Ako took her hands off the keyboard. Her character automatically walked to the point she had clicked, near the edge of the area where there was hardly anything but branches, leaves, and the blue of the sky. Eternally strong and unaffected, Ako the Necromancer swayed in place with magic circling her waist and crackling from her fingertips.
Considerably less versed in the necrotic arts, Ako the tenth-grader held her stomach and touched her friend on the arm.
“Rin-rin,” she whispered. “I don’t feel so good.”
Rinko the Wizard walked over and stood by Ako the Necromancer. “Ako-chan? What’s wrong?”
“My belly hurts.”
Rinko took off her headphones and dropped them on the table. “Oh no... let’s go to the bathroom.”
Ako mumbled something about returning to town, but Rinko was already up, guiding her out of the cubicle. She shuffled out, her knees bent at a clumsy angle because of the limited leg room. Rinko followed after her, but she stopped in front of Ako’s computer for a few seconds to open her character’s inventory and use an item that would teleport all nearby players—so, the two of them—to Ako’s coven after a short delay. Before she left, she grabbed their receipt for renting the computers and locked the door.
“Oooogh... This is a super powerful curse, Rin-rin...”
Outside their cubicle was an almost equally narrow space that extended all the way to both ends of the building. Ako could reach out and touch both walls. And she usually did, but for once she kept her hands to herself. Dim lights cast a colorless glow over the rows of starry granite doors, all spaced just a few steps apart.
Pairs of shoes on the ground indicated which of the cubicles were occupied. Ako liked to joke that the internet cafes of Japan were like the inns of fantasy worlds, and that really was the case sometimes. There weren’t as many shoes in the hallway tonight, maybe because it was a weekday night, or maybe because of the bad weather. Storms in October were rare but usually more intense than the ones that came earlier in the year. Darkened windows, drumming on the pavement... at least the people sleeping in the cafe didn’t have to worry about the rain.
They took a right at the concession machines and reached the bathroom at the end of the hall. Rinko reached over Ako to open the door for her. Ako entered and walked toward the nearest stall.
Before she went in, she glanced at Rinko. Both their faces were drawn, Ako’s with brave resilience and Rinko’s with slight worry. “Sorry Rin-rin.”
“No, it’s okay... you don’t need to apologize. I’ll wait for you out here.”
Rinko attempted to smile, but the door closed before her face could move. She stood with her back to the wall and tried to relax. But her shoulders tensed when Ako started retching in the stall, probably throwing up the sashimi they had eaten an hour ago at dinner. Chances were, they had gotten a bad batch of seafood. Luckily, she felt fine. But as for Ako...
Trying to ignore the sounds of her friend’s suffering, Rinko pulled out her phone and went onto the internet. Unfamiliar with the effects of food poisoning, she read a few articles before putting her phone away. While it was reassuring to read that most cases of food poisoning weren’t serious, the phrase “parasitic infection” was enough to strike a match of alarm in her head. Now that she knew it was possible, she started to wring her wrist, more concerned for Ako’s wellbeing than she was about the possibility she could be sick too.
Time passed. Ako’s intermittent gags eventually stopped, but right after came a fit of dry coughs that were so intense Rinko felt her own throat catching. After more time passed, the stall finally went quiet. Soon, the toilet flushed, and Rinko let out a sigh in relief. She waited for the door to open.
But it stayed closed. Soft shuffling came from within the stall. Rinko took a small step forward and ventured, softly: “Ako-chan?”
“I need to go too,” Ako answered in a small voice.
A while later, Rinko heard the toilet flush again. Water whirled loudly down into the pipelines beneath the building, and a moment later a lock clicked and the door cracked open. Ako stepped out of the stall, eyes down, jaw stiff, and face white. She looked absolutely miserable.
“Do you feel any better, Ako-chan?” Rinko asked, coming closer. Ako nodded, although her face said she was far from good.
“Can we go home for today, Rin-rin?”
“Yes...” Rinko agreed and checked the time with her smartphone. Even before Ako had started to feel sick, it had been getting late. Making one more round of the Halite Quarry dungeon had taken them past their usual departure time because of some unlucky enemy encounters.
Rinko let Ako clean up at the sink, then they went out into the hallway in silence. They stopped by their cubicle on their way out. Ako waited in the hall while Rinko crawled into the small space, logged out of their accounts, and turned off the computers. Although management was kind enough to clean up for no additional charges, she picked up their trash and stowed two bags of half-eaten chips into her bag.
As they went on toward the front desk, passing in front of the silent row of cubicles once again, rain continued to drum against the building’s walls. The storm hadn’t abated at all since it had begun, but for the past few minutes more pressing thoughts had pushed its noise to the back of Rinko’s awareness. Walking through the quiet corridor of the cafe and listening to the distant sound of rain was like walking through stasis.
They finally reached the end of the private cubicles and entered open seating, where computers were lined up in rows with no more than dividers between them. Almost all the monitors were powered off. Only a few people, maybe four or five, were still using the computers. Everyone else had to have gone home already.
The wall contiguous with the street was all floor-to-ceiling window, but it was too dark to see out of them, and water smeared the view. Rinko’s hopes continued sinking as she tried unsuccessfully to make anything out through the bleary glass.
Near the entrance, a man stood at the front desk with his back turned to them. He had a phone up to his ear and didn’t appear to notice them walk past.
For a few minutes, Rinko and Ako stood before the entrance. Rainwater battered the streets like a thousand clipped, overlapping footsteps.
“If only we had umbrellas,” Rinko murmured to herself. She glanced at Ako, who rubbed one of her twin tails with a forlorn look in her eye. The sight filled Rinko with the urge to keep her friend from any more misery than she had already endured.
“Ako-chan... you should take my sweater,” she said, already with one arm out of its sleeve. “You can use it to... to shield yourself from the rain.”
But Ako shook her head quickly. “I’ll be fine Rin-rin,” she said, grabbing Rinko’s arm and stopping her from taking her sweater off. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“But I am worried...”
Before they could go back and forth any more, the receptionist hung up the phone. Ako and Rinko turned around and saw that he was now observing them with some hesitance. “Are you two planning to take the train home?” he asked.
“Um... yes,” Rinko answered.
“I spoke with the manager just now. The trains are out of commission because of poor weather conditions,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I’m afraid you’re out of luck.”
Rinko’s processing power dropped by hundreds of petaflops at the news. Japan’s trains almost never went down, and the few instances of it happening had never directly affected her. Of all the times for something like this to happen...
“That... there... oh no...” Her head, previously shocked to a sandstill, began to spin. Were there any other ways they could get home? She couldn’t think of any. When were the trains going to work again? Who could tell? And what had happened to make them go down in the first place? Had something fallen onto the tracks? Did Ako really just have food sickness or was it something worse?
She felt a hand on her shoulder. When she turned around, Ako took her hand. “Rin-rin, you have to breathe,” she said and smiled, though the crease in her brow spoke volumes.
“O-okay. Thank you, Ako-chan...”
Rinko took her advice and one deep breath to start. Her tongue untied itself, and she began working through her list of questions with the patient front desk worker.
“E-excuse me,” she asked and immediately felt silly because he was already looking at her. “Do you know... um... when the weather conditions will improve?”
He shook his head. “Sorry, I don't. But I’m guessing for a few more hours, since we’re at the end of the rainy season.”
Biting her lip, Rinko nodded. “And... how long have the trains been down?”
He checked a clock on the counter. “The manager told me just now that her train entered the station but hasn’t left yet. It seems like there’s an issue with the rail lines themselves, but it’s difficult to figure out what the problem is because of the water.”
Assessing their situation wasn’t making Rinko feel any better. If anything, her composure slipped away a little bit more.
“Are there... any other ways? For us to get home, I mean...” Rinko swallowed. The front desk worker thought about it for a second and tugged up on his shirt collar.
“You could walk,” he suggested with a frown, “but it’s raining heavily, and it’s very windy too. It’s not incredibly safe.”
The idea of stepping out into the storm—Rinko could still hear it drowning the concrete in water—made her shake her head. “My friend is sick,” she said, surprised to find that her voice had gained an extra decibel of volume since she last used it. “There’s... no way we could walk home. We live too far from here...”
He gave her a sympathetic nod. “I see. If that’s the case, one of your options is to sleep in the cafe overnight.”
“Overnight...” Rinko murmured. She must have looked confused, because the worker explained after a second.
“A few other people have come in to stay at the cafe overnight because of the storm. I expect more people will show up soon, who were waiting at the station earlier. Since the cubicles are locked, you can sleep in them.” He pointed a hand in the direction of the back of the building. “Usually we charge for overnight stays, but it’ll be complimentary because you’ve been inconvenienced. We also have shower rooms if you need to use them; they’ll be free for you as well. And although I can’t serve you any food right now, the vending machines are always on. Do you have your receipt from today?”
Rinko nodded and dug around for it in her bag. Her fingers pulled out the squat rectangular piece of paper, which was slightly wrinkled after she unfolded it.
“You can use that to unlock the shower and pay for any refreshments you’d like. Bring me your receipt after and I’ll waive the purchases. As long as the amount is reasonable,” he added with a wry smile, as would someone who had made the mistake of not adding those words before. “If you use cash for anything, I can also reimburse you from the register.”
His words and reassurances did a lot to help Rinko calm down. They had a place to stay, even if it weren’t as optimal as hurrying back home and tucking Ako into her own bed. It seemed they were stuck in the cafe for the night, but at least they could use the shower. And there was food, too.
“Thank you... so much,” she said, her heart a little lighter than it had been just earlier.
“One more thing,” the man said, checking a computer. “Were you two using a two-person cubicle?”
Rinko told him they were. Her mind flashed back to the computer stall: Half desk, half seat, it wasn’t the comfiest bedchamber in the castle. It was only slightly larger than the single cubicles, so Ako might be able to lie down comfortably. As for herself... she wasn’t sure if it was feasible to fit under the desk, but it was worth an attempt.
The cafe worker looked up from his computer. “It says here there are still some computer rooms available,” he told her. “We typically don’t rent those out overnight, but under special circumstances, there’s no real reason you can’t sleep in one. Would you like me to unlock one for you?”
“That...” Rinko faltered, unaccustomed to so much generosity from someone she didn’t know. And she had been a customer of this cafe for so long, too. “That would be great,” she finished, relieved. She barely remembered to add, “Thank you.”
“Alright.” He clicked a few times and then gave her an approving nod. “Your room number is 7, on the left after the first hallway. The showers are the opposite direction, past room 14. Your receipt is your key.”
Clutching her receipt like the precious keycard it was, Rinko thanked him again. He handed them both a set of towels and bade them good night. As they went toward the shower rooms in the back of the building, Rinko took Ako’s towels and carried them all in one stack.
While they were walking through the quiet zone, Ako tapped her on the arm. “Hey, Rin-rin?” she whispered into her ear.
“Yeah, Ako-chan?” Rinko whispered back.
“When you were talking to that guy back there,” she said, smiling in spite of her condition, “it’s like you became super confident. You didn’t stutter at all!”
“Well... I did a few times,” Rinko corrected her, frowning as she recalled how shaky she had been at the start. Her social skills still had quite a lot of room for improvement.
“It’s okay. At first, you were quiet and panicky, and then, dshh!” She gestured and made a noise like the type you’d find in a manga, except much quieter. “You figured everything out.”
Ako’s image of her, Rinko thought, was a lot cooler than she really was. She couldn’t help but smile. “It’s only because of you... Ako-chan. I couldn’t think straight until you reminded me that... that you were there.”
“Aww, Rin-rin.” Ako gave her a quick hug without breaking stride. Rinko adjusted her balance and somehow managed to keep ahold of all their towels. “That’s a really cool line, by the way,” Ako added.
In the corner of the building was a heavy door separating the showers from the rest of the cafe. Rinko heaved it open, squinting as a bright light assaulted her eyes, which hadn’t viewed anything brighter than a computer screen for the past eight hours.
Four shower rooms were available, more than enough for a net cafe of this size. Just in case Ako needed help, Rinko let her go in first and waited for her to finish before taking her turn. Showering outside of her own house was an odd experience for her, especially taking into consideration that this was the first time she had used these facilities after three or four years of being a customer here.
Really, it wasn’t anything special; attached to the wall were dispensers for shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel. The shower head was annoying to adjust. She enjoyed the sensation of warm water running down her shoulders, then turned off the water and got out.
When she had put on her clothes and stepped out of the shower room, Ako was waiting right where she had left her.
“How was it Rin-rin?” she asked, a bit more cheerful than before.
“Good,” Rinko answered. It surprised her to see the fatigue almost totally gone from Ako’s face. “Are you feeling better now?”
“A little.” Ako sighed. “My stomach still hurts, but I feel better.”
“Okay.” Happy that Ako was in better spirits, Rinko dropped their towels in a laundry basket by the wall and led the way out. On the other side, they both had to wait for a few moments for their eyes to adjust to the darkness of the cafe once more.
The layout of the net cafe was almost like that of a hotel. Along the perimeter of the floor, beyond all the stalls and cubicles, was a row of closed doors which were the private computer rooms. One of them would be Rinko’s and Ako’s for the night, so Rinko turned her head to look inside as they passed. Befitting of their appellation, she saw computers and also a television screen.
Now that they had showered, Ako seemed a little more bubbly than before. Her back was straighter, and her chin no longer pointed into her chest.
“This is kind of exciting,” she said to Rinko. “I’ve always wanted to sleep in a net cafe.”
“Really?” Rinko responded, though she understood where Ako was coming from. Sleeping in the same place they placed games with each other was kind of fun. “I... kind of get that, yeah.”
For the people who practically lived at the cafe as an alternative apartment complex, sleeping in a net cafe had probably lost its novelty. But for the two of them, it was a novel experience. They had just passed room number eight when Rinko remembered the two things essential to sleeping on the floor of an internet cafe: blankets and pillows. Mattress optional.
“I’m going to go ask... the guy at the front desk for some,” she told Ako after explaining why she had stopped all of a sudden. “You should eat something if you’re hungry...”
Ako nodded. They were standing in the middle of the hallway by the vending machines. The hum of electricity and the LED glow of colorful machines made Rinko feel like they were at the concession stand in a movie theater. Ako turned around and surveyed her options, and Rinko saw the way her eyes passed the soft-serve machine once and went back to it. The fact that Ako could go for ice cream at a time like this made Rinko smile. Soft-serve was free for all customers, and Ako got some every time they visited the cafe together.
Rinko returned bearing a bundle of blankets and two pillows. “Could you... get the receipt from my pocket?” she asked after realizing with some embarrassment that she would end up dropping something if she tried to get it herself.
“Sure!” Ako’s hand slipped into her skirt pocket and retrieved the slip of paper. In her other hand was a classic chocolate and vanilla swirl. “Do you want some, Rin-rin?”
Rinko gave Ako a pained smile. “My hands are full,” she said, which meant in reality “I probably shouldn’t.” She tried to avoid eating when it was late, though oftentimes she ended up snacking on small things anyway.
Ako held the cone out toward her, obviously meaning to let her take a bite. The kind gesture swayed her already weak self-discipline.
“Uh...” She hesitated for a few seconds longer. “... Sure.”
Rinko leaned forward and took a bit off the top, enjoying the icy sweetness on her tongue. Ako grinned and gave her a thumbs up.
Room seven was right on the other side of the vending machines and standing counters against the wall. Ako poked the interface by the handle trying to figure out how to open the door. Next to the entrance, there was a window just wide enough to see the entire room, she she decided to take a closer look at their temporary lodgings while Ako got the door open. While the lights were off, she could just barely make out the room’s features.
Though Rinko had never been inside one of those rooms before, she wasn’t too surprised by what was in there. As was custom, flyers and posters advertising cafe services covered one wall. Some computers and a television took up about half of the space, but there looked to be plenty of room to lay out the blankets and make things as comfortable as they could get.
“Oh, got it.” Ako pushed the receipt into a barely visible receipt-shaped slot, and a tiny light lit up green. They went inside and closed the door behind them, which shut with a small click. The door had a lock, thankfully, so nobody could enter the room while they were sleeping.
There was more than enough room to stretch out comfortably. While Rinko knelt down and started to lay out the blankets, Ako sat on the table and ate her ice cream, offering a bite to Rinko every now and then. Each time, Rinko caved and told herself it would be her last bite. It wasn’t until the cone was almost gone that she realized she might have a minor problem with self-restraint and sugar.
After she was done, Rinko sat down in the middle of the blanket mattress she had created. Exhaustion suddenly entered her body. Her mental state wasn’t great, and both she and Ako were tired. Their current situation wasn’t exactly wonderful either, but the drone of computer fans and the torrent outside drowned out the worst of her negative thoughts.
“Oh,” she murmured after a moment. “We should tell our parents... since we aren’t going to be home tonight.”
“Ah!” Ako immediately reached for her phone. “Good idea. My sister is probably super worried right now... I told her I would be home by now.”
With a frantic quality only achievable by high-school girls inventing excuses for impromptu sleepovers, the two of them spent a few minutes texting their parents. In Ako’s case, she texted furiously in a rapid back and forth with her sister. She did commentary for Rinko’s sake: Tomoe had apparently been so close to calling that she had seen Ako start typing and sent a message first.
“Tomoe-san is somehow... really level-headed and really anxious at the same time...”
“I know, right? Oh, she just said she would run here to bring us umbrellas if we need them.”
“I don’t think umbrellas would help... but that is nice of her.”
The lights, dimmed down as much as they would go, staved out the darkness while they talked. But eventually, the drowsiness of nightfall started taking effect. Rinko could feel her brain losing steam as her responses grew shorter and slower to come.
“Maybe we should... get some sleep,” she suggested to Ako, who nodded wordlessly. It seemed her weariness had caught up too.
Rinko got up and pressed the light switch, plunging the two of them into a not-quite absolute darkness. The ever present glow of monitors and electronics made its way into the room through the small window by the door. Thanks to that, Rinko managed to avoid crashing into her best friend as she walked over to the corner and laid down on the blankets.
Lying face up, she gazed toward the ceiling as she did every night while waiting to fall asleep. In the corner of her eye, she could see Ako doing the same thing next to her. Then Ako moved and rolled onto her side, toward Rinko.
“Good night, Rin-rin,” Ako murmured in a hoarse voice. Her hair was down, though Rinko didn’t remember seeing her take out her hair bands. “See you tomorrow. And thanks.”
Before Rinko could say anything, Ako’s eyes closed and her breathing slowed. “Ako-chan?” she whispered, but Ako didn’t stir. Her illness must have worn her out. It was a sad thought, but she smiled regardless and reached out to smooth Ako’s hair.
“Good night... Ako-chan.”