Once again, Yamaki was convinced of the value of wearing sunglasses. This particular habit of his had a simple enough explanation: as long as he was wearing them, he never had to look anyone in the eye if he didn't want to, and no one would ever be able to tell what he was thinking. For example, right now he was standing in the lobby of the Hypnos building, where he'd been cornered by some nameless underling and dragged into a pointless conversation. He'd paid genuine attention just long enough to realize that all this person wanted was to try to convince him that they ought to do something that would take far too much time, energy, and valuable budget money for something that was at best debatably beneficial. Once he had that settled in his mind, he tuned out, but as long as he nodded and made encouraging noises from time to time, the other would never know that he was paying no attention at all.
What held his full attention was the woman on the other side of the lobby. He'd spied her a moment ago as he'd been returning from his lunch break, and the pause he'd spent trying to figure out what she was doing there was what had given his current problem the time to drag him into this pointless conversation. That was all right; it gave Yamaki an excuse to stay here in the lobby and keep an eye on the unfamiliar woman. He couldn't imagine what she was doing here. Hypnos was not a place where people wandered in uninvited, but no one seemed to be objecting to her presence. In fact, a few people Yamaki recognized as being fairly important to the corporation were talking seriously with her - not with any outstanding respect, he noted, so she couldn't be anyone terribly prominent, but with enough politeness that he knew she had to belong here. Who was she? Yamaki could think of no adequate explanation, and his curiosity was piqued. It would have been anyway, though, no matter where he had seen her. She had to be one of the most beautiful specimens of womanhood he'd ever encountered. He watched her through his dark lenses until she finished saying whatever it was she had to say to his co-workers and the group separated, the workers presumably heading back to their jobs and her to one of the drink machines on the other side of the lobby.
"Excuse me," said Yamaki to the person who'd been talking to him. "This is very interesting, but I'm afraid I'm out of time. We can discuss this further later today."
"Yes, sir," answered the worker. "I won't take up any more of your time."
He made a respectful bow and skittered off, presumably to get back to his work, which was just where Yamaki wanted him. He'd tell him later that he'd considered whatever it was he'd been talking about and decided it didn't fit the company's needs at that time, and that would be that. With the matter firmly settled in his mind, he went to investigate other more interesting matters.
The unfamiliar woman had deposited her coins into the drink machine and made her selection. Just as the can had fallen, Yamaki picked it up and handed it to her with a courtly gesture. She looked back with a surprised expression, which he'd expected, and he used the moment of distraction to make a closer inspection of her. What he saw more than confirmed the guess he'd made from seeing her from afar: she wasn't just attractive, she was stunning. She wasn't even trying that hard - her clothing was only businesslike, her makeup understated, her hair unstyled. And yet, her well-cut suit fit neatly over her taut figure. Her fair skin had no blemishes to conceal, nor did her deep blue eyes need any enhancing. As for her hair, it would have been a shame to try to restrain that silky red curtain.
"Good afternoon," he said. "I don't believe I've seen you before. Might I ask what brings you here?"
"A job interview," she answered tersely, taking the can from him as if she suspected he'd damage it.
"I see," he answered. "Yes, I seem to recall something about that. We were looking for technicians."
She gave him a challenging look. "I am a technician."
"Ah," he said, trying to assimilate that information. She didn't look at all like his idea of a technician, but there was a light of intelligence behind those eyes, which were still watching him with suspicion. He could almost hear the wheels turning in her mind as she tried to work out his motivations.
The conversation was interrupted by a new arrival, in the form of a business-suited executive who happened to notice the two of them.
"Ah, Mr. Yamaki, I see you've found our newest recruit," he said. "Have you two been introduced? No? This is Miss Reika Ootori. She's applying for a job here, you know. Miss Ootori, I'd like you to meet Mr. Yamaki, one of Hypnos's leading minds."
"Oh," she said, with a blink of surprise as she realized she was talking to someone who might have influence over whether she got her job or not. "Nice to meet you."
"Likewise," he answered. He offered her a small smile and was met by a cold stare.
"We're all quite impressed with Miss Ootori's credentials," the executive continued. "I wouldn't be surprised if she's hired."
"I wish you the best of luck," said Yamaki. "I'm sure we'd all love having you here."
"I'm sure I'd love working here," she answered, still watching him skeptically. "The people are so pleasant."
"Well, I'm glad to see you two hitting it off," the executive replied. He glanced at his watch. "Excuse me; I hate to leave you, but there's a meeting I need to go to. Have a good afternoon, Mr. Yamaki, Miss Ootori."
He bustled off, leaving the two of them still eyeing each other warily.
"There was an interesting performance," Yamaki commented.
"Very," said the woman dryly. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have places to be."
"Places like where?"
"I'm sure I'll find out when I get there."
"Oh, come now. Don't be like that," he said. "This is no way to start your time here. Have I done something to offend you?"
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
"Whatever you make of it."
"You seem to be singularly determined not to like me," he said. "That sounds like a bad idea, considering that if you wind up working here, you'll be doing it under my supervision."
"It's not that I don't like you. I just know your type," she answered. "And since I've had quite enough to do with that type already, I don't see any reason to go through it all again. Are you or aren't you trying to put the moves on me?"
"That is an inelegant way of putting it," he said, looking affronted.
"It's also true, apparently," she replied. "And that's my cue to leave. Goodbye."
With that, she turned and walked away, leaving him standing stunned. He tried to assimilate just what had happened. He couldn't recall having ever been turned down so deftly before. Actually, being turned down in general was not something he was used to. He scowled.
*What is her problem?* he thought irritably. *I didn't do anything. I was only being polite, and she goes jumping to conclusions.* He conveniently overlooked the fact that her conclusions had been right on the mark; it was the principle of the thing. *She's just playing hard to get. Well, we'll see about that. If that's the way she wants to be, well, I can beat her at her little game. I just won't pay any attention to her at all.*
It was a cloudy Monday morning when Reika Ootori began her new job as a Hypnos technician. She thought she ought to be a bit excited, but the best she could manage was a mixture of wariness and hope.
*Well, it will be interesting, anyway,* she told herself. *I wanted a change. And the pay is good.*
Truth be told, she might never have agreed to take the job, except that it was the best offer pay-wise that she could find on such short notice. Actually, she had a notion that even if she had searched around for months, she still wouldn't have done a whole lot better. Whatever this Hypnos project was, it was top-secret, to the point where she only had a hazy idea what kind of work she'd be doing. She was aware that she'd be working some long hours and possibly some strange ones, and she'd been strictly forbidden to talk about her work to outsiders. The compensation came in the form of much-needed cash.
That thought made her frown a little, not so much at the thought of the situation but because of what had led up to it. It was really enough to make her wish she'd been born ugly, or at least ordinary, enough so that she wouldn't turn heads everywhere she went. It had been fun when she was young and had the energy to deal with relationships with no point to them but to have a good time with each other. That phase had lasted long enough for her to actually let one of her boyfriends move in with her. He had convinced her that he was going to take care of her, and she'd believed him for a while, long enough to give up her old job to take care of the housework for him instead. That had been a nice life for a while, with no worries, being so sure that someone else was going to look after everything for her.
That had lasted until he decided he had found someone better. Then he'd gone, taking with him all of his things and leaving her with no job, no support and a stack of bills. In a situation like that, there wasn't much to do but put aside collapsing for a while and go look for work.
*I'm not letting it happen again,* she thought rebelliously. *This time I'm going to get it right.*
In retrospect, she'd decided, the loss of a source of income had been more of a blow than the loss of the boyfriend. Once she'd gotten over the shock, she'd had to accept the truth: there had never really been anything in the relationship but heat and fire, and when the fire had died...
Well, this time was going to be different. She wasn't getting into any more relationships until she was sure she could trust whoever it was, until she knew they felt something more for her than just admiration of the way she looked. She was turning over a new leaf, beginning a new life, with the first step being when she signed into work for the very first time. She paused a moment outside the front doors, collecting herself as best she could, and stepped into Hypnos.
She was met almost immediately by a young woman of about her own age, with short blonde hair and a cheerful countenance.
"Hi!" she greeted. "Are you Miss Ootori?"
"Yes, I am," she answered.
"Oh, good," said the young woman. "I've been waiting for you to show up. I'm Megumi Onodera. Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too. Do you work here?" It was a silly question, Reika knew, judging by the woman's uniform and ID tag, but it was a way to start the conversation.
"I've been here about a week, now," she answered, "but I haven't gotten a whole lot done yet. Everything's still getting organized, and I'm still learning the ropes. You and I are going to be working together; that's why they wanted me to show you around."
"I'd appreciate it if you would," said Reika. "I'm still not even really sure what I'm supposed to be doing here."
"Oh, you'll do fine," Megumi replied. "Like I said, we aren't doing a whole lot of anything yet - some of the equipment is still getting set up. What we've got is amazing, though. Have you seen it?"
"That's right, they probably wouldn't have showed you the big things until they knew they were going to hire you. Some of it is, well... I'll explain that later," she answered vaguely. "First we've got to get you outfitted. Come on!"
Reika's enthusiastic hostess led her through the halls to what appeared to be a smallish locker room of some sort, where she was provided with a uniform to match Megumi's and an identification tag, and was assigned to a locker and told to put her things away.
"Sorry," said Megumi, "but you're not allowed to take anything inside the main control room. Top security in there."
"There seems to be a lot of that going around in here," said Reika.
"There is. We've got permits to do things that aren't exactly legal," answered Megumi, "but we don't talk about that much. Me, I just do what I'm told and don't ask too many questions about it."
"Not a bad idea," Reika replied. "So, are we going to see this top-secret laboratory of yours?"
Megumi laughed. "You think that's a joke now, but just wait till you see it!"
A short walk and an elevator ride later, they arrived in a darkly lit hallway. Where the other rooms Reika had seen thus far had been standard fare, clean and attractive spaces, often graced with carpeting on the floors and art on the walls, this was a stark, metallic thing that put Reika in mind of a ventilation shaft. A bluish light filtered down from above, reflecting off the steely walls and giving the whole thing an otherworldly glow. Reika was faintly amazed, but Megumi appeared used to it; she walked up the hall and beckoned for her new co-worker to follow.
They walked slowly, their footsteps ringing faintly against the floor. Every few yards, they passed through gatelike arches, setting off faint pings as they passed.
"Detectors," Megumi explained.
"Detectors for what?" Reika asked.
"Bombs, weapons, computer disks, unauthorized personnel... the usual stuff."
She paused at one of the gateways and ran her ID badge through it, then paused as she waited for the chime. She stepped out again and indicated that Reika should try. The machine thought longer about her, humming and buzzing while it considered. Eventually, it found her worthy and let her pass.
At the end of the hall, they met a final door. Megumi instructed Reika in the code she needed to punch in, and then, finally, they were allowed to enter the laboratory. The door slid slowly upward. Reika looked in - and gasped in amazement. She was looking into a massive domed room, a great dark grotto full of gigantic machines and snaking cables, glowing screens, walkways, scaffolds, observation decks, tanks of strange liquids, and, looming over all of it was a structure like she'd never seen, like a great mechanical hive sprouting wires in all directions. Men and women in uniforms or long white coats scurried through the semidarkness.
"Impressed?" asked Megumi.
"Impressed isn't even the word," Reika answered dazedly. "What is all this?"
"Well, how much did they tell you?"
"They said this was some kind of... research facility," she said, taking a few hesitant steps into the cavernous room. "Something about a disturbance on the Internet, I think. They were always a little hazy when I asked questions."
"It's not just the Internet," said Megumi, suddenly looking a bit nervous. "It's everywhere, really... I didn't even really believe me until I saw one for myself."
"Saw one what?" Reika asked.
"We call them Wild Ones. They're... well, maybe it would be easier for me to show you than tell you. Or at least show you first," the other woman answered. "I think there's a recording around here somewhere."
She walked over to a console boasting a few video screens and began pushing buttons, sorting through files until she found whatever she was looking for.
"Aha! Here we go," she said, tapping a final key. "Take a look at this!"
Reika looked. The screen was showing her a surprisingly sharp rendering of... an empty street. A street lamp beamed down, bathing the area in faintly greenish light. Reika frowned, trying to figure out what she was supposed to be seeing. What did this have to do with computers? Then she noticed something moving in an alley, and leaned closer. There was a dark shape there, smaller than a human, slinking through the shadows. A dog? No, it was walking upright. What in the world?
Then the thing stepped into the light, and she stared. It was a small humanoid, but it was definitely not human - its eyes were too large, its ears too pointed, and even in the uncertain light, she could see the creature's grey skin. It was wearing a pointed hat marked with a skull emblem, a long cloak, and it carried a staff in one hand. It looked around, blinking, while Reika watched it and tried to figure out what it could be. For a moment, it crossed her mind that it had to be someone in a costume, but just watching it move was enough to convince her otherwise; it just moved too smoothly and naturally for this to be anything other than its natural shape. Her frown deepened as she tried to find some evidence of trickery.
"It's real," she said finally. "Isn't it?"
"It is," Megumi replied. "I was there when they caught it. That one's called a Wizardmon. Kind of gave me the creeps watching it get deleted... the thing was almost like a human..."
"Deleted?" Reika repeated.
Megumi nodded. "They're not material things. They're like computer programs made solid; if you deprogram them right, they go to bits and disappear. I don't completely understand how it works, but someone else could probably... Uh-oh."
"What?" asked Reika.
"Better look out - here comes trouble!"
Reika looked around, just in time to see a familiar figure moving in the pair's direction, and she felt a sinking sensation as she recognized the man who'd been flirting with her the last time she'd been there. Fortunately, he noticed Megumi first.
"You're late," he accused.
"Sorry, sir," she answered, bowing apologetically. "The men upstairs told me to show Miss Ootori around. Remember you told me there would be someone else helping me? She's who they hired."
"Is that a fact?" he answered. Reika felt more than saw that his gaze had shifted to her. "So, we meet again. Congratulations on your employment."
"Thank you," she answered coolly.
"I suppose you should know that as long as you're here, you'll be working under my direct supervision," he informed her. "You will report and answer to me at all times. Is that clear?"
"Quite clear," she answered.
"Good. I'll brief you on your duties in a few minutes, but right now you're needed to help with the programming. Here." He handed the woman a stack of compact disks. "Get these installed on terminal nine and run diagnostics to make sure there are no conflicts."
"Yes, sir. We'll get right on it," said Megumi, bowing again, keeping her head down until he'd walked off. Then she straightened up with a sigh of relief.
"What was that all about?" she wondered. "Do you know him?"
"We met once before," Reika replied. "I didn't like him then, either."
"Oh, good," said Megumi. "I mean, it's not good that you don't like him, I guess, but... I don't like him that much. He gives me the creeps, you know? Always with those dark glasses, and he's so serious all the time... not just serious, intense. Obsessed, even."
"What does he do here?" asked Reika. "Why did they let him be in charge?"
"Let? There's no let about it. He is in charge," Megumi answered. "He designed this place himself. He was the one who found out about the Wild Ones and got the permit for this place to control them. He's a genius... but he's still scary."
"I don't know if that's the right word for him, but I don't think I like him," said Reika. "The first time I met him, he was being... a little over-friendly. I think he was probably angling for a date."
Megumi stared at her. "You're not serious."
"Would I make something like that up?" she replied.
"I wouldn't," Megumi said. She shivered faintly. "I don't know which would be scarier - agreeing or turning him down."
"Well, I turned him down," Reika answered. "Which is probably why he's being so charming now. I don't think he's the type who's used to being turned down for anything."
"Fun," said Megumi. "First day on the job and already the boss is mad at you. Are you sure you want to work here?"
"This was the best job I could get. Don't worry," she answered, looking across the room to where Yamaki was barking orders at a group of white-coats. "I'm a match for anything he can dish out."
"If you say so," Megumi answered. "Well, Miss Ootori, I guess we'd better get to work on these programs."
"If we're going to be working as partners, we might as well be on first-name terms. Call me Reika."
"Oh, thanks. In that case, call me Megumi," she answered.
"Okay, I will. Come on, Megumi. I want to see how these computers work."
"All right! These things are great; you wouldn't believe some of the things they can do!"
Reika followed her new co-worker, glad that there was at least one person at her new workplace that she liked.
Yamaki was in a worse mood than usual, and his employees were sensing it. Most of them were working in deadly quiet, speaking in near-whispers when they had to talk at all. Over the hum of the computers, it was hard to tell that anyone was making any sound, except for the two young women in the far corner, who appeared to be hitting it off. The two of them chatted and even laughed as they waited for the programs to load. He considered going over and telling them to be quiet. If anyone else in the room had talked as loudly as they wanted, he could have ignored him, but every time that new woman laughed, he found himself turning to look. It was getting very distracting.
*They shouldn't have hired her without my permission,* he thought. *I'm the one who has to work with these people. They just sit up in their ivory tower and send down orders every once in a while. I'm the one who actually knows what's going on down here, and they know it. I should have some say in who's suitable for this job and who isn't.*
And yet, looking at the beautiful redhead, he had to wonder if he wouldn't have hired her anyway. Even in the relatively loose-fitting uniform supplied to her, she was still eye-catching. Not only that, but there was the strange added attraction of something unattainable. He wasn't used to being turned down, and the fact that she had not only just done that but made it abundantly clear that she didn't even want to give him a chance to prove himself made her paradoxically fascinating. Even as he'd told himself he wasn't about to give her a second thought, he would catch himself trying to remember exactly what she looked like, the color of her eyes and the inflection of her voice.
*If she just weren't so stubborn, I wouldn't be having this problem. I could have been over her by now if she'd been more agreeable.*
The thought of falling in love had never crossed Yamaki's mind. Truthfully, he didn't believe there was such a thing - not the true and forever kind espoused by fairy tale books and romantic novels. He'd rid himself of such notions a long time ago, right about when he'd realized that there was nothing to so-called love but people's hormones running out of control. He was equally well aware that attraction never lasted, and once the desire faded, there was nothing left but stale boredom. Of course, by then, any fool who believed in Romance Pure and True was probably roped into a marriage and couldn't get out of it. Of course, one might have reasons to get into that kind of situation if there was a family name that needed carrying on or heirlooms that needed passing down, but Yamaki didn't really have either. He had no family to pester him for grandchildren and had never been inclined to burden himself with possessions, so what was the point of marrying? There was none, as far as he was concerned. The best thing for a sane person to do if they found themselves attracted to someone was to get the deed done, get it over with, and get on with their lives. Of course, when the girl in question decided not to cooperate...
*She's being ridiculous,* he fumed. *What does she think she's accomplishing?*
Well, it wasn't worth worrying about. It would be easiest to forget about her and look for someone else. Even so, he looked speculatively back in her direction and wondered what it would take to get her attention.
He managed to keep his mind at least halfway on his work for most of the day, but when quitting time began to roll around, he plucked up his courage and went to speak to her. She'd been learning how to operate the mobile observation console, and just now she was climbing back down to solid earth again. She removed her goggles with a faint smile, as if she were getting off of an amusement park ride, but her expression quickly went cold again as she realized she was being watched.
"Did you want something?" she asked.
"Just a moment of your time," he replied. "It seems we got off on the wrong foot. I want to correct that if I can."
"Really?" she asked. "And how do you intend to that?"
"It would be easier to know if I knew what I did to offend you."
"You acted interested. That's all I needed to see."
"And what's wrong with being interested?"
"Because I don't like you."
"Now, that's hardly fair. You don't even know me yet," he said, beginning to feel a bit angry. "You ought to at least give me a chance."
"A chance?" she repeated thoughtfully. "You mean, we should get to know each other before we make any decisions about how we feel about each other. Is that right?"
"Yes," he said, annoyed that anything so blatantly obvious should need to be spelled out.
"And how do you expect us to get to know each other?"
"Well, normal people go on dates."
"Ah, I see," she said, nodding. "And what's your conception of a date? I suppose that means you take me out and spend money one me, and then we wind up at your place or my place?"
"That sounds about right, yes."
She turned on her heel and began walking away. "Not interested."
He stared, dumbstruck. He tried to think of something coherent to say, and what finally found its way out of his mouth was, "At this point, I think I'd settle for just taking you to dinner."
She paused. "Just dinner?"
"Just dinner," he repeated. Sensing weakness, he continued, "I promise I'll be on my best behavior."
He heard something that might have been a faint laugh. "Oh, all right. One chance. Is that fair?"
"Quite fair," he agreed. "Is tonight good?"
"I don't think I'm doing anything tonight. Give me, say... about an hour to get home and get changed, and you can pick me up from there?"
"That will be perfect," he answered.
She gave him her address and walked off looking rather less frosty than usual. As for Yamaki, he went home wondering just what kind of trouble he'd just gotten himself into.
Reika's apartment was not a beautiful one by any means. She'd done what she could with it, but when her resources were as limited as they were, there were limits to the number of miracles she could perform. Maybe after she'd collected a few paychecks and paid off a few old debts, she would look into getting a better one somewhere. She briefly wondered if maybe she should have offered to meet Yamaki at his apartment instead of vice versa. From what Megumi had told her about him, she was sure he had more than a little money stashed away; he wouldn't be very impressed with her little hole in the wall. Then again, her turning up on his doorstep might be seen in any number of ways. On the whole, she would feel safer meeting him on her own turf, even if it was slightly scruffy turf.
At least her clothing was still good, and when Yamaki arrived, he was treated to a sight. Thus far, he'd seen her only in business attire, and seeing her dressed to impress was something else entirely. She'd picked out a simple dress of deep ruby red, cut just low enough to be interesting, and a flowing skirt that swirled around her legs when she moved. Her long hair was bound up now, and she'd added an extra touch of makeup that drew attention to her dark eyes.
"Good evening," he said, bowing politely. "Might I say you look particularly radiant tonight?"
"You don't look so bad yourself," she admitted. True, there wasn't as much you could expect a man to do, but he had at least swapped his work clothes for something a little more dressy. He still had his sunglasses, though. Didn't he ever take them off?
He nodded graciously at the compliment but declined to make any further conversation on the topic. "Shall we go? I made reservations; it won't do to be late."
She allowed herself to be escorted to his car, and waited as he opened the door for her. Reika did her best not to laugh; he was indeed being on his best behavior, completely courteous and not showing any emotion at all.
*He might as well be a butler,* she through, suppressing a smile as she evaluated his dark suit and stony expression. *This isn't a date; this is a business meeting! Well, if that's the game he wants to play...*
It was a silent and tense ride to the restaurant. He looked straight ahead the whole time, while she pretended to look out the window and watched him from the corner of her eye, wondering what he was thinking. The best she could get was a sense of tension surrounding him. Was it nervousness? Annoyance? Frustration? There was no telling; everything was hidden behind a blank mask.
The restaurant itself was a pleasant place, nicer than she had seen in a while, with glass- topped tables and soft music. The waiter who met them at the door seemed to recognize Yamaki; he greeted him politely and led them to one of the better tables without bothering to consult his list.
"Cozy place," she commented as she was seated. "Do you bring all your co-workers here?"
"Only the ones I'm trying to impress."
"And how often does that happen?"
"Less often than you might think."
"I see. I suppose there just aren't enough potential dates at that company of yours."
He scowled a bit at her. "Did you agree to come on this date just so you could make snide remarks at me? The last I heard, there was nothing criminal or unusual about a man showing interest in a woman. Even if you are determined not to like me, you could at least be polite."
She blinked. "Um. I guess you have a point. Sorry. It's just that recently... well, never mind, it's not important. All right, I'll be good."
"Is something wrong?"
"All right, then."
Conversation was put on hold as they perused the menus. She squelched the impulse to order the most expensive thing she could find just because he would be paying for it. Hard as it was to admit, he was probably right - she wasn't being fair to him. It wasn't his fault her last relationship went sour. Even if she didn't like him, she could at least be nice to him for an evening, especially as he probably had the power to have her fired if she antagonized him enough. She made her order and looked for something constructive to say.
"So," she said at last, "Megumi tells me you're the mastermind between this Hypnos thing. Is that true?"
"It is. Most of the machinery and programs you'll be using were made to my designs."
"I'm impressed," she said. "I don't think I'd have had the patience for something like that."
"I had to have the patience. I was the first to realize the danger. In a situation like that, there is no choice but to do something."
"Danger?" Reika repeated. "What danger? I wasn't told about any danger."
"Of course not. As you've probably already noticed, this is all top secret," Yamaki replied. "Our ultimate goal is to remove the source of potential trouble before humanity at large becomes aware of it."
"The Wild Ones, you mean?" Reika repeated. "Nobody told me they were dangerous. Anomalous, yes, but..."
"They're highly dangerous," said Yamaki. "Some more than others, admittedly, but it's in the nature of a Digimon to fight. If they were allowed to move uncontrolled, destruction is inevitable."
"Digital Monsters. That's the proper name for them. They were originally created as part of a project among a group of programmers. In a way, I can admire them - they had no idea of the trouble they were going to cause. They thought they were only inventing a game, a program that would simulate living things, each with their own attributes and personalities, which could be trained to compete with each other to increase their strength. Nothing special, on the surface - you could probably find quite a few games based on the original prototype, if you looked."
"Are you trying to tell me," she asked slowly, "that these creatures they programmed became... real, somehow?"
"In a sense," he answered. "From what I understand, the project was halted before they could complete it. One member of the group was a bit more bothered by this than the others. He created an algorithm that would allow their artificial organisms to continue to grow and evolve even without their supervision. It worked, possibly better than he ever imagined."
She frowned. "It sounds unbelievable. How could a computer program come to life like that?"
"It's not life, not as we understand it. For the most part, the Digimon inhabit the network of data transmissions - a Digital World, if you will, slightly offset from our own. However, as of late, the Digimon have found a way to emerge into our world, assimilating loose particles of matter into false proteins. These are what we call the Wild Ones. To outward appearances, they appear to be living things, but they are still bound to their original programming... and like any program, they can be erased."
"I don't know if I like that," she said, staring thoughtfully down at the table. "Megumi showed me a recording of one... it seemed almost human. It didn't look that dangerous."
"Don't be deceived," said Yamaki. "As I told you, the nature of Digimon is to battle each other. Even the most harmless-looking of them has great destructive power. Imagine what would happen if we let these creatures roam the streets, attacking each other and probably anything else that moves. Human lives would be at risk."
She still looked uncertain. Yamaki looked at her speculatively, and his expression became a bit less cold.
"You shouldn't worry," he told her. "You will be doing a noble thing - protecting humanity from a danger they never truly believed could exist. This is a heroic occupation."
She looked up, surprised at the fervor she heard in his voice. Once again she wished he would remove those glasses; she would have liked to be able to see his eyes just then.
"You probably know best," she said. "I admit, I still quite understand it, but... All right. So, what I'm going to be doing has to do with deleting these Wild Ones?"
"That's right," he answered, nodding. "What you'll eventually be doing is monitoring their activity and tracing them when they bio-emerge into our world. Eventually, I hope to have a program ready that will seal off the Digital World entirely so the program can be eliminated completely. Until then, the best we can do is track them, study their nature, and then delete them before they become a danger."
"Track them," Reika repeated, trying to pin down a thought. "When I asked Megumi, she said the trouble was everywhere... How do you track something that can go everywhere?"
He smiled faintly. "One of my better technological feats. I'm rather proud of that. The equipment at Hypnos is capable of monitoring every bit of electric transmission on the planet - on the Internet, through the telephone systems, everywhere, right down to radio-controlled children's toys. Anywhere a Wild One tries to appear, we'll find them."
Reika felt a little shiver at being told that all her telephone conversations and e-mails were being processed by a heretofore unknown secret laboratory only a few miles from her home. "That doesn't sound exactly ethical."
"It's the best possible choice," he answered. "The information is absolutely vital if we're to track the Wild Ones efficiently. Trust me, the only thing that is done with the information is to monitor disturbances in the system that would indicate something is trying to bio-emerge. It may well be unethical in some sense, but it would be worse to have the opportunity to protect someone's life and not take it." He smiled faintly. "Suffice it to say, these machines aren't here for reading other peoples love letters."
"Well, that makes me feel better," she said.
"I'm glad I was able to put your mind at ease, Miss Ootori. There are too many closed- minded people who can't see what I'm trying to do. It makes the job difficult at times." He sighed. "It took over a year just to get anyone convinced that the danger was real. It was a difficult time for me."
"You don't have to be so formal," she said.
"Calling me 'miss' like that," Reika clarified. "I don't think I'd mind you calling me Reika."
"Really? I'm flattered," he said, and she thought he almost sounded like he meant it.
"You know," she continued thoughtfully, "I don't think anyone ever really told me your first name."
"Oh," he said. "I don't really use it much... but if you're curious, it's Mitsuo."
"Mitsuo," she repeated. "You know, I like that! Can I call you that?"
"If you like."
"It's a good name," she said. "Why don't you use it?"
"There isn't much call for it, really."
"Why not? I mean, I can see why you wouldn't want to be so informal, but among your friends..."
He looked uncomfortable. "I don't... That is... I'm not a very social person."
Reika bowed her head in silent apology.
"For the last few years, this project has been my life," he said in a low voice. "It means everything to me to see it completed. Whatever it costs me..."
"You'll make it happen," she said.
"I'm grateful for your vote of confidence."
"Really, I mean it."
"Do you?" he asked, looking mildly surprised. "Well... thank you. I'm glad someone understands."
Their food arrived, and they were quiet a while, giving the meal its due reverence. When they did converse, it was scraps of small talk intermixed with technical questions about the machinery and programs used at Hypnos. It was rather odd conversation for a first date, Reika mused, but she'd certainly had worse conversations in her life. Whatever her new employer might lack in charm, Megumi had been right - he really was a genius. It was really rather enjoyable for someone like her who could grasp what he was talking about to hear him expounding on his creations. When the meal was done and paid for, she left the restaurant in a surprisingly good state of mind.
He returned her to her apartment building and walked her to her door. When they reached their destination, they stood a moment, feeling slightly awkward.
"Well," she said, "I have to admit, it's been interesting."
"That it has. Thank you for an enjoyable evening."
"My pleasure," she answered politely. "Good night, Mitsuo. See you tomorrow."
She turned to begin unlocking her door. He stayed where he was.
"Do a I not even merit a goodnight kiss?"
She turned around to look at him again and had to fight the urge to giggle. For a grown man hiding behind a pair of dark glasses, he could still do a surprisingly good imitation of a wide-eyed child begging for candy. It was so unlike his usual demeanor that she had to smile.
"All right," she said. "I guess you have been a good boy tonight."
She kissed him then, and was surprised. She never would have imagined that someone who projected such an air of sternness and power could touch her so gently... but the hand that was stroking her face was trembling ever so slightly, giving her the sudden realization that he was holding himself in check, but only just. Did he really need her that badly? She was amazed to find herself tempted to break through that resistance... but no. She pulled away.
"That's enough," she said.
"I suppose it will have to suffice," he said. "Good night, Reika."
He made his bow and his exit, feeling strangely satisfied. Perhaps the evening hadn't gone the way he wished it could, but there was something to be said for the thrill of pursuit. If anything, the experiment had shown that she was not unattainable. She could be won over; he would just have to play by her rules. Very well, then. He could be patient when he needed to be. For now, he would play her little game, and when he did win, the victory would be all the sweeter for the effort. Sooner or later, he would win. All he had to do was wait...
Meanwhile, Reika went into her apartment and dropped onto her sofa to stare at the ceiling to try to collect herself.
*That was different,* she thought. *Very different. Not as bad as I thought it would be, though. He's not quite what I thought he was, but... I don't think I want to do this again, not if this is how I'm going to feel every time I leave him. I'll just have to tell him once is enough. After all, he's had his chance. He really can't ask for anything else.*
"There he goes again," Megumi remarked.
"Hm?" said Reika. She wasn't paying much attention to her general surroundings, her entire attention being given to a tricky bit of programming that was refusing to install the way it should.
"Mr. Yamaki," Megumi clarified. "I hate it when he does that."
Reika looked up. On the other side of the room, one of the other technicians had apparently been a bit too careless with one of the precious machines and broken something. Now he was being scolded by his supervisor, and the spectacle was enough to draw a small collection of discreet onlookers, all of them trying to keep their eyes on the show as they did their work. It looked interesting enough that she paused in what she was doing under the pretense of stretching her stiff muscles. At least her boss put on an interesting show. She couldn't make out too much of what was being said, but his low, deadly rumble was more effective than any of the shouting she'd ever heard. The hapless underling was cringing away, looking very much as if he'd like to have a mousehole to dart into. Much to Reika's amazement, Yamaki seized the man by the collar and hoisted him a few inches off the ground, giving him a few last choice words before releasing him again.
"Can he do that?" asked Reika, watching the shaken technician trying to collect himself as Yamaki stormed off. "I mean, is it allowed?"
"He can get away with a lot," Megumi stared. She was looking a little shaky, herself. "I've never seen him do that before, though. That guy must have broken something really expensive." She shivered a bit. "I hope he never gets angry at me. People like him scare me."
"Oh, I don't know. He's really not all that bad."
Megumi gave her a startled look. "How do you know?"
"Um, well... Actually, he took me out to dinner last night," Reika admitted.
"You're kidding!" said Megumi.
"Would I kid about something like that? It wouldn't be very funny."
"That's true, but still," Megumi answered. "I thought you said you would never agree."
"He caught me off-guard, okay? Besides, I figured I might as well do it and get if over with if he was going to keep bothering me about it."
Megumi whistled. "You're braver than I am, that's for sure."
"Hey, it wasn't so bad!" Reika replied. "Really, he was very nice. A perfect gentleman. I sort of enjoyed myself."
"I don't even have enough imagination to think of what that would be like," said Megumi. "What on earth did you talk about?"
"Computer things. This place."
"Ah," said Megumi, nodding. "Figures. He's obsessed. He must really like you if he can tear his thoughts away from Hypnos long enough to even remember your name."
Reika smiled wryly. "I didn't think there was anything that could distract men from chasing women."
Megumi shook her head. "I don't think he's real. He's a robot or something. You saw him! He picked that guy right up off the ground!"
"Strength isn't a bad quality to have in a guy," said Reika teasingly. "Neither is commitment."
"I still call it obsession," said Megumi. "So you really like him, then?"
"What? No! I'm just saying he's not all bad," Reika answered quickly. "When you think about it objectively, there are plenty of worse choices. He's rich, well-educated, reasonably good- looking... he'd be perfect if he just had a personality."
Megumi laughed. "Now you're kidding me."
"What? Don't you think I'm serious?" answered Reika, trying to keep a straight face.
"What are you two giggling about?" interjected a voice.
Megumi jumped as she realized Yamaki was glaring at them both. Reika quickly marshaled herself into seriousness.
"Oh, I'm glad you're here," she said. "This computer is doing something strange, and I can't get it to straighten up. I wish you'd take a look at it and tell me what I'm doing wrong."
"What have you been doing?" he asked.
She rattled off a description of the problem and the steps she'd taken to solve it, while he listened with what looked like approval. The two of them hunched over the machine, tapping buttons and consulting, while Megumi listened in silently. The two of them were chattering away in a machine language that she only half-understood, and she'd always rather prided herself on her technical knowledge. She was just starting to feel like she understood what was going on by the time they seemed to be wrapping things up.
"Aha!" Reika was saying. "No wonder I couldn't get it to work."
"It's all part of the security programming," Yamaki replied. "I apologize for not explaining it to you earlier."
"It's all right. Now that I know what I'm doing, I don't think I'll have any more problems. Thank you for explaining it for me."
"Not a problem. Next time, come straight to me if you run into any more difficulties."
"If I do, I will. Hopefully, though, things will go more smoothly from now on."
"I hope so," said Yamaki. "Be that as it may, I still want to talk to you... privately."
Megumi suddenly remembered something else she needed to do and skittered away.
"Is this about last night?" asked Reika.
"In part," he answered. "I did want to thank you. It's been too long since I went out and enjoyed myself."
"Same here," answered Reika. "I had a nice time."
"As did I. Perhaps you'd consider doing it again some time?"
She shook her head. "I don't think so."
"Because... I just don't think we should," she said. "It wouldn't be quite right. I think we're better off just staying as colleagues."
He gave her a cold stare she could feel even through his dark glasses. "If that was all there was to it, we could work around it. If you're going to reject me, have the grace to tell me why."
"All right. Okay, look," she said. "Don't take this too personally or anything. It's nothing you did wrong. I'll admit, when I first met you, I figured you were just another yutz hunting for a pretty girl. I know better know, so I apologize for ever making that assumption. You really are a pretty nice guy, but... I'm just not in the market right now. That's not your fault. It's just..."
"You don't want to get into a relationship," he supplied.
"Well, then," he said. "If that's the way you feel, I won't take up any more of your time."
Without another word, he turned and walked off. Reika watched him go. She wondered if she'd hurt his feelings.
*I don't think so. He's too tough for that. Just the hunter bilked of his quarry.*
Megumi reappeared. "So, when's the next date?"
"There isn't any date," Reika replied. "He asked for one, but I turned him down."
"You did?" asked Megumi. "But I thought you liked him!"
"I never said that. I just said he wasn't so bad," said Reika, turning back to the computers. "That doesn't mean I like him. And even if I did, I still might not have gone out with him."
She sighed. "Because I made a fool of myself over my last boyfriend, and I'm not in any rush to do it again, okay?"
"Ouch! Forget I asked."
"It's okay," Reika replied. "I learned my lesson. I know what I'm doing now. No more getting into relationships that don't have any depth to them."
"Commitment. Caring. Love," she clarified. "I tried it the other way, and it's a hollow way to live. I'm keeping myself out of trouble this time around. I'm not getting involved with any guys I don't honestly feel something for." She turned back to where her employer was busy making the rounds. "I don't know if he's the kind who falls in love."
"Too bad," said Megumi. "You two would make a really cute couple."
Reika was startled into laughing. "You're kidding, right?"
"I thought you were scared to death of him."
"I am!" Megumi admitted. "But you aren't. Watching you two work together... When he came over here, he looked like he was about ready to take both of us apart, and you had him calmed down in about three seconds. More than that - he was acting like you two were equals or something."
"That's nothing. He was just trying to get in my good graces, that's all," Reika replied.
"That's not what it looked like to me. That looked like respect."
Reika laughed bitterly. "Do I need to tell you what the last guy who told me he respected me did?"
"That's different," said Megumi. "And you know it, too."
"Well, all right, maybe he does respect me," Reika allowed. "That's fair. I respect him. That doesn't mean I want to go out with him. He's not really my type."
"Oh? What is your type?"
"Oh, you know," Reika replied, laughing a bit. "Tall and dark and romantic. You know, the kind who sends flowers and love poems and takes me for walks in the moonlight."
Megumi giggled a little. "Yeah, I've heard of those. Do they exist?"
"I'm not sure," Reika replied. "I've never seen one myself."
"Me neither," said Megumi. "But if they do, Mr. Yamaki's definitely not one of them."
"I can't say I'm too disappointed," Reika replied. "As far as I'm concerned, the best thing about him is that he can tell me what's wrong with this dratted computer. Come on, help me get this thing running."
The next few weeks went by swiftly, as more and more of the initial work was completed and things began to fall into a routine. Reika was learning to be happy in her new life - happier by far than she'd been in the old one. She was good at her new work, and it was interesting and challenging, though occasionally alarming. She had seen a few Digimon up close by now, and nearly having her hand bitten off by a frightened V-dramon had been enough to convince her that these Wild Ones deserved every bit of the concern they were being given. Still, she could never complain that she was bored.
Considering the hours she had to work, she hadn't expected her social life to improve any. Therefore, she was pleasantly surprised to find that she and Megumi were swiftly becoming good friends. Part of it was probably just that they had no one else they could really talk to - the secretive nature of their work made it impossible for them to really communicate with anyone outside the corporation, and its intensiveness was enough that they didn't really have much else to talk about. It was hard not to follow the institution's creator and let Hypnos become their life. Therefore, it was comforting to have someone to share lunch breaks with and talk about ordinary young woman things, to discuss the latest movies and share magazines with, and to take shopping during their precious free hours. Besides, Megumi was always friendly and easy to talk to, and that counted for a lot.
As for Yamaki, he seemed to have gotten the message. He no longer bothered Reika for anything that wasn't work related. He didn't even do that very often - unlike some people, Reika seldom made mistakes or had problems, so he didn't need to do much more than occasionally issue orders. After a while, she settled into her routine so well that he didn't even have to do that very often.
*I could almost feel sorry about that,* she mused as she came home from work. There had been a computer malfunction that day, and she and Yamaki had wound up working together for a few hours trying to get the trouble dealt with. *I have to admit, he's fun to work with. I don't think I've ever met anyone so intelligent... But on the whole, what would make me happiest would be if payday came a little more often.*
Last week had been a pay week, and it had been deeply appreciated. It had been a while since she'd had any money of her own, and its arrival had been useful in paying off a few debts and supplying her with a few things she'd been needing for a while. Still, her resources were slim and her savings nearly extinct. The next check couldn't come too soon for her.
Stopping at her front door, she checked her mailbox and found a fistful of what looked suspiciously like bills. She scooped them up with a sigh and carried them into the apartment, dumping them onto the coffee table for a better look at them. As she'd suspected, a good number of them were asking for money, some more urgently than others. She made a mental estimate of how much she needed versus how much she had available and winced; she could cover the costs, but just barely.
*Maybe I shouldn't have been so quick to turn him away. A rich boyfriend would come in handy right now.*
She immediately shoved that thought away. How could she even let herself consider such a thing?
*No way am I compromising myself now!* she told herself firmly. *I don't care how hard up I am for money, I am not selling myself to anyone, not if I'm down to my last five yen!*
Even so, principle was all very well, but it wouldn't put money in her pocket. She needed something to pay the rent and buy food with no matter what her social situation was. After considering a moment, she decided there was only one thing left for her to do: ask.
She arrived early at work the next day, hoping to avoid running into anyone who would know her, feeling somehow that she would lose her nerve if she allowed even something as trivial as a good-morning to distract her from her mission. No, the first person she talked to today would have to be Yamaki, so she could go ahead and get everything over with. She knew somehow that he would be here. It was hard for her to imagine him being anywhere else; she could almost imagine that he had an apartment in this structure somewhere, so he could always be near his precious computers. However, her instincts couldn't tell her exactly where in this vast pile he was, so she had to bend her resolution just long enough for someone to tell her that yes, he was here, and he was in his office. She got directions and set out resolutely.
A knock on his door got her an irritated, "Who is it? Can't it wait?"
"Mr. Yamaki? It's me, Reika."
"Oh, it's you." Still irritated, but now also curious. "Come in. The door's not locked."
She went in and looked around. It was a nice office, she noted, though rather smaller than she would have expected from someone in his position. She got a sudden inkling that this place existed mainly as somewhere to escape when the pressures of the job got to him, rather than someplace for getting any actual work done. Yamaki himself was standing by an open window, smoking a cigarette and looking out at the city.
"I hope I'm not interrupting something," she said.
"I'm just thinking," he answered.
"All the people out there," he said vaguely. "Half of them still asleep. None of them knowing what's going on right under their noses. Millions of innocent people, never knowing how thin the barrier is between themselves and danger... I think about that, at the beginning of the day. It helps me keep my focus. So, what brings you here?"
"I have something I need to ask about. It relates to payment," she said.
He quirked an eyebrow. "It's a bit early to be asking for a raise."
"I'm not," she said. "It's just... I know I can't get a raise now, but I need something in a hurry. I've been having... difficulties for a while now. I've got debts that have to be paid off. If I could just have a paycheck or two in advance, that would be all I'd need. I can manage after that."
"Hm. Well, this is rather irregular," he said. "I suppose you never bothered to ask anyone whether I'm even the right person to ask for paycheck advances?"
She blushed. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm just used to thinking you're in charge of everything around here."
"That's all right," he answered. She thought he even looked a bit flattered. "Actually, I'm not sure you could have gotten an advance if you'd asked in the correct place. But if you're in that much trouble, I can think of something you could do for me personally that might solve your financial difficulties nicely."
*Oh, no,* she thought, feeling a sinking feeling come over her. *He can't - he couldn't possibly...*
"Have you considered working overtime?" he asked.
She relaxed. "No, I hadn't thought of that."
"Well, would you think about it, then? There are some calibrations that need to be done, still - difficult, detailed, painstaking work. I've been trying to do it myself, but an extra pair of hands would speed things along considerably, and you're possibly the only one I know who I'd trust to do it right," he said. "Actually, I'd been thinking about asking you, anyway, but I wasn't sure you'd accept."
"What would it involve?" she asked.
"Some computer work. Not much different than what you've already been doing, really. Just come by in the evenings whenever you have time and give me a hand. I'm usually around. You'll get the usual overtime pay, time and half. Is that good enough?"
"That," she said, "is probably the best offer I've ever gotten. I'll accept."
He looked genuinely pleased. "Wonderful. I'll talk to the people in accounting, and see about getting you permission to be here after hours. You can start tomorrow, if you wish. I'd say tonight, but I have something to do tonight, and I'd rather you didn't start without me."
"I'll be there," she said. "Thank you! This means a lot to me."
"Don't mention it," Yamaki replied. "You'll be doing me a favor as well." He glanced at his watch. "Have you clocked in yet? You're going to be late in a minute."
"Good gracious, you're right," she said. "I'd better get going. Bye! Thanks again!"
She hurried away, smiling with relief. That had gone so much better than she'd thought it would! She could hardly believe her good luck, or her boss's generosity. Of course, it was all about his precious machines - getting them working would always be top priority with him. She was just glad his interests and hers crossed so neatly, and that she actually had the abilities he needed. She had noticed that she seemed to catch on to the way they worked more easily than some of the others; the designs he'd built them on were rather different than anything she'd ever seen before, and some of the more habitual-minded workers were a bit slow to pick up on their subtleties.
*Though he had me worried for a second there! Shows what I get for jumping to conclusions. I guess he really is over me. Good thing, too. I think I'd still be pretty nervous working here alone at night if I thought he was still interested...*
Meanwhile, Yamaki went back to his cigarettes and his thoughts, which were considerably different from what he'd been thinking earlier. He had been truthful with Reika when he told her about this little morning ritual; it was easier to survive the rigors he put himself through when he had his purpose firmly fixed in mind. Now, though, he had something else entirely to think about.
*I think I did the right thing. Imagine that.*
She didn't know how close she had come to shaking some good resolutions. No matter what she thought, he really hadn't stopped watching her. He had resigned himself, certainly - he wasn't one to go on chasing when she had made it perfectly clear she wasn't interested in him or anyone else - but that didn't mean she was any less of a temptation. He truly had been considering asking for her help, but had hung back from asking, both because he wasn't sure of her answer and wasn't entirely sure of his own constitution. There had never been a woman in his life so completely fascinating and exasperating, and he wasn't entirely sure he trusted himself to be left alone in a dark place with her without saying or doing something he shouldn't. He didn't think he would do anything too objectionable, but this just wasn't a situation he was used to, and he wasn't going to take chances. Not with her. And now...
*There is a higher power out there, and I'm being tested,* he thought wryly. *Walking right into my hands... I saw that look on her face. She would have done what I asked, whatever I asked. She wouldn't have liked it, but she would... But I can't do that. Not to her. I wonder why?*
An image flashed across his mind, of the last real conversation they'd had. She'd told him then that she had suspected him of being the kind of person who would do exactly that kind of thing. Then she had turned around and told him she had been wrong. She trusted him. That was an unusual thing, for him - he was not used to being trusted, especially by someone who seemed so clever, even cynical. Something of that wormed its way into his mind and told him that this woman's trust was a rare and precious thing, and he would be a world-class idiot to break it.
*Fine, then, I won't,* he told himself. He sighed. These were going to be some frustrating weeks.
*I hope she wins the lottery.*
The sun was nearly finished setting, leaving nothing more of its presence than a thin veil of light across the western sky, turning the skyscrapers of Tokyo into a jagged row of black silhouettes. Alone in his apartment, Yamaki looked up from his work to stretch his aching muscles and look at the view. He liked high places, liked being up above everything. He felt like he belonged there, up above all the people, all the daily hustle and bustle, above laws and common problems... completely alone.
Turning his mind away from those thoughts, he looked back at the paperwork he'd been ploughing through. He'd been giving this whole Digimon problem a lot of consideration, and he was starting to believe that this was a problem that might be best cut off at the source. In this case, the source was that which had created the Digimon in the first place, a collection of long- ago college students with an interesting idea of a graduate project. He'd managed to find that much out himself, but tracking down the perpetrators themselves was proving difficult. It had been a long time since that ill-fated project had closed down, and they had all graduated and gone on to other things. Now they were scattered all over the world, disappearing into whatever midlife occupations they had chosen for themselves, probably thinking they had no more influence over the fate of the world than anyone else. They wouldn't be easy to sort out from a billion other ordinary people.
Another part of the problem was that they were no longer calling themselves what they once had. From what he'd gathered, at least two of them were women, possibly married by now, so their college names might not be in use anymore... if he could even figure out what those were. The records of the project had turned out to be phenomenally difficult to procure. The school apparently had not been entirely approving, and had been quick to dispose of what information there was on it as soon as it had shut down, as if pretending it had never happened could undo what was done. Furthermore, a lot of the original notes had been carried off by the students themselves - who knew where they were now? What little had survived was interesting as far as the theory on how Digimon were created went, but it wasn't very conclusive when it came to pinpointing the creators. A lot of the rough work had never been signed, and as for the things they did put their names on, well... It seemed the brilliant young minds at the university had not been content to keep the names of ordinary humans. They had collected a series of colorful titles that sounded as if they thought they were characters in a video game themselves: Tao, Babel, Dolphin... What kind of a person called himself Dolphin? Yamaki shook his head in faint wonderment.
At least there was one person on the list who made sense to him. Of all the strange and wonderful handles the Monster Makers used, the one that turned up over and over was Shibumi. Everything attached to that name had always been something impressive: detailed technical drawings or pages of complicated code that made even a brilliant programmer like Yamaki's head spin. He was convinced that finding this person would bring him closer to achieving his goal than anything else could, so he had put himself to work looking for him.
However, as with so many other areas of his life, the Fates had decided to frustrate him, for the great Shibumi was nowhere to be found. He had talked with the people from the university who would have known him and was rewarded with much reminiscing; it seemed this young man had been something of a celebrity on campus, pulling off a string of remarkable intellectual feats. He had used the Shibumi nickname often enough that some people even remembered what his real name was. However, that lead had proven useless so far, because it seemed the only thing no one remembered about Shibumi was where he was now.
Yamaki knew he should set aside the dead trail in search of something more productive, but his curiosity would not leave him alone. Therefore, he compromised. During the day, the time when he was supposed to be getting legitimate work done, he put his resources into finding the rest of the elusive Monster Makers. At night, the time when he was supposed to be resting and preparing for the next day, he instead spent his free hours looking for a vanished computer programmer who could have died years ago, for all anyone knew.
He did learn things. Shibumi, also known as Mizuno, had been one of the most brilliant young minds ever to come through that distinguished university, holding records in science and math that remained unbroken even now. He had come from a family of only moderate means, making his way through on scholarships, but his intellectual conquests had made him a notable personage on campus. Even so, it seemed he had never quite fit in - everyone Yamaki had spoken with had described the student as a loner, seldom speaking to anyone outside of his own tight circle of associates, never going to parties or social events. The most vivid description he'd gotten was of a silent teenager lurking in a corner, his eyes hidden by the brim of a baseball cap, occasionally making terse comments that everyone scrambled to agree with.
*Hm. I wonder why that sounds familiar,* Yamaki thought wryly. *We're a lot a like... except that he's vanished into obscurity now, and I'm doing something important. Then again, not many people know what I'm doing, either.*
He went back to staring out the window. All those people out there... how many of them outside his own circle even had any idea who he was? He had no family, no close friends. A car could run him down tomorrow, and no one would miss him as long as his work kept getting done.
*Perhaps I will run into you someday, Shibumi. I have a notion we could tell each other something about each other.*
A glance at the clock told him that now was probably a good time to stop for a break, and maybe find something to drink. He set his work aside for the time being, though it would never completely leave his thoughts. There had never been anything he'd set his mind to that he couldn't accomplish, and this would be no different. His own private opinion was that he would find the elusive Shibumi, probably at the top of an apartment building somewhere, high above everything.
Reika had to admit that, even if she did like her job, quitting time was always nice. However, the enjoyment it usually brought was tempered by the knowledge that she would be putting in some extra hours tonight. Megumi, with no such worries, trotted along happily, shaking her hair free of her goggles as the two of them headed for their lockers.
"Hey, Reika," she said, "what do you say we two go out and do something tonight? I'm all caught up on my housework, for once, and there's a movie I want to see."
"Oh, wish I could, but I can't," said Reika. "I'm working overtime tonight."
"Overtime?" Megumi repeated. "We don't work overtime."
"I do," said Reika. "I got special permission from Mr. Yamaki to come back after hours. He's got some things he wants me to help him with."
"You keep telling me you don't like him."
"I don't," Reika answered firmly. "What I like is having money to pay the bills."
"Ahh, I get it," said Megumi. "That I can understand. But you couldn't pay me enough to come back here after nightfall with him."
"Yes, I'm well aware of your phobias," answered Reika lightly. "How about tomorrow? When he gave me my new key card, he told me I only needed to come every other day."
"New key card?"
"So I can get into the building after hours," she explained. "It's usually not allowed."
"I see," said Megumi. "He must like you, to bend all these rules for you. He gets mad at most of us for just talking too loud."
"It's not that," she said. "He just has something he needs help with, and it's something I'm good at, and I needed the money, so it works out right all around."
"Mm-hm. That's what you say," said Megumi. "See you tomorrow! Have fun!"
"I will," she said positively.
She hurried home, ate a quick dinner, cleaned up a bit, and then hurried back to the building. Dusk was starting to fall, and the approaching city night made the normally imposing Hypnos building feel almost welcoming. It was mostly dark inside, with only a few lights shining through the windows, and even those looked dim, as if the people inside didn't want to be found. She let herself in and began making her way to the lab. It might have been her imagination, alone in a dark and forbidding place, but she thought the electronic gates took more time than usual in letting her through, as though they weren't entirely certain she needed to be there after hours. Finally they accepted her card and let her pass, though with much disapproving humming.
At least the lab looked no different than usual; it was always dark and gloomy no matter what the situation was. The only difference was that now there was only one person here, making the place seem even more quiet and empty than ever. He looked up as he heard the door slide open.
"There you are," he said. "You're earlier than I expected."
"I decided not to waste time," she said.
"Excellent. Then we'll get started. Here." Yamaki handed her a clipboard with several checklists on it, and a pair of floppy disks. "You can start by running these tests. If anything unusual shows up, let me know. Otherwise, report back when you're done, and we can get started on the real work."
That sounded fairly straightforward, so she murmured an agreement and went to work. She had wondered, when she'd heard him talking about difficult jobs, just what she was going to have in store for her, but this really wasn't so bad - a bit boring really. As she worked her way down the checklist, she wondered how much of what he'd said had been truthful. Had he given her this job just because he felt sorry for her, or was there some other reason? After watching him a moment, she decided that it definitely hadn't been to socialize. He was completely absorbed on what he was doing; she probably could have shot off a crate of fireworks without distracting him. That made the job a bit more tolerable; she always did enjoy watching him work. Every move and keystroke was so confident, his expression rapt with an intensity that was almost religious.
*He'd never look that way at a woman,* she thought. *I should have known better than to think he'd ever be interested in anything that didn't run on electricity.*
Once she completed the tests, she handed the results over to her employer, who studied them carefully. The one error she had encountered, she'd taken the liberty of repairing herself, and he seemed to approve. However, he also seemed to take it as a sign that she could take care of herself, he put her to work running through a complicated series of tasks involving much tweaking with some delicate codes that could crash the whole system if she wasn't careful. There was nothing left to do then but give her entire concentration over to her job. All the thought she could manage was a reflection that he really must trust her, after all.
For a while, it was utterly quiet, with only the tapping of keys and the faint hum of machinery to break the silence, with the occasional click of footsteps as someone moved to a new machine or a murmur as she made a comment or inquiry. She lost all track of time, thinking of nothing more than the next step in her work, and the next, and the next...
She was finally brought out of her trance by the realization that someone was looking over her shoulder.
"How are you doing?" asked Yamaki.
"Almost done," she replied.
"It's nearly midnight," he informed her. "Aren't you tired?"
She stopped what she was doing; she had barely been aware of her physical state, but now that she was paying the attention, she could feel the physical effects of hunching over a computer for hours.
"Exhausted," she admitted. "I guess it sort of sneaked up on me."
"I apologize. I hadn't stopped to think - you aren't used to working these kinds of hours, are you?"
"Don't worry. I'll be okay," she answered. "But if it's all right with you, I think I'll walk on home now and get some sleep."
"Walk home?" he repeated. "At this time of night? Are you sure that's safe?"
"I'll be all right," she answered. She was not sure she liked the idea of walking home this late at night, but she didn't see where there were any alternatives. "It's not that long of a walk, really."
"You know... if you want, I could walk you home."
She looked at him, gauging his motives. She couldn't see anything but concern. "Are you sure you don't mind?"
"Not at all. I could use the break," he answered.
"Well, all right then," she said. With a faint teasing smile, she added, "Just don't try anything cute."
He didn't answer, and she couldn't quite read his expression. She resolved not to make any more jokes.
They left the building and left everything locked up tightly behind them before venturing out into the night. She led the way, moving at a slow stroll that reflected her feelings, both her tiredness and her confidence. He kept a few paces behind her, saying nothing, his footsteps hardly making a sound, more like a shadow than a human being. She glanced back at him and smiled. Maybe someone else would be afraid of his commanding presence, but not her. With him at her side, she felt safe from anything that might be lurking in the night - even a Digimon! In his dark suit and glasses, he even looked a bit like a bodyguard.
"Thanks for doing this," she said. "It makes me feel a lot better. You've been very kind to me."
"I am seldom kind," he answered quietly.
She paused in mid-step and turned to look at him. His expression was impossible to read in the darkness.
"What is that supposed to mean?" she asked.
He was quiet a while, giving the question due consideration. At last, he said, "What crossed your mind when I mentioned you could do something to personally benefit me?"
"Probably something entirely improper," she answered. "I suppose I should apologize for even thinking it."
"Don't. It's not an inaccurate guess; the thought crossed my mind as well," he answered. Seeing her thunderstruck expression, he added, "Look, don't get frightened now. I'm not going to do anything."
"Then why did you bring it up?" she demanded.
"Because I don't want you coming away with any false ideas of me," he answered. "That's been bothering me since the day you came right out and said you were sure I was better than that. I don't want you thinking I'm better than I am. I respect you too much for that." He sighed. "There are times when I find you extremely irritating, but I still respect you. I respect your intelligence and your independence - enough to want to be honest with you."
"I'm flattered," she said dryly. "All right, let's see you be honest, then. I'm certainly having a hard enough time figuring you out. It'll be a relief to have you just say it."
"Fine," he said. "Then maybe I should tell you I pay more attention to what you and your friend talk about than you might think."
"You eavesdrop on me?"
"I pay attention. Sound carries."
"I listen to everything that goes on around me. If that's what you call eavesdropping, fine," he replied. "It's only fair if you're going to talk about me."
"All right, then. What did you hear that's interesting enough to drag into a conversation?"
"Megumi talking about whether we'd make a good couple," he said. She wasn't sure, but he might have been blushing just the slightest bit. "You shouldn't listen to her, you know. I'm really not your type."
"Glad to have your blessing."
"Don't be flip," he scolded. "Do you think this is easy? I don't mind saying you have to be the most desirable woman I've ever met. I would love dearly to have you, but I know it's not going happen." He sighed. "You're out there looking for true love. That kind of love - the forever kind - I just don't believe it exists. Never have."
"I've never seen anything to convince me there is such a thing," Yamaki answered. "I'm not sure I'd want it if I found it. I'm used to being on my own, and I'm not about to change for anyone. Living by myself so long has made me a selfish person."
"I see," she answered thoughtfully.
They walked a while in silence. She was turning matters over in her mind, and she thought he would appreciate the time to collect himself.
"You know," she said after a while, "if you had... made some other offer... who's to say I wouldn't have accepted?"
"It doesn't matter. There was nothing to be gained by it."
"You might have accepted," he said, "but only once, and you would have hated me for it afterwards. Either way, you never would have trusted me again. Not many people trust me."
"I don't see why not."
Yamaki gave an incredulous laugh. "It sounds like you haven't paid attention to a word I've said all night."
"I've paid attention," she said. "And I think you're selling yourself short. Really selfish people don't devote their lives to protecting the world. I don't think they'd be this hard on themselves, either."
"Don't thank me too much. That might be the best you get from me for all you know."
They reached her apartment building, and he escorted her back to her front door. She did not seem to be in any particular hurry to go inside, and he lingered, uncertain of what to say. She was giving him a speculative look that could mean just about anything, and he wasn't about to leave until he found out what it was.
"You say you don't believe in love," she said at last. "You seem to believe in respect, at least. What about friendship?" Giving him a small smile, she said, "I can offer you those, at least."
He smiled back. "I accept gladly. Good night, Reika."
"Good night, Mitsuo."
He turned to walk away, only to have her call him back.
"Wait a minute," she said. "I just thought of something. Could you do me a little favor?"
"Haven't I already done you enough favors?" he answered.
"This is just a little one."
"Very well. What is it?"
"Take off your glasses."
"Take off your glasses," Reika repeated. "I want to see what color your eyes are."
"What kind of a request is that?" asked Yamaki.
"It just now occurred to me that I've been working with you for weeks, and I still have no idea what color your eyes are," said Reika. "I don't like not being able to see people's eyes; it makes me feel like they're hiding something. If you really want me to believe you're being honest with me, you're going to have to take them off."
"Oh," he said. "I don't suppose I can be so childish as to refuse. Very well."
Slowly, as if this were something he was entirely unused to doing and wasn't sure he remembered how, he slipped his glasses off. His eyes were closed behind them, but only for a moment. Then they opened and looked straight into hers. They were dark, dark blue, like the deepest ocean, with the same elemental power behind them, the force of will that could grind down mountains if given enough time. For a moment, all she could do was stare.
"Have you seen what you wanted to see?" he asked.
"I think so," she said. She felt as breathless as if she really had been submerged in an ocean. She had to fight the urge to shake herself.
"Then I will bid you goodnight once again," he answered, slipping his glasses back in place.
He bowed politely and walked away. She watched him from her doorway.
"You shouldn't hide them, you know," she called after him. "They're beautiful."
He spun in place, but she had already closed the door. He stared a moment, then shook his head and walked silently away, folding his glasses and slipping them into a pocket.
"Hey, Reika! Working tonight?" Megumi called.
Reika slipped off her safety glasses as she left the lab, catching up to her friend in the hallway. "Nope! Tonight is my night off. Good thing, too - these hours are starting to get to me."
"You want to hang out with me, then?" asked Megumi. "We never get a chance to hang out. It's always work, work, work."
"You can say that again," Reika replied. "Some time to relax sounds like just what I need. Did you have anything special in mind?"
"Oh, I don't know," she said. "I just thought we might go shopping or something. Window shopping, probably," she added, catching something in Reika's expression. "I'm a little strapped for cash right now, myself, but I think I can scrape together enough for dinner and a movie. How about you?"
Reika did some mental calculations. Money was still a worry, but a couple of week's worth of overtime had put the worst of her troubles behind her. Provided nothing unexpected happened in the next month or so, she should have the problem cleared up with a few more pay checks. At the very least, she didn't feel like she had to guard every coin anymore. It was a good feeling.
"I can handle that," she said. "When do you want to go?"
"How about now?"
Reika laughed. "Well, maybe after I change out of this uniform."
"All right, all right. After that."
The two young women swapped their uniforms for their civilian clothes and set out on their expedition. Reika wasn't used to seeing her friend in everyday garb, and was amazed how much younger she looked without her goggles and uniform to lend her authority. Her round face and soft brown eyes gave her the look of someone who should have still been in school, not working a job and trying to save the world.
"So, how's your after-hours project coming?" asked Megumi as they strolled along.
"It goes pretty well," Reika replied. "Mr. Yamaki says we're making good progress - much faster than it would have gone with just him alone."
"Brr," said Megumi. "I don't know how you do it, Reika. I sure wouldn't go anywhere with him alone at night."
"You know, you really shouldn't be so frightened of him," said Reika. "You certainly don't have a reason to. Actually, he likes you."
Megumi squeaked, and Reika laughed.
"Not personally," she hastened to assure her. "I asked him about you, just to see what he'd say, and he said you were a model employee."
"He said that? About me?"
Reika nodded solemnly. "You're reliable, efficient, respectful... oh, and you never get clever ideas and mess things up tinkering with what you don't know about," she added, grinning teasingly. "He said he wished more of his workers would act like you. That's pretty high praise, coming from him."
"When did he say all this?" Megumi asked.
"A couple of days ago," Reika replied. "Did you think we work in complete silence? Even an unsociable creature like him has to talk sometimes."
"Well... maybe he's not all that bad, then," said Megumi, still blushing a bit from the compliments.
"Oh, I don't know. He definitely has his bad points."
Megumi laughed. "Hey, what happened? Usually you're the one defending him from me!"
"I know. I'm kidding," said Reika. She laughed. "It's good to have someone to joke around with. I hadn't even thought about how long I've been out of circulation."
"What were you doing out of circulation?" asked Megumi.
"Would you believe, looking for the meaning of life?" Reika replied.
"No, not really," Megumi replied. "I mean, you're so pretty and smart, I'd think anyone would want you around."
"I know. I just didn't want them around. I needed some time to think a few things out. That's kind of why I started working here," said Reika. "I wanted to make a fresh start and see if I could do things better this time around... You've got to admit, working for Hypnos is about as different as things get. Sometimes I feel like I'm trapped in a sci-fi anime or something."
Megumi laughed. "Funny, I feel the same way sometimes."
"Oh, well. I'm happy here just the same. I feel like I'm getting something accomplished, anyway. That's more than I had before."
"Mr. Yamaki says we're saving the world."
"That he does! Quite often," answered Reika, grinning a bit. "Listen to him long enough and you might even start to believe it."
"Sometimes I do."
"Is that why you're working here?"
"I started working because I needed a job. You know that," Reika replied. "But now that I'm here, I think I'm going to hang around. I'd like to see how this thing ends up, you know? And I'd miss the excitement... and some of the people, too."
Megumi gave her a sideways look. "Like Mr. Yamaki?"
"Like you!" answered Reika, laughing. "It's nice to have a girlfriend to talk to, for a change."
Megumi blushed. "I'm nothing special."
"What makes you say that?"
"I'm not," she insisted. "I'm pretty good at doing what I'm told, but that's about it. I'm not what you'd call creative. People don't notice me like they notice you. The best anyone can say about me is 'cute'."
"There's nothing wrong with that," said Reika. "You know, you run yourself down too much. Bad enough you're always hiding from Mr. Yamaki - I don't need you treating me like I'm something special, too! Besides," she said, "you'd be amazed what the right makeup will do for a person."
Megumi giggled a little. "I never quite got the hang of that."
"Well, we're going shopping, aren't we? I can help you pick some things out - maybe give you a few pointers, if you want."
"I'd like that," she answered. She looked down at her blue jeans and shapeless shirt. "Maybe you could help me work on my wardrobe, too."
"Sure! It'll be fun," Reika replied.
"Thanks," said Megumi. "Hey, Reika?"
"I hope you do hang around a while. Whoever they got to replace you probably wouldn't be nearly as nice as you are."
"I'm not that nice," she answered, grinning impishly. "I just like playing with makeup. Come on, let's go shopping."
Reika felt she had a right to be proud of herself. Her after-hours project was coming along nicely, and the reward came in the form of computers that not only could do more than they had been able to a few weeks ago, but they did it faster and with fewer errors. Not only that, but she had been enjoying the work. She was doing what she did best, and in good company. Yamaki might not have the world's most upstanding moral character, but he was still a brilliant man capable of some interesting conversations, especially late at night when they were both tired and relaxing came more easily. There were times when she was sure he'd forgotten that she was the beautiful woman he'd been pursuing and started treating her like an equal.
Of course, on days like today, she got treated as something less. Over the last few days, she'd noticed a change in her employer's behavior, one that had started out subtle but had steadily gotten worse as time had gone by. Yamaki had never been precisely what Reika would have called genial, but lately he'd become downright antagonistic. He was always snappish and irritable, barking at anyone who put a toe out of line, and the lines were becoming steadily more constricting. No one could do anything well enough to please him - they were slow, they were making too many mistakes, they dawdled, they talked too much, he ought to have all of them fired. Not only did they not do anything right, they didn't even do it as well as they had yesterday. No one was spared the acrimony, and anyone who argued regretted it. Not even Reika could escape the treatment, but she bore it patiently. The rumor was that the people who funded the project were getting annoyed with the perceived lack of progress Yamaki was making and were putting pressure on him to hurry things along, and she felt a bit sorry for him, knowing he was already throwing everything into the project that he had. However, when he turned on Megumi, Reika decided he had gone too far.
More than anyone else, Megumi was having a hard time dealing with Yamaki's temper. She went through her routine with her head down, looking as if she were trying to blend into the shadows. She tried desperately not to do anything that would get his attention and bring down his wrath, but her nervousness made it hard to concentrate, and mistakes were inevitable.
"What is the matter with you?" Yamaki snarled at her. "Are you trying to ruin things? Do you want to make things difficult?"
"No, sir," she stammered, "I just-"
"Don't interrupt me when I'm talking to you!" he shouted. She cringed. "Honestly! You've done this a million times before! Why can't you do it now?"
"I'm trying! Just stop shouting at me!"
"Don't you tell me what to do! I tell you this, you had just better shape up, or you're going to be standing in the unemployment line!" He turned on his heel and stormed off, still muttering savagely. Megumi turned back to her work, looking like she was going to cry.
"It's not fair," she said. "I'm doing the best I can. It's just..."
"It's okay," said Reika, eyes going steely. "I'll take care of it."
Climbing down from the observation deck, she went and marched resolutely off after her employer. She caught up to him as he was starting to lecture another technician. Gripping his shoulder, she pulled him around and made him face her. He glared at her in surprise.
"What do you want?" he snapped.
"I think you owe Megumi an apology," she said quietly.
"I owe her nothing of the sort. She's making foolish mistakes and she deserves to be reprimanded for them."
"She wouldn't be making mistakes if you weren't scaring her," Reika retorted. "You know that. It's not fair of you to treat her like this."
"I can do whatever I want. You have no right to talk to me like this."
"You're talking like a spoiled brat," said Reika. "I don't care how big and important you are, you can't go around treating people like this."
"And I don't have to take this kind of talk from you," he said. "Get back to work before I get angry."
"I will not get back to work. Not until I hear that apology."
"Well, you're going to have a long wait," Yamaki snapped. "Just because I've done you a few favors in the past does not give you the right to order me around. As a matter of fact, I think you might stop and think that maybe you owe me something." He turned away from her.
"Take off those sunglasses when you're talking to me," she demanded.
"Don't you tell me what to do," he snapped back.
Reika was not about to be talked down; she reached over and snatched the glasses from his face. He turned on her with fury in his eyes. She noticed that at once, but was more interested in noting how red they looked.
"Well," she said. "Would you like to tell me what kind of unhealthy activity you've been engaging in that put those circles under your eyes?"
"None of your business," Yamaki snapped, snatching his glasses away.
"You haven't been sleeping, have you?"
"I can get by with missing a few hours of sleep."
"No, you can't," she said. "Mr. Yamaki, you are not superhuman, no matter how much you would like to be. You can't be in control of everything all the time!"
"And you can't tell me what to do," he barked. "I am capable of judging my own strength, thank you very much. Now, leave me alone and get back to work."
Reika did what she was told, thought not without some misgivings.
*Stubborn idiot,* she thought. *What does he think he's accomplishing? He's not doing anyone any good working himself to death... Well, it's not my concern. I just work here. I'll just collect my pay and not worry about it.*
She didn't sleep well that night. Her mind kept buzzing from point to point, refusing to calm enough to let her get any rest. She tossed and turned for a few hours before finally giving it up. She crawled out of bed, got dressed again, and left the apartment. It was well after midnight, and everything around her was dark and still. She was the only one around as she walked thoughtfully up the sidewalks, not even disturbed by a passing car, or any sounds at all. She was alone with her thoughts and the streetlights. Inevitably, her footsteps led her into the shadow of the towering Hypnos building. She lingered at the front door a moment, as if she were afraid of being caught there, then slid her key-card through the lock and went in.
The building was dark and silent, lit only by the blue lights of street lamps shining through the windows. It wasn't the lighted rooms she was interested in, though. She knew where she needed to be: in the very center of Hypnos, the hidden heart and brain of the enterprise. She continued on her quest through the tunnels, moving ever deeper into the darkness.
The control room, never bright even when it was full of busy people, was almost pitch black. There were only a few faint glows illuminating it, coming from the screens of a few computers and other machines. The machines shouldn't have been running, not without someone attending them. Someone was.
"I knew I'd find you here," said Reika.
Yamaki looked up with a guilty start. "You! What are you doing here?"
"Finding out if you're really as crazy as I thought you were. It looks like I'm right," Reika replied. "What are you doing here? It's three o'clock in the morning; even the Wild Ones are sleeping now."
"We can't be sure of that," answered Yamaki. "And I might ask you the same question. What business of yours is it if I want to be here?"
"I was worried about you," she said. "I'm worried about what you're doing to yourself, and what effects it's going to have. You can't watch everything all the time. Nobody can. You've got to let yourself rest sometime, or you're going to burn yourself out. Then you won't be able to do anything at all. Is that what you want? To knock yourself out when nothing is happening, so when something really does happen, you don't have the strength to fight back?"
"That's not going to happen."
"Yes it is! I can see it coming. Look at you! Anyone can see you're already half-beaten. All you ever do these days is snap at anyone who gets near you. That's hardly how a well-adjusted person behaves."
"Why do you care?" Yamaki snapped. "What does it matter to you, anyway? It's none of your business what I do to myself."
"Maybe it isn't," she answered. "Maybe I shouldn't care... but what if I do anyway? What if I respect you enough that I actually don't want to see anything bad happen to you? Is that so hard to imagine?"
"Coming from you, yes."
"Oh, right," she said. "Just because I don't fawn all over you, I must not be interested in you at all, is that right? Well, let me tell you something, Mr. Tough Guy, there's more to love than just draping yourself all over someone and going along with everything they say. It goes deeper than that."
He looked up, the speculation on his face clear even through the glasses. "Does it?"
Reika dropped her gaze. "I didn't say..."
"Did you mean it?"
"No," she said. "Just... forget I said that."
"You came out here in the middle of the night, worrying about me, and I'm supposed to believe you don't care at all."
"I didn't say that either," Reika replied.
"Well, would you kindly say what you mean, for once?"
"About me. I need to know."
"What is there to say? I respect you - admire you, even. You're one of the most brilliant, determined people I've ever met. If I have to be honest, I even think you're attractive. After that, I don't know."
"What can I do to help you make up your mind?" he asked.
"I don't know if I want my mind made up."
"Maybe I do."
"I don't think-"
Whatever Reika was about to say was cut off by a gasp of surprise. Yamaki had suddenly grabbed hold of her wrist, gripping it tightly and pulling her closer to him. Before she realized what was happening, he was pressing her into a crushing embrace and kissing her. Her first reaction was to try to pull away, but... but... but it was so hard to think of anything else when he was touching her like this, pressed so close it was hard to tell if that was his heartbeat or hers she felt pounding against her chest. Her head spun, and she clung to him and let him hold her. She was lost, she couldn't think anymore, didn't have any strength to think of anything but the kiss and the way he was running his hand through her hair and stroking her face...
It wasn't until she felt him undoing her shirt buttons that she came to her senses. She shoved him away, and he backed off, breathing raggedly.
"Not yet," she said.
"Why?" he asked. He sounded hoarse; he was still panting, and his expression was one of near-desperation. He had removed his sunglasses, and now his eyes bored into hers. She had never realized, until now, what it was like to have the full intensity of them resting on her. Just seeing that sheer hunger written across his features was nearly frightening, but at the same time, it felt like every drop of blood in her body was screaming at her to forget what she'd just said and throw herself back into his arms again. She took a deep breath and wrenched herself back under control, hoping nothing of that inner struggle was showing on her face.
"It's not time," she said.
"It's not time," he repeated. He beat his fist against a nearby machine in frustration. "I am going crazy and you tell me it's not the time!"
"Well, when will it be?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know. Well, there's just a hell of a lot you don't know, isn't there?" he snapped. He sighed deeply, leaning heavily on the machine and hanging his head. "Fine then. Just get out of here."
Reika hesitated. She'd never seen him look so crushed, so helpless; she was certain he was shaking. She put out a hand, gently resting it on his shoulder, only to have it shoved roughly away.
"Don't touch me," he said.
She backed away, startled. "Mitsuo..."
"Don't talk to me, either," he said. "Don't call me by that name. Don't look at me. Just... just get out of here. Go away."
She left, turning quickly and hurrying out of the building. She rushed back home, letting her feet find their own way while her mind whirled. What had just happened? She couldn't find an answer, couldn't even think clearly enough to look for one. As soon as she got home, she collapsed into her bed, not even bothering to undress, and curled up into a ball with her face half- buried in her pillow.
*I'm never going to get any sleep now,* she thought vaguely. *I'm going to end up with circles under my eyes just like his. Lovely. Won't we make a cute pair then?*
She laughed bitterly. What was she thinking? She couldn't really be thinking that any of that had meant anything...
*The way he looked at me... I've never seen him look at me like that. I've never seen anyone look at me like that.*
*Don't be ridiculous,* she scolded herself. *You know what was going on. Same as every other time. Maybe he's got a worse case of it than usual, but this is Yamaki, after all. He never does anything halfway.*
That was the wrong thing to think; her brain went straight back to the way it had felt to have him kiss her. It was scary to think just how much she'd enjoyed it...
*Maybe I'm the stubborn idiot here,* she thought ruefully. *What's the point of missing a night's sleep if I don't even get anything out of it?*
But a girl could still dream, even if she wasn't asleep, so she closed her eyes and sent her mind to find out what might have happened if she hadn't sent him away.
The day after the after-hours incident, Reika went to work expecting almost anything. Surprisingly, the morning passed without incident. However, when the workers were dismissed for their lunch break, Yamaki called to her.
"Reika, could I have a word with you?" he asked.
"I guess so," she said.
"I want to apologize for last night," he said. "My behavior was unacceptable. You were right - I've been working too hard. I'm not sure I was in full possession of myself. You'll have to forgive me."
"Oh, that's, um... quite all right," she said, a little surprised.
"Thank you," he said. "It won't happen again."
She looked at him skeptically. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," he said.
"I see. All right," said Reika. "Was that all you wanted to say?"
"I believe it was. You are dismissed."
She was so taken aback that all she could do was bow politely and hurry off.
*Talk about overcompensating!* she thought. *It wasn't that bad. It's not like we've never kissed before... though never quite like that... But he knows I know he's interested. What was so different about last night that he has to go and apologize?*
But it seemed there was more going on than she was willing to think about. Once his apology was made, he apparently had nothing left to talk about. A wall had come down, leaving Reika completely bewildered. He no longer snapped at everything, but he didn't say anything else, either - not to Reika or any of the other workers if he could help it. When they worked together, they did so in complete silence unless there was some problem or question that needed to be dealt with. She was surprised how much it bothered her.
Part of the problem was that no matter how much she would have liked to tell herself that nothing ever happened, try to not think about it all, it seemed her hormones still remembered what it had felt like being in his arms. As much as it shamed her to admit it, there was still a part of her that wished she had accepted what he'd been offering. She kept catching herself watching him and thinking that he was a very attractive, if irritating, man.
She carried the problem to lunch with her one day. Often the workers would leave the building on their lunch break, instead of eating in one of the rooms set aside for the purpose. Most of the time, Reika herself carried a lunch and ate with Megumi in the office lounge, but on this particular day, she felt she needed some quiet and privacy to sort through her thoughts. Fortunately, she knew where she could find both of those. In the locker room, there was a small table, only large enough for three or four people to be seated comfortably. Not many people bothered to use it. Reika chose the chair in the corner and settled in to eat and think.
Absently, she picked up a pen and began doodling on a napkin. A pair of characters took form, forming the word yama, mountain.
*That's accurate enough,* she thought wryly. *He's so hard headed sometimes, he might as well be made of stone. Especially these days.*
She scribbled another character next to the first two: ki, heart.
*Well, he's bound to have one in there somewhere. It might even work, no matter what he says. I know he's not a bad person, but sometimes...*
Three more characters joined the first. Mitsuo. She stared at what she'd written, frowning. The name didn't seem right to her; it brought up connotations of sweetness and light that seemed totally incompatible with the man she knew. Smiling wryly, she blotted out one character and added a new one, forming a new word. Himitsu: secret.
*That's more like it. The only one who really knows what he's thinking is him, and he's not telling.*
Just at that moment, there was an unexpected sound of the door opening, and Megumi flurried in.
"Hi! What are you doing in here?" she said. "You didn't show up for lunch, so I came looking for you."
"Did it occur to you that maybe I wanted some privacy?" answered Reika.
"Ow! You don't have to bite," said Megumi. "What's wrong, anyway? You've been out of sorts for days. Is something wrong?"
"Kind of," said Reika.
"Can you talk about it?"
"I don't really want to."
"What are you writing?" asked Megumi, coming closer.
"Nothing!" said Reika quickly. "Just, you know, doodling."
Megumi tilted her head to read the upside-down writing. "Mitsuo Yamaki? Oh, I get it now! And all this time you've been telling me you don't like him."
"Then why are you writing his name on that napkin?"
"Because... oh, I don't know!" snapped Reika, throwing her pen down in disgust. "I'm all confused. I don't know why I'm even thinking about him, I don't know why I ever gave him a second look, I don't know why I ever gave him a chance at all. He has got to be the most irritating, stuck-up, stubborn, pig-headed..." She trailed off, breathing shakily. Megumi stared at her.
"Boy, you have got it bad, haven't you?" she said.
Reika sighed. "I know. Boy do I know."
"So what's wrong? Isn't he interested anymore?" asked Megumi. "Last I heard, I thought he kind of liked you."
"I don't know if he likes me or not, and that's not the problem," said Reika. "Megumi, I don't want to feel anything for him! He's not what I wanted at all. I shouldn't feel anything for him, and I don't understand why I can't get him off my mind. I know he'll never love me, not really. He said so himself, for crying out loud! And I promised myself I wouldn't get into another relationship if there wasn't going to be love involved, but when he kisses me... Oops."
"It's okay. I won't tell," Megumi promised.
Reika sighed. "The strange thing is, he's not even chasing me anymore. All I did was say I wasn't ready to... to get into a relationship with him, and suddenly this wall came down. He won't even look at me anymore. He just looks around me like I'm not even there."
"And he did this because you don't want to be dating him, right?"
"Something like that."
"Poor guy," said Megumi. "Sounds like he's got it pretty bad, too. I didn't know he had it in him."
"What do you mean?"
"It's simple," Megumi replied. "If you're dying of thirst, wouldn't you hate to have water right in front of you if you couldn't get at it?"
"Well, yeah, but-"
"But you told him he couldn't have you, and that hurt," said Megumi. "So now he's trying to pretend you're not there so he won't be tempted."
"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," Reika replied. "This is Yamaki we're talking about. He's not the kind to pine away like someone in a sad love story. He's just... he's just sulking because I told him he can't have whatever he wants."
"If you say so," said Megumi. "After all, you know him better than I do. Anyway, I'm going to go eat my lunch. You can get on with your thinking. Talk to you later, okay?"
"Sure," said Reika.
Megumi left, and Reika stayed where she was, doing as she had been told and thinking.
The machines at Hypnos served many useful purposes: tracking down Digimon, analyzing them, and occasionally destroying them. Sometimes they even caught criminal activity - after all, the main computer picked up every scrap of digital information in the world and processed it, so every once in a while, someone would happen upon something interesting and report it. However, that was not what Yamaki used them for. As their creator, he considered himself licensed to use them however he pleased, and if he occasionally used them for some discreet private purposes, who was going to know or care? It was not, he often reminded himself, as if he were getting into anything he had no business knowing. All he had done was to leave an unobtrusive bit of code deep in the heart of the programming that would have the computer keep a virtual eye open for anything that looked like it might concern him. He did not like people talking about him behind his back, and when he had a tool like this at his disposal, why not use it?
That was why, late one night, he was lurking around Hypnos going through his folder of personal information, looking for anything of interest. Most of what the computer had pulled today was useless; it was hardly foolproof, and occasionally gave him information pertaining to people who had his same family name. These were deleted without being read. What little was left appeared to be largely conversations between his sponsors, complaining once again that his progress was insufficient. He snorted at their ignorant comments and deleted those documents as well. Those people had no idea of the scope of what he was doing; what position were they in to complain? He shuffled through a few e-mails and IM conversations that seemed to be mainly his employees complaining about his behavior. He was well aware he was less than popular as an employer and didn't really care. He was about to decide there wasn't going to be anything interesting in the entire batch when his attention was caught by a familiar name. His computer had made a recording of an instant message conversation, and the content was unlike anything he'd expected to see.
ChibiHimawari: what's wrong, reika? still thinking about mr yamaki?
AkaiShougeki: Yeah, kind of. Do you ever get the feeling you've done a job too well?
ChibiHimawari: what do u mean?
AkaiShougeki: I mean, I used to just want him to stop chasing me. Now he won't even talk to me, and I don't like it.
Yamaki sat up and stared. This looked interesting. A small part of him told himself that he was being rather rude reading someone else's private conversation. Himself acknowledged the fact and settled in to finish reading.
ChibiHimawari: he'll get over it. sooner or later he'll find someone else.
AkaiShougeki: But I'm not even sure anymore if I want him to find someone else. That's the whole problem. I've been wondering lately if maybe...
AkaiShougeki: If maybe I'm starting to fall for him.
ChibiHimawari: i've been telling u for weeks that u 2 make a good couple and u dont listen to me.
AkaiShougeki: Thanks for the sympathy.
ChibiHimawari: any time ;-)
AkaiShougeki: This isn't funny, Megumi. Help me out here, since you're the all-knowing guru on how guys behave. What do I do now?
ChibiHimwari: ok ok. so the trouble is that you dont really know if u like him or not?
AkaiShougeki: More or less. I just wish he'd start talking to me again. I kind of miss him. I'm starting to think that if he asked me out again, I'd say yes.
ChibiHimawari: so ask him
AkaiShougeki: I'm not going to ask him! After all the time I spent pushing him away? I don't want him to get the wrong idea.
ChibiHimawari: what's the wrong idea?
AkaiShougeki: That I'm so desperate to be with him again that I'm ready to break all the protocols and ask him out.
ChibiHimawari: I thought u said u were in love with him.
AkaiShougeki: I never said that. I just said maybe.
ChibiHimawari: how are u going to know if you dont talk to him?
AkaiShougeki: That's the catch, isn't it? I guess I'm just going to have to wait.
ChibiHimawari: wait 4 what?
AkaiShougeki: Wait until either he comes around, I decide I don't really need him, or I really do get desperate. But I'm not planning on getting desperate.
ChibiHimawari: You weren't planning on liking Yamaki, either.
The rest of the conversation meandered off onto other topics, but Yamaki didn't bother to follow it. He had already seen what interested him.
"You're waiting for me, are you, Reika?" he said, swivelling thoughtfully in his chair. "Well, maybe you won't have to wait very long."
The next day at work, Reika got a surprise. She had not particularly been looking forward to going to work that day; she was starting to get worn down by Yamaki's stony demeanor, and this was one of the days she was used to staying after hours. At the moment, the only thing that was keeping her coming back was knowing that she needed the money, and even that might not be enough to keep her around much longer. Spending several hours alone in the dark with an unspeaking sunglassed shadow was becoming torturous. Arriving at work, however, she was amazed to see that something seemed to have lightened his mood; by his usual standards, he was being downright cheerful. Perhaps the men upstairs had finally stopped bothering him.
At the end of the day, she was ready to gather her things quickly, hurry home for dinner and perhaps a quick shower before returning for her nightly work. Instead, Yamaki intercepted her at the door.
"In a hurry?" he inquired conversationally.
"A little," she said. "I mean, tonight is my night to stay after. I've got to change and eat so I can get back here."
"Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that," he said. "You know, you've done almost everything I can ask you to do. You've made surprisingly fast progress. I'm very impressed with you. You've done an excellent job."
"Thank you," she answered, wondering what this was leading up to.
"Unfortunately, that means there's really no point in your coming here tonight."
"Oh," she said, thinking, *So that's it. He really can't stand to be around me anymore. Just my luck.*
"I'm sorry," he said. "I know you needed the work. If anything else comes up later, you'll be the first person I tell."
"Of course. Thank you," she said again. She began walking away.
"Wait," he said. "Before you go, I wanted to ask you... You've been such a big help, I wanted to do something to show my gratitude. I was thinking... Reika, I know I've been antisocial these last few days. I've had a lot on my mind lately, but I think I've got most of that worked out, and I have missed your company."
"I've missed you, too," she answered quietly.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cause you any distress," he said. "Can I make it up to you by asking you to dinner?"
She smiled. "That would be a good start, anyway. Where would we go? Same place as last time?"
"Actually, I was hoping for something a little less impersonal," he said. "Would you like to come to my place?"
"Maybe," she said. She stared at him thoughtfully. "Just dinner? Nothing else?"
"On my honor," he answered.
"Have you got any?"
"You're kidding me, right?" Yamaki asked.
"Of course I am," answered Reika. "Dinner sounds wonderful. Pick me up in about an hour?"
"That will be fine."
"Great! It's a date," she said. "See you in an hour, then."
She pranced off, humming cheerfully, and Yamaki couldn't help but smile. She looked so happy, in a way he had never seen before, and it was strangely infectious.
*I think she likes me,* he thought, with a sense of amazement. Having people like him was a novel experience; he thought he liked it. *Maybe there is something to be said for this romance stuff, after all.*
The door swung open, giving Reika her first look inside Yamaki's apartment, and she looked around curiously.
"Make yourself at home," he said. "Feel free to look around. I'm going to get the dinner things together."
Given free reign, Reika began an exploration. As she'd expected, his apartment was much nicer than hers was - not what she'd call luxurious, but spacious and well kept, with a nice view of the city through its wide windows. Still, it was clear enough that a bachelor lived here; there was little in the way of frills and decorations. Everything was fairly clean except for one tabletop, containing a laptop computer, and any number of pencils, bits of paper, mechanical odds and ends, and an ashtray. She frowned a bit at that; then shrugged. She was used to his ever-present lighter, but she'd never actually seen him light anything with it, so that she'd almost forgotten that it had any purpose other than being something for him to fidget with when he was agitated. On the whole, she decided she liked the place. There was nothing ostentatious, as she'd half-expected from a man with money to spend, but there was nothing here that was second-rate or poorly made, either.
"What do you think?" he asked, reappearing from the kitchen.
"I like it," she said. "You've got good taste. I wouldn't mind having a place like this myself someday."
"I'm flattered. Perhaps you'll have to visit more often."
"Maybe so! I'm going to be sorry to go back to my own little hole in the wall," she said.
"I don't believe it. Any place would be made beautiful just by having you in it."
She gave him a sidelong look, trying not to smile. "That act isn't going to work on me. I've heard it too many times to take it seriously."
He shrugged. "It was worth a try. Are you ready to eat? I'm afraid I don't cook that well, so you're going to have to settle for carry-outs."
"And here I thought you were going to be cavorting around the kitchen with an apron and a rolling pin," she said.
"Such an imagination," he said. "I'm going to make you wash the dishes - see if I don't."
They sat down to dinner. Reika noted that, carry-out or not, he had made an effort to make things look nice - wherever he had gotten the meal from, it was somewhere good. She had to admit, she wouldn't have gotten anything so good on her own. She also noticed that there were candles lit and wineglasses set out.
*He is trying to impress me,* she thought.
The thought didn't bother her very much. She found she was more interested in catching up on the time she had missed when they weren't speaking to each other. Once they'd gotten past the initial polite small talk, they found themselves deep in conversation, skipping from topic to topic. She listened sympathetically as he told her about his troubles with his bosses; he returned the favor by listening to her tell about her troubles with her landlord. They discussed the local politics and the latest movies, things she'd never realized he even thought about. She remarked on the collection of books he had on his shelves.
"You must be quite the scholar," she remarked, half-teasing.
"Most of those are classics, I'll have you know," he answered. "I do like to read, when I get the chance. It's something I miss, being so busy."
"I know what you mean," she said. "Most of mine are so battered, they're falling apart."
"I suppose you could borrow a few of mine, if you want."
"Could I? That would be wonderful."
"It's good to find someone who appreciates them," Yamaki answered. "Even my parents thought I was a little crazy, reading all the time when other children were watching cartoons and playing video games."
"What? You didn't watch television?"
"Not really. It never interested me."
She laughed. "You must have been unbearably precocious. I'll bet you were cute, too!"
He drew himself up, looking dignified. "I was never cute."
"Oh, come on! Not even when you were little?" she teased.
"If I was, no one was ever moved to point it out," he answered. Looking thoughtful, he added, "I think I have a picture, if you'd like to see."
"I'd love to."
"All right, hang on a minute."
He got up and began going through a drawer. Deciding she was more interested in the spectacle than the remains of dinner, she got up to watch. From the depths of the drawer, he took out an old photograph and handed it to her, and she studied it. The image showed a boy of about ten years old, with blonde hair and serious blue eyes. Standing behind him with their hands on his shoulders was a pair of adults, presumably his parents.
"Aw, you were cute!" she exclaimed. "Hm. You have your mother's eyes, I think, but your face is more like your father's."
"Yes. I was always told I looked a lot like my father."
"So, where are they now?"
He looked out the window. "They're gone."
"Oh... I'm sorry."
"It's all right. I've had a long time to get used to the idea," Yamaki answered. "It's been more than ten years, now."
"You must have been awfully young."
"I was in college. My first year," he answered. "It was a good school. They were both so proud of me. I had to work hard to keep my grades up - I didn't have much time to go home and visit. Right after the first semester was over, and the reports came in, they decided they wanted to come up and visit, to celebrate.
"It was a bad winter - do you remember? You were old enough, I would think. We had a lot of bad ice storms that year, but it was only raining when they left. They thought it would be all right. Someone said afterwards that they must have forgotten that the bridges froze earlier than the roads did. They hit a patch of ice and went out of control..." He sighed. "I'm told it happened very fast. They didn't suffer, anyway."
"What about you?"
"Me? I waited. I looked out the window wondering when they would get there, so sure the next minute I'd see their car pulling in. Then my roommate came and told me I had a phone call." He sighed and shook his head. "It was hard to believe it was all real. I hadn't seen them since I'd left for school, and then suddenly they were just gone. It took a long time to realize they really weren't going to come back."
"It must have been hard on you," she said.
"I was all right," he answered. "I had enough work to stay busy, and my lodgings were paid for. I could take care of myself then as well as now. And once I got out of school, I was able to get a good job. I never had any problems."
"So you were on your own all that time? What about your friends?"
He kept his eyes from quite meeting hers. "I never had time to socialize. It was more important to get my work done."
"I see," she said. "That makes a lot of sense."
"I mean, I think I understand you better, hearing this," she answered. "Nobody's loved you in a long time, have they?"
He began to reply to that, and couldn't think of anything to say. Almost against his will, he turned to look into her eyes, and what he saw there rattled something deep inside, something that hadn't been awakened in years.
"Reika..." he whispered.
Before they knew what they were doing, they were in each other's arms, him clinging tightly to her, hiding his face in her long hair. She pressed close to him, trying to give him what comfort she could.
*Well,* she thought, *I guess now I know whether or not I love him.*
There are a few precious days that come along from time to time when everything seems to go right. For Reika, that time had come, and it came as a welcome relief. For the time being, it seemed all her money worries were over. Work was interesting and challenging, giving her a sense of fulfillment she hadn't had when she was just keeping house for someone else. Better yet, she had a social life again. She regularly spent her free afternoons with Megumi, chatting and window shopping, or occasionally even doing some real shopping. Evenings were more interesting these days, too, now that Yamaki was back to courting her again. She no longer felt the need to avoid him quite as much as she once had - not only because of the change in how she felt about him, but because something seemed to have changed about him. It was hard to say exactly what it was, except that he'd started to seem more relaxed around her. He wasn't trying to be perfectly charming and mannerly anymore, nor did she ever see that desperate light in his eyes again. For now, he seemed perfectly content to just be in her company, which was just how she wanted it.
Then the phone rang. She looked up at it, feeling vaguely annoyed. She was in the middle of reading a borrowed book, and she'd promised Mitsuo she'd bring it back soon. Furthermore, she'd just gotten to a good part and didn't feel like being interrupted. However, the phone continued to ring with the stubbornness of someone who knew she was home and was not going to give up until she answered. With a sigh, she slipped a stray sheet of paper between the pages and went to deal with the intrusion.
"Hello? ... Oh, Mr. Kawamura. Is there something I can do for you? ... Listen, if it's about the rent, I'm sorry it's late, but it's going to get paid. It's just that my refrigerator broke, and I had to get a replacement in a hurry, so I'm short on cash this month. Just give me a little time.... Oh, I see. Are you sure you can't...? No, I understand. I'll take care of it. Thank you for telling me. Goodbye."
She hung up the phone with a sigh. Just when things were going so well, something like this would have to happen. After considering a moment, she shrugged her shoulders resignedly and dialed familiar number. It rang several times before being answered by a gruff voice.
"This had better be good," said Yamaki. "I am working on something."
"You're always working on something," Reika answered. "It's me, by the way, and I'm not in any mood to put up with your attitude. I have something I need to ask you."
"I need to take the day off tomorrow."
"Really?" he asked, sounding surprised. "What on earth for? I saw you at work today; I know you're not sick."
"I'm not," she answered. "I have something I need to do. See, I just found out that I'm being evicted, and I need some time to look for a new place to live."
"Evicted?" he repeated. "What for? I knew you had money troubles, but I didn't think things were that bad."
"Neither did I," she sighed. "But then the stupid fridge conked out, so some of the money I would have been paying rent with got used up, so then I was late paying, and now... Now the superintendent just called me and told me the building is being remodeled, and the rent is going up. Since I've been having so much trouble paying even what it is now, he doesn't think I'll be able to afford the new price, and I am behind in my payments, so he has an excuse to throw me out..."
There was a stunned pause. Then, "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"I don't think so," she answered. "Even if you gave me the money to pay the rent, I'd just have to do it all again next month. He's right; I really can't afford it right now. I do need someplace else to live. I'm just not sure where it is. That's why I need some time off, so I can scout around."
"What happens if you can't find a place before it's time for you to move out?" Yamaki asked.
Reika frowned; he'd brought up just the worry she'd been trying to squelch. Living spaces in Tokyo were scarce and expensive, and with her limited resources...
"Something will come up," she said, trying to sound positive.
"Well, good luck," he said. "But... if things don't go your way..."
"My door is always open to you."
"Um," she said. "Thanks for the offer, but, I'm not sure that's a good idea."
"Don't you trust me?"
"Frankly, no," she answered. "I know your intentions are good, but you don't have a very good track record for standing up to temptation. I'd rather not let myself in for any trouble."
"There won't be any trouble. I don't expect anything of you; I'm just offering you a place to stay until you get back on your feet again," he said. "But if you don't feel comfortable with the idea, I certainly won't force you."
"Well, thanks for offering," she said, "but I think I'd be better off not accepting."
"It's all right. I just wouldn't have felt right if I hadn't offered," answered Yamaki. "So... are you sure there's nothing I can do to help? Besides give you the day off - which I can arrange, by the way."
"Nothing I can think of. Thank you, though."
"You're welcome. I'm sorry I can't do more."
"That's all right. See you later."
"Goodbye. Good luck."
Reika hung up the phone feeling vaguely unsettled.
*How did I know he was going to say something like that?* she wondered. *Probably just because I know Mitsuo. Then again, he has been a lot better lately. He really might be just trying to help. It might just work out for a day or two... Beyond that point, we'd be driving each other crazy, one way or the other.*
Well, it wasn't going to come to that. She would find a new apartment long before she would need Yamaki's help, and there wouldn't be any problems. With that thought firmly in mind, she picked up the latest newspaper and began skimming it with an eye to the housing ads.
She was in a bad mood when she returned to work.
"No luck?" was the first thing Yamaki said to her when they met.
"Only bad," she answered. "I can't believe how much apartments cost! Even the ones I can afford wanted more in advance than I have right now."
"How much time did they give you?" he asked.
"Not a lot - only a few days. I think they've decided that I'm a losing proposition and they'd better get me out in a hurry." She sighed deeply. "I'm so tired of not having any money! I'm tired of having to scrimp and save and never get to have anything I want... That sounds awful, doesn't it? I sound like I'm being greedy, but really, all I want is a decent place to live and clean clothes and just not to have to worry every day if I'm going to break the bank just buying a candy bar!"
"I remember those days," Yamaki said quietly. "I don't think you're asking too much."
"Well, obviously someone up there does," she said, "because they seem determined I'm going to do without. All because I made one stupid mistake..."
"My offer still stands."
"I'm not making another stupid mistake," Reika replied. "The guy who did this to me told me he was going to take care of me, that I'd never have any worries again. Just look where it got me."
"I don't have any sweeping promises to make," he answered. "All I'm offering is a place to stay for as long as you need it. I don't expect you to stay any longer than that - or pay me back in any way."
She gave him a calculating look. "Are you sure about that?"
Yamaki looked affronted. "Is it that hard to believe I might do something just to help you?"
"You're the one who told me you're a selfish person."
"You're the one who told me I was selling myself short."
Reika mulled that one over for a while, trying to make up her mind.
"Are you absolutely sure you aren't going to try anything?" she asked. "Not even by accident?"
"There aren't going to be any accidents," he said. "I'll stay in my room, and you stay in yours, and we don't bother each other."
"Hm," she said, thinking hard. "How do you intend for us to avoid each other in such a small space?"
"Who says we have to? We've spent time before with no trouble," he answered. With a faint wry smile, he added, "Even you will have to admit I've been a good boy lately."
That made her laugh. "All right, I'll grant you that much. All right, all right, I'll give you a chance to prove yourself. One night. If I decide it works, maybe I'll hang around a little longer."
"It's always chances with you," he muttered. "Is that what you want?"
"I may not have any other choice," she replied. "Is tonight good? If we're going to go through with this, we might as well get it over with."
"You sound so enthused," said Yamaki. "Tonight is fine. Don't come too early; I feel like I ought to clean if there's company coming."
"You're kidding, right?"
"Not at all. Besides, you'll want time to pack, won't you?"
"I guess so," Reika admitted. "I can't believe I'm having this conversation. I must be out of my mind, agreeing to this."
"I must be crazy suggesting it," he replied. "I'll see you tonight."
Yamaki watched her go with mixed emotions. He supposed he ought to be a bit more enthused about finally getting the woman he'd been chasing to stay the night with him in any sense, but...
*Unfortunately she knows me all too well; I'm not used to resisting temptation,* he thought. *Something tells me this is going to be a long night.*
For a little while, anyway, it looked like it was going to work. Either Reika was very self- assured or an extremely good actress, because she managed to spend the evening acting exactly as if she belonged there. Yamaki, for his part, managed largely by pretending she wasn't there, which, since she wasn't being obtrusive, seemed to work. The only time he had to notice her at all was over dinner, which she cooked herself. He had to admit, she was a better cook than he was, so he could get away with making polite small talk and applying himself to his meal. Afterwards, she cleaned up the dishes without complaint. She found a book among her things and curled up somewhere to read. He changed into his night clothes and watched the evening news. It was all very quiet and domestic.
"Silk pajamas?" she commented, raising an eyebrow.
"What did you think?" he retorted, coloring a bit.
He was indeed wearing silk pajamas, completely black and embroidered with his initials over a decorative pocket.
"Oh, I don't know. I hadn't thought at all," she answered. "I like them, actually. You look good in them."
That earned her another blush. He stared pointedly at the TV screen.
After a few quiet minutes had gone by, Reika got up, searched through her bags for shampoo and soap, and announced her intentions to go take a shower. He made a vague noise of acknowledgment. She drifted off, and soon he could hear a distant noise of water.
*This,* he told himself, *was a very bad idea. What was I thinking, letting her in here? I should have left her on her own. She could have found a room somewhere. Brilliant, brilliant idea, letting her stay under the same roof with you when you know you can't get anywhere near her...*
Gradually, another noise came to his attention. After a moment, he recognized it as music of a sort. Reika was singing in the shower, cheerfully and not quite on key. She wasn't quite loud enough that she should have been a real distraction, but since he couldn't get her off his mind anyway, the sound grated on him like nails on a chalkboard... only nails on a chalkboard had never had this exact effect on him. Finally, he couldn't stand it any longer, and he went and rapped on the door.
"Do you mind stopping that?" he asked.
"Stopping what?" she answered innocently.
"Why don't you come in here and make me?"
Her only answer was a giggle. He hesitated a moment, but decided an invitation was an invitation. He went in. The room was hazy with steam, and the clear plastic shower curtain was fogged, but he could see her outline hazily, and he paused to admire it. This proved to be a mistake. Even while he was standing there, she pulled the curtain back, just enough to peek out and grin impishly at him. Before he could react, she had aimed the shower nozzle at him, and he yelped as he was suddenly drenched with hot water. He staggered backwards, spluttering. She laughed.
"You should have known better!" she giggled.
He hissed with annoyance, trying to shake the water out of his hair. Aware he had been beaten, he slunk away to his room to sulk.
Some moments later, she reappeared, wrapped in a fluffy yellow bathrobe and brushing out her long hair, still followed faintly by the scent of flowers from her soap. She found her gracious host sitting on the edge of his bed, taking slow drags on a cigarette.
"Why do you smoke those things, anyway?" she asked.
"Don't start nagging. It's not polite," Yamaki snapped. "And if you must know, they help me deal with tension."
"Tension? What are you tense for?" she asked.
*Oh, I don't know. Maybe because the woman I'm crazy about is parading around in my bedroom wearing only her bathrobe, and I'm not even allowed to touch her. Why do you think I'm tense?*
"It wouldn't interest you," he answered tersely.
"Well, there are better ways of dealing with tension than air pollution," she said. She seemed to consider a moment, obviously weighing some complex issue in her mind. "Want me to help?"
"Help? How are you going to help?"
"By showing you something better. Come on, now, get rid of that."
She took the cigarette away from him and crushed it into the ashtray he'd been using. He glared at her with all the surliness of a smoker who has been told not to smoke. She met him with her usual cool stare.
"All right," he said. "Fine. You do whatever you want; I obviously can't stop you."
"Glad you realize that," she replied. "Now, hold still and don't move."
Much to his surprise, she crawled onto the bed, and he disobeyed his orders by turning around to stare at her. "What - what are you doing?"
"Take it easy," she said. "And I told you to hold still. Turn around."
Puzzled now, he turned away from her and waited apprehensively to see what was going to happen. However, his confusion was soon settled as he felt her rubbing her fingers gently across the back of his neck, carefully easing away the knots of tension that had settled there. He relaxed slightly. Of course, he should have known it would be something like this. Still, he had to admit that it was doing what it was supposed to do; as she went on massaging his shoulders, he could feel himself relaxing, all his earlier nervousness melting away into a gentle warmth. He closed his eyes, enjoying the situation. This was nice. Not exactly what he'd had in mind, but still...
"Is that good?" she murmured.
"A little lower."
"Oh, yeah, that's it... That's wonderful..."
"See, I knew you'd like it."
She pulled him gently towards her, and he didn't even try to resist, leaning back until he was nearly lying in her lap. She smiled and began playing with his hair. He didn't think anyone had ever dared to do such a thing before, and he was surprised to discover he was enjoying it.
*I can get used to this,* said the rapidly dwindling part of his mind that could still think coherently. *This could go on forever and I wouldn't mind...*
"Now you're relaxed," she murmured. "You look so peaceful... It's amazing. You look so sweet and innocent..."
"Hm," he said. Somewhere along the line, he'd lost his grip on the language, and it almost felt like too much trouble to go looking for it. "Reika, can I ask you something?"
"Why did you have to play that prank with the shower?"
"Mm," she said thoughtfully. "Maybe I just like how you look in wet black silk."
"Now, that's not innocent at all."
"Who said I was innocent?"
"What?" he said. "But I thought-"
It was at that point that she kissed him, and all thinking stopped at once as he diverted all his energy into kissing her back. For once, she didn't pull away - she pulled him closer and let the kiss deepen. His mind reeled for a moment, and he was almost lost. Then he broke away.
"Don't do that," he said.
"But what if I want to?"
"You shouldn't. I don't think I can stand it..."
She still had her arms around him. Her hands were moving, slowly unfastening his buttons, one by one, exploring the territory beneath.
"You want me to stop?" she murmured.
"What if I think of something better?" she asked. "Now is a good time, Mistuo."
That was all he needed to hear. Surrender had never been in his nature before; he'd always prided himself on control, but now he was turning to her, drawing her towards him, and they went down in a delirious tangle as he gave up the fight and resigned himself to what turned out to be one of the best nights of his life.
Yamaki did not like getting up in the morning. This was particularly true on mornings like this one, when the air was just cool enough to make staying under the covers a welcome prospect, and with not quite enough sleep behind him. Unexpected adventures could be fun, but there was a price to pay for anything, and just now he was thinking that he would really prefer to stay right where he was for a while. However, he knew that if he did not get up soon, he was going to be late for work. He really ought to be getting up so he could still have time to eat and get dressed, even if what he really wanted was to sleep for a few more hours.
Even as he was thinking that, he became aware of unfamiliar sounds coming from the general direction of the kitchen. What in the...? Oh, right, Reika was here. He could hear her humming happily to herself as she rattled pots and pans, and the food-smells that were wafting on the air were enough to convince him to drag himself out of bed, pull on a robe, and go see what was going on.
As he had surmised, Reika was there making breakfast. Not only was she up, but she was already dressed and groomed, and was now in the process of preparing breakfast, searching the fridge for the egg carton.
"Morning!" she greeted. "How do you like your eggs?"
"Over easy. What in the world are you doing?"
"Making breakfast," she said, deftly cracking two eggs into a frying pan. "I would think a smart boy like you would know what breakfast looks like."
"I am not so completely dazed that I don't know breakfast when I see it. What I want to know is, why are you out here making it?"
"Because I don't trust your cooking," she answered. "Besides, you didn't look like you wanted to get up. Easier to make it myself."
"I should have known you'd be a morning person," he grumped.
"Would a cup of coffee help?"
"It'll take more than that... and make it black."
"Fine. Go get dressed. Breakfast will be served in a minute, and you are not sitting down at this table until you look presentable."
"Who are you? My mother?"
"If I were your mother, I'd make you take care of yourself. You should be thankful I'm here to take care of you," Reika replied. "Go put your clothes on."
Yamaki decided it was too early in the morning to try to win arguments, so he shuffled off to find something to wear. He found the problem had already been taken care of for him; a suit was already draped over the back of a chair, complete down a clean pair of socks. He sighed and got dressed, wondering just when he'd lost control of his life, and why he wasn't more irritated about it. Then again, there probably were advantages to having someone there to do things for him. He could stand dealing with a few personality quirks if this was the kind of treatment he was going to get from her.
*Except she's not staying,* he reminded himself. *This is only temporary, so don't go making plans.*
Once he had made himself presentable, he returned to the kitchen and found Reika setting out dishes. She pointed him to a chair and set a cup of coffee in front of him.
"See if that suits you," she said.
He sampled it warily, then nodded his approval. "That's good. What did you do to it?"
"I put sugar in it. You need it," she answered.
Yamaki winced. "I ought to be annoyed with you. Look, would you quit playing house for five minutes and talk to me?"
"What's to talk about?"
"What's to talk about? Are you trying to pretend nothing happened last night? Is that what this is all about?"
"I'm not pretending anything," said Reika.
"Yes you are. Reika, sit down."
Reika heard the note of command in his voice and did as she was told. Yamaki sighed, pressing a hand to his forehead as he tried to get his brain to siphon through the issues.
"All right," he said. "Okay, let's just get this straight. What exactly is going on? What happened last night?"
Reika gave him a wry look. "I thought it was fairly obvious what happened."
"All right then, why? Why is it that, after all that negotiating and dodging and playing games, you suddenly change your mind?"
"I didn't change my mind," said Reika.
"You didn't change your mind," Yamaki repeated. "Obviously. That must be why you've been acting like you never wanted to come within a mile of me before."
"Who says the way I act has any bearing on what I want?"
"So what was last night, then? Another act?"
"No," she said. "Unfortunately."
"What in blazes is that supposed to mean?"
"It wasn't supposed to happen that way," she said. For a moment, her placid expression tightened into anger, and she took a few breaths in an effort to calm herself. "Look, would you feel better if I came out and said it? Fine. Much as I try to deny it, I do have feelings for you. I think you're attractive. I like you. What happened last night happened because I wanted it to happen."
"You mean you were planning that all along?" he asked, stunned. "I don't understand you at all. One minute you're giving me the third degree trying to make sure I'm not going to touch you, and then you turn around and - and - practically seduce me! Would you please make up your mind?"
"That's just it! I had made up my mind!" she said in frustration. "The last thing I need is to get in another relationship where I'm just going to be somebody's ornament. I didn't want anything to happen until I knew for sure you would be different. I didn't want to come here at all, because I knew something like this would happen." She sighed. "Just this once, I wanted to be in control. I didn't want to get trapped in another relationship that's going nowhere... but I didn't think it would hurt if I just flirted a little. I honestly didn't think it was going to lead to anything..."
"What happened, then?"
She made a wry face. "Nothing. Just me and my sentimental nature. It's just... for a little while, you looked so peaceful. I thought, maybe that's who you really are - maybe you are that sweet, gentle person I was looking for. I thought it would be all right this time."
"Who says it won't be?"
"It won't," she said. "You're still the same person you always were, and all my wishful thinking isn't going to change that. I don't need to be shackled to another guy who's going to treat me like a doormat. And that's just how you do things, isn't it? You were clear enough about that right from the beginning. You want everyone around you to do just what you say and take orders from you, and nothing anyone else wants matters."
"Well, what do you want, then?"
"I want to pretend last night never happened."
"I would really rather you didn't," he replied.
"Sure. And I know why, too."
Yamaki sighed and shook his head. "You have got to be the most exasperating woman I have ever met." After a pause, he added, "I don't understand why I can feel more at peace with you than with anyone I've ever known."
She gave him a skeptical look. "Do you honestly mean that? You aren't just saying that now, are you?"
"Does that sound like the kind of thing I'd say if I didn't mean it?" he said. "Look, what I really want to know is, what's going to happen now? I'm tired of this roller-coaster ride. I'm tired of being told one minute I mean something to you and hearing the next that you don't want to be anywhere near me." He sighed. "I'm starting to think I never should have gotten involved with you at all."
"Then why did you?"
She sighed. "I can't seem to help it. I keep telling myself to just leave you alone, but the more I try not to feel anything for you, the more it seems to leak out... at very inopportune moments," she added, making a face.
"Well, what are we going to do about this?"
"I don't know. I need to think," she said. "And you... are going to eat that breakfast I cooked for you before it gets cold."
"All right, all right," Yamaki answered. "But Reika... I really don't want you to leave me."
She looked at him, and her expression softened a bit. "I'll take that into consideration." She got up and began to walk away. "Now I've got to get ready for work. Excuse me."
"But-" he protested. It was too late; she'd already gone. He sighed, knowing there was only one thing left to do. With a confused shrug and a shake of his head, he settled in to eat his breakfast.
It turned out to be a very long and tense day. Yamaki was not in a happy mood, and the other workers picked up on it, doing their best to work in silence. He wasn't barking and snapping, as he had before, but there was a sense of quiet danger, as if he were just waiting for an excuse to explode at someone. Actually, he was just lost in thought.
*I just don't understand it,* he thought, fidgeting absently with his lighter. *I got what I wanted, didn't I? It's the day after the best night of my life, so why I do I feel so dissatisfied?*
He glanced over at where Reika was working. She was avoiding his gaze as easily with her protective glasses as he had always avoided others with his sunshades. The annoyance it caused him was enough to make him consider throwing the things in the garbage. There was nothing in her demeanor that told him what was going on in her head; she was simply working calmly and efficiently, just as she always did. He even thought he saw her joking about something with Megumi, but he was too far away to hear what she was saying. He only hoped they weren't talking about him. He normally didn't mind the idea that they might be discussing him, but somehow the idea of anyone finding out what had gone on last night...
*I broke her trust,* he decided. *I'm not sure how it happened, but I did. ... It's not fair! I didn't do a thing! It was all her idea - she knew I wouldn't be able to resist. Now I'm the one who has to suffer because of what she did! She's not going to trust me again, but it's all her fault...*
He sighed unhappily and put his lighter away. There was no point in fretting over it; he was already certain of what the final verdict was going to be. It was over. She would never come back to him after this, not if she knew she was just going to be hurt if she did, and there was nothing he could do to change it because he hadn't meant to hurt her in the first place.
*And why am I so worried about it, anyway?* he asked himself. *There are plenty of other women out there, and most of them won't cause you this kind of grief. They'll come when they're called and do what they're asked, and they won't argue with you about it. You'll be happier that way.*
His mind wandered back to the previous night, back when he'd thought things were going right for a change instead of drastically wrong. It had felt so good just being held in her arms, so good that he hadn't wanted anything else. No one else had ever given him that feeling.
*Who am I trying to kid? I don't want someone else; I want her. I want her more than I've ever wanted anyone before, and I've lost her before she was even really mine.*
When the day finally drew to a close, it was with a gloomy sense of certainty, the feeling of something good coming to an end. He couldn't find Reika, but decided it was just as well - he would put off having to speak to her as long as he could. He walked home slowly, pausing at the front door to collect himself. He couldn't hear any noise inside and wondered grimly if she had already packed her things. Entering the apartment, he was surprised to find her curled up on the sofa reading one of his books.
"What took you so long?" she asked.
"Nothing," he said.
"Ah," she said. "Well... I've made my choice."
For all his mental preparations, he couldn't prevent his heat from jumping into his throat. "Yes?"
She took a deep breath. "I'm staying."
"You - you are?" he said.
"Yes," she said.
"Because you don't have anywhere else to go."
"That's not what I'm talking about. Listen to me, Mitsuo; I'm not done yet," she said. "I've decided I'm going to stay with you, and I don't mean as a houseguest."
"It's pretty obvious we can't stay away from each other even when we try," she said, "and we're both getting a sick of fighting it. So we might as well stay together."
"And when you say together, you mean together in this place?"
"Right," she said. "For as long as we can manage without getting tired of each other or going crazy. At least then we won't be trying to find ways of dodging each other all the time. And it should be interesting, anyway."
"And... last night..."
Reika's somber expression broke into a smile. "It was wonderful. I wouldn't mind doing it again sometime."
A wave of relief swept over him, and he smiled back. "In that case, welcome home."
Reika was right about one thing - things were definitely interesting. For Yamaki, it was a learning experience, as he discovered there was a great deal of difference between having a woman over for the night and having one take up residence with him, particularly a woman as independent-minded as Reika. She was the one person in his life that he couldn't tell what to do, and it took some time learning how to accommodate having someone else around who had her own ideas of how to do things. He had to get used to finding his refrigerator populated with skim milk and broccoli and his bathroom filled with makeup and other things he didn't care to explore too deeply.
She, for her part, seemed to be settling in nicely. She was already used to sharing a space with someone else, so she did what she could to make herself good company while he was adjusting to her. She took over most of the domestic chores, singing cheerily to herself as she straightened and vacuumed. He had to admit, if only to himself, that it was nice to know his clothes would always be clean and the meals prepared, but he never got the feeling she was doing any of it out of any respect for him. Rather, he got the distinct feeling that she was convinced he couldn't take care of himself properly without intelligent supervision. If he thought having her living with him would make her into an obedient housewife, he was mistaken. She seemed to delight in putting him in his place, playing pranks on him, slipping sugar in his coffee or hiding his sunglasses. The treatment was annoying and amusing in equal measures; eventually he decided to accept it as some form of flirting. It probably was. The change he most noticed and appreciated was that she was more openly affectionate towards him, and it seemed she'd decided that as long as she was going to go against her principles, she might as enjoy herself. Their nights together were everything he could have asked for. If he noticed that even at the end of days where they were both too worn out from their work to do anything but drop into bed and sleep, it was still nice to have to have someone there next to him, he didn't think about it very hard.
A revelation came to him in a small and unexpected way, beginning when Reika came home from doing the grocery shopping. That was the only household chore that he had actually unbent enough to ask her to do. He didn't care for housework in general, but he was used to doing it and wouldn't have complained if Reika had expected him to continue, but grocery shopping was another matter entirely. There was just something about having to go and wade through a crowd of housewives shoving a cart with the requisite crooked wheel that was abhorrent to his nature. Once he'd convinced Reika that he wasn't just being the chauvinistic male trying to get her to do his chores for him, she'd taken pity on him and offered to take over the job. He'd expressed his deep gratitude, and always tried to make sure that when he sent her shopping, it was with a little extra money so she could buy something for herself. Now, watching her unpack the bags, he felt he'd still gotten the better end of the deal.
"Here, catch," she said, tossing a small box across the room. Startled, he fumbled, just barely avoiding dropping it, and looked at it.
"What's this?" he asked.
"You told me to get you some more cigarettes, didn't you?"
He scowled at the box. "This isn't my brand."
"You didn't tell me what kind you wanted. I didn't think it made a difference."
"Well, it does."
"How was I supposed to know what kind you wanted if you didn't tell me?" Reika asked.
"I thought you knew!"
"I don't really pay attention, actually."
"Humph," he said. "I can't use these."
"Well, I've done my work for the night. I'm not going out again; I'm tired," said Reika. "If you want them that badly, you'll have to either get them yourself or wait until tomorrow."
"I'll go now," he decided. "Remind me to be more specific next time."
He pitched the inferior item across the room, landing it neatly in a wastepaper basket. Reika looked impressed.
"Nice shot," she said. "Ever play basketball?"
"High school. Team captain."
She giggled. "Born leader."
"Of course," he replied. "I'll be back soon. Mind the house. Don't answer the door to salesmen."
He left the apartment to the sound of her laughter, and set out on his mission with a faint smile. He liked being able to make Reika laugh. At least he didn't have to go to one of the large markets to get what he needed. The easiest thing to do would be to walk down to the corner store, which wasn't nearly so objectionable. He decided he could forgive Reika for the lapse; it wasn't that big a thing, really, and the walk would probably do him good.
*When did I get so generous, anyway?* he wondered. *It seems I can't ever stay irritated with her for long.*
The store was busy for such a small place, so he picked up his cigarettes and stepped quietly into the line, waiting patiently and letting his mind wander. Near the checkout counter, there was a display of newspapers and magazines, and he passed the time by browsing the headlines. Of course, for someone who managed the supercomputers at Hypnos, there wasn't much going on that he didn't already know about.
As the line continued to crawl slowly along, he glanced idly at the fashion magazines. They didn't interest him in and of themselves, but there was nothing wrong with looking at the front pages, with their beautiful cover girls posing seductively behind the arrays of advertising. He looked at them thoughtfully.
*Nice. Very nice. So why aren't they attractive?*
He had always heard of people in stories saying that the object of the hero's affections was the most beautiful woman in the world. He'd never believed it, himself. The concept didn't make sense to him - how could anyone be that much better than anyone else? He'd seen enough models and movie stars to know that after a while, they all looked about the same. Maybe there were slight variations in hairstyle or eye color, but they were all essentially alike. There was really nothing that could be done to any of them that would make one better than the other. Now he looked at the photographs and caught himself thinking that none of them could hold a candle to the woman who would be waiting for him when he got home.
*Is that what they mean when they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder?*
"Sir?" said a voice, cutting into his thoughts. "Are you ready to pay?"
"What? Oh, right." Yamaki set the pack of cigarettes he'd been holding down on the counter top.
"Will that be all, sir?"
"That's all, yes."
He handed over his money, collected his change, and left the store, walking slowly and thoughtfully. He decided to take the long way home, just to give himself some time to turn this matter over in his mind. While he walked, he looked, watching the people go by. It surprised him to realize that he hadn't actually looked at a woman besides Reika in a long time. Why not? That was strange behavior, for him. With increasing amazement, he realized that he had been living with her for weeks now, enjoying her favors whenever he pleased (and quite often when it was her idea first), and it had never once occurred to him to think he was bored. She was just as attractive as she had been when he'd first seen her - in fact, she was even more so. He pondered that phenomenon.
*I never imagined there would be anyone like her, someone who could share my life's work with me, someone who could be my partner in any way besides the amorous. But Reika could do that. She's already proven that.*
He reached his building and decided to take the stairs up to his apartment, still thinking. Strange as it was for him, he was having to admit that as far as he was concerned, there was only one beautiful woman in the world and Reika was the one. There was no way he could get around that; no one else could even catch his eye anymore. Why was that? Not just because of the way she looked. It had to be something else, something more subtle. It was because he respected her. He admired her intelligence and spirit. He liked her company. He enjoyed being around her. In fact, he... he...
He was home. He unlocked the door and went inside, finding Reika relaxing in front of the television, watching the evening news.
"Did you get your cigarettes?" she asked.
"Yes, I did," he answered.
"That's nice. I'll be more careful next time," she said. "What took you so long, anyway? I was starting to worry about you."
"You ought to know better than to worry about me," Yamaki answered, settling into an empty chair.
"I know that. I just do anyway. There's a streak of the mother hen in me," said Reika.
"I've noticed. There are times I'm grateful for it," he replied. "But you didn't have to worry. I just took my time getting back. I had something on my mind."
"Oh?" she said. "Nothing is wrong, is it?"
"No, I don't think anything is wrong," he answered slowly. "Reika... can I ask you something?"
"Sure, ask away."
"Are you happy, staying here?"
"Am I? Yes, actually, I am. Much happier than I thought I'd be."
"Same here. It's amazing... How long have we been together, now?"
Reika ran a thoughtful hand through her hair, inspiring in him a sudden and difficult to quench desire to do the same, to feel those silky tresses slipping through his fingers... He shifted uneasily and hid his hands in his pockets.
"Hmm," she said. "Let's see, today's the twelfth, so... Wow, it's been over two months."
"Really? I didn't think it was that long?"
"It has to be. I remember the date I was supposed to move out, and I came here a week before that, so it would be nine or ten weeks."
"Amazing. I'd have thought we'd be at each other's throats by now," said Yamaki.
"Me too. Funny, I don't feel that way at all. I didn't expect us to get along this well."
"Neither did I," he replied. "You know, Reika, when we agreed you'd stay here, wasn't it implied that this wasn't really going to be a romantic relationship?"
"Well, yes, I think that was sort of the idea," she answered thoughtfully. "I was familiar with your ideas of love before I got here, and I'm realistic enough not to expect you to change your mind just because we're living together."
"I suppose that wouldn't be a realistic expectation," he said. "It's just that... I've been starting to think..."
She gave him a hard stare. "You aren't thinking of getting rid of me, are you?"
"No, no, nothing like that. Far from it," he answered. "Really, I was just thinking tonight of how glad I am that you're here with me. Actually, I... I've been happier these last few weeks than I think I've ever been. I..."
He had the precipitous feeling of being like a glass of water filled to the brim, so that any slight vibration would cause something to spill over, something that could never be taken back. He took a steadying breath, trying to find the courage to force out just one word. He released the air in a rush of syllables.
Reika stared, looking stunned. "What did you say?"
"I love you," he repeated, more firmly this time. "I do... You don't believe me, do you?"
"It is a ... a bit of a surprise," she said. "After all, you said you didn't believe..."
He bowed his head, embarrassed. "I said no one had ever shown me any differently. Now I know better. And don't think I haven't tried to talk myself out of it. I just can't. I kept thinking I'd just get over you, but... I think I could spend the rest of my life with you and still never get enough."
"You really mean that?" she whispered. "I never imagined I'd hear... Oh, Mitsuo..."
She flung herself at him, and he pulled her into a tight embrace.
"I love you, Mitsuo," she said. "I didn't think you'd ever love me back."
He gently tilted her chin, so that she was looking into her eyes.
"Do you believe me now? Do you need to hear it again? I love you," he said. "Hm. I'm starting to like the way this sounds. I love you, Reika."
And then he kissed her, and erased any doubts from her mind.
One evening after work, Megumi received a phone call. She glared in the general direction of the telephone, wondering if she really wanted to answer it. Up until that point, she'd been enjoying a nice relaxing period of doing nothing at all and wasn't in any hurry to interrupt it, especially if it turned out to be a telemarketer or something equally annoying. Eventually, though, curiosity won out, and she went to answer.
"Hi, Megumi, this is Reika."
"Oh, hi! I wasn't expecting to hear from you," Megumi replied. "What's up? Something good, I hope."
"Actually, it's been very quiet here," said Reika. "Too quiet, really. I was wondering if you'd like to come over for a while."
"Come over? You mean, to his place?"
"Our place," Reika corrected. "I live here too; I can invite over friends if I feel like it."
"Won't Yamaki mind, though?"
"No way," said Reika reassuringly. "He's been working on a new computer program for the last three days, now, and it's taking up all of his attention. You'd have to walk up and kick him before he'd notice you. He probably won't even leave his room all evening."
"Well, if you're sure..." Megumi replied. "What did you want to do?"
"I was thinking maybe watch a movie or something. I've got some popcorn and sodas and things. We can have a nice little party."
"Sounds like fun! I haven't done anything like that since I was in college," Megumi replied. "Just tell me the directions to your place, and I'll be right over."
True to her word, Megumi arrived a few minutes later, knocking timidly on the front door. Reika came to greet her, ushering her inside. Megumi followed her, looking around curiously at the unfamiliar territory.
"Hey, this is nice," she said. "How come you lucked out and got to live in a nice place like this?"
"It doesn't come without it's disadvantages," Reika replied. "I don't think you want to trade with me, anyway."
"Not a chance," answered Megumi. "Where is he, anyway? I don't like knowing he's in here somewhere where I can't see him."
"In there," said Reika, pointing at a closed door. "Don't worry, I told him you were coming over. He didn't say anything, so I'm assuming he doesn't mind."
"Oh. Well, I guess that's okay. So, were you saying something about popcorn and a movie?"
They raided the cabinets and the fridge, and soon they had a nice little spread on the coffee table. Reika put a movie into the VCR, one of the sugary romantic stories that was really best watched by women anyway, and the two friends settled in for an enjoyable evening. Once she got interested in the movie, Megumi forgot any worries about whose home she was in and seemed to be having a good time.
Her relaxation lasted about halfway through the movie, at which point it was interrupted by the click of an opening door. She jumped and looked around to see her employer emerging from his sanctuary and heading in her general direction. However, he didn't seem to notice her. He walked past her without acknowledging her presence, running a distracted hand through his hair and staring off into nowhere.
"Reika," he said vaguely, "did you happen to see where I left the thing?"
"You put it in there with the stuff," she replied, not even looking up from her movie.
Yamaki's expression cleared. "That's right, so I did! Thank you."
Megumi watched with faint amazement as he made a beeline for a nearby shelf and picked out what appeared to be a zip disk from a collection of other odds and ends. He began walking back to his room again.
"Popcorn?" Reika offered, proffering the bowl to him.
"Hm? Oh, thank you. Don't mind if I do."
With his disk in one hand and a handful of popcorn in the other, he disappeared once more.
"See?" said Reika. "I told you he wouldn't notice you were here."
"That was a little bizarre," said Megumi. "Is he always like this?"
"Not always. Just when he's working on something. He does have a one-track mind, I'll admit... but that's not always a bad thing. The trick is getting his attention."
"Not a trick I want to learn," Megumi replied. "I don't think I could put up with this kind of treatment."
"It's not so bad. I'm used to it. We're both pretty private sorts; I need my time alone as much as he does."
"Yeah, I guess... I wouldn't like it much, though. I'd rather have someone who's going to pay attention to me. Don't you ever wish he was a little more sensitive?"
"Sometimes," Reika said with a small sigh. "You know I do. I mean, I'm happy here and all that, it's just... not what I expected. This isn't exactly what I thought a romance would be like."
"Oh, well," said Megumi, shrugging philosophically. "Guess you can't have everything. And you are pretty well off - better than a lot of people get."
"Yeah, this is better than my old life, by a long shot," Reika replied.
Still, in the back of her mind, she began to give some serious consideration to Megumi's idle comments.
*This is a good life,* she told herself. *I don't have to worry about keeping a roof over my head, and Mitsuo does treat me well enough, better than my last boyfriend did. At least he doesn't try to use me or take me for granted.* She looked back at the movie screen. *He's just not very romantic.*
She was still mulling the matter over when the movie was finished and the mess cleared away. Megumi said goodnight and wandered off to her own little apartment, leaving her friend alone with her thoughts... or as good as alone, anyway. She wandered into the room where Yamaki was still sitting in front of his laptop, hard at work with his programming.
"How close are you to finishing that?" she asked.
"Hm?" he said, glancing up at her; he obviously hadn't realized up until then that she was in the room with him. "Ah. Fairly close to finishing, I think. Another day or two should do it. Maybe a little longer to allow time for error corrections. Why?"
"Just wondered," she said. "I don't really like feeling like I'm being ignored. I know this is for a good cause and all, but it will be a relief when you're finished."
"Trust me, you aren't the only one who feels that way," he replied, "but this has to be done. It's important."
"I know, I know," she said. "It's just... can't you budget your time a little?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I don't like going for days on end being treated like I'm not even here. Can't I at least help you?"
"I'm afraid not, not with this," he answered. "It's not that I doubt your ability; this is just something best done alone. When I'm ready to install it, then I'll be glad of your help."
"So I'm just supposed to stand around in the background and be ignored until you need me, is that it?"
"I'm not ignoring you! I'm just... busy."
"What's the difference?"
"Look, I'm not purposely overlooking you, I just have important things to do. I can't just drop everything just for your whims."
"It's not a whim," she said. "All I'm asking for is some common courtesy. It's not like it would eat up a lot of time to be polite to me. While I'm on the subject, it's customary to show your girl some affection every once in a while."
"Right. I've got news for you - dragging me off to bed whenever you get the urge doesn't count."
"It's not like that, and you know it," he snapped. "Look, I don't know what's gotten into you tonight, but if you're trying to tell me I ought to be mooning over you like some lovestruck fool, you had better think again. I have more dignity than to go around spouting soppy love poetry and all that nonsense."
"Oh, is that so? Funny, nobody ever told me dignity meant you could never show any feelings at all," she said. "But if that's the way you feel, you can take your dignity outside to work. I'm going to get some sleep."
"Good night," she sad pointedly.
Feeling a bit stung, Yamaki packed up his computer and his disks and stalked out of the room. Reika watched him as he shut the door behind him.
*Well, that was a brilliant bit of diplomacy,* she thought. *Maybe I was more annoyed with him than I thought.* Then, more reluctantly, *Maybe I was a little too hard on him. He's right, he is good to me... when he feels like it. Maybe I should just accept... but would it really be so hard to take what I want into account every once in a while? I'm not asking that much, really. Just to have him show he loves me instead of just say it... That's not too much to ask, is it?*
Meanwhile, Yamaki tried to resettle himself in the other room and get his mind back on his work, but it wasn't as easy as it should have been.
*Blasted woman! Why is she always the one to throw off my plans?* he fumed. *Her and her demands... Who does she think she is? She has no right to complain. If it weren't for me, she'd still be living in some... slum somewhere, probably, guarding every coin and scraping for a living. I've given her everything she should need or want and she has the nerve to complain about being ignored.*
He sighed, staring back at his computer. He had half a notion to replace the thing; he'd put it though so much work lately that the letters were wearing off of the keys. Maybe he had been spending too much time on his work...
*Come to think of it, these last few days haven't been the most enjoyable I've ever spent. It does seem like a bit of a waste to have gone through so much for her just to neglect her now. It wouldn't be that much of a bother... but why should I?* He sighed and turned the laptop off, deciding he had put in a long enough night already. *And then again, why not?*
He went back into his room to find that Reika had already done as she'd said she would and gone to bed. He changed out of his clothes and crawled into place next to her, and both of them set about trying to fall asleep next to a presence that was not quite as companionable as it had been the night before.
Reika spent an uneasy morning at work, torn between feeling guilty for her outburst the night before and feeling annoyed with her lover for not being more sympathetic to her problems. He certainly wasn't helping her make up her mind; he seemed completely wrapped up in his work and was paying no notice of her at all unless he needed her help with something. Since it was being ignored that had gotten her angry in the first place, the treatment didn't make her feel any more inclined to forgive him.
Then came lunchtime. Reika was a bit late going to lunch that day; she had a project she was working on and was reluctant to leave in the middle of it when she was so close to finishing, so she hung back for a few extra minutes putting in the finishing touches. She was just taking off her goggles and heading for the lunchroom when Megumi came scampering up the hall to greet her.
"Reika - Reika, come quick!" she squealed. "You've got to come see this!"
"See what?" asked Reika, as her friend grabbed her arm and began dragging her toward the locker room.
"Oh, you'll see when we get there!" Megumi replied. "They have to be for you; they have your name on them."
"They do?" asked Reika, still confused. Then they reached the locker room and looked inside. Sitting on the table was a green glass vase containing a dozen of the most perfect red roses she had ever seen, their crimson buds just beginning to unfold, filling the little room with their fragrance. She picked up one of the flowers and held it to her nose, inhaling the sweet scent. Then she picked up the card and looked at it. There was nothing written on it but her own name written in flawless calligraphy.
"It doesn't say who it's from," she said.
"I know," Megumi replied. "Who do you think it's from? Have you got a secret admirer?"
"I don't think so," Reika replied.
She went to her locker and took out her purse, fishing around for her cell phone. She dialed a familiar number and waited.
"Hello?" said a familiar voice.
"Hello," she answered sweetly. "Did you happen to leave something lying around in the locker room?"
"I thought you'd know they were from me," Yamaki replied. "Do you like them?"
"Oh, they're beautiful," she said, "but I thought you said you weren't the kind to send flowers."
There was a sense of embarrassment coming from the other end of the line. "Those are roses. Roses are dignified flowers."
"Ohhh, I see, they're dignified flowers," said Reika.
"Yes, yes, you've won already. Don't gloat," he said. With a bit less irritation, he said, "Anyway, I was thinking... would you like to do something tonight? I don't have time for anything extravagant, but we could at least go out for dinner somewhere..."
"That," she said, "would be lovely. Thank you."
"So am I forgiven?"
"Naturally! Dinner at seven?"
"That will be fine. Goodbye."
She hung up feeling pleased with herself, but on the other end of the line, Yamaki wasn't feeling so certain. Yes, it was nice to know she was happy and that they were on speaking terms, but...
They went on their date, and he Yamaki tried to settle his mind. At least they had a pleasant evening; the meal was good, and they talked easily to each other just as if nothing had ever happened between them. Reika was perfectly sweet and affectionate towards him, enough so that he was willing to forget that there had been a problem, for the time being. He wanted to believe the problem was over and done with now, and he wouldn't have to worry about it anymore. And he didn't... for a while.
Nevertheless, the incident with the flowers gnawed at him, but it took him a long time to figure out exactly why it bothered him. He spent the next few weeks mulling over it, trying to figure out just where the problem had come from. It was something more than her accusations that he wasn't paying enough attention to her. It even more than the fact that he'd had to buy an elaborate apology to make her forgive him, though that answer felt a little closer. Why worry about it? It wasn't as if they were fighting anymore; things had really been very peaceful between them. There shouldn't have been any more problems... so why did he feel like something was wrong?
It was laundry day again. This was particularly remarkable because it was, in fact, Yamaki's turn to do the laundry, and that was just what he was doing. Reika had been fairly insistent that at least some of the household chores had to be shared between them, and since he minded laundry less than he minded most other jobs, that was what he'd chosen to do. It wasn't that bad of a job, really - it didn't require any particular skill or physical labor or mental ability. You just sorted the lights from the darks and delicates, put them all in the machines, put in some change, and sat back with a good book to read a while as you guarded the wash and made sure no one walked off with it while you weren't looking. He could handle that. It was a reasonable thing to do on a Sunday when he wasn't expected to be doing anything important. He was just on the way down to the laundry room in the basement when he overheard a snatch of conversation. He lingered just a moment, listening, as Reika unknowingly chatted on the phone.
"I know it is a little on the expensive side," she was saying, "but I'm sure I can persuade him. I'm getting very good at persuading him, I think... There's nothing wrong with that. It's not like he can't afford it. ... Oh, come on. It's not like I'm forcing him to do anything. I'm only going to ask, and I'm sure he'll say yes. He won't mind."
"I'm going down to the laundromat," said Yamaki. "I'll be back in a little while, all right?"
"Hm? Oh! Okay. Have fun!"
She went back to her conversation, and he went downstairs, thinking over that conversation. Funny the things you heard when you weren't supposed to be listening. When he had put the clothes in their places and deposited his money, he sat back in a nearby chair and prepared to make his vigil - even in a good apartment building like this one, clothes that were unguarded would still sometimes walk off (presumably with human assistance) or at the very least, be dumped in a wet pile somewhere by someone impatient. It was wiser to stay close by and wait, and wait he did. He had brought a book with them, but it rested in his hands unread.
So, Reika thought she was going to be persuading him? He couldn't honestly say that was a far-fetched idea. Now that he thought about it, she seemed to do quite a bit of that. She was, after all, very quick at picking up on things, and she hadn't taken long to learn exactly what motivated him. In some ways, he didn't really mind. There were times when it was definitely very nice to be with someone who knew exactly what he'd most enjoy and didn't mind delivering. By the same token, he'd learned fairly well what her weaknesses were, and he knew that luxuries and pretty things ranked high on the list. She hadn't had a chance to indulge that particular side of herself in a long time, and now she was enjoying the chance to get a few of the things she wanted without having to worry about it. There was nothing wrong with that, really. She was right, he could afford it. He didn't have any problem with the occasional gifts of flowers or candy; they made her happy, and they made him happy because she was always more responsive to his own particular desires when she was in a good mood. As for the other things - clothing, makeup, jewelry - well, if she wanted to dress like a model in her off-hours, who was he to stop her?
*And it isn't as if she's asking for a lot, really, not like some other people I've known. I don't think she's really trying to take advantage of me. The trouble is, it's just entirely too easy to indulge her. Sad to say, she's entirely capable of wrapping me around her fingers, and she knows it.*
The laundry finished its washing, so he got up and moved it into the dryer. The job was half over, and he still had a lot of thoughts to go through. He sat back down again.
*All right, I know it's not the things she wants that bother me so much... not the physical things, anyway. It's the other things. It's the way she wants me to act.*
And there was what drove him up the wall - the little hints that he should be acting differently towards her, that he should be more considerate, more thoughtful, more romantic. Romantic... he was starting to hate that word. When she said it, it was usually part of some insinuation that he ought to be acting more like the characters in those novels she read who seemed to pledge undying devotion to each other an average of every fifteen minutes and found it impossible to spend more than an hour apart without pining away. True, he'd picked up enough of the general theme that he could imitate it if he had to, but it was awkward and insincere and made him feel like a fool, a poor actor trying to play a role to which he was ill-suited.
*Except she doesn't want me to act,* he decided. *She wants me to be that way, whether it suits me or not. And she'll hint and nag and cajole and prod until I do... only I can't. I'd go crazy trying to live like that.*
The dryer buzzed, and he collected the clothes and started back to the apartment, trying to gather his nerve. He really didn't want to start an argument, but he had to say something before the situation got out of control.
He returned to find Reika vacuuming the carpets. However, as he made his entrance and went to put the clothes away, she turned the machine off and followed him.
"Do you want to help?" he asked.
"Sure, I guess so." She upended the bag of clean clothes on the bed and began picking out socks. "You know, I got a phone call from Megumi today."
"Yes, I overheard a bit. Seemed to me you were talking about buying something."
"Well, now that you mention it, Megumi did say she saw a necklace at the store today that she thought I would like. A ruby pendant - my birthstone, you know. My favorite color. I thought maybe you would let me get it."
"You can spend your money any way you want," he answered. "If that's what you want, then go ahead."
"Well, that's the thing. I can't really afford it on my own," she said. "I was hoping you might get it for me."
"I think it would be best if I didn't."
She looked surprised. "Why not?"
"Because you don't need it. You've already got all you need, and I don't think it's wise to be throwing money away on frivolities," he answered. "I'm admittedly well-off, but I'm not made of money. I'm not here to just buy you everything you want. If you want it that badly, save up for it."
"It might be gone by then," she said.
"Don't tell me you've formed a sentimental attachment to something you've never even seen before."
"Um." Reika considered that and couldn't think of an answer. "I guess you're right. Sorry."
"You know, Reika, I've been meaning to have a talk with you," he said. "About our relationship, I suppose you could say."
"Hm?" she said, with understandable surprise. Him talking about relationships and feelings voluntarily was almost unheard of.
"Yes. Some problems that need to be addressed," he said. "I don't want to make any accusations, but I don't know any way to say it. To put it bluntly, I'm getting the feeling I'm being manipulated."
"Manipulated?" she repeated.
"Yes, and I don't like it," he answered. "And don't you give me that blank look, either. I think you know what I'm talking about."
"No, frankly I have no idea what you're talking about," Reika snapped. "What gives you the idea I'm manipulating you?"
"The fact that every time I don't live up to your fantasy standards, I get a door slammed in my face," he said. "How many times have you done that now? If I don't give you presents and pay you compliments and generally act like a moonstruck idiot, you decide I'm not fulfilling my obligations and turn your back on me until I act out an elaborate apology."
"Leave it to you to blow everything out of proportion! All I want is a little courtesy and consideration."
"You have your courtesy and consideration. You've had that since the day we met. What you want is to be treated like a holy object, which I will not do." He'd started pacing the floor in agitation.
"I want you to act like you love me. Why is that so hard?" she demanded.
"It isn't. Now that you mention it, I wouldn't mind being accorded the same treatment," he said. He stopped his pacing to look at her. "I have it. I know what it is. You're ashamed of me, aren't you?"
"What? What makes you say that?"
"That's exactly what it is. You're ashamed of me," he repeated. "You were convinced you were going to get a knight on a white horse to whisk you away to never-never land, and instead you got me. Now you're ashamed of yourself for falling for someone as unworthy as me, and you're trying to fix your mistake. Well, guess what? It's not going to work. I am not your personal project to be twisted around any way you please. I have already done more for you than I ever thought I'd do for anyone. Now you're just going to have to learn to take me as I am. If you can't deal with that, then you can save us both some trouble and leave right now. Go find your white knight if that's what you want, but don't come crawling back to me when you find out they don't exist."
She stared at him with an expression of shock and hurt that swiftly transformed into fury.
"Well, fine, then!" she said. "It's nice to know what you really think of me! If that's the way you're going to be, maybe I am better off without you!"
She stormed out of the room, leaving him staring and wondering what had just happened. He tried to follow her and heard sounds of her moving things around; it sounded like she was gathering her things.
"Reika, I didn't mean...!" he called.
"Then you shouldn't have said it!" she snapped.
He stood there for a moment, listening to the angry sounds of things being haphazardly gathered together. Then he sighed and sank into a chair, hiding his face in his hands.
"I knew it," he muttered. "I knew it had to be too good to be real..."
Only one person knew about the breakup. How could the word possibly get out? Yamaki and Reika had agreed early on that it was best if they weren't public about their relationship - they were private people by nature, not given to showing their emotions to others, and it was probably risky to career and reputation for a lady to be caught living with her boss... or for the boss to be "taking advantage of" his beautiful female co-worker. Even now, there was no way for anyone to tell anything had happened between them. They were neatly hidden from each other and the rest of the world, he behind his dark glasses and she behind her safety goggles and both of them keeping convenient walls of technical talk between them so not a single nuance of emotion could slip through. As long as he was at ground level and she was on her observation deck, they never even had to look at each other. To judge from outside appearances, no one would ever think anything had ever happened between them.
In public, anyway - in private was a different matter, and the one person left who knew what was going on in Reika's private life was Megumi. The reason for that was not so much because of their friendship - though certainly the two young women kept few secrets from each other - but because Megumi was the one who had opened her door one evening to find her friend with a tear-streaked face and a suitcase, asking hesitantly if maybe she could stay over a few days. Even so, she knew what had gone on in only the vaguest terms. She was certain there had been a breakup, but what had caused it and how it had happened was still highly secret information.
"I wish you'd tell me what happened," said Megumi. It was the fifth day after the arrival of her unexpected houseguest, and she still didn't know anything more than she had when she'd arrived.
"Nothing happened," Reika replied. "We just decided it wasn't going to work out, that's all."
"If it was really that easy, you'd still be speaking to each other."
"We're speaking to each other!"
"Yeah, at work," said Megumi. "You talk to each other, all right, but you're not saying anything. I've been watching, and you two are avoiding each other like you expect to be attacked or something."
"You're imagining things. Really, there's nothing wrong."
"If there's nothing wrong, then why were you crying?"
Reika flushed. "It just - came as a shock, all right? But I'm over it now, so let's not argue about it anymore. It's over, and it's better this way."
"Oh," said Megumi. She wondered if she ought to bring up the fact that she'd heard Reika crying last night after lights-out, but decided to try a different tack instead. "It's too bad. I really thought you two would make a good pair. I really thought it did him some good to have a feminine influence to mellow him out a little, you know?"
"Well, that's obviously not what he thought," Reika snapped. She made a choking noise and closed her eyes, trying to pull her emotions under control, and Megumi sensed weakness.
"What really happened?" she asked quietly.
"Oh, it was something stupid," Reika answered miserably. "I was acting like a brat and he called me to task about it, and I didn't like what he told me, so I got all defensive, trying to make it like it was his fault... I was so stupid. I really was acting like a brat, a little kid whining for a new toy, saying if he really loved me he'd do this and that... He's right. I was being manipulative." She sighed. "He thought I was ashamed of him."
"No. I was ashamed of myself. I had this pretty picture in my head of some perfect person who'd make everything happily ever after for me, and I wound up getting him instead. I felt weak, giving up on my dream like that, like I was settling for second best. I thought I should have held out. I didn't want have made a mistake, so I just kept trying to fix things, trying to prove I'd done what I mean to do all along..." She trailed off, shaking her head helplessly. "He told me that if I couldn't take him as he was, I should just get out and not come back. So I left."
"Having second thoughts?"
"More like a reality check," Reika replied. "The last time I had a breakup, once I got over feeling abandoned, it felt good, like I'd been set free. Now all I can think is how stupid I was. I mean, I find a guy who's got such a hold on me, I can't stay away from him when I try, and I think I need to change him? I did love him the way he was, and I was too busy chasing after a stupid imaginary person to realize it."
"Maybe you could apologize," Megumi suggested delicately.
"What good would it do? Weren't you listening? He told me to go away and stay away," she said. "After the way I treated him, he's not going to be impressed with me coming back and saying I'm sorry. He had every right to tell me to leave. I don't think an apology is going to help. No, I made my mistake, and I'll cope with it."
She said it determinedly, but try as she might, she couldn't hide the look in her eyes as she said it. Megumi was unconvinced.
*Somebody's got to get these two back together,* she thought. *They sure aren't going to do it themselves, not at the rate they're going. Unfortunately, there's only one other person who can do anything...*
She sighed quietly. She really wasn't looking forward to going to work.
The alarm clock rang, pulling Yamaki out of a sound sleep, and he woke up disoriented. Why was everything so quiet? Normally, Reika would already be awake and making breakfast... He shook himself, dispelling the last of his dreams, forcing himself to wake up to reality: she was gone, and had been for days, so he might as well get used to the idea. He dressed quickly and went to see if he couldn't find something in the kitchen that looked edible. He had to admit (though with a definite twinge of annoyance) that he'd gotten a bit spoiled himself, having someone around to take care of such domestic needs as cooking and cleaning. He was definitely not pleased at having to go back to eating his own cooking. Scowling with something more than early-morning grumpiness, he made a bowl of cold cereal and a cup of coffee and sat down to think.
"This is getting ridiculous," he muttered. "I've done nothing but sulk for days. I need to pull myself together."
Well, that sounded good. It was putting his own advice to work that was the problem. Try as he might, he just could not put Reika out of his mind. Her presence lingered on the very air, a fragrance of the herbal soap she liked mixed with the spicier scent of her perfume. Small wonder he woke up thinking she still had to be somewhere nearby.
*Why am I worrying about her? She left of her own accord. You knew it was going to end up this way - you knew it from the beginning. Why are you letting it bother you now?*
He took a sip of his coffee and made a face, thinking something tasted wrong. He scowled at it. Reika's prankish way of putting sugar in his coffee had become such a ritual that it seemed lacking without it. Now it was just dark and bitter, missing that touch of sweetness she'd brought with her...
*Well, there's a metaphor for you,* he thought with grim humor. *Wouldn't she be proud of me - I'm getting all poetic. Wish she were around so I could tell her. Wouldn't she laugh...*
"Enough of this," he told himself sternly. "What's done is done. She's not coming back, so just forget it."
Resolutely, he spooned sugar into his coffee, but it wasn't quite the same.
Megumi tried not to let her nervousness show as she left the lab. Ostensibly, she was on her way to lunch, so she shouldn't look like she was on her way to the executioner's. Her goggles helped a bit, hiding her eyes and obscuring her expression, so she kept them on as long as possible while the other technicians hurried away for their midday meal. Only Reika lingered with her.
"Aren't you going to have lunch with me?" she asked, looking a bit forlorn. Megumi felt bad for leaving her alone, but what she had to do now would be of more help.
"Sorry," she said. "There's something I need to take care of. I'll catch up to you in a little while, okay?"
"Well, all right," said Reika. "Later, Megumi."
"Yeah, see you, Reika."
Reika headed off in the direction of the lunchroom, but Megumi took a different route. She had heard that Yamaki tended to eat in his own office, hidden from his underlings, so that was where she needed to go. She really didn't want to have to face him down on his own turf, so she hurried up the halls, hoping to catch up with him while they were on neutral ground.
Luck was with her, and she spotted him just as he was reaching the far end of an empty hallway. She moved from her brisk walk to a near-run, calling.
"Mr. Yamaki, hold on! I need talk to you."
"No, you don't," he snapped. A dim part of his mind was telling him that for Megumi to actually hunt him down and initiate a conversation with him, the matter must have been urgent, but he didn't listen to it. In the mood he was in, he felt everyone ought to deal with their own problems for a while.
"Yes, I do," said Megumi. "Please, Mr. Yamaki, this is important."
"It can wait," he replied. "Go away and leave me in peace."
He turned and began walking off again. Megumi shook her head and sighed.
"I hoped it wouldn't come to this," she said. "Oh, well. I really liked this job. Too bad."
Meanwhile, Yamaki was continuing on his walk to his office. He felt no remorse over having brushed Megumi off. He'd been working with her for months now, and he knew quite well that Megumi listened to everything he told her and never disobeyed orders. He could walk all over her if he felt like it, and she would simply nod and get on with whatever she was doing without so much as saying-
"Are you blind or are you just stupid?"
"What?" he exclaimed, turning around to stare at Megumi in shock.
"You heard me," she said. "Or are you deaf, too? You've got to be something to not know what's going on right under your nose. Or maybe you're just too wrapped up in yourself to care, is that it?"
"What - what are you talking about?" he spluttered.
"Oh, you know exactly what I'm talking about," she said. "You and Reika."
"How do you know about that?"
"What, did you think you're the only one around here who can know anything?" Megumi retorted. "Oh, I forgot, we're all just your mindless underlings. Only the lofty Yamaki is allowed to think. Well, guess what? Some of the rest of us have brains too. I know what's going on between you two. Better than you do, as matter of fact."
"How do you know what's going on?" Yamaki demanded.
"Because I'm the one who's been listening to her cry herself to sleep at night, that's how."
"What? But - huh?" he said. Megumi's unexpected outburst plus this new information seemed to be more than he could cope with at once; she would have laughed at him if the situation weren't so serious. She decided to relent a little.
"Don't you know she's hurting?" she said. "She misses you."
"That's not what it looked like when she walked out on me."
"When you sent her away," Megumi corrected.
"I didn't send her away," he said. "I just - she had a choice and she took it."
"That's not how she sees it."
"Well, if she misses me so much, why doesn't she come back?"
"Because she can't," said Megumi. "Because she thinks she doesn't deserve to come back. Look, she knows she messed up, and she wants to make amends, but she can't do it if you don't give her an opening. Right now, she's convinced you hate her and wouldn't take her back no matter what she did."
"So, what am I supposed to do, then?"
"What?" he exclaimed. "What am I supposed to apologize for? It wasn't my fault!"
"I know that. You know that. She knows that. But if you don't tell her you were wrong for sending her away, she won't believe it," said Megumi. "It's one of those things you have to do for someone you care about. Love is great, but it takes a little more than that to make a relationship work. You've got to be able to compromise a little, sometimes. You've got to have some commitment to each other. Well, look, let me put it like this - you've lost your temper with me before plenty of times, haven't you?"
"That's an entirely different situation," he said.
"True. I just work for you, but no matter how many times you get mad at me, you haven't fired me yet, and I haven't decided I'm sick of you and gone somewhere else. It's like that with everybody here. Now, if you can forgive a bunch of people who mean nothing to you, why is it that you have one fight with someone you really love and decide it's over?"
"I... hadn't really looked at it like that," he admitted.
"Well, now is a good time to think about it," said Megumi. "But if I were you, I'd think fast. Reika's not going to wait around forever."
"I will think about it," he said. "I've taken advice from worse people, I suppose... You're a sensible woman, Megumi."
She blushed a little, trying to fight back a grin of triumph. "I had older brothers and sisters. After watching them fight their way through their love lives, I had to pick up a few things."
"Hm. Perhaps Reika was right when she called you the romantic guru... So, are you sure she'd be willing to give me another chance? If I worked up a convincing enough apology?"
"I'm positive she will. You've just got to give her the chance," Megumi replied. "Hey, wait - how did you know she called me that?"
A faint suspicion of what might have been a smile. "Someday," he said, "I'm going to tell her I admire people who use proper spelling and punctuation in those instant message conversations. Then maybe I'll feel compelled to give an explanation. Goodbye, Megumi."
She stared in surprise - had that been a joke? It was hard to tell; he had already turned to go to his office. She collapsed against a wall, feeling weak in the knees.
"Whew!" she sighed. "I'm glad I don't have to do things like that very often."
At the end of the hallway, Yamaki paused. He turned around. "Megumi?"
Then he rounded a corner and vanished. She stared. Then, slowly, she smiled. She began walking to the lunchroom with a spring in her step.
*Reika's right,* she thought. *He's really not that bad of a guy.*
The next day, Reika went to work with no sense that anything in her life was about to change. That was only natural; she was forcing herself to think as normally as possible, keeping her mind strictly on her work. She was lucky; a few of the computers had fouled up that day, requiring all her attention to set them straight again. Everyone seemed to accept that she knew best out of all of them what needed to be done, so she was left to work in relative peace for several hours. She was so intent on her job that she didn't notice exactly when company arrived, but was conscious only of a vague feeling that someone was standing behind her. She looked up to see what they wanted and came face to face with the last person she wanted to see.
"Miss Ootori," said Yamaki, "could I speak to you in my office for a moment?"
"There is nothing to discuss," she replied, turning back to her work.
"I have something to say," he answered, "and we can either talk about it here where everyone can hear us, or we can go to my office and have some privacy."
As he spoke, he'd been raising his voice, loud enough that most of the nearby workers had stopped what they were doing to listen in, and a few others on the fringes were asking their co- workers what was going on. Reika glared at them, then at her boss, and nodded.
"All right, but make it quick," she said.
"I don't believe this should take too long," Yamaki answered. "Follow me, please."
She followed, fuming faintly. She almost wished she'd had the nerve to tell him to just say what was on his mind in public and get it over with. It might even feel good to come out of this wall of secrecy and no longer have to hide her feelings. Hiding them was a lot harder than she cared to admit, even now. The hallway they were walking through was a narrow one, giving them no choice but to walk close to each other. She was having a hard time keeping her hormones convinced that her relationship was over with, not when she had such a strong reminder of how it felt to be lying next to him at night, his warm solid presence making her feel so safe and protected... She shook herself, trying to dispel the images. Apparently unaware of her inner struggle, Yamaki reached his office door and ushered her inside.
"All right, we're here," she said. "Now, what did you want to say?"
"I wanted to make an apology," he replied.
"What?" That was the last thing she'd expected to hear.
"I can admit when I've made a mistake," he said. "I never should have sent you away. I'm afraid I just lost my temper - I overreacted, and I'm sorry for it. I shouldn't have been accusing you, and I shouldn't have tried to make you go away instead of facing the problem."
"Oh, well..." she said. "It was really my fault, anyway. You were right, and I wasn't listening to you. I guess I really was being spoiled. I'm sorry."
"You can always come back," he said. "I've missed you while you were away."
Her smile was wry. "Missed having someone to keep your bed warm at night, you mean."
"I'd be lying if I didn't say that. You know I try to be honest with you," he replied. "I miss watching you sleep at night. You always look so serene... I miss you singing in the shower and putting sugar in my coffee. I miss hearing you laugh. I just... miss you."
"I miss you, too," she said. "Can I have another chance?"
"All the chances you need," he replied. "Though you know, if you come back, it isn't going to be the fairy tale you wanted. We are going to fight with each other. I doubt we'll be able to help it. But I'm willing to deal with that, if you are, for the chance to be with you."
"So am I," she said. "I don't think I'd want to live with Prince Charming, anyway. It would probably be very boring. I think I'd really be happier with you."
"I'm honored," he said. "With that being said.... I feel like this is the point where I ought to say something dramatic and moving, but I'm really not good at that sort of thing. I'm better at doing things than saying them, so... I hope you'll be content with this."
He reached into his pocket and took out something that sparkled: a ring. Reika gasped.
"If you want it to be," Yamaki replied. "You're the only one for me, Reika. Please come home... and don't leave me again."
She fell into his arms and felt them close tightly around her.
"I won't," she said. "Never again."
It was quite some time before she returned to her workstation again. Megumi watched her with interest, and was pleased to see that the friend who had left like a storm cloud was returning like a ray of sunlight, practically dancing her way back to the computers.
"How'd it go?" Megumi whispered.
Reika grinned. "Perfectly."
"So, you two are a couple again?"
"You could say that," Reika answered, laughing a bit.
"Oh, really?" asked Megumi, raising an eyebrow. "Do tell."
"I don't know if I should tell you."
"Oh, come on! Please? You know I won't tell!"
Reika beckoned her friend closer and whispered, "He asked me to marry him!"
Megumi squealed. "Oh, wow! What did you say?"
Reika laughed. "I said 'I won't'!"
Megumi stared, shocked. "What? But I thought-"
"Reika," called Yamaki from the other end of the room, "I need another pair of hands. Could you come help me with this, please?"
"Just a minute!" she called back. She grinned impishly at Megumi. "Well, duty calls! Later!"
"Hey!" Megumi protested.
Too late; Reika was already on her way to join her boss. The two of them consulted over one of the computers, talking casually with each other. Megumi saw Reika gesture at her as she spoke, presumably relating her previous conversation to him, and something flashed on Reika's hand. Yamaki laughed. Megumi grinned.
"Always knew they were the perfect couple," she said.