352. 2252, Present Day. Japan. Athan.

I wasn’t quite sure how I saw this going, but even so, how it went still surprised me somehow.

In my mind, I guess I envisioned something properly heroic. Our crate, dropped off at IkaCo central headquarters, the gang all busting out, weapons hot, faces grim, storming the building and breaking the chains off of Moon while Ichiro sat, shitting his pants.

Or maybe trekking across the city like a battlefield, dodging danger at every turn. JSDF VTOLs ripping through the skies after us while AEGIS and Karu and I tore down city streets, ever closing the distance on Ichiro while explosions rocked the ground under us and we traversed barricades and roadblocks by doing sweet-ass backflips and shit.

Or a quiet infiltration, of cunning and guile, bumping into AEGIS still disguised as a cargo cowgirl while I bristled behind my false mustache and broom as a janitor. Swiping keycards and blinding cameras, as Saga put those around us to work getting us up the building, creeping ever closer to Ichiro, ever unseen, like an unstoppable infection, undetectable until we’d already conquered our host.

Instead…there was…this box. It was wood, padded, kinda smelly. It was a plain ol’ box, with nothing to it, nothing going on outside of it but the drone of turbofans and nothing inside but the lights of the holos of the five people in it.

At first I’d been pumped, raring to go. Ten hours, and we’d be there. I could almost see Moon and Tem’s faces shining at me from the dark.

And then those hours had trickled by. I spent them productively, at first, I thought. Coming up with different scenarios we might face, and how we’d tackle them. Going over plans and scenarios and who among us could deal with what situations.

But as I began to realize just how long ten hours of sitting there doing nothing was, the scenarios turned more and more camp. The bombastic movie setpieces I’d envisioned evolved through the power of boredom into thousand-year wars against armies of Exhumans, or Ichiro using his private technology to shrink to the size of a flea.

It got really weird. I was really bored. I began to reconsider the lack of reading material I’d brought with me. Sleep was supposed to be an option, but I felt like we were supposed to be en-route to a rescue, not…passing out on some cushy flight.

I think AEGIS knew I was making myself crazy, and she started talking to me in a low voice for a bit, babbling at random about cultural differences between America and Japan. How we’d all stand out enormously as tourists, but ironically, be completely invisible as a result.

“They honestly kind of expect you to be doing suspicious, often moronic things,” she whispered. “Culturally, it seems they have astonishingly low expectations of Americans in general. The stereotype is that we’re very loud and very friendly and very lazy. Like a big dog.”

“I don’t think I’m particularly loud or lazy. And I’m pretty average on friendliness.”

“Currently you are far too loud,” Karu interjected, her visor currently substituted with a sleep mask. “Might I ask you to refrain from bleating about nothing?”

AEGIS gave me an apologetic shrug and laid back down, leaving me alone with my thoughts again.

I probably checked the clock a hundred times in the next hour, wondering how it was possible for it to move so very slowly. After the fourth or fifth time, Lia started shaking her head at me when I lit up my mobile to check, herself just a face and some bushy hair in the dark.

Finally, apparently I’d ceased to amuse Saga and started to annoy her, because she sat up and stared at me.

“Do you want to just sleep?” she asked, hardly needing to whisper.

“I can’t. I keep thinking of–“

“You can, dumbass. And you will.”

I blinked at her, a little confused. And then my eyelids came down like iron, and I never even felt my head hit the padding.

And so, instead of waking up, ninja pose, lightning powers ripping, I came to very slowly and very disoriented, having no idea what time it was but finding it a lot brighter than I expected. Not that it was actually bright, my eyes were just tired.

My neck hurt a bit, and when I felt back at the pillow I was on, found it hard and plastic-like under my fingertips. I looked back and discovered I’d just missed groping Karu’s breasts by a few inches, and was currently holding her shoulder-plate as she slept under me. Lia was similarly wrapped over my legs, making them uncomfortably hot.

And as I blinked the sleep out of my eyes and looked around, I caught sight of AEGIS, sitting in a small chair made entirely of curved wood, on her mobile and as awake as ever. She smiled when she saw me up.

“They only had one room,” she apologized. “Karu just passed out, and Saga put you under so hard you never woke up when we moved you. And then Lia got jealous of you two cuddling so she joined in and fell asleep.” She shook her head, smiling at us like we were kids at a slumber party. “Of course I was a little jealous, but I thought you had enough girls crushing you at the moment.”

“I appreciate that, I think I’m already pretty buried here,” I whispered back, attempting to dislodge Lia, who somehow seemed to become more attached as I pried her loose. “One room…we’re in a hotel?”

“Yep. Business hotel near the airport. Saga and I got us all through without any issue. Someone down the line is going to be very confused at receiving our empty box. She did the sneaking work, and I did the carrying-you and dragging the others along. Jet lag’s a hell of a thing, huh?”

“It’s so sunny out,” I commented, the blinds still leaking light despite being fully closed. “It feels like the middle of the night.”

“It’s seven hours time difference. It’s only one in the afternoon here, but it’s late evening at home. You never had issues with flying all across America before, did you?”

“No, but that was only three hours, tops,” I said, extracting myself from the girls and sliding off the bed. “Plus I never really had a schedule beyond ‘do what Cosette says’. Since, y’know, Exhumans can strike at any time.”

“The vast majority of them happen first thing in the morning. Probably because people wake up with powers and only learn that by screwing everything up.”

“Yeah I could see that being an ugly start for an Exhuman,” I agreed. Getting up was actually kind of a bad idea, this bedroom was tiny…but I needed to get off of Karu before my neck broke. Aside from where AEGIS was sitting at the desk, there wasn’t really anywhere but the bed to put myself. “Just the one room, huh?”

“We’re also poor, don’t forget,” she chastised me. “We’ve been counting on Lia making bank for so long that you might not remember what it’s like to not have casual millions of credits to throw around. We’ve got enough to get by, but if it comes to dumping everyone in a twin or renting out the penthouse, I know what makes more sense to me.”

“Well, yeah, but you don’t sleep.” She rolled her eyes at me as I, for want of anywhere else to go, wandered into the bathroom. “Woah, it’s weird in here.”

“What is?”

“The floor is all plastic and I…there’s a lip at the door, I almost tripped. The faucets are different. The toilet has buttons. Why is there a stepstool in here? Did you move it in there?”

She giggled at me. “Oh you’ve got a lot of culture to soak in, Athan. I forget that you’ve never been outside the States.”

“You haven’t either.”

“Yes, but I’ve got a voracious curiosity and twenty-four hour ‘net uplink. Plus I’ve seen too many anime not to know how their bathrooms work.”

“You watch people peeing in Japanese vids?”

“Of course.”

I stared at her. “Okay, I thought anime was weird before but…

She chuckled. “It’s maybe not the focus of most shows, but culture is culture, Athan. How many movies or shows have you seen where there’s a bathroom stall where you can see someone’s ankles under it?”

I thought about it a second. “I dunno, a lot?”

She joined me in the bathroom, stepping carefully over the raised lip under the door, and making it about as cramped as the bedroom.

“Well that’s a pretty uniquely American thing. In other countries, the stalls give actual privacy. You learn that just by consuming media. It’s not like I had to go looking up urological fetish porn.”

“But you did anyway, don’t you?” I asked with a sigh.

“Found it wasn’t for me. But you never know until you try.”

I suspected that had to do with her lack of bladder more than anything, but I changed the subject back before I was forced to find out. “So care to use your encyclopornic knowledge to tell me what’s going on in here?”

“That’s a tub,” she said, pointing at the tub, very helpfully. “But in Japan you don’t really use the tub to get clean. You soak in it to warm up and relax, and not to fester in a pool of your own filth. To that end–” she pointed at the stool, and the general bare plastic of the floor complete with drain in the middle “you bathe outside the bath first to get clean. The floors are all waterproof and you’ve got a little stool to sit on while you scrub. Or while your lady friend scrubs for you. Care for a test run?”

“Huh,” I said, ignoring her. “So it’s a literal bath room. There’s a lip at the door because the whole room is a big shower, essentially.”

“Essentially.”

“Crazy.”

“I am quite a fan of the concept of cleaning yourself off before sitting in the water. Just makes sense not to marinate in your own feces and exfoliate.”

“Yeah I got that by your choice in verbs. ‘Fester.’ ‘Marinate.’ Very lovely. What’s with the crazy faucets?”

She laughed less demurely this time and pushed up her glasses as she grinned at me, explaining how very normal it was in a lot of places to see the separate hot and cold water taps come in and mix in the room instead of in the walls. Again, I got a little earful of how peculiar Americans are about some things, and how there was an urban myth in Japan about how faucets all should be lift-to-operate, because if they were any other way, things could turn them on by falling on them in an earthquake and flood your house.

I settled in, sitting on the edge of the tub the divided the room in half and listened. In part, I was still waking up a little bit, I felt groggy as hell like I’d really just woken up in the middle of the night and needed to go back to sleep, but also because AEGIS was a really beautiful girl.

Not just in the physical sense, though she was that, inarguably. But because she got so passionate and interested when she started explaining things. I’d often gotten the impression that she should be a teacher or something, given how she just loved to go on and on about anything she found interesting, which was nearly anything. I imagined that whenever the rest of the world slept and she had nothing to do, she just pored over the internet, cataloguing trivia, factoids, history, and anecdotes into her eidetic memory, and took equal joy in whipping them out again later.

She’d gone on to talk about how a two-tap system was still the norm in the UK, which once had hygienic reasons but now as mostly because the British took great pride in washing their hands with the most painfully cold water possible and keeping a stiff upper lip about it. She stopped and trailed off into silence for a moment, staring at my eyes.

“I’m boring you, aren’t I?” she asked.

“No, not at all.”

“Then…you think I’m crazy?”

“No. Well maybe, but not specifically.”

“Then what?” She crossed her arms defensively.

“What, what?”

“You’re just staring at me, even after I stopped talking.”

I gave her a grin and got up. I wasn’t about to tell her what I was thinking, if for no other reason than if Lia overheard it, I’d never hear the end of it from her. I settled for giving her a playful pat on the head — which she leaned into — and changing the subject.

“Where’s Saga?” I asked.

“Last I heard, she’s off to ‘learn Japanese’.”

“What?”

“Yeah, you got me there too. She said it was driving her crazy and she had to go figure it out. Just kinda got up and left, and I wasn’t going to leave the three of you to wake up without anyone around to explain what happened. Imagine what a disaster it might have been if you woke up and needed to use the bathroom.”

“Um, I kinda do,” I said. She smiled at me politely but didn’t leave. At my continued glaring, she cocked her head, and then in mock understanding lifted the toilet seat for me.

“I can hold it for you if you’d like.”

“It must be hard for Saga,” I continued. “Everyone here thinking in Japanese, I wonder if it’s like when she first turned. She had a real freakout session with the thoughts of everyone around her kinda…unbearably broadcast into her brain. She’s gotten a lot better at tuning it out obviously, but that’s given that she’s familiar with it. If it’s all in a new language…or heck, if people here think differently in general, maybe it’s giving her issues.”

“Maybe,” she said, suddenly looking worried. “You don’t think she’s going to…have a freakout session now, do you ?”

I shook my head. “Even if she gets to that point, I think she’s a lot smarter than she used to be. She wouldn’t just start blowing people’s minds up, maybe if she was having a major issue, she’d put them all to sleep or something.”

“Well now I feel like we should have the news on to be safe,” she fretted.

“It’d be in Japanese, wouldn’t it? How would I know if it was about Saga or…I dunno, electing a new prime minister?”

“Because I can understand Japanese, mostly,” she smiled at me.

“Oh. Yeah. I guess you can just like, download new languages into your brain or whatever.”

She frowned at me, looking offended, and I wondered what I said wrong.

“I’ll have you know, I’m an AI, but I’m a simulation of a human brain. There’s no way to just plug new data into me other than how humans do it. And for the record, I’m far from fluent, really terrible honestly, but enough to understand most conversations, I think. At least, enough to get us the hotel and decipher what people were talking about in the lobby.”

I blinked at her as a mix of feelings slithered through me. I was, at once, surprised and impressed that she’d mastered such a useful skill under my nose, and surprised and unimpressed with myself, for never considering that we probably should have had a plan for translation from the start. But mostly squirmed at accidentally devaluing her hard work at it.

“Has anyone ever told you how amazing you are?” I asked.

All anxiety seemed to vanish from her face in an instant as she beamed at me, freckles disappearing as she flushed. “No. Or, not recently. You could stand to say it a little more.”

“Well you are. I dunno how we’d get anything done without you.”

“Yeah. I dunno how you would either.”

She had to settle for just the one compliment because the door beeped and clicked open. AEGIS and I both peeked out of the bathroom to see who was invading.

“Japanese is stupid,” Saga informed us, holding her head. “I dunno who thought of the concept of speaking in another language, but they should have stopped, smacked themselves with a rock, and then learned English, like everyone else.”

“You do know there’s a whole world out there that doesn’t speak English,” AEGIS chided.

“Yeah, and that part of the world sucks.”

“That’s most of the world.”

Most of the world is water, and they speak nothing there. We took all the best parts, condensed them down, invented fast food, and then invented English so we could order it.”

“Do they not have fast food here?” I asked, suddenly alarmed. It’s not like I even really ate fast food, but the concept of it not existing threatened to blow my mind.

“There’s like, a MD’s down the block,” Saga informed me.

“There’s even a cultural phenomenon to get fast food fried chicken every year at Christmas. It’s actually such a big thing that here, they’ve sort of confused two of our mythological characters into one. Sanders Claus.”

“Japan is weird,” Saga confirmed. And then, holding her head and wincing, added. “And Japanese is stupid. I was just downstairs trying to follow a conversation, and the two going at it were jabbering so fast, I couldn’t even tell where words started. Or the difference in what they were saying and thinking. By the end of it, I had to come back up here, because I started subconsciously forcing English into their heads.”

“Well don’t do that,” AEGIS said, wide-eyed.

“It’d be a big friggin’ improvement, let me tell you that. All this ching-chong-chang.”

“Well that’s racist.”

“Oh shut up,” Saga said, pulling at her narrow eyes mockingly. “I’m Chinese, I’m allowed to say that.”

“Okay, I’m officially way too tired to deal with this shit,” I said. “Saga, no terraforming the locals. I’m going to sleep a while longer, at least until Lia and Karu are up. We should plan out food and stuff, since apparently I never considered anything as trivial as like, staying alive.”

“I’m on it,” AEGIS chirped. “I’m very excited for you to try real Japanese dishes.”

“I bet they’re gross,” Saga sighed. “Don’t they have like, hamburgers here?”

“You said yourself there’s a MD’s.”

“That’s a Japanese MD’s. They probably serve fish in eel sauce there.”

“Do you ever listen to yourself?” AEGIS asked.

Saga shook her head. “No, I leave that to everyone else. You need help falling asleep this time buddy, or you got it on your own?”

“I’ll be fine,” I told her, before pausing at the lip of the bathroom, and giving it a little frown. “Actually…”

Saga gave me a glance and then a sigh, muttering ‘Merica under her breath while I lingered in the doorway to find the right words.

“Something up?” AEGIS asked gently. “Oh, do you want turndown service?” her voice suddenly turned lascivious.

“Dude, no. Lia’s on the bed.”

“There’s a floor. And a tub,” she shrugged.

“And a hallway. And a fountain in the lobby,” Saga added.

I shook my head violently enough that AEGIS resumed her concern. “Um, okay. Well what’s wrong then? Can I help?”

“Err, yeah. Actually. Kind of awkward, but, uh…”

“Oh Athan, you can ask anything of me, you know that.”

I gave her a lame half-grin. “Yeah. Still awkward though.”

“Well I won’t judge you. Come right on out and say it.” She ignored the fact that Saga was now giggling right behind her back.

I took a deep breath, realizing that more than food and staying alive, I had a lot of culture shock to work through before I’d be remotely comfortable in this bizarre new country. And awkward as it was, the only way to improve was in asking.

I gestured at the panel of buttons in the bathroom. “Think you could teach me how to use the toilet?”

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