Chapter Ten: Salt and Pepper

“I have always wondered. Why do you not use guns, Ageha-sama?”

“Are you seriously going to keep calling me that even during an operation?”

“How should I address you then?” asked Saya as she turned the steering wheel.

With streetlights illuminating the road ahead, they sped along the highway. They were riding a non-descript gray car with a fake license plate specially prepared for what they intended to do tonight.

“…Since I’m wearing all black, how about ‘Kuro?’ Hmm, but that sounds like a cat name… What about ‘Hei?’ It’s Chinese for black.”

“I do not think that is a good idea for various reasons.”

“Really? Too childish, I guess. Just Ageha then.”

“Would that not reveal your identity if the enemy hears it?”

“Well, it’s just my given name, and they’ll probably think it’s an alias anyway.”

“But still… I have an idea. I shall give you a code name that we can use.”

Ageha raised an eyebrow at the suggestion but did not decline. Saya thought silently for a while. After making another turn on the road she said,

“How about ‘Kokku?’”

“What.”

“I thought about something that represents both of your identities, a chef and a black clad killer. So ‘a cook’ (kokku) and ‘black’ (koku).

Ageha was flabbergasted, and it showed on his face. He pondered if she realized that ‘kokku’ also meant ‘cock’ in English.

“Rejected. And I don’t need puns in my name.”

“…I had confidence in it…” whispered Saya with a disappointed look.

Saya had become more expressive recently. Ageha wondered if she was actually like this by nature when unguarded or if she was only this unreserved with him. He immediately erased the latter possibility from his mind.

Recovering from her previous failure, Saya gave another name candidate.

“How about ‘Chou?’”

“Butterfly?”

My name does mean swallowtail butterfly.

“Also the second word of kitchen knife (houchou).”

Is she an old man inside..?

“Pun aside, I can work with that. It’s short and easy to say.”

“Understood. I shall address you like so during missions.”

“It sounds like your calling me chief (Chou), though.”

“I had not thought of that! A good one, Chou!”

I’m regretting this whole code name business already.

“What should my code name be then?” asked Saya, her head tilted.

“You’re asking me?”

“It is only fair.”

Ugh.

Ageha crossed his arms and closed his eyes as he cycled through possible code names for the versatile butler.

“Sebas- okay, okay, I’m sorry. I’ll think about it properly.”

Ageha instantly pulled back his suggestion when he saw Saya’s rare scowl.

I guess her becoming more expressive isn’t all good.

The car sped along the highway as Ageha mentally struggled to come up with a name that would satisfy his partner for the night.

“How about ‘Mikazuki’?”

“Crescent moon?”

“Yeah, but we need to keep it short, so ‘Tsuki’.”

“Why did you pick that?”

“I’ve always thought that your face resembled a crescent moon because of your hairstyle.”

“Choosing a name because of my hairstyle is a little-”

“It isn’t the hairstyle but what it highlights that caught my eye. Well, I can pick another one if you don’t like it.”

“…Tsuki is fine.”

Not making eye contact with her lone passenger, Saya stared straight at the road ahead.

“Back on topic, why do you not use guns, Chou?

After I tried so hard to avoid the topic..!

“You really like that nickname, don’t you?”

“It is for practice. And please answer the question, if not for my idle curiosity, for future strategic considerations.”

Cornered, Ageha surrendered and gave his explanation.

“I suck at shooting.” He breathed out a long sigh.

“Maybe you just lack practice?”

“I tried, believe me. I’ve always been clumsy, especially with my hands.”

“Your exquisite dishes beg to differ.”

Ageha smiled at the offhand compliment but did not relent.

“I’ve cooked all my life, so I ended up good at it. It isn’t natural talent. The effort is what I take pride in.”

“Is your martial ability like that as well?”

Ageha analyzed if Saya’s question was about his combat training or killing experience. He concluded it was both.

“You can say that.”

I had a very odd teacher though.

“Speaking of idle curiosity, why do you always wear a butler outfit? I think this is only the second time I’ve seen you wear anything different.”

Saya fidgeted a little as Ageha eyed her current attire. She wore skin tight black material all around her body. The torso area had thicker material but still brandished her delicate curves. Her athletic yet feminine shoulders were emphasized by the fabric stitching. Having the captivating contours of a female gymnast, her legs looked lithe despite being made of metal.

“That is Kai-Ojousama’s preference. I personally do not mind what uniform I wear when on duty.”

“She has good taste in food and fashion. The butler uniform fits you perfectly.”

“…Thank you.”

Her deadpan expression did not falter, but the pitch of her voice was minutely higher.

“Your minimal chest girth gives it a really dignified look. Why are you grabbing my hair!? That’s dangerous! You’re driving!”

Saya still bore an expressionless look while facing the road. Unmoving, her left hand was coiled into Ageha’s black hair.

“Excuse me.”

Her left hand slowly returned to the steering wheel. Saya nonchalantly continued to drive as if nothing happened. Ageha decided to forget the bizarre robotic outburst and changed the topic.

“I still don’t understand why an assassin was sent on a thieving mission,” he grumbled, faking annoyance to alleviate the heavy atmosphere.

“To put it bluntly, we need the muscle.”

“That is blunt. Are you angry?”

“No, why would I be?” she said flatly as if reading off a script.

“Anyway, why are we stealing a painting from a museum? Kai refused to tell me the true objective of this plan.”

“She did not divulge it to me either, but she must have something in mind. It must be important if she ordered me away from her side.”

Kai did say the painting was absolutely essential, which is why I agreed to this in the first place.

He almost refused to take part in this mission because it was not part of his duties, but his failure in Akihabara made him reconsider. He had not provided any significant service to Kaika outside of his cooking but had still received monetary and cybernetic compensation for their partnership. A little overtime was not an unreasonable demand from his generous employer.

“Aren’t you worried, leaving her alone in that mansion?”

“We left covertly, so the enemies should not be aware that she is unguarded right now. While I say unguarded, we still have the other bodyguards stationed throughout the mansion.”

“I wouldn’t put too much trust in those guys.”

“Coming from you, that is really convincing.” Recovering her mood, she giggled. “But we have no choice. We need at least two people with sufficient capability to fight our way out without damaging the painting.”

“Is there really no way to get it out without being detected?”

“It’s impossible to disable the alarm system from outside the security room. Moreover, the painting in question has special security measures since it is the most valuable piece in the museum. The best we could manage was to prepare a method of entry. As we discussed in the briefing, we are going to sneak in, just grab it, and run.”

“That’s not exactly the most elegant way to do it.”

“And normally impossible because of the Arax units that are stationed in the museum, not to mention the patrolling human guards. That is why you are here.”

“The muscle.” He frowned.

“Yes.” She smiled.

After several minutes of driving down narrow roads sandwiched by foliage, the two arrived at their destination. They parked the car near the museum’s main entrance. It was parked facing the exit to enable a quick escape.

They donned cloth masks, which left the mouth uncovered for easier communication, and exited the vehicle. After quickly traversing the lot, they reached the rear entrance, which had an electronic security lock. Saya opened the lock’s casing and plugged in a data stick, which she produced from her suit.

“Why does a security lock have a data socket? Isn’t that a huge security risk?”

“It is there to ensure that the doors can still be opened even if the digital panel is broken. A safety override, if you will. Only the appropriate security key can open it.

“Which we conveniently have.”

“This is a copy that we managed to get by bribing one of the museum’s greedier security personnel.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised.”

With a beep, the door unlocked. Ageha and Saya silently  entered the building.

“Over here,” whispered Saya, her finger pointing towards an air vent on the ceiling.

The museum display floors had numerous safety measures. According to Kaika’s plan, the best route was through the vents. They were supposed to travel in the vents until they were close to the painting. Then they would drop down, procure the item, and escape.

Imitating a ballet lift, Ageha boosted Saya up, her feet resting on his hands. Saya removed the vent cover and tossed it to Ageha before entering. She then dropped a synthetic rope for him. He climbed up, entered the vent, and clicked the cover back in place before crawling onwards.

The vent cover design was included in their investigation. They also had the map of the museum, including the ventilation system, on their portable terminals. They had to exit the vents in certain sections to move from one elevation to another. The stairs had minimal security, so this was done with ease.

They repeated this process until they reached the third floor vents, which led directly to the painting. These vents were narrower than the previous ones.

Did they consider entry through the vents as well?

Ageha could not turn inside the vent, so he had to give up on replacing the cover. After several minutes of crawling inside the shaft, they reached the end of the vent. Saya looked down through the last grate.

“It is down there,” she whispered.

Ageha made an unseen nod. He expected Saya to open the grate like before, but it was taking too long. He tapped her shoe to check on things. He noticed that Saya sent a message to his terminal.

“The grate is welded to the shaft. This is likely another special security measure for this room. I cannot open it,” it read.

Ageha realized what was required of him, so he slowly crawled past Saya’s legs. The vents were narrow enough to prevent turning but wide enough to allow him to crawl past Saya and destroy the grate with his hands.

But it was not wide enough for that to be done smoothly.

Saya placed her back flat on the right side of the vent to maximize space. Ageha inched forward in a similar position on the opposite side, but his hands inevitably brushed against Saya’s thighs due to the lack of space.

“Chou, stop~” said Saya in an amorous voice.

What the hell is she saying..?

Ageha understood that ARMS tactile sensitivity was not much different from human flesh excepting the incredibly high pain thresholds that were designed to match the alloy durability. However, he had hardly touched her.

Isn’t she too sensitive?

Ageha opted to quickly end the ordeal by hurrying his crawl. Unfortunately or fortunately, this caused his forearm to graze Saya’s belly.

“Mhmm~”

Saya reflexively bended forward from the tickling sensation caused by Ageha’s touch and unavoidably pressed her modest breast against his face. Though petite, the mounds did exist, and a tender warmth enveloped his cheeks. Ageha has never been in such close proximity to Saya before. The fruity fragrance caused him to pause his slither. Just when he was about to give into the temptation and move his head side to side, his head was pulled back by the hair. He tilted his neck upward and saw a stare that made even absolute zero feel cozy.

Ageha smiled in return and mouthed the words, “Thank you.”

He knew that Saya was very professional. She would not do anything to endanger the mission at this point. At least, he hoped.

Saya sighed and released her arctic glare. She then tucked her arms in front of her chest. This made the space for Ageha to crawl through smaller, but it protected her from further embarrassment.

Ageha reached the grate and carefully tore it off. It was going to be a race against time once they descended. They would need to collect the painting, run through the museum, remove any obstacles, and escape using the car before they were surrounded by security.

Ageha held out three fingers and counted down one by one.

Two.

One.

The torn grate fell from the vent. Ageha dove into the opening head first and then arched his body, flipping to land on his feet. The grate hit the floor just moments before he landed. The room immediately flooded with light and blazing sirens. Without pausing, Ageha rushed towards the painting and smashed the reinforced glass with his hand. He removed it from the mount and tossed it to Saya, who had just landed.

“Be careful!”

“I knew you would catch it, Tsuki!”

Saya formed a wry smile. Ageha was unsure whether she smiled due to his cockiness or his use of her code name, but he dropped that thought and prioritized escape.

They ran following the shortest course to the car. Nothing blocked their way as they cleared the third floor hallway and reached the stairs. Without slowing, they both leapt, skipping all the steps, and landed in a crouch. They continued running along another hallway towards the stairwell to the ground floor.

“Now that I think about it, is it not proper manners for the gentleman to carry the luggage?”

“Only when the gentleman isn’t expected to do the real heavy lifting.”

As if on cue, an Arax met them in the large display hall they just set foot in. Described in minimalist terms, it was a robotic spider about the size of a van. It was painted blue, likely because it was part of a security detail.

Saya signaled to Ageha with her eyes.

Ageha sped up in response to Saya’s soundless request. He leaned forward and bolted towards the enemy. The Arax raised both of its front legs, electricity dancing at their tips. The first leg came hurtling down towards Ageha. He kicked off the ground to propel himself to the Arax’s left side. After dodging the first blow, he thrust his left hand into the joint of a leg. By digging his fingers in and pulling out the wiring, he caused the leg’s movement to cease. He repeated this with his right hand on another leg before the Arax could even turn.

The Arax still kept its balance even with the middle legs limp on its left side, but its stability was quickly broken by Saya, who launched a spinning side kick at the rear left leg. The metal spider toppled over and crashed to the ground.

“I thought you wanted to be careful with the package.”

“It is your fault for taking too long.”

“Since when is five seconds too long?”

“Since I was able to put down the package and deliver the finishing blow.”

After Saya picked up the painting, they sprinted to the next hallway, leaving the damaged Arax behind. Upon reaching the stairwell to the ground floor, they saw two more Arax units waiting for them in the lobby. Guards were also steadily pouring into the lobby.

“You handle the small fry,” said Ageha.

Without replying, Saya drew her pistol with her free hand and shot a guard in the face.

From this distance with one hand…

Ageha wanted to curse his own ineptitude, but he had more important things to do. He needed to eliminate the two Arax units while preventing them from targeting Saya, who literally had her hands full, before more reinforcements could arrive.

Ageha jumped down the stairs and landed between the two spiders. Both reacted like the first one, raising their taser legs to strike. Ageha focused his attention on the Arax to his left because it attacked first. Instead of dodging the leg, he parried it by expertly punching it to the side. Using the rotational momentum, he hurled a spinning backhand blow with his other hand. His alloy fist collided with the Arax’s sensor and cracked its protective casing.

Ageha backflipped to avoid the second Arax’s leg. He crouched low as he landed and dashed back in. Targeting two legs of the second Arax consecutively, he performed a roundhouse followed by a turning long kick combo. His attacks hit and destroyed the robot’s limbs.

The Arax counterattacked by swinging one of its right legs underneath its frame and thrusting it directly at his chest. Ageha, still recovering from his kick motion, could not evade and was forced to catch it with his hands as he stomped his right foot into the stone flooring. By rooting himself to the ground, he managed to defend against the attack without being blown back. Digging his fingers into the metal, he twisted the spider leg and tore it off.

The other Arax appeared to be unable to attack because Ageha was too close to a friendly unit. Taking this chance, Ageha spun once and threw the severed leg at the other Arax. The leg pierced the Arax’s already damaged sensor and broke it completely.

The closer Arax managed to create some distance during this period to better position itself for an attack. However, the Arax with the broken sensor approached and attacked it. Ageha realized that the Arax must have mistaken its ally for an enemy. He used this chance to check on Saya’s condition. A gunfight was ongoing. Saya was taking refuge behind the stairwell. Several guards had already been shot to death.

How dependable. Looks like I can focus on the task at hand.

While the two robots were busy with each other, Ageha focused all his leg power and jumped vertically. He almost reached the ceiling of the lobby, which was two stories high. From that position, he saw Saya close in on the two remaining guards while they reloaded.

She’s probably out of bullets.

Sliding and horizontally rotating her body with her right leg extended, she swept the two guards off their feet. She was already rising as she completed her rotation and raised her right leg to gather potential energy for an axe kick.

Ageha did not need to watch further to know the result. He aimed his sight at the blind Arax as he dove towards it. A second before he reached the robot, he curled his body into a ball, spun forward two cycles, and then extended his right leg. The gravity-powered, diving axe kick slammed into the Arax’s frame. The impact smashed the armor open, causing fragile parts to spew all over the floor.

Ageha felt the impact rattle his internal organs and brain. Most of the force was absorbed by his cybernetic lower body, but what did get through was still significant. The urge to vomit welled up, but he weathered it. He was used to this kind of beating. Using ARMS like he did had such a cost, and he paid it every time it was for sale.

He leaned back and laid flat to avoid a leg swipe. The remaining Arax had switched from non-lethal attacks to simply clobbering him to death. Rolling on the ground, he escaped from a barrage of leg stabs that poked holes in the floor. He seized the attacking limb, which missed him by a hair’s breadth. The Arax reacted by raising its leg, which carried Ageha into the air. Using the momentum, he pushed off the leg and flung himself on top of the Arax, where the enemy’s legs could not reach. As if he had mounted an enemy fighter, he clasped his hands together and hammered down incessantly until the armor cracked open. With the delicate machinery exposed, he stabbed his hand inside like a knife and ripped out whatever his fingers could grasp. The Arax lost power and lowered to the floor.

“Too slow again?” asked Ageha as he stood up from the wreckage.

Saya was looking at him with her mouth agape. She quickly pressed her lips together once she saw Ageha look at her.

“…No, people do not normally survive fighting two Arax units barehanded. I was hurrying to finish on my end so I could aid you, but it appears to have been a needless worry.”

“You make it sound like I’m not a person,” he said with a wry smile.

“It was a compliment, but I am sure you know that.” She smiled in return.

Saya recovered the painting and exited the building with Ageha. Gunshots rang out as they ran towards their escape vehicle. They turned to the source and saw a guard with a rifle trained on them. Ageha realized how unfavorable the situation was. They were on open ground. Saya was out of ammo. Bullets could not be dodged. Ageha knew that running around would not significantly lessen the probability of being hit, so he decided to bet on their best chance of survival.

He placed himself in between the shooter and Saya. Taking a peek-a-boo boxing stance, he covered his face with his fists. Saya instantly understood his intention and did not leave his back. The shooter emptied his rifle into Ageha, who flinched each time a bullet hit him.

Saya dropped the package, slipped by Ageha, and darted to the reloading guard. She leapt and kicked the man’s chest with more force than she used against the Arax. The guard was blasted backward and crashed into a wall. Saya looked back at Ageha and pursed her lips. Ageha was on his knees and clutching his left rib area.

At the exact same spot where Rin elbowed me. What luck.

 

***

 

Saya assisted Ageha into the car and drove away from the museum. The only thing left was a clean escape. Saya stopped the car on the shoulder of the highway after making sure that they had not been tailed.

“We have to stop the bleeding.”

“Heh, talk about gambles not paying off. Is Kai my jinx or something?”

Saya helped Ageha out of the car and rested his back on the closed rear car door. She used Ageha’s knife and sliced away the fabric on her left leg.

“I will use this as a makeshift bandage.”

“I would be ecstatic if those were real.” He glanced at Saya’s bare leg.

“I will not lend them to you if you keep saying things like that.”

“Do you mean a lap pillow?”

“What else?”

“I’ll pass on a pillow that’s harder than my skull. An arm pillow would be welcome though.”

Saya saw the amount of blood leaking out of Ageha as she bandaged him.

This looks bad. He does not have much blood to spare in the first place.

“I will think about it.”

“Don’t make a face like that.”

“What face? It is the same as usual.”

“Exactly. Can’t you show a little more concern at a time like this?” He laughed weakly.

Joking in this situation… Is he coping with the fear or just fearless?

Something urged Saya to believe the latter. He was probably trying to calm her down. Her fingers had been trembling while treating his wound. The human guards were her responsibility because they did not fit into Ageha’s criteria. This could have been avoided If she had at least one more bullet in her handgun. She was plagued by the consequence of her failures.

They reentered the car after the first aid. Not caring about the possibility of being tagged by traffic police, Saya floored it.

“…Why did you do that?” asked Saya.

“It wasn’t for you, if that’s what you’re asking. You were holding the package. I had no choice.”

“Even so, you did not have to use yourself as a shield… Why do you try to shoulder so much by yourself?”

Ageha faced Saya, the corners of his mouth drooped. “…I don’t believe in depending on others. I tried that once, and it didn’t work out so well. All I can trust are these.” He opened and closed his hand.

Saya remained silent and gave the unusually talkative Ageha a chance to continue.

“I was part of an ARMS experiment when I was a kid.”

Saya knew this story. It was included in his profile, which she had studied a while ago.

“I lost my right arm in an accident. My father wanted me to become a chef, his successor, so badly that he made a deal with NGC to use me for an ARMS experiment. It was a godsend. Let’s just say that my new arm enabled me. It’s the reason for the body I have now.”

“…I never had that choice.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was also involved in an experiment, but it was not voluntary. My family was very poor. I know how unusual that is in this age, but my parents both loved gambling. We had enough for food and the like, but one day I was diagnosed with peripheral artery disease. My legs degraded rapidly and were eventually amputated.” She tightened her grip on the steering wheel. “My parents saw me as nothing but baggage since then. I was not surprised when they decided to sell me off to NGC as an experimental subject.”

Ageha’s face looked more pained than it did right after he was shot. Saya, seeing this reaction, could not help but show a sad smile. She knew that Ageha was not pitying her. He was probably reminded of his own share of betrayals.

“I had leg and hip ARMS installed on me. I was with other teenagers. We were told that adolescent subjects were preferred because they healed and adapted faster. We performed various activities to gather data from the cybernetic parts. We were treated well, better than at my home at least. The lack of freedom was not that noticeable since I never had much of it anyway.”

Reminiscing a fond memory, Saya’s stern expression gave way to a much gentler one. “That ended after Kai-Ojousama toured the facility with her father on one of their educational field trips. She asked her father to hire me as her aide after one look.”

“Love at first sight?”

“For her at least. I did not know how to feel at first. After I moved to the mansion, I underwent an educational regimen similar to Ojousama’s, though less intensive to make room for combat training. That was hell, for a time.”

“Did you try to escape?”

“I intended to, but I was always with Ojousama so I could not find a chance. We were both under strict surveillance.”

“You could have killed her then escaped in the confusion.” Ageha, smirking, was clearly joking.

“I tried to, several times. I almost succeeded each time.”

Ageha turned his head to Saya, his eyes wide open.

“Why did you fail?”

Saya wordlessly opened and closed her mouth like a fish several times. After overcoming her hesitation, she confessed.

“…She was too cute.”

“What.”

“I tried strangling her the first time, but when I saw her adorable face, I lost my resolve. That happened about three times. That level of charm must be some sort of cheat.” The butler’s cheeks were rosy.

Ageha broke into laughter.

How can he laugh like that with a hole on his side? Saya admired Ageha’s physical and mental fortitude. At the same time, it frightened her.

“I’m amazed she didn’t get rid of you after the first attempt.”

“Me too.”

“Judging from results alone, she made the right decision though.”

I wonder if he is aware of what he is doing when he says things like this…

Saya sighed, not knowing how to take Ageha’s wonted and veiled compliments.

“Did you ever… ask Kai why she chose you?” asked the wounded warrior. His speech was fragmented and lacking vitality.

“I did.”

“…And?”

Why do I have to answer these questions..!?

Saya wanted to preserve her pride, but that same pride prevented her from declining a request from someone who had been injured for her sake, be it his intention or not.

“…She said she wanted a cute… boy butler.”

Saya felt Ageha’s gaze on her chest. Her left hand unconsciously grabbed him by his hair, but the expected yelp from the action was not heard. She peeked to her left and saw that Ageha’s eyes were shut. She could tell he was breathing, so she knew he was only asleep. This did not change the fact that every second counted if he was to be saved. She released her viselike grip on his thick, ruffled locks and gently caressed his hair, as if petting a cat.

“You can look forward to your arm pillow when you wake up.”

 

 

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