Yamaki slumped into his office chair, every nerve frayed to the point of numbness. He closed his eyes for a moment, letting the padded cushions accept his weight, leaning his head back in an effort to dispel the knot of tension that was clenching in his neck. Why, he thought, as he concentrated on unclenching his jaw muscles and letting his shoulders relax, did all the people around him have to be such idiots? He was never going to get anything done at this rate, not with a constant round of foolish questions. Intelligent questions he could handle, questions about how he wanted them to do things, what procedures they ought to follow, not an endless stream of, "Why? Why are we doing this? Why do we have to do it this way? Why is this so important?" As if it mattered to them! As if they would understand if he told them! "Why?" shouldn't matter to them. What mattered was what he, Yamaki, the one who understood it all, told them. If he had his way, they'd all be replaced by automatons - preferably ones with a direct link to his brain so he'd never have to explain to them what he wanted them to do a dozen times, the way he did with his human underlings.
Well, at least here was sanctuary for a while. He had told everyone that he had important business to take care of inside his office and had retreated there, telling them all not to disturb him for anything short of a major calamity. They could get by without him for a little while, long enough for him to collect himself and soothe his jangled nerves. Help was always at hand here, in the form of two boxes of cigarettes and a thermos of sake. He had allowed his co-workers to see him pouring coffee from the thermos often enough that they didn't suspect that it usually contained something else, but he still needed to be careful in its use if he didn't want to be caught. It was tempting to open it now, but he wanted to get through the rest of the day without running into any more problems; better to save it. The cigarettes were another matter. He opened the window, and then reached into his pocket for one of the packs and fished for his lighter.
If he had been looking up instead of down, he would have seen something moving at the top of a bookshelf. There was a small animal up there... only not quite an animal. It walked on two feet like a human, and had two short arms attached to a round body. It had a large head with even larger ears that folded and unfolded like flower petals, and huge green eyes watched every movement the man below it made.
"He doesn't look like he's having much fun, culu," the little creature remarked. "Hey, maybe I should cheer him up, culu! That would be good, culu, culu!"
Unseen, he hopped down from the shelf to a file cabinet, from there to the desktop, and onto the floor, toddling up to stand at Yamaki's feet. The man didn't notice, being involved with the complicated task of lighting a cigarette. One of his nervous habits was to constantly flip the lid of the lighter, and something of that seemed to have worn down the wheels, and now the mechanism wasn't catching like it should. He flipped the wheel a few times, making the silver casing flash in the afternoon sunlight. Flip, flip, flip. Sparkle, sparkle, sparkle. Culumon's eyes widened.
"Ooh, preeetty!" he sighed dreamily.
"What was that?" asked Yamaki, looking up in surprise. He had thought was alone in the room, but there had definitely been a voice.
"That's pretty!" Culumon said. "Is that a new kind of toy? Can I play with it, culu, culu?"
"What the...?" Looking down, Yamaki finally noticed his visitor. "A Digimon! How did you get in here?"
Culumon giggled. "Through the door!"
"That's not what I meant! This place is top secret! How did you make it into this building?"
Culumon laughed again. "Through the other door! Can I play with your toy now, culu?"
"This is not a toy!" Yamaki snapped.
"Then why are you playing with it? Culuuu!" Culumon took a flying leap into the air, as if he could shrug off gravity like a heavy coat, and snatched the glittering silver box from Yamaki's hand. Giggling, he dashed away with it.
"Hey, come back here with that!" shouted Yamaki. He made a lunge for the little creature, but it was like trying to catch a breath of wind. Culumon whirled in midair and landed on the windowsill, still laughing and brandishing his prize.
"Are we going to play now, culu?" he asked hopefully. "Come on! Let's play tag, culu! You're it!"
Yamaki stared, momentarily frozen with rage at this impertinent little scrap of runaway data that dared to make fun of him in his own domain. With a snarl, he dove at it - and nearly fell out the window. He teetered there a moment, arms flailing in the air, legs equally frantic on the other side as he struggled to find his balance. Culumon, intrigued by this sight, hopped onto his backside and looked at the waving hands and feet.
"Now you're getting it, culu!" he said approvingly. "That looks like a fun game, culu, culu!"
"A game?" Yamaki yelped. "You nearly kill me and think it's a game?"
He finally managed to find his center of gravity and tilted himself back to his feet. Culumon squealed with glee as he tumbled down to the floor and rolled under Yamaki's desk. He sat there giggling, his bright green eyes shining like traffic lights. Yamaki smiled darkly.
"Now I've got you!" he said.
He crept like a lion toward the little monster, who was now sitting beneath the desk, laughing happily as he flipped the lid of the lighter up and down. Walking slowly to avoid notice, Yamaki moved ever closer until, with a cry of victory, he dove under the desk. With a squeal, Culumon jumped out of the way, bouncing on Yamaki's back and away to safety. Yamaki's head struck the back of the desk hard enough to make the whole thing shudder, and a few papers fell to the floor.
"Ow! Damn!" Yamaki let out a stream of words that Culumon had never heard before while rubbing at the rising lump on his skull.
"Culu? What language are you speaking?" asked the little 'mon. When Yamaki answered only with a glare, he shrugged and began playing with the papers on the floor, running and sliding on them like sleds. Yamaki gritted his teeth.
"This," he said to himself, "is exactly why Digimon have to be wiped from the face of the Earth! They do nothing but cause chaos!"
Culumon stopped what he was doing. "Don't you like this game, culu?"
"No," Yamaki spat, "I do not like this game!"
At that moment, there was a knock on the door.
"Come in!" Yamaki barked.
The door was opened by a young worker in a lab coat. He looked around the room with a surprised expression, taking in the scattered papers and the crooked desk. Then he stared at his boss and went slightly pale. Yamaki's suit was disarranged, his tie coming undone, his hair standing up in odd directions, his face flushed from anger and exertion. He'd lost his ever-present sunglasses in his last wild dive, and his eyes looked wild.
"Sir?" said the newcomer hesitantly. "Is... something wrong?"
"Everything is under control," said Yamaki. "Or it will be, as soon as I get rid of this Digimon."
"A Digimon, sir?" the worker repeated. "There haven't been any reports of new Digimon activity all day."
"What do you mean?" Yamaki replied. "If there's no Digimon, what do you call that?" He pointed in the general area of floor where Culumon had been playing.
"It... looks like a piece of paper, sir," answered the bewildered worker. "Sir, are you feeling all right? You don't look well."
"I told you, I'm perfectly fine!" said Yamaki. "It's just this stupid Digimon raising havoc in here! When I catch the thing, I'm going to delete it bit by bit until there isn't even a memory of it left!"
The fierceness in his voice was enough to make the young worker back up a few paces. "Sir, I hate to tell you this, but... there is no Digimon in here."
"What do you mean? Don't you see it?" asked Yamaki. He turned around to point it out, only to find there was nothing there. He gawped.
"Well, it was here!" he insisted. "It - it - it stole my lighter!" His voice rose to an indignant squeak.
"If you say so, sir," said the worker dubiously. "It looks as if you're busy... I won't bother you anymore... Good day, sir."
As he spoke, he'd been backing steadily into the hall, and a final glare from Yamaki sent him hurrying away. Yamaki sighed and closed the door. As he turned, he saw Culumon prancing across his desk. He was wearing his sunglasses and pantomiming giving orders to a fleet of imaginary workers. The little Digimon caught sight of Yamaki's thunderstruck expression and laughed.
"Where did you go?" Yamaki blurted.
"I hid, culu," Culumon explained. "You said you didn't like playing tag. I thought we'd play hide and go seek. Do you like hide and go seek, culu?"
"I'm much too busy to play games with you, Digimon," Yamaki snapped.
"My name's not Digimon. My name is Culumon. Culu!"
"Fine, fine, Culumon, then." He sighed. "You just made me look like a fool. Do you know that?"
Culumon giggled. "You should have hid too, culu culu!"
"Maybe I should have," Yamaki answered. "Can I have my lighter back now?"
"Is that what this is?" asked Culumon, looking at the silver box. "It's pretty, culu! Can I have it?"
"No!" Yamaki snapped. Then he took a breath and collected himself. "Look. You like to play games, do you?"
Culumon nodded eagerly. "Do you want to play a game?"
"Sort of," he answered. "I want to show you something. I want to show you how that lighter works, but you have to let me have it back for a little while, all right?"
Culumon considered a moment, weighing his chances of getting the lighter back once he'd given it up versus his curiosity about promised amusement. He decided it was worth it. Whatever this creature was, it wasn't very fast.
"Okay!" he said cheerfully, tossing the lighter.
Yamaki caught it clumsily, fumbling and nearly dropping it. Gratefully, he flipped the lid open and called up a flame. Culumon eyed the dancing light with fascination.
"Culu, pretty!" he exclaimed.
Yamaki ignored him. He fished a cigarette out of the pack in his jacket pocket and lit up, gratefully inhaling the warm smoke and sighing it out in a thin grey-white stream, sending clouds to slowly unwind in midair. That felt better - if ever there was a day he deserved a smoke, it was today! He closed his eyes and concentrated on bringing his breathing back to normal.
Meanwhile, Culumon was eyeing the spectacle with his eyes widening large as saucers. Fire he was familiar with - it burned you if you let it too close to you, and here was his new acquaintance putting the stuff in his mouth!
"Bad!" he exclaimed. He looked around for something to put the fire out with and noticed the thermos sitting innocently on the corner of Yamaki's desk. He'd been in the material world long enough to know people kept drinkables in thermoses, so he unscrewed the lid and had a look inside. Sure enough, there was some kind of funny-smelling liquid in there. It didn't seem very pleasant to Culumon, but anything was preferable to being set on fire, so he carefully hefted the container and dashed its contents into Yamaki's face.
Yamaki never saw it coming, but he certainly felt it when it arrived, unpleasantly wet and, thanks to the thermos, still very warm. He let out a yelp as his face, hair, and most of his shirt were drenched in the stuff, hissing as it got in his eyes. He shook himself like a dog, spluttering in surprise.
"What - what - what?"
"Are you okay, culu?" asked the concerned Digimon.
"What just happened?" Yamaki replied, searching around for a dry handkerchief to wipe himself off with.
"You were burning, culu. I had to put you out," Culumon explained.
"I was not burning," said Yamaki, "though if you keep this up..."
"You were burning," Culumon insisted. "I saw the smoke! See, it's still there, culu."
"I did that on purpose," Yamaki informed him. "And I'd appreciate it if you didn't interrupt me while I was doing it!"
He finished drying himself off as best he could, thankful that at least alcohol dried quickly. Absently, he tried relighting his cigarette. He wasn't expecting much, with it being so wet, so he was surprised to be abruptly reminded that alcohol not only dried quickly, but it was highly flammable. Finding himself holding something that was definitely burning, after all, he shouted and dropped it to the floor, trying to stamp it out before it set off a fire alarm. A few moments left him with the crushed remains of a cigarette, looking like a dead caterpillar on his carpet, which was now slightly scorched. He sighed, wondering how he was going to explain that to the cleaning crew. Without much hope, he checked his shirt pocket, where he'd placed the rest of the pack. Unfortunately, his shirt pocket and everything in it had been splashed during Culumon's firefighting activities, and the whole package was now well soaked.
"Ruined!" he muttered, dumping the whole thing into the wastebasket. "These won't be any good for anything but lighting a bonfire. Do you have any idea how much these things cost?"
"They're bad," Culumon insisted. "They caught you on fire. Why do you want things that catch on fire, culu?"
"It's a human thing," Yamaki told him tersely. "You wouldn't understand."
"Nope, don't understand," said Culumon, shaking his head.
"Well, you should stay out of things you don't understand," said Yamaki. He opened his desk drawer, looking for his spare pack. Unfortunately for him, Culumon saw it first. The 'mon took one look at it and jumped, snatching it away from the human's groping fingers.
"What are you doing?" Yamaki growled.
"You can't have these, culu. These are bad," said Culumon.
"Give them back!"
"Nope! Doing this for your own good!"
Yamaki watched as the little Digimon hopped down off the desk and went about trying to rip the package open. He hoped the plastic wrap would be enough to foil him for a moment, because he really didn't feel like giving chase anymore. He rolled his eyes heavenward, wondering what else could possibly go wrong.
There was another knock at the door.
"Go away," he said.
The door opened anyway, and three workers came in. He recognized an executive in a business suit and a male and female technician.
"Mr. Yamaki," said the executive, "I heard a report that there was somthing... odd going on in here. Is everything all right?"
"It's fine," said Yamaki, gathering as much aplomb as he could muster under the circumstances.
"Are you sure?" asked the female technician, looking at the papers, the puddle of spilled sake, and the scorch mark on the expensive rug. "We thought we heard yelling."
"It's nothing," said Yamaki. "Nothing but that stupid Digimon making trouble! I can't catch the thing!"
"Digimon?" repeated the executive curiously. "There's a Digimon in here?"
"Right behind the desk," Yamaki replied. "Watch it! It's a tricky devil."
"Is it?" answered the executive. He walked around to look. Predictably, Culumon had vanished once again. "Funny, I don't see a thing."
"It hid again!" said Yamaki. "It's obsessed with playing games. It's hiding, but I swear, it's in here! It's this little white thing with big green eyes and these huge ears..." He put his thumbs to his head in an effort to pantomime the creatures wiggling auditory appendages. His co- workers stared at him. He quickly shoved his hands back in his pockets.
"Are you sure you're feeling all right?" asked the executive kindly.
"I'm fine, dammit! There is nothing wrong with me except for that Digimon!"
"I hope you know you reek of alcohol," the executive. "It smells like you've been practically bathing in the stuff."
"I have not been drinking! The creature poured a bottle of sake over my head!"
"Right. And where did it get one of those?"
Yamaki hesitated, knowing he wasn't supposed to have the stuff anywhere inside the building. While he scrambled for a thought, the executive leaned over and whispered to him, "It's okay, really. We all need a little nip every once in a while when things are getting bad. Just don't overdo it so much, okay?"
"Dammit, I am not drunk! I am not seeing things!" Yamaki shouted. "There is a Digimon in here somewhere! It's here! It stole my lighter and my cigarettes! How could it do that if it wasn't here?"
The male technician snickered. "Right. I know how you feel, Yamaki. I've got a monster in my dryer that keeps stealing my socks."
"This is no laughing matter!" said Yamaki. "There is a dangerous creature running lose in this building! You should be thanking me for keeping it contained!"
The female technician shook her head sadly. "Poor Yamaki," she said to her co-worker. "He's been working too hard. It's always the brilliant ones who snap."
"I think he's been lighting something besides cigarettes with that lighter," the male tech replied.
"Mr. Yamaki, I think you've done enough for one day," said the executive, kindly but firmly. "Why don't you just take off early? Everything will be just fine here without you."
"No it will not!" answered Yamaki, just a little too loud. "I am the only one here who knows what's going on! I'm the only one who knows how important it is! I'm the only one who understands what we're trying to accomplish!"
Everyone stared at him as if he'd just threatened to bomb the building. The executive shook himself and put a comforting hand on Yamaki's shoulder.
"You are obviously under a lot of strain right now," he said. "You're not yourself today. I think you really had better go home, or I am going to have to talk to your superiors about this."
"Oh, all right," he said. "Be that way! But don't go blaming me when Culumon shows up to wreck your offices!"
"Culumon?" asked the woman hesitantly.
"That's its name, or so it tells me."
"Oh," said the male tech, nodding wisely. "The little voices have a name now?"
"There are no little voices! For the last time, I am telling you.... Never mind, you won't believe me, anyway. Go on, get out of here. I'll pack up if it will make you feel better."
Everyone hurried away, looking very relieved.
"This job doesn't pay enough for me to put up with this sort of thing," the woman sighed.
"You think this is bad? My last boss thought he was Napoleon," the man replied. "I quit when he started mistaking me for Baroness Josephine."
Yamaki shut his door firmly behind him, cutting off any other conversations he might have heard. He pressed a hand to his eyes, wishing fervently that this would turn out to be a bad dream. When he turned around again, he found Culumon sitting at the open window, methodically breaking his cigarettes to bits and tossing them to the wind.
"What in the world are you doing?" he asked, more tired than annoyed.
"Getting rid of them, culu," said Culumon factually. "You don't want these, culu. Playing with fire is very bad for you. Very bad, culu culu."
"Yeah, well, you know what? So is losing my job, which is just what's likely to happen if this keeps up," Yamaki snapped. "Now, give me those!"
He made a quick snatch and managed to grab the cigarette pack. He checked; there were only three left. He'd started the day with two whole packs, he was down to three, and he hadn't been able to smoke a single one! With a muttered word of frustration, he shoved the sad remainder into an un-damp pocket and began packing his things up. While Culumon watched him with wide, confused eyes, Yamaki slammed his briefcase shut and began storming toward the door.
"Where are you going?" asked Culumon. "Don't you want to play anymore?"
"No," answered Yamaki, "and I hope I never see your face again! Goodbye." He stomped out the door, slamming it behind him.
In furious silence, he marched down the halls, ignoring the people who stared at him as he passed. He rode the elevator down to the ground floor in equal stony silence. He walked past the receptionist, ignoring the way she pinched her nose as he passed. He maintained his stony facade up until he reached the outside of the building, and that was as far as he could go. The whole disastrous morning played itself in his mind: the chase for the lighter, the sake, the cigarettes, the conference with his co-workers. He just couldn't believe it all had happened. Pausing there on the sidewalk, he took out the last three cigarettes and looked at them.
*Stupid things are more trouble than they're worth,* he reflected.
Impulsively, he snapped them all in half, then began methodically ripping them to bits until there was nothing left in his hands but a pile of paper and tobacco and filter fluff. In an expansive gesture, he flung it into the air and watched it scatter like white and brown confetti. It occurred to him how silly he must look, him with his haphazard appearance, shredding cigarettes and throwing them to the wind, and a strange feeling rose up inside him. Then he got a flash of how much sillier he must have looked to the executive and the techs with his suit in disarray, his tie untied, his hair standing on end, soaked in sake, putting his thumbs in his ears like a child making faces. The feeling burst out as laughter, laughter that just built and built as one bizarre memory bubbled up after another. He hadn't had a real laugh in years, but now it wouldn't stop coming, and he had to lean against a wall for support, wiping tears from his eyes. Several floors above, one of the techs looked down on him.
"There," she said. "What'd I tell you? He's finally cracked. Look at him, laughing at nothing."
"I'll find the paper," her partner replied. "We can check the help-wanteds over lunch."
Unaware of what was going on over his head, Yamaki finally ran out of breath and was finally able to straighten up, still grinning faintly.
*I must be hysterical,* he thought, *but I feel like that did me a lot more good than those stupid cigarettes would have. Maybe I should think of giving the things up...*
Still smiling and chuckling softly to himself, he walked to his car. Peering down on him from the open window, Culumon smiled as well.
"Aww, he's happy now!" he said. "I did good, culu culu! I should find someone else to make happy, culu!"
With that, he hopped down from the window and went to see who else in the building