It was Monk doing the herding this time around as they all shuffled through the airport in a mass of bodies, bags, and foul attitudes. John was too tired to be their shepherd due to the fact that they had left late in the evening and had all been up for twenty-four hours or more, depending on their schedules. Monk, who was quite used to late hours due to his profession, was still up and coherent with just a single cup of coffee.
Mai was dragging her feet, but she was still present mentally, as Naru breezed past her with phone in hand and held before his face. The man was supernaturally aware of his surroundings, she was certain, because as much as she had wished he would run into something, he never did. He stepped over luggage and glided past the other travelers without any sense of hesitation. She wasn't jealous. Maybe.
"Yasu, please bring John back here, he's confused again," Monk called over their heads with an exasperated sigh.
Yasu turned to look back and spotted John standing among another group of seven or so assorted Japanese tourists of varying heights. "I want to be offended but it's John," Yasu forced out through a fit of laughter before he hurried over to grab the priest by the arm and drag him back.
Mai giggled and shared a mirthful glance with Masako, clad in her favorite red kimono and blue obi, before she hefted her bag and checked to make sure Rocco's leash was still attached to her belt. Naru had been able to have him registered as an emotional support animal, which was a huge help when it came to travel, given that he had become such a prominent member of the team. Since Mai's abilities to astral project did not qualify as a medical condition, Rocco was not permitted to go through the training to become a fully fledged service animal, but his ability to protect her empty body was still sorely needed during cases. Mai thought it best, as she did not want to abuse the system after learning more about it, and potentially impact the public view of service animals. Any client they take is advised upon interview that they have a large dog on the team who would be present during investigations and to let them know if it would be an issue.
Rocco was just happy to get pets from all their clients and related friends and family. He was very obedient and gentle with everyone, Mai personally made sure of that, again, so as not to negatively impact public view of service animals.
Mai stretched, letting out a relieved sigh as her spine realigned itself after spending hours cramped in a plane, and dutifully followed Monk as he led the way down a flight of stairs towards pick up.
Just like last time, they were greeted by an excited Madoka in a large black van supplied by BSPR.
"Hey guys!" the woman called them as they stepped out into the grey daylight of London. It was a bit chillier than it had been in Japan and Mai was grateful she had chosen to wear a large grey sweater, accompanied with black leggings and boots, or she might have suffered.
They offered tired but somewhat cheery greetings in return but Madoka turned her attentions to Lin, who she threw herself at, causing the man to nearly drop his laptop bag in the process of catching her. Madoka laughed while Lin grunted under the added weight. The two hadn't seen each other since Lin had proposed to her and they were all certain it had been killing Madoka not to be able to be by his side at all times possible. She had sent them plenty of photos of her ring as well as ideas for bachelorette parties and bridal showers. Though the girls of JSPR were not going to be part of the bridal party they were invited to participate in all the events to come.
Naru stepped forward to pull the van door open and wordlessly hurry their party along. They all stumbled forward to squeeze into the van which happened to be surprisingly spacious on the inside. Lin claimed the front seat, and Mai, Yasuhara, and Naru the first row as per their last international. But with the addition of Masako the arrangement differed from there. She had chosen to sit next to John, who promptly slumped against the window and shut his eyes to the world, while Ayako and Monk sat in the very back. It worked out nicely, as their arguments would be muffled by the distance and with Rocco between them, they couldn't even touch each other to spark irritation.
"And once again, Mai, we find ourselves in the same position. How do we let things keep coming between us?" Yasu lamented as Madoka giggled in the front seat.
Mai snorted while Naru let out a sigh.
"This is giving me a strong case of déjà vu, now that you mention it," Mai agreed thoughtfully as she lifted her eyes to the rest of the van.
"We are creatures of habit," Yasuhara drawled while he leaned his head against the window with a tired sigh. "I'm going to laugh if this case is another love triangle."
Mai scowled and reached across Naru, ignoring the way he stiffened momentarily, and smacked Yasuhara on the shoulder. The man let out a squawk before he laughed under her barrage and lifted his arms in defense.
Monk let out a bark of laughter from the back that had Ayako groaning in annoyance at the loud noise.
John startled, having only fallen asleep seconds ago, and let out a grunt when he knocked his head on the window.
"Are you alright, John-san?" Masako questioned quietly with a sleeve lifted to hide the slightest of smiles. Priest he may be, but the whole team was aware of just how adorable John was. It was why none of them could ever bring themselves to be angry or annoyed with him.
"M' good," he mumbled while lifting a hand to rub at his face. He glanced about the van momentarily before crossing his arms and leaning back in the seat to shut his eyes once more.
"Are we going straight to the property, Naru?" Mai asked the man sitting next to her quietly as the van fell silent. The pull of exhaustion was too great and the majority of the passengers had shut their eyes against the rainy day outside of the van.
Naru lifted a hand to rub at his mouth before he glanced up at Madoka, who offered a small shrug in answer, and sighed. "We'll be stopping at my parent's house before setting out tomorrow," he responded quietly. The thought of ushering everyone into his childhood home was exhausting in and of itself but he was all too aware that setting up base in SPR's current state would be even more so. The best course of action was to make sure everyone was fully rested before setting foot on a haunted property.
They did have an image to uphold now.
"Will your mom be there?" Mai asked excitedly. She had loved getting to know Luella and the woman had offered her so much kindness it was enough to break her heart, the thought of seeing her again shoved the last vestiges of exhaustion from her body.
"I would assume," Naru shot back and offered her a quirk of his lips before he returned to reviewing the case file in his lap.
Mai leaned back against the window with her hands clasped and posture straight before she turned back curiously and opened her mouth.
"Twenty minutes, Mai," Naru spoke up before she could even voice her question and smirked again when he heard her teeth click shut. She was so predictable.
"The dog keeps breathing in my face," Ayako grouched from the back seat.
The rest of the car ride went by in relative silence while everyone was lost in their thoughts. Nerves over the upcoming case were only settled by the thought of a decent night's sleep and there was not much else to be discussed, so no one even bothered to open their mouths. Madoka glanced back at them through the rearview mirror periodically just to make sure everyone was alive but when they had finally pulled through the gated driveway of the Davis household she could not resist jerking the vehicle to a stop and loudly proclaiming, "We're here!"
The passengers were all jostled awake or startled and allowed their complaints to be heard as Madoka jumped out of the car to greet the approaching Luella with open arms. All the while shouts and grumbling could be heard spilling forth from the vehicle. She may as well have kicked a beehive.
Mai laughed as she pulled the door open and jumped down onto the gravel driveway with a relieved sigh. She reached back for her suitcase but found that Naru had already set it on the ground next to her. She smiled at him in gratitude before jumping to attention as Ayako guided Rocco out of the van.
"I'll take him, Ayako, thank you for keeping him company," she schmoozed.
"You're welcome," Ayako grouched and passed her the leash hurriedly.
Mai watched as the woman pulled her bag and suitcase from the van before marching up the driveway to greet Luella while Monk trailed behind her with a hand thrown behind his head. He had only packed one suitcase, thankfully, but he was also lugging Ayako's duffel at his side. Mai distantly heard him mumble to Ayako: "Why don't we get a dog?" To which the woman rolled her eyes and waved him away, causing the man to laugh.
"I can't wait to relax," Mai groaned as she stretched for the second time that day. Her shoulders popped before she nudged Naru and trekked up the path to give Luella a hug. "How are you?" she asked excitedly as the woman wrapped her arms around her.
"I'm well!" Luella stated happily and looked Mai over. The action sent a pang through Mai's heart as she gripped her chin much like her mother had done in her dream all those weeks ago but she wiped it away and plastered a smile over top of it like any pro. "Did you get moved in? Is everything going well?" she questioned her as they walked side by side up towards the front door of the sprawling property.
"The place is amazing, I feel like a princess," Mai admitted with a laugh.
"I'm glad, you deserve it, dear," Luella patted her shoulder before she pushed the door open and gestured Mai, as well as the rest of the trailing SPR group, into the home.
Mai guessed she really shouldn't have been surprised to have been pushed into a grand foyer with an equally as grand staircase, but she was. It was obviously an old house built to impress and, with attentive hands, had aged very well.
"We have three guest bedrooms and plenty of couches so don't hesitate. . ."
Mai could hear Luella speaking but as she allowed the house to fill her sense, the woman's voice grew distant, and the memories within the home swelled forth to greet her. Not that she could view them, as there were no spirits present, but she could feel the emotions. There was a gentle happiness here, she thought absently, tapered with melancholy but altogether stronger for it. Happiness that could rise up over the despair of life was something to take great comfort in. It was the same atmosphere that had prevailed within her mother's home when she was growing up. It was familiar. It was comfortable. And it felt like home. Even the air, carrying the scent of books and carpeting, eased whatever tension may have been building within her during their trip over.
"Mai . . ." Naru called to her from her left.
Mai turned her head, surprised to find him standing directly next to her, and smiled. "It's nice, Naru, it feels like home," she whispered while the others gathered in the foyer chattering away. Luella was playing an excellent host, answering all of their questions and instructing them on where to go, but it was not enough to break Mai from the trance that she had fallen in.
Naru rested a hand upon her back, pulling her a bit closer to him, before he guided her towards the stairs. "Would you like to wash up and take a nap before dinner?" he asked her quietly.
"That sounds amazing," she murmured as they ascended the stairs, Rocco trailing behind her hesitantly, and turned down a hallway that was lit with wall sconces and a single reading nook with a large window. The floorboards creaking lovingly beneath their feet as they walked, worn from years of use but well polished.
"You can stay in Gene's room, I'm sure he wouldn't mind," he said as he pulled a door open to reveal a bright bedroom. Two large windows looked out onto the street and allowed the grey light in while a lamp on a side table spilled forth its gentle warmth with a quick flip of a switch. The floor was covered by a large green rug and the bed and drapes sported similar greens. The sloping wooden ceiling only served to provide a cozier feel to the room. "The bathroom is right through this door," he explained as he stepped forward and flipped the lights of the bathroom on.
Mai watched as he disappeared and smiled once the sound of running water filtered out to her before she stepped in and set her suitcase down at the foot of the bed. Rocco's leash was unhooked so that he could sniff about the room freely and she watched him for a moment in amusement. She sat down with a tired sigh, pleased that the bed sunk beneath her weight comfortably, and pulled her boots off of her feet.
She glanced about the room, taking in all the books and knickknacks that had never been removed, and reached for Gene in the back of her mind. They couldn't communicate while she was awake just yet, though they had been working on it, but she could feel the faintest brush of emotions against the back of her mind. Happiness and comfort. He was glad to host her in his home, it would seem.
Naru appeared in the bathroom doorway and paused to watch her for a moment. When she had turned her eyes back to him he stepped forward and kissed the top of her head.
Mai smiled tiredly up at him before he said, "My room is right next door if you need anything."
Mai nodded in understanding and watched as the man left the room and quietly shut the door behind him. She sat for a moment longer before deciding to check out the bathtub while pondering Naru's odd behavior. She tried to recall if she had complained out loud, at some point, about his lack of affection but nothing came to mind. Maybe it had something to do with his research, she theorized tiredly, as he had stopped working on it after the day he had taken her out to lunch. Had that been his way of celebrating the completion of his project?
"You're rooms pretty cozy," Mai stated as she stepped out onto the astral plane in front of Gene.
"It's my batcave," Gene agreed with a laugh. He had shoved his hands into his pockets as she approached but he reached forward to give her a hug once she was within reach. It had been a few weeks since they had last seen each other, due to the lack of cases, and he had missed her smile. You got tired of speaking to a grumpier version of yourself after a while and Mai was the perfect remedy.
"The whole house is amazing," Mai continued as she stepped back, "It feels like my old home."
"I thought so too when we first moved in, I thought it was too good to be true," he murmured as he ruffled her hair. "Noll told me you guys have a big case coming up . . ." he trailed off imploringly.
"Yes," Mai chirped, "I'm just glad to be working again. I figured we had another important one coming up since Naru hadn't taken any back in Japan for a while. Have you seen the place? It looks like a forgotten fairytale."
"I know of it," Gene responded with a light frown, "I've got to be honest, I'm a little nervous about this one. I know the last one was no joke but . . ."
"Is it that bad?" Mai questioned nervously. She wrung her hands together while Gene spoke.
"It just feels . . .wrong? I went there once, on a dare, but I never went inside. People have gone missing there in the past. But it felt strange. Not exactly haunted, more like . . ." he trailed off again while he searched for the words, "More like a spider. Lying in wait."
Mai blanched and heaved a shaky sigh before she leveled him with a rueful look that only served to make him laugh. "On that confident note, I think I might try and get some actual sleep before we prance right into the lion's den," she muttered.
"It'll be alright, Mai, I'll be there with you every step of the way," Gene assured her with a kind smile.
Mai gave him another hug before she retreated into true sleep. Snuggled beneath the heavy comforter and swathed in the comfortable darkness of Gene's room, she felt more safe than she ever had before a case.
She didn't dream during her nap but it still took a few knocks on the door for Naru to wake her. She was just rolling over and attempting to hide under the covers when he opened the door with an annoyed furrow between his brows. Mai groaned as he stepped forward and rested a hand atop her head comfortingly.
"Come on, Mai, mother wants everyone downstairs for dinner," he said and sighed when she finally pulled the covers down to stare at him groggily. "You can sleep afterwards," he added temptingly.
Mai giggled as she pushed the covers off of her and sat up. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, Naru had just resorted to bribery to get her moving, and it tickled her. She dropped her hands onto the bed next to her while she tossed her gaze about in search of her suitcase.
Rocco slept on throughout their conversation, soft breaths tickling the comforter under his nose, while Naru scowled at the sight of the dog sleeping on the bed.
Naru glanced about before he pulled the suitcase out from under the bed and lifted it onto the comforter for Mai's convenience and in an effort to hurry the process along. "Just put on some jeans, Mother is rather casual at home," he advised and gave her figure a quick once over, noting that she had opted to wear pajama shorts and a t-shirt for a nap.
Mai yawned and nodded in response before lazily waving Naru away so that she could get changed.
Naru retreated from the room after leveling her with a warning look, daring her to try and go back to sleep, and she slid out of her shorts to replace them with a pair of leggings just to be spiteful. She pulled her baggy grey sweater back on over her head before padding out of the room in her socks with Rocco at her side to head downstairs. She allowed the distant chatter of the rest of the JSPR team to guide them to the kitchen where some had gathered.
"The sleepyhead has arisen," Luella exclaimed as Mai entered the room and laughed when the girl blushed lightly, before she stepped around the kitchen island and ushered Mai into the dining room. A large table took up the center of the room and almost everyone was already seated around it nursing cups of mulled wine or coffee.
Rocco's nose was going crazy as he took in all the new scents.
"Did you solve the case, Mai?" Yasuhara asked as she claimed a seat next to him. Rocco settled under the table at her feet quietly.
Mai scowled and resisted the urge to elbow him, "No, we haven't even gotten there yet!"
Yasu groaned and flopped back in his chair, "I was hoping we could walk right in, tell them what's what, and then spend the rest of the two weeks sightseeing."
"In your dreams," Ayako muttered from where she sat on the other side of the table.
"No, in Mai's dreams," Yasu shot back in mock confusion.
"That's how you get smacked, Yasu," Monk stage whispered.
Masako dropped her gaze to the table as Ayako seethed and John laughed nervously, attempting to dispel the rising anger. After a light nap, he seemed to be back in good spirits, while the rest of the group had just grown more obnoxious.
Naru sat down at the table next to his father, who was looking over some paperwork pertaining to the case, but made no comment on their behavior. There was no point. His parents had already been exposed to their unprofessionalism but had still deemed them worthy of the case. Naru saw no reason to try and keep them in check in his own home. At least they weren't in public.
Mai sighed quietly but turned as Luella entered the room carrying what looked like a pot roast and Madoka followed with a bowl of mashed potatoes in one arm and a bowl of salad in the other. The ladies worked to get everything sorted and at some point during their flurry of very much awake movement, Mai had found a glass of mulled wine in front of her. She reached for it hesitantly before taking a small sip and humming in pleasure. It was warm and tangy on her tongue and blossomed in her stomach.
"You can have one glass, but after that you get water," Ayako warned and Mai nodded with a cheesy grin.
Luella sat down at the other head of the table, next to Mai, and gave her a quick smile before she urged everyone to dig in. It was another flurry of movement while everyone served themselves and took their first bites of Luella's cooking.
It was amazing.
Mai hadn't had such a home cooked meal before, at least, not that she could recall. It was simple but the mashed potatoes were so buttery and smooth and the roast beef was packed with flavor. She wanted to keep eating even after she had cleaned her plate so filled it once more with salad while the others talked around her.
"It was delicious, Luella, thank you for cooking such a meal," John spoke up after he had finished. He had taken a moment to offer up a prayer before digging in like the others around him.
"You're all welcome, I've missed the energy you bring to the table, things have been quiet since we returned home and I was excited to hear you all would be coming to London," Luella responded. She paused for a moment, eyes cast down to her plate in thought, before she looked up and gave them all a smile.
She misses having children in the house, Mai thought, and knew it to be true. Just as she knew Naru would call the day he asked her to join him in reopening SPR. Without thought, she reached out to grip Luella's hand and smiled in support. "Maybe we can come over more often, make it a once a year thing, now that I'm not paying rent I can set aside money for it," Mai offered quietly.
"I would love that," Luella stage whispered and Mai chuckled.
"How have your abilities been progressing, Mai?" Martin spoke up from the other end of the table. He pulled the reading glasses from the bridge of his nose and set some of the papers aside to get a good look at her. Martin was a decent man, Mai knew, but he left her feeling rather uncomfortable on occasion. He was a true scientist but he often ignored social cues and would push for information where Naru, after years of working with Mai, had learned when to fall back. Still, he had been more than happy to work out a deal with Mai that still allowed her to live her life and enjoy her privacy.
"There hasn't been much to report," Naru answered curtly. It was obvious to those at the table that Naru did not feel it was a good time to push Mai for information when they had a large case to tackle tomorrow.
"I haven't had much of an opportunity to see just how much I'm capable of since our last case together," Mai spoke up after Naru, casting him a quirked brow for answering for her, before she turned back to Martin, "We haven't had anything too difficult since."
Martin hummed and pulled the papers back thoughtfully for further review. Mai rolled her eyes and shared an exasperated look with Luella before returning to her salad. It amazed her how much the two men were alike. All work and no play, with little concern for anything else. Mai was certain that even if they were brought along on an all-expense paid vacation on a secluded island without internet they would find some way to get some work done. They'd probably train seagulls to carry research papers back to BSPR.
Once the table was cleared and dishes were done, JSPR disbanded to their assigned sleeping arrangements, and the house fell silent once more. The quiet atmosphere was only broken every once and a while by hushed whispers and the squeaking of a floorboard or two as the more restless of the group settled. Mai listened to it all as she laid down in Gene's bed once more facing the ceiling. Little glow in the dark stars and planets had been carefully placed among the dark wood to imitate the darkness of space and she wondered how often Gene had stayed up at night, eyes flicking between the small pinpricks of left over light, waiting for sleep to take him away into his dreams.
She was so nervous about the upcoming case that she was finding it hard to close her eyes, fearful of what dreams she would witness, as she was certain they would not be the pleasant disjointed recollection of information gathered throughout the day.
She really did feel as if they were about to walk into the lion's den and she worried it would be the one case SPR did not return from, solved or not.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the quiet creak of the bedroom door and she gripped the edge of the comforter, frozen in paranoia, before she let out a relieved sigh at the sight of Naru. He held a candle in his hand as he slipped into the room and shut the door behind him. Mai quirked a curious brow, not that she was unhappy to see him, but confused as to why he had chosen to visit her in the dead of night with a candle as if he himself were a ghost from years long past.
Rocco lifted his head from where he laid, curled by Mai's feet, and whined with a wag of his tail.
Naru set the candle down on the bedside table before he settled at the edge of the bed with a sigh and clasped his hands together in a clinical but thoughtful pose.
"What's wrong?" Mai asked worriedly. She shuffled into a more elevated position so that she could get a better look at him in the provided candle light. He looked tired, but then again, he had looked tired for a long while and she doubted a day of travel would do him any good in catching up on rest.
Naru turned his head to look back at her, eyes searching in that cold and logical way of his, before he reached over to grip one of her hands in his. His skin was cold to the touch but it soon warmed with her provided body heat as he seemed to gather his thoughts.
"I wanted to apologize for my behavior after we returned from America," he began quietly and turned to look back at the carpet beneath his feet, "I didn't mean to make you feel as if my feelings had diminished in any way . . ."
Mai's brows furrowed in confusion but she twisted their hands together to interlace their fingers.
"Social norms and physical contact have never been my strong suite," he continued with a grimace, "That was always Gene's area."
Mai gasped, causing the man to lift his eyes to her in confusion, before she grinned mischievously and said: "The great Naru admitting his flaws? I never thought I would see the day."
Naru scowled and turned away from her, "It is not a flaw, merely something I do not yet have a suitable amount of experience in."
"That sounds more like you," Mai drawled dryly before she laughed.
Naru smirked but lifted his other hand to rub at his mouth in an effort to hide it from view. It was almost as bad as Masako with her kimono sleeve.
"I know you don't like physical contact all that much, Naru, you don't have to apologize," Mai assured him gently, her eyes flicking about the profile of his face, before she smiled and ran a thumb across the back of his hand in an effort to reassure him.
"I don't mind physical contact," he corrected quietly, "I've just never had much of it."
Mai tightened her hold on his hand and offered him a reassuring smile even while her heart wept at his statement. His childhood and abilities prevented him from having many opportunities of physical affection, she understood, but was glad he was making the effort with her.
Naru pushed himself to his feet and moved over towards the towering bookshelf in the room while he scanned the titles of the various volumes that lined its shelves. His fingers hovered over each book before they settled on one and he pulled it from its nestled nook smoothly and turned back to the bed to reclaim his seat. Sensing what he was attempting to do, Mai scooted over on the bed until her back nearly touched the wall. Naru leaned back against the pillows and headboard, legs crossed at the ankle above the comforter, and lifted an arm for her to move up under it. Mai complied with a blushing grin and rested her head on his chest while he settled his arm around her shoulders and flipped the book open to a dog eared page with his other hand.
"I need to breath, Mai," he commented dryly.
Mai loosened her arms around him with a suffering sigh.
He wanted to read by candlelight, she thought with a giggle before she shut her eyes against the gently flickering light and listened to the sound of his heart beating beneath her ear. It was steady and reassuring and the combined warmth of their bodies eased her mind like nothing else could. She pulled the comforter up to her ear as his gentle breathing lulled her into a light doze, fears of the upcoming case forgotten for a moment, while his eyes skimmed through the words before him but struggled to process the information. He was too focused on the gentle warmth on his chest and the softness of her breathing.
It was nerve-racking and new but he could not deny the calmness it instilled upon the storm ridden sea that was his heart. The clouds were still there but the waves dwindled to gentle ripples and the torrential downpour that bled the horizon together slowed to a drizzle.
He took a breath and dropped the book onto the bed.
"Will you stay?"
Mai's eyes shot open and found early morning light spilling in through the large windows. It illuminated the bedroom in soft grey light and crawled across the comforter delicately until it stopped just above her head. The room was quiet and, based off of the lack of any other noise from the house itself, she assumed that everyone was still asleep or just in the process of dragging themselves back into the waking world as she was. She took a moment to enjoy the light morning air, rife with the smell of books and freshly laundered sheets, and filled her lungs while her mind processed the words that had filtered in through her mind in her sleep. They had sounded so real that she had expected a woman to be standing right over the bed. But there was no one.
But then the surface beneath her shifted and the arm around her shoulders tightened momentarily and she blushed.
Naru had come in to read last night, and she had fallen asleep, and now it was brought to her attention that he had as well.
She didn't want to move. She could not recall ever being so comfortable in her life and the only thing she could compare that moment to was being held in her mother's arms as a child. She felt safe and warm and the sleepiness that still clung to her body melded her to Naru's side like hot glue. Judging by his soft breaths, he was still asleep, and she was loathe to wake him when he had gotten so little rest recently.
She closed her eyes again and let the quiet of the early morning lull her back into a doze while her mind wandered back to the words that had slipped through her dreams. It had been such a sad voice, filled with so much loneliness, that her heart ached with the need to comfort whoever had spoken. "Will you stay?" was such a desperate question when punctuated with the sound of a tight throat filled with emotions. It had warbled and petered out, like the person had been crying, and begging for someone not to leave them. Someone who didn't want to be alone. . . Something that she was painfully familiar with as she struggled with her mother's death alone.
She opened her eyes to find Naru leaning over her, a hand resting upon her cheek with his fingers splayed through her hair, and a furrowed brow. "You were crying," he stated simply and ran a thumb beneath her eye.
"Oh," she mumbled and lifted a hand from under the covers to wipe at her other eye curiously.
"Did you have a dream already?" he asked lowly as he analyzed her face in the morning light.
"Not really," she pondered aloud, "It was just a voice . . . It could have been anything."
"What did it say?" he continued patiently. Perhaps he was enjoying the moment of being curled around the only woman he had allowed himself to have any feelings for while locked away from any possible witnesses. But he doubted he would ever be able to bring himself to voice such a feeling and it would stay locked away within his chest along with any other vulnerable emotions.
"She asked 'Will you stay?'" she answered hesitantly and lifted her eyes from his collarbone to meet his cobalt stare.
Naru hummed thoughtfully before he pushed himself up into a sitting position and ran a hand through his hair. He had slipped his shoes off at some point in the night and wrapped his legs around Mai's when she had presumably kicked the blankets off of her feet due to the heat. He let out a low groan as his back protested against sleeping in Gene's overly soft bed. He straightened his back and rolled his shoulders to relieve some of the built up tension.
"We'll get a better idea of what we're dealing with today once we get to the property," he muttered as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, "We'll be staying there since they were able to finish updating the electric and plumbing."
Mai watched him and listened as he spoke but she had slowly been pulling the comforters up over her face as her blush intensified. She had never gotten such an intimate moment with Naru before and watching him as he went through the process of waking up (out of the bed they slept in together!) was mind boggling. His hair was mussed, voice gruff, and eyes lidded while the last vestiges of sleep were desperately hanging on, begging him to get more rest.
"Get packed up and meet down in the foyer in an hour," he instructed her and stood to shuffle back into his room with shoes in hand.
Mai heaved a sigh, lifting her hands into the air over her head, before she dropped them back down onto the bed in exasperation. The peace and surreal morning was shattered with the prospect of work. But at least she enjoyed her job and the people she worked with. She rolled over on the bed, burying her face in a pillow, and wondered if she would be able to work up the will to pull herself from its warmth in time to avoid any scathing comments from her boss.
Ayako was the picture of perfection as Mai shuffled down the stairs pulling her suitcase behind her. With a good night's rest she had put herself back in order and the casual but professional skirt and blouse she wore were at odds with Mai's jeans, tank top, and baggy sweater with boots. But more importantly, her mood had done a one eighty and she greeted her with a warm smile as she approached.
"How did you sleep?" she asked as Monk stepped forward to ruffle her hair teasingly.
"I slept well . . ." Mai stammered nervously while a blush crept across her face. If only they knew . . .
Ayako quirked a brow and looked as if she was about to open her mouth to question her further but was interrupted as Yasuhara appeared and sleepily flung an arm over Mai's shoulders. Mai stumbled under the surprise onslaught but laughed as the man groaned and threatened to slide to the floor.
"I didn't sleep a wink," Yasu muttered and straightened before adjusting his glasses. "I wanted to get a head start on research and accidentally slipped down the rabbit hole," he explained, causing Ayako to lift a brow while Monk snorted. "I know of all the local cryptids now, don't hesitate to ask."
John smiled but there was no hiding the sigh that escaped him as he shifted his bag on his shoulder.
"The majority of that information will not be used for this case, but it is good to know that your attention is so easily derailed, Yasuhara, so that I may better manage you," Naru muttered coldly as he descended the stairs with a rolling suitcase behind him. He ran a hand through still damp hair and with the way the morning light fell through the window behind him, he looked like a model.
Mai rolled her eyes and turned away while Yasuhara laughed and rubbed the back of his head, "You wound me, boss man, but feel free to manage me however you want."
Naru deemed the statement unworthy of a response and walked over to Lin, in the process of discussing the best route to take to get to the location, when Luella swept into the room wearing a floral dress with a cream cardigan and a wistful smile. She pulled Naru into a hug and the man only spared her the briefest of pats on the shoulder while he continued speaking. Luella seemed unfazed as she turned to the rest of the group and clapped her hands.
"Just so you all are aware, BSPR will be hosting a gala this Saturday, and you all are more than welcome to attend. It's a bit of a graduation ceremony for all those studying parapsychology who will be staying on to research with us," Luella informed them cheerily and made sure to look them each in the eye as she spoke.
Masako lifted a sleeve to her mouth and said, "I would be honored to attend. I hope my usual attire will suffice."
"Of course! It is a formal event so your kimonos would be perfect," Luella assured her.
Mai blanched and turned wide eyes onto Monk. The two of them were the scruffier of the group, usually choosing to dress in jeans and t-shirts, as they owned little else. Monk grimaced before offering her a helpless shrug. She guessed they would be crossing that bridge when they came to it but she did not foresee them having time to go shopping for formal attire during their investigation. It would have been nice if Naru had told them beforehand, she thought irritably, and glanced over at the man from the corner of her eye.
"You all were sent an email containing the information," Naru's voice wrung out clinically.
Everyone cast their minds back to recall if they had seen such an email and Yasu was the first to laugh while the others rubbed their necks and kicked at the floorboards shamefully. In Mai's defense, she didn't have a laptop and she was still struggling with her smartphone, so she had not even thought to check her email when Naru so rarely sent anything out to them.
She blamed Yasuhara. He was always on his laptop. He could have told her.
Ayako nudged her as they filed out of the house and into the rainy day, "Don't worry, Mai, I'll take you shopping when Naru's not looking."
Mai giggled conspiringly while her boots crunched over the gravel driveway to where there were now two BSPR vans parked and idling. All of their personal belongings were shoved into one car, along with themselves, while Madoka climbed into the van that housed all of the equipment they would be utilizing. As Naru had mentioned to them back in Japan, this was going to be the largest property they had investigated to date, and they had double the amount of equipment to cover it all. The perks of working directly for BSPR was the practically unlimited supply of cameras and microphones at their disposal. Being able to get their hands on all of the latest tech certainly helped a bunch too.
As they all settled within the vans, Mai couldn't help the bubble of excitement that grew in her stomach, because she had the distinct impression that there would be a lot of fun to be had during this trip regardless of whether or not Naru approved. Due to the size of the property, Naru estimated that it would take them two weeks to resolve everything, but they would be taking a break to attend a party? That was certainly a first and not something Mai would pass up.
"I don't want to wear a suit," Monk grumbled from the back of the Van while Ayako scrolled through her phone, already looking through local store's websites for suitable clothing, and it caused Mai to chuckle.
"Too bad," Ayako shot back dryly, eyes focused on her phone.
"What if we just wore our work attire?" John questioned curiously from just behind Yasuhara.
"You want to show up to a party in all our religious wears?" Monk questioned irritably.
"Then everyone would flock to us with questions and I don't want to run the risk of stains," Ayako murmured absently as her eyes alighted on a possible option for Monk.
"I guess you're right," John sighed and glanced down at his jeans forlornly. He didn't exactly have the funds for a nice suit at the moment, given that they had not taken a case in so long, and Naru only paid him as a consultant per case.
"Naru, what if we don't have the money to go shopping?" Mai questioned quietly and John felt a rush of gratitude towards her for choosing to speak up where he would have chosen to suffer through it and figure it out himself.
Naru was scanning through his black notebook but spoke up in response, "I'd be willing to provide you all with payment in advance if that would help."
There was a collective sigh of relief from John, Mai, and Yasuhara.
"I'm gonna buy a sparkly suit," Yasuhara murmured jokingly, causing the rest in the van to laugh, though Ayako only scowled in annoyance.
"As long as it's professional," Naru drawled absently.
Lin could not resist the smirk that pulled at his lips and snorted.
"Lin's first laugh on this case, someone mark it down! I want to keep track," Yasuhara exclaimed.
"You're the one with the laptop, Yasu," Monk said with a bark of laughter.
"Hehe, now I get to be just like Lin, keeping secret notes on everyone in my laptop," the young man muttered as he pulled said computer from the bag by his feet mischievously. Mai shook her head as he opened a document, true to his word, and marked down the momentous event triumphantly.
All the while Lin sighed and studiously ignored the faint amusement he felt radiating from his charge. Naru was probably just happy not to be their primary target for a change.
The drive passed in relative silence from that point on. Some muffled conversations still took place but they did not rise above the level of calm that had fallen over the vehicle as Lin expertly navigated the streets of London and then the continuing countryside. Naru had given up on studying his black book and had rested his cheek against a fist, eyes vacant as the scenery passed him by, and Lin was quietly hoping that some of the more rambunctious of the group had fallen asleep.
"I don't mean to be that person," a low voice spoke up from the back and Lin sighed, knowing full well that person was going to be that person, "But, are we there yet?"
Lin lifted his eye to the heavens above while Naru seemed to ignore the question all together.
"No, Yasuhara-san, we are not there yet," Lin answered shortly. Was the steering wheel bending under his grip? He wasn't sure. But after an hour of driving with their ragtag group, he was reaching his limit.
"Hey, Yasu," Monk called from the very back.
"Yes, my love?" Yasu sang back with a loving smile sent of his shoulder.
"What's your favorite London Cryptid?" Monk continued with a twitch of his brow and a strained smile.
Lin thanked the heavens for the gift that was Takigawa Housho and his ability to read a room and not just the spirits that may inhabit it.
Mai leaned forward in her seat and her head hit the back of Lin's with a gentle thud. It seemed that she was at her limit as well.
It was another twenty minutes before Lin turned off of the small winding road and onto a gravel path that cut through wild forest and spat them out into a sprawling clearing that spread over several hundred acres. Flush against the line of trees in the distance was the largest Victorian palace, for that was the only word Mai could think to use to describe it, she had ever seen in her entire life picture or otherwise. She gripped Lin's seat as she leaned forward between the two men with wide eyes and open mouth. The photo that Naru had provided them all did the place little justice. Tall towers on either end of the building reached for the sky while nature threatened to reclaim what was once taken from it, vines crept up stone walls and chimneys, looking as if the mansion had simply grown up from out of the ground like any mountain. Sprawling pools and fountains among overgrown hedges and trees decorated the front of the property, loaning it that haunting quality abandoned theme parks echoed with.
"Holy shit," Monk whispered in awe as the vehicles came to a stop on the gravel driveway just in front of the main doors. The doors themselves stood nearly fifteen feet tall and were carved out of dark wood with intricate patterns chiseled into their surface.
"I don't know if two weeks will be enough," Yasu murmured with his face pressed up against the window before he recalled that they had come to a stop and pulled the handle on the door to climb out into the light drizzle that had begun to fall.
Mai hung back as everyone else filed out of the van and pulled their luggage along behind them. She was scared. Not due to any overwhelming presence that was reaching out to her, but due to the fact that she now completely understood Gene's statement. As the front doors were pushed open by the caretaker of the mansion, she felt as if it was the maw of a beast, yawning wide to swallow them whole. She gripped the driver's seat in front of her as her fingers trembled in apprehension and the rest of JSPR gathered around the caretaker to speak with him casually. Masako hung back, kimono sleeve held to her nose, and lifted her face to take in the height of the mansion before she turned back to meet eyes with Mai. She shook her head slightly.
Masako didn't sense anything.
Mai looked to Rocco, who was seated at her feet though his head was still level with hers, but the irish wolfhound was panting lightly while his nose twitched and tail wagged. He seemed ready to go explore their new location.
She jumped at Naru's voice and found the man waiting, one hand in his pocket, as the rest of JSPR was led inside by the caretaker. She unbuckled her seatbelt and guided Rocco out onto the driveway while struggling to pull her suitcase behind her. Ever the cold gentleman, Naru stepped forward to take Rocco's leash from her while she fully exited the van and pulled the door shut behind her.
"Sorry," she muttered before she reclaimed Rocco's leash from Naru, their fingers brushing against each other, and taking small comfort with the warmth that kindled in her stomach.
Naru reached for her as she pulled away, gripping her upper arm gently, and pulled her back to face him. "Did you sense something?" he asked quietly.
Mai bit her lip and glanced back at the door where she could just make out Monk's back as they were led through the grand foyer. She lifted her eyes to meet Naru's once more and mumbled: "Gene said he felt like this place was like a spider, waiting in its web, and I can't help but feel like he was right."
Naru quirked a brow, the slightest wrinkle of confusion between his eyes, before he tightened his hold on her arm momentarily. "Masako doesn't sense anything evil . . ." he murmured as they walked forward together at a slow pace.
"Rocco doesn't either," Mai admitted and glanced down at the dog as he padded along at her side. They passed through the doorway and Rocco sniffed the air before pulling at Mai's arm in the direction of the distant voices of JSPR. Monk and Ayako were arguing playfully in hushed tones and Masako was making a light, but volatile, comment. "But I feel like we were just swallowed by the beast," Mai murmured nervously as she glanced back at the doorway before leveling Naru with a wide eyed and pleading expression.