At night, Katsushiro Okamoto would dream of rain and mud and the scent of gunpowder. He'd wake, bathed in sweat, unsure why.
"Hmm," Shino-kun would mutter as she rolled over to prod him. "Katsushiro-kun, if what you said just now was meant to be an endearment, my name isn't 'sensei'."
Did she mean Kyuzo-sensei from the office? But something about her tone warned him not to ask.
As for the dream, providing the bandit opponents in their latest Sengoku Jidai game with those three guns had been Shino-kun's idea. As had been the other new options in the game. Katsushiro's discomfort struck even himself as strange in the face of the sales boost.
The "Jidai-geki," the historical drama, was what everyone in the company called their division. They produced the history-based role-playing, fighting computer games on which the company had been founded, although other popular lines had been added as the small company had grown into a multinational concern. Although sales had fallen off for their division's games more recently, it had yet to lose its traditional sheen of prestige within the company.
After all, hadn't Division Chief Kambei Shimada, his assistant Gorobei Katayama, the two senior programmers Shichiroji and Heihachi -- and Kyuzo-sensei, of course -- chosen to stay with this division, rather than going on to run the operations of the company they'd founded?
So Katsushiro felt proud that his skills had won him a position among them directly out of college. He often got to work personally with Kyuzo-sensei himself. He couldn't believe his luck.
"Of course," Shino-kun had said, "you're very skilled, and your father's position on the board had nothing to do with it." Shino-kun was always so sincere and supportive of him.
Shino-kun herself had come to their division after several years in the branch devoted to dating simulation games. She was a very competent programmer as well, but, to his mind, she never truly seemed interested in their scenarios or put forth her best efforts into the software.
He'd asked her why she'd applied for the transfer. "I'm more interested in management, Shino-kun," she'd said. "But in this company, you can't even get a glimpse at advancement until you have experience in all the divisions. And, naturally, there are a lot of other obstacles. So here I am."
"You'd apply for a job that doesn't interest you at all to get that?" he'd said, confused. "But what about programming? And what obstacles do you mean?"
"Of course I would," she'd replied. "It's merely practical, Shino-kun. To get ahead, you have to do whatever it takes." Only later did he realize that she'd never addressed his other questions.
Didn't programming matter to her? He couldn't wrap his mind around that idea. And what would Kyuzo-sensei have to say about that? he wondered.
On his own first day in the division, Katsushiro had become entangled in a snarl of code, and had been unable to free himself despite his best efforts. Take the problem to Kyuzo-sensei, he'd been told. After Katsushiro had haltingly described the problem, the man in question had adjusted the heavy horn-rims over his gaunt face; after a single cursory glance over the code, he'd pointed at one line: "Here," he'd said. Without another word, he'd returned to his own office.
And "here" it had been. To his shame, Katsushiro saw that he'd been calling the wrong routine with a subtle mistake of a single character. Kyuzo-sensei had found it instantly, efficiently.
Kyuzo-sensei was truly a god of programming.
"Sure, he's a genius," Shichiroji-sempai had said, when Katsushiro had related the incident. "He's devoted himself to programming since he could reach a keyboard, and he developed most of the primary code we use today."
"Absolutely, he's the master," Heihachi-sempai had said, another time when Katsushiro had talked about it. "With our games, it's not just making the correct move. If their character's form is off, they can still lose. He's studied the martial arts and kendo, and tweaks our motion captures into every shade of perfection and imperfection. Our worshippers expect the best."
"He's a fossil," Shino-kun had said. "Do you ever talk about anything else? If you'd run the newer checks over your code, you'd have found the bug yourself. Nowadays, that sort of line-by-line manual grind is a wasteful use of time."
She was right, as always. And yet, as a programmer, wasn't she as awed as he was by such finesse? She just hid it well, he decided.
At that, he had a vague sense of uneasiness. At work, Shino-kun was pleasant to everyone, friendly and accommodating. Although she was a programmer, whenever someone demanded she make coffee or make copies or play hostess for guests, she would do it without complaint, with a smile. It was demeaning to her, but she took it so well.
Yet in spite of this, Kyuzo-sensei ignored Shino-kun, beyond the most curt of courtesies each morning.
As for himself, Shino-kun had felled him at first glance, with her slender build, short-cropped hair, and charm. She was so terribly pretty; he felt awkward when he was with her, unworthy of her attention. He couldn't comprehend why she had chosen him.
He remembered vividly the day he'd finally gotten the courage to declare his love.
"Oh yes, I like you, too, Katsushiro-kun," she'd said, frowning at a few lines of code. "Could you hand me that folder with the blue tab, please?"
But with a father like hers, Shino-kun had to be careful. To his profound embarrassment, Katsushiro had overheard her father railing at her loudly over the phone at her desk about her choice of career, surrounding herself with "girl-hungry geeks with no social skills."
"Him," she'd snorted, when he'd apologized. "Disadvantages can be turned to advantages."
Katsushiro could believe that Shino-kun would make the best of any situation. Her practicality had been inherent in her suggestions after Kikuchiyo-san, the so-called consultant to their division sent from marketing and sales, had pronounced their latest game in development to be 'desperately dull.'
"See, your division isn't connecting with the modern player anymore," Kikuchiyo-san thundered at the five gathered members of
the programming team and Gorobei Katayama, the division chief's assistant. With his large size and bearded face, Kikuchiyo-san's flamboyant grimaces perhaps seemed more threatening than the man intended, Katsushiro thought nervously. He was now brusquely stabbing his pointer like a sword at the plummeting line on the wallscreen. "That is your problem. That is sales of games from your division, which are sliding. Luckily for you all, I am here to help! So this is a special meeting, just for your office. It's our duty as the programming division to help with ideas!"
"Oh, so he's a programmer now?" someone muttered.
"Kikuchiyo-san, what are you suggesting?" Heihachi-sempai said lazily. "We should fly a magical girl in to save the village, followed by mixed onsen bathing for the winner?"
"Fan service!" Kikuchiyo-san shouted. "Excellent! That is something we could take to creative, if Kambei approves."
A ripple of laughter followed that suggestion, and all eyes but Katsushiro's had skirted away from Shino Manzo. For an instant, he had thought he'd seen her scowl, but that had simply been the angle of the light, he realized; for she was looking down at her hands, smiling like the men.
"I suppose I wouldn't mind a little service," said Shichiroji-sempai agreeably. "However--"
"--Our games are renowned mainly for their fighting excellence and their historical accuracy," Division Chief Kambei Shimada finished for him, entering the room just then. "Sorcery and service are not our division's forte." Although he might look like a typical harried mid-level salaryman, Kambei-kaichou's technical expertise, his obsessive knowledge of the civil war era in which so many of their games were set, and his clever and clear-sighted view of the industry had kept their division on track and in the budgetary black for years.
Everyone shot to their feet and bowed, and Katsushiro surreptitiously straightened his tie, but Kambei-kaichou waved his hand: "Sit, sit," he said amiably.
"Of course we haven't started the meeting," Gorobei Katayama, his assistant, told him. "Just a little preliminary talk about ideas."
Kambei-kaichou seated himself at the table, and loosened his own tie more, adopting that demeanor of informality that he always assumed among the programming staff. "So what has this preliminary talking covered so far?"
As Kambei-kaichou scanned the page of notes that Gorobei-san had placed in front of him with a respectful nod, Kikuchiyo-san swayed with impatience, bouncing his pointer's tip on the floor.
Katsushiro looked away from this rude display, his eyes falling inadvertently on the silent member of this meeting, Kyuzo-sensei, their genius programmer. He'd said nothing since he'd entered the room; to all appearances, he'd nodded off at the table. The scar over his eye was now visible, just above his glasses, Katsushiro saw. He wondered once again what had made--
"Well." Kambei-kaichou was rubbing his head thoughtfully. Katsushiro sat up, pulling his attention back to the meeting. "Our reputation is based on accurate detail. This latest scenario with the peasant village hiring rounin is already pressing the boundaries of credibility. Any additions would have to be--"
"If there's no nudity, at least consider explosions," Kikuchiyo-san blurted.
"Explosions," Gorobei-san repeated blankly.
"Something more visually interesting than swordplay and politics and screen after screen of choices about bushidou, that's all I'm saying," Kikuchiyo-san insisted. "It's boring."
Several quiet gasps were heard.
"Ah, well, perhaps it is," Kambei-kaichou said calmly. "We do need to keep attracting younger players if we're going to retain them into their later years."
"Exactly," Kikuchiyo-san said enthusiastically. "Bridging the generations!"
"We've already added individual villagers as characters," Shichiroji-sempai said, placating. "We could make some of them into player character choices as well. But you're not suggesting that the bandits also become player selections?"
At that, Kambei-kaichou frowned.
"Guns," Shino-kun said quietly.
"Eh?" Katsushiro gasped quietly, as all attention turned to her. Even Kyuzo-sensei was studying her now, he saw.
"Guns are historically accurate for that period," she said, in that same quiet voice. "But they've never been included in your civil war games as special weapons. It's all swords, spears, and arrows."
Heihachi-sempai grinned. "Giving our heroes firepower would put a swift end to the conflict, don't you think?"
"Not the hero characters," Shino-kun said. "The villains. Give a few guns to the bandits."
Katsushiro shifted uncomfortably, and the scrape of cloth over his chair seemed to boom in the silence. He knew he should support Shino-kun, but he found his gaze sliding to Kyuzo-sensei. The latter had closed his eyes once again, and now slowly, slowly rolled a pen between his fingertips.
"That would certainly . . . raise the stakes," Gorobei-san said at last.
"Yes, true, it would be historically accurate," Kambei-kaichou said with a tinge of doubt. "But--"
"Do it, then," Kikuchiyo-san said, spreading his arms expansively. "More danger!"
"Kyuzo," Kambei-kaichou said. "Do you have any opinion at all on these matters?"
The senior programmer paused in his pen rolling. "No."
"No?" Kambei-kaichou echoed.
"No opinion," Kyuzo-sensei clarified. "To stand in the way of change is to be flattened by it. As our characters will learn." He stood up abruptly. "My apologies. I have nothing constructive to add, and the delivery of data will have arrived by now."
The two men looked at each other for a few moments with faint smiles. "Ah, well then," Kambei-kaichou said, "go."
With a slight bow, Kyuzo-sensei exited the room, and Katsushiro was left to wonder what had just happened.
Shino-kun seemed annoyed, but Katsushiro couldn't fathom why.
Heihachi-sempai coughed. "As for the service," he said, "don't we already have that? Fundoshi shots!" He mimed straightening a loincloth, and everyone laughed.
"That's true," Shino-kun murmured, and Katsushiro looked at her questioningly. For a few instants, their eyes locked. To Katsushiro's surprise, Shino-kun's expression seemed oddly speculative. Then all her attention turned to tapping away furiously at her laptop.
"Well, then, this can be added to our changes proposal to Creative," Kambei-kaichou was saying, as Gorobei-san applied himself to his notes. "Everyone, go back to what you were doing. And Kikuchiyo-san, as always, ah, thank you for providing our division with your time."
"It's my duty to increase corporate sales. We're not individuals, we're a team! Our duty!" Kikuchiyo-san said with a broad sweep of his hands. "Any way possible."
As Katsushiro stood and bowed with the rest, he looked hopefully at Shino-kun, but her full attention was on the head of the table.
"Kambei-kaichou, Gorobei-san, Kikuchiyo-san, a moment?" she said.
As Katsushiro left, he wondered why she'd stayed behind. But he didn't see her for the rest of the afternoon, and later forgot the entire matter in the face of the escalating workload.
As it had turned out, the creative side of the division had decided to give the core programming staff a surprise of sorts for their tenth anniversary release. None of them had gotten to see the final designs for the game they'd been working on until the small celebration when they test-ran a beta version software as a group: The characters had been modeled after their own office's staff.
"A special surprise," Gorobei-san had told them all, laughing.
Katsushiro writhed as he played the painfully naive character based on himself. "He, he's an idiot," he moaned miserably. "All of his choices seem to be mistakes."
As Kikuchiyo-san collapsed onto a desk in raucous laughter, Kambei-kaichou patted him on the shoulder. "He's still a child," he said. "That's to be expected."
Heihachi-sempai handed him a beer. "Drink up like a man," he said jovially, "don't cry like a baby. At least your character's still alive."
"And I think he's cute," Shino-kun reassured him. "At least yours is a player character. Mine's nonplayer, and all she does is dress up like a boy and cry and sleep with you." She made a moue of disgust.
Katsushiro blushed. "But doesn't it bother you at all about that. . . ?" he muttered in an undertone.
"It's just a game," she said. "Why would it?"
And when Katsushiro's character did, at last, have a chance to enter the battle, he found himself faced with an option to ignobly stab a bandit in the back, pinning him to one of the makeshift barricades at the village border.
"This is definitely the most realistic game we've done yet," Shino-kun said enthusiastically.
But Katsushiro was unable to continue when the character based on Kyuzo-sensei collapsed into the digital mud, shot from behind by a bandit. He thrust the controller aside, ignoring the glances from his co-workers.
"Well then," Kambei-kaichou said, resigned. "We lose again."
"I don't understand," Shino-kun said, fuming over her shoulder at her co-workers. "Your group had captured two of the guns. If you'd used even one them, that outcome might have been avoided. No one here has opted to use the guns." She looked at Kyuzo-sensei. "With antique attitudes like that, you're bound to lose. You don't adapt."
"So it seems," Kyuzo-sensei agreed tersely. His character had died in everyone's initial bout with the game. With that, he returned to his own desk to work.
When Shino-kun took her turn, she selected Katsushiro's character to play. Using him, she looted all three guns early in the game, used them to eliminate more bandits at the cave scenario, and ultimately married him to her own nonplayer character -- with a code sequence Katsushiro didn't recognize that allowed her to flout social convention.
Kyuzo-sensei's character was the only one who had died when Shino-kun had finished the final level. "Oh well," she said brightly. "So, Katsushiro-kun, take me to dinner like a real samurai."
There were yet more secret codes that Katsushiro had never heard about at work. He'd discovered them only after the release roll-out, while he was scanning one of the fan magazines.
"Go on, try them!" a woman had burbled. "For instance, with this combination, right after the scene in the woods . . ." He'd found himself flushing deeply at the subsequent descriptions.
"What's the problem? Just some special side-quest options off the main mission," Shino-kun said to him, running a hand lightly down his bare back. She always enjoyed discussing their corporation when they were in bed, for some reason. "Opportunity for characters to interact a little more. Our regular market just ignores them, but they give our division's games an additional, all-new audience."
Judging from the fan-drawn magazines she'd loaned him later, Shino-kun's 'all-new audience' was mostly women. And they seemed to be particularly taken with those side quests that involved his own character apparently languishing after the master swordsman, Kyuzo-sensei's character.
"But this is so . . . absurd!" he'd said, foundering and uncomfortable over the whole notion.
"Oh, is it?" she'd replied. Something about Shino Manzo's look seemed chancy to him, so he'd dropped it. Instead, he took his complaint to a wider audience.
"Who knew about this?" he demanded at the office.
"Who didn't?" Heihachi-sempai said with a shrug. "Kikuchiyo-san, for one, seems to be very pleased about the ladies admiring his ass after he strips down to the essentials."
"I didn't know!" Katsushiro insisted.
"It was Kambei-kaichou's decision," Shichiroji-sempai said comfortably. "You've been working on some of that code yourself," he added. "Don't you ever think about the bigger picture with this stuff?"
"I, I did?" Katsushiro said, his face heating up.
Later, as he followed the directions to investigate some of the side quests in private, Katsushiro's mortification seemed to grow stronger with each new discovery. What else could explain that uncomfortable sensation in the pit of his stomach?
As usual, Kyuzo-sensei had met any ribbing from the other senior programmers with his serene lack of comment.
"Katsushiro-kun, you take everything much too seriously," Shiro-kun said. "Tape that box up as well, please."
"How can you say that?" Katsushiro pleaded, rolling off the tape. "First that game, now this."
"Yes, the game did work out well, didn't it?" she said happily. "Kambei-kaichou is so honest. He could have claimed all the credit for himself, you know." She paused, "Although, I suppose, it might have seemed a little odd, under the circumstances."
"But America!" he said miserably.
"I know. It's a huge opportunity, isn't it?" she agreed, although that wasn't what he'd meant at all. "I'm sure I'll be reassigned here to the head office in a few years. I'll be sure to look you up."
"Look me up," he repeated.
"Of course." She smiled at him. "I do like you, Katsushiro-kun, but a long-distance relationship like that wouldn't be practical, would it? This box is ready to be taped as well."
Katsushiro hovered forlornly over Shino-kun's empty desk, as he had every morning that week. Soon her replacement would be arriving. Katsushiro shifted from foot to foot, indecisive. In considering the matter, it seemed to him that he wanted to miss Shino-kun more than he did, which struck him as odd.
"Oi, puppy! Go sigh somewhere else!" Heihachi-sempai said, leaning around the corner to scowl at him in mock severity. "People are trying to work here, you know."
He drifted to his own workstation, only to find that someone had placed, squarely in the center of his desk, the most recent issue of a gaming magazine. "Unadvertised Side Quests in 'Seven Samurai'!" the cover screamed at him. The illustration was that scene in which his character gushed to Kyuzo-sensei's character, "You're wonderful! I've always wanted to tell you that!"
He peered about him suspiciously, but the muffled tapping on keyboards had continued unabated. The article likely would also describe that dialogue where his character had reeled off to the disgusted Kikuchiyo-san all of Kyuzo-sensei's virtues -- his kindness and fearlessness and skill and modesty and true samurai spirit . . .
Katsushiro blanched. He'd meant Kyuzo-sensei's character in the game. That was what he'd meant.
He grabbed at the magazine in horror just as a book landed squarely on top of it: a programming manual.
Katsushiro froze. He cleared his throat. "Kyuzo-sensei, about about me and Shino-kun . . ."
"Everyone knows." Kyuzo-sensei shrugged, without expression, and added drily, "The consolation of code. I recommend it. Two errors in your last submission."
"Ah," Katsushiro stammered, "Kyuzo-sensei, I wish to apologize, I have been very stupid, and you've always been so very kind--"
"--and fearless, skillful, modest, with true samurai spirit?" Kyuzo-sensei finished in that same colorless, dry tone.
Katsushiro swallowed, feeling his face reddening. Soon, he was certain, he'd be triggering the heat sensors in the building, and that in turn would give everyone something new to laugh at him about -- or something in addition to their current jokes at his expense.
"Code," Kyuzo-sensei repeated. "If you have any difficulties, ask. He walked away, adding, "As ever, I would be willing to instruct you."
"Oh," Katsushiro said stupidly.
At his office door, without turning, Kyuzo-sensei said, "You are, as Kambei points out, very young. But I believe my antique attitudes would be up to the task." The door clicked softly shut behind him.
Katsushiro laid a steady hand on the cover of the book. He was certain that, if he worked at it very hard over the next few hours, he could accumulate far more difficulties than regular office hours could cover. Extra time would be necessary.
A true samurai, Kyuzo-sensei had always been generous in that regard.
(How have I have made the fluffy from -this- movie? I must be stopped before I fluff again! I hope you have a happy.)