The shower washes away some of my jumbled thoughts, and by the time I step out, I feel a little calmer about being here. I towel myself off and weave my wet hair into two messy side braids, then step out of the bathroom.
A set of clean clothes has already been laid out for me. A creamy white sweater. A pair of loose pajama pants. I pull the sweater on; it smells just like Hideo, and is so large on me that it hangs down almost to my knees. The collar slides sideways, baring one of my shoulders. I don’t even try to wear the pajama pants. They’re far too long.
I walk over to the bedroom door, open it, and emerge halfway out into the hallway to tell him I need something shorter.
But he’s already here, holding a teacup in one hand and ready to knock on the door with his other. “Emi—” he starts to say when he sees me. We both freeze.
Hideo blinks. His eyes dart to the loose, white sweater I’m wearing, then quickly away. “I wanted to ask if you had a tea preference,” he says.
My shoulder and legs suddenly feel very exposed, and the flush on my cheeks now turns to magma-level red. I start to stumble some words out.
“Sorry, I—I was going to ask if you, um, had smaller pants.” Another bad line. “I mean—not that you have small pants that would fit me”—digging a deeper hole for myself—“I mean, the pajama pants keep falling off—” I’m a very good digger. I wince, then shake my head and stop talking, letting my hands wheel in circles as if they can convey my meaning.
Hideo laughs a little. Unless my imagination is messing with me, a slight flush colors his cheeks, too.
I snap out of my reverie, then slam the door shut right in his face.
There’s a pause, followed by Hideo’s familiar voice. “Sorry about that,” he says. “I’ll find something better for you.” Then his footsteps echo down the hall.
I walk over to the bed, bury my face in the sheets, and let out a groan.
Moments later, Hideo opens the door a crack and waves a pair of shorts blindly at me. I take them. They’re still baggy on me, but at least they stay on.
I venture out into the hall and into the living room, where Hideo is reading by a crackling fireplace. His dog lies at his feet, snoring softly. The windows here lead out to the garden, and the bead-like patter of rain can be heard against the glass. The walls are lined with portraits and with shelves of books—pristine early editions—neatly organized and artfully arranged. Then there are shelves displaying vintage video games and consoles, as well as prototypes of what look like the earliest versions of the NeuroLink glasses. Some of them are as large as bricks, but each one gets progressively smaller and lighter, until I finally see the first edition of the official glasses propped up at the end of the shelves.
Hideo looks up from his book when he hears me approach, then notices me studying his shelves. “My mother took good care of my early NeuroLink prototypes,” he says. “She and my father made sure to save them.”
His neuroscientist mother and computer repair shop father. “Mint condition,” I reply, admiring the prototypes.
“They believe that objects have souls. The more love you put into one, the more beautiful it becomes.”
I smile at the affection in his voice. “They must be very proud of what you created.”
Hideo just shrugs, but he looks pleased at my words.
“You don’t have any augmented reality overlaid in your home,” I say as I sit.
Hideo shakes his head. “I like to keep my home real. It’s too easy to lose yourself in an illusion,” he replies, nodding at his physical book.
I’m very aware of our proximity to each other, as if I could feel the ghost of his presence against my skin.
I take a deep breath. “Do you have any enemies you can think of? Someone who would want to hurt you like this? Maybe a former employee? An old business partner?”
Hideo looks away. After a while, he replies, “There are enough people who dislike Warcross and the NeuroLink. Not everyone appreciates the new. Many fear it.”
“It’s ironic that Zero fears it so much, then,” I reply, “but uses his own knowledge of technology to try to stop you.”
“He doesn’t sound like someone who bothers with logic.”
“And what about Ren? You should disqualify him from the games immediately. It’s pretty clear that he’s involved with this plan. He might even be involved with potentially harming you. What if the file I saw today had been meant for him? What if he had somehow sent a signal from within the game to the person who tried to attack you?”
Hideo pauses for a moment at that, before finally shaking his head. “He’s been a reliable source of information, and he might lead to more clues. If I remove him now, it’ll be obvious to Zero that we know about him. They might suspect you.”
I sigh, wishing I could argue with that reasoning. “Why don’t you want to leave Tokyo? You could have died today.”
Hideo looks at me. His eyes reflect the light of the fire. “And signal to Zero that he’s won? No. If his entire plan is just a threat against me, then I’ll be relieved.”
Our conversation fades into silence. I struggle to figure out something to say, but nothing that comes to mind seems appropriate, so I just end up staying quiet, prolonging the awkwardness. My eyes wander back to the shelves, and then to the portraits on the walls. There are photos of Hideo as a child and a teen—helping out in his father’s shop, reading by the window, playing games, posing with a bunch of medals around his neck, smiling for early press photos as he first hit the newswires. Curious. As a child, Hideo didn’t have the silver streak in his hair or the few silver threads sprinkled throughout his dark lashes.
Then my eyes stop on one particular photo. There are two boys pictured in it.
“You have a brother?” I say without thinking.
Hideo is silent. Immediately, I remember the warning that I’d gotten right before I first met Hideo. Mr. Tanaka never answers questions about his family’s private affairs. I must request that you do not mention anything in that regard. I start to apologize, but my words fade as I realize it’s something even more than that. Hideo’s expression is strange now. He’s afraid. I’ve hit an old wound, a yawning abyss thinly scarred over.
After a long moment, Hideo lowers his eyes and looks toward the rain-dotted windows. “I had a brother,” he replies.
Mr. Tanaka never answers questions about his family. But he had just now, had opened up to me, however briefly. I can hear how foreign the words sound on his lips, can see the discomfort it brings him just to say them. Does that mean he never invites others to his home, either, where such a vulnerability is hanging right on his wall? I watch him, waiting for him to say more. When he doesn’t, I say the only thing I can. “I’m so sorry.”
Hideo spares me by leaning toward the table. “You mentioned you wanted tea,” he says, sidestepping my words the same way he did on the night I’d met him at his headquarters. His moment of weakness that he’d offered me has already vanished, gone behind the shield.
This is the piece of his history that haunts him, I think, recalling the beat of grief we’d shared when I’d mentioned my father. Whatever had happened, he hasn’t made peace with it. It might even explain his stubborn refusal to stay safe. I nod in silence, then look on as he pours a cup for me and another for himself. He hands me my cup, and I hold it with both hands, savoring the heat and the clean scent.
“Hideo,” I begin softly, trying again. I’m careful to steer clear of whatever mystery shrouds his past. My eyes linger on the faint scars of his knuckles. “I don’t want to see you get hurt. You didn’t stand with me in the Pirate’s Den and feel the ominous presence of that guy. I don’t know what he’s up to yet, but he’s obviously dangerous. You can’t play with your life like this.”
Hideo smiles a little. “You came all the way here tonight just to persuade me to leave Tokyo, didn’t you?”
His teasing makes me blush again, which makes me irritated with myself. I put down my cup and shrug. “Well, I didn’t think it was something I could properly discuss with you without being here in person. And I wanted to warn you without somehow being overheard by my teammates.”
“Emika,” he says. “You don’t need to give me a reason for coming over. I appreciate you watching out for me. You saved my life today, you know.” Whatever I was going to say next fades away at the look in his eyes. He puts his cup down, too, and leans closer to me. The movement sends a jolt up my spine. “I’m glad you’re here.”
I search his eyes, trying my best to steady my heartbeat. “You are?”
“Perhaps I’ve been too subtle.”
Up until now, I’ve largely assumed that all of my interpretations of Hideo’s words have been exaggerated on my part, but it’s pretty hard to misunderstand this statement. He talks about you often enough, Kenn had said. I swallow hard, but don’t pull away. “About what?” I whisper.
Hideo’s lashes are lowered, and there is something sweet and uncertain in his gaze. He hesitates. Then he waves one hand in a subtle gesture, and a transparent screen appears in my view again.