Mai's voice cut through Lin's closed door and his concentration. He registered the low, unintelligible murmur of Naru's reply, then returned to reading the latest post to his favored paranormal BBS.
--the activity was limited to one bedroom and attached bath. Poltergeist activity--
"I tried that, but..."
--including banging on the ceiling--
"Then let me borrow just one of the thermal imaging cameras!"
Lin's eye twitched.
--and the television turning on and off. We unplugged--
"I do know how to use it! Yasuhara-san and Bou-san followed my instructions when they both first set up the cameras!"
He leaned forward, filling his vision with his laptop's black screen and its friendly green-glowing words.
--the television, and it CONTINUED! We tried to record--
This time, Naru's response was audible and sharp. "Mai. They are too heavy for you to handle safely."
"That's my problem!"
--the phenomenon, but our equipment was--
"Not when it involves SPR Equipment!"
With a frustrated noise, Lin pushed back from his desk and stood.
"The cameras are all insured, remember?!" Mai's voice had a nasty tone.
Lin opened the door and stared out into the reception area of the SPR office, where Mai and Naru were glaring at each other, standing on either side of the coffee table. Her face was as red as her summer blouse, her fists were clenched, and her jaw was set. In contrast, Naru was a study of coolness, though his crossed arms and narrowed eyes said otherwise. In his standard all-black shirt and slacks, he seemed a dark, impenetrable wall.
"Their kids were terrified when they left!" Mai yelled. Lin was surprised to see her eyes become shiny with tears. "Nanami-chan cried all the way to the train station! None of the family would go back in for a forgotten toy--I had to do it for them! Even Akira-kun was upset, and he's in middle school and pretends to not be afraid of anything!"
Naru took in a deep breath, and Lin knew what was coming. He debated ducking back into his room, but curiosity overcame caution.
"I don't care if the children of the current or any future tenants are afraid. That does not matter. What does matter is that this case is boring."
Lin became fascinated when the expected explosion from Mai did not happen. Instead, she seemed to freeze over. That seemed...ominous.
"I knew you'd say that. So I really will do it myself. That will spare you any distasteful ennui." She bit off the foreign word with a venom completely unlike her normally cheerful, warm self. "Bou-san will be willing to help me, I'm sure. That should take care of all the heavy lifting objections you might have."
"Bou-san has to record this weekend." Naru's voice sounded flat.
Mai bristled again. "Then I'll ask Yasuhara-san! Or John! Or even Ayako and Masako! All three of us girls can handle one camera, easily!"
Lin felt like he was watching a tennis match.
Mai visibly calmed herself and said in a reasonable tone, "Naru. I want to help my neighbors. I can do that if I borrow a camera from SPR. I will find someone else to help me with it. I won't bother you with my investigation at all. May I please use a camera."
Lin definitely heard the lack of a question mark at the end of her request. So did Naru.
"Fine. Borrow whatever you need. Note it on the equipment log as a new case, that way the insurance policy will apply. Don't bother me about this again." Naru turned on his heel and strode into his personal office, shutting the door firmly behind him.
"Thank you," Mai stiffly replied to his closed door. She snatched up her bag from the sofa and glanced up, starting when she realized Lin was watching her. Color flooded her face again. She clutched the bag to her chest and gave Lin a self-conscious bow. "I'm sorry to have disturbed your work, Lin-san", she told him quietly and moved to retrieve her light jacket from the coat tree next to the office's exit.
For a moment, Lin silently watched her. He felt prompted to say something. He refused to consider it might be because the tears that were about to overflow onto her face bothered him. "Taniyama-san..."
She paused with one hand on the door and looked over her shoulder.
He shifted uncomfortably. "Let me know when you come for the camera. I'll help you decide what you might need."
Mai blinked, and the motion made a tear spill over. She wiped at it with her free hand, awkwardly hugging the bag and jacket to her chest, and sniffled. "Thank you, Lin-san." She averted her gaze, thinking, then met his eyes again. "I'll be back in a few hours, after I change, make some phone calls, and eat."
He nodded. "I'll be here."
Mai gave him a sincere, if weak, smile. "I'll try to hurry. Thank you." The door snicked softly closed behind her.
Lin gave her enough time to reach the elevator before he knocked once on Naru's office door and walked inside.
Naru didn't bother to turn around. He just stood there in front of his floor-length window, arms still crossed, silhouetted in solid black against the gray, overcast sky.
Lin came to stand beside him, hands in his pockets, and also looked at the sky in silence. He then lowered his gaze to search Mai out by her bright red shirt as she made her way through the milling evening rush-hour crowds, on her way to the train station. He watched her until she vanished, and then glanced over to find Naru had also been watching her. Naru looked up, and their eyes met.
Lin raised one eyebrow at him.
Naru pressed his lips together. He abruptly spun his desk chair around and sat, facing Lin.
After twenty seconds of stony silence, Lin decided to break it himself. "Taniyama-san wants to investigate a unit in her apartment complex."
"And you refused to take on the case because it's boring."
"It is boring." Naru whirled in his chair back to his desk and began sorting through the various papers and magazines upon it. "If she wants to waste her time on it, that's her business."
"We both know you use 'boring' as a convenient blanket excuse." Lin knocked his knuckles against the glass window pane to mark his next point. "There are children involved again. You know how Taniyama-san is when it comes to children in a case."
Naru humphed in agreement. "She's so predictable about it."
Lin studied him. "Then why were you so reluctant to let her use any SPR equipment? You just admitted she was willing to investigate on her own--" Lin cut himself off and mentally reviewed what he had witnessed of Naru and Mai's argument and their current conversation. He took a step towards Naru. "I see..."
His suspicions were confirmed when a tiny blush appeared on Naru's cheeks.
"You didn't refuse to take on the case...because she never asked you to help. And you fought against her borrowing the equipment to use on her own because you wanted her to ask."
Naru made a dismissive noise, but he steadfastly refused to look up from his desk.
Lin remained standing in silence next to him.
Naru's blush intensified, then slowly vanished. He sighed and leaned back in his chair, his expression defeated.
And that was that. Lin walked to the door without saying another word, a suitably chastised Naru in his wake. He made a dismissive snort of his own as he entered the research room, leaving his door wide open so he could hear when Mai returned for the equipment.
Naru and his damned pride.
The sound of the office door opening was accompanied by Yasuhara's cheerful, "Good evening!" which rang through the office.
Lin rose and left the research room, closing the door behind him out of habit.
Yasuhara appeared to be in his usual good humor as he hung his jacket on the coat tree while humming a jaunty tune. He was dressed comfortably in jeans and an unbuttoned oxford shirt over a brown tee. He answered Yasuhara's welcoming wave with a nod.
"You're here to assist Taniyama-san?"
"Yes. She said she'd meet me here by eight p.m. I see by the lack of her visible presence and jacket that I arrived first." Yasuhara looked at Naru's closed office door, back to Lin.
Lin stiffened when Yasuhara eyed him, a full once-over up and down, his smile turning cagey.
"Until then, it's just the two of us," he smarmed and approached Lin, who froze as he tried to comprehend Yasuhara's behavior. Bou-san was the one Yasuhara flirted with, not him!
Lin took a reflexive step backward as Yasuhara entered his personal space, the shorter man's eyes at half-mast and gazing up at Lin through disturbingly lush eyelashes. Lin thumped against his closed door, retreat stymied.
"I'm glad she's not here yet, because it means we can talk. Just us men," he murmured, his breath hot on the narrow V of bare skin exposed by Lin's unbuttoned shirt collar.
Lin pressed his back against the door and mentally scrambled for a way to escape that would not involve bodily harm to either of them.
Yasuhara reached up with one hand to hover it above Lin's pounding heart, threatening to touch. "And as a man, I'm sure you understand how eager I am to get Taniyama-san alone..."
His palm made contact.
Lin was being touched. Unwanted unasked for uninitiated unwelcome physical contact!
Naru's office door slammed open. "Yasuhara-san. Good evening."
The pair of them froze, Lin's hand only centimeters away from grabbing Yasuhara's wrist and twisting him off his feet.
"Lin and I will be accompanying you tonight, if he does not send you to the emergency room instead."
Lin ripped his gaze from Yasuhara--still touching too close too warm--to find Naru standing framed in his office doorway, somehow managing to radiate annoyance and boredom simultaneously.
Yasuhara stepped back, taking his unbearable hand with him.
Lin rubbed his chest, trying to efface the burning imprint of the hand from his tactile memory.
Yasuhara chuckled and settled on one of the sofas. "You've decided to join me and Taniyama-san, then! I see." He leaned back and crossed his legs. "She was quite certain it would be just her and myself. I admit, I'm rather disappointed to have company after all."
Naru moved to loom over him. "You are here to work. Stop harassing my employees."
His glasses suspiciously opaque, Yasuhara agreed with genial words. "Of course, Boss. No more employee harassing tonight. I promise."
Not deigning to reply, Naru opened the equipment storage closet and began loading the baggage cart with the shelving they brought along on every investigation. Lin joined him, his irritation at high tide, and found he did not care what Yasuhara might be implying with that particular phrasing, as long as it did not involve him.
Lin did not say a word to Yasuhara during their trip to load the van in the parking garage below the office building. He could see Yasuhara glancing at him, reflected in the metallic walls of the freight elevator, but Lin stubbornly refused to acknowledge the other man. He kept the cart between them and only spoke in the gestures and monosyllables necessary to transfer the equipment into the van.
Yasuhara finally forced his unwilling attention with a strong, "Lin-san."
Deliberately, Lin tested the locked doors of the van before he turned to face the other man, who surprised him by immediately bowing.
"Lin-san, I apologize for my behavior. I did not realize my ploy to irritate Shibuya-san would affect you so aversely. I'd hoped to goad him into helping Taniyama-san, and wrongly used you for that purpose. You have my most humble apologies."
Lin blinked at Yasuhara, still in his deep bow. The backs of his ears, visible through the thick brown hair, were bright red. Lin let him stew for several more seconds. When Yasuhara's hands clenched in tension on his jeans, Lin ended the long moment with a sigh.
"You are forgiven, Yasuhara-san."
He straightened with palpable relief. "Thank you."
Lin took a step forward and caught Yasuhara's gaze, his eyes rock-hard. "I do not liked to be touched, Yasuhara-san. Please remember that."
Nodding faintly, Yasuhara replied, "Understood, Lin-san."
The return trip to the office was made in thoughtful silence.
Mai exited the elevator only a few seconds after they left the freight elevator, Lin pushing the empty cart.
She smiled brightly in greeting. She'd changed her office-wear blouse and skirt for a casual pink shirt and gray shorts. "Good evening again, Lin-san. Yasuhara-san, thank you for being willing to help me with this case."
Yasuhara moved to walk next to her. "I'm glad I can help. This case is in your home, and affects you and your neighbors. No one should have to deal with that alone, particularly not when they are part of a paranormal research company."
Mai waved a quick hand in negation. "I wouldn't have been completely alone. Lin-san offered to help me with the equipment. Right, Lin-san?" She flashed him another smile and bobbed her head in thanks.
Caught off-guard, Lin made a noise of agreement and concentrated on pushing the cart straight down the hallway.
"That was good of him," Yasuhara commented with an odd inflection in his voice.
The tone made Lin focus on him, but he had already stepped ahead and opened the office door for Mai, his eyes on the girl as she went inside. Lin studied him suspiciously as he maneuvered the cart through the entrance. Yasuhara just gave him an easy smile, free of guile and almost...affectionate.
It made him shiver.
He was halfway to the equipment closet before the tension in the room pierced his thoughts. He paused and turned to see Mai staring down Naru. Yasuhara stood several steps behind Mai, his gaze switching between the two in their weighted silence.
Naru abruptly sat on a couch. "Please sit, Mai. I need you to formally answer the usual client questions."
Naru sighed and gestured for her to sit on the couch across from him. "You know we need this information, both to establish the parameters for the case, and for the official record."
She hesitantly lowered herself onto the seat cushion, brow furrowed. Naru lifted a clipboard that was prepared with the standard paperwork from the coffee table between them, and he readied a pen.
"Your address is still in Togoshi--"
"Are you helping me now, Naru?"
"Yes, Mai." Without missing a beat, he continued, "In Togoshi at 3-7-15--"
Naru tapped the pen sharply against the clipboard, then returned both to the table. He placed his hands on his knees and leaned forward, meeting Mai's baleful gaze with one of blasé acceptance. He'd been expecting this confrontation. "You believe you have psychic phenomena happening at your building. Through this job, you have a great deal of experience with such phenomena, and know what is worth investigating and what is not."
Mai matched his pose, her eyes narrowed. "You said this case was boring. What changed your mind?" she demanded.
One of Naru's eyebrows twitched. Lin knew Naru's prideful ability to believe he was not in the wrong was being stressed.
"Nothing changed my mind. It's still boring. You should have asked for it to be an official case."
Leaping to her feet, Mai shouted. "Oh, no you don't! You will not put this on me! You should have offered!"
The cold expression on Naru's face, as close to outright anger as he was capable of showing, made Lin take a cautious step forward. Lin knew Naru was angry with himself for his childish behavior when Mai had approached him about the case earlier, and now he was also frustrated that Mai was unwilling to receive his help without question. This was nothing but a pointless contest of who had the biggest pride.
Before he could take a second step, Yasuhara insinuated himself between the two, leaning over the coffee table and waving his hands to catch their attention and possibly dispel the bad humor. "Easy, easy! Both of you!"
They switched their glares to him. Lin had to give Yasuhara credit; the guy barely flinched from the double-barrel shot of malice.
"This argument isn't accomplishing anything." He turned to Mai. "Taniyama-san. For whatever reason, Shibuya-san has decided to join us on the case. His expertise will be good to have, and should help us solve the case faster than we could on our own. That's what is important, right? To make your apartment building safe again."
Frustration made Mai wrinkle her nose, then she sighed and plopped back down onto the couch. "Yes," she muttered grudgingly. "I'm glad Naru can help. For the children," she qualified, and leaned back with crossed arms.
Yasuhara turned to Naru, who headed him off with a raised hand.
"It's fine, Yasuhara-san. I apologize for behaving in such an uncouth manner." He scooped up the clipboard and pen as he also sat. "Mai. I would honestly like to help you on this case."
Dully, she replied, "Okay. Thank you for your help, Naru."
Yasuhara visibly relaxed, and Lin caught his eye and gave him a nod of acknowledgement. Yasuhara smiled thinly in reply and sat in the armchair perpendicular to the couches.
Lin readied the cart for a possible second trip to the van once they knew more about the case's specifics, and he leaned against the wall to listen to Mai's official answers.
The activity originated in Apartment 12, which was the one next door to Mai, and formerly the residence of the Aotani family--mother, father, two children. Only in the past two or three weeks had the activity become noticeable, and it now affected all the surrounding apartments, including downstairs. The activity was partially tactile. The Aotanis reported touches and bumps that ranged from a soft brush to a strong shove. Puffs of warm air were also felt several times. But mostly, the activity was audible. Loud thumping noises of varying degrees of speed and duration, and audible murmuring that would suddenly intensify into shrill screams. At times the noise would be trackable, and a person could actually hear the invisible source of the noise move across the room and around people and objects.
This last bit of information made even Naru pause, and Mai nodded in confirmation. "Yes, it's true. I've witnessed it happening. It was," she paused to hug herself, "really creepy. I heard it walk around me."
Naru traded a glance with Lin. Trackable audible phenomena weren't that rare, but to have it react to people present was evidence that it wasn't a residual haunting, but an intelligent one. This youkai was apparently self-aware. And powerful. After all, it took more energy to sustain audible footsteps across a room than to just bang on the wall once or twice.
Lin suspected Naru had upgraded this case to mildly interesting.
Mai lived only twelve kilometers from the office, in an older and slightly rundown neighborhood in Togoshi, Shinagawa-ku. The commute was fast through the thin twilight traffic on the highways, and they arrived just before eight forty-five p.m. Rather than the apartment complex Lin had been expecting, Mai lived in a simple two-level building done in weathered-cement gray; an older building that perfectly matched the neighborhood. All thirteen units faced the same direction and each had a single door that opened onto a walkway--concrete on the ground floor, metal mesh with a hand rail on the second level. The odd number of apartments was due to the double-sized manager's place on one corner of the ground floor. The staircase was located on the far east side.
The manager, Ishibashi-san, came out to greet the van's passengers as Lin pulled to a stop in the loading zone on the east side of the building. Mai did introductions. It quickly became apparent that Ishibashi-san knew much less about the phenomena than Mai. He could only add that the disturbances had also driven out the elderly couple who had been renting the place on the other side of the affected room, and the residents directly downstairs were threatening to leave as well. He devoutly expressed his wishes that Shibuya Psychic Research would live up to Mai's wild stories.
Yasuhara was quick to say that no matter how far-fetched Mai's tales might seem, he knew first-hand how very dangerous the supernatural could be, and how effective SPR's methods. He concluded with, "To grasp the reality of the supernatural and understand how to effectively handle it takes an open and intelligent mind."
This parting shot was delivered in his usual dry, guiless tone, and Ishibashi completely missed the veiled insult. The man even nodded his agreement and grumbled an affirmation, much to Yasuhara's apparent amusement. Lin saw Mai chide Yasuhara, but given the contortions of her face as she fought not to giggle, Lin doubted she really meant it.
Everyone followed the manager around the corner of the building to head upstairs for the tour, except Lin. He opened the van's back doors and prepared to unload the equipment. They had packed light for this case, since the single room was eight tatami--
Lin froze. He slowly turned to see a male child of about six years old staring up at him. The miniature person beamed almost as brightly as the Doraemon printed on his grubby tee-shirt.
"You're really tall!" Apparently, this meant Lin was fascinating, because the boy did not stop staring.
Three more children joined the first, two girls and another boy. All three gaped up at him. "Wow, Shingo! You're right, he is really tall!" the girl in pink shorts said. "Oji-san, how tall are you?"
"Yeah!" the two boys chimed in.
"Um...194 centimeters," he muttered hesitantly, always at a loss when it came to dealing with the horror of children.
"Awesome!" the three kids shouted in chorus and rushed him. "What's in the van? Why do you have all these cameras? Are you an actor? Play with us!"
"Wait--no--don't climb inside!" Lin grabbed the second boy by the back of his Yomiuri Giants jersey just as the little terror had climbed up on the bumper. He quickly deposited the kid on the ground, managed to herd the other two back, and closed the van's doors.
He took a deep breath, fighting down memories of the previous Christmas fiasco, and faced the children.
They grinned, teeth and eyes glinting evilly in the street lights. Except for the fourth child, the other girl, who had yet to move at all. She watched him, her expression serious. She hugged a large stuffed animal to her chest when she realized Lin was looking at her.
"Children. I am here to work. I do not have time to play with you."
"I know! Mai-neechan said you were coming! You're the Ghost Busters!" Shingo of the Doraemon shirt cheered, and immediately launched into a facsimile of the movie's theme song.
Pink Shorts latched on to his slacks pocket and tugged once before he could evade. "Oji-san! I think it's my grandpa! He died ages ago. Are you going to exercise him? Can I watch?" She gave him a gap-toothed grin.
Lin shuddered. "It's exorcize, and I don't know."
"Chalk drawings show up on the sidewalks at night! It's a youkai, I just know it!" Shingo shouted. "Let's go tell our moms they're here!"
"Yeah!" the other two forthright children chimed in.
The kids ran for their various front doors, all singing the theme song in badly mangled Engrish. Lin was relieved beyond measure that they'd left of their own accord, and he hoped their mothers would keep them indoors and out of his life.
He sighed and pulled out his handkerchief to rub the child residue off his hands. That Giants jersey had been sweaty.
Lin looked up and saw that the quiet girl had not vanished with the rest of her pack. She took a tiny step forward, still clutching the plush animal. She seemed much more in control of herself, and thus much less intimidating.
"Yes?" he responded.
She shifted her weight from foot to foot, then asked, "Do you like horsies?"
The non-sequitur made Lin blink. "What?"
"Horsies." She looked down at the stuffed animal in her arms and held it out to him. Lin realized it was indeed vaguely horse-shaped, done in bright primary colors that nature never intended to bestow upon an actual living equine.
"Um...horses are fine," he stated with caution.
"I like horsies," she firmly declared. "They're pretty."
"They can be very pretty." That made her smile.
She held out the plushie. "Will you be nice to my horsie?" She was clearly expecting him to do something.
Inwardly Lin grimaced, then made himself reach out with one hand to pat the toy on its painfully blue head. "I promise."
The girl's smile became even brighter. "You're really nice!"
Lin feared he was about to be hugged, but the girl's attention shifted away from him, and she gave him a quick bow before running towards the building. "Mama! He likes my horsie!"
Gratefully, Lin watched her go and used his handkerchief on his hand again. He could hear the others approaching, a combination of footsteps on metal stairs and Mai and Yasuhara-san's continuous chatter. He tucked the handkerchief into his trouser pocket and reopened the van's back doors with relief. It was finally time to work.
Mai had prepared her room to be their base before the manager had offered them the use of Apartment 11, the one on the other side of the haunted apartment, but Naru decided to use Mai's after all. He claimed it was because Mai had the end apartment as far from the noisy staircase as possible, but Lin suspected it was to make the girl feel more comfortable and in control. The sturdy table for their electronics and the four folding chairs took up half of the neat room's space.
Lin finished plugging the last of the three VCRs they were using for this case into the power strip, stood, and declared the base's electronics setup complete. He exited Mai's room and ducked inside the entrance of the haunted Apartment 12, truly examining it for the first time.
It was a mirror image of Mai's, though bare of furniture and tatami. The bath and toilet were on the left wall, the closet opposite, the small kitchen next to the entryway and separated from it by a partial wall, and two windows on the far side. They were open to catch the sluggish early night breeze. The Aotani family had left behind only the detritus to be expected after a hasty departure, among which were a child's sock, scraps of paper, a crayon stub, a worn plastic toy car missing a tire, an even more worn small metal horse, and an old Famicom game cartridge that looked like it had been stepped on and crushed.
Mai picked up the latter and gave it a once-over. "I remember when this happened. Akira-kun was really angry," she said quietly. She glanced up and noticed Lin in the doorway. "Lin-san."
"Taniyama-san," he returned. With the bare floors, he didn't bother to remove his shoes and stepped out of the recessed entrance, taking care to not bump into the camera positioned just inside, nor Mai's digital thermometer and clipboard, left against the wall.
Mai placed the smashed game inside a large shoe box that already contained several pieces of abandoned Aotani belongings. Lin helped her gather up the rest, and obligingly checked the highest closet shelves for more items, finding a paperclip and a pornographic video that featured two surgically-enhanced women sharing a street thug motorcycle, complete with decorative rebel kanji embroidered on coats, tattooed on skin, and rampantly stroked down a tall vertical flag on the back of the bike. Lin dropped both the paperclip and the video into the box Mai was holding for him with equal amounts of disinterest.
Her face flushed bright red when she took in the video. "I had no idea busty Yanki women were a thing," she commented in surprise.
Lin smiled grimly. "Taniyama-san, one should never underestimate the vagaries of man," he said with stilted, archaic formality.
"Huh." She looked back down at the video. "This would provide no end of punch lines for Yasuhara-san. Naru is already so tetchy tonight."
Lin met her eyes. "Hide it at the bottom."
With a giggle, Mai did so, gracing the top of the collection with the old toys. She plopped the lid closed and slid the box into the closet. "There. If he wants to paw through all that, let him."
Lin's smile became genuine, and he felt slightly guilty to take advantage of the relaxed atmosphere by asking a difficult question. "Taniyama-san, have you had any dreams about this youkai?"
As expected, her cheer dimmed. She stood up and sighed. "I've been feeling lonely since the Aotanis moved out. The Yamaguchis on the other side left last week. They were really nice..." Her expression firmed. "I have had two or three dreams about being alone in my corner of the building, but that could easily be all me. I mean, why would a youkai be lonely? They prefer not to be disturbed by living people, right?"
Lin nodded. "Yes, that is almost always the case."
Mai brightened. "Ha! And Naru says I never know anything about hauntings."
"You don't know nearly enough, Mai," Naru commented from the entryway.
"Hey, I'm learning!" Mai defended herself. "I'd learn faster if all your trade magazines were in Japanese instead of English!"
"Taniyama-san, your English is that bad? I'm so disillusioned..." Yasuhara said with mock despair, hand held theatrically to his chest, as if his heart were breaking in disappointment.
She stomped to the door, snatching up her digital thermometer and clipboard on the way while bickering loudly with Yasuhara-san, Naru's low occasional words providing counterpoint as the three entered Mai's Apartment 13.
Lin rubbed the back of his head in resignment before he knelt to check the battery on the camera in the room's back right corner, opposite the kitchen. He was sure the battery setup and camera were fine, but he wanted to give the other three time to work through the end of their current conversation without being caught in the crossfire. Again.
A puff of air ruffled the hair at the nape of his neck. He started, then jerked about on his knees to find the room completely empty of life, save for him. He jumped again when a car horn blared outside, thanks to the open windows.
Lin cursed under his breath. With the windows opened, he couldn't be certain the puff had not originated from the faint breeze. He frowned and rubbed the back of his head and neck again. He had goose bumps.
He rose, stuck his head out of the closest window, and took a deep breath tinged with the scent of city. He ducked back inside and closed both windows. They made a satisfyingly solid thump as the glass slid home.
"Naru! Taniyama-san! Yasuhara-san! We're going live!" he called out the open door, effectively silencing the others. He toggled the camera's power switch to on.
"We're a go, Lin," Naru replied.
Lin turned on the other two cameras as he passed them. At the entrance, he turned to gaze into the empty room. He watched and waited for fifteen silent seconds, then killed the lights and shut the door behind him.
Two a.m., and still no activity.
The windows and door were closed to limit noise contamination from outside, making the room heated and rather stuffy in the humid summer night. Mai's two fans, and two more brought from SPR, hummed quietly as they stirred the muggy air in the room. Yet even in his business shirt and slacks, Lin felt as relaxed and centered as it was possible for him to be while working on a case. He sat at the base's table and transferred the case's notes from paperwork to laptop file. Naru sat next to him, headphones to the doorway camera's audio feed in place, and altered his attention between watching the TVs and perusing his latest topographic map. Mai slept tucked away inside her closet, hoping to learn more about the youkai, and Yasuhara was asleep in the empty Apartment 11.
Inactivity was par for the course. Youkai were always nervous when strangers intruded into their space, and they reacted one of two ways. The violent would make their displeasure known, like the possessed doll case almost a year ago. The meek would simply remain hidden for hours or even days, waiting for the intruders to leave them be, like so many previous cases that ended up as nothing. Lin suspected this youkai would fall somewhere between the two extremes, given Mai's report of its behavior, and Lin's own suspected introduction to it.
Lin had just added that supposition to the case file's comment section when he felt rather than heard a sound from his own set of headphones, which were connected to the camera against Apartment 12's back wall.
His eyes snapped to the televisions, and Naru touched his forearm to alert him at the same time. They both leaned forward, watching and listening intently. Naru turned up the master volume in careful increments.
Thud. Thud thud. Thud thud. The sound was muted and slightly muddled by white noise, but it was undeniable. All three TVs showed only an empty apartment or its equally empty bathroom.
The sounds began again, and Lin stopped holding his breath to whisper, "Naru, it's nearing the back camera. I can hear it approaching."
Naru nodded. "I hear it moving away from the doorway camera," he breathed.
The pace had increased. Thud thud, thud thud, thud thud thud THUD.
Lin's heart pounded inside his chest.
A low rumble came through the headphones, slightly staccato like a slow idling engine, then faded. Suddenly the image from the back camera jostled once, again, this time accompanied by the sound of the tripod's legs scraping on the bare wooden floor. The rumble returned, louder, and it ended with a clear huff of air, up close and personal across the microphone.
Lin's eyes were burning--he hadn't blinked once since the sounds had begun, drinking in the TV's feed of empty room.
Silence for eleven seconds, then six more thumps, farther away from the back camera. More silence.
Naru settled a hand on his shoulder, and when Lin ripped his eyes from the TV, pointed to Mai's closet and the door.
As quietly as possible, Lin stood and moved to the closet. He crouched and slid the door open to find Mai asleep on her futon. The warm night combined with the close quarters of her closet had made her push off the single sheet. In a compromise between modesty and heat, she wore only a camisole and a pair of shorts. Her eyes flickered under closed eyelids, and her lips had the barest twitch.
Lin gently shook her awake. Her face scrunched and lips parted, taking in a breath to protest--Lin laid his hand across her mouth.
Her eyes shot wide open.
Lin lifted a finger to his lips, uncovered her mouth, and gave her a short one-handed apologetic bow.
Mai sat up, expression quizzical.
He leaned in and whispered in her ear, "Audible activity, and the back camera was bumped."
She stilled in shock at that, and Lin nodded at her unvoiced question for confirmation. Wow, she mouthed.
"Temperature recordings. Both of us." At her nod, he rose, donned his shoes, and opened the door. Mai tugged on a tee-shirt and joined him, flashlight, digital thermometer, and clipboard in hand.
Lin slowly opened the door to Apartment 12 and listened, noting the cool air that wafted out into the warm night that surrounded them where they stood on the walkway. Mai was tense and silent behind him. He waved her forward, and she stepped into the entrance and noted the temperature on the clipboard, backing out when she was finished. Lin flicked on his flashlight and entered the room, keeping to the side between the entrance and bathroom door to block as little of the front camera's view as possible. Mai followed, her own flashlight now on, and began to move about the room in silent rubber-soled steps, recording the temperature in the same places she had taken it earlier that evening, before the overhead light had been turned on and the cameras settled into place.
Lin took a deep breath, confirming what he had sensed when he opened the apartment door. The room was noticeably cooler than outside and definitely cooler than Mai's room, more than could be attributed to the lack of three warm bodies, a lamp, and a tableful of electronics.
The youkai had used the latent heat for energy to create the footsteps and bump the camera.
A chill ran up his spine, and he had the urge to recite the spells that would prepare his shikigami for summoning.
Mai froze on the other side of the room, pen suspended in mid-number. She turned in place, staring at Lin, her eyes bright in the street light coming through the windows.
A puff of warm air kissed across Lin's face--a sudden shove from nothing on the middle of his chest. He stepped back, more from the double shock than the actual force of the push. A second shove struck, and much harder. Lin staggered backwards, lost his balance, and hit the floor with a painful, "Oof!"
"Lin-san!" Mai shouted.
A great warbling scream exploded in front of him, cutting through the room. Lin clamped his hands over his ears. Invisible footsteps pounded the floor around him, then raced off towards the center of the room and Mai. Lin saw her knocked aside in a glancing blow, actually registering the visible impact upon her skin and clothes. She cried out and collapsed on her side.
The scream sounded again, the warbling breaking up until the sound was unmistakable. The youkai was laughing.
Naru and Yasuhara ran inside, one of them slapping on the overhead light. Naru crouched next to Lin and demanded, "Are you all right?! What happened?! You were too far to the left and turned away; the camera couldn't catch it all!"
Lin looked down at his body. "I'm fine," he said, a bit dazed. He accepted Naru's hand up and stood, feeling his side and hips twinge from where he had landed on the hardwood floor. He swallowed. "It shoved me, Naru. Or rather, first I felt a puff of warm air, then a slight push on my chest, then the hard shove that knocked me down."
He waved a hand through the fog his words had generated. "Look, it's cold enough to see our breath."
Naru blinked. He turned about. "Mai! What's the tempera--"
When he cut himself off, Lin looked past him to see Yasuhara and Mai. Yasuhara had run to Mai while Naru checked on Lin. The younger man was kneeling next to her, one arm around her back and holding her to his chest, her own arms clinging to his neck. To make things even more surprising, Yasuhara was garbed only in a pair of boxers. He was showing a disturbing amount of bare skin, and Mai was glommed onto him like a long-lost love.
"Mai! Yasuhara-san!" Naru snapped.
The pair jumped, and Mai quickly let go of Yasuhara's neck. They stood up together. Mai explained with a shaky voice, "I'm fine, Naru. Just surprised and a little bruised." She gave him a weak smile, then searched the floor until she found her equipment.
Naru pinned Yasuhara with a baleful gaze.
Yasuhara raised his hands in a defensive gesture. "She was trembling and needed a hug. With all the noise jolting me awake, I forgot I'd taken off my night clothes because it's so hot."
Mai cleared her throat, her face red. "Um...hot everywhere but in here. The ambient temperature before we set up was 29.4 degrees. After the audible activity and camera jostling, it was 13.9." She paused before she concluded, "Now, it's 3.9."
Yasuhara whistled in appreciation, shivered, and rubbed his arms.
"Deal with it," Naru bluntly ordered him. "Lin, fix the back camera. Mai, come with me."
"What's going on here?!" an angry male voice demanded. Standing in the door were several men from the complex, including the manager, Ishibashi. Lin noticed one held a baseball bat. "I thought you lot were supposed to get rid of that thing, not make it even worse!"
Naru approached them to apologize and explain. Lin left him to it and walked to the back camera. He returned the tripod legs to within the chalked circles that marked their original position. Thankfully the camera itself was securely screwed to the tripod, and the youkai had not bumped it with enough force to knock it askew. Must be nice, Lin thought wryly and rubbed his hip.
"Lin-san..." Mai had approached, silent in her sneakers. He could see goose bumps on her arms, and she hugged herself.
Lin wished he had a jacket to loan her, and felt surprised at the thought. He quickly knelt to check the battery setup on the floor. Everything there was fine; the battery still had the expected amount of charge.
"Why is Naru being so sharp with Yasuhara-san tonight?"
Lin glanced up at her. "He is?"
"Yeah. During the drive here, and particularly on the tour. And just now. I mean, Yasuhara-san honestly forgot about his pajamas, he was just so worried about us." She looked over to the doorway, where Naru was herding the men outside. Yasuhara took advantage of the moment and ducked around the corner, no doubt to get dressed. "I'm glad we hid that stupid porno tape. Yasuhara-san might have really angered Naru with jokes about it, given his mood tonight," she muttered. "Why? What's going on? Is it just because of my argument with Naru at the office?"
Lin stood and gestured for them to leave the cold room, and he explained in a low voice while he checked the other two cameras on the way out. "In the office before you arrived, Yasuhara-san deliberately provoked Naru, with the intent of goading Naru to help you tonight." Lin sighed. "It worked, and Yasuhara-san apologized to me, but Naru is apparently still on edge."
"Apologized to you?" she asked in astonishment. "What did he do?"
Lin made a pained expression and exited the room, enjoying the warmer air outside. He paused and took in a deep breath. Mai did likewise beside him. Lin could hear Naru's voice at the other end of the walkway. He had convinced the concerned men to descend the staircase. His distant voice sounded warm and confident.
After several more seconds, Mai must have grown tired of waiting, because she poked him in the side. "Tell me!" she insisted.
With a glare from him that she returned in equal force, they moved into her room, thankfully empty of Yasuhara.
Lin closed the door. "Yasuhara-san touched me," he gritted out.
Mai looked at him blankly. "He touched you?" she echoed, disbelief plain in her voice.
"Yes, he touched me. In a very suggestive way." Lin felt his face burn.
Mai's eyes were about to pop out of her head. She clamped a hand over her mouth, and her gaze started to drift down to his hips.
"Not there!" Lin snarled, embarrassment making his voice hot. "Here!" He touched his chest.
Her cheeks flushed, Mai tilted her head. "Your sternum? How is that suggestive?"
"It was the way he did it. And I don't like to be touched. At all."
"Oh. Um...since when?"
"Since forever. I don't mind only when it's initiated by me--though I'd still rather not--or when it's from someone I know very well, like Naru. Yasuhara-san has several years before he qualifies for that."
"Oh," she repeated. "How did I not know this?"
Lin walked to the table and settled tiredly into his chair, while Mai perched on the one she had claimed before her nap.
Lin rubbed his face. "It's not like a lot of personal touching happens during a case or in the office, Mai. And I only see you when you're working. It took you a year to notice I'm a vegetarian, remember?"
"Oh, yeah..." she trailed off, then turned bright red again. "Sorry I poked you just now." She bowed from her chair.
Lin waved it away with a hand. "You didn't know. But thank you for apologizing."
Mai made a noise of acquiescence.
Naru and a fully-dressed Yasuhara appeared, carrying a fourth VCR and television from the SPR van. Lin and Mai understood immediately, and she pointed to her low table where it leaned on its side against the wall with legs folded in. Lin centered it in the room's empty half, and Mai straightened the legs and helped him flip it upright. Very soon, the new setup was in place and plugged in. Naru listened for any activity on each recording camera, then switched the three tapes out for fresh blanks one at a time.
All four kneeled on the floor around one end of the table, Naru gesturing for Yasuhara to sit next to him, thus establishing himself as a buffer between Yasuhara and his other two employees. Lin caught Yasuhara's eye and received a wry smile and tiny shrug.
"Lin, Mai," Naru said. "As we review the activity on all three tapes, I want you to consider what you experienced, and any thoughts or impressions you might have. Particularly you, Mai."
"Understood," they both answered.
Naru loaded the front camera's tape, rewound it to the noted time he and Lin had first heard the thumps, and hit play.
Three times Lin listened to the thumps, and two times he watched himself and Mai knocked down by the laughing youkai. The third tape, from the bathroom camera, ended up being the most helpful for Lin. Without the distraction of seeing himself affected by something invisible to both naked eye and camera lens, he was able to focus upon the sounds.
The group was silent after Naru stopped the third tape, everyone caught up in their own thoughts.
"Mai?" Naru asked.
After a moment to consider, she spoke. "I don't sense anything evil from this youkai. I never have. Even when it was pushing Lin-san and charging at me, it seemed..."
"Happy," Lin finished in a low voice.
Mai and Yasuhara gaped at him, and Naru raised an eyebrow. "Explain," he ordered.
Lin blushed. "I think it was saying hello, at least at first. It didn't attack the back camera, just...investigated it. Like it was curious. And before we began recording, I think it blew air on me. When I was alone in the room, right before I turned on the cameras."
This time, it was Lin who found himself raising his hands in defense of Naru's ire. "I couldn't be certain it was the youkai, Naru. The windows were open."
Naru's eyes narrowed. "You should have told me anyway."
"I did add it to the case file. It's the first entry in the events section. With the open windows variable acknowledged."
Naru humphed. "Fine. Continue."
"Well, I do think it was happy. You heard the recording, it was laughing. With joy. I think. Because we're here, and it's not alone anymore." Lin's face truly felt on fire, from the acute embarrassment for having to say something so very...Mai.
Mai nodded vigorously. "Yes, I agree! Remember, Naru? I told you on the tour that I'd had dreams about being left alone. They really could have been from the youkai! And while I was napping tonight, before Lin-san woke me, I dreamed something else." She smiled beautifully. "I had a dream about finding new friends."
That earned two raised eyebrows from Naru.
She grew defensive. "In my dreams, I'm always warned by--um, someone important to me--if there's danger on a case. I haven't seen him this time, and I already told you I haven't felt anything evil. Besides, it could have deliberately hurt either me or Lin-san, like how it crushed that game cartridge Akira-kun left behind. I don't think it meant to knock us down, it was just feeling...exuberant." She beamed at the fifty-point word.
"Hmm." Naru tapped a finger on the table and said, "I saw that game cartridge. Where is it now?"
"I put it in a box with the other random stuff the Aotanis left. It's in the closet."
Lin stood and walked to the door. "I'll get it."
Yasuhara jumped up. "I'll go with you."
"Take the temperature!" Naru called after them.
Lin listened at the door to Apartment 12, and when only silence met his ears, he stepped inside and walked to the closet, while Yasuhara recorded the temperature in the standard places around the room. Lin knew his findings would prove the room had warmed. He could feel it.
Both returned to Mai's Apartment 13 without incident, Lin with the box in-hand. Lin set the box on the floor and dug out the game cartridge. He handed it to Naru.
Naru ran his thumbs along the edge of the depression, which took up almost all of the old gray Famicom game cartridge and was slightly off-center. More round than oval-shaped, it looked like someone had slammed their very large heel down onto the game. With a vengeance.
He held the game up to Mai. "Not evil?"
"Not evil. Exuberant," she persisted.
"I wonder about that. Yasuhara-san, replay the back camera's recording. I want to test something."
As the tape played yet again, Naru tapped the fingers of both hands on the table, in time with the footsteps from the recording. When the tape ended with the warbling laugh, Naru smiled.
"That's a lot of footsteps for a humanoid youkai. And the pattern is curiously staggered when it's moving fast. It has four legs."
"It's an animal youkai? Like a fox?" Mai asked.
Lin picked up the game cartridge and traced the round outline of the depression, as Naru had. "Will you be nice to my horsie?" he whispered, and spoke up to answer the inquisitive expressions of the other three. "One of the children who accosted me while you were all on the tour. She asked me if I would be nice to her horsie. She was holding a plush toy horse at the time, so I thought..." he trailed off.
Mai gaped at him, then at Naru. "The youkai is a horse?!" How is that even possible?! We're in a city!"
"This part of Tokyo has been urbanized for at least half a century," Yasuhara chimed in. "Though I can't be sure without actual research."
"A century..." Lin repeated softly. He gasped and dove back into the box, lifting out a small toy horse. It had no saddle or bridle, and was in a prancing pose with neck arched, mane flying, and tail high. Only about seven centimeters tall and ten centimeters long, it was made of cast steel, and surprisingly heavy. Any paint had been rubbed off long ago. Stamped on its stomach, he found confirmation.
"Meiji 5," he read aloud. "I think. Japanese name kanji are difficult for me to remember."
Yasuhara held out a hand for the toy, and Lin passed it to him. "Yes, that's the nengou date", he confirmed. "That would be 1872, in today's terms." Gingerly, he set the horse on its hooves in the middle of the table.
They all stared at it.
Mai spoke first. "Wait, I know this. I read about it somewhere." She pointed a finger at the horse. "It's a one hundred year spirit. A tsukumogami!"
"Very good, Mai," Naru praised quietly. He explained for Yasuhara, who looked rather lost. "In folklore, a household item develops a soul after one hundred years of service. It's normally something useful, like a cooking utensil or an umbrella. A toy tsukumogami is somewhat odd."
"Toys are useful." Mai insisted. "They make children happy, and adults too, because the toy keeps the kids busy."
Lin could definitely relate to the second part. Anything that kept children's attention away from him was a wonderful thing.
Yasuhara eyed the horse. "All right, so it has a soul. You didn't say what kind of soul. Is it good or bad?"
Mai sucked in a breath to reassert the youkai's innocence, but Naru headed her off.
"It's neither. A tsukumogami is simply granted a soul. They are youkai with no purpose or aim. Not like a benevolent youkai protecting a household, nor a malicious one bent on vengeance. Tsukumogami just exist. Whether they are good, indifferent, or evil is entirely up to their own disposition and circumstances.
"Mai believes this youkai is good, or at best indifferent. It likes to be around people, so much so that it drove away first the Yamaguchis, then the Aotanis. In its exuberance, it crushed a hardy game console and knocked a full-grown man off his feet. And certainly more we don't know about."
Naru sat back and crossed his arms, solemnly concluding, "This tsukumogami has too much power to be allowed to roam free. It's not a formerly living creature, so we cannot send it on to the next plane. It wasn't created by a curse, so we cannot end or cancel it."
Mai's expression was like a building thunderstorm, but Naru continued, "If we exorcize the soul from the toy, it will become a fuyuu youkai, one without home or purpose. It will wander until it finds a purpose--potentially evil--or fades away." He shook his head at Mai. "Our only option to prevent it from doing evil is to seal it where cannot harm anyone. Unknowingly or not."
Lin felt like he had been punched in the gut.
"But it's not evil! It's just curious and likes company!" Mai rose to her knees and slapped her hands down on the table, making the toy jump. "If you lock it up alone for years, then it will turn evil! Anything would!"
Plucking up the toy before Mai could knock it over, Lin held it by the tail, which had been worn into a perfect tiny handle by generations of children.
Naru's face hardened. "We have no other option. I'll contact Bou-san immediately."
Slowly turning the horse about, he studied it. An actual tsukumogami. A youkai.
"Let it remain free! It earned its soul after a hundred years of helping people! And now you want to lock it away?! To punish it?!"
Lin stood and wondered if it would even work. He clutched the horse fully in his hand, and he jolted when it suddenly grew cold. "Naru."
"It has too much power!" Naru slammed his own fist on the table. "We have a responsibility!"
"You can't punish it for existing!" Mai shrieked.
"Naru!" Lin tried again.
The TV and VCR on the table suddenly lost power. No one but Lin noticed.
Yasuhara stood up as well, his eyes huge behind his glasses. "Everyone! Everyone, calm down!" He reached for Naru's arm, but Naru evaded by leaping to his own feet and continuing the verbal war against Mai.
Beyond the others, Lin saw the three other TVs and VCRs flicker off, in quick succession. The lamp was right behind.
"Naru!" Lin desperately added his voice to the din. The horse in his hand was so cold, it felt like it was on fire. He was afraid to let it go.
The overhead light dimmed and went out, plunging the room into darkness. Mai and Naru fell silent just as a great trilling scream erupted from the middle of the group. They all staggered back from the table, now recognizing the scream for what it was: a powerful neigh.
With a noise of impact, a ghostly green horse landed in front of them, denting the surface of the table. It shook its head, mane flying, and stomped a forehoof. Life-sized, its head almost touched the ceiling.
"Youkai--" Naru shouted, but was cut off when the horse snapped its teeth at him.
"NO!" a deep voice roared. It had an unearthly echo that made Lin's hair stand on end.
Mai sucked in a breath to speak, only to have the horse snap at her, too.
"No," it said again.
She flinched back. Lin couldn't blame her. He'd had no idea how immense a horse could be. Let alone one intelligent enough to speak.
The tsukumogami took in its own breath; Lin watched with fascination as the massive rib cage expanded, and the soft nostrils and whiskers vibrated from the passage of air. It let out a great snort at the two arguers, lashed its tail, then dismissed them to sniff at Yasuhara.
Yasuhara was completely locked in place, overwhelmed and probably very aware of his helplessness in the face of the supernatural. He blinked on reflex when the youkai blew a puff of air in his face.
"No." Swinging its head about, the horse focused on Lin.
Lin met its gaze, his heart pounding, hand still clasped around the freezing toy.
It took a step towards him, striking another dent in Mai's suffering table. It sniffed him, breath coming out in two great columns of fog within the chilled room, and with the exhale came the rumbling sound he and Naru had heard through the back camera. In person, it sounded...warm.
Moving very slowly, Lin extended the hand out to horse. He opened it, showing the tsukumogami its container. It sniffed and lipped at the toy. The soft muzzle and stiff whiskers bristling from it tickled his skin. It left the toy and tasted Lin's wrist with lips and hot tongue.
Lin saw Naru move from the corner of his eye. "Wait, Naru," he said in a calm and low voice. "I have a second option."
With care, Lin reached his empty hand to the horse, who nuzzled it, too. Lin laid it on the horse's cheek, then ran it down its neck. He took a step closer.
"Hello. My name is Lin Koujo."
The youkai made the warm, rumbling noise again. It nosed his chest. "Yes."
"Would you like to come with me? You could be one of my shikigami, and always be with me, and help me when I need it. I would keep you safe, and you would keep me safe."
At that, the horse shoved its head into his chest, knocking him back a step, just like it had before. Only this time, Lin knew the gesture for what it was.
"I like you, too. If you come with me, you'd never be alone again."
It lifted its nose to Lin's face and inhaled again, making his hair flutter. This time upon the exhale, the tsukumogami's green glow faded, trailing like a wisp back into the toy horse. "Yes."
Silence filled the room again. One by one, the lights and electronics flickered back to life. Together, the four humans sighed, their breath still visible in the chilled air.
"That's one way to end an argument," Yasuhara concluded.
The sun was almost directly overhead by the time Lin and Naru unloaded the last of the equipment into the storage closet at SPR. They had been several more hours at Mai's apartment, assuring the other residents the problem had been resolved, breaking down the base and returning all the equipment to the van, and even helping Mai restore her room to rights.
Lin settled onto one of the office couches and pulled the toy horse from his pocket. The body heat it had absorbed while in his pocket made it feel warm in his cool hands. Without the distraction of a rising argument or preparing for departure, and in the bright sunlight coming in through the windows, he was able to truly study the toy for the first time.
It was a dull, unremarkable gray, like a plain metal pan that had been scrubbed overly hard with steel wool. Being so small, it didn't have much detail. Only the barest hints of eyes and nostrils. The ears were rounded stubs, almost lost in the solid mass meant to be its mane and forelock. One foreleg was lifted, one back leg cocked with only the tip of its hoof providing the third point of stability.
Amazing, how a plain, simple thing could have become the focus of such a powerful youkai. And amazing that such a powerful youkai seemed to genuinely like people. Lin knew very well how impossibly rare that was.
He wondered if his peers on the supernatural message boards would believe him.
When he felt the couch move underneath, he looked over to see Naru had sat on the other end. His long-time friend studied the toy in his hands. "Will you be able to control that youkai as a shikigami, Lin?"
"I believe so. It did agree to become one, something that I never thought I'd see happen in real life. A willing shikigami, and one of this power level, is something out of stories."
Naru made a thoughtful noise. "What made you consider it?"
Lin ran his thumb along the toy's side, wondering if the tsukumogami could feel his touch. "Tanimyama-san was right, it was just curious and noisy. And you were right, it had no moral guidance. It hasn't developed real intelligence yet, either. Hence the basic vocabulary. It's still too animal-like and young." He sighed. "It did need to be controlled. And that made me think of my shikigami."
"And I didn't want it to be sealed away, either. So when it materialized and showed intelligence, I thought I should ask first." Lin felt rather silly admitting it, but it was the truth. He carefully set the toy on the coffee table.
They were silent for some time, both watching the toy.
Naru asked, "Was its agreement enough to seal the deal, so to speak? It's now officially one of your shikigami?"
"Mostly. I think. I didn't have to perform the binding spells to trap it as a shikigami, but it would probably be best to find something similar. Enter a mutual agreement with it. Of some sort." He paused for a moment, thoughtful. "I need to consult some books."
Silence reigned again, until it was torn open by the sound of the office's front door. Mai and Yasuhara walked in together.
"Hi, Naru, Lin-san," Mai greeted them with cheer. "Yasuhara-san and I ran into each other on the way up."
Yasuhara said his hellos as well, then offered to make tea. Mai gladly let him take over her job.
She plopped down on the chair next to Lin's place on the couch and spotted the horse, still on the coffee table. "Oh." She turned to Lin. "May I pick him up?"
He nodded, and she reached out to take it into her hands. It was her turn to study it, and she stroked it with one finger. "I'm sorry I upset you. My name is Taniyama Mai." She waited for a response, but none came.
"I think it's tired," Lin said.
She hugged the toy and placed it back on the table. "Sometime later, then. Rest for now," she cooed and patted it on the back.
Lin saw Naru pinch the bridge of his nose. Lin himself made it a point to keep his face blank. After all, maybe the tsukumogami liked being petted and coddled.
Mai perked up. "Naru, I wanted to tell you. This morning I called the Aotanis and told them the disturbance was cleared up. They aren't coming back, but I was able to talk with their children, Nanami and Akira. I asked them about the old metal toy horse. They instantly recognized it."
She definitely had Naru's attention now. "What did they say about it?"
"I wrote it down for the file." Mai opened her bag and pulled out two pieces of paper. She handed them to Naru, who looked them over. "Nanami-chan said she found the horse in the sandbox of her kindergarten's playground. She liked it and brought it home with her. She had no idea the youkai was linked to the toy.
"When I asked Akira-kun about the horse, he said it was stupid and tried to change the subject. I was able to get something out of him when I brought up the crushed game, though. Nanami-chan had been playing with her dolls and kept bothering Akira-kun to join her. She pushed him too far, and he yelled at her. He pulled out the game cartridge to play it, when it was knocked from his hands and smashed by something invisible, right in front of his eyes. Then when he yelled at his sister again, he was shoved onto his back. His parents thought he broke the game himself, even when he proved his heel was half the size of the depression." She made a rueful face. "He told me he was still angry about it, and that he hopes we sent the youkai straight to hell, but I think it's more he's scared and lashing out."
Lin leaned forward and picked the horse up. "It seems the tsukumogami does have some morals already, Naru. And a sense of justice."
"Hmm," Naru replied again, then added reluctantly, "Interesting."
Lin and Mai traded glances, and both fought down smiles--Lin with greater success.
Yasuhara returned, carrying the loaded office tea tray. He poured and passed out the cups, remembering how each of them took theirs. They had just taken the first sip when Yasuhara spoke up, holding his as-yet untasted tea.
"'Yummylicious Yanki Girls Geared Up for You'."
Mai spurted in her tea, Lin gasped and inhaled a mouthful that sent him coughing, and Naru choked and set his teacup back in its saucer with a very loud clink.
"Really, guys. How could you try to hide that video from me?" Yasuhara asked, his glasses glinting opaque once more. "It's a gold mine!"
Naru snatched up a napkin to wipe his mouth and demanded, "What video? With a title like that--"
"We found it in the Aotani's closet, Naru," Mai quickly explained. "We stuck it at the bottom of the box."
"Again with that box! What else did you hide in there, Mai?" Naru snapped.
Yasuhara sat back on the other couch. "I'm sure Taniyama-san has lots of good things hidden in her box."
"Yasuhara-san!" Mai cried out as she leaped to her feet, her face bright red. "Why did you say that?!" She flung her arms wide, almost hitting Lin in the face.
"Mai, sit down!" Naru ordered, his cheeks actually flushed.
"And why are you yelling at me?!"
"It's just the tea is so yummylicious, it really geared me up for some stimulation."
Lin shoved the horse into his slacks pocket, clutched his cup of tea, and ran for the sanctuary of his beloved reference room. As he firmly shut the door on the very animated conversation happening in the reception area, Lin heard a warm rumbling noise rise into a chuckle, and felt a puff of air on his neck.
Concluding A/N: Ghost Hunt has been one of my favorite manga for years, and I was delighted to be matched on it for my second year of writing for Yuletide. When I started this fic, I meant it to be a short character study piece from Lin's POV, but then Naru and Mai started arguing, Yasuhara-san waltzed in the door and really threw me for a loop, and somehow I ended up writing an entire case fic. I'm still not quite sure how that happened! Thank you, belina, for the wonderfully gen fic prompt. Writing GH fic was very fun!
To end this A/N in an appropriately spooky note, the trackable but sourceless footsteps going across a room and around the listener were inspired by a friend of mine who worked in a haunted movie theater. The stories she had would give me chills every time. Creepy!!
completed 12-13-12, last tweaked 1-1-13