An office building on Wall Street in New York City, late in the evening on Monday. Eastern time.
Glancing out a window at the snow falling outside, a nondescript janitor adjusted his cap and rolled a wastebin down the lobby, making his way towards the back exit.
Despite the late hour, there were still plenty of people out and about. Frazzled businessmen in suits, making calls while walking around with a cup of coffee. Disgruntled college interns carrying trays of coffee for those businessmen. Female secretaries that were either failed actors looking for any job they could take or women trying to get a leg up by looking for a handout from a businessman.
Toby glanced at the crowd around him and walked around the edge, avoiding people as best as he could.
A few businessmen glanced at him, wrinkling their noses, but otherwise people left him alone.
Like that, the agent without a number headed towards his exit route unaccosted... until a man stepped out to block his way.
Toby gave him a once over.
A fairly trained body. A rugged face that could be considered handsome with sharp dark eyes. Black hair that was a bit shaggy, but in a way that could be considered attractive rather than messy.
Paired with his black tuxedo and the barely concealed pistol and knife on his body, the man was a clear threat. And standing in Toby's way, if it were any other time, he would have eliminated him.
But there wasn't a need for that.
Rather than responding with hostility, Toby gave the man a warm smile and said, "Mister Mercer. How are you this evening?"
The man chuckled and said, "Like I said, Toby. You can just call me Xander." He glanced around the room and muttered, "These bigwigs don't care about us goons, so we gotta stick together, you know?"
Toby nodded. "I'll keep that in mind."
"Anyway." Xander rummaged around in his tuxedo and said, "Didn't mean to stop you, but I had some trash. You don't mind, right?"
"Of course not."
Xander pulled out some crumpled scratch cards and tossed them into the wastebin. After seeing them hit the black bags, Xander sighed and said, "Damned scratch tickets. Those printed odds are definitely lies."
Toby leaned against the wastebin and chuckled. "Of course they are. That's why you should invest in something more secure like stocks or NFTs."
Xander sighed. "I know, I know. My little sis has been telling me to stop too, but I can't help it." The security guard frowned and said, "Can't smoke or drink without risking losing my only source of income and all of these ladies are gold diggers, so they're no good either. I've gotta blow off steam somehow."
"Mm. That's understandable. But if you're planning on throwing money away... Have you heard about that new virtual idol group?"
Xander blinked. "Virtual idol group?"
Toby rummaged in his pocket and pulled out his phone. After pulling up Aoko's channel on UTube, he played a clip from her recent stream and held it out for Xander.
*Thank you Aima Simp... Huh? What's so funny? The hell are you guys laughing at? ...Aima Simp means 'I am a simp' in English? What's a simp?*
"Pft." Xander shook his head and said, "What is that? Some Japanese cartoon?"
"A real life Anime girl is what it is." Toby tucked his phone back into his pocket and said, "And one that you can interact with through chat... or with the recent trend, bully with money."
"Bully with money?"
Toby shrugged. "If you're throwing your salary away anyway, why not help a girl achieve her dream? ...And get entertainment out of it in the process?"
Xander rubbed his chin. "I guess. Though I didn't take a guy like you to be into that sort of thing, Toby. You always seemed more of a jazz or bar kind of guy."
"I am a man of many skills and many varied interests."
Toby gestured towards the wastebin and said, "I enjoy you taking the time to talk, Xander, but..."
"My bad." Xander stepped out of the way. "Go ahead, Toby. God forbid one of those bastards gets pissed because their garbage bin was full for too long."
Toby smirked and said, "If only we could take them out along with the trash."
"Tell me about it. Especially that Rothschild guy..." Xander shook his head and then waved at Toby. "Anyway, I'll catch you around... And send me a link to that Japanese idol cartoon or whatever."
"Will do. Have a good evening, Mister Mercer."
"Polite as ever..." Xander shook his head and walked off.
Toby watched him leave and then grabbed the wastebin, rolling it towards the back exit.
This time, no one barred his path.
After opening the door and pushing the wastebin out into the frosty night, Toby glanced down at the trashbags and muttered, "You did well to behave, Mister Rothschild. It would have been unfortunate for you if you did not."
A muffled groan echoed from the trashbags.
Toby rolled the wastebin down a ramp and towards the dumpster in the back alleyway. Once there, he reached out and tossed a few of the real trashbags on top into the dumpster. After that, he glanced around and swept the area with his senses.
"No surveillance, no witnesses." Toby pulled out his phone and checked the time. "...And my shift has just finished." He nodded and said, "I suppose that means that we should finish our conversation." He reached into the wastebin and then grabbed the remaining bag, slinging it over his shoulder.
A muffled groan echoed, but Toby ignored it. Instead, he started walking, using the powers that his new employer vested in him to change the garbage bag to a less conspicuous duffel bag.
Stepping out into the dark night, Toby muttered, "Mister Rothschild. You were having sleepless nights recently concerned about the depreciating cryptocurrency value weren't you?" The agent without a number smirked and said, "Don't worry. After tonight, all your worries are going to be washed away. And you'll get to finally see your daughter again after all this time. Won't that be pleasant? ...Ah, but my employer said that you won't be meeting your granddaughter any time soon, so please give up on that."
Silence, and then the bag started to thrash, Toby's target desperately struggling to break free.
"Hm. I suppose you have been under quite a bit of stress. Then... please, sleep well, Mister Rothschild. And rest assured. I will make certain that your will and testament are properly recorded to pass to your cute granddaughter."
A muffled scream echoed for a split second. But before it could reach anyone, Toby snapped his fingers.
An invisible ripple spread through the air and then the bag went still.
After that, Toby pulled out his phone and opened up to Aoko's channel on UTube and sent the link to Xander.
Might as well do that before he went off the grid for his next target in Los Angeles... And considering all the useful skills that his employer was lending to him, Toby figured that the least he could do was advertise his employer's business venture.
Well, that and support the young girls chasing their dreams with Superchats.
It wasn't like the money he earned while working undercover was going anywhere.
Back in Japan, on the rooftop of a school in the suburban areas of Tokyo. A quarter to noon, Tuesday morning Japan Standard Time.
Snowdrifts pressed up against the fenced gate lining the edge of the roof, with some stray snow falling through the holes. White covered most of the area, the snow left untouched. But near the back, and opposite the door leading up to the rooftop, a bench and the area around it had been cleared of snow. Perfect for someone to sit down and relax in solitude.
Something that Chihiro Kimura definitely planned to do.
Letting the door close behind her, Chihiro walked over to the bench, holding a wrapped bread in her left hand and a warm thermos of green tea in her right.
Tucked inside a dark blue parka with a gray scarf and knitted wool cap, the slight chill didn't bother her at all.
Chihiro sat down on the right end of the bench and then placed her thermos on her left. After that, she placed her backpack on the ground beside her.
A chilly breeze blew past.
Chihiro frowned and pulled up her scarf a bit. After that, she unwrapped her bread and took out her phone, opening up UTube. Nibbling on her lunch, she scrolled through her subscriptions and then paused when she saw a notification from Hana Homura Ch.
"Hm?" She tapped on the notification, reading it. "A collab stream between all three girls?"
Chihiro had been a fan of Project MirAIs since they started and was looking forward to Hana's next stream. That was part of the reason why she chose to have lunch outside in the cold. But she definitely didn't expect it to be a collab stream with the other girls.
Chihiro adjusted her glasses and then took another bite of the bread, mulling over the upcoming stream.
Alfi, Aoko, and Hana. Considering that Hana called both of them her older sisters but used the more respectful term for Aoko...
Would it be a competition then? The stream was supposedly going to be one using the new VR version of Just Dancing, so-
A flash of inspiration.
Hana, happily dancing in the back and reading the chat. Alfi and Aoko dancing along as well, but glaring at each other between every move.
Chihiro quickly set her bread aside and rummaged in her backpack for her sketchbook. She grabbed it, along with a lead pencil, and placed it on her lap, flipping past some fanart of Hana and Alfi to a blank page. Once there, she started sketching out a rough draft of the poses for the image she had in her mind.
And then the door opened.
Chihiro blinked and glanced over.
The intruder of her silent solitude was a young man, probably in his mid-twenties. Tousled brown hair with soft curled bangs over his eyes. Wearing a tan suit and a fluffy white scarf, despite being professional attire, he somehow pulled off a fashionable air around him. Though, considering that he looked more like a model than a school teacher, it wasn't too odd.
Chihiro inclined her head and said, "Good afternoon, Torabu-Sensei."
The teacher looked at Chihiro and sighed. "The same to you, Kimura-san." He swept his brown eyes across the rooftop and frowned. "You've got to stop sneaking up here to have lunch."
Chihiro shrugged and turned her attention back to her sketchbook. "I should say the same to you. The teachers are supposed to have lunch together."
'Torabu-sensei' coughed. "That's true... but I'm a substitute teacher anyway. It's not like I have to have lunch with them." He walked over to the bench and sat down next to Chihiro. But perhaps because he was conscious about the impropriety, he placed his bag in between them and sat on the outer left edge, his back turned away from her.
Chihiro glanced at him and then shrugged, going back to her sketch while waiting for Hana's stream to start.
Torabu-sensei pulled out a tablet from his bag along with a pen and then opened a drawing app. After spinning the pen a few times, he started sketching out some gesture lines and some perspective lines for a background.
Chihiro noticed and said, "Procrastinating on your work again, Sensei?"
Torabu-sensei flinched and then let out a nervous laugh. "Don't worry about it, Kimura-san. Sensei has that all sorted out."
"Did you finish grading our exams then?"
Torabu-sensei groaned. "Dammit. Guess it's another all-nighter..."
Chihiro finished up the her sketch and placed her sketchpad away. After that, she screwed the cap off of her thermos and took a sip of her tea. "This is Sensei's fault for spending all that time on drawing instead of your work."
"It's not my fault." Torabu-Sensei let out a long sigh and ran his left hand through his hair. "Being a teacher is my side-gig." He frowned and said, "Do you know how hard it is to get a loan and rent a place when you say that you're a freelance artist? 'Sorry, Ichiro-san. Your income is too uncertain for us to accept you.' Or 'Freelance...? So you aren't skilled enough to be serialized?'"
Chihiro picked up her bread and took a bite. After that, she sipped her tea. "I'm afraid not, Sensei."
Torabu-Sensei spat on the ground and said, "Bastards, all of them. They don't realize how much of a pain it is to have to meet deadlines all the time every damned week when you're serialized... And now I'm ranting to my student. Great." He paused and then glanced over at Chihiro. Rubbing the back of his neck, he said, "Er, you won't tell anyone, right?"
Chihiro shook her head. "It's fine, Sensei. I don't have anyone to tell your secrets to anyway."
Torabu-sensei... Or rather, Ichiro Torabu frowned and said, "About that... Is something going on? The teacher before me said there wasn't anything, but the other students don't talk to you and you're always alone up here." He narrowed his eyes and said, "Are you being bullied? Blackmailed?"
A faint smile crossed Chihiro's face and she shook her head. "I'm fine, Sensei. And it's nothing like that. I'm just used to being alone."
"...Well if you have any problems, tell me, alright?" Ichiro laughed and said, "I'm a substitute teacher anyway, so it won't be too big of a problem if I cause a scandal and get fired."
"...Won't that cause even more trouble for Sensei when trying to get a loan than being a freelance artist?"
Ichiro coughed. "W-Well... I guess I could always beg my new boss for some company lodgings. I *did* refer a potential recruit to Proj- to her family's project, so I should have some pull. Maybe." He frowned. "Though if I don't get the keyframes for the new PV done by the end of the week, Miss Nova might change her mind..."
Chihiro pulled out a pair of headphones from her bag and plugged them into her phone. After that, she put them on and said, "Then Sensei should stop talking and start working."
"...You're right." Ichiro sighed and said, "Man, getting life advice from my student like this... I wonder if this is why Aneue never returned my calls. And why Yuri-chan keeps yelling at me to get a life..."
Chihiro decided to ignore her teacher and focus on the stream.
Hana, Aoko, and Alfi.
Three of the people that she admired the most... and people that she could call her Senpai if things went well.
She smiled and then waited for the stream to start, curious on how the three would interact.