"It makes sense to me," he continued. "The Final Rising Death Slam isn't unbeatable! I mean, look at his shot records; he's finished off a buncha guys with it, yeah, but there was that match two years ago against the guy from Aquarius, whatsisname.. the guy..."
"That was a fluke caused by the moving netting under the Ping Pong variant ruleset #7," his friend replied. "If they were going with a more... like... NORMAL variant then that wouldn't have happened! The Final Rising Death Slam RULES! It r0xx0rz your sock0rz!"
"That's s0xx0rz!" his friend barked back. "You can't even get l33tspeak right, how can you know anything about Ping Pong? Stupidhead."
"Oh, yeah, like YOU'VE ever been to Tribal Alpha! And they don't even shoot each other anymore, so who cares?"
"So why do you care?"
"Why do YOU care?"
"I asked you first."
"I asked you second."
"Make you what?"
"I know you are, but what am I?"
"A loser!" his friend taunted. "And if I got you into a Ping Pong match with variant #7, I'd crush you with the God's Hand Strike my oniichan taught me, so step off! Otherwise—"
"Did you know that the P-Cup Tournament of Champions makes VideoNippon an estimated 200 billion en a year?"
Both boys turned to look sharply at the interloper.
"It's the only stable element in the Nipponese economy for the last century," Eiko continued quickly. "The amount of money pulled in from the multiversal broadcasting rights, when compounded against ticket sales and the normal expenditures involved in such a gala live event, are enough to fund VideoNippon's activities for the remainder of the fiscal year. On that foundation they launch new shows that they use to try and expand the profit margins to allow for some breathing room, but pattern analysis shows that only during times when the 'en' trades well against the 'point' does the programming succeed enough to draw ratings and buy rates that can match even ten percent of the P-Cup tournament's profit! Despite this, I can say with assurance that VideoNippon's stock (traded under the symbol VNP on the Urbana Stock Exchange) is a solid buy, because it consistently performs at a flat rate during times of fiscal crisis! ...Pretty cool, huh?"
Eiko put on her most hopeful smile while the boys put on looks reserved for sneaky adults.
"You're weird," the anti-Death Slam advocate decided, which the pro-Death Slam advocate agreed to with a nod. Both boys picked up their schoolbags and left the playground. Leaving Eiko alone.
Much as she had been during her entire afternoon of play.
Slowly, she walked towards the entrance of the playground, where Mallory was waiting and reading a cookbook.
"I wanna go home," she told him in a small voice.
Mallory peeked over the top of his book, a bit surprised at the announcement. "Home?" he asked. "Er... already? But aren't you having fun playing with the other kids and stuff?"
"No. I wanna go home now."
The boy cast a nervous glance at the wristwatch Meiko had given him in a futile attempt to teach him an organized approach to life planning and duty scheduling. "Ah... I... guess we can go now. Right. Been long enough. Okay! Let's go. C'mon..."
He tucked the cookbook under one arm, took Eiko's hand with the other, and led her across the street to the Noyori Labs Docking Yard. Even simply playing across the street required active adult supervision, according to Meiko...
Because she was just a little kid. Eiko looked at her sneakers as she marched the short distance back home. Just a little kid that the other kids saw as a weirdo, a geek, an adult...
What she most wanted to do right now was go upstairs, cuddle under her blanket, and watch MoneyLine in silence.
Instead she was treated to the noise of party crackers going off and confetti filling the air upon entering the house.
"Surprise!" the ladies of the House announced in sync. "Happy 12th birthday, Eiko!"
They had really gone all out this year. Granted, much of the party supplies were unused extras from Mallory's REC Test celebration, but a new HAPPY BIRTHDAY EIKO banner had been strung up, her favorite kind of cake had been baked by Mallory (lemon cake, coconut icing), and the image of Kisei in her uniform and a pointy party hat trying to sing Happy Birthday was worth all the hassle of putting on her best smile.
It's quite hard to feel awful while at one's birthday party, Eiko was finding, as she wanted to avoid dwelling on her unsuccessful afternoon of play. The cake tasted great, everybody was in good spirits... and she was getting presents! Being an avid student of the consumer retail business markets, she understood the importance of exchanging points for commodities in order to keep the money flowing. And they were neat gifts, too!
From Kisei, she got a tea ceremony set, and a booklet describing the ritual.
"As I know you are currently studying Nippon's history in your sister's home tutoring courses, I believe this cultural artifact is appropriate," was her carefully designed explanation. "This tea set used to belong to me when I was your age... part of my own studies. I hand-lettered the booklet myself using brush stroke calligraphy."
From Mallory-oniichan, she got a Qwik-Bake Oven Set.
"You stick little cakes in this slot here, and the light bulb inside cooks them!" he explained enthusiastically. "You can make cake, cookies, pies, um... cake... and cookies and pies! And it's guaranteed to not be a fire hazard 95% of the time. Uh... can I play with it when you're done?"
From Lorelei, she got a strange looking stretchy pink cloth thing with straps in the back and two cups in the front.
"Lorelei!" her sister shouted.
"What?" she asked. "Mine started sprouting at her age! You don't want her waking up one morning with 'em popping out, catching her totally unprepared, do you?"
Finally, from her sister, the biggest and most expensive present of all... a My First RealNet Workstation, from RealWare. It was pink and covered with little flower stickers, but inside that plastic casing was an honest-to-goodness workstation, just like the communal one in the living room.
"I know you have a Video Network Set, but this can do a whole lot more than that," she explained. "You can get real-time stock market updates, go to fan nodes for your favorite video streams, publish your own home node... just promise me you won't download lots of music or videos; the digital rights rental fees are pretty high."
She thanked her extended family profusely for the gifts, then there was much laughter, smiles, seconds on the cake...
And finally, herself, alone in her room, surrounded by her new prizes and her old prizes and all that stuff.
That's when the smile faded. A party is one thing, but quiet times are another thing... and all the neat toys in the world couldn't make up for being lonely.
Mallory had offered to play with her (mostly so he could play with the oven) but she kinda wanted to be alone. She didn't really feel like a non-lonely sort at the moment so lonely made sense, which didn't make sense but would have to do. So she told them all she was tired from all the partying, and went up to her room to sit in front of her new workstation and watch the stock tickers go by...
RealWare was up five points in heavy trading on announcing that Reality Engines would be available in three new eye-pleasing colors. Of course, their stock was so high compared to every other company on the UST that you couldn't watch their ticker alongside the others; the line graph scale would be totally out of whack. This is why she poked around the stock application on My First Workstation until she could get overlapping windows—one with RealWare, one with a combination of Noyori Labs, VideoNippon, and Krap Foods Inc...
Most kids watched cartoons, she watched line graphs. The very notion of it made her sigh in a dramatic sign of discontent, as she grabbed one of her many Biiko dolls, to comb her luxurious blonde hair.
According to the commercials produced by Edo Heavy Industry Toy Concern (updated quarterly), Biiko didn't follow the stock market at all. She spent her days driving pink land-cars, travelling in her Beach House to exotic realities, putting on exciting swimwear and dating Kensuke. She had a fun, exciting life and everybody liked her... and weirdly, she was an adult. It didn't make any sense that an adult would do all that stuff, if she was a kid who was more like an adult and not like Biiko, and... and... and none of it made any sense at all!
In a fit of frustration, she shut down her Workstation, tossed Biiko aside, and ran over to flop on her bed. She'd thought about it enough, felt bad enough about it, so... she'd just take a nap. Something to clear her head...
An hour later, she woke to a knock on the door.
"Eiko-chan? Eiko-chan, can you come downstairs?" her oneechan asked through the door. "We've got a new client. I might need you to help with the contract."
Eiko slumped along down the stairs, tired eyes sticking to the floor as she went. Off to the kitchen, the traditional place of hammering out business deals at the ping pong / dinner table...
"Thank you for waiting," Meiko spoke, resuming her seat. "This is my sister, Eiko. She'll be handling contract negotiation. Don't worry about her age, she's quite capable in this area... Eiko?"
"Ah, hello," she greeted, focusing on the clients, trying to force herself to wake up faster. "Yes, I handle all the contracts for Mirai Consulting! So... can you give me the details of the job?"
The clients were nothing out of the ordinary; a Nipponese couple (made sense, considering they were in Nippon at the moment) of reasonably high social standing. The man had an expensive suit, current quarter fashion—his wife had on a similarly expensive and trendy suit of her own. Both gave her the 'Aww, isn't she cute?' smile she had come to expect from clients, too.
"As I understand it, your sister refers to it as a 'standard thief-tracking package'?" the husband said, glancing to Meiko for confirmation. "It seems a full third of our family fortune has vanished overnight... we'd like Mirai Consulting to find the one responsible. We have reason to believe it was a RealNet-based financial break-in, since we keep very little liquid points on hand in scorecards. The banks were of no help, since according to them, the money was withdrawn legitimately—which makes no sense, but... we're hoping your company can be of help."
"Standard thief-tracking package..." Eiko repeated, hopping off her chair and going for the drawer where they keep the legal documents (the one next to the steak knives). She flipped through to the T's, pulled out a standard contract, and returned with a pen. Made a few minor alterations to cover extra RealNet tracking and possible use of external sources, as Mirai Consulting had no RealNet hacking experts, standard legalese, boilerplate, so on and so forth... and slid the finished document over to the clients.
"We take half the fee up front, and half on successful completion of the job," Eiko recited. "We boast a great success record, but in the event that we are unable to find your stolen money, we'll refund the unused portion of the up-front fee after deducting basic costs. Since we're already docked in Nippon, I've deducted our standard fee for docking, but if travel away from Nippon is incurred it may be filed under normal operating expenses instead. Please take the time to read through the document and if you have any questions, let me know..."
While the husband read through line after line of legalese... the wife gave Eiko a warm smile of appreciation. "You're quite a talented young lady," she commented. "Your sister must be very proud of you, just like we're proud of our little Ken-kun..."
"Ken-kun?" Eiko repeated, nudged out of her familiar contract groove by this.
"Yes, he's over there watching video streams... Ken-kun! Come and say hi to Eiko Mirai!"
...and the one who walked into the kitchen also wore expensive, trendy clothes. They were just many sizes smaller, which made sense, as he was many sizes smaller as well.
He stood there uncomfortably, rocking on his feet. "'lo," he greeted quietly.
"Ken-kun, your manners," his mother chided quietly.
"...hello, Mirai-san," he spoke, trying again and adding a little bow in with it. He quickly turned and scampered back to the couch, without trying to make it look like he was fleeing...
Eiko peered around her sister, watching him go. If a big cartoon question mark could blink on and off over her head, it would.
"Oneechan, do you need me for anything else?" she asked.
"I think we can take it from here, Eiko," she replied. "So, as the contract states..."
Eiko slipped out of her chair, slipped around her sister... and crept into the living room curiously. The boy sat back on the couch, legs dangling a bit in front of him as his eyes stayed fixed to the screen... to the line graphs zipping by while a monotone announcer explained the significance of the new color offerings from RealWare.
It wasn't a stealthy approach, but he didn't notice her until she went out of her way to clear her throat.
"Ummmmm..." she started. "How old are you...?"
"Uh... I think I'm 12," he replied.
"Ano? You think..?"
"Mom and Dad faked my birth certificate so I could apply for a good school early," he admitted. "Uh, if you wanna watch something else, that's okay—"
"No no, it's fine! I... was keeping track of the markets upstairs a while back, too," Eiko admitted in turn.
"You watch the financial news?" he asked, honestly quite surprised.
"Well... yeah!" she said, with a tiny bit of hopeful pride. She bounced over, and sat on the couch next to him. "I'm hoping to be an economist when I grow up... a stock broker or a contract negotiator. How about you?"
"Oh, I don't wanna be an economist. That's just want Mom and Dad want me to be."
Eiko bit her lip. He didn't actually like finance? Was he going to think she was weird for liking it? Was—
"I kinda like money, but... I really wanna be a lawyer," he spoke, with the little hesitation one would apply to a deep secret. "You know, defending the innocent, prosecuting the guilty... maybe moving on to a legislative role to decide what laws are good laws and what laws are bad... stuff like that. Although I'll probably play the stock market more once... once I get better at it. Do you do any trading?"
"No, Meiko-oneechan says I'm not ready to do any trading..." Eiko said, with a pout. "I don't see why not. I know more about money than ANY kid my age! Uh... no offense..."
"None taken! Gum?"
He was holding out a little cube of purple-flavored bubblegum.
"...thanks," Eiko said, accepting it carefully... and with a smile. "I love bubblegum! Hey, um... Ken-kun?"
"Kensuke??" she asked, shocked.
"Uh, no, just Kensuke. No trademark. At least, none I know of..."
Both kids turned to the voice, as various parents and sisters stood in the House foyer.
"Ken-kun, it's time to go," his mother spoke, while slinging her purse over one shoulder. "Come on now, we need to get home before your tutor arrives..."
Kensuke slipped off the couch, adjusting his suit to avoid wrinkling it. "Coming..."
"H-Hey!" Eiko called, to get his attention. "Um... do you live nearby? Do you wanna drop by tomorrow and watch 'Money Matters'? Or 'Important Court Drama,' that'd be okay too..."
"Drop by...?" he asked, a bit shocked at the offer. "You really want me to drop by? Uh... Mom, can I? I'd be home well before my tutoring time... please?"
"Hmmm... I don't see why not," his mother replied. "The Mirais seem to be an upstanding family, for transients... very well. Now come along."
Two minutes later, Eiko was sitting on the couch, happily chewing her bubblegum while the financial outlook for the fiscal quarter looked bright indeed.
"And that is why my surprise last minute evidence shows that the defendant is really the victim of the plaintiff!" the middle-aged lawyer who still truly believes in the good of the system declared. "As you can see from the conflicting testimony of the witness who nobody suspected of anything despite being the first person we interviewed, the reversal of truth which is apparent in the actions which were undertaken becomes readily apparent. I call for a mistrial!"
"Curses!" the overacting shifty lawyer who only cares about money and has an irritating accent that the audience immediately dislikes muttered under his breath. "Quick, men! To the hydrofoils!"
Secret agents burst in through the windows while firing machine guns, while the Evil Genetically Engineered Super Prosecutor Warlord Lawyers beat a hasty retreat.
"Won't someone PLEASE think of the children!?" someone randomly screamed.
The judge considered this in quiet and very meaningful contemplation which you are supposed to pay attention to. "Yes... but at what cost?" he mused. "Case dismissed."
...Eiko stared at the Video Network Set, while the credits for Psychotic Paralegal #1 through Psychotic Paralegal #8 scrolled by.
"I had no idea being a lawyer was so incredibly dangerous!" she exclaimed.
"Uhmm... I think they're exaggerating," Kensuke guessed... even if he was a little spooked as well. "I mean. Really. I've read some courtroom transcripts and gunfights don't break out THAT often... uh. But it was pretty cool, wasn't it?"
"YEAH!" Eiko agreed, bouncing a bit in her seat. "I mean, the bit with the thing with that guy who had that other thing? Wow! What a plot twist! And the kung fu was great!"
"So... it's okay that we watched this instead of Money Matters? You're not mad at me?"
"Huh?" she asked, pausing in her bouncing. "'course not! I had fun. I can watch Money Matters anytime, so don't worry!"
"Oh, um, I'm not worrying," Kensuke deflected. "I just... well, I guess I'm not used to having friends. ...that sounds really sad, doesn't it?"
"No, no, not at all! Really. Uh. You kinda remind me of Mallory... you know, the guy who made us orange smoothies? He wasn't used to having friends either when he first got here. But you get used to it! I think. ...uh, what do you wanna do now? Do you have to go home?"
"Not for another hour or two," Kensuke said, glancing at his personal wristwatch miniorganizer. "My tutor scheduled a little later today because the feng shui of his sock drawer was disharmonious. So... what do you want to do? I mean, what do you usually do after Money Matters?"
"Usually? I try to grab Mallory-oniichan or Meiko-oneechan and go play dolls."
Kensuke adopted a look of puzzled confusion. "Dolls? Um... I don't think boys play with dolls. It's a sissy girly thing to do. I'd get beat up."
"But I do play with action figures sometimes!" he added, spotting the legal loophole. "It's kind of the same, except there's more guns and more stuff blows up."
"Oh! Um... wanna play action figures, then..?"
Gunfire erupted over the bunker, a hail of screaming hot lead that threatened to rend flesh from bone. The grinding noise of bullets sinking into Kevlar laced sandbags was deafening, but somehow the commander managed to scream his orders over the fog of war...
"We've got one last chance, men!" Muscles Manslaughter howled, while tapping out embers from the last cigar of his life. "I don't expect all of you to survive this final rush... but those who do will go down in eternity as heroes! Gentlemen, this is our finest hour. Smile upon death, your only true friend... now, let's take THAT PILLOW! On the count of three! Strength and honor! ONE... TWO—"
"Sir!" a stuffed monkey shouted, waving his felt arms frantically. "They've ceased fire! Someone's approaching!"
"What?! Give me that periscope!" Muscles Manslaughter shouted back, pushing the monkey aside and grabbing the plastic flexi straw. "...it's one lone soldier, waving a white sticky note? Is he surrendering, or just insane..?"
The voice from the other side of the rolled up socks called out quietly. "I'm unarmed! I've come to discuss terms of surrender! If you'll allow me to enter, we can settle this like civilized people!"
The commander looked confused. "I'm Muscles Manslaughter, I'm not supposed to be civilized! I shoot first and then shoot the questions later!"
"But as you can see, our Blokks ChibiFigs have you surrounded," lone soldier Kensuke noted. "If you don't surrender, there'll be a great loss of life. I think we can come to mutually satisfying terms that will allow for the creation of a stuffed animal state alongside the Blokks state, if we compromise on the location of various borders and allow for give and take. I have some documents prepared which contain five different proposals which my higher-ups have already approved, so if any of them meet your requirements, we can end this war amicably."
"I think we should hear him out," Crazie Monkie whispered to his commander. "We've already lost Konbanwa Neko and Froggy the Talking Educational Amphibian..."
Muscles Manslaughter considered this, while grinding his massive underbite against his overbite. "...it's true. You're right! With the proper protocols observed and a mutual level of respect, our two conflicting parties can find middle ground. I'd like Attack Lawyer Larry to review your documents and then after a seven-day period during which I'll bring an executive summary to our ruling parliament of stuffed animals, we'll contact you. Until then a cease fire is in effect and our forces will withdraw from the Beanbag Mountains. Agreed?"
"We have come to terms!" Kensuke agreed, smiling brightly.
"WAI! And the day is saved!" Eiko agreed. "Boy, that was a LOT of fun!"
"I haven't really played action figures like THAT before," the real Kensuke said, fiddling with his namesake doll. "But that's a lot better than shooting and death and stuff..."
Eiko started gathering up the toys, since she preferred her room to be neat after a play session. "How do you usually play them?" she asked. "Is it a boy thing, or something...?"
"I don't usually play with action figures, period," Kensuke exclaimed, shifting to sit cross-legged while Eiko cleaned up. "I don't have anyone to play with. Dad's too busy with work, and he just sort of looks awkward and confused whenever we try to do father / son stuff... and I don't have many friends, like I said. ...I don't think guys my age play with action figures anymore, technically. Although that was plenty of fun, don't get me wrong!"
Eiko paused in her post-play activity... glancing at the Biiko in her hand. "Uh... I don't know if girls my age play dolls, either," she admitted. "But I've always played with them, and I didn't really see any reason to stop... it's not weird, right? I mean, any weirder than... um... well. Other kids think I'm pretty weird, that's all..."
"It wasn't always like that, though," Eiko noted, sitting Biiko down next to her My First Workstation. "When I was younger at the orphanage I tried to like the same toys and bands and video streams the other girls did. And it went okay, I mean, I think I had some friends... but when I really got interested in my oneechan's textbooks and collecting 'en' coins, they started thinking I was weird. They made fun of me liking boring grownup stuff..."
"I don't see what's so weird about it," Kensuke said, honestly. "So what if we study economics or play with dolls or whatever? It doesn't mean we're adults, either. It's... okay. I thought about this a lot, actually. Lemme explain. I used to think is that the sports the other boys were so into were a strange hobby. Not playing sports, but, like... obsessively thinking about sports all the time! Some guys I meet are really into ping pong, for instance—they collect ping pong cards, they memorize statistics for the star players, they can quote matches that happened twenty years ago move for move..."
"That's some memory for numbers! Are they good at math like we are?"
"Sometimes. Sometimes they're just good at ping pong statistics... but it's like, why do they think we're weird for the things we like, when I thought they were weird for the things they like? It just didn't seem fair, until I figured it out."
"Figured what out?"
"It's all just... stuff. Fun and games. It's all fun in the end, it's just different people think different things are fun," Kensuke explained, leaning back a bit. "There's no 'weird' or 'too adult' about it. I decided, well... as long as you're *having fun* with something, you're still a kid. We'll have to do this stuff as a real job later, and judging from my dad's chronic ulcers, adulthood's no fun at all. So... I wanna have fun with what I think is fun as long as I can... and maybe if I do, it won't be less fun for me later. I'll always be a kid at heart even when I'm old enough to drink! I don't care if I'm six, twelve, twenty-four, forty-eight—as long as I'm having fun it's all good. That's my goal. ...I mean... you know what I mean, right?"
The Biiko doll fell over from its loose sitting position, nudging the My First Workstation Mouse...
...and the glowing white enlightenment of the screen shone through the darkness of the screen saver, illuminating Eiko's face, reflecting in her wide open eyes.
"...I hadn't thought of it like that," she said, quietly. "I thought I was just weird, since everybody said so, but... but that really makes sense. That really, really makes sense..."
"Uh... yeah, it does, doesn't it?" Kensuke said, smiling a little with pride. "I thought up that myself. It's a great thought thing. So... neither of us should worry about that stuff. And it's good I met you! I haven't met anyone my age who understood that—"
A soft knocking at the door interrupted the grand philosophical discussion, as Meiko entered the chamber of deep thoughts and plushies.
"Kensuke, your parents are here to pick you up," Meiko informed. "It seems your tutor decided to go without socks today, so he's ready for you. Time to go."
"Awwww...." Eiko awww'd, with a pout.
Kensuke got off the floor, dusting off his sport coat. "It's okay, I don't have any tutoring tomorrow," he said. "We can play longer if you like—hey! I know, I know! My dad can get us passes to the premiere of Muscles Manslaughter vs. the Reality Pirates! You wanna go?"
Eiko's face lit up like a bright shiny object. "Really?! Yeah! I'd love to go!"
"Okay! It's a date!" Kensuke replied, grinning big before skipping out of the room.
...Meiko's brain tripped over the word, backtracked, and tried to parse it again. Then her gaze settled on her giggly-happy little sister. Who was just asked out on a date by a boy.
"This is gonna be so cool!" Eiko warbled. "I'll have to withdraw some points from my account to cover refreshment costs and expenditures... um... oneechan? What's wrong?"
"Eiko, can I see you in my off—in my room, please?" Meiko asked politely.
It was not entirely unlike a tense contract negotiation situation. Both parties had goals which were nebulous and hazy, to be defined through the give and take of the process. They sat at opposite sides of the kotatsu... tension thick in the air. Thick like the gravy on Mallory's famous Grünwaldian Turkeyshoot Feast.
Currently there was a pause in negotiations, while Meiko consulted a parental movie appropriate-ness node on RealNet. Little thermometer-like grades were given for the relative morality of the film under discussion. If they were real thermometers, the patient would likely be dead due to his internal body temperature surpassing the boiling point of lead.
But that could wait, prior to a more immediate line of questioning the adult ruling party of the first part required of the supplicant party of the second part.
"How would you describe your relationship with Kensuke, Eiko-chan?" Meiko asked, tinging the '-chan' with just enough friendliness to put her opponent at measured ease.
"Rela...? Uh... we're just friends, oneechan," Eiko explained, squirming in her seat. "We like the same stuff, and we play the same games, and stuff. We're friends."
"Do you have a crush on him?"
"N-No, of course not!" Eiko protested, a faint blush showing as is obligatory in such situations. "No way. Besides, there's the whole 'cootie' issue which remains unresolved and could pose a potential obstacle. So we're just friends. You know... like you and Mallory-kun!"
Counterattack. Meiko flinched. Eiko smirked. The tactical angle was promptly changed.
"According to this, Muscles Manslaughter vs. the Reality Pirates is rated 13," Meiko explained, setting her F.P. organizer down and turning it around for Eiko to see. "For reasons of foul language and graphic violence—"
"I know, I know, but I'm more mature than I look!" Eiko protested. "Given my emotional development over the years I feel I'm capable of judging the film in the proper social context rather than relying on dangerous mimicry of the on-screen actions. I believe I have an understanding vis-à-vis the impact of visualized violence on a culture of impressionable youths. If anything, seeing this movie will help affirm my psychological growth and expose me to elements that I need to cope with as I grow older. Therefore, seeing Muscles Manslaughter vs. the Reality Pirates is not only safe for me, but... I'd go so far as to say it's IMPERATIVE that I see this film! For the sake of my health. Wouldn't you agree...?"
Meiko stared flatly at her sister, arms crossed.
"You added a few points of proof since the last time you gave me that routine," she pointed out.
"...um... I did more research on the subject?" Eiko tried. "Oneechan, please please PLEASE can I go? I really wanna see this movie and it's the only time I've ever had a friend ask me to see a movie and I really wanna go please please please—"
"I'll let you go."
"I'll let you see the movie," Meiko repeated.
"...WAI! VICTOLY!" Eiko cheered, flashing a double V for Victoly.
"But you're going with a chaperone."
The negotiation complete, Meiko sat back and thought fast. She couldn't go herself; she was in the middle of an investigation job for a client. But the others would be free. So, she could always send...
"Whoa!" Kensuke whispered out loud. "That was a really gory death just now! Yuck! Hey, what was that 'thud' noise?"
"Oh, that was just Mallory-kun whimpering and passing out behind us," Eiko replied. "More popcorn?"
...no. Instead, she'd send...
"...so you see, after they start kissing, the shirts come off and then it's the man's duty to fumble a bit at the bra clasp before the woman has to take care of it for him," Lorelei explained. "Check out the detail of how the latching mechanism works—"
"Uh, Lorelei-san, aren't we supposed to be two theaters to the left, seeing Muscles Man—"
"Quiet, kid, this is more educational for you. Hey, she's not wearing panties! Eiko, are you taking notes like I asked you to?
NO. Nooo. No. That left...
Meiko smiled quietly.
The male half of the Date with a capital D paced restlessly outside the multiplex, ignoring the long lines forming to get into the movie. He told her 7:30 so they could be seated early. She'd be here by 7:30. No need to worry, even if it was 7:29. No need to...
And there she was, strolling along the sidewalk by herself, looking bright and cheerful.
"Ken-kuuun!" Eiko called out, waving. "Sorry I'm 52 seconds early, but here I am! Is it time to go in yet?"
"Ah... Eiko!" Ken called back, after his mind tripped over the 'Ken-kun' tag. "Yeah, let's go! ...uh... mom told me Meiko was gonna send a chaperone..?"
"Oh, she's around," Eiko replied, walking up to the ticket booth with her date. "But don't worry, you won't see her. She's real sneaky like.... hi! We've got three passes reserved for Muscles Manslaughter vs. the Reality Pirates, under the name Kensuke. Thanks!"
Eiko pocketed one ticket in her overalls, gave the second to Kensuke, and threw the third up in the air. It did not come down.
The lovely couple walked up to the ticket-clipping guy, and into the theatre. Said ticket-clipping guy was surprised to see a third ticket, pre-clipped with a serrated military knife, already dropped into his bin by the time he looked down.
Despite the overwhelming number of people in queue to see the movie, Eiko and Kensuke had their own little private area. This was accomplished by his father buying up the ten surrounding seats, to provide a nice buffer zone around them. So, despite the shadowy figures of other movie goers... Eiko was having fun pretending they were the only people there.
Her fun level was full to bursting. Here she was at the movies with a friend! With someone who liked her and wanted to go places with her! With a bo... with a friend! With popcorn. And Krap Foods Chewy Things. And a real, honest-to-goodness 13-rated movie!
And with a chaperone, a fact which had not gone unnoticed despite Kisei going unnoticed...
On screen, Muscles Manslaughter, crack commando for RealWare's Special Reality Corps (available for reasonable rates for your internal uprising or government crackdown) was priming the ripcords on his twin repeating 'Fleshgrinder' bladed projectile launchers, while the renegade Open Engine-powered huts of the Reality Pirates popped up all over Urbana. He rocked the loading chambers of both guns, making a satisfying KUCHUNK sound as tiny nuggets of microfiber cutting death locked into place, ready to carve up some Open Reality Movement scum.
"I'm here to kick Խझஔ and take bubblegum, and I'm all out of babes!" he declared.
Kensuke cocked his head, rubbing at one ear. "Uh... what'd he just say?" he whispered to Eiko.
"I couldn't tell, it's like there was this little burst of noise..."
Unconcerned with the noise, Muscles Manslaughter strolled up to one of the buildings, and kicked in the door with a boot that two ordinary men could put both feet into. "EAT BLAZING MECHANICAL DEATH, you miserable, toesucking, open source ஙՁஇ!!"
A spent NoiseCap (available for reasonable rates from Duke's Munitions) dropped into Eiko's popcorn. Just the thing for precisely timed censoring of certain words that her sister didn't want her to hear.
And when the pirates began to experience the business end of the Fleshgrinders, a folding paper screen with a wooden frame dropped neatly into place in front of them, blocking the view completely. A small note was tacked to it with an (un)poisoned dart, reading 'forbidden' in kanji characters.
Eiko groaned, and sank in her seat. "Oneechaaan! This isn't fair... mou. How am I ever gonna be desensitized to violence if Kisei-san won't let me see any?... what're you giggling at?"
The boy tried to stifle his laugh, to avoid annoying the folks two seats off in three of the cardinal directions. "I just think it's kinda funny," he said. "She really went all out to keep you 'safe'. It's funny."
"...s'not that funny," Eiko said, pouting as the unseen carnage and screams flowed around the screen to her ears. Then considered it a bit. "...okay, it's a little funny..."
Once the fight was over, the screen was yanked back up into the air via invisible plastic wire normally used to garrote three-hundred-pound armed guards, and resumed watching the movie in peace.
Twenty minutes later, Eiko leaned forward to grab her Slushie, and found an arm draped around her shoulders when she leaned back.
"Uh... Kensuke?" she asked, stuck in place (and not because of the gummy floor).
"Is that your arm?"
"...I think so."
"Okay. Just checking."
"Right. Um, I—"
The screen dropped down again before they could see boobies, and the subject was forgotten. Even if Eiko did lean a little to her left after that. Towards Kensuke.
Stop #2 on the Dating Experience (not that it was a date, since he was just her friend) involved ice cream. Anything involving ice cream immediately got Eiko's full and undivided attention, causing her to forget the mild annoyance of an artificially watered-down action movie.
The dessert shop was conveniently located near the theater—just the thing for folks who hadn't gotten enough of overpriced sugar-gum-based beverages and artery-hardening popcorn. There was an all-night medical clinic four doors down from that—just the thing for folks who HAD gotten enough of overpriced sugar-gum-based beverages and artery-hardening popcorn.
Eiko's metabolism could burn sugar at a phenomenal rate, so ice cream was just the ticket for her after a full movie of other snacks. She sat at the cozy little padded booth, kicking her legs and waiting for Kensuke to return...
He slid into the booth next to her (rather than across from her), while carefully passing a triple-decker cone to her. "Strawberry, coffee, and Aquarius mint. With sprinkles," he announced. "Isn't that kind of a strange combination?"
"No stranger than your triple scoop of coffee, coffee and coffee," Eiko pointed out, balancing her cone with practiced ease and taking a few licks at it. "Mmm! Boy, I hope I can get to bed tonight; oneechan says I get a little hyper when I've had too much—"
A blur whisked past her eyes, and her cone was reduced to two scoops. A note fluttered to the table explaining in concise detail the merits of a balanced diet.
"Awwwww!" Eiko pouted. "No fair! ... but at least she didn't get my two favorite flavors! Um... can I propose a toast using ice cream cones, or do we need drinks for that?"
"Glasses are kinda like cones, I don't see why not," Kensuke decided. He raised his up, flexing the elbow in his sport coat. "What're we toasting to?"
"To.. to new friends!" Eiko decided, changing her mind. "And many days of having fun together from now on!"
"Hmm... all right! Sounds good here!"
The cones went 'crunch' softly—and Eiko was reduced to one scoop, the topmost one dropping neatly into her lap.
"WAH!" she panicked, jumping a bit and causing it to roll to the floor. "Nooo! Come back, coffee! I... um..."
When she looked up, she saw Kensuke rolling one of his three coffee scoops carefully on top of her cone.
"Uh, don't worry, I didn't lick it yet," he disclaimered. "And... this way we both have two scoops, so it adds up. Right?"
"...yeah, it does," Eiko agreed, smiling brightly. "Arigato, Ken-kun!"
The two shared a laugh, and got down to some serious dessert intake before anything else went splat. It was a bit messy, but there were napkins, and much fun was had by all. The third party even found herself chuckling quietly before realizing and stopping immediately.
They were still laughing as they walked down the street, towards the Noyori Docking Yard.
"...so when the CIO resigned, it set up a chain reaction that exposed the paper-shredding operations the accounting firm had set up," Kensuke continued. "And when the vice president in charge of talent acquisitions found the photo they had left in the Kensington file, he said, 'That's no incriminating evidence—that's my wife!'"
"Hee hee hee!" Eiko giggled (since even her uproariously frenzied laughter was cute in nature). "It's funny 'cause it's true!"
"Hey... you know, Important Court Drama: The Movie is premiering next week," Kensuke said, picking his spot to inject the question he'd been wanting to ask all night. "And, um, assuming you had enough fun tonight... do you wanna go to that movie too? I'd pay, of course."
"Are you KIDDING?!"
"Oh. Well, I mean, if you don't—"
"I'd love to go!" Eiko replied. "I mean... wow! Law is more fascinating than I thought, you know? And... and I did have a lot of fun tonight. Really a lot! And I wanna see you again. ...tomorrow, I mean. If you're free, so we can play. Okay?"
"Sure thing!" Kensuke said, cheering up after the wee moment of fear. "I think I can schedule it around my tutoring. Maybe we could see a different movie? Or just watch a video stream, or go out to eat dinner..? Um... what?"
Eiko had paused in her walking, to peer big-eyed at him. Up close. Too much so for comfort.
"Ken-kun... can I ask you a serious question?" she asked. "Maybe a grown-up one...?"
"Uh... yes?" he guessed. "I don't mind. Ask away."
"Was this a date?"
"D-Date?" he parroted, taking a step back. "Uh... did... you want it to be one?"
Eiko was the one to step back, then. Ball in her court, as she poked her index fingers together, looking down, all the standard signs of a shy young girl. "...I... I was hoping it was one," she told, truthfully. "Not at first, of course! But... I had a lot of fun, and it looked like a date, so that meant that I liked dating, and... I liked going on a date with you. So, it IS a date, right?"
"Y-yes! It's a date! ...I was kinda worried it wasn't one, myself. I mean, I'd never asked a girl out before, and I could've gotten it wrong. I didn't do enough research beforehand... I mean... ...uh, we're here."
"We're where?" Eiko asked, confused. "Somewhere specific in our relationship? Is this one of those baseball analogies Lorelei uses?"
"No, I mean we're at your house," he clarified, pointing to the big building neither of them had noticed they were standing in front of.
"Oh! Home! Right! So... I'll see you tomorrow, then?"
"I think you're supposed to kiss me goodnight before you go," Eiko said, felling the odd little *dokidoki* beating in her heart. "If you want to, of course! I'd be okay with not doing that... uh. Kisei-san, it's okay, right? I don't want you dropping Ken-kun with a tranq dart..."
A nervous pause transpired.
A tiny dart embedded in the wall next to the door, with a note attached. 'Acceptable'.
The note unfolded itself automatically, continuing with 'But no impropriety, young man'.
"I really can?" Kensuke asked aloud, to make sure... as he took a step closer. "I wouldn't mind... if you don't, of course... it's very reasonable to skip that step in the dating process since we're both kids and perhaps not emotionally ready for such a development in—"
She leaned forward and kissed him.
It wasn't the kind of kiss that could light Nippon ablaze. It was awkward and innocent... tight lips touching so lightly that the point of contact could possibly be measured at the molecular level. But at least in Eiko's mind, it was like a full 101-piece orchestra blazing into fugue of romantic music...
My first kiss, she thought to herself. It tastes like... grape?
That's when the portal of doom (aka 'the front door') swung open with great force.
Eiko's jaw sagged, on seeing the expression Meiko bore.
"...oh, ஙՁஇ," she whispered.
Both kids were pulled into the house by force, and the door slammed shut behind them.
The mood went from cutely romantic to parentally serious in 0.3 seconds.
Meiko, Lorelei, and Kensuke's parents were there, and none of them looked happy. Kensuke's skin drained of color; Eiko poked at the foyer carpeting with her sneaker, looking at the floor.
"Explain yourself, young man," his mother demanded in a 'I'm very disappointed in you' sort of way.
"I can explain, I can explain!" Kensuke blurted out. "It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time..! I'll never kiss another girl, I swear—"
"What?" his mother asked. "No, no! I meant about the money, Kensuke, the money! What did you do with it?! You are in SO much trouble, young man..."
"The evidence," Lorelei declared... holding up a sealed plastic baggie, containing a tiny purple wad of gummy ick. "I found it 'parked' underneath your father's workstation desk. The same workstation used to drain the family cash supply. Your flavor, I believe, Kensuke-san? I'm a passion fruit type, myself..."
"A quick fingerprint and DNA check proved you were using that workstation when you knew you didn't have permission... it would be best if you fess up now," Meiko suggested not unkindly. "Mirai Consulting has solved the case quite definitively, and you're the culprit. It might be easier on you to be honest about what you've done with the money."
"...Ken-kun..." Eiko whispered, a little scared...
...while the boy stepped forward, some strength coming to him as he did so.
"I was day trading on the Urbana Stock Market," he explained simply. "The sort of thing you two want me to do with my life, right? I'm supposed to be a great economist. So I figured I'd see if I was or not by trying to make money on the market, using everything that tutor drills me on each day. And I lost every en and point I tried to invest. I wasn't even trying to, it just happened because I wasn't any good at being my own stockbroker!"
"Kensuke, of course you weren't ready to trade!" his father exclaimed, feeling his ulcer churn inside. "After another ten or twenty years of training and apprenticeship, then you'll be ready to fill my shoes—"
"I don't WANT to fill your shoes, Dad!" the son barked back. "I want to be a lawyer! I'm not any good with big money, and I don't want to spend years getting good with it! I don't wanna be an adult who doesn't have any fun doing what I do, like you! I want to help defend the innocent and prosecute the guilty and make sure laws work for the people. I'm gonna be a lawyer, NOT an economist, and... and I'll do it myself if I have to, but I'm not studying finance anymore! You can't make me do something that's no fun!"
The kindly mother who had come to Mirai Consulting two days ago with a sweet smile and a soft voice was a red-faced fire breathing monster at that point. "Such impudence...! How dare you talk back to your parents? You're going to study finance, and that's fin—"
"He can study law."
It's a rule of the multiverse that when someone casually interrupts with surprising words, everybody has to turn and look at the source and shut up.
"I'll allow it," his father decided. "Clearly the boy is miserable learning finance. ...I see no reason for him to become something he hates. It'd be an uphill struggle for us and wouldn't help him one bit. He deserves to do something with his life that he enjoys... I would have wanted the same chance from my father. And that's final, honey."
"I.. I can really be a lawyer?" Kensuke asked, strength fading (as it was no longer needed). "Really?"
"That's... that's SO COOL!" Eiko cheered, giving Ken-kun a big hug. "VICTOLY for Ken-kun! Hip hip—"
"But he's grounded for the next three months," his father added.
"If you're going to be serious about being a lawyer, it means being responsible when you break a law," his father spoke gravely... some of the 'impending doom' returning to his voice. "And I specifically told you not to use my workstation, and you know that gambling the family fortune was obviously prohibited. You'll be home for three months... and that means no RealNet, no video streams aside from educational ones, and that especially means no... 'dates'. Now say goodbye, we're going home."
Eiko detangled herself from her would-be boyfriend, eyes wide with shock. "Grounded...? But.. but I just met him! It's not f—"
"Eiko... it's okay," Kensuke said... smiling a little to her. "It's only three months."
"But we could leave Nippon by then... and... and that's exactly 2.083333% of my lifespan to date! What'll I do until then?"
Kensuke turned to go, while his parents slipped on their coats. "You know what you'll do. And... we'll always have Manslaughter. Goodbye."
A quick peck to the cheek, and Kensuke was out of her life for not exactly forever, but close enough to lower her mood considerably. The closing of the door was unnecessarily quiet.
Lorelei rested a sympathetic hand on Eiko's shoulder.
"If you don't see him again, well, there'll be others, kid," she offered. "Besides, it's better to have loved and lost than to have loved and had the bastard stab you in the back by sleeping with another woman while you were working hard to put food on the table."
...but Eiko was smiling, despite the few tears in her eyes.
"It's okay, Lorelei-san," she said, brushing away from the hand on her shoulder. "I'll see him again. And... it was fun. It was fun! That's what matters; as long as I'm having fun, I'm still a kid! Oi, Meiko-oneechan... you should take Mallory-kun on a date, they're a lot of fun!"
Mallory peeked in from the hallway. "Uh, did someone call for me...?"
"No," Meiko replied swiftly, putting boldface emphasis on the N. "I'm going to my room to read. Excuse me."
And Eiko Mirai, twelve years young, couldn't help but giggle.
estate copyright 2003 stefan gagne)
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