Actions

Work Header

Netting a Turtle is a Virtual Affair

Chapter Text

Jin hated working overtime. Regular syscop pay was just barely good enough that he didn't have to consider looking for work elsewhere - not that anywhere else would take him, even if he could leave. Men like Jin Akanishi only got hired in the shadows. If he wasn't a syscop he'd be nothing by now, the way he was when they signed him up, without even a paltry hundred yen and unable to afford even the minimum fee to get on the Net.

Now he was one of the enforcers he'd once despised - one of the snoops, one of the spies - with a proper bank account of legal cash and a place to call home. That was worth a lot, as Jin saw it, which was why even though he hated the overtime, he couldn't turn it down.

Besides, it wasn't like he'd had anything better to do tonight.

He leaned forward, crossed through a square on the calendar pinned to the low board separating his cubicle from Junno's. The puppies on the calendar looked happy. They had chew toys, and doggy treats, and they had each other. What did Jin have? Another cancelled date and numb legs from sitting in the same position for so long.

Junno stuck his head over the edge of the green felt divider. He'd already unplugged himself, preparing to leave for the day. Even off the Net his smile was FFFFFF-bright. Sometimes Jin felt like taking a swing at it, just to see if there was anything in the world that could actually ruin Junnosuke Taguchi's mood.

But not tonight. Jin's love life might be on the rocks but Junno's was going sickeningly well, so much so that when Junno had taken a Hawaiian vacation with his girlfriend, word round the office was they'd eloped. He'd come back whistling and chirpy as ever, though his ring finger was still bare. Jin wondered if he would try again tonight.

"Thanks again for covering for me," Junno said. "Sorry about the short notice but Rena didn't know if she was going to get back today or not. You didn't have any plans, right?"

He wasn't rubbing it in, Jin knew. Junno's voice was practically begging him to say no, he didn't have plans, why would he ever have plans on a Friday night, especially with someone who'd dumped him only that morning. By the time he'd cracked open his eyes, Maki had been up and dressed and drinking the last of his precious coffee stash. He hadn't even been capable of stringing together a morning greeting when she'd said goodbye, leaving his cell phone on the pillow as she strode out the door on her designer heels. She'd deleted her contact details. Jin had had to walk twenty paces to the nearest Starbucks and replenish his caffeine supply before he'd gotten the message.

"No plans," Jin said thickly. Junno couldn't see the black mark across today's calendar square. "Nothing more exciting than shopping for groceries. Go. Have fun. Remember you owe me one next time I need a favour."

"I definitely won't forget."

Junno pulled on a charcoal jacket, pocketed his cell phone, grabbed both his own and Jin's empty drinks cups to dispose of on the way out and left the office with a farewell smile that both apologised for the trouble and hinted at how much he was looking forward to the night ahead. Nakamaru had already gone, claiming he had dinner plans with a group of gourmet friends. That, Jin knew, was code for saying he and his roommate Masuda had found a new restaurant to try, and possibly even some young ladies to try it with, though that part was by no means guaranteed. The night shift wouldn't get in for another two hours. Meisa, their remaining colleague on the day shift, was supposed to be working 10-8 with Junno, but she'd left even before Nakamaru, citing female issues, and there wasn't a man in the office who dared to argue with her.

As a consequence of Junno skipping out early, Jin's 8-6 shift had become 8-8 and their tiny office had gone from relative tranquillity to eerie silence. Even the boss had been out all day; Jin suspected he was over at the main branch in Akasaka, where his partner worked, heading up the overall on-line security for Minato-ku. Tackey didn't need to sit in his tiny satellite office in Roppongi just to keep an eye on Jin. Not anymore. If he didn't log on, they'd know soon enough.

It worried him a little, being the only one in the office. Not the only one in the building, of course. There was a café upstairs that was open all night and an expensive shoe shop downstairs that wouldn't close for another two hours yet. But the windows opposite Jin's cubicle had their shades drawn to keep the nightly gloom away a while longer and the busy streets outside might as well have been a million miles away. No one else in the office meant no one to pull Jin out if something went wrong - if he couldn't log out under his own power and the panic button failed him. Anyone checking his status would know he was logged on, but no one would be able to do a thing about it.

Jin didn't mind that part. He was used to working without a safety net. What he didn't like was leaving himself vulnerable, on display for anyone who just happened to walk in. The office was locked, of course, to anyone whose thumbprint wasn't on the register, but any electronic lock could be picked, given sufficient time and skill, and if Jin was all but dead to the off-line world an intruder would have all the time he wanted.

Damnit. He had to stop giving himself the creeps like that. He couldn't afford to get jumpy.

Teabreak over. The pins and needles in his legs had receded sufficiently to allow him to make it to the bathroom without lurching too badly, so Jin made sure he could log back on for the rest of the shift without receiving any urgent messages from his bladder. It was all very well working in a virtual world, but in the real world, the body's needs took precedence.

One of those needs being comfort. Since Nakamaru wouldn't be back until tomorrow, Jin swiped his cushion and added it to his own chair. Much better. Made it almost bearable. Jin pulled great handfuls of messy brown hair away from the back of his neck with one hand and peeled back the protective layer of sim-skin with the other to reveal the connecting port of the CNS interface. He'd been plugging himself directly into the Net since he was old enough to know not to stick the cable in his mouth; he didn't need to see - he could do this blind. He tugged the cable free from the desk and slid it smoothly into the slot, careful not to force it.

One, two, three...

There was that thrumming, a low-grade vibration beginning in his neck and expanding to fill his entire body. Jin knew he had sixty seconds to make himself comfortable, a single minute before his body would fall back against the chair, lolling at whatever unflattering angle he'd left it in. He'd fallen off, once, from leaning too far forwards when the connection was made. He only knew about it because Meisa had pulled him off the Net to tell him he was lying on the floor - after she'd taken pictures, of course.

Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine...

Every time Jin logged on to the Net, it felt like birth and death all at once. He left his heartbeat behind, the steady rhythm of the flesh fading till it belonged to someone else, to the tired body of the young man reclining behind the desk. That was Jin, but it wasn't all of him. Not by a long shot. The login scripts and the chip in Jin's CNS interface took care of the authentication in less than a second. With an explosion of sensory data and a swirl of pixels, Jin "woke up" on the Net, all fatigue forgotten.

He'd changed his avatar since going straight. No longer the tiny shrimp driving a sleek black Mercedes, Jin now styled himself simply as he was - no fuss, no frills. Some syscops liked to beef themselves up, make their avatars represent them on the Net as they wanted others to think they were, all big and tough and merciless, with bulging muscles and wicked scars, exaggerated like manga characters for maximum intimidation. Jin didn't know anyone who fit that description in real life, even the cosplayers he sometimes saw in Akihabara.

Personally, he found it easier to talk to people if they weren't trying to run away from him. It helped, he thought, that he wasn't bad-looking. His avatar depicted a young Japanese man in his late twenties, with wavy brown hair that curled around his neck and a small mole beside his right eye. It was the work of seconds to change clothes from the extensive selection in his electronic wardrobe; today, Jin stuck with his default of faded blue jeans, a plain white T-shirt and black boots to match his body's actual attire. It didn't really matter. He could look like anyone or anything he wanted on the Net - even be a single, solitary pixel, if his heart so desired, though he'd effectively be almost invisible to the naked eye and have a hard time moving around properly.

Besides, lone pixels didn't have hands. When plugged into a suitable source, Jin's CNS interface granted him full immersion: all five senses. If his avatar touched anything on the Net, the sensation would feed back through the cable and into his brain, propagating itself via his central nervous system to give his abandoned fingertips that same feeling. Anything he saw on the Net fed back to his eyes, anything he heard fed back to his ears - it was quite possible to go blind or deaf from Net exposure, given sufficient cause. Taste didn't have quite so much relevance for a syscop, though those in the catering profession were happy to allow the public to taste the products before buying, on the understanding that no actual food was consumed and the taste itself was artificially generated.

As for the sense of smell... Whenever Jin logged on, the smell was always the first thing to hit him. Before he heard the constant background buzz created by millions of servers, or saw the hard, flat colour of the virtual realm, he smelled the clean, cool scent of a world untouched by pollution, fresh like grass after rain. He inhaled a great lungful of it; back in the real Tokyo, his body drew in a breath of recycled air, tainted by old smoke and stale coffee. Here, it didn't matter that Jin smoked too much, or needed a haircut, or hadn't remembered to shave today after Maki had dumped him. Here, he could be perfect, if that was what he wanted.

He didn't. It would've been a lie to make himself perfect on the outside, when he knew he wasn't on the inside.

Jin opened his eyes on the virtual world, the one that was both work and home to him. The Net was an old friend now, always shifting, full of secrets. Today the skies in the Roppongi subnet were a soft, velvety purple but they could change in a heartbeat to fresh, lemony yellow or a dark, stormy black, depending on the mood of the system administrators. The servers hosting the public domain were housed somewhere in a converted nightclub in Roppongi 3-chome, Jin knew, and the maintainers liked to keep things interesting.

Right now the virtual representation of Roppongi was only six inches high and very nearly transparent. Jin walked through the station, trying not to look down in case he saw miniature people being crushed underneath his feet. Every step was like walking on a particularly springy mattress. There was no such thing as weight on the Net, because nothing had any mass, and the only reason avatars weren't flying all over the place was that the Net had a global gravity setting and overriding it was more trouble than it was worth unless you had your own private network. Not that this stopped people giving themselves bird avatars - one enterprising soul even had a winged dragon - but they didn't get very far trying to escape into the skies.

Just because Jin's jurisdiction only extended as far as the Roppongi subnet didn't mean he only had to deal with local users. That was the beauty of the Net: anyone could go anywhere they pleased, provided it was a public area. Translation software eliminated all language barriers on-line, meant Jin could converse as easily with French tourists who'd come to tour virtual Tokyo as he could with the random Americans who stopped him in the streets on his way home from work and asked him if he knew where the Mori Tower was. He could see it now - all six inches of it.

The tourists probably wouldn't like it that way, but the Mori Tower was usually home to the local BBS, where users posted on a variety of topics. Questions, discussions, job offers, searches, the occasional request for a hitman... Jin had been logged on till he'd taken that teabreak, knew he didn't have any email requiring his immediate attention, and figured that being the only public syscop in the area right now, it was more important for him to be on the Net than working off-line. Companies often had their own private syscops, of course, policing their systems and handling their affairs away from the public eye, but public syscops served the same purpose as police officers off-line, only they travelled by packet rather than by car or bicycle, and had no need for a physical presence at all.

Without anything specific to be looking into, Jin went to check the BBS for anything seeming suspicious. Areas of corrupt data, for instance, which needed to be brought to the attention of the authorities and blocked off to prevent curious users from poking their noses in - quarantined and repaired, if Jin could manage it. Reports of unusually high bandwidth usage, or of avatars lurking around company subnets without good reason. If he didn't find anything of interest he planned to patrol, making sure his presence was noted by every user in the area, just in case any of them were thinking about making mischief. That ought to kill time until the night shift came in and Jin could finally go home and try to figure out what he'd done this time to screw up his love life beyond all hope of repair.

The Mori Tower, being six inches rather than its usual seven hundred and eighty-one feet, didn't provide much of a backdrop for the BBS. The board stood alone, suspended above the toy-size tower, in shades of pale blue and green that were hard to distinguish at first glance. Dozens of other avatars stood before it, each accessing separately, skimming through the topics on an individual basis. There were fairies and monsters, elves with golden hair and warriors in full armour. Big-eyed catgirls and dogboys with floppy ears. Fluffy bunnies and sharp, angular robots. There were even some plain old humans.

They parted for Jin. Not because he was pretty, or because he was especially tall or dangerous in appearance, but because his avatar shone silver around the edges, marking him out as a syscop. The aura couldn't be counterfeited and there wasn't a user on the Net who didn't know what it meant.

Power.

Jin nodded politely to those who made way for him, supplied his credentials to the board's administrator, and blinked on reflex when the board shifted in his view, opening up by topic, spreading out in a circle around him so that he could turn and read as he chose. He still found it amazing that every single user on the boards was seeing the same thing, yet they all saw it differently, and those not registered with the board saw something else entirely.

He filtered out the spam, noting possible cases to follow up, and ignored the obvious trolls with nothing better to do with their time. There had to be bigger fish to fry, surely? Even excessive bandwidth consumption would've been something. But the only post to catch Jin's eye was one where a kid confessed to trying to hack into the JR Network to make the trains run three minutes late - a stupid prank, to be sure, but one Jin could see the logic in when the poster explained that he was always exactly one minute too late to reach his train in the mornings.

The tone of the post was light; most of the commenters didn't take it seriously. If the guy had succeeded, after all, he wouldn't have been stupid enough to post about it in public. Or maybe not. But where the comments got interesting was the handful of people replying to the last part of the post, where the wannabe hacker had claimed to have had his best efforts thwarted by a small green turtle. The turtle, who hadn't identified himself, had shut down every routine the kid had tried to run and bounced him out of the JR Network so hard he'd shot right off the Net, back to the real world, with a warning message flashing on his screen that told him to stay in school and consider how much trouble he'd be causing for everyone else if he messed with the train times.

Insulting, but by no means illegal. Jin figured the mysterious turtle for a Japan Rail employee, or did until he scrolled further down the comments. Other users piped up with their own stories about the tiny green avatar. One had been trying to download Final Fantasy LXII the week before its official release, only to have her download cut off before she'd even hit a gigabyte. She'd been kicked off the Net too; the turtle, which had acquired spiky copper hair and a giant sword, was waiting for her when she looked at her screen, advising her to buy the legal version when it was released and to think about all the work that had gone into its creation, work that deserved to be rewarded.

Jin was starting to sense a theme. Another user, after being fired, had tried to revenge himself on his former employers by flooding them with spam. He wasn't on the Net at the time and made the mistake of doing this from home. Five minutes after he started, his power cut out - and only his; the other residents in his building were unaffected. When the power returned, there was a small turtle on the screen, eating a can of Spam and advising the hapless spammer to think about how the resulting network congestion issues would affect everyone else at the company too, not just the people he actually held a grudge against.

The stories made for entertaining reading but they did make Jin wonder. Syscops had the authority to expel people from the Net, though rarely did so, and this guy was no syscop. The reports had been clear on that. No silver aura. The turtle would have to be a systems administrator in every system where he'd pulled this little stunt - and to be able to target an individual apartment's power supply, he'd have to have tracked him not only to his home machine, but to his physical address. Pulling the plug like that was illegal, no matter how honourable the intention behind it.

Which side of the law was the little reptile on, anyway? Jin ran a quick search through the board, coming up empty. He counted four reported clashes with the mysterious turtle and six possible sightings, though these were all from a distance and from people who weren't breaking the law at the time. It was possible the turtle had been at work elsewhere, but the story had never seen the light of day. Jin made a post of his own, asking users to PM his board ID if they had any turtle tales to tell.

Of course, within seconds of making the post, he had half a dozen offers for products guaranteed to make him even more generously proportioned than he already was (Jin had been dumped for many reasons, but he'd never had any complaints in that department), four offers of a degree in any subject he cared to name (and a few he didn't), two stories about the antics of pet turtles and one get rich quick offer that would've been tempting if not for the part where he had to spend a week posing skyclad on an iceberg.

He didn't expect to hear anything of interest in the near future. Anyone checking out his identity would learn soon enough of his occupation, and people breaking the law tended not to run straight to the authorities with their tales, as Jin knew well. Anyone who messaged him with anything serious would want to make damned sure they knew who they were talking to.

The private messages triggered alerts to his email; Jin could disconnect from the BBS to go patrolling the Roppongi subnet and he'd continue to receive notifications. Each one felt like he was being tickled behind the ear with a feather - a light brush, then gone. He checked them out as he walked towards the cinema, deleting as he went along, pulling up sharply when the landscape changed under his feet. The six-inch replica of Roppongi Hills vanished, replaced by oversized items of food. Jin found his path blocked by a giant hamburger.

It wasn't uncommon for the landscape to change on the administrators' whims, but such a view... The hamburger flickered, unsteady. Jin frowned as the elephantine strawberry on his left did the same. Perhaps there were storms tonight. None of it was real, of course. The structures on the Net represented the private subnetworks run by organisations all over the world, located roughly approximate to their realworld hardware - assuming they had an off-line equivalent - in patches rented from the administrators of their local subnets. Inside that strawberry, which would be locked to anyone without the proper credentials or the skills to fake them, there might be enough space to fit a million other strawberries, equally gigantic. Space related only to the physical capacity of the network, and that, in turn, related to the wealth behind it.

Jin had to take an unexpected detour through an entire forest of bananas to continue his patrol. Around him, fellow netizens were unfazed by the change of scenery, even as delicious looking barriers of chocolate rose up between them. They simply walked around, or under, or through, some stopping to risk a nibble. Idiots. Jin felt his belly rumble, far off in the distance, and wished he'd had a bigger lunch. He could be picking up food right now if Junno's girlfriend hadn't got back into town so early.

Another flicker. One of the bananas sizzled and spat sparks before vanishing altogether. Jin didn't like it. If the server was having problems, things would only become more unstable. They'd have to order an evacuation, cordon off affected sectors. Either that, or...

With a start, Jin realised he'd almost walked to the Shiba subnet, where the Tokyo Tower stood like an upturned cone of red electronic matchsticks against the olive green skies. He'd come further than he'd thought. If he crossed the border between the two subnets, he'd be on the Shiba servers, no longer surrounded by the contents of a giant's fruit basket. He'd also be officially out of his jurisdiction. They didn't need him over there.

Still more than an hour before he could log off and go home. Jin turned the corner, intending to walk along the border as much as possible - it was difficult to see what was going on when the landscape seemed unable to stay the same for more than a minute at a time. Looked like it was finally getting to everyone else too, if the way users were disappearing was any indication. Logging off or catching a packet elsewhere, Jin didn't care, so long as they weren't making any trouble on his watch.

He contemplated contacting the Roppongi subnet administrators to find out if they were having any known issues, if there was some warning he simply hadn't received. 'Beware the mammoth cherries', that sort of thing. At least then he'd know whether or not he should be rounding people up and booting them off.

Jin began composing an email to the admin address, hoping one of them would be sober enough to pick it up and respond - it was still early, so he had reason to be optimistic - but got sidetracked when he caught sight of a small, dark green shelled creature slinking behind a pineapple. A turtle? The turtle? Jin saved the draft and took off in pursuit.

Being stealthy didn't come naturally to him off-line; he had an unfortunate tendency to bang his knees on chairs, or smack his hand against the doorframe on his way out. On the Net, however, all he had to do was stay out of his quarry's sight. No footsteps, unless Jin wanted to provide his own sound effects; no risk of detection unless the turtle had watchdogs, which didn't appear to be the case. Jin followed as fast as he dared. The turtle was heading for an extra-large slice of chocolate cake, a taste for which Jin couldn't fault him.

When the turtle paused in front of the cake, Jin ducked behind a piece of garlic bread. It was as well, perhaps, that no scent data was included with the food structures. The combination would've been interesting, if not necessarily appetising. It wasn't until the turtle poked its head round the sharp end of the wedge that Jin realised they weren't alone. The turtle recoiled, head retreating into shell, as a third avatar appeared from behind a second slice.

The newcomer was dressed like an old-fashioned cowboy, with hat, boots and all. Saloon doors would've suited him far better for an entrance than a slice of chocolate cake with icing swirling down the sides in fantastic spirals and twists that doubled back on themselves, drawing the eye deeper into the chocolate knots that...

Jin rubbed a hand over his eyes. The icing wasn't really moving, was it? It couldn't be melting, not on the Net. He crept closer, deliberately not looking at the icing. He didn't want the distraction.

The cowboy waddled forwards; he didn't have the walk down right. More like a penguin than Clint Eastwood. "You want something?" he asked the turtle, sounding none too happy about the company. Voice data stored in the chip of the CNS interface determined how any speech sounded on-line, but it was easy enough to change the default, since all speech on the Net came directly from the brain, anyway - the days of using microphones to communicate across cyberspace were long gone.

The turtle peeked out of his shell, grinning sheepishly. Unlike the cowboy's exaggerated gravelly drawl, he had a light, slightly raspy voice, quite pleasant to the ear. If that was his real voice, Jin guessed him to be somewhere in his twenties. "I must've gotten lost. Maybe you can help me? I'm looking for the person who hacked the Roppongi subnet. Answers to the username of," the turtle pointed a small, fingerless hand at the cowboy; the air rippled with a burst of code, "MillionDollarStetson. That's you, right?"

MillionDollarStetson didn't like that one bit. "What's your problem, huh? What's it matter to you if I make the place a little more colourful, cheer things up a bit? You don't like chocolate cake?"

"I like chocolate cake." The turtle straightened himself up. "I've got some sitting in my fridge right now, waiting for me to go home and eat it. But I try not to challenge food items bigger than I am. Nagase might even like it, when he sees what you've done to his subnet, but if he wants changes made, he'll make them himself. I don't think the administrators will be too happy with you improvising. Undermines their authority, makes people panic, leads to chaos. I'd like to avoid chaos. How about you over there, behind the garlic bread? You like to avoid chaos?"

And Jin thought he'd been so careful. "Chaos would be a bad thing," he agreed, venturing nearer so he didn't have to shout. "But why is it your job to do something about it? Do you work with Nagase and the others?"

The turtle skimmed his eyes over Jin's aura and smirked. "You're a syscop - you figure it out. This is your job."

"You gonna kick me off the Net like you did AyafuyaRei and the others, short, green and ugly?" MillionDollarStetson sneered. "That was you, right? You some kinda vigilante? You ain't no syscop, I can see that. If you were an administrator, you'd have told me by now. Cut me off and reset the landscape. Go ahead. I ain't gonna stop you. All they'll do is keep me from logging on for three days, no big deal."

The cowboy was right about the likely punishment he'd receive. Making small changes to the local landscape didn't exactly rank up there with committing identity theft or emptying trust funds. He'd get a virtual slap on the wrist - like he said, no big deal. Not like Jin's punishment.

"That's exactly what I hate about guys like you."

Jin stared at the turtle. How could such hard, icy tones come from such a cute little thing?

"No determination. You can't even do the wrong thing right. If you're going to do something, you should do it with all your heart and follow through! Don't change the landscape because you're bored - at least change it because you want to impress your girlfriend or something!"

"Huh?" MillionDollarStetson was totally nonplussed by the turtle's outburst. "That still the same guy talking? You maybe got multiple personalities in there?"

A vigilante turtle. They'd been big towards the end of the last century, if Jin recalled correctly. This one didn't appear to be a ninja, though.

"Don't think we don't appreciate your delivering lectures in the name of justice," Jin said carefully, not wanting to antagonise him, "but perhaps you should leave Net crime to the people who are being paid to fight it?"

"Doing a great job, aren't you?" the turtle snapped.

"We're a bit understaffed, all right?"

"You're- hey!" The turtle's shout alerted Jin just in time to see MillionDollarStetson dart around the other side of the cake. "We're not finished!"

The whole thing was ripe for slapstick, Jin decided as he joined the turtle in chasing after the cowboy. Either one of them was going to slip on a banana peel - sort of unlikely, given that the only bananas around made the Sunshine 60 building look like a bungalow - or they'd round the corner and get hit by a cream pie subroutine. It had happened to Nakamaru a couple of times.

Had Jin known the exact coordinates, he could've transported himself directly to the cowboy's location; since he assumed the man was still moving, it was more practical to follow him manually, tracking by sight alone. Twenty paces ahead, the turtle was doing the same thing. Jin caught up with him easily. One good thing about running on the Net - if he temporarily disabled the feedback to his body, he could run for miles and never get out of breath. An avatar had no need for oxygen.

Consequently, Jin had no problems trying to continue the conversation. "Why are you- oh. That icing..."

The icing swirls on the reverse of the cake had been pretty, entrancing the beholder with delicate curves and twists, inviting the eye to follow along the spirals into the very centre.

On this side, they weren't nearly so subtle.

"I've never seen cake eat people before, but there's a first time for everything," the turtle said. The cowboy's leg was quite clearly caught in an icing spiral, ensnared by chocolate. "His hack can't be that good if it's holding up so poorly. I knew he was sloppy."

"I figured that, the way the food's been flickering - the whole thing's so unstable it'll get tossed out on the next refresh anyway." Jin sighed. "I should get him out of there before he lands up half-trapped in some corporate network."

The turtle bobbed his head in and out of the shell, which Jin took to mean he was shrugging. "Suit yourself. I think it's a fitting punishment, though. Leave him to stew for a day and next time he'll think twice about rearranging the local landscape to suit himself."

Jin felt another distant hunger pang. He definitely had to do some grocery shopping before he went home. "Did you have to mention stew?"

A scream from MillionDollarStetson cut the conversation short. Jin ventured closer to the cake and saw why. It wasn't just the cowboy's leg that was caught in the icing swirls - the entire left side of his body had all but disappeared, swallowed up by a vortex of dark chocolate, thick enough to smother and bitter enough to kill. Sparks formed a bright line where cake met avatar, where pixels blurred before vanishing altogether.

Jin hoped the cowboy had cut the feedback to his body, else he'd be feeling the loss as though his own flesh were being consumed by fire, but based on the volume and incoherency of the screams, he doubted it. He started forward but the turtle yanked him back.

"You'll be sucked in if you get near that thing, idiot! Don't look at the swirls."

Easier said than done when the patterns seemed to be trying to catch his eye. Jin called up Accessorise, a subroutine that formed part of his avatar's image, though Accessorise was special in that the objects used were function shortcuts and could be detached, once created. On the Net, designer sunglasses didn't cost him a thing; this particular pair dialled down his vision to a single bit. From that distance in black and white, the cake was now one big, solid block, with neither mesmerising spirals nor a cowboy stuck half-in, half-out of the slice.

The turtle hummed approvingly. "Nice. Gucci?"

"Good guess."

"When it comes to fashion, I don't need to guess." Rather than look at the partially-devoured cowboy, the turtle faced Jin; Jin found this somewhat disconcerting as the turtle was now a featureless blob. "I don't think that's the result of his handiwork, do you?"

"Not unless he's suicidal."

Jin rummaged around in his toolkit for a fishing rod. Although he tended to prefer more active hobbies, such as soccer, he counted himself a decent virtual fisherman, if only because his rod was a sticky piece of code - one that attached itself to a target and locked them together in preparation for being reeled in.

"Can you even see where to aim?"

"Don't need to." The fishing rod had two modes; Jin could aim by sight, or do what he was doing now, which was give it the cowboy's coordinates based on his last viewed position. "I don't have to see to hit a stationary target."

"Then you'd better be quick about it, because you're running out of target to hit."

"If that's the limit of your constructive advice-"

"You told me to keep out of it and leave it to the people who get paid to do this - namely, you - so that's exactly what I'm doing," the turtle said.

"Oh, just get back in your shell," Jin muttered. He cast the line towards the cake. MillionDollarStetson's screams had faded to nothing more than weak moans, barely audible even when Jin dialled up his audio receptors.

He knew when the cowboy was on the hook - the resulting tug on the line almost brought him to his knees. The cake, or whatever it was, was fighting back. Jin set the rod to reel him in automatically, eliminating the pull so he didn't fall over trying to do it himself.

There, that was more like it. Jin risked a peek from under his sunglasses. Though his avatar was discoloured with chocolate stains, the cowboy was emerging intact, no missing limbs or anything.

The turtle clapped with exaggerated motions; the noise sounded like a series of shots. "Not bad. He's even got his hat on."

The second MillionDollarStetson managed to disentangle himself from Jin's code, he logged out, chocolate stains and all. Jin cursed himself for not being quick enough to run a trace on the guy. A corrupt avatar was potentially problematic - if the cowboy had any sense, he'd delete the image and start afresh. The stains meant the chocolate cake had messed with the avatar's data, stored on the CNS chip and customisable to a limited degree by the user. There was no telling how much it would hamper the cowboy's ability to navigate the Net.

Was it self-inflicted, the result of sloppy code and poor judgement? Jin wasn't entirely sure. The cowboy had given the local landscape a giant food makeover but he certainly hadn't planned to be caught in a swirling chocolate vortex. Had the conflict between the existing landscape settings and the hack caused the individual structures to degrade badly enough to implode, taking anyone who happened to be nearby with them?

"Never mind the hat," Jin said. He dismissed both sunglasses and fishing rod. "I'd like to do something about the cake."

The turtle offered him a smirk. How could something so short look so cocky? "Housecleaning. Should be a...uh...piece of cake."

"If you have access to the server maintenance routines, which I don't." It pained Jin to admit it, but there were a number of things he wasn't legally allowed to get anywhere near, by orders from his boss. He could sneak in, of course, but when he was on the job, he had to be able to explain every move he made and they'd never believe he just happened to run across a backdoor. Not with his record. They'd have everything on his chip's activity log, anyway. "I'll let the admins know. Guess I'd better cordon off the area in case anyone else gets sucked in looking for dessert."

"Waste of your time." Translucent code fragments materialised around the turtle's head, shimmered and vanished; Jin could make out a faint wheezing variation in the background hum of the server as the housecleaning routine came to life. "Give it a minute and the place should return to a more familiar shade of strange."

It didn't even take a minute. A wave washed over the entire Roppongi subnet, removing stray data and any foreign objects as it went. It cleaned the code comprising the public areas and called maintenance routines belonging to the private subnetworks to do the same. Anything suspicious was quarantined and flagged to the administrators, with the local syscops copied in; Jin knew he'd find a log in his inbox for later review. With the restoration of the original landscape settings the six-inch replica of Roppongi replaced the gargantuan food items. It was difficult to tell, given the size of the structures, but they appeared to be stable; none of that pesky flickering or sudden winking in and out.

The turtle was positively beaming. "I like everything to be in its place," he explained.

A neat freak, Jin guessed. "I don't suppose you're going to tell me how you had the authority to do that, are you?"

"Nope, you might arrest me for it and I've got other plans tonight - though with someone whose avatar's not nearly as nice as yours. I've never met a syscop who made himself out to be a model before."

"What model?" Jin shrugged. "This is what I look like off-line. Minus the silver aura, obviously."

"Really?" The turtle seemed very interested to hear this. A short stream of code flew from his hand towards Jin. "Maybe I'll look you up on the outside sometime, Jin Akanishi."

"Did you just run a query on me?"

"Roppongi doesn't have many syscops because most of the residents have better things to do with their time than hang on the Net and the rest of the time, they're sleeping it off. I've got a list. Yuichi Nakamaru, Junnosuke Taguchi and Meisa Kuroki have all clocked out for the day, and that leaves you alone in the office, fighting the good fight by yourself till the night shift starts."

Jin wasn't comfortable with how much the strange little turtle knew about him - and about everything else, it seemed. Who the hell was he?

"Going to run a query on me?" the turtle asked, amused. "Go ahead; you won't get a hit. But if you'll excuse me, I really have to be going now."

"Wait!" Jin didn't even try to run a query. He could ask, though, couldn't he? "At least give me a name."

"Can't you guess?" With a ripple of code, the turtle morphed into a young Japanese man, maybe mid-twenties, with dark, laughing eyes and coppery hair. He was simply dressed in faded jeans, plain black T-shirt and a blue and white checked shirt; a pair of sunglasses dangled from his left hand. "Kame."

The turtle would go by 'Kame', wouldn't he? Jin wondered why someone so obviously gorgeous would use such a plain, almost cartoonish avatar on the Net. If Kame's looks were genuine, he had to be leaving a trail of broken hearts everywhere he went.

"Kame," Jin repeated. "That a nickname?"

"That's whatever you want it to be." Kame flashed him a smile and waved the sunglasses. "Thanks for these."

Then he vanished.

Jin swore when he realised why he'd been thanked for the sunglasses. Kame, damn his little green shell, had copied his Accessorise routine.

Chapter Text

Just because Jin's love life wasn't going anywhere didn't mean his social life was a complete loss. He finished up his shift to discover three missed calls and a dozen mails on his cell phone, all asking him if he was okay. Apparently Maki had told everyone she knew that they'd broken up; those people had then told everyone Jin knew, so by now the entire world knew he'd been dumped that morning.

Ordinarily he'd have lapped up the sympathy but he was still steaming over Kame. It just wasn't good netiquette to swipe stuff from another man's toolkit without asking him, even if the thief happened to be hot, smart and sassy and the theft kind of wasn't one because all he'd done was copy the subroutine. Jin didn't doubt Kame could modify it to mesh with his own avatar, though a turtle wearing designer sunglasses would make for an odd sight.

Who was Kame? Not a system administrator, Jin had worked out that much - not unless he worked at national, or even international level, and that seemed unlikely. What seemed much more likely was that he had no official status at all, not in the light. He didn't seem to have any qualms about breaking into secure systems and engaging in questionable activities, which tended to rule out law enforcement. Keeping an eye on local syscop activity suggested he wanted to know what he was up against. That, or he was stalking them. Jin thought the former to be more plausible.

The puzzle nagged at him for the rest of the evening. He said farewell to the night shift, stopped off for some much needed groceries on the way home and intercepted a call from his best friend, saying he'd been working late and had Jin eaten dinner yet? Eating alone in his empty apartment was far less appealing than meeting Yamapi for curry, so Jin hastily packed his shopping away, threw on a shirt that didn't have soy sauce stains from lunch, and walked ten minutes down the street to one of their regular haunts. Yamapi was waiting just inside, hair slightly frizzy from the rain.

Tomohisa Yamashita was one of Jin's oldest friends and there wasn't much he didn't know about Jin, including why he'd had to "go straight". He'd been given his nickname by Tackey due to his love of pink - his avatar of choice was a bright pink pig. While Jin wasn't thrilled that his best friend and his boss were on such close terms, he'd learned to live with it. It wasn't Yamapi's fault he'd grown up next door to the Takizawa Family.

They'd last met all of three days ago, which meant there wasn't a great deal of catch-up small talk to be made while they waited for their order to arrive. That was okay. They didn't need to talk to understand each other. Yamapi sipped ice water and told a funny story about one of the office juniors; Jin nursed a beer and waited for his newly-single status to appear in the conversation.

It took six mouthfuls of heavenly chicken curry before Yamapi finally said, "What happened this time?"

Jin glared at him. The "this time" was totally unnecessary. "I have no idea. She deleted herself from my phone, though, so I think it's over for good."

"There must've been some reason," Yamapi pressed. "You have the worst luck with relationships of anyone I've ever known, Jin. It's obviously something about you, so if we can figure out what it is and fix it, maybe you stand a chance."

"Your confidence in me is overwhelming." Jin wiped a stray grain of rice from his upper lip. The ghost of stubble reminded him he really ought to shave tomorrow, if only so his next-door neighbour wouldn't feel the need to tell him he looked like a homeless man again. "I seriously don't know, Pi. Everything was fine till this morning. We went out last night, had a terrific meal, went shopping... She wanted to buy matching rings or something? And then she got kind of clingy in the store when I said I wasn't sure about that, because it's only been a couple of months, and-"

"Stop right there." Yamapi pointed his fork directly at Jin's nose. "You made her think you didn't believe you had a future together. She's probably gone to find a man who's not afraid to demonstrate his commitment to her."

"How do you know this stuff?"

Yamapi grinned. "I work for a women's magazine, remember? I'm surrounded by women every glorious day of the week. I think I've absorbed so much oestrogen I'm actually part female."

"So that's your excuse for why you're working on a nice pair of C-cups? You know they sell bras for men now, right? I think you ought to consider investing in one."

"I got these," Yamapi cupped his pecs, earning himself a speculative look from the women seated at the next table, "from working out at the gym. You should try it sometime. And don't change the subject."

"Aww, what are we, girls?" Jin groaned. "Do we have to dissect my relationship failures in minute, painful detail? Can't you just get me drunk, help me stagger home and call me in the morning to make sure I get up for work?"

They both got a good laugh out of that. Jin wolfed down the rest of his meal so his mouth was always full whenever Yamapi tried to ask him a question about Maki. His friend eventually gave up, turning the subject to sports instead, and refused to allow Jin more than the one beer.

"Not tonight," Yamapi said firmly. "You'll feel better in the morning if you don't overdo it. At least wait till the weekend. I've got an early meeting tomorrow so unless you want to get woken for work at five a.m., don't count on me doing it."

"Generous offer, but I'll pass." Jin finished cleaning his plate and sat back in the booth, happier now his stomach had stopped giving a thunderstorm a run for its money. "I needed that."

"You do have that 'starved waif' look going at the moment. If you'd stop alternating between overindulgence and freaky crash diets you might be able to maintain your figure for more than a month at a time."

"Are you my best friend or my doctor? I think your job's starting to get to you, Pi. Come out with me this weekend and we'll go reassert our masculinity somewhere."

"Sure. Rock climbing? Surfing? Road trip?"

All tempting, but Yamapi wasn't the only one letting his job get to him. "Baking. I've got a sudden craving for chocolate cake."

-----

In the end, Jin had stopped off at a convenience store on the way home to buy himself some cake. The cravings had proven too great for him to wait for the weekend. Yamapi had found it highly amusing - less so when Jin had explained what the deal was with the cake. Having a mostly off-line job, Yamapi missed out on a great deal of what went down on the Net except when his friends told him; the "chocolate cake bites man" story only added to his reluctance to log in, though Jin assured him things were back to normal now.

He hadn't told Yamapi about Kame. No point, he reasoned. Photographers weren't likely to know anything about him. Club owners who dealt in black market technology and secrets, on the other hand...

Ueda answered on the eighth ring. "Welcome to Dictator's House of Fun. How do you like your restraints? Steel or silk?"

Jin nearly choked on a cake crumb. "You didn't know it was me?"

"No, I knew it was you, Jin. Question still applies - I'm conducting a survey."

There were some things about Tatsuya Ueda that were better left a mystery. The man had a harem of willing girlfriends despite possessing next to no tact, was a champion boxer with a killer physique although he had the face and hair of a princess, and somehow managed to keep the authorities away from the unorthodox dealings that took place on the premises by convincing them that his House of Fun was nothing more suspicious than a club for those with less than vanilla tastes. Money and favours had to be changing hands somewhere, Jin was certain.

Whatever Ueda's personal quirks, he was a good friend, one who knew when to keep his mouth shut. Mostly. Apparently handcuff preferences were fair game.

"Is there an option for 'none of the above'?" Jin asked. "I don't like being restrained."

"Noted." There was a beep from the other end of the line as Ueda hit a key. "How do you feel about cosplay?"

"Are you really conducting a survey?"

"A couple of customers have been asking about you," Ueda admitted. "More than a couple, actually. If you need a replacement for what's her name, come down here tonight and take your pick."

Jin tucked his legs under him on the couch, settling himself more comfortably on the cushions. He wasn't going anywhere else tonight. "If I'm ever so broke again that I have to hire myself out to survive, I'll keep that in mind."

He was being sarcastic, of course, but Ueda knew that; he laughed down the phone with genuine amusement, not the gleeful sadistic cackle more often heard when he was at work. "At least answer the cosplay question so I have something to sell to your desperate fans."

"Hey, if you're making money off my personal life, I want a cut!"

"When did I last charge you for a drink?" Ueda asked, and Jin fell silent. "Your intimate secrets aside, what can I do for you? You only phone when you want something."

"I'm..." Jin faltered, unsure how to phrase his question. Ueda waited patiently for him to turn words over in his mind. "I'm looking for...uh...have you ever seen..." He took a deep breath and tried again. "Do you know anything about a guy who goes around with a turtle avatar, kicking troublemakers off the Net?"

"I've had a couple of customers complain they were shut down on the Shibuya subnet for "borrowing" bandwidth. The person responsible was a small green turtle, not a syscop. Does that sound like your guy?"

"Unless there's two of them - and I don't know that there isn't - that's the one."

"He's doing your job for you. You should send him a thank you mail."

"I would if I knew where to send it. I ran a query on him just before I called you but he was right, I didn't get a hit."

"You've spoken to him?" Ueda had slipped into intrigue mode. "Did you get a name?"

Jin hadn't meant for that little fact to come out, but he couldn't take it back now. "He called himself 'Kame'."

"Kame. Turtle. I get it. Do you know how many users there are out there with the word 'kame' in their usernames?"

"One million, two hundred and eighty thousand, four hundred and six," Jin said glumly. "And there's nobody who just uses 'kame'. If it's short for something, it might take me all year to check them all out."

"So in desperation, you called me."

"No need to sound so smug about it. I want to find out what this guy's agenda is, what he's doing and how he's doing it."

"If you're throwing yourself into work as a distraction-"

"I'm not! I don't need a distraction."

It shocked Jin to realise he was telling the truth - he didn't need distracting from his heartbreak, because he wasn't feeling any. What that said about the status of his relationship with Maki, he didn't want to contemplate. He'd miss the fun they'd had together, sure, but would he miss anything else? It always hurt for a while, being left - being told he wasn't wanted stung like a barrage of paper cuts - but he didn't feel broken. Shouldn't he have been broken if he'd truly lost his heart?

That was something he had no intention of asking Ueda about. He didn't want to be scarred for life by the response.

"Okay." Ueda didn't sound convinced, but he didn't sound like he was going to push, either. "I'll put some feelers out and let you know if I hear anything. You should go for a run and work it off; you need the exercise."

"You're the second person today who's told me that."

"Then it must be true. Go for a run, but before you do - the cosplay issue?"

Jin resigned himself to answering. "The usual, I guess. I don't mind stuff like nurses, schoolgirl costumes..."

"Likes dressing up as nurses and schoolgirls, got it. Take it easy, Jin."

Ueda hung up before Jin could set him straight - if indeed it was even possible to set Ueda straight on anything. No one who knew him was entirely convinced he was living in the same world as them.

So many worlds to choose from, now. If you had the time and the creativity, or enough money to pay someone to have those things on your behalf, you could create your own virtual world and lose yourself there for as long as you liked. Of course, if you stayed and played too long, forgetting to eat, or go to work, or do any of those other essential off-line activities, you wouldn't be able to keep it up. Modern CNS interface bioware had monitoring facilities to ensure the user would be automatically disconnected if their body condition deteriorated to dangerous levels, or if they fell asleep, though this could be - and had been - overridden by the desperate.

If Jin felt hungry while he was on-line, the sensations would eventually filter through to his consciousness on the Net, and when he decided he'd had enough of the hunger pangs he'd log off and eat something. If he didn't log off for so long his blood sugar dropped to dangerous levels, he'd get a warning and if he still ignored that, he'd be cut off. Jin had never let it get that far, though he had fallen asleep a couple of times and woken up to find himself disconnected.

If he logged on now, he had the feeling it would happen again. Jin had a nice, comfortable environment set up on his home machine, where he didn't step out on the Net and the only connection he had to the rest of the world was via his email client. When he was in there, he wasn't answerable to anyone, especially not to his bosses. Off-line, well...he was making a good start on calling his life his own again.

And that meant there was no one to complain if he ate the other half of the small chocolate cake too.

-----

Despite the sugar high, Jin had slept easily enough, though his dreams were haunted by a tiny green turtle wearing Gucci sunglasses and carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag. It was still raining when he woke up, skies light grey and showing no signs of brightening. At least it was Friday. The Roppongi subnet became the responsibility of the Akasaka office at weekends, since they had sufficient staff to cover, so Jin was looking forward to escaping at six and not even thinking about work till Monday.

Even the rain couldn't dampen impending weekend cheer. Jin drove the fifteen minutes to work with Crystal Kay blaring from the speakers, not bothered by the traffic or the fact that his favourite parking spot had been nabbed again by some jerk from upstairs. He pulled up as close as he could to the building and made a dash for the front door. The rain still got him.

Nevertheless, he was still relatively chirpy when he mounted the dimly-lit stairs to the office - the lift was out of commission again - and pressed his thumb to the door panel. It was supposed to welcome him by name with an appropriate greeting for the time of day, but after a slight run-in with an unfriendly drunk who'd been trying to break the door down, the only greeting it could manage was 'Merry Christmas'.

"Merry Christmas, Akanishi-san," the door trilled.

"Happy September," Jin said, and meant it.

He had an unofficial competition running with Nakamaru to see which of them could arrive latest without actually being late: Jin liked to sleep in and Nakamaru took forever to get going, what with all the fussing he did. Today, Jin was winning. Nakamaru was already parked in his cubicle, not yet plugged in, watching the morning news on his screen. He, too, showed signs of having been caught by the rain.

Tackey's tiny office was still empty. Jin suspected it might stay that way the rest of the day. His boss would probably be working from the Akasaka office again, depending on how persuasive his partner was - and Tsubasa Imai could be very persuasive, particularly on the dancefloor, which is where Jin was certain they'd ended up last night.

The only other occupants were Yara and Yonehana, both from the night shift, who were slowly uncurling themselves from Junno and Meisa's cubicles. Jin hoped Yara hadn't brought his pet cornsnake into the office again. Chura tended to like Jin's desk.

"Morning," Nakamaru greeted Jin. "Is it still raining out there?"

"Are you kidding me?" Jin wrung a few drops of rain from his purple hooded top for effect and went to open the window blinds. "I was only outside for twenty seconds, tops, and the world tried to drown me. Looks like you had it worse, though, because your wig is absolutely saturated..."

"It's not a wig!"

"You know, it's understandable that guys of your age are having hair loss issues. You don't have to get so defensive about it."

Nakamaru retaliated by tossing his fedora like a Frisbee. The flying hat missed Jin completely, knocking over Yara's empty Coke can as it landed. Jin smirked and threw it back, then handed the can to Yara to dispose of on his way out. The two night shift guys left with a sleepy wave, which meant it was time for Jin to make himself comfortable for the day.

"I hope they don't go by the station," Nakamaru commented after they'd gone.

"Why?"

Nakamaru beckoned Jin over to take a look at his screen. Curious, Jin obliged. "I'm watching this morning's news. Roppongi station's chaos right now - someone threw himself on the Hibiya Line about two hours ago. The commuters got him."

Train-assisted suicide was still going strong in Japan - the news item was sad but far from unexpected. Jin watched anyway, because it was his neighbourhood and he liked to keep abreast of anything that might cause him inconvenience, the way a horde of gawkers would. He expected the fuss would all have died down by the time he left the office.

The jumper, it seemed, had been most inconsiderate. Surveillance footage showed him rambling around the station for a good twenty minutes before getting anywhere near the tracks...carrying a fruitbasket in one hand and a bakery box in the other. He'd stopped at intervals to lean against the wall and eat from either one of these, leaving a trail of crumbs, wrappers and peel everywhere he went. Jin's stomach did a backflip just looking at the quantity of food the guy ingested. He left at one point to visit the Family Mart outside exit five, returning with enough food to feed a family of ten.

Jin was starting to see why Nakamaru's pastry was sitting half-finished on a napkin. "He eats more than both of us put together!"

"I don't think I'm ever eating again," Nakamaru groaned. "Or not until lunch, anyway!"

The jumper wasn't an especially hefty man - one might even go so far as to say he was on the slender side. Was he consuming three times his own weight in food because he knew he wasn't going to live long enough to feel the side effects, Jin wondered? Or did he just want the train to connect with a nice, meaty thump?

Not much of his face was visible on camera, concealed as it was by food item after food item. He was wearing loose jeans, cowboy boots and a faded Eyeshield 21 sweatshirt, could've been any young man out for an early morning snack. But when the surveillance footage was switched out with a cell phone video taken by an amazed passer-by, Jin did manage to get a glimpse of the guy's face as he put away a double pack of melon bread.

He looked...helpless. Confused. Scared.

"Did he even realise he was eating all that?" Jin said quietly.

"Who knows? Nobody purposely decides to eat that much, do they? It goes against all common sense."

Sense had nothing to do with the jumper's consumption. Jin knew he should get to work but he couldn't help watching, fascinated by every sickening mouthful. Nakamaru was equally entranced. Although the surveillance clips were short, merely enough to give a brief overview of the quantity of food involved, it felt like they'd been watching for years.

The female reporter had been talking over the clips, listing the consumables. Now she started talking about the jumper. His wallet had fallen out of his jeans when he'd squeezed through the barriers, and his ID said he was Clint Wayne Bryner - a legal change of name, the reporter confirmed, since the man was fully Japanese and didn't have so much as a drop of Western blood in him. Not that this stopped him from being obsessed with Westerns, she said. His mother, in between screaming denial and sobbing hysteria, had said as much. Her saintly little boy had loved Clint Eastwood to pieces, even his non-Western movies, and he made sure his on-line persona was the cowboy he'd always wanted to be.

Jin knew what the reporter was going to say the moment before she opened her shiny pink lips to reveal the username of Clint Wayne Bryner.

MillionDollarStetson.

"You knew him?" Nakamaru asked, and Jin realised he'd spoken in time with the reporter.

"Not exactly. I ran across him on-line last night, making the local landscape look like a giant supermarket."

The suicide story was supplanted by a feature about a new chocolate line from Lotte, which Jin supposed was a logical transition under the circumstances. Nakamaru switched off the news, took one look at the remains of his pastry and threw it away in disgust. Time to settle down and get to work.

Jin sat down behind his desk to find a can of cold coffee waiting for him. He called his thanks over the short green barrier that separated their two cubicles - he and Nakamaru were directly opposite each other and of similar height, they didn't have to strain to catch each other's eyes. (Junno, of course, could look down on them all.)

"You're welcome," Nakamaru said. "I thought you might be in need of a few small kindnesses."

Not again. "Who've you been talking to?"

"My roommate's friends with your friend Yamashita; I'm not sure who he got it from. I'm sorry it didn't work out."

Nakamaru looked and sounded so solemn, you'd have thought he was offering Jin consolation on the passing of his parents. Jin didn't want that kind of atmosphere ruining his Friday cheer, especially when he wasn't feeling overly hard done by. Sleep had given him a more positive view of the situation: he wouldn't have objected to buying matching rings if he hadn't had reservations about the relationship on some level. His subconscious was clearly as smart as he'd always believed it was. "It's okay. How did your dinner plans go?"

Now Nakamaru looked perturbed. "Not well. A fight broke out at the restaurant and our table went flying towards me. I don't think I made much of an impression, dripping with spaghetti."

Jin giggled into his coffee can and logged in to his work account. He could read emails while on the Net, of course, but he much preferred to ease his way into the working day off-line to start with, skimming through his inbox, catching up on work-related announcements, running his usual sweeps to monitor public activity logs throughout the Roppongi subnet.

There were no announcements of interest today, except the one from their landlord to say the lift was scheduled for repair over the weekend and by Monday they should either have full use of it again or the building would have blown up, he wasn't sure which. Emails were the usual mix of junk, work gossip and juicy tidbits of information from informants. There were speculative messages concerning Junno's girlfriend, a cookie recipe from one of Jin's more obscure relatives that had gone out to everyone in his immediate family, and an email that appeared to be from Jin himself.

Jin was all poised to delete the last of these when he noticed the subject line. It read, "Did you see the chocolate-covered cowboy on the news this morning?"

That could only be from one person. Jin hurriedly opened the email, hoping it wasn't some massive coincidence and it was actually an advert for an unhealthy new breakfast cereal. It wasn't, of course. It was from Kame, and contained more emoji than Jin had ever seen in a message from a grown man.

I don't think the avatar-eating cake had anything to do with his hack." (small cake, dead man, tiny computer, random sparkle)

How about you??? (man thinking, pair of sunglasses, tiny turtle, another random sparkle)

Jin wasn't one to complain about the low word count of the email when his own were equally brief, but what did Kame intend for him to do? He didn't even know where to respond, assuming he had something to say, and he wasn't sure what that would be yet. He did, however, agree with the opinion expressed in the message - there was definitely something peculiar about Bryner's near-consumption by a deluxe slice of chocolate cake last night. The cowboy had seemed a trifle stupid, perhaps, but not senseless by any means. Brash, not suicidal.

What sort of urge drove a man to eat well beyond his capacity and then throw himself in front of a train? Had the incident last night traumatised him so badly he'd comfort-eaten to excess, realised he'd never be the same again, and decided to end it all? That didn't really gel with the description his mother had given to the media.

"What's he playing at?" Jin muttered, half about the dead wannabe cowboy and half about his mysterious reptilian acquaintance.

Nakamaru looked up. "Junno? I think he's doing the right thing by not rushing into it. They should have a big wedding, don't you think? He could entertain people at the reception with that tap dancing and juggling combo he does."

Jin didn't much care what Junno's eventual plans concerning Rena were, so long as he got a slice of the wedding cake - assuming there was going to be any - and gave a vague grunt that could potentially have signified agreement. Satisfied, Nakamaru disappeared into the bathroom, because he always insisted on going at least twice before he logged on, just in case. Jin knew he'd have the office to himself for a good couple of minutes.

And that gave him time to act. Moving as silently as he could, he slipped out from behind his desk and tiptoed across to Tackey's office. He was looking for a CNS chip, a slim wafer that had once belonged in his own interface. That chip had meant everything until they'd put him under the knife and when he'd awoken, so groggy from the anaesthetic he hadn't even had the focus to be scared by the armed guards, he'd known instantly that something was different. Something was wrong, missing.

There was no guarantee the chip was in Tackey's office, but this was the first opportunity Jin had had to check. They'd kept it from him, told him there were things on there that should never see the light of day. Jin had no idea what they meant. That chip had every line of code he'd ever written, every experience he'd ever had on the Net, much of it forgotten or unknown to his human memory, poor in comparison and filled with off-line experiences.

At first, Jin had felt like they'd taken away half his brain and given him a clean slate to start over with. He'd had nothing, then. There had been complications with the surgery: they'd kept him in hospital till the doctors were sure he'd sustained no lasting damage for which he could potentially sue them for everything they had. He'd lain in bed, gazing at the sterile white walls, trying to make connections inside his head. Remember faces and names. Places and people. His family and friends.

The process had been interminably slow. His new employers weren't concerned with how much he remembered of his life, only with what he could do. They'd made sure he remembered his name but refused to feed him information. He was on his own, save a pair of silent armed guards he wasn't even sure could talk.

He'd remembered his family first, and then Yamapi. The doctors seemed to like this. They wouldn't let him contact anyone, made sure he had no access to either phones or a Net connection, so the first time he got to see someone who wasn't wearing a white coat or carrying a gun was when his best friend's former next door neighbour turned up, wearing a suit with half the shirt buttons undone and the tie peeking from his jacket pocket.

Jin remembered Hideaki Takizawa, once he saw him. He hadn't known Tackey well, though he knew he was a syscop, and had seen him occasionally round the clubs. What he hadn't known was that Tackey ran the office responsible for the security of the Roppongi subnet, and he wanted to offer Jin a job. Not that "offer" was quite the right term for it. Although the guards had been sent from the room, the spectres of their guns haunted Jin's brain like afterimages on the Net.

Tackey had been kind to Jin. After almost four weeks of boredom, loneliness and fear, stuck in a barren hospital room and never seeing any further than the tiny bathroom, a change was more than welcome, a familiar face even more so. Tackey had brought real food - also important to those relying on hospital fare - and clothing to replace the plain white pyjamas. Clothing Jin liked, in blacks and browns and greens, with soft suede boots that fit like a dream.

It was the boots that clued Jin in. If they were giving him shoes, maybe he was finally going to get out of here.

Jin had been making a nuisance of himself, Tackey had explained, his boyish grin making it almost a joke between them. He'd been working in the shadows for too long, taking information where he could find it and selling it on, cracking open protected systems like crab shells to get at the meat inside. And he'd gotten away with it...until now.

The money he'd made never stayed with him for long. His social life had taken care of that. For all that Jin loved spending time on the Net, where you could have anything if only you knew how to create it, his life off-line was a cover he loved just as much. He based himself in Roppongi because security was minimal and the nightlife was fun, but also because it more or less guaranteed no one would ever take him seriously as a suspect for anything. He gave his occupation as 'host' when asked, and had the necessary paperwork put through by a friend who owned a host club so it would stand up to a check - provided no one ever wanted to see him at work, of course. It explained away his income and there weren't too many who were keen to press him for details after they heard what he supposedly did for a living.

It couldn't last forever. Faulty wiring in Jin's apartment building had caused a fire; he'd been on-line at the time, breaking into a corporation all the way over in Osaka. When the effects of the smoke started to filter through, Jin had slipped up and their security had noticed him, managing to get a lock on his real world location. He'd lost consciousness and been pulled off the Net before they could do anything to him on-line, but they'd alerted his local syscops. They had his address and with that, the real name of the young man who called himself "CarShrimp" in the virtual world.

The fire brigade had saved Jin's life but not his equipment. His apartment was toast, along with everything he had. He couldn't even access the Net from his cell phone anymore, now it was nothing but a lump of melted plastic. When the medics let him go he went to Yamapi first but didn't dare stay long. He knew he'd been identified and didn't want to get his friends in trouble, so he moved around from place to place, keeping away from anything even remotely electronic.

He was stuck in a rut. He could change the basic avatar that was part of his signature but not the details that tied him to his individual CNS chip, not without messing around with the chip itself. He couldn't afford to pay anyone to do that without accessing his bank account. He couldn't access his bank account without identifying himself in some way to the bank, either on-line through the Net, or off-line with his fingerprints and PIN. Either way, he'd be in trouble. There were a number of unsolved cases of cyber crime that could be traced back to Jin by anyone with half an idea where to start. Jin's safety net had always been that he hadn't given them that starting point. Now he'd lost his safety net.

Jin's recollection of all of this was somewhat hazy, though not nearly as hazy as his memories immediately before he'd woken up in hospital, which were non-existent. Tackey had downplayed it, saying that Jin had been picked up after he'd collapsed in a convenience store from a high fever, and when the medics had taken his fingerprints to identify him, the name had raised an alert to Tackey.

That, Jin could understand, even if he didn't recall it. What he didn't get was why they'd replaced his CNS chip. Tackey's explanation damned near broke his heart.

Jin had too many secrets stored away on that chip, data his conscious mind had never touched. Programs he'd written for no purpose but illegal ones, passwords for places he had no legitimate reason to visit, saved contact details for people who didn't even exist when the sun was up. As far as the authorities were concerned, life would be better all around if Jin Akanishi had no access to any of these things.

They did, however, appreciate his talents, which was why they were going to give him a chance to redeem himself. He could go to prison - which, in Japan, meant his life was effectively over - or he could switch sides. Work as a syscop, assigned to the Roppongi subnet. He'd be monitored, naturally, and any trust he was granted would be hard-earned indeed, but he wouldn't be in jail and that, as far as Jin was concerned, was a good reason to take Tackey up on his offer. The armed guards in the next room were also an excellent incentive, though Jin didn't think they were likely to actually shoot him. Not in a hospital.

Jin had made the only choice he realistically had available, and let them sign him up as one of them.

He'd been given an apartment and an advance on his salary so he could afford to replace his clothing and other such necessities. If he wanted a home computer, he had to wait until he could afford one. They only gave him a cell phone so they could contact him for work reasons.

At first he'd worried that they were listening in on his calls, or bugging his apartment - tracking him everywhere he went, whatever he did. It amazed him when every sweep came up clean. Only, he realised in the end, because they didn't care what he did off-line. Every time he logged on to the Net, they knew what he was up to because that shiny new chip was one hundred per cent theirs and his signature wasn't his to call his own. He could host an orgy in his apartment and no one would care - except possibly his neighbours - but if he tried to crack so much as an electronic playpen lock he'd be shut down permanently.

Three years on, Jin had it pretty good. He worked with a team who liked him and weren't too bothered by his decidedly shady work experience because none of them were exactly saints - even if Nakamaru did his best - and Tackey was hardly the toughest boss in the world to work for. (His superiors, on the other hand...) If the pay wasn't lucrative, it was better than he'd get in prison - or the grave. He had a car, he had replacement hardware at home, he still had his family and friends, even if some of them were no longer speaking to him and others had disappeared altogether. Others, he remembered only as shadows; people whose contact details - the signatures that tied their usernames to the numbers of the CNS chips installed in their interfaces, that allowed him to message them directly - no longer existed in his brain.

Friends like Yamapi, who had either a faint idea or none at all of the extent of Jin's activities, were the safest people for him to associate with now. Some of them thought he'd given up being a host and "dabbling" on the Net in favour of becoming part of the law enforcement community; others knew he'd made his living on-line but none of the details. They were safe. Reliable.

Despite this, Jin still met his other friends - people like Ueda, who made only the barest pretence of earning a legitimate living, or Koki, whose political views added an extra dimension to his on-line activities and made him doubly interesting to the law, or would've if they'd known the identity of the man hiding behind the pierrot's mask. He dealt with them strictly off-line, in person or on the phone, so they were never associated on the Net.

Off-line. Jin found it amusing how the Net was supposed to make communication easier. Not in his life, it hadn't.

He'd been cautious communicating with anyone initially. Now, he was especially careful. Tackey had told him once that they were still hanging onto his chip. It had been a drunken conversation, but Jin had no reason to doubt its veracity. Not with the genuine frustration in Tackey's voice when he'd complained about the encryption, how neither he nor those above him in the pecking order had been able to break it. Without re-establishing the physical connections between Jin's body and the chip, it was unlikely anyone would ever be able to make sense of the data it contained. It was a puzzle, and a hold over Jin they might one day need.

For Jin, it was hope. If he could retrieve his chip and find a surgeon willing to switch it with his existing one, he'd feel complete again, he knew it. Ueda knew a surgeon willing to work for a not too extortionate fee, but there remained two fairly large problems. Where to find the chip...and what to do afterwards, when they realised what he'd done?

First things first: locate the chip and confirm it was still intact. He could think about the rest after he'd satisfied himself that he had a chance.

Tackey's office door was ajar, but only by an inch. Jin pressed gently, gritting his teeth, hoping it wouldn't pick that day to develop a squeak. He opened it just enough to squirm inside. There were only a couple of places he thought likely to hold anything of value; he'd been inside often and the office was sparsely furnished. It was no wonder his boss spent so much time at the Akasaka office.

The overhead light was off. No matter; the tiny room was separated from the main office by large glass windows. Jin had sufficient light to avoid walking into anything. Had it been dark, he knew without a doubt he'd have crashed into the desk.

By and large, all their files were kept on-line, for ease of sharing with other branches. Paperwork was a thing of the past. Not that this stopped Tackey from having a filing cabinet, a hulking grey monster in which he stored every scrap of information he had on his staff. His predecessor had brought it in, he said, and the damned thing was practically welded into the corner. Since it was too much trouble to get rid of it, he might as well use it.

The other possibility was the large mahogany desk, highly polished except in the one patch where Tackey kept putting his feet up. (He usually covered it up with an old paperback copy of 'Networking and YOU' when they had visitors.) There were two shallow drawers with a deeper one below: the lower two were locked. The uppermost drawer, sadly, held nothing more exciting than a paperclip chain, a pack of biros, and enough contraceptives to stock an entire pharmacy (in assorted colours and flavours). Jin pulled a face and shut the drawer. Tackey was clearly prepared for anything.

How long did he have left? If Nakamaru went through his usual routine with the soap, it could be anywhere up to five minutes more. It was no wonder they were always running out. Jin risked tugging at the filing cabinet, trying to keep his breathing silent as possible to listen out for the bathroom door opening. Each drawer had a shiny silver lock in the top right corner; they locked individually. Top drawer...locked. Middle drawer...locked. Bottom drawer...

Locked...but loose. Jin could feel it, that ounce of give where something was out of alignment. One good, solid pull and he'd have it open. He crouched down, braced his other hand against the body of the cabinet, tucked his fingers under the handle, and yanked. The drawer shot out, narrowly missing Jin's knee. The crash would've been horrendous (not to mention the pain) but the noise was loud enough without adding grievous bodily harm into the mix. Jin held his breath, expecting Nakamaru to poke his nose round the door any moment now and ask what was going on.

Nothing happened. Jin risked a glance inside the drawer. It was half empty. The other half was entirely taken up by a thick beige concertina folder labelled 'Jin Akanishi'. How did he manage to merit a folder that must've been a good six inches thick? He was reaching for the catch when he heard the bathroom door being unlocked. No time, damnit. Jin eased the drawer back into place, slipped out the office and back behind his desk just as Nakamaru emerged, rubbing hand cream into his palms.

"Ready for work?" Jin said brightly, pretending his heart wasn't beating a million miles a minute and his mind wasn't tangling itself up in knots.

"Almost. Hey, was that a noise in Tackey's office just now? I thought I heard a crash."

Jin scrambled to find an excuse. "Uh...yeah, sorry. That was me. I thought I remembered him keeping some tissues in his desk drawer, but all I found was...well, you don't want to know."

Nakamaru's cheeks turned pink. "I went in to borrow a pen once. Say no more."

"Happily."

"Here." Nakamaru handed him a pack of tissues. "I was given a couple of packs on my way home yesterday. I think the girls felt sorry for me with the spaghetti dripping down my shirt."

"Thanks." Jin suppressed a smile at the mental image and stashed the tissues away in his jacket pocket. They wouldn't go to waste, anyway. He'd always been susceptible to colds and since it had been a while since his last one, he was about due to come down with something any day now.

He finished up with his email, then reviewed the results of his security sweeps. Nothing unusual - but then, it was quarter past eight on a Friday morning in a part of Tokyo where some places didn't even open till evening. Jin didn't expect much. The only item that struck him as out of the ordinary was heavy activity around Big Echo. It was possible the manager was up early and downloading new songs from HQ, or updating software, or uploading secretly filmed videos of patrons to streaming sites, who knew?

If it wasn't...well...who hacked a karaoke chain, anyway?

"Big Echo's active for this time of morning, aren't they?" Nakamaru said. He'd been running his own sweeps. "Do you want to check it out or should I?"

"I'll go. You can take the next one. Maybe it'll be something juicy, like someone breaking into T.G.I. Friday and changing all the prices or something." Roppongi syscops had it much easier than those who worked in Nihonbashi. More wackiness, less financial fraud.

Jin grabbed the cable, lay back as far as he could for maximum comfort, and plugged himself in. Sixty seconds later he was standing in the office's private network. The skies of the Roppongi subnet were orange today; the landmarks were matching signposts rather than buildings. Orange skies, black ground. Hallowe'en was coming a month early. The restaurant was close enough that Jin didn't have to catch a packet. He walked, checking all about him for familiar avatars - for one in particular.

There weren't many people about yet. The signposts shone in accordance with the amount of activity taking place at each. Not everyone was represented on the Net. Some independent businesses continued to keep their finances off-line, mostly those who didn't need publicity to keep themselves in business. Places like small, family-run shops with a limited customer base. They did their banking the old-fashioned way, in person and on the telephone. If they went on the Net at all they did it via cell phones, giving them a limited view of the virtual world. Barely worth it, as far as Jin was concerned, but better than not being able to connect at all.

For the majority of businesses, the Net was indispensable not only behind the scenes, to handle all operational procedures save those that had to be done in person (and even those were reducing in number - the last time Jin had bought a new shirt, he'd tried it on on-line first using his body parameters to gauge fit), but to reach customers. All the information, all the detail, all the advertisements you could ever want, all right there on display. Want to see what the view's like from a restaurant you've never been to? Go visit the virtual version and see for yourself. Want to order a perfume as a surprise present for the wife? See what the latest offers are from all over the world, then dial your sense of smell up to the maximum and test out the scents on-line before you order one that'll be on your doorstep the very next day.

Had the scientists managed to devise a way to obtain nutrients on-line while eating in a virtual restaurant, all restaurants could be open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, staffed by AIs who never got tired, or complained, or needed tipping. Jin didn't think it was likely to happen - the impact on the economy would be too great. Besides, there was no substitute for the real thing when it came to food.

When it came to entertainment, too. Jin had been at Big Echo with friends only last week, singing rock and hip-hop and heartfelt ballads with equal vigour. On the Net, its private subnetwork was usually low-traffic this time of day.

Not today, however. Jin stared at the signpost representing Roppongi's branch of the popular karaoke chain. The normal red letters were orange to match the sky - not so strange, considering the same could be said for the other signposts in the area - but where the base of the sign melted into the ground, the flat black surface had partially disappeared, revealing criss-crossing yellow mesh beneath.

As Jin watched, the mesh crept up the sign, lines shooting back and forth to create a net pattern of shining threads. The sign might've been only as tall as Jin himself but size was relative on the Net when all exteriors had to confirm to the local landscape settings. This one object represented every scrap of computing power present in that branch.

What the mesh represented, Jin didn't know. Underneath the lines was more than grey, less than black, cloud swirls on a stormy night, shot through with streaks of lightning. A tempest barely contained by fine, gleaming wire. He didn't dare touch it directly for fear he'd be sliced open.

Look, don't touch. Looking was fine, wasn't it? Watching the clouds writhe in a charcoal sky, dancing for his amusement. A mail alert pinged the edge of his consciousness but Jin ignored it. There was something supernaturally beautiful about this dark mass of motion, demanding he gaze till he could see nothing else.

A second alert buzzed angrily at him. Whatever the message was, it could wait. Jin was busy. He couldn't spare the time for such trivial matters right now, not when he had such an entrancing sight before him.

He leaned forward...and arms seized him about the thighs, jerking him savagely backwards then spinning him around. The arms released him and Jin found himself looking down at one seriously annoyed turtle.

"How many times do I have to warn you not to go near that?" Kame snapped.

Jin stepped back to avoid Kame biting his kneecaps off. "I'm guessing those two messages were from you?"

"You see anyone else around here telling you it's not a good day for karaoke?"

He didn't see anyone else at all. The nearest structures were dark, attracting little interest from wanderers. For all intents and purposes, he and Kame were alone.

"Thanks for the warning, but what exactly were you trying to warn me about?"

"That." Kame pointed with one chubby green arm. The sign was twice his height. "Don't you think it looks familiar?"

Jin followed the arm and looked at the signpost again, trying to see what Kame meant. This time he was turned aside by a more human hand pressing against his cheek. Off-line the touch would've been skin to skin; on-line, the CNS interface filled in the gaps. The chip in Jin's interface held his signature, his base avatar and any modifications he made, but it also held his physical details - how soft his hair felt, or the warmth of his skin on any normal day, or how much pressure he could take before he bruised.

The first time a CNS chip connected its owner to the Net, it subjected that person to a barrage of sensation, all designed to provide data that said: this is how I feel when you touch me like this. That data was automatically provided by non-living things on the Net, but humans had to deliberately set it. Those who took unusual shapes often chose not to, to feel like nothing but collections of pixels swarming about a centre to all who tried to touch them unless they were aiming to intimidate, but most with humanoid avatars usually chose to share their data.

Consequently, when Kame touched him in human form, Jin felt cool, dry flesh against his cheek, turning his head gently aside. It lasted only for a moment; Kame pulled his hand back hurriedly and stepped away, mission accomplished.

"Don't look," he said.

Looking at the sign would be a waste of time he could spend looking at Kame instead, Jin decided. Today his mysterious new acquaintance was wearing faded jeans that were more hole than denim, a baby pink T-shirt patterned with skulls, and a long, black leather coat to match oh-so-shiny boots. From this distance, Jin could make out a silver hoop winking at him from Kame's left earlobe, the twin of his own. He assumed Kame ordinarily roamed the Net in the form of a turtle in order to avoid people swooning wherever he went.

It wasn't just the clothes - the man was beautiful in a way that was near androgynous. Jin wondered how much of it was true to life. The bump on the nose, maybe from a childhood break? He didn't doubt that. The finely shaped eyebrows? Maybe a little digital help, there. He was all delicate lines and sharp angles, shouldn't have been so pretty, but there were those curves that sneaked in every now and then, especially around the lips. Those made him less of a perfect, precious doll, and more of a very tempting visual feast.

"Back behind your desk, your body's drooling, isn't it?"

"Huh?" Jin shook himself out of it. "Is not. I just didn't get much of a chance to see what you really looked like when you took off so fast last time - after copying my routine."

Kame had the decency to look slightly guilty. "They were nice sunglasses. I stripped out the filters, though."

"Figures. What've you done to your vision so you can look at that thing and I can't without wanting to dive right into it?"

"I haven't. I just have more self-control than you," Kame teased. "Don't feel bad. That cowboy last night, he got sucked in too. I think this signpost is like that piece of cake. How about you?"

Uneasy, Jin sneaked a sideways glance at the signpost. Still swirling with intent. "I...I got your email this morning. I don't think his hack had anything to do with the cake either, otherwise more than just that single structure would've been affected and half the Net would've been sucked in by morning."

"And then maybe half the Net would've been dead by morning. Don't you wonder why a man would do that to himself?"

"Trauma? I know it's only an avatar but that's got to be a pretty horrific experience."

"Only an avatar?" Kame laughed, short and bitter. "If your body dies when you're on-line you'll vanish from the Net for good, but you know what happens if you die in here, Jin? And I don't just mean Game Over in a game, or if you get temporarily overwritten, but real death, the kind that happens when your signature gets deleted from your CNS chip and suddenly your consciousness doesn't exist anymore? If you're lucky, you'll have enough life remaining to keep your body functioning and you'll live out your days as a vegetable. If not...your physical self follows your virtual self, sooner or later. It's the risk we all take, plugging ourselves into a world with no physical existence. When we're in here, that avatar's all we've got."

"MillionDollarStetson didn't die," Jin pointed out. "I pulled him out in one piece. Bit discoloured, but more or less intact. Besides, he threw himself in front of a train this morning after eating enough food to keep him going for a year. That's not the behaviour of a man with insufficient brain activity to even move his legs."

"It's not the behaviour of a sane man either. I saw the surveillance footage - he must've been out of his mind to eat that much. And he didn't strike me as suicidal last night. Dumb, but not suicidal."

Jin asked the question he'd been dying to ask since Kame's email earlier that morning. "Why do you care? You were looking for the cowboy last night to inflict one of your amusing little punishments on him, weren't you? He got more than what was coming to him, and now you're here, warning me not to look at the damned signpost in case the same thing happens to me. How did you even find this place? What's your stake in this?"

Kame held up a hand to make him pause, but Jin was done. Maybe he'd have more questions, but he needed answers first. "Whoa there. Yes, I went after him last night because he was up to no good and I can't allow that. I assumed his experience would've scared him sufficiently that he'd not try something stupid again in a hurry; I didn't expect to hear anything about him after but the morning news proved me wrong. It made me think maybe the chocolate stains - the corrupt data - had fed back to his brain, that he'd become so damaged by it that he...well, you must've seen for yourself.

"The cleanup last night took care of the cake; I thought that would be the end of it. Then one of my watchdogs reported there were code changes taking place in this sector." Kame whistled, summoning a miniature daschund. He patted her head fondly and dismissed her in a whirlwind of pixels. "Ran-chan was running in hidden mode, keeping an eye on things till I got here, which is how I knew about you. I didn't know exactly what was happening but I thought I'd better send a friendly warning, in case you got yourself into trouble before I arrived."

Trouble. Sure. Like Jin was some sort of walking disaster. "Don't think I don't appreciate the effort, but what makes you think I'd get in trouble?"

A sly grin from Kame. "You almost did, didn't you? If I hadn't pulled you away, who knows what that signpost would've done to you. Corrupted your avatar, maybe? That would've been a waste."

"Let's see." Jin pulled a copy of an image from memory, a picture of a green garden he'd seen from a dozen different angles, and threw it towards the signpost. "You watch it. I can't."

He'd expected to hear something - a fizzle, a pop, a crack of thunder - the second the two collided. Nothing. He didn't know anything had happened until Kame told him to look at the floor.

The garden was still recognisable as such, if the gardener was known to favour sepia-toned plants bent at exotic angles, spotted with bubbles and curled up like old film. Without touching it, Jin looked through the picture to the ones and zeroes beneath, running a quick calculation comparing the binary with the original to see what had changed. A fair bit, was the answer.

"About sixty five per cent," he said in response to Kame's questioning look. "More than MillionDollarStetson, but I suppose there was more of him to corrupt..."

"Brilliant. Maybe tomorrow, your lovely garden picture will do something incredibly senseless and feed itself into a shredder. Hmm..." Kame lost himself in thought for a bit while Jin disposed of the now ruined image. He was careful not to touch. It was bound to be hazardous to his health.

Kame flinched suddenly, the telltale sign of a message received. "I have to go. Work."

"You don't do this for a living?"

"That's you, remember? I get paid to do something a little less risky."

"Race-car driver? Fireman? Bomb disposal expert?"

"You want to know? Track me down," Kame challenged. "You can take care of this by yourself, can't you, Mr. Syscop?"

Last night's killer cake had been disposed of by the server's maintenance routines, but that had been code that hadn't belonged there. This time Jin didn't see that there was any disruption to the local landscape other than whatever was causing it to become corrupt. He might be able to do something about that. Without looking at it. Possibly.

"No problem. You run along and do whatever it is you do, and I'll tidy up here," Jin said airily. Damned if he was going to let Kame think he was incompetent. "I'd let you know if I find anything interesting, but since you haven't given me a way to contact you..."

Kame didn't rise to the bait; Jin didn't really believe he would. Anyone so determined to remain anonymous he'd spoof the email address of the message recipient wouldn't be giving out contact details to all and sundry. It irked Jin that he was an open book in comparison. Kame knew who he was, where he worked and how to get hold of him. What did Jin know about Kame? Nothing, except that he was sure he wanted to know a whole lot more.

"Watch yourself," Kame advised. "And don't, whatever you do, watch that signpost, because I'm not going to be here to save you from corruption."

Jin's CNS chip held digital representations of all his facial expressions; now he employed one of the least-used, a sickly smile to convey the irony of Kame's words. "You're far too late for that," he said softly.

Kame winked. "Don't be so sure."

Then he was gone, from Jin's sight at least, probably from the Net altogether. Jin looked at the empty air where Kame had been and sighed. He wasn't used to being walked out on by people he wasn't even dating.

That left him with the signpost that used to represent the Roppongi branch of Big Echo on the Net. Jin couldn't risk anyone else getting near it. He started by cordoning off the affected area with a wall, leaving himself on the inside. No one could enter without his giving them access. He risked a glance at the sign, averting his eyes after a single second.

One of the great advantages of seeing something on-line was being able to study it without actually remembering what it looked like. Anything Jin saw while on the Net was consigned to his chip, from which he could comfortably run queries on it while not looking at the object itself. He searched both his own memories and the vast store of information available on the Net for similar patterns of corruption - the swirls and spirals and fine, shining mesh. The only result was on a music forum in Shibuya, where several users had posted complaining of a problem with the virtual version of Tower Records. Jin made a note to look into it later.

Now, how to repair the damage? What was causing it? Jin tried to work through it. The corrupt elements of the oversized cake had disappeared during the cleanup last night, but had this, whatever it was, been attached to the foreign code introduced by MillionDollarStetson? If so, it would've gone right along with it. Whatever was happening now didn't involve any foreign code, as far as Jin was aware. If it was an infection, it had to be either external to Big Echo, in which case it was part of the Roppongi subnet, or it was a problem with the private network itself, in which case Jin couldn't gain access - legally - without permission from their own security. Despite the unusual amount of activity he didn't think it likely anyone was logged in there right now - the infection, for want of a better word, was hogging processing power like there was no tomorrow.

But which processor? Jin checked his results again, this time with a better idea of what to look for. Ah, there it was. One of the Roppongi servers was having its CPU brutalised. Local activity was so limited that time of morning, there wasn't much competition for resources or someone else would've noticed by now.

That meant the problem had nothing to do with Big Echo's network. Interiors and exteriors being completely unrelated had been one of the hardest concepts for Jin to wrap his brain around as a child. His mother had hit on the bright idea of teaching him with a pair of identical eggs. Same size, same shape, same shell colour - they were mirrors of each other, till his mother had cracked the shells. One egg was raw; the other was hardboiled. He couldn't tell by looking at the exterior. The point had hit home, then, especially after he got to eat the boiled egg.

An exterior problem pointed to it being part of the Roppongi subnet, and that, Jin could deal with. If it was an infection, he could quarantine it and try to clean it without ever affecting the network whose shell it was. He didn't have the authority to perform anything across the entire subnet the way Kame had last night, but something like this was in his job description.

He had a nice shortcut for times like these - a tiny icon of a safe, complete with a combination lock and heavy chains. It launched MIROKU (short for 'MIRacle OKUnote'), one of Jin's own security programs, written after his unexpected change of career from fragments of code lingering in his organic memory combined with the theory he'd managed to retain and whatever he'd been able to teach himself afterwards. Once activated, it quarantined the affected code, effected a repair, and deleted if the repair was unsuccessful, all in the blink of an eye - or a couple of blinks depending on the size. What made MIROKU unusual, however, was that it also attempted to replace the code if repair was unsuccessful. For example, if a spreadsheet became infected and could not be fixed, the program would search for the last good saved copy of the file.

And if, as in this instance, the affected code was part of a standard across the Roppongi subnet, MIROKU would scan the surrounding area and copy the format, using the network maps for confirmation. The tone of the bleep he received told Jin the signpost he was looking at now had been recreated, not repaired. He checked MIROKU's logs to be doubly sure. The original had been locked away before the cleaning attempt, which had failed, but was not without result.

A pierrot avatar was cooling his heels in Jin's vault.

Jin mentally crossed his fingers that this was some other pierrot. It didn't have to be Koki. Avatars were by no means unique across the Net. But the suspect signpost had been deleted for good, and in its place was an annoyed avatar, tapping his fingers against the side of his tattooed face. Black painted fingernails, same as Koki had off-line. Too much jewellery for any real clown. And the most convincing argument of all: 'JOKER' tattooed across the knuckles of his left hand.

Koki. Damnit. Jin hoped his friend remembered not to let on that he actually knew Jin on-line, because under no circumstances could he afford to be associated with the infamous Joker. Koki would be hopping mad, anyway - Jin could see him glowering in the vault, just waiting to give the person responsible a piece of his mind and possibly a virtual broken nose - and it was pure chance whether or not he'd think before he spoke.

There was no way Jin could signal him a reminder, not with his every on-line move recorded for his bosses to dissect at their leisure, to consider whether or not he was slipping back into his old habits by associating with known troublemakers. All he could do was hope.

He opened the vault.

Chapter Text

Off-line, Koki Tanaka ran a shelter for homeless dogs and was the sweetest, most considerate guy you could ever hope to meet. He treated his girlfriends with care bordering on obsession, he fussed over his friends if he thought they weren't eating right, and could always be counted on for company if you fancied a motorcycle trip.

On-line, Joker was known for the unique way in which he proclaimed his political views - he replaced news broadcasts all over the world with his own homemade rap videos. Speeches, party political broadcasts, even election coverage. No network was safe from Joker's own political opinions, set to music, random English words mingling with inflammatory accusations and sneering suggestions for how to improve the world. Jin wasn't sure about the politics but he liked the music, having had sneak previews of most of Joker's works and contributed the occasional backing vocal.

The Joker who emerged from the vault fists first and scowling stopped short when he saw who'd released him. Jin shook his head minutely, willing Koki to get the message.

It seemed to work. The scowl softened till the pierrot's sad face was merely sullen, saying he was fed up and just wanted to get the hell out of there before some other idiot came along and locked him up in a vault.

"Are you all right?" Jin asked. That's what a concerned stranger would do, right? Nothing suspicious there.

Koki shrugged and scratched his head. "I think so. You the one who locked me up?"

"Not intentionally. I was trying to quarantine that signpost," Jin hiked a thumb behind him, "and when I ran a repair, you sort of...popped out of it."

"Last thing I remember, I was looking at that signpost, only it didn't look right. I got closer, woke up in lock-up."

Jin felt marginally better knowing even Koki had been sucked in by the swirly stuff. Kame was clearly abnormal in being able to resist it. "Had you ever seen anything like it before?" He wasn't usually in the position of having to question his friends; he was having trouble keeping his mind on track, asking the logical questions, not assuming things that Koki could tell him later.

"Never. Freaky stuff, like a pit of snakes or something." Koki pantomimed a shudder. "Wish I hadn't passed through this sector now. Even my log's showing a blank after I got here."

That was something new. If Koki had been swallowed up by the infection, he'd effectively disappeared until Jin had released him. If nothing was being written to your CNS chip's activity log, you were, for all intents and purposes...dead. Koki had temporarily been non-existent. Jin was curious to see what Bryner's log had to say. He made a note to obtain a copy later. He hadn't been completely swallowed up but he'd definitely been affected - had Koki?

"Has anything in your avatar been overwritten?" Jin asked. He could see by the way Koki's eyes lit up he was dying to ask questions.

"No," Koki said shortly. "You expecting it to?"

"I'll ask the questions." Jin had always wanted to say that. He thought it sounded suitably syscop-like.

Koki gave him a "yeah, right" look. "Of course, Mr. High and Mighty Syscop. Because heaven forbid I might actually be curious about the big gap in my memory. Thanks for springing me. See you around." He turned his back and began walking away.

"Wait." Jin caught up easily. Koki's avatar didn't appear to have suffered the same fate as the unfortunate garden picture, but why not? "If you see anything like this again, or you find any of your data has been corrupted, contact a syscop immediately."

"Got it."

"And you're sure you don't remember anything?" Jin pressed.

"Positive. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I hear my phone ringing."

Koki tried to log out, didn't get anywhere, and Jin realised he'd left his wall up. With a sheepish grin, he dropped it and Koki vanished immediately. The area looked clean now; Jin left a watchdog just in case and logged out himself. He hoped he was reading Koki right.

Back in his body, Jin wiped his damp palms on his jeans and looked over the divider at Nakamaru. His colleague was dead to the world, save the occasional twitch. Jin tapped a short message on his keyboard and sent it to Nakamaru to say he had to go take a personal call - family - and he'd be back in a minute. How much Nakamaru would pick up while logged on was negligible but this was one phone call Jin definitely didn't want him to hear.

As he jogged down the stairs, Jin passed Junno on his way in, smile brighter than all the lights of Las Vegas put together. Things must've gone well last night. He nodded a greeting and waved his cell phone by way of explanation; Junno waved back and continued his ascent. Leaving the office to make personal calls during working hours wasn't technically allowed but everyone did it, and nobody said anything so long as you weren't out too long. The office was so small privacy was impossible to obtain but there were some calls you just didn't want to make when everyone else was in earshot, like grovelling to your mother when you'd accidentally broken her favourite ornament (Nakamaru), critiquing your boyfriend's pathetic performance in the bedroom (Meisa), and pretending to be more gangster than you were in order to impress your girlfriend on the phone (Junno).

It was still raining outside, though not as heavily as before. Jin pulled up his hood and slouched under the overhang in the alley behind the building. At least the slope meant he could avoid the puddles. He dialled Koki's number, tucked the phone inside his hood, and waited.

"You're not as slow to take a hint as everyone says you are, you know that?" Koki said.

"Save it; I don't have long. Are you okay? I nearly had a heart attack when I found you in my vault."

Koki started laughing. "It was a shock to me too. And yeah, I'm fine. It went down like I told you on-line, except I left out the part where I was going there to switch out some of Big Echo's most popular tracks with a few of my own."

Jin didn't even want to know how a karaoke chain had gotten on Koki's bad side. Perhaps he was branching out from politics. "What did it look like when you got there?"

"Like I said, a pit of snakes. It was kind of hypnotic. Why? What do you know?"

"Not as much as I'd like to." Jin explained about the curious case of the cowboy and the chocolate cake, and how he believed it had something to do with the cowboy's subsequent suicide the next morning. "So if you notice anything strange, or have a sudden impulse to throw yourself in front of a train, call me," he finished. "I don't know where this stuff came from and I have no clue what its purpose is - MIROKU couldn't even analyse it, much less clean it - but you don't want to get near it. I almost got sucked in by it myself!"

He wanted to tell Koki about Kame, to ask him if he'd run across anything about Jin's mystery man before, but he was out of time and besides, Ueda was on the case. It could wait.

"I'd better get back to work," Jin said. "They'll start wondering if I've skipped town."

"In this weather, they couldn't blame you. See you tonight?"

Friday night. Last Friday, Jin had been attending a dinner party with Maki, thrown by one of her glitzy friends. All the food portions had been sized for the models who made up the majority of the guest list; Jin had been forced to stop and grab a hamburger on the way home just so he didn't die of starvation before the weekend.

This Friday, however, his social calendar was suddenly clear. This Friday, and every Friday thereafter for the foreseeable future. He could go see his friends and be completely comfortable for the first time in a fortnight.

"Yeah, I'll catch up with you later." Jin hung up, flipped his phone closed and dashed back inside before the rain changed its mind about easing up.

Meisa had arrived while he was round the back; both she and Junno were already settled in their cubicles, cables in place and eyes shut. Nakamaru was sitting up, dabbing at his eyes with a tissue.

"Everything okay?" he asked.

"Just a cousin checking the recipe she'd sent me made it through." Jin did his best to sound disgusted. "I've asked her not to call me when I'm working unless it's an emergency, but you know how it is..."

"My sister's like that." Nakamaru continued to wipe his eyes.

"A little girl thank you for finding her lost virtual pet again?" Jin guessed.

Nakamaru shook his head. "I think I'm allergic to Meisa's new perfume."

-----

The rest of the morning passed swiftly. Jin and Junno tag-teamed a gang of rogue waiters who were sending viruses to any customers who failed to leave a sufficiently generous tip, Meisa conned a pair of con artists and had them arrested off-line, and Nakamaru, after dosing himself up with antihistamines, foiled three attempted cases of password theft in the neighbourhood. Lunchtime brought a nice surprise, as a delivery girl turned up with four expensive boxed lunches and a note from Tackey, saying his hardworking staff deserved the best. They surmised from this that their boss and his partner were having a good time and that they were going to be on their own for the rest of today, too.

"He's not the most responsible boss in the world," Nakamaru said, taking out his chopsticks, "but he knows how to treat his staff."

From Jin's point of view, Tackey's continued absence could only be a good thing. The longer his boss's office stayed empty, the more opportunities Jin would have to get at that file. He couldn't rummage through anything electronic without leaving a trail but a hard copy wasn't beyond his reach.

Jin got another surprise after lunch, when his request for the activity log of Clint Wayne Bryner, a.k.a. 'MillionDollarStetson', came back with the item in question. He reviewed everything from the previous day. Things only started to look familiar when Jin found his own username on the log. Of Kame, there was no mention. The little turtle might as well not have existed. According to the log, the cowboy spoke to Jin, disappeared, and reappeared at the moment Jin pulled him from the cake. He then logged out, logging back on again four hours later, at which time he made several on-line purchases of romance movies, lost twenty thousand yen playing poker in a virtual casino on the Roppongi subnet, and modified his avatar to replace the cowboy hat with a feathered cap. He logged out at approximately two in the morning. No further on-line activity was recorded.

Four hours later, he was dead.

What was Kame? The Invisible Turtle? Uh, Invisible Man? Jin rushed to check his own logs. Kame didn't appear there, either. Oh, everything around him was accounted for - Jin invoking Accessorise, then the fishing rod; his meeting MillionDollarStetson etc. - but in both Jin's meetings with Kame, Kame himself was absent.

That wasn't the only oddity. The cowboy's behaviour the morning of his death had been peculiar, but his behaviour the night before didn't seem in keeping with his character either - especially the hat replacement. Had the trauma of being almost swallowed up by a giant slice of chocolate cake warped his personality for good? Jin was in no rush to find out at first hand.

Six o'clock rolled around before he knew it. Nakamaru was first out the door, red-eyed and somewhat congested, desperate to get away from Meisa's perfume. Jin announced that he'd be leaving in a minute too. He checked that both Junno and Meisa were fully immersed in the Net, then strode across to the bathroom door, shutting it with deliberate noise to make them think he was just stopping off to relieve himself before leaving for the day.

Jin hoped to attain a very different form of relief by creeping back into Tackey's office. The door was still as he'd left it earlier, ajar enough he could slip through without making a sound. He crouched at the foot of the filing cabinet and eased out the lowest drawer.

There it was. A whole folder about him. Jin willed himself to stay calm, not to give himself away with excitement, though he felt sure everyone in the building could hear his heart beat. He prised open the folder. Where to start? There were more than a dozen compartments, each stuffed with papers and sealed wallets.

The very first document in the folder was a headshot of Jin accompanied by basic details: birthdate, family, address, education, employment history etc. Nothing out of the ordinary there. It was effectively the résumé he'd never had to send when he became a syscop. The next couple of pages went into more detail about Jin's past occupations. The first two - waiter and sales assistant in a men's clothing store - were legitimate, part-time work during high school and university respectively.

The third was his "host" cover. Testimony from his supposed boss, swearing up and down that Jin was the finest employee he'd ever had, who knew more about pleasing a lady than anyone else in the club. Glowing reports from slightly inebriated customers of how beautiful and charming he'd been. Exactly how Yuu Shirota had managed to persuade the women that they'd actually met Jin, Jin had no idea, but his friend hadn't let slip for a second that he had no such employee. Now that was loyalty for you.

Tackey, or whoever had conducted the investigation, had been very discreet. There were details of precisely who had been spoken to and when, how many times, and whether or not their stories had been consistent. There was also a section at the end tying up the facts with a statement from Jin himself - one he didn't remember giving.

He skimmed as fast as he could. He'd never told them how he'd covered for his lack of legitimate employment, had he? Yet here it was in detail, with copies of falsified documentation and everything, explained in his own words - a transcription, according to the note. Where was the original recording? Stored elsewhere electronically, or in the file? Jin scrabbled in the bottom of the compartment for any portable media, freezing when he heard Junno yawn.

Had he been too loud? Junno's back was to the office. He rose from his chair, unplugged now, and began walking towards the bathroom. Panic took up residence in Jin's brain, accompanied by a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He crawled backwards behind the desk. Unless Junno was looking right down at the carpet, he couldn't see Jin.

"Akanishi, are you going to be much longer in there? Other people have needs too."

Jin silently thanked every deity he could think of that Junno hadn't actually tried the closed bathroom door. It would be okay. Junno would sit back down and plug himself in, and Jin would pretend he'd just emerged from the bathroom. No problem.

No problem except that Jin had forgotten to shut the drawer of the filing cabinet. Fantastic. The damned thing was wide open for anyone to see.

When Junno didn't enter the office, Jin allowed some of the panic to dissipate. He hadn't seen it. Miracles did happen. Cautiously, he peeked around the corner of the desk. Junno was sitting down again, legs crossed, dead to the world.

This being stealthy stuff, it wasn't really Jin's forte. He snapped a picture of the page he was holding with his cell phone, tucked the whole lot back in the drawer and pushed it into place. He was quite proud of himself for managing not to hit the door with his hand on the way out, and when he opened the bathroom door he did so loud enough for Junno to hear, despite his consciousness being otherwise engaged at the time.

"Sorry. Too much coffee," Jin explained as Junno dashed past him. "Have a good weekend; see you Monday."

He was out the door before his colleagues had a chance to respond. It was time to pay a little visit to the House of Fun.

-----

Dictator's House of Fun had been named as a joke - Ueda had been answering his phone that way since he was old enough to know what innuendo was, and when he'd opened up his own private establishment six years ago, he'd stuck with the appellation. It was true in all senses. The club resided in a converted boarding house, the clientele usually had fun (though not always as advertised), and Tatsuya Ueda had absolute control over the place, not to mention a whip with which to enforce it.

There were three parts to the house. The uppermost floor comprised Ueda's private quarters, which few were ever privileged to see. The lowest floor, not counting the basement where all the supplies were stored, was the public face, albeit one which the general public pretended not to see. Ueda had long since discovered that the best way to conceal a secret was to ensure no one wanted to look in your direction.

At least, no one respectable. Dictator's House of Fun catered to those whose private tastes were less than vanilla. Devoted husbands who couldn't bring themselves to tell their adored wives how much they enjoyed dressing in maids' costumes and being disciplined if they didn't manage to make those floors shine. Tough, no-nonsense businesswomen at the top of their game, who didn't dare let it be known they enjoyed being restrained for fear their professional lives would suffer. Couples who liked a little extra to spice up their relationship without the accompanying hassle and guilt. No one walked away unsatisfied.

Even if all a patron wanted was a beer or a bite to eat, they could have those too. The entrance hall opened on to a well-stocked bar, tended by staff to suit all manner of tastes. Customers could seat themselves at the counter or at any of fifteen tables arranged nearby, but the tables were better for catching the shows. A stage was set up at the far end of the room; most of the performers worked elsewhere in the house too, either dancing on the platforms on the sides, or in the back rooms where customers satisfied other appetites.

Ueda was careful to cultivate an atmosphere of borderline sleaziness - never enough to get the place shut down, but enough to ensure casual passers-by kept their distance and no official wanted to look too closely, for fear of finding themselves in the Dictator's clutches. Despite this, everything was spotless, from the kitchens to the bathrooms. Everything was sanitary and safe, unless the customer was paying for it to be otherwise, and even then the choice was up to the staff. Everyone who worked there did so because they enjoyed it, because they were well-paid and taken care of - free medical care was nothing to be sneezed at - and because they could get paid for indulging their own darkest desires.

Jin never stayed too long downstairs. If his bosses were monitoring his off-line activities, they'd yet to mention his regular visits to Ueda's place. He hoped they had no idea, because he didn't want to contemplate what they'd believe him to be up to. Hiring himself out for extra cash, probably; trading on his pretty face and talented tongue.

After work he'd driven home to change into something less rain-spattered. By the time he'd traded in his purple hoodie for a black leather jacket and jammed a baseball cap over his short ponytail, the rain had quit for the night. He could walk, then. Good. Jin wanted to leave his car at home in case he felt like a few drinks. He'd be safe amongst friends. They'd throw him in a taxi and send him home if he had too much; or if they thought he couldn't even get from the taxi to his own front door without assistance, Ueda would let him crash for the night. He had no shortage of space, after all.

Before he left he sent the photograph from his phone to his printer. The page he'd snapped turned out to be the one with his own statement: entirely true, but without even a trace of familiarity. He folded it up and slipped it in his wallet to study later. What else was in the folder? He meant to find out.

But not right now. The office was still occupied and the more Jin thought about it, the more he needed a drink. He set off in search of one.

He could've had a drink on the first floor, of course. It was early, only just past seven, and the bar was empty enough that Jin could've parked himself on a stool and been assured of an empty seat on either side. Most of the customers were at the tables, having a meal in the relative peace and quiet before the dancers came out. Pleasant, melodic instrumentals played in the background; with the dim, rosy-pink lighting, it might've been any restaurant in the world. Jin waved at the bar staff and passed through the red velvet curtains at the back.

Behind the curtains, a short passage led to a hallway filled with doors on both sides, where staff took customers to get their money's worth. At the end of the corridor was a staircase leading up to the second floor: a mirror of the first. But the doors here led to rooms filled not with comforts and instruments of pleasure, but with computers. Fast, powerful, expensive computers. If you didn't have your own or didn't want anyone watching, this was where you came to work, or to play, or to do any damned thing you pleased because the house had its own private network, and if you couldn't erase your own tracks the staff would do it for you. Up here the cables got you on the Net, not tied to a bed.

There was a bar on the second floor too, where there were no dancers but plenty of terminals. Every table had a multi-port access point and attached cables so you could plug yourself in while you were waiting for your food. No stage meant more tables, playing host to young, tough-looking crackers and corporate types alike, all talking freely and without fear that one of their number would give them away. Some of them worked solely in the shadows, some had a foot in both the shadows and the light, using their knowledge of one to work in the other. Not a one of them didn't know what they were doing just by being there.

Jin saw a dozen familiar faces, some conscious but others clearly lost to the Net, and knew he'd recognise a dozen more if he saw their avatars. He was early; Koki wasn't here yet. He sat down at the bar, tapped through the touch-screen menu to put in an order of lasagne, and got a beer and a blown kiss from a bartender whose name and gender he'd never succeeded in learning. That Jin wasn't sure whether he was being served by a slightly mannish woman or a particularly pretty man never stopped him from flirting back, especially when it got him a discount every time. Ueda didn't usually charge him for drinks but he was on his own when it came to food.

He leaned forward on his elbows, enjoying the discreet acoustic guitar music playing through the speakers as he sipped his beer and waited for company. The light was no brighter up here than downstairs; no one needed to see clearly on the second floor, and no one wanted to see clearly on the first. The gentle pink glow of the touch-screen menu provided sufficient light for Jin to spot Ueda when he approached.

"Did you go for a run like I told you to?" Ueda asked.

"What kind of a greeting is that?"

"So you didn't, then. I didn't think you would." Ueda took the next stool, smiling in satisfaction when he sat down. "I'm so glad I had these recovered this week. I think this one had an imprint of Koki on it."

Jin smirked around the neck of his beer bottle. He'd accidentally walked in on Koki changing once; Joker had tattooed more than his avatar. "Do you have time to talk or do you have customers to intimidate?"

"If it's about your mysterious turtle friend, I haven't got much yet," Ueda said.

"I don't think I could call him a friend..." Jin mused. "Wait, you said 'much', not 'anything'. Does that mean you do have something?"

"More like a lack of anything. I tracked down the other users who'd reported a run-in with him and discovered that he didn't appear on their activity logs at all."

"I knew that," Jin said glumly. "Apparently I was having a conversation with a figment of my imagination. Twice."

"Twice?" Ueda reached over the bar to grab one of his sports drinks from the fridge underneath. "You've seen him again?"

"You make it sound like I'm conducting some sort of illicit affair. And yes, I saw him this morning, but only because..."

For the second time that day, Jin explained about the cowboy, only now he had the time to give all the details, including everything he knew about Kame, which wasn't much. Ueda worked on his drink, only reacting when Jin described Kame's human avatar. Even then, it was just to give Jin a knowing smile, which Jin found kind of disturbing but kind of comforting too. Ueda knew his tastes well - knew everyone's tastes well, which was what made him so successful. Whenever he turned out to be wrong, he had no problem with bullying people into changing their minds.

When Jin described what had happened to Koki, however, Ueda actually looked worried. They'd all known each other since middle school; the friendship was an odd one but solid in its foundations. "And he seemed fine when you released him?"

Jin shrugged. "Only Koki knows. I expect he'll show up soon."

The lasagne put in an appearance before Koki did. Lunch had been a long time ago; Jin grabbed a fork and dug in, wolfing it down so fast he almost burned his mouth on the cheese sauce.

"Your eating habits could use some work," Ueda commented.

"So says the guy who eats bread by the loaf."

"I'm in training!"

"For what, the Sadism Olympics? I think you're guaranteed a gold medal there..."

"Shut up and eat before I make you pay for every free drink you've ever had from me."

Koki arrived just in time to steal the last mouthful from Jin's plate, a move that did not win him any favours. "I timed that just right, didn't I?"

Jin grumbled incoherently and studied Koki carefully for any signs of possible craziness. Too bad his friend was something of a nutcase to begin with. Koki did his best to look the part of the tough gangleader you wouldn't want to mess with, even going so far as to shave his head on a regular basis and dye the remains bright blond, but his lack of height and a thin, wiry figure tended to hamper this, as did his occasional habit of behaving like a hyperactive puppy. Ueda, too, had his gleeful side, but his was usually related to vanquishing some hapless foe. Ueda's smile was never brighter than when he was standing with a metaphorical foot on someone's back.

"Perfect," Ueda said. "Have you heard about Jin's latest crush?"

"I do not have a crush! What I have is a mystery."

"A very attractive mystery who shows his affection by stealing your subroutines."

Ueda launched into a description of Kame. Jin decided now was as good a time as any to answer the call of nature. If he was going to get teased in stereo, he didn't want it to be on a full bladder.

On his way back he narrowly avoided being knocked off his feet by a man falling from a chair. Jin stopped to help his would-be assailant regain his seat, then realised that not only was the man still plugged into the table, but he was on-line as well. Most people managed to remain still enough not to hit the floor while on the Net, but apparently it was beyond this guy. Jin grabbed him under the shoulders and hauled him back into place, but couldn't get him to sit straight up without slumping to the side. He must've been heavily involved in whatever he was doing not to notice.

Jin looked around for assistance. No one else was at the table. The nearest customers were on-line themselves, absorbed in their own business. He settled for waving Koki and Ueda over to help.

"Hatsuharu Cruz, a.k.a. SailorXWing," Ueda said. "Big fan of 'Sailor Moon' and 'Star Wars'. He's a relatively nice guy when he's awake."

"Can we wake him up?" Jin admitted defeat after the oblivious man slid off the chair for a third time. "He's not going to sit under his own power and I'm not picking him off the floor again."

"Desperate times, and all that." Ueda reached across the table, keyed in an override code, and waited. "He should be coming out of it any moment now, vowing to punish me in the name of Princess Leia."

"Who'd dare?" Koki asked.

"You'd be surprised." Ueda frowned as Cruz continued to slump over the table, eyes closed, not even a twitch to indicate he'd been forcibly pulled off the Net. "He should've moved by now."

"Maybe he's asleep?" Jin shook Cruz so fiercely his necklaces jangled. "Nope, not asleep. How much has he had to drink?"

Koki picked up Cruz's drink, a carton of strawberry milk with a bright pink straw sticking out the top. "I'm thinking not much."

"He's not asleep, he's not drunk..." Jin didn't want to say it but someone had to. "Dead?"

"He's still breathing." Ueda pressed his fingers to Cruz's neck. "And he's got a pulse. I think we can rule out death. I don't care what anyone thinks, no one dies in here. Except that one customer who had a heart attack, but he should've known better than to go with three girls half his age..."

"Then he's..." Jin took in the closed eyes, the lack of response, and the drool that was starting to accumulate in the corner of Cruz's mouth. "Dead on the Net. Or he was." Kame's words from that morning popped up with a not so friendly reminder that virtual death could be even worse than the real thing, and the two weren't mutually exclusive.

"Let's switch him back on and see." Ueda tapped another code, sending SailorXWing back to the Net. "I need to oversee things here - will one of you take a look so I know if I have to call an ambulance?"

Jin sighed. "Might as well be me. I can claim the overtime. Can I borrow a room?"

Ueda jerked a thumb towards the hallway. "Take 227. No one's in there right now and I had a new couch put in yesterday. Enjoy."

With a task like that? "Enjoy? Right."

Jin collected his beer from the bar to save Koki stealing it and trotted off to find Room 227. Some of Ueda's computer rooms were equipped with mats and cushions, some with tables and chairs, and one even had a hammock, but only a few had a nice, comfortable couch. This was one of them. Jin arranged his shoes neatly by the door, hung his cap and jacket up on the hook, and settled down on the long beige couch, which was so soft he could feel himself sinking into the cushions. Would've been a great time for a nap, if only he didn't have work to do.

He'd been joking about claiming the overtime. Jin made a point of not accessing the Net from Ueda's place because he couldn't cover the fact that he'd been on-line. He'd appear to be coming from elsewhere, if anyone traced him back to his access point, but he'd still be on-line, and if he tried to tamper with his activity log he might as well not bother to show up for work on Monday, not that he'd ever quite figured out how to do it.

But he didn't want Koki to have to do it, and Ueda had a club to run. Jin would simply have to say, if questioned, that he'd run across SailorXWing by accident.

If he managed to find him at all, of course. Jin launched himself onto the Net, receiving a flashing message to tell him he was logging on from a network in Akihabara, as routed through half a dozen others first. Fair enough; Akihabara had so many public terminals it would give even the most dedicated investigator a headache trying to pick up the trail.

Ueda's private network looked a lot like the House of Fun itself, only emptier. Most of his customers left for the wider Net once on-line, a bare handful remaining to play in the area. Jin ignored the electronic poker game taking place to his left, which was being played by a table of Disney characters, and cut straight through to the bar where an exotic catgirl wearing a staff badge dangling from her diamond-studded collar was using a simulator to rearrange the furniture.

"Have you seen a guy who goes by 'SailorXWing' come through here?" he asked. There were other ways to track the man down, but it never hurt to check.

The catgirl turned around and hissed. She had nice teeth, Jin noticed. Very sharp. Her name badge read 'Yuko'. "Logged on about twenty minutes ago. You can't miss him. Long black curls, shiny sailor suit with X-wings on the skirt, dimples - and a booming bass voice. He's a good tipper."

"Very nice for you, I'm sure, but would you happen to know where he went?"

She pointed across to the poker players. "He ran off sulking when they wouldn't deal him in. Goofy told him he didn't look old enough. You might find him down at 'Fly Me to the Moon'; he goes there all the time to cheer himself up."

"That sounds familiar."

"You know the song?" The catgirl hummed a few bars. "It's a Net-only dance club. They override the global gravity settings inside so you can fly around the dancefloor, go cut loose on the ceiling if you want. It's a blast so long as you don't get spacesick."

She gave him the address and returned to her simulation. The club was on the Shibuya subnet. Jin left Ueda's network and caught the first packet travelling towards Shibuya. Seconds later he was outside 'Fly Me to the Moon', watching a steady stream of people disappear inside. Popular place. Too bad syscop privilege didn't apply to dance clubs or he'd be able to jump the queue.

It was, as Jin discovered when he reached the front, an almost entirely public structure. A small dark patch at the back was private, presumably administrative, but the remainder was open to all. Structures on the Shibuya subnet - at least at present - took the form of blue crystals. Jin entered the crystal, only to find himself in a garden, looking up at what appeared to be the world's largest golf ball. And inside the golf ball...

A warning message stuck to the outside advised patrons that gravity was not active anywhere in the club. Anyone feeling ill should immediately log off and seek medical assistance off-line, as the club owners were not responsible for any distress caused inside. All who entered did so at their own risk.

Jin thought it sounded more like a warning notice on a thrill ride. How bad could it be?

He found out in short order when the doorman, not amused by his wriggling out of the entrance fee by claiming official business and flashing his silver aura, shoved him inside with a none too gentle hand. Jin fell through the door, spun diagonally through the room, and landed flat against the opposite wall - upside down. With no air, no mass and no gravity, the movement of the dancing avatars was a matter of their own control, moving electronically rather than physically, like they were all video game characters who held their own controllers.

The analogy helped Jin straighten up, even if it didn't quite peel him off the wall. He scanned the room for SailorXWing. A 'Star Wars' themed sailor soldier should've been easy to spot, surely?

Not so. The club was packed. If not for the door, Jin wouldn't have known which way was up: there were people dancing at all angles inside the giant sphere, where every curve seemed to lead to a picture of the Moon, set in a night sky full of stars. The Moon images themselves were sufficiently curved to appear round, contributing to the illusion that the patrons were, indeed, dancing on the surface of the Moon. People danced alone, in pairs or groups, throwing themselves around to the music with no thought for caution. It was a dizzying sight.

"Want to dance?" came a familiar voice from down by his knees.

Jin couldn't help but grin as the tiny turtle floated up to his eye level. "Are you stalking me?"

"That depends. Do you want me to stalk you?" The turtle winked and changed to human form. Kame was wearing black from head to foot, all sleek and shimmery under the spotlights. "Actually, I'm here because I picked up on another one of those weird code changes - I arrived about ten seconds before you did. Which one of us is a stalker?"

"Okay, you're not a stalker. You're a mystery I'd love to be able to solve, but at the moment I have to find a pretty girl in a sailor suit who might be a dead man off-line by now."

Kame's brows knitted together as he struggled to follow Jin's babbling. "Since you're looking for something and I'm looking for something, shall we look together?"

Without waiting for an answer he took Jin by the hand and flung them away from the wall. They spiralled up till Jin lost track of the door, and with that, all frame of reference. He might've been upside down, or sideways, or anywhere in between. Around them the dancers whirled and spun in mid-air - not that there was any air; Jin didn't need to breathe on the Net but a breathless giddiness fed through from his body, created by the on-line sensations as he and Kame moved from place to place without ever touching the ground.

He found it difficult to keep his mind on the search, and not just because of the dizzying angles and constantly moving crowds. Kame had a tight grip on his hand to keep them together; the other hand rested lightly on Jin's hip so they faced each other as they spun around. Such close proximity was nothing if not a distraction. Jin wondered if Kame was feeling it too. That sort of cue was far easier to pick up off-line, where it was harder to control one's image.

"You do this often?" Jin asked.

Kame grimaced. "Not if I can help it. I have to disable the feedback so I don't lose my lunch when I leave my stomach behind me. The flying part's fun - the throwing up off-line part, not so much."

It hadn't occurred to Jin to disable the feedback. He liked sensation, whatever the form: the plunge of a rollercoaster, the soaring of an aeroplane, a warm duvet to snuggle under or a gentle hand on his skin.

"I wouldn't have guessed," Jin said. "You're very good at this. I don't know how you're seeing anything, but you're very good at this."

"I'm not even sure what I'm looking for - hopefully I'll know it when I see it." Kame squinted over Jin's shoulder and pressed forward for a better view, bringing them together. "I don't mind if it takes a little longer. How about you?"

Jin wasn't in any hurry. He hadn't been dancing in the longest time; Kame's avatar fit comfortably against his, a couple of inches shorter, slighter in places. Made Jin curious how it would feel off-line.

He hastily shook off the curiosity. There wasn't time for that, and he'd just been on the receiving end of a break-up he hadn't even seen coming, and he didn't know anything about Kame. The man could be a serial killer off-line, for all he knew. Never mind that Kame seemed perfectly happy to flirt with him, if the hand squeezing his hip was any indication - and a small, secret, totally selfish part of Jin liked to believe it was.

"Let's go right up to the top," Kame suggested.

"How do you know we haven't already been there?" Jin couldn't keep track of their progress through the club, if they were making any at all. "Lead the way."

"I always do."

They whirled to the side, rotating as they went; Jin spotted the door and finally managed to get a fix on their location. The Moon image at the apex of the club loomed large ahead of them. Jin rubbed his eyes with the hand that wasn't clutching Kame's and tried to figure out what was wrong with it.

"Am I seeing things or is that ceiling higher than it should be?"

"I think the curve is deeper?" Kame suggested after studying it for a few seconds. "Let's land on it and walk round."

They had to time their steps carefully to move amongst the dancers, not wanting to be knocked askew and sent floating in the opposite direction. Jin successfully fended off three attempts by others to steal Kame for a dance; Kame was so amused by Jin's expression of triumph that he started laughing. Really laughing. When Kame laughed with all his heart, Jin learned, it was a full body experience.

The laughter died the moment they saw what lay on the dark side of the Moon.

The flashing disco lights didn't reach round here. None of the dancers had ventured this far around the Moon, save the two who were frozen in a swirling vortex of stars. SailorXWing, to judge by the avatar, and a second, similarly garbed sailor soldier.

"I think we've both found what we were looking for," Kame breathed. "Pretty girl in a sailor suit?"

"And suspicious code changes," Jin finished. He averted his eyes, not only so he didn't wind up like the two before him but because the sight was pretty darned grotesque.

No wonder SailorXWing was unresponsive off-line. He was trapped in a bizarre dance club on the Net, without any means of freeing himself and not much chance of being found. Koki's body must've been like that too.

"We've got to get them out of there," Jin said. "After you left this morning, I quarantined that signpost and tried to clean it. Couldn't clean, had to delete, but in the process it spat out someone who'd been swallowed up like these two." He didn't want to mention it had been a friend.

"Was that someone all right?"

"He seemed fine, except that the whole time he was captive, nothing was logged. I bet these two are blank right now, too. One of them's slumped over a table, drooling, and I have no idea who the other one is." Jin risked a peek at the costume. "Based on the skirt patterns, I'd say SailorXWing found himself a SailorTieFighter to play with."

"Did you manage to get any details on what you were quarantining?"

"Is this an interrogation?"

"Sorry." Kame patted Jin's forearm in apology. "Things seem to be getting worse, and if I don't find out where these infections are coming from, I can't stop them at the source."

This only served to make Jin even more curious about Kame's stake in all this chaos. Hired gun, maybe? Contracted to combat the electronic forces of evil? Or just a convenience store clerk with a really dangerous hobby?

"Shibuya's out of my jurisdiction but seeing as how I'm off the clock anyway..." Jin ran MIROKU, setting the parameters to cover the entire surface. Other than he and Kame, there were no other people on that side save the two they were trying to help. The tinny bleep told him the affected area was being recreated based on the pattern of the other side, which left him with two bewildered sailor soldiers sitting in his vault and a growing list of unanswered questions.

"Nice," Kame said as Jin emptied the vault. "I think I'll have to borrow that one as well."

"Borrowed? You could've asked the first time, you know." Not that Jin was one to talk. Since childhood he'd been possessive of his own belongings but terribly free with those of friends and family, even if he was quite good at returning them. "Some of us don't appreciate having our toolkits rummaged through. And how did you even get to it anyway? That was stored on my CNS chip!"

Kame caught his gaze for a moment, sidestepped the final question. "I'm sorry. But would you have let a stranger copy your subroutines?"

"If he looked like you," Jin joked, though he was at least half serious.

"I had no idea you liked turtles so much," Kame teased back; Jin caught a more serious edge there, too; one neither of them had time to explore at the moment. "I want to check those two for damage before they disappear."

Jin was crouching down to address SailorXWing when he got a mail from Ueda's phone to say Cruz appeared to be conscious again, if somewhat disoriented. He sent a fast reply telling Ueda not to pull the plug on Cruz; if possible, he wanted to ask for details.

Kame was already on the case. "Hi there! Are you okay? Any strange food cravings or suicidal urges?" Both sailor-suited avatars looked up at him blearily and said "Huh?" in unison. He tried again. "What's the last thing you remember?"

The unknown sailor soldier who, based on her voice, was probably an actual female, recovered her wits first. "Threatening to punish some loser who tried to drag me down. Haru brought me up here to get me calm...and that's it. It was, like, two seconds ago."

"I think it was a bit longer than that." Kame gave the girl an encouraging smile and held out his hand; Jin noticed a thin ripple of code above Kame's palm, eerily like the swirling vortex of stars he'd just deleted. "SailorTieFighter, is it? According to your activity log you've been non-existent for about twenty minutes."

"How are you getting to her activity log so fast?" Jin whispered. He couldn't send Kame a mail - every one Kame had sent him so far had purported to come from Jin himself, so he couldn't reply - which meant if he wanted to speak privately, all he could do was lower his volume. "I have to requisition them!"

Activity logs were stored in the CNS chip, where they could only be read by the user to whom they belonged. All the logs were mirrored in a central data warehouse in the area where the chip had been registered upon implantation. During the course of their investigations, syscops could request these copies to be sent to them - though since the logs were constantly being updated while the user was on-line, they'd have a snapshot at best unless the user never logged on again. When the user was dead, that wasn't a problem.

"I'm surprised you don't know," Kame whispered back. "The comments in the code have your flavour - I picked it up from the sunglasses. But I suppose syscops shouldn't be playing with toys like these, should they?"

No, they shouldn't. No one was supposed to have access to the chip version of other people's logs, because if they gained write-access as well as read, they could falsify on-line activity. Lies would propagate to the mirror version and unless the user had a cast-iron alibi, preferably with witnesses, they'd have a hard time disproving them.

Jin knew he didn't have anything in his toolkit for grabbing logs directly from CNS chips - but might he have had, before? Might he have written a program expressly for that purpose? Anything was possible. He wouldn't know for sure unless he was able to retrieve his original chip, and if he did that, having illegal software in his toolkit would be the least of his problems.

He didn't like this empty feeling. It was still as strong as it had been in the hospital, feeling like half a person with scraps and fragments left from things that just weren't there. Time and rebuilding his life had helped soften it a little, cover it up with a layer of distraction, but it was still there and it wasn't going away. Confronted now with a potential missing piece of the puzzle, Jin was desperate to seize it.

"Nonsense," Cruz boomed out, the voice completely at odds with his slender, girlish avatar. "Mariko and I only just got here! You must have made a mistake."

"I wish we had," Jin said, "but the two of you were trapped in a section of corrupt code. You notice anything different about your avatars? Any discoloured patches, any hair curling in the wrong direction?"

Both sailor soldiers slapped Jin, one on each cheek. Kame retreated to a safe distance before giggling behind his hands.

"I'll take that as a 'no', then." Jin rubbed his smarting face. The sensory data from the slaps fed back to his brain, which told his body he was feeling pain, which then leaked to his consciousness on the Net. It was fun for on-line gamers, who got to experience all the thrills of battle without actually dying from it, but not so much for guys who'd just been hit by fighters for love, justice, and the way of the Force.

At least it wouldn't kill him. The body felt the pain but didn't take the damage, so he could be shot on-line and emerge unscathed when he logged off, but there had been a couple of cases where users had died simply from the shock of the wound. Junno, the office's hardcore gamer, had once shown up for work with a limp caused by a phantom fall from his horse during a battle. When Jin played fighting games with Yamapi, he did so off-line.

"Definitely a 'no'," Kame agreed. "Maybe MillionDollarStetson was the only one to take damage and everyone else has just been inconvenienced?"

"My garden picture," Jin reminded him. "That was more than an inconvenience."

"I don't know about any garden picture and I'm not damaged!" Mariko threw herself into the air and dove towards the exit, giving the three men an excellent view of her back.

"Mariko!" Cruz launched himself after her, wailing for her to return.

Jin made a grab for them but Kame yanked him back by his belt. "Don't touch them! Look at the bows on their backs."

Both avatars had large, bright yellow bows pinned to the small of their backs. "What about them?"

"When we first saw them, they were pink."

Under any other circumstances, that statement would not have been anywhere near as scary. Jin unhooked Kame's fingers from his belt, since they showed no signs of leaving of their own accord and if there was going to be any seizing of clothing he wanted it to be a) mutual, b) not when they were standing on an upside down replica of the Moon in an on-line dance club, and c) when they weren't too busy to appreciate it.

"I hope they don't touch anyone else," Kame said. "We'd better go after them."

"I can lock them up if I can get close enough not to catch anyone else at the same time; I won't have to touch them."

They set off after the two sailor soldiers. Jin had to replay a corner of his vision in slow motion to be sure, but he was fairly certain they hadn't come into contact with other avatars in the club, swarming, as they were, straight through the crowds. It was a game of chase for four, with Mariko in the lead and Kame bringing up the rear. Jin muttered apologies as he elbowed his way between the dancers.

"They're going for the door!" Kame split up a pair of elephants doing a fair imitation of the Twist. "We might have a better chance of catching them out on the wider Net."

"Or losing them altogether..."

Kame ushered Jin through the door at such speed he almost crashed into the doorman, which would've served him right for that shove earlier, had Jin had the time to stand around and gloat. Such a pity he didn't.

Cruz and Mariko fled to the Shibuya subnet, where things were starting to pick up for the night. Fly Me to the Moon wasn't the only on-line club in the sector. The chase continued on foot as the gravity settings kicked in; it didn't take long for the two sailor soldiers to notice they had company. That Kame was yelling at them to stop might've been a contributing factor.

So close... One of Kame's floating codestreams drifted in front of him; Jin caught a glimpse of a query heading towards Mariko. Unfortunately, she saw it too. He didn't blame her for vanishing, but it did make life awkward that she'd gone before they could trace her. Cruz followed suit seconds later.

"Couldn't get a lock on her," Kame complained, but he's-"

"I know where he is," Jin said darkly. "He's down the corridor from me, only a lot less comfortable. I'd better go intercept him before he leaves the bar. Are you anywhere near?"

"I'm working in Yokohama this week; you're on your own. I'll catch up with you later. Thanks for the program."

Kame logged off; Jin didn't need to be psychic to know that a copy of MIROKU had gone with him.

Chapter Text

Jin didn't want to leave the nice, comfortable couch to go chasing after Hatsuharu Cruz. He wanted to lie back, maybe phone the bar to order himself another drink, and work on the more entertaining of his two mysteries: Kame. He was Japanese, if his avatar was accurate, and if he was working in Yokohama "this week", he probably didn't live there but had a job that conceivably involved travel. He knew Roppongi well enough to take an interest in the syscop staffing levels...and he might or might not have programs that Jin had written in the past.

He was certainly accumulating a good collection of Jin's more recent endeavours. With great reluctance, Jin uncurled himself from the couch and ran back to the bar, working out the kinks as he went.

Cruz was still at his table when Jin entered the room - not by choice, he guessed. He was in discussion with Ueda; Koki had planted himself and a beer on the other side of the table. Three on one. Jin liked those odds. It was much harder to run away from awkward questions off-line.

"I know you probably think I'm insane," Jin began as he sat down next to Cruz, "but you really were caught in corrupt code for about twenty minutes. Check your log: you didn't exist."

"Meanwhile, you were drooling over my nice, shiny tables," Ueda added.

Cruz scowled and wiped his sleeve across the table, looking at them both like they'd each grown an extra head. "You're that syscop who chased us out of the club. Where did your friend go?"

Jin ignored Ueda and Koki's speculative looks. "He had other business to attend to. Check your log, Mr. Cruz. And would you mind telling me what colour the giant bow on the back of your avatar is supposed to be?"

"Pink, of course. I would've thought you'd gotten a good look at it on the way out," Cruz sniped.

"I did, and it was yellow. Bright, sunshine yellow. I know what pink looks like and your bows were nowhere near. Now check your damn log."

It was easy to see when Cruz finally checked his log - his mouth dropped open, revealing an abnormally white set of teeth.

"Like me?" Koki said. "He disappeared too?"

"Yeah. Him and the girl he was with. We found them trapped in Fly Me to the Moon - you know the place?"

"We?" Ueda didn't miss a trick.

"Of course I know it. I went there this afternoon to work off lunch." Koki knew every club on the Net and had more than a passing familiarity with many of them off it. "Did you dance with your new friend?"

"None of your business." Jin poked Cruz under the chin to remind him to stop gaping. "Hey. Pay attention when people are trying to ask you questions. What's the last thing you remember before you saw me?"

"The pretty Grim Reaper standing next to you."

Jin couldn't correct him on Kame's occupation, even if he had been wearing solid black. "And before him?"

"Stars and flashing lights, the same as everyone else was seeing. I took Mariko up to the ceiling to calm her down, we walked around the back because there didn't seem to be anyone there, and then...that's it."

The investigation wasn't going very well. There didn't seem to be any logic in where these infections materialised. The first had been on the border with the Shiba subnet, the second a Big Echo well into the Roppongi subnet, and the third a club in the Shibuya subnet. There could well have been more; Jin hadn't conducted any searches outside his own territory. The first victim had killed himself, the second was - thankfully - showing no signs of doing the same, and the third was working on some serious denial. The fourth, Jin was forced to admit, was lost to him. Unless Cruz could give him details on Mariko, all he could do was search for her username. But those weren't unique, and he hadn't got a lock on her signature to trace her back to her CNS, meaning he couldn't even send her a message. It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Or not. How much did 'Star Wars' and 'Sailor Moon' fans cross over, anyway?

"How do you feel now, Mr. Cruz?"

"Annoyed that you keep asking me how I feel! Don't think you can send me to some expensive counsellor to recover from the trauma I supposedly underwent; I might've been in stasis somewhere for twenty minutes, as you say, but as I don't remember anything about it, I certainly don't feel any sense of horror or loss."

"How about feeling gratitude?" Koki suggested. "If Jin hadn't let you out, the paramedics would be wheeling your body away right about now."

From the way Cruz winced, Jin suspected Koki might've kicked him under the table. "Very well. Thank you, Officer. I think I've had enough for one night, so if you would be so kind as to excuse me, I'll be taking my leave."

"I'll need your contact details and your friend's too." Jin gave it his best gracious smile, which he wasn't great at. He could do 'shy' and 'impish' and 'seductive' and 'really, truly happy' with the best of them, but 'gracious' was another matter. "And then I'm going to need you to come with me to the hospital."

"You can't be serious!"

"I think he is," Ueda said. "I'll get one of the girls to drive you. Would you prefer a bunny or a cat?"

Jin had a brief flashback to Ueda's last Hallowe'en party - a very brief flashback, because after the first hour he'd been unable to remember anything at all thanks to a pair of black cats and about half a crate of beer - and decided the bunny would be the lesser of the two evils.

"I'm not going anywhere with you," Cruz protested. "So the bow on my avatar changed colour - so what? And that's assuming you weren't mistaken. I certainly don't need to see a doctor to fix that!"

"It's not your avatar I want to get checked out." Jin didn't see any way of convincing the man other than with an example. People tended to take things more seriously if you brought death into it. "Did you hear the news this morning? About a guy who threw himself on the Hibiya Line? We pulled him out of a similar patch last night. His avatar got corrupted, he began behaving strangely, and by morning he was dead."

"The man who kept eating and eating?"

"That's the one. See why I'd like you to get a medical examination?"

"But why should corrupt image data do anything to me off-line?"

Jin sighed. His weekend was going to have to wait - until next weekend, most likely. "That's what I'm trying to find out. Finish your milk and let's go."

Cruz pulled on his jacket. "If it will persuade you to leave me alone, I'll go. But first, I actually do have to go. Nature calls." He departed for the men's room, leaving Jin debating if he ought to follow.

"We're on the second floor," Ueda said. "He'd be an idiot to go out the window and the fire escape's in the opposite direction. Relax."

Relaxing would be nice. Taking Hatsuharu Cruz to the hospital to get his head examined didn't qualify as a leisure activity. "I'm giving him two minutes," Jin decided. "You should come with, Koki. I'd feel better knowing you weren't going to throw yourself off the roof of your apartment building tomorrow."

"I'm not going to get myself poked and prodded and scanned half to death just to make you feel better." Koki toyed with Cruz's drink carton, wincing when a drop of strawberry milk escaped from the straw. Ueda passed him a napkin with a look that said he'd be taking his life in his own hands if he didn't use it.

Jin spent the proposed two minutes watching Koki mop the table to Ueda's satisfaction. Koki's fingernails were painted the same black as his avatar's - the same as Kame's human avatar, come to that - but the tattoo was missing.

"Didn't you have 'JOKER' done across your knuckles?" Jin asked.

"And reveal my super secret identity to the world? Of course not." Koki spread both hands in front so Jin could see for himself. Plenty of rings, but no tattoos. "It might look good but I wouldn't do it. Why? You thinking of getting me one for my birthday?"

"You'll be lucky if I even remember your birthday," Jin shot back. "I thought you had it done because your avatar's got that tattoo, that's all."

"My avatar only has tattoos on his face. Which one are you think of?"

A sickly sourness filled Jin's mouth - the taste of awful recognition. "Check now," he demanded. "Log on and look at your hands. I've got an image of you from this morning, the instant you appeared in my vault. We'll compare."

Both men took cables and prepared themselves to go under. It didn't take long. Jin wasn't going to interact with Koki on-line, only retrieve an image from his own chip. There it was, black lettering on stark white fingers - the JOKER tattoo on Koki's left hand. Jin mailed the picture to his phone to show the others. When he logged out, Koki was holding up his own phone with a picture of his avatar. The pierrot's pale hands were clear.

"How did that get there?" Koki asked.

"The...infection, whatever it is. It stained the cowboy, it gave you a tattoo, and it changed Cruz's bow. But where did it..."

Jin didn't want to be having the thought that popped into his mind. He wanted it to crawl back under whatever rock it came from and leave him alone. Because it wasn't a good thought, but it was a logical one, when he considered all the facts. He had three separate cases, but were they actually all links in a chain?

Clint Wayne Bryner had become infected, logged out, and logged back in again, still on the Roppongi subnet. The casino, if Jin remembered correctly, wasn't far from Big Echo on the Net. Koki had been infected there, but the infection had since disappeared. Koki admitted to having gone back on-line and been at the dance club afterwards. The next infection had taken place inside the club, where Cruz and Mariko had been the next victims. Both had left the Net, but the latter's whereabouts were unknown.

It was a long shot, but if the victims had been passing the infection along the next time they logged on...

Jin bolted for the men's room. Cold night air blew through the open window, bringing with it the stale exhaust fumes from the street below. Hatsuharu Cruz was long gone.

"Apparently I was wrong in thinking he wasn't an idiot." Ueda leaned out the window for a peek before shutting it. "The bush underneath the window is suspiciously flat."

"Too bad he's not lying in it with two broken legs." Jin gave up all hope of an easy night. Had he known what was going to happen, he'd never have listened to Kame's suggestion of going up top and simply danced the rest of the night away. He couldn't blame Cruz for running - he wouldn't want to be dragged off to the hospital either - but did the man have to make this so damned difficult? "I don't suppose you know where he lives? I need to get to him before he logs on again."

"No, but I can go look him up. Sit tight."

Ueda squeezed Jin's shoulder and left. Jin wasn't about to sit tight in the men's room; he returned to the table, where Koki was still staring at his cell phone.

Correction. He was staring at Jin's cell phone.

"Still can't get over that tattoo?"

"Huh?" Koki looked up. "Some guy just called for you. He said to tell you he had fun dancing tonight."

Kame. Actual off-line contact and it had to be the one time Jin and his phone were temporarily separated. "What else?" Jin said impatiently, snatching his phone back.

"Take it easy! And nothing, he didn't say anything else."

"Did he at least leave a number?"

"Nope. And it came up withheld, too. Is this the guy you met yesterday?"

Jin sank down on the chair he'd abandoned minutes earlier, clutching his phone as if he could somehow absorb Kame's number through the plastic shell. Maybe he'd call back. He'd better call back. "That's the one."

"Ueda was right - you do have a crush." Koki fobbed off Jin's vehement denials with a placating hand. "What happened in the club? Other than you rescuing the elusive Mr. Cruz."

"He arrived about ten seconds before I did, looking for a patch of corrupt code. We searched together, found what we were looking for in the same place."

"And the dancing?"

Jin squirmed; the chair wasn't nearly as comfortable as it had been a minute ago. "Easiest way to move through a dance club."

"Sure it is." Koki's smile was entirely too gleeful. "Would now be a good time to tell you how much I didn't like your last girlfriend? Because you only have room for one needy, possessive person in your relationships and that's you. This guy obviously isn't or he'd have offered to call back. So why's he got your number and you don't have his?"

"Because either he's a psycho stalker who has somehow managed to find out everything about me," which would make him the reincarnation of Jin's first university girlfriend, "or he's accessing my CNS chip using a program I might actually have written myself."

"Not exactly a law-abiding citizen then, is he?" Ueda said, having returned in time to catch this. "Instead of asking for your contact details he steals them from your chip in a highly illegal manoeuvre using a program he shouldn't have had in the first place. Aggressive. I approve."

"You would." Jin didn't object to giving out his cell phone number but by rummaging around in his CNS chip Kame had been able to pick up not only that but other, more intimate contact details, such as the messaging address associated with that chip number, ensuring he could send emails directly to Jin's inbox - to be read either off-line in an email client, or on the Net. Having a lock on the chip meant Kame could find Jin whenever he was on-line. Stalker? Yeah, maybe. "Did you find an address on Cruz?"

"Here." Ueda held out a scrap of paper; Jin took it. "He doesn't have the most common of names. Want a bunnygirl to drive you?"

Jin cast an eye over the address. "Ten minutes? Unless you've got a flying car it'd be quicker to walk. I hope he's gone home, because if he hasn't I don't know how I'm going to find him. Kame managed to get a lock on him, I think - he traced him back here, but I don't know if he just picked up an access point or if he read the lot. Cruz logged out pretty quick. Would've been nice to get a cell phone number."

"I did manage to get an email address," Ueda pointed to the underside of the paper Jin held, "but it's a freebie webmail one. He gave it to Yuko a couple of months ago but she never mailed him, figured he probably used it for junk."

Yuko. "The one with a catgirl avatar?"

"That's the one," Ueda confirmed. "She was looking over my shoulder when I was running the query and asked who I was looking for, or we wouldn't even have had that. I'll try emailing him while you go to his place and tell him to get off-line if he's on."

"I hope he reads it. No, I hope he went home and went straight to bed, keeping well away from the Net." Jin shoved the address in his pocket, next to his printed statement. "Tell him to phone the club. If he calls, keep him on the line."

He turned down Koki's offer of company, setting out at a brisk pace towards Cruz's apartment building. The usual night crowds hadn't allowed the gloomy weather to dampen their spirits; the streets were filled with revellers out to have a good time, with men and women and everything in between dressed up and painted to look their best. Jin wove in and out of the crowds, waiting impatiently at crossings for the traffic to let him through.

A wailing guitar from his pocket told him his phone was ringing. It had to be while he was in the middle of crossing the road, didn't it? He sprinted across the rest, drew back against a lamp post to keep out of the way, and dug it out to answer it. He didn't know the number.

"Hello?"

"Jin?"

The voice on the other end shouldn't have taken him by surprise but it did, like a sound he'd heard only in his dreams had filtered through to the real world and now everything was upside down.

"K-Kame?" Jin stammered. "It's Kame, right?"

"Yeah. I thought you were going after that guy?"

"He jumped out a second storey window to avoid me dragging him off to have his brain scanned. I'm on my way to his place now."

"You might as well go on home yourself. He's logged on again - a public Net café this time - and his avatar looks normal; the pink bow is back again. I'm not seeing anything unusual about him now."

"I don't get it!" Jin exploded, causing the two girls walking past him to pick up the pace. "What made the cowboy different?"

"That's kind of what I wanted to talk to you about. And some other stuff as well. Can you..." Kame sounded awkward and uncertain for the first time since Jin had met him, though it was difficult to be sure down the phone, "...can you meet me somewhere?"

"I'm in Tokyo and unless you were lying earlier, you're in Yokohama and I don't think you've had time to make it here since you said that. At least you haven't bothered to hide your phone number this time."

"I thought it might be a good idea if you were able to contact me too. But I wasn't thinking of meeting in person. Right now I'm lying down in a nice, comfortable hotel room and I'm not about to get up and drive back to Tokyo. Go home, get comfortable yourself, and get on-line. I can find you."

That confirmed Jin's suspicions. Kame had run a lot more than a simple query on him, had to have done to be able to track him anywhere on the Net just on the number from his CNS chip. How exactly had he done it? Jin meant to find out. "I know."

Kame hung up. Jin saved the number - the first bit of concrete information he had on Kame - and turned around. Home was in the opposite direction.

He was going to meet a man he'd only known since last night and who, in that time, had rummaged illegally through his CNS chip, stolen his contact details, copied routines from his toolkit, and had refused, up until now, to give Jin any way of contacting him in return. It would be a virtual meeting, somewhere on the Net, where the talk would be all business and there wouldn't even be a record of the time spent because Kame didn't show up on activity logs.

So why did Jin feel like he was just about to go on a date?

-----

Jin had called Ueda on his way home to tell him the search was off for Cruz - for now. Ueda, of course, had been curious as to why this was. "Because Kame said so" wasn't much of a reason but Jin thought he'd managed to make it sound more meaningful and well thought out on the phone.

Might as well get comfortable as Kame had suggested. Jin's nice, safe home environment on his personal machine didn't appear on the Net, which meant Kame couldn't find him there. Since he didn't need that, he didn't have to plug himself in at his computer. There was a single access point by the bed that would do just as well to launch himself into the virtual world. He didn't use it much - with the port of the CNS interface being at the back of his neck, lying down with a cable in place felt awkward - but he'd bought a special pillow recently that left a gap under the port. Now seemed like a good time to test it.

He double checked the locks on the front door and all the windows, then settled down on the bed with the lights off. Sixty seconds later he was standing on the Roppongi subnet, blinded by the bright orange that still held sway all over the local landscape.

Kame materialised in front of him, now back in the faded jeans and pink skull T-shirt from the morning. He'd ditched the black coat somewhere along the way. "Do you trust me?" he asked all of a sudden; no greetings, no nothing.

Jin had no idea where this was going. "I barely know you. Trust you to do what?"

"Trust me to make you invisible." Kame shot him a reckless grin, laced with nervousness round the edges of those glossy pink lips. "Take this." He held out a fragment of code shaped like a turtle; all Jin could make out was the word MOVE.

So Kame wanted to take them somewhere. Better than having a conversation out here where anyone could see or hear them unless they invoked a wall, and that would arouse suspicion if there was no visible reason for it. The last thing Jin wanted to do was draw attention to himself. He seized the turtle.

It happened in an instant. No more black and orange: here there were lush greens and cool blues, a forest of serenity where vines tangled around tree trunks and an unseen sun shone gently in the centre of a clearing, leaving the shadows to the undergrowth. Kame dropped cross-legged to the long, thick grass and leaned back on his hands. Jin did the same, looking all about him. The environment was unfamiliar but pleasant, with a fresh, clean scent bearing a hint of mystery in the centre.

"Where are we?" he asked.

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

"Didn't you ask me if I trusted you? Say yes, I trust you. Tell me," Jin insisted.

Kame leaned back till his upper body was almost flat on the ground. "Inside my CNS chip."

"Impossible." Jin shook his head. "Not buying it."

"It normally looks like baseball diamond in here," Kame explained. "It's a replica of my home environment. I felt like a change recently and this was the result. Don't you think it's relaxing?"

"Very, but..."

"Neither of us is technically on the Net while we're in here, either. You look like you've logged off. I did say I could make you invisible, didn't I?"

Jin didn't know how to respond. Accessing someone else's CNS chip to retrieve data was illegal. Accessing it to pay a visit had to be worse. He'd assumed it was impossible. Evidently not. "How are we doing this? It's your chip, maybe you've got some kind of faulty protection that gives you greater access than normal, but how did I get here?"

"I invited you. I'd offer you a drink, but as you can see, it's not that kind of place. Please make yourself comfortable, though."

Some answer. Jin shrugged mentally and rolled onto his stomach, pillowing his head on his arms. The grass was softer than any virtual blades had a right to be and Jin wondered what would happen if he fell asleep there. If he appeared to be logged off, would the safety measures still kick in?

"I'm about as comfortable as I'm going to get, under the circumstances. You wanted to talk?"

"I've been thinking about our case." Jin might've been the syscop and Kame was, for all he knew, a civilian, but it still gave him a warm, fuzzy feeling to hear Kame say "our case". They were working it together...sort of. "About the places, and the victims, and what happened to them afterwards."

"Not much, other than the first one," Jin said. "MillionDollarStetson went nuts, did some very stupid things he'd probably regret if he was still alive, and killed himself. I think when he logged back on after he left us, he spread the infection, or whatever it was, to that branch of Big Echo we saw this morning. He was in a casino right by it; I checked his activity log."

Kame raised his head from the grass slightly. "Congratulations, you've found a missing puzzle piece."

"You hadn't seen his log?" That was surprising. "I thought you'd read him?"

"I did - before he logged off. I didn't see him when he logged back on; I was asleep, which meant I never did get an updated version before he died and his chip went inactive. I'm not a syscop, Jin. I can't requisition logs from the warehouse and I'm not inclined to break in."

"You just read them directly from the chips, is that it?"

"Right!"

If Kame thought illegally messing around with people's heads was more ethical than breaking into a data warehouse, Jin wasn't sure where that left him in the moral high ground stakes. On the other hand, Jin was in no position to throw stones.

"Let's follow it through," Kame said. "The cowboy infected Big Echo. Joker was swallowed up by it."

"How did you...?" Jin had never mentioned usernames. Then it hit him. "You got that from my log, didn't you?"

"Sorry. It was...rude of me to go rummaging around like that." Kame nodded his head in what would've been a shallow bow, had he not been reclining. "I'm used to taking whatever information I need from strangers. I didn't expect you were going to be so...colourful."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means you have some interesting things going on inside your head, Jin Akanishi. Probably more than you realise."

Jin didn't like talking about himself. He never knew what to say, and it always came out awkward if he tried to be serious, so he had to settle for making jokes and hoping people wouldn't get the wrong idea. Kame had to have found the tracker on the chip. Jin couldn't have hidden it any more than he could've disabled it. Explaining why his every on-line move was being monitored was a conversation Jin was desperate to avoid.

"I realise," Jin said gruffly. "Stick to the subject. I ran MIROKU on the signpost; Joker emerged."

"That's where I'm at a loss, Kame admitted. "You said he was fine afterwards."

Jin gazed up at the virtual sky, clear blue and cloudless. "I was wrong. So was he. His avatar temporarily acquired a new tattoo - 'JOKER' across the knuckles of his left hand. Neither of us noticed; he logged off pretty quickly after I released him. When he logged back on later the tattoo was gone...and he told me he'd been to Fly Me to the Moon earlier today."

"Do you know him off-line?"

Even if Jin didn't currently appear to be off-line, his conversations with Kame never appeared on his log anyway. "Yeah. He's a good friend. I saw him tonight and he's not showing any signs of strange behaviour," or no stranger than usual, at any rate, "and I don't think he's about to go off the rails." He'd asked Ueda, during their phone conversation, to keep an eye on Koki just in case. Ueda had assured him that Koki was spending the night testing out music programs with a couple of the guys and would be in safe hands the whole time.

"I'm happy for your friend, then. So," Kame mused, "he proceeded to infect the dance club, which then caught the two sailor soldiers. They both showed signs of corruption and logged off. I don't know about the girl but the guy logged back on again, no longer with a yellow bow. I've got a watchdog on him; no strange behaviour so far."

"Not unless you count sneaking out of a men's room window to avoid me, but he did that before he went on-line again and I don't suppose he had much of a choice if he wanted to avoid a medical examination." Jin chewed his lip thoughtfully. "I have a hunch a scan wouldn't find anything now, anyway."

"He's passed it on," Kame groaned. "The idiot. And if the girl's logged back on since then, she's probably done the same."

"Can you get a fix on his location on the Net?"

Kame shook his head. "Not from in here. We're effectively off-line, remember? Last I saw he'd just started playing some space battle game. I don't think we'll get anything until I pick up another unorthodox code change. There might be more but it takes time to pick out the relevant ones from the entire Net."

That reminded Jin of the forum messages he'd found earlier. "Have you heard anything about the Tower Records in Shibuya?"

"They're having a sale on old NTV dramas?"

"Other than that. A couple of users on a music forum posted about a problem with the virtual version - I found it when I was looking for examples of the weird code changes we've seen. They mentioned swirling mesh and stuff. I meant to check it out earlier but never got around to it."

"Nothing on my end, but we can go take a look?" Kame suggested. "If you want to?"

Jin didn't, particularly. He was comfortable right where he was, sprawled on the grass, revelling in the peace and quiet. Instead of the background hum of computers, he heard nothing but a gentle rhythm against the trees, and even then only when he strained to listen. He thought it might be Kame's heartbeat. This was definitely one of the most surreal experiences of Jin's life.

Kame didn't sound much like he was in a rush to move, either. It had been a long day for both of them; Jin didn't even know when Kame's had begun, if he'd been working off-line somewhere in between these odd meetings they'd had.

"What do you do?" Jin asked. "Why won't you tell me who you are? You seem to know everything about me and I don't even know your name."

Kame rolled himself over and crawled forwards till he was next to Jin, lying on his stomach, head pillowed on his arms in the same way. It reminded Jin of his childhood, of playing soccer as a small boy and lazing on the grass afterwards, relaxing with his friends in the sunshine. He'd been so innocent then.

"I don't know everything about you, Jin. I don't know what you like to do when you're off-line. I don't know your favourite food, or what kind of music you listen to. I don't know whether you get along with your family or where your favourite place is. All I know is what's on your chip, what's on public record...and what's in your code."

"Which is a hell of a lot more than I know about you. I'd be starting to wonder if you even existed if I hadn't seen other people talking to you." It bothered Jin that Kame didn't appear on anyone's log. How was he hiding his presence, and why?

"You're not hallucinating, see? This might be a virtual environment, and we're being represented by collections of pixels, but I promise you, there is something on the outside. We spoke on the phone, didn't we? I'm as real as you are."

Telephone conversations were easy enough to fake. Jin didn't believe Kame was a figment of his imagination but this seemed to be a worry to Kame now, because he chose to prove his existence by inching closer still, enough that Jin could smell sweet, light perfume. Kame's avatar hadn't been scented before; or if it had, he hadn't set the parameter high enough for Jin to notice.

"That's nice," Jin muttered. "Isn't it a bit girly, though?"

"That's good coming from a guy whose avatar's wearing enough lip gloss to see him through a drought."

Self-conscious, Jin rubbed the back of his hand over his lips and then realised it wouldn't do him any good without changing his avatar settings. So much for discretion.

"It's a good look for you; makes your lips look all soft and kissable," Kame teased.

Jin wished they were off-line so he could get a drink, because his mouth lost all moisture the moment Kame spoke. Kissable. Wonderful. Except that the last person Jin had kissed had walked out on him only yesterday, so having nice lips clearly hadn't done much to induce her to stay. Now what? Kame's expectant look wasn't helping. It was too damned quiet in there. Too open, out in the clearing, and yet too secluded, away from everyone else in the world, just the two of them, in a place Jin shouldn't even have been able to go.

"In some cultures they consider it polite if you flirt back?" Kame said helpfully.

"Um..."

"Or maybe not." Kame started to retreat, giving Jin his space back.

Jin unfroze. "Wait." Kame twisted around to his side, to prop himself up on one elbow so he could watch Jin squirm. "I'm not...uh..."

"Oh." Kame sounded disappointed. "Don't be fooled by the perfume, Akanishi. I don't switch my avatar's gender for anyone; besides, if you don't like guys, I don't think it would help if I simply looked like a girl."

"It's not that," Jin rushed to explain before Kame could back off any further. "It's not like I've never...uh...well...but I woke up yesterday morning to find my girlfriend walking out on me."

"Oh," Kame said again, this time with sympathy. "I'm sorry. Had you been together long?"

"A couple of months. I didn't see it coming but a friend of mine helpfully analysed the situation and told me it was all my fault, so..." Yamapi could keep his analysis to himself in the future, Jin decided.

"That sounds pretty harsh coming from a friend."

Jin sighed dramatically. "I thought so too. He says I made her feel like I didn't think we had a future together."

"And did you think you had a future together?"

"I don't know. Two months, Kame. Would you know after two months?"

"Unlikely," Kame admitted. "If it helps, I wasn't looking for someone to grow old with."

"Just some Friday night fun, is that it?"

If Kame's smile off-line was half as attractive as the one his avatar possessed, he could very well have a career as a model, Jin thought. "Maybe. I'm not very good at being subtle - I was going to give it another minute or two for flirting and then kiss you. After that I figured you'd either be kissing me back or giving my avatar a black eye."

Jin couldn't fault him for his honesty. There was something terribly appealing in Kame's artless confession: a recklessness that said he didn't care what happened, yet also a sweetness that belied that. Back on the bed, Jin's cheeks were growing pleasantly warm and the temperature change and resulting flush fed back to his avatar before he thought to prevent it.

"Good plan. You should keep it in mind for another time."

Kame hadn't missed the blush, if the amusement in his voice was any indication. "So I shouldn't worry that I'll end up looking like a panda, then?"

"I like pandas," Jin said. "But I'm starting to like turtles more - even mysterious ones who won't tell me their names."

"I told you part of it - Kame really is my nickname, you know. And now you have my cell phone number." Kame propelled himself to his feet. There was a definite advantage to lying on virtual grass: no grass stains. "We might as well check out Tower Records, since it looks like neither of us has anything better to do with our Friday night. Sorry if I came on a little strong - I didn't intend to make you feel uncomfortable." He offered Jin a hand up.

Jin took it, standing with great reluctance. It would've been a nice place for a nap. "I wouldn't say I was uncomfortable."

"Good." Kame pecked him on the cheek and grinned when Jin gasped in surprise. "Let's return to Shibuya."

-----

"I'm not seeing anything strange," Kame said as they circled the virtual Tower Records on the Shibuya subnet. "Did the forum posts give specifics?"

"Unfortunately not." Jin pulled up the posts again, passing the addresses to Kame so he could check for himself. "Can you run one of your checks?"

"Not without logging off and coming back via my laptop. I keep those kinds of routines in my hardware, not my bioware."

Jin surmised from this that Kame was also using an isolated access point rather than a computer. He himself was at a disadvantage: other than MIROKU, the more useful of his tools were on his home computer and mirrored on his work one, rather than stored in his chip. After what had happened to him, he'd judged it safest to keep copies of his work rather than rely solely on the CNS chip. He didn't put it past his bosses to switch it out again if they believed there was anything worthwhile on there.

Looking for patches of corrupt code gave him something to do other than think about Kame. He hadn't expected the kiss, though perhaps he should have. It wasn't much in the grand scheme of things - a brief brush of Kame's lips against his cheek. It didn't have to mean anything. What was giving Jin cause for concern was: did he want it to mean anything?

"We should check it out inside," Jin said. "Somewhere out of the way, maybe. Three people saw it and posted about it; if everyone had seen it, we'd have heard a lot more by now."

Kame concurred and they joined the crowd of late night shoppers sampling new music inside the virtual store. As with the real world equivalent, the music was heard only by those who chose to hear it - not with headphones, but with an arrangement of keys. The store itself provided soothing background music for all to hear. Jin hummed along as the two of them skimmed every corner, pushed their way through every aisle.

"Okay, somewhere obscure..." Kame led the way upstairs. "How about the section for spoken versions of the dictionary?"

Jin pointed to the seven people crowding around the sign. "Not quite obscure enough. We need somewhere outright deserted. Somewhere like...is that an employee bathroom?"

"According to the sign on the door, yes. But why have one on the Net? Architectural oversight?"

"Who cares?" Jin shrugged. "It's got to have less traffic than anywhere else on the subnet."

The door opened easily under Jin's touch, revealing three stalls, three sinks and three urinals, all totally useless on-line. Someone had even gone to the trouble of programming a nice view into the tiny window, so it appeared to be looking out at Mount Fuji. Jin checked the left stall, Kame checked the right stall, and they opened the central stall together.

And promptly shut it again when it proved to be home to a small swirling vortex under golden mesh, which had completely replaced the toilet that should have stood there.

"I know, I know," Jin said when Kame started to open his mouth. "Don't look. I'm turning away now."

Kame peered inside the stall again. "There doesn't appear to be anyone trapped in this one, but I'm seeing some code fragments scattered on the floor. It looks like..." He paused and crouched down for a better look before continuing, "It looks like part of someone's avatar. I'm recognising code to call a wardrobe change."

"Is there enough left to tell us who it belongs to?"

"No, but the fragments move outward and then stop, as though someone were bursting out and disappeared. I think someone almost got caught here, managed to break free, and logged out, discarding whatever had been corrupted."

Jin didn't like the sound of that. "So maybe we've got another infected victim running around somewhere?"

"Yeah, maybe." Kame straightened up, backing out of the stall. "We should run your program on it and clean the place up in case it happens to someone else, make sure no one's trapped inside."

"We?" Jin said loftily. "It's my program. I'll do it." He ran MIROKU immediately. It replaced the missing parts of the stall from its neighbours; this time, nothing landed in the vault, and he said as much to Kame.

"I do like that program, Jin. When did you write it?"

"A couple of years ago. I think I used to have one like it before I became a syscop."

"You think? You don't know?"

Oops. This wasn't a conversation Jin wanted to have in a virtual employee bathroom - or at all, come to that. "I meant, I used to. Not that I think I used to. But I don't have that one anymore." It was, he suspected, on his old CNS chip and therefore out of reach for the moment. He'd had too many fragments of code that made up MIROKU hanging around in his organic memory for him not to have written something similar before.

"That reminds me, I think I have something that belongs to you."

"You've got a couple of things that belong to me," Jin pointed out. "First you copied Accessorise, then MIROKU. Did you swipe anything else while you were at it, other than my contact details, my activity log, probably my life story..."

"Nothing that I've taken directly from you, but based on the comments in the code, I think you wrote the program originally. It's the one I use to access CNS chips. That's why I was surprised you didn't know about it. Comparing it with the programs I copied from you since we met, I'd say it's definitely the same author. Don't you want it back?"

"I didn't...I haven't..." Jin had to say something; Kame looked all poised to send him the program and while it would certainly have been useful, it was also something he was definitely not supposed to have. "Can we go back to your garden?"

Kame's eyebrows headed for his hairline. "I didn't see that coming, but okay, sure. Give me a second."

Jin watched Kame shape a ball of code between his hands, rolling it around till it became the familiar turtle invitation. Kame extended it, Jin seized it with both hands.

Seconds later Jin had his back against a tree trunk and Kame's lips pressed to his.

It wasn't a bad feeling, Jin decided. It was actually rather nice. The sensation fed back to his body, leaving his lips physically tingling; that, in turn, fed through to Jin's avatar. Kame had managed not to mash his nose despite the rush he'd been in, pinning Jin to the tree the instant they'd arrived in the garden, and it felt good to be kissed by someone who genuinely wanted him and didn't seem to be planning on walking out on him.

That didn't change the fact that this wasn't why he'd asked to come here. Jin squeezed his hands between them to gently push Kame away.

"You changed your mind already?" Kame stepped back, frowning.

"I didn't come here for this."

"Then what? I thought you asked to come back because you'd thought it over and decided I might be a good rebound guy."

Kame's mock-hurt made Jin giggle. "I'm sure you would be, but all I wanted was some privacy. And not for that, either." Part of him was lying, but that part was being kept uncomfortably in check by his jeans back in the real world. He was a healthy young man being kissed by an extremely attractive guy - of course he was interested. Why wouldn't he be interested?

It wasn't as if he'd never messed around on-line before. Off-line, things were complicated. Meeting, dating, marriage, kids, risks, remembering birthdays and sharing beds. On the Net, none of that mattered. He could hook up with someone one day and they might be wearing a different face by tomorrow and never see him again. There was nothing permanent. It was perfectly safe - for anyone who didn't have a serious heart condition, at any rate - because there was no physical connection, only physical response to electronic stimuli, a ghost of a touch.

Would it be so bad to indulge himself now?

"You're over-thinking this," Kame said. "What do you want?"

Jin glared at him. "I want to know how you ended up with a program I wrote years ago."

"This is going to be bad any way you look at it." Kame dropped to the grass, patted a patch beside him. Jin ignored him and slid down the tree trunk so he could lean against it as he sat. "You used to go by 'CarShrimp', right?"

"And how would you know that?"

"I didn't until now. I never knew your real name, and now you're using it as your username, I couldn't make the connection. It was your programs that gave you away."

"Have we...met before?" Jin knew there were large gaps in his memory for people he'd known only on-line. Did one of those gaps contain Kame? He was horrified by the idea of meeting someone he'd forgotten completely. How embarrassing.

"No," Kame said kindly. "But I always wished we had. You were this legendary, mythical figure - a tiny shrimp in a flash car, driving faster than everyone who tried to catch you. Then you disappeared, so I assumed you finally got caught."

"Only because my apartment building caught fire." Jin felt the need to defend his reputation. "I wouldn't be a syscop, otherwise."

"That's what has me curious. Why did you go from one side to the other?"

"They made me an offer I couldn't refuse. It was that or prison, and I really didn't want to go to jail." Jin shuddered. "I like my comforts. Not that this is any of your business."

"Of course not."

"And neither are my programs."

Kame didn't agree. "I wouldn't say that. Three years ago, just before you disappeared, I was playing in an on-line baseball game - we all had to use the team avatars they made for us, so you wouldn't have seen my little turtle on the field. It was a closed game, invitation only. You were watching from one of the boxes."

Entirely possible. Jin had been invited to many events in his time and he'd rarely turned them down, although he preferred soccer to baseball. It wasn't unthinkable that Kame had seen him there.

"So I watched a baseball game. I'm not seeing a connection."

"During the seventh-inning stretch, I sneaked into the box. You were all busy talking and the security was easy to crack." Kame spoke like it was nothing. "I looked up to you back then - it's kind of embarrassing to think about it now, but I was so happy you were there watching me, even though we'd never met. I thought maybe I could talk to you."

"I'm guessing you didn't?"

"I couldn't."

"Because I was too intimidating?" Jin said with a knowing smile. He could understand that.

"No, because you wouldn't shut up long enough for me to get anywhere near you! You were deep in conversation with Johnny Kitagawa - remember him? The old man used to know everyone in the shadows but no one could ever pin anything on him; he was too slippery."

"His eel avatar did suit him quite well," Jin said, remembering. Kitagawa had officially retired last year without naming a successor. No one had yet stepped forward to take his place but there were always rumours.

"Do you remember working on a program for him? You were talking about it together. He kept asking you what kind of things he'd be able to do, and you kept trying to get him to stop talking about it because it was illegal. To shut him up you agreed to send him the latest version so he could see what he was getting, provided he accepted that it wasn't finished yet. HAYATO, you called it."

"HAYATO?" The name sounded vaguely familiar.

"The comments in the code say it's short for HAYA(i) TO." Kame had the decency to look ashamed of himself. "When you sent it to him, I took a copy for myself. Took me over a month to break your encryption and extract the damned thing. By the time I did, you'd disappeared. I don't know if you ever finished writing the program but it took me the better part of a year to finish it for myself.

"And when I did, it was as interesting as your conversation had suggested it was going to be."

"This is what you're using to access CNS chips." Jin already knew the answer. No wonder Kame could bounce people off the Net. He could disconnect them via their CNS chips, rather than the syscop solution of expelling them from the server.

"Yeah. I can get inside your head, Jin - and I've invited you into mine. You started it; I finished it."

Jin didn't know whether to be mad at Kame for stealing his program, or grateful to him for finishing it. A bit of both was called for.

Before he could say anything, Kame said, "Does this ring any bells?" and morphed into a small, cartoonish bulldog wearing a baseball jersey and cap, carrying a bat in one hand and a glove in the other. "The entire team looked like this. We won, by the way."

"Congratulations. I don't remember any specific games, sorry. You could all have been playing in leopard-print swimsuits and I doubt I'd recall it."

Kame morphed back to his human avatar; Jin was secretly pleased he'd dropped the turtle for now. This was much more pleasing to the eye. "Why? I can understand not remembering the game, but shouldn't you at least have some memory of the program you'd been commissioned to write? It's not like that was a simple utility - we're talking about the most complicated hack in history, here. Not just accessing a secure area on the Net, but things that have no presence there at all except through the human connection."

If Kame was frustrated, Jin was doubly so. Explaining his unexpected change of career was always troublesome, not to mention humiliating. He'd gone from being free to do as he pleased to working for the authorities he used to mock. Keeping his head down, staying out of trouble. Not working on anything that might draw attract unwanted attention.

Oh, he worked with people he liked, and it wasn't a bad job, as paid employment went - even if he wasn't as effective as he could've been, had he opted to sell out his friends in the shadows. And that was something he'd never do.

"It's a long story." What was the time? Jin checked; midnight had come and gone. He sagged against the tree. "I woke up in hospital..."

By the time Jin was done with his tale, the comfortable warmth he'd been feeling had faded away, leaving him wishing he'd thought to get under the covers when he lay down on the bed. He knew the cold was partially emotional in origin: the story chilled him whenever he had to tell it, and he hadn't, often. Ueda, Koki and a few others knew. There weren't many who needed the whole truth.

"You were impressed," Kame said.

"I was not!"

Kame rolled his eyes. "I mean you were forcibly pressed into service, Jin. They had no right to do that to you."

"It's not like I'm in a position to complain," Jin mumbled. "Being a felon and all."

"That's no excuse for replacing someone's chip! I did wonder why you had a tracker on yours."

"You didn't touch it, did you?" Jin hated to think what the consequences would be if Kame had switched it off on his behalf.

"No. Do you want me to? I could deactivate it, then your bosses wouldn't have any idea where you go on-line."

"Better not," Jin warned. "If anyone's paying attention they'll already be confused by the amount of time I apparently spend doing nothing on the Net, according to my log. Why don't you appear?"

"Because," Kame paused to smirk, "HAYATO gives me access to my own CNS chip too, as you may have noticed. That chip is my connection to the virtual world. I can control which parts of it connect. In some ways I'm not here at all."

If only Jin remembered what he'd written. He didn't know if that was part of the original program or one of Kame's modifications, but it sounded pretty impressive. He hoped it had been his idea. "And by giving me a key, you've extended that access to me. You haven't been setting up gardens in my chip, have you?"

"If I have, it was an accident," Kame promised. "I can look at the contents of another person's chip and extract them for my own use, but I can't actually port myself across. You'd have to offer me a key, and since you don't have this level of access to your own chip, I think it's safe to say I won't be dropping in any time soon.

"I've been using it to kick people off the Net by temporarily severing the verified link from their chips. It comes in handy for getting all sorts of information too. Access codes for power companies, authorisations for server maintenance routines...anything a user keeps in their chip, I can obtain and use. In fact, if I didn't have HAYATO, I probably wouldn't be doing half the things I do."

"Why are you doing stuff like that? Going after petty cyber crooks? Is it some kind of hobby for you?" Jin wanted to ask if Kame didn't consider himself a hypocrite, also, given that he had no qualms about breaking on-line laws to suit himself, but thought it imprudent.

Kame's eyes sparkled. "I like adventurous hobbies and I hate people who don't know how to put one hundred percent of themselves into anything, who can't be serious even when it's for something they really want. It's a challenge for me - and you're right, you're understaffed. Do you think I'm doing something so bad?"

"No, but..." Jin massaged his temples. This conversation was proving to be painful for all the wrong reasons. It wouldn't do anything for the headache he was developing back in the real world but it made him feel better to go through the motions.

"It's a lot to deal with, isn't it?" Kame sympathised. He seemed to have calmed down now, no longer so outraged over Jin's life story. It was hard to stay angry in such peaceful surroundings, Jin thought.

"How did you manage to turn my life upside down in the space of a couple of days?"

"Fair's fair," Kame said. "You turned mine upside down the moment I managed to get hold of your program. Do you have any idea how useful this thing is? I bet the old man's furious he never got to take delivery of a finished product."

"I don't know that I ever finished it. If I did, it's sitting on my old chip, wherever it's being stored. I didn't have anything else when I was taken to hospital; all my equipment went in the fire. You're probably the only person with a working copy."

"Which means that if you were a good, law-abiding syscop, you'd be handing me over to your bosses. Probably pick up a nice bonus."

"Bonus. Hah. Even if I did, they couldn't trace you, and I don't shop people I like."

"That's good to know." Kame shuffled over to the tree. "That you like me, I mean. Because if you didn't, I'd have to kick you out of my garden."

"I'd rather you didn't; I like it in here. Calm. Quiet. Relaxing." Jin tangled virtual grass between his fingers and tried to decide if the tightening he could feel in his off-line stomach was the result of an attack of the post-midnight munchies, or of Kame's sudden nearness. His host leant against the same tree now, body adjacent to Jin's.

"I could relax you some more, if you like?" Kame offered. Jin twitched again. Yep, definitely Kame's fault. "It's been a very long day for you."

"Not just me," Jin pointed out. "You've been busy too...doing whatever it is you do that you won't tell me about. Is it something seedy?"

"Only occasionally."

Jin didn't know what to make of that. "And the rest of the time?"

"The rest of the time it's wonderful! Unlike some people, I'm not on-line the entire day," Kame's hand made the transition from his own knee to Jin's, "so I have to make the most of it when I do log on."

When Kame's hand didn't seem inclined to move any further of its own accord, Jin realised Kame was waiting for him to do something one way or the other. Jin only had so much resistance and caution in him, and he'd just about run out. He'd turned Kame down twice - the third time might as well be the charm. He had nothing to lose except possibly some self-respect, and he didn't think Kame had any interest in taking that from him.

"Is that offer of relaxation still open?"

"I thought you'd never ask." Kame swivelled around so the two of them faced each other; Kame kneeling up, Jin still leaning against the tree, legs stretched out in front of him. "I didn't know the tiny shrimp with the flashy car I admired for so many years would turn out to be such a looker."

"Guess I was right when I accused you of being a stalker."

"Hmm...I suppose you could say it's a little bit of what I do for a living..."

Kame leaned in, one hand finding the tree for balance while the other brushed Jin's bangs aside, and kissed him again, slower and softer than before. This time, Jin kissed back. He didn't feel tired anymore. Whatever else Kame had disabled in his CNS chip, it didn't include physical information, so Jin knew in full, glorious detail how Kame's lips felt. He slid his own hands round Kame's back to draw him nearer but the angle was too awkward for them to maintain the position for long - Kame overbalanced, though he maintained it was mere youthful enthusiasm that toppled him onto Jin's legs.

"Don't," Jin grumbled. "You'll make me feel old."

"Older people should get plenty of rest." Kame propelled them away from the trees, out into the clearing.

Jin couldn't help laughing. They had to look like a couple of kids, rolling around on the grass like that. Of course if they'd been kids, he probably wouldn't be having the same reaction to Kame hovering over him, knees bent on either side of Jin's thighs. Jin was half-tempted to log off - or at least as far as the half-way, emergency state - so he could undo his jeans off-line. The pressure was beginning to feel uncomfortable.

"What are you wearing off-line?" he murmured when Kame stopped nibbling on his upper lip long enough for him to get a word in between kisses.

"It's like that, is it?" Kame brushed a hand down between Jin's legs, making him jump. "A very. Loose. Robe."

"I've got to stop making friends with sadists," Jin vowed.

"Or learn to prepare better."

"Prepare? I didn't log on tonight thinking I was going to get laid!"

"Neither did I, but I wasn't about to get dressed again after taking a shower."

Jin didn't have a comeback for that, but he'd have had a hard time making it even if he did have one because talking when someone else's tongue was in your mouth was more or less impossible. Technology was wonderful. Jin could taste Kame through the CNS interface, could breathe sweet perfume rather than the recycled air in his apartment, could feel Kame hard against him where he'd allowed the real world sensations to feed back to his avatar. He shivered, tensing up with anticipation rather than nerves.

"Is the grass okay or should I make this place more civilised?" Kame said. "I can probably construct a bed - or at least some carpet."

"This is fine," Jin assured him. "Weird being outdoors, but it's comfortable."

"Nobody can see us in here, don't worry. You're the only person I've ever given a key to."

Warmth shot through Jin's body that had nothing to do with Kame's touches. It felt good to be trusted. He ran his hands along Kame's sides, sliding under the pink T-shirt to caress the skin beneath. There were programs they could run, depending on what they wanted to do, or they could give each other keys that controlled individual items of clothing worn by their avatars. In that way they could quite happily strip down to their basic forms.

"Here." Kame passed Jin a collection of keys - in actual key shape, this time, and attached to a baseball keychain. "You want these?"

"Thanks." Jin extracted a keyring of his own, this one with a tiny guitar. "I should probably give you these."

The T-shirt came off, then. Jin's jacket followed, but not his shirt, which he couldn't find the key for. Kame giggled into the electronic fabric and pushed it up as far as it would go so he could tease with his tongue while Jin silently berated himself for misplacing the key. Still, it didn't matter. Kame somehow managed to remove the rest from him without his noticing; Jin eventually got rid of the shirt himself.

The last time he'd done this, he'd been standing in a virtual dance club, up against the wall with a beautiful stranger who'd danced with him all night and then pinned him in a dark corner where no one noticed the two men grinding against each other to more than just music. No names, no contact details exchanged, no clothes removed and no chance of a repeat performance.

Now Jin was as vulnerable as he'd been in hospital, with someone who knew so much about him, who had the ability to learn so much more through one of Jin's own programs. That took trust.

"Tell me if I'm too heavy and I'll adjust some parameters." Kame settled himself down, inch by slow inch, till skin met skin and Jin loved how good it felt.

"Heavy? A scrawny little thing like you?" he murmured. "I can take it."

"Watch it, or I'll adjust some parameters in the other direction and we'll see how much you can take then."

Kame's hands settled on his shoulders, fingers kneading muscle as they clenched in response to deeper, hotter kisses. They couldn't become one, not in the sense of concatenating two strings, or joining a split archive file; Jin didn't care that for all intents and purposes they were both just a collection of pixels, endless ones and zeroes strung in sequence to create simulacra of two warm bodies pulsing with life. He leaned on his elbows and pushed upwards, wriggling his hips to get Kame where he wanted him and yes, that was it, perfect alignment where Kame's legs nudged his apart and they fit.

There was no sweat to slick their movements in a virtual world but Jin knew his body had to be working up a nice sheen by now, back on the bed. Lack of bodily fluids meant considerable friction between them; Jin gasped, bucking as Kame ground down against him, bringing them together in a rough, faintly awkward clash where sensation was everything and there was nothing virtual about the extent of their shared arousal. He hooked his ankles round the back of Kame's calves, wanting them closer, close enough that Jin could feel nothing else, not even the grass under his back.

He started to lose track of whose hands were where, which way was up, was he lying down or standing...an unfortunate consequence of losing oneself in sensation on-line. He couldn't bring himself to care. Kame's skin was headed towards the colour of his hair; Jin knew he had to be equally flushed, with both of them breathing hard and rushing now, rushing to finish after a slow, sweet start.

"You make the prettiest noises," Kame panted. "All breathy and desperate."

"Thanks," Jin said flatly. "Was that supposed to be a compliment?"

"Sorry, I'll try again. Your hair is the colour of the finest milk chocolate, your ankles are as slender as-"

Jin silenced him with a bruising kiss and hoped Kame wouldn't try to pay him any more compliments.

Kame came up for air with a smirk, then leaned back and worked a hand between them, wrapping it around Jin and running black-painted nails along the sensitive skin till he had Jin squirming and wishing like hell that he was wearing looser pants - or better yet, none at all - off-line because the discomfort was becoming unbearable. But if he switched off the feedback, he wouldn't feel anything at all, and that would be a waste.

"Comfortable?" Kame teased, continuing to stroke and squeeze and there was the other hand now, as Kame tended to them both. Jin watched for a moment, fascinated by the way Kame's lips parted slightly as he worked, by the heave of his shoulders as he released every shuddering breath.

Then he joined in. "I think I'm going to need new jeans." Jin reached across to join his hands with Kame's. They worked together, then, with fingers tangling, playful in their exertions, moving faster until the feedback lag was barely noticeable. Jin had Kame's name on his lips when he moaned one final time and stilled, a dry climax on-line echoed by a much wetter one in the real world, and he knew he was going to have to go soon and clean himself up before things got very unpleasant indeed. Kame bent down for a breathless kiss as he came in turn and sank, covering Jin as much as he could, limbs heavy and lazy and comforting.

Jin didn't even realise he'd closed his eyes until Kame warned him not to fall asleep before he'd logged off properly. He couldn't help it - it was like being snuggled up in a big, warm blanket, and who could stay awake like that?

"I need another shower." Kame finally pulled away with a show of reluctance. "A cold one. My hotel room is very lonely."

"When do you get to go home?"

"I've got a job to finish up in the morning, but I should be back in Tokyo by early afternoon. I won't be on-line till then."

It was already after three. "I'd better let you get some sleep." Not that Jin was in any hurry to move. He dawdled over disposing of his keys, each one clothing his avatar again, but he could still feel Kame's hands on him - sometimes the lag could work to his advantage.

Kame was doing the same. "Yeah. I know you're not working this weekend, but could you do me a favour and keep an eye on the news for anything weird? I'm concerned about that infection in Tower Records. I'll be out of the loop till after lunch."

"And if I find anything?"

"Call me!"

One sloppy parting kiss later, Jin was back in his own bedroom, dumping his entire outfit in the laundry basket en route to the shower. Even though Kame had never touched him physically it still felt as though he had, and when Jin eventually made it under the covers he found himself missing the company.

He resolved to call Kame whether he had news or not.

Chapter Text

It was mid-morning by the time Jin woke. His first impulse was to turn over and go back to sleep, but hunger argued for getting up and food won over laziness every time. He loved weekends. Time to do things at his own pace.

His toaster, unfortunately, also liked to do things at its own pace, so it was a while before he had a stack on his plate. Jin lounged in front of his television to catch up with the news, hoping there wouldn't be anything to put him off his breakfast.

So far, so good. Jin was on his last slice when his phone bleeped with a message from Yamapi. He sent his apologies that he was now going to be working all Saturday, as the one freelancer they used hadn't shown up and wasn't responding to calls, and the other was out of town, and today was the only day the model could possibly do this shoot. Yamapi and his camera were in demand, and that meant Jin's efforts to get the two of them to reassert their masculinity would have to wait until Sunday.

After the night he'd had, Jin was tempted to send a return mail saying his masculinity was in fine working order, thank you very much, and Yamapi was on his own.

The only other message was from Ueda, confirming that Koki was still there, sleeping it off in one of the upstairs rooms, showing no signs of crazed behaviour beyond the norm. He'd also written a new song, which Ueda didn't seem to care for.

No mail from Kame. Jin felt disappointed, then annoyed with himself for feeling disappointed. Kame had confirmed, last night, that his home was in Tokyo, so Jin had high hopes that they might actually get to meet in person at some point. And if they got to that point, he was going to tie Kame to a chair and refuse to set him free until he revealed his name. The phone number had to be a good sign, didn't it? And Kame must trust him, or last night would never have happened.

There wasn't much on the news. Jin left it playing in the background as he made himself reasonably presentable, paying minimal attention to sporting triumphs, celebrity wedding announcements and political novelties until one story caught his attention. A freelance photographer from Tokyo had been arrested for trying to kill her ex-boyfriend, a high school maths teacher currently living in Sendai.

According to her current boyfriend, who'd now declared he wanted nothing further to do with her, she'd been acting strangely for a couple of days. Normally a quiet, reticent woman when not at work, she'd started playing her music at top volume around the apartment and getting in fights with the neighbours when they complained. She'd even told her deadbeat brother exactly what she thought of him, which she wouldn't normally do because she always tried to look for the good in people.

After a screaming match with the landlord the woman had grabbed her wallet and taken off, leaving keys, phone and boyfriend behind to take the last train to Sendai. A couple of hours later she broke into her ex-boyfriend's house, seized a knife from his kitchen, and tried to kill him in front of his wife. He managed to overpower her while his wife called the police.

Disturbing stuff, but what kept Jin listening was how out of character the woman's behaviour was, so those who knew her said. Even the intended victim only had good things to say about her - it had been a mutual, amicable split - and he was sure she'd just had too much to drink, or perhaps had been working too hard lately. He said the moment he looked in her eyes he knew she didn't really mean to hurt him, even if the slash across his hand said otherwise.

It was bizarre enough to arouse Jin's curiosity. There was no reason it had to be related but there were enough similarities that he thought it worth checking out. He made a note of the photographer's name, then called Yamapi.

His best friend sounded a little impatient. "Jin, I meant it when I said I was at work. We can do whatever you want tomorrow, I promise."

"Wait! Pi, I have one question for you and then you can get back to snapping pictures, okay? Your missing photographer - is her name Kinomoto Reiko?"

"It's not just 'snapping pictures'," Yamapi huffed. "It's art. And yeah, that's her. How do you know?"

Despite the serious nature of the situation, Jin pumped his fist in the air and mouthed a silent 'yay'. He loved being right. "Because I've been watching a news story about her getting arrested for attempted murder."

There wasn't a lot Yamapi could say to that. "It doesn't have to be the same Kinomoto Reiko," he began, but Jin cut him off.

"For argument's sake, let's say it is. Sorry, I should've said two questions. Do you know her username?"

Silence for a moment as Yamapi thought. "Kireikochan, I think. We don't talk much; she's so quiet I don't think she's said more than ten words to anyone here. Not like the other freelancer we use - he's very chatty when you get him started. His jokes are a bit weird, though..."

"I'm sure they are." Jin was in a rush to check up on Kinomoto; neither of them had the time for gossip, no matter how entertaining it could be. "Let me know when you're free and maybe we can do something. I might be working."

"Jin Akanishi, working on a weekend?"

Jin giggled at Yamapi's feigned shock. "That sounded terrible. Your acting skills could use some work."

"That's why I'm on the other side of the camera."

They bantered for another couple of minutes until Yamapi pointed out that Jin had now wasted his entire five-minute break for him and he still hadn't got anywhere near a vending machine. It was a good time for Jin to make a swift farewell and hang up.

It was a fair bet Kinomoto wasn't on-line in her holding cell, or wherever she was, so Jin couldn't reach her directly. No matter, since he couldn't access her activity log anyway. Where was Kame when Jin needed him? Yokohama, that's where. Working. Jin just hoped his request for Kireikochan's log would get processed despite his off-duty status so he had something concrete. Something like a trip to Tower Records.

He turned the volume up on his computer, the better to hear the sound of incoming mail, and got some much-needed housework out of the way while he waited. Laundry, for instance. Jin had a feeling that if he had many more on-line meetings with Kame, he'd be doing a lot more of that. The vacuum drowned out all other sound save Jin's American neighbour singing old rock songs at stadium volume - she wasn't too bad, as it happened; Jin danced a few steps with the vacuum before he got the cable tangled around a chair and had to stop.

Half an hour for a response to his request. New personal record, possibly. Jin couldn't believe his luck until he saw the accompanying note from an incredulous Toma, asking him what he was doing working on a Saturday. Nobody had any faith in Jin's work ethic, including guys who'd only dealt with him by email. Jin drafted a scathing response, then deleted it when he realised it wouldn't help his case any.

Not to mention, it would be a waste of time he could better spend looking through Kireikochan's log. She hadn't been on-line much lately; he thought the archived version was likely up to date. Who went on the Net when they had ex-boyfriends to kill? The most recent activity was an on-line art class on the Roppongi subnet - taught, Jin was amused to see when he looked it up, by one of his neighbours - and before that a shopping spree, mostly in clothes stores on the Shibuya subnet.

And then...there it was. Tower Records. Kireikochan entered the store, sampled some music, had conversations with three people, discarded a wardrobe item from her avatar and exited the store shortly after. No blank spot on the log, but if they were right, that should be accurate - she would've saved herself by sacrificing a piece of her avatar to escape, the code Kame had found on the floor.

Good enough to go on? Jin checked his watch. It had just gone noon. Kame might be working, or he might be on his way back by now. Either way, the call could wait a bit longer. He'd never had to make a morning-after call to someone he'd only been with on-line, after all.

He hunted around beside the computer till he found a pack of cigarettes, stuck one between his lips and tried to light it. The lighter refused to cooperate. Another empty. Maki had given him this one; he was quite happy to throw it away. He didn't need the reminder. Should he take it as an omen that the only things she'd ever given him had been bad for his health? He had another in his jacket anyway.

Jin forgot all about needing a smoke when he found the lighter because in the same pocket was his printed copy of the page he'd photographed in Tackey's office. He stuck the cigarette back in the pack, no longer in the mood. Reminders of the most unpleasant time of his life inevitably killed his cravings for most things.

He studied the printout carefully. The details were right, all about his fictional career as a host and how he'd supported it. The agreements he'd made, the papers he'd signed, the arrangements with his bank - and what he'd really been doing to earn his keep. All the words were his. The phrases, the pauses, the tone. His voice, transcribed from a recording.

All very well, except that he didn't recall giving any such statement. There were parts of his time in hospital he didn't remember too clearly, where headaches blurred his recollection from whatever complications had occurred with the surgery. He'd been groggy from the anaesthetic anyway, but even once that had worn off, he'd had dazed patches as his brain struggled to fill in the blanks left by the exchange of CNS chips. It wasn't unthinkable he'd been interviewed and simply forgotten it.

If that was the case, he was entitled to a copy of that recording. Could he ask for it? How could he do so without explaining how he knew about it? He couldn't see himself asking Tackey if he just happened to have a recording of an interview that had taken place at, oh, some unspecified time, location most likely unknown, involving people Jin couldn't quite remember...

He discarded that plan as unworkable. In spite of the risks involved, slipping into the unoccupied office to raid Tackey's filing cabinet was looking like the most viable course of action.

There was no time like the present. No one would be working; it didn't matter if anyone knew Jin was there so long as he had a reasonable excuse. It wasn't as if he would be on-line. The lock, malfunctioning though it was, would record his entry and exit times - the most practical approach would be to copy the whole file as quickly as he could and save looking at it till he was safely out of there. A pretence of retrieving something from his desk would do.

As much as Jin disliked the idea of actually going into the office on a day off, it felt good to have something practical to focus on. He stashed a portable scanner and a spare memory card in his bag so he didn't have to rely on his cell phone, threw in a scarf he could pretend to have left at the office if he had to, and drove back to work. Saturday had brought better weather with it; Jin was happy not to receive a soaking as he left the car. Still didn't get his favourite parking spot.

To his surprise, the promised lift repair was underway when he entered the building - or would've been, had the engineer not been on his lunch break, according to the note taped to the doors. Jin took the stairs, crossing his fingers he wouldn't run into him. The last time they'd had an engineer in was to fix the heating, which would've been fine had she not taken a shine to Jin and insisted on telling him her life story, complete with the four ex-husbands, three kids, wastrel father and a poodle named Billy. It had taken him two hours to escape, and even then he'd only managed it because Tackey had distracted her with an impromptu striptease.

The door gave him its usual Christmas greeting which he didn't bother to return - it wasn't even October yet, damnit - and admitted him to a cold, empty office. He didn't have much time. The blinds were up; no point turning on the lights, he could see well enough.

He dropped to his knees by the filing cabinet. The bottom drawer was still unlocked and Jin tried to rid himself of the fear that someone knew he'd been tampering with it and had decided to set a trap for him. Filing cabinets only exploded in movies, right? Just because he was doing something secretive, didn't mean he should expect retribution. He wasn't James Bond - there wasn't going to be a man with a gun standing behind him when he looked up.

Jin looked up just in case. No imminent death threat, check. Back to business. The file was still as he'd left it. This time, he started at the back, feeding pages into the scanner without looking at them, making certain to put them back in the right order. He hoped the scanner's battery would hold out. He couldn't see the scanned images; everything went straight to the memory card.

It was so tempting to stop and read everything but the clock was ticking, time slipping away, so all Jin could do was skim briefly as he slid paper through the scanner's narrow mouth. The entire final section was printed code ornamented with handwritten scribbles and question marks - nothing complete. Jin didn't dare take the time to mentally compile it. Curiosity had to be subordinate to urgency. He wasn't supposed to be there, he shouldn't be doing this...

He realised he was fidgeting, gave himself a mental shake to keep his hands working on the paper, not twisting themselves in knots. The last of the code went back in the file. Inside the next compartment was a stack of what appeared to be medical reports, too complicated for Jin to glean anything through a glance. He scanned those too. There was a tiny plastic case underneath - a memory card, it had to be. It took him all of a second to decide to take it. No one was going to miss it, not when it lived under a fat wad of paper in a - supposedly - locked drawer. He switched it with the blank spare he'd brought with. They were similar enough in appearance no one would ever notice until they tried to use it.

A scrabbling from the door rose above the scanner's gentle whine; Jin bit his lip to muffle a gasp and eased the file back in the drawer, nudging it closed as he rolled to his feet. The scanner and memory card he tucked in the bag. Had he forgotten anything? Was there an incriminating piece of paper lying on the carpet, waiting for someone to walk in and question it?

Apparently not. Had Tackey's office door been open or closed? Jin couldn't remember. He settled for leaving it ajar as he ducked out. The cleaner could've left it open. Jin rushed to his desk just as Nakamaru walked in. He was fiddling with a pair of gloves, which explained the scrabbling sounds. The door lock didn't work through fabric.

"Don't tell me you're doing overtime?" Jin asked, trying to sound casual, totally not like he'd been surreptitiously copying files, oh no.

"What? Oh, no..." Nakamaru was paying more attention to his gloves than Jin; closer inspection revealed that one was developing a hole. "I left my phone here last night. I didn't even notice until I went to make a call this morning. Can you believe that?"

Jin could and would believe anything, so long as Nakamaru didn't get suspicious. "You never know - maybe one of those girls from the other night has been trying to call you," he teased.

Nakamaru made a mournful face when he found his phone lying on his desk. "Not a single missed call."

He sounded so resigned Jin felt quite sorry for him. "If they didn't like you wearing spaghetti sauce, they're probably not meant for you."

"I can't figure out if that was supposed to insult me or cheer me up."

"Either one is fine."

"Thanks, Akanishi." Nakamaru brightened up. "What brings you here on a Saturday? I know you didn't forget your phone - you're permanently attached to it."

Jin was prepared for that. "This." He unzipped his bag, pulled out the scarf. "I forgot I'd left it lying in my desk drawer."

He didn't have to elaborate because Nakamaru's phone began buzzing violently - on manner mode, since he'd left it at work, so Jin only knew because his unfortunate colleague jumped like someone had dropped a lit match on his gloves.

"And there's a call now," Jin said brightly, though he was fairly sure it would only be Masuda ringing to see if his roommate had managed to locate his phone yet. "I'll let you get back to your hectic social life. See you Monday."

Nakamaru was too busy trying to peel his gloves off and answer the phone to give him more than the most distracted of goodbyes. Jin practically whistled on his way out. Mission accomplished - sort of. Move over, James Bond.

Jin's good mood lasted as long as it took him to drive home, lock his front door, plug the scanner into his computer and take a look at the pages he'd scanned, which wasn't all that long since he drove faster than he should've done in his eagerness. He deliberately kept his machine disconnected from the Net. All the scanned pages had been automatically numbered; Jin worked through them in order of entry.

It didn't take him long to identify the code from his file, even though he didn't remember seeing it before. The comments gave it away. HAYATO, Kame had said. The program he'd written for Johnny Kitagawa, to give the old man access to CNS chips. The one he'd never finished, with incomplete methods and improperly defined classes and a big gap near the end where he'd obviously hit a stumbling block. He'd given the incomplete version to Kitagawa; Kame had copied it and finished it himself.

So why did Jin's boss have a printed copy in his filing cabinet?

There were three options, as Jin saw it. Tackey, or someone above him, had eavesdropped in the same way as Kame and taken a copy during his transmission to Kitagawa. Possible, but it would've meant Jin had had syscops on his little shrimpy tail even back then and he didn't consider it likely.

Option number two wasn't that likely either - but then, Jin didn't know much about Kame, so he couldn't rule out the possibility that his new friend had somehow been responsible for passing on the code. He didn't seem to have any problems swiping it for his own use, which contradicted the stance he'd taken against the users he'd thrown off the Net. On the other hand, Jin couldn't see what connection Kame could possibly have to a bunch of syscops, other than his having just slept with one.

Which left option three, and that was the one Jin liked least of all. Why would a syscop be doing business with a known on-line crimelord?

No. It couldn't be. Jin resolved to hold off on the speculation till he had more to go on. There were more scans left to examine - the medical ones that looked like they were going to take forever to read.

Jin didn't like them any better than the first bunch. Reading his own medical history was no fun. Every hospital trip, every vaccination, every recorded illness, from childhood right up until the bout of food poisoning he'd had a couple of months ago. Once they had his name, it would've been easy to obtain. It wasn't as if he took so much time off sick, though. He couldn't see why they needed to keep his records in such detail.

At least, not until he reached the pages relating to his brain. He'd been expecting something on the surgery and he wasn't disappointed, but the additional scans and... Jin stopped, suddenly cold. They were getting readings from his CNS interface. The stupid, treacherous chip was telling the bioware in the interface to take readings above and beyond the norm, to transmit when Jin was on-line, probably the same as the tracker. Had Kame spotted that too? Jin thought he'd been referring to the tracker alone, but there was no telling what other secrets his chip held.

He could see why his bosses would be interested in his brain functions after the trauma the poor, helpless organ had survived - what good was a braindead syscop? But it had been three years. Surely by now he'd proven he wasn't impaired? It couldn't be to monitor his thoughts. That was impossible, no matter what the science fiction writers wrote. Thought could take form on the Net if it possessed an electronic counterpart and the user wished it so; otherwise, it remained a secret - possibly the only secret left when everything else in the world, both real and virtual, could be captured in some shape or form.

What did that leave? Nothing in the material he'd scanned had anything to do with the contents of his chip. If it wasn't checking for contraband code, what was it? Why so much detail on brain chemistry, and response times, and how he reacted under certain on-line conditions?

A shadow fell over his screen - nothing to do with his reading material, but the sun was setting already. It got dark so early, seven at night and three in the morning were alike enough to be twins. Jin had spent all afternoon puzzling through his scans and all he'd gotten out of it was a hundred questions and protests from an empty stomach. The first, he could do nothing about. The second, at least, he could attend to.

While he didn't make a habit of cooking regularly, he hoped getting away from the screen for a bit would help things settle in his head, preferably into something resembling an answer. Rhythmically chopping onion for oyakodon served to blank his mind; sadly, it failed to provide the longed for inspiration. His phone bleeped at him while he was cutting up the chicken.

Typical. Always when Jin had his hands full. He rushed through the rest as fast as he could without giving his nails an unnecessary trim, washed his hands and snatched up his phone. It was an email from Kame. More words, fewer emoji this time.

Having a good day off? Has anything happened? My work ran over today so I haven't had time to do anything else. (clock, sad face)

I had fun last night. I hope you enjoyed yourself too. I should thank you properly for all the programs I keep taking from you, don't you think? (winking face, random sparkle)

I'll be back home soon. Will you look at something for me? I have an idea. You didn't run MIROKU on the cowboy and look at what happened to him. You ran it on your friend and he's fine now. You also ran it on the two sailor soldiers. I still don't know where the girl is but I've got a watchdog on the guy and he seems fine too. I think something in your program is stripping out the active component of the infection but leaving them as carriers? (puzzled face, syringe)

I'll call when I get home. Take care. (heart, tiny turtle)

Kame was evidently some sort of workaholic, Jin decided. Not that he was in any position to throw stones, given how his weekend had gone so far. He could have been at the gym, or watching a movie with friends, or getting ready for a night out. What was he doing? Devising conspiracy theories and staring at the screen till his vision blurred. He'd have an easier time parsing code on-line, but he found himself reluctant to log on, even after he'd sated his hunger.

Might Kame have a point? What if the infection was doing something to the victims that was causing them to behave out of character, but undergoing MIROKU's attempts to clean it removed that aspect of the infection and left only a trace that could be passed on - and not to another person, but to part of the Net itself? For the infection to affect behaviour off-line as well as on-line, as had clearly been the case for the dead cowboy and the would-be murderess, it had to have a physical component.

Or did it? Jin struggled with the logic. Injury sustained on-line fed back to the body as sensation but left no physical marks, only the body's response to stimulation. Pain and arousal were one and the same in this instance. As digital representations of people, avatars would take the damage but it was the brain that told the body whether or not to feel, dependent on the CNS interface feedback settings. So if the infection attacked the avatar and the interface told the brain it was damaged...

It made sense, in a weird sort of way. Tell the brain it's affected and it doesn't matter if the infection isn't a physical one because the human mind will believe it. The victim behaves according to the state it believes it's in, even if there's no medical reason for it. Curing the infection could potentially alter behaviour patterns yet again.

Jin found it easier to work it out with a diagram. He settled down with pen and paper to sketch out a series of boxes and arrows - though when his mind wandered, a doodle of a turtle in sunglasses began to take shape in one corner of the pad. MIROKU's primary function was to quarantine an infection, then attempt to cure it. The program hadn't been able to clean the infected parts so it had simply deleted them and replaced them with suitable substitutes. All well and good, except that the deletion obviously hadn't taken. Not inside...

He got it, then. The infection hid itself in plain sight, in the corrupt avatar data. Something small, like a thin tattoo, or something as significant as full-body discolouration. The corruption might be slow, the way Cruz's bow hadn't yet changed colour when Jin had first seen him. It was still working on him, then. That corruption disappeared when the infection was passed on; Jin would bet good money MillionDollarStetson's avatar had been shiny clean when he died. The others hadn't noticed the changes to their avatars - the cowboy had probably thought his was in perfect condition too.

The damned virus, or whatever it was, was hiding somewhere else too. Avatar data was stored in CNS chips. The physical signs of corruption had a counterpart in a much more vulnerable area, where electronics met organics. It had to be. The deletion only took care of the infected areas external to whatever poor soul had been swallowed up by it, leaving them alone in Jin's vault with the infection still inside of them, biding its time till they passed it on, left it somewhere on the Net where it could ensnare more victims.

To what purpose, Jin couldn't fathom, unless it was to create off-line mayhem by making everyone act against their nature. So what had MIROKU done for Koki, Cruz and Mariko to keep them from harm? Jin had to go back to his own program code to work it out.

Ten minutes later, he had an answer. His programs couldn't touch CNS chips. The only way he could affect someone else's avatar was if they deliberately gave him access with keys, the way Kame had done last night, and that was limited to physical appearance only. He couldn't delete anyone because that would mean accessing their chip. In a similar vein, he couldn't remove their infection because he'd have to access their avatar data in order to do so. That hadn't stopped MIROKU from trying, of course. Jin liked to think he'd imbued the program with an indomitable spirit.

The repair routine had succeeded after all, albeit in a strange fashion, by means of a what was effectively a reset. Whereas the quarantine encapsulated the infected code to check the spread, the next part of the process aimed to remove the infection from the host. In the same way MIROKU attempted to create a reasonable replacement for a deleted file, it attempted to overwrite the infected file prior to deletion but rather than looking externally for a source, it would use the original code as a basis, searching through its database for the closest possible match as a means of filling in the gaps created by the infection.

Of course when it wasn't a file that was infected but a CNS chip, MIROKU couldn't do anything about it. Jin plugged himself in long enough to upload the program's error log to his machine for study and scoured it for details. Every time he'd tried to repair one of the infected patches it had crashed due to the conflict over the CNS chip and skipped straight to the deletion module. It wasn't unfeasible that the attempt had temporarily disrupted the hold the infection had on the chip, which would explain why the victims were effectively dead - and in at least one case Jin knew of, unresponsive in the real world - until he'd run MIROKU. Pulling the cowboy from the chocolate cake had had a similar result in freeing him from the infection that was trying to swallow him up, but the effects had remained even after he'd passed it on.

Because the effects were all in his mind? MIROKU's disruption could conceivably have prevented the chip feeding the infection back to the brain. No fooling the brain into thinking it's damaged, no crazy behaviour. Good news for Koki. Not such great news for anyone else who'd managed to free themselves from an infected patch the way Kinomoto Reiko had.

It was a relief when Jin's phone rang. All the speculation was starting to take him round in circles. He answered without looking at the number, getting a pleasant surprise when Kame's scratchy-sweet voice came from the speaker.

"Sorry I was so late," Kame said. "Some of us don't keep regular office hours."

"Are you ever going to tell me what you do for a living?"

Kame laughed warmly. "Something I love. It's not illegal, I promise you. Did you get my message?"

Too late, Jin realised he'd forgotten to send a reply. And remembering the message made him think about the parts of it he hadn't really let himself think about too much, like what they'd been doing in the early hours of the morning and how Jin shouldn't have been there in the first place...and how much he wouldn't mind doing it again, given the opportunity. "Yeah. I...um..." He was torn between asking Kame point-blank if he'd ever shared HAYATO with anyone else, and asking him out for a drink.

"You?" Kame prompted. When Jin didn't immediately leap in with the rest of the sentence, he continued with, "Did I make things awkward last night?"

"Huh? No! It wasn't just you."

"Good. Because if you're having second thoughts, you should say something now before I hand you another key and tell you to change into loose clothing."

Nothing like a blatant proposition to get Jin's attention. He'd never been much good at making the first move, preferring to wait and see how things played out so he knew the other person was genuinely interested in him, so it always helped if he had someone willing to do the chasing. Kame had been chasing him for years, from the sound of things - now he'd caught up, Jin wasn't about to turn him down.

"Don't try to tell me what to do," Jin said sweetly, "but you can always ask."

He could practically hear the click down the phone as Kame got it then; got that Jin was interested, but not about to rush, to change his pace to suit anyone. But what Kame didn't know, Jin had to tell him, and there was a lot of that.

"Listen, Jin-"

"You'd better listen," Jin interrupted. "I think I've found our Tower Records victim."

He explained about Kinomoto Reiko, and then what he'd managed to piece together from MIROKU's logs and his own understanding of what had happened. Kame didn't need the diagrams to follow it.

"It's smart," Kame said. "It hides in the heads of its victims till it can move on. It corrupts, and it can be deleted if it can be accessed, but it can't be removed unless it slips away itself. Who'd write a virus like that?"

"A bunch of anarchists?" Jin had been wrestling with the question for a while now and still didn't have a better answer. "You accessed SailorXWing's CNS chip after he'd been infected - did you notice anything strange?"

"No, but all I did was pull his contact details; I didn't go rooting around. Ah! You think if I access an infected chip, I can clean it from the inside, so no waiting for it to pass on."

Jin liked Kame's little "ah!", like a kid in a science lesson who'd just grasped a complicated concept. "Now all we need is a victim." He'd meant it to be light, but Kame toned down the glee anyway.

"I'd prefer it if we didn't. Nice work, Jin. I can see why your bosses were prepared to offer you a job rather than throw you in jail."

The file he'd found made Jin wonder if perhaps he was already in prison. He had to talk to Kame about that as well...but not on the phone. "I don't know that they didn't."

"Sorry?"

"Can we meet? I want to ask you something."

"I'll save you the trouble. Yes, I'm single - you're not breaking up any marriages, or anything like that."

"I wasn't going to ask that," though the information was always welcome, "and I don't want to do this over the phone."

"Paranoid, or just old-fashioned?"

"If I was old-fashioned, last night wouldn't have happened," Jin pointed out.

"Paranoid, then. Can't say I blame you. Okay, give me a few minutes and log on. I'll come pick you up."

So it would be on-line, then - another visit to Kame's garden, no doubt. It galled Jin that Kame still wouldn't meet him off-line, even though they were now in the same city. It certainly wasn't shyness holding him back, and Jin didn't think it was a lack of trust. He ended the conversation with a half-hearted "see you soon" and hung up.

Jin liked people. Liked talking to them directly, watching their reactions. Liked the company when he went for a meal, or sat up all night talking about stupid things that wouldn't make sense to anyone else. More often than not, friends who met first on-line never met in person, unless by some coincidence they happened to live near enough or travelled enough to try it. It wasn't just the distance. You could be anyone you wanted on-line. If you were a shy, downtrodden, doormat of a soul in the real world, you could be a superstar on the Net and no one would ever know. It was easier to keep a secret on-line. Make the right settings in your avatar and control all your facial expressions and body language. Use an artificial voice so your own wouldn't betray you.

It was harder in real life. Jin had difficulty keeping strong emotions from the surface, whether they were positive or painful. It made him easy to read unless he deliberately projected as blank. He never minded others knowing when he was happy. Kame, whether he realised it or not, was making Jin happy. Jin couldn't know if the reverse was true. Not yet.

But just to be on the safe side, he changed into a robe before plugging himself in.

-----

Kame had been as good as his word, appearing on-line mere seconds after Jin to hand him another turtle key. Too bad they could only be used once or Jin would have a nice collection by now. In the blink of an eye both men were standing next to a giant cedar tree in Kame's garden, where the grass showed no signs of having been flattened by their earlier activities.

"You had something to say to me?" Kame's wardrobe matched his environment this time, all cool blues and greens; Jin didn't think he'd ever met someone who varied his avatar's clothing so often. His own was back to its default of jeans and plain white T-shirt.

There were a number of things Jin wanted to say, none of them remotely related to their mystery infection, but Kame had hope in his eyes and Jin had a feeling he knew what it was for. And if they went down that path, he'd never get round to checking out the memory card that was still sitting in his bag. "Don't take this the wrong way, but...did you ever share my unfinished HAYATO program with anyone?"

Fortunately, Kame seemed less offended than surprised. "Not unless someone stole it from me, and I can almost guarantee that didn't happen. Why? Has someone else got it?"

"Not a finished version, but..." Jin explained what he'd found in Tackey's office, including how he'd obtained it, relieved that Kame didn't react to his admission of breaking and entering. Well, not so much breaking, since the lock hadn't been intact to start with. Nudging and entering, maybe, which couldn't possibly be serious enough to register with whatever drive Kame had to go all vigilante on wrongdoers. Or maybe that only applied on-line.

"Are you sure it wasn't stolen from you?" Kame asked. "Did you keep a copy anywhere outside your chip?"

"Hey, I don't even remember writing it. You think I'm going to remember that?" Jin folded his arms over his chest. "But I doubt it. Everything I did on commission, I only kept on my chip. Safest place to put anything - at least, it was until you came along. I guess I'd planned on using it myself when I'd finished it to ensure it couldn't be used against me, the way you 'hide' yourself. It's the only reason I can think of that I'd have taken on a commission to write a program that would leave me as vulnerable as anyone else."

"That would be the smart thing to do," Kame agreed. "You didn't mention it to Kitagawa when you gave him a copy."

Shame Jin didn't remember that particular episode, because if anyone else had been present at the time... "Kame, do you know who else was in the box at the game? Anyone who might've been in on the conversation?"

Kame's eyes flashed blue for a second; Jin knew he was replaying the scene from memory. "Two people. One was from New York - he kept comparing the opposing team to the Yankees. He was only interested in the sports. I don't think he was very technologically literate; his avatar was the local default.

"The other one I remember for being extremely well-dressed. Shiny, almost. He looked like he should be entertaining in Las Vegas or somewhere like that. Very smooth, very suave."

"You're going starry-eyed."

"I can't help it, he had good taste in hats. His avatar looked like this." Kame pushed himself away from the tree till he was standing straight, snapped his fingers for effect, and morphed into a taller, older man in a slick white suit. Jin knew that avatar from somewhere. Not recent, but he'd seen it before. A dinner show?

No, not a dinner show. A seminar. He'd seen this guy at work. Twice. He'd had a different avatar, the second time.

"You look like you're about to throw up," Kame observed. "I hope you're not wearing that face off-line."

Jin hoped he wasn't too, because it wouldn't do his computer any good. "You can change back now."

"I take it you know the avatar?"

"How familiar are you with Japanese syscops?"

Kame shrugged, now with his own shoulders. "I know who most of the regular Tokyo syscops are, but beyond that, not much."

"That," Jin waved a hand vaguely in Kame's direction, "was Noriyuki Higashiyama - superintendent general of the Tokyo Net Police Department. I'm not surprised you didn't recognise him. He's almost never on-line and he's so far removed from the day-to-day policing of the Net, the only time most of his officers see him is at Christmas. He used to look like a lounge singer but changed his avatar over a year ago to something a little more official after his wife complained."

"A superintendent general? You're sure?"

"Positive. Check out his history on-line if you don't believe me."

"It's not that I don't believe you, Jin, but why would he be watching a baseball game with Johnny Kitagawa? Shouldn't they be desperate to avoid each other's company?" Kame sounded as bewildered as Jin felt.

"I didn't say it made sense, did I?" Jin tried to think it through. "Not unless Higashiyama's batting for both teams."

"His wife might have a few things to say about that."

"Not like that." Jin smacked Kame lightly across the back of the head. "I mean he's playing both sides at once. It happens all the time in the movies. Law enforcement bigwig gets buddy-buddy with big league crimelord, both make small sacrifices to keep the ball in play, everybody gets rich and happy, roll credits."

"I think the movies you're watching are more fun than the movies I'm watching." Kame grinned and grabbed Jin's hand when he went to smack him again. "Okay, say that's the case. Say Higashiyama decided he liked the sound of HAYATO and wanted a copy for himself. Wouldn't it have been better for the Net in general if that program had never seen the light of day? There's no defence against it unless you actually have it yourself."

"The authorities had no idea who I was back then. The real me, I mean. And I never gave anyone my contact details or made them public - just used to use a generic webmail address to do business with. Higashiyama couldn't have got anything but my username if he'd run a query on me. So..."

"So he couldn't have traced you off-line or done anything directly to you on-line," Kame finished for him. "If he wanted the program, he had to either intercept it the way I did, or be given it by Kitagawa. He certainly couldn't have stolen it from your chip."

Jin was used to working alone, without backup. He'd done it in the shadows, and then in the light when he'd become a syscop and no one had trusted him enough - at first - to discuss anything of importance with him, or even provide a sounding board. That had changed somewhat, with Nakamaru and Junno (and to a lesser extent, Meisa) proving themselves more than willing to work with him after a time, but it had never felt like this. Not like a pair of signal lights, where a flare in the dark met with a spark in answer. Where one led, the other followed, and then the world spun round and they switched till there was only one smooth, flowing thought shared between them. Jin wasn't sure he believed in Fate, but he didn't think it was a coincidence Kame had been the one to finish the program he'd started. He didn't think anyone else could have.

Kame still had his hand in a loose grasp, hanging down as if he'd forgotten it, as if it were a perfectly natural state for the two of them. Jin turned that hand slowly so their fingers met and clasped, careful not to make a big deal of this one simple action. Kame said nothing - didn't have to, his smile said it for him.

"Either one would do," Jin said slowly. "Higashiyama gets the unfinished program, sees enough to realise he'll lose the upper hand if Kitagawa gets a finished version, but can't do anything about it till I accidentally break cover and the authorities find out who I am. When they take me in, they remove my chip and the threat along with it. They'd have to know Kitagawa never received a finished version."

"And they couldn't know you didn't have one on your chip," Kame said. "You said they couldn't break the encryption."

"Doesn't look like they had much luck with the draft version either. There were an awful lot of question marks scribbled on that print copy. I suppose they couldn't have asked me to explain it without telling me what it was, and since they preferred me not to remember certain things..."

"Hmm." Kame leaned back against the cedar's trunk, drawing Jin back so the two of them were shoulder to shoulder, almost at right angles. "They effectively neutered you by removing your chip, making sure you'd be ill-equipped to pick up where you left off. All the pages of medical tests were probably to keep tabs on what remained. You've got quite a big blank patch in your memory, haven't you?"

"Some of it's blank, some of it's just fuzzy." Jin spoke down to the floor; softly, a little embarrassed. Knowing it wasn't his fault didn't help much. "A combination of the chip exchange and complications with the surgery, I think. It doesn't surprise me they've got a transcription of a statement I don't even remember giving."

"If you were that disoriented it wouldn't have been too hard to talk you into spilling every secret you ever had." Kame's thumb brushed gentle patterns over the back of Jin's hand. "At least, everything left in your organic memory."

"Which wasn't much." Jin sighed to himself, used to it now. He'd compensated at first by writing everything down, until he'd realised that if he had another apartment fire, he'd lose it all again. Now he made sure to think about the things he really wanted to remember once he logged off, to commit them to his organic memory too rather than rely solely on his chip. Losing lines of code, fine. Passwords, contact details, secrets and rumours and lies, nuggets of data so precious they were like gold dust...all that, he could lose. But not memories. Not friends, not precious experiences. He wasn't going to lose those ever again.

Except the odd drunken night out. He didn't mind too much about forgetting those.

He could've used a drink now. Couple of cocktails and he could distract himself nicely. He definitely deserved it. Then he could've blamed the alcohol for making him want to turn and press himself into Kame, though he thought Kame wouldn't require any excuses. In fact, it was becoming pretty clear Kame didn't need a reason at all because he was beating Jin to it, slipping his hand free as he turned and slid his arms around Jin's back.

Here we go again, Jin thought, but they weren't, not like that. Kame was a few inches shorter than he was - not a problem, but enough that Jin didn't automatically drop his head to Kame's shoulder when he found himself locked not in a fierce kiss but a comforting hug. Kame could've been any one of his friends, then, providing support in the face of unhappy memories - or absence of any kind of memories, come to that.

"You sounded upset," Kame murmured. "I would be too if I had bosses like yours. I've never been so glad to be freelance."

One of Kame's hands remained steady in the small of Jin's back; the other stroked the path of his spine. Jin could happily have stayed like that all evening. His own arms went round Kame's neck, drawing him even nearer. He pressed his nose into Kame's messy, coppery hair and sighed again, this time in contentment.

"Jin," Kame began, "do you-"

He broke off with a twitch. Message received. Jin knew it couldn't be good news when Kame extricated himself with care and backed off.

"There's another code change," Kame said flatly. "On the Akihabara subnet - where our escapee sailor soldier went to play war games. Care to join me?"

"Another infection? Sounds delightful. Let's hope we get there before anyone gets caught by it." Jin tossed his hair back over his shoulder, trying to get it out of his eyes. There was a definite downside to having an avatar with mobile hair. "Maybe this time we'll be able to get something on it!"

-----

They almost walked right past the infected patch. Several servers on the Akihabara subnet were currently set with a local landscape of a stylised view of space, disorienting everyone who wasn't expecting to step from star to star, through vast swathes of black coloured by dust and debris, and into the heart of a virtual supernova. It was only when Jin felt the irresistible pull of a black hole and realised it had less to do with an override of the global gravity settings than the swirl of dust that appeared to be vanishing into it that they found what they were seeking - trouble.

Jin turned his back automatically; Kame peered inside as close as he dared. "Doesn't look like there's anyone trapped in there but you never know," he said. "It's only been here for about twenty minutes, though, and the area's deserted."

"Probably because all the spaceships in the game are fighting over there." Jin pointed to a spot far in the distance, where faint explosions could be seen. "There's no action over here. Yet." It felt like he should be wearing a spacesuit for protection. He'd finally figured out, however, how Kame was protected. The control he had over his own CNS chip, it had to be. Should Jin accept his finished program back so he could do the same thing? His bosses couldn't get it from him but they'd know, from his activity log, that he'd saved a new program to storage. Of course he could then edit his log, once he had the program, but that brought its own share of risks...

"I'm going to try something," Kame declared. "You think anyone will miss this bit of space?"

Jin shrugged. "Doubt it. I can replace it with MIROKU anyway."

"Good. I want to capture some of the infected code and take a look at it. I'm going to run the modules independently and quarantine this patch without attempting to repair it."

From the corner of his eye, Jin caught a flash of white and risked turning to face the source. Kame had a wall around the affected area. Jin couldn't see through it, but as its creator, Kame could.

"That looked like a camera flash. What did you do?"

Kame shot him a grin. "Took its picture. I've been working on a sort of virtual camera, if you like. RYUU, - short for 'Review'. I haven't tested it before; this seemed as good a time as any to see if it worked."

"And did it?"

"Let's clean up and find out, shall we?"

Jin did the honours, as Kame seemed too busy being pleased with himself, and before long an identical black hole - this one, considerably less dangerous - waited for any unwary spaceships to come along. He turned back to find Kame holding an oversized photo album he'd apparently conjured up out of nowhere.

"Time for show and tell?" Jin said.

"It's not my best work, but..." Kame flipped open the album. Each page contained a picture of lines of code - but only a picture, meaning they couldn't be compiled, much less executed. Smart. "I thought it was about time we saw what it was made of. Those lines in green are part of the original landscape. The lines in black were from the original landscape but have been altered in some way, mostly cosmetic as far as I can tell. And the lines in red-"

"That's our infection." Jin turned the page, skimming automatically to the red lines. The further he progressed through the album, the more he got the feeling he was no stranger to the code. He'd never been a virus writer, specialised in obtaining information, not destroying it, but this didn't look like a virus...

"I've seen this before," he said when they reached the final page. "Parts of it. You see that function on the second page? That's one I started writing for HAYATO. It's the first step in accessing a CNS chip, by getting a lock on the chip number. I didn't finish it."

"I did." Kame ran a finger down the picture, stopping towards the end of the page. "But not like that. This runs a query on the number and stores it, which is what I did, but whoever wrote this called another function that broadcasts a signal to that number. I think the idea is to keep the target still while the user begins the process of accessing the chip, which sort of makes sense if you assume the target has to be motionless."

Jin snorted. "Not in my program. Who'd stand still long enough for that? I'd make it a hell of a lot faster." He studied the function Kame had indicated. "It's visual. The swirling patterns, I think. These formulae describe the motions. You don't get caught by it because you hide your CNS number, so it can't get a lock on you. Anyone else gets drawn in."

They continued with a second look through the pages, comparing the red lines with Jin's draft version of HAYATO. By the fourth run through, there could be no doubt about it. Someone other than Kame had tried to finish Jin's program...and created a monster in the process.

"Instead of extracting data, this thing encompasses it and moves on when it's done infecting its host. If there's no other chip in range when it's ready to move, it starts converting inanimate objects instead, waiting around for the next person to approach it. Like my garden picture, or the exteriors of private networks." Jin groaned. "It's like someone took what I started and made a wrong turn every time they hit a blank!"

"Someone who either had no idea what they were doing, or did this deliberately to alter its purpose. I don't know which is worse." Kame dissolved the photo album with a snap. "Assume Higashiyama, Kitagawa or both tried to finish the program themselves. It's not impossible they ended up with this."

"Somebody had to do it," Jin said. "Half-finished programs don't write themselves. The question is, what's it doing out on the Net?"

"I'm going to go with the theory that some idiot accidentally infected himself or someone else and it spread from there." Kame's exasperated tone suggested the majority of the world fell into that category. "All it would take is one person walking around with a corrupt avatar and that thing in their CNS chip."

"Wonderful. By the time we've checked out all the unusual code changes your sweep's picked up, there'll be a dozen more."

"Only if people manage to escape. If they just get sucked in, the infection won't move anywhere."

Kame had a point, but it didn't make either of them feel more optimistic. What were they supposed to do? Go home and wait for the next incident, and hope no more appeared? If the black hole had come from Cruz, where had Mariko gone? They had no way to track her. She'd be all right, now, but if she'd logged back on, there was bound to be another trap out there somewhere. And where had the patch in Tower Records come from? Jin didn't look forward to investigating everyone who'd passed through the virtual store lately.

He sat down on the spot, drawing his knees up to his chest and propping his arms on top as a rest for his chin.

"Okay?" Kame crouched down beside him. "Tired?"

"Discouraged." Jin rolled his head back enough to catch Kame's eye. "And tired. And thirsty."

"I can't do anything about those last two, unless you want me to email your nearest takeaway and order a drink to be delivered to your apartment..." When Jin didn't laugh, Kame added, "That sounded funnier before I said it aloud."

"What can you do about the first one?"

Kame waved his fists like tiny pom-poms. "Go, Jin, go!"

This time, Jin cracked a smile. "Bet you'd look cute in a cheerleader's outfit."

"Only if I was wearing thick tights. My avatar doesn't adequately represent the amount of hair on my legs."

"Do I ever get to find out for myself?"

"Not today." Kame flicked one of Jin's straying curls. "Another time, I promise. Right now we've got bigger problems, like how to find the source."

"Maybe we don't have to." Jin had a glimmer of an idea, hiding just out of sight in his mind. He didn't know if it was plausible but he'd never worried about reaching beyond his limits before. "That would be impossible, right? And we don't know how far it's spread. So maybe we can neutralise it instead."

"I thought we were already doing that."

"No, not like that. If no one can be infected, it can't spread. It wouldn't be so problematic to track down other trouble spots and repair them if we knew there weren't going to be any more."

"But the only way we can ensure no one can be infected is to hide everyone's CNS numbers, and if we somehow managed to do that, no one would be able to log on. I have to make mine accessible temporarily so it can be authenticated; I hide it as soon as I'm on-line. Nobody else has that option."

"Got anything better?" Jin said. "The only other thing I can think of is if we were somehow able to effect repairs inside CNS chips. We've only been able to clean up code external to avatars, and the avatar corruption is chip-based anyway."

"Yeah, but only because MIROKU doesn't access CNS chips." Kame bounced on his heels, agitated. "HAYATO does, though."

Jin saw the light. "I'm a genius." Kame glared at him until he added, "All right, we both are. This...is going to need a lot of work."

They spent ten minutes debating the merits of scavenging chunks of MIROKU to use in HAYATO and vice versa, all of which, Jin was painfully aware, would end up showing as a blank on his activity log. If his bosses ever bothered to requisition it, they'd think he spent his entire weekend idling on the Net, apparently doing nothing whatsoever. There were some people who logged on for the sake of being on-line, preferring it to the real world, but Jin wasn't one of them. Of course, if Kame still refused to meet him off-line, he was willing to reconsider his stance...

"Even if we do manage to cobble something together, we can't use it on everyone at once," Kame said. "HAYATO captures CNS numbers within a certain range, but if we try to do the whole Net simultaneously, we'd overload it. Plus, not everyone is on-line at once. And it wouldn't help if someone gets sucked in by a stray patch after we ran it."

"You're not helping."

"I'm playing devil's advocate. That's helping."

Jin looked to the skies for inspiration, but the Akihabara subnet was space for as far as the eye could see and the asteroid storm heading towards them didn't have much to offer in the way of useful suggestions beyond "move or be flattened". "Let's go somewhere we won't be turned into space dust, shall we?"

He was expecting another invitation; Kame didn't disappoint.

"I think I need to redecorate if I'm going to keep having guests," Kame mused. "The garden's not made for company."

"I like it just fine." A vine slithered down from a nearby tree and snaked around Jin's wrist. He pried it loose with difficulty. "And I think it likes me too."

Kame's grin was impish, to say the least. "My garden, my taste. Of course it likes you."

Jin returned the expression, though not the sentiment for fear of sounding sappy. They didn't have time for amusing diversions. Night was upon them and the plan, if it was to work, would require a great deal of hammering out. When Kame turned a patch of grass into a large, plain board and produced two marker pens, they both settled down along the edges to set to work, propping themselves on their elbows and stretching their legs behind them. If they turned towards each other to speak, they'd be close enough to do so into each other's mouths.

Whatever other skills Kame possessed, art wasn't one of them. He had to label every aspect of his diagrams and flow charts before Jin could follow them, and even then it was easy to mistake them for other things. Now Nakamaru, he was good at drawing, as Jin knew from the homemade Christmas cards he'd received. Ueda too, though everything he drew somehow looked like a cartoon mouse, no matter what it was. But Kame...

"It's not a rosebush!" Kame protested. "It's a graphical representation of all the Japanese subnets. See the little marker that indicates where we are?"

"That?" Jin smiled weakly. "I thought it was a bee?"

"You have no appreciation for art."

"I have plenty of appreciation for art. That's not art, Kame. That's..." Jin was at a loss for words.

"That's what's going to dictate our plan. Part of it, anyway. We'll have to deploy the fix to subnets around the world too." Kame tried to point at a list at the far end of the board, but his marker pen didn't stretch far enough.

Jin ran Accessorise to produce a long, thin cane, ideal for pointing, twirling, or timely innuendoes. "Here, have a Mars stick."

Kame looked dubious but accepted it anyway. "Why is it a Mars stick?"

"Because Mars is the planet of fire, and if you use this just right, you can shoot flames from the end. And...I occasionally need a pimp cane. Mostly I use it as a pointer, though."

"Hmm..." Kame turned it over in his hands and smirked. "Long. Overcompensating for something, are we?"

"Mine isn't this thin," Jin said loftily. "As you should know, given that you were holding it last night."

"I might need a reminder sometime." Kame aimed the stick at his list, tapping each point as he reached it. "The plan is to release a copy of our extended remixed super amazing program on the Net as part of the background, which will cascade out to all the subnets, so that the repair process runs at regular intervals which will hopefully catch everyone who logs on. Any infected person who doesn't log on, we can probably take out of the equation because without our cleaning them up, they're liable to wind up dead, in jail, whatever - they won't reappear on the Net. If they do log on, we'll get them. The run should also remove any existing corrupt patches, so we don't have to find them and do it manually. It'll be like a wave, washing the Net clean."

"Sounds nice." Jin had a sudden urge to go to the beach. Shame it wasn't the weather for it. He and Yamapi usually went in the summer, swimming and surfing and messing around in the water like a pair of kids. He hoped Kame liked the beach.

"All we have to do is hack one of the com towers and make sure no one notices, then hope our program doesn't steal enough resources to draw attention to itself so it can continue to run interrupted."

"Piece of cake."

Kame grimaced. "Don't. The last piece of cake I saw was carnivorous."

"I was being sarcastic."

"My comment stands. I think we've got our work cut out for us."

More work, and Kame had become completely business-like and wasn't flirting with him anymore. Jin thought it would be a relief to get back to the office on Monday. At least he'd get paid for that.

Chapter Text

As it turned out, Jin didn't get anywhere near the office on Monday, or even Tuesday. The expected cold finally materialised on Sunday, keeping him confined to his apartment all day, and he had to take the next couple of days off sick too. Yamapi stopped by with chicken soup, highly recommended by a Jewish colleague as a cure for all ills, and made sure he had enough tissues to last him through the next ice age.

Normally, Jin would've spent his sick days watching DVDs or sleeping. Not this time. Jin would log on, ostensibly to look at his email, then Kame would pick him up and the two of them would retreat to what Jin was coming to think of as "their space" - somewhat disconcerting given that said space was technically inside Kame's head - to work on amalgamating the two programs. Whatever Kame's job was, it certainly kept him away at irregular hours. In between phone calls from Kame to tell him to log on, Jin slept and tried to keep himself breathing. Kame had to kick him off-line once when he felt too ill to concentrate but was too stubborn to quit.

By Wednesday, however, he felt better, if not completely recovered, and so he finally remembered the memory card he'd appropriated from the file in Tackey's office - just as he got to work, meaning he couldn't look at it until later. The day passed in a blur; Jin recalled Nakamaru very kindly bringing him a coffee and enquiring after his health, but not much else. Tackey put in an appearance after lunch but vanished before Jin finished for the day. If he noticed anything odd about the filing cabinet, he kept it to himself.

The memory card contained six audio files, all dating from Jin's time in hospital - never a good sign. The first three were all small. Jin discovered why when he listened to the earliest one. They were interviews; conversations, really, and mostly one-sided because he'd been so out of it at the time.

First in the sequence was a brief session with a male doctor, asking him his name, date of birth, parents' names, university etc. It wasn't the most productive conversation in the world. Own name? Check. Date of birth? Bit hazy, got it eventually. The remaining five minutes must've been frustrating for the doctor as Jin had spent it asking questions of his own, such as "why am I in hospital?", "why is my head so fuzzy?" and "can I have some painkillers?", all of which had been met with gentle placations.

Jin found it unpleasant, listening to himself from three years ago. Not just because hearing yourself recorded was always weird, but because he'd been so plainly in a bad way at the time. The second recording was more or less a repeat of the first, only with a female doctor asking the questions. This time, Jin's half-answers and complaints were interspersed with quasi-flirtatious chat, which didn't get him anything except exasperated sighs and something for his headache.

The third in the sequence was slightly more enlightening. Jin was still muzzy, but he'd got as far as remembering his family and some basic aspects of his past, which was good, and the doctor - male again - told him about collapsing in a convenience store with a high fever and being brought to hospital. He'd asked if the fever was why his memories were blurry, and why it hurt to think about complicated things. Now the doctor told him he'd undergone surgery to remove a problem in his head and it would take a while for him to adjust.

Then things got interesting because someone else joined in, and Jin recognised his boss's voice.

TAKIZAWA: Is it okay to tell him that?

DOCTOR: His short-term memory's shot - he's not retaining information from day to day. He'll have forgotten anything I tell him by tomorrow. Too much of it was dependent on that chip and he's got broken paths where the two intersected. It'll take time to train his organic memory to work independently again.

TAKIZAWA: I don't know that we have time. There's something on that chip my boss wants very badly, and since he's unable to extract it himself, he needs Akanishi. (sigh) Do you think he'll recover fully?

DOCTOR: I'm reluctant to say at this point. It's early days yet.

TAKIZAWA: He's not such a bad kid, you know? He doesn't deserve to have something like this happen to him.

DOCTOR: Why do I get the feeling you're not wholly committed to this project?

TAKIZAWA: I'm only here because he's going to need someone familiar to talk him through this - if he ever clears up enough to remember me. Poor kid. I know he's caused us all a lot of trouble but just look at that face.

DOCTOR: I'm looking, but to be honest, all I'm thinking is that I'd kill to have skin like his. He could advertise for Oxy.

TAKIZAWA: Good suggestion. If he doesn't remember any of his technical skills, we might have to get him retrained in a new line of work.

Jin choked down the laugh that bubbled up in his throat. He had a feeling it would come out hysterical. The remainder of that particular recording consisted of the doctor trying to ask him if he recalled what he'd been given for lunch yesterday, and did he remember the purpose of a For loop. He came up blank on both.

Recording number four was dated two weeks later. Presumably in the interim, they'd decided whatever he said wasn't worth wasting storage on. By now, his speech was much clearer and when the session began with a runthrough of basic data from the past and elementary programming concepts, he was able to answer confidently. He still didn't have much of a grip on the recent past, however, and he was bored enough to be climbing the walls.

It was no surprise to Jin that he didn't recollect anything he'd heard so far. The doctor's voice brought back a face, eventually. White walls, white bedding, everything clean and sterile. Any changes to the CNS interface, including removing the chip, involved peeling back more of the protective layer of sim-skin than normally required to access the port, increasing the possibility of infection. Sterility was a major concern in any hospital, but especially so where the CNS interface was concerned.

After establishing that Jin was functioning as well as could be expected under the circumstances, the doctor played with him. From the conversation, Jin surmised he'd been playing memory games with the hospital staff to rebuild broken links and convince his organic memory to stop slacking. It seemed to have worked - he won four games in a row before a new voice joined the party.

He'd heard Higashiyama speak all of twice since becoming a syscop, both times formal speeches to a crowd; even so, Jin recognised him now, though he hadn't then and wouldn't have even if he'd been thinking completely straight. And from the answers Jin gave, he knew he was still disoriented.

All the questions were focused on Jin's past. What had he done? Who did he know? How had he covered for his lack of legal employment? He'd tried to counter with his own questions, complained of a headache and been given something to ease it. Not just a painkiller, Jin guessed when his recorded self became much more compliant, and quite possibly not a legally recommended method of pain relief.

The end result was the statement for which he had the transcription, incriminating enough on its own even without taking his occupational activities into account. But the transcription wasn't strictly accurate. It omitted all mention of Jin's increasing agitation and the frequent prompts needed to keep him on track, culminating in a cracked plea to let him go home, never mind that he didn't technically have one at the time. He was unaware of Tackey's presence in the room until he intervened on Jin's behalf, arguing that they had more than enough now to keep him under control, assuming he was still going to be of any use to them.

Higashiyama asked Tackey to investigate Jin's statement and ensure it wasn't all a figment of his somewhat addled imagination, and the recording ended. Jin really didn't want to hear the final two.

After a warming cup of chocolate with extra sprinkles, he tackled the fifth file. He hoped it would be back to the doctor alone; there was no experience more painful than listening to yourself trying to keep it together with absolutely nothing for support.

No doctors at all, this time, and no Higashiyama either. Jin worked his way through a portion of instant ramen and listened to the first conversation he actually recalled, though he hadn't known it was being recorded. It was Tackey's appearance with clothes, decent food and a job offer. The sixth file was the sequel from later that day, in which Jin accepted said offer.

He'd been released from hospital a couple of days later. No more headaches or short-term memory problems, but the fuzzy patches were still fuzzy and the blank ones wouldn't be coming back. Tackey had picked him up, driven him to his new apartment where Yamapi was waiting to spend the first week with him; first week, or as long as he needed, his best friend assured him. Jin had been too wound up to sleep for the first couple of nights so they'd sat up playing old console games and watching movies. Yamapi hadn't been told the details and Jin couldn't explain without revealing the extent of his life in the shadows. Nevertheless, it was comforting. Jin didn't go on-line until his first day of work, when they started his training and realised there wasn't much they could teach him. Not about cyber crime.

The recordings were illuminating but didn't add much to the overall picture, save confirmation of Higashiyama's involvement and possible mitigating circumstances for Tackey. Jin liked his boss a great deal, didn't enjoy thinking of him as a villain. Tackey's reluctance to distress him further had come through more than adequately to give Jin pause for thought.

At no point in the proceedings had anyone actually stated what Higashiyama wanted from Jin's chip, but it had to be HAYATO - a finished version, which Jin was positive he'd never had. Not that it mattered. The chip was of no use to anyone now unless it was restored to Jin's CNS interface and there was no chance of that happening unless Jin orchestrated it himself. They'd never let him have it back, not even if he promised to let them have the program, and who knew what other valuable data contained in his chip. Finishing the program themselves, while a risky option, was the only one left available to them.

And look how it had turned out. Revenge, be it all so impractical, was sweet. Jin didn't know how long the process had taken but to judge by the lack of reports, the warped version of HAYATO hadn't been on the loose for long. Were its creators even aware? He certainly couldn't report it, much less what they were intending to do about it, or he'd bring Kame into the light along with the complete version of the program. Anonymity was definitely the way to go.

-----

"I've only seen two more infected patches," Kame reported the following week. Friday had come round again already.

"I've had one. No victims." Jin added it to their map of trouble spots.

The drawing board in Kame's garden had expanded since its creation to encompass everything they knew about the situation, including a map of all infected sites. They'd been cleaning them up as they encountered them, twice freeing users who'd unwittingly been caught - opportunities which Kame had seized upon for testing their new hybrid program, potentially named 'KIZUNA' (for the bond between the two existing programs).

Both occasions had been successful, though neither test subject had remembered any of it as the run had occurred while they were effectively dead on the Net. Kame had checked for lingering infection afterwards and both had come out clean. Score one for the good guys.

Or not so good guys, given what they were about to do.

"Think we're ready to do this?" Kame stretched his arms out in front of him and flexed his fingers. He'd stopped using the turtle avatar altogether when they were alone (so he wasn't at quite such a height disadvantage, Jin thought) and while the view was extremely nice, nothing had come of it in almost two weeks. When Kame was in business mode, everything else took second place.

This would've been fine - would've been much healthier, in fact, than rushing straight into another relationship - except that Jin wasn't learning much about Kame in the meantime and still didn't have any real world info on him save his phone number. At least they were talking a lot on the phone, which in some ways felt even closer than they'd been when having sex. On the phone their voices were real, not computer generated, and the only thing between them was distance. They'd always slip in some small talk somewhere, enough for Jin to find out that Kame shared his liking for squid, was an avid surfer but baseball was his true love, and he was the third youngest of four brothers and proud uncle to a very cute niece.

Last time he'd spoken to Ueda he'd asked him to call off the hunt for Kame. If Kame didn't reveal his identity himself, Jin didn't want to know. Ueda had made fun of him for a good ten minutes and passed the phone to Koki so he could share in the entertainment.

At work, too, Jin was catching flack for his distracted state. Junno, in particular, had a wonderful time getting his own back for all Jin's cracks about him being a lovestruck idiot. Meisa and Tackey both thought it was hilarious the way Jin kept drifting off even when he was off-line, and even Nakamaru took the opportunity to amuse himself at Jin's expense. It was all goodnatured, of course. Jin didn't want to tell them his daydreaming had less to do with falling for someone new than with planning a global hack with that someone and hoping like hell they didn't get caught.

Jin took a deep breath. Pointless, since he wasn't breathing on-line, but humans were creatures of habit. "We're ready."

The speed at which they'd managed to attain that state of readiness surprised Jin. The most successful collaboration of his life and he couldn't even tell anyone about it. Especially if it worked. It had to work. They didn't have a Plan B.

There was only one part they hadn't discussed. "You're going to have to do this," Jin said. "It'll show up on my activity log and I am not starting from the beginning again."

"You'd still want to work for the people who forced you to start over in the first place?" Kame had been suitably outraged over the recordings.

"And haven't touched me since," Jin said quietly. He'd had a lot of time to think it over of late. "I know there are parts that I'm never going to get back, but even if I do manage to retrieve my chip and have it reinstalled, I don't know that I can pick up the threads from three years ago. People move on, passwords change, cracks become obsolete. It'll always bother me that there are gaps, but I'm filling them with new things. Like you."

It was a sappy comment but Kame's gentle smile said he didn't care. "I guess it doesn't matter who you work for, you're always going to get screwed over one way or another. You can run away, or you can take the experience and let it make you stronger."

"I would've run away before."

"And now?"

"I think I'd like to stick around. At least long enough to enjoy a slice of cake at my colleague's wedding."

"How noble of you." Kame reached for Jin's hand, squeezed it hard. "Let's get started before I stop thinking this is a good idea. I can't do anything from in here."

As Kame squeezed, Jin felt a tickle across his hand and a "click" in his head. "What did you just do?"

Kame had the decency to look guilty. "Hid your CNS number. Even your own activity log won't record you without that. I didn't even think of it until now. I'll re-enable it when we're done and somewhere safe; it'll just look like you've done nothing while you've been on-line, like when you're in here. Everyone will think you have really boring Friday nights."

"You're incredibly sly, you know that? You should've been a fox, not a turtle."

"Some people do tell me I look like one. I'd rather be a penguin."

-----

The Net comprised clusters of subnets, which together formed the supernets for countries, which were linked by superfast backbones. In theory, Kame and Jin could pick any subnet to start with and work their way outwards from there. In practice, they felt it safest to begin far from home.

"I like whoever's running the Okinawa subnet," Jin said, looking around. "Blue skies, lots of sand, permanent view of the sea. I should come here for a holiday; I don't think I've taken a proper one since I became a syscop."

"It's not always like this. I'll have to show you my photos sometime."

"Off-line?" It was worth a try.

Kame teased him by pretending to consider it. "Hmm, should I? Or would that be too forward?"

"Too forward?" Jin spluttered. "You're the one who jumped me, remember?"

"My memory's pretty-" Kame broke off, dropped the teasing tone. "Yeah, off-line. If we pull this off, we should go out and have a drink to celebrate. I'll buy."

"When. Not 'if'." If Jin didn't manage to talk Kame into meeting him by next week, he'd know he'd lost his touch.

"When," Kame agreed. "Now stop stalling and get a move on or we'll be going out for that drink when we're too old to do anything fun afterwards."

Heaven forbid. They strolled along the virtual beach towards the com tower, where the communications links between the subnets were maintained. Two friends, out for a walk; perfectly innocent, except that neither would register on anyone's activity log were they to stop for a chat. There were few people around to see them, in any case - the view was better on the other side of the subnet.

Com towers were off-limits to everyone except system administrators. Even in his official capacity, Jin wouldn't have been allowed access. Messing around with the settings could change the topology of the Net altogether, moving the subnets from their existing configuration - roughly approximate to their off-line counterparts - to any number of chaotic states. It had happened before, when a group of Hawaiians had decided to isolate themselves from the United States of America and stormed the Honolulu com tower to sever all ties between the Hawaiian subnets and those of the mainland. It had taken six days just to separate Japan and California.

"I was expecting tighter security." Kame frowned at the unguarded tower. "I thought they were supposed to have this protected night and day?"

Jin shrugged and studied the tower. Four hundred feet tall, a solid block of grey with green trim to make a token attempt at blending in, it remained an eyesore on an otherwise lovely landscape. There were no visible walls, guards, watchdogs, or anything else impeding their progress, but they'd be stupid to rush in. "Let's probe it and see what happens."

He shaped a small ball of code between his fingers. Harmless, a child's toy gone astray. Nothing hostile. Nothing that could be traced. He bent down and rolled it along the sand.

At five feet from the tower it vanished.

"Better than an explosion," Kame said. "Not so flashy."

"Invisible firewall. Should be fun."

Kame rummaged around in his toolkit; Jin assumed he was going for an icepick but he produced a skeleton key. Literally, a skeleton key, as it was a length of bone topped with a skull. There was something to be said for the subtle approach.

Two minutes later, Kame had found three different back doors and let them in through the closest. The tower's own door proved to be the next obstacle.

Jin stared at the tunnel of flame in disbelief. "Firebreathing dragons? Now that's what I call a real firewall."

"Virtual fire, and shouldn't it be a firedoor? The dragons are cute though, aren't they? For AIs."

"I wonder what criteria they'll accept to let us pass? System administrator credentials, maybe?"

"I'll take a peek." Kame ran RYUU and the camera flashed; a quick skim of the resulting photo album confirmed that yes, only admins were allowed. "How are you at fake IDs?"

With everything Jin did at the moment being temporarily off the record, he didn't have to worry about illegal manoeuvres. "How do you think I survived high school? Waiting tables didn't get me very far."

Like syscops, system administrators shone with a coloured aura related to the status of their CNS number; nothing to do with their avatars. Unlike syscops, it only appeared in the systems in which they worked. Jin's silver shine had disappeared the moment Kame had hid his number, leaving him free to assume any guise he pleased.

He knew how to counterfeit a CNS number on a short-term basis. A complete deception was impossible without altering the activity log, as that was based on the number, but for gaining access to forbidden places (adult sites, for Jin's underage and technologically impaired classmates), a quick mask would do. It only had to stand up to a basic scan.

Of course first he had to find out which numbers were allowed access, and for that, he had to check the database attached to the dragons.

"You look like a safecracker," Kame said.

"Similar sort of thing."

Jin crouched down to avoid the flames, interrogated the database with relative ease given that he was about three years out of practice at breaking into things, and came up with two suitable candidates: a couple of individuals whose most recent accesses were over a week ago. CNS number and username were both listed so he ran a query on the names, checked they weren't even on-line right now. Perfect.

He fashioned a thin, transparent cover for each of them, weaving the CNS number in the digital fabric. Off-line, Jin couldn't craft to save his life - he left that to Koki - but on-line, he was a whiz with a loom. Besides, they didn't have to last long. The idea wasn't to look like someone different but to scan like them.

"Nice." Kame accepted the cover, shivering as it moulded to his skin. "You cook, too?"

"Not nearly as well."

"Good thing I can, then."

Jin hoped that meant Kame was offering to invite him over for a home-cooked meal. While he might not have been a dab hand in the kitchen, he did, at least, know how to show proper appreciation for good food - if not quite in the same way his parents had taught him. "All covered up?"

"I hope so. Hard to tell when it's invisible."

Oops. "If I'd added colour, we'd look strange," Jin huffed. "Let's move before the true owners of those numbers log on."

Kame admirably wasted no time braving the door of flames, marching straight in as if he owned the place. Probably the best attitude to adopt, Jin decided, and followed suit. For one heartstopping moment the dragons turned inwards, roared at them with all the artificial fury an AI could possibly be programmed with...and let them pass, scan complete.

"Next challenge?" Kame looked around for one.

Jin spotted it first. "No lift. Lots of stairs. We're going to the top floor. Challenging enough for you?"

-----

Many, many flights of stairs later, they made it to the top floor of the com tower. As the operations of the tower were largely automatic there were few staff watching over it, mostly bored administrators on the lower floors, playing games amongst themselves, too distracted to notice Kame and Jin slipping past the open doors on their way up.

The pinnacle of the tower turned out to be something of an oversized playroom. Instead of the banks of terminals Jin had been expecting, the room, for there was only one and it spanned the entire floor, was filled with brightly coloured icons representing the public subnets. The subnets were linked by neon strings, drawing a three dimensional map that hung above the floor like a museum piece, almost too beautiful to disturb.

"Amazing," Kame murmured. "When am I going to get to see something like this again?"

"Depends on how this venture turns out." Jin located the icon representing the Okinawa subnet, situated in the centre of the glowing web. "This will work, won't it?"

Kame pointed to the strings leading to neighbouring subnets. "Watch the little pulses. Those are communications between the public subnets. If we slot KIZUNA in on the Okinawa subnet as a regular background task, once it runs for the first time we've got it coded to cascade out to the subnets next door. Same thing happens the first time it runs there, and so on till it's spread across the world. At this level it'll be pushed to the private subnets too. I think we've got everything covered."

Everything except what they were going to do afterwards. They'd planned and tested as much as they could but technology was as unpredictable as it was incredible. They were about to release a program they'd co-written across the entire Net. A fix in their eyes, but to others, a potential virus. If they'd screwed up...

Jin swallowed his apprehension. It was going to be fine, because they'd done this together and they were both very good at what they did and what did Kame do, anyway? He knew he was tensing up off-line, muscles clenching on the bed. He'd regret it later.

Regret a lot of things later, if they got caught.

"Stop looking so nervous," Kame said. "You're denting my optimism. Where do you want to slip this in?"

"Regular network speed tests." Jin had given this some serious consideration while working his way up all the stairs. It was better than thinking about how many flights he had left to go. "Supplant the test file with KIZUNA and we shouldn't have to worry about using excess resources, and it should get everywhere we want it to go."

"Sounds good to me."

They locked eyes, then, and Jin felt sure. Felt certain about Kame, and himself, and that if they did this they'd be bound together forever, locked in a secret for two that no one else could ever share. And Jin found he liked that idea a lot. "I'll do it," he said, and that proved he was serious.

"I'll keep an eye on the door. We need to remain long enough to ensure KIZUNA passes to the neighbouring subnets and we can log off directly from here. I think we're better off monitoring the situation from off-line."

In case we somehow destroy the Net, was the part Kame didn't have to articulate. Jin agreed wholeheartedly.

While Kame waited by the door, watching for any unwanted guests, Jin let himself slip back into old habits. So nice not to be watching his every move, trying not to do anything he couldn't justify in the line of duty. Altering the speed test was child's play but time-consuming, ensuring he didn't disrupt anything, didn't leave any signs of tampering. Step by step through lines of code, looking for secret paths and the spaces where shadows walked.

"You should know we're going to have company," Kame muttered. "In about two minutes, based on her walking speed."

Wonderful. Jin grit his teeth and dived back in, skimming so quickly the metallic smell of the code streamed past him in a blur of scent and sight. There it was. The perfect spot, just what he wanted. Kame called another low warning but Jin tuned him out, intent on getting KIZUNA in place.

"Jin!" Kame hissed. "She's only got another two flights to go!"

"Calm down, I've got it." Jin stepped back from the Okinawa subnet icon and crossed his fingers for luck. All he needed now was... "Watch. I think it's starting."

Kame dashed over to join him in watching tiny yellow pulses traverse the strings from Okinawa to the neighbouring subnets, each one moving so fast the eye could barely follow it. Those subnets adjoining each other proceeded to pass it on. Whether KIZUNA was having the desired effect, they had no way to tell yet, but it was certainly moving as they'd planned.

"Come on." Kame squeezed Jin's wrist. "Let's go home and hold our breath."

-----

Jin logged off to find he actually was holding his breath, a state he couldn't have maintained for long without being forcibly disconnected. He'd tensed up all over, spent some time working out cramps in his limbs where he'd curled himself up tight on the bed. When he could move without falling over he found a message from Kame on his phone, apologising for not having unhidden Jin's CNS number. They'd logged off before they'd been caught but only by seconds, Jin guessed, and there hadn't been time.

Not a problem, really, until he next went in to work. He thought it might be a bit suspicious if he suddenly didn't exist on-line, and the same for his syscop aura. Kame would have to fix it for him.

He sent a reply, asking about that celebratory drink, but Kame said it was too early to celebrate. Wait and see if any further infected patches turned up, or any other unusual behaviour was reported by the media. Jin wasn't good at waiting and said as much, but he waited for Kame's reply until it became obvious that none was forthcoming.

Saturday morning, Jin examined the news for any reports of disasters on the Net, particularly in Okinawa. Nothing. Kame phoned him later to apologise for not responding the previous night; he'd fallen asleep looking at network maps. When they did meet up it was on-line.

"Are you sure I can't interest you in a working version of HAYATO?" Kame asked after fixing Jin's CNS number. "You know better than anyone how useful it is."

Jin smiled. "You keep it for me. I think it's better it's out of my hands for now."

"Out of your boss's hands, you mean."

"That too. No one's expecting anything from me now; I don't want to give them reason to think otherwise." Not that Jin thought they'd take a second chip from him, after the disastrous first attempt. He still didn't know if they knew what had become of their warped version of HAYATO but that was an investigation he was going to have to pursue slowly. His more immediate priority was establishing that they'd neutralised the threat.

"Playing dumb?"

"Something like that. I am whatever they've made me and they've got the medical results to prove it."

Kame got a good laugh out of that. "You're nothing but yourself, whatever happens, and I bet you always have been."

"No good reason to be anyone else, is there? Unless it gets me past a pair of firebreathing dragons, in which case I approve." Jin wanted to ask if Kame was always himself, and who that person might be, but thought better of it. "Have your sweeps turned up anything?"

"Nothing. Early days yet; I won't be satisfied until we've been a week without a sign. No mention on the BBS either - and no alarm bells ringing over the com tower breach, so I guess you were slick enough to pull it off."

"Of course," Jin said smugly. "I might be out of practice, but I'm not hopeless."

"If you were hopeless, I wouldn't have sent you an email in the first place. I didn't know then you were the infamous CarShrimp."

"I love that you had a crush on me for years without ever knowing who I was."

Kame winked. "Turnabout is fair play, yes?"

If Jin listened closely, he could almost hear the sound of a penny dropping. "You mean you've been keeping me in the dark about your identity to get your own back for something that wasn't even my fault?"

"I didn't know who you were at first and I wasn't about to give my contact details out to some random stranger, no matter how cute he was. After that...hmm...maybe just a little."

Jin flipped him off, grinned, and disappeared.

-----

Ten minutes after Jin logged off, his phone bleeped with a relatively subdued message from Kame - subdued, in that there were no sparkly emoji and the only line was 'sorry' followed by half a dozen crying faces. Jin waited twenty minutes out of sheer pettiness and sent him a response with even fewer characters: three hearts and a smiley face. It was like being back in high school.

Kame's reply had more words than both their messages combined.

I did promise you that drink, didn't I? (wine bottle, cocktail)

I have to take care of some things first, and then we can meet. We're closer than you think. (sunshine, heart, random sparkle)

Nothing about a time or place, but it was a start. Jin had other plans for his Saturday night, anyway. Yamapi had asked him yesterday if he wanted to try out a new Italian place. When Jin arrived at the restaurant, his best friend was already seated, agonising over the menu.

"Hey." Jin threw his jacket down and slid across the booth.

Yamapi looked up and blinked at him. "You're glowing. You're not pregnant, are you?"

"Pi, we've had that discussion." Jin groaned in exasperation. He wasn't a gullible little kid anymore, damnit. "Of course I'm not, and what do you mean I'm glowing?"

"You look...excited? Is something good happening?"

Jin couldn't think of any good way to tell Yamapi he'd been meddling with the very structure of the Net and was so happy he was finally going to get to meet the irritating little turtle he'd been seeing for the past few weeks that he actually didn't care if anyone knew. He'd faced many challenges since waking up in hospital but they'd all been thrust upon him, he'd had no choice in the matter. This was one challenge he'd chosen for himself, the first in a long time, and there was no way he was going to lose.

He settled for saying, "I think so, but it's too early to tell."

Yamapi was happy to rib him all through the meal. Jin didn't mind. He got in plenty of digs of his own, notably over Yamapi's horror at the prices; the food was excellent, the company was delightful, and Shirota was expecting them for a drink later. It was, in all ways, the best Saturday night Jin had had in weeks.

He was just eyeing up the last piece of garlic bread when Yamapi's phone came to life, blasting them both with an old Michael Jackson song. Embarrassed, Yamapi excused himself to take the call, promising to be back in a minute. Jin took the opportunity to snag the garlic bread in the meantime.

This grievous offence did not go unnoticed. "You stole the last piece!" Yamapi said.

"Think of it this way: it's one less thing for you to work off at the gym."

"Are you going to keep using the same excuse every time you steal food from your poor, starved best friend?"

"If you were that starved you wouldn't have been cheap enough to refuse to order dessert."

Yamapi couldn't argue with that one, though he didn't cough up for dessert, either. "You're not about to order anything else, are you?"

"No, why? We're not in a rush, are we?"

"No, but that call was from the other freelance photographer we use - the one who hasn't been arrested. The guy with the weird jokes; I think I told you about him before?"

Jin thought back. "Yeah, the guy who was out of town the other week so you couldn't meet me, right?"

Out of town. Weird jokes. Photographer. It couldn't be. Could it?

"That's the one. He's...I don't know, when he's working he's intense but the rest of the time he's a little goofy. Nice guy, though. We were talking yesterday about our weekend plans and I mentioned going out with you. He just called to invite himself along for a drink, says he owes you one. He's going to meet us here and we'll walk over together. You never told me you knew him."

"I..." Jin licked dry lips, wished he hadn't waved the waitress away when she tried to refill his water glass. "I don't, exactly. He hasn't even told me his full name."

"Kazuya Kamenashi, but most people round the office call him 'Kame'."

Kazuya Kamenashi. Kame. "Yeah...that's how I know him."

"This is great!" Yamapi beamed, clearly pleased at how his social network was coming together around him. "How did you guys meet?"

"We haven't...yet."

"Now's your chance." Yamapi stood up and waved at a man who'd just entered the restaurant. "Hey, Kame!"

Jin would've known him anywhere. The fashionably faded jeans, the skull print shirt, the glossy black jacket that hit him mid-thigh - Jin had seen them all on-line, and recently. He rose as Kame approached their table. Every feature had been replicated in his avatar in fine detail: the gleaming earring, uneven nose, tiny moles and perfectly shaped eyebrows that owed a good deal to a pair of tweezers, or so Jin suspected. Even his nails were painted, alternating black and turquoise.

This was the man he'd kissed, the man he'd touched, the man he'd trusted with all his heart. And now he had to do it all again, off-line.

When Kame licked his lips and smiled, eyes shining like he was so excited he didn't know what to do with himself and it had to show somewhere, Jin realised he wasn't the only one nervous about meeting for the first time. Whatever they did now, be it concocting some crazy plan to retrieve Jin's chip or investigating the superintendent general's connection with a known crimelord, they did with no mysteries between them. Why worry about tomorrow when today looked to be the best day of his life?

He looked Kame right in those beautiful brown eyes, held out his hand and heard, for the first time, that sweet, slightly raspy voice undistorted by technology.

"Hi."