So yes and no. Yes, this was Ayo's life, but no, all the rich guys he dealt with weren't Gestalt. Kyo breathed out, wringing his hands. Goodness. If they were, he couldn't imagine Ayo would be anything but a nervous wreck. After that run in, he wanted to run under the nearest chair and hide forever.
The walk did calm him down a bit. Just a little. It was what his mother had always said, whenever she was around. [i If you feel nervous, if you're angry or scared or messed up inside, just go take a walk. Take a walk until you get it all out.] The streets were unfamiliar, which didn't help. Every passerby looked like a potential threat, even the ones in business suits, even the ones dressed better than he was. He felt his breath catching in his chest and put a hand to his sternum. Maybe he should just head back to Caduceus and walk in their courtyard instead.
Kyo glanced up in time to catch Ayo's smile. Despite how nervous he felt, he felt himself relax a little at the sight of it. "You really think so?" he asked, smiling back. He'd done well. Thank goodness, someone thought he'd done well. "That'd be great." If he could jumpstart his career with a big move like that--but then, all that responsibility on his shoulders... he gulped. He'd have to prove himself for sure. Get everything absolutely perfect. It was almost more frightening than failing completely.
It was comfortable to just walk alongside Ayo in silence. There were few people who had that effect on Kyo. Usually the stress of having to be perfect was so much that he'd rather just be alone. But Ayo was just... relaxing. He'd already seen Kyo at his worst, back with that B in college, when he'd been completely broken up over it. He realized now that it was a bit ridiculous to be so bothered by a single B, but back then, it'd felt like the end of the world. He glanced at Ayo and breathed out a little bit. It just... felt safe. Didn't hurt that Ayo had that broad barrel-chest that just made him look solid and reliable, either.
His phone buzzed. He checked it. Nothing. Just a spam email about rainbowfish hair enhancements, for that dyed-hair look without the dye. When Ayo spoke, he jumped a little, surprised at it. He snorted, shaking his head. "I'm pretty happy with these eyes, thanks," he said. Today's trends were tomorrow's fashion faux pas. And besides, he'd never really been into purely aesthetic enhancements. "Work first, right? I'll see you later. And good luck with... whatever's happening."
He'd kept his cool. He had, hadn't he? Kyo shook his head. "Yeah, I was... I was surprised, too." Keeping his cool was not his specialty. He'd done it somehow, though. "Thanks. I hope so too."
He waved goodbye to Ayo and turned away, heading towards the courtyard. He still had another fifteen minutes in his lunch break. Maybe he could steady out his nerves by then.
[I “Is this normal for you?”]
Ayo shrugged. “Meetings with important people who has more pocket change than I make in a year? Yeah. Meetings with people like Gestalt? Nope,” Ayo replied. He hummed thoughtfully as he tried to find a way to articulate the difference. “With most people, even with the rich fops I deal with, it’s quite easy to make them do what you want, I guess? There are a ton of ways of getting clients to buy shit they don’t need, and even to make them think it’s their idea to get the stuff in the first place. All people have insecurities and weaknesses, no matter how big their bank accounts are.
“People like Gestalt are different because they don’t give in to other people. They won’t allow you to lead them anywhere. I don’t know if it’s a need for control or if they’re just so used to being right that they’ve just, stopped listening to other peoples’ opinions and insights. I dunno. I’ve met a few people like him before and they’re always a hassle to work with, or for. You just have to keep up and try not to get left behind. Or thrown under the proverbial bus, I guess.”
Ayo shrugged and looked at Kyo with tired eyes. He felt similar to how he felt after an allnighter of client research. When he’d focused too hard on a particular problem and his brain was starting to protest. Kyo was looking a bit haggard as well, a bit frayed at the edges. Poor dear, this level of pressure on his first day wasn’t likely to do him any favors in the anxiety department.
When his friend suggested they go for a walk Ayo hummed in affirmation. “Yeah, let’s get some fresh air.” He stood up and Kyo followed. They walked out into the sunlight and Ayo relaxed at the feeling of wind tousling his hair. There was plenty of time before Ayo was needed back at his office for the real scheduled meeting with Gestalt. He figured it was cancelled since they’d already met, but Ayo sent a text to Alexa anyway, asking her to reaffirm the meeting. Just in case. Maybe the meeting was still on and Gestalt would pretend their informal lunch had never happened?
“You did good in there,” Ayo said as he put away his phone. He smiled at Kyo. “Wouldn’t be surprised if Gestalt requested you be on the science team for this deal,” he continued. “It a hell of an opportunity, could jump-start your career.”
The thought sent Ayo’s mind to his own potential rewards for this affair. It could give him what he wanted most in the world, enough resources to save his brother. And yet, the whole thing left a sour taste in his mouth. Caduceus wasn’t exactly an ethically conscious company, but Ayo had never really encountered anything he found truly…bad.
Sure, there were people who wanted their services for all the wrong reasons. Most people who came to them felt inadequate in some way. Not sexy enough, not smart enough. Not original enough, not conforming enough. The list or character flaws in Ayo’s clientele was endless. The child design clients were insecure in the same way, afraid that their child would never live up to their fullest potential, that their child wasn’t enough even before it was fucking born.
Before, these thoughts had made Ayo angry. Now it just made him tired. It was how life was. No one was content with anything, especially the ones who had almost everything. His phone vibrated in his pocket, he brought it out and read the text-reply from his assistant.
[I Got call from Gs people 10 min ago
They cancelled meeting, office in panic mode.
Sanderson is PISSED at u, fair warning
How’s the lunch date? ;)]
“Oh dear,” Ayo said as he read the text, though he said it with an amused lilt to his voice. He glanced up at Kyo as he started texting back. “Gestalt cancelled the original meeting and now my whole department thinks we’ve lost our big whale. They’re panicking. My boss is probably filing my sacking papers as we speak.”
[I Lunchdate ruined by surprise visit.
G stopped by and interfered with my vibes.
Think we have him hooked tho.
Ill catch you up when I get back.
Don’t tell S, let him panic some more <3]
“I need to get back to the office before things go crazy,” Ayo said. He sighed dramatically and shook his head in mock disapproval. “I leave them alone for half an hour and they’re already collapsing into anarchy.” Ayo steered them towards Caduceus offices again. The big building slowly towered over them. “It’s not always like this, you know. Usually it’s just people who want less bodyfat or more muscle without having to work for it. Or cat-eye augmentations, they’re very trendy right now. I bet you can get one on the house if you ask nicely,” Ayo rambled on as they neared their respective entrances. They stopped at the door which led to the research wing, where Kyo worked. Ayo didn’t have access to the place, it wasn’t even showed during orientation.
“So anyway, thanks for keeping your cool today. You probably saved our asses. I wouldn’t have guessed the kid thing,” Ayo said. He always found it difficult to express gratitude but he made an effort. Kyo deserved it after putting up with this crazy situation. “I hope we get to work with each other some more.”
Kyo nodded along as Gestalt spoke about his children and competition. If he didn't think of them as real flesh and blood people, it had a certain cold-blooded logic to it. Love and cooperation only got so far. In those conditions, it was easy to become complacent. No, it was competition that drove a man to success. It was a very Machiavellian idea, mixed with Social Darwinism in the most terrible way. So why was it so logical?
[i "How was school today?" the woman asked, face blurred in the clouds.
Kyo beamed at her, running over to take her hand. "I love school!" he exclaimed.
"You do?" A smile materialized. "What did you learn today?"
He shook his head. "It was the first day. I made lots of friends, though!"
She released his hand. The smile vanished. "They are not your friends," she hissed. "They are your competition."]
He understood. It was easy to understand. Everyone else was fighting him for the spot at the front of the class, the A, the first place ribbon. If he hadn't had classmates, would he have pushed himself so hard? Would he have done so well, and learned so much? The answer was obvious. He wouldn't have. It was the competition that made him the successful man he had become was today.
He hadn't had any siblings, so it made it easier to detach himself from what the man was describing. If he'd been told he had to be the only one to survive, would he have fought to be valedictorian, still? The answer was easy: yes. A small smile passed across his face and vanished; wouldn't have won, though. He'd never had a decent physique.
Kyo couldn't bring himself to voice his agreement, though. After the initial sprint of talking to Gestalt, he was done. He felt like he was going to stick his foot right in his mouth if he spoke again. So he did the smart thing and kept it shut.
Gestalt left. The second the door closed behind him, a nervous laugh escaped Kyo's lips, one he couldn't bite back until he finally clasped his lips around the straw of his drink. "Holy shit," he muttered, one of the few times he'd cursed in his life. He was shivering. Actually, physically, shivering. Hands shaking, legs jittering, whole body shaking in place. His drink was rattling against the table, and he didn't trust his hands to pick up a burrito.
"Is this normal for you?" he asked, staring at Ayo with wide eyes. With some effort, he took a deep breath and tried to calm down. He couldn't. If he'd said anything wrong, if he'd screwed up, it could've been his first and last day at Caduceus or any company worth talking about. His first impression was terrible, too.
What if Gestalt decided he hated him after all? What if he decided he... he was a horrible worker and an idiot, and got him fired? No, that was stupid. Gestalt wouldn't waste his time on such a petty thing. Calm down. Breathe. Breathe. He felt faintly nauseous. The scent of the burrito alone made his stomach pang. "I... don't think I'm hungry anymore," he mumbled. "Should we get back to work?" Maybe if he used the rest of his lunch break to take a walk, he'd calm down enough to be able to get back to work today.
[I “A child.”]
The words Kyo spoke made no sense to Ayo at first. A child? Why would Gestalt want another child? He had, what, five of them already? His oldest, Gloria, was already a famous gymnast, qualifying for the Olympics last year at fourteen years of age. Her brother Gregor was only ten and he was in [I college]. What more could Gestalt possibly want?
The young scientist continued, outlining his argument to the patriarch. Perfection. A golden boy. Someone worthy of the Gestalt legacy. As Kyo spoke, Ayo realized he was right. It not only made sense, but it was plainly written in Gestalt’s features. The man was as inscrutable and calm as ever, but he no longer dismissed Kyo. He looked him in the eye and even nodded along. When Gestalt turned back to Ayo and asked if he agreed, there was no hesitation.
“Yes,” he said simply. There wasn’t much to add, really.
The words seem to finalize something in Gestalt’s mind. He nodded and leaned back in his seat, regarding both young men before him.
“Blue blood indeed,” Gestalt said with a smile. “Blood has always been the Gestalt’s greatest strength and weakness. All old families face these troubles at some point. And no, I do not speak of inbreeding. Adultery is a wonderful evolutionary mechanism employed eagerly by my ancestors. We are mongrels, like everyone else.
“No, what I speak of is the problem of partiality. Your children must succeed you for the family to thrive, but your children are of a limited number and maybe, of limited talent. What do you do then? Leave your empire to some second-rate child simply because they share your blood? Greater dynasties than my own have perished due to this very practice.”
Gestalt looked away from them and regarded the little shop and its patrons. Ayo couldn’t fathom what he thought of them or how they seemed to him. Alien, perhaps. Far removed from his own world of privilege and responsibility.
“In previous generations,” he continued, “this problem has been mitigated by making the hereditary process challenging. Only one may succeed and the others discarded.”
He said it so flippantly, as if it was a minor detail. One succeeds, the others discarded. From what Ayo could gleam from old photos and medical records of the family, Samson grew up with two brothers. Traces of them abruptly end some time before their 17th and 16th birthday respectively. Despite some thorough digging, Ayo had not been able to track them down or found out what happened to them. Even their names are lost to time and censorship. Did Samson kill them? Or did the family decide to cast the others out in the cold when they realized that Samson was the winning pony?
“However, my children have proven to be,” Samson paused, seeming to mull over his choice of wording. “Reticent. To this tradition. They are too fond of each other and my oldest have gone so far as to tell me outright that she will not succeed if it means leaving her siblings behind,” Samson explained. He sighed. “It is partly my fault. To let them grow up together was a mistake. I underestimated their attachment to each other.”
A short silence fell on them. Ayo felt slightly sick to his stomach to be honest. Here was a man, lamenting the fact that his children wanted to protect each other from a system that would, at best, disown everyone but one of them. At worst, it would lead to their deaths at the hands of each other. What kind of father would do that to his own children? Ayo’s mind went to his own brother and immediately flinched back as he felt the nausea rising at the mere thought of Makoto in that situation. Hopefully, the disgust wasn’t visible on his face.
“You don’t think any of your children are of the right material to take over for you?” Ayo asked in the most level tone he could muster. It wasn’t very level. Samson regarded him with surprised amusement.
“On the contrary, Mr. Takei. I have a great deal of faith in my children. They are all talented, intelligent and driven. My two oldest, Gloria and Gregor, would both do very well as the leader of the Gestalt Empire. The problem is not a sub-optimal gene-pool, as Dr. Simeon here put it, the problem is a lack of [I will]. Not one of my children possess the will to rule. They have put it into their heads that at least one of them will have to take the reigns from me in the future, and when that happen, this person will take care of the others. They have made a pact, as juvenile as that sounds. And so, they don’t really care which one of them is chosen in the end. You see the dilemma, I’m sure.”
Ayo could see the logic. He didn’t want to, but he did.
“You want us to build another child. To create competition?” Ayo asked.
“Precisely,” Samson said. “It will be made the default heir, even before its birth, and it will be made clear to my other children that if it is not dealt with they will be discarded in favor of this outsider child. It will be brought up separately from them, so no bonds will be allowed to form.”
[I This madman wants us to make a slaughter lamb. To give his own cubs a taste for blood.] Ayo thought to himself, feeling oddly numb. This was insane.
“And if they don’t rise to the challenge? If this child, the one we make you, is not removed by your other children. What then?”
Samson shrugged, as if he didn’t feel it was a likely outcome. “They will protect what is theirs if they see that it is threatened by an outsider,” Samson said with conviction. He glanced at his watch and straightened up in his seat. “I asked specifically for you to be my client liaison, Mr. Takei,” Samson said as he reached for his coat and sidled out of the booth. “Against the advice of your boss, might I add. I did not do this because I think you are more competent or more skilled in your line of work than your colleagues. I did this because I believe you and I share a strong sense of familial duty. I will do anything for my family. And you will do the same for yours.”
Technically, it wasn’t blackmailing. Samson was merely pointing out the fact that with the money Samson would pay him, Ayo could afford to save his brother’s life. It wasn’t, technically, a threat. But it sure felt like one.
Ayo nodded tightly but didn’t meet Samson’s eyes. Samson Gestalt smiled, his crowsfeet crinkling and he looked almost kindly for a moment. He put on his gloves and turned his back on the pair of young men.
“A pleasure to meet you both,” he said over his shoulder. “I look forward to working with you. I will be in touch.” Then Samson Gestalt was out the door.
Ayo more or less collapsed in his chair the moment the door closed behind the patriarch. Ayo looked over at Kyo, suddenly feeling utterly exhausted.
“So, interesting first day?” he said in an attempt to lighten the mood.
He ordered quietly, afraid to make too much noise next to Gestalt. He'd already been dismissed, so now he wanted to become the best background he possibly could. If he couldn't make a good impression, he at least wouldn't make a bad impression. This was horrifying. His hands were shaking. He was pretty sure whatever he ate was going to taste like ash at this point, and probably come right out the other end if he managed to not puke it up for the duration of the meal. He'd always had a nervous stomach, and adding Gestalt to the mix of 'first day' was a sure recipe for stomachache.
Back to the table. He hovered for a second, afraid to sit beside Gestalt, but equally horrified at the prospect of sitting across from him. Argh, no, he was making this so awkward! He took a deep breath and sat down beside Ayo, trying to look like he wasn't about to shiver himself to death. He could do this. Just casual burritos with the most powerful man in the city, maybe even the country, maybe the world.
For a second, he was relieved. Ayo was being grilled, not him. He was just ambience, just atmosphere, able to sit there quietly and nibble his food.
And then Gestalt turned back to him.
He half-choked on his sip of water, then swallowed, forcing himself not to cough like a madman. What was Gestalt here for? Aside from to ruin Kyo's first day? He didn't know. He started to shrug, then glanced at Ayo. Wait, this was a test, wasn't it? He wasn't going to make Ayo look bad. He could do better than that.
What did he know about Gestalt? He looked the man over, hiding a desperate, quiet cough behind a napkin. He was older, but looked better than most of the ones who'd gotten the treatment. Gestalt's company was the best of the best, the golden standard among his industry. A perfectionist. Not someone who'd settle for less than the best of the best, or a patch fix when they could throw out the old and build up the new. And he was coming to Caduceus. But why? He didn't seem like the type to look for a pet. And he had a wife. And children. Successful children, making names for themselves out in the real world already.
But why settle for success, when he could have perfection?
"A child," he said, the idea coming to him even as he said it. He looked up at Gestalt; the man's expression was as polished as it had ever been. No clue of if he was barking up the wrong tree or what. Too late now. Had to press on. "You want a child. The random chance of natural birth isn't enough. One little mistake, and the whole gene-chain is sub-optimal. And you're old, blue blood. There's a lot of chances for mistakes with all the inbree--" Kyo cringed. Shit, he'd just called Gestalt inbred? He could die now. No, he probably would die now.
But to his surprise, the man nodded for him to continue.
Not sure if he was on the right track or digging his own grave, Kyo gulped and pressed on. "Too much chance. Too many mutations to risk it. You crave control--no. Perfection. A golden boy. Child. Someone whom you can trust to carry on your empire, someone [i perfect] enough that it couldn't possibly fall apart."
Gestalt gave him a long glance, a hint of a smile at the corner of his lips. Had he been acknowledged, now? Was he more than atmosphere? "And do you agree?" he asked, turning to Ayo. "Is it a child I'm after?" The look in his eye was dangerous, or maybe amused. Kyo couldn't tell the difference, to be honest. His parents hadn't paid for social graces, only intelligence.
Ayo had never been inside this burrito place, but most of the Mexican fast food joints looked the same whether they served nachos, tacos, burritos or anything else vaguely South American. Glass counter for your assembly line order, drink dispensers in the end and then plastic tables with condiments and napkins crowding for space between the laminated cards proclaiming today’s special or membership bonuses.
He walked in, instantly brought back to college from the smells alone. It would’ve been nice, Ayo thought wistfully, if he and Kyo had been allowed to have lunch here in peace.
Seeing Samson Gestalt order a burrito by walking down an assembly line was slightly bizarre. He did not strike Ayo as the kind of rich person who would enjoy “slumming it”, at it were. So why was he here? Did he want an unofficial meeting, away from the all-seeing eyes of Caduceus security? It would hardly be the first time Caduceus dealt in muddy waters so Gestalt had little reason to be paranoid. There was a reason their legal department was almost as big as their research division. It was amazing the legal loop holes you could find when you spent an inordinate amount of money on it. Or maybe, Gestalt simply wanted to size Ayo up?
Either way, it made Ayo uncomfortable. He followed Gestalt in getting in line despite having no intention of ordering anything. Ayo winced inwardly at Kyo’s halting attempts at explaining his field of study. It wasn’t that it wasn’t truly impressive, stem cell research was cutting edge and Caduceus had scooped Kyo up for a reason. The man was brilliant, he knew things about the world and its construction that both he and Gestalt would never comprehend in their lifetime. But the way Kyo presented his research, as if he was somehow embarrassed by it, left no one convinced that Kyo was worth their attention.
Gestalt stopped listening after the first sentence. Ayo could see it in his eyes, his dismissal written plainly on his face. He turned, his lunch now on a plastic tray, and found himself a small corner table. Ayo was left in the queue, paying for the meal as Gestalt sat his tray down. He took off his coat and gloves before sidling into the seat against the wall, placing his clothes neatly on his left side. There were two seats facing him, Ayo took one of them. He was just about to open his mouth to speak when Gestalt cut him off.
“Why am I here?” Gestalt asked, looking first at Ayo, then at Kyo. He started unwrapping his food while awaiting a reply.
Ayo almost answered with a very unflattering snort. He managed to resist, but it was a near thing. So, it was a test. Arrogant prick. But, Gestalt was hardly the first rich fop Ayo had met who delighted in seeing him jump through hoops to please them like some circus animal. Gestalt would not be the last either. Pretending to consider the question, Ayo leaned back in his chair. He watched as Gestalt continued to fiddle with his food.
“My colleagues believe you are here for the MAC-package,” Ayo said, trusting Gestalt to figure out the acronym by himself. Judging by the wry smile appearing at the edge of his lips, he managed it. Gestalt had now finished unwrapping his food and raised it to his mouth and took a bite. He chewed slowly, as if savoring the taste of oily pork and dried coriander.
“But you do not,” Gestalt said. It was a statement, not s question. Ayo shook his head. The older man then turned to Kyo. “And you? Any ideas in that expensive brain of yours?”
He rolled his eyes at Ayo's response. "Yeah, yeah, yeah," he said, but he was grinning as he said it. At least this part of Ayo felt familiar: teasing him over every little thing. He liked that he didn't look like a stereotypical doctor. Made him feel like a normal guy.
Kyo's brows shot up. "No way," he breathed. Ayo was working with the Gestalts? He might as well have said he was working for the President, or some kind of royal. He'd never even dreamed of talking with someone that powerful, much less working for them. But that was Caduceus, wasn't it? That was the kind of company it was. They were on the bleeding edge, so the best of the best and the richest of the rich all came here for whatever it was they needed.
He put up his hands. "Oh no, please," he said, shaking his head. "I mean, it's the Gestalts, after all!" He didn't even think he [i owned] clothes good enough to go to a meeting with them. He probably hadn't even seen a suit that nice until Ayo had walked into the lobby today.
Kyo gave a half-hearted smile. But they'd changed since college. Ayo more than him. He was just a researcher, and Ayo was having meetings with the Gestalts. He'd--well, yes, that was true. "Hand soap. In the laundry machine," he muttered aloud, shaking his head at the memory. And that damn burrito. He grinned and looked up. "Oh, man, that thing? I couldn't shit for days. So worth it, though."
Big hands closed around his shoulders. Kyo let himself be pushed into the shop--and then a deep voice rang out, and they both froze. Kyo turned slowly, taking in the man.
He was everything he'd imagined the Gestalt patriarch would be, and more. The expansive beard, the fatherly crows-feet, the sheer [i aura] of power, money, and control. He licked his lips nervously and scratched the back of his neck. Holy. Shit. What on earth was Samson Gestalt doing here? What was he doing, walking the street like a mere mortal? He knew his thoughts were insane. Even the Gestalts were only human. But the gravitas. The legends. This man... it was impossible to see him as just a man. He felt himself wilting just standing in his presence, like a picked flower beaten to submission by the force of unadulterated sunlight. Just standing so close to him made his heart race. With what? Fear? Excitement? He wasn't sure, but it was frightening.
"Uh--v,very nice to meet you," Kyo managed to stammer out, forcing himself to try and look Gestalt in the eyes and barely managing to get up to his nose. He took the gloved hand and tried his best to give a firm shake, but compared to the carefully-measured power metered out by Gestalt, felt as though he'd given the man a limp-fish handshake in comparison.
Gestalt passed them, breezing inside like he owned the place. Hell, he could buy the whole block, if he was so inclined, and have enough left over for the rest of the city, too. Kyo stared after him, eyes wide, trying not to hyperventilate. Gestalt. He'd just. Gestalt. Holy shit. Holy [i fuck.] What. What. What--
Ayo was there, suddenly, taking firm hold of his shoulders. Kyo startled back to life and looked at Kyo. "Yeah. Yeah. Don't freak out. I can. I can, yeah, uh." He took a deep breath, then grabbed Ayo's arms and locked eyes with him. "Fucking Gestalt!" he hissed.
He stood there for just a second after Ayo entered the shop, then shook his head and followed him in. So much for a relaxing lunch break!
The burrito place was dark inside, air thick with the scents of cooked meat and Mexican seasonings. It wasn't even a sit-down restaurant, but a build-your-own type place with a counter. Nervously, he followed Ayo and Gestalt into the line, where Gestalt was in the middle of ordering a burrito.
Fucking Samson Gestalt, ordering a fucking burrito! Goddamn! No. No. He had to calm down. Take a deep breath and act like this was normal. Normal. Yep.
"You're a researcher at Caduceus?" Gestalt asked. "What are you working on?"
Kyo just about jumped out of his skin. Shiiiit, the rich and famous guy was talking to him! Shit! "Ah, well, today's my first day, but I did my Ph.D on..." he could sense that he'd already lost the man's attention and interest, and flinched. Somehow, he felt like he'd let down both Gestalt and Ayo. "...um, on stem cells and their applications throughout the lifecycle as alterants and their role in healing," he finished at a mutter. Shit. He hadn't been expecting to get drilled by the most powerful man in the city today!
“Dr., Dr. Simeon.” Kyo looked so damn earnest as he corrected him, also a bit embarrassed. If it was on Ayo’s behalf, or for himself, it was hard to tell.
[i Doctor, of course. Stupid. Jesus, way to greet an old friend, by seemingly mocking his accomplishments. Jackass. Fuck.]
“Doctor?” Ayo replied in mock surprise, smearing on more awe than might have been necessary. “But you’re not wearing a white coat? Or glasses! I thought those were mandatory. Are you trying to go undercover among us client schmoozers? Because let me tell you, you would probably succeed. Most of us are dumb as bricks. No challenge for a brain like yours.”
[i There. Saved? Maybe. Hopefully.]
They started walking towards the entrance together, but not before Ayo noticed Kyo making eyes at his clothes and briefly, his horns . He knew Kyo didn’t mind them though, he had never made a big deal of it in college. He was one of the few who hadn’t, which had endeared him to Ayo. Most people thought it was political, in some environmentalist circles it had been fashionable for a time to give their children more animal-like features. To become closer to nature or some such bullshit. Most people mistook his horns for those of a goat and he was given the nickname Pan. Which, to be honest, had been fun. What’s not to like about the god of wine and depravity?
However, Ayo’s horns weren’t goat horns. They were dragon aspects. Ayo was born in the year of the dragon and his mother, being a stern believer in the power of the zodiacs, had requested his features to align with his celestial counterpart. Such augmentations were much more common in Asia, most people had some indication of their zodiac in their DNA, if you could afford it.
In the States, however, Ayo sometimes begrudged his mother the choice she had made for him without his consent. In the US, animalistic augmentations weren’t exactly uncommon, but they were subtle and was less used for aesthetic changes and more to do with heightening of senses or an improved physical talent. Here, his horns were seen as gaudy, tasteless. A sign of inferior class. It was a prejudice he had to work against every day, especially within his chosen field. The amount of smart-ass comments from colleagues about walking coat-racks or requests for can-opening was frankly exhausting.
“What’s the occasion? Burrito place isn’t black-tie.” Kyo asked and Ayo smirked, pleased at Kyo’s appreciation of his clothes.
“I have a bigwig meeting after lunch. Introductory client meeting with Samson Gestalt,” Ayo explained. “We don’t really know what he wants yet, he has just set up a meeting.”
Most people at his department believed Gestalt was contacting them to ask for the standard MACP, as it was unofficially referred to. The acronym stood for Middle Age Crisis Package. It contained muscle and cardiovascular enhancements, essentially reversing the damage age does to the human body, as well as cosmetic changes tailored to the client in question. Almost all people who could afford it wanted it at some point.
Ayo, however, quietly disagreed with his colleagues. From what Ayo could discern from his file and research on Gestalt, he struck Ayo as an intensely proud man. It was likely that Gestalt would rather bear the signs of his age openly than try to hide it artificially.
He could have changed his mind, of course. Feeling mortality slowly creeping up on you in the form of creaking joints and sluggish memory was enough to make anyone’s principles a little shaky. But Ayo remained skeptical. A man like Gestalt was not likely to adhere to behavioral analysis applied to most people for the simple reason that he wasn’t ‘most people’.
“Whatever it is, my career kind of hinges on the outcome of this meeting so, eh, yeah. Felt the need to dress up a little.”
Ayo and Kyo walked together out into the sun. What also hinged on this meeting, was Makoto, though Ayo didn’t want to mention it. No better way to take down the mood than bringing up his dying brother. With the money promised for bringing in Gestalt, Ayo would finally get Makoto the help he needed.
Distracted by this thought, Ayo didn’t notice the shift in mood Kyo experienced. He was brought back to reality, however, when Kyo asked if maybe they should go somewhere else.
“Huh?” Ayo started, still slightly distracted. “Why? I’ve heard good things about this place.”
“It’s not a place someone like you would go to.”
That hurt, a little bit. He knew things would be different between them outside of college, but he had hoped that they wouldn’t be too different. Hearing Kyo proclaim that they weren’t on the same level was disheartening.
“Have you forgot I’m the guy who thought it was the best idea ever to reheat old pizza with your clothes iron?” Ayo said, trying to lighten the mood. It didn’t seem to help. They stopped just outside the burrito place, Kyo still looked nervous and he hinted again that maybe they should eat somewhere else.
“Hey, I’m still the same idiot who cleaned his clothes with soap until you told me off,” Ayo said, a finger lightly pointing at Kyo’s chest. “You should see my current flat, you’d be horrified, I swear. I need to dress fancy for the ponces I meet at work, but trust me, I still love me some burritos. Remember the time we made a ramen and Doritos burrito? It’s still the greatest invention of all time!”
Ayo didn’t want things to be different between them. He liked Kyo. And yes, he liked that Kyo looked up to him, but only to a point. Ayo didn’t want an admirer, he wanted a friend.
“So come on, let’s see if this ponce suit can give me enough gravitas to convince the shop to recreate the R&D burrito?”
Ayo put his hands on Kyo’s shoulders and were just about to shove him into the shop when a voice sounded from behind them.
Ayo froze because he knew that voice. He had listened to it for weeks; in interviews, in speeches and even transcripts from court cases. He had studied that voice, analyzed the speech pattern and the pitch of it. He knew that voice, and he knew who it belonged to.
Ayo straightened his back, a courteous smile already firmly in place over his formerly open features. Ayo did not turn around immediately.
“[https://pre00.deviantart.net/b63a/th/pre/f/2011/303/7/f/arsenie_boca_by_wolfie_chama-d4eirn2.jpg Mr. Gestalt],” he said. Then he turned to face the man, one hand sliding off Kyo’s shoulders.
Samson Gestalt stood before them, clad in a dark brown coat and gloves seemingly too warm for the weather. His face wore a quietly expectant expression, like that of a teacher waiting for a talented but slow student to show off their work. Ayo had no idea what to say. He firmly clamped down on the panic that bubbled up in his gut at the question of [i how much had Gestalt overheard?] After a pause, Ayo fell back on social customs and made introductions.
“Mr. Gestalt, this is Dr. Kyoichi Simeon, a researcher at Caduceus. Kyoichi, this is Mr. Samson Gestalt, founder and CEO of the company that bears his name.” Gestalt stepped forward and reached out with a gloved hand for Kyo to shake.
“A pleasure,” he said, looking Kyo up and down the way you would a racehorse you might want to bet on. Then he locked eyes with Ayo again who swallowed involuntarily.
“You are taking me to lunch,” Gestalt stated. Then he walked into the little burrito shop, leaving the two young men behind without looking back.
“Jesus fuck,” Ayo breathed as the door closed behind the older man.
This was bad. Was it bad? It must be bad. Samson Gestalt just walked into a burrito shop. That sentence alone was ridiculous. What the actual fuck?
“Okay. So. Change of plans. We’re having lunch with Samson Gestalt. Eh. Yeah. Okay. Don’t freak out,” he said and gave Kyo’s shoulder a squeeze. Was he talking to himself or to Kyo?
Either way, Ayo realized that he probably shouldn’t let the most powerful man in the city waiting [i in a burrito shop].
“Let’s go,” he said as he walked into the burrito shop.
He recognized the booming voice and looked up, a grin touching his face as he caught sight of Ayo. His friend always seemed to light up a room just by walking into it, his enormous presence and broad-shouldered frame bolstering the mood wherever he went. Ayo always looked sharp, but today he looked unusually so; designer suit, flashing watch, perfect hair. Kyo knew nothing about clothes, but even so, he could tell that Ayo's were celebrity-level. Something about the crisp lines and the way it framed his figure, the subtle pinstripes tasteful and stylish at the same time.
"Dr., Dr. Simeon," Kyo corrected him instinctively, then shook his head. "Kyo is fine." Honestly, Ayo just loved to tease him, didn't he? Sometimes he wondered how they were friends. Ayo was his utter opposite. Bold, handsome, popular with everyone, good at talking to people, and he was what, nerdy, pale, unpopular with just about everyone he'd ever met. But maybe that was just it: opposites attracted. They fit, because they were so different.
He gave Ayo another once-over and self-consciously adjusted his own lackluster suit. He'd thought he was dressing well for his first day to work, but damn, compared to Ayo, he looked like an anemic mosquito, or maybe a starving mortician. Pale, thin, and dark, was the point. Whereas Ayo pulled off the tall, dark and handsome look, Kyo was stuck with checking off one of the boxes, at best. Well, then again, his parents hadn't bought him looks, had they? He gave Ayo a glance, taking in his horns. They were kind of cute, in a devilish sort of way, but he wondered, sometimes, what his parents had been thinking. Some people were prejudiced against such obvious enhancements--not Kyo, but it could make it harder to find a job.
Then again, not like Ayo had any trouble with that, the damn charmer.
"What's the occasion? The burrito place isn't black tie," he joked, partially to cover his own self-consciousness, partially because he realized abruptly that he'd been far too lost in his own thoughts. Nothing like greeting his only friend with a long, vacant stare! "Hey, take me to your tailor sometime, huh?"
He led the way out the door and towards the street, but couldn't hide his nervousness. Was it really alright to take Ayo to some hole in the wall burrito place? The way he was dressed... he looked so damn important. And rich. He felt like taking Ayo there was somehow... dirtying him.
It was a stupid thought. He'd known Ayo through college. The guy had eaten more than his fair share of cheap burritos. But even so, the way the guy looked and moved and seemed so comfortable in this place Kyo had only just barely clawed his way into... he almost felt like Ayo was an entirely other, far superior being to him. "Uhm, would you rather... go somewhere else?" he asked, cringing a bit. "I mean... it's not exactly the kind of place that... you know, someone like you would go." He glanced up at Ayo, then away. He didn't know. It was dumb, maybe, to even be worried about it. But... but he didn't know! He didn't know. He didn't want to take Ayo somewhere weird and embarrass himself.
The burrito place loomed up, but suddenly he wasn't so sure he wanted to show Ayo. Ayo would probably be embarrassed he'd even show him such a shitty little place. Ugh--he hated himself for thinking this way, but he couldn't help it. Ayo was just so much better than him, in every way. What was he supposed to do to catch up? Could he?
"I, um... here's the burrito shop," Kyo muttered, gesturing vaguely in its direction. "But we don't have to..." He shrugged. Whatever Ayo was up for was fine, really.
Ayo didn’t get an instant reply from Kyo, but he wasn’t expecting one either. It wouldn’t surprise him at all if the eggheads weren’t allowed phones in the labs. The stuff in there was very sensitive, security-wise. He would just have to hope Kyo would see his text before lunch. Leaving the problems of lunch and slighted friends behind, Ayo got on with his work for the day, which was mostly drudgery in front of the computer.
On a normal day, Ayo had about three to five meetings a day, interspersed with information-sharing with other departments and current clients, making sure his bosses were in the loop as much as they desired to be and the occasional raid to the cafeteria for caffeine-infused drinks.
Today, Ayo only had one meeting, at one o’clock in the afternoon. The rest of the day was spent in preparation for this one meeting. Ayo wasn’t the only one preparing, either. His whole department was slightly on the fritz. A nervous energy permeated the halls. Today, Samson Gestalt would pay a visit to their not-so-humble headquarters. And if they were good, if they impressed him, he would sink enough money into their company to keep them all in wealth for the unforeseeable future. That is, if the wealth had been distributed equally. Which it obviously wouldn’t be. But the company had promised hefty bonuses for anyone who distinguished themselves in the upcoming Gestalt project.
And Ayo, surprisingly, had been chosen as their vanguard. He was to be Gestalt’s client liaison, his personal link to the company, the one who ultimately had to convince Gestalt to throw lots and lots of money at them. Figuratively speaking. It made Ayo’s palms sweaty just thinking about it. He tried to think of the meeting as any other meeting, any other client. All clients demanded preparation and a certain amount of personalization on Ayo’s part. He always tried to tailor himself to every client, his personality and wardrobe completely dependent of the people he was meeting.
Back at his over encumbered desk, Ayo stretched his neck and scratched the base of his left horn. He had been staring at Gestalt’s bio for weeks and he was pretty sure he had a solid game plan. The man was proud. He demanded respect. He appreciated efficiency and humility. He was vain but wouldn’t appreciate obvious foot-licking. Ayo had a sneaking suspicion he would favor some pluckiness as well, but that would be a gamble.
Respect, efficiency, subtlety. Ayo could do that. Or at least, he could pretend to do that. He checked his watch. Almost lunch. Maybe he would catch Kyo in the cafeteria. But first, he needed to get ready, for there wouldn’t be much time after lunch to do so.
He pushed his chair away from the desk and wheeled himself towards his wardrobe. One of Ayo’s favorite perks of being a hot-shot client schmoozer was that he could essentially ask for anything and his company would provide it. Tickets to that definitely-sold-out concert he had promised his client? No problem. Lunches at the most expensive restaurants in town? Company tab. Clothes and costumes for hundreds of thousands of dollars solely for client meetings? Absolutely.
Ayo opened the large wardrobe in his office and surveyed the contents. Most of it were suits in various hues and levels of formality, but there were a few t-shirts in there too, some jumpers. There were even a few dresses. With the help of some heavy makeup, a package of disposable razors and padding at the right places Ayo could become a very convincing woman and had done so on a few occasions. Anything for a client.
Today, he needed formality. He needed lethal precision. Professionalism. He already knew what he was going to wear, had decided it days ago. A bespoke suit; ordered specifically for today. With a critical eye, he roved over his selection that hung outside the wardrobe door. It was still in its plastic protective casing. Dark blue pinstripe, double-breasted. White shirt, high collar. Tie was of the same hue as the jacket. Personally, Ayo would have gone with something more exciting, but he needed to be conservative, subtle. A white pocket square and silver cuff-links with the Caduceus emblem lay in a box to the side together with a Patek Phillipe watch more expensive than Ayo’s entire wardrobe.
After a brief visit to his private bathroom for the wash and shave he had missed in the morning, he got dressed in his office, not bothering to close the door. Alexa gave an appreciative thumb up as he buttoned up his shirt.
“How ambitious of you, trying to seduce the most powerful man in the city,” Alexa remarked.
“Go big or go home I say,” Ayo replied cheerily. He picked some lint off his trousers, straightened his jacket and deemed himself ready.
“Are you really going to lunch with that suit on?” Alexa asked skeptically. “Not a great first impression with mustard stains on that nice white shirt.”
“I won’t have time to get dressed properly later. Besides, I never eat anything before big meetings anyway.” Ayo’s phone buzzed on the desk behind him. It was from Kyo.
Ayo smiled at the text. He was happy he could meet with Kyo on his first day despite being as busy as he was. It would calm his nerves a bit, chatting with an old friend. Also, it would be a chance to show off, Ayo doubted Kyo had ever seen him in a proper suit, much less such an expensive one as today’s. He liked Kyoichi, always had. The boy was quiet, a bit antsy and intense, but sincere and heartbreakingly hard-working. Not bad to look at either, if a bit pale. Ayo harbored an easy attraction to the little nerd, though nothing he ever planned on acting on. He liked Kyo as a friend, and he could too easily see Kyo getting uncomfortable around him if he tried to make a pass at him, so he never had.
[I [right No probs!
Burritos it is! Coming to lobby now]]
One last look in the mirror and then he was off. He took the elevator, fiddling with his watch on the way down. While they had spoken frequently through chats and text messages, they hadn’t seen each other in quite a while. Ayo wondered if his friend had changed at all from the gangly little nerd he had come to know at uni.
His fears were dispelled, however, when the elevator doors opened. For there he stood. Kyoichi. Still gangly, still pale. Slightly hunched over, just as Ayo remembered.
“Kyo!” Ayo boomed across the lobby as he strode towards his friend, arms outstretched in greeting. “Or is it Mr. Simeon now?”
No such luck. Ayo was nowhere to be seen. Kyo sighed, giving the room one last look-around, then started for the research wing. He supposed he shouldn't have expected anything. Ayo was a busy, important salesman. He was probably meeting with high-power clients who made more in an hour than Kyo would make in a year even working for Caduceus. Kyo knew it was expecting a lot to hope that Ayo would have room for him in his busy schedule on such an unimportant day as his first day; it wasn't like he was a kid anymore. He didn't need anyone to be excited for his firsts or birthdays or anything like that. Still, he couldn't help but be a little disappointed.
Kyo raised his card, and for the first time in his life, the glass door before him beeped, shiny glass card-reader glowing green as it slid silently open. He was a part of Caduceus now. Officially.
The research wing started out as polished as the front desk and sales wing, but before long the familiar blank walls and small offices cropped up, outsides adorned with posters from whatever researcher's latest research and dumb jokes tacked up on their corkboards. Narrow hallways made more room for huge labs, their equipment shiny and new, some of it borderline science-fiction, all shiny, abstract planes, white plastic, and bright metal, some of it classic glass equipment that wouldn't have looked out of place in a lab from the 1800s.
Kyo sighed out a little, feeling at home already. These labs felt so familiar, so normal. Even though he'd never stepped foot in any of them, a lab was a lab was a lab. The layout and protocols were all the same. As long as he was in a lab, he felt... well, safe.
A woman with graying chestnut hair pulled into a tight bun rounded the corner at a rush and stopped dead, looking over small spectacles at him. "Simeon? You're the... Kyoichi Simeon kid?" she asked. She had a strange accent, one he couldn't quite place.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied.
She extended her hand. "Dagny Pernille," she introduced herself. "You'll be working under me from today. We'll get you all situated on a lab up here--you were working on stem cells in your Ph.D., right?"
Kyo nodded. Before he could even open his mouth, Dr. Pernille continued. "Right, I've been working on some tricky science with flexible adaptable stem cell-based regeneration, so we'll get you started on that. And, oh, I'm slated to take on the next custom designer baby request--ughhh, it's pure drudgery. I hate that shit. But anyways, you're gonna help me with that, alright?" She gave him a grin, and Kyo nodded, feeling a little lost despite everything.
"Well, let's go get you started!" she said, bustling him off towards a lab.
By the time lunch rolled around, Kyo was ready for a break. Getting talked at by Dr. Pernille all day was [i exhausting.] He'd just go pick up a burrito or something.
He checked his phone on instinct, and finally got the messages from Ayo. Oh, shit!
[right [i Hey, sorry! I didn't notice my phone.]]
[right [i Lunch sounds great, if you're still open.]]
[right [i How about that burrito place around the corner? I'll]]
[right [i be waiting in the lobby.]]
He put his phone down and stretched, then headed to the lobby. At least Ayo hadn't completely forgotten him! Despite himself, he grinned a little.
[right [I 07:46am]
Have you ever had one of those mornings where you woke up slowly, lazily drifted in that peaceful space between sleep and wakefulness? Your mind blessedly quiet and content, your body warm and boneless.
Ayo Takei was experiencing just this feeling as the morning sun streamed through the gaps of his heavy curtains, making the dust in the air glow as it leisurely drifted through the room. Ayo stretched and sighed into his pillow, much too content to even open his eyes. However, a nagging thought managed to break through Ayo’s sleep-addled brain. It was a long time ago since he had seen the sun shine through the curtains of his bedroom. Usually, he wasn’t in bed at this hour, was he? The next thought hit poor Ayo with all the inevitable, crushing weight of a skydiving hippopotamus.
Ayo was [i late].
The next few moments were a complete blur. Out of bed, on with pants, - shit! -, off with pants, into shower, out of shower, shaving? No time! On with pants, grab bag, out the door, - fuck! -, in the door, grab papers, out the door again, - fucking shit! -, in the fucking door again, grab keys, out the door, into car.
The car sped out of the driveway, tires skidding on the pavement, and Ayo was off to work.
[right [i 24 minutes later…]]
Ayo burst into his own corner of the larger Sales Office at five past eight. He had a nice set-up; a separate waiting room complete with ugly corporate art and a prim assistant behind a desk. Well, at least she looked prim. Alexa was a far-cry from the quiet and professional secretary she portrayed at work. Since Ayo wasn’t exactly as clean-cut as he liked to pretend to be either, they usually got along quite well.
“Look who decided to show up! Wild night, sir?” Alexa greeted him as he brushed past her into his own office. Ayo casually flipped his assistant off just as he disappeared behind his own door. He reappeared a moment later with a stack of files in his hands and a tie draped over his shoulder. Ayo had forgotten his own at home but luckily he kept a few spares at his desk for emergencies.
“Has the company collapsed in my five minutes of absence?” Ayo asked Alexa while trying to open one of the files and tying his tie at the same time.
“You had no eight o’clocks booked, so it’s fine. Sanderson was in here looking for you though,” she replied, eyeing him with amusement from behind her desk. She could have helped him with his tie but obviously decided not to.
“Shit,” Ayo mumbled. Sanderson was his boss, sort of. Head of the department Ayo worked in. For some reason, he didn’t like Ayo and was constantly looking for ways to trip him up.
“I told him you were at a client breakfast. Even put it in your calendar, should he decide to check.” Alexa continued. Her brown pixiecut was adorned with a green headband today. It looked good on her, she didn’t usually bother with accessories.
“Thank you. Nice headband by the way.”
“Oh, thanks. It’s, eh, not mine,” she replied. Were her ears slightly redder than they had been or was Ayo just imagining things?
“Just borrowing it. From a friend,” Alexa continued, looking into her computer screen now instead of at Ayo. He could have asked who this “friend” was, and why Alexa wanted to keep something of theirs with her at work, but he decided not to. Better to wait and let Alexa reveal her secrets in time.
“Oh shit. Shit, I fucked up!” Alexa suddenly exclaimed, looking from her screen to Ayo. “You [I do] have an eight-o’clock! Your friend, whatshisface, the science guy! His first day is today, you told me to remind you!”
Oh no. Would Ayo get to Kyo in time before his orientation? He looked at his watch; 08:13. No, it was too late. And Ayo didn’t have clearance in the science building. He could get special permission but that would take too much time. Fuck. They wouldn’t be able to meet before lunch, probably.
Ayo got his phone out of his pocket and sent off a series of texts.
Kyo! Sorry I missed you this morning! :(
I dont have egghead clearance, cant meet you now
Lunch? My treat! ;)
The building itself was beautiful, a marvel of modern engineering. Kyo stared up at the tall, glittering monolith and sighed out. Gorgeous. Truly gorgeous. The way they gently twisted the square building into an elegant spiral, the white stripes down its corners that turned what could've been another black, dark building into something bright, silver-mirrored windows lighting the surrounding buildings bright. If he squinted, he could almost see the company's namesake reflected in its building design, the snake that twisted around the rod echoed in the spiral, while the core of the building stood for the rod itself.
And that was only the main building. A sprawling campus of smaller buildings--some squat, some rounded, some tall like the first--surrounded it, each one adding to the overall design of the plaza until he could almost be convinced he was walking into an art installation instead of a corporate headquarters. Behind the first building, enclosed by the other structures, was a lovely private park that had itself been featured in magazines before; though he couldn't see it from here, he could see it in his mind's eye, the perfectly-sculpted bushes, the tall, old trees, spreading their limbs over stone benches; the pond, buildings reflected in its mirrored surface until the koi came up for food.
Now, at last, he was finally living out his truth. He was finally working at the place he'd been born to succeed at. Kyo breathed a deep sigh and let a rare smile touch his lips. He couldn't be more pleased. And his parents, too, his father, John Simeon, working in the financial district, and Himeno Aoi, his mother, the brilliant surgeon; he knew they'd be proud of him too. Their investment had finally paid off--he had become everything they'd known he could be.
He strode through the front doors with uncharacteristic confidence and approached the front desk. A lovely woman with the kind of face that had been popular twenty-five years ago smiled at him, high cheekbones and downturned eyes making her doelike--it might have been a unique kind of cute, if it hadn't been so popular that he himself knew at least four others who shared her exact face. "May I help you?" she asked, voice high and fair, and Kyo resisted the urge to raise his eyebrow; so her parents had bought the whole package, then, if they'd gone for the voice as well.
"Yes, I'm Kyoichi Simeon," he said, unknowingly giving her the same smile he'd given the building itself. "I'm a new employee in the research suite--it's my first day here."
"Kyoichi? Hmm," she said, "Simeon, Simeon... oh yes! Yes, Dr. Pernille was waiting for you. Here," and she handed over an ID card with his face on it, "and straight ahead, down to the left, follow the signs to the research hall. The doors are locked--that card will get you through them, if you're meant to go through them." With the last comments, she offered him a bit of an insider's smile, sharing this small joke with him.
"Thank you," Kyo said graciously, taking the card and completely missing any sort of joke. He started towards the research suite, then paused and glanced back. Ayo usually got to work around this time, right? He'd wanted to thank the man on his first day in for helping him with his application, but he didn't see him yet.
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