Hank sat on the sofa in his suite with his hands in his pockets, staring at what was left of the food Rio had brought for his breakfast. He told Milton he was hungry, but eating was the furthest thing from his mind. He hadn't called in sick to work at Asok's, even though his shift for the day had already started. He thought about using the excuse of having just been PEPed and finding out he was a Dot, or maybe even the fact that the Satō's had embarrassed him, but he couldn't bring himself to do it.
It had been years since Hank told a lie—to anyone about anything. In fact, he couldn't recall having ever lied at all. How would he explain skipping out on work because a crazy rich guy and a hot lady assassin wanted to be friends?
"And that creepy dog," Hank said out loud, to hear how dumb it sounded.
He spent a long time sitting there, staring at his boots. Rio must have snuck in to polish them during the night, because the scuff marks they had yesterday were gone. He examined the new clothes he wore, and some of the other things he found crammed in the closets and drawers. Everything was nicer than anything he'd ever owned, and Milton told him he could keep whatever he wanted.
"Anything and everything," Hank recalled, repeating Milton's words. "Well," he said with a huff, "I might as well see what there is."
He found his way down to the basement, where Rio said many cool things were. Besides having few doors, Milton's estate also seemed to be lacking in light switches. There were fixtures and lamps in every room, but most of them weren't lit, and Hank couldn't figure out how to turn them on. Enough were lit, however, to allow him to poke around in the semi-dark. He first found a two lane bowling alley, conspicuously missing all its balls and pins. Not that it mattered, because the power for the lanes was off.
Across from the bowling alley was a movie theater, big enough for thirty people, with plush leather seats that swiveled and reclined. A control panel on a side wall glowed, apparently there to run the projectors from inside the theater. Hank couldn't get it to work and, like the bowling alley, he figured it wasn't turned on anyway. There also was an exercise room, as Rio had mentioned, filled with free weights and machines. Past the locker room showers were a whirlpool bath and sauna.
Another hallway separated the recreation area from a grand dining room. It also could hold thirty people, if not for a giant table set square in its center. Even so, the room was designed for lavish parties, and Hank wondered who might be on a guest list to eat with these strange people.
The far end of the dining room held the biggest surprise of all—two sets of stainless steel, double hinged doors. Each of the four doors had a round window in it and, except for the sauna, they were the only doors Hank had found on the entire estate. He peered through one and saw a dimly lit master kitchen. Like the four doors, every surface in the kitchen was made of shiny stainless steel. It looked fancy enough to serve food at a five star restaurant.
Hank made his way upstairs to the great hall, then down the transverse hallway to the lunchroom. From there, it would have been easy enough for him to go home, using the portico path. But he had no time to think about leaving, nor even to decide whether he wanted to go, because Rio was in the room. She sat at a table with her back to him, eating ramen noodles for lunch. She didn't look at him, but he didn't need to make eye contact to know she knew he was there.
Hank mustered up the courage to sit across from her at the very same table. She gave up trying to ignore him, and allowed him to engage her in conversation. It was easier than moving to another table, and she figured he'd probably follow her if she did.
Like a koinu-chan.
"I enjoy eating here," she said through a polite mouthful of noodles. "Milton and I hold out hope that Others like us—like you—will find this room. We send Bumbles every day to look. We were surprised he brought back a Dot."
Hank's mouth went from hanging open due to the aroma of Rio's noodles to hanging open because she had insulted him by calling him a Dot. She feigned apologizing with a half-hearted compliment.
"Milton is sure you're the one he wanted when he Realed up Bumbles."
Rio put more noodles in her mouth. Even though she used a fork and held it like an American, she picked up her bowl and shoveled in food as if she were using chopsticks. She spoke through another polite mouthful while glancing at the vending machine.
"Plus, you can get what you want to drink from that thing over there."
Hank resisted the urge to peer into her bowl, or to ask what she was eating, and chose a more pertinent topic. "I thought you didn't believe he could Real stuff up."
Rio heaved on a sigh, resigning herself to entertaining Milton's guest with her opinions. "I guess I don't know what to believe."
She cast a killer glare at Hank to get his nose out of her bowl, making him feel like she was sighting him in with a rifle. This time, he defended himself.
"You're really scary when you look at me like that."
A smile grew on her face. "Scary little Rio. That's me."
Hank got up to microwave a bowl of noodles for himself. He didn't think he was warming Rio's heart, so he tried a direct approach. That seemed to work best.
"Why don't you like me?" he asked with his back to her, facing the microwave.
She spoke into her noodles. "I never said I didn't like you."
"You look at me like you want me dead. Like I deserve to die. Like you're deciding which method of death you want to use on me."
Hank's assessment of Rio caught her by surprise. It also caught her with enough food in her mouth to make it hard to stifle a giggle. He saw her making faces while trying to swallow when he came back to the table sooner than she expected. He again sat across from her, hoping her goofy behavior was because she found him witty, and not because she'd soon enjoy killing him.
At least I got her to smile.
Rio set down her bowl and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she tried hard to not look like a murderer.
"I don't believe in you," she said kindly to his face. "That's all."
Rio swallowed the last bit of noodles in her mouth as Hank watched. She closed her eyes again, as if doing so would make the world go away. Or at least the part of it that contained Hank.
She scolded herself behind her eyelids. How could we think about trusting this guy? About wanting this… this…
Rio scrunched her face, trying to find a way to describe him without using cuss words. Realizing she looked stupid, she opened her eyes and relaxed.
The world still contained Hank. At least he was being quiet. It was one of the few things she liked about him.
Shimatta! He's so puppy-dog cute! She shook off her conflicting emotions, and replaced them with a look of stone.
"Here," she said, opening a laptop she had with her. "I will show you something."
After a long pause, Hank said, "Okay."
Rio rolled her eyes. "You have to sit by me to do it."
She played four videos at the same time, showing global conflict—one each from Central Africa, Afghanistan, Israel and the Middle East.
"These people have been at war for centuries. Some of them, it's all they know." She placed her finger on the video from Africa. "This is where bad guys got their start. From here, they moved north, to the Middle East."
She switched to a map of the Eastern Hemisphere, circling Asia and Africa. "They now own most of this."
"Own it?" Hank asked. "How can that be?"
Rio chose not to explain. Instead she continued her lesson, placing a finger on Japan. "Next they came to my country. But I stopped them."
Hank's eyes grew wide. "You stopped them?"
Rio was never more serious. "Hai. Shimashita. Dead cold. It won't last."
"How do you know?"
Rio traced her finger on the map, down to the Philippines, then through Micronesia and Polynesia, toward New Zealand. "They followed me, killing people I knew. Killing anyone near me. Everyone."
She flipped on a news channel that covered the Pacific theater. After some scrolling, she pulled up an article whose headline read 'Australia To Go It Alone.' A sub-headline read 'Plans Made to Block Foreign Ships.'
"Australia will go isolationist. They are following New Zealand's lead. They've already blocked planes and ships at sea, except from the U.S., the U.K. and Australia."
Hank blinked in disbelief. "Have you not heard of this?" Rio asked with derision.
"Uh… yeah. Well, I guess. I'm not much of a news reader."
"You'd better start. This stuff is coming our way. United States Navy patrols the Pacific and Indian Oceans at levels higher than World War Two. NATO troop strength at bases overseas are at capacity, with efforts to get them higher. China is militarizing the entire South Sea, building airstrips out of sand. Russia destroys Western credibilty with misinformation campaigns."
Rio paused to assess Hank's reaction. As Milton had already discovered, all he did was stare at her laptop. She slammed it shut in his face, making him look at her.
"The world is in a powder room ready to explode. Boom!" she said with suddenness, waving her hands in his face to see if he'd jump.
Hank merely blinked, confused by her mixed metaphor. "What's stopping them?" he asked after a moment.
Rio made a sour face. She said nothing, but her demeanor gave her away.
"The only way out of this mess is finding someone kinder, better and stronger at Reality Making than Milton or me. And the only person I see who can do that is, unfortunately, you. We're pinning our hopes on you. That's what this whole thing's about—finding you, to rest the fate of the world on your shoulders."
I feel the same way, Rio thought into Hank's nearly deaf mind.
"Good luck," she said, failing to hide disappointment. "You're gonna need it."
We all are.
"Look. I'm gonna finish eating, okay?" she said out loud. "Forget what I said. I don't think you're the guy we want, and that's my opinion. Leave me alone."
Rio gulped at her food, trying to hurry up in order to leave the lunch room. The timer on the microwave had dinged long ago, and Hank gave her a moment of solitude as he left to get his noodles. She got a few more seconds of peace as he blew on the bowl to cool it.
Hank also hurried with his eating. I wish I could leave you alone, but I can't stop thinking about you.
Rio shot him with an instant killer glare. "What?" she said, very loud.
Hank gulped down a wad of noodles, scarcely chewing. "Nothing! I didn't say anything!"
Rio harrumphed and frowned, as Hank found a way to finish first. He slurped up the last bits of soup and chicken as he walked to the double sink. He rinsed his dishes, placing the spoon in the dishwasher and the paper bowl in the garbage can under the sink.
Rio slowed her eating to enjoy seeing Hank move with haste. She snickered under her breath as, with guilty pleasure, she watched his cute butt leave the room.
"Chiisai koinu," she said, once he was gone.
As Hank headed towards his quarters, Rio ate the rest of her meal in happy silence, even though it had grown cold.
And even though she found she couldn't stop thinking about him, either.
- Upright. In the Den.
- Sci-Fi Action Adventure, propelled by a little Romance.
"Arise!" The star-studded empress of night
Gave me the keys to her city.
Bathed me in breath, told me of plight,
Force-fed my conscious with pity.
Pointed toward East, down past the yard
Through revolving doors of her courthouse.
Megaphones cry. "A guinea a head!
"Everything's fun at the Circus!"