It has been a bit since I last wrote you! I have been slightly homesick I am thinking, because I keep dreaming of green grass and blue skies (??) and trees and so on. Very happy places. Maybe I am not homeSICK since I do not feel sick, but home calls, yes? But work calls too, and I have work to do, so I will have to postpone a visit! You understand I hope.
Truthfully I haven't been too busy (beyond the normal chore stuff which I swear this house would fall apart if I was not doing it!) but all the people around me have been really really busy. So I'll talk about what they've been doing.
First of all we went to visit Lorelei's mother. They did not get along well, because Lorelei was not happy with the Tribal Alpha way of life (did you ever go there when you were travelling around? it was one huge game, apparently, but not like Ping Pong). I mostly stayed at home playing with Eiko and tidying up. Meiko was sitting around trying to figure out a good and peaceful solution to the problem, and she was really frustrated so I made her a cup of tea. She said she liked it VERY much, and that was pretty good to hear, since I know I'm only soso with tea and I was hoping I could do something to help her feel better. I did not think I could sell the 'bad guys' a recipe this time. You only get away with that kind of miracle once or twice!
But things worked out okay because Lorelei (and Kisei who acted a bit oddly but Meiko decided to let it go since things worked out okay) came up with some sort of plan with some people that made it so people didn't have to fight anymore. Her mother had some trouble accepting and we stayed two days so they could talk and folks could adjust and stuff and because they were still paying for our docking fees. Meiko was not happy that Lorelei did stuff on her own or that Kisei kind of sort of didn't quite act all loyal or something but you know what? I think she (Meiko) was just happy things were okay in the end. But we did not make any money since we did not technically take the job or did not do what was asked or something.
So while waiting for a job then Kisei resigned from her job. It was a great surprise to everybody, I tell you! She hid up in her room awhile and I tried to bring her dinner, but I guess she did not want to see anyone. Meiko was concerned and was going to try to talk her out of it but told me that "she had to be a professional" and that meant adhering to their contract which said Kisei could leave. I disagreed with that since they were friends (at least as close to friends as Kisei would get!) and friends don't let friends make mistakes and Meiko said I Did Not Understand How Things Worked In Reality and called me Houseboy again, so I backed off. So when Meiko decided we should give Kisei her stuff she left behind I volunteered to go and deliver it; I do not think Meiko wanted to go since she felt she had to respect Kisei's privacy even if she was worried. Meiko worries a lot but doesn't try to show it because she's the boss and the boss should be confident. It has taken me some time to figure it out (and Lorelei nudged me more than once I can tell you!) but I think that is how it is. I showed up in time because Kisei almost had an accident, and I gave her back her stuff and her book of poetry which I thought was really good and I think it cheered her up some, because she came back! and that was that. I think kisei is smiling a little more now but it is hard to tell because you have to catch it out of the corner of your eye.
And we finally got a job! which is good because money is running low, really low because work is hard to find in a career like ours. A couple here in Nippon lost some money and Meiko knows how to find money so she took the job. But the neat thing was that they had a little boy who was Eiko's age and they played and got along great, which is good because despite throwing a terrific party (she did not suspect the surprise at all!!) I am not sure she was having a good day. But she sure was smiling after! And that made Meiko smile. Even if Meiko got a little nervous when it turned out they wanted to go on a Date. I would have chaperoned but Meiko thought Kisei would be better for some reason so I stayed home. Unfortunately when they came back it turned out that the boy had lost the money so he was grounded, and that is sad for Eiko but she seems happy, so whatever works! I know I would be sad if separated from someone I really liked, but maybe it is one of those deep things.
But now we are again between jobs and that is bad, because as I said the money is low. I am sorry I do not have any money to send home this week because I decided to tell Meiko I would forgo my pay so we would be better off. What do I use it for, anyway? I do not shop any! I could finish a few of my collections (they are gathering dust in the closet; I guess now that I am out and about I do not feel that manic urge to gather multiversal stuff! I am in the multiverse so why get stuff? Right) but it would be better to keep the money in the house and I think Meiko was relieved what I did this although she was in Boss Mode and tries to be kinda straightforward and pro in that type so she just gave me a brief thankyou.
I am settling in very well here. I remember I was in fairly cool control of me back home because well it was home and I was used to home, you know? Nothing surprising or strange or scary. But here it was surprising and strange and scary and all three meant I was kind of jumpy! but now I am adjusting and this place is home too, I think. The people are great and I am good friends with them all and Meiko is really terrific. Really terrific. It is sometimes hard to read her for reasons I have mentioned above but I do my best because I like it when she smiles and I know even if I cannot do a whole lot beyond cooking and cleaning and kicking the engine when it crashes (funny it has only crashed once since I got here) I do what I can and I'm glad when I can help her.
This has been a very long letter!! and I will sign off now because it is late. I got your letter last when you were talking about Nipponese pop music mother really liked (n-pop! n-pop! Eiko educated me there) and I am thinking of sampling some on this workstation so I can get at my roots, you know? I am certain I would like it even if I am not your biological son but we have talked about that already, so you know what time it is, yo. (that is slang! Eiko educated me there too)
Your son Mallory!
Keying in the Send-Mail command sequence (because real engineers never touch the mouse), Mallory zipped his letter to home along.
He leaned back in the workstation chair, rubbing at his eyes. It had been a long day of doldrums... a nice, lengthy letter to write was a good way to break the tedium. But now he had a few minutes before his usual bedtime, and nothing to do... nothing that could fit into a few minutes...
"Huh?" he asked, leaning back more to glance over his shoulder (and almost toppling backwards in the process) "Meiko? What're you doing up, isn't it kinda late?"
"I was just going through the want ads upstairs, trying to find a possible client," she explained, tilting her head left to unkink her neck. "Do we have any tea prepped? Just a cup before I get some sleep. Or if we don't have any, I guess water'll do—"
"No no, I can make some tea," Mallory said, turning around in his chair... then turning back again. "Uh, I'll be with you in a second, just wanna take care of something..."
Meiko gave a tired little grunt of acknowledgement, and shuffled off to the darkened kitchen... while Mallory pulled up the RealNet MusicShare program Eiko had taught him to use earlier.
He tabbed over to the genre selection box for N-Pop... and close to twenty thousand song titles in a bizarre mix of his normal tongue and Nihongo zipped by on screen. It was a blur of funny little scribble-characters and poorly translated words like 'LORVE' and 'HART' and 'COOLLE!'. No bands he recognized, no titles that caught his eye... but that was to be expected, since he'd never heard any N-Pop before.
Figuring it couldn't hurt to have plenty to listen to, he picked Select All, then Download. Then turned off the monitor and went to fix Meiko a cup of tea.
If the monitor still had power, two windows would be visible. One was titled 'File Download Progress'. The second was titled 'Digital Rights Management Royalty Fees for Music Rental'. Both had started at zero. And both were slowly but steadily growing larger...
The concept was so effective that Meiko had a hard time believing that Mallory thought it up. Of course, it was simple yet effective, which took it down enough pegs to put it at a reasonable level for the boy.
'Since we've been sort of disjointed lately, what with Kisei leaving for a while and Lorelei having her family problems and Eiko being lonely without her new friend,' the justification went, 'Let's all do something together for a change!'
Meiko had started to explain that odds were Kisei would want to stay in her room and Lorelei probably wouldn't want to hamper her daily night life when Kisei popped out of nowhere to agree with Mallory's sentiment and Lorelei announced she was bored of one night stands for a while and Eiko promptly suggested the group activity to undertake... thus, the outing.
"Eiko, you know that real courtrooms aren't like that, right?" Meiko asked, trying to make sure the younger Mirai sister hadn't been skewed by the farce they just witnessed.
"Oh, I know," Eiko explained, skipping along the sidewalks of Edo while being careful not to step on any cracks. "Kensuke told me all about how courts work and stuff. But Important Court Drama: The Movie was really, really cool! Ne, Lorelei, didn't you think the speedboat chase with the guy in the bear costume was neat?"
Lorelei gave a shrug, nonplussed about the whole affair. "I don't see the point of high-speed motorized vehicles, myself. It's not like there's any reality out there big enough to need one to go that fast. I guess it's just a male compensation thing... speaking of which, I thought the love scene with the prosecutor and the defendant was pretty sweet."
"The one Meiko was covering your eyes for."
"Ewww, the one with all the gross wet noises and sticky sounds?" Eiko said, with a cute pout of distaste. "I wouldn't have watched that anyway... how about you, Mallory-oniichan?"
Mallory, who had been watching for police out of the corner if his eye ever since being subjected to a plot about someone being given the death penalty for jaywalking, nearly jumped out of three fourths of his skin when addressed. "Waah?! Ah... yeah, it was... gripping! I mean, wow... justice back home is nowhere NEAR as complicated as that! Of course, we have to deal with the Village Council being jerks, but... uh. Well, it's different, is all. Kisei? What did you think..?"
Lorelei gave a little chuckle. "Probably not enough assassinations, right, Kiss—"
"The framing device of the Dutch Tilt was overused, turning the shot composition into a flawed work of excess," Kisei smoothly replied. "I found the fluttering paper metaphor to be underutilized by comparison—the visual imagery of the paperwork flowing out of the fifth-story office window with the soft music reminded me a great deal of the sakura blossoms in the spring, and thus evoked an image of beauty and serenity amidst an urban wasteland. However, this one trait was not enough to salvage a script which utilized cliché like a fifty-pound sledge and stereotypes as a tool for plotline simplification."
Mallory was too busy staring to avoid jaywalking, but his instincts jerked him back before he could commit what was supposedly a capital crime. The others had similar reactions.
...to which Kisei cleared her throat politely, and looked aside in embarrassment so mild that it was nearly unreadable. "I... have been attempting to regain my appreciation for the arts," she explained quietly. "My apologies if my assessment is overly complicated..."
"It's... it's really great, Kisei!" Mallory spoke up with, wanting to be encouraging. "I mean, not that I really understood a lot of it, but you put a lot of thought into it and that's great, and... uh... stuff! Yes!"
"I too would say... stuff, yes," Lorelei spoke, possibly the most confused one of the group. "You okay there, Kisei? Not running a fever or anything?"
"I am in adequate health, considering I have been sitting in an uncomfortable seat in an unsanitary theater for the last two hours," the assassin replied, shifting back to her usual flat tone.
Meiko added a little spring to her step. Just a little. "I hear you, Kisei. If we could afford the digital rights rental fees to watch it at home, we'd watch movies that way instead. We can barely afford the RealNet access we already have... public theaters will have to do. ...I think we should go see a movie again soon. This was a good team-building exercise."
"It was fun, too!" Eiko noted. "Fun fun fun fun fun! And... anooo... oneechan?"
"Where's our home?"
The five residents of the House found themselves staring at an empty docking space, where the House used to be.
Empty, save for the tiny red paper reading: IMPOUNDED.
Fun and games were officially over. It was now Panic Time.
Of course, for Meiko, panic had to be undertaken in an orderly and professional manner. She did not pace in circles, pull at her hair, or any of the usual activities associated with a state of mind-numbing stress. A loud voice, however, was a component in her modification to the process. Particularly when she found out exactly why the House was impounded.
"EIGHTEEN... THOUSAND... seven hundred... and thirty-four N-Pop songs?!" Meiko repeated, staring at Ryo's personal RealNet Workstation screen in horror.
"Uh... well, I wasn't sure which ones I'd like," Mallory lamely defended. "So I figured I'd just download them all..."
Now would be a good time to describe how the rest of the gang was dealing with panic.
"You know, I'm a heavy media downloader and even I have never racked up this much of a bill," Ryo was calmly stating, reading the numbers over and over to himself. "No wonder they impounded the house. After the first one thousand downloads, the rights fees drained the House points account, and they didn't have a choice but to impound the most expensive property in your estate. Which was your estate. But that's not the most amazing part!"
"What... part... is more amazing?" Meiko asked, looming with Evil Death over the oblivious geek.
"According to my NetWatchdog sniffer program I got off an Open Source Movement node, your workstation's not done downloading," Ryo explained. "So while the house is sitting in the impound lot it's racking up even MORE debt. We can't get in through the onsen, they were smart enough to turn off the door. If you don't get it out of hock and turn off the workstation before... let's see... five in the morning, you'll get a six-figure negative number on your account. Wow, when you guys get in trouble, you don't... err... kid around...? Meiko? Meiko, put down the chair, please..."
"H-Hold it, hold it!" Mallory interjected, despite the immediate threat to his person this spawned. "Wait, we can deal with this! All we need to do is get a job! We're a troubleshooting firm, right? We get a job that pays... uh... LOTS of money and can be finished by tomorrow, and then we can pay off the debt and we're back in black and Bob's your uncle while pulling the other one which has bells on! ...right? A job? That'll work, right, Meiko?"
"A... job," Meiko repeated, slowly lowering the chair, but still seething internally. "Mallory. I've been looking for a job for DAYS. There are none available right now. The chances of finding one which can pay that much in that little time without dipping into the dark side of the law is nil to none."
"Look, there's really no need for hassle here, guys," Ryo assured, now that Mallory had volunteered to absorb her wrath. "I told you earlier, this is chump change for Noyori Labs. I can pay—"
Meiko let the chair drop.
"No," she replied.
"Meiko, I'm just saying—"
Ryo buckled like a belt under the firm glare of Meiko. With a sigh, he let his shoulders sag, and admitted to the second option.
"...then you'll need a job," he agreed. "Mallory's right. It's the only way. My first suggestion would be me paying you to do something like stuff promotional envelopes for an hour, but—no, Meiko, I'm not suggesting that, be cool. ...I do know of someone who needs workers tonight. And will pay a lot. And yes, it's legal. But I told him you guys would never go for it."
"Arrange a meeting, Ryo. I'll decide what we go for and don't go for," Meiko said, assuming her full Boss Voice. "I am willing to relax my standards a bit during times of fiscal crisis. A. Bit. Call your friend and Eiko and I will meet with him here at the lab. If you'll excuse me... I'm going to go freshen up. Excuse me."
She marched purposefully out of the lab at high speed, before anything else could be said. The door shut behind her hard enough to knock the crushed velvet painting of a penguin off Ryo's wall.
Lorelei groaned, and rolled her eyes Ryo-wards. "You really shoulda known better than that, Ryo..."
"I know, I know..." Ryo replied, shrinking into his lab coat a bit. "I just figured... worth a try, yeah? Hmm. Confused, Mallory?"
"Uh, a little," Mallory admitted. "But just a little. I think... Meiko doesn't like charity, I mean. That's why she wouldn't take money from you. It's the work ethic thing, right?"
"Sort of," Ryo quasi-confirmed. "The girls here know, but you're new with the troupe... considering the cash flow that's usually not going into that House, didn't you ever wonder how it is Meiko bought such an expensive thing? A fully equipped building with a Reality Engine for Mobiles isn't cheap..."
"You loaned her money for it?"
"Start-up fees," Ryo fully-confirmed. "Both of us wanted to make it on our own. Orphans don't have much in life beyond what they can make for themselves. I was older, so I got the head start... and I gave her a leg up when she decided what she wanted to do. But that's the only time she's ever accepted money from me, and since she hasn't been able to pay it back yet, that just doubles the problem."
"Oneechan's being a baka," Eiko retorted, sulking in a beanbag (as her sugar high had worn off, and was now in crash mode). "Ryo's almost family. There's no reason to not accept the money! And I don't see what kind of job we can do that'll pay that much that soon, unless it's something naughty!"
"Eiko's got a point," Lorelei agreed. "Mind filling us in on what the job is, Ryo? So we know if we have to head for the hills before Meiko finds out...?"
The night-time streets of Edo hold a very special promise.
They glow like gems, neon forests of flash and sparkle. Holograms float in the air, enticing images of youth, wealth, love, power, fun... the cries of traditional barkers echo the same message. Come inside, come inside. We can give you what you think you're looking for. It's a long road between the corporate monoliths of the business district and the quiet, sleepy apartment buildings of the residential district... why not take a short stopover in between? Something to take the edge off another soul-grinding day of work? Something to recapture some magic you thought you lost long ago, if only for a little while...?
Then a little while turns into minutes, turns into hours. Sucked into the web, fed a stream of things you think you want, money flowing from your scorecard like a waterfall to pay for the honor of this wonderful time... until you find yourself staggering back home, away from the trap, poorer and not much wiser from the experience.
They also have really great domestic beer.
"Domestic beer! Domestic sake!" Mallory cried out, banging a little mallet against a wooden drum as he shifted in his scratchy barker's robe uncomfortably. "Err... hot girls! Good times! You, sir, come inside for a bit? We just got a fresh supply of daiquiris from Aquarius, the best in the multiverse! No? Uh, okay then, bye."
The soft *click* of a stiletto heeled shoe on pavement signalled Lorelei's irritation. "Mallory... you don't go 'No? Okay then, bye' when they refuse. It's called the 'hard sell' for a reason—you've got to try harder to get them in here, or we'll never make the money back you lost."
"I'm new at this, okaaaaaaa..." he trailed off, remembering too late that he was trying to avoid looking at Lorelei. After all, she was dressed for the job—which meant wearing a tight red dress that was illegal in six realities, with full makeup and the best hairdo she could wrangle on short notice.
"You see, that's why we've got you out here playing barker instead of mixing drinks inside the cabaret," Lorelei explained, using one finger to tilt Mallory's chin upwards. "If YOU walked into a building loaded with pretty girls trying to seduce middle-aged men into buying expensive drinks, your brains would explode. Speaking of pretty girls, where's... ...good gravy, that CAN'T be..."
"Can't..?" Mallory asked, turning 180 and witnessing an entirely different vision of loveliness.
She had really gone all out... hair twisted up into an interesting bun that felt mature without being TOO mature, held in place with two long pins criss-crossed. A shawl was draped behind her shoulders, hooked around each arm—a gauzy olive green garment, more for decoration than warmth. The dress? Low-cut, but still modest, but still very assertive in the right areas. She wore flats for comfort, walking silently as she approached...
"Uh... I... errr..." someone other than Mallory (see: Lorelei) said for a change. "...where did you FIND that dress?"
"It was in storage at my family home," Kisei spoke, failing to twirl to show it off as such things were unimportant. "I requested Mellow Fellow's services to make a brief stop there and retrieve it. I am fortunate that it still fits me. ...Father believed in being prepared for any social occasion, hence the availability... why are you staring at me? Is the fashion style out of mode? Will I be unable to serve in my duties this evening due to aesthetic difficulties?"
"It's... it's pretty damn impressive, Kiss," Lorelei admitted, rubbing a hand behind her head in a very Mallory-esque fashion. (The real Mallory was too busy scraping the pavement with his jaw to comment.) "Okay, then... let's get to work. The goal here is to get passers-by to go into the place and buy drinks. I don't know how good you're gonna be at that, but—"
Kisei reached sideways, grasping a passing businessman by his necktie without a second glance. She pulled him close, glaring pure ice into his eyes...
"You will enter this establishment and purchase many expensive drinks," she ordered.
"yes'm," the man replied, before disappearing in a flash to go do as instructed.
"...interesting. I believe this job will be easier than I had anticipated," Kisei decided.
Meiko marched through the crowded main floor, trying to ignore the world around her in favor of the voices trickling into her ear via her microphone / headset.
"I don't care if we're running out of Benten, find more," she commanded, weaving around a group of drunken businessmen celebrating a successful corporate merger. "Go to a convenience store if you have to. We've got a group at table six that is going to run out in a few minutes, and that's the only brand they want.... yes, I know. I think we can afford it, with the money coming in... right. Get to it."
A flick of her thumb across her earlobe, and she switched channels.
"Onizuka? There's a pair of guys starting to get loud and rowdy at table seven," she said, standing on her toes to see over the crowd. "I don't like the looks of it. Keep watch over it and be ready to eject. Lorelei's busy working some poor slob at table two, or I'd have her handle it... good. Now—"
"One second," she spoke, holding up a finger to silence the man. "Now, I need you to keep an eye on table eight while you're at it; that guy is going past his limit and could get to be a problem. If you need another spotter, find Mallory; he should be inside, we've done enough barking and it's getting near midnight. Okay. Gotta talk to the boss, excuse me..."
Another flick, and her communicator shut down.
"What do you need, Nakago-san?" she asked.
"Nothing, nothing," the middle-aged businessman spoke, upbeat in tone compared to the panic he was experiencing when they first met. "Your team is doing quite well! I don't know where we'd be if you hadn't taken the job, what with key parts of my staff quitting earlier today... it would have been a disaster to have such an understaffed crew on the cabaret's first night!"
"Glad to be of service," she half-lied, adding a formal bow to punctuate it. "You're fortunate you still have your bouncer and bartenders; I don't think we could have covered all those bases..." ...even if that would have been preferable, she failed to add.
"You're doing more than enough, and I'll be happy to pay the money you need at closing time," Nakago-san said. "I felt I should take a moment to commend your work. I'll be in my office if needed."
"Hai, Nakago-san. Thank you," she replied, adding a second bow as the man walked off.
Meiko switched her staff communicator back on... and was thankful to hear no urgent chatter. A rare moment of peace during the busy opening night. She took a seat at the nearest unoccupied table, feet quite sore from walking around in her business best all night, and slipped off her shoes for the moment...
But she couldn't bring herself to really focus on WHERE she was, beyond sitting at a table and taking a break. The reality of it was just too disheartening.
Fortunately for her, a rare ray of light showed through the clouds in the form of Mallory.
"Uh, Meiko?" he said, likewise trying not to focus on the surroundings (for entirely different, male-oriented reasons). "We may have a bit of a problem... the guys Kisei's working on are buying drinks mostly because they're afraid of her."
"Whatever it takes to get the sales," Meiko replied, not caring.
"Well, I know that's the goal, I just figured maybe... uh... it wasn't what we were shooting for. I mean, it's a social club, right?"
"Gosh, that's a nice word for it. That's what you see?" Meiko replied, looking up and around. "I see a bunch of pathetic drunken businessmen, desperate for some kind of attention from anything female, drowning their sorrows in beer. I can't believe we had to take this job... and Eiko in this environment...!"
"Oh, I don't know, looks to me like she's doing fine," Mallory spoke, glancing around a crowd...
...to where Eiko was working the register, tallying bills.
"Okay, that'll be 78,000 en!" she replied, cheerful as can be.
Her customer, however, was not quite cheerful. "Whaaa..? But.. but it was just four drinks..!"
"One glass of Finest Super Proper Nipponese White Wine, one bottle of Old Grandfather's Venerable Whiskey, one Krap Foods, Inc. Twisted Bubblegum Surprise and a domestic beer," Eiko rattled off, running down the slip. "That totals up to 78,000 en. Payment, please!"
"That's ridiculous! I'm not paying—"
A dark shadow engulfed his cowering form.
"Is there a problem?" the softly feminine-garbed midnight assassin known as Kisei asked.
"noma’am," the customer replied, forking over many, many coins to the gleefully capitalistic child.
"...I think she's doing okay," Mallory spoke, turning back to Meiko. "She seems to be having a lot of fun! Maybe she doesn't get to keep the money, but handling it and counting it and taking care of it is right up her alley via the pig in the poke with new tricks!"
"My complaint isn't with her role in this, it's with... with THIS," Meiko clarified. "What kind of image does this present to Eiko about a woman's place in the world? That we should be dressing fancy and hanging on guys, trying to make them happy? Or we should let ourselves be pawed by pervert lushes?"
"That's kind of harsh, don't you think?"
"It's reality," Meiko spoke, slumping down in her chair.
"But it's... I mean... well, here," he said, grabbing her hand. "C'mon! I wanna show you something!"
Meiko barely had a moment to slip her shoes back on before being dragged away, through the throngs of the crowd, towards the stage...
...where Lorelei was belting out some N-pop song very, very badly with a young business intern in his twenties.
She wore his tie around her head like a bandanna, and was swaying to and fro with him, one arm around his shoulders. Every now and then they would completely bungle a word on the karaoke display screen—Lorelei due to not really speaking the language, the man due to being completely inebriated—and both would laugh their heads off, and stumble over syllables trying to catch up. The crowd let out a whoop of laughter each time, more the 'laughing with' rather than 'laughing at' sort.
"Okay, okay... look," Mallory insisted, stepping behind Meiko so she could see. "What do you see?"
"I see some drunk completely mangling 'Smile For the Future' by Ishi Kazuya," Meiko responded, truthfully. "And Lorelei playing along with him."
"Right, right, but the context is what you're missing," Mallory spoke, stepping back around her. "I've been running all over the place doing errands and mixing drinks and getting people to come in, so I've had a chance to really study this place—"
"I've been doing the same thing, Mallory."
"But have you been paying attention to the people?"
"Of course, I'm trying to spot potential trouble spots and—"
"No, no, no, the PEOPLE," Mallory insisted. "Like... that guy. I got him to come in after talking to him a minute about where he was going. He apparently got scolded at work for being late on a project, and was just gonna go home since he had nothing better to do. So I got Lorelei to bring him inside, and, well... she's been sticking by him most of the night, talking, exchanging jokes—"
"Yes, it's her job to seduce the soul-crushed business folk, Mallory. That's the whole point."
"But does he look soul-crushed now?" he asked, gesturing towards the ongoing horror on stage. "He looks a whole lot better now than when he came in, I can tell you. Maybe we're just trying to make money here, but... these people are here trying to lift their spirits. And that should be job number one! I think Lorelei actually understands that, even if she's been joking about squeezing guys for all they're worth tonight. I say, what good is a social club if it's not putting its heart in the right place? Otherwise, it'd be kind of an un-social club. An antisocial club? Uh, something like that..."
Meiko stared at him, unbelieving. "You can't be... no, wait, I almost forgot. I'm talking to Mallory Heisenberg. You ARE serious."
"Serious as serious does," Mallory spoke with confidence, crossing his arms in a very Meiko-like confident way.
"You know that the world doesn't always operate the way you'd like it to, yes? I doubt all the cabarets in Nippon are idealistic havens of cheesy positive vibes and friendship."
"Well... maybe not, no. But tonight, this one CAN be, right?" he asked. "I think having us here helps. Eiko's cheerful, I'm doing my best to really enjoy myself, Lorelei's in seventh heaven on cloud nine... maybe Kisei's having some trouble with the concept, but it's a start. So... uh... in a VERY roundabout way, I'm just saying, don't worry about Eiko. I think the environment's not all that bad for her."
Meiko's resolution backed up a few steps. "It's.. not THAT bad, no," she decided. "I mean... could be worse, right? Could be a strip club or an opium den or something—"
"That's the spirit!!" Mallory cheered, patting her on the shoulder. "So, in the spirit of team pride and the work ethic of our Nipponese roots—"
"Aren't you adopted?"
"—let's make tonight number 1 super special!" he finished, holding up a V for 'Victoly'.
"That's stupid," Meiko didn't say.
"You're scaring me," she also did not say.
Instead... much to her own surprise, she was laughing.
"Huh? What?" Mallory asked, wiggling his 'V' fingers. "Isn't that the right attitude? Should I—"
"It's fine, it's fine!" she insisted, trying to shake off her chuckles. "Jeez. Mallory, you are hands down the most naive, clueless... and you know... it's actually kind of—"
A squawk in her ear distracted her.
"...Kisei just dislocated someone's shoulder after being groped," she announced. "I think I better go deal with this..."
"Hai, hai," Mallory nihongoed. "And remember: lifting the human spirit is job number one!"
"Getting our House out of the clink is job number one," she corrected. "But... I'll see what I can do about that spirit raising thing while I'm at it. 'scuze."
As she walked off to deal with yet another in a series of tiny evening crises, she couldn't stop herself from smiling.
The last of the lot were out the door at 3am, smiles plastered across their woozy faces. Chairs were upturned, stacked neatly on tables. The music had long since quieted down, karaoke simmering away until its heat had dissipated.
At a lone table in the center of the club, Meiko sat with Nakago-san, collecting the pay. Enough en coins to exceed her carrying capacity were stacked up on the tablecloth, being shifted from piles into baggies.
"This really is a bit much, Nakago-san..." Meiko found herself saying. "I think we could get our House back without—"
"It's worth it, it's worth it. My business would have sunk if opening night crashed and burned," he replied. "And even beyond that... your staff did wonderfully. I was never expecting so much customer satisfaction! I'd say Heisenberg-san's cheer and your sister's delight were quite infectious. I even almost caught Onizuka-san smiling, and he hasn't done that since The Incident..."
An example of those 'cheesy positive vibes' Meiko had discussed earlier wandered / staggered up to the table, in the form of Lorelei and her singing partner.
"Heeeyyy," she wheezed, leaning heavily on him with him leaning on her and the two somehow forming a single center of gravity in the process. "I'm gonna... go... shomewhere else. With Ishida-kuuun. So. Don't expect me home. Right."
"Have fun, Lorelei, we're clear here," she spoke, dismissing with a wave.
Next up on the buddy-system parade: Eiko and Kisei, for similar reasons.
Kisei straightened up once in the immediate presence of her employer. "I..." she begun, before getting lost mentally for a moment. "I... believe I have ingested too many alcoholic beverages this evening. Eiko has volunteered to... something... escort. Yes, escort me home. Wait. We don't have a home. I am seeing a logic hole..."
"Ooof," Eiko whined, supporting a lot of Kisei's weight as she teetered to the side. "I'm gonna lead her back to Ryo-san's lab, oneechan. It'll be okay. Even drunk I bet she could beat ten guys with one arm tied behind her back! Come get us in the morning once you get the house back, okay?"
Taking a few coins from the stack, Meiko passed them to her younger sister. "Take a cab instead of walking, please," she requested. "In case Kisei falls asleep on her feet."
"Got it, oneechan! C'mon, Kisei-san, let's go."
"Please explain why there are four of you, Eiko Mirai..." Kisei mumbled, as the two shuffled out of the picture.
3:24am. Plenty of time, with plenty of money.
If stress was an unwelcome addition to Meiko's life, relief was a very welcome addition. The kind of sweet relief that comes from knowing that your problems are solved, and solved beyond the minimum of solvability. A weighty bag in her purse confirmed the future—the House would be safe, and they'd actually have a bit of profit from tonight's mayhem. Whatever anger and panic she felt earlier was almost a distant memory, sinking fast below the horizon as she left it behind...
Of course, relief can be just as much of a distraction as panic, which is why she didn't notice Mallory until she had walked past him.
He was busy mopping up a bit of the mess left behind by a particularly satisfied customer, who had chosen to return his beer on the sidewalk rather than take it home with him. The odor of the mess only struck Meiko at the moment she noticed he was doing this.
"Mallory, we're done," she reminded him. "You don't have to play wage slave anymore, you know..."
"I know," Mallory spoke, mopping away with abandon. "But I'd hate to leave a mess like this for Nakago-san's next wave of staff to deal with the next day..."
"Huh. I'd figured you went back to Ryo's, anyway..."
"What? No way, I'm going with you to get the House back," he explained, rinsing out the mop via a yank of his bucket's handle. "I mean... this is all my fault. If I went back to sleep while you're off dealing with the towing company, it'd be kinda selfish of me. ...ummmm..."
"I'm kinda surprised you're not, uh, more angry at me," he said, unsure if saying it was a good idea in the first place. "I mean, sure, you were pretty upset when you found out, but... and maybe it was just you focusing on work instead of on what happened, but... I mean, I'd understand if—"
"Whatever," Meiko repeated. "We came out of this better than we went into. And... I guess you wouldn't have known about the rights management fees, so I can hardly blame you. And besides, look at you now... you're mopping up the contents of... what is that, anyway, urine or vomit? I can't even tell."
"I think it's both..."
"Anyway, you're above and beyond the call of duty," Meiko continued, while keeping her eyes off the puddle of unidentifiable yuck. "Most guys I know would try to duck out of responsibility, avoid doing anything to correct matters. Go and sleep it off, like you said. Except you've been working your ass off all night, without losing your trademark smile. So... whatever. I don't feel angry. Do you think I should I still be angry?"
"Er, no? Yes? I don't know. I'm not exactly a good judge of these things..."
"Then I'll choose not to be angry," she decided. "I'm too tired to be angry, even if I wanted to be."
Thirty minutes later, they had settled affairs at the impound yard, and the house was towed back to its docking station.
Meiko slept on the living room couch throughout the entire process. 'I'll just lie down a minute to stretch my legs' was the last thing she said before she caved to exhaustion.
After retrieving Meiko's blanket from her cot upstairs, tucking her in, and sending Ryo a quick RealNet message to explain that they'd be at the House for the night, Mallory made himself a crude bed of pillows and went to sleep on the floor nearby.
It was a particular Tuesday (particularly the next week) when Mallory found himself in an unusual situation.
The day started out quite normally. They had just finished a job—a small one, needing only Lorelei and Kisei to leave the house for a while. The money wasn't great, but that plus the leftovers from Cabaret Night were enough to keep them comfortably in the black.
That morning, Meiko arrived for breakfast wearing black and not looking comfortable.
She looked decidedly out of place compared to the rest of the House occupants. Eiko was cheerfully downing a bowl of unsugared corn pops, wearing her favorite overalls; Lorelei was lounging in daily casuals, having her usual quickie of toast and coffee before running off to do whatever it is she did now and then when she wasn't sitting around watching flicks. Kisei simply read the newspaper in her usual uniform.
"That's a new look for you, isn't it?" Mallory asked, trying to sound chipper and encouraging since Meiko seemed to like compliments like that even if she tried not to show that she liked them.
Today it backfired. Not violently, but more like a firecracker that crackled wildly, only to go 'pff' at the end.
"It's visiting day," Meiko said simply, accepting her morning cup of coffee from him. "Eiko, did you forget again...?"
"Forg—oooh, umm... yeah, I did," Eiko admitted, looking a bit sheepish as she slid out of her chair. "I'll go change... unless we're going later in the day? I really would like to get in the morning business reports first, if that's okay with—"
"We always go in the morning, Eiko, you know that. Lorelei...?"
Lorelei peered over the top of her coffee cup... and despite sounding smooth and casual in her words, she held for a very non-smooth moment before speaking. "Can't. Prior engagements. You know how it is. But hey, it's okay, right, I mean—"
"It's okay, Lorelei," Meiko replied, reassuring. "I understand. Kisei?"
Kisei turned to the next page in her freshly printed RealWare Daily PrintNews. "I have prepared," she spoke quietly.
"All right, we'll go when Eiko gets back."
Both women looked up at Mallory. Not sharply, or even in surprise, they simply looked up.
"Who are you visiting?" he asked.
There was nothing gloomy about the location, other than the nature of what it was.
Otherwise, all signs would point to good tidings and cheer. The sky was a bright green, not a cloud in sight. The sun shone brightly, casting its predesignated rays down to allow for just the right amount of shadow and light. The temperature was a calm 24°C. Even the methodical brushing strokes of the caretaker, keeping walkways free of leaves, were gentle to the ear and nearly hypnotic...
Still, moods are infectious, and the stillness and chill of Meiko's mood infected Mallory with precision. He kept to the back of the small gathering, not saying a word, as Meiko talked with the gravestone marker.
"The guy behind me is Mallory," Meiko continued softly, despite her intended listener not being able to hear according to all conventional multiversal wisdom. "He's working for me now... and taking good care of us. You'd be happy to see how clean the house has been since he showed up, and yes, I'm eating right again. Money is still a problem, but I promised I'd make a good future for our family, and I'm certain I'll succeed. And... and what else, umm..."
Eiko rocked from foot to foot, uncomfortable in her formal clothes. "Oneechan..."
With a silent sigh, Meiko gave her younger sister a silent nod. "It's okay, Eiko. You can head home now if you want. But say a quick prayer for Mother and Father first."
The younger Mirai sister bowed her head towards the grave for a short while, saying nothing, then hurriedly moved off.
"I should be moving along as well," Kisei spoke, while planting a few incense sticks in a bowl at the grave. "I wish you well in your day of annual mourning, Meiko Mirai. I will be visiting my home as well, to pay respects to my father. I believe it to be fitting, as we are indirectly family... unless, of course, you have assignment that requires me to be on duty—"
"I wouldn't make you take an assignment today, Kisei. But thank you for the offer. I'll see you back at the house tonight."
And then there were two.
As was usually the case in situations like this, Mallory was the first to break the silence.
"If it's okay, uh... can I pay my respects too?" he asked. "I mean, I don't know a whole lot about Shinto yet, so I don't know if I'm allowed or if even asking would be some sort of offense—"
"I'm not very religious," Meiko replied, before Mallory started feeling perfunctory guilt. "And.. I wouldn't know if it was allowed or not. Or whatever. Do what you feel you have to do."
"Right, right. Ah... ahem," he began, with a clearing of the throat. "Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Mirai! ... no, too cheerful. Hello, Mirai-sans. Like Meiko said, I'm her new houseboy—"
"I think you count as a family friend now, Mallory. You don't have to call yourself houseboy here."
"—right right. New family friend. And... and like she said, I'm taking good care of them," he continued. "So you don't have to worry about anything, leave it to me! ... too cheerful, too cheerful... I, uh... I'm very happy to be helping out Meiko. And, um... I'm glad I could be here today to meet you, even if you can't hear me because you're dead. Except from what little I know about this stuff, you can hear, because we believe you can. I think. You know, my mother was Shinto too, and I think some of that rubbed off on Dad, because we visited her grave now and then too when most people don't bother since it's just a lump of rock over a corpse—"
"—aaah, which is to say, is what non-believers think, not like us!" Mallory corrected in a panic. "And, and—"
A hand rested on his shoulder.
"...sorry. I shouldn't have snapped," Meiko apologized, dropping her voice back to 'quiet'. "It's okay, you're new at this. And it's not like it matters, it's just an old tradition in Nippon... ...I don't know what to do here, either. Sometimes I wonder why I come out every year to 'talk' to them..."
Mallory turned to face her. "It's because their spirits are still with us, right..?"
"How should I know?" she spoke.. a tiny element of frustration with the world sneaking in as she did. "All I know is what I see. I'd LIKE to believe that they're at peace, and I can talk to them, but... I don't know. Do you know about Confusionism, Mallory?"
"Is that the religion with all the sayings they print on cookies and t-shirts and things?"
"No... it's actually a recent religion. Well, within the last few hundred years," Meiko explained... after spotting a nearby bench, and having a seat to rest her tired feet. "Very modern. It was trendy for a while because it explained the entire multiverse and everything in it in a way that made sense and defied the rational demand for 'proof'. Do you know why?"
"Because it said it was okay to be confused by everything?"
...Meiko stared at him. "You heard of it before?"
"Uh, no, but from the name, I mean... it just sort of popped into my head," he said, taking the seat next to her and leaning forward a bit, resting hands on knees. "Confusion. I get confused all the time by life outside my home reality. I've adjusted to a lot, but it's like I'll never stop learning... never run out of stuff to be confused by, too. So... that means that since I'll always be confused, like being confused about whether dead people can hear me, then it's okay to be confused."
"You SURE you never heard it before?"
"Positive! It's just something that clicks with a guy like me, I guess..."
"And a girl like me."
"Eh? But you're—"
"Shinto?" she filled in. "Mostly. I follow a few rites. I had a small shrine to my parents for a while, until a bad engine crash knocked stuff all over the house, and the candles started a fire... I didn't want to put the shrine back up after that. Not just because of the hazard, it just... I don't know how to feel about this stuff, Mallory. How to think about it. What any of it means! Sometimes I think maybe I'm a Confusionist at heart..."
"But you're always so confident," Mallory noted, getting confused himself. "Whenever we have a job to do, whenever anything goes wrong, you rise to the occasion and take control. Even if sometimes I can tell you're just faking it to not look bad—"
"What?!" Meiko replied, defenses rising. "What do you mean by that?"
"—I mean, not that you're not a cool customer or anything! I just... sometimes it looks like..."
He trailed off, as Meiko took a deep breath, forcing herself to calm. A gesture he'd seen many times in her previous.
"...I didn't think it was that obvious," she spoke soon after. "I do my best, and I want to be a responsible sort of leader for the company and... mother-figure for Eiko, I guess, sometimes. But sometimes... like today, for instance, I just don't know what to do. What I should be doing. Tradition says I should come out here, and visit my parents. I just don't know if it's actually comforting or not. Notice how Eiko took off as soon as she could?"
"Uh, I had noticed, yeah..."
"She never really knew Mother and Father. She was two when it happened; I was nine. So she grew up completely in that orphanage, and eventually forgot them... I was the only family she had. Eiko doesn't really feel one way or another about our parents... it's like they're storybook characters. One of these days, maybe I'll just let her stay home on visiting day. It's what she really wants to do. ...or is that right? Should I bring her here anyway? That's what I'm talking about, I just can't tell what I should do and what I shouldn't... am I making any sense here, Mallory?"
Meiko groaned. "Terrific. Almost making sense. Maybe this whole thing's a waste of time, I don't—"
"What does your heart say?"
"Um, that's what my dad always told me," Mallory continued. "Whenever I got really mixed up and I said something like 'What should I do?' he'd always say 'What does your heart say?'. Because usually it knows better. And when it's wrong, at least you can say... hey, I did what I felt was true to me, even if it was wrong. Right?"
"More farmboy philosophy," she commented dryly. "They fed you too much sugar over there, didn't they? 'What does your heart say?' I mean, it sounds like something printed on a greeting card—"
"But that doesn't make it wrong!" Mallory defended, getting to his feet... not an angry defense, but a passionate one. "Okay, yeah, it sounds like a cheesy line in a movie, but... that doesn't cancel it out. I've always done my best to follow my heart when I just can't think straight. You remember when you told me to stay outside and hold your purse while you went shopping for toys? Because you were so mad at me? My head told me to stay put and avoid a beating. But... I guess my heart said you needed someone. So I took option two, and... I mean, that day ended pretty well, right? So sometimes something cheesy really does work."
Since his target audience remained speechless, either waiting in anticipation or crunching that particular speech or both, he continued.
"Maybe Confusionism has it wrong," Mallory said. "Or wrong AND right. Because okay, some things in life you'll never know. We'll never know if there's a soul that you can talk to or anything like that. But standing around wildly wondering and being confused means you're not getting anywhere. So, just listen to your heart. It doesn't make sense but it does give you an answer that you can call yours, right? So... today. Visiting your parents, talking things over with them. What does your heart say about that?"
"How in Nippon do you expect me to listen to an organ in my chest? Or is the answer 'dokidoki'?"
"Meiko... work with me here. I'm serious."
"I don't KNOW what my heart says, okay?!" Meiko blurted, getting to her feet. "It's not something I routinely listen to! I'm a sensible person. A sensible person shouldn't care about two lumps of rotting organic matter in the ground! This is reality, okay? Not your idealistic fantasy land! And just because every time I remember them I remember how much they loved me and I just want to feel that again—"
"Right there. You did it!" Mallory poke... poking her lightly in the chest for emphasis. "Listened to your heart. That's the first time you really mentioned how you feel about this. That's what I'm talking about. If that's why you come out here each year, then... if it feels good... it does feel good, right?"
Meiko nearly stumbled backwards into the bench, her world taking a minor tumble. "What..? I... I guess, I mean... I do try to think about them each year when I come out here..."
"And remembering them makes you feel good," Mallory completed. "So under all the confusion and sensible stuff, you've got your answer. Sounds like a good one to me! I mean... I feel the same way. When I go visit my mother. I never knew her, but I know her from my father's words, and... those stories feel good to remember. So go with that. Don't think too hard about it and just go with your heart. ...okay? Forget about ghosts and organs and all that and just go with it."
She stood for a long time on top of that idea. Mallory let her think about it, knowing that he took awhile to really swallow a big idea himself.
The sweeping of leaves and brooms in the distance kept the scene from absolute silence. Her next words were almost totally unrelated.
"I didn't think a guy like you existed in reality, Mallory."
"I like to make up my own reality as I go along," Mallory returned, with a smile. He stepped around her, to resume his seat on the bench. "So... while you're here, you wanna talk about your parents? Maybe some stories? Stories always help me remember people, since my memory's usually like a cheese grater..."
With a tiny laugh, Meiko joined him on the bench. And began to remember. Whenever she felt the need to cry, Mallory provided a kitchen napkin from a stash he'd pocketed on his way out the door that morning.
On the first buzzing of her alarm clock, Meiko woke.
The morning routine was routine by this point... yawn, sit up, stretch a bit, check F.P. for today's schedule, get dressed, go downstairs, eat breakfast lovingly prepared by Mallory, and then... whatever the day held for her, really. Whatever F.P. listed.
Yawn. Covered, a nice deep yawn belying her exhaustion from staying up all night trying to find jobs on RealNet.
Sit up. Simple enough, despite being groggy.
Stretch a bit. She didn't do any specific yoga-stretching or other fancy stuff, just the basic arms-at-various-angles kind of stretching. She reached for the closed pocket organizer by her futon next.
That morning, in between getting dressed and checking F.P. was a period of emotional befuddlement, as in bright glowing letters on the tiny organizer's screen, the following words taunted her:
8:00 pm. Dinner with Mallory Heisenberg at Ma
Maison in Jukensu Prefecture
(Future Perfect has auto-reserved a table for two for your convenience.)
9:00 pm. Movies with Mallory Heisenberg. Showing:
"Tsukiakari to Sakura."
(Future Perfect has auto-purchased two tickets for your convenience.)
11:00 pm. Special Midnight Grand Opening of the Edo
(Future Perfect has auto-obtained event passes for your convenience.)
12:00 am. Kiss Mallory Heisenberg.
1:00 am. Sleep.
Sometimes, F.P. could be annoyingly specific. Or frighteningly so. Or reassuringly so, which is half the reason she owned it—something to ease her worries about her future... even if it compounded her worries from time to time, particularly when it completely failed to list something important, or only vaguely listed something. Such as:
1:16 pm. Hire Mallory Heisenberg, your true love.
Which did appear on her screen that fateful day for four whole seconds before she snapped it shut and hired him on the spot.
Exactly how F.P. worked its wonders was a mystery to her... and a mystery to its creator, as well.
"I'm not really sure why it works, it just does," Ryo had explained to her two years ago, when he handed her the red prototype, companion to his own blue prototype and a green one he'd intended for someone else. "I was just tinkering around with some loose ideas one day, some open source reality engine technology, some blood samples I'd gotten off a guy who wandered into my lab one day demanding weird tests... you know, sequenced harmonics in liquid generating reality waves... and lo and behold, I got something that almost but not quite totally predicts the future. Who knew? Not me."
"Does this thing really predict the future?" Meiko had asked, unsure of the plastic widget.
Ryo did his characteristic hand-rubbing-behind-the-head thing. "I'm not really sure," he admitted. "Sometimes I can totally defy it, like the day it told me to eat tuna fish for lunch. Sometimes when I try, the same thing happens anyway. Usually it schedules things I was going to do anyway, or presents me with neat ideas I wouldn't have thought of but have no problem going along with. So... think of it as a general guideline for the future. Maybe a self-fulfilling prophecy? Does it forge its own reality around you? Who knows? It's way too weird to mass-produce commercially, but since I know you worry about the future, I thought you'd like one..."
She'd been skeptical at first... but came to lean on it for support more and more. It was a way of knowing what lay ahead, so she didn't have to worry. She could see the bright future she wanted for herself, and F.P. laid out the steps to get there. It hadn't really let her down yet, maybe a few wobbly bits and inconsistencies, but never anything disastrous...
...and it had predicted Mallory.
Not that she believed in something as corny as 'true love'.
...and it had predicted what added up to a romantic evening with him.
She could defy it. It's usually possible to do so. Even if usually she just went along with it...
And if she did manage to defy her fate, it would mean F.P. was wrong about other things. Which was both reassuring and oddly frightening to her.
But in the end, the routine dominated once more. She'd checked F.P. She got dressed, went downstairs, ate her breakfast, and informed Mallory that they were eating out that night. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing out of her control.
"Huh? Why do you want to go out to eat? Isn't that really
"I think it'd be a nice change of pace. You've been cooking for us for a long time now, it's high time someone else cooked for you. And believe me, you don't want to taste MY cooking."
"I guess we can, if you like... what sort of place is it? Is it formal? I don't have anything to wear..."
"So go buy something, okay? Unless you really don't wanna go—"
"No no, I do! It'll be fun! Okay... umm... maybe I can get Lorelei to help me go shopping, she knows more about—"
"Not her. Please. I fear what she might do with you as her fashion template."
"You're taking him out on a DATE? Meiko, you temptress, you!"
"I didn't say it was a date..."
"Riiight. Well! I can say I'm happy all my hard work has paid off. Although... can't say you sound real enthusiastic."
"It's just dinner and a movie, Lorelei, it's not some grand gala event."
"So why not skip it?"
"F.P. already made reservations..."
"And waste them?"
"Are you going just because it's easy, or because you want to go? Or is it both, since you wanted to but couldn't find an easy excuse?"
"Why me, mon? I mean, I don't know ANYTHING 'bout formal
"I know, but Lorelei would probably have me wearing something... uh... unsuitable, Kisei doesn't know anything about this stuff but she did have a really nice dress on the other day, Eiko would probably scam me out of more money than I can really pay, and... and you're one of the only friends I have outside of the House. And you're a guy, so you know guy stuff, right?"
"Mallory, mon, I don't know nothin' 'bout the threads of Babylonia but what I see on RealNet."
"Mellow-san, my other option is Duke, and he'd have me wear military fatigues to dinner. And I guess I could go home and ask Dad, but... just... it doesn't feel right..."
"You don' wanna go home?"
"I want to go home at a special time, you know? For something more meaningful than asking 'Dad, I have no fashion sense, can you help me?'. That'd just be weird. I was saving up my first visit for something better than this..."
"All right, well... hey, who'm I to turn down a friend in need? The Fellow be takin' you around shopping Mellow Style, then! If I can't find the threads 'o Babylonia, maybe I can get you some nice I's Lander stylin' goin' on..."
"I wish you well in your dating rituals tonight, Meiko
Mirai. I would suggest a more formal matchmaking ceremony or perhaps a tea
ceremony, but I do not believe Mallory Heisenberg would have the required
composure for either. Regardless, you have my best wishes on the evening of
your commitment and I have faith in your union's strength."
"Who, me? Mallory, have you seen my wardrobe? I hang out in
a lab coat all day. What do I know about formal wear?"
"Ryo, you're my only hope! You should have seen the getup Mellow Fellow picked out for me... well... actually, I have it in this bag here, take a look."
"AUGH! My eyes, they burn like fire! Close the bag, close it..."
"I didn't want him to feel bad, so I just sort of nodded and smiled a lot... and figured you're my last chance. Ryo-san, I beg you, help me! This is important to me, I don't want to screw things up!"
"Okay, okay! No need to panic, Mallory. It's just a date, we can handle this. ...Mallory?"
"...dd... d... daaaa...?"
"She didn't say it was a date? It sure sounds like one. What did you think it was, then? Mal...? Okay, okay, breathe into the bag. Deep breaths. One, two..."
"WAAAAAI! Oneechan's on a da-ate! Oneechan's on a
"Eiko, it's NOT like that..!"
"Then why are you wearing your best dress, hmmmmm? And that purse, you only take that out for speeeecial occasions... it's so terrific, you're really gonna kiss your true love tonight!"
"I peeked at your organizer again. Teehee!"
"EIKO! I told you not to do that!"
"So are you gonna do it? Kiss him at midnight? Oh, a fated kiss, a dramatic thing, so beautiful and lovely...!"
"I... I don't know. It's just a stupid prediction. You know F.P. can be sometimes be pretty wild..."
"But you still could! It doesn't matter if F.P. really predicted it or not, or if it's destiny or not, you COULD kiss him if you want to anyway. Like if you never read your organizer and just decided to do it, you'd never know if it was a fortune telling or not! Soooo... do you want to, huh, do you do you do you huh?"
As circumstances would have it, the traditional method of the man arriving at the door of the woman to escort her out for their lovely evening instantiated that night. (Mostly because it took Ryo a few hours of shopping and Mallory quite a bit of time to get changed into his new clothes.)
"Do you have ANY idea what time it is? We're going to be uhhhhhhhhh..." Meiko started and trailed off, after opening the door.
If she knew that what Mellow Fellow picked out was even worse, perhaps it would've been a relief. As is, there was no denying it... Mallory Heisenberg was sporting a fine light blue tuxedo tonight, suitable for either a lounge singer or a game show host. It was the kind of outfit that clothing designers create just for snicker value when they see it modelled on a live body.
"Uh, did I get the tie wrong?" he asked, fitting with the bow tie and the slightly too tight collar. "Ryo didn't know if ties had sizes or not so we just grabbed one at random, and uhhhhhhhhhhh..."
This time, the awkward staring moment had turned 180°, as Mallory took in the vision of composed beauty that was Meiko Mirai. A simple black dress that fit her quite well, with a white coat to compliment the chilly evening weather... and the purse which cost quite of a bit of her Quarterly fashion budget, a simple design that somehow fit into any ensemble with 100% perfection. The earrings and makeup were nice touches as well.
So, one stared at the other in horror, the other at the other in shock, and it took a few moments to get everything settled.
"We... should be getting to dinner now, right?" Mallory spoke, breaking the silence. "It's almost eight..."
"Right. Right, dinner," she added, stepping out of the House. "Let's go."
Sushi. The very name evokes images of colorfully designed, artistic arrangements of gourmet dining. And massive amounts of money being poured down the drain.
Despite having a decidedly gaijin name, Ma Maison had built a reputation as one of the finest sushi-driven restaurants in all of Edo. It was nearly a lost art, the ability to arrange dead, raw fish in eye-pleasing, mouth-watering combinations... the fishing industries of Nippon were controlled by the same companies that released the engineered creatures into the 'oceans,' controlling breeding and dispersal to ensure a fine crop all year long. (Huge nets had to be erected near the fuzzy borders of the Reality Engine's sphere; otherwise, fish would swim off to what was presumably Nullspace.) Needless to say, all this science, all this skill and talent... it comes at a cost.
For a change, Meiko wasn't the one complaining about fiscal matters.
"It just seems kinda iffy," Mallory continued, tugging at the collar of his Blue-Sky-of-Death-colored tuxedo. He glanced around the restaurant, still overwhelmed with the elegance / expensivegance of it all. "I mean... I could have cooked us both dinner for a lot less than this costs..."
"Mallory, I'm not trying to be thrifty tonight, okay?" his apparent date responded, with mild frustration simmering over a low flame. "That's not the point here. We made good money with the last few quickie jobs, and that cabaret fling... so we don't have to worry about the occasional splurge. Just try to relax and enjoy it, okay? Take it from me, I've had sushi three times before, and it's something a chef like you will really get a kick out of."
"Oh, I know, I've been researching traditional Nipponese recipes. Don't get me wrong, I'm looking forward to it! I guess... I'm just surprised, is all. I didn't think you'd want to splurge, even if... I mean, uh, to put it another way, aren't you usually businesslike and stuff? Being my boss, and all, it doesn't seem like a thing you'd do to waste money like this—"
"Hey, I'm not your boss tonight! And I'm not ALWAYS businesslike, I just... I've had to be that way a lot lately," she half lied. "But it doesn't mean it's the only thing I know. I'm a normal person too! I've got wants and needs and desires and all that, and... and tonight's different. Period. Got it?"
"Yes MEIKO," she corrected... silently cursing his stubbornness and her own for shaping him this way. "...this is the wrong foot to start off on. Let's forget the whole 'boss lady' and 'farmboy' thing, and just be Meiko and Mallory. I KNOW it's possible..."
"Meiko and Mallory..." he repeated, since his brain worked better when it hooked up with his mouth.
"Right. That's all I want. Don't worry about offending me. Don't worry about pleasing me. Just don't worry at ALL. ...I blame myself."
"Err, blame? For what?"
"For not listening to Lorelei sooner, and trying to keep things safe for too damn long..." she admitted, despite how unusual it felt to be saying that aloud.
"Forget it. I think I'm babbling at this point. Just be yourself, okay? And forget about how much the chow is costing your boss."
The idea was studied from a few more angles, before Mallory nodded his head once, swallowing it like a fine piece of succulent foodstuff.
"I'll be right back," he decided, nudging his chair out, and getting to his feet.
"Bathroom? The sushi will be here in a few minutes, so don't take too long," she warned.
While he was gone, Meiko busied herself with her organizer, and kicked herself repeatedly in a mental fashion.
She knew it was possible. Whatever wall she had deliberately built up between them—the glorious wall of professional detachment, that wall had fallen flat like a bad cardboard cut-out now and then. Such as when he was helping her buy a toy for Eiko, when he was explaining his Philosophy of Cabarets, and on visiting day...
But all those times had been spontaneous. Strange circumstances which plied themselves to moments where it was possible to be something other than the wacky, clumsy farmboy and his domineering cold boss. Maybe tonight was a mistake... had she read far more assurance into F.P.'s prediction than was really there? Trying to force things, grabbing for something they'd only stumbled over by accident before...
Meiko didn't consider herself an expert on relationships, having never really had one before. (Ryo didn't count. Probably.) Still, even she could see that a couple that only gets those nice tender moments that make it all worthwhile when the stars align in funny combinations was not a couple destined for the kind of romance you only read about in cheap eBooks.
Maybe F.P. was wrong. Maybe Lorelei's crazed romantic scheming was misplaced. Maybe she was better off being the boss, where things worked smoothly more often than not...
Interrupting her dire thoughts, the waiter arrived, with a full platter of sushi.
And with Mallory, who broke away from the water's side to resume his seat.
"Thanks, Tai," her date spoke, giving the waiter a thumbs up. "I'll take it from here..."
Meiko caught herself staring a bit, and dropped to a lower voice as the waiter departed. "You knew the waiter...?"
"Uh, not until tonight, no," he clarified. "But it turns out that like I was hoping, there was a Grünwaldian in the kitchen! We're in nearly every restaurant worth its salt, after all. So... he loaned me an apron, and I figured... it's me, you know? Gotta do what I'd do! What do you think?"
"The sushi, of course!" he spoke, doing the standard game show host sweeping arm gesture over a pile of fabulous prizes. "I've been studying, remember? We worked together on some recipes I was tinkering with over the last two weeks, and made a five-flavor sushi platter, Heisenberg Style! I call it: Homestyle Sushi!"
Meiko adjusted her stare to drop a few degrees, settling on the platter. There were indeed five columns of sushi rolls, each with its own color, each looking just as professionally arranged as she knew really good sushi should be...
"I better explain a bit about it before you dig in, 'cause it helps to eat it in the right order," Mallory continued, grabbing his chopsticks to use as a pointing device. "The pink rolls on the far left are the sweetest, liveliest ones, so you can either eat them first or later; sort of a desert. Next to it, the dark green ones, those are a bit cold right now and flat in taste... but if you eat them later on, after they've warmed up, I think you'll find a subtle flavor to them which is quite traditional and tasty."
"I see..." she prompted, pondering the platter. "And the bright red ones?"
"Oh, those are REALLY spicy, so you might want to avoid adding wasabi or anything. And they go best with lots of sake. Sort of a taste that cries out 'Eat me raw—!' Err, you okay? You're coughing..."
"Fine, fine! And... these last two ones...?"
"Those are my favorite," he noted, with a smile. "These brown ones, I added some light cinnamon and coffee flavor... a more mature taste, you know? But once you get past that outer layer with the spices, it has a tender, sweet core that just melts in your mouth, and makes you feel better about things. And the ones next to those... well... they're a weaker taste, and a bit more watery, I'll admit. But that's okay, because it means that it'll get along with the other flavors just fine, and really enhance them as a result. So it's good to eat one of those with any of the others. ...umm... you got all that? I know I should've written up a chart or something, but I was expecting to spring this on you as a surprise one night when I could actually afford—"
"You know what you've done here, right?" Meiko asked... a tiny smile aimed in his direction. "You just made a metaphorical platter of sushi that represents everybody in the House."
"I did?" he asked, surprised. "That's odd... I was shooting for a direct sort of representation, not a metaphorical one... or is that what you meant? I forget, what's the difference between the two? I mean, if what I wanted was to make one type of sushi for everybody, that means it's got implied meaning in flavor, so I guess it could be metaphorical—"
"I love it," she said, smile widening. "Now shut up and let's eat."
With an identical smile, Mallory twirled his chopsticks at the ready, and plucked a "Meiko-Roll" from the platter. "Eeta daky massyoo!" he declared...
...and the roll slipped neatly from his grasp, to go 'plop' on the wooden cutting board.
"...uh, I forgot to study the whole 'chopstick' thing, since I was too busy studying sushi," he admitted. "I... ah?"
The retrieved roll hovered in front of his mouth, held expertly in place by Meiko's chopsticks.
"Say 'ah' again," she prompted, trying to keep from laughing out loud.
"I am wanting to have you possess the understanding of my feeling of intent. Can you not see the burning spirit that is of the internal of me?"
"Knowing of the feelings you am to be having I have an overflowing jar of support, but the third in the pairing of identities are being improper."
"What you say?"
"If the owning of the thing is very much stimulating onto you lady, until you see this best thing is underneath your vision!"
"But it's the realization of my aspiration! The sensibility is without the central honour. I must banish the negativity to the land of wind and ghosts! The act of stopping me is not something of undertaking, so let's create together!"
"ON TOP OF WATERMELON!"
"I almost followed it until then," Mallory continued, walking by tank after tank of fish (quite live and swimmy-like, instead of dead and compressed into expensive rolls). "I kinda gave up after that. But really, thanks for lending me F.P... even if Ryo's Nihongo translator was a bit flaky..."
"I should've just bought tickets to some other movie," Meiko complained, hands in the pockets of her overcoat. "Something in a language you could understand..."
"Oh, hey, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it! And after I turned off the translator, I just sorta... tried to read it, you know? From HOW people were saying things and what they did. Stop me if I'm wrong: It was a story about this girl who loves these two boys, and at first they were both really nice and everything but then one of them started going nuts with jealousy, and then there was the thing about foreclosing on the oyster farm—the guy in the suit, right?—and in the end they got the money from a pearl which was like the one in her grandmother's brooch which they did a swaperoo with in the end and everybody lived happily ever after. Right?"
"Uh... no, Mallory, the pearl was actually her grandmother's, and they ended up being bankrupt anyway and she committed lover's suicide. That was the part where you were in the bathroom."
"....oh. Well... I like my version better," he decided.
Mallory cocked his ear to the noises around him after that. The light bubbling of the tanks, the chatter of various slightly important Nipponese persons... expensive shoes on carpet designed to suffer the abuses of a thousand school field trips... and even the faint sound of the wind outside Edo Tower, as they were hundreds of feet up.
"It's weird having fish this high," he noted aloud. "I've never seen living fish before, though... we mostly focus on ground crops back home. And you're saying they don't eat these ones?"
"Most of these fish are just kept around for aquariums. They don't have a functional use," Meiko explained. "Some are released into the wild, just to make the oceans pretty, sometimes to keep the ecosystem balanced... it seems like a lot of effort for something that doesn't matter. They could just program the Reality Engine to balance itself instead, but... well, Nippon's very traditional. This is how things were done in ancient days. A weird blend of ancient and modern..."
"And people come to aquariums to look at the pretty fish, right?"
"And for romantic scenes, yeah."
"Ah... I mean, it's sort of a common thing in videos and stuff," Meiko explained. "In Nippon. A bit like how Edo Tower is the focal point for lots of important things in shows—and in shoujo-style shows, an aquarium's important. You know, two people who could be lovers come to an aquarium, it's all peaceful and natural and quiet, and.... oh. ...I can't believe I didn't think of that until now..."
"Not that you should believe anything in video streams, right?" Mallory said, trying to reassure the spot where he saw Meiko falter. "It's not like everybody who goes to one of these places is some dramatic, fated-to-be-together couple—"
Meiko turned to him, looking serious and nervous and unsettled and calm and serious all at the same time. "Mallory, what time is it?"
"I don't wear a watch!" Mallory protested, waving his bare wrists a bit. "Uh, why? Do we have to go back now?"
With a flick, Meiko had her organizer open...
The time is now: 11:57pm.
Future Appointments: 12:00 am. Kiss Mallory Heisenberg.
The stroke of midnight, in Edo Tower, in an aquarium, after a night of romance...
And now she had to find out what the future actually had in store for her. She'd been putting off thinking about it all night, after the great dinner, the strange movie, even exploring the aquarium and talking about fish... an enjoyable evening. Enough to make her forget about the whole point of contention she still held over it. Forget right up to the most important point.
Enough to make her forget to keep Mallory from peeking over her shoulder.
Both turned as red as the striped koi pond fish that fluttered along behind them.
"Uh... uh... is.. is that what this is about? I mean, you know, the thing, the place, errr... that?" Mallory asked, pointing with a shaky finger to F.P. "Look, uh, Meiko, listen, I don't want you to feel uncomfortable and I know that you're not really, er, which is to say that I... I don't know what I'm saying, all right, but—"
"It's been wrong before!" Meiko insisted, snapping F.P. closed. "Really! Mallory, don't panic, okay? It's... not really a big deal—"
"But it is! I mean! The thing! The place! That!" Mallory panicked. "And what Eiko told me, how she peeked in it and it said about me that—"
"She TOLD you?!"
"I just laughed it off but I have been thinking about it and I don't know and I really was actually trying to avoid thinking about it and if I knew that this was like that and stuff then I wouldn't have made you go along or did I? I can't remember but the point is that I think maybe we should go home before things get you know kind of strange and even if I really care about you I don't want you to feel—"
"...shhh. Just... shhh," she said, putting a finger to his lips. "I've got an idea. It's so obvious, too... just.. wait. Wait a moment."
Mallory stared at her in blank shock. "Wfft?"
Many seconds ticked by. A few fish swam up to the glass, curious at what was going on outside, in a fishy sort of way.
A few aquarium-goers wandered by, discussing the state of the economy in Nihongo.
Mallory's sweat started to wrinkle his safety-mode blue tie, while Meiko remained cool and controlled, keeping the finger there, counting quietly to herself...
Until she lifted the finger away.
And replaced it with her lips.
It wasn't the kind of kiss that could set an empire on fire. Neither of them had any experience at deep, romantic kisses. But it had an honesty to it, a reality to it, a sense of simple truth...
And when it was done, Meiko opened her organizer, giving it a quick peek.
The time is now: 12:03 am.
Missed Appointments: 12:00 am. Kiss Mallory Heisenberg.
Future Appointments: 1:00 am. Sleep.
...and Meiko smiled, snapping the organizer shut again.
"I guess I missed the great midnight kiss," she told the stunned Heisenberg. "F.P. WAS wrong. I chose my own future. A future which involved kissing you, yeah... just not when I was told to do it. Sometimes I don't like being told what to do."
Mallory licked his lips without realizing. "Ah... very clever!" he agreed, voice still a bit shaky. "Sooo..... um..."
"Hmmmm?" Meiko asked, slipping the organizer into her purse, almost teasing in tone as she responded.
"Sooo, err... so... what.. does that mean, exactly?"
"It means I made up my mind, by myself. I had a wonderful evening, Mallory. It was everything I could've asked for and then some... and... I think I really do love you. Not because I was fated, I just... you're the most wonderful guy I've ever met, and I'm glad you're with me. I guess... it just took me a long time to even try to accept that."
"You... you mean you really.. you, uh... you love me—?"
"I think I do," she said, amused with herself at the admission. "I really think I do. ...it feels so much better to say that now, after trying to avoid it and disagree with it so long... I didn't think it'd be this easy... I'm so calm now. It's strange... ah, you okay there, Mallory?"
"What? Yes. Ah. Yes. I think so?" he guessed. "I just... I mean, I wasn't expecting, to be frank, and... not.. sure what to say..."
"Ah... you don't HAVE to say anything, really," Meiko spoke, despite inner hopes. She began to walk along, with or without him. "I guess it was a lot to drop on you, huh? I just really had to get that off my chest, I mean... we can go now if—"
"But I should say something!" he protested, stepping in front of her, blocking her way. "That's how it works! But... but how can I say something like that? It's such an important thing to say, and I don't understand how I feel, but then again I have a hard time understanding how I feel about a lot of things, and just because I care about you and I want you to be happy and anything I can do to make you happy I'd do in a heartbeat because you deserve happiness in life when usually you're so busy taking on the problems of other people and I don't just mean clients so I'm glad I'm with you so I can be there and help because you're a wonderful person and I'd be happy to spend the rest of my life with such a wonderful person like you because you make me feel good inside and without that I really don't know where I'd be and I don't just mean out of a job I mean how I'd feel even though I have trouble figuring out how I feel I really feel strongly about that and I had a great time tonight and I wish it could last forEEEeeeEEeeee..ee...."
The pale-faced fashion victim spent the new few moments hyperventilating.
Meiko leaned down a bit, to put a hand on his shoulder for support while his body recovered. "Mallory, you're gonna have a heart attack at an early age if you keep that up. What do you mean, you don't know how you feel? Nobody goes on and on like that with so much conviction if they don't know how they feel..."
"Baaah... buuuuh... but... is... is that love?" he asked, with sincerity. "I shouldn't say something so important unless it's really true!"
"It sounds like love to me. Of course, I'm no expert, and it took me this long to figure things out myself, so..."
"Then... if that's love, then... I love you too," Mallory spoke / realized, much to his surprise at his complete lack of surprise about it. "But... I didn't think you'd... I wanted to keep it safe, since you were trying to avoid it and I didn't want to make you feel weird and... but... I mean, I really care about you, and I want you to be happy, and... er... I love you. I'm really bad at speaking stuff, you know that, so sorry if it's awkward—"
"I don't mind awkward. It's kind of cute. And... thanks. For everything."
The fish swam away, having seen the big moment and having kelp to deal with on the other side of the tank.
"Ah... so... what happens now?" Mallory asked, a sense of calm returning slowly but surely. "I mean, in the movies, they just walk off into the sunset and that's that... or they commit lover's suicide. Actually, come to think of it, we ARE on top of a tower that's suitable for jump—err, not that I'm suggesting... you know what I mean. Right?"
"I know, Mallory. Hmm. What now? I'm... not really sure myself, actually. I'm just as new at this as you are."
"I think we go home now," Meiko suggested, with a shrug. "It's getting late, you know? We go home, go to sleep, you wake up early and make me some coffee and we get on with things like we always do. Just... different. We'll see when we get there, I suppose."
"I can do coffee," Mallory agreed, latching onto that... but smiling through his jittery nerves. He held one arm out, hooked slightly. "So, ah... shall we?"
"Why, certainly," Meiko agreed, taking his arm (and his smile) and falling into step.
It was well after sunset, so they couldn't walk off into one, but an elevator did just as well.
As the couple departed the Edo Tower parking lot, two eyes watched them leave. Two eyes identical to the two eyes of one of the lovers...
Exactly identical. The eyes, and the face. The expression was all that differed; instead of Mallory's dazed and happy features, this one was cold and calculating, a hunter stalking prey...
The figure stalked silently, creeping from bush to bush, gaze locked on his target as they hailed a taxi and got on with their lives. When they had left, he rose, a shadow from the shadows...
The stalker took two steps forward, slipped on a discarded soda can, and crashed head first into the nearest brick wall. Out cold in an instant.
A dog wandered by and whizzed on him fifteen minutes later.
As he slept in a puddle of nastiness, one thought bounced around his unconscious mind: Ryo had BETTER be right about this guy.
estate copyright 2002 stefan gagne)
[unauthorized use is strictly prohibited]