On Ageha’s blanket-covered lap was a black ball of hair. It reminded him of a small animal curling up for warmth during winter. An IV tube was sticking out of his neck, and his torso was wrapped in white bandages. He sat up, ignoring the pain on his left side. He looked around and realized that he was in one of the rooms in Kaika’s mansion. The location confirmed the identity of the creature on his lap.
Just when he was about to wake Kureha from her slumber, a familiar buzzing sound emanated from the bedside table. He took his terminal and accepted the call.
“Ageha! Great, I finally got a hold of you,” said Rin, her voice filled with relief.
Ageha checked his terminal’s display. There were five missed calls. The clock informed him that he had been asleep for almost an entire day.
“Sorry, I was asleep.”
“The whole afternoon?”
“Yeah, I have a temperature.”
“I see. Your ankle sprain is that bad…”
“An acquaintance of yours called Sapore about your accident. I’m guessing that was your rich employer?”
“Yeah, I had her call for me.”
“Your employer… is a woman?”
That was careless. I gave unnecessary information.
“More importantly, how’s Sapore holding up?”
“What do you think? Lunch service was a war zone due to two missing chefs. Matsunaga-san’s replacement isn’t doing very well. Why did you have to get into an accident..?”
“Ah, no, wait, I wasn’t blaming you! It’s not your fault! I was just thinking about how these unlucky things keep happening, and I-”
“I get it, relax.” He chuckled upon hearing her fluster. Her tendency to panic always amused him. It was charming, in a way.
He caught a sigh of relief from the receiver.
“So, how are you doing?”
“I’m fine. I may need a couple more days off. I can’t put any weight on my ankle, so I can’t stand in the cucina. I’d just be in the way.”
“I know it doesn’t sound convincing after that rant, but take as much time as you need. Kirishima-san said the same thing. …Though Yama-san was laughing about how you slipped in the kitchen despite being a chef.” A soft giggle followed.
“Oh, sorry, but I have to go. My break’s almost over. Take care of your injury. I’ll call you later after work.”
“Thanks for worrying about me. Please take care of Sapore while I’m gone.”
“You can count on me!”
Ageha placed the terminal back on the table. He noticed that the cuddly ebony plush on his leg was stirring.
I’m amazed she can sleep so well using a metal pipe as a pillow.
Kureha rubbed her eyes as she sat up.
“Good afternoon, Kureha-chan.”
“Yeah, it’s me.” He wore a smile that contradicted the current state of his body.
“Are you okay? Oneesama said you were hurt, so I came to visit you, but you were asleep, so-”
“So you used an injured person’s leg as a pillow?”
“I am sorry! I did not mean to nod off.”
Ageha placed his hand on Kureha’s small head and gently stroked it.
“It’s okay. Wasn’t it hard and cold though?” Ageha was sure that Kureha already knew about his limbs from previous contact.
“Not at all. It was comfortable. I would not have slept so soundly otherwise.”
“That sounds like an excuse.”
“Ageha-Oniisama…” The outer ends of her brows and lips tilted downward.
“I’m kidding! Don’t make that face.”
Her frown instantly vanished. Ageha realized that Kureha was faking it. She countered his jab perfectly. Her growth caused a fuzzy emotion to well up inside him. He believed that he was at least partly responsible for it.
“It was not an excuse. I really do feel at ease with you, more so than anyone else.”
The directness she did not have before caught Ageha off guard. His response, though already determined, was delayed.
“…That makes me happy. Thanks, Kureha-chan.”
They exchanged smiles.
“Are you feeling alright? Does your injury hurt?”
“No, I’m fine. It doesn’t hurt at all as long as I stay put.” It was a kind lie.
“I am glad. Oneesama did not tell me what happened, so I was worried how serious it was…”
“It’s nothing to worry about.”
“Oh right! I have to tell her that you woke up. Please wait here for a moment while I fetch her.”
Kureha stood up and trotted to the door. She was wearing brown shorts and a yellow shirt. It was a very sporty look that contrasted with her personality. Ageha wondered if it was part of her effort to be more outgoing.
“I will return immediately,” she said as she looked back at him one last time before leaving the room.
Ageha did not have to wait long before the mistress arrived. Saya opened and held the doors to the room. She waited for the sisters to enter before closing the door behind herself. Followed by the other two, Kaika approached the bed. She was in a simple grey one piece, and the butler was in uniform.
“How are you feeling?” asked Kaika.
“Everyone keeps asking me that.”
“Would you rather be ignored?”
“Depends on who’s asking.”
“If you can talk back like that, I guess you’re fine.” Kaika eyed him like she was observing a strange animal. “Still, you really are impudent, even to your boss.”
“That’s not true, right, Kureha?”
“Wow, I thought only Saya fell victim to your poisonous tongue, but even Kureha-”
“Kai-Ojousama, what are you saying!?”
“Isn’t it the truth? She was so frantic when she called me on my terminal and asked for a doctor. You should have seen her when she dragged you back here. What’s the story there, Ageha?”
“She did promise me an arm pillow.”
“No, I did not. I said I will think about it,” said Saya.
“That wasn’t the last thing I heard.”
“…You were awake!?”
“I wasn’t sure if I dreamt it, but that just now confirmed I was indeed awake.”
Saya was crimson down to her neck. It made Ageha speculate if her organs were getting enough blood right now.
“My, my, this is far worse than I thought. To think that the two of you made this much progress,” said Kaika.
“There is no progress! It is Chou- Ageha-sama’s usual teasing!”
“Oh? What’s this? You even have nicknames?”
“As a matter of fact-”
“Shikimi-sama.” The rumbling change of address halted Ageha’s statement.
“Looks like my lips are sealed.”
“I order you to tell me. Saya, stay there and be quiet.”
The two employees did as their boss decreed. Ageha filled Kaika in on all the details that Saya had omitted from her report. He made sure to censor any information not fit for Kureha’s ears. Due to that limitation, the report became merely a chain of embarrassing events involving Saya. Saya was squatting down while holding her head and mumbling to herself by the time Ageha ended his story.
“How lucky…” whispered Kureha.
“I see. It wasn’t as juicy as I expected, but at least we have a continuation,” said Kaika.
““Continuation?”” asked yesterday’s tag team simultaneously.
“Saya has yet to fulfill her promise, right? An arm pillow is a small price to pay for being saved from turning into a beehive.”
Guilt crept into Saya’s unusually reactive face. Her brows wrinkled in thought for a short while.
“What,” said Ageha.
“Now that’s more like it!” said the instigator of this fiasco.
“Saya, you do know what an arm pillow is, right?”
“I find that hard to believe, considering your consent.”
“Do not underestimate me.” Saya sat down beside Ageha on the bed. “…Go ahead.”
“I can’t do it with you sitting like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I knew you were misunderstanding something.”
“Is an arm pillow not when one of two people sitting beside each other leans his or her head on the other’s shoulder?”
Kaika’s snickers served as ambient noise for the embarrassing discussion.
“No. In the first place, that’s impossible with our height difference. Listen, an arm pillow is…” Ageha explained the position in detail.
The visible part of her face glowing red, Saya stood up reflexively and tried to leave the room.
“You wouldn’t go out and leave your charge alone, would you?” asked Kaika.
“You were fine with me being gone for one night!”
“Don’t be so childish. An arm pillow isn’t such a big deal, is it?”
Saya ceased her departure and started shaking. Then she flipped.
“Who is the childish one here!? I am not the one always eating dolphin-shaped cookies secretly at night!”
“W-W-What are you talking about?”
“Oh, I know those. Oneesama keeps them in the bottom drawer beside the bed.”
“Kureha..!” Kaika glared at her sister.
“Now, now, don’t get angry, at your little sister, for telling the truth,” said Ageha while pausing periodically to stop himself from laughing. His efforts failed in the end.
“Wha- what’s wrong with dolphin cookies? I’ll have you know that dolphins are very intelligent despite their docile and cheerful appearance. I like how similar they are to me.”
You left out how cruel they can be.
“And they are cute,” said Saya.
“Right, they are so cute…” It was Kaika’s turn to go beet red. “No, wait, that isn’t what I meant to say! I don’t care if they’re cute at all!”
Ageha continued laughing despite knowing it could open his wound. Kureha had joined in at some point.
“I don’t want to be laughed at by a mercenary who can’t even use a gun!”
“You told her that!?” shouted Ageha, glaring at Saya. Even he had become a victim in the snitching free-for-all.
“I had no choice! Ojousama needs to know that information for her plans. And you also brought up the arm pillow promise, so you do not have the right to complain!”
Before Ageha could reply, he realized that the content of what they were talking about was supposed to be secret to one of the people in the room.
Ageha slowly turned to Kureha. Seeing this action, the other two did the same. They were at a loss as to how to resolve this unexpected information leakage.
“Do not worry, everyone. I did not hear a thing,” said Kureha politely, an innocent smile on her face.
Like sister, like sister.
The three heaved a sigh.
“Okay, this stops here,” said Kaika, eyes closed. “Saya, can you take Kureha outside? I need to speak with Ageha privately.”
“Understood. Kureha-Ojousama, would you like to accompany me for a game of cards?”
“Okay. Please take care, Ageha-Oniisama. Please do not bully him too much, Oneesama.”
The two left Ageha and Kaika alone in the room.
“Hmph. What did you do to that girl?”
“I would say both, but I can’t believe Kureha just said that to me.”
“About not bullying a man with a bullet wound?”
“Yes. She used to be unable to hold a conversation with me, much less joke around like that. She’s changed so much in such a short time.”
“I think she was probably always like that. She just didn’t have anyone who would listen to her. I was like that as a kid, so I can understand.”
“You may be right. I never really had the patience to deal with her.”
“You had a lot on your plate.”
“…Did Saya tell you?” There was no anger or irritation in her demeanor.
“Not much. It’s mostly speculation.” Ageha shrugged his shoulders. Deciding to get to the point, he asked, “So, am I going to be bullied for getting shot?”
“Is that what you were expecting?”
“Once burned, twice shy.”
“No burning is going to happen today.”
“That’s good. I was worried about the bridges.”
Kaika looked a little surprised by his reply. She glanced at the door Saya and Kureha had left from. “Their affection isn’t unrequited?”
A photo sticker with three smiling faces surfaced in Ageha’s mind.
“I wonder about that.”
“You can be pretty cruel.”
“I don’t want to hear that from you.” He smiled wryly.
“…You’re right. I want to thank you for protecting both Saya and the painting, but more importantly, I have a confession to make.”
Ageha unconsciously straightened up. It was already unexpected that she would express gratitude sincerely. For her to confess something to anyone was downright astonishing.
“My brothers are not after my life. I staged the attack at the park.”
Ageha’s expression did not change much.
“You don’t look surprised.”
“I would’ve been a few days ago. Carelessly going out shopping clued me in, but sending Saya with me to steal that painting was the clincher.”
“I didn’t think you were this shrewd. Did I adopt a very dangerous pet?”
“The fact that you still call me a pet means I’m not even off the leash yet.”
“You overestimate me. Anyway, I apologize for deceiving you. Trust is not a resource I have in abundance.”
“I would’ve done the same in your position.”
“Does that mean my playing with fire will lead to the unexpected conclusion?”
“You can be so roundabout.”
“Women are such creatures.”
“Says the girl who doesn’t even wear a bra.”
“Isn’t it great? It reduces clothing costs. It also makes it easier to dupe old men.”
“Such a different reaction from Saya.”
“Right, she did grab your hair too.”
Ageha’s face contorted in disbelief after hearing the last word of Kaika’s sentence.
“What shocks me is she even grabbed yours.”
“I was shocked too. She wasn’t even looking at me when she did it. She looked perfectly calm, as if she was reading the morning paper. I wonder if she did it unconsciously.”
“I almost died.”
“She didn’t pull too hard in my case. Maybe she did have some consideration for our respective positions.”
“She was driving.”
Both of them guffawed.
“Back on topic,” said Kaika after recovering from the fit, “how does our bridge stand?”
Ageha collected his breathing after the bout of literally side-splitting laughter.
“That depends. You haven’t told me the most important thing.”
“Why are you trying to take down your brothers?”
“Because I want to control NGC.”
“That doesn’t make you any different from them.”
“But I am. Their dolce is merely my antipasto.”
“…What are you planning beyond NGC?”
Kaika stuck her chest out and looked Ageha in the eyes. Her eyes sparkled. This was the first truly childlike face Ageha had ever seen her make. It was no act. Ageha doubted everything that had ever passed those beautiful pink petals, but there was something inviolable about what she disclosed next.
“To change the world.”