"A coin -"
"For passage. I know," Miyahara said, already inpatient.
Against the eggshell white walls, the man's suit stood as the greatest spark of color in the room, plain black almost reflecting to a dark purple. He doesn't move from behind his desk. Fingers twined against his mouth don't hide his coy smile. "No need to be nervous, miss...?"
She kept her mouth shut and held out her gold.
"I'm glad you're prepared," he said.
One moment, the weight was almost too much to bear. The next, nothing, but a flicker of light flipping between his fingers like a bad magic trick. She allowed her hand to drop. Knowledge was all she had. No names. No food. No second thoughts.
"As long as you stay respectful, I hope you enjoy your stay here." The doors opened behind him, cool smile and sharp brows following her. "Miss Miyahara."
Her heel spun before she forced herself to a stop. Only forward. There were many tests. She'd read enough about that alone, heard enough from Manami. Stories were nothing more than words. So she was not surprised that there was no cave. No eyes growing in the walls to watch her. Fluorescents flickered above her. It cast the hall between, shadows of decaying bugs marking her steps forward. In each blink of darkness, her heels crunched through nothing she chose to look at.
Distance marked the dark carpet she knew to be real. Each step made her more aware of the doors growing from the walls, frames sinking through drywall to shine soft peeled metal. Her heart raced with the thought. She had been told no destination. Feet carried her onward, despite the fear cooling through her veins. There were no stories about office buildings and the smell of printing paper. No stories about well-dressed business men and sliding doors, echoing with shadows beyond. No stories about stately young women believing they could break the rules of life and death.
Only stories from the mouth of someone sick and foolish.
"I think you could do anything, rep."
"I'm specializing for good reason, Sangaku," she said, and closed her notebook. "Being frivolous with work is a sign of laziness."
They hummed. "I guess."
Where they met always changed. Their room, on the edge of a window. Her balcony, sitting between plants like another member of a photosynthesis family of pets. Schools, even when they drifted off, hardly present to her constant brick laying for the future. Hospitals. Those, they wouldn't let her stay in. Those, they met her in the lobby, and ushered her out, waving away workers and cameras that noted the blinking band around their wrist.
Stories about burning wings and rice fields born of celestial death and people locked away in the realm of the dead, behind rocks, and fire, and handsoap.
"Hey, rep," they always said. Never asking why. Never explaining anything.
"Good evening, Sangaku," she'd respond. Never demanding answers.
They were frivolous and she was practical and there was no reason for the two of them to be friends. Except that they loved each other - that she loved them. Even when she was too busy with work to send a text, knowing they wouldn't respond.
"I'll be moving south for my masters," she told them.
"Congratulations," they answered.
She had stared at them. Better health, for the month, their bike parked outside her short-lived apartment, radiant and tired and confused by every explanation about the programming behind her thesis. 'Could you ask,' hidden. 'Will you miss me.'
"It's quite the distance, Sangaku." Her mouth burnt from tea she couldn't stop drinking, dry, ashen. "I had thought you might be put out at the fact that you may have to ride a train."
"What else would I use my bike for?"
The hall shrank around her.
Manami wouldn't let their eyes turn away from the end.
She knew that much.
Her toes tripped over bunches of carpet, broken alarms sounded to make her turn her head. But Miyahara reached the end of the hall. The only light stood over a single sliding door, pitch black against the other side.
She slid it open before the keeper could.
"Curious," she heard. "What are you here for?"
Miyahara stared. "I want information."
"Ah, of course. What else would a lady like yourself seek."
"I need to know ..." Words stuck in her throat. She forced a deep breath. "How to build a robot."
"Wouldn't you rather a body? Warm to the touch?"
"Metal is plenty warm," she said.
"Or memories, this far down. I have many in my river."
Miyahara shook her head. "I have enough of those."
It hung over, and around her, the scent of fresh cakes and rain and the sharp sting of alcohol sinking through her skin. "You believe they will not come."
"I already paid," she whispered. "Please let me have what I asked for."
"That they will hate you for wanting."
"Sir." If she wanted, she could be harsh. Sick selfish spitfire, only coming out with one person - but they wouldn't follow her anymore. She wouldn't let them. "There are rules. I will report you if you go back on them."
And she could hear bells.
Far off, where she couldn't touch.
Miyahara didn't look back.
Hands burning against steel, she couldn't look back.
And when a robot wandered about like itself, it was no business of hers if it acted so familiarly. It wouldn't recognize her, regardless. College was what it was - internships and fellowships and working with her seniors, it didn't matter where her inspiration came from. There didn't have to be a reason for it. Miyahara kept her face forward, against memories long since lost. Even if she couldn't let go of them.
An echo of their voice.
"It's been a while. I hope you visit soon."
Other people glanced that way, but she knew better. Miyahara was no fool. She wouldn't endanger what had once been lost. She had read many stories. Someone like her - knew better than to hold onto pride. Miyahara wouldn't put her happiness over theirs. If it meant they were safe.
"I hope you're safe. I miss you."