Unreal Estate Ch. 3 Preview #3


And on the sixth day, he rested.

If he knew anything about the various branches of the Christian religion, he’d know you’re supposed to rest on the seventh day. Not that he would have cared, since the REC material was fitting into his brain like a dodecahedral peg in a round hole. And the house was so tense that only a back rub to the roof would ease things.

Which is why he decided to spend some time in the one room of the house he had yet to visit: the Onsen-of-the-Month Club.

The way Lorelei had explained it to him almost made some semblance of a notion of something coherent, especially after random bits of reality trivia had been floating in his head all week. In order to move from Reality to Reality, you needed an engine that bridged the gap for an instant and moved a predetermined amount of space from one location to another. A Reality Engine for Mobiles, typically attached to a hut, house, condo, split level home, office building, and so on.

The Onsen-of-the-Month Club didn’t work exactly that. It was an experimental new technology that allowed you to step through a transitional space which was continually generated, and literally ‘link’ a door to another reality. Thus, the green door with the funny squiggly lined symbol which propped up at the base of the stairwell actually would go somewhere if you opened it… it’d go to an onsen, which was a sort of natural hot spring with rocks and warm water and steam and acted like a nonmedical muscle/brain relaxant.

Since the technology was very new, very experimental, and very much sought after by RealWare from the privately owned Nipponese company that developed it, it was also hideously expensive. Lorelei explained that simply as Meiko knowing the inventor and left it there.

However it worked technically, Mallory couldn’t deny that it worked figuratively. He’d taken baths before, in ordinary bathtubs… not like this, though. Here, you scrubbed up first so the water would stay clean, then you just… soaked. It didn’t seem to serve any functional purpose, but the way his woes melted away the moment he stepped in the water said he liked its nonfunctional uses very much big time.

There was one very visible reminder of his troubles, though… a makeshift screened away section of the hot spring, off in the upper right corner, with a sign on it reading “MALLORY ONLY!”. Meiko had apparently put it there the day he arrived, just in case he felt like taking a dip. She didn’t want him peeping on the girls if they wanted to soak at the same time, after all.

And after the previous night… she’d probably give him the boot if he did peep. (Not that he wanted to.)

He still wasn’t sure what happened. Not because he was too drunk, but because it didn’t make sense. He was getting along much better with Meiko after their shopping trip… they’d shared a bit, talked, and things went okay. Except that she was very quiet on the ride home, but… she was talkative enough the rest of the day, so that couldn’t be it.

After he came home with Lorelei, though, she got as cold as the three week Winter season on Grünwald. He got the feeling she didn’t want him dating Lorelei, after the strange exchanges the two had the day he was hired… but it wasn’t HIS idea to have a date! (And having no prior examples to compare it against, he had to take Lorelei’s word that the previous night was in fact a ‘date’.) Maybe if he explained to Meiko…

That is, if Meiko would talk to him. Other than ‘Pass the salt, Houseboy’ and ‘The living room needs to be vacuumed, Houseboy’ she hadn’t said a thing to him today.

Times like these made Mallory wish he’d focused a little less on his chores and a little more on other girls back home. Or even other guys. He didn’t have many friends back at Grünwald — this week had been a crash course in girls and friends and all sorts of things. A crash course he was failing miserably. All he needed was to fail the REC Test miserably and he’d be limping home with his tail between his legs and salt over his shoulder while hanging his head low and kissing his head goodbye with his butt between his–

The scrape of wood on stone was heard, as the door to Onsen-of-the-Month opened. Mallory started to lean around to peek around his “MALLORY ONLY!” screen, before he heard the Voices.

“…don’t see what the big deal is, anyway,” Lorelei’s voice echoed off the rocks and the water. “All you care about is his job performance, right, boss lady? So he missed a few hours last night. He works his ass off trying to impress you, I’m sure he can make up for a few hours…”

Mallory sank down into the water, trying to make himself small. Some part of him had to laugh at the predicament, the guy secretly overhearing while two naked girls chat in the bath… but the voting majority of him (97%) was just panicking at being caught and trying not to utter a peep…

“I told you when he got here to keep your hands off him,” Meiko ‘Boss Lady’ Mirai spoke. (The distinct splash of someone climbing into the water… a towel hitting the ground, fluffy-like…) “This House has enough personality conflicts without a workplace romance added on top of it. I won’t have it, Lorelei. And it doesn’t establish a good atmosphere for Eiko to be raised in! I–“

“She seems to get along fine with him. And didn’t you tell me you two talked about that? He’s just a nice guy, Mei. Absurdly nice. We meet a lot of scumbuckets in this biz, it’s no doubt you’ve forgotten what a nice guy is like…”

“That’s besides the point! I’m saying… it’s just not good. And I won’t stand for it!”

“Oh? You’re going to fire me, then? I doubt it; I’ve pulled you out of the fire more times than I can count when a job gets dangerous. Fire him, then? We need someone to keep the engine fixed. Sure, it hasn’t broken down since he got here, but how long do you expect THAT to last? Plus he cooks and cleans, two things we were in desperate need of–“

“This isn’t about his skill set, or yours!”

“Then what could it be about, huh? I thought you were the boss lady. What else would you care about, hmmmm?”

An awkward pause. Mallory actually found himself straining to hear, in case they were whispering, and while the voting majority demanded he mind his business the curious minority dark horse candidate won the election.

“…I don’t have to explain myself,” Meiko decided.

“Oh, get off it,” Lorelei spoke… but with a friendly laugh, not a mean tone. “Everybody KNOWS what’s going on. It’s no big secret, that look on your face when you checked Future Perfect to see if you should hire him…”

“What– how would you know? Have you been going through my organizer–?!”

“Naw, Eiko did. She was worried, okay? She’s used to her big sister ‘staying in control’, right? And she told me it said you’d ‘hire your true love’ at 3pm on that day.”

The ” ” that followed was the sound Mallory’s heart made when it stopped.

“…said nothing of the sort,” Meiko lied blatantly. “And… F.P.’s been wrong before…”

“Oh, very convenient. Whenever we’re doubting what it says, like a job not rolling in for a week, it’s ‘never wrong’. When it says something that spooks you, it’s ‘been wrong before’. You want me to drag Kisei in here to rag on you for being inconsistent?”

Mallory pressed his ear to the screen, resisting the urge to peer around it a little to see her reaction…

“It’s been wrong before,” Meiko repeated, trying to stay calm. “And… and I don’t believe in fate. Even if I believe FP is reliabl… I mean… …what do you WANT me to say, Lorelei?! Yes, it said that! I couldn’t believe my eyes, but what was I supposed to do, kick him out after I saw that? I had to hire him, if just to make sure–“

“Make sure it was right, or make sure it was wrong?”

“You’re putting your boss in a very uncomfortable position,” Meiko complained, voice a bit shaky. “You know I hate losing my composure. But… I’ve been having the hardest time keeping it lately! I don’t know how to deal with that guy. Sometimes he pisses me off, sometimes he’s annoying, sometimes he’s… so naively nice… do you know what he said to me the first time he saw me and I caught him staring at my legs? ‘Sorry, there aren’t a lot of pretty girls in Grünwald.’ And he was being HONEST, wasn’t an attempt at a witty pick-up line…”

“Yeah, isn’t it wild? Kinda cute, too– WHOA, Meiko, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen you blush!”

“You think I WANT to be blushing?” Meiko bit off, harshly. “I hate this! It’s stupid, it’s like a soap opera, you just don’t end up fated to fall in love with some guy you barely met and barely know! That’s not… reality doesn’t work like that. FP has to be wrong here. I wish I could just fire him and not have to deal with this, but… we do need an Engineer, and… and I’ll admit, I’m glad the food’s improved, and… and…”

“Say no more. But… you really wanna avoid the issue? Would that make life easier on you?”

“I don’t know. For the first time in my life, I’m totally stumped. I’ve always had this plan, you know that… pull myself and my sister out of the gutter, out of the orphanage, run a business, get rich, settle down and live a comfortable future… I never really planned on having a boyfriend in the mix. It seemed like it’d just be a distraction to my life plan…”

“Right, right. Well! I have the answer to your woes, Mei!”

“Namely?” Meiko asked, suspicious.

“I’ll take him off your hands.”

(Mallory turned pale and red at the same time for two different reasons, leaning on the screen more to listen as Lorelei made her offer…)

“He’s kinda cute and he’s easy to mold, two great tastes that go great together,” Lorelei continued. “So, consider him taken care of! That way you don’t have to have a forced storybook romance with him and you can go about your busin… what? Not to your liking?”

Meiko’s tone got angry all over again. “Now we’re back where we started! I SAID I didn’t want you dating him for a reason!”

“A reason you never stated. At least, not truthfully. Do you have a good reason? If not, that means he’s a free man and I can stake my claim, yes? He’s a hell of a lot more interesting that the one night stands I’ve had lately–“

“NO. No, no–“

“Why no? C’mon, Mei, one good reason. And not ‘it promotes a bad atmosphere for Eiko’ or nonsense like that. Give me the truth. You’re the cool customer, right? How hard is–“

“LORELEI–“

“One good reason! ALL I ask! C’mon! Lay it on me! Do it! L– what was that?”

‘That’ was the sound of the “MALLORY ONLY!” screen tipping over and splashing into the water of the onsen. With Mallory floating on top of it, looking surprised. Then looking at the two naked girls.

Oh well, it’s been a good life, he decided, squeezing his eyes shut and awaiting death…

Since death was taking its sweet time, he decided to crack one eye open and see what was going on.

Meiko stood in the bath, holding her towel up defensively… with an all over body blush. Trembling with rage and something else. And glaring at Mallory hard enough to burrow twin holes in his back and carve his liver up for dinner…

“You… you were LISTENING IN…?!” she asked, giving up all semblance of control as the last two words came out through grinding teeth.

“Only for a little while!” Mallory exclaimed, waving his arms and splashing in a panic. “It was an accident! I didn’t mean it! I’d never do it if I could avoid it! I didn’t want to embarrass you! I wasn’t sure what to do! I’ll do my best to forget what I heard! Even the bit about true love–“

The Onsen-of-the-Month Club door slammed shut behind Meiko before the ‘o’ in that word could be intoned.

“Oooh, that’s not good,” Lorelei decided, relaxing away in the water without bothering with her towel. “But hey, it means you’re free! Let’s hit the town tonight, Mal! I feel like partying!… Mal? Hey, mmmgblblblrlrlrll…”

Which was the sound Mallory heard as he blacked out and sank to the bottom of the two foot deep onsen.

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