hell she feels like. Gathering the remnants of her strength to herself, she folds her fingers on the table in front of her, walls off her emotions completely, and looks up at the opponent in front of her. From the shift in his posture, he felt the change in her aura, and knows exactly what he’s up against.

“It’s all so hard to remember,” she says, and watches his glare crystalize when she smiles without feeling, “but I’ll do my best to answer your questions.”

Chapter Text

Sticking the half-empty beer can in the cup holder of his pink camping chair, Masahiro looks over the plastic blue tarp covering the floor of the storage unit, all of Mai’s bloody artifacts laid out on top of it under fluorescent lights. Her army green jacket, white t-shirt and jean shorts are arranged on the floor as if she were wearing them, lying on her back, blood-encrusted leather gloves included.

Standing up, groaning as his back complains, Masahiro steps carefully over the white and green mop handle, tarp crinkling under his dress shoes as he kneels down, examining the shirt. The clothes offer an interesting conundrum. What interests Masahiro is how the blood appears to have soaked into the fabric while Mai was on her back, like she was lying in a huge puddle. He was expecting more violent blood splatter, but the only indications of action are blood spurting at close range around her right arm, blood transfer and spattering from cleaning up. She definitely laid in blood for a long time. And yet there’s not a scratch on her. Maybe a head wound? Those are easy to hide, and they bleed a lot. A real lot. A fuck ton. It’s possible she fell, hit her head, laid in her own blood for a while and then cleaned up, but that much blood? If she laid there that long, passed out, that means brain damage or worse, death. It’s odd. Could have been an accident. But if that’s the case, why lie? Why clean up instead of call an ambulance? Or the police, if someone else is involved? Again, no one actually said Mai was in danger. The assistant called it ‘life-threatening.’ Could mean someone else was threatened, not Mai. 

Whatever it was, it was enough to get the young researcher on a plane, a guy who stayed away all this time, never visiting, who now shows up less than a full day after Mai made that fuckin’ mess. He got here fast. Too fast. He would have had to start making arrangements while it was still happening, and even then it’s a stretch. It’s possible, but it seems unlikely. Was he already here? Was he at the scene with her? Was he involved? But then why call Yasuhara? There was no evidence of a second person in the shop, not even a hint of a maybe. 

Sighing, Hiro lifts the right sleeve of the jacket with a latex covered hand. Mai isn’t a malicious person, but he’s seen that familiar look in her eyes ever since he’s known her. She’s been suffering a long time, possibly at the hands of whoever’s blood he scraped off the ceiling of the store. Something that night might have just tipped the scale. It’s still a potential murder scene if the blood isn’t hers, albeit a confusing one. But he doesn’t intend to send her blood to the lab, he collected and stored the vials out of pure habit, and the clothes don’t offer enough evidence that she was the aggressor for him to be sure. And there were no drag marks anywhere in the store. Whoever was bleeding walked out of that store on their own, unassisted.

And then there’s the blood stain on her tatami. She was real motivated to rip that sucker out before Davis got there. So she’s hiding it from him, or hiding something, but at the same time he appears to be involved, knew what was happening real-time.

None of this makes sense.

Getting up off his knee, Masahiro stretches out his side, glancing down at the wrinkles in his blue dress shirt.

Well. He has a parent-teacher meeting to get to. He’ll deal with this bullshit later.

 

...

 

Late morning light seeps past the sickly pink bed sheet-turned-curtain blocking her barred window, the pounding of nearby construction echoing off the surrounding buildings, gracing Noll with the mental image of placing his head under a demolition hammer and threatening to turn it on every time she tells a lie. It might prove more effective than the numerous, more nuanced strategies he’s wasted the past several hours on, trying to get her to crack open.

Standing behind the laminated kitchen countertop, Noll’s eyes drift around the sparse apartment, passing over the cheap feldspar dishes soaking in the sink, the stack of unopened mail on the counter and her purse lying on its side near his scarf, until he settles back on Mai where she’s seated on the tatami, wearing the same clothes as yesterday, ignoring his presence by pretending to be focused on folding her white socks down to her ankles.

Her skirt barely covers her knees, the entirety of her pale legs exposed in the soft pink light. The bags under her eyes look semi-permanent, and the ridges in her nails could indicate her diet is lacking in essential nutrients, that she’s malnourished, possibly dehydrated. She’s thin. He can’t be sure unless he can talk her out of that sweater, but he suspects she’s underweight for her age and height. Every time he looks at her he feels hysteria lurking, reminding him he almost lost her, that he could still lose her if he doesn’t take control, if he doesn’t pin her down quickly under a tight net of prevention.

She pushes her hair back over her purple-clad shoulder, and Noll’s hands twitch while he grabs the kettle off the hotplate, avoiding the steam as he flips the metal spout cover open with his thumb.

Her hair is both longer and shorter than he imagined, coming up from the drain, soaked in blood, swirling around in the shallow water. He spent half his morning following the marcation consistent with water damage on the cabinets and walls around the yellow tiles of her bathroom floor, and he’s now positive it’s the same bathroom, the one from his vision. He spent twenty or so minutes afterward attempting to question her about it, which so far has resulted in her throwing a teacup at his head and Noll feeling like he’s going to burst a blood vessel if he can’t get at least one straight answer out of her in the next sixty minutes.

Noll pours the hot water from the kettle over the teabag in the now chipped teacup—a simpler method of preparation he’s been thoroughly reprimanded for by Mai many times—places it back on the hotplate, and holds the cup near his face, letting the steam rise and relax his sinuses. 

Mai takes one look at the socks she just finished rolling down, purses her lips, and starts rolling them back up.

While pretending to sleep, Noll spent the night sifting through the spiraling mess of misinformation she’s been feeding him for an undetermined amount of time, whilst semi-successfully suppressing the sounds of her tortured screams going off in the back of his mind every ten-to-twelve minutes. That, and mulling over the miraculous healing of the injuries he knows he saw, even if she won’t admit it—the fully healed scars in exactly the right places telling a different if equally illogical story.

He lets his eyes linger on her purple and yellow bruised knees, taking a sip of tea while it’s still too hot to drink. It’s not the same. Mai's tea is irreplicable. It’s not even the flavor—Noll isn’t a fan of green tea—but something else, something intangible. 

Stretching her arms over her head, feigning nonchalance, Mai’s eyes peek out from under her bangs, auburn in soft lighting, relaxed and misleading. His next sip of tea is bitter, burning his tongue.

She hasn’t stopped evading since her impromptu ‘declaration,’ and Noll is wearing thin. There’s a reason he never underestimates her animal instincts. Her subconscious mind is a force to be reckoned with; even if she believes the statement to be true, the confession was sprung on him out of reflex, a defense mechanism; a desperate attempt on the part of her subconscious to redirect his attention. If he were a lesser man, if he hadn’t already anticipated this as a tactic she might employ, it might even have worked.

Noll breaks eye-contact, instead focusing on the displeasing arrangement of orange, blue and red speckled laminate over the countertop, not liking the way she’s looking at him, not feeling solid enough to combat whatever she’s cooking up in the silence while playing docile.

Whether she meant it or not, it’s an unwelcome distraction from the matter at hand. He can’t afford to be diverted by her feelings. Not with this much at stake. Not when he can’t tell fact from fiction. Not while Noll has a sore back from lying tense on the tatami all night without a futon, unable to stop thinking he’s arrived at possibly the lowest point of his life to be hearing the words ‘I’m in love with you’ spoken like a trump card within the same forty-eight hour period in which he’d thought he’d lost the one person he might not resent hearing those words from, only to learn she’s alive but lying compulsively, to such an obvious extent that even a concept Noll once thought of as an inevitable extension of their cerebral intimacy now feels like the most dangerous possibility of them all, a hybrid of trauma response and subconscious manipulation, not to be trusted.

The only reason Noll was able to doze off at all was a cocktail of jet lag and coming down from the Xanax he’d had to take on the plane just to keep from mucking up the pilot’s gauges. That, and the relief of seeing her for himself, breathing and physically intact within arm’s reach.

“I don’t want them there,” she says, breaking her petulant silence.

Noll looks down at the yellow-green liquid in his cup, the same white cup with a singular blue stripe he washed from the night before. That was his mistake. He shouldn’t have mentioned his plans to investigate the antique shop, reassembling the old team. She hasn’t been able to focus on anything else since. The stress of the past week is catching up to him.

Eyeing her spotless white tennis shoes on the tile of the entryway, he leans over his tea on the budget countertop. The shoes aren’t new. He examined them thoroughly when she was in the restroom. The inner lining is worn through, the soles darkened from use, and yet there’s hardly a spot on their exterior, no dirt, no scuff marks, no gum residue. If that weren’t telling enough, the laces look like they’re from a different pair of shoes, and they smell faintly of bleach. 

Turning his attention to the pissed-off woman on the floor by the table, Noll braces himself for a fight.

“That’s mainly irrelevant.”

“It’s my workplace,” she says, rolling her eyes and pushing to standing, “my rules.”

“The opposite, actually,” he says, and burns his mouth once again on a long sip, swallowing it down, “Until you start behaving rationally, until you decide to answer my questions,” he adds, and she looks away, resting her hands on her hips, “Your opinion is null and void.”

Tongue in her cheek, she sighs and walks over to join him at the counter, nudging him out of the way with her hip and taking his cup in her hands, which he concedes to her only to prevent spillage.

“Whatever.” She lifts the cup to her lips, drinking from where Noll’s lips had touched the rim, and it shouldn’t be like flint over a fire but it is.

“What are you doing?”

“Drinking,” she says, staring at the sliding closet doors. “What are you doing?”

“That’s not your cup.”

“They’re all my cups,” she snaps, turning her glare on him. The spark in her eyes makes him want to react.

“I don’t have time to entertain a temper tantrum,” he says, leaning back on the counter and rolling up the black sleeves of last night’s shirt, starched cuffs irritating his wrists, watching her fingers turn white clutching the cup, “If there’s something you want to say to me, say it. ”

“I did.” She walks to the sink and dumps out the contents spitefully, tea bag and all, staring fiercely into his eyes as she drops the cup into the sink, ceramic clattering against the other dishes. “You ignored it.”

Crossing his arms, Noll inhales deeply, exhaling slowly. “That’s not a productive conversation.”

“Not productive—” Mai scoffs, turning on the dripping faucet and yanking open her yellowing dishwasher, rolling out the bottom rack. 

She makes him nervous with the way she grabs knives and spoons with faded white plastic handles out of the sink without looking, rinsing them poorly and shoving them into the cutlery basket in groups.

“You know what,” she says, pointing a cluster of knives at him that Noll tries not to take personally, “I didn’t ask you to come. I told you to stay away.”

That, he can’t let slide, her screams too fresh in his mind, too much salt in a still throbbing wound. 

“I’m here because I have to be,” he says, uncrossing his arms and stepping toward her, emotions rising faster than he can clamp them down, “because you clearly lack the basic preservation skills to keep yourself alive.”

“Well I hope it’s worth it to you,” she says, ravaging a sponge against a bouquet of knives, shoulders tense, “because it’s not to me.” 

Hovering in the center of the cramped kitchen, Noll takes a moment to process the outburst, feeling twenty pounds heavier upon comprehension. Her hands stop moving, faucet running at full blast, wasting water as she recalculates, her mental gymnastics almost tangible in the air between them.

“I mean,” she says, putting the sponge down in the water, but nothing follows, just the sound of water hitting dishes in the sink. 

Noll watches her pick at a piece of food stuck to the side of a blade, nails slipping on the flat edge of the knife, her words ringing in his head, louder than the grind and pummel of the workers outside.

His legs move without his consent, and it takes longer than it should to walk to her, to stand with his chest to her back and carefully reach around her, covering her damp fingers with his own to guide them away from the sharp objects. At the lack of resistance, he wraps his other hand around her wrist, the mere suggestion enough to make her drop the knives back into the soapy water they’d been soaking in. Using his hold on her wrist, he turns her to face him as she braces her free hand on the edge of the counter behind her, water dripping down the particle board from her fingers, bright eyes staring up at him.

“I didn’t mean to say that,” she says, brown hair falling soft and unbrushed around her face, tempting his hands, and it might be the first truth she’s said in months. “I didn’t mean it.”

“I know,” he says, but it feels like dredging the words up from the bottom of a lake, like the chains dragging a body back to the surface, displacing mud and rocks along the way.

After a tense moment, her wrist tense in his hand, she rests her forehead on his sternum, hair ticking his neck, lengthening breaths warm through his shirt. Following a few long minutes during which his pulse shows no sign of deceleration, he releases her wrist and backs away, a soapy film clinging to the palm of his hand. 

Leaning back on the sink, plum crewneck sweatshirt wrinkling as she slouches, she avoids his eyes, overgrown bangs hanging in her face as she turns her head away from him toward the dirt-stained, light blue bag on the countertop. Noll ignores the small amount of water dripping from his fingers to the floor, attempting to slow his heart rate and reset his emotions.

He wants to trust her.

But the way she tells it, she first encountered this unknown spirit at the shop less than a week ago, and yet Noll has known she’s been lying about something for at least six months, although he now suspects much, much longer. 

She won’t even describe the spirit that tortured her, won’t fess up to what the spirit wants, what it wants her to tell him. She claims she’s not regularly experiencing psychic phenomena, but she holds too much eye-contact and is inconsistent in her answers; one minute she says she hasn’t astral projected in two months, the next she hasn’t projected in just under a year. She claims not to see spirits often, not to have developed in her abilities, but she seems to have a firm grasp on the arcane, answering his questions with all the correct terminology, undermining her denials through pure precision. That’s the real giveaway. She hasn’t needed to ask one question, not one clarification as to what he’s referring to or the mechanics of the concept.

And he can’t get her closet doors open. She must have blocked them from the inside, which she would only do if there were something worth hiding.

Still diverting her eyes from him, she once again faces the sink, itching the back of her standing leg with her socked toes, sticking her hands back under the squealing faucet, stray droplets darkening her sleeves.

“I can’t bring a bunch of paranormal investigators to work,” she says calmly, slipping right back into the previous discussion, leaving Noll’s chest hollow in the wake of her outburst. “They’ll think I’m crazy.”

“You don’t need to be there,” he says, and gives up on appearances, letting himself sit down on the kitchen tile with his back to the cabinetry, leaning his head back on particle board. He hates this apartment. He has to get her out of here.

The sounds of dishes being cleaned eases some of the tension from his shoulders, and he cracks an eye open to see her back to him, purple sleeves pushed up to her elbows, working harder than she needs to scrubbing a bowl with a sponge.

“We’ll have to do it next weekend, while it’s closed, without my boss knowing. And we can’t stay long,” she says, voice raised over the running water, “and if I tell them not to touch something, they have to listen.”

Noll presses his knuckles to his lips, briefly forgetting about the dish soap, then quickly wipes his mouth with his forearm. It’s Sunday. The shop is closed today, but it’s short notice. Lin will be arriving with the equipment late tonight, at the earliest. If he does this her way, by then the shop will have been open all week, the scene contaminated by patrons and employees. He has a feeling that’s what she’s banking on.

“I have the owner’s permission to do a preliminary walk through this afternoon,” he says, and watches her spine go rigid.

“When did you do that?” Her voice is too flat, too controlled. She’s panicking. 

“I emailed her during my flight.”

She doesn’t respond straight away, lowers the plain white bowl into the dishwasher with steady hands, still avoiding his eyes. “Will it just be the two of us?”

Noll rests his forearms on his knees, tile uncomfortable beneath his sit bones, but still better than standing. Monk and Matsuzaki definitely, Hara is considering. He should refrain from mentioning Yasuhara, given the way he described his last interaction with her. “No.”

Shutting off the faucet and wiping her hands on the old dish towel hanging from the sink, she keeps her back to him, and Noll fixates on the way the ends of her hair curl at mid-back.

“And if I want to have an ‘unproductive conversation’ before we go?”

Noll flexes his fingers, then wipes them off on his bunched shirt sleeves, weighing his options in the poignant silence. He needs to get her to talk to him, or he’s getting nowhere. He needs her to trust him again. The fact he can’t pinpoint the exact moment she stopped makes the backs of his eyes hurt more than the fleshy hue of the light illuminating the room.

“Get your shoes,” he says, and climbs his way back up the cabinets to standing, muscles still sore from the flight and lackluster accommodations, made all the worse by the knowledge he has a five star hotel room waiting for him.

She looks at him from the corner of her eye, bloody amber, and he holds a mental flame to his frayed nerves, visualizing them melting into a seal. 

“We’re taking a walk.”

 

...

 

Mai is remembering why she doesn’t spend much time walking around Taitō. Yellow lines inlaid in concrete sidewalks, towering concrete buildings cramped together, red, yellow and blue advertisements hanging above doorways and lining the skyline, the need to dodge stray cyclists every other minute. Traffic was congested across all five lanes when they were following the main street earlier. 

Naru dragged her into the Ameyoko district on a weekend, energetic shoppers everywhere, constant shouts and chatter, lights and signs arching over their heads, caging them in between kiosks and stores. 

They’re sitting at a square wooden table inside a cramped restaurant with bamboo shades hanging in the doorways, a large red paper lantern throwing warm light on the back of Naru’s head, black hair reflecting rings of red where the light bounces off him. It’s quieter in here than outside, but not by much. An untouched bowl of miso soup with a side of rice sits in front of her, which Naru ordered for her when she tried to tell him she wasn’t hungry, while he only had tea, himself. Hypocrite. He has both elbows on the table, his fingers interlaced in front of his mouth, staring her down.

“Eat.”

She runs a finger down the length of her unused chopsticks, following the grain, but the noises around them are only amplified by the noises in her head, the constant whirring of emotions and thoughts rising and falling like waves crashing against the shoreline, a permanent dull ache. The sigils she traced onto her body are holding, somewhat, but she’s going to be in a world of hurt if she doesn’t shower them off and redraw them before tonight. The side-effects can be extreme, are the main reason she doesn’t do this often. And it doesn't help that she had to fake sleep all night to avoid further questions, with the help of Kazane’s pills and the ‘pinch yourself every two minutes’ technique. Her left upper arm has a small bruise from her efforts.

“I can’t.” 

The knots in her hair pull at her scalp when she turns her head. Naru tried to convince her to wear warmer clothes than usual, but they compromised on merely switching her thin sweater for his coat. He didn’t, however, remind her to brush her hair before they left—which is only mildly irritating, with how some of the other diners watch her from the corners of their eyes. Naru’s long coat is heavy around her shoulders, but the lining is silk against her skin, and it smells like him, his natural musk mixed with hints of cardamom and bergamot, even lavender if she inhales deep enough. She doesn’t bother to hide the way she periodically turns her nose into the collar and breathes him in. He doesn’t seem to mind. Or care. Why would he? It’s ‘unproductive.’

“Why?”

She sighs, rubbing his sleeve against her eyebrows. “Naru.” She doesn’t mean to sound so pathetic. There’re too many people here.

He brushes his thumb against his bottom lip in thought, and Mai tracks the movement with her eyes. “Describe it to me,” he says.

The smell of food is making her feel nauseous. She might actually need to be sick, if this keeps up. “It hurts.”

“What hurts?”

People. She shuts her eyes, centers herself with a breath. She has to give him something, or this is never going to end. 

“I get migraines,” she says, and tries not to get frustrated, rubbing her eyelids until the fabric chafes. It didn’t used to be like this. Everything is so much worse since waking up with her hair congealed to the hardwood floor. She’s craving those leaves Kazane gave her, but she couldn’t evade Naru’s gaze long enough this morning to eat some. “It makes it hard to eat.”

He reads her eyes, prying, and Mai tries not to grimace. “How often?” 

She fiddles with the black cuff of the sleeve, avoiding his gaze. “I don’t know.”

“What triggers them?”

Mai looks up at him, confusion pulling her brows in. “What?”

“Sound? Light sensitivity? Inflammation?”

She sighs, rubbing her eyes. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know.” There’s a note of disbelief that makes Mai cringe inward.

She looks away, and he looks down at her bowl with that glazed look that says he’s not really looking at all. Delicate shadows from the lanterns highlight his form, his shoulders, his slight Adam's apple, the dip of his collarbones where his shirt puckers when he leans forward, and Mai presses her tongue to her cheek, reigning in her emotions. 

“Are we going to talk about this or not,” she says, watching a couple in their thirties bicker playfully over a piece of meat, their grey blazers hanging off the backs of their chairs.

Naru stares blankly from under his bangs, and Mai rolls her eyes, first leaning back in the wooden chair, then sliding her hands forward on the table as she hovers over her bowl, dried bonito flakes and tofu bobbing in the fragrant broth. The steam feels nice, at least. 

The intangible cord between them twitches to life, wanting to be pulled taut, but she ignores it, until she sees Naru extend his hand across the table toward hers, feels him curling his fingers under her wrist. Disbelief holds her tongue as he turns her palm up and draws lines on the sensitive inner skin of her lower arm with his thumb. Pulse in her throat, Mai stares at his deft fingers around her wrist, mouth suddenly dry.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Thinking,” he says, from behind his knuckles, “You may be unfamiliar with the practice.”

Too distracted by the pressure around her wrist to feel properly insulted, Mai crosses her ankles under her chair, gripping the edge of the table with her other hand, red and yellow lights reflecting off the polished grooves of the table. Naru’s mouth is obscured by his other hand and his eyes are distant, deep in thought, but the energy between them hums at a steady decibel. She thinks back to how he touched the scars on her arm last night, how all he did was run his hands through her hair looking for a wound, but it felt like the most intimate act in the world.

“It’s not just dreams anymore, is it?” he says, finally looking up at her, dark indigo making her thighs twitch. “It’s all the time. You’re experiencing something on a continuous basis.” She gapes, eyeing the cut of his jaw in low light. His thumb digs into her wrist, and she shivers under her skin. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Shaking her head, she tries not to flounder because he doesn’t get to do that. He doesn’t get to just guess and get it right, after all her work. She doesn’t let him in, doesn’t let him see how warm she is under his gaze. 

“It’s not all the time. It’s just occasional astral projection and the migraines.”

His expression gives nothing away, but the energy leaking from his hand is like hot oil, coating her in a protective layer, soaking into her, quieting the droning sounds around her and making her feel like she’s covered in brand new skin, never been touched. The longer he sits in thought, the more intoxicated she feels. The river of power under his skin calls out to her blood, luring her in, pulling her muscles tighter and tighter until something dark clicks into place, her primal mind driving her forward. Take it. He wants you to have it. You need it more.

“Yasuhara claims you shocked him with an electric current.”

Naru’s voice overrides the one in her head, snapping her out of the haze. She purses her lips. Yasuhara. Right. She knows they’ve recently been in communication, Yasu obviously giving Naru her address and telling him the basics of her situation, but what else has he told him? She isn’t too worried; she has a feeling they’re not playing nice.

“Last I checked, static electricity isn’t paranormal.”

“It isn’t,” he says, and it occurs to her that Naru is still drawing circles on her arm with his thumb, whether he realizes it or not. 

Touching her. Continuously. 

Is he manipulating her? Would he use her feelings like that? She feels lightheaded at the implication.

“Naru.” She waits as he lifts his mind from wherever he submerged it and meets her eyes expectantly. Laughter rises at the table beside them, but she talks over it. “I won’t accept an implicit rejection.” If he doesn’t want her, he’s going to have to say it.

There’s a delay as she watches his focus shift, mulling her over, the red lights blinking over his head.

“Noted,” he says, and continues tracing invisible shapes on her skin.

Canon fire goes off in her brain, confusion battling with indignation because what the hell does that mean? She’s ramping up to speak her mind when she’s cut off by an unfamiliar ringtone, a default collection of bell tones. Naru keeps his eyes on hers, seemingly unaffected by her building ire, and picks his phone up off the table with his free hand. Answering it without looking away, he holds it to his ear.

“Yeah.” 

In the resulting silence, Mai pulls her arm back, his fingers dragging across her palm but not stopping her, his gaze fixed to hers, making her blood rush with more than anger.

“I’ll text them the address.” Mai’s stomach sinks as he hangs up. “They’re ready,” he says, and sits up straight in his chair, doing up the top two buttons of his shirt.

Watching his fingers work, she swallows and nods. As she prepares to scoot out her chair, he nods toward her food, smoothing out his collar.

“Eat,” he says, all business, and Mai’s eyebrow twitches.

As green onions float to the surface of her soup, mocking her, Mai sighs out her irritation and picks up her fused chopsticks.

Itadakimasu,” she mumbles, and breaks them apart apart in her hands.

 

 

As soon as Mai can see the dead grass lining the path leading away from the street, up to the wooden face of the shop, she takes her cotton gloves out of her purse and pulls them on, fingers sliding into place. Overcast sunlight bounces off the aluminum awning and hurts her eyes as she squints to see the details of the small crowd in front of the store, slowing her walk.

Yasu, Monk and Ayako are already out front, the light sounds of chatter traveling across the street. Yasuhara is unbuttoning his blue dress shirt, revealing a white t-shirt underneath. His glasses reflect the greyscale light, hiding his eyes as he observes the other two. Ayako has her arms crossed in front of her sea-foam green turtleneck, bickering with Monk, who’s dressed casually in jeans and a grey jacket with an orange shirt, blonde hair pulled back in a loose pony. Mai smiles with as little tension as she can, just in case Naru is watching her face as he walks silently beside her. The closer they get, the more unsettling Monk’s energy is, like needles under her skin, but it’s not as bad as when her wards aren’t up; it makes it worth the discomfort of having to work a bit harder to sense who’s around her, like wearing thick glasses she doesn’t need.

Listening to his clothes shifting as he walks, Mai is struck by how much more comfortable she is with his extended silences than before he left Japan. Having only his phone presence for so long must have attuned her to the ‘sound’ of him thinking.

“Where’s Lin?” Mai asks, breaking the extended quiet they fell into while on the transit, and unconsciously hugs his coat closed around her despite the mild weather.

Naru walks closer to her than she remembers, arm occasionally brushing her sleeve, like he’s afraid to let her out of reach. She feels slightly insulted at the implication she’s going to make a run for it. 

“I left on short notice.” He doesn’t look at her, but the accusation is there. “Lin is taking care of the details.”

She nods, watching the cracks in the sidewalk pass under her. Vague and unhelpful, as per usual.

“Mai.”

“Hm?” She looks over at him, and he’s watching her with a peculiar expression, hair ruffled out of place from running his hands through it agitatedly during the last phone call he stepped away for.

“You don’t need to be here for this. Wait outside with Matsuzaki.”

She can’t interpret his blank eyes, confusion leaking into her tone. “Why would I—”

“Jou-chan!”

Mai winces at the volume, turning to look as Monk shouts and waves, and the others turn her way at the exclamation, Yasuhara’s smile dimming. At least Ayako’s eyes light up as she takes her in, her hair falling over her shoulder like a thick red wave, and Mai knows from experience that it’s soft to the touch, from back when she didn’t wear gloves. When things were easier.

“Where do you get off, screening my calls like that? Brat.” Monk trots up to meet them, grinning infectiously, visibly wanting to hug her but hesitating, then looking to Naru. “Hey boss. Long time no see.”

Naru gives him a flat look but doesn’t comment, then walks right past him. Mai smiles awkwardly. 

“Sorry,” she says, on both of their behalf.

“No problem. Good to see you,” he says, and falls into pace with her as they approach the group.

The first thing that catches her attention is that the mood is brighter than she’d anticipated, smiles all around, except for Yasu’s hard-to-read expression as they walk up the path toward where the others are gathered on the yellow grass. 

“Hey, everyone,” Mai says, hoping her grin doesn’t look as uncomfortable on her face as it feels. Naru’s stare is cold on her cheek as he no doubt observes the moment Ayako moves to hug her, then remembers how Mai flinched away when she tried last time, and drops her arms somewhat awkwardly.

“How are you feeling?” Ayako asks, and Mai opens her mouth, taking a second too long to answer.

It’s never been her favorite question. She’s not sure how optimistic she can realistically get away with sounding, given the circumstances. Before she realizes she’s doing it, she’s glancing at Naru out of the corner of her eyes, trying to assess how much he’s told them as he exchanges a few quiet words with Yasuhara while obviously eavesdropping on Mai. The blank glare he sends her way gives her nothing to work with except for the fact he knows exactly what she’s trying to do and isn’t impressed by it.

“Good,” she says.

“Really?” Yasuhara cuts in, and, looking at his easygoing smile, she realizes she’d been worried about the wrong enemy. Friend. Whatever. “That’s surprising. You looked pretty rough when I saw you last.” 

She gives him her most cheery ‘If you say another word I’ll never speak to you again’ grin as Naru steps near him, Yasu’s smile straining at whatever Naru says too low for her to hear, and Mai has to wonder at how Yasu can be so tall and yet seem so much shorter when Naru is standing next to him.

Pulling her eyes back where they belong, Mai smiles at Ayako as she puts her hand to her own cheek, red lips curling into a coy smile. She’s so much softer than she used to be. Monk, as well. Being in love must do that to you, Mai thinks. Er. Reciprocated love, she guesses.

“Heard you were out late the other night,” Ayako says, but there’s a lightness to her voice that confuses Mai.

Mai looks back at Naru, who subtly turns his head. They don’t know. He didn’t tell them. The wave of relief releases the muscles in her shoulders, filling her lungs with air. She almost laughs. 

“I guess I worried everyone.”

“Party girl,” Ayako jokes, winking. “Just like Mom.” 

Mai laughs, blocking out Yasuhara’s scandalized stare. She’d forgotten, for a moment there, about the familial roles she assigned. It’s been a while since she’s thought of them as a family. A pang of sadness reverberates in her chest, but she pushes it down. She doesn’t get to see Ayako often. She’s going to cherish it.

“I used to give my parents grey hairs on a weekly basis,” Ayako says, smirking down at her grey trousers, picking off a piece of lint off with her manicured nails.

“What was all of that, then?” Yasuhara asks, not even faking a smile, turning to Naru. “Why did you—”

“I’m glad you all could make it on short notice,” Naru says, without feeling, and Yasu shuts his mouth, glasses reflecting light as he tilts his head.

Mai smells cherry blossoms, and her spine goes rigid.

“Hello, everyone.” 

Mai stiffly turns to see Masako Hara coming up the path behind them, and Mai’s ribcage feels too tight around her organs and this is why she hates wearing seals.

Masako and her get along much better nowadays than they did during their SPR days, when they happen to cross paths, but the problem is they cross paths too often. Masako has run into Mai multiple times while Mai was neck deep in esoteric activities, including helping ‘clients’ pro bono. 

She could out Mai to the group for taking on cases without anyone knowing. 

Even worse, while Masako doesn’t know the full extent of Mai’s abilities, she knows Mai has developed as a medium due to having worked together—somewhat reluctantly—on a few select cases, after a regrettable circumstance wherein Mai was caught red-handed warning spirits to clear out of a traditional Japanese home Masako was planning to visit on TV later that week, before the owners brought in the exorcists.

“Hello, Mai,” says Masako, and Mai’s smile really must look like a wince at this point, as she turns and gives Masako a brief wave. 

“You look great,” she says, and hopes she takes it for the olive branch it is—don’t rat me out don’t rat me out don’t rat me out—as she pivots up the walkway to the front entrance of the store, Naru’s hand flinching toward her at the sudden turn and oh my god he really thinks I’m going to run.

Approaching the door, her nerves return full force as she remembers why they’re all here, remembers how strongly it smelt of cleaning chemicals when she left, how tired she was, how much she might have missed due to the sheer amount of blood, the blood was everywhere, it got on everything, even some of the items for sale and what if Mai didn’t get it all? There’s no way she got it all in that state.

“You know what,” she says, turning around and putting her hands up, “I think I forgot my key. We should probably reschedule.”

“Give me your bag,” Naru says, holding out his hand, and Mai clutches her bag tighter to her chest, turning back to the door, heart pounding, thinking of the pills, the cigarettes, the leaves—he absolutely cannot go through her purse.

Pretending to rifle around in her purse, Mai fakes a small gasp, and pulls out the small silver key to the store.

“Got it,” she says, and steps up to the wooden door, the store dark through the rectangle of frosted glass.

Mai’s hands are unsteady when she inserts the key in the lock and turns. She wishes she could have avoided this altogether, but the only way Naru is going back to England is if he thinks he’s solved her problem. Taking one last deep breath, she turns the handle and swings the door in.

The second she lays eyes on the cherry-brown hardwood floor, she slows down, her heart sputtering, palms sweating. By the time she takes the first step over the threshold, her breaths are coming faster at the sensation of falling, of the crack of her skull against the hardwood, of the hot sulphur in her face, tar sliding down her throat—

She gags, hands shaking badly as cold fingers lock around her wrist, her whole body flinching and she drops the keys and her throat closes around the increasing pace of her breaths, oxygen not getting through, not able to expand her lungs as they fill with acid. The shadows are closing in, darkening the edges of her vision as charred flesh covers her mouth, sour against her lips, mixing with the salt of her tears spilling over, and she can’t think past the sharp pain in her lungs every time she inhales, please, please, please

“Mai.”

Air fills her lungs. The hand around her wrist is warm, solid, connected to Naru. She yanks her wrist out of his hold, swallowing a sob, blinking her eyes clear. She’s fine. Nothing is happening. She’s fine.

“I’m fine,” she says, voice raw, and walks further in. 

It’s been aired out. The whole floor is spotless, not just the spot she recalls cleaning. It’s Sunday. No one should have been in since Mai left Friday night. Something feels off. Something’s not right. Nothing is right.

Masako steps up next to Mai, black hair twisted up in an elegant bun pinned in place with a detailed set of hair sticks that match her silk, pink and navy blue floral patterned komon. Her grey eyes are politely detached; a shining example of demure femininity that makes Mai want to scream. 

She lifts her long sleeve to her mouth and sighs delicately. “There is so much suffering in this building.”

Mai tries not to react, busies herself with scanning the floorboards for any remnants of blood. She thought she did a less polished job than this, she doesn’t remember cleaning such a wide area, the entire floor, thick viscous between her fingers every time she scrubs… 

She hangs her head, struggling to slow her breathing. Aware of how she’s trembling, she bites her lip until it hurts, trying to stay in her body. Her hair is wet, she can feel the drying blood pasting her hair to the floor as she sits up, she can feel the red pool congealing under her fingernails as she scrubs, can taste bile on the back of her tongue and she can’t stop shaking, she can’t stop shaking and she has to stop right now or she’s never going to get this mess clean, it’s never going to get clean

A loud clatter clears her vision, and she turns to find Yasuhara standing by an overturned basket of wooden doll parts, a guilty look on his face as arms and heads roll around his feet.

“I’ll clean it up,” he says, and Mai swallows something thick and sour.

Wincing dramatically as she goes, Masako paces by the spirit of a Japanese samurai lingering by the sword case, who watches her with extreme confusion.

“These energies are very dark,” she says, and the samurai looks supremely offended and Mai can’t stay calm, can’t think, can’t stop tasting sulphur and she can’t keep her mouth shut. 

“It’s just the upstairs,” she says, adjusting her purse strap on her shoulder to feel less constricting. Realizing everyone’s eyes are now on her, she clears her throat. “There’s a room of haunted and cursed objects upstairs. That’s probably what you’re picking up on. I don’t know.”

Masako raises a perfect brow, and Mai sees her piece together lightning quick that they don’t know? and Mai does her best to look humble even though none of these spirits are even that active during the day, meaning they aren’t even projecting their full power and Masako is wilting around acting like they’re ringing a thousand bells in her head and it’s just a lot

“Why would anyone collect cursed objects,” Monk says, weaving between consignment furniture, stopping to examine a lampshade with traditional Japanese artwork hand-painted on, and Mai takes shallow breaths. Keep it together. “Want us to exorcise this place?”

A chill crawls up her spine, making her gag into her hand, freezing air cutting through Naru’s coat.

“Jou-chan?”

“Matsuzaki, Hara and Yasuhara, you check out the upstairs. Takigawa, Mai, you’re with me downstairs. Lin won’t be arriving in Japan with the equipment until tonight, so we’ll have to make do with a cold reading for now.”

Mai scoffs, somewhat manic, wiping her mouth and walking behind the counter, dropping her purse on the stool with a fabric-muffled clatter. “No.”

Stunned silence forces her to look up from her blood-stained shoes to find Ayako wrapping a feather boa around Yasuhara, who still hasn’t cleaned up the doll parts, and Monk standing a few feet to their right, trying on a replica samurai helmet while Masako examines the shelf of intricate and colorful fans further down the cluttered aisle. Naru is standing closest to Mai in the middle of the room, looking at her like she just tracked mud into his bed.

“Excuse me?”

“You’re not sending Masako up there with only Ayako and Yasuhara for protection. No offense,” she adds, with an apologetic glance at Ayako, whose red lips are pursed with mild displeasure. “No one is going up there without me.” 

She turns back to Naru, holding his eyes in a silent challenge. Masako may have a flair for the dramatic, but she is highly sensitive, and the spirits upstairs will have a field day with her swooning disposition. She doesn’t like the way he’s looking at her, like his mind is turning that statement over too quickly, and it’s making Mai think she messed up and said something she shouldn’t have.

“Denied,” he says, but there’s a question behind his eyes she can’t quite reach. 

“I have the key,” she says, and his eyes narrow further. “And I have to make sure no one touches the merchandise.”

“Aw, she’s worried about the merchandise,” Yasu says, trying to put a bolo tie around Ayako’s neck and being batted away, and Mai smiles at him so hard it hurts. I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you and they’ll never find the body.

“I’ll go upstairs, check it out, and come right back.”

“We can’t let Mai go alone,” Monk says, examining a wooden pepper grinder, and Mai presses her tongue into her cheek.

“Why not? I go up there all the time.”

“Doesn’t make it smart,” Yasuhara says, Ayako cringing at the ornate clasp of the tie now around her neck as Yasu gets feathers in his mouth and sputters them out, pulling the boa off his shoulders like it’s diseased, and Mai really can’t grin any harder at him without cracking a tooth. She’s going to break his glasses when no one is looking.

“Monk’s right, obviously,” Naru says, walking over to Monk and taking the helmet off his head, tucking it under his arm, “Matsuzaki, take Mai and wait outside.”

Mai looks up at the wooden rafters, colored lamps cluttering the ceiling. Why the hell does he want to get rid of her so bad? He tried several times to drop her off before coming here. 

“Fine, I’ll take Yasu,” she says, and watches Yasu’s spine snap straight. 

That, for some reason, seems to annoy Naru more than how she publicly disregarded his leadership. “No, you won’t,” he says, placing the helmet back on its stand on the counter.

“You’re being stubborn,” she says, squatting down behind the counter and grabbing the key from the magnetic holder, almost bumping her head on her way up but catching it at the last second. 

Yasuhara is the perfect candidate because he’s so average; they’ll barely even notice he’s there. And Mai is warded-up, so they’ll likely be bored with her, too. 

“Okay, Masako, go with Monk to the rare items section,” where no spirits hang out, Mai doesn’t say, “Ayako and Naru can check out the main floor.”

The former team exchanges uneasy looks with each other, confused about who is in charge here, and Mai uses that confusion to try and make her way to the stairs. 

Naru grabs her by the back of his coat, snatching the key from her hand and walking her backwards toward the group. “Stop acting like imbeciles and get to work.” 

His cool tone gets them moving, putting the items they’d been playing with down in the wrong places, irking Mai further. Masako gives Mai a meaningful look as she passes her on her way to the stairs, fabric flourishing as she goes, Ayako not far behind. 

Yasuhara stops in front of them, a few stray feathers still caught in his hair. He glances at Naru as he hands him the key to the upstairs, but ultimately settles his grey eyes on Mai.

“What exactly happened here?” he asks, putting the key in his khaki pants pockets. “Is this where you were the other night?”

Naru’s hand is still holding fast to the back of her coat collar, and Mai feels like a cat being held by the scruff. “I fell,” she says, lips tight.

“What?” Yasuhara looks confused, but Mai is soon being tugged away from him, walking sideways off balance as she tries to dislodge Naru’s grip.

“Stop that,” she hisses, and he releases her into the middle of the room, Mai stumbling from the momentum. “I was talking.”

“You were wasting time.”

“Wasting—I was wasting my time. You’re the one yanking me around.”

“So we agree.”

Mai scoffs, “God you’re an asshole.” He’s so much easier to talk to on the phone, where she can’t see his insufferable face.

“Takigawa.” Naru picks a feather up off the wood, turning it over in his hands. “Take Mai. Keep her close,” he says, walking away toward the back of the shop, and Mai panics.

“Where are you going?”

Stopping and facing her, Naru considers her calmly. “The restroom.”

He already went at the restaurant. He’s snooping. “No,” she says, and it comes out panicky, she can tell because of Monk’s raised brows, “I mean, let me make sure it’s unlocked.” 

Without waiting for a reply, she sets a brisk pace through the crowded rows of armoires and elaborately painted japanned furniture, taking extra care when passing by their Meiji era Tansu cabinet, weaving unnecessarily on her way to the restroom to temporarily lose Naru trailing behind her. 

Arriving at the bathroom, she pushes the door open, flicking on the fluorescent light, illuminating the spotless room. The tiles shine more than they have since she was hired, the sink whiter than she remembers, the mirror streak-free. An outer-body feeling numbing her face, she rushes over to the grey storage cabinet and tugs it open. Everything is organized, neater than it’s been in weeks, soaps and sprays and toilet paper all in rows, her heart beating faster as she rifles through it all, opens the first aid kit and sees the new, unopened bottle of hydrogen peroxide. The room is tilting, her gut rolling and she thinks she’s going to be sick, close to hyperventilating because how is this possible? This isn’t… This doesn’t make any sense… Every time she blinks there’re bloody streaks on the inside of the cabinet, blood pooling around her white tennis shoes the longer she crouches.

“Mai.” She turns to look with wide eyes, Naru leaning on the doorframe with crossed arms. “What are you doing?”

“Checking for extra toilet paper.” She stands too fast, feeling unstable. “It’s all yours,” she says, shoving the kit back in the cabinet, shutting it and brushing past him, escaping into the main room. 

She can feel his eyes on the back of her head as she rounds the corner.

“Jou-chan, where’d you go?”

“I’m right here,” she says, ducking around a coat rack with varying furs hanging off it. One more place to check. Just one more. “I’m just doing some inventory.”

“Now?” 

“It’ll only take a minute!” She moves quickly through the store, practically running through the rare items section, nearly knocking over a post-mortem bust.

“But Davis said to—”

“One minute,” she shouts, with barely suppressed desperation, and finally makes it to the back door, bolting outside.

The sun hides behind the clouds as she tears a path through the network of alleys, construction droning in the background as she slides around a corner, almost losing her footing on a cluster of pebbles before sprinting down the most familiar alley and jogging to a stop by the green dumpster from that night. She looks around for the crate she used to stand on, but there’s nothing there. Mentally cursing fate, she pushes the black plastic lid up with some effort, rising onto the tips of her toes to see inside, laying eyes on the metal bottom.

Empty. Completely empty. 

She drops the lid and stumbles backward, legs unsteady because that doesn’t make any sense, the city doesn’t pick up trash on weekends and, and that just—maybe she has the wrong dumpster, maybe there’s another—She spins around, suddenly disoriented, all the walls around her looking the same.

Did she imagine it? Did she make the whole thing up? She digs her nails into her arms, hugging herself tightly, trying to keep it together despite the sound of blood sloshing in a bucket, heavier than she’d ever imagined in her hands, feeling the thin metal handle digging into her slick palms.

Suddenly aware of something moist in her gloves, she looks at her hands, cotton soaked red, and she pulls them off hastily, blood pouring out, covering her hands, a sob climbing up her throat.

She hears shoes on gravel, Naru jogging into the alley, slowing to a walk when he sees her, and her thoughts make a hard pivot at the irritated look on his face as it occurs to her it could be him, he could have come to the shop before her apartment last night. It was him, he found all the evidence, and now he’s just letting her dig herself a deeper hole, letting her humiliate herself. Making her think she’s crazy.

“What did you do with it?” she asks, cheeks wet with something warm, something warm like the blood that won’t stop seeping into everything, getting onto everything she touches, turning her world vermillion as she walks toward him, tripping over small rocks, vision tunneling. “Where did you put it?”

“What are you talking about?”

Her head is throbbing and the grey walls are swimming, and she can’t breathe past the thick tar bubbling up her throat, can’t hear anything past her own gurgling rasps and then she’s being turned on her side as the boot rams into her stomach, and she wheezes in agony and then she’s hacking it all up, sour viscous coming up in globs, vision blurred, tears or blood running off her chin as she throws up, convulses in her own black vomit that reeks of the deepest part of the mountain as she sobs and wishes for it all to just end.

Naru curses under his breath, quickening his approach, ignoring her questions, always ignoring her and Mai feels the air condensing, her chest being filled with hot coals, wind whipping around her, lifting her hair as energy rises steadily from the earth below their feet.

“Where is it?” she yells, hands pulsing with static, panic rising as he runs toward her with wide eyes, gravel bouncing and lifting from the concrete all around her, trembling in the air, bouncing off his shins as he moves through them.

“That’s enough,” he says, and Mai shakes her head, eyes burning in her skull because it’s not, it’s not enough. “You’ll wear yourself out.”

A choked laugh breaks free from her chest, as she holds her hand out to him, shadows stretching out beneath her, a quarter of her invisible wards evaporating off her skin, releasing her aura, choking on the blood filling her lungs as Naru stops in his tracks, staring at her with an unrecognizable chimera of emotions.

“Mai, you need to calm down. You’re going to hurt yourself.”

“Tell me where you hid it,” she says, gritting her teeth as she flattens her palm toward him, mind whiting out as the wind forms a spherical barrier around her, lashing out, blowing Naru’s hair and clothes, blowing trash and pebbles down the alley.

Naru narrows his eyes, raising his hands slowly, taking one step toward her, then another. “I didn’t hide anything. Put your hand down.”

“Liar,” she sobs, moisture gathering in her eyes. 

Naru steps closer again, and Mai feels herself wanting to let go of the charge, to lower her arm, his dark aura leaking through their connection, saturating her, smoothing her rough edges, until there’s a shout of her name reverberating off the surrounding buildings, a familiar spike of adrenaline shooting through her as her primal brain flares up at the white-hot light coming closer every minute, and the energy in the air surges to her defense, burning her eyes, blinding her, burning her skin.

“Mai, no!”

Naru’s shout is drowned out as the threat closes in, less than a hundred feet from turning into the mouth of the alley. Mai adjusts her aim in the same instant she takes a shoulder to the gut, an arm wrapping around her and tackling her to the ground as she wheezes, a hand preventing her head from hitting cement as the body on top of hers pins her wrist to the ground and latches onto the burst of power, forcibly ripping it out of her as she screams and writhes on the concrete, kicking at loose aggregate, scraping her legs beside the deafening screech of bending metal. 

Hot plastic fumes sting her nose, waves of heat lapping at her left side until the noise finally subsides, leaving her panting, Naru’s long coat protecting her from hot concrete at her back.

“...Mai, Mai—look at me. Mai.” 

“I want to die,” she gasps, coughing up the remnants of bile.

“No, you don’t. Look at me.”

“You have to hang up,” she sobs, and she feels gravity shifting, no no not again, not again

“I’m not on the phone, I’m right here. Breathe.”

“Breathe?” She manages between gasps, and feels a hand on her cheek, no peeling flesh, no claws, just skin.

“That’s right, breathe. Look at me, Mai.”

Her eyes roll, and she blinks, choking on the blood filling her lungs before she finds indigo and latches on. She’s being pinned by something warm and firm, and she tries and fails to clear her vision.

“Good. Inhale.” The surface under her hand expands. Her hand is being held to a surface. “Exhale.” The surface contracts. It repeats, and somewhere along the line Mai finds herself in sync with the movements, air beginning to flow into her lungs. 

“Keep breathing.” Mai nods, and the hand on her face pushes more of her hair out of her eyes, brushes liquid away until she starts to see shapes again. And indigo. Always indigo. “Look at me.”

She’s not on her side. She’s on her back. It hurts.

“Mai, look at me.”

She remembers to breathe. It doesn’t hurt, her lungs expand fully, and it doesn’t hurt.

“I’m right here. I’m right in front of you. Try.”

He wants her to try. She focuses on the surface above her until it becomes a chest, until it becomes a heartbeat, his own hand on top of hers, holding it in place. Her awareness starts at his hand and grows, filling in the vague outline, until he’s kneeling over her, watching her face as she takes deep breaths and meets his eyes, and he looks as nauseous as she feels.

“Naru.” It comes out weak.

“Good,” he says, voice calm, in control. “Keep breathing.”

The tears are still falling, she notices, albeit silently; she has to blink them away every few seconds, and they make her ears itch. Looking up into Naru’s eyes, she watches light bend inside his irises. True indigo is a rare eye color, she thinks. She’d never met a person with indigo eyes before Naru. Had she? A vague memory knocks about her thoughts, but she’s unable to grab hold of it.

The acute smell of hot metal and plastic turns her head to the left, and she goes still as her eyes land on the source. The dumpster is unrecognizable, the black cover melted into the crumpled mess of forest green steel, still glowing orange at the edges, sour heat radiating out from the object.

“Mai?! What the—Is she okay?” Monk’s urgent voice bounces off the walls from the entrance of the alleyway, shoes slapping against cement as he runs toward them.

“What… how did…?” She inhales fumes, and Naru turns her face back to him, eyes reflecting ultraviolet, searching her face, his palm hot on her cheek.

“I redirected it,” he says, soft enough that it doesn’t hurt, releasing her wrist, holding his finger in front of her. “Follow my finger.” Mai can barely follow his words, let alone the blur of his hand.

“You...I don’t...” she says, and Naru seems to hear her silent ‘understand.’

“Stop thinking,” he says, and tilts her chin up toward the light, examining her eyes. “Both pupils are reactive,” he says, more to himself than to Monk, who skids to a stop beside them, eyeing the melted dumpster warily.

“What the hell is that? What happened?”

Seemingly satisfied with her dilation, Naru gently lifts her head with both hands, feeling around her skull. 

“Tell me if it hurts,” he says, and Mai’s eyelids flutter, thoughts afloat, information pushing past her dismal barriers: Naru’s suppressed fear; Monk’s confusion, having only arrived for the aftermath; the alarmed pedestrians on the main street who heard the loud metal groans.

“Hello?” Monk waves a hand in front of Naru, who ignores it completely. “I said what the hell is that?!” 

“Naru,” she says, breathing faster, fear clouding her mind, and Naru seems to get the point.

“Relax,” he says, laying her head back on the ground and feeling around her neck, working his hands down her clavicle, prodding the length of her sternum and then pushing up under her small breasts through her shirt, applying slight pressure to the ribcage and working his way down and around to her spine between her shirt and his coat, causing her to arch her back.

“Tell the others the sound they heard was construction,” Naru says, and Mai tries to smile reassuringly at Monk’s concerned expression.

“You want—you want me to tell them that,” he says, pointing at the crushed metal and off gassing plastic, “was construction?”

“Go. Now.”

“Are you kidding me?”

Now.

Frowning, Monk looks back down at Mai, wearing his worry in his eyes. “You good for a few minutes?”

“I’m good,” she says, voice wavering, and ignores the way his face keeps going in and out of focus.

After some hesitation, he jogs out of the alleyway, and Naru carefully folds Mai’s shirt up, medical terminology leaking out of his head, distress rioting against his forced calm as he presses his palms to the skin over her adrenal glands, eyes unfocused, and it isn’t until then that it occurs to Mai what he’s doing, what he’s able to do. 

“You’re like a—a medical intuitive or something?” she asks, anxiety coloring her tone, and Naru sighs out through his nose, sliding both hands back up her ribs, this time directly on skin, still dangerously close to her breasts, and Mai would be panicking if she couldn’t feel Naru’s focus elsewhere, monitoring the blood pumping through her heart, following it through her veins, searching for hemorrhaging.

“Does anyone know you can do that?” she asks, sky spinning above her in a whirl of light and dark grey, and Naru’s focus wavers, irritation slipping past his weakened psychic walls.

“No,” he says, and resumes his work.

“Is it like contact mind reading but the body? How detailed can you get?”

“Mai,” he says, turning her name into a reprimand, and she bites her lip as she feels his awareness spreading through her anatomy, the most intimate non-touch she’s ever experienced.

Exhaling with relief, Naru smooths her shirt back down, wrapping his arm under her back and sitting her up, her head spinning. He pulls her up by the underarms until she gets her feet under her, giving him most of her weight as he hooks her arm over his shoulder and silently helps her toddle away from the heap of metal, back toward the shop.

“I’m not… I might pass out soon,” she says, almost rolling her ankle on a pebble, Naru lifting her slightly with the arm around her waist every time her footing sucks.

“I know.”

“Naru, was I—What happened?”

“Don’t think about it.”

Stomach turning, Mai grips the back of his shirt, hiding her panicked eyes behind her bangs as the ground twirls under their feet, and focuses on the rhythm of their steps.

 

...

 

It’s been well over an hour since they started, and, looking at the short statement on his lined notepad, Yasuhara still isn’t entirely sure why they’re here.

“That’s all?” he says, and Masako tilts her chin up, attempting to look down her nose at him despite their laughable height difference.

“Unless you think you can do better,” she says, folding her hands in her sleeves, and Yasu scratches his hair with his pen.

“No that’s,” he sighs, straightening his glasses with the back of his hand, “this is fine.”

It’s not fine. 

All she has to say is that the items upstairs have negative energies surrounding them, but that they seem dormant. “Distant,” was the word she used. She said the shop itself seems to have absorbed some negative energy as well, possibly from a traumatic event, but she couldn’t say of what nature.

It’s not nearly enough, and Davis wants Yasuhara’s preliminary report by Tuesday, including a full catalogue of allegedly ‘cursed or haunted’ items in stock, Masako’s evaluation of the store as well as any potential spirit attachments, plus the social and topographical history of the store and the land it’s built on. He hopes whatever they’re looking for is in here. It doesn’t help that Davis is keeping them in the dark about this, especially as it relates to Mai. Yasuhara doesn’t believe for a second that Davis showed up on a whim. Lin said it was urgent. Lin said it was life-threatening. They were in crisis mode, and Yasuhara is going to find out why.

‘Tuesday is a little soon for all that,’ Yasuhara had said, when Davis gave the order, and faced the most disenchanted expression of his life.

‘And here I thought I’d given you an extra day.’

The interaction had chafed, to put it lightly.

Yasu has been trying not to take it personally, how Mai seems to have welcomed Davis back into her life with barely any resistance, after shunning the rest of them without explanation. Even today, Davis walked a limping Mai through the store with a tense expression, the latter obviously feeling ill, and Mai practically hissed at them when they tried to take over and help her sit. In the end, she allowed Ayako to accompany her outside to wait for Davis to finish up, but Yasu hasn't seen Mai react to the prodigy-slash-professor like that even once. Not only did the infuriating man just have to cram what should have been a six year endeavor into less than three, he also walked right onto the tenure track after receiving his doctorate from literal Cambridge. That’s not human. He’s like an academic psychopath. And yet he’s the one Mai lets get close to her, after everything, tossing Yasuhara aside like years of real, in-person friendship were just… filler.

It’s frustrating.

He doesn’t even know where Davis went just now, and he took Monk with him, the two of them talking quietly in the corner until eventually just walking out the back door, like a tiny cabal.

“Is Mai still outside?” Masako asks, and Yasu nods, catching pink and black in the corner of his eye as she walks past him toward the door.

“You heading out?”

“Not yet,” she says, bells ringing over the door as she opens it, “I’ll be back shortly.”

At the sound of the door rattling shut behind her, Yasu lowers his notepad to his side, looking around the now empty shop.

“Monk? You in here?”

Yasuhara shudders in the silence, still shaking off the creepy vibes of the upstairs room. He wishes John were here. John would never abandon him. It was too last minute for him to make it today, but he should be rolling into town sometime this week.

About to go looking for Monk and Davis, something hard rolls on the hardwood, stopping against his shoe. Looking down, he sees a blank wooden doll head staring up at him, and exhales forcefully out his nose.

“Great.”

 

...

 

Sitting on the curb, waiting for the taxi Naru called, Mai startles as a cyclist pedals by her on the street, giving her a dirty look for having her legs hanging off the curb. Mai sticks her tongue out at his back, then adjusts the angle of the cold can of iced mocha Monk gave her earlier to hold against the back of her neck, “For the woozies,” as he put it.

“Okay,” says Ayako, returning from her trip next door with two steaming paper cups, settling down on the curb beside her. Light, fruity perfume drifts Mai’s way as Ayako flips her hair over her shoulder and holds a cup out to Mai. “Thanks for waiting.”

“You didn’t have to get me one,” she says, and sets it down on the sidewalk by her hips with no intention of drinking it, making sure to nod appreciatively.

Seeing Ayako watching her expression, Mai musters a tired attempt at a smile, and the older of them raises her eyebrows, blowing over her tea, cooling it down before taking a small test sip. 

“Mm. It’s good. Try it,” she says, nodding to Mai’s already abandoned cup, “it’s hot so be careful.”

At the sight of the paper cup on the concrete, light orange liquid giving off gratuitous steam, Mai feels like she’s going to vomit. “I don’t want it,” she says, and tries to sound apologetic.

“That’s fine,” says Ayako, exuding warmth and calm, and Mai almost lets herself relax, almost changes her mind and gives the tea a try, but again, the second she considers drinking it, her throat closes up, her palms sweating. 

Don’t. It’s not safe

She swallows, lowering the gradually warming can from her neck, fingers numb around aluminum.

“So,” Mai recovers, injecting false enthusiasm, “how’s the new hospital?”

“Ugh,” Ayako rocks back on the sidewalk, tea sloshing close to the edge of the cup, making Mai nervous, “the on-call rooms are horrible. Completely spartan. Worse than the last one. I feel like I’m in the military.”

Even with the headache paired with the high-pitched surrounding energies competing for her attention, her wards weakened after—whatever it was, Naru told her not to think about it—Mai starts to feel warm on the inside, fuzzy. She loves Ayako’s complaints; they never fail to take her mind off things. She’s really missed her.

“Do they have bunk beds?” Mai asks, propping her chin with her fist, setting the can on the sidewalk between them, so she won’t knock over her tea.

Ayako dives into her answer and, listening to Ayako’s voice, Mai’s hollow chest feels as though it’s being filled with freshly fluffed down feathers. She’s almost ready to melt into the ground when the door to the shop jingles open a ways behind them, the sounds of geta against cement giving away the identity of the new arrival more than the feel of her cherry blossom aura sweeping past them. If Masako only knew there were flower spirits following her around half the time, scattering petals around her feet, there would be no living with her.

“May I speak with Mai alone, for a minute?”

Ayako looks between them with wide eyes, almost spilling her tea as she stands up, steady in her tan heels in a way Mai only wishes she could be. 

“Is that alright with you?” Ayako asks, and Mai nods, stretching her sore legs out in front of her, examining the small scrapes on the sides of her shins.

She listens to Ayako’s heels on the walkway as she departs, followed by the clatter of the wooden door to the shop. Once she’s gone, Masako steps into her line of sight and stands beside her, grey sunlight caressing the pink silk flowers on her navy blue yukata as she folds her hands in her sleeves, looking out at the minimal traffic on the narrow road.

“Of the two of us, you aren’t usually the one sitting outside feeling dizzy,” she observes, and Mai purses her lips, holding back a smirk. At least she’s self-aware. “You haven’t told them?”

Mai bends her knees closer to her chest, tennis shoes dragging on the asphalt, half aware of not accidentally flashing the street. Most of the buildings across from them appear vacant, windows dark, only the remnants of signage above their doorways.

“No,” she says. 

Sensing Masako’s mixed disapproval and curiosity, Mai can’t help but wonder how the medium would react if she knew the full truth of the matter, instead of just the easy parts.

“You know he’s going to restart SPR, right?”

Mai sighs heavily, gravel digging into her hands as she leans back. “I’d hoped not.”

Humming skeptically, Masako finally looks down at Mai, thin lips pulled into a small smile, grey eyes reflecting the sky’s light. “If he knew he had a ‘perfect medium’ right under his nose, he wouldn’t even want me here.”

Mai snorts, pulling her legs back further for another cyclist, this one wearing all yellow spandex. “I want you here,” she says, shooting her a sly glance from under her bangs, “to distract the others with your feinting, while I do the real work.”

Masako’s laugh is gorgeous, light and musical, the sort of ethereal laugh Mai expected Kazane to have. She wonders what the yokai is up to, wonders why she approached her in the first place. By now, she must have gone back to whatever mountain she came from.

“Did you end up helping that woman? Kobayashi-san, was it?”

Mai nods, absently picking up the hot paper cup beside her, warming her hands with it. “It was sad,” she says, rubbing her thumb along the paper seam. “Children.”

Mai didn’t know an inhale could sound empathetic, but Masako manages it, untucking her hands from her sleeves and crouching down in her yukata, black bangs framing her small face. 

“You do better with those, than I do,” she says, and Mai smiles down at her cup, small disks of sunlight reflecting off the surface of the tea. 

Masako has matured so much, Mai thinks, since their petty fighting days. At least when they’re alone. Maybe she’s been selling her short by not confiding in her. Masako is good with secrets, after all.

“You do better with not walking into walls,” Mai says, enjoying the amusement dancing in Masako’s eyes, and lifts the cup to her lips.

The liquid passes over the middle of her tongue, and a jolt of adrenaline shoots up her spine, images washing over her: stepping out into the street, checking her diamond-studded watch before the impact knocks her off her feet, asphalt scraping her face like a cold flame, leg caught in the chain, twisting—

Mai spits the tea out over the sidewalk as the cup slips out of her hands, hot liquid spilling over her skirt, burning her thighs as she struggles to her feet, paper cup bouncing and rolling on the pavement. 

Masako calls her name, panicked, hands extended toward her as Mai bends and coughs, expelling vapor out of her lungs, covering her mouth with her wet hand, accidentally kicking the can of coffee off the curb.

“Does it hurt? Don’t answer that, that's a stupid question, don't move, stay there, I’ll get help,” she says, sandals clicking back up the walkway as she runs to the shop, but Mai doesn’t stay there, sets aside the stinging of her skin and takes a few uncertain steps to the right, toward the shop where Ayako got the tea.

“Who made,” she says, vaguely aware she’s speaking, “who made the tea?” 

She quickens her pace down the cracked sidewalk, scanning the colorful storefronts, strangers going in and out of doors, until her eyes land on a diamond-studded watch glittering in the sun, a blonde woman several yards away with a black apron thrown over her other arm, stepping out into the street, and Mai springs into a sprint, projecting her voice.

“On your left!”

The woman looks up sharply from her watch, jumping back from the street as a pair of cyclists zoom past in a blur and Mai slows to a stop, relief knocking her knees and sending her stumbling to the side to lean on a neon green bike rack, muscles complaining bitterly at the sudden movement.

Looking around, the woman doesn’t spot her, but the gratitude is clear on her face, and Mai shuts her eyes and sighs because finally, finally, something went right. 

Taking deep breaths of clean air, she sends a moment of thanks out into the universe.

“Mai?”

Wincing at Ayako calling her name, the moment of peace fleeting at best, Mai opens her eyes and pushes off the bike rack, only scratching her legs on a few of the bike chains in the process, and starts back toward the store, skirt sticking to her legs and burning her skin.

 

...

 

If there’s anything Noll missed more about Japan than Mai, it’s the customer service. The hotel clerk downstairs has good instincts, took one look at his face at check-in last night before he headed to Mai’s hovel and upgraded his Carlton Suite to a Club Suite with a city view. It may have been out of fear more than courtesy, but that’s a minute distinction anyway and he appreciated the gesture. Not that he’s lifted the wide automated shades once since arriving.

The room is more spacious than most. The living area alone has a couch, loveseat and chair arranged around a sizable coffee table, along with a workstation and desk. Large windows form the perimeter, shining light on the warm grey carpet that flows into the reasonably impressive bedroom when the shades are up. 

Noll sits in one of two cushioned chairs by a circular side table with a vase of hydrangeas on it, watching Mai sleep on top of the white covers. She looks ridiculously small, curled up on the King bed, swimming in one of Naru’s shirts and a pair of his black sweatpants with the drawstrings pulled comically tight. Her tea-soiled clothes hang off one of the showers in the gratuitous duet bathroom, featuring two sinks, two showers, a large bathtub, and a line of black accent tile on the floor emphasizing the octagonal shape of the room. Even in her depleted state, she had energy to rage against the injustice of excess. Noll finally got her to shut up and sleep with an impromptu, soft-spoken lecture on neural pathways delivered almost exclusively with discipline jargon. She made it just over ten minutes before dozing off.

The glass vase of flowers next to him floats up in his peripherals, and he puts his hand around its neck to push it back down onto the table.

He’s never been so disgusted with himself in his life.

They have a link. They share an energetic pathway and he didn’t even notice it until the restaurant, bright and glaringly obvious between them if he’d only cared to look for it. He has no idea when or how they formed one, no idea how it’s even possible considering he’s only ever shared a similar connection with Gene, which he’d previously attributed to their being twins, a hypothesis that no longer has legs.

The smell of melting metal and plastic lingers on the back of his tongue, deep in his nasal cavity, drawing up images of the compacted dumpster, Mai’s fiery brown eyes reflecting fractals of red.

Steel melts at 1370 degrees celsius. She crumpled it like a piece of paper.

If he’d found their link any later, even by a few hours, Monk wouldn’t just be dead. He’d be vaporized.

This is beyond anything he’d imagined. Not in any of his scenarios was this a possibility. He had been so focused on her previous aptitude for retrocognition and astral projecting he’d hardly even considered this level of psychokinetic phenomena. He failed her, again, and the three of them nearly suffered the consequences. His energetic channels are still throbbing painfully from wrestling the power away from her and redirecting it away from where Monk would soon be appearing and toward the nearest object.

And she had been aiming for Monk. He’s sure of it. When it was just Noll, she’d been calming down. She was responding positively to him through the link until Monk called for her. It’s likely he simply startled her. She was in an altered state of consciousness; it’s possible she mistook Monk for someone else, perhaps the spirit that attacked her, since she seemed to be experiencing a traumatic flashback, but he can’t be sure without asking her. She doesn’t seem to remember the event, he’d have to put her under hypnosis to learn what she’d been thinking at the time, if she’d been thinking at all; if she was capable of thought, with energy ripping through her at that frequency.

He knows one thing, at least: that wasn’t ki, wasn’t refined human energy. It was raw and unfamiliar. Noll could barely contain it enough to forcibly redirect it. So how was she, with less experience, less control, able to harness it? She built it up in mere seconds. And the fact she’s shown no signs of overwhelming levels of ki—which, to produce destruction like that, would be highly noticeable—suggests the energy didn’t actually come from her, but from somewhere else. He can’t suss out the mechanics without setting up a safe environment he can monitor; if he can get her to agree to it. He needs Lin to get here with the equipment, quickly.

Watching her sleeping face under the soft lighting of the lamps resting on the cherry wood side tables framing the bed, projecting triangles of light up onto the brass geometric panels adorning the wall behind the headboard, it’s hard to visualize the way her hair raised with static, shadows expanding around her feet despite the light crackling in her palms, rage whipping against him like blades of wind, demanding to know where he “hid it.”

He can’t question her about it, yet. If he’s learned anything today, it’s that the store has to be handled without her involvement. No reminders of the trauma until she’s ready to confront it. It’s going to be difficult to resolve this without being able to interview the only witness, especially going off of faulty information, but it’s off the table for now. She’s too volatile to agitate, she’s proven that.

The vase rises into the air again, and Noll attempts to wrestle his ki back into submission, his energy pathways botched. It doesn’t work, his carefully constructed channels leaking, blown out from saving Monk’s life and Mai’s internal organs, forcing him to manually grab the vase again and set it back down.

Hypnosis might not be a bad idea. Without her cooperation, there are simply too many avenues of thought to pursue, a numbers game where he loses every time. Between hypnosis and their shared pathway, he might be able to make up for lost ground.

If he can get a strong enough grip on the link, that is. He’s been exploring it while she sleeps; it’s vast, different from the one he shared with Gene, more expansive, more difficult to navigate as a result, but eerily similar. He can’t get a comprehensive read on her, something is partially blocking him from pushing past the link itself to penetrate inside her.

She makes a soft noise of complaint, turning her face into the comforter, her small hand curling by her face, woven into her splayed hair. The vase floats up again, this time the blue hydrangeas lifting out of the vase itself, water spiraling up around the stems, and Noll lets it go.

This isn’t productive.

Standing up from the chair and walking toward the tall sliding doors of the closet, ignoring the telling ‘tink’ of rounded glass hitting the ceiling behind him, he rolls the door open and drags out his black suitcase over the carpet, lifting it and gently placing it on the edge of the bed before zipping it open, rings of light reflecting off the water overhead and onto his precisely rolled clothing, arranged by color and texture in a greyscale, lightest grey on the left to darkest black on the right.

The lamps flicker with his irritation, and it only makes him more nauseous, unable to employ even the basic principles of qigong. It’s his fault. This entire situation.

He should have been more forceful in keeping her away from the trigger location to begin with. He could have prevented it. He could have prevented all of it, if he’d gotten on a plane sooner. If he’d come back after two months instead of continuing his education in England. If he’d taken his gut more seriously six months ago when he started sensing something was off. If he had the foresight to regularly call the others and gather information about her changing behaviors. Why the fuck didn’t anyone call him? Yasuhara has known for months she wasn’t stable, all he had to do is look at her to know she’s not stable and yet he did nothing, and even now he’s not sharing all he knows. Noll can tell.

As Noll removes a black, athletic turtleneck from the suitcase, zipper catching on the mesh pocket on the side, two pairs of black socks fall slowly up, knocking against each other on their way toward the water hovering threateningly over his head.

He’s going to need to return to her place and pack some of her things. Get her out of that apartment. Figure out what she's hiding in the closet. Was anyone even checking on her? He thought Monk was keeping an eye on her, he was always so protective when they were a part of SPR. They all were. Or so he’d thought. He misplaced his trust in them. If he wants something done correctly, he does it himself. He never should have left her in someone else’s hands.

Noll takes a deep breath, trying to smooth out the ki cycling through his limbs. It doesn’t work.

He knew better than to leave her. He knows her better than this.

It doesn’t even surprise him that much, Mai living in a self-constructed skyscraper of misdirection. The apartment, the attack, the spike in psychic ability. The horde of information she’s still holding back from him.

He’s known this about her from the beginning. She plays dumb when it suits her, acts brave when she’s frightened, strong when she’s weak, acts like she doesn’t care about studying when in reality she’s highly inquisitive, just easily bored and lacking the patience for slow-paced learning. The list goes on. The fact she’d hide herself away when wounded, like an ill house cat running away from home to die—that doesn’t shock him, either.

Because while she claims to despise Noll’s lying attitude, she's just as bad as he is. Worse, even, since she fronts as candid. It’s why she wasn’t fooled the day they met, when he charmed her vapid classmates into sharing ghost stories. They saw only what he showed them. All she did was look at him and she knew not to trust his face. Takes one to know one, as the cliché goes. That’s not to say she isn’t genuine; she is. But she’s also a master of half-truths, it’s taken him years to realize.

It reminds him of a conversation he had weeks ago, after cancelling on lunch with Madoka and his parents. She thought it amusing to lecture him on the ‘foundation of trust that makes a solid relationship,’ as recompense. As if he can’t grasp basic developmental and interpersonal psychology, although he prefers biopsychology and cognitive psychology to whatever half-baked dissertation on suckling earned her a degree from Cambridge—not to mention her grievous misconception that Noll choosing her alma mater for his own doctoral research has anything to do with his personal opinion of her, head of SPR fieldwork or no.

Noll walks to the closet robotically, pulling the zipper up the neck of the shirt, around the hanger.

‘Foundation of trust.’ He couldn’t disagree more vehemently with the concept. 

The human psyche is complex. Trust is generally positive, but it’s also one-dimensional. In a qualitative assessment of a 3D success matrix layering dimensions of compatibility, crisis response and intimacy, his relationship to Mai is still by far the strongest of his interpersonal connections, his most valuable personal relationship; and yet he frequently can’t trust her words or actions, which tells him trust isn’t, at least in the traditional sense, the focal point of their connection. They bonded to each other because they’re the same flavor of despicable. Because neither of them naturally trust others, it takes work, and their personal preferences often leave them unworthy of trust, themselves. It’s how they lead each other around, dangling secrets, a classic ‘carrot and stick’ approach. Pushing each other away, feeding slices of themselves to one another when they’re alone, keeping the other on a short leash—both requiring at least one person who knows who they are underneath all their behaviors, he supposes. Someone to hunt them down and call their bluff. 

It’s distastefully human, and Noll is well aware of it. And he didn’t need to write two-hundred pages on the developmental benefits of breastfeeding to figure it out.

A pair of socks hits the back of his head, and Noll inhales through his nose.

This isn’t productive, either. He’s going to wake her up at this rate.

Walking back to his suitcase, seeing his black and white running shoes floating toward Mai’s sleeping form, he hastens to grab them before they’re out of reach. Looking down at the shoes in his hands, Noll starts to feel more in control. 

A run would clear his head, work off some of the stress, tighten up his control. 

A glance up at Mai shows her still huddled on the blankets, out cold, for now. He doesn’t feel comfortable leaving her, not after everything he’s witnessed today, but he needs to work his channels back into line before she wakes in case it happens again. She’ll probably sleep for a few hours, given how exhausted she is, if he doesn’t disturb her with floating debris. 

He stares hard at the cinched waist of his sweatpants over her hips, the white drawstrings tied in a bow. He needs to be able to think, to get his ki back under his thumb, and right now he’s worthless to her. Deciding on just a short run, forty minutes tops, he pulls his dress shirt over his head, too impatient to unbutton it, and changes into a black t-shirt and athletic pants from his suitcase, avoiding looking at Mai’s hair as he pulls the pants up over his hips. 

After a few vexing minutes wasted corralling the serpentine water back into the vase, Noll grabs his wireless earbuds from their black plastic holder, checking over her once more, and leaves the room.

 

...

 

Slamming his glass back onto the table, Ayako cheering beside him, Yasuhara wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, sweating in the warm atmosphere of the crowded restaurant, shouts and laughter rising from patrons sitting on cushions at the many low tables around the room.

“Is it his brain? Is she into brains?” he asks, pouring himself another glass of shochu from the bottle.

“Nah,” Ayako says, blushing attractively, slurping her whiskey highball through a straw, “she’s a hand girl.”

“A what?” Monk asks, lowering his draft beer from his lips, also flushed but definitely less attractive than Ayako in her yellow camisole, having discarded her turtleneck as soon as they sat down, his orange t-shirt slightly damp under the armpits.

“You know,” she says, and wiggles her hands in front of him, “hands.”

“No, no I have hands,” Yasu says, unable to tell if he’s swaying or they are, “I have hands, and you know what else?” He raises his glass, pushing his glasses back up his nose, even if the fogged lenses are more or less just in the way. “I was valedictorian. I graduated from the Unini—the University of Tokyo. I won awards. Just because I did it, what, at a normal age, that doesn’t,” he swallows a burp, “that doesn’t count? Are you kidding me?”

“No one cares about your valectictorianism,” Ayako says, and clinks her glass to his, both of them drinking before Yasu jumps back into his outrage.

“She should care! I’m her best friend, I’m the one who,” he hiccups, “You know we take hikes together, we’ve been to like three mountains,” he says, attempting to demonstrate the shape of a mountain with his hands without spilling his drink. “Mountains.”

“So what,” Ayako slurs, “I take her to shrines, real shrines. I’m like her fairy godmother but well-dressed, You’re like,” she points a red nail in his face, and Yasu has to pull off his glasses and wipe the lenses on his shirt so he can glare at her, “you’re like her older brother with a sis-con.”

Seemingly catching back up with the conversation, Monk leans forward skeptically, confusion plain in his glazed eyes. “What… what?”

Ayako swings her finger over to Monk, poking him in the chest. “You’re her daddy.”

“Okay, no,” Monk swats her hand off his chest, Ayako snorting with laughter, “no. No I don’t—we should be,” he suppresses a burp by hitting his chest with his fist, “we should be talking about the case.”

“What case,” Yasu drolls, sliding his glasses back onto his nose, unbuttoning the top three buttons of his shirt, “the one we know fuck-all about? Because Professor,” he blanks, trying to think of a word that goes there, “Ass-machine doesn’t, doesn’t tell us anything? You know he’s making me do his work for him?”

“Ass-machine?!” Monk exclaims with joy, chugging down half of his beer.

Yasu plants his face on the smooth wood table. It’s more comfortable than his futon, he thinks. “I don’t know.”

“Ass-wizard?” Ayako questions, laughing, and Yasu moans in agony.

“Don’t,” he begs, holding a hand up without raising his head, “don’t make it worse.”

“Why now?” Monk asks, popping a piece of meat into his mouth, and Yasu is so insanely jealous he can still handle chopsticks right now. Ayako has been feeding him because the coordination of his hands is completely gone. “What made him come back?”

Who made him come,” Ayako corrects, smug over the rim of her glass, toying with the straw between her fingers. “Who will make him come.”

“Oh my god stop,” Yasu gasps, gripping his hair, “don’t say that. Oh my god.”

“Wait,” Monk drops the piece of meat on its way to his mouth, gaping at Ayako, “are they, are those two...?” And Yasu groans because the last thing he needed was to have to explain this to a drunk, scandalized ex-monk.

“I don’t know,” Yasu says, depressed, wiping drool from the table, “I don’t know but they talk constantly, all the time, so annoying.”

Ayako gives him a napkin, swallowing another sip and exhaling happily. “Really?”

The restaurant lights are too bright, and Yasu rubs his eyes with his knuckles, displacing his glasses. “I fucking talk, I can talk to her face. I talk right at her face.”

“Wait wait wait wait just because they talk doesn’t mean that. It doesn’t mean that.”

“That?” Ayako spit-laughs, laying forward on the table, Monk rescuing his abandoned piece of meat just in time. “What are you, twelve? Am I going to jail?”

Monk flicks her arm, and she yelps, chortling and pushing his shoulder, a small meat stain on her yellow top.

“I can’t compete with this guy,” Yasu says, and downs the rest of his glass, the alcohol floating a terrifying idea into his head, and he looks up in horror. “Oh god, I have to kill him.”

Ayako guffaws, wheezing over her drink. “You’re so fucked.”

“Ayako,” Yasu draws out the vowels, pleading at her, and she leans her face into her hand, elbow on the table cluttered with bottles and glasses, grinning cheekily.

“Okay, okay,” Monk says, clearing his throat and snapping his fingers over the center of the table, “here’s the plan. We just have to make Mai appreciate us more. And then she’ll,” he hiccups, “appreciate us.”

A group of businesswomen at another table erupts into laughter, and Yasu groans, putting his face back on the table where it belongs, sweaty bangs sticking to his forehead. Maybe he should give up on his career goals and become a table licker. He could just lick up tables for the rest of his life, like a slug.

“No, come on, we’ve gotta, we’ve gotta do something because she won’t even let us hug her,” Monk says.

“What, you’re hugging high schoolers now? You want me to dress up?”

Monk spits his beer back into his glass in horror, and it makes Yasu feel marginally better. “What is wrong with you?”

Yasu jolts up, brain catching up to what Ayako actually said. “Okay, yes. We’ll hug her.”

“Wait, no that’s not what—”

“Operation Hug Mai!” Ayako high-fives Yasu, and Monk sighs dejectedly, leaning back on his hands.

“Oh now you agree—”

“We’re gonna hug her so fucking much,” Yasu says, only choking on his spit a little bit.

Rocking forward, Monk hides his face in his hands, and they’re actually really nice hands, very strong looking, maybe Mai is onto something with the hand thing. “I want the check.”

“You gotta hug me for it,” Yasu sings, pulling it out from where he hid it under his third shot glass when the server brought it by, waving it around, wiggling his eyebrows.

Monk’s eyebrows look alarmed, like startled caterpillars. “Are you hitting on me? Is this a nightmare?”

“Yasu deserves hugs!” Ayako crawls abruptly over the table, dishes clattering, drinks spilling, and jumps onto Yasu, knocking him back with an ‘oof’ and sending them both rolling over, wacking his glasses off his face with her elbow, the two of them whooping in victory despite the various liquids currently spilling onto them off the edge of the table.

Monk watches in exasperation, locking eyes with their apron-clad server across the room who gives him a pitying stare, clearly misunderstanding.

“I’m not a cuckold!” Monk yells, and the man looks away conspicuously, quickly walking in the other direction.

 

...

 

Her fingers slip off the handle as she flushes the toilet, falling back against the wood cabinets, drawer handles digging into her back. Arms weak by her sides, she thanks any deity who will listen for the miracle that is Naru being out of the room for this. Sweating profusely, hair sticking to her skin, she swallows down the acidic taste in her mouth from heaving without anything substantial in her stomach to expel. It’s like she can feel every molecule in her body vibrating, can feel her cells growing and dying, can barely open her eyes because they’re so sensitive to light, as if she’s been living in a cave all her life. She's dizzy and the earth is ringing from a distance, like she’s high up. Everything she touches feels like pins and needles.

This is why she doesn’t put seals directly on her skin.

She’s burning up, can’t get cool, pulls Naru’s black t-shirt over her head, panting from even that small exertion. Naru’s sweats chafe against her legs, and she strains to untie the drawstring and peel them off her sweat-soaked skin. The tile feels blessedly cold on her skin, and she lays down on her stomach, cheek to the floor, trying not to forget to breathe. The relief doesn’t last long, the tile not cool enough. Hissing, she drags herself toward one of the showers, tile bruising her knees as she stretches up to yank on the handle, swinging the door open, and tips herself up over the edge, crawling the rest of the way in. Once she’s able to yank the shower faucet on, she points the arrow all the way toward the thickest line of blue, as cold as she can get it.

The shower sputters to life, blasting her with icy water as she lays back on the frosted wall, panting, facing the spray, soaking her within seconds. Getting water in her mouth and turning to the side to spit it out, she rests her cheek on the cool glass, legs bent in front of her, her mismatched bra and underwear itching, clinging to her over sensitized skin. Under the frigid torrent, she finally relaxes, the pain overridden by the freezing temperature, turning her fingers numb, turning everything numb. She’ll just lay here for a moment, she tells herself. Just a few more minutes.

And a few more after that.

 

...

 

As soon as he hears the shower running, tossing his earbuds on the desk by the window, briefly appreciating the cherry wood stain, Noll curses under his breath. Still breathing a little hard from the run, sweat dripping from his bangs, stinging his eyes, he runs his hands through his hair, getting it off his face. His run went a little longer than he’d planned, partially due to getting lost halfway through, not paying attention to his surroundings, but it felt necessary. Walking through the suite, wishing he’d gotten a room with a kitchenette so he could chug a glass of water, he wonders if Mai is one of those people who can sense when someone else wants to take a shower and quickly gets in before them. Gene was one of those, growing up. At least she’s feeling well enough to want a shower. He wasn’t sure what shape she’d be in when she woke up.

Entering the bedroom, he hits the switch on the wall that raises the shades, light quickly washing over the room as he pulls his shirt over his head, reeking of sweat and moisture-activated deodorant. Tossing the shirt onto the bed, he blinks sweat out of his eyes. Movement in his peripheral vision catches his attention, and he takes a few steps back into the wide doorway, looking over at the thin, dark gap under the bathroom door. The light isn’t on in the bathroom. It takes him a moment to process why that’s alarming, but his exercise-numb brain speeds up rapidly when he sees what appear to be dark tendrils licking up the edge of the door from the crevice.

“Mai?” He walks to the door and tries the handle. Locked.

No response, just the sounds of water spraying the shower walls, and his stomach hits his heels. 

He uses PK to turn the lock and pushes the door open, sunlight from the bedroom pouring into the luxury bathroom, illuminating his clothes on the tile floor, then Mai, unconscious and nearly naked in the shower with the door open, water barraging her limp body, her hair clinging to her pale skin, a bluish tint to her lips and Noll freezes in place, hairs on the back of his neck raised, his amygdala throwing every alarm it knows how to, neuroplasticity dropping to record lows as he attempts to process what he’s seeing. 

The shadows are all over her, roaming her body, twisting around her legs and waist and worming up around her neck onto her cheek, spreading out from beneath her, pulsating all over the room. In the seconds it takes his brain to kick itself back into functioning, the shadows shrink from the sunlight, and Noll flicks on the light switch, tendrils dissipating into the air as he closes the distance between himself and the shower. 

His sweat-pant clad knees skid on the tile as he takes her head in his hands, immediately hit with the spray, fingers pressed to her freezing damp skin as he waits with bated breath for a pulse, give him a fucking pulse and there it is, beating strong, and Noll exhales forcefully, water hitting his shoulders and face as he lowers his head to her sternum, resting his forehead on her chest, gritting his teeth, trying to take reasonable breaths instead of whatever these wheezing imposters are. 

He needs to get her out of the shower. He needs to get the water off her. 

Despite the urge to never move his limbs again, he lifts his head and reaches for the faucet, shutting the water off, listens to the pipes groan, the straggling drops of water on tile, as he carefully slides his hands under her, fingers getting tangled in wet hair while supporting her head, his other hand hooking around her lower waist to pull her up into a faux seated position with her front flush to his, soaking his chest and the front of his pants as he takes her weight, arms tightening around her slick skin as he adjusts his hold to bend his other arm under her knees and hike her up onto his shoulder in a modified fireman’s carry, allowing him to get his feet under him and center her dead weight so he can safely carry her out of the bathroom and lay her out on the bed.

Water droplets chill his skin in the air-conditioned room as he climbs over her on the mattress, hands and knees sinking into the blankets as he lowers his ear to her lips, listening to her breaths. She’s breathing normally, not struggling around any liquid. She’s just cold, wet and shivering, but alive. Unharmed. The relief hits his arms first, giving out under his weight, forearms braced on either side of her head as he swallows saliva and buries his face in the plush comforter, her hair prickling his ear as he takes quick, utilitarian breaths. When she stirs beneath him, he doesn’t pull away like he should, he should be putting distance between them, but instead he turns his cheek and breathes against her neck, the space between their chests growing warm.

 

...

 

Before her eyes are open, she recognizes his body caging hers.

His hair is damp against her cheek, and he smells like sweat and exertion. She can feel his heart beating fast inside her chest, feel the tremor in his muscles as he hovers over her. Mai’s hands are at her sides, moisture clouding her sight, gritting her teeth against the chills wracking her skeleton.

“Idiot,” he says, vocal cords straining, and Mai struggles to catch up with the situation, how they ended up soaked and half-naked on the bed, why Naru’s energy is rioting around them. Tentatively, she gathers the blanket into her fists by her sides, afraid to touch him, afraid of what she’ll see.

“Naru—”

“You said it's attached to an object in the store,” he says, stubbornly clinging to his composure, and it only confuses her more.

Opening her eyes slightly, still shying away from the inflaming brightness of the white ceiling, she shivers against his body heat, the air freezing in comparison. With his naked chest close to hers, she can feel it: grief, fear, anger. She’s not sure what exactly happened, but she can feel that she’s shaken him.

He sinks a hand into her hair, his breaths hot on her neck as he rolls them onto their sides and wraps his arm around her, palm pressing into her back, and nothing has ever felt so good and so painful in the same breath as the rough fabric of his sweatpants against her legs, his dewy skin on hers. Face flushed, aware of the state of her undress, but more concerned with why he’s clinging to her like she almost died, she doesn’t even know how to begin to fix this, has no idea what he even walked in on.

She traces her fingertips up his back to his neck, her nose brushing his ear, and she’s the worst human being for enjoying this but he’s so close, she’s never felt him like this, chest and arms more toned than she would have expected, lean muscle, warmer than in her dreams, and she doesn’t want to think about what she’s done to frighten him this time, she doesn’t want to think about anything else when he’s here, tangible.

“I fell asleep,” she says, and it’s so different to feel him tense instead of imagine it. 

“You said it's attached to an object in the store,” he repeats, “That it never leaves the store.

“I know,” she says, the water soaking into the blankets, the room cooling around them. 

The seconds are filled with a million questions he wants to ask, a thousand lies he wants to disassemble, but he tucks her head in the curve of his shower-soaked shoulder instead.

Breathing in the light musk of his neck, she draws soothing circles into his back with her nails, barely touching him, his emotions cycling through her. His subsiding panic. His relief. The sound of her gasping for breath through the phone, choking on her own blood. It stirs the air inside her, gets caught in her lungs like liquid guilt. She did this. She made him feel like this. He takes controlled breaths against her hair, his ribcage shrinking and expanding against her.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and he scoffs, “I’m sorry, I—”

“Shut up.”

Still processing, she nods, hovering her hand by his neck, too frightened to touch. He grabs her hand before her brain catches up, and by the time she musters the sentience to object, he’s holding her naked palm firmly to his skin. She braces for the energetic information exchange, but it doesn’t happen; it’s just his pulse beating against her hand, his energy licking her palm. His hand warming hers as she melts against him.

“If you think you can hide this,” he says, more angry than she’s ever heard him, colder than he’s ever sounded, “you’re wrong.”

Mai shivers at the tone, rubs her cheek against the damp softness of his skin. Naru squeezes her hand, and it gets harder to breathe. 

Her lips move, but the words won’t come out. She can’t. She can’t say what he wants to hear, and it hurts. Gritting her teeth through the pain, she digs her nails into his neck, water drying on her face.

His top arm constricts around her until it aches, like he knows exactly what her silence means.

Chapter Text

Kneeling on the tile floor, Noll holds the shower door open with his knee, drops of condensation clinging to the frosted glass panel in his peripherals. The inside walls of the shower are a few degrees too luminescent, waves of light reflecting off the surface in a holographic sheen.

Mai calls his name from the other room, and Noll leans further into the shower.

“Can I borrow another—”

“Yes,” he says, and swipes his index and middle fingers down the slick glass, cool to the touch. 

An extremely fine, pearlescent film collects on his fingertips, exhibiting a viscid texture when he rubs it between his fingers and his thumb.

There was a long period of history wherein the existence of ectoplasm was considered an urban legend by the Society for Psychical Research, due to long-standing efforts on part of the society to expose fraudulent mediums during the 19th and 20th centuries, whose claims of ectoplasm featured a unilaterally disappointing collection of gauze, cheesecloth, egg whites and, in one notable case, a rubber glove on the end of a fake arm. 

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the existence of a vapor-like substance that builds into a fine, viscous texture was confirmed to occasionally accompany psychic phenomena, and even then, there was resistance to the idea. Noll has only had the opportunity to formally study it himself once, due to his proximity to Gene, after he overexerted himself channeling a spirit. Even then, all Noll was able to definitively pin down was its molecular makeup, but most agree that it results from the externalization of a fluid found in the spinal column of powerful psychics referred to as the psychode. 

Watching the viscous fluid shimmer on his fingertips, if he had any doubts about whether or not Mai is hiding additional abilities, this would eliminate them. The presence of ectoplasm overwhelmingly indicates that Mai is, on some level—whether she’s aware of it or not—a psychic medium.

Looking around the elegant bathroom for a cotton swab, light bouncing off the mirrors and shining a glare into his eyes, Noll clicks his tongue against his teeth. He’ll need to collect several samples, run some tests to be sure.

Following the low squeal of the door’s hinges opening further, Noll listens to the soft pad of bare feet on tile as Mai hangs her drenched light pink bra and white underwear sloppily on the bathtub behind him, next to where Noll moved her dry tea-stained skirt earlier, after attempting to scrub the honey-brown stain from the floral pattern. 

She crouches behind him, hands braced on her knees as she looks over his head into the shower. Her wet hair brushes his bare shoulder, eliciting involuntary chills, and Noll glances at her out of the corner of his eye. She’s wearing one of his long-sleeved quarter-zip sweaters, pulling the edge of the athletic material down with her fingers, barely covering a pair of boxers she must have nicked from his suitcase, black silk against milky thighs that Noll swiftly looks away from.

“What are you doing?” she asks, as Noll holds his fingers below his nose, replacing the herbal smell of her damp skin with a faintly sweet, faintly sour, odor; it’s the same as he remembers.

He is 98% certain it is ectoplasm. Unfortunately, if he proves correct, the confirmation raises more questions than it answers.

It’s generally accepted that the medium has to be actively facilitating some sort of phenomena for the psychode to seep outward through the tissue of the body, finding its way to the pores, in order for glucose in the medium’s projected psychode to break down in the presence of liquid, disintegrating the oxygen-hydrogen bonds and causing loose hydrogen atoms to latch onto other nearby surfaces, as well as bond with hydrogen molecules within the liquid and other hydrogen or oxygen atoms in the glucose.

In other words, whatever those shadows were—in order for ectoplasm to accumulate—Mai has to have been an active participant in its ability to manifest on this plane, despite being rendered unconscious. 

Which can only mean one of two things: subconscious channeling or subconscious manifestation. Both of which are highly dangerous, and deeply concerning.

“My job,” he says, and pushes her back with his elbow as he stands, Mai’s fingers briefly brushing his arm for stability, and then walks to the nearest sink.

Turning the faucet on with his wrist, he rinses the vaguely sweet-smelling substance from his fingers, rubbing it off with the buttery liquid soap in the brass-plated dispenser resting on the twilight red granite countertop, clusters of black and red under the warm lights above the sink.

“What is that stuff?” she asks, and Noll recognizes the change in tone immediately, feels some satisfaction at the fact he’s getting better at reading her.

She has an idea of what it is. She wants to know if he knows; if her suspicion is correct.

“Stop underestimating me,” he says, the sickening aroma of warm vanilla emanating up from the sink and his hands—still somewhat preferable to the smell of his own sweat, sticking to his bare chest and back, drying on the back of his neck, not having had a chance to bathe since his run.

“I’m not—”

“You are,” he says, and meets her brown eyes in her reflection through the mirror. He doesn’t know what he’s done for her to lose seemingly all faith in him, but he’s fed up. “I can fix this. I’m more qualified and better prepared,” he adds, frustration seeping into his tone. She needs to lean on him, and she’s refusing. It’s infuriating. “Let me take control.”

She’s off-balance from the attack, he can see the flicker of doubt on her face, hiding her hands in the sleeves of his sweater, framed and backlit by sunlight passing through the wooden door frame behind her, an imperfect halo around her body. She’s reevaluating. 

Good.

Noll dries his fingers on the beige microfiber towel hanging from the brass ring on the wall, then pulls out the wood drawer under the sink, finding nothing but extra bars of soap wrapped in wax paper and disposable razors.

“What are you looking for?”

Sliding the drawer back in, Noll opens the large cabinets under the sink, running shoes he’s yet to remove squeaking faintly on damp tile as he kneels to rummage through cardboard tissue boxes and toilet paper, finding a modest first aid kit, but not anything useful.

Pushing to standing, Noll spares her an unimpressed glance and finds her watching him with wide, nervous eyes. He can’t focus past the feel of sweat and water drying and pulling on his skin, irritating his scalp. He feels disgusting.

She maintains that tense expression as he stalks back out into the afternoon light of the hotel room, air cooler out here than in the bathroom, and tracks water over the grey carpet, all the way to the black varnished minibar, sink and mini fridge he’d completely forgotten about, tucked away in the back corner of the expansive suite.

Picking up the metal lid of the empty ice bucket sitting on the marble countertop, Noll removes the matching stainless steel tongs and plastic bag, then replaces the lid.

Mai is still standing in the center of the bathroom when he returns, staring off in thought, and Noll ignores her presence as he kneels down by the open shower and scrapes off ectoplasm into the plastic bag. It’s far from sterile, far from a perfect system, but he can’t risk waiting for Lin to arrive with supplies in case Mai decides to wash away the evidence. The plastic rustling fills the sound-amplifying bathroom as Noll ties a tight knot at the opening of the bag.

This time, when he rises and exits the bathroom, dropping the tongs on the shower floor with a metallic clatter, Mai trails after him, nerves palpable in her voice.

“Naru?”

Noll ignores her, escaping to the clean lines and elaborate brass detailing of the posh bedroom, shutting the door behind him, locking her out. He treads to the open sliding doors of the closet and opens the small guest safe hidden in the back corner of one of the ebony shelves. He puts the bag in the closet safe and sets the code before shutting it, hearing it beep once as it locks into place.

When he opens the bedroom door again, Mai is standing directly in front him, his dark clothing accentuating the shadows under her eyes, sulking.

“You didn’t need to go that far,” she says, and Noll steps into her personal space, torn between relishing how she lets him get close enough to look down at her and cursing her for raising her chin and meeting his glare with her own, perfectly defiant at all times.

“Didn’t I?” he counters, and she purses her lips.

“I can handle this on my own.”

“No, you can’t,” he says, observing the fractals of red in her irises, how her damp hair hangs in a tangled mess around her face, making him want to separate it manually with his hands. “You are factually incapable of handling this, and you know it.” Her mouth twitches, thoughts scrambling behind her eyes, and Noll can feel his words breaking ground for the first time since arriving. “You need me.”

She doesn’t speak, continues to stare, grasping at straws for another excuse, and Noll doesn’t have the patience to hear it, shoulders by her and heads back into the spacious bathroom, disregarding the way electricity snaps against his skin where they touch. 

She follows him.

“What are you doing?”

Removing his shoes and socks, he places them neatly in the nook of wall space between the cherry bathroom cabinets and the extra, unused shower, then opens the opaque shower door with a gentle tug on the handle.

“Showering. Vertically, with my eyes open,” he says, and turns the chrome handle, water stuttering before forming a steady shower from the flat-headed nozzle. 

Gauging her irritated gaze, peeking out from strands of wet hair, Noll thinks she understands the critique.

“I didn’t do it on purpose.”

“I don’t doubt it,” he says, and fingers the waistband of his joggers, giving her enough warning to turn her head before he removes his pants, ignoring the irrational swoop in his gut at the physical vulnerability, beyond irritated that she’s forced him to take things to this extreme.

Facing the wall, she blushes fiercely, but she doesn’t sputter or move to leave, unwilling to let him establish dominance by making her shy away. She’s grown even bolder over the years; he wouldn’t have thought it possible. 

Regardless, he can see the desired subliminal suggestion taking hold in the way she hugs herself under the guise of crossing her arms. 

By demonstrating lack of hesitation to disrobe in front of her, on the surface it connotes intimacy—at least, to an amateur eye it might—but what Noll is truly trying to drill into her brain is his invulnerability. Confidence. He isn’t threatened by her. She needs to see a physical manifestation of his lack of fear, one shocking enough to leave an impression, to get it through her thick skull. She can rely on him.

“The way I see it, the only thing you’ve successfully done with any sort of intent is stand in your own way, and by extension mine,” he says, and grabs the small white bottles of complimentary shampoo-conditioner and body wash from the nearest counter.

Fully naked, he steps into the shower while the water is still lukewarm, placing the small bottles on the glass shelf inside the shower as he closes the door behind him.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says, but her voice is losing it’s bite. She’s wavering.

“By all means, educate me,” Noll says, voice raised just over the white noise of the shower as he faces the chrome, flat shower head, a torrent of water streaming down his face and shoulders as Noll blinks it out of his eyes.

“If you would just give me more time—”

“You want to waste my time? Fine.” Noll uncaps the shampoo, turning his face to prevent water from spraying into his mouth. “But don’t dress it up like you have a plan. You have no plan. You’re reacting, not acting.”

Her silence below the drone of water on tile is the most satisfying thing he’s heard all day. 

“I’m going to go check out the minibar,” she says, and Noll pours the green-smelling soap into the palm of his hand, sniffing it curiously. Eucalyptus. How noxious.

“Don’t leave the suite.”

“I won’t.”

“I mean it.”

“Okay.”

The muffled ‘click’ of the bathroom door closing behind her shouldn’t sound so ominous. Noll leans his forehead on the glazed ceramic tiles in front of him, letting the pressure on his skull clear his head. He’s getting through to her. He can feel it. He’s been hitting her with every trick in the book since he stepped foot in Japan, and it’s finally, finally showing results. Even if she can’t remember her complete meltdown in the alleyway, her subconscious mind is aware of Noll’s successful interference, reinforcing the notion he’s already planted that he’s able to handle her worst; she doesn’t need to protect him.

Pushing off the wall, Noll massages the shampoo into his scalp, sighing out his nose as he closes his eyes and tries not to overthink the way his stomach twists at having her out of his sight for even a few minutes.

She can’t possibly have the energy left to accidentally manifest or channel anything more for at least twelve hours, should be completely fine on her own for five minutes or so. He shouldn’t be this anxious.

Letting the soap run over his eyelids, despite logic begging to differ, he plans for a brief, stressful shower.

 

...

 

All that money for a club-level suite, and not one accessible balcony.

Shuffling further into the afternoon shadows of the temporary construction walls, away from the roaring crowds and traffic lights, Mai sits down on the concrete, cradling her purse in her lap. 

Trying to make herself small, hiding from the youthful security guard that has already asked her to put out her cigarette twice, Mai exhales a cloud of smoke and leans her head back on the hard construction partition, finally feeling her shoulder muscles let go. Her back is itching where the scar from the shadow-being’s claw is, like a large circle of undetectable bug bites. 

Her wards have well and truly worn off, the city feeling like an oppressive atmosphere squeezing her head from all sides, a kaleidoscope of thoughts, images and energies droning on and on in the back of her mind like her brain is a talentless, one-man cinematic band.

As if feeling everyone’s eyes on her as she walked through the decadent, high-ceilinged lobby of the Ritz-Carlton wasn’t enough, she was treated to a whole spectrum of disdain and confusion as her cheap tennis shoes squeaked away on brown and beige squares of tile, glaring at the nosey clerk with pink lips watching her as she passed the long, black facade of the front desk, the thoughts of everyone in the room reminding her of what she already knows; that she doesn’t belong. 

She didn’t even know there was a Ritz at the top of the Midtown Tower before Naru brought her here. The elevator ride down from Naru’s room on the fifty-second floor felt like it took an hour, with well-dressed business people and patrons filing in and out of the metal-death box every other floor to give her judging and pitying stares. 

It didn’t help that she got lost trying to navigate the brightly lit bottom levels of the building, losing her way twice in the expansive art and shopping complex, feeling at once like she was in a marble-floored hybrid museum, mall, airport and office building, with its series of automatic glass doors, security gates, escalators and navigational signage. It took her several embarrassing conversations with strangers to find her way back out to the street.

Fiddling with the white strings of Naru’s sweatpants, wet hair cold on the back of her neck, Mai doesn’t think she looks that bad. Maybe a bit like a drowned rat, but the fabric of Naru’s sweatshirt is high-quality, and she’s only had one accidental vision of him calmly filling out some sort of excel sheet with numeric formulas while wearing it. 

Even his memories are stable. She shouldn’t be surprised; his energy flow is highly disciplined. It’s taken her this long to realize that’s why she feels so much more stable when she links with him. She’s syncing with his energetic rhythm, his frequency. It’s frustrating, knowing the difference in how she could be feeling if she just learned how to control it.

She wants to learn how he does it. She wants him to teach her.

Staring at the back of the leafy green shrub she’s hiding behind, she wishes she had a watch or a phone, just to keep track of time. She’s not sure how much she wasted on her descent into the Roppongi District, and she spent half a cigarette contemplating if Naru would be the ‘fast and militant’ sort of shower taker or the ‘take his time and think’ type. Or maybe something in between. Maybe he’s the ‘stare into space and not think at all’ sort.

Tapping the ash onto the dirty cement next to her, feeling only marginally guilty about it, Mai adjusts her hips, concrete digging into her sit bones. 

Nah. He wouldn’t relax in the shower. More likely plotting the next forty-eight hours, down to the fine details of what he’s going to say to the bartender in the executive lounge to finesse himself a drink.

Either way, he’s going to notice she’s gone soon, if he hasn’t already, and he’s not going to be pleased.

Tasting ash on the back of her tongue, Mai watches the bright embers burn on the tip of the cigarette, a thin line of smoke curling upward.

He’s more of a rebel than people think, she muses, tensing when loud shoes click by a little too close to her hiding spot, behind a large stone-potted shrub, then relaxing again when they pass uneventfully. He can’t stand being told what the rules are as opposed to making them himself, using his own judgment; and benign minutia like losing the right to order a whiskey on the rocks when he steps foot in Japan, not turning twenty-one until September, likely doesn’t sit well with him, even if he’s not much of a drinker back in England.

Watching a beetle crawling on a leaf in front of her, light curving over the metallic blue-green of its exoskeleton, Mai pushes aside the fabric opening of her purse and finds the velvety bag at the bottom, taking it out into the open and drawing its cinched opening apart one-handed, cigarette still burning in her other hand. 

The dried leaves are rough against her fingertips as she reaches in blind, pulling two out and popping them into her mouth as the beetle takes tiny, tentative steps toward the stem, their unique flavor dissolving on her tongue like a cool mist.

He’s right. She needs him. The thought needles at her, making her skin itch even worse. She doesn’t want to need him. She wants to be in control. 

“Are you kidding me?!”

Mai startles, shoving the bag of leaves back into her bag and scrambling up to standing, clutching her purse tightly as the blue-uniformed security guard finishes rounding the corner, spotting her between the construction partition and potted plant and pointing angrily. Shit.

“I said no smoking!”

 

 

Being dragged back down the mustard yellow hallway, away from Naru’s suite after a few rounds of knocking went unanswered, the security guard grips her upper arm too tight as she trips over herself to match his long strides.

Her ‘don’t kick me off property or my expensive brother will get mad’ plan has not panned out.

Passing by rows of oversized rectangular wall lamps, squinting her eyes against the unnatural light, she imagines she can already feel Naru’s rising anger from here.

You.”

Naru’s voice snaps Mai’s spine straight, this time actually tripping her as the security guard yanks her to a stop, reasonably unnerved by the fuming man in all black clothing exiting the elevator and walking toward them like an executioner.

Turns out she wasn’t imagining it.

As Naru stalks down the hall, icy exterior belying the ferocity of his gaze, she can’t help but think how unfair it is that he manages to make even this gaudy yellow wallpaper look suddenly fashionable.

“Is this your sister?” the fresh-faced guard asks, sounding more gruff than a moment ago, and it occurs to Mai with some amusement that he’s trying to sound tough. Naru intimidates him. She would laugh, if she weren’t so busy shrinking under the weight of Naru’s glare, herself.

“I leave you alone for five minutes—”

“Sir?”

Wet hair dripping onto the small grey towel resting around his t-shirt clad shoulders, Naru shifts his eyes to the previously ignored security guard, flitting over the metal pins on his blue and black uniform while Mai sulks appropriately, her own damp hair falling chaotically around her shoulders.

“She’s mine. Where’d you find her?”

“Which time?” he asks, pushing her forward with a hand on her upper back, and Mai feels like she’s mere seconds from snarling like a dog.

Likely seeing the tantrum coming, Naru corrals her under his arm and holds her against his side, hand gripping her shoulder firmly.

“This is a smoke-free property. If she wants to smoke, she has to do it across the street,” he says, expression stern, and Mai curses him under her breath as he departs down the hallway, steps muffled by cedar brown carpeting.

“That idiot,” she hisses, being once again dragged down the hall, this time with a hand at the back of her neck, “Don’t listen to him. He confused me for someone else.”

“How disheartening,” Naru says, venom dripping from his voice, and Mai cringes in his hold.

As soon as he touches the keycard to the black sensor pad and opens the door, Naru shoves her the rest of the way into the room, shutting the door behind them.

“That guy was an ass,” she mumbles, rubbing her sore arm as she treads across the plush grey carpet toward the couch, soft yellow streaming into the room from the expansive windows as she toes off her left shoe.

“Give me your bag.”

Holding the back of the grey chair for balance as she steps out of her other shoe, her purse slung safely over her shoulder, Mai feigns indifference, raising her brows in question.

“Why?”

“You reek of cigarettes.”

“I told you, it was the girl next to me,” she says, climbing onto the grey geometric couch and sitting as Naru paces, then stops directly in front of her on the other side of the black and brown coffee table.

“The bag. Now,” he snaps, holding out his hand, and Mai narrows her eyes because is he serious?

Pressing her tongue to the backs of her teeth, she tucks her knees up to her chin, bag between her stomach and thighs, meeting Naru’s biting stare with her own. “No.”

She senses his ki trying to rise to the surface before he pushes it down, lowering his hand in a fist to his side, radiating cold like a human glacier.

“Any other evidence of juvenile rebellion I should be aware of?” he asks, walking slowly around the coffee table to stand in the small space between the table and the couch, towering over her. “Abusing cough medicine? Pills?”

It’s meant as sarcasm, but Mai’s heart jolts anyway. 

He reads something in her pinched expression that makes his eyes turn into angry slits, and Mai hugs her knees tighter to her chest, purse digging into her gut as he leans over her, bracing a hand on the back of the couch behind her, his forearm brushing against the side of her head.

“Mai,” he says, and she shakes her head ‘no.’

She feels his energy pressing against her, coaxing her through the connection, almost as if he is aware of the gold cord—she accidentally allows him in by thinking about it, her anger dissipating in the chill of his growing aura inside her, like weaving a layer of silk between her mind and the constant barrage of extra information she forgets she’s tuning out until she no longer has to.

“I won’t take them from you,” he lies, “I just want to see them.”

He’s close enough that Mai can smell eucalyptus in his hair, indigo eyes darkening as his pupils grow ever so slightly, almost hypnotic. His knee dips the cushion as he hovers over her, the vibrant afternoon sun framed by large-paneled windows casting yellow shadows on his skin, and Mai unconsciously tilts her chin up to breathe his air.

This close to the flawless angles of his face, she can’t help but compare the feeling to staring into a bouquet of wolfsbane. Lush, violet petals draw the eye, tempt passers by, but there’s a reason the plant is so notorious; used to eliminate enemies, poison lovers, tip the arrows meant for wolves. 

Ingesting even a small amount induces tingling and loss of feeling in the face and mouth, along with vomiting. Ingest a little more and the victim undergoes, in Mai’s experience, something similar to heart failure, but worse; shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, chills, fatigue, muscle weakness, vomiting, convulsions, searing pain, mania, and eventual paralysis.

Mai feels the beginnings of something along those lines right now, tingling, shortness of breath, chills, hyper-focusing on the sensation of Naru sliding his hand up her clothed shin and over her knee, the bassy sound of skin on fabric as he applies just enough pressure to the inside of her knee to make her body want to comply, opening her bent leg to the side and tracing up the seam of her inner thigh with his fingers. 

Mai has only died by wolfsbane once before, while helping a family in the countryside last spring, reliving the memories of the land. It took less than four hours to kill her, a horrific death, and Mai still occasionally wakes with the bitter, toxic taste of flora on her tongue.

Looking at Naru’s long eyelashes framing purple-blue eyes, violent energy pulsing just beneath his skin, power-in-waiting, Mai understands why someone might call something so lethal “Venus’ Chariot.”

Naru’s eyes flick down to her lips, leaving her cotton-mouthed and blushing at the sound of her own pulse in her ears, as he gently wraps the strap of her purse around his finger and pulls it out of her lap.

She doesn’t realize what he’s done until he’s already pulling back, letting go of a lock of her hair as he pushes off the couch and walks away, rounding the coffee table, sifting through her bag.

As soon as her senses return to her, it doesn’t take long for righteous indignation to turn to fear. 

“Naru,” she says, panic rising in her voice as she hastily clambers off the couch, nearly tripping on the corner of the coffee table as she takes one, two steps toward him, but he’s already tossing the opened pack of cigarettes onto the desk by the window next to his black notebook, the silver lighter clattering against the wood next.

Facing the orange light outside, he pulls out a compact, white pill bottle. Modiodal. And not her name on the label. Holding it up, he looks at Mai, her pulse spiking at the accusation in his eyes.

“How did you get this?” Torn between anger and embarrassment, Mai avoids his gaze, staring at the grey carpet instead. “Well?”

“It helps me not astral project on accident,” she says.

“Who gave it to you? Who's Suzuki Kazane?”

“A friend.”

“The same friend who gave you the sake? Did they get you the cigarettes, too?”

She doesn’t say anything, and Naru’s silence chafes until he sighs, sounding supremely fatigued, not as enraged as she was preparing for, and sets the pill bottle down on the desk with the others.

“It may feel like you’re suppressing the effects of your abilities, but all you’re doing is further chemically unbalancing your system and temporarily blocking receptors, causing severe migraines, resulting in even less control than you had to begin with.”

Mai hesitantly lifts her eyes from the floor, finding Naru dropping her purse on the desk atop his notebook, watching her with a deceptively neutral expression as she curls her socked toes in the middle of the plush carpet, nervously tugging at her sleeves as he wanders back toward her.

“Follow me,” he says, walking into the bedroom, and Mai finds herself complying, Naru’s words from earlier still fresh in her mind.

‘Let me take control.’

If what Masako said is true, about Naru reopening SPR, then Naru has already decided to put down roots in Japan, at least for a while. Meaning Mai’s plan has already failed; she isn’t going to trick him into a brief stay, which means the confusing mess of the shadows and the clay boy, their unknown relationship, their unknown objectives… Naru will be more at risk the longer he’s kept in the dark. Not to mention how he’ll involve everyone else, placing them in danger.

She needs his help. The thought makes her burn with shame. Her mother taught her not to need anyone. Never to rely on others, and yet there doesn’t seem to be an alternative where everyone makes it out of this unharmed. She needs to make sure he’s protected, at least until she finds out what the spirits want.

The ominous sound of the door shutting and locking behind her swiftly brings her back to her senses, turning to see Naru leaning his back on the taupe bedroom door, arms crossed, his eyes dark in the shadows of the bedroom with the shades down.

“Take off your clothes,” he says, and Mai’s blood pressure drops, static filling her vision.

Oh.

 

...

 

“Stop moving.”

“It feels weird.”

“That’s unavoidable.”

“You’re going too deep.”

“Which part of ‘stimulate energy flow in your meridians’ did you not understand?”

“All of it,” she whines, squirming away from Naru’s hands pressing into the skin over her abdomen, under her borrowed shirt, her back still inexplicably burning, like an invisible rash.

As if lying on her stinging back on the dry side of the bed with a towel under her damp hair, wearing nothing but silk boxers and a thin shirt that smells like attractiveness wasn’t enough cause for frustration, Naru appears completely unaffected by their situation, eyes dark and focused as he essentially frisks her entire body with his perfect, infuriating hands. 

Having changed into a fresh black shirt and pants after showering earlier, he sits with one knee on the bed beside her, drying hair messy in his face. Tracing his fingers over her skin, applying pressure when needed, Naru looks more agitated than aroused while he messes with the inflamed energy currents inside her.

She shouldn’t be surprised. Naru pulled himself together so quickly after the shower incident, holding her until warmth returned to her limbs, then extricating himself from the highly intimate position without so much as clearing his throat. He got up, threw an obscenely soft towel at her, and then acted as if it never happened—other than being severely irritable. Which the whole ‘running off unattended’ with cigarettes and pills thing didn’t help with. 

“You’re out of balance,” he says, the thinning patience in his tone jogging her memory of the past three times he’s explained this, simplifying drastically with each iteration. “I’m fixing it. Now be quiet.”

Trying to relax into the mattress, silence grating on her ears, she shivers as Naru gently pushes his own ki through a blockage under his hand, releasing a knot of energy, and Mai tries not to inhale so sharply as his ki does a lap inside her, inhabiting the same grey area as ‘so hot it’s cold.’ 

“Relax,” he says, drawing her attention to how her hands are clenched around the comforter, and Mai scoffs somewhat manically because how is she supposed to relax when he’s sliding his hands down her covered hips to her thighs, completely focused on his task like he isn’t massaging her inner thighs with his thumbs and okay—

“Is that necessary?” she hisses.

Finally meeting her eyes, he looks at her like she’s asked the dumbest question in the world, his hands still resting on the skin of her thighs, heat awash over her cheeks and chest.

“You have multiple blockages, your ki is unevenly distributed, you’ve been brutalizing your endocrine system, and your cells are currently vibrating at two competing frequencies, which shouldn’t even be humanly possible.” He resettles his hands on her calves, looking at her like he’d rather be beating her with a slipper. “Yes, it is necessary. So if it’s not too much trouble, please, shut up.”

Mai exhales through her nose at the outburst, pressing her tongue to the backs of her teeth, and glares at the white spackled ceiling. His patience is thinner than she thought, for him to actually express his feelings. She might start thinking he’s a real person instead of a scholarly android, if he isn’t careful. 

“And stop thinking,” he says, annoyance coloring his tone, and Mai has the horrifying realization that the channel between them is completely open while he’s doing this; he can likely feel everything she’s feeling. 

Face burning with embarrassment, she takes deep breaths, trying to bring her heart beat under control. Just because he hasn’t outright rejected her yet doesn’t mean he appreciates her perverted interpretation of his attempts to help.

“Would it… Would you prefer to have Lin do this? When he gets here?”

His eyes snap up to hers like he’s cracking a whip. “Why would you ask that?”

“I-I don’t know I just thought…” She trails off uncertainly, and Naru’s expression darkens further.

“No, I would not,” he says, and resumes his ministrations on her calf muscles, ignoring her squirming. “I’m more qualified in this area.”

“So you’ve been saying,” she mumbles, and tries to breathe normally as opposed to panting like a touch-starved hentai.

“Lin is arriving late tonight. He’ll stay with you while I retrieve your things from your apartment.”

“I’ll go with you,” she says, voice barely carrying as Naru’s right hand hooks under her left knee, bending her leg, silk boxers sliding up her thigh and there is no way he’s not doing this on purpose, no way in hell is this professional, despite his detached expression.

“No, you won’t. You’ll stay here and learn psychic barriers.”

“I don’t need them.”

Managing to make an exhale sound disapproving, Naru lazily drags his eyes up to hers, and she melts further into the mattress. “Would you like me to pretend to believe you? Or are we going to have the discussion you’ve been wanting to have since you laid down?”

The lump in her throat dislodges. So he sensed that. 

It feels ridiculous, after everything, to just… come clean. It feels like she almost can’t, she’s been lying so long. But he already found the ectoplasm, found the pills. She still has no idea what he saw in the alleyway and the shower, but she has a feeling it was incriminating.

He’s not going away empty handed. 

If she’s serious about protecting him, she has to tell him, at least about the spirits manipulating them. Now or never.

And from the clinical look in his eyes, he knows it, too.

“Let’s make a deal,” she says, and Naru’s eyes glint. “I’ll tell you what you want to know, if you promise not to tell anyone else what I say. Not even Lin. Not until I’m ready.”

“That’s a counter-productive trade.”

“It’s my final offer,” she says, and watches him mull it over, practically hearing his thoughts through their growing connection. Get the information he needs, but not be able to share what he learns. It would slow down the investigation. It’s a bad deal. But he can’t afford to say no.

“Deal.” 

The answering smile growing on her face is pleasant to the point of unpleasantness. Noll digs his fingers into her thighs.

“Ask away,” she says, and Naru releases her thighs, sliding off the edge of the king-size bed to pace slowly in front of the sleek black flatscreen wall-mounted above the cherry wood media cabinets.

“Was there ever an object attached to it, or was that misdirection?”

“I’m not sure,” she admits, and he looks sharply over his shoulder at her, eyes skeptical.

“Explain.”

Sighing, Mai shuffles up into a seated position on the bed, knees bent to one side. She’s been thinking about this a lot, and she’s still confused. 

At first, she mistook the actions of the shadow-being for the clay boy—the drowning, and choking. The claws. But after her back was sliced open, after she had a solid read on the entity, she finally sensed the difference. They’re two separate entities.

But then they confused her further when they both appeared to her in the antique store, the shadows seemingly exercising some sort of control over the clay boy, or at least cooperation. The clay spirit saved her life in the street, but then put her through the worst pain she can ever remember feeling in her own body.

Even more confusing is how, even though the clay boy originally appeared to her to direct her to the red record sleeve, that doesn’t mean he’s attached to it. She hasn’t sensed anything paranormal from the object itself, has tried multiple times. 

She feels like she’s thinking herself in circles.

Mai attempts to vocalize what she knows to Naru, recounting as much truth about how the two entities have appeared to her as she can while censoring some of the finer details, like the investigation she’d been on, the physical violence of the attack, the cut on her back, as well as limiting mentions of her abilities. 

Naru listens attentively, staring either at or through her, not even nodding at appropriate intervals.

By the time she’s finished, her throat is raw, and Naru has returned to sit by her on the edge of the bed, staring at the brass wall panels by the headboard in thought.

“And your injuries? The scarring?” he prompts. “What I saw with psychometry.”

Mai frowns down at her scarred arm, tracing the white lines with her finger. “A hallucination.”

She’s not ready to talk about that. He seems to accept it in stride.

“Would you say the shadows appear when you’re significantly agitated? Under stress?”

Mai furrows her brows, sliding her feet out in front of her. Naru lets her rest her legs on top of his thighs, seemingly indifferent, other than how he immediately puts his hands on her, palms warm against her shins. She hadn’t thought of it that way. 

“Yes and no,” she says, and the link flickers with irritation. She wonders if he’s found it, yet. It feels like he has, but he hasn’t mentioned it.

“Be precise,” he says, and Mai exhales heavily.

“I’m always under stress,” she says, and after a long pause, he seems to take it as fact.

“Tell me more about the shadows,” he starts, tapping his index finger on her skin, “how do they feel?”

The question catches her off guard. How do they feel? Trying to form words, she feels surprisingly conflicted. 

At times they feel terrifying, like her worst unknown fear, but occasionally… The feeling of nails stroking her face as she sleeps, the comforting pressure of claws on her shoulders that day in the alley, before the episode in the antique store… She looks up at Naru for assistance, unsure how to answer the question, but he seems to get whatever answer he was looking for from her face, his own expression turning grim.

“What?” she asks, but he only stares, his focus on her unsettling until he breaks away and looks down at where her borrowed silk boxers end and her thighs begin, sending static up her neck.

“When you sense them again, I want you to tell me. Understand?”

Mai nods distractedly, perturbed by her own confusing feelings, pulling her legs out of his lap, hugging her knees to her chest.

He said he’s going to go get her things. He’s going to tear her apartment apart the second she gives him the key. He might have already stolen it from her when she wasn’t looking. He’s going to find everything, and it’s too much at once. She needs to break things to him slowly, or he’s going to snap.

“Are you really going to my apartment tonight?”

“I was planning to,” he says, standing up and stretching his arms forward, interlacing his fingers and turning his palms outward.

“Naru,” she says, and he stares at her with a blank expression. “Don’t go. Not yet.”

After several tense breaths in the quiet of the bedroom, Naru’s eyes softening with unknown thoughts and emotions, he appears to accept the request, nodding once and strolling away from the bed, the lamps by the headboard casting shadows behind him as he passes by the foot of the mattress.

“I’ll get you a toothbrush from the front desk,” he says, and Mai sags into the large white pillows stacked against the high-gloss wood headboard, pulling the towel bunched up against her lower back out from under her and tossing it off the bed. “I’ll see about retrieving some clothes tomorrow.”

“How are you going to get clothes?”

“That doesn’t concern you.” Naru spares her an irked glance as he bends and picks the ivory towel up, walking it into the bathroom, out of sight.

Ignoring the continuous itch on her back, breathing in deep with her diaphragm, Mai counts down from ten and tells herself she’s doing the right thing. This is the best way to protect everyone.

She’s doing the right thing.

 

...

 

Standing at the foot of the paltry foldable mattress as the dimming city skyline glows beyond their reflections, silhouettes captured in the dark windows by the bright table lamps on either side of the couch, Noll makes a mental note to purchase some ibuprofen for his back as soon as possible. He’s seen jail cells with better bedsprings.

“It’s your room, you take the bed.”

“This is a bed,” he says, too irritated to ignore her.

Mai gestures to the pull-out bed she’s currently sitting on, thin mattress dipping concerningly on metal springs, considering her light weight. “This,” she says, “is not the mattress you paid for.”

“That has nothing to do with it,” he says, once again dragging the blanket back toward him, attempting to straighten it out over the bed. 

Noll isn’t being a gentleman, he’s being a strategist. The pull-out bed is closer to the door, making it easier to sneak out during the middle of the night. She’s not sleeping here.

“You’re being ridiculous,” she says, and Noll resists the urge to snap, still shaking off anger from their earlier argument. 

Being as it were that Mai has school tomorrow, Monday morning, Noll took it upon himself to contact her principal, planning on talking her out of the last few days before graduation. 

Imagine his surprise when her former principal informed him over the phone that Mai dropped out of school at the beginning of the year, that her class is graduating this week, without her. 

He’s still fuming from the ensuing argument. She hasn’t even admitted it was a foolish choice, is sticking stubbornly to her position. And it doesn’t help that every time he tries to lay the thick caramel blanket down, Mai grabs it and bunches it up, shoving it against the arm of the pull-out couch.

“We can share the real bed,” she says, crawling toward him on her hands and knees, and Noll levels her with his most unimpressed glare, because it’s like she truly believes he’s an idiot, like his credentials mean absolutely nothing to her.

“No, we cannot.”

“Why not? It’s huge!”

“You obviously can’t be trusted to maintain the necessary distance.”

“I wouldn’t try anything,” she says, rolling her eyes. “You’ve made yourself clear.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” he says, sarcasm heavy on his tongue. Giving up on the blanket and tugging at the edge of the white sheets, he averts his eyes from hers.

“I’m just—”

“I’m shocked you haven’t switched strategies, since your ‘confession’ failed. Perhaps you could skip the lying altogether, slip a knife between my ribs while I sleep. It’d be less insulting.”

In her stunned silence, Noll gives up on the bedding temporarily and walks all the way to the bedroom closet, pulling the plastic-covered spare pillows down from the top shelf with a touch more aggression than required.

At least it explains why she doesn’t want to go to college.

Returning from the bedroom, he finds Mai looking distraught, sitting on the half-made pull-out couch with her knees tucked under her chin, thick hair still drying in tangled waves, hiding her hands in the sheets while the ends of Noll’s silk boxers fall down the steep angle of her pale thighs to bunch at the apex of her hips, bombarding his sleep-deprived brain with the knowledge there’s nothing else underneath.

He stifles his gut reaction, tossing the pillows onto the bed, pulling his eyes away and massaging his left shoulder through his cotton shirt as he paces around the rearranged chairs and coffee table—now shoved against the wall—toward the minibar in the back corner of the expansive suite.

“I wasn’t trying to manipulate you.”

“Take the pull-out, if it bothers you that much.” Nothing he does seems to matter, anyway. If she's going to sneak out again, he won't be able to stop her in his sleep.

“I meant it, I meant what I said,” she insists, the rawness of her tone needling him, and Noll bends to open the fridge, pulling out a bottle of overpriced water and twisting off the cap, closing the fridge door with his knee.

“No, you didn’t.”

Taking a swig of cold water, he avoids the pressure of her eyes on him, choosing to look out over the nighttime cityscape, tall reflective buildings climbing the Tokyo sky, mirroring neon lights and the colorful street traffic below them. Gene disliked heights for the same reason Noll prefers them; the feeling that everyone else is below him.

“Naru, look at me.”

The plastic strains in his grip, pungent vanilla hand soap starting to irritate his nose and turn his stomach. He doesn’t want to look.

“Naru.”

Turning his head, he stares at the abstract mess of red and blue acrylic lines, framed and hung on the white wall behind her head. All that squandered funding for the arts and this is what they come up with.

“What?”

“Naru,” she pleads, and he exhales slowly, lowering his eyes to hers. 

Her eyes reflect red, and Noll’s heart beats arrhythmically.

“Are you mad?” she asks, words quiet under the low hum of air conditioning, and Noll stares uncomprehending for several seconds before forgotten irritation flares to life under his skin, tightening his grip on the already complaining plastic bottle as she has the audacity to look pitiful, fiddling with the ends of the sheets.

“Is that a serious question?” 

Mai chews her lip, hugging her knees tighter to her chest, toes curling on the bed, and Noll’s heart goes into a-fib at the conflicting physiologically driven urges to either break himself or manually unfold her, lay her out on the couch and feel her trembling under his hands.

He clamps down on both urges immediately, chugs the rest of the water to quench his suddenly parched throat, crushing the plastic somewhat accidentally, but it feels satisfying against his palm before he sets it down on the minibar. 

“Shall I list the reasons?” he drolls, and strides back over to the base of the pull-out.

Frowning, Mai starts untucking the white sheets from the corners spitefully like a neglected cat, and Noll grabs one of the plastic pillow covers by the corner and slides it in front of him, pulling at the zipper.

“Where’s Lin going to sleep?”

“In his room,” he says, and yanks the pillow out of its plastic sleeve.

A glance confirms the confusion on her face, and Noll stifles a sigh. He feels like he’s conversing with someone mentally encumbered.

“You mean you got this whole suite just for yourself?” she asks, eyes thinning into angry slits.

A self-righteous mentally encumbered person, with strong opinions on excess. 

“Correct. Something adults do, when they can afford it,” he adds, and feels some satisfaction at how much it pisses her off.

She deserves it, sitting on his pull-out bed with her bent legs spread beneath her, hair messy around her shoulders from rolling around the mattress in only boxers and a shirt, loose-fitting and soft and easy to slide off—Noll discards the plastic cover to the side, smothering his malfunctioning thoughts with irritation. If she thinks she can lead him around by his parched libido, she’s wrong.

She has to be.

He caught her trimming her choppy bangs with his utility knife earlier. He doesn’t understand her priorities, and he doesn’t like walking in on her playing with knives anymore than he likes the way his abdominals twitch every time she looks up at him from the bed and her eyelashes just barely touch her hair.

“You know what you are? You’re an elitist.”

“High praise from an aspiring vagrant.”

“Not everything can be solved with money.”

“Most things can be solved with money if you have half a brain cell,” he says, unzipping the second pillow and pulling it out, then shoving both plastic covers onto the carpet, “but of course you wouldn’t know that, considering you have neither of those things.”

She groans and falls forward on the mattress, springs squeaking as it bounces her, and Noll isn’t interested in how far her hips turn out or the way her shirt rides up, exposing the two perfect dimples in her low back that would fit perfectly against his thumbs. He isn’t. Noll grits his teeth behind tight lips, the visual input synapsing with his sacral nerve roots, tightening his groin as he actively works to suppress his response.

“I don’t need money,” she says, words muffled by the bed. “I’ll live on a farm.”

Re-tucking the sheets under the corners, careful not to pinch his hand in the black metal frame, Noll focuses on controlling his breathing, attempting to slow his blood flow, all of which would be so much easier if she would just get off the fucking bed. 

“You should have told me, first,” he says, voice coming out rougher than intended, and tugs the sheet taut, jostling her in the process.

She huffs, throwing a glare up at him. “What would you have done? Get on a plane to come hold my hair back for me while I study?”

“I could have given you a loan. Co-signed on an apartment. Solved the problem,” he says, and tosses the extra pillows onto the bed, one after the other, one bouncing off her back and falling next to her, the other landing at the head of the bed.

“I don’t want your money,” she says, grabbing the pillow beside her and throwing it at his face.

Catching the pillow, Noll squeezes the cushion, actively suppressing his ki. Pride, he can understand. People use money to manipulate. He wants her to have her own weight to throw around, not to be pushed around by loans and bureaucracy her whole life.

“Independent study, then,” he says, and drops the pillow back onto the mattress.

Leaning forward, she snorts humorlessly against the sheets, and Noll doesn’t watch how her laughter jostles her body or follow the lines of her pale, scraped up legs to her hips as she stretches out and twists her spine, emphasizing her narrow waist. For a breathless moment, Noll is baffled by how much worse this feels than when he actually had his hands on her body, the desire to touch heightened by the fact he can’t, without her chaotic meridians to distract him.

“I’ll talk to them,” he says, a revealing rasp to his voice that Mai thankfully misses, too busy sighing dramatically, covering her eyes with a delicate hand.

“Whatever,” she says, and he’s had such an inefficient week that he counts it as a win.

Opening a gap between her fingers, she gazes up at the ceiling with a soft expression, and it tugs obnoxiously at his lower spine.

“What color is the ceiling, Naru?” she asks, and Noll, fully expecting a schoolyard ribbing for it, looks up. It’s white polyfilla.

“Why?”

She looks disappointed. “Hm.” She blinks lazily, rolling onto her stomach.

Still breathing deeply, Noll walks around to the side of the bed, stepping over plastic, and picks up the—from the feel of it—poly blend microfleece blanket, static electricity sparking as he unfolds it in his hands, then leans against the arm of the pull-out. 

She turns her cheek to the mattress, the yellow lights of the beige table lamps on the side tables by the couch giving her eyes a warm mahogany hue as she blinks slowly up at him. Ever since the sun started inching toward the horizon, she’s seemed more at ease, comfortable in her own skin, but the more she relaxes the more unsettled Noll feels, the look in her eyes making the hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention.

“Are you always this sure of yourself?” she asks, something mocking about her tone that Noll tolerates but doesn't condone. “Are you that confident you’re not the one who’s wrong?”

“It doesn’t happen often,” he says, folding the blanket between them.

She observes him silently for a while, fingers toying with the ends of her hair, thinking. Noll hardly breathes, pulse accelerating as she rolls onto her hands and knees and crawls toward him on the bed again, hair falling delicately over her shoulders. Kneeling in front of him, she smoothes her hands up over the blanket, up to his hands, shocking his fingers with static when they touch.

“You’re wrong about this,” she says, and he swears her eyes weren’t that red two seconds ago as she curls her fingers around his.

“You can’t prove that,” he says, but catches himself keeping his tone neutral, his shoulders loose, unconsciously trying to pry her open that much more; egging her on despite his better judgement.

She considers him fully, head to toe, then meets his eyes with a sharp intelligence he’s never felt entirely sure of; the side of herself she hides so successfully that it frequently catches him off guard.

His eyes catch on her mouth as she gently bites her cracked bottom lip in thought, and he exhales behind his teeth, gripping the blanket with undue force. This, this is why he didn’t respond to her confession. He has a perfect brain, but it can’t do its job if his body is chemically sabotaging him every time she moves, purposely blocking his ability to think in hopes of duping him into passing on his superior genetics.

Three loud knocks on the door wipe her expression away, eyes flattening out into a blank stare, and Noll is violently split between immense gratitude for the interruption and the desire to ruin the career of whoever’s behind it. 

The door clicks open, revealing a tall man with black hair pulled back with a hair tie, wearing a white shirt and black vest, glaring past the hair that’s fallen into his face. He holds the burgundy keycard Noll left for him at the front desk, in case he couldn’t get ahold of him.

“I’ve parked the van in a loading zone, why didn’t you answer your—” 

Lin’s eyes pass over the chaotic arrangement of furniture before landing on Noll and Mai, and Noll becomes increasingly aware of their position—Mai on her knees in front of him, wearing his clothes, Noll hovering by her, his hands under hers—as Lin’s stoic face contorts with discomfort.

“I apologize,” Lin says, bowing slightly, and Noll tries not to internalize the indignity of the implication. “I should have waited for confirmation before entering.” 

Lin grimaces subtly at his word choice, and Noll feels several unpleasant emotions about it.

“Correct,” Noll says, and watches Lin’s awkwardness grow. 

He doesn’t bother correcting his assumption; the more he can disincentivize others from bothering him, the better. 

He can’t help but note, however, how Mai allows the misunderstanding, simply letting go of his hands and sitting with her legs to the side, smiling warmly at Lin—warmer than she’s smiled at anyone else since he got here, if Noll has been paying attention. Which he has been. Obviously.

“Lin!” she says, with genuine excitement.

Lin goes so far as to crack his own uncharacteristically warm smile in response, slipping back into a strong posture, and Noll is immediately disturbed by the interaction as a whole.

“It’s good to see you, Taniyama-san,” Lin says, and Noll crumples the staticky blanket, shoving it into the corner of the bed where Mai had it before.

“Likewise,” she says, and even her voice sounds happier, and since when is Lin her cup of liquid sunshine? “Call me Mai,” she adds, unduly chipper, and Noll’s internal organs lurch unnecessarily at the overture.

Blocking out their inane small talk, Noll picks up the plastic covers off the floor and deposits them in the seat of the grey cushioned chair, now next to the loveseat with its back to the dark windows.

“Show me where you parked,” Naru says, interrupting whatever they were saying, feeling drained but at least composed.

“I’ll come, too,” she says, and Noll shuts that down quickly with a hard stare that she wilts only slightly under, grabbing his phone from the black coffee table and walking back around the bed. 

“Mai,” he starts, planning to put her in her place after her earlier gallivanting around the complex, when the sensory recall of the lightness of her shivering body in his arms alters his thought. “Tea.” 

Rolling her eyes, she slides off the mattress and quietly disappears behind him toward the minibar, where the electric kettle is plugged in, and Noll’s left hand slips into his pants pocket to brush his fingers over the warm metal of her old house key. She was clumsier just a few hours ago. He isn’t imagining it.

“Right,” he says, avoiding eye-contact with Lin as he makes for the door. “Let’s.”

 

...

 

As soon as they round the corner, garish yellow wallpaper finally behind them, Lin starts in.

“Do you realize how unbelievably irresponsible your actions have been? How poorly they reflect on all of us?”

Noll hits the opaque down arrow on the metal panel by the elevator and steps back to wait. Lin hovers just behind his right shoulder, like a nagging fly.

“Leaving the Brunstein case to me was one thing, signing yourself out of the hospital was another—”

“I was cleared by a doctor. There was nothing wrong with me.”

“—but to get on a flight without even informing the university—”

“Informing you, you mean.”

“Yes—no, that’s not—”

“So how’d she do?” Noll asks, losing patience for Lin’s helicoptering. 

He’s just angry Noll told Madoka and not him. For all her annoying characteristics, Noll knew exactly who to call to get him from the hospital to the airport, and exactly who to sick on Human Resources in his absence. Bless that infuriating woman.

“Your father was in fits—”

“But not my mother, surely.” She’s only been quietly suggesting he fuck off back to Japan for the past, oh, three years?

“That’s not the point—”

“Lin,” he says, because he can’t say ‘shut up’ without making the lecture worse. “Where do I stand?”

Lin’s exasperated huff blows hot air on Noll’s head as the metal doors glide open, revealing the mirrored walls of the elevator.

“You’ve been given extended compassionate leave for the rest of the semester, and your research grant was awarded in advance.”

Stepping onto the gold and black patterned floor of the lift, Noll glances at Lin’s tense expression out of the corner of his eye. That’s… unexpectedly generous. Frighteningly so, even for Madoka. “On what grounds?”

Lin doesn’t answer right away, seems to hesitate before repeating himself. “Compassionate leave.”

“You already said that.” Compassionate leave is usually a maximum of five days, and only applies to close relatives or… Christ. “What did she do?”

“Your orphaned, long-distance fiancé has fallen unexpectedly ill and requires caretaking.”

As the doors slide closed behind him, Noll presses his tongue to his cheek. Okay. Not as far from the truth as he’d like it to be, but he can't let that get to him right now. He’ll ream her for it later. “They bought it?”

“She delivered quite the sob story of star-crossed, transoceanic love.”

Noll can imagine. “Regardless, I can’t imagine anyone from the lab fell for it,” he says, and keeps his eyes fixed to the floor, avoiding his own face in the mirror.

“Actually, they said it made perfect sense.” Noll looks up at Lin sharply, disbelief priming his response. “Biffman said you’d always seemed ‘emotionally fulfilled but lonely,’ and that ‘your heart was elsewhere.’” 

Lin delivers the line with a touch of suppressed amusement, and a bizarre mix of disgust and general dissatisfaction stalls Noll’s tongue, like a thick, milky film. He thinks he could actually vomit from the lack of intellectual tact. He can’t believe he’s leaving the lab in the hands of utter morons.

“Right,” he says, noticeably acerbic, “now that my emotions are fulfilled, I need a phlebotomy appointment for Mai, an ectoplasm test kit, an office for SPR, an apartment, and as much sound-proofing foam as you can get your hands on by the end of the week.” 

The doors behind them open to a waiting couple in matching vacation shirts, and Noll hits the ‘close doors’ button without hesitation. “Catch the next one,” he says, to their gaping, spray-tanned faces, and watches the doors close with some satisfaction.

“And a phone,” he says, turning back to Lin’s unimpressed face, recalling Mai’s crushed cell phone in a ziplock bag he found in her purse. “I have a few locations for you to look into, and a preliminary outline to catch you up on.”

Lin straightens his vest, interest sparking behind his otherwise inexpressive eyes. “What happened?”

Catching his own reflection in his peripherals, Noll feels something like acid reflux coming on. “It’s too soon to make claims, but I fear we may have a worst-case-scenario on our hands.”

“On the phone you said—”

“I know what I said. She’s uninjured, but I’ve never been wrong with psychometry before, and she has scars in the right places.”

“That doesn’t—”

“It’s the least of our concerns.” Noll snaps, feeling progressively more sick the closer to the bottom floor they get. “She’s been fighting me every step of the way, it’s infuriating. Which reminds me. We’ll need to devise a series of subliminal suggestion tests that Mai won’t be familiar with, since hypnosis is too recognizable.”

“Oliver.”

“Her subconscious is completely out of control. And her cells have dual-frequencies, if you can imagine.” He watches the red digital numbers count down, his heart rate out of sync with his breaths. “Can’t wait to tell every defining expert in SPR how wrong we were about that,” he drolls, sarcasm easing some of the tightness in his chest. 

Leave it to Mai to turn years of research into sewage water, just by existing.

“Oliver.”

Noll obliges Lin with his attention, receiving a reprimanding stare for his efforts.

“When you say worst case scenario…?”

Thinking back to the shadows crawling all over her in the shower, the shadows under her feet in the alleyway, her reflex-attack on Monk…  Noll doesn’t clarify. His fears are just that. Fears. He can’t say more without evidence. 

“Get me the phlebotomy appointment,” he says, as the doors open before them.

Without waiting for a reply, Noll steps out into the bustle of the Midtown Tower, glaring white walls and strong-smelling perfumes clogging his senses, the sharp click of Lin’s shoes on tile falling into step beside him.

 

...

 

He doesn’t look softer in his sleep. He looks like cool marble, pristine, lying on his back with the blankets and sheets folded neatly at his waist. 

The window shades are all the way down, covering them in near total darkness, but Mai can see better without the glare of daylight, her eyes finally getting some relief—her whole body getting some relief—now that the main irritants have been dealt with. Earlier, Mai followed the itching sensations around the room and found four different wards from Ayako, tore them off the walls so she could breathe more deeply. Naru must have put them up before he went to sleep.

Standing at the edge of the pull-out, Ayako’s crumpled wards in her left fist, Mai tilts her head and considers the androgynous perfection of Naru’s face, the harmony of angles and features that distinguish him from so many others. It’s too bad, she thinks, that they can’t see what makes him truly unique, the blue lines of power thrumming under his skin, glowing like veins.

Her back is the only thing still stinging. Right before the sun went down, her back flared up worse than ever before. Mai writhed on the bathroom floor for an hour while Naru helped Lin load the equipment into his hotel room one floor below them, attacking it with her nails until she bled, trying to scratch it off of her, to draw out the light writhing and burning under her skin. It still throbs and aches, but it’s nothing. It’s nothing.

This is her first night without wards in two years.

She’d thought she would be in agony, overridden by dreams and visions, drifting in and out of her body, channeling against her wishes, spirits gathering, smothering her, but it’s the opposite. At home, she could always feel the intrusive energies pushing at the paper barriers as she slept, trying to get close, wanting to be near the light. But now, with no barriers at all, it’s like they’re afraid to come near her, scattering when she looks for them, hiding in pockets of the massive building where she won’t pursue them. Hiding from the shadows.

Staring down at Naru’s stone-like face, she wonders if this is what it feels like without the wards, if this is what she’s been hiding from all this time.

It feels like power.

She has more energy than she’s had in months. Like the second the sun went down something inside her woke up, nourishing her, completing her but leaving her hungrier than ever. Surrounded by tendrils of dark, she can sense the souls around her for miles if she reaches out, and yet nothing even comes close to her, nothing comes within reach. It’s euphoric.

She never wants to see the sun again.

Naru’s energy reflexively reaches for hers, wanting to connect, drawing Mai’s attention back down to him. He’s making lists in his sleep, lists of materials, of finances, of deadlines. She doesn’t understand most of it, but she likes the way it feels, like sticking her hand in a bowl of colorful beads. 

He shifts in his sleep, bending one arm up by his head, sighing, furrowing his brows.

She’s bored.

But Naru will be upset if she leaves without him. She doesn’t want to upset him. She has to wake him up.

Making up her mind, she lets go of the crumpled wards, rice paper leafing down onto the carpet, and crawls onto the bed.

Her left hand dips the mattress between his bent arm and his pillow, and her other squishes the pillow by his face. Naru’s other arm is down by his side, fingers brushing the inside of her right knee as she straddles him, metal springs contracting noisily under her weight. 

Watching his eyelids flutter as he sleeps, her clothes itching against her overheating skin, she lowers her gaze to where the loose collar of his ink-black t-shirt has slid out of place, exposing his collarbone, electric blue flowing through him, pulsing under his skin, tantalizing, asking her to take it, to touch.

He wants you to have it. 

Mai closes her eyes as the gentle voice washes through her, sighing as wet claws drag through her loose hair, tickling her scalp. 

You need it more than him, he has so much. You can take it.

Giving into the pull, she reaches out to the energy beneath her, brushing against his side of the connection, his barriers more relaxed in sleep. Gingerly, she pushes forward, starting at a sharp point, splitting his weakened walls until just a sliver of ki leaks out. 

But before she can pull it in, the body beneath her tenses, fortifications forcing her out, and she gasps at the sting of withdrawal, or maybe at the hand around her throat, slackening only partially upon recognition.

Naru’s cold eyes find her face in the dark, looking at her like she just attacked him in his sleep, but he wanted her to have it, right? Doesn’t he want to share? Selfish. He has so much. 

“What are you doing?”

“I’m bored,” she says, and sits back on his blanket-covered thighs, sliding her hands down his chest, over the soft fabric of his t-shirt. “Let’s check out the lounge or something.”

Searching her face, he loosens his hand around her neck until it rests on her sternum, layers of sleep slowing down his brain. “What time is it?”

“Or we could go outside?” she suggests, and watches confusion play out over his face.

“Why would we—”

Another spark of recognition lights his eyes, and Mai tilts her head, unable to sense his thoughts with his reinforced barriers. He uses his arms to push up to a seated position, inadvertently tipping Mai further into his lap, which she doesn’t mind; even separated by a blanket, his hips feel good beneath hers. Natural.

At the slight change in his breathing, Mai’s eyes refocus on how black his irises are in the shadows, how his skin is so pale against the gratuitous energy crackling beneath his skin, ultraviolet, if she looks for it. She reigns her vision in, control she thought impossible seemingly effortless without the sun beating down on her, and really looks at his face, looks really well. 

His jaw is locked, his eyes serious, distracting her as he smoothly pushes her onto her back, her hair splaying out over the foot of the blanket as he pins her to the creaking bed with a knee between her legs, returning his loose grip to her neck.

“What are you doing?” Mai laughs, and strains against his hold, amusement clouding her senses because she didn’t expect Naru to entertain her like this.

“Who are you?”

Mai purses her lips to hold in another laugh, drags her nails up under his black cotton shirt, feeling soft skin over hard muscle, his hand tightening ever-so-slightly around her neck until it makes her shiver with want, with how his power pulses around them, makes the room cold and heavy like the air just before hail.

“Answer me.”

She slides her thigh up the outside of his leg, grey pants soft against her bare skin, and his glare feels like a thousand cold flames licking at her core and it only makes her want to laugh more because he’s so angry all the time, he acts so collected but he’s not detached at all, he’s petty and irritable and stubborn just like her.

“Mai, can you hear me?”

“Of course,” she says, and squirms as she suppresses a grin. What a stupid question. 

He looks so tense. She laughs, eyes filling with amused tears because what, does he think she’s possessed?

“Idiot scientist,” she says, and the hand around her throat goes slack, his entire body relaxing, confusing Mai even further.

“Mai.”

“Naru,” she mimics, unable to keep down a smile, and he still hasn’t removed his hand from her throat, but it feels good, everywhere he touches her feels right, so she doesn’t mind. 

His abdominals twitch against her hands, and his hair falls into his eyes as he lowers his head, trying to think this through. He works so hard at such simple things.

“Your aura changed,” he says, in way of explanation, tentatively removing his hand from her throat.

Mai looks up past him, through him, at the shadows climbing the walls, making pictures on the ceiling, dancing for her. Naru’s heart is beating too fast. He needs to calm down, or he’ll have a hard time going back to sleep.

“Does it matter?” she asks, and she can feel his sigh in her chest as if it were her own, feel his anxiety prickling the palms of her hands.

“I’m still deciding,” he says, and Mai wriggles out from under him, kicking away the blankets that got tangled around their legs.

“Let’s go do something,” she says, stretching out at the foot of the mattress as Naru reaches over to the side table, grabbing his phone off the charger by the lamp.

Mai grins in the dark, slides her legs down the starched sheets, fingers toying with the edge of her shirt as Naru’s eyes flick over her body, unable to resist looking even as he holds the phone in front of him, the synthetic blue of his screen illuminating his face.

She rolls onto her side, cradling her head with her bent arm, and Naru finally manages to pull his gaze from her, squinting at the screen in front of him.

“It’s three in the morning.” He glares at her half-heartedly, sitting back on his heels, and locks the phone screen, leaving them in darkness. “Did you even go to sleep?”

“No,” she says, and rolls onto her stomach, elbows bent by her face as she rests her cheek on her hands.

As his eyes readjust, Naru’s gaze fixates on her low back. “What’s that?”

“What?”

The metal springs groan and jostle Mai as Naru makes his way over to her, knees curving the mattress toward him and causing Mai’s side to fall against his thighs as she tries to lift her head around and see why he’s crouching beside her, fingers delicately lifting the back of her shirt up further, his pulse accelerating.

“Mai,” he says, voice strained, hands unsteady as he pushes her shirt all the way up with his hands on her sides, fabric bunching under her arms as he straddles the backs of her thighs for a closer look. “Mai what is this?”

“Hm?” She tries to look over her shoulder, slightly distracted by the feel of the sheets against her breasts, but her neck is too stiff.

He’s not breathing normally, his even keel wavelength losing some of its chill.

Fingers gently brush her back, and Mai hisses as it stings, trying to remember why.

“Did you…” Naru takes another controlled breath, and Mai is starting to get concerned, although not enough to lift her face from her hands. “Did you do this?”

“Do what?” she asks, but inhales sharply as Naru traces his fingers down her back, irritating the inflamed skin from—

Oh. She’d forgotten.

“Does it look bad?” she asks, recalling how she’s zoned out from the pain, clawing at the invisible ring on her back.

He doesn’t say, just keeps breathing very, very carefully.

“Naru?” she asks, attempting once more to turn around, but she's met with his forearm as he grabs her hands, examining her fingers, drawing her attention to the residue of dried blood under her nails.

“Why would you do this?”

She furrows her brows, joining him in looking at her short, apparently filthy nails. “It itched,” she says, and Naru’s hand twitches around hers. He takes another set of calming breaths before climbing off of her, Mai bouncing marginally with the change in weight on the mattress as he gets up.

“Get up,” he says, voice clinical, and Mai raises her eyebrows, unimpressed.

“Alright,” she says, pulling her shirt down, enjoying the way the shadows under the bed curl up around the edge of the frame to greet her when Naru’s back is turned, on his way to the bathroom.

She hears the sound of him washing his hands long before she leisurely makes her way toward the bright light spilling out from the open door, and she figures she should probably do the same, looking at her gross nails. 

Crossing the threshold and stepping onto cool tile, her eyes wince closed, and it takes some effort on her part to get them back open. Blinking until her eyes adjust, she sees Naru standing by the edge of the tub, the undergarments and skirt she’d had hanging there now crumpled in a ball in the corner of the room, a variety of items lined up on the marble ledge at the head of the tub next to him, most notably a white first aid kit with a red cross on top.

“Sit,” he says, body tense, eyes unreadable, and Mai rolls her eyes as at the overreaction as she wanders further in, silk boxers sliding on porcelain-or-something as she sits on the edge of the tub.

“It can’t be that bad,” she says, and shivers from Naru’s hands on her low back.

Deft hands swiftly work her t-shirt up her back, and Mai’s adrenaline spikes as she lifts her arms mostly on instinct, brain racing to catch up as the cotton slides up over her head and off her arms, into her lap, exposing her chest to cold air, the AC running strong. Her arms are a second delayed in moving to cover her chest, and Naru beats her to it by handing her a small towel she silently tucks under her arms to cover her front, heart hammering away in her chest. Wrapping another towel around her hips, bunched at her low back, Naru turns the faucet on low behind her.

Any lingering shock or embarrassment is swiftly washed away as Naru holds the detachable nozzle up to her back, the shock of cold water running down her skin making her startle, then laugh at her own reaction. The sound of running water lulls her into a comfortable daze, even if the room is too bright to be pleasant.

“What were you thinking?” he hisses, finally, slipping back into his calm, reprimanding exterior as he replaces the nozzle. 

Mai hums as he gently wipes at her back with a damp piece of cloth, making every effort not to tug too much at the parts of her skin that hurt. It doesn’t matter. None of this even matters. “I told you.”

“It itched? And I’m meant to believe that?”

“Mostly,” she says, and chuckles at the wave of irritation emanating from Naru.

“Mai,” he says, as if to say ‘this isn’t a joke,’ but it only makes her purse her lips and try harder not to laugh. 

It isn’t until she feels him trace a diagonal line from her shoulder to her ribs that she stops laughing.

“Don’t touch that.”

Naru’s fingers hover over the skin of her largest scar, but he relents, going back to cleaning her stinging back, and Mai’s muscles relax.

“Mai.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You can’t expect me not to ask.”

“I expect you not to ask.”

They lapse into silence as he works, taking forever, drying her back before dabbing some sort of cold ointment on all over.

By the time he’s done, removing the towel from her hips that caught the water, Mai is twitching with the urge to move; to do something other than sit still.

Something needles at the back of her neck. He has something to say, but he’s hesitating. 

Sighing impatiently, Mai looks at him over her shoulder, trying to read the odd look on his face. He’s holding a roll of open-weave bandages in his hands, looking grim.

“Really,” she says, “bandages.” It’s just a few scratches. Isn’t it?

“Turn this way, with your side to me,” he says, no room for argument, and Mai complies out of pure boredom. 

Maybe if she behaves, he’ll do something fun after this. The thought has her spirits lifting, even before she realizes what it is that’s making him nervous.

She needs to lower the towel from her chest, for him to wrap the bandages around her. 

The epiphany has her suppressing laughter again, feeling lightheaded. Her modesty alarm must be broken. She must have forgotten how to care when the sun dropped out of view. And the look on his face, so pissed off, like this is the last thing he wants to be doing, it’s just so hilarious.

A snort slips out, and his glare worsens. “I take it you’re comfortable with this?”

“Sure,” she says, and moves to lower the towel, only to have his hand shoot out to stop her, pressing the towel back onto her chest, inadvertently spreading his hand directly over her towel-covered breasts, and Mai’s heart leaps at the intimate pressure, but Naru’s expression just gets angrier, like it’s her fault.

“You don’t even care, do you?” he says, and Mai takes pity on him, tries to put into words how she’s feeling right now. “Where was this professionalism when I was working your meridians?”

“Usually I do, I swear, I just,” she purses her lips to stifle a smile, his indigo eyes swirling with something like ire, “right now I feel so relaxed I just, it’s like being alone, but better.”

“You’re saying I might as well not even be here.” Now he really sounds annoyed, on top of his concern, and Mai covers her mouth with her hand, trying not to laugh. He can’t feel the shadows wrapped around her insides, he doesn’t understand what she means. “Is that why you told security I'm your brother?”

“Hm?” It takes her a minute to recall the conversation, to remember the entire fiasco. “Oh, I just.” She’s not sure why she said that. “It just came out?”

“Forget it. Let’s get this over with,” he says, letting the towel fall from her chest, cool air hitting her damp skin as he ignores her presence entirely in favor of unwinding the beginning of the roll.

“I don’t think of you as a brother,” she clarifies, and Naru responds by wrapping the first loop of bandage around her back, crossing over her chest, avoiding brushing his fingers against skin with militant precision.

“Right. You think of me as someone not even in the room.”

“Naru,” she chides, amusement building because is he…? “Are you actually mad that I’m not mad?” He must be beyond sleep-deprived, to let this much of himself slip through his walls.

“Lift your arm,” he says, completely detached, no longer even seeing her, and Mai does as she’s told, keeping quiet and letting him quickly and efficiently wrap the bandages all the way down, tying it off at her mid-to-low back.

He busies himself gathering up the mess, avoiding looking at her, stewing in his thoughts, and Mai is too busy enjoying being able to move around freely to care, stretching her legs as she stands. 

As Naru walks over to the cabinet, returning the first aid kit, Mai kicks her borrowed tee across the tile with her foot, not needing it since she’s covered in bandages, and leaves the glaring light of the bathroom behind, pleased to be back in the shade of the unlit living room.

By the time Naru comes out of the bathroom, she’s already crouched down in front of the mini fridge, unbothered by the soft hotel carpet under her toes, peeling open the black seal of one of several 375 ml bottle of Pendleton with her nails and smirking over her shoulder at him.

“How’d you get these?” she asks, and Naru emerges from the shadows looking rougher than ever, hair mussed, dark bags under perfect sleepless eyes, water marks on his grey pants. 

She’s surprised they let him book a room with a minibar. Not to mention, no Japanese hotel Mai’s ever heard of stocks—she checks the label—Canadian whiskey.

“Put that back.”

He has that especially self-assured expression he gets when he’s been caught doing something ethically questionable, and it makes Mai’s chest flutter to have that look directed at her, leaving her doubly glad she raised the shades to let the moonlight sweep over the suite, feeling just as good on her skin as the dark.

“You’re not even legal,” she teases, and Naru’s eyes are so much heavier at night, like obsidian stones.

“I am legal. Where I live.”

Mai snorts and peels the rest of the rubbery plastic off, letting it wisp down to the carpet as she stands and nudges the fridge closed with her foot. She called it. She knew that would bother him, narcissist.

“So am I,” she says, and twists off the cap, “where you live.”

“Mai, don’t—”

But it’s too late, the bottle already tipped up against her lips, the harsh smell clearing her sinuses as the sharp, spiced flavor rolls over her tongue, leaving a faint honey-flavored burn in its wake when she lowers the bottle. Better than she’d expected, considering the inexpensive packaging. She’s tasted better in her dreams, however; especially in the ones where she wakes up thinking of Naru’s lips.

She wipes her mouth with her wrist as Naru takes it from her hand, having crossed the distance in impressively few strides, and sets it down hard on the minibar, spilling a few fragrant drops on the marble countertop. Mai sets the cap down next to it, watching shadows behind him climb the wall under the windows, pulsating in harmony with her heart rate.

“You need to sleep. We both need to sleep,” he says.

Mai refocuses on Naru’s lean build as he walks over to the grey, rhombus-checkered loveseat they pushed against the window and sits, inhaling deeply before leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees, hanging his head and running his hands through his hair. She can’t recall ever seeing him this exhausted, even back when they were on cases together. 

It must be her fault.

Making up her mind, taking the chilled plastic bottle of whiskey with her, Mai treads softly over to him and holds out the bottle.

As Naru looks up slowly, Mai observes the depleted look in his eyes with mixed feelings. Guilt, but also a note of victory, weirdly pleased by the thought of wearing him down from prodigy, psychic professor-researcher to just a man who hasn’t slept in two or three days. 

His eyes swing from the bottle up to Mai, then back to the bottle, and she can practically hear the wires in his brain frying as he tries to think like a super computer but fails miserably, too sleep-deprived and stressed to function.

“Let’s share the bed,” she says, and his hardened gaze slides back up to hers.

He stares in silence for eternity, and Mai forgets to breathe, her hand tightening around the bottle. 

“And then you’ll sleep,” he clarifies, and Mai’s lips curl upward without her permission.

“Scout’s honor,” she says, and tries not to smirk.

After a long pause, continuing to scrutinize her eyes, Naru takes the bottle from her hand—fingers brushing hers deliberately—and drinks.

 

...

 

Tapping his fingers on the white tablecloth, the ceiling-high windows of the club level buffet room stretching up beside his chair, Noll oscillates between watching his glass of ice water condensate beside his steaming coffee, eavesdropping on conversations taking place above the general morning chatter and scraping of cutlery on plates, and shooting scathing looks at the suited-up pianist—a clear foreigner, with blue eyes and blonde hair—occupying the corner of the room. 

Throughout all of these activities, half of his attention follows Mai wandering around the breakfast buffet in the casual white sundress Noll charmed out of a wealthy divorcee during a strategic morning swim, with a few delicate mentions of his humiliated fiancé whose luggage was loaded onto the wrong flight, leaving her with nothing decent to wear even to shop for clothing. It was a nuisance, but Mai pleaded with him to wait on her apartment, and this was still easier than having to shop for her himself and face her wrath for whatever items he returned with.

He slips a hand into his pocket, searching for Mai’s key, but he hits Ayako’s wrinkled paper wards first, the ones he knows he put up properly, and yet he found them crumpled up on the carpet by the pull-out this morning.

Watching her smile faintly at the blonde pianist, who gleams from her attention in a room of otherwise distracted patrons, Noll is losing patience with how suspiciously disinterested she’s been in the assorted display of Western and Japanese dishes lining the long white tables, aside from the occasional ice swan uselessly taking up space. Of course she’d prefer the part of the table that serves zero discernible purpose, other than being nice to look at.

Mai shyly walks the length of the table with various fruits piled on decorative silver trays, touching nothing but looking like she desperately wants to, and Noll’s gut contracts further.

His abdomen has been wound tight in a knot of self-disgust ever since this morning, waking up to Mai sleeping against his side in only bandages and boxers, her hair spread out over his shoulder, all of the pillows smelling like her. After coaxing her away from the whiskey last night, he’d made a tactical concession and shared the king bed with her, only to better keep an eye on her after the unsettling discovery of her shredded back. This time he went with a graduate-level lecture on behavioral biology. Knocked her right out. If only Noll had slept so easily.

He clears his throat for the third time since sitting down, his vocal cords still sore from arguing with her all morning about why they won’t be sharing the bed again tonight.

Blocking his view of Mai tucking a brown lock behind her ear, Lin sets two bowls of breakfast down on their table.

“It’s too soon,” Noll says, in response to Lin’s earlier suggestion, pushing the small serving of natto and fried egg on rice away from his cup of black coffee, back toward Lin. 

Noll prefers a lot of things about Japan. Breakfast isn’t one of them. 

Lin gives him an unimpressed glance as he takes his seat, pulling Noll’s compact, black notebook out of seemingly thin air, nowhere to conceal it on the black vest covering his white dress shirt.

“Under normal circumstances we’d be in agreement,” Lin says, flipping through his notes, “but we’re on a time crunch when it comes to demonstrating sufficient progress toward the agreed upon start date.” He stares flatly at Noll through the hair that fell into his eyes while he was looking down. “You don’t have a choice.”

Opening SPR again. It’s the best way he’s going to be able to justify his extended stay in Japan for his visa, since he filed for the sabbatical retroactively after already entering the country. 

Subtly adjusting the position of his chair to see around Lin, catching Mai wrapping a cloth napkin around the metal serving utensil and happily scooping melon into a white bowl, Noll feels the weight of her instability settling onto his shoulders, recalling the mess of angry red gashes covering her back beneath the bandages.

She mutilated herself. That alone is disturbing, without additional complications.

“She’s too unstable,” he summates, hooking a finger through the handle of his cup, holding the rest of the coffee’s weight with his fingers underneath.

Being eighteen, turning nineteen this summer, Mai is firmly outside the increased risk range for adolescents, but that doesn’t necessarily rule out conventional causes; while self-mutilative behavior, or SMB, is only prevalent among 4% of the general adult population, that number goes up to 21% in adult clinical populations, a data set Noll now feels comfortable classifying Mai in, after her recent displays. 

‘It itched,’ she’d said.

Aside from her flimsy delivery, the statement fails entirely to explain the level of violence, the depth of the scratches themselves; her back was covered in dried blood, the inside of the black t-shirt she’d been wearing dried stiff with it.

After examining the short length of her nails, testing their bluntness on his own skin while she slept, Noll is convinced that in order for her to achieve this level of violence against herself with just her nails, she would have had to apply significantly more pressure than most would be able to at that angle, inflicting significant levels of pain that would most likely deter her from crossing over the previous scratches with equal force and creating such a chaotic, cross-hatched pattern of wounds on her back.

“Madoka is expecting a call from you,” Lin says, interrupting his thoughts. 

Laying a napkin over one knee of his black pants, he busies himself with breakfast and reading through whatever he’s written in the notebook.

“That’s unfortunate,” Noll says, placing his coffee cup down on the saucer, the bitter taste of the dark roast lingering on the back of his tongue; he’d passed on his usual English tea this morning, requiring something that better suited his level of sleeplessness. “She won’t be getting one.”

He doesn’t have time to entertain anyone else's needs, not when he’s still so far from locating her motivation for harming herself, atop of all else.

Bearing in mind that SMB is severely under-researched due to a variety of logistical and ethical constraints, the most current theoretical models, including that of Suyemoto, hypothesizes SMB may result from desire to accomplish anything from mastery of penetration—channeling sexual impulses—boundary definition, reduced tension, mastery over mortality, and so on. 

However, in cases where the subject makes zero effort to hide the behavior—as supported by the work of Brown, Comtois, & Linehan as well as Haines, Williams, Brain, & Wilson—the primary function of SMB could be argued to be communicating to others that the subject is suffering and in need of intervention.

In other words, to get attention.

But Mai seemed to honestly underestimate the severity of her actions, including the wounds themselves. She’d laughed at him.

Circling around to the other table, a clean-shaven man over thirty with wire-rimmed glasses eagerly places a hard-boiled egg on Mai’s plate for her, chatting amicably as Mai smiles kindly, and Noll loses the rest of his pitiful appetite.

It’s possible she was in another state of consciousness, like she was in the alleyway, where she’s only partially aware of her actions.

“There are a few buildings that meet your specifications for rent in Shibuya. We can take a look at them today.”

Noll doesn’t bother responding, can still feel her inflamed skin hot underneath his fingers. He’s too furious with himself to eat, furious with himself for allowing it to happen, for leaving her unattended again. She’d seemed stable when he’d left the room with Lin, but he’s quickly learning that her mental state shifts rapidly and violently, causing harm to herself or others. He can’t prove it was supernaturally provoked, either, despite his gut feeling. If he can’t identify supernatural interference, he may need to hand her over to a specialist; Noll isn’t a clinical psychologist. He’s just better researched than most of them. And better able to handle her mood swings, given her potentially fatal tendency toward lashing out energetically.

“Fine. But we keep Mai out of SPR, for the time being.”

Lin hesitates with his chopsticks halfway to his mouth. “If you think that’s wise,” he says, and delivers the rice to his waiting mouth.

“Say it,” Noll says. 

If he had any patience for withheld thoughts before, it’s certainly gone by today.

“I’m curious how you plan to do that, is all.”

“Plan to do what?”

“Keep her out of it.”

Noll sits with that for a minute, watching a drop of water slide down the curved glass in front of him. Lin is starting to sound like Madoka. Refusing to say what she means, always putting everything in question form. 

The pianist is grinning at Mai again, switching to an even softer playing style, and Noll is getting increasingly agitated, the sunlight reflecting off the baby grand blistering his eyes.

“Fair point,” he says, and wraps his fingers around the cool glass, damp against his skin, and drinks for several seconds before lowering it directly back onto the ring of water it left on the tablecloth.

Of course it’s unwise. It’s bloody obviously unwise, now that Noll’s sleep-deprived brain is deciding to participate in the discussion. He can’t leave her unsupervised while he’s at the office or on investigation, with things as they are. And he can’t leave her in anyone else’s care, because she might accidentally obliterate them with whatever overloaded PK phenomena she exhibited in the alley.

He hasn’t yet told anyone the finer details of what he’s learned about Mai’s behavior shifts or psychic abilities, mostly due to the fact he’s unsure what she’ll do if she figures out he’s broken their deal. She’s devoted large amounts of energy to keeping them in the dark about this; if he’s going to gain her trust, he needs her to view him as an extension of herself, a safe place to deposit the secrets she’s guarding so closely. But he might not be allowed to sustain that position for much longer.

The white cotton dress drapes off of her flatteringly, the imperfection of the fit doing an astonishing amount toward drawing the eye to the delicate angles of her waist and shoulders as she walks toward their table holding two generous plates, plain white tennis shoes endearingly immature compared to the dress.

Noll rests his eyes, trying to think. He needs twenty more minutes of sleep. Sleep without Mai breathing against his shoulder and neck, keeping him up and tense.

He still hasn’t even begun to figure what sparked the change in her aura last night; by the time he woke up, it had returned to normal. At first he’d thought she was possessed, or at least influenced by another entity, but Noll hadn’t felt a foreign presence around Mai, even with his adrenaline response being reminiscent of being in the room with a powerful spirit. All he could feel was Mai’s aura, just… different. Heavier, more dense. 

That said, he’s still unaccustomed to being able to sense aura at all, still trying to familiarize himself with the nuances since discovering he can somewhat detect these sorts of things in Mai—likely due to their shared pathway. He needs Hara to examine her as soon as possible.

Noll opens his eyes as Mai approaches their square table, humming happily as she sits down to his right, arranging her plate of melon and strawberries next to a plate with an egg and syrup-covered waffles. Noll feels some relief at her seemingly restored appetite.

“Can you believe they do this, like, five times a day?” she whispers, bright eyed and bushy tailed, and Noll feels like an idiot for the hundredth time in three days, because of course a free buffet would be the way to get her to eat. He can’t believe he didn’t think of that.

“Why wouldn’t you touch the serving tongs?” he asks, and Mai’s shoulders tense, her silver fork hovering over the waffles.

Lin shifts in his seat, taking interest in the interaction between bites of food.

“In the buffet line. You used a napkin,” Noll explains, making admittedly virulent eye-contact with the pianist whose eyes still wander back to Mai every few minutes, causing him to pale and skip a note, cringing away from Noll’s gaze. Satisfied, Noll feels his stomach settling down, the beginnings of hunger returning to him. “I want to know why.”

“Germs,” she says, with a sheepish smile that Noll hardly trusts, digging into her breakfast with a knife and fork. She uses the cutlery in a European fashion, knife in her left hand, fork in the right. “I can’t stand them.”

“You didn’t seem concerned last night,” Noll says, and Lin chokes on his tea, hitting his chest and clearing his throat as Mai’s face turns several shades of pink. It takes him a few moments to understand their responses, but by then it’s too late, Mai already looking like she’s going to evaporate in her chair. “On the carpet,” he clarifies, but the attempt to correct the misunderstanding appears to have the opposite effect, Lin coughing and avoiding his gaze, looking increasingly scandalized.

“I think I left my phone by the coffee machine,” Lin says, napkin falling from his thigh as he stands and walks hastily toward the buffet, his cell phone sitting on the tablecloth beside his tea.

“It appears I’ve given him the wrong impression,” Noll observes dryly, watching Mai’s blushing face over the rim of his coffee as he lifts it to his lips.

“S-seems that way,” she says, and shoves a large piece of waffle into her mouth, chewing anxiously.

That uncanny calm from the night before is nowhere to be found, and Noll struggles to negotiate the difference between the red-eyed nymph who laughed in the face of his discomfort and the blushing virgin in front of him trying to choke herself with food.

Maybe she was possessed.

Noll taps his finger on the handle of his cup, examining her quietly, eyes dropping down to her recently trimmed nails, scrubbed clean.

He’s not learning fast enough. The conflicting timelines of how he’d prefer to work around her apparent trauma and how quickly he’s feeling the need to act regarding the supernatural phenomena targeting her is putting him between a rock and a hard place. 

Watching syrup drip off her fork onto the white plate, Noll covers his mouth with his hand, running the scenarios.

He needs to individually interview each of the former SPR members to gather context regarding Mai’s changing behaviors. She never said he couldn’t ask them any questions, just that he couldn’t share what she’s told him. Better yet, if he interviews her in a group setting, the others could potentially point out inconsistencies in her story Noll lacks the context to catch.

Maybe they can vouch for the scars.

Nothing that Noll has learned since arriving comes close to explaining what he saw when he used psychometry, when she was being tortured. Her arm was gored, her head bleeding profusely, and she wasn't breathing properly, possibly from a punctured lung. He’d been sure he was losing her. There hadn’t been any doubt. And yet all that’s left are fully healed scars that she won’t admit are related to the incident, an incident she’s still claiming was a spirit-induced hallucination, meaning Noll saw what she saw, what the spirit wanted him to see, not what was really there. 

Catching a glimpse of her tongue as she licks the fork clean, Noll sighs in resignation, brushing his bottom lip with his thumb.

The truly infuriating part is that she very well might have fallen off a bike and broken her arm, and she might really have had that head scar for a long time, too, like she claims. It could all be coincidental, and Noll wouldn’t know the difference because he can’t access her medical records without her cooperation and he wasn’t here.

He lifts the coffee cup to his lips, steam lapping at his face, and stares deep into the chasm of his mind.

He could ask Yasuhara. 

The thought has him gripping the cup too tightly, hot china burning his fingers. He doesn’t want to ask Yasuhara about her life, about all the things he was there for that Noll wasn’t. About the scars on her body.

He doesn’t want to know how close they’ve gotten.

“You’re not eating anything?”

Noll’s vision clears, turning his attention away from his mind and back out into the room, back onto Mai as morning sun highlights her brown hair, choppy bangs falling into mahogany eyes as she props her elbow on the tablecloth and cups her chin with her hand.

“How is your back?”

Her lips pull taut into a flat line, warmth draining from her expression, and Noll does not mourn the loss, despite what the tightness of his chest would indicate.

“Fine,” she says, and Noll sets the cup back on the saucer, absently picking up the silver stirring spoon, watching it glint in the light. 

Holding the cool metal in his hand, nostalgia fogs his peripheral vision.

“Despite what you might think, I don’t fault you for hiding your abilities initially,” Noll says, and turns the utensil over in his hand, the ornate gold and black ceiling reflected in the back of the polished spoon. “It was a mistake on my part to assume you’d be forthcoming, given our history.” Looking up from the spoon, he meets her guilty eyes with strategic timing. “Given what you know about me.”

Pulling her elbow back from the table, she lowers her gaze to Noll’s water glass. He traces the length of the spoon with his index finger.

“I wanted to tell you,” she says, expression somber as she gathers her hair in her hands and arranges it over her left shoulder, fingers getting caught in the tangles. “I don’t know why I hid it.”

“Yes you do,” Noll says, and Mai’s eyes snap back up to his, not an ounce of repentance in her amber gaze. “It’s the same reason you’re hiding it, now.”

“I told you everything.”

Staring at the dark circles under her eyes, Noll once again feels he’s walking a fine line, to pressure her without losing trust; to stimulate enough of a response to gather sufficient information without risking further damage. 

And the damage is extensive. Noll is now sure within less than a 0.04% margin of error that he’s dealing with more than just supernatural or psychic phenomena, here; the events he overheard that horrific night on the phone would alone be enough to incite a PTSD response, which could potentially result in even SMB, but something about the way she acted around the others—about how they acted around her, seemingly wanting to help but afraid to touch her, like she’s a feral cat—tells him she’s been fighting numerous battles longer and harder than he’d initially feared.

“Good,” he says, gently placing the spoon back on the table beside his coffee and folding his fingers together on the tablecloth. “Then you won’t mind if I stop by your apartment today.”

If he had doubts before, the way her shoulders tense at his words make her deceptions abundantly clear. 

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she says, her voice nearly drowned out by the piano and conversations in the room.

Noll takes a moment to examine her phrasing. ‘Not a good idea.’ It’s what one might say to warn another, without directly revealing knowledge. The look in her eyes puts him over.

Pity.

“You think I can’t handle it.”

Her silence says more than he would have preferred. 

Well. That’s an interesting development.

“Lin,” Noll says, as the older man returns to the table, setting down an extra cup of coffee in front of Noll they both know he didn’t need. “I have a favor to ask.”

Settling back into his chair, Lin looks at him and nods once in acknowledgement, apparently recovered from the misplaced display of propriety that had driven him from the table.

“Inform the others that we’ll be resuming SPR and get a head count on who’s interested,” Noll says, and rubs his jaw in thought, ignoring Mai’s eyes drilling holes in the side of his head.

Lin nods again and goes back to eating. “I’ll let you know.”

“And one more thing,” Noll says, and Lin looks up from his meal again, slightly annoyed, judging by the tension between his brows. “See if you can wrangle housekeeping before we leave.” Suppressing the sadistic smirk wanting to form in the corner of his mouth, Noll pulls Mai’s plate of fruit closer to himself and picks up a green cube of melon with his fingers, holding it by his mouth while Mai watches his hand with rapt attention. “The carpet in my suite requires cleaning.”

In his peripherals, the pallor of Lin’s completion turns mildly anemic, and, after an incredulous pause, Mai reaches over to drink from Noll’s glass of melting ice water.

Glancing over at the pianist, now playing diligently with his eyes glued to the keys, Noll sinks his teeth into the meat of the fruit. 

The juice bursts in his mouth, cold and sour, and Noll feels marginally more awake than he has all week.

 

...

 

The metal tip of the yellow measuring tape hits the opposite wall with a plastic warble as Naru writes down the measurement, one black-clad knee on the blue industrial carpet, his pen scratching away in the spiral-bound notebook resting open on the floor. 

Trying not to appear as impatient as she feels, Mai attempts to open the window of the mid-sized office, new, black leather gloves helping her grip as she jerks the pane up, exposing the screen, and takes a deep breath of fresh air. The walls of this office have been recently painted, and they’ve been inhaling fumes for longer than thirty minutes as Naru painstakingly measured every square inch of the building. 

A sour whiff spoils her fresh air as Mai looks out the window at the dumpster and stone wall in front of her, separating the side of the building from the sidewalk.

Of all the potential offices Naru and Lin have dragged her to today, this has to be by far the worst.

Dusting off her gloved hands against one another, she frowns down at the high-quality materials currently being ruined by her sweaty palms. Noticing she couldn’t find her own in her purse yesterday, Naru handed her these before they left, for her ‘conditional aversion to microorganisms,’ and Mai had been too busy trying not to mess up his flawless misinterpretation to notice the price tag until it was too late, Naru already cutting the plastic attachment with his utility knife. Other than a brief vision of a stockroom employee with freckles, the gloves meet her requirements, having minimal energetic imprints.

She doesn’t want to know where he got the chic sunglasses and white sundress she’s currently wearing. Her body finally acclimated to the lingering impressions on the items, after an hour or so of recalling sinking her toes into Caribbean sand and the odd aftertaste of tequila while she tried to eat breakfast. The glasses are doing wonders for the new levels of light-sensitivity she’s been experiencing since this morning, and the delicate fabric of the dress would be extremely comfortable, if it weren’t for how her back itches under bandages every time she moves. She still hasn’t had a chance to see what exactly had Naru freaking out about her back last night, but to be honest she has bigger fish to fry at the moment.

Like how hideous this office is. 

“It’s disgusting,” she says, as Naru stands back up, retracting the measuring tape with a somewhat nerve wracking snap.

Mai can hear Lin and the property owner discussing things in the other room, their voices muffled by the closed door of the white-walled office Naru and her are currently occupying.

“Really? It reminds me of your apartment,” Naru says, tone dry, and Mai sucks on her teeth, too proud to agree, but not idiotic enough to try and argue against fact.

“I liked the second one,” she says, and turns her back to the window, nose scrunching at the now competing smells of garbage and drying paint.

“The third building had a better layout, better space allocation,” Naru says, picking up his notebook from the carpet, “and it had a kitchen.”

“I suppose I should familiarize myself with that room, considering how much tea you go through in a day,” she drawls, crossing her arms and leaning back on the warm glass.

Naru looks up from reading his notes, a note of caution in his otherwise flat eyes. “Is that your way of accepting the job?”

Mai looks away and up, taking interest in the brown rings of stains on the ceiling’s foam panels. “Not really.”

Despite Naru’s urging, she can’t help but feel sick to her stomach about rejoining SPR. If she thought it was hard to hide her abilities before, it’ll be impossible to hide them while on investigations; but beyond that, there’s a part of her that doesn’t want to get too comfortable with this, to get attached to everyone again.

“The assistantship is only temporary, until you have enough experience to be an investigator.”

“It’s not that,” she sighs, lowering her shade-covered eyes back down to Naru’s contemplative face.

He keeps assuming she doesn’t want to work for him, not that she doesn’t want to work for SPR. It’s making it hard to explain.

“Then what is it?”

“I already have a job.”

“You’re not going back to the shop,” he says, with all the calm in the world, and Mai finds herself not for the first time envious of his overconfidence. 

“I have other jobs.”

Naru almost leans back on the wall across from her, crossing his arms, then catches himself at the last second and steps toward her instead. “Where else do you work?”

“Does it matter?”

“If it’s in a population-dense area, yes. It matters.” A car horn blares outside, loud through the open window, and Naru’s eyebrow twitches. “You’ll put yourself and others in danger.”

Moving away from the window, gravitating toward where Naru stands in the center of the empty room, Mai wonders again why he keeps saying things like that, wonders what she’s missing from her recent memories. “My abilities aren’t dangerous.”

“I can’t determine that if you won’t discuss them.”

Instead of his eyes, she finds herself fixating on the flat buttons of his black dress shirt, about as expressive but by far less intimidating.

“How much do you make?” he asks, switching approaches once again, and Mai breathes a sigh of relief.

“That doesn’t matter.”

“Then you’ve misinterpreted the purpose of a job.” That draws her eyes back up to glare at him, his own eyes narrowed in annoyance. “More than I’d pay you?”

“I don’t want your money.”

“Even if you earn it?” He steps toward her, and Mai steps back, looking down at her tennis shoes. “It won't be my money. It’ll be the business’ money.”

Leather sticks to her skin as she grips her arms painfully. She hasn’t quite recovered from Lin’s lesson on psychic barriers this morning, trying and failing to visualize mental walls that don’t bend and pop the second something touches them. In the end, Naru lost patience with their lack of progress; he manually re-stabilized her energy via contact and ushered them both out the door, dryly hinting at their incompetence the entire time.

“I need to think.”

Naru’s perplexed silence weighs heavily on the room, until his perfect hands fill her downcast vision, holding the black plastic measuring tape. 

“Hold this,” he says, pulling out the metal end of the measuring tape and handing it to Mai. 

Holding the metal tab between her index and middle fingers, Naru walking the tape to the other side of the room, Mai takes another deep, calming breath, inhaling wet paint on rotten fish.

 

...

 

Mai grunts as she pulls her empty green duffel out of the closet, tossing it onto the tatami with a huff. He could have offered to help her reach it. Not that she would have let him, since she doesn’t want him getting any ideas about the taped-up cardboard boxes in her closet or the books stacked underneath and around them. But he could have tried. 

Grabbing clean clothes at random, she watches him out of the corner of her eye. He doesn’t look well. The shadows under his eyes rival her own, and his thoughts look far off, holding the pink bed sheet aside and staring out her window. He hasn’t spoken much since he threatened to make her go shopping if she was unwilling to return to her apartment just to pack some things, swearing on her life—with some resistance—that he’d keep his distance from anything too sensitive.

Looking back down into her closet, the edges of the tawny brown box in front of her are dented and dusted black, the creased grey duct tape looking wet from the way the light hits it. She wishes she knew which information was even sensitive, at this point.

He knows about the ectoplasm, he seems aware of her energetic instability, but what else does he know? He still refuses to talk about what happened in the alleyway, about the shower, any of it. Mai’s recollection of the events in the alley are foggy at best, she can’t access the memory, and so she’s relying on Naru’s reactions to fill in the details of what occurred, but he’s giving nothing away. He must be biding his time, lulling her into a false sense of security before he triggers the trap. She’s balancing on a paper thin blade, and he knows it, and he knows she knows it, and it’s leaving her more on edge than ever.

Focusing on the clothes hanging off the wooden rod in front of her, before he can catch her staring, she braces her hands on her hips. Or, she tries to focus. Her bandaged back is itching again.

Scanning the pile of books lining the closet floor, her eyes stop on what appears to be a small chunk of slate. Tilting her head, Mai slowly reaches down to pick it up with her gloved hand.

It’s a jagged rock, shades of grey filling in its grooves, blue moss growing on the underside. But what stands out is the vibrant red dripping from its sharpest edge onto her shoes, soaking into the moss on the stone. The longer she stares, the further into her mind she retreats, a far-off memory beckoning from the sidelines, calling her in.

The sound of Naru closing a kitchen cabinet snaps her out of it, and her eyes refocus to find she’s holding a yellow paper crane Kimiko made for her last summer; she’s crumpled it in her hand. 

Uncurling her fingers, she lets it fall to the floor.

He found Ayako’s wards, the ones Mai tore down last night. She saw him examining them this morning before breakfast. He hasn’t realized Mai did it. Or if he has, he isn’t telling. Recalling the freedom of last night, the world wide open behind her eyes after the sun fell out of the sky, Mai can’t bring herself to tell him, either. But that leaves her in a slight predicament.

He’s going to keep trying to put up more.

It’s something she’s been fighting with herself over since Naru informed her—ever the charmer, lover of free will—that she’s to stay at the hotel under his supervision until further notice. Until he finds something more ‘permanent.’ The word has her stomach in knots. She doesn’t even want to think about it. Can’t take the possibility of Naru’s return to Japan being anything but fleeting. Can’t allow herself to get too attached to the concept.

“Matsuzaki’s wards,” Naru starts, and Mai freezes, hands on a white blouse she was in the middle of shoving into her duffel. “Did you take them down?”

Did he read her thoughts? She checks the gold cord between them, feels it lying dormant. He’s gauging her response. She feels like she’s in a petri dish. 

They aren’t safe. You won’t be safe.

Mai swallows, nods with the voice inside her. A quick glance confirms Naru is feigning distraction, looking around her kitchen while actually tracking what she’s doing by the closet, and she pushes the box back in behind the door, books tumbling over each other as they’re displaced.

“I don’t want them,” she says, and braces for impact.

He opens another cabinet over the counter, practically putting his head inside it. “I didn’t ask for your opinion.”

Obviously he hasn’t cooled off yet, since their most recent, pointless argument on the drive here. It feels like they’ve barely stopped fighting since he arrived. Taking a deep breath as she faces him, his irritation nearly pulls the truth right out of her mouth, but that same warning goes off in her gut, like static on the bottoms of her feet. She can’t tell him. Not yet. 

“I don’t want them.”

“You don’t want wards,” he says, shutting the cabinet and pacing around the counter. She nods stiffly. He stares at her unduly hard for a few long minutes, challenging her to explain. “Is that a joke?”

She presses her tongue to her teeth, trying not to feel embarrassed under that heavy a glare. He probably thinks she has no clue what she’s doing. Mai doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing, but she knows what feels right. 

He seems to completely disregard the request, turning away and resuming his blatant examination of her apartment. His eyes catch on something on the floor, and he slowly crouches down, picking it up between his index and thumb to examine it before looking up at her, face giving nothing away. Mai tries not to show that she recognizes what he’s holding: a grain of ritual salt. At her silence, he simply stands and walks into the kitchen, getting a plastic bag from the drawer and dropping the salt inside. 

She needs to stop letting him inside her apartment.

 

 

Naru carries her duffel over his shoulder while walking down the stairs in front of her, watching his step while Mai watches his hands, strong digits digging into the army green fabric. 

It’s a little weird, she thinks, Naru doing the lifting instead of standing off to the side and mocking Mai for almost dropping some it’s-as-heavy-as-it’s-important computer/processor whatever-it-does. But she guesses things are different, now. 

Her eyes hurt slightly even with the sunglasses digging into the bridge of her nose, the sunlight increasingly irritating as the day goes on. This level of light sensitivity… It’s new. She’s not entirely sure what to make of it.

When Naru turns the corner at the landing, his eyes briefly trace her body before returning forward, leaving her feeling raw. She can’t tell if he’s looking because he’s concerned or because he’s pissed or because he wants to look, if she’s imagining these things or not. Desperate, wishful thinking. 

Doing her best to ignore the ringing in her ears from the mess of surrounding frequencies, Mai does her best not to trip over herself as her shoes hit the landing and she starts down the second flight of concrete steps. 

She’s feeling somewhat stable, for now, likely due to how thorough Naru was in ‘recalibrating’ her before even allowing her outside—it never fails to amaze her, how he somehow managed to know what was wrong without even knowing what was wrong, but she’s getting tired of being impressed. Besides, she’s not sure how long it’ll last; hopefully until they’re back at the hotel. If Naru has to pull her out of the street one more time, he might never speak to her again.

She lets gravity carry her down the last step, giving into her momentum, and trots up next to Naru.

A flash of color draws her attention up ahead: a familiar man with messy hair, wearing blue jeans and a yellow shirt walking up the sidewalk from the street, on his way to his unit. Mai pokes her head out from around Naru, giving him a small wave.

Masahiro raises his eyebrows as he gets closer, eyeing Naru suspiciously as he walks past him and stops in front of Mai, at which point Naru turns and backtracks, letting the duffel hang from his hand and stepping closer to Mai’s side.

“Hey kiddo,” he says, sizing Naru up. “This the guest?”

She sees Naru’s eyes flick down to Hiro’s cigarette before he responds.

“You must be the neighbor. Yasuhara speaks highly of you,” Naru says, and Mai purses her lips in a closed-mouth smile.

Blowing smoke to the side, Masahiro nods. “He’s a moron. Goin’ somewhere?” he asks, appearing casual. 

“You forgot to introduce yourself,” Naru says, equally dry, and Hiro nods again, furrowing his brows.

“Yeah, thing is, so did you,” he says, and Mai rolls her eyes, losing patience with whatever half-baked testosterone fight this is; she never realized they had so much in common.

“Naru, meet Masahiro. Masahiro, Naru,” she says and crosses her arms.

“Glad you finally stopped by, Davis-san,” Hiro says, and Naru’s eyes narrow. “Sure got here fast. When’d you fly in?”

Mai glares at Naru, trying to will him into being amicable. He doesn’t pay attention.

“Yasuhara mentioned you might be of use to me,” he says, but it doesn’t sound like a compliment.

Mai is about to complain when a rotting, earthy smell fills her nostrils, chills running rampant beneath her skin as her eyes are pulled back toward the stairs, stopping on the filth-encrusted figure of the clay boy, dirt spatter surrounding him on the cement steps. The air warps around him, like he’s displacing space by just standing there, watching her. Fear grips her, making it impossible to breathe, but after a moment, for some reason, locking gazes with yellow sclera, Mai feels… 

Sad.

“That was some scare you gave us.”

“Was it? My assistant made the call.”

“Did your assistant book your flight, too?”

“Sounds like something an assistant might do. I hear you looked for Mai when she was missing. I haven’t had a chance to say my thanks.”

“Not sure what you’d be thanking me for.”

“Neither am I.”

Mai takes a small step toward the stairs, transfixed by the waves of energy rolling off of him, by the heat pulsing out from where he stares lifelessly into her eyes. 

‘Sorry, about this,’ he’d said, and pushed.

The memory sends her senses spiraling, blood filling her lungs, causing her to wheeze and gurgle, but this time it doesn’t hurt, she doesn’t care because she wants to talk to him. She needs to ask him about the record. She needs to ask him why Naru is here. She needs to ask him why.

Mai starts walking toward the boy spirit, unable to feel her legs, unable to feel the air molecules move around her as she propels her physical body through space—

A hand on her wrist stops her, and she turns slowly, meeting the mixed accusation and question in Naru’s eyes with a blank stare. “Where are you going?” 

Mai blinks, opens her mouth, closes it. Draws a blank. 

She’s not sure. 

Naru seems to reach the same conclusion, jaw muscles tight as he pulls her back toward him, letting go of her wrist and guiding her with his hand on her low back.

“Oy. Kid.” Mai looks back over her shoulder at Hiro’s gruff visage, watching her go with a strange look on his face. “You need something, let me know.”

She feels like there’s extra significance, more weight behind the words than usual, but she’s still reeling from the feeling she’s missing something vital, and, before she can reply, Naru is ushering her into the dark interior of the waiting cab, closing the car door firmly behind her.

 

...

 

That night, Noll dreams of the forest floor bathed in sunlight.

Every leaf rustling above him is a vibrant, glowing green, and the breeze is thick and warm, almost as warm as her legs in his lap, propping his book as he reads. Even the earth beneath him is dry and pleasant.

"You’ll have to go back in soon," Gene says, lying on his back beside her, holding her hand like she’s always asking them to.

"I don’t want to," she replies, and flexes her small, dirt-stained feet, her sandals discarded somewhere in the meadow behind them.

"Me either," says Gene, and Noll sighs and turns the page of his book, a small, reluctant smirk tugging at the edge of his lips.

 

Chapter Text

The only similarity between the elaborate bathroom in Naru’s suite and the minimal, rectangular one in Lin’s, Mai thinks, gripping the rounded edge of the countertop, is the red and black marble. With the lights off and the door closed, enclosing the small space in the minimal light that slips under the door, the colors of the polished surface are washed out, but Mai can see the galactic crystalline structures in perfect clarity, as clearly as she can see the reflection of the bathtub-shower behind her when she looks up from the sink.

She shouldn’t be able to see this well in the dark. There are a lot of things Mai shouldn’t be able to do.

Staring at her face in the mirror, Mai can’t quite relate with the woman she’s looking at. She looks different. Her hair is long and smooth, and her eyes the only spots of color in the otherwise grayscale shadows of the room: wine red. It feels like looking directly into the uncanny valley. Like she’s facing a replica that doesn’t quite match the original.

She can hear Lin and Naru in the other room, speaking in hushed whispers.

They’re talking about you.

Ignoring the accompanying fog of nausea creeping up inside her stomach, Mai turns on the chrome faucet with shaking hands, bending over the white sink and washing her eyes out. Cold water drips from her nose and eyelashes, rolling down her neck as she raises stinging eyes. In the mirror, it looks like rivulets of blood, dark red tracks leading down from her hairline and eyes, accumulating in the lines of her mouth, but it’s not. It’s not.

The smell of sulfur has lingered all over her since she woke this morning, alone, in the freezing king-size bed Naru refused to share. She doesn’t recall dreaming, but the clay boy has been clinging to her mind like wet drapes stuck to a windowpane since she woke.

If she closes her eyes, she can see him standing in the center of a dark, musty room with cement floors and a high ceiling, a small, tattered cushion in the corner of the room, the corner of a red record sleeve peeking out from underneath.

You’re running out of time.

Mai squeezes her eyes shut even harder, bracing her elbows on cool marble and leaving her weight on the counter, taking pressure off of her spine that aches every time she moves. She’s feeling worse every day, more frail, more drained. A gnawing hunger follows her everywhere she goes, and she’s been eating as much as she can without drawing attention to herself, or, more attention than Naru already pins her with every time she enters or exits a room, his eyes like physical weights on her shoulders. It hurts. She’s hollowed out and it hurts. Naru knows something is wrong, is waiting for her to tell him, but she can’t. She thought she could but she can’t.

The pungent smell of burning skin stings her nostrils, and she finally notices the damp hands pressing down on her shoulders, pressing her elbows painfully into the countertop. She doesn’t need to open her eyes to see white sclera staring into her mind, his singed hands popping near her ears. When she speaks, the words come out soft like feathered down spilling out of a pillow, or a white lily wilting in the rain, trampled on the sidewalk.

“What do you want?” The hands on her shoulders are burning, but something tells her it hurts him more than it hurts her, just to touch her skin. “Why did you bring him here?”

“You won’t survive, like this,” he says, pushing down harder until her legs cave under the inhuman strength, her knees hitting the tile painfully. She hooks both arms over the counter, trying to stay upright as she takes labored breaths in the thick stench of the room; it burns her lungs. “He has something you need.”

“I don’t care,” she pants, palms sliding on wet marble, water still dripping off her chin and onto the floor. “I won’t let you hurt him.”

“You’ll die.”

A laugh escapes her before she can catch it, and it rattles like the tail of a rattlesnake.

The hands slide down her back, adrenaline firing off under her skin as adolescent arms encircle her waist from behind, squeezing her ribs, and she can feel the heavy textures of his peeling face against her upper back above the bandages, heat radiating off of him and singeing her skin, like she's leaning back on the edge of a fire.

The water dripping onto her lips turns to salt, and she realizes tears are slipping out from under her shut eyelids as she hyperventilates, pressing her forehead to the hard edge of the counter until she thinks it’ll bruise.

“He’ll let you.” When he pulls his cheek away, she thinks something peels from his face, sticks to her skin, and she gags, stomach rolling at the sensation.

“I’m sorry,” she gasps, without understanding the words, only the pain in her chest, the tears that won’t stop falling, the horrible sinking feeling that this is all her fault. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.”

He hushes her softly, hugging her tighter, her ribs straining against his strength. “You haven’t changed at all. You haven’t learned a thing.” A sob tears itself from her throat, and Mai shivers on her knees, trying to force her body to act. Why isn’t she fighting back? Why can’t she lift her head?

Why does it feel like she has no right to fight him?

“Don’t ignore your instincts, Mai-chan.”

Aggressive pounding on the door disperses the weight on her back, and Mai sinks all the way down to the floor with her knees spread beneath her, shivers wracking her limbs, a hot, filmy residue all over her back and neck as Naru’s voice penetrates the fog in her head.

“Mai, open the door.”

She can’t bring herself to answer, but it turns out she doesn’t have to. The lock clicks open on its own, Naru’s ki crackling in the air around her, evaporating the cloud of sulfur pressing down on her lungs as light opens up the room.

“Mai.”

Her eyes find his black boots on the ash-brushed tiles, climb the black fabric of his charcoal jeans up to his long-sleeved thermal of the same color, before stopping on the shadowed angles of his face, his eyes bright with the power she can feel pulsing at the surface of his skin, anger turning calm blue volatile.

“Where is it?”

Mai opens her mouth and shakes her head slowly, blinking liquid out of her eyes, her fingers curling and uncurling in her lap. His fury is an oppressive force, lowering the vibrations of the room, slowing down molecules and freezing the air.

“Why didn’t you call out?” he asks, and Mai can’t look away no matter how much she wants to. “Why didn’t you call for me?”

At her prolonged silence, Naru steps further into the bathroom as Mai senses two more souls hovering near the doorway, their concern pressing against her mind. Naru shuts the door in their faces, the hard click of the lock loud in the confined space, sending them into darkness for the second it takes him to flick on the light switch.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says, quieter than intended, and Naru’s stare only intensifies, and how could she ever have thought the clay boy’s presence was heavy compared to this; how could anything compare to the spiritual pressure Naru is emitting, practically splitting the room at the seams? Why would she submit to anything less?

Her mind freezes, a detached feeling growing in her gut as she retraces her thoughts.

‘Submit.’

Since when does she ‘submit’ to anything?

“I felt it,” he says, looking down his nose at her, and Mai tries not to incriminate herself more than she already has, crying on the floor in an unlit bathroom. “I felt your fear.”

Wiping the itching lines of water or saline from her face with the back of her hand, she can’t focus on his words, can’t focus on much beyond the hollow feeling inside her core that expands and contracts when she thinks about it, and suddenly the ki behind Naru’s eyes isn’t pushing her away, it’s pulling her in. The emptiness grows, and she crawls toward him over damp spots on the tile, her pencil skirt and blouse restricting her movements, prompting Naru to hold a hand out to her, his gaze still concealing his own panic and relief just beneath the surface, leaking over through the golden thread.

His larger hand encloses hers, and his eyes are hard but his touch is gentle. “Don’t lie to me.”

Letting herself be pulled to standing, her knees only wobbling slightly in the process, Mai faces Naru as confidently as she can, her senses slowly returning. She smiles without feeling, and any softness hiding in his expression is pushed out, leaving chiseled marble in its place.

“No promises,” she says, pretending to meet his eyes, and catches her own reflection in her peripherals. Her white blouse is dotted with drops of blood, falling from her face. 

Glancing down at where Naru’s hand holds hers, she sees red staining her skin. It isn’t real.

He lets go of her hand, and his palm comes away red.

 

...

 

“What are you measuring?”

Naru ignores her, hovering over a series of monitors and computer equipment Mai can’t even begin to parse the function of. He’s barely spoken more than a word to her, since this morning; after he was done drilling her for information on the clay boy, of course. For some reason, Mai held back again, couldn’t bring herself to share what was said between them. It felt too… personal, she thinks.

“What are these for?” she asks, as Lin sticks another circular pad with red and yellow wires coming off it onto her upper back, pulling at her skin as he adjusts it.

“They—”

“Lin.”

Lin shuts his mouth at Naru’s cool tone, giving her a mildly sympathetic look before placing another sticky pad on her upper back above the line of bandages, then adding to the others on her temples and sternum. The wires lead away to her left, hooking up to the ambiguous machines and computers stacked on the large metal racks Lin built in the center of the room, taking up half the living room of his smaller suite with their usual shelves of equipment. 

Trying not to show how her head is pounding, Mai sinks down in her stiff wooden chair Naru pulled away from the cherry brown table and situated next to the tower of mechanical junk. The more Mai tries not to think of the loud buzzing in her brain, or the gloves and sunglasses she isn’t wearing, leaving her irritable and sensitive, the more she fixates on what she wants to ignore. 

Mai doesn’t like this. Any of it. The chair is uncomfortable, and Lin’s hotel room smells weird. Or, it doesn’t smell weird, it just. Doesn’t smell like Naru. Not that she wants everything to smell like—ugh.

The fan inside one of the computers is working particularly hard at keeping the whole thing from overheating, and Mai for the umpteenth time wonders what the hell Naru is doing, scanning all those monitors, including his laptop screen, which is also hooked up to another boxy machine that does… something. Mai has never had any interest in the technological aspects of Naru’s investigations, but now she’s slightly, maybe-a-little regretting that, since she has no idea what they’re monitoring.

“Stop moving,” says Naru, scrolling through data, leaning over the table like the restless, idiotic scientist he is; and Mai does not look at the veins in his left forearm as it flexes under his weight, the sleeves of his black thermal pushed up to his elbows.

She hadn’t even noticed she was fidgeting, scratching the stiff fabric of her pencil skirt. Sighing woefully, she leans back against the hard frame of the chair, stickers itching. Her eyes hurt. She can’t believe Naru made her take off her sunglasses for this. Well. Yes, she can. But it’s still annoying. Everything is annoying. Especially the static in her brain that picks back up every time Naru is more than five feet from her, or at least it feels like it. The sensory overload has subsided somewhat since this morning, but it comes in waves. At least being around Naru feels like linking up with something stable, with a steady frequency that’s easier to bear. But she’s getting a little too used to how easy it is to breathe when his aura is leaking into hers.

The events of this morning flash behind her eyes, red fingerprints on everything she touched, taking hours to fade away, and she shoves the memory back down.

Lin finishes wrapping a thick, ocean-blue band with a rubbery fabric texture around her upper arm with velcro. It feels strange, like the plastic clip on her finger, a red light blinking at the tip.

“Is that too tight?”

Mai shakes her head. “It’s fine.” 

Lin nods, ever serious, and Mai finds herself wanting to attempt a smile. She wonders if Naru knows how gifted an onmyoji Lin actually is, if he can feel it, too.

It wasn’t until Mai began researching on her own that she learned what exactly an onmyoji does, how impressive it really is. When Lin summoned his shiki in the past, she didn’t quite understand the nature of his abilities. According to the elaborately dressed shopkeeper—who Mai can’t help but trust, despite her intangible aura and ethereal clothing—practitioners of onmyōdō are able to conjure and give shiki ‘life’ through their own spiritual powers, which is why a shiki’s power is directly connected to the spiritual power of the onmyoji that conjured it. Lin’s shiki are incredibly powerful, able to not only defeat high-level spirits but, if he wanted to, possess animals and humans, influencing their will. Lin has never spoken about or demonstrated such abilities, but the shopkeeper was insistent that a powerful wielder could do that and more. 

Feeling Lin’s spiritual energy from across the room, opening herself up to his consciously suppressed aura, Mai wonders if Lin would be able to conjure the oni-like shiki the shopkeeper spoke of, while blowing fragrant smoke into Mai’s face with a devious smile: the shikiōji. Only the most powerful practitioners have managed it, and even then it is legendarily difficult to control.

It’s hard to imagine that level of fearsome power from Lin, whose presence is always so calming, whereas Monk’s presence as of late feels like a nest of wasps inside her head. 

Speaking of power:

Moments before the knock at the door, Mai recognizes the presence walking down the hall coming to a stop in front of the suite, but it’s like her mind is trying to split in two; she knows who it is, she knows it’s Monk, but something inside her doesn’t recognize him when she can’t see his face, revolts at the blinding light of his energy, like a heated blade she can’t see but feels.

A loud beeping from one of the monitors goes off, and Naru watches the screens intently, as if Mai isn’t about to crawl out of her skin, as if the exceptionally powerful exorcist about to enter the room is nothing to worry about. Breathing faster, heart rate speeding up, Mai grips the wooden arms of the chair as tight as she can without dislodging the weird finger clip, a sharp prickling at the back of her neck that makes her want to flee.

‘Don’t ignore your instincts, Mai-chan.’

With only a short, communicating look with Naru, Lin opens the door and lets him in.

It’s immediately worse.

Rigid in her chair, wires pull at her skin as Mai leans away, the wooden arm of the chair digging into her side as she tracks the powerful exorcist walking casually toward her with her eyes, and the inaudible voice that lives in her head whispers right in her ear: Too bright, don’t get close.

“How ya holdin’ up, jou-chan?” he asks, grinning, his light hair pulled into a messy pony, but her adrenaline is pumping as if she were staring a lion in the mouth. What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me?

“Mai, calm down,” Naru says, still watching the monitors as Mai’s instincts peak, his expression hiding the alarm slipping into their connection at whatever he’s seeing.

“Mai,” he says again, at her lack of response, and turns his gaze onto her. 

Moving away from the table, Naru crosses the short carpet space between them, peeling the sticky pads off of her, unwrapping the blue thing off her arm, and removing the finger clip before turning her chin up with his fingers to make her look at him.

Locking onto familiar indigo, his body a protective barrier between her and the exorcist, she feels a little better, more grounded. Enough to speak through gritted teeth. 

“I’m fine,” she says, swatting his hand away from her face and pushing against the arms of the chair to help her stand, forcing him to take a step back or risk their bodies touching, glaring down at her. 

She won’t be weak. She won’t let herself need him this much.

Naru backs away toward the computers, his eyes flicking over her, and Mai focuses instead on observing the growing confusion on Monk’s face, his shoulders sagging in his army-green t-shirt. She feels a bizarre mix of emotions, her affection for him mixing with a foreign fear and resentment that she can’t understand. What is she doing? It’s just Monk, it’s just, it’s just…

“Sorry,” she says, putting some distance between them anyway, unconsciously following Naru toward the metal shelves, stepping over discarded stickers and wires as she goes.

After rolling up the sleeves of his white dress shirt, Lin brushes by her, startling her slightly, as he picks up the wires and other light equipment Naru uncharacteristically dropped in his haste to unhook her, then glances back at Naru with the eye not covered by his bangs; they share a coded look that sends Mai’s head tumbling further into paranoia.

The door to the hotel room slams open again, revealing a winded Yasuhara in his blue shirt and khaki pants, panting from running. All eyes turn to him as he glares at Monk. “I told you to hold the door.”

Monk laughs, hiding his hand behind his head, squinting his eyes with his smile. “I thought you were joking.”

“Why would I joke about that?” Yasu snaps, straightening his shirt collar, and joins Lin by the table, glancing briefly at the modern art hanging on the wall behind it—a white canvas with bright green and orange splotches of paint strung along the center in concentric circles—and curls his mouth down in distaste.

“Lighten up,” Monk says, exuding amusement as he flops down on the navy blue couch against the far wall, once he’s done examining the fake palm tree potted in white ceramic in the corner of the room.

“Be quiet,” Naru says, once again leaning over his laptop, and both Monk and Yasu roll their eyes, unconsciously in sync.

“Good to see you again, too,” Monk says, nodding to Naru and then Lin, before waving hesitantly at Mai, again. “How’re you doing?”

“I’m fine,” she says, too clipped, too tense, from the way everyone in the room save for Naru visibly cringes at her tone as she leans back on the edge of the grey plastic table Lin assembled last night.

She accidentally jostles the table, and Naru shoots a hand out to steady a short camera tripod, glaring at her as he does so. Sheepish, she purses her lips and redirects her attention to the exorcist—to Monk, she corrects, shaking her head slightly.

“The new office looks good,” says Monk, holding onto his calm even as he eyes Mai with something too close to suspicion to be read as concern. He can’t be concerned. They don’t care about you. They hate you. They hate what you are.

Once again shaking the bizarre thoughts from her head, Mai smooths her hands down her skirt, subtly wiping off the sweat from her palms while mentally counting the steps between her and Monk; he has a long reach; the coffee table is between them, but with his height he could easily be in striking range with only a few steps.

Striking range? Mai rubs her eyes with the back of her right hand, taking a deep breath. She’s not right. Something is wrong.

Yasu’s eyes roam the wall of equipment as he walks over to Lin, starting a quiet conversation with him while pointing at one of the larger screens. Mai isn’t stupid. She knows he’s talking about her. They’re all talking about her. They don’t trust you. You’re unnatural.

This isn’t good. She doesn’t understand her own head. This isn’t safe. 

“I want to leave,” she says, causing the room to go quiet.

She doesn’t need to look up from the grey tread-flattened carpet to know at least half of them are sharing an uncomfortable silence, looking at each other for ideas of what to do, or deciding who will be the one to say what Mai already sensed the moment they walked through the door; that she isn’t allowed to leave. That they’re holding her here.

Like a prisoner, something deep inside her says, sinking its claws into her shoulders through her blouse, and she feels her senses begin to dull, her mind wanting to detach.

“She doesn’t look so good,” Yasu says. 

Walking toward her, Yasu tries to feel her forehead with his palm, but Mai slaps his hand away on instinct, hitting her heel on the leg of the table in her haste to get away, her heart rate accelerating, quickening breaths drying out her lungs. She registers the sound of something falling over on the plastic tabletop, but doesn’t feel safe enough to look away.

Mouth in a grim line, Yasu lowers his hand, and there’s not enough time for her to react to Naru stepping past Yasuhara with an irritated expression, urging him out of the way with a hand on his shoulder. Naru ignores her proverbial snarling as he puts his hands on either side of her head, thumbs pressing into her temples. Almost immediately, Mai starts to feel her energy connect with his, lightheaded like she’s about to pass out, following his rhythm until everything eases and becomes manageable.

These are her friends.

She closes her eyes, breathing deeply, focusing on the pressure of Naru’s hands on her head, and gets her mind back under control. He’s getting better at this, more efficient. By the time Naru removes his hands, she’s feeling more centered than she thought possible, but slightly nauseous; she has to be careful. She’s relying on him too much.

When she opens her eyes again, Yasu is standing behind Naru, looking at the back of his head with a complicated, pinched expression. “She lets you touch her.”

Naru pulls his sharp eyes from Mai’s, looking over at Yasu like he forgot he was in the room. “And?”

Mai’s senses click back into place, enough for panic to overtake fatigue.

“Yasu,” she says, and it’s meant to be a warning, but the wounded look Yasu directs at her over Naru’s shoulder leaves her stunned, makes her thoughts disperse like dust blown into the air.

“She doesn’t like to be touched.” 

When Naru’s gaze floats back to her, his narrowed eyes remind her of a wolf catching a fresh scent, making her more nauseous than she already was. “Since when?”

“Maybe, between ten and six months? That’s when she started wearing gloves nonstop. Is that significant?” he asks, but his tone says he knows damn well it’s significant, that he wants to play dumb and find out what Naru thinks first.

Naru looks back at Mai with undisguised analysis, and Mai narrows her eyes before getting brave and crossing the suite to join Monk on the—now that she looks closely—blue and grey triangle-patterned couch. The stiff hotel cushions don’t give as much as she’d like as she sits on the end of the couch by the left armrest, as far from Monk as possible.

“Hey,” he says, smiling at her like she hasn’t been acting like a total freak since he got here, and Mai winces into her own attempt at a grin.

“Sorry,” she says, again, and his smile falls slightly, his arm stretching over the back of the couch as he looks her over.

“You alright?”

Opening her mouth to answer, she overhears Naru still asking Yasuhara about her gloves.

“Don’t talk about me when I’m right here,” she says, glaring at the two men standing by the plastic table full of electronics with their arms crossed, looking like the most reluctant conversationalists she’s ever seen.

In response to her mild outburst, Naru stares at her out of the corners of his eyes, his face still turned toward Yasu. Mai thinks she’s gotten similar looks from dogs, trying to pet them while they eat.

“Should we leave the room?” he asks, insincere, and Mai digs her fingers into the cushion under her thighs until it hurts her nail beds.

Monk leans forward in her peripheral vision, leaning his elbows on his blue-jean covered knees, watching them with the air of an indulgent older brother. “Don’t worry about those two,” he says, “they’re only pretending to hate each other. Probably.” 

Rolling her eyes, Mai stands up—abruptly, based on the way Monk flinches—and makes her way around the maple coffee table, unsteady in her new-ish heels. She takes extra precaution weaving through the maze of metal shelving cluttering the living room part of the suit, until she sees the mixed wood and metal of the black mini fridge and sink in the back corner of the room, away from prying eyes.

Leaning down and opening the fridge, scanning the rows of water bottles and cans of juice and coffee, Mai grabs a can of coffee and shuts the door as she straightens back up. Popping the tab, cold aluminum irritating the sensitive palm of her ungloved hand, Mai stares at the abstract painting above the minibar instead of turning around and facing the others, following red and blue lines of paint across a white canvas like thin veins, flowing up in reverse gravity.

“By the way, where’s Mai staying?” Yasu asks, causing Mai’s hand to pause in bringing the can to her lips. “Masahiro-san says he saw her leave with an overnight bag.”

“If you’re asking me if Mai is staying with me, the answer is yes,” says Naru, feigning distraction very convincingly, above the sound of typing. If Mai hadn’t spent so long listening to his voice, she would have missed the tension.

“In the same room?” 

Mai winces at Yasu’s flat tone, reluctantly seeking out their faces among the sea of metal poles and wires. Naru is adjusting dials on a black electrical box, referring to his black notebook every so often, expression deceptively neutral. Yasuhara is wandering around behind him, picking things up and likely putting them back in the wrong spot, just to irritate him. 

“Your concerns have been noted,” says Naru, and Yasu stares at his back with a blank expression.

Clutching the can tighter as she watches Naru lean over the desk, hair falling into his eyes, Mai swallows her embarrassment and raises the coffee to her lips, taking a long drink. The cold liquid soothes her dry throat, the perfect amount of bitterness on the back of her tongue.

“You didn’t respond to our texts last night,” Yasu says, picking up a manila file from the wooden table they pushed against the wall to make room for the larger plastic one, then flipping it open. “Monk and I were trying to get a hold of you.”

“I had my hands full.” Naru looks up from the desk and straight at Mai through the shelves separating them, shooting her a dark look that catches her off guard.

Mai chokes on her coffee, nearly turning and spitting it out over the sink. She looks away to swallow, retreating to the safety of the dual-colored sideways drips on the wall. 

It’s not an exaggeration; Naru spent a good amount of the night policing the wards to keep her from tearing them down, and Mai did her best to keep him distracted so he wouldn’t find the small pile of loose cigarettes she hid in the closet before he disposed of the pack. Mai couldn’t relax in the center of the empty king bed, and she could feel Naru’s restlessness from across the suite. Altogether, they couldn’t have gotten more than three hours of sleep before Naru’s alarm went off at 6:00 am. Apparently he doesn't use the snooze button. Whatever. Don’t blame her when neither of them can function by six o’clock this evening. 

“Oh?” Yasu’s uncommonly venomous tone draws her eyes back over, his smile edging toward a grimace. 

“Is that a follow-up question?” Naru asks, facetious, before he shuts his laptop and walks over toward the left side of the tall shelves of computers.

From this angle, Mai is the only one who can see the brutally cold look in his eyes, however briefly it lasts, but she can’t figure out if it’s directed at himself or Yasuhara.

Apparently losing patience with the awkward mood of the room, Monk sighs and runs his hand through his hair. “I’m gonna call Ayako again,” he says, groaning like an old man as he gets up from the couch and makes for the door. Mai can’t blame him.

Light reflecting off his glasses, Yasu picks up a pencil from the desk Naru was working at, twirling it in his hand. “Is Mai going to be your assistant, again?”

“That’s up to her.” 

Naru unplugs a long, thick black cord from a metal box with lots of lights and buttons, then starts winding the cord up in an intricate braid of loops that Mai immediately recognizes as the way he tried endlessly to teach her to store their extension cords years ago; she never properly learned it, always snuck around and had Monk do it for her.

“The office wouldn’t be the same without Mai falling asleep on her desk,” Yasu says, with a joking tone, but something about this interaction feels off, makes Mai cautiously set her can of coffee down on the black marble counter by the sink.

After winding it up with impressive speed, Naru places the braid-like cord on top of the metal box, then examines his hands for residue, bangs falling into his eyes again when he looks down. Maybe he needs a haircut.

“You underestimate Mai’s stamina,” he says, the image of calm and collected. Feeling her eyes on him, he looks up at her through his hair, and Mai is glad she put down the can because her fingers go completely numb, and for the life of her she can’t tell if the look he’s giving her is actually sexually charged or if she’s being mocked. “I’ve hardly seen her sleep in days.”

Yasu’s normally unnoticeable energy spikes from across the room, and Mai is beyond humiliated at the heat she can feel in her face, and Naru is just looking at her not-smirking, but he might as well be and what the Hell is he doing?

Seemingly unconcerned with the turmoil he’s caused, Naru pushes his already rolled sleeves up needlessly, more habitually than anything, and starts for the door, ignoring Yasuhara’s rigid presence by the table completely.

“Where are you going?” Lin asks from his place behind the shelves, and Mai startles; she’d forgotten he was there.

“We need more cups from the restaurant.”

At the thought of being left with Yasuhara in the wake of that performance, Mai hastily navigates the mess of equipment, only bumping into the edge of one metal rack on her way to Naru by the door. 

“I’ll help,” she says, slightly out of breath, and Naru merely glances at her, pulling the door open, revealing the yellow wallpaper of the hallway.

The sooner she can get out of here the better; Yasuhara’s confusing emotions are grating against her nerves. 

In her eagerness, Mai just about shoves Naru the rest of the way into the hall, shutting the door behind her. Brushing her hands off his arm, he starts down the gold-lined hall without her, shoulders relaxed, like nothing that just transpired has anything to do with him, and Mai clicks her tongue against her teeth as she jogs to catch up—nearly rolling her heel—grabbing his forearm and pulling him to a stop.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she whisper-yells, letting go of his arm as soon as she realizes she’s touching skin. She may not have had a psychometry incident when Naru touches her, yet, but that doesn’t mean she’s immune.

Slowly turning to face her, he steps closer than decency dictates, almost nose-to-nose. “You’ll have to be more specific.”

The hall is empty except for the odd large floor vase with craggly black boughs sticking out of it, but Mai can’t help but feel exposed under his gaze, her eyebrow twitching with irritation. 

“What was that, with Yasu?”

Naru looks at her like she’s either full of shit, or very slow. “He prefers you.” Indigo eyes drop to her lips briefly, and Mai does her best not to notice. “It’s a distraction for him. He won’t be useful if he’s too busy pinning away to do what I ask of him. I’m merely suggesting he focus his attention elsewhere.”

Her confusion must show enough for Naru to misread her. “Away from you,” he clarifies, and Mai ignores the implied insult to her intelligence.

Yasu ‘prefers’ her? What does that even mean? Her face is turning red the longer he looks at her; she can feel it. “You could have asked me before saying that to him.”

“You could have asked before using my deodorant.”

Her face heats up even more. She thought she’d been sly about that. “I couldn’t find mine.”

There’s a spark of humor in his eyes, and Mai’s heart overreacts. “That’s because you threw it at my head,” he says, and pivots to leave, making it several steps down the hall before she gathers her voice amid her raging embarrassment.

Fine. She can be petty, too. 

“And what if I prefer Yasuhara?”

He stops walking. When he turns around, there’s a challenge in his eyes that makes her pulse jump, but she holds his gaze defiantly. “You don’t,” he says.

“How would you know? You don’t care either way, right?” Mai cocks her weight to the side, resting her hands on her hips. “Maybe I’m tired of waiting.”

Despite the unnamed emotion that flashes over his face, it almost looks like his face freezes in place as he takes a moment to think. She can feel him gauging her actions, weighing her comments until her palms start to sweat. His black shoes tread quietly over grey carpet as he walks back to her, but he doesn’t stop when he reaches her, continues forward until Mai gives into her instincts and backs herself into the wallpaper in the same moment his hands knock hers aside, replacing them on her waist. Heart hammering at the unexpected proximity, she imagines she can taste the orange he tried to convince her to eat earlier in the air between them. He looks down at her lips, still too close, still holding onto her waist, his gaze like a physical stroke inside her.

“If you prefer him,” he says, and Mai’s nails scratch the grains of the wallpaper, her shoulder blades bruising against the wall from how hard she pushes back into it, “what are you tired of waiting for?”

His face is so close, his eyes darker in the brightly lit hall, and Mai can’t think of anything else as her index fingers find the smooth leather of his belt and hook over the top, wedging the tips of her fingers between the belt and his jeans without her permission.

“That’s not—”

“You don’t,” he says, and Mai shivers at the low timbre of his voice. 

She doesn’t get a chance to respond before he’s gently removing her hands from his belt, stroking the tops of her hands with his thumbs before releasing them, and backing away from her. 

Mai stares shell-shocked the entire time it takes him to walk back down the hall toward the elevators, glancing at her cooly over his shoulder before disappearing around the corner.

Mai’s mental and bodily functions start to recover a few seconds after he’s out of sight, and she’s still thinking over what he said, sagging against the wall, as she catches her breath.

Even then, it takes a minute for the egoism of the interaction to really dawn on her. Agitatedly smoothing out her blouse, Mai mutters under her breath. Arrogant, narcissistic asshole. Whatever pissing contest he’s in with Yasuhara has nothing to do with her. It’s all ego. 

Feeling her hot cheeks with the backs of her hand, she huffs, too ruffled to care what the others will think if she goes back into the room like this. She can’t do anything about the redness of her face.

She steels herself, preparing to go back inside, when she remembers she said she’d help carry the cups. The following internal battle doesn’t last long before she growls and whips around, stalking down the hall after him. If she doesn’t go, he’ll really think he’s won the argument.

Damn it, damn it, damn it.

 

...

 

Having pulled a chair away from the table into the living space of the hotel room, Mai sits upright with one ankle crossed over the other—the Cambridge cross, Naru had called it once, while explaining a British tabloid article on royal etiquette Mai struggled to understand without translating. She still doesn’t really get it, but she liked how it sounded, and she thinks of it frequently when she catches herself seated as such. 

Her heel wiggles every so often, and she plays with her fingers on top of her pencil skirt with anxious energy. She brushed her hair this morning, but it already feels tangled again, and she’s reluctant to ask Naru for his comb again. If he would just leave it on the bathroom counter when he’s finished with it like a normal person, then she could just steal it without him knowing, which would be way less uncomfortable, for some reason. He’s such a difficult mix of overly neat and completely chaotic.

Even right now, Naru sits directly across from her on the couch, elbow on the arm rest, wearing an all black combination of a perfectly pressed long-sleeve dress shirt and pants he recently ironed—having gone back up to the room to change clothes after Mai ‘accidentally’ spilt the orange juice he’d been trying to force her to drink down his shirt and into his lap—but the bags under his eyes make him look like more like an exhausted mortician than a scientist. Or maybe that’s just what scientists look like. The fact he almost exclusively wears black doesn’t do much to counteract his gloomy aesthetic, either. Mai had often wondered over the years if he’d ever expanded his color repertoire, if maybe he’d just been in mourning when she’d worked for him, but it seems some things don’t change on their own. Not that it bothers her. She’s not sure she’d recognize him in an actual color.

“You seem calm.” 

He says it objectively, without inflection, but Mai knows his voice well from those hours on the phone, can tell he’s satisfied with her decision to sit down and humor him. It’s useful, she’s finding, that she doesn’t have to go off of his blank expressions anymore. However, regardless of what Naru thinks, her agreeing to sit doesn’t mean she’s agreeing to talk things out with the group.

“I feel calm.” She looks down at her unpolished nails, then at the hem of Naru’s black pants over his black boots.

The differences between Lin’s understated suite and Noll’s travesty of modern design are worthy of criticism; the bedroom is easily half the size, the bathroom incomparable, but at least it still has large windows shining morning light onto the turned-down bed Lin didn’t sleep in, too busy setting up equipment and rifling through boxes of hastily sorted files for the reopening, from the looks of it. The living room, however, has no windows, and the abstract line painting behind the couch is a poor replacement. 

Yasu’s closed-lip smile is a default, a place-holder while he listens and absorbs what’s happening around him as he leans back on the wall by the couch, next to where Naru sits with a pen and notepad in his lap, tapping the end of the pen against the paper every few minutes. Monk sits casually on the carpet beside the coffee table, wooden beads looped around his wrist as he leans back on his hands toward Ayako, who sits on the end of the couch behind him in a yellow jacket and black turtleneck, wearing her concern in the delicate turn of her lips and deceptively impartial eyes. Similarly, Monk doesn’t even try to hide his unease, eyebrows furrowed in a serious expression.

Whatever Naru said to them when he had them alone earlier did a number on them; they all look ten times more tense than they did this morning.

Well. Everyone except for Lin. The onmyoji hangs back from the group, sitting at the wooden table a ways behind Mai, but she can feel his eyes on her back, quietly powerful.

“Do you have any questions before we start?” Naru lifts his tea to his lips and drinks, staring at her over the rim.

Yes. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Yasuhara snorts, uncrossing his arms, and starts folding up his white shirt sleeves while relaxing back against the wall, grey eyes amused behind his glasses.

“We’re just going to talk.” And record you. There are so many cameras in the room, one of them is bound to be on. Worse, Naru is using his neutral ‘client voice.’ It makes her eyebrow twitch.

She uncrosses her ankles, recrossing them in the opposite direction. “Why the special treatment?” 

Naru finished individually interviewing each of them already, saving Mai for last. There’s got to be a reason she alone is being questioned so publicly. Especially since she’d already set her terms; she’s not telling the group a damn thing until she’s ready.

Naru follows his cup with his eyes, setting it down on the coffee table. Her throat is dry. A hot cup of tea sounds amazing. She should have poured herself some while she was at it. She gave everyone else a cup except Yasuhara, who passed on the offer.

“Insight,” he says, mildly.

She sighs out her nose, her shoulder muscles starting to ache. Naru’s steaming cup of tea is looking better and better. She brought some tea blends from home, and the one she served today is sage and moringa. Naru hasn’t complained, but she can tell he’s wishing for good old English tea by now. He just wants Mai to make it for him.

“Why don’t you start with the scar on your arm.” Naru is trying to appear casual. It isn’t working. She can feel anxiety rolling off him in waves. He’s uneasy about questioning her. It would be annoying, if the gold light between them wasn’t so calmative. “How did you acquire it?”

“Why don’t we start with something else,” Mai counters, and smiles pleasantly.

She keeps her eyes on his velvet blues, attempting to stretch her consciousness over into his, to pull out what he’s thinking, but it’s like running her hands across a stone wall. She can’t help but start thinking of that cup of tea in front of him again. If he doesn’t like it, he should just say so and let her have it. It’s wasted on someone who doesn’t enjoy it.

Everyone seems to take turns shifting in place, anxious silence an unfamiliar friend among the usually lively group. Mai refuses to feel guilty for it. She lives in anxious silence. They don’t have to be here. In fact, they shouldn’t be here. She doesn’t have the energy to spare.

“Alright,” Naru says, with barely repressed ire, “where would you like to start?”

Mai lets her eyes wander to Ayako’s sunflower-yellow jacket; it’s easier to look at than her tense expression. Only she could pull off that color without looking childish, or fruit-like.

“So when you say insight, you mean to say witnesses?” Mai languidly brushes her hair over her shoulder. It was itching her neck, which only reminded her of her parched throat, and Naru’s unloved tea, probably getting cold. “People to help you tell if I’m lying?”

“You think I can’t tell by your voice?” 

“Can you?” she asks, eyes snapping back to his. 

He’s pissed. She can tell by how indifferent he looks. Good. That’ll teach him not to treat her like a client again.

“Jou-chan.” Mai’s eyes reluctantly break from Naru’s and turn to Monk. His body language is relaxed, open, one bent knee pointing to the ceiling, but his expression and tone are firm. “He’s just trying to help. Go easy on him.”

Go easy on him? Mai bites the inside of her cheek, resentment blooming inside her gut. She hasn’t asked for any of this. In fact, she’s done everything in her power to prevent this, and now they tell her to go easy on them? She feels static between her fingers and squeezes her hands into fists on her thighs to hide it. Maybe she’ll just get up and leave the room, brew some more tea so she doesn’t have to diligently avoid looking at Naru’s barely touched cup. 

“What did you see in the restaurant?” Yasu asks, causing Naru to stiffen. 

Mai gives Naru a brief, nervous look, before meeting Yasuhara’s gaze. “This isn’t the time for that.” 

Yasu crosses his arms. “It is the time for it. I didn’t think it’d… I wouldn’t have done it if you would have just talked to me.”

Naru looks between them, sitting up straighter on the couch, pen poised over the notebook balanced on his knee. “What are you talking about?”

Yasu sighs and adjusts his glasses with a finger, scooting up to sit more on the arm of the couch. When he speaks, he sounds hesitant, guilty, and Mai clenches her teeth because somehow it makes it so much worse. “I tested her, a bit.”

The beat of silence before Naru turns his eyes to the taller man, tilting his head near-imperceptibly, speaks volumes; at least, to Mai it does. It makes her nerves sing, makes her slide her hands down her thighs and curl her hands at the edge of her skirt fabric just to have something to hold. This isn’t looking good for Yasu.

“You did what?” Naru’s voice is a soothing volume, emanating calm, which is the first red flag. The second is how the room gets a little colder, almost a full degree. She glances at the tense body language and Monk and Ayako, watching Naru with rapt attention, and she figures they sensed it, too. “You failed to mention that bit of information, earlier.”

“Yasu,” Mai warns, trying to communicate with her eyes past the reflective lens of his glasses. Drop it.

He disregards her, crossing his arms tighter, shifting against the wall to get comfortable. “She wasn’t going to admit to anything, she won’t ask for help so I thought if I just pushed a little—”

“Yasu, stop.”

“No,” Naru says, sliding his gaze to Mai, his narrowed eyes chilling the air in her lungs, “continue.”

“I took her out to dinner.” 

Mai feels a jolt of something unfamiliar through their connection, something that makes her feel almost nauseous, but Naru’s expression doesn’t change, his eyes never leaving hers, and Mai feels herself going lightheaded again.

Yasuhara continues, unaware of Naru’s whirlwind of thoughts beneath his facade of calm. “The place was built on top of an old sewing house that burned down in the latter half of the Edo period. There are no records of supernatural activity, or any strange experiences or hauntings, so I thought… I thought if I brought her there and she had a reaction… I thought that might mean she’s gotten to the point where she responds to locations even without the presence of spirits. And then maybe she’d ask for… It sounds really stupid now.”

“And?” Naru asks, and Mai’s mouth is drying out from that stare, her heart racing in her ears as she clutches her skirt tighter, stiff fabric chafing against her overheating palms until she can’t take it.

“Yasuhara,” she snaps, chair rocking back as she stands abruptly, clenching her fists by her sides.

“She threw up outside.”

Mai thinks she might vomit, again. Naru taps his pen on his notepad leisurely, but she can feel cold anger and something sour radiating out from him, can feel his failing efforts to stay objective. “Mai? Would you like to corroborate this?”

“There’s more,” Yasu interrupts, properly chastised, but it’s like once he started talking he couldn’t stop. “At one point, she started saying she… That she wanted to die beautifully? Like she was already dead. I think she may have been channelling.”

Naru is breathing the sort of careful way he does when something truly beyond his patience has occurred. If she were to guess just by looking, she’d say his pen is one, tiny, dangerous burst of energy from snapping in half. He looks at Monk and Ayako’s guilty expressions.

“And you knew about this?”

The awkward nods from both of them leave Mai in shock, and she quickly looks away from their faces, looking down at the swollen veins on the tops of her feet from the heels possibly constricting blood flow. How much have they figured out?

Naru’s silence is a powerful thing. It makes her want to crawl out of her skin, makes her want to run out of the room.

Forcing her legs to move, Mai walks slowly over to the cherry wood table where Lin is set up with his grey laptop and yellow legal pad, then grabs her cloth purse from the table, careful not to meet Lin’s eyes.

“Do you think that’s wise,” Naru says, and she ignores him, “to wander off on your own, after what happened this morning?” Taking a deep breath, she looks up and to the right at Naru. He’s watching her closely, toying with his black pen in his right hand, and his eyes probe hers as soon as she lets them. “Sit down.”

It’s not the pull coming from their shared connection that makes her stay, nor the sensory memory of skin sticking to her back, peeling away from the clay boy’s face.

‘Don’t ignore your instincts…’

Her instincts are telling her to leave while she can and wait for Naru to follow, then corner him once he’s alone. To do what, she isn’t sure.

‘He has something you need.’

Mai purses her lips. Spirits lie. Spirits mislead.

And that’s why Mai backs up to the wood table and sits on top of it by Lin’s laptop, crossing her left leg over the right, then crossing her arms to match. She’s not listening to a word that little mud-caked shit says.

“Look,” Yasu says, and Mai pointedly doesn’t look up from her shoes, examining a white scuff mark that reminds her of the stain dead skin cells leave behind when rubbed on soft fabrics. “Whatever’s happening to her, it’s progressing quickly. If we wait around until she decides to talk to us, by then it’ll be too late to do anything.” 

“That doesn’t excuse—” Ayako starts in, and Mai tunes out their bickering.

Mai leans back on her hands and rests her eyes, irritation simmering under her skin. On top of her back starting to itch and burn again, the lack of tea in her hands makes it impossible to relax. Maybe she should just take Naru’s cup while he’s distracted. He probably won’t even care, but something about the way he’s pretending to drink it is too annoying to ignore. She should only serve this tea blend from now on, until he stops being ridiculous and admits he has a childish palate and dislikes things that taste ‘too green.’ 

“Just take the damn tea,” Naru says, and Mai startles, opening her eyes to take in his equally perturbed expression.

They stare at each other in silence, both at a sudden loss for words. Was that a lucky guess? Mai’s heart is hammering against her ribs, telling her it wasn’t, and the way Naru looks at her like a germ under a microscope makes Mai think it really could only have been one thing. 

It never occurred to her what it would mean, that the link goes both ways; that Naru might pick up just as much detail from the connection as she can, despite his lack of innate talent for it. From the looks of it, he’s still wrapping his head around what just happened, too.

Trying not to show she’s rattled, Mai slides off the table, avoiding the others’ eyes as she carefully picks up Naru’s cup from the coffee table by its thin white handle, and reclaims her seat. The tea is still hot. She holds the steam under her face.

“Thanks,” she says, dryly, and feels the awkwardness in the room grow. That first sip soothes her throat and her nerves.

Naru clears his throat, but Ayako talks over him. “I know you don’t owe us this,” she says, and Mai watches the greenish hue of the tea ripple in her cup, “but it’s our preference not to stand by and do nothing while you clearly are dealing with something difficult.”

It’s impossible, Mai finds, to resent straightforward speech. Of course, in the end, it would be Ayako’s sensible approach that loosens her tongue, makes her want to cooperate. Maybe that was Naru’s plan. To let them win her over.

But as soon as she thinks it, she feels another set of negative emotions in the way. She feels defensive. Protective. Not of her former SPR family, but of herself. Mai tries to massage her neck muscles with one hand, balancing her teacup in her other, the tension that was starting to ease picking back up full force. This doesn’t make any sense.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

She can feel the disappointment in the room, but she won’t be swayed. Until she understands what she’s reacting to, she isn’t going to put anyone at risk, herself or otherwise. 

“Who are you protecting?” Naru asks, and she glances up in time to catch him leaning on the armrest, fingers brushing his lips. “Who are you most concerned for, right now?”

Mai grits her teeth. This gold light situation is more trouble than it’s worth. She looks at Ayako, who smiles reassuringly. The electric itch is spreading from her palms, up her arms. 

“Forget it,” Mai says, and rubs her arms with her hands, trying to stimulate feeling in her limbs.

“What are you trying to hide?”

“Naru,” she says, depleted, and raises her eyes to meet his stare.

He really looks like he hasn’t slept a wink in days, like he rubbed plum-charcoal under his eyes and couldn’t quite wash it off. How he still has the energy to nag evades her. “I want a detailed list of all psychic and spiritual phenomena you’ve experienced since I’ve been gone, and I want it by tomorrow evening.”

Mai scoffs before she can stifle the reaction, sets down the teacup and scoots off the end of the table again, brushing her hands off on her skirt and glancing around the suite, looking for where she left her sunglasses. “No.” Not a good enough try. 

“What do you mean, no?”

“No, I won’t be turning in my homework tomorrow, sensei.”

She can feel Naru’s eyes on her face, and she reluctantly stops scanning the metal racks of equipment to gauge his expression. He looks unaffected, tapping his pen against his notebook again, and that’s how Mai knows he’s truly irritated with her: the more indifferent, the more irritable—at least that’s how it used to be. She’s not sure anymore.

Monk shifts in his makeshift seat on the carpet, running his hand through his hair, and Mai’s eyes unfocus entirely, her senses involuntarily shifting over to her less conventional perception as Monk speaks. “Mai, we’re just trying to—”

“Help?” she asks, his bright aura making the loud static in her head increase. In her mind’s eye, she sees all of their grim faces, all of their pitying thoughts swirling around the room and bonding together in a conglomerate of condescension and misplaced emotions. “How do you plan to do that?”

She doesn’t need to use her eyes to sense Naru’s fog-like presence standing and walking closer to her, rounding the coffee table at an unrushed pace. “That depends on what the problem is,” he says.

Mai feels herself sinking further and further inside her own head, feels the shadows creeping up around her. “And if I’m the problem?”

“You’re not a problem, Mai.” Naru is right in front of her, she can feel his aura brushing up around her, and she tries not to sway into him.

They’ll lock you away.

“You’ll put me in a crate, ship me back to England to be your lab rat.”

“You know that’s not true.”

“You promised you’d leave them out of it.” She wishes she could see his face, wishes the world wasn’t made of such thick, dark fluid. “You promised.”

His hand is warm on her forearm, gentle. His touch is the color purple. “You want to know what will happen if you’re the problem?”

She has no answer, other than to remember to blink when her eyes start to burn.

“You’ll learn to control it.” Naru’s words are close enough to taste, like warm cinnamon feelings. Her feet ache from standing. “Like Gene did. Like I did. Even Lin.”

Naru puts his hands on her shoulders, then her neck, and Mai takes deeper and deeper breaths as his energy stabilizes her. He believes what he’s saying. She can feel it. Breathing in as much as she can before letting the air out slowly, Mai enjoys several moments of stillness before her eyes clear again, and she meets Naru’s focused stare as he reluctantly lowers his hands from her skin.

Pitying stares press against her from all sides, like hot blades to her skin. She can’t look at them. She’s humiliated at her own behavior. They’re just trying to help. She knows that. They just care about her. She knows that, too. But her stomach is hollow. She’s a mountainous cavern. Hunger pains contract her stomach at the thought of Naru’s hands on her again, and she has to look away from his eyes, too.

“I’m hungry,” she says, and is terrified she means something else. Something different.

Naru’s shadow hasn’t moved from in front of her, and no amount of staring at the espresso brown door to the hotel room will change that. 

“That’s good,” he says, but there’s a note of hesitance; he can feel her. She always forgets he can feel her.

“Let’s eat, together, Mai,” says Ayako, her energetic voice attempting to revive the room.

“You should eat,” Naru adds, needlessly, and Mai nods her head just to move her neck, just to feel in control of her body.

Trust her instincts, huh?

Mai puts a hand on her chest, confirming there isn’t a gaping hole where her body should be, and feels the shadows caving in.

 

...

 

As soon as Mai closes the bathroom door behind her, Noll is grabbing Lin by his imperfectly-ironed sleeve and Monk by his somewhat aggravatingly muscled arm, dragging them into the far corner of Lin’s suite to huddle around the dark green blades of the dracaena dorado.

“There was something gathering beneath her,” Lin says, requiring no prompting, only glaring marginally past his thick bangs as Noll lets their arms go, “condensed, foreign energy.”

Monk nods his agreement, light glinting off the two silver stud earrings in his left earlobe. “Something definitely wasn’t right about it. It felt diseased.” 

“I wouldn’t say that,” Noll says, crossing his left arm in front of him so he can rest his right elbow on his left wrist. He taps his bottom lip with his middle phalanx, working over the information he’s hearing. “You didn’t actually see it, then?”

Noticing something about Noll’s tone, the Buddhist monk tilts his head minutely, expression turning serious as he crosses his arms tightly and adjusts his stance to be wider. Most misinterpret such posture as being defensive, or reflecting stubbornness, but the act of crossing one’s arms can often more accurately be understood as ‘hugging’ oneself, or self-soothing, when experiencing discomfort of varying kinds. In this case, based on the other minute facial tics taking place, Noll would bet Monk is merely anticipating Noll’s next statements and attempting to mitigate his unease and concern.

“I felt it,” Monk says.

Letting his eyes wander down to the sharp leaves of the house plant, Noll takes a moment to let that sink in.

It’s strange.

Noll isn’t usually the one with the best spiritual sight in the room. And yet, when Mai was standing in front of the table looking strained and dazed, he saw a faint, black mass of shadows starting at her ankles, climbing all the way up to where the ‘head’ manifested behind her shoulder. It felt dense, true, but he struggled to distinguish it from Mai. He wouldn’t call it diseased.

It felt familiar. It felt like Mai.

Hand going still against his lips, it occurs to him that he’s feeling defensive. He feels insulted on her behalf. Stranger, still. 

“Matsuzaki?” Noll calls, turning away from the two men he dragged into the corner to find the red-headed doctor leaning on the cherry wood table, carrying her yellow jacket over her forearm.

“You know I don’t sense spirits in the city,” she says, frowning, and Noll observes with the barest hint of humor that his defensiveness is spreading.

“So we’re just going to ignore the boiling tea cup?” Another voice interjects, and Noll notes Yasuhara retying his shoelace by the couch, glancing up at them from behind mussed hair from too much anxious finicking. “Because that happened.”

To be fair, normally, the fact the liquid in their tea cups appeared to heat to a low boil when Mai was at her most agitated would be a detail worth discussing. But Noll already knows she has the potential for dangerous levels of ki leakage when pressed, and he’s more focused on the half-formed entity he observed behind her, clearly provoked by her emotional state; again, this supports his hypothesis that her subconscious is currently storing and controlling her abilities, but whether that was a spirit or something else is still undetermined. He would have liked to have Hara visit today and assess Mai’s situation, but Hara hasn’t been answering his calls.

 She’s ignoring him. And Noll is starting to get suspicious.

“I want one of you to get Hara on the phone,” Noll says, and drops his arms, leaving the corner of the room in favor of examining the cup of tea on the table behind Matsuzaki, “let her know we’ll be needing her tomorrow at the latest.”

“No, really, don’t stop your conversation on my account. Just thought someone should address how Mai just boiled water with her mind, but that’s fine,” Yasuhara says, and Noll gives up on preserving evidence he doesn’t care to, picking up the delicate china and looking at the underside without spilling the tea.

“The tea cups are irrelevant.” Satisfied that there are no markings or other damage to the cup itself, Noll looks to Lin, the older man sharing a tense look with Monk that Noll is going to question him about later. “I may have to rely on you to handle her apartment, when the time comes. She’ll retaliate if I push too far.”

“Irrelevant? In what world is that irrelevant?”

Suppressing an exhale that would have revealed his fading patience, Noll levels the glasses-clad investigator currently gathering up paperwork from the coffee table with a look he hopes is dry enough to discourage further discourse. “This world, wherein we’re discussing paranormal activity and not the laws of thermodynamics. In either case, your input is unnecessary.”

“I sense spirits, sometimes,” he says, nearly dropping a slew of manila files that were sliding off the top of the stack in his arms, before he adjusts his hold. “I can be spiritually sensitive.”

He makes it too easy. “Vaguely sensing spiritual activity when in known, active locations is as being stabbed with a screwdriver is to being a mechanic.”

Scoffing, Yasuhara hikes the files up further in his arms, wrinkling his blue shirt further. “I have some spiritual awareness.”

“Of course,” Noll says, and puts the cup down by Matsuzaki’s manicured nails, as the woman shoots disapproving looks in his direction, “about as much as an earthworm, by my assessment.”

“Ha!” He pushes his glasses up with his free hand, undeterred. “How do you know earthworms aren’t—”

“Okay,” Monk cuts him off, passing by Noll to take half of the files from Yasuhara’s fumbling arms, and Noll finds himself reluctantly curious what the investigator was planning to say. “We’re going to check out the lounge.”

Being corralled toward the door, Yasuhara shouts over his shoulder. “You’re speciesist!” And maybe it’s for the best that he was cut off, after all. 

When the door shuts behind them, Noll reluctantly meets Matsuzaki's cat-with-cream expression as she flips her hair over her shoulder. “What?”

“Nothing,” she says, and pushes away from the table, sauntering after the others.

Lin appears in his peripherals, and Noll catches himself crossing his arms for reasons other than sore shoulders or resting his arms. “You shouldn’t take it out on him.”

Throwing an unamused look Lin’s way, praying the implied ‘shut up’ is received, Noll grabs Mai’s—or his, initially—tea cup and tips it back into his mouth.

The tea’s still warm.

 

...

 

Somewhat successfully tuning out the clamor of the newly reassembled SPR members attempting to carry a couch into the main room of the office, Noll stares at the polished flat top of macassar ebony, strips of light and dark reddish brown arranged in striking diagonals across the wide expanse of the executive desk he didn’t ask for and doesn’t want. 

The same irrational, empty feeling he’s had since yesterday occupies his chest as he follows the lines down to the clownishly elaborate sides of the base, littered with intricate wooden carvings that evoke a similarly chaotic, claustrophobic feeling in him as Jan Matejko's Battle of Grunwald, depicting a clash of bodies and weaponry piling atop one other in an epic battle.

He’s being punished. This is what he gets for shoving work off on Lin and asking him to handle the new office’s furnishings, foolishly not realizing Lin would delegate the task to Madoka, who is proving to be a worthy adversary even with the whole of Europe and Asia wedged between them.

It’s too large for his office. 

Noll intended to have his—simple, refined and unobtrusive—desk face the door to his office, backlit by the modest window on the far wall, but this hulk of wood would render him barely able to squeeze past the edge of the desk every time he wanted to pass by it, which would be neither dignified nor enjoyable for himself or anyone who he tries to meet with. 

Hence, the desk’s current position shoved against the accent wall, leaving him to face the white and red rectangles of the thin brick veneer tile with his back exposed to the rest of the room. He’s forced to turn his head to the right every time he wants to check his own doorway—the view from which is currently of Mai kicking off her heels and climbing over the brown leather couch with metal studs along the armrests, another loose white blouse tucked into the grey pencil skirt she definitely wore yesterday; the skirt Naru watched her slide up over her thighs this morning in his peripheral vision as he pretended not to notice her disrobing and redressing while he was still in the room, trying and failing to read through his emails.

He watches her flick a disheveled Yasuhara on the forehead, causing him to nearly flinch out of his glasses; he watches her smiling and laughing with the team for presumably the first time since Noll has been here; and it should be a good thing, but something heavy settles in his gut at the sight. Something toxic.

He’s glad she’s feeling better.

It almost makes his sleepless night worth it, having spent the first half the evening convincing her to sleep alone, then attempting to bargain with her to reveal the location of her stash of cigarettes—the only explanation he can find for the fact they keep showing up even after he’d been sure he threw them away—and the second half of the night wrestling her away from the replacement wards he put up on the walls and headboard of the bed while Mai tried every evasive tactic ever recorded to get a chance to take them down. It’s concerning behavior; aversion to wards is never a good sign, and the fact she’s done it multiple nights in a row is even more suspicious. Although, her ki didn’t seem to change last night, or at least not as much as their first night in the room. That’s not to say she doesn’t have a spirit attachment influencing her behavior; it might be hiding where Noll and Lin’s senses can’t reach it. Its influence could also be subject to change, depending on the strength of the wards.

And based on that bizarre reaction to Monk yesterday, a spirit influence is seeming more likely than he’d originally thought. He’d been so sure it was primarily a subconscious manifestation… It would be a partial relief, if Hara were to disprove Noll’s suspicions.

Unfortunately, Hara is blatantly refusing to answer his calls.

The young medium is keeping her distance, and, judging from the interactions Noll witnessed between her and Mai at the antique shop, Noll thinks he might have an idea as to why. Her and Mai have obviously grown closer while he was gone, and yet the others claim Mai rarely shows up to group events or socializes. Even more suspicious is that Mai frequently spoke of the others on the phone with him, but not once, ever, did she mention her growing friendship with Hara. Not once in three years.

He may be jumping to conclusions, but it’s probable Hara knows something; something Mai doesn’t want Naru to know.

Likely sensing his eyes on her, Mai turns her cheek to where Yasuhara and Monk are trying to move the couch with Mai on it. She casts an incendiary glare at Noll, her mussed chestnut hair turning auburn in the sunlight framing her face.

Still angry, then.

Noll allows her to hold his gaze as long as she wishes, directing her ire at him until she grows bored of his seeming lack of response and goes back to shouting with the others about where, exactly, the couch should be in relation to the matching leather chairs.

When she looks away, Noll’s gaze slides down to the inner crook of her elbow, able to see the faintest outline of the bandage holding the piece of cotton to where the puncture was made.

Mai hasn’t spoken a word to him since he delayed her breakfast and dragged her to a surprise, private phlebotomy appointment on the outskirts of Ikebukuro around 7:25 am—private, so Noll could supervise the procedure, keeping a hand on the back of her neck at all times, regulating her ki for her to prevent any unwanted ‘accidents’ while she was having her blood drawn.

Their interactions have been understandably tense, since.

Tearing his eyes from her ivory, chiffon-like shirt sleeve, Noll sighs and looks over the stack of requested case files on the far right side of the massive desk, then sits down carefully on the equally ridiculous leather office chair that squeaks and makes Noll feel like a toddler sitting in his father’s office on ‘bring-your-adopted-son-to-work-day.’

Sliding the top file off the manila stack, pinching it between his thumb and index finger to drop it onto the wood in front of him, Noll wonders not for the first time what it means to be the leftovers from a two-for-one adoption scheme, where one was worth twice its price and the other came free. He’s overheard the hushed words of one-too-many staff at their estate, huddled in dusty corners, to naively imagine the situation to be anything other than what it is: “Why couldn’t it have been the other one?” 

It doesn’t bother him. The “other one” has been Noll’s moniker at the estate ever since he first arrived there. And he worked somewhat tenaciously at maintaining it, withdrawing from social interaction, allowing Gene to foolishly take the unspoken place of “socially appropriate one” and subsequently allow himself to be burdened by others, repeatedly—a trait he clung stubbornly to even in death. Noll has never taken offense to such remarks. In fact, staring down at the already accumulating workload in front of him while the others laugh uproariously and stub their toes on the coffee table, already tasting the hours of over-soaked tea and mind-numbing research ahead of him, Noll could not agree more vehemently.

“Oliver.”

Still caught up in his thoughts, Noll opens the file, unfocused eyes blurring the first several lines of the page.

“Naru.

The voice finally registers as more than white noise, and Noll looks to his right despite the already growing pain in his neck from the repetitive action, eyes falling on Lin leaning through the open doorway, looking as sleepless and irritable as Noll feels, his normally crisp dress shirt wrinkled, his black tie undone and hanging around his shoulders, trademark vest nowhere to be found. It’s been a while since Lin has called him that.

“I called the number on the prescription you gave me,” he says, soft-spoken, which Noll appreciates almost as much as he appreciates Lin not commenting on how ridiculous his sparse office arrangement currently is, not having had the chance to unpack or assemble any of his file cabinets in the midst of trying to make this atrocity of a desk fit. “The woman says the pills were on the table before they vanished.”

The words take a moment to sink in. Noll leans back in his oversized chair, ignoring the squeaking, and rotates it to face Lin as he crosses his left leg over the other. “Vanished, literally? Not hyperbolically.”

“Correct.”

Noll swipes his favorite ball-point pen from the groove in the wood at the front edge of the desk designed to hold it, clicking it into the writing position, then clicking it back into place. “She could be lying.”

“I doubt that.”

Lin’s tone peaks his interest, draws his gaze back up to the taller man’s grim expression.

“Suzuki Kazane was a high school student who passed away over a month ago.” Lin glances at the pen in Noll’s hand, shoulders more stiff than usual. “The woman I spoke to was her mother.”

Ah. Noll clicks the pen once again. Lin finally decides to further enter the office as Noll eyes the rough grains of the faux brick wall, rust-red and eggshell-white blending together like they got mixed up in the wash. Once the door is shut, muffling some of the commotion outside, Lin leans on the edge of the desk closest to the exit, and Noll takes a moment to hate Madoka for how multiple feet of space remain between them; the desk is that obnoxious in size.

“She could still be lying. Perhaps she sold them.”

“Oliver,” Lin warns, his one visible grey eye slitted in disappointment.

Before he can start in on his favorite lecture on respecting the dead and the grieving, Noll spins his chair to face his desk once again, uncrossing his legs and refocusing on the tall stack of client requests Monk, Yasuhara and Lin managed to drum up in a slightly concerning amount of time. If Noll were honest with them, he doesn’t plan to accept any requests for investigation for another couple of weeks, if he can help it. He plans to coast on savings until the grant kicks in and Mai is more under control.

“Thank you for the update,” he says, by way of dismissal, and Lin only hesitates a stubborn moment before making his way back out of the office, leaving the door wide open behind him, the rising voices once again bouncing around the inside of Noll’s skull.

Vanished, huh?

Taking a cleansing breath that doesn’t cleanse anything, whatsoever, Noll manages to focus his eyes on the first page of the file in front of him, then squints in confusion. This isn’t a request; it’s an open case file on a two bedroom apartment in Tokyo. Apartment #133. The client claims to hear recurrent screams of what sounds like a young girl, accompanied by strong, disturbing smells of something “foul” burning.

Noll doesn’t remember ever taking this case, but it’s possible it slipped through the cracks before he left Japan and somehow found itself in the wrong stack when they were sorting through old cases. Searching the page for the date, Noll’s fingers tense, wrinkling the file in his grip. March 31st of this year. 

Today is the 24th of March.

This case is dated exactly one week from today.

A loud knock on the door frame jerks his attention up to the lanky, glasses-wearing individual in the doorway, sticking one hand in his khaki pants pocket while holding up a neatly bound folder in the other. 

“Daddy brought gifts,” Yasuhara says, grinning as if he honestly isn’t disgusted with his own existence, and Noll feels the tension drain from his shoulders just from being in proximity to such a willful idiot.

Of course. He must have forgotten to tell him he’s no longer interested in the antique shop, having already ruled it out with Mai as a cause of her phenomena. Sauntering in with a little too much ‘pep’ in his step, Yasuhara drops the thick folder onto Noll’s desk with a smug expression that almost garners sympathy.

Almost.

Naru glances at the report, flipping through a few pages before letting the cover fall shut, disinterested. “Thanks,” he says, somewhat insincere; a little thanks can go a long way, Mai claims, and now is as good a time to test that as any. Emphasis on the ‘little.’

He can picture Yasuhara’s slowly evolving expression without even looking, instead sliding his laptop closer to him and hitting the spacebar to wake up the screen.

“Aren’t you going to read it?”

Noll types in his password and tries to make this as painless as possible. 

“I won’t be needing it, but I appreciate the effort expended,” he says, restoring his previously closed browser.

He can practically hear Yasuhara’s string of thought snap.

“What do you mean you don’t need it? You asked for it.”

“I required it. Now I don’t require it.”

A lazy glance in the other’s direction confirms Yasuhara’s face is fraught with irritation behind his trademark smile, and Noll doesn’t question the near-pleasurable satisfaction he derives from watching the taller fume before yet another shadow fills the doorway, sandalwood bracelets knocking against each other on Monk’s wrist as he sweeps into the room and quickly steers Yasuhara away with an arm over his shoulders, like the tide called in and out by the Moon. 

“Come on, champ. Let’s get something to eat.”

“I don’t want to eat, I want to be respected,” he says, letting Monk drag him away, nevertheless.

Once they’re gone, Noll’s eyes wander back down to the file resting open beside his laptop, the one with next week’s date. But when he reads the page again, he finds none of the same information, finds only a request to investigate a local shrine due to missing cats.

Noll doesn’t waste time questioning his senses. He wasted too much time that way before he returned to Japan; before he realized Mai’s abilities were likely waking up abilities in him, abilities he previously lacked use for. Triggering latent potential.

The problem is, Noll doesn’t know which type of omen this is. If a similar case comes up, is he meant to take it or pass on it? Is this a warning or a lead?

Feeling an unsettling tug at the base of his spine, Noll finds himself turning to look back out through his doorway and meet’s Mai’s pinched expression. She walks stiffly in black heels, white-knuckling a tray holding a light green ceramic teapot beside a white cup and saucer, and places the set down on the far edge of his desk.

Noll hadn’t asked for tea.

He drags his eyes up her legs, over her skirt, all the way up to her fiery eyes, looking for something out of place, something that might explain what she’s doing here after ignoring him all morning. There’s a healthy flush to her cheeks, and Noll wonders if he needs to turn the AC on, or if she’s overworked herself traipsing around the new office with the other rambunctious SPR members. It dawns on him that Matsuzaki isn’t even here yet—only Mai, Yasuhara and Monk. He nearly groans at the thought. It’s going to get so much worse.

“I’m going with Monk and Yasu to get lunch,” she says, firm, like she thinks he’ll object.

She’s correct.

“Bring Lin with you,” he says, careful not to let his eyes linger on the not-quite plunging but definitely diving neckline of her blouse, or the slim fit of her skirt as she cocks her hip; he’s unused to seeing her dressed like this; it’s going to be an adjustment.

“Why?”

Placing his pen down on the desk, Noll’s eyebrow twitches as even that movement manages to make the leather chair squeal. Fine. Madoka wants a phone call? If she keeps playing at this type of retribution, Noll will make sure she gets lots of phone calls from many people—maybe even a few from HM Revenue and Customs. 

“Naru?”

Noll catches himself staring at the curling ends of Mai’s hair and forces his eyes up to hers, quickly retracing the conversation to find his place. Right. Monk. Until he can figure out why she tried to obliterate him in that alleyway, why he triggered her fight or flight response in the hotel—until he can confirm it’s safe for her to be around him—she requires extra supervision.

“Bring Lin,” he repeats, and folds his hands together, elbows propped on the armrests as he turns his chair to face her fully.

She purses her lips, clearly holding back a retort as her thin, left ankle wobbles slightly in her relatively short black pumps. So she’s not used to those shoes, after all. Noll has been wondering how recent some of these changes are; wondering when she started dressing business-casual, started wearing heels, started smoking. He wonders why she wears them, if they make it difficult even to stand. It’s possible she just likes them, but Noll has his doubts.

“No,” she says.

“No?”

Mai meets his skepticism with equal force, tilting her chin up slightly. “Just Monk and Yasu.”

Interesting.

His chair complains loudly as he leans on his right elbow, tracing his lower lip with his thumb as he thinks. She has that look in her eyes; the look that means she isn’t budging. This means something to her. 

His mind sends him back to how miserable she looked having her blood drawn, eyes wide, hands shaking; the entire affair made Noll’s skin crawl. He needs to see her CMP, at the very least, couldn’t risk not having her blood panels and failing to give her the help she needs. But it turned out to be more of a violation than Noll was originally concerned it would be, as he’d been thinking of it as a routine medical necessity more than anything, but, given her response, it was crossing a line.

He owes her some leeway, here.

“Fine. But stay close, and bring your phone.”

A small, barely-there smile makes itself known in the corner of her mouth, and she holds up the cheap flip-phone she’d insisted on—begged for, if he’s honest—while shopping yesterday, regardless of the touch screens and smartphones at her disposal. The look Lin had given him when they exited the store with that laughably simple device bordered on accusation. Noll had shrugged, watching Mai grinning at the blue screen of the phone, clicking through the minimal menu. It’s what she wanted.

She’s out of sight before he can shake himself from the memory.

Noll only stares at the space she used to be for a few long seconds before turning his attention back to his laptop, clicking on the first unread email in his inbox with his eyes braced for pain. If he reads one more message signed off, “Best of wishes to you and your fiancé,” he’s going to gouge out his eyeballs.

It’s from Higashi, the perpetually pineapple-patterned-sock-wearing researcher Noll swiped the grant out from under at the last minute. Noll still feels a bit guilty about that. He and Higashi often compared neurobiology notes between projects.

The message reads simply:

     Eat shit.

     Love,

     Higashi

Reading the message again once more, the blank space in his chest begins to fill itself, an insuppressible smirk growing on his face.

Someone misses him.

 

...

 

“Too bad it’s not the weekend,” Monk says, picking up the metal tongs and flipping the still-grey angel shrimp on the flat black grill, built into the center of the table.

Okonomiyaki sounds good,” Yasu agrees, but for how much they complain about missing out on weekend deals, they seem to be having a suspicious amount of fun frying up half the ocean, instead.

She wanted the pork kimchi fry, but without Ayako to back her up, it’s hard not to get out-voted by the boys’ enthusiasm. Mai tries not to be bitter, stealing a grilled scallop off of Monk’s plate, and pops it into her mouth, her chopstick dexterity fully restored thanks to the better-fitted gloves Naru gave her. The buttery flavor bursts in her mouth as she chews, the juice of the scallop reminding her of hot soup on a cold day.

It’s not cold today, but it's overcast outside, and that’s close enough. Mai peers out the tall windows at the colorful, graffiti-style murals covering the walls of the courtyard. A sakura tree grows up through a large hole cut into the middle of a cardinal red picnic table, leaving a mess of petals on the wooden patio below it. The air feels alive when the breeze follows patrons in from the street, sharpening the warmer smells of seasoning, amplifying the sizzling and crackling of meat on each table’s grill as she chews and swallows. 

If Mai opens her mouth and sticks out her tongue, it tastes like it might rain.

“Yeah, yeah, we get it,” Yasuhara says, misunderstanding, and steals the tongs from a sputtering Monk as soon as the nicest, juiciest looking shrimp is fully pink and cooked, only to pick it up and deposit it on the square white plate in front of Mai. “We’ll get pork, next.”

Pulling her tongue back in her mouth, Mai smiles behind the gloved hand holding her chopsticks. She’s not going to bother explaining herself—not when she’s getting her way, at least.

“So,” Monk says, takes a swig of his beer, and then swallows like the mouthful was slightly more carbonated than he was expecting. “Why didn’t you invite the doctor?

The heat rising up from the grill probably makes her face look more red than it would be otherwise. She’ll always have that excuse, she tells herself, setting down her chopsticks in favor of resting her hand over her stomach. Promises or no, she’s not going to have room for pork, by the time they’re done with eating the ocean out of house and home.

“Why should I?” she says, examining her left glove for any stray drops of cooking oil.

Monk shrugs noncommittally, pinching the front of his mud-brown t-shirt and airing out the front, sweat starting to shine on his neck and collarbones from leaning over the grill so long before Yasu took over. Speaking of Yasu, the glasses king has a pinched look on his face that Mai can’t even begin to understand.

“No reason,” Monk says, “just surprised me, is all.”

“Surprised you?”

“Yeah,” he says, staring at her like she’s overlooked something quintessential. “Don’t get me wrong,” he adds hastily, smiling with warmth as he wipes up the condensation his beer left on the table with a white paper napkin, “I’m glad it’s just you. It’s been a while, you know? But I mean,” his eyes flick to Yasuhara briefly, who outright glares at him, “you’ve hardly separated since he got here.”

The observation shouldn’t feel like an insult, shouldn't put her on her heels, but it does. “So?”

At Monk’s neutral expression, Mai’s anger lowers down to a simmer, matching the heat on the grill as Yasu reaches around the edge of the table and turns it down. “We’ve missed you. A lot.”

Inhaling heat, Mai feels the sincerity of his words like being knocked on her back by a bull, like having the earth shift under her feet while she tries to run. She seeks out Yasuhara’s eyes and finds him equally earnest, the reflective lenses of his glasses turning the dark ocean-grey of his irises into colorful abalone.

Caught between their solemn expressions, Mai is struck on the back of the head with something like painful, horrible gratitude; gratitude for her friends who continue to care, gratitude for the fact she’s alive to be here, and above all gratitude for the fact she packed her sealing oil in her duffel, allowing her to redo the sigils all over her body in the bathroom this morning, allowing her to sit here in this crowded restaurant and stare into their wounded faces and repent.

She’s an awful, selfish person.

“You’ve been worried,” she says. It’s a truth, not a question. 

Monk nods silently, giving her room to speak, and Mai fills her lungs with spiced air. For the first time since she started smoking, Mai feels a genuine craving coming on for a cigarette. It makes her palms itch. Closing her eyes, she takes a moment to think, tuning out the lively chatter surrounding them, tuning out the two sets of eyes in front of her.

For all her reservations, she’s happy to be back in SPR. To be together with everyone. But it’s likely temporary. Regardless of what he’s planning, Naru can’t stay here forever, she knows that. The UK and Japan don’t allow dual citizenship; if he chooses one, he can’t have the other. Even more pressing is how the team will react when they begin taking on investigations and her abilities start becoming apparent. It’ll bring on so many questions, push back against so many walls she’s carefully crafted between them. She’s pushed them away so far, and yet they’re still trying to know her. Trying to be here. Mai feels lower than the grease Yasu is currently scraping off the grill, lower than the blackened residue leftover on the metal tongs.

She owes them an explanation.

“I’ve been experiencing an increase in psychic activity,” she says, keeping her eyes closed so she doesn’t have to face them. Cowardly until the end. “Naru has been helping me get my abilities under control. That’s why we’re together all the time.”

Her hands shake under the table, and she squeezes them into fists. The silence from the two men in front of her goes on for eternity, and she gathers the courage to peel her eyes back open, blinking into the light of the afternoon bustle of the restaurant, eyes landing on a purple, red and yellow mural of a stylized tiger, black arching stripes cutting dramatic lines along the body, until her gaze lowers back down to the faces in front of her.

They’re smiling.

Confusion mixes with humiliation, rising up in her stomach with the grace of a thrashing squid caught on a jig. Staring at their matching grins, despite all her fears, they look like she just told them New Years is coming again, early. 

Mai gapes, uncomprehending as they begin piling food on her plate, scooping it off of theirs and onto her square of porcelain. Before Mai can utter even a word, trying to wrap her brain around their reactions, Yasuhara is practically climbing out of his chair, waving down their server with a wild arm. 

“Pork! We’d like pork!”

 

...

 

When Mai returns to the new office, laughing her way up the cement path to the door as Monk tries to pick Yasuhara up bridal-style and carry him over the threshold as the other pretends to swoon, the sun is already on a downward decline, sinking into an airbrushed sky of soft purples and reds. 

They missed the mark for “just taking our lunch” by several hours, but her phone never rang, and Mai hasn’t felt this good in months, hasn’t felt so unburdened in possibly her entire life, kicking off her heels in the white-speckled tile entryway to free her sore toes. It almost looks like a genkan, set off from the rest of the hardwood flooring.

Flopping down lengthwise on the brown leather couch they never quite agreed on a place for, relaxing her sore muscles and sinking into the perfect combination of cool and squishy but firm, Mai wonders why it is she feels so good. She didn’t tell them everything, in fact, she barely told them anything, and she didn’t want to accidentally give more life to the clay boy or the shadows by telling the others about them. They didn’t press her, either, didn’t try to get her to tell them the specifics of her abilities or her struggles, as long as she confirmed she’s receiving help from Naru. But it felt so healing to trust at least a little, to open up just a small amount and let herself be led around town by her rambunctious boys.

It felt like having a family, again.

After Yasu and Monk’s voices drift into the kitchen of the expansive office, the door closing behind them, the distribution of weight shifts on the cushion by her feet. Even with her eyes closed, she doesn’t startle when deft hands gently lift her lower legs and guide them back down onto a lap; she’d recognize him anywhere, in any condition, even with her greater senses blocked by her gratuitous use of sealing oil.

He presses his thumbs into her right calf muscle in a circular massage, and Mai groans in appreciation. She hadn’t realized how sore her legs are from all that walking.

“Sorry we took so long,” she mumbles, trying not to drool on the leather as she yawns and stretches out, her right elbow popping as she extends it out from the couch, then lets it dangle off the edge of the cushion.

Naru’s hands work aimlessly along her calf, wandering off track frequently, lightly tracing his fingers over her shin, eliciting goosebumps. It should feel strange, she thinks, this casual intimacy, but something about it feels almost nostalgic. Warm. Safe.

“You weren’t needed here,” he says, and Mai snorts at the lack of tact. He slides his thumb up the tender muscle following the outside of her shin, and Mai forgives him for all his faults. 

It’s taken her these past few days to realize how much Naru thinks and speaks with his hands, prefers communicating with touch. It surprised her, at first, given how much he generally detests physical contact, to the point even Lin keeps his distance. Then again, maybe it makes perfect sense, knowing how much he prefers to hold back, how few of his thoughts and feelings he feels compelled or willing to share. Maybe physical touch is Naru’s first language, and he doesn’t want to say too much. 

The others’ energetic voices are still muffled by the door to the kitchen, and Mai says a quick, mental prayer that they’ll stay there long enough for Naru to finish massaging her legs; he’s unlikely to get caught dead or alive in a position like this.

“I’ll get up in a minute,” she promises, thinking of the piles of cardboard boxes needing to be unpacked in Naru’s office, and sighs into the cushion as Naru massages that same, hyper-sensitive muscle near her shin she didn’t even know she had with increasing pressure, sending a flurry of sensation down the length of her leg.

Naru doesn’t respond, doesn’t make an offhand remark about her general incompetence, and eventually Mai’s lips pull up into a smirk as she recognizes what this is, her body sinking further and further into the couch, like gravity is increasing only for her. 

It’s an apology.

 

...

 

Closing the door to Lin’s office behind him, glancing back to ensure the white blinds are drawn over the glass pane on the door, Noll ignores the blip of envy at Lin’s reasonably sized walnut desk with two green-cushioned chairs facing it. 

Noll comes to stand behind one of them, bracing his hands on the coarse fabric. Looking up from his laptop, Lin only needs one visible eye to communicate his impatience with the interruption. And here Noll thought Lin wanted him to be more communicative about his plans.

“You’re certainly taking a laid back approach, today,” Lin says, already on the offensive. “Yesterday’s measurements were inconclusive. I’m surprised you haven’t given it a second attempt.”

Wordy, for Lin. Tapping his finger on the firm back of the chair, Noll generously tolerates the clumsy attempt to work him for more information. He came here to share, after all.

“You’ve heard the one about how to boil a frog, I assume?”

Backlit by an open window that faces the grey cement wall of a building behind theirs, Lin closes his laptop, the bluish tint on his face from the light dispersing. “The fable claims if you raise the temperature of the water slowly, giving it time to adjust, the frog won’t jump out,” he says, referring to the 19th-century belief like the old fool he is at heart.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Noll says, drumming away at the seat, and suppresses humor at Lin’s irritable glower. “No matter how gradual the heating, no frog with working limbs will allow itself to be boiled alive. The frog will always jump out.”

“And your point is,” Lin prompts, pushing his chair back from his desk, and Noll’s eyes drop down to the dark grains of the hardwood flooring, following the imperfect leveling that makes it so authentic.

“Do you know why the frog jumps?”

Sighing impatiently, Lin shifts in his normal-sized chair, and Noll keeps his gaze occupied with the cushion under his hands, noticing the small patterns of dark blue squares on the fabric, so small he almost didn’t spot them. Lin humors him, as always. “Pain.”

“Survival instinct.” Noll lifts his eyes from the cushion, meeting Lin’s reluctantly engaged expression. “It’s an involuntary act stimulated by the body, requiring no awareness or decision-making on the part of the frog, whatsoever.”

Inhaling and sighing again, Lin crosses his arms across his white shirt, raising his observable eyebrow. “I assume I’m meant to connect this to Taniyama.”

If he hasn’t put it together by now, Noll isn’t interested in waiting for him to catch on.

“It doesn’t matter how gradually I pull information from her, how carefully I space out my attempts to pressure her,” Noll says, staring his seriousness into Lin’s grey eye. “If I approach ‘boiling,’ if I cross that line, it won’t matter how slowly I worked up to it. She’ll jump, whether she wants to or not.”

Understanding dawns on Lin’s face. “You think you’re approaching a threshold,’” Lin says, and Noll subtly nods his affirmative. “But she seemed to be doing well today.”

“Exactly.” At Lin’s blank expression, Noll sighs—it’s contagious—and begins rolling up the black sleeves of his dress shirt, airing out his forearms. “She’s shown a pattern of stark highs and lows, one minute she’s fine, the next she’s not. She rarely gets through a full day and night in one state of being. And today was a major high. Which means—”

“Tonight is a major low,” Lin finishes, and Noll tilts his head in acknowledgement, stepping between the consultation chairs and picking up a hollow bell from Lin’s desk. “What do you need from me?”

“Keep your phone nearby, loud enough to wake you.” Noll gives the bell a silent shake, fixating on the absence of sound. “We’ll set up this week and run the tests on the potential ectoplasm, but I’d prefer to wait for her blood panels before taking any additional steps.” At the very least, he feels confident she’s hypoglycemic, which is why he’s been putting orange juice in front of her at every opportunity, despite her resistance. Another thought occurs to him. “And get Hara on the phone. Use someone else’s cell, if you have to.”

A hand covers his to still the bell, and Noll glances up at Lin’s agitated expression. “It’s annoying,” he says, and Noll raises his brows, lowering the bell back down to the desk when Lin lets go.

Well.

“I’ll be in my office, if you need me. I say we give it another hour before calling it a night,” he says, turning to leave.

“Feeling like calling Madoka, yet?” Lin drawls, and Noll tries not to let his ki slip, twisting the door handle with a-touch-too-much force.

“I’m 2,000 times more likely to die in a plane crash.”

Smirking internally at Lin’s disapproving silence, Noll shuts the door firmly behind him, accidentally making eye contact with Yasuhara, who’s currently shoving business cards in all of his available pockets, creating rectangular bulges in his light beige pants.

The taller man opens his mouth to explain, and Noll holds up a placating hand—no need—before pivoting and retreating to the dark serenity of his office.

 

...

 

The biggest rock in the formation makes the perfect chair, flattened at the top and facing a thick, moss-covered tree trunk resting on a boulder at an angle, forming a natural archway over the dirt path that winds through the dense greenery lining the meadow. 

Mai breathes in the colorful smells of the soil drying out in the heat, the breeze soft on her skin, not as cutting as the ones that rip through the forest at night.

Kami-sama didn’t come today.

Stretching her short legs in front of her on the boulder, the skirt of her white yukata stained with grass, Mai wriggles her toes, running her hands through her hair and feeling a pang of sadness as her fingers reach the ends sooner than expected, hair chopped short to her shoulders as punishment for trying to play with itoko again. At least they didn’t find the special red music he gave her; she hid it in the shadows when they were busy not-looking. 

Closing her eyes, she tilts her head up toward the beams of sun weaving through the leaves, hot on her face.

She doesn’t want to go back inside. She doesn’t want to go back. 

Two sets of footsteps wandering through foliage in her direction snap her out of her dreamy haze, fear sharpening the edges of her consciousness as she opens her eyes and quickly climbs down the rocks, scraping her forearm on stone, her toes digging into damp earth and grass as she drops down. She doesn’t make it more than a step toward the cover of the tree line before two boys a little older than her, dark haired and wearing modern-looking clothes, step into the clearing.

Freezing in place, wishing she was hidden in the trees with the yokai that scattered at the strangers’ arrival, Mai tries to recognize them as their eyes land on her, tries to tell if they’re part of the extended family.

One looks at the other, then back at her, and it’s only then that she realizes they look almost exactly the same, if not for their auras and clothing. One has a ring of dark purple-blue around him and wears a light grey t-shirt and black pants. The other has a warmer, golden aura and wears a navy blue jacket with grey shorts.

“You should play somewhere else,” says the one in the t-shirt. He has a mean face. Cold eyes, too cold for summer. She shouldn’t answer. Mother says not to talk to anyone in the forest. 

Curling her toes in the craggy grass, feeling weak on her sun-soaked legs, Mai tries to center her weight under her, getting ready to run.

“There’re lots of animals and snakes here. It’s probably not safe to play without an adult,” the other one adds, taking a small step toward her and smiling gently. 

He speaks in a much nicer tone, seems much nicer in general, his eyes bright and warm, but it doesn’t make her feel any better. 

In fact, his demeanor confuses her, stalling her legs, forcing her to look both boys over more carefully. Their clothes and shoes are still mostly clean—they can’t have been wandering around the forest for long—and their faces aren’t familiar, but they’re uncommonly perfect, bizarrely pretty, and she wonders for a moment if they’re a strange pair of yokai she hasn’t met, yet; but they can’t be. The others wouldn’t have run, if that were the case. They don’t look that much older than her, either, having just recently turned nine; she knows she’s nine because her itoko told her so, and he never, ever lies. 

Sizing up the softness of the nicer one’s smile, his odd efforts to put her at ease, it occurs to Mai that they might think she’s younger than she is. Mother says she’s small for her age. Weak. 

After a tense moment of consideration, she thinks it’s okay to speak to them.

“I’ll be fine,” she says, throat sore from disuse, “I’m not alone.”

The first to speak, the one with the mean face, is now ignoring her, seemingly more interested in a nearby maple with large arching branches, thousands of tiny eyes peeking out from between its blood-orange leaves. The yellow-aura boy is still smiling at her. It’s weird.

“Oh?” he says, tilting his head, and Mai’s discomfort grows; she doesn’t like his tone; he’s making fun of her. The other children all make fun of her when they think she can’t hear, when she’s wrapped in shimenawa, being led back down the stairs. But Mai tries not to care. Mother says to always look confident, don’t let them know you’re scared.

Standing up straighter, Mai tilts her chin up and tries to look strong. “Yes,” she says, and steps toward the comforting whispers of the stones behind her.

They don’t leave, standing in the clearing with all the calm in the world, and Mai continues to stare at them warily. She’s curious about them, curious about where they come from, why they’re here, but she can’t risk getting too close. Their auras don’t feel like the others in the temple, not white-hot. But the yokai are afraid, so they might be from another exorcist family. None of her friends will play while those two are here. 

“Can you leave now?” she asks, and the smiling one looks over her head, rubbing the back of his neck. 

“Maybe we could all walk together?”

She tilts her head, sharp ends of her hair poking her neck, trying to feel their intentions like Mother taught her. It’s difficult, she’s still learning, and his bright smiles aren't helping at all, the gentle forest wind lifting his hair in slow movements.

Maybe they’re lost.

They might be tourists. She thought their way of speaking was a little funny, different from other outsiders she’s met.

Stepping away from the rocks, she brushes off her yukata and starts walking over to them, tall blades of grass itching her shins, and the too-smiley one’s eyes go wide as he steps forward and shouts, “Watch out!” at the same time Mai feels a large, damp hand close around her wrist. She turns and looks up at a tall, gelatinous, purple friend with cherry red eyes, a sprout of red leaves coming out of its head.

“Oh. Tomma-san.” 

They feel suspicious, it wants her to know.

Mai looks back at the boys looking at her with constipated expressions. Mother only lets her play in the forest if she hides from family members and suspicious people.

“You’re right,” she says, and looks back at Tomma-san's beady eyes. “You can follow us.”

It nods, making clumsy, gelatinous noises as it trails over the uneven earth behind her. The strangers’ expressions only get weirder the closer she gets, the wet sounds of Tomma-san following her through the grass as she goes. And they have strangely colored eyes up close, too, like the pictures of foreigners itoko showed her. Blue, but purple. Purple, but blue. Pretty.

“The fastest way down the mountain is that way,” she says, pointing east, through a cluster of increasingly large-trunked trees with darkened bark and bright yellow-green leaves, “but it’s easy to get lost, so I’ll show you.”

The nice one at least remembers his manners, bowing with that funny look on his face.

Sumimasen,” he says, and Mai can’t help but feel bad for him. No one has ever tried to protect her before, other than Mother and the mountain spirits. And Kami-sama. It makes her feel warm, but nervous.

People are nice when they want things, Mother says. She needs to be careful.

“You can call me Mai,” she says, and wipes her sweaty palms on her yukata. Never give strangers your family name. 

She doesn’t mean to make him uncomfortable, but the way his face looks like it’s about to burst into flames makes it seem like she did. She wonders if she’s done something strange, again. It’s so hard to know how to talk to outsiders. His silent doppelgänger, on the other hand, barely emotes at all, other than to look grossed out by the purple residue Tomma-san left on her wrist. She wonders why there are two of them. Were they invited here? Why would Kami-sama need two of the same person? She wonders which one is the spare.

“Then you can call me Yuujin,” the nice one says, recovering with a smile and gesturing to himself, then his duplicate, who looks away into the trees, black hair shiny like the river at night. “And this is Kazuya.”

She nods politely, even though he doesn't turn her way, instead hides his hands in his pants pockets. “Okay,” she says, “follow me.” 

She starts toward the thicker part of the forest, toward the path, small rocks and dried leaves sharp against the bottoms of her feet without the pillow of grass. Brushing her fingers over rough tree trunks as she goes, feeling them sing at the touch, she notices all the nearby friends popping out of their hiding places, falling into step behind them and keeping pace in the trees as she steps over felled branches and twigs, being extra careful of any odd shapes in case one of them is actually a friend.

Listening to the rustling, crunching steps of the shoe-wearing boys behind her, she feels kind of jittery. She doesn’t have many interactions with others; people who don’t know. She tries to remember how the other children talk to each other. It’s been so long since she’s had to do this.

“Where are you from?”

“We’re traveling with family,” says Yuujin behind her, and Kazuya scoffs. 

It’s not a friendly sound. He didn’t answer her question, but that’s okay. Mai slows down so she can hear them better, Yuujin smiling in awe at the small, brown and white faces of the mushroom yokai tripping over one another on the sides of the path, and wipes some of the dirt off her cheek.

Travel. A magical word. Mother travels a lot, but she says there’s nothing good. 

“I never get to go anywhere,” she says, and lowers her eyes back to the increasingly mossy earth underfoot.

“Your parents let you go to the forest,” Yuujin says, and Mai tries not to let her sad feelings show, focusing on the special feeling Kami-sama taught her to listen to when she’s navigating the mountain.

“Mother says I belong in the forest,” she says, and stares as hard as she can at the wiggly-worm tree roots around them, leading down the mountain like steps. “She says I belong to the mountain.”

The human footsteps behind her falter and slow. She glances back to check that they haven’t hurt themselves on a gap between the roots spiraling up from the earth, but instead she accidentally meets with dark eyes.

Kazuya is looking at her with a new expression, something sort-of-maybe not mean. She hopes she didn’t say something weird. It makes her feel fuzzy in her chest, so she tries to smile and faces forward again.

“She doesn’t like the forest anymore, but she knows I like it,” Mai explains, and feels her spirits lift back up when she catches sight of a yellow-striped snake friend curled up under a bright green bush to their left, trying to nap.

“You really surprised me,” Yuujin says, walking a little faster to keep up. “I didn’t think… I’ve never met anyone else who can see yokai.”

Is that not normal? Mai considers her response as she climbs over a particularly large tree root, scraping her knees on bark, the flora growing larger the deeper into the forest they go.

Mai has only met people who can see her friends. Even the strangers who visit the mountain all seem to be able to do this; she's never thought it was anything special. Maybe it's not normal wherever they're from. Or Kami-sama doesn’t want to meet anyone who can’t, maybe? Sounds familiar, like something she’s overheard in the temple, the brief moments she’s allowed near the family. Some family members are born without the ability, but they always go away eventually.

Eyes catching on one of the smaller rocks shivering in the damp dirt, Mai redirects her step to avoid hurting the weak yokai in disguise. She guesses they might be hard to see, sometimes.

“Like Tomma-san?” she asks, and Yuujin makes a sound of agreement. “Lots of people can see them.”

She almost tells them how Mother and all her family can, but she catches herself. Too much truth is never good, Mother says. Mai has a hard time with that.

“Hah, is that so…?”

She peeks at Yuujin and sees him smiling sort of strangely, rubbing the back of his neck again. Kazuya, for once since they’ve met, looks interested, narrow eyes focused on hers, so she decides to talk to him.

“You see them, too, right?”

It takes him a minute to respond, but Mai doesn’t mind. Some of her friends don’t speak at all. Sometimes it’s better not to. “Not as well as my brother,” he says, and flicks a purple seed-eating yokai off his shoulder.

Brother. That makes even less sense; why would one family need two of the same child? So confusing. She’ll ask itoko next time he visits her. Maybe one of them isn't real. Maybe one of them is a grown up yokai in disguise.

Now that she thinks of it, Kazuya does sound sort of grown-up. He might be real but with a grown-up brain. That happens sometimes. No wonder he looks so serious.

“How’d you get your grown-up brain?” she asks, glancing over her shoulder at his blank expression and nearly tripping on a branch before catching herself by leaning on a big mound of black tree roots, blue moss squishy against her hands as she climbs up the rounded limbs.

“Excuse me?”

Ignoring his rude tone, Mai struggles to get her footing on a slippery part of the wood. “Mother says lots of bad things have to happen to get a grown-up brain, and that’s why you shouldn’t be sad.”

She’s getting frustrated with her slow progress when a white-haired, human-looking friend with a blank mask and poofy clothes crouches down at the top of the roots and pulls her up by her waist, putting her down on her feet.

“Thank you, Gin-san,” she says, catching her breath at the top.

Turning around, she watches Kazuya and Yuujin climb up much easier than she did and feels some embarrassment, but they’re bigger and older, she tells herself. She’ll be strong like them super fast.

To her right, Mai sees the bushes with the special blue flowers that make noise at night, which means they’re getting closer to the path. When they join her at the top with dirt on their hands, Mai turns to Kazuya, who has a small dirt-smudge on his cheek and an odd look in his eyes.

“How’d you get it?” she asks. He stares at her for a long time. She turns to Yuujin, whose face doesn’t look much happier than Kazuya’s, slightly lighter blue eyes dulled in the shade. “Do you have one too?”

She frowns when they don’t reply. She guesses you’re not supposed to ask about that. 

“It’s not bad,” she says, and starts walking toward the bushes, her feet only slightly sore from having abandoned her sandals, “Mother says the sooner it happens the better, so you hurt people less.”

“How does that work?”

Mai stops and turns around. Yuujin looks sad. She didn’t mean to make him sad. “I don’t know,” she says, feeling a little ashamed. “I don’t think I have one yet.” She looks down at her hands, dirt stuck under her nails, and nudges a small, round stone with her toes, half-buried in the ground. “I don’t want to hurt people, but I don’t think I want a grown-up brain, either.” 

She thinks back to sitting alone in the basement last night, listening to the far off sounds of dinner upstairs, making shadow friends on the walls to feel less hungry. Her tummy kind of hurts. She crouches down on the ground, toes gripping the dirt, and hugs her knees, staring at the tan lines on the grey stone. “If it hurts a lot, I don’t want one.”

After a few seconds, that weird purple fills her peripherals as Kazuya crouches down right beside her, their elbows brushing as he digs the rock out of the ground. Mai sniffs as a wet earth smell fills the air in front of them, and she watches him smooth the clumps of dirt off the stone’s surface with his thumb before placing it in the palm of his hand. 

Incredibly, the stone floats up into the air, hovering several inches above his hand, rotating and spinning in the air slowly. Mai stares wide-eyed and speechless at the display, still unable to find words even after the stone is back in his palm. No one, no one in her family can do that. She’s sure. He holds the stone out to her, and she opens her hand.

“It doesn’t hurt,” he says, and presses the stone to her palm, squeezing her hand with the rock between them. His skin is warm, and it makes her face feel funny.

She constructs a wobbly smile, awkward from her unpracticed muscles.

Kazuya lets go of her hand as he stands, and Mai can see Yuujin not far behind him, smiling at his brother softly. He makes it look easy. Taking a deep breath, she stands up straight and brushes herself off, dropping the stone back onto the path where it belongs. Things should never be taken from the mountain, Mother says. There are always consequences.

“Okay,” she says, wiping her dry eyes with the sleeve of her dirt-stained yukata, “let’s keep going.” 

As long as she’s back before dark, she won’t get in trouble.