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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.”

 

Chapter Text

Mai sat down at her desk, stomach full and a touch sleepy. Her chair was hardly uncomfortable, but it was far from an ideal place to feel herself start to doze off.

She sat up straight and smacked her hands to her cheeks. Instead of a mild sting, her face felt numb and disconnected to her body. Mai glared at her hands and willed them to stop feeling fuzzy.

Ah. This kind of tired wasn’t the result of food coma, was it? Mai tried to remember what Masako had said to do when the supernatural pulled at her mind.

Identify the signs. Prepare for them. You don’t want to injure your body if you leave it in a hurry.

Mai eyed the distance to the couch and hoped she could make it that far. The other option was lying on the floor, but she didn’t want to startle anyone if they walked in and saw her sprawled out on the carpet.

Oh, and she should probably tell someone…

 

-x-

 

In a sea of darkness, Gene’s consciousness stirred. His self awareness grew in stages, as did the knowledge that something was wrong.

Was Noll alright? Was Mai?

He explored the darkness, looking for other lingering spirits. There were always a few, but none of them seemed to be the cause of his unease. Gene helped those he could and kept searching. Finding no better course of action, he followed what was left of his connection with Noll, hoping Mai was nearby. Gene might not be able to warn his brother directly, but Noll’s psychic assistant was another story.

 

As Gene had hoped, it didn’t take him long to find Mai. She responded to his presence almost immediately, head lulling forward as her secondary senses screamed to be made known. Instead of slumping on her desk like Mai normally would, Gene noted that she tried to make it to the couch before completing the bridge between them. Was she starting to be able to tell when her tiredness was due to her abilities?

Gene hoped for Mai’s sake that she was – some of the places he’d seen her sleep were far from comfortable. Even though Mai hadn’t quite made it all the way onto the couch, at least her head was slumped on the seat cushion.

Once her senses fully shifted from physical to spiritual, Mai opened her eyes and lifted her head, taking in the glow of her body and the darkness she sat in. When she saw him, Mai smiled. Warmth filled Gene at the sight.

“Gene!”

Wait - what?

Mai had never called him by his real name. Not once. For as long as he’d known her, she’d referred to him as ‘Naru’ (Gene could only assume she meant ‘Noll’). The first time he met Mai, Gene was too surprised to feel guilty about allowing her to think he was his twin. He didn’t think he’d meet her again and thought it might be better if the cute girl didn't realise she was talking to a ghost.

But then he saw her again.

And again.

And again.

Clearly Mai was someone close to his brother – very few people called Oliver by his nickname – yet she didn’t seem to know anything about Gene. He was sure his brother had his reasons, but the omission stung.

Sometimes he saw glimpses of Noll through mirrors – small windows into the land of the living. If he could just get his brother to look through the same mirror at the same time, Gene hoped they would be able to communicate. In life they had been telepathic – surely their connection was just bent, not broken.

If he could speak to him, Gene would tell him to put away his maps. He’d tell Noll to move on with his life and let the police find what was left of his twin. By the time he’d realised Mai could pass that message on for him, Gene had worked out why Noll was keeping him a secret – he was keeping everything secret. His name, his powers, and anything else that could connect ‘Shibuya Kazuya’ back to Oliver Davis.

Now here Mai was calling him Gene and he wanted to know what that meant. How much did she know? How honest could he be with her?

Gene took hold of Mai’s hand to help her stand – it was a mistake. The second his soul came into contact with hers, he was in another place, in another time.

The smell of blood and exhaust fumes overwhelmed Gene’s senses, bones splintering as he screamed. A voice which hadn’t been present during his death called out, but the words were lost in his agony.

Mai –

Oh god, no –

She was here with him.

Gene tore away from Mai, but the memory refused to release him. Not this, Gene begged. Anything but this! He’d never wanted Mai to see how he’d died. Considering her growing skills, it had always been a possibility, but Gene had always hoped she would be spared that horror.

Two soft hands firmly cupped his face. Mai’s hands, Gene sluggishly identified. She pressed her forehead to his, filling his vision. The pain began to subside as he focused on the contact and the soft glow of Mai’s soul.

“I’m here. I know what happened,” Mai soothed. “You don’t have to hide it from me.”

As suddenly as it began, the nightmare stopped. No screaming. No torn flesh. He was back in the darkness, the only light emanating from himself and Mai. She leaned back to examine him, but didn’t let go of his face. When Mai wiped away his tears with her thumbs and a small smile, Gene realised he’d been crying.

“I’m sorry.”

“What for?” Mai seemed genuinely confused.

“For lying about who I was – that – that you had to see -” Gene stammered. Mai shushed him.

“I’m pretty sure I have enough forgiveness left over for you, too.”

‘Left over’? Her words rolled around in his consciousness and Gene kept coming back to the same conclusion. “Noll....apologised?”

“More or less,” Mai shrugged. “Noll is what you call Naru?”

That and ‘idiot scientist’.

Gene nodded.

Mai knew as well as he did that their time was limited. She skipped to the big questions. “So, why am I here? Did something happen?”

He didn’t answer her directly. “Are you and Noll safe?”

“I think so – why?”

Gene wondered if she’d get the reference if he told her there was a disturbance in the force. Instead he gestured to the darkness around them. He could feel himself getting tired again. “Feels wrong,” he concentrated on saying.

Mai promised to be careful. Good. He could rest now.

“Gene!”

He tried to hang on just a little longer, for Mai’s sake.

“How do we find you?”

Sadly, Gene shook his head. There wasn’t time. He concentrated carefully on his next words, hoping they made it to Mai before he faded.

“Tell my brother to look in a mirror.”

He let the darkness take him.

 

-x-

 

Miserable days called for comfort food, so when her driver had asked where she wished to go, Masako requested somewhere with cake.

“I know just the place”, he’d said with a smile.

Her first impression of the dessert shop was that someone had wanted this store to feel like a home. The storefront was charming in its simplicity, part way between traditional and modern architecture, with a variety of colourful plants framing the windows and accentuating the entrance. The flowers smell was sweet and refreshing as Masako entered, making her way over to the elaborate display of assorted treats.

Each sweet was carefully crafted – some were so beautiful that it was almost a shame to eat them. After much deliberation, Masako’s top choices were a dessert moulded in the form of a rabbit, a slice of cake filled with layers of immaculate strawberries surrounded by cream and a citrus tart decorated with slices of lemon and lime, arranged like blooming flowers.

Masako bought all three. The rabbit and the tart were put aside for her in takeaway boxes while she ate the strawberry cake at one of the tastefully decorated tables. Flowers from the storefront were a reoccurring theme, the same general shapes and colours recognisable along the edges of the table cloths and delicate plates. It wouldn’t surprise Masako if the owner had made or commissioned them specifically to match the shop’s aesthetic.

Picking up the small silver spoon, Masako cut into the cake and got her first taste. The dessert was nothing short of heavenly. Cream and fresh strawberries blended perfectly in her mouth, complimented by the light and fluffy consistency.

“Hey, don’t I know you?”

Masako turned towards the voice with a professional smile. “I don’t believe we’ve met, but perhaps -”

The stranger didn’t allow her to continue. “Ah! You’re that psychic girl on TV,” he announced, pointing at her. Masako lifted a hand to cover her mouth with her sleeve and dropped the name of her latest show. Fame had its drawbacks but this was her life and she’d worked hard for it. She knew how to handle herself in public and if all else failed, her driver doubled as a bodyguard when necessary.

“Those ghosts don’t know how good they’ve got it,” he joked, eyeing her appreciatively.

“Excuse me?”

“I mean, besides being dead and all -”

“Miss?” One of the staff interjected smoothly, “The table you requested has become available. Would you like me to prepare it for you?”

Masako hadn’t requested a specific table. She looked up at the unexpectedly tall waitress whose eyes slid pointedly to her company, before returning a concerned gaze back to Masako. She was trying to offer her an out.

“That would be lovely, thank you.”

Masako excused herself before her uninvited guest could argue and followed her saviour – whose name tag read ‘Murakami’ - to a private table with a direct line of sight to the service counter.

“Just say the word and I’ll have him leave.”

The sudden change in demeanour took Masako off guard. Those words were spoken with certainty and confidence, as if worse people had tried and failed to best her. Murakami must have misread Masako’s surprise for doubt, because she flexed one of her arms and winked.

“I may not look it, but I’m strong.”

Masako believed her. Contrary to Murakami’s statement, she did look strong - compact and lean, like Lin. “Do you have to eject people often?”

“Only when they make other customers feel unwelcome. Our boss is very big on this place feeling like a home.”

“I noticed that. It’s very beautiful.”

“I’ll have to tell him you said so – he’ll be pleased.”

“Thank you again for the save, Murakami-san.”

“Anytime, uh -”

“Hara Masako,” she provided.

“Hara-san,” Murakami beamed, cheeks pink, and gave a little wave as she returned to the counter. Her co-worker must have said something to embarrass her, because Murakami threw a hand over his mouth before he could finish it. An unexpected giggle bubbled up inside Masako at their antics and Murakami looked back at her, eyes wide and blushing all the way to the tips of her ears. She pulled her hand from the guy’s mouth and scrubbed it on her apron.

When Masako collected her additional boxed deserts and left, she felt lighter than she had in weeks.

Perhaps today wasn’t entirely awful.

 

-x-

 

During his sleepless stint, Naru had still managed to be contacted by a few particularly motivated clients. He couldn’t recall whether they were especially stubborn or just that desperate, but their files now lay open on his desk for further evaluation.

A woman with insomnia – she was already seeing several medical professionals and had been ‘poked and prodded’ for years now. No one knew how she was still alive, let alone why she was unable to sleep. She was already receiving the medical expertise he would have ordinarily recommended and he gathered that her particular plight must have struck a chord in him in his sleep-deprived state.

A teen in a coma –

Slam!

His office door flung open hard enough to smack into the plaster wall behind it. Naru reflexively leapt into a defensive stance, feet apart and hands raised, ready to run or fight at a moment’s notice. The chair he’d been sitting in toppled and hit the floor, unnoticed, as Mai burst into the room. She collided with the desk between them like a novice skater using rink walls for brakes.  

“Gene said to look in a mirror!”

At the mention of his twin, all else was forgotten.

“Gene –” Naru breathed, hope blooming too quickly in his tightening chest. When he processed the rest of Mai’s sentence, all he could manage was a bewildered, “...what?”

“A mirror!” She repeated. Naru wasn’t proud to admit it, but her meaning was still lost on him. “Do you have one?”

“Not on hand -”

Mai left the room before he’d even finished responding. He listened to her rummage through draws and absently followed her through the open door, just in time to see Mai upend the contents of her bag on her desk. She salvaged a cherry red disk from the pile and held up the treasure in triumph. “Aha!”

Crossing the distance between them, Mai thrust the object – a compact mirror -into his hands. It struck him as an odd item for her to carry, but a quick glance at Mai’s desk told him that she didn’t empty her bag often. Crumpled receipts crowned Mai’s belongings like toppings on an especially extravagant sundae.

Opening the compact, Naru stared down at his reflection. Mai peered over his arm, leaning against him as they followed Gene’s bizarre instruction.

They waited.

Nothing happened.

“What did he say exactly?” Maybe something had been missed in her haste to pass on the message.

“Tell my brother to look in a mirror.” Mai supplied confidently. She looked at the compact in his hands and shrugged helplessly. “Maybe it needs to just be you?” She pulled away from him and Naru tried again for the sake of elimination.

Still nothing.

Whatever Gene hoped to accomplish was lost on him.

Mai rocked back on her heels and sighed. “He can be pretty cryptic sometimes.”

“What do you mean?”

“There are times when he doesn’t say anything at all – just points at things or smiles when I see what he wants to show me. I think...” Mai hesitated, weighing the accuracy of her words before continuing on with renewed conviction. “I think it’s hard for Gene to speak – like it takes a lot of energy or something.”

So he may need time to recharge.

Naru turned the compact over in his hands. “Do you mind if I keep this?”

“Sure.”

She started clearing the mess of her desk, shovelling it back into her bag. Mid swipe, Mai paused. Her shoulders fell and she drew her hands towards her heart, cradled to her chest.  “He didn’t answer when I asked how to find him,” Mai admitted softly.

Naru would be lying if he said he wasn’t disappointed, but he’d had more reason to hope in the last few days than he’d had in years. He could wait. With or without Gene’s help, he’d always intended to find his brother. Nothing had changed that.

He wrapped his arms around Mai, heart full with the knowledge that she’d tried.

“If it drains Gene to communicate, he may not have been able to.”

“I should have asked him sooner.”

“Why didn’t you?” His question was soft, not accusing. Naru didn’t need to ask Mai to know that there hadn’t been an opportunity – he just needed Mai to realise that for herself.

“He was suffering. I tried to help.”

“And did you?”

“Yes – but after -” She protested.

“Gene had his own agenda.” Naru arched an eyebrow and dared her to disagree with him. She’d told him enough about her dreams (even before he knew about Gene’s influence) to know that his brother was the one contacting her, not the other way around. There must have been a reason.

“He was concerned about our safety.”

There it was.

“Then I’m glad you addressed his concerns first.” His arms relaxed around Mai’s small frame, hands falling loosely to her hips. “Did Gene mention why he was worried?”

“He said something ‘felt wrong’.”

“Did you feel it too?”

Mai’s brow furrowed as she thought about the question. Eventually she shook her head, “No.”

Naru gave into temptation and tucked a stray lock of Mai’s hair behind her ear. Being allowed to touch her was a novelty. “Let me know if you sense anything.”

Hands pressed to his chest and Mai peeked up at him with a wry grin, “‘Anything’ covers a lot of ground, you know.”

Naru smirked, enjoying the push and pull between them. “I know.”

 

-x-

 

Cho’s fingers trembled uncontrollably. She couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. Every face she passed seemed to follow her with their gaze as she blindly made her way home.

Had they seen the boy in black, too?

Did they know what she’d done?

Paranoia spurned her ever forward, too terrified to look back. It was impossible, Cho tried to assure herself. No one had seen. No one had even suspected she was capable of taking a life.

After the first year or so, the nightmares grew rare. Ignorable. Cho had stopped seeing the boy in every fleeting reflection or glimpse of a stranger who shared his fashion sense. She thought she’d put the mistake behind her. Until she’d come face to face with her past, Cho hadn’t considered that turning her back on her choices might allow them to catch up with her.

Then, she’d seen his eyes.

This wasn’t an illusion, trick of the light or guilty memory – he was real and he was looking straight at her.

It was impossible!

It should have been impossible.

She’d fled. The journey back home was an adrenaline fuelled blur punctuated by guilt and revelation.

The boy in black had come for her.

Pulse racing, Cho pressed her back against the soft cushions of the couch she’d dragged between the kitchen’s entrance and the lounge room. She faced the locked door, fingers clutched tightly around a worn baseball bat that had once belonged to her husband. Yutaka had left it behind, along with Cho, when her dark secret had eaten away at their marriage until only the memory of love remained. Traces of him were scattered throughout their once happy home, a constant reminder of what her silence had cost.

Cho knew the bat and locked door were useless against a spirit, but no amount of burning sage or symbols drawn in salt eased her mind. Perhaps the supernatural precautions she’d taken would buy her some time, but Cho couldn’t afford to tell anyone about her situation. Anyone capable of talking to the spirit was a potential witness to her crime.

No one can know.

But if no one could know, how could anyone save her?

 

-x-

 

Omake:

 

Slam!

Naru’s office door flung open hard enough to smack into the plaster wall behind it. He reflexively leapt into a defensive stance, feet apart and hands raised, ready to run or fight at a moment’s notice. The chair he’d been sitting in toppled and hit the floor, unnoticed, as Mai burst into the room. She collided with the desk between them like a novice skater using rink walls for brakes. 

“Gene said to look in a mirror!”

At the mention of his twin, all else was forgotten.

“Gene –” Naru breathed, hope blooming too quickly in his tightening chest. When he processed the rest of Mai’s sentence, all he could manage was a bewildered, “...what?”

“A mirror!” She repeated. Naru wasn’t proud to admit it, but her meaning was still lost on him. “Do you have one?”

“Not on hand -”

The tension in Mai’s body went lax and she stared at him in a confused kind of awe. “I think I need to reconsider your nickname.”

Chapter Text

Days had passed since Mai relayed Gene’s message and Naru had yet to see anything aside from his reflection in a mirror. The request had been important enough that Gene expended precious energy on the words, so Naru listened and waited. In the meantime, he began reviewing old case files and putting together a timeline of when Gene had contacted Mai.

Obviously Naru couldn’t pinpoint every instance, but he hoped to measure the length of time between Mai’s dreams with as much accuracy as possible. Was there a pattern? Could there be a correlation between the energy Mai perceived Gene using and the frequency of Gene’s ability to communicate?

Perhaps it was a connection based on need and circumstance. There was also the possibility that Mai’s abilities played a role in when Gene was able to communicate and why.

Naru glanced at the picture-frame sized mirror propped on his desk. He kept Mai’s compact in his jacket pocket (just in case) but after the first twenty-four hours obsessively checking the reflection, Naru purchased an option that was easier to observe in passing.

“Anything yet?”

Mai sat a cup of tea down in front of him. He shook his head. “Nothing.”

Stepping into his space, Mai curled herself around his shoulders. “I’m sure it’ll make sense soon.”

Naru leaned into her touch, covering the hands Mai looped around him with one of his own. He hadn’t allowed himself so much physical contact in years, if ever. It was different. Pleasant. Grounding.

Mai made him feel safe in a way he’d never known.

She kissed his temple and shifted her weight from his back, tensing mid-movement. “Uh, Naru?”

“What is it?”

Wordlessly, Mai pointed in front of him. The mirror, Naru realised - Gene’s request.

His reflection smiled. A familiar presence brushed against Naru’s mind, filling a void carved in him the night Gene died. Jaw clenching, Naru fought the urge to cry.

“If you start, so will I,” Gene’s voice echoed through their psychic bond. Out loud Gene spoke wistfully, reaching out to touch the barrier between them. “Hello, Noll.”

Naru’s throat grew tight. “Gene.” There was so much he wanted to say. Where – why – how? Navigating life without Gene had changed everything. Naru hadn’t known what it was like, being truly alone inside his head. He and Gene had been apart at times, but never more than a few weeks at most. The silence, the emptiness in his mind and heart had been overwhelming. Sometimes Naru wondered if a part of him had died with Gene, leaving him here, soulless and hollow.

To say he missed Gene would be laughable - the word was woefully insufficient.

Gene’s consciousness shifted against Naru’s, their eyes locking through the mirror. “Since when have we ever needed words?”

With a short nod, Naru opened up his mind to Gene. Feelings and abstract, half-formed concepts flowed between them with ease, as if it hadn’t been years since he’d felt Gene’s presence in his mind. The sense of nostalgia was so strong, Naru ached with it. Their pain and loneliness were shared – the darkness of the world Gene slept in, the hole in Naru’s life that Gene had left. Struggles, hopes, theories and fears all swept together in moments. When Naru’s thoughts turned to his search, Gene pulled away abruptly.

Please stop.”

Naru recoiled, confused and disoriented by Gene’s sudden withdrawal. “What?” Mai tensed beside him, instantly alert. Understanding began to dawn on Naru, how Gene had reacted and when. His confusion quickly turned to anger. “You can’t be serious!”

Mai’s hand found his forearm. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t want Noll to find my body.” Gene answered for both of them. Mai’s reaction was visceral – jolting as if struck her body curled protectively, hands clenched around a cocktail of anger, confusion and pain. She looked the way he felt, Naru realised.

“But -”

Gene’s expression grew hard, uncompromising. "I want my brother to live, not dwell on the past."

"But still!” Mai persisted, “What about your parents? Don’t you want to give them closure?”

Gene remained calm, though Naru felt frustration and hopelessness build inside his twin.

"What do you think will happen if Noll finds my body?"

Ah , so that was where he was going with this. Gene glared at him.

Mai glanced between the two of them, unsure. “He’ll take you home – to England.”

"And what else?" Gene pressed, openly agitated now. "Don't you think the police would find it odd that he knew where to find me? Noll will be suspected of my murder."

Mai went very still.

“They won’t have a shred of proof,” Naru scoffed. Now that he knew the reason, he wished Gene hadn’t unloaded it on Mai. She wasn’t used to being put under a microscope like they were. Time had told Naru that he had very little control over what others thought of him, whereas Mai would probably be offended on his behalf. “It’s hardly the first time I’ve been held in suspicion thanks to my abilities.”

“That’s exactly why I’m worried.”

Naru refused to back down, reaching out to Gene with his mind.

I’ll find you with or without your help. If you’re really so concerned that I’m wasting my future, help me.

“I need to do this, Gene.”

Naru could feel the moment he’d won. He’d expected Gene to be irritated with him, but the emotions Naru felt via their link were more akin to regret and guilt. Gene’s perspective of Mai’s pained expression touched his mind.

No. You’re right – I should have warned her.

Gene paused, mouth open. His shoulders dropped as he stood a little taller, feigning suspicion. “Who are you and what have you done with my brother?”

Confused by Gene’s seemingly unprompted reaction, Mai did what she usually did – charge forward blindly with her heart on her sleeve. “Is that really so surprising?”

Gene startled in earnest this time and offered Mai a soft smile. “No. I’ll help you – though I’m not sure how much help I can actually be.”

“You don’t know where she left your body,” Naru surmised. It made sense – being dead didn’t mean you were all-knowing. Being a perfect medium might give Gene a few advantages over an average spirit, but there was no guarantee that Gene had learned any more about his death than he possessed when he died.

“I can show you where I was before -” fumbling, Gene grimaced and left the sentence hanging. They all knew what ‘before’ referred to. Naru adjusted the subject. “Which region?”

“Kanto.”

Mai passed Naru a pen after he unfolded the correct map and he lingered when their fingertips brushed. Something about her struck Naru as vulnerable. Mai had shown time and time again how much she was willing to sacrifice for those she loved and Naru couldn’t shake the idea that she was preparing to do so again.

He captured Mai’s hand and tugged her close. “It’ll be alright.”

“You’re sure?”

Yes.

Mai let out a long breath and offered him a shaky smile. “Okay.” Naru’s heart soared. She trusted him, believed in him – later, when they were alone, he planned to show Mai how much that meant to him. For now, the two of them bent over the map as Gene gave them a list of places and landmarks to identify. Only parts of the map had been transcribed into English, so Mai focused on the finer details once Naru had determined the general area.

Gene faded soon after.

Heart sore, Naru stood with Mai in silence, taking a moment to acknowledge his grief.

“Would you like me to update Lin?”

Naru couldn’t bring himself to speak. He nodded and Mai reached up to catch his face in her soft hands. Her thumbs brushed against his cheekbones in a soothing motion, as if she were wiping away unshed tears. “We’re here for you,” Mai reminded him firmly. “Just come out when you’re ready.”

She was a marvel.

In moments like these, Mai made him feel seen and protected in ways Naru never could have anticipated. Handing her the map with its fresh markings, he watched Mai quietly close the door behind her, glancing back at him through the narrowing gap with a private smile.

For a while Naru listened to the hum of their voices as Mai discussed what had happened and what they now knew with Lin. No one disturbed him and Naru allowed himself to drift, losing track of time. When he emerged, it was to Lin’s laughter and Mai’s half-hearted protests. Their happiness was infectious and Naru allowed hope to bloom in his heart. No matter what happened now, whether he found Gene or not, he wasn’t alone anymore. Naru was starting to see that he never had been.

 

-x-

 

Mai sat quietly on the long couch opposite him, toying absently with a cup of tea. Lin was fairly certain the drink had long gone cold, a suspicion confirmed by Mai when she attempted to drink it. Spluttering, she pulled a disgusted face and sat the cup out of immediate reach with an offended ‘thunk’.

"Want to talk about it?" Lin offered.

Mai grimaced. “The tea is cold.”

“So I gather.”

An undignified snort escaped Mai’s mouth and she flopped sideways, narrowly missing the arm of the couch when she fell. "What if Naru could claim he was checking out the area for business purposes, rather than personal?" She mused, "It might be seen as convenient, but at least he’d have a cover story."

Lin mulled over the idea's potential and shook his head. "It may be better if he doesn't."

Mai looked up at him and waited for an elaboration.

"Naru will probably be suspected either way, but hiding our intentions could easily backfire." He explained, "If the Police can't make a significant case against him, there won't be any point in taking it to court – but if they had reason to believe that we felt the need to disguise our actions -"

"We'd only be making a case against ourselves." Mai finished for him, nodding dejectedly. She twisted to stare up at the ceiling. “I just wish I could help more, you know?”

“More?” Lin raised his eyebrows. “Mai, at this rate I’m surprised no one has made you a saint. Maybe I should get Brown-san on that…”

Mai faltered, “He can’t actually do that, right?”

Lin shrugged. “Who knows? Though I bet Yasuhara-san could pull it off if I asked.”

“What?!” She squawked, clamouring back up into a sitting position. “You wouldn’t!

Lin laughed openly.

When Naru emerged to join them, his mood was lighter than it had been in years. Hope looked good on him, Lin thought.

The three of them left SPR early, Mai climbing into the van with Naru and himself. It wasn’t unusual for the three of them to eat dinner together now, though Mai tended to return home afterwards. Considering the lovebirds were about to be separated for at least a few days, Lin doubted that would be the case tonight.

 

-x-

 

“When are you leaving?” Mai asked, throwing Naru a pair of socks. He caught and dropped them in the small suitcase lying open on the bed.

Naru shook his head, “In the morning.” Hopefully he added, “Will you stay?”

“I think I can manage that,” she teased. “You don’t mind if I borrow something to sleep in again, do you?”

Naru shifted his weight to lean on the side of the suitcase. His breath caught, throat contracting and expanding as he swallowed. Mai imagined tracing the motion with her fingertips.

“Take whatever you like.”

Naru wasn’t talking about clothes anymore, was he? Biting her lip, Mai tested the waters. She pointed to the floor in front of her, “Come here.”

He came.

A smile tugged at Naru’s lips. “Should I kneel?” He spoke confidently, but Naru’s eyes held hers with a sense of urgency that stole Mai’s breath away. He was vulnerable, prepared to shrug his desire off as a joke if it made her uncomfortable.

“Would you like that?” Mai asked, “Me telling you what to do?”

Naru was silent at first, watching carefully for a reaction. Mai waited. She’d given him an opening - it was up to Naru if he took it.

“And if I did?”

Heart hammering in her chest, Mai met his challenge head on. “I’d tell you to get down on your knees.”

Never breaking eye contact, Naru slowly lowered himself to the floor. Mai’s mouth went dry. He was beautiful, powerful and proud and he was on his knees for her. Heat bloomed under her skin – nothing about the mood between them felt strange – it felt so, so right.

“Touch me, Naru.”

Naru’s hands slid up her thighs and found Mai’s hips, tugging her closer and breathing in deeply. He sounded happy.

I make him happy.

A helpless giggle escaped Mai’s lips and she felt Naru smirk against her skirt before pulling her down to the floor with him. “You brat!” She gasped, narrowing her eyes at Naru as he propped himself on her stomach. Shrugging, Naru made a point of getting even more comfortable.

Challenge accepted.

Subtly, Mai shifted underneath him. Naru groaned at the contact, breath hitching as she slid her thigh between his legs. He was unmistakably aroused and Mai was sorely tempted to stay exactly where she was. (But that would mean Naru would win).

Mai ground against his straining pants and used Naru’s distraction to thrust her weight up and over, leading with the hip she’d managed to wiggle out to one side. Naru landed with a soft huff, hair falling around his face like a dark halo. She pinned his arms above his head and admired the picture he made, mussed and spread out beneath her.

Naru made no effort to move, outside of arching an eyebrow. “That’s playing dirty.”

“You don’t look like you’re complaining, though.”

“Definitely not.”

Easing off his wrists, Mai dragged her hands down his body, mapping him with her fingertips. Naru’s eyes watched her every move, fluttering shut with a satisfying gasp or an arched back whenever she found a particularly sweet spot. His abdominal muscles clenched and trembled when Mai traced feather light lines beneath Naru’s ribcage, awaking a primal urge to latch onto the sensitive skin with her mouth. God, she wanted to take him apart and wreak him with pleasure.

God, yes!” Naru gasped, bucking up against her. Mai didn’t stop to wonder if she’d spoken out loud – all that mattered right now was getting as close as possible as fast as possible. Feeling her urgency, Naru sat up and practically tore off his shirt, making short work of hers before fumbling with the clasp on her bra. Mai ripped it off for him and pulled Naru into a bruising kiss.

His hands copied her earlier example with significantly less finesse, but the firmer, desperate wandering was no less enticing.

“Naru,” Mai panted between artless, fervent kisses, “get on the bed.”

The suitcase they’d been packing was dumped unceremoniously on the floor. Before Naru could comply with her request though, Mai hooked her fingers in the front of his pants. He stilled instantly.

“Can I?”

“Mai, you can do whatever you want with me.”

She hesitated. “Just – just let me know if it’s too much, okay?”

The hunger in Naru’s gaze softened. “Nothing about you will ever be ‘too much’,” he assured her.

“But -”

Naru interrupted her with a kiss. “I dreamed about you. Being with you. If -” he faltered. “If it helps, I could tell you what I fantasised about.”

Mai was speechless. Would Naru really be alright with that? Fantasies could be extremely personal and not even necessarily what you wanted to physically experience – but did she want to know? Of fucking course she did.

Naru watched her internal debate with interest and must have spotted the moment when feral desire won out. “Sometimes, I just dreamed about being able to touch you, kiss you just because I could. In others,” he paused, “you handcuffed me and made me beg.”

Mai’s eyes went wide.

“Don’t worry, I definitely enjoyed it.”

“Do you think you’d like that in real life?”

“I don’t know.” He answered honestly, “Would you like to try?”

Mai was pretty sure she’d try just about anything for Naru. She told him as much. “Will you tell me more about it?”

He sat down on the bed and held his hand out to her. Mai took it and Naru pulled her into his lap. He was still hard and Mai let her hands wander while he spoke. Naru grinned in approval, and the game was on.

She unbuckled his belt and his hand slid under her skirt. “In the dreams, despite being restrained I felt -” Mai’s fingers got as far as unzipping Naru’s fly before he stuttered.

“...safe.” Naru teased the dip of her inner thigh, running along the edge of her underwear. Mai squirmed impatiently, but he moved his fingers further away when she tried to chase his touch.

“I never felt humiliated or forced into something I didn’t want to do -” Mai grazed Naru’s cock through his underwear and he rocked into her hand distractedly, gasping out his inner most thoughts with reckless abandon. “It was more like – being -” Naru teased her back, running his fingers over her damp underwear, dipping inside her through the fabric and making Mai gush, hot and trembling and saturated.

“...Allowed to want things. You encouraged me, praised me when I was honest about my desires.”

“Good,” Mai managed, dragging Naru into a searing kiss. “You are allowed to want things. I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise, including you.” She freed his cock from his underwear and paused at the feel of it.

It was so smooth.

The tip was flushed and wet with pre-come, which coated Mai’s hand as she rolled back his foreskin. The slide of soft skin over hot, rigid muscle was intoxicating.

Naru twitched in her hand and moaned.

“Was that -”

“Good?” Naru anticipated, “Yes.

“Will you, ah, show me what to do?”

Naru took Mai’s hand in his, shaping her fist in a ring around his cock. Lightly guiding her hand from tip to base and back again, he waited for Mai to get a feel for the rhythm as he rocked gently into her fist and increased the pressure.

“Like – like that -” Naru gasped between breaths, letting Mai take over. Every stroke drew wild sounds from his lips and she could feel his cock grow thicker and harder in her inexperienced but enthusiastic hands.

“Oh my god -”

Mai tried to repeat whatever she’d done to pull that reaction from Naru and struck gold. Half formed words and broken sounds spilled from Naru’s lips with increasing urgency and volume. Seeing him completely undone in her hands was the most incredible thing she’d ever seen.

“Look at you,” Mai vaguely registered saying, too high on the feeling humming under her skin to pay attention to the words coming out of her mouth. “God, you’re beautiful. All flushed and wreaked for me...”

“Mai, I’m -”

Naru arched and fell still, mouth open in silent ecstasy. Mai felt the air around her thrum, as if the heat in her veins had somehow manifested. The light above them flickered and Naru lurched forward, cock pulsing in her palm. Bursts of white, hot pleasure painted Mai’s chest and spilled over her fingers.

His come slowly followed the curves of her body and Mai dragged her hands through the mess. It felt strange on her skin – good, but not a feeling Mai knew how to describe beyond basic terms like ‘warm’ or ‘slippery’. The light flickered again when she followed the impulse to massage her breasts with Naru’s come and Mai paused to glance towards the ceiling. “Should I be concerned?”

“No.” Naru didn’t offer an explanation and when he looped his arms up under her thighs, Mai didn’t ask.

“Can I taste you?”

Mai throbbed.  

“Please,” she gasped. Mai didn’t need to tell him twice. Naru dragged her up his body, hitching her skirt up around her waist. Mai undid the zip and pulled it off over her head. Naru didn’t bother to remove her underwear before burying his face between her thighs.

“God, you smell so good.” Mai whimpered.

The thin material covering her did nothing to reduce the sensation of Naru’s warm breath against her oversensitive skin. He looked up at Mai through long, dark lashes with an intensity he usually reserved for hunting ghosts and licked her.

“Ah!” Mai’s thighs spasmed and she felt Naru grin against her. “Cheeky brat,” she murmured, running her nails lightly across his scalp. He leaned into her touch and Mai fisted her hands in his hair. Naru’s eyes fluttered shut in ecstasy. “So good...”

He traced her slit through the fabric with his tongue, bringing the soaked cloth into his mouth and sucking over her swollen clit. Mai swore.

“You tease,” she accused breathlessly. When he slipped his fingers underneath Mai’s underwear and dipped inside her, Naru groaned headily against her thigh. “You’re so wet...” Withdrawing his slicked fingers, Naru sucked them into his mouth and hummed in pleasure.

Fuck.

How was it legal to be that hot?!

Inspired and desperately turned on, Mai pulled away from Naru’s lips, ordering him to stay put when he tried to follow. Straddling his face, Mai pushed aside her underwear and spread herself open above him. “Watch me.”

“Mai...” He breathed her name like it was a prayer.

She wanted to be worshiped.

With her free hand, Mai ran her fingertips along the inside of her flushed, wet folds, dipping inside and dragging up over her swollen clit. Naru watched hungrily as she rocked into her hand, chasing the sweet pressure with short stuttered gasps. She teased, pinched and tugged at her clit, imagining Naru sucking the small bud between his lips and destroying her with his tongue.

In breathless, broken sentences, Mai told Naru what she’d imagined.

“Let me,” he groaned, writhing underneath her. “Please.”

Mai paused at his use of the word, ‘please’. Up until recently, she hadn’t thought it part of Naru’s vocabulary.

He didn’t need to ask twice.

As Naru sucked and licked and fucked her with his tongue, Mai bucked and trembled, bracketed safely in his arms. Naru’s long fingers gripped her breasts and teased her hardened nipples, pinching and tugging like Mai had demonstrated on her clit. The combined sensations were overwhelming. Sounds spilled from her lips that might have startled her if Mai wasn’t so thoroughly lost in the way Naru was making her feel – broken cries and feral, disjointed moans filled the small room. She couldn’t bring herself to care if anyone heard.

At some point Naru laid her back on the bed to fuck her with his fingers, sucking her nipples into his mouth and flicking the tip with his tongue.

“I can feel you right now,” Naru gasped, shuddering as he dragged a hand down her body. Mai leaned into his hands and hummed in pleasure.

“No, I mean – I can feel myself touching you.” Naru explained distractedly, “Do you – do you want me to stop?”

His meaning finally dawned on Mai. “You’re reading me?”

“I didn’t mean to.”

Mai bit down on her lip to stop herself from acting solely on lust.

“You like the idea?” Naru responded before she’d said a word.

“Yes,” she confirmed out loud, “but I don’t want you to pass out just because I think it’s sexy.”

Naru smirked. “I can do this much, don’t worry.”

“And if it’s too much?”

“I’ll stop, I promise.”

He didn’t need to stop. With the feedback flowing through her body and into his, Naru sought out Mai’s pleasure with ruthless efficiency. She came over his hands and again in his mouth, and again until she lay panting in his arms and her vision threatened to white out. When they both were oversensitive and thoroughly spent, the two curled up in each other until the mess became too hard to ignore.

“I suppose I should probably help you keep packing,” Mai mused, staring at the overturned suitcase.

“Later.” Naru tugged her out of bed. “Shower first.”

“Only if you’re joining me,” Mai protested. Naru looped and arm around her waist and pulled her body flush against him.

“You drive a hard bargain.”

 

-x-

 

Omake:

 

Mai sat quietly on the long couch opposite him, toying absently with a cup of tea. Lin was fairly certain the drink had long gone cold, a suspicion confirmed by Mai when she attempted to drink it. Spluttering, she pulled a disgusted face and sat the cup out of immediate reach with an offended ‘thunk’.

"Want to talk about it?" Lin offered.

Mai flopped sideways, narrowly missing the arm of the couch when she fell. After a few beats of silence, Mai shared what was on her mind.

"Why 'Noll'?" She emphasised with a half-hearted flap of her arms.

"No offence, but the nickname sounds, well…" Mai trailed off, searching for the right word. “...Unflattering?”

Lin raised an eyebrow at her, amused. “Unlike ‘Narcissistic Naru-chan’?”

“Okay, that wasn’t too flattering either,” Mai conceded, falling still for a moment. Once she’d started to get the words out though, they kept coming. "But how on earth did anyone manage to get 'Noll' from 'Oliver'?” She gestured with increasing wildness, “About the only similarity between the two words is that they both contain an 'o' and an 'l'!”

Mai was standing now, both arms in the air like she was leading an orchestra in a series of building crescendos.  “What is he, a reincarnation of the second gunman?!"

Lin blinked. ‘Second gunman’? Did she just reference a JFK conspiracy theory??

Lin burst out laughing. Mai blushed, having clearly said more than she’d meant to. When it was clear he wasn’t laughing at her, Mai gleefully collapsed into giggles alongside him.

When they’d both caught their breath, Lin looked over at Mai and grinned mischievously.

"'Noll' isn't short for 'Oliver'," Lin corrected. "It's short for 'know it all'."

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

I heard that you reap what you sow

So here’s to believing in ghosts

Now when you see my face you’ll know

You can’t save yourself

Or save your soul

When you meet the man whose life you stole

With weathered wings and broken bones

A flight for the fallen flies the crow

- A Grave Mistake, Ice Nine Kills

 

 

She was being ridiculous.

Ghosts aren’t real, Cho reassured herself, hands wrapped tight around Yutaka’s baseball bat. She was locked safely inside her house and the knocking at her door was probably a ‘someone’, not a ‘something’.

The knocking continued. Cho’s knuckles went white.

There is no such thing as ghosts.

Her unwanted guest wasn’t giving up easily and Cho had lost track of how long the sound had persisted. The locks that kept her safe had begun to feel more like a trap than protection. She was cornered with no way out and the knocking was only getting louder.

In a fit of fear-driven rage, Cho grabbed something solid off her coffee table and pitched it at her door. The object shattered on impact, broken shards of china skittering across the room before Cho registered that she’d destroyed one of her favourite mugs. Her brother had given it to her – a souvenir from a trip overseas that Kazuo had made with a group of friends from College.

“Leave me alone!” She shrieked.

A beat of silence followed, and then – “Cho?”

The bat fell from her hands and rolled uselessly to the floor. "Yutaka?”

Cho ran to him, heart in her mouth as she unlocked and swung open the door. If she cut herself on the shards of her destroyed coffee mug, she didn’t notice.

“What are you doing here?"

It had been several months since she’d last seen her husband. His eyes were tired and he reached for her, hesitating before cupping her jaw. “I’ve missed you, Cho. You don’t know how much.” He angled her face up to meet his. “I want to give us another chance.”

A sob escaped her – an ugly, choked cry that made her throat ache with the force of it. Since the day Yutaka left, she’d begged whatever power that might listen to hear those words. Her shoulders shook as he drew her close and held her tight. Cho clung to him, burying her face in his chest and shivered.

He was so cold. How had she not noticed before? How long had she left Yutaka standing outside, begging to be let in? A pool of water was collecting at their feet, dripping steadily from the hem of his coat and seeping into her clothes.

Cho felt ashamed. She couldn’t even recall it raining.

“I believe you – that there wasn’t anyone else,” Yutaka confessed softly. “But I have to know. Why did we fall apart, Cho?”

Cho panicked. She couldn’t tell him.

Anything but that.

“I told you,” Cho begged, falling back on old lines. “I took you for granted, but I'm not keeping anything from you, I swear!"

Yutaka’s grip tightened with startling harshness. His hands were like ice now, the pool at their feet much larger than before and still growing. She stared in horror as her husband’s hazel eyes began to look blue in the low light, his complexion eerily pale as he glowered down at her.

A deathly voice escaped Yutaka’s lips.

"Liar."

Adrenaline surging, Cho fought to escape his grasp. The water continued to rise as she struggled, floor boards giving way beneath her feet with a sickening crack. Cold blue eyes watched without mercy as her body was ripped down into the murky depths.

She held her breath. Swimming had never been one of her strengths, but she fought desperately for the surface. The distance seemed endless. She’d gone the right direction, hadn’t she? Why hadn’t she breached the surface yet?

Her lungs burned.

Just a little further, Cho bartered with herself. Another lunge forward and she’d break free. She’d be closer. All she found was more water, more crushing depths above her. She could have been a mere breath away from freedom or an entire ocean. The result was the same.

Her limbs stilled.

Cho didn’t know what she’d expected – her life flashing before her eyes, maybe heart wrenching regrets and last minute wishes - just not this. Not the numb, horrifically simple truth that invaded her mind, calm and absolute.

This is it.

I’m going to die.

Cho would have liked to think she would fight until her last breath, but it wasn’t the first time pressure revealed the worst in her.

She let go.

Instead of the ice-cold water she’d expected, Cho’s mouth filled with air. After being oxygen starved, the sudden intake split her head with pain. Lungs heaving and drenched in cold sweat, she rolled onto her back, tumbling onto something unforgiving and hard. When the blinding agony lessened enough for Cho to recognise her surroundings, she found she was on the floor staring up at her couch.

Nothing in the room was out of place – no rising water, no broken floorboards. Yutaka’s bat lay next to her, just out of reach and Cho wasted no time retrieving it.

I must have fallen asleep.

If she’d held her breath any longer, she would have passed out. Cho grimaced and picked at her sweat-soaked shirt. Gross. As much as the idea of being clean appealed to her, being immersed in water did not. A bath was a hard no right now, but a shower seemed doable.

Cho pushed up from the floor with shaking hands. It was just a dream.

By the time she’d finished her shower, Cho convinced herself that the nightmare meant nothing. It was just one in a long-running series, without consequence or morbid warning.

It didn’t mean anything.

A slow rhythmic dripping caught Cho’s attention and she turned back to the shower, expecting it to be the source. Her brow furrowed – the sound seemed to be coming from somewhere else, but she hadn’t turned any other taps on recently. Just to be certain, Cho lowered the showerhead to empty it of any excess water.

The dripping continued its unnerving pace.

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.           

Following the sound to her bathroom sink, Cho let out a sigh of relief and pulled a face at her reflection.

You’re just being paranoid, she reprimanded.

Tightening the taps, she towel-dried her hair and pulled on fresh clothes. It wasn’t until she turned to leave the room that Cho heard the dripping begin again. Impatiently backtracking, she wrenched at the offending tap in frustration. The leak didn’t slow.

Why won't it stop?!

As Cho reached out to try again, she felt the colour drain from her face. Scarlet droplets stained the white basin. Blood, she identified. Cho checked her hands – it hadn’t come from her. A flicker of a shadow moved through her field of vision and Cho spun around wildly to find it, one hand outstretched behind her, groping blindly for Yutaka’s baseball bat. She’d leant it against the wall while she was changing and deeply regretted letting it out of her sight.

Chasing the shadow brought Cho’s eyes back to her reflection. She recoiled - her hands were covered in blood, the viscous liquid smeared across her clothes in violent streaks. The boy she’d killed stood behind her, decomposing flesh sagging off his thin frame. Cho gagged and clamped her eyes shut.

This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real!

Her trembling fingers finally found the bat’s smooth handle and Cho clung to chaos like a life-preserver. She lunged at the mirror. "Stay the hell away from me!"

His piercing blue eyes never left her, even as the boy’s reflection shattered. Cho fell to the floor among the splinted glass, her body wracked with raw, violent sobs. Cool breath whispered against the nape of her neck.

Return it,” the disembodied voice warned.

“Return what you stole."

 

-x-

 

Kazuo Hayashi glanced from his watch to the paperwork stacked high on his desk. It had been a long day and a co-worker’s incompetence had made it considerably longer. He was so close to the finish line he could taste it. Just a few more signatures and Kazuo could put this giant cluster-fuck to bed.

Pausing to stretch his fingers and limbs, Kazuo felt his jacket pocket start to vibrate. He freed his phone, set on silent during work hours, and wondered at the unfamiliar number before answering.

"Hello?"

He could make out a faint voice in the background, but the unidentified caller remained silent. Was that the sound of someone breathing?

This had better not be some demented prank.

"Ka-Kazuo? I – I need help."

His face went slack at the sound of his sister's choked voice. "Cho?! What's wrong?" He double-checked the number on the screen – it definitely didn't belong to Cho. Whose phone was she calling on?

"You're not hurt, are you?"

"No," she replied shakily. "N-not much, anyway – just a few scratches…"

Scratches?!

“Can I stay at your place for a while?”

It wasn't like his sister to ask for help. That Cho was even admitting she needed help was cause enough for him to worry. "Do you need me to pick you up? Where are you?"

"A-at Maruyama-san’s."

“Your nosy neighbour?”

Cho shushed him and Kazuo realised Maruyama must be nearby. “Yes, the neighbour on the left,” she confirmed clearly and a touch louder than necessary. The old gossip was definitely listening. Kazuo had questions but they could wait until Cho was comfortable answering them.

"I'll be there as soon as I can, just sit tight, okay?"

Mind racing, Kazuo took care to deliver the documents to the appropriate inboxes and left to rescue his sister.

He knew things had been hard for Cho, even before Yutaka had walked out. His departure hadn't been a surprise to anyone. Too many hushed arguments and awkward silences had led Cho to avoid her family and nothing they had done to close the distance could be considered successful. Cho hadn’t disappeared from their lives entirely though, so perhaps those efforts hadn’t gone unnoticed.

Cho had called him, after all.

When Kazuo arrived at the Maruyama's, the door opened to him immediately after the first knock. Cho’s stout, wrinkled neighbour eyed him suspiciously.

"You must be the brother, then."

"I'm Hayashi Kazuo, yes."

"Your sister's in the lounge room," Maruyama informed him bluntly, handing him a suitcase. "Take this down while I go get her."

Thinking it wise not to question the old woman, Kazuo lugged the surprisingly heavy bag back to the car and hoped Cho would shed some light on the situation once they were alone.

Maruyama gently guided his sister down the stairs with a scowl that looked etched in place. Honestly, he found the old woman terrifying, but seeing the tended wounds on Cho’s arms filled him with gratitude. Kazuo thanked Maruyama accordingly.

She drew him aside. “You’d better keep an eye on her,” Maruyama warned. “I came home to find her shivering and bleeding all over her doormat. I packed her bags because she refused to set foot inside her own home.”

The old woman looked over at Cho and shook her head. “There was shattered glass and blood everywhere. I thought someone had attacked her but she panicked when I tried to call the police.”

Maruyama eyed him thoughtfully. “Maybe you’ll have more luck getting through to her.”

Kazuo tried to sound hopeful and felt he missed the mark by a few notches. What Maruyama had shared with him was deeply concerning.

“I’ll do my best.”

 

-x-

 

Filming had been unexpectedly delayed, so Masako had reached out to Mai to arrange a training session. Mai was able to meet her with minimal difficulty and now they were sitting across from each other in a room that resembled an SPR base. Cameras, lighting and sound equipment surrounded them on all sides, cables snaking across the floor in black veins.

Mai was listening to her count down from ten, letting out controlled, deep breaths as Masako guided her consciousness back to her body.

“...Open your eyes.”

She did as instructed and refocused on her teacher. Masako had to admit that having Mai’s undivided attention was extremely satisfying. She passed her pupil a glass of water and sat with Mai until she was properly grounded.

“You’re doing well. Keep practising as you have been and you should notice the difference yourself, soon.”

“Thanks, Masako.” Mai gave a genuine smile, filling Masako’s heart with pride. “I know we haven’t always got along, but you’re a good teacher and I appreciate you taking the time to help me.”

“My motivation isn’t completely pure – I rely on you during intense situations. It’s in my best interest to make sure you know what you’re doing.”

“You rely on me?”

Mai looked genuinely touched but admitting how true those words were made Masako feel entirely too vulnerable. She avoided eye contact and haughtily lifted her chin. “Fishing for compliments doesn’t suit you, Mai.”

“Pfft, you can’t fool me. I know you have a cute side!”

Masako didn’t know what possessed her to do it, but she reached out and pressed a finger to Mai’s lips. “H-hush,” she ordered. Mai grinned against her fingertip like the barbarian she was and Masako’s heart stuttered. Face too warm and mouth dry, Masako pulled her hand back as if she’d been burned.

Was that normal? She didn’t usually touch people with such familiarity – maybe she just needed practice. Masako hoped she hadn’t overstepped, but Mai didn’t look bothered by the intimacy.

Mai was so much better at dealing with people in casual settings. It was infuriating.

“That’s enough for today,” Masako excused, standing. Mai followed suit, trailing haphazardly after her.

Several of the production crew lingered near the room she and Mai commandeered and Masako knew that as soon as they were out of earshot, tongues would wag. Perhaps it had been a mistake to ask Mai to join her here. Then again, maybe the novelty of their star having company on set would wear off if Masako invited people to visit her more often.

“I’ll contact you when there’s another opening in my schedule.”

“Okay. Take care, Masako-chan!” Mai’s tone was light and carefree as she teased her, dancing out of reach in case Masako abandoned form and did something childish like swat at her. Masako did no such thing and hid her embarrassment behind her sleeve.

It was clear that Mai was being friendly and Masako wouldn’t call the attention uncomfortable exactly – it was just that she occasionally froze and had no idea how to respond.

Maybe she was broken, Masako sighed.

 

-x-

 

Jun'Ichi knew an opportunity when he saw one and this one was prime. His best friend forever had it bad for the return customer standing on the other side of the counter and she’d looked disappointed to see him serving instead of Mura.

Mura was going to love him so much for this. He was going to be the best wingman ever.

“Nice to see you again, Hara-san,” Jun greeted with his best smile. “Mura-chan is going to be sad that she missed you!”

“She’s not in today?”

He shook his head, “Just out on a delivery. If you’re staying for a while you might catch her, though!”

Hara beamed at him. “That would be nice. I’d still like to thank her properly for intervening before. Murakami-san was very thoughtful and discreet.”

“I know, right? She’s my best friend.” Jun’s chest puffed up with pride. ”I’d ask her to marry me if she wasn’t so incredibly gay.”

“O-oh,” Hara smiled. “You must be very close.”

“I love her with my whole heart,” Jun said dead seriously. “I know all the best stories, if you’re curious.” He bragged with a wink.

“I’ll bet.”

“I also know her favourite desert,” Jun suggested. Hara hadn’t taken the bait before, but now she leaned in, openly interested.

“Which one?”

Jun pointed to an orange glazed tart decorated with pastry cut and curled to look like autumn leaves.

“I’ll take two.”

“An excellent choice,” Jun agreed. Hopefully the second one would be a gift for Mura. “Would you like either of those boxed?”

“Just the one,” Hara confirmed. “Also, I was wondering if it would be possible to place an order for a wrap party. The season finale is coming up and the crew have been admiring my recent purchases.”

“Sure,” he placed Hara’s order on the counter and poked his head into the kitchen. “Boss, we’ve got a special order.”

When Mura returned from her delivery run, Hara was waiting for her with her favourite dessert and a soft smile. Jun patted himself on the back for a job well done and busied himself behind the counter. He’d seen the way Hara watched his best friend. If the attraction wasn’t mutual, he’d eat his apron.

The two of them looked stupidly happy together. Jun wondered if there was any point in being jealous.

As soon as Hara left, Mura was on him. “You didn’t say anything weird to her, did you?”

Jun crossed his heart. “No weirder than usual, I promise.”

Mura slumped against the counter. “No offense, but that doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.”

“Oof! Just because it’s true doesn’t mean you have to say it.”

Mura turned her head to face him and pretended to be put out. “I thought that was one of the things you like about me?”

“Absolutely,” he grinned. “I’m a sucker for punishment.”

She pushed up off the counter and threw her arms over her head with a loud groan. “Don’t let my brothers’ hear you - they’ll think it’s my fault.”

Jun still recalled her four very tall, very intimidating older brothers approaching him after the fight that had brought them together as friends. Mura had wiped the floor with him and small-Jun had fallen hard. The conversation had gone something like, "you're on thin ice, buddy," followed by the first time he’d heard the word ‘kink’ used for something other than wibbly sticks, and ended with, "good luck. I'm pretty sure sis isn’t into guys."

Jun hadn’t been old enough to process much of the conversation at the time, but he understood just fine now. He laughed.

“It might be too late for that.”

 

-x-

 

Cho watched Kazuo prepare breakfast, his eyes occasionally fixing on her forearms, where the worst of her wounds were still covered by bandages.

“It looks worse than it is,” she remarked. Her brother nodded agreeably, but his concern only increased. She had yet to explain anything about the night before, so when his frustration came to a boiling point Cho couldn’t say she blamed him. She just didn’t know what to tell him, either.

Kazuo stood very still and leaned against the sink, hands clenched at the bench either side of him with his head hanging low against his chest.

“Cho, why are you here?”

When she took too long to answer, Kazuo angled his body away from the sink to face her. “What happened yesterday?”

Cho avoided his gaze.

“I’m not really sure,” she admitted, buying time with a pebble of truth. Kazuo’s shoulders went lax and he rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

 “Can you at least tell me -” he broke off midsentence, probably wondering which piece of information he wanted most. Cho rushed to answer, before Kazuo could ask anything too revealing. Right now, she could still tailor her responses with enough vague information to hold weight. The less she told him, the better.

"I’m sorry!” Cho crumpled, turning in on herself. Kazuo softened instantly, taking a step towards her with an outstretched hand.

“I just – I couldn't stand it. I didn’t want to leave my home just because Yutaka did,” she choked out, “but that place – it’s full of memories.” Cho thought about the bat she’d wielded – the one useless thing she’d had to protect herself, and let tears roll openly down her face. It wasn’t hard to disguise her terror with the grief she felt for her broken marriage.

“How is it,” Cho rasped, “that the good memories hurt worse than the bad ones?”

Kazuo’s arms crushed her to him, one hand smoothing her ruffled hair. “Shh, it’s okay,” he soothed. “I never meant to upset you."

Cho relaxed against him, burying her face in her brother’s shoulder as he continued to offer comfort and reassurance.

The best lies were always based on truth.

 

-x-

 

Omake:

 

“My motivation isn’t completely pure,” Masako confessed. “I rely on you during intense situations. It’s in my best interest to make sure you know what you’re doing.”

“You rely on me?”

Mai looked genuinely touched but admitting how true those words were made Masako feel entirely too vulnerable. She avoided eye contact and haughtily lifted her chin. “Fishing for compliments doesn’t suit you, Mai.”

“Pfft, you can’t fool me. I know you have a cute side!”

Masako didn’t know what possessed her to do it, but she grinned and imitated a character from a western cartoon she’d first seen during one of her trips abroad. There was no way Mai would get the reference, but she was already turning her face from one side to the other, showing off her profile.

“But which is my best side? I know they’re both good.”

To Masako’s surprise, Mai lunged towards her, taking hold of both her wrists and pulling them even closer together. “You’re a Daria fan?! How did I not know this?”

“I didn’t know you were, either,” Masako pointed out. Mai dismissed the detail, waving her hand.

“What are you doing this weekend?”

“Why?”

“We’re getting together for a Daria marathon.”

“Okay?” Masako nodded, slightly dazed by Mai’s enthusiasm. “I should be free Saturday evening?”

“Excellent!” Mai danced out of Masako’s reach with a cute flounce and called cheekily over her shoulder as she waved goodbye. “It’s a date!”

Masako blushed into her sleeve.

 

Chapter Text

In the grand scheme of things, Tochigi was a stone’s throw away from Tokyo. Naru was almost offended by how little time it took to drive there – of how close Gene had been all this time.

This might be the last trip he and Lin made in search of his brother’s body. Naru’s fingers flexed against the cushioned leather beneath him, watching the scenery pass by as he tried to imagine what that kind of future might look like. He’d dropped everything when he left England. At the time, it hadn’t occurred to him that he might not want to go back.

What would Lin do if he stayed? Would he remain out of obligation? And Martin and Luella, how would they feel?

Naru was aware that his decisions didn’t only affect him.

The van turned off onto a side road and a large body of water rolled into view. It was one of many potential sites they’d intended to inspect today, and not even the first on the list he, Lin and Mai had compiled before leaving Tokyo. While statistically Naru acknowledged that each disappointment increased their odds for finding the correct location, he was still unprepared for the way success stole the air from his lungs.

The world grew quiet, colours faded and blurred.

Naru’s fingers closed around the door handle. He pulled, vaguely aware of Lin screaming at him through the white noise in his brain as he stepped from the still-moving vehicle. Naru hit the ground running, stumbling at the force of impact.

Time had changed much of the landscape – a well worn dirt path arced along the waterfront, once over grown with small shrubs and long grass. Trees that had once been saplings flourished while others fell to storms or construction. Perhaps some of their timber made up the pier Naru could make out on the far side of the lake. It was the first time he’d seen this place in daylight or in person, but there could be no doubt.

This was Gene's resting place.

 

-x-

 

Mai was in a lecture on abnormal psychology when her phone vibrated against her thigh. Under normal circumstances she might have ignored it until the end of class, but she’d been struggling to concentrate since Naru and Lin had left for Tochigi. A quick glance at her phone confirmed the call was from Naru and Mai politely excused herself, returning the call once she was alone.

Naru answered almost immediately.

"We found the lake."

“You -” Mai inhaled sharply and stumbled around the weight of her tongue in her mouth. “You found it.”

There wasn’t a doubt in her mind that Naru would find what he was looking for, but after so long, she couldn’t imagine how he must feel right now. "Are you okay?"

Naru avoided the question at first and focused on things he knew how to put into words. He told her of the divers he intended to hire, of how the landscape had changed, of the places he’d seen and dismissed in his search. Mai listened, clutching the phone tight and wishing she were there with him.

Naru fell silent for a few beats.

“I didn’t know how it would feel, being here – knowing what happened to Gene,” he confessed. “I should be glad that we’re so close to bringing him home, but -”

“It still hurts,” Mai finished softly. It would probably always hurt, on some level.

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"A cup of tea would be nice."

Mai blinked, taking a moment to draw the phone away from her ear to stare at it in surprise.

“Did you just tell a joke?”

“Am I not allowed?”

“You are, but I’m going to need you to repeat it for sufficient documentation.”

“Absolutely not, I’d lose my mystique.”

Mai let out a snort of amusement, “You’ve got enough to spare.”

 

-x-

 

On the street ahead of her, Masako’s attention was drawn to a tall, striking figure with a familiar face. Unlike every other time she’d seen her, Murayama was dressed casually. Her high-waisted skirt showed off exactly how long her toned legs were and Masako instantly believed every word of Jun’Ichi’s story about the time his best friend took a summer job as a bouncer.

She wondered what it would be like to be crushed between those thighs and promptly assured herself that it was a completely platonic thing to be curious about.

“Mura-san!” Masako called out, waving brightly. Murayama turned towards the sound with an ease that dissipated once she realised who had spoken. “H-hara-san!”

Masako winced. She’d definitely overstepped.

“Sorry, did I startle you?”

Murayama’s brow furrowed and her lips drew together in a small, perfect pout. “I don’t mind being startled by you - I mean! It’s always good to see my favourite customer!” She added enthusiastically.

“T-thank you.” Masako felt something warm curl up inside her chest. It made her brave in a way she’d rarely experienced and she found herself offering up a small piece of herself – something delicate and entirely too honest. “It’s always nice to see you, too.”

“You’re just saying that because you associate me with sweets,” Murayama teased.

“I suppose the only way to disprove that would be to branch out to other activities.”

Murayama considered her with a competitive grin, “I’m game if you are, Hara-san!”

This was the point where they could both laugh it off and walk away, Masako realised. No harm, no foul. She could see her at the shop and maybe they’d greet each other outside of work occasionally, but their relationship would remain politely distant, like so many others in Masako’s life.

I don’t want that. Not this time.

Masako held out her hand. “Give me your phone.”

“What, really?”

“Unless you don’t want my number?”

Murayama fumbled with her phone in her haste to hand it over. “No! I mean, yes! I want it.” She looked away; cheeks dusted pink. “With the fame and all, I wasn’t sure you’d be big on sharing personal information.”

“I wouldn’t be, normally,” Masako confessed. After saving herself as a contact, she hit call on her own number, hung up and passed the phone back.

“You saved yourself as ‘Masako’,” Murayama breathed, clutching the phone to her chest. “Would you prefer being called by your given name?”

Masako nodded. “What about you?”

An expression Masako typically associated with Mai settled on her new friend’s face. Determined, Murayama reached out her hand to take Masako’s phone this time. She let her have it, curious to see what Murayama had in mind. A few quick taps and a wide grin later, Masako stared at the word on the screen in front of her and flushed bright red.

“G-girlfriend?!”

Murayama was as flushed as she was, despite the bold move. “It’s okay if not - I just thought there might be something between us. Either way, I’d be proud to be your friend.”

Masako’s heart was hammering. Naru had never made her feel like this. God, was this why everyone raved about romance? People always said that love wasn’t like it was in stories, and up until now Masako had taken that to mean that it was all hype. Except, she hadn’t been completely disinterested, had she? Masako couldn’t help but think of Mai and the way her fingertips tingled when she’d touched her lips.

Maybe I’m not broken.

Maybe I’ve just been looking in the wrong places.

“I uh,” She licked her lips and let herself imagine it – dating the goddess standing in front of her. “What kind of things would you like to do together, if we were dating?” Masako found herself saying.

The insecurity on Murayama’s face faded. She took a step closer and bent down, speaking softly. Masako leaned into her space, helplessly drawn in and eager to hear her answer.

“Spend time with you, get to know you better. Anything is fine. Show me what you like – I’d like to curl up on a couch together, show you my favourite movies and send you songs that make me smile. I’d like to hold your hand and kiss you until neither of us can breathe.” Murayama whispered, much closer now, her breath hot against the shell of Masako’s ear. “Does that sound like a good starting point?”

“Y-yes.”

“My given name is Kayo,” she winked. “But you can call me ‘anytime’!”

With that, she took off down the street, waving back over her shoulder, saying something about being late to meet her youngest older brother. Masako waved back, staring after her in disbelief.

She kind of wanted to scream, or maybe roll around on the ground until some part of the last few minutes felt real. She had a girlfriend.

I have a girlfriend.

Oh my god, I have a girlfriend!

A girlfriend with a truly terrible sense of humour.

 

-x-

 

Kazuo flicked off his lounge room lights and entered the hallway, pausing briefly as he passed the guest room. Maybe Cho would manage to sleep this time. The dark circles under her eyes were only growing more pronounced, despite his efforts to make her comfortable in his home. So far, he hadn’t drawn attention to his concerns since she’d broken down trying to explain what had happened to put her in such a state to begin with. That would have to change.

Tomorrow, he decided. He would talk to her about it tomorrow. Setting his alarm and sliding between cool bed sheets, Kazuo told himself he was worrying for nothing. He hoped it wasn’t a lie.

 

-x-

 

Cho’s hands rested idly on the steering wheel, headlights cutting through the dark and illuminating the road ahead. What started as a fine mist on her windshield grew until droplets the size of marbles splattered loudly against the glass, warring with rubber-tipped wipers. The sound set her teeth on edge and the visibility was appalling.

She pulled a face and slowed down.

The last thing I need is to hit another -

A shadow shifted in her peripheral vision. Cho’s heart leapt - there shouldn’t be anyone else in the car. A quick glance in her rear mirror confirmed the backseat was empty. Cho loosened her shoulders. Of course there’s nothing there, she scolded herself. Why would there be? Stop jumping at every little thing.

Still, the empty seats did nothing to quell her growing unease. The further she drove, the tighter Cho gripped the wheel. Everything in her screamed she wasn’t as alone as she thought – that she was being watched – that there was someone or something sitting beside her.

She didn’t dare turn her head.

Cool air brushed her forearm and Cho held back a sob. She could feel the presence draw closer, goose-bumps rising on her skin. Ice cold fingers closed around her wrist.

“You can’t escape.”

The words echoed in her ears, horrifying and absolute. She whimpered and frantically tore at the grip holding her in place, losing control of the car. Sliding and spinning in the heavy rain, Cho pressed her back against the door and shoved, hard. She fell to the ground, skin scraping cruelly on the uneven road, rocks and dirt embedded deep in weeping wounds. She’d managed to shake the hand but not the nightmare. His dark form stood before her, and behind him, an army of ravens. They cawed in raucous harmony, a torrent of unearthly laughter and sharp claws, every one of them watching her with the same unnatural, cold blue eyes.

The eyes of their master.

 

-x-

 

A blood-curdling scream pierced Kazuo’s consciousness, tearing him from sleep. Frantic hammering followed, mimicking the erratic beat of his heart as he moved towards the sound. Was – was someone throwing themselves against his front door?! He needed to make sure Cho was safe – she could call the police while he kept an eye on the situation outside.

Her room was empty.

Kazuo’s first impulse was to call out for his sister, but it might not be wise to alert whoever was outside. Keeping his voice down, he sought her out in the dimly lit rooms, navigating by way of memory and early morning light. She was nowhere to be found.

Was Cho being harassed?! Could the destruction in her apartment be related to the maniac beating down his door? He suspected there was more to what had happened than she let on, but what the hell had Cho gotten herself into if she was afraid to report the incident to the police?

Armed with righteous anger, Kazuo threw open the door. The cause of the disturbance fell forwards, colliding with him in a shaking, disoriented mess.

"Cho!?"

She was pale, cold to the touch and her face was streaked with tears. Some of the cuts on her hands and forearms had reopened, smearing blood on her pyjamas. There was more than just the blood, too – dirt clung to her as if she’d been crawling around on the ground, or perhaps laying on it. How long had she been out in the cold morning air?

Speechless at the state of her, Kazuo bundled Cho inside, turning on the heater before hurrying to bring back blankets and a first aid kit.

"Everything's okay," Cho rushed to reassure him.

“Cho -”

“No, really,” she implored. “I just didn't expect to wake up outside."

“You woke up outside?!”

That would explain the dirt.

"I tried to get back in, but the door was locked. I can't believe I panicked so badly." She shook her head and looked up at him with a fragile smile. Kazuo’s heart clenched.

He couldn’t bring himself to ask why she’d screamed.

 

-x-

 

Omake:

Mai was in a lecture on abnormal psychology when her phone vibrated against her thigh. Under normal circumstances she might have ignored it until the end of class, but she’d been struggling to concentrate since Naru and Lin had left for Tochigi. A quick glance at her phone confirmed the call was from Naru and Mai politely excused herself, returning the call once she was alone.

"Mai," Naru answered, not waiting for a reply. "Some kind of..." He paused and Mai leaned into her phone, as if doing so would somehow give her more clarity on the situation.

"…creature has attacked Lin."

"Is he okay?"

"He seems to be in a deep sleep, but there are strange markings on his face."

Mai inhaled sharply at the news. Lin wasn't the type to be easily caught off-guard - whatever had managed to best him had to be strong. "I'll phone Yasuhara-san and see what information we can dig up," she volunteered. "Do you want me to call in the others?"

"Not yet. Wait until we have some idea of what we're dea-"

Naru abruptly fell silent, hushing her when Mai tried to ask what was wrong. "I think it's still here," he whispered.

She held her breath and strained to listen. It was only faint, but Mai could have sworn she could hear someone singing in the background. The tension in her shoulders eased – there was just something so relaxing about that sound.

Mid yawn, a soft thump from the other end of the line ended in a near-deafening clatter. Panic renewed, Mai called out, forcing the words past the sluggish feeling clinging to her. Why did she suddenly feel so tired?

"Naru! What's going on?"

No response.

"Are you alright?" She tried again, clutching her phone with shaking hands. "Can you hear me?!"

Mai’s only answer was the song she’d heard growing louder, its source drawing closer and filling Mai’s ears with a haunting, sweet melody.

"Jigggilypuuuuuuuuff, Jigg-i-ly…"

Chapter Text

"You look terrible."

"Wow, thanks. Just be glad your neighbours don’t wake you up screaming at ‘fuck-off-o’clock’ in the morning.”

“So, for you that would be any time before ten?”

“Ruuude!”

Ayako tuned in and out of the strangers conversation just as quickly, walking by on her way to visit Mai. Personally, she could get behind that definition of ‘fuck-off-o’clock’ - all the more time for beauty sleep. Not that she needed it, of course.

As she climbed the stairs leading to SPR, music could be heard from inside. When she opened the door Mai was cleaning, bopping along to a melody blaring from her phone.

“The boys out of town again?”

Mai jumped and turned her attention to her surprise guest. “Ayako!” she smiled, confirming that Naru and Lin would be away for a few days. “Did you want me to pass on a message for you?”

Ayako waved the suggestion away, “Just stopping by.”

She made herself at home on one of the couches and patted the seat next to her. “Come take a load off and tell me how things are going with Masako.”

Mai left the cloth she’d been using in a bucket of water and turned down the volume on her phone. “Really well, actually. She’s a good teacher.”

“Huh, I thought she’d lord it over you more.” The rivalry between the two was hardly a secret. More often than not, the medium made a point of getting under Mai’s skin. Maybe she’d calmed down now that Naru had removed himself from the equation.

“I know, right? Turns out she’s a softie.”

Mai’s music still muffled the sound of SPR’s door opening, but both women turned to identify the newest arrival. “Well, speak of the devil...”

Masako bristled. “Who are you calling a ‘devil’?!”

“Don’t worry, it was all nice things,” Ayako dismissed with ease. “Mai tells me you’re an excellent teacher.”

“O-oh.” The medium’s eyes widened. She hid her pleasure behind her sleeve and addressed Mai. “Thank you.”

Mai stood up, “I’m about to boil the kettle, would you like something to drink?”

Both of them made their usual requests and Mai disappeared behind the partition covering the kitchen. Masako sat across from Ayako with a level of contentment she wasn’t used to seeing on the medium’s face. Usually Masako schooled her expressions even more religiously than their boss – something that spoke of training from a young age to present herself in a certain manner. As an heiress with expectations of her own to live up to, Ayako felt for her co-worker. Considering how hard she had fought for Naru’s affection, she thought Masako would be more upset. Instead, there was a lightness about her that struck Ayako as refreshing.

“You seem happy – did something good happen?”

The innocent question produced unexpected results. Masako’s mouth fell open, her wide eyes shot to Ayako’s in panic and within seconds the young, typically collected woman was blushing all the way to her ears. She’d even forgotten to hide behind her kimono sleeve.

“I, ah – yes,” she stammered, giving Ayako the overall impression of a child caught with their hand in a cookie jar.

Oh my god.

“You’ve met someone!”

“How did you know?!” Masako squeaked. She pushed back against the couch as if she hoped the cushions might swallow her.

“Oh my god, I was right -” Ayako gleefully crowed, “Mai! Get in here -”

Masako flung herself forward and attempted to clamp both hands over Ayako’s mouth. “Don’t you dare,” she hissed. Unfortunately for Masako, Ayako had height on her side and merely angled her face away from the effort to silence her. “Spoilsport,” she accused. “Besides, you know Mai will be happy for you.”

The fight went out of Masako, her limbs falling limp as she pulled away, “Maybe.”

Hands on her hips, Ayako arched an eyebrow. “What do you mean, ‘maybe’? Unless you’ve pulled some sort of shit with Naru, I’m pretty sure our girl has got your back. So do I, for that matter.”

Masako curled in on herself, vulnerable and tentative. “Even if the person I like is another woman?”

Ayako blinked. She hadn’t seen that one coming. Pushing aside her surprise, she met Masako’s fear with absolute certainty. “Yes.” She extended a hand out for Masako to take if she wished. Slowly, carefully, Masako placed her hand in hers. Ayako gave her a soft squeeze. “This is new for you, isn’t it?”

She nodded, “Looking back, it should have been obvious, but I always ignored and explained my feelings away.”

“Me too.”

“What?”

“You heard right,” Ayako grinned. “I’m pan, myself. Took me way too long to work out.”

One look at Masako’s face told her that she had never heard the term ‘pansexual’ before. Knowing it would be hard on her pride to ask, Ayako elaborated without prompting. “You’ve heard of bisexual, right?”

Masako nodded.

“Pansexual covers the same ground but with an extra helping of ‘what even is gender?’” Ayako joked. “I could easily go by either term, but pansexual just resonates with me more.”

“Why didn’t you say so before?”

“It didn’t seem relevant,” Ayako shrugged. “Are you upset that I never told you?”

Masako took a moment to respond, but she didn’t pull her hand away from Ayako’s. The miko took that to be a good sign. Even if her co-worker had doubts and questions, she wasn’t judging her for her silence.

“No? I mean, I wish I’d known, but it’s not like your preferences have anything to do with your ability as a miko.” Shyly, Masako raised her head and met Ayako’s gaze. “I just wish we were closer friends. Outside of work.”

Ayako smiled softly. “That sounds nice.”

“It – it does?”

Why did she sound so surprised? Ayako huffed, “Of course! Now when are you seeing her next? We can go shopping for something eye-catching.”

“You aren’t going to put me in red heels, are you?”

“I’m going to overlook you knocking my fashion sense, because I am an amazing friend who is going to help you find your own style.” Ayako announced as Mai came back with the drinks.

“That sounds fun,” Mai chimed in. “What’s the occasion?”

“We’re bonding,” Ayako answered, gauging Masako’s reaction. Her eyes were wide, but she rocked forward in her seat to address Mai. “Would you like to come with us?”

“Of course! Don’t tease me for buying off-brand and you’ve got a deal!”

“I promise I’ll only judge you silently,” Masako preened.

“Holy shit,” Ayako roared, doubling over with laughter. “Where have you been hiding that sense of humour?”

Masako tilted her nose upwards and put on a Naru-worthy smirk. “In my kimono sleeve, usually.”

 

-x-

 

Kazuo breathed a sigh of relief, leaning down to pick up a novel that had fallen from Cho's hand as she slept. Had she intended to read all night in order to prevent herself from dreaming? After locking herself out, Kazuo couldn’t say he blamed her.

He hadn't liked leaving her behind that morning, but he hadn’t had much of a choice. Work was work and Cho had stubbornly insisted that she would be fine on her own. His sister’s boss had actually been relieved to hear she was taking some time off, but he doubted his would appreciate the short notice.

Admittedly, it might have been an over-reaction to call her so often during the day, but she’d scared the hell out of him so she could deal with a little brotherly concern. Yesterday, he’d been worried she was becoming an insomniac. Now, he was worried about what might happen if she fell asleep.

Maruyama had warned him about the destroyed mirror she'd seen in Cho's bathroom. The stress she was under must be far worse than he had imagined.

"It's okay to need help once in a while,” Kazuo whispered. “Life isn't easy."

Neither was talking to his sister when he knew she would shut down and push him away at a moment’s notice. He sighed and placed the book she’d been reading on the bedside table, looking back over his shoulder as he went to leave. “No matter how crazy things get, I'll be here for you, Cho."

Cho shifted under the bed sheets and groaned. "I wish I was crazy."

Kazuo froze. Oh shit - had he disturbed her once she'd finally managed to get some rest? Still, this was the first time Cho had opened up about how she was feeling, beyond calling him for help.

"Is being sane really so bad?" He wasn’t sure what to say, but he had to keep her talking. Silence wasn’t helping either of them.

"It is if you're…"

She buried her face in the pillow, muffling her words. Kazuo tried again. "Cho? ‘It is if you're’ what?"

The corner of her mouth twitched upwards in a rueful smile.

"Haunted…"

 

-x-

 

Omake:

 

“You seem happy – did something good happen?”

The innocent question produced unexpected results. Masako’s mouth fell open, her wide eyes shot to Ayako’s in panic and within seconds the young, typically collected woman was blushing all the way to her ears. She’d even forgotten to hide behind her kimono sleeve.

“I, ah – yes,” she stammered, giving Ayako the overall impression of a child caught with their hand in a cookie jar.

Oh my god.

“You’ve met someone!”

“How did you know?!” Masako squeaked. She pushed back against the couch as if she hoped the cushions might swallow her.

“Oh my god, I was right -” Ayako gleefully crowed, “Mai! Get in here -”

Masako flung herself forward and clamped both hands over Ayako’s mouth. “Don’t you dare,” she hissed. Ayako grinned and began to pull away, expecting her height advantage to secure an easy win.

Masako fought dirty.

She grabbed her hair.

Unfortunately for Masako, Ayako wasn’t the type to hold back. Her personal pride was far more important than her pride in her appearance, no matter how she presented herself. She narrowed her eyes and swiftly retaliated. The two of them fought for leverage, grappling and pulling at each other with single-minded focus.  

When Mai returned to check on the noise, it was to find the two of them tangled on the floor, dishevelled and panting. She averted her eyes, face glowing red.

“Uh, should I come back later?”

 

Chapter Text

"How is he?"

Madoka tucked a stray wisp of hair behind her ear, the other pressed to the phone clutched tightly in her hand. Her precious student wasn’t known for his patience. Standing at the finish line, unable to act, while at least two years of silt was pumped from the waterbed that held his brother must be pure torture.

Noll deals with feeling useless almost as well as he deals with being  wrong.

"Not good," Lin admitted, “but better than expected."

She felt a smile tug at her lips and wondered if Mai had something to do with that. Officially, she knew nothing about their budding relationship but Madoka had her sources and she wasn’t stupid. If Noll wanted to keep it to himself for a little while, she supposed she could humour him.

"Martin and Luella are okay, I think. Distracted and worried, but they’ve known this day would come eventually. They knew Noll wouldn’t stop until he found him and they’ve come to terms with that.”

Madoka weighed her next words, testing their accuracy before she spoke. “Their true concern is how this will affect their family – will finding Gene bring the closure Noll has been chasing all this time? What if bringing his body home isn’t enough?"

The thought wasn’t new to either of them. Lin’s worn out sigh mirrored her own hopes and fears. In her mind’s eye, Madoka could see him pinch the bridge of his nose in the silence, subconsciously rubbing the tension from his brow. His breath caught, heavy with hesitation.

"How do you think the Professor and his wife might react if Naru wished to stay in Japan?"

Madoka let out an intake of air through her nose. She’d been dreading this day ever since she’d walked into SPR’s office and found it full of people. Noll didn’t do ‘people’. For starters, he generally referred to them as pumpkins.

She must have been silent for too long, because Lin gently pointed out the obvious. "He's made friends here, Madoka."

“I know.” She was happy for Noll, but couldn’t he have carved a space for himself a little closer to home? She tipped her head back to stare at the ceiling, unseeing.

“I won’t lie - it will hurt them. Martin and Luella have been waiting too long for their son to come home. However, I believe it would hurt them more if Noll kept quiet about what he wants for their sake."

Lin hummed in agreement.

"They love him and want the best for him - things will turn out okay." Madoka reassured.

“What will you do if Noll stays?”

“Start looking for an apartment, I suppose. One with a lot of guest rooms.”

 

-x-

 

Kazuo looked down at the hastily scrawled address in his hand and back up at the pale yellow building in front of him. Was he in the right place? The building looked so normal. Its modern exterior didn't stand out from any of the surrounding businesses, and he could easily imagine the floors being home to a collection of accountants and administrators. Despite the tinted window’s flowing script that confirmed he was, in fact, on the doorstep of Shibuya Psychic Research, Kazuo hesitated.

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

Maybe he should just drag Cho to a psychologist and hope his stubborn sister actually let someone help her for once in her life. Then again, if that approach had worked, Cho might not have lost her marriage. Kazuo shook his head. Their parent’s unwillingness to acknowledge or address mental health concerns was an attitude Cho had adopted. If ghost hunters were what it took to get Cho to face her problems, then that’s what he’d get.

According to a colleague he habitually drank with after work, SPR was reputable and discreet. He’d scribbled their information down and pressed it into Kazuo’s hand, explaining that a relative had run in to some trouble once and SPR’s researchers were the reason they no longer flinched at loud noises. His faith in the company had been unwavering.

One last brief glance at the initials on the glass and Kazuo cautiously opened the door. Again, he was surprised by the office's lack of eccentricities. The walls were a paler shade of the yellow exterior, decorated with the occasional artwork amongst the bookshelves and cabinets lining the spacious room. A young woman sat at a reception desk, brow furrowed in concentration as she worked. Her clothing was casual but neat, and if she had any unique piercings or tattoos they weren’t visible.

Kazuo cleared his throat and stepped towards her. "Excuse me? I'd like to make an appointment."

Her head shot up so fast that Kazuo hoped she hadn’t jarred her neck. The folder she’d been studying so intently slipped from her grasp, splaying documents across her desk and spilling onto the floor. In an effort to make up for startling her, he leant down to retrieve the papers in front of him and politely handed them back.

Her hands shook as she reached out to take them and her face seemed unusually pale.

"Are you alright? You look like you've..."

...Seen a ghost.

The common phrase died on his lips. Oh, the irony!

The woman he’d startled cracked a smile. “Not today,” she joked. “I’m sorry I didn't notice you enter!"

“You were quite focused,” he excused. "It happens to the best of us." They exchanged introductions and she offered to take the details of his case there and then. The woman, Taniyama, directed him to take a seat in one of the black leather couches in an area to her left, asking him if he’d like something to drink.

“Just water, please.”

When she returned, Taniyama handed him a glass with a soft smile and sat across from him with a pen and a black note book.

"How can we help you, Hayashi-san?"

Kazuo’s throat felt tight.

This morning he’d been woken by the sound of running water. After the incident with the front door, he ran to check on Cho first. Again, her bed was empty. He’d found her in front of his overflowing bathroom sink, shivering and scrubbing blindly at her hands.

Hands covered in blood.

The cuts she’d reopened the previous night had been ripped raw. He didn’t understand how anyone, let alone Cho, could sleep through digging their own nails into their flesh.

Fuck, he didn’t know how much more either of them could take.

"My sister..." Kazuo rasped. His throat felt tight and he gripped the drink Taniyama had given him, grateful for both her foresight and patience. She’d probably listened to many stories like his.

He took a sip and tried again. "I'm here on behalf of my sister."

“What’s her name?”

“Sasaki Cho.”

Taniyama checked the spelling and gave him her full attention as he continued.

"I received a worrying phone call from her recently," he explained. "A neighbour got Cho to contact me. She’d found her sitting outside her apartment, bleeding and refusing to step so much as a foot back inside.”

He poured out his story, growing worried when Taniyama’s hand stilled over the page, midsentence. Had he said something wrong? Kazuo floundered. “I know how this sounds – that Cho needs medical assistance, not psychic researchers, but -”

“It’s alright, Hayashi-san,” Taniyama soothed. “I’ll listen, I promise.”

She didn’t look at him like he was stupid for coming here and she didn’t dismiss that Cho’s issues might be better addressed elsewhere. Kazuo was so relieved he could cry. “Listen. Okay.”

Leaning back in the couch, he settled himself before continuing. When he was ready, Kazuo told Taniyama everything he could about Cho’s unwillingness to sleep and what happened when she did – the screaming, the injuries, waking up outside. How he’d blamed it on stress and her marriage falling apart when Cho was tight-lipped on the subject.

"Eventually she confided in me,” Kazuo confessed, getting to the reason he had sought out SPR. “Cho thinks she’s haunted – she’s so convinced of it that she wishes she was insane.” He shook his head, bewildered and lost. “I don’t know what to believe, but if you would be willing to investigate her claims it would mean a great deal to me.”

"Has she mentioned who, or what she believes is haunting her?" Taniyama inquired. “Any details about what she's been experiencing?"

Kazuo shook his head. “No. She did mention her ex-husband, but as far as I know he’s alive – I suspect Cho only mentioned him because she knew I'd back off."

His heart sank, ashamed that his sister had felt the need to go to such lengths.

“She probably thought I wouldn’t believe her.”

Taniyama closed the notebook in her hands and appraised him gently. “I’m sure she’s glad her brother is watching out for her,” she said with a soft smile. “I’ll pass your information on to Shibuya-san and someone will be in touch as soon as possible.”

Kazuo took comfort in Taniyama’s words. “Thank you.” It was pointless to second guess himself. He would just have to keep moving forward and hope Cho would meet him halfway.

Before he left, Taniyama handed him a print out of several helpful contacts and emergency help lines. Each name and number was accompanied by brief notes about the business or individual, so it would be easy to pin point who to call and under what circumstances. “You don’t have to face this alone,” she reminded him. “Take care of yourself, too.”

Even if his case was turned down, SPR had already helped him considerably. Knowing you need help is one thing, knowing where to get it is something else entirely. Kazuo swore that the next time he went out after work, he’d shout his drinking buddy as many rounds as he wanted.

 

-x-

 

For lack of anything better to do, Naru had taken to going for walks and meditating. He’d managed to keep himself occupied for the majority of the day, but boredom was setting in hard. He lay back on the grass and stretched his legs out in front of him, staring up at the sky. It was a nicer view than the ceiling of the hotel room, at least.

If only Mai were here.

She could make the most mundane activities interesting. Naru closed his eyes and imagined her lying on the grass next to him. Not as good as the real thing, but it helped distract from the gnawing sense of uselessness that sat heavy in his chest and twisted his guts.

A soft melody sprung to life in his pants pocket and Naru spared a glance at the caller ID before answering.

“Mai?”

"Naru, a case just came in and -” Mai fell silent and he felt his pulse pick up. She had an uncanny knack for finding trouble and right now he wasn’t there to assess any potential danger.

“Are you alright?”

“..Yes.”

She hadn’t replied immediately. She’d stopped to think about her answer, which meant that something had rattled Mai enough for her to take his concern seriously.

“But something happened.”

“No,” she tried to back-pedal. “I mean, not exactly?”

Mai.” He wasn’t about to give her time to second guess herself when her denial rang so hollowly. She sighed heavily and gave in. “It was the client,” she confessed. "When I saw his face, something inside me froze. It was like I recognised him, even though I’ve never met him before,” Mai insisted. “For a moment I thought I was going to be sick.”

Naru’s eyes widened. That was an undeniably violent reaction. He stood up, dusting off his pants and began heading back to the hotel. “I want you to read me your notes from the interview, but I need something to write on first.”

“You mean to tell me you don’t keep a note book on you at all times?” Mai joked.

Naru was relieved to hear the ease in her voice. “I left it in my other jacket.”

“Must be nice, having pockets.”

“You’re welcome to mine.”

“Your clothes or your pockets?”

“Both.” Seeing Mai in his clothes had awakened something in him and he wasn’t ashamed to admit he liked it.

Mai hummed and lowered her voice. “Sounds promising.” The curl of satisfaction in her tone was devastating. Naru wondered if she was blushing while she whispered teasingly in his ear and felt his knees go weak. If he tripped or bumped into a few things on the way back to his room, who could really blame him?

Once the door was shut behind him, Naru grabbed a pen and notebook from his suitcase and sat on the edge of his bed.

"Read me your notes from the interview,” he instructed, resting the book open on his thigh.

As Mai read, he re-wrote her notes out in English, saving himself the trouble of having to wait for Lin to translate the kanji for him. He could understand why Mai had been reluctant to tell him about the case when so much of the information lacked the sister's side of the story, but the woman's actions didn't seem to match the most probable explanations.

Secretive, panicked behaviour and sleepwalking could easily be attributed to a traumatic experience, but Naru doubted the problem stemmed from her husband leaving her. The woman's terror at the prospect of re-entering her apartment combined with the way she'd tried to clean herself suggested something more along the lines of assault or possibly rape.

Survivor's guilt, perhaps?

Feeling responsible for someone's death would account for her firm belief that she was haunted, but it didn't explain Mai's adverse reaction to her brother.

"What's the contact number?"

Mai hastily supplied it and Naru read back the number for confirmation. "Keep me informed of any new developments and email a copy of the case to Lin," he added, sitting up straight and setting the transcribed notes aside. "I'll let you know if I want to take any further action."

"Okay.” Mai’s reply was firm, free from her earlier stress and Naru congratulated himself on being the one to make that happen.

Ending the call, he re-examined the notes Mai had dictated for him and concluded that the only issue was whether the sister would be willing to talk about her experiences. Sasaki Cho hadn't been forthcoming with her brother but that was the very thing that gave her claim weight. Disbelief and denial often followed an encounter with anything unfamiliar, so she would have tried to rationalise the dreams at first. It was hardly surprising that Sasaki might be reluctant to tell anyone if she was having trouble accepting it herself.

Pulling back the cuff of his sleeve, Naru glanced at his watch and began dialling the number Mai had supplied. When the ringtone grew drawn out and repetitive, he shifted back on the bed and leant against the head-board. He’d been expecting to need to leave a voice message when a feminine voice interrupted the monotony. "Hello?"

“Excuse me, is this the correct contact for Hayashi Kazuo-san?”

“It is. May I ask who is calling?”

“Shibuya Kazuya, of Shibuya Psychic Research,” Naru supplied. “Are you Hayashi-san’s sister by any chance?”

“I am,” she answered carefully. “I can get my brother to phone you back in a moment if you like."

"That may not be necessary," Naru dismissed. "Since Hayashi-san came to us on your behalf, he was unable to provide a detailed account of your experiences. I need to know what I'm dealing with in order to properly consider his request."

Sasaki seemed to process the information slowly, ignoring the majority of what he’d said in favour of, "Kazuo came to you?"

Naru bit back the urge to respond sarcastically and grit out the most unemotional “yes” he could give. Was what he’d said truly so hard to comprehend?

To his surprise, Sasaki apologised for wasting his time. She’d already consulted someone about the issues she’d been having and had yet to inform her brother. "I didn't realise how worried I'd made him," she mused too sweetly, making empty promises to the wrong person about communication and her intent to “do better”.

Naru suspected she was lying. He’d made a mistake, not talking to her brother first.

“I would like to inform Hayashi-san of my regrets personally,” Naru insisted. “Please have him call me at his earliest convenience.” Sasaki agreed, promising to pass on the message.

The call never came.

 

-x-

 

Omake:

 

“I should have brought you with me,” Naru lamented into the receiver.

“Y-yeah?” Mai stammered cutely and he imagined her flushed face as she tried to hide her smile. “No one around to make tea the way you like it?”

Mai’s teasing tone flooded his chest with warmth. He leaned forward, lowering his voice as he spoke directly into the phone’s speaker.

“Only you can quench my thirst,” he promised.

Mai let out a breathy half laugh and lowered her voice in kind, “good.”

“So smug,” he grinned. “Trying to steal the title of ‘narcissist’?”

“I would never!” Mai mock gasped. “You’re stuck with that one, I’m afraid.”

“As long as I’m your narcissist.”

“Always,” she promised. “Good luck getting rid of me - I’ve been told I’m incredibly stubborn.”

“You’d have to be to love me.” The intended joke fell flat, sounding raw and vulnerable when it left his lips.

Mai picked up on it immediately.

“You’d be surprised how easy it is,” she informed him, radiating quiet confidence. Glimpses of how she saw him always left Naru feeling a little stunned and his body light. He swallowed, heart pounding too loud in his chest, overwhelmed by the way she made him feel.

“It’s even easier to love you.”

From his seat on the second bed, Lin looked over his laptop at Naru with a grimace. “If you two are about to have a competition about who loves who more, I’m paying for a separate room.”

Chapter Text

Cho hung up on Shibuya Kazuya as fast as humanly possible. Flinging the phone from her hands, she groped blindly through the white noise in her mind and clung to the solidity of the kitchen bench. She’d been careless. Kazuo had contacted a paranormal investigator.

How much did he know? Had her brother seen the blue-eyed boy, too?

“Cho?”

She flinched at the unexpected sound. Kazuo was now standing behind her, the picture of concern. Cho’s insides twisted at the sight.

“Are you feeling alright?” He reached out to calm her as if she were a wild, wounded beast. She knocked his hand away.

"I'd feel better if my brother wasn't hiding things from me," she accused. "Is there a reason you didn't tell me about your trip to Shibuya Psychic Research?”

Kazuo’s wide eyes drifted to the phone she’d thrown and grimaced. "I'm sorry. After what you said last night -"

"Last night?" Dread pooled in her gut. She skimmed through her memories, searching for anything that might have prompted such a response. Nothing came to mind. “What did I say?”

“You don’t remember?”

She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. “Tell me.”

“You told me you were haunted,” Kazuo admitted, palming the back of his neck and leaning into it with a deep breath. “I was going to tell you if they accepted the case.”

Cho’s eyes narrowed, anger flaring. “Once I couldn’t back out.”

Kazuo stood up straight, steel replacing his tired patience. "Cho, at some point you're going to have to realise that you need help – that I want to help you. If that means suspending my disbelief and hiring spiritualists, I’ll do it. If that means accompanying you to doctors or psychologist appointments, I’ll do that too.”

Cho cursed whatever weakness had led her to get her meddling brother involved. She met his resolution with pure hostility. "You want me to see a shrink?"

"I want you to be able to sleep without worrying about where you might wake up," he shot back, words over articulated and forcefully slowed. He was angry. Good for him, Cho sniped. He wasn’t the only one.

"I don’t feel comfortable talking to people like that," she spat, staring him down. "Sorry for worrying you, but plenty of people sleepwalk and this is something I need to handle on my own."

Kazuo's expression darkened. “The way you’ve been ‘handling it’ so far?”

“Fuck. You,” she growled, pushing past him. “I’m leaving.” Kazuo trailed after her as she stormed through the apartment, gathering up her things.

“And go where? Last I heard you couldn’t even enter your own home.”

Cho refused to give him a response, focused solely on packing. She hadn’t brought much with her, only the necessities and a few changes of clothes.

Kazuo was right about one thing - she couldn’t go home. It wasn’t safe. That didn’t leave her with many options but, under the circumstances, she was willing to spring for a hotel. At least for the night.

Shifting her weight to accommodate the bag slung over her shoulder, Cho twisted the handle with too much force, trying to hide the pain that lanced through her wrist from Kazuo.

“You’re walking?”

She refused to respond and Kazuo’s expression fell. “At least let me drive you,” he paused before he could finish with ‘home’ and the incomplete sentence hung awkwardly between them. Cho hesitated.

“You can take me to the station.”

Accepting the small olive branch, Kazuo did as she’d allowed, thankfully keeping his thoughts to himself throughout the drive. It was only once they’d reached the station that he broke the silence.

“If you change your mind -”

“I won’t.”

“But if you do,” he pressed. “I’m here for you.”

She knew that. It was why she had called him in the first place, but his desire to help her had become a hindrance. Returning wasn’t an option. She stepped from the vehicle and retrieved her bag from the backseat.

“Goodbye, Kazuo.”

His brow pinched with worry, “stay safe.”

It was all Cho could do not to snort. ‘Safe’ was no longer a concept she recognised – that notion had been snuffed out along with the life she had taken. The ghost boy had demanded she ‘return’ what she’d stolen, but that was impossible! She couldn’t undo what had been done.

Blue-eyes and a pale face mocked her, superimposing over her brother’s features in the car window between them. Cho turned away, pretending not to see.

 

-x-

 

"Do we have a case that I'm not aware of?" Lin asked, taking in the handwritten pages Naru had taken to glaring at. Something must have happened while he was out conferring with the divers they’d hired.

“At the moment, no,” Naru sighed, running a hand through his hair so it stuck up at odd angles. “You’ll get an email from Mai soon, if you haven’t already.”

With a brief nod, Lin retrieved his laptop from his side of the room. “The divers have made significant progress, laying the groundwork for potential finds, but nothing human has been recovered so far.” While the computer booted up, he eyed Naru’s transcribed notes and shook his head. "You'd have a lot less trouble if you took the time to learn kanji."

“You’re right.”

Lin blinked and turned the phrase over in his mind. When the shock wore off, he found Naru glaring at him with a look that could wilt plants. The reaction seemed a little excessive in Lin’s opinion.

Wait.

Lin reassessed the situation, taking note of Naru’s pink-tipped ears and tightening expression.

Oh my god.

In the entire time he’d known him, Lin could count how many times he’d witnessed Naru being embarrassed on one hand, and still be free a few digits. Out of sympathy, Lin skipped over the part of the conversation where a normal person might ask for help and simply offered his assumed assistance. “Would you like to start now?”

“I could use the distraction,” Naru admitted. Lin bobbed his head in agreement and opened his web browser to find some useful resources. He’d considered teaching Naru how to read and write Japanese before, but the idea had never progressed beyond the abstract until now. If it had, Lin would have been more prepared.

Even with the heavily improvised study material, Naru dedicated himself to the task with single minded focus.

“Do you have any specific goals in mind?” Lin asked. Naru paused in his work to look up at him, a faint frown pinching his brow.

“Should I?”

“You don’t struggle with motivation, so not necessarily,” Lin assured. “I would find it useful to know, though.”

Resting his chin in one hand, Naru drummed absently against the open notebook with his pen. When the rhythmic tapping ceased, Lin turned to face him, expecting Naru to voice his conclusion. Instead, he avoided his gaze, staring at the wall as if it could save him from the heat Lin could see creeping up his neck. Whatever Naru had thought of made his earlier embarrassment pale in comparison, which could only mean one thing – the goal involved Mai.

What kind of request Naru would find the most mortifying? If Lin had to guess, it would be something innocent or easily overlooked. Something simple enough to sound trivial but wanted badly enough to make the typically confident young man feel vulnerable.

“Would you like to learn how to write Mai’s name?”

The deer in headlights look Naru immediately shot his way was all the confirmation he needed. Lin chuckled softly. Picking up a pen, he held out his hand to take the book from Naru who thrust it towards him a little too abruptly. After carefully demonstrating how to write Mai’s full name, explaining what the individual parts meant as he went, Lin heard Naru find his voice.

“How did you -”

“I’ve known you for half your life,” Lin shrugged. “And it seemed like a reasonable thing to want to learn. I can teach you the other’s names too, if you like.”

Naru leaned closer to the page Lin had written on and Lin took that as his queue to begin writing out the names of their friends, as he had with Mai’s. Their studies continued well into the night and early morning, until Naru’s ability to retain information considerably slowed.

“I think that’s enough for now, don’t you?” Lin suggested, shutting down his laptop and smothering a yawn. Naru raised an eyebrow at him.

“You didn’t have to stay awake with me.”

“Did it help?”

Naru paused, considering. “Yes.”

“Then I’m glad I did.”

Lin assumed that was the end of the conversation and began to head towards the ensuite to brush his teeth when Naru’s softly spoken words stopped him in his tracks.

“Thank you.”

The quiet sincerity made Lin’s throat constrict. He had never doubted Naru’s gratitude towards him, it was just that the boy he’d left England with wouldn’t have thought to verbalise it.

The twin’s unique circumstances combined with Gene’s outgoing nature meant that Naru rarely had to say anything. When he spoke, it was a conscious choice. Gene’s death severed not only the brother’s psychic connection, but the bridge he formed between Naru and others. Grief or no, Lin never expected to see that gap close, yet here Naru was, thanking him.

“You’re welcome.”

 

-x-

 

“Masako! Ayako!” Mai waved exuberantly across the plaza, calling out with a broad smile. Masako greeted her in return.

“Where to first?” Mai asked, bouncing on the balls of her feet. Her enthusiasm was contagious and Masako let herself be swept along, excitement sparking in her chest.

“Do you have any suggestions?”

“This is your date, sunshine,” Ayako voiced. “Where do you like to shop?”

The simple question gave Masako pause. Mai and Ayako looked to her for an answer and it struck Masako how different this aspect of her life must seem, even to the high-class heiress. “I suppose that is normal, isn’t it – choosing your own clothes.”

Before she had time to dwell on what suddenly felt like a failing on her part, Ayako brought her hands together in a decisive chop. “Oh, I see! You have stylists,” she announced, unfazed. “How long has it been?”

Mai’s eyes were darting between the two of them, brow pinched in concentration. The conclusion Ayako had come to so easily had clearly thrown her for a loop. Masako watched her reaction out of the corner of her eye as she answered smoothly, “around eight years? Give or take.”

Maybe it was wrong of her to prolong Mai’s confusion but their competitive banter had become something familiar, easy and comforting.

“You haven’t chosen your own clothes since you were ten?!”

A little defensive, Masako pulled back with a frown. “Well of course I choose them, just out of the options provided.”

“Which someone else chose,” Mai reiterated, dumbfounded.

Masako shook her head, “Whatever you’re thinking, stop it. The people who dress me were hired to do so and they do an excellent job.”

“You just don’t know where to go and you’re not used to having so many choices,” Ayako chimed in, defusing the conflict with a sharp snap of her fingers.

“Exactly,” Masako confirmed, more grateful to the miko than she’d ever pictured herself being.

Mai bit her lip and uttered a soft, “oh.”

“Yes, ‘oh’!” Masako scolded, hiding a smile. “So, as I said – any suggestions?”

“There,” Ayako pointed to a store a few doors down, with a large glass storefront decorated with mannequins draped in this season’s colours. “Then work our way around each floor, clockwise. You’ve got eight years of browsing to catch up on!”

Masako’s eyes went wide. “All of them?”

Ayako waved off the suggestion, “just the relevant shops. Most of them will be lumped together anyway.”

Conversation flowed freely as the trio moved from store to store and Masako tried on so many outfits it made her head spin. Mai and Ayako had taken the task in stride and had begun competing to see which of their choices she liked best.

“They don’t actually dress you, do they?” Mai asked through the change room curtain. “Like a princess?”

“Oh, ho-ho! Awfully curious aren’t you,” Ayako ribbed good-naturedly. “Do you want to be dressed like a princess, Mai?”

Masako’s fingers stilled on the buttons at her chest and listened shamelessly, hidden from view.

“I mean, it might be kind of nice once in a while,” Mai confessed wistfully. “Hey, what are you doing?!”

“Texting Naru.”

Good grief. She couldn’t take these two anywhere. Masako swore under her breath and focused on getting dressed as fast as she could.

“What! Why?”

“No reason. You can thank me later.”

Without missing a beat, Masako threw open the curtain to eye the miko. “I thought you were here to help me, not harass Mai,” she accused.

“Spoilsport,” Ayako pouted. “Besides, I am helping.” Motioning her to turn around, Masako spun slowly on the spot, showing off the form fitting high waist shorts and tucked in button up. With a nod of approval, Ayako held out a hand to Mai who started passing her accessories to consider.
“Both of you are enjoying this way too much,” Masako joked.

Mai argued that they were enjoying this exactly the right amount and Ayako demanded a follow up outing to be told how the date went.

“Masako, you’re dating someone?”

Masako froze. They’d both forgotten that Mai didn’t know. Ayako looked horrified at her slip up and met Masako’s gaze with the kind of determination that accompanies a plan. She was ready to lie through her teeth.

Masako shook her head.

It’s okay.

Taking a deep breath, she answered Mai. “Yes. It’s still new, but I really like her.”

She waited for the questions, for the surprise, for any reaction that meant Mai saw her as a threat now. Instead, Mai threw her arms around her and started gushing about how cute she was. “Ah! I’m so happy for you!”

Mai had heard her, right?

“Please introduce us to her sometime, okay?”

She had heard. Mai knew and she was happy for her. Completely disarmed, Masako burst into tears.

“Oh! Masako! Are you alright? I’m sorry -” Mai pulled away and started to ramble, but Ayako cut her off.

“It’s alright Mai, she’s just a bit overwhelmed right now.”

It didn’t escape Masako’s notice that Ayako was hiding her from view, though the surge of gratefulness she felt only served to further blur her vision as she bit down on an audible sob. In seconds, she found herself whisked away behind a decorative partition, muting her awareness of people passing.

Mai’s fingers found her hand and held tight. The contact was soothing and Masako focused on the feeling to ground herself, as she might during a vision or meditating. Ayako held out a tissue for her to dry her eyes.

“Feeling better?”

“Much, thank you.” Mai didn’t look convinced, but merely continued to hold her hand and didn’t press for details. Giving her hand a soft squeeze, Masako smiled. The change was instantaneous. Mai beamed and relaxed her grip, her demeanour open in a way Masako could only dream of. 

Much later, when her feet hurt from walking and bags tugged at her arms, full of the clothes her friends had helped choose, Masako spun around in giddy circle not caring who saw. She was on top of the world.

 

-x-

 

Omake:

 

“Thank you.”

The quiet sincerity made Lin’s throat constrict. He had never doubted that Naru was grateful for the things he did, it was just that the boy he’d left England with wouldn’t have thought to verbalise it.

“You’re welcome.”

“Don’t tell Mai.”

Lin had to bite back a laugh. “What, that she’s had a good influence on you?”

Naru’s face twitched, but he stayed committed to his poker face.

“Your secret is safe with me.”

 

Chapter Text

"They're what?!"

"You heard me. They're looking for a corpse."

"...I think I'm going to be sick."

The crowd of spectators was growing. Naru slipped through their numbers to find a quiet spot to meditate, tuning out the gossipers comments as he worked to put distance between them. A group of trees growing along the lake’s edge had proved to be a comfortable haven over the previous days and he was relieved to find the area blessedly empty.

He made himself comfortable amongst the lush grass and let the light breeze tease his hair. Footsteps approached from behind and Lin held out a steaming takeaway cup. Naru took the gift, wrapping his hands around the cup and brought it under his nose to appreciate the tea’s fragrance.

"Are you looking forward to going home?"

For a moment, Naru wondered which 'home' his friend was referring to. Then it occurred to him that maybe that was the point. "You want to know if I plan on returning to England when this is over."

"No." Lin amended, watching him carefully. "I want to know if you want to return to England."

It was a good question, and one Naru had specifically avoided asking himself. He felt like the answer should be yes – his family were waiting for him and it wasn’t as if he didn’t miss them. Now though, he had more people to miss. He knew no matter where he lived, Mai wouldn’t stop loving him, nor he her. They would work something out – and who was to say that returning to England had to be permanent?

Lin’s phone began to ring and whatever advice or criticism he might have offered was shelved. Naru watched intently as he answered, heart pounding. Was this the call they were waiting for, or just another in an endless string of updates? He held his breath.

Lin’s eyes widened.

“It’s the divers,” he confirmed, hand cupped over the mobile’s microphone. "They've found a skull and a partially revealed ribcage embedded in the lake floor."

Only time would tell if they belonged to Gene.

 

-x-

 

Hiroto Seigi grimaced at the incomplete skeleton splayed out before him. Dealing with this sort of thing on a daily basis had a tendency to make people lose faith in humanity. He had no idea how his partner managed to wield empathy's double-edged sword and remain optimistic after all they had seen, but Hiroto hoped nothing would ever break her spirit. Though he might never admit it, he found Nakai's positivity refreshing; a stark contrast to his dry scepticism.

"Judging by the mandible, frontal and occipital profiles, we're looking at a male; probably between fourteen and eighteen years of age." A stern looking woman in her late thirties informed the pair, raising an eyebrow at Hiroto when it looked like he might lean on the folding table behind him. Nakai shot an amused 'you should know better' look in his direction as he hurriedly corrected his posture, but the forensic scientist seemed appeased and returned her attention to the job at hand.

Like most specialists, Chiba Izanami had her quirks - the most prominent of which being a very strict 'no touch' policy. Her sharp observation skills, combined with a possessive streak and a strong sense of professional pride, meant that if so much as a pen moved a millimetre, the anthropologist knew about it.

"I'd estimate the height to be around one hundred and sixty-five, maybe one-seventy centimetres, but it's hard to be certain without more of the remains," the preoccupied woman offered. "Lack of soft tissue will make it difficult to pinpoint the time of death, but I'd say he's been down there for at least eight months, probably more."

"What can you tell us about the injuries?" Nakai ventured. "Could this have been an accident, or are we looking at foul play?"

"Possibly a little of both," Chiba mused, gesturing to the relevant damage as she elaborated. "Aside from the fractured skull, crushed ribs and upper humerus, the partial tibia suggests that at least one of the legs suffered similar damage, as well as some form of blunt trauma."

Turning to address the investigators directly, she concluded, "Despite the location of the body, I doubt the deceased died in the lake. It's likely that the victim's legs were struck first, causing him to fall and hit his head before being crushed."

Hiroto agreed. Though his qualifications paled in comparison to the woman in front of him, he had seen enough dead bodies to recognise a plausible pattern in the wounds she had mentioned.

"If I had to guess, I'd say we're looking at a 'hit and run'."

Hiroto registered Nakai thanking the anthropologist for her time, but his attention drifted to the men responsible for the body's recovery. The younger of the two was abnormally accomplished for his age, having obtained a doctorate degree by the time he was fifteen. According to his statement, the boy had reported his brother missing years ago, eventually travelling to Japan in order to search for him.

So far everything had checked out, but while Oliver Davis's actions indicated that he cared deeply for his twin, the investigator was convinced that he and his taciturn guard dog were hiding something important from them.

Nobody hired divers to search for almost a week without being sure there is something to find, no matter how much cash they have to burn.

"I think it's time we had another 'talk' with the boy," Hiroto begrudgingly conceded, not looking forward to the prospect. He was too cool for his liking – the type who probably thought they could get away with anything if you threw enough money at a problem. The kid was too smart and too confident for his own good. If they were lucky, he’d think he was so untouchable that he’d let some crucial detail slip.

With Nakai in tow, Hiroto began to approach the boy and his tall, sombre shadow, ignoring the way his skin prickled underneath the Chinese man's assessing gaze.

There was no sense in putting this off any longer.

"Davis-san, would you mind coming with us for a moment?"

If Davis was surprised by the request, it didn't show. He barely seemed to acknowledge their presence as they moved away from the noise of the crime scene, his blue eyes focused somewhere far in the distance.

"How long would you have continued to search the lake if a body had not been found?" Hiroto inquired bluntly, not bothering to mince words.

"For as long as necessary."

"What if the body doesn't belong to your brother?" Nakai pressed.

The look the boy shot them was withering, settling somewhere between irritation and boredom. He may as well have slowly articulated, as if to a child, that he would have kept looking.

Nakai’s brow furrowed. "Are you so sure he won't be found alive?"

"If he were still alive, wouldn't the police have found him by now?" Davis countered, hardly bothering to veil the insult. Hiroto was far from impressed.

"Since you were the one who reported him missing in the first place, I find it suspicious that you seem to have knowledge concerning his whereabouts that we don't." He vocalised, cutting to the chase, "What are you hiding from us? Why search this lake?"

The once disinterested eyes flashed, meeting the angered officer's gaze with cold justification. "Instinct."

"Instinct?" Hiroto echoed. He wasn’t sure what to make of the strange response, aside from that it appeared to be genuine. Davis sighed, as if he hadn’t expected to be understood, but still found the chore of explaining distasteful.

"Are you familiar with many theories concerning the bond between identical twins?"

To the investigator's exasperation, his partner appeared to be seriously considering the argument, nodding slowly at his words.

"Wait a minute," he protested. "Isn't something like that a little farfetched?"

Though Nakai moved to answer, it seemed Davis had grown tired of their conversation. He shook his head and interrupted with his own question. "Have you ever fallen in love, Hiroto-san?"

Hiroto blinked in confusion. "Excuse me? What does that have to do with it?"

Davis' expression hardened. "Humour me."

Though the interrogation was rapidly being derailed, this was more or less how Hiroto pictured their conversation going. His first impression of the unusual pair currently at the top of his list of suspects suggested that ordinary tactics would be of little use. That the boy was talking at all was actually a bonus.

He weighed the advantages and disadvantages of going with the flow, sharing a look with Nakai before indulging Davis.

"Yes, I have."

"Do you have any tangible evidence?" Davis waited for his words to hit the mark before ploughing ahead. "The words 'I love you' are merely one of many phrases that may be offered to anyone, as are gifts. Chemical reactions indicating physical attraction can be gauged scientifically, but the emotion itself? Can you prove that 'love' exists?"

Fully aware that his interrogators had no answer to his challenge, Oliver Davis turned his back on them, his dark coat billowing in the breeze as he left them with a parting thought.

"Just because a theory has yet to be proven, doesn't mean it is without truth."

 

-x-

 

“Thank you for following up with us, Suzuki-san,” Mai said, bidding the client goodbye. She returned the phone to its cradle and read through the notes she’d jotted down during their conversation. Suzuki had recently approached SPR on behalf of her comatose daughter – a case Naru hadn’t dismissed outright thanks to some surrounding circumstances, but thought it more likely to be a medical issue.

Sure enough, Suzuki’s daughter had been diagnosed with diabetes. She was conscious and recovering, but the stress on their family had been so great that no one had thought to update SPR on the situation until the chaos died down. Mai thought that was completely reasonable. While it was definitely nice to know that a client’s issue had been resolved, if a client never returned, their files were simply archived.

Mai diligently cleaned up her notes, typing up a copy for the case file and emailing it to Lin. Once finished, she wandered into the kitchen out of sheer habit. There wasn’t much point in making a full pot of tea, so Mai only boiled enough water to cover the minimum line and not damage the kettle.

As wisps of steam began to rise, her mobile pinged in her pocket. It was a message from Masako. The text read, “Kayo came to meet me at work”. Mai smiled giddily on behalf of her friend and sent back a response.

<Mai> awww that’s so sweet!

She hadn’t met Kayo yet but she seemed to make Masako very happy. A few seconds later she received a second notification.

<Masako> no you don’t understand

The message was immediately followed by another, a photo this time. It was a picture of an attractive young woman in tight black leather, astride a motorbike. She’d just removed her helmet and was smiling widely, presumably at Masako as she took the picture. Before Mai had a chance to respond with anything other than a low whistle, her phone chimed in her hands. Twice.

<Masako> how do I survive this knowledge

<Masako> help

Mai laughed so hard that she snorted.

<Mai> take deep breaths and enjoy the view ;)

<Masako> hnngg

SPR’s landline started ringing and Mai typed out a quick “brb” and raced back to the office to answer it.

"Shibuya Psychic Research," she answered, readying pen and paper to take down any necessary information. "How may I help you?"

"Mai."

“Naru!” She dropped the pen and accidentally knocked the paper pad to the floor. If he heard the resulting chaos of his earlier than usual call, Naru didn’t mention it. When he spoke, she could hear how emotionally drained he was.

"Lin and I will be coming back tonight."

Elation and dread simultaneously flooded Mai. “Did you -”

“Find him?” Naru concluded. “Yes. Dental records confirm it," he added quietly. "I didn't want to tell you until we were sure."

“How are you feeling?”

For a little while, Mai listened in silence as Naru contemplated how to answer.

“I don’t know,” he breathed. “I thought if I found him -” Naru floundered and fell silent again. “I thought it would feel ‘over’.”

Mai wanted to hold him. They had both experienced tragic loss and if there was anything that could have been said to ease the pain in her own heart, Mai couldn’t think of it. She remembered her friends, coming round on the days her parents had passed with cooked meals and snacks to share, holding her hands as they huddled on the couch and watched movies.

“What was it like?” Mai asked. “Being connected to someone like that?” Knowing she could talk freely about her parents had helped her heal – maybe Naru could use a safe place to reminisce, too.

“He was always there, like hearing sound or feeling temperature,” he mused softly. Though quiet, Naru sounded far more settled than he had before. Relief flooded Mai and she relaxed against her desk. Maybe she should have made herself comfortable and sat down before answering the phone, but the second she heard Naru’s voice, all non-essential concerns evaporated.

“I never really knew what ‘alone’ felt like until he was gone,” Naru confessed.

She couldn’t help but ask. “Do you still feel alone?”

He took a moment to assess himself, as he tended to when she made inquiries about his emotional state. A younger Mai might have thought he was planning to dodge her question, but she knew him so much better now. A haunting, he could come to conclusions quickly on – his feelings were another matter. Verbalising them was a challenge itself.

Naru’s answer drew slowly from his lips. “No.” His tone was light and suffused with dawning realisation, “no, I don’t.”

Mai covered her mouth and blinked back tears. She couldn’t even begin to imagine the weight of the loss he’d been living with and healing from. Whatever role she and the rest of SPR played in easing his loneliness, Mai was overwhelmingly grateful to be a part of it.

When Naru spoke again, his voice was decisive and clear. “Mai, contact the team and organise a time to meet.”

“As soon as possible?” Mai wasn’t sure how much time it had taken Lin to drive them to Tochigi, but if Naru wanted any sleep at all, she’d better arrange the meeting for tomorrow.

“Yes. If timing is an issue, let them know it’s a personal matter.”

Well, that would get the team’s attention. They had a habit of hording information about their elusive boss, as if it was some kind of forbidden treasure. Naru certainly knew how to motivate his target audience.

“This is about what you plan to do next, isn’t it?” Mai asked. “What will you tell them?”

It was a discussion they had yet to conclude, though Mai had made her stance clear – whatever he wanted to do, she had his back. Being apart wouldn’t break them, and circumstances were changeable.

“To start with,” Naru began, dragging air in through his nose and exhaling with the kind of abrupt puff that said he’d bitten off more than he could chew. "My name."

 

-x-

 

 

Omake:

 

When Naru spoke, his voice was decisive and clear. “Mai, contact the team and organise a time to meet.”

“As soon as possible?” Mai wasn’t sure how much time it had taken Lin to drive them to Tochigi, but if Naru wanted any sleep at all, she’d better arrange the meeting for tomorrow.

“Yes. If timing is an issue, let them know it’s a personal matter.”

Mai pulled a face, despite Naru being unable to see it. She was concerned that he had underestimated his employee’s curiosity, or perhaps overestimated their common sense. “Are you sure you want them on your doorstep at dawn?”

“There’s a reason I’ve never let them know where I live.”