Ageha had a rare day off, so he had decided to restock his home pantry. He was walking back to his apartment after shopping for ingredients.
A middle-aged woman walking a golden retriever headed towards him from the opposite direction. Ageha veered slightly to the side to make room for them, but as they were about to pass each other, the dog suddenly barked at him. Having limbs much harder than dog teeth, Ageha simply looked at the dog in annoyance.
“I’m so sorry!” said the woman as she did two quick, shallow bows. “Sophie is usually so polite.”
“No worries,” said Ageha. He merely nodded and walked away.
Dogs tended to be wary of him. He was unsure whether the cause was his artificial limbs, the smell of blood, or something else entirely. Regardless, it mattered little because he disliked dogs from the start. They were messy, noisy, and dependent.
Why did that dog have a foreign name?
He was pondering such a trivial thing when his eyes came upon a familiar face. He wondered if her hair was always so disheveled. Her half-opened eyes were staring at the entrance of a family restaurant.
Why’s she just standing there?
Ageha approached the girl, but before he could call out to her, she turned to him. Her eyes widened ever so slightly. She made a small nod, likely a subtle greeting. He previously met this teenage girl at the supermarket the night Saya had been attacked. Her beige turtleneck poked out from beneath her furry brown winter coat with its hood down. Black tights with a pair of grey shorts on top hugged her slender lower body.
It’s amazing how girls walk around like that in this temperature.
“Do you want to go in?”
She blinked and nodded, her face as expressionless as ever.
“You’ve never been in one before?”
She made another nod.
“Are you afraid of going in because you don’t know how to order?”
She quickly nodded twice.
What kind of teenager doesn’t know how to order in a family restaurant?
Ageha felt like a detective performing an interrogation. He was proud that his deductions were correct, but now he was stuck with a dilemma.
Should I help her out?
He was surprised such a question even came up. Normally, he would not concern himself with something like this. Closing his eyes for a moment, he reflected to find the reason. A certain face flashed through his mind.
He remembered his first impression of the girl in front of him. Her inability to speak her mind overlapped with his earlier memories of Kureha.
Guess it’s fine once in a while.
Having decided to be a good samaritan, he asked, “Would you like me to accompany you? I can teach you how to order.”
The girl’s eyes widened significantly, making it seem like she was fully awake for a change. Then her brow wrinkled ever so slightly. Ageha would have missed it had he not been completely focused on her face. She looked down for a few seconds and then nodded.
“Okay, follow me.” He passed the girl and walked towards the restaurant entrance when a loud rumbling sound came from behind him.
He turned to look but the girl was no longer there. Hearing faint footsteps behind him, he turned around again, only to realize that she had taken his back once more. With his pride as a close combat specialist somewhat damaged, he decided to catch her on his next try. He faked a turn and then quickly rotated to the other side. The girl seemed to have read the feint but was too slow to react. Ageha stepped back upon getting the girl in his sight to prevent her from going behind him again.
The girl was blushing to her ears. She stood frozen after her crimson face was revealed. Ageha figured out what the rumbling noise was.
“You don’t have to be embarrassed. It’s normal when your stomach is empty.”
She did not respond, but the red on her skin slowly started to recede.
I wonder if she practices martial arts?
Even if he was not maximizing his ARMS, it was no minor feat to take Ageha’s rear twice,. Before he could ask, he noticed an anomaly.
The girl’s eyes slowly closed as her figure swayed. Her knees buckled, and she started to fall. Ageha dropped his shopping bags and caught her before she hit the ground. He carried her out of the middle of the sidewalk and gently lowered her to the ground, propping her back against a nearby wooden fence.
The girl’s breathing and temperature were normal. Another loud growl concluded Ageha’s amateur diagnosis.
I’ve never seen anyone actually faint from hunger before.
Ageha checked on his groceries. Some of the eggs were broken. He cursed under his breath when he realized that wasted food was the least of his worries.
What should I do with her?
He could not just leave her on the sidewalk. Her condition would only worsen if she did not get nourishment. There was also the risk of someone mugging her, or worse. He looked at her lovely sleeping face, the perfect bait for horny old men, and sighed.
In for an inch, in for a mile.
He lifted her up and positioned her on his back. He could easily carry her in his arms, but that would look very unnatural, not to mention embarrassing, considering the significant distance to his apartment.
He had been preoccupied with diagnosing her condition after she had suddenly passed out, so only now did he notice that her right arm and left leg were cybernetic.
Everyone has a story.
He grabbed and lightly squeezed her right buttock to check if it was flesh.
Perfectly shaped- I mean, it’s not cybernetic.
Carrying his groceries and a random girl he picked up on the street, the young man headed home.
Arashi slowly opened her eyes and found herself in an unfamiliar room. She tried to remember what had happened.
I wanted to get something to eat at that restaurant… Then the man who helped me in the supermarket showed up…
Her memory cut off. She realized that she had probably fainted at that point. Alarm bells sounded in her head. She did not know where she was or who had captured her. She checked on her arms and legs. They were not restrained. She was simply lying on a bed with a blanket over her. She slowly tried to sit up, but a bout of dizziness forced her to lie back down. She took a deep breath, gathered her energy, and got out of bed. Having escaped from her warm and cozy cage, she unsteadily walked towards the door.
She noticed that she did not have her coat on and examined the rest of her attire. Her boots were missing, but the rest of her wardrobe seemed fine. She exited the room and checked her surroundings. It appeared to be a small apartment. She heard a clanking sound and closed in on the noise. A man stood in the kitchen, his back facing her. She wanted to silently approach and restrain him, but in her current state, she was not confident of success. Before she could decide on a course of action, her belly growled again.
This damn stomach!!!
Hearing the noise, the man turned around and said, “Perfect timing. The food’s ready.” He carried three steaming plates and placed them on the kotatsu in the center of the living room.
Realizing she was not in danger, Arashi’s nervous energy plummeted, and she started wobbling back and forth. Ageha briskly walked to her side and guided her to a seat at the kotatsu. The table was already set with plates, glasses, soup cups, and utensils for two.
“I hope you like spicy food. I had already bought the groceries, so the menu was kinda set. If you can’t handle the heat, there are fried spring rolls too.”
Arashi eyed the three plates in a row in front of her. The first plate held a vivid blend of stir-fried chicken, peanuts, red chilis, and sliced green onions. On the second plate, small white blocks of tofu swam together with minced pork in a fiery red sauce.. The third plate featured golden brown spring rolls sliced in half, their cut edges revealing a colorful mix of vegetables.
“I’d planned for Chinese this week, mainly Szechuan dishes. Nothing beats spicy food during winter. We have kung pao chicken, mapo tofu, and the spring rolls I mentioned earlier.” Ageha slowly lowered a small stove carrying a compact hot pot onto the table. “And this is the mao xue wang, a duck blood and chili hot pot. You don’t have to eat this if it’s too exotic for you.”
“So much!” Arashi’s eyes opened to their maximum capacity.
Ageha offered her a bowl of rice. “So you weren’t mute.”
She shook her head.
“You don’t want it?” Ageha retracted the bowl.
“Not mute!” The girl frantically reached for the bowl, but her languid movements could not compete with Ageha’s agile evasion. After she tried a few more times, Ageha voluntarily handed the bowl to her, probably because her drool had started dripping onto the kotatsu.
The petite girl started eating slowly at first but gradually picked up speed the more she ate. Her pace eventually peaked as she continued to tear into the food. Ageha was also eating but in a more relaxed manner.
What is this!?
I’ve never eaten anything this good in my entire life!!!
This man must be a god!
She stopped gorging for a moment and took a large gulp. She looked at Ageha as he calmly moved his chopsticks.
“…Are you… a god?” she asked.
She bowed her head deeply in worship for a moment and then proceeded to ladle small cubes of coagulated blood into her soup cup. She rapidly devoured the hotpot ingredients.
“It seems you’re not a picky eater, or is it just that good?” he asked with a proud smile.
Without removing the soup cup from her lips, she nodded enthusiastically.
“I guess it’s the latter. This much was supposed to last for a week, but I figured you could finish a couple of servings since you were starving. I didn’t think you could eat this much, though.”
The contents of the plates were mostly gone. Only the hot pot had about half remaining. Beads of sweat were dripping all over Arashi’s face.
My tongue is burning, but I can’t stop eating!
Is this what they mean by divine punishment!?
Ageha filled Arashi’s glass with cold water. She quickly grabbed the glass and gulped down the water.
He stood up and took a table napkin from a kitchen drawer. “Wipe your face too. You’re dripping sweat into your soup.” He walked over to her and handed her the napkin.
She obediently followed the god’s command.
“I wonder if this is how Saya feels when she takes care of that brat?” whispered Ageha to himself.
Ageha noticed tears dripping down the girl’s face. He crouched down to check on her. “Are you okay!? Is it that spicy!?”
Arashi noticed what he was referring to and quickly wiped away her tears with the napkin. She looked at him and said, “Too delicious.”
Ageha looked ecstatic from the praise. He reached for her head and gently rubbed it.
Surprised by this action, Arashi quickly retreated backwards. However, some of her hair was caught in Ageha’s ring, and the strands were painfully pulled out. Arashi’s expression did not change as she rubbed her aching scalp. She took some more distance from Ageha and suddenly prostrated herself before him.
“…Must not… touch a god.”
“Are you stupid?” asked Ageha with a baffled expression.
Arashi knew she was not the brightest of the bunch and accepted it. She definitely would not deny it, especially if it was a god asking her.
“I’m not a god. I was kidding earlier,” said Ageha.
That revelation caused her to show her first real expression to Ageha. It was one of utter shock and disbelief.
“I’m glad to know that your face isn’t paralyzed, but seriously, it shouldn’t be that much of a shock.” He eyed Arashi as if she were a mysterious animal.
Arashi regained her blank expression and returned to the kotatsu. She then started eating again.
“You’re just gonna go on like nothing happened!?”
Arashi did not respond. After a short while, she peeked at Ageha. He carefully took off his ring and removed the hair strands caught in it. He looked as if he swallowed a bitter pill.
I wonder why he’s making that face…
I want to know.
But I can’t even ask properly, and I’m stupid.
“I’m Ageha Shikimi. What’s your name?” he asked before she could complete her thought process.
Arashi tilted her head in wonder.
“You weren’t kidding when you agreed to being stupid, huh?”
“It’s ironic because your name means ‘storm,’ but you’re as quiet and languid as a sloth. Well, your eating prowess might deserve that name,” he said while looking at the empty plates.
Arashi’s cheeks blushed a little.
“Eating a lot isn’t something to be shy about. It makes the cook happy.” He smiled.
Arashi did not feel embarrassed about her appetite. She had felt embarrassed when her stomach growled, but that was because even she had enough common sense to know that hunger was utterly shameful. A large appetite did not even register as anything significant to her. She had blushed because she had been touched by Ageha’s willingness to explain things to someone as slow as her.
“It’s odd how you can eat so much, though. Your body shouldn’t consume that much energy, right?”
Arashi looked puzzled.
“I didn’t mean to pry, but I couldn’t help noticing your cybernetic implants when I carried you here.”
He wants to know about my body.
But I can’t tell him about this.
“…Accident,” she said. She felt a stinging pain in her chest.
Ageha turned on the television facing the kotatsu. He cleaned up the table while Arashi watched TV. After finishing up after-meal chores, he took the seat to her left.
“Why were you outside anyway? It’s a Monday. Don’t you have school?”
Arashi shook her head. Her focus remained on the television screen.
“You mean, you don’t go to school?”
Still facing the screen, she nodded.
Ageha turned to the television and asked, “Is it really that interesting?”
Arashi’s head bobbed up and down several times. A travel show that featured a local aquarium was on the display. Videos of sharks and giant turtles were shown as the narrator gave a detailed explanation of the exhibits. Ageha looked at Arashi, whose half-opened eyes were sparkling.
“You wanna go?”
Arashi had nodded before he could even finish his question. She was amazed by the television program because her father did not allow her to watch TV. The possibility of seeing that scenery for real felt like a dream to her.
That looks awesome!
For the girl who could only play in the battlefield, the world beyond the screen was a mysterious and alluring wonderland.
Ageha dipped his head a little and closed his eyes for a short while. He then nodded to himself and said, “I can take you if you want. I don’t have anything else to do today anyway.”
“God!” she shouted.
Ageha rapidly stood up and jumped away from her. He looked creeped out by Arashi, who was crawling on all fours towards him with no expression on her face while saying “god” repeatedly.
“But only if you stop this ‘god’ thing, okay?”
“…Sir?” she asked with a salute.
“What am I, your commanding officer? Rejected.”
“No honorifics, huh?”
Arashi tilted her head.
“I guess it’s better than ‘god.’” He sighed in resignation.
For the first time outside of combat, a subtle smile spread on her face.
About an hour later, Arashi was staring at a display again, but this time, it was a large glass aquarium filled with multicolored fish and other aquatic life.
“Do you like them?” asked Ageha.
Without turning to him, she nodded.
“Hm. I don’t really know much about fish, well, except how they taste.”
This time, Arashi turned to him with slightly widened eyes.
You can eat them!?
“Can… eat?” she asked while sluggishly pointing to a rainbow-colored fish.
Arashi loved to eat fish, but she was only familiar with the fillets sold in supermarkets and prepared dishes in small local eateries. Equating these beautiful animals with food had not occurred to her.
“Not that one.” He pointed at a yellowfin tuna instead. “That, however, would make great sashimi.”
Arashi vaguely knew of sashimi. She had overheard one of her targets praise its flavor while eating some. She had not been able to try the sliced fish because it had gotten covered in blood during her mission.
“You’re drooling again. How can you still be hungry after eating that much?”
She wiped the corner of her mouth using her sleeves, which were slightly too long for her sylphlike arms. She was not as beautiful as Kaika nor as elegant as Saya, but her sleepy look and her cute features combined would certainly arouse men’s protective instincts. Her turtleneck revealed that she did not have much of a bust, but her slim and lean body gave the impression of both charming fragility and underlying strength. The flawless contour of her buttocks was plainly visible due to her tight shorts.
“I don’t really see the value of watching fish swim around in a giant tank. I prefer more practical pastimes,” said Ageha, looking a little bored.
Arashi actually liked fish for reasons other than consumption. It was true that she was fascinated partly because she had never gone on such a trip before, but there was meaning in going to the aquarium in particular. She approached the glass and placed both of her open palms on it. Her nose was so close to the tank that it almost made contact.
They’re like me.
“…Like me,” she said as she gazed at a ray that slowly glided in front of them.
“In what way?” It seemed he understood what she was trying to say.
Just like them, I can’t express myself despite having a face and a mouth.
She opened and closed her mouth in hesitation several times. “Can’t… express self.”
“I don’t think fish have much in their heads to express. You’re different, right?”
I’ve never met someone who can, who tried to understand me as much as he does.
“Well, the way you open and close your mouth without saying anything is something you have in common. The only difference is it actually looks cute when you do it.”
She felt her face slowly heat up.
“You look flushed. Are you angry?”
Of course not!
Why would I get angry over something like that!
I have to say something before he gets the wrong idea!
Her lips flapped wordlessly again.
“I’m just kidding. Don’t panic. I know you’re just embarrassed.” He smiled at her.
She quickly nodded to affirm his statement.
“I’ve gotten a lot better at reading people thanks to Saya,” he said.
Arashi tilted her neck slightly while gazing into Ageha’s eyes.
“Oh, it’s nothing. I was just thinking out loud.”
She did not miss the gentle expression on his face when he had mentioned that oddly familiar name. She felt a twinge of pain in her chest.
What was that?
Not understanding what that pain meant, she decided to ignore it.
They continued to stroll from exhibit to exhibit as Arashi silently ogled the denizens of the numerous fish tanks. Ageha patiently followed behind her. He occasionally pointed at certain animals and explained how delicious they would be if cooked in a certain way. Arashi greatly enjoyed his culinary narrations, so much so that her sleeves were getting heavy from her drool.
They eventually made it to a long glass tunnel surrounded by water and marine life. The tank was so large it extended as far as the eye could see on all sides. Granted, visibility was reduced because it was filled with water, but it was quite immense regardless. The floor was transparent and displayed a variety of corals stemming from the artificial seafloor.
Competition in the leisure industry had grown fierce due to the high spending capacity of the general populace. Finding elaborate and massive attractions like this aquarium even in small towns was not uncommon.
Arashi froze in place after entering the tunnel.
Her mouth agape, she slowly swiveled her head as she took in the view.
This is so amazing!
A whale shark loomed overhead, and a giant sea turtle was slicing through the water to her left. Schools of fish swam all around them, smaller ones darting in random directions.
Arashi felt envious of how large their world was. To her, it looked like they could swim endlessly in any direction.
Ageha looked at her after hearing her words.
“Not really. The fish here are trapped in this tank. The ones in the wild have more freedom, but even then, they’re stuck in water.”
That’s more than enough!
He looked at her with a serious expression. “I see.” He walked closer to her and slowly raised his right hand. He suddenly paused as if he had remembered something. Switching hands, he used his ringless left hand to pat Arashi on the head.
This action had freaked her out earlier because she had truly believed that he was a god. She did not know much about gods, but a lot of people seemed to worship them because they gave them things and granted their wishes. Despite having done both for her, Ageha had confirmed earlier that he was not a god, so Arashi did not run away.
It feels good…
Just like mom.
Her half-open eyelids drooped until they closed completely. There were not many people in the aquarium because it was a Monday afternoon, so the two managed to avoid too many odd looks despite their daring display.
“Let’s go. There’s still a lot left to see,” said Ageha, urging Arashi forward.
She nodded and walked beside Ageha. They were a lot closer than when she had been leading the way, peering at exhibits in succession.
At the end of the long tunnel, there was a large room with many shallow pools of water containing different kinds of aquatic animals. A banner near the entrance had text that read “Touch Pools” and images of cartoon starfish printed at the bottom.
“You can touch the animals in the pools here. It’s really popular with kids-”
Before Ageha could finish his explanation, Arashi had already run off to the closest pool. There were no lines, as if they had rented the entire place for themselves. Ageha grabbed her by the scruff of her turtleneck before she could contaminate the water.
“You have to wash your hands first,” he said and dragged her to one of the numerous sinks near the entrance.
After washing her hands, Arashi trotted over to a pool. She gazed at the fish in the tank. They were small sharks, and the purpose of the exhibit was for the visitor to feel the rough texture of a shark’s skin. However, something completely different filled Arashi’s head.
Is this the game they call ‘goldfish scooping!?’
Arashi had once seen an advertisement for a large festival on a giant screen in the city. It had shown various activities that could be found at the festival, but what had caught her eye was the game called “goldfish scooping” due to her affinity to fish.
She looked around for a paper scoop, but could not find one.
No choice. I’ll just use my hands!
The sharks were moving at a speed that made one wonder how people could touch them in the first place, but that was irrelevant to Arashi. She used her bionic eye to calculate the speed and trajectory of the hapless creatures. Raising her cybernetic right hand, she targeted one that was about to enter her attack range. After ascertaining the right timing, she struck.
Water splashed up, but the fish was unscathed. Ageha had caught her hand before it could touch the fish.
“What the hell are you doing!?” he shouted, incredulity, rather than anger, filling his voice.
“…Goldfish scoop,” she said, her face just as blank and sleepy as always.
“Those aren’t goldfish! And this isn’t a game!”
Arashi simply looked at Ageha without a reply. He made a deep sigh.
“I guess I should’ve expected something like this from you. You could have killed that shark, you know?”
Arashi tilted her head at his question. She did not understand what was wrong with that. The teenage girl did indeed like fish. She liked watching and eating them, so it was obvious to her that she would like killing them as well. A different realization dawned upon her.
He also has ARMS.
There was no way a normal person could have caught her thrust, yet he had done it so easily. Finding something in common with Ageha caused a fuzzy feeling to surface in her chest.
What is this feeling?
Growing confused, she decided to shelve the matter. Arashi disliked thinking hard about things. However, despite her attempts to push it out of her mind, it kept nagging at her. The twinge of pain she had felt when Ageha had mentioned the name Saya earlier started to bother her again.
Her worrying was halted by a tug on her turtleneck’s rear collar.
“You have to touch them gently. Who knows how much one of these sharks costs.”
Arashi nodded and followed Ageha’s instructions. She happily went through all the touch pools. Satisfied, she left the room with Ageha.
“We have only five minutes left until the show starts,” said Ageha as he slightly quickened his steps.
Arashi followed suit, her steps faster due to the difference in their stride lengths. They arrived at a large concert hall with a wide pool as the stage. Though more crowded than the rest of the aquarium, the auditorium still had vacant seats near the stage. They picked a good spot and sat down.
The lights darkened as a gentle melody played within the large hall. A spotlight illuminated the center of the pool. A dolphin shot up from the water’s surface, as if treading the beam of light. The music increased in volume, and its beat accelerated. More spotlights shone on different areas of the large pool, and dolphins leapt from those spots in time with the music.
Arashi was floored by the spectacle. She did not have access to many forms of entertainment. A show like this, designed to evoke awe from normal people, was magical for her. She was speechless even inside her head.
Ageha peeked at Arashi’s face. Aside from her eyes, which no longer looked sleepy, her face still held the same blank expression.
“How is it?”
She did not reply. Her eyes were glued to the squad of sea mammals cavorting on the liquid stage. Her fingernails unconsciously dug into the armrest cushions. Her lips were slightly ajar as her cheeks flushed in excitement. Probably noticing this, Ageha did not bother her enjoyment any further.
After the show ended, Arashi was glowing. Her movements were unusually lively. No one would liken her to a sloth in her current state.
Having completed their tour of the aquarium, they left the attraction and headed for the station. Her current lodging was in the same neighborhood as Ageha, so they headed to the same train station. The ride home was relatively quiet. Uneventfully, they reached the stop where they would have to part.
“Did you have fun?” asked the chaperone.
I had the time of my life.
As far as she could remember, this was the most fun she had ever had outside of battle.
Ageha smiled and said, “I guess it wasn’t a bad way to spend my day off.”
Arashi took out her wallet from her coat’s inner pocket. Ageha had paid for the aquarium tickets because she was so bad at dealing with people, including cashiers. She pulled out a couple of bills and tried to hand them to the young man.
“Kids shouldn’t worry about things like that.” Ageha gently smacked her on the head.
Understanding what Ageha meant, she obediently kept her money.
“I’m heading this direction. See you around. Probably won’t happen, though.” Ageha turned around and began walking away from her.
Arashi’s heart started beating loudly. She did not want this to be the last time they met, but more importantly, she had not even expressed her gratitude for all that he had done for her. Her hand unconsciously extended and grabbed Ageha’s coat sleeve.
With his back still facing her, he turned his head to the side and asked, “What’s up?”
Mustering her courage, she gulped and took a deep breath.
“Thank you,” she said with unexpected clarity, her fingers still gripping Ageha’s sleeve.
They were words that she had not said in a long time. Overjoyed at being able say them properly, her fingers lost tension and released him.
Without turning to face her, he simply said, “You’re welcome,” and walked away.
Arashi arrived at her apartment twenty minutes later. She was greeted by her father with a punch in the gut.
“You’re late,” said the large man with scars on his face.
“Sorry, sir!” Arashi stood at attention.
Sweat formed on her forehead as she endured the pain in her abdomen. It was painful enough to send an untrained person reeling.
“That was too long for a lunchbreak. Where did you go?”
She did not respond. There was no way she could tell him about her day.
He punched her again, this time on her side. Her ribs creaked. She fell to her knees, coughing.
“This is a waste of time. Stand up. We have a new target.” Her father walked towards a desk.
Following orders, she stood up and followed him. He motioned to a display on the desk. The screen showed a picture of a familiar young man. She gasped.
“This is Ageha Shikimi. He was added to Nikaidou’s list. Seems they finally confirmed that he’s dirty.” He operated the terminal and caused more information to display. “Since Saionji’s out of the picture, we can focus on this guy. If he’s really that masked man, this’ll be a difficult mission.”
Saionji? Saya Saionji…
Arashi remembered the name of their previous target.
Her father continued briefing her about the mission, but none of the information entered her head.
Ageha is our new target?
Her pulse instantly sped up. Numerous thoughts rampaged through her head. She tried to understand the feelings she held for the young man. Her palms started sweating, and her mouth parched.
What’s this feeling?
She wanted to see him again despite being with him just minutes ago. Her father mentioned his current address during the briefing, but she already knew where he lived. She had been happily eating in his apartment just noon that day.
I want to spend more time with him.
Why? Why would she want to do that? It was a compulsion she had never experienced before. What was that fuzzy feeling and that twinge of pain earlier? Deciding not to think too deeply about it, she quickly decided on what her feelings meant.
I think I like him.
Her heartbeat was almost audible.
I like him.
She concluded with finality. However, Arashi did not know romance. To her, this emotion was not much different from her fondness for food. A better comparison would be her affection towards fish. Arashi liked watching them, touching them, and…
I wonder how much fun killing him would be!
She smiled brightly.