Second Shot

Chapter 1:

Catering to the Old Home

". . . Senior Executive Kousaka paid his respects to the victims of the emergency landing of the ASST-123 on October 12, vowing to step up the company's investigation into the cause of the loss of control and provide the world's safest passenger airliners. This appearance is thought to be an act of assurance to the public and investors . . ."

A thick hand with prominent veins reaches to the keypad beneath the tiny screen set into the dashboard and taps the diminutive buttons until reaching a local weather station. A younger man's hand reaches from the driver's seat on the right, but the heavyset man gives a sharp clearing of the throat, stopping the driver as quickly as if he'd slapped the limb away. "The news has been filled with that Third Network Crisis for a year and if it's anything like the last two times we'll be hearing about it until the next one. The less I have to hear about it, the better."

Arakawa Kenji stifles his grump as much as he can as he drives the catering van down the highway. "I don't think it's such a bad thing to know what's going on, Takeda-sama. Besides, the Kusakas are hosting the event indoors, it won't matter what the weather is when we get there."

Takeda Noriyama turns a hard glare to the young man to his right. "As if news in the computer world matters to a young man with your record. You should be thanking me every day for the privilege of working in Pascal's Service. We had graduates from Tokyo University competing for my company! If it wasn't for a few mistakes made by my accountant that led to charges of income tax misreporting, I never would have taken a man with a prison record!"

Kenji slumps in his seat with a haggard sigh, staring out through the rain-splattered windshield. After Mori's Law was passed, prosecution for computer crimes became easier, and anything associated with identity theft was slapped with mandatory sentencing. Initially, the convicts weren't supposed to be allowed to touch computers, but in the modern age that's nearly impossible, so it merely bars him from the jobs he loves most – tinkering with computers. He draws in a slow breath, wishing he can just snap back in defense of his ego, but with technology fields barred to him, his Computer Engineering degree from Kyoto University is useless. He needs this job.

"And I am grateful, Takeda-sama," Kenji states slightly mechanically, the well-rehearsed line not sounding too fake and placating the large man in the passenger seat. Unfortunately, the peace is short-lived and Noriyama alternates between disparaging Kenji and bemoaning the unfair tax charges for the rest of the drive to the Maeda Community Center.

The young Japanese man carefully brings the van through the deep puddle collecting at the service road, navigating down the gravel stretch passing along the property wall to the service entrance in the back. The space yawns like the gaping jaws of a giant, at least 20 meters wide, with a raised concrete lip along half of that for larger trucks. Large cracks spread over the pavement on the lower area, though a ramp on the far side looks freshly repaired. Kenji reaches for the space in the seat between them for the umbrella and comes up with only the clipboard, which Noriyama snatches back into his hands. With-holding a groan, he pops open his door and rushes around, thanking the gods that at least it's not a summer downpour, and opens the door for his boss.

The two rush towards the ramp and are greeted by three of the other cooks coming down. Kenji tries to keep going for shelter, but Noriyama grabs his sleeve and yanks him hard, nearly knocking the young man to the ground. Noriyama snaps at the cooks, all four bowing obsequiously at the raging business owner. After a minute, he finally points back at the van. "Hurry up and finish unloading! Master Pascal is late enough and we are not going to disappoint esteemed doctors like Kusaka-sensei."

The four bow again and Kenji strains to try to find something good about being sent to run around in the cold and rain for even longer. At least Noriyama's not here. Looking at the other three cooks, he realizes that none of them have loading carts for the heavy vats. "Wait, Sosuke, go back inside and get the carts. Let's try to do this in less than three trips."

The brown-haired man nods and dashes back while Kenji follows the other two and unlocks the back of the catering van. He glances down the cracked employee parking to count three other vans already parked, that should mean that only the master chef himself is late. The cooks finish half of the unloading before a classy compact car swings into the spot next to Kenji's van. The driver scrambles out and opens the door for a tall, tan-skinned European man in a chef's rainment, glaring at the driver as he fights with the umbrella until it snaps open. Wheeling the last cart up behind Master Pascal, the cooks all duck into the kitchen and the dance of mixed European cuisine picks up in earnest.

A thin Japanese youth slips in through the main kitchen doors and hurries up to the owner before wiping his brow despite a lack of actual perspiration. "Takeda-san, the guests are starting to arrive."

Pascal throws up both of his hands in his favorite gesture of annoyance before stalking down the kitchen. Noriyama jabs a thick finger in Kenji's face. "Arakawa, serve the hours d'ouvres, customers like seeing your face. Maki! If I catch you running with boiling sugar again you'd better hope it ends up on you instead of the floor!"

The owner stalks off and Kenji leaves the soup to the new runner, fuming. Being called the pretty boy of the company was something started by the culinary university graduates angry at him joining as a cook without having a chef's degree or training. Handling the small appetizers is normally a job for the newest cooks and assistants who haven't started college yet and he's been with them nearly a year, but complaining would be unwise now with the owner still looking for heads to bite off and preparations behind schedule. Competition in Tokyo is fierce and company reputation is even more important than individual employees.

Finished arranging the silver trays, Kenji deftly takes one in each hand and shoulders open the swinging doors into the cavernous audience hall. He crashes into a brown-haired girl milling around the kitchen doors, sending the two Japanese and polished silvers tray tumbling to the ground. "Gods damn it!"

Kenji flips onto his knees, snatches one tray, and begins scooping the snacks back onto it. His ability to hold onto his tense anger fizzles when the long-haired girl in a formal dress – probably barely 18 – apologizes and kneels next to him and begins helping to scoop more of the scattered cheese onto the other tray. He lets out a long sigh and holds out a hand to stop her. "No, please miss, this is my job. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have been running so quickly."

"No Arakawa-san, I'm sorry," she counters timidly after glancing at his name tag, swallowing and galvanizing her courage. "I didn't have anything to do, so I was hanging around the kitchen listening. I've never cooked Italian . . ."

"It's alright, nobody was expecting the rain today and everybody in the company's a little tense." Kenji pauses, noticing that all of the guests but this girl are milling around the entry foyer. "So . . . what's your name?"

"Oh," she startles slightly, still delicately picking up fallen confections before answering – despite his attempts to politely wave her away, "Chigusa. Kusaka Chigusa."

"Kusaka?" Kenji promptly drops the tray in his hand. "Like, the doctor Kusuka?" When she nods hesitantly, he nearly hits her by bowing deeply. Oh man, I can't afford a complaint today, not when everybody's on such thin ice. "Please, Kusuka-san, forgive my clumsiness."

"Oh no," she states with the tense kind of smile of a person unsure if she should laugh or be formal. "You didn't do anything wrong, Arakawa-san. I just wasn't being careful enough." Now her smile takes on a sort of self-derisive smirk. "It seems whether I'm in real life or playing The World, I'm still making careless mistakes." She fidgets with her fingers and whispers, "I miss back then." She stands with Kenji and glances to the men in expensive business suits by the foyer, but before she can say anything the swinging door bursts open, slapping Kenji in the back.

The blow knocks him stumbling and sends the two trays flying again. Sosuke swings out of the kitchen with a tray in each hand, eyes drawn to Kenji's trays just as one upends over Chigusa. Sosuke sucks in a breath and jumps, turning pale as a sheet before letting out a meek 'eep'. Noriyama coming out after him is not so quiet.

"Fools!" A few of the guests turn their gaze towards the commotion, and Noriyama smoothes out his dark business suit and puts on a convincingly nonchalant air. As soon as the guests' attention is elsewhere, he turns a burning gaze on his two employees and hisses, "What are you bumbling louts doing?" The two junior cooks hastily scramble up, and Noriyama hauls up the closest – Kenji – by the front of his cook's overalls. "You're on thin ice by default, Arakawa. Now stop tripping over our customers and get back to work or the next place you'll be serving will be soup kitchens for the unemployed."

The computer technician-turned-caterer takes the two trays from Sosuke and meanders into the growing crowd of suits. The throng of wealthy patrons practically ignores his existence, forcing him to weave among clumps to move around and dodging around several elbows and outstretched wine glasses. The first one to actually speak to him berates him for moving too quickly to conveniently grab a snack. Pascal, normally supportive of Arakawa Kenji, is snappy and irritable from lack of sleep, and the district chefs can't seem to speak at him without spitting poison.

The cold mass of humanity presses like the all the tides of the ocean on their dark depths, and Kenji wishes he was back at one of the smaller catering jobs at a college, or anywhere that made him feel less mediocre.

He walks into his dark, cramped flat a few minutes after 3 AM. The living space doesn't even have two true rooms: one is a storage and kitchen area with a plug-in electric burner but no sink or plumbing, and the other a sleeping and general living space separated by a counter. Most of it is empty, besides a refrigerator on the edge of the kitchen space, a hammock frame shoved into the corner, and a radio alarm clock giving a dim red glow to the spartan room.

Kenji pulls out his pocket pad and looks at the schedule. The Takahashis cancelled, leaving nothing to do for the next three days. He sets the pad down and rests his elbows on the counter of the meager kitchen space before banging both fists against the counter, sinking to his knees, and fisting his hair. Especially on bad days like today, it seems like all of his co-workers, including his company owner, do everything they can to edge him out, and he has no one to turn to with his parents' early passing away. Kenji can't handle idleness, and things are pressing in too much like it is . . .

A rapid, familiar knocking at the door jerks him from his brief episode, and he straightens his clothes before heading to the door on the southern wall. While there is a peep hole in it to look out at unexpected guests, Kenji doesn't need to use it. He remembers that knock from all the way back in middle school.

"Shinichi?" he asks in pleasant surprise at seeing his old friend.

The short-brown-haired urbanite grins ear to ear and reaches out, slapping the front then back of his palm against Kenji's. "Hey, pally!" he exclaims in the exaggerated accent he picked up from Osaka when he wanted to be dramatic. "We kept in contact all that time and then you just disappear when The Man gives you the boot? What, think you lost your kitsune bi? You'll never lose the magic touch."

Kenji smiles back and returns a brief hug with his longtime friend. "I . . ." He can't force words into his mouth, the weight of the day and the sudden arrival of his best friend is too much. "It's been hard, Shi-kun. They put me in a job with a catering company – one of the biggest in Kantou. And you know that stupid law, unless they fix it this Diet I'm still redlisted in every major computer store in the region. I can't even put together my own rig."

"I bet you'd give anything to have a go at it again, Kenji-kun?" Shinichi says with his smile undiminished, clasping his arms behind his back.

Now Kenji crosses his arms and leans back. "This isn't just a social visit?"

Shinichi laughs, but this time keeps it down, then glances not quite inconspicuously down both sides of the narrow hallway. "Have I ever bored you with just a social call?"

Kenji nearly reaches out – there were two reasons he earned the nickname 'blue kitsune'. One was his skill in circumnavigating passwords and security programs. The other was the fact that kitsune were compulsive tricksters and he, like the folk tales, just couldn't help but see what he could do. There may have been times that he and Shinichi would meet just to catch up, but those became few and far in between. He and the others he fell in with were just too good at . . . coming by slightly used computers. He never thought that much about it before he was caught, they were all he had.

Finally Shinichi leans to the side and picks up a black duffel bag up from its casual hiding spot just beside the outside of Kenji's door. Kenji brushes a hand through his jet-black hair and trots back into the living room, Shinichi following after and closing the door after him. He sets the duffel bag gently down on the relatively empty wood-flooring of the living space, opening the zipper to reveal a gunmetal gray desktop computer, model A-11, complete with monitor, speakers and M2D headset.

"We were wondering if you could . . . take a look inside, see if there's anything worth it in there," Shinichi smirks as he looks around the largely empty living space as his friend gently ruffles through the neatly packed bag. "I can see that you're kinda starved for entertainment. Even if there's nothing in this, I'll throw the computer in."

Three hours later, Kenji is alone in his flat and the computer screen reads: "Welcome to The World. Please wait while your system updates . . ."

Kenji rubs his eyes and sets down the M2D as a long yawn escapes, and decides to leave it for after some rest.

Author's Note: Since I could not find any specific canon dates, I've had to make them up for a best fit scenario. If anybody has something concrete, I'd be glad to revise with corrections. This story is a big experimental project for me, so I'd love to hear any questions, speculation, or feedback you have.

Note on names: traditionally, names in Japan are written as "Family name, personal name". Since this story takes place in .Hack's Japan I will use this method of writing out the names.

Pascal is named after the French mathematician Blaise Pascal, who was one of several who significantly expanded the field of mathematics and science, especially by his 1646 refutation of Aristotilian theory that "nature abhors a vacuum".

For those who aren't sure: yes, the Kusaka Chigusa is the very same as the player behind Atoli.

Kitsune bi – basically the array of tricks and magic that kitsune would use in folk tales.