Chapter Nine: Merenda

“A surprise party?”

“Yes, Ageha-Oniisama. Oneesama’s birthday is coming up soon, so I want to prepare a celebration for her.”

Ageha and Kureha both stood in the spacious kitchen of the Nikaidou manor. Kureha had started a conversation right after the chef had finished cleaning the countertop. The maids once tried to stop Ageha from doing that kind of work, but he insisted, saying that it was a habit of his to keep his workspace spotless.

“Does it need to be a surprise, though?”

Keeping secrets from that imp isn’t the easiest thing to do.

“We have never celebrated her birthday properly before. Either Otousama or Oneesama has always been too busy to do so.” The concerned sister’s face clouded.

“What about yours?” asked Ageha before Kureha got to her point.

“Mine?”

“Didn’t you say they were too busy to celebrate Kai’s birthday? You weren’t as occupied as her, so I was wondering if you found the time to have parties.”

“…I do not deserve that kind of attention. Spending their valuable time on someone like me is unthinkable. I would not be able to forgive myself.”

“Don’t say that. A sister who would go so far as to plan a surprise party for that bossy brat is already too nice in my books.”

“But Otousama said that being nice was a weakness. He often told me that I am weak and that the weak do not deserve recognition.”

Ageha was not unfamiliar with that sentiment. He gave some thought to his reply before responding.

“I don’t disagree with the last part. Not everyone can be strong, and the weak being preyed upon is natural. That’s why so many seek strength, but… it comes at a price.” He looked at his right palm for a moment, then lowered it. “I don’t know how it is for those born with it, but obtaining strength requires many sacrifices. You can lose ideals, people you care about, or even parts of yourself. I think that being able to pay that price is also a type of strength, so maybe it’s indeed innate.”

Kureha listened closely to Ageha’s words. She always looked eager whenever Ageha spoke with her, even when he started becoming preachy. Ageha did not know if Kureha understood what he said, given her youth, but he wanted to be earnest. To him, sugarcoating and oversimplifying were akin to disrespect.

“However, strength comes in different forms. People can even be blind to their own. For example, you are pretty strong from my perspective, Kureha-chan.”

“Not at all! How can that be?”

“It’s your kindness. Your father said it was weakness, but I disagree.” He slightly shook his head. “I don’t know the details, but you grew up in the same house as Kai. That couldn’t have been easy.”

Kureha subtly winced. Ageha noticed and made a sad smile.

“The first thing people cut away when they suffer is kindness,” he said with conviction, his eyes looking downward as if remembering something. “They dispose of their ability to care about others in order to protect themselves. The fact that you still have it proves that you’re strong. Not many have such fortitude.”

That said, culling compassion is also strength. Such polar sisters.

Kureha wore a complicated expression. She seemed to disagree, but Ageha did not want to pry any further. He concluded his lesson with one more piece of advice.

“Be more confident. You’ve earned it.”

In contrast to her earlier opposition, she locked eyes with him and nodded. It seemed she was more susceptible to straight guidance rather than sophistry. She had a determined look, accentuated by the rosy tinge on her cheeks. Ageha was captivated by her lovable expression but caught himself before staring too long and dragged the conversation back on point.

“Anyway, so you want to throw a surprise party?”

“Oh, yes. I want to do something for her. She has been nice to me recently, so I wish to return the favor.”

Does that mean that she wasn’t nice to you before?

“And you want me to help?”

“…I am sorry! I was being too arrogant! I should know my place!” Her volume fluctuated due to her repeated bowing. She then hurriedly turned around and tried to escape.

Ageha quickly placed his hand on her head, but it was not the usual soft touch. He gripped her head with enough force to stop her but not hurt her.

“Why are you running away!?”

“I am sorry! I am sorry! I have no right to ask Ageha-Oniisama for help!”

Where did all that determination from earlier go!?

Although Ageha did complain wordlessly, he knew confidence was not something easily acquired or faked. She had been making such great progress in their short time together that he decided not to worry about it. He turned her around using his hold on her head and then roughly ruffled her silky locks.

“Kids shouldn’t worry about such things! I’ll help you, so stop trying to escape.”

Kureha, who was unable to break free from his grasp, finally relaxed. Her cheeks looked burned. Ageha could not tell if that was from the embarrassment of not being able to escape or because of his offer of assistance.

“So what do you need?” asked Ageha, getting down to business.

“I want to prepare a feast for her and give her a birthday present.”

“I can handle the feast. As for the present, what did you have in mind?”

“I do not know yet. This is my first time giving someone a present so I wanted to browse a bit before choosing.”

Ageha learned another facet of her past; Nothing in it seemed to be anything pleasant. Some solitude was inevitable because she had lost her mother as a newborn, but her remaining family probably made it worse. Despite also having grown up without a mother, Ageha still had other people in his life during his youth. Ageha internally reaffirmed his assertion about her strength.

“I don’t know anything about the preferences of a teenage girl, much less a weird one like her.”

“I was not expecting you to.”

Ageha felt a twinge of pain from the lack of expectation despite being aware that his ignorance was completely normal. Knowing the tastes of little girls could get him placed in a certain dubious category.

Kureha, oblivious of his inner conflict, continued, “I wanted to ask for your company so I can go out to purchase a gift. It is scary to go by myself, and I… do not think that the people in the mansion would want to accompany me.”

“But you thought that I would?”

Kureha looked like she was about to cry, tears beginningto coalesce on her lashes.

“You’d be right,” he said as he flashed a winning smile.

Playing with her like this could become addicting.

“Thank you so much, Ageha-Oniisama!” Her eyes sparkled as she displayed her perfect white teeth.

“I have a day off tomorrow, so can we go then?”

“I am always available.”

“Got it. I guess we’ll have to tell Kai about this trip. I’ll try to catch her before I leave today.”

“She is in the bath. We can ask her once she comes out. She should be about done by now.”

“I see. Did you meet her before coming here?”

“No. It is common sense for a little sister to know where her Oneesama is at any time.” She beamed innocently.

No, it isn’t. How is that even possible? I guess the older sister isn’t the only weird one.

“Let’s go wait for her then.”

The pair left the kitchen and headed to the mansion baths. They discussed the plan for the surprise party as they strolled through the long corridors. When they turned into the hallway leading to the bath, they saw their target leisurely walking towards them.

“Oh, together as usual.”

“O-O-O-O-Oneesama!!! Why are you walking around like that!?”

“What do you mean? I’m always like this. Bringing clothes to the bath is a pain.”

“A-A-A-A-Ageha-Oniisama, don’t look!!!”

“Wow, you actually made her drop formality,” said Ageha.

“Ha! Praise me more!”

“You have perfect, white skin.”

“What are you doing praising her like it is normal!? Please turn around!” said Kureha.

Kureha tried to turn the much larger man by rotating him by his waist. This proved to be too difficult for her.

“Oneesama, please stop drying your hair and cover your body with that towel!”

“No way.”

“…Why!?”

“Because I don’t want to?”

Kaika pressed the fluffy brown bath towel on her damp hair, which sloped down her right shoulder and shrouded the breast below it. The rest of her was in full view. Her almost transparent complexion, untouched by the sun, was smooth like pouring milk and glistened under the hallway lighting. With her cheeks, neck, and shoulders still flushed from the heat, she appeared feverishly delicate despite her dominating aura. She emitted a different appeal with her hair down, as if she had aged by a year or so. Her ribs were faintly visible on her slender frame, which curved smoothly into her thighs. Littered with water droplets, her sylphlike legs were breathtaking. Kaika was an ethereal nymphet epitomized.

“B-B-But..!”

“Relax. It’s not like it’s the first time he’s seen me like this.”

“!!!”

“Why do you look like you just ate a silkworm?”

“I’m not sure what you are thinking, but nothing strange happened, alright?” said the chef, who was cool as a cucumber even after seeing his mistress in all her glory.

“…Really?”

“Yeah, I just bumped into her once while she was prancing around nude like this.”

“I wasn’t prancing! How rude. Can’t I dress how I want in my own house?”

“I personally don’t mind because you look like a child, but aren’t you actually fifteen?”

“I know what you’re trying to say, but my body looks much younger, so isn’t it fine if I behave correspondingly?”

I don’t think twelve-year-olds parade around naked in front of men, either.

Kaika waved a hand as if to present herself. Ageha took the invitation and gave her another look over. His eyes stopped at a certain spot.

“…Out of curiosity-”

“I shave.”

“I see.”

Kureha tilted her head at the conversation but broke out of her trance once she remembered her mission. She gave up on Ageha and decided to work on her older sister instead.

“Oneesama, please let me-”

“Kureha.”

A single frosty word made the young girl cower. Ageha knew little of their relationship and decided not to interfere. It was Kaika’s right to wear whatever she wanted, and he himself cared little.

“That’s right, we had some business with you,” said Ageha in an attempt to change the topic.

We? Interesting. Do you mind if we walk while talking? It’s a little chilly.”

Then wear some damn clothes.

“It won’t take that long. Actually…”

Ageha told Kaika that Kureha wanted to go shop for clothes and had asked him to escort her. He did not intend to ask for permission, thinking it unnecessary. He only wanted to inform Kaika of their activities out of respect for her position as his employer and Kureha’s sister.

So why did it end up like this?

He was walking behind three females in downtown Shinjuku while carrying several bags of clothes. Ageha did not expect Kaika and inevitably her butler to tag along the moment he mentioned the trip with Kureha. She was obviously coming along for entertainment rather than any need for new garments.

“Ojousama, I still think this is not a good idea. We should return to the mansion.”

Kureha jerked after hearing Saya’s request. They had not yet bought Kaika’s present due to their preoccupation with clothes shopping.

“It’ll be fine. We left the mansion in secret and even disguised ourselves,” said Kaika.

“That may be true for you, but the clothes you prepared for me hardly count as a disguise.”

Saya

Saya pulled on her yellow one piece dress with a high neckline. Her toned shoulders and back were exposed by the sleeveless and backless frock. Her exquisite curves were showcased by the snugly fitting skirt, which reached midway down her thighs. Due to Saya’s formal bearing, the lack of fabric gave an elegant impression rather than a lascivious one. Although her clothes were radically different, her face was the same as usual, unlike Kaika who wore cute red spectacles.

“What are you talking about? It’s a fantastic disguise! What do you think, Ageha?”

Ageha moved closer to the rest of his party and looked Saya up and down while walking beside her.

“It’s plenty. No one would recognize her.”

Saya fell silent with a complicated expression.

“See? The clothes make the girl,” said her mistress.

“I think it’s the opposite in this case,” said the young man without fluster.

“Making moves in front of everyone, how bold.”

“It’s an honest opinion, proven by how well she handles more masculine outfits.”

“I think some credit should go to me for choosing both apparels.”

“I find that hard to do considering the raw material you have to work with.”

Saya’s gait slowed ever so slightly. Ageha questioned if it really happened.

“Why is there such a difference in treatment between me and these two? You dole out compliments to them like free tissues, but you don’t recognize my merits at all. There must be something wrong with your head.”

“I don’t want to hear that from the one who gave me a list of things to praise her for.” Ageha pulled out a sheet of paper and hung it in front of his employer. “Look at this, there are over fifty items here. Who would even waste their time coming up with this? It’s even handwritten!”

“It’s not like it took me any time to write that. I know my gifts like the back of my hand. Good practice for my handwriting, too. Some contacts prefer letters with a personal touch. Look at number thirty-one. It says ‘Calligraphy’. By the way, the original was too heavy to carry around so that’s the abridged version.”

This is abridged!? …Wait, too heavy!?

“Why is ‘Calligraphy’ even on here? You specifically said to recite these at the start of this outing, so shouldn’t it be limited to things like how you look?”

“I did start writing with that in mind, but my pen just wouldn’t stop. It was like my muse had been unleashed. It practically wrote itself.”

“Don’t talk about this self-praise catalog as if it were some great work of literature.”

“But it is! You just don’t have any taste. Everything there is true, too.”

“How could I even know that? Half of these are things I’ve never seen you do.”

“Then what about the things that you have seen?”

Several line items in the list lauded Kaika’s current wardrobe. Ageha eyed Kaika’s appearance. The beige turtleneck revealed only her pearl white face and hands. Her wavy mane, stuffed into her ashen beret, peeked out from the edges of the hat. Some of the more rebellious strands rested on her red-rimmed glasses. Her plain black pants added a sensible touch to the ensemble. Even when disguised as a bibliophile, her innate loveliness shone through.

Well, they’re accurate.

“Well, they’re accurate,” said Ageha.

It occurred to Ageha that he had never seen Kaika wear anything more than once. This only confirmed his suspicion that she did not need more outfits.

“…Well that was a sudden change in attitude. You just wasted the seventeen comeback lines I had prepared.”

“Like I said, I’m just being honest. You don’t have to force me to read a list. And what’s with that oddly exact number..?”

“Saya, is he always like this?”

“Yes, if memory serves me right.”

Saya and Kureha were sparse with their words throughout the entire excursion. Saya did not speak unless addressed, while Kureha just shyly kept to herself.

“I… I think it is one of his good qualities,” said Kureha. Everyone was surprised by her suddenly chiming in, but the conversation continued onward.

“Hmm… I guess that kind of unreserved speech would mesh well with you,” said Kaika, switching her view to her sister.

“Thanks, Kureha-chan. You’re my only ally when these two Onee-sans bully me.”

“I believe you are older than me, Shikimi-sama,” said Saya after a cough.

“Not you too. I already have my hands full dealing with Kai’s idiosyncrasies. Also, can you stop calling me that? It’s too formal.”

“I cannot do that. Considering my position as a butler, I must abide by proper honorifics.”

“Isn’t the butler the highest position for a house employee?”

“You are not employed by the mansion but Kai-Ojousama herself. She also said that you are to be treated as a guest outside of your culinary duties.”

“Then at least call be by my first name. I prefer that over my last.”

“…I still think that-”

“Do as he wishes. The manner of address should be left to the receiver, not the speaker. They are the ones compelled to listen, after all,” said Kaika.

“But…”

“And drop that for me as well for the duration of this trip. We’re disguised, so we should play our parts properly. I’m Kaya and she’s Kureha, Saya Shikimi’s younger sisters. And we’re all Ageha-Niisan’s cousins.” She seemed to be enjoying playing house sans parents.

“…Understood.”

“Kureha Shikimi…” mumbled Kureha almost inaudibly.

“I don’t remember having such a bossy relative,” said Ageha.

“I’m sorry, Ageha-Niisan. Please don’t be angry. From now on I will do as Niisan says,” said Kaika sweetly while grabbing onto Ageha’s shirt hem with two fingers. She skillfully played the timid bookworm.

“Please stop that. You’re too good. It’s disgusting.”

“What do you mean disgusting!?”

“I have to agree.”

“Even you, Saya!?”

“…I hate to say this-” Kureha bowed her head in hesitation.

“Then don’t! What the hell is wrong with you people? My acting was perfect!”

“That’s the problem. If anyone else saw that, they would be completely fooled. But for us who know what you’re really like, it causes nothing but goosebumps.”

The other two nodded at Ageha’s concise explanation. Thinking it required further description, he continued, “A wolf in sheep’s clothing doesn’t even begin to describe it.”

“A lion coaxing a fawn?” asked Saya as she cocked her head in thought.

“…I do not think Ageha-Oniisama is a fawn.”

“Relatively speaking.” Saya peeked at her mistress.

Kureha followed her gaze and said, “Ah…The scales have fallen from my eyes, Saionji-san,” with a nod.

“That’s a little rude to lions, though,” said Ageha.

“Stop teaming up against me!” shouted the stomping fifteen year old.

The teasing trio laughed with differing intensities, proportional to age but due to personality. Kaika looked miffed, but it was evidently an act. Ageha thought she probably enjoyed being on the receiving end on occasion.

The four of them continued their shopping spree. Kaika led them to another boutique and asked Saya to pick out some dresses for Kureha. The stoic woman and the shy young lady formed a rather mute pair and went deeper into the store to browse. Ageha was mentally exhausted from all of the shopping, something he rarely did. He felt lucky his limbs were immune to the same problem. Kaika did not follow the two and instead took a seat beside Ageha on the boyfriend bench typically found in female-oriented stores.

“Matsunaga.”

Ageha’s eyes widened at his employer’s opening line. “…I’m impressed.”

“I make it a point to be learned about those under my care.”

“There’s nothing to worry about.”

“Is that why you didn’t inform me before or even after?”

“That, and I prefer to keep personal and professional matters separate.”

“There’s no merit in doing that, especially when it comes to our partnership.”

“What do you mean?”

“The deal was information and resources, right? That was never restricted to your service to me. You can use it for your hobbies as well.”

“That’s very generous of you. It makes me doubt your motivation though. There’s nothing more suspicious than a good deal.”

“Distrustful as ever. The offer isn’t just for your benefit. My assistance should significantly reduce the risk of you getting caught. Your capture would be problematic for me as your employer.”

“Our only relationship, as far as the world knows, is a chef and his client. I doubt there would be any repercussions for you.”

“You misunderstand. I simply don’t want to lose a valuable resource.”

“…I didn’t think you would say that after Akiba.”

“I look forward, never back.” Kaika proudly grinned, her eyes closed.

Ageha accepted Kaika’s reasoning and chose to consider the offer. There was no reason to decide immediately, and he still had misgivings about revealing his morbid personal affairs to anyone, much less his boss.

“I’ll think about it.”

“I guess that’s enough for now.”

A while later, Saya and Kureha returned with an attendant holding several pastel colored dresses. Kureha was already wearing a similar one. It seemed like she intended to wear it for the rest of the trip.

“Did you pick that, Saya?” asked Ageha.

“Yes, Ageha.”

She’s still playing along. How obedient. I guess that applies to me too.

“I’m sure Kureha would look great in anything, but I must say you have good fashion sense.”

Kureha reddened at the customary praise. She gripped the pastel blue skirt of her one piece dress. It had short sleeves and a white ribbon on the chest. The design increased the innocent vibe that she naturally emitted.

“Thanks,” said Saya.

“What’s with this difference in treatment..?” said Kaika, her eyebrows crumpled together.

They purchased the items and left the store. After strolling for a while longer, Ageha noticed a change in Kureha’s behavior. She was probably worried because it was already getting late. She had not yet had a chance to buy a present for her sister.

Ageha walked to her side and whispered, “I’ll try to find a chance to lose those two so we can buy the present, okay?”

Kureha’s darkened expression lit up and she nodded twice in agreement. Ageha was considering his options when he heard a familiar voice calling him.

“Ageha!”

He turned and saw Rin jogging to him while waving her right hand. He raised a hand in response to her greeting.

I didn’t think our family act would actually come in handy.

“What are you doing here? Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize you had company.”

It was an expected question because Rin knew that Ageha was not one to frequent Shinjuku or any other shopping hub. This reminded Ageha how much Rin already knew about him. He made a mental note to avoid handing out further information, lest she stumble into something she could not unsee.

“I was just showing my cousins around the city. They came from Hokkaido and insisted on a tour as soon as they got here.”

“So that’s why you took a day off. Kirishima-san wasn’t pleased, you know. He called me asking where you were. Matsunaga-san still hasn’t called in despite being gone for days, and now we’re suddenly down another chef.”

Ageha heard a faint gasp from Kureha beside him. He did not want her to know that he was skipping work for this errand because she would feel responsible. He had called Sapore this morning to inform them of his absence, but only spoke with Yama. He also did not go into detail about his excuse.

“Hey, you’re out here too.”

“I work the sala. It’s the cucina that’s in crisis.”

She was right. Sighing in defeat, Ageha retreated by starting introductions.

“Let me introduce you. This is Saya and her sisters, Kaya and Kureha.”

“My name is Saya Shikimi. It is a pleasure to meet your acquaintance.”

“I am Kaya. It is a pleasure.”

“…My name is Kureha… Nice to meet you.”

The three ladies took turns introducing themselves with bows. Rin scanned them and muttered, “Whoa…” before taking the pedestal. “I’m Rin Natsume. It’s nice to meet all of you too!”

“She’s a server at Sapore, the restaurant where I work.”

“You might have to change that to past tense soon,” said Rin.

“Please keep the reason a secret from Kirishima-san. I’ll come up with something more convincing later.”

“You can count on me! I’ll just add this to your tab.”

“I have a tab?”

“You didn’t know? It’s gotten pretty big lately. Maybe I should collect soon.”

“Just so you know, I don’t have much.”

“That’s fine. Treat me to dinner, and we’re square. Still, as expected of Ageha’s family, everyone is so cute…”

“You just haven’t seen them hungry, angry, or worse, both.”

Rin giggled after a moment of imagination. Ageha realized this chance encounter was the perfect opportunity he had been waiting for.

“What are you shopping for?” he asked, executing his scheme.

“Gear and supplies for a hiking trip. My friends invited me to go on one in a few weeks. It’s been a long time since I’ve camped out in the woods, so I need to buy a lot of new stuff.”

“Hiking, huh? Sounds like fun.”

A cute cough from Kaya interrupted the conversation.

“Oh, sorry for keeping you. Are you still going around shopping?” said Rin.

“Actually, we should be heading back soon. It is getting late,” said Saya.

“About that, Saya, I was thinking of accompanying Rin on her errand. Hiking and camping gear are heavy, so I want to help her out. Can you go back without me?”

“Really!? An extra pair of hands would be a great help! I was a little worried if I could buy everything in one trip.”

Saya glanced at Kaika. Upon getting a look of resigned agreement, she said, “Okay. Ageha, should I carry those bags home?”

“No, I’ll bring them over later. This much is nothing even with hiking gear on top.”

“How manly!” Rin tried to poke Ageha with her elbow, but he blocked it with one of the shopping bags.

Ageha found Kureha looking at him in confusion, so he prodded her with his gaze. Kureha’s pink lips formed a circle when she figured out what he was thinking.

“…Saya-Oneesan, can I stay with Ageha-Oniisan? I want to look around a little more,” said Kureha. She was quivering in fear of Kaika’s reaction.

“But Kureha-” Saya was halted by a tug on the skirt from Kaika. Saya nodded with understanding. “I leave Kureha to you, Ageha. Please be safe. We’ll be going now.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll be back before you know it.”

The party split up after the short farewells. Ageha and Kureha formed a trio with Rin, and the two groups headed in different directions. The two conspirators exchanged smiles due to the success of their makeshift plan. Both Kaika and Saya had dined at Sapore before. Ageha surmised that Kaika would not risk bringing attention to themselves by not giving permission. Kaika had to retreat for the day due to Rin’s presence.

“There’s something about those two…” said Rin.

She recognized them?

“I wonder why Saya-san looked to Kaya-chan when you asked them to go ahead? It was almost like she was asking about what to do.”

“Saya probably wanted to make sure Kaya-chan was okay with it. That girl can be a bit spoiled.”

“Really? She didn’t look like it at all. She seemed pretty reserved. She looked so cute in those glasses!”

Ageha and Kureha locked eyes once again and then burst into laughter.

 

***

 

“””Surprise!”””

I knew it.

“““Happy Birthday!””” shouted the three people in the dining room right after Kaika’s entrance.

Kaika noticed early on that Kureha was keeping something from her. It was even easier to discern that it involved Ageha and later on Saya, who was likely obliged to participate to avoid hurting Kureha’s feelings.

Kaika looked at her butler. Saya pleaded to Kaika with her eyes, begging her to play along. Kaika was seething at the fact that she had more than enough reason to forgive all of them. None of this was perceivable on her face.

She could have asked properly earlier. It seems a promise with my younger sister holds value to her.

“I was wondering what all of you were doing in secret. To think it was for my birthday. I completely forgot about it.” Kaika obviously faked a wry smile, as if to conceal her embarrassment.  It was an act on top of an act.

She did not forget about her birthday. She could not. She had too strong of an emotion associated with it for such a thing to be possible. It was a feeling completely opposite of what would normally be expected for such a day.

“Ageha-Oniisama prepared a feast for you. I hope you like it!”

“Saya helped me come up with the menu. She said that you’re accustomed to fine dining, so I opted to make something more typical of a normal Japanese household. I say Japanese, but half of it is actually western food. Well, it is what it is.”

‘Saya’, huh. It seems playing house had an effect.

The table was filled with roasted chicken, spaghetti naporitan, potato salad, tonkatsu, hamburg steak, and platters of colorful uramaki. Kaika had seen or read of them before but had not tried them. They were dishes that would never appear on the Nikaidou menu. At the head of the table, Kaika’s usual seat, was a clumsily decorated strawberry shortcake.

Kureha was probably responsible for that.

“Kureha and Saya decorated the cake.”

That was unexpected. I’ll have to update my info about Saya’s skill set. It’s funny how quickly Ageha abandoned them to preserve his image.

“Please take a seat,” said Saya as she pulled out Kaika’s chair. Kaika caught a faint “Thank you,” from her butler as she seated herself.

Saya knew how much Kaika loathed her birthday. They never celebrated it because Kaika, trampling on her father’s desire to celebrate his masterpiece annually, had expressly told him that she did not want to.

“O-Oneesama.”

“What is it?”

“Before we begin, I want to give you a present. It is not much, so feel free to throw it away if you do not like it, but I… I would be really happy if you keep… if you use it.”

Kureha held out both her hands with her eyes squeezed shut. A small wrapped box rested atop her palms. The birthday girl took the box, opened it, and glared at the contents.

What is this girl thinking..?

Inside were two blood-red, shell-shaped hair ties.

“Did you choose these?” asked Kaika, her voice exposing some frigidness.

“Yes! But Ageha-Oniisama also said that it was a good choice because the color matched your current ribbon, and the shape matched your preferred nickname.”

“…Thank you.”

It was an awkward expression of gratitude and a rare failure in the facade. Even Kaika could not maintain perfection in certain situations, this being an example.

Kaika despised her birthday because it was an indelible reminder of her inability to control her fate. It was something that she never had the ability or chance to decide for herself. Receiving a birthday gift that referenced her name, another sign of destiny toying with her, appalled her.

“Okay then, let’s eat!” It was the chef who dispelled the odd atmosphere.

“Please wait! I also have a gift for Ageha-Oniisama.”

“What?”

“It is for helping me prepare all of this and for choosing the gift with me.”

“That was-”

“Please accept it!” She repeated her earlier action with a smaller box.

“Thanks, Kureha-chan.” He took the box. “Can I open it?”

“O-Of course.”

A silver ring embellished with engraved lines stood in the center of the opened ring case. Ageha took it out and wore it on his left ring finger. Seeing this, Kureha blushed furiously, the red even reaching her nape.

“Not bad. I don’t really wear jewelry, but this will be the exception. Why a ring though?”

“It was Rin-san who suggested it. She said that it would add a bit of flair to- Oh, please forget what I said! Rin-san had nothing to do with it!”

That woman… Being a cameriera, she knew that chefs cannot wear rings in the cucina. She failed to consider Kureha’s personality when she asked her to keep it a secret, though.

“Got it. I didn’t hear anything.” He tousled Kureha’s hair with his right hand.

How considerate. He wears the ring on his left hand because he does that with the other.

“Why does it feel like I’m not even the star of my own birthday party? I’m the main character here…”

“Would that not be Ageha-sama if we factor in the male to female ratio?”

It was a comment that triggered another shootout of bickering, teasing, and loud nonsense. Kaika sighed as she resigned herself to taking part in another farce. She took a bite of the tonkatsu and unconsciously smiled. It was scrumptious. Excellent food always put dimples on her face.

If everything were this simple…

Life wouldn’t be worth living.

 

 

Next Chapter

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One thought on “Chapter Nine: Merenda

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