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Saturday night, 2 am.

"Hey, hold up! We're not done yet!"

"You're not. I am. So long suckers!" the second voice taunted.

The first was completely frustrated. "I told you to wait! We still have to lock up!"

"No, you do. You're the senior one, as you remind me every bloody hour of every bloody day. You deal with it!"

Their raised voices bounced all the way up the winding stairwell from the basement and echoed around the cavernous glass foyer. Waiting for the elevator, the three suited men glanced towards the dark stairwell to see who could be making such a racket. It was entirely unprofessional, late hour or not.

"The boss told us both to finish up!"

"He meant finishing up on the release, baka [idiot], and only then 'cos you suck with the AI –"

"Hey!"

"– and you'd need me to bail your ass out if it all went tits up. I'm not going to hold your hand while you lock up just 'cos you're shit scared of the building at night."

In the foyer, there were some raised eyebrows at the colourful language.

"That's not true!"

They heard the beep of the security lock and then two sets of footsteps coming up the stairs.

"Isn't it?" The voice suddenly became theatrical and full of suspense. "It's daaaark outside. There's not a soul around. The servers are whirring away like they're run by ghosts. Don't you think it's spooooky – Oof!"

"Lay off it, Takaba! Jesus..."

The overly suspenseful voice had abruptly cut off with a grunt, but now it was taunting again. "Sure, Mitarai. I wouldn't want you to piss your pants –"

"That's it, I've had it with you!"

Laughing gleefully, Akihito legged it up the stairs two at a time, chased by a fuming Mitarai. Too busy checking over his shoulder, Akihito sprinted pell-mell around the corner into the foyer and smashed scrappily into a wall, Mitarai quickly following next to him.

There were raised voices from somewhere beside them. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"I'm so sorry!"

Akihito barely heard. It wasn't a wall. Walls didn't grunt as you hit them, or instinctively catch your arms in a surprisingly strong grip as you both stumbled a step, limbs all tangled up. Walls didn't wear suits that screamed designer and affluence beyond imagination with shirts so crisp he could have cut himself on their edges. And walls most certainly didn't smell fantastic – a smooth, expensive cologne with a lingering sandalwood note, a hint of cigarettes, and an underlying scent that was powerfully male that rushed up his nostrils. It was the kind of intoxicating smell that entrenched itself deep in the psyche, inextricably linked with this memory.

Akihito peered up, and up and up since the man was considerably taller...

... To see the face of the one person he absolutely, categorically, could not meet.

Asami Ryuichi, who had been stunning in the photos but who was even more staggering in the flesh, a veritable sex god in human form if there ever was one. Out of all the things Akihito knew him to be, that was the first thought that occurred as he stared in a daze.

Asami Ryuichi, who still had his arms around Akihito, holding him up against one hell of a solid chest...

Akihito scrambled free with a jolt. Molten golden eyes, like a dragon, Akihito thought, swept over his lithe frame in blatant appraisal, raising his heart rate and temperature to an alarming degree with just the pseudo-embrace and sweeping arrogance. Akihito flushed, feeling like his casual linen and tight denim did nothing to protect him from that piercing evaluation, fully feeling the heat packed behind the gaze as they fixed on his hazel eyes with astonishing intensity.

Asami Ryuichi must never, ever know who he was. In fast rising panic, Akihito blurted out the first thing he could think of as a distraction. "Wow, you work weird hours."

Golden eyes narrowed, making Akihito's heart double thump.

"So says the pot to the kettle."

Holy cow, that voice... Akihito wilfully ignored the shiver that raced down his neck – how the hell did the man manage to sound sultry saying such mundane words? Akihito's automatic mode of self preservation had always been bluster and bravado, and he wasn't about to start mincing his words now, even straight to that sinfully gorgeous face.

"Uh-uh, that's on you, Mr CEO. 'Cos apparently so many people work weekends here, till late too, which means major system upgrades can only be done at ungodly hours like these. Lucky us."

"Takaba!" came Mitarai's horrified outcry.

Respect for your social betters was deeply ingrained in Japanese society. Speaking to his boss in such a way, or even the boss of his boss, would have been extraordinarily offensive, possibly even a disciplinary matter. Addressing the CEO like this all the way at the top of the food chain was akin to blasphemy.

"You had best start explaining yourselves if you want a chance of keeping your jobs!"

It was one of the two men with Asami that Mitarai had smashed into, a bookish type with black wireframe glasses. The other was a blond giant, built like a tank with his neck wider than his jaws and triangulating out into a huge chest. Akihito guessed the latter to be a bodyguard judging by how he hovered on the periphery, ready to jump in but taking his cue from Asami – who looked more entertained than anything if the curved lips were anything to go by, interest smouldering in his eyes...

Akihito swallowed. He had to get out of there. Pronto.

He gave a nervous laugh. "My bad! Hope your suit hasn't creased! Laters!" He gave Mitarai a cheerful wave before he scrammed.

"Takaba!"

Akihito leapt over the reception turnstile, thanking his trusty trainers and the stretch in his tight jeans, and dashed out into the night. He pointedly ignored the phantom gaze he could still feel boring into his retreating back as he left Mitarai to bow and stammer terrified apologies.

Three corners down the street, Akihito sagged, his heart thudding a mile a minute. Out of sight, out of mind, he reassured himself.

Little did he know that it was too late. He'd already been caught in Asami's sights.


 

- V1P3R -
I only asked for one thing. Wait. I told you. BUT YOU DID NOT WAIT.
Every bit of pain. Every drop of blood. I'll make you pay. Remember me, Z4m4 M1r0. I'm coming for you
.

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"No."

"Yes."

"No!"

"Yes!"

"This is a bad idea. Even I know it, and that's saying something."

"It'll be fine. It's just for today."

"What about the other guys?" There were six others in the IT office, they'd all been here at least two years.

"They're R&D, not support. Besides they're hard pressed for the pitch they're doing end of the week. It has to be you."

"There must be some company rule against this. Only a month into the job, remember? I still don't know how half of anything is connected."

"You'll work it out. Besides it can't be helped, you're the last man standing."

Akihito jerked the phone away from his ear as his boss succumbed to another bout of vomiting. Gross. Akihito's girlfriend's early return last night had prevented him from joining his two colleagues on their Sunday night meal out, saving him from the nasty bout of food poisoning that had struck them both down.

Akihito's brow creased. It was unexpected for Risa-san to return last night. Her business trip had been curtailed and she was suddenly attentive and keen to spend time with him again, very much the opposite from before she'd left when she'd insisted that she needed some space. He didn't know what to make of it...

"Oh, man," Ogawa groaned, back on the line again.

Akihito took that as a cue to return the phone to his ear. "Do you even remember why you hired me in the first place? Me?""

"Takaba," came the jittery, slightly high-pitched reply.

Akihito could imagine Ogawa's balding head glancing around like a twitchy squirrel to check they weren't being overheard, more nervous about it than Akihito who was the one with the court order. 'Misdemeanor computer trespass' had been the charge – hacking, basically.

On paper it was all above board. Akihito was one of Japan's top independent white hat hackers operating under the online handle DigiH4wk. It was legitimate and occasional-when-he-was-skint work, what employers liked to call preventive vandalism which was precisely about breaking into websites and flagging what was vulnerable so they could fix it. There were big bucks to be had if one knew where to look and how. Akihito liked to target social media giants, online search engines and other high profile websites, since they were full of vulnerabilities and could cough up anything up to a year's worth of rent if he found something serious enough.

But it was his main, covert pastime that had landed him in cuffs. He was an online investigative journalist, a long-time dedicated contributor to the anti-corruption publication Spotlight. His penname Z4m4 M1r0 – leetspeak for zama miro, 'serves you right' – had stuck since his first exposé in his mid-teens on a local minister making regular payments for underage prostitutes. Z4m4 M1r0 had become increasingly difficult to catch over the years, but this time he'd been over eager in hunting after a certain politician under police investigation for influencing party policies to benefit his black market dabbling, and especially on his rumoured connections with one Asami Ryuichi.

The moment his weathered detective friend Yamazaki had told him about the businessman in whose shadows lurked rumours of underworld dealings, Asami had become Akihito's next target. His gut had done that adrenaline-charged tightening thing that gripped him like a starving dog with a juicy steak bone. If this seemingly philanthropic CEO of the international multi-billion dollar company that advertised itself benignly as a knowledge, information and events business was indeed dirty, it was Spotlight's duty to reveal him to the world and help the police in making arrests.

But after Z4m4 M1r0's numerous sojourns into the Tokyo Police Major Crimes Division's encrypted files, they were eager to snag him and the Cyber Crimes Division had mounted a costly manhunt. They'd been waiting for him the moment he stepped his electronic foot in the MCD playground sniffing for any information on Asami. The CCD had tracked down his IP and played tag with the MCD who had tracked him down in person, catching him red-handed on the cusp of infiltrating Sion's network. With so much attention on Akihito, Yama-san hadn't been able to help keep him off the books this time.

Akihito had been sentenced to 2000 hours of community service. But therein lay the irony of ironies. Ogawa, head of IT Operations for Sion Global, was struggling to clean out a particularly tricky Remote Access Trojan trying to gain root, and in desperation had turned to the CCD for assistance. But stretched for resources from chasing the likes of Akihito, the CCD had nonetheless sensed an opportunity for restorative justice.

Ogawa, understandably, had not broadcast the fact that the skilled programmer who had filled the new 'Information Security Manager' role and was now upgrading Sion Global's cyber security system was a hacker serving a community service order for trying to hack them in the first place...

Slouching in his cramped cubicle, Akihito looked down at his casual attire. It was the concession Ogawa had reluctantly agreed upon when Akihito had stated it as the price for his help. He adamantly refused to straightjacket himself in a suit and tie every day, especially as he was only meant to be stuck to his laptop buried in the basement anyway. The other guys in the IT office was used to his appearance by now, but if he was traipsing around in the building full of ambitious business people, he was going to stand out like an alien. And a blond one at that.

"Besides, I don't think you want me waltzing around the building, do you?"

There was a pause as Ogawa seemed to remember Akihito's habitual black jeans, fashionably frayed at the knees, and the casual shirt thrown over a loud t-shirt. There was a sigh, but then the boss seemed to weigh the continued IT support as more important.

"All you have to do is cover the Helpdesk for the day," Ogawa insisted again. "Just do what Mitarai does, check it's really plugged in, tell them to turn it off and on again. And if that doesn't work, we'll be right on it first thing in the morning."

Akihito rubbed a hand over his eyes. After seeing another alarming message that morning on Spotlight's forum, he really wasn't in any mood to speak to anyone. V1P3R was entirely serious or seriously disturbed, or both. Akihito was used to rubbing important people the wrong way and receiving his fair share of abuse as well as fan mail for exposing the rich and corrupt, but there was something unsettling and persistent about this one.

"But Ogawa-san –"

"No buts, Takaba. You're already in the doghouse with that stunt you pulled on Saturday, you have some serious ground to make up."

"You heard about that, huh?" Akihito wasn't surprised that Mitarai had ratted him out.

"We've all heard about that, Takaba. Besides, you're under a contract, remember?" Ogawa never called it a court order.

"Fine! But if there's any heat about this, it's on you, Mr Bossy Boots."

"Yeah, yeah. You'll be fine. There are never any serious problems anyway, dead easy for the likes of you. Bye –"

That was the last thing Ogawa croaked before Akihito figured he was rushing to the bathroom again by the retching sound that was abruptly cut off as the line went dead.


 

Dead easy, his ass. Akihito spent hours rushing around like a headless chicken, dealing with a multitude of incompetent tech-related problems the likes of which he couldn't have made up if he'd tried. Niggling hardware problems, a multitude of issues about access and configurations, idiots who misplaced files or deleted files or locked themselves out of their own encrypted files trying to be clever setting passwords when the file wasn't even confidential, and call after call after call about connection problems to meeting room projector screens.

Akihito could have put off a good number of them to the next day like Ogawa had suggested, but deep down he was simply too nice a person to make them wait. Not that he sweet-talked over any problems either. Not daunted in the least by whatever the size of their office or however fancy their job titles, he didn't beat about the bush as he told everyone straight up what the problem was and where they'd gone wrong. He was bluntly honest without being unkind, knowledgeable without being arrogant, and he bulldozed through their first impressions – and more than a few curious questions about him literally running into the CEO in the dead of night. It was the gossip of the year.

He was reaching the end of his tether. By the time he'd been covering two other people's worth of jobs for nine hours straight, with his stomach growling and gnawing at his insides in place of the lunch he'd had no time for, he was ready to call it quits for the day.

"IT," he muttered unenthusiastically as the phone rang for the gazillionth time, not even bothering to look at the caller ID.

There was a pause before a man's clipped voice requested, "Manager Ogawa please."

Half lost in emailing back on another query, Akihito mumbled absent-mindedly, "You get me today, the others are off sick. Can I help?"

There was another pause, probably at his language being so inappropriately colloquial. "Who am I speaking to?"

The condescending tone finally made Akihito turn his attention to the call. After the day he'd had, he didn't appreciate it. "This is Takaba, Takaba Akihito. I can sort out your tech issue if you can put up with me. Or if you're specifically after Ogawa-san, you'll have to try back tomorrow."

There was a pause. "I see. One second, please."

Akihito blinked as the line was suddenly filled with the generic corporate classical string music. Placing him on hold after they'd called him? Pissed off, he slammed the receiver down. He still had fifteen people waiting on supposedly top priority problems; he didn't have time to be hanging around for this schmuck!

Not thirty seconds later the phone rang again. "IT," Akihito snapped.

It was the same voice as before and it was not pleased in the least. "Takaba-san, this is Kirishima Kei, personal assistant to the CEO. There is a tech issue for you to sort out," he clipped. "You will come to the CEO's office straight away."

The line went dead, leaving Akihito staring silently at the phone.

"Ah, crap," he muttered as he legged it out the door.


 

Akihito shifted his laptop in his hands. Releasing an exhausted sigh, he watched the floor numbers light up as the elevator slowly dinged its way skywards, absorbing and depositing other occupants from its mirrored interior along the way. It was the first time he had stood still that whole day, and with the moment of peace, it didn't take long for thoughts of his girlfriend to encroach from the shadows where they'd been relegated in the face of mundane but numerous computer problems.

Risa-san was often on his mind these days, and not in a good way. Before she'd left a week ago, she didn't want to see him and he'd been convinced she was about to break up with him. But last night she had been very sweet, asking after his day and how his work was going, her attentiveness even chasing him into the bedroom for an hour. It was a cycle that repeated too frequently, her hot and cold and hot again reception, needing space one week and insisting they didn't spend nearly enough time together the next. It was twisting an unpleasant knot in his gut, and as much as he enjoyed her company when she seemed to be keen on their relationship, he knew it was time to end things.

"Takaba-san?"

Akihito jumped as the mental picture of Risa – beautiful Risa with her shiny hair and clever eyes and willowy figure – was abruptly replaced by that of a middle-aged man with glasses. The same guy he and Mitarai had ran into on Saturday night... The elevator was empty and the circular button for 32 was lit up above the parted doors.

"Ah yes." Akihito scrambled out before the doors closed.

The look the man gave him was decidedly unimpressed. "Do you not have more suitable attire?"

"Not for being buried in your charming basement which is where I usually kick back. I've only ventured out of the cave 'cos I'm covering multiple sicknesses today. Do you or don't you want me to deal with whatever IT problem's flummoxing you?"

The CEO's assistant levelled him a hard glare before turning and leading him down the wide corridor. Akihito's sneakers sunk into the thick dark carpet, a world away from the linoleum that usually graced his shoes down in IT. As he followed Glasses, he couldn't help his eyes straying out the floor-to-ceiling windows and the view of the city bustling like a teaming ant nest far, far below.

Turning the corner at the far end, Glasses led Akihito to what he guessed must have been his office space, but it could have easily served as a private study. Majestic cranes soared and ancient pines stretched into golden skies on the folding screens demarking his 'office'. The furniture was solid and wooden, the furnishing plush. Akihito was a man entirely comfortable in his own skin but for the first time in his life he wondered if maybe jeans didn't quite fit amongst such sumptuous surroundings.

As he stood there fidgeting, Glasses pressed a buzzer on his desk intercom.

"Yes?"

Akihito jumped at the cool baritone that came through the speaker, the blood draining from his face. Was that...?

"Takaba from IT is here, sir," Glasses said.

Akihito had thought he was just here to check a computer. Coming to the CEO's office hadn't equated in his mind to actually seeing Asami again, the man who'd triggered the whole sequence of events that led to him working for Sion Global in the first place.

No no no no no...!

"Send him in."