Sunlight streamed in through the open window and blazed a path across the office, illuminating the teal rug and coffee table that rested upon it. There were a few scattered papers left behind by Yasuhara when he had rushed off to class last minute. The possible cases were left for him to look over and then he would pass them on to Mai for review. But in that moment she could not bring herself to move over to collect them. The sun warming her back and the cup of still steaming tea resting between her hands locked her in place while her mind wandered drowsily like the dust particles floating through the air.
The quality of life for those working with SPR had drastically shifted after the Prudence Case, though none of them had bothered to voice their thoughts on it, Mai was inherently aware of it. Suddenly, the world had seemed much larger, fuller, and riper with more possibilities than it ever had before. She could sense it even as they returned to their normal lives and reclaimed the old office for use, once more taking on small cases brought to them by the locals of Japan, and passing the days with tea and basic paranormal investigation.
For Mai most of all. She had reached up into the heavens and pulled down a goddess to assist in cleansing a demon. Simple restless spirits were nearly nothing in comparison, even if their stories were still just as sad. Somehow, the world in her mind had doubled in size. There was now an extra layer, or aspect, to the paranormal world that mingled with her everyday life. She imagined that it was how the heroes of fantasy stories felt. The ones where a modern day man or woman slipped through a portal into a fantasy world to take part in some great quest. Like she was living two lives at once.
Mai heaved a sigh, head lulling forward, as boredom rose up within her. They hadn't taken a case in nearly two weeks and she was growing restless. Naru seemed to have no desire to take on anything worthwhile since their return and was content to work quietly in his office, claiming to be working on a new research article inspired by Mai's achievements with Prudence and her mother. Which was great, except, Mai had had nothing to do for days now. She had even resorted to cleaning the whole office from ceiling to floor twice over and had begun experimenting with different teas and coffees. So far, Naru had called her on every new brand she had offered him secretly while Lin, she had begun to realize, had no care for what she put in front of him and would drink it down without a second thought.
She worried for him.
It had never occurred to her just how oblivious he could be about anything that didn't revolve around Naru or the paranormal. Or Madoka, for that matter.
A week after their return from Florida Lin had proposed. It had been the talk of the team and Yasuhara continued to tease the man about it to that day. Yasu claimed that he had thought Lin was a robot, built by Naru himself as a child to be his own caretaker, and was completely taken by surprise that Lin had manifested emotions and fallen in love. Lin would only sigh and refrain from commenting. It was obvious that he hoped that Yasuhara would give up on him if he refrained from reacting but Lin did not know the young man as well as Mai did, and she knew for a fact that he would not give up so easily.
Mai set her tea down, limbs heavy in her relaxation, and turned in her chair to look out the window behind her. People shuffled along the sidewalk below casually, it was early in the week and still a little hot out, but the café below was attracting a lot of business those days. It was rare not to see it packed and Mai was glad. She had felt guilty after quitting so last minutes even though the owners had been so understanding and even happy for her getting her old job back. They deserved to be successful.
Mai smiled and leaned back in her chair.
She jumped a little at the sound of her name and spun her chair back around to face Naru as he stepped out of his office. He lifted a hand to the door frame and she looked over his appearance with a critical eye. He had been spending nights in the office again, that much she could tell, by the dark circles under his eyes and the wrinkled shirt that hung from his frame.
"Did you need more tea?" she asked curiously, wondering why he had not just called for her from his desk as he normally would. She pushed herself to her feet, nearly tripping over the wheels of her chair as she did.
Yes, tea. That seemed to be what their relationship would always revolve around. Mai had hoped that, after all that had happened during Prudence's case, they would have, maybe, progressed? He had kissed her after all. But upon their return to Japan it appeared as if Naru was having second thoughts. Whatever physical contact he had grown used to over in America had vanished overnight. Of course, she might have just been over thinking things, as he had been extremely busy furthering his research and, besides the recent two weeks, they had been swamped with minor cases.
Naru paused and looked her over briefly before he pushed himself away from the door frame and stepped over towards the front door, "Would you like to get lunch?"
Mai blinked, uncomprehending, before she hurried around the desk while reaching for her purse that she had left on the couch wearing a winning smile. Maybe there was hope for him yet, after all, she thought as she stepped through the door he held open.
Lin peeked out from his office and she just caught Naru waving him off from the corner of her eye before he shut the door behind him and offered his arm to her. Nervously, Mai lifted her own arm to wrap around his and quickly dropped her eyes to the floor before them as they walked down the hall to the staircase that led to the sidewalk outside.
Mai heaved a sigh as she absently sifted through the rack of clothing before her. Outside the shop in the mall, people shuffled through the concourse, and their muffled chatter barely penetrated the stuffy store. It was not enough to block out Ayako's surprised squawk nor was it enough to hide her sigh in return. "He took me out to lunch," Mai reiterated and pulled a black top out to examine while Ayako clapped excitedly behind her.
"Alright, Mai," she stated, suddenly taking on a serious air about her while she lifted a clenched fist. Her eyes glinted as she continued, "Now is your chance to lure him in for the kill. He's shown continued interest. You have to get him to marry you before his attention is pulled away by some other small medium."
"Ayako!" Mai admonished, voice raised. She fought down the blush but looked back down at the black top hesitantly. It was a loose fitting sweater but it had a gather on the side that would hug her waist and several slits cut into the long sleeves. She hugged the sweater to her chest possessively while Ayako chuckled knowingly behind her.
"What did you guys talk about?" the priestess questioned in a more genuine tone while eyeing a pair of black slacks.
"We didn't talk about much, Naru was Naru," Mai answered with a resigned shrug, "he mostly stared out the window but he did seem kind of upset about something."
"Did he finally discover the stick up his ass?" Ayako muttered ruefully and folded the slacks over one arm.
Mai snorted, failing to restrain her mirth at the statement, before she headed for the cash register. "Who knows?" she called back over her shoulder. Naru had been in a rotten mood for a while but she had not been able to work up the courage to ask him about it. She made a mental note to muster the nerve to do so while she used the gift card from Ayako, given to her all those months ago, to pay for the sweater.
"I'm sure we'll hear about it soon," Ayako bemoaned as they left the shop and headed to the next. Mai had requested the second half of the day off so that she could go shopping with Ayako, after they had been talking about it for months, and she was honestly thankful for the much needed girl time. Monk was on a tour around Japan with his band at the moment so it was no surprise that the woman had reached out to her for some company. Mai was just happy that they were once again a solid part of each other's lives. In the time that Naru had been away they had all remained in contact but it was impossible to ignore the distance that had begun to stretch between them. A few scheduled phone calls missed, a few special events passed without word from one or the other of the group, and Mai had begun to worry. But now, with their dark shadow of a boss' return, they had snapped back together like a rubber band.
"I'm just surprised he offered," Mai continued with a frown, "He reverted back to his usual self since we got back . . ." Seriously, it was like he had read her mind in that moment and realized he was slacking.
"Honestly, Mai, I don't think the man has ever been romantically involved with anyone in his life," Ayako said, "He probably has no idea what he's doing, so don't take it to heart." She reached over to ruffle the girl's hair with a kind smile.
Mai smiled in return, thankful for Ayako's caring heart, and looked ahead as they entered the next shop. She still had another three thousand yen on the gift card to spend and she wanted to find a few more articles of clothing that would help her feel a bit more confident before her birthday dinner that Friday. She would be turning eighteen and it would be a large event, though she would not yet be a legal adult in Japan, in many of SPR's other cultures, she would be. Additionally, it was her first birthday after graduating high school. She had been debating on continuing into a college the year before but with the return of Naru, she had hesitated, as paranormal investigating was her passion. She had put it on the back burner and had nervously skirted around the topic for as long as she could but it was weighing on her heavily.
A lot could change in year. Including her academic goals, she guessed.
Mai lifted her arms over her head to stretch, ignoring the plastic bag from the last shop as it bumped her ear, and let out a relieved groan. It was nice to get out and walk around for a bit. They spent the next hour shuffling through the mall in search of more finds before Ayako dropped Mai back off at the office. It was quiet as she slipped in and set her bags down behind her desk. She could hear the steady typing of Lin and Naru's dueling laptops but no other sound permeated the stuffy atmosphere. She moved over into the kitchenette to make one last round of tea for them before she would return home for the evening. Rocco needed to be walked before she could turn her attention to her growing pile of laundry in her closet. One of the other things she had been putting off for as long as she could.
The water boiled as she reached for the pot to allow the tea to steep. Once done, she breezed through the two separate offices and collected the empty teacups left from the last serving, and returned to wash them out.
She hadn't even noticed the gloomy specter that was her boss as he followed her back to the kitchenette before he called her name.
She continued to pour tea without pause, used to him appearing out of nowhere by that point, and hummed in response as she set the pot down carefully. She felt his arms wrap around her waist in the next moment and his head rested upon her shoulder shortly after.
Mai froze, back tense in surprise, before she allowed herself to relax and glance down at him from the corner of her eye. All she could see was his mop of black hair but it shone in the small kitchenette light. He almost never initiated contact, in fact, after they had returned from the US she could not recall him doing so at all. She was uncertain as to what prompted his spur of affection but she was certain it was due to the research he had been swimming through over the past two weeks. She fought down the blush threatening to paint her face scarlet and chuckled.
Really, what was going on? He had even taken her out to lunch. What switch had been flipped in his brain that had him turning his attentions to her that day? Regardless of the situation, Oliver Davis was a man of logic and intelligence, and the sudden spurt of odd behavior set Mai on edge, though not completely against his actions.
"You must be tired," she stated quietly and reached up to run her fingers through his hair.
Naru grunted in response and tightened his hold on her.
Worry ebbed around the spike of pleased excitement in her chest but she was afraid to move, as if Naru was a wild animal that she had finally coxed over to her, and break the spell that had fallen over him. She felt his weight shift, leaning more on her, and she reached up to feel his forehead. He was running a bit warm, she thought with a hum, and resisted the urge to let out a disappointed sigh as she spun in his hold and led him out towards the couch. Naru shuffled along behind her wordlessly and sat down with a sigh of his own with fingers lifted to the bridge of his nose as an obvious headache swelled forth.
"I just made some tea," she murmured quietly as she retrieved the cups from the kitchenette and set one down in front of him. She slipped into Lin's office to drop his off. "Naru's down for the count, Lin, were you two planning to head home soon?"
Lin pulled his eyes from the computer screen, stoic face painted in the harsh light against the dark of his office, and blinked while he reoriented his brain in reality. He lifted a hand to his face and rubbed at his eyes before he reached for the cup of tea Mai had sat down next to his hand. "I'll talk to him in a moment," he murmured while the warm caffeine kick started his system.
"You look like you could use a good night's sleep yourself, Lin," Mai observed dryly.
Lin bestowed upon her an exhausted smile before she retreated back out into the main office to check on Naru. He had leaned back in the couch, head resting against the back, while the now empty cup sat before him on the table. Mai smirked and stepped forward to grab the throw blanket from one of the chairs and pulled it over him.
Naru was lost to the world for the next eight hours, most likely. She dropped a kiss atop his head, giggling quietly at her cleverness, before she moved over to her desk to collect her things. She peeked back into Lin's office to let him know she was on her way out and he only lifted his eyes from the screen momentarily to offer her a nod in response.
Mai spent the next three minutes shoving her bags into the seat of her scooter, wrestling with the latch, before she gave up and just sat down on top of it. The latch clicked shut and she sighed before she slid the key into the ignition and her scooter puttered to life cheerily. If she hurried, she could be home in ten minutes but she never felt particularly rushed on her nightly drives. The world was far quieter and the air fresher and, sometimes, she just really liked to take the extra time to organize her thoughts from throughout the day.
Tonight was no different. As the wind rustled her hair that fell below her helmet, she took a moment to remember Naru's touch and she giggled. She had long since learned that he had an aversion to physical contact regularly, and the way he had stuck to her side in Florida had surprised her, but he seemed to regress back to his old ways once more. However, it appeared that exhaustion caused him to subconsciously, or consciously, seek out some form of physical comfort. It was cute and more than a bit endearing to know that she had now moved up on his list to his number one go to for such a thing. She would have to tell Gene, she was certain he would delight in the information.
Mai made it home safely and the next few days passed by in a similar haze as the others had. Naru had refused two other cases by the time Friday arrived and she was beginning to grow suspicious of his actions. How could he afford to keep paying them if they never took any work? She had a theory of what was to come but she refrained from pestering him about it as she left the office to get ready for her birthday dinner. It was practically a miracle that he was coming out to eat with everyone and she didn't want to run the risk of putting him in a bad mood.
She pulled her newly purchased black sweater on over her head, please that the night was cool enough for it, and jumped into a pair of denim skinny jeans that were ripped at the knees while Rocco gnawed on a bone in his bed. She could just see him in the mirror as she adjusted her hair and debated on doing something with it. It was getting long. She shrugged and put it in a messy bun before tugging at a few strands to frame her face. If Ayako were present, she was certain she would have demanded she layer her face in makeup before daring to set foot outside her door. She settled for a bit of mascara instead.
"Well," she exclaimed with her hands on her hips. Rocco lifted his ears but continued to gnaw on the bone. "This is as good as it's going to get," she finished and moved away from the mirror to snatch her phone from her bed. Naru and Lin had offered to pick her up and she had just received a text from the boss man himself informing her of their arrival. As soon as she had read through the text there was a knock at her apartment door and she quickly hushed Rocco before he let out one of his customary greeting howls. She had told her landlord that she had adopted a dog but she had been able to skate around the exact breed and she was determined to continue doing so for as long as she could. She was certain his size would pose an issue should it ever come to light.
Mai hurried to the front door and pulled it open to reveal Naru himself standing in the breezeway with crossed arms. She was surprised to find that he had traded his black dress shirt of the day in for a charcoal grey button up and a black coat.
It was the first bit of color she had seen on him since she had first met him and she hated how much it made her blush.
"I'm glad my appearance is pleasing but I don't plan on standing here all night," Naru chided with a quirked brow.
Mai stammered and when she failed to come up with an adequate response, scowled, before she reached for her black purse by the door and stepped out to shut the door behind her. She locked the door before turning back to face him with her own raised brow. It prompted Naru to offer his arm, the slightest of smirks present, and lead her down the stairs into the parking lot where Lin sat waiting in the car.
He paused at the passenger side door and leaned towards her to murmur in her ear, "You look beautiful," and then opened it to allow her access to the front seat.
Lin quirked a brow as Mai sat down next to him, face bright, and glanced back curiously as Naru slid into the backseat. Mai refrained from commenting, still affected by the quiet words in her ear, and stoically focused on her hands in her lap. The fact that she was upgraded to the front seat was not missed by her in her chaotic euphoria brought on by his whispered words.
Naru rested his head against a propped fist and smirked as Lin pulled out of the parking lot and headed back towards the direction of the office. The idea of a relationship with Mai had always been on the back burner in his mind but as time had worn on, and she had grown on him like the invasive vine that she was, he could admit that there was a certain amount of entertainment to be had in her company. But really, he was just thankful that she was patient with him as he stumbled along through the foreign concept of dating.
"Takigawa-san sent a text to confirm that they were able to get our usual table," Lin's voice penetrated the strange mood of the vehicle and Mai let out a relieved sigh.
"That's perfect," she exclaimed in excitement. "'Our usual table'," she repeated with a chuckle as she turned her eyes back out onto the passing street, "I always wanted to be a regular somewhere."
"It's a nice feeling," Lin commented quietly with a soft smirk. He could appreciate Mai's statement as he had been a bit of a drifter back in the day. Returning to a usual haunt always had a way of making someone feel as if they belonged.
"I appreciate you guys doing this," Mai mumbled while she fiddled with her purse in her lap. "I never really had any big birthday parties. It was always just a friend or two who would take me out," she explained with a wistful smile.
"Everyone is happy with an excuse to be loud and obnoxious," Naru drawled from the back seat.
Mai and Lin shared exasperated looks before Mai chuckled.
The restaurant was packed when they arrived. There was a gathering of people outside waiting for tables and hardly any parking available in the lot. Lin opted to avoid fighting for a space and chose to pull into the office lot across the street and park in his usual spot. They walked across the street together and shuffled through the crowd into the restaurant without hesitation. As soon as they entered through the doors the sound of the city was muffled and Monk's voice could be heard over the several bits of conversation and laughter as Mai followed behind Lin's tall form. He cut a path through the crowds like Moses in the Red Sea. If Moses had an edgy haircut and demon servants at his bidding, anyways.
"The Birthday Girl has arrived!" Monk exclaimed. The statement was followed by a wolf whistle from Yasuhara himself while the others at the table smiled and waved as they approached.
"I'm glad everyone made it!" Mai cheered as she covered the remaining distance to the table and reached to give John a hug. The man had just returned from a trip back home and she hadn't seen him since their last big case.
"Happy Birthday, Mai," John stated and squeezed her back before reclaiming his seat.
"Thank you," she shot back over her shoulder while Yasu pulled her in for a hug of his own. Ayako had stood to pull Mai from his arms so she could pinch her cheeks and wish her a happy birthday as well. Mai laughed, embarrassed, and was thankfully saved by Monk when he scooped her up and carried her away from Ayako to sit down next to him.
Lin chuckled lowly and claimed a seat next to Masako, the calmest of the group, which left Naru to sit down next to Mai. She smiled at everyone at the table before she pulled a menu towards her.
All eyes turned to their waitress, a familiar woman, and chuckled as she reached forward to ruffle Yaushara's hair. She had traded in the pink hair dye for blue that day, and her long locks were piled at the top of her head.
"It's Mai's birthday," Monk informed Joe with an award winning smile.
"What?" Joe exclaimed, "Congratulations, desserts on me tonight then!"
They place their orders with Joe and while she disappeared to get everything started, Ayako took the opportunity to set a gift bag in front of Mai excitedly. Mai blinked in surprise before she grinned and pulled the bag into her lap so that she could pull the paper out. There was a mall box at the bottom and Mai blanched. She lifted the box out of the bag and hefted it in her hand as she raised stunned eyes to Ayako.
"This is an expensive gift, Ayako, I don't know what to say," she mumbled in awe.
Ayako smiled, bittersweet, and reached around Monk to ruffle her hair. "You deserve everything the world has to offer, Mai, a nice phone that doesn't die at thirty percent is the least I could do," she assured her dryly.
Mai bit her lip but could not fight back the chuckle that escaped and set the box on the table in front of her to read over the back. "Thank you," she mumbled as her shoulders hunched up around her ears.
"Mine next," Monk stated and slid a small paper bag in front of her.
"Oh boy," Mai moaned, hoping this would not be a night filled with presents from everyone, because she did not know if she was capable of processing the amount of gratitude she knew it would invoke. But her wishes would go unheard. Monk had found her a t-shirt that simply read "Ghost Hunter" in white block text across the front and back. It had made her laugh and she had agreed to wear it on their next case, ignoring the quirked brow this earned from Naru, and set it in the bag along with her new phone. John had found her a leather cord bracelet meant to ward off evil spirits. He claimed it could protect her while she astral projected on their cases. Mai had not wasted anytime with that one and had him help her tie it on. Yasuhara had gifted her a "Utility Belt" that she could use while crawling through old creepy buildings. It was really just a fanny pack but Mai could not deny that it would be useful. She set that one in the bag along with her others gifts with a snort and a shake of her head that left the table laughing. Masako had shyly slid a small box over towards Mai next and the young woman was touched as she opened to find an ornate hair comb made from plum blossom jade. Her eyes had been misty throughout all of the exchanges, but the comb set her over the edge, and she felt a tear slide down her cheek. She quickly wiped it away before lifting the comb to her hair and sliding it in just below her bun. A small metal and gemmed flower was still visible and added just a hint of femininity to her outfit.
"These are all so amazing guys," she murmured while clutching the bag to her chest with watery eyes.
"I do have a gift for you as well, Mai," Lin stated quietly as he offered her a small white box.
Mai lifted her hands to accept the gift with wide eyes. The table fell silent, as they were all a bit stunned at the quiet man's revelation, before they leaned forward to get a look at the contents of the box after Mai had opened it. Silver glinted in the light as Mai stared into the box before she reached in to lift the object into view for all to see.
It was a key. It was a simple house key, nothing special about it, but the implications of what it represented were enormous. Slowly, her eyes lifted to the key to meet Lin's eye and then moved over to take in the stoic man next to him who had crossed his arms and turned his head towards the window, face bare of any emotion.
"Martin and Luella purchased a large property in the area and it happened to have a mother in law suite," Lin explained lightly as Mai dropped the key into her palm and marveled at the warmth it exuded despite having only been held by her for a handful of seconds. "Luella would like you to move in and take care of the property in their absence, of course, Naru and myself will be in the main house but neither of us are that adept at keeping up with such a large property," he continued haltingly, clearly feeling a bit awkward for having to be the one to pass on the offer.
Mai hummed absently and refrained from commenting on Lin's statement. She highly doubted that the man was incapable of taking care of the housework, but she could not imagine Naru cleaning anything other than his SPR equipment. It would be a bit much . . . She was also aware that Luella was attempting to disguise the kind gesture as a request for help and it touched her heart. Luella knew her well enough to understand that she could not accept such an offer unless she had earned it.
"That's amazing," Ayako spoke up in the stunned silence.
It really was, Mai observed distantly, before she leaned forward over the table in the best bow she could provide from her seat in the large booth. With this new opportunity, she would be able to easily support herself and Rocco without the stress of budgeting all her funds away towards bills. While the pay that Naru supplied to her was more than enough, between rent, utilities, and her own expenses, she had barely been scraping by. As much as Naru cared, which she knew he did, he could not afford to provide her the pay that he did to people like Masako and John, as she was not as experienced as them. She had no prior teachings in the paranormal or any sort of resume to build off of other than her recent work with SPR directly. Over time, she knew she would be given a raise, but it was hard to say when that would be or how much it would help her in the long run. But if she could live rent free . . .
"Will you inform Luella that I am incredibly grateful and will accept her offer?" she muttered out through brimming tears.
Lin smiled kindly and reached over to grip Mai's hand reassuringly before pulling away and shooting Naru a rather satisfied look.
"And does Naru have a gift for our Mai?" Yasu prompted with an elbow jab to Lin. He had to reach across Masako to accomplish such a feat and the medium scowled from behind her sleeve.
"I don't find satisfaction in publicly parading such gestures," Naru spoke up simply, "But I do have a new case for all of you."
The table groaned as the man lifted a stack of manila folders from the booth seat at his side and dropped them on the table with a resounding thud. Mai didn't even recall him bringing them in, but then again, he had been walking behind her. She gripped the key in her hand tightly as Naru passed the folders out for everyone's convenience.
"You can't be serious," Ayako bit out but accepted the folder proffered to her thoughtlessly.
"The property in question happens to be in England," he began as he clasped his hands together and leaned back in the booth with his characteristic blank face. "As per the last international case, no one will be forced to travel, but I believe it would be a great opportunity for you all to become acquainted with BSPR itself. The owner of the property is a large supporter of our work and recently purchased the building in hopes of turning it into a historical attraction, but given its less than pristine history, he has requested the best BSPR has to offer investigate. You all should feel greatly honored that my father reached out to us first."
"Wow," Monk mouthed in awe as he opened his folder to eye the photo of the building in question.
"I'm not surprised," Yasu stated as he flipped through the papers feverishly, "We are the best looking group of paranormal investigators out there."
Naru heaved a sigh but refrained from showing any further reaction to Yasuhara's comment.
Monk was snickering as he elbowed Mai and dodged a well aimed smack up the back of his head by Ayako.
John shook his head mirthfully while he read through the articles provided dutifully. They were a great team, they all knew, and hardly any of it was due to their appearances. They were a collection of vastly different but effective abilities that, when combined, was nearly fool proof. John had witnessed them come out on top of hopeless situations more times than he could count. Where Masako's abilities to sense spirits failed, Mai's ability to learn their stories prevailed, and when those failed then Yasuhara's ability to research picked up the slack. When Ayako had no trees to rely on, Monk's cleansing and protecting chants rushed in to overcome, and should those fail, John stepped in to force any spirits out. And should any one of them trip up and fall into peril, Lin would rise up like the black knight he was with his shiki, and if they ever fell into a life and death situation, Naru was there as a last resort to blow anything away.
It was honestly astounding that they all managed to find each other. Whether or not Mai had run amuck that first case they all took on together, John was acutely aware that they would not have stayed together without her presence.
It was fitting that they were celebrating her birthday together in that moment and showering her with their gratitude.
"The property is larger than any we have investigated before, so we'll have twice the equipment to manage," Naru continued briskly. "This home, a modern palace in its time, was built to host and entertain hundreds of guests weekly, however, it was discovered that all those attending the last ball had perished overnight due to poisoning. The owner of the house, a woman by the name of Florence Wicks, was found in the courtyard where it is presumed she jumped to her death after witnessing the massacre. It is suspected that she had them all poisoned."
"Jesus," Monk exclaimed. John shot him a look and Monk bowed his head in a silent apology before turning his eyes onto the photocopy of the property image with a heavy sigh. It was a sprawling palace that boasted several large fountains and pools, now empty of any water, and spiraling towers at each end.
Mai shifted in the booth and ran a hand over the folder nervously.
"Since then, it is claimed that any who enter the property do not return. Given that workers have been present over the past couple weeks updating the electrical system and plumbing, and no one has reported anyone missing, this may be more fiction than fact," Naru added before he lifted his eyes to take in the rest of his team seriously.
"So we'll be traveling to England? For how long?" Mai questioned after the group had fallen silent. She was no longer in school, so she didn't have to worry about missing any school work, but the thought of being away from her home town for any great length of time made her nervous.
"We'll be there for two weeks," Naru answered simply as he shut the folder in front of him and slid it off to the side. "More depending on the case, but I doubt it will take us long to resolve everything. We have a month to get things in order before we are required there. Please, let me know whether or not you will be able to make the trip within the next two weeks so that we have time to purchase plane tickets."
Mai let out a relieved breath as they exited the restaurant. The atmosphere in the room had grown heavier and heavier after Naru dropping the news of their next case onto them. Sure, they were all reasonably excited to travel but, judging by their last international case, any haunting worthy enough of pulling them out of the country was going to be a hefty one.
There was a part of her that was a little miffed Naru had ruined the last bit of her birthday dinner with the case, but she understood. It was difficult to get the whole team together unless they were on a case and it was the best opportunity to discuss the possible case face to face. They had a good time, regardless, so she didn't feel the need to complain out loud.
Naru rested a hand on her back as they strode across the street while she readjusted her bag full of gifts absently. She nearly tripped over the curb as they reached the sidewalk and cursed as she caught herself with her other foot.
Naru spared her a momentary glance before lifting his head to face Lin as the man moved to unlock the car. He guided her to the front seat once more before he slid in behind and Lin started the car.
"You should start packing, you can take the week off to move into the property, and we'll hire a moving company to assist," Naru drawled while flipping through a few papers pertaining to the case.
"That seems a bit much, Naru," Mai mumbled nervously in the front seat, "I can just rent a truck. I'm sure Bou-san and Yasu would be happy to help."
Naru let out a breath through his nose and snapped the folder shut before setting it aside on the seat next to him. "My option provides optimum assistance in minimal time and I would prefer you were sorted as soon as possible so that you can travel without worry," he stated.
Mai scowled and leaned back in the seat before she lifted her hands into the air, "Fine, I'll have everything packed by Monday."
"Good," Naru said.
Naru opened the car door for her when they arrived and once she had stepped out he shut it. She paused and turned to look back curiously, brow quirked, as Naru leaned against the door with crossed arms.
"What is it?" she asked hesitantly.
Naru offered her a half shrug and leaned forward to place a kiss on her forehead. He pulled away, half smirk present thanks to her stunned expressed, and murmured, "Happy Birthday, Mai."
Mai nodded her thanks, dumbstruck, before she turned and shuffled back up the stairs to her apartment with gifts in hand. She could see Naru from the corner of her eye, still leaning against the car door with crossed arms, as she unlocked her door and stepped into her apartment.
Rocco greeted her with tail wagging but something out of place caught her eye as she stepped in and shut the door. There was just a bit of green peeking out from behind the entranceway wall and as she shuffled forward to get a better look, her heart stopped, and she lifted her hands to her mouth in shock.
There were dozens of plants scattered about her apartment, some sporting colorful flowers, and others heavy with draping vines. Her kitchen counters and island were practically drowned under the colorful foliage while every windowsill was laden with more than they could rightly hold. On the counter was a notecard, filled with a simple message in English that read: "There is plenty of space at your new home to start a garden."
Mai ran across her apartment and fumbled with the blinds over the living room window before she slid it open and leaned her head out. Naru stood below, just as he had been when she last looked, and she beamed down at him with a laugh.
"You sly dog," she called into the night and smiled sweetly when he lifted a hand before turning to open the car door and dropped into the seat. The car idled for only a moment before it pulled away and Mai shut the window before turning to take in all the flowers again. Her cheeks were scarlet and nothing could wipe the smile from her face that night. The gesture meant more than some would know. Mai's mother, before her untimely death, had been a florist. To that day, when Mai remembered her mother, her thoughts would then turn to the home they shared that had always been overflowing with flowers and their accompanying sweet smells.
She wondered what he would have done had she refused to move in with them. The thought probably hadn't even crossed his mind.
In one night, Mai had received a new home, a garden, a brand new phone, protection from evil, an antique jade comb, and a pretty cool shirt. Oh, and a fanny pack for her adventures.
What a life she lived.
"Oh, my gosh, look at John in this picture!"
Mai followed Ayako's finger as she pointed at a photo of John in his robes while Yasu and Monk appeared to be fighting over him. Yaso was cradling the priest to his chest while Monk shouted something in retaliation. John just looked mortified.
"I remember that day," John mumbled thoughtfully before he chuckled and turned the page of the photo album.
Everyone had come over to Mai's apartment to help her pack over the weekend, but as all similar situations go, they had ended up distracted when Mai had whipped out the album she had been putting together over the past few months. The photos ranged from their second case together all the way up to their trip to the US. Mai had collected them from everyone via phones and cameras before she took them to a local shop to be printed. Now they all sat on the floor huddled around the book, with the exception of the more refined members of their group (Lin, Naru, and Masako) as they were not present.
"I think that was just after the church case," Monk mumbled and he lifted his eyes in thought.
Mai chuckled as she leaned back on her palms and scanned the living room, eyeing the remaining things to be packed, and heaved a sigh. She didn't have much in the way of furniture, besides her sofa and a small mismatched coffee table, but she did have a lot of stuff. Textbooks and novels, clothes and knickknacks that she collected over the years, and a plethora of pillows and blankets. Her kitchen was another level of its own, however, and she was dreading tackling that. But Ayako and Monk were assisting her with sorting through things to be kept and things to be tossed and it was a huge help.
Monk laughed as Rocco rolled over, his head in his lap, and pawed at his chest for belly rubs.
Mai smiled before she pushed herself to her feet and dragged a box filled with textbooks toward her front door. They would be donated to the local library. She immediately regretted dumping all of the tombs into one box because it weighed a ton. Huffing and puffing, she set it aside and returned to the living room. She had tied her hair back with a bandanna but it left her brow bare of anything to catch the sweat that threatened her eyes. She wiped at the sweat while Yasuhara breezed by caring a smaller box to be stacked next to the kitchen island.
"Where's Naru and Lin? Shouldn't they be helping since it's their home you're moving into," Ayako grouched. She had flipped over another page in the album and found a picture of the two in question sitting behind a bank of monitors, thus spurring the question.
Mai shrugged, "Honestly, I can't imagine Naru would want to help with this considering he's probably going to be overseeing the actual move itself. And Lin goes where Naru goes."
Ayako snorted and turned away from the album to fold another blanket and layer it into a box by her side where the others rested. "Speaking of which, Mai," Ayako stated seriously, "If anything happens while you're there, you call me immediately."
Mai blushed and hurried over to the kitchen, which she suddenly gained the drive to tackle, and laughed nervously. "I can't imagine anything along the lines of what your mind is probably producing, but I will," she stammered as she lifted a box onto the counter and started loading it with various cooking tools.
"Such a Naru response," Yasu commented from the other side of the living room.
Monk and John laughed while Mai heaved a sigh and gave the box in front of her an indignant shove.
"Keep talking like that and no one's getting pizza," Mai grumbled.
Monday morning came much quicker than Mai would have thought. She had stepped outside onto the breezeway where she had organized all the plants Naru had gifted her, she had assured the landlord they would be moved that day, and made sure they were alright before she returned to her apartment and sat down in the middle of her living room floor. She stared at the now empty walls with a mixture of emotions swirling within her chest. The warring sadness and excitement left her a little numb, as if she couldn't believe she was apartment wasn't anything special but she had lived in it for nearly four years now and it had been her first home of her very own after moving out of her teachers house. Birthdays had been spent here, SPR had gathered here, and she had slowly rebuilt herself after a heartbreak and loss of a prominent person in her life here.
It saddened her to leave as the rooms had been filled with memories. Even if they weren't all particularly good, they were hers.
She turned to the front door as it opened, revealing Naru and Lin standing in the breezeway, and she smiled sadly.
Naru glanced about the apartment before his eyes rested on her and he moved into through the entance and kicked his shoes off. Mai gawked upon noticing that he was wearing black sneakers instead of his usual dress shoes. In fact, now that she noticed, he was wearing dark grey sweatpants and a black t-shirt as well.
"The movers will be here in a few minutes," Naru informed her casually as he strode over the once plush carpet and sat down next to her.
Lin shut the door behind him and followed Naru's example but he brought with him a bag of something delicious smelling, as well as a tray of coffees. A couple of paper plates were passed around and each of them divided up the six rice balls Lin had purchased between them. It was a meager breakfast lacking in protein but it would fill their bellies while they worked and was light enough not to leave them feeling nauseous in the heat.
Rocco sat next to Mai with his nose twitching and tail wagging.
It was probably one of Mai's favorite memories in that apartment because it was the most casual she had ever been with Lin and Naru. A part of her hoped these sort of moments would continue as they lived together. She took a sip of her coffee to hide the smile, though she was certain Naru caught it from the corner of his eye, before she adjusted her bandanna and stood.
"Ayako will be here with her jeep to help me with the plants, she said it would be best not to leave them to the movers to deal with," she spoke up as the two men watched her push a few boxes out of the way of the door.
"It should be a quick move," Lin commented lowly while swirling the coffee in his cup absently. He had only added a bit of creamer but the cashier had neglected to provide any stirrers and he did not want to bother Mai to go in search of a spoon when everything was packed away.
"Honestly, everything will probably be moved in one trip, and then I get to unpack and decorate," Mai rambled excitedly. She couldn't wait to have a home that had a yard for Rocco to run in. Not only that, but she would no longer have to deal with upstairs neighbors stomping around or being quiet for those below her.
There was a knock on the door and Mai hurried over to pull it open. An older gentleman in a baseball cap greeted her with a slight bow as he lifted a hand to pull at the bill. He looked kind enough, with warm eyes and laugh lines, and he offered her a cheery smile as he introduced himself.
"I'm told we've got a young lady to move today," he stated while Mai stepped back to pull the door further open to reveal the apartment. "It's good to see you're fully packed!" he crowed with a laugh as he stepped in and placed his hands on his hips, "I can't tell you how many times we've shown up and people are still in the process of boxing everything up."
Mai laughed and rubbed the back of her head bashfully, "I can't imagine. I wanted to be as courteous as possible given how physically demanding the job is."
"I appreciate it, Taniyama-san," the man replied before he stepped forward to greet Naru as he approached. The two men shook hands before the mover, named Hiro, called in the rest of his crew who immediately filed in to tackle the large furniture first.
Mai moved into the kitchen to be out of the way and marveled at the movers who made quick work of her furniture in record time. Between their trips up and down the stairs Naru and Lin had already begun shuffling the stacked boxes down into the parking lot. They set them down so that the movers would not have to make as many trips up to the apartment and save everyone some time.
"You know they make boxes specifically for moving books," Naru drawled dryly as he passed the kitchen hefting a large box in his arms, "They're small so as to prevent this."
Mai stuck her tongue out at him before she pulled a box of cold water bottles from the fridge and set them out on the counter for everyone. Rocco was tied to the fridge handle by his leash to prevent him from getting in the way while everyone was trekking through the apartment and he whined pitifully as Mai moved around him. She heard Naru grunt as he stepped out of the door with the box of books and could not stifle the snicker that escaped.
"Wow, Naru, I didn't know you had actual muscles," Mai heard Ayako comment from the breezeway before she stepped over the threshold and scanned the apartment with a sigh. She looked fresh and casual that morning with her red locks piled in a bun at the top of her head, sunglasses pushed up, and wearing denim capris and a black tank top.
"I know, I wish I could hire movers every time I have to move, they're so quick," Mai spoke up, causing the woman to turn in her direction.
"I'll say," Ayako shrugged and moved over to drop her purse onto the kitchen counter. "Why don't we start loading up the jeep with all those plants so we can get out of here," Ayako proposed before cracking open a water bottle.
"Sure thing," Mai chirped in response and led Ayako back out into the breezeway.
"I still can't believe he did this," Ayako muttered with a smirk as she reached down for a plant and ran her fingers through its leaves lovingly.
"Me either," Mai shot back with a laugh and hefted a pot in each arm before standing, "It's a good thing I agreed to move in, otherwise I'd have all these and nowhere to put them." She turned to head down the stairs but her path was unexpectedly blocked by a tall figure who reached out to steady her by her elbows and smoothly spun them about so that Mai was once again on the correct path towards the stairs.
"Three years and you're still just as clumsy," Naru observed in exasperation.
Mai blushed and clutched the plants to her chest under his scrutiny while Ayako let out a laugh. "Leave her be," she warned teasingly as she shoved one of the plants into Naru's arms. The man gripped the pot instinctively and, surprisingly, did not scowl at Ayako. He simply let out a light sigh and turned to move past Mai and down the stairs. They watched as he reached her jeep, the back door opened, and set the pot down before wiping his brow. "And here I was worried he wouldn't make a good husband," Ayako commented.
Lin breezed past them with an amused scoff, "Well, if that's all it takes . . ."
Ayako's jeep was filled to the brim with plants by the time they were done and the movers were pulling out of the parking lot. She offered to follow the movers so that she could start working on organizing the plants as soon as possible and Mai passed her house key over to her before she turned to the two remaining men with a satisfied sigh.
"That was quicker than expected," Mai said.
Naru ran a hand through his hair, now wet with sweat, before he gestured towards Lin's car wordlessly. Lin moved to start the car while Mai climbed the stairs one more time to get Rocco. The dog trotted down the stairs at her side, tail wagging, and butted Naru's leg as they passed.
Mai flopped in the backseat of the vehicle, already blowing cold air into its interior, and Rocco sat down by her head panting. She hadn't done much of the heavy lifting but the heat had certainly gotten to her quickly enough and her eyes grew heavy as the car gently rocked her into a light nap.
Mai dreamt of her old house. The one she had lived in with her mother and father. Time had stretched and warped some of the details, leaving them fuzzy and a bit disjointed, but the front hall looked the same as she remembered. There was a small table near the door where her mother's prized bonsai tree sat, tiny and majestic, its twisted trunk illuminated in the dim light that streamed in through the windows next to the door. Mai looked down and stepped out of her shoes before she moved forward hesitantly. The air felt heavy and quiet, like that of any long abandoned building mourning the loss of its occupants, but she could smell familiar seasonings that her mother had favored cooking with.
There was the sound of pots and pans clanking about on the stove and a woman peeked her head out from the kitchen doorway with a quirked brow. Her hair was long and curled and gently floated through the air as a smile spread across her delicate but wild face. She had sharp eyes and arched brows that leant her a royal appearance that, when combined with her wild hair and joyful nature, often likened her to a wood nymph. Mai had always wondered why her mother did not have pointed ears.
"What are you doing here, silly?" she cooed as she stepped out into the hall while wiping her hands on a dishrag.
"I missed you," Mai answered quietly with a shrug.
Her fingers trembled at her sides.
"I'm always right here, little Mai, I'm not going anywhere," her mother assured her and pulled her into a light hug.
Mai's eyes watered.
"I hear you are going to be living with a handsome young man now, Mai, how did that happen?" she tittered teasingly while lifting Mai's chin to examined her face and tug at her hair playfully.
"It's a long story," Mai stammered with a shaky smile.
"I know," she said with a light sigh and a small frown, "I've picked up on a bit here there." She fell silent for a moment before lifting her hands in the air and shook them about to dispel the atmosphere, "I always knew you would do amazing things, though, so it's no surprise. You remember what I taught you for new homes?"
Mai nodded dutifully, "Boil water and cinnamon with the windows open."
"Good girl," she murmured and reached up to ruffle her hair. "Make some good soup the first night and share with everyone to fill the place with company and laughter. And put your books up first thing. Wash your clothes and you better have dusted everything before moving it . . ."
Mai laughed and wiped at her eyes, "I did."
"Alright," her mother said quietly, "I think you're ready."
The words were happy but weighed down with forlorn longing. Her mother twisted the rag in her hands before she flapped them about again and spun Mai around towards the door. "Don't waste anymore time here, Mai, go, and have fun," she urged her cheerily as Mai slid her shoes back on automatically and reached for the door handle.
Mai paused to turn back to her mother, "I love you," she mumbled haltingly.
"I love you too, little Mai."
Her eyes opened just as Naru was opening the car door and reaching in to shake her shoulder. She caught his hand in hers and pushed herself into a seated position, feet dangling out of the car, as she wiped her eyes. Naru stood over her, fingers intertwined with hers, and watched as she scrubbed the tears from her face with a frown. Rocco leaned forward to snuffle her face and she chuckled tiredly before reaching up with her other hand to scratch the top of his head.
"What's wrong, Mai?" he asked quietly. Outside of the car, movers were finishing up with the process and Ayako was speaking to Lin in the driveway, waiting on them to finish. He shifted to block it all from her sight.
"Nothing," Mai assured him and stood with a heavy sigh. She lifted her eyes to his, noting the way he looked at her patiently, before she dropped her gaze to the grass in front of her. "I dreamed of my mother . . ." she answered quietly.
Naru rested a hand on top of her head, much like her mother hand done in her dreams, before he pulled her into his shoulder for a quick embrace. Mai relaxed with her forehead resting along his collar and heaved a shaky sigh. He smelled a bit like sweat but the freshly laundered shirt and scent of pine from something he used prevailed. Always perfect, this one, Mai thought with a roll of her eyes. But it was nice, to be held by him, and her hazy eyes fixed on the grass below absently. The sound of his heartbeat filled her ears and the warmth he exuded calmed her mind.
"Let's get you unpacked," he murmured in her ear and stepped away so that she and Rocco could move up the driveway and he could close the door.
Mai pulled at Rocco's leash and guided him over to Lin and Ayako who looked over in their direction as they approached. Rocco trotted along beside her while she lifted her eyes to the property in awe. The first thing her brain registered was that it was three stories tall and very modern. It had a large second story deck that looked out over the rest of the sloping neighborhood and large welcoming double doors. Wide pavestones cut a path around to the back of the house where some of the movers could be seen carrying the last of the boxes to their destination.
"Holy crap," she mumbled in awe while Ayako snorted with crossed arms.
"It's certainly something," the woman grumbled, "I don't think my house growing up was even this nice and my parents were loaded."
"Why don't you go and take a look at your new home, Mai?" Lin recommended quietly.
Mai grinned from ear to ear before she hurried after the movers with an excited Rocco at her heels. The path led her through a tall gated white fence and spat her out into a sprawling backyard filled with large boulders and grass. Trees lined the yard for privacy sake and their tall branches threw cool shade over the yard and large back patio of the house. But more importantly, her new home. The mother in-law suite was much smaller than the actual house but it was built in much the same way. Cement white walls and a pair of welcoming dark wood doors stood atop a cement foundation. The movers were shuffling in just as she stepped up onto the small front porch and slipped inside.
"Oh my gosh," she whispered.
The building was two stories. The first floor comprised of a living room, kitchen, half bathroom, and a laundry room. There was even a little office nook on the other side of the kitchen with large windows that looked out into the trees and backyard. But her favorite part was the large loft bedroom that looked out onto the living room. A set of stairs to her right led up to her new bedroom and she climbed them excitedly while Rocco sniffed about with perked ears.
Her bedroom was already set up just as it had been in her old apartment, minus her bed sheets and wall décor, but there was far more space to move about. She kept Rocco at her side as she shuffled into the bathroom, all white tile and dark oak cabinets, and nearly cried at the sight of a shower stall and a claw foot bathtub.
"We're all done!"
Mai walked back out into the bedroom and leaned over the railing just as Hiro waved a quick goodbye to her before stepping out of the door while the rest of the movers filed out after him. The living room was stacked with boxes between her couch and bookshelves.
"I'm jealous," she could hear Ayako state as the woman stepped into the small house.
"I'm a little overwhelmed," Mai admitted sheepishly and she descended the stairs into the living room. The kitchen was tucked away under the loft bedroom and, much like the bathroom, comprised of white tile and dark wood. Solid white porcelain countertops gleamed in the overhead lighting.
"Don't you worry," Ayako waved her off as she lifted a box marked 'Kitchen' and brought it into the mentioned area to be set on the counter, "We'll get you settled and it will feel just right."
It was only noon, Mai realized as she and Ayako got to work on putting everything away in the kitchen. They would have plenty of time to get everything sorted so she spared a moment to set a pot of water and cinnamon on the stove to boil while she flitted about opening all the windows she could. Ayako only quirked a brow at her actions while she lifted plates into cabinets and shoved the rest of the pots and pans away.
There was a knock on the door before Lin entered and gave the place a quick once over before turning his attention to the women. "I'm going to run to the store to pick up supplies for the house, do you need anything?"
"Ah, yes!" Mai exclaimed before she dove into one of many boxes and pulled out a cook book. "I wanted to make dinner for everyone tonight," she explained while she flipped through the pages carefully. The book was old and had several loose leaf pages with hand written recipes scattered about it. Mai paused on one page in particular and lifted it from the book thoughtfully, eyes scanning the list of required ingredients, before she handed it over to Lin. "I should have enough for this," Mai murmured and sifted through her purse on the counter for a moment.
Lin and Ayako shared a smile before Mai turned about with a bill in hand and passed it to Lin.
"I'll be back shortly," Lin assured her before disappearing.
"I'll invite Monk over," Ayako stated while Mai emptied the last kitchen box.
"That would be perfect," Mai replied in kind.
It took them two hours to get everything sorted which, to Mai, was surprising. The unpacking part of the process was much quicker than packing but she supposed it made sense. She had gotten rid of so much thank to Ayako's organizational skills. The priestess was currently seated in her living room flipping through channels on the recently set up TV while she waited on Monk to arrive. Lin had returned to drop off her requested supplies and a pot of Japanese chicken noodle soup was boiling away on the stove as Mai sat on her bed staring at the walls of her new room. Everything was so new. Even the carpet still had that pleasing new scent.
Mai had taken some time to rinse off all the sweat of the day while Rocco continued to scope out his new home. He was able to navigate the stairs, thankfully, as he had much practice thanks to Mai's second story apartment.
She had pulled on a fresh pair of jeans and a t-shirt, the rest of her clothes already cycling through the washer machine, and combed out her still wet hair by the time someone knocked on the front door. Rocco let out a cheerful bark and Ayako calmed him before shouting for whoever it was to come in.
"Whoa!" Monk's voice filtered up to Mai as she hurried down the stairs.
The five of them, six including Rocco, shared dinner that night around the kitchen island. There was much laughter at Mai, and surprisingly Naru's, expense that night but Mai was just happy for the pleasing sound that filled her new home.
Mother always knew best