Fandom/Pairing: .hack//SIGN; BT, Bear (some BT/Bear)
Rating: ESRB Rating of T for Teen < complexity, oddness >
Summary: Eight late-night conversations between Bear and BT.
Notes: Official names are used where given. Where not given, I used the name of the voice actor. Also, names presented in Japanese order (family name then given name) because I prefer it. Story set after the ending of episode 26, but progressively further after it. Also, Yubiwa means "ring".
In their private grove, Bear rests his back across BT's knees. She gently places her hands on his head. Runs her fingers through pixellated strands she cannot actually touch. He smiles.
She asks: "How are things on the outside?"
It's a lame question, one she wishes she hadn't asked. But it's an honest question. They haven't met up 'on the outside' in a while. In a weird way, a way she doesn't entirely understand, she misses him. She misses seeing him. His unruly hair. The ever-present stubble on the left side of his jaw. The mood ring he wears in place of a wedding band. Here in The World, she has his voice, but that isn't enough. She almost can't remember when it was.
She tries to smile for him, but it feels false on her face. Like her skin is plastic and she's just stretching it thin. Of course, The World's ability to create facial expressions is limited. All she has to do is make a weak effort at smiling and the game fills in the rest. BT, the 3D character, is not capable of an insincere smile.
Bear lets out a relaxed sigh. "An is… happier. I think you have Megumi and Mariko to thank for that."
Megumi, BT has learned, is Mimiru, just as Mariko is Subaru. Bear has never used their surnames or given away their locations, but BT has easily surmised that they are all in the Tokyo area. After all, that's where he is, and that's where An is.
"How did the custody suit go?"
He chuckles. For a brief moment, her insides freeze. It's an indecisive feeling and she hates it. She wants him to chuckle like that more often. She doesn't want him to laugh at her.
"It's still going. The judge seems rather confused as to how or why I became involved, but it's clear that An can't stay with her father."
"So it's just a choice between you and a foster home." She laughs softly. "If I were you, I'd be confident of victory."
"I am. It's just a matter of time."
She gives him a real smile this time.
They make eye contact. It shouldn't mean as much it does—their eyes are pixels, just pixels, 3D renderings of the eyes of people they aren't—but it does mean something. There's something so very real about the way his eyes slant away, to look at something else, after just a moment.
It's a stupid tightrope dance, this online-offline fling thing of theirs and she hates it, hates it, hates it. One minute, it's not real; it's just who they are online. The next, it is real and she really is dating Sakuma Ryo, really is somebody special in somebody else's eyes.
"We should meet offline again sometime," she says at the same time he murmurs, "An and I are going to watch Megumi's baseball game next Monday. You're welcome to join us."
In the real world, her smile grows larger. But in The World, her smile doesn't change. "I'd like that. The usual time?"
"The usual time. Do you think you'll be able to make it?" He pauses. "I don't want to get An's hopes up."
That's a lie and they both know it. Shouji An doesn't care all that much about Kanagata Machiko. They were never that close. The girl can't possibly be eager to see her. He's really saying, I don't want to get my hopes up.
"I think I should be able to make it. I haven't taken a day off in a while. But no guarantees."
It doesn't matter, of course. He'll hope to see her anyway, and she'll try her damndest to get off.
When they say anything at all—Machiko knows those sweet silences, knows them all too well—Subaru and Tsukasa are still talking about the baseball game. Evidently, Mimiru's miracle slide at the end of the final inning is something worth debating into the night. Then again, there's a topic they're all trying hard to avoid: Shouji Akihiko.
She remembers the sudden tension in Ryo's grip on her hands, the way he stared into the rear of the crowd. She barely saw Mimiru's fantastic slide into home because of worry for him.
In The World, she catches his eye.
"I just checked the computer clock. Girls, you have classes tomorrow. You should probably go to bed." There's just a shade of authority in Bear's tone, but it gets the point across.
An is clearly used to hearing unspoken commands, and Machiko knows that Ryo's heart breaks a little as they both watch her boy's body nod. "I should sign out."
Tsukasa is gone immediately. Subaru turns, smiles at BT, and is gone as well. Mimiru didn't sign in at all, having been exhausted from first the game and then some sort of team outing after that. They'd only had a few moments to congratulate her on her victory before the coach had whisked her away.
Once they are gone, Bear heaves a sigh. "I wonder about those two sometimes."
"Would you rather talk about it in our glade?"
He looks at the busy, thriving Root Town around them—mostly players in other time zones are on by this time—and nods. They gate out together, arrive together.
Bear flops down on illusory grass, at first in a relaxed position, but after a moment, he sits up, covers his eyes with his hands. "Shouji is showing up more and more often. He's been standing outside the gates of her school…"
She puts one arm on his shoulder. "It has you that worried?"
"He isn't supposed to have any contact with her." Despite the medium, in that instant, he ceases to be Bear. He becomes Sakuma Ryo to her. "I don't understand why he's even fighting for her. He mistreated her so badly, Machiko. It was like he didn't even want her."
"Even if he didn't want her, she was still his. You of all people should know how strange humans can be. Annwn was partially about humanity's unwillingness to let go of what belongs to it, wasn't it?"
He looks up at her, startled. Probably startled in more way than one. "You read that one?"
"I did. And yes, I picked up on that bit of symbolism with the ring." She looks down at his hands. It's a reflex gesture. She feels silly when she looks back up. Of course the mood ring isn't there. This is Bear, not Sakuma Ryo. "Did you start wearing your mood ring during the writing of Annwn?"
He laughs, a genuine belly laugh. "You know, you're the only person to guess that. Everybody thinks I started wearing it when I started writing Yubiwa."
She smirks. "I'm right, though, aren't I?" A brief shake of her head. "It worries you that he doesn't want to let go. Because if the abusive father doesn't want to let go… then does the abused child? As much as you tell yourself that you are not An's father and cannot make up for your mistakes with your son, you still feel threatened."
"As if Shouji is going to steal my second chance, pluck it right out of my fingers." He makes a vague gesture with his hands, one of deftly taking something. He lets out a rueful sounding chuckle. "Like a Twin Blade."
"I wouldn't take the metaphor that far, but…" She sits down beside him, covers his hand in hers. Ryo won't feel it, of course, and neither does she, but he seems to take some sort of comfort from the sentiment. "In any case, you have no need to worry about Shouji taking her away from you. He might be her father, but you actually care about her."
"Thank you." He chuckles. "When did you get to know me so well?"
"I believe it was when we started dungeon-crawling together." She laughs with him. "I still can't believe I got out of the 30's because of you!"
"I just can't believe you were still in the 30's after you'd been playing that long."
They both pause.
"Are you sure that's all that's bothering you?"
"We both know you don't like to bring reality into the game."
She frowns at him. BT's expressions are not as perfectly coached as Machiko's, so it probably doesn't have the subtle shades of concern and hurt that mar her real face. "We also both know that I'm in Sendai and you're in Tokyo. This is the only way we can meet up, usually. So why should I mind talking about reality here with you?"
He looks over at her, then turns to gaze at the night sky. It's so vivid. She almost thinks she could reach up, splay her fingers, grab a star. It's the way she felt when she was eight years old. Machiko doesn't doubt that he is mentally composing some beautiful metaphor for the sky above them.
"It looks like you've beaten me at my own game," he says. With a sigh, he turns to look at her again. "It's about An and Mariko. There was some sort of chemistry between Tsukasa and Subaru. Before they met in the real world."
"I assume Mimiru mentioned that to you?"
He nods. "The tension doesn't seem to have abated. And now it's showing up in their interactions as An and Mariko."
Machiko and BT both laugh. "Does that bother you?"
"Sort of." He gives her a rueful smile, rests his chin in his hands. "It's not that I dislike… that orientation. I'm just not sure how to handle it. There are fewer physical risks in this kind of relationship, but just as many emotional ones. I don't want her hurt again. And I'm not sure that her attraction to another woman isn't just residual trauma from Shouji."
"And, to top it all off, you aren't even sure it's your place to handle it. You aren't her father. As of yet, you aren't even her legal guardian. So you don't know if you should say anything, do anything, or even watch."
He gives a quiet nod, fingers intertwining with hers.
"If you want my advice, the wisest thing to do right now is to watch. A lot of younger girls, especially ones who have been abused, tend to mistake close friendships for something more. Wait, watch, and if An falls apart, be there to pick up the pieces." She gives him a smile. On Machiko's face, it is confident, dazzling. A smile with intent. But BT's face makes it seem enigmatic. "I'm sure you can handle that much, right?"
"I've never had to pick up the pieces of a teenaged girl before."
"Well, hopefully this will all end amicably and you won't have to."
But it won't, Machiko is sure. First love always hurts.
"I still can't believe I won," he says, his character staring at a small, half-full glass of amber liquid in that ridiculous bar in Carmina Gadellica.
"I think maybe we should log out before you start trying to drink yourself into a stupor in a video game."
He looks up at her, an illusory glint in his eye. "And then how am I going to ramble drunkenly at you?"
"You could call me, maybe?"
"On the telephone? At two in the morning?"
"I'm awake, aren't I?"
From behind the bar, the PC bartender gives them the fisheye. "Is either one of you going to order anything?"
"I just did," Bear tells him, voice distant. He looks at BT with something like wonder on his face. "Do you… actually want me to call you?"
BT stares back at him.
Bear pays the bartender and logs off.
Five minutes later, she hears the phone ring and logs off, herself.
It's Ryo, of course. She's almost surprised that he's called her so quickly. But she isn't surprised. She knows him too well.
"Congratulations," she says as soon as she picks up the phone.
"Thank you." His voice is tired, so tired he almost doesn't sound happy. "I still can't believe it."
She snorts, just as she did the first time he said that in the game. "Honestly, Sakuma-sensei, I don't know why. You're a perfectly suitable candidate for guardianship, she obviously needs one, and you know and trust each other."
"Sakuma-sensei?" She can just imagine him tilting his head a little. "It's been a while since you've called me that."
She fights down a blush. He can't see it, of course. But it's still there and that bothers her. She isn't some teen with a silly crush. She's a grown woman approaching her thirties. An ex-model. Unflappable.
"It seemed appropriate."
"You know, I was overjoyed when Meihua told me she was pregnant with Tian." A sigh. "I never thought things could go so wrong."
"Maybe it's none of my business… But I don't think it'd be fair to An if you kept thinking of this as your second chance."
He takes a sharp inhalation. She can imagine the stung expression on his face.
More than just a tiny part of her finds it disquieting that the first stung expression she imagines is Bear's, and that it is only after that moment that she can imagine Ryo.
Their glade again. It's late enough that The World doesn't even bother to create night sounds or background music for the forest. The night sky is barely visible through the foliage. There's nothing special about it—not that she can see, anyway—except that it's theirs. So what is it about this specific forest that draws them together? She finds herself wondering that more and more.
Bear gates in not long after she does. Evidently it's dark enough that he can't see her; he simply stands still, probably looking around for her, before sitting down beneath his favourite tree.
She moves toward him, leans against a tree near his.
He looks up. "Have you been waiting long?"
"No. I hope you don't mind that I asked you here."
"Of course not. Is something wrong?"
She pauses, running her words over in her mind before she says them. "Not exactly. May I ask you a personal question?"
He frowns, but nods. There's that patient martyr expression on his face. It's the ballad of humouring BT. She hates this stupid song and dance, wants to break out of their teasing, nowhere-going pattern. But it's a dance created by their personalities. The only way to break out of it is—
She decides to change angles. Instead of the question she had planned, she asks, "Do you ever miss being obscure? People not always talking about how you wrote their favourite book or that book they read in high school?"
He chuckles. "Why do you think I don't tell anybody my name or what I do?"
"I assumed so." Machiko pauses. "Ryo…"
His tone turns sharp. "What's wrong? Is there something going on outside?"
Should she tell him? Is there really any point? Does she have any real reason not to? But what could it accomplish? She hates this feeling. Uncertainty is a weakness she cannot tolerate, least of all in herself.
She nods. Almost speaks. But.
But. But how can she ask this? She's a grown woman. Why should she ask his advice about this? She doesn't really want it. She'll make this decision on her own. So why does she want to tell him?
"Machiko." His voice goes firm. "I'm starting to worry."
Translation: Say something.
She spits it out. "A photographer came to see me today."
He stays quiet for a moment. "So, a job offer?"
"Something like that. He wanted to release photo-book of… me."
Again, he moves. He is nothing more than a dark figure moving closer. "Will you accept it?"
She crosses her arms. "I don't know yet."
"You don't want my advice." She can hear the smile lingering on his lips.
"No, I don't."
"Then what do you want?" Only Ryo could use that inflection without sounding angry.
She knows he defines himself through what he gives and how he gives it. He is always in need of a role to play. It's part of what makes his personality so attractive to her.
"To tell somebody, I suppose."
A few more minutes of silence. He sits a little away from her feet. She moves to sit beside him.
Nothing happens. The forest does nothing. They do nothing. For a few silent moments, they are just a fictional man and a fictional woman sitting underneath fictional trees. And that's all they are.
And for those few silent moments, it's enough.
He breaks the silence by echoing her earlier query: "May I ask you a personal question?"
"Go ahead." She smirks. "But I might not answer."
"Did being famous ever make you feel gratified? Were you ever pleased about people knowing your name on sight?"
Instead of answering immediately, she gives herself time to remember the subtle tension that went through him when Crim shared his personal courage spell. The Silver Knight's comments about the large step forward.
And she knows how to respond. "How did you feel when Crim started quoting your book?"
Silence for a split second. She's startled him. "Surprised. Pleased. A little proud."
She smiles for him, even if he can't see it. "Don't forget 'a little unsettled.' That one's important."
"Do you want to feel that again?"
She shrugs. "It's not exactly a feeling I've missed."
Ryo sighs. He looks over at her. She can see his gaze lingering on her face. It's a tense little three seconds, but then he chuckles. "Well, if you accept, that's one book I'll be buying."
She chuckles with him. "Compared to my last shoot, I'm going to look awful."
"I don't think that's possible." His smile is a glint in the shadows.
"You must not have seen my last spread."
"Was it in a magazine?"
"Two. One American, one Japanese. It was a growing Japanese fashion line trying to spread to America." She shakes her head, remembering. "That shoot was my biggest solid reason for quitting."
He places a hand on her cheek. She can't feel it, but she smiles for him anyway. "Should I find that spread?"
"Please don't. You'll notice how much I let myself go." She forces a chuckle.
Unsurprisingly, he gives in. "If that's how you really feel, then I won't."
Machiko smiles at him, the smile perfectly coached to dazzle, and rests in the certainty of his words. He hasn't even promised and she knows he won't try to find out who she was when she was a model.
For the first time since her final photo shoot, Kanagata Machiko truly hates her job. She hasn't slept yet tonight and Sanzawa Ichiro, the photographer, will show up in about an hour.
She isn't going to break down and cry because of a brief modelling project. She isn't. She has more control than that.
Instead, she's going to go out and kill things in The World.
As BT logs in, she scans the Root Town for signs of life. There are none, of course.
None except for one. A Blademaster sitting on a bench.
She knows it's Bear even from a distance. She'd recognize his character in any position.
"Bear? What are you doing online?"
"Can't sleep." He chuckles a little, but it sounds forced. "Work is killing me."
"You too, huh." Her voice comes out dry.
"You took the offer, I take it?"
"And I'm regretting every minute of it." She smirks, mimics what he once asked her: "So, do you want to go on a dungeon adventure?"
"The problems are that unpleasant to think about?" His smirk is both wicked and understanding and it sets the mood for the hour she'll allow herself. This morning, all his gifts will be razor-edged, sweet little hurts given with the kindest of intentions. This morning, he will be gentle, but not a pushover.
Bear yawns as he stands. "Well, let's go. You want to pick the field?"
"Sure," she says. "Let's switch to Delta server."
He agrees, and within moments, they're at Mac Anu's chaos gate. She smiles and selects three keywords at random.
The field it produces is a grassy, green place, with rolling hills. A quick spell reveals the dungeon on their maps as well as all the Magic Portals.
They look at each other, and then move toward the nearest portal.
She's hit a high enough level that she is able to kill one of the monsters with two physical attacks. Bear, of course, is defeating them all in one blow.
They reach the dungeon's entrance without even having to heal.
As they walk into the dungeon, she asks, "So, what about your work is killing you?"
"The deadlines are closing in on me," he replies as he uses a Fairy's Orb. "And now I'm blocked."
"You, with writers' block?" She casts a spell to up his strength.
"Is it that hard to believe?" He takes a step forward, looks for her to follow him.
She chooses to remain where she is.
Silence. He reacts as graciously as ever—all he is sometimes, she thinks incoherently but with heartfelt sincerity, is grace—and somehow he manages not to look like a bewildered teen as he waits for her.
She must extend the olive branch. To ease the anxiety that has begun to write itself onto his face, she offers: "Would you believe it's been hard to adjust to photo shoots?"
He laughs. "I see. Been away from that line of work too long, then."
"I hate to admit it, but yes." She takes a step forward.
Inwardly, BT laughs a little when Bear offers her his hand. It's only a game, after all. But Machiko elects to accept that outstretched hand, reaches for it as if it were a lifeline. Their fictional fingers twine together, if only for an instant. And then it's into the dungeon.
There's a single message in her inbox, dated not half an hour earlier. Call me. Machiko already knows who sent it to her. Already knows that she will obey.
Ryo answers on the first ring. "What are you doing awake at this hour?"
"I could ask the same of you." She frowns at the clock, which has just ticked to reveal that it's too early and too late at the same time. "Deadlines still?"
"No. Shouji showed up tonight. Last night, I suppose."
"Let me guess. Drunk and belligerent, throwing things at your house, shouting? And you haven't slept since."
A soft, tired chuckle. "Got it in one."
A smile slants it way across her face. She turns off the computer and makes her way to her couch. "So, you aren't blocked anymore?"
"No. I went back, fixed a flaw in the text and introduced a new character."
"And that solved everything?" She must confess to a nagging curiosity. She has never watched him work. He has never told her what it's like to write, and she hasn't tried since college.
"In my experience, writer's block means that something is wrong with the story. That's the story's way of crying out, 'fix me'. If you can find that miracle fix, then the story will come back to you." He yawns.
"You should sleep," she tells him.
"So should you. Why aren't you?"
Machiko shrugs, but then realizes that he can't see it. "I just couldn't fall asleep."
"Is something bothering you?" Maybe it's just how tired he is, but the concern in his voice sounds almost tender.
She remains silent for a while, wishes she had a cup of coffee in her hands. "I'm still a little unsettled by the photo shoot," she admits at last.
"Do you… want to share what has you so concerned?" There's a second, silent question in that gently probing remark. Is it your appearance?
The answer to both questions is no, only not really, because the truth is, she almost wishes that telling others about her problems was in her nature. But it isn't in her nature; Machiko struggled hard for her independence and does not relinquish it easily. Her problems are hers and hers alone. Telling others about any sort of struggle brings both hated dependency and, even worse, always feels like an admission of weakness.
She promised herself too many years ago that no matter what, she would always hold her head high, she would never look down, she would never flinch, and the show would always go on. She would smile her meaningless, dazzling, eventually famous smiles—no matter what the circumstances.
"It's probably just normal after-shoot jitters. I'm just not used to feeling it."
"It's like waiting for grades to come in, isn't it? You feel like you're being evaluated, but in secret, and worse, on subjective criteria." This time, there's no mistaking it. His voice is tender, but it's familiar: it's his musing, almost puzzled-sounding version of tenderness. Usually employed when he's trying to get inside somebody's head.
"Oh, I know I'm being evaluated," she chuckles. She punctuates her unwillingness to say anything else on the matter with a few pointed moments of silence.
As per usual, it doesn't take him long to realize that the topic is closed. Rather than merely change his angle, he drops the subject entirely. "I'm sorry," he murmurs, "I'm going to have to ask your advice again."
"Yet more problems with raising a teenaged girl?" She laughs a little, and yes, it's at his expense, but it's not really cruel laughter. "You realise I'm probably the last person to go to for parenting advice."
He laughs with her. "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."
"Please tell me you didn't just—"
He laughs again, but this time it's a slow, drawling chuckle. In response, the best kind of shiver trembles along her spine. "I'm going to blame the hour," he says.
Machiko rolls onto her side, letting out a little sigh. "Ask me."
"Shopping." He manages to put a surprising amount of kind bewilderment into those two syllables. "Once-a-week shopping outings are normal, right?"
She shrugs, then tells him, "Honestly, it really depends. How long do these trips last? Does she buy anything? How much does she buy?"
She can hear his shrug. "It only takes her a couple of hours, usually. She goes with Megumi, right after school on Fridays. But she practically never comes home with anything. I worry a little."
She knows exactly what he's worrying about—and how much it exceeds 'a little'—and smiles. It's so like him to worry about An being reluctant to spend the money he gives her. Maybe it comes from habits he developed as a writer, but he has a tendency to overanalyze, especially where An is concerned.
Machiko laughs. "There's probably no need to worry about that. I doubt they're shopping to buy anything. We call that window-shopping. It's more a social experience than a hard-target search for something."
She laughs harder at his embarrassed, vague mumble of a reply.
After the third nightmare, Machiko gives up. She kicks her way out of the tangle of sheets that imprison her legs, closes her bedroom door behind herself as a reflex. She presses the power button on her terminal and pads into the kitchen. She presses the button on her coffeemaker and returns to the den. Her login screen already awaits her.
By the time she has finished reading the message boards and selecting a server, her coffee has finished percolating. She waits a moment, scans the rec areas of Dun Loireag for Bear's presence before electing to get up and pour herself some coffee.
BT sits down on one of the rec benches to go through her inventory while Machiko sips her coffee. The early-morning gamers are logging in and out. There seem to be more logging in than out, but she pays that little enough mind.
Dun Loireag has grown enough that it has a drink shop. It's the only Root Town with a coffee shop, and that's part of why Theta remains one of her favourite servers. The rest of it is that the keywords and scenery appeal to her more.
After she has purchased her drink and settled back onto a bench, she sits and watches the morning traffic.
A few minutes into her virtual people watching, the server sends her a notification. Bear has logged onto Theta server. Almost automatically, she sends him an invitation to join her party. He accepts, though it takes him just a little longer than his usual split second to do so. Even with the delay, Ryo's character is moving toward hers within moments.
This time, she's going to call the shots, she resolves. To that purpose, she asks him, almost as soon as she sees him, "Are you on late or early?"
"Early," he says. "Thought I'd put in an hour of levelling before I headed out for some research. You?"
"The same, I guess."
He raises an eyebrow and folds his arms across his chest. He says nothing about it, but she knows him well enough to translate the body language. You guess?
She chooses not to answer the unspoken query immediately. In fact, she says nothing until they reach the Chaos Gate. Just before they gate out, she confesses, "I woke up early and couldn't get back to sleep."
"BT," he says, as soon as they've reached their field, "I know you. You probably went to bed just four hours ago."
She shrugs, uses her Fairy's Orb spell. "I don't go into work until six today. I'll take a nap this afternoon."
He shakes his head, but says nothing. He merely moves in the direction of the dungeon. She follows, idly wondering why the nightmares have come back.
In the dungeon, the conversation turns to other topics.
"Am I allowed to ask about your newest project?" She asks after casting Pha Repth.
"I'll make an exception for you," he replies, slicing a monster down with a few vicious movements. "What do you want to know?"
She shrugs, waits until the battle is over and they're standing around waiting to recover SP to say, "I was just wondering what kind of research you were doing."
He waits a few moments. There's quiet, nothing but the distant wailing of Grunty Food and the dungeon BGM. And then he says, "I'm visiting Yokohama. Doing some research on the Second Pluto's Kiss."
She smiles. "So, a story about what happened in The World?"
He shakes his head. "No. Nothing to do with The World. Just three people trapped in the subway."
BT tilts her head and stares at him. "How long do you expect it to be?"
He shrugs. "As long as it wants."
That's so like him.
Even after she logs off, she can't fall back asleep.
Light crawls in through the sliding glass doors in her living room, painting the rest of the room pink and gold. The navy blue and white décor looks remarkably different with the nascent sunlight drifting in. Everything seems pale, awash in weak yellow and faint pink.
Machiko stares at her living room from her open kitchen. The coffee pot on her counter has ceased to make noise. Almost automatically, she grabs a tall mug—blue and gold, purchased from a pottery shop in Kyoto—and pours coffee as high as she reasonably can. Still on autopilot, she adds milk and a single spoonful of sugar.
Coffee in hand, she returns to her living room. Ryo has sent her an email, even though their characters are in Dun Loireag. Then again, if he had spoken, she wouldn't have heard the message.
The email is two words long: Thank you.
"You're welcome," BT tells Bear. She isn't sure how much she helped him. But if he's willing to thank her, she won't reject him.
No rejections anymore, she thinks to herself, aware of the sunlight that means she needs to start her day, or go to sleep, or something.
Bear smiles at her, but there's a weight to it, a gentle blend of self-deprecation and insecurity. He humbles himself too often, she thinks, but then again, Machiko has never been one to bow at the altar. "You know, this is the first all-nighter I've pulled in ten years?"
She laughs. "What, no all-night marathon writing sessions?"
He shakes his head. "Not since before Tian was born."
She doesn't know what to say to that. So she says nothing at all for a moment.
He seems to sense her plight. "What about you? I assume this isn't your first all-nighter?" A chuckle. "Probably not even your first recently."
She sighs. It's a bone-deep sigh, more indicative of exhaustion than exasperation. She's so tired she can feel it in the pit of her stomach, and she finds that frustrating. Suddenly, the thirties are a terrifying thing. Every step toward thirty seems like a step closer to death, closer to the thousand horrors the elderly suffer.
"I've pulled a few recently, true." A smile haunts her lips. "I used to stay awake for entire nights just to watch the sunrise."
And it's true. There's something about not sleeping that makes her feel included, tied to the world and the moon and the darkness. Her last psychiatrist called it a manic habit encouraged by the amphetamines she took when she was a model. Her mother called it the smug, insane satisfaction of not having a missed a party—even if that party didn't exist.
Now she has different reasons.
"Do you want to watch the sunrise?" He asks after a few moments of silence. "You don't have to stay logged in with me if you don't want to."
BT curls her fingers tighter around the mug that will disappear as soon as she presses the O button. In front of them, Dun Loireag's false sunrise is beautiful. She finds something almost tragic in the pixellated mockery. Its colours take her breath away; pink washes into blue, blooms purple, tinged with grey and accented by gold. As realistic as it is, as well-coordinated, as well-coded, it is just a backdrop on a mid-level server. Just a fixture of a game that they all pay monthly fees to play but carefully refuse to hold too dear.
"I'm watching one already," she tells him.
He looks over at her.
She looks over at him.
"An's interview is today," Ryo says with Bear's mouth. "For the boarding school. I should… I should do something."
"You should," BT agrees, echoing Machiko's sentiments. "Go."
There's a pause as he looks at her. Bear says nothing; Ryo is saying, I don't know what to do. She offers him a smile.
He smiles back. "I'll call you. Tell you how it went." And then he logs off.
Machiko presses O on her controller. The coffee mug vanishes from BT's hands. In the real world, she takes a sip of coffee, then taps the menu key.
Log out. Click.
Kanagata Machiko stands up from the computer. She slides open the door to her balcony and steps onto it, eyeing the not-quite-thriving flowers. The sun is rising on a beautiful Saturday in Sendai. She could easily take the Tohoku-Akita down to Tokyo. Especially now. It isn't quite a two-hour trip. She could be there by nine thirty if she left immediately.
It's with a satisfied smile that she picks up her "travelling" purse and sets it on the kitchen counter, along with a draft copy of the photobook.