Chapter 1: A Fruit, a Maze, and a Maid

Satoshi Fujio sat at his desk, head cradled in one hand as he scrolled through a draft he'd just typed out. It seemed to be fine, so he mailed it off to his superior, Takedo Munabe, also known as Balmung in The World. Although superior seemed to be a misnomer; even though Fujio was his assistant, the two treated each other as contemporaries, equals. Munabe never made Fujio feel as though he were the lesser employee. He was very open, honest, and earnest about his job, because it directly dealt with the World he loved. Fujio was jealous that his boss could enjoy his job so much. Still, sometimes the shorter man felt like a parent forcing his kid to do his homework when he shoved paperwork onto Balmung. After all, he couldn't do it by himself, as much as the other tried to "delegate" it all in his inbox. He absently pulled out some stacks of paper that also needed attention.

At times, while Fujio was doing routine paperwork like this, he would let his mind wander over his life, the ups and downs and what ifs. Where would he be five years from now? Ten? Twenty? Still at the same job? With the same company? With the same Bal… boss? How long would this career last? He sometimes pondered what would happen if a more inviting job came along. The epitome would be a history teacher. It had always been his favorite subject; he even chose his screenname from the word for history – "rekishi". He idly wondered if anyone knew the meaning behind his name. But if even such an opportunity to quit came, he reflected to himself, he didn't think he could just leave. It wasn't as if he was dearly needed. There were probably dozens of other office drones that could take his place, but…

Fujio sighed, filling out another rote stack of paperwork. His pen was beginning to run out of ink. That was just it with offices. No matter how pervasive computers got, there would always be hard copies of tedious forms. Cramps instead of carpal tunnel. Munabe hated it, he knew. The Descendant would rather be onsite with his winged PC, immersed in the game, then having to work with office details. If he left, Munabe would be bogged down with more work, and he'd be much less happy than he is now. Fujio could never abandon Balmung like that. It was for his sake that Fujio kept the job, despite the workload.

"Are those reams done yet?"

Fujio was jolted out of his musings by the sound of the subject's voice. Munabe walked into their joint office (no cubicles for them – four closed walls and a door. Utter privacy) with a grocery bag in his hand. Oh right, it was lunch break. That observation didn't escape the Azure Knight.

"Working during break? That's won't do. Have you had lunch yet?" he asked.

Fujio shook his head, "Not yet, no." he nodded at the sack, "What's in the bag?"

"Peaches!" he announced, setting the bag down, and indeed, there were many yellow-and-red mounds, their sweet aroma rising. "They're in season, and on sale." Munabe continued, "Want some?"

"Yeah, thanks." Fujio reached for one, restraining himself from snatching. If there was one fruit he liked (and craved) above all others, it was peaches. He loved the velvety skin and the soft tangy sweetness inside. He knew about them being in season, but hadn't bought any yet. Fujio bit eagerly into the peach, juice running down his throat. He closed his eyes, savoring the taste. "These are delicious" he said thickly.

Munabe sat down and grabbed one himself, briefly tossing it in the air and catching it like an apple. He took a thoughtful bite, shoulders instantly relaxing as he mumbled through the fruit in his mouth, "Mmm, you're right. They're perfect."

"Heaven on earth." The blonde man added, starting on a second and throwing the first pit into a rubbish bin.

Munabe chuckled through his mouthful. Swallowing, he said, "Hey, Fujio, no wonder you're so stodgy, you're popping those peaches like pills."

Fujio also swallowed, miffed, "What do you mean?"

"Well," his boss shrugged, "peaches are ancient symbols of longevity. Maybe you've eaten so many, you've turned into an old man."

"I don not act like an old man!" Fujio pouted, "Sorry for liking peaches." The Descendant just laughed.

"Hey, I'm just teasing, Fujio." The two sat in silence for a while with the dwindling fruit. It was Fujio who broke the silence first.

"Hey, Munabe-san, how long have we worked together?"

"Hm?" his superior just made a three-point shot into the bin. "Oh… two and a half, three years. Why?"

Fujio leaned back in his chair, "Do you… do you think you can call me Satoshi? 'Fujio' sounds too formal."

"Satoshi-kun?" Munabe said aloud, making a face, as if trying to see how it felt in his mouth. But the shorter man shook his head.

"No, not with the kun. Just… Satoshi."

"Satoshi…" he folded his hands behind his head, leaning back, reflective. He nodded, "Ok. Satoshi it is."

"Thanks." Fujio nodded. After anouther pregnant pause passed spent eating peaches and pitching pits, he eventually piped up, "Um… could I call you Takedo?"

Munabe looked up, then smiled. "Hm? Of course you can."

Fujio nodded, murmuring a "thanks" under his breath, smiling softly. It was moments like this that he felt most content. Just sitting in peaceful, comfortable silence. No work, no stress, no obligations, no pretenses… just them. Together. And the peaches were a major plus, Fujio thought to himself, happily eating anouther fruit. It was sweet, though highly unlikely, of his boss to share them with him. Normally, he would've bet anyone that Takedo would buy some, eat them all himself, then act surprised when he learned that Satoshi liked them as well. He was interrupted of his thoughts by the subject's voice once again.

"What? I'm sorry I spaced out." Satoshi said.

Takedo rolled his eyes, smiling, "Just like my Reki, being so absentminded." He chuckled at the slightly disgruntled look on his subordinate's face, "But seriously, what were you smiling about?"

A shrug. "Nothing."

"Hey, it's not like you to smile for no reason. Tell me." Takedo nudged him.

Satoshi frowned, "No, it's stupid." It earned him anouther nudge.

"C'mon, tell me!" Takedo insisted, grinning slightly.

"It's nothing important. Just drop it, ok?" the blonde man grumbled. Takedo ignored him, however, and leaned forward, peering into his face. Satoshi was uncomfortably aware of Takedo's proximity – he could feel the older man's breath on his face as he gazed expectantly. Satoshi diverted his eyes away from his boss's, which were very close, his slightly smiling lips just below…. There was a little bit of peach on his mouth.

"Satoshi, are you all right?"

An unexpected question. "What?" he asked, snapped out of his mental ramblings again.

Takedo's expression turned from slightly teasing to concerned. "Your face is red."

Satoshi covered his face with his hands. "O-oh, is it?" he stammered.

"Yeah… is it too stuffy in here? I'll open a window." Takedo stood up from his seat and strode over to the single window and opened it a crack. "Better?" he asked. Satoshi silently nodded, willing the flush to go away from his face. Meanwhile, his boss looked at his watch and shook his head. "Hey, we gotta get back to work. That event won't make itself!"

The two cleaned up the table and each went to the pair of side-by-side desks where two terminals and FMDs lay. In silence, both men put on the goggles and opened up The World, logging in.

Balmung and his assistant Reki warped into the blandly dark Administrator room, where a number of employees were already doing maintenance. A few greeted the two when they logged in. But the pair warped immediately afterwards directly to a field where some graphic designers and programmers were busily working. The field was large, covered with flowering trees arranged in formulaic rows. Balmung approached one programmer.

"How is everything getting along?" the winged admin asked, serious.

The programmer looked up from her special window. "Oh, everything's fine, Balmung-san." She said, "Trent-san came up with the maze generator algorithm. It's quite skilled."

Balmung nodded, "So is it one maze..?"

The woman shook her head, "No, it'll be different for every party. That's why they need to register; a certain maze with be assigned to their particular group."

"Impressive. I'll have to talk to Trent later. What's his real name?"


Anouther nod. "Right, I'll talk to his superiors. Thank you." Balmung turned to Reki, "Get me the area specs while I inspect the area."

In Whisper Mode, Reki shot back, "Meaning I do the work while you enjoy the pretty graphics." Switching quickly to Normal Talk Mode, he merely replied, "Yes, sir." and walked off.

However, when Reki returned with the files from the other workers, he was surprised to see the Descendant waiting patiently for him, actually refining some code and helping with the aesthetics. Balmung was acting quite out of character today, he noted.

"Shall we go, then?" Balmung asked solicitously when he looked up and saw Reki.

The shorter man merely nodded, hiding his surprise as Balmung added him to his party. Balmung asked something of the programmer about something, but Reki looked at the graphics. They were skilled, indeed: A large grassy clearing made up the spawn point, entirely surrounded by orderly rows of impassible flowering trees. The pink petals drifted down in a favonian breeze; Reki vaguely felt like he was in some shoujo manga. The lone gap in the trees was dark, where a loading screen would take the party to their custom predestined maze. Looking at the specs, he already knew that the maze itself would be like the spawn area with tree boundries. He stopped his musings before Balmung had a chance to disrupt them. It was good timing, for a moment later he asked Reki "ready?" and departed.

The screen went black for a moment with the usual little "The World" loading icon hanging off the corner. The field came back with the full colorful verve of before, with pink, black, green, and blue.

"So… which way?"

"Huh?" Reki looked to Balmung, who was smiling expectantly.

"There are two directions available to us." Balmung continued, pointing the paths out, "Which way should we go?"

"Couldn't we just look at the maze generator? Surely it'd have a map." Reki reasoned. At this suggestion, Balmung pouted.

"Oh, c'mon, Reki," he said, "A maze is meant to be explored. It's no fun if you have a map already. Let's enjoy ourselves!"

Looking into the administrator's smiling face, the younger man conceded. "All right, all right." Looking both ways, he arbitrarily picked a direction. "Ok, left." he suggested. Balmung nodded, and gestured for him to proceed. As the pair took a few turns without a loading screen, Reki broke the silence again.

"The lag is really low for such a large area." he mentioned.

Balmung smiled, "I made sure the programmers worked on that. It'll withstand heavy traffic, too. This way, it's more like a maze."

"The game map is turned off, too."

"Of course!" the winged man snorted, smoothing out a feather, "I'd be surprised if they overlooked something like that. Besides," he added, "some people like to draw out the map in events like these. It used to be a necessary skill in older games, I'm told."

"No maps? Tough." Reki mused as they entered a clearing with an ornate fountain. "Nice touch" he added, pointing toward the fixture.

"I thought it'd be nice if there were decorations to break monotony. Those programmers are geniuses." Balmung said, "It took a good deal of work, too. The overall effect is nice – there are other things around as well."

Looking around, Reki muttered, "It kinda makes me think of that movie, though – 'The Shining'. Ever heard of it?"

Balmung frowned, "Remind me."

Reki leaned against a frothy tree, fingering his leather-bound book thoughtfully, "It was an old horror movie based on the Steven King novel. Two parents and their child went to a secluded hotel, and the dad went crazy. The last scene in the movie was the dad chasing his son through a hedge maze in the snow. There was a fountain in the middle, I think." He took a breath and finished, "The kid and his mother escaped with another man, and the dad was frozen over the next morning." At this, his boss's frown deepened.

"Reki, don't say such depressing things. I want people to have fun!" the admin studied the scenery, "Should we change it? It's only a couple of days away."

"No, Balmung-san, please don't." Reki said forcefully, "You'd get lynched by the programmers. And I don't want to lose you."

"Eh?" the older man looked at him quizzically.

"Oh, um," Reki shifted his weight, "Well, I consider you… a friend. How many employees can say that of their boss?" he smiled, which turned into an exasperated smirk, "Besides, I doubt you could ever find someone who puts up with you like me."

"Well, you always seem to find me when I do some research." Balmung said thoughtfully. Reki snorted, placing a hand on his hip.

"'Research'? Is that what you call it when you run off to play, leaving me to deal with all the work?" Instead of looking chastised, the admin merely smiled brightly.

"Of course! In order to know what kind of events the players want, I must immerse myself in The World! One can't think of good events when stuck in a stuffy old office."

"The brass doesn't see it that way."

"I don't expect them to."

Reki sighed, not angrily, "So while you ditch me, I'm the one who has to deal with the consequences. Which means I have to waste 'precious company time' looking for you. Then the work piles up and you dump it all on me."

Balmung frowned, "Do you resent having the job, then?" Reki shook his head, then gave a sardonic grin.

"Didn't I tell you you're the hardest person to work for? But I also said that you work hard, regardless. If your priority is the players, and not the paperwork, I feel like I can get something meaningful done by getting it out of your way."

"Then why don't you do my report then?" Balmung joked, earning himself a whack with the book, exclaiming a satisfying "ouch!"

"That's not an invitation." Reki grumbled, then sighed, "C'mon, we need to get through this maze. Everyone probably thinks we got lost or something."

"Or making out." The winged admin said, nodding sagely, chin cupped in hand.

Reki's face reddened immediately and said, "Balmung-san, please don't joke like that. It's disturbing." Turning to leave down the top path, he called, "I really hope that isn't a top line with you. You know how rumors in the office are."

"Yes, yes, I'm sorry." The admin laughed, following his subordinate. "Anyway," he said after a long pause, "Speaking of which, what do you think about Magi and Kamui?"

Reki stopped and turned around, incredulous, "Excuse me? What about them?"

Balmung shifted his wings, feathers rustling, "Y'know… do you think they're..?"

The shorter man rolled his eyes, "Didn't I just say not to spread rumors? I doubt they're like that."

"Really? C'mon, that sort of devotion doesn't come with just a paycheck, if you know what I mean." Balmung said, ribbing Reki with a devilish grin.

"I don't know. I think they just have a common enemy. Or have similar principles." Reki shrugged, taking a right-hand turn at random.

"'Common enemy'? Who? Matsuda? He was joking about them before." Balmung pondered as the pair passed a marble roadside shrine.

Reki suppressed a groan, but couldn't stop putting a hand to his head. "Balmung, it's you." He said, "The other day, I saw Saitou wringing out a dishtowel in your tea mug."

"Urg, that's gross. I hope you washed it out."

"Of course I did, although…" now it was Reki's turn for an evil smile as he looked back at his boss, "If I left it in, the look on your face would've been priceless!" he chuckled, but Balmung looked a tad miffed, feathers literally ruffled.

"Do that, and I'll double your workload." He huffed.

"Oh nooo, don't. An assistant's worst nightmare!" Reki laughed, more at his boss's sour expression than the threat. Strolling down a long corridor and taking a right, Reki smacked right into a loading screen. "What-?" he said instinctively, then waited for the area to load.

When both players reached the area, a large sculpture was in front of them, somewhat taller than a Gott Statue. It was of a sibilant (though blank) eyed woman on a stone lotus with an ornate background. The design and fingered pose was extremely Indian. A female voice called out:

"A small eye at the end
Grew in the sight of a larger eye
Observed by another eye.

The first eye stops all it sees
But many of them together
Makes only silence.

The second eye is curved
And cannot see on its own
It merely grows all in its scope.

The last eye you can never see
But there is no riddle in me,
Only the uttermost verity.

What am I describing?"

There was a pause, until Reki said, "That's pretty tricky. Is this randomized as well?"

Balmung shook his head, his wispy hair fluttering, "No, it's the same one. But why don't you guess?" he smiled.

The shorter man sighed; of course Balmung-san wouldn't tell him. "Ok… the first eye is small, at the end of something, and stops everything… Medusa?" he pondered, but shook his head. "But it wouldn't be silence if there were a lot of Gorgons, unless they were sleeping," he sighed, dragging his fingers through his hair, "That can't be it. Um… silence… wait!" he snapped his fingers, "Ellipses! The first eye is a period mark."

"Very good." Balmung smiled.

Reki began the second verse: "Okay, a curved eye… but all eyes are curved, because of the lens, right? A lens?" he scrolled to the last line, "'grows'? Like a zoom lens? Or a scope?"

His boss shook his head. "Think more low tech."

"Oh, a magnifying glass, right?" Reki said after a brief pause. A nod proved him right as he read the last paragraph. "Hmm, I can never see it, but this riddle is true… Oh!" he pounded a fist in his hand. "A period mark enlarged by a magnifying glass with a person looking at it!"

Balmung grinned as the statue disappeared, leaving only a treasure chest in its wake.

A few hours later, Reki finished the last of his work and yawned. He turned the computer off (after carefully saving his files), stood up from his desk chair and stretched. Some days just seemed to go on forever. Satoshi slid his various papers into his briefcase and walked down the hall to the elevators. Right when the doors opened, though, a voice cried out, "Wait! Please hold the door!" Satoshi held his hand out to block the doors while he jammed a finger onto the "Door open" button.

It was Takedo.

"Oh, Satoshi, hi." He said cheerfully, laden with his own briefcase. However, he didn't appear to be as tired as his assistant, who only greeted him with a nod. The ride to the ground floor was silent, but Satoshi couldn't help but notice the contrast between his own weariness and his boss's energy. Whereas Satoshi thought he could only make it to his house before collapsing, Takedo's eyes were bright and lively, his lips were smiling, and he was even humming a little tune.

"Something wrong?"

"Huh?" Satoshi was thrown off a moment. Takedo smiled at him in amusement.

"You're staring at me. Do I have something on my face?"

"Oh, n-no, sorry. Just… lost in thought, I guess." The younger man shifted his weight uncomfortably. How embarrassing. Takedo chuckled.

"You seem to be doing that more often. Don't let it affect your work."

"Yes, sir." The blonde pouted.

Takedo raised his eyebrow, "Er, I was joking. You don't need to be so formal." The younger man nodded tiredly, suppressing a yawn.

"Sure, whatever you want."

"That's more like it." Takedo smiled. The elevator reached the lobby and the two men stepped out, then out of the building. "See you tomorrow." The older man said.

"Bye" Satoshi replied.

He walked down the street, treading a familiar path to the train station. It was a definite perk that the office was walking distance to the train – just a fifteen minute walk. Satoshi took out his commuter's ticket and ran it through the stile. Because of the late hour, the train was on the empty side, and Satoshi took a seat near the doors. It was a bit difficult to keep awake during the forty-minute ride, but he managed it. Not like the drunk salaryman across from him. It always seemed that they wake up before their stop. How people did that, he had no idea. Habit, he supposed. From the train station, Satoshi sluggishly walked toward his apartment complex, climbed the stairs (the elevator was broken. It always was), and found his door: apartment 306.

"God, I'm tired… I'm home!" Satoshi called as he slipped off his office shoes for his much more comfortable house slippers.

"Welcome back, 'Toshi!" an answering voice cried.

A young woman stepped from the kitchen into the entrance hall. She had a rather bizarre appearance, her dark, streaked hair in two short, puffy pigtails, and elaborate makeup on her face. Her dress was no less strange, covered in frills, lace, and ribbons; it was offset by the neon streaks that slashed geometric patterns across the soft fabric. Her fingers were covered by many rings, from a colored steel rose with twining vines to what appeared to be a mechanical nut. The only ordinary thing about her were the white socks that peeked through her lace-trimmed leggings.

Satoshi noticed all of this, and asked with a raised eyebrow, "Just got back, then?"

The woman nodded, and answered in a chipper voice, "Yep! I had a great time with my buddies. Went to a coupla bars, and some guys stared, but I don't care." She shook her head, hair bobbing, "By the way, I bought the groceries. I noticed the list and what was low, so I took some money and made the store the last stop."

"Oh, thanks. Sorry, I was going to do it today, but... sorry, Liu Mei" he sighed and shrugged, but she smiled.

"Hey, it's alright, I figured The Man would chain you to the grindstone."

"Mmm, Takedo's not too bad, just… enthusiastic."

Now it was Liu Mei's turn to raise an eyebrow, "Ohh, onto first name terms, are we? And without an honorific, no less!" she giggled, "What caused that change?"

"Just… I dunno, he doesn't act like my boss at all. More like a friend."

Liu Mei paused thoughtfully, "I can see that. I've always thought the elaborate corporate formalities were crazy, anyway." She looked around, "But what are we doing, standing in the hallway? Y'want something to eat? Or something to drink? I got some strawberry Calpico with your name on it, 'Toshi" she said in a singsong voice.

Reki shrugged and walked to the dining room and plopped onto the square table. "I dunno, I'm just tired."

"Did you get dinner?" Liu Mei asked, taking a chair on another side.

"Hmm… I guess I forgot. It doesn't matter." Satoshi yawned.

However, the woman slammed her hands on the table, standing up. "Yes, it does!" she said, "You have to eat properly, or you're gonna get sick! I made some dinner for you, actually I'll heat it up for you, ok?" she smiled.

Satoshi sighed, but smiled, "Thanks, Liu."

As the woman went to the kitchen and sounds of a microwave drifted out, the blonde thought about his roommate. He really should've taken off earlier; it was his turn to get the groceries. Maybe he could make it up… he thought about the other chores that needed to be done. The laundry? Well, his own he could take care of, but Liu had a lot of clothes that needed special care, mostly handwashing. Well… the difficulty would make the gesture more appreciated, but he had to ask her about the specific instructions. The last thing he wanted to do was to stain or ruin his roommate's costumes. Now that he thought about it, did she have a normal outfit..?

"Here y'go, eat up!"

Giving a thanks, Reki ate his dinner (not bad for leftovers, actually). Looking at Liu as she read a magazine, it was difficult to imagine her without the ornate makeup. The only time he saw that was when she was late and didn't have time to do her makeup in the bathroom.

Still, he didn't have much more time to think, since he went to bed soon after finishing. After all, he had to go to work tomorrow, probably to oversee the last-minute preparations for the event.

That night, Satoshi Fujio dreamed of dancing peaches hitting him with takoyaki picks, but he forgot it in the morning.


Cultural Notes:

-Corporate relationships: As some of you probably know, Japan is very big on being polite, and showing deference to your superiors. This also applies in the workplace, particularly in big companies. So the fact that Balmung is so easygoing with his subordinate Reki is unusual. Just how rare this is, I don't know. I think it could be more common in a game company…

-Names: Part of Japanese politeness is referring to someone the proper way. There are a number of titles for different positions (like in America), but also a number of honorifics. For example, when you meet someone, you call them "last name-san". Think of it like a "default setting". First names are more familiar, but having no honorific at all is pretty close. So for Reki to ask his boss to call him by his first name alone means they're very good friends. Again, this might be more lax since Balmung doesn't use an honorific for Reki in-game, but Reki always calls him (in the manga) "Balmung-san".

-Peaches in southeast Asian cultures are symbols of longevity, and are often depicted with an old man in Chinese art. Thus the joke Balmung made.

-Shoujo manga girl comics, usually dealing with relationships more than boy comics. It's a wide genre, including everything from Sailor Moon to Kare Kano. One image that seems to crop up a lot is the nostalgic scene of falling cherry blossom petals, thus Reki's comment about the field, even though they're peach trees.

-Calpico is a drink in Japan, though the original name is "Calpis" – if you say it aloud, you'll see why they changed it to Calpico for the American market. It's pretty good stuff, actually.

-"Cosplay" is a combination of the words "costume" and "play" – basically, it's people dressing up either as fictional characters or just in weird clothes.

-Takoyaki is a snackfood that is fried dough with octopus, usually served with spices or a special type of sauce. They're cooked in a special molded pan and turned over and eaten with pick-like skewers.

Other Notes:

-I used "sibilant" in a different way, because I wanted to experiment. If Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare can, I don't see why I can't.

-As for Reki's first answer to the riddle… well, his dialogue is text – therefore he saw his own "dot-dot-dot" on his screen

I know a lot of people probably already know what shoujo manga and cosplay is, but I wrote these notes so everyone could appreciate it. Just in case, you might say.

Anyway, I started writing this about a month or so ago, on and off, since I had an urge to write a BalReki fic I asked a friend for a one-word prompt, and she said "peaches" since I was eating some at the time. Since I posted CyberEpi (finally), I thought I'd give this fix to you all as a "I'm sorry for taking so long" gift…. So, without further ado here's the 100-word drabble I wrote first from that:

OMAKE: The Original Drabble That Started This All

Reki always liked peaches, so when a friend of his dropped off a small grocery bag of them on his desk, he was quite pleased. Reki eagerly bit into the first one. Nice and juicy! He ate them quickly, and his boss walked in right as he took a last bite, some juice still on Reki's mouth.

Balmung looked disappointed, "You ate all those without me?" he asked.

"They are mine." Reki grumbled.

"Well, I want a taste, at least." Balmung said, capturing Reki's lips in a kiss.

"Share next time." He said, smiling and leaving his assistant quite flustered.