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The Memory Remains

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Naru woke to the sound of screaming. Mai’s screaming.

Panic gripped him and he ripped off the blanket covering him. Naru didn’t recall it being there before. Lin must have stopped by to check on them and had pulled out a spare blanket rather than wake them.

They’d been curled up in each other, content and happy. Now Mai was sobbing, thrashing wildly in her sleep and reaching for her legs in a way that struck Naru as terrifyingly familiar.

“Please, no! Stop -” Her voice broke and Naru’s heart broke with her. He gripped her shoulders firmly.

“Mai! Wake up! I need you to wake up, right now.”

Naru was distantly aware of doors slamming open and shut, unsurprised when Lin made an appearance behind him.

“Get me something cold.”

Lin complied with his usual efficiency and came back seconds later with an ice pack. Naru pressed it to the back of Mai’s neck. Her eyes snapped open, full of terror that broke when Mai realized she was no longer alone. Choking back violent sobs that shook her small frame, Mai buried her face against Naru’s shirt, gripping the dark fabric like a lifeline.

Looking to Lin, Naru tipped his head towards Mai and trusted his friend to know what he needed. With a brief nod, Lin left the room. Soon he would be back with a hot cup of tea for Mai, which Naru hoped would help ground her as it had on the Urado case.

“I – I was going for a walk to c-clear my head -” Mai sobbed into his shirt, “It was d-dark and I was distracted -”

A chill settled in Naru’s chest. He knew whose memory Mai had stumbled into.

“Someone hit you with a car.” Even to Naru’s own ears, his voice sounded distant. He held Mai a little closer and tried to focus on being present. Now was not the time to dwell on things he could not change.

Mai nodded, “At first I thought it was an accident - that when she got out of the car, she was going to help me -” Mai’s eyes jammed shut and she covered her mouth, overcome with grief and horror that another human could do something so heartless.

Naru held Mai even tighter. “She saw that you were still alive, and she got back in the car,” he finished.

Mai looked up at him, still shaking. “Y-yes.”

It might have been on the tip of her tongue to ask him how he knew what she’d experienced in the vision, but whatever surprise Mai may have felt vanished when she saw his face. Naru wondered what kind of expression he was making and made an effort to soften his features.

“Did you wake up before...?” Naru trailed off, unsure of what to say. There was still a chance Mai hadn’t experienced Gene’s murder in its entirety.

Mai shook her head violently, burying her face against his chest.

Shit.

He knew what happened next. Naru tried not to think about the cracking and crunching of splintered limbs, torn flesh, the taste of blood and hands wrestling Mai’s broken body into the boot of a car.  Gene would die long before being abandoned in a watery grave, but Mai was very much alive and would struggle to breathe as the frigid water filled her lungs.

Naru focused on Mai. He ran his fingers through her hair, hoping she found the tactile sensation soothing. “It’s over now. You’re safe.” Honestly, Naru wasn’t sure which one of them he was consoling. Soon Lin returned with the tea Naru nonverbally requested and Mai began to settle from the scent alone. She shut her eyes and cradled the cup to her chest, sipping gently until the grip of the vision faded. Naru felt some of the tension bleed from his shoulder blades as he watched Mai relax.

It was still dark and far too early for breakfast, but Lin was the only one who had eaten anything since at least lunch the day before. Naru wasn’t actually sure if he’d had anything other than tea in the last twenty four hours. Lin solved that problem by retrieving the takeout he’d left for them earlier in the evening. Once the food had been reheated, the three of them sat down to discuss Mai’s visions. Now that Naru knew about his brother’s meddling, he was concerned about leaving Mai’s abilities unchecked. If Gene moved on, Naru foresaw two likely outcomes. Either Mai’s visions would cease, or she’d wind up biting of more than she could chew and be left with no one to guide her.

“Practicing meditation will be useful, but the technique may not be enough on its own,” Lin mused, considering how little warning Mai’s visions typically gave her.

Naru’s brow furrowed. “Mai needs to learn how to control a trance state without the mental preparation usually used to enter it in the first place,” he concluded.

“Yes,” Lin agreed. "I'd recommend discussing the matter with Hara-san for any insight she can offer as a medium. At least half of SPR’s members could assist with the meditation training, depending on availability, and there is always BSPR.”

Mai looked between Lin and Naru and asked, “BSPR?”

“The British Society for Psychical Research,” Lin provided. “SPR is a branch of BSPR.”

“That’s where Madoka is based, when she’s not traveling to other branches.” Naru added. Mai tended to appreciate context, when he remembered to give it. She smiled at him and it made Naru’s heart squeeze. God, he was so lucky.

Mai loves me, he tried the thought on for size.

Mai loves me.

Lin said something to him that Naru only half heard. From the context, he gathered Lin wanted his opinion on reaching out to BSPR. “We have access to their resources. It would make sense to utilize them, but I would exercise caution unless you want to be famous.”

“Ehhhhh!”

Mai was so shocked, Naru was tempted to laugh. He shook his head at the obvious doubt on her face. One of these days Mai was going to realize that she was, in fact, special. “Mai, you do realize that not everyone can carry physical objects through the astral plane?”

“I only did that once!”

“Without any training or even trying,” Naru addressed, no longer bothering to hide his amusement. Mai glared at him without any real heat and turned towards Lin for a second opinion, only for Lin to nod in agreement.

“Honestly, I apologize for not trying to assist you sooner,” Lin lowered his head, wilting.

“That’s alright,” Mai shot Naru a devious grin, smugly appraising him while she responded to Lin, “You’ve had your hands full.”

Caught off guard, Lin let out a bark of laughter at Naru’s expense, gripping his jaw with one hand to contain the sound. Lin’s mirth was muffled, but his shoulders shook uncontrollably. Naru ignored Lin in favour of reminding Mai that she’d hardly been an innocent bystander – if he was going down for his reckless behavior, she was coming down with him.

Mai had the good grace to look guilty, but it didn’t stop her from lobbing a cushion at him. If Lin hadn’t been there, Naru suspected she would have gleefully tackled him to the ground and they might have resumed what they’d started in his bedroom earlier, before physical and emotional exhaustion had gotten the better of them.

Naru imagined Mai pressing him into the carpet, the two of them fighting for the upper hand with increasingly dirty tactics. Maybe he’d flip her onto her back and she’d look up at him with wide eyes that quickly turned dark and hungry. Mai would enjoy the challenge. She’d distract him with her lips or the drag of her thighs against his and –

Lin coughed.

Naru refused to acknowledge the heat creeping up his neck and looked at Lin as if he’d had his attention all along. Lin wasn’t fooled. He’d didn’t raise an eyebrow or rib Naru for his distraction, but they knew each other far too well for Naru to not feel entirely seen. With the barest hint of a smile, Lin bid the two of them goodnight and Naru was left alone with Mai once more.

Tentatively, he held his hand out for Mai. She took it with a light, reassuring squeeze.

“I know this is -”

“Where would you - ”

They both spoke at the same time, cutting off before finishing. “You first,” Mai insisted.

“Where would you like to sleep?”

“Is – is together an option?” Mai asked.

Yes.” Anything she wanted from him was an option. Mai flushed happily and tugged on his hand, leading him back to his bed and boldly pulling him down with her. Naru grinned, “You’re sure you only want to sleep?”

“For now – don’t think I’ve forgotten that you collapsed earlier.”

“Thank you for not telling Lin this time.”

“I will if I need to,” Mai warned, poking his chest defiantly. “If you make me cry, you’ll regret it.”

“If I make you cry, I’ll deserve it.” Naru countered, catching Mai’s hand mid-prod and turning her palm towards him. He met her gaze and kissed the inside of her wrist in promise. “Sleep well, Mai.”

No more visions or nightmares disturbed them as they slept, curled up in each other. When Naru woke, he couldn’t recall ever feeling so warm and content. Even SPR’s irregular members stopping by his place of business with the sole intent to snoop didn’t dampen Naru’s mood.

“I see you fulfilled your end of the bargain,” Matsuzaki informed him, looking over at Mai in approval.

“Did you think I wouldn’t?”

“When it comes to Mai, I’m not sure even you know what you would and wouldn’t do.”

Something in his expression must have changed, because the miko grinned at him like a shark that had caught the whiff of blood in the water. “Oh ho, ho,” Matsuzaki crowed. “Finally become self aware, did you?”

Naru ignored her antics and Matsuzaki sauntered over to Mai, winking back at him over her shoulder. Well, at least Mai knew what she was in for. Matsuzaki had never been subtle. Despite her tendency to make snap judgments, the miko was straight forward to deal with. If she wanted something, she’d tell you. Even if she didn’t get her way, it was rare for Matsuzaki to take denial personally – she had far too much power (both monetary and supernatural) for that.

SPR’s front door opened and Naru was unsurprised to see Hara walk through it. She paused at the sight of her coworkers, having not been notified of a case – Naru wondered if she thought she’d been left out. He motioned to Hara and opened the door to his office.

“Good, I’d been meaning to contact you.”

Hara’s chin lifted and Naru saw her eyes flit towards Mai, watching for a reaction as she followed after him. There was none. For some reason, Mai not noticing her seemed to disappoint the medium – Hara’s graceful movements seemed stiff and her polite smile forced.

It occurred to Naru that maybe, instead of being worried about Lin having feelings for Mai, he should have been more concerned about Hara. From the beginning she seemed to have very little romantic interest in him, despite the numerous dates he’d been coerced into. He’d come to the conclusion that the medium simply struggled to form connections with the living, considering her occupation and fame from a young age, but now that he thought about it, wasn’t Hara unusually focused on Mai? Especially where he was concerned?

If she wanted to make friends with Mai, why use him to do it?

He narrowed his eyes. Now that he knew how Mai felt about him, Naru was starting to feel remarkably like bait.

Either way he needed Hara’s help, so Naru put his suspicion aside for now. Even if she did turn out to be a rival for Mai’s affection, he knew where Mai stood on the matter, and her opinion was the only one that mattered.

 

-x-

 

Masako schooled her face to hide her shock. “You want me to train Mai?”

Naru leaned back in his chair, looking up at her from the other side of his desk. “Not necessarily, but any input you can provide would be invaluable.”

Masako plastered on a smile and tried to find pleasure in the compliment. Naru had always respected her skills as a medium.

“Of course,” Masako agreed. Her celebrity status wasn’t just for show, but it also meant there were demands on her time. “I’ll do what I can.”

Whatever else Mai might be to her, Masako could not deny that her rival’s abilities had saved her life. She would always be grateful for the way Mai had come to her side, giving her something to hold on to, both literally and metaphorically. The key to Mai’s old home, symbolizing everything dear to her that she’d since lost – Mai had pressed it into Masako’s trembling hands and filled her with hope.

Masako wasn’t the kind to leave a debt unpaid.

Plus any time Mai spends with me, she won’t be with Naru.

The polite smile on her face suddenly took less effort to maintain. Something had changed between Naru and Mai since the last ‘date’ Masako had convinced Naru to accompany her on and this was her chance to do damage control.

Reentering the waiting area, Masako’s eyes found Mai instantly. She was being grilled by Matsuzaki, a light blush dusting her cheeks.

She was blushing because of Naru, Masako knew. That was always why Mai blushed. A deep ache settled around Masako’s heart. She hated it.

Drawing herself up a little taller, Masako walked closer to Naru. She knew what they looked like together – elegant, refined and untouchable. Like her, Naru knew the pitfalls of fame. They could understand each other in a way that few others could.

Mai didn’t even know Naru’s name.

Her rival hadn’t been ruffled by Masako being drawn away to talk to their mutual love interest in private, but maybe now Mai would pay more attention. Masako chose her words carefully, purposely emphasizing Naru’s confidence in her. She was trusted, confided in and skilled.

“Naru tells me you need my help.”

Matsuzaki looked at Mai with raised, perfectly shaped eyebrows. “You do?” Her eyes narrowed, “With what?”

“My dreams,” Mai explained. “It turns out I may be a little less ‘latent’ than we thought.”

Clearly, Masako thought sarcastically. Mai had demonstrated many different skills in the years they’d worked together, but Naru had never been worried about Mai’s unusual skill set before – had something changed?

“What happened?” Masako demanded. If she was going to help, she needed to know.

Mai looked over Masako’s shoulder before answering. Masako followed her gaze. Naru hadn’t stayed in his office as she’d expected, considering the rowdy group in his workspace, and was watching their conversation. No, Masako corrected. Naru was watching Mai. An extremely petty part of her was tempted to shift in front of him and block their line of sight to each other.

“I’ve been speaking to spirits without realizing, and last night I -” Mai stilled, wrapping her arms around herself. Despite the jealousy that curled around Masako’s heart, it softened at the sight of Mai’s vulnerability. Like the time where a spirit had overtaken Mai’s body, Masako felt the need to reach out to her, except there was no lingering soul to guide to the netherworld. She was at a loss. Would it be strange if she touched her? Mai was known for being affectionate, but ‘Hara Masako’ was not.

“Mai experienced another death,” Naru intervened smoothly. “So far other people have been there to wake her, but that may not always be the case.”

“Oh?” Yasuhara piped up, “Who woke you up, Taniyama-san?”

Mai turned bright red, all the way to the tips of her ears, and Masako felt her entire body go instantaneously numb. She knew the answer before Naru even opened his mouth.

“I did.”

SPR erupted with sound.

“What were you doing with Taniyama-san, big boss?” Yasuhara prodded. The question was so laced with implication it was a wonder the researcher hadn’t waggled his eyebrows.

Naru rolled his eyes. “I expected Bou-san to be the one to interrogate me, not you.”

“Oh?” Yasuhara adjusted his glasses and grinned. “I was simply curious.” He looked over at the monk, who seemed to be having some kind of internal crisis. Takigawa was perfectly still, mouth ajar like his soul was leaking out of it.

“Alas, I think you’ve broken the light of my life -”

“Shonen,” Takigawa snapped out of his funk long enough to growl, “You’re not good for my heart.”

“Oh, but I could be.”

At least Mai was smiling now, Masako thought. For a moment, when Mai had mentioned her dream, she’d been caught by something Masako could not see. She’d stood too still and felt too distant. The death she’d witnessed must have been horrific. Ignoring everyone else in the room, Masako brought Mai’s attention back to the reason she had approached her.

“I’ll help you,” Masako announced without preamble. “There are many constraints on my time however – are you able to work around that?”

Again, Mai looked to Naru, who nodded. “That shouldn’t be a problem,” Mai replied. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” Masako smiled. Mai’s sincerity had a way of making her feel warm, sometimes uncomfortably so. She shifted to address Naru. “I have some time now, but we’ll need somewhere quiet.”

Matsuzaki sighed and started chasing the rest of the visiting group out the door. Takigawa argued that she was louder until Matsuzaki pointed out that this was “for Mai’s sake” and “didn’t he want to keep her safe?” Everyone cleared out after that, even John, who wouldn’t have been a distraction even if he had stayed.

Masako was begrudgingly impressed.

Before Naru left them to it, he drew Mai aside, speaking to her in soft tones. They stood together with a casual closeness that hurt to look at. There had been moments in the past where watching them had made her feel like an outsider, but seeing Mai reach out and Naru meet her half way cut Masako to the core. She was still reeling from the blow when Mai sat down with her on the couch, ready to listen and absorb whatever experience Masako could offer her.

“You’re together now, aren’t you?”

Mai looked surprised. “How did you know?”

Because I have eyes, Masako imagined replying.

“I know when I’ve lost.”

“Masako, I -”

She held up her hand to interrupt Mai. “Don’t say you’re sorry. I wouldn’t be.”

When Masako left a little over an hour later, she climbed gracefully into the sleek vehicle waiting for her. She thanked her driver for holding open the door, waited until she was safely behind tinted glass and cried.

 

-x-

 

Naru stared out of his office window, taking in the hypnotic ebb and flow of people going about their day. Autumn had begun to take hold of the city, the mornings pleasant and the afternoons cool. In the distance, trees prepared to shed their leaves, a progressing symphony of yellow, dark orange and deep reds. A light knock on Naru's office door caused the corner of his mouth to twitch upwards in anticipation. He kept silent, waiting for Mai to take the initiative and walk in regardless of whether she was interrupting or not.

She didn’t disappoint.

In the reflection of the window, he saw Mai pause to watch him. She set some tea down on his desk and came over to the window to join him, snaking her arms around his waist from behind and resting her chin in between his shoulder blades.

"Are you going to tell them?" Mai asked quietly.

Naru considered dodging the question but thought better of it.

“I don’t know,” he sighed. What was he supposed to tell them, exactly? 'Hey guys, my murdered twin was dumped in a lake somewhere and I'm searching for his body. Oh, and Shibuya Kazuya doesn’t exist. I’m Oliver Davis - you know, that famous professor Takigawa admires so much?' Ridiculous.

“Even if you don’t tell them who you are, you know they’d want to help you find Gene,” Mai reminded him.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Naru promised, turning in her grasp to kiss her forehead. Mai relaxed against him and he leaned in to her touch, taking comfort in the feeling of home and safety and afternoon light.

Mai’s stomach rumbled between them. She froze and tried to make herself look as intimidating as possible, while still being buried adorably in his shirt. Naru smirked. "Hungry?"

Mai hid her face and burrowed further into his chest. He felt more than heard her grumble. “Shut up.”

The smirk became a fully fledged grin. “Are you going to make me?”

At his hopeful tone, Mai pulled away from him, hands resting on his forearms while his own slid to her hips. God, she fit in his hands so beautifully. It was devastating.

“There are other ways to ask for a kiss, you know.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

“You just want to hear me ask you,” Mai accused. She wasn’t wrong – that sounded absolutely amazing, Naru thought.

“Would it be so bad if I did?”

Mai blushed. “N-no.”

He laced their fingers together and tugged her towards the door, announcing they would be gone for a while and asking if Lin wanted them to bring anything back for him. While they were out, Naru took a brief detour to a bookstore and picked up an order that had been waiting for him. Mai looked at the relatively small, hardbound book in his hands.

“What’s it about?”

"A study on the merits of memories believed to be born from reincarnation," Naru explained. "I respect the author's scientific approach to the subject, even if my conclusions differ from his…"

To his surprise, Mai giggled. She wasn’t laughing at him exactly, or at the very least he could tell Mai wasn’t being cruel – it was however, the kind of sound she might make upon seeing a floundering kitten or a fluffy rabbit. Naru tried to imagine what about his choice of book might make him fall under the same category and came up blank.

"I'm sorry," Mai managed, still giggling and clearly unrepentant. "But something like that is what you'd consider 'light reading', isn't it? It's the same way Keiko or Michiru would feel about reading a romance novel."

Naru pulled a face and Mai bit her lip in an attempt to stop herself from laughing even harder. He got the distinct impression she was imagining him wrapped up in a shoujo manga or sappy paperback. “And you find that…cute?”

Mai stopped laughing and avoided his gaze, blushing hard. “M-maybe.”

Naru filed that information away for later.

Since Lin was waiting on them for his lunch as well, Naru and Mai got takeaway for the three of them and planned on eating when they got back to SPR. Somewhere in between ordering and Mai rushing up to grab their meals, Naru stilled. He was being watched.

Turning towards the growing feeling of unease, Naru’s attention was drawn to a woman in the lunchtime rush. He guessed she was somewhere between twenty-five to early thirties. Short, dark hair framed her rapidly paling face, her eyes wide with horror as their gazes locked.

Naru frowned. She looked familiar. Maybe she’d been one of the clients he had scared away during the worst of his self destructive spiral. His memory of those two weeks was blurry at best and Lin had assured him that if he ever pulled a stunt like that again, he’d tell his mother that he was dating.

An ocean in between your relatives might normally be considered a safe distance but Naru knew better.

As someone who’d never shown an interest in romance before, he was guaranteed several inquisitive phone calls at the very least, if not an impromptu visit from Luella and Madoka. Because if his mother knew, then his mentor would, too. Luella would be touched that her son’s attitude had thawed even remotely and want to know everything about the person who managed it and Madoka was her personal chaotic enabler. His father would be enamored with Mai’s psychic potential once he caught wind of it and then nothing on the planet would stop them from interfering with his personal life. Naru supposed it was a reality he was going to have to face sooner or later, but at this particular moment in time he was content to wait until later.

Mai returned with their food and Naru held out his hand to take the largest bag. When he went to point out the woman to see if Mai remembered her, the possible ex-client had disappeared from sight.

 

-x-

 

It wasn't the first time she had seen him, the woman admitted silently. She had seen his dark form pass by her many times in crowds, and each time she told herself that it was merely her own fears creating his pale image. Perhaps it had merely been a man dressed like him – many kids these days seemed to like the gothic look – in fact, if it weren't for the way he had turned to meet her gaze, Cho might have been able to dismiss what she had seen once again.

It just wasn't possible, she repeated in her mind over and over again as she stared at the stark figure standing perfectly still, unfazed amongst a sea of shoppers.

I'm either going mad or…

The second alternative that occurred to the woman terrified her far more than the first. Madness could almost been seen as a blessing in disguise, but this? He had come to make her pay, just as she had always feared he would.

Willing her numb body to move, Cho fled for her life.

 

-x-

 

Omake:

Somewhere in between entering their client’s alleged haunted home and Mai bringing in the first armful of portable shelving, Naru stilled. He was being watched.

Turning towards the growing feeling of unease, Naru’s attention was drawn to a small black cat hiding next to a bag of the same approximate size and colour. He guessed the cat was a little older than a kitten, but not so old that it had grown bored with games. Their dark pupils were blown wide with interest, rimmed in gold as the cat hunkered down and waited for its prey to make a move.

Naru humoured the small creature and ducked out of sight, finding shelter beside a nearby bookcase. Slowly he poked his head around the corner - just enough to see the tip of one of the cat’s delicate black ears. The adorable fur demon didn’t move, but tilted their head just enough to let him know it knew he was watching and doing a poor job of it. The second Naru let his guard down, the cat pounced. A few kitty smooches and it bounded merrily off to find a new place to hide.

Concerned that the small animal might wreak havoc on the numerous cables and wiring SPR was in the process of bringing in from the van, Naru addressed the clients about their cat.

The couple turned to each other in confusion and then back at him. “But we don’t have a cat.”