She lay there, unable to move, trapped under what felt like an iron boulder. She knew nothing was there, but the pressure felt all too real. No matter how hard she tried, how deeply she inhaled, the air just refused to rush into her lungs. Instead, they flattened with every breath she failed to take, until finally, she felt herself slowly departing her depleted body. If only she had been able to foresee the horrors that had taken place. If only. But it was too late now, the damage was done, and her heart had broken from all the pain and suffering she knew was yet to be endured by those she loved the most.
Mai awoke with a start, breathing heavily, happy to be able to once more feel the invigorating rush of fresh air into her lungs. Feeling dizzy, she put a hand to her head. Thankfully, she was now more than used to her incredibly vivid dreams, but could still be fairly shaken when such violent emotions arose from them. The loss, anger, pain and deep, deep sadness still clung to her. Turning onto her back, Mai wondered what had prompted such a dream. She normally only got those when investigating a case with Naru.
The sound startling her, Mai jumped up, her hair in a mess and her eyes still somewhat hazy, and stumbled to the front door. Looking through the peephole, she couldn't help but groan. He never called before coming. Why? Was it so hard? Somewhat reluctantly, she opened the door. Before she could so much as utter one syllable, Naru slid past her, removing his coat and depositing it neatly on the sofa before making an efficient beeline for the red armchair positioned across from it. Ever since she had managed to scrape enough money together to get her own apartment, it had somehow become the Shibuya Psychic Research Centre headquarters. With every passing day, Naru made himself more and more at home, behaving as if he paid the rent. Here he was, comfortably sitting, holding a book in one hand, surveying the room with his usual air of detached boredom, acting for all the world as if she were the one who had just walked into his place.
'It seems I am too generous with your pay check.'
Too groggy to bother attempting to follow his train of thought, she replied with a simple 'what?'
'You shouldn't be able to afford this standard of living. It will turn you complacent; you will become lazy and fat.'
He briefly looked at her before adding;
'Although I see some of that has already happened.'
'Are you calling me fat?!'
As per usual, rather than giving her the satisfaction of a reply, he changed the course of the conversation entirely. Book still in hand, he launched into his next topic of choice.
'I got a call about a case this morning. I said I'd take it. We leave in an hour.'
Mai stood there, in front of him, genuinely asking herself why she still worked for him. He had no manners, no sense of work ethic and absolutely no tact whatsoever.
'Pack a suitcase with a few clothes. I don't know how long we will be there for, and it's far.'
She waited a few moments to see if he would venture any more information. Naru however, had gone back to his book, and was purposely ignoring her. No, ignoring would imply actively attempting something. He had simply decided that she no longer existed.
'You're not going to give me any more than that are you?'
'Actually, there is one thing.'
Disconcerted, she frowned. Seeing this, Naru sighed heavily, still amazed by her tenacious ability to let the understanding of the simplest of things pass her by. It really was a talent.
'Tea. Make me some.'
Old habits certainly die hard. After 3 years of having Mai make his tea, Naru now categorically refused to accept the beverage from anyone but her. He didn't even attempt to make it himself anymore. And he called her lazy. Still, she knew better than to argue on this point, and set herself to the task. Pouring the steaming amber liquid into the delicate china cup, she wondered where their next case would take them. It would be nice to go somewhere agreeable for a change, rather than the drab, decrepit buildings they tended to go to.
'There you are. I'm going to shower and get ready. Please make yourself at home.'
If Naru detected the tinge of sarcasm with which the last sentence was adorned, Mai could not tell. Had she turned around on her way to her room however, she would have seen his lips stretch into a small, discreet smile.
Hands on the steering wheel, Naru thought back to the odd phone call he received earlier that morning. Though the caller knew who he was, they refused to disclose their own identity, and wouldn't even provide an address until Naru assured him beyond any doubt that he would take the case on. The details were fairly generic. Strange sounds, sightings, inanimate objects seemingly moving on their own…Half of the time these were the result of paranoid minds or well thought out pranks. Still, the caller had promised to pay him handsomely for his time, and that was more than enough motivation for him. Moreover, he had wasted no time in researching whatever he could about the abode situated at the given address. About 55 years ago, three deaths had occurred in one day on that estate. That was sure to attract headlines.
'Are we there yet?'
Mai's question drew him out of his thoughts.
'When will we get there? It's already been 3 hours!'
Not answering her question, he turned right into a small winding country road. Rolling past on each side were acres of fields, made all the more bright and cheery by the warm sunlight. The intoxicating smell of nature rushed in through the open windows, and he inhaled deeply, enjoying the aroma, though he would never admit to it. Finally, after another half hour, they reached the estate.
'Naru…You're not serious? This isn't the...We're not…'
Mai's voice trailed off as she took in the sight that greeted them. After having driven past a row of cherry trees, and a garden which seemed to extend for quite a few metres, an enormous mansion built of stone came into a view. In front of it was a fountain in the shape of a fox, also of stone. She watched, semi transfixed, as crystalline water flowed from the animal's open mouth. The fox itself stood on it hind legs, one paw in the air and its tail upright, commanding attention. She felt a small shudder course through her spine as she stared into its eyes.
'Ah, you must be the guests. Please, do come in.'
Mai followed Naru into the huge building, not daring to say a word. Never had a place had such an unnerving effect on her. She didn't much like grand buildings anyway, they always made her feel so…common. The butler led them through a lavishly decorated lobby into a large and open dining room. He motioned for both herself and Naru to sit in one of the numerous chairs which were positioned around a great big oak table.
'If you will excuse me for a moment, I will inform the master of your presence.'
With a little bow, he left the room. Mai took this opportunity to harass Naru one more time.
'Will you tell me what this is about? I can't believe you dragged me to this place without telling me anything!'
'You're the one who wanted to go somewhere nice this time. I don't understand the complaint.' He let out an exasperated sigh. 'Women can never be contented.'
How did he…? Had she said that out loud?!
'No, you did not tell me that, I just assumed correctly that it was what you were thinking. You're far too easy to read. The fact that no one has not yet taken advantage of your simplicity is beyond me.'
'You're mistaken. You have, when you made me think that I owed you for that camera, the one which I broke when we met.'
'You found out about that two years ago, and yet you are still here. Perhaps part of you enjoys being taken advantage of.'
This last comment caused her to blush, and any retort she had ready was obliterated. He always managed to shock her into silence. A small voice in her head added, Eugene would never have said anything of the sort. Frustrated at herself, she shook her head. She hated comparing the two brothers, and knew that thinking about him would only amount to sadness. She pushed the nagging thought back, and concentrated on her surroundings. She wouldn't be surprised if a ghost or vengeful spirit lurked here, it was all so expensively melancholic and gloomy. Even the wallpaper was a dark plum colour, and sucked out any light which came into the room.
'Sorry to keep you waiting.'
A handsome man entered the room. His blonde hair was tousled, but his aristocratic features definitely said that he belonged in this setting. His warm and welcoming smile reached his deep green eyes, and Mai couldn't help but smile back. In tow, a small girl of about 7 skipped happily, singing some merry nursery rhyme or other. She too had blonde hair, which bounced with every skip. Her sweet and melodious voice brightened up the room all at once.
'Akira, why don't you go play with your cousins whilst I have a chat with these nice people?'
Akira nodded and did a little dance, encircling her father, before skipping out of sight.
Her father joined Naru and Mai at the table, sitting across from them. Before he could say anything, Naru spoke up.
'Were you the one who I talked to on the phone this morning?'
'Ah, yes I was. My name is Katsura, I apologise for being so vague about all this. You see, our family's reputation is such that I could not disclose anything until I was sure you would come.'
So that was why Naru wouldn't tell her anything; it wasn't because of his insufferable character, but because he didn't know much himself. Mai took out her small notepad and the pen which Naru had gifted her for her 19th birthday.
'So, what exactly is the problem?'
'Well, this estate has been vacant for over 50 years. It used to be my father's family home, but after…well, he had to move, and hasn't returned since. He wouldn't even mention it until recently. Now however, it's as if he became obsessed with it. He wouldn't stop mentioning it until we eventually agreed to all spend our annual family summer holiday here.'
'Since we have arrived, which was about a week ago, he's been acting strange. We barely see him, and when we do, he just scowls and leaves. My father isn't the grouchy type, he's always been all smiles, especially with the children. But he's been unrecognisable for the past week.'
Naru observed the person sitting in front of him. He had become nervous and clammy, as if talking about his father made him uncomfortable.
'That's not all. There have been odd…occurrences…'
Katsura was becoming increasingly nervous, barely able to carry on.
'The children…they say that they can hear voices.'
'Children? How many are there?'
'Well, there's my daughter Akira, and my two sisters' children, Sakura, Hak, Gin and Isma.'
'I see. And do they hear these voices often?'
'Yes…I know this sounds cliché but, lights will switch on and off on their own accord, objects will move, things disappear, and…well, it's the strangest thing. From time to time, the entire mansion will fill up with the most acrid smell…As if something has been set on fire.'
Mai made sure to note all these details down, whilst Naru carefully thought about his next question.
'Have any murders happened in this house?'
Katsura, surprised, quickly answered;
'Are you sure?'
From the tone of his voice, Mai knew that Naru had acquired more information than he was letting on. Still, Katsura stayed firm in his answer.
'No. I mean, there were a few deaths…My grandparents passed away here, and so did my aunt, but those were coincidental and natural deaths. Not murders.'
'Right. Well, if that is all, we will need a room which we can use to our leisure.'
'Of course. We've no shortage of rooms here. Follow me, I will take you there.'
Katsura lead them up an impressive staircase, and down a wide corridor. The rest of the mansion was as dark as the dining room had been. All rich and sombre colours. The air felt heavy and dusty, the polished floorboards creaked with each step they took. Whatever light managed to make its way past the heavy red velvet curtains which hung on every window was swallowed up by the dark corners and dense shadows. Eventually, Katsura stopped, and opened a door, signalling for them to come in.
'I hope you will find that this room is to your liking. We made sure to choose the best one! It has an en-suite also, and we have made sure to include fresh towels, and a few refreshments on the side table there. I'll let you settle in, and will make sure to call for you when lunch is ready.'
With that, he walked away, leaving Natsu and Mai to deal with the awkward situation he had unknowingly put them in.
Mai swallowed, feeling herself turn a lovely shade of deep red that matched the curtains perfectly, as her mind took her way further than she wanted. The room, although spacious, only had one bed. A queen sized bed in fact. Apparently, their hosts weren't made aware of her relationship with Naru.
'It's fine. We will use this as our base. I'm sure they can spare another room.'
'Another…Where will you sleep?!'
Naru turned to look at her, his expression unreadable.
'In the other room I just mentioned.'
'Your sleeping arrangements are your concern, not mine.'
Ever so the gentleman. He was sure that was the remark which was going through Mai's head right now. He couldn't help himself. He wasn't the affectionate type, and she knew that better than anyone. Instead he teased her a little more vigorously than everyone else, knowing that she would appreciate the effort. His thoughts came to an abrupt stop as he felt the room's temperature drop suddenly. He didn't need his equipment to know that it had dropped to a figure well below zero. As the room darkened gradually, he reached out for Mai's hand, drawing her close to him. Ghosts tended to gravitate towards her, for a reason he had yet to understand, and if there was one thing he was sure of, it was that there was at least one in this very room. Soon, they were enveloped in impenetrable darkness.
'Naru…? What's happening?'
Mai felt her heartbeat increase, and her hair stand on end. There was definitely something in the room with them.
Out of the stone cold silence, a hollow tapping sound echoed, as if someone was hitting a desk repeatedly with an object. Naru squinted, trying to make something out, but the darkness had drowned everything in its wake. After a few seconds, the echoes changed. This time, splattering sounds resounded in quick succession across the room. Mai screamed as she felt droplets of an unknown substance hitting her arms, face and chest, burning her skin upon contact. The overwhelming scent of iron gave her an idea of what it could be. Before she could react, she felt a force slice through her - her legs gave way, and her consciousness slipped away. Naru caught her before she fell to the floor, relieved to notice that the temperature was rising, and the darkness lifting. He picked Mai up effortlessly, and gently lay her on the bed, brushing her hair to one side, away from her face. She was out cold. Whatever it was that was haunting this mansion certainly knew how to make itself known. He would have to call for backup. Taking his phone out, Naru dialled Monk's number.