Warning: This story involves grave bodily injury to one major character. It is not described graphically, but if you don't want to read about such things, please don't read this.
It was a typically rainy day in London when Largo stood in Heathrow Airport, with a pack slung over his back and satisfaction in his eyes. This had been a successful trip, but he needed to return home—his students could rarely stand more than a couple days of substitutes, after all. His gaming career gave him prestige, but it barely covered hardware and travel expenses, let alone food and shelter. They were called "professional gamers", but in reality they were nearly amateur, and all of them needed other jobs to feed themselves.
Still, the job had some serious perks. He got games for free, either from the Elite Gaming League to practice with or from companies trying to get a good review from a world champion. And the fans were great—he'd chatted with three fans from a group calling themselves the "United Fangirls of Largo-sama" before the flight. He probably wouldn't see them on the plane, though—he had long since collected enough flyer miles to travel first class, and on a flight this long he appreciated the extra legroom.
It was somewhat surprising that they even recognized him, though. Though he had retained his l33t personality in public and with his students, time had mellowed him significantly, and when not in the spotlight, he was much more reserved than he had once been. Courtesy of Piro, he mused. It was amazing that one event could change a person so much.
He hated waiting, so as usual he didn't get on the plane until the attendant said that it was the final call. There were only three people in line, so the wait was short and the security checks brief. A quick trip down the jetway, a nod to the (r4ck3d) flight attendant, and he found his seat.
And was surprised to see who was sitting next to him.
He was running on a catwalk, looking disparately for a body to frag. Every second he wasted was a second when she could score the final pint, claiming victory in the London Gaming Tournament. Finally, he heard it—footsteps on the level below. He quietly crept to the edge of the catwalk and spotted her.
Quickly, he jumped down and put a proximity mine on her. His eyes left his screen, finding hers in the real world as they widened in shock.
Their eyes held in the few seconds before the mine blew up.
"Fancy seeing you here," Miho said as a familiar face came into view.
Largo took off his backpack and put it under the seat. "Only so many flights to Tokyo, I guess," he said, taking his seat. The flight attendant started droning on about the safety procedures, but both gamers had flown enough to ignore the lecture.
<I haven't talked to him since . . . time flies.>
After a moment of awkward silence, Largo spoke up. "Sorry about . . ."
"The proxy mine?" Miho finished. "Don't apologize for your frags—I sure don't. Besides," she said with amusement in her eyes, "that mine was pretty clever."
Silence reigned again for a few moments, but this time it was Miho who broke it. "So, what have you been doing between tournaments?"
"Same old. English teaching at Shiritsu Daitou. How about you?"
"I've been expanding Evil Corp. We opened our first U.S. Cave of Evil three weeks ago—it's been doing quite well so far. No crossbow attacks yet." This time, the amusement reached past her eyes and into her face, her lips twitching upwards slightly. "Why did you attack the CoE in Tokyo, anyway? It took two days to clean up the blood." Around them, the plane rattled with the forces of takeoff, but neither of them really noticed.
Largo sighed. "I honestly thought that the place was full of zombies. I really didn't have any idea what was a zombie and what wasn't. I've learned it since then."
Miho's eyes shifted to the window, and to the wet runway rushing by beyond. The plane had long since left the ground when Largo spoke again.
"Why did you claim to be queen of the zombies?"
It was now Miho's turn to sigh, her expression shifting to guilt. "I . . . it was amusing. I thought you were playing a game with me, and it was fun to play along. I didn't realize that you were serious about it until . . ." she trailed off.
". . . yeah. I . . ."
"That's another thing you shouldn't apologize for, Largo." The guilty look deepened. "I led you to that. It was my mistake."
Largo merely gave an unconvinced nod, and the conversation lapsed again into an uncomfortable silence. Miho unconsciously started playing with her hair, pulling the ribbon out of the right side and then threading it through again.
"You shall not stop me from defeating you!" he yelled.
"You have no idea, 'Great Teacher Largo', how close I am to you . . . how easy that defeat would be . . ."
The plane broke through the clouds, red sunlight flooding through the window on Miho's right. Now that they were above the clouds, it was clear that sunset was rapidly approaching. Cloud cover obscured the ocean far below.
A flight attendant asked them for drink orders. «White Zin,» Miho ordered, «please.»
The flight attendant handed Miho her drink and glanced to Largo. "And you?"
«Sapporo, in a glass. Thanks.» The attendant hid her surprise well as she found the drink.
As the attendant walked to the next aisle, Miho finally broke. «When did you learn Japanese?»
«I started four years ago,» he replied. «Piro taught me . . . he had a free year or so, I guess . . . »
Unsurprisingly, the conversation lapsed again into guilty expressions.
Largo eventually reached into his bag, pulling out a laptop and a pair of headphones. He slipped on the headphones and listened to some music.
Miho turned away, looking out the window and trying to hide the tears.
Miho was perched atop a stone wall, observing the scene, when Piro finally found Largo.
"Largo, I got my last paycheck. Put down that crossbow and let's go."
"I cannot go yet. I have not defeated the 3v1l 0n3."
Largo's attention snapped back to reality as the flight attendant appeared. He slipped the headphones off when she asked for their food orders. Miho seemed to hastily wipe her face before turning to the attendant and ordering sushi; Largo asked for filet mignon. The two ate their dinners in silence.
The silence continued after the meal was cleared. Miho turned her eyes back to the window, which by now held only a pitch-black sky. She didn't notice Largo staring at the side of her face.
They stayed in this position until the attendants dimmed the lights for night. Both gamers retrieved their pillows and blankets and leaned their chairs back to sleep. Once she was laying down, Miho once again turned towards the wall, closing her eyes and searching for oblivion.
Largo lay down facing the ceiling, and the two fell into an uneasy sleep.
"Largo . . . there is no 'evil one'. Miho may be creepy, but she's not evil."
"But she . . . how do you know the name of the 3vi1 0n3?"
"She's Ping's friend, I've met her before," Piro explained. "She's strange, but I don't think she's evil."
Largo seemed to stop short at that statement.
'. . . how close I am . . .'
His eyes narrowed. "Of course you would say that—3v1l m1n10n!"
"Miho . . ."
She was sound asleep, and actually, so was he—otherwise he would have figured out why he was so warm.
"For what it's worth . . . it wasn't your fault either."
"Largo?" Piro's eyes widened as Largo brought his crossbow to bear. "Largo!?" He started running as Largo pulled the trigger. The bolt whizzed over his shoulder, but Piro kept running, down the block and into the street.
The bus hit Piro with a sickening crack.
"Piro!" Largo yelled.
"Piro!" Miho yelled.
Miho's eyes snapped open in the darkened cabin, ending the nightmare. <Not a nightmare—a memory.> One that had haunted her for years, and would probably continue for years more.
As she returned to her senses, she wanted to sit up. But it was so warm, and she was tired . . .. Instead, she snuggled closer to the seat heater and went back to sleep.
It never occurred to her that there was no seat heater.
Forgiveness by Brent Dax
There were very few sounds in the room: the soft whir of computer fans, the low rumble of the heater, and the quiet sounds of pencil meeting paper. Tap, swish. Tap, swisssssh. Tap, swishswishswishswishswish . . .
Nodding to himself, Piro lifted the pencil from the paper and moved on to the other eye. Upper line . . . lower line . . . iris . . . pupil . . . highlight. . . . He was just about to start shading the iris when he heard a knock at the front door.
Setting the pencil down, Piro reached for the cane leaning against the drawing board and stood up. Pain flared in his right knee, but the artist ignored it, instead leaving the office and walking towards the front door. Click . . . click . . . click . . . click . . . click. Reaching for the doorknob, he opened the door.
"Good to see you again, Largo."
The lines came fast and furious. Upper line, lower line, iris, pupil, highlight. Upper line, lower line, iris, pupil, highlight. No time for shading—shading required patience, and Piro was getting impatient in this little room that reeked of antiseptics.
His arm was just about the only part of his body that wasn't hurt. Bandages, splints, and casts crisscrossed his body. He could move, but not a great deal. Every breath set off cracked ribs; every shift in position fired pain receptors throughout his body. And forget about walking—both legs were broken.
Yet that's all he wanted to do—walk out of this hospital. He didn't care anymore if he stayed in Japan or went to America—he just wanted out of this room . . .
He slammed the sketchbook shut, wincing with the pain shooting up his left arm.
"Why did this have to happen? Why me? Why did Largo have to put me here?"
The smell didn't answer.
Largo was surprised when he saw the interior of the house. It was spacious, a mix of dark hardwood, blue carpet, and deep-colored drywall—a little pocket of America in Japan. A semicircular staircase led to the second floor.
"You too, Piro," he said, grinning.
"Come in," Piro invited, "it's freezing out there."
Indeed, Largo felt fifteen degrees warmer when he stepped into the house. (When did I start thinking in Celsius?) It had stopped snowing yesterday, but the weather was still cold and cloudy in this part of Japan.
Piro closed the door behind him and turned around.
"Let me take your coat," he told Largo.
"Sure . . . thanks." He shrugged the coat off and handed it to Piro.
"Just take a seat in the living room. I'll be right back."
Largo took a few steps and crossed from the hardwood of the hallway—
—to the carpet of the living room. He looked around—
—and decided to sit in one of two red—
—chairs. That clicking was so distracting—
—and so incriminating.
A moment's pause as Piro put the coat away; then the clicking of cane on floor started again.
A short reprieve as he passed over a patch of carpet.
The carpet of the living room ended the sonic torture.
Piro walked to the other chair and sat down in it, leaning the cane against its side.
"Today's lesson will be held in the computer lab. Follow me."
The students had thoroughly learned the phrase 'follow me' by now, so all of them got up from their desks. A few grabbed backpacks, but most realized that they would not be going far. The group walked down the hall, down a flight of stairs and into the lab.
The lab consisted of twelve tables with four computers each on them. A teacher's station with a computer stood near the door. Cables were all neatly tied away. Sunlight flowed into the room, but at an angle that wouldn't cause glare on the screens.
A stack of Quake III Team Arena CD-Rs was piled on the teacher's station, and Largo picked them up. "You are to install this game and play it. Form games and teams as you see fit. Converse in English throughout."
He handed a disk to each student as they entered the lab, avoiding their eyes. A few of them started murmuring to each other about Great Teacher Largo's strange behavior the past few days. Largo didn't complain—they were doing so in English, after all.
Miho and Ping were at the back of the group, and even without looking at them, he could sense their misery. He handed them their disks and sat at the teacher's station, watching the students and thinking about someone miles away.
"So, I heard about your victory in London. Congratulations."
Largo seemed to snap out of wherever his mind was. "Huh? . . . oh, thanks. It wasn't that hard."
"Sixteen rounds of three genres and then a Quake IV deathmatch with Miho? That's hardly a cakewalk, Largo. The 'net was predicting she would win."
"I only won by a single frag," Largo replied. "That's hardly a resounding victory."
"You weren't supposed to win at all. A close win is better than a loss."
Largo shrugged without replying. Piro frowned. When did he become so passive?
"That's what the nurse said. They can move you to a nicer room in a week, but until then, you're stuck here." Largo walked around the hospital bed. "Dude, I . . . I'm sorry, I don't know what to say . . ."
Piro closed his eyes, not responding.
"Look, I . . . I have to go to work. Class starts in twenty minutes."
"Go," Piro said tonelessly. Largo nodded and left.
Piro was too miserable to reflect on the coldness in his voice.
This is stupid. I came out here to talk to him for the first time in three years and we're sitting here in silence.
Largo forced himself to speak, saying the first appropriate thing that came to mind. "How is Kimiko?"
Piro seemed to become more animated at her mention. "She's fine," he smiled. "She's in town today—apparently an intern scribbled all over a few files and she needs to re-record them. She said to relay her apologies."
Largo nodded, smiling a bit. "Tell her it's quite alright. I've had to abandon friends on short notice sometimes."
Piro seemed to be about to reply when a two-tone sound from the office got his attention. "That's an e-mail. Hold on a second—I'll be right back." Piro grabbed his cane, stood up, and started walking towards the office.
Largo visibly cringed as soon as Piro's back was turned. He was walking, which meant—
—the slow torture of the cane—
It was ten minutes before Largo left the chair. He walked around, noting the students' skills and giving a few pointers now and then.
"The first rule of Quake is that if you stop, you die."
"The first time you're shot, turn and start running backwards. That way you can fire at your opponent without stopping."
"The railgun requires a very accurate shot. Try using the shotgun next time."
"Look for people camping the flag."
"Guard doesn't make you invincible."
"Excellent use of the proximity mines."
"When you see a flash of color at the edge of the screen, pay attention—it could be another player."
Nevertheless, the students noticed the lack of enthusiasm in his voice, and more whispering ensued.
Finally, Largo reached Ping and Miho, at an otherwise empty table. He bent down next to Ping as she fragged herself with the rocket launcher. "The rocket launcher is a terrible close-range weapon, Ping."
"<Oka>—er, okay, Largo-sensei."
"And drop the 'sensei'. If you want to be formal, it's 'mister' in English."
Ping's face tinged red. "Oh. Sorry, Mr. Largo."
Largo smiled despite himself as he moved to Miho's station. She was racking up frags at an incredible pace, yet her frag count was in the single digits. It only took a moment to see why, as she was soon dropped back to the main menu.
"How many times have they kicked you?"
Largo frowned. This wasn't right—she didn't deserve to be shunned.
He turned to the class. "Wrap up your games. They end in five minutes."
Whispers spread across the room, but Largo ignored them.
Sitting in the chair and setting the cane aside, Piro shook the screensaver off and opened his e-mail program. The top message in his private account was from Yuki.
Piro double-clicked on the message and started reading it. In reality, though, his mind was farther away, back in the living room with Largo.
What's going on with him? Why is he acting so miserable?
"Because of something I let you put off."
Piro blinked and tilted his head up, to the top of the monitor. "Wow . . . I haven't seen you in . . . well, at least two years," Piro said.
Seraphim was perched on the monitor, with her laptop open on her thighs. "That's because you've become a self-regulating case, Piro. You've been doing well on your own. But I let you get away with this for far too long."
"Get away with what?"
Seraphim sighed. "You don't remember? Well, let's see if I can call it up for you." A few keystrokes on her laptop, and—
"Piro, you're making a big mistake."
"Whuh?" He opened his eyes to see Seraphim sitting on his stomach.
"Largo feels terrible, and you're making it worse."
"If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be here," Piro argued.
"He knows that, Piro. You don't need to rub it in. He wasn't trying to put you here."
"Yeah, he was just trying to kill me," Piro grumbled.
"No, he was trying to kill a zombie," Seraphim replied, sighing. "I warned you that something like this would happen if you stayed around Largo long enough. You put yourself in a dangerous situation," she reminded him. "You have no right to blame Largo or Miho for what happened to you—and believe me, their own blame is sufficient."
"I guess," he admitted.
"I know you can't forgive Largo yet. I'll let you get away with that—for now," she conceded. "But at least try to be nice to the guy. He didn't really want you to get hurt."
Piro started at the unexpected voice of Largo. "Huh?" He glanced back to the top of his monitor, but Seraphim was gone.
"The e-mail—who was it?" Largo asked.
"Oh, that was Yuki."
"Yuk—oh, the 'Piro-sensei' girl."
«'The Piro-sensei girl' is on her second popular series.»
Largo blinked a couple times before responding. «I hate it when you do that.»
"Hey, it's better than changing <in the middle of a sentence>," Piro grinned.
Largo grunted. "What was the message about?"
"She was returning a script," Piro replied. "We're critique partners—we check drafts of each others' work and give advice."
Largo nodded, taking the chair in front of Piro's drawing board. He glanced at the sheet of paper and its half-finished drawing. "What's this?" he asked.
"Just random characters," Piro replied. "Today's a day off for me, but I felt like drawing something. And I was waiting on Yuki's reply before I started drawing that comic, so I couldn't get started early."
Piro reached for his cane, but stopped when he saw Largo flinch. He sighed and let his hand drop to his side.
Seraphim's voice seemed to whisper in his ear. "You know what you need to do, Piro. I leave it to you to do it."
Largo started the setup process on the two other computers at Miho's and Ping's table. While they were installing, he wrote and compiled a quick-and-dirty mod. When the installation was finished, Largo set up the computer across from Ping as a team deathmatch server, installing the mod.
Moving to the computer across from Miho, he started the game and connected to the server.
Largo has entered the game for the blue team.
Miho has entered the game for the blue team.
Ping has entered the game for the blue team.
Slowly, the rest of the students connected, only to find they were all on the red team.
Miho glanced up from her computer in amazement. Largo nodded to her and turned his attention to the screen.
"3. 2. 1. Fight."
Hoshi almost dodged Largo's rocket.
Piro's sigh told Largo that the gig was up—Piro knew how uncomfortable he was.
"Largo . . ."
"I'm sorry, Piro," he said sadly. "I'm sorry I—"
"Don't be," Piro interrupted him.
When Piro awoke, the window was dark. His sketchbook and pencil were sitting on a table next to his bed.
It had been two weeks before they could move him, but the room was much better. Many of his more superficial injuries had healed, but one knee had been shattered and reconstructive surgery had only been partially successful. He would be able to walk again, but only with a cane, and he wouldn't be able to run.
Largo had fallen asleep in a chair next to him, as he had taken to doing recently. He looked very tired, and Piro suddenly felt sorry for him—he had been working hard to support both himself and Piro, thanklessly.
As Piro watched his friend sleeping, a thought occurred to him. They would be in Japan for a long time, and Piro would be bed-ridden for a while, leaving Largo as the only one able to communicate with the outside world. And he was missing an important skill to survive in this country.
Piro grabbed his sketchbook and pencil and flipped to an empty page. In his all-caps, illegible handwriting, he began scrawling notes on how to teach Largo Japanese.
"Look," Piro demanded. "Not a day goes by when I don't wish my knee was back to normal, when I don't wish I didn't need to take eight hundred milligrams of Motrin to get farther than my bathroom."
Largo's expression was a mixture of confusion and guilt. He started to say something, but Piro wouldn't let him.
"But you know what?" Piro asked. "That's a small price to pay. I have a beautiful wife, good friends, and a job I never dared to dream of. I'm happy, Largo, and I would have flown away from here and destroyed my chances at that." He shrugged. "All in all, it worked out pretty well."
Kaori was railed by Miho.
Largo: 570p /v/1n9!
Hoshi was in the wrong place.
Ping was gunned down by Kaori.
Kaori was telefragged by Ping.
Largo pushed back from the computer and stood up. "Class, we took" —he glanced at a clock—"five minutes to win a fifty-frag game. And we were massively outnumbered. Remember not to let your grudges guide you, or you will be defeated."
It was time to leave, and the students filed out of the room. Miho and Ping were last again, but Miho paused as she filed by Largo.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"Largo, you made a mistake. But I forgive you."
To say that a weight was lifted off Largo's shoulders would be a cliché—but an accurate one, for that was the sensation he felt. For the first time in four years, his guilt was gone—and it was a wonderful feeling.
"Thank you," he whispered.