Mikage had never been on a date with Jack, but she knew exactly how it would go. She had spent the last two years of her employment choreographing it down to the last detail. The dream had been a comfort to her on long, dull workdays and long, lonely nights. She had imagined him meeting her at the door with flowers - she had originally thought they would be roses, but now she favored something more exotic, perhaps orchids. Roses were too ordinary for someone like him. She imagined him kissing her hand and telling her how lovely she looked before he escorted her off to a candlelit dinner at a fine restaurant. And afterwards, if she chose, she might invite him up to her room for a nightcap...
She shook her head and forced her attention back to the matter at hand. The passing of the late Director Goodwin had left a certain amount of paperwork in his wake, and it had fallen to Mikage as his assistant to put it all in order. Technically, it should have been Jaeger who did it, but he had been having panic attacks and fits of dramatics ever since the position of temporary Director had fallen on him, and he was in no shape to settle down and do anything as mundane as fill out forms.
And it isn't as though I don't have work of my own to do, she thought, picking up her pen again. Luckily, this stack of forms was the last of the cleanup work before she could move on to her new job full time. That was worth putting in some effort. She waded into the work with a will, filling in blanks and ticking off boxes with professional speed.
About an hour later, she put her signature on the last of the forms, placed the paper into her out-box, and leaned back to stretch her stiff muscles. It was high time, she decided, to get out of the office for a while. A glance at her watch told her that it was nearly lunch time. She decided she would grab a quick bite to eat somewhere, and then check in at her new office to see what she might be able to do there.
With that thought in mind, she left the building and headed for a small restaurant - hardly more than a booth - that nevertheless served the best noodles and dumplings anywhere in the city. The menu was a take-it-or-leave-it affair, consisting of whatever the proprietors felt like making that day, but there was always a line at lunchtime. She patiently waited her turn to collect her meal, and carried it to a nearby park where she could sit and enjoy her meal out in the fresh air.
Only there was a complication. As Mikage approached the picnic area, she noticed that several other people had also had the same idea, including one familiar person. She paused. While Nagisa Carly was hardly her favorite person in the world, she wasn't quite an enemy either. She had come through the dark times with everyone else, albeit on the wrong side for part of it, and was therefore considered "one of the gang" by the Signers and their friends, and was accordingly treated with respect. Besides, Mikage had discovered, somewhat to her chagrin, that she couldn't hate her. It would have been nice if Carly had been a harpy or a slut, or otherwise undeserving of Jack's affections, but since she had turned out to be a kind and generally likeable young woman, all she could do was be courteous to her.
"Hello, Carly," she said, taking a seat at the table.
"Oh, hi," said Carly. "What's up?"
"Not very much. Paperwork, mostly."
"Sounds boring,' said Carly, sounding sympathetic.
"It is," Mikage agreed, "but I'm done with it now."
"That's good. I hear you've got a new job now. That will be a lot more fun for you."
Mikage wondered briefly how it was that Carly always seemed to know these things. Mikage had barely known, herself, where she was going to end up after she'd left her secretarial position. It made her wonder why Carly wasn't more successful as a journalist. Probably, Mikage decided, it was because she had a knack for learning all sorts of things that would in no way make a useful news item.
While Mikage was casting about for something neutral to say, Carly reached for her drink and tipped the last few swallows into her mouth. As she raised her arm, her sleeve slipped back, revealing a purple mark near her wrist.
"How did you hurt your arm?" Mikage asked.
"Huh?" said Carly, looking puzzled. She glanced down and laughed. "Oh, that! I didn't even notice. Hm. It must have happened when Jack grabbed me last night, when he... I mean, when we.... Um." She trailed off, blushing. "Oh, come on, stop looking at me like that!"
Mikage was blushing too. For all that she had wondered about it, she had never wanted to ask anything about Jack's sex life, especially from Carly.
"It was an accident?" she suggested carefully.
"Yeah," said Carly. "He'd never hurt me on purpose. He's just... Well, it's like when he duels. He, you know, likes to play rough."
Mikage was blushing harder than ever. She looked down at her food and stirred the noodles around in their carton.
"I don't really mind," said Carly, who was apparently now talking to herself. "It's kind of exciting, really..."
"I have to go," Mikage said, standing up abruptly.
Without waiting for a reply, she hurried away, her face still flaming with embarrassment. She deposited her uneaten food in a wastebin, her appetite completely destroyed. So were her illusions. She had never imagined - never wanted to imagine - that her beloved Jack was the kind of man who would treat a woman roughly, even in the throes of passion. The fact that he apparently not only did so, but that Carly obviously enjoyed it, left her feeling unsettled. It was a hard thing, to be told that reality was so different from the way she'd envisioned it...
But then, she reassured herself, it's different with different people, isn't it? Surely he would behave differently towards her than he did towards Carly, wouldn't he?
By the time she reached her workplace, she'd managed to smooth most of her ruffled feathers, and had half-convinced herself that Carly had merely been trying to scare her away from Jack by exaggerating things. Besides, there were other things to think about. She made her way to her new office, wondering if her partner would be in.
The new man in my life, she thought, with a touch of humor.
Working with Ushio was a bit of a comedown after working with Jack, though she suspected he would be an improvement over Director Goodwin, whose unpredictable temper and hidden motives made him a difficult person to work with at times. Actually, she liked Ushio. When she had learned she was being transferred to the investigations department, she had specifically asked if she might have him as a partner, because she knew they would work well together. The last thing she needed was a partner who would look down on her because she was a woman, or treat her like an inexperienced new recruit. Ushio, at least, had always respected her. For all his clumsy speech and rough ways, she knew him to be brave and reliable in a pinch, and that counted for a lot. After a frustrating afternoon, she though his simple, uncomplicated presence would be relaxing, and she found herself hoping he would be there.
Meanwhile, Ushio was relaxing in his new office. It was a rather nice thing to have, he thought; he'd never had one before. It made a person feel important, to have his own desk with his very own nameplate on top. True, he had to share the office with Mikage, but as far as he was concerned, an office with Mikage in it was infinitely preferable to an office without her. The day he'd learned that the two of them would be partnered together was one of the happiest of his life. So many opportunities to spend time together. Maybe he'd even work up the nerve to ask her out to dinner.
Yeah, that'd be good. Somewhere really nice, with candles and white tablecloths and all. He would have to study up on what kind of fork to use, but for Mikage, it would be worth it. Maybe I should bring flowers? Yeah, flowers... Roses? Nah, everybody does roses. Something exotic, like those... what do you call them? Orchids?
That sounded right. He took a moment to envision the scene, imagining her standing in the doorway, framed in light, and picturing her expression of delight as she saw the flowers. And then what? Should he offer her his arm? Kiss her hand, perhaps? He remembered how floored everyone had been when they saw Jack kneeling to kiss Martha's hand. Well, Ushio could be a gentleman, too! He would prove to her that he was every bit as good as Jack Atlus - no, better! Whatever it took to impress her, he was sure he could do it. And how lovely would it be to sit with her in a private booth in some lovely restaurant, with a bit of soft music in the background, perhaps with the two of them sharing a bottle of champagne. She would be dressed in her best, of course. He sighed blissfully, his mind filled with thoughts of Mikage, with the candlelight shimmering on her smooth skin and in her lovely eyes...
Mikage opened the door to the office, and saw that her partner was staring off into space with a silly grin plastered across his face. She wondered for a moment what he was fantasizing about that was making him so happy. Did he ever dream the same sorts of things she did? Probably not, she decided. She'd never seen him take much notice of the women around him, and had formed a vague idea that he was a confirmed bachelor.
"Ushio," she called. "I've got our assignment. Are you ready to go?"
"Huh?" he said, blinking. "Oh! Right! Sure, no problem!"
He made an uncoordinated scramble to get to his feet and hurried over to join her. She followed him to their car, watching him practically strutting with pride in his new place.
It's just as well that I can't read his mind, she thought. I'm probably happier not knowing what he's thinking.