“How are things going with Ageha?”
“Everything is proceeding normally, Ojousama,” said Saya.
“Normally? Surely you underestimate. You two look very close.”
“I am only doing as ordered.”
“Really now?” Kaika cast a doubting gaze.
Saya’s dispassionate face did not budge from the provocation. She appeared sincere.
Or so she thinks.
Kaika knew that Saya became more rigid when she was trying to hide something. A perfect poker-face was also an obvious sign of a lie.
“Be careful,” said the mistress.
“I am always careful. Who knows how he will react if this is discovered.”
“I’m not talking about that. I’m referring to the reason you held your breath just now.”
Saya twitched in response to the subtle accusation.
She really is cute.
Kaika had not really noticed any abnormality in Saya’s breathing. She simply threw in bait, and Saya readily took a bite.
I suppose having some form of attachment is inevitable. They have similar pasts, and although she’s fairly skilled at it, she never liked deception. It’s an acquired taste, I guess.
“Should I be worried?”
“Not in the least. I do admit that this task was not unpalatable due to his…” Saya searched for the correct word.
“…Yes. But I assure you it has no effect on my judgment.”
You tried lying to me earlier and then say that? Well, she probably knew she would get seen through but tried to coddle her pride anyway. Forgiven.
“If I may,” asked the butler as she corrected her posture. They were both seated on a long rectangular dining table. Kaika occupied the head seat, Saya at her diagonal left.
“What is it?”
“Is this really necessary?”
“By ‘this’ you mean?”
“Establishing an intimate relationship with Ageha-sama.”
“I wouldn’t ask it of you if it weren’t.”
“I think he is already invested enough in our group, if not our cause.”
“Naive. Invested is not enough. We need him to be committed,” she said as she raised her index finger and wagged it in rejection.
“He took a bullet to save the painting.”
“I’m not teasing. The painting was probably the last thing on his mind then. He doesn’t even know what it’ll be used for. It’s simply proof that your efforts have borne fruit.”
“Then there is no need to take it further, is there?”
“Is your hesitation from guilt or fear?” Kaika dissected Saya with her vision.
“It’s good that you’re honest.”
Saya dipped her head in embarrassment.
She’s at least aware of her own feelings, enough to be afraid of losing control of them. That makes her more predictable.
“What you don’t understand, Saya, is that commitment has levels. We need his to be absolute. Taking a bullet while protecting himself with his alloy limbs doesn’t even come close to that. Right… He should be able to gladly take one in the heart and still keep crawling until he sputters to a stop.”
Saya’s eyebrows wrinkled at Kaika’s description.
“You say that, but I do not think you would toss away someone you rate so highly.”
“Of course. I’m going to great lengths to groom our knight. I wouldn’t do so if I didn’t like him. I would go so far as to say he’s a favorite,” she said with a brilliant smile.
Which vanished the next instant.
“But there are risks that we must take. He has cooperated so far because he knew the odds were in his favor, but what if it were reversed? What if he’s likely going to die if he complies? Making those questions moot is the purpose of this exercise.”
Saya fell silent and nodded, seemingly comprehending Kaika’s intentions.
“If we want his trust, would it not be counterproductive to admit to any deceit? Why tell him about the park incident?”
The tone in Saya’s questions had changed from doubtful to curious. This stirred up Kaika’s desire to teach.
“There are several reasons.” Kaika crossed her legs, her frilly violet dress fluttering under the table.
Saya, eager to understand what she had failed to discern herself, gazed at Kaika intently.
“The first reason is because he already suspected it. The fact that I ordered you away from my side is enough for anyone to sense the incongruity.”
Saya’s shoulders slightly slumped.
“Don’t take offense. You were merely on the wrong side. Well, it’s actually the right side, but I digress. Different standpoints provide different insights.”
Saya regained her perfect posture. Kaika loved how much influence her words had on the butler. Only she could make the stiff pole sway so much.
No, Ageha too.
“The second reason is because truthfulness only works on the innocent. The naive foolishly believe and foolhardily get hurt. A single lie can damage the relationship with such people. However, Ageha’s hardly of that category.”
“Indeed. He is more cunning than I imagined.”
“Rather than cunning, he’s fundamentally distrustful. He doesn’t take anything at face value. For that kind, even the truth can be construed as the opposite, and the connection halts there. It’s best to tell an insignificant lie and purposely be caught to shroud a more relevant deception.”
Realization emerged on Saya’s visage. “If Ageha-sama thinks that he is able to distinguish the truth in your words…”
“His arrogance will blind him from grasping the true lies. It has already worked wonders twice. Once in our meeting in the park and again when I confessed about the same incident.”
But to underestimate him here could lead to problems. He may suspect more than he lets on.
“The last reason is to shrink our distance.”
“Yes. Although he agreed to help us because I faked being in danger from my brothers’ plot, it was purely out of his own twisted sense of justice. There’s no camaraderie or affection. By revealing to him my real objective and desire for power, I established a commonality. No one craves for power as much as a man who has cast off his humanity for it. Sharing something fundamental, he suddenly finds me much closer to him.”
“I cannot imagine him agreeing to your terminal wish and method.”
“I had to be truthful about my goal. He already knows my amorality. A righteous excuse would have been impossible to swallow. I did keep the method secret by saying the plan hasn’t been drafted.”
“And he accepted that?”
“He said he didn’t care as long as he can do what he wants. Of course, it was under the condition that he’ll only eliminate those who qualify his standard.”
“That sounds like a pointless agreement.”
“No, no. What you fail to see is that Ageha is not my subordinate. I may treat him as such when he cooks, but only then. We are partners, at least in his eyes, so I can’t expect unfailing obedience. He doesn’t need to share my objective, only my resources. I’m already providing a considerable amount of support and financing to him. Most of his current body is my provision. Considering his fixation on fairness, the conclusion is inevitable. Given such a spread, he’ll willingly jump out of the frying pan and into the fire for me. Well, eventually.”
Especially with you and Kureha as garnish.
“For now he can rest. He did well getting us the painting.” Kaika stretched her arms after finishing her explanation.
“That is not very convincing since he is currently slaving away in the kitchen because you ordered him to prepare dinner.”
“This is what I hate about couples. Always so eager to defend each other.”
“We are not-”
“Kureha is helping him. How can he complain with such a cute assistant?”
“It has only been five days.”
“His wound is closed. The only thing he has to deal with is the pain, which I’m sure you know is paltry for that monster.”
“You disapprove?” said Kaika.
Saya looked like she was having trouble reconciling her thoughts.
“You misunderstand. That’s probably the highest praise I can give him.”
Since I’m a monster myself.
Saya remained silent, as if she read Kaika’s thought.
“Don’t worry. I won’t ask him to do anything dangerous until he recovers. He’s not necessary for the remainder of the first phase anyhow.”
“Speaking of which, the preparations for my other assignment are complete.”
“Excellent. That was quicker than calculated. It seems your little affair with Ageha has not kept you too occupied.”
Saya shrugged her shoulders in resignation to the chronic teasing. In contrast, Kaika merrily nodded several times.
“I think he will move soon, maybe even today. He has intensified surveillance on my meetings recently.”
“Then it’s also time to move the other piece,” said Kaika after crossing her arms on her meager bosom.
“Delivery of the painting?”
“Yes. Hang it in Kawahara’s bedroom when he and his wife are asleep.”
“…Is that not too strong a move?”
“That’s precisely why I’m making it. He needs to understand that he can’t use our theft of the item as leverage in any way. We’ll have him abide by the agreement to the letter.”
“This is practically threatening him.”
“Not practically. I am threatening him.”
“Then why did we go through the trouble of illegally acquiring a bribe?”
“To give him an excuse. An influential member of the national diet can’t bend over easily to threats. Politicians have to preserve their pride and appearance. He can accede to our demand without damaging either if it’s in exchange for the painting he adores.”
“Understood. I will deliver it tonight.”
“No, leave it for tomorrow. I don’t want any tension ruining the meal.”
“You really are partial to Ageha-sama’s cooking.”
“I never denied it. You make him prepare the oddest dishes, but the results are always delectable somehow.”
“I’m tired of the usual fare. You’ve shared the same meals as me in this prison for years. Don’t you feel the same?”
“I do, but a French okonomiyaki might be too avant-garde for me,” said Saya as she closed her eyes and touched her chin.
“I’ve never had okonomiyaki.”
“Neither have I, but that is all the more reason to have it the traditional way.”
“Life offers too few meals to waste them on mediocrity.”
“I am certain Ageha-sama’s dish will not turn out mediocre.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Kaika paused in thought for a moment. “You know how scarce leisure has been for me, correct?”
Kaika knew that if anyone understood the weight of her statement, it would be her loyal aide who underwent the same trials and torture, albeit for a shorter time.
“That hasn’t changed due to my preoccupation with my goal, so I want what little of it I can get to be meaningful in inverse proportion.”
Saya still looked puzzled, so Kaika continued her explanation.
“How did it feel during your first time?”
“Horrible and painful,” said Saya, as emotionless as always.
“Okay, my fault. Bad example. Let’s try something more pleasant. Which meal of Ageha’s left the biggest impression on you?”
Saya closed her eyes for a few moments and then opened them. “I believe it is the Spaghetti Alla Carbonara.”
“That’s the case for me as well. That’s because we were treated to not just the taste, but also the surprise from the unexpected and the delight of novelty. First experience has that magic. With that in mind, the most fruitful way to spend leisure time would be a collection of firsts. However, being physically human, we have no choice but to repeat certain activities, such as getting sustenance.” Kaika traced the rim of a half empty wine glass, her dainty finger going around several times. “If the activity must be repeated, then the content will have to change instead. Never eat the same thing twice.”
“Thousands of digested dolphin cookies turned in their graves just now.”
“…The exception proves the rule,” said Kaika, her bottom lip stuck out and a little blush showing on her white cheeks. “Anyway, if I can eat an item only once, I want it to be special. Wasting my only chance to try something for an ordinary experience is absurd.”
“So we get French okonomiyaki?”
“No, we get Ageha’s French okonomiyaki.” She smirked with her eyes shut.
Saya shrugged her shoulders after witnessing the mistress brag about her favorite pet. “I am fine with ordinary. That is already a luxury for both of us.”
“You really have no greed.”
“Someone has to stay grounded so that you can climb higher.” The butler made a contented smile.
Kaika was intrigued by how two people brought up in the same environment could have such different personalities. She enjoyed lecturing Saya, but she also understood that the young woman had qualities that she did not. Saya held her back when her recklessness manifested and protected her when that failed. Saya was more of a sister to Kaika than Kureha, and Kaika thought of her as such.
You really are an excellent sister.
“Thank you, Saya,” she said sincerely. She was truly grateful for Saya’s existence.
Sisters are useful tools, after all.
Kureha carefully used a mandolin to create thin strips of cabbage. She had her eyebrows wrinkled in concentration.
“You really didn’t have to help, you know,” said Ageha, his voice coming from behind her.
She intentionally chose to have her back towards him. The view of him cooking distracted her from the task at hand.
“I want to. Oneesama is really mean, making you cook despite your injury.”
“It’s my job, and I’m fine. Look.” Ageha hopped to showcase his recuperated self.
Kureha turned to Ageha and expressed a look of concern. She knew that he was forcing himself. He always had a smile on for her, but she was not dense enough to miss the subtle hints in his behavior. They had spent most of this week together, and that resulted in a better understanding of the young man.
“I understand, so please stop pushing yourself.”
Why is he always so nice to me?
Kureha felt jealous of her sister and Saya. Ageha spoke more naturally with them. In comparison, there was something phony in his interactions with her. She could not blame him though, because she too assumed a role.
“I should say that to you. You really don’t have to play the shy little sister anymore, you know?”
If he already knows this much, why does he act so distant?
“I am not playing. I really am a shy little sister.” She smiled ear to ear.
“I don’t think someone who can say something like that qualifies as shy.” Ageha had been talking while preparing a pan-sauce version of burgundy demi-glace.
“What about you? …Are you not forcing yourself to be nice to me?”
The question halted his knife. The thyme ceased its dance on the butcher block.
“…I’m sorry if it came off like that, but that wasn’t my intention. Believe it or not, I’m trying my best to be genuine.” He scratched his head with an apologetic look. “…It seems I forgot how. I didn’t think I was this clumsy.”
So I am special but in a good way?
Kureha tried to control her rapidly beating heart. She wanted to believe he was lying because she feared disappointment if she got her hopes up.
“I bet you say that to all your little sisters.”
“I don’t have any little sisters.”
“I knew it. You were just toying with me…”
“I meant blood-related little sisters, and don’t say things people would misunderstand.”
Kureha giggled as Ageha complained. She gave up on keeping her back to him, moved her tools and the cabbage to the counter Ageha was using, and looked at the chef. His eyes were focused on the ingredients in his hands.
“It is not an act,” she said as she adjusted the white fabric wrapping her torso. The apron she had borrowed from Ageha was too large for her. It made it look like she wore nothing else.
Ageha responded by raising his sight to meet hers.
“I really do not have any confidence.” She resumed her work. “The reason I pretend to be clueless is because I do not want anyone to expect anything from me.”
“Why don’t you want that?”
“Who would, after seeing Onee-sama go through all that?”
Kureha admired her sister, but that was not an emotion that drove her to become like Kaika. It served the opposite purpose. She intentionally placed her sister on top of an unreachable pedestal to alleviate her fear of responsibility.
Ageha kept silent, not being privy to the details.
“Eventually, it became a habit. Then it became real. What was it called, a self-fulfilling…”
“Self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m impressed you know such a concept.”
“It does not count because you helped,” she said with a frown, but the displeasure quickly left her features and was replaced by a tender expression. “But talking with you over time gave me back a little bit of confidence. You were always patiently waiting for me to finish. It felt… comfortable. It was something I had not felt for a long time.”
“I kind of feel guilty now for finishing your sentence earlier.”
“But you did that out of good will. Everyone else just left or ignored me before I could speak my mind. I do not blame them though. Even I felt impatience at my own timidness.”
Ageha continued cooking throughout the conversation. He had thinly sliced several shallots and was now caramelizing them in a pan.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course, Ageha-Oniisama.”
“Why did you approach me when I first visited the mansion?”
Kureha ceased her slicing and thought for a while before answering.
“Because Oneesama was interested in you. I already knew that you were the chef she had hired before we introduced ourselves because the maids had been gossiping about it. I was curious why she chose you.”
Half of it was jealousy, but she did not voice that part.
“I hope I didn’t disappoint,” he said, a self-deprecating grin on his lips.
“Far from it! I am really thankful because you gave me courage. Not only that, you also gave me things I had lost and things I never had. Even the meal we are preparing now would be impossible without you.”
Kureha was always alone in the mansion. She tried to get close to Kaika, who she admired, but was always deflected. Trying to get some semblance of sibling affection, she often ate, slept, and played alone in Kaika’s room when Kaika was not there. She was desperate for warmth.
“I have always wanted a family. Eating dinner together like this… feels like a dream.”
Ageha showed a pained expression after hearing what she said. He left the saucepan on the stove and walked towards Kureha. He placed his hand on her locks and combed them per usual.
“You did well coming this far.”
Tears started sliding down Kureha’s cheeks. “Huh? Why… Huh… It won’t stop…” she mumbled as she frantically wiped her tears with her palms.
Someone had finally acknowledged her loneliness, her suffering, and most importantly, her effort. It was not her strength but her hard work that she took pride in.
“Stupid, why are you crying? That isn’t an onion.”
“Please… do not call… me stupid…” Her reply was broken up by sobs.
So this is a brother…
Ageha left his hand on her head as he smiled warmly at the crying girl. Ageha’s touch made her feel weak but safe. Barring her infancy, she had never truly cried in front of another person. Coming in torrents, her tears increased, as if the dam holding them back all her life had finally collapsed.
Seeing Kureha weep, Ageha knelt down on one knee and gently pulled her towards him. Kureha wrapped her arms around his neck without ceasing her sobbing. Ageha patiently rubbed her back without saying anything. Both of them stayed that way until the smell of smoke pierced the bubble surrounding them.
“I feel stupid after singing your praises earlier.”
“I must concur,” said the butler, nodding at her mistress.
“Please do not blame Ageha-Oniisama. It was my fault.”
Kaika threw Ageha an accusatory stare. “Don’t tell me you were distracted because you were doing something to Kureha?”
Kureha’s cheeks lit on fire.
“Where there is smoke…” said Saya after seeing Kureha’s reaction.
“Wait, wait, wait. There was smoke, but that was because of the burned shallots. And I did something to Kureha, but nothing like what you’re thinking, okay?”
“But you do admit to doing something,” said Kaika, her left eyebrow raised. “I didn’t think you had that preference. No wonder you like Saya’s AAs.”
“They are A cups!”
“I suddenly feel in danger. You must have been lusting after my body all this time. Now I have no choice but to bring a robe to the bath.”
“Please do not ignore me! It is true!”
“Do not mind it, Saya-san. Both Oneesama and I do not even wear brassieres.”
“I know it’s humiliating being told that by an elementary schooler, but calm down,” said Ageha, having hastily caught Saya’s wrist as it extended towards Kureha’s bob cut. “I remade the sauce, so let’s just eat, okay?” He released her hand.
“What an obvious attempt to escape from interrogation.” Kaika closed her eyes. “However, I do feel both generous and hungry so I’ll leave it at that.”
“…I am not lying…” The tiny voice leaked from the depressed butler as she slumped her shoulders, consequently depressing her bust even more.
Ageha suppressed a laugh after seeing her in that state. Despite his joking manner, he did feel sorry for the two who had to wait an extra fifteen minutes before dinner was served. He could not even remember the last time he had made such a mistake in the kitchen. Forgetting the pan was an amateurish error, but instead of feeling ashamed, it only furthered his surprise at how distracted he had been.
He did not want to admit it, but Kureha reminded him of his first love. Their kindness, their straightforward affection, and their admiration towards him all overlapped. Of course, sexual attraction was not present due to the difference in age, but a warm elation that lowered his guard existed.
So this is a younger sister…
Ageha placed two hotplates on the cork mat on the hand-carved dining table. Kureha sat to the right of her sister, and Ageha seated himself beside her.
“So what did you prepare for us?” asked Kaika while observing the plated food.
“As requested, French okonomiyaki.”
“You have to be more detailed than that if you want to be a celebrity chef.”
“I never said I wanted to be one. I don’t cook to entertain.”
“I, however, eat for entertainment, so indulge me.”
“I would like to know the details as well,” said Saya.
“It’s a cabbage pancake pan-fried in lardon, topped with ventreche, and ladled with my second attempt at the burgundy demi-glace. It’s drizzled with aioli and garnished with sliced chives and fried shallots.”
The hearty fragrance of the of the ventreche, which was essentially unsmoked bacon, permeated the dining room. Ageha conjured up a version of pork and scallion okonomiyaki using French ingredients.
“It certainly looks like an authentic okonomiyaki,” said Kaika.
“I aim to please.”
“Leave the bragging for after the tasting.”
Ageha deftly sliced the first savory pancake into eight pieces. The knife easily slid through the pork slices, despite its crispness. Without muddling the decorative, white, checkered lines of aioli, he skillfully lifted a slice from the hotplate and placed it on Kureha’s dish. He then served Saya, Kaika, and finally himself.
“Serving me last… Is that some sort of prank?” asked Kaika.
“I was last, and no, I didn’t think about that. I just served starting from the closest plate,” said the chef as he seated himself.
“Serve me first. Isn’t that common sense? I’m your employer, not these two.”
“That pettiness is making me less inclined to do so.”
“This is about hierarchy.”
“But you rank middle in both height and breast size.”
Saya virtually glowed at Ageha’s statement. Ageha ignored the stoic butler’s equivalent of a fist pump. Kaika was about to reply but Kureha spoke first.
“Oneesama, the food is getting cold. Okonomiyaki is best served hot. That is why they are on hotplates.” She pointed at the cast-iron dinnerware.
“Hmph. You always take Ageha’s side. I’m your sister, you know.”
“Not at all! I just want to eat our meal at its best since Ageha-Oniisama took the trouble to make it.”
“That’s his job. Well, I do agree with your suggestion, though for a different reason.” Kaika ceased her tantrum and picked up her silverware. “Since we’re having French, Bon appétit!”
That’s my line.
They started eating after the mistress’s signal. Ageha took a bite of his creation. Immediately crumbling and melting on the tongue, the paper-thin, crisp pork unleashed a surge of flavor. The richness of the meat and aioli was cut by the refreshing chives and the acidity of the wine in the sauce. The cabbage tempered the bold flavors. He purposely architected the consecutive, contrasting layers for this effect, and he felt proud of his execution.
He looked at the previously irritated Kaika. She was now joyfully munching on the fusion dish like the child she appeared to be. She always showed her most unguarded side during meals, and in those respites, Ageha even found the diabolical schemer adorable. He could not blame Saya for failing to hurt her for that sole reason.
Saya also looked pleased as she quietly partook of the dish. In contrast, Kureha vocalized her opinion.
“This is so good!”
“It is worth every second of the wait,” said Saya.
“I thought that cooking it in pork fat would be too much because you already used a fatty cut for the protein…” said Kaika. Her long curly lashes suddenly rose, showing her black irises in full. “Got it! You used a sparing amount just to brown the bottom! The use of the fried shallots to mimic bonito flakes isn’t just for plating. It adds the sweetness okonomiyaki sauce is known for to compensate for the lack of it in the demi-glace.”
The cook was dumbfounded after his technique was dismantled after only a few bites. “You really should just give up on your schemes and become a chef.”
“I specialize in consumption, not creation.” A smug grin was plastered on her face.
Is that really something to brag about?
“It feels odd eating okonomiyaki with a knife and fork,” said the Japanese chef.
“It’s French okonomiyaki, so isn’t it fine?”
Ageha felt that Kaika’s statement was strangely convincing. He stood up and placed another slice on her quickly emptied plate, as if rewarding her. He served a slice each to the other two, leaving a single slice on the first hotplate.
“Is that all you will eat?” asked Kureha, noticing that Ageha only had one, albeit large, slice.
“Yeah, I don’t have much of an appetite.”
Saya gave a look of understanding. She could guess the reason for Ageha’s weak appetite. He only needed enough energy to fuel his human parts, which were exceedingly scarce compared to normal people. His ARMS were charged directly using a charging device.
“I was thinking of leaving tonight.”
Kureha turned to Ageha in shock. “What!?”
“I’ve recovered enough for everyday activities, and I need to get back to work. Rin keeps telling me how much trouble they’re having with the kitchen short-handed.”
Both Saya and Kureha twitched at the mention of the pretty waitress’s name.
“I don’t mind,” said Kaika. “I’ll just call for you when I want to have your meals.”
“Don’t treat people like slaves.”
“Slaves don’t get a salary like yours.”
“Can you not stay one more day? You can leave tomorrow evening. That way we can have dinner together again!” said Kureha, who stopped eating after Ageha’s announcement.
“Tomorrow’s a Saturday, the busiest day for restaurants. They could really use my help.”
“And I have a prior engagement for tomorrow night,” said Saya. “I am afraid I cannot accompany you for dinner, Kureha-Ojousama.”
Kureha lost the brightness that she had just moments ago. Seeing this, Ageha felt a prickling in his chest.
“…I suppose I can stay one more day.”
“Really!? Thank you, Ageha Onii-sama! I love you!”
Ageha felt that a bomb was mixed in with her words but chose to disregard it.
“You’re spoiling her too much,” said Kaika, a wry smile on her face.
“What, are you jealous?”
“Check with Saya. I couldn’t care less.”
“Please do not involve me for I do not have anything to say about whatever it is that Kureha-Ojousama said that definitely does not affect me in any way because no matter what I will not be negatively affected since I do not care about who loves anyone in view of the fact that I do not love anyone.”
“Get a hold of yourself,” said Kaika.
Kureha laughed happily at the scene. Ageha did not notice that he, dragged in by the cozy atmosphere, was also laughing along. It reminded him of the past, but the waves of emotion he was currently experiencing swept away anything painful that threatened to arise. What was left was a nostalgic longing for a sweet dream that he once lost. It poured over him, tenderized his calloused heart, and imparted a flavor he had long forgotten.
I’ll have to call Rin and Kirishima-san to tell them I’m taking one more day off. I better get ready for an earful.
And so, bathed in familial bickering and chortling, he decided to play hooky for the second time in his life.