Alan signed the last paper in his pile with a flourish and cheerfully slapped it down on top of all the others. "Goodbye Nate Hardington, and may you never show your incompetent face at this level of business again. As a start, you will not be receiving a letter of reccomendation from us."
"That’s it for the ones leaving," Willa said, and despite herself, she heaved a little sigh of relief. Alan and Sam Flynn had replaced Richard and Kurt, respectively, and the majority of the board and senior execs were out. Just like that. Just like they’d always been afraid would happen if the prodigal son decided to claim his legacy – whether he knew what to do with a Fortune 500 company or not. The worst had happened, and she was still there. She felt for Markus and Patricia and the others, but to be honest? With the fear of termination behind her, she didn’t think she would miss them much. "Now to fill the emptied or newly created positions. Flynn mentioned he wants to hire your wife, if she’s interested."
Alan looked up and leaned back in his chair. "For the laser project? She’s definitely interested. It broke her heart when that project was cancelled."
"I wonder why Sam’s suddenly so interested in reviving it."
"So are we," he said. "It was shut down years before Flynn disappeared, so we were both surprised Sam even knew about it. All he would tell me is that apparently it was something his dad was looking into with renewed interest shortly before he disappeared."
Willa bit her lip. This wasn’t something she would have brought up to Kurt without a lot of softening him up beforehand, but Alan and Kurt were like night and day. "Is it true that this is the secret project they used to accuse Kevin Flynn of embezzlement back in the day?"
Alan shrugged and raised his palms, not looking the slightest bit offended. "It didn’t occur to me to ask. If it was, I’m sure Sam will want to clear that misunderstanding up as soon as possible. You can always ask at the next meeting."
"I intend to," Willa said with a nod. "But in the meantime – Lora. Of course it’s to be expected that you and Sam bring in your own favorites, and I understand that there aren’t a lot of others qualified for digitization research, but we have to be careful not to make this look like another Nate situation."
"Shouldn’t be too difficult, because the simple truth is that isn’t," Alan said. "Lora isn’t just a leading expert on the subject of digitization, she’s the only expert. The research died with a whimper last time, but when she and Walter first introduced the concept it was considered extremely promising, and Encom’s patents and non-disclosure agreements were suitably draconian to match. However it occurred to Sam to bring new life to the project, you’ll find that the laser’s revolutionary potential and everything it has meant and can yet mean to Encom and the rest of the world, will entirely eclipse the personal ties between Sam, Lora and I. It gets better, though. I’d also like to take Roy Kleinberg back on."
"He got laid off as lead programmer around the same time I resigned as CEO."
Roy Kleinberg... the name did sound awfully familiar... Willa thought hard for a moment, head cocked to the side. Then her face brightened. "Oh! Cute little guy, curly hair, glasses? With the funny chin?"
"That’s the one." Alan smiled, pleasantly surprised. "You know him?"
"I worked a project with him once, waaay back, before Flynn even." Alan’s eyebrows rose, so she elaborated. "I got assigned to help him develop some insurance software. I had been a mathematics major and did my thesis on advanced risk assessment algorithms. My love of programming stemmed from the many practical problems it could offer a solution for, while Roy came at it from completely the opposit direction, taking the boundless possibilities of computer code and looking for practical applications. We combined our respective approaches and expertise, him bringing the code and I the math, and –" She suppressed a smile. "– together we made magic happen."
"I never knew that."
"It didn’t take too long, he was such a clever and hard worker. But it was fun," she said with relish. "Is he still in the business? How’d his name end up on your desk?"
Alan smiled crookedly. "I’ll be perfectly straightforward: he’s a close friend of mine. He’s been off the professional grid ever since he got fired from Encom, but he’s kept on top of things better than a lot of our current people. As recently as last month, I’ve seen him pull stunts with a computer I would dismiss as science fiction if I hadn’t been right there in the room with him."
"That’s a stretch, but it does fit right into Sam’s big renewal effort." Willa pursed her lips and thought it over for a moment. "How about this: we check him out, and if he’s still as good as you say he is I’ll take care of the rest."
"You know I’m not a big fan of scheming and selective truth-telling to make myself look better."
Understatement of the year. Willa grinned and said playfully: "Shouldn’t be a problem, because the simple truth is that if he’s as qualified as you claim, I will be very happy to have him back. As will the rest of the company."
"Well!" Alan laughed. "That’s great then."
"Except maybe the copy room people," Willa murmured, hiding her smile in her hand.
"Nothing, just thinking out loud."
Alan reached across the table for a new stack of forms. "Knowing both of your work, that must’ve been some software you two worked on. What was it called?"
"Heck if I remember. I’ve never been good with names."
Curly Cutie, coming back aboard... what were the odds...
For all the effort it had taken to remember his name, she recognized him the moment he stepped out of Richard’s – now Alan’s – office the following week. His hair caught her eye first; that lovely mop of fluff hadn’t changed a bit, though so much else had. Gone were the conserative waistcoat-and-tie combo, the neatly pressed slacks, and the awful sweatervests he had never admitted nor denied his mother forced him to wear, replaced by cargo pants, a polo, headphones dangling around his neck and a hoody draped over a messenger bag.
Willa’s first thought was that casual – and middle age – cleaned him up nicely. The shy awkwardness of their youth had only been endearing most of the time. He looked much more confident and comfortable than she’d remembered him as.
The second was how on Earth he’d made it past the reception desk dressed like that.
Then he caught sight of her, and the distractedly polite smile gave way to an all too familiar, slack-jawed stare.
"Roy, hi," she said, closing the distance as she hoisted her purse higher on her shoulder and adjusted her grip on her briefcase. "Remember me? Willa Frewer?"
"Willa?" he said. "Oh my god, what are you doing here?"
"I work here," she laughed.
"Well, of course you do, but –" he stammered. "Here? Now?"
She raised an eyebrow.
He stuttered out a laugh and ducked his head bashfully, running a hand through his hair. A little like old times after all.
"I’m sorry, I’m being rude," Roy said with a smile that won her all over again. "It’s just such a surprise. You look good."
"Thank you, so do you. And I was surprised too when Alan told me he wanted to bring you back in. Roy – can I call you Roy? Or is that too... intimate, after all these years?" Willa teased, smiling back.
One corner of his mouth quirked up, and he cast a look around. "It’s eh, a personal philosophy of mine that once you take a woman’s underwear off in the copy room, you lose the right to deny her a first-name basis forever."
"With your teeth," she remined him, showing all of hers.
He hid his answering grin behind his hand, but his eyes twinkled. "Now I wish I’d worn something more appropriate today. I wasn’t expecting to run into –"
"People you respect?" she guessed. Then added airily, "I hope?"
He scratched his head again. "Well, I, uh..."
"Don’t worry about it, Roy," Willa said quickly. "I understand what you guys are doing and what it means to you. There’ll be plenty of time to stand for propriety later. After all, you are in for the long haul, aren’t you?"
"Hopefully, yeah," he said, smiling crookedly. "Nice answer. Very diplomatic."
"That’s my job," she quipped. "I’m not in the position I’m in now because I made a habit of standing in the way of what my bosses want."
Roy made a face.
"What? What’s that look?"
He shrugged. "Just trying to imagine being COO under Hardington."
Willa considered him for a moment, shifting her briefcase to her other hand and her weight to her other leg. It was quite possible she was only so pleased to see him again because the past two weeks had cost her most of the, if not always pleasant, then at least safely familiar faces in the office. What better remedy for foundation-shaking corporate restructuring than a trip down one of the best of memory’s lanes? Should she give him an actual answer to that question just because he’d been an adorable boy with magic fingers and was as charming as ever now?
Should she care about ‘should’?
Oh, what the heck. She had faith in the fresh start Alan and Flynn were making for the company. No point for her to bring Kurt-era baggage and sensibilities into that with her.
"Because you’re dressed so refreshingly contrarily, I’ll be honest with you," she said, hooking her arm through his and steering him gently down the corridor. "I am beyond glad Kurt Hardington’s gone. Most of the others who left too. The work environment was toxic and I didn’t always like who I turned into in the midst of all that. I am extremely thankful Alan is giving me the benefit of the doubt and keeping me on, and I have no doubt my relationship with the new CEO will be miles above what me and Hardington had."
Roy looked at her with badly conceiled surprise and wonder. Willa decided not to hold what that said about his opinion of Encom as a whole against him; she knew a compliment when she saw one. And this particular one was quite welcome.
"Where were you headed?" she asked, hand hovering over the elevator buttons.
"In a hurry?"
"Not at all."
She pressed the button. "My office then."
"I’ll be honest too," Roy said. "Sam wanted everyone out. Hardington and Mackey and their ilk, you, Dillinger, Melardin – everyone. Wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. He saw what happened because of the remaining Dillinger-era senior execs after his father disappeared, heard all about the friction between Kevin Flynn and his board while he was still around, and he wanted to make sure history won’t repeat itself."
Willa nodded. "I figured as much."
"And I –" He made a vaguely apologetic hand motion and wouldn’t look at her. "– I knew you’d made it to COO and were in the line-up of people who’d lose their jobs that way, but I agreed with him. Alan really had to fight to get me on board and convince Sam that you can’t fire all the experienced execs without crashing the company into the ground."
The elevator dinged and opened. Willa pulled the reluctant Roy inside.
Finally he caught her eyes again. "He said that, as second-in-command, you were responsible for pretty much singlehandedly keeping Hardington and the others from crashing the company into the ground while they were still in office. And I believe him."
Willa felt her belly fill with warmth. It had been a long time since she’d received a compliment from such a trustworthy source. "I’ll remember that. But it sounds like he’s not leaving enough credit for himself. Or Ed and Celia and the others. We’re not all bumbling idiots and corporate jerks around here, you know. Those are just the ones sucking our hard workers and talented kids dry and taking all the credit."
"Yeah. People tend to forget that, don’t they." Roy’s crooked smile was back. "But that’s all gonna change."
"I sure hope so."
"Sam’s a good kid," Roy said. "His heart is in the right place and he’s a fast learner. But he is inexperienced and willfull, so he’ll need a lot of guidance for a while."
"Shouldn’t be a problem. I have a bunch of nieces and nephews around his age and plenty of experience herding them."
"Herding them. Heh."
They exited the elevator and Willa led him down the corridor toward her office.
"Are you married?" he blurted out. "If – if you don’t mind my asking."
Not at all, she thought with a grin. "Only to my work. You?"
"Not even to my work, or I wouldn’t have been free to come back here at a moment’s notice."
"We’re here." She let him go to open the door. "About that. I had a look at your resumé."
"Or lack thereof?" he said wryly.
"Exactly." She smiled. "Alan says you’re as devilishly talented as ever, and I believe him, but it would be nice to have something tangible to point to as proof. The company is going to be under a lot of scrutiny for a while, and every little bit could mean the difference when it comes to the trust of our consumers and shareholders."
"In other words, my portfolio needs to be more up-to-date about projects other than Arcade Aid."
"Not that ‘still fluid in programming Latin’ isn’t an impressive skill," Willa conceded with a grin.
"Aw, shoot, I left that in?"
They went out to dinner after work that night, to catch up on more than just business.
"I like this," Willa murmured as she pillowed her chin in her hand over a glass of wine after.
Roy gave her a soft smile; the decades of seperation seemed to have just melted away. "What?"
"Us reconnecting like this. No fuss. No awkwardness. Just a pair of old colleagues with some extra, ‘special’ memories."
"Good memories. Why did we ever stop?"
"You got fired."
They studied each other frankly for a long moment.
"But now you’re back," Willa said.
Roy’s mouth twisted, and he almost ducked his head. "I – my stamina isn’t what it used to be."
"And I’m post-menopausal and need lube for everything. That doesn’t mean it can’t still be good," she said with the dignity of experience.
"Heh." He smiled that cute lopsided smile of his. "Sounds like spontaneous quickies in the copy room are out, though."
"Senior execs have their own copy machine in their offices," Willa said.
"Oh. I didn’t notice."
"But also a couch."
"That I did notice."
By this time, their lingering gazes were actual Lingering Gazes.
"We are going to need some very clear fraternisation agreements," Willa observed.
"Extremely clear," Roy agreed. "I’m eighty percent sure Sam and that Cora girl are an item, too."
"Aren’t they related?"
"I don’t think so?"
"Oh, who cares."
"Cares about what?"
Willa shook her head, smiling, and hailed a waiter. "Smooth as ever, Kleinberg."