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talk is cheap, so make believe

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There were pros and cons of working in an office, Kanako thought. The biggest con - well, there was a list. The thermostat permanently set to ‘arctic winter’. The pointless card signing and cake eating whenever someone retired or got married. The endless stupidity of her bosses. Meetings.

The biggest pro, of course, was the gossip.

“... and I saw Watanabe bring Nakamura a coffee yesterday!”

“Oh my god, Nakamura’s such a hussy. Is she honestly trying to flirt with Watanabe?”

“Gross, right? We should drop a hint to her husband. Like, as payback for when she stole my policies, that bitc-”

Their conversation cut off as Kanako flushed and stepped out of the bathroom stall. She washed her hands, watching through the mirror her two co-workers exchange meaningful glances.

“...let’s go back to work,” said one.

As their footsteps trailed down the hallway, she heard their fading voices cussing her out. Kanako snorted. She hadn’t even said or done anything, and they were slinking away like teenage girls caught whispering in class. The illusion of the mature, wise grown up was a sham. She still suspected it was a narrative crafted by adults who had accomplished nothing with their lives, something to prop up their egos.

She had graduated from Todai and scored a job working in HR for a large firm, climbing the ranks with unprecedented ease. This meant she had garnered a few snide comments and pitiful hazing attempts. Nothing compared to high school, to her dismay. She wasn’t the head of HR, but was close to it, and in theory had access to everyone's internet history and all the delightful blackmail that entailed. Not to mention her trump card: the power to adjust annual bonuses. Alas, corporate culture frowned upon threatening notes, so she never got her hands on enough evidence to justify risking her job.

She returned to her desk, wrote down Watanabe and Nakamura's names for future investigation, and checked her email. Two people wanted to change supervisors. She denied them. Another wanted their manager to approve their leave - she denied that as well. Not her business. A fourth person wanted her to investigate the theft of a stapler - how trivial could people be? A few hirings she had to sit in on, some paperwork she had to complete, and… a meeting with the marketing department?

She clicked. A few phrases jumped out at her: “change of leadership”... “new strategies”.... “promoting company culture". Nothing thrilling: a scheme to distill morale and culture into social media posts. Something to make their company seem ‘like a family’ or ‘visionary’ or whatever buzzword they had come up with now. They'd scheduled the meeting for two that afternoon.

The involvement of HR was an interesting move, though. If she was running the campaign, she would have taken a few candid photos of people smiling, slapped on some hashtags, and called it a day. But it was true, and quite clever - HR was the heart of the organisation, so they’d need to go to the source to get the real information on the blood. And within HR, Kanako was one of the few people who both knew and cared about all the office goings-on. Someone must have observed her to notice that, more carefully than Kanako herself was observing everything else.

So Marketing was now run by either a nitpicky neurotic, or the most inconsiderate person known to man. Good to know, thought Kanako. She'd gotten sick of pleasant, meeting-free days, and avoiding extra work outside of her department, and staying out of hair-brained schemes.

Good to know.

----

She turned up to the meeting room at 1:58. From experience, arriving two minutes early gave the best impression. It was early enough to seem responsible, late enough to remind everyone she had better things to do. Already seated were a few of her less cunning or more organised co-workers, as well as a handful of marketers. She took a seat next to the guy who looked the least likely to strike up conversation. She'd prepared a list of generic company-culture talking points, in case she was actually asked to contribute, and she skimmed over them now.

People trickled in. Conversations were hushed and bland. Kanako counted at least four groups of people talking about the weather. At 2:08, she cleared her throat.

“Why haven’t we started yet?” she asked. A few people glanced at her.

“We’re waiting on our team leader.” said the sleepy-looking man to her left. “He’s coming from a different meeting.”

Kanako scowled internally.

At 2:13, the door opened. “Sorry I’m late!” said the man entering. “My boss held me back to discuss some things.”

Kanako looked up, and froze. Part shock, part instinct.

His jaw had squared since high school and he was wearing different glasses, but there, in his red-haired, smug glory, was Jouran Hibiki. As always, his face was perfectly slappable. Of course, she realised, it made perfect sense. Of all the people she had ever met, Jouran was both one of the most inconsiderate and the most obsessive. His gaze swept the room. That bastard, she thought, he must have seen her name and singled her out deliberately. It would be like him to catch her off guard, because he could.

He crossed the room, and pulled out the chair to Kanako's right. “Can I sit here?” He sat, and pivoted to shake her hand. "You're the HR representative right? I've heard you're one of the brightest minds in the company. It's great to have you at our meeting!"

We’re not playing that game, she thought. "Thanks," she said.

There was a pause, where he was obviously expecting Kanako to say 'you too' or something of that kind. When it didn't come, he smiled, that patronizing broadcasting-club-captain smile of his, and then he turned to address the room. “Alright, sorry for the wait, everyone. Let’s begin!”

----

At 3:21, as people drifted out, muttering phrases like "radical transparency" and "inclusivity quotas", Jouran stopped her outside the meeting room.

“Sorry, Kanako-chan! I didn’t want to delay the meeting any longer,” he said. She noted that he, in fact, was not very sorry at all. "But nice work, especially

“No problem, Hijiri,” she said, and because credit was due where credit was due, she said, “and good work to you, too.” Then, out of curiosity than anything, she asked “How's Sayuri?”

His face brightened into authenticity. “She’s great!" So they were still together, then. "Well, she's holed up in the office, because she's gotten a big scoop, but you should tune in to Channel 9 on Wednesday to see her! She's reporting on the oil dumping up north, I'll give you a summary-”

“Good for her,” said Kanako. She did like Sayuri, but Jouran's enthusiasm about her was pretty anti-contagious. “Sorry, I'm pretty busy so I should go,” she said, which was not untrue, but not true either. “Let's catch up sometime.”

“Of course! Say hello to Tsubaki for me,” he said.

They parted ways. He seemed... exactly the same, she thought. But it was nostalgic seeing his face again. That was another pro to office life: you ran into all sorts of unexpected people. Maybe they should actually actually catch up, instead of just paying lip service to the idea.

An image popped into her mind - her and Haru and Jouran and Himeno on some kind of double-date at a cafe; Jouran and Himeno staring sickeningly into each others eyes the whole time, or maybe bickering, in one of those foreplay-arguments they used to have all the time.

She winced. She rounded the corner back to her side of the office. Caught up in her musings, she missed the gaggle of chattery colleagues lying in wait to ambush her until it was too late.

“Naedoko, you know him? The redhead?”

“A hot guy, in our office?”

“He looked so excited talking to you!”

Because he was talking about Himeno, she thought. “He’s my senior from high school.”

She heard a gasp. “An old high school flame? Reunited after graduation in the workplace - how romantic!”

It was like Yumemi Hitomi’s spirit was haunting her from across the country. “No,” she said, “I’m already seeing someone.”

Incredulous glances. “You have a boyfriend?”

One of the women, who she recognised from the bathroom incident this morning, rolled her eyes. "I'm sure bet he's boring and plain.” Under her breath, she added something that sounded like, “to match you.”

“Ayaka, don’t say that!” chided her friend.

“I only say things I mean,” sniffed Ayaka.

Kanako felt a migraine coming on.

----

Another con of office life, she realised, was when the gossip was about you.

“Have you ever seen Naedoko’s boyfriend? I bet he doesn't exist.”

“Didn’t Tanabe say she was dating Jouran from Marketing?”

“Tanabe’s a liar. Anyway, someone like him would never go for someone stuck up like her."

"Ayaka said she’s apparently dating some guy who's using her for her money.”

“Poor her!”

“Shouldn’t it be 'poor guy'?”

They all giggled, not even trying to remain inconspicuous.

[I hate this office], she texted Haru.

[Huh? What’s wrong?] she got back, a few minutes later.

[Nothing] she replied. [Get back to your job].

She turned her phone to silent.

---

It was only half an hour later, when she heard the volume of muttering crescendo. 

“Hot guy in lobby! I repeat, hot guy in lobby!” A woman said.

"How hot?" someone called out.

"Well, I wouldn't mind if he stepped on me," she tittered. "Come quick! Before he gets away!"

A dozen seats pushed back and a small group of both women and men stampeded to the elevator.

The morons, don’t abandon your job because you're desperate to ogle someone, she thought. Then she paused. Where had she seen this pattern before?

She glanced at her phone. 5 missed calls. Crap.

She saved her work, tidied her desk, and took off at full sprint to the elevators. She then had to stand there for half a minute, waiting for the elevator to arrive, agonizingly slowly.

As soon as the doors opened on the lobby, she saw it. The throbbing, virus-like crowd that formed around Haru was here in full force. People were pawing at his clothes, and gazing upon him with reverent expressions. She heard a dozen iterations of ‘Hey, this is sudden, but would you like to go out for drinks some time?'. Others were asking for his number. Kanako walked up to the edge of the crowd.

Haru looked up. His eyes met hers. And then he surged forwards, through the mass of bodies. The sight of him, pink-cheeked and frazzled, in all his intolerable glory, softened her. He placed his hands on her shoulders.

“Kanako, I got your texts! Are you okay?”

“I said it was nothing, didn’t I?”

“You can’t tell me that and not expect me to worry! What if something happened to you?”

She laughed. “It’s an office. The worst that would happen is me dying of boredom.”

“Still, babe,” protested Haru, but he was smiling too.

“Wait,” said a voice. “HE’s your boyfriend?”

Every neck craned. Kanako swore she heard some phone cameras going off. The photos would turn up in the many office group chats within minutes.

Haru pulled her closer, so her head was flush with his chest. She could hear his heart beating. “Nah,” he said, and smirked. “I’m her fiance.”

Gasps. Not an overreaction this time. That smirk could win over 

“I don’t believe it.” A piercing voice, a woman pushing through the crowd. Bathroom woman. Ayaka. “You paid him off, right?” She leaned forwards, closer to Haru. “You can't be with a woman like that.”

Haru said, “A woman like what?”

He pressed his forehead to hers, close.

“Wait,” Kanako said. “Everyone’s-”

She’d probably become the hot new topic in the office the next day. People would follow her around, asking stupid questions. They would accuse her of manipulating, of blackmailing Haru into dating her. Jouran would smile smugly. People might even call her ‘Cinderella’ again, of all things.

“Let them talk,” said Haru, and pressed his lips to hers.

There were screams. Some quiet sobbing. She thought she heard Ayaka’s voice, shrill and obnoxious.

But for once, she let herself tune out.