Let’s see… Olives, capers, penne… I still need to grab some anchovies.
Ageha strolled through the narrow aisles of the local supermarket. He was tasked with buying ingredients for dinner and a week’s worth of food supplies. This had been his weekly ritual for the past month or so.
This is starting to become a pain. It’s gotten too cold for night visits like this.
He remembered the comfort he felt when he entered the relatively deserted supermarket earlier. Ageha liked cool temperatures, but the frigid December winds robbed too much of his body heat. His body was mostly metal, so he needed to take extra measures for insulation.
He grabbed two small cans of anchovies and tossed them in his shopping basket. His mind was preoccupied by other thoughts as he mechanically procured the items in his mental shopping list. His destination after this shopping detour was an upscale apartment in Ebisu. It was located near a popular commercial district where young people roamed late into the night. He recalled Kaika’s reasoning for the choice in hideout.
“To hide the tree, use a forest,” huh?
Kaika had even laughed at Kousuke’s safe house location. She had ridiculed how he seemed to have taken the idiom too literally.
Ageha checked his basket and confirmed that all the items on the list were there. He then walked towards the cashier to purchase the ingredients. The old lady at the register was already helping a teenage girl.
“The total is 3,425 yen, miss.”
The girl wordlessly handed over a five-thousand yen bill to the cashier. The teenager’s profile caught Ageha’s attention. She reminded him of someone he knew quite well. It was not her facial features but her lack of any expression that brought to mind a certain stoic butler. The girl’s unkempt short hair and half-closed eyelids made it seem like she had just gotten out of bed.
“Do you have a membership card?” asked the cashier.
The teenager shook her head, her bangs swaying softly from her languid motion.
“We are currently running a special promotion. You can get a membership card for half the price!”
The girl listened to the old lady as she continued her explanation and drilled down into the finer details of the promotion offer. Ageha did not stand in line yet and quietly observed the odd girl from the side. He noticed that she slightly opened her lips but closed them again without saying anything. That action reminded him of Kureha, who he had been able read quite well after some practice.
He deduced that the girl was not interested in the offer but could not speak up. He would usually let this sort of situation play out without interfering, but he was also being delayed by her inability to stop the cashier’s prattling. He did not find the girl’s silence irritating, but testing the patience of a certain little monster at his destination did not seem like a good idea.
“Excuse me,” said Ageha.
Both the cashier and the girl turned to him.
“I think she is not interested.”
The old lady raised an eyebrow and then looked at the girl. She made a small nod.
“Oh, I am sorry for taking up so much of your time! Here is your receipt. Thank you for the purchase!” The old lady handed a slip of paper to the girl.
The girl lazily received it and exited the supermarket with her purchases.
Ageha unloaded the contents of his basket onto the counter. The old lady greeted him and proceeded to scan the items.
“She was quite a beauty, no?” asked the old lady.
“Hm? Yes,” he said.
“Are you sure it’s okay not asking for her number? That’s why you helped her isn’t it?”
“Of course not. That would be a crime.”
“Oniisan, are you thinking of something lewd? I only said to ask for her number.” The old lady smiled mischievously.
He emulated the girl’s poker face. “No. The only reasons to get the number of a cute girl would be either to scout them for showbiz or to eventually do lewd things to them. I just answered with that in mind.”
“…You certainly aren’t fun to tease.” She pouted jokingly.
“I get that a lot.”
The old lady finished bagging the items and handling the payment. “Thank you for the purchase!” she said with a wink as he turned to the exit and walked away from the register.
After passing the automatic doors, he found the teenage girl he had helped earlier standing outside. She approached him the moment their eyes met. Ageha realized she had been waiting for him.
Her lips parted, but she said nothing before closing them. She repeated this several times.
Ageha deduced what she was trying to say. He had significant experience with poker-faced and reserved girls, after all. Seeing a girl that was like a combination of Saya and Kureha naturally made him smile.
“You’re welcome,” he said.
The girl’s sleepy-looking eyes widened ever so slightly. Ageha felt a little proud of making the robotic girl react.
“Be careful on your way home.” Ageha turned away from the girl and walked to his next destination.
About half an hour later, he arrived at the apartment.
The unpleasant greeting came from Kaika. She was sitting cross-legged on the apartment floor, both hands pressing on the navy blue skirt between her legs. It was a pose completely unbefitting a rich young lady. Saya, who had opened the door for him, was in her usual outfit.
“I missed the bus.” He went into the kitchen and placed the shopping bags on the counter.
“The supermarket isn’t that far.”
“The one I went to is. I change where I shop each time as a precaution.”
“I see. That’s pretty obsessive-compulsive even for you,” said Kaika with a raised eyebrow.
“Thanks for the compliment.”
“I’m glad you’ve already grasped my way of thinking.”
“Being subjected to your weekly ranting has that side effect.”
“How rude. I don’t rant… that often.”
“At least you’re aware of it.”
Saya entered the kitchen and started unpacking the groceries. Dividing the ingredients by order of usage, she organized them neatly on the counter. It was her turn to prepare dinner tonight.
“Can you really blame me? This place is too cramped,” said Kaika, the corners of her lips pointing down.
“You should see my apartment. This room is about double its size,” said Ageha as he took a seat at the kotatsu. Kaika shifted to face him.
“I don’t mind the room space, but the bathtub’s way too small.”
“You’re just spoiled because you’re used to the quasi-pool in the mansion.”
“Oh, you’ve seen it? I had it built myself.”
“I only used the shower room when I was staying over, but Kureha showed the main bath to me once.”
Kaika showed a look of surprise. “…You’ve recovered that much?”
“You can say that.”
Kaika nodded with a relieved expression. Ageha had not gotten over Kureha’s death yet, but he had wanted Kaika to know that the loss no longer affected his judgment negatively.
“What’s our menu for tonight again?” asked Kaika, changing the topic.
“Penne Alla Puttanesca,” he said. “The normal kind.”
“Please do not expect too much,” said Saya, her voice coming from the kitchen. “Ojousama’s more avant-garde requests are in Ageha-sama’s territory. I can only prepare simple meals.”
“No, you’re pretty good. Not quite at my level, but your dishes can be sold in a restaurant,” said Ageha.
“It would’ve been a typical Ageha compliment if you didn’t brag,” said Kaika with a smirk. “You’re pretty petty when it comes to your forte.”
Saya’s laugh reached the living room.
Frowning slightly after being laughed at, Ageha asked, “Anyway, how long are we supposed to keep this up?”
“Until we get rid of Kazuki. We can’t ignore the chance that there might be more of those cyborg soldiers. The mansion is too dangerous now.”
“Still no leads on where he is?”
“Not yet, but it’s only a matter of time. The same can be said for us, though.”
“Do you plan on moving again?”
“Maybe next week.”
“Don’t choose a place too far from my apartment. Being your errand boy is annoying enough as it is.”
“I told you that we have no choice, right? Outside of the people in this room, no one else can be trusted, at least not with my location.”
“That’s why I’m doing this despite the inconvenience.”
“You’re not the only one inconvenienced by the current state of things.”
“Yeah, I’m sure Saya has her hands full taking care of you.”
“I beg to differ, Ageha-sama. Except for the addition of cooking, my duties have hardly changed.” Saya temporarily stopped her hands and turned to Ageha. “As her butler, secretarial work, household chores, as well as bathing and dressing Kai-Ojousama are second nature to me.”
“I think the last two aren’t really part of your duties.”
“They aren’t, but she insists on doing them,” said Kaika.
Saya really does dote on her like a big sister.
“Some of the maids who were supposed to do those things lost their jobs because of her zeal,” she continued.
Wait, there were actually people assigned to bathe and clothe Kai!?
And they got fired because of something so stupid!?
Ageha was having trouble keeping a straight face.
“What are you saying, Ojousama? You, who cannot even tie her own hair properly, should not give false information.”
“I think it was your fault that Kai ended up that way,” said Ageha.
Saya pouted and released a cute groan. She continued cooking while the other two chatted about various topics.
After about fifteen minutes, Saya placed the finished dish on top of a mat on the kotatsu. The penne was generously coated with aromatic, red sauce. Bits of olives and capers were scattered all throughout the steaming concoction. Starting with her mistress, Saya served the pasta.
“I’m impressed by your guts. You actually cooked an Italian pasta dish for this petty Italian chef,” said Kaika.
“That’s one word too many,” he said.
“I know that he will be fair in his judgment,” said Saya with a trusting smile.
Ageha remembered Saya’s face when they had first met and was reminded of how much she had changed. She could not be called expressionless anymore. Though still on the less expressive side, her reactions could now be considered normal for a young woman.
The three of them dug into the food. Ageha dissected the dish in his head. The flavor of the sauce was well balanced. The acidity of the tomatoes smoothed out the salt spikes from the other ingredients. Puttanesca was not a homogenous sauce. Each bite provided a different experience depending on what was rolled onto the fork. Saya managed to recreate this effect excellently.
“Good job. Looks like you took my advice on the amount of anchovies,” he said.
“Petty was the perfect word to describe you after all,” said Kaika.
“No, it really was thanks to his instruction that it turned out so well. I have never made puttanesca this good, if I do say so myself,” said Saya.
“Indeed,” said Kaika, looking impressed. “The penne was a nice choice for the pasta. Since you minced the olives, the hole in the pasta easily grabs them. This is delicious.”
“She probably chose penne because of the alliteration though,” said Ageha.
“As expected of my partner! I knew you would get it,” said Saya while nodding towards Ageha.
Ageha sighed at Saya’s display of her odd humor.
“Where did you learn to cook so well? This dish is pretty close to something prepared by a professional cook,” said Ageha.
“It was part of my training to become Ojousama’s butler. My skills had rusted due to lack of use, but I have recovered them because I cook almost every day recently.”
“I envy how you can do almost anything. That versatility is something I’ve always wanted because I’m a one-trick pony.”
“The grass is always greener on the other side, Ageha-sama. The level of specialization that you have achieved has always astounded me.”
“…I would say ‘get a room!’ to you two, but I’m afraid you would actually leave me here alone and do just that,” said Kaika, exasperation evident in her face and voice.
Saya blushed to her ears and hung her head. Ageha found her shyness cute because it contrasted with her usual composed and rigid self. He did not realize he was staring without moving his utensils.
“And now Ageha’s charmed enough to stop eating. What’s with this couple?” asked Kaika, her eyes rolling as she worked on her pasta.
“We’re not a couple, and I couldn’t help it. She’s too cute.”
Saya reflexively cupped her face with both hands after hearing Ageha’s comment. A feminine moan squeezed through the gaps of her fingers.
Ageha’s trust in Saya had grown steadily over the span of their relationship. It had gotten to the point that, excluding himself, Saya was the person he trusted the most. Attraction started to seep in through the cracks in his wall of wariness.
They had finished eating dinner before the blush left Saya’s fair skin.
“What’s for dessert?” asked Kaika.
“You still want to eat after having two plates of pasta? And don’t give me the excuse that sweets go to a different place.”
“I need the sugar.” She nonchalantly tapped her temple twice with her index finger.
Ageha easily figured out what she meant and stood up. He had actually planned to make dessert anyway and had already bought ingredients for it at the supermarket.
“Are you okay with cannoli?”
“I’m sure anything you make will be exquisite.”
“I am looking forward to it as well,” said Saya.
He smiled at the two ladies before heading into the kitchen. Their confidence in his cooking brightened his mood. He opened the pantry and looked for the flour. Finding none, he decided to ask the one usually in charge of this kitchen.
“Saya, where’s the flour?”
“I am afraid we are out of flour. I used it in the melon bread I baked yesterday.”
“Looks like I’ll have to go grab some at the nearby supermarket.”
“I will go in your stead. You can start preparing the filling in the meantime.”
Ageha was glad that Saya knew enough about cooking to come up with such a considerate suggestion but worried about her at the same time.
“Isn’t it a bit risky to go out there? Kazuki probably has his men looking for you too,” he said.
Saya glanced at Kaika, asking for permission wordlessly.
“I guess it should be fine. The supermarket is close by. It’s unlikely you’ll run into the enemy during such a quick errand.” Kaika moved closer to Saya and then whispered, “And grab me a couple of those.”
“You mean dolphin cookies?” she asked loudly enough for Ageha to definitely hear it.
Kaika pinched her cheek until she apologized.
Saya quickly put on a white coat and left the apartment. Ageha started working on the cannoli filling. Kaika entered the kitchen area and sat on one of the bar chairs beside the counter.
“Be careful,” she said.
“Kazuki might suspect you as well. It might be a good idea to change your address.”
“No, if I do something like that, it’d be the same as confirming his hypothetical suspicion. I also have work.”
“You do know that you can quit your job and work for me full-time, right?”
“I love cooking.”
“You cook for me too.”
“Can you eat dozens of plates of food?”
“You like cooking that much?”
“I’m half kidding. It’s true that I like seeing lots of people enjoy my cooking, though.”
“I didn’t think you were so generous.”
“I’m not. I do it to stroke my ego.”
“Honest to a fault. You could’ve used that touch of softness in your character you know? Readers of my future best-selling autobiography would like you better.”
Ageha wanted to deny the best-selling part but realized she was probably right. “I couldn’t care less if strangers like me or not.”
“I guess that’s where we differ.”
“You actually want to be liked by people you don’t care about?”
“Their tendency to like me is directly proportional to my acting ability. It’s me toning my pride.”
“I guess we aren’t so different.”
The two exchanged smiles after finding more common ground.
Saya’s white breath dissipated into the chilly winter air as she followed the empty sidewalk. She rubbed her cheeks with her free hand in a hopeless effort to ward off the cold. It was quite late, and the neighborhood street was deserted.
It’s probably an open secret at this point.
She thought about her feelings for Ageha. Even excluding her embarrassing display earlier, she had shown many signs of her affection for him. The frequency had only been increasing as time passed.
Is he bothered by it?
The plastic bag containing flour and cookies swung in rhythm with her steps. She recalled his frequent compliments and generally affectionate demeanor. Saya wondered if she could find hope in those.
Maybe he feels the same?
Her face, already tinged red from the cold, further saturated in color. She tried to contain her excitement because she knew how painful it would be if her hopes were betrayed. She could never read Ageha properly. In the first place, she was not very skilled at reading other people. Her perception and sensitivity were on par with the layman but paled in comparison to that of her mistress or even Ageha.
Should I tell him properly?
Saya pondered this possibility. Kaika had said she was fine with Saya confessing her feelings to Ageha. She even encouraged it, saying it would strengthen her control over him. Saya found Kaika’s treatment of Ageha like a tool distasteful, but it was something she had already chosen to accept when she had agreed to walk this path.
But what if he rejects me?
Would she be able to control herself after such a development? Just concealing her feelings had already led to numerous embarrassments like the one during dinner. Would they still be able to work well as a team after that? Saya cursed her own emotional immaturity. They were professionals. It was expected that any feelings beyond the scope of their duties stay there. The fact that she lacked the confidence to declare this confirmed her weakness. However, that was understandable because this was the first time she had ever felt so strongly towards a romantic interest.
She reflexively turned around. Before she could even finish the motion, she regretted doing it from the bottom of her heart. Her emotional distress had caused her to drop her guard enough to respond to someone calling her name.
“It really is you. Serendipity can be amazing,” said a rough-looking middle-aged man. He was looking at Saya’s grocery bag. He wore a thick brown leather coat and black jeans. The scars on his face implied significant combat experience.
Alarm bells blared in Saya’s head. She did not know this man. He was likely someone from Kazuki’s faction. She decided to buy time by questioning him.
She immediately cursed her own naivety. The man had not even given her time to finish speaking a single line and rushed towards her. She saw the man pull out a knife from his back, so she threw the shopping bag in his direction. The man veered to the side and avoided the bag. He had not slashed or smacked the bag away as Saya had expected.
He completely read my thoughts..!
She had hoped that the flour exploding from the bag on impact would give her time to compose herself, but her opponent was not green enough to fall for such tactics.
The man aimed his knife at her throat. She swiftly leaned back and avoided the slash, but the man’s right leg quickly extended and slammed into her left knee. She staggered from the force of the hit. She instantly figured out that the man’s leg was cybernetic. Her alloy legs would not budge an inch from a normal kick.
Saya ducked another slash and performed a back handspring. The enemy dodged her rising legs, but she had expected that. She had done it to create space, but her opponent did not allow that and immediately closed in.
How about this!?
She pulled out a handgun from her coat and hurriedly aimed it at the man’s head, but he merely slapped her hand to the side. She had intended to surprise the enemy with the weapon, but that had not worked either. She was being overwhelmed by the man’s combat experience and composure.
The man thrust his knife towards her stomach. Dropping her gun, she quickly stepped aside and grabbed his oncoming wrist with both hands. It seemed she had superior reflexes and speed. Realizing she was holding flesh, she tried to twist the man’s wrist and disarm him, but he easily escaped her grasp and stepped backward. She took this chance and hopped away from him.
The two of them maintained that distance while trying to read further into each other’s planned movements. Shoving away the fear in her heart, Saya opted for her most practiced attack. She closed in and threw her favorite jaw-dropping roundhouse. The man ducked and narrowly avoided the kick, his hair ruffled by her boot. Saya quickly shifted her stance and drove her raised leg downward into an axe kick. Surprising her with the speed of his reaction, the man sidestepped the attack and slammed a left uppercut into her side.
Saya gasped from the blow. She endured the pain and jumped away. The man quickly followed her and threw a front kick. She relied on her instincts and spun to avoid the blow. Continuing her rotation, she smashed her left elbow into the man’s cheek. The blow staggered him, but Saya was also hurt from their previous exchange. The pain delayed her followup attack.
Her palm strike missed its target, and the man countered by grabbing her arm and throwing her over his shoulder. She immediately bent her knees to make sure her feet hit the ground first. The impact was largely absorbed by her cybernetic legs, and she managed to keep her body off the ground. She tried to gouge out the man’s left eye with her free hand, but he realized his throw had failed and quickly released her to dodge the attack.
Saya placed both palms on the floor and performed a leg sweep. The man jumped backward to avoid it. She quickly stood up and launched a barrage of kicks. The man avoided her lethal dance by the skin of his teeth. He countered with his knife and sliced Saya’s forearms as she attempted to defend her torso from the blade. The sleeves of her jacket were cut and beads of blood scattered into the air.
This is bad…
Her wounds were deep and dripping copious amounts of blood. She tried to make a fist with each hand but could not do so with her left because the nerves were cut. The pain slowly eroded her consciousness and judgment. The possibility of death slowly became clearer.
Not in a place like this..!
Regrets jolted her body into motion. She had not yet seen Kaika achieve her goal. She had not avenged Kureha. She had not told him how she felt.
The gun she dropped earlier caught her eye, but it was a fair distance away. The man and his knife blocked the way . She decided to risk her life on her last chance of survival.
The man slowly inched towards her, probably because he knew the danger of a cornered animal. He was right to be wary. On the verge of death, organisms were capable of amazing things. Saya dashed towards the man with reckless abandon. He was caught off guard by the action but quickly poised himself to receive Saya’s attack.
But she did not attack. She merely ran towards him at full speed. He was forced to dodge her charge but managed to inflict a gaping wound on Saya’s abdomen as she passed by. Despite her injury, Saya continued her run, picked up the handgun as she rolled on the ground, and then turned and shot at the man.
The wound on her arm affected her aim and caused her first shot to miss, but the second hit the man’s shoulder. He jerked from the impact but soon moved to escape. He retreated into an alley with his hand grabbing his wounded shoulder as Saya unloaded more bullets in his direction.
Saya had created enough distance for the handgun to be too dangerous for the knife wielder. Despite her injuries, she was confident she could kill him if he tried to move towards her. This insurmountable edge of projectile weapons was likely the reason why the man had rushed at her without waiting for her to speak earlier. Remembering how easily Ageha conquered that advantage put a smirk on her face.
She knew the gunshots would definitely attract the police, so she had to leave the area. However, her legs did not obey her. She tried to walk back to the apartment but fell down near a telephone pole. She slowly sat up and leaned her back on it as she tried to collect her breathing. She looked down and smiled wryly at what appeared to be a fatal wound. She calmly took out her terminal and dialed Ageha’s number.
At least I can finally be honest.
“She’s late,” said Kaika.
“You’re right,” said Ageha.
“She’s never late.”
Ageha tensed up, but his reply was interrupted by his terminal’s alert tone.
“Speak of the devil.” He pressed the accept button and lifted his terminal to his ear. “What happened?” He smiled as his worry flitted away.
“I was attacked.”
Then it stormed back.
“Are you alright?”
“No. It is… quite bad.”
“Where are you?”
“…Beside a telephone pole… near the abandoned house.”
He had traveled that path often enough to instantly figure out where she was.
“Don’t move. I’ll go there now.”
“I am afraid… it is too late. More importantly, I… have something to tell you.”
“Shut up and conserve your energy.” He hung up. He understood how grave the situation was. It was not that he did not want to hear her dying words. He had simply prioritized logic over sentimentality. The seconds they would spend talking could end up costing her life.
He hurriedly headed for the balcony, but he stopped and looked at Kaika. He realized that this could be a trap to isolate her.
“I understood the gist from what you said on the call. Go,” she said with a stern expression.
Ageha jumped from the fifth floor balcony to one on the fourth. He repeated this three more times to reach the ground in a few seconds. After landing on the street, he sprinted to where Saya was. His thoughts were in disarray.
He relived his powerlessness when Kureha had been killed. Part of the reason why he could not move on was because the strength that he had believed in, sought, and obtained had been completely useless in preventing Kureha’s death. That event had denied his way of life in the most simple and permanent way possible. After letting time scab the wound, he had finally obtained some semblance of stability, but that was now teetering on the edge of destruction.
His peripheral vision blurred as he focused on getting to Saya as fast as he could. Unspeakable images ran through his head with each step. His rapid heartbeat drowned out all sound. He eventually reached the telephone pole she had indicated.
He found her sitting on the ground with her back leaning on the telephone pole. Her white jacket was soaked in blood, and her hands were lifelessly sprawled in red pools on the asphalt. She sat there unmoving, like a broken statue of a goddess forgotten by time.
Ageha ran towards her and gently lifted her body up. He stared at her pale, expressionless face and lost all composure.
He screamed her name in a voice he had never made before.