A new thing to Mallory, except that he'd felt it all along. All it took was a few dozen nudges from Lorelei, the right situation, and the puzzle pieces had locked into place to reveal that what looked like a 2,000-piece jumbled mess (rated ages 18 and up) was actually a picture of two cute and fuzzy kittens. Or something.
(Even in his dreams his words were a disorganized mess.)
So, his dream was filled with love. Love, and comfort. A happy feeling where he was safe...
No fear. Green grass beneath his feet. Blue sky above...
He'd had this dream before, right? Or parts of it. Most parts of it.
Water trickling down a creek. Birds chirping from the trees...
Yes, the next part, he'd definitely had the next part at least. Only tonight it was bright and shining like a star in the sky:
Mallory's eye flicked open in an instant, feeling that cold and clammy artificial surface beneath his hands. His pajamas scraped against the ground, as he quickly got to his feet, quickly wobbled around a bit, and quickly stopped wobbling in a quick amount of time.
Was this still part of his dream? It had to be, since at last check he had gone to sleep on the couch in the living room, which was not, at last check, made of asphalt. This was a back alley of Edo. He could see the colored glow of neon signs in the distance, but nobody else around—
No. Someone else.
"Haven't I seen you somewhere before?" the figure in shadow spoke, eye to eye with Mallory, as they were the same height.
Fear went through Mallory's spine, and his hair stood on end—largely because gravity had suddenly decided it didn't like him anymore.
In a panic, he tumbled upwards, as if the sky was the ground and the ground was the sky without actually being the other way around. His arms flailed around wildly, half in panic, half to get a handhold on something, anything—a fire escape. Yes, a fire escape would be perfect to grab onto, and there would be one in a city alley, based on what he knew about Urbana and places like it...
His hand connected with the cold iron, and he grasped it until the falling sensation stopped, and he simply dangled fifteen feet over certain broken ankleage. He hauled himself over the side, so he could hang onto the structure with more certainty—THEN he began to panic about who had just attacked him.
"It's you! It's you, isn't it?!" he shouted down at his assailant. "The one who attacked us in Antiparadisia—!"
"What? Of course not. Do you see purple-tinted glasses on me?" his own voice floated up from below. "I was just testing you. And given that you just yanked a fire escape into existence, it looks like Ryo was right about you..."
Mallory kept his grip, trying to adjust his eyes to see into the depths of the shadow (even if he was just expecting to see himself). "Well... if not him, then who are you, and what are you doing in my dream?! I could see HIM being in my nightmares, I mean, he's been there before, but if you're me and I'm you but you're not him then WHO ARE YOU!? Mike's ghost?!"
"Eh? Who's Mike?"
"Oh. That'd explain why he's a ghost, then..."
"Who am I? Heh," the doppelganger spoke, his smile the only thing visible in the light, white teeth more easily seen through darkness. He advanced towards Mallory, glaring upwards at him the whole time... "Are you sure you want to know? Are you ready for the answers, Mallory Heisenberg? I'm the shadow that defines the shape. I'm the one who stands outside reality. I'm the renegade of the status quo. An enigma wrapped in a question inside a mystery... but... YOU can call me—"
The 'squelch' noise and the meaty THWACK of head against pavement suggested that the mysterious figure had slipped in a puddle and knocked himself unconscious before he could complete his dramatic introduction.
Somewhere in the distance, a train passed by.
Just to make sure, Mallory pinched himself, hoping that he wouldn't dream himself feeling pain when his dream-self pinched himself, thus making the whole exercise moot. He felt pain at the pinch and chose to see this as a sign of being awake.
Now he just had to figure out how to get down, because for some reason, this fire escape had no actual ladders.
A not so tiny part of him really, really wished he was just dreaming.
"You just LEFT him there?"
"What else was I going to do, drag him across Edo?" Mallory asked. "I nearly killed myself getting down from there! I ripped my pajama bottoms on those garbage cans, then I had to figure out how to hail a cab in the middle of the night in the bad part of Edo without knowing any Nihongo except stuff from shoujo video streams, and... and yes, I left him there! Besides, he was all shadowy and mysterious and stuff. He could've been dangerous!"
"This guy knocked himself out on the middle of a cheesily written prepared speech. I'd call that pitiful, not dangerous," Meiko said, unimpressed. Of course, he had woken her up hours before daybreak, and her mood wasn't interested in getting interested. "Anyway, the House is locked down, we've got a security system, and failing that Lorelei and Kisei can make short work of anybody stupid enough to break in here. At worst we can pop the house off to another one of Ryo's corporate docks in Urbana at a moment's notice."
"But he got me out of the house even without getting into the house and stuff!" Mallory noted, pointing to the pile of bricks roughly equal to one (1) Mallory in mass piled up on his couch sleeping blanket. "What good will any of that do against someone who can do something like that and stuff?"
"I've thought of that as well," Meiko spoke, sliding a small blinking widget to him. "Tracking device. Keep it on you when you sleep tonight. If it leaves the house, my F.P. will signal and I'll have Kisei and Lorelei find you. He's not going to pull the same stunt twice. There's no need to worry now, Mallory. ...you're sure it wasn't that guy from Antiparadisia, right?"
"It wasn't him," Mallory said, with enough confidence. "I don't think I'd still be alive if it was him. He said he was 'testing' me... and... and that Ryo sent him! He mentioned Ryo!"
"Okay, so we call Ryo in the morning and get this matter cleared up. No big deal."
"No big deal?! This could be about... about me, and the whole thing with me that we can't explain, and—"
"It's four in the morning," Meiko reminded him. "Keep it down, Eiko needs her rest. Look... I know you're worried. But let's be practical here, okay? This guy is probably still crumpled on the pavement, being urinated on by stray dogs or something like that. If he does wake up, we're going to be ready for him. As for you, you need to get some sleep. Then... in the morning, we'll both go see Ryo together."
"Together...?" he asked, confused as his memory tripped over a problem spot. "But... don't you have to meet a client?"
"...I can cancel the meeting," Meiko spoke, trying to emphasize the No Big Deal Factor. "It's not like I've accepted a contract yet, it was just a job pitch."
"But the money—"
"We're still riding off a narrow profit margin, and that's better than our usual financial state. I think we can afford to turn down one... and if following this really leads to some answers, it could get involving for all of us. I wouldn't want to wrangle a job AND this at the same time. Finding out the truth is important to you, yes?"
"Then it's important to me," she said, locking down the confidence in her voice. "This is my new 'job' for the time being. And as your 'boss', I hereby order you to bed, houseboy. I want you rested and ready for work the next morning. Or I'll dock your pay."
For a change, he didn't have to ask "Err, are you joking?". He simply smiled, and nodded along. "Right, 'boss lady.' I just hope I CAN get to sleep... I'm all excited and nervous and scared and anticipating and stuff!"
"Drink some milk, it always works for me. And don't worry, all right? In the morning, we'll get all the answers you want from Ryo!"
"You've got me," Ryo said, with a shrug inside his baggy, stained lab coat. "I've got no idea who he is."
Mallory sagged inside and out, despite being well forcibly well rested.
"Okay, maybe you don't know WHO he is, but you have to have some idea of WHAT he is," Meiko continued, pestering the scientist when Mallory wouldn't. "You gave Mallory some pretty skimpy details... that's not like you."
"All I have is skimpy details, I swear!" Ryo protested, cowering under the intense scruntiny of a woman he stood multiple inches over. "I'm sure it's not a big deal. I mean, okay, he plucked Mallory out of his room and they had sort of a reality-based brawl, but... okay, that SOUNDS like a big deal but it's really not a huge thing to worry about, right? Don't you two have to be looking for jobs? I... Meiko, you don't have to resort to the Evil Cold Stare, okay?"
"What? Oh. Sorry," Meiko apologies, backing down a bit. "Instincts. ...but if you're holding back on us, you deserve it! And I have this feeling you are—"
"It's okay, Meiko."
Both old friends turned to look at the new friend. Relatively new friend.
"I mean... we shouldn't bother Ryo with this if he doesn't know anything, right?" Mallory said, trying to be the assuring voice of reason. "No sense in it. So... we should just go. He's got important sciencey stuff to do—"
Meiko waved her hand, cutting him off. "Mallory, you want to know the truth behind all this, don't you? I know this is really gnawing at you inside..."
"And I ALSO know something you don't—that Ryo has a dirty little habit of being selfless to the point of being overprotective. ...or something like that. And I suspect, given that he told you he'd 'Worry for you so you don't have to worry' way back when you were studying for the REC Test, that he has good REASON to worry. Because he knows more than he's letting on. And because he knows I will hate him forever and ever if he doesn't speak up!"
Ryo actually laughed out loud at that one. "Meiko-chan! Come on, we're not kids any more, that silly threat won't—"
"Wanna try me?"
"Well, no, not really, but—"
"Ryo-kun... I know you think you're protecting Mallory," Meiko spoke, returning to her less 'YOU VILL OBEY' sort of speech methodology. "But... I think it'd be better for all of us if you fess up. Even if it's scary. If you want an undeniable logical reason, then... my home's at unknown risk thanks to all of this. Eiko's in danger and so am I, and yes, so is Mallory. You don't like me worrying about things, right? Give me a reason NOT to worry, or a reason to worry for good reason so I can worry about what I'm supposed to be worrying about instead of a needless worry! ...and now I'm packing sentences fragments together like Mallory. See how worried I am?"
She wasn't worried last night, Mallory thought to himself, listening quietly. Actually, she was acting a lot like Ryo did when I first told him...
Whatever her words were or how wobbly they came out, they did the job. Ryo had a seat on a nearby lab stool, caving in completely. "...I honestly don't have many details," he spoke, without the good-buddy cheerful front. "What I told Mallory was true. This guy came barging in, no appointment. He knew I had a harmonic wave scanner, and that I had no RealWare ties, which is why he didn't go to some REC-certified engine shop to get the test done... I didn't understand why he wanted it done, but I figured the sooner I got this crazy kid out of my office, the better. ...and I was curious, I'll admit. We took the blood sample—this is before they optimized the wands so you didn't have to extract an Engine's water—and the light turned green. The kid shouted something like 'I KNEW it!' and stormed out, upset. And that's it."
"That's it...?" Meiko egged him on.
"...well, that's all I told Mallory, but there's a little bit more to it than that," Ryo admitted. "This is gonna take a while to explain, and... look, up front, I want to say this is just my crackpot theory and there's honestly no reason to go into a panic about—"
"Okay! Okay, okay. The kid was gone... but I still had the blood sample," Ryo continued. "Meiko, do you remember when I gave you your F.P.? I mentioned I got the idea from some blood tests, but I didn't totally understand how the thing worked..."
Meiko's hand instinctively slipped into her purse, touching the red plastic case of her personal organizer. "I.. think I remember something like that. I didn't think much of it at the time..."
"It was his blood," Ryo admitted. "And the strangest thing about the sample was exactly what the wand proved—it had the same harmonic properties as the water inside a Reality Engine. It could generate reality waves. ...theoretically. I hooked it up to three organizer prototypes I was tinkering with, did some tweaks, mumbo jumbo, and... well, they started filling in my calendar dates. I was hesitant to give the red prototype to you, but that was the night you came over and we had that talk..."
Mallory spoke up for the first time, with new concern. "Talk...?"
"I'd... been having a bad day," Meiko explained. "Business wasn't going well, we were so far into debt that I was afraid I'd have to sell the house... including the debt to Ryo for the home loan—"
"Meiko, I said you never really had to pay that b—"
"I was having a bad day, and... I needed to see a friend. So I came here. And we were talking about the future..."
"More like crying on my shoulder about the future, act—"
"TALKING about the future," Meiko corrected, forcing history to comply with her whim. "And he said he had something that could act as a wobbly guide to the future... it wasn't always accurate, but it'd take some of the worry out of my life..."
"'Future Perfect'. ...Future Imperfect was less marketable," Ryo noted. "I never actually marketed it, I didn't have enough of the blood sample to make more than three. And I don't like selling technology that I don't understand myself, of course. Although mine's done quite well by me, and I know you're happy with yours—"
"We're getting off track, Ryo."
"We are? ...okay, yeah, we are. I studied the blood sample some more, trying to figure out why it had harmonic properties," he continued. "And... okay, here's where we get to the crackpot theory, since this is theoretically impossible. I tried injecting some of the sample into a Reality Engine, replacing the treated water that's normally inside an engine. I figured, what could it hurt? At worst it wouldn't be enough fluid to do anything, or the engine would just crash and vanish into nothingness like it would if I squirted in any random fluid. I initialized the program and sent it into Nullspace so it could establish a new from-scratch reality..."
The other two leaned in close, as it's traditional to do when reaching the punchline of a good ghost story.
"...actually, it did vanish, just like I figured," Ryo admitted. "Scratch one Reality Engine. I could've poured grape juice into it and gotten the same effect."
"That's it?" Meiko asked, unbelieving. "You had us all worked up for nothing?"
"Except for the log data I collected which showed it expanded to a reality of infinite size for an infinitely small amount of time before exploding into an infinite amount of subatomic particles which instantly ceased to exist in the emptiness of Nullspace, yes."
Mallory jumped to conclusions and landed squarely on the 100 pt. mark.
"I'M GONNA EXPLODE?!" he screamed.
"See, this is why I didn't tell him in the first place," Ryo calmly pointed out while Mallory began to hyperventilate. "Science can be spooky stuff, you know?"
"You're not too spooked," Meiko noted, staying calm. "Which means it's not as dire as it sounds. Since you've been playing Mr. Exposition for the last few minutes, care to go a few more...?"
Ryo finished locking Mallory into a shihatsu grip, turning off the boy's panic like a switch. "Right, right," he wheezed, while hauling Mallory onto a lab stool and propping him against a table. He settled down in his own seat to continue. "My crackpot theory. When stimulated properly, the fluid can generate limited reality... like Future Perfect does. Whether it's shaping the future or detecting it I don't know, but it's definitely some variant of a reality effect. And when stimulated TOO much, well... the power is limitless, but the physical nature of it is NOT limitless. That's why the thing burned out and blew up when pushed too hard. And may I note that an engine pushes VERY hard—I can't think of anything Mallory could do that'd hit those levels. Even the... 'tricks' he's been accidentally doing don't come close to that peak."
"I'mmnot gonna splode?" the now calmed Mallory asked, words slurring together like runny tofu.
"You're not gonna explode," Ryo confirmed with a cute little smile. "Relax, Mallory! Look, all of this is basically meaningless to you—and largely meaningless to me. I have no idea how you got this way, or how that guy got this way, or why you look alike, or... well, anything! The only thing I kept from you was that, well, whatever this is, it's pretty impressive stuff. Theoretically limitless. Not that you're planning to turn into a caped crusading super hero with amazing superpowers, right?"
"I, uh... I really wasn't planning on it, no," Mallory said, while his brain pondered exactly how insane the concept was.
"Right. That's why I didn't think it was important. You're an ordinary guy living an ordinary life! Just because you've got a few quirks doesn't mean you have to feel weird, or that you even have to use 'em! I mean, Meiko here can put her legs behind her head, but you don't see her doing that on a daily basi—ow ow ow ow ow..."
"He has a point," Meiko agreed, while pulling Ryo's earlobe off. "Not sure I agree with it, but it's a valid point. Other than today and that one day in Antiparadisia, this hasn't really been an issue, has it? Your whole life's been a series of days where this isn't an issue. We COULD always leave it be... what do you think, Mallory? I'll go with you on this."
"I... I really don't think I can do that," Mallory admitted. "I'm not planning on being a super hero, no, but... if I'm gonna be an ordinary guy I can't have this hanging over my head like the... what's it called... the Dagger of Democracy? Poleaxe of Potemkin? Something like that."
"Are you absolutely sure?" Meiko asked, letting go of Ryo's agonized head feature.
With words that were unusually decisive for the boy, Mallory said: "Yeah."
"All right, then... we'll look into it. Just like I promised last night," she agreed. "Ryo, see if you can find this crazy guy again. Mal... WE are going to want to have a talk with him. And please, stop trying to protect us from stuff like this, okay? ...after what we went through in Antiparadisia, I think we'll be less emotionally fragile if we KNEW the truth instead of hiding from it."
The walk back home was a quiet one.
Quiet was bad. Mallory quietly wished for the usual in-house chaos... Eiko playing, Lorelei making tawdry jokes, Meiko admonishing her for them, Kisei... in her room quiet as a mouse, actually, but other than that something very non-quiet. And he'd be busy in the kitchen or collecting the laundry that tended to pile up anywhere and everywhere... that would have felt right. It would be something he could easily deal with. Something that would keep his blood pressure down and his spirits up...
Instead, he was rubbing a sore spot on his neck where Ryo had pressure-pointed his panicky self. Again. Just like he had the last time he had to deal with this mess, way back when he was studying for the REC Test... panic, panic, mayhem, panic, hyperventilation... worry and worry and panic.
While Mallory did spend a large slice of his mental timeshare with his neurons misfiring in socially awkward ways, it was not a favored state to exist within. He got along for years with only small levels of panic back home. He got along for days at a time when his life wasn't being actively threatened without panic in his new home. But this, and that, from Antiparadisia, to this and now, and the thing, with the guy, the one who looked like him, how it kept him on edge and confused and worried and wishing for the quiet days of, oh, twenty hours past, especially twenty hours past when he was with Meiko in the aquarium and everything was okay even if he was momentarily panicked but that went away and was replaced by this total feeling of peace and joy and—
"Er, what?" he asked, unfortunately breaking out of the bright memory in the process. "What?"
"You were zoning out there... just wanted to make sure you were okay," Meiko spoke. "You've had this rabbit-in-headlights look all day. This is really bewildering for you, isn't it?"
"That's one word for it. Or 'perplexing' or 'befuddling' or 'bizarre' or 'inexplicable' or—"
"I'm having my own problems coming to grips with it, actually," Meiko admitted, while taking F.P. from her purse and idly pushing buttons on it. "I nearly lost it back there with Ryo. I don't like losing it."
"I, uh... I was kind of wondering about that," Mallory said, surprised that she'd bring it up voluntarily. "You sounded so confident last night..."
"Hey, someone has to take charge here, yes? That's me, the boss lady. The problem solver. So even if I'm upset about this, I have to have confidence and control or we'll just stumble around aimlessly. You can't handle it, after all."
"Hey, wait a second—"
"I don't mean that to be insulting, Mallory," she clarified. "I just mean this really hits too close to home for you—you need an objective third party. ...as objective as I can get, since you and I, well... and of course, you have trouble dealing with crisis. I doubt you had much of it back on the farm. I, on the other hand, have been living on the edge of crisis, poverty, and job stress for quite a few years. I'm used to it. That's why I'm not alarmed that we're being followed."
"Eyes front, voice normal, converse just like we've been conversing," Meiko spoke as ordinarily as possible. "It's a blessing in disguise; I was actually hoping this might happen. I hit F.P.'s panic button a minute ago, so Kisei should be tailing us soon. We'll be okay, I promise. And if we're going to get any answers we don't want to spook this guy off... but after he assaulted you, I don't feel like playing his game, so I just changed the rules. Now. Don't turn around to check, but—was the guy last night wearing a trenchcoat? Fake leather?"
"Y-Yeah," Mallory said, walking along a bit stiffly at her side. "Meiko, you sure about this...?"
"This is what I do for a living, Mallory," Meiko said... with a tiny smile, as she looked down at F.P.'s screen. "I solve problems for other people. If I can't solve them for people I truly care about, then... okay, Kisei's in sniping position. Here we go..."
"Wait, wait—she's not gonna shoot him, is sh—"
A light 'piff' noise zipped by Mallory's ear, and the sound of someone behind them dropping followed posthaste.
"Tranq shot, of course," Meiko replied, closing F.P. "Now, let's scoop this guy up and get home before anybody starts looking at us funny. It's time we stopped panicking and started sorting this mess out once and for all."
Tensions ran high in the interrogation chamber. The air was thick with oregano.
This was because the prisoner currently tied to the Interrogation Chair was a highly volatile, dangerous unknown factor who had kidnapped Mallory the previous night and assaulted him. And because Lorelei had suggested, with many smirks and winks, that a pasta dish heavy in oregano with a side of oysters might be a meal Meiko would really really like Mallory to make for her so he had purchased far too many bags of the stuff on his last shopping run.
The man sitting in front of the herbs and spices didn't look too dangerous, but it wasn't from lack of trying.
He wore a scary leather trenchcoat typically reserved for chaotic neutral anti-heroes, the sort that flaps around nicely when you're performing zero-gravity kung fu and hugs the shadows properly when prowling in dark alleys of a criminal underworld. On him, however, it was simply a badly fitting and overly large garment which was yanked off a bargain rack and bore all the tailoring hallmarks of unskilled mass production labor. He wore steel-toed boots, which would be menacing and masculine if not for the fact that they were so heavy he gave away his presence tailing Mallory due to the 'thump, clank' they made on pavement. He was wearing sinister-looking jet black sunglasses when he hit the ground, but the cheap plastic frames remained on the ground where he fell, shattered in three places.
Finally, he had Mallory's physique, which was to say he had none. No rippling abs and muscular arms designed to snap the necks of people who disrespect him in seedy underworld bars, no well-defined cheekbones to get a perfect diagonal cut on during the battle with his sworn enemy in the last reel of the movie. A scrawny body in a wanna-be evil ensemble added up nicely to a very pathetic figure.
Nevertheless, Lorelei had her energy blade at the ready and Kisei had a rifle trained on him as if he could snap and unleash a whirlwind of death and mayhem at a moment's notice. Eiko had been sent to Ryo's place to play with his model monorail, just in case something did go wrong, and the House's reality engine had been put into Sleep Mode to prevent any possible accidents. Preparations were made to the point of paranoia.
And finally, the moment of truth.
"Wake him up," Meiko said, taking one step back (and bumping into a cowering Mallory in the process).
Kisei squeezed the trigger on her rifle, to shoot a tiny chemical dart into the boy's arm that would counteract the drugs—the same chemical used on Belle Pasadina, to keep him paralyzed but snap him back to consciousness. She then slotted a fresh, full-strength tranq dart into the chamber of her rifle in one smooth arm motion. Just in case.
Much like the boy himself, his emergence to the waking world was not particularly impressive.
"Guurrgh," was his grand opening statement, accompanied by a bit of drool from the corner of his mouth. One eye cracked open, peering around, before his body decided it really wanted to go back to sleep.
1.2 seconds later and his brain told his body now was not the time to slack off and he was wide awake with a very alarmed expression.
"You'll never take me alive! Or dead!" he declared, his muscles really wanting to struggle against the ropes but completely failing to.
"We're not going to kill you," Meiko replied. "Now, we—"
A brief flash of purple light flooded the dry goods store room, reality rearranged itself with care, and Lorelei was now tied to the chair while the mysterious young man stood where she previously stood, ready to bolt out of there.
Unfortunately he hadn't thought ahead too far, because instead of running towards glorious, wonderful freedom, his chemically paralyzed body simply crumpled to the floor like a sack of oregano.
Meiko stood over him, looking mildly annoyed as Mallory snuck around to untie Lorelei. "Do you mind not doing that again? Thanks," she spoke. "We hid a tracking device on you while you were out, anyway. The best you could do is swap yourself somewhere far away, and lie there for a while until we find you again. You don't get the paralysis cure until we get some answers—provide them and you go free. Fair?"
"Pff... pfeh!" the Mallory-alike tried to spit, unable to do so due to using up all his spit drooling while asleep. "You're meddling with powers of which you have no comprehension, woman! The very nature of reality is my plaything, to shape at will! I am the shadow that defines the shape! I am—"
"Going nowhere until you cooperate," Meiko interrupted. "I've gotten secrets out of tougher nuts than you. Nuttier nuts, too. And I've got all day to try."
"Bah! Do your worst!" he taunted from his awkward little position on the floor. "I won't say a word to you! Beyond these words I'm saying now, I mean! Ha! You won't break me!"
"Wait, wait, this isn't going anywhere," Mallory interjected, while his brain tried to tell his mouth that he was scared of this guy and should probably be simpering a bit more even if the other bit of his brain wanted to look strong in front of Meiko especially after acting like a simpering, panicky guy all day long. "If you won't talk to her, you'll talk to me, right? You tried to talk to me last night, until you fell over and knocked yourself out..."
"I... I did NOT fall over!" the boy protested. "It was.. a clever machination! Wheels within wheels, of which you know nothing! Ha ha!"
"But that's the problem, I don't know anything! I mean, anything about this. About you, about my power!" Mallory continued, nerves battling inside him as Meiko stepped back and watched him take charge. "We brought you here so you could explain what's going on with me! You said you were testing me last night—testing me for what? Okay, you kinda attacked me but that's okay, as long as you tell me why I am how I am so I don't keep freaking out over it!!"
...when he realized he'd used one exclamation mark too many, Mallory finally dropped from his rush of adrenaline and cowered a little. But just a little.
An uneasy silence followed. Which was better than further maniacal ranting, all things considered.
"I was going to tell you about this stuff anyway, I just got interrupted," the boy finally admitted, in a less dramatic tone. "I sought you out specifically to tell you all about this stuff, if you didn't know already. But I had to make sure you weren't just HIM in disguise, and that you were ready to find out. You're not him and you're ready. So give me back my arms and legs and I'll talk—but ONLY with you. Not with them. This is 'Us' business only!"
Meiko stepped up again, commandeering the situation. "No deal," she stated flatly. "You've already proven you're dangerous. What makes you think I'd leave you completely unrestrained and alone with Mallory? I know a thing or two about risk assessment, and—"
"I'll do it," Mallory spoke up.
"No, you won't. Mallory, trust me on this, we've handled dangerous people plenty of times in our line of work, and—"
"And I need answers!" Mallory replied, moving between Meiko and the prisoner. "It's risky, I know, but what else can we do? I don't wanna beat it out of him or anything like that! And if we don't work WITH him he could just escape and then I'll miss my chance at finding out... no, no, no. I gotta do it, even if it means doing it alone... right?"
Meiko opened her mouth to protest again...
And saw Mallory wink.
"...I guess there's no other choice, then," Meiko agreed. "Kisei, give the boy the counter drug and let them go. But if Mallory has one scratch on his head when he gets back—or if he DOESN'T come back—I'm going to hunt you down, buster. Don't forget that. Kisei?"
Kisei kept her rifle, as it was during the entire discourse, trained on the fallen form. "I am not questioning your orders and I do not mean disrespect, Meiko Mirai, but I would like to voice my disapproval of this plan..."
From the other side of the room, Lorelei nodded in assent. "It blows," she summarized in a way only Lorelei could.
"Opinions noted, girls," Meiko acknowledged. "Kisei, give him the counter drug."
An inaudble 'pff' sounded, and the boy slowly pulled himself up to his feet. He shrugged into his poorly fitting trenchcoat, trying to regain what little cool and macho composure he could... and cast one last angry glare at Meiko, before putting an arm around Mallory and vanishing in a blast of purple light.
A large pile of newspaper bundles freshly swapped from some street vendor dropped to the floor in their place, roughly equal in mass to the two boys. Silent seconds followed, as the spots on their eyes from the flash faded.
"...he's getting clever," Meiko finally spoke, with a note of satisfaction in her voice.
"Mallory? Clever?" Lorelei asked, suspicious. "How do you figure?"
"He remembered he was carrying a tracking device," the boss lady explained, opening up F.P. and loading her tracking program. "Even if this guy shrugs off the one we put on him, we can find him. And that means Kisei can stalk them, and watch over him to make sure nothing goes wrong while he's getting his answers. It's a perfect plan—that guy doesn't seem like the sort to figure out the loophole, either. Kisei, could you..."
The gap in space where Kisei stood spoke volumes of her depature, having already anticipated the plan and in the process of closing in on her target.
"Not bad... not bad at all," Lorelei admitted with a smirk. "You two are really establishing a rapport, aren't ya? I knew getting you two together was the right idea. What was the tipoff?"
"He winked at me," Meiko said, letting the tease slide. "Our houseboy's definitely getting to be a real covert ops team player."
"What's wrong with your eye?" the other boy asked, peering at Mallory oddly as they walked down a random Edo back alley.
"I think I got some dust in it," Mallory replied, rubbing at his eye. "So... where are we going?"
"Somewhere you can pay me back for the information I'm going to give you," the other Mallory sort-of explained. "Before you freak out again, I just want you to talk to some people. But that can wait; we've got a bit of a walk ahead of us to get there. I've dampened the sound around us a little to keep others from hearing us, so feel free to ask any questions you've got. Apparently you're bursting at the seams with them, after all..."
"You did what?" Mallory asked, straining an ear to hear the usual ambient noise of Edo... and finding it was indeed a bit muffled. "Wow, that's a neat trick! Like your place-swapping thingy and... okay, questions, questions... wow, I really don't know where to begin... ah! Wait, I do, I'll start at the beginning! So... where are we from? REALLY from?"
"Don't know, exactly."
"And who are our real parents?"
"Don't know that either."
"...and why do we have these powers?"
"Don't know for certain."
Mallory stopped in his tracks, brain slightly derailed.
"Err.. what DO you know, then?" he asked. "I thought you said you knew the truth..."
The boy also paused, and turned to face his twin with a slightly annoyed look. "I have speculations, okay? Answers, but not truth. None of us know anything for certain. All I can do is tell you what I think is the way things are for whatever reason."
"Uhh... okay, so... what are the reasons why things are the way they are independent of the reason why they are as they happen to be?" Mallory tried again.
"Ah," his duplicate said, scratching his chin dramatically. "That's complicated."
Internally, Mallory hoped he wasn't as annoying as this other him was proving to be.
"For starters, I'd better properly introduce myself," the annoying twin said, whipping a fresh pair of sunglasses out of his trenchcoat and slipping them on in a quasi-cool manner. "I am the one with no true name, the wanderer between worlds. The lurking truth behind the fiction of your world! But you can call me... 'M'."
"Em...? Em and what? Em-'n-em? Em Smith?"
"No, M. One letter," he of one letter which was M replied. "I grew up in the hard, unforgiving jungle of Suburbana, a drifter with no family moving from foster home to foster home, without a true name to attach to my person! Therefore I have adopted the moniker of M, to EMphasize my Mysterious nature!"
"...right," Mallory replied. "So... my questions...?"
"Oh, right, right. Okay, well, I have no idea where we're really from and can't even begin to speculate," M explained, shooting down one question in a disappointing puff of matchstick-sized flames. "I also don't know who our parents are. But I have successfully speculated about our mysterious origins! It took some heavy covert research at Reality Prime, home of RealWare—the documents concerning our strange and unusual situation are heavily classified. But not classified to the all-seeing eye of M! Those filthy corporate spooks cannot hide from the searing light of the Truth!"
"Wow! It's really that big of a secret?!" Mallory asked, easily impressed.
"Indeed! I had to pay some guy all of fifteen points to raid their QA file cabinets for me!" M stated with pride. "It was filed under 'Product Failure Reports'. JUST AS I HAD SUSPECTED! You see, the MAN (by which I mean Gillian Bates) doesn't WANT us to know about various ways in which Reality Engines can critically fail. They keep their bug reports under tight security! I mean, the cabinet needed a key to open and everything, according to what Floyd the janitor told me. And the horrible truth was within!"
"Right! And... the horrible truth was...?"
With a sweeping gesture, M pulled a highly battered data pad out of the inner pocket of his coat, holding it out for Mallory to accept with a graceful flick of the wrist. "The truth is in here, my brother. You see, I vaguely recalled a school newspaper clipping from my youth in which a Reality Engine accident resulted in triplets. And my dim but sharp memory led me to raiding this file, which reveals the full story! It seems that sometimes, during a highly unlikely set of environmental circumstances, for no reason RealWare can explain... an engine failure when transitioning between realities with a pregnant woman onboard can result in instant delivery of the child. Or, as the story proves, CHILDREN! Yes, three identical children, right down to fingerprints and DNA. An impossibility? I do not believe in impossibilities!"
"Well, it can't be impossible if it happened to someone else," Mallory said, thumbing through the dense, boring corporate notes. "It's only logical."
"Uh, right. But nevertheless! A very rare scenario!" M added, trying to recover some mystique to it. "In that situation, two of the children appeared at the destination, but the father and the other child were translocated to some distant reality. And that is likely how we originated! There was an accident with a Reality Engine, and copies of us.. of ourself... what's the grammatically correct way of saying that?"
"Of we?" Mallory guessed incorrectly.
"Copies of we were strewn throughout the multiverse!!" M finished with gusto. "As for our parents, it's unknown. They could have been moved somewhere else. Maybe they arrived at their destination with one of us. Maybe they ended up in NullSpace. We may never know... HOWEVER! That is the Truth of our origin!"
"I thought you said you didn't know the tru—"
"As for our powers, well... it's quite obvious, once you know of our origins," M continued, folding his arms and leaning against a wall in a casually confident sort of way (and nearly falling over since the wall was farther away than he had realized). "Reality Engines operated by generating reality waves from harmonic vibrations of water. What's the human body? 90% water! ...I think. Maybe it was 80%. BUT THE POINT IS! Somehow, in this reality accident which copied us around the multiverse, we MERGED with the Reality Engine's water! That is why when Ryo tested my blood, it identified it as engine water! And thus, using this unique trait, we can manipulate reality around us!"
"Wow! I mean... wow! That's really amazing!" Mallory agreed, buying into the drama. "If it's true, I mean. It does make... a little bit of sense from what little I actually understand about Reality Engines. I think."
M tried to loom in front of Mallory. "And now... you know. The grim, twisted tale of our collective past! Orphaned across the multiverse, with the very blood of gods in our veins, adrift and lost and alone and lost!"
"Uh... it hasn't been all that bad for me, actually. I had a mostly happy childhood and I've got a good career now. I was a little lost but I think things worked out okay for me in the end..."
And his copy visibly deflated. "Why is it that I'm the only one with a tormented, angsty past?" he complained, voice rising back to normal tones after wobbling around the Ominious pitch scale. "I don't get it. Every one of us I've met had a good family life and made friends and stuff! This sucks."
"Uh... I'm sorry?" Mallory offered, patting M on the shoulder in a way which was hopefully comforting. "But hey... you know me, now! If I can't be friends with myself, even another myself, who can I be friends with? Heck, you could find others of us and BOOM, more friends!"
M shrugged the hand off, growling above his breath and resuming his long march through the back alleys of the city. "Don't remind me, please. In fact, that's related to how you're going to pay me back for this information..."
Rounding the corner, the pair stopped at a community bingo hall.
M opened the door, ushering a puzzled Mallory inside. "You're going to pay me by convincing them I'm not insane," he said. "C'mon. Hope you can get over the initial shock, I need you to back me up in there..."
When the door closed behind him, the sign hanging in the window reading 'Meeting Thursdays and Fridays, 1:00PM: Our Support Group' swung gently back and forth.
In the beginning... there was Mallory.
Then Mallory met Mike. For a minute.
Then both of them met Multi. Three total.
Now M had shown up, and that was four.
Now there were SEVEN. Seven who all looked exactly like him.
"I know, I know! I mean, Kaori is WAY cooler than Kazuya," number five went on and on. "I don't see how she got voted off the show first. She had the makings of a PERFECT N-pop idol! I swear, the entire season just went downhill after that—it's not like the last two seasons, when we had Akemi and Kaede..."
"Right, Kaede! I'd forgotten about her!" number six chirped away with. "Like, oh my GOD that was such a cute red dress she had in the final episode, you remember that? I almost cried when they didn't give her the contract. It was so sad, after that video clip tribute to her poor departed mother—you know, where she said she'd become the greatest N-pop idol ever when her mother was on her deathbed? Those media executives made a bad decision turning her down after that! Don't you agree, Mallory?"
"................" Mallory agreed. Or maybe didn't agree. It was hard to tell, as the thick hazy cloud of Culture Shock had descended upon his world view.
"Hey, you okay there, Mallory?" number five (name: Melvin, occupation: Stage magician, likes: Hot dogs, dislikes: Bean soup) asked, waving a hand in front of Mallory's eyes.
"Oh, you can blame M for this," number six (name: Megumi, occupation: Waitress, likes: Parasols, dislikes: Bicycle messengers) explained, folding her arms and giving the extremely disgruntled mystery M a harsh look. "Really now, M, you should've, like... explained what Our Support Group was really like before you dumped it on him. The poor boy's so confused now! Mallory-kun, it's okay, really—we're just ordinary people, like you! Only... REALLY like you. Okay..?"
M tapped his foot irritably on the floor, slumping back in his wooden chair (the one in front of the 'It's Okay To Not Be Unique!' slogan on the chalkboard). "You know, I've always wondered... why am I the only SANE one of us? Just my luck, the new one of us I drag in has a mind like a glass trap. Or something. If—"
"Why am I a girl?" Mallory asked, breaking his silence in an awkward way, addressing Megumi. "Me. You. Other. Her. She. Uh. Why?"
"Ohhh, you DO speak! Hwei!" Megumi squealed, balling her hands under her chin. "I was really worried M broke your brain! Ah... as for your question, umm... it's kinda complicated... I mean, uh..." Balled hands went to fingers poik-poiking in front of her face, as a shy blush spread over her cheeks.
Melvin stepped in (without leaving his chair). "Now now, it's okay—we're all us here, aren't we?" he reminded them. "If anybody can understand and accept us, it's us! Mallory, it's like this... Megumi's family supposedly has a family curse. So to avoid it hitting her generation, they gave her a girl's name and dress her in girl's clothing. It makes sense, if you think about it!"
"No, it DOESN'T," M complained in the background.
"Listen, we're all good folks here," Melvin continued, putting an arm around Mallory's dazed shoulders. (Not that the shoulders themselves were dazed, that would be a new high score even for him.) "I think you'll find we're more alike than disalike. Err, or rather, more disalike than alike. Whichever you'd prefer. The point is, I'm glad you could join us today, and I'm sure that together, all five of us can draw strength from each other in the future!"
Megumi pumped a cute little fist in the air. "Go Us!" she cheered.
"Go Us!" Melvin repeated, cheer being an infectious disease.
"Zzzzzzz," number seven snored (name: Matsuri, occupation: Night watchman, likes: Sleeping, dislikes: Having a night job).
Caught up in a wave of good tidings rolling in during low tide, Mallory weakly raised a fist too. "Uh... Go Us?" he tried. "But... but wait, I don't understand. How did you find each other? I mean, aren't we spread all over the place...?"
M spoke up immediately, before Melvin could continue his nurturing support. "I'm the one who found them. Tracking down others was no picnic, believe me. I was under the impression that together, we could figure out what to do about the guy with the purple glasses, not sit around sharing our feelings and singing folk music and having bake sales..."
"Are you still going on about that spooky guy with the purple glasses?" Megumi asked, barely managing to not hide her snickering cute girly contempt. "M, like... come ON, now! None of us have seen this supposedly dangerous guy. You're just being paranoid again! You know, like the time you told us that RealWare was buying children to use as slave labor. Mallory, don't listen to this guy—everything's some grand conspiracy!"
"Uh, actually... RealWare was trying to buy away the children of I's Land to be janitors and stuff for them," Mallory corrected. "I was there for that one, but saved the day with a magic bowl of soup!"
The others of themselves gave Mallory the kind of 'Okay, riiiight, sure, we believe you' look they normally reserved for M.
"Anyway... we should get on with new business now that we've introduced Mallory to the group," Melvin spoke, changing subjects. "I'm glad that Matsuri could join us this time, even if he's clearly had a long night. Let's all thank Matsuri."
"Arigato, Matsuri-kun!" Megumi cheered.
"Zzzzzz," Matsuri replied.
"I wanted to bring up my previous suggestion that we move bowling to Thursday nights, instead of Fridays," Melvin continued. "I have a few more club gigs coming up which are going to land on Fridays, and I'd hate to miss out on one of the most enjoyable times we share together. Megumi, how's your work schedule looking?"
"Ooooh, not good," she spoke with a pout. "Thursdays I have double shift since, like, Eiko can't make it because of that celebrity tag-team game show, you know the one where you drink out of a cow? Right. Well, I'm like, Thursday is bad for me. Wednesday, maybe? Matsuri has off Wednesday nights!"
Melvin had his electronic organizer out, and was tapping on the screen with a stylus. "Wednesdays are good for me. Okay! We go bowling on Wednesdays from now on! Ah, is that okay with you, M? I know you don't like to go bowling, but I feel we need inclusive agreement on things like this... Mallory, how are you for Wednesday nights?"
M's aggravation level topped out to super-combo-powering levels, as he got to his feet with such force of will that his chair flew back eight feet and severely dented the bingo calling board. "Bowling?!" he shouted back. "Why the hell would I worry about what night BOWLING falls on when I've got my life to worry about? Your lives, too! The guy with purple glasses EXISTS, and he nearly killed Mallory! That's why I brought him here, not to bowl with you cretins but to prove that I'm not crazy and that we are all in serious danger! Why won't you people believe me?! I'm trying to keep you alive and all you care about is making buddy-buddy-nice-nice with each other! It's not too late to work together and do something about this!"
Melvin sighed, shaking his head "M, M, M—"
"Don't you start, Mr. Pull A Rabbit Out Of Your Pants," M warned. "You're the worst offender. Megumi I can understand, since she hasn't found a drop of her power—"
"I don't WANT any stupid powers!" Megumi protested. "I want to be a perfectly ordinary, normal young boy in a dress!"
"—but you, YOU at least have some conscious control over your ability," M continued. "And what do you do with it? Cheap tricks and illusions! You don't even have enough dexterity to pluck a coin from behind someone's ear, so you zap one there with your power! You're a cheat, not a magician!"
"And what else should I be doing with it, M?" Melvin asked, his normal cheer starting to sink to levels of unpleasantness at the confrontation. "What do you do with it? You show off. You try to bully people and make yourself look powerful, all while pretending there's some shadow conspiracy trying to get to you! At least I'm doing something productive with my ability—okay, maybe I'm not that good with card tricks the old-fashioned way, but so what? If this is a gift for our own use like you keep saying it is, then I should use it how I want. I just don't want to use it to be like YOU. And at least I don't rant, stutter or use endless mixed metaphors!"
"Leave your speech therapist out of this! I—"
"Stop, stop!" Megumi cried out, covering her ears. "You're all being too mean to each other! And you'll wake up Matsuri if you keep yelling. Now, we're supposed to support each other, that's why we're here! Not to tear each other down like this. I think we all need to just sit down, count to five and breathe. Then we can go into our caves and find our power animals—"
"Nuts to your stupid penguin, I'm talking about important things and stuff and things here!" M continued. "And who says I'm bullying and showboating? I'm defending myself here! Instead of hugging and singing and trying to find your inner badger just to feel safe against the world, you could be getting stronger! I mean... I mean...! Megumi, you haven't even TRIED to tap your power yet!"
"And I don't want to, meanie!" Megumi barked back. "I'm just me, not some sort of... some sort of superpowered weirdo freak!"
A chill silence flooded the room like iced tea, as the verboten 'F' word was dropped into Our Support Group.
Megumi's jaw lowered and raised a few times, horrified at her own words. "I, I... I'm sorry... Melvin, I didn't mean to imply you were a... I mean..."
"Megumi, it's okay, it's okay," Melvin said, patting her on the shoulder to reassure. "I understand. We all understand. Sometimes it's hard to cope with being what we are. You don't have to look for your power if you don't want to, we support your personal decision and will be with you every step of the way... guys, I think it's time for a group hug here. We've all said hurtful words and the best way to proceed is to heal rather than harm. Right? ...M? Group hug?"
"I'd sooner hug a... a... a thing which I wouldn't want to hug," M tried to insult.
Melvin sighed, shaking his head in disappointment. "I think you'd better go, M. Maybe we'll have better luck communicating with you after a few days' time out between meetings. Make sure you tell your friend about the meeting schedule, okay? He seemed like he really needed our help."
M shrugged into his trenchcoat, turning to Mallory's chair. "Tell him yourself, he's sitting..."
"Somewhere else" being not very far away at all, fortunately. Mallory was sitting against the wall just outside the community bingo hall... looking over the low rooftops of the Nippon skyline, as the sun sank.
He was joined a minute or four later by his recent companion.
"You bailing on me?" M asked, emerging from the building. "Because of them? Look, if they don't want to believe, so what? We know the truth. And we know that there's something out there we need to be ready to fight—"
Mallory waved a hand to silence the other him, while looking away. "M, just... just give me a minute. It's a lot to take in at once. I mean... ...I hate this, you know."
"Being dazed and confused," he explained. "Ever since I left home I've been like this. It hasn't been as bad lately, not since I've settled into the House and really grown to know... and care for the people there. But today it was like it was all back to the way it was back when it was really confusing and stuff. ...and stuff. So just give me a minute, that's it. One minute."
A bit puzzled, M leaned against the brick wall, watching himself and mentally counting down sixty seconds.
Sixty-four seconds later, Mallory got to his feet. "...they've got the right idea, you know," he spoke. "Supporting each other. It sounds nice... being able to have friends with the same problems you have. I wish I could have met them before..."
"Mallory, they're... I don't want to say delusional, but... deluded, maybe? Something like that. They don't WANT to see the bigger picture—"
"And why would they?" Mallory asked, introspection on full throttle at this point, the words coming without thinking about them in endless loops that mix and mangle them. "If I didn't know better, I wouldn't want to know better. It's... it's hard being like this. So completely different, but you don't know WHY you're different or even HOW different you are because you can't control it... and that someone out there hates you just because of who you are... it's more than one guy who just wants to be happy in life should have to deal with. It's more than I can deal with. At least... I've got Meiko. Meiko and everybody else. All they have in there is each other. And all you have is... err..."
"This is the big friendship speech, isn't it?" M recognized, giving Mallory a bit of a glare. "You watch a whole lot of media streams, Mallory. It's all very rosy and nice and pretty but in the end, all you can rely on is yourself. That's what I've learned over the years. I can't rely on them worth a damn because they don't care. Do you honestly think that they're better off turning a blind eye to what you and I know is waiting for them...?"
"No... no, I don't mean that," Mallory spoke, sagging a bit into himself. "I mean... you're partly right here, just like they're partly right. It's better to know than not know, even if it sucks to know. You know?"
"I know. So... what're you gonna do, then? It's my way or their way. Or you can go back to your happy home and ignore all this. Make up your mind, because I'm beginning to wonder if I was wasting my time trying to get through to—"
"I need to learn how to use my powers," Mallory spoke, since he'd made the decision well beforehand.
M's frown of disdain inverted into an evil looking grin of pleasure. "NOW we're talking! See, that's what I'm going on about, we've gotta get this guy before he gets us. Every man for himself! So—"
"I'm not doing it for me."
"I told you they had the right idea," Mallory explained, stepping away from the wall, ready to move on. "They're supporting each other. I have people I care for who need that support too. So... next time he threatens her... I HAVE to be ready. I don't have a choice. ...but I'll admit, I'm kinda scared at the idea of facing him again and I hope he just leaves me alone and goes away or something..."
"I'm not afraid," M said, quietly. "I won't be afraid. I wasn't afraid the other two times I faced him. I'm strong, I'm powerful and he's not going to scare me again."
"Right, right," Mallory replied, letting the slip slide. "So... where do we start? And, uh, can we start tomorrow? Because Meiko's probably really worried about me by now and I've gotta go home."
'So I'm gonna spend some time with this M guy and see if I can learn more about what I am,' Mallory had explained. 'I'll still make sure the House is properly fed and cleaned and supplied, don't worry; I think I can fit it in with my other chores! Everything'll be A-OK-FINE-#1!'
Kisei's report had echoed the same, albeit in a more factual sort of way. Mallory had met with a gathering of unimpressive Mallory-alikes, and was now undergoing daily training with M whenever he wasn't busy fluffing pillows or dusting the Reality Engine or making waffles for Eiko. This went on for four days...
...while Meiko sat around the House. Her room, to be specific. Mindlessly tapping at her personal workstation.
Occasionally, she'd browse some business magazines. But once you've read fifty-seven articles on creative downsizing techniques to optimize your staff, you've read them all. Except that you haven't, it only FEELS that way, which is a lousy feeling to add on top of your normal isolation and boredom.
Sometimes she'd check in on Eiko, who was enduring the boring days by playing games like 'Important Courtroom Drama Online' via RealNet with Kensuke, who had managed to hack himself some net access despite being grounded. Which meant no time for her oneechan.
The third day, she found herself actually sorting her dress shoes. She decided to break her tedium by doing something impulsive, and left the House to go get some ice cream, except the ice cream shop had been replaced by a multireality ice cream conglomerate currently undergoing labor disputes and the picket line turned her back.
On the fourth day, just when the tedium was about to break her, Lorelei returned from one of the many small jobs they had been taking to make ends meet while lounging around Nippon. Meiko was almost thankful for the company, until A) she found out how the job went, and B) Lorelei found out how her life was going.
But A first.
"MELTED?!" Meiko repeated, just to make sure she had heard the word correctly.
"Jeez, it's not like it was MY fault," Lorelei protested, lounging on Meiko's futon and adjusting the bandage on her left arm. "They shouldn't have put the barrels there in the first place. What kind of idiot keeps that sort of thing in that sort of place without some kind of warning sign? Anyway, only three of the five buildings were reduced to component molecules, so I don't see what the big deal is. It's not like we were contracted to protect the superstructure, just the shipment. And the shipment is technically there, just in gelatinous form, so... no problem, right?"
Meiko sagged in her chair. "Ugh. This is going to be ugly, ugly... I'll send some messages, try to smooth things out—"
"Actually, the whole place is sort of a smooth lake of butter already—"
"That's not what I mean! Dammit, Lorelei, I... ooooh! Forget it. Just forget it. Never mind." Meiko rubbed her temples, trying to will the pain away. "You can go now. I'll deal with this later."
"Okay, what crawled up your ass today?" Lorelei asked, finishing with bandage adjustments for the time being. "I mean, chewing me out, okay. I can see that. But you're a lot twitchier about it today. S'matter?"
"Nothing's the matter. ...and you can tell I'm lying, right?"
"I was about to say as much," she continued, sitting more square on the futon, to face Meiko directly. "And you also know I'm going to hound you about it and speculate wildly and generally get under your skin until you tell the truth, so you can save us both a lot of hassle by fessing up here and now. So. S'matter?"
"I'm just... bored," Meiko decided.
"And what, what?" Lorelei continued. "Bored? So? We've had plenty of downtime between jobs before. You're not exactly the action girl heroine around here either, so even ON a job, you do plenty of sitting around the House. Why would boredom be a problem now?"
"Boredom and stress? I don't know. Does it matter? And.. it's been quiet around here. Kisei's out shadowing Mallory all the time, and Eiko's been playing with her friend..."
"It's been quiet around here before, too. Try again. What's different now rather than before?"
"Nothing..." Meiko tried, glancing aside.
Lorelei waggled a no-no finger. "Hounding, speculating, under your skiiiin..."
"Mallory's not around," the other woman admitted. "There. You happy? He's been busy hanging around with those other hims. I don't want to intrude, and he seems to be really determined to learn more about himself, so... he's off with them."
The 'thud' which never happened was Meiko almost falling out of her chair in surprise but not actually doing so. "...eeeh!?" she replied, one eye slightly larger than the other.
"Cuddle time! That's what's wrong. You aren't getting any cuddle time!" Lorelei diagnosed. "Isn't it obvious? I mean, you declare your love what blooms eternal with the passion of a thousand hearts for the boy—"
"—I wouldn't go THAT far—"
"—and what happens? He dumps you in favor of his guy buddies, leaving you all alone in the house with nothing to do but sigh wistfully and compulsively mastrubate to fill the empty void in your heart."
"And I DEFINITELY wouldn't go THAT far!" Meiko continued to protest, to no avail.
"I bet you haven't even given him a kiss since that first one," Lorelei declared, enjoying the teasing as much as she enjoyed the psychological aid provided. "This is the time for you two to explore the new depths of your relationship—and explore each other's bodies—but where is he? Drinking beer and leering at women in some seedy bingo hall!"
"He said that Megumi was just a crossdresser!"
"Oh god, it's worse than I imagined!" she exclaimed in mock-shock.
"Okay, okay, I'm done. Sorry, I couldn't resist. But be honest now..." Lorelei warned, sliding back to a more serious attitude. "That's the problem, isn't it? You miss the goofball. You wish he was here, with you."
Meiko was about to protest again, before registering that the previous question was no longer a blatant effort to tease her. "...yeah. I guess that's it. I haven't seen much of him lately, just a smile and a hello now and then when he pops in to make meals or do the laundry..."
"That settles it, then," Lorelei decided... getting to her feet, ready to make a bold declaration. "It's time for you to take decisive action. Command him, as his boss who writes the paychecks and owns his soul, that he must take you out on a date!"
"Why? Come on, throw your weight around a little! Or is your submissive Nipponese wifey genetic pattern showing its ugly head...?"
"I can't because this is important to him!" Meiko shouted back. "Look... look. Okay. I'd like to have him here, yes. But... you didn't see how he reacted to all this, Lorelei. He's trying to figure out who and what he is! It's the most important thing to him. What right do I have to jump in there and wave my arms and say 'Pay attention to me! Me!'? That'd be... it'd be damned selfish, is what it'd be. And I don't want to be selfish."
"I wouldn't call it selfish to want to be with the one you love," Lorelei relied, switching out of teasing mode again. "Sometimes it's important to have that kind of selfishness. Otherwise... you could lose him."
"You... you don't really think...?" Meiko asked, voice small.
"No, actually, I see that boy slathering after you like a little puppy until the day you die," Lorelei replied. "He's loyal and loving and too stupid to know there are other women out there. It just felt more dramatic to say 'Otherwise... you could lose him.' Sorry. But my point stands—you can only sacrifice so much before you go stir-crazy from loneliness. So, what you're going to have to do is this... you open that door, you track that boy down and you say, 'Hello Mallory, I'd like you to go out with me tonight—'"
A brief knock sounded at the door, before it opened and Mallory stepped in.
"Hello, Meiko!" he greeted, with a cheerful grin. "I'd like you to go out with me tonight. Okay?"
"..." "..." both girls said respectively.
"Ah... is that bad?" Mallory asked, scratching his head. "Err, sorry if I'm interrupting something, but I just figured maybe you were bored sitting around the place and would want to—"
"Yes, I'd love to go!" Meiko blurted out, getting to her feet in a hurry. "Ah, just give me a bit to pick something to wear..."
"Oh, okay. So, it's okay...? I'm not pulling you away from anything important, am I?"
"Not at all, not at all!" Meiko said, experiencing an unusual level of cheerful compliance. "Um, how formal is the place we're going to?"
"Oh, not formal at all! And hey, Lorelei, want to come with us?"
Lorelei studied the boy for a moment. "You want a threesome? Well, it's a bit kinky, but why not? I—"
"Actually, if you're coming, we'll need someone else too," Mallory said, scracthing his chin next while Meiko stared on in confusion. "If Kisei was around, I'd suggest she join us—"
"I am not going to do anything untoward," Kisei warned, appearing from the shadows of the hallway.
"Oh no, nothing untoward," Mallory explained. "Just good clean fun! And you even get to rent new shoes to do it!"
Ten pins flew apart as if hit with a concussion grenade.
"STO-RAIKU!" Eiko cheered, marking a big fat X on her scorecard. "Another ten points for Team M!"
Grumblings arose from from Team Melvin, as team captain Melvin glared down the gloating M as Meiko strode nonchalantly to her seat.
So far, Team M had been completely annihilating Team Melvin. Mallory was a drag on the score, as he had yet to unlock the manifold mystery of avoiding the gutter—but with Lorelei on the team, Meiko picking up the slack and M getting the occasional lucky strike, they were able to jump ahead in fits and bursts.
Team Melvin, consisting of the stage magician (who was merely an adequate bowler) and Megumi (who was in the neighborhood of Mallory's skill level) and Matsuri (who had to be awakened whenever his turn was up) simply couldn't keep pace with them. And as for the cold-blooded, infinitely skilled assassin in the cloak...
...she picked up three pins on her next turn.
"Ooooh, don't worry, Kisei, you'll do better eventually!" Eiko cheered on, from her position as official scorekeeper. "It may take a few dozen games, though. Meiko was the bowling champion of the orphanage, so you don't have anything to be ashamed of when she crushes you completely!"
"...thank you, Eiko," Kisei replied, barely showing any sort of frustration whatsoever except for that little tiny bit that Lorelei picked at like a splinter, flashing her newly established bowling rival the occasional mad grin.
"Now now, this is just a friendly game!" Mallory reminded them all. "We've all had a stressful week one way or the other, and we're here to unwind and have fun! Right, Meiko?"
"Eh? Ah, yeah, right," Meiko said, distracted. "Let's have some fun. Ah, Lorelei, I think you're up next..."
Loreli glanced over from her position, reclining across two of the hard plastic seats with a can of juice in one hand and the other with an arm around the sleepy Matsuri. "So soon? Oh well, if I gotta..." she said with a mock sigh of regret, detangling herself and adjusting her fingerless bowling gloves. Her orange- and yellow-striped ball, the same color as her hair, was plucked effortlessly from the ball return... and with fluid grace, she sauntered casually up to the line...
"All RIGHT!" Lorelei cheered, pumping a fist in the air and doing a hip-wiggle touchdown dance that distracted most of the men in the room who were not named Mallory (for he was used to such things). "What can I say, folks? I 0WNZ0R1Z3 bowling!"
"...what does... zerownzeezerorunzeethree mean?" Melvin asked, nudging his stoic bowling teammate with a prompting elbow, a bit perplexed.
"It is of no importance," Kisei replied, not as smoothly as she would have liked.
"Awww, Kiss, don't tell me you're jealous of my m4d5k1llz," Lorelei teased, leaning forward (and indirectly giving the poor stage magician a good look down her cutoff navel-exposing bowling shirt in the process). "Just because you were too busy learning sharpshooting to practice in the lanes like I used to doesn't mean you're INFERIOR, or anything..."
"There is no particular glory to be found in such a pointless competition," her tormentee responded. "I am only here to partake in ordinary House camaraderie, not to achieve a measure of meaningless victory."
"Ah, so you ARE seeking camaraderie lately!" Lorelei confirmed, with a huffy exhale of triumph. "I was wondering about that, ever since we went to the movies—"
"MEEEELVIN-SAAAN!" Eiko called out, eager to get on with tallying up these fun numbers. "You're up next! Lorelei, I'll institute a delay-of-game penalty, reducing your score by 23% if you don't sit down! ...hee hee, it's FUN being the judge..."
With a pout, Lorelei plunked down in her prior seat(s), resuming her enjoyment of company that was too tired to put up much of a fight. "Spoilsport," she mumbled to Eiko.
And so, the next competitor rose. Summoning what pride he had left after the continuous nine frames of being absolutely routed by his enemy, Melvin reached for his purple bowling ball, and walked to the line with confidence...
"...almost over, isn't it?" M called after him. "Hope you can get a strike, Mr. Presto Chango, or you guys are going down the tuuuubes..."
It was one very simple dig at him. By itself, it wouldn't have done a thing, harmless as a fly. But when you added that fly to the buzzing horde that had been hovering around Melvin all day, through nine continual frames of teasing and prodding...
...Melvin decided to swat those flies.
Without much of a swing, he lobbed his ball wildly down the lane. It was headed right for the gutter... until with something between a sneer and a smirk, and a snap of his fingers, physics bent to his will like an iron bar made of papier mâché.
"Abracadabra," he mumbled under his breath.
M shot to his feet like a slingshot. "That's CHEATING!" he accused. "I thought we agreed not to use any powers, dammit!"
"Who, me?" Melvin asked, pushing his hands into the pockets of his traditional magician's vest (never leave home without it). "Why don't you ask our official judge if I was cheating...? Eiko-chan? What do you say?"
Eiko glanced back to the pair. "Huh?" she asked, a little dazed. "Oh, sorry... I was distracted by this really cute stuffed animal that was hovering over there just a second ago..."
"She didn't see a thing, so my score stands. Q.E.D.," the master of illusions declared.
"Yeah, well... it ain't standing for long," M declared, grabbing his jet black ball and pressing on towards the lane, shouldering Melvin out of the way. "In fact... let's see how it stands up to THIS!"
With a crack of purple light, more flash than he really needed but exactly as much as his anger desired, his ball flew down the lane at subsonic speeds. It never even touched the glazed hardwood, before...
Even with three of the pins shattered on impact, there was no mistaking the final score. All eyes of the bowling participants turned on the scene in sleepy ignorance / confusion / horror / distraction / silent contemplation / amusement / anger / satisfaction, respectively—with an additional bit of adorable bewilderment from the official judge.
"Uh... I think that's thirteen pins," Eiko replied. "I don't know how they got there, but... that's a score of 13 for M, so his team wins. Right?"
"That's right! We win!" M repeated, shooting an 'Eat THAT!' look at his rival. "What's the matter, Melvin? You're the one who started this with your carny tricks! If you can't take the heat, get ... out of the... lanes?"
The participant in this little game weren't the only ones watching in confusion and awe. In fact, everybody around them, in the surrounding lanes and the concession stand and even a few near the arcade were watching.
"...I think it's time to go," Lorelei decided, getting up. "You know, for a secret society, you guys completely suck at keeping things a secret. I'm going out for a drink. ...want to come, Kiss?"
"I have other duties," Kisei announced. "But I concur with your suggestion that we depart. Quickly."
M growled under his breath... and promptly passed the blame like a hockey puck. "Dammit, Melvin, you HAD to start something, didn't you...? Mallory! Come with me. Let's get back to our training. Somewhere else."
It didn't take long for the small gathering to disperse. Mostly.
Meiko finally looked up, seeing her adorable little sister's questioning eyes up close and personal.
"We better go," Eiko insisted, tugging at her oneechan's hand. "Come on!"
"...I guess he had other things he wanted to do instead..."
"Nothing," Meiko spoke, getting up. "...let's go home."
Creation spun from his fingertips.
The powers of gods were his to command—creation, destruction, transformation, translocation. Nothing was beyond his reach, and nothing escaped his sight. His mind felt connected to everything and anything and nothingness itself...
But mostly nothingness. In fact, all nothinginess. Because he wasn't able to create anything, destroy anything, transform anything, translocate anything and everything escape his sight. But the nothingness, that he had down, as he squinted so hard his vision blurred while nothing whatsoever happened to the cardboard box. It squatted at the end of the alley, taunting Mallory into doing something, anything to it...
"I've almost got it!!" Mallory declared, hoping that saying it would make it so. It did not.
"Maybe cardboard's too much for you right now," M suggested. "When I first started practicing I couldn't do heavy stuff either..."
With a slump of the shoulders, the drained Mallory leaned against the alley wall. "It's not the weight... I just can't do anything," he said. "I keep trying to focus like you've been teaching me, imagine it moving somewhere else, projecting myself making the thing happen and seeing the before and after and centering myself and humming and chanting 'I think I can, I think I can' mantra and nothing's happening..."
"I don't get it. You already had your breakthrough," M noted, scratching his slightly unshaven chin. "Both Melvin and I, once we had our breakthrough and used our powers for the first time, that was it. We had them. Sure, we had to practice and refine 'em and learn our own tricks but it's not like we were blocked as bad as YOU are..."
"Are you sure it just takes one use? I mean, what if it's because I've only been using them unconciously? ...or is it subconsciously?"
"No, the first time I did it, I threw a desk at someone who was bullying me at school. But I wasn't actively TRYING to throw the desk, it just sort of happened. A lot like what's happened to you so far—it pops up when you need it."
"That's it, then!" Mallory declared, gaining a tiny shred of optimistic glee. He hunted on the ground with his eyes and then his hands for what he sought... "It pops up when I need it, so what you do is... I know! Take this rock here, and throw it at me!"
M took the rock, glancing at it uncertainly. "Uh... you sure?"
"Yes I am, and don't call me Shirley!"
"I didn't call you—"
"I'll have to turn my back, so I can't see it coming," Mallory decided, rotating 178 degrees. "Okay. Surprise me!"
When Mallory woke up, Melvin already had an ice pack generously donated by the ramen stand around the corner, which the bruised boy accepted gratefully.
"...maybe I'll never be able to use it," Mallory pondered gloomily, his shred of optimistic glee having been knocked out of his head by a speeding rock a few minutes prior. "Not unless it happens completely by surprise, which means... I can't train myself to use it."
"It's a possibility. I won't pretend I understand everything about Us," his companion noted, kneeling down to maintain eye level. "I'd hate to think all our training sessions have been a waste of time, though... or that you'd be unready when he finds you again. I've pretty much given up on the others, but you I had hopes for..."
"Hey hey, don't write me off yet! I'm still willing to try. I have to learn this. I HAVE to."
"For your girlfriend, right. You said that. You know, you can do more with these powers than that, as much as I'm an advocate of self-defense. I mean... we've got POWERS! And with great power comes—"
"I was going to say great side benefits, like not needing to worry about mundane things like food, sleep, travel and so on. All the boring worries of life can be handled by powers! For instance, I can sometimes make food out of thin air, and if not, it's a small matter of relocating some to me—"
"Theft?!" Mallory explained, 70% of him more upset at the idea of stealing food someone else put their heart into preparing than the 30% that was just upset about stealing. "M, that's awful!"
"No, it's appropriation," M justified. "Look, Mallory, we're not like normal people, okay? We're above that. If there's one thing I really want you to understand through our training, it's that we're special. I won't claim we're some sort of gods, that'd be really stupid... but we'd also have to be stupid not to take advantage of our advantages! Even Melvin uses it for his stage shows, as lame as that is, so he can make a living. And clearly he had some fun today at the bowling alley with his powers—if he wasn't such a jerk about it too, I'd be applauding that! Or Megumi, for example... if she would just open up to it instead of acting like it's some horrible childhood secret she has to suppress, she'd understand too..."
Mallory glanced down. "I understand how Megumi feels, sometimes. It's not like this is all positives, M..."
"It's enough positives to make a difference, though! It's greater than the sum of its parts and stuff. Too many positives NOT to use them when and where we want just because of the negatives! You, for instance—you want to protect the ones you care about, yeah? So how is that any different from me swiping a sandwich now and then? It's survival, in the end. Survival through what makes us special, Mallory! What's so bad about that? So why not go beyond basic survival and really enjoy yourself, too?"
"I don't care about being special!" Mallory barked back, some rare fire entering his being. "The only reason I'm studying my powers at all is so I can keep her safe! I told you that. So I'm not going to use it like... like HE uses it!"
The night air got chillier.
"...you really see me acting like him, then?" M asked, half defensively bitter and half totally spooked at the accusation.
"N.. not as such," Mallory retracted quickly. "Just... it feels like it, you know? The whole do what you want and damn the torpedoes stance. Like, he's killing us, because he can, because he's special. And he... he cheats. He cheats reality just to get his way. I don't want to be a cheat, I don't care about being special, I just want to do what I have to do. ...I think there has to be some reason behind all this, beyond just granting us the power to have a good time. Something we all have in common..."
"The only thing we have in common is our whacko birth situaiton, I told you that. The theoretical reality accident that split us up."
"Okay, but where did we come from? No, I know you don't know that," Mallory replied. "But that has to figure into this somewhere. ...do you ever have dreams?"
His counterpart glanced nervously aside, at the nighttime traffic of Edo. "...no," he chose to reply. "Not really, no."
"I've had dreams now and then of this place... I mean, dreaming of a place is no big deal but this one was really weird. Because it had a blue sky—"
"—and green grass?"
Mallory focused the whole of his self on M after that. "And green grass," he confirmed. "Blue sky above, green grass beneath your feet. And there's water, from a stream. And there's birds, and trees..."
"They're singing," M replied, lost in his own memory for a fleeting moment. "I've never heard birds singing, except on video streams. Any sort of ecosystem involving animal life forms is a luxury item usually only spared for expensive designer realities. I've never been to any of those. Have you?"
"There were trees and rivers on Grünwald, but no birds. So why were we both dreaming of birds? And... and there's this girl there. She's smiling..."
"Oh. Well, that breaks that," M decided, snapping out of it and ready to dismiss the dream immediately. "No chicks in my dream. Just lots of cheesy nature ambiance. Mallory, it's just a coincidence—"
"Like a fire escape being right where I need one to be?" Mallory replied, still serious even if his companion wanted to escape seriousness. "How about locks vanishing off Kisei's door when I wanted to go in, or someone talking about a house on fire when Lorelei and I had to escape? How many coincidences are REALLY coincidences?"
"Okay, so that means you projected your dream at me just like your other weird random power incidents, or something. Don't think that everything is a vast conspiracy, okay? ...even if it is. My point is, we're both tired, it's late, we're getting nowhere with the training so maybe you should head home and get some rest."
Mallory got back to his feet, not realizing exactly how heavy his body felt until he tried to lift it. "...I'm tired, yeah. And... oh, uh, Meiko... she's probably worried sick..."
"You want to try training again tomorrow, after the group meeting? Zero progress just means nowhere to go but up..."
"...I'm not sure. I'll decide tomorrow. I want to do this, but... I don't know. My head hurts."
"Probably because I threw a rock at it," M noted.
"Yeah, there's that, too."
Nighttime at the House is quite a different beast from Daytime at the House.
Daytime at the House consists of the occasional group meal, Mallory running around tidying up, Eiko getting underfoot as she spreads her playspace to consume more and more rooms, Lorelei playing either couch potato or pest or both, and Meiko either holed up in her room working on job offers or chattering away with her employees about some issue or another. In short, even if that is long, it's a busy and noisy House.
At night, it's the polar opposite—a quiet and sedate House. Eiko sleeps very soundly, Lorelei (when she's there) tends to crash after a pub crawl or a healthy workout session or both, Kisei keeps to herself, Mallory snoozes on the couch and Meiko either works, sleeps, or sneaks downstairs for some milk. The few times two conscious people do bump into each other—usually Meiko and Mallory—it's a quiet, simple conversation about simple things rather than the hectic day to day business of the day.
Tonight was going to be very different from that and at the same time very similar... a quiet conversation that was anything but simple. Milk would not be involved, despite Mallory's desire to revert to such simple things.
It began simple enough, with Mallory arriving quite late indeed, surprised to find Meiko waiting for him, sitting on his couch / sleeping space and thumbing through a business magazine.
"Ah... hey," he greeted, quietly latching the door shut behind him. "Can't sleep? Need a midnight snack?"
"No, I'm okay," she said, setting the magazine aside for now... and trying to find the best entry point into what she had planned, and despite having mulled the possibilities for hours, the best she could come up with was: "Ah, have a seat next to me?"
Mildly (but only mildly) puzzled, Mallory did as told, settling down on the couch next to her.
The awkwardness would have been adorable, had anybody been around to observe it.
"You first." "No no, you."
(This was also adorable.)
"Uh... this is about me not spending much time at home lately, right?" Mallory asked. "I've really been meaning to spend more time, but with the training and all I haven't found a lot of chances to—"
"I had no honest idea how to approach it, so thank you for jumping the gun and asking," Meiko answered, relieved. "I mean, how do you say something like 'I want you to spend more time with me' without sounding like the typical selfish and posessive girlfriend I'd really rather not be? Just because Lorelei says I need 'cuddle time' doesn't mean I have any right to deprive you of your own life outside this House even if I am your boss, so... ...I'm sounding a bit like you, aren't I?"
"Errr, what? Huh?"
"Going on and on without really having any idea where I'm going to," Meiko explained, in a Mallorean sort of way.
"Uh... I get where you're going," Mallory replied, trying to detangle what others usually have to detangle for him. "I mean, I understand, you'd like me to be around. I'd like to be around! Nothing wrong or weird or selfish about that. But... with great responsibility comes great power, or something. I've learned that! Or something like that. So I have to keep training. Even if my training isn't going very well. Or going at all. Anywhere at all. I have to keep trying!"
"Why is that, anyway?"
"Err... why? Why what?"
"If you don't mind me asking... I'm curious. Why are you working so hard to train your powers?" Meiko asked, turning a bit to face him. "I hate to be blunt about this, but it's the only way I know, and I've been curious. Now that I have you in one place for a few minutes, I have to ask—I mean, I haven't seen you hammer away at something this hard since your REC Test studying. But that was because your job depended on it. Why this? Originally we were tailing this guy and working with him so you could learn the truth, but... you learned the truth already. Do you also have some sort of desire to use this power of yours?"
"..maybe?" Mallory guessed. "I mean, I don't WANT to. I'm not... not really that special, I'm just me. But I have to learn how to use them. That's just the way it is. No way about it, no ifs, ands or buts and I have to teach an old dog how to make a silk purse out of a pig in a poke if I'm going to protect you. It's not like I WANT to be away from the House to—"
Mallory caught on to what he just transmitted, with a 2300ms lag.
"Ah... you know, as in... protect," he said, trying to find a gentle way to put it. "From... that guy. You know."
"Mallory... THAT'S why you've been training?" Meiko asked, dead serious. "You're thinking of taking on your copy from Antiparadisia?"
"It's not like I want to!" he protested. "But if he finds us... if he finds us and I can't stop him, who else can? Lorelei and Kisei couldn't stop him! I can't let him hurt you. Or me! Or anyone!"
Meiko sat back, looking straight ahead... digesting that. "So... that's why."
"Uh... kind of, yes. You did ask, so..."
"...okay, I need to clear this up right now," Meiko said... turning back to her boyfriend, and adopting a slight boss poise. Just a slight one. "Mallory, it's not your job to play knight in shining armor. I'm not expecting you to defend me, even against him."
"Wait until I finish, please," she requested, putting one finger to his lips. "In Antiparadisia... he got the drop on us. I'll admit to that; we got trounced and for good reason. But what did I tell you when I agreed to help you find out the truth about yourself? I told you I'm a problem solver. Mallory, this is what I do for a living, and if I can't do it for the ones I love... I don't have any right to do it at all. If I'm at risk—my whole family, this whole house, you and me—then I'm going to have a hand in defending myself. I'm not expecting you to do it all, nor do I want you to do it all."
"They couldn't fight him, yes. Not at the time. We know what to expect now, however... and I seriously doubt, knowing those two the way I do, that Lorelei and Kisei are going to just sit back and accept that they're ineffective against him. Those two don't lose a fight that easily and not start dreaming up ways to win the next round... and neither do I. We're going to face him together, all of us, if it comes down to it. I'm hoping that it won't, but... we'll do everything we can."
"Uh, you can ask questions now," she noted. "Sorry, I just really had to get that out."
"...so... you don't think I should train anymore?" Mallory asked, confused.
"You can if you really want to, Mallory. I'm not going to stop you. I won't be the type who demands you stay home, or live your life some particular way," she explained. "I'm just saying... don't think this is all resting on your shoulders, that you have to beat yourself up trying to save us all. We're all supporting you as much as you support us. That's how I run my business... and I'd like to think that by this point, we'd do it even without contracts. I can't really speak for the others, but... that's how I see it. So... what do you want to do? What's most important to you?"
"...voted off the show! It's, like... justice finally comes to 'Nippon no Aidoru'!" Megumi bubbled onward. "Kazuya shouldn't have made it past the first two elimination rounds when my heroine Kaori got bumped off early. That's just so great, it's like I was right the whole time and nobody believed me but me!"
"It's important to believe in yourself," Melvin recited. "Anything that gives you affirmation of your life is a good thing. You know, Megumi, you may want to try out for that show next season—I bet you could go far, if you believe in yourself!"
"Are you NUTS?!" M protested, leaning forward to jump into the conversation he had no interest in moments ago. "A televised appearance by one of Us? That's just like dangling the carrot out for HIM to come along and beat us with the stick over! We've got to keep a lower profile than that, Mr. Magic Bowling Fingers."
"I'm not the one who created more pins than actually existed, Mr. Mystery Man Wannabe."
"If you hadn't—"
"—started using your powers I wouldn't have had to use mine! And—what is it, Mallory?"
"I gotta go," Mallory explained, getting up from his chair. "I promised Meiko I'd take her out to the movies tonight, so I have to leave a bit early..."
"Early? What? We've got more training to do!" M reminded him.
"We can do it some other time, can't we? I'm sorry, M, but... I want to make time for my life, too. And for her. So... I gotta go. When's the next meeting—Tuesday, right? We can train after that one."
"Well... if you want," M agreed, watching his counterpart as he headed for the door. "Are you sure this is what you want, Mal...?"
"Yeah... I am. I really am," Mallory said, with a smile. "I'll see you all later! Thanks for the meeting."
The door closed behind him, and the meeting resumed falling into bickering and pop culture and other Usian activities without Mallory.
It would have been nice, if the meeting remained so uneventful.
"...which is why we're going to have to start thinking of fundraising activities," Melvin concluded, after his presentation to the group. "If we want to do more group activity, we'll need more money. With Mallory on board I feel this we're gaining terrific momentum—really getting a critical mass of Us together, you know? Enough so we can make group outings worthwhile, instead of just two people, and two sometimes-theres."
"I'm not a group person," M reminded, bitterly.
"With a growing group, your apathy won't be a problem," Melvin jabbed. "In fact—"
A quiet knock sounded at the community bingo hall door.
"Ah, good! I was getting worried!" Melvin exclaimed, full of pride as he answered the door. "Guys, I'd like to introduce you to a new friend... I've been communicating with him on RealNet for a few days now, and figured it was time to bring him into the fold..."
The smiling boy who looked just like them walked in with confidence and good cheer.
"Hello, sorry I'm late," he apologized, with a little formal bow. "Work was really quite intense today back at my day job, so I couldn't pull myself away in time... ah, Melvin-san, your friend in the trenchcoat looks very pale. Is there a problem...?"
M jumped from his chair, pressing against the wall with fright he knew would be fatal to have, but he couldn't get rid of. "Melvin... Mel, you... YOU IDIOT! That's HIM! THAT'S THE ONE!"
"What?" Melvin asked, confused. "You... oh, good grief, M. You don't mean the one in the purple glasses you keep going on about? Do you see purple glasses on this guy? Honestly, you can be so—"
The flames that engulfed the sleeping Matsuri were bright and brief and very fatal.
"...you really shouldn't trust strangers you meet on RealNet, Melvin," Multi spoke, slipping his glasses back on.
A stack of newspapers appeared where M stood.
Then the newspapers were immediately replaced with a horrified M, who only had a moment to not react before being clocked over the head with the chair he previously sat on.
Melvin tried to defend himself, but the burst of playing cards and shiny coins and rabbits he produced from his highly focused powers did nothing.
As for Megumi, she could do nothing as the smiling, kindly boy advanced on her.
"I... I don't have any powers!!" she protested, cowering in a corner of the bingo hall. "None, none! I'm not a threat to you, I swear, I SWEAR!"
"No powers...?" Multi asked, surprised. "You haven't found them? That's such a shame! You have such potential—I can sense it in you. What if I said you could turn yourself into the girl you always wanted to be? All you have to do is focus on it. Focus everything you have on the one thing you really want..."
"..p...please leave me alone..."
"I said, FOCUS," Multi commanded, the sound of his voice completely overpowering to the nervous crossdresser. When given an order like that, when you're desperate, you'd do anything to survive... including cooperate.
Silent purple light briefly flashed in the corner of the hall, giving Multi a momentary pink aura.
"There... you see? That wasn't so hard," Multi soothed, resting a comforting hand on the now purely female's shoulder. "That's all I want from the Multiverse... for people to truly reach for the limitless possibilities. Not to limit themselves. To become glorious... just as you have now."
"I... I'm a girl?" Megumi asked, her voice higher and more natural. A mild hysteric good mood hit her. "I'm a girl! I'm a girl, I'm a girl at last! I'm—"
She slumped to the floor three painful seconds later.
"I'm so happy you could reach your true self," Multi told her body. "I'll remember your fine example in the wonderful future to come... hmm..."
Only one left, as M slowly struggled to his feet, his head filled with warm cotton from the chairshot concussion.
"One, two, three, four..." Multi counted, approaching M with great patience. "I count four. But I remember from one of Melvin's mails that you now had five in your fold. According to my years of work, that would be the last five that exist, other than myself. Where is he...? Where is the one I've seen before, the one who escaped me...? His name. His address. The names of the girls who are with him. My leads at Antiparadisia went dry; I'm afraid I was a bit too ... extensive with them. So instead, you're going to tell me everything I need to know..."
M snarled, trying to pull power into his hands, to shape a wave of reality itself at his enemy. "Go stick your head in a pig, you—"
The wave snapped back on him, driving him against the wall. Multi only had to use one finger to pin him there after that.
"I'll keep you alive long enough for you to tell me," he explained. "I've finished my work for that corporate slavedriver Gillian Bates for the day, so I have hours and hours before I have to report back to Reality Prime. Hours and hours to make you talk..."
Despite the pressure, despite the pain, despite the feeling that all of reality was being turned against him and he could do nothing... one thought was crystal clear to M. That Multi was right. He'd talk.
Which meant he only had one option.
With a scream of defiance, M filled himself with power. He drew reality waves from all over Nippon to himself, letting it flood... and overload.
The explosion caused the wall he was pushed against to cease to exist. As did Multi's right hand.
It had been a pleasant evening's stroll across Edo, until Mallory was swept off his feet by an assassin moving at three times his maximum running speed.
He didn't even have time to ask what was going on or panic before he found himself in the kitchen of the House, deposited there by Kisei. Moments later Lorelei arrived from her own remote call, and Eiko climbed down from her bedroom to find out what all the noise was about...
"Good, you got him," Meiko told Kisei, as calm and still as an iced-over pond, as she crossed the House to take a seat at the RealNet Workstation near the Engine. "We're leaving Nippon immediately. Everybody get ready for transitioning, I'm going to find us a dock as far away from here as possible as fast as possible..."
"Whaaaa... what's going on?" Mallory asked, as soon as he could regain his breath... and caught the note out of the corner of his eye. A simple piece of paper, with some hastily written words on it...
"That appeared on the kitchen table three minutes ago," Meiko noted.
He's found us here. Everybody at the bingo hall is gone. I can't help you. Get out now. - M
estate copyright 2003 stefan gagne)
[unauthorized use is strictly prohibited]
Note: there is an actual company called RealityPrime, providing consulting in VR and game technology. It is not associated with Stefan Gagne and Unreal Estate.